Four years of college, one year of LSATs and applications, and three years of law school, and all Traci could find was a job that said she was a paralegal, but in reality had her doing the work of a glorified secretary. She thought that taking this entry-level job at less-than-industry-standard pay would open doors for her after a while, but it had been two years now and she was still stuck here, doing menial work, not learning anything, and just scraping by in a tiny apartment. She was studying for the bar again and prayed that it would be the lift she needed, since this job certainly wasn't.
Maybe this job wouldn't be so bad if she wasn't stuck in Chicago. It's not that she hated the city… Okay, she had to admit to herself that she hated the city. After growing up in Los Angeles and attending college in Seattle, she just didn't like the Midwest. She was able to stomach it for law school, but now that she was out, she wanted to live somewhere else, anywhere else. Oh, and too cold in the winter! But she had to live where the job was.
At least she had made some friends here. She hadn't found any good friends at work, which was good, since she'd prefer to minimize contact with that job, but she had Lynn and Laura. Lynn was her co-worker Pete's wife, and was a floor manager for one of the big department stores. She was definitely a soulmate, enjoying all the same things that Traci did. Laura was Lynn's friend, and while she wasn't someone that Traci would have gotten close to on her own, the three of them together were unstoppable. And of course, through them, Traci met Lynn's brother, Aaron.
Aaron was really the one thing that was keeping Traci here in Chicago. It wasn't love at first sight. They met at Lynn's family dinner and hit it off really well, finding that they had a lot of interests in common, especially TV shows and movies. They started watching favorite shows together, and Aaron introduced her to hiking and camping, something she'd never bothered to try before. After almost a year of hanging out together, Aaron finally asked her out, and they started dating. She loved him: he was a great guy who she felt comfortable with, and he was devoted to her.
Thus, she found herself wandering a sporting goods store with him, shopping for a new sleeping bag. She couldn't afford to replace her own worn, second-hand equipment, but Aaron had offered to get her a new one, one that could withstand colder temperatures. He'd had a notion of heading north to spend some time skiing cross-country in Minnesota. She wasn't sure it was a good idea; she definitely enjoyed camping and being out in the wilderness, but Aaron seemed to be getting interested in experiences that were more extreme.
An hour later, they were sitting at a cafe across the street from the shopping mall, scarfing down overpriced food. Traci knew that Aaron was eager to get back to shopping and ate her meal with more speed and enthusiasm than she felt. Glancing up, she saw that Aaron had stopped eating and was looking at her with concern.
"Whampf?" she said through a mouthful of noodles.
"Okay, Trace. I can tell something's up. You've been mooning around for a while now, and your heart's not in it today." He leaned back in the booth, though he continued to idly poke at his meal with his fork. "What is it?"
"'Snothim." She tried to chew through the noodles and swallow them as fast as she could.
"It's not nothing. It's something. And if I'm right, it's something major." He put down his fork and leaned forward. "Come on. You can tell me. I can take it."
Swallow. "You're going to get mad."
His smirk was both tender and sarcastic at the same time. "Give me some credit, will you? And anyway, let me decide for myself. What's wrong?"
Traci took a deep breath, then spit out her words like she feared that if she didn't speak them quickly, she couldn't say them at all. "I want to move back home, back to California. I hate my job. I hate this city."
Aaron straightened in surprise. It took him a moment to find his tongue. "One thing I love about you: you always say exactly what you're thinking. I knew you weren't fond of Chicago, but I didn't know it was that bad." Leaning his elbow on the table, he rested his chin in his palm and gazed at the woman across from him.
"Yes. That's the problem. I mean, this place is driving me crazy." She wrapped her arms around herself and shrugged. "I feel like it's crushing the life out of me. If I'm going to be living on mac and cheese for the rest of my life, I'd at least like to be somewhere I like." She plopped backwards in her chair, frustrated. "I don't know."
