The dream started before Clara was completely asleep.
She was in bed, expecting something to come out of the shadows. Instead, the shadows seemed to seep away from the shape that appeared. Even in the darkness, shadows seemed to shun it. It stood silently at her bedside, swathed in its blood-stained robes. Its face was a skull, fanged and snouted, but far bigger than any animal she imagined would have such a skull. The eye-sockets were dark, but she could feel eyes watching her through them. The shape stood perfectly still, watching her. Clara wanted to hide under her covers and wake up, or sit up and shout at it, but under the skull’s gaze, she could not move.
The shape moved now, slowly, like a giant bird unfolding its wings. The robes rustled around it, and a hand appeared within the folds. It was a human hand, small enough to be a woman’s. With its little fingers and dry, seemingly warm skin, it could have been tender, the kind of hand which wipes away tears and ruffles hair. Paired with the skull face, that was an impossibility. The hand reached towards her. Clara stared at it, as it came closer and closer to her face. The other hand emerged. There was something in its grasp. Just as Clara realised what the object was, the skull-faced creature clamped down her hand over her mouth, and raised the knife high.
Someone was shaking her by the shoulders, calling her name. Suddenly wide awake, Clara sat up, almost colliding with whoever was standing by the bed. Cold sweat was pouring down her body, and the sheets were twisted around her. The dream was still at the front of her mind.
‘Hey, hey, calm down,’ the Doctor said and rubbed her arms. Only then did she realise that she was hyperventilating. She closed her eyes and tried to breathe slower. The waking world started to feel more real. Her bedroom was no longer a threat. When she opened her eyes again, the Doctor was looking at her searchingly. ‘Just a bad dream,’ he said and smiled. ‘You don’t have to be frightened.’
‘It was so real...’ She looked around the brightly lit room. The Doctor must have turned the lights on when he had rushed in. It looked as ordinary as any room in the TARDIS ever could. She always thought that the walls tilted, even if they were straight when she touched them. The shelves were full of mementos from other worlds, and possessions of previous occupants - a necktie, a button with an anarchist A on it, a box of matches from the 1960s. This was no place for a skull-faced attacker. Or had it been skull-masked?
Staying in bed was out of the question. Pulling her nightie down over her knees, Clara scooted out of bed and found her dressing-gown.
‘Cocoa?’ the Doctor suggested.
He opened the door for her, and as they walked towards the kitchen, he put an arm around her shoulders and hugged her for a moment. It was reassuring, but as soon as they reached the kitchen, and he let go of her to rummage through the cupboards, Clara’s mind returned to the skull and the knife. It was just a dream, she reminded herself. This was just her head trying to sort out the mayhem of travelling with the Doctor. She was awake now - it couldn’t harm her. She sat down at the kitchen table, and tried to put it out of her mind.
The next day, they went to ancient Sparta, where the Doctor accidentally almost convinced Helen not to elope with Paris. Clara had never seen anyone working so hard to make sure that adultery happened. Once they had made sure that the Trojan War was going to happen, they left and went to have a picnic on Balhoon. They lay in the grass and ate cherries, while the Doctor told her about when he met Odysseus. Clara wasn’t sure whether he was making it up or not. She definitively didn’t believe the bit about him coming up with the idea of the wooden horse. It was a good day, even if the Doctor complained about being bored by the end of it. After all, they had not foiled a single sinister plan or toppled even one malicious government, and no-one had tried to kill them. Clara didn’t mind, and went to bed feeling content.
She slept poorly, but she could not remember if she dreamed. Next morning, when she came into the kitchen, the Doctor was busy making a full English breakfast.
‘Sleep well?’ he asked as he lobbed fried eggs onto two plates.
‘Alright,’ Clara said, thinking it was better to bend the truth. She poured herself tea and sat down. ‘What about you?’
‘Oh, I don’t sleep much,’ the Doctor said brightly, moved the tomatoes from the frying-pan and brought the plates over.
‘What do you do all night? Tinker with the TARDIS?’
‘There’s always something that needs doing,’ he said and gestured at her to eat. As she started eating her breakfast (excellent, as the Doctor’s cooking so often was), her thoughts went back to her nightmare from the other night. It felt distant now, but considering she had it the night before last, she remembered it remarkably well. She decided to ask.
‘Can you dream that you’re asleep?’
The Doctor shrugged.
‘You can dream anything.’
‘But it’s pretty weird. Dreaming you’re asleep, and then waking in the dream, but still being asleep, because you’re dreaming.’
‘How do you know you’re not awake?’
Clara looked up from her breakfast. The sinking feeling inside her could not have been visible on her face, because the Doctor was still smiling at her - he must think he had said something witty. But what if he was right? Perhaps she hadn’t been asleep at all...
‘Never mind,’ Clara said and tried her best to go back to her breakfast.
