The Forgotten by AKs on Show



Summary: 1.1: Sophie Freeman's life is nothing special. Work, university, a few friends. She dreams the same dream every night. One night, she is awoken by a strange sound, and finds a blue box outside her apartment window. Then people start vanishing, one by one... the universe is collapsing around her, and her only hope is a man who calls himself the Doctor.
Rating: All Ages
Categories: Other Doctors
Characters: Other Character(s), The Doctor (Author-Created)
Genres: Action/Adventure, Mystery
Warnings: None
Challenges: None
Series: The Sophie Freeman Adventures, Vol. 1
Published: 2012.01.09
Updated: 2012.01.14


Index

Chapter 1: Sophie
Chapter 2: The Doctor
Chapter 3: Mr. and Mrs. Francis
Chapter 4: Professor Lancer
Chapter 5: The Rosettis
Chapter 6: Leisel
Chapter 7: Mum and Dad
Chapter 8: Sophie and the Doctor
Chapter 9: Miranda and Prospero
Chapter 10: TARDIS


Chapter 1: Sophie

Author's Notes: Historian's Note: this adventure features a future incarnation of the Doctor and a young Australian woman named Sophie. It takes place long after the heretofore televised events of the series from the Doctor's point of view.


TAMWORTH, AUSTRALIA
MARCH 1996


The day was warm, the sun shining. High above, in the endless blue sky, a few fluffy clouds drifted listlessly against the thermals. The little girl watched them. She thought she saw a camel. Or was that a castle?

She heard her parents talking in the front seat of the car. Her father was driving, her mother fiddling with the radio.

Snatches of music and the tinny voices of announcer's occasionally escaped the static, and then her mother found the channel she was looking for, and the comforting voice of a newsreader filled the car.

"As the nation takes to the polls today, Prime Minister Paul Keating reiterated that should his government be re-elected, they would continue their triple campaign of reconciliation, republicanism and engagement with Asia."

Her mother said something, her father responded. She couldn't quite make out what they were saying. She never could.

"Opposition leader John Howard, meanwhile, said that, after thirteen years of Labor leadership, the Australian people were ready for a change, particularly in the face of a flagging economy. Early returns on this election day suggest that Mr. Howard may, by this time tomorrow, be the nation's Prime Minister."

Her father was unhappy about that, her mother unsurprised.

She looked at them, saw the back of their heads, and she felt safe; they were her parents, her mother and father. She knew that this was the last time she'd ever see them.

There was a screech of tires on asphalt as someone slammed on the brakes.

There was a scream. A crash. Metal on metal, splintering, being torn asunder. Shattering glass. The world went black, flew end over end, as the little girl's world turned upside down.

There was a resounding, bone crunching thud. Silence. Then the crackle of flames, the gurgle of liquid; spilled petrol. Blood.

She couldn't see. She knew her parents were dead.

Hundreds of kilometres and fifteen years away, Sophie Freeman woke up.

NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA
FEBRUARY 2011


"The fact remains," the lecturer announced, as though she were proclaiming the discovery of the Holy Grail, "that Birthday Letters represents more than a mere development of Ted Hughes' writing. It was an active attempt, on the part of the author, to emulate the writing style of his dead wife, and in so doing, invoke her memory."

She smiled knowingly, a Mona Lisa smile, as though she had just ever-so-cleverly stirred a bubbling pot just so.

"Now I know there a few of you in this class who would disagree with me," she said. "I know there are a few of you who would no doubt take great issue with Mr. Hughes as a man, and as a poet, and most especially with this book! But that's why you take Critical Analysis, isn't it? To pull apart the written word, to gaze into the mind of the author; to see what it is that made him write the words he wrote, construct the phrases he constructed. It's a beautiful thing we do here in this class, ladies and gentlemen. Ultimately, our goal is to see the universe that was the author's world, and then to break it down. Collapse it into its parts, and see how those parts all fit together."

The lecture hall was hot. The lecturer, a short, thick woman who had introduced herself as Professor Lancer, knew it was hot; she just didn't care. Down there, she was kept cool by the standing fan beside her lectern. Her class, however, was left to languish in the heat of the hall; an Australian February with a broken air conditioner was a special kind of hell.

Such was the life of an undergraduate, Professor Lancer told herself. She took no small joy from the suffering currently being inflicted on those students, sweltering as they were, knowing that in a few short weeks they'd be inflicting their own kind of hell on her. She'd have to wade her way through dozens upon dozens of terrible and worse, mediocre papers, desperately trying to tap into the meanings of Ted Hughes' somewhat florid poems. And then, after that, they were going to wade headfirst into Shakespeare. She wasn't looking forward to that at all.

Her love for the bard had been diminished by orders of magnitude with every new semester of teaching. She longed for postgraduate teaching, where she could take under her wing a cadre of elite, interested students, instead of this milling posse just dipping their feet in the waters of English language literate.

She looked down, adjusting her glasses as they slipped to the end of her nose, and checked her notes. "Now, your set texts for this semester are Birthday Letters, by Mr. Ted Hughes, The Tempest by Mr. William Shakespeare and Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie. You are also expected to read another Shakespeare play of your own choosing, and another novel. You're to present your choice of play and novel to your tutors in week two for evaluation."

There was an audible grown from her audience at that pronouncement.

She barely suppressed a smirk.

In the mid-level tier of seating, a young woman sat, staring down at Professor Lancer, desperate to get the hell out of the oppressive heat of the lecture theatre. "Old bitch," her friend sitting beside her whispered to her. "I bet she gets off on that stuff."

"What, making us learn?" Sophie Freeman responded, with a grin.

She was a short, slender woman, with shoulder length mousy brown hair and big green eyes, complimented by an easy smile and a willowy frame. Her skin was pale, painfully so for an Australian summer, with a liberal spread of freckles across her nose and cheeks.

"No, making us do all that stuff," her friend moaned, barely bothering to keep her voice down.

Sophie shook her head, but smiled. "Look, Leisel, quit your bitching. This your last year! After this, you've got your degree. Meanwhile, I'll be scraping together credits for another three semesters at least."

Leisel rolled her eyes. "It's not my fault you're on a reduced course load, Soph."

"True enough," Sophie replied, "but if I fail this class because you're nattering at me all semester long, that will be your fault."

Leisel giggled. "True enough, I suppose."

It was only then that the two noticed that the lecturer had fallen silent, and was staring right at them. "Everything okay up there, ladies?" she asked, and there was a titter of laughter through the lecture hall.

Sophie just shook her head, leaving Leisel to absorb the embarrassment of the situation.

"No, um, ma'am," Leisel managed. "We're fine!"

Professor Lancer lifted and eyebrow, and got back to her lecture, leaving Sophie in a fit of silent laughter and Leisel fuming.

"Old bitch," she muttered under her breath.

"If it makes you feel any better, I know for a fact that we've got a copy of Birthday Letters in at the shop at the moment," Sophie whispered to her, careful to keep her voice low now that they'd been caught out by the lecturer. "I'll buy it and we can share it."

Leisel smiled. "Always knew there'd be a bonus for befriending a chick that works at a book shop."

"My pleasant company and sparkling conversation notwithstanding," Sophie said with a grin.

"Oh, but of course," Leisel agreed. "What are you doing after class? It's a nice day out. Maybe one of the last chances we'll have to hit the beach until next summer."

"No, sorry, dear, can't make it," Sophie said, refocusing her attention on the lecturer.

"And why's that?"

"Work," Sophie said, and noticed Leisel mouth the word along with her as she answered.

"You work yourself ragged, Soph," Leisel said. "Tell the manager to shove it. Take a day off."

"I need that job, Leisel," Sophie said with a sigh. "It's either work there, or go back to the supermarket, and I've had it with being a check out chick."

"Yeah, fair enough," Leisel said, sighing. "I'll come and visit you, if you like?"

"What, and remind me of all the fun I'm not having?" Sophie said. "Don't worry about it, Leisel. Just go enjoy the summer."

When the class let out, Sophie said goodbye to Leisel and made her way to the university's main bus stop. Somehow, it was even hotter outside. The campus was leafy, and would have been nice and cool were it not almost literally built on a swamp; walking from class to class in summer was running a gauntlet of a mosquitoes and oppressive humidity. She arrived at the stop just as the 100 bus pulled up.

Big, ancient and obviously unimpressed with the heat, the bus was crowded. Packed with sweating pensioners and students. She found a place to stand up the back of the bus, and waited as it rumbled off down the street, away from the university.

This was her life; an hour bus ride from home to uni, forty five minutes from uni to work, then another twenty minutes from work back home. It was an endless cycle. Aside from Leisel and her friends, whom she never really had time to see anyway, her life was this monotony. Sophie Freeman, living in a tiny apartment she could barely afford, working a job that was boring, but not overly humiliating, desperately trying to scrape together enough academic credits for a degree that would probably be useless anyway. No parents, no past. No future.

And so she rode the bus, suffocating in the summer heat, and she wanted for something more.

Back to index


Chapter 2: The Doctor

TWENTY THOUSAND YEARS LATER
FOUR GALAXIES OVER


The two red giants of the binary system on the third arm of the Aganetha Spiral Galaxy were known, to the Gliknoth tribe of the northern continent on the planet Vrin Valatha, as the Two Colonels. To the Aganetha Mapping Consortium, they were jointly known by an alphanumeric designation eighty-five characters long. To the captain of the intergalactic privateer Prospero, they may as well have been called the End of the Road.

He was about to die.

He knew it. He'd stood on a hundred and fifty different planets, collected Dalek eyestalks for Earth Command, sat in the pilot's chair of a few dozen different starships from fighters no more than six metres long to multi-kilometre dreadnaughts. He was, to put it mildly, experienced. He wasn't ready to die. Not yet.

And yet, impossibly, he was going to.

Luckily for him, his co-pilot, a blue-skinned, tusked, semi-humanoid named Bleeblop wasn't ready to die either. The four-armed man's hands flew over his console. He was fighting to keep Prospero together, but the dozens of alarms and klaxons that rang through the dying vessel betrayed his lack of success.

"Come on, boy," the captain told his ship. "Hold yourself together."

He'd flown Prospero through the Rim Wars. He'd flown her across the Outer Rings. He'd made the Zellan Clasp in under thirty seconds. He'd been proclaimed a hero in seven systems, a war criminal in nineteen. His name was Samson McCluskey, God damn it, and he wasn't going to die here.

"Who are you kidding, Sam?" Bleeblop said. "This is it. We're going to fry."

McCluskey shot his co-pilot a dirty look. "You just keep those stabilisers online."

They'd been evading a Zellan Death Flight by taking the scenic route through the Kron Nebula when one of their commandants had gotten lucky. It'd been a hair-raising flight through the blockade, but they'd made it, the Zellans hot on their heels. McCluskey had finally escaped them, but only by coming out of hyperspace far too close to the Two Colonels. Most of his systems had been burnt out in a few seconds, and all of a sudden he was flying a crippled ship against the gravity of a pair of red giants.

"It's a losing battle, Sam," Bleeblop said, but didn't stop his work. He was too much of a professional for that, and too much of a dogged, stubborn fool to dare give up.

"We've been in losing battles before," McCluskey responded.

"Yeah, and we've lost every time."

"Shut up!" McCluskey said, not without a certain fondness in his tone. He was pulling the controls up hard, fighting to keep the ship stable. He was desperate to break gravity's hold on the old tug.

"Radiation's spiking!"

"Come on, Prospero, keep it together!"

"We're pushing the heat tolerances! I'm about to lose the rear compartments!"

Samson closed his eyes. He'd grown up on a farming colony in the Home Galaxy, a nameless grainworld among dozens of nameless grainworlds. He'd had a good childhood, underprivileged but still happy, his mother and father devoted members of the Grand Church of the Hateful Crone. He himself had never been a believer, but even so he now found himself praying to the Crone, begging Her to lift Her craggy, wrinkled head from Her Grand Tapestry and bestow upon him, a non-believing vagabond, one small moment, one brief, passing second, of grace.

His ship, which a second ago was shaking itself apart, suddenly stopped shaking. It seemed to stop moving all together. The high-pitched whine of its engines silenced. The alarms stopped blaring.

Samson McCluskey had never been so surprised in all his years amongst the stars. "Was that you, ma'am?" he meekly asked the Crone, his eyes still squeezed tight.

"What are you talking about?" Bleeblop asked him.

He opened his eyes.

"Am I dead?"

"If you were dead, you probably wouldn't be talking," Bleeblop said without a hint of mirth. "We're not dead. Something's got us in a tractor beam."

McCluskey considered docking the rude bastard's pay. "Well, what's got us?"

"I have no idea," Bleeblop said, bringing their saviour up on screen. It was… tiny. McCluskey had seen cargo crates bigger than that. He'd flown ships whose cannons had been three times again as wide as whatever it was that was flying alongside Prospero.

"That's what saved us?" McCluskey erupted, shocked. "But it's minuscule! How is it not being torn apart?"

"Whatever it's using to stabilise us is about ten times more powerful than this bucket's reactor's yearly output," Bleeblop said, the awe in his voice quite apparent.

"But… it's small. It's wooden. It's blue!" McCluskey said, unable to believe his eyes.

"And it's hailing us," Bleeblop reported.

"Well, put them through, man!" the captain ordered. The image on the screen shifted, the small blue box vanishing. It was replaced by a man's face. He looked to be human, but if McCluskey had learnt one thing in his time out in space, it was never to take anything at face value. Like a small blue box that was apparently capable of putting out several orders of magnitude more power than his beloved starship. So, like all good men of the spacelanes, his greeting was suspicious and perhaps a little too hostile. "Who the hell are you?"

"Wonderful way to say hello to the man that just saved your life," their saviour said with something like a roguish grin. "I'm the Doctor."

"The ship's doctor?" McCluskey said, unimpressed. "Can I speak to your captain, please?"

"No, no, I am the captain," the man insisted. "That's my name. The Doctor. This is my ship."

Samson McCluskey blinked, and asked flatly "That's your ship?"

The man, the Doctor, just smiled. "I'm pulling you out of the binary pair's gravity field. It should take you a few days to limp to a repair facility."

McCluskey was surprised. "You're just going to let us go?"

"Hmm?"

"Nobody does something for nothing."

The man considered for a moment, before saying "That's true. Well, Captain Samson McCluskey of the intergalactic privateer Prospero, next time you see a blue box on your doorstep, next time you hear that the Doctor has come to call, just know that I'm calling in a favour."

McCluskey was dumbstruck, but Bleeblop managed a question. "Who…" he began, before correcting himself, "what are you?"

The man grinned, eyes twinkling. "Just your friendly neighbourhood Doctor." Just before he switched off the transmission, McCluskey got a look over his shoulder, and found himself staring at a cavernous space.

"Are you really in that blue box?" McCluskey asked, all pretense of the hostile privateer captain lost.

The man winked. "It's bigger on the inside."

The man, the Doctor, reached down, pulled a lever, and the transmission cut

out. On the small screen, the blue box was turning on its central axis slowly. The light atop it began to flare, and then, a moment later, it was gone.

"What the hell was all that?" Bleeblop asked, but Samson McCluskey had no answer.

NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA
FEBRUARY 2011


"Good afternoon, Sophie," the old man behind the counter of Bakers Hill Books said with a smile as the young woman entered.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Rosetti," she said with a smile.

Bakers Hill Books took up the interior of a converted terrace house in the suburb of Bakers Hill, just off the street that dominated the business and commercial life of the district. Bakers Hill was somewhat of an oddity among the fashionable coffee houses and pricey boutiques of the street, but it was a mainstay, a constant. The house it was built in was tiny, from wall to wall packed with shelves, which in turn were packed with books; new books, second-hand, rare, unheard of, universally beloved and reviled. In the back were the magazines and records, upstairs was a reading room and even more books.

Thousands upon thousands.

To Sophie, this place was better than home. Ever since she'd moved to Newcastle after finishing high school, she'd loved the old place. She never knew what she'd find there, which old magazine she could pick up for fifty cents and then return, which old novel she'd find tucked away, on sale for a couple of bucks. She'd been desperate for a job there, even when she'd actually somewhat enjoyed stocking shelves and swiping credit cards at the supermarket, and she'd given a copy of her resume to the manager, Mr. Rosetti's husband. A few months later, she'd gotten a call.

She'd worked there for six months, and it was boring for the most part. Infinitely better than her last job, and probably the best job she could hope for, but the small business was tucked out of the way and didn't have air conditioning. It wasn't that much of a problem in the winter, spring or autumn, but at the height of summer it was torture.

Still, if Mr. Rosetti, a seventy year old Italian bloke and his tiny nonna of a wife, could handle it, so could she.

She took over from Mr. Rosetti, who went off home, and she spent her day behind the counter, with only the small electric fan on the counter keeping her cool. It didn't do a very good job of it.

The customers were few and far between which was fine by her. She spent the free time going through the completely unorganised poetry section, trying to put it into some semblance of order, hunting out the copy of Birthday Letters she was sure was in there somewhere.

In the process, she uncovered a positively ancient edition of The Tempest. Hardback, with an engraved image on the inside cover, the yellowed pages of the book seemed to cry out to her. She'd spent a life being shuttled between foster homes. Her foster parents had all, to a one, been great people, but she'd never had anything approaching stability. Four schools, half a dozen foster brothers and sisters, none of whom she kept in contact with. A few friends at school, but no one she'd been particularly close with.

She'd worked hard, put in the effort, and been rewarded with a small scholarship to attend Newcastle University. It was enough to get her set up in a new city, but then she'd had to find a job. She'd done the fast food thing in high school, and she wasn't going back there, so the supermarket it had been.

Now here.

Stability was a rare thing for her. She'd been on the move ever since that car crash fifteen years before, when her parents had died, and she'd really only had fiction to count on. Books, the adventures and friendships they promised, had been her redoubt, what she'd fall back on amongst the chaos of her unanchored life.

She put the book to one side, and finally found the dog-eared, much annotated copy of Birthday Letters she knew had been lurking around here somewhere.