"So, then…" Aaron hesitated. He seemed to be wrestling with his response to her, wanting to be sympathetic without encouraging her to move away. "What do you want to do? Or, at least, what are you thinking?"
"I don't know! But I have to do something. This city just isn't home for me." She shrugged again. "I feel out of place here, like I'm an outsider. I need to go home."
Aaron frowned. "Home where? Your family's moved to North Carolina, and anyway, you never liked Pasadena. Or Seattle. You've always said that. California's only idyllic because you're not there right now."
He was right. She'd never really liked any place she had lived in, but she wasn't about to admit it, so she changed the subject. "There's gotta be something out there for me, something more than just dragging myself to work everyday and filing someone else's cases. I want to practice law. That's what I spent three years preparing for!"
"You can practice law right here." He gestured at the floor with both hands. "You just need to pass the bar, and that's what you're working on right now. If you move to California, you'll have to throw out everything you've learned here. You'll be back at square one."
She looked him directly in the eyes as she replied, "At least I'll be happy."
He shook his head. "No, you won't. I know you, Trace. In six months, you'll be working in some low-paying job, stuck in the middle of studying for the bar again, and wondering if life would be better in Austin, or Atlanta, or New York. You need to stay here and see this through."
She poked at her noodles, then looked him right in the eyes. "So, I guess this means you won't even consider coming with me."
"You've made that decision already." It was statement, not a question.
"No, I haven't. But I need to know what your intentions are, and what I can expect. It's not going to be easy. I can't even find a job to go to, so I'd just be moving blind." She surveyed his attitude, and every indication was that his thoughts were changing from concern to anger.
Breathing deep, he spoke through clenched teeth, his voice barely above a whisper. "My family's here, and my career's going well. It's paying for both of us, you know. You want me to give that up, to go traipsing across the continent chasing what you imagine will be a better life?"
"No. I want to know how you see us, and what you might be willing to do. How serious are we? What's really important to us?" She held his gaze for a few moments, but then couldn't look at him, so she studied the edge of the table in front of her.
He ran his fingers through his hair. "I don't believe you want me to give this all up! You're forcing me to decide between you and the rest of my life?"
"No!" Traci leaned across the table and grasped one of his hands. "I'm not asking you to do anything of the sort. I just want to know what you think, what the possibilities are."
Aaron snatched his hand out of hers, and she startled back. "I need to think about this. I need to…" Abruptly, he stood up and fled the cafe.
Traci pursed her lips and stared at her plate. That wasn't as bad as she had expected it would be - she was gratified he took the time to even try to understand how she felt - but from reading his unconscious signals, she felt that he was more likely to break it all off and tell her to leave than to come with her. She wasn't sure which she preferred.
She still had some noodles left, so she devoted herself to cleaning her plate, after which she would figure out how she would track Aaron down. Or she'd grab the bus home. As she ate, more out of trying to ignore her troubles than anything else, her eyes wandered about the cafe, seeing but not seeing the other patrons at their tables. However, one figure caught her eye, a thin man in a blue suit, wearing dark-rimmed glasses and reading a thick paperback. She gasped as she realized that she recognized him. The bus boy at that diner five years ago, and… that guy that helped me with my bag. In high school. She still had that bag - it was worn and ratty after years of use in high school and college, but the strap was as strong as ever. There was no way she could ignore the incredible coincidence of encountering him for the third time in as many cities.
Slurping up the last few noodles, she grabbed her paper plate and her purse and, leaving her table, tossed her trash in a garbage can. She then strode over to the man's table and slipped into a chair across from him. Looking up from his book, his eyes twinkled in recognition and he smiled, a friendly grin with lots of teeth. "Oh, hullo!" That British accent again. He clapped his book closed and set it on the table, then removed his glasses and dropped them on the cover. "Beautiful day, isn't it?"
"You. I remember you. Why do you keep showing up?" Her brow furrowed. She wasn't angry, just suspicious.
"Ohhh, I just get around. You know. I travel a lot." The way he tilted his head back and to the side as he spoke was very peculiar.
