It was a Wednesday, they were in London, and the quiet hum of the TARDIS engines was just about to be undercut by the sound of a ringing phone.
Clara made it to the console first. It was a game they played, on those rare occasions when someone called. Her relationship with the Doctor had begun with a phone call – come to think of it, so had his relationship with her, although it was a different phone and different planet. At least she thought it was a different planet; in truth Clara only half-remembered it, and it hadn’t actually happened yet. These things were complicated. He had been younger then, a quite different man in every literal sense of the word.
Now he was old and grey and often grumpy. There were days they saved the universe, and then there were days she felt like a glorified public relations officer. All too often, the days matched.
She lifted the receiver, ignoring the Doctor’s glare. “Hello?”
Clara blinked. “One second.” Handed him the phone. “It’s you.”
Frowning, the Doctor held out his hand. “Who is it?”
“No, I mean you’re – oh, just take it.”
The Doctor lifted the receiver to his ear, and then his eyes widened to an incredulous stare. “How did you get this number? Well, yes, I mean I know it’s mine, but – no, you’re not supposed to be able to call me! It breaks every rule in the – black hole? What black – never mind, don’t tell me, it’ll come out in the wash. Her? That was Clara. You know, Clara. You really don’t remem- how long’s it been?”
He paced back and forth next to the console, free hand darting over his temples. Now it was clawing at his hair. Making a yak-yak gesture, during which he rolled his eyes at Clara. She was goggling, although mostly at the phone cord, which was in serious danger of getting twisted around his neck.
“You want me to go where? Oh, them. Right. But why?…seriously?”
Concluding the call, the Doctor dropped the receiver in its cradle, with a little more force than Clara thought was probably necessary. “God, what an insufferable idiot.”
“That was you.”
“Yes, well, I’m my own worst critic. How’s your Swedish?”
* * *
At the precise moment the door to the Stockholm studio burst open, Benny Andersson had been trying to do three things. First, he’d been trying to identify the strange vworp, vworp noise he’d just heard outside. Second, he’d been wondering whether it might be something he could sample and use as an introduction to a song he was working on (an as-yet untitled ditty about a post-apocalyptic wasteland inhabited by sentient snails). And third, his sense of recall was performing a desperate catfish through the rubbish bag that was his subconscious in an attempt to work out precisely where he’d heard it before.
His thought processes were interrupted by the arrival of a silver-haired man who looked to be in his mid-to-late fifties, wearing a purple blazer over a tieless white shirt buttoned to the collar, and the sort of expression that meant business. Benny wasn’t sure whether it was the hey-let’s-do-another-musical sort of business, or the accountants-with-folders sort. The second was not something he savoured. But this man didn’t look much like an accountant; he looked like the world’s dourest conjuror.
“Hello, you two,” said the newcomer. “How’s business?”
It had taken Benny two-and-a-bit paragraphs to remember he was not alone in the room. He glanced over at Bjorn, who had been in the middle of constructing a Lego model of the Big Bang Theory set. Bjorn built Lego sets whenever he was blocked. He also liked to pound a toilet brush against the rail of the balcony while singing the Lithuanian national anthem. This was a closely-guarded secret: there was always the possibility of paparazzi intrusion, but so far they’d been lucky.
Benny regarded the stranger with astonishment. “Who are you, and how did you get past security?”
The man was carrying a notebook; he opened it to a specific page and made a tally mark with a ball point pen. “And that’s…thirty-seven marks for opener number five,” he said. “That’s almost as popular as ‘Halt, you’re an enemy of the Daleks’.”
Benny was reaching for the phone on his desk when the stranger held up a single finger. Just wait. “Melbourne,” he said. “March 5th, 1977. You were trapped in your hotel room and curtain was half past eight. The incident with the mutant sponges.” The stranger leaned over the desk and offered a cheery, if slightly sinister grin. “Do you remember?”
Benny’s jaw dropped like a plummeting lift. He was too transfixed to glance over at Bjorn, but suspected he’d experienced the same reaction.
“Doctor?” said the astonished Benny, after a moment.
“In the flesh. How’ve you been?”
“My god! That must have been…forty years ago!”
