This is my second-most popular piece of writing, second only to The Penumbra Cell and a review of Picasso's Gurnica. Thus, I have gone to incredibly lengths to find a copy of it and repost it here.
The massive ship’s engines have all but shut down. Never mind. The heavy grasp of the young planet below has taken over. The ship begins to accelerate towards the wild geography below. Wild geography soon to be lost forever. Those on the surface look up at the new star swelling in the sky. And despair.
The boy is tapping out at the computer. Solve the code. Punch it in. There might just be enough control to steer the ship out of danger. Or achieve a landing. Or perhaps he should abandon now, search for another escape hatch. There has to be another spare. A few dozen Cybermen can’t possibly have taken them all.
He shakes his head. He must choose. Risk dying aboard the ship to save a planet, or try and escape, knowing what he had allowed.
He continues to work at the computer. He has never appreciated how primitive such machines can be. He wouldn’t have the first idea how build one of these if it was in pieces before him, but it’s such a long and complicated method just to confirm what he hopes he already knows.
The room’s getting hotter. The ship is piercing the atmosphere.
Success! The computer, components humanly sluggish in the warmth, begins to print out the answer on the forward screen. The boy stands as close to the alien device as he can and still see the screen. Number after number appear on the screen, each one taking a life time.
But he will not panic. He will save the day or die trying.
Because it is the right thing to do.
But what’s this? The darkness of the flight deck is filled an electric blue. A box is forming in the corner with the sound of time and space undulating in agony. The boy blinks in surprise. He was not expecting that. No matter. He turns and concentrates on punching in the code which is still to be complete.
Behind him, the box doesn’t quite finish formation. It flickers and blinks, swinging randomly from solidity to translucency to nothing. The door creaks inwards. A blond head emerges, the pink face beneath twisted in pain. He shouts – he sound two rooms away. His voice cuts out in time with the flickering of the box.
“Adric! We have to leave! Adric!”
Adric shakes his head. “No, Doctor, I can do it!” he cries. Another three digits...
“No! You don’t understand!” The Doctor is screaming a breathless explanation, but Adric cannot hear it over the building roar outside the freighter.
The older man shakes his head, screws up his face and dives forward. He flickers violently and suddenly he is in the room with Adric, real and solid and in so much danger. The police box sits in the corner, barely stable for more than a second.
“Adric, you can’t finish that!”
“Please! Trust me!”
Adric pauses. Can he trust him?
“I knew I was right anyway,” Adric mutters, clasping hands with his friend.
The Doctor grins with relief. The relief fades as he realizes that his time machine is now well out of phase. And now he cannot even stop the freighter – even if he was prepared to brave the consequences. He realizes that attempting to save one life has doomed his own.
The Doctor feels no regrets.
Because it is the right thing to do.
The box grows solid for a moment. The risk is death. The Doctor and Adric dive for the box. It drops out of existence and returns just in time for their feet to reach the doorway. Adric cries out, as though being cut to pieces in a hurricane. But they finally reach inside and the door slams shut.
The box vanishes for good.
And inside, Adric looks around in a daze as his senses return. He is being held upright by two women he never thought would look so pleased to see him. The Doctor is laughing with relief as he hits controls. Two silver corpses rust on the floor of the TARDIS.
Adric’s face falls. “Tegan,” he begins awkwardly. What can he say?
Tegan was not expecting that. She remembers his snarl to the Doctor, to leave him to his fate in order to keep her safe. Knowing if Adric was to be allowed to leave the freighter, the Cybermen would kill her instead. “What for?” she asks.
“I tried to stop it. I did.” His eyes are hot, damn them. “I’m sorry.” He lets out a sigh. “Earth’s just been destroyed. I’m sorry.”
Tegan laughs in his face. Not cruelly, but as if it is a joke.
Adric decides then and there that he will never understand her.
“You didn’t destroy Earth,” gentle Nyssa assures him. “You saved it.”
“The freighter struck,” Adric protests, part of him insisting he play along with the others. Enjoy this high esteem, even if it is misplaced. No. “It’ll wreck everything!”
“Causing a huge explosion and a resultant Ice Age?” the Doctor asks, chuckling.
What is wrong with them all? “At least!” Adric protests.
“You should have been with us in the cavern,” Nyssa explains. “We learned a lot about the development of life on Earth. Reptiles were supplanted by mammals because a massive space object caused the Ice Age and wiped out the dinosaurs.”
Adric understands – though he’s not sure if he believes. “You mean, the freighter was that object?”
“You’ve just saved my species,” says Tegan, hugging him as if saying thanks on behalf of her race.
Adric rolls his eyes. “I knew I failed. I didn’t realize it was this bad,” he jokes.
It was a joke. He doesn’t really hate Tegan. They know that, don’t they? Don’t they?
They all start laughing, a catharsis that, if the Cybermen on the floor were still active, would have puzzled over. The Doctor adjusts the controls as a mushroom cloud forms on the primeval planet below. “Just have to collect Scott and the others, and then we can leave. Ever heard of the Great Exhibition?”
Adric shakes his head, absently pulling at the torn strands on his shirt where Ringway tore off his badge for mathematical excellence. The Doctor notices, eyes immediately flicking to the yellow crumbs scattered on the floor of the time machine. “I’m sorry about your badge,” he says with genuine regret.
Adric smiles at him with a dazzling grin that the Old Doctor would have been outshone by.
“I don’t need it any more. I know how good I am.”
The Doctor opened his eyes, wincing. The lights in the control room were low and the roundels in the wall burned orange. He was not alone in the control room. Scott was slumped in the corner, Cybergun cradled in his arms. His sudden violence against the corpses of the Cybermen had drained him until he dozed off while keeping watch on the Doctor.
Keeping watch. That was Nyssa’s idea. She didn't trust him on his own.
Nyssa wasn’t there, though. She had shown the grief-stricken Tegan back to their bedroom, helped out with finding rooms for Briggs, Berger and Brookes, before heading for bed herself. All of them were muted the grief the Cybermen had caused, grief the Cybermen simply couldn’t understand.
The Doctor turned his attention to the console once again as the read-outs insisted the warp ellipse around the freighter made materialization impossible. He couldn’t get onto the freighter. He couldn’t even somehow smuggle it aboard before the trouble started and save Adric, because the ship would never be free.
He couldn’t save Adric.
Even though it was the right thing to do.