It’s too cold.
This is just one of the many signs reminding Yaz that everything is going wrong. The TARDIS generally keeps the temperature even, and matches itself politely to whatever its passengers are wearing, tailor-tweaking the nerve endings of each warm body. But now it’s cold – and the lights tend slowly toward blue as the floor tilts downward in a gentle corkscrew, as if drooping. Yaz shoves her palms under her arms and tries to keep her balance on the descent. Dan’s all taken care of, meaning that Yaz steered him well clear of the Doctor, past her brooding self-importance and right through to the kitchens. Lopsided and leaking in places, but functional.
Sure, Yaz did it for the Doctor’s sake. She’s busy, as always, and more than a little wound up. Fighting off threats she seems determined to deal with alone. But mostly it was for Dan’s sake, because he can’t see how close the Doctor is to the end of her fraying tether. The ever-encroaching point at which she draws the line. He’s new, and may well be sticking around for a while. He will have to learn, but not today. Later, she will explain everything.
Yaz stops in front of a door she has already walked past. A silver door lathered in deepening blues, curved like the surface of a cylinder. Yaz keeps walking, and the air grows colder.
The floor slopes with purpose, steepening to a sheer round drop. Yaz keeps one hand pressed upon the humming wall and follows it down. A Möbius strip; it loops back around to the door again. A black droplet splats gritty and warm against her outstretched arm. The ceiling seams are leaking treacle. Sometimes the ship plays games with its passengers, getting them back for dripping drinks on the carpets or leaving biscuit crumbs on the console by leading them into a swamp or a waste deck or a primary school classroom. Sometimes the corridors shrink when the Doctor isn’t paying attention, or redden when she’s in a mood. But these changes – the blurring of angles and bruising of light – have no purpose to them, no intent. The ship is ill, or broken, depending on how closely Yaz follows the Doctor’s penchant for personification. It is bleeding, and even a silly human like Yaz can figure out why: Time is breaking. Time has a capital letter, as she discovered in its diminutive storm, and the ship doesn’t like it. It’s like a car driving over a cracked, on-fire road.
Yaz feels a little muddled, but she’s too angry to let it bother her. Muddled, by the torrent of fragmentary memories. Pieces of her own life jumbled up all wrong, and other lives as well. Pilots and plasterers and physicians and psychics. As her thoughts wander this way, in four directions outward from herself, Yaz grounds herself in her anger. It serves as a decent anchor, for her trailing thread of consciousness.
She walks on, but the path only tightens. She can spot her own jacket sleeve and the flash of a dark boot retreating, upside-down and ahead, when she walks forwards. Her braid is a mess.
From far behind and beyond her spatial loop, Yaz hears a yell. Frustrated, strangled, desperate. A mallet strike. The ship whimpers.
Yaz’s hand, without her careful supervision, has wandered over to the repeating door and its convex silver face. She thinks, in a voice that is not her own, and with a snarl, show me the rest.
Yaz sits in her front room – which is also the lounge room, and the dining room, and sort of the kitchen as well, as modernity dictates. No wonder she can never catch a break. She taps her nails on the dining table in a steady, circular cascade, humming to herself. The house is quiet now. Everyone else is gone. They have left, or been sent away, or taken. Taken and put right back where they belong.
But they’ll be alright. Perhaps it’s for the best.
She shouldn’t have meddled.
There’s someone knocking at the door, but Yaz really doesn’t feel like answering it. She has been quite enjoying shirking her duties. Duty! What a joke! As if anyone could do any real good wrapped up in all that red tape, drowning under a fathoms-deep electronic filing cabinet worth of bureaucratic excrement. The phone rings, and she ignores that too.
It was always going to come to this, eventually, but her wonderfully vivid delusions kept it at bay as a mere hypothetical. Chronic procrastinator. She’s been knocking about, travelling – having experiences of a lifetime. This is what she set out to do, what she always wanted. To help people, to right wrongs, to do more.
It is becoming difficult to circumvent the constant enquiries of her employers. There are only so many secondments she can take.
The knocking turns to rapping, which switches right onto banging and thumping with frankly not enough of an interval in between. Desperate, aren’t they, to have their best probationary officer back? Never did formally complete her training.
Reluctantly, Yaz stands, and then stops. Dizzy spell, her posture slants. The clock is wrong, too, the second hand ticking back and forth, back and forth, jammed halfway between two and three.
She calls out, “Why can't you leave me alone?” The next thump becomes a crash, and the door shudders, bleeding grey daylight at the seams. “I haven't done any harm,” Yaz mutters, belligerent. She opens the door.
Sergeant Sunder stands alongside Lucy Woods. Her old boss and her old partner. Both are sombre and expressionless, their features shadowed in foreboding and lit somehow from below, from the cement pavers.
The other side of the door is scuffed, the white plaster chipped away to reveal dark blue wood.
“There is no escape,” Sunder says. His features spasm and settle into a weary smile. The light is gone. The wood is brown. “Alright Yaz?” he says.
“Err, yeah.” She folds her arms and tries her best to look put-together. “What are you doing making house calls?”
“We were just passing by this way,” says Lucy, smiling in a suspicious manner. For a police officer, Woods always had a lousy poker face. Never could keep her mouth shut either. “Actually, no. That’s totally a lie. Why’ve you been avoiding our calls? Well, my calls, then I had to escalate it because come on Yaz! It’s been months! And I thought, sure, her secondment’s been extended and the paperwork didn’t get sent through properly, that’s what I told old Sunny over here” – she nudges the Sergeant. It is only when Yaz focuses her attention back on him that his expression loosens and his vest re-colours itself, from black to vivid green. “But I couldn’t cover for you forever, girl. And Nate saw you wandering about town weeks ago. What’ve you been up to? We’ve been trying to reach you! Well, anyway, doesn’t matter now does it?” Lucy’s lips twitch over her teeth into a grin, that after an instant nestles into a harsh, flat line. “You have returned to us. Your travels are over.”
