When Susan Campbell was a young girl, she lived in a junkyard, among the dust and detritus of an alien people. That much never changes.
One memory at the heart of it, beneath all the spiderwebbing cracks of her life, unbroken, unbreakable: standing in that junkyard, polishing up an old bathroom cabinet, the sort that mounts on the wall and stores medication and bandages and old tubes of toothpaste behind a pair of mirrors on hinges. She opens one side of the cabinet, stares at her reflection, thinking of angles of incidence, and then she opens the other, and now she can see the reflection of her reflection, on and on and on into infinity.
"Hullo," she says, softly, to all the Susans, and then grandfather calls and she props the old cabinet back among the half-dozen table legs and the old rocking chair and goes back to the blue box.
Everything changes, every moment, every glance, every feeling, every thought, except this: it begins in a junkyard, with a blue box.
For a while after the Daleks are gone, everyone smiles. The people of Earth argue over jobs and architecture and building supplies, and they're grinning, laughing, giddy with this new way of fighting, with organizational battles, with skirmishes that end in real progress. They know war by now, they know resistance, they know how to bend without breaking, and Susan's in the middle of it all, smiling along with the rest of them as they claw their way out of the morass of the past.
(David telling her she used to be more serious, she used to seem so much older than her years.)
But the smiles fade with time; everything does.
They come for her on a Friday, when she and David and the children are lying on a blanket stretched out over the itchy grass, watching clouds.
David's expression is ugly; the children are crying, and he says, "You've no right to do this," and it's the very last thing she hears before they pile her into a lorry, before she disappears altogether, before whatever did happen to Susan Campbell, and oh, those poor children.
The rage on David's face in that moment stays with Susan for a long while, turns her cold. He's only human, she tells herself; he's not like her at all. He can't have felt the inevitability of the encounter, can't have noticed the timelines splitting. He's frightened.
He's not like her at all.
The room they lock her in is dull, unimaginative: four walls, a ceiling, and a floor. She memorizes the length and breadth of it, pictures the box in her mind (Ian leaning over her shoulder, cracking some joke about too many dimensions, and she turns in time to see the flicker of fear in his eyes), rotates it and turns it inside-out and then stops and just looks at it.
She remembers crouching down next to the children, watching them investigate a colony of ants with all the solemnity of archaeologists uncovering some lost civilisation. After some time, the boys move on to digging moats and canals, tributaries in the nearby stream, but Eloise stays, watching the ants.
"They're so small," she says, and there's wonder in her voice, and just like that, Susan knows.
The Dalek invasion interrupted a lot of routines, but by the time full health-care facilities are sustainable for anything beyond emergencies, Jack Campbell has established himself as a model patient: he rarely falls ill, he suffer the bumps and bruises of youth with grace and some approximation of dignity, and he always makes the doctors laugh. Little Ian is sicklier, more prone to illness, quieter in the face of the ponderous workings of the medical machine, and when they find a minor malformation in his heart, the doctors take Susan and David aside and give them special medications, special instructions – some genetic offshoot, they say, like his body was trying to grow another heart, the damnedest thing.
Every time her brothers go to visit the clinic, Eloise Campbell disappears.
They come in to speak with her, from time to time, and then they leave, and she and her cell resume their acquaintance. They must have noticed by now that nothing's changed, that she's a fixed point, that no matter how much they try to tell themselves they're the ones holding her in place, she's anchored more firmly than any of them. Occasionally they move her to a new room, one that hums with technology that she's not entirely certain belongs to this time, but a box is a box is a box.
She tells herself she's beyond caring, but when one of them lingers, gathering papers and computer read-outs, some part of her – the part that remembers mirrors in junkyards – asks, in a voice cracked from disuse, "Why keep me here?"
He pauses, hunches his shoulders, and then glances up at her, adjusting his glasses, flushing. He's very young, she thinks. "Please don't make this any more difficult than it already is."
She mulls that over in her head after he leaves, soaking up the echoes of his voice, the little variations in pitch and timbre, the plea under the monotone, the embarrassment under that, the resentment another layer down. It's not until she unearths the anger that she knows for sure.
It's the last time she ever sees her son Ian.
They put her into a box of mirrors, after that, and study her reflections.
People fear what they don't understand; it's a universal mantra, held up as an explanation for many of the worst atrocities the various and sundry races of the galaxy have to offer. It's not our fault; it's in our nature. Inevitable. We can't be held accountable for the sins of genetics.
