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.
"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."
"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."
"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.
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