“Does it ever bother you,” Jason asks her, one night in their bed, “that your life doesn’t make any sense?”
She considers, yawns, and rolls back over. “Nope,” says Benny, and promptly falls asleep.
It’s like a fingertip with a few too many layers of skin scraped away, Benny thinks. Sure, you can still touch with it and, buried under the pain, you’ll find the sensory data you’re looking for. But it hardly makes sense to put yourself through that, when you might just use the other hand.
Yes, she has two sets of memories, but when the other is nothing but screeching oversensitivity and nerve endings that were never meant to be exposed, why not just go on with the one that’s whole?
Her father was a soldier.
He and his sword stood for two thousand years, and became the makings of a legend.
Her mother was lost chasing a doll.
It dissolved in her arms, and left her mourning the baby she never had a chance to know.
Her childhood was spent training her as a weapon.
Her childhood was spent training her as a weapon. Naturally, she rebelled. Naturally, she rebelled. Archaeology was the life she chose for herself, an escape into the past. Archaeology was the life she chose for herself, a way to build a future.
See there? One life, perfect and complete. No need to go stirring up trouble.
And if she were another woman—a different one from either of those she is—Benny might actually listen to her own perfectly sensible advice.
“It was meant to be a nice surprise. I thought you’d like it here!”
“I do,” she says. “So much. It’s more beautiful than anywhere I’ve ever been.”
“Then why are you crying?”
“Take me home, Jason,” she sobs, covering her ears to block out the singing. “Oh, Goddess, please, just take me home.”
He tries, later, to ask her what was so wrong with Darillium, but there aren’t any answers for her to give.
When she’s feeling introspective—usually coincident with nights when the vodka ice cream tub in the freezer comes up unexpectedly dry—Benny opens a page of her diary at random, and removes a post-it note. Today, it’s from a volume she doesn’t quite recognize, which makes her feel older than she’d ever care to admit. By the cover, though, she guesses this chapter of her life must be from her time traveling with the Doctor.
Ace and the Doctor on the outs again this morning, says the note. Yours truly convinced the TARDIS to pipe jazz through the sound system, on the theory that music hath charms, and so forth. Worked a treat—they’re thick as thieves again now. Who says the Doctor is the only genius in this police box?
Benny peels it up. The text beneath is in an entirely different hand.
Jim the Fish says the Moai are behind schedule. We assured him that his plan to focus on the faces is perfectly sound. Guess whose chin he chose for a model!
Benny doesn’t like panic. It’s messy and stupid, and Benny doesn’t have to be entirely sure of her memory to recall too many cases when it’s got people killed. She’s not keen on cowardice either, but only when it affects other people as well as herself. Declining to rescue old women from burning buildings is the sort of act she likes to think she’d never stoop to. Which is not the same thing as quietly slipping the blue book back onto her shelf, and fighting very, very hard to forget it.
Memories that aren’t hers in the diary that is her life is a terrifying prospect all on its own. But that’s nothing to seeing them written there, large as life and twice as undeniable, in a language that cannot be anything but Gallifreyan.
She lives in a world constructed, artificial, a world built in someone else’s image, existing in someone else’s head.
Like every other artifact in the Braxiatel Collection, Bernice Summerfield Has Been Saved.
It’s Brax who finally makes her reconsider, though not intentionally. She’s sure the last thing Irving Braxiatel wants anybody on the Collection doing is poking around too closely in their own memories. But that’s why she has to do this. Having a head like an onion, full of layers she can only barely glimpse, she can almost cope with that. But not knowing what somebody else has been programming into her mind—that she’s not going to accept quietly. If somebody is going to be messing with her mind, she’s going to be damn well sure that person is her.
What’s the sense in letting anybody else mess up her life when she’s always done such a bang-up job of that on her own?
The situation she finds herself in now, for example. On the run from the world that was her home, from the man who was her friend and employer, nothing but lint in her pockets, and with a small son to be supporting. Or not-so-small anymore, as the case may be... but that’s another set of problems altogether.
Point is, this is hardly the time for soul searching. She needs to find work, safety, somewhere to settle down. She has Peter to be thinking of. But having Peter to be thinking of—and being too skint to waste money on self-indulgence in any case—means that the vodka ice cream tub in their shuttle’s freezer comes up empty far more nights than not. And even in the rush to get away from KS-159, her diaries are the one physical possession that Benny couldn’t bear to leave behind.
It’s difficult, opening the blue volume. Her brain really doesn’t want to know this, doesn’t want to have to deal with these things. It doesn’t grow easier after the first dozen post-it notes have vanished. One page of a life she didn’t remember might have been put down to a bout of temporary amnesia or a really good night out. But there’s a whole life here, and it isn’t hers.