“Yes, well. Thanks Woods.” Sunder rolls his eyes and casts Yaz a knowing look. “So much for subtle,” he mutters, then clears his throat. “But Yaz, it’s just that you're still contracted at the station. We’ve had to suspend your system access but there’s only so long we can put off terminating your contract altogether. I’m guessing the new assignment didn’t work out.” Sunder winks at her meaningfully.
“I was just…” Yaz struggles to find a nice word for slacking off.
“Skiving?” Lucy offers. “Never thought I’d see you go off the rails, you were such a hardass.”
“What she means is you were my best officer, Yaz. So much promise!”
“I just, I don’t think.” Yaz sighs. “I’ve been busy.” Anger rises in her throat, and she can’t quite trace its source. The door has something to do with it, and the stalling clock, the empty house. The ceiling is growing taller and fading up into an indifferent, rippling black. She doesn’t remember Woods and Sunder coming inside, but they are waiting when she turns, behind her. The clock multiplies; round grey fixtures spotting up and across the walls, ticking to and fro. Two and three.
Yaz puffs out her chest and warps her features into furious indignation. It sits stiff and wrong on her face, like a plaster mold. “I’ve been busy, you know, actually helping people. Not just standing about and handing out parking tickets and driving to house parties when the music gets too loud and holding drunk kids in cells overnight. I mean, with everything that’s going on in the world – that you’re facilitating standing around in your stupid hats – we can do more. I have done more.” She pulls herself up to her full height, which isn’t much. “While you have been content merely to observe the evil in the galaxy, I have been fighting against it!”
Woods and Sunder are standing on her living room furniture, all the better to bear down.
“Is that all you have to say?” asks Sunder, his face in shadow and his vest leeched once more to sheer black. His robes are white.
Exasperated, Yaz cries, “Well, isn't it enough?”
Dan appears on the coffee table holding a can of soup. He looks appropriately confused. “Yaz! Where am I?” he exclaims, then falls silent as his expression turns grave. The soup can drops from his hands and rolls mournfully across the linoleum. His voice is low and expressionless. “Your defence has been heard.”
“ We have accepted your plea,” says Sunder, from his dark plinth. The clock faces close, like grey lids over twitching glass eyes.
“You still have a part to play in this battle,” says Lucy, whose black cape hangs lank and motionless. A light bears down from above. The kitchen fixture, brightened to a mottled haze that punctures her thoughts.
“You will be recalled,” says Dan. His face is cracked down the middle.
The light sears through Yaz’s body, curling every nerve-end, cooking every cell.
“Ah, what’s happening!” she cries, reaching up to touch her face. It morphs beneath her fingers, melts to mortar and crumbling stone. The carpet blackens as if cast over by an enormous shadow, and she begins to sink. The three figures stand elevated, identically dressed. The harsh light that blazes out from Yaz’s body outlines their cold eyes, their grimset mouths. They watch her as she falls, and screams.
“No, you can't do this to me!”
Frustration that is not her own bursts forth and subsumes all terror. The tone that voices this feeling is bored, faintly nauseated; I know this already. Faces glare at her from all sides, spinning and merging. So many of them are familiar, and yet she has never seen them before. Possibility fans out either side, past and future, indistinguishable.
Golden fire greets her like an old friend. Older than she knows.
“No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no!”
Dan has given up trying to wipe up the tar. It gathers from a crack in the cornice and slops down onto the kitchen counter in a constant pit-pat, and it covers the inside of the oven, spread against the glass in a crusty smear. This ship is a dump. All the cupboards have are cans of soup, which has got to be some sort of practical joke. Dan ate it anyway. He was starving. That’s probably why he kept hearing tempura. What he wouldn’t give for something good and deep fried…
He tries not to think about Dianne. About her flickering face projected in amongst all that darkness, or about the fear in her voice, which he knows to be so brave. He imagines her telling him off for worrying.
The Doctor said she’d save her, and Yaz said she trusts the Doctor, and Dan reckons that Yaz has an at least half trustworthy-looking face. This flimsy assurance is all he has, except for all the soup, and his miniature house.
Dan turns it over and over in his hands. He can’t hear the furniture knocking about inside, which must be a good sign. His best boots can’t be larger than a grain of sand. He strokes the roof with a careful fingertip. He never did get the tiling fixed.
His house is a box. A useless little box, with the meagre collection of all his worldly possessions locked away inside. And his whole planet, locked behind a wall of dog-manned spacecraft. Will he ever get back, or will he always be an exile?
Exile? That’s a funny way of putting it. Dan is not generally one to complain. In fact, he tries to avoid it at all costs. His thoughts barrel on without his permission.
So what, maybe he has wasted the last century or so. But he’s been having a good time, isn’t that what matters? People flit in and out of his life, but that’s ok – he shows people around the universe, and he just loves to watch the delight spread across their faces when they see the view. He helps out. He really is quite proud of that.
Museum, wasn’t it? Not the universe. This place is messing with his head.
Dan sets his house on the kitchen counter and goes toward the door. He feels dizzy all of a sudden – this ship seems to have that effect, not pleasant to move about in, probably on account of the Time travel. It reeks of engine oil and burning, and all the rooms are titled, spinning slightly on shifting axes. Cold, too. Dan stumbles against the doorframe.
Blue, the door is blue, and there is smoke gathering up around him, pale and acrid. His chest aches like it's on fire. Old friend. A great swath of empty space hangs above him that he cannot grasp, and his head aches and throbs at the temples. His trousers are too short.
