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."
"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."
"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?"
"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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