The landing was rougher than usual. Instead of gently materialising, Rose’s feet hit the ground with force and she nearly lost balance. It was dark but she could make out the silhouettes of buildings a short distance away — not very tall, two- or three-storey high. There was rubble under her soles and it was eerily quiet.
Wherever she’d landed, it definitely wasn’t Earth. A good portion of the night sky was taken by a semicircle of a ringed planet, so large that Rose’s palm barely covered it at an arm’s length. A bit further away floated two smaller red crescents and their combined light outshone the more distant stars. Their absence had become a familiar sight to her on parallel Earth.
Nothing in her surroundings looked recognisable but instinctively Rose knew she was in the right place. She always did whenever she managed to get through to her home universe. The readings on the dimension cannon confirmed her hunch: the frequency of the Time Vortex energy around her matched that of her TARDIS key.
Before she started exploring, Rose tried to set the coordinates for Earth in case she had to quickly escape. The teleportation device used Time Vortex energy and needed time to recharge, but the rest of the equipment ran on electricity and she’d never experienced issues with it before. Now, the cannon refused to save the coordinates and a few moments later Rose noticed that it wasn’t charging from the Time Vortex field. The battery left after a jump was usually enough for her to send a message or two to the control centre on parallel Earth, but now it was fully drained.
“Of course…” she muttered annoyedly to herself.
Rose hung the cannon on her shoulder and walked through the town to see if she could find people. The jumps often landed her somewhere unexpected, but there was usually a good reason for it and she’d never been stuck anywhere for more than a couple of days. If anything, when she’d previously landed in her home world, the dimension cannon pulled her back to parallel Earth before she could come through properly.
The town looked abandoned and some of the buildings had been destroyed altogether. The only sources of light were the giant planet and the moons in the sky, but Rose’s eyes had started to get used to the dark. No matter how far she walked, there was no sign of life, as if everybody had just disappeared. She checked a couple of buildings that didn’t look like they were about to collapse: they turned out to be just as empty as they seemed from the outside.
Cobblestone hurt her feet even through the soles of her boots and a couple of hours into the walk, Rose was beginning to get desperate. Despite usually needing no more than twenty minutes, the cannon still hadn’t started to recharge and she had no idea how to fix it, especially in such darkness. She did have a small torch, but decided to preserve the battery in case she got stranded in the town for much longer.
The streets were narrow and didn’t give her a good vantage point, but soon she stumbled upon a three-storey building in a street lined up by smaller single-level houses. Excited, Rose ran up the ramp that extended along one of the walls and led to the upper floors and the roof.
She couldn’t see very far as the town was densely built-up and a lot of other buildings around were the same height, but a couple of hundred yards away she did make out an empty patch resembling a town square, and in the middle of it stood a box.
Rose’s heart jumped and she barely remembered how she got to the square: her feet carried her there before she could fully process what was happening. Despite her panic, the TARDIS hadn’t disappeared by the time she got to her. She was still parked there, in the middle of a deserted alien town, surrounded by rubble. Rose pushed the door, but it didn’t budge. Her key still fit perfectly and turned easily in the lock, but it didn’t open the door.
“Come on, old girl. I’ve come far enough,” she muttered.
When she gently put her hand on the door, she could feel a slight vibration in response and a telepathic tickle at the back of her mind.
“You’re back,” Rose smiled. “Why are you not letting me in?”
“She’s not letting anyone in at the moment, myself included.”
She spun around to face the person who had appeared behind her. Something about him was undeniably Doctor-like. He was wearing a long coat (had he always had a thing for dramatic tails?) and a three-piece suit that wouldn’t be out of place in Victorian England or a steampunk film, with a sloppily tied scarf around his neck.
“I underestimated this planet’s gravity field, so we didn’t have the softest of landings,” the Doctor continued. “She’s healing.”
“Oh, poor thing,” Rose said, stroking the wood lovingly. Suddenly, the images of the dead time machine she’d retrieved from the bottom of the Thames in Donna’s universe flooded her mind.
