River walked through the quad, winding her way past groups of chattering undergraduates. Her mind was composing midterm questions, but her heart was set on running off to a new dig as soon as possible (teaching and research were both part of her job, it wasn't like she was skiving off, or so she tried to convince herself), so it wasn't until the noise stopped that she realized what it had been — the wheezing gasps of the TARDIS landing.
She whirled around, nearly knocking an engineering student over with her satchel, desperate to catch a glimpse of the familiar blue wood. There — she finally saw it, nearly hidden behind a decorative water feature outside the biology labs. River walked over, trying not to attract attention, but her stride lengthened until she was almost running. It wasn't unusual for the Doctor to drop in unannounced, but it was rare, and always meant something exciting was happening. She couldn't imagine anything too exciting taking place among the leafy green of Barnett College, but any chance to put off those midterms for a little longer…
She looked around quickly before knocking on the door. "Doctor?" she called quietly — not that it would attract attention on campus, she thought, but better safe than sorry.
The door opened. "Ah, no, not exactly," a woman said apologetically. "But I take it you're River Song? Come in."
River blinked, giving the brunette who stood in the doorway a quick and open once-over. Tall and striking, she wore clothing so utterly unsuited to Barnett that River would have suspected her of being an alien even without her appearance in the TARDIS: a flowing red dress, complete with jewelled slippers that looked like they were meant for dancing in a palace. Whatever she'd been doing, though, she clearly hadn't come from a ball — the dress was torn, her slippers were muddy, and there was a distinct odour of gunpowder floating out the TARDIS door.
River raised an eyebrow. "And you are?" she asked, making no move to enter the ship.
“I will be — or was to have been — or will would be - oh!” The brunette made a frustrated noise and stamped one red-slippered foot. “Terran English just doesn’t have enough tenses to talk time in. There are at least five in High Gallifreyan that I need to explain this properly.”
River raised the other eyebrow, looking at the woman with mingled interest and jealousy. Someone else who spoke Gallifreyan — and more fluently than River herself? This bore investigating.
"Look — my name is Romana," the woman said. "The Doctor sent me. Please, come in before someone finds us."
The moment River stepped into the TARDIS, she knew something was wrong. It wasn't just the difference in the shape of the room — though it was noticeably smaller, which together with the smell of smoke made River feel almost claustrophobic. It was the feel of the TARDIS herself that made River want to claw out of her own skin. "She's upset," River said, whirling on Romana. "What happened to her?"
"You can feel her? Good," Romana said calmly, moving to the console and throwing the ship into the space vortex. "I wasn't sure the Doctor was telling the truth about that. That'll save me some time."
"I beg your pardon," River said, fixing Romana with her best glare. The other woman looked back calmly, clearly unruffled, which just made River feel more like shouting. For the sake of the TARDIS, though, she kept her voice low. "Right, you. Where is the Doctor, why do you have his TARDIS, and what have you been doing to her? The Doctor sent you? Why would he do that? Why didn't he come himself?"
"Oh, don't pout," Romana said. River sputtered, but Romana ignored her, fiddling with a contraption attached to the vortex manipulator. "He would have come, but he's a bit busy. It's rather a long story."
"I have plenty of time," River said, dropping her bag and leaning against the console insolently.
"Well, we don't," Romana said. Looking up, she met River's gaze calmly. River looked back - really looked — and felt a chill go up her spine. Romana's eyes — they were younger than the Doctor's, but older, much, much older, than any human's. Romana was a Time Lord.
"That's not possible," River breathed.
Romana made a satisfied sound. "I thought so, from the way he talks about you," she said, breaking eye contact to check the console again. "You've got some psychic ability, don't you? Not a lot, but just enough to make this work."
