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Altered History: Time Trials (10/11)

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 taking 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 / Chapter Six / Chapter Seven / Chapter Eight / Chapter Nine


Altered History: Time Trials

Started November 3, 2018
Finished December 27, 2018



Chapter Ten: A Waste of Potential

The Library
51st Century


River stood in the middle of the rotunda she had led the remaining members to after she got her sonic back. She spent most of her time scanning the shadows, and felt lucky that none were showing signs of being dangerous. It was likely a matter of time before one of them changed and the rest of the swarm caught up with them.

She was also grateful that no one had asked her any further questions about the Doctor's intense distrust of her. She was trying to reconcile what she remembered from both her experiences and the many times she had researched the Doctor's past. After all, there was only so much time she could spend in his company before they had to part ways. But things were not making sense at all, and she needed more time to figure out an alternative way to convince this Doctor to trust her.

But did she have that time? The Vashta Nerada were a threat she had thought was one of the rare story stories in her research, as in not based on reality. If that was wrong, then what other assumptions had she made that were wrong? The Doctor was not supposed to remember her this soon in his timeline. That much she had been sure of. What changed that?

When she suspected that Lux's patience was wearing thin she sighed and finally spoke. “You know, it's funny, I keep wishing the Doctor was here.”

Anita, her visor still dark, asked a puzzled question. “The Doctor is here, isn't he? He is coming back, right?”

River sighed, unaware of the person hiding between the shadows above them. “You know when you see a photograph of someone you know, but it's from years before you knew them? And it's like they're not quite finished. They're not done yet. Well, yes, the Doctor's here. He came when I called, just like he always does. But not my Doctor. Now my Doctor; I've seen whole armies turn and run away. And he'd just swagger off back to his TARDIS and open the doors with a snap of his fingers. The Doctor in the TARDIS. Next stop, everywhere.”

“Spoilers.” The Doctor was grimly pleased when all three practically jumped at the sound of his voice. He rushed down the stairs, saying, “Nobody can open a TARDIS by snapping their fingers. It doesn't work like that.”

“It does for the Doctor,” River said.

“I am the Doctor,” Eight said. “Or have you forgotten?”

River sighed. “Yeah. Some day you'll be my-”

“Don't. I'm not your Doctor and never will be. And as for your comments; have you ever considered how insulting that is to all the mes there have been? Especially the ones between this me and the one you apparently know?”

“What do you mean?”

“No one is ever finished until they die. If each of the mes from my past could be here they would all be insulted by your dismissal of them. Someone who I would willingly choose would have enough respect to leave any insults to me. I'm the only one who can get away with insulting a past or future Doctor, and how do you know that you've seen me at my final instant alive? Only if you had could you say that you knew me when I was finished. And I'm taking your reaction that you haven't seen me die my final death.”

River shook her head. She did not want to get into the memories of when she had killed him in that alternate timeline. But a frown crossed her face. “Not a final death, but... the memories... they're not as strong as they once were.”

“Which means the changes I made are still having affects on Time. Which means... you and I aren't the fixed point you claim we are. Now, if you want to survive today you will remember my warning from earlier. How are you lot doing?” he asked the rest of the team.

“Where's Other Dave?” River asked.

The Doctor glared at her. “Not coming. Sorry. You shouldn't have made him stay with me.”

River lowered her gaze in the face of his accusing glare. That death was definitely her fault.

“Well, if they've taken him, why haven't they gotten me yet?” Anita asked, desperation tinging her voice.

“I don't know. Maybe tinting your visor's making a difference.”

But even as the Doctor spoke, he was not confident in that answer. Anita still had two shadows, but the one he knew was from the Vashta Nerada was much smaller than before. Was she already dead and Anita was somehow – mercifully, perhaps – unaware?

“It's making a difference all right,” Anita continued. “No one's ever going to see my face again.”

There was nothing he could say to that. “Can I get you anything?”

“An old age would be nice. Anything you can do?”

The Doctor smiled slightly. “I'm all over it.”

“Doctor,” Anita said, her tone making it clear she was changing the subject. “When we first met you, you didn't trust Professor Song. But she trusts you and wanted to whisper some word in your ear to convince you to trust her. My life so far; I could do with a word like that. What did you want to say, Professor? Give a dead girl a break. Your secrets are safe with me.”

River shook her head, tears running down her face. “I can't... I can't... I can't remember now.”