That night, the shape came to her bedside again. It stood gazing down at her for a long time, and Clara cowered in bed, puling the duvet up to her nose but not daring to take her eyes off the presence. When the shape stepped closer to her, she thought she saw it smiling, not with the skull but underneath. The hands were the same, but now, one of them bore something that looked like a knuckleduster with needles attached to it. Is she going to use that on me? Clara wondered. The other hand held the knife. This time, the shape did not bother to cover her mouth. The arm rose silently, and the flash of the blade tore through the air. Clara screamed.
At the precise moment when the knife went through her heart, she woke. This time, when she had screamed in the dream, she had been silent in the real world (or was it the other way around?) Her room was dark and empty. There had not been any scream to alert the Doctor this time. Clara reached out and fumbled with the switch to the bedside lamp. The light from it made the shadows darker. She got out of bed, grabbed her dressing-gown and left the room at a run.
In the dim light of the corridors, it felt as if she was still half stuck inside the dream. The sensation of the warm floor under her feet did not feel quite real. Its machine warmth made her shiver. She pulled her dressing-gown tighter around herself and reached up to rub her eyes. Her hand was half-way to her face when she hesitated. She might poke herself in the eye with...
She looked down at her hand. She was certain that there had been something on her knuckles, that she might have hurt herself with. Then she blinked, and the conviction disappeared. When she started walking again, she rubbed her eyes vigorously, trying to clear the fog.
It might be because she had just woken up, or she might have gotten lost, but the way to the console room seemed much longer than usual. When she finally found it, she was glad to see that the Doctor was there. He was crouching by the console, fixing something underneath it. Clara was halfway down the stairs when he noticed the padding of her feet.
‘Can’t sleep?’ he asked and smiled, looking over his shoulder. Almost at once, the smile died away and was replaced by a worried frown. Clara tried to put the dream into words, but her throat felt so tight. Tears stung in her eyes. With three long strides, the Doctor had crossed to her and embraced her. She buried her face in his shirt and cried, as he patted her hair and rocked her in his arms. When she quieted a little, he whispered: ‘Another nightmare?’
Clara shook her head.
‘It was the same.’ He let go of her now, and lead her to the stairs, where they sat down. He kept his arm around her shoulders.
‘It was just a dream,’ he told her. ‘However scary it was, it was just a dream.’
‘But...’Clara trailed off. She could not explain why it felt like it wasn’t “just” a dream. There was something about that shape that was familiar. But that was silly. He must be right. Nevertheless, it did not make feel less real. ‘I died,’ she explained. The Doctor’s hold around her tightened. ‘There was someone at my bed, and she had a knife...’
‘But you’re fine,’ the Doctor said. ‘You’re safe.’ He kissed the top of her head. ‘It’s probably just time-and-space sickness. You’ve been in the TARDIS a little too long.’
Clara doubted that “time-and-space sickness” was actually a word, but perhaps he had a point. She had not stayed in the TARDIS for this long in one go before. Perhaps she just needed to get out of this box for a few days.
‘Take me back to London?’
The Doctor nodded.
‘Of course.’ He got to his feet and went over to the console, and started pulling levers and pushing buttons. ‘I’ll drop you off in the evening, because you need to sleep.’
Clara did not want to sleep, but she did have the strength to argue. As she leaned her head against the railing, she almost dozed off, and was jolted awake by the sound of the engines grinding under them.
It was night when Clara stepped out of the TARDIS. The Doctor smiled and waved at her, before he closed the door, even before she had turned around. She waited until there was no sign left of the blue box before going inside.
The house was in darkness, and Clara did not bother to turn the lights on when she went to the kitchen and turned the coffee-machine on. She sat quietly and listened to it splutter. The silence of a house which was often so noisy was eery. Involuntarily, she peered out of the window, to check whether the shape from the dream was there. There was nothing out of the ordinary. She felt her body grow heavy - sitting down was obviously a bad idea. Just to have something to do, she took a mug out of the cupboard and drank some water out of it. The coffee-machine coughed and hissed, and then fell silent. Still in darkness, Clara took the coffee-pot and her damp mug and climbed the stairs to the loft. She put it down on her bedside table, and stood in the darkness for a while longer. It was not until now she realised she was scared of turning the light on.
This is ridiculous! Brutally, she reached out and punched the light-switch. The lamp in the ceiling flickered to life. For the first moment of light, she was afraid of what she might see. But it was all normal. She had left in a hurry last time, so clothes and books lay scattered around the room. The untidiness seemed to ordinary that it seemed doubly ridiculous to fear that something might be there. At once, Clara was angry at herself rather than at any immaterial phantom. Why was she being such a child about this? It was just a stupid dream. Then she paused, and tried to dissect her anger. There was disappointment there too. The darkness had sheltered her, because she had been afraid of what she might find. She had half expected something there, even hoped for it. She had thought that she might find some evidence that they were not dreams.
