Here she was, once again. Sitting, as she always sat, on the long workbench. Calf-length boots dangling over the edge, legs swinging, whistling her presence into the air. A new day. And this new room. Walls still fresh-painted, linoleum floor still sparkling. All an indescribable grey-blue-white. So spotless and sterile.
Neutral. Hospital. Filing cabinet. Oh, how I hate those empty walls.
And, underneath… How right it all feels. Already. So familiar.
And so bare. No need to brush away the wires and gadgets and god-knows-what to sit down this time, is there Sarah Jane? No need to sit here at all, in fact. Empty chair’s right in front of you. Why not just sit there, huh? No one else is going to need it, are they? She bit her lip, as she did so often these days. There it was. That thought again. An ironic smile played around the edges of her lips, her own irrationality substituting for her amusement. Her superstition the theme of today’s entertainment, her best source of distraction. And still, once again, here it was. The need to hold it all back. Her teeth the barrier, the prison bars for what might take over if she let any of it out.
So she sat, teeth to bottom lip, eyes flickering over the empty chair in front of her. Funny how it always felt like it was staring back at her. Felt like it was trying to speak to her, like it had something to say to her. And maybe she was being crazy. Maybe it made no sense. Maybe it was just superstition. So what?
Because, she couldn’t quite do it, quite bring herself to occupy that space. It was like there was a force-field sitting around it. Like on Exxilon: if she sat there some blue beam of light would come crackling down from the roof, Zap!, and she’d be fried into a pile of dust. Like some presence already sat in that space. Like if she sat there there’d be someone else, sharing that space with her, sharing her…
No, don’t think it. Stop it. Not that way…
Because it was her fault, and those dangerous thoughts were a reminder. No use trying to rationalize it all. Whatever happened from here on in, there was no getting away from it. Where she was, what she was doing, who was with her…who was not. All her doing. If only I hadn’t let myself go. If only I hadn’t…
No use, no matter how many times she thought it. The logic led in the same direction.
“Aw, what’s the use?” she said out loud to the room at large. “Nothing’s going to change any of it, no amount of thinking, or talking, or sitting! I don’t know what to —. I don’t even know what I’m doing here any more!” And with her feet hooked together, she swung her legs one last time, jumping herself off the bench.
“Cup of tea, Miss Smith,” came a voice behind her, nearly tripping her over her own feet.
“Oh, Benton, it’s you!” she said with a jolt.
“Sorry, miss. Didn’t mean to scare you!”
“No, that’s not your fault. Lost in my own thoughts. I’d get lost in my own sitting room, me,” she braved a smile. Nothing’s wrong, we’re all normal here.
Only, this pause seemed to be going on a little too long. What was it he just said?
Her eye fell to the thing he was waving about in his hand. “Oh. Tea cup. Right.” She clapped her hands together. “You know, Sergeant. Sometimes you know exactly what to say to a girl.”
“Right, miss. On its way, then.” And he turned tail back out the doorway.
Strange how time works. Five hundred years could go by in the blink of an eye, just like Tuesday, just like going to Suffolk. And here’s Sergeant Benton, and a cup of tea on its way, like nothing had ever happened. Like every day was the same. Everything so reliable. So predictable.
And yet, three weeks had gone by… Three weeks and two days, her mind corrected itself, involuntarily. Three weeks, and not a word, not a sound. And here it all was again. Inexorably onto the next thing. The condemnation. The churning. The synapses, all buzzing. All screaming at once. Oh, why do I do this to myself? Over and over in my own head. The same thoughts. I’m just thinking myself in circles. You’d think I’d have found something better to do than just moan over what’s gone. Knowing what I know, knowing that’s…
But that was half the problem. Knowing what she knew, how could she help but think these thoughts? What’s done couldn’t just be undone, she knew enough to realize that already. But surely, with everything he was… Surely, there was something he’d do, some way he’d fix it up. Some way he’d come back.
‘No, Sarah Jane, I’m afraid not. Not this time.’ She could hear his voice in her head, lisp and all, as clear as the pale steel blue of the walls. As clear as marshmallows, and apricots, and teapots. And what’s more, she liked it that way, no matter how dire its message. Better that, than let something else occupy her mind. Better that, than feel what was underneath, in that red, black, velvet place, just beneath the surface.
Sarah wasn’t used to feeling alone. Or rather…she wasn’t used to noticing it. The churning, washing machine thoughts, as much as she hated them, as much as they wore her out — at least they kept her from that. From seeing how bad it really was. From noticing how quiet it felt inside her head.
She stood there, staring at her outstretched hands. No reason in particular. She wasn’t even conscious how she got like that, still standing in front of the workbench. It’s just that those hands, her hands…
“Here you go, miss!”
