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Altered History: Time Trials (6/11)

Title: Time Trials
Series: Altered History
Genre: Doctor Who
Rating: T/M (dark Doctor, character death, extreme danger)
Summary: Eight does not want to answer a mysterious – and diverted – call to come to The Library, but Donna won't let him shirk his duty. Yet the dangers there echo ones from the past, and the Doctor has never been so close to sinking into his darkest elements. Never mind the time stalker he's barely missed meeting before. Or did he?
Disclaimer: Utterly not mine. Just talking things from canon, mixing in Big Finish stories, and a healthy dose of my imagination.
Dedication: cassikat, for getting me interested in the Eighth Doctor in the first place. tardis_mole for being an awesome beta. And bas_math_girl for encouraging me to continue the series and keep posting.
Author's Note: Started during NaNoWriMo when I suddenly found “Echos on Ood Sphere” finishing two chapters sooner than I expected (leaving one flashback bit out in the original draft), and to keep me going. I had to figure out on the fly what else I needed to write, and figured out later where the ideas would fit.

Once again, please make sure you've read the earlier installments: The Runaway Bride, Prophecies and Pompeii, and Echos on Ood Sphere. Otherwise you'll have no context for why Donna is travelling with Eight.

One other challenge for me was to ensure that I was not going overboard in my treatment of River Song. In full disclosure, she has rubbed me the wrong way since the first time I watched the Library episodes. I've made efforts in writing to make myself like her more, and I find that at a fundamental level she is someone I would not want to know or have in my life. (Even with the occasional instances where I almost want to root for her.) In this story I also hit upon what I feel is the biggest reason to not trust her, but... to quote her, “Spoilers”. Keep reading to find out. I have made some effort to include Big Finish info, but even that adds to the reasons I cannot like River. (Hey, no one will like every Doctor Who character. We can make an effort to accept that they exist, and that may be the best anyone can ask of us.)

And as always, a big thank you to tardis-mole for beta reading. You keep my historical info on track, and help me weed out those Americanisms that stand out like Six's coat in a sea of... any color. Never mind stop me when I need to be stopped on some tangent.

Chapter One / Chapter Two / Chapter Three / Chapter Four / Chapter Five

Altered History: Time Trials

Started November 3, 2018
Finished December 27, 2018

Chapter Six: Shadows and Darkness

From Chapter Five:

Donna was baffled by River's words. “But how can four thousand and twenty two people have been saved if there were no survivors?”

“That's what we're here to find out,” River said.

“And so far, what we haven't found are any bodies,” Lux said.

“Given the threat we're dealing with, what you're looking for are skeletons,” the Doctor muttered aloud.

Suddenly there was a loud scream.

The Doctor followed it into the neighboring lecture hall. “This door wasn't open before,” he noted as he began to investigate.

Almost immediately they saw a skeleton in rags that looked like they had once been white. “Everybody be careful. Stay in the light,” he announced.

“You keep saying that,” Proper Dave protested. “I don't see the point.”

'Who screamed?” the Doctor demanded, ignoring the Human man.

“Miss Evangelista.”

“Well, where is she?” The Doctor's voice was questioning and harsh, but his eyes were fixed on the skeleton.

River pressed a button on the comm. unit at her neck. “Miss Evangelista, please state your current-” She cut herselff off as she realized her voice was echoing from nearby. Eyes growing wide, she repeated, “Please state your current position.”

A lit comm. unit was on the remains of the skeleton's collar. River drew it away from the skeleton and swallowed. “It's her. It's Miss Evangelista,” she whispered.

“We heard her scream a few seconds ago,” Anita breathed. “What could do that to a person in a few seconds?”

“It took a lot less than a few seconds.”

“What did?”

“Hello?” came Miss Evangelista's voice from the comm. unit.

River closed her eyes, unknowingly drawing a bit of surprise from the Doctor. “Er, I'm sorry, everyone. Er, this isn't going to be pleasant. She's ghosting.”

Donna was not following. “She's what?”

“Hello?” continued the late woman's frightened voice. “Excuse me. I'm sorry. Hello? Excuse me.”

“That's, that's her, that's Miss Evangelista,” Donna breathed.

Proper Dave's face was pained. “I don't want to sound horrible, but couldn't we just, you know?”

“This is her last moment,” River snapped, quietly. “No, we can't. A little respect, thank you.”

Evangelista continued, clearly unaware of what had happened to her. “Sorry, where am I? Excuse me?”