But surely it would be better if they were simply dreams? Clara sighed and rubbed her eyes. She was not making sense, even to herself. She was too tired to think, but she didn’t want to sleep. Instead, she started up her computer, poured herself some coffee and sat down cross-legged on her bed. BBC iPlayer would do the trick. She hesitated between Antiques Road Show and the Great British Bake Off, and settled for the latter. The clock in the corner of the screen read two a.m. That meant that she would have time for five episodes until getting the kids out of bed. For a moment, Clara considered what would happen if this plan didn’t work and she fell asleep after all. Just to be on the safe side, she set an alarm for seven. That being done, she let herself sink into a caffeinated trance of baking disasters and cake voyeurism.
It might have been the coffee or the TV, but she felt herself wake up a little. Thinking about baking really helped. She wondered if she should give choux pastry a try. Perhaps she could make the Doctor stay on earth for an afternoon and they could bake something. Or she might just try to find the ingredients in the TARDIS. She could imagine the Doctor being very good at baking, considering what his cooking was like.
She felt herself slouching and straightened up. Another cup of coffee would probably be a good idea. Better not lean against the wall - it would make it easier to drop off. She blinked, took a mouthful of coffee, started another episode at random. This one was earlier than the ones she had seen, so she knew who would be kicked out, as she didn’t recognise them. She liked the sound of some of the taste combinations, and thought of making a note, but she couldn’t be bothered to find something to write on. Leaning against the bedstead wasn’t going to make her fall asleep, she decided. Sitting without support was just silly. Halfway through the third episode, the coffee in her cup had gone cold. She drank it anyway, and filled it up from the pot. She played with the idea of asking the Doctor to take her to seventeenth-century Bath and going to meet Sally Lunn. You had to respect someone who had a piece of baked goods named after them. She and the Doctor could do a tour through time and space and try to meet as many people like that as possible. Did aliens also have baking programs? Did, say, Alpha Centauri have a baking expert as intimidating as Mary Berry?
Clara smiled to herself and closed her eyes. It wouldn’t do any harm...
This time, it is different. The textures are not the same. Clara is six years old, and the Bank Holiday crowds have engulfed her. She looks around for her mother. She calls out. She cries. Finally, she starts walking.
No one stops to answer. The mass of people continues to move and talk and laugh. The adults dwarf her, and make her feel more lost. (But her mother will find her - she remembers that...)
Not this time. When the crowd opens, it is not her mother there. It is the woman in the mask. Only now does she truly realise that it is a woman’s face behind that skull, even if she cannot see it. The people around them are all in jeans and trainers and spring dresses. She looks cut into the scene where she stands in her heavy robes and her hood. The mask sneers at Clara, but then a hand appears. The woman reaches out towards her. Needles glitter on her knuckles. For a moment, she seems to wait for Clara to take her hand. Then the hand closes into a fist, and the needles rushes towards her.
The blaring of the phone alarm cut the dream short. Clara woke with a start. She tapped her phone to shut off the alarm and straightened. Her back hurt after hours bent oddly as she had slid lower and lower down the bedstead. Her computer was still open on the bed, but the screen was black. The batteries must be completely empty. The remainder of the coffee sat at the bottom of the pot, looking far older than five hours. She stood up and rubbed her eyes. For a moment, the dream resurfaced in her mind. She thought back to that time in Brighton when she was six. Perhaps it was just because she had thought about Bath, and her brain had associated... No, that wasn’t it. It had not felt like a dream. It had felt real, like she was being shown an alternative, or a version she had forgotten.
Clara was certain that, if she stopped to think, she would fall asleep. So she left her room, showered, returned, got dressed. Woke the kids, fixed breakfast, made sandwiches, packed their lunches. Asked about homework, told them not to dawdle, gave them their lunch-boxes, waved them off.
The door closed behind them. The house fell silent. Clara wrapped her arms around herself. A shiver went through her. When it had passed, she turned and went upstairs for her phone. She was already dialing the number when she went back downstairs. After two signals came the sound of the receiver being picked up.
‘TARDIS here!’ the Doctor shouted. It sounded as if he was hanging out of the TARDIS door, somewhere in space.
‘Hi,’ Clara said, caught off guard. ‘It’s... it’s me. Look... can you come get me?’
‘Sure,’ said the Doctor. ‘Now?’
Clara glanced at the clock in the kitchen.
‘Half past eight. In the morning. It’s Thursday.’
‘Be there in a jiffy!’ And he hung up. Clara took the phone from her ear and wondered whether there was anything she needed to pack. Before she had time to think of anything, the blue police box flashed into being outside the window. She shrugged, put her phone in her pocket and went to get her coat.
The Doctor was still fiddling around with the console when she entered.
‘Hi,’ she said and stifled a yawn. He punched a few buttons, and the TARDIS wailed as she took flight again. Only then did he look up.
‘Hello!’ he said with a grin, which then relaxed into a caring smile. ‘Did you get any sleep?’