“Oh, Benton! You startled me again!”
“Make that two out of two then.” And he crossed the floor, and set the cup gently down on the table, friendly, studied blank look on his face.
“He’ll be alright, miss. He’s come back from bigger scrapes than this.” Benton’s reassuring words. But it wasn’t much use — he knew how empty they were. And Sarah’s half-attempt at a smile just confirmed it. So after a brief pause, fiddling with fingers for a few seconds, he hurriedly excused himself and turned around and left about as quickly as he thought was polite.
Sarah barely noticed. She sat down absent-mindedly, twiddling the tea cup in her fingers. And for some reason, as she did, this time she let her thoughts go. An unguarded moment, and they were suddenly driving her to where they’d been heading for some time now. For some time, ever since…
In her rational mind, she knew it wasn’t entirely her fault. Had told herself that many times over. What was it the Doctor had said? “I found a crystal. …Well, ‘stole’ might be a better word.” He knew his own culpability — admitted it, then left to face the consequences.
But, she? She’d been taken over. Simple as that. No blame. Made a mistake. Easily forgotten. All better now.
Except it wasn’t that simple. The mistake she’d made, that was one thing. Anyone could be a fool. But the rest of it, that was something else altogether more murky, more doubtful. She’d handed herself over — and, sure, the Queen had given her an excuse. She wanted to save the Earth, keep the crystal for Metebelis, free the humans. (Of course she did). And here was something Sarah could do, could take in hand, while the Doctor was stuck in his cocoon. It was good to feel useful.
And so that’s the story she told herself, as she showed the Queen spider her back.
If that were the only deception, it wouldn’t be so bad.
The minute the Queen jumped on, she knew there was something wrong. Something deceitful and hidden. Something…overpowering. Yet still, she carried on, wanting to save the world. Wanting above all to believe she could trust her own judgment. If she changed her mind now, fought it off as she’d only just let it in, she’d never find out if she was right. Never know where her instincts were leading her. And Sarah liked to know. Almost as much as she liked to be right.
If she turned back now, she would always feel like she’d wavered. And Sarah Jane was nothing if not one to follow through on a thing once it was started.
So she carried on. Entered the realm that seemed to stand in front of her, like entering the mouth of a cave, so rocky and dark. Clambered her way through the rocky hole, through the air alive with… What was that? The air, sticky, like invisible threads running through it. Crackling, like lightning. She walked through the charged, crackling air into the dark.
Inside, she could sense, rather than see, a vast room. Like a hall with so many chambers. So much to know. So much to recognize. Too vast for her tiny world, her hitherto tiny mind. Layer upon layer, opening up, wave upon wave, dark, un-see-able, and yet somehow apprehended. Understood.
And here she was, standing, in her meagre body, her hands too small to take in this space, but grasping, holding on, hoping to gather up something of the richness of the air in front of her, something of its… Aliveness.
This was being and not being. She was only one among so, so many. Yet she felt more significant than ever.
There was something ever so slightly uncomfortable about it. A niggling tickle at the base of her throat that scratched at her inner world. But, like the crackling sound on a record it didn’t get in the way, only perhaps created a bit of distance that reminded her to watch the experience as it unfolded. Notice, as her small self was dwarfed by the huge black…realm…the Space of it all! The enormous universe. Unfathomable. Powerful. Glorious.
And she. Looking down at her body, at her hands, she was Glorious too. Eight legs. And two. Hands! What flexibility. What strength! Hands and arms, to grasp, to hold, to overwhelm. Mind and heart, to see far…infinitely far. To join. To belong.
Her hands; the Queen; One. Sarah felt her inside of her, stretching out to feel the air, feel its cool warmth. So many impressions at once. The Queen feeling the atmosphere with the skin of a mammal, breathing it in, breathing it deep into lungs, solid lungs, with sacs, to hold the air. The incomparable feeling of blood coursing through her veins. Sarah, reaching out to know eight separate limbs, each an act of worship to the senses, a profusion of tiny hairs designed to absorb the world around them.
See? She could see for miles, in all directions, images painted in blue, the double vision in and outside the ‘cave’, in and outside the citadel where she/they bodily stood.
But feel. That was something else. Every shake of the floor. Every breath in the air. Every question, mirrored in her guts, answered with her innermost understanding. Every possibility, observed as it approached, acknowledged as it passed. Inside-outside, the air shivered, the mind breathed, with what was and what might be. The known and unknown.
