A thin pane of glass separates them, the girl and the man. No words pass between them; they simply stare at each other, contempt on one side, wrath on the other. It seems like an eternity to her before he spins on his heel and walks away, leaving her alone on her side of the glass. She will soon discover that in reality, eternity is so much longer.
. _ . _ . _ . _ .
She has all the time in the universe, and she sees so many things, but this is what she dreads: the step of a soft shoe, the swish of heavy cloth, then he appears. Anger had filled her the first time it happened. She had thought she’d be alone forever, forgotten in her caricature of a real world. Then he returned. Gloating, no doubt, about his sneaky little trick, and his handy disposal of my mother and father and brother. My family. She glared her hatred at him until he left.
But, he continues to return to her, once a year, every year. He doesn't always look the same. He's in blue this time, brown that time, very rarely black; usually a light shirt, but sometimes perhaps a dark, blood red one; maybe a coat, maybe not. Usually he wears that odd strip of dangling cloth around his neck that humans seem to like. And his hair is never the same. But every time, his cold eyes bore through her, and she feels exposed, compromised. The first few times, she had tried to hide, but his very presence drew her out, compelled her to peer out at him from the phantom world, and she learned not to bother trying to avoid him. Perhaps, she told herself, the sooner I acknowledge him, the sooner he'll leave.
Every year, as the moment approaches, she tells herself that this time, she'll speak to him. She rehearses several speeches, pleading her case, telling him about herself, asking him about himself, asking him about her family, or even simply begging for mercy. But no, that's not the right strategy. While she knows she's clever, and charismatic when she puts her mind to it, she knows she can't charm him, distract him with pretty words and sad stories. But perhaps if he understood that she was sorry, that she'd been wrong, that she'd never do it again, he would release her. She'd be lying, of course.
And every year, he turns and walks away, the silence unbroken. Perhaps next year will be her chance.
. _ . _ . _ . _ .
They stare at each other, motionless. There's no wind, no movement in her world, other than her. She stands in stillness, and he matches her perfectly. His countenance is unreadable, and she wonders if hers masks her thoughts as well as she thinks; she is sure it doesn't, not from him. Her defiance, her loathing foams in her chest, threatens to pour from her at the sight of him. And something more, something she doesn't want to admit to herself. It's fear. Fear of him. Fear of what more he could do to her. Fear that he’ll take her and force her into another twisted version of hell. Fear that he will leave her here forever.
He blinks, then turns away, to leave her for yet another year, and this is her moment. "Will you let me out?" It is a simple question: no entreaty, no simpering plea. It is a person-to-person request for information. She is rather pleased with herself, with her control.
He stops, then steps back to precisely the spot he had stood in before. A moment passes before he replies. "No."
She'd known the answer before she’d even asked the question, but she is careful to not allow her disappointment to show. "How long will our penance last? When will you judge that we have paid for our crimes?"
An eyebrow cocks. "Penance? This is what you wanted, isn't it? What you searched for me to get, something I don't even have myself." He sniffs, his nose wrinkling briefly, and she wonders if he is mocking her skill at hunting. "You'll outlive me, by a millionfold. A Time Lord lives fifteen thousand years at most. I'll be lucky to reach two thousand, myself. My life's almost spent. The victory is yours."
He IS mocking me. She is sure of it, and it takes all of her willpower to keep her voice steady. "You know what you've done. To me. To my family."
"Yes. I do."
A note of entreaty creeps into her voice. "You can end it. You can give us our freedom. Haven't we paid enough?"
He doesn’t reply right away, his cold eyes assessing her form. "Do you know why you're here?"
I’m not stupid. "Of course I do."
He nods. "Tell me."
She locks eyes with him, to demonstrate to him that she’s sincere. "Because we were hunters, because we killed sentients. We killed all those people in that school and that village. We're murderers. And we tried to take what wasn’t ours." Not that she really cares. She just knows the words they always want to hear.
Biting his lip, he blinks, regret shading his eyes. “Of all your family, I've given you the opportunity to observe and learn, to understand. Don't waste it." He turns and walks away.
She stands motionless, glaring out of the mirror, her fingernails digging painful crescents into her palm, her expression growing darker each second. She roars her anger and, grabbing the red balloon, tears at it, bites it, pounds it into every sharp corner this mirrorscape sports. However, it, like her, is eternal, and its shiny, cheery surface remains unmarred.
. _ . _ . _ . _ .
Silence is the norm again when he returns, and the passing of years does not change that. He doesn’t seem to care; he just stares at her with that oh-so-infuriating air that he knows more than she does, and she won’t give him the satisfaction of begging for release.
