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A Final Sunset

by Duncan Johnson

I stood on the shoreline and watched the sun plummet into the ocean. It was just a sunset, of the sort I had seen almost everyday since childhood, but this one was more significant. A poetic man might say it was portentous, but I was a scientist, not a poet. I was not concerned with how the sight was described, just that it was the last sunset I would ever see.

I didn't turn when I heard the raucous trumpeting behind me. I had been expecting it. When else would the Doctor appear if not on the eve of disaster?

'Malcolm?' he said. He walked around me to stand at the water's edge, the waves gently lapping at his shoes. His long hair fluttered gently in the breeze as he paused to admire the sunset with me.

'You know,' he said at length, 'I think there are too many things about our lives that we take for granted. We don't appreciate the real magic we're blessed with.'

'The scientist in me would tell you that the setting sun is just a natural effect of this planet's orbital rotation,' I replied. 'Physics in action.'

'Stop being the scientist for a moment,' the Doctor suggested softly. I couldn't argue with him; I already knew what he meant.

I curled my toes, enjoying the sensation of the damp sand beneath my feet. I wondered if I would remember what it was like to feel when I was part of the Great Unity.

'Why are you here?' I asked the Doctor.

'Didn't I tell you that we'd meet again,' the Doctor said.

'You've left it a bit late, haven't you?' I experimented with a smile, but my heart wasn't in it.

'They didn't listen, did they,' the Doctor said.

I laughed bitterly, but the action tore at my burning insides and I doubled over, coughing. The Doctor darted over to help me, but I waved his concerns away.

'I tried,' I said, when I had recovered my voice, 'I really tried, but they didn't want to know. We could have made preparations, been ready to evacuate, but by the time they would listen, when people started dying, it was too late.'

'You did your best,' the Doctor said.

He put a hand on my shoulder. I suppose that it was meant to be comforting, but I found his tone patronising so I shook him away.

'Tell that to the tens of thousands who've already died,' I spat at him. 'Tell that to the millions more who will die tonight.'

The Doctor was silent for perhaps a full minute. He stood motionless save for the rapid drumming of his fingers against each other.

'Malcolm,' he said at last, 'I want you to come with me.'

'You what?'

'Your intellect is too important to be snuffed out here in a random act of nature,' the Doctor continued. 'I can take you somewhere where you'll be appreciated, where they'll understand your discoveries. The University of Dellah, perhaps?'

'You came all this way, just to save me?' I could scarcely believe that I was hearing this. It must have been some cruel trick at my expense.

'Listen to me, Malcolm,' the Doctor insisted. 'You don't have to die.'

'And what about everyone else here?' I asked. 'Do they have to die?'

The Doctor looked at his feet and mumbled something I didn't quite catch.

'I'm sorry?' I said.

'I said 'yes',' the Doctor snapped. 'Yes, they do have to die.'

I took a step back, surprised by the Doctor's vehemence. 'But... but why?'

'Because that's how it happens,' the Doctor replied. 'There's nothing I can do about it.'

'But you saved us all before,' I pointed out.

'That was different.'

'But how?' I couldn't understand the Doctor's reluctance. The last time I had met him he had helped to save my planet from an alien invasion. I couldn't help but admire him, but he seemed so terribly changed now, as if carrying a heavy weight on his shoulders.

'You could put us all in the TARDIS,' I suggested. 'I've seen how big it is inside there. I'm not suggesting you could save everybody, but you could save some at least.'

'I am saving someone,' the Doctor said. 'I'm saving you.'

I wanted to hit him, but fought down the animal impulse.

'What gives you the right to decide who lives and who dies?' I demanded. 'Who appointed you god?'

'I'm not god.'

'Well you're sure acting like it.'

This time I did swing at him, but the Doctor caught my fist easily in the palm of his hand. My sickness was eating away at my strength.

'That's the one thing I'm not acting,' the Doctor explained, sombrely. 'To me, this has already happened. This planet and its people are fated to be destroyed and if I were to try to change that then I really would be playing god. And, as you pointed out, I don't have that right.'

'But you could save lives,' I said. 'Doesn't that mean something to you?'

'More than you could ever know, Malcolm. More than you could ever know.'

'Then why?'

'On this planet, at this time, your people didn't listen to your warnings about the disaster until it was too late,' the Doctor said. 'However the destruction of this planet will act as a warning to dozens of others, forcing them to pay attention to the danger signs while they still have time. The sacrifice of millions here will mean that tens of billions of others will survive.'

'You don't know that they won't survive if we do,' I said. 'You can't. They might be more willing to listen.'

'You're right, I don't know,' the Doctor said, 'but that's not a risk I can take.'

'But you can save me?'

'One life out of millions is hardly going to register in the Web of Time,' the Doctor replied. 'Probably.'

'And you get to choose that one life?' I said. 'I thought you didn't want to play god?'

'Malcolm, the universe will be a poorer place without you in it,' the Doctor pleaded, 'and... and you're my friend and I don't want to see you die.'

'Well, you're a little late then, aren't you, Doctor?' I said, before being overtaken by another coughing fit.

'I don't understand. The TARDIS is right here. We can leave now if you want.'

I shook my head.

'I stopped taking my radiation meds weeks ago,' I explained.

Now it was the Doctor's turn to look shocked. 'But why?'

'Why? There's a shortage of medication at the hospitals, Doctor,' I replied, 'and there are plenty of people more deserving of life than I am. I'm a dead man; my body simply hasn't realised that yet.'

'Malcolm, I...'

'Don't. Don't say you're sorry, Doctor. This was my choice and I don't regret it. If I am to die, then let it be here, in my home.'

The Doctor nodded and held out an arm to me and I leaned against him as we made our way slowly to my house further up the shore. I was aware that my legs were dragging behind me, leaving trails in the sand. I wondered if the sea would wash my tracks away or if they would still be there at the end. I had already arranged a chair on the veranda and the Doctor helped me into it.

'Can I get you anything?' the Doctor asked.

I shook my head. Then something occurred to me and I reached out and grabbed the Doctor by the sleeve of his velvet jacket.

'Doctor,' I asked, 'did I make the right choice? Would the universe have been a better place if I had lived rather than throwing my life away in a futile gesture.'

The Doctor's eyes sparkled in the sun's fading light.

'Malcolm,' he said, 'you gave up your life in the hope that others may live. I honestly can't think of anything more admirable.'

We shared a smile as the last rays of the setting sun disappeared beneath the horizon. Then all was dark.


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