Sometimes Zoe dreamed about numbers. Sometimes they would be written on paper; more often than not, on a screen. Sometimes she would have small hands and would play with coloured beads on an abacus as sun streamed in through the window behind her and an older, deeper voice told her how clever she was.
Then, just as she knew that the fundamental mathematical principles of the universe were about to unfold inside her head, she would reply to the voice, and then the abacus would sprout rows and frames which made no sense, or the equations would work themselves out horizontally and vertically and diagonally, spinning out new and nonsensical ideas which inverted everything she had known about herself and everything which she had trusted about mathematics. Her reply echoed in her head over and over again, never quite reaching a crescendo, and became torture:
“The Doctor is almost as clever as I am.”
Then she would wake up, in her bed, emptied.
There was a postcard from Isobel that morning. She was having a splendid time in Rio: sun, caipirinha, and millionaires. Poor Jimmy Turner. But then, men in uniform weren’t particularly fashionable in this time period. There seemed to be protest after protest against wars which the older generation largely supported and the younger generation did not. Neither side, Zoe liked to think, had sufficient knowledge to decide very much at all.
Zoe had breakfast; cereal from a packet as usual, though once when Corporal – Sergeant – Benton had looked in on her he’d said he should send his sister round as it was obvious Zoe needed to learn to find her way around a frying pan. Never had she thought that she would miss her pills and her concentrates. She’d known how they were made, once, but if she tried to think about it the fog in her head rose up and the old straight paths were obscured.
For the first couple of weeks after they’d landed here, she’d lived in the TARDIS with the Doctor. This wasn’t the same as it had been before, of course; and someone must have noticed, because the Brigadier had come into the laboratory one morning and announced that he’d found her a flat. It was in a new block on an old street. She’d asked why it was architecturally so different from the houses around it, and Captain Hawkins had explained about bomb damage.
“Of course. I’d forgotten that it took so long for twentieth-century societies to replace their damaged buildings after their wars.”
Captain Hawkins had looked at her as if across a chasm; and Zoe stayed silent for the entire drive back to UNIT headquarters. She moved into the flat, though; she had taken a suitcase, gathered some things she thought of as hers from the TARDIS, and left. The Doctor had been too absorbed in some circuitry to notice. Isobel had attempted to take Zoe in hand; she’d suggested that Zoe should do a degree, but Zoe had said there would be little point as she didn’t intend to stay long. The truth was that she would get bored having to pretend to take three years over whatever it was she would study, or - worse - become frustrated if - as she feared - her photographic memory deserted her when it counted.
One thing she could do was catch a train. She liked walking to the station, alongside the men in suits and bowler hats heading to the City of London. This was the twilight of the old enterprises which had run the finances of the world, Zoe remembered. She should remember her anthropology and appreciate their antique dress practices. Instead, she felt better being one of the women with their own more subtle and complex codes. A skirt might be longer here, a blouse brighter there, hair up, hair down, hair shorter. It was the summer, and there were women of her own age in short dresses of synthetic fabric, many with big printed flowers. Older women were more conservative, but there were several mid-length coats of green and orange and bright blue.
Zoe had almost reached the arcade which led to High Street Kensington station when she encountered the most extraordinary person she had ever seen. An elderly woman was standing on the pavement facing her. She was smaller than Zoe, and incredibly squat. The steps the woman took towards Zoe suggested determined strength. Her bulk was obviously the result of the fat- and carbohydrate-rich diet of this century; it was almost shapeless under a shroud of the deepest ink black. Above a mangy fox fur around her neck projected a great square head of lined and mottled grey skin, on which was crushed a wide felt hat, from which escaped a few clumps of white hair. Most remarkable, though, were the opaque glasses which obscured any sight of her eyes.
Zoe expected the other pedestrians to react to this manifestation, but they did not. Almost everybody over thirty was deferential to seniority in this society, Zoe knew; but there was something about this figure which was beyond human age. As the old woman raised the furled and battered umbrella which she carried in her left hand towards Zoe, Zoe felt acutely that she was an outsider, foreign to this time, this city, this world. She belonged in space, on the Wheel, not here – no, she belonged with the Doctor...
