"Miss Wright? Is everything all right?"
Everything was not, in fact, all right; everything was extremely blurry. Barbara shook her head slightly and her surroundings began to swim back into focus. She found herself sitting in her second-favourite chair in the Coal Hill staff room, Ian standing over her.
But that wasn't right, was it? It must be over a year now since she'd last been here, since she'd last been on Earth in the present day even. And yet here she was. And Ian had just called her "Miss Wright"; they'd been on first name terms ever since his first term ...
She looked across at the calendar on the wall. 8th September 1961.
This must be Ian's very first day, she realised. They'd met at the staff meeting that morning; he'd come from five years in Birmingham. She'd tried to play the experienced old Coal Hill hand, but it had backfired somewhat when it turned out he'd been a pupil here himself.
"Miss Wright?" he said again.
"Oh, Ian, I'm sorry, I must have fallen asleep." She laughed. "What a terrible first impression I must be making." The concreteness of the worn cushion at her back and the immediacy of Ian's face in front of her were already causing the details of her dream -- it must have been a dream, mustn't it? -- fade somewhat.
"Well, I did think we weren't supposed to be dead on our feet until at least half term."
"I had a very strange dream," she confided. "You and I ... no, it's too silly."
"Try me," Ian said with a smile, taking the seat next to her.
"We ... there was a pupil. A very strange pupil. A girl in the Fifth Form."
"Judging by what I've seen so far, a lot of the Fifth Form girls could be described as very strange."
Barbara smiled. "This one in my dream was stranger still. And we ... we decided to follow her home."
"Really? You and me?"
"Yes, and ..."
And we were abducted by her grandfather, a mysterious fourth-dimensional wanderer, an exile from somewhere and somewhen unknowable.
And travelled to times long ago and yet to come, worlds full of wonders and terrors, fought gods and monsters ...
And fell in love.
No, she couldn't say any of that. Not to this man who she'd only just met today.
"... never mind," she said finally. "It was just a dream."
* * *
Ian almost stumbled across the threshold of the Ship. Next to him, Susan helped the Doctor in before running to the console to close the doors. "We've got to go back for Barbara!" he protested as they swung shut behind him, cutting them off from her.
"Hmm?" said the Doctor, steadying himself by resting on the clock case. "What was that you said?"
"We have to go back for Barbara!" Ian repeated, his temper just beginning to fray. He knew he was being unfair to feel that the Doctor was to blame: he had been just as keen to explore the spaceship trapped in orbit around the black star, even after it had proven to be deserted.
"Oh, yes, yes, of course, dear boy." The urgency of the situation seemed to immediately reinvigorate him, and he strode to the console with a determined air, the frailty he'd displayed on their desperate dash back to the Ship quite forgotten.
Susan walked back towards him, looking distraught. "I'm so sorry, Ian, I thought she'd have made her way back here first."
"That's all right, Susan," he said. "I thought the same thing. I was imagining her standing outside when we got back, getting more and more worried about us. It was foolish of me to suggest we split up in the first place."
"We'll get her back, don't worry," Susan said. "Grandfather will know what to do."
They both looked across at the Doctor. At this particular moment, it would have been hard for someone who didn't know him well to understand the source of such confidence. "Oh," he was saying. "Hmm," he added as he examined the readout on one of the incomprehensible dials towards the top of the console. He flicked a switch experimentally, but whatever subtle change occurred as a result of it didn't please him. "Ah."
"What is it, Doctor?"
"Look, Chatterton, look!" he replied, and activated the scanner. On the screen, Barbara appeared, lying apparently unconscious on the floor of one of the chambers of the spaceship. She seemed to be twitching slightly.
"She's having some sort of fit!" But as he looked closer the twitching seemed to be completely rhymthical, the exact same set of movements happening every two seconds or so. "No, she's stuck in time somehow. Isn't she, Doctor?"
"Yes, yes!" the Doctor said. He turned round, facing Ian instead of the scanner. "What you have to understand is that around a black star such as this one, the dimensions of time and space blend together. Within the star itself, they can become completely inverted. Hmm! I believe that what has happened is that the Ship materialising here has caused such a di-- derangment of the dimensions to take place ..." He trailed off.
Ian thought he understood. "You mean that the ship's orbit has changed?" he ventured. "Instead of coming back regularly to the same position in space, it's repeating the same point in time."
"Yes, yes, quite right!" The Doctor gave him that slightly smug congratulatory smile of his, the same sort that Ian had vowed he'd never give a bright Fifth Former again, if and when he got back to a classroom. "Yes, a temporal orbit," the Doctor announced grandly. "And Barbara is trapped within it!"
"Well, what are we going to do, Doctor?" Ian asked.
But before he could answer, Susan cried out, doubling over in pain and clutching at her temples. The Doctor was at her side instantly. "What is it, child? Hmm?"
With the Doctor's help, Susan made her way to one of the chairs at the far side of the console. "I don't know, Grandfather. It felt like ... a cloud in my mind. Like some sort of ... cold intelligence." Her eyes were staring, unblinking, as though the full enormity of her experience had only hit her in describing it.
