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.
"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?"
"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.
"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.
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.
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