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—"All You Doctors"—

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I know where I came from—but where did all you zombies come from?

The Citadel, Wild Endeavor, Gallifrey, Kasterborus: 5681.44 RE

I found Ace in the TARDIS bar, as I knew I would. The serving 'bot was bringing her another rum and coke. The little robot was a bit of a shambling wreck—scrap electronics held together by string, gum, and hope—and I hadn't much liked the looks of it even when I'd first made it three or four lifetimes ago. Still, it did what it had been made for and did it well—and that was what mattered, not outside appearances.

"If it helps," I said, taking my seat on the stool next to her, "I also ran away when they showed it to me." I set my hat down on the bar.

Ace snorted. "Bet you didn't run away into a bottle." I didn't say anything. After a moment, Ace sighed. "I'm really going to have to go to school with them, aren't I? I'm old enough to be their mum!"

I shrugged. "You're hardly old enough to be their mothers."

Ace glared at me. "You know that's not what I meant, Professor."

"Yes," I said. "I know." My fingers traced figure eights in the liquid on the bar: moebius patterns. "I thought you wanted the Academy."

Ace stared morosely at her glass. "I didn't think it would be like this. Half the planet calling me a damn dirty ape—while the other half thinks I'm a particularly clever performing monkey, that they can dress me up and pat me on the head and I'm almost like a tiny person. I got stared at less when I was up the duff!" She turned red then, as much from the unwanted confession as from the drink.

I said nothing. What was there to say? I knew, of course, but if telling her that would only make her feel as if I'd violated her privacy. And while I could have lied—and I have been a liar many times over in my long life—I didn't particularly want to lie to Ace.

"Gordon Bennett, Professor," she snapped. "Say something."

I looked into her eyes. "I didn't think you'd want to talk about it."

"I don't," said Ace, fiercely. Then she sighed. "I was fourteen. It was the summer after Manisha died. A boy moved in a few houses down. We used to meet in the cellar of his house down where it was cool and listen to music on my boom box. Eventually... well. You can guess. He left town soon after. The last time I saw him he gave me his jacket. I hadn't figured out yet what else he'd given me."

She gulped down the rest of her drink. The serving 'bot hurried over to bring her a new one. "I suppose I could have got an abortion. I thought about it at first. I kept going to school as long as I could, but when I started to really show they didn't want me there anymore. Mum was livid. I didn't care. I loved my baby, even though I didn't know her. I still love her, wherever the hell she is now."

For a minute or so, Ace didn't say anything. I waited. "Giving birth... was hard. They let me hold my daughter for a few minutes, but then they took her away from me. They said I needed to rest. I slept for more than a day. When I woke up she was gone. Mum told me that a man had come and taken her, that he'd claimed to be the father. I knew she was lying. She'd probably arrange to have my daughter adopted out months in advance. Anyhow, Mum lobbied the school until they let me back in. It didn't matter. Everyone knew. A few years later I blew up the art room and they threw me out again. Then the Time Storm happened and you happened, Professor. And everything else."

"And everything else," I echoed, putting my hand on her shoulder. She looked up at me. I could see the pain in her eyes. Knew it, just as I knew her: far, far better than she could yet imagine.

And then the serving bot started to sing:

"Many, many years ago when I was twenty-three
I was married to a widow who was pretty as could be.
This widow had a grown-up daughter who had hair of red.
My father fell in love with her and soon they, too, were wed..."

"You," I said, turning to face the robot. "Quiet." What had my prior self been thinking, teaching it that song?

Ace, however, was grinning. "Oh, let it be, Professor. It's the first good laugh I've had all day."

"I hate that song," I muttered.

Ace snickered. "As much as burnt toast? Bus stations?"

"Live as long as I have," I said, "and there'll be plenty of things that you're sick of."

"Will I?" asked Ace. "That's another thing I worry about. Keeling over from a heart attack before I've even taken my Alpha Levels, or whatever you call them. The woman from the Academy told me that it takes the better half of a century to get even the simplest degree."

I folded my hands under my chin. "What if you didn't have to worry about that? What if you could go to the Academy as just another student: not as the Lone Human being held up as an Example, but one of them?"

