Whump. The sound startled him awake, but it was the shaking that let him know something was wrong. It wasn't extreme, just a gentle rocking back and forth that faded away as soon as it had disrupted every train of thought on the ship, leaving wall hangings swinging back and forth on their fasteners.
He might have heard the clanging of a few pots and pans falling from their places in the galley, too, so he made a mental note to lecture the crew about properly securing their stuff. His attention briefly turned to some of his own personal effects, now scattered and rolling across the floor in front of his now-empty bureau.
Aside from the mess in his quarters, everything seemed OK for the moment. Nothing exploded, which was always a welcome sign, and there were no more whumps. But, he knew from experience this was probably just the beginning.
“That’s the thing about trouble,” he thought and half muttered to himself, “on this boat, it always starts with a gorrham whump!”
He reached for the intercom, but it came to life on its own a split second before his finger got to the button. He only just managed to stop short of keying the mic and interrupting incoming message.
“Captain?” a young female voice crackled through the speaker.
He hated when she did that. Even though he knew about her psychic abilities, and she did it all the time, it always gave him a startle. He was already startled enough for today, thank you very much. The voice continued, “you should probably get up here.”
After a brief, involuntary pause, he balled his hand into a fist and allowed it to continue towards the red transmit button. “On my way.”
He kept his eyes open along the narrow corridor to the bridge, even taking a quick glance back towards the engine room. The ship’s power plant was slowly turning the way it should, and nothing seemed amiss in the small corner of the cargo hold that was visible from where he strode. Still, when he arrived on the bridge seconds later, he couldn't help feeling like he’d missed something - something he should have seen .. but what?
“Report! We hit something?” he asked, slipping into the co-pilots chair and turning on power to his instrument panel.
“No indications of an impact, nothing on sensors,” answered the young pilot, “but the ship’s net mass increased slightly, shifting our momentum too rapidly for the inertial dampers to engage. I had to enter a minor course correction to compensate.”
For an 18-year-old girl, River Tam had an incredible grasp of physics, and, well, just about everything else in the 'verse. She had never flown or even driven anything before, but she took to piloting Serenity as naturally as a child takes to breathing. She also had a knack for talking way over Captain Reynolds’ head. In fact, sometimes she liked to, just to mess with him, and to hear what he always said next.
“River,” he replied, obviously not in the mood, “in English.”
She grinned wryly, then pointed to one of her displays showing an internal diagram of the ship. At the tip of her finger, in the section representing the cargo hold, a rectangular shape blinked red against the green background.
“That weren't there before,” she reported, suddenly sounding like 6-year-old, “ .. just showed up ‘n’ made the ship all wibbly-wobbly .. ‘till I fixed her.”
“Scan it,” Mal ordered, unamused by, and the same time grateful for, her sudden condescension.
“Can’t. Ain’t nothin’ we got can see inside,” she mused, now more to herself than anyone else, “It’s just .. a box .. a little box of nothing .. with everything inside .. ”
“We still flyin'?” he asked, cutting her off and rising from his seat headed for the door. She nodded just before he turned his head away.
He mashed the intercom button on the bulkhead. “Zoe, bridge, Jayne, cargo hold, now!” he barked into the microphone, then stormed out the door without waiting for a response.
“Mal!?” River half-shouted, half asked as she turned her head towards him, once again making him jump.
The distant, glazed-over look in her eyes told him she was seeing something, but only with her mind’s eye. By this time, he knew enough to know he was about to hear something he wouldn’t understand, but should probably heed.
“You can trust him,” she continued cryptically, “he’s a doctor .. a doctor in a box.”
“I don’t trust nothin’ comes ‘board my ship un-asked,” he shot back, fully aware that River herself technically fit that description as well.
“‘Sides, we already got ourselves a doctor,” he added, leaving the room and the conversation.
Zoe slipped past him onto the bridge, tapping his shoulder in silent acknowledgement on the way. He gave her a nod and an understanding look, knowing how much she hated going to the bridge ever since the ships previous pilot, Zoe’s husband, had been killed there.
River had reverently kept Wash’s toy dinosaurs and the big red “miracle button” he’d created, fastening them permanently in their places since his death. The pilot’s chair and instrument panel had become a shrine in addition to their primary function, and there they all were again, reminding Zoe of that awful moment.
“I am a leaf on the wind … ” Wash’s last words echoed briefly in her mind. She always accepted it gracefully, though, and God help her if there was ever a day when she’d forget.
She winced almost undetectably at the thought, then caught River eyeing her from his old seat, obviously peering into her thoughts.
“That’s private, sweetie,” Zoey snipped. Pushing all the memories aside for the moment, she took the co-pilot’s chair and got to work. She fixed her mind surely on one driving thought: she’d be damned if anyone else was gonna die on her watch.
Mal met up with Jayne Cobb as he was climbing out of his bunk and into the main corridor. Serenity’s burly, gorilla-like, and ironically-named “public relations officer” was carrying a scary-looking black rifle he was no doubt ready to use. The sound of a very large bolt chambering a very large round confirmed this as Mal ran down the stairs in front of him.
“Careful with that, don’t need no more holes in my boat,” he cautioned, his speech jarred by the impacts of his feet pounding their way down the stairs.