“You seem to be quite familiar with my ship,” the Doctor noted. “Have you travelled with some other version of myself?”
“Yeah. I’m a bit lost, though. Landed in the slightly wrong time and place,” Rose replied, nodding at her dimension cannon. “Was hoping that maybe you’d give me a lift but I see the TARDIS is out of service.”
“That’s curious. I didn’t think there would be a future.”
“You found a very bad place to land. We are currently in the middle of the worst war the universe has ever seen and probably will ever see if it survives.”
“Hold on, is it… Are we…” she stammered, trying to make sense of what she’d heard. “Are you saying we’re in the middle of the Time War right now?”
“Well, I wasn’t sure that name would stick, but I guess you could call it a time war. Now, I seem to be at a bit of a disadvantage since you know much more about me than I know about you. May I ask your name?”
“Rose. Rose Tyler. I’m from 21st century Earth.”
“Of course. I had just approached the 21st century as the war started. You have a beautiful planet, Rose. Let’s hope it survives this.”
“Oh, don’t worry. Nobody’s even heard about the Time War there. Well, at least in my time.”
“Provided we do manage to make it out alive. Time is in flux, Rose. Nothing is set in stone.”
“Yeah, you’ve said it before. So, where are we and where’s everyone?”
“We are on planet Wyokke in galaxy R42. The people of this planet have been taken by the Daleks.”
“What, all of them?” Rose asked incredulously. “How did they take all the people?”
“Trust me, since the war started, they’ve had many opportunities to perfect their skill.”
“And what are you doing here?”
The Doctor chuckled bitterly.
“It’s a long story, possibly for another day. So, what is this machine you’re travelling with? I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of these before.”
She sighed and patted it gently.
“It’s called a dimension cannon. We built it to travel between parallel universes.”
“Did you come from a parallel universe? Well, that explains how you know me, or a version of me.”
“How do you mean?”
“This war will most likely be the end of everything. Two greatest and most dangerous forces in the universe have collided. They will destroy all that gets in the way. So you should probably leave while there’s still a chance.”
“Well, I’ve seen a different future in which you survived and the world lived on.”
“You are from a different universe, Rose. Things don’t necessarily develop in the same way.”
“I technically did come here from a different universe, but this is my home world, Doctor. I lived here all my life before getting stuck in a parallel universe a few years ago, but I’m back now.”
“Maybe you should have sat this one out,” he said, the corners of his eyes crinkling up but the smile never reaching his lips.
Rose stepped closer to get a better look at his face.
“Look,” she said. “I met you just after the war ended. You were broken, you were grieving, but you survived and since then you’ve helped more people than anyone can count.”
“I survived,” the Doctor echoed grimly. “What about the rest of the world?”
She pursed her lips, unsure of whether she should or could tell him about his home.
“The world has survived, too. And it continues to do so thanks to you, Doctor.”
“You should leave, Rose. It’s dangerous here. You should at least return to your time on Earth.”
“Yeah, about that… My dimension cannon is not working. Can you check what’s wrong with it? It’s not charging and the Time Vortex battery is fully drained, so I can’t even contact the control centre on parallel Earth.”
“I don’t have many tools since the TARDIS wouldn’t let me go inside but I’ll have a look.”
The Doctor led her into one of the abandoned buildings facing the square. The metal front door was supposed to have an electronic lock, just like the other ones around it, but it opened when he pushed it gently.
“No electricity in the city,” the Doctor explained. “I’ve built a solar panel to harness some but it’s only good for the basics. You don’t need locks here anyway,” he added glumly.
The ceilings and door frames were very high but the corridors were narrow and Rose wondered what the people who had lived in the town looked like. The Doctor pointed his screwdriver at the lamp overhead to turn the light on and once her eyes adjusted after spending the last couple of hours in the dark, she examined her surroundings.
