The waves were breaking much higher than usual. Tommy said it was because there’d been an earthquake out in the middle of the Pacific somewhere, but what did Tommy know? To listen to him talk, you’d think he knew everything.
Cass made her way along the rocky shore carefully, as many of the stones were sharp-edged. Considering the pounding surf it was a wonder they weren’t worn entirely smooth, but Tommy said the water didn’t get up here very often. They were only wet now because of the rain, and long years of rain wearing them made them sharp and jagged instead of smooth.
She could see him, ahead of her, down further on the beach. Such as it was. Up here there weren’t proper beaches, not like back home. These “beaches” were all rocks, hard stones and shells strewn with seaweed, grim and dark under the grim and dark sky. Hardly any stretches of sand, and where there was sand it seemed some billionaire had staked his claim, closing the area to any interested adventurer who wanted to cross. Every time they reached some private beach they had to go all the way around the property before they could come back down.
Florida was better. Florida was home to relaxed waves instead of this raging surf, gentle cool waters instead of freezing fury. Even when it rained in Florida the ocean was friendly. Whitecaps and pounding surf meant a hurricane was blowing somewhere in the Caribbean. Here they were calling this a “nice, calm day.” Florida’s beaches were stretches of beautiful sand, everywhere you went. She missed Florida.
Ahead of her, Tommy had reached the water. At least there was some sand here, a narrow strip of brownish yellow beach. He was playing tag with it, laughing as he ran back and forth, the foam just barely reaching his sandals before receding to the sea. Cass couldn’t help but smile, even as a part of her wished for beaches one could be barefooted on.
Tommy didn’t see it. He was looking back at her, smiling his broad smile, the wind whipping his hair, when it came up out of the water. Cass wasn’t even sure exactly what she was seeing, a black shadow on the clouds, tentacles whipping up out of the water, what appeared to be a gigantic maw and rows and rows of teeth. For a hysterical moment she thought she was seeing that hokey SyFy monster, the Sharktopus, but this was horribly real. One tentacle whipped out and wrapped around Tommy. A moaning sound louder than the waves and the wind made Tommy finally turn and see it. His mouth fell open and his face went white as he was lifted off his feet.
As the water closed over both the monster and Tommy, Cass finally found her voice.
“So what are you going to promise me this time, Doctor?”
It was a safe question. To be fair, most of the time the promises came to fruition – crystalline lakes that sparkled in the light of a dozen suns; golden geysers shooting four hundred metres into a brilliant purple sky; looming ebony towers with echoing ivory-colored hallways housing monks who sang in voices so sweet birds came out of the sky to listen—all that he’d promised, and he’d delivered.
But sometimes, just sometimes, it seemed TARDIS knew the Doctor was needed somewhere he wasn’t planning on going, and shining diamond castles were replaced with cold, grey, wet woodlands and a violent stormy sea.
“Well, this wasn’t it,” he said, peering out at the gloomy weather, seeming to taste the air as he did. “Still, it does have promise of its own, you must admit.”
“A promise I need some rain gear,” River replied. “And yes, that means hat weather. The tasteful one, mind you.”
He glanced at her, his eyes dancing merrily. “My hats are always tasteful.”
“If you appear wearing a fez, I will shoot it off you again.”
“You have to catch me, first.”
Their familiar bantering was interrupted by a scream, carried by the wind from the direction of the pounding surf, just beyond a rocky shore. “That’s why we’re here,” said the Doctor, forgetting about a hat or anything else, taking off at a dead run toward the sound of fear without so much as a rain slicker.
River sighed and shook her head, grabbing her favorite wide-brimmed hat from the rack by the door before following him out into the steady drizzle. She stepped up on a rocky rise behind him, peering into the rain down to the hazy seashore.
“Doctor!” An unfamiliar voice called from the trees. The Doctor stopped short and spun around, a confused yet delighted expression coming over his face.
A good-looking young Scotsman came dashing through the ferny underbrush, wielding a cudgel. He wore a black tam o’shanter and tartan kilt, and the only indication he noticed the chill at all was a matching plaid scarf wrapped around his neck. “Come on, Doctor!” he shouted, heading toward the screams with grim determination.
The Doctor was grinning widely as the Scot passed him, but the Scot didn’t even spare either of them a glance. Behind him, another man appeared from the brush. He was short, almost stocky of appearance, with a disheveled black coat and a cap of dark hair plastered down onto his head from the rain. He had a mobile, young-old face with as many folds and seams as a Bassett hound. He was trying to keep up with the Scot, shoving at the ferns that kept slapping at his oversized pants and coat. “That’s all right, Jamie!” he called. “I’m right behind you! Oh, my maiden aunt!” he stopped, pressing a hand to his chest even though he really didn’t seem to be out of breath at all.
