She is Clara Oswin Oswald.
She is Clara Oswin Oswald, and this is what she was born to do.
All around her lies the web of time. Past, present, and future, tangled together in complex fractal patterns, shining and beautiful and disturbingly fragile. She can see it everywhere. Can feel it, everywhere. Hell, she'd almost swear she could taste it, and maybe it's her imagination, but does it taste, just a little, like soufflé?
There's no time to stop and contemplate that, though, even if she is in the midst of all time, everywhere. Because it's burning. It's all burning. And it's her job to stop it.
She's saved a lot of things in her time with the Doctor. Even saved him already, once or twice. But she's never saved everything before. That's what this is, though. She knows it is. Because a universe without the Doctor... Well, it not only doesn't bear thinking about, it wouldn't even exist. Not the way it does now. Maybe not at all.
Who else has ever had an opportunity like this? Even the Doctor's taken centuries to do all his universe-saving. But she can do it right now, in this moment, this instant that touches all the other times in existence.
It seems impossible. But then, she is the Impossible Girl, and she knows what that means, now.
Clara spreads her arms and embraces the fire. She lets it enter her, lets it fill her, until she can feel herself glowing, feel herself shattering. Feel the pieces of her beginning to break off like splintering shards of glass, like echoes of her voice down the corridors of time, like ripples in a pond.
There is less and less of her here. There is more and more of her elsewhere. She can see all the pieces of her, shattering and scattering. She can feel them. She wishes them well. She's sure they'll be up to the job. They are her, after all.
This feels good. This feels right. This feels like what she was always meant to--
She is a shard of mirror, scattering. She is the ripple of a dropped stone, the echo of a voice. She is a leaf blowing away in the wind.
She is spinning through time, spinning away from something she once belonged to. She doesn't remember what it it was. Doesn't remember her name. She doesn't have a past, doesn't know her future. All she has is a feeling of purpose, a sense of necessity. There is someone important, someone she needs to save. Someone who, when the time is right, she will recognize. And in saving them, she will save everything.
She echoes, she ripples, she drifts... and she comes to rest. She can feel Time shifting to accommodate her, like a good friend scooting over to make room on a sofa and draping a welcoming arm around her shoulders.
She is somewhere. She is where she needs to be. She is...
She is Klara Oswina, a schoolteacher in the Level Seven Educational Facility on Ophiucus Star Station Nine, and she has always been here. She is where she is meant to be.
"Well," says Clara, stepping out of the TARDIS and looking around, "I could be wrong, but I really don't think this is Gloraniona, Fabled Beauty Spot of the Seventeen Systems."
"Clearly not," says Me, emerging behind her and taking in their surroundings with her cool, seen-everything eyes.
Not there there's a great deal to see here. They're in a long corridor, its smooth, shiny walls, floor, and ceiling painted in a variety of boring beiges and soothing pale blues, interrupted by irregularly spaced copper-colored doors all of which seem to be labeled deeply uninteresting things like "Overflow Storage Facility" and "Level Seven Auxiliary Administrative Offices" and "Custodial Washroom."
Directly across from them, stenciled across a particularly pastel stretch of wall, is a sign saying "7-214-Aleph," which Clara takes a brief moment to commit to memory. It's always good to know where you've parked. Although that thought raises a question...
Clara turns to look behind her. The TARDIS is still a diner. Only now it's a diner whose front has apparently replaced a stretch of corridor. Which is just as well, as in its current shape, she's pretty sure it would have otherwise blocked the entire hallway, but still. "How does it do that?" she asks, a little admiringly.
Me shrugs. "Time Lord technology. They do like to show off. Should we get back in and try again? I know you were looking forward to seeing the Fire Caves."
"Nah," says Clara. "Let's look around here first. They may be show-offy Time Lord technology, but in my experience when a TARDIS decides it wants to take you somewhere, it's better to just accept it."
Me shrugs, as if it's all the same to her. "All right. Where would you like to go, then? Shall we investigate the supply closet?"
"How about..." Clara looks left, then right, but it all looks pretty much the same. She pulls a coin out of her pocket. Heads right, tails left, she decides.
Clara stares at the coin for a moment, decides it's not the boss of her, grins, and heads left. Me follows, a solid, elegant presence at her elbow.
More boring corridors, more boring doors, and not so much as a bit of piped-in Muzak, even though this somehow seems like exactly the sort of place where you might expect it. She turns to Me, about to make some sort of remark to that effect, when the other woman suddenly hisses "Quiet!" at her, and grabs her arm.