‘No,’ Clara said instinctively, and then shook herself. ‘I mean, yes. I have. Doctor... it’s odd. I think there’s something wrong with me.’ The Doctor raised an eyebrow. ‘I keep having the same dream over and over again. Or at least, the same person turns up. I can never see her face, but... it’s always the same. And it’s odd. I’ve never seen anything like it in my entire life, but at the same time... I know her.’
‘It’s probably just something in your subconscious,’ the Doctor said and smiled again, looking uncommonly patronising.
‘Doctor, listen to me. Something’s going on.’
The Doctor watched her for another moment, then sighed, obviously giving up. He looked shrewdly into her eyes, took her pulse and felt her forehead. Then he concluded:
‘You just look a bit peaky. Mostly look like you haven’t slept properly, which isn’t odd.‘ He took her hand. ‘Come on. Let’s go to the chess room. It’s comfy. We can sit down and talk.’
‘There’s a chess room?’ Clara asked as he pulled her towards one of the stairs leading from the console room.
‘I hope it’s still there. I used to love it. Used it all the time.’
As they left the console room and went into the corridors, Clara wondered if this would be one of those hour-long walks through the TARDIS in search of a room the Doctor swore was here somewhere. This time, however, they were in luck. They found the chess room within five minutes, and as the Doctor had said, it was indeed comfy. Clara sunk gratefully into one of the large winged armchairs, which almost swallowed her. She pushed herself against one of the armrests and yawned again. The Doctor smiled compassionately.
Clara sat up and rubbed her eyes.
‘Give me five minutes,’ the Doctor said and ruffled her hair. She murmured ‘see you in a bit’ and yawned again, this time so wide that it made her eyes water. She blinked to get the liquid out of her eyes. Keeping them open felt like an almost impossible task. Why was she bothering anyway? She had forgotten. It seemed inconsequential - a silly, obstinate thing to insist on. She leaned back in the armchair and pulled her legs under herself. Her eyes drifted shut...
...and She was there. Standing over her, in front of the armchair, was the woman with the skull mask. The knife in her dainty hand seemed to catch the light from the antique lamps, but the shape itself seemed impervious to it. It was as if the light did not exist for it. The knife hand tightened, moved, rose. Clara clapped her hands over her mouth.
The shape froze. A voice, which sounded wrong, in the same way as the gaze Clara could sense in the skull’s eye-sockets felt wrong, spoke.
‘Shall I do it, Grandfather?’
Who was she talking to? Clara wondered. There was no one else there.
He appeared as instantly as eyes closing. His bare skin shone ghastly white, and the bone beneath it seemed almost as visible as the woman’s gruesome skull mask. There was something lopsided about his appearance. Clara’s gaze was drawn first to his long, thin left arm, then over his shoulders, to where his right arm should have been. It had not been surgically amputated, but violently sawn off and left to heal on its own. Still, the scarring was not what made her numb with fear, but his face. She knew those deep-set eyes, that high forehead, that square chin, even that scar on his scalp.
‘Do it,’ he said. Clara screamed and flung her arms over her head.
Next thing she knew, she was grabbing a pair of thin wrists, trying to push them away.
‘Stop it - ouch - Clara - stop...!’
The Doctor pulled his wrists out of her grip and rubbed them, each in turn.
‘What are you doing!?’ he cried out. Clara did not relax her guard. She pushed herself into the armchair, away from him, and balled her hands into fists. The Doctor’s eyes looked genuinely frightened. ‘Clara...’ he said and reached out a hand. Clara pushed even further back.
‘Get away from me!’
‘But it’s me!’ the Doctor exclaimed and bounced on his feet. ‘The Doctor! Tweed, bow-tie, floppy hair, remember?’
Clara froze. Of course, he was the Doctor. She knew him. But...
‘You were in my dream,’ she whispered. The Doctor nodded, to show he was listening.
‘Okay.’ He pulled a chair from the chess table and sat down in front of her, elbows on knees. ‘What did I do?’
‘You told her to kill me.’
‘I’d never do that,’ said the Doctor sincerely. ‘I’ve promised to keep you safe.’ Clara relaxed a little, and shifted. Her head was clearing, and the distinctions between dream and reality were becoming more clear.
‘It was you, but... not really,’ she recalled. ‘You...’ She clenched her eyes shut at the memory. ‘You only had one arm.’
She had expected a hum or an acknowledgement, but there was none. Puzzled, she opened her eyes. The Doctor was sitting very straight. He swallowed, looking shocked.
‘Tell me about the woman in the dream,’ he said. ‘Clara, what did she look like?’
‘She had small hands. I don’t know,’ Clara said. ‘She had a mask...’
‘A mask made from a skull?’
Clara stared at him.
‘Yes. How did you know?’
The Doctor bit his lip.
‘It can’t be...’
‘This could be very bad,’ the Doctor said slowly. ‘Let me test something...’ He reached over and readjusted the lamp at the armchair so it pointed at Clara. She had expected him to look at her, perhaps look for some symptom in her face, but instead, he looked at the wall opposite the lamp. He had gone quite white. ‘Oh no.’
