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Cold Comfort for Change (The Divergence Remix)

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By an unknown first-year student, from the archives of the University of Mars. 

In temporal mechanics, there is no beginning. No single point can be declared to stand alone, in a vacuum; nothing that happens can happen without something else, many something elses, occurring beforehand, linearly speaking. And for these events themselves to occur, other myriad actions must have occurred, and so on, and so on.

If this were the approach widely taken, temporal mechanics would be an almost impossible field of study, its demands far exceeding the time available to the common humanoid, with their average lifespans of a mere century or two. However, as linear, limited lifeforms are responsible for the vast majority of space-time events – as far as can be perceived by such lifeforms – a tight focus upon a case study is usually accepted, whereupon the academic justifies a single moment, often early in the subject’s individual timeline, as the point from which to begin the analysis. The web of time and its inherent possibilities are acknowledged, but not seen to hold any particular relevance until the selected moment, and then only as far as they directly influence or are influenced by the subject. For this case study, I have selected –

***

The Doctor (as he will be known) and the Master (as he will be known) play a game.

An intricate lacework of moves (yours, yours), working together and against each other, words and ideas bouncing back and forth (they have a perfect understanding), striking out with swords and counter-plots (they know the other’s weaknesses).

***

The Master pulls a sword from the rack on the wall.

“Like that, is it?” the Doctor says and grabs his own. His eyes glint as they clash swords.

And it is.


But it is also like this.

“You must admit that participating in trial by combat will be one of the more unique cultural experiences we’ve had during these little set-pieces of yours,” the Doctor says, and his eyes glint.

Koschei takes the sword he holds out to him.

***

The Master or Koschei, a renegade or an agent of the CIA: two different games with much the same moves.

***

There was a schism on Gallifrey, ‘Untempered’ but carefully controlled, isolated, co-opted for the Ceremony of Initiation into the Academy. On the quiet orange-silver world, it was blue, red, pain-purple and loud with supernovas and smiles and sliced bread. And children, mere Time Tots who had scarcely outgrown their Röntgen blocks, were brought to look and see.

Koschei came, and knew a fearful brilliance that his equals would respect and primitives would bow to, a sharp bright blade which brought order, his will, to so many worlds. (There were no drums, not yet, not until his fourteenth life.)

The boy who would later call himself the Doctor came, and, as the myth had it, became one of those who ran away.

He ran away, took his granddaughter, left Koschei behind.

Koschei never forgave him.

The Doctor never let him.

***

This is how it goes.

The Doctor wakes up in a CIA holding cell. He hurts, but not nearly as much as he’d expected. There’s a mirror lying on the bed by his hand, which doesn’t seem to have changed: he grabs it and confirms it, still in his second body. What are they up to now?

The door opens.

“Vansell?”

“Doctor,” Vansell acknowledges, an unexpected pleasantry. “As you’ve no doubt noticed, your regeneration has been postponed. The CIA feels that your talents, such as they are, would be wasted in exile and wish to discuss alternatives.”

(“I am the Master,” the Master intones on a distant planet, unapprehended and unapproached, “and you will obey me.”)


While it goes like this.

“Parole,” Koschei tells him. “On Earth.”

“You mean exile,” this new Doctor says, throwing the softer word back in Koschei’s face, the word he’d fought for, putting himself on the line for the Doctor again. He wishes he hadn’t, because only a fool doesn’t learn from his mistakes and Koschei is no fool. “My dear fellow, you and the rest of the pompous blowhards cannot take the universe from me. It isn’t yours to take.”

They do anyway.

The Doctor doesn’t take a blind bit of notice. If only he would, if only he could understand what Koschei grew to understand, if only he would accept and they could be partners both within and without the CIA, they could be magnificent. Again.

***

Renegades were brought into the CIA more often than that organization would admit. (Not that they would admit to anything. The CIA did what needed to be done, and those who needed to know knew, and those who didn’t didn’t. Although, of course, everyone thought they knew something. The CIA would also not admit to encouraging and/or inventing some of the wilder rumours.  The CIA would not admit to anything.)

Renegades were largely intelligent, creative, resourceful individuals. Their ability to think outside the Gallifreyan box of non-intervention had proved in many cases to be of great value to the CIA, once they had been persuaded to put their talents to appropriate use. They were recruited when the opportunity arose, as were all operatives.

That didn’t mean they were trusted. Not that any CIA agent worth his salt trusted anyone – loyalty wasn’t the same as trust – but officially ex-renegades were regarded with particular wariness.


