While she was gone, the Doctor alternated between playing the recorder and the spoons to pass the time. He was working on a particularly complex spoon rhythm and chatting with the memory of Sarah Jane about nothing much when River returned.
She cocked her head at him and he refocused on the present. Sarah Jane evaporated into nothingness as he put his hands in his pockets and waited expectantly for River to speak.
“This way,” she said, and led him off down a branch in the pathway that hadn’t been there before.
A few steps along, and their surroundings changed. It was late evening and they were at the mouth of a stony valley, all jagged rocks and sage, like a million other places around the system. It would have been ordinary except for the carnage scattered on all sides — crashed and burning transport vehicles, dead bodies (most of them wearing brown uniforms, though there were some in blue), sandbagged positions (now abandoned), scattered weapons, ruptured steel barrels, unidentifiable debris and detritus. It looked as if a battle had been fought there . . . because one had.
Overhead, armed shuttles and atmosphere-rated warships hovered like grim carrion crows.
River led the Doctor to where Captain Reynolds sat on a rock, legs drawn up and arms around his knees. He was gazing off into the distance, his expression calm, if grim. He seemed unmoved by the appalling scene around him, as if it was something so familiar he hardly saw it anymore.
“Here he is,” River said, without it being clear to whom she was speaking.
Mal turned to look at them, and his expression had the detachment of a man who is dreaming and knows it, at least subliminally.
He raised an eyebrow at the Doctor. “I had you pegged for a shifty sort,” he commented. “Looks as if I was right.”
The Doctor shrugged. “It’s my nature,” he said.
Mal snorted, accepting the comment with a dreamer’s borderline-indifference.
“I thought you should see,” River told the Doctor.
“And what am I looking at?” he asked River and Mal equally.
“Serenity Valley,” Mal told him, turning to look away, down the valley. His profile was partially silhouetted against the orange light of a burning land-truck. “We were to hold our positions, keep the Alliance from coming through. And we did.” His tone was dispassionate, but old sorrow moved beneath the words. “Oh, we did. Just me and Zoe left, all my people gone. And then we were abandoned.”
His jaw clenched and he finished, “All that, for nothing.”
The Doctor looked at the ground for a moment, considering. When he raised his head, the landscape changed.
The setting was still semi-desert, but different, gravelly and mostly flat, with rolling hummocks. It too had been a battlefield, but the scattered remnants were far greater — huge crashed ships, near and in the distance, vast swathes of the ground burnt black or melted to shiny, bubbled glass. Great gouges had been cut through the earth, with fire still glowing at the bottom of them. Scattered everywhere were bodies, and odd metal casings, the same strange design repeated over and over. It looked as if gods had clashed with each other, leaving this terrible result.
“Arcadia. The pride of my people and the main defense of my homeworld,” the Doctor said, quietly. “I was at the front lines. It was our final hope, our last stand. We were fighting for our lives, and the Universe. Somehow I lived.”
A long pause, and he sighed, as calm and sad as Mal had been. “We lost.”
“Damn,” Mal commented, with feeling, and then was silent. Not much else to say to that.
“This is one of the things I fear for your Universe — this, or something like it,” the Doctor continued. “I’ve been with River to have a look at the dreams we’ve had, and someone — I’d lay long odds on it being this Alliance of yours . . .”
“Not mine,” Mal said firmly.
“True. My apologies. Anyway, this Alliance has been experimenting with localized timewarps.” The Doctor changed things so the sky went to black and displayed the shifting anomaly as if on a gigantic projection screen.
“I say! How very effective. I must try and explain these things while in a shared dream state more often . . . anyway, Time is being run back and forth, repeatedly, in a small region of spacetime. I can guess at the motivations, dimly. How handy, they’re thinking, to be able to reset time, to re-fight a lost battle, to stop a successful assassination . . . but the Universe — any Universe — doesn’t have a ‘reset’ button. It’s absurdly na´ve to think such a thing would work.
“At best, the fabric of spacetime will become too stressed, and rupture.” Above them, the twisted portion of space ripped open, and became a ravenous mouth, swallowing in all the matter around it, planets and moons suddenly as fragile and ephemeral as soap bubbles.
