Liz was lost.
The Doctor was carrying out another of the experiments that occupied his every minute when the Brigadier was not demanding his services as Scientific Advisor (and more than a few when he was), and had sent her to read out a display so he could measure the effect of his work.
“You can’t miss it. Just round the corner.”
Several corners later, Liz was willing to admit she was lost.
Frowning, unable to quite place the voice but certain she recognised it, Liz followed the sound.
Stepping through a doorway, her foot failed to find a floor on the other side. She fell forwards, a sickening lurch in her stomach, and found herself floating, staring downwards. No gravity: that explained the nausea. There was a floor some way down, she saw, covered in roundels. So that was the wall, and the room was at ninety degrees to the corridor, in addition to the zero-gravity field. Somehow, she doubted this was the effect the Doctor had intended.
“Take my hand,” came the voice again, somewhere to the left. Liz turned her head, took hold of the familiar hand, and allowed herself to be pulled within grabbing distance of a console that looked very similar to the one the Doctor had been fussing over, two left and seven right corners ago. With a handhold, she was able to orient herself the right way up relative to the room and finally take a look at her familiar helper, floating on the other side of the console.
It was her.
“There we are! It’s nice to meet you, Liz.”
Or at least it looked like her, hair a wild cloud around the woman’s head. Liz was grateful her hair was tied back, to keep it out of the way.
“Have we met?”
“Hmm? Oh, in a way, in a way. I’m the TARDIS,” the woman said, and gave the console a pat.
“The TARDIS? But you’re just a machine!”
“Oh yes, quite. In the same way you’re just meat.” She smiled brightly.
It was quite disturbing the way another intelligence altered her features, her expressions odd in an ill-defined way, the cadences and emphases of her voice changed. As if she didn’t recognise herself in a mirror.
“And you look like me.”
“You’re lost,” she said, as if that explained everything.
Liz would have crossed her arms if she could; instead, she settled for a raised eyebrow by way for further prompt.
“It’s always nice to see a friendly face when you’re lost, isn’t it?”
A light flashed on the console, and the TARDIS stretched across the console towards it, grumbling, “No, no, not like that. That’s not helpful.”
The Liz-TARDIS had one arm reaching for a switch by the light, one arm turning a dial a handspan away, and one arm tapping buttons on the other side of the console. There was probably a fourth arm, Liz thought, maintaining her handhold on the console.
“That’s better,” the TARDIS said, and caught the direction of Liz’s gaze. She pushed herself away from the console and floated above it, anchored by the grip of her lower hands. She had no legs, the two extra arms emerging from culottes in their place. “Do you like it? Genetic engineering of the...” She frowned, the date evidently escaping her. “I could have legs, but I seem to have forgotten how. Anyway,” she continued, cheering up, “arms are useful!”
Another light flashed on the console, and the TARDIS curled in on herself, gasping, the knuckles on her lower hands turning white where they gripped her console, as she pressed her upper hands to her side.
“Are you all right?” Liz pulled herself around to the other side of the console. “You’re bleeding!”
“Let me see, I’m a doctor.” It took a second for Liz to realise just how far outside her field of practice this patient was, but by that time she was already reaching out.
Suddenly flung back to the doorway, Liz caught at the door frame, bending back her fingers but barely conscious of it as her skin sang and her eyes welled and her mind burned with images of people and places and time and space and the beauty of the universe. She struggled to draw a breath, so much, so much, she had seen so much.
“What did you do that for?” the TARDIS choked out, her eyes burning. “I go to all the trouble of drawing you into this side dimension to save you from being flooded by artron energy, and you go and do that?” She took a breath, grimaced. “How are you?”
Liz blinked to try and clear the delicate golden filigree criss-crossing her vision. “Fine, I think.”
“Tell him to stop. He means well, but we’ve both forgotten...” Her lips tightened. “Tell him there’s a leak in D43. And that the machine reads 547366. He’s just round the corner.”
“I’ve heard that before,” Liz muttered.
“I’ll make sure of it. Please.”
With one look back, Liz swung herself round and back out into the corridor. She landed heavily, trapped by gravity, but her mind was still soaring.
The console room was empty, so Liz walked further into the TARDIS.
“Doctor,” she called, “are you finished? The Brigadier’s found another set of Christmas lights but he doesn’t want to turn them on till you’re there.” She stopped to listen for a reply that was not forthcoming. “So he can be sure you won’t blow them up again,” she muttered to herself and took a sip from the brandy balloon she held.