"This isn't 'just getting around.' I've seen you before in Pasadena and Seattle, and now in Chicago. That's a hell of a lot of coincidence. You following me or something?" She leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms, glaring at him.
"Not as such, no." He looked amused.
"Then what 'as such?' Why we keep meeting, all across the country?" She was sure he was lying about not following her. Though, to be honest, if he was following her, he was doing a great job of it, only being spotted three times in, what, seven years? She then realized that he looked exactly the same as he did when she first met him nearly ten years before. He showed not a single day of age over the intervening years, and he certainly seemed attached to blue pinstripe suits.
"Well, mostly, trying to get to know you a bit better." He sniffed, his face crinkling for a brief moment.
She frowned. "You get to know people better by talking to them, not by stalking them!" She was aware that people at the nearest tables were turning to stare.
"We've met three times. That's hardly stalking, is it? But never mind that! Look at you, all grown up! How are you liking Chicago? Grand city. Only been here a few times, many, many years ago, no matter how you count it." He stared out the cafe window with a rapt expression.
Traci's annoyance bubbled to the surface. "Hey! Pay attention to me." His gaze swiveled back to her, and his nonchalance infuriated her even more. "Look, mister -"
She rolled her eyes. "Doctor," she drawled, sarcasm dripping from both syllables. "What do you want with me?"
This time, he looked her straight in the eye, with only interest and no amusement on his face. "Honestly, trying to learn a bit more about you."
Her eyes widened in disbelief. "What? You're too old for me." As the words tumbled out of her mouth, she realized that wasn't what he meant, though she had no idea what he did mean.
The Doctor grinned as if he were enjoying some private joke. "Oh, you have no idea. But!" He straightened up and planted both hands on his thighs. "You have a lot of questions for me, and I want to talk to you, so, what do you say we take a turn down the street? Too crowded in here."
The prospect of going on a walk with a stranger set her on her guard, but he puzzled her so much that she readily agreed. As long as I keep us to the public places, it should be okay. Rising to his feet, he deposited the book and glasses into a jacket pocket - and yet the pocket remained flat against his body; that was really weird - then pulled on the long brown overcoat that had been draped over the back of his chair. He offered her a hand up with polite gallantry. "Miss Traci?" She accepted it and rose, stringing her purse over her shoulder.
She needn't have worried about keeping to the public places: the Doctor showed no sign of leading her down any dark alleys or into secluded parks. He did, however, outpace her, just like he had the last time they'd walked together, in Pasadena. She had to ask him to slow down, so that she would have breath for talking, and he immediately altered his speed to match hers.
"Okay." Her tone betrayed her exasperation with this strange man. "So, now that we're walking, what is it you want with me?"
"I'm trying to figure out who you are."
She snorted. "I've been trying to figure that out all my life. Good luck."
"No, that's not what I mean." He tugged at his ear with a hand. "Let me ask you: do you sometimes have recurring dreams of somewhere far away, another world, perhaps, where you're doing things you've never done before, knowing people you've never met?"
Traci stopped in her tracks. How could he possibly have even guessed about the vivid dreams she sometimes had, in which she was clad in long red robes, training, like a monk, in a city of bright, tall towers under an orange sky? That in the dreams, the people she called "Mother" and "Father" were always the same two people, but weren't anyone she'd ever seen before?
He peered at her with heartfelt sympathy in his eyes. "You do, don't you?" His tone was very gentle.
She backed away from him a step. "How would you... Who are you?"
"I'm the Doctor." He bit his lip, then shook his head. "No, that doesn't mean a thing to you. Okay. Let me explain, but I'll warn you that this is going to be hard to believe." Before he continued, he nodded at her, and, intrigued to hear what he had to say, she felt compelled to return that nod. "Traci. I'm not from this planet. I'm an alien, and I believe you are the same species as I am."
