Four days in, Bill says, “You’re not that good at faking, y’know.”
“I have no idea what you mean,” the Doctor says distractedly. He’s wearing those shades still, the cheap plastic ones, and he’s up at the bookshelves, running his fingertips along the spines of paperbacks. Stops at one that’s scotch-taped together and pulls it out, flipping through the pages like he’s speed-reading. “What am I faking?”
Bill throws her head back in irritation, sharply enough it kind of hurts. “You’re pretending you can see still,” she bites out, “because you don’t want me to feel guilty, or something.”
The Doctor pitches the paperback to her underhand. “Pick a page,” he says, rushing down the stairs with a confidence that almost, almost makes her doubt herself.
“Pick a page,” the Doctor repeats.
Bill looks down at the book she’s holding. Ethnomusicology 54, no. 2; and she wonders briefly why he’s got a seven year old journal in a field he isn’t really in so banged up he had to tape the binding back together, but this is the Doctor and it’s really not worth it. “211,” she says.
Now at the desk himself, he takes the book back, flips it open a few hundred pages in. “‘In an introduction to a volume of essays focused on collaborative research and social change, Jean J. Schensul and Donald D. Stull argue that one of the main findings of anthropological work has been that life is complicated’,” he reads. He snaps the book closed, hands it back. “Go on, check.”
Bill takes a breath, and a second. That is, indeed, the first full sentence on page 211. But it’s volume 54, number 2, and that means page 211 is nowhere near 200 pages in. “You just recited it,” she starts, and she wants to be angry but she’s honestly just exhausted. “Ugh. Whatever. I’m going home.”
She goes home and she doesn’t google “person won’t admit they’re blind”, because she has a life outside of the Doctor. But she considers it.
The house the six of them have now is tiny, but it’s been a week and a half and nobody’s gotten eaten by the walls yet, so Bill counts it a win and trips over the plastic bin she’s got her underwear and socks in. Kicking it further under her bed, she peels off her jeans and collapses on the mattress to flip through OKCupid matches on her phone. She’s got it set to “I don’t want to see or be seen by straight people” but somehow she’s still got three messages from guys, two who want a threesome and a third who just wants to watch. She blocks all three of them. Then there’s a white girl with dreads, and — hard pass, thanks. She drops the phone on her pillow and drags herself up; pads into the single bathroom with a towel and a resolution to get herself off at least once before the others get home.
The next day, the Doctor accidentally overlaps text on the board during his lecture. It’s archaeothanatology today, though it’s supposed to be machine learning, and he saves face when someone points it out by launching into an explanation of how one of the troubles, of course, with finding out how people died thousands of years ago, is everything that happened to their body after that overwriting the evidence.
From the look on his face, he thinks he’s pretty clever. It’s the same face he wears when they just nearly got murdered, an even mix of adrenaline and smug. Bill frowns, and when, after the lecture, the Doctor suggests a “quick jaunt off-world before Nardole gets back”, she frowns deeper.
“Is that a good idea?” she asks. “I mean, you’re not—”
“I’m fine,” the Doctor insists, and he gets around fine inside the TARDIS. More than fine, even, works the overcomplicated array of touchscreens, levers, and blinking lights in a way that she doesn’t think should be possible for someone who can’t see, and she doubts again.
But isn’t he telepathic or something? He tried to mindwipe her, after Heather. And this is his ship. After a couple thousand years or however long he’s had it, maybe he doesn’t need to see to be able to pilot it. Maybe the buttons and levers are just for show, an interface that he never needed in the first place, and that’s why there aren’t chairs.
They materialize in an alien city. A real life alien city, with three suns high in the sky and a cracked moon so big it devours the horizon, and all around them is a bustling marketplace, people of all shapes, sizes, and limb arrangements haggling prices around them.
“Fourteen pounds!” a yellowish entity whose boneless body shifts and grows with their anger says, and the Doctor whispers conspiratorially, “The translation circuits try their best to regionalize.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” the entity continues, “It’s dime-a-dozen Time War trash! I won’t pay more than ten.”
