A bad idea:
Take a country that needs to be powerful, in a world where it isn’t any more. Take a project that’s too expensive and technology that can’t ever work, then decide to send the whole thing into space. Give it an exciting name and tell the name to children, and say that stopping the whole thing would be the same as smashing their dreams. And make it so you absolutely never think about what you’ll do if there’s a disaster.
“It’s a disaster!” Frank screamed at Milosz within their tiny office. “He’ll be landing in thirty minutes, and we don’t have any visuals at all—“
“It’s not like he needs them,” snapped Milosz. “Doesn’t have to have all Britain’s eyes staring at him to look at some oil on an asteroid.”
“Get it working,” snapped Frank, because it wasn’t worth having the argument. Milosz knew well enough that there was no point sending a man off to asteroid in the first place; not for any scientific reason. But as they’d explained when he’d first got here, the whole mission was scientific in its way. It was just designed around something different from prospecting an asteroid for oil.
They’d told Milosz about the classified studies, the ones done after the moon landing. How the Cold War was almost over there and then, because Americans had seen one of their people reach out to the future and stick a big flag on the floor of it. It had made them believe in their victory in a way no politician really could, and so it had been worth all the hundreds of billions that they’d had to funnel in.
There had to be a person, and they had to see him land. A Brit, claiming new British soil. An Empire in space, though of course they’d never call it that. As a source of oil, the mission was useless. But as a source of hope, he’d been led to believe it was vital.
Which was a good reason to panic, if they weren’t even able to film it. There were hundreds of people on hand to edit and filter the images once they came through, but for some unfathomable reason they arrived through a single point. It was Frank and Miloz’s role to take care of that one place where everything could fail, and it would be their names the Department would know about in the event that everything did.
Desperately, he scrolled through endless miles of code, deleting chunks in one place and hurriedly pasting functions in another. No one else on the project was talented enough to know what a mess his programs were, but if someone that good ever saw them he’d be in a great deal of trouble indeed.
He looked again at the edit he’d made before the accident. A semicolon deleted, in the most obvious and critical place. It was always something small like that, that would cause the enormous errors.
The picture on his screen flushed back to life, but something was wrong. For a dumb second, Milosz knew someone was playing a trick, but then there was no one who that someone could have been. He was the first and only person to see the image beamed back from space, and that meant his eyes had broken, or the stress had now broken his mind.
Or it might mean the thing he was seeing was real.
“It’s a Snapcode,” he said. “There’s a Snapcode on the asteroid.”
“Don’t really care,” said Frank, “as long as there’s a man on it soon.”
Milosz looked at him. “But this is the most astonishing discovery since—“ he struggled to think of anything “—since A very long time indeed! Since I was born! Since you were born! Since even before all of that!”
“I’m not that old,” said Frank. “I just don’t know what a Snapcode is. I don’t keep up with these coding terms you use.”
“If you were my age, you’d know exactly what it was.” Milosz fished out his phone and thrust the screen to his boss’s face. “It’s for Snapchat, see? Like what the kids are using. You want to add someone and you scan their Snapcode; then your phone gives a buzz and you’re friends. But they’re usually used by people or celebrities. Not objects in the middle of outer space.”
He twisted his screen towards his boss, who gaped at the thing it displayed. The Snapcode was pocked with tiny craters that had been left over the years, but it was still unmistakably something that someone had created. A rounded square covered in little dots, with the outline of a ghost in the middle. It was sitting there as if it was plain and normal, like it hadn’t even noticed how totally out of place it was.
“But that’s impossible,” said Frank.
“It is,” said Milosz, “and it’s also happening.”
“You’re telling me the asteroid has a social media presence?”
“It’s a one-shot mission. The thing’s moving past Earth at enormous speed. These are the first pictures we’d have got of it; we’re the first people who’d have known.”
“But that asteroid is ancient! Snapchat isn’t millions of years old! That’s why young people use it in the first place!”
“D’you think it works?” breathed Milosz, scared to even have the thought.
“Works!?” of course it doesn’t work! Frank paused. “Unless…”
“Unless it does,” said Milosz. His hand shook as he bought up his app to the screen…
…and a yellow square came up with a smiling cartoon of a woman’s face, with a very unusual star sign and the phrase DoctorSezStayAway! below.
Hesitatingly, Milosz checked what the face might have saved in her stories, but there was only one thing there. Just the woman in the picture shouting “Stay away!” into the screen, in an astronaut’s suit that seemed too advanced to be real.
“Nothing, then, Milosz said, handing the phone back to Frank. “Just some dead account, with someone dressing up.” He laughed. “Imagine being so proud of being a doctor that you’d put it in your username—“
He turned, but at the word doctor Frank had bolted from the room, the door swinging hopelessly and leaving him alone.
He looked back at the monitor and the image that it showed, aware that what was happening to him was impossible. But it was meaningless, too, and that made him strangely frustrated. If the Snapcode on the asteroid really hadn’t been a trick, than that meant it was a miracle— but a totally useless one, like making a statue wear trousers or changing the sea to bright pink. Why would the world do something like that, when he was feeling quite fine as a sceptic? Why would anyone perform a miracle when it didn’t even have a point?
“CODE BLUE!” shouted Frank as he burst into the manager’s office. “We have to stop, call the whole thing off. Code Blue!” he said again, pointlessly. The manager looked at him through thin gold glasses, his withering gaze magnified in size and contempt.
Frank has no idea what the manager’s name even was, and he was far too frightened to ask. He seemed a man who wouldn’t approve of names, like they were too recent an invention.
“A code blue?” he said. “I was wondering when that’d show up.” He laughed at Frank’s horrified expression. “Well, don’t look so pale, man! This is a major historical event; or so our PR men are saying. It wouldn’t be complete if the Doctor didn’t show up.”
Frank hesitated. “It’s more that he hasn’t shown up. He’s left us a warning, although you might not know what it is. It’s something called a Snapcode”—
“Don’t patronise me,” growled the manager. “I know what Snapchat is. I like the negative stickers; they send the right message to my grandchild.” He took Frank’s phone from him, and nodded slightly. He still looked as contemptuous as before, but there was now an inch of worry in his eyes.
“I see,” he said softly. “So it is a code blue after all. A warning sent through time; like only the Doctor could do. Not him, though,” he said, pointing at the woman’s face at the centre of the code. “Must be one of his companions. Suppose Snapchat’s beyond someone like the Doctor, whatever the size of his brain.”
“So you agree?” said Frank, terrified that the manager might not. “About how serious it is?”
“Oh, it’s a very serious thing. Ruinous. But cancelling the mission? That might be more serious still. It’s not enough that it’s bad, you know. To call this off would take something, well. Catastrophic. Even by the standards of the Doctor.”
He looked harder at the bright screen of the phone.
“Whatever happened up there,” he said at last, “it must of been bad. It’s not like him to leave this brazen a footprint, whatever the impression he likes to give. So the question is what, isn’t it? What could have been so awful that it’s made the Doctor want to use Snapchat?”
Chris was often mocked for the interests that she had. They were not, people said, the ones that a girl should have. Olympic records and dinosaurs, the hardest to find fizzy drinks. The Egyptian afterlife for a while, until her teacher had complained. But one thing Chris had in common with most eleven-year-olds was that she was absolutely not interested in rocks.
“And another interesting thing about these rocks,” the Doctor was saying from behind her astronaut’s helmet, “is that I think they’re emitting gravity somehow!” She threw one up above her head, where it hung in an improbable way. “And that’s impossible, of course. And they’re turning into oil, which is impossible in a completely different way—”
She turned round to Chris, her face falling.
“—and you’re ignoring me and fiddling with your phone,” she said.
“I’m playing my game,” said Chris, disgruntled. The only spacesuit the Doctor had in her size was a novelty one – all black and white splotches in the manner of a cow – and being forced to wear it had put her in a very bad mood.
“You can play that anywhere! You’re on an asteroid! Look how high you can jump!” said the Doctor, bouncing high in the air to demonstrate.
“I suppose,” said Chris. “But I thought traveling with you would be lots of fun adventures. Not looking at rocks on an asteroid.”
“Ah,” said the Doctor with a smile. “But to the well-ordered mind, looking at rocks is the biggest adventure there is!”