But the Doctor barely noticed her hesitation or confused expression. “Safe,” he repeated.

“What?” Anita asked.

“Safe. You don't say 'saved'. Nobody says 'saved'. You say 'safe'. The data fragment!” the Doctor exclaimed. “What did it say?”

Lux could recite it easily. “Four thousand and twenty two people saved. No survivors.”

River did know when a breakthrough was about to happen. “Doctor?”

“That's it! Nobody says 'saved'. Nutters say 'saved'. You say 'safe'. You see, it didn't mean 'safe'. It meant, it literally meant, 'saved'!” He rushed to a control platform and ran a new scan. “Let's see, what will I find now that I know what I'm looking for? Aha!”

River came closer, but still kept a little distance. She worried about what he was capable of if she was not careful.

“See, there it is, right there,” the Doctor declared in triumph. “A hundred years ago, massive power surge. All the teleports going at once. Soon as the Vashta Nerada hit their hatching cycle, they attacked. Someone hit the alarm. The computer tried to teleport everyone out.”

“It tried to teleport four thousand twenty two people?” River blurted in disbelief.

“Not tried. It succeeded. Pulled them all out, but then what? There was nowhere to send them. Nowhere safe in the whole library with Vashta Nerada growing in every shadow. Four thousand and twenty two people all beamed up and nowhere to go. They're stuck in the system, waiting to be sent, like emails. So what is a computer to do? It does what a computer always does.”

River smiled in comprehension. “It saved them.”

The Doctor pushed aside some books to use random papers left on the nearby table, and drew on them to explain his findings. “The Library. A whole world of books, and right at the core, the biggest hard drive in history. The index to everything ever written, backup copies of every single book. The computer saved four thousand and twenty two people the only way a computer can. It saved them to the hard drive. Remarkable ability when you think about it.”

Suddenly an alarm blared loudly.

Lux looked around rapidly. “What is it? What's wrong?”

A female computer voice announced, “Auto-destruct enabled in twenty minutes.”

River noticed something strange on the screen. “What's maximum erasure?”

The Doctor tried running a scan. “In twenty minutes, this planet is going to crack like an egg.”

Lux shook his head. “No. No, it's all right. The Doctor Moon will stop it. It's programmed to protect CAL.”

Except the terminal screen turned blank. The Doctor slapped the side of the monitor. “No, no, no!”

“All library systems are permanently offline,” the computer said in that utterly polite tone that all automated systems had, which was infinitely more annoying than an impolite tone. “Sorry for any inconvenience. Shortly-”

“We need to stop this,” Lux cried in a panic. “We've got to save CAL.”

“Well, what is it? What is CAL?” the Doctor demanded.

“We need to get to the main computer,” Lux said, resolve on his face. “I'll show you.”

“It's at the core of the planet,” the Doctor said. “What's the fastest way down?”

“The anti-gravity lift,” Lux said. “It's right below the family crest”

“Well, then. Let's go,” River said, grabbing her sonic and pointed it the Library logo in the middle of the compass rose in the floor. It opened to reveal their method of transport. “Guess you did memorise some of the schematics after all,” she speculated aloud.

The Doctor's eyes widened. “Convenient. So, you have some usefulness.”

River laughed as they all stepped onto the platform. “Oh, I'm more than useful. You actually like me.”

“Don't push your luck,” he warned as the platform moved them steadily down to the core.

Once they arrived and stepped off, they heard the Computer announce, “Auto-destruct in fifteen minutes.”

The Doctor looked up and around them. Above them was a giant globe with swirling energy in it. “So that's the data core. Over four thousand living minds trapped inside it. Maybe Donna's in there.”

“Yeah, well, they won't be living for much longer. We're running out of time,” River said.

The Doctor located an access terminal and opened it. He was working on it when a new voice stopped him cold.

“Help me. Please, help me.”

“What's that?” Anita asked.

“Was that a child?” River added at the sound of a girl's voice.

The Doctor frowned deeply. “The computer's in sleep mode. I can't wake it up. I'm trying.” He kept tapping at the keyboard, and he blinked hard. “This makes no sense.”

River watched over his shoulder, equally transfixed. “Doctor, these readings.”

“I know. You'd think it was dreaming.”

“It is dreaming, of a normal life, and a lovely Dad, and of every book ever written,” Lux said quietly.

“Computers don't dream,” Anita insisted.

“Help me,” called the girl's voice. “Please help me.”

