Sarah stood at the bottom of the stairs, her head cocked to one side and a pair of garden secateurs held loosely in her hands, listening to the voices above. Two of them engaged in a deep conversation that, even through the floors that separated them, sounded like banter between friends, or the best of enemies.
With Luke still away on a school trip, it was the last thing she expected to hear in a supposedly empty house.
Kicking off her Wellington boots and brandishing the secateurs like a weapon, she mounted the stairs; being sure to keep her step light so that she didn’t alert the intruders to her presence.
At the attic door she paused, pressed an ear to the cool wood and tried to make out what was being said.
A decidedly male voice came to the end of a rather long speech or explanation with a jovial chuckle; which she quite wasn’t sure, but with a long list of scientific terms being batted around, she imagined it was most probably the latter. But that laugh. Even through a door and a different decade she would know that particular laugh anywhere, and threw the door open to find…nothing. The attic was eerily void of life, all except for Mr Smith whirling away on the far side of the room.
“Mr Smith,” she said, walking further into the room. A quick glance around told her that everything was still in its usual place. “Was anybody just in here?”
“Not that I am aware of, Sarah Jane.”
She frowned. “I see. So you were talking to yourself?”
“No, Sarah Jane,” came the computerized reply. “The purpose of speech is to communicate; therefore, there is nothing to be gained by talking to oneself.”
“Well I definitely heard something.”
She spun in a circle, flexing her fingers in a frustrated gesture; though with the mysterious voices haunting her attic or the computer’s lack of cooperation, she wasn’t quite sure.
With a sigh, she bounded down the steps and came to stand in front of Mr Smith. Electricity, or something alien that passed for it, hummed through the control panel. Several lights flashed from blue to green, and back again, within the space of a few seconds, illuminating the various dials and switches housed there. She had no idea what most of them did. Years of exploration had taught her very little about how he - when had she started referring to him as a he? - worked, and although she owed her life, and the lives of others, to the information he provided, she was still very sceptical of his loyalty.
“What’s that?” She asked no one in particular, and touched the screen, highlighting an inactive window. Once resized, a UNIT letterhead filled the screen, neatly followed by a short but sociable message from the Brigadier. “Mr Smith have you been reading my messages?”
A single string of red coloured bulbs dimmed until they shone with a pale peach light. It was a very human reaction of guilt acted out in circuits and wires.
“I wasn’t reading them, Sarah Jane. I was merely running a diagnostic of all incoming attachments from a potentially hostile source, as per your instructions.”
“Potentially hostile, the Brig?” She laughed; a small breathy sound, and perched on the arm of a nearby chair. “Remind me to introduce you to a Dalek one day. So what did he send over? It’s not another picture of Harry and me hovering under the mistletoe is it? I’ve got enough of those to fill a shoe box,” she said, smiling at the memory of that particular Christmas party.
An audible jumble filtered into the room; the sound of a tape being played in reverse, and slowly, the voice that belonged to her most treasured memories began to speak.
“There you see, Sarah, the chemical balance is really quite simple.”
“Simple for you maybe, but not all of us have a brain the size of a Time lord’s. Anyway, how are we supposed to know if this stuff even works?”
“If it works? If it…Of course it will work!”
“And if it doesn’t? What then? We sit here and wait for those…things to break through the road blocks? Oh that’s just great, I’ve always wanted to be stranded in a pub, in the middle of nowhere, being attacked left, right and centre by god knows what!”
“Mutations, Sarah, not things. They’re still partly human. As for the other part, well, your guess is as good as mine. Their cellular structure is quite fascinating, look at…”
“Turn it off Mr Smith.”
She fell back into the chair, dazed by a wash of oh so familiar feelings. Frustration and love, so entwined that one couldn’t exist without the other - not when it came to the Doctor — and blind panic. It wasn’t until she heard it again that she realised she had forgotten the sound of his voice; the almost touchable quality of it that, if given the chance, could take the pain away from any injury and leave you in a cocooned state of bliss.
She was suddenly reminded of Bea, and what she must have felt after hearing her Edgar’s voice after so many years.
A quick read of the email from the Brig confirmed what she had already guessed. The two way radio they had been given had been left on, the signal picked up by the mobile HQ and recorded as part of standard procedure. The tape had been stored away and never looked at, as was often the case, until recently when he was given the job of disposing of the ones that weren’t of vital importance. With over three hours of conversation, and countless other extras that had already been omitted from his memory, he thought she might like it, to do with as she saw fit, and sent it in the form of an encrypted message, in case it went ‘missing’ in the post.
She would write and thank him, or maybe go up there in person; she was overdue a good visit. It had been too long since she had the chance to sample some of Doris’ fruit and nut cake, but first things first. “Mr Smith, can you transfer the file to a CD?”
“Transferring data now.”
“Thank you,” she said; a secret smile forming on her lips.
“Hmm?” She said, partly turned away; lost in her thoughts.
“Are you aware that my databank has the ability to store the voice patterns of any given person, or persons, I come into contact with? Be it a recording or in the flesh; with enough alphabetical data it can mimic the exact tone of voice, purely for experimental reasons, you understand.”
She stopped and turned. Surely he couldn’t be suggesting… “Mr Smith, what exactly are you saying?”
“I think you know Sarah Jane.”
Alright, so he was suggesting, but she couldn’t take him up on it — wouldn’t. Not only would it set her back several steps, but it felt vaguely like grave robbing.
Oh but to hear his voice again, speaking to her through the borders of time as though nothing had changed; it shouldn’t have made her pulse race the way it did. She’d had her goodbye, albeit thirty years late, and moved on. But there was still a part of her psyche that, no matter how small or irrational, resented it for coming from a complete stranger who was still her best friend.
The computerised voice snapped her out of her reverie with the almost painful realisation that she was going to agree. It was inevitable. For all her bravado in the face of alien menace, she knew the limitations of her strength, and this pushed it to breaking point.
“Mr Smith, there’s another three days until Luke gets home,” she said; the corners of her mouth lifting up into the ghost of a smile. “I’m sure that’s plenty of time for you to satisfy your curiosity.”
It was probably only her imagination, but for a spilt second, she swore that the lights on the control panel shone just a little bit brighter than before.