They had to guard themselves. More than usual, the Queen knew, because the rest of the Council could not be trusted. And yet. And yet…
It mattered so little. A whole world out there beyond the Council called out, waited, ready to move, while they laboured, seeking, finding; waited to welcome them home, victorious. Sarah could sense them, almost see them with her eyes beyond her eyes. In this unfathomable cosmos, the petty squabbles of the Councillors hardly seemed to matter. She let out a few small noises of recognition as she began to understand what she saw. Out she reached, with her minds eye, out to the other eight legs so far from the reach of the Council. Out to the village beyond. Out, out, further, to the worlds beyond this world, the myriad stars scattered in swirls and waves, thin strands of silver against the dark, vibrant, pulsating unknown.
And more powerful still, the process within. The caverns of her self inside her humming, expectant. Waiting for something to arrive. For the other souls to fill them. And as she began to sense this, she began to see how inside and outside were not separate. She felt the touch of a new philosophy, a nirvana, stroking with its silken legs at her mind. So gentle, caressing. Calling her to let go her barriers, let go her petty rationality and her fears. Release, open up.
And so she did. Gently dismantled the walls inside her mind that kept her certain, safe. Let the Queen in, with her ever so gentle explorations, her refined understanding. It seemed now so plain. How awareness of the eight legs outside was awareness of the eight chambers within. How the eight chambers were nesting hollows, tenderly cultivated cavities of being in which knowledge of the eight powers could be stored. Were stored. Were storing up, being shored up against such a time as they should be needed. Such a time as this.
The humming world — the power to hear each other without words. The invisible thread — the power to move things at a distance. The exacting fire — the power of the blue lightning. The undaunted cosmos — the power to shift across space and time in an instant. The great understanding — the power to work the minds of the two legs. The awesome grip — the power to create agony and ectasy in the body. The intricate web — the power to unite the minds of all eight legs as one. The unfathomable mystery — the unknown infinity of the Great One herself.
So much knowledge. So much potency. And all of it, glowing, ripening, charged with the force of a great purpose, the one Great Purpose.
How tiny Sarah’s world had been, trapped inside her single human skull. How vital was this place, inspired with an intention so far beyond the small concerns of her former life.
And, as she felt her way outwards and inwards, felt herself release her hold, the Queen, too, reached out. Moved muscle and sinew, bone and ligament. Humerus. Radius. Ulna. Scapula and clavicle. Reached out and stretched her new body. Felt its warmth, its boundless boundedness, its humidity, its filth. Sweat and heat. Red life beating rhythms in every corner of every limb. And fire inside, buried inside her middle, hollow and full, inside mouth and heart. Inside womb and cervix. She let herself reach out to every part of it, in hopefulness. She allowed herself to let go in ecstasy.
And Sarah knew her knowing her. Felt her recognition through old and new eyes. Through skin and tender hairs. The eyes of the Queen were her own eyes, watching as she observed the Queen stretch out her awareness, marking each stretch, each reach, with the desire for Sarah’s body. Saw herself in that desire, bathed in the vast, knowing blue light of the Queen’s multifold vision. Understood what it was to multiply herself. See herself seeing herself see herself. Wind her awareness around the awareness of the Queen, until neither knew whose was whose. Give herself over to that intensity.
Queen Sarah. A being like no other. Until now, she had never known what it was to belong. What it meant to create herself.
Her gullible swallowing of the Queen’s deception was not the issue. That was hardly significant. The issue was what she hadn’t let her see of herself. That secretly held realisation hidden inside her indomitable self-sufficiency. That illicit, depraved desire for possession.
She inhabited that hazy world between ‘found’ and ‘stolen’, and it wasn’t at all clear that she minded it as much as she should.
Time later to explore this newfound experience, this sensory cornucopia (Queen Sarah deceived herself once again). There was work to do.
And work it was done. First, they needed the Doctor. And for this, the Queen receded, drew back into the quieter corners of their mind. He wouldn’t understand. Best to play it safe, until they knew where the crystal was. And so they did. Found the Doctor. Used their amazing new powers…extraordinary!... to pop them to the village, no space ship, no special equipment. And then returned in the TARDIS to Earth, to the monastery.
But that is where it fell apart. Where their connection began to unravel. The crystal. As they sat with the Abbot and the Doctor, they could feel its pulse, its call. But once the Abbot drew it out, that was it. The Queen: These fools will never give us the crystal voluntarily. The Abbot knows nothing. And the Doctor desires it too much for his own purposes. Sarah: What would you have me do?
And that was that. Queen Sarah might have seen stars, and galaxies, might have traveled worlds with her bare bones, her myriad limbs. The strength of her physical body, the strength of her mind, might have carried them far. But this…? This was not how it was meant to be. Sarah was only a small creature, a tiny fool. But there was right and there was wrong. And underneath it, there was that kernel of certainty.