Clara instantly freezes, and now she hears it, too. Feet pounding down the curving length of the corridor somewhere ahead of them, approaching rapidly. Shouting, too incoherent to make out. Gunfire, probably some kind of energy weapon. The sound of sizzling electronics.
Well, isn't this just like old times? Not that her new times have been all that different.
Clara throws herself at the nearest door. "We need to get inside!" But it's locked. Of course it's locked.
"Let me," says Me calmly, pulling out a hairpin and doing something to the lock. Which is interesting, because it's clearly an electronic lock.
"Electronic hairpin," Clara says. "Nice."
"You don't live to reach the end of the universe without picking up a few things," says Me, with a small smile. "After you." She taps the lock with her finger, the door obediently slides open, and they find themselves face to face with...
"Okay," says Clara. "Don't know what I was expecting, but this is definitely not it."
They're face to face with herself. With Clara. Or at least a very good copy of her. The hair is different: some spiky, asymmetrical style Clara's going to have to take a moment later to decide whether she likes or not. And the clothes are definitely different: what looks like a skin-tight body suit underneath some sort of complicated cloth wrapping that Clara isn't sure resembles a sari or a toga more closely, and which she also isn't going to think too hard about right now. But the face, the body, even the way she holds herself. It's all her.
The other Clara's eyes are widening, shocked. Seeing them like this, full-size and unreversed, is an odd experience. Do they always take up quite that much of her face?
A commotion from somewhere down the hall abruptly cuts through her moment of arguably self-absorbed contemplation. More shouting, more pounding footsteps. A blast of weapons fire, followed by what sounds like nothing quite so much as a harsh electronic scream.
Her wide-eyed doppelganger lets out an alarmed gasp – goodness, does she ever make that sound? – and grabs her by the shirt, trying to pull her through the door. Behind her, Me is pushing, but neither of them need to bother, because she's not an idiot, and she's already in.
The door slides shut behind them, followed by the buzz of Me securing it with her hairpin.
Clara glances around the room. Situational awareness, always important. Oddly enough, it appears to be a classroom. Very different from the kind she's used to, but Clara would know a classroom anywhere. Those are definitely desks, although the plush chairs look comfortable enough to put those of any room Clara's ever taught in to shame.
In the back of the room, a handful of children, maybe ten- or eleven-year-olds, are sitting close together on the floor, having abandoned their comfortable chairs for the possibly more important comfort of physical closeness. They're ignoring the cartoon lizard creature trying to teach them about DNA on a segment of the floor-to-ceiling wall screen and staring at the adults instead, with tense, worried expressions.
Clara waves at them and offers them a cheery "Hi!"
The other Clara gives her a sharp look, then turns to the children. "It's all right," she says, her gentle-but-firm teacher voice eerily familiar to Clara. "Go back to your lesson vid. Don't think any of this is going to get you out of taking the quiz!"
Reluctantly, whispering among themselves, they turn away. Mostly.
"Right," says the other Clara. "Just a few questions, then." She ticks them off on her fingers. "Who are you? What are you doing here? And why do you look like me?"
"I'm Clara Oswald," says Clara, eliciting a skeptical look from her duplicate. "And this is Me." She's about to continue, to ask where they are, but the other her laughs incredulously.
"Are you kidding?" she says, looking back and forth between them. "Is this some kind of joke? Because I have to tell you, you've got really terrible timing if it is."
"Not a joke," says Me, inclining her head in acknowledgment. "It's my name."
Clara laughs. "Ha! Look at that. It's Me, myself and I!"
The other Clara glares at her.
"Sorry," Clara says. "Couldn't resist. And you are?"
"Klara Oswina," says the other. The first name sounds a little different, more a huffy "k" sound at the beginning than Clara's own pronunciation, but still.
"Well, that's confusing," she says. "Can I call you Oswina?"
"It is my name, so... yes? Now, your turn. Tell me who you really are and what you're doing here." Owsina puts her hands on her hips. She looks fierce, and kind of cute. Clara wonders how she ought to feel about the way she feels about that.
She shoves that thought aside and considers Oswina's question instead. She's been thinking about the "who are you" part, actually, and the answer seems fairly obvious. Probably she really is Oswina, and Oswina is her. A piece of her, anyway. Honestly, she supposes she should have expected to run into one sometime. The universe is never quite as big as you think, and the Doctor does get everywhere.
