It took both of them working together at full strength to heave the door shut and seal the poison gas out into the main section of the TARDIS; and when they had managed that, Ace leaned against the closed door, panting heavily. The Professor, damn him, didn’t even seem the slightest bit winded.
“Are you all right?” he asked. “You didn’t breathe any of it in-?”
She gave herself a quick check over, breathed in and out experimentally a few times, but all systems seemed to be fully functional. So to speak. “Nah. You?”
He just shrugged, a tiny elegant slope of the shoulders. “
Something had gone wrong inside the TARDIS console — nothing new, really — and the central rotor had begun leaking some kind of noxious, looking gas. Which meant that immediate evacuation was necessary, and they had to get out of the console room as quickly as possible, which meant that they were now... here.
Wherever here was.
Ace took a moment to look around, and saw that they were in a sort of small transitional room, one that she had never seen before. There was the door that they had just come through, leading back into the console room, and another, apparently leading deeper into the TARDIS.
“Onwards?” the Professor offered, indicating the door.
She shrugged. “Sure.” It wasn’t like there was much else in the way of things to do.
He nodded and pushed open the door, and they emerged into a corridor — a long, white stretch of empty space that retreated into the far distance without any visible exits or variation. It was a sharp contrast to the complete chaos of the console room, minutes before; and more than that — it was completely silent. No distant hum of the engines — no noise at all. Ace thought, briefly, that she might actually be able to hear her own heartbeat.
There really didn’t seem to be anything that they could do besides begin to walk — so walk they did, without really bothering to confer or discuss it — simply setting off down the hallway in the hope of finding an end somewhere.
After nearly ten minutes of this, Ace spoke up, breaching the silence. “How long d’you think this corridor goes on for?”
The Professor gave this question the careful consideration it deserved, tapping against the handle of his umbrella in a rhythmic, three-beat waltz for a moment or two.
“I really don’t know,” he admitted eventually. “I suppose — speaking purely speculatively, of course — it could potentially go on forever.”
Ace’s eyebrows rose sharply, and she looked over at him. He looked entirely serious, but not as worried as she felt the situation deserved. “Forever?”
“Oh, yes. The TARDIS’s interior space is theoretically infinite, although there’s never really been an opportunity to test that until now, really. And, failing that, it’s also entirely possible that this particular corridor could be set into a near-imperceptible loop that we’re simply traversing again and again.”
Ace squinted. The corridor in front of them retreated off into a distant dot — a singularity. There were no visible signs of curving or imperfection — in the walls, in the ceiling, on the floor; any of it. “It looks pretty straight to me.”
“Draw a circle large enough, and any segment of it will appear straight to the poor creature stuck walking around it.”
Another few seconds of silence.
“So… we are stuck in a loop, then?”
“It’s only a theory,” said the Professor. “I could be entirely wrong.”
“You usually aren’t, though,” she said.
He gave a non-committal hum that she would have liked to think could mean anything, but in reality, probably meant something like, ‘correct’ .
“Don’t you think that’s a problem?”
“It is,” he assured her. “A rather large one, although not quite an immediate one. Humans can survive without food for quite some time, although water is another thing altogether.”
Involuntarily, Ace shivered. Some part of her said, internally, don’t ask, you don’t want to know, but she had never been very good at suppressing that part of her. Out loud, she said, “so how long is that?”
He opened his mouth instantly, as if about to respond with the exact information she was asking for — even down to the hour — but then he seemed to remember the context of the situation, and instead gave one of those inscrutable alien side-glances that he was so fond of. These side-glances tended to communicate emotions that probably didn’t even exist in English terms, but if she had to make a wild guess, Ace would have said that this particular one contained some mixture of worry and understanding, or something along those lines.
“It’s not going to come to that,” he told her. “The TARDIS will have purged the poison from her systems in a matter of hours, maybe less; and whatever it is that’s causing her to malfunction like this will be gone by that point.”
She grimaced a bit and nodded, but the doubt was now there and she was finding it very hard to shake. She tried to drag her mind away from the sudden idea of dying of thirst and/or hunger here, in the TARDIS — in her home. “So — we just keep walking until we find an exit, or the TARDIS lets us out?”
The Doctor’s mouth quirked downwards. “It seems that way, yes.”
“I don’t really want to do that.”
