A flash of light accompanied the newcomer’s arrival on New New Alpha Centauri. Fortunately there was no one in the cavernous chamber to notice. Well, no, that was not entirely true, but the one who could have noticed – should have noticed – was caught up in a moment of self-aggrandizement, certain that the choice he had made was one the universe would applaud. From their new home in the shadows the slender figure watched the Doctor deck the Rutan clone and then laugh as he surveyed his handiwork. The sound of it sent a chill shivering down their spine. Aubrey Blundell’s modification of the Sontaran program had been a work of sheer genius. It wasn’t easy to control a Time Lord, and even less so to control one without him knowing it. The Doctor thought he was free.
He was a complete idiot of course, and totally wrong.
The figure shifted slightly so the soft light from the Sontaran machinery illuminated the vortex manipulator on its wrist. Noting the time it showed brought a sigh and a pursing of ever so slightly frosted salmon-pink lips. This was it. The moment the gamble either paid off or bankrupted the universes.
That was, if things ever got started.
“Come on, girl. I know I can count on you,” the newcomer breathed. “You have to have left the Tardis by now. They never stay put like he tells them. Come on….”
A high-pitched shriek pierced the air, followed by a desperate cry for help.
“Help! Help me! John, please help me!”
Ah, yes. John.
The figure turned back toward the console to watch the Doctor’s reaction. The tall, dark-haired man with the absurd bowtie had been standing with his chin resting on his hand. His head came up with a snap at the sound.
History had it right.
You could always trust a Boone to do the right thing.
The Doctor gritted his teeth and stamped his foot. “Why don’t they ever listen to me? ‘Stay put, Jemima Boone,’ I said. ‘I won’t ask you to be brave this time.’ Why do they never listen? What part of ‘stay put’ is so hard to understand?” He threw his hands up in the air. “And then – then – when they get caught they whine and call for help and I’m supposed to just drop everything I am doing, including saving the universe from two of its greatest nemeses, and go running to – ”
A second cry cut him short.
“Brilliant, just brilliant,” he growled, glancing at the countdown which had reached 105 seconds. Past a count of 20 there was no stopping it, but he’d have to leave before that, and if Blundell awoke in the next 65 seconds the clone knew enough to abort the current program and most likely, now that he had input the information, had the know-how to reconfigure it to do what he originally wanted – destroy both the Sontaran and the Rutan races. The Doctor glanced in the direction Jemima’s scream had come from. He only needed to delay a minute – just one minute. Surely the girl could survive that long – she was the daughter of a frontiersman for goodness’ sake…. But then, Jemima wasn’t being held by the Shawnee, these were Sontarans. Merciless, military-minded Sontarans who would blast first and ask questions of the corpse. He couldn’t delay. But he had to. This might be his only chance. The opportunity might never arise again. To think of the universes freed from the terror of 50,000 years of warfare, peopled by millions if not billions of individuals who were now fated to die…
How could he sacrifice that for the life of one noncompliant human child who had deliberately disobeyed him and fallen into a trap?
The Doctor glanced at the counter again. 95. 94. 93…
How could he not?
Turning back to the console, his long fingers danced over a few keys. He threw one final switch, glanced at a screen overhead, and let out a satisfied “Ah!”
Then, stepping over Blundell’s unconscious form, the Time Lord began to run.
The clone of Aubrey Blundell stirred the moment the Doctor disappeared into the corridor. He had been feigning unconsciousness, waiting for an opportunity to attack the Time Lord. Now, instead, he caught hold of the edge of the console with his bound hands and pulled himself to his feet. He had to stop the countdown. From what he had been able to make out of the reprogramming, the Gallifreyan was out of his mind. If the Doctor believed uniting the Sontaran and Rutan races would do anything other than create a monster the likes of which the galaxies had never seen, he was crazier than he appeared – which, was saying quite a lot of a 907 year old man who looked and acted twelve most of the time, who wore a bowtie and a tweed coat with elbow patches and never stopped talking to himself. Ever. Blundell had lived and worked with both races. The Sontarans were implacable and had every intention of taking over not only the galaxies they now terrorized, but every galaxy. Only their rigid adherence to a military code kept them from doing so and becoming an evil to rival the Dalek race. Take that away – say, make them unscrupulous like the Rutans – and nothing, simply nothing would stand in their way.
He had to stop that countdown and restore the original programming.
Glancing at the screen, Blundell saw that the count had reached 60 seconds. Apparently the Time Lord had set a fairly decent delay – probably to give him time to return to the Tardis since this sort of tampering with time could have a big repercussion. The clone stared at the rewired panel; his experienced eye quickly noting and understanding the changes the Doctor had made. It wouldn’t take much to rework. A connection here. A few typed commands. The Time Lord had been sloppy in securing him. While his wrists were bound, his fingers were free. He could do it. Knowing that the Gallifreyan would have set a certain count as a deadlock and that he had to hurry, Blundell reached out and made contact with the keypad.