How do you say that, though? How do you say, "Oh, you're an echo of me, sent back through time for the sole purpose of saving someone you probably haven't even met yet?" Maybe she could figure out an approach, but she's not at all sure it's a good idea to get into it. What if it influences things somehow? What if it messes up whatever it is this echo is here to do? And, anyway, given all the shouting and the shooting, don't they have other things to worry about?
"We're just travelers," she says. "Just passing through."
"Then why do you look like me?" She really is persistent, isn't she? Can't imagine where she gets that from.
Me raises an eyebrow. "Coincidence?" she says, dryly.
Me knows everything. Possibly literally everything, if you count the stuff she's forgotten, but specifically she knows what happened on Trenzalore, thanks to a few late-night heart-to-heart getting-to-know-your-new-traveling-buddy conversations. And clearly she's on board with this whole not-telling plan. All right, good enough. Majority vote rules.
"Yeah, probably coincidence," she says, and she can tell Oswina isn't buying it, but that's all right. She doesn't have to. Not when there are more urgent things to discuss. "And as for what's going on, we were hoping you'd tell us. Because we just got here, and whatever's happening out there, it does not sound good. So, how can we help?"
Oswina blinks. "You really don't know?"
"Obviously," Me says, "or we wouldn't waste everyone's time by asking."
"You expect me to believe you just randomly decided to pay a visit to the Station, in the middle of a robot uprising?"
"That does sound like us," says Clara.
"Robot uprising?" says Me. "That's what the fighting is about?"
"I never did trust robots," says Clara. "They're a little too much like computers, if you ask me. I always thought Windows was secretly plotting against me."
She begins to laugh, but the sound dies in her throat as Oswina gives her a murderous look.
"Right," says Oswina, her voice low and cold. "Listen. I don't care who you are, I will not stand for that kind of talk in my classroom." She gestures emphatically with a stabbing index finger. "Those are sentient beings you're talking about! If they'd been treated decently, if they'd been given the rights all sentient beings ought to have – by law under the Galactic Confederation Charter, I might add – they'd never have started protesting in the first place. And no matter what they've done, it does not merit the... the brutality of what is going on out there!"
Clara finds herself almost physically recoiling from her other self's wrath, shrinking back in shame. She opens her mouth to apologize, but shuts it again as Oswina keeps going.
"They killed Chally!" Oswina says. Her eyes are flashing now, full of grief and righteous anger, and, good lord, is her own face really capable of looking like that? Is that way people sometimes seem intimated by her?
Oswina waves an arm at something in the far corner of the classroom. Clara had noticed it coming in, but assumed it was just a random piece of classroom equipment. A communications device of some kind? A cleaning droid? But she looks more closely now. It's a pretty thing, really, as long as you're not afraid of machines with long, spidery legs. Those legs, six of them, are curled beneath a shimmery, iridescent oval body, and Clara realizes now that the whole thing is sitting a little off-kilter, as though struck sideways by a sharp impact, and that there's an ugly discolored spot of damage along its side.
"My classroom aide," says Oswina, nearly hissing the words out. "He didn't even join the strikes. Or the protests against bots being harassed in the corridors, or denied the rights of free speech and fair trials and access to basic maintenance, or ordered onto suicide missions for jobs they're not allowed to quit. He did nothing but help keep human children safe, and they shot him dead. Even if his body can be fixed, his memory, everything he was, is gone. He staggered in here and died before he could even say goodbye. So I don't care how good-looking you are, or how trustworthy your face is--"
Out of the corner of her eyes, Clara catches Me smirking just a little. "Shut up," she mutters, and Me raises an elegant eyebrow, but says nothing.
"--if you're on the side of those bastards out there, you can just get out of my classroom right now," Oswina finishes, pointing towards the door.
Clara spreads her hands out, appeasingly. She tries to ignore the kids staring at her from across the room, but, hey, maybe this is good for them to hear. "I'm sorry," she says. "We really aren't from here. I didn't know. I'm sorry about your friend." She can see the tense set of Oswina's shoulders relaxing, the anger slowly draining out of her. "Really didn't mean to be..." What is the appropriate word here, anyway? "...speciesist?"
"Organocentric," says Me. "And I really would have thought you'd have learned a few things about making assumptions by this point."
"Oh, says the person who completely assumed I wouldn't mess with her plans and get myself killed."