“Well, your maths is still good,” the Doctor mused. “Must be all the fish.”
“You’ve aged,” said Bjorn. “In fact your face is completely different. And you’ve got more…Welsh.”
The Doctor was affronted. “Scottish!”
“Right, right,” said Bjorn, trying his best to look abashed. “I always get those two muddled.”
“I like the jacket, though,” said Benny. “I never really cared much for those pinstripes.”
“So you remember?”
“How could we forget? We still talk about that night. We even did a song about it. The title track on our last album.”
The Doctor regarded him curiously. “I thought The Visitors was about Russian dissidents?”
“Well, you know. You have to code these things,” said Bjorn. “No one would have believed the truth.”
“So what brings you here?” said Benny. “So late in the day?”
“Yeah, do you need money?” This was Bjorn. “Only most of ours is tied up in investments, and – ”
“I need you to make another album,” said the Doctor, simply.
Benny and Bjorn’s jaws dropped almost as far as they had when the Time Lord had announced his identity. The Doctor heard something click in Benny’s face, and winced; he’d feel that in the morning.
It was Bjorn who recovered first. “I’m sorry, what?”
“I need you to record a new album. You and the girls. Well, women. Shouldn’t really call them girls. Clara’s always lecturing me about that.”
“My friend. She’s gone out sightseeing, but she’d love to meet you both.”
“A new album?” Benny was rubbing his jaw. “Now? After all this – but why?”
“We left that behind a long time ago,” said Bjorn. “There’s a lot of water under that bridge.”
“There’s a lot of water under every bridge. That’s the purpose of bridges. They let the water move. Give you a sense of where it’s going, where it’s been. Bridges are brilliant for offering perspective.” The Doctor was walking around the room, gesticulating with his hands in the manner of an animated lecturer. “Unfortunately they only get you so far. Sometimes you just have to walk off the bridge and go down to the water.”
He was facing them now “Because it’s never too late to start again.”
“But still…why? Why now?”
“Because I’ve a feeling that in a few years, people are going to really need it. Specifically me. But also everyone else. You disbanded, what, thirty-five years ago? What have you done since?”
“We wrote an award-winning musical about chess and had cameos in Mamma Mia,” replied Bjorn, somewhat frostily.
“Yes, well. I mean apart from that. Besides, there’s another record inside you both. Well, all right, the four of you. You need the four of you, otherwise you’d just be ‘BB’.”
Benny regarded him with interest. Then he sighed. “They’ll never agree to it.”
“Then convince them. You’re good at the emotional stuff. And I refuse to believe – ” And now he was once more pacing the room, rummaging through cabinets, leafing through piles of papers, examining DATs – “that you’re not still writing.”
“We-ell…” Benny drew out the syllables like smoke rings. “We did have that one about the computer.”
“Don’t Shut Me Down?” Bjorn scoffed. “That’s going nowhere. The tune’s not bad, but the lyrics are terrible.”
“Our lyrics were always terrible. In any case, we could tweak it. Make it about something different.”
“Good. Good start.” The Doctor – who was now sitting in a chair opposite Bjorn’s desk – clapped his hands, then put his feet up on the table. “What else?”
Bjorn tried to ignore the lack of social grace. “There’s one about a cat witnessing an argument between an alcoholic woman and her husband.”
“Make it a dog. Dogs have compassion. Cats don’t care at all. Plus their claws are annoying.” The Doctor was well into his stride now. “Keep ’em coming.”
“We were playing around with Irish music; that yielded…possibilities. And there’s one called Keep An Eye On Dan – ”
“Dan? Who’s Dan?”
“We don’t know yet.”
“Well, find out.” He jumped up. “I’m not asking for a tour or anything. Just one more album. Go out smiling.”
Despite himself, Benny was smiling now. “You know what?” he said to Bjorn. “I really think we should.”
“All right,” said Bjorn, meaning it. “Let’s.”
The Doctor grinned. “Trust me, people will love it. Well, probably. The ones that matter.”
“We’d better get to work,” Benny said to Bjorn. “Find those lead sheets we did a while back.”