The rest of the day went by quickly enough, and at six o'clock, with the sun still high, she shut up, locked the door and went off to the bus stop, carrying Birthday Letters and The Tempest like newborn children. The bus took only a few minutes, and was just as crowded as it had been earlier in the day. Thankfully, the heat was starting to bleed from the day, and the relatively short ride to her apartment

Her building was ancient, a four story art deco monstrosity from the twenties, built around a small garden courtyard. She lived on the third floor, in a three-room apartment looking down onto the courtyard.

She'd lived here for a few years now, but she hardly knew any of her neighbours, just the old couple that lived across the way. Mr. and Mrs. Francis were lovely, polite and kind, even if a little aloof. As she reached the third floor corridor, she saw Mr. Francis just stepping out of their apartment. He offered her a smile, and inclined his head slightly.

"Ms. Freeman," he said, the consummate gentlemen. Despite the heat, he was dressed to the nines, with a shirt, tie and jacket. Even, Sophie noticed, cufflinks and a hat.

"Mr. Francis," she greeted in return. "How's Mrs. Francis?"

Mrs. Francis was largely wheelchair bound these days, and Mr. Francis spent most of his time caring for his wife. She'd seen the way he spoke to her, stroking her hair. Though he'd always treated Sophie with a kind of respectful indifference, the way he cared for his wife was touching beyond words, and she had nothing but respect for him.

"She is well, dear," Mr. Francis said, and bid her farewell, heading for the elevator.

The elevator, ancient, loud and rickety, was Sophie's arch nemesis. She'd been trapped in there twice in her first month of residence, and even though it had since been repaired and, by all accounts, now worked perfectly, she'd sworn it off. She took the stairs.

Retrieving her key from her shoulder bag, she opened her apartment door and stepped inside. The room was stuffy and hot, but it felt good to be home. The main room of her apartment was a living-dining area and a connected kitchenette. She didn't have an oven, just a microwave and stovetop, and a second-hand fridge from the late eighties.

No dining table, just an IKEA coffee table and a two-seater couch she'd picked up at a garage sale for a hundred bucks, facing a TV her last foster family had bought her for finishing high school.

Other than that, there wasn't a single piece of furniture in the room. She didn't even bother with a phone, using the university internet and her iPhone. Her bedroom was an entirely different affair.

A queen-sized bed, a pair of bedside tables, a desk with a laptop sitting on it and piles of magazines and books, CDs and DVDs.

She threw her two new books onto her bed, and stared down at the courtyard. No one was out there, but the four deck chairs that had been there since she'd moved in still were. The courtyard as a nice little cobblestoned area, even if its concrete planter boxes were a little overgrown, and her bedroom window gave her a great view.

With nothing else to do for the night, she grabbed Birthday Letters and turned on the TV, settling down on the couch to read.

The car; that day, again, in 1996. She could hear the radio, the announcer discussing the election. Keating or Howard? The day was flying past her window, her parents were talking, and six year old Sophie Freeman knew that she wasn't six, that she wasn't really in the car.

She was dreaming.

The same dream she'd dreamt every night for as long as she could remember. She was about to watch her parents die all over again.

She heard the screeching of wheels as someone stepped on the brakes too late. She heard the crush of metal on metal, the shattering of glass, and she tasted the adrenalin in her mouth. The world went upside down and then it stopped and she was still spinning.

They were dead. She knew it without thinking.

They'd been dead for fifteen years.

She heard the gurgle of blood, of spilt petrol from a broken tank, and past that the silence of a day broken by death. Then, in the distance, a new sound. It was a strange, mysterious noise, a grinding, deep-in-the-gut wheezing. The sound of the universe.

Sophie Freeman's eyes snapped open.

She leapt to her feet, knocking aside the half-finished bowl of mi goreng she'd had for dinner. She had fallen asleep on the couch. The TV was still on, playing an infomercial for a product she recognised from an ad on the bus.

Shaking her head, she went to the kitchenette for a drink.

That noise… she'd had that dream so many times over the last fifteen years. Grief counsellors, psychologists, concerned foster parents had all tried to help her stop having them, but the dreams had kept coming back. There had been small variations before. Sometimes she heard her parents, sometimes she didn't. Sometimes she felt someone pull her from the wreckage of the car, and sometimes the flames reached her.

She'd never heard that noise before.

Quickly downing a glass of water, she went to her bedroom. The clock radio on her bedside table told her it was three a.m. She only had four hours before she had to be up to go to uni, but she was bone tired.

As she passed the window, something made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up on end.

She turned, and looked down into the courtyard. She gasped.

Down there, beside the overgrown planter boxes and on top of the deck chairs, which had been turned into so many matchsticks, was a big blue box. Smoke rose from it as if it were on fire, but through the smoke she could make out a light on top, and glowing words set into the upper third.

"What the hell is that?" she whispered to no one.

From where she was standing, it looked like it was made of wood, and resembled nothing so much as a phone box. That was too weird not to investigate, she decided, and still dishevelled from her impromptu couch sleep, she dashed to the door and then down the corridor. For the first time in months, she stopped in front of the elevator and hit the button.

As the tiny cabin descended, Sophie was suddenly overwhelmed by a headache. The pain exploded in both temples, white hot agony that burned through her brain. For a moment, she couldn't see.

A second later, the pain subsided, and the elevator doors opened, depositing her on the ground floor.

Shaking off the last of the pain, she moved from the elevator, towards the courtyard. She stepped out into the cool, summer's night air, only to find the courtyard looking exactly as it had in the afternoon. The deckchairs, which looked to have smashed to bits by that blue box when she'd been in her apartment, were still sitting there.

Confused, Sophie lifted an eyebrow, turned around, and went back upstairs to bed.

Back to index


Chapter 3: Mr. and Mrs. Francis

If she had dreams after she went back to bed, Sophie didn't remember them when she woke up in the morning. Sunlight was streaming in the window of her bedroom when the clock radio came to life at exactly seven o'clock, assaulting her sleep-addled mind with the inane chatter of Newcastle's premier breakfast radio hosts.

Slapping the snooze button, she waited beneath the sheets for a few moments, putting herself together. When the alarm went off again, she was out of bed like a shot, knowing that if she stayed any longer she'd end up falling asleep again. She was so tired that her arms and legs ached with fatigue, and her eyes were dry and sore. The back of her throat tasted terrible.

It was rare that her morning ritual varied in the slightest. Straight out of bed into the bathroom for a shower, the creaking of the ancient pipes heralding a rush of hot water that properly woke her up, before getting dressed, making herself a quick breakfast and then cleaning her teeth, just in time to be out on the street for the bus.

That morning, however, everything seemed to take longer than usual. Or, she thought to herself, time just seemed to be passing her by faster than it usually did.

Maybe it was because she kept staring from her bedroom window down into the courtyard. She hadn't even noticed she'd been doing it until the third time she caught herself looking, her heart catching in her throat. The deck chairs, crushed to splinters the night before, were still intact; it must have been a dream, she told herself, but she couldn't bring herself to believe that simple platitude. It had seemed so real, so certain.

Could she really have dreamt up the appearance of the blue box the night before? She'd fallen asleep on the couch, sure, had a drink of water… but after that, she wasn't sure what had actually happened and what she'd imagined, what figments her imagination had cooked up.

She did, however, remember that sound; the scraping, wheezing groan, ancient. Even the thought of that noise made the hair on the nape of her neck stand on end, sent a chill down to her very bones, despite the heat of the rapidly warming day outside.

She opened her window to let the breeze in, and the scrape of the wood set her teeth on edge.

Glancing at the clock, she realised she was out of time. Forgoing breakfast, she crammed her laptop, books and wallet in her bag and then she was off. Out the front door, down the stairs of her apartment building, and into the foyer. She bumped past one of her neighbours taking out letters from his mail slot, and then stepped through the glass-fronted double doors onto the building's raised doorway. A few steps down to the pavement, then a short walk up the street to the bus stop, little more than a sign on a metal pole.

Already waiting there was Mr. Francis, as stately and resplendently dressed as usual. Most mornings he went into town to take care of errands while he left his wife in the capable hands of her day nurse.

"Good morning, Mr. Francis," Sophie said, not as brightly as she'd intended.

Mr. Francis cast her his customarily appraising eye, before inclining his head. "Good morning, Sophie."

"How's Mrs. Francis?"

Even as she asked the question, a bus turned the corner into the street and began powering up the road towards them. She reached into her bag, pulling out her wallet, as it coasted to a stop. Mr. Francis, though, seemed not to have even noticed the bus, and was still staring at her in confusion.

"Hmm?" he intoned, as if for clarification.

Sophie was confused. "Your wife, Mr. Francis? How is she?"

"I don't know what you mean, dear," he said, just as the driver opened the bus doors. The elderly man got aboard, leaving Sophie gaping in his wake.

How could he have forgotten her? His own wife. The thought that dementia had gotten a grip on the regal old gentleman was too sad for Sophie to even consider, but she couldn't help but acknowledge the possibility. She chalked it up to confusion on his part, tiredness, maybe even some sort of weird game that had been all the rage in the forties.

Following him aboard the bus she noticed that, for the first time in weeks, it wasn't full to bursting. As she handed her money to the driver, flashing her student concession card in the process, she asked "Is everyone sick?"

"Sorry, love?" the driver asked.

"It looks like I might actually be able to get a seat today," she replied.

The driver shrugged. "It's been a pretty normal morning."

Shaking her head, she took her ticket from him and made her way up to the back of the bus. She chose a seat, placed her head against the cool glass of the window, and felt the vibrations of the engine as the bus trundled down the street on its way towards town, and past that, the university.

First thing that morning at uni was the second Critical Reading lecture of the week. Why that class needed two two-hour lectures was utterly beyond her, but she was scared enough of Professor Lancer not to try and skip it, especially this early in the semester and especially after Leisel's little display the day before.

The trip usually took an hour, but it felt like barely twenty minutes before she was pressing the button to get the bus to stop.

She took her phone from her bag and texted Leisel, asking her if she'd arrived yet. Leisel, notoriously lazy when it came to replying to messages, seemed to be on her game, the reply coming almost immediately.

Sophie rushed off to meet her friend, who was enjoying an early morning coffee at the uni's tiny, homely café. Joining Leisel at one of the picnic tables outside the small building, she smiled. "How's it going?"

"Not bad, not bad," Leisel said, sipping at her coffee. "How was work?"

"The usual," Sophie said. "I did find two of the books we need for this class though. Birthday Letters and Tempest."

"Oh, cool," Leisel chirruped. "How much do I owe you?"

Sophie shook her head. "Nothing. I put some money in the till yesterday for them. I'll lend them to you, but just remember that they're mine."

Leisel laughed. "You already have too many books in your place, Soph."

Sophie had to agree. "How was the beach?"

"Eh?" Leisel asked, lifting an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

Sophie blinked. "Didn't you say you were going to the beach yesterday? After class?"

Leisel considered, and then stared off to the side, as if confused. "I suppose I did say that."

"So you didn't go?"

"I guess not," Leisel said, sounding as though she was admitting something to herself. Her brow was crinkled; she was thinking hard on something. "I can't actually remember what I did yesterday. I remember being here, in class with you… and then I remember you texting me."

"Jesus, Leisel, how much did you drink last night?" Sophie teased, but she couldn't ignore that nagging voice of concern at the back of her mind.

Leisel laughed, snapped out of her confusion. "Ha, you can be a bitch."

Checking her phone, Sophie saw that they didn't have long to get to class. "Come on, we'd better go. If Lancer has any idea who we are, she's probably gunning for us after your little display yesterday."

Leisel blushed. "Yeah, fine. Come on."

The lecture hall wasn't nearly as full as it had been the day before, and was thankfully much cooler. They found seats fairly close to the front, on Sophie's insistence, so they'd be more likely to pay attention. She pushed aside the competing notion that they'd be more likely to be caught when that attention inevitably waned.

As the minutes dragged on, and more and more people filed into the hall, Sophie was sure the class was a lot smaller than it had been yesterday. "God, how many people did Lancer scare off?" Sophie asked Leisel, who was busy poking through the copy of Birthday Letters Sophie had found.

"Huh?" Leisel asked.

"Yesterday this place was packed," Sophie insisted. "We barely got seats, remember? Now look at it."

Leisel said, her tone non-committal, "Yeah, I suppose."

Sophie frowned, but decided to drop it. What was happening? It felt like time was slipping away from her, like things were happening too quickly. That wasn't all that was bothering her thought. First, Mr. Francis seemed to have no idea who his wife was, and now here she was, in a class that had been packed the day before only to find that the enormous lecture hall was not even at half capacity. Leisel had been adamant about going to the beach, and now she didn't even properly remember saying that. The bus ride had been so short, too, and she'd gotten a seat. She barely remembered ever landing a seat on that damn thing before.

What was happening?

"Leisel," Sophie said, touching her forehead with the tips of her fingers, "I think I'm getting a headache."

"Are you all right?" Leisel asked, but even as her friend spoke Sophie felt the white-hot explosion of pain radiating out through her skull from her temples. Leisel asked her something else, but the question was lost in a burst of pain that seemed to drown all other perceptions out.

Then, as quickly as it started, it stopped.

Professor Lancer was up at the lectern, the projection screen behind her active, and all the students in their seats. Leisel was looking at her with concern, but that was the only continuity; everything else around had seemed to change. It was though a few minutes had just vanished.

She noticed Leisel's mouth was moving, and in a rush all other perceptions came flooding back to her. Sophie gasped, as she heard her friend ask "What's wrong?"

Sophie just shook her head, and stood up from her seat. She was moving, suddenly, propelling herself faster and faster towards the nearest exit. Dashing down the corridor, she found the ladies' room and burst inside, barely making it to a stall before she vomited.

Kneeling on the tiled floor, she hacked and spat, trying to get the taste out of her mouth.

She felt, rather than heard, Leisel enter the stall behind her.

"God, Soph, are you all right?"

Sophie just managed to shake her head before another wave of nausea overwhelmed her. This time, she managed to retain control of her stomach long enough to look up. She noticed that Leisel had grabbed her bag for her and was carrying it. "I don't know," she said, honestly. "I just feel… I don't know."

Shaking her head, Sophie leant back, and Leisel helped her to her feet. "Come on, have some water."

Leading her over to the sinks, she turned on the cold tap, and Sophie was only too glad to feel the water pour over her outstretched hands. She splashed her face and had a quick drink.

"And you were having a go at me for how much I drank last night," Leisel teased, her tone gentle.

Sophie couldn't help but smile. "Thanks, Leisel. I don't suppose we've done much to get our stocks up in Lancer's book."

Leisel frowned. "Who?"

Sophie blinked. "Our professor? I just left her class?"

Leisel shook her head. "Look, don't worry about that. Here, take your bag. We've got to get you home, Soph. You're obviously not well at all."

Sophie sighed. "I can't just skip a class, Leisel, and I have work this afternoon."

Her friend grimaced. "Come on, Soph, I think your manager would understand if you begged off work today, huh? I mean, you're pretty clearly sick. They can't expect you to sell dusty old books all afternoon on a day like today if you're like this… you probably got sick because of that shop, anyway. Can you imagine all the mould and germs and stuff that are floating around in there?"

"They're depending on me, Leisel, and I need the money," Sophie said. "You're right, though. I'll go home now, have a rest. I'll be right for this afternoon."

"Are you sure?" Leisel asked, watching her with worry plain in her eyes. "You've been running yourself ragged for so long now, it can't be good for you at all."

Sophie laughed. "No, I suppose it's not."

"We didn't even go out for your birthday last month," Leisel added, as she helped her friend out of the bathroom. "Come on, I'll drive you home. Here's some gum, by the way. Figured you might need it."

Sophie took the proffered stick of gum, if only to get the taste of vomit out of her mouth. "I can't let you miss a class for me."

"Oh please, Soph," Leisel said with a sigh, "like I give a shit."

Leisel's car would have already been old when Sophie had been born. Blue, damn near falling apart, its engine roared with reluctance whenever it was started and it resisted every change of gear. Still, Leisel loved the rust bucket, and Sophie couldn't blame her. There was something homely and dependable about the thing, despite the near-constant oil changes and the number of near-disastrous breakdowns they'd survived.

Sophie settled into the passenger seat as Leisel drove, and stared out the window. Until she was about ten, car rides had terrified her. Even seeing a car go down the street had been enough to frighten her.

Years of grief counselling and therapy had helped her get over that particular anxiety, which she'd been told wasn't unusual considering what had happened to her parents. She had a family photo album stashed somewhere in her aparment, but "family" might have been a stretch. After all, it was only ever just the three of them in the pictures. Mother, father and baby Sophie.

As the car drove, she thought about the pictures she'd always studied so intently. Her mother, vivacious, happy, with Sophie's curly brown hair. Her father, balding, tall, with her brilliant green eyes. Little Sophie sitting on their laps, hugging them, playing with blocks on the red shagpile rug that had been in their living room. They'd both been only children, their parents long dead, and they themselves had been just barely young enough to have kids. Sophie had been their miracle baby. Twice over, she realised as Leisel's car rumbled through the Newcastle streets.

Sophie remembered the feel of that rug against her little hands. She remembered those blocks. She even remembered, through flashes of perception and emotion, the joy with which her mother had reacted when she'd managed to stack them the first time.

She remembered so little about her parents beyond the basic statistics, the simple facts of age, name, birthdate and, of course, date of death. That was fair enough, since they'd died when she was so young, but even so she remembered how they had made her feel; Matthew and Sarah Freeman had made her feel safe. Loved. Warm.

As good as her foster families had been, as caring and kind, she'd never felt anything approaching the love and companionship she'd felt when she was her mother's arms, on her father's shoulders.

The closest thing she had to a family now was Leisel, the Rosettis, the Francises; as much as she adored Leisel and the Rosettis, as much as she admired and respected Mr. and Mrs. Francis, as much as she'd appreciated her foster families, when it came down to it, she felt alone. She'd always been alone. On the periphery. That's just who Sophie Freeman was. It wasn't so much that she enjoyed this perception overly; she'd become resigned to it as a fact of her existence.

Lost in her own thoughts, she didn't notice that they'd reached her apartment building until Leisel nudged her. "You're home, Soph," she said, her voice kind. Leisel was always kind.

Sophie smiled. "Thanks, Leisel. Look, I'm sorry about all this."

"Don't be sorry, Soph, you can't help that you're sick."