Dan pushes the door open and stands for a moment in the open air; English air, grey and linear, choked with smoke and nettles and radar waves. He careens forwards, stumbling over new feet, and falls face-first into the weeds.
“No, no, stop. Come on! Stop hiding it.” The voice stretches, then snaps, and echoes elastic through the corridor, winding its way to… Dan. Yes, that’s right. Dan is standing in a deep blue corridor that smells faintly of mud. The smoke is gone now, but his fingertips still buzz with heat. It’s the Doctor talking, lilt wilted and sharp; faded, platinum. Dan lumbers on toward it.
“I can trace it!” She mutters. Only a whisper, and yet it carries true as if passed directly from mouth to ear. The sound crackles slightly as if through a radio. There’s a tinny, guttural clanging behind the walls, and an accompanying noise, whinny or whalesong, drawn out and low. The floor slopes down until it is more like a slide. Dan struggles to keep his feet as he sidles downward.
Another clang, thunderous and sheer.
A voice that mimics its tone; “Stop showing me either side! That’s not what I want – shove it out the way. I don’t care where it goes.”
“Doctor?” His breath pools in the air, then zips off, as if carried on an unfelt wind. Down the slide and into the dim orange glow at the end. It looks like an incinerator.
Another gonging strike sounds off, and dark shadows shift against the fiery blare. A subterranean factory, or a smelting pit.
“I told you to lead them away,” says the smith.
Smith? Dan remembers them calling him that, all the straight-backed men in olive green.
“Away, not to! I’m busy.”
Dan takes the final stretch of the descent on his backside, and tumbles out into the console room. He sits upright and looks up at the Doctor sheepishly. His left hand has landed in a congealing puddle of black, oily muck, which he unknowingly smears across his hair in an attempt to flatten it. The Doctor bears down on him, though it might only be the angle. Bent and little, with her shoulders pulled up tense around her ears and the fierce russet glow the ship’s great crystal stanchions seeping her pale coat in muted gold. Her eyebrows are furrowed and her thin mouth twisted down.
“Err, hi there Doctor,” says Dan, embarrassed. There’s black spaceship mucus coating his trousers.
“Not good,” she mutters, biting her lip. “Very not good.” Her eyes are wide and red-brown, staring at something behind him.
“Sorry, I know you’re busy. This place is making me feel a bit queasy. Thought I’d just…” It being apparent that the Doctor doesn’t plan on helping him up any time soon, Dan struggles to his feet and brushes his sticky palm on his jacket sleeve. “Err, just hunker down in here for a while.”
“Dan!” she cries, as if finally recognising him. She jitters over, white and hunched and sort of twitching, and claps him on the shoulder in a way she likely means to be genial, maybe brotherly. Fatherly? She doesn’t pull it off. She scarpers back toward the console. “Been feeling okay?” she asks.
“Err, no. Queasy, as I said. But I’ll be fine, I’ve got some soup in me.”
“Soup! Excellent. Love soup.” She bends over the ship’s controls and waggles her fingers sharply, her knuckles pop. “Brain soup, time soup, mind soup,” she mutters.
“You haven’t seen anything, have you Dan?”
“Ohh,” – she crinkles her features up like tissue paper – “just things. Leftover things. Borrowed things. I’ve been making room. Storm kicked up a mess. Dust’s still settling.” Short and disjointed, she lets her phrases hang, and the ship wheezes throatily beneath. She shushes it between breaths, tapping her nails in a drumming rhythm against its counter-top. “Nice cravat,” she says, throwing a quick glance over her shoulder.
Dan decides that she can’t have been talking to him. He reaches up and checks his collar just in case, but finds it plain.
“So… is it okay if I stay here for a bit? At least I’ll be able to find the door.” Dan chuckles, and then keeps on chuckling. It goes on too long and peters off into a grumble, then a cough, then a heady, honey-coloured silence.
The Doctor says nothing, so Dan takes a seat on the stairs.
“Now, where were we?” The Doctor cranes her neck and asks the ceiling. Above, the pilasters are indistinct, weaving in and out of the metal panelling and flashing roundels. Curling around one another, catching the light on all their chipped, jewelled faces.
“There isn’t much time now, it’s fading. I need more time.” She laughs a little at that, low and spiky. “The dark, then the smoke, the grass. But I have a fragment now. I know what it felt like to exist in between.”
Her hair flickers, coils, blackens as if burned. Her body elongates, and grows thicker-set. Her shoulders broaden, and upon them her coat flashes between drab grey and harsh navy. She grows, in a folded instant, then shrivels back to her usual sunken gait. She winces and drags a sharp hand up to her tilting head. “Yes, no room,” she wheezes in tune with the ship, breath expelled through the body within and the room without, unanimously. The central control panel smokes, and a fat drop of its dark blood splats beside the Doctor, and coats her shoe.
“Shoes,” Dan mutters aloud.
The Doctor whispers, “Stop shoving it onto them, you know they don’t like it.” A pause, during which the room buzzes, and the central, yellow crystal slides indignantly down. “Yes, I know you’re not meaning to. It’s all muddled up, no anchoring point. No origin. Sorry Dan.” She turns abruptly, and Dan is surprised that she recalls his presence. “I’m trying to get something sorted in my head. Reverse-engineering pieces of the storm, picking at the residue. It’s all got to do with this Flux business, just have to make the incision. Peel it bare, rearrange things.”
Maybe she’s a surgeon. Her fingers are nimble enough. Dan’s head twinges; no, that wasn’t his thought. The voice that the thought belongs to asks, with his mouth, “Are you okay?”