“Don’t want no more holes in me, neither,” Jayne grunted as he took up a position about halfway down, raised the rifle to his shoulder, and began his tactical assessment of the situation.
Now able to see the entire room, Mal scanned the cargo hold, too, looking for anything unfamiliar. Several crates had been knocked about, but nothing appeared damaged. Just as he was about to let himself consider ordering Jayne to stand down and help him clean up the mess, he spotted it. He couldn't believe he’d missed it before.
To the far side of the hold, half tipped over, and resting on another disrupted pile of heavy crates lay a large, dark-blue .. something. It reminded Mal of one of the artifacts he’d seen in a private collection on Bellerophon. It was the same size and shape as that antique phone booth, but instead of dusty transparent glass, this was entirely wooden with a large lantern-like .. thing .. in the center of the top. There were a couple of panels that resembled windows on one side near the top, but they were white and opaque.
“What’n the tien shao duh is that?” Jayne inquired of no one in particular, training his rifle on the object.
Before Mal could answer, one of the sides of the box creaked open, releasing a cloud of smoke illuminated by an other-worldly orange-ish, green-ish light from inside. Within the smoke moved the shadowy figure of a man in a brown suit who was muttering loudly to himself about having to fix that quantum anti-matter coupling line before it got him killed again. He quickly shut the door, locked it with a small key, and turned around to reveal a red bow-tie settled atop a white, button-down shirt, and under a playful face that conveyed child-like innocence, but with eyes that had seen far too much for far too long.
“Oh, ‘ello!” the intruder exclaimed almost giddily, abruptly becoming much more subdued when he noticed that of the two angry-looking men, one had a finely-crafted weapon aimed at him.
“You don’t need that for me,” he continued, addressing Jayne and his rifle in a distinctly British accent laced with a sort of charisma that conveyed trust, yet was always hiding something. “I’m the Doctor, this is my Tardis, and we’re here to help!”
Jayne wasn't buying it in the least. “Help? Help with what? And what the ruttin’ hell’s a tar diss?” he asked, his trigger finger finding its place and slowly tightening.
He’d barely gotten the words out of his mouth when the whole ship shuddered violently, this time knocking everyone off their feet and adding no small amount of entropy to their carefully secured cargo. Jayne was thrown half-over the railing, forcing the gun to fire once, then fall from his grasp as he clung to the wrong side of the staircase. The bullet narrowly missed the doctor and splattered harmlessly upon impacting the side of his box.
The way down was a few meters further than Jayne cared to fall, so for the moment, he was more occupied with avoiding that than he was with shooting anything. His rifle hit the floor with a clang that surely would have seemed louder had it not been preceded by actual gunfire, then slid across the smooth steel panels towards the mysterious doctor. He instinctively, contemptuously even, pushed it away from all of them.
The Tardis shifted slightly and landed flat on its side with a loud thud. Overhead lights blinked off and on a few times, and every electronic instrument flickered in sync with them for a few seconds until it all eventually stabilized. Now, on every display and instrument panel there were several red lights and symbols blinking rapidly - another sure sign of trouble the Captain clearly did not enjoy seeing.
“Well .. that, for starters,” the doctor answered Jayne with an unnerving calm.
Everyone’s ears were still ringing from the gunshot as the doctor approached, and Mal was in no mood to take any more chances. With one swift, cat-like motion that can only be perfected through years of training and experience, he drew his sidearm, chambered a round, and held the barrel inches from the intruder’s nose before the “click-click” sound had finished echoing through the hold. The sudden silence that followed was palpable.
While Jayne resumed his struggle to climb back onto the top side of the stairs, the bow-tied doctor stopped abruptly and raised his hands in surrender, apparently yielding the advantage to Captain Reynolds - for the moment.
Just then, though, the the ship rumbled a little more, just to remind them, it seemed, there was another problem demanding attention. Mal steadied himself and ignored it, focusing his attention down the barrel of his pistol and onto the un-invited guest looking back up it towards him. Finally, he had the chance to pose the question that had been in the back of his mind since hearing River’s strange words on the bridge.
“Doctor who?” he demanded.
Chapter 1 - Ghosts in the Dark
“Just ‘The Doctor,’” the stranger answered in unison with River’s voice as she appeared on the catwalk overlooking the cargo hold.
“He’ll tell no one his name, not ever,” she continued, “Sometimes ain’t even sure he remembers it himself. Traveller in a blue box with no name .. the last .. ”
“Oh, now that’s just freaky,” the Doctor interjected before River could reveal any more of his secrets, “who are you, then?”
“She’s my pilot,” Mal answered for her, turning towards River and raising his voice, “and she’s got some explainin’ to do, like why the hell she ain’t pilotin’ us outta this mess!”
“Ship’s safe for now,” she answered, “ain’t movin’, but none of the big pieces ’ll hit.”
“Pieces? Pieces o’ what?” Jayne queried. No one answered.
Mal decided to pretend he didn’t hear that and addressed the Doctor. “Right now, I’m more concerned with who the hell you are and what you’re doing on my boat.”
“And I think you need to get your priorities straight,” he answered. “Your ship is disabled and a bunch of .. who knows what .. is slamming into it. But me, I’m unarmed, and believe you me, I’m no threat to any one of you or your crew … ”
He let that sink in for a bit before finishing, “Now, I suggest we all have a look outside, Captain.”
