'The Life and Death of Sophie Freeman'

5. Death

Sophie walked for about an hour before she reached the busy main streets of town. She was guided by half-remembered insights, following roads that were vaguely familiar. It was strange, after so long travelling with the Doctor and visiting ancient Tuscan towns and glittering cities in the far future, to be back in small-town Australia. Impossible skyscrapers had been replaced with small miner's cottages and 1960s tract houses; picket fences and brick walls lined one side of the footpath and parked cars, all plastic-looking and eighties, lined the other.

She attracted no more attention than the sparrows that chittered overhead, and she wondered how long it had been since she'd last actually heard birdsong. She walked down wide, tree-lined streets that had been meant for a horse and cart more than a century ago and smaller streets without footpaths or even a gutter.

Finally, the noise of traffic grew louder and she found herself on the outskirts of the town proper. This place certainly wasn't New Tokyo and for that matter it wasn't even Newcastle, but there was a sizeable and bustling business district, crammed with real estate offices and cafes, news agents and, she noticed, a member of parliament's office, garlanded with election materials: bunting, core flutes, even a massive tarpaulin banner bearing his face and name.

She was reminded once again that Australia's federal election was coming tomorrow. The 1996 election had seen the overturning of sixteen years of Labor Party rule and had ushered in eleven years under the Labor Party's archnemesis, a man named John Howard. She'd never been one for politics and the date of the 1996 election had, of course, carried special meaning for her.

She was halfway down the main street, dodging people carrying their shopping and mothers with prams, when she found herself in a small, well-manicured park. There was a turn of the century bandstand and a war memorial cenotaph. She was struck again by how real all this felt; for a moment she stood there, entranced by the banality of it all.

Her adventures with the Doctor had all been real, of course, in the sense that they had actually happened to her, but there was the element of the fantastical to them and she often had difficulty accepting that what had happened had, in fact, truly happened. Maybe that understanding of the unreality of it all was why she'd learnt to handle death so easily. Maybe she was becoming disconnected, immune to the horrors she'd experienced. She shivered as she stared at the war memorial.

Almost a hundred years before her native time, millions of people had been sent to the most destructive war in history up to that point.

She'd been bombarded with stories of Gallipoli as a youth. In 1915, Australia and New Zealand, then still dominions of the British Empire, had committed a large force to an attempted invasion of the Gallipoli peninsula in modern Turkey, then the centrepiece of the Ottoman Empire. The goal had been to allow for access from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, so Britain and France could more easily supply, and be supplied, by their allies in Russia. In the end, it had been a pointless exercise, a fruitless invasion that instead resulted in the deaths of countless young men on both sides, all for a war that had started because one man had been killed in a city most people had never heard of.

It often seemed to her that people missed the point of ANZAC Day, the public holiday that commemorated the invasion. Maybe it was because she'd lost her parents, but she'd never understood how some people saw it all as glorious.

To her, it was a pointless, devastating slaughter. The individual men were heroes but the cause that had been foisted upon them was not heroic; they'd been sacrificed at the altar of politics and strategy, just as her parents had been sacrificed on the altar of that one man's drinking problem. Rage welled up inside her and, not for the first time since she'd left the Doctor's company, she had the urge to turn around and find Harry Daniels.

She tamped it down.

The Doctor was right. Even though her trust in him had been shaken, the reality was that he knew what he was talking about. As badly as she wanted to save her parents, she had a duty to herself and to the rest of the universe to set right what had gone wrong. Trillions upon trillions of lives, not to mention space and time, depended on what she and the Doctor did now.

Perhaps that was upsetting her more than anything else.

Sighing, she turned away from the memorial and resolved to find a pub. Somewhere to sit and wait until either the Doctor found her or the time came to act.

There was a public house just down the street, a beautiful two-story colonial-era building with a balcony that ringed its upper floor and a beer garden out the back. Inside were a few old pensioners sipping beer and watching the old television mounted behind the bar. A Paul Kelly song she recognised vaguely played on the juke box. The whole scene seemed somehow subdued, which fit her mood perfectly.

Sophie went inside and took a stool at one of the tall tables beside a window. It gave her a perfect view of the street. For a while she just sat there staring, thinking about what she was going to face in the coming hours.

She needed to decide what to do.

Surely there was some way to save her parents and keep history on track. The Doctor had said that they'd arrived in a bubble of surviving space-time, bracketing the paradoxical event. If the paradox revolved around her, then maybe she'd get to choose the form it would take. She was clutching at straws, she knew, but she had to try something. Didn't she owe it to them and to herself? Hell, who knows what her parents would have accomplished had they survived. Maybe she owed it to the world.

She knew she was being selfish. She didn't care.

"Miss?" came a voice, interrupting her revery. She look around and saw that the man behind the bar had come out to greet her. He looked like a friendly guy, solidly built with an easy smile and a balding pate. "How's it going today, love?"

"Uh," Sophie said, unsure what to tell him. The truth? That the universe was ending and she and her erstwhile friend were the only hope anyone had to put it all right? Dismissing that immediately, she decided on a variation. "My... car broke down."