“No — I’m not immensely fond of the idea, myself.”
“Okay, look, how about we just —” Ace stopped walking, turned around, and attempted to walk back in the direction they had come from, but abruptly came to a halt as she realized that there was nothing to walk back to. “— huh?”
The Professor stopped as well, and turned to regard the blank wall — no door, no details whatsoever — that had appeared directly behind them, apparently when neither had been paying attention. “Hm!” he said, and his tone of voice indicated scientific curiosity, which wasn’t at all strange for him but also not the sort of thing Ace wanted to be hearing from him now while they were trapped in some sort of weird, never-ending TARDIS corridor stretch.
“All right, that’s unsettling,” Ace said, staring. “This is feeling more and more like a horror movie the longer we stay here.”
The Professor reached out to tap against the wall with the tip of his umbrella twice, and then to touch it — smoothing his fingers along the even white surface. “It seems to be a perfectly ordinary wall.”
“Right, ordinary,” said Ace. “Apart from the fact that it’s right behind us, and that should be impossible. Because we just came from there. ”
Ace took a step backwards, but nothing changed — and then she took another step, and then another. Still, the wall blocking off their exit remained in place.
The Professor threw a glance over his shoulder towards her, and, seeing what she was doing; mimicked her movements — walking backwards in her direction.
This time, something did happen — the wall began to move closer with every step he took back, advancing in perfect synchronization with him, until he reached where Ace already was — whereupon it immediately stopped moving, even as he continued on.
After five more steps away, he drew to a halt and considered the wall intently.
“Hm,” he said, again.
“Well,” said Ace.
“The obvious solution,” he began slowly.
Ace cut him off. “Yeah, I know. Worked that one out already. One of us stays behind so the wall stays in place, while the other goes ahead. I don’t like it.”
“I didn’t think you would.”
“So find another solution.”
“As I see it, we have two remaining options,” he said. “We can either wait here for the situation to resolve itself, or…” He gestured to the endless corridor in front of them with his umbrella, and simply shrugged.
“Or we can keep on walking,” Ace said. She thought for a moment. “Don’t know about you, but I’d rather take Door B. At least we’d have a chance of getting somewhere.”
“Mm. Sitting around, waiting for something to happen doesn’t quite seem quite our style, does it?”
Ace was unable to help just a small grin, thinking to herself, we have a style, nice. “So let’s get walking.”
They walked. And then they walked some more. And then, because there’s only so long you can walk in a semi-comfortable silence down an endless blank corridor into eternity in complete silence, they started discussing things to do to pass the time while walking into infinity.
“ — no, not spoons,” Ace said for maybe the seventh time. “ Anything but spoons.”
“We could play I Spy,” he said, with just a glimmer of mischief in his eyes, indicating the blank, endless walls around them.
She didn’t bother to dignify that with an answer.
“I shall take that as a no.” A few more steps in silence. “I’ve always found that telling stories is an excellent way to pass the time.”
“I’m a rubbish storyteller,” she said. “You know that.”
“All right,” he said. “Then I’ll start.”
Once upon a time —
Ace interrupted with a kind of half laugh, half-cough. She had been expecting some sort of tale of his previous adventures, the ones that had happened before she came along — maybe with Mel, or someone else, or just with him by himself. But this? “‘Once upon a time’? Really? ”
The Professor looked more than a little miffed at having been shut down mid-first-sentence. “I take it you’re not overtly fond of fairy tales, then?”
“You could say that, yeah,” she agreed. “It’s all a bit naff, isn’t it? Prince rescues princess, clever maiden outwits creepy old goblin creature, everybody lives happily ever after — I thought you were going to tell an exciting story, Professor.”
“Well, that was the idea,” he said, “until you so rudely interrupted. May I continue?”
She stopped walking, and leaned against the wall briefly, sighing. “I don’t know. It’s just — look, I’m sure whatever you were going to talk about is great and all, but I never really liked fairy tales. Ever since I was a kid.”
He paused, too, leaning on the wall opposite her. Behind them, the far wall of the corridor had kept up its steady pace, and remained only inches away from them, even now. “What precisely about them is it that you don’t like?”
Her first instinct was to tell him that she thought they were boring — which was true, but the second that she thought of it, she knew that he’d immediately be asking probing questions about why she thought that. So, she gave it a bit of extra consideration.
