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Master's Thesis

Chapter Text

The gentle hum of the TARDIS gave nothing away, nor did the faint clucks and beeps issuing from the console room. Nevertheless, the Doctor did not hurry his stride towards the flight deck, where someone was covertly setting his ship in motion. There were only three people he trusted with her inner workings. One he had left behind in e-space, another was safe in 22nd century London, and the last was a student pilot at best. Even so, Nyssa’s competence was a secret source of pride for him. Once he had fostered her for the sake of her murdered father, until she outgrew the nest. It was a rare treat to have a former fledgeling circle back on graceful, steady wings, flying alongside him once more.

For a while.

“So,” he said, thrusting his hands into his pockets. He was not surprised to see that Nyssa had changed back into the survival suit she had been wearing when they discovered her scouting on Helheim. “I take it that our pleasant reunion is coming to an end?”

She flinched, jabbed a button to clear the navigation screen, and turned to face his affable smile. “I’m sorry, Doctor. It’s difficult to enjoy the scenic route, however dear the company, knowing there’s an epidemic waiting for me back home.” She nodded towards a black canister sitting next to the hatstand. “I’ve synthesised enough antiviral to get started, but it’s helping no-one here.”

“I understand. It’s selfish of us to be keeping you from your work. Oh, good morning, Turlough, Tegan. Come to see Nyssa off?”

The pair had straggled in behind him, Turlough finishing a coffee that shouldn’t have been on the flight deck, Tegan visibly drooping at the Doctor’s words. The lean young man was still dressed in his black school uniform for reasons best known to himself, despite his avowed loathing for Earth, the British school system, and anything to do with the backwater planet where he had been exiled. Tegan, the only human among them, was sporting a loud parti-coloured top, leather skirt and high heels. Her outfit reminded the Doctor of one of those species who warned off trespassers with bold markings.

“Leaving so soon?” Turlough drawled, giving the Doctor a pointed glance. Time aboard the TARDIS was relative, of course, but it had been at least several weeks since they had offered Nyssa a lift home.

“Nyssa!” Tegan’s mock-indignation sounded less joking than she probably intended. “You’re not leaving me stuck with these two pillocks again, are you? I’ve half a mind to tag along and pass you your test tubes. But no, I’m forgetting, you’ve got someone else to—”

“Tegan.” Nyssa embraced her, cutting her off. “I shall miss you.”

Tegan clutched the smaller woman close, struggling to sound casual. “Well, it’s not like it’s forever goodbye, is it? I mean, you and I have both found our way back to the TARDIS once already.”

“I don’t know, Tegan.”

“You’re supposed to say something cheerful and encouraging, brainiac.”

“Then I shall be sure to stock ice cream for your next visit.”

“There you go!” Tegan said. “Did you hear that, Turlough? I think she just made a joke. In another fifty years, she’ll have us in stitches.”

“Wonderful,” he said. “It will make a nice change from bandages and splints.”

“Now, what’s this?” said the Doctor, pulling up the settings that Nyssa had been entering when he arrived. “I may be growing forgetful, but it seems to me that these aren’t the coordinates for Terminus. It occupies a rather unique position in space.”

“Oh... no, not Terminus,” Nyssa said, an odd catch in her voice. “You don’t imagine I’ve been holed up there for fifty years, do you? We treated the last known case of Lazar’s disease over a decade ago.”

“You haven’t told us much of anything about what you’ve been up to, really,” Tegan said. “Apart from chasing intergalactic bugs with a flyswatter.”

“Well, your eyes glazed over every time the Doctor and I started discussing my research. And I was on holiday, more or less.” She glanced towards the medical container. “But it’s past time for me to return to my laboratory.”

“Does this laboratory have a name?” Turlough said. “A planet?”

“Very well.” The Doctor stepped away from the console with a sweep of his hand. “Care to do the honours, Nyssa? One last time.”

“Oh. Yes. Thank you, Doctor.” She took his place and began to key in the materialisation sequence with subdued efficiency. The Doctor stared over her head, watching the time rotor as it began to rise and fall. His hand hovered over her shoulder for a moment, then dropped to his side.

Tegan turned away. She wanted to shout at both of them for not shouting, not arguing, for frittering away Nyssa’s final moments aboard the TARDIS in banal routine. For once, Tegan kept her mouth shut, but she indulged in a petty wish for the ship to break down in transit. Just to spite her, it would probably arrive early for a change.

“Can’t you teach me to do that?” Turlough said, watching Nyssa’s hands dance across the controls.

“What, and give you a way to bolt whenever things get dicey?” Tegan said.

“He who fights and runs away lives to rescue his friends—”

“The next time will be the first.”

“Children, children.” The Doctor raised his hands. “The TARDIS is an immensely complicated and particular machine. Smooth operation requires mental rapport as well as practical knowledge. Nyssa is unusual in possessing the advanced technical skills, psychic sensitivity and tact necessary to fly her.”

