One-shot ficcery inspired by the fact that Blink started its life as a fanfic.
Doctor: Ten. Not that it matters a lot, because you can easily put Eleven in there and not change much. (cough cough, scriptwriters…)
Wall of text under the cut:
Disclaimer: Doctor who and all recognisable characters therein are owned by the BBC, bless their little cotton socks. I make no claim on them, only to Deb Harlec and the story below.
Some stories have a soundtrack. The one currently rattling through my head is _Where Were You Last Night?_ by the Traveling Wilburys. Look both up. Much goodness.
This story is best when shared
Where Were You Last…?
My name is Deborah Harlech. Yes, just like that song the Welshmen keep singing. I prefer Deb. Two weeks ago, my three biggest worries were where I’d left my gloves this time, what my kids were getting into that they were supposed to be staying out of, and whether or not we’d run out of money before Christmas-time.
You’d think I’d learn after the last few Christmasses, but there you go. Seems to me, every Christmas is just inviting disaster. But then, every Christmas has its disasters, doesn’t it? It’s… just been outdoing itself, recently.
This Christmas was no exception.
Disasters like to come in threes.
I could start at the beginning, when they were still building the shop, but those weeks were - for me - full of the sort of chaff you’d never want to read about. What Charly said about Aunt Doreen at Sherri’s wedding, that sort of thing. Lots of running around and the everyday mess that comes with one kid in school plus a toddler.
I barely listened to the reports about missing people. People go missing every day. Even in Cardiff. A serial killer was suspected by the panic merchants, but no remains were ever found.
They just vanished.
It was completely random. Young, old; day, night… any place you could think of and more than a few that were unlikely. How many football fans go missing in the middle of a crowded arena? How likely is it that all the security tapes involved get glitches?
Of course, there were conspiracy nuts. The whole thing was a cover-up or some such nonsense. Fingers pointed directly at Torchwood, of course. Everyone’s favourite bogeyman for conspiracy theories everywhere.
It’s like Cardiff’s very own Area 51. The worst kept secret in the world.
But then, nobody really knows what Torchwood actually *does*. They barge in, handle things, and return from whatever dark corner they came from in the first place. Mysterious.
But Torchwood had nothing to do with this. They didn’t know.
I don’t think anybody *knew*. Nobody could have put it together. Well, except for *him*… but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Two weeks ago, the plywood walls came down and the shop was revealled. There was something funny about the marquee. I knew it said _Made for You_, but I kept wanting to read it as something else.
That damn wobbly R. It looked like it didn’t belong. Like it wanted to leap off the marquee and run away.
Maybe I should have stayed away. Maybe if I had… Danny wouldn’t keep having the nightmares, now. The Doctor said they’d fade, but…
He keeps waking up crying.
That *fucking* shop.
And those creepy, eerie, dreadful mannequins.
I hated them on sight. They made me feel ill. At the time, I blamed the bad fish in the food court, but now I know better. One thing at a time.
Everyone thought they were amazing. They *were* amazing. Young ones, old ones. Fat, thin… as close to real as you could get with moulded plastic. A sort of Madame Toussaud’s, if you will. All posed as if they were in casual snapshots.
Real clothes for real people, the posters blared. We really care, they said. Finally, one trumpeted, an enjoyable shopping experience.
Employees more plastic than the dummies handed out maps of the planned interior. Now there were people deep in the Uncanny Valley. Brr. I still get chills thinking about them.
Pardon? Oh, the Uncanny Valley. Right. I keep forgetting I’m a geek. The Uncanny Valley is a graph of sorts. It maps out a human’s willingness to accept a simulation of another human. The peculiar thing about it is, the closer you get to human-real, the further down that acceptability dips. It’s why they don’t use humans a lot in CGI movies. It either has to be acceptably stylised or photo-real. Anything strange about it instantly turns a person off.
These people… looked like shiny plastic dolls. Everything about them was too perfect. Too pristine. Too… *neat*. My God, even Paris Hilton gets some hair out of place, no matter how often she uses that one damn expression. But these things. Ugh. They squicked me the heck out.
I hustled the kids away from them. Tried not to think about it. Tried to remember which pocket I’d put my damn gloves in.
Anything to distract myself.
I suppose the first I really knew something was wrong was about five days after the grand opening, when Sophie vanished. She’s been my next door neighbour forever. She’s brash and rude and slightly crass, but she makes you laugh until you can’t *breathe* any more. She also has a genuine gland problem that makes her as wide around as she is high.
The kids love her, of course. They pick up all the worst words from her.
We were there on our day off - when all the kids were under the care of professionals elsewhere - to give the people in that shop a good, solid challenge. Both of us are odd-bodies, never looking good in anything off the rack. The likelyhood of one shop having something for both of us was remote in the extreme.
Plus there was ten quid in it for each of us.
Ten pounds, the posters shouted, to anyone who could not find a good fit in their establishment.
They were *on*.
I avoided looking at the headache-inducing marquee, and the nauseous mannequins, telling myself that I was just going to scope out the cafe/book nook and the Kiddie Kare Korner™. If I focussed on the merchandise, I could deal with the decor.
I’d almost forgotten about the fucking staff.
“Can I help you lovely ladies?”
Sophie burst out laughing. “Yeah,” she snarked. “I’m looking for something in a summer frock? Maybe some negligees… Oh! And a swimsuit that doesn’t make me look like a fucking whale would be good.”
I stifled a shriek behind one hand. “*Soph*…”
“I plan on *earning* my tenner,” she said.