“But that's Miss Evangelista,” Donna repeated.

“It's a data ghost,” River explained. :She'll be gone in a moment. Miss Evangelista, you're fine. Just relax. We'll be with you presently,” she added, calm and reassuring.

The change in River's demeanor barely registered to Donna. She turned her head slightly to address the Doctor. “What's a data ghost?”

“There's a neural relay in the communicator,” he quietly explained. “It lets you send thought mail. That's it there. Those green lights. Sometimes it can hold an impression of a living consciousness for a short time after death. Like an afterimage.”

“My grandfather lasted a day,” said Anita, her voice breaking slightly. “Kept talking about his shoelaces.”

“She's in there,” Donna insisted.

“I can't see. I can't. Where am I?” Evangelista's voice asked.

“She's just brain waves now,” said Proper Dave, trying to explain while not triggering another retort from River. Even if his thoughts towards Miss Evangelista had not been as cruel as the others'. “The pattern won't hold for long.”

“But, she's conscious,” Donna said, only hearing the pain in the voice. “She's thinking.”

“I can't see. I can't. I don't know what I'm thinking.”

The Doctor placed a hand on Donna's shoulder. “She's a footprint on the beach. And the tide's coming in,” he said, mournfully.

“Where's that woman? The nice woman. Is she there?”

Lux frowned. “What woman?”

Donna sucked in a silent breath. “She means... I think she means me.”

“Is she there? The nice woman,” Evangelista continued.

“Yes, she's here. Hang on.” River turned to address Donna softly. “Go ahead. She can hear you.”

“Hello? Are you there?”

Donna was silent.

The Doctor leaned in to whisper, “Help her.”

“She's dead,” Donna answered, just as quietly.

“Yes. Help her. Ease her passing.”

“Hello? Is that the nice woman?” Evangelista's voice asked again.

Donna found her voice. “Yeah. Hello. Yeah, I'm, I'm, I'm here. You okay?”

“What I said before, about being stupid. Don't tell the others, they'll only laugh.”

“Course I won't. Course I won't tell them.” Donna couldn't think of anything else to say.

“Don't tell the others, they'll only laugh,” the voice repeated.

Donna frowned. “I won't tell them. I said I won't.”

“Don't tell the others, they'll only laugh.”

“I'm not going to tell them,” Donna insisted.

The green light started blinking as the voice repeated, “Don't tell the others, they'll only laugh.”

“She's looping now,” River explained. “The pattern's degrading.”

“I can't think,” Evangelisa's voice called out plaintively. “I don't know, I, I, I, Ice cream. Ice cream. Ice cream. Ice cream. Ice cream.”

“Does anybody mind if I?” River did not finish the sentence.

“Ice cream. Ice cream.”

When no one objected, River turned off the comm. unit.

Donna was crying, reaching to grasp the Doctor's hand on her shoulder for comfort. “That was, that was horrible. That was the most horrible thing I've ever seen.”

“No. It's just a freak of technology,” River insisted, her tone going dark. “But whatever did this to her, whatever killed her, I'd like a word with that.”

“I'll introduce you,” the Doctor said. He did not trust himself to not make a remark on her change of attitude.

Once back in the Rotunda they had been in since meeting, the Doctor announced, “I'm going to need a packed lunch.”

“Hang on,” River said, opening her bag again. “Will you return my book?”

“What's in that book?” he asked, ignoring the question.

“Spoilers. I would think you of all people would understand.”

“And from what I sense, you seem to play fast and loose with spoilers, only honouring them when it suits you. Who are you?”

She bit her lip, holding back some comment. “Professor River Song, University of-”

“To me. Who do you think you are to me?”

“Again, spoilers,” she insisted. “Chicken and a bit of salad. Knock yourself out. I expect my book back.”

“Only when you tell me the truth. Now, you lot. Time for you to meet the Vashta Nerada,” he said, drawing his torch back out and beginning scans, starting with the floor.

With nothing else to do, River approached Donna. “You travel with him, don't you? The Doctor, you travel with him.”

Donna felt wary of her for her own reasons. She reminded her of women she had seen who went after a man without caring what his own wishes were. Even after what happened with Lance she still had some empathy for them, but this professor was in a league of her own. That lack of trust in the Doctor's warnings was the most troubling part. “What of it?”

The Doctor's voice stopped their talk. “Proper Dave, could you move over a bit?”

“Why?” asked the man.

“For fewer shadows to scan. Over there by the water cooler. Thank you.”