“Fine!” the Doctor says, stringently cheerful, irritated. “Just a little out of practise.”
“Should I get Yaz?”
“No!” the Doctor shouts, then calms, wrings her hands. “No, she needs to rest.”
The Doctor steadies her palms on the edge of the console and hangs her head. Dan watches the bolt-stripe of her part, where black fades to blonde.
“No, no I can’t do that. No more purges, didn’t I say?” Her shoulders quiver. “How? How can I sort the important from the unimportant?” Her voice rises, edges toward a high, desperate, rasping pitch. “How can I sacrifice a single moment, when they’re all I have? All I am. This meagre collection, against the wealth.” An enormous slop of tar falls and smears her shoulder, streaks her entire arm shiny black. She whispers, “against multitudes.” Her tone slides, from angry to soft. “You must be able to find somewhere. I don’t care how full it is! I don’t care about contingencies. We’re both leaking, eh?” The smile in her voice is wry and sad. “Both breaking apart under the weight.” She poises one black-flecked hand aloft then reaches inside the control panel. A gap in the machinery. Her spine straightens as if shocked through, then curves, her neck cracks as it arches up. The Doctor lets out a trilling sigh, then steadies her feet, tapers her height. “Hmm,” she murmurs. “Yes, shove those back a touch, makes room at the front. Fold them alongside… yes, there. They were only dreams.” The ship’s answering groan rattles Dan’s ribs. “Hmm, those memories are of no use these days, and so unpleasant… they’ve been retconned, yes.”
“Doctor?” Dan asks. His voice is slight, and his vision is blurring.
“What are you doing in there?” One of her arms is submerged up to the forearm in the space below the panelling. Dark flecks spurt up as if from a blocked spout.
Her voice is low, and curt, and faintly Scottish. “Housekeeping. Making room. Hush.”
The world reeks of oil and rust. Dan slumps upon the stairs.
This one will be even weirder than usual if you haven’t read the Great Clown Manual (Lungbarrow)
And I get a bit meta, bc I can’t resist it.
I’m so pumped for tomorrowwwwwww
The Park Hill Estate looms against the mountainside. It’s coloured shutters wind across and back in their serpentine configuration, it’s pale stone walls stalwart and true beneath the hardy winter sun.
Yaz hasn’t been back home in a long time.
As for how long, she isn’t sure. How is she meant to keep track of time as she’s running through it? For a long time now, the TARDIS has been her home, but now old loyalties and a blistering curiosity have driven her right back to her childhood estate. She’s been avoiding this moment for far too long.
Having taken the stairs at a lumber, Yaz hesitates for a moment at the door to her family flat. What will she tell them when they ask her where she’s been? The truth is surely out of the question.
Yaz lets herself in. The flat looks as it always did, which thrusts her headlong into burnished memory, like a good dunk in ice water. She shivers; the last time she was here she was swinging by to grab lunch on her way to the suburban TARDIS for another fruitless day of control cataloguing and crying.
There’s the cramped dining table, the cluttered breakfast bar, her Dad's attempt at dinner cooling to thick grease in the wok on the stovetop. Everything looks slightly too big, but things tend to expand in the dark, where edges blur and trick the mind.
Sonya’s face peers into view, her posture guarded and afraid. “Yaz,” she murmurs.
“Sonya!” Yaz beams, projecting joy enough for the both of them – because Sonya looks sad, her black eyes heavy lidded and smudged grey in the hollows. “How are you?” It seems a pointless question.
“Where have you been!” Sonya cries. Her anger breaks through in one manic burst, upon reconciling reality. Her mouth splits wide and her skin cracks, translucent and faintly blue. “We were waiting for you! We were all waiting for you! Where did you go?”
“I - I,” Yaz falters, and her eyes wander askance toward the windows. They’re boarded up with splintered, mouldering wood. Something scuttles across them, small and stick thin with limbs protruding at odd, sharp angles like a demented, winged rat. “You know” – Yaz forces herself to look Sonya in the bedraggled, depthless eye – “I’ve been around. Travelling, like I said. It can’t have been that long.”
Can’t it? She programmed the descent herself, and the TARDIS has been less than agreeable of late. Sonya says nothing to dispel her fears. Yaz peers either side of Sonya at the dim and musty house. How did she fail to notice it before; the steady march of cockroaches across the splashback carrying morsels of her Dad’s festering meal; the thin white branches growing up the walls, rumpling the plaster where they struggle upwards, and tearing it clear where they burst through? Fungi nestles vibrant and fluffy and tendrilic in the linoleum seams, the ceiling cracks.
“Where are Mum and Dad?” Yaz asks.
“They’ve gone away,” Sonya says dreamily, her gaze wandering up to the knitted canopy of pale branches above, that winds uncaring through the light fixture. More of the black, winged, insectile creatures scrape and chitter within, cradled.
“Just away. Out into the dark. They were tired of waiting, but I stayed. I knew you’d come back someday. You wouldn’t just leave me.”
“Of course I wouldn’t. I promised, didn’t I?” Yaz walks forwards, all the while judging her sister’s guarded, twittering actions, and embraces her warmly. “I promised I wouldn't leave again.”
Sonya wraps her trembling arms around her, sleeves tattered and brown. “I've been trying to hold this place together all on my own,” Sonya sobs into Yaz’s shoulder. A discrepancy between body and voice; her chest is still, her shoulders do not wrack, only her mouth moves, and pushes out choked blubs and wails as if in performance. Like a child. "I've carried the burden – me! Keeping the house while Nani sleeps. She always loved you so dearly, and I've been so lost without you, Yaz. Down here in the dark." The furniture is too big. Yaz didn't notice the extent of it before, at the threshold. Further in the effect is more pronounced; the room appears to yawn around her, to unlock its cinder-block jaw.