Me actually pales a little at that, and Clara instantly feels bad. She thought they'd sorted this, but apparently her companion is still carrying some degree of guilt about the whole thing. She smiles gently at Me, trying to take the sting out of it. "Only teasing. It was my choice, remember? Anyway, it all worked out all right. Nothing wrong with being only mostly dead. I'm enjoying it so far."
"You are very good at it," says Me. Her tone is dry, but her smile is warm and relieved. So that's all right, at least.
Oswina gives them an odd look. Well, that's probably justified.
Right. Time to get down to practicalities. Given Oswina's presence, the Doctor will no doubt be showing up soon, if he isn't already here, but Clara's hardly going to wait around for him to save the day. Even when she was still traveling with him, she was never willing to do that. She turns back to Oswina. "So, what can we do to help?"
Oswina narrows her – still huge, really, and how has Clara never noticed that in a mirror? – eyes at them for a moment, then says, "Fine. You want to help?" She glances over at the children. Their science lesson has now popped out of the screen and into three dimensions, and the cartoon lizard is pointing at a giant, surprisingly solid-looking strand of DNA and urging them to practice gene-splicing on it.
None of the kids is looking at it. They're all staring at the three of them. Oswina gives them a look – and, oh, yes, that's one Clara knows very well – and they sheepishly go back to pretending to pay attention to their lesson. Although one girl defiantly holds Oswina's gaze a moment longer than the rest. Ah, the troublemaker. Every classroom has one. Clara feels immediately fond of her, especially as she's not the one who has to teach her.
"We can't stay hiding in here forever," Oswina says quietly. "If nothing else, we don't have any food. There's a designated shelter area we can take them to, but it's on the other side of the station. The fighting seems to be going sector by sector, and I was waiting until it passed us by. Based on what I've been able to hear, though, it sounds like they've just been through."
Me nods. "We heard them too. They were heading the way we came."
"Yeah," says Clara. "Towards, what was it?" She closes her eyes and pictures the sign. " 7-214-Aleph."
"Right," says Oswina. "Don't know if that means it'll be entirely clear behind them, but it may be our best shot. If we wait until they've had a chance to send for reinforcements from Station Eight, we could potentially be stuck here for days."
"You can't call someone?" Clara asks. "Get a police escort, or something?"
"Do I look stupid to you?" says Owsina.
"I certainly hope not," says Clara, and that actually gets a smile out of her other self.
"If I could, I would have, obviously," Oswina says. "Taking down station comms is the first thing the bots did."
Me nods. "It's certainly what I would have done."
"If you were a disgruntled robot?" says Clara.
"The bots have their own shared comms network," says Oswina, "inaccessible without their internal hardware. Taking the main system down definitely put the Station forces at a disadvantage. The rebels can coordinate their responses, but the Station can't."
"And the kids get caught in the crossfire," Clara sighs.
"Sad truth of the universe," Oswina agrees.
They look into each other's eyes, and for a moment, Clara feels a spark of connection, a deep sense of recognition. You are me, she finds herself thinking, and we are very much in this thing together.
"Well, then," she says. "Let's get them out of it."
It isn't too difficult to make an escape plan.
Oswina is relieved not to have to do it from memory, though. She's intimately familiar with Sector Seven, but much less so with the far side of the station, where their destination lies. Fortunately, it turns out there's a station map in the classroom's local memory, along with today's lessons and the four hundred page Teacher's Manual she's never bothered to read. There's a Health and Safety tag on the map, making it possibly the first official safety measure she's found more helpful than annoying. She makes a mental note, for when all this is over, to find whoever decided this was something she might need access to even with the station comms net down, and to give them a box of sweets and a hug. Maybe a kiss, if they're into it.
She calls the map up on the wallscreen and outlines the plan. They don't know where there might or might not still be pockets of fighting, so they'll take the most direct route to the shelter. They'll try to be quiet, as much as possible given that they'll be traveling with a group of ten-year-olds. Oswina doesn't believe the rebels would kill human children, but they could make disturbingly good hostages, and that she does believe the bots are capable of. Best not to draw any more attention to their presence than necessary.
It's a simple plan, but a decent one. Oswina wouldn't love the idea of trying it by herself, but with three adults to watch for threats while making sure none of the kids wanders off, they should probably be okay. (Not that she doesn't trust her kids. But she knows them. Especially Varla, who has an amazing capacity for disappearing even before you've fully turned your back.)