What makes the reading easier, in the long run, is that it’s a great life on these pages. No, it isn’t Benny’s own, but there are definite similarities. It’s a bit like looking in the mirror: the same ingredients, only backwards. Benny counterfeited her credentials to become a real archaeologist; the woman from the diary has real diplomas and a fake archaeological career. Benny’s had her fair share of less-than-scrupulously legal exploits but has managed to evade the long arm of the law, whereas the other woman seems to have been imprisoned for a crime she never committed. The diary belongs to a married woman who has adventures with her husband, but doesn’t seem to ever pass a moment of calm with him; Benny has... had a man who wasn’t really her husband anymore, and he and Benny most often lived their own separate adventures, and reunited just in time for the domestic bits.
It takes several weeks of midnight readings, stolen hours during the artificial night of her shuttle’s sleep cycle, for Benny to come to the end of the blue diary. In that time, she’s begun to form a theory about what this book must be. There was a time in her life, around the same era that the post-its covering this diary describe, when this other existence would have appealed to Benny a very great deal. A long-term romance with the Doctor, parents alive and well and saving the universe, thrills and derring-do but without guilt or loss or repercussions: it could all have been written as Benny’s own fantasy, and that’s precisely what she believes it to be. True, she doesn’t actually remember engaging in that kind of schoolgirl scribbling, but it’s no doubt the sort of embarrassing fact her brain would have blotted out for its own good.
It’s the best theory Benny can offer, but she admits that it does have its flaws. The life under the post-its is a little too real to fit comfortably as a mere daydream, particularly in its last pages. The final entries are a story of heartbreak and loss, as the other diarist watches the man she loves forget her. And then comes the final entry—written in English, shaky and uncertain, so different that Benny can’t be sure it was written by the same person at all.
I would think he left this here for me because he assumed I’d find a way to break myself out. That can’t be true, though, can it? The man who left this book in the Library didn’t know me well enough to assume anything of the kind.
He didn’t know me at all.
This new body I loomed for myself, to transfer my memory data out of the Library’s mainframe, it isn’t a proper Time Lady. I’d have needed artron supplies for that, chronon energy, all sorts of exotic ingredients that I simply couldn’t supply. I hadn’t counted on how badly I fit into a mostly-human skin. The brain in this body is set to grow, to expand all the time, but it had to start off more-or-less standard for a human, and it’s not nearly big enough yet. I feel compressed, like I’m squeezed into a pair of shoes three sizes too small. It hurts. It burns. It’s terrible.
I know what I have to do.
As ominous last words go, that rates a solid ten in Benny’s book, and she’s had her share of experience with ‘ominous.’ After weeks of living this strange woman’s life along with her, that kind of ending would hit Benny like a punch in the gut if it was actually the end. But there is something else, something scratched into the endpapers of the diary, crude but recognizable.
Benny knows this is the wrong time for wild goose chases. She knows there’s no excuse, when Peter is depending on her, when Adrian is depending on her, when the spectre of Brax is looming perpetually over her shoulder, just out of sight.
But in what possible world could Professor Bernice Summerfield ever, ever resist a map to hidden treasure?
She tells Peter they’re stopping on Beta Caprisis because she wants him to see her homeworld. And maybe that’s all this trip will really be. Maybe there really is nothing lurking at the conspicuous red X-marks-the-spot. But now that she’s committed herself to this quest, Benny can’t rest until she’s chased down every lead. There are truths to be known, hovering around her like flies, and they won’t give her any peace until she’s found some way of swatting them. Or trapping them, or blowing them away... all right, she thinks, so as metaphors go perhaps it’s not much, but she’s going to follow this thing through, and that’s all there is to it.
It’s an ancient temple waiting for her at the spot marked on the map. She already suspected it would be. She knows this planet, where it hides its sites of historical interest. There is nothing living in this corner of Beta Caprisis. The only denizens of this place are the left-behind, the lost and the forgotten.
Benny should be sensing a trap now, and because she should be, she is. If she were trying to lure herself into the dastardly clutches of one of the many people she’s pissed off over the years, she’s not sure she could have constructed a more perfect piece of bait. But the fact that it’s so obvious, so clearly meant just for her, is what convinces Benny to come in any case. One can always judge a woman by the quality of her enemies, and Benny flatters herself that none of her enemies is as entirely unsubtle as that.
Besides, nobody else could cause the deja vu prickling inside her skull. She has been here before, she knows it. She doesn’t so much leave Peter exploring among the ruins as her feet do, carrying her into the temple along a path they’ve walked before.
The mechanism for the hidden door is one of the most simply and cleverly concealed she’s ever encountered. Every one of the ten thousand stones of this wall is absolutely identical.
She only touches one, and the steps are opening out of the floor, opening a passage into a darkness that wasn’t below her feet a moment ago.