The stools at the breakfast bar raise their hackles.
"Open the windows then," Yaz says, trying to inject a little cheer into the situation. "The sky is lovely this time of day." Yes, a creamy shade of honeyed marmalade, spread thick and cloudful above the snow-capped mountain.
“No use, no use,” Sonya mutters. Yaz pulls free of her clasping hands and wanders over to the window by the dining set, elongated as it is, beige and round and elbow height.
The boards over the window are flimsy, shunted at splintered angles against the window, which is also larger than she remembers. Like a child, she approaches the gritty sill, places her fingertips on the ledge and stands on her tip-toes, peering up. Yaz wedges one of the boards free of its lopsided nail fixture with a rending crack and a puff of sawdust. The glass beneath is smashed, and the sky is pewter black. Reaching out, her fingertips brush over rich, damp soil.
"I told you," Sonya wails. "Dark! Dark as the schism! Black as the scrolls!"
"But I was only just outside. It was daylight."
"Oh, daylight. Daylight.” Sonya’s fingers wander across her front in a trailing, dance-like motion, cresting her frail hands up and down in a soothing wave. “I like to lie beneath the chimney chute and look up at the little square of sky. But you must keep a rag over your face. For the soot, and the fish. Candleday," she mutters, and all of a sudden the sconces flare deep red. Black beetles scarper from the blotchy spread of light, spiralling in reams from the wrought iron torches and settling in a circular perimeter further afield.
Sonya looks different; between every blink she grows more decrepit. Taller, paler, thinner, sadder. Her hair grows, like a bristling shoot from the earth, and winds itself in a thick dark braid from nape to floor and up again, as if pinned and plucked by an invisible needle and wound around a bobbin protruding from her spine. It curls and tufts and greys – forms a hermit's shell upon her back, and beneath its weight she hunches, weeps.
Yaz goes to her. “Sonya –”
Her expression is a rigid, carved mask of despair. “Why did you leave?”
“Because she was scared,” says another voice, from beyond the rotting anteroom. Yaz’s childhood friend stands by the hallway entrance with folded arms and an arched, scrutinising brow.
“Ryan!” Yaz beams. “How are you mate?”
“Oh, you know. Alright.” He glares at her from beneath hooded eyes, cheeks sallow and leeched to a deep, cold grey. “We’ve all been here, living great lives.”
“Scared?” asks Sonya. “What do you mean, scared? Yaz left for Special Forces. Mum and Dad were so proud. She was ambitious, Ryan, and there’s no need for bitterness. They said she might make Cardinal someday, isn’t that right?” The roots of Sonya’s hair are turning white.
“Sergeant, yes,” Yaz agrees, and lets the memory of the old want clag bitter below her tongue.
“But you didn’t,” Ryan says. “You ran away, because you were afraid of what would happen when I told them the truth.”
Yaz doesn’t have the patience for this. Already the follies of nostalgia have struck her down, claimed another sentimental fool. She should never have come back here. She rounds on Ryan. “What are you talking about?”
“I saw it. I always knew, but I could never confirm it. Not until I found the records. And before I could speak out, you silenced us. Buried us.”
Yaz chuckles. “You’re being quite dramatic, don’t you think?”
Sonya shakes her head minutely and says, “I won’t have this, not in the house. Not after all this time.” She clamps her hands over her ears and scuttles hunch-backed over to the sofa, torn and bloated with rumpled foam wounds. She switches on the TV in a harsh garble of red and green then begins to scroll through Netflix.
“Why don’t you come in, Yaz? We’ve all been waiting.” Ryan holds out his hand, palm pale and clammy with an odd stench like old knitting. Yaz walks past him and takes the lead herself. She remembers the way.
The hall stretches out as if opening its long arms for an embrace, or a spring trap. The picture frames set between elaborate pilasters right themselves as she passes, standing to attention. Enormous cobwebs hang from the ceiling in intricate, filigree latticework.
They pass a room abrim with cackling laughter. Izzy Flint sneers out from the gap in the door, lets out a fierce, shrieking cry, then slams the door in her face.
There is a man in the hall attempting to apply a thick coat of white paint to the walls. The blockwork itself is stripped in places and shows the blackness behind the house, but the workman doesn’t seem to care. He keeps going over and over the same empty pockets of air, letting the white paste slide from the flat of his trowel blade and cake upon his shoes. Part of Yaz recognises something in his posture, and his blue newsboy cap.
“Dan!” she cries.
As she dashes over to him, Ryan says “I wouldn’t bother him if I were you.”
Dan turns and waves at her, his fingers covered in cracked white plaster. His eyes go wide in delayed recognition.
“Yaz! What are you doing here?”
“What are you doing here?”
“Plastering,” – he casts a bemused glance at the broken wall – “obviously.”
“What is this place? I thought it was my house. It was my house, but –”
“I said,” – Ryan grabs Yaz’s arm and pulls her back – “stay away.”
“Get off me!” Yaz cries. “Dan –” But her voice catches in her throat and slithers back down. Dan’s arm is made of wood and his expression is just as hard. His gaze is piercing, his jaw locked – he drops his tools and reaches forwards. Yaz stumbles back into Ryan.
“It’s alright,” Ryan says to Dan, who seems taller now. Taller than usual. “She’s my guest.” He smirks. “For now.”
“Unhand me,” Yaz mutters, fear quite forgotten. Plastered over. She continues down the hall.
Without being told so, she leads Ryan into her childhood bedroom, only to find it occupied. An old man sits at what was once her desk eating a squished cheese sandwich.
“And where did you get that from, Grandad?” Ryan points accusingly at the sandwich.