- A

That Ambassador Braxiatel had been a thorn in Assistant Technician, now Agent, Narvin’s side recently was a grave understatement. The timeonic fusion device debacle – which must have been all Braxiatel’s fault – could have seen Narvin languishing as an assistant technician for centuries. It took all of Narvin’s intelligence and cunning to ensure he emerged intact; luckily, these were qualities the CIA prized. To find his new career now endangered by the antics of none other than Braxiatel’s younger brother, then, is not surprising.

There’s a crowd in the town square, but at some distance from the spectacle that’s drawn them here. The Doctor is sitting on the ground, emptying his pockets under the threat of the sharp points of a crude agricultural tool. A second primitive male is also pointing a similar tool in the Doctor’s direction, but keeps lowering it to gingerly push the Doctor’s miscellaneous junk towards a third, who is picking through it with gloved hands and chanting. The Doctor mutters, a running commentary on the inventory of his pockets most probably, as Narvin strides into the square.

“Oh, I say!” the Doctor exclaims delightedly and turns whatever fascinating object he has just located round in his hands, prompting an emphatic gesture with the repurposed agricultural implement. The Doctor reluctantly relinquishes the item and Narvin’s gaze follows it to the pile, where he recognises the object currently in the chanting man’s gloved hands quickly enough that his planned opening sentence becomes instead, “Don’t touch that, you stupid –!”

There is an explosion.


- B

Koschei’s lip curls as he looks over Narvin’s CIA-issued disguise of Raladian peasant. Koschei’s own disguise is carefully crafted, his role meticulously scripted. He doesn’t want a partner, he doesn’t trust a partner; Narvin is nothing more or less than a complicating factor in his calculations. Unfortunately, the CIA doesn’t trust Koschei either. Yet.

Koschei is willing to admit that the man has proved useful on occasion – that little trick with the Time Agent’s vortex manipulator during the Second Great and Bountiful Human Empire, for example (irresponsible, inefficient: that had really done the time streams a favour).  Koschei always accords respect where it is due, as he wishes others would do to him (he doubts they will ever give him the equipment he asks for, and never the funding). But Narvin has no imagination, no flair. He can never understand. And in any case, there is only one man whom Koschei could ever consider a worthy partner.

Koschei’s pleased when the Lord Superintendent sees fit to grant him his own missions, complete with TARDIS.

***

Snakes

The Doctor is trapped on Earth and now the Master is too. The humans – the Brigadier and Jo – fear the Master, and what he has brought to their world, but Jo sees that the Doctor doesn’t.

“I’m rather looking forward to it,” he tells her. Jo gapes and the Brigadier shakes his head. The Doctor is alien and they don’t expect to understand. They do trust him to help protect their world, and he will, but he hopes they never guess he wouldn’t wish the Master away now he’s here.

For the first time since he was stranded on this planet, he’s faced with an equal, a history, a challenge.

The Master is many things, but he’s never boring.

Game on.


Ladders

The board is constantly changing but the moves seldom do. They chase and plot and push and pull. The Doctor picks extraordinary companions, those upon whom history turns, and Koschei has to make sure history takes the right turn. They’re usually from Earth, and if this exasperates Koschei further, so much the better. (It’s Koschei’s fault for stranding him there, parole indeed.) The Doctor could take anyone, someone less important to the web of time – he’s confident that bravery and intelligence and curiosity aren’t exclusive to the figures that populate history books – but, while they might conceivably attract Koschei’s jealousy, they wouldn’t guarantee he would come hunting.

Today, the two of them are on a war zeppelin, a thousand metres above the methane lakes of Al-Murzim VII; perhaps they are also halfway across the galaxy playing out exactly the same script. It wouldn’t surprise the Doctor. It does surprise him when Koschei breaks character – he can recite the Criminal Non-Linearity Act from memory, all the times he’s heard it – and leaves him there, to the tender mercies of the Sky Pirates. The Doctor isn’t used to being the one who does the chasing. Never mind. He escapes, finds the hypocrite in thirteenth-century England, in the company in Queen Isabelle, no less, and the game continues.

***

Check

“I don’t want to spend the rest of my life as a heap of dust on a second-rate planet to a third-rate star. Do you?” the Doctor says.

“Do you mean to say that you are actually prepared to abandon your beloved Earth to the Axon's tender mercies?”

“Certainly! After all, we are both Time Lords.”

He thought by that, the Doctor meant...


Checkmate

“What?” Koschei says.

“I said, no, we won’t,” the Doctor repeats.

Koschei is still, frozen by ice cold certainty. He’s been thrown into the deep end unexpectedly; he’s gasping with the shock.

“I don’t understand,” he says, and pleading ignorance is hardly his style. He so rarely is, and he’ll never admit it.