Susan tries to hate them for it, but she can't, because once upon a time creatures came from the stars and nearly destroyed them. She's still more insidious in their eyes, some sort of sleeper agent with the wrong type of blood and a cardiopulmonary system with a beat all its own and a body temperature that balances just this side of a corpse. She knows they must have checked her children; she hopes David has the courage to lie, to point out in all reasonableness that the biological variables involved are so nearly impossible that there's no way-
There's always a way.
Susan remembers tucking Eloise into bed, remembers the girl pushing past her to stare out the window, to the stars, remembers telling her that each of the points is a sun or a planet or even a galaxy, remembers describing solar systems and spirals and horseheads.
Eloise's mouth is agape, and her voice, when she speaks, is hushed and reverent. She reaches out, leaving smudgy little fingerprints on the window, and touches two of the stars. "What about the spaces between?"
A voice crackles into life, echoing too loudly in the cell, jolting Susan into full wakefulness. It says: "Where is Eloise Campbell?"
When Susan smiles, it feels like it's for the first time.
Time splits, and the force of it shakes her box to its very core.
The changes are small, at first; the walls shift colour, become run-down, then fall, and for a moment, Susan is free again.
Then larger things change, things she can feel deep in her bones. Humanity dies out a thousand years too early. Humanity appears a thousand years too late. The Earth burns twice, before its time, leaving a dark spot where there once was light in the sky.
She knows enough to tell that somebody is experimenting, feels the wrongness of it so deep within her (the sins of genetics) that the space from one breath to the next feels profane, as though she's collaborating with these atrocities by the very act of existing.
And then everything settles into something like it was before, and Susan is back to being a fixed point, and the world carries on spinning all around her.
"It's called the Time Agency," one of them says, and she knows they've begun to understand the way time bends around her, that they've begun to adapt it to their own technology, to their own ends. It's what humanity does best.
Someone is supposed to intervene in cases like this, someone powerful and hidden who watches over time, who protects it. She says as much, and they smile, humouring her.
"If that were the case, wouldn't they have stopped this before it began?"
It's a facetious reply, but the truth of it keeps Susan awake for a long, long time, wondering.
Sometimes she thinks that time has settled, but then she feels the aftershocks, wakes up to memories she's never had before, to new gaps in her personal timeline. She finds herself clinging to the invariants, to the fixed points, to the moments that by some fluke of probability evade the timestorm.
Her grandfather's smile is one of the last to waver and slip away.
"The Agency was founded three hundred years ago," they tell her, and then, "it was founded seven days from now," and then, "what do you know about the Time Agency?"
Susan Campbell leans back, rests her head against the wall, and lets time scream past her, wrong, all wrong.
"Mum," says another voice, softer, and she opens her eyes, and Eloise is there and isn't there, wearing a strange uniform with an emblem that flickers and changes with each breath. Her face has scarcely changed, but Susan knows immediately that she is very old.
And she's gone, just appearing, never there.
In the chaos the humans have wrought, another war is a whisper on the edge of her awareness. By then, she's too used to living linearly, to being the fixed point, and so when her people disappear from the timelines, she feels it only as a distant ache, secondary to memories she's not sure she ever had in the first place.
At first, she thinks it must have been distraction that prevented them from intervening; if something could destroy them so utterly, that same something could likely have kept them from noticing the smaller eddies and whorls of time, caught up as they were in a raging torrent.
And then, staring at her reflections of reflections of reflections in the mirrors all around her, Susan knows that's not possible, knows they would have been aware of every flicker, every illicit journey to the past or the future. They can't have missed something this enormous, this wrong, and if they hadn't missed it, then its continued existence had served a purpose in some way.
It isn't until Eloise appears in her box again, looking more solid but still trailing time in her wake, that Susan knows for sure: the symbol on her uniform has coalesced into something that bears a remarkable resemblance to the Seal of Rassilon.
"This is a failsafe," Susan says to her daughter, in a voice that's soft and distant. "All of this. They always knew I was here."
Eloise smiles, and there's something at once familiar and alien about it, something that reminds Susan of the girl watching for the spaces between the stars, something that reminds Susan of the girl who'd seen the ants and known them to be impossibly small. "We need your help," she says, and extends her hand, and Susan sees in her a different sort of reflection altogether.
