An Inconsequential Death

(Continuing my process of rerunning old shorts off the hard-drive, a small piece of Doctor Who fiction, written for a charity publication.)

He’d done it again! The infuriating old git had done it again.

The young man followed the ... well, you’d have to call it the trail of clues from the chamber of alien biomedical bleep machines. First the lost fluids and effluvia from when the biomechanically-healed bodily processes were still halfway functioning, then by the shed skin and smell. Followed it through a tortuous maze of rondelated corridors that continually seemed to circumvent an actual destination. It was as if whoever - or whatever - who had left the trail was operating on pure instinct, following some inner, distant call.

He found the old man, at last, in what might be described as a wardrobe in the same way that the Grand Canyon can be described as a hole in the ground. Racks of clothing - clothing and its attendant accessories and accoutrements of all kinds - appeared to doppler to infinity and back in some dimensionally complex manner, like a couturier’s warehouse crossed with a Klein bottle. The musty reek of a million kinds of ancient cloth degrading over time was all-but overpowering.

The old man sat slumped over before an assorted pile of items pulled haphazardly from the racks: a fedora hat, a garish patchwork overcoat, a rotting black frock-coat of some Edwardian design, a battered umbrella with a question-mark for a handle. The old man stirred at them, listlessly, with a liverspotted hand. He was bone-thin and desiccated, skin like a dry membrane of parchment covered with ulceration from where the biomedical units had so recently been plugged into him.

‘So many ...’ he was muttering. ‘So many ... things you do and then you think of them afterwards ... fighting the ... they had claws and guns for hands and they hated life ... a love of death that was a yearning and they hated ...’

He became aware of the young man standing behind him and lurched around. Something lucid and hard, and not at all friendly, switched on in his eyes as if a switch had been thrown.

‘You,’ the old man said, the all-but toothless mouth managing to inform the world with sharp and acid contempt. ‘It’s you is it? Again? Here again? How long have you been there spying on me?’

‘Not long,’ the young man said. ‘I just didn’t want you to hurt yourself.’ He moved forward tentatively, offering his hand to help his elder up.

The old man flinched away from it. ‘Back to the machines? They pump and pump again and I can feel them slickly feeding into me. Back to that living death?’

‘You need them,’ said the young man simply. ‘You really do. Their regenerative processes are necessary if you’re to -’

‘Don’t you talk to me about regeneration, you little pipsqueak!’ The old man was almost screaming, ‘I’ve regenerated more times than you’ve had hot ... meals that you eat hot. Why, I remember the time when I died and ...’

His face went slack as what was left of his mind tried to recall a memory that simply wasn’t there. Then he looked up at the young man with something that was nothing less than quiet pleading. ‘Why can’t you let me die? It’ll all be better after I die. I’ll be reborn. I’ll be fresh and different and new ...’

Despite himself, despite all the resolve he had built in himself, the young man found himself losing his temper. ‘Because this is your thirteenth life you bloody old fool! When you die this time there’ll be nothing better, or worse, or anything at all!’

The young man caught himself, swallowed his anger.

‘Don’t you remember?’ His voice was as quiet as his elder’s had become, with the same note of pleading though without the constant tone of senile whining. ‘Please try to remember. You dematerialised the TARDIS and then forgot how to operate the controls. I don’t know how to make them work. You said that the only solution was to keep you alive in the hope that you’d come back to yourself for long enough to take us back into the world. Please remember that.’

The old man crumpled his face in thought. ‘I seem ... I seem to ...’ Then his face cleared - not with the calm of remembrance, but with the blankness of one for whom almost every process has been lost. ‘Where am I? Should I be here? I don’t feel well ...’

‘You’ll be all right,’ the young man said, helping the old man, unprotesting, to his feet. ‘There are things that can make you well.’

* * *

After the old man was settled again, amidst the nest of tubes and modules that bleeped and gurgled happily as though the act of feeding sustenance fed them, in some peculiar way, in turn, the young man walked the corridors lost in thought - or rather, lost in the processes of keeping thought at bay. He tried, if at all possible, not to think of the past years, to ignore the sheer and crushing weight of them.

When a trader sells a carpet in the bazaar, he tells you it’s a magic carpet. All you need to make it fly is to not think of a blue camel. All carpets are magic if you know that and don’t think of it.

It was not a question of a problem to be solved. It was a problem to be dealt with. The TARDIS was stuck in a metatemporal orbit around a secondary Vortex Core. There was no way to fling it from that orbit without destroying human life inside, and that was the end of it. Try to leave, try to leave now, and fragile human flesh would rupture, burst and spray off the bones.

The young man tried not to think of all those years in which he’d stayed young, while his younger companion had grown ever older - oscillating between stupor, lucidity and violent dementia in the extensive but ultimately self-enclosed and contained TARDIS interior.

There were whole areas still in disarray, their contents flung about in mindless rage, that at some point would have to be tidied up. It was hard not to remember that - even harder not to see it as an object lesson. The young man had in his time raged and flung his toys around in other, larger spaces, to much the same end effect.

It had almost been a relief, in the end, when the old man’s swings in mood and sanity had settled into the basic dementia of senility. Lacking other stimuli, the old man had taken imprints from his surroundings, and now fully believed that he was the owner of them.

He was - so he thought - a time-traveling alien whose superhuman recuperative powers would soon pull him from his present debilitation. He was not, in actual fact, dying alone and elided from every single other specimen of his kind.

The young man tried not to disabuse him of this delusion. It seemed like the only thing to do.

Possibly, by this point, the kindest thing would be to simply fire up the Console Room again, set the controls and slingshot back into reality, or some reasonable approximation thereof. It would at least give the old man a quick, clean death ... but when it came to the nub of it, here and now, when push came to the equivalent of shoving the off-switch on the life-support, the young man knew he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

The old man was not, as yet, in sufficient pain, indignity or state of vegetation as to make the choice clear cut. And in such cases a Doctor can only do no harm, and wait for nature to take its course, as it must for us all.

We walk through prisons of differing sizes and complexity, and delude ourselves that to drop and stop moving is to at the last find our way out.

The young man wandered, apparently at random, through corridors that turned in on themselves, waiting for them to lead him naturally to some actual destination, waiting for his old companion to finally die.

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