"That would be brilliant," said Ace, "but it's not like you can just turn me into a Time Lord." She frowned. "Can you?"

In The Vortex: Traveling Backwards

"I think that went quite well, don't you?"

Ace glared at me. I couldn't blame him.

I'd explained what I was doing as a sort of blood-transfusion of Time Lordliness, which it was, at least in the sense that it really wasn't at all and the blood-transfusion was a convenient metaphor for explaining something infinitely more complicated to a mind which, due to circumstances of birth, might have been able to comprehend concepts most humans had trouble with, but as yet could not see the universe as I do.

I'd glossed over the side effects as well. It was necessary.

To my knowledge there has only been one successful Time Lord/human metacrisis, depending on your definition of success, and it has to be said that there were special circumstances in this case.

"I can't believe you turned me into a bloke," Ace muttered.

I very politely didn't mention that at least his head hadn't exploded.

Perivale, Ealing, London, Great Britain, Earth: June, 1984 CE

"I know this place," Ace said, frowning. "I've been here before. I just don't remember when."

The TARDIS had landed in an attic. It was too close to the circumstances of Gabriel Chase for my own comfort. Too close for Ace's as well, I knew.

"I expect it was when you were a girl," I said in a quiet voice.

Ace snorted. "Considering that was as recent as yesterday..."

"You haven't bothered to look at yourself since you changed," I said lightly. "Have you?"

"Should I have?" There was something very stiff, very tight about the way he held himself. I knew he was still furious with me. I didn't blame him.

"It's generally traditional to," I said. I pointed to a tall shape underneath a dustcover. "Look, there's a mirror."

Ace snorted again, but he walked over and pulled off the sheet. He stood there, looking at himself, and I fancied I could see his mind make the connections.

"Oh," he said softly.

I put my hand on his shoulder. "I think you know where we are, now. And when."

He swallowed hard, then nodded. "I never told you... I named myself Ace after him."

"I knew."

Perivale, Ealing, London, Great Britain, Earth: May, 1985 CE

I'd left Ace in the attic room. Eventually he'd wander downstairs and find the money I'd left for him. I'd arranged a few years back for the rent and the utilities to be paid. I knew he'd be able to handle the rest.

A short eleven-month hop forward took me to the hospital where Dorothy McShane had given birth. It was easier than I expected it to be to persuade Audrey that I was the father. Less easy to to persuade her not to press charges, until I promised to take the child away so Dorothy could live her life without the burden of teen motherhood. She was less hostile, then, though she glared daggers at me as I stroked Dorothy's—Ace's—sleeping cheek. She looked so young. I'd forgotten how it was to be so young.

I had a lined basket for Ace's daughter to sleep in. It would do until I got her to where I was taking her.

Perivale, Ealing, London, Great Britain, Earth: April, 1970 CE

Audrey had given birth in the same hospital her daughter had. It made for a certain amount of symmetry. I'd prepared my false identification ahead of time and it was fairly simple to gain entrance to the maternity wing as a visiting physician.

The baby-switch went off without a hitch.

Audrey McShane wasn't a bad mother, I knew. Not in the grand scheme of things. Quite strict and set in her ways, of course, and a bit of a snob as well—she'd worked hard to lose her own working-class accent and harder still to keep her daughter from developing one—but more than anything, she wanted Ace to have a better life than she'd had. Ace had grown to hate her in time, but perhaps that had been inevitable. What she'd wanted for Ace and what Ace had wanted for herself had been diametrically opposite.

But Audrey had never beaten Ace and she payed her daughter's school fees and there'd always been food on the table and new clothes when the old ones wore out, even after Ace's father walked out on them.

That didn't stop me from feeling guilty as I left the hospital with the baby she'd born.

Millwall, Tower Hamlets, London, Great Britain, Earth: July, 1949 CE

I'd chosen the orphanage that I took Audrey's daughter to not so much because of the time or location, but because Mel and I had once saved the children there from what amounted to an under-the-bed monster from the Andromeda Galaxy and I knew the matron would do her best to see that little Dorothea would find a loving home. In fact, she confided in me, a young couple from Spitalfields had an appointment with her the very next day and she knew for a fact they were looking for a girl.