"Bugger," he said, flashing her a sympathetic. "Look, Morris over there used to be a mechanic. Maybe he'll be able to help you out."

"Oh, no, it's fine," Sophie said, shaking her head. "I don't want to bother him."

"It won't be a bother," the man said. "What's your name?"

"Sophie," she answered immediately, blanching when she realised that she probably shouldn't give out too much information. She was, after all, now entangled in her own past.

Sticking out his hand, he introduced himself as Johnno. "Nice to meet you. You're eighteen, aren't you, love?"

"Twenty," Sophie said, smiling. "Don't worry, I'm legal."

"Got any proof of age on you?" he asked.

Sophie's face fell. Her ID was still in her purse, which was in the bag she'd brought with her aboard the TARDIS all those weeks ago. That bag had been aboard the ship when its internal dimensions had collapsed and God only knew where it was now.

"I don't," she said. She decided to stick with the truth. "I lost my bag."

He look at her with a long, hard stare before he shrugged. "If the cops come in, get lost," he said lightly, "but other than that, feel free to hang around as long as you need. I don't suppose you've got any money on you, do you?"

Sophie almost sighed with relief. "No, it was all in my bag."

"Typical," the man said, but there was no annoyance in his tone. "Your soft drinks are on me today, then. Just don't take advantage! And if you want the hard stuff, you'll have to show me some ID."

Sophie grinned. "Thanks, Johnno. I really appreciate it."

"My pleasure," he said, before pointing at one of the beer-sipping men at the bar. The man he signalled to looked like a pleasant old bloke, with big, rough hands. "That's Morris. Go talk to him, he'll be happy to help."

"I will," she lied. "Thank you again."

"I'll bring you a Coke," he promised, before slipping away.

Sophie looked back out the window and almost jumped when she saw a man in a long black coat walk past. The Doctor didn't even glance through the window, instead continuing down the street as though she wasn't even there. She felt like she'd just escaped something horrible.

No one ever seemed to understand just how difficult it was to pilot the TARDIS. The universe was a big place and the TARDIS travelled in five dimensions, not just the usual four. There were an array of calculations the Doctor constantly had to take into account when he input the coordinates; everything was always moving, after all. Planets orbiting suns, suns orbiting galactic centres, galaxies constantly spinning through the universal place.

Nothing was ever in the same place but it was all predictable. Even the Doctor's Time Lord brain was often frazzled by the infinite equations he had to balance and the endless permutations of their individual factors he had to keep track of. The TARDIS herself wasn't really much help, with a mind of her own and an independent streak to boot.

So, really, it was a miracle he ever managed to get anywhere, especially since most of the time he only ended up a century or two away from where he wanted to go originally anyway. It was to his credit that Rassilon had had the foresight to give the Time Lords an innate sense of direction and it was that sense that the Doctor often had to rely on.

As he wound his way through the streets of Tamworth, the Doctor realised just how useless that sense actually was.

He'd originally tried to follow Sophie, only to lose her after a few turns and end up in a semi-industrial estate. A kind man that had tried to sell him a new tractor, not that the Doctor had an old one to replace anyway, had pointed him in the direction of the town, a grace the Doctor had only been too happy to take advantage of.

Eventually, he'd found his way to the main street. It was just like a lot of other main streets he'd been too, if a little warmer and quieter than most.

He stopped at a news agents and examined a paper. It was, indeed, 2 March, 1996. A Friday. The paper was dominated by election coverage which the Doctor, by and large, wasn't interested in. Democracy was all well and good, but he had bigger things to worry about than the vicissitudes of a fickle electorate.

He was reminded of the time he'd attempted to comfort Winston Churchill after his shock defeat in the election of 1945, even though he'd been quite happy indeed to see his other good friend, Clement Attlee, become prime minister. That had been an interesting day for him: a commiserating bottle of brandy with Winston, followed by a raucous bottle of champagne with Clement.

The Doctor sighed.

Neither Clement Attlee nor Winston Churchill nor the year 1945 existed now. The universe was a shell about sixty hours wide. Beyond that was nothing. None of the people he had passed on the street, not even the woman that had shooed him from the shop after admonishing him that it wasn't a library, knew how dire the situation was.

He began to formulate a plan.

Passing a colonial-style pub, he made a mental checklist of what he had to do to prepare for the coming mission. First things first, he needed to locate Sophie. That brought him up short, though, since she clearly didn't want to be found. Perhaps it would be better to take care of other business first. The Doctor put Sophie out of his mind for a moment: after all, how much more damage could she do to the universe, considering all that had already been done?

All he had with him in terms of technology was the sonic screwdriver, the TARDIS key and his psychic paper, but he needed to construct a device that would be able to locate and predict the exact moment of the universe-destroying paradox he knew was coming.

That would be easy enough, given some electronic components and the time-sensitive nature of the TARDIS key. Unfortunately, he didn't have any electronic components nor did he have a place to build the device. So his first stop was to a bank. At the automatic teller machine, he produced his sonic screwdriver and tricked the device into dispensing a thousand Australian dollars.