“No it isn’t.” Chris looked down past the too-near horizon of the asteroid where they had landed, where the upper hemisphere of a planet took up the entire sky. It was like her own, all countries and seas, but in different shapes that stretched around the world. The sun was on the other side of it now, and cities spread their lamps across the night, marking out an alien civilisation that from this distance looked just like her own.
“It’s beautiful,” said Chris. “Much better than rocks.”
“It’s an astonishing thing, isn’t it?” said the Doctor. “Seeing your planet from space for the first time.”
“But that’s not Earth!” said Chris. “We don’t look anything like that! There’s no Africa, and we all should live up there”—
“Well, everyone looks different when they’re younger, don’t they?” The Doctor shrugged. “Even planets.”
“But there are cities down there! There’s people, aliens! There weren’t any people on Earth when it didn’t have any of the countries!”
“And how,” said the Doctor, “would you know about any of that?”
“Because we’d know! It’d be in the books!”
“Not if the books didn’t know about it, either.”
Chris frowned. “We would know. There’d be old cars and messed up teddies down by all of the dinosaurs. There would be something to tell us that people’d lived. There wouldn’t be nothing at all.”
“Thing is,” said the Doctor, “you’re used to seeing it like a book. Where everything’s just knights and cavemen, and all of what happened before you lot gets a page to itself at the start. Makes you forget how much time there really was, scrunched up into that tiny page. How much space there is, for something to get forgotten.”
“But there’d still be something,” said Chris, insisting.
The Doctor didn’t answer her, because she wasn’t listening. She was looking at three figures in spacesuits, coming up from the asteroid’s edge and walking towards them both. She knew exactly what they all were, and how that meant Chris was talking about exactly the wrong sort of thing.
“Hey, look, Chris!” she said. “It’s people! Hello, people! Fancy bumping into you on an asteroid; it’s a small world.”
She grinned at her terrible joke, but the three figures didn’t grin back. They had scaly faces and reptile skin, but their expressions were strangely human— and their eyes conveyed total contempt at the Doctor and her wave.
“Aliens!” one of the figures said. “Funny, isn’t it? How they always look like us, but with animal heads.”
“Staking a claim, are you?” said another with hostility. “It won’t work, I’m afraid. This asteroid’s Earth property, by every law that applies. And don’t go saying laws don’t apply to you, just because you’re aliens. Our people‘ve dealt with that sort of rubbish before.”
“I’m not an—“ Chris began to say.
“Annoying enough to make up phony laws,” finished the Doctor as Chris glared. “Neither of us are! We’re just here making a documentary. Called Planet Earth, and about it. And all the rocks that’re passing it by. And we’re doing this rock, now, ‘cause there’s been a whole lot of series. And we’re running out of places we haven’t been.”
“I’m a human,” said Chris, from”—
“Planet Hume,” said the Doctor. “Which isn’t a bad place, really. There’s shops in most of the cities, although a lot of them keep closing down.”
“Stop, Doctor,” said Chris, getting annoyed. “You keep talking over me, and I always tell you to—“
“But I expect you’re wondering who these people are, Chris! And that’s a hard question to answer, as they have all sorts of names. Silurians, Homo Reptilia. But a more appropriate name for them right now”— she looked very meaningfully at Chris —“would be Earthlings.”
“Oh,” said Chris sadly. “From there.”
“From there. Just like you’re from—“
“Planet Hume,” sighed Chris. “I’m from Planet Hume.”
“We have permission, as well,” said the Doctor. She fished a piece of paper from the pocket of her jeans, and handed it over to her apologetically.
“Huh,” said the figure, after looking at it for a while. “I wouldn’t have thought the Queen would allow this. Kala, Drocks! It’s legit!” they said to their two curious colleagues, “they’re not a threat after all. They’re from Hume! A mammal planet, where everyone is furry!”
“Everyone isn’t furry,” said Chris.
“What would interest anyone about this place?” said the figure who must have been Drocks. “Yeah, there’s the oil, but even scientists find that a bit dull. It hardly makes for an interesting piece of TV.”
Chris sighed. “We really love rocks,” she said miserably. “The aliens from Planet Hume. You have tellies?” she said, as an afterthought.
“Well, of course!” laughed the figure. “Earth’s not some backwater, just because we’ve not got many spaceships yet.”
“Well, we’ll be coming with you, if that’s alright,” said the Doctor, “an asteroid full of oil, and nobody even knows why! They’ll love that, on Hume TV. They’ve only one telly station,” she added, “it’s them who’s very backward.”
The closest figure sighed deeper than Chris thought a reptile could. “Okay,” she said. “Come and film how very dark it is, or whatever. But don’t interrupt our mission! And don’t think you’ll be getting Humans down to Earth as tourists! It’s very hush hush that aliens exist at all. There’s only a few of us who know.”
“I don’t think you’ll have anything to worry about there,” said the Doctor. “Hume is”— she wrinkled her nose —“it’s so very far away.”
“Do you miss it?” asked Drocks. “Bol here can’t stand going abroad for a few weeks, and you must’ve come millions of miles.”
“Oh, I’m not from Hume,” said the Doctor. “I just look like I might be, if there’s things you aren’t able to see. But I like it a lot down there. They’re good people.”
“If you’re sure,” said Kala sceptically.
“Come on,” said Drocks impatiently. “They haven’t done anything wrong! They’ve just come here in that tiny box over there. They’ve nowhere to put anything they could steal.”
“They could kill us,” said Kala.
“They’re not going to kill us,” laughed Bol. “They’re telling the truth, I think. They’re just who they say they are, and nobody’s going to die.”
Not yet, Chris managed to stop herself from saying. She wasn’t stupid, in the way people assumed an eleven-year-old would be. For her Earth to come into existence, the one the lizards were from would have to stop, disappear so completely that no one would believe it could ever been there. She had no idea if they’d even thought of what Earth would be like, tens of millions of years in the future. But she thought that they wouldn’t be happy, to learn they’d left no trace at all.
“I want to talk to you,” she said to the Doctor. “Without the lizard people.”
“We’ll follow you down to the caves!” said the Doctor. “We need to talk about, you know. Mammal things.”
“No we don’t,” said Chris.
The three Earthlings stared awkwardly at them for a while.
“Right!” said Bol, too enthusiastically, “that oil won’t survey itself. See you down there, uh—“
“I’m the Doctor; she’s Chris.”
“They do have strange names, don’t they?” said Kala.
“Ha!” said the Doctor. “That’s true! We’re pretty strange, we are! Ha! Ha ha!”
She laughed for an awfully long time.
“Have they gone yet?” she said eventually.
“A while ago,” said Chris.
“Oh, thank God,” said the Doctor, whose cheeks were sore from the laughing. “It’s awkward, isn’t it? Meeting people, and not talking about the total collapse of their civilisation.”
“I don’t know. But I don’t like it when I have to lie.”
“It’s worth it, though, isn’t it? When the truth is very bad.”
“That’s not what you said to me. When I first saw you; when you were my psychiatrist. You told me the truth, even though no one else would listen.”
The Doctor sighed. “But that’s not quite the same. You’ll‘ve worked it out, of course. Their story has to end so that yours can happen at all. Where there’s life, there’s hope, but when other lives depend on an ending?” She shook her head. “It’s all very different then.
“That’s wrong,” said Chris. “If you know something that big, even if it’s terrible. You should always tell the person that it’s about.”
“A great many people keeping all sorts from you. That’s what being a child is like.”
“I know. That’s why I think it’s a bad thing. And they aren’t children, anyway. Everyone’s not a child, just because you’re really old.”
The Doctor looked a bit wounded at that. She glanced down at the Earth, its cities shining like light through an old smashed glass.
“How would you feel,” she said, “if someone told you that quite soon all of it would end? That one day the whole world of buses and chairs and houses would just stop, and time would go on like it had never known you were there?”
Chris shrugged. “I’d be sad to think that everyone would be gone. But I wouldn’t really care about nobody remembering.”
The Doctor thought about it. “You wouldn’t, no. But lots of people would. And people who grow up to be astronauts and come all the way out here? I think it’ll matter a lot to them to believe that their world has a future.”
“But that’s a lie!”
“It’s a truth that they don’t know. It’s not the same thing.”