“Then I guess you’re not paying,” the girl on the other side of the table says with a shrug. “It’s in perfect condition. It’d probably even work if we knew what it was.”
The Doctor seems concerned by something, but Bill doesn’t pay him much mind. The girl selling whatever “dime-a-dozen Time War trash” is a pretty humanoid with clear skin—not like she doesn’t have acne, but like Bill can see her bones and her cording nervous system—and a plain, loose-fitting crop top. Her eyes are a solid, filmy jade color which means Bill can’t tell where the girl is looking as she snarks at her not-customer, but everything about her body language says it isn’t at the yellowish entity, and as the alien goes off in a huff, Bill walks over to her table.
“Hi,” she says brightly, “I’m Bill.”
“Prices are labelled,” the alien girl says without looking up, and when Bill looks over the wares—a hi-tech jumble that looks somehow simultaneously futuristic and vintage, like the world of the Jetsons come to life in the middle of an alien flea market—they are indeed: shiny little stickers with handwritten prices in what for all the world seems to be GBP.
“Wow,” Bill breathes. “What is all this stuff?”
The clear girl shrugs her shoulders. “No clue. There’s a bunch of alien crap on the moon what got left during the War, and collectors’ll buy anything they think a Time Lord might’ve touched.”
Bill starts. “Wait,” she says, and then, turning: “Time Lords. That’s you, right?”
The Doctor’s concern has morphed into suspicion, some hexagonal vintage-futuristic object in his hands with a £7 sticker on the base. “It is,” he says, and drowns out the clear girl’s “The Time Lords are d— ” with “Did you salvage all of this yourself?”
“Me ‘n my brother, yeah,” the girl says, and Bill still can’t read where her eyes are landing but with the turn of her face she’s got to be side-eyeing the Doctor. “We’ve got a ship. Why?”
“So no one gave you this?” The Doctor holds up the hexagonal object, and he sounds near-desperate. “Not a woman with dark hair, by chance? Or an eldery gentleman?”
“Nobody gave us anything. We do honest work.”
“Has anyone fitting that description ever stopped by, then?” the Doctor presses.
“Hell if I know,” she says irritably, “but if it’s bugging you so much I’ll get Jaq.”
“That’d be fantastic, thank you.”
“Don’t mention it,” the girl says flatly. She picks up a cylindrical device as she stands, twists it in both hands, and it makes a sound like a lightsaber as a thin band of red light fans out, a little thinner than a meter wide where it hits the ground. She holds it out in front of her with one hand as she hurries off through the crowded marketplace, people shifting to let her pass.
“Oh,” Bill says. “Doctor, she’s blind!”
“What about it?” the Doctor snaps.
Bill throws her hands up defensively. “Nothing! I just realized. Yikes.”
When the clear girl returns with Jaq, who must be her brother, the Doctor holds up the hexagonal object and says, “This isn’t a teapot.”
“Was it… supposed to be a teapot?” Bill questions, but Jaq doesn’t seem taken aback at all.
“Djara said you wanted to know if someone was hanging around here?” he says. “We sell to collectors. A lot of them come around a lot.”
“This would be a specific person. Either a woman, she would have looked human, with dark brown hair and an umbrella, or an older man with greying hair. He might have had a fob watch?”
Jaq shakes his head. “We don’t get humans around here, sorry,” he says. “What’s it to you?”
“This isn’t a teapot,” the Doctor says again, like that’s significant.
Djara jabs her brother with an elbow. “The hexagonal box,” he tells her. “What is it then?” she asks the Doctor. “If it’s not a teapot that bears no resemblance to a teapot, I mean.”
“It’s a time machine,” the Doctor says. And then, as if that wasn’t sure enough to get them dismissed as whackjobs, he adds, “I think.”
“What,” says Djara.
“It’s Time Lord technology,” the Doctor says, “called a Chameleon Circuit. It can make anything look like anything. It fools any sensor, any camera. With a Chameleon Circuit, any object is completely indistinguishable from the thing it’s mimicking.”