"Psychic — now, wait just a minute," River said, thrown completely off guard and not liking the feeling. "Make what work? How are you even — " She snapped her mouth shut as her brain caught up with her. The Doctor hadn't told her much about what had happened to Gallifrey, but she did know that it shouldn't be possible for another Time Lord to exist, much less be steering the Doctor's TARDIS. Therefore, something had happened to the timelines; therefore, River had bloody well better keep her mouth shut before she said something that did irrevocable damage.
"Got there in the end, did you?" Romana asked, fingers dancing as she input a set of coordinates from one screen into another. "Now. What do you know about the Time War?"
River looked, really looked, at Romana, taking in her tattered clothes and the smudges of soot that covered the TARDIS floor. "Nothing I should tell you if you're in the middle of it," she answered warily.
Romana almost smiled. "Really, he finally picks up a human who understands the concept of paradoxes and it has to be now," she muttered. "Well, anything you know doesn't matter anyway. It may have happened for you already, but it's happening now, so whatever has happened may or may not be happening. Time can be rewritten, do you understand?"
"Actually, I do," River said, mildly surprised. "An event like the Time War — it has to give off enough time energy that the foundations of the time stream actually become permeable, doesn't it? So it's not that our timelines are crossing as much as they are being woven together."
"You are quick," Romana said, pleased. "It took him twice as long to get that. Should have seen his face when we all started showing up. Time Lord biological imperative," she explained, seeing River's confusion. "When the time stream is affected this strongly, apparently it triggers a protective instinct that overrides temporal parameters. All our regenerations feel it. Halfway into the first major sortie, those of us who were already fighting had to deal with our former — and in some cases, future — selves showing up to help." She shook her head. "Marvellous idea, but none of us knew to expect it — nearly lost us the war," she said almost fondly.
River tried to picture the Doctor — any of him, much less all of him — fighting a war, and failed. "My goodness," she said faintly. "The bend in time must be… considerable."
"Indeed," Romana replied. "And that's where you come in."
"Me?" River frowned. "What could I possibly do?" She thought guiltily of her vortex manipulator — but no matter what the Doctor said about its unreliability, it didn't have anywhere near enough power to affect a tempo-spatial event like what Romana was describing.
"You," Romana confirmed. "The Doctor says you're an archaeologist?"
"Yes, and I already know what he thinks of archaeologists, thanks," River snapped. She wasn't in the mood to be mocked by yet another Time Lord for excessive adherence to the importance of linear time or the like.
"Well, I don't," Romana said, "but he says he needs an archaeologist, and he told me to find you."
River paused. "Wait, let me get this straight. He actually needs me… because I'm an archaeologist?" She threw her head back and laughed. "Oh, Doctor. You are never going to live this down," she told the empty air. It took her a moment to get herself under control and turn back to Romana. "Okay." She choked back a giggle. "What does he need me to do?"
"Well, he wasn't entirely clear." Romana grimaced, sharing an understanding glance with River. "He says there's an artefact, one that ended up on Earth by accident, that he can use to turn the stretch in the shape of time against… the other side. He wants to take advantage of the way we're reshaping the time stream and boomerang them out of time entirely. He thinks he can lock them outside of the time stream…" Romana trailed off.
River's mind was racing. The Doctor had told her that Gallifrey was set out of time — under a time lock, that was the phrase he'd used. Was this what he'd done? Had it turned against him, whatever power he'd sent her after, and sent his own planet just out of his reach? Or had this never happened before, this that was happening for the first time, and could she change the course of history as she knew it? What should she do? And what on earth was this artefact he needed?
Even distracted, she picked up on the hesitation in Romana's voice. "He thinks — but you don't?" River asked shrewdly. "Is he the only one in charge of the war effort?"
"No, he and I are probably still arguing about it," Romana replied. "I mean, not me — me that will be. The next me — my next regeneration," she clarified.
"But part of you must be on his side, if he sent you off with the TARDIS?" River shook her head, imagining the confusion that must be trying to argue with yourself.