When she'd first met Leisel, in her first ever class at uni, the confident young woman had slightly overwhelmed her. She was the eldest daughter of a big family, her dad a Polish immigrant and her mum a second generation German immigrant, and she had a depth to her, a background, that Sophie couldn't hope to compete with. They lived up the coast, and leaving her family, Leisel had told Sophie, was one of the best things she'd ever done for herself. She loved them, of course, but she'd felt that she needed to spread her wings, stand on her own two feet.

Sophie had teased her about the cliche, but Leisel had shrugged. The fact was that Leisel knew her family, and they'd helped her define her place in the world, a feat Sophie had never quiet managed.

For Leisel, her family had been an anchor, keeping her grounded and strong. Sophie had never had that, despite the best efforts of the generous, fantastic men and women who'd welcomed her into their homes over the years.

Sophie reached over the centre console, and gave her friend a quick hug. "Thanks for getting me home."

"No problem," Leisel assured her. "Look, I'll give you a call later this afternoon, okay? Make sure everything's all right?"

Sophie nodded. "I've got work at two."

Leisel smiled. "We'll see."

Sophie shook her head. She picked up her bag, put it over her shoulder, and stepped out of the car, heading up towards her apartment.

Even though she'd left the window open that morning, the apartment was stifling. Sophie threw her bag on the couch, and went to get herself a glass of water. The old pipes groaned with consternation, but finally a stream of too-warm water came from the faucet. Letting it run for a while, she suddenly remembered how Mr. Francis had seemed unaware of his wife that morning.

She turned off the tap, wondering if what she was planning was actually a good idea. Maybe it would be better to just leave well enough alone. No, she decided, something was wrong, and they might need her help.

She went out into the corridor, and crossed to the door leading into the Francises' apartment. Knocking once, she pressed her ear against the wood. She could hear nothing from inside, which was odd, because Mrs. Francis usually had some kind of music playing. Jazz, girl groups from the sixties, Frank Sinatra…

Her heart sank. Could Mrs. Francis have passed away? Was that why Mr. Francis had not answered her that morning? Sophie knocked on the door again, only to once again hear no sign of movement on the other side.

She reached down to the doorknob, twisted it, only to find the door unlocked. Opening it, she stepped inside.

"Mr. Francis?" she called. "Mrs. Francis?"

Struggling to remember the name of the day nurse, she looked around the doorjamb, to find an apartment identical to hers… without a single item of furniture in there at all. No pictures on the walls, no chairs, no nothing. It was as if no one had lived there at all.

Could they have moved out? She would have noticed, surely, movers? Unless they'd come in yesterday afternoon while she'd been at work. Mr. Francis had been leaving, on his way somewhere… maybe to wherever it was he would be staying now? Perhaps he'd come back this morning just to return his key to the landlord, who lived on the first floor himself. But she'd asked him yesterday how his wife was, and he'd told her she was fine.

She must have died, Sophie realised. "Oh, that poor man," she said to himself, and left the empty apartment, shutting the door behind her.

She returned to her apartment, got herself a drink of water, and went to her bedroom. Sitting on the dishevelled sheets, she sipped from her glass and she began to cry.

Back to index


Chapter 4: Professor Lancer

The car. That day, so long ago. Fifteen years ago.

She heard the engine, the wheels, the crackle of static on the radio. She felt the crash was coming, felt her parents were about to die. She sat there, in the back seat, her life speeding on down towards its inevitable outcomes; her being made an orphan, her isolation, her death.

She felt herself die, this time, as the car crashed. As the metal was torn apart, as the windows shattered, as her parents' lives her snuffed out before her, she felt herself die.

She was in the back seat, bleeding.

A fire, somewhere, was getting closer and closer to split open petrol tank. It would ignite, she knew, and take her with it as it turned the crashed car into an inferno from which there would be no escape.

Twenty-year-old Sophie Freeman felt her five-year-old self die.

"Sophie?"

She didn't recognise the voice, but it was warm, kind; a whisper against the gale, as if someone was speaking to her from very far away. The hint of a British accent, but she couldn't pick from where. The flames were getting closer, they were growing all around her. She was going to die.

"Sophie," the voice repeated, more insistent this time. "Can you hear me?"

She couldn't see anyone else, couldn't really hear that voice… it was though she was feeling it, remembering it. The fire was growing. Her parents were dead, and she was about to join them.

She was going to die, fifteen years ago, and she knew it with an absolute, gut-wrenching certainty. She was already dead. She'd died when she was fifteen.

"This is just a dream," the voice assured her. "Can you hear me?"

"Yes," she answered, though she knew she wasn't speaking. "I can hear you."

"Good," the voice told her. "You'll be okay. This is just a dream, all right? You know it's a dream. You've had it before."

"Yeah," she agreed. She was dying, she was dying, and she knew it, despite what this voice was telling her. She was going to die in just a few more minutes, a few seconds, the flames were so hot and so close.

"The fire isn't real, Sophie," the voice told her. "None of this is real. Just focus on the sound of my voice."

"I can't die here," she insisted, she pleaded.

"You're not going to," the voice promised. "You know you're not. Focus on the sound of my voice."

"Oh God," she cried, "the fire!"

She felt someone grab her shoulder, felt an arm wrap around her midsection. In all her dreams before now, she'd never remembered who exactly had saved her from the wreck of her parents' car; she'd always assumed a policeman, or a fireman, or an ambulance officer or something like that.

She felt someone tug at her little body.

"Hold on, Sophie," the voice told her, almost grandfatherly; it was a young man's voice, to be certain, but there was something indescribably ancient about it.

She was free of the car, free of the heat and the flame, and through her tears and terror, she looked up and saw her own face looking down at her. She reached out to touch that face, the freckles, the wide green eyes, only for the world to fall away from her. A second later, there was nothing but white light pervading everything, nothing but the sound of her own heartbeat…

"It'll be difficult," the voice told her. "You'll have to fight, Sophie, and fight hard, but it'll be okay. You will be okay. Do you understand?"

"What are you talking about? What fight?"

"Do you understand me?" the voice was rushing her now, as though whoever was speaking to her was running out of time.

"Yes," she said, more because she felt she had to than because she actually understood. She was about to speak again, when she heard the noise she'd heard the night before. It was a beautiful, terrible sound, as if the universe were being torn apart and then put back together, stitched up by some cosmic needle and thread.

Suddenly, the sound died away, replaced with the buzzing of a mobile phone set to vibrate.

And then she woke up.



"Damn it, damn it, damn it," Sophie said as she leapt up from her bed. Rooting through her bag, she found her phone, just in time to miss Leisel's call. Sending a text to her friend, telling her she felt all right, she realised that she'd slept a little too long. She'd cried herself to exhaustion, eventually slipping into sleep.

Quickly ducking into the bathroom to clean her teeth and check her hair, she gathered up her stuff and hustled towards her apartment door. She avoided looking at the Francises' door, and hurried down the steps. As she reached the ground floor, a headache overwhelmed her again, pain building from her temples across her forehead, until she was forced to shut her eyes against it.

She heard her heart pounding in her ears for a moment, and then the pain died away. Making a mental note to stop by the health care centre at the uni to get the headaches checked out, she headed out of the lobby of her building, past the mailboxes set in the wall and down the front steps. It was only a short walk to the bus stop, and she got there not long before the bus that would take her into work arrived.

Getting on board, she saw that it was even less crowded than the bus had been this morning, which wasn't too unusual for this time of the afternoon. What was unusual, though, was that the exact same bus driver was sitting behind the wheel.

"Hello again," she said, somewhat surprised. There were enough buses, and enough routes, in Newcastle that it was unlikely to see the same driver once a week, let alone twice on the same day.

The man looked straight through her, though, as if she wasn't even there.

"Do you remember me from this morning?" she asked as he handed her her ticket.

"Can't say I do, love," he said simply.

She smiled at him, not too surprised. He must have dealt with a lot of passengers over the course of the day. She retreated up to the back of the bus, and took a seat, but it seemed like just seconds passed after she sat down before the bus arrived at her stop.

It didn't take her long to get down to Bakers Hill Books, which seemed decidedly more organised than it had been yesterday.

Now, instead of barrel-chested Mr. Rosetti, his wife, the slight, white-haired Mrs. Rosetti, born and raised in Puglia, was standing behind the counter. She grinned her pearly false-toothed grin as she saw Sophie come enter.

"Sorry I'm late, Mrs. Rosetti," Sophie said.

The store was much cooler than it had been yesterday; in fact, Sophie realised, everything had seemed cooler today than yesterday. Her apartment may have been warm, but it wasn't the inferno she'd stepped into yesterday night when she'd gotten home. Even the buses hadn't been as hot. It felt more like spring than summer.

"Don't worry about it, bella," the old lady said with a smile, her accent thick despite decades spent in Australia. "How are you today?"

"Fine," Sophie said, joining her at the counter. She put her bag beneath it, and enjoyed the sensation of the cool air from the electric fan washing over her.

"Don't lie to me, Sophie," Mrs. Rosetti told her, not unkindly. "I can see that you're looking pale. Are you feeling well?"

"I've just been getting headaches," Sophie said, waving away her concern. "Things seem a little weird lately. One of my neighbours died."

"Oh, I'm so sorry!" Mr. Rosetti said, tutting. "That's sad. What happened?"

"Just old age," Sophie assured her. "She was pretty poorly, I think, towards the end. I saw her husband yesterday and he seemed fine, but I think he was probably just putting on a brave face."

"Are you all right?"

"Oh, yeah," Sophie said, "it just caught me by surprise. I was a bit sick this morning, but I think I slept it off this afternoon."

Mrs. Rosetti studied her. "You work yourself too hard, Sophie. I'm happy to give you all the shifts you need here, but between the store and university, I think you're stretching yourself too far."

Sophie sighed. "It's fine, Mrs. Rosetti, it really is. I love working here, I do."

Mrs. Rosetti laughed. "Don't think I don't know how boring it can be. Now, listen, we have an old customer coming in this afternoon. She's got two or three boxes he wants to offload. Spy books and crime novels, mostly, that sort of thing. She should be in around four thirty, five."

Sophie nodded. "Have you sorted out a price?"

"A hundred and fifty for the lot," Mrs. Rosetti assured her. "Fifty for each box. All I want you to do is go through and price them, put them in the right section. I don't really mind if it's not all in perfect order, but keep it organised, if you don't mind."

Sophie glanced around the shop. "Yeah, everything looks a bit tidier today."

"How do you mean, dear?" Mrs. Rosetti asked.

"I'm just saying, the store seems a lot more organised today. I tried to clear up the poetry section yesterday afternoon, but I'm not sure how well I did… did you do all this tidying this morning?"

Mrs. Rosetti looked around the shop. The overflowing shelves and boxes of old and new books were certainly tidier than they had been yesterday, and they looked better than they had in months. Mrs. Rosetti shook her head, as though clearing it. Sophie was reminded of how Leisel had acted earlier that morning, when they'd discussed what she'd been doing the night before.

"I… suppose I must have done," Mrs. Rosetti said. "Anyway, I'll be off. Now, listen, I think you need a bit of a break."

"Look, Mrs. Rosetti," Sophie began to protest, but the old lady just waved her hand.

"No, dear, I wasn't going to force you take any time off. God forbid you should ever have a few days to yourself," Mrs. Rosetti said, her tone light and teasing, "but you should come over for dinner tonight. I'll send a taxi to pick you up after closing time, hmm? Mr. Rosetti and I would love to have you."

Sophie grinned. "Thanks, Mrs. Rosetti, but I don't want to impose on you…"

"Impose?" Mrs. Rosetti exclaimed. "Don't be ridiculous! Roberto loves you, I love you. The taxi will be here at six thirty sharp, and I expect you to be on my doorstep by six forty five at the very latest."

Sophie couldn't help but smile. "All right, Mrs. Rosetti. Thanks for the offer. I'll see you then, I suppose."

"Yes you will," Mrs. Rosetti insisted. She picked up her handbag and headed for the door, leaving Sophie to her shift.

There was a steady stream of customers, but the hours seemed to fly by. Before long, Mrs. Rosetti's customer was due in, and Sophie finished her daily attempts at further organising the store, taking her place behind the counter. There seemed to be far fewer books in the place than there had been yesterday, and no one even had gone upstairs all afternoon.

Sophie shrugged it off though. She was definitely coming down with something; a headache flared up intermittently, and she was shaky and a bit nauseous. Probably just the beginning of a bout with the flu, but definitely not something she was looking forward to.

At least a home cooked meal with the Rosettis was in her near future.

The bell above the front door jingled, and Sophie looked up. A short, stout woman entered, struggling under the weight of a box that was probably full of books. Sophie went to help her, only to realise it was Professor Lancer.

"Oh, hi," Sophie said, sounding a little dim.

"Hello," the woman said, before realising who it was she was talking to. "Oh, hello! You're in one of my classes, aren't you?"

"Critical Reading," Sophie answered robotically. She was still embarrassed by the way she'd dashed out of class earlier that morning.

"Ah, that's right," Professor Lancer said, her eyes shining. "I remember you. Friends with the loud blonde one."

Sophie couldn't help but laugh. "That sounds like Leisel to me."

"How are you finding the course thus far?"

Sophie looked away, embarrassed. "I didn't actually get to the lecture this morning. I wasn't very well."

Professor Lancer lifted an eyebrow. "Oh? There's been a bit of a wog going around the uni," she said. "Take care of yourself. I'm sure that there's a lot of pressure on you, with work and uni, friends and a love life…"

Sophie couldn't help but laugh at that. "Love life? I haven't had a boyfriend since my last year of high school."

Professor Lancer smiled. "That's not true, I'm sure."

"No, really, I wish I was making it up," Sophie insisted. "If I'm not working, I'm at uni. I barely get a chance to do anything besides, well, this."

Professor Lancer nodded. Finally, they managed to lift the box of books onto the counter. "Is that it?" Sophie asked.

Lancer nodded. "It sure is."

Sophie frowned. "That's weird."

"How so?"

"It's just that Mrs. Rosetti said that she had a customer who was going to come in with two or three boxes of books. A hundred and fifty bucks, three boxes of books, fifty bucks a box."

"Well," Lancer said, "I did call Fabrizia. We agreed on fifty dollars for the box, but I only ever offered her one box of books…"

Sophie frowned. "I could have sworn..."

She trailed off, realising that she was going to sound forgetful or absent-minded at least, crazy at worst. She went around behind the counter, and opened the register, pulling out a yellow fifty-dollar note. "One note all right?"

Professor Lancer nodded. Sophie handed her the money, which she quickly put away in her wallet. "You know, Sophie, I might come across as a bit of a hard-ass in the lecture theatre, but I know what it's like to try and balance undergraduate study and work. Do you have a support structure?"

Sophie bit her lower lip. "Um, no. Not really. Aside from the Rosettis and Leisel and a few other mates."

"Mum and dad not around?"

"Um," Sophie said, considering whether or not to tell the woman. "No. They're not."

Professor Lancer considered her. "If you need help with anything over the semester, just drop me an email, all right? I can give you a few days' leeway for assignments, a bit of academic consideration. We just need to go through the motions, and all that."

Sophie smiled, genuinely. "Thank you very much, Professor. I'll see you in class next week then."

Professor Lancer nodded. "Next week, Ms. Freeman."

The woman turned to leave, and as the bell on the door jingled behind her, Sophie went to examine the books that she'd just bought on behalf of the Rosettis. Before she reached the box, though, the headaches returned; white hot pain exploded behind her eyes, knocking the breath from her.

She was suddenly on her knees, the pain too much for her to handle. All she could hear was the blood rushing in her ears, and her own laboured breathing; she missed the jingling of the doorbell as someone else entered the store.

Then, just as before, the headache died away. She shook her head, and pulled herself back on to her feet. It was only then that she realised someone had helped her up. Two strong hands had pulled her onto her feet. She turned around, and saw a tall man, at least two metres in height, with broad shoulders and a mop of dark, wavy hair. He was, incongruously for the summer heat, wearing a knee-length black pea coat, and tight black jeans.

"Are you all right?" he asked, and she blinked.

She recognised that voice, but she couldn't quite tell from where. An accent, a clipped, somewhat imperious voice… he was a young-ish man, who couldn't have been more than thirty, but there was something in his eyes. Something that glimmered behind them, that just seemed so ancient. Impossibly, unimaginably old.

She realised she was staring. Shaking her head, she said "Yeah, yeah… I'm fine. Um, sorry about that, I must be a bit dehydrated."

Studying her for a moment, the man said "No. No, I don't think so."

Sophie glanced at the clock behind the counter. The time surprised her; somehow, a few hours had vanished off the clock, and the cab Mrs. Rosetti said she send must have only been a few minutes away by now. "Um, how long we you in here for?" she asked him.

"Just a few seconds," the man said. "I think. Time's been getting away from me today."

Sophie looked at him. Did he know something? "I'm sorry, what?"

He shrugged. "I don't know, really. It seems like one moment I'm just standing somewhere and all of a sudden… I'm somewhere else. Usually comes with a headache."

Sophie blinked. She looked the man up and down. "Who are you?"

He didn't answer, but kept staring at her quite intently, before lifting his eyebrow and asking "Who are you, Sophie Freeman?"

Sophie took an involuntary step back. "Who the hell are you?"

"In this context," the man said, seemingly oblivious to how creeped out she was, "I'm not sure. I suppose, generally, you might call me the friendly neighbourhood Doctor. But right now… I don't know."

Sophie was shaking her head. Whatever nonsense this guy was talking, she didn't want a bar of it. "You need to leave this store. Now, sir."

"Really? Why?"

"Because we're just about to close, and you're making me very uncomfortable," she declared, and started to guide him towards the front door.

"Am I? Sorry," he said, and stopped in the doorway. He turned to her. "Look, perhaps we got off on the wrong foot here. I'm the Doctor. You're Sophie Freeman. Hello, nice to meet you."

"How do you know my name?"

"Because, right now, you're the most important woman in the world," the man, the Doctor, said, his eyes aflame.

"What the hell are you talking about?" Sophie demanded.

"I'm not sure yet," he admitted. "I'm still trying to figure out what exactly is happening."

She shook her head. "Fine, whatever, just stay the hell away from me."

