The whole town was surrounded by mountains. It was as if it was set inside some great moon crater, but the sky above was blue, the people more or less oblivious to the life that they used to lead.
They weren’t real people, of course, they were merely echoes of Time Lord incarnations long gone. Regeneration. Food for the Swytch.
Except something had happened in the Nest. Something miraculous. Helenia had fought against them and convinced the town to rise up against the Swytch. They had succeeded. The Swytch had been banished to the caverns. Every now and again one or two would escape, but Helenia’s people were always there to fight them off.
But the cost of living here was high. The echoes forgot who they were and slipped into a normal way of life. Sometimes they forgot completely.
Helenia had made a decision a long time ago that it was a waste of time trying to make them remember. Even she forgot sometimes, but living so close to the Source had kept her mind focused.
He parked up his bike beside a white-brick house and climbed the steps to the front door. He knocked on the door and Helenia opened up, standing there in a green cardigan, her hair tied back into a bun and wearing face cream.
“Reikon,” she said, with half a smile.
“Can I come in?” said Reikon.
Helenia frowned. “Will a woman never get time off?”
He frowned as she stepped aside and let him in. The room was spacious with a door leading off to the left, which in turn led to other areas of the house. There was a dividing section that led to a small dining area which was connected to an open-plan kitchen. On the cooker a pan of gravy was bubbling.
Reikon sniffed the air. He had sampled Helenia’s cooking before - many had - and he always enjoyed his visits here.
“You’ll have to excuse the face cream,” she said, crossing to the pot and stirring it. “I have to try and look my best now I’m getting old.”
“Is it true?” said Reikon, sitting at the dining table, arms folded.
“Is what true?” said Helenia, refusing to meet his look.
“That you sent one of the Doctors back?”
Helenia continued to stir, but didn’t reply.
“Because you know how dangerous that could be,” he said. “You know that any break through could cause the Swytch to capitalise.”
“Oh, rubbish,” said Helenia. “You know, despite the little community I’ve built up here, I’ve always wanted to help you find a way out.”
“But risking the integrity of this place, just for myself-”
“There’s Caleb to think of too,” said Helenia. “Do not forget him.”
“How could I?” said Reikon, quiet fury behind his eyes. He shook his head. “The point is that you don’t intend to leave this place. You’ve made a community of ghosts here and you need to continue to survive, don’t you?”
“And we will,” she said, tipping a bowl of cut carrots and broccoli into the gravy. “The opening back to your world was such a small opening and that particular echo of the Doctor gladly went back after I’d reminded him of who he was.”
“But what happens when Koschei - sorry, the Master - blows a big whole into the world. What happens then?”
She frowned and sat down at the table opposite him. “You worry me, Reikon. In all the years you’ve been here all you’ve ever wanted to do is get back to Celestia. Now we have that opportunity, you’ve become cautious.”
“That’s because I don’t want to see innocent beings hurt for my sake. You said your own psychic patterns built up this place.”
She nodded. “It was just a dark space when I got here, frightened, scared echoes cowering as the Swytch ate them up one by one.”
“Then if you die, this place will collapse.”
“Maybe,” said Helenia. “That’s why I’ve got to keep young and healthy,” she chuckled, pointing to her face cream. “I used to be a red head you know?”
Reikon shook his head.
“It’ll all be fine, you’ll see.”
“I hope you’re right, Helenia.”
Maxus yawned and threw his arms back. He was sat in an armchair the Doctor had dragged out from the depths of the TARDIS. He still couldn’t face the sofa, but he was definitely in need of some creature comforts.
Alice had been gone for almost an hour now and the Doctor was becoming impatient. In the time she had gone, he’d had three cups of tea, eaten a bag of Dolly Mixtures, started reading three separate books, had an episode where he ended up laid on the sofa clutching his chest, and now he was playing a game of Scrabble against himself.
“This is getting stupid,” said Maxus. “Do you want me to go after her?”
“No,” said the Doctor. “She’ll be back in her own time.”
As if to punctuate the Doctor’s statement, the doors of the TARDIS swung open. Standing there was Alice flanked by Ivy Coldstone, Caroline Fieldgate-Parker and Danny Lennon. He was almost lost for words and simply stared at them in disbelief.
“What…what are you all doing here?”
“They’re here to help, Doctor,” said Alice, leading the group into the TARDIS.
“Ivy came and found us,” said Caroline as she stepped into the TARDIS, looking around in awe. She secretly missed this place.
“That I did,” said Ivy, putting an affectionate arm around Alice. “We know what’s going on with you, Doctor. Alice has told us everything.”
