Zoe dreamed once again of a library, a strange library with shelves that shifted toward her and away from her when she thought about books. There was a swimming pool there, a thing she’d never seen in her station-bound life. And wound through it all, the sound of someone playing music on a flute. The music advanced forward on itself and back, inverted. Zoe concentrated on it, and the thread of music grew more and more distinct, until she knew that it was coming from the end of her bed. She blinked open her eyes: there was a little man sitting on the end of her bed, playing a wooden flute.
Zoe sat up. The shaggy man immediately stopped playing and turned on the bed toward her. “Ah,” he said, “You’re awake.”
“You,” she said, because it was he, the man from the dreams, and the shock of recognition was foremost.
His eyebrows went up. They were emphatic eyebrows on a mobile face, under hair that wanted cutting. “I’m afraid you have the advantage of me,” he said.
“I waas dreaming,” Zoe said, more to herself than to the man on the end of her bed. She looked at him again. Bow tie, checked trousers. Exactly the same checked trousers as in her dreams. They were too big for him. All his clothes were too big for him. It was the same man.
“Yes, I believe you were,” the man said. He raised one foot onto her bed and wrapped his arms around his knee. He tapped the flute along his shin, gently. Not a flute, unless flutes were wooden. Zoe had no idea what flutes were made from.
Zoe watched the flute tap-tapping against the checked trousers and said, “I’m still dreaming.”
“I think not. You are awake, and talking to me.”
“Except that you were in my dream. You and a boy in a kilt.”
The flute went still and the little man’s eyebrows came together. “Curious.”
“Not as curious as waking up to find a man playing a flute on the end of my bed.”
He smiled. “Not a flute.”
“It’s a recorder. An Earth instrument. Antiquated by your time, I think.” He held it up so she could see it clearly. “I was playing a Bach fugue. Well, one voice of it, anyway. It’s a poor sort of fugue when one has only a single instrument, but there it is. One man, one recorder, one voice.”
He shook out his elbows in an odd gesture and set the recorder to his lips. He played a single phrase on it, quickly, and Zoe recognized the tune she’d heard in her dream. If indeed she was not still dreaming, but she was beginning to wonder about that. The air had that stale air-plant smell that it never had in her dreams.
The shaggy little man stopped playing as abruptly as he’d begun.
“Permit me to introduce myself. You are Zoe Heriot, and I am the Doctor.”
He shifted the recorder to his left hand and extended his right to her. Zoe ignored it and kicked at the blankets. She’d tangled them around her legs in her sleep. She’d been running in her dream-- she was always running when she dreamed of this man. The Doctor. Yes, that had been his name. Or his lack of a name.
“I know you. I’ve met you before,” Zoe told him. “I ought to be furious that a strange man has invaded my cabin, but I’m not. I’ve seen your time machine before. We’ve met before. I’m sure of it.”
“Curious,” he said, for the second time. “This is, as far as I know, my first visit to your space wheel.”
“You knew my name.”
“Ah, well, I sought you out. I need a mathematician, and the TARDIS suggested you.”
“My time machine. The name stands for something tedious that I shan’t trouble you with.”
“Your time machine,” she said, slowly, grasping for memory that slipped away even as she closed her fingers around it. “Time travel is impossible. Or so they tell me.”
He smiled and pointed with a stubby forefinger, then pulled both feet up onto her bed. He wrapped his arms around his knees and waited for her. Zoe sighed and looked where he had pointed. She knew what she would see there even before she looked.
The blue box was, improbably, sitting in the corner of her quarters. It looked too big for the cabin. It was too big for the cabin, and yet there it sat. Zoe rubbed her face and blinked a few times, but it was still there when she looked again. She had, for as long as she could remember, been at odds with her colleagues on the subject of time travel. She knew it was possible. They knew it was not. The mathematics had always been on their side.
“You own a time machine.”
The little man smiled, and his entire face crinkled up. “It’s not mine. I stole it. A very long time ago now, and it was sitting derelict and unwanted, but the fact remains.”
Zoe swung her legs out of bed and stood up. The floor was cold. It was always cold. He remained perched upon the end of her bed, motionless save for the recorder tapping against his shin, but he was smiling.
The blue box grew taller, wider as she stepped closer to it. Games with dimensions. More straightforward mathematics, impossible physics. She laid her hands on the blue box. The TARDIS. Odd that it had a name, while the little man did not. The only name he had was his title. She methodically identified and tuned out the hiss of air in ducts, the faint vibration of machinery on other decks and concentrated on the box. Police box, the sign read, an artifact of Earth’s past that baffled her utterly. Except that it was not an artifact. The painted wood under her hands was vibrating.
The recorder sounded again, playing something that was like what he’d played before, but different. Slower.
“We’ve met before,” Zoe said. “A decade ago. There was an attack on the station. You stopped it. Strange, but I didn’t remember that until just now.”