“You’re *horrible*…” I squeaked.
“And yet, we still have these chocolate-and-tea days every single week,” she said. “Amazing, isn’t it?”
I play-swatted her. “Oh shut up…”
The plastic pam grinning at us didn’t appear to notice. “All those items can be found in our Big and Beautiful section in the left-rear quadrant of the store.” The smile had never shifted an inch.
I edged around them as we went on our way. “Euw,” I said, once sure we were out of earshot. “How could you *talk* to that?”
“What?” said Sophie.
“Those… people staffing this place,” I said. “They’re like plastic robots or something. They creep me the hell out.”
Sophie looked over her shoulder at one. “The company running the place probably makes them wax,” she said. “And smile. I kinda feel sorry for the poor bastards.”
“They look like they’ve never had a pimple in their lives.”
“That did it. Now I can be a complete buttplug to them.”
“Thank you *so* much,” Sophie sang. Then her face dropped. “Holy *crap*…”
I had to agree. It was the biggest Fat Racks section I’d seen in my life. There was even a display - though I only looked at it long enough to confirm that it *was* a display. Those dummies, fantastic though they were, still made me feel ill. There were even subsections; formalwear, beachwear, lingerie… everything.
So, of course we did what every group of girls does when they find pretty stuff to try on. We tried on everything that looked like it might fit. Even the stuff that we knew would never suit us in a million years.
I’d never laughed so much, nor so hard.
After we narrowed it down to a couple of select items, we took a break at the in-house cafe. Sophie found a booth and said, “Be a darl and snag me a cheesecake. I’ll mind our shit.”
“Deal,” I said.
I never should have lingered at the new releases book display. I never should have dithered over cheesecakes. I should have questioned the sound of a camera when I couldn’t see anyone with one.
But I didn’t.
When I came back, Sophie wasn’t there any more. Maybe she’d gone to the loo. But abandoning my new clothes? It wasn’t like her to leave things where anyone could pick them up.
I put the cheesecakes and hot chocolates down and looked around. No sign of Sophie anywhere. And she’s the first person to tell you that she’s a hard girl to hide.
I sat and waited, picking at my cheesecake and sipping at my hot chocolate. When both of those were gone, I began to get really worried. Nobody in the cafe had seen her, so I bit the bullet and asked one of the creepily plastic staffmembers.
“Have you seen my friend?” I asked. “So high, dark hair, red tracksuit… um… rather… er… large…” I blushed. Sophie usually described herself as ‘wide as a barge’, but I’d been taught to be politically correct. “We made a bit of a scene in the fat racks, a while back,” I supplied, as if that would help. “Three different security people told us to keep the noise down.”
The plastic smile never twitched. “I’m sorry, I haven’t seen anyone by that description. Please allow me to check with security.”
“Sure,” I said. As long as you go away and stop being creepy near my air. “Hating this place,” I murmured. “Hating it to hell…”
Plastic Paul reappeared with a security goon, equally as plastic. “Is there a problem ma'am?”
“Yeah, my friend Sophie has disappeared,” I rattled through her description again, adding, “you might remember us from the fat rack fiasco.”
His serious and dour expression didn’t even twitch. “Are you certain you came here with this individual?”
“*Ye-es*… It’s not like we can find anything that fits anywhere else,” I said. “Besides, we were in your 'Big and Beautiful’ section for two and a half hours. We made complete fools of ourselves? Three noise complaints? I bought her a *cheesecake*!”
“We’ve had no such incidents recently.”
“Of course not. I’ve been cooling my heels for a while waiting for her to turn up.”
“We’ve had no such incidents all day.”
“What? That’s impossible…”
Plastic Paul handed me a hot beverage. “Have a complimentary herbal tea. Lots of people get confused over what they did and where,” he said. “Why don’t you sit and we’ll see if your friend stepped out.”
Unlikely. I was Sophie’s ride home. Still. Free tea was free tea. I sat back down and stared at her cheesecake and hot chocolate, both of them were growing tepid. I tried her mobile.
That number was not currently in service.
“What the fuck?” I murmured, and sipped the tea. It was cloying and sweet. Like drinking sugar that had steeped in perfume.
The next thing I know, I was in my parking space, in front of our house. My mobile was ringing. “Hello?”
“Mrs Harlech,” said a nice sounding woman. “We were wondering how long you were planning on leaving Sarah in our facility.”
“What?” I looked at the time. Shit! And David was still at school, too. “Holy *shit*! I’m sorry, I’ll be right there!” I cursed the air blue and sped to daycare and the school and apologised non-stop all the way back home. I even bought them take-out and let them watch cartoons all night, just to try and make it up to them.
I didn’t even think of Sophie.
It was like the intervening hours were lost to me. If I thought about it at all, it was like looking into fog. The general shape of things was there, but… the details were lost.
I’d been… looking for something important. But I couldn’t remember what it was. Must’ve gone shopping, because I had a small ton of new gear. Other than that, it was vague.
I woke up crying, that night. I couldn’t remember why.
The next handful of days are weird to recall, now. Mostly because the spell’s been broken. The Ettrati are defeated. You have to understand that they’d done their little voodoo trick on me once, already. They assumed they could get away with it again.
Two days later, I watched the news report on her vanishing, and couldn’t remember ever seeing her. I said a prayer for her as if she was a stranger, and thought no more of it.
People were vanishing all over the place. Sophie was just one more statistic.
The man in the pinstripe suit, calling at the door, however, was weird. There was something uncanny about him, too, but it was a more… *natural* uncanny.