“They’re predictable,” she said finally. “I don’t like stories that’re predictable. There’s always a woodcutter in the forest who comes to save the day at the end, or — some fairy godmother who’s just there for no reason. They’re always just — good guy saves the day! Bad guy gets banished for a million years! — that sort of thing.”
“I see. You’re not fond of the deus ex machina trope at work, then.”
She nodded. “Whatever those words mean. Sure.”
He smiled at this, and then nodded too. “Anything else?”
“Plenty.” She looked at him. “Are you sure you want to hear all my fairy tale-related grievances?”
“A few of them — if you don’t mind.”
“Sure,” she said, and held up a finger. “Contrived romances. There’s literally no point to any one of them, and they’re always there. I don’t want to hear about some character that I don’t care about that shows up at the last minute to save the day.” Another finger. “I can always predict the ending.” She hesitated, thinking of a few other things that she could say, but then she shook her head. “Yeah. That’s all.”
“Hm,” said the Professor. “How about this, then — I will guarantee you, up-front, that this story will contain no romance of any kind.”
“All right,” said Ace cautiously.
“And you may stop me at any point at all, to inform me of how you believe the story’s going to end. If you’re correct, I’ll stop immediately, and —”
“And you stop playing the spoons,” Ace said.
“— absolutely not.”
“For a week, at least.”
He glared at her, but she could tell he wasn’t serious. There wasn’t any real weight behind the glare, and he seemed more amused than anything. “Very well — you drive a tough bargain.”
They started walking once more, and after a brief few moments, the Professor started to speak.
“Once upon a time,” he said, “a mother abandoned her child in the middle of a dark forest in the dead of night — and she was never relevant to the story ever again.”
The abandoned child slept in the roots of a great, towering oak tree peacefully for quite some time before they woke and began to cry, at about three in the morning — an unholy hour, by anybody’s measure — and in doing so, drew the attention of several residents of the dark forest. One of these, strangely enough, was the very oak tree that the child was resting at the base of.
Realising that the child would not survive for long on their own at this early hour of the morning, the tree took action. Moving as quickly as an ancient oak tree possibly could, it shifted its branches, uncurled its boughs, and gently bore the child up into higher branches — where they would be safe, relatively speaking, for as long as they needed to be.
“— so, the oak tree was sentient,” Ace said flatly. “Seems realistic.”
“One of the hallmarks of the fairy tale genre happens to be magic surrealism,” the Professor said patiently. “Sometimes it requires your willing suspension of disbelief.”
Ace sighed. “Fine,” she said, somewhat discontentedly, and motioned for him to go on.
Come morning, a woodcutter was passing through that exact section of the woods, and would probably have continued all the way home without even considering the possibility of something being wrong, if it weren’t for the fact that it was about at that very moment that the child woke up and began to cry again.
The woodcutter looked around, curious, before his eyes fell upon the curious sight of a small child, cradled in a makeshift nest formed of several branches of an oak tree in the strangest of configurations, almost as if they had grown together specifically for that purpose. The child was messy-haired, and covered in dirt, and of indeterminate gender, and they had the most wonderful laugh and the brightest eyes. And when you find a child abandoned in the woods, at the top of a tree, you would have to have an inhumanly cold heart to just carry on your way without doing anything at all.
In fairy tales, there are no real adoption laws to speak of, which can often lead to rather unfortunate situations — such as the tragic incident of Cinderella and her abusive stepsiblings and mother, as you probably are already aware of. This is relevant, believe it or not. Because — you see — the woodcutter had a daughter that was more or less the forest-child’s age, and he loved her more than anything else in the world. Her name was Lena, and he cherished her like she was the last good part of a broken, faded world.
If you were paying attention to the legal ramifications surrounding fairy tale adoption — or the lack thereof — you may already have guessed where this is going, but you’ve almost certainly gone wrong. Because in some rare, wonderful cases; the adoption of a child in a world where nearly everything has a pointed moral isn’t a malicious act. Sometimes it’s a shining, wonderful thing — and in this case it very much was. The woodcutter brought the child to his home — larger than you’d expect for someone working in such an underprivileged position — and raised them like his own.
He named the child Foundling Bird — or just Foundling, for short — because they had been found at the top of the tree in the middle of a dark forest, and there didn’t seem any name more appropriate than that. He loved Foundling just as much as he loved Lena, and the two of them loved him back just as much.