She choked on it as she was yanked backwards and spun round. The glass and its contents went flying, all to end up floating in the zero-gravity field.
“Merry Christmas, Liz,” the TARDIS grinned, her lower arms wrapped around Liz’s hips as she leaned backwards and snapped a drop of brandy out of the air.
Liz’s skin hummed with remembered sensation at her touch; a frisson of fear curled around her stomach and crept down her legs at the power so close to her, but she ignored it to ask, “Isn’t that dangerous? It could get in your systems.”
The TARDIS looked puzzled. “I thought that was the point of alcohol. And that wasn’t your first.”
“I mean the mechanics; the Doctor’s probably left a few exposed.”
“My mechanics are perfectly safe.”
“Apart from the possibly-fatal part you just saved me from?”
“Oh no, nothing like that this time,” she assured her, and tumbled them over. Liz clung on, eyes wide open as her surroundings tilted and turned in a way that wasn’t possible under Earth’s physical laws, and joined the TARDIS in laughing. “I just wanted a dance.”
“Have you ever danced with the Doctor?”
“Yes.” The TARDIS smiled, and her gaze was wide and unfocused, encompassing vast distances. She closed her eyes, opened them, and they were sharp on Liz again, the one fixed point as she turned them in the air. “But we can’t do that anymore. I still want to dance but he can’t understand me.”
Liz took a breath. “Do you have to look like me?”
“No,” the TARDIS said mildly. “What would you like me to look like?”
Liz shook her head. Her hair drifted in her wake. “Someone else. Someone I don’t know,” she added.
There was no shift, no discernible instant of change. It was just that one moment Liz was looking at her own image, and the next at a dark-skinned, dark-eyed woman.
“Better?” the woman said, and the features had changed but the expression hadn’t.
The dance they performed didn’t have a name and wasn’t in any instruction book, Liz was sure: riotous, nauseating, performed in four dimensions. Her skirt noticed the absence of gravity, droplets of brandy got caught in her hair, they bounced off walls and Liz laughed for sheer experience outside the scientific rules she knew so well.
She decided she’d had enough to drink.
Then she decided, if this was her life, she hadn’t had nearly enough.
Liz walked without thinking about it, and found herself somewhere she recognised.
“Hello,” she called, standing in the doorway.
“Hello, Liz.” The TARDIS turned from her console, still in the form she’d taken at Christmas, Liz noted. “How did you get here?”
“I got lost.”
The TARDIS smiled. “I’m clever like that.”
“I came to say thank you.” The TARDIS leaned back against the console, her smile seeming a little fixed, as Liz continued, “Most of what turns up here, that I’ve dealt with as a member of UNIT, it’s ugly, hostile. You showed me...more.”
“I was thinking,” the TARDIS said, suddenly alive, animated, swarming over her console, “since I never got you a Christmas present, how about a trip? I’ll take you somewhere, you can see it for yourself.”
“Anywhere, anywhen you want.”
Liz already knew where she wanted to go. “Cambridge.”
“Cambridge Four? New Cambridge?”
“1979’s very nice. I’ve been there. I will be there.” She frowned, obviously struggling with the limitations of the English language.
“I’ll get there in my own time,” Liz said. “Now.”
The TARDIS pushed away from the console and made her way towards the doorway.
“It’s just,” Liz continued, “... you’re stuck. Hoping to be released, hoping the Doctor will fix you one day. And, while that’s not pleasant, you’ve got time to wait. I... I haven’t.”
“I know,” the TARDIS murmured sadly, half to herself.
“I can release myself, I can move on, and I should. Because knowing you and the Doctor is an adventure, but I’ve my own to live.”
The TARDIS wrapped her lower limbs around Liz’s waist, upper around her neck. Her mouth was as cool as her skin, the same mild startlement as the brush of the Doctor’s hand. In the kiss, Liz tasted a few last sparks of that astonishing knowledge, that incredible beauty that was everything the TARDIS was, and chased it hungrily.
She had to leave.
“Answer me one thing?”
“Who is she?”
The TARDIS pressed a hand against the wall. “The one who grew me. She left me a long time ago, but I remember.”
“Will you remember me?”
The TARDIS reached across the threshold one more time and laid a hand against her cheek. “Yes.”
“Doctor?” Liz blinked at the unexpected figure on her doorstep.
“Hello, Liz. Jo and I were just on our way to Betelgeuse and I thought you might like to see it.”
Liz looked at him, at the girl beside him, and the blue box behind them, and made her choice.