“Oh. There’s one more thing.” The Doctor was already on his way out, but he’d now turned back, Columbo-style, and was fishing a piece of paper out of his jacket. “When you’re done, send a copy to this chap. With a note that says this.”
Nothing about this made any sense to Benny, but that had been the pattern for this afternoon. And as the Doctor hurried out and then hurried back in again with a young, starry-eyed brunette on his arm, Benny sat down at the keyboard and began to play, wondering if this could possibly go anywhere at all.
* * *
Some time later, and in drastically different circumstances, the Doctor stood in the middle of a quaint pastoral scene on a ship where time ran at different speeds depending on where you parked.
It was appropriate, really, given that the passage of his own life was so difficult to measure. How long had it been? Chronologically, a few millennia. Maybe. He didn’t know when Mondas had started its drift. For him, it had been just over a thousand, most of it languishing outside Missy’s makeshift jail, scribbling lecture notes and occasionally assisting the Templars. That was assuming you didn’t count the several billion he had spent punching a wall. He never knew whether he should.
The Doctor stared out at the field and considered its random promises. Before him lay a pleasant rural backdrop, hedge-lined fields rolling away to pastured common land, bordered by forests thick with oak and ash and beech. Somewhere in the lower decks, aided in no uncertain terms by their convenient proximity to an event horizon, the Cybermen were evolving and rebuilding at an unprecedented rate, and it was inevitable that they would make a repeat appearance – almost certainly in a sleeker costume and carrying a far nastier gun. The Doctor had found he could do many things over the centuries, but even he couldn’t stop the passage of time – time, the enemy of us all.
It would likely be a bloodbath.
He’d worry about that later. Right now, he had a point to prove.
Nardole was still sitting outside the farmhouse, face hunched over the laptop, peering at it over the the rim of his glasses. Occasionally he would prod at one of the keys, almost with hesitancy, like a child discovering at the corpse of a woodland animal they’re not sure is dead. The Doctor wondered if he was actually dealing with the Cyber threat or playing Roblox.
He cleared his throat as he approached, and Nardole looked up. “Ah. There you are, sir.”
“How’s it going?”
“There’s still some lag on the payload delivery, but I think we can compensate. Hope we can, anyway. Otherwise it’ll be short and not very sweet.” The Doctor coughed. Nardole looked at him quizzically: the Doctor interpreted it (correctly) as his what-in-the-love-of-heaven-is-he-gonna-ask-me-now look.
“The, um. The thing. There was a thing I asked you to look after. Some time ago. Had it sent to you. Only I don’t know about it until now, which is when I’ll ask you to give it to me.”
Nardole’s eyes were momentarily blank. Then somewhere inside his head a penny dropped: if you listened carefully, you could almost hear the clang. “Oh, that!” he said. “Yeah, been carrying that around with me for months. Bit random, though. Can’t think why you’d want it.”
He fished into his jacket pocket and produced a small flat cardboard sleeve, not quite square. “Had a note attached, said ‘Keep it with you and don’t tell me.’” The Doctor took the sleeve, staring at the cover artwork: the dark brown of space, a star poking over the edge of an unidentifiable planet.
He found himself nodding in approval, which prompted Nardole to say “I take it that this is somehow important?”
“Depends on your perspective.” The Doctor was reading the back of the case. “Either way, thank you. Particularly for keeping it secret.”
“All part of the service.” Nardole resumed tapping at his laptop. “I mean it’s probably pushed something important out of my head, but never mind.”
The Doctor grinned as he walked away. “Have a look down the back of the sofa. Things have a habit of turning up.”
“Back of the sofa,” Nardole muttered to himself, but there was humour in it.
* * *
The Masters – both of them – were leaning against a stile, watching a cow.
“Do you ever wonder,” the bearded one was saying, “about the Matrix?”
“The one on Gallifrey?” said Missy.
“No, that terrible science fiction film.” The Master shifted his stance; the wood was itching. “I saw it, back when I was running for Prime Minister. And it struck me that if you’re going to have some sort of rogue AI conquer the world, you really don’t want to use humans for a battery source.”