River looked from the Doctor to this new arrival, knowing instinctively that she was seeing her husband as he was many, many years and several Regenerations ago. She picked up her pace and came up behind him. “Well, this is interesting,” she said.
“I don’t remember ever being here before,” he said with true joy in his voice.
River watched the younger Doctor hurry past them, sparing them a nod as he went. She’d never seen him with this face, but of course she would know him anywhere. He was adorable, this little version, and she suddenly wanted to cuddle him, but of course that would be completely improper. “We’d better follow them,” she said.
“What? Yes, right!” Her Doctor jumped to run again, catching and keeping pace with his younger self easily. “Don’t often meet others who run towards screaming and certain danger!” he said loudly.
“Yes, well, we are, er, problem solvers, young man,” replied the younger Doctor, sparing the other a glance, frowning.
River hurried after them, glad she hadn’t put on the heels she’d considered wearing today. When she topped the rocky rise and looked down, all she saw was a girl, kneeling on the pebbly beach, sobbing as the surf pounded around her and the rain drenched her. Jamie, the Scotsman, came to a skidding halt near her and turned to speak to her, but River couldn’t hear what he said above the noise of the surf.
The Doctors fanned out around her, but River went straight to the girl, kneeling beside her on the wet beach. “What’s wrong? Tell us, we may be able to help.”
The girl lifted rather remarkable damp green eyes to River’s and said, gulping, “M-my friend, Tommy. He was here, and a thing—a huge THING—it came out of the water and grabbed him.”
“A thing?” Both Doctors echoed instantly, and in unison, “What sort of thing?” They looked at each other, the older Doctor with delight and the younger with confusion.
“I beg your pardon, young man, do I know you?”
“Rather intimately,” replied the Doctor, still grinning like an idiot. “Very intriguing, this. I don’t remember this at all.”
“Do you mean you’re--”
“Oh, I do say! This is extraordinary! What number are you?”
“Depends on where you count from. It gets confusing, up around seven or eight.”
“What are they talking about?” the Scot asked River.
“Doctor-speak,” replied River, holding the girl as she gave him a brief glance. “Do you two mind focusing on the matter at hand first, and then catching up on old times later?”
“Yes. Right.” The younger Doctor immediately knelt next to the girl and took one of her hands in his. “Now then, my dear, what can you tell us about this thing? Tell us everything.”
The girl took a deep breath and swallowed, but she started to sob again, shivering against River. “Let’s get her off the damp sand,” she said, gently lifting the girl up.
“No! I can’t leave! Tommy’s out there!”
“We’ll help find him. Now then. I’m River. This is my…” she paused, looking from one Doctor to the other, and continued, “traveling companion, the Doctor.”
“And I’m John Smith,” put in the younger version, tugging a handkerchief out of his coat pocket and gently dabbing the girl’s face. “This is my traveling companion, Jamie McCrimmon.” He smiled warmly at River, then gripped Jamie’s arm. “Come along, Jamie.”
“I don’t understand, Doctor,” said Jamie, looking with confusion between the two Doctors.
“Look, there’s a diner up there,” River said, pointing, as she guided the girl off the beach. “Let’s get someplace dry and warm and we can all get our heads straight there. Will that be all right, dear?” she turned her full attention to the girl. “What’s your name?”
“Cass. Cassandra,” came the reply through chattering teeth.
“Well, Cass, come with us. Let’s sit down and talk.”
At the top of the beach, not far from where their TARDIS was half-hidden by the trees, a dirt road ran parallel to the beach and then turned to gravel. Further up, half-hidden by the misty rain, it turned to asphalt where a sign read, “Welcome to Beachside!” in cheerful yellow letters.
“I thought we were in Seattle,” said the Doctor.
“This is a suburb,” said Cass, sniffing. They crossed the gravel road and the parking lot, where five or six cars were parked, to enter the diner.
Everyone in the diner turned to look at them, this odd collection of people, who trooped in. River sized up the room, decided it was safe enough, and herded everyone to a large booth in the corner, with enough space for all five of them. She settled Cass between her and Jamie, who slid into the booth opposite her, leaving the Doctors as bookends, one on each side. “Now then, my dear, what all can you tell us?” asked “John Smith,” a comfortable smile creasing his face but not taking away a certain level of trustworthy authority he exuded despite his crumpled suit.
Cass sniffed, wiping at her face with the napkins River passed to her.
At that moment, the waitress came up, a pretty young brunette in a pink uniform with the name “Sammie” on her name tag. “Hey, gang, what can I get for all you folks?” she asked, her voice as sparkling as her smile.
“A nice pot of tea, if you would, and Jammie Dodgers all around,” said the Doctor, putting both hands on the table. Neither he nor his younger self seemed to notice or care that they were dripping water everywhere.