"I think he's got the right idea," Romana admitted, "but the rest of me aren't so sure." She shrugged. "Seniority counts for a lot on Gallifrey. But we really don't have a lot of time, so some of him are ganging up on me back home, and then one of him got me out, and here we are."
"Sneaky," River said. "So what's this mysterious artefact we're after?"
Romana's eyes widened. "But — I thought you'd know!" she said. "He told me to get you into the TARDIS and — oh." She eyed River speculatively. "Oh, I see."
River backed away as Romana moved towards her purposefully. "See what?" she asked suspiciously. "Hold on, now, what's the plan?" She bumped up against the console and nearly went up on her toes as Romana invaded he personal space, leaning full-length against her.
"Sorry," Romana said, sounding anything but sincere, and then she pressed one hand along River's temple and one against the console surface and pushed. River's jaw dropped as her senses suddenly increased a million times.
For a moment, she was the TARDIS, spiralling through the time vortex — and all the damage caused by the war spread out in front of her, making her weep — watching pieces of every culture's history and myth and lives meshing and changing and interlocking and even though she grasped at it all the information slid through her like water, and her own knowledge shaping everything that flew past — and Romana, Romana was there, a presence surrounding River's self, keeping it intact, keeping all of her together so River didn't shake apart and fly out into the vortex herself, managing their journey until her vision narrowed and narrowed and narrowed — and everything, everything she knew, everything the TARDIS knew, everything the Doctor needed, distilled down to one place and one time in all of the universe, and, stop.
The TARDIS let her go gently, but it was still as though her brain shut down all at once, going from so much information back to normal human processing power. She wobbled and fell, and Romana caught her.
They dropped awkwardly to the floor, River shaking uncontrollably; her hands spasmed as she tried to grip the fabric of Romana's dress. She had been so vast... her brain whirled, trying to regain its proper scale. Romana drew her close, stroking her hair gently.
Sensation reformed slowly for River, words and feelings coming into perspective as though from far away. First touch returned, the brush of Romana's dress against her cheek; then sight, the TARDIS floor coming into focus; finally hearing, and Romana's repeated apologies came clear into River's brain.
She struggled upright. Romana let her go, and though the loss of contact was suddenly chilling, River needed to stand on her own. She pushed her hair back, coughed a few times, and tried to speak.
"What... did you do?" she got out.
Romana sat on the floor, hands folded demurely in her lap. "I connected you to the TARDIS," she replied. "You had the information we needed — you had to! — but there was no way to find it quickly enough with only a human-sized brain for processing. So the TARDIS used your knowledge to deduce where we had to be. I'm sorry," she added, contrite. "I should have realized you couldn't handle that much sensory input."
"Is that... what you deal with? All the time?" River clutched the edge of the console, trying to ground herself. It vibrated under her fingers and she jerked back, startled. Romana stood and curled her fingers around River's, pressing them back to the console surface.
River turned to Romana in astonishment as the hum of the TARDIS engines reverberated through both of them, instantly filling them with warmth. "She's sorry too," Romana whispered, and River did seem to feel an apology tickling at her brainstem.
"Amazing." River drew back, her fingers still entwined with Romana's. The sense of warmth diminished, but didn't disappear. "So, ah." She cleared her throat and let go of Romana's hand reluctantly. "Did it work? Where are we?"
"Let's see, shall we?" Romana opened the TARDIS door slowly. It smelled musty, but River couldn't see a thing. Dark, stale... half of River didn't like their chances, but the other half was on full alert. It probably wasn't anywhere exciting, but... it could be. She crowded up behind Romana, peering around the open door. There, in the corner, was that a reflection? More light, she thought in frustration, and suddenly there was, and, oh.
River didn't realize she'd stepped out into the tomb until she was in the middle of it. She left footprints in the thick dust. As she watched, a series of faience beads rattled off the top of a canopic jar, rolling across the floor until they came up against the side of a golden sarcophagus. She took a deep breath of air that hadn't been breathed in millennia.