Mal hated to admit it, but he knew the strange man was right. Further, he remembered River saying the Doctor could be trusted, and she’d never been wrong before. Almost involuntarily, he ordered everyone in the cargo hold to the bridge, including their mysterious guest, then headed up the steps himself. Jayne stopped to pick up his rifle first, making it clear to the Doctor that any funny-business would be answered with a bullet or three.
No one noticed the small, charred hunk of twisted metal pinned between the Tardis and the floor of the cargo hold. Some of the writing on it was still visible, including the stylized letters I, T, and Y.
The view presented to those on Serenity’s bridge was like nothing any of them had ever seen before .. well, most of them, that is. The debris field plaguing their ship was, for the moment, the least of their concerns now that they could see the vast nebula-like anomaly from whence it seemed to emanate. Bands and fountains of green and white wisps of gas, dust, plasma, and God only knew what else seemed to cascade from a small central point at the center, then twist and warp into chaotic, yet beautiful patterns as they dispersed. Every so often, a chunk of debris would come into contact with one of these filaments and vanish in a piercing flash of white.
To the Doctor, though, this was far too familiar for his own comfort. “It can’t be,” he thought, “that’s impossible!”
He must have said some of that out loud, because Mal now caught his attention with his own question, “what’s impossible?”
“Where are we?” asked the Doctor, not wanting to tip his hand just yet, “what’s the name of the nearest planet or moon or anything?”
Serenity had been traveling through a very remote corner of the system, so the answer was more difficult to determine than usual. In fact, the nearest documented .. well, anything, was over three days away at maximum speed.
“Medusa,” River finally answered, confirming the Doctor’s suspicions, but also explaining just how far away the tiny proto-planet known as Medusa really was. There should have been nothing at this particular point in space except for a lot of space, let alone what appeared to be a giant gaseous nebula.
At precisely that moment, the mood on the bridge went from confusion to outright disbelief and shock as a larger piece of debris floated into view directly in front of them. Emblazoned on the near side of the twisted panel was part of the name of their own ship - the one they were standing on at the moment. The doctor was the first to break the stunned silence that followed.
“Oh, that’s bad .. that’s really bad,” he mused, then addressed the captain directly to continue, “we should go. We should leave right now.”
“Yeah, I think you’re right,” Mal answered slowly, then mashed the intercom button. “Kaylee? How’s the engines? We gotta get outta here, and fast.”
“Somethin’s messin’ up the plasma chamber, captain,” came the answer, “we run any more power than what we’re usin’ to stay put, she’ll blow us all to bits.”
“Figure it out and get us flyin’, that’s an order,” he answered, killing the com link without waiting for an answer and turning his attention to their guest. “Meantime, Doc, you mind tellin’ me where we are and what the hell we’re seein’ out there?”
The doctor knew the answers to those questions, sure enough. What he couldn’t figure out, though, was how? He agreed to address the entire crew in the cargo hold, largely so he could confirm his story using his Tardis. He made his way there, followed closely by Jayne’s rifle, then Jayne, Mal, and Zoe. Simon Tam, River’s older brother and ship’s doctor, joined them on the way from the ship’s sick bay. River and Kaylee needed to stay at their posts, and would participate via the ship’s intercom system.
Once they all arrived, the doctor finally found a way to get Jayne’s rifle out of his face when he asked for help setting the Tardis upright. Jayne slung the weapon over his shoulder before helping Mal and the doctor raise the top end while Zoe worked to clear away some of the cargo items that had been scattered about, creating a flat surface for the Tardis to rest upon. It came to rest with a whump, not unlike the sound responsible for waking the captain earlier. The Doctor stood in front of it facing the crew who had gathered in a small patch of clean floor to hear his answers.
“What the hell’s in that thing?” asked Jayne, pointing to the Tardis, “How ‘bout you start with that?”
The Doctor figured that was as good a place as any to start, so he slowly reached into his pocket and pulled out the key. “I’ll show you,” he said, unlocking the door and pushing it open slightly, but not enough to allow anyone to see inside. “Who’s first, then?” he asked, gesturing toward the doors to invite them in.
He’d revealed the Tardis to lots of people before, but not this many at once. Still, he knew of the Serenity’s crew from his travels and studies, and knew they could be trusted. He’d always wanted to meet them, actually - in fact, that’s why he was here. He’d tell them that eventually, but first a bit of fun. He secretly loved this part, so with great excitement he ushered Captain Reynolds through the door.
“What the … ?” came the captains voice from inside the box.
“Come on, then, the rest of you, too,” the Doctor interrupted. He didn’t allow them to protest, but kept waving each of the crew into the compartment. Remembering the two of the crew who were listening via the intercom, he left the door open after entering on Simon’s heels. That, and he figured some of them would want a second look around the outside.
Inside the Tardis, the crew stood in what looked like a foyer and looked around in disbelief. The vastness of the control room alone was hard enough to accept, but they also saw several doors in the walls leading to other parts of the ship, and, of course, the towering console in the center of the room. The faces of the Captain and Jayne bore the look of cave-men trying to comprehend a supercomputer as they stammered incomprehensibly, and Simon’s mouth moved in silent protest as he slowly began to accept, if not understand, what he was seeing. This was even crazier than that statue back on Canton!