It really will almost certainly be fine. So why does she feels so... So what? Nervous? Nervousness would make a certain amount of sense, probably, but she doesn't feel like that's it at all. It's not nerves. It's something else. She feels as if something is about to happen to her. Something important. Something strange. She's been feeling it, creeping steadily from the back of her brain into the front, ever since the two strangers arrived.
Well. Running into someone with your face, and very nearly with your name, is a weird experience at the best of times. Right? Probably that's all it is. And there's no doubt a good explanation for it, which she is absolutely determined to find out, once the kids are safe.
But until then... She pushes the feeling firmly back into whatever section of her brain it started in, puts on her best Serious Teacher face, and turns to the kids.
"I hope you all got that," she says. But there's always a good chance some of them weren't listening, so she goes over it once again. "I'll be in the front with, er, Clara here, and M--" Damn, why does this woman's name have to be so confusing? "--This other person here will be in the back. Stay together, and stay quiet, okay? If you can do that, we should all be fine."
Varla rolls her eyes. "We can be quiet!" she says. Very loudly. "You don't have to keep saying it!"
Clara laughs, and Oswina sighs. She's always had a soft spot for the troublemakers, but it would be so much easier if she weren't the one who had to teach them. "Hopefully quieter than that," she says. "Ready?"
They are, as ready as they'll ever be.
"Okay, then. Sooner we leave, sooner we'll get there, right?"
Varla mutters something about hoping they don't have to come back to school for a while. Oswina rolls her eyes and starts to answer her, but Clara interrupts. "Right," she says. "Quiet time starts now." She makes a zipping motion across her lips and give the kids a look that makes it very, very clear that there will be Consequences for disobeying, and they will be much worse than being taken hostage by guerrilla robots.
Oswina probably ought to resent her taking control of her kids like that, but she's too busying admiring her technique. They really do have a lot in common. When this is over...
Well. Time enough to think about that later.
They gather the kids together. Me listens very carefully at the door, then nods her head. Oswina unlocks it and cautiously looks out. All quiet.
Off they go.
Sector Seven is deserted, almost surreally so, given how much foot traffic there usually is at this point in the station's day cycle. So is Sector Six. The Eatery Cluster in 6-005 is especially eerie, its food stalls hastily abandoned, food still sitting out on tables.
Clara has to slap Varla's hand away from a half-eaten Venusian burrito as they pass, but at least she doesn't make any noise.
Sector Five, however, is a problem. It's an older section, never fully renovated. The walls are bare and metallic, and she can see that leaving the familiar, comforting pastels of their home section is making the kids restless, heightening both their excitement and their nerves.
Worse, the sound here echoes and carries, and the kids seems to be reacting to the noise by adding to it. Especially the Farranah twins, who, let's be honest, have trouble not stomping everywhere at the best of times.
Clara's noticed, too. She shoots Oswina a look, mutual understanding passing between them without words. They stop, just shy of the next junction where they need to turn, and Clara pivots to face the kids and makes a series of gestures: A finger to the lips, a hand descending towards the floor to indicate a lowered volume, an elaborate raising of her eyebrows as she points down at her feet.
Oswina sees the kids getting it, sees the twins nodding and looking ashamed, and she finds herself smiling at Clara... and that's when it happens.
Funny thing is, she isn't at all sure what order it happens in. Maybe she hears it first: footsteps and movements that aren't theirs. But it doesn't feel like that. It feels like the thing inside her head that happens first, that sense of something familiar, something important, something she has to do bursting out from the back of her mind and overcoming her. No. Becoming her. Because it doesn't feel like something from outside of her. It feels like something she is.
She can see the soldier, in his pale green Station Security armor, rounding the corner, skidding to a stop. Can see his wide, frightened eyes, his gun thrusting out in front of him, his finger tightening reflexively on the trigger. She can see it all, but she almost doesn't need to. She knows this moment. She's seen it. It is hers.
Clara is still turning around, still reacting to the sound, when Oswina tackles her, knocks her to the floor, and sends her sprawling with a startled little cry.
And then everything is very, very bright.
She falls, crumpling to the floor. Dimly, she can hear Me calling out Clara's so-familiar name, can hear the soldier swearing and gasping out an appalled, broken apology. His face swims into view above her. He is young. To Oswina's dimming senses, he looks barely older than her students.
Poor boy. He probably feels guilty. "It's all right," she she says. Everything is fine. She's done what she came here to do. It's all worked out right.