While Proper Dave followed instructions, Donna turned her attention back to River. “I remember seeing you from a distance. You were there, in the background more than once. The Doctor's already got one being messing with his life. If he thinks you're trouble, I tend to believe him. So you think you know him, do you?”

River laughed, aiming for light and not quite making it. “Oh God, do I know that man. We go way back, that man and me. Just not this far back. Nowhere near this far back.”

Donna let her skepticism drip. “I'm sorry, what?”

“He hasn't met me yet,” River explained, after a few seconds of hesitation. “I sent him a message, but it went wrong. It arrived far too early. This is the Doctor in the days before he knew me. And he looks at me, he looks right through me and it shouldn't kill me, but it does.”

“What are you talking about? Are you just talking rubbish? Do you know him or don't you? Because he clearly doesn't know or trust you.”

“Donna, I'm concentrating,” interrupted the Doctor, sharper than his usual tone yet nothing like the argument they had had before coming.

“Sorry,” she said, just loud enough that he could hear. And she knew it was quieter than Humans would believe.

River's eyes widened as they fixed on Donna's face. Or more accurately, her eyes. “Donna. You're Donna. Donna Noble.”

“Yeah. Why?” she replied, after a few seconds silence.

The tone said to not mess with her, and from River's expression she knew it. If anything, her expression became resigned, mournful as her eyes teared. “I do know the Doctor, but in the future. His personal future.”

“And yet another one of him bounced your signal. To a him who doesn't trust you at all and has no reason to. And why don't you know me? Where am I in the future?”

As much as the Doctor wanted answers to that, he had to interrupt. “Okay, found a live one. That's not darkness down those tunnels,” he said, pointing toward a shadow under a chair that was rather dark. “This is not a shadow. It's a swarm. A man-eating swarm.”

Donna, nervous about River, drew closer – still being careful about the shadows – while the Doctor drew a chicken leg out of the lunch box River had provided. Between the time he threw it and the time it hit the floor the meat had vanished completely.

In the silence that followed, the Doctor began the explanation he had hoped to avoid. “The piranhas of the air. The Vashta Nerada. Literally, the shadows that melt the flesh. Most planets have them, but usually in small clusters. I've never seen an infestation on this scale, or this aggressive.”

If not for his earlier talk, Donna would have had questions about where, but instead it was River who asked, “What do you mean, most planets? Not Earth?”

He noted the affection she had for the planet, and added it to his long list of questions about her. “Yes, Earth, and a billion other worlds. Where there's meat, there's Vashta Nerada. You can see them sometimes, if you look. The dust in sunbeams.”

River looked around at some of the dust in the air, and her voice had lost all of her confidence. “If they were on Earth, we'd know.”

“No. Normally they live on road kill. But sometimes people go missing. Not everyone comes back out of the dark.”

“Every shadow?” River clarified.

“No. But any shadow.”

“So what do we do?” River asked, quietly.

The Doctor thought a second. “With Daleks, you aim for the eyestalk. Sontarans, back of the neck. Vashta Nerada? Run. Just run. And now do you believe me when I told you all to leave immediately?” he snapped at River, sparing her a sharp glance.

River ignored the sharpness. She had no choice if she wanted to continue her beliefs. “Run? Run where?”

“This is an index point,” the Doctor mused aloud. “There must be an exit teleport somewhere.”

Lux started when most of the group looked his way. “Don't look at me, I haven't memorised the schematics.”

Donna's eyes lit up. “Doctor, the little shop. They always make you go through the little shop on the way out so they can sell you stuff.”

He grinned at her. “You're right. Brilliant, Donna! That's why I like the little shop.”

“Okay, let's move it,” Proper Dave said, preventing Donna from retorting about the Doctor's shopping habits or lack thereof. He took a step towards the shop.

“Actually, Proper Dave?” called out the Doctor, suddenly very calm vocally but his eyes were anything but. “Could you stay where you are for a moment?”

Proper Dave stopped and stared at him. “Why?”

The Doctor's eyes were mournful. “I'm sorry. I am so, very sorry. But you have two shadows.”

They all looked, and he did, at right angles to each other. There was no light source that could account for the second one.

“It's how they hunt. They latch on to a food source and keep it fresh. I've seen it before.”

“What do I do?” whimpered the man.

“You stay absolutely still, like there's a wasp in the room. Like there's a million wasps,” he amended.

“We're not leaving you, Dave,” River added.