Finally, Zoe said it, much to the Doctor’s delight: “Its .. bigger .. on the inside!?”
Chapter 2 - Blue Box of Secrets
“EXactly!” the Doctor exclaimed giddily, making sure to emphasize that first syllable as he pointed towards Zoe the way a game show host would point to a contestant who’d just won the grand prize.
“But .. how?” interjected a confused Simon.
“Oh, it’s a trans-dimensional quantum compression .. thingy,” the Doctor explained, “it’s Time Lord technology - think of it as another dimension inside the Tardis, even though it’s nothing like that, it’s more like .. well, it’s really hard to explain, well, impossible really .. ”
He trailed off as the flood of questions kept coming, now all at once and all mixed up.
“Time .. Lord .. ?”
“Hey,” interrupted Jayne, “I asked you before what the hell was a ‘Tardis.’”
“This,” answered the Doctor, now standing near the console from where he piloted his beloved ship, “all of this, is the Tardis. Time And Relative Dimension In Space, t-a-r-d-i-s. It’s my ship, and it’s the only one like it in the universe. It can travel anywhere in space and time .. well, mostly,” he corrected himself, “she can’t cross over her own timeline or into fixed regions of time, and well .. sometimes she’s just got a mind of her own and goes where she wants.”
Turning to address the console, he continued, “don’t you, you beautiful creature, you?” finishing in the doting tone that a father would use with his baby daughter.
Without warning, an alarm blared over Serenity’s comms system and echoed through the open doors of the Tardis. “Decompression warning, hull breach!” the computer repeated as red alert lights flashed in unison with the klaxon. The commotion snapped the captain’s attention away from the Doctor’s ship and back to his own.
“Something must have broke through,” he said, stating the obvious as the ship’s computer repeated the warning message in Cantonese.
“I can help with that from in here,” the doctor said, punching a few buttons on the console. “There we go! I’ve extended the Tardis’ shields around Serenity. Nothing else will get in, and, more importantly, we can all keep breathing,” he announced. Sure enough, the alarms automatically shut themselves off and the ship, for the first time since this all started, stood remarkably still.
Captain Reynolds knew better than to assume everything was okay, so he ran back out to the cargo hold, followed by Simon. “Everybody all right?” Mal asked, directing his voice to the intercom.
In the engine room at the back of the ship, Kaylee clutched an overhead bar with one hand to steady herself. With the other hand, she gently patted her very pregnant belly, very thankful that she’d managed not to fall. She was near the end of her pregnancy, but Simon, her doctor and husband, had said it would be better for their baby if she took another week or so before delivering. A fall at this point, or even a brisk dash to the cargo hold, could have sent her into labor, and that was the last thing she needed to deal with in addition to all the craziness that had already befallen the crew that day. “We’re ok, captain,” she answered for herself and the baby, much to Simon’s relief.
“River?” queried Simon from the cargo hold. No response. Mal and Simon exchanged a glance and then raced to the bridge. Behind them, everyone sprang forth from the Tardis and followed, the Doctor pushing his way past all but the captain and Simon.
“Oh God, River!” Simon wailed as he entered the bridge with Mal on his heels. His sister had fallen from the pilots seat and lay on her back on the floor, gasping for air. A pool of blood was beginning to expand from the exit wound in her back while the entry wound stained her shirt way too quickly. Embedded in the chair was a small metal fragment, along with some more blood and bits of her clothing. Mal did a quick scan and noticed what looked like a bullet hole in the observation window at the front of the bridge. Thanks to the Doctor’s shields, none of the ships atmosphere was escaping it, thankfully.
“Simon. .. can’t .. breath ..” River managed to get a few words out between gasps.
“Stay with me, mei mei!” he told her, “it’s going to be ok.” He assessed the wound as quickly as he could. It was far enough away from her spine that he should be able to move her without risking paralysis, but much too close to her heart and lungs to give him much more time to decide. His sister would die in the next few minutes unless he could work a miracle.
“I need to get her to the sick bay, now,” Simon told the crew standing in the door, “help me!”
Mal took her feet and lifted as Simon and Jayne carried the rest of her from either side. The Doctor followed them through the door, then addressed Simon.
“Take her to the Tardis,” he said. Simon began to protest, but the Doctor cut him off, “I’m pretty sure my sick bay is better equipped.”
Kaylee emerged from the engine room just as they began their descent towards the cargo hold. Seeing that River was hurt, and the frantic look on her husband’s face, she decided to follow them as fast as she could. She had to control her instinct to panic, though, when she finally caught up and noticed the wound and River’s now ashen complexion.
Zoey stopped at the top of the stairs to comfort her with a compassionate embrace. They would catch up later, Zoey told her. Right now, both doctors had work to do. Zoey couldn’t help but shoot a disdainful glance at that damned pilot’s chair that seemed to get everyone who sat in it for any length of time killed.
Rushing into the Tardis ahead of the crew, the Doctor mashed a few buttons on the console, checked one of the monitors hanging from the ceiling, and then continued. He waved the rescuers past the console and towards the adjacent doorway. “Straight ahead,” he advised, “I’ve loaded the sick bay right through that door.” There wasn’t time for anyone to ask precisely what that meant, so they all continued through the designated doorway.