Some of them ask her, much later, what it was like to be in a cage for all that time, what it was like to wake and see the same cell walls again and again and again, and she smiles and says nothing, accepts as a matter of course their pity and, in the more honest ones, their morbid curiosity. She supposes they must think her terribly brave, terribly forgiving, terribly kind to have returned at all, to have given them another chance, to have returned from her prison to free them all. But she's found the life of a would-be martyr, a hero, to be an easy one, and so she never protests, never corrects their assumptions.
There are far worse ways to lie.
She repairs what she can of the timelines, painstakingly, turning her attention to the details first, working her way out to major events. It's by no means a perfect process – she suspects her people would have done it the other way around, identifying key figures and fixed points with mathematical precision, rearranging wars and births and deaths, all the while trusting the smaller things to work themselves out.
She likes this way better, likes drawing someone's attention to the single daisy in a fallow field, prompting the laugh of a child, catching a glimpse of a reflection in a mirror, likes taking all these insignificant elements and piecing them together, getting the balance just so, watching lives and loves and whole worlds come to life around the little things. The results aren't always correct, she knows, but they feel right, because she can look back and back and back and point to the daisy and say, "here is where it began."
Some days, Susan dreams whole worlds.
She'd always known her daughter would be the first to ask, but the question still manages to surprise her: Eloise has always been disarmingly direct.
"Why did you help us?"
Susan pauses halfway to the kettle and leans against the table, steadying herself, caught for a moment in the spiderwebbing possibilities of a old man's idle glance at an insect trapped in amber. Eloise sees the hesitation for what it is and waits, her mouth twisting with a frown that Susan's started to associate with a kind of fond disapproval.
After a moment, Susan straightens. "Why shouldn't I help you?" she says, and it's a flippant answer that she's fairly sure she remembers from another place, another time.
"We were afraid," Eloise says, and then she purses her lips, self-admonishing – over the admission of fear, or the slip-up, the use of the word 'we'? "You were different, and they locked you away, and they used you to destroy-" She pauses, sighs, and for a moment Susan sees the wrinkles at the corners of her daughter's eyes come into sharp relief. "-to destroy everything."
Susan laughs; she can't help it. "Is that what you think you've done? Bit full of yourselves, aren't you?" Taking pity on her daughter's bewildered glance, she pats her hand, looks her straight in the eyes. "It's like I was saying, about the space between stars, about unimaginable distances – time's greater than that. And if there's one thing I've had during all this, it's time. None of them could keep that from me."
And Eloise looks away, flushing with something like relief, embarrassment. "But what the Agency did to time in those early days-"
"Time is time," Susan says, and finishes her motion towards the kettle, pouring the hot water. "I'm not sure that's the way it used to be-" And she wavers for a moment, because there's still that hollow, that void where her people should be. "-but it is what it is now. You can't protect time, Ellie; it has this way of marching on. And if you ask me, sometimes it needs a bit of a shaking-up."
They sit at the table in silence for a few moments, letting the tea steep, and finally Eloise speaks up. "If time is what it is, why try so hard to repair the damage we did? Why try to maintain a timeline at all?" Her fingers snatch absently at the tablecloth; she doesn't meet Susan's eyes. "Why bother?"
"Because it's what we do," Susan says, with such firm conviction that Eloise is startled into looking up. "We're here now, Eloise, and we're changing things little by little, shifting what we can back to the way it was before, because we're very small people who dislike change and difference, because we crave order and precision, and because this is what we do, and we do it very well."
Eloise is quiet, then, but when the time comes to pour the tea, her movements are measured, precise, and Susan knows she's made her peace with the idea, that she's starting to see their role as little more than a balancing force, a counterweight, a means of survival. More importantly, she's started seeing a purpose in what they're doing, in what they're trying to accomplish.
Susan leans back and takes a sip of tea, smiling. There are far worse ways to lie.
When Susan Campbell was a young girl, she lived in a junkyard, among the dust and detritus of an alien people.
She still dreams about mirrors, about the reflections upon reflections upon reflections, about glimpses of infinity, about boxes that turn inside-out when you look at them the right way. She dreams about whole lives growing, expanding around tiny moments, ideas, feelings. She dreams about the families she's had and the families she's made.
And in her dreams, everything changes, every moment, every glance, every feeling, every thought, except this: it begins in a junkyard, with a blue box.