“They’re impetuous. They don’t listen. That’s the whole point of the film; people are never happy with what’s given to them. Whereas if they’d used a cow – ”
“There’d have been no rebellion.” Missy finished the thought. “The cow wakes up immersed in liquid, it’s a bit confused, they plug it back in, it’s none the wiser. It just eats grass all day, perfectly content.”
“Plus,” said the Master, “cows are big. You’d need far fewer of them, which makes administration much easier.”
“Yeah. They could call it the Mootrix.”
“Good title,” offered the Master. He turned his attention to the Doctor, whose boots made soft prints in the evening grass. “Oh, it’s you. Whatever it is, you can lift it yourself.”
“Actually, no.” The Doctor scratched the side of his nose. “I came back to check something. The conversation we had earlier.
“That?” the Master sneered. “Why are we revisiting that?”
“Something you said. I asked you about the odds of beating the Cybermen.”
“What’d you say?” The Doctor stood, arms folded, biding his time. “I mean your exact words.”
The Master eyed him contemptuously. “I said it was about as likely as an ABBA reunion.”
“Yeah.” The Doctor fished into his pocket, and then placed the CD into the Master’s outstretched hand. The Master rolled it over. “So? Some kind of bootl – wait.” He was examining the date. “Why didn’t I know about this?”
“They reformed.” The Doctor wore the merest hint of a smile. “New album. Nearly forty years after the last one. Even managed a tour, of sorts.”
“Did they do that song about the gorilla?” Missy was leaning over the Master’s left arm, reading the track list. “I always liked that one.”
The Master glowered at her. “Not helping.” And then, turning back to the Doctor: “This is fake.”
“I’ll think you’ll find it isn’t,” said the Doctor.
“Then why didn’t I know about it?”
“Oh, well, you’re a busy man. Slash woman,” the Doctor added, acknowledging Missy. “You can’t be on top of every temporal anomaly.”
The Master thought this through for a moment, internal cogs whirring in a blaze of tempestuous logic, and then he pointed at the Doctor with an angry finger. “You cheated!”
“That’s one way of looking at it,” the Doctor smirked. “Either way, I get to win this one.”
The Master threw the CD to the ground, and then stomped off. The Doctor dropped to a low squat to pick it up, brushing away the flecks of dirt. “Litterbug.”
“So what was that?” asked Missy, who’d decided that if her counterpart wanted a sulk, he was on his own. “Other than a bit of metaphorical tackle waving.”
The Doctor’s eyebrows shot up. “You can talk.”
“I can, actually,” said Missy, hand on her hip. “But in all seriousness, you did that by contacting your earlier self, right? How’d you even manage it?”
“It’s the black hole,” said the Doctor. “Bends time. Means the phone works. Kind of.”
“And you rang…you.”
“An earlier me. Got him to pop over to Stockholm. Called in a few favours.”
“Then why in God’s name didn’t you get him to help here?” Missy was incandescent with disbelief. “Bring the TARDIS over? Trigger a meltdown? Be a lifeboat? Anything?”
“Because he never did,” the Doctor explained. “Or rather, I never did. I’d have remembered. We can’t cross the timeline, Missy. You know that.”
“So what was the point, then?”
“I don’t know. Fun, maybe? It’s been sorely lacking round here these past few weeks. Maybe there’s nothing actually wrong with spreading a little joy, even if things are rubbish and we’re all about to die horribly. And besides…”
He moved just a little closer, and dropped his voice to that low, measured tone he adopted when he wanted to be serious. “I wanted to show him that even when you’re certain of the outcome, the universe has a way of surprising you. And that people change, even though they don’t always want to.”
For a moment, Missy said nothing. Then she glared at the Doctor. “You think you know me.” And with that, she turned on her heel and stomped off in the direction the Master had taken, in the futile hope that the Doctor hadn’t seen her lip trembling.
He watched her go. Wondered if he could have handled the conversation better, and decided that it didn’t matter. It isn’t about how much water you put on the seeds you plant, he realised. They grow when they’re ready. And sometimes you don’t get to see.
A snatch of remembered melody drifted into his head. Can you hear the drums, Fernando…?
The Doctor walked back across the field. Perhaps Bill was awake.