“What comes next taught me a valuable lesson and like or not, you’re going to suffer the same fate as well.”
I realise now what FutureHH meant. There has been no epiphany here, no soul-searching solution or dawn of realisation. I have suffered beyond anything I have ever known or imagined. An agony of the ages. My regeneration ability, a power to make death into life, reversed and powered by the Universe’s oldest fear working in partnership with my own. Darkness and the Guardian, a match made in deepest Hell – otherwise known as Silent Plains.
Still, from this point on, nothing can hurt me anymore. Once a stronghold has been flooded, anything which comes after it is mere raindrops by comparison. If our primary goal is to survive, then a vital skill is to endure. What could possibly be more painful than this?
That said, I’d be lying if I said I haven’t considered the alternative. How easy it would be, to stop avoiding what I’ve now bested twelve times. To simply walk out and close the door on the horrors which laid in wait for me. So fitting it should end this way, brought down by what kept me going. I guess Death has a sense of humour after all.
WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!
…dying? It easier than I originally thought. Rather like falling asleep………wait for me……..I’m coming to find you……
“I’m buying time.”
Like snapping out of a deep dream, I halt my descent into nothingness, jolting back into sense (or what’s left of it.) “Womble?”
I cannot see what’s around me, still lost somewhere deep within the Heart of Darkness. Everything sounds distant and near simultaneously, as if Womble is both close by and inside my own head. I suppose the Darkness is everywhere after all.
“Get lost, little man. You cannot hope to match the power of a Timelord.”
“That’s a nice ventriloquism act, HH. I think Chompy was better. Now shut up for a second.”
I don’t think I could talk if I tried. There’s far too many screams in the way. It’d be easier to whisper into a hurricane.
Be gone, demon. You are not welcome here.
“I’ve yet to find somewhere I am welcome. HH, hold still.”
“Why do you even want to save him?”
Ever the interrogator, Timelords, on faces one through thirteen. But Guardian’s point lands. Whatever’s happening pauses – even the acids in my veins and flames on my skin get weaker. Not gone completely but I can tell the difference. What impresses me most is the silent Darkness, waiting for an answer. No less than the universe’s first occupant wants to know: why would Womble want to save HH?
“Somebody told me to do it.”
Was that time travel humour? There’s a FutureW now? If the Gallifrey Elders could see me now…they’d probably try and kill me as well.
Regardless of your reasoning, do you honestly believe you can save him?
“Of course I can.”
Everything around me flickers for a moment. An incredibly worrying image of Womble, his arm somehow buried in my shoulder, flashes before me. My internal sanity sheds a few flakes more.
“You just wasted time asking questions.”
I suddenly feel like a trapdoor has opened beneath me. Down I drop, away from nothingness into one massive something, one which is much louder and far, far brighter than my previous location. As I fall, I can hear Guardian screaming in anguish. His howl gets closer and closer, passes at its loudest and then recedes further and further. One in, one out. With it, the pain gets weaker with every passing moment. Although sometimes the release of pain can be as bad as what caused it. The flame has been removed but the burn remains. I ache. I sting. Most of all, I hurt.
Therefore I am.
With a shudder, I land back in reality. I’m reminded, again, of the time I regained control from Chompy. Main difference is that this time the journey back was much tougher. Chompy had been dancing me towards Death’s doorway. Guardian had me standing on the threshold.
Eyes previously screwed shut in agony reopen again, tired and trying to adjust to the gloom. A dull grey hazes shifts across my vision, parting like thick clouds, revealing I’m still in the same vast and poorly lit cavern, lying on the mosaic of the universe. I’m vaguely aware of something tugging at my right arm.
“How in the hell do you use this thing?”
My head turns, and there is Womble kneeling beside me. A grand sight for the sorest eyes – if he didn’t look so annoyed. This’d be a far better reunion were he not wearing the face of a grandparent trying to use their grandchild’s laptop. One of his hands taps furiously away at the Q.U.A.R.K. The other, hanging limply toward the floor and rather near my face, is holding an object of some description. As I look at it, it struggles against his grip and I catch the quickest glimpse.
“Womble,” I whisper, “what is that?”
“Not now, HH. I need you to freeze time. How do I get this thing to work?”
“But, that thing…” I can’t fully describe it, just how much I saw in that split second of looking. All it requires is one second of sight to change an entire lifetime, and what I saw could change everyone’s. Beneath Womble’s fingers is an imperfect orb, so described because its outer shell or skin writhes and distorts into different shapes. Somehow Womble’s vicelike grip on it keeps it more or less in check. Just by looking I know it to be bigger on the inside. It’s the same feeling as peering over the edge into the deepest, darkest hole. And somewhere in there, sitting and festering in a maelstrom of contempt is a creature which loathes me. And Womble. And anything, and anyone, besides itself. The pool of black within shifts into a blood red eye staring at me, as Womble’s fingers tighten around it.