“Oh, hello lad.” He beams and peers curiously at Yaz. “Who’s this?”
“The one I was telling you about.”
The old man blanches and goes very still. It occurs to Yaz that she knows him. She would know him, under ordinary circumstances. She recognises his kind face, the creases by his eyes, and the ghost of a fatherly smile in the line of his mouth that now sits flat and frightened.
“Graham?” she says, small and shocked. For a moment the whole room looks wrong. The air tastes of rust and rich, metallic ores, and the mildew of an unfamiliar biological baseline. All of a sudden Yaz is desperately afraid, but angry as well. Bitterness rises up to more than a lump in her throat, hardening to a tangy metal bearing – and she wants to yell at someone, but can’t recall who. A voice says, No! Push it back, not along! They don’t like it!
Ryan is eyeing Yaz with a satisfied little smirk. Knowing, and Yaz hates not knowing when others do. “Shall we play a game, then?” he asks, patronising. “Like old times.”
It would be impolite to refuse, Yaz thinks, and with a curt nod she sits down cross-legged upon the bed. Memories patter soft and downy from a time long past, pressing in upon her lovingly from the scratched, scorched, chalk-stained walls. Scraped knees and bright T-shirts patterned with stars. Make-believe games played running down the halls, and sweet buns baked fresh by Grace.
Waiting patiently upon the blue duvet are the faded frame and bent, bitten cards of their old game of Guess Who. They used to play it together after school.
They set up the game with remembered ease. Yaz recognises most of the faces in the pack from somewhere in the past, or in the future, stretching either side in memory or premonition. Some are strangers. One is simply the lumped shape of a head covered in a thick black cowl.
“You have too many cards, love,” Graham observes, peering over Yaz’s shoulder.
“Unfair, isn’t it,” Ryan mutters. It’s true; he only has thirteen cards. Yaz has many more. Her odds are out of thirteen, whereas his are near impossible.
They exchange decks; Ryan will guess her faces, and she will guess his.
They begin to play.
“Is your person a man?” Ryan asks. Obidiently, approximately half of his infinite cards flick down with a resigned clack.
“I’m not sure that’s quite right,” Yaz mutters.
“House’s rules. The Kithriarch is old fashioned.”
Ah yes, dear old Umbreen. Yaz has missed her deeply. Perhaps the house does play favourites, as an extension of Nani’s mind. Yaz is certainly her’s.
Ryan asks, “Is your person an insufferable tart?” Only a few cards supplicate. “That isn’t nearly enough,” he remarks, and even Yaz is inclined to agree with that.
“Is your person a God?” The black-shrouded face bows its head in baleful surrender.
“Wait,” Yaz cries, “don’t I get to ask a question?”
“She does get to ask a question, son,” Graham says amicably, his mouth full of stale bread. He seems to have pulled a new sandwich out of one of his coat pockets.
“She gave me too many cards!”
“That she did.” Graham nods sagely.
“One more then,” Ryan says. His expression is knotted up in intense, broiling hatred. “Was your person the quiet sort in the school yard? Did she sit on the benches beside the playground all alone, and brood like a grumpy little cat? Was she distant? Was she wise and shy and widely disliked? Did she contradict what the teachers said at every turn? Was she different? Was she special?”
Yaz let’s put a cruel laugh. What a waste of a great many questions. None of his cards go down.
“Ah, lad, I don’t reckon that’s how the game works,” says Graham.
The board changes. No, the board always looked this way; a checkerboard, only with more squares, and existing in more dimensions. Cuboids and tilted prisms spin and merge and split.
Yaz takes her turn and rolls a six.
“And here as well,” Ryan grumbles. “The house plays favourites.” Yaz moves her counters to surround his brutish attack formation.
“Why all this obfuscation?” Yaz asks him coldly as he takes his turn. “Tell me outright. What do you think you know?”
“Oh, I know I know.” He makes a surprisingly smart move. Underhanded, very scabby. That’s alright, it’s her favourite style of play. Passive aggressive. “
Ryan sneers. “You aren’t one of us, not really. You’re something else now.”
Yaz does not deign his theatrics with a response.
They play back and forth and do not speak. It is almost enjoyable. Naturally, Yaz wins in just a few turns by pushing Ryan’s Chapterhouse counters into a shameful retreat before dealing the final blow. Some say that the game is random, but those people are sore losers. There is a subtle art to manipulating chance.
Upon her victory the game board cracks apart into many-faced, three-dimensional shards. A pane of glass – and like the window in the front room it bears out onto blackness, the oceanic swirl of the duvet compressed to pleated folds either side. Yaz keeps her counters afloat in the void, but Ryan breaks concentration by fiddling with something in his lap. The red chips clatter down into the house’s stomach.
“Eyy, Sepulcasm!” Graham cheers.
“I win.” Yaz grins wickedly.
But Ryan holds one of the shattered slabs of the board between his grey fingers, and lurches forwards, nicking Yaz on the arm with its chiselled edge.
“Hey!” she cries. Her hand flies to the entry point, blotting the welling blood with a fingertip.
“Look, see! The colour is all wrong!” Ryan exclaims. He’s right; it is not red. The blood seeps under her fingernail in a line of rusty brown. An evening sky orange.
“But that isn’t right,” she whispers.
“Oi, oi, now that’s definitely against the rules,” Graham tries to take the shard from Ryan’s hand.
Ryan ignores him and grabs Yaz’s wrist, pressing his fingers to her pulmonary artery. “There, feel that? One, two, three, four,” he punctates each beat with a finger snap.