“Hi,” he said, flipping open a black wallet, too briefly for me to tell which organisation he worked for, exactly. “I’m investigating a spate of disappearances. Would you know anything about the people who live next door?”
“There’s no-one next door,” I said.
“Well, that’s odd,” said Pinstripe Man. “I peeked through the windows and the whole place is set up as if someone’s been living there for years…”
I looked next door. Saw the garden gnome mooning the general neighbourhood. Saw the letters beginning to cram the letterbox. “That *is* odd,” I said. “I can’t remember anyone ever living there. Do you think they’re all right?”
“I think they vanished,” said the man on my doorstep. “And the thing I find really odd is, only her husband’s been asking about her. Of course, he’s been left looking after the kids, so I can understand he’s a bit hassled to find out what’s happened.”
Her husband, commonly known as 'the sack of useless’ had been tossed out of her house some years prior. But I couldn’t remember that at the time, so I blurted, “She had kids?”
“Yes. Three of them. Three kids without a mum.” He lunged past and snatched up a photo frame. “And a friend who doesn’t remember her.”
I looked at it. I saw me and the kids. I saw Baz. I saw three kids I couldn’t recall at the moment and…
“Keep looking at it,” he said. “Keep looking. She’s right there. You *know* it. You *know* her. *Look*. Really, *really* look…”
Something about the urgency in his voice made me try my hardest. Looking back, it was stupid. There Sophie was in plain sight. Dayglow muumuu and ludicrous party hat and everything.
It was a photo of her fucking birthday party. And I couldn’t *see* her.
I tried until the tears came.
“…i can’t…” I whispered.
He looked at me with such *pity*. Like I was the most pathetic thing he’d ever seen and I was completely unaware of how pathetic that really was. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m doing everything to help. Just… if there’s a next time - don’t take the tea.”
“Don’t take the free tea. It’s very important. You’ve only had one dose. Maybe it’ll wear off. I’ll be checking.”
“Okay,” I said, the photo in my hand forgotten. “I wish I could be more help.”
A chipper smile that made all the previous bad moods vanish like mist. “You never know, that might just happen. Sorry to take up your time. Must move along. Bye-bye!” And he was running down the street like a mad thing.
“Who was that?” said Baz.
“Someone investigating the vanishings,” I said, putting the framed photo back where it belonged. “Weird bloke.”
“Not planning on running off with him?”
“That skinny guy? Please. The most I want to do is feed him a sandwich. He could use a couple, at least.”
The conversation devolved, as all conversations do, until the radio played _Where Were You Last Night?_ by the Traveling Wilburys. It was one of my favourites, so I sang along.
I got up to “Where were you last week?” before I collapsed into hysterical tears.
I was on the floor, bawling my eyes out, scaring the kids, frightening half a year’s growth out of Baz and I couldn’t stop. At the time, I didn’t know why. Now that it’s over, now that they’re gone, I remember.
I was crying for Sophie. She’d been gone for the better part of a week. I didn’t remember her, but I cried, anyway.
I couldn’t avoid the shop. I went past it every day, on those hundreds of little errands Mums end up doing. I did do my damndest to avoid going in, though.
I could feel evil pouring out of it like smoke. I could swear those mannequins were moving, whenever I saw them out of the corner of my eye.
And there, lurking in some corner, watching the place like a terrier watches a mousehole, was the pinstripe man.
He was going to pounce, I could feel it. The only question was when.
I must have scared the life out of him when I gave him that bag of sandwiches.
“What?” he said, after nearly jumping out of his skin.
“You could use a feed,” I said.
Sarah was crying and Danny was pestering me to go on the kiddie gym inside that bloody shop. I had a trolley full of Christmas shopping and the sorest feet in Cardiff, but the look on his face was worth a million dollars.
“Sandwiches,” I supplied. “I made them to last, so they’re a bit Bristol Train Station, I’m afraid.”
Sarah, for her part, just howled.
“You can see me,” he said.
Um. Okay… so he was part raving nutter. “Isn’t that self-evident?” I said.
“MuuuUUUUUuuuummmmmmm… I’ve been good all daaaaaayyyyyy…”
I groaned. “Hate going in there. Hate it.”
“Jus’ out of int'rest,” he said around half a sandwich. “Why? You shouldn’t remember anything.”
“Whole *place* turns me off,” I said. “Headaches from the marquee, nausea from the dummies… chills from the staff. It’s… all wrong… and nobody else notices.”
“Mum, come *OOOOONNNNNN*…”
“Urgh. Must go. Patience never even lit near some people.”
He laughed at that. Few do. “I remember my own. Go on.”
I barely heard him whisper, “Be safe,” over the latest rendition of _The Little Drummer Boy_. Besides, I was too busy steeling my nerves and girding my innards so I could stand being in that shop.
That fucking shop.
If only I’d got sick of Dave’s whining. If only I’d just gone home.
But I didn’t.
It was the only place in the entire complex where you could take your kids and let them run around. The only place where a parent could sit and actually relax for five consecutive minutes. And going there to appease the kids was a damn sight better than listening to wailing and moaning all the way home.
But then, he’d have had to find someone else to be his stalking-horse. Someone else to be bait for his bait-and-switch. I might never have known what was going on.
Or it all may have happened anyway. That’s the thing with might-have-beens. They’re infinite.
I went straight to the gym, where the perpetually smiling staff were eager to show me that they had an area set aside for the littler ones as well. Even the usually stoic security guards gave me plastic, duchennes smiles.
They were practically salivating.