Lux shook his head. “No, but little girls do.” He pulled a breaker and a door opened. They rushed inside to find a huge interface with a chair in one side of the room. A special helmet hung above it.

As they entered, a node turned to face them. The face of a girl who could not have been more than ten-years-old was on it. “Please help me. Please help me,” she pleaded.

River paled. “Oh, my God.”

“It's the little girl,” Anita said, shocked awe in her voice. “The girl we saw in the computer.”

Lux's voice was calm, reverent and respectful. “She's not in the computer. In a way, she is the computer. The main command node. This is CAL.”

“CAL is a child?” the Doctor complained, aghast. “A child hooked up to a mainframe? Why didn't you tell me this? I needed to know this!” he shouted.

“Because she's family!” Lux snapped, upset. He turned and lowered his voice as he looked at the girl's face “CAL. Charlotte Abigail Lux. My grandfather's youngest daughter. She was dying, so he built her a library and put her living mind inside, with a moon to watch over her, and all of human history to pass the time. Any era to live in, any book to read. She loved books more than anything, and he gave her them all. He asked only that she be left in peace. A secret, not a freak show.”

This the Doctor could understand completely. “So you weren't protecting a patent, you were protecting her.”

Lux stroked the girl's face, his aunt's face. “This is only half a life, of course. But it's for ever.”

“And then the shadows came,” the Doctor mused aloud.

“The shadows,” the CAL node whimpered. “I have to. I have to save. Have to save.”

“And she saved them,” the Doctor mused. “She saved everyone in the library. Folded them into her dreams and kept them safe.”

“Then why didn't she tell us?” Anita asked.

The Doctor thought quickly. “Because she's forgotten. She's got over four thousand living minds chatting away inside her head. It must be like being, well, me.”

“So what do we do?” River asked in a panic.

“Auto-destruct in ten minutes,” the Computer voice reminded them.

The Doctor thought hard about the options. “Well, it's obvious. We have to beam all the people out of the data core. The computer will reset and stop the countdown. The difficult part is that Charlotte doesn't have enough memory space left to make the transfer.” He had an idea, and kept an eye on River's reaction. “I'll hook myself up to the computer. She can borrow my memory space.”

River looked incredulously at him. “Difficult? It'll kill you stone dead.”

He did not acknowledge her before he hurried over to another control area. “Got a better idea?”

“It'll burn out both your hearts and I don't think you'll regenerate,” River pleaded

“I always try my hardest not to die. If you knew me, then you would know it is my biggest talent.”

“Doctor!” she cried.

“Unless you have another idea, then I'm right and this works. So, shut up and listen to me. You and Lux, go back up to the main library. Prime any data cells you can find for maximum download, and be ready to send the survivors to the ships. And before you say anything else, Professor, if I may be so bold to mention in passing, you are a despicable character.”

River cried incoherently. “Oh! I hate you sometimes.”

“In the words of one man who I did underestimate, 'do I care'?”

Arnold Korns would have approved of the imitation given the circumstances, the Doctor suspected. So would have Pat, Flo, and Lucie.

“Mr. Lux, with me. Anita, if he dies, I'll kill him!” River cried, leading Lux out of the room.

“Why do they always say that?” the Doctor muttered. “It wouldn't make a difference.”

“What about the Vashta Nerada?” Anita asked.

“These are their forests. I'm going to seal Charlotte inside her little world, take everybody else away. The shadows can swarm to their hearts' content.”

Although he questioned how long they would last without fresh meat. A very good concern, and one best not verbalized. No one was quite certain how long a Vashta Nerada life cycle ran, but he hoped that they would have to begin turning on each other to keep going. Eventually the Library might become usable again, but it could take a very long time. IF his hopes came true, and it might take longer since they had just eaten.

“So, you think they're just going to let us go?”

“That is the best offer they're going to get,” the Doctor said, flat and harsh as he hurried in the setup for the transfer.

“You're going to make 'em an offer?” Anita asked in disbelief.

“They had better take it, because right now, I'm finding it very difficult to make any kind of offer at all. And you know what?” He looked up at her. “I really liked Anita. She was brave, even when she was crying. And she never gave in. And you ate her.” He aimed the sonic and undid his earlier work. Her visor cleared, revealing a skull. Proving he knew she was already dead.

The skeleton remained upright in the suit.

“But I'm going to let that pass, just as long as you let them pass,” he added.