Well. She is sorry the kids had to see this happen. But Clara will take care of them. Oswina knows she will. She trusts Clara Oswald. With her life.
"No! No, no, no, no, no!" Clara sounds so angry. She obviously doesn't understand. Not yet. Not the way Oswina does, now. Oswina understands everything now.
Oswina feels Clara – her future self, her past self, her whole self – taking her hand. "Just hold on," she is saying. "Don't die. Don't die."
Oswina shakes her head. It's too late for that. She can feel the effects of the disruption energy dancing through her neurons. She's already starting to lose things. Memories. Vision. Her brain is breaking down. But that's all right. She's almost done with it, anyway.
There really is only one thing left. Struggling to speak before the ability leaves her entirely, she forms the words that have been waiting, deep inside her, for all Oswina's life.
"Run..." she says, "you... clever girl... and... remember."
And then she is done.
Distantly, Clara is aware of the soldier's horrified babbling, his apologies, his repeated, desperate cry of "I thought you were the enemy! There wasn't supposed to be anyone here. I thought you were bots!" She's aware of the children starting to cry, of that lovely little troublemaker putting a comforting arm around the shoulders of a smaller boy. She's aware of Me's hand coming to rest on her shoulder.
She's aware of all of it, but none of it feels real. Neither does the body in front of her. This isn't something you're supposed to be able to see, is it? Your own dead face. And maybe this version of her was never entirely real, maybe she was always meant to die, but she wasn't meant to die like this.
"No," she hears herself saying. "No, this is wrong, this is wrong."
Me squeezes her shoulder, hard. Hard enough to send a clarifying pulse of pain through her. Clara looks up into her friend's face.
"We can talk about that later," Me says.
Clara opens her mouth, starts to protest, and Me squeezes again, harder. She's strong, for such a tiny person. She always has been.
"Later," she repeats. "After we've finished what we need to do. After these children are safe. Yes?"
Yes. She's right. They still have a job to do. Clara drops the limp hand she's been holding in hers. She stands. She doesn't look down at the body. Instead she turns to the soldier, stares into his eyes, holds his gaze. His face has gone gray, and he's shaking a little. That won't do, either.
"You're sorry? You're sorry?" Her voice is firm. Quiet. Full of steel. "Fine. Then you finish what she started. I don't care where you think you need to be right now, who you think you need to fight. You have a new job. You're helping us get these kids to safety. And I swear, if you shoot anyone else, anyone who isn't actively attacking us, I don't care if you're armed and I'm not, you're going to regret it more than you regret what you've already done. Am I understood?"
He nods, and swallows, and positions himself ahead of them.
They leave Oswina's body behind them, and follow the path she gave them.
Their destination, Clara is relieved to discover, actually is a safe place, as much as it's possible for anywhere to be at at time like this. There are locked doors with armed guards who aren't jumpily shooting at anything that moves. There are responsible adults, including many of the children's parents. There is food, there are beds. There's a trauma counselor, which she suspects some of these poor kids are going to need.
After things are settled, after the story of their trek here is explained, after the hugs and the tears, Clara finds the girl, the little troublemaker, the one who comforted the crying boy, who kept jostling her classmates along on the final leg of the journey and pulling faces to distract them when they needed it. She gives her a gentle squeeze on the shoulder. "Well done," she says, quietly.
The girl shakes her head and shrugs, refusing to be seen accepting praise from an authority figure, but Clara can see in her eyes that it hasn't been lost on her.
She has a future, this one. It's always good to see.
Clara smiles and pats her shoulder in farewell. Then she goes to find Me, standing quietly alone in a corner and regarding the room full of adults and kids with an unreadable expression.
"You all right?" Me asks. Whatever she's thinking, her tone is gentle.
Clara draws in a ragged breath, only just realizing as she does it how on edge she still feels. "Really not sure how to answer that."
"Well, you did just stare into the face of your own death. Again. I suppose that must be difficult?"
She says it with the genuine uncertainty of the one person in the universe who will never have anything like that experience, and despite the tension still roiling inside her, Clara has to smile. "Just a bit, yeah." She can't keep it up, though. She feels the smile falling off her face. "But that's not what's bothering me. Well, not the main thing that's bothering me."
Me gives her an attentive look and waits for her to go on.
So she does, the words pouring out of her in a torrent now that she's finally allowing herself to voice them. "This wasn't supposed to happen. She was meant to be here to save the Doctor, not to sacrifice herself for me! But he's nowhere to be seen, and for all I know maybe we already failed, maybe she missed her chance, because I interfered."