“From England, are you folks? I’m afraid I don’t know what Jammie Dodgers are,” said the waitress, confusion in her eyes but her smile never faltering.
“He means cookies,” said River. “That will be fine for now.”
“Coming right up.” Sammie hustled away, and everyone at the table turned their attention back to Cass.
“Now then, right from the top. Tell us.”
Cass blew her nose and told them, describing an impossible creature of tentacles and teeth. “And then it just pulled Tommy down. I couldn’t do anything!” She started to sob again, weeping on River’s shoulder.
“I saw that thing,” said a voice from the other side of the Doctor. They turned to see a pale-faced young man in the booth next to them, his dark hair curling around his face as though in defiance of the fact he kept pushing it into place. “It came up out of the water and grabbed Heather. I was sure no one would believe me. I didn’t want to tell anyone. I didn’t know what to do.”
“Happened to us, too,” said another voice. “Pulled Bill right off the deck of our ship. Disappeared without a trace.”
“John Smith” looked at each face at their table, then turned to the speaker. “Has anyone else experienced this?”
Slowly, heads in the diner started to turn toward him. If everything else had changed about him, one thing had not: The Doctor was a commanding presence, and clearly no one understood why they were opening up to him, but it seemed to come easily as he rose and walked from table to booth and back again.
“We were walking up the beach and it just came out of the water…”
“Our boat was anchored about a half-mile out and we were fishing, one minute Dana was there and then the next…”
Almost everyone in the diner, maybe eleven in all, spoke up in halting tones, hesitant to talk but willing to speak around others who had clearly shared the same experience. John Smith stood in the center of the room and fixed his keen gaze on the waitress. “And you, my dear?” he asked.
“I’ve been wondering why they haven’t closed the beach down here. Every time someone reports another person gone missing our police chief says we’re seeing things and puts out an APB and that’s all we ever hear.”
Outside the wind had picked up, and something banged loudly in the parking lot, making everyone jump. A gust whipped around the diner. For a moment the outdoors was lit up in a brilliant flash of lightning. It almost looked as though a giant hand pulled back a grey curtain of rain from the diner’s windows, and the beach was clear beyond. A huge shadow was moving, apart from the storm. Cass let out a shriek and buried her head against River.
“My word,” said John Smith.
“It’s beautiful,” said the Doctor.
It was certainly interesting, what River had been able to see before the lightning faded and the curtain of rain fell over their vision again.
Before anyone could say anything further, both Doctors jumped up and raced out into the rain. “Och, there he goes,” muttered Jamie, throwing his hands up.
“Mine is just as bad,” said River. “Stay put. Sammie, can we get that tea, please?” she called to the waitress.
“Coming right up,” the girl breathed, her eyes still fixed on the window. “Are they going to be all right?”
“He always is,” said Jamie.
“Both of them,” put in River. Sammie, still pale, quickly returned with a pot of steaming water, a selection of teas, and a large plate of cookies. “Thank you, dear.”
“What do they think they’re going to do out there?” Sammie asked, glancing at the window again. It was impossible to see anything past the edge of the parking lot as the rain got worse.
“You’d be surprised,” said Jamie. “I’ve seen him do some pretty remarkable things.”
“Where are all y’all from, anyway? England or someplace?” asked Sammie.
Jamie, the Scot, bristled. River put a hand over his and shook her head slightly. “Jamie here is from Scotland. I’m from Leadworth, a little town in England. Cass, my dear? Where are you from?”
“Florida,” sniffed the girl. “Where there are proper beaches.”
“Yes, Florida beaches are lovely,” River agreed, giving the girl a hug. “Now then. If anyone in all the universe can help with this, it’s the Doctor.”
“Aye,” said Jamie, nodding as he ate a third cookie, dunking it unceremoniously into the tea he’d taken with milk and five sugars. “He’s a miracle worker, he is.”
River poured Cass a cup of tea, letting the girl add her own sugar. For herself she chose a bracing Earl Grey and took it with milk alone. She nibbled on a shortbread while watching Cass gather her control, sipping at the mint tea and occasionally rubbing her eyes.
“It’s coming up the beach!” The shout made everyone in the diner jump as the door slammed open. A big man in a yellow slicker stood there, holding a crowbar in one ham-sized fist.
“Doctor!” Jamie jumped to his feet.
“Cass, you stay right here,” said River, shoving her hat back onto her curls before chasing after Jamie into the storm.
The wind smacked her full in the face. It sounded as though someone, or many someones, was screaming. She clutched her hat tightly and peered through the gloom. “Where?” she asked the big man.
“I saw it! It was moving right up the beach,” he replied, turning his attention to her. “Are you crazy? You should be running away, not toward it.”