"That's going to be pretty difficult," he responded. "Wherever I go, there you are. The world's shrinking, Sophie, and you're at the centre of it."

Sophie felt like she'd been punched in the stomach. "What… what do you mean? The world is shrinking?"

The man just shook his head. "Haven't you noticed it? Time just flying past… people that are suddenly missing, almost as if they'd never been there at all. Look at this store. Where are all the books? Yesterday, there were hundreds upon hundreds, thousands. How long did it take you to get here? Where are all the people?"

Sophie blinked. "Get out."

"I can leave, Sophie, but you'll see me again."

"Get out!" she repeated, shoving him in the chest. He stumbled back a bit, but maintained his footing.

"Just trust me, Sophie," he asked. "Please."

Sophie was about to speak again, when she realised that he'd just asked the impossible. Trust? How could she possibly trust him? She didn't trust anyone. She had never trusted anyone, and she wasn't about to start now. Then it hit her; another headache, worse than any she'd experienced yet. Her knees buckled, and she fell, but she felt the Doctor grab her by her elbows and keep her on her feet.

She took a deep breath, and the headache disappeared. "Are you all right?" the Doctor asked, but she pushed him away.

"Get out," she demanded, her voice little more than a croak. She gave the Doctor another shove out the open door, and slammed it shut behind him. She locked it, quickly, and looked through the pane of glass onto the rapidly darkening street.

The Doctor looked at her for a second more, before walking off down the street. She turned around, and looked back into the store. She gasped when she saw how empty the shelves seemed… and then, a moment later, she wasn't sure they'd ever been filled to begin with.

She went back to the counter to get her bag, only to notice that the box of books Professor Lancer had dropped off was almost empty. She blinked. What felt like moments ago it had been full, packed to overflowing. She shook her head, remembering what the Doctor had told her; things had been vanishing all day, time had been getting away from her. Her breathing grew laboured, heavy, and her mind began to race. What did it mean?

A car's horn sounding on the street outside interrupted her thoughts, and they fell away. Shaking her head, she grabbed her bag and headed for the door. Unlocking it again, she stepped out, and noticed the cab waiting on the street. Locking the door behind her, she headed over to the car.

She didn't notice the Doctor, watching her from the shadows.

As the car drove away, he shook his head. "What's happening to you, Sophie Freeman?"

Back to index


Chapter 5: The Rosettis

The cab ride was mercifully short, and when the driver pulled up out the front of the Rosettis' house, Sophie leant forward to pay him. He begged off, saying that Mrs. Rosetti had already paid him.

As she grabbed her bag and prepared to get out, she caught a brief glimpse of the man's face in the rear view mirror. "Hang on," she said, "are you…?"

"Sorry, love?" the man said, and she thought she recognised his slightly doughy face and balding pate immediately. He was the bus driver from earlier in the day; but what were the odds of that? "What's wrong?"

Sophie shook her head. "Um, just déjà vu, I guess, unless… are you a bus driver as well, by any chance?"

The man frowned. "No."

"Oh," she said, and reached for the car door. She cast another look at him, but he was staring off into space, as if confused. She remembered seeing that look on Leisel's face, and Mr. Francis' earlier in the morning. She knew what they had all been thinking; the same thing she had been in the shop, earlier, when that man, the Doctor, had pushed her to look for the missing pieces. Something was very, very wrong.

Finally, the man shook his head, and he urged her out with a friendly, "Come on, love, out you get."

Taking her bag, Sophie stepped out of the cab, which almost immediately started up the street. Her mind still racing, trying to figure out what was going on around her, she turned towards the Rosettis' house, a squat, dark-brick bungalow sitting on a quiet, leafy suburban street. It had been built in the fifties, and it matched its neighbours almost to a tee. The only difference, really, was that while the neighbouring gardens featured well-trimmed rose bushes or a perfectly manicured lawn, the Rosettis were growing tomatoes and herbs. Despite her confusion and the creeping sense of dread that surrounded her, Sophie couldn't help but smile as the scents of their garden played around her in the darkening night.

She'd been here a few times before, mostly to events that the Rosettis threw for their enormous extended family; important birthdays, confirmations, baptisms, that sort of thing. They'd invited her along mostly as a courtesy, and she'd always had plenty of fun, but it'd always been tempered by the knowledge that, amongst all those toddlers and kids and teenagers and the teeming masses of an unrepentantly Catholic Italian family, she didn't quite belong. Her parents, she knew, had been irreligious and hadn't had much in the way of family at any rate.

As she headed up the garden path towards the front door, her rather sensitive nose picked up the scent of cooked tomato and spices, quite distinct from the smells of the gardsen. The night had cooled considerably, and she realised she hadn't eaten since breakfast that morning. Her stomach rumbled, and as she reached the bottom step, pain exploded through her skull yet again. A white-hot, searing pain, as though a poker had been shoved into her temple.

Her breath caught in her throat, and she tripped, barely catching herself before she fell to her knees. Once more, just as it had all day, the pain simply died away. She was still standing, at the foot of the steps leading up to the Rosettis' porch. The sound of the cab driving down the street had stopped. She turned, and looked over her shoulder. The cab was gone.

How long had she been down for? So far, it had seemed like a lot of time had vanished with each of her migraines, but for Leisel and for that man in the book shop, the Doctor, it had seemed like only a few seconds had passed.

She felt her eyes begin to burn, tears welling up. Sophie was panicking, and she knew it; her lungs seemed tighter, each breath a solid effort to take and to keep. She hauled herself up the steps, and pounded on the Rosettis' front door.

There was no answer at first, so she tried again, and then she heard movement in the hall. "I'm coming, I'm coming," she heard Mrs. Rosetti say. The door opened, and the kindly old woman greeted her with a warm smile. "A little impatient, Sophie?" she said, gently mocking.

"Sorry, Mrs. Rosetti, I just really need a trip to the bathroom."

Mrs. Rosetti stepped back from the doorway, letting her inside. "Of course, dear, of course. Just down the hall, on your left."

The interior of the Rosettis' house was one of the more overdecorated, homely and somehow still meticulously tidy dwellings Sophie had ever been in. Mrs. Rosetti, despite what the interior of Bakers Hill Books seemed to suggest, was a neat freak, whose mother's instinct for mess or dirt was unavoidable, and her house betrayed that.

Sophie found her way to bathroom. It was a small room with a sparkling white vanity top beneath his-and-hers mirrors, toiletries and beauty products arranged beneath them,, and Sophie went right for the sink. Splashing her face with water, she looked up into the mirror. The face looking back at her seemed to belong to a stranger. It was hair pale skin, her green eyes, the freckles across her nose, but that's where the resemblance to the face she knew stopped. Hollow cheeks, dark rings under her eyes, dishevelled hair… she was starving, and tired, even though she thought she'd probably slept more these last two days than she had in months.

What was happening to her? The headaches, the missing time… the missing people! None of it made sense. And that man at the store, saying he'd see her again. His presence had been disconcerting, but his voice had been comforting, kind. She had been able to pick up on his sincerity. He genuinely believed he'd be able to help her. His voice was, to wit, familiar, but she couldn't pick from where.

"What kind of name is the Doctor?" she said to herself.

Before any answers were forthcoming, however, there was a knock at the bathroom door. "Are you all right, Sophie?"

"I'm fine, Mrs. Rosetti," she called. Turning off the tap, she went to the door, opening it for the old lady. "I've just had a long day is all."

"Well, it's a good thing dinner's ready, dear," she said, taking Sophie's hand and leading her towards the dining room. Featuring a boarded up fireplace surmounted by a mantel overflowing with framed pictures, an impeccably set table and a bookshelf packed with paperback novels, the dining room was unmistakably, along with the kitchen, the heart of the house. "Nothing fancy, just gnocchi and my sauce, but how long has it been since you've had a home cooked meal that didn't come out of a packet?"

Sophie favoured the woman with a tired grin. "A long time."

"I thought so," Mrs. Rosetti said, before pointing to the dining room table. "Take a seat."

Sophie was only too happy to sit down. The mouth-watering scent of dinner was wafting in from the kitchen, and Mrs. Rosetti disappeared to dish it out. "A glass of wine, dear?" she asked from the kitchen.

"Uh, no, thanks," Sophie answered. She looked at the mantel, at the pictures there, filled with the smiling faces of the Rosetti family past and present. In some cases the pictures were in black and white, the occupants of their frames dressed formally, their smiles even more forced than was typical in staged photographs. She saw one of a young woman, her dark hair curly and hidden by a veil of white lace, in the arms of a tall, broad-chested man in a suit. She recognised the young woman a moment later. It was Mr. and Mrs. Rosetti's wedding day, in Italy, before they'd come out to Australia.

It dawned on her then; since she'd come into the house, she hadn't seen Mr. Rosetti. Standing, she went to the door into the kitchen. Leaning in, she saw that Mrs. Rosetti was alone. "Um, Mrs. Rosetti, where's Mr. Rosetti?"

"Hmm?" Mrs. Rosetti asked, standing over the stove.

Only two bowls had been placed on the kitchen counter.

"Where's Mr. Rosetti?" Sophie repeated, her heart pounding in her throat. "Where's your husband?"

Mrs. Rosetti froze, lowering the pot she'd been holding back onto the stove. She turned to Sophie, her expression one of confusion. There was more, there, in the way the skin around the eyes had tightened, in the way her mouth had become a thin-lipped line. Desperation, sorrow. "I'm sorry, Sophie?"

"Roberto," Sophie pushed, dropping the honorific. "Your husband? You've been married for years!"

"I…" the old woman began, her voice wavering. "I don't know what you're talking about, I'm not married."

"Mrs. Rosetti, you are! Rosetti isn't even your name, it's his!" Sophie insisted, starting to panic. How was this possible? How could Mrs. Rosetti just forget her husband? She rushed to the old lady, and took her hand. "Come with me," she insisted, and pulled her towards the dining room.

Sophie pointed to the pictures atop the mantle, but came up short.

In those photos, which in her experience had always shown Mr. and Mrs. Rosetti, their brood of kids and the ever-expanding circle of grandchildren, she could now see only Mrs. Rosetti, smiling from otherwise blank picture frames. Even the old black and white pictures of her parents and Mr. Rosetti's were blank.

"Where did they go?" Sophie asked, dropping Mrs. Rosetti's hand and stepping over to the mantle. She picked up the frames, one by one, but there was no one in the pictures. Just Mrs. Rosetti. The wedding picture now just depicted a smiling Fabrizia Rosetti, her hair tucked away beneath her veil, her beautiful, simple white dress flowing about her, the smile on her face transfixed on the paper for no apparent reason.

"Sophie!" the woman chided as Sophie threw the empty frames aside, unable to find a single other person in any of them. "What are you doing?"

Sophie whirled on her, barely able to breathe. "Where did they go?"

Mrs. Rosetti was shocked, for a moment unsure what to say. Sophie saw it, though, when she answered. A moment of discomfort, and "I think you need to sit down, Sophie."

"No!" she roared. "I can't! I've been sitting down, sleeping, taking it easy all day, and it's been happening around me! People are vanishing, one by one, and no one is noticing! No one can even see it!"

"What are you talking about?" Mrs. Rosetti pushed.

Sophie grabbed the largest of the photo frames. She'd seen it before; it had shown the entire extended Rosetti family. Mr. and Mrs. Rosetti, their kids, their grandkids, Mr. Rosetti's brother, his wife and his kids, even the newest member of the family, the first of the great grandchildren. It had been taken in the back yard of this very house. They'd all been grinning at the camera, laughing; it had been the great granddaughter's baptism, and after the pomp and ceremony of the church they'd come back here for a party that had lasted until well after dark.

Mrs. Rosetti had glowed with pride when she'd shown it to Sophie, and now it depicted an empty yard, with a smiling Mrs. Rosetti sitting there surrounded by empty chairs and a barren table, which in the original picture had been positively laden with food, entirely alone.

"Look at this picture," Sophie insisted, thrusting the frame into Mrs. Rosetti's hands. The old woman just stared at Sophie in bewilderment. "Look at it!"

Mrs. Rosetti stared at the picture. Seconds slipped by before she said "What about it?"

"Look at it!" Sophie repeated. "Can't you see it? It's wrong! You, all alone in that big picture. There should be other people in it. Lots of people! Your entire family!"

Mrs. Rosetti considered the picture. "This photo has sat on that mantlepiece for years, just like all my other photos. A lot of which you've now broken, by the way."

Sophie couldn't believe what she was hearing. "Oh, come on! Mrs. Rosetti, you have to see it. You have to see! In all of those pictures, it's just you. No one else!"

"Of course there's no one else," Mrs. Rosetti answered, dismissively. "Why would there be anyone else in my pictures?"

"Because…" Sophie realised she was going around in circles, but she needed to try one last time. "Because they're your family! Your husband, Roberto. You run the shop with him! Your daughter Diana, and your son Giovanni! Giovanni's kid… I can't remember his name, but he's tiny and blond with big blue eyes. Roberto always says he looks like a proper Venetian. Come on, Mrs. Rosetti, you know these people! You love them!"

Mrs. Rosetti looked at the picture again, cocking her head as though she was trying to sort something out. Sophie bit her lip, hoping she'd remember them, her family. All those people that had been forgotten, that had just vanished. Like Mrs. Francis, she realised; like Mr. Francis. Like the people on the bus, and in class. Perhaps even like the books in the store, silently slipping from the world, one by one.

Finally, with a sigh that shook her, Mrs. Rosetti set the picture frame back on the mantle piece. "I think you'd better leave, young lady," she said, looking at Sophie, her expression steely. "You come into my home, spinning these wild stories, talking nonsense, and then you break my things! This is what I get for employing you, for caring for you and your welfare?"

Sophie gaped. "But Mrs. Rosetti…"

"But nothing," Mrs. Rosetti said, planting her hands on Sophie's shoulders and shoving her firmly towards the front door. The woman grabbed Sophie's bag from where she'd put it beside the table and shoved it into her "Leave my house. Now!"

"Fabrizia!" Sophie shouted, but before Mrs. Rosetti answered, Sophie's entire world was swallowed up in white hot, blinding pain. Sophie screamed, and fell to her knees, and when the pain cleared she was outside Mrs. Rosetti's house, back at the foot of the stairs at the end of the garden path.

Hauling herself to her feet, she rushed towards the front door.



Inside, Fabrizia Rosetti studied the pictures on her mantle. She knew her name, she knew that she lived in this house, and she knew that she made fantastic gnocchi. She knew, too, that she owned a book store, but she couldn't remember ever having read a book, or serving a customer. She couldn't remember where she'd been born, or anyone she'd ever met.

All she remembered was that girl, Sophie Freeman, and even that memory was fading fast. She picked up the large picture frame the girl had shown her, the she'd quite violent insisted that she should look at.

She heard banging on the front door, heard her name being called out. She didn't care.

Staring at the picture, Fabrizia Rosetti began to remember. She remembered her husband, Roberto, their wedding in a little chapel in Venetia. She remembered emigrating to Australia, the long ride on the ship in first class. She remembered struggling to build a life in a new country, learning to speak English, moving to Newcastle to buy a home and then their bookstore. She remembered her first child, the little girl's christening. She remembered all of them. Her family, the light of her life.

She'd forgotten them, all of them. How? How could she have just forgotten them? How was that possible? And, just as importantly, where were they? She put the large picture frame aside, and reached for her wedding picture. She had treasured and adored this photograph, the only physical souvenir of a ceremony that had near bankrupted her parents, that had taken place clear on the other side of the world.

There she was, the most beautiful she'd ever looked in her life, but where was her husband? Where was the man she'd pledged to live her life with?

"Roberto," she whispered.

The banging at the door continued. The picture frame slipped from Fabrizia Rosetti's fingers and shattered on the floorboards.

Sophie ceased pounding on the door when, suddenly, it opened. Her breath catching in her throat, she nudged it open and stepped inside. "Mrs. Rosetti?" she called.

There was no answer.

"Mrs. Rosetti, are you there?" she called, and made her way down the corridor. As she reached the dining room, she realised that there wasn't a single piece of furniture, not one decoration or picture, anywhere in the house.

The dining room was empty. The house was dark. Mrs. Rosetti was gone.

"No!" Sophie cried, and it was all she could do to slump to the floor. Her knees were weak, shaking, and he only sign that there had ever been anyone in the house was a shattered picture frame. Sophie recognised it immediately. It was the ornate, antique picture frame that had houses the Rosettis' wedding picture.

She must have been looking at it, trying to see what was wrong. Too late, Sophie knew. Now Mrs. Rosetti was gone, just like everyone else.

Sophie took a moment to get her breathing under control, but she couldn't stop the tears pouring down her cheeks. She didn't even try. Straightening herself up, she reached into her bag. Aside from the copy of Birthday Letters, it was empty. Her phone, her laptop, her wallet; everything else was gone. Her plan had been to go through her phone's address book at random, punching in numbers until someone answered; she would have tried the emergency services, the police, even information assist. Anyone. Now she couldn't even try that, and there was no sign of anything except floorboards and dust in the Rosetti house, let alone a phone.

She bolted for the front door and burst out on the street.

"Hello!" she cried into the night. She heard the word echo amongst the trees that lined the street and the brick houses, all of which stood dark and empty. "Hello!"

There was no answer.

She began to run down the street, but she had no idea where she was going. She didn't know what was happening, but she felt like she had to do something. Anything.

"Hello!" she called out again, coming to a stop at a street corner. "Is anyone there? Anyone!"

"Sophie?"

The sound of the other voice came as a shock, and she nearly jumped out of her skin. As she turned around, though, she smiled. Leisel stepped towards her, but she didn't look like herself. Her hair was matted, and she looked like she'd been crying.

"Leisel!" Sophie called, running towards her, wrapping her up in a hug. "It's so good to see you!" Sophie realised, however, that Leisel wasn't returning the hug. Releasing her friend, Sophie stepped back and looked her up and down. "What's wrong? What happened?"

Leisel was shaking her head, her lips trembling. "I can't find anyone, Sophie. There's no one else in the city. They're all gone."