“I want to go down to the caves now,” said Chris, hoping the Doctor noticed how she was too cross to even respond. She was thinking of all the truths the Doctor must know that she would never tell her, when Chris had once thought she was the most honest person in the world. But the worst of it was that the Doctor would still be more honest to her than to most people, that there were lies she’d tell to others without a second thought. She could have been one of those others, if things had been just a bit different. It made it harder to trust the person who was your psychiatrist.
And she came close to having a thought she would need to have very soon: that there was no one the Doctor trusted less than herself. And that meant if a truth was too dreadful to even consider, the Doctor might make sure that she’d never even notice it was there.
The Doctor had to do something clever with her torch to catch up to where the Earthlings had gone. It gave out light in a way that wasn’t quite like brightness, making everything in the caves look lit by a winter dawn. The cold light made Chris very aware that it was cold beneath the asteroid, too, even wrapped in the folds of her ridiculous spacesuit. She shivered, and breathed in the false air the suit had produced for her. She felt very alone in that place, in a way that she never had before.
Yet even as she did she could hear the voices of the Earthlings, chattering to each other at a place where the cavern sloped down and away. They’d come for oil, but there wasn’t much of it so far up: just tiny pools of it that welled up from spots in the rocky ground.
“We were looking for oil on an asteroid back home,” said Chris. “I thought it was a stupid idea. Is it this one, too? Or is there oil everywhere?”
“I’m working it out,” said the Doctor. “I have a few ideas. If we’re very lucky, they’ll all turn out to be wrong.”
“It was never going to be easy,” Drocks was saying up ahead. “A mission like this was always going to have its obstacles. At least a rockfall’s easy to overcome.
The light of the Doctor’s torch met the light from the Earthlings’ suits, and the five of them looked at each other uncomfortably.
“Rocks in the way,” said Bol. “Don’t suppose you could give us a hand? You could film it, even, to show what it’s like behind the scenes. This can’t be the worst thing your crew has had to put up with.”
“It’s not,” said Chris as she shivered in her suit.
“Only we’re on a schedule, you see, and I’ve important plans back home. My wife’s just hatched us a clutch of children. I’ll need to be getting back so we can eat them.”
“What?” said Chris.
“I know,” sighed Bol. “I should’ve been there when they hatched.” He laughed. “My wife’s going to kill me”—
“She’s going to kill your children!” said Chris. “She’s going to eat them. I’m a child,” she said. “If I was yours, would you eat me?”
“You?” said Kala, horrified. “You look so old! Bol and I both have sons that aren’t really children anymore. We certainly wouldn’t think of eating them. Even to consider it would be shocking.”
“It’s shocking on Hume however old a child is,” said the Doctor. “They care a lot about children there. It’s one of the reasons why I’m so fond of the place. And why I’m so particular about saving it.”
“I think the mammals are right, if I’m honest,” Drocks said as he chiselled away. “Everyone does it,” he said cheerily, “but that doesn’t mean it’s right.” He smiled. “Maybe we’re all just awful, and don’t deserve to survive at all. And maybe we won’t, if finding the oil goes south.”
“Why do you need oil from space, anyway?” said Chris. “There’s lots of it there down on Earth.”
“Not anymore,” said Kala. “Word is if we don’t find more soon we might even have to drill in the oceans. Though the Sea Devils’d have something to say about that!”
“Kala!” said Drocks. “You can’t use slurs like that! Not in front of the aliens! Not in front of anyone!” He looked apologetically to Chris and the Doctor. “It’s not like people think. We don’t say things like Sea Devils where we’re from. Please don’t put that in your documentary.”
“Oh, everyone thinks it,” said Kala. “Who wouldn’t, the things they’re getting up to? Time was war was unthinkable; you know that people’re thinking about it now. Though they don’t say it. Not about something as small as oil.”
“Is that what it was?” Chris asked the Doctor very quietly.
“Who knows,” said the Doctor in a distant way.
The Earthlings looked uncomfortable, trying to get away from the thought of the end of the world. But that made Chris think about what their world must be like, and whether—
“Do you have stegosaurs on Earth?” she asked.
“Not where we’re from,” said Kala. “I think they have one in the zoo. It’s in a very small cage; I think it’s cruel.”
“How do they mate?” Chris asked. “There are lots of plates running up their backs, so I didn’t see how.”
“Um,” laughed Kala, “I don’t think that’s an appropriate subject for children!”
“But you eat your children!”
“Yes,” said Kala, “And we talk about appropriate subjects when we do.”
“See?” said the Doctor. “Lots of demand from Humans for these documentaries. So many questions about planet Earth that only our films can answer. But filming isn’t the only skill I have.”
She nodded over to the rocks.
“Chisels are all well and good,” she said. “But if you really need your rocks shifted, they’re not a patch on a screwdriver.”
Bol looked at her. “You’re planning to unscrew them?”
“In a way. These rocks, they’re emitting gravity. It’s why we’re able to walk so easily at all, down through this tiny asteroid. But a blast from the sonic can turn things right around. We just need to reverse the polarity.”
“Of the gravity?” said Chris.
“Well, only in the rocks. We wouldn’t want to go falling onto the roof.”
“That’s stupid,” said Chris.
“I’m inclined to agree,” said Drocks. “Gravity doesn’t have a polarity.”
“Not that you know about!” said the Doctor.
“Sometimes I think you just make things up, but then they work anyway,” said Chris. “In the same way that adults do.”
“Oh, I make things up all the time,” said the Doctor. “But I’m getting better. And this one’s true, anyway. Lots of things have a polarity, lots of solutions involve reversing it. It’s a uniting scientific discovery; you’ll discover it some day.”
“On Earth, too,” said Kala.
“Yes,” said the Doctor. “It’ll be discovered on the Earth.”
Chris tried to look at the Doctor’s face then, to see how it looked when it told a truth that was also a lie. But she couldn’t help looking round as the Earthlings’ gasps rose above the whine, as the rocks lifted from the ground exactly as the Doctor said they would. It was slow work, but before long there was enough space to continue through the caves.
“We should run through,” said the Doctor. “Gravitational polarity can be funny. Sometimes it just flips back to normal, then the rocks fall down and crush you. It’s more horrible than funny, really. But the distinction won’t much matter, is what I’m saying.”
“Then we run,” said Bol. “We did want to do this as fast as possible.”
The five of them ran on under the floating boulders, down to the dead oil that lay below. None of them thought how strange it was, to be the only living things on that rock.
And that was a fortunate thing, because before long they would discover they were not.
The spacesuit that was keeping Chris alive looked ridiculous, but it was still an impressive piece of technology. The miracles it could work didn’t stretch to heating, though, and her teeth were clattering as the five explorers made their way beneath the asteroid.
They’d come to an open cavern connecting the surface to caves that lay further below, where a large lake of oil stretched unfrozen by the cold. And that was impossible, but Chris didn’t even notice, because she was looking at how the liquid seemed to be moving. It was stiff and rippling like the skin of a horrible custard, and small peaks formed in it in the way of a stiffening meringue.
“That’s odd,” said Bol, flicking his light to look. “Maybe this oil isn’t like what we have down on the Earth. Maybe it forms differently, when it’s not made from living things.”
“Maybe it’s a living thing itself,” said the Doctor, who was eyeing the lake like it could pounce.
Kala smiled at her. “You’ve probably got a funny idea of what it’s like here, filming nature documentaries,” she said. “Earth might have tyrannosaurs and those ammonites that eat people, but most of it’s pretty mundane. We’re a lot of unexceptional places full of boring things, and we definitely have nothing as exciting as living oil”—
A large splosh came from somewhere in the middle of the cavern, and Kala’s expression froze.
“What was that?” she shouted, all humour forgotten. Drocks and Bol both had their lights focused on the same point in the oil, and the light in their faces had died at what they saw.
“That,” said Bol grimly, “is something exciting.”
The lights of the Earthlings and the Doctor were all focused on an outcrop of rock, which was splattered with the oil that bashed against it. But the people who cast the light were all looking at the rubber-clad limb, attached to a figure in a black plastic suit whose whole head was masked in a viser. The oil slid off the creature as it rose, falling away like it wasn’t sticky at all.
“It looks like us!” said Kala in horror as the figure climbed onto the rock.