The only piece of equipment Simon could even comprehend in the Doctor’s sick bay was the operating table waiting for them as they entered. The rest of it looked like something out of a 1960’s science fiction show from Earth That Was when viewed under the influence of hallucinogens. He, Jayne, and Mal gently laid River’s trembling body on the table and Simon, his trauma surgeon training having kicked in, made his post-transport assessment. She had already fallen unconscious. The Doctor stood by with a grim look on his face. He already knew.
“It’s too late,” Simon whispered through tears, “she’s lost too much blood .. it went straight through her heart,” his voice trailed off as he broke down and sobbed. He had fought so hard and sacrificed everything to rescue his sister and keep her safe. Together with Serenity’s crew, they had eluded the totalitarian government, evil corporations, rogue agents, and even the savage Reavers, and now one tiny piece of super-accelerated space junk had rendered all of it moot. River twitched as her eyes rolled upwards and closed. Her breath transitioned quickly from a wheeze to a rattle, and finally to silence.
Kaylee stood at the doorway, shocked and horrified, before running to Simon. Zoe stopped short and turned away slowly, for the moment unable to accept what she was seeing. Everyone else thought it best to keep a close eye on the floor.
“I’m so sorry,” the doctor said, audibly shaken at this turn of events, “so very ..”
He stopped short. River’s arm slipped from the side and fell until it dangled lifelessly in the air between the table and the floor. But at that moment, her arm, and the rest of her exposed skin, began to glow with an orange-ish yellow energy that strongly resembled the light emanating from the fixtures in the room. Small wisps of this energy began to rise from her face like glitter-filled smoke.
“WHAT!?” the doctor exclaimed, causing everyone else to look up and notice what was going on. Instinctively, everyone stepped back from the table as the light grew more intense and the wisps of energy became more concentrated. He knew what was happening well enough, he just couldn’t figure out how it was possible.
“That’s right, everyone stand back,” he advised as he stepped back and crouched down as low as he could, “oh, and, uh .. yeah .. get down!”
River’s eyes shot wide open as she drew in a sharp, deep breath and sat upright on the table as though she’d suddenly woken from a nightmare. She looked even more surprised than everyone else who just started at her, open-mouthed.
“What’s happening to me??” she begged, beginning to hyperventilate. “Simon?!” He couldn’t even begin to answer. But the Tardis’ Doctor knew.
“You’re regenerating,” he answered her, “you’ll be okay, but it’s really gonna hurt!”
She held her hands up a little and looked down at them, turning them back and forth and observing the resultant swirls and eddies in the golden flux now pouring out of them. She tried mouthing some words, but all she could do was scream as the energy now surged out of her face, hands, and feet in brilliant streams so powerful they ignited the walls and the electronics inside on impact. Sparks and debris flew chaotically about. The Tardis shook violently and thick choking clouds began filling the room as the fire suppression system activated automatically.
Simon tried to move towards his sister, but the Doctor caught him and pulled him back to the ground just as she turned involuntarily and sent one of the streams right over his head. River cried out one more time as the energy beams became so blinding that no one could see her through them anymore.
Then, just as suddenly as someone flicking off a light switch, everything stopped. The room grew dark now, due in part to the absence of the energy as well as the fire suppressants that had been dispersed. Only shadows were visible for the moment as everyone worked to clear their lungs and restore their vision - including the shadow that sat on the table hyperventilating.
Kaylee cried out for Simon in the confusion, but he didn’t know if he should to go her or River first. The Doctor who had just saved his life did, though, and pointed him towards his wife. “I’ll see to River,” he assured him, “you go on.”
Chapter 3 - The Albatross Emerges
“What’s happening to me?” demanded the unfamiliar voice of the woman on the table. She cried out from the surprise of not recognizing her own voice, then began inspecting her hands, arms, legs - every part of her that she could see was completely changed. Her skin had become more pale, and her hands were even shaped differently. Her legs were slightly more muscular than they had been only moments ago. She noticed her hair had not only grown, but changed color - and the Doctor had noticed, too.
“Well, how about that,” he exclaimed, “a ginger! I’ve regenerated eleven times myself. Eleven! And never as a ginger, but she gets it first time out. That is so not fair!”
“Doctor??” she asked, desperately wanting an explanation. Everyone else turned their attention to him as well, since he seemed to be the only one with the slightest clue as to what had just happened.
“Right, explanations. Ok, so .. let’s get some lights up and clear the air a bit first, shall we?” he mused as he tapped a few buttons on a nearby console. There was a clunk and a whirr as the exhaust fans came to life and sucked out all of the fire suppression gas clouds, allowing everyone to breath a little easier. A second tap from the Doctor lit the room with a comfortable soft white glow. Now everyone could see the apparent stranger on the table trying to avoid a panic attack.
Zoe stood stone-faced and stared at River Tam’s new .. well .. everything, as Mal swore in Mandarin. Simon and Jayne both appeared just as dumbfounded, while Kaylee, visibly frightened, clung intently to her husband and cried.
“Ok, first off,” the Doctor began, “don’t panic. This is still River Tam, and she’s all right. She’s the same person, same personality, same memories, just a completely new body. Isn’t that right, River?”
“I think so,” she answered, “I remember .. everything. But it all feels different now, too .. like my brain is diff-“
“Her brain!” Simon blurted out, cutting her off. “Her .. her brain had been altered, surgically, causing schizophrenia-like symptoms .. “
The Doctor interrupted before he could ask the question he dared not. “Yes,” he answered, “her brain underwent the same regeneration - each region, every single cell, they’re all perfect now, just like new!”
