'Well?' the Doctor asked. '_Could_ one of you fill me in? What's the problem?'
'...What happened to the Alzarians?' Sandra said.
'Ah.' The Doctor put his hands behind his back. 'The Alzarians, hm?'
'The Alzarians.' Sandra repeated.
'Do you know, I can't remember the last time anyone asked me about them?' The Doctor walked up to the bar, letting his arms return to his sides. 'Even with the holes in my memory... no, nothing. Everyone seems to assume they're still in E-Space. Which is understandable, as far as it goes.
'If it weren't for the fact it makes little sense.'
'Little sense?' Katarina repeated.
A tight smile appeared on the Doctor's face. 'Think about it. What happens once a story is finished? Where do most of the new characters end up?'
'Here.' Sandra said.
'They do _now_...' the Doctor said.
'...Yes.' Katarina said. 'Yes. The Lord Doctor has the right of it. This Time Round was not always here... not in all the timelines... There were... there was a time before it. There was the Land of Fiction - or such we called it, after that other Land. Even before that... there was land, there was... a place, a place where we could meet, where we could be, after the story was done.
'But there has always been a place for us to go.'
The Doctor acknowledged Katarina's answer with a nod. 'Thank you, Katarina. Yes. This Time Round, the Land of Fiction... in one form or another, there has always been _somewhere_ for us to stay, somewhere for us to go, after the story was done.'
'So why...' Sandra's eyes widened. 'Oh. _Oh_.'
'Exactly, Sandra.' The Doctor let out a small breath. 'When... when "Full Circle" finished, the Starliner came through to the Land. As did most of the characters back then.'
'But they didn't stay.' Sandra guessed.
The Doctor shook his head. 'No. No, they didn't. Once... once they realised they could leave Alzarius... that they could leave, that they didn't have to stay if they didn't want... they moved on. Adric didn't protest, much - I think because there was little or nothing for him there. Certainly because he felt there was more for him with me than with them. And one Outler boy, in the scheme of things, wasn't really important to them.
'They moved on.'
'What happened?' Sandra said.
The Doctor sighed. 'I checked after "Earthshock". I knew Adric was an orphan, that he was alone... but still, there were people he'd known, who'd been friends to him or his brother. I suppose I thought there might be someone else out there to help him through it, through his first time. Who'd listen to him.
'That was sixteen months after "Full Circle", Reality time.
'I couldn't find them.'
'Couldn't?' Sandra said. 'But...'
Again that tight smile. 'I checked. It was quite simple, really. I used the Time-Space Visualiser to follow the Starliner's passage, fast-forwarded to get to the relevant part.
'Fifteen months after the Starliner had left, they had disappeared. Without a trace.
'There was no trace of a temporal signature. No trace of a PLOT Hole. No residue of teleportation. Nothing for me to follow.
'They had disappeared _completely_.
'Which was an impressive trick, even for me.'
'So...' The Doctor let out another little breath. 'I tried another tack.
'This was really getting quite intriguing.
'I materialised the old girl on the Starliner at the moment of its disappearance.
'Or at least, I _tried_ to materialise the old girl.
'The trouble was, she couldn't decide whether or not there was anywhere to land.'
'_Huh?_' Sandra said.
The Doctor smiled his tight little smile. 'Exactly what I meant. The Starliner appeared to be caught between potentialities, between being and not-being. Even with myself and the old girl observing, we couldn't resolve it.'
'...It was both There and Not-There.' Katarina said slowly. 'In... in potentia.'
'Like... you mean like Schrodinger's Cat?' Sandra said slowly. 'You put the cat in the box, and until you open it, there's a 50-50 chance it's alive or dead.'
The Doctor nodded.
'But you won't know which it is unless you see what's in the box.'
'Exactly. Observation collapses the waveform. The Starliner was both there and not-there at the same time.'
'...That's a good trick.' Sandra said finally. 'I didn't think you could _do_ that in classical physics.'
'Classical physics? Around _here_?' the Doctor said, raising an eyebrow. 'And to add to the confusion, the old girl couldn't decide where "here" was supposed to be - or when "when" was. No definite spatial coordinates, no definite temporal coordinates, no definite physical existence... she couldn't get a reading on any of them. It was like trying to materialise on a subatomic particle.'
'...Wow.' Sandra said. 'Sounds like a perfect Chris Bidmead idea.'
'It does, doesn't it?' the Doctor agreed. 'I wasn't in the mood to appreciate the irony, though.