Skeletal Anita was silent for a few seconds. “How long have you known?”

“I counted the shadows. You only have one now. She's nearly gone. For once, you are going to be kind.”

“These are our forests. We are not kind,” Skeletal Anita said on behalf of the Vastha Nerada.

“I'm giving you back your forests, but you are giving me them. You are letting them go,” he said, adjusting the setting on the sonic. “Because I've dealt with your kind twice before, and I've been developing an idea on how to deal with you.”

“These are our forests. They are our meat.” Skeletal Anita reached out a hand, and shadows stretched out towards the Doctor.

He did not blink. He merely aimed the sonic and pressed a button. The blue light pulsed brightly, and the Shadows stopped, smoking on the edges where they had met the light pulse. “Don't play games with me. You just killed someone I liked. That is not a safe place to stand, so I just fried a few thousand of you to make my point. I'm the Doctor, and you're in the biggest library in the universe. Look me up. My only promise is that I will seek to spread knowledge of you, so your forests on other worlds are left in peace.”

He could not be bothered to hide the triumph. He hated developing weapons, but this was now potentially useful in holding a swarm at bay. The concentrated UV light setting. He had known it was great for sanitizing hands and eliminating bacteria on meat. So it seemed natural to test it against fungal spores, which is what the Vashta Nerada were. But he had to make that last offer, to appease his instinct to preserve life and the rights of innocent life-forms; not all Vashta Nerada had turned like this, and perhaps not all would if he had anything to say about it.

All was still for a few seconds, and then the shadows withdrew back into Anita's spacesuit. “You have one day,” said her voice before the spacesuit collapsed.

River returned in time to see it. “Oh, Anita,” she cried.

“She's been dead for a while now. Another death that's your fault.” Uneasy about her being back, he grabbed the squareness gun as backup. “I told you to go!”

“Lux can manage without me, but you can't,” River said, staying back but steeling herself. “Listen, that book you took from me? It was my journal, and I got it from you. I just wrote on the last page today, and I had a prophecy that on the day I wrote the last entry I would die. You don't trust me and said I deserve to die for leading this expedition to their deaths. I certainly deserve it for nearly causing Donna Noble's death. So, let me give my life to save those thousands, including your dear friend. Neither Time nor the Universe can afford to lose either of you!”

He thought for a few seconds, stunned by the bluntness and willingness to do what he had intended her to do in the first place. Never mind the implication of Donna's importance. “Well, it suits me fine. Now, get to it!”

River nodded, drew out her sonic and went to the chair. She sat in it and began adjusting the wires.

/=/=/=/=/=/

They worked mostly in silence, only speaking enough to communicate what needed doing.

“Auto-destruct in three minutes,” the Computer announced.

The Doctor looked up from his work within seconds. “Well, there's nothing more I can do on my end. Are you finished with those wires?”

“Nearly,” River said, finishing twisting the wires in her hands. “I suppose my career had to end one day, right?”

“Why did you focus so much on me? Why do you persist in this belief that you're so connected with me?”

He was trying for anger, but it came out more sad than anything else. Now the loss of potential was hitting him hard. In any other situation he would be trying to find an alternative to save her life. And he could not reconcile the idea of giving her a journal and letting her have that impression about her future. What did that say about his future selves?

River put down the wires, setting them into place. “After all your protests about spoilers, you still want to know?”

“This is not a joke. You know too much to have not been in the TARDIS, although I can't figure out why that gun was in the Old Girl in the first place. I have difficulty believing that I would give you something that would practically indicate when you were going to die. Seems rather harsh, doesn't it?”

“I suppose,” she sighed. “Perhaps it was a sign that I should have paid more attention to. I'm timing it for the end of the countdown. There'll be a blip in the command flow. That way it should improve our chances of a clean download.”

“River, stop changing the subject. Why should I ever trust someone who wiped my memory seven times?”

She ignored his question yet again, but this time felt justified. “Funny thing is, this means you've always known how I was going to die. All the time we've been together, you knew I was coming here. The last time I saw you, the real – the future you, I mean, you turned up on my doorstep, with a new haircut and a suit.”

“No spoilers, River,” he snapped. “I don't want to know where I took you or what happened.”

“Auto-destruct in two minutes,” said the computer.

“Oh, have a little respect for a dying woman!” River cried.

“Anita was worthy of that respect,” Eight retorted, gritting his teeth and forcing the words out. “She showed dignity even when facing certain death, and thought of others before herself. Even her request for some comfort was respectful.”