Initiating the security protocol the Doctor had activated before he departed.
Blundell’s body lit up like a bulb about to blow as a percentage of the energy powering the entire Sontaran complex coursed through the form he had gambled everything to retain. He stiffened, shuddered, opened his mouth to emit a little cloud of smoke, and then crumpled to the ground.
For several seconds silence reigned in the cavernous room. It was disturbed by the sharp staccato beat of a pair of heels advancing quickly toward the console. The newcomer glanced at the two forms lying on the ground, wrinkled her nose, and then turned to the rewired panel.
29. 28. 27.
There was probably a password, but there was no time to guess what it might be. If the Doctor was following his usual form, the deadlock would kick in at 20.
“Oh, well,” the slender woman breathed as she lifted a blaster from the purse hanging off the hip of her conservative black suit, “from what I hear, subtlety is definitely overrated.”
It would take two seconds to rotate the weapon’s nose and one more to fire it.
That left two.
The newcomer laughed as her finger applied pressure to the trigger.
“Everyone knows it is a universal constant that two are better than one.”
Jemima breathed a sigh of relief as John skidded to a stop just inside the room. She’d fought like a tiger when the redcoat had stepped out of the shadows and snagged her by the arm, biting the back of the hand that held her and kicking the man in the knee. Nothing seemed to make any difference. He might as well have been a rock wall stuck there by God a thousand years before. Angry with herself for getting caught and seized with a sudden cunning she had grown still, slipped out of his grip, and started to run – only to be stopped by another redcoat coming straight at her. Grasping the closest thing at hand, which happened to be some sort of a pole with arms for hanging coats on, she had put all of her weight behind a single strike and let him have it. The soldier had stumbled back, losing his tricorn hat and wig.
That was when she screamed for the first time.
The soldier was the ugliest thing she had ever seen; kind of a walking, talking toad with skin like a tanned hide left outside too long. And he wasn’t alone. Another one had been waiting in the shadows, watching. She guessed when he realized that she had seen what they really looked like; he didn’t have any reason to hide anymore, because he stepped out and confronted her. This one wasn’t dressed like a redcoat. Instead he wore something that kind of looked like the armor she had always imagined a Roman general might wear but, like the tall tower in the Tardis, it was made out of some kind of metal she had never seen. The gun he carried was funny looking too.
When he pointed it straight at her and mimicked pressing the trigger, well, that was the second time she screamed.
Jemima had known the man who called himself the Doctor – the one she still thought of as ‘John’ – was in the cave somewhere. She’d counted on him hearing her and he had, and he’d come running just like she knew he would even though she’d done what was wrong. As he halted and then reached up with a hand to tidy his unruly hair, she felt a ray of hope – which was quickly damped when the soldier in the gun metal suit turned and pointed the nasty-looking weapon at him.
“Doctor,” the man, or whatever he was, said, “as predicted, you have responded to the female’s cry for help and saved us the trouble of finding you.”
“Yes. Well. Always one to be cooperative with the Sontaran High Command, General Stahl, or Styre, or Stonn, or whoever you are. Hard to tell one potato head from another, if you take my meaning? You might try a more colorful attachment the next time.” John pursed his lips and raised both brown eyebrows. “Perhaps the pink hoop earrings and scarlet high heels? Then again, it would be quite a fashion faux pas for one of your rank to clash. Maybe the red hair bow? Oh. Sorry. No hair….”
“You will cease talking or I will order the girl executed!”
“Nah. You won’t.” John’s eyes sought hers and she noted the little smile of reassurance that curled the edge of his lips. “You kill her and you won’t get me to cooperate. You see, Stonn or Styre or Stahl or whatever –”
“You see, Field Marshall Stahhar, I know what’s waiting in that big bright chamber of yours lit by the brilliant green-white lights.” A tremor ran the length of John’s lean frame. “You might be fast enough to shoot Jemima before I could stop you – though I doubt it – but there is no way in a month of Mondurian Blood Days that you would be strong enough to keep me from taking that blaster from you afterwards and turning it on myself. And just where would that leave you?”
“John!” Jemima shouted, shaking her head. “No!”
His eyes returned to her face. His own were infinitely weary. “Yes, Jemima Boone. The universe could not survive the monster that is me.”
“I still hold the upper hand,” Stahhar announced triumphantly. “I hold the blaster and the girl!”