“Not in my line of work,” she answered, trying to see which direction Jamie had gone. “Did you see which way the Scotsman went?”
“What, the dude in the dress? Yeah, right for the beach. After the weird guy in the purple suit and the little hobo.”
“Those are the ones,” said River. “My lads. Wish me luck.”
The rain seemed to ease some at the edge of the parking lot. River could see Jamie jumping over rocks, and further down, the massive dark shadow of something. Between the two was the tall figure of her Doctor, and the smaller form of the younger version. “Oh, Doctor. I hope you know what you’re doing, you crazy…” Muttering to herself, she hastened after all of them.
Always running toward danger and the unknown.
She could see the beast now, stretching up and out of the water. “Oh, this is fascinating,” she said to herself, skidding to a stop to study it with an archeologist’s eye. It was large, probably around twenty or thirty feet tall if it stretched all the way out, thick-bodied, with multiple tentacles swirling around a bluish-grey body, something that combined a cuttlebone and an external skeleton, body armor perhaps, but with an upper body like some sort of mer-creature, almost human appearing from the waist up, with a dorsal fin along the crest of a massive fishy head with large, dark, wet eyes. The upper two tentacles appeared to have something like hands at the ends, although the fingers were so fleshy and fluid they were practically tentacles as well.
That thing didn’t come from Earth.
Both Doctors were waving at the thing, trying to attract its attention. “Hey! Here, Fishie!” she could hear her Doctor’s voice. “Over here! What is it you want? What do you need?”
Slowly, the big head turned toward the Doctors, fixing on the smaller figure. Giant lids seemed to click shut, then opened again. The big maw opened, and a voice came out. River wasn’t sure if it was actually words or random noises. The usual TARDIS translation didn’t seem to be working, if indeed it was a language. The creature tilted its head, perhaps looking curious or interested, but it was hard to tell with its huge flat-black fishy eyes.
“Yes, that’s it!” said John Smith, waving a huge red kerchief. “Tell us. What are you looking for? Why are you taking people? Is there anything we can do for you?” The rain stopped completely, the wind dying away, leaving only the sound of their voices over the waves.
The creature made a long noise, the sounds rising and falling as though it were a language. It had to be, something the TARDIS had never encountered, perhaps. It reached out one of those enormous hand-like appendages, but it was not an aggressive move. John Smith stood still, fascinated, still holding that huge kerchief.
“I say, you ARE an interesting fellow!” he said.
“I’m working on your dialect,” called her own Doctor, trying to bring the creature’s attention back to him. “Say that again, would you?” He had produced from somewhere a machine about the size of his head, covered with blinking lights and making buzzing, dinging sounds River could just barely hear over the noise of the wind and waves.
“We have two TARDISes here and we can’t understand word you’re saying,” said John Smith, just as the big hand closed around him, the tentacle-fingers much more supple than ordinary boney ones would be. The small Doctor’s feet left the ground. “Oh, my giddy aunt! Do let me back down, would you?”
The creature spoke again, tilting its head as it examined John Smith, bringing him close to its face. Then it abruptly turned and walked back into the water. “Whoa! Whoa! Come back!” The Doctor called.
John Smith let out a shout and struggled to break free of the creature’s grip, but clearly he couldn’t. Jamie’s eyes got round as saucers and he jumped forward. “Doctor!”
River found herself hurrying after him. “Don’t!” she cried, grabbing hold of him before he could fling himself into the water after the disappearing creature and the Doctor. The water closed over the monster’s head.
John Smith was gone.
Jamie shouted and struggled to get free of River. “Stop! You won’t help anything killing yourself!” she begged.
“It’s the Doctor! I have to save him!”
River held him tightly, looking around wildly for her own Doctor, who had gone into the waves as far as his knees, standing there shouting, “Come back! Don’t do this! I’m sure we can work together!”
“He’s gone,” said Jamie, his voice taking on a strange, dead sound. “He’s gone.”
“It’s all right. It has to be,” whispered River. “It just has to be.” For the first time in her life, she realized she didn’t know that for a certainty. For all the bantering that went on between them, there had never been for one moment a time when River did not trust the Doctor with everything and anything, and believe wholeheartedly in his eventual success in all things he did. But at that moment, he stood in water up to his knees, staring out at where the other Doctor had disappeared, making no sound or move.
It seemed like they stood there forever, the waves battering at the Doctor, while River and Jamie just held each other and stared past him, when suddenly the Doctor jumped up and let out a whoop. “Yeah! Yes! That’s it!” Spraying water every which way, he turned and charged up the beach past them. “Come on, you two! Hurry! Jamie, where’s his TARDIS?”
“Doctor, what is it?” asked River, even as Jamie gaped, wordless.