Traci simply stared at him. After about ten seconds, she laughed, a high, nervous giggle. "Okay, I get it. Someone's playing some stupid joke on me and paid you to do this, right?" His expression remained deadpan as he waited patiently for her to come to grips with what he just said. "No, look, that's just ridiculous. You can't expect me to believe something that's so completely ridiculous." He continued to stand there watching her, and a shiver ran down her spine. "Okay, c'mon, joke's over."
"It's not a joke, Traci. It's the truth." His voice was low, quiet, and utterly serious.
Pressing her lips in a thin line, she crossed her arms, her eyes narrowed with disgusted disbelief.
"Here, let me show you. Give me your hand."
Frowning at the odd request, she held her hand out, curious as to what he might have to show her. Taking it, he stepped forward and pressed her hand against his neck so that she could feel his pulse. His skin was cool, shockingly so. She held her hand there for ten seconds, then snatched it away, cradling it like it had been stung. "What is wrong with your heart?"
"Two beats at a time, eh? Two hearts." He motioned at his chest to indicate their locations.
"No!" she protested. He nodded at her, his wide eyes locked with hers. "No. No!" She backed away a few steps more, fighting the rising panic clenching her stomach.
The Doctor held his hands up in front of him, in a silent plea for her to not flee. "Really. Don't worry. I'm not going to harm you. I'm a good alien."
The little quip broke the tension. She stopped backing away, but she still stared at him and clutched the hand that had felt the alien heartbeat against her stomach. "So, uh, what are you? What planet do you come from?" To her ears, they sounded like the stupidest questions she'd ever asked anyone.
He nodded and pronounced his race and origin slowly and carefully. "I'm a Time Lord. I come from a planet called Gallifrey."
"Okay. Okay." She breathed deeply and nodded a few times. "Let's pretend I believe you, and for the record, I don't. I'm not like you. I don't have two hearts."
Running a hand through his hair, the Doctor nodded. "Now, see, that's a little harder to explain. You've been hiding here as a human, and to do that, you changed your biology, from Time Lady to human, so you look and feel completely human. But you, your memories and your personality, were also locked away. That's why you can't remember your life as a Time Lady."
Staring down at the ground, she tried to imagine being anyone other than herself, and it was simply impossible. She was Traci, born and raised in Southern California, educated in Seattle and Chicago, and now aspiring to be a lawyer. Sure, she'd had those street psychics tell her that she was a reincarnated Cleopatra or Queen Elizabeth or whatever famous woman they could cook up, and while it was entertaining to imagine that, she couldn't picture herself actually being one of those people, being someone else. Closing her eyes for a moment, she summoned up enough strength to keep her voice steady and not flee in panic.
"Look, Doctor, whoever you are, whatever you are. I don't know what's going on here, but whatever it is, you've got the wrong person. I'm just me, okay? I'm not some Time Lady or whatever you said. Go find someone else to be an alien." She spun on her heel and stalked off.
Behind her, the Doctor jammed his hands in his pockets in frustration and jogged off after her. As he circled in front her, walking backwards to stay there, he tried to catch her gaze. "There's no one else. It's you who's a Time Lady. You just don't remember because you were given new memories so that you would fit in here on Earth." She refused to look at him, so he changed his tactic. "Here, answer me this. Tell me about your life when you were ten years old."
She stopped in her tracks. "When I was ten? What for?"
She glowered at him, then rolled her eyes. "Fine. Uh, let me think." She frowned. "That would be 1977? I was living in Glendale. Both of my parents were still alive. My dad's name was Michael, and he was a car mechanic. My mom's name was Sarah, and she was a nurse. I went to Mark Keppel Elementary School, in... fifth grade? I'd have to count to be sure."
Drawing a deep breath, he hesitated a moment before he asked his next question. "Who were your friends, and where did you hang out? What kinds of things did you do with them?"
She inhaled to speak, but faltered when she realized she couldn't remember a single friend or anything she used to do when she was a kid. "Oh, I don't remember. It's been a while since I thought about them."