It made me take a step back, hug Sarah all the tighter… but she wanted down and she had been trapped in a shopping trolley for the majority of the day. I felt like I wanted to throw up, even as I put her into the padded arena.
They both ran squealing into the plastic mazes. Happier than pigs in mud.
“Why don’t you have a complimentary herbal tea in our cafe?” said a plastic smile, pushing me gently in that direction.
I kept a hawk eye on the kids, and didn’t touch their fucking tea. There was always one of them watching me, and little by little, the plastic smiles began to fade.
I swear I only looked away from them for a second. Just to see what the sharp thing was that poked me in the leg. I heard the camera go when my head was under the table, and when I looked back, I couldn’t see the kids. At all.
It didn’t take much theatre for me to knock over the tea. Frankly, I was looking for an excuse to dump the bloody stuff. It stank like cheap, floral perfume. I did two circuits of the play-gym, and couldn’t catch a glimpse of them. Either of them.
“Can I help you, ma'am?” said a plastic smile.
“I can’t see my kids. I looked away for a second, and… they’re not anywhere.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t remember you dropping any children off in the playgym.”
Liar. “You spent twenty minutes explaining to me how safe it was,” I argued.
“You must be thinking of my sister,” said the plastic smile. “She just clocked off. Why don’t you have a complimentary herbal tea and I’ll go ask her.”
Fuck. That fucking tea. I couldn’t stand the stench. I acted at sipping at it… and poured as much as I could get away with into the fake potplants. I had to think quick.
There were other people having complimentary herbal teas. They looked… half-asleep. Almost turned off…
I did my best as the plastic people sent others off in their fog with ludicrous orders.
Seriously. They told a woman in the next booth to forget about her baby. A two-month-old *baby*. And I swear, she almost did. She was almost out of the store, but she came back. Even in the fog, she knew something was wrong.
They took her into the back rooms. I didn’t see her come out again.
I tipped out the rest of my tea when their backs were turned, and did my best imitation of a hypnotized person to date. It must have worked.
“Who are you looking for?” said security guard.
“My kids,” I said in a completely calm voice. “Daniel and Sarah… I put them in to play and I can’t see them any more.”
“But you didn’t put them in to play,” said the guard. “They’re at home, waiting for you.”
Obviously, they’d learned from the mother of the baby.
“Yes,” I said. “I remember, now. They’re at home.”
“Nothing is wrong.”
“Nothing is wrong.”
“And when you get home, you won’t remember. No Daniel. No Sara. It’s just you.”
Fucking bastards. “Just me.”
“Time to go home.”
I stood, gathering my shopping, and headed out. I retained my composure until I was almost out of the door.
Then I saw them.
Danny and Sarah. Perched on top of the kids’ clothes section. Completely lifelike, still in the clothes I put them in that morning.
Details had changed, of course. The clothes they had on were now miraculously stain-free. Sarah’s fine, flyaway hair was now perfectly arranged for maximum cuteness. Danny’s hands were free of their eternal band-aids.
I screamed like a mad thing. I cried and howled and raged, all in one breath.
I swear I didn’t know my lungs had that much capacity.
Hell, I damn near fainted. There wasn’t enough air to let that much feeling out in one go.
People - real people - gathered around in an instant, preventing security from reaching me.
I couldn’t hear what they were saying. All I could think of was my kids. Except one voice. Pinstripe man’s.
“Excuse me, I can help. I’m a doctor. Clear the way, let’s give her some air.”
Those skinny arms of his are amazingly strong. He held me up like I was a child.
“Breathe in, now. Shhh… It’s okay.”
“…okay…?” I managed. “They’ve *got* them!”
“Not so loud,” he whispered. “They’re watching. Now. You’ve had a panic attack and you need some air. We’re going to go to the seat *outside* the shop, where they can’t get to you. And we certainly don’t want them to get to you, do we?”
I glared at him. “You *are* a doctor,” I judged. “It’s that bloody annoying bedside manner.”
“Sorry about that. We have to get out of here. Ready?”
“They have my *kids*,” I whispered.
“Nothing bad’s going to happen to them, I promise. I *will* help you get them back.”
That had me. I knew he was sincere. He knew I’d stop at nothing to get my kids safe… or possibly to destroy the bastards that did this to them.
He escorted me out, picked a bench facing away from that fucking shop, and sat me down.
“Here,” he offered me a paper bag. “These’ll help.”
“Sugar boost. Helps kick the brain into gear. And some those colouring agents definitely do something to the old thought processes.”
I took a green one. God, they were just like the ones I hadn’t had since I was a kid. All artificial colours and flavourings. “I thought those ones had been banned,” I said.
“Nearly,” he said. “I know a bloke who knows a bloke.” He put them away. “I’m the Doctor, by the way.”
“So you said. Deb Harlech. Yes. Just like the song.”
“Wasn’t going to say that,” he said. “I *was* going to ask if you remembered me. Still want to help?”
“If it involves stopping those bastards, then yes.”
I hadn’t even thought about it. I wanted nothing more than to see one of those insipid plastic smiles fade to lax nothingness as I strangled the life out of them.
“Good,” he said. “I need to know everything you suspect about that shop. Everything that makes you feel creepy. It’s going to help me narrow down who they are.”
“The marquee was the first thing. The R just doesn’t belong. Keeps giving me headaches. It’s spelled wrong. I *know* it’s spelled wrong, but every time I look at it…”
“Try looking at it out of the corner of your eye,” he suggested. “You’ve almost beaten their chameleon field. See what it says when you don’t look directly at it.”