After a number of years, it occurs to her that maybe she should try to understand what he said. Observe and learn? Observe and learn what? The universe has been progressing outside of the mirror, and she sees it going, but who cares? It doesn’t matter where she looks, what worlds she sees. People live, people die. She sees the same universe as she saw before she was forced here. And now she’s seen up the noses of far too many species for anyone’s sanity.
But never let it be said I'm not clever. So she watches. Humans first, since they were the easiest, as she favored Earth because it was the only way she could be near at least one of the Family. For years she watches, because there’s nothing else to do, but it is so mind-numbing, a film that has no beginning, no end, and no point. Brother of Mine had it right: simple, thick, and dull. Not even worth hunting.
Then she watches others, looking for what she’s supposed to learn, and what she sees fascinates her. Some species are only worth being hunted, but some… She glories in new knowledge of hunting techniques and methods of inflicting pain and violence. She yearns for release, so that she can practise her new skills and revel in the hunt.
And every year, once a year, there arrives a reminder in pinstripes that she’ll never have the chance.
. _ . _ . _ . _ .
As with every year, she steels herself against the coming moment, wrestles with her anger and loathing, suppresses them deep within herself. It’s starting to become old hat: the same practised expression, painted on her face, so that she doesn’t give her jailer any pleasure in her suffering. It’s a battle of wills, and she’s going to have to fight it forever, but she’ll win.
This time, though, it’s different. A heavy bootstep on the wooden floor, and a scarecrow of a humanoid appears before her, with floppy hair and awkward, gangly limbs. He stands before her with none of the supercilious, condescending ease of the man who’d been visiting her all these times. Instead, he peers at her with curious interest, his shoulders hunched, his elbows out and his fingers twitching in front of his silly red bow tie.
His appearance startles her, and without thinking, she drops her facade in bewilderment. Have I gotten the day wrong? Then she composes herself and puts on her best creepy-little-girl look. Knowing she can’t be heard by normal people, she twists her face into a murderous grin. There, that should scare the pants off him. I'm coming to get you! You can't hide from me!
Realisation dawns on his face. “Ah. You weren’t expecting me.”
She hides her surprise well. “Go ‘way.”
He straightens up. “No. We can continue the whole silent treatment thing if you like, but I’m not going away.”
Squinting at him, she approaches until her hands touch the glass, one with fingers spread, the other still clutching the string of her balloon. “Who are you?”
“I’m the Doctor.”
Stamping her foot, she bares her teeth at him. “Don’t patronise me. I’m not stupid. You’re not the Doctor. You don’t look a thing like him.”
“I’ve changed.” When she rolls her eyes in patent disbelief, he throws his hands up in frustration. “Didn’t you even stop to ask why Time Lords live so long? A single body could last a thousand years, yes, but we live so much longer because when we die, we change and renew.” He walked up to her. “We re-gen-er-ate,” he intoned, tapping on the glass to emphasise each syllable.
Her eyes narrow. “So he’s dead.”
He smirks. “He is dead, yes. But I’m not. I am still him.”
But she barely hears him, a sadistic, toothed grin spreading slowly across the little girl’s face. “Did it hurt? Did he die in agony?” She whirls and dances with joy, her eyes gleaming with imagined tortures and rending flesh, then hops back to the glass, the fingers of her free hand curved like claws. “Tell me he screamed and wailed as his limbs were torn from him and his heart was gnawed in two.” Her eyes fluttering closed, she hugs herself and writhes sensuously in response to the visions of her tormentor’s excruciating death.
“Hearts,” he corrects her. “Yes, it hurt, but not the way you imagine it. The pain he felt, you wouldn’t understand.”
She stills, and opening eyes still shining with malicious triumph, she steps back from the glass, gripping the string of the balloon in both hands. “Still, he is dead. I suppose you will keep me here, in memory of him, sentimental fool that you are.”
“I will keep you here, but not for any memory of him.” He turns on his heel and paces the room as he talks, and it unnerves her. His predecessor only moved to arrive and depart. “All this time, peering from the mirrors. Watching the universe turn. Have you learned nothing?”
She straightens her shoulders. She has not felt such pride, such defiance toward him in decades. “I have learned many things, seen into the heart of every being who has gazed into my world. The universe is not a nice place, Time Lord. There are far worse things than me out there. Why is it me that you punish? So we kill your precious sentients, take their forms. Who died to give you your form? Who had to give up his life so that you could stand here now? How many lives have been lost for you? How are you different from us?”