“Everything?” said the Doctor, eyebrows arched.
“Everything,” said Danny. “Believe me, Doc, life is good now.” He turned and smiled at Caroline. “The only thing that could possibly get me back in this crazy box is knowing that we’re going to save you.”
The Doctor shook his head. “I’m gratified with your concern, but-”
Alice put a finger to his lips. “We’ve all been through some good times, but we’ve all been through some crap times.” Her eyes flicked to Maxus. “But the one constant was you. You were always there for us.”
“So,” continued Caroline, “we’re not going anywhere until you’ve at least gone to check out that Nest place.”
The Doctor was about to speak when Ivy held her hand up to him.
“No,” she said. “You have to survive Doctor.” She put her hand on his arm and smiled at him. “We’re all in this together from now on.”
Maxus groaned. “If you lot say ‘One for all and all for one’ I’ll throw up.”
The group laughed together.
“So set the coordinates,” said Danny with a sigh. “Do you know how expensive babysitters are on Christmas day? Even Margot charges on Christmas day.”
The Doctor smiled as he punched in the coordinates the Master had given him. He placed his hand on the lever and looked at each of their faces. The grieving widow, the fiery red-head lost in time, the mentally damaged girl he had promised to show wonders to and the young couple who had for so long been drawn to each other…they were all his friends.
“Thank you,” he said as he pulled the lever.
Helenia had waited for Reikon to go and then had washed her face before making her way out the front door and across the road to another house, this one with a flat roof and brown bricks and a sloping drive. She unlocked the door and went inside.
The room was dark but the shape of a man was sat against the partial daylight coming from the front windows.
“How are you feeling?” said Helania. “I’ve brought you some stew.”
“Not hungry,” said the males voice.
“You have to eat, Caleb,” she said. “You need to keep your strength up.”
“I’m not hungry,” he said again.
“You can’t stay in here forever, you know?”
“I can stay for as long as I like.”
Helenia sighed and crossed to the light switch. The light revealed Caleb, sitting in a wheelchair, half of his face badly burnt but badly healed over as well. The hair on the right side of his head was gone and hadn’t grown back. He turned and snarled at Helenia.
“Oh, do be quiet,” she said, uncovering the bowl of stew and putting it on the small table next to his chair.
“You don’t care,” said Caleb, staring at the stew.
“I do care,” she said, sitting on the sofa next to him, “but you can’t spend the rest of your life crying over what happened.”
“If it wasn’t for me then my father would never be here.”
“And you’d have never have been caught in the blast and melted half your face off.”
“I thought you were supposed to be kind-hearted.”
“I am,” said Helenia, “but you need a bloody good kick up the backside.” She relaxed back into the sofa. “You could always…force a regeneration.”
“I was never granted the power of regeneration. I never got to that stage. And anyway, forced regeneration is a crime.”
“Then you’ll just have to live with it, won’t you? Anyway,” she continued, “you’ll be out of here soon.”
“I’ll believe that when I see it.”
“It’s taken some time, Caleb, but soon you and your father will be out of here. Just you watch.”
The Master stood in the courtyard, the gentle sprinkling of rain soaking his hair and suit-jacket. Celestia appeared in the doorway and eyed him up cautiously. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. The same device - well, a similar device - that had taken her husband and son away from her was now sitting in the middle of her new home threatening to do it all over again. If, by any chance, the Doctor believed his ridiculous proposition, she’d risk losing him as well.
She’d left Gallifrey before the Time War and hidden here in solitude. The castle had belonged to an old King, but the royal line had died out and the War had irradiated most of the indigenous life forms on the planet.
She had heard about Gallifrey’s supposed destruction and had mourned the loss of her people.
She was even more baffled at what happened to Gallifrey after that, but had vowed never to return there. It was too painful for her.
The Master turned to face her and smiled. “It’s all ready. The figures are correct this time. We have a direct link through to the Nest. Now all I need is the Doctor.”
“You could go in there yourself, you know?” said Celestia, folding her arms.
“Yes,” he said, “but I need my wing man.”
“Wing man?” She was confused.
He chuckled. “It’s an Earth expression.”
“I should stop you, you know.”
He sighed and threw his hands in the air. “But why would you, Celestia? Why?”
“Because you don’t know what you might unleash on us.”
He crossed over to her and put his hands on her shoulders. “There really is nothing to worry about.”
And then the sound came. The relative quietness of the courtyard was changed with the wheezing and groaning sound of the ancient time machine materialising.
The Master turned and smiled as the blue box appeared at the other end of the courtyard.