The building they were in looked like living quarters. She saw a long table with a dozen chairs around it, so tall they looked more like bar stools, a few screens mounted on the walls, now turned off, and several bulky machines whose purpose she couldn’t work out. Through the open door to the next room, she caught a glimpse of a row of loft beds with no mattresses.
“There are lots of vicious rodents in Wyokkan forests,” the Doctor explained. “They are not common in towns, but it was a tradition to build furniture that minimises your contact with the ground. So, can I see your teleportation device, please?”
Rose took the strap off her shoulder and handed the cannon to the Doctor, who had sat at the end of the table that housed a large pile of cables, electronic parts, and tools he must have scavenged around the town.
“It’s a curious device you have here. Not 21st century Earth technology, is it?” he noted.
“Well, we built it but we used parts that came through a rift in time and space. There’s one in Cardiff both in this universe and in the parallel one.”
“Really? Don’t think I’ve ever noticed it. Haven’t spent much time in Cardiff.”
“Oh, you just wait…”
After a few minutes of silence, the Doctor said:
“I can’t see what is wrong with it, Rose. Everything seems to be in perfect order but it can’t connect to the Time Vortex field. Maybe the TARDIS is causing interference. I suggest we venture out of town tomorrow and see if we can get it to work.”
“’kay. Thanks for checking.”
“No problem at all. I’ve been stuck here for almost two Earth weeks already, so it’s a welcome distraction.”
“How did you end up here?”
“I’d intercepted the news about Wyokke on the radio. It was too late to try and stop the Daleks but I hoped that maybe there were people left here who needed help.”
“Intercepted? Was it kept secret?”
“A lot of things are being unsuccessfully kept secret by the Time Lords who mistakenly think other planets haven’t worked out for themselves just how devastating this war is.”
“But why would they do it? Everybody knows that the Daleks are evil and only want to destroy everything that’s not like them. I thought the Time Lords were trying to defend themselves and protect others.”
The Doctor snorted at that, unable to help himself, and pressed his fist to his mouth. Rose couldn’t quite work out if he was almost laughing or almost crying.
“Did I tell you that?” he asked.
“Well, no. We never talked much about the war. I didn’t want to bring it up and upset you. I just gathered that the Time Lords would try to stop the Daleks and that’s good for everyone, isn’t it?”
“Rose, the Time Lords are currently ripping this world to shreds just as successfully as the Daleks.”
“But why? Didn’t you say one of the rules was not to interfere with other planets’ affairs?”
“Other planets, yes. But they have a strategy that demands compliance from others, so it’s Gallifreyan business. Besides, the Daleks are using slave labour for technological advances and the Time Lords would rather there wasn’t anyone to provide it. Wyokkans had two alternatives: becoming slaves to the Daleks or having their planet blown up by the Time Lords. Only one involved the chance of survival and eventual liberation if something extremely unlikely happened and someday the war ended. But it wasn’t their choice. They were completely at the mercy of the two powerful opposing forces and it so happened that the Daleks got here first.”
“Did you manage to find any survivors?”
“Yes,” he answered grimly. “Two people who were hiding in the basement of one of the buildings. They were very badly injured and since the hospital had been destroyed and I didn’t have access to the TARDIS, they didn’t make it. They died within three days of my finding them.”
“I’m sorry, Doctor,” Rose whispered.
“Maybe I should stop going by that name. I haven’t been able to heal anyone since the war began.”
She put her hand on his tentatively.
“It’s not your fault. You did everything you could do.”
“How can you possibly know that, Rose?”
“Because I know you. I’ve seen you. I’ve seen you risk your life, risk everything to help others.”
“I don’t have very much to risk, do I? I couldn’t even return to Gallifrey if the Time Lords won the war. In their book, I’m a deserter, a traitor, that’s who I am. It wouldn’t be the first time they called me a traitor, it wouldn’t even be the first time they exiled me, but we were not at war before. Not at this scale. Now my actions do fit the definition of an actual crime.”