“Of course we're not leaving him,” the Doctor said, not willing to look away to give River a look that said what he thought of the idea. “Where's your helmet? Don't point, just tell me.”

“On the floor, by my bag,” he answered.

Anita retrieved it and carefully brought it over to the Doctor.

“Don't cross his shadow,” the Doctor reminded her. She succeeded. “Thanks. Now, the rest of you, helmets back on and sealed up. We'll need everything we've got,” he said as he put Proper Dave's helmet on him.

Donna looked around and her eyes went huge in horror. “But, Doctor, we haven't got any helmets.”

“Yeah, painfully aware of that, Donna. I'm going to find a way to get us out safely.”

“In the meantime, how are we safe?!” she cried.

“Well, we're not right now. I wasn't about to tell you a clever lie to shut you up. I respect you too much to attempt that. Professor, anything I can do with the suit?”

“What good are the damn suits?” Lux snapped. “Miss Evangelista was wearing her suit. There was nothing left.”

River was thinking and had an idea. “We can increase the mesh density. Dial it up four hundred percent. Make it a tougher meal.”

“Okay, that's worth a try.” The Doctor immediately used his screwdriver to adjust Proper Dave's suit. “Eight hundred percent. Pass it on.”

But River was holding something up with a grin. “Gotcha.”

The design reminded the Doctor of what he had seen two of his later incarnations using. But he did not believe his eyes for an instant. “What's that?”

“It's a screwdriver.”

He realized then and there that he hated when people used an 'that's obvious' tone with him. “It's sonic.”

“Yeah, I know. Snap,” River said before she went to upgrade everyone else's spacesuit. And her own.
That was enough for the Doctor. He grabbed Donna's hand. “With me. Come on.”

He rushed her into the shop they had seen a glimpse of through one of the doorways.

“What are we doing?” Donna demanded when they entered. “Are we shopping?! It's hardly a good time to shop!”

The Doctor dragged her to a lectern by a small dais with three roundels in it. “No talking, Donna, just moving. Try it. Right, stand there in the middle. It's a teleport. Stand in the middle. Can't send the others because the Old Girl won't recognise them.”

“What are you doing?” she snapped, refusing to move.

“You don't have a suit. You're not safe.”

“You don't have a suit, so you're in just as much danger as I am and I'm not leaving you.”

He grabbed her arms. “Donna, let me explain. I don't trust her to not have some trap set for you. I need you safely away, and if you're in the TARDIS then you can help with scans and even perhaps move her to pick me up. You know enough that I think you can do it.”

Donna thought about it. “That's it?”

“Doctor,” called River.

“Okay,” Donna consented, stepping onto the spot.

The Doctor pressed several buttons, and then Donna teleported away. “Oh, that's how you do it,” he muttered before hurrying back into the rotunda.

When he arrived, the Doctor immediately saw why River called him. “Where did the second shadow go?”

“It's just gone,” Proper Dave said. “I looked round, one shadow, see.”

“Does that mean we can leave?” River asked. “I don't want to hang around here.”

Lux was impatient and nervous. “I don't know why we're still here. We can leave him, can't we? I mean, no offence.”

“Shut up, Mister Lux,” River snapped.

“Did you feel anything, like an energy transfer? Anything at all?” the Doctor asked Proper Dave.

“No, no, but look, it's gone,” Proper Dave said as he turned around to look.

“Stop there,” the Doctor commanded. “Stop, stop, stop there. Stop moving. They're never just gone and they never give up.” He used the sonic to scan the shadow they could see. “Well, this one's benign.”

“Hey, who turned out the lights?” Proper Dave blurted out.

The Doctor stood. “No one, they're fine.”

“No seriously, turn them back on,” Proper Dave demanded, terror in his voice.

“They are on,” said River, confused.

“I can't see a ruddy thing.”

“Dave, turn around,” the Doctor requested.

Proper Dave did, and it provided no comfort to anyone, least of all the Doctor. His visor was completely dark. “What's going on? Why can't I see? Is the power gone? Are we safe here?”

The Doctor had a sinking feeling about this. While he had not quite seen this himself, it was too close to what happened at the space station where the Nashta Verada were experimented on. “Dave, I want you stay still. Absolutely still.”

Proper Dave jerked into stillness.

“Dave? Dave? Dave, can you hear me? Are you all right? Talk to me, Dave,” the Doctor asked.

“I'm fine. I'm okay. I'm fine.”

“I want you to stay still. Absolutely still.”