Lena and Foundling grew up together, and played together, and fought together — and learned together. They grew so close that they might as well have been siblings — and closer still, so close that they may as well have been two halves of a whole, each completing the void present in each other. They were partners in crime, best friends, united against the world. Their in-jokes and rapid speech were incomprehensible to anyone but the two of them, and they frequently swore, entirely seriously, that they would never leave each other, no matter what.
And for a time, everything was peaceful.
However, there was a problem — because there always is, when it comes to these sorts of idealistic, perfect situations. You see, the family cook harboured a terrible, festering grudge for Foundling, and had for quite some time. She often thought to herself that the child would be better off alive than dead, and when both of the children had reached twelve years of age — relatively speaking — she realized that there wasn’t going to come a time where she would get a better chance to kill them.
“Why?” Ace said, cutting the Professor off quite abruptly.
He raised an eyebrow at her. “Why what?”
“Why does the cook have a grudge against the kid?” she said. “It doesn’t make any sense — it literally just came out of nowhere. Nobody plots murder for no reason, right?”
“Pick a reason, Ace, any reason,” he said. “Or don’t. You should know better than most people that there doesn’t need to be a reason behind the malicious, terrible things that people do to others. Perhaps the cook simply liked Lena a lot more than her adopted sibling, or she resented the fact that she had to make food for one more member of the family. Perhaps Foundling broke the good china plates just one too many times for her liking — or she carried a strong grudge against people who fall outside of the strict binary of male and female . Or maybe there’s another reason altogether.”
“So, what you’re saying is, it doesn’t matter why she hates them,” Ace said. “Just that she does.”
“Yes and no,” the Professor said. “We both know that none of the things I suggested are good reasons. But I also suspect that the both of us know that sometimes you just never find out an answer to a question like ‘ why’. The motives of bitter and discontent people and their awful plans are often inscrutable. Understanding those motives can often help in defeat their plans, but that isn’t always the case.” He paused for a second, as if waiting for a response, and then — when she didn’t say anything — said, “shall I continue?”
Ace released a breath she hadn’t been aware she was holding. “Sure,” she said.
Before dinner that evening, the cook attempted perhaps the most despicable of all human acts — cold-blooded murder. While Foundling was helping out in the kitchen — putting away plates, clearing off countertops — the cook uncovered the pot of boiling water she had set out beforehand, and invited Foundling to come near it, with the promise of various sugary sweets, and the intention of boiling the child alive the second they got anywhere close.
But Foundling had always been a bit strange. Maybe it was the forest’s influence — maybe it was something else entirely — but there had always been a touch of the supernatural to the child. Whatever it was, they took one look at the cook and her saccharine-false smile of welcome, looked over at the pot of boiling water, and just about ran a mile to get away from her. Her intentions were crystal clear.
“Lena, Lena,” cried Foundling, searching for their sister, and when they had found her, explained to her exactly what had happened.
“We must tell Father at once,” said Lena, who was still young enough to believe that her father could fix anything and everything, and could never do wrong.
And because no adult ever believes a child when they are saying things that contradict the adult’s narrow view of the world, the woodcutter laughed it off — telling Lena and Foundling that they were simply making things up again, and that they should go back to fencing in the yard with blunt tree branches instead of accusing innocent members of the staff of attempted manslaughter. Which really does go to show that the people who love you can do the most terrible things to you without even realizing it.
The Professor stopped talking for a moment, and there was a distant, sad look in his eyes for a second or two.
“Professor?” Ace asked. “Are you —”
“Perfectly fine, thank you,” he said, and the sad look was gone. “Let’s see —”
Knowing now that the woodcutter would be of no help whatsoever, the children came up with a solution.
“We’ll run away,” said Lena. “Deep into the forest, where the cook won’t dare to follow.”
So the children pulled on their good walking shoes, quite hurriedly, and set off into the forest without telling anybody at all that they were leaving — which gave them a good hour before the cook discovered their absence.
And while it was true that the cook didn’t care for the woods in the least, and was apprehensive about following them herself, she had no qualms whatsoever about sending other people to do her dirty work for her. She picked three servants from the house’s staff, and sent them after the children, with instructions to bring them back by whatever means necessary — she wasn’t fond of Foundling in the least, and had become even less fond of Lena, now that she was helping the cook’s quarry escape.