EXTRACT FROM LOG # 43322/F
The Swytch. A mythical creature from the Ancient days of Gallifrey. It is said that when a Time Lord regenerates, the Swytch appear and siphon off the regeneration energy, storing it away in another dimension which historians have come to name the Nest.
But where do the Swytch come from? This is not known. Some say they come from the beginning of time. Some say they come from the end of time. Some say they come from before time itself. Some say that the Nest was created at a single point in time and spread itself backwards and forwards throughout reality. There are no clear answers, but what is known is that they are linked to Gallifrey itself.
The Doctor sat at one end of the dining table. At the other sat the Master, his hands outstretched. Along one side sat Celestia, Millie, Dennington and Aleena. Along the other side sat Maxus, Alice, Caroline, Danny and Ivy.
Nobody said a word.
Probably because of what was placed in the middle of the table.
Something that the Doctor found very disconcerting.
It was the slowly decaying “corpse” of his Eighth incarnation. Of course it wasn’t his real Eighth incarnation, merely the echo of his regeneration, but it still felt disturbing to see it.
“Well?” said the Master.
“I believe you,” said the Doctor.
“Thank you,” he smiled.
“How could I not?”
“That’s not all,” said Millie, enthusiastically. “Show him the other thing.”
“All in good time, Miss Fieldgate-Parker,” said the Master.
Caroline flinched at the name. It felt strange to hear it. She hadn’t yet had a chance to get acquainted with her descendent, but she looked across the table at her and smiled. She looked similar to her, but more impish. It warmed her heart to know her sense of adventure lived on in her descendants.
“What other thing?” said the Doctor.
Dennington got up off the table and left the room. A few moments later he returned with a small, baby-sized bundle wrapped in a blanket.
“It seems that this also came through with the echo,” said the Master.
“I found it earlier on washed up on the beach.”
Dennington pulled aside the blanket and lying there was a small, black imp-like creature. It had a jagged, pointed face with no nose, but a row of sharp teeth. It had a small tale and sharp claws on it’s hands and feet. It’s eyes white and blank.
“So, that’s one of the Swytch, is it?” said Maxus.
“Indeed,” said the Master. “It must have fallen through when Helenia sent out the package.”
“Fascinating,” said the Doctor, getting up and leaning in to examine it.
Caroline felt a sting across the top of her head. She rubbed her temples. She had every right to be feeling off. A few hours ago she had been sat enjoying Christmas dinner and now she was sat on an alien planet with a decomposing corpse and a dead alien. Oh, how she missed those days, she thought sarcastically.
“It must have died when it hit the ground,” said Ivy. “Poor little bugger.”
The Master chuckled. “Oh, my dear Miss Coldstone, what are you talking about?”
“The Swytchy thing.”
“But it’s not dead,” he said, bemused.
“What!?” said the Doctor as everyone jumped to their feet.
“Merely sedated,” smiled the Master as he patted the creatures leg.
“For goodness sake will you stop playing with them,” said Celestia through gritted teeth.
“You really are a dick, you know,” said Alice with a frown.
“Oh, Miss Stokes,” said the Master, in a mocking voice to suggest he was hurt by her words, “I’m doing this all for your friend the Doctor.”
“Look,” said Maxus, rubbing the bridge of his nose, “the sooner we get this machine fired up, the sooner we can save the Doctor.”
“Quinn,” said the Doctor, taking another look at the creature, “your eagerness warms my hearts, but I don’t even know if this will work yet.”
“It will,” said the Master. “I promise you that it will.”
Caroline winced in pain and closed her eyes.
“You alright?” said Alice.
“I’ve just got a bit of a headache coming on,” she said.
“Maybe you should go back to the TARDIS,” said Danny, rubbing her arm.
“No, no,” said Caroline, “we’re in this together, remember?”
Aleena smiled from across the table. When she had met Caroline she had been a broken woman, mourning the loss of the life she could have had with a man 100 years before her time, but now she seemed a lot more focused on life and goals.
“Just one thing,” said the Doctor. “As happy as I am to see my old friends, and as happy as I am to know that Mr Dennington isn’t dead, why are they here?”
“To prove to you that I am genuine. I saved Mr Dennington for you, Aleena was always supposed to help you, and the girl can be your new companion.”
The Doctor nodded. “You have some interesting designs on my future life.”
“When you regenerate-”
“If I regenerate.”
“When you regenerate, it’ll all be brand new and we can start all over again.”
“What about Alice? Perhaps I’ll want to carry on travelling with her.”
Alice looked uncomfortable. “No,” she said simply.
The Doctor frowned.