She would never knowingly betray the Doctor. That deception, anything could be true, what would she know? But this? This could not be true.
You must! And she said aloud, “Give me the crystal! I must have it! I must! Give it to me!”
But the Doctor stood unyielding. Concerned. But so unafraid.
And this was when Sarah knew. Realised that she had…no…choice…but to break free. Realised with every cell in her body, every pulse of blood in her veins, her veins, that she must take her life back.
The tickling at her throat grew stronger, left a crack for her to break through. Her own voice! Sarah’s voice.
The blue light! There it was, that glow, drawing her out of herself, extracting the poison. And the Queen, the Mighty Queen. Could it be? She was afraid! Tried to turn their head away from the light. Her head. Her body. The Abbot’s words leaking through. “See that you are free now.”
And see she could. In every organ, every vein, every ligament, she could see the two parts of herself. The Queen’s cold light, her own hot fire. The blue light cast it so clearly, showed her how to separate out, cell by cell, the two entities. But the pain of it! The excruciating pain. With every separation, the Queen held on, dug her awareness in, so Sarah had to fight, to break each piece away, tearing at flesh and sinew. And it hurt her. Hurt the Queen, herself. It was killing her. Killing her both? The ecstasy, the agony, in every corner of her body, every cell of her awareness.
“The Queen...must live! Help me! I shall die!”
The pain dug at her soul, but more than that, the fear washed upon her, intensity upon intensity. How could she imagine this? Destroying something she had loved. Something so much of herself. How could she…
But the Doctor’s steady words, his solid presence, held her there. She could feel herself drawn towards him, drawn towards the crystal. And so she did it. Cast the final cut. Walked out of the cave. Threw the Queen away. And fell in a heap on the floor.
She tried to tell them about the confusion she’d been feeling. About what she’d seen. Tried to make up for everything she’d done…
“Oh, I’m sorry! I’m so sorry, Doctor! I...”
And the Doctor, kind as always: “What have you got to be sorry about? You did very well. You should be proud of yourself.”
“To let that...creature take me over like that. I...I mean I actually volunteered.”
But there was no arguing the point, it seemed. No explaining. The Abbot simply smiled, saying, “We are all apt to surrender ourselves to domination — even the strongest of us.”
And if that had been the end of it, she’d be OK. She was strong, healed quickly enough in body, repaired the fear and pain in her mind. If that had been all that had happened, she wouldn’t think much more on it. Pick herself up and move on.
The defeat of the Queen spider hadn’t resolved the central problem. The Great One, the Great Purpose, was still out there, calling out to be realised. And as long as it was, it would drive the eight legs, the spiders, again and again to Earth, to the crystal. So as she sat there, Sarah readied herself for the next plan of attack.
Only, it didn’t seem to be heading that way. She was having enough trouble following the conversation as it was… Timelords. Regeneration. What? But this was too much. Something was happening, and she didn’t know what, only she knew she didn’t like it.
“W...what are you going to do?”
“Take the crystal to the Great One.”
“But you told me that if you went back there the cave of crystal...would destroy you!”
“Nevertheless, I have to go.”
And that was that. Almost instantly, he was gone. Vanished. Pop. And Sarah was alone. Oh, there was all the confusion. Tommy. The basement. The Abbot changing…well, whatever that had been. A welcome distraction from everything else. From the absence. From how suddenly alone she was.
It had not been easy to go back to her life as before. Always, Sarah had made her own way, stood independent and proud. Yet now, that kind of life seemed sort of…lacking. Insufficient. It had been such a solid, unmitigated pleasure, enjoying the companionship of another person. But it wasn’t until her experience with the Queen that she’d realized how much she’d grown used to having someone else around.
And so, as she sat there, she cast her mind outwards once again. Not to the far distant galaxies this time, not to all the stars and the cosmos, and nor to the vast reaches of the inner world. But to a single man, someone altogether more modest, and more important. Someone she knew she could trust. Doctor, oh Doctor! Why did you have to do it? Couldn’t you have taken me with you? Surely, together, we could have found another way…
and Please come back.
A broken voice. Cracked and shaky. Sarah…? I’m on my way.
Another flight of fancy.
She didn’t know how long she’d been gone. But it was long enough. Long enough for her back to stiffen up. Long enough that a sip of the Lipton’s Benton had so kindly brought her went stone cold down her throat.
“Ugh!” She screwed up her face and put the tea back down.
No, there was no going back. No undoing her careless, gullible mistake. No bringing back the world she lost when she’d left the Doctor and everyone she cared about for another universe. Another set of allies.