He spins to glare at her. “This is the natural process of life for a Time Lord.”
“Natural?” She spits the word at him. “Even as we tracked you, we could smell your energy, and there was nothing natural about it.” She sniffs, long and deep, though there is no odour in the world behind the glass. “It smells of laboratories and stardust and frightened old men. Your lives were created out of experiments and technology, so you could live beyond your natural span, and a man must die for each new body. I ask you again, Time Lord, how are we different?”
He stares at her, at a loss for words for a moment. Then, he lifts his chin, peering down his nose at her, so like the man that came before. “I’ll tell you how we’re different. Not that you’ll understand. You’ve shown that already. But I’ll tell you.” He leans in close, his nose almost touching the glass. “The difference is the choice. Who gets to choose how a life is spent?”
Her brow furrows as she processes the words, and he spins away, stopping near the door. “I’ll let you think on that for a bit,” he quips before he disappears.
. _ . _ . _ . _ .
He is just as punctual as his predecessor, but not as silent. Sometimes he says nothing, watching her closely, but he never has that grim, stormy expression that she had gotten so used to on his previous form. He observes her instead with the piqued interest of a scientist, like she’s a specimen in a cage. Which, I suppose, I am. Most of the time, though, he runs his gob as she stares at him, silent and stationary. He says nothing important, nothing she even remembers the next day.
She spends her years, her decades, in her silent realm, watching through the cold, impermeable glass. She finds pleasure in becoming the nightmare in the mirror across so many worlds, the watcher barely glimpsed, the reflected darkness everyone sees in their own souls. There’s not much else to do but watch (for he bade her to think, and if there’s anything she’s not going to do, it’s what he suggests), and the universe becomes her cinema. She sneers at the banal, the boring, the insipidly happy. She revels in the despair brought to all mirrors by those creatures so lost, they pour their soul out only to their reflection, when they think they’re alone. She may not be able to inflict pain, but she can enjoy it, feast on it. And that is how she spends her existence.
Until, one day, she changes.
It had happened completely by chance. Of all the mirrors in all of the universe, she happened to peer out of one on a tiny planet few people had ever heard of and looked out at her own people for the first time. She’d been budded from Mother of Mine after the Family had stolen the spaceship and left home to hunt across the cosmos; finally seeing her home caught her fascination and she had been unable to look away. And so she watched.
At first, she saw little that separated them from any other race, and she was disgusted that these unimaginative people used their shapeshifting to take on such mundane forms: predators to hunt food, strong hulks to pull plows and haul stone for buildings, small animals with dextrous fingers to manufacture and count and write. She ridiculed them for their lack of ambition, for settling for such dull lives when they could use their powers for so much more.
Then she saw one whose eyes were lifted to the heavens. This one had dreams! And she followed it, as best as she could, for her mirrors were stationary but this one moved so much. She found that its name was Barel (I’ve never had a name; I’ve only ever been designated in relation to the speaker), the youngest budded in its pod, just like her. Barel worked as a merchant, bringing supplies to its town and shipping the town’s produce elsewhere. It formed a close bond with two others, from other pods, and together they loved, and laughed, and cried. They supported their town, and explored their world, and played in the sun, and ultimately, dreamed of the stars. And from her phantom world, she watched them in silence.
He visited around this time, and while he babbled on, she thought only of Barel, of the home she’d never had, of how much more they could all be.
Then, not too long after, Barel died, expended its limited lifespan. The queen grieved for it, the last of its pod, then went about the business of hatching a new egg to replace the individuals that were gone. Their observer pounded on the glass and screamed for the merchant she had never met, unheard by anyone except herself. She couldn’t cry: nothing changed in the mirror world, and the tears would not form.
She sat like a stone, watching her people live and die, multiple times over the course of a single year. She watched each life begin, and each person worked its way into her heart, and each one died, leaving dark, empty holes every time.
And she finally understood.
. _ . _ . _ . _ .
She stands waiting, willing her nervous tremors to still, clutching the red balloon, as the familiar sound of boots on polished wood reach her ears. She schools her expression into the defiance she’s always worn during his visits. I’m not going to let him win. How dare he put me through this? I will stand here like this until he’s gone, and he won’t notice a thing. He’ll leave me alone, if I just -
His spirited voice cuts her thoughts and her determination short. “Aha! You’ve finally seen something new, learned something, haven’t you?” She had forgotten: she can’t hide from him. His tone is not triumphant, or supercilious, or scornful, or even patronising. It’s… fatherly, and because of that, it stings so much more.