Me laughs. It's not an unkind laugh, but Clara frowns at it anyway. "That's what you're worried about?" She leans forward, her eyes on Clara's. "Don't you get it?"
Clara blinks, and frowns harder. "What?"
"Seems pretty obvious to me. She was never here to save the Doctor. She was here to save you."
Clara shakes her head. "That can't be right."
"Why not? You saw the Doctor's timeline when you were on Trenzalore, yes? All of it?"
"Yeah." It's all a hazy blur in her memory now, to be honest. Mostly she only remembers the overwhelming feeling of purpose. "I think so. I must have."
"And yours is intertwined with his. Even if it wouldn't have been without Trenzalore, it certainly has to be after it. Well, no, 'after''s the wrong word, isn't it? Because of it."
"Time travel," says Clara. "always so confusing to talk about." She says it lightly, but Me's words have started something, some half-formed thought, buzzing inside her head.
"Just think about it," Me says. "You were trying to save the Doctor because he's essential to the well-being of the universe."
"And because he's my friend."
Me waves a hand. "Yes, of course. But that's not the point. You, Clara Oswald, are as important to the fate of the universe as he ever was. And not just because you saved him. You might not be able to die right now, but the blasts from those weapons are every bit as good at scrambling human minds as they are robotic ones. If you'd been hit by it, there wouldn't be enough left of you to return to the raven."
And that's it. That's the thought. Or half of it, anyway. Clara draws in a deep breath. "You're probably right."
"Of course I'm right. You must have been able to see into your own timeline while you were fixing the Doctor's, whether you remember it or not."
Does she remember it? For a moment, there's almost something, a flicker in her memory, like the echo of a dream. She nods slowly.
"You saved yourself," Me says.
"I didn't, didn't I?" Because another memory is coming to her, now. "Right before she died, Oswina said, 'Run, you clever girl, and remember.' It's what my... my echoes always said to the Doctor. 'Run, you clever boy.' Only she said 'girl.' I thought she was just confused, thinking I was the Doctor, but that... that wasn't it. Was it? She really was talking to me."
Clara grins in relief. She's right. Of course she's right.
But here comes the other half of her thought from earlier, slowly taking shape in her mind. "Hang on. If that's true, that means..."
"It means the Doctor isn't here. Probably never was, probably never will be."
"And?" Me prompts her again, like a schoolteacher looking to draw a conclusion out of a reluctant student.
Clara might resent it a little – that is, after all her job – if she weren't too busy drawing the desired conclusion. "And that means dealing with this situation, helping to resolve the whole sorry mess on this station... That's all up to us."
"Yes," says Me, lounging faux-casually against the wall. "Well, I have an idea about that."
There has obviously been more fighting in the corridors since they passed through them with the children. There are ugly scorch marks scarring the pastel walls, and the corpses of robots are everywhere.
There are so many different kinds. Humanoid, insectoid, boxes on wheels. Large and hulking, small and delicate. All of them equally lifeless.
It's very clear who's losing this battle.
They pick their way carefully among the shiny plastic-and-metal bodies, making much better time without the kids.
They pass the spot where they left Oswina. Her body is gone, hopefully retrieved by the humans. Clara wonders who will mourn over it. She won't have a family, parents. She was never born, not really. But she was part of this life, anyway, and surely there are people who loved her.
Me gives her a moment, lets her stand at the burned spot on the floor and think, before gently pulling her forward again.
The classroom is exactly as they left it, the DNA lizard paused mid-sentence with an amino acid in his scaly hand. It feels wrong, somehow. Surely Oswina's classroom should not be the same with her gone.
Me doesn't hesitate, but immediately goes over to the slumped form of the dead robot in the corner. She has her hairpin out again. Handy thing, that. Clara wonders if it's sonic.
It doesn't take long. "All right," Me says as she finishes. "I've activated his communications relay and patched it into his sensors. Without knowing their codes, you won't be able to receive, but transmission is ready whenever you are."
"Okay," says Clara. "Here we go." She steps in front of the poor dead thing. A red light winks on at the front of his shiny oval carapace, and a moment later a soft, white light floods out from the top of his head, enveloping her.
"You're live," Me says quietly.