Clara followed his gaze. There on the bare wall, she saw the shadow of the large winged armchair, and the Doctor’s tall, crouched figure. It all seemed ordinary, but when she shifted, nothing happened. She must still be hidden behind the wings of the armchair, she reasoned. She leaned further out. She spread her fingers out just over the lamp. Finally, she stood up. All the time, the shadows stayed the same.
‘What’s happened to me?’ she asked. She saw how the Doctor rose, and felt him put his arm around her. On the wall, the arm looked awkwardly bent in midair.
‘Your shadow has been stolen,’ the Doctor said. ‘You’re been marked.’
Clara forced her eyes from the wall’s bizarre shadow play.
‘Marked?’ The Doctor watched her gravely. ‘What does that mean? Who’s done this to me?’
He let go of her and turned away. Clara realised now that there was a tea tray on the table, which he must have brought when she was asleep. She watched him pouring tea and adding milk, delaying having to explain. When he set about adding sugar, the tongs jumped out of his hand and clattered to the floor. The Doctor sighed and stared at the tea-tray indifferently, as though he realised now that it was just a distraction.
‘Faction Paradox.’ The way he spoke the words made it sound almost as if he found it difficult to pronounce them. He did not look at her when he gave her one of the cups. Clara got the feeling that she had unwittingly stumbled into something private and painful.
‘Who are they?’ she asked.
The Doctor paused, picking his words carefully.
‘Old enemies. I was almost young then. And I thought I’d escaped them...’ He shook his head, and Clara thought suddenly that he looked like an old man. Without thinking about it, she reached out and touched his cheek. He covered her hand, gratefully, and kissed her palm. ‘Back to the console room,’ he said. ‘We can drink our tea on the way.’
Then he pulled away from her grip, and turned to the door. Clara took a gulp of her tea, but it didn’t taste right, so she left it on the tray and followed the Doctor. All the way to the console room, even in the dim corridors, she was aware of how she cast no shadow. She walked faster, as if movement might stir something on the wall.
When she got to the console room, the Doctor was already plotting a course. His tea stood untouched on the stairs.
‘Where are we going?’ she asked. The Doctor leaned closer to the controls and did not look at her. Clara felt a sudden need for him to turn around and look at her. She needed him to hold her, so she knew she was still solid, despite not casting a shadow. ‘How could they do that, Doctor? Aren’t shadows just a fact? It’s this against the laws of physics or something like that?’ The Doctor stopped fiddling. He seemed to consider his words.
‘It’s a cheap trick.’ Now he turned to look at her, but he did not smile, as she had hoped. She wrapped her arms around herself, for wont of anyone else’s. His graveness scared her. ‘They took mine once, to scare me.’
‘Is that all it is?’ she whispered. The edges of the Doctor’s mouth drew sideways, without smiling.
‘No. It’s their way of showing that you belong to them.’ He turned his hands in one another, and started walking towards her. ‘Faction Paradox broke free from my people. Everything they worship they hold as sacred because it mocks our beliefs. The Time Lords worshipped temporal order - causality - the sequence of all things in the cosmos. Did you know that the word kosmos actually means “ornament” as well as “order”? To the ancient Greeks, the universe was perfectly made-up, adorned, perfected. That was what the Time Lords believed too.’ He stopped, realising that he was stalling. ‘So the Faction decided to worship the direct opposite. Causality loops. Disharmony. Unbalance. Paradox.’
‘And why have they come for me?’ For the briefest of moments, he smiled.
‘You’re impossible, remember?’ he said and touched her nose, a half-hearted, affectionate gesture. ‘You’re everywhere. There’s versions of you in every world, woven into my timeline...’ The Doctor froze. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he gulped. ‘Of course. That’s why.’
‘What?’ Clara asked. ‘Are they trying to get to you?’
‘Quite possibly,’ the Doctor said. ‘They’ve gone after my friends before. Once they even managed to make me their agent. I stopped them, but...’ He turned and looked at the controls, hesitating. Then he stalked over and threw a switch. The TARDIS shook. The central column started moving.
Clara grabbed hold of the railings.
‘Where are we going?’
The Doctor had clung to the console by the end of his fingertips.
‘We’re doing something incredibly stupid!’
‘Why!?’ Clara shouted back.
‘Because we need answers!’
The TARDIS heaved. Clara pressed her lips together, hoping she wouldn’t be sick. Behind her, she heard the Doctor frantically pushing buttons and muttering, ‘come on, come on, come on.’
A final heave, and they stood still. Clara swallowed and rubbed her chafed hands against her skirt. The Doctor picked himself up from over the console and pulled at his coat. The outside windows let in no light.
‘Come on,’ he said and offered her his hand. Clara took it. In his long fingers, her small hand seemed to disappear. As they went to the door, she wanted to ask what was out there, but she dared not. The doors opened. Together, they stepped outside.