He assumed that would be enough and made a mental note to return the money, which he decided to call a loan, with interest once he'd saved the universe.

Next he liberated a shopping trolley from a supermarket car park and when questioned by a man in a fluorescent yellow vest, whose job it seemed was to collect shopping trolleys, the Doctor flashed him the psychic paper and told him he was from the Federal Bureau of Shopping Trolley Inspectors.

"Bloody Labor," the man said, shaking his head. "Wasting money on that nonsense..."

The Doctor ignored him, walking down the street pushing the trolley. After a few minutes, he reached an electronics store. Earth's twentieth century had produced some beautiful pieces of technology, but the plastic hunks he found in there were less than impressive. He got a television, with a distressingly bulbous screen, a VCR and seven clock radios. Handing over money to a bewildered looking clerk, the Doctor thought about explaining what he was doing.

"Found technology," the Doctor said, but the clerk, a teenaged boy with a bad infestation of pimples, just looked at him blankly. Sniffing, incensed, the Doctor said "Whatever." and moved on.

He was armed with money and what passed for technology: now all he needed was a place to set it all up. Luckily, he found a dodgy, run-down motel on the next street corner. Named the King's Arms in what must have been a fit of irony, it was a two-story, horse-shoe shaped building enclosing a car park and an empty concrete pool.

He rented a room, leaving his shopping trolley outside the dingy reception office, and found himself a few minutes later in a small room that smelled of disinfectant and was rather nice, in a shoebox hotel room kind of way. The Doctor instantly got to preparing the electronics he bought, ripping open the boxes and piling the items on one of the small, single beds that populated the double room.

Taking a deep breath, he surveyed his booty. Then he got to work.

Hours passed by as he stripped wires, adjusted circuit boards and realigned transistors. By mid-afternoon, he had seven clock radios that weren't really clock radios anymore, wired into the back of a television that wouldn't ever work like a television again and a VCR that had been opened and had its heads removed and imbued with chronon energy courtesy of the sonic screwdriver. The clocks had been removed from their radios and were arrayed along the top of the television, all linked together and cabled into the television's aerial receiver.

The radios had been reconfigured to receive more than just transmissions on the FM and AM bands. Instead of standard radio transmissions, and with a little help from the sonic screwdriver, they would now receive naturally-occurring transmissions created by bursts of temporal energy.

Finally, the Doctor took his TARDIS key from his pocket and placed it between the energised heads in the de-shelled VCR. With another burst of energy from the sonic screwdriver, they began to shine; arcs of electricity danced between the key and the heads. The key began to glow a brilliant orange and all the screens suddenly flared to life. The television showed a blizzard of static but the clocks all glowed red, the numbers on their faces rapidly changing.

The object of this device was to locate and precisely time the moment of the paradox that had generated this disaster, using the material TARDIS key to tap into the temporal energy that suffused the universe as a matter of course. Proud of the work he'd managed to do, the Doctor stood up and surveyed his creation.

By throwing himself into his work, he had succeeded in keeping his mind off Sophie. Still, she'd been gone for hours and he was becoming concerned about what she might be up to. He decided to find his friend.

Hours had gone by and Sophie had spent the entire time sitting at her table, occasionally signalling to the bartender for another drink. She had switched from Coke to water a few hours ago and, after waving off help from the retired mechanic Morris, had taken to people watching. She found she had a lot to think about but that she was happier when she didn't think about.

Memories haunted this town; vague recollections of things that she might have dreamt in the fifteen years since her parents had died. Before she'd travelled with the Doctor, before her encounter with the Trickster's Brigade, had forced her to relive and finally come to terms with the accident that had taken her parents from her, she had dreamt of the crash most nights.

She had finally reached a place where she could remember the accident without reliving it, without experiencing the trauma afresh, but being here was reopening old wounds and pouring salt in them.

Sophie realised that she needed a hug.

She briefly considered going off to find the Doctor and, as if on cue, he entered the pub, striding in as though he owned the place, long black coat flapping about his shins. Any thoughts of wanting to see him again immediately vanished. Sophie stood and heading for one of the side entrances.

The Doctor saw her. "Sophie!" he called, but she ignored him.

As she reached the side door, she nearly ran headlong into a man wearing a somewhat crumpled business shirt. He'd evidently just finished work, as he had a tired air about him. Sophie tried to step out of the way, but she misjudged and her ankle came down at an odd angle. Giving a strangled cry of surprise, she fell back. The man caught her wrist and helped right her.

"Bloody hell!" he exclaimed. "Sorry about that! Are you all right?"

"Yeah," Sophie said, glancing over her shoulder and seeing the Doctor slowly picking his way through the patrons towards her. She turned back to the man. "I'm fine."

Then she actually saw the him. Her jaw fell open. She felt as though she'd been punched in the gut. She recognised him on an instinctual level, understanding right away who he was. The last time she'd seen him, he'd been dead and bleeding in the crumpled cabin of a car.

He stuck out his hand. "Matthew Freeman. Nice to meet you."