Back to index


Chapter 6: Leisel

Shaking wildly, Leisel collapsed into sobs, but Sophie wrapped her into another hug. They were standing beneath a streetlight, but even so, Sophie could see that there was no moon, no stars above. Just an endlessly, oppressively sky. Though she'd always thought of the night sky, in her more poetic moments, as a canvas hung far above, now Sophie thought it resembled a blanket thrown across the world, suffocating and dangerous.

It wasn't night, she realised. It was darkness. Just darkness. The realisation was enough to draw goosebumps across her arms. She suppressed a shudder, though, for the sake of Leisel, who was clutching her tightly.

Holding the girl tight against herself, Sophie whispered into her ear, "It's going to be fine, Leisel. I've got you now. You're safe."

Sucking in a breath, her teeth chattering, Leisel said "I don't know where the people have gone, Sophie. I don't know."

"Neither do I," Sophie said, "but now we're together, we can help each other figure it out."

Having Leisel cry against her was doing wonders for Sophie's own fortitude. With someone else to focus on and help, her panic was dying away, and she was getting a clearer picture of what was going on. Even if everything that happened, the vanishing people, the time skips, had seemed impossible, at least someone else had noticed now. She wasn't simply missing things or forgetting them.

People weren't simply bleeding away. Mrs. Rosetti had practically vanished before her, and the lack of people in the photographs had just been further proof.

"Leisel," Sophie said, determined to gather what information she could, "what happened to you this afternoon? After you dropped me off at my place, what happened?"

"I don't know!" Leisel wailed.

Sophie released her from the hug, and clamped her hands on her friend's shoulders. "Look at me, Leisel! Look at me!"

Leisel's bloodshot eyes met hers.

"What happened after you dropped me off at my apartment? Please think!"

Leisel bit her lip and shut her eyes. At length, she said "I don't know."

Sophie exhaled, and but kept calm. "Come on, Leisel. Think. What happened today? Start from yesterday, if you have to, but tell me. What happened?"

Taking a long, deep, steadying breath, Leisel considered. She was clearly thinking hard, which Sophie thought was odd; surely she'd at least be able to remember what had happened once she'd dropped Sophie off home? Finally, Leisel said "Yesterday afternoon, after class… I can't remember what happened then. Or what happened last night. I think…. I think the first thing I remember after that was getting a coffee this morning, and you meeting me at uni."

Sophie blinked. "Do you remember waking up?"

"No," Leisel said, shaking her head. "I just remember being at uni. With you. I don't even remember getting the coffee."

Nodding, Sophie had Leisel continue her story.

"Then we were in class. You got sick. I was with you. I don't remember what happened then, though. Like, I remember you running off, but that's it. Then I was in the bathroom with you, helping you, but that's it. I don't actually remember following you," Leisel said, frowning. "How come I can't remember?"

"I don't know," Sophie said, offering her a smile. She wiped away the last of her tears, and took Leisel's hand. "What next?"

"Then I drove you home," Leisel said, sniffling. "Then…" she trailed off, and stared away into the night.

"Come on, Leisel, think," Sophie urged.

"Well, then I was here," she said. "I just showed up here. With you. I heard you shouting, and then I was talking to you. A lot of time must have passed, but I don't remember anything… I just remember you getting out of my car, and then I was here. With you."

Sophie squeezed Leisel's hand.

"What's happened?" she asked. "What the hell has happened to me?"

Sophie shook her head. "I have no idea, Leisel. I thought I was going crazy. People have been going missing all day. Just vanishing. Remember this morning, in class? When I said that there were fewer people than there should be? I guess I was right."

Leisel nodded. "Now that I remember. But everything seemed fine?"

"I know!" Sophie answered, adrenalin pumping. "I just shrugged it all off. There weren't many people on the bus, we didn't have that many customers at the store… one of my neighbours didn't even know who his wife was, and then when I went to their apartment, it was empty, as if they'd just moved out."

Leisel blinked. "What does that have to do with anything?"

"Don't you see?" Sophie said, and she couldn't help but grinning. She felt like she was getting closer to figuring it all out, and even though she had no idea yet how to solve the problem, it was enough that she was making progress on understanding exactly what was going on. "It wasn't that they'd moved out! It's that they never existed in the first place! There was nothing in that apartment at all. Just now, I was at my boss' house, Mrs. Rosetti, and there was no sign of her husband. She didn't even know him! She never knew she even had a husband, which makes no sense, because she wasn't born Mrs. Rosetti, and then she just disappeared, pretty much right in front of my eyes."

At a loss, Leisel just nodded.

"And that's not all," Sophie went on. "It's not just people. The bus ride… it usually takes me an hour to get to uni from home, and this morning it felt like a few minutes. When I was getting ready this morning, time was just flying past. Like at work this afternoon. And at work! All the books were just… yesterday, the place was packed, and today it was like every time I looked up, there were fewer and fewer on the shelves. Mrs. Rosetti told me that a customer was coming in with three boxes of books, and it turned out to be Professor Lancer, but she only had one."

"Wait, wait," Leisel interrupted. "Who's Professor Lancer?"

"Oh, come on, Leisel, you know her! Our Critical Reading lecturer at uni! She has a weird obsession with Birthday Letters," Sophie said, which reminded her of the one object still in her bag. Reaching in, she pulled out the dog-eared, annotated old copy of Ted Hughes' written memorial to his dead wife. "Look, you remember this book?"

She pressed it into Leisel's hands. "Um, yeah, I was reading it this morning."

"And I was reading it last night," Sophie said. "Actually, it was the last book I read."

"So?"

"So," Sophie said, "what if. What if it's the last book in the world? I know this is going to sound really weird, but the people who are disappearing… it seems to be focused around me. God, that sounded so self-centred."

"Yeah, it is," Leisel said, and through her tears she smiled at Sophie, playfully slapping at her friend's shoulder. "Why do you think that?"

"Two reasons," Sophie said. "First, the book. Of all the stuff that was in my bag that's disappeared, why would just this book be left? It's the last thing I read. I fell asleep last night reading it. And the second is… well, this is going to sound even weirder. There was this guy at work today, he wouldn't tell me his name. He just told me he was the Doctor, and that he'd been…"

When she trailed off, Leisel nudged her. "Go on!"

"He'd been following me, kind of. But not really. Like, the way he phrased it kind of implied that he didn't have a choice. He told me I was at the centre of the world."

Leisel frowned. "So if it's all about you, then why am I here? Where is everyone else? My mum and dad… I can't even remember their names!"

"No," Sophie said, "I know. We need to find him. He might be able to help us."

"That doesn't answer my question. If everyone else has gone missing, your neighbour, your boss, all those people from class, all your stuff… if I can't remember anything or anyone aside from you, why am I still here?"

Sophie blinked. She thought, and couldn't come up with a good answer? Why Leisel, of all the people she knew, of all the people in the entire city. Suddenly, she understood. "Because you matter."

Leisel was taken aback. "What?"

"You matter to me," Sophie said. "That's why you're still here. I love you, Leisel. You're my best friend. Mr. and Mrs. Francis mattered to me, and so did Professor Lancer and the Rosettis. Maybe not for who they are, but for what they represented… and you, Leisel, you mean so much to me."

Down the street, the streetlights began to flicker out one by one.

"What's that?" Leisel asked, her voice high with fear.

Sophie squeezed her hand. "I have no idea," she said, "but something tells me it's a good idea to stay out of the dark."

"Why?"

"Don't know," Sophie said, with a shrug. She smiled at Leisel, hoping the terror that was coursing through her didn't show. "Come on, the lights are still on in this direction. Run!"

Hand in hand, the two women bolted down the pavement. The streetlights were still going out, and were now winking off faster and faster in succession. Sophie, still clutching the book, let her bag fall on the pavement and left it there, Leisel hot on her heels.

They turned the corner, just as the last light went out, and Sophie let out a gasp. She recognised the building they were standing out the front of. Sandwiched between two lit streetlights, she saw the somewhat imposing brick and concrete edifice of her four-storey apartment building. The art deco design, the white-painted window frames, the glass double doors.

Beyond the glow of the lights, however, there was nothing. Not even the darkness of the night; just crushing, oppressive blackness, like Sophie had seen in the night sky when she and Leisel had first found each other. Even out there, though, Sophie could feel an absence. In the seat of her gut, she felt that, somehow, she and Leisel, this stretch of street and the building before them was all there was.

"I don't feel right looking at that," Leisel said, nodding into the blackness that even now was pressing in around them, "it's like there's something missing."

"Yeah," Sophie agreed. Looking into the blackness felt like standing on the roof of a skyscraper and looking straight down, the forces of gravity and fear pulling one towards the oblivion of the pavement. It was a deeply discomforting sensation. "I… come on, Leisel, let's get inside."

The two rushed in through the front door. The lobby was, of course, deserted; no neighbours poking through their mail slots. Sophie shouted as loud as she could, but there was no respone. "Come on," she told Leisel, "we'll try upstairs."

On the second floor no one answered, and on the third floor the pattern was repeated.

Finally, they reached the door to Sophie's apartment. She realised that she didn't have a key any more, but that hardly seemed to matter. The door just opened. Confused, she looked to Leisel.

Leisel shrugged. "I guess if we're the only people in the world, we don't need to worry about locks. You wouldn't need to keep anyone out."

"That makes… a surprising amount of sense," Sophie said, and stepped inside. Her apartment was just as she'd left it, if much sparser. All the papers, books and magazines had vanished. Sophie checked the fridge, and even though she hadn't exactly kept it well stocked, it was now completely empty. "Try the tap," she told Leisel, as she went to check her bedroom.

"It's fine!" she heard Leisel say as she turned on the tap. Sure enough, she could hear the flow of water.

Her bedroom was much the same as it had been that morning, though it was certainly much tidier. All her books, movies and CDs were gone. Her bed was still unmade, however. In the bathroom, the shower and the taps of the sink worked fine. Finally, she returned to the living room, where Leisel was sitting on the couch, staring at her hands. Sophie went over to her, and sat beside her.

"What's happening, Sophie?" Leisel asked her.

"I have no idea," Sophie said, and the old sense of being overwhelmed suddenly welled up inside her. She fought to maintain control, but it was getting difficult.

"No, I don't mean generally, I mean…" Leisel paused, as though casting around for the right words. "I mean, what's happening to me? I can remember you, and that's it. I know that there's more to remember. A family, a life, but I don't remember anything about it."

Sophie frowned. "What's the earliest memory you've got at the moment?"

Leisel shook her head. "I'm not sure. I want to say a day at the beach with my parents, or winning a competition at pre-school, but that's not true. I don't want to admit it, but if I'm perfectly honest, my first memory is… well, it's of you. Do you remember what happened when we first met?"

Sophie thought. "Orientation at uni," she said. "You were in the stall for the English department when I went in. You asked me if I liked… oh, God, what was it?"

"Jane Austen," Leisel finished for her.

Sophie smiled at the memory. "Yeah."

"I remember that," Leisel nodded. "I remember getting your number, adding you on Facebook. I remember hanging out, going to the movies, the beach, going out in town, being in class with you. And that's it. It's just you. You're all I remember."

Sophie shivered, and stood up. "Then it is about me, isn't it?"

Leisel, bewildered, shook her head. "It must be. What do you remember? Like, when did this start?"

"Well," Sophie said with a shrug, "I remember it starting this morning, but it might have started before then. I mean, this morning on the bus, I…" she trailed off. It hadn't started last night; the weird things hadn't just been happening to the world around, they'd happened to her. To her own person. "Actually, no. Last night. I was having a dream–"

"Do you remember what you were dreaming about?" Leisel interrupted.

Sophie was brought up short. "Yeah. I do. I was dreaming about my mum and dad. In the car."

"Oh, Sophie," Leisel said, her face falling. "I'm sorry."

Sophie shrugged off her concern. "I think we've got bigger things to worry about than my screwed up fantasy life. Although, maybe not."

"Huh?"

"Well, I have that same dream almost every night. I'm five years old, I'm in the car with my parents, and we crash. Just like it happened in real life. Sometimes there are variations, but it's all the same thing. Me, mum and dad all in the car, and then the crash," Sophie explained. "Except for last night. And today, actually. Last night, there was this new sound."

"What kind of sound?" Leisel asked, but Sophie was already headed for her bedroom. Leisel rushed to follow her. "Sophie!"

"I fell asleep on the couch," Sophie said over her shoulder, and stood at her bedroom window. "When I woke up, I came in here, and down there in the courtyard, I saw something. It was just a big blue box, but it didn't belong there."

"A blue box?"

"Yeah," Sophie said. "There was a light on top, and words as well, but I couldn't read them from this distance. It looked like it was made of wood. It must have just dropped out of the sky, right on top of the deck chairs. It crushed them to tinder."

Leisel peered over Sophie's shoulder. "But the deck chairs are down there…"

"Exactly!" Sophie's eyes lit up, and she turned around. "I was up here, and I saw the box. Smoke was rising from it. It was on top of the ruined deck chairs. I thought it was weird, so I ran out, and I went into the elevator."

"What?" Leisel interjected. "The elevator? I thought you hated that thing."

Sophie was surprised. "You're right. I have no idea why I used the elevator last night, but I did. Then, all of a sudden, I got a headache."

"Like this morning?"

"Exactly like this morning," Sophie nodded, "but I didn't throw up. Then the elevator arrived on the ground floor. I got out, went out to the courtyard and the box was just gone. I went back upstairs to bed. Then it all started happening."

"The people started vanishing?"

Sophie nodded. "Come on. Let's go downstairs. If it's that blue box in the court yard that's caused all this, maybe the answer is…"

She trailed off, as yet another headache began to burn through her mind. Her vision died away, and though she heard Leisel shout her name, she couldn't answer. She felt the floor tilt away below her feet and she struck it hard. This time, the headache didn't go away.

All she could see was blank, white nothing, and all she could feel was pain. Before she slipped into unconsciousness, she felt rather than saw Leisel vanish from her apartment.

Sophie fell to the floor, completely alone. Then the entire world went dark.

Back to index


Chapter 7: Mum and Dad

When she came to, Sophie Freeman wasn't lying face down on her apartment floor. It didn't feel like waking up; it felt like she'd blinked, and now she was coming out on the other side of a brief moment of darkness. That wasn't what surprised her most of all however; what surprised her was that she was standing. She was standing up straight on a soft, spongy surface. Slowly, her senses seemed to sharpen, and the world around her grew as her perceptions widened slowly.

She felt the ground beneath her feet, first, then the warmth of sunshine on her cheek. She felt a gentle breeze flow through her hair. It was warm day, very warm, but the breeze was comforting, refreshing. Then she heard bird song, the calling of magpies. Cars driving past, wheels on the road, the revving of engines. Then, at long last, she could see, and she realised that she'd had her eyes shut tight. The world resolved into glorious detail around her.

She was standing in what looked like a park. Thick, lush grass surrounded her. A line of trees stood against a distant road, separating the park from a storm water drain. There were a few cars parked there, and between her and them there was a bunch of kids playing rugby. A magpie flew through the brilliant blue sky, singing its song, and the distant clouds of an autumn afternoon hung above her.

She had no idea where she was, but she liked it. The smells in the air, freshly mown grass, the distinct tang of fertiliser. Something about it was comfortable, familiar.

"Hello?" she said, but her voice sounded distant. It echoed, which was odd; everything she knew about acoustics, which admittedly wasn't much, told her that there shouldn't have been an echo. "Can anyone hear me?" she shouted, louder, but the kids playing rugby didn't even look up from their game.

She turned, and saw a collection of squat brick buildings surrounded by a low green picket fence. She realised she was looking at a school. From the size of it, and the technicolour artwork in the windows, it was a primary school. Something about it, too, seemed familiar, if a little distant, brooding, almost threatening.

She started to walk towards the front of the school, and she saw a much larger crowd of people was standing there, queuing up. Leaning against the fence were posters, quite a few of them, all of them showing pictures of smiling men, most of whom looked like bank managers.

"Oh my God," she said to no one in particular, not that anyone could hear her in any case. She knew these men, and recognised two of them immediately.

John Howard and Paul Keating.

The school must have been a polling station, and the queued adults were lining up to vote. Election day, 1996. But how? How was that possible? That had happened fifteen years ago… almost fifteen years to the day, come to think of it. The election had happened in March, and it was February.

"Am I dreaming?" she asked.

No answer was forthcoming. She knew with absolute certainty that what she was seeing was the day of her parent's death.

Then, her eyes were drawn to the sign in the distance.

"Tamworth Public School," she read aloud. Her stomach dropped, and her blood ran cold. She was in Tamworth, election day 1996. The time and place of her parent's death.

She'd dreamt of the car crash nearly every night for years. It was the only dream she ever remembered having. Then it hit her. So often had she dreamt that she'd relived the car crash that she'd forgotten the details of the actual event. She'd seen it from her own viewpoint so many times…

The road out the front of the school. That's where the accident had happened.

She ran, as fast as she could, and the day seemed to fall away around her. Suddenly, she was standing at the side of the road, and she saw her parents' car. She saw her mum and dad in the front seat, herself in the back.

"No!" she shouted, as the other car came screeching around the corner.

She turned away, unable to watch, but she heard it all again. The familiar sounds of the crash, metal on metal, shattering glass. Screams and shouts of shock. She couldn't hear the blood spilling across the road, but she imagined that she could.

Sophie Freeman for the first time, for the millionth time, watched her parents die. And then the scene reset, and she watched it all over again.

"Well," the Doctor said, looking around. "That's not right."

One moment he'd been standing outside Bakers Hill Books, the night, the darkness, rapidly gathering around him, and the next he'd been here. Standing in a park, in the midst of a beautiful day.

He knew it was all connected to that girl, Sophie Freeman, but he had no idea how. Why her? And of all the planets in the entire universe, why did it have to have been Earth? He scoffed at his own question at that point. Of course it was happening on Earth. It all always happened on Earth. So, fine, Earth, in the early part of the twenty-first century. A young woman…

"Where am I?" he said to himself, and he heard the discordance in his voice. Wherever he was, it wasn't a physical plane. Of course, that wasn't necessarily surprising, considering the general nature of his location or lack thereof.

He recognised he was in a park, but it seemed more than a park. The presence of rugby goal posts at either end of the meadow, which was hemmed in by trees on one side, and a collection of brick buildings on the other, marked it as a playing field. A strip of concrete in the middle of the field suggested the whole area doubled as a cricket pitch.