At first glance, they had landed in a perfectly ordinary street at night. It certainly wasn’t the twenty-first century, but it looked like Earth. All the same, something made her skin crawl. There was something wrong here. It was not just empty as streets were at night. It was deserted. As soon as Clara had thought that, she heard something scuttle away, claws clattering against the cobble-stones. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw something many-legged disappear down a side-alley.
‘Where are we?’ she whispered, afraid to speak louder. The Doctor pressed her hand and whispered back:
‘We’re in a pocket universe. Time that never existed. The Eleven-Day Empire.’ He patted her hand and let go of her. Then he took a long step forward, cleared his throat and shouted: ‘HELLO! Faction Paradox! I’m here! Come out and play!’
Something moved. Clara hurried to his side. She was afraid that there would be more of the strange creatures she thought she had glimpsed. The crowd that approached them was bipedal, but that was all she could tell. Every single face was hidden behind fanged skull masks.
‘You know who I want to speak to!’ said the Doctor. ‘I want answers!’
A buzzing erupted from the throng. It took a moment for Clara to be able to make out the word: ‘Mother, mother, mother...’
‘What does that mean?’ Clara asked.
‘It’s a title. They call themselves the Family, so all titles are family members - siblings, cousins, parents. The Mothers and Fathers are the elite - highest up in the hierarchy.’ The Doctor frowned, and added: ‘Almost.’
As abruptly as the whisper had started, silence fell, from the back forwards. The crowd parted. Clara grabbed the Doctor’s hand.
‘It’s her,’ she whispered. ‘That’s the woman I’ve dreamed about.’ The Doctor pressed her hand, but his eyes remained fixed on the woman approaching. She was short, Clara’s height, but there was something regal about the way she held her shoulders. Her skirts stirred up dust from the streets. In the vague light, her skull mask looked yellow. Behind it, Clara could glimpse the edge of her jaw, but no more.
‘Hello,’ said the Doctor, and the Mother stopped, only a few feet from them.
‘Doctor,’ she said. Just like in the dream, Clara thought her voice sounded wrong, but strangely familiar.
‘I want to know why you’ve been bothering my friend.’
The Mother’s jaw moved, her chin dipping below the ridge of teeth as she grinned.
‘You know why, Doctor. You must have guessed?’
The Doctor stepped forward.
‘To get to me?’
There came a snort of derision from behind the mask.
‘You really haven’t changed,’ said the Mother. ‘Still so arrogant. Clara Oswald is woven through your timeline. Yes, we could infect you through her. But we don’t need to. There’s a bigger price here.’ She looked from the Doctor to Clara and back again. ‘You have travelled for so long, Doctor, that you are wrapped around all of Time and Space. And within you is Clara Oswald. Through her, the universe will be ours.’ She seemed to smile again. ‘Isn’t it a beautiful thought, Doctor? The Family can take what it has always wanted. She has introduced paradox into you, and into the universe. She has handed it to us. We can conquer Time with an army where every single soldier is the same person.’
Clara forced her eyes from the malicious death’s grin of the woman’s mask, and looked up at the Doctor. His eyes had not wavered from her, but the lines in his face seemed to deepen.
‘Do you really think I’d allow that?’
The Mother laughed.
‘You’ve made it possible!’
‘I’ll make it impossible, then.’
‘How?’ she challenged him. ‘By changing history? Rewriting your timeline? Add more paradoxes, and more, and more, until your timeline is stretched so thin we do not even have to force our way through? It will break at our touch!’
Something stirred in the Doctor’s eyes - a great sorrow, like a man who had lost something very dear to him and found it again only to realise it had been ruined. But his gaze did not waver when he said:
‘Take off the mask, Clara.’
‘What?’ Clara said. ‘I don’t have...’ The rest remained unsaid. Her mouth went dry. The Mother bowed her head and raised her hands to the mask. The skull came loose in her palms. Her own face stared back at her.
They were not identical. This face had aged. It was less round-cheeked, and there were lines around her eyes and mouth. Still, what was visible of her hair beneath her hood was dark, and the facial features were unmistakable. Two pairs of the same eyes eyes turned up to look at the Doctor. He did not look surprised at all, but only smiled joylessly.
‘What’s your name?’ he asked.
‘I am Mother Oswin,’ answered the older Clara. Listening to her voice was like playing back a recording of herself. She recognised the voice as her own, but it sounded so different when it did not come from her own mouth, and did not echo inside her own head. ‘I was Clara Oswin. We couldn’t all be Oswalds, you know. Some of us don’t even have either, but translations, or names that sounds similar. All to make sure we fit in wherever we ended up.’
‘And where did you end up?’ the Doctor asked. It was almost a whisper. The way he was watching her made it look like he was fighting himself over something. Perhaps he was seeing Clara, not simply someone who looked just like her. ‘Did we ever meet?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘Of course we didn’t. So few of us met you. You caper past, too self-important to even glance at us.’