Mal gaped at the image, appalled.
“That would be the least of your problems,” the Doctor continued almost cheerfully. “It would take a while for the black hole to completely destroy this system, and you might be able to resurrect the generation starship technology that brought you here in time to send out at least a few lifeboats, as it were. Also, if I understand local history at all, based on what your Cortex has to offer, ships left Earth-That-Was heading in all directions. So it’s at least possible the human race would survive elsewhere.
“Another possibility is that this portion of spacetime would become so corrupted, the Universe’s compensation mechanisms would kick in, and, ah, excise the damaged material.”
The sky-dome reset itself, and this time, the damaged fabric of spacetime yielded up a vast cloud of black, winged shapes that put Mal in mind of a mass of blackjack hornets. They swarmed over everything in their path, devouring, in their way more terrible and thorough than the black hole had been.
“Reapers — your Universe’s version of them, anyway. And, so far as I can tell from the nature of the Time Vortex here, there is nobody to stop them, no equivalent to my own people,” the Doctor continued — speaking near gibberish, as far as Mal was concerned, but he still didn’t like the gist of it.
The Doctor paused thoughtfully. “Not that my people might have stopped this in any case — one of those ‘Reap what ye sow’ situations . . . But we’ll never know, will we? Anyway . . .”
The sky-image reset again.
“Finally, one of the side effects of weakening spacetime is opening pathways to other Universes — breaching the Void and crossing over into other realities, even to the extent of allowing matter to pass across the gap.”
He paused. “You are familiar with the concept of parallel Universes . . . ?” he asked.
“B’lieve I’ve heard the gist of it, yes,” Mal told him dryly. “I’ve cracked a book or two in my time -- not just a pretty face, y’know.”
“Never said you were,” the Doctor replied, so blandly that Mal, even caught up in the general detachment of dreaming, shot him a narrow-eyed glare. The Doctor ignored it. “That makes this explanation easier, at any rate . . .
“The Alliance has found that they have the ability to reach out across the gap between Universes and pull things through. Mostly, they’d just get junk, useless debris, natural in origin, and not terribly useful. But they’re curious, and they’ve been casting their nets with a will. That’s how they caught my ship.” He glanced at Mal with an edge of humor. “’Boat,’ in your idiom.” He winked, and then continued.
“We’re not from around here — not from this Universe. We come from a parallel reality, pulled through by the Alliance. At first I thought it was accidental, or some natural disruption, but it was quite deliberate. We managed to slip their grasp, and end up here, in Davesport, but our ship was damaged in transit, and this Universe . . . is subtly different from ours. We went to the local junkyard to find parts for repairs, and to try and adjust for local conditions — we met up with your Kaylee in the process, and you know the end of that story . . .
“My concern is that the Alliance is purposefully reaching out and trying to bring objects — specifically, technological objects — through the Void to this Universe. This time, they caught me and my ‘boat.’ Next time, they might net something far less friendly. The Daleks, for example — the race that destroyed Arcadia . . .” Above him, the dream-sky blossomed with sinister ships of unfamiliar design.
Mal shivered, but kept his head. “But that was a war. How can a war be worse than a black hole? Wars only shoot up the local real estate. Black holes, and those wasp-things . . .”
“ . . . Reapers, they eat everything.”
“Only in a localized area. Among other charming traits, the Daleks actively seek to destroy any and all life they encounter — and their ability to travel through space and time is quite well-developed. They would hunt the human race to extinction, anywhere and everywhere it might exist. Black holes and Reapers will only affect this small corner of the Universe. The Daleks would slice through the whole like a scythe — especially without opposition. My own race died trying to stop them, and your Universe has nothing of the sort.”
Mal bowed his head, thinking. “You’re sure this’ll happen?”
“One of the three possibilities is inevitable, unless this experimentation stops. The black hole, at the very least.”
“D’you know how to stop it?” Mal asked, with more intensity than he’d yet shown in his dream state.
“Oh, I have a few ideas . . .” the Doctor began, but before he could say more, Mal vanished like a snuffed candle flame.
The Doctor turned to River, questioning.
She shrugged. “He woke up. People do that.”