"All right, that's fair. Tell me about your birthday party that year." When Traci frowned, unable to picture it, he pressed further. "It was your tenth. You must have had one. Did you have it at one of those restaurants with the ice cream and games and clowns? Who came to it? Did you receive any great presents?"
Frustrated, Traci shook her head violently, as if she were trying to clear her mind of fog. "Yeah, I'm sure I had one, but that was a long time ago, and it's hard to remember with you yelling at me like that."
"No, Traci." The pity in his voice made her look up at him. "You don't remember because there's nothing to remember. The only memories you have are facts and figures simply meant to give you a history. The details, those day-to-day experiences and the people who were your family and friends, aren't there."
Traci exploded. Stomping forward, she shoved him in the chest with both hands and screamed in his face, teeth bared. "How dare you? How dare you say that my memories, my life isn't real? How dare you come up to me and say these horrible, awful things? I don't care who or what you are! Get away from me!" She whirled and stomped off, in what direction she didn't care, ignoring the pedestrians on the sidewalk gawking at the altercation.
The Doctor followed her. "Traci, wait!" She kept going. "Traci! I know it's hard. Believe me, I know. It happened to me, too, and I couldn't believe that my life hadn't been real, either."
She spun back, both fists clenched. "How could you possibly say those things if you knew what it was like?"
"I said them because you deserve to know the truth about yourself." She turned away from him, but didn't move, her shoulders heaving as she panted. "It's all true. Everything I said."
"I don't believe you," she growled through her teeth.
"I know." The Doctor rubbed the back of his neck. "If you want, I can tell you what I've been able to work out about you so far."
"Yeah, go ahead," she mumbled without turning around.
"From what I've been able to find out, you were fostered to your family when you were a junior in high school, right?" He interpreted her lack of response as an affirmation. "A bit old to be fostered. That's probably your first real memory as a human. That puts you at about age 17, which is just about the right relative age for graduating from your academy. So, you were just officially sanctioned as a Time Lady when you used a chameleon arch to become human here on Earth. You're probably at about a hundred years old now."
Traci whipped around. "A hundred years old! I'm twenty-six! Rude!"
The Doctor ran his hand through his hair, frustration clouding his expression. "I really haven't done a very good job of explaining all of this, have I?"
"No, you haven't!" Glaring at him, she crossed her arms and cocked her head.
"Okay. Let me try again?"
Her eyes narrowed. "You have one minute," she growled, checking her watch.
"What? But I…" He tugged on his ear. "Okay…" His normally quick speech sped up even more, but words were sharp and precise. "You're a Time Lady. I'm a Time Lord. We come from a planet called Gallifrey, near the center of this galaxy. We can live for hundreds, even thousands of years, and we're called what we are because we can see the whole of time: past, present, and all possible futures. You changed yourself into a human using a technology called a chameleon arch, as far as I can tell, when you became an adult, which is around ninety years old for us, but is around the late teens for humans." He paused to make sure he had her attention, looking directly into her eyes. "I've come to talk to you about it, because, if you want, you can change back and become a Time Lady again."
Traci tried to understand what he was saying, but the words somehow only barely made sense to her. Everything he said was just too ridiculous to believe. He was an alien, saying that she's an alien, and that they live for thousands of years? That they come from a planet light-years away? That they can see time, whatever that means? She stared at him, unsure of what to say, or even think.
"No, that's just… What?... I mean… You can't…" She realized she was babbling only to fill the silence.
At a loss for ideas, the Doctor glanced around the Chicago street, his tongue flicking over his lips as he thought. He tapped his chin with a finger, then wagged it at her. "How about I prove it all to you? I'll take you up into space in my, er, spaceship, and show you the universe that you came from."
"Oh, ho! You can't possibly think I'm that stupid." She backed away from him, shaking her head with a wary smile on her face.
"What?" The Doctor appeared completely stunned by her implication that he meant her any harm. "No, I mean it," he pled. "Really. My spaceship. I can really take you into space."