“Nonsense. Of course you do. You’re wilfully blind, when it suits you, but a genius of your calibre can’t possibly be that thick.”

When it comes to the Doctor, he is woefully, wilfully blind. Denial is his last defence. On the heels of the shock comes anger, frustration, disappointment, self-recrimination.

“You couldn't have thought for one second that I would really give up my entire way of life to travel the universe as your glorified sidekick, assassinating scientists and handing out parking tickets.”

Why not, Koschei might say, you gave up our way of life before. Why not, I gave up everything for you – gave you so many chances. I’ve lost every vestige of respect our people might have had for me, and you’ve never even appreciated it. Koschei doesn’t say any of this. He’s said it all before.

“If I were willing to compromise for you, for anyone, then I would have done it centuries ago. I am not that man. I wouldn't be able to respect myself if I were. Get over it.”

The Doctor wants him to understand. Koschei thinks distantly that this is probably the appropriate junction to agree with the Doctor – well, it’s unfortunate and frustrating, but there you have it – and possibly bid him a somewhat-fond farewell until the next time. He doesn’t.

“Koschei,” the Doctor says, hideously awkward, standing in his TARDIS’s doorframe and staring at the ground. There are undoubtedly intriguing cultures of bacteria in the medieval rushes, but, as they can’t be seen with the naked eye, Koschei doesn’t think the ground merits that level of fascination. “I’ll see you around.”

No, you won’t. The voice is distant in Koschei’s mind and he doesn’t quite hear it yet. The noise of the Doctor’s TARDIS leaving him again fills the room.

Play again.

***

Crowning

“Doctor.” The Master walks around the console, approaching the Doctor. “Why don’t you come in with me?” He gestures, weapon temporarily forgotten. “We’re both Time Lords, both renegades.” Both so much more. “We could be masters of the galaxy!”

The Doctor rubs his chin. The Master knows this incarnation now, and knows this habit accompanies thought. For a moment, the future is brilliant. He presses his advantage.

“Absolute power. Power for good. Why, you could reign benevolently. You could end wars, suffering, disease. We could save the universe.”

The Doctor strokes his mouth, then drops his hand from his face. “No.” His voice might hold a tinge of regret, but the Master does not dwell on it. “Absolute power is evil.”

“Consider carefully, Doctor,” the Master says, raising his gun. “I’m offering you a half-share of the universe.”

Again.


Blocking

The Master is determined. The Master has a plan. Many plans, several backups of each other.  The Master is definitely not thinking about how empty his TARDIS is, or how the Doctor’s clutter would soften the angular lines of the spartan corridor he’s striding down, or how Koschei had thought about these things, back when he actually believed the Doctor might keep a promise, once in his lives, and keep their ships nested together. You could never find anything in the Doctor’s TARDIS. The Master knows exactly where everything is. Case in point.

He finds exactly what he’s looking for, and what he’s not. He finds the photo in the study area where the Doctor’s erstwhile companion had dropped it. (Ridiculous, really, that a young human like her should have a greater appreciation of the necessity of history than the Doctor, who was only interested in flaunting his trophies.) Two boys on a pier. They have been ripped apart, and the photo mended with the clumsy materials he’d had available. He’d set it on fire once, but the pang in his hearts and that wretched, persistent hope made him blow it out.

When Koschei had cut his ties with the CIA, he’d felt alive, hurt but aware. The Master is certainly alive and completely aware, but never hurt; he is always in perfect control, of his own life, of his actions, of the Time Agency, as long as it’s useful. The thought of symbolically breaking this link, however, makes the Master feel cold, and it isn’t the still cool of control, but treacherous ice. It reminds him of watching everything slip through his fingers and fade away. He should destroy it just for that, but...

Koschei had hoped. The Master does not. The Master has, however, been spending quite some time around humans and has recently heard that the nice thing about a photograph is that it doesn’t change, even when the people in it do. Because of that, and only that, he thinks, as he replaces it beneath the secret panel in the desk drawer.  

***

It happens like this.

“I always find that...violent exercise leaves me hungry, don’t you agree?” The Doctor stretches for a sandwich, not taking his eyes or his swordpoint from the Master.

“Then you better enjoy your meal, Doctor,” the Master returns, “because it might be your last.”

The Doctor relaxes. He looks almost amused. “You think so?”

And he throws the Master back his sword.

Your move.


It also happens like this.

The Master chuckles.

“I make the regulations now. And I’m going to do whatever I please.”

“Is that so?” the Doctor says, deliberately breathy.

“Absolutely.”

“Let’s see you try then,” the Doctor dares, and his eyes glint.

Your move.


And it always happens like this.

The game goes on.