That was harder than it sounded. I was one of those people who could never make the Magic Eye thing work. Every time I got near to getting a picture, I’d instantly try to focus on it, and it would be gone. I must’ve spent twenty minutes looking at that damn headache-inducing marquee without really looking at it.
And then, by some miracle, something snapped into place.
“There’s no R at all,” I said. “It’s spelled wrong because it says 'Made *of* You’. Omigod, the whole place is Soylent Green.”
He boggled at me. “What?”
“Geek reference, never mind.” I’m still used to that happening. “Punchline is, it’s made out of people. They use people to make it. As in, an ingredient.”
“Oooohhh… right. I think I remember something about that. And 'To Serve Man’ is a cookbook.”
He just earned geek points in my book. I must’ve smirked, since he instantly lost his vague demeanor and came over a little bit ferocious.
“Focus, Deb. They’ve got your kids. What else is wrong with that place?”
“Omigod, don’t get me started about their serving staff,” I said. “Those plastic smiles. Those plastic bodies. It’s like they’re not really alive. And the shop dummies just make me sick. I can hardly look at them. *Those* are the real people… and the things staffing the store are… empty.”
“Interesting. Simulacrums running the front–”
“Bait,” I said.
“But the people… all those missing people… They like hiding things in plain sight and– did you say 'bait’?”
“You’re the ADD poster child, aren’t you?” I drawled. “Yes, I said 'bait’. Just look at them. Look at the sales, look at the push. They’re *desperate* to get people in there.” I turned, saw a brand-new toy sale sign going up. “They’re desperate to get *kids* in there. They don’t want the adults… they’ll take them, but they don’t want them. They want the children.”
“How did you figure that out?” he said, amazed.
“You didn’t see them salivating over my kids. They were practically foaming to have them. Hungry. Like a starving man suddenly handed gourmet food.”
“Oh,” said the Doctor, his eyes growing wide. “*Oh*,” said again as if discovering something patently obvious. “*OH*,” he cried, as if kicking himself for being so stupid. “Oh *yes*. Of *course* the Ettrati! The chameleon field, the hunting… I bet you hear something innocent every time someone nearby vanishes.”
“Uhm. A camera going off… but there’s never any photographer.”
“Correction. You don’t *see* the photographer. That one’s heavily camouflaged. *Really* heavily camouflaged. Even I have a hard time spotting him… and I’m usually too late. Sorry.”
“Why? They’re the ones doing it.”
“Yes, but I’m the one trying to stop them. Haven’t been doing such a good job of that.”
“So what do you need?” I said.
“I need a way in.”
“That chameleon field thing,” I said. “Do you have one?”
“Something a lot like it,” he said. He got out a key on a string and hung it around his neck. “See?”
My gaze kept wanting to slide off him. At least he didn’t give me a headache. I got up and started towards the store.
“Wait! Where are you going?”
“You want in?” I said. “I’m going to make a Scene.”
I could see through it as I stormed in. Real people, trapped in plastic poses while the hollow shells handed out placations and herbal tea. Tea that didn’t look right, any more. It still smelled cloying, but now it looked viscous and disgusting.
I kept my anger up, storming up to the plastic pals behind the information desk.
“Can I help you?”
I’d only read about it, dreamed about it, but for the first time in my life I actually did it. Of course, it helped that they weren’t really real… Anyway. I reached out and grabbed the things collar, pulled, and twisted.
“WHERE THE HELL ARE MY *KIDS*?”
A real person would have been thumbing the security button and begging for air.
“Please remain calm, madam,” said the thing behind the counter. “We will be paging security to assist you shortly.”
“DON’T YOU DARE TELL ME TO REMAIN CALM! SOMEONE’S STOLEN MY CHILDREN AND YOU LET THEM GET AWAY WITH IT!” And let me tell you, someone who’s raised kids can really know how to bellow. I’m sure everyone in the store heard me. “YOU AND YOU STUPID TEA AND WEAK PLATTITUDES! THEY COULD BE DEAD UNDER A BUS AND YOU DON’T *CARE*!”
The Doctor was biting his fist in terror. His face was a book with large printing and it said, “This isn’t what I meant, honest!”
“This store is the safest in the entire complex,” chirped the empty thing.
It was working. Thank God it was working. Even those wandering around in a bovine fog were listening. Those with kids were hustling them out of there.
“Yeah, you go on and *on* about your safety features, but not a word about the *staff*,” I hollered. “For all *we* know they’re all screaming paedophiles!”
Magic hot-button word. Mothers picked up their kids and ran for the door. Outraged grandmothers left their shopping in situ. Even hulking biker behemoths began stalking towards the door.
And, like magic, security was whisking me away.
I winked at the Doctor. He hurried to follow, dodging everyone on the way.
“YOU CAN’T PAY ME OFF OR FRIGHTEN ME,” I gave it my best parade-ground bull. “I KNOW YOU DID SOMETHING WITH MY KIDS, NOW ADMIT THE TRUTH, YOU BASTARDS!”
They practically carried me to a concrete room with a mirror in it. At first glance, it looked empty, but I was getting used to not glancing, any more.
“You *are*,” said the Doctor. “You are officially *insane*. Do you have any idea where we are?”
“Behind the staff-only door,” I said. “They took the last grieving mother somewhere like this. She never came back.” I cracked my knuckles. “Now, do you have a trick up your sleeve, or am I going to have to smash that bloody mirror with this chair?”
He rolled his eyes. “Please.” Something in his hands lit up and hummed, and the mirror was in a million pieces. “I’ve got more tricks than I’ve had sleeves.”
