Amy and Rory are discussing Space Florida, River Song busying herself around the console, inexplicably at their side for what feels to the Doctor the hundredth time. It's not a bad sort of feeling, except that with every one of those times he's getting closer to that last day and the library and he still doesn't know if he can bring himself to give her the screwdriver.
And then the TARDIS locks down. It's happened once, maybe twice in recent memory, so the thuds and dimming lights are only slightly panicking.
The Ponds (the parents, at least) look to the Doctor for guidance while River presses buttons that even he doesn't know the exact function of (other than that they are cool and interesting and mysterious).
But the first thing he does is whip out the psychic paper, because there's a message written on it and it's been ages since he felt a psychic that strong. It almost hurts to look at the letters, not because they're written terribly (which they are) but because the time is so twisted around them. This message exists at every point in space, and is, at least here, intended for him.
turn on your moniitor you need to lii2ten. 2omeone need2 two lii2ten
"It seems we're receiving a distress call. Well, no. Being forced to listen to one, I think," he holds up the paper. "'Turn on your monitor, no comma, you need to listen. Someone needs to (two? that's apocryphal) listen, again with no period. Really, grammar these days." He sobers, though, when he reads the note again.
"A psychic signal? This deep in space?" River Song plucks the note from his hands. "Well, we'd better listen, hadn't we." She crosses to the hanging monitor and pulls it round until it's facing them. It shouldn't light up, given that the TARDIS has all but shut down, but it turns a bright white that makes them all squint.
"-outfitting all the camerath with AI. Kind of like a black boxth for the game, we're doomed anyway but maybe, after thith, if thomeone endth up playing again, they won't fuck up ath monumentally as uth."
A young man comes into focus, at least it looks like a young man, but then, you can never tell with aliens. His skin is a light gray, and it looks hard and smooth, even in the dim light of wherever he's sitting. He has two sets of small, orange horns, and oval glasses. One lens is red, the other blue. The Doctor knows immediately that he is the psychic sending the signal.
"But this is an old picture," he leans forward towards the monitor as the alien boy goes on to explain the logic behind his decision, "the message is old."
"What? How old?" Amy turns from examining the boy's candy-corn horns.
"I don't know, days, weeks?"
"Ages, at least. The energy is incredible, to spread the message like this," River says, turning the psychic paper over in her hands.
"What- but you said this was a distress signal. We can't help them if-" the Doctor cuts off Rory with a raised hand.
"I don't think that's what this is. We're not supposed to help. I don't think we can," he says, voice strained. "I think we're supposed to listen."
"Like a black box." Amy repeats the phrase, looking at the alien boy who looks so ridiculously young.
And they do watch.
And the alien is playing some sort of game. Not the usual, computer kind. Not even some of the more advanced ones the Doctor's seen with fully immersive virtual reality and other tantalizing phrases. The kind that builds worlds and destroys them just as quickly.
The camera follows the boy with four horns exclusively. A few similarly-skinned children show up in the recording more frequently than others, cutting haphazardly between pieces of what the camera's programming decide contain relevant information. He only says the girl's name once. Aradia. AA.
She is either is lover or his best friend, but either way she lingers, with red-ringed eyes staring eerily at the cameras that no one else seems to notice. But at the moment another psychic presence overtakes the boy's, the cameras escape her.
He eats honey. The Doctor has had enough of strange bees to last a lifetime and even then he doesn't recognize these, and he isn't prepared when the boy wakes and the psychic signal makes him clamp his hands to his head and bite down on his tongue. There is so much pain that he barely sees the colors on the monitor, blue and red and coming from the boy's eyes.
Aradia is dead.
The other girl's name, he says reverently. Repeatedly. Feferi. FF.
They share a few moments, and she waits for him as their friends ascend into spinning, glowing spirographs that rise above them. An angry boy does his best to help the first, but when he passes through the portal the image distorts.
The sound comes, maxing out the camera's audio reception and reducing everything to a silent fight, ears ringing, like the shockwave after an explosion, and all Sollux (because that is what the angry boy is calling him over and over and what Feferi is screaming) can type is that he's is in so much pain.
Then, Sollux is dead.
The angry boy is crying on the other side of their connection.
The shockwave has broken the recording camera and all they can do is watch Feferi speak, her lips moving above her sharp, alien teeth and watch when she kisses the dead boy and the camera shorts out.
And then there's Sollux, alive and dressed in purple and then Aradia is there, pressed out of metal, and he's back at home, only there's a fire raging on indefinitely outside his window and what looks disturbingly like a floating brain. When he sleeps they see he dreams in gold.
And then everything, everything goes wrong, or more wrong than it already is, all black and white bodies and lots of blood in every color of the rainbow (and the metal Aradia is shrapnel).
When the film again becomes cohesive, the only sound is metallic humming. There are shots of him looking almost calm, sitting on a pile of bicycle horns with Feferi. That brief interlude is so peaceful, and then everything goes wrong again, only darker and worse because it's another one of the alien boys that's brandishing a weapon at him now.
But the boy with the gills and white wands doesn't kill him, and the angry boy finds him before someone else can and adrenaline is still pumping, even as Sollux is unconscious.
Someone's written smiles on the walls in blood.
And then the boy with gills is cut in two, purple everywhere (and Feferi is dead too, by his hands), and everything is gray and dark and calm again, and Sollux is being lead by the arm by a girl who glows white.
He has no eyes.
He catches a camera, and smiles. The smile is beautifully serene, all calm and no teeth and empty eyesockets.
It's horrifying. But he smiles, and speaks, again. No lisp, now, no trace of the defeated, angry finality of his first words to them. He is content.
"We're doomed. Well, not collectively. AA says we're going to beat Jack- the bad one. Not ours. We'll win, but I'll die."
He turns over the camera, and it focuses in, only on his mismatched shoes and the splatters of his own blood. Of Feferi's and the boy with gills like her, the boy that killed her.
"But FF said she was happy and okay."
He reaches for the power on the camera, not just for this camera but for the whole network.
"So I'm going to be happy and okay, too."
The screen goes black again, and the TARDIS hums as the lights come on again. No one moves.
Amy is stammering and crying into Rory's shoulder. He looks horrified but strokes her hair and looks anywhere but at that black screen.
"That was..." River Song stares at it, hands folded in her lap.
"From a dead universe, I think," the Doctor says, flipping the psychic paper over and over again in his hands, scratching the back of his head, adjusting his crossed legs. "Pressing itself through the weak, empty parts in ours."
And River thinks of that horrible thing, a jackal-human thing lived in green fire, wings stretched wide, sword in hand and ripping through the fabric of space and time like paper.
"I hope Aradia was right."