She moved to stand up. And, as she did so, she realised only then where she’d been sitting. The Doctor’s chair, her superstition, the seat she hadn’t wanted to go near. And this gave her pause for thought. The dimmest dawning of, What if…? In all her imaginings… What if the Doctor had really left a part of himself there, soaked into the vinyl? What if her private musings had not been so private after all? What if he…somehow…heard her…?
She walked slowly over to the hat stand, leaving the miserable cup of tea to its steady demise. Touched the heavy tartan cloak. So unbelievably tangible. The remnants. Not the gadgets and toys and what have you, not the things of his hands and his mind. The things of his body. The last thing. Stupid, she thought, but she couldn’t help herself. Took it off the peg. Held it to her. One last time.
Held it to her with her hands so firm. Her hands. With her body so warm. So solid. So hers. It all felt so real, so alive. So…
maybe. It felt so maybe. So possibly and why not?
She’d seen enough crazy things in recent months. A time bubble one-way-flight to the Golden Age. The Abbot, changing into another man. And the powers of the mind. She’d seen that too. They worked, she knew that, moved matter across space, across centuries. Watched it with her own eyes. Did it. Felt it course through her.
Maybe it wasn’t so crazy. Maybe magic was real, after all. If she closed her eyes, focused on the thing in her arms…on the body, inside the thing. Imagined, felt, the thing, the body. Solidity. Warmth. Maybe then, the link would be made.
Maybe if she moved with that feeling. Carried it with her into these three dimensions of the lab. Or four. Whichever. Walked the length of the room. How many times? Enough times.... Three times. Or four. Why not?
Before she’d made it one step, she heard her doubts again, echoing in the back of her mind. Her proud, skeptic’s mind. You’re going mad, Sarah Jane. Letting your imagination run away with you. Letting the ‘Powers’ of your mind take on a life of their own, shoot you off into another fantasy world. Madness. Harmless this time, of course, because they’re not going anywhere. Staying safely locked in your head, aren’t they? But not very smart. Not very sane.
And that was the truth of it, bare and simple. Despite everything she had been through, Sarah Jane was a skeptic. And despite everything he’d done wrong, the Doctor was a hero. Gave his life up to save the Earth. Just like him to go and do a thing like that. And that was the way of things. There was nothing for it. Time to let go.
Because there was no undoing. And no fixing it up. Here it was, just the reality of always. Linear time. Day follows day. Week follows week. UNIT office. 1974.
Still. She started her pacing. The slow footsteps, the calm meditation. The steady clip of her boots on the floor. Drawing some comfort from it even now.
“Hello, Miss Smith.”
Another start, this time nearly jumping out of her skin. And another brave face. “Oh, hello Brigadier.”
Third time’s a charm. “I just thought I’d pop in and...”
If only it worked like in the fairy stories. Pop! goes the weasel. But it didn’t, of course. Third time’s no charm. Just one more than two.
Time for the confession. “Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t quite know why I did pop in, actually.”
“To see if there was any sign of the old fellow, eh?”
“Yes.” And maybe that was all it was, after all.
She hung the cloak back up on the hook. Time for the affirmation. “But there can’t be, can there? I mean, he’s been gone over three weeks now.”
It was one thing for her to come to grips with things. But the Brigadier was another story. So unmoveable. So immune to recognising anything unpleasant. “Oh, that’s nothing. One time I didn’t see him for months. And what’s more, when he did turn up, he had a new face — could have been a completely different man.” He’s not ready to hear it yet. And: Of course not.
But she couldn’t support him in his delusion, even if he needed it. Not at the expense of her own sanity.
So, time for the final proclamation. “No — he knew if he went back there he would destroy himself. We’ll never see him again.” The utterance to seal the fate.
And yet, somehow, even now, this didn’t seem right. The moment after she spoke them, her words came back to her, hollow and unconvincing. Echoed in her ears, shapes without content, meaning unclear. Like another language. Just words ringing back and forth. More junk, filling up the empty space in her skull. Joining the other noises that bounced around her head these days. The painful final refrain of the Queen spider. The fading words of the Doctor. The familiar screech of a certain blue box, taking them across time and space…
The familiar screech. Echoing. Echoing?
Oh. Something, at the very bottom of her hearing.
Sarah’s eyes widened, trying to take in more of the sound. Holding her breath. Not moving. Fearing a single shiver would disrupt the spell. Shake the air, and it would vanish, the faded noise, the faded space.
The faded blue space.
Held her breath in the timeless moment between two ordinary moments. Held in time itself. Until it was solid again, her blue box, her Doctor, her window to the universe. Solid. Holdable. Possessable.
Held her breath until she knew she would never have to give it up again.