Wagging a forefinger on each hand, she shook her head and glanced around to appraise the situation around her on the sidewalk. "No way, buster. I'm not following you anywhere. I'm not leaving this nice, busy street."
"You don't have to. It's right over there." He motioned at the buildings across the street. She wasn't sure what he was pointing at. Was one of those buildings a spaceship? "Come on." He jammed his hands in his pockets and strode down the sidewalk to a crosswalk, his long brown coat flaring behind him. Curiosity got the better of her, and she followed, making sure there were plenty of people around her who would hear her screams.
In silence, they crossed the busy road, then he led her to an alley. "I know you don't want to leave the street, but you can see from here." Leaving her standing on the sidewalk, he pulled a key out of his pocket as he walked into the alley and up to a large blue phone booth- no, the sign at the top proclaimed it to be a "Police Public Call Box," whatever that was. He unlocked the doors on the front, then pushed them both wide open and stepped back so that she could see inside.
Her jaw dropped as she peered into a huge chamber beyond the doors, a room far larger than the outside of the box itself. It seemed to be at least sixty feet deep, with a round table structure in the middle with a glass column extending upwards beyond the lintel of the door, since she couldn't see the ceiling of the vaulted chamber from where she stood. Without taking her eyes off the box, she moved from one side of the alley to the other, and the parallax proved that it wasn't just painted inside the box. It's some kind of illusion, she thought. Just some weird, intricate illusion. It can't possibly be real. She then realized she had unconsciously walked up to box to see it better. It was real. This phone booth thing, not even six feet wide, contained a room that was far larger than her apartment, and she could see a hallway leading out the back.
"How does it do that?" Her voice was barely a whisper.
"She's dimensionally transcendental."
With one eyebrow cocked at the unfamiliar term, she turned to stare at him. He was grinning at her, obviously delighted at her confusion and proud of his strange… box, ship, whatever it was.
"It means that the interior exists in a different dimension than the exterior. She's called a TARDIS, which stands for Time and Relative Dimension in Space."
Traci wasn't sure if that explanation made the concept any clearer at all, but it didn't matter. "Can I go inside?"
Hesitantly, she stepped inside then wandered up the ramp towards the center, twirling as she walked to look all around at the huge room. At the top of the ramp, she gazed at… what it was, she had no idea. It was like a hexagonal altar in the center of a temple, except it was covered with a mess of knobs, buttons, switches, tubes, levers, wheels, pipes, bells - all manner of mechanica. Crowning it was a glass column that extended to the high ceiling, with narrower glass tubes inside. It made no sense to her at all. There were no labels, even in an alien language, to describe what anything did. If this was the flight deck, there was no window, no way to see where this "ship" was flying to. How could a ship be a phone booth anyway? Would all the shops be blasted away when it took off?
The creak of the doors closing and the click of the latch startled her, and she jumped and whirled. The Doctor pulled off his overcoat and tossed it onto one of the tree-like support struts with a practiced motion. "Don't worry. If you want to leave, the door's not locked. I'm not forcing you to do anything you don't want to do."
Traci eyed the closed door. She could walk out at any time, but she knew she was already too far gone; she had to see where this rabbit hole went. Scrubbing over her eyes with her hand, she looked away from the only exit and faced the alien. "So, um, this is your spaceship?"
He strode up the ramp and stopped in front of her, his hands clasped behind his back. "Yes."
"And this is…" She waved her fingers at the centerpiece.
"That's the console. The flight controls." Excited, he circled around, patting various parts. "Helmic regulator. Gravitic anomaliser. Monitor. Handbrake. Thermal buffer. Gyroscopic stabiliser…"
"Oh, sorry." He came to an abrupt stop and clasped his hands behind his back again. He seemed to be barely suppressing his eagerness to show her his spaceship.
She stared at the jumbled console, her hands clasped at her stomach as if she were afraid of touching and breaking something. "This is the cockpit, then." She looked around again at the walls of the chamber. "How do you fly this thing if you can't see out the front? If it has a front. Which way is the front?"