And the brick buildings… fenced in as they were, with shade awnings and brightly coloured play equipment, almost certainly comprised a school. He would have guessed a public primary school, judging by the somewhat ramshackle appearance of the place and the preponderance of bright primary colours.

If he listened, he could hear a group of boys playing a game with a ball; their accents were unmistakably Australian, most likely rural New South Wales, and if he had to guess from their vernacular, he would have placed their origin in the late-eighties-to-early-nineties.

"But then again," he chided himself aloud. "Rural New South Wales."

Some time before the millennium, then. The somewhat distant sounds of their voices, and the muted perceptions he felt otherwise, suggested a sort of physical disconnect from his surroundings. He wasn't actually standing on a playing field in Australia some time in the 1980s or 1990s. Instead, he was standing in someone's idea of a playing field in 1980s or 1990s Australia. It was, however, a remarkably detailed one, if a little romanticised; he caught hints of that person's perceptions of the area. The school, for instance, exuded a difficult, elusive sort of menace. The boys seemed heroes of a battle for control of a ball, not a couple of kids playing a game of kick around.

Somewhat confused, though certainly fascinated, he walked around the school, and came across a small crowd of adults. He caught a glimpse of a pair of tables either side of the school gate, and a small group of volunteers handing out pamphlets.

He noticed the election placards.

His Australian history wasn't great, but he did remember there being four elections over the course of the 1990s; 1990, 1993, 1996 and 1998. Judging from the faces on the placards however, he was standing in someone's understanding of election day, 1996. The day seemed almost childlike in its intense detail and vivid reality; none of the cynicism or detail selectivity of an adult. Everything that that child had seen had been replicated in the literal fashion of a child's understanding of the world.

So, he decided. A child's memory of election day, 1996, in a town in rural New South Wales. But why? Of all the places and times a person's memory was capable of conjuring up, why here? Why now?

That's when he heard the screech of tyres, the smashing of glass. He turned, and saw a car wreck. Petrol and blood was spilling across the road, a fire was being sparked.

And then, quite conspicuously, the scene reset.

Over the heads of the crowd, the Doctor, now wearing the tallest body he'd yet experienced, saw a familiar face.

Sophie Freeman.

The car was moving again, down the street, and it was going to crash, just as it had before. It was going to be smashed aside. The Doctor saw a man driving, a woman in the passenger seat, and a young girl with curly brown hair in the back.

The Doctor shook his head, and began to move towards Sophie. Though he was physically walking, it didn't feel like walking. He was moving, yes, but he knew instinctively that there wasn't a physical reality to walk through. The ground beneath his feet wasn't actually the ground, the breeze he felt wasn't actually there.

A few moments later, he reached Sophie.

He said her name, and she turned towards him. She was crying, her eyes red, tears flowing freely. "You," she said, her voice shaky. Behind her, the car crash happened all over again, and she winced. "I was looking for you."

"A lovely coincidence," the Doctor said with a smile. "I was looking for you, too."

"Why?" she asked, and the Doctor was caught off guard.

"I'm not exactly sure," the Doctor said, before turning back to the constantly recurring tableau on the road nearby. The constant crash. One moment in time happening over and over again. "Where are we?"

"Can't you read?" Sophie said, and lifted a trembling finger towards the school's sign.

The Doctor read it, and thought about the date he'd deducted. "Tamworth. 1996. Can't say I'm too familiar with that place at that time."

"I am," Sophie said, simply. "You said you were a doctor. Can you… can you make this better?"

The Doctor turned back to her, and offered her his kindest smile. Kindness was strange to him, after so many years alone, but he found it fit him well. He couldn't help but take note of the literal way in which she'd interpreted the name he'd given her. A doctor who made things better. "I can try. I will definitely, definitely try. I just don't understand why we're here. Tell me, Sophie, where are we?"

"I just told you," she insisted.

"No, no. Maybe I phrased the question poorly. What is this place? Why are we here. Of all the places in the world to be, why here, on this day, at this time?" the Doctor asked, though he suspected he already knew the answer.

"Because of that," Sophie said, indicating the car crash.

"Who's in the car?" the Doctor asked, but he thought he knew the answer to that question, as well.

"Me," she said, simply. "And my parents."

"You survived," the Doctor surmised.

"Yes," Sophie nodded, "but they didn't." It was then that he saw recognition dawn on her, and she turned to him. "I've heard your voice before! I've heard it here! You were talking to me, this afternoon once I got home from uni, in my dream!"

The Doctor cocked an eyebrow. "Was I?"

"Yes!" she exclaimed. "You told me that I'd have to fight."

The Doctor smiled. "Well, yes, that I did. I don't recall that conversation taking place here, though. I seem to remember it happening in an elevator."

"An elevator?" Sophie said, confused.

"That's where I was, before I joined you at the book shop, Sophie," the Doctor explained. "Though, to be fair, that was in literally another universe. And it wasn't so much of a conversation as a telepathic exchange of ideas."

Sophie's mind boggled. "What are you talking about, another universe? Telepathy?"

"It's a long story," the Doctor said, "but think of the world you've been living in for the past day like a balloon that's just been blown up. All day, air has been let out of the balloon, and it's been getting smaller and smaller and smaller. Not my best analogy, but I think it'll work for our purposes."

"The people disappearing," Sophie said, "are you saying that they were like air in a balloon, leaking out slowly?"

The Doctor smiled. "Yes! Perhaps it's not as random as that, though."

"How do you mean?" she asked, as the screech of tires and the smash of one car against the other happened all over again behind her. She shivered, tears still rolling down her cheeks, but she focused on the Doctor; she was nothing if not a fighter, he realised.

"Think about it, Sophie. Think about who went missing. How it happened. It started from the outside in."

Sophie shut her eyes, and she was rocking backwards and forwards. "I don't understand."

"You do," the Doctor said, "I know you do. It's as if something is chipping away at your world, bit by bit, destroying the things that matter to you. It started on the edges of your awareness, the outermost parts of your reality."

"What happened to them?" Sophie asked. "What happened to everyone else?"

"They're gone," the Doctor informed her, as if that was the most obvious thing in the world.

Her eyes snapped open. "Can they come back?"

The Doctor shook his head. "I'm afraid not. You see, they never existed. The physical universe they inhabited never existed."

Sophie was shocked. "What do you mean, 'never existed'? They were real! The Francises, the Rosettis, Leisel! I held them. I knew them!"

The Doctor nodded. "And you still do. They weren't here to begin with, Sophie. For the last day you've been living in a parallel universe. It was created around you, and it has been collapsing around you ever since it was created. The entire physical universe was duplicated, based around your perceptions, and ever since then something has been devouring it."

Sophie stared. "What?"

"Think about it, Sophie. Talk me through it."

"Why can't you just tell me!" Sophie roared. "Why can't you just explain it? You seem to know everything! Why can't you just tell me what to do?"

"It doesn't work like that!" the Doctor said. "If you're going to get out of here, Sophie, it needs to be you. It all needs to be you. You need to take initiative, prepare yourself. You need to focus on what's important, on what you can remember. All of those people, the forgotten, they're gone, but you're not. You need to fight."

She took a deep breath. "How do I do that?"

"Tell me where we are."

Sophie blinked. "How do you not understand?"

"No, Sophie, you need to say it! Where are we?"

"We're in Tamworth, on election day, 1996. The day my parents died," she explained. "I'm in the back seat of their car. A man came around the corner too quickly, went right through a stop sign, and hit the car. It flipped. Mum and dad died instantly."

"This place is important to you," the Doctor surmised.

"Of course it is!"

"All right," the Doctor granted, "but why? Why does it matter so much?"

"My parents died!" Sophie shouted.

The Doctor nodded. "Yes, they did. It happened fifteen years ago, though. If I'm right, and the entire physical dimension of the universe created around you has been erased, leaving only your own mentality… we're standing in your memory right now, Sophie. We're not actually in Tamworth in 1996. I want you to think about why. Why are we here."

"My parents died," she repeated, her voice little more than a whisper.

"Why this memory?" the Doctor asked.

"I dream about this," Sophie said. "All the time. Every time I close my eyes, I know I'll just come back here. I'll be in the back seat of the car, watching my parents, listening to the radio, and I know, every time, I know that they're going to die."

"You live here," the Doctor said, and she nodded. Her shoulders shook.

"I do," she nodded. "I know I shouldn't, I know I should move on, but I can't. I have… I've never gotten past this moment. I lost everything on this day, and I never got it back."

"It paralyses you," the Doctor said, and Sophie nodded. He reached out to her, and she took his hand. He squeezed her fingers in his.

"I don't know how to be anywhere else," Sophie said. "I don't know how to do anything, how to be anything other than… this. That girl, in the back seat of that car on that day."

The ground suddenly shook, but no one else around them seemed affected.

"What was that?" she wailed.

"It's you," the Doctor told her. "You're moving on. You're allowing this part of your life to be forgotten."

She looked at him, fresh tears in the corner of her eyes. "What?"

"You make yourself relive this moment, over and over again," the Doctor explained. "Even with your own personal universe collapsing, it's the last place you go, your redoubt, your ultimate sanctuary. The pain and terror and isolation of this moment is what sustains you."

"But why? That can't be right, can it?" she asked, and her knees shook. He pulled her into a hug. "I mean, it's not meant to be pain that keeps me strong. It's meant to be happy memories, good things."

"Maybe, but not here. Not for you. Because you're human, Sophie, and you're fallible, and sometimes the only thing you can do to keep yourself sane is to cling on to the anchoring power of pain," the Doctor explained. "You need to let go. Ordinarily, I'd urge you to hang on to what's important, to use that to pull yourself out, but not now. I think whatever has put you here, whatever created this parallel universe around you, is using this place, this memory, to trap you here so it can finish its work."

"So what do I do?"

The Doctor pointed to the car crash, happening all over again. "You need to let go of this moment, Sophie. You need to forget this moment."

"But my mum and dad…" she whispered.

"They died long ago, Sophie," he told her, quietly. "You have been okay without them for fifteen years. You'll be okay without them now. Let go of them. Let go of this."

"I can't," she said, shutting her eyes and pressing herself against the Doctor as tightly as she could. "They wouldn't want me to. Of all the people I've forgotten, I can't forget my mum and dad. I just can't do it."

"You have to," the Doctor said, "or whatever it is that has trapped you here will finish its job. It'll devour the parallel world with you inside, and you'll be lost forever. Let go, Sophie. Please. Trust me, they'd want you to."

She opened her eyes, and turned her head, still pressed against the Doctor's chest, towards the car crash. "I love them."

"And they loved you," the Doctor told her. "They'd want you to live."

Sophie shut her eyes again. And she let go.

Back to index


Chapter 8: Sophie and the Doctor

Sophie opened her eyes, and found herself still clinging to the tall man in his dark coat. That was all she knew, though, about her surroundings. There seemed to be nothing beyond the two of them, though not in the sickly absent way of the blackness that had surrounded her and Leisel before. "Where am I?"

"I don't know," the Doctor said, and he sounded genuinely fascinated by the whole thing. "You haven't decided yet."

"What?" she said, confused.

"It's your universe, Sophie Freeman," he said. "I'm just living in it."

She let go of him, and turned around. It hit her at once, a billion different thoughts, feelings, sensations and understandings, and out of nothing resolved a definite something, though it took her brain a second to figure out what she was seeing. She found herself standing in Bakers Hill Books, but the shelves were bare. The cash register was gone, the electric fan was gone… there was just the counter and countless empty shelves. Outside the windows at the front of the store was impenetrable darkness.

"Work?" she said, more to herself than the Doctor. A faint hint of disappointment hit her through her cluttered jumble of emotions.

"Looks like it," he answered anyway.

"Why?"

"I don't know," the Doctor said. "You might just have a very boring fantasy life. Or this could be where you feel safest. Some kind of stability. You work with the same people every day here, it provides you with a steady income."

Sophie considered. "Yeah, I suppose so."

The Doctor nodded. "Now that we're here, we need to focus on something. Anything, really. This universe is getting smaller and smaller, too small to sustain itself, and the amount of concentration needed to hold it together is distracting our enemy from us."

"No," she said, simply, and rounded on the Doctor. "First of all, you're going to answer a few questions of mine."

The Doctor shook his head. "We don't have time, Sophie. I would, really, I promise."

"We do have time," Sophie declared. "This is my universe, right? You're just living in it. I make the rules. Answer my damn questions!"

The Doctor was taken aback. "All right, then."

"What happened to me?" Sophie demanded. "Who are you? Why are you here?"

"Well, I'm the Doctor," he said. "I'm… a traveller. Just a guy who goes around and fixes things."

"Wearing a thick dark coat in the middle of summer," Sophie said, deadpan.

"You're certainly feeling better, aren't you," the Doctor replied, with not a small amount of sarcasm. "I mean, if your sense of humour is intact."

"Yeah, well, letting go of the emotional deadweight that's been paralysing you your entire life will do that to a person," Sophie said, wiping away the last of her tears. "So, you're 'the Doctor'. A traveller. Leaving aside the fact that that is not a name and 'travelling' is not a job, I'll accept that for the moment. The coat?"

"In my defence, it's not summer everywhere," the Doctor said, and Sophie couldn't help but smile. "I was a few galaxies over, in the far future, helping out a ship called the Prospero…"

"Wait, a few galaxies over?"

"I just told you that an entire parallel universe was created around you," the Doctor said to her, "and you're going to quibble over a few galaxies?"

Sophie, despite herself, laughed. "Okay, fine, I suppose in the midst of all this weirdness, that's not too weird. But a ship… you mean, like, a space ship? Named after a Shakespearean character?"

"There are moons in this very solar system named after Shakespearean characters," the Doctor countered. "Plus an entire alien species. That's besides the point, anyway. The point is, I was helping out this ship called the Prospero, and then I detected an unusual energy signature in the Time Vortex."

"Yeah, all right, that's too much," Sophie said suddenly. "I'm sorry, but what are you talking about? The Time Vortex? Seriously?"

"Yeah, well, when I said 'traveller', I really should have put a word in front of that," the Doctor explained. "Um, I'm a time traveller."

"A time traveller," Sophie repeated.

"Yes. Anyway, I tracked the disturbance in the TARDIS, and I arrived in orbit Earth in 2011," the Doctor said. "I ran a scan, detected the source of the energy signals coming from the east coast of Australia. A city called Newcastle. An apartment building. Your apartment building."

"TARDIS?"

"It's… my ship."

"What does it look like?"

The Doctor traced a rectangle in the air before him with his finger. "A sort of box thing."

"Is it blue?" Sophie said, comprehension dawning on her.

The Doctor smiled. "So it is!"

"I saw that box in the courtyard of my building last night," Sophie said. "You broke the deck chairs!"

"Well, it wasn't exactly a controlled landing," the Doctor admitted. "That energy signature spiked all of a sudden, you see, and the TARDIS was caught off guard. I managed to land pretty well, considering all the damage that had been done to her systems."

"Her?"

"You're asking a lot of questions," the Doctor said.

"Considering everything that has happened to me," Sophie said, "and considering how little I know about everything's that happened to me, and considering that you seem to have all the answers, and considering that getting myself out of this is apparently my responsibility, I don't think it's too presumptuous of me to ask you what the hell you know."

The Doctor smiled, wide and genuine. "Oh, Sophie Freeman. I like you."

"Thank you," she said, nodding. She was all business now; the emotional terrors of the day, her exhaustion and fear had been buried for the moment. She could deal with all of that later. Right now, apparently, she had to save herself, and that was her number one priority. Her parents, Leisel, the Rosettis, everyone else cold be mourned for, worried about, later. "I like you, too. Now answer the question."

"You've never heard someone refer to a ship as a 'she' before?"

"Of course I have."

"Well, good, because I was sort of doing that," the Doctor said, though she definitely got the impression that she wasn't telling him the entire truth. "Your next question is going to be something about 'how can you travel in a blue box', and I promise you I'll answer that one later. It's a really long story."

"Fine," Sophie said, waving his explanation off. "The question after that one, then. You landed. Then what?"

"Then I went out to have a look around. I found you passed out in an elevator, but there was something wrong."

"What?" Sophie asked, confused.

"I could sense it, all around you. Time distortions. It wasn't your building that was the source of the strange energy signatures. It was you."

"I'd be surprised," Sophie said, "but that was kind of predictable."

The Doctor laughed.

Sophie pushed on. "What was happening to me?"

"Something had latched on to the time distortions, and was feeding on them," the Doctor explained. "I'm not sure what it is that's doing it yet, but I can make a few educated guesses. The point is, it was getting a great meal out of you, but it wasn't enough. So it did what it could to stretch out the feeding process."

"By creating a universe around me?"

"Exactly!" the Doctor said. "You catch on fast."

"When the world is, apparently literally, collapsing around you, you sort of have to," Sophie explained. "Go on."

"Well, the energy you were providing was more than enough to set up a branching parallel universe entirely around you. It just stole your thoughts and recreated them physically. The world as you knew it was duplicated entirely," the Doctor said, "but even that limited universal recreation began to collapse in on itself almost immediately, which is fine for the beastie that did this, because that just means more food. Stuff started vanishing, people, the world, anything, as the universe, well the Universe According to Sophie Freeman, began to disappear out from under you."

"Until all that was left…"

"Was you," the Doctor said, finishing her thought. "And your dreams. Then you let go of that. Now, it's just you and your immediate perceptions. We're not actually in the bookstore. The bookstore doesn't exist in this universe anymore."

Sophie nodded. "Okay, fine… but then why are you here?"

"I'm not a part of the universe," the Doctor said. "I'm… well, not exactly outside of it, but not in it, either. I'm a mental projection, superimposed over your version of reality. You're quite strong, mentally; I was only able to reach you in moments of extreme weakness on your part, which were few and far between, especially given what's been happening to you."

"My dream this afternoon," Sophie said, listing the ways she'd come into contact with the Doctor over the course of the day. "Just after Professor Lancer left the store, when I thought I was going crazy. Then just after Leisel vanished, and I was left alone."

"Exactly," the Doctor said, "but by then it was too late to reach you in the physical universe that had been created around you. That's why I joined you in your dream of 1996."