He continued, “I hadn’t realized it before, but this explains everything! You see, River here is at least part time lord - my species.” The incredulous looks on everyone’s faces reminded him that they still thought he was human, and that at this time, humans were still under the assumption that they were the only intelligent species in the universe. He decided to brush that one off for now and keep going.
“We’ve been around for a long, long time - we were travelling through space and time in ships like this one before life even began on, what do you call it? Earth That Was? And, fortunately for your sister,” he said in Simon’s direction, “we are very hard to kill, largely because of what you just saw - our ability to regenerate. See, when a time lord’s body is injured to the point of dying, it repairs and rebuilds itself instead. That’s what allowed us to survive long enough to develop this kind of technology and mastery of space-time.”
Now River interrupted him. “But you’re the last of .. “
He cut her off short and finished the sentence for her. “Last of the time lords, yes, I am. Or at least I thought I was .. I may still be, but I need to scan your DNA to know for sure. Meanwhile, we have to keep you safe, at least until the cycle completes in the next day or so.”
With that, he pulled a small cylindrical device from his jacket pocket and pointed it at River. Simon began to protest, but the Doctor stopped him short. “It’s my sonic screwdriver,” he explained, “I’m just using it to get that scan.”
The device made an otherworldly noise that sounded not unlike an angry cricket trapped in a centrifuge as the doctor quickly waved it back and forth in River’s general direction, then stopped to check what must have been a tiny display on the side. “Aha .. a human time lord hybrid .. one heart, but with .. incredible psychic abilities AND the ability to regenerate! Ha! You are beautiful, River Tam!”
“What do you mean, one heart?” Simon interjected.
“Full time lords have two,” the Doctor answered matter-of-factly, pointing at two separate locations on his own chest. “Binary vascular system .. hybrids can go either way, technically, but I’ve only ever seen ‘em with one ..”
While trying to understand, Simon suddenly realized the implications of all this and his eyes became wide like saucers. If River had alien DNA, that would mean that one or both of her parents - HIS parents, had it, and that meant HE would, too! He glanced at Kaylee’s pregnant belly and realized his own child could also be affected.
“She’s my sister,” Simon blurted, “we have the same parents, does that mean .. ?”
The Doctor responded excitedly, “Yes! Well, maybe. I’d have to scan you to know for sure ..”
“Do it,” ordered Simon before he could finish, causing Mal, who was used to being the only one giving orders on his ship, to raise an eyebrow.
Once again, the sonic device emitted its bizarre sound as the Doctor scanned Simon with it and checked the results. A puzzled look crept across his face.
“Nothing,” he reported, “no time lord DNA at all. You, my friend, are one hundred percent human.”
Once again, the minds of Simon and River Tam reeled with the implications of this. They apparently didn’t have the same set of parents. Were they even siblings at all? Simon tried to think back to the time in his life just before River was born. Meanwhile, River, the Doctor, and the rest of the crew continued the conversation that was now nothing but background noise to him. His mind finally settled on one particular memory that wasn’t quite as dim as the others.
His mother had come home early one afternoon, but acted like she’d been away for years. He remembered how she had embraced him and his father and told them how much she’d missed them. Then there was that sound that had come from just outside the house - a raspy, grinding sound, like a ship trying to retract broken landing gear. He’d tried to look out the window, but all he managed to see through the rain was a fading tinge of blue that was gone almost as soon as he’d seen it.
“Doctor!” he interrupted the conversation, causing all eyes to focus on him, including River’s brand new and shockingly green ones. That would take some getting used to.
“Have you ever been to Osiris?” he asked.
Chapter 4 - Answers in Time
“Osiris,” he repeated slowly as he tried to remember, “Osiris, that’s one of the .. what do you call them? ‘Core Planets,’ isn’t it? No. Well, not yet, anyway. See, today is the first time I’ve even been able to enter this solar system during this segment of time. Mind you, I’ve been trying for a while, but, for some reason, the last eighteen years or so are composed almost entirely of fixed temporal points - the Tardis can’t land there at all.”
The puzzled expressions on the faces of the crew reminded the Doctor that he hadn’t yet explained the time travel capabilities of the Tardis, so he set out to do that.
“Normally, this ship, my Tardis, can travel to any point in space and time. A million, billion years into the future? No problem - I’ve been there. Love the pizza, by the way. A millisecond after the Big Bang? Been there, too - nice, but too hot and cramped for my taste.”
“‘How is this possible?’ you ask? Well, that's kind of what Time Lords do - we evolved the ability to perceive and manipulate the time vortex at will, because we see it for what it really is.”
“Humans perceive time as a natural, linear progression from cause to effect, but in reality, time .. well, except for certain fixed points that hold it all together, isn’t like that at all. It’s more like a great big mushy blob of .. wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey .. stuff.”
“So, Simeon, when you ask if I’ve been to Osiris the answer is no. But, it’s certainly possible that I will go there, and that I will be there sometime in the distant past by your perception. Now that I’ve found your sister here, who’s been causing all these fixed points, I think I can make the Tardis land in this region of space time as long as it’s before she was born.”