‘When?’ repeated the Doctor.
‘It was in San Francisco,’ Mother Oswin explained. ‘The year was 2002. I was sixteen years old. I had lived my entire life in London, before I got on a plane to America on a whim. I never realised that there was anything behind that whim than myself, at the time. Of course I never thought anything led me there. I hope you remember what happened that year. It was the year the kraken woke in San Francisco Bay.’
‘Yes, of course,’ the Doctor said. ‘It was one of my early run-ins with your lot.’
‘So that wasn’t a coincidence?’ he pressed. ‘That was how you were recruited?’
‘There was no coincidence to speak of. At all. You were in San Francisco because of your biodata - I was in San Francisco because of you. But perhaps I was brought there because I am part of your biodata. That was what the Faction came to look for, of course.’ Mother Oswin smiled, and turned the skull-mask in her hands. The bat-like jaw grinned up at Clara. ‘I did see you once - from a distance. You were very eye-catching at the time. All curls and velvet. So soft. But I don’t think I realised the connection. Just after I saw you, crossing the street, I noticed some scaffolding on the pavement where I was. It had come loose, almost as if some wind had shaken it from the building. I realised it would fall on someone - so I rushed forward to try to secure it. Naturally, it fell on me.’
The Doctor’s eyes closer, just for a moment. Mother Oswin’s smile disappeared.
‘Did you notice, Doctor?’ she asked. ‘Or did you assume that it was just some pipes falling down?’
‘I can’t remember,’ the Doctor admitted. ‘It was a long time ago. I had a lot on my mind.’ He shook his head, as if at himself. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘It as good as killed me. I would have died, if Faction Paradox had not come for me. They offered me a deal. They would make sure I lived, if I joined them. It wasn’t a difficult thing to accept. I never even thought twice about it. I had always felt like there was something missing in my life anyway. And once I had been inducted into the Family, I learned why.’ She looked towards Clara. ‘You.’
The Doctor shook his head.
‘It’s not her fault,’ he said, still looking the Mother. ‘It’s not your fault. If anyone’s to blame for all of this...’
Mother Oswin’s eyes moved slowly from Clara to the Doctor.
‘I’m not interested in your apologies, Doctor. Neither do I have some personal vendetta. All I care about is the Family. We will right this world.’
‘By destroying it,’ the Doctor said, gritting his teeth. ‘And the same with Clara. Are you planning to kill her?’
‘Eventually,’ Mother Oswin admitted. ‘It will perfect the paradox.’
‘So you’re just scaring her now. Because you can’t yet,’ he said. He sounded triumphant. ‘There’s only you, isn’t there? It’s not enough of you in the Family yet!’
‘But we have her biodata,’ she bit back. ‘Mine wasn’t quite enough - it’s just a fragment of a life. I made sure to take the sample from her early on, before she got too close to you.’ Mother Oswin turned her right hand and showed Clara the back of it. She was wearing something like a knuckleduster mounted with needles. ‘Do you remember?’
‘Brighton...’ Clara said. She remembered the bank holiday, the adults milling around her, the sick fear before finding her mother. Yes, she had a memory of instead finding a Mother, and the spines on her knuckles sliding under her skin for the briefest moment, but the images were unnaturally clear. When she recalled walking and walking, until her mum had appeared and picked her up into her arms, it felt distant and blurred, but oddly safe.
‘Clara?’ It was the Doctor, staring at Clara just as intently as Mother Oswin was. ‘That’s a biodata sampler. Did she use it on you? Do you remember it?’
Clara shook her head.
‘Yes, but... it was just a dream. From last night...’
The Doctor exhaled, and laughed. Then he pirouetted around, his coat-tails standing out, and stopped when he faced the Mother.
‘You’re bluffing!’ he exclaimed. ‘Clara, get to the TARDIS!’ Clara backed slowly towards the box. She didn’t want to turn her back on her aged Doppelgänger. ‘Not only are you bluffing - you’re just covering up your own shoddy work. The only way Clara is marked is through you. Your biodata might just be a fragment of it, but it’s enough to affect Clara in small ways, to make us think that she was marked, so we’d lower our defenses. But, Mother Oswin -’ the term of address was heavy with sarcasm ‘- I’m not going to give you an opportunity to mark her.’
Clara pushed the door open behind her, and edged her feet onto the threshold. She was still watching the Doctor, who almost completely shielded her elder self. As if she sensed Clara watching, Mother Oswin shifted a little to the side to be able to see past him. For a moment, their eyes met. A chill went through her at the thought that that smile was her own. Then that face was hidden, as she replaced her skull mask and stepped back to where she had stood before.
‘Doctor?’ Clara said. She sensed that something was wrong. She wanted him to come to the TARDIS so they could leave, now at once. There had been something about the way Mother Oswin had smiled that put her on guard. But he didn’t heed her.