River's eyes flashed daggers at him, mixed with tears. “You didn't just have everything you ever believed about your past upended. You didn't just discover that the person you thought you would be married to had an entirely different motivation for giving the impression that it might happen: to preserve the time-lines so you would arrive at your death at the right rime. You didn't discover that what you thought was your history with the one you loved was all a lie told by the person you thought loved you when they in fact never trusted you fully because you unknowingly treated their family wrong.”

Eight's mouth slackened.

She continued to sniffle, tears running freely down her face.“I understand now. You always kept me at a distance, never quite letting me in like I thought my memories said you would. But now it makes sense. Two different time-lines competing in my head. While I have memories of you telling me your name, I can't remember it now. Not since you stopped me from whispering it into your ear.”

“Auto-destruct in one minute,” the computer announced.

“You wouldn't tell me why you and your family kept me at a distance, and I never understood why you gave me a sonic,” she continued in a rush. “Or why you cried. I now know why you were distant. You were merely keeping time on track, and your regrets were for what you couldn't do for me. You knew it was time for me to come to the Library. Whatever you did that allowed you to be the Doctor I met here, it re-wrote time. And... I now feel like it changed things.”

“Changed what?” the Doctor demanded, her one word hitting him hard.

“I can't say. Because you're right. What I remembered wasn't right or fair for either of us. But it's okay. It's not over for you. You'll see me again. You've got all of that to come. You and me, time and space. You watch us run.”

“Auto-destruct in ten,” the Computer announced.

The Doctor turned somber as River moved the helmet over her head. “River.”

The Computer continued over him, “Nine, eight, seven.”

“What do you mean, my family?!”

“Hush, now,” River said quietly, picking up two power cables.

“Four, three-”

“I forgive you,” River whispered.

As the computer finished the countdown River joined the two power cables together. The Doctor had to hide his eyes from a blinding light.

Seconds later, he opened his eyes again. Where River had been, there was now a skeleton in the suit. But there were traces of flesh and other organs, unlike with the Vashta Nerada victims.

He remained still for several long seconds before standing, a lone tear falling from his eye. “Maybe I cried because I failed to transform you into someone good.”

“Remarkable insight.”

The Doctor jumped to face the newcomer. He frowned at the sight of the gray-haired man in a torn and rather holey suit. The most distinctive features were the eyebrows. “Who are you?”

The man smiled. “If you could recognise Ten by smell, surely you can recognise me.”

Eight's jaw slackened. “I am slipping. Which one are you?”

“The one who redirected her message,” he answered. “Beyond that, it's best you don't know more. I just came from where I last saw River, and... I tried one last time to help her transform into something good. In honor of her parents.”

“And we failed?”

He nodded. “Still, we had to make the effort.”

“So why are you here?”

The Future Doctor moved to River's suit and took the neural relay from her neck. “I couldn't help her in life because she wasn't willing to change. She saw no reason to.” He took out his sonic, which looked remarkably different from Eight's. The green head was nothing like any sonic he had seen before.

As the future Doctor attached the relay to the sonic and put it against part of the controls, Eight figured it out. “You're uploading her into CAL's memory banks.”

“She'll join the rest of the expedition,” Future Doctor said. “I'm making sure she can't communicate with the outside world, and that no scan of the system will find her. I'm hiding her within another subroutine. It will allow her to become the shining person her parents always wished she would become.”

CAL smiled as he removed the sonic and tossed the empty relay aside. “Melody Pond-Williams has been saved.”

Eight blinked. “Is that her real name?”

“And you're going to pretend to forget that,” the Future Doctor said as he took River's sonic. “Now, I need her journal and gun.”

“Why?”

“Because you don't need to know anything more about her yet,” he said, fixing a hint of a 'be reasonable' look that all versions of the Doctor were masters at. “I can tell you that she will never again attempt to wipe our mind. You'll be safe from any further contact until you become the Doctor she knew best.”

Eight was not keen to follow the instructions, but he did not want to be in contact with either item. So, he handed them over.

“Thank you. Now, go upstairs and find Donna. She's going to need you after what she went through. You'll need each other,” the Future Doctor added before touching a Vortex Manipulator that Eight had not noticed.

Eight remained silent as the Future Doctor disappeared. Then he sighed and hurried for the main area. And Donna.


Chapter Eleven: Some Answers, Many More Questions

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