One day Romana met the Doctor in the Matrix. The projections had arranged themselves into a blustery spring morning on what looked like Earth and in concession to the weather, the Doctor had decided to forgo his customary frock coat. It was the version of him she’d seen most recently and, although she’d last seen him leaving their universe forever in an attempt to rid himself of a deadly anti-time virus, he seemed not to have a care in the world. Romana, who had plenty of cares, scowled as he raised the large straw hat he’d had jammed down over his curls in jaunty greeting.
“Madam President Romana. Fancy meeting you here.”
He grinned boyishly. Romana intensified her glare.
“Doctor, are you aware that access to the Matrix is strictly prohibited to absolutely everyone except the president of Gallifrey?”
“Yes,” the Doctor said. “The real question is are you aware that, in some circles, I’m still considered the rightful president? I never officially resigned, you know.”
“And that gives you the right to walk into the Matrix whenever you like?”
“Apparently,” the Doctor said. He raised his right arm from which dangled a picnic basket. “And I’ve brought lunch. Care to join me?”
“No,” Romana said. “I’ve come to the Matrix to consult with older, wiser Time Lords on matters of Gallifreyan policy, as is my right and indeed prerogative as president.”
“Well, that’s me,” the Doctor said. “Older, wiser, Time Lord, me, me, me, and I doubt any one of the others would have provided catering.”
“Doctor,” Romana said, “this is serious.”
“So am I,” the Doctor said. He put the picnic basket down on the grass and pulled out a large blanket, which whipped away in the fake wind. “When the occasion demands it and I can see that it does. Put your foot there, would you? Thank you. Have you got a list of questions?”
“Can I see it?”
“No,” Romana said. She twisted away from him around in case any of her usual confidents in the Matrix were going to come striding across the grass, but the Doctor was the only person in sight. By now he’d spread the blanket and was sitting back, propped up on his elbows. He grinned up at her from beneath his hat.
Romana made an exasperated noise and pulled the datapad she’d brought out of her sleeves. Rather than loom over him, she sat down neatly on the edge of the blanket.
The Doctor pushed himself upright as he took the datapad. “Ah yes,” he said, “very serious. I see. But I think I can,” he tapped his fingers over the screen, scrolling down rapidly as he added annotations, “do something about most of these. Try the canapés. I made them myself.”
Romana did not try the canapés. When the Doctor looked up out of the corner of his eye he found her still watching him.
“Done,” he said.
Romana held out her hand, but the Doctor held the datapad away from her.
“You haven’t touched the food.”
“Give me back my datapad, please.”
“I will,” the Doctor said, “eventually. And all you have to give me in exchange for my invaluable insight as an older, wiser Time Lord and former president is your time. Half an hour, Romana.”
“Just leave it behind when you leave the Matrix and I’ll retrieve it next time I’m here,” Romana said as she stood to go.
She got about a metre away before a large expanse of water opened up before her. There was a long shallow boat moored just beneath her feet, a long pole lodged in whatever passed for the bottom of the river.
“Now there’s an idea,” the Doctor said, coming up behind her. “Why have a picnic on solid ground when you could be having a picnic in a punt? Tempted? Come on, Romana. I know you’re tempted.”
Romana turned to him. “Half an hour?” she said.
“That’s the spirit,” the Doctor said. “Well, not quite, I do still detect a note of aggrieved condescension, but it’ll have to do.”
He stepped into the punt, placed the picnic basket in the centre, and held out his hand to her. With a practiced air of aggrieved condescension, Romana took it and followed him into the boat. She settled into the pile of cushions in the bow as the Doctor began to punt them gently down the river.
“Oh, I do love the artificially created spring,” he remarked. “All the leaves and colours.”
Romana smiled wryly at him. Behind the Doctor’s hat, several large brick buildings that looked like Cambridge were disappearing in the distance. The breeze had died down now and the sun sparkled on the small ripples in the water and the diamond in the Doctor’s tiepin.
“Why are you here?” she asked him.
“When do I ever have a reason for doing anything?”
“Always,” Romana said.
“That’s right,” the Doctor said. “Always.” He let go of the pole and sat down in the stern. “I don’t really need to do that in here,” he explained, as the boat continued to glide steadily down the river. “Is there any cake left? Ah,” he said, as he pushed his hand into the basket, “there is.”
“Well, obviously, I want the secrets of Gallifrey,” the Doctor said. “I intend to use them to conquer the galaxy and put it to use as who knows what. Something terrible and terrifying, anyway. That’s what interlopers in the Matrix usually want, isn’t it? Wine?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Romana said. “No, thank you. There haven’t been any Matrix break-ins since I became president.”
“That you know about,” the Doctor said. “I’m in and out of here all the time. Hoping,” he said, swirling the dark wine around in his glass, “to see you. We haven’t really talked since you left me for another universe, some time travelling lions and a robot dog.”
“The dog was more of an optional extra,” Romana said. The Doctor smiled at her and despite her better judgement, of which she had a good deal, she smiled back. “I’d already decided to leave and help the Tharils when you insisted I take him.”
“Right,” the Doctor said. “That was such a good idea I thought it was yours for a moment. How is he?”