Now deep in the forest, Foundling heard the servants coming long before they were anywhere close to arriving, and told Lena of their approach. And Lena, who was quite clever, as young girls go, thought for a while, before coming up with a most ingenious plan.
“Foundling — you’ll never, ever leave me?” Lena asked.
“Never, ever,” Foundling vowed.
“And I’ll never leave you,” she said, “so let’s hide where they’ll never be able to find us. Change yourself into a flowering bush — and I’ll be your one perfect rose. They’ll never find us here.”
Foundling smiled, and pressed their hands to the ground. Their blood slowed and turned acid-green, and their eyes clouded over grey and stormy — and then they had no eyes at all, and they took root in the ground and began to grow.
And Lena clasped her hands tightly in Foundling’s new branches, and her hair thickened and turned brightest red as her body shrivelled away, and before long, it wasn’t two children that were standing in the woods, but a newly-sprouted rosebush with a single, perfect rose on it.
And when the cook’s servants reached the edge of the woods, they saw nothing but that rosebush — and that the children were nowhere to be seen. And, not particularly wanting to spend any more time following the cook’s instructions than they absolutely had to, they concluded that they had searched the woods thoroughly enough, and they returned home — telling her that all they had seen was a rosebush with a single rose on it.
“Fools!” the cook roared, being the canny sort of fairy tale villain who knows precisely what the protagonists are up to. “You should have torn the bush from the ground and chopped it in two — and shredded the rose to petals while you were at it! Go back and destroy it before they can escape!”
So the servants returned to the forest, but the rose bush and its blossom were already gone — and so were Foundling and Lena. They were travelling deeper into the forest — where the trees grew taller and wilder and patches of sunlight through the treetops were few and far between.
Foundling, with their remarkable, uncanny sense of hearing, perceived the servant’s approach from quite some way off, and told Lena — saying, “what will we do?”
“Foundling — you’ll never, ever leave me?” Lena asked.
“Never, ever,” Foundling promised.
“And I’ll never leave you,” she said, “so let’s hide where they’ll never be able to find us. Change yourself into a towering church — and I’ll be your shining chandelier. They’ll never find us here.”
Foundling nodded, and raised their hands to the sky. Their skin hardened and shifted and froze into solid bricks, and their eyes clouded over bright and starry — and then they had no eyes at all, and their hands became an intricate steeple. And Lena hung from the rafters upside-down, her knees folded over a wooden slat, and she swung back and forth once, then twice, and then she was crystal, through and through — shining like the moon.
And it wasn’t two children that were standing in the woods, but a small, cosy church with the most remarkable chandelier that you have likely ever seen.
And when the servants arrived, they only saw the church, and they all agreed that it was quite the lovely church, with an equally lovely chandelier, but there were no children to be seen — outside or in. And they agreed that they had accomplished entirely enough work for the day, and went home to tell the cook all about it.
“Imbeciles!” exclaimed the cook, incredulous, “you should have burnt the church to the ground when you had the chance — and shattered the chandelier for good measure! I should never have let you do this by yourselves — this time I’m coming with you!”
“All right, stop. I know how this ends,” Ace said.
“You do?” The Professor had a half-smile on his face.
In truth, Ace had worked it out quite a while ago, but the truth of the matter was that the Professor was really quite the marvellous storyteller. He had the perfect sort of flair for the dramatic that lent itself to this sort of story, and wasn’t afraid to go off on tangents when it became necessary — and he even did character voices. And she had even become sort of invested in the story itself. She wasn’t about to tell him that, though — not after she had made such a fuss about it at the beginning.
“Yeah,” she said, and cleared her throat. “The kids change into something else to hide from the cook,” she said, “because, rule of threes. The cook does something stupid — maybe tries to destroy the wrong thing? Or doesn’t realize that they’re there — and she ends up getting killed in a really nasty way, but also in a way so that everybody knows she totally had it coming. And the kids go home, and they all live happily ever after until they hit puberty. The end.”
The Professor tapped his fingers thoughtfully against the handle of his umbrella. “Interesting,” he said, eventually, after a second of hesitation.
“Does that mean I got it right?”
