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.
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.
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