His lips curved into an amused smile. "You don't 'fly' it, like you're thinking. I can take you on a short trip, if you like. Show you how it works. Show you the universe."
She could see in his eyes not only his earnest desire to introduce her to the cosmos, but also his own intense fascination with traveling and exploration. Whatever her own reservations about the proposal, his excitement was overwhelming and she didn't know if she could refuse him if she wanted to. Trying not to betray her curiosity, she forced her voice to sound disinterested. "Okay. A short trip. That sounds fine."
"Fantastic!" He began turning knobs, flipping switches, and pushing buttons all across the panel in front of him. Hopping around to the other side of the console, he slid the vidscreen around with him and stared at its display as his fingers danced over what looked like a computer keyboard from the 1970s. He then snagged a lever on the other side of the panel from him with a finger and held it up while he thumbed a nearby dial, then stretched a long leg to toggle another with the toe of his red sneakers. After more antics in a similar vein, finally, he flashed an excited grin at her that was set to split his face from ear to ear, then threw a lever that looked like an airplane throttle. The entire chamber lurched, knocking Traci off-balance. As she grabbed at the console for support, she noticed that the Doctor had braced himself out of habit. The glass column started pumping up and down, emitting a horrible repetitive groaning noise, similar to the sound her younger foster brother made when he tried (and soon abandoned) learning to play the viola.
"Not exactly a smooth ride," Traci observed drily.
The Doctor grinned back at her. It was obvious that traveling in his ship exhilarated him, every time.
In about fifteen seconds, the ship grew still and silent, and the glass column stopped moving. Traci continued to cling to the console, her eyes flicking about, wary of the first sign of the ship starting to bounce around again. "That was it?"
The Doctor flipped a few switches in what Traci assumed was a post-flight procedure. "Yup-ah. Take a look." He gestured at the wooden doors of the call box.
Straightening up, Traci peremptorily dusted herself off, then, glancing once more at the Doctor, strode down the ramp to the door. She put a hand on the latch, then hesitated. There was no way that they could have traveled anywhere significant in just a few seconds. This weird man was pulling her leg. She didn't know how he made this phone booth thing bigger on the inside, or how it shook so much, but she just knew it hadn't moved appreciably. But why would this stranger go through all this trouble for a stupid prank? Nothing here made any sense. Okay, fine, she thought, let's just pretend. What kind of "alien" world did he take me to? A tiny part of her mind was imagining a fantastic vista that lay on the other side of the door, with a purple sky and blue trees and green bug-eyed monsters, while the vast majority of it expected the drab Chicago street she had been standing on minutes before. Rolling her eyes, she yanked the door open… and nearly fell out of the ship. Her breath caught in her throat, and she grabbed the door jamb and held on tight.
Her vision was filled with the scintillating swirling clouds of a nebula floating in deep space. Bright stars shone through the swathes of reds, oranges, and blues. Sticking her head out a little, she could see space beyond the edges of the nebula: clouds of distant stars from whatever galaxy she might be in stretched up and to the right, while below, the inky blackness was filled with a myriad of tiny pinpoints of starlight.
She didn't know how long she had stood there staring when the Doctor spoke again, directly behind her. "Brilliant, isn't it?' His voice was low and reverent.
She tried to say something poignant and deep, but all that came out was a "nguh." She swallowed, then turned towards him, knowing she couldn't say anything coherent with her field of vision completely filled with that nebula. "It's just amazing." She tapped the door jamb behind her with one hand. "How are we not dead?"
"The TARDIS protects us." He glanced up at the frame of the door, his bright eyes shining with appreciation for the ship's care.
Unable to resist the wonder splayed out behind her, Traci turned to gaze out at the whorls of dust and gas again. "Where are we?"
"Humans call it the Crab Nebula. A thousand billion miles from Earth." The word "billion" burst from his lips. "The remnant of a supernova."