‘I’ve never met you before,’ he said, ‘but you’re her. That means you’re my friend. So don’t give me a reason to fight you.’
Mother Oswin sighed. One of her hands came to rest on his shoulder. She must be standing very close now.
‘You should know better, ...’ And she went up on tiptoes and whispered something into his ear. The Doctor flinched.
‘Don’t call me that.’
‘At the moment you’re being so slow that you barely deserve the title,’ Mother Oswin said. Her right hand snaked between his body and his arm, and stroked his side. ‘See, you’re trying to cover up your shoddy thinking. You are both on our land. She may be protected, being so close to the TARDIS, but you...’ Her hand clenched into a fist. ‘Don’t you realise, Doctor, that she’s part of your biodata?’
With one sure blow, the Mother stabbed the spines into his side. The Doctor screamed, his entire back arching. For a moment, they seemed frozen, as though the biodata sampling warped time. Then Mother Oswin pulled out the spines, and the Doctor stumbled backwards. Before he could fall to the ground, Clara grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him into the TARDIS. With a final look at herself, the needles on her hand catching the light from the TARDIS, Clara slammed the door shut.
The Doctor had collapsed on the floor. At least he was still conscious - he was panting loudly, supporting himself on his elbows.
‘Are you alright, Doctor?’ Clara asked and pulled the tweed jacket away from his side. She had expected a lot of blood, but there was none.
‘The blue lever,’ he gasped. ‘Quick!’
Clara scrambled to her feet and ran to the console. It took all her strength to flick the lever, but as soon as it clicked into its other position, the roundels above started spinning and the TARDIS started wheezing. When she turned around, the Doctor had pulled himself to his feet with the bannister as support. Clara hurried back to him and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. Gratefully, he let her lead him to the closest stair, where he sunk down.
‘What did she do to you?’ Clara asked. She almost said “I”, but managed to stop herself.
‘Took my biodata,’ the Doctor explained as he rubbed his side. ‘I’m sure it didn’t hurt that much last time.’
‘What exactly is biodata?’
‘It’s what makes me me. It’s like the DNA of my entire life. My timeline.’
‘And that’s what I jumped into...?’
‘Yes, exactly,’ the Doctor said. He was starting to relax now, but was still ghastly pale from the biodata sampling. ‘Now that they’re got a sample of my biodata, they could control me, even change me, if they wanted to.’ Clara thought he seemed remarkably calm about it.
‘I don’t think so,’ he said, and the smile disappeared. ‘It didn’t sound like that. Oh, I might make a good servant for them, but... I’m just the one person.’ He looked up at her.
‘And I’m not,’ she concluded. The Doctor nodded. Clara swallowed. Her throat felt dry. ‘They’re coming for me?’
The Doctor reached up and took her hand in both of his.
‘Yes. Eventually. If they have my biodata, they can find all those Claras... And they’d want you, as you’re where it all starts.’
Clara imagined the Doctor’s life spread over Time, and her own weaving in and out of his. What a hateful thing it would be if someone tried to sever that web.
‘What can we do?’ she asked.
‘We have you. They’re going the roundabout way - we’ve got the proper map.’ The Doctor pressed her hand and looked up into her eyes. ‘Clara, I promise you, we will find a way. I won’t let them hurt you - any of you. They have taken people I love from me in the past. It’s not going to happen again.’ He turned her hand in his, and kissed her palm. He met her eyes once again. She smiled and nodded, not quite certain what to say to that. Snapping back into his awkward self, the Doctor dropped her hand and looked around. Beside him stood the cup of tea he had abandoned before.
‘Oh.’ He picked it up and stuck his tongue in it, then grimaced. ‘Cold.’
‘I’ll put the kettle on.’
The Doctor put the cup back.
‘You should sleep, you know,’ he said.
‘I really couldn’t sleep now,’ Clara said. ‘I can manage. It’s just the kettle. In fact, I feel better. I know now. Also, I’m pretty sure I feel better than you do at the moment.’ The Doctor smiled.
‘Alright. I’ll just stay here - plot a course perhaps. Then tea, and then, hopefully, some undisturbed sleep. I think they’ll have stopped trying to scare you, so probably you won’t have any more nightmares.’ He squinted behind her. ‘Still no shadow, but it’ll probably start coming back soon.’
‘I never thought I’d miss it,’ she said, picked up the cold cup and turned to go to the kitchen.
Clara was halfway across the console room when she remembered.
‘Oh, Doctor?’ she said and turned again. The Doctor looked up at her, eyebrows raised. ‘The other me - Mother Oswin...’
‘Yes?’ asked the Doctor.
‘What did she call you?’
A shadow passed over the Doctor’s face.
‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘Nothing.’ His smile had grown superficial. As soon as Clara put a foot forward to turn again, it faded. Before she turned her back again, she caught a look in the Doctor’s eyes which she was not used to seeing there. It was not until she reached the kitchen she was able to name it. In that moment, the Doctor’s face had betrayed dread.