River walked through her awake-dream aimlessly, wondering how best to find the Doctor. She’d called up a bright star flare that followed her, scintillating with brilliant rainbow colors, hovering high above her dream-self’s head. She didn’t know if he’d be able to see that beacon or not, but it was a start.
The dream-stuff around her was vague and nebulous, waiting for her to shape it. Most people always shaped it, since their minds couldn’t wrap around anything else. River had to admit, she was like that too when she was dreaming asleep-dreams. But in her awake-dreams — “lucid” dreams, Simon called them, when she’d tried to describe them to him — she usually didn’t bother shaping dream-stuff unless she had a particular reason for it. So now, as she walked, she formed a path — interestingly curve-y and paved with fine white quartz gravel — and her beacon star, and let the rest of it be.
She felt a faint, distant acknowledgement, and the dream stuff began to shift so it vaguely resembled a blank open plain, reaching to infinity, and a low, grey sky. The path took on a life of its own, and snaked rapidly off in front of her, unspooling into the distance. The horizon darkened, as if with storm clouds, and she knew the Doctor had found her.
Even though distance was irrelevant in a dream, she kept walking to have something to do, until, with a flickering shift in perception, the Doctor was suddenly visible, walking along the path towards her. The dream world immediately shaped and focused itself, so her white path wound across a wide rocky plain that looked like a lot of the Rim worlds, only without sagebrush, under a dim and cloudy sky.
River studied the Doctor’s dream-form with interest. Most people just looked like themselves in dreams, sometimes a little off-kilter depending on their personal perceptions of themselves, but the Doctor . . . changed, flowing from one form to another like quicksilver, now young, now old, changing faces and bodies effortlessly. He wore his waking appearance more often than any of the others, but he was never still. Around him flickered interesting shadows — memory-people, accompanying him as he walked, there for a ghostly few seconds and then gone again. A disturbance, like a faint whirlpool, rippled through the clouds above him as he moved.
“Hello again, River” he greeted her, smiling, momentarily silver-haired and wearing a dandified coat and cape. He tilted his head back to look up at her beacon-star, and when he turned back to her, still smiling, he was young and blond, with a mild, kindly face, before shifting to the brown-haired, brown-eyed form she’d met before. “That’s quite the beacon.”
River shrugged, secretly pleased. “It’s a dream,” she said, meaning she could have however bright a beacon as she wanted, here.
He tossed back his head, a mass of red-brown curls, and laughed, showing an impressive array of white teeth. “So it is. Very practical of you.” Then he sobered, and his eyes were brown again.
“I think you’ve been dreaming about the disturbances to the Time Vortex here, just as I have,” he told her, “but I’m not from here, and I can’t see clearly. I’m hoping, if you’re with me, I’ll be able to use your perceptions to help me see. Like wearing reading glasses,” he added, and fished an example pair from his pocket with a smile. He tucked the glasses back into his pocket, and shifted again.
Leaning on his umbrella, he gazed speculatively over the rocky terrain. “I don’t suppose you know the best way to those dreams from here . . .?” he asked hopefully. “I don’t dreamwalk much.”
“They’re here,” River told him, surprised that the Storm wasn’t as familiar with awake-dreams as she would have thought. “They’re always here. Dreams are malleable. You just have to reach the frequency. But you’ll have to be quiet. I can’t change the frequencies if you’re telling everything what to be.”
“Am I? I didn’t realize,” he told her, rubbing his earlobe thoughtfully. He slipped his hands in his pockets and was still for a moment. At first nothing happened, then the dream-plain dissolved into raw dream stuff. The path and the sky remained, however. The Doctor tapped his cane on the ground, pleased, and smiled over his shoulder at River.
She remained unmoved and gave him a frown in return. “All of it,” she said. “The sky is particularly relevant.” She added, as an afterthought, “Leave the path, though, or we’ll fall.”
“You’re a harsh taskmistress,” he told her grouchily. But he refocused, and the sky faded as well, leaving only the path. He grinned over his shoulder at her again, back to being his waking self, and she gave him a curt nod.
Then the dream world exploded into a new reality as she changed frequencies without warning.
Now the white gravel path wound through the vast star-sprinkled emptiness of the Black. “Above” and to their right, a planet hung suspended like a cloud-marbled balloon, rich with water, green and inviting. Just “below” them was a moon, looking larger than the planet because it was closer. It was terraformed, but only just, with thin, wispy clouds and an orangey color that didn’t promise much moisture, or much plant life beyond the ever-present sagebrush the first colonists had been so fond of.
The view was less interesting, however, than the faint shimmer that surrounded them — rather like heat-haze, if there had been any air to support such a thing. It was a disturbing effect, in a subtle way, as a misproportioned room or uneven floor can be disconcerting.
“Oh, now, that shouldn’t be there. That isn’t right at all,” the Doctor breathed, running a distracted hand through his hair. He glanced at River, face grim. “I’ll need to change this just a little. Will that be all right?”
River nodded, curious.
Things shifted, and there were subtle currents of . . . something running through the dream that hadn’t been there before. It wasn’t really a substance, or a light, or a sound, or a feeling, but it was there, rippling and turning and flowing, somehow both random and orderly.
With a spark of interest and pleasure, River asked, “Is that time?”
“Yes it is,” the Doctor told her absently, back to being young and blond for the moment.
Really, this was turning into quite an interesting dream. Back at the Academy, they’d given River some shots that had made her think she could see time, or feel it as a physical presence, or hear it as a strange, dry rustling sound, but that was just drugs working on her brain chemistry. She had a feeling this was the real thing. She hoped she’d remember what it was like when she woke up,
Time rippled along in cadence with the more visible shimmer, twisted and knotted itself through the disturbance.
The Doctor sucked in his breath and blew it out.
“That,” he said conversationally, “is even worse than I thought. These people haven’t a clue as to what they’re doing, but of course that isn’t stopping them.” He looked around at the planet, the moon, and the distant Sun. “I’ll bet they even think they’re clever for coming out here to try it.”
River brushed a few strands of hair back behind her ears and cocked her head to one side.
Responding as easily as if she’d spoken, the Doctor told her, “The best thing they could hope for if they keep this up is to open a black hole when the fabric of spacetime finally ruptures irreparably. The worst, well, it makes the black hole look like a fabulous all-expenses paid trip to a really nice resort. With free drinks, the kind that have little umbrellas in them, and fruit on straws . . .” he trailed off, but River could tell his light tone covered tension. Among other things, he’d nearly stopped shifting form at all, as if he were concentrating harder on being where he was.
“I don’t suppose they’d even listen to me if I tried to warn them,” he continued. “I’m sure one of their own has already tried to. You’d have to be an idiot not to figure where this was going, if you understand enough to try it at all.”
“These people made the Academy, too?” River asked.
“Maybe not the same exact individuals, but more or less, yes.”
“Then they won’t listen because they won’t care,” River said, stating the simple facts as she saw them. “Serenity can help you?”
“Yes,” the Doctor said, all his attention on her now.
“You can stop them?”
He narrowed his eyes and cocked his head at her, considering. “Yes,” he told her.
“Wait,” she said, and was gone.
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