“Stop!” Yaz yanks her hand away. And when a distant, buried part of herself stares into Ryan’s eyes, and the malice there, it recoils. He would never hurt her like this, never yell. But anger overtakes – the fury of the role she is playing. The ghost in its future says, Hang tight, I can see it now. The outline, from the scattered pieces. Just a little longer, and we can take it back.
“Can’t you see what you’ve become?” Ryan glowers.
“What are you prattling about, you fool? I am your friend!” The cut on her arm has already healed over to a faint, orange line.
“No! You left us. Left your parents and your sister. Left Graham and me. Left the world! I don’t know who you are anymore.”
“I haven’t changed, Ryan.” The name sounds wrong; sour and pungent like rotting citrus. “I didn’t mean to be away for so long.”
He talks over her. “You don’t belong out there, but now you don’t belong here either. Caught somewhere between Space and Time. The very first creature of Heresy.”
“Yaz,” a small voice says from the doorway. Sonya. She looks almost like herself again. “What is he talking about?”
Yaz stammers, the words clog. Beyond the scope of her dream.
“You don’t even know,” Ryan says. He taps along to the heartbeat of four against his thigh. The gap in the bedclothes still yawns, and in its depths, in the foundations, purple light conspires, thick and searing. Yaz tears her eyes away, only to fall upon Ryan’s, just as black.
“Do you know what I think, Yaz? I don’t think you’re anything. You are a mirror, like the looking glass through which the Housekeeper watches all. Did you never wonder why you change so much? Why you morph to fit the people around you? It’s because you’re hollow, Yaz, as hollow as the house. You copy, that’s all.”
The voice in her mind that is not her own – the slivered part of a whole, fragmented consciousness – sees things more clearly. Muddled, muddied. It wasn’t like this at all. It’s mixed up, and pushed down. Pulled apart. Dissected. Remade.
“Rewound,” Yaz mutters aloud.
“Yaz?” Sonya pleads, voice cracking.
“I swear to you, I don’t know what he means!”
“Look at your hands,” Ryan says boredly.
Palms up, Yaz surveys them. Beneath the creases in her skin, clung to with red sand, her skin glows faintly gold. A hum starts up, which fizzles out to a whine; careens, whistles to the tune of a song faintly remembered. Graham mutters it loosely, gravelled and low. “Eighth man bound, make no sound.”
The voice within joins, and mutters boredly along from Yaz’s mouth. “The shroud covers all. The long and the short.”
And Yaz sings in tandem, in a haunting playground chime, as the flames lick out from palms to fingers, and along the veins in her wrist. “And the old and the loud, and the young and the dark, and the tall.”
Sonya is crying. “You’re not my sister.”
“Of course I am,” Yaz says, though she isn’t sure that the words escape her burning throat.
“No,” Ryan says. “She’s beyond that now. All that Time, and now what are you? Falling through.”
Sonya croons. “Alone in the dark.”
Yaz screams as the light reaches her hearts.
And she remembers at that moment the first time she left the house. The first real time; with purpose and malcontent and the selfish urge for more. The furniture snapped at her heels as she ran out into the black night beneath the mountain. In the square outside the vast estate, a blue box was waiting. Inside she found a dark and outstretched hand. It was waiting for her, and had been for a long time; the placeholder, the new form of an old, beloved thing. Loyal companion. It was so excited to see her. Dearest friend, dearest pet. They met in mutual recognition.
One, the blueprint of all the best qualities of her race; curious, kind (rebooting, regenerating). The other, its creation, through the looking glass.
The hand they made, and that made them in turn – shaped their history from the sidelines by reaching in, rearranging. That tore stars and worlds asunder just to save their measly planet. Yaz sees it from above, and feels its tilt; glorious red, and pitiful blue. Who created who?
The hand told her to run, that it had something to show her. Curious and bored and scared all at once, Yaz reached into the dark and took it.
Her mouth is still open when she wakes up. The sound is dead but her jaw is tensed, tendons still straining with the effort of the sound. Her throat hurts. Yaz checks her pulse, and finds it singular. She is standing up and her arm is outstretched.
Her body must have walked itself from her bespoke, blue spatial pocket back toward the ship proper. Her boots are slick with viscous black, which behind her stains the corridor with a meandering track of footprints, zig-zagging across the tilted floor.
The lights before her blare gold and warm as flame. The console room. It is still lopsided, still shifting and curling its knotted mechanisms in her peripheral as soon as her focus slips away. There is a stranger standing at the controls.
An imposing figure in a crisp, navy coat. Flayed, crimped sleeves hang orange and green and pink over brown fingers ringed with bands of gold. A black jewel sits gaudy and silver-framed on their index. Black, coiled hair fades to harsh red.
“Doctor?” Yaz asks, but her voice comes out choked. Her chest aches and her mouth is dry, and she recalls running through a long hallway, pursued by wooden creatures. The woman at the console turns, and for an instant Yaz recognises her: Ruth, her face framed with lime green spectacles. She glares down her nose stoic and impressive – and Yaz recognises the previously half-believed truth plainly in the confident line of her shoulders, the black gleam in her eyes.
“What the hell are you doing here?” The Doctor says.
“I – where’s…”
The Doctor’s expression dismantles – the calm, striking authority unmaking itself stone by stone. She tilts her spectacles down and peers at Yaz closely.
“Yaz,” she whispers, then her expression falls in earnest. Like a vast house, crumbling under the force of an avalanche, her features are buried, swallowed up, slathered over by pale snow. Dark wood under sleet.
Sallow, milk-coloured skin; her posture sinks, shoulders jut beneath a coat now drab and steel grey. The Doctor teeters dangerously toward the floor, and her bones clack, as if held loosely and jumbled by their encompassing skin. Hunched over, the Doctor is breathing very fast.