“Tact?” Turlough snorted. “You’re telling us the TARDIS needs coddling? Doctor, you punch the console about once a day to make it work.”

Tegan laughed. “I guess that’s why Nyssa’s landings are smoother than—”

The floor bucked under them, throwing Tegan and Turlough against the wall. The Doctor lunged for the console to keep Nyssa from skidding under it.

“You were saying?” Turlough growled, wiping coffee from his eyes.

“Tachyon surge,” Nyssa gasped. “Doctor, these readings—”

“I see it,” he said, reaching around her. “Hold tight. Got to dodge the disruption. Materialise on my mark.”

Even holding onto the console was difficult, let alone trying to operate it. The heaving of the floor grew more and more violent. Around the room, the roundels stuttered from light to dark and back again, their illumination dimming to a sickly amber. The lattice walls began to assume a milky, translucent sheen, through which a swirling maelstrom was becoming visible.

“That doesn’t look good,” said Tegan, edging away from the wall. “Is that the time vortex?”

“We’re breaking up!” Turlough said. “Emergency landing, now!”

“Doctor?” Nyssa said, clinging to the lip of the console.

“Steady,” said the Doctor, manoeuvering around her to operate buttons and levers in what Tegan recognized as mad improvisation. “Ready. Three... two... one... mark!”

He slapped both hands onto the controls as Nyssa threw the materialisation switch. There was a flash, a sizzling pop, acrid smoke rolling out of the central rotor like a steaming volcano, and an abrupt jolt. The TARDIS stopped moving so suddenly that everyone went flying. A faint hiss issued from the console, signalling that the fire suppression system had kicked in.

“You just had to leave us with a bang, didn’t you?” Tegan said, offering Nyssa a hand up.

“So where are we?” Turlough said. “What did you say this planet was called?”

Tegan reached for the scanner toggle to look outside, but Nyssa caught her hand. “Wait. The controls are hot. Doctor, are you all right?”

“Fine, fine,” he said, sprawled against the base of the doors. “Turlough, help me up, would you? Tachyon particles at that concentration make me rather giddy.”

“So much for Nyssa’s piloting skills,” Turlough said, pulling the hatstand off of him.

She frowned but said nothing, covering her nose and mouth with her sleeve as she leaned down through wisps of smoke to examine the navigation screen. “The spatial coordinates are correct, but we’ve landed several decades too early.”

“Nyssa’s piloting skills aren’t to blame. It was a powerful tachyon explosion penetrating the TARDIS’ shielding,” said the Doctor. “Nyssa, exactly what kind of research are they doing here?”

“Strictly medical, although some of the labs use radioactive materials. But there’s nothing I can think of to explain these readings.” She pointed. “Look. Cherenkov radiation.”

“Is that dangerous?” said Tegan.

“We should leave at once,” said Turlough.

“No,” the Doctor said, stumbling over to take a look. “Minute levels, insufficient to harm living tissue. Surprisingly low, considering the scale of that disturbance. Fascinating.”

“Doctor,” Nyssa said. “Whatever caused it, there’s no point in staying here. Can the TARDIS take off?”

“I’m afraid not,” he said. “Auto-repairs will take some time. And that tachyon field poses a grave threat to any passing TARDIS. If we try to jump forward through it, it could burn out the stabilisers and leave us stranded in the time vortex. Or worse.”

She frowned. “It should be simple enough to bypass the field of disruption, provided that we move laterally in space before the time jump.”

“I’d rather not leave an obstacle like that on your doorstep, Nyssa. Come along. The origin of that explosion wasn’t far from these temporal coordinates. Presumably, the source is outside.” He reached for the door controls. “As your current self is on Terminus perfecting the cure for Lazar’s disease, there’s no risk of you bumping into yourself. Care to give us a tour?”

“Doctor, wait!” she said, but it was too late. He had already vanished outside with a flap of beige coattails. Shaking her head, she crossed the room to check the seals of her medical container. “I hope this wasn’t damaged. I’ll need to run a few tests.”

“Aren’t you coming?” Tegan said.

“Hang on. What’s really going on here?” Turlough folded his arms. “Why is Nyssa being so secretive? What’s so special about this place?”

“Nothing,” Nyssa said. “But there’s someone here I don’t want to meet.”

“An enemy?” Tegan said. “Not the person who set off that time bomb?”

Nyssa gave a weak laugh. “Hardly. He’s a dream analyst.”

 

They stepped out into a fragrant grove of conifers whose craggy red bark and feathery foliage captured the breeze in a rushing whisper like the sound of distant surf. Long needles carpeted the ground in a soft, springy weave studded with small white flowers pushing up through the thatch. Birdsong filtered through the treetops, while far-off voices and laughter carried on the wind. Stone buildings rose above the trees like canyon walls looming over a lake of green fog.

“Hey,” Tegan said. “I thought you said we’d landed in the right spot. This isn’t a medical lab; it’s a city park!”