It would have to do.

Perivale, Ealing, London, Great Britain, Earth: August, 1984 CE

I found Ace waiting for me in the attic. He wasn't wearing his jacket.

"You're back," he said quietly.

"Yes," I said. "I am."

"I think I understand," Ace said quietly. "About... him. I think, maybe, I even understand what happened to my daughter. That's what you were doing while you were gone, wasn't it?"

"In a manner of speaking," I said, quietly. "I found her a good home."

"There's something I don't understand, though," Ace said. "If he gave me the jacket—if I gave that jacket to myself—if I'm always giving it to myself to give to myself later on—if ultimately it comes from nowhere, if it never existed outside my possession, how can it even exist at all?"

"The word you're looking for," I said, "is 'ontological paradox' and about the only thing you can do is to try to close them."

Ace gave me a thoughtful look. "You speak from experience, don't you?"

I shrugged and leaned on my umbrella. "I still need to teach you how to be a Time Lord. How would you feel about a trip back to the Time of Rassilon and Omega?"

Ace frowned. "I don't know, Professor. Do I have a choice?"

"Oh Ace," I lied, "there's always a choice."

The Citadel, Wild Endeavor, Gallifrey, Kasterborus: 4706.35 RE

"It's odd," Ace said, quietly, as we climbed the Academy steps together, "seeing it as a full-grown city after being there when it was nothing more than a very well-fortified castle."

"I know," I said, softly. "It'll be even more strange during your history lessons."

"Well," Ace said, "at least I won't have to worry about failing those."

I said nothing. Ace would find out about the more dogmatic members of the faculty soon enough.

"I didn't think they'd let me in," he said after a moment. "Not here and now, not centuries before President Romana will even be born."

"Don't be silly," I said. "You're a Time Lord. As much of one as I am and they let me in, didn't they?"

Ace snorted. "That's what you claim." His expression softened. "You said this is when you went to school. Will I see you there, Professor?"

I closed my eyes. "Oh, Ace," I said, "you'll see me every day."

When we reached the doors, I didn't tell him goodbye. I've never liked goodbyes—neither of us have.

"Go forward," I whispered, "in all your beliefs."

Planting the adolescent TARDIS coral in a dark corner of the repairs section of the Citadel's docking bay in order that it would be there full-grown four-hundred years later was almost an afterthought.

It was quiet when I returned to the TARDIS.

In The Vortex: Sideways through time

There was a soft pinging sound, telling me the TARDIS had received an electronic message. It was from Ace, dated five years after I'd left him at the Academy. I sat down on my arm chair to listen.

He was doing fine, he said, and he was enjoying the Academy as much as he'd ever enjoyed school. He'd even made friends: a boy and girl who'd both started late at the academy as well—the boy because of illness and the girl because of her parents' field studies. Even his friends, though, found him a bit odd: half-ancient and half-alien. He was thinking of taking another name. Ace didn't really suit him anymore and no one called him that these days anyway. A change might do him good.

A change, I thought, might do me good as well.

I went to the wardrobe, found a red brocade waistcoat. After three lives, I was so terribly sick of question marks. It was a relief to toss the old one aside. A relief to know I wouldn't need it anymore.

There was a shaving mirror on the table. I used it as I combed my hair. Around me, the TARDIS reconfigured herself. High Gothic, I thought. I'd been wanting to try that one out, even moreso than the Coral.

I put my coat back on. The letter in my breastpocket from Romana was still there. It seemed that the Master had gotten into some trouble with the Daleks while pretending to be me. She was hoping I could retrieve him—or at least his remains. I thought about extending my Time Lord consciousness to see if I could still feel his presence in the universe, then decided against it. I didn't want to know yet.

It was done. Finished. Everything put into place. The masterplan of all my plans, all my schemes. The ouroboros biting its tail: the self-repeating loop of my existence. I used to wonder how the Professor kept so many balls in the air. Now I know.

But you were never really there, were you, Professor? You—all you Doctors—were an illusion, a dream, a fantasy I breathed into life. It's always just been me, Ace, alone in the dark.

I miss you so much!