On his list of favorite things, somewhere below people but a little higher than planets, is the look of astonishment unfailingly painted across the face of anyone who enters the TARDIS. It’s as if there were an invisible curtain at the entry that instantly transforms whoever passes through into a delighted, confounded, mesmerized child, awestruck by the wonders of his old phone box spaceship. It’s the same for everyone. No exceptions. Well, one. A few. Not many.
And rightly so – it’s a beautiful machine. Once it was a beautiful woman, too, but she’s dispersed into its essence. It’s spacious, much more than it really has a right to be, so spacious that it’s clear that proper physics refuses to step over the threshold. The walls are awash with brilliant yellow-orange and dotted with holes, giving off the impression of standing inside a giant metallic block of technologically-advanced Swiss cheese. Stairways extend out of view in several directions, further increasing the hypothetical size of the interior and signing off on the restraining order against physics. In the center, the raised decahedral deck hosts the real masterpiece – the control panel. Its surface is fraught with more machinery than can be operated by one man, and more gadgets than any man knows how to operate. But through all the metal and glass and plastic and materials unnamed by human language, the machine hums with life, indisputably sings and trembles and breathes, and the extra dimension is her lungs, and the Doctor is her eyes, and they work in perfect tandem: the TARDIS and the man she stole.
“Ooh, dimensional transcendentalism! It’s exotic matter, right?”
“Bigger on the inside, I know, completely brilli—what?” His pre-planned monologue of praise for his ship grinds to a halt. He spins back to face the girl, the choreographed gestures of his hands folding into simple flapping.
“I have a friend working on something like this,” Aradia continues, looking around as if pleased but not actually confused by the irrational sight of an extra dimension nestled in where it shouldn’t be. “Trying to use exotic matter to expand small spaces so he can hold all his equipment. He hasn’t been this successful, though. He’s a genius, but troll physics are really tricky. How did you do it?”
Simultaneously disappointed and enchanted to be confronted by someone who actually understands the TARDIS, the Doctor pauses. “Alright, look, here's a metaphor, if it helps - picture a giant glass house full of those bendy-wobbly fun house mirrors. Are you picturing it? Good. Well, forget that image, because it's really nothing like that at all.”
Aradia glances up at the Doctor. “You’re a bit weird, aren’t you?” It’s a rhetorical question, they both know the answer; but the Doctor grins impishly at the suggestion.
“More commonly referred to as mad,” he counters in a low whisper, as if confessing a secret. Then he swings himself up the stairs to the control panel, unable to contain his newfound glee. “And yes, quite mad! Wouldn't have it any other way. Nor would she,” he adds in a murmur, patting the TARDIS console fondly. Then he swivels back to face Aradia. “Besides, mad is good. Wouldn't be me if I weren't. Well, it still would, I've been not-mad before – well, only slightly less mad, really – but that wasn't me. Well, it was. But technically it wasn't. Did you say troll physics?” His words tumble out in a rush, tripping over each other as though merely riding in the wake of his fast-paced mind, which has already leapt forward to the next item at hand.
In a flutter of wings, Aradia joins him on the deck. “I did! I guess you haven’t been to Alternia. We’re called trolls. No relation to the human myth, or, at least, only marginal relation. We might have some similarities. But not to the internet ones.” She circles the console, inspecting it, first trying to peek over the rim from her diminutive height, then giving up and hovering around it. As she comes around, she takes in the Doctor too – tweed jacket, too-short pants, a mop of hair that could actually be considered well-kept by troll standards. “Nice bow tie.”
He straightens the tie with a wink. “Cool, eh?”
She giggles. “You remind me of my friend. Except you’re not a troll. But you’re not human, either – you can’t be.”
“Oh? And why’s that?” This is new. He’s used to being mistaken for human; no one remembers his people came first.
“Because there are only four humans left, and we know all of them,” she replies, fluttering over to drop into one of the deck seats. Her short legs swing free of the floor; the TARDIS hasn’t played host to children in so long, some of her past courtesies have been forgotten – like shorter chairs.
The Doctor turns to face her, leaning against the console, accidentally jolting a lever and tipping the whole machine sideways. He scrambles to right it as Aradia slides to the floor, taken by surprise. “Sorry! Hang on,” he cries, wrenching the lever back into place. With a groaning noise, the TARDIS levels out again, and the Doctor carefully backs away from the console. “Maybe I’d better just...” He sits down in one of the other chairs, then pauses. “Wait. Say that again. About the humans.”
She looks askance at him from her renewed perch on her chair. “There are only four humans, Doctor. The rest of them are dead, and have been for a while. We’re floating through the ruins of their universe. Mine, too, for that matter.”