"And can you still feel it?" the Doctor asked.
"Dimly," Susan said. "It's still nearby." Her face took on a look of intense concentration; Ian imagined mental muscles straining. "It doesn't seem to be affected by the temporal orbit. Oh, Grandfather, I think it's on the spaceship! I think it's got Miss Wright!"
"That settles it," Ian said. "I'm going back for her." He headed for the console and the door control.
"Wait! Wait," the Doctor said. Ian looked back at him, impatient but knowing that the Doctor probably had something important to say. "If you simply walk out of the Ship without protection, you'll become 'stuck in time', as you put it, yourself, and that will do no one at all any good. Will it, hmm?"
"But, Doctor ..."
"Don't fret, no, no, never fret; I know just the thing." The Doctor chuckled to himself as he walked to a storage area. "Where there's a will, there's a way, eh?"
* * *
"Barbara? I said, do you think we should we go in there?"
Barbara was disorientated. She had no clear memory of how she had ended up here, or where she had been before here. Wherever here was ...
... and then, she knew, with absolute certainty, exactly where she was. She was sitting in Ian's car, opposite 76 Totters Lane, the address where Susan supposedly lived. Except that ... "It's just a junkyard," she said to Ian.
This isn't right, a small voice inside her insisted. At first she thought it was her conscience, telling her she was being nosey, interfering, chasing around after one of her students like this outside school. But then she realised it was something more fundamental. She already knew it was a junkyard; she'd already been here, she'd been the one who'd told Ian about it. Why had she just thought it was new information?
"Strange, isn't it?" Ian said. "What do you think's going on? And where is Susan anyway?"
"It must be the right place," Barbara said. "Look, the name on the gates matches." "I.M. Foreman", the gates said in large white lettering.
"She's probably off with a boy somewhere," Ian said. "She is fifteen."
"Maybe," Barbara conceded.
"Let's just give up and go home," Ian said. He reached for the ignition.
Suddenly, alarm bells were going off in Barbara's head. She was utterly convinced now that there was something deeply wrong. She couldn't understand why, but she knew that this was not what was supposed to happen.
"No, wait," she said, "this isn't how it happens. This isn't how it happened!"
Reality faded into dream.
* * *
Ian stepped out of the TARDIS, the loop of almost invisibly fine gold wire that the Doctor assured him would protect him from becoming trapped in what the Doctor called a "chronic hysteresis" draped over one shoulder like a sash. It was, apparently, vitally important that it remain unbroken.
He looked around at incomprehensible mayhem.
Everywhere he looked he saw ... himself. A multitude of copies, stretching off in a stuttering march away from the TARDIS. And another line coming back, carrying an unconscious Barbara in his arms. His ears were constantly assailed with echoing cries of "Doctor?" in what he realised was his own voice.
The temporal orbit. Ian felt encouraged. If some of his future selves were carrying Barbara then in some way he had already succeeded.
And suddenly, the twin lines of other Ians disappeared. "Doctor?" he shouted. But no reply came from within the TARDIS, and his other selves showed no sign of returning.
He resolved not to let this apparent proof of his failure deter him. He and Barbara had promised long ago never to give up on each other. It had been early in their travels with the Doctor, when they still hadn't trusted him fully, but the enormity of their situation had sunk in after their horrifying encounters with the likes of cavemen and Daleks. They had resolved that they would get home, and get home together.
And as he reminded himself of this, his future selves stretched away in front of him again, and the ones carrying Barbara back to the TARDIS reappeared. So he would succeed after all. But no sooner had he thought so, the spaceship emptied itself of future selves again.
No sooner had he thought so ... Perhaps his future was affected by his attitude in the present. If he assumed success, then at some level he no longer believed he had to achieve it. "Where there's a will, there's a way," that was what the Doctor had said. It was a working hypothesis at best, but at least it was something.
He stepped forward, replaying his promise to Barbara in his head. He caught the eye of the nearest of his returning future selves, but as soon as he did, that other Ian -- and the Barbara he was carrying -- began to flicker in and out of existence. Quickly, he looked away. He couldn't afford to let their existence encourage him, or they would never exist.
We're going home together, he repeated to himself with every step.
* * *
"I wish you good dreaming, Bar Bara and Ee Ann," the girl said, before backing out of the hut while bowing repeatedly.
Good dreaming ... Barbara felt as though she was dreaming. She was sure she hadn't been here a moment ago, but she couldn't remember anything that would explain why not.
The hut was basic in structure, but furnished lavishly by the standards of this time and place -- solid wood and lots of furs. The village's inhabitants had leapt to a number of conclusions very rapidly. That was par for the course, but for once they'd been ones that worked in the travellers' favour. The Doctor was an honoured elder, attended by his protegee Susan, and Barbara and Ian were a newlywed couple who would bring great good fortune on the community if they could be persuaded to stay, hence the hospitality. Apparently honeymoons here were more of a grand tour to find somewhere new to live than a holiday. The Doctor had muttered something about social adaptations associated with declining life expectancy and fertility rates in the aftermath of a mutagenic war, but not loudly enough for any of the locals to hear.