"You know where we are, then?" Romana's voice shocked her; she had actually forgotten why they were there. She whirled about; Romana was leaning against the TARDIS, a fond smile on her face.
"Where we are?" River looked around again, cataloguing. "Not exactly. But if I had to guess." She stretched a trembling hand out to the sarcophagus, not daring to touch. "Egypt, obviously. A tomb. Old Kingdom. Someone very important — this is an amazing find," she added, taking in the rich array of grave goods, much of it inlaid with gold. "My god, I don't know how we're going to narrow it down to one artefact in here. This is..." She shook her head, wordless.
Her fingers itched for a camera, a field book, a measuring tape. It would take a whole season, maybe two, to catalogue this properly. And she didn't even know where they were — there was no way to situate the find — so much could be lost with just one wrong step in a situation like this. And there were going to be more than just errors made here, she knew. They were going to have to tear the place apart to find this mysterious artefact the Doctor had sent them after. She had no choice.
River laid a hand, briefly, on top of the sarcophagus. Sorry, she thought, and turned to Romana. "Right. We're clearly looking for something that's likely to have mythical properties," she said briskly. "So it probably won't be with the household goods. Ignore the furniture and food, look at the jewellery, the shebtis, the religious trinkets." She blew dust off a gaily decorated statue, wincing as another string of beads disintegrated. "And try to be careful," she added under her breath.
The next chamber was similarly full of tributary goods. So much of it was decayed that every step made the remnants shift alarmingly. Why couldn't we have ended up in some labourer's tomb? River thought, running a hand over a lifesize figure of Anubis. She flicked a glance at the coffin texts, torn between using the TARDIS's translator to read them and invalidating the hours she'd spent in a carrel struggling with hieratic. Then she stopped, and turned back.
"Romana," she called softly. "I think I've got it."
Romana hurried over — though River noticed, in part of her brain, that she still took care not to step too heavily. "Are you certain?" she asked.
"The ancient Egyptians," River said, "wrote on scrolls, not sheets of paper. So why, exactly, is there a hardcover book in with the funerary equipment?" Gently, reverently, River reached in among the papyrus, hardly daring to breathe for fear those that were still intact would disintegrate. She grasped the book that had caught her eye and lifted it out carefully. Hefting it in one hand, she turned and grinned at Romana. "Looks like stone," she said, "but it's not — quartz, maybe. And the paper inside seems perfectly preserved." She lifted open the front cover. "There's writing here. Faded, but..." She squinted, trying to make it out.
Romana plucked the book from her grasp. "Don't read it."
"Hey!" River tried to grab it back, but Romana turned, protecting it with her body. River swallowed, feeling suddenly hollow. "How are we supposed to know if that's right if I don't look at it?" she asked, an angry edge to her voice despite her attempts to stay calm.
"River." Romana placed a hand on her arm. The warmth from earlier flooded through them again; River tried to hang on to her anger, but it dissolved under worry. hope. trust. "River, you were fading," Romana said. "I saw you disappearing in front of my eyes. I believe that's a very good sign that we're holding something with the sort of space-warping powers we need."
"Oh," River said, trying not to show how foolish she felt. "Yes. That might do it."
Romana tugged, and River followed her back to the TARDIS, trying to take in as much as she could of the tomb contents as they left. They didn't look familiar, but Egypt had never been her time period; still, she'd look them up when she got back. And if they weren't recorded anywhere... she smiled to herself. She'd memorised the TARDIS coordinates. This should get her out of the classroom for a semester or two.
She stumbled into the TARDIS, craning her neck for a last look as Romana closed the door behind her. The book hit the floor with a soft thump as Romana fiddled with the controls again, sending them back into the vortex. River gave it a wide berth, walking around Romana's other side and leaning into her, letting her tense muscles relax.
"Do you know what that is?" River asked, nodding at the book.