“Don’t you two see?” He stopped, whirling on them, his eyes wide with excitement. “I’m still here. For that matter, so is River,” he gestured to her, as though she were an afterthought. “I’m still here.”
The meaning of that came to River in an instant, but Jamie frowned. “We can see that, Doctor.”
The Doctor clapped Jamie on the shoulders, giving him a little shake. “Don’t you see, my boy? If I died then, I can’t be here now. If he were dead, River and I couldn’t be here, because I would have never existed.”
“But you Regenerate.”
“Well, now, that’s true,” said the Doctor, although his eyes sparkled still more, “but even I would keep on drowning if I kept on Regenerating underwater. Come on. Where is your TARDIS?”
“This way.” Jamie, still clearly processing this new information, turned them back the way they’d all come, heading to the top of the beach and the forest. Their own TARDIS was there, half-hidden by foliage, but they passed it and continued onward, deeper into the trees.
Great firs and pines rose up around them, impossibly high, trees so old even the Doctor might be young next to them. The younger TARDIS was nestled against one that had a trunk so large four adults couldn’t link hands around it. Jamie went to open it, but the Doctor was there first. His key didn’t fit.
“Come on, girl, I know we’ve changed it a few times, but it’s still me,” he said, patting the TARDIS on the side.
“My key will work.” Jamie stepped up and slipped his key into the lock. The door opened just as it always did.
Instead of opening into the great console room, however, River was surprised there was a small foyer before a much, much smaller room, a stark and cold looking place as white and sterile as an operating chamber. But the six-sided central control console was there, with its gears and levers and buttons wrapped around the great cylinder that housed the engines. The hat rack was still by the door, holding a colorful array of items. The Doctor whipped around the console as though it were exactly the same as the one in the TARDIS a half-mile away.
“All right, then, my dear, sexy thing,” he chirped. “A little bit there, and a little here…”
“This is different,” said River, looking around.
“What’s wrong with it?” asked Jamie. “You know what a TARDIS looks like, don’t you?”
“He’s redecorated rather extensively,” River replied. “Wait until you see it. What are you doing?” she asked, directing her question to the Doctor.
“I’m programing, my dear!” he replied, pressing several buttons before he whirled around to grab her and kiss her. River leaned into the kiss, but he was gone around, spinning to the next part of the console to tap away at some more keys.
“That’s new,” Jamie observed.
The Doctor laughed and spun again, this time grabbing Jamie and bestowing a similar kiss. Jamie pulled away and spat, wiping his mouth, as the Doctor continued to laugh, his hair whipping this way and that like a live thing. “River my darling, Jamie dear boy, we are going to find not only my younger self but all those people who have been hauled off. I’m sure this fellow means no harm. But first we have to find out what he’s saying so we can understand him!”
“So what are you doing, Doctor?” asked Jamie, still wiping his mouth.
“I’ve forgotten how much I missed you, Jamie. You always asked good questions,” said the Doctor.
“In other words, you properly admire his brilliance,” said River in a dry tone.
“Well, he usually is pretty brilliant,” said Jamie with a shrug of his shoulders.
River rolled her eyes. “Well, answer the question,” she prompted.
“Ah, don’t deny you don’t admire my brilliance, too!”
“I admire your brilliance,” she agreed in that same dry tone, which said she meant the exact opposite of what she was saying.
“What I am doing is putting the creature’s language into the database. It should take a while, which means that by the time she is my TARDIS, it should be about done. The next time we see the creature, we should have the translation ready.”
River had to admit it had a certain amount of brilliance. “So why wasn’t it ready just now?”
“Program wasn’t done yet, of course.”
The Doctor fiddled with the console for a few more minutes, then stopped for a heartbeat. “There it is. Let’s go.”
Another run through the forest, this time to their own TARDIS. The Doctor clicked his fingers and the doors whipped open. “That’s better, you sexy thing!” he caroled.
“That is definitely new,” said Jamie, as they entered. “Impressive,” he went on, letting out a long whistle when he saw the new layout. “I like it.”
“She is always impressive!” The Doctor swung the view screen around. “And now…” he went instantly from crazed manic to full stop. He frowned at the screen, hands hovering over one lever and two buttons, his expression darkening. “…the hard part,” he finished.
“What is it?” asked River, coming to stand by him.
“There’s only one way to follow our friend the Fish,” said the Doctor. “Since we don’t know exactly where his underwater home is, we’ll need to explore down there, and the TARDIS hates going underwater. She’s always been very fussy when I’ve tried to get her to go to any depths.” He gently stroked the console, “Please, darling. It’s for him. You remember when I was him, don’t you? If we don’t go get him, it’s really unlikely I’ll ever be me.”
He pulled the levers, but the console stayed silent. “Come on, come on.”