It was that thought which saved her, but she lost consciousness for a second, and when she woke up she was face down on the pavement with other people’s feet about her head.
“I say! Taken a tumble?” A grey-haired man in striped grey trousers and a bowler hat was helping her to her feet.
“Yes…” she looked at her knees and then at the man’s amused concern. “Nothing broken, just... That’s odd.”
“Oddness is priced low in the market this year, my dear. Miniskirts, maxiskirts, young men with long hair, and plastic mannekins coming to life in windows. Made of plaster when I actually ran the stores, of course...”
Zoe politely declined the kind but insistent gentleman’s offer of a shared taxi, and instead bought her ticket for the Underground as planned. She looked cautiously around the platforms, but the old woman was to be seen neither in carriage nor tunnel.
Zoe took a clockwise train on the Circle, which reached UNIT headquarters about twenty-five minutes later. She’d begun by reading two or three newspapers on the way but they had been difficult to carry and she’d had one or two comments which she’d come to realise had been adverse. She stuck to one, now, and had worked out where on the train she was most likely to find a seat and most likely to be undisturbed.. She reached UNIT HQ at a quarter past nine exactly, looked in on the Doctor, and then went to the kitchen to make them both cups of tea. The electric hob was charmingly old-fashioned, with its glowing rings, and she had once said so.
“State of the art, Miss Heriot. My sister would like one of those, to stop her having to light the gas.”
“I thought most households would have these nowadays, Sergeant Benton.”
“I keep forgetting you’re not from round ’ere, miss.”
At least she had let him take her through the tea-making process. It was simple enough. Benton believed in loose leaf tea – “none of yer little paper bags, Miss Heriot” – which was as good a devotional system as any, Zoe supposed. Her upbringing had been disappointingly secular, she thought whimsically; but those responsible for her education couldn’t have anticipated her living a century before she was born. She performed the ritual with the hot water and the kettle, waited for the prescribed length of time, then carefully poured the tea through the strainer into one mug, then another. She had poured milk in beforehand, like Benton said his sister preferred.
When she had finished, solitary leaves spun on the surface of each drink.
Zoe carried the two hot mugs up the corridor and through to the laboratory, where the TARDIS sat in its corner. The Doctor was in the centre of the room, tangled up in his web of tubes and wires and phials and circuit-boards.
“Hmm. What? Oh. Thank you, Zoe.” His long face looked more deeply lined than usual. “I’d hoped to have synthesised a sufficiently chemoselective enzyme to catalyse activity in the second stratum of the dematerialization circuit by now, but there’s nothing there.”
“I’m sorry, Doctor. I should have stayed up with you.”
“That’s very kind.” He smiled down at her, kindly but condescendingly. It was a smile she was still getting used to, just like his height and the patrician remoteness in his voice, as well as the tidier, more prim, perhaps even defensive turn to his clothing. “This isn’t really your field, though.”
“I could learn. I’m sure all the techniques imparted by the teaching machines are still there. I memorized the movements of all the prices on the stock pages of the newspapers when I first started travelling in from Kensington, and then the interest rates and the factors affecting commodities such as climate and conflict, and the reactions of the markets to news, and after two or three days was able to make some quite accurate forecasts.”’ Her voice then fell a note as she said “I told the Brigadier, and he said that he’d sell me to his cousin Hector at the Stock Exchange.”
“What a remarkably venal fellow.”
“Lethbridge-Stewart. He claims to work for the greater good, but he’s remarkably propertarian.”
“Oh, Doctor. He did find me accommodation which is very comfortable for the period he lives in.” Then, deliberately: “That we live in.”
“You were always welcome to stay in the TARDIS. I certainly don’t need any of Lethbridge-Stewart’s blandishments.”
“You were certainly very glad to accept Bessie.”