'If this was a hostile force, nothing was going to stop me finding who and why.
'This was starting to get personal.
'So I mapped out the Starliner's route. Perhaps if I could see where and when it had vanished, I might get an idea of _who_.
'I admit, at the time, I was expecting... oh, a godlike alien. Or a megalomaniacal scientist. The usual. Perhaps a ticked-off magician.
'As best I could tell, the Starliner had disappeared...' The Doctor paused. '...somewhere on the outskirts of Subreality City's then-borders.'
Sandra's expression froze... before it came crashing down.
'The Mists.' she whispered. 'You mean the Mists.'
The Doctor nodded. 'It took me a little longer to work it out, eliminate the possibilities, however... it took quite a bit of work, even with the old girl to help, and I had to call in quite a few favours in chasing up any other possibilities... but quite frankly, there _weren't_ all that many. None who could pull off a disappearing trick like that, at least.
'If it had been one of _my_ enemies... sooner or later they would have popped up to gloat, they always do. If it had been someone wanting to study the unique Alzarian genetic structure... they would have pulled them into physicality at _some_ point. And the Visualiser would have alerted me.
'If it had been someone who wanted to imprison or protect the Alzarians... either was a possibility... well, that seemed more likely than anything else. But there would have been others _in that area of Subreality._ There would have been a regular pattern. And they would have made themselves known. That was the way they did things - they left a trail, a power source, evidence, _something_. _Everything_ left a trace...
'...but the Starliner hadn't. No scientific readings, no mystical energies, no fairytale quests...
'In the end, it was the _lack_ of evidence that decided me. The Starliner had _disappeared._ And nothing pointed to anyone. No framing, no coverups... no nothing. The power to cover up that kind of power... well, let's just say it gets absurd. One ship. _One_ ship. Nothing else, in all the years that followed. One ship, in the wrong place, at the wrong time... that had ventured too near the Mists.'
'If I might ask... what _are_ the Mists?' Katarina asked.
'Sandra?' the Doctor said.
Sandra shrugged, helplessly. 'They're... without shape, without form - they're what comes before form and shape.' She looked to the Doctor, who nodded. 'They're without physical definition - they're what comes before physical definition. They have no place. They have no time. They simply _are_. They're potential, embodied.'
'...Chaos?' Katarina said slowly. 'They are... Chaos?'
'Close enough.' Sandra said.
'And being what they are, it's easy to get lost in them.' the Doctor concluded.'Easy to get lost in the potential between dimensions. Like the void between the stars, or the gaps between moments...'
'...Never to come out again.' Katarina finished.
'Even we can lose things in there...' Sandra's voice was quiet. 'They're _potential_. _Indefinite_. We... lose our link. Our connection. We can't lock on something that's there and not-there. It has to _be_ somewhere...'
The Doctor nodded. 'Which is why I've been spending a good part of the last two decades trying to work out how to pull them out of there. Even the Time Scoop can't lock on an indefinite object.'
'What's Adric know about this?' Sandra said abruptly.
'He knows...' The Doctor let out another little sigh. 'He knows they're missing. Not trapped, not dead - and I checked with Death on that one... He's smart enough to know I'd leave some record if I'd found them, no matter how bad their situation - which I haven't... I think, in the end, he's just concluded I've given up trying. It's only _Adric_, after all...' He said this last as if he'd just bitten into a lemon. 'I gave up trying to stop Nyssa, after all... of course I'd give up on this.
'I'm the Doctor. And I _never_ give up.
'The day I walk away from him - from _them_ - is the day I give in and go Beyond.'
The Doctor caught himself, his breathing returning to normal.
Katarina and Sandra watched, stunned.
'Lord Doctor...' Katarina said finally. 'There is something I do not understand.'
'You said... you said you appeared at the moment the ship disappeared. Yet... yet you said the Temple could not decide when she was.
'If she appeared at a moment... how is it she could not decide which moment she was in?'
The Doctor stopped, all motion stilled.
'So simple...' he murmured. 'So simple. How could I be so _blind?_ Katarina, you're a _genius!_'
'Lord Doctor!' Katarina gasped, shocked.
'Come on!' The Doctor turned, heading for the door.
'Er, Doctor...?' Sandra said.
'Yes?' he said testily.
Sandra looked abashed. 'Um... we can't close up. This place never closes, remember?'
The Doctor closed his eyes, before opening them again. 'All right... All right. Katarina, get me a piece of cardboard and a felt-tip pen. I'm sure the Proprietor can spare fifteen minutes. The Alzarians have been waiting twenty years, after all.'