“Is being a conscientious objector not a thing anymore?” Rose tried to offer a smile.
The corners of his lips rose somewhat.
“Not in the current circumstances. The TARDIS makes it difficult for them to track me down but they probably could if they didn’t have better things to do.”
“Well, they’d have to deal with me first,” she said, squeezing his hand gently in reassurance.
“We were rather close in some other reality, weren’t we?” he asked.
Rose dropped her gaze. What was the answer to that? That she’d crossed the universes to find him? That a couple of times she’d thought he was going to say he loved her but he never finished the sentence?
“Yeah. You were my best friend. You still are.”
“What I don’t understand is how you landed here. Of all places not only in this world, in the whole Multiverse. I can’t imagine you were aiming for planet Wyokke in the year two million?”
She shook her head.
“No, but sometimes the dimension cannon lands me somewhere bizarre. Often it seems like there’s a reason. But a couple of times I just got stuck in the middle of nowhere and had to wait for it to recharge so I could leave.”
“And what do you think this is?” he smiled weakly and Rose’s face lit up in response.
“Oh, I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out.”
“Can I see your TARDIS key, Rose?”
She pulled the chain out of the cut of her t-shirt and handed him the key. The Doctor buzzed over it with his sonic screwdriver and hummed pensively.
“It looks like the key anchored to the nearest version of the TARDIS it could find once you dived into the Time Vortex and diverted your journey. Sorry about that. We’ll find a way to get you out of here.”
Rose pursed her lips. It didn’t look like leaving him alone in the middle of the Time War was the best idea.
“I can stay,” she said. “Until all of this is over. You don’t have to deal with it alone.”
The Doctor looked at her incredulously.
“Do you realise how dangerous it is?” he exclaimed. “There is nothing stopping a fleet of Daleks from landing here this very minute and we can’t even get on the TARDIS and leave.”
“Yeah. Wouldn’t be the first time we got stuck with a fleet of Daleks.”
“Why do I always find people who are so reckless?”
“It would be no fun otherwise.”
“No,” he answered firmly. “This isn’t your war and you shouldn’t be dragged into it.”
“But it is,” she argued. “The Daleks have attacked my planet so many times. They were the reason I got stuck in the parallel universe in the first place. It’s not like I have nothing to do with it.”
“Skaro is currently at the peak of its technological development and there are more Daleks and more Dalek warships in the universe than there have ever been. It’s dangerous and there’s nothing you or I can do to stop it.”
“Then I can just stay here with you and make sure you don't have to live through it on your own.”
The Doctor sighed.
“Rose. In the darkest hour of my life, you appear and tell me that there will be a future, that there will be more adventures, that I’ll get to meet more people, that one of those people will be so brilliant she’ll build a machine to travel between parallel universes and so kind she’ll offer to stay with me during the war. I’d much rather you went back to whatever version of me is waiting for you instead of getting killed here.”
She smiled tentatively.
“I didn’t build the machine. The institute I work for did. I just tested it. For some reason, I was the only one who could travel with it. Don’t know why but it didn’t work for the rest of the team. It’s not that I minded. Wouldn’t be fair if they found you first.”
“But why would they build it in the first place? Travelling between parallel universes is dangerous and there are so many other things to be explored.”
“We had to find you. In the universe I’ve just come from, the stars have gone out. They’ve just disappeared from the sky and nobody knows why.”
“What do you mean, the stars have disappeared? How can they disappear?”
“How are you observing them? Are you sure it’s not just light pollution from the satellites in Earth’s orbit or someone misinterpreting the readings?”
“We had observations from optical, radio, and gamma-ray telescopes around the Earth and in orbit. No light, visible or invisible, is reaching the solar system. The Kuiper belt is basically as far as we can see. Then it’s just pitch black.”
“That is extremely irregular. The expansion of space is a natural process and in a very distant future there will be a time when the distances between objects will be far too large for light to catch-up with the stretch of the universe, but there should be hundreds of billions more years before it happens. Something must be blocking light around the solar system.”