“Not that I didn’t enjoy it to begin with,” she said, “but I’ve been through enough for one lifetime. It’s time for me to get back to teaching. Time for me to get out of your crazy world.”
Caroline looked at her sadly. Did nobody ever go into a life with the Doctor and come out better for it? She was thankful that she had.
The Doctor and the Master had spent the next few hours tinkering with a device in the courtyard that looked scarily like the one Caleb had built back on Gallifrey.
It worried the Doctor.
The Master had noticed the worry in the Doctor’s eyes and had chuckled to himself.
“Am I missing something?” said the Doctor, as he used his screwdriver to fix down a panel at the base of the device.
“Something glaringly obvious, actually,” said the Master with a smile.
“Well don’t keep me in suspense.”
He looked at him, thought for a moment and then shook his head. “Not yet.”
“Look,” said the Doctor, throwing his screwdriver to the ground and looking up at his old enemy, “I’m tired of playing games.”
“Calm down, calm down. A lot of the answers to this thing may come better once we get into the Nest.”
“No,” said the Doctor. He sat cross-legged on the floor, “I refuse to work anymore with you until I get a few points clear.”
The Master sighed and sat down on the floor opposite him. “Go on then. Have your own way?”
“You know more about the Nest then anyone else, don’t you?”
He smiled. “Yes.”
“You’ve been to the Nest before. Not too long ago, in fact.”
They were distracted when Caroline and Millie wandered into the courtyard, the both of them looked a little uncomfortable and were almost helping each other to walk.
“Are you okay?” said the Doctor, getting to his feet and crossing over to the two females.
“We’ve both been getting a headache,” said Millie.
“And it’s bloody painful,” said Caroline, rubbing above her eyes.
“I wonder if it’s because you two have come into contact with each other,” said the Doctor.
“Makes sense,” said the Master. “Like feedback from microphones and speakers if you put them too close to each other.”
“But I’ve been with people with my own power before,” said Caroline. “Like Margot and my parents.”
“So it must be something else,” said the Master. It sounded like a hint, the smirk on his face infuriating the Doctor.
“What?” said the Doctor, rounding on the Master.
“Think,” said the Master, pointing to his temple.
The Doctor looked from the Master, to Caroline and Millie, and then to the device in front of him. He looked quizzically at the Master.
The Master smiled. “This machine has been running on low power for the last few hours. It’s tapping into the Nest even though it’s not made an opening yet.”
The Doctor could feel the truth unfolding in his head faster and faster. “Caroline and Millie are having a reaction to the slight power coming from the Nest.”
“Yes,” nodded the Master.
His eyes flitted from side to side as he slowly began to work it out; the cogs in his brain turning faster and faster.
“What have we got to do with the Nest?” said Caroline.
The Doctor’s eyes widened. It had clicked.
“You got it?” laughed the Master.
“It can’t be,” said the Doctor. “No. We need to shut this down now.”
“We can’t shut it down. We need to continue.”
“What is it, Doctor?” said Millie; the two woman finding themselves being left behind.
The Doctor looked to the Master and then back to the woman. He grabbed his cane and then guided them out of the courtyard, the Master’s chuckle echoing against the stone walls. Once they were in the corridor and out of his way he stopped and looked down at them both.
“Spit it out,” said Caroline, her headache making her irritable.
“The Nest, Miss Parker, is the same dimension you gained your powers from. The Apparites. The broken, collapsed, twisted TARDIS.”
“What?” spat Caroline. “You’ve gotta be joking? How is that even possible.”
“I don’t know for certain.”
“You collapsed the place,” said Caroline, shaking her head. “It was gone. The box was destroyed.”
The Master appeared in the corridor. “Did you ever wonder, Doctor, why I broke in and rescued you and why I made a quick escape without killing you first?”
The Doctor didn’t know what to say.
“Believe it or not, when Reikon and Caleb disappeared, I studied the readings. I was fascinated in the concept of the Nest. A place of unlimited regeneration energy.” He pulled a leaf from a crack between the bricks in the wall and turned it over and over in his fingers. “After I stole your TARDIS I noticed the readings and it clicked at once. The Apparites dimension and the Nest were one and the same, albeit at different stages in their existence.”
“No,” said the Doctor shaking his head.
“You know it to be true. Connect the dots.”
“But why? Why become so obsessed at finding it.”
“As I said: unlimited regeneration energy.”
“But you have a new body. You’re alive! Why would you need to find the Nest to regenerate.”
His face turned dark. “Because of this.” He started itching at his face. “Because this body is weak. It’s a proto-form, remember? It’s not designed for long term use.” He grabbed his cheek and pulled.
