It’s ten minutes in when the winch runs out of rope, and still there is nothing—nothing but an abrupt end to the slow backward descent into soundless darkness, the torchlight above long dwindled from sight and only the sound of Ida’s voice coming over the intercom; a comfort that’s more for her benefit than for his.
He’s pendulant, locked in a slow-motion spin like he’s a celestial body unto himself, rocking at the end of a long fishing line cast into the pitch black heart of an impossible planet like a worm on a hook. Like he’s bait and the power source they’ve been drilling for is something huge and hungry, this something with a massive enough electromagnetic force it can maintain barycentric mass coordinates to keep this rock in its utterly unnatural orbit. It isn’t any wonder he’s ended up here; the Doctor has never been able to resist a mystery.
Except, of course, the mysteries of his own dark empty depth. Those are less mysteries than staunchly ignored inconveniences, kept shepherded back into a corner where they need not be addressed or acknowledged. Every day, it’s that much harder not jump in head first, not to put his hands where they do not belong because he’s so impetuous now; in this still-new body, he’s been forming a terrible habit of leaping long before he looks.
It explains why he’s here now, dropped into the darkness with only twenty more minutes of oxygen and a profound need just to know. Perhaps it was hearing its voice that triggered it—or perhaps just its title for him. Perhaps it was the writing; too old for the translation circuit to even have a go. How could he resist that?
In any case, he’s long crossed the Rubicon. He’s come too far now, and there is no easy way to the surface. His body requires oxygen, and even should eventual suffocation and hypoxia trigger regeneration, the process may not complete without it. His supply is dire, but metabolic rates taken into consideration, it will outlast Ida’s. She says as much aloud, over the comm line, that she doesn’t want to die by on her own, and he sidesteps the plea. Even if he’d stayed, she would suffocate first and he would have no option other than to watch her do it, remembering that ten miles up in the flimsy flat-pack Sanctuary base, there is a girl smiling through her fear and his impulsive volunteering has doomed her to this same fate. He’s dropped down a rabbit hole and left her, just as he’d jumped through a time-anomaly in a derelict 51st century spaceship with little thought as to how he’d return other than he just would. Like he’d run off in 1953 and left her to lose her face and spend a night herded into a pen like an animal. Guilt wrings his stomach like a wet towel.
Now, reeled down into this depth, he’s ticking down the seconds to what might be the end of a very long life, and, by unfortunate proxy, Rose’s too. Because he’s developed an overzealousness for doing the right thing at the cost of himself and the things and people he values most. It’s a questionable philosophy at best, but that’s the kind of man he is, this time around. He is driven by a cumbersome sense of balance, righting wrongs because he can’t undo the transgressions that never seem far enough in the past—not without scapeling time itself open on a table and rearranging everything inside, metaphorical internal organs and viscera, in a messy and horrific attempt at restarting its heart.
The Doctor Frankenstein.
He cranes his neck back, peering up into the suffocating, opaque dark. For all he knows, it’s only another few meters to the bottom. But for all he knows, it’s another thousand miles; a fall so long he’ll run out of air before he hits terra firma at terminal velocity.
He unclasps the first carabiner on his harness, his oxygen meter reads less than nineteen minutes remaining. Over the comm, because maybe it’s the last thing she’ll ever hear, he tells Ida, thank you, and means it.
If he doesn’t come back, Rose will think of all the times he’s jumped into things and thought of nothing but the solution. Times he’s swanned off because Rose is strong and Rose wanders anyway and it’s a shame, an utter failing of his biology that it seems the only time he can get Rose out of his head for even a second is when he should be remembering her.
“If they get back in touch. If you talk to Rose…tell her…” he stops short, looking toward the far off opening of the pit, as though he if strains he can see through to the terrible sky. The surreal scream and pulse of the visible event horizon. As though he can see all the way up to where Rose waits, alone, and he can feel her there as keenly as if she were in this same darkness with him; as perhaps he always can feel her. But he sees nothing but black, perceives nothing but breath and silence and Ida’s anticipation. All he can see is a sallow reflection of his own face in the curved glass of his visor, which feels appropriate: in these moments, maybe the last of his life, that he should be faced with himself. These last few minutes of breath, he should use them to say something important.
“Just…tell her…” But he doesn’t know the rest.
What to tell Ida to say to Rose who gave him direction again, a connection to life, who showed him the universe as something magnificent through her eyes instead of something unforgiving and cruel. Rose who both comforted a Dalek and exterminated a fleet, who brings life as well as champions it. Rose who saved his life and his soul in the same day, Rose who he wants to touch with a shameful and unnatural urgency, Rose who fills him with unfamiliar pressure and strange heat like a kind of fever he can never shake.
Rose, who is the exception to every rule he’s ever made up.
Because he has spent the last blurred expanse of his endless hours dropped into a blind darkness more complete than even this one, and Rose Tyler was his rope. His tether to return by, his segue to the worth in everything else. He can gush out language like a verbal bloodjet but there is nothing he can say, and even less that Ida can reiterate in a way that means anything at all.
But one day that rope will fail. It’ll break; or he’ll let go. And there will be a long fall.
In the sallow light of his headlamp—with his eyes gone soft focus—instead of himself reflected, all he can see is the pale print of two pursed lips on the face shield.
No. There is nothing Ida can tell Rose. He can’t transfer the weight of those unspoken words into something a third party can carry to her ears, as though they aren’t already the heaviest burden to carry between them. Every moment they spend is like underlined words in a poem, the air before a thunderstorm, like the held-breath stillness before pulling a trigger that never gets pulled. He drags the inevitable around behind him like a shadow that weighs more than every planet he’s ever seen.
He thinks, really, it’s nothing she doesn’t already know. And having even begun the sentence, he feels naked and wrong, and so incongruently glad to be hanging in the dark where no one can see however his face looks pinched in cowardice.
He’s defeated by himself; he can’t risk victory. With his thumb tensed on the last release catch of his harness, he’s ready to drop. He’s more ready to seek out a living personification of primeval malevolence than a life lived at the dreaded mercy of a ticking clock. He’s ready for the long fall into darkness when the rope lets go.
(Except, no, he’s not ready at all.)
“Oh,” he sighs, burning with that fever that never breaks. “She knows.”