“It could look like anything, for all we know!” said the Doctor. “All sorts of races with two arms and legs and one head. Humanoid or Earthlingoid or whatever you want to call it. Unless, of course,” she said, “that’s not what it really looks like at all.”
None of the others were even pretending to listen to her. They were staring at the figure now perched on top of the rock, its head turned right at them while its face remained obscured. As they watched, the viser across it cracked open with a squeak—
—revealing the bald face of a human man, staring at them with a hungry grin.
“It’s an animal!” gasped Kala. “And it looks exactly like you!”
“He’s not an animal,” said Chris, “he’s a person.”
“That’s something a lot worse than both those things,” said the Doctor. “It’s an Inverine, and we should definitely be running away from it.”
“But how do you know?” shouted Drocks.
“Did a documentary about them!” said the Doctor, who was already running. ‘Really, really dangerous creatures of the universe, which you should absolutely get away from right now.’ Not great with titles, that network, but pretty good at knowing what gets you dead.”
“But it looks like you,” said Kala. “Like a beast from Hume.”
“Oh, everyone looks like that,” said the Doctor. “The universe can be boring in that way.”
“Like that?” said Kala.
“We should be prepared for things like that,” said Drocks. “We’ve spent so long now making films about space, we’re not prepared for it to throw up things like this. On some level we think aliens’ll just be us with different ears, like the universe has the same budget as TV. But the real ones could all look like anything. Even that.”
“It doesn’t look like that,” said the Doctor. “An Inverine doesn’t look like any one thing for long. It”—
She stopped herself.
“We need to get out of here now,” she said, her eyes glancing down to the oil. The Earthlings were still too transfixed on the Inverine to notice how the peaks in the lake were getting bigger, now growing to cones like wizard hats until they plopped into nothingness again. And to the shore than her worst fears, the hats were staring to form into something else.
“I’m aware I’m a bit of a broken record,” she said, “but what’s good about running is”—
“He’s a Human, isn’t he?” said Kala. “He’s not what you say he is at all. The three of you have some plan to scare us away, so you can take all the oil for yourselves to… to smear on your skin, or something! It’s so horrid and oily anyway.”
“You’re horrible,” said Chris.
“I just see through the game that you’re playing. ‘Everything looks like a Human!’ That’s ridiculous! When you haven’t even told us your story of what’s going on down here. If that’s not your friend over there, or something else from Hume, then why don’t you tell us what it really is?”
The Doctor looked trapped in a cage made out of words.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “But that’s not something I’m willing to do.”
“You’re overreacting, Kala,” said Drocks. “They’re only some aliens doing their alien things. Whatever they’re here for, it won’t be something to get angry about. There’s nothing to get frightened about here at all—“
A tentacle made of oil smashed him hard against the chest.
“DROCKS!” cried the four of them in horror as he slumped down to the ground, the oil taut and solid as it wrapped around its leg. With a grinding screech his body was pulled towards the oil, the soft rock crumbling against him as he was dragged on down.
“We’ve got no weapons!” said Bol. “We didn’t think we’d need them!” He was glancing over to the lake, where the Inverine wasn’t even visible anymore. Its rock was obscured by oil creatures in an endless number of forms: Chris saw jellyfish, dinosaurs and fern-like things with fronds as she peeked out from behind the Doctor’s back. She didn’t recognise most of the animals that were there; she wasn’t even sure if all of them were animals. But that thought was buried deep under the fear that she was about to die; that she’d drown in space before her species had ever evolved. She was the only one alive, she suddenly realised. There were no humans anywhere except her, and soon she would be nowhere as well.
“I want to go home,” she said quietly.
“All of us can go home,” said the Doctor as she turned to face the oil, “as soon as I’ve dealt with this.”
“Drocks can’t!” snapped Kala.
“Saving your life here,” said the Doctor. “Try not to get too disgruntled about it.” She’d pulled a lighter from somewhere and flicked it on, a small flame burning up the oxygen that wasn’t there.
“The breathless flame!” she said as she drew her arm back to throw the lighter, “burning everywhere it goes, even when it can’t. And I don’t use it for smoking,” she said to Chris as the lighter was flung through the air, “because you definitely shouldn’t smoke.”
Chris had never wanted to take up smoking, even before she was about to die. She tried to put her whole body behind the Doctor as the lighter hit the oil, but it wasn’t any good: heat and light stung her eyes as the entire lake burst into flame.
“We need to RUN!” bellowed the Doctor, and now at last everyone was listening to her. But some of the burning animals were plunging back into the oil, and others were swarming towards the shore leaving trails of fire as they went. Chris wondered if the Doctor’s solution had in fact made everything much worse, in the way that people’s ideas would often do.
“We can’t go back,” said Bol. “They’re blocking the passage, covering it in flame.”
“Then we’ll have to run further down!” said the Doctor. “The flaming creatures can’t go too far from their source. They’ll collapse into nothing when they’ve chased us for long enough.”
Bol nodded very slightly, while Chris had already started to run towards an unblocked arch that led downwards into the asteroid.
“Going deeper’s insane!” said Kala. “How are we going to get out again?”
“I’ll think of something,” said the Doctor as she darted round oil and flames, “and you can, too! You can think lots of things,” she said pointedly, “as long as you’re still alive.”
Kala didn’t look convinced by that, but there were spiders of burning oil now swarming at her feet, while something with a sail on its back was stomping towards her wreathed in flames. It would take a lot for her to do what the Doctor said, but by this point perhaps the asteroid had given her enough.
She swore very softly under her breath, and both of them started to run.
From its rock in the lake full of oil, the Inverine grinned with entirely human eyes.
Kala and the Doctor both hated each other by now, but they were each too busy surviving to be showing it. They raced together down through the maze of caverns, not daring to look back in case an oil creature was just behind.
However proud a race the Time Lords were, their constitution was no match for that of a fully trained Earthling astronaut. The Doctor was gasping for breath by the time she’d skidded to a halt, while Kala looked like she could keep on running for miles.
“We’re far enough down now,” said the Doctor as she panted and leant against the cavern wall. “Any oil that follows us’ll just collapse to nothing. So we should be safe, at least for now.”
“You’re not safe, while I’m around,” said Kala. “And I don’t believe that we’re so safe from you.”
The Doctor did something with her torch that made her whole expression alight, so it was clear how tired and angry she really was. Yet that tiredness didn’t extend to her eyes, which still stayed soft even after everything Kala had said.
“Look,” she said. “I know you don’t trust me. And that’s fair; it’s not like I’ve given you anything much to trust in. But I’ve seen every fear there is in the time I’ve been alive. And I know that fear’s what’s really driving you now. You think it’s in danger, don’t you? All of your civilisation. You think if you don’t succeed, that it’s possible your whole race will die.”
“You don’t know a damn,” said Kala, and someone who wasn’t the Doctor might have missed the small catch in her voice.
“You might be surprised. My planet burned, or I thought that it had. So I know what that dread is like. To worry that your whole world is ending— not in a story, but really, and how all the stories you ever heard don’t prepare you for that at all. I’ve seen so much; been crushed in so many ways. But I still wasn’t ready, when I first felt that weight in my hearts.”
Kala’s shoulders softened, despite herself. But her skepticism stood firm in all of the rest of her body.
“Wherever you’re from,” she said, “things can’t be as bad as they are on the Earth, not if you can travel this far. Whatever your story, you don’t know what it’s like when it happens to us.”
“No. But I know a lot about your planet and its people. Not because of documentaries. Because I cherish it, even love it. I know what it means for it to end.”
Kala snorted. “Surely we’d have seen someone as ridiculous as you if you’d come down…”
She stopped herself, and the Doctor could see her reorienting within her mind. When Kala next spoke, it was in a tone that far harder than any she’d yet used upon the asteroid.
“This is how you do it, isn’t it?” she said. “You find a way in like a burglar, and before long people think you’re their greatest friend. What did you call that thing up there, when it was dragging my real friend to death?”
“An Inverine. It’s called an Inverine. But it’s not”—
“Whatever its name really is, it’s not the most dangerous of you all. It killed Drocks, but that’s nothing next to you. You’d overthrow the Earth if you got half the chance, wouldn’t you? And you’d probably have us cheering when you did.”
“That’s not what I am,” said her foe. “It’s not what the Doctor ever is.”