“Not. Now.” Womble gives me a Look, then, one I don’t think I’ll be able to forget. In that one moment, I see beyond the outer layers, beyond the man who always wants a drink and was once a penguin. For the first time since meeting him I properly see Womble. And it terrifies me.
He pushes on, regardless. “When I say the word, you need to freeze time. Do whatever it is you do, got it?”
I nod dumbly and sit up, right arm and Q.U.A.R.K raised at the ready.
Womble jumps to his feet, throwing the Darkness stone as he goes, launching it far into the air. As it shoots towards the ceiling, Womble utters a word I neither understand nor recognise, which forms a ripple in the fabric of reality. A wavy line of light slices through the ceiling and dilates into a temporal fracture – by my own judgement anyway – filling the entire room with trans-dimensional light. The Darkness stone reaches the furthest edge of the ripple, and Womble gives his order.
Pause ( )
Together, in that frozen moment, the portal and the stone form an eye with a minute pupil. Neither of them move. Womble utters another strange word and the portal forces itself shut around the stone and against the flow of Time, distorting the space around it. Both entities vanish, leaving a spot behind which resembles some serious heat haze. The illumination goes with it, reducing us to the gloom once more. I put my right hand to my head, in a vain hope that it will stop feeling like a collapsed star. As a reflex, for support, my other hand rests on the cold, gritty floor.
Pause ) (
My left hand closes on what feels like sand, grinding my nails against the stones beneath me. Bit by agonisingly slow bit, my consciousness returns to tell me what the local environment’s up to, as if I’m waking from one almighty hangover. For the first time, in a very long time, I feel cold. At a first guess in a damaged mind, it’s likely to be a contrast against the burning pain going on just a few minutes ago.
“The darkness in your heart,” Womble tells me, still looking at the point of departure.
It takes me several moments to realise Womble said something. “I’m sorry?”
Having used a lot of its remaining energy to speak, my mind goes back to the general mass of confusion that is The World of HH right now. How long has it been since I’ve shivered like this? Anti-regeneration burned and scarred me, sure, but then…why do my arms feel bare as well?
I turn my fullest attention to the ground.
“You asked what it was. It shouldn’t be able to affect you anymore. You’re……..why are you crying?”
Poor Womble. Poor, long-suffering and loyal Womble. Saves my life, again, and his reward is putting up with me blubbering like a child. Not surprisingly, his approach to dealing with a weeping friend mirrors my own.
“HH, it’s over, you’re fine.”
“No you don’t understand,” I reply, gathering up handfuls of the ash surrounding me. “It’s gone.”
“Well. Yeah,” Womble says, slowly.
“My coat,” I mumble, “it’s gone.”
It seems my anti-regeneration was too much energy for it. There still remains enough clothing on me, for which I – and probably Womble – am entirely grateful. My top hat still made it through. But my coat – picked up on Earth, billowed across the universe, capable of making anyone’s run look cool – reduced to dust.
No doubt Womble’s staring at me, nonplussed. I don’t bother looking up at him to check, too occupied with scooping up coat ashes and letting them fall again, trying to bring forth some acceptance. I draw in several shaky breaths and try to compose whatever dignity I can hope to retain.
“The Deadalus is in orbit,” he says at last.
“No.” The syllable echoes around the cavern a few times. “I need the TARDIS. Its medical bay and its wardrobe.” Most importantly I need to get as far away from this damn planet as possible. The memory of FutureHH telling me this was my destination feels distant enough, it could’ve been a previous face which saw it. I uncover the sonic and TARDIS key from what used to be their homestead pocket and activate the homing beacon.
“Do you think you’ll be able to recover from-” he waves a vague hand towards his face. “I have the name of a good surgeon, if you need it.”
“The last surgeon you saw turned you into a penguin.” I’ve yet to see my own reflection, but if it’s anything like my arms……a true, walking testament to scar tissue and the waxy skin remains of high degree burns. “I’ll see what I can do.” Can’t say I blame him for asking. I too would struggle to accompany a ghoul everywhere. Not from a vanity viewpoint – being comfortable in your own skin is one of the hardest yet most beneficial things you can do. I just can’t stand the pity.
I get back to my feet at long last, just as the TARDIS materialises into view. I pay my coat a quick, unworthy tribute. Its ashes scattered on the oldest planet in the universe. There are worse places to end up……I think. When done, I approach the TARDIS doors and look back, only to find Womble hasn’t moved.
“Need a lift?”
He glances at me, as if only just remembering I’m still there. His right hand absent-mindedly fiddles with what appears to be a pipe. Not for the first time, or last I’m assuming, there’s something he’s not telling me. But we both know I’m not going to ask.
“Yeah,” he responds. “Why not?”
I stand aside and allow him entrance. I swallow all questions and follow him inside, already thinking up the path to the medical bay.
The TARDIS engines roar into life; its wheezing and groaning roar through the cavern. All the wall sconces go out in the rush of air caused by dematerialisation. The dust and ash of a beloved item of clothing is scattered further apart.
We leave behind a planet-wide silence which will last forever more.