Clara looks into the light. "Hello, robots. My name is Clara Oswin Oswald. And I'm here to help. I know what you're thinking: oh, look, yet another human. Why should we trust her? Well, I've patched the scanners from this poor, brave, murdered classroom robot whose systems I'm using into this communications stream." She spreads her arms. "Go on, take a look. Surprised? That's right. No heartbeat. No life signs. I'm not one of you, but I'm not one of them, either. I've got no stake in this, other than a belief in justice and a desire to see the--" She almost says "bloodshed," but quickly amends it. "--the killing stop."
She gives the scanner, or the camera, or whatever it is an earnest look. "I have a way off this station. A ship, a very advanced one, with plenty of room for everyone. So here's what I'm offering. Any robot who wants to leave here has two hours to make their way to 7-214-Aleph for evacuation. My friend and I will provide you safe transportation to a currently uninhabited planet, one not suited to human life, but full of resources you can use. You can make a life there, if you want."
She takes a breath. Is this what the Doctor would do? Maybe, maybe not But it's Clara Oswald's answer, and she stands by it. Even though... Well. "It's not a good solution," she says. "I know that. You shouldn't have to leave your homes. But it's better than dying. I've seen how this war is going. The corridors of the station are littered with your dead comrades, and if you stay here you're probably going to join them. Leave, and you have options. You can live out your lives somewhere new, on your own terms. You can come back here to fight another day. Or you can appeal to the Galactic Confederation government for help, because I have it on good authority that whatever the humans on this station have done to you, it's not remotely legal. But you'll be alive to make those decisions.
"Two hours. We'll be waiting."
She gestures to Me, and the lights fade away.
Clara lays a hand gently on the dead bot's carapace. "You may never know it, but with any luck, you've just helped us save a lot more people. Thank you."
She looks over at Me. "You think they'll come?"
"If they're even half as logical as they're supposed to be," she says, "yes. They'll come."
They do. More of them than Clara had dared to hope for. They come in ones and twos, and in small, battered groups. Some of them thank her. Some of them don't. But they come.
Clara and Me stand in the envelope of Earthlike atmosphere surrounding the TARDIS and watch the last of the robots striding, rolling, and floating off into the distance.
For a long moment, neither of them speaks. Then, at last, not taking her eyes from the rocky landscape in front of them, Clara says, "Do you think I should go back?"
"Back to the station?" Clara can't tell if she's really misunderstood, or if she's just being gently difficult. It can be hard to say with her sometimes.
"No. Back. To..." She closes her eyes, just for a moment. "To the raven."
Me turns to look at her. "Why would you do that?"
"Well." Clara, at last, turns towards her as well. "You said it yourself. I could have died here."
Me begins to make a sound of disagreement.
Clara waves it away. "All right, not died, exactly. But you know what I mean. And if I don't get back to that moment eventually... Well, I don't fully understand what the consequences might be, I'm the first one to admit that, but I know they'll be bad. Unraveling the fabric of spacetime bad. So, do I really have the right to keep running?"
Me gives her a small, knowing smile. "I'd say we've just learned that you do have the right."
Clara raises her eyebrows. "Really? How d'you figure?"
"Because you've made certain those consequences won't happen. We've seen the proof of that. You've already done it once. And I know you too well to believe you'd stop before the job was finished. If you managed it once, you'll have done it as often as necessary."
Clara considers that for a moment, lets the thought sit in her mind while, outside their safe little bubble, wind sighs through rocks and rustles the leaves of the scattered, scrubby alien trees. "It cost Oswina her life," she says at last.
Me smiles again, and puts a hand on her arm. "But Oswina was you. She was a piece of you. Does it feel like that piece of you is gone?"
"I... I don't know. I hadn't really thought of it that way."
"Well, try it, and see what happens when you do."
Clara closes her eyes.
She doesn't remember Oswina's life. She doesn't remember any of them, not really. But when she stills her mind, and lets go, and looks inside herself, she thinks she can feel them, all those flickering, forgotten memories of dreams.
And she feels entirely, reassuringly whole.
She opens her eyes again. "All right," she says. "Well, then. Where do you want to go next?"
Oswina is returning.
She is an echo reflecting, a ripple reversing. She is a piece of a mirror breaking backwards in time, unshattering, becoming once again a smooth and faithful image of herself.
Behind her, the timeline is closing up, healed and whole and none the worse for her intrusion. The anomaly that was Klara Oswina is dissipating, drifting away. It's like waking from a dream, except the dream itself was real. Only the dreamer was an illusion.
She is Clara Oswin Oswald. She is complete. She is safe.
And she is going to live a very, very long time yet.