“I think you might,” answered Simon, trying to remember the man who had walked his mother to the door that night so long ago before vanishing into the rain.
“Best if you keep it to yourself .. spoilers,” cautioned the Doctor before continuing.
“So, what I think has happened here is that River somehow got Time Lord DNA mixed in with her own. I’ll have to investigate how that happened later, but ever since she was born, everywhere she has gone that DNA has created fixed time. Events that must always be in order for the universe to stay together. This is true for all time lords, except when we're regenerating! The Tardis must have managed to punch through at precisely the right time, but because the window was so small, we were flung backwards a bit - back to the time when I landed in your cargo hold, and it created that rift out there.”
“Which, by the way,” he continued, “is fascinating, because I know that rift as the Medusa Cascade - a rupture in space-time that appeared out of nowhere and flooded this whole solar system with very dangerous .. spacey-wacey stuff, dark matter, super-plasma, that sort of thing. Anyway, I’ve sealed it in about ten thousand years, but now I know I also caused it! HA!” He smiled like a child realizing that he’s finally learned to tie his shoes.
“That’s probably what blew up your ship, too,” he continued, “But, lucky for you, this time around, Serenity was hidden away safely inside my shields, thanks to that piece of her that popped through your front window, triggered River’s re-generation, and allowed me to land here in the first place!”
He made a twisty, confusing back and forth gesture with his hands and said, “see what I mean? This whole situation is one great big wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey causality loopy paradox .. thing. I imagine it’s all very confusing to you all, BUT! We’re all in one piece, and that’s what matters!”
“Because,” he continued, “Serenity was .. well .. is .. the only ship that’s ever able to get close enough to the rift to gather any kind of data on it .. and trust me, when the Alliance sees what you’ve found, things are gonna start to change for all of humanity! You’re going to have to leave all of these planets, and fast … you’re going to have to invent faster-than-light ships, in fact, then back to Earth to re-terraform it .. ”
“That’s all very fascinating, Doc, and frankly, over my head,” interrupted Captain Reynolds, “but .. about all that ‘very dangerous spacey-wacey stuff’ .. doesn’t that mean we should be getting outta here?”
“Well,” he answered, “yes. I mean .. we’re protected by the Tardis’ shields for now, but I suppose they won’t hold forever ..”
“You still know how to fly this thing, little Albatross?” Mal questioned River.
“I think so,” she answered, her new Irish accent startling her a bit, still. “Huh,” she mused, shooting a glance at the Doctor, “‘The Albatross’ .. I like the sound of that.”
Chapter 5 - All Things are Made New
The crew, plus the Doctor, made their way back to Serenity’s bridge. As they ascended the stairs out of the cargo bay, Jayne pointed to River and asked, “let me get this straight .. she’s a whole different person now? Different insides, D-M-A and everything?”
“DNA, you mean? Yes,” the Doctor answered him, “‘the old things are passed away, and all things are made new!’”
“Now you’re soundin’ like an old shepherd I used to know,” Mal interjected.
“Doc, you got yourself a hell of an opportunity here,” Jayne said to Simon, ignoring the captain.
“Opportunity to do what?” he asked.
“To tell the Alliance your sister’s dead, that’s what,” Jayne answered, “they’re lookin’ for her old self, not this one. Just tell ‘em she died ‘n got vaporized by that ruttin’ cascade thing, and they’re like to be off your trail for a spell.”
“It ain’t a bad idea, Doc,” Zoey chimed in. Simon and River exchanged a glance and nodded their joint approval. “Leave it to Jayne Cobb to see the tactical angle to everything,” Simon noted.
“I’ll make it happen,” Kaylee said, taking the co-pilot’s position and checking the status of the ship’s communications array. She’d have to wait until they were clear of the Medusa Cascade, though. The craziness coming out of the rift at the center had wiped out every com frequency available. The rift’s green nebula of charged particles had already expanded and consumed the last remaining bits of debris from the other Serenity, and was now wreaking havoc on their sensors.
“Be sure and save that sensor data and send it along with the casualty report,” the Doctor reminder her.
“You’ll need a new name,” the Doctor suggested, turning to address River, “‘River Tam’ will likely get you into all sorts of trouble, especially after she makes that call.”
“Maybe I’ll just do what you do,” she answered, raising one eyebrow, “keep my name a secret and go by some vague title.”
“Why is that, anyway, doc?” Mal interrupted, “you surely got a name, why don’t you use it?”
“My name,” answered the Doctor, “is actually quite well-known throughout the universe. I wasn’t always the person you see here. Remember, I’ve regenerated many, many times already, and I’m close to a thousand years old. That name is responsible for horrible things, things I don’t want to remember or be associated with ever again. If anyone knew my name, they’d know what I’ve done, and that would be extremely bad - for everyone.”
“How bad can it be?” asked Jayne, “It’s not like you’re Hitler or somethin’ ..”
“Hitler was a pansy,” the Doctor scoffed, donning a look of disapproval that made it clear to everyone that this particular conversation was over.
River took her position in the old pilot’s seat, and, having adjusted it to her new height, plotted a course away from the cascade. “Where to, captain?” she asked once they were safely under way.
“Resume course to Whitefall,” he ordered, adding, “we still got a job to do there.”