Sophie nodded. "All right, fine. That's fine. But what do I do now? How do I get out of here?"

The Doctor looked around. He could see nothing amongst the bare wooden shelves of the store. "I'm not certain. For some people, it would be friends or family; someone to remember, to reach out and grab, to hold onto. An anchor, to pull them back down to Earth, to stop them from being lifted away. But for you? People didn't seem to be what was keeping you grounded. I honestly couldn't tell you."

Sophie sighed. "So, I've been lonely all my life and that's what's going to kill me."

The Doctor touched her shoulder. "If it helps, I know what it's like to be lonely."

She smiled. "It probably should help, and under different circumstances it might, but right now? Right now, I just want answers. I just want this to be over."

"There is another option," the Doctor said. "You could give up. Let it take you."

Sophie's eyes widened. "What the hell is wrong with you? Why would you even say that? You might not know much about me, Doctor, we might only have just met, but I will not just roll over and let some… time distortions or whatever destroy me. I stood by today when people vanished, I let myself be overcome by boredom and self doubt, but that's not happening now. Not anymore."

The Doctor grinned. "Brilliant!"

Apparently, he'd been prepared for that answer; he was not, however, prepared for the punch Sophie aimed at his cheek. She didn't strike him too hard, or very hard at all really, but it was enough to surprise him, and to tell him that she wasn't amused.

"What did I do?" he protested, but Sophie wasn't having a bar of it.

"I get that that was some kind of test or something," she said, infuriated, "but don't you ever pull that shit again."

The Doctor blinked. "You swore."

"I'm Australian," Sophie said, simply.

He smiled. "All right. Fine. Sorry I pushed you, there, but I had to be sure you were in it to win it."

"Again, Doctor," he said, "I'm Australian. So what do I do?"

The Doctor thought. "There has to be something in here we can use, some kind of connection to the real world. Whatever it that's doing this would be so full right, so bloated, that we have a chance to break its hold over you. Once we do that, this universe will finish its collapse. For a moment, the walls between this universe and the regular universe will fall."

"And then what?"

"And then I bring my TARDIS in through the walls between the universes, which should be enough to restore everything to its baseline. You wake up in the elevator, I continue on my merry way."

"So, wait, I'm still in the elevator?"

"Is Schrodinger's cat alive or dead?" the Doctor asked, but at Sophie's bewildered expression, he said "No and yes. You're both here and there. It's a complicated quantum state you're in at the moment, one woman existing in two places in two universes at the same time."

Sophie nodded. "Why do you think there's something in here?"

"This place is in your mind," the Doctor explained. "Well, at any rate, your mind created it. Your survival instinct will be working to circumvent this creature's hold over you, and the way to do that is to establish an emotional connection. That's why you picked this place to recreate, even if subconsciously. You have emotional connection to the store, but it's not enough. Come on, look through the shelves. There must be something."

Sophie nodded. Her mind was racing; all of it seemed impossible. She was well read enough to know science fiction when she heard it. Still, considering everything that had happened, even the more unlikely aspects of his story were making sense. Together, they began to move through the shop, searching for something. Anything. She had no idea what she was looking for, of course, but at this rate she would have settled for a toy car or a packet of biscuits or, well, anything at all.

Unfortunately, all the shelves were absolutely bare save for dust.

Finally, Sophie returned to where they'd been standing, near the counter, and checked the drawers. Inside one, she found a book. A dog-eared, much-read and annotated copy of Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes.

"Doctor!" she called, and he ran back to her side. "Here," she said, handing the book to him.

"Birthday Letters," he said, reading the cover. "Sylvia Plath's husband, hmm? A favourite book of yours, is it?"

"Not at all," Sophie said, shaking her head. "You know it?"

"I know Syliva Plath," the Doctor said. "I was at the wedding. Lovely affair. It, um, didn't end well, as I'm sure you'll know."

"I'll say," Sophie said under her breath, deciding to let the incongruities of this man slide for a moment. Louder, she asked "Why this book?"

The Doctor considered for a moment, before shrugging. "What sort of connection did you have to it?"

"I hardly had a connection to it at all," Sophie said. "I mean, I remember studying it in high school, and I'm doing a course at uni this semester, Critical Reading. It's one of the books we're studying. I was reading it last night, actually."

"Aha!" the Doctor said, joyfully. "That's it!"

"That's it?" Sophie asked. She had to admit she was more than a little surprised. A book she barely even liked being the key to her salvation? All the books she'd read over the years, and it came down to this one?

"I was wrong," the Doctor. "It's not an emotional connection to the past you need to pull yourself. It's the future! It's hope, and possibility. That's what this book represents. It's not the book itself, it's not the words in the pages, it's not Ted Hughes, it's not the emotions it triggers, what matters is what this book represents! It represents you! What you are, what you could be!"

"What? But how, Doctor? I don't even like it!" Sophie protested, but she remembered her conversation with Leisel before her friend had vanished; the book had been in her bag, the last vestige of the stuff she'd been carrying with her all day.

"You read, Sophie, and you learn. You're a student, you work in a bookstore, you study English," he pressed. "This book was what you were going to read next. What you were going to study next, what you were going to learn about."

He pushed the book back into her hands. She looked at the faded cover, remembered picking it up the day before. "But why this book? There was a Shakespeare play as well, and Salman Rushdie. Why not either of those?"

The Doctor shrugged. "Perhaps it was just what was freshest in your mind."

"It's been with me all day," Sophie said, the realisation dawning on her. "I put it in my bag this morning, and even when all the stuff in my bag vanished, it was still there."

"Your mind was pointing you towards it," the Doctor said. "All day, it's been right under your nose."

"Are you saying it's my fault?" Sophie asked. "My fault I didn't notice the book, that I didn't figure out how to stop all this earlier?"

The Doctor shook his head. "No, no, no. Of course not. Even if you had noticed it, the creature's hold over would probably have been too powerful for you to have broken."

Sophie nodded, sucking in a breath. "So what do I do?"

The Doctor shook his head. "I don't even know. Just read it, I suppose."

She opened the book, and flicked through the pages. She picked a poem, and even as she did, the room shook around them. It was like an earthquake. The Doctor grabbed her, supporting her, but the shaking didn't stop. "What's happening?" Sophie called over the all-pervasive rumble that filled the air.

"The creature knows what we're doing!" the Doctor replied. "It's coming here!"

Sophie's eyes widened. "What do I do?"

"Read!" the Doctor insisted.

Sophie looked down at the page, but it was hard to see, given how much the room was shaking. She gripped the book tighter, held it up to her face, and she began to read. "I glanced at him the first time as I passed him/Because I noticed (I couldn't believe it)/What I'd been ignoring."

The Doctor smiled, as the shaking subsided. It hadn't stopped yet, but was certainly lessening; it was easier now for them to stand unaided.

"Keep going!" he insisted, and she flipped to another page.

"Nobody else remembers," she read, "but I remember/Your daughter came with her armfuls, eager and happy/Helping the harvest. She has forgotten." As the last word escaped her lips, it seemed to echo through the room, and then the shaking finally stopped. She was about to ask the Doctor what to do next, when the bell above the door jingled.

Together, they turned to the door. Sophie gasped.

Coming through the door was something roughly the size and shape of a man. It was oddly out of proportion, with long, loping arms and legs, its skin a bizarre blue-black colour, almost like an eel. Its movements, too, were strange; it seemed glide, like a slow-moving viscous fluid. Its head was featureless, a black, shining sphere, and it walked with something like a undulating, slumped limp.

"What the hell is that?" Sophie exclaimed, horrified.

The Doctor swallowed. "Our opponent. A chronivorous leech."

The creature turned its head towards then, and a small hole appeared in the skin. The hole widened suddenly, and Sophie found herself staring into an enormous, slimy pink maw lined with dozens upon dozens of tiny, needle-sharp teeth. It roared, a high-pitched screech that sliced the air.

The Doctor shoved Sophie aside, sending her flying, as the leech leapt at them. The Doctor threw up his arms as the creature attacked, claws sliding into view from the folds of the leathery skin of its long arms.

"Doctor!" Sophie screamed as she saw the creature renewed its attack on him, striking out with its claws again and again. He lifted his arms against the strikes, but his resistance wouldn't hold out for long.

She ran towards them, and began to lash out with her fists and feet, kicking, punching; the Doctor struggled beneath it, and then, finally, it was dislodged for a moment. The Doctor managed to slip out from under it, and scrambled to his feet.

"Sophie, come on!" he shouted, grabbing her hand.

She aimed one last kick at the creature, which had managed somehow to shrug every single one of her blows. The Doctor pulled her away from it, towards a shelf. The leech repeated its horrific cry, a bloodcurdling, high-pitched scream that filled her with dread.

It suddenly sprang towards them, but the Doctor pulled Sophie aside. It struck the shelves, hard, and then fell to the ground. It seemed diminished, somehow, smaller.

It gathered itself together, and turned towards the Doctor and Sophie, but they were distracted by something else; where its skin had touched the wooden bookshelves, flames were breaking out. They were spreading, quickly; it wouldn't be long before they immolated the entire room. Sophie, the Doctor and the leech would be turned to ash along with it.

"What do we do, Doctor?" Sophie called over the roar of the rapidly growing flames.

The Doctor's eyes darted left and right, before settling on the door. "Come on!" he said, squeezing her hand and dragging her towards the door as the leech prepared itself for another run at them.

"But there's nothing out there!" Sophie protested.

"Better out there than in here!" the Doctor responded, and, using his shoulders, he barged through the door, shoulder first. It was flung open, and the two of them rused out into the darkness.

A roar like the wind at the top of a mountain filled the air. Behind them, the shopfront fell away, and with it the growing conflagration and the leech.

Sophie had the definite feeling that she was falling, and she clung to the Doctor for support. She shut her eyes, and when she opened them again, she wasn't falling. She and the Doctor were standing in a field of endless, eternal white.

Her first, ridiculous thought was that she had died and gone to heaven, but the pounding of her heart, the sharp taste of adrenalin at the back of her throat and the feel of the Doctor's hand in hers reassured her that he was, indeed, still alive.

"Where are we?" she asked, and she realised she wasn't speaking.

"On the borderline," the Doctor answered; she couldn't hear his voice in any sort of physical space, but she certainly heard him echo through her thoughts. "Somewhere in the dimensions between the regular universe and the universe that was created around you."

"Did we break the link?" Sophie asked him.

He nodded. "You must have done, yes."

"So what do we do now?"

The Doctor was considering, when his eyes lit up. He took Sophie by the shoulders, and said "Think about them, Sophie! Think about your world. Your apartment, your work, your friends!"

"Why?" she asked, but even as she did she began to concentrate on the people who mattered to her; Mr. and Mrs. Francis, the Rosettis, Leisel, her parents, even her lecturer and the bus driver and the people on the bus and the people in class and the customers she'd served. Her neighbours, her friends, her peers; everything she'd ever known. Foster parents, old school friends, the bitchy librarian from her last school.

"You broke the creature's hold on you," the Doctor said, "now you just need to pull yourself back towards the real world."

Nearby, a shape appeared. Dark, about the length of Sophie's forearm, she realised it resembled nothing so much as an oversized slug.

"The leech," the Doctor said, and she noted compassion in his tone. "It's dying. Don't worry, Sophie, just ignore it; focus on the sound of my voice and keep thinking about all of them. Keep thinking about the forgotten."

As she thought, she heard a noise; an actual, physical noise, not echoing thoughts. It was that noise, the grinding, scraping groan, the wheeze, an aural eternity writ large. The sound drowned out everything else, including her own thoughts. The sound of the Doctor's ship, his TARDIS.

It was coming to save them.

Back to index


Chapter 9: Miranda and Prospero

INTERGALACTIC PRIVATEER PROSPERO
TWENTY THOUSAND YEARS LATER


"Get this bucket of bolts moving, Bleeblop!" Captain Samson McCluskey cried. He was buried waist deep in circuits and cables, trying to find the source of the mysterious power drain that had crippled his ship. Not so mysterious, really; everything on the ship was at least three decades old, and the engines themselves were half a century in the offing if they were a day, thrice-rebuilt and prone to spectacular, spontaneous breakdowns.

This particular power leak, however, was coming from a conduit on the starboard side of the ship, and try as he might McCluskey couldn't figure out why. The conduit itself was almost new.

It had been six months since his encounter with the strange blue box and the man inside it who had called himself the Doctor, and Samson McCluskey had resumed his old ways; he was once again travelling the starlanes, taking bounties, carrying cargo, fixing broken down machinery. The Prospero and her captain were back doing what they loved.

Still, he was annoyed, and growing steadily moreso with each second that passed as Bleeblop didn't answer.

"Bleeblop!" he called. "Are you out there?"

From the bowels of the Prospero, he heard his co-pilot's shouted response. "You want to come out here, Sam!"

McCluskey rolled his eyes. "Why? What are you talking about?"

Bleeblop evidently didn't hear him, so McCluskey pushed himself out of the service hatch, and pulled himself up. Most of the panels in the Prospero's cockpit had been removed, the circuitry inside was exposed to the cool, recycled air of the ship. Most of it was wired and patched up and mismatched, but it all functioned well enough. Most of the time.

McCluskey headed aft, past the bunks and the galley, into the hold. Bleeblop stood there in oil-stained overalls, and behind him was a blue box, almost three metres tall. A light was on its top, words glowing from its upper quarter. It had been six months, but Samson McCluskey recognised it immediately.

"Where the hell did this come from?" he demanded of Bleeblop.

The big man shrugged. "I have no idea. I was in the engine room, and I just heard this noise. A really weird, loud noise. I come out, and here it is."

McCluskey stepped forward, and rapped his knuckles against the box's surface. "Is… is that wood? Seriously?"

The creaking of hinges was the only warning he got before one side of the box swung open, and the man who'd saved his ship half a year before, with his mop of brown hair, stepped out. He was a head taller than McCluskey, and was wearing the same black coat he'd been wearing that day.

"Damn it!" McCluskey roared, jumping back. He reached for his holster, whipping out his small firearm. "What the hell are you doing on my ship?"

The man raised his hand, and batted McCluskey's firearm aside. "No need for guns, Captain. You'll remember my terms when I saved you and Bleeblop here from crashing into those stars, yes?"

McCluskey glowered. "Yes, of course."

The Doctor grinned. "Fantastic!" With his other hand, he gave McCluskey a small black box. It was heavier than it looked, and made of some sort of metal that was cool to the touch. "Dispose of this for me, would you?"

"What's in it?"

"A chronivorous leech," the Doctor said. "Nasty little critter. Poor thing overfed itself, I'm afraid. Couldn't stabilise its own genetic make-up after its feeding frenzy."

"It's dead?"

"Gorged," the Doctor said, nodding. "I wouldn't ask, but I knew you two owed me a favour, and I decided to call it in. Better to have something simple to do than have the whole favour thing hanging over one's head, am I right? I know how you hate being in debt, Captain."

McCluskey was taken aback. "I'm sorry?"

"Oh," the Doctor said, sounding amused, "my mistake. Spoilers and all that. I probably won't be meeting you again, Captain McCluskey, but you'll meet me. I was a different man back then… well, I will be a different man. It's all a question of how you look at it."

McCluskey was confused, but he had a reputation as a hard-ass of the space lanes to uphold. "Now, listen here, mister, I want you off my ship this instant!"

The Doctor smiled. "Oh, no problem. You'll take care of the leech?"

McCluskey sighed, reading from the Doctor's stance and expression that unless he agreed he'd have an argument on his hands. "Yeah, fine, I'll deal with the damn leech."

"Thank you," the Doctor said, nodding his appreciation to the captain, and then to Bleeblop. "If it's all the same to you, then, I'll be on my way. Also, if you meet a funny little chap travelling with a guy in a kilt and a girl with long dark hair, just trust him and do everything he says. It'll save your life."

With that, the Doctor stepped back into his blue box and shut the door behind him. Bleeblop looked at McCluskey, clearly confused, and was about to say something when a grinding noise filled the air, and a preternatural breeze sprung up. The light atop the box flashed and slowly, surely, the very box itself began to fade from existence until there was nothing left in the hold except for the same battered old cargo crates that the Prospero had hauled across the stars countless times.

"What was that?" Bleeblop asked at length.

"I've got no idea," McCluskey answered. "And I'm in no rush to find out. Come on, let's get back to it. We've got to find that power drain if we want to make it to Cleopatra VII in time to make the delivery."

For Sophie Freeman, the week after her encounter with the Doctor seemed to fly by. Immediately after the leech had been destroyed and the sound of the Doctor's ship had filled the air, she'd woken up in the elevator, just as the Doctor had said she would, and she had rushed out into the courtyard just in time to see his TARDIS vanish into the night. She'd gone back upstairs to bed, and when she'd woken up the next morning, the day had been perfectly clear, warm and bright.

She'd looked down from her window, and sure enough, the deck chairs had been smashed. She had grinned at that little detail of the world that surrounded her, but then she'd been struck by how mundane literally everything else around her was. After that, though, her day had gone by almost as normal. As soon as she'd seen Leisel, she'd pulled her friend into a hug, but for her it had only been a few hours since they'd last seen each other. She'd taken the day off work and spent the time with Leisel after uni. They'd gone to the beach, had chips from the kiosk. She'd gone out with Leisel that night, gotten drunk, and had had fun for the first time in months. She'd danced, laughed, sung terrible songs at the top of her lungs; she'd had a great night.

She'd even kissed a boy on the dance floor of an overcrowded, stinking nightclub in the city.

The next morning, though, she'd woken up with a sore throat, sore feet and a hangover, and life had gone on as normal.

Work, uni, work, onwards and onwards. She said hello to Mr. Francis, asked him how Mrs. Francis was; she saw the Rosettis at work. The bus drivers started changing again, and she could never get a seat. There were plenty of customers, packed lecture halls at uni.

She got up in the morning, and then she went to work and finally she came home only to go to sleep and start it all again, over and over. The summer stretched on, and every day was sunny, clear.

Aside from the broken deck chairs, there was no sign that the Doctor had ever been there, and she began to tell herself that he'd just been a dream; the events of that day, the shrinking world, the chronivorous leech… all of it had just been the product of an overactive, under-utilised imagination. Her headaches had gone, and everything was just like it had been before she'd woken up that night and seen the big blue box, the Doctor's TARDIS, in the courtyard of her building.