"I think so," Romana said, turning. She left it where it was, though, River noticed, keeping a respectful distance. "There are rumours in Gallfrey's archive of a book that keeps a record of all life. The Omega book, as it's known. I suspect this is it."
River frowned. "Bigger on the inside?" she asked, hoping for a laugh.
"No," Romana answered absently. "I believe it's a dimensional shift. That would explain how the Doctor intends to use it... and what was trying to pull you inside," she added, touching the back of River's hand.
"Well," River said, trying to brazen through. "I will definitely not put that on my artefact list when I excavate that place."
"When you what?" Romana looked genuinely confused.
"You don't think you can dangle a carrot like that in front of my nose and expect me to just leave it be, do you?" River asked, confused in her turn. "I don't think that tomb has been discovered even in my time! There's enough there to keep Barnett happy with me for years! Forget the Dunlop Collection, they'll be breaking ground for the River Song Wing!"
"Oh, River. Only if you remember it." Romana looked at River sadly. "In your history — the one you remembered when this started — we lost, didn't we?"
River nodded silently, squeezing Romana's hand. She hadn't even considered the possibility that her own time stream might be affected by the war.
"I thought so. If that reality… stays real, I think the time streams will snap back into flow. There's a lot of energy that goes into rewriting time, you know. Easier for it to keep going the way it was. And if that happens, I don't think this will have mattered. It might unhappen."
"No." River shook her head. "I won't let it. I can come back with you," she urged. "I'm sure there's more I can do to help."
"River, no," Romana said, stepping back. "No human, not even you, can handle the amount of psychic and temporal energy being discharged around Gallifrey right now. It would burn you out of time altogether. You've done your part."
River turned away, facing the doors. "So you're taking me back to Barnett," she said flatly. "The human's outlived her usefulness."
"That's not fair," Romana said. "There's no point in you sacrificing yourself needlessly. You've made an important contribution, and now it's our turn to use it as best we can."
The TARDIS wheezed to a stop. Any answer River might have made died as Romana opened the doors to reveal Barnett.
"Exactly when we left," Romana said consolingly.
River rolled her eyes. "Oh joy," she muttered. She hovered just inside the doors for a moment. "Well," she said finally. "Tell the Doctor he'd better watch what he says about archaeologists, after this."
Romana smiled. "I will," she promised.
"And good luck to all of you." River clenched her fists. She hated this. How could she step back into her life, knowing she was leaving the fighting to others?
"I need to get back," Romana said softly. "Before anyone comes looking."
"I know." River rested a hand on Romana's shoulder. What the hell. Send the girls off to war. Leaning in, she kissed her lightly, relishing the tingle of warmth that threaded through her veins. "That's for the Doctor," she said. "And this is for you." She pulled Romana flush against her. Their shared warmth flared, grew, and burst into heat that took River by surprise.
Romana clung to her for a moment, her grip on River's arms almost painful. She stayed still when River pulled back, head tilted up, cheeks flushed, and River pressed their foreheads together, catching her breath. "Come back when it's over," she said softly, watching Romana's eyes flutter open. "Don't tell me you can't, just... go take care of things, and come back when it's over."
Romana nodded silently, and River walked away.
She'll remember that, River thought, and refused to turn around to watch the TARDIS dematerialize.
The next morning, River woke up with a headache.
Too much time writing midterms, not enough exercise, she thought to herself, rummaging for some painkillers. Today I'm going outside, and if the college want the marking done, they can come find me.
She checked her desk on the way out, habit making her wary of leaving time-sensitive work. There was a scrap of paper on top of her midterm scribblings, with a set of coordinates in her own untidy scrawl. She picked it up and looked at it in confusion.
Hell. She screwed it up and tossed it over her shoulder towards the bin. If I can't remember what I wanted it for, it's not worth hanging on to. Swinging her satchel over her shoulder, she grabbed her coat and headed out the door. Where have I been that I got this so dusty? she wondered, before the sunshine drove all her worries out of her head.