River sighed, reached around him, and flipped a switch. The console started to wheeze, the central column glowing as it moved down, then back up.
“Wow.” Jamie was walking up and down the stairs, around the console room, but he stopped and watched as the engines started.
“Thank you, girl,” said the Doctor, pressing both hands to the console and letting out a long breath. “I know, this is going to be tough. We can do it. You can do it.”
The TARDIS creaked and groaned. River clung to the console as the whole room tilted, sending Jamie stumbling. He grabbed hold of a rail to keep from being pitched to the lower floor. The lights went out, leaving only a red glow. Everything rocked forward, then back. River lost her grip and hit the floor hard, sending a shock from her elbow to her shoulder and back again. She let out an involuntary cry of pain.
“Are you all right?” called Jamie.
“Never better,” she responded. “To be honest, I live for this stuff.”
“Yeah, I think I do, too,” he said, grinning through the rail at her as the TARDIS pitched again.
The noise of the engines didn’t drown out the horrible sounds of pressure outside, pushing on the finite walls. “I’ve never understood why she pitches such a fit going underwater,” said the Doctor. “You’re a SPACE ship, my darling, you survive the pressures of outer atmospheres. Why is it so bad getting wet? You have a force field, not a drop will get on your lovely blue manicure.”
The wheezing of the engines changed tone, as though the TARDIS was taking offense at his patronizing. But then there was a bump. The engines stopped, and the lights came back on. The Doctor turned and snapped his fingers. Outside the doors, the force field held back the ocean.
A good-sized squid moved languidly past, barely visible in the gloom. “There. I knew you could do it. Now we have to find our friend.”
A trip to the wardrobe found several old-fashioned but sturdy scuba suits. “Someone should stay here,” said the Doctor, taking his own, the older of the two, with the antique-looking copper helmet.
“If one of you volunteers me…” started River, but Jamie cut her off.
“Not because you’re a lady,” he said, “but because I’d like to go, if possible.” He smiled at her, but the longing in his eyes was something she understood.
“You’re worried about him,” she said.
“Ma’am?!” River almost slapped him, but decided against it. “Oh, all right. You can go. But only because I don’t want helmet hair.”
“Thank you,” said Jamie, hurriedly struggling into the other scuba suit.
River made sure all their connections were good before letting them out the door and into the world of water outside. The TARDIS closed the force field behind them, although tiny droplets of ocean water seeped down the air line. “Doctor, can you hear me?” she asked, slipping a headset on and adjusting the mic.
His tinny voice responded, “Loud and clear! Jamie?”
River turned on the screen so she could see what they saw as they walked along the Pacific seabed, a strange wavering desert landscape with only a rare appearance of some odd flora and even rarer fauna. There were ripples off in the distance, perhaps some passing creature, but no fish that River could see from her vantage point. The Doctor didn’t flinch as a huge shadow passed over them. River caught a glimpse of a great spotted tail, like the enormous keel of a ship, passing overhead. She shivered, suddenly glad for all her adventurous spirit, that she was inside the TARDIS and not out there.
“Hard to get a fix here, but I think I’m closing in,” said the Doctor. “Tune the sonic to setting 27.”
River grinned. “All right, sweetie.” She complied, making the adjustments and turning the sonic screwdriver in the general direction she’d sent them. The sonic gave off a weird blast, making her wince. “Is it supposed to do that?”
“It detects two Doctors. Fine tune a little, and do a sweep, make sure we’re going the right way.”
River turned in a slow circle, watching the green light on the tip of the screwdriver as it pulsed. It pulsed rapidly when she was aimed where she knew her Doctor was, and slowed as she turned. It sped up again when she reached the ten o’clock mark. “Adjust to your left slightly,” she said.
The sonic made that weird blast again. “I think you’re going the right way.”
“Doctor,” came Jamie’s voice, tinged with worry.
“I see it, Jamie. You got it, River?”
She squinted at the screen. Coming slowly into view through the darkness was the shape of a building of some sort. It was not hard-edged, like a building on land, but softly rounded, almost like a termite mound, with spires and turrets. As they drew closer, color started to show, bright and lovely. “Is that coral?” she asked.
“Indeed,” replied the Doctor. “And here’s a door.” He walked up to it, bobbing a little on the water, and banged his fist against it.
River’s heart stopped when what appeared to be a glass door slammed down behind them, cutting off the air hoses. “Doctor! Jamie!”
“We’re all right, River,” said the Doctor, sounding less muffled. “We’re in an airlock. Our coral castle is hiding a space ship.”
He turned slowly, giving her a good view of the interior of the airlock. If indeed it was glass, it was strong stuff. The colors were more vivid inside. In front of them, the big doors slowly opened.
The big fish creature stood there, looking down at them. Its expression was perhaps confused. “What do here?”