Science had never been Traci's forte - to be honest, she didn't remember a concrete word from her high school classes - but she was pretty sure that none of this made sense, that she couldn't possibly be this far from Earth. "How did we travel a thousand billion miles in fifteen seconds? I thought you couldn't break light speed, or something like that?"
The Doctor grinned. "You can, but humans can't, not yet anyway. We didn't travel like that, through space. We went through the time vortex. The TARDIS dematerialised - disappeared," he clarified as Traci looked up at him and frowned at the unfamiliar term, "We travelled through the time vortex, and rematerialised here."
"The time vortex? What's that?"
Gazing absently out at the nebula, he traced his upper lip with his tongue. "It's a, well, a dimension, I suppose you could call it, a different dimension that connects all points of space and time. The TARDIS can pretty much go anywhere through it."
Biting her lip, Traci leaned her head against the jamb of the TARDIS door. The proof that she'd traveled across the universe splashed across her entire field of vision, but she understood nothing else. She knew what a vortex was, but what did that have to do with time? What did the Doctor mean by a different dimension, and how would that help them travel here so quickly? And a voice in the back of her mind that she was trying to ignore kept wondering how any of this proved that she wasn't who she thought she was.
The Doctor's gentle voice told her that he sensed her discomfiture, and she decided to concentrate on understanding one thing at a time. "I... I just don't get it. The dimension thing, the time vortex. What does that mean?"
The Doctor drew a deep breath to launch into a explanation, then, pausing, he laughed at himself. "I was about explain, but you already know how that would have gone. I can run my gob without saying much of anything. Let me try again." He scrubbed a hand down over his mouth as he thought. "The time vortex is a bit of a shortcut. It's like cutting across a park rather than walking around it: saves you time and effort. The thing is, it borders all points in time and space, so you can go from anywhere through the time vortex to anywhere. You just need a way to get into it."
She nodded slowly as she tried to digest the information. "And that's the TARDIS."
"And it just disappears from wherever it is, into this time shortcut, and reappears somewhere else?"
"Yup," he replied, popping the "p".
Traci frowned. "But you said time as well as space. Does that mean this ship can travel in time as well?"
The Doctor nodded. "There's a reason we're called Time Lords."
"That's just ridiculous." She turned her back on the universe and walked back up the ramp to the console.
Jamming his hands in his pockets, the Doctor loped after her as he spoke. "It's the truth. Shall I take you somewhen to prove it?"
She buried her face in her hands. It was too much to cope with, and she was aware of an ache blossoming just behind her eyes. "No. Take me home, Doctor. Please."
"Right." Turning on his heel, he returned to the doors to close them, then bounded up the ramp to the console. After a flurry of activity, he sent the ship bouncing on its way. Traci leaned against the railing, which had chunks of foam tied around it as cushions, and bowed her head for the entire ride. As the ship came to a stop, the Doctor joined her, putting his arm around her shoulders. "It's a bit much, isn't it? I'm sorry, but I thought you should know, and it was the best way to show you the truth. Are you okay?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine," she lied. Everything was spiraling out of control, and she hated that feeling. "Look, leave me alone, okay? I just want to go home. I… I'll talk to you tomorrow."
Traci wrenched herself away from him and ran down the ramp. It occurred to her as she grabbed the door latch that he could have lied about where they had traveled and that she was running out into the cold vacuum of space, but the door opened on the same Chicago alley that she had been standing in only a few minutes before. She dashed out to the street and stood staring at the skyscrapers towering above her and the crowds of people flowing around her. She'd never seen the city like this before. Compared to the splendor of the nebula in deep space, it was ugly and gray and… mundane, and yet at the same time, it was solid and real and comforting. It welcomed her, protected her from that strange man and stranger spaceship. The wheezing sound of the TARDIS filled her ears, and she whipped around in time to see it fade into nothingness. Her lunch threatened to come back up, and she dashed off, hoping that the random direction she chose would get her closer to home.