“That question is irrelevant,” Romana said, in a tolerable impression of K-9’s chirp. “The unit designated K-9 Mark II has no feelings. It is neither good, nor bad.” The Doctor laughed and Romana admitted, “I’m teaching him about Mozart.”
The Doctor raised an eyebrow. “Mozart?”
“K-9 is a good dog, but some areas of his databanks are severely lacking.”
The Doctor protested that he’d thought, at the time of manufacture, that a highly sophisticated tactical processor and an internal laser would serve K-9 Mark II better than a knowledge of Earth’s greatest composers. Then changed his mind and agreed it was shocking, but blamed the design on someone Romana had never heard of. He asked how the musical training was going and Romana was forced to admit it was not going all that well. Although, she conceded, K-9 had been exceptionally useful in a number of other scenarios.
By the time the punt slowed to a stop, bumping gently against the river bank, Romana found she had told him not only how K-9 was or what he’d been doing, but how Brax and Leela had become invaluable, how Narvin and Darkel were thorns in her side, and how she didn’t like the decoration in her en suite bathroom one bit. She was also, she noticed, holding a glass of wine and a cake. When the Doctor at last held out her datapad, she had to put the cake down to take it.
She scanned down the list of answered questions one-handed, noticing vaguely the way the punt melted away beneath her. The pile of cushions she was sitting on didn’t move, they were just suddenly on top of a blanket and a grassy meadow, rather than a boat. The Doctor stretched out lazily on his stomach.
“This is,” Romana told him after a while, “apart from the slide in the Panoptican, almost exactly what I would do.”
The Doctor smiled. “Well, I must have taught you something.”
“Yes,” Romana said. “You did.”
“And,” the Doctor said, sitting up, “I really do think a slide would be a useful way of improving the High Council’s punctuality. There are a lot of stairs in the Panoptican, if I remember rightly.”
Romana stared at him for a moment. Then she said, “Doctor, are you dead?”
“Naturally pale,” the Doctor said genially, “in every regeneration, actually. Maybe, I should take off this hat-”
“I only ask,” Romana said, “because I’ve done a lot of work on Matrix security since I became president. People don’t just waltz in anymore, even if they were nominally president for up to five hours. And,” she added, holding up the datapad, “this may be almost exactly what I would do, but it certainly isn’t what you would do. Except for the slide. So? Are you dead?”
The Doctor shrugged. “Possibly,” he said. “Probably. I’m not sure. The Matrix hasn’t decided. I’m not in the positive universe any more, which means I might as well be, as far as the Matrix records are concerned.”
“That’s what I thought,” Romana said, trying not to sound like she minded that the Doctor was possibly or probably dead. “The same thing happened to me when I was in E-Space. I was uploaded to the Matrix until I came back from the other universe.”
“And you did come back from that other universe,” the Doctor said kindly, because she hadn’t been trying very hard or been very convincing.
“Yes, I did,” Romana said. “Good. So that’s settled, which only leaves the question of why you, or the Matrix, or whoever, bothered to tell me to do what I’d already decided.”
“You hadn’t quite decided, though, had you?” the Doctor said. “You still came into the Matrix with your datapad of questions.”
“So, this is supposed to be a lesson, is it?”
“You outgrew me,” the Doctor said. He stood and offered her his hand to help her up. “You went off into another universe to be brilliant with only a robot dog for company. And now I’m gone, possibly for good, but you don’t need me to help you make your decisions.”
“Are you saying something is going to happen to the Matrix?”
“Maybe,” the Doctor said presumably enjoying being enigmatic as they walked towards the exit. “We’ve made a guess. I just wanted you to be on your guard and, conversely, I want you to relax a bit more. That was the other lesson, which I notice you didn’t pick up on. Sometimes it’s all right to not do anything for a while, even if you are president.”
“Last time I relaxed as president I was kidnapped by Daleks.”
“I agree that makes it difficult,” the Doctor said, “but you’re a formidable woman, I’ve always said so. Try the Beatles next – for K-9.”
Romana smiled wryly. “I hope you’re not dead,” she said as the Matrix door opened in front of her.
“Funnily enough, so do I,” the Doctor said, and waved as she left.
Back in her office, Romana found Brax trying not to look like someone who had decided that in all likelihood she wasn’t going to return soon and had decided to sit in her chair to see what it felt like.
“Ah, Madam President,” he said, rising from the presidential chair, “I trust you had a profitable discussion with those learned forces from our noble history and are once again ready to lead us with all the power and wisdom at your command.”
“I went punting with your brother,” Romana told him.
“Ah,” Brax said and, after some thought on the matter, wisely left it at that.
“You’ll find my instructions for the next quarter on here,” Romana said, handing over the datapad she’d brought with her into the Matrix. “I know it’s a long list, but I want them all executed by the temporal summit.”
Brax inclined his head. “Of course.”
Romana returned to her desk as Brax began to leave, flicking through the contents of the datapad as he did so. At the door he stopped and turned back.
“Are you certain the Panoptican needs a slide?”
“You wouldn’t be questioning my orders, would you, Cardinal?” Romana asked, without looking up from the speech she was editing.
“Not at all, Madam. I’m sure the High Council will be delighted. I’m delighted already.”
Brax closed the door behind him and Romana allowed herself a small smile before she returned to work.