“I know exactly what you are. You’re all Humans, aren’t you? The Inverine is a Human, and you are too. Your friend is a very little Human, who probably isn’t even a child. You’ve sent in your best so our mission never succeed. So that Earthlings will never go on to reach the stars.”
“None of that’s true,” said the Doctor.
Kala glared at her. “And everything else you’ve told us is?”
The Doctor couldn’t meet her gaze. “No,” she said, with regret that sounded genuine.
“Then why exactly should I be trusting you now?”
The Doctor thought very quickly indeed.
“It wasn’t breathing,” she said.
“The Inverine. It wasn’t breathing when we saw it. Or did you not notice that? Me and Chris both need our spacesuits, but it was just standing exposed.”
“For all I know there’s no air on Hume and none of you need to breathe. All I know for sure is that there’s something you’re not telling me.”
“I could kill you, though,” said the Doctor, “if I was what you think I should be. Bash your helmet in with a rock and wait ‘till you drowned in raw space. No one would ever know.”
Kala snorted. “You think you could kill me? I eat mammals like you for breakfast. Literally.”
“Oh, those mammals won’t have been quite like me,” said the Doctor with a smile. “These days I’m pretty used to being underestimated. Not usually for this reason, granted, but still…”
She trailed off, and sighed.
“We shouldn’t be arguing about which of us can kill the other,” she said. “Not when both of us are in real danger.”
“You should worry more about your friends. You might not like to think about killing, but us astronauts have to. We are all trained for it, if it’s something that has to be done. Now, I’ve never done it, and I don’t want to start— but I will kill the three of you if we come under attack again.”
“There aren’t three of us. There’s just me and Chris.”
A tiny expression of surprise twitched on Kala’s mouth.
“That was a test, wasn’t it?” said the Doctor.
“The fact you noticed means I’m much less likely to trust you.”
“I don’t think there’s anything I can do to make you trust me,” said the Doctor. “You’ve already decided what I am.”
”You’re a monster. But perhaps there are more of those here than you think. I’m a long way from the worst of us, Doctor,” said Kala. “We need to find Bol, and you should hope he’s done nothing to your friend. He might seem pleasant on the surface. But even you can’t always tell what’s happening underneath.”
Deep below the oil at the heart of the asteroid, a living thing watched two other lives appear. Chris had held close to Bol as they’d fled from the fire above, and it hadn’t seemed like much time had passed since they had started to run. But the thing in the oil had been counting the seconds since then, and it knew it had been a while since they’d come from the caverns above.
“We’ve gone as far as we can,” said Bol, gesturing to the oil that stretched before them. “We should wait, I think. Your friend and mine will come here soon enough, and then we can work out how to salvage the expedition.” He stretched out his arms and sat upon the ground, groaning as the weight of his spacesuit pressed down against his body.
“I don’t like your friend,” said Chris as she sat down alongside him.
”Kala?” said Bol. “Neither do I.”
There was an uncomfortable silence as they both looked out to the lake. Chris was interested in astronauts and very interested in dinosaurs, and Bol was a person who would know a great deal about both. At that moment, though, she thought it would be a bad idea talking about either: the Earthling’s expression suggested he was troubled by more than the death of his friend.
“I’ve always wondered,” he said after too many seconds had passed. “Is it warm? You know. Being a mammal.”
“It’s warm and cold,” said Chris.
“Oh,” said Bol. “Warm and cold.”
The silence descended again.
“Drocks is dead,” he said. “Not much for small talk, after a thing like that. He was always so upbeat about everything. Didn’t understand sadness at all. Some people are like that, aren’t they? I’ve always wondered how they had it going on.”
“I’m sorry,” said Chris. “Can’t you go home? Back to your planet, away from where he died. It’s what I would do if I was you.”
Bol looked even grimmer at that.
“Things are… they’re worse than anyone’s letting on. Oil from asteroids? It’s desperate! But desperate’s better than nothing, right? If something organic like oil can be made in a place like this we might be able to find out the secret; produce some of our own for ourselves.”
He was talking to her like an equal, Chris realised, in a way that a human adult rarely would. And he was open about the death of his friend, which could only mean—
“You don’t think it’s us,” She said. “You don’t believe we’re responsible for the Inverine.”
“I don’t think you have it in you. Fear’s fear, and both of you were showing it. We’re not so different at the end of the day, even with whole planets separating us. I’m not sure Kala ever understood that.”
“Then you trust us?”
“No. You’re not really filming anything, and you’re not telling us why you’re really here. But you don’t wish any harm on us, like that thing in the oil did. I can’t figure out what you do wish on us, though.”
He looked at her, and she could see her face reflected in his helmet, the emotions in her eyes all bare and plain. He’d been trained at this and she was a child, and the gap between their species seemed like nothing compared to that.
“The Doctor’s good at hiding things,” Bol went on. “I know a master manipulator when I see one. But you’re an open book. The way you’re acting… it’s like you want to protect us, I think. Like Hume’s a planet from a children’s programme, where aliens come to save the Earth from ourselves. But I don’t think that’s something that’d happen in real life.”
As Chris was listening there were a hundred adult faces in her head, looking down at her with pity for reasons she didn’t understand. They’d have their own people like the Doctor, she realised, higher ups who’d tell them what to do. She’d never been in an adult’s shoes before, but she’d been in Bol’s position more often than she’d ever remember.
“There’s no such thing as Hume,” she said.
Bol looked confused.
“You mean… you’re some kind of ghost?” he said.
“No!” said Chris. “That’s stupid!”
“Then I don’t know what you mean.”
“We call ourselves humans, but Hume’s not the place that we’re from. We live on…”
She looked down at her feet.
“The Doctor has a time machine,” she said quietly.
Bol nodded very slightly to himself.
“You’re from Earth,” he said, his tone impossible to read.
“Yes,” she said. “We’re from millions of years in your future. But there isn’t—”
Something inside her gave up, the truth spilling out like blood.
“We’ve never heard of you,” she said. “We know a lot, although less than we think we do. But we’ve never heard of your people, and there’s nothing of you left by our time. Until I got here, I didn’t know there’d ever been people on the Earth who weren’t humans. I wouldn’t even have thought that there could have been.”
Bol looked grave. “And the Doctor already knew all of this?”
Chris nodded. “She really isn’t a human. I don’t think she’s even a mammal. She knows a lot that other people don’t, and she said”—
“I can guess what she said. That we never get to the stars, or even survive for much longer. It just all stops, and it’s not so long from now.”
Chris didn’t look at him. “She didn’t want you to know.”
Bol sighed. “If I was honest with myself? I think that I already did. Maybe lots of us do, although we wouldn’t say it. It’s horrible, of course. And it’s stupid. But I can’t say it comes as a surprise.”
“You’re taking this very well.”
Bol laughed. “Well, there’s you, right? There’s Hume! Thinking that all that way in the future the Earth will still have people, only you won’t be people people? That’s amazing! It means that not everything ends.”
“We are people people,” said Chris.
“Yes. Of course you are. I’m sorry. It’s just very strange, when you think about it. You’ve told me that the world’s ending. But for you, it hasn’t even begun.”
“You can’t tell Kala,” he added.
“No!” said Chris. “That’s what the Doctor said, that I shouldn’t tell people, but now I’ve told you”—
“Yes, but Kala’s not people. She believes in this, truly. She needs it. It’s what she’s clinging to, having something to show to her child. Some kind of hope, of the sort that feels actually real.”
“I’m a child,” said Chris. “I wouldn’t want this. My mum’s put herself through lots for me, but I don’t think it’s made things much better. It just made her sad, and the sadness makes everything worse.”
“Your friend would have eaten her other children, but now her son’s older she’d do more for him than my mum would do for me. It doesn’t make sense.”
“No. Often sense is just pretending, isn’t it? On Earth, anyway. And maybe on Hume, as they’re both the same place. Pretending it all fits together, that there’s some kind of control. So we could think we were really good people, just before the whole lot of it ends.”
“You’re a good person,” said Chris.
“I’m not,” said Bol. “But you are. And I have a lot of training,” he added, “so I should know. Good people, no matter what they look like. I’m glad that it’s something that goes on.
“Thanks,” said Chris, fiddling awkwardly with her nails.