“Oh, like the TARDIS!” Bill realizes.
“Right,” Djara says, dragging out the vowel. “If you don’t mind me asking, if it’s completely indistinguishable from the real deal, how do you know it’s a time machine?”
“Because,” the Doctor says confidently, “it doesn’t feel like a teapot. It feels alive.”
“Well, seven quid and the sentient time machine is yours,” she tells him.
It’s not a teapot. It also, as it turns out, is not a sentient time machine, but rather a Lovecraftian monster that just so happened to eat the soul of a time machine a couple billion years ago, and was napping until the Doctor went and picked it up.
These things, Bill is led to believe, just happen sometimes.
“You can’t look at it,” the Doctor says as they huddle behind a hovercar. “You’ll go mad.”
“How are we supposed to fight it, then?” Jaq says, at the same time Djara goes, “Oh, no. No way. You couldn’t pay me. I’m not going near that thing.”
“Don’t worry,” the Doctor tells Djara. “I’ve got it covered.”
“Oh, and how is that?” Bill asks, as pointedly as she can while still gasping.
“I’ve been mad for years,” he says, grins, and runs off, back towards the screaming.
“Anyway,” Bill sighs, suddenly exhausted again, like all the adrenaline has been pulled out of her. “When all this is over with, do you want to go to dinner with me?”
Djara laughs breathlessly. “We can have calamari.”
The Doctor stumbles back towards them several minutes later covered head-to-toe in a nasty black sludge, his sunglasses missing. With one hand out to skim for obstacles, when he gets to hovercar, he goes, “That could have gone worse.”
“It’s dead?” Jaq asks.
“Well, no. You can’t really kill an Old One. But you can send them away.” He’s not looking at any of them, and Bill is sick of this.
“Where’d your shades go?”
The Doctor laughs once, awkwardly. “With Shub-niggurath, I figure.”
“Mmm,” says Bill. “And you’re done pretending you can see now that your magic sunglasses are gone? Or do you want to play that you’re just disorientated?”
“No,” Bill says. “We’re talking about this, Doctor. Problems don’t go away just because you pretend they aren’t there!”
“Is this really the time?” the Doctor says.
“Nope,” says Bill, faux-cheerfully. “Five days ago was the time. But this’ll do in a pinch.”
The Doctor sighs. “I’m sorry I lied to you,” he says like a put-upon apology is going to solve anything.
“Oh my god,” says Bill. “You don’t even think you should be apologizing. You think it’s totally reasonable that you lied to me — for days — about this. To my face! I thought I was imagining things!” She seethes. “God, I would totally punch you right now if you could see it coming.”
“Do it anyway,” Djara chimes in.
The Doctor is still nursing his split lip once they’ve made their way back to Djara and Jaq’s ship, a homey little fixer-upper with curtains on the windows. Bill had never thought of a spaceship having curtains before.
“Djara picked them out,” Jaq tells her conspiratorially. “That’s why they’re hideous.”
“I heard that!” Djara calls over. And then, “Counter top on your left, follow it until it ends.”
The Doctor does, unsteadily, and when he arrives at the requested point, she jumps down from the counter, bringing down something from the cabinet with her. “Here,” she says. “Fancy tech is fancy and all, but it breaks, ‘n then you get stranded. The stick,” she says, and manipulates the Doctor’s hand so his fingers close around the handle of the cane, “is your friend. The stick is indestructible. A hovercar hit one of these things and it only bent a little.” She pats him on the shoulder. “We’ve been using them for the last nine hundred years for a reason. Even if you’re gonna use something expensive, keep this in your back pocket for emergencies. Or use ‘em both, if you’ve got those fancy glasses. Glasses are shit for knowing what’s on the ground. Good way to faceplant. Trust me,” she adds, blank faced.
“Shut up,” Djara says. “ Anyway, it’s…? A little short for you, but you’re a baby, so it’s fine. Get a new one in a couple months. Experiment with cane tips, et cetera. You’ll figure it out.” And then, to Bill: “I think I was promised a date?”