“Not for long,” someone new remarked.
Jemima heard the familiar snap of metal striking flint and smelled the powder a second before she heard the ball whizz past her ear. The soldier holding her grunted. His fingers tightened on her arm before going slack as he tumbled to the ground.
“Try it!” their unseen savior growled as Stahhar raised his weapon. A second later a crimson circle appeared in the middle of his flat brown forehead. “This antique of Blundell’s isn’t the only weapon I have,” the shooter said. “It’s just more fun.”
Jemima’s gaze settled on John. He hadn’t moved or reacted other than to frown. She knew what he was thinking. She thought she knew the owner of the voice too, but it couldn’t be. There wasn’t any way she could be here.
“Three to two, Stahhar,” he said at last. “Or rather two from three. You’re a military man. You do the arithmetic.”
“The answer to the equation is one,” the armored man snapped. “But I am not alone.”
John’s face lit with a weary smile. “You are now.”
At that moment the other soldier in the chamber stiffened, made a little squeak, and then fell to the ground. When Jemima swung around to see what had happened, a grin split her dirt and tear streaked face from ear to ear. “Mingo!” she cried out as the native finished binding the soldier and rose to greet her. “Mingo, I am so –” She stopped, stunned. “Mingo, you’re hurt!”
“I am well, Jemima,” the native answered, though the linen rag wound about his head denied the truth of what he said. “Have no fear.”
John’s head was down and his hands locked behind his back. As he looked up at them from under the fringe of dark brown hair that covered his forehead, he asked, “What about Blundell?”
“Dead,” the native replied. “His corpse looks like it has been struck by lightning.”
“Ah! I was afraid of that.” John glanced in the direction of their still unrevealed rescuer. “A shame. Quite a mind there. If only he had used it for good…” Turning toward the shadows, he continued, “I wonder what happened to that little black box he carried. I’d like to find it. Sort of a memento mori of the journey and all that, don’t you know?”
“Catch!” the unknown speaker called out. A second later the small black square was tumbling through the air toward him.
John reached up and caught it effortlessly. “Three strikes,” he said quietly, “and you are outed – River Song.”
The woman left the shadows that cloaked her and moved into the light. It was River. The older woman was dressed in black, so it was no wonder she’d been hard to see. Jemima had never seen the likes of what she was wearing – a really short skirt that showed her legs, and something like a man’s coat with a shirt beneath. The older woman’s spiraling curls had been tamed and were bound tightly in a bun near the nape of her neck. She didn’t quite smile, but her lips twitched and a playful light entered her eyes as she focused on John and greeted him familiarly.
The Doctor stood staring at the point where Jemima and Mingo had disappeared. They were on their way back to the Tardis. A slight smile touched his lips as he remembered his parting with Daniel Boone’s daughter. Jemima had gone toe to toe with him, insisting he was just about as prone to get into trouble as her little brother and needed her to look after him. It took some convincing, but he had finally managed to persuade her that the wounded native needed more ‘looking after’ than he did. Mingo was on his feet, barely, and his memory was hazy. From the size of the native’s pupils and his pallid, clammy skin, he guessed the Cherokee warrior had a fairly severe concussion. He’d instructed Jemima where to find the medical kit on the ship, given them the black box rewired as a tracking device, and stood now, employing one of the Sontarans own communication devices to wait for the signal that would tell him they had reached the time machine unmolested.
Of course, he was waiting for something else – courage to turn around and confront the biggest enigma in his life.
River Song had made sure the two living Sontarans were securely bound, and had volunteered to keep watch for more as he dealt with Mingo and Jemima. Before sending the pair packing, he had taken a moment to create a feedback loop in the security system so the room and the corridor beyond appeared to be unoccupied, but that didn’t mean they were out of the woods. A patrol could march through at any time. Glancing over his shoulder at her the Doctor noted River’s trim, streamlined figure, and then his eyes settled with disapproval on the blaster in her hand.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she called softly, her tone slightly chiding. “I don’t have the luxury of going about unarmed. The universe is a dangerous place – especially with you in it.”
How did she do that?
The box in his hand winked green and emitted a series of short static bursts, drawing his attention. He depressed a button, answering in kind, and then tucked the communicator into his interior pocket. As he did he thought about the fact that, of all the perils he had faced in his long eventful life, of every dire situation he had been in, facing damage and death, and even the end of time itself – nothing frightened him quite as much as the attractive woman steadily advancing toward him. They hadn’t done more than exchange glances since she had revealed herself. There had been Sontarans to mop up, computer systems to hack, false communications to be sent, and, of course, poor Blundell’s badly burnt body to attend to.
“You needn’t look like that,” River said as she halted a few feet away. “I didn’t kill him.”