They sat silently together in the darkness for a while, still watched by the thing in the oil. It still had the face of a human man, and it was still grinning in its thin and predatory way. But as it slowly started to rise the face around the grin flickered, and just for a second it was another face again.
For a fraction of a moment, the Inverine’s face was the same as one of them sitting above.
Some time after neither of them had said anything, Chris noticed how silent the cavern was. The oil was rippling in a way that made no sound, and Bol was breathing in a way that couldn’t be heard. Beyond that, there was nothing— no movement, no life, no excitement.
So much of space and time would be like this, Chris thought, with nothing ever happening at all. She wondered what would happen if the Doctor got stuck in any of those places, and if even she could find a way not to get bored.
She was still lost in her thoughts when they were broken by a noise: the distant sound of two extremely angry voices. As she tried to ignore what they were saying Kala and the Doctor burst through the entrance to the cavern, each looking embarrassed at being caught in so great a rage.
“Chris!” said the Doctor, her anger subsiding. “You’re unharmed! Told you she would be,” she added as Kala scowled.
“Of course I am,” said Chris, “the oil man hasn’t come back.”
“Kala here thought Bol might be more of a risk to you, after what that oil person did to their friend. That he’d think you had something to do with it.”
“Bol?” said Chris. “We’ve just been talking.”
“It’s been interesting,” said Bol. “I’ve been learning so much about Hume.”
The Doctor looked alarmed to hear that, but before she could say anything Kala was shouting at Bol, somehow even angrier than she’d been a few moments before.
“Have you forgotten?” she snapped at him. “Drocks is dead! We’ve got nothing we’ve come here for and there’s a dangerous animal on the loose, and as you know it looks exactly like them. This isn’t the Bol I trained with,” she said. “It’s not like you to be so trusting.”
“I’ve trained enough,” Bol said with lead in his voice, “that I know who I’m able to trust.”
“You’re saying you trust both these people when”—
“I’m not. Chris is an innocent, but you’re right not to trust the Doctor. I’d shout at her too, and maybe more.”
He looked over to the Time Lord and spoke like ice.
“You’re putting your friend in danger,” he said to her. “We might eat our children, but what you’re doing to her is worse. You must know we’re not people you should get on the wrong side of. You’re lucky it was me who got left with her. If Kala had, we might’ve had more than one death here today.
Chris didn’t like how the three of them were talking as if she wasn’t there. None of them were human adults – she didn’t know how old they even were – but the argument they were having still felt very familiar. She was almost more irritated by it than she was frightened at the talk of them harming her. She’d become used to being in danger, but you never got over being treated like you didn’t exist at all.
She tried to tune it all out, to focus on something other than the arguing. When adults argued at home she’d often concentrate on what was happening around her, but that was hard in a totally lifeless place like this.
Although something was happening to the lake, she noticed as she flashed her light over to look. There were circular ripples forming in it like someone had dropped a stone, and for a second she wondered if one had splashed in from the cavern roof high up above. But the ripples didn’t stop like if something had fallen in— they did the reverse, pulsing faster and faster until the whole of the lake was quivering. The motion made it seem like all of it was alive, and at the centre of the ripples a smile was beginning to rise.
“Look!” said Chris, although only the Doctor did, straight into the grin of the Inverine as it rose. When she saw the face it was wearing her own face changed just a bit, and from the expression Chris could tell she was confirming a disaster she’d already expected.
The Inverine wasn’t bothering with a rock, not this time. It was floating above the oil in its suit that was just as black, and around it the liquid creatures were once more beginning to rise. Drocks was among them now, Chris could see; just a cast of his body without any spacesuit at all. Seeing him among the animals was terrifying, but much worse than that was that the Doctor didn’t seem slightly surprised.
“What’s the matter with you!?” laughed a voice from nowhere. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost!”
“Who was that?” snapped Kala. “Are there more of you? Doctor,” she shouted. “Are there more of you Humans here?”
“Look,” said the Doctor weakly. “Please, Kala. You need to look at the Inverine.”
Chris had gone white, and Bol’s expression had gone grey. Despite herself, Kala followed the Doctor’s outstretched hand where it was pointing, towards the figure stood straight at the centre of the oil. Its grin was exactly same, but it no longer wore a human face.
From the middle of the lake, Bol’s eyes twinkled on a head that had never been his.
“That’s me,” said Bol. “How can that be me?”
He never got the chance to hear an answer. Before the Doctor could respond he’d been grabbed by an oil thing frilled like a fern, and all four of them cried out in horror as he was thrown back into the lake. They were shouting at each other as he was handed from one oil creature to another, between tentacles and giant bacteria and something that looked quite like a termite mound. But there was another, higher voice that cut above them, which sounded even more scared than the rest.
“They’re dead things and living things!” it was saying. “Creatures that are with us and ones from long ago, but all of them come from the Earth. It must’ve been watching us, Baymiss! It’s been watching our planet for a very long time”—
“Who’s Baymiss?” shouted Kala. “And who’s saying that? This isn’t a game, Doctor!”
“Earth’s people aren’t ones you should mess with!” said a voice that matched none of their own.
“I’m sorry,” said the Doctor very quietly indeed.
“Where are they coming from?” said Chris, losing patience with her friend. “Doctor, you know whose voices they are, don’t you?”
The Doctor didn’t even respond. Her screwdriver was out as she tried to save Bol, its whines almost drowning out the voices. But nothing she was doing was having any effect at all.
“You really don’t know who they are,” Kala said dumbstruck to Chris. “Bol’s right, isn’t he? You’ve no idea what’s going on.”
“Listen, Kala!” Bol was screaming as the final oil creature handed him to the Inverine. “They’re not here to do us any wrong! They’ve been trying to protect us. I’ve been trying to protect you”—
They didn’t hear the rest of what he had to say. The Inverine held him tight around the chest as it kept on grinning and grinning, its face just the same as Bol’s casting a double reflection in his helmet. Bol was gasping as his suit seemed to start to bloat out and expand, and as it did the oil creatures were pulling to the edges of the lake, like they were a crowd in a colosseum watching a warrior win. But the ones that had faces had horror etched into their eyes, and now their lips were moving in time with the voices in the void.
“It was the oil creatures! They’ve been speaking ever since we’ve got here”—
“Jan, the things oil are people; they’re not like us, but they’re all still people”—
“HOW MANY TIMES HAS THIS HAPPENED!? Get that grin off your face and tell me; how many times have people come here to die?”
“No,” said Kala. “NO! There aren’t… if there’d been people before then we’d know—
Almost all of Bol’s spacesuit was taut now; blown up like a sausage thick with meat. The gray of the suit was staining black as oil seeped through it and out of it, dripping down from his body to the hungry lake throbbing below. But the lake itself wasn’t black anymore: light was flickering across it to show something from millions of years ago. The Doctor knew there was no use fighting this now; there was no hope Kala wouldn’t learn the whole truth of her world. All she could do was stand and watch helplessly as the Earthling’s hope finally died.
The Inverine was wearing Bol’s face in the image, just as it was up above. But it wasn’t a reflection the three of them were watching— the Bol in the oil was smiling at an astronaut that looked nothing like themselves. Her spacesuit was the same rough shape – two arms and two legs, – and his face wore the same expression that had pleaded with the Inverine so many times. But that face was duck-billed and covered in pinkish scales, and as Kala watched his tears start to slick with oil she understood everything that had happened here. That the astronaut in the oil was a member of the species that came before, that Chris was a member of the species that would come next. And as the spacesuit that had once contained Bol exploded into a giant gush of oil, as the Inverine’s grin flicked back to a human face, Kala stared into its laughing eyes, and knew.
It had been in front of her all along, if she’d been able to see the unthinkable. Oil only came from living things, so why would it turn up on a small, dead rock? That was the question that living things had asked, over and over through the history of the Earth.
And the answer they’d got had always been the same:
Their planet had been around for a very long time. But it had always had people, and none of them ever survived. And close to the end so many of them had come here, and their last thought had been that they’d never reach the stars. The Inverine would show them how their futures would end suddenly and without ceremony, and all the stories that said otherwise had been lies. And as those people had collapsed in despair their bodies were crushed into oil, and there had been so many people on that asteroid that there was ever so much oil there now. Enough to make them think there was a future, and enough to drown them forever when it died.
The Inverine has vanished and all its creatures with it. There was only the smooth black lake, and only death.