She grinds her teeth, unsure how to reply. “Perhaps.”
“Do you know why you’re here?” The question is so gentle, she can almost feel its caress on her cheek.
She blinks, slowly, before she begins. “We stole lives away. We made the choice ours, not theirs. But more than that. We never saw the other side of life, what should have given us meaning. It’s not the time we have, but what we do with it. You tried to show us that, and we failed to see. And in our persistence, we stole that away from you.”
He says nothing, but she sees in his eyes that he knows she’s sincere. And she sees something else: that he’s been waiting so long for this, that he put her here, oh so long ago, because he knew she, of all the Family, could learn and grow. She sees that he has always respected her, loved her like the Family did not.
“And…” She falters.
She swallows. “And you will not release me, because my penance begins now.”
He nods. “You understand.”
She melts into background of the mirrorscape, as he departs for another year.
. _ . _ . _ . _ .
While she lived in anger, while she lusted for the hunt, the years in the mirror world dragged on, but it is so much worse now. She longs to join her people, even for the scant month she has left in her lifespan, and live. But all she can do is watch. And she watches them turn to dust, year after year. Barel becomes a distant memory, and she loses count of just how many pods she’s seen wither away.
He returns to her every year, and she both treasures and dreads his visits. He is the only person who can truly see her, who can talk to her, who can hear her, and for those few minutes, she lives. It’s not that he imparts wisdom or revelation; in fact, as before, he mostly blathers of whatever pops into his mad little head. But the contact lets her touch the world she left centuries ago, and she clings to each word. And yet, that brief spark of life makes the rest of her existence so much more painful.
In her despair for release, the thought occurs to her that she is not slaved to her home world, that she has the universe to watch, and, for the first time in many decades, she turns her eyes to the near-infinite other mirrors she has at her command. She sees other species as if for the first time: different, strange, sometimes inscrutable. Some are weak, some are strong. But all are worthy. She finds solace in their longer lives, that their generations last years instead of months, that her heart isn’t broken quite so frequently as it is among her own people. But break it does, as these lives she becomes invested in flit away, and though she thought she would become inured to it, as more people crumble to dust while she continues to endure, she finds it only gets harder. And it doesn’t prepare her for what comes next.
For he’s getting old. Because of his exuberance, she doesn’t notice the gray until it has taken over a goodly amount of his brown mop, and it draws attention to the lines on his careworn face. She ignores it all, tells herself that she’s seeing things, grins to herself at his youthful energy, until one day, she hears a slow thunk, thunk, thunk. He trudges into the room, leaning on a cane, refusing to wince at some injury that has failed to heal. Then she cannot deny it.
As usual, he flashes her a wide grin, but before he can launch into a whirlwind of words, she proffers her question.
He waves a stiff arm to brush away her concern. “Oh, I’ve a couple hundred years left in me yet.”
“Is that the truth?” She knows better than to believe this one’s first answer to anything.
He steadies himself with his cane before answering. “Yes.”
“And then you take your next form.”
“No.” He spreads his arms wide, the cane in his hand swinging through the air. “You get what you see. This is the last of me. I was lucky. I made it to that two thousand years. Just.”
For the first time in the centuries she has spent in all mirrors, she slumps to her knees. The balloon, fixed in her hand since the moment she arrived, bobs against her head as she pounds the floor. “No! You can’t. Not you. I can’t bear this. Everyone else is gone. All of them. You can’t!”
“It’s the way of it. Nothing I can do. I’ve spent my lives.”
She lifts her eyes to his and begs. “Please. Release me. Don’t do this to me. Don’t leave me here forever.”
He limps slowly to the mirror and lowers himself to the ground, grimacing at the pain in his leg. Spreading one hand on the smooth surface, he bows his head, his breath misting the glass. “Your lifespan is expired, ten thousand times over. If I release you, you’ll die.”
“As I should have, long ago. I should never have seen the end of 1913.” She looks up at him. “I’m sorry. For the pain and misery we inflicted. For all the lives we stole. For the schoolteacher and the matron, for taking away what they had. For rejecting your kindness when you offered it. Please. Please let me sleep.”
And he smiles, tender pride shining in his eyes, like a father as his daughter walks on her own for the first time. He opens his arms wide to her. “Come to me.”
She struggles to her feet and stumbles toward him. Squeezing her eyes shut, she flinches, fully expecting to slam into the hard glass. Then warm arms encircle her and cool air fills her lungs, missed for so long. She wants to thank him as she opens her eyes, but they are already dull and glassy. The red balloon floats up and away as her form goes still in his arms.