“Ha! It worked!” cried the Doctor, taking off his helmet and changing River’s view to an awkward sideways one rather than his straight-on viewpoint. “Mr. Fish. We come in peace, but we need our friend back.”
“Friend. Me friends. No lonely more,” came the mournful voice. “Incoming friends!” It reached out those huge tentacled hands and grabbed the Doctor in one and Jamie in the other.
River clenched her hands on the console. “Doctor. Talk to me. Doctor!”
“We’re all fine, River! Bring her in!” came the Doctor’s voice through his helmet, sounding oddly far away.
“Oh, that man,” she muttered. She reached for the lever to close the door, but the TARDIS balked. “Come on, come on, we’re not leaving him, we’re going to get him,” she said, tugging harder. The doors slammed shut and the engines started to wheeze.
Through the open channel she could hear voices, the deep throb of the creature and the Doctor’s excited tones, already chatting away with a monster as though he were an old friend. The TARDIS creaked, rattled, groaned, and finally began to move. There was a woosh of pressure as they moved from water to the interior of the spaceship.
The engines ground to a halt. River snapped the door open and nearly ran straight into Jamie. “River!”
“Where is he?” she demanded.
“Safe as houses,” replied Jamie with a grin. “Look around ye! This place is a wonder.”
River stopped her headlong flight and looked. She had seen a great many things and been to a great many places, but she had to admit, this place was astounding. The curves and swirls of crystalline technology were even more lovely than the coral-like exterior of the ship. “Wow,” she heard herself say.
“Even ‘wow’ is a bit of an understatement,” said Jamie. “This I wasn’t expecting. He’s over there, with me own.”
River turned to see the Doctor and his John Smith younger self jabbering with the monster, who looked from one to the other with his huge, fishy eyes. “Yes! Of course we can help you! You don’t have to bring any more humans down here!” John Smith was saying in a bright, cheerful voice. He didn’t sound anything like someone who had been kidnapped and hauled down through goodness only knew how many thousands of feet of water.
“Are they all down here?” asked River. “What about Tommy?”
“Yes, ma’am?” A handsome boy with a wide, pleasant smile jumped forward at her call. He, too, bore no signs of trauma.
“Ma’am, again? Really?” River shook her head in agitation, then returned the smile. “Your friend Cass is going to be very happy to see you again.”
“River! Come and meet our host.” The Doctor motioned her toward them, his expression eager.
John Smith rose, his eyes sparkling. “My dear, this is Bahblsooreebloquesh. Am I saying that correctly?” He turned back to the creature, who moved his head in some manner that may have meant assent.
“Is close, Little Doctor Man.”
“I’m calling him Bob,” said her own Doctor. “Bob the Fish.”
“Bob the Fish?” asked River. She smiled and reached out her hand to the monster turned friend. “I’m very pleased to meet you, Bob.”
“Golden female Doctor mate,” said Bahblsooreebloquesh, very gently taking her hand in his giant one. “Is good friend.”
“Our poor friend here is a Vyskeerean,” continued John Smith, his expression turning serious. “He and his pair-bonded mate were a part of a shoal traveling through the solar system when his ship was hit by an asteroid.”
“He just barely managed to crash here,” her own Doctor went on, taking up the narrative seamlessly. “But unfortunately his mate was killed in the crash.”
Bob the Fish made a mournful noise. John Smith patted the tentacle that seemed most like an arm. “Mate died. Ship no longer run. Lonely here.”
“The Vyskeer are a very social race,” John Smith went on. “Bahblsooreebloquesh looked above water and saw humans, saw how they got along, and went to introduce himself. Unfortunately, there was a language barrier and of course humans saw him as a monster, so things simply got out of hand.”
River nudged her Doctor. “I’m assuming you’re going to take care of this,” she said, her voice low.
He practically glowed at her. “Why yes, we are. We’re going to use our TARDISes to get the radio going and get a message out to his shoal. They’ll come and help him repair his ship, and tow him home. We’ll pull all these folks up, and everyone will have a rousing good tale to tell next Halloween about the monster from the deep!”
“No one’s going to believe this,” said Tommy.
“That’s why it will fade into legend, my boy,” said John Smith, clapping the boy on the shoulder. “I do love you humans, but your ability to lie to yourselves has always fascinated me.”
“It still does,” said the Doctor. “Bob! Your radio, if you please. We will hook it up and see what kind of power boost the TARDIS can give you.”
“See friends soon,” replied Bob, seeming to brighten up. “Family.”
“Yes, indeed.” John Smith pressed the tentacle nearest him and beamed all over his cherubic, creased face.