“It’s gone from here,” the Doctor said. “What’s happened to your friends; it’s just the prelude. It wants to feed on your hopelessness, so you can’t”—
Kala turned round at her and just stared, her face blank like an animal’s, as if the person inside had just fled.
“They were people,” she said. “All of them were people, and they came here, and they died.”
“Yes. That’s the truth of what happened here. I’m sorry,” said the Doctor, and she truly was.
“She didn’t tell me that about either,” said Chris.
“She was trying to save us,” Kala said. “Both me and you.”
“From the horror of Hume,” said the Doctor. “That one day the sun won’t come up in the morning, and suddenly everything stops.”
Kala didn’t respond to her. Her composure had been cracking since she’d learned what the oil was, and now she let it break apart completely. A tiny sob slipped out of her mouth, and she turned to them both apologise for it— but before she did, it had turned into a howl, and she was roaring and screaming like no one could see her at all. She fell to her knees and started punching the firm rock of the ground, like she could bash the world back into shape with despair. She punched and punched until she’d rubbed the gloves of her suit almost raw, then gave a sob even larger than before.
Kala had been cruel to Chris, contemptuous. She’d hated her for what she was and wasn’t, and that meant that Chris hated her too. Yet nobody deserved to be where the Earthling was right now, seeing everything they’d worked and fought for turned to dust.
She knelt down to the astronaut and hugged her tightly, pressing her small body as hard as she could against the cold plastic of the suit. And Kala hugged back and started crying harder, and suddenly trust was all that either had.
“You’re warm,” said Kala. “I’m glad you’re warm.”
They were points of heat in a coldness that didn’t end.
“There’s lots of creatures in the universe who wear the faces of their prey,” the Doctor was saying to Kala, “but the Inverine takes the form of the prey that’s still to be. The face of a creature that’s yet to come into the world, staring down at you as you start to leave it. To make you feel the end of all of your kind, before you end forever in its gaze. I always feared that one day it’d come close to”—
“Hume,” said Kala acidly, “by which I mean the Earth. They’re the same thing, aren’t they? And all those creatures were people. They’re the ones that came before us, and humans are the ones who come next.”
The Doctor sighed.
“It was all there in the name,” she said. “‘Human,’ from the ancient ‘ghomon’. It meant a creature of the earth, and not of the sky. A dreadful secret hidden in clear view— that humans are really from Earth.”
“We were only ever animals,” said Kala. “Weren’t we? There are animals that make burrows and ones that climb in trees. And sometimes there are animals who build cities and towers, and start to think that they’re more than they really are. But all of us die, in the end. It’s obvious when you see it from the outside.”
“That’s not how I see things,” said the Doctor. “Having spent so much time on the outside.”
“Then perhaps you’re a better person than me,” said Kala.
She looked over to the oil that now lay still, already beginning to thicken against the cold. It didn’t look like anything special or exciting. It just looked dead, in the way her whole world soon would be.
“How does it happen?” she asked. “How do my people end?”
“Oh, for no very good reason. Someone somewhere did something very stupid, and everything spiralled out of control. Sometimes death just happens to people, doesn’t it? No reason it can’t be the same for a civilisation.”
“But“— said Kala, and trailed off.
“You’re right,” she said. “I thought it’d be… like a movie, or something. But it wouldn’t have to be, would it? Even the end of everything can be dull.”
“It’s nothing like the end of everything,” said the Doctor.
Kala gave her an odd look.
“You said that with authority,” she said. “Like you’re someone who actually knows. Who are you, then? Who are you really?”
The woman in front of her sighed, and decided it was time.
“I call myself the Doctor,” she said. “That bit wasn’t a lie. But I’m not a television producer. I’m a fighter, and the things I fight are often very odd indeed. Like the Inverine, or these alien hairdryers—“
“What are hairdryers?” said Kala.
“Oh! Well, when humans get… their fur wet, on the top of their heads. They put that right with a hairdryer. But these ones, they were aliens. So.”
“That is odd,” said Kala, frowning. Is there anything like that who’s attacking us?“
“I wouldn’t know. I mostly spend my time some millions of years in the future and, um. At other points that are also some millions of years in the future. But there’s a few hundred years each way, so it seems like a bit of a range.”
“Sounds constraining,” said Kala.
“The people who live there never really notice,” said the Doctor.
“Those people are yours, aren’t they?” said Kala to Chris. “Humans. You’ll get saved again and again. But your friend’s never going to save us.”
“I can’t save everyone,” the Doctor said. “I had to make a choice.”
“And would you have made the same one if you’d looked like me instead of her?”
“Yes. Though I know that you’ll never believe it.”
“Oh, I’ll believe it if you like,” said Kala. “I was wrong about everything anyway. Maybe the world’s got so twisted even someone like you can be trusted.”
“Trust won’t be enough,” said the Doctor. “I have a question for you. And it’s an awful one, but I have to ask it anyway.”
“Kala… do you still want to live?”
“I worried that if you found out the truth about your world then you wouldn’t want to be part of it anymore. I need to know whether I was right.”
The world did seem different now, it was true. Kala realised she’d seen herself at the centre of everything, without even noticing that was true. Even as a scientist she’d never fully understood that the world wasn’t built for her. But she knew it now deep in her bones, and it was a feeling she knew she’d not forget.
But it wasn’t the only feeling that was in her now, as ancient chemicals in her brain rushed through her all warm and afraid. She was alert and very aware, and everything seemed bright and interesting even though it was still grey and dull.
The cavern they were in was totally dead, and there was a way in which that wasn’t true at all. A cavern wasn’t anything if there was nobody there to see it; it was her mind that created the darkness and the space. The emptiness of the cave wasn’t around her, but in her; it was only anything at all because there were eyes to see. Whatever she did, it would not be long before her eyes closed for good. But for now the deadness of the cave was pounding in her brain, and right now she was alive, she was alive, she was alive.
“Of course I want to live,” she said. “If I have to lose everything, I want to cling to it much harder. I don’t want to throw it away.”
“Great!” the Doctor said with a grin. “I hoped you’d say that. You’ll have a brilliant life back home with your friends and family, as long as. Well.”
“As long as I get past the Inverine?”
“It’s not interested in us. It can’t be. Chris is from the future, I’m from somewhere really complicated. It feeds on whoever’s from now. It’s you who’ll have to fight it, I’m afraid.”
Kala looked at her like she would at a stupid child. “I know when a fight’s beyond me,” she said. “If all the oil here’s made up of the people it’s killed, then the Inverine’s eaten a lot of astronauts by now. I’m no different to them; that’s the whole point that it’s making. There isn’t any way that I’ll survive.”
“That doesn’t have to be true,” said the Doctor. “I can’t be the one who fights it, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be any help.”
She took a stick out of a pocket and grinned as she gave it to Kala.
“I can give you this,” she said.
“You can give me a stick,” said Kala flatly.
“It’s a lot more than just a stick! It’s a baton. In the water symphonies of the Aquopera they use these to make a whole new form of art. Shaping liquid into living sculptures to do whatever their conductor demands. They’re a peaceful lot, the people who made this invention. But there’s no reason you couldn’t use it to do something incredibly violent.”
“Use the oil,” said Chris. “Make oil people, just like the Inverine does. Fight him in the same way that he’s tried to fight all of you.”
“Doesn’t have to be people,” said the Doctor. “The only limit’s your imagination. And your fear, of course. That’s always what limits us most of all.”
“I’m terrified,” said Kala, both quiet and sincere.
“But you need to be. The Inverine is primal; it feeds on what’s deep inside you. Emotions that live far in the back of the brain, that’re maybe even older than a brain could be. Everyone who died here felt that fear, whatever they looked like and whatever they were. The baton’s not about fighting that. It’s owning it, leaning into it. It’s all about making it yours.”
Kala looked skeptical, but still turned around to the oil. Holding the baton was strange, like she already knew how to use it. It felt natural as moving her arm to shape the oil in front of her, into the bald figure of the Inverine when it wore its fat human face. Kala stared at its glistening grin until revulsion overtook her, then with a snarl made the sculpture explode into oil. Chris winced as the freezing liquid slapped over her spacesuit, its cow patten now even more splotched with black.
“Stop that!” she cried. “It’s not me that you’re trying to hurt.”