“True. Will he come back?”
“Don’t know. Things change. It’s never the same river twice.” River traced delicate pattern on the ground with one bare toe.
“No, it isn’t. I think . . . I will take my leave and go see how my own crew is doing. Thank you, though, you’ve been a tremendous help . . .” Now looking like some sort of old-Core poet with flowing hair and a long velvet coat, he swept her a bow, and then, for good measure, caught her hand and kissed the knuckles.
River let him, intrigued. And then he was gone, and she was left with just her path and the roiling mass of unshaped dream-stuff around it. Looking up, she could see her beacon was still bright. She killed it, and then began wandering.
Mal was awake and distressed — no surprise. Zoe was still awake, trying not to think about Wash. Jayne’s dreams caught River’s attention and held her as an observer for longer than she’d like to admit, but his coarseness eventually drove her on. Kaylee was dreaming a happy dream about smoothly engineered parts meshing together perfectly, and sleeping next to her was Simon . . .
As she ‘approached’, River could hear her bother’s voice crying out, “River! River? Where are you?” It was a dream he had often, River knew, searching for her, desperate to find her. Even though he'd succeeded in awake-life, his dream self didn’t seem to have taken the news to heart.
River sighed, and went to him.
He was dreaming a park, one that looked a lot like a park where they’d played as children. His dream self, looking younger than his awake-self, wandered through the scene, calling desperately for his sister. River walked up to him, and he brightened when he saw her. He grabbed her in a hug — it felt a little like being wrapped in cobwebs, to River — nearly sobbing with relief.
“There you are! Where were you?”
“Seeding clouds,” River told him with a smile, for her own amusement, knowing he wouldn’t understand.
As predicted, his dream self ignored her words, skipping over them completely. He took her hand and tugged her along. “Come on, Mom and Dad will have been so worried . . .”
But they weren’t, were they? River thought, sadly. She made a dream-copy of herself, and let Simon pull it further into his dream.
She turned away from him, found her path again, and resumed wandering.
Rose and Jack were sitting in the jump seat, resting, leaning their shoulders together. Neither needed sleep, but it felt good to sit down for a bit and wait for the Doctor.
At just before local dawn, he came striding into the control room, hands in his pockets and wearing a more relaxed and cheerful expression than he'd had since they crossed the Void.
“I see you’ve gotten the last of the new parts settled,” he told them. “That’s good, since I think it’s high time we went back to the junkyard.”
They did need some more parts still, but there seemed to be more to it than that, and his companions watched him, waiting. “Why right now? It’s still early, they may not be open yet,” Rose prompted.
“Ah, but Kaylee knew we were planning to go back there, didn’t she? So I think an early visit would be a good thing.” He volunteered no more information than that, but headed for the door, trusting them to follow.
Rose traded a wry glance with Jack, and they complied.
As hot as the previous day had been, the early morning was bitter cold, as was common in the desert. A thin layer of frost coated most surfaces. The Doctor wore his long coat, Jack had his leather jacket, and Rose had one of her old hoodies — though she was thinking regretfully she might have chosen something heavier. She blew on her hands to warm them as she walked.
Davesport was just beginning to rustle with daylight activity. The junkyard gate was indeed still closed, but there was someone else there already. The man was wearing a long, brown coat against the chill, and had the look of waiting for someone or something -- shoulders leaned back against the high wall surrounding the junkyard, arms crossed, one booted foot kicked back against the wall for additional support.
The Doctor made a small, pleased sound in the back of his throat, and Rose recognized the man as Captain Mal.
Mal had been moodily studying the ground, but looked up as they approached and kicked away from the wall, walking forward to meet them. There was an angry tension in his shoulders and his face. Rose had no idea what could have caused it, since he’d seemed to be in a relatively good — if standoffish — mood when they’d parted the other day.
As he got closer, she could see his eyes were bloodshot, and he was unshaven — the look of a man who hadn’t gotten much rest the night before, and had other things to think about than his appearance.
When he reached the edge of speaking distance, he called out, “Doctor, you’re a gorram liar, and whatn’th’hell did you mean, you’ve got ‘a few ideas’?”
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