“I think you’d better tell me what happened. Start from the beginning this time.”
Aradia stands and slowly begins pacing a circle around the console, inspecting the machinery as she considers her words. “We played a game,” she says softly. “A game that creates and destroys worlds. My friends and I played first, and we played well. We beat it – or, we were really close to beating it. We created the human universe, but lost our planet in the process. We were supposed to enter the new universe, but by then we were already doomed. I wasn’t... I wasn’t really myself at that point, but I knew we were doomed. That’s when he came in, broke in through a scratch in the game, and he killed a lot of us. I brought in copies of myself from doomed timelines – all timelines were doomed then anyway – and he killed them too. Then the humans played, but they failed at the game and let him through. Their planet was destroyed like ours, and then they failed, and we lost our entire universes.”
She pauses, scuffing her feet on the rough metal surface of the deck. “So the only ones left alive now are the ones who played the game. That’s it. Twelve trolls – down to six – and four humans. We’re all that’s left of two whole universes.”
She looks up to see the Doctor staring past her, his young face surprisingly haggard, his eyes older and more tired than even seems possible. He takes a moment to speak, pulling himself back to consciousness from the depths of his memory. “I’m the last one from mine.” He drops his gaze and continues slowly, weighing each word against the pain it costs him to say it. “There was... a war. A terrible, horrible, long war, so disastrous it transcended and trampled space and time. I fought, I tried to fight, but... I couldn’t. I ran.”
“And you’ve been running ever since.”
The Doctor nods, but doesn’t reply. He just stares at the floor, no longer wholly there but submerging himself in memory, staring past the framework of the deck, through the heart of the TARDIS, down the long tunnel of the time vortex, reliving days only he can now remember. Days of glory, bright and golden in his mind’s eye. Days of hope, seemingly endless, expanding in the gaps of his unmended hearts. Days of joy, their memories filling him up with empty promises of time now gone by, years and months and millennia stolen by battles, torn apart by war. He sits perfectly still, unusually still for this version of himself, only his eyes betraying anything, wide open and clear and lost.
He stands abruptly, turning his back, gripping the deck railing for support. “Why did you come here?”
Aradia cautiously steps forward. “Because I can help you.”
“How?!” The Doctor whirls back around and stares down the girl, expecting her to withdraw. But she stands her ground, and he flounders for better words. “How can you know – what could you do? How do you know who I am? I’ve never even heard of Alternia!”
A quick shake of the head, an imperceptible twitch around the lips. “I can’t say. Spoilers.”
The word pierces him anew, and he turns his back again. It brings back memories, dreams, little moments he’d thought he’d forgotten, some he’d tried to, all of them whirling around one central point: they all think he’s dead. He can’t see them again, but he can’t bear not to, but he can’t risk endangering them because he no longer knows if he could save them. If he could save anyone. He doubts it.
“I know that look, Doctor.” Aradia sits, facing the opposite direction, looking towards the future as the Doctor scrutinizes the past. “I know how it feels. You just keep carrying on because you don’t know what else to do. There’s nothing else you can do. It’s not just your life anymore, is it? You have all those lives stacked up in your head – all the lives you’ve lived, all the ones you’ve saved, especially the ones you’ve lost. They’re up there in your head, replaying themselves every minute of every day until you think you’ll go crazy. And you give up. You surrender to the inevitable, to doom and complacence and grief. But that’s where it’ll change, Doctor, because there’s no reason to grieve. I couldn’t for a long time, and now that I can, I’ve realized I don’t need to. And neither do you!”
She springs into the air and spins the Doctor around, placing her hands gently on his shoulders, hovering to look straight into his eyes. “We are alive, Doctor, so alive! And that’s what it comes down to. You don’t need death to justify life! Don’t grieve because you lost them; celebrate because they lived.”
“I’m not sure I know how anymore.” His voice is soft, tissue-thin, on the verge of tearing.
Aradia’s face lights up and she grants him a smile – to her, every smile is a benediction, a reminder that she can smile, that she’s alive to feel the muscles tighten in her face, to feel her lips curve into that universal symbol of joy and hope. “Then let me show you!”
Without warning, she grabs his hand and flies towards the door, dragging the Doctor down the stairs behind her. “Aradia, wait, you can’t – there isn’t – space is out there—”
She stops on the threshold, stepping lightly to the floor. “It doesn’t have to be. Think about your planet. Remember it, as clearly as you can. What’s it called?”
Memories crowd inside his head, crammed up behind his mind’s eye; he opens the floodgates and immerses himself in remembering. When he finally speaks, it’s a whisper, an echo, reverberating through time, riding a wavelength of sound through the past and escaping into the present.
Aradia opens the doors and pulls the Doctor outside.