The contents of the hidden room are surreal in their juxtaposition with each other and the room. On one side stands a terrible machine, a gruesome mess of cruelly gleaming metal and twisting mazes of wire, with what is very clearly a helmet dangling conspicuously in the center. And on the other, a neat little end table sits sedate as you like, occupied only by an old-fashioned pocketwatch decorated with swirling circles. As any sane person would, Benny turns away from the medieval torture device on her left, in favor of opening the pocketwatch instead.
It occurs to Benny almost immediately, as she’s burning from the inside in a blaze of golden fire, that she couldn’t possibly have made a worse choice.
The universe is spinning.
She can feel it.
Gravity is dancing through the stars, weakest of the fundamental forces and yet pulling separately on every atom that has ever been. Light is rushing from point to point, energy bursting in every motion. And time—time, how could she ever have lost it? Time is standing still and moving, flowing like cloth in a breeze, a trillion trillion trillion intertwined strands, separate and connected, already woven and yet changeable still, and she sees all of it.
And it’s power, this feeling, and it’s beautiful, and it’s terrible, and being this person, this woman, is so much more than Benny ever knew she could feel. Except she isn’t Benny, of course, not anymore—she’s something else, different, bigger, older, deeper, stranger. More terrible. More painful.
“Mum?” asks a voice, from the bottom of the stairs.
“Peter,” says Benny. But no, she isn’t Benny. She is the music of the universe, Melody and Song. She is the last Time Lady, and the first child of a new species. She knows everything, and sees everything, and is everywhere, and can do anything. Every bit of time and space is hers for the possessing.
Where the bloody hell is the fun in that?
“Are you okay?” asks Peter. “You look... weird.”
“Right there in the name, you know,” she says. “No point in a life without Surprises.”
“And you sound weird, too,” says Peter, dubiously. “And your eyes are all glowy.”
She looks at Peter, and smiles, and kisses him on the cheek. “I love you,” she says.
He rolls his eyes with a vengeance. “Mum.”
She laughs. “Give me a minute down here, would you? I promise, I’ll be back to normal then.”
“You’re never normal.”
“And quite right, too,” she says. “Off you go. I won’t be long.”
“But why do I have to...”
“Because whatever else I am,” says the woman who once was River, “I am still your mother.”
Peter sighs, and trudges up the stairs. And she watches him go, and thinks of everything she’s about to give up, and everything she stands to gain.
She knows so much, now. The phrase ‘chameleon arch’ is only one tiny piece of knowledge, but it’s the only one she still needs.
She walks over to the machine on the other side of the room, and pulls on the helmet, and closes her eyes.
“Don’t... need to shout,” she mumbles. “Not deaf, y’know.”
“You were screaming and screaming,” says Peter, clearly terrified, “and when I got down here, you were unconscious. What is that thing?”
Benny glances up at the silver helmet dangling above her head. “I can’t quite remember the name,” she says. “But don’t worry. It’ll come to me.”
“This place is so not right.”
“Don’t worry,” she says, and squeezes her son’s hand. “Everything is going to be fine.”
Bernice Summerfield is an archaeologist. Destroying the cultural heritage of her homeworld is not the sort of act to which she intends to stoop.
She makes sure to place the charges so that only the room in the foundations will blow up, and not the temple above it.
With sixty seconds left on the timer, Benny carefully places the TARDIS-blue diary on the table beside the pocketwatch. At this moment, she can remember enough, just enough, to know why she’s doing this. But by tomorrow morning, it will all be gone, and that’s how it should be.
She has a life to be living. It may be a mere human life, but it is anything but normal, and it’s hers. And she has no intention of allowing anything, even her own past, to take it away.
Benny climbs the stairs, and presses the proper stone, and watches the passageway seal behind her. Ten seconds later, the whole temple gives a tremendous shake, and then goes still.
“Right,” she says, mostly to herself. “That’s that, then.”
“That’s what?” asks Peter, from the other side of the room. “What’s going on with you today?”
“Practically everything,” says Benny, crossing the room to her son. “And then again, absolutely nothing, really.”
“Do you have to say things I’m not meant to understand? It may be fun for you, but for me it’s just boring.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she says, teasingly, as she leads them out of the temple. “Shall we find something more interesting to do?”
“There’s a whole universe out there,” she says, “and we’ve only got one life to see it in. But that’s beautiful, isn’t it? We can’t ever run out, ever feel like we’ve done and seen it all. We’ve always got something more to learn, or somewhere else to go, and we’ll never know what’s waiting around the next corner. And all in all, that’s really, really perfect.”
Benny looks at her rusting crate of a shuttle, and at the scuffed toes of her boots, and at her troublesome teenaged son, and grins.
“Come on,” she says, and bounds up the ramp into her ship. “Let’s go have an adventure.”