The Doctor furrowed his eyebrows at her, sucking his left index finger as if looking for authentication. ”Yes, well. Got to keep the feller amused.”
“‘She keeps you amused!” Zoe’s eyes followed the Doctor round the lab as he tightened connections and examined components with his eyeglass. “I didn’t expect travelling with you, Doctor, to turn into a lesson on how to repair motor-cars on twentieth-century Earth.” Zoe stopped. That outburst had been uncalled for.
There was no reply. The Doctor started to sing to himself, softly. It might have been some atonal lullaby from his home planet; or an inattentive rendition of a popular song from eighty years before this time, in this country, on this world.
Zoe continued, a note of contrition in her voice. “So that’s why I took the flat. And the salary.”
“Jolly good.” He smiled – not the old Doctor’s smile, that sorrowful wisdom-of-the-ages look which apologized for everything yet promised mischief and wonder to come, but a patronizing smirk. “Helps you” – and he patted the TARDIS – “blend in with your surroundings.”
Whoever the Doctor was listening to, it wasn’t Zoe.
“What you need, old girl, is a working time vector generator. That’ll show them...” Without a look at Zoe, he picked up a component from a lab bench and went through the police box doors.
Always the TARDIS, thought Zoe, always freedom. She guessed that the Doctor could spend centuries teaching himself every operation, every equation, every polarity of every last neutron flow. She had one life. The Time Lords had sent her to keep the Doctor company, to help interpret this period for him, or so they said. She wondered, sometimes, in dark moments, whether she was the Doctor’s punishment; that he would have to watch her grow old and die, and as he grieved for her the Time Lords, in their mercy, would restore the knowledge and the liberty which they had withheld from him.
Don’t be so self-centred, she said to herself. He’ll have forgotten you.
“That’s self-pity, darlin’, and no mistake.” The voice was a croak, an insidious presence in her ear. Zoe took a breath, but a rush of despair had turned the air around her into a tepid, cloying gel of terror. She gagged, and then tried to cry for the Doctor; but she could not tell whether she had made any noise.
“We don’t like em who feels so sorry for emselves, round ‘ere. Time you was leavin’, my love.”
The voice was stronger. Zoe felt a presence at her back pulling her towards it. When she turned, she knew she was in part submitting to its call, though there was still enough of her wanting to see what she was up against, wanting to fight.
Blocking the doorway to the laboratory was the apparition from Kensington High Street, just as formidable and the most solid thing in the room. Zoe felt an overpowering need, as if she were a very little girl. This was grandmother, under whose opening umbrella she would hide and be protected from everything that was bad. There ought to be nothing to fear.
Then Zoe looked into the opaque lenses of the apparition’s spectacles, and realised that they weren’t opaque after all. She could see right through them; and there was nothing there but a murky grey-white which yellowed as she watched. Nausea welled up in her, but it connected with a knot of resistance and she pressed back against the laboratory workbench, despite her disorientation.
From some distance she heard “Zoe! I’ve been investigating some remarkable readings on the TARDIS console. Come and ta – good grief!”
Hands lifted her backwards, over the bench, behind it; a chair was brandished in front of her like some primitive culture’s four-pronged spear. She gasped for breath; but she could still feel the pull of the thing at the door.
”It sucks, Doctor…”
“I’m pleased to hear that you are mastering the contemporary dialect, Zoe.” She looked up, accusingly; he frowned, as if she should have appreciated his little joke. “Hm. That’s an interesting physical sensation you describe. I think that this is a creature from the time vortex. Some kind of anomaly, personified.’ The Doctor advanced, pushing Zoe behind him. The entity hissed; it had lost definition now.. The laboratory was reality again, the apparition something from the outside, trying to break in. ‘Just a moment...’ The Doctor gripped Zoe’s wrist tightly, then turned her to his right, so she was alongside him. The apparition solidified and swelled, and surged forward. The Doctor then pulled Zoe back, so suddenly that she yelled; the creature retreated and faded slightly.