“I’m afraid not,” he said, with an apologetic smile. “Although, you could be forgiven for thinking that. If I had been telling the Grimms’ version of this particular tale, you no doubt would have even been correct. Would you like one more guess?”
Ace wasted one second thinking about it before saying, “the kids both die horribly in a tragic cook-related accident?”
“Wrong again, I’m afraid,” he said, which was pretty much what she’d been suspecting, so she didn’t say anything — and just let him keep talking.
Deep within the woods, Lena and Foundling heard the cook and servants approaching, and convened to discuss their circumstances as quickly as they could.
“The cook wants us dead,” Lena said.
“She does,” Foundling said.
“Our Father doesn’t believe us — he’s left us to fend for ourselves.”
“He has,” Foundling agreed.
“We have no other family to speak of.”
“We have each other,” Foundling told her.
“That is true. Foundling — you’ll never, ever leave me?” Lena asked.
“Never, ever,” Foundling swore.
“And I’ll never leave you,” she said, “so let’s hide where they’ll never be able to find us — or hurt us, ever again.”
Foundling breathed in, and held out their hands to Lena, who clasped them in her own, tight as anything. Their skin began to prickle and bubble, and within seconds feathers were pushing their way up into the cold night air. Their spine flexed and folded inwards, and they grew as tiny as the day they were born, and their eyes clouded over deep blue, like the night sky — and then their feathers came alive with color, like paint spreading across water. And Lena’s flesh erupted into life, too — black and white ruffling across her face and back and arms and legs — and her face curved into a break, and her toes curved into talons - then it wasn’t two children that were left in the woods, but two birds — one colourful like you could never believe, one resplendent in monochrome; and the two of them were rising into the air fast — circling around and around each other so fast that they practically were a blur.
“Catch them, catch them!” wailed the cook to the servants — the four of them crashing into the clearing — but the birds circled higher and higher still, and they crested the treetops, and were caught in the light of the moon — and then they were children no longer; now birds through and through. The two of them soared off into the beautiful, wide world, and were happier than you could ever imagine, together forever —
— and if they have not died, they are alive still.
There was a pause.
“The end,” the Professor added, rather unnecessarily.
Ace felt like she should clap, but thought that it would probably come off as entirely too sarcastic if she did. Aloud, she said, “huh.”
She thought for a moment, and came up with a grand total of nothing. “So — what does it mean?”
He sort of laughed, just a little upwards curl of the mouth, but he didn’t vocalize it — maybe so it wouldn’t feel like he was mocking her, she thought. “Stories with obvious, straightforward morals to them are tiresome,” he said. “Whatever conclusion you wish to draw from the story is the correct one, in my opinion, since it’s the one that will apply most aptly to the way you choose to interpret it.”
Ace was silent for a moment. A growing suspicion had taken up root inside her, from the moment that he had hesitated, ever so slightly, after she had first voiced her thoughts about the story’s ending. Eventually, she asked, “is this just your way of hiding the fact that you went and changed up the ending on the spot as soon as I guessed the end right?”
He barely blinked, but she knew she had been right. “How very dare you,” he replied. “I would never do such a thing.”
“Uh huh,” said Ace, unconvinced.
“I always intended to make up an ending,” he said, quite pointedly, and then his tone softed somewhat. “I just hadn’t decided what it was going to be, yet.”
You do that a lot, Ace thought, but didn’t get a chance to voice it, or anything similar to it, aloud — because it was at about that exact moment that they reached the end of the corridor. The actual end of the corridor, a proper end that Ace could have sworn wasn’t actually there before they arrived in front of it. There was a door set into the wall in front of them, an average sort of wooden door with a brass handle and slightly rusted hinges.
“Ah,” said the Professor, sounding pleased. “We made it.”
“Oh, ace, ” she said. “I was halfway worried that I’d have to tell a story too. That would have been a disaster.”
He smiled at her. “We’ll see about that some other time,” he said, and stepped past her to open the door before she could complain at him about it. Beyond the frame, she could see the endless rows of blinking lights on the console, the roundels on every wall, the ever-present soft white light that didn’t ever seem to have any particular source.
“Coming?” he asked.
“Yeah,” said Ace, and stepped forward into the life and vibrance of the console room. “Let’s go fly off to somewhere weird, ” she decided. “Weird and magical.”
“That sounds like a marvellous idea,” he said, and that was only the beginning.