But I wasn’t listening.
I could *see* the photographer.
And the next thing I knew I was legging it down some really industrial corridors after the black shape with the camera. I wanted to taste his blood in my mouth. I wanted to rip, tear, shred, bend, warp and mutillate them for what they’d done.
I was only dimly aware that the Doctor was following me. I could hear his every word, but it just didn’t register as important.
“Hold on! Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold *on*,” he shouted as he ran. “Blimey, I should learn by now. *Never* get involved with the mothers…”
There’s something uniquely primal in the chase. There’s definitely something primal in every mother who’s ever had their kid hurt or threatened. I don’t know where the energy came from, but I was gaining after that thing, howling like a banshee the entire time.
I almost had it within reach… and it vanished into a wall. Faded into the shadows like it was never there.
That must’ve been how I broke those fingers. Pounding at the metal pipes and concrete wall. Never felt it until later.
And then he was holding me back, calming me down. There was a whisper of a song older than time, and I was back to myself. Panting like the bellows and glaring unadulterated boiling hate at the wall that had foiled me.
“It’s not real. Not in the sense that you’re used to,” panted the Doctor.
“I saw him. I heard him. I *scared* him.”
“Yes. You did. He couldn’t reach you, where you were. You weren’t thinking, any more.”
“How can I catch it and make it *bleed*?” I snarled. My fists hadn’t unclenched. Not once.
“It’s Ettrati. You can’t catch it. Not physically. It’ll just transpose dimensions, again.”
“They’re multi-dimensional beings,” he said. “They’re not limited by mass, or space, or time. That’s why they can do what they’re doing.”
“Is there anything that can stop them?”
“As a matter of fact, yes,” said the Doctor as he helped me up. “Me.”
“Show me where and how,” I said, “I want to put the boot in.”
What I got was a stroll and a lecture. “Most threats to the Earth can pass for human. Humanoid is a very useful shape. And when they can’t pass themselves off, they usually obtain human agents to work for them. The Ettrati can’t do that. Their very nature forbids it. Not that they haven’t *tried*… that’s why there’s so many legends about shadow-creatures across the universe. They *can* look humanoid, if they want to, but they’re still completely… black. Top to toe, as it were. *You* wouldn’t trust anything like that, would you?”
“Hell no,” I said.
“So they use technology, of course. Within minutes of declaring war, they can have the first enemy simulacrum in the field.”
“They’re at war with us?”
“Shouldn’t think so. They *must* be at war with *somebody*… when they’re at peace, the Ettrati are careful to only use non-cogniscent species.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” I said. “*How* are they using us?”
“That’s where it gets complicated. The people they’ve taken are quantum-locked. They’ve been made into.. well… complete facts. Shifted aside from Time, of course. Don’t worry, nothing can happen to them, because there’s no time for them so it can happen *in*.”
Then I got to the meat of it. “And are they stuck like that, forever?”
“Unless we intervene… very likely.”
“Right,” I growled, determined to intervene as soon as I knew where and when.
“Of course the complicated part happens when they have a quantum-locked… subject. They use all kinds of energy from them. The future-potential, that’s the easiest to bleed off. Then there’s the emotional potential. When they do use cogniscent beings, they always leave one of a group. The most sensitive… even if they don’t consciously remember, there’s a great deal of subconscious emotion, just ripe for the picking. Sorry.”
“They’ve picked me for the picking, haven’t they.” It was more a statement than a question. I *knew* I was being picked.
He scrubbed at his hair. “…yes. I’m so sorry.”
“Enough 'sorries’,” I said. “Can we *do* something about this?”
“Yes, but I still need to figure some things out.”
“Like where they’ve hidden the chief hypnotic unit. Something big, shiny… looks a bit like a barrista’s nightmare… or their fondest dream, come to think of it.”
I smacked myself on the head and swore. “The *TEA*!”
“That stupid *cafe*!”
“We walked right *past* the damn thing and neither of us *saw* it!”
“That big coffee machine in that damned cafe,” I said. “They never use it for making coffee. Only the tea comes out of it.”
“Of *course*… bio-hypnotic effluvium *waste*. It’s a rat-cat farm gone *insane*. The cats eat the rats and the rats eat the cats… Quick. How big is the coffee machine that never makes coffee?”
I sketched it out with my hands. “It sits on a counter at about waist height, stands about so high, and yae wide… Don’t ask me about depth.”
He let out a big, relieved sigh. “Lucky. That’s only an access port. The rest of it must be hidden inside *here*. And before we come across any… staff… You’d better wear this.”
It was another key on a string. There was a computer chip welded to it, but beyond that, I couldn’t tell what was special about it. I took it anyway. Nobody but me had even looked at him when he wore it.
“Fine,” I said, “But I don’t half feel three colours of barmy.”
“Just think of us as the wasps in the bee hive,” he said. “Perfectly camouflaged since we got past the guard. Just don’t do anything to attract their notice.”
“I’ll pretend I’m trying to return merchandise,” I said dryly.
He actually laughed at that. “No.”
I grinned and followed him back to the way we came in. There was the door to the shop, which we ignored, and another, very locked door with all sorts of warnings not to go in.
“This is the place,” grinned the Doctor. Again, that little blue buzzy thing made a complete joke out of their security measures, and we were inside.
It was unbelievable. Indescribable. About all I could make sense of were a bunch of tubes and lights, but beyond that…
“How do we kill it?” I asked.
“Carefully,” he said. “Do it wrong and all those frozen people - every last one, dies horribly.”