Serenity’s engines roared to life, and the green nebula began to fade in the distance behind them. River expertly adjusted the ship’s course, engaged the auto-pilot, and lowered the manual helm control to its locked position.
“We’ll be there in about four days’ time,” she reported.
“Good enough,” answered Mal, “let me know if anything changes .. and somebody patch that hole. I’ll be in my bunk.”
Jayne raised an eyebrow and chuckled as they both left the bridge.
“Doc, we sure could use your shields to stay put while we fix that window,” Zoey mentioned.
“Of course,” he answered. “After that, though, I should go.”
“Where .. I mean .. when .. I mean .. “ Simon stammered as he tried to figure out the proper way to ask an alien time traveler about his next destination.
“There are still a lot of things about this that I need to get sorted,” the Doctor answered, “For instance, I still have no idea how River got her Time Lord DNA in the first place. So I’m thinking a trip to Osiris, say eighteen, nineteen years ago? Maybe I’ll stop in and say ‘hi’ while I’m there.”
Chapter 6 - Conclusion
Four days later, give or take an hour or two, Serenity looked as good as new - the breach in the bridge window had been repaired, thanks in no small part to some of the Doctor’s technology and ingenuity. It was likely the first time a cargo vessel had a hull breach repaired while in transit, and it would for sure be the last - for about a thousand more years, anyway. Zoey had even repaired the pilot’s chair - again. “At least no one died there this time,” she thought to herself.
Mal and Jayne were armed with their favorite guns and ready for the job on Whitefall. They would be leaving aboard one of the secondary shuttles within the next hour. River, now known simply as The Albatross, bore the next in a series of experimental hair styles implemented with Kaylee’s assistance. River wasn't sure she liked it, but there was always the next experiment to look forward to.
For now, though, the entire crew had gathered in the cargo hold, in front of the Tardis, to see their new friend off to his next adventure. The Doctor knew, though, that it was closer to the other way around. He’d studied this period in history, perhaps more than any other since he’d been able to simply go just about everywhere else. He knew that Serenity and her crew still had plenty of adventure of their own in store. He smiled at the thought, then gave one last wave before stepping into the Tardis and closing the door.
Soon, the strange box began emitting a sort of scraping, metal-on-metal sound. Mere seconds later, it simply faded from view, and with one last woosh, the Tardis, and the Doctor inside, were gone. The ship shifted slightly as River entered the necessary course correction. Mal was grateful for the absence of whumps this time around.
The sound had not long faded from their ears when another pierced the air. It was the scream of a young woman who suddenly found herself in severe pain. Kaylee had made her way to the stairs and sat on them, clutching her belly. Her voice burst forth again before anyone could react beyond turning their heads and widening their eyes.
“Simon! It’s time!”
The rain was falling in sheets as flashes of lightning illuminated the north wall of the Tam estate on Osiris. Young Simon Tam and his father were putting the finishing touches on the night's dinner when a bolt of lightning struck particularly close, causing the lights to dim and the home’s security field to reset. It was close enough that the thunder wasn’t a rumble, but rather an extremely loud crack that came on the heels of the flash. Mr. Tam thought he heard some metal grinding after his ears stopped ringing, so he made a mental note to himself to check the home’s sump pump after dinner. The last thing he needed was for that to fail in the middle of the rainy season.
His thoughts were interrupted, though, by a knock on the door immediately followed by the sound of it opening. There in the foyer stood his wife, finally home from what must have been a long day at the office and a nasty commute home. He thought her hair looked longer than when she’d left in the morning, which was odd. Before he could think about it, though, Simon came running.
“Momma!” young Simon exclaimed happily and ran into her waiting arms, “I missed you!”
“I missed you, too, Simon,” she answered as she scoop him up and held him tight, like she hadn’t seen him for months. “I missed you so much!”
Just then, the men of the house noticed the stranger standing in the doorway behind her. He wore a brown suit jacket and a red bow-tie settled atop a white, button-down shirt, and under a playful face that conveyed child-like innocence, but with eyes that had seen far too much for far too long.
“Oh, ‘ello!” the stranger said, “This must be Simon, then, yeah?”
“Yes,” Regan Tam answered, “and this is my husband, Gabriel. Gabriel, Simon .. this is my friend, The Doctor. He ..” She paused as she searched for the right words. “He helped me get home tonight.”
“Are you really a doctor?” Simon asked incredulously.
“Well, yes, sort of,” the stranger replied.
“A doctor of what?” asked the boy.
“Well .. everything,” he answered cryptically.
“I wanna be a doctor someday, too,” Simeon declared with pride. He’d already begun his studies and showed great promise, given his tender age of four.
“Oh, Simon,” the stranger said, kneeling down to the boy’s level and patting him on the head with a wink, “You’re gonna be the best doctor in the galaxy some day, I just know it!”
“A ‘doctor of everything,’ huh?” asked Gabriel Tam, catching the stranger’s attention.
“Gabriel, this man saved my life,” Regan interrupted softly, “be nice.”
But that only enhanced the elder Tam’s curiosity. If it was true, then he would, of course, show proper gratitude. However, a stranger befriending his wife, then coming to his home in the middle of an Osiris monsoon was going to require a better explanation than what had satisfied Simon. In his mind, some questions were in order. He began with what he thought would be the simplest one.
“Doctor who?” he inquired.
To Be Continued ... ?