Katarina inclined her head, and hurried off.
'Doctor...' Sandra said. 'Something's bugging me.'
'Well... there haven't been any Alzarians in any of the official spin-offs... not the audios, the books, or the comics... but someone, somewhere, must have done an Alzarian fanfic, right?'
'Oh, quite probably.' the Doctor answered. 'The idea of a return to E-Space seems like the perfect idea for a fanfic... or continuing adventures in E-Space.'
'What I mean is, wouldn't that have pulled them out of the Mists?'
'Ah, but that's the beauty of it. The Starliner's in a state of superposition - _all_ states coexist. What must have happened is that, in writing about them, they described _one_ state of being... but not _all_ the states. So when they finished... it would've got re-entangled again.'
'...And Dad wondered why Allie flunked physics.' Sandra said. 'It's not just having an eidetic memory, it's actually trying to understand the damn thing...'
'It's even harder when the laws of physics can change on a daily basis,' the Doctor observed.
Sandra chuckled. 'That's true...'
Once they got inside the TARDIS, the Doctor hurried over to the console.
'All right...' he murmured, 'We need somewhere uninhabited, with plenty of space...'
Sandra opened her mouth - several possibilities, like the House of Commons or the floor of the US Senate, having occured to her - but closed it again.
'...Earth orbit should do nicely.' the Doctor decided, his hands moving over the controls.
The "whump-whump" of dematerialisation began as the central column rose and fell.
'There we go...' the Doctor said. 'And even if I _do_ miss the target...' He glared at the central console. '...which _shouldn't_ happen this time... more likely than not, we'll arrive... ah.'
The central column came to a halt.
The scanner blinked on.
'Good, good...' the Doctor said, considering the aerial view of Earth. 'Now then... all I have to do... I should have this right...'
His hands moved over the console again.
Almost immediately, the central column started to rise and fall.
'We're on our way.' the Doctor said. 'Katarina, if you could stand over there by the Fast Return Switch, and pull it _once_ when I say?'
Katarina did as he said, going to stand by the switch.
'Sandra, if you could focus on the door lever, and pull it when I say?'
Sandra nodded. 'So what's the plan?'
The Doctor had the decency to look embarrassed, scratching behind his ear. 'Ah. That would be the difficult part.'
Sandra felt that familiar sinking feeling in her stomach.
'You see,' the Doctor continued, 'the Starliner is, effectively, stuck in interstitial time -_between_ instants. That's why the old girl couldn't land there. So, what I'm going to do is materialise the old girl at the Starliner's coordinates the instant _before_ the Starliner got lost in the instants, overlapping its indefinite coordinates with ours.' He caught Sandra's expression. 'It's not the whole truth, but it's close enough for exposition.'
'Thanks.' Sandra said dryly. 'Um, Doctor... you do realise that if you get this wrong, you're going to time-ram us all into Limbo - and a good chunk of Subreality in the process.'
The Doctor waved it off. 'Oh, don't worry. The old girl's getting much better at handling this sort of thing. There should be absolutely no problem.'
The Cloister Bell began to toll.
The sceptical expressions on Katarina and Sandra's faces only deepened.
'Ah.' the Doctor said, hands flying over the console. 'Let me see...'
The console room's walls began to take on a metallic tone, the roundels flattening out.
The Cloister Bell's tolling increased.
'Another sacrifice.' Katarina murmured. 'This was exactly what I had in mind for the day.'
'Oh yeah.' Sandra said, equally sotto voce.
The Doctor pulled hard on a lever.
The central column halted.
The walls reverted to simple white roundels.
'There we go.' the Doctor announced, dabbing at his forehead.
'Then... where is the Starliner?' Katarina asked.
The Doctor peered at a readout on the console. 'The two of them are overlapping in, ah, the TARDIS's... oh dear.'
'You're going to tell us it's landed somewhere vaguely humourous, aren't you?' Sandra said.
'No...' the Doctor said. 'It's on the TARDIS's cricket pitch.' He frowned in irritation. 'And it took me _weeks_ to get that done after the last time...'
Sandra rolled her eyes.
'All right.' the Doctor decided. 'Katarina, now!'
Katarina pulled the Fast Return Switch.
'Right.' the Doctor said. 'Sandra, get ready to pull the door lever. Then bothof you get ready for some guests.'
'You mean-' Sandra began.