“Doctor, it becomes stronger when there isn’t any obstruction between it and me.” “Yes, she does, doesn’t she?” Typical of the Doctor to gender this phenomenon, Zoe thought. Straight-backed, head up, clearly enjoying the confrontation, the Doctor propelled her back until they were both beside the TARDIS. “Now take this” – he gave Zoe the chair – “and don’t move.” He disappeared into the TARDIS, and after two of the longest seconds of Zoe’s life returned with a gold rod connected to a thin cable stretching back through the TARDIS door. He grabbed his cloak from where it was folded untidily over a lab stool, unfurled it and then draped it over the hand that held the rod, and advanced at the entity, a sorcerer raising his wand to a level above the creature’s raised umbrella
“It doesn’t like you!” Zoe felt a wave of relief and gave a little jump of triumph. “Doctor, it’s allergic!” “That’s one way of looking at it.”’ The Doctor edged round the lab bench and towards the door; the apparition moved a little in Zoe’s direction but didn’t seem to have the strength to make the effort.
“Now, let’s be polite and shake hands.” He reached out and his hand passed through the creature. He grimaced in evident pain, but collected himself and leaped forward, casting his cloak over the entity’s umbrella. There was a sound like a gust of wind and with nothing to hold it up, the cloak fell. The manifestation was gone.
Zoe ran to the Doctor, who was recovering his cloak and the gold rod from the floor.
“How’s that for parapsychology, Zoe?”
“You mean it drew its form, its energies, from my neuroses?”
“You’re not going to deny that you have them?” The question could have been abrupt, but the Doctor’s delivery was cautious and affectionate.
“No.” Her tone was reproving, though.
“Good. We all have them. Even Time Lords. Perhaps,” he paused theatrically, “even time itself.”
Zoe giggled. Despite everything that had happened, she couldn’t help herself. One became inured to unsettling experiences when travelling with the Doctor.
Or rather, not travelling.
“It does sound ridiculous, I admit. We could talk in terms of time and space as we experience it, and meta-time and meta-space, a sort of continuum of collective fears and doubts and hopes, of possibilities and never-weres. Potentially, anyway.”
"Do you read all the newspapers, Zoe?"
“Most of them. Mainly the serious ones, but I look at the others now and again to make sense of what everyone is wearing or listening to or watching. Not that I do, necessarily.”
“The Daily Express?”
“Now and then.”
“Hmm. I think you’ve picked up something!”
“Oh, thank you.”“Something iconic from popular culture, representing conservatism, isolationism, and good old curmudgeonliness. It also says a lot about this time and place. We’re rather cut off at UNIT, you know.” He’d produced the sonic screwdriver from a pocket, and began to direct vibrations at a purple rock that happened to be sitting on the bench.
“You might be. I take the Circle Line to HQ every day.”
“So you’re the most likely of us to have been exposed. And as a Time Lord, even an exiled Time Lord, I have certain immunities.”
“You haven’t said what you’re immune from. Or what that entity was. I thought that as a Time Lord…”
“The Time Lords think they know everything, Zoe, but if they did, I wouldn’t have left them. No, whatever she – it – is” – he corrected himself as Zoe grimaced, and smiled – “thought of you as an irregularity, living your life as if you were your great-great-grandmother.” He slapped his forehead. “I might have let it in. I’m going to have to reverse all the work I’ve done on the TARDIS. It could take months.”
“I first saw the entity this morning, Doctor. I’d rather it didn’t take very long.”
“Well, a few days at best. But keep your eyes open. In fact, you’d better move back into the TARDIS.” The Doctor looked across appraisingly. “Don’t look so miserable. I’m not going to lock you up.”
“It makes sense, I suppose. I’m not giving up the flat, though. Living as normally as I can is important to me, Doctor. But I’ll go along to the duty office and inform Sergeant Benton that I’ll be staying here for a while.”
“Good idea. Otherwise Lethbridge-Stewart’s spies will panic and think you’ve been kidnapped.” A door slammed and footsteps could be heard along the corridor. “You know, I think we’ve woken him up.”
And Zoe laughed.