That stopped my bloodlust on the spot. I actually felt my hands aching as they relaxed from the fists I’d balled who knows how long ago. “Fine. I got you here. Do the voodoo you do. Or whatever.” I picked up something heavy and moved to the only entrance. “I’ll whack anyone who comes in.”
“…never get involved with mothers,” he muttered, opening panels and tweaking settings.
I stared at the door like I wanted to kill it. And that wasn’t far from the truth. They’d taken my kids. They were planning to take Baz. They’d taken one friend - as far as I knew - and could possibly take more. They were going to take everyone I loved and leave me alone and in a perpetual fog.
I would invent entirely new tortures for them. I would make the rest of their misery my personal hobby.
I nearly jumped out of my pants when the Doctor tapped me on the shoulder. Hell, I think I pulled something, stopping the instinctual attack short of braining him.
“Right. Bad move. I get it. Sorry,” he said. “Should’ve cleared my throat or something. Have you seen any flour?”
“Flour. Wheat grains crushed up really small. Make cakes out of it. Seen any?”
I boggled at him. “What the living hell would aliens want with *flour*?” I said.
“Well… they did have cakes for sale. Since they want to minimise their contact with the earth, it makes sense they’d make their own. Just wondering if you’d seen any.”
“You’re insane,” I said. “At which point would I have had time to find *cooking* supplies? It’s not like I could just walk down the hall here,” I demonstrated my words, “open up the nearest cupboard and–”
“Flour!” The Doctor grinned. “Brilliant. Grab the biggest sack you can find, please.”
“I take it back,” I said, finding a hefty sack of flour. “The universe is insane. I just happen to be the only person who knows it.”
“And this and this one and– *oooohh*… bananas!” He loaded his pockets.
“The world’s in danger from shadow-people who turn real people into dummies by *photographing* them… and our only hope is the ADD poster child who seriously needs a sandwich…” I murmured.
“Yes? And?” said the Doctor.
“Nothing. Just trying to keep track of how loony this all is.”
I followed him back to a specific point on the machine. One that had been partially disassembled.
“Ancient family recipe, really,” babbled the Doctor. “We need flour, honey, salt, a few nuts and bolts, paperclips, and half the Sunday Times.”
I was staring past him. There was another door, and this one was glass. Beyond it, there were people. Racks and racks of people, and room for plenty more. Sorted by size.
“No bananas?” I said absently.
“Nah… they’re for me. Useful fruit, bananas. Can make them into almost anything. Fritters, drinks, bread, cakes - I like cakes, especially with those little edible ball bearing things, and you’re not listening any more, are you?”
“They’ve got *racks* of *people*…”
He turned, looking with me. “Oh. Yes. Well. Shouldn’t be a problem. Once we’ve destroyed the central control unit, they should all snap back to where they were - and when they were - when they were taken. Part of the way it works, really. Half the energy they get is the potential of the wave collapse. *Which* I plan to get underway. Soon as you’re ready?”
There was one baby up there. Frozen in time. I felt sick just looking at what they’d done. I felt worse taking it down, touching it. But it had to be done.
I found her mother. She was closer to ground level. It took a lot of effort to put her child back in her arms. It *had* to be done.
If I could achieve nothing else, I at least re-united those two.
“You didn’t have to do that,” said the Doctor.
“Yes. I did,” I said, brooking no further argument. “Let’s get on with it.”
“Easiest recipe in the world. Take one bag of opened flour, one bottle of honey, assorted nuts and bolts, paperclips, shredded newspaper and whatnot… pour wholesale into the central processor…”
I laughed like a maniac as the whole lot went in. It took too long with the honey, evidently, because the Doctor threw the bottle in as well.
“Allow to simmer for…” he looked at his watch. “Thirty seconds and then run like the blue blazes.” And then he took off like a mad thing.
I wasn’t long behind. “Are you always this crazy, or is this a special occasion?”
Part of the machinery went 'grunch’, like a clutch dying halfway up a steep hill.
I’m still amazed nobody looked at us. Nobody even saw us. Running like the very devil was after us.
“What about everyone else?”
“They’re not outside causality!”
I had just enough time to shriek, “What?” before the unexplosion happened.
There’s no other way to describe it. I saw a virulently-coloured bubble of energy overtake us. I felt it push us a little as it passed. I heard a sound that swallowed all noise. It made me feel like I was deaf, and I remember thinking that must be what Old Tom sounded like.
And I was sitting on a bench with my kids. And Sophie. It was all real and not-real at the same time.
The shop was never there.
But he was. I waved.
“Ooo! Who’s your friend?” said Sophie. “I’ll take *him* home…”
“*So-oph*…” I punched her. Playfully, of course. “So it’s over, then?”
“Almost. Still have to track down the Ettrati. Shouldn’t be too much trouble. They’ll be locked in dimensions for a while, after that lot.”
“Ettrati?” said Sophie. “Dimensions? Deb, what the flying hell?”
Oh shit. Sophie never had a clue what was going on. I thought fast. “He LARPs.”
“Larps?” Echoed the Doctor.
“Occham’s Razor. Trust me.”
“Oh yes,” he invented. “Larping. That’s me. Here a larp. There a larp…”
“Better go find the Ettrati, then,” I said, making desperate and covert motions for him to quit saying that *right* now. “Before any of them wreak havok with the continuum. Any danger signs we should watch out for?”
He seemed to think about this. “Poultergeist phenomena, I suppose. Shadows moving by themselves. Noises that don’t belong… that sort of thing.”