The Doctor nodded. 'We're taking the Alzarians back to the 'Round. They'll need to recover - they have spent twenty years in a state of superposition, after all. We'll get them inside, then I'll disengage the old girl from around the Starliner and materialise back at the 'Round.'
The TARDIS wheezed her way to a halt.
'Sandra?' the Doctor said.
Sandra pulled the door lever.
The Doctor nodded to her, and left.
From the darkness beyond, they could hear the Doctor's voice, getting increasingly more harried:
'Ah...Garif, Login, nice to see you again... Now, if we could all stay calm, talk about this... Would you mind not pointing that at me?'
Sandra and Katarina exchanged _looks_.
Adric pushed the 'Round's front door open.
Katarina was sitting at a table, reading Jane Austen's 'Emma'.
The Fifth Doctor was seated at the bar, flicking through his copy of Wisden's.
Sandra leaned over from behind the bar to see the newcomer. 'Hey, Adric.'
'Hey, Sandra.' Adric said. 'Time for me to come on.'
'Anyone else in yet?' the Alzarian asked, making his way round to the bar.
'Someone in the toilet. She said her kids needed a pee.'
'Uh-huh.' Adric said. 'Quiet, then?'
Sandra nodded. 'Pretty much.'
The clock ticked over to 8: 01.
The door to the ladies' toilet opened.
Adric didn't register it, his attention on the front door (and any potential attacks).
Adric _jumped_, turning to see who'd spoken.
The attractive young woman who'd come up to the bar smiled. 'Hey. Been a long time.'
'...Keara?' Adric managed to get out. '_Keara?_'
'Well, it could be a Marshman, but... let me check. No, it's definitely me.'
'_Keara?_' Adric repeated.
'It's me.' Keara said.
'Wha... wha... wha...' Adric managed to get out.
'We've been...' Keara took a deep breath. 'We've been out of circulation, the last few years. The Doctor managed to track us down.'
Adric nodded, the words not sinking in.
She was there. She was really, actually, _there_.
'Adric?' Keara asked.
Adric nodded again. 'Yes?'
'There's, um... someone you need to meet.' Keara turned slightly. 'RAI! RIA! COME OUT HERE!'
The toilet door swung open again, and two little heads peeped out.
'Come on,' Keara coaxed. 'Come on. It's safe.'
The two heads looked at each other, then ducked back inside.
Keara sighed, and turned back to Adric. 'I'm so sorry about this. You know how kids are.'
'Uh-huh.' None of this had fully registered with Adric yet, too overwhelmed by Keara's presence and everything it implied to absorb anything else.
Two small toddlers crept out from behind the door, a boy and a girl.
They made their way over to Keara. She smiled down at them, then returned her attention to Adric.
'This,' she said, pointing to the boy, 'is Rai, and this,' she pointed to the girl, 'is Ria.'
'Uh-huh.' Adric said.
'They're my children by Varsh.' Keara told him. 'Congratulations. You're an uncle.'
'Uh-huh.' Adric said.
'Wave to Uncle Adric.' Keara told the children.
Solemnly, they did so.
'Uh-huh.' Adric said.
Then he fell over in a dead faint.
'He took that well,' Sandra said.
'He did, didn't he?' the Doctor said.
'I shall get the smelling salts.' Katarina said.
Sandra tapped her foot, looking impatiently at the void around her.
A grin broke across Sandra's face. 'Hey.'
Varsh tipped his hat. 'Hey.'
They stood in silence for a moment.
'So.' Varsh said eventually.
'So.' Sandra said.
'...Thanks.' Varsh said. 'For... well, you know, everything.'
Sandra managed a smile. 'You should thank Katarina, too. If it hadn't been for her, it might have taken us twenty more years to get them out.'
Varsh chuckled. 'There's more to that girl than meets the eye. She just needs to realise it. But... ah, Hell, I could stand here thanking you for the rest of time for what you did, and it still wouldn't be enough.
'So, um... Was that it?' Sandra asked, grateful Limbo concealed her sudden blush.
'Looks like it.' Varsh said. 'There's nothing holding me here any more... not now he knows...'
'About that...' Sandra said. 'I was thinking. If your kids'd been all that was holding you here, you would have tried for contact much earlier. Which means...'
Varsh chuckled. 'Yeah. Yeah, it wasn't just them. It was baby brother, too. Needed to start taking charge of his life, make his own path. And he couldn't do that if I was hanging around...' He shook his head. 'Never expected it to take so long... but he _did_, he made it, and now...' He shrugged. 'Well, that's about it from me.'