“I'm fine. I'm okay. I'm fine. I can't. Why can't I? I, I can't. Why can't I? I, I can't. Why can't I? I-”

They all watched as Proper Dave's comm. unit lights blinked.

“He's gone,” River said softly. “He's ghosting.”

“Then why is he still standing?” asked Lux.

“Hey, who turned out the lights?” they heard from Proper Dave, just as before. “Hey, who turned out the lights?”

“Oh, no,” the Doctor muttered. “Dave, can you hear me?”

“Hey, who turned out the lights?”

“Does everyone else have their things?” the Doctor asked. Only River didn't have her helmet on, but hers was on the other side of Proper Dave. “Yeah?” he added when he saw the nodding. “Then stay back from it!”

Suddenly the visor changed, and a skull appeared in his helmet. “Hey, who turned out the lights? Hey, who turned out the lights?” he continued, lurching a step towards them.

River stepped backwards. “Doesn't move very fast, does it?”

“It's a swarm in a suit. But it's learning,” the Doctor added, glancing around for an escape route. Which became even more important when the now Skeletal Dave produced four shadows, and all of them were growing.

Lux was now in a panic. “What do we do? Where do we go?”

River grabbed something from the holster on her hip. “See that wall behind you? Duck.”

All of them did. River help up a gun and fired it at the wall, making a square hole in it.

“A squareness gun?!” the Doctor squawked.

“Everybody out,” River commanded. “Go, go, go. Move it. Move, move. Move it. Move, move,” she added as they rushed out into the hall.

They appeared amongst a shelf-line corridor, each shelf filled with books. River turned to the Doctor. “You said not every shadow.”

“But any shadow.”

“Hey, who turned out the lights?” they heard, coming closer.

“Run!” the Doctor and River cried at the same instant, for once on the same page.

After several minutes they paused by a series of massive shelves of books. The Doctor acted to sonic a light fitting. “Trying to boost the power. Light doesn't stop them, but it slows them down.”

River added her sonic, which boosted the light. “So, what's the plan? Do we have a plan?”

“Where did you get your screwdriver?” He demanded.

She shrugged. “You gave it to me.”

“I don't give a screwdriver to anyone.”

She smiled. “I'm not anyone.”

“So you think. Who are you?”

“What's the plan?” River asked.

“You're not learning it until you cease presuming you're important to me.”

“Where's Donna?”

That he was willing to answer. “I teleported Donna back to the Tardis. Should be able to contact her now so she can help,” he added, drawing out the sonic. But when he checked the readings he paled. “She's not there. I should have received a signal. The console signals me if there's a teleport breach.”

“Well, maybe the coordinates have slipped,” River suggested. “The equipment here's ancient.”

“Or did you tamper with them?!” he accused.

River recoiled. “I would never cause harm to the most important woman in the universe!” she snapped. “It'd be very bad if something happened to her here.”

A little taken aback by her words, the Doctor rushed to a nearby Node. “Donna Noble. There's a Donna Noble somewhere in this library. Do you have the software to locate her position?”

The node turned its head. As it spoke, it had Donna's face and voice. “Donna Noble has left the library. Donna Noble has been saved.”

“No,” whispered the Doctor, feeling his universe fall out from under him.

“Donna Noble has left the library,” the Node continued in Donna's matter-of-fact tone. “Donna Noble has been saved.”

“How can it be Donna?” River breathed. “How's that possible?”

“Donna Noble has left the library. Donna Noble has been saved,” the Node repeated, not reacting as the Doctor's fingers numbly stroked her face.

“No, no, no!” the Doctor wailed.

“Donna Noble has left the library.”

“Hey, who turned out the lights?” they heard from a distance.

“Doctor!” River cried.

The Doctor did not hear any of the repeating words. He only thought about how he had failed his best friend, who stirred so many confusing feeling within him. He started when River grabbed his arm and dragged him along, calling out for the others to follow. Before long, they ran into a dead end. From one end came more shadows. From the other lumbered the skeletal remains of Proper Dave in his swarm-filled suit.

“Doctor, what are we going to do?” River asked.

“Hey, who turned out the lights?” Dave's neural relay said.

At the same time, they heard, “Donna Noble has left the library. Donna Noble has been saved.”

But the Doctor remained silent, numbed to his surroundings and trapped within his own mind.

Chapter Seven: The Building Dangers
Tags: bas_math_girl, cassikat, doctor who, doctor/donna, donna, eight, fanfic, fic!presents, ficverse = altered history, rating = t, river song, tardis-mole

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