“We haven’t been able to work out what it is. One thing we know is that it’s not good. So we thought that maybe you’d be able to help.”
“Is that why you are travelling with the dimension cannon?”
“Yeah. Well, that’s the main reason. But I’ve been trying to find a way back since I got stuck in that universe. I didn’t exactly choose to stay there.”
“What happened?” the Doctor asked and quickly corrected himself. “No, don’t tell me. I’m not supposed to know that.”
Rose chuckled. Considering that his future self had no recollection of her when they met, maybe her telling him about the Battle of Canary Wharf wouldn’t be the biggest of problems.
They heard the rumbling of thunder outside and a few seconds later rain thrummed violently against the windows.
“The weather here is quite changeable,” the Doctor said sheepishly.
Rose got up from the seat and approached the window. The glass under her fingers felt a little strange but she couldn’t quite place it. The window was solid and didn’t let a drop in, but only did so much to muffle the sound of the rainfall outside. Soon it became freezing cold. She wrapped her arms around herself, her thin leather jacket not doing much against the sudden drop in temperature.
“Here, take it.”
The Doctor took his coat off and put it on her shoulders. His Gallifreyan body could always cope with the weather much better than her human one, probably that’s why he hadn’t cared enough to fix the air conditioning in the building.
“I’ll see if I can get some power to the heater,” he said. “For now, there are some blankets in the bedroom. Wyokkan wool is quite valuable because it’s very thick. Or at least was valuable. There won’t be much trade going on now.”
His voice broke and his eyes glazed over for a moment as he got lost in thought. Rose swallowed thickly. Normally she’d take his hand or hug him in reassurance but tonight she’d already initiated a lot of tactile contact with a version of him that hadn’t even met her until an hour earlier, so she hesitated. Finally, she bit her lip, stepped closer, and grasped his upper arms to divert his attention from whatever he was thinking.
“Look. You’ve just said that there’s nothing you or I can do to stop the Daleks. You are not responsible for what happened here. It’s not your fault that the war started and it’s not your fault that it is still going on.”
“But it is. I let them live, Rose. Everything that is happening now is my fault. Centuries ago I was sent to Skaro to nip the Daleks in the bud. The Time Lords knew how dangerous they would become. That was my mission, to make sure that they would never grow and never develop. And I… just couldn’t. I couldn’t kill them, Rose. I couldn’t stop thinking about all the people, all the planets that grew stronger and more united because of them so I let them live. I missed the opportunity to stop them and look at what happened. None of this was ever necessary. The war could have been prevented centuries before it began. The Wyokkans are just a tiny fraction of its victims. There are countless people across the universe who are suffering because of something I chose not to do.”
Rose felt tears glistening in her eyes and squeezed his arms a little tighter.
“You couldn’t have possibly known that,” she whispered.
“I could have taken a wild guess that creatures who’d been made to destroy everything that is not like them and had already committed countless atrocities would continue to do so and the more people would suffer because of that the stronger they got. One Dalek, just one, is enough to devastate a planet. There are hundreds of millions of them out there, and counting.”
“Well, maybe if the Time Lords were so clever, they should have sent a team there instead of just dropping one person in it and then blaming him for everything that goes wrong,” she huffed.
The corners of the Doctor’s lips turned up slightly.
“Maybe I should bring you to my trial if I ever have to stand one.”
“There are lots more things I’d like to say!” Rose nodded. “But for now, I’m starving. Forgot to eat before the jump. Is there any food around or do we have to venture into the rain?”
“I have some here. Brought it in before forest mice work out that it’s safe to go into the city.”
“All right, let’s see it. I should’ve really got myself one of those fifth dimension bags from the TARDIS wardrobe. You never know when you’ll end up in the middle of nowhere.”
“Or in the middle of the Time War,” the Doctor chuckled.
“No. But I told you, there’s usually a good reason.”