He eyed Sandra. 'It's not just _him_, though. You ever stop to think? About Nyssa, I mean?'
'Sometimes.' Sandra said, a touch of darkness edging her voice.
'Uh-huh. You ever wonder why you've never seen any other Trakenites around?'
'Before "Primeval"?' Sandra said.
Sandra's eyes widened in horror. 'Oh, dear Gods... They... They all went Beyond, didn't they?'
'Nyssa's a smart girl. She knows how it works. She _knows_ they could come back.' Varsh said softly. 'But they haven't.'
'Oh my Gods...' Sandra whispered.
She frowned. 'Wait. None of them stayed behind as ghosts?'
'Oh, some did.' Varsh said. 'She's the last survivor. That makes her a walking anchor all by herself... to any Trakenite who knew she escaped.'
'And when she started killing Adric...' Sandra's expression was wide in shock. 'Oh my Gods. She doesn't know? She honestly doesn't know?'
Varsh shook his head. 'Got her own ghosts, that one. Don't think it'd make much of a difference, not to her.'
'...What would it take?' Sandra said.
'...I'm not sure there _is_ anything.' Varsh said. 'Last survivor, remember? But the way she's going... or the way she _was_ going... she was only chaining them tighter.'
'Now...' He shook his head. 'Now, I don't know. It's all down to her.
'Keep an eye on her, 'kay?'
Sandra managed a nod. 'I... I will.'
The clip-clop of hooves sounded, even though there was no ground.
They came to a halt not too far from where Sandra and Varsh stood.
The two ghosts looked up.
Death dismounted from his pale steed, Binky, patting him on the flank, before turning his attention to them.
Varsh nodded. 'I'm ready.'
Death inclined his skull, and pulled out what looked like an hourglass from the sleeve of his robe.
The sand - the seconds - had poured through it a long time ago.
The nameplate inscribed on it said, in simple letters, "Varsh".
IT'S THE LOOK OF THE THING, Death said, in reply to their curious looks.
Varsh nodded again, and clasped Sandra's hand.
His hand was solid against hers, cool and firm.
'Keep an eye on them for me, yeah?'
Sandra put her other hand around his, a silvery tear trickling down her cheek. 'I will.'
A tall, bright column of light appeared behind Death, streaming out into the void.
IS THIS YOUR FINAL DECISION?
'Yes.' Varsh said softly.
He removed his hand from Sandra's, turned to face the light.
Death stepped aside, allowing him a clear path.
Just before he reached the column, Varsh stopped, turned, and gave Sandra a cheeky thumbs-up.
Sandra returned the gesture, smiling through her tears.
Then Varsh of Alzarius stepped into the light.
For a moment, Sandra thought she caught a voice saying 'Dad?'
And then the light faded away.
Death replaced Varsh's lifetimer in the sleeve of his robe.
'Are you going to tell Adric?' Sandra asked.
HE BELIEVES I TOOK HIM A LONG TIME AGO, Death said. IF HE ASKS, I WILL TELL HIM, BUT NOT BEFORE.
'Did you take Mum?' she asked abruptly.
YOUR MOTHER... Death paused. YOUR MOTHER WOULD HAVE BEEN CLAIMED BY DEATH OF THE ENDLESS. I DO NOT KNOW WHAT BECAME OF HER.
Sandra nodded again. 'Thank you.'
I CANNOT HELP YOU FURTHER.
'I know.' Sandra said. 'It's okay.'
Death looked suddenly... abashed, if such a term could be used for a seven foot tall skeleton in a robe of absolute darkness. UM... ARE WE STILL ON FOR OUR "NOBILIS" SESSION?
Sandra grinned. 'We'll be there.'
AH. GOOD. If it weren't for the fact that his skull was fixed in a permanent smile, Death's expression could have been interpreted as relief. SO, UM... I'LL SEE YOU AROUND, THEN.
'See you,' Sandra said.
She watched as Death reseated himself on Binky and set off.
It wasn't her time yet. It wouldn't be for a long time, not until Allie went Beyond.
And if she were honest with herself, that was the way she liked it.
She stood there for a moment, then, lost in thought.
Then she shifted back to the 'Round, and the world of the living.
Back to the life that awaited her.
To be (possibly) continued...
'Doctor Who', the Fifth Doctor, the TARDIS, Katarina, Adric, Keara, and Varsh are copyright the BBC. Death and Binky, in this form, are copyright Terry & Lyn Pratchett. Sandra, Ria, and Rai are original with me.
Copyright 2002 Imran Inayat.