“I had it!” she hisses, and up come her hands; splayed and turning. “I placed the regenerative print in my own Time-stream, I got it free.” Her head rears upon her thin and vein-scarred neck, gaze landing upon Yaz. Her jaw is clamped and tremoring. “I had it!” she shouts. “Why did you ruin it!”
“No, no, I can’t,” she mutters, spinning her hands up around her head as if to cradle, or cower. And yells again; “I said lead them away!” She kicks out against the console, and a black droplet spatters up to spot her pointed chin.
Caught between wanting to hold her and wanting to shake her, Yaz dashes forwards and holds her arms awkwardly aloft. “Stop it! Just stop!”
The Doctor swipes Yaz’s searching hands away and snarls, “No! I won’t stop! You don’t understand! You can’t understand.” Her expression snaps then, voice cracks, despair peers through. Yaz tries her very best to sympathise, if only to prove her dreams wrong. Yes, her pulse beats a steady single drum, but what if she is changing in other ways? What if she is becoming just as bitter, and jaded, and cruel?
A human grumbles somewhere by her feet. Dan is slumped over at the base of the stairs, head pressed against the bottom step and hand gripped white-knuckled upon the railing. Plaster-speckled and stiff as wood.
Yaz leaves the Doctor to her ruminations, forearms steady on the console-ledge, and lank hair hanging down, faceless.
Dan coughs as he pulls himself up into a sitting position.
“You okay?” Yaz asks, knowing that he isn’t, and that she can’t be looking much better; dark-lidded eyes, drawn cheeks, drying sweat aglisten on their brows.
“Oh, hi Yaz. I’ve just been having a bit of a kip. Not so comfy, but I couldn’t find the bedrooms.”
Maybe this is the sort of human that the Doctor prefers. The sort that comes up with convenient, ridiculous cover-ups all on his own. Too stupid and agreeable to ask difficult questions
Cruel, she reminds herself, and keeps her back to the Doctor, in case it’s catching. The memories are, so why not the rest? Dan’s only new, and Yaz was as well, once upon a time. It’s easy to forget the way that things once were; the awestruck eyes, the sunbeam grins, and the hapless, askless following. All her self-assured excuses.
“Here, take my hand,” Yaz says, offering her arm to Dan. He looks up at her with uncertainty, creasing the skin on his high and noble brow. He’s a good sort, and Yaz wants him to trust her. She’ll have to work to be worthy of it, given what he’s experienced so far. He’s come in at a difficult time, that’s all. The end of the universe, in fact. All Yaz had to do was stop a teeth-covered blue alien from ripping a crane operator’s jaw open.
Yaz injects as much patience into her tone as she can muster, if only to prove to the Doctor that she can, easily.
“Up you get Dan,” she huffs, as she tugs him to his feet.
“Ah, yes. Dan!” the Doctor spins to face them and almost trips over her feet. Her smile is wide to the point of mania.“Hello. Nice rest?” She barrels on without breath. “Good. Brilliant. I’m still a bit busy here.” She leans back against the ledge a touch too far; less of a casual lounge, more of a slow collapse. There is an uncomfortable squelch as her elbow slides back into a pile of congealing black gunk. She seems to have smeared some through her hairline. The Doctor grins impatiently. “Go on then. Yaz can show you the bedrooms.”
“Oh, can she now?” Yaz snaps.
The Doctor’s expression darkens. “We can discuss it later.” Her tone is hollow, faintly whistling like air through old wooden rafters.
“Later, right.” Yaz swallows a shout, and only mutters, petulant, “I’ll be waiting. I always do.”
“Yaz,” she cautions, sharp. “Don’t be unfair.”
A heavy silence follows, in which they both avert their eyes.
“Well, well, well, I’m sensing some tension in here,” Dan drawls.
“Leave it, Dan!” Yaz blurts out. So much for patience. She softens her tone with mechanical precision. “Just, come on back now. Let’s go find the bedrooms.” She takes his arm tightly, and Dan looks down at her, a little bemused.
“You know, I’m not actually tired.”
“Just let her work,” Yaz whispers, but makes sure to put enough force behind it for the Doctor to catch it as well. “When she gets like this, you’d best stay out of the way until she calms down.”
“Right.” Dan eyes the Doctor warily.
The Doctor states daggers at Yaz’s back, but when she turns, the Doctor pretends to be preoccupied, hands flying up to palm the leaking console.
As they leave the console room, the path now resolutely straight and short, as if to ease their outward passage, the temperature drops again. Trickles down, then tumbles, like an avalanche.
“Bit nippy,” Dan puffs. Yaz will have to break into the wardrobe pavilion and grab one of her old coats. When Yaz doesn’t reply, Dan asks, “is she always like this?” and jabs a thumb over his shoulder to indicate the room behind, already shrinking off to a russet window in the distance, though they are standing still.
“She’s brilliant,” Yaz says coldly, and kneads what little warmth she can generate through her palms. No fire there now, and the blood that rises in her cheeks and her numbing nose is only red. But there is fire of a different sort broiling in her chest, and fear of the same – who is she now? And who will she be, once she puzzles it out?
Both of them, mirrors. Leeches, repeaters; interference through an echoed microphone, bouncing back and forth and growing to a rending, whining, awful pitch. Their anger only compounds.
She says, to the young girl sitting across from her, with neat twin buns and a bright T-shirt and a pretty smile, “look what Time did to you.”
It is not her own voice. It is clipped and ratty and Scottish.
The girl replies, and beams with pride, “Look what you did to Time.”
“What are you looking at?” asks Dan.
“Nothing,” Yaz replies, and meets his cautious glare with a flimsy smile.
“Are you okay?”
She sighs, and leads on. “I’m fine.”