For a second he said nothing. Then he snapped his fingers and pointed at her. “I have it! I finally know who you are.”
She looked slightly troubled. But only slightly. “Oh?”
“Yes. The Amazing Kreskin reincarnated!” He put his hand to his forehead as if reading what was concealed within the envelope. “How do you do that?”
River laughed. “Spoilers.”
There was something different about her and yet strangely familiar. Something in the way she held herself, in the tone of her voice. She was the woman he knew, and yet…not. “Blimey,” he murmured with a grin, “I wish I was Kreskin.”
“You’re gangly enough this time around, and I think the bowtie suits. But you need glasses. I know you’ve worn them before – as an accessory to the celery.” She laughed. “That would definitely complete the mind reader persona.”
Glasses? Yes. That was it. When he had worn glasses…. That was why she was different. River was older than he had ever seen her before. The memory had been less vibrant because, even though it was his, it belonged to another man.
“You’re Professor Song.”
“Yes.” Her smile was soft and affectionate. She moved closer and held out her hand. “May I?” she asked, lifting it toward his face.
He nodded and then braced himself.
River hesitated a moment and then laid her hand alongside his cheek. She stared at him so long it became one of the biggest battles of his life simply not to squirm. “It’s been years,” she said at last. “You look so young now. And look at me, I’m old.”
About as old as you will ever be, he thought and then regretted it. River was perceptive – terrifyingly so. She couldn’t help but sense the sadness the thought of her soon to occur death brought him.
“What’s wrong?” she asked as expected.
He shook his head and changed the subject. “River, why did you kill Aubrey Blundell?”
“I didn’t.” She hesitated. “I suppose, in a way, you did.”
“What?” He stepped away from her hand. “I never –“
“No, you never mean to, but you do. The security protocol you cued in was fatal. Sontarans, you know. ‘Take no prisoners’ and all that.”
“No. No. I would have known…”
“You might have known.” She looked him straight in the eye. “You wouldn’t have cared. Don’t you realize, even now, that you are not yourself? The best minds in both the Sontaran and Rutan scientific communities were employed in creating that program Blundell altered to his own use, first of all to remove an integral part of you – your abhorrence of killing – and then to reprogram you to kill. Your compassion and plausible pacifism are the two things, my dear Doctor, which keep you from becoming the monster in the abyss that you so fear.” River brushed the arm of his jacket with her fingertips. “I’m sorry, but it’s the truth. That’s why, no matter what choice you made, the end it would have brought about death and destruction.”
“Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong,” he crowed, jabbing a finger at her. “I overcame their programming! I wasn’t going to eliminate either the Rutan Host or the Sontaran race, but alter them – change them for the good. I created a sub-program that would have –”
“Inspired the Rutans and the Sontarans to make peace, and in that alliance to focus on what was good in both races. In time there would have been a new race – a great race – one capable of achieving great things and of adding to the galaxies instead of taking away from them.” The smile returned, reminding him this time of a mother facing a very naughty little boy whom she loved. “You are a dear, sweet, completely and totally naïve idiot.”
“An idiot? Never. And naïve? Never never….”
“Yes, naïve. And that is why I love you.” Her fingers gripped his arm this time. “You have seen more hatred, more futility and desperateness, and faced more evil than the mind can conceive, and yet you still hold out hope.” Tears sparkled in her eyes. “Doctor, you are hope.”
He felt himself blushing, which was incredibly embarrassing. “Can we please get back to why I’m an idiot?” he asked with a lift of one eyebrow.
“Shall I spell it out for you?”
“Nah. I won the yearly spelling bee two hundred and forty-five times when I was a kid. I’m whizzers at spelling” He paused. “But there is one thing you can tell me.”
“And what is that?”
“River, why…how are you here?”
She sighed. “It’s a long story. Better told over tea in the Tardis.”
“Ah, the call of Jammie Dodgers…. I’m afraid, though, I have other guests.”
“Yes.” She frowned for a moment, and then her eyes lit with that playful light he had come to know so well. “No. I know.” She raised the arm that wore the vortex manipulator. “It’s my turn to drive,” she said with a smile.
“It’s a rubbish way to travel, you know,” he groused.
“You’re just jealous.”
“Jealous! Never, I....” Her blue eyes were veritably dancing now. “Oh, you’ve having me on.”
One eyebrow arched. “Maybe if you’re a good boy.”
His cheeks must have been apple red by now. To cover his chagrin, the Time Lord reached out and placed his hand on top of the rubbish time transportation device. “Where are we going?” he asked.
“Doctor. You know better,” River chided. “A woman never tells.”
There was a flash, and they were gone.