River fully expected the two Doctors to get in each other’s way, but they seemed to work together rather well, despite bickering about which things needed to be hooked up first and what strange item had to be on top of which other strange item. On the whole, they seemed to understand each other perfectly. “I didn’t always get along with myself,” the Doctor paused to tell her, “but I rather think I like this version of myself. Very amiable.”
“I suppose it would be foolish of me to say ‘you’re very alike.’”
“I haven’t always been like myself,” he replied, pondering that a moment. “Some of me have been frightfully arrogant.”
“I can’t imagine what that’s like.”
He didn’t seem to notice the irony in her voice. “I’m quite serious. Oh, I have been a right annoying fellow, sometimes. Not now, of course.”
It was a few hours before everything was fixed up to both of their satisfaction, and then even longer before the sent messages got a response. River and Jamie made friends amongst the people who had come from the town above, telling stories and playing cards, trying to do anything to make the time go by. River knew neither Doctor would leave before the outcome was assured, so didn’t even bother to ask.
“I wonder how long the life support on this thing will last?” One young man looked around as River shuffled the cards.
“It’s lasted this long,” said Tommy.
Jamie considered the ship around them. “I’ve tasted staler air,” he said. “The Doctor and I have been in space stations and on other ships. This seems a right bonnie ship, for a wreck.”
“All power was diverted to life support when it malfunctioned, Jamie,” said John Smith, looking over at their game. “The Vyskeer are very focused on life. A very fine race.”
“Is home!” chortled Bob suddenly.
They all heard it then. A voice not unlike their fishy friend’s filtered through the makeshift radio, the flowing language of the Vyskeer only partially translated for them, but the message was clear: Bob was going home.
“Wonderful!” John Smith slapped his hands together with an expression of sheer delight.
“So how do we get back to solid ground?” asked someone. “When Bob carried us down, he kept us from drowning.”
“We’re going up in the TARDIS,” said the Doctor.
“Can we all fit in that box?”
River just smiled as the Doctor opened both doors and stood back to allow them access. “Come aboard, my friends! One way from the bottom of the sea back to Beachside!”
River helped herd everyone on board, then paused as the Doctors said farewell to Bob. “Are you going to be all right now?”
“Family come. Be here in short time. Me sleep, wait.”
Bob grabbed both Doctors in a tight, squishy embrace, then favored River with a similar one. She followed John Smith on board, closing the TARDIS doors behind her. The engines gave out their familiar, homey wheeze.
River found herself at the controls with John Smith beside her, while the Doctor busied about trying to make sure no one wandered off and got themselves lost in the depths of the TARDIS. “My dear, something tells me you are more than my traveling companion,” he said to her, quite suddenly and with a knowing twinkle in his deep-set eyes. “Our friend Bob did call you ‘mate,’ after all. May have been a trick of translation, hum?” There was something very charming about his battered face, both younger and older than her own Doctor’s at once. But then, she reflected, this WAS her own Doctor, just long before he’d meet her.
“Spoilers, sweetie,” she replied, her lips curving in her best wicked smile.
“Ah, but you know I won’t remember this. He doesn’t.” He jerked his chin toward his other self, still busy on the far end of the room.
River glanced over at the Doctor, in animated conversation with several of the rescues. She leaned over and whispered in John Smith’s ear.
His quirky, delightful face brightened. “Well, I do say now,” he said. “I do say. Well. Isn’t that wonderful.”
Impulsively, River kissed him on the forehead.
“Is that all I get?” he asked, his eyes sparkling merrily at her.
River laughed. “Oh, come here, you foolish man,” she replied, and grabbed him, planting a passionate kiss right on his lips. She was aware of Jamie staring; she heard the older Doctor clear his throat. But she didn’t let go until she was satisfied. Her young Doctor was blushing furiously, but he still looked pleased as punch.
“Why, thank you,” he said, fluttering his kerchief as though he wasn’t sure what to do with his hands.
“You’re quite welcome.”
After they dropped everyone off back in Beachside, and waved farewell to the young Doctor and Jamie, River and the Doctor sat together in the door of the TARDIS, their legs swinging, as they watched the Vyskeer ship arrive to haul away Bob’s crippled vessel. As the ship disappeared into the star-strewn sky, now clear of rain and storm, the Doctor asked, “Was that wise?”
“Do you remember it?” she asked, knowing exactly what he was talking about.
“No,” he admitted. “I will always remember the first time I saw you, River. And there was no sign of myself around to help me understand.”
She couldn’t help but smile at him, not a trace of her usual mischief in the expression. “I think I have a very interesting entry to log into my journal tonight.”
“Well, let’s go find some other scary monster, shall we?”
The TARDIS doors closed behind them and the wheeze of the engines faded, leaving only the stars scattered over the Seattle suburbs.
Apparently, too big for my fiction journal at nightmaresaloon! But FINALLY finished, just in time.