“Time is an odd thing,” he said. Zoe did not turn to look at him, but pressed her ear to the TARDIS. The vibrations were the hum of living machinery, not the same as the ever-present rumble of the station. The Doctor continued talking. “The TARDIS’s path through it is not the same as mine. It believe it remembered you, as you remembered it. I, however, have not yet met you.”
“Except that I don’t remember you, not really. I remember dreams of you. I was dreaming of you just now, and there you were.”
“Ah. That is a puzzle, isn’t it?” he said. He sounded rather pleased by the idea, and also as if it weren’t much of a puzzle at all to him. She straightened and frowned at him and opened her mouth to say something cross, but he forestalled her with a raised hand. “Think it through, Zoe,” he said, and she heard his voice saying that at other times, in other places.
“Time. It’s about time travel. Of course.”
“But why do I not remember you properly? Dreams are not at all the same thing.”
“Many possibilities. Mind wipe. Repression. Fugue.”
“Mind wipe would be the most likely. It is a poor name for the process, because minds cannot be wiped. Not truly. Memory is holographic. You must wipe the brain entirely, or the memory remains. And that, I suspect, is the case with you.”
“Who would have wiped my mind? And why?”
The Doctor shrugged. “You might have chosen to do it yourself. Though that seems explanation fails to satisfy, doesn’t it. Perhaps it was another force entirely, which we cannot guess at. The future is a path as yet untraveled.”
For you, perhaps, she thought but did not say. She had already traveled it. They were discussing her past, a past she could not remember. She couldn’t imagine a reason why she would have chosen to wipe her own mind. The dream-life was so much more interesting that her station life. Library work, day after day. False gravity from the spin. Metallic air from the air plant. Once a month a new shipment of media from Earth, predictable dramas on data cubes, sporting events whose results were long irrelevant. Though perhaps she might have chosen to forget so that the pain of the contrast was not always with her.
Though she, like the Doctor, found that explanation unsatisfactory.
She said, “You need a mathematician, you said.” She seemed to remember he was one himself. He was a doctor of something that wasn’t medicine, something that made him a colleague.
“I have a pretty little puzzle to solve that might interest you. Well, the TARDIS thought it would interest you. If you, er, are awake enough.”
“It’s the Earth, Zoe, the Earth of your past. About half a century before the time we’re in now, the Earth will be stolen from its system. And secreted away in a temporally-desynchronized pocket universe. A neat trick, really.”
Zoe laughed. “An impossible trick.”
“And yet, it was done. Our task is to undo it. Without killing the inhabitants, if you please.”
“But why would anyone do such a thing?”
The Doctor shrugged. “Something blocks my instruments when I attempt to learn more. It seems mad, to expend such vast energy, but the fact remains, someone expended it. And your past is in great danger of being wiped out entirely.”
And with it, perhaps, her self. Another wipe, to finish the job left undone by whoever had wiped her memories.
“Curious. A pocket universe. So many possibilities. If I had a pocket universe, I would–”
“You would what?” His voice was sharp.
“I don’t know. Go to the places I dream about, I suppose.”
“Ah. A pocket universe isn’t necessary for that. At least, not if you’re me.”
It was a boast, but he had made good upon. In her dreams, at least. She turned away from him again and touched the blue door. It looked like wood, blue paint stained and weathered, but she suspected it was not what it seemed to be in any way. And once upon a time she had known whether it was or not.
The Doctor took his feet down from her bed and planted them on the deck. He leaned forward toward her, elbows on knees, the recorder clasped in his hands. “Would you like to come with me?”
The answer to that was easy, and had always been easy. For years, really, since she was a teenager, since that attack had first opened her eyes to the existence of a wider universe. And yet.
“I am traveling alone at present. I prefer not to.” He gestured as if to say, who would?
“Curious. Strange, even. Where did the boy in the kilt go?”
“I have never met a boy in a kilt. Or not yet is perhaps a better way to put it. Just as I have not yet met your younger self.”
And it had been a younger Zoe who’d run from one puzzle to another with the Doctor. There had never been an older version of herself in those dreams. Just three people: the Doctor, the boy in the kilt whose name would not come back to her, and Zoe. And that meant–
“You’ll unmeet me.”
“Yes, twice at least. We will meet in the middle and reverse ourselves.” This idea seemed to please him.
Zoe shivered. “And then I’ll be mind-wiped. Maybe by you.”
“Perhaps. I cannot guarantee anything except danger. Grave danger, at times.”
The Doctor stood and slipped the recorder into his coat pocket. He took a step across her little cabin and stood beside her. He was no taller than she was herself, and the too-baggy clothes made him look smaller yet. The expression on his face was amiable, relaxed, like one of her more distracted professors. He was waiting for her answer. Had he ever mentioned meeting her before, in those never-ending dreams? Surely she would remember that, if he had. Grave danger and pretty problems.
Zoe slipped two fingers into the handle of the TARDIS door and gave it an experimental tug. It creaked but swung open easily.
It was, as she had remembered, bigger on the inside.