Ian and Barbara were lying on sumptuous fur rugs, opposite one another with heads propped on elbows looking into each other's eyes.
"This is all terribly embarrassing," Barbara said.
"I'm sure Susan and the Doctor are having a tremendous giggle about it," Ian agreed. "I think the worst part is that they've decided I'm Mr Wright."
"Only because I introduced myself first."
"Still, it wouldn't be so bad, would it?" Ian said.
"Being married? No, I suppose it wouldn't. Why, are you proposing to me? Because I'm fairly sure you could do it more romantically than that."
"Well, maybe I am proposing," Ian said, much to her surprise. "Maybe I'm proposing that we go along with all this, that we get married -- stay married, I suppose -- here. The people seem very friendly. And we have a lot we could offer them, the sort of knowledge their culture's forgotten ... Maybe their prophecies about good fortune could turn out to be true."
"You mean ... not worry about getting back home? Back to Earth? Back to London?"
"It's been a long time, Barbara," he said. "We could settle down here, make real lives for ourselves."
"No," Barbara said. She looked straight into his eyes. "We made each other a promise, Ian. We're going home together."
"At least think about it, Barbara," he said--
But even as he did, reality receded again.
* * *
Ian counted himself lucky that he didn't have to search the whole ship, with its long curving corridors and strange spherical chambers: his path had been laid out for him at every step, by his own movements echoing back into the past.
The door of the last chamber slid open to reveal Barbara lying on the floor, and Ian ran the last few metres and scooped her up in his arms. Clumsily, he adjusted the loop of gold wire so that it enclosed her as well. He stood stock still for a moment, watching to make sure that she stopped the twitching repetition of the exact same movement. Relieved, he started the long walk back to the TARDIS, marching along behind his future selves.
Just before he reached the Ship, one of his past selves coming the other way looked directly at him, and Ian had the strangest feeling that in fact he was looking at nothing at all.
The doors of the TARDIS opened, operated from inside. He began to pick up speed to get inside as quickly as possible, but was astonished to see the Doctor step out and had to slow down again to avoid a collision with him. The Doctor stood just outside the doorway, looking as imperious as perhaps Ian had ever seen him. He clutched both lapels and had his chin high in the air, a look in his eyes that was far, far away, infinitely far even.
Ian suppressed an involuntary shudder, then rushed into the safety of the Ship.
* * *
Ian passed Barbara the tea he'd just made her. Last time they'd been on Earth in an appropriate time period, he'd made sure to secure as many tea bags as possible; they both agreed that it was preferable to relying on the food machine's efforts. "So according to the Doctor," he explained, "the twisted space around the black star was occupied by these intelligences."
"Disembodied minds of some kind?" Barbara said, sitting up from her bed to take a sip of her drink.
"The Doctor insists that they were embodied in patterns of gravitic turbulence," Ian said as he sat down next to her. "But that sounds fairly disembodied to me. But the real thing of it was that the disembodied minds were the crew of the spaceship. That's why it was deserted. When they became caught around the black star, they'd somehow transferred their life forces into this new way of being, matching the connections in their brains to some sort of connections within the twisted space. Something to do with 'Planck-scale wormholes', which is where I'm afraid I rather lost the thread of what the Doctor was saying. But apparently, this sort of thing's perfectly routine for some species. Change their entire way of living as often as we would our clothes."
"So why did they attack me?"
"For some reason, they believed you were the cause of the temporal orbit. They weren't caught in it at first, but they were at risk of becoming so. They thought they could persuade you to stop, somehow. Once the Doctor was able to make them understand it was because of the Ship, and would fix itself as soon as we left, they relinquished their hold on you."
"And they thought they could persuade me to stop by rummaging through my memories? Finding something where I might be persuaded to think about stopping? How very strange."
"According to the Doctor it's all just a bad case of miscommunication." Ian shrugged. "Which rather raises the question of how he was able to communicate with them so easily, but I'm not sure I want to examine that too closely."
"No," Barbara agreed, and they were silent for a while.
"I can't imagine what it was like," Ian said eventually.
"I'm not sure I can even remember properly," Barbara admitted. "But I do know that I always knew it couldn't be you, really."
"I knew you wouldn't break your promise," she told him.
Ian smiled back.
"I'm not even sure which parts were real and which weren't," Barbara confided. "That business on Harpith, did that really happen?"
"You mean the place where we had to pretend to be married to avoid upsetting the locals?" Ian laughed. "Yes, it did. Why, was that one of the memories the gravitic intelligences used?"
Barbara was silent for a moment. She bit her lip. "That was when I was most tempted," she admitted. "The fake you, he said we should settle down there."
"And what did you say?" Ian asked.
"I told him we were going home together." She looked on the verge of tears; sometimes that goal seemed so impossibly far away. Ian wrapped his arms around her in a hug and held her wordlessly. Barbara sniffed slightly and seemed to recover. She turned her head to whisper in his ear. "But don't worry, you'll always be my Mr Right."