“They don’t have to be mutually exclusive, you know. Patients heal better when they don’t feel like prisoners.” Nyssa spoke with some feeling. She had been one of the few patients to survive Terminus’ brutally primitive facilities before she took over its administration.

“Now where has the Doctor got to?” Turlough said. “Typical. Asks you for a guided tour, then dashes off.”

Nyssa sighed. “Let’s go. There’s an open quad in this direction.”

“Stop fretting,” Tegan said. “You’re home! And it’s gorgeous. I’m so glad, Nyssa. I know you must’ve spruced up Terminus after we left, but I always worried about you withering away on that dingy old space station.”

“Yes,” Nyssa said, tipping up her chin to breathe deeply. “Home. As peaceful a world as you’ll find in this century. And some of your descendants settled here, Tegan. Look.” She bent and plucked a small white bloom like a miniature daisy from a spreading ground cover.

Tegan took it from her and sniffed. “Mmm. Don’t tell me... camomile?”

She nodded. “Most of the introduced plants are edible or medicinal. Oh, by the way, other genders are more visible here than on Earth or Traken. The TARDIS will translate, but you may hear a few unfamiliar pronouns.”

Tegan’s brow furrowed. “What, like Ziggy Stardust?”

“Perhaps.” Nyssa caught Turlough’s sardonic eyebrow and shrugged. “Come on.”

They emerged at the edge of a roughly rectangular lawn encircled by a meandering path. Buildings bordered most of the quadrangle. Each had inset cavities, nooks and archways for the trees to spill into, blurring the interface between structure and nature. At the centre of the grassy area was a large fountain whose basin doubled as a sundial, occupied by several skinny dippers. Other students sat or sprawled on the stone rim or on benches surrounding the quad. Here and there, orderlies in pale blue uniforms escorted patients along the crushed-shell walkways.

Tegan noticed that most of the locals had dark olive or coppery-brown skin and wavy black hair. There were enough exceptions, however, that visitors stood out more by their clothes than their complexions. Casual campus attire ran to coveralls and clogs or tunics with leggings and low boots. Hoods, cloaks or pocket umbrellas poking out of knapsacks suggested unpredictable weather.

She grinned. “Hippie university. Why am I not surprised you ended up here?”

“No sign of the Doctor,” said Turlough. “How does he do that?”

“Hullo,” said a young man sitting on a nearby bench. He removed his earphones and switched off the digital recorder on his lap. “Exchange students, are you? Where from?”

“All over,” Tegan said. “We’re just visiting. Nyssa’s a medical researcher; I’m just an old friend. Turlough here is still in school, though!”

Turlough shot her a sour look as the student hopped up and introduced himself eagerly. “Vevik Sanghu, sixth year, homeopathy. Was that blond fellow in the beige coat your advisor, then?”

“The Doctor? I suppose you could put it that way,” Turlough said. “Which way did he go?”

“Your left, towards the BHR Centre,” the young man said, pointing to a curving path skirting the grove from which they had just emerged.

“Thanks,” Turlough said. “Nyssa, if you’re so worried about running into someone, why not simply wait in the TARDIS while we— hey!”

“Rabbits!” Tegan’s peculiar curse described the speed at which Nyssa had dashed off to the right towards a covered walkway leading between two buildings. “Nyssa! Wait for us!”

Turlough rolled his eyes. “I’m not chasing after her this time. And if she gets any moss on her, you can apply the weed killer.”

“Fat lot of help you are.” Tegan said. She squared her shoulders and set off in a loose jog to chase Nyssa into the columned arcade. She failed to notice her friend pressed in the shadow of a pillar, half-hidden by the tendrils of ivy and blossoms encasing the stonework. Nyssa put an arm out to intercept, raising a finger to her lips.

“What now?” Tegan said. “You move pretty fast for an old lady.”

“Hush.” Nyssa drew her back into the shadows. “Look down there... carefully. Stay out of sight.”

Pushing foliage away from her face, Tegan leaned out and squinted down the length of the walkway. At the far end, two figures were walking side by side, silhouetted against the bright sunlight beyond. “You mean the professor and that kid?”

“Look closely.”

The older gentleman had his hands clasped at his back with jovial formality. There was a mannered elegance about him that seemed at odds with his plain black capelet and coveralls, which reminded Tegan of a professor’s tweeds. As she watched, the pair slowed and halted, turning to face one another. The student was punctuating his speech with the enthusiastic gestures of a conductor. The older man leaned forward, listening gravely. His trim black beard and high, pale forehead were all too familiar.

“That man.” Tegan clutched at her friend’s arm. “No, Nyssa, it can’t be.”

“It is.”

“The Master!”

Nyssa’s gaze was riveted not upon their enemy, but on the weedy-looking youth. “Tegan, I need you to do something for me. Please.”

“Oh, no you don’t. I am not going back to fetch the Doctor while you face that psychopath alone!”

Desperation, helplessness and raw anger flared in Nyssa’s eyes. “Follow them. Try not to be seen, but protect that boy.