And so she found herself, a week after it had all begun, in the crowded hall for another of Professor Lancer's lectures, drumming her fingers on the arms of seat. She hadn't been able to focus for the last few days; she'd been too distracted to do any uni work, and even at her job she'd been distant, off her game.

Still, she hadn't dreamt of the car crash that had killed her parents all week, and whenever her doubts about the Doctor came to mind, she thought of that achievement.

"Hey, Soph," Leisel said as she dropped into the seat beside her. "How are you?"

"Good thanks, Leisel," Sophie said, shooting her a smile. "Still feeling a bit out of it, truth be told."

"Really?" Leisel said, frowning with concern. "Last week you seemed so happy."

Sophie shrugged. "I'm not sad. I don't know, I just feel kind of listless, you know?"

"Well," Leisel said, "sorry to rain on your pity parade with some good news, but do you remember that girl I met out at the club the other night?"

Sophie laughed at Leisel's pity parade line, but nodded. "Yeah? The cute one, with the brown pixie cut?"

"Yeah," Leisel grinned, nodding. "I'm going on a date with her this afternoon!"

"Oh my God, Leisel," Sophie said, pulling her friend into a hug. "That is so cool! She was gorgeous. What's the plan?"

"Coffee," Leisel said, returning the hug. "But I don't know, it's just really… ah! I haven't been on a date in so long. And you saw her, right? She was so cute."

"Beautiful," Sophie agreed, happy for her friend. "What's her name?"

"Miranda," she answered, grinning.

"As in Prospero's Miranda? Nice," Sophie said, and suddenly she remembered the Doctor telling her about that space ship, the Prospero. What was more, they were about to start studying The Tempest. In the afterglow of Leisel telling her about her new belle, Sophie had to come clean. "I didn't tell you this, but the other night I met a man."

"A man?" Leisel said, grinning. "You don't mean that dude you hooked up with when we were out the other night, right? I meant to tell you, he was like, eighteen. You paedo."

Slapping Leisel playfully on the shoulder, Sophie shook her head with a laugh. "No, not him. Jesus. A man. Like, an actual, proper man."

Leisel raised an eyebrow. "Do tell."

"Well," Sophie said, and she thought of the Doctor. She'd known him only for what was, in reality, a few minutes, and even if nothing that had happened to them had actually happened in this physical universe, it had definitely happened. Was was more, it had definitely had a profound impact on her. But what could she tell Leisel? She couldn't even go over the events of that night in her own head without thinking that she was crazy. "He's tall. Very tall. Broad shoulders. A big mop of dark hair."

"Sexy," Leisel intoned, but Sophie shook her head.

"Not like that," she said. "Well, actually, objectively, he is kind of sexy, but that's besides the point. He had, has, this way about him. He can ramble on, and you've got absolutely no idea what he's going on about, and then he'll look at you and you'll understand it. Everything he's said, whether it's nonsense or not, will suddenly make perfect sense."

Leisel blinked. "Wow."

"I'm sorry," Sophie said, with a smile, "I'm not really sure what I'm saying."

"No, no, it's okay," Leisel said, smiling back. "Go on."

"He came in to work," she explained, continuing. "It was weird, too. He was wearing a big black coat in the middle of summer, and he was kind of forward. Kind of way too forward, actually, but I ran into him again and it was just… different. Something about it, about him, just felt right."

"Right how?"

"Like he was the person I've been looking for all my life," Sophie said, and somehow, having said it out loud, she knew that she meant it.

"Wow!" Leisel repeated, grinning. "That's a pretty intense crush you've got there."

Sophie shook her head, and couldn't help but laugh. "No, no, no, it's nothing like that, really. He's a bit too old for me, anyway."

"How old is he?"

"I don't know, late twenties, early thirties?" she answered with a shrug. "Maybe. He seemed a lot older, actually. A lot older."

Leisel flashed a knowing smile. "So, he's very tall, broad in the shoulders, about thirty, thick, dark hair, wearing a big coat in summer?"

"Um, yeah?"

"Is that him?"

Leisel pointed, and Sophie followed her gaze to the front of the lecture hall. "Jesus Christ!" she shouted, nearly falling off her chair when she saw who was standing at the lectern.

It was him. The Doctor.

He cleared his throat into the microphone. "Um, hello, everyone," The hall quietened as the students turned as one to look at the man addressing them. "Sorry to disturb your chats before class, but Professor Lancer's running late. Had a spot of car trouble, unfortunately. Now, I was wondering… is there a Sophie Freeman here?"

Leisel turned to Sophie, her jaw slack. Swallowing, her heart pounding in her ears, Sophie slowly lifted her hand.

The Doctor, from up at the lectern, slowly scanned the crowd until he saw her raised hand. "Ah," he said, and his voice was suddenly so confident, so calm, just as it had been in the burning book store. "There you are."

He grinned at her, and the last week's worth of fear and uncertainty evaporated from her mind. He was here, he was real; it hadn't been a dream.

"Now, Ms. Freeman, if you wouldn't mind joining me for a quick chat outside?"

With that, the Doctor withdrew from the lectern and slipped out of the lecture hall. Sophie looked to Leisel, unable to speak.

"Well," Leisel said, "go!"

"But that… that is so weird," Sophie muttered. "But then again," she admitted, "that whole night was pretty weird."

"Go!" Leisel urged, and suddenly Sophie was keenly aware that the two of them were being watched intently by most of the lecture hall. Sheepishly collecting her bag, she said bye to Leisel and headed for the door.

She stepped into the corridor outside, but she couldn't see anyone waiting for her.

"Sophie," she heard from behind her, and turned to see the Doctor. His arms were folded over his chest, and he was leaning against the TARDIS, which had, miraculously, been manoeuvred into the wide corridor, on the other side of the lecture hall's door.

Torn by the desire to hug him and the desire to punch him, Sophie simply said "About time you showed up."

He grinned. "Sorry, I had some business to take care of."

"Yeah," Sophie said, "I guess you must have. It's been a week!"

He at least had the class to look a bit guilty as he answered. "Well, that's the thing about the TARDIS. She's never very reliable. She'll probably make me pay through the nose for saying that, but it's true."

"What is it?" Sophie asked, and rested her hand against its surface. "Is that wood?"

"Well, it's meant to feel like wood," the Doctor said. "It's actually a wood facsimile, created by the TARDIS' chameleon circuit, designed to help it better fit in with its surroundings."

Sophie arched an eyebrow. "To better fit in with its surroundings, it looks like a giant blue box? And what is a Police Public Call Box, anyway?"

"When the TARDIS arrives in a location in time and space, in the first nano-second after it materialises, an array of sensors scan every molecule within a thousand kilometres down to the most charming quark. It compiles all that data into a twelve dimensional model, and picks the best disguise it possibly can," the Doctor said, his voice gaining volume as his explanation went on.

"And then?" Sophie prompted, when he didn't continue.

"And then it decides to look like a police box from 1950s London," the Doctor said with a shrug. "It's been doing that for a few hundred years now, and I can't fix it… not that she'd let me, anyway. I think she's grown quite attached to this look."

Sophie exhaled through clenched teeth. Before, she'd been too panicked to be annoyed. Now, she was infuriated. "You make no sense. You know that?"

He laughed. "I do. I promise. Some things are just complicated. I swear to you, everything I have told you so far has been the truth."

"Okay then," she said, nodding. "What happened after you left? That night, after the whole collapsing world thing and that crazy leech. Where did you go? Oh, and what was that leech thing?"

"Excellent questions," the Doctor said, and she noticed he'd been counting them off on his fingers. "Number one: after I left, I went to get rid of the leech, and you went on living your life. Number two: I went to the Prospero. You remember the ship I told you about? They're going to do the actual getting rid of the leech. You know, in a few tens of thousands of years. Number three: that leech, the chronivorous leech, was a member of a group called the Trickster's Brigade. They look for temporal distortions, like those surrounding you, and then they start playing around. The leech was just eating; sometimes members of the Brigade create entire parallel universes around their victims, just to wreak havoc."

Sophie shook her head. "if I hadn't seen all of that stuff that night, I wouldn't believe a word of this."

"But you did see that stuff," the Doctor said knowingly.

Sophie grinned. "Yes. Yes I did."

"The leech found you," the Doctor said, resuming his explanation. "Created that parallel universe around you using the temporal energy it was eating through you. It did all this, mind, about a second after it first latched on to you."

"Really?" Sophie said, frowning. "So where did it come from?"

"My guess is the elevator," the Doctor said, with a shrug, "but I'm not sure, really."

"I knew there was a reason I hated that thing," she said, with a grin.

"It gorged itself," the Doctor explained. "Ate too much. When you began to remember everything, when you forced it to deal with you and not just your temporal signature, you overwhelmed it; it didn't have time to digest the energy it had already absorbed."

Sophie nodded. "Okay, so I guess that all makes sense… and this box? You said you were a time traveller."

"I am," the Doctor confirmed. "Not just time, though; space as well. Ever wondered what the Horsehead Nebula looks like close up? It's pretty beautiful, I can tell you that. The box, my TARDIS, is my ship. Takes me anywhere I want to go. Or anywhere she thinks I should go."

"Is it alive?" Sophie asked. "You keep using female pronouns, speaking as though it has free will."

"I suppose that she's not alive in the organic sense," the Doctor said, "but she's certainly got a presence, and she's definitely got a will."

"It must get a bit cramped," she said, sizing the box up.

"Oh, you'd be surprised."

Sophie looked at him, and frowned. "Why did you come back, then? I mean, if it can take you anywhere you want to go, any time throughout history, why would you come back to Newcastle? I mean, I like it here, but it's not that great."

"Two reasons," the Doctor said. "I figured I owed you an explanation of what happened, and well… I like you."

"You like me?"

The Doctor ignored her, and kept talking. "I travel, yes, but I don't always do it by myself. I've had… friends, before. Companions. Lots of them. They come with me, see the stars. I haven't had anyone travel with me for a while now, and to be honest it's lost its charm for me, the lonesome, aimless wondering. I don't like it. So, what do you say?"

Sophie blinked. "What do I say to what?"

"To coming with me," the Doctor said. He rapped the TARDIS with his knuckles. "Travelling with me."

Sophie couldn't help it. She smiled. Still, she had commitments and so shook her head. "I can't. I have uni, a job. Friends."

The Doctor just smiled. "Time machine, Sophie. We could see the entire universe and you'd still make it back to this very class before your professor even shows up. Come inside, take a look around."

With that, he straightened up, pushed open the TARDIS doors and stepped inside. Sophie hesitated. Her mind was racing; yes, he'd saved her life, but so much of what he'd said so far had seemed impossible, insane. But then, of course, it was no more insane than what had actually happened to her that night.

Taking a deep breath, she followed him inside.

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Chapter 10: TARDIS

"It's bloody huge!" was the first thing she said after she entered the TARDIS.

Around her stretched a cavernous chamber, with a high, vaulted ceiling. The walls, burnished gold and bronze in colour, seemed to shine with an inner light. Beside the door was an ornate coat rack. She was standing on metal grating, the same colour of the walls, and beneath it she could see machinery, which glowed intermittently with a fine blue light.

Roundels of various sizes were set into the walls in a consistent pattern, rising up towards the ceiling. Not far from where she was standing, a ramp led up to a raised tier with a glass floor, rimmed by a rail. Atop this was what looked like some kind of control console, six-sided, with a glowing blue-green column rising up from its centre. Beneath the raised tier was more machinery, which seemed to have been disassembled and put back together over and over again.

There was also a couch and an armchair under there, a small bookshelf with a phonograph atop nearby. There were two passageways leading out of the enormous chamber, suggesting even more rooms beyond.

The Doctor, standing next to the ramp leading up the console, grinned. "Yes it is."

"How does all this fit in here?" she said, staring around in wonder. "And what's that sound?"

A calming hum filled the air, emanating from all around them.

"That's the sound of the TARDIS' engines when they're not in use," the Doctor said. "Think of it like a computer on standby."

"It's…" she said, unable to quite grasp the words. "It's incredible!"

The Doctor nodded knowingly. "I've heard a lot of people react to the whole bigger-on-the-inside thing, but no one's had quite that… visceral of a reaction."

Sophie glanced at him. "Are you kidding me? You are not mocking me right now."

"No!" the Doctor insisted. "Not at all. Look, the TARDIS is dimensionally transcendent. You're standing in pure mathematics made reality; the inside and the outside fit together through the mathematical manipulation of space, the welding of the two different dimensional points via theoretical physics."

"I'm an English student, Doctor," Sophie reminded him, "and the reason I'm an English student is because maths and science sound like gobbledegook to me."

The Doctor grinned. "Fair enough. Tell you what, why don't you come up here and I can show you."

He made his way up the ramp towards the console, and Sophie followed him, the sound of her footsteps on the grating resounding through the chamber. She mounted the raised tier, and saw that the six-sided console was crammed with levers and switches, gauges and even what looked like a bicycle pump. There was a telephone, a keyboard, a screen hanging down from the upper section of the console. There were dozens of readout screens and, Sophie noted, a dog-eared paper back copy of a pulp fiction magazine.

"Adventures in Time and Space," she read from the front cover. "Nice."

"Vintage 1936," the Doctor said from the console, where he was manipulating controls. "Do you see here?" he said, indicating the screen. "This is the scanner. Over there," he pointed over her shoulder, to another screen set into the wall, "is the other scanner. The big blue thing? That's the time rotor. This is the console. Down the ramp is the sitting area."

Sophie took it all in, her mind still reeling. "This is unbelievable."

"Thank you," the Doctor said, smiling benevolently.

She rolled her eyes at his response. "No, literally, I don't believe you."

"Well," he said, eyes still twinkling. "You might believe this." He hit another control, and all at once the floor bucked beneath her feet. She fell on tight to the side of the console, and heard that same noise she'd heard the night this had all started. The sound of the TARDIS engines. The thing the Doctor had called the time rotor brightened and began moving up and down.

"What are you doing?" she demanded. "Where are you taking me?"

"You'll see!" the Doctor cried over the sound of the engines. Clinging on for dear life, Sophie cursed him. Then, just as quickly as it had started, the sound of the engines died away. He nodded towards the TARDIS doors, which from this side looked as though they perfectly matched the exterior doors. "Go have a look."

Sophie nodded, and went back down the ramp, towards the doors. She took a deep breath as she rested her hand against the wood. Finally, she gave them a push.

The door swung open, and her eyes widened.

Stretching out before her, beneath a velvet black sky, was a craggy, broken grey surface of dust and craters. And there, hanging in the sky, was a small blue orb. She was standing on the moon. She gaped, speechless, as she felt the Doctor fall into place beside her.

"Now do you believe me?"

She nodded mutely.

He grinned. "So, Sophie Freeman. All of time and space is now at your fingertips. Where did you want to go? Alien worlds to stand under alien skies? Did you want to meet the Beatles, perhaps?"

Sophie turned to him, tears shining in her eyes. "My parents?"

The Doctor's expression darkened. "No. I'm sorry, but there are rules; limits to where I can take you. If you met your own parents, the temptation to try and alter their fate would be too strong. The results could be catastrophic."

Sophie was bitterly disappointed, but she understood. "Okay, fine. So, the parents are out."

"I'm afraid so," the Doctor nodded.

She scoffed. "All of time and space… you certainly know how to paralyse a girl with too many options, Doctor, don't you?"

He offered her a sympathetic smile. "It's what I do, I'm afraid."

"Ah, what the hell," she said, "how about Tokyo?"

"Tokyo? What, you mean, in 2011?"

"Sure," Sophie said, "why not? I've always wanted to go. You did say anywhere in time and space, why not start there? From what I've heard, it's practically a different planet anyway."

The Doctor laughed, and shut the doors. He led Sophie back to the TARDIS console. "Fine," he said, "Tokyo it is. Now, while I set the coordinates, how about you go find your room."

"My room?" she asked.

"Well, I'm guessing you'd like somewhere to sleep," the Doctor said.

"Well, yeah," she agreed, "but all my stuff…"

"Will still be waiting here on Earth for you when you get home," the Doctor said, smiling. "Now, go on. Down the left passageway, past the kitchen, you should find the bedrooms. Just keep going until you find one you like."

"How much of this place is there?"

"A lot," the Doctor answered. "I'll show you around some day. Now, off you go."

With another dazzled glance cast around the TARDIS, Sophie disappeared off towards the bedrooms. As she left the console room, the inner light of the chamber dimmed, and the TARDIS' engines made a groaning noise that sounded almost queasy.

The Doctor winced, and patted the console. "I know, girl. She feels wrong."

The scanner screen above the console came to life, displaying an article from a newspaper the scanner identified as the Country Leader. The article was led by a picture of a smiling man and woman, and a small girl with curly hair wrapped in the man's arms. The caption identified them as Sarah and Matthew Freeman, with daughter Sophie.

The Doctor's eyes widened as he read the article.

A few moments after he finished, the scanner screen switched to an image of Sophie. Information began scrolling down the screen beside her picture; her place of birth, her date of birth. Then, to his horror, a date of death: March 2, 1996. The date of Australia's federal election. The day of the car crash that had killed her parents. The car crash that was, apparently, meant to have killed her.

He froze. "We have to help her," he said to the TARDIS.

The machine didn't respond, but Sophie's voice did. "Help who?"

Slapping a button on the console, which shut down the scanner, the Doctor turned to welcome his newest companion back into the console room. "I believe there's a little girl in Tokyo who's just dropped her ice cream. Shall we go buy her a new one?"

Sophie shook her head and smiled. "I suppose we'd better."

The Doctor grinned at her, but what he'd just seen on the scanner weighed heavily on his mind. Still, he shook that off. Hitting a few buttons, he declared. "Coordinates set. Guess what, Sophie Freeman?"

"What, Doctor?" she asked, clearly deciding to play along.

"This is just the beginning," he said and he slammed down one of the levers. The engines roared, the floor shook and the TARDIS, with the Doctor and Sophie aboard, disappeared into eternity.

Sophie and the Doctor will return in 'The Deadly Tower'.

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