Millie stifled a scream and Caroline tried not to throw up as the skin came away from the side of the Master’s face, exposing damaged muscle below it.
“You’re dying again,” said the Doctor, nodding slowly.
“Very observant of you. Always dying. Never living. Never just being able to have one body and live my life. That’s my story.”
The Doctor laughed. “That’s because you’re forever trying to find ways to survive. The amount of lives you used up was unbelievable. You should have just let go.”
“Says the man who has been given more chances that anyone else.”
The Doctor narrowed his eyes.
“What’s that?” said Millie, looking up at the ceiling, her eyes narrowed.
“What?” said the Doctor, eyes still transfixed on the Master.
“That sound,” said Millie. “Can’t you hear it?”
“Yes,” said Caroline, nodding, “it’s like some kind of vibration. Humming.”
The Master smiled.
There was a flash of blue light which momentarily illuminated everyone in the corridor and then a loud thrashing of energy from back in the courtyard.
The Master darted back down the corridor and skidded into the courtyard. The device was active, a column of blue-white energy shooting into the air. About 50 feet up a void had opened. It looked like someone had punctured a hole in the sky.
“The Nest,” said the Doctor grimly.
By now Celestia, Alice, Maxus, Dennington, Ivy, Danny and Aleena had arrived in the courtyard.
Celestia crossed over to the Master and grabbed his arm. “Stop this madness, Koschei. Stop it before you hurt these people.”
The Master grabbed Celestia by the wrist. “You will do as I say, Celestia.”
“I will not,” she said, slapping him on his exposed chin.
He snarled and pulled her in closer. “You will do whatever I say or suffer the consequences.”
She frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I’ll tell you,” he chuckled darkly.
And he whispered in her ear.
Celestia’s eyes went white as she backed away from him, her mouth wide open in shock.
“What did he say, Celestia?” said the Doctor.
“You utter one word, woman, and you know what will happen. Do you understand?”
She nodded slowly.
“Excellent,” smiled the Master. He went inside his blazer pocket and drew and gun, aiming it at the group.
“You can’t shoot us all,” said Danny.
“Oh, how I wish for a more sophisticated weapon. I only need to shoot one of you.”
He aimed and pulled the trigger. The shot rang out around the courtyard. Aleena screamed and all heads turned to see Mark Dennington stagger back, a bloody-red hole on the front of his jacket.
He fell to the floor and was immediately surrounded by the others.
“Why?!” said the Doctor. “You saved him.”
“I saved him,” said the Master, “so I could show you how genuine I was. So I could show you that I am in control of everything here. And so you know how serious I am when I say that I will get what I want.”
“You animal!” growled Ivy, getting to her feet.
The Master aimed his gun again and Alice grabbed her, pulling her back.
“I will kill again, Doctor,” he said. “I promise you that. Unless you do exactly as I say.”
The Doctor looked to his horrified group of friends. He had brought most of them into this. He couldn’t let them die. Dennington would be the first.
“What do you want me to do?” said the Doctor.
“Doctor, you can’t listen to him,” said Maxus.
“I can’t let you die, either, Quinn,” said the Doctor. He turned back to the Master. “Tell me.”
“You’ll come with me into the Nest.”
The Doctor nodded.
“Excellent.” He smiled and then turned to Celestia. “And you, my lady, will lock this rabble away. If you even try to help them to escape, you know what will happen.”
Celestia was pale and nodded her obedience.
“Doctor…” said Alice.
“It’s okay, Miss Stokes,” he smiled. “At least I got you back.”
She smiled sadly, tears in her eyes.
“We’ll see you again,” said Caroline.
The Master looked to the group and then walked to them, grabbing Alice by the arm.
“No!” said the Doctor.
“She comes with us as insurance, Doctor. If you try to double-cross me, she dies.”
“I’m fine. I’m fine,” said Alice calmly to Caroline as she was dragged towards the blue light.
“Step inside,” said the Master to the Doctor.
The Doctor took Alice’s hand and then stepped up onto the base of the device and then into the blue beam. The beam flared as the Doctor and Alice disappeared, their particles disassembled and shot into the void through the beam.
The Master turned back to the others. “TTFN.” And then he followed the Doctor and Alice into the beam.
Ivy crouched over the dying Mark Dennington, blood splattered on his jacket, his hand reaching up to touch her face.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”
“Julia,” was all Dennington could manage.
And then he slipped away. Into the arms of his long lost wife again.
Next time: Time has finally run out for the Doctor in the concluding part, and the final ever episode, of Darkpaths. Coming Sunday 21st December 2014.