“Great,” said Sophie. “We’re to watch out for ghoulies and ghosties.”
“No long-leggittie beasties, though,” I said, “that *has* to be a plus.”
The Doctor faded away from notice, murmuring about having to look up a few things.
“Deb… *why* do you always hang around the weird ones?”
“They’re *interesting*. At least you don’t have to hear them honking on about their sports career - real *or* virtual.”
“No, but you *do* have to know conversational Klingon.”
That was pretty much it. Danny had nightmares, after that. Every single night. He keeps dreaming that shadow-monsters put him away in a box. Sarah bounced back after two days. Three cheers for the memory capacity of toddlers, I guess.
Wait. I tell a lie. We did see him once more. Just the other day. Danny had woken up with yet another nightmare, and moved in with Baz and I, claiming a shadow man was hiding in his closet.
The key words 'shadow man’ kept me awake. Well, 'shadow man’ and the way Danny kept kicking my kidneys. So I got up to scope things out.
There *was* a shadow, moving in his room. I picked up the old whup-arse umbrella Nanna used to use against the unwelcome and got ready to pounce.
I nearly shat myself when I saw who it was.
“Doctor?” I whispered. “What the hell are you doing in my *house*?”
“Tracking the last of the Ettrati,” he whispered. “Don’t suppose you have an attic or something? 'Cause the elevation’s a bit wrong…”
I showed him the way up, and followed close.
“Ha! It *is* up here. Ow.”
“Mind your head.”
“Yes. Very helpful.” He looked around as I wiggled up there. “Now, where exactly…”
I saw movement and hurled the umbrella like a javellin. It has one of those pointy tips that almost made it a multi-purpose spear. I guess it was sheer luck that I nailed the thing to the wall.
“HA! Yes! I *got* one! Show you for picking on *my* kids, you creepy dimensional *thing*…”
“You’ve stopped it, but I don’t think you hurt it.”
“Stopping it’s good.”
The Doctor walked right up to it. “Last chance. Tell the truth. Why did you choose *this* world, knowing it was off limits, to power your war?”
“This world off limits by Gallifrey,” it hissed, barely on the edge of real sound. “Gallifrey *gone*. None protect it.”
“*I* protect it. You knew that, too. So I ask you one last time. *Why*?”
“You are last. Magnificent energy. We capture you, we *win*. *We* be lords, next. Hah! Lords of Dimensions. We win, we rule. Forever.”
“But you’re not going to win. I know who you’re fighting, and they won’t win, either. Because *I* am Gallifrey. And while I live… no evil shall flourish.”
What he did next hurt my eyes. I can’t even remember what it looked like. Only that my eyes hurt. And then I had my umbrella back and we were drinking tea and eating cupcakes with those little silver sugar balls on them.
“…nothing to worry about,” the Doctor was saying. “Odds are he’s inherited some of your Sensitivity to things. The nightmares will fade, in time. Just don’t show him the thing in the attic until they’re well and truly gone.”
Thing in the attic? Oh yes. He’d done something to the shadow man. I couldn’t remember exactly *what*, though. “The Ettrati.”
“What’s left of it. It’s only good for some really weird decorations, though. Haunted houses… Tim Burton homages…”
“Scaring the door-to-door preachers…”
“I thought you were one of the good guys,” he warned.
“Come on. You can’t say you weren’t ever the least little bit tempted…”
“Yes I ca…n’t, actually. Have been tempted. *Really* tempted. More than once. It’s the way they talk and absolutely refuse to listen. Gets me every time.”
An annoying little tune sprang up.
“I think that’s you.”
“Eh? Oh! Oh yes!” He dug in his pockets. “I’d almost forgotten about *this*…” He answered it. “Hello, yes? Martha! How are you?”
Evidently, Martha was pissed. I could hear her yelling at him from across the room. I bit my lip. A lot.
“Well, I’ve been taking care of some nasty business up in Cardiff. But I’m free, now.”
More pissed-off yelling.
“Okay. Fine. Consider me on my way. No need to get like that.” He hung up before she could yell some more. “Sorry. Must dash. Another disaster to avert.”
“It’s been a slice,” I said. “Just don’t ask me of what. Will I see you again?”
He thought about that on the way out. “Considering that I tend to live on the disaster curve? Probably not.”
“Goodbye, Doctor. And thankyou.”
The last I saw of him, he was legging it down the darkened streets to an old police call box. I thought they’d scrapped those things. It wasn’t there the next day, though.
If it wasn’t for the Ettrati in the attic, I’d never believe any of this had happened. Sophie thinks its one of my stories and I should try to flog it somewhere.
Trouble is, nobody would really buy it. One way *or* the other.
Still. It does feel better to get it all down. Have it documented, in my own scatterbrained fashion.
I can never be the same, though. Not after that.
Now, I look at the world in a whole new light. Anything could be a threat. Absolutely anything.
Any new shop gets my intense scrutiny. Any too-lifelike statue has me trying to stare at it out of the corner of my eye.
I’m intensely interested in dissapearances, now.
Everything, everywhere, is under my observation.
And anything even the slightest bit out of place gets my attention.
I’m sure I’ll make a pest of myself before long. Become one of those loonies you see online, with their little theories and their weird warnings of the Coming of Whatever.
Some of that is starting to make sense, too. Almost.
But whatever’s coming, big or small, I won’t let it slide by ever again. I won’t let it slither, unnoticed, into the everyday and make casual with chaos. I will be ready.
The only problem is… I’m starting to have nightmares, too.