“And it won’t hurt the Inverine,” said the Doctor. “You said it yourself, Kala; it’s powerful. You need to come up with a weapon that conquers despair.”
Kala gave a hollow laugh. “Despair’s all I have right now. Everything I’ve been fighting for will fail.”
“Well, you know,” said the Doctor uselessly. “I didn’t say it would be easy.”
“And you know,” she added, as if it had just occurred to her, “that both me and Chris are here. That we’ll do what we can, whatever that is. Because neither of us want you to die.”
Kala looked at them. “I’ve been pretty rotten to you both. Nothing’s stopping you running away.”
“You’ve been horrible,” said Chris. “But you don’t deserve to die.”
“What she said,” said the Doctor. “Saving people just when they’re nice, well. It’s not a very nice thing to do.”
“I’m scared,” said Kala. “The universe is so huge and I feel so small, and I don’t know how I could’ve ever felt anything else”—
“You’re not small at all,” said the Doctor. “Not in any of the ways that matter.”
Kala gave her a very grateful look.
“Then I’ll have to tell him that,” she said.
“To the top?” said the Doctor.
“Let’s,” said Kala. “After so much death, I think it’s made me see. How for as long as possible, I want to stay alive.”
“Then let’s go,” said the Doctor, “and leave death behind on this rock.”
The three of them left the cave full of oil and endings, all hoping their own ends remained quite a while away.
On the way back up the journey felt as long as it really was. The slopes they’d raced down on when descending were horribly steep to climb up, and even Kala seemed out of breath as she picked her way over the rocks. She was more suited to the ascent than Chris and the Doctor, though, and before too long she’d drawn some way ahead of her companions.
”Is there anything we can do?” Chris asked the Doctor once she was sure Kala was far enough away.
“Only the best thing that anyone can. To have compassion and to show it, when you see that she needs it most of all. Anyone’d feel alone, facing something as big as this. We need to show her how no one ever is.”
“Do you think she’d even care? She thought we were worthless until she learned the truth.”
“That only makes the empathy more important. It’s a powerful thing, when someone who by rights should hate you chooses to love instead. And if there’s one thing I know about Chris Sillars, it’s that you’ve a whole lot of practice in forgiving.”
“I’m not forgiving her. I just don’t want her to die.”
“And that’s not nothing,” said the Doctor. “It might even turn out it’s enough.”
They both held back slightly once they came to the vast upper cavern, to the death-black lake where they’d once seen Drocks be killed. The oil was foaming with hunger as Kala was walking towards it, and from the dark point of its centre the Inverine started to rise.
Everything was silent, and the rocks of the cave were all still. It felt like the asteroid was sat there holding its breath, although there was nothing for thousands of miles that could be breathed.
Kala walked towards her foe as he came up out of the oil, covered in liquid that slicked down his shining sides. His face was exposed and he was sharply grinning, the smile of a species who would one day take over the world.
He didn’t need to speak, not right then. His expression would be clear to anyone with a face. He was a predator with his canines bared, and he was ready to devour his prey.
“There’s no use fighting it!” cried a voice from a long time ago. “He’s killed so many people! We’ll be no different; we’re no different than any of them!”
“It’s hopeless, don’t you see that? It was always so stupid to hope”—
“We’re dead anyway, aren’t we? We should all just give up now and die”—
“The same tricks as before?” said Kala. “They’re not going to work now I’m here. I’ve got someone I’ve always been fighting for, and I’m able to have him here now.”
Her hand was only shaking slightly as she drew her baton into the air. If the Inverine was surprised to see it, he gave no sign: his grin was unchanged as a figure rose up from the lake.
A liquid sculpture emerged of Kala’s son, and the Doctor gave a barely audible groan.
“Oh Hell,” she said quietly. “I was hoping she’d go for something less overplayed.”
“I’ve sacrificed so much for him,” Kala was shouting. “You’ve taken down so many creatures, but they wouldn’t‘ve known what I felt for my son. You can’t fight something as strong as that! Whatever you’ve seen in your time, you haven’t encountered the force of an Earthling’s love”—
The smile grew wider, and something in her cracked.
“Stop grinning,” she said, and it sounded like a plea.
The Inverine stopped everything else instead. Its whole body slipped away as it flashed between forms, and it was Drocks and Bol before it was a man again. It hovered in the void as behind it almost the whole lake was rising, shaping itself into something that had never really been real.
“We’re different to the others!” a voice was crying. “Nothing loves their young like a seahorse does!”
“We’ll go on; you’ll see!” cried another. “No matter how many civilisations died, the Jellians will still endure!”
Kala was still smiling, trying to keep some confidence in her face. But Chris could see the anguish in her eyes and how her smile was fixed not to break, and it seemed like a very fragile thing when next to the leer of her foe.
The shapes rising out of the oil were solid now. Kala was trying hard not to look at them, but the corner of her eye could see spaceships and rockets blasting towards the stars, like the ones in the books that she’d read at night to her son. They’d been in the books she’d read as a child too, and those books had been old even then: the future remaining the same even after it failed to arrive.
It had always disguised what their future really was.
The Inverine was grinning his widest as it all began to dissolve, the oil satellites and UFOs dripping and melting away. For a moment it looked like the whole scene was crying, as if it knew what it meant to have only ever been a lie.
Kala was looking at the back of her oil son’s head, begging her sculpture not to fall apart. But Chris could see his face clench up at the sight, and knew he was facing a terror his mother had fought hard to keep from him. Tears were leaking from his eyes as she watched in horror, and they streamed to the oil as he collapsed into nothing at all.
The oil spaceships had dissolved now as well, and from their ruins the creatures were starting to form. And among them were the figures of Drocks and Bol, who were now holding the hands of her son.
“No,” Kala whispered. “Please. Not that. Please.”
The ancient voices weren’t saying anything anymore. They were howling and crying with fear, and Kala now knew that nothing separated them from her. She screamed out with them until her voice merged with theirs, all of their pain indistinguishable as the creatures moved in for the kill.
But there was one way Kala was different from the people who’d come here before. No one the Inverine had preyed on had ever met a member of the species who would come next— let alone one they could think of as a friend.
“Kala!” Chris shouted as loud as she could with her lungs. “You can’t let it beat you. That’s not really your son in the oil. He’s alive and he’s on the Earth now, and he needs you.”
“You don’t know what it’s like!” said Kala desperately. “To see your child in so much danger right in front of your eyes”—
“Of course I do!” shouted Chris. “I’m a child; I see it all the time! Don’t you see that you’re not any different? You’re the same as everyone who came here; the same as us. Bol was glad when he found out where I was from,” she shouted as she remembered, “because it meant that there was a future, that there was Hume. And you didn’t need to save it because it was all still there. It’s all still fine, long after your people are gone.”
Kala nodded very slightly. She gulped, and looked back at the Inverine.
“I thought she was a monster just like you,” she said. “Just like everyone here that you killed. And she’s trying to save me. All your oil people would’ve done, wouldn’t they? If only they’d stop being scared. Maybe they’d have people to fight for them, if that had happened. If they’d all only stopped being so scared of their future”—
From the oil before her shapes were beginning to rise, hundreds of human figures that glistened in the beam of her light. They looked still and determined as they gazed at the oil army of the Inverine, and just for a moment Chris could see its grin twitch at the sides.
“If this is what the future is,” Kala was shouting, “then I’m not afraid of it, because there’ll be people like her! The Earth I know might not have long to go, but kindness doesn’t have to die with us. You think I won’t fight for my future? I’ll go one better.”
“I’ll get it to fight for me,” she said.
The oil humans lunged at the creatures the Inverine had summoned, the people of the future fighting the ghosts of the past. Neither Kala nor the Inverine were grinning now. They were both locked in concentration as the sculptures they had summoned punched and kicked, two armies battling in a furious pattern of oil.
Chris tried to work out what was going on as the oil figures splattered against each other, but it was hard to make out anything at all. Briefly, she saw several oil humans grab on to something with oil wings as it rose up out of the throng, before they dragged it along with them back to the chaos of the fight. But eventually one thing became clear— the army of the past was beginning to overwhelm the human one Kala had summoned.
In the middle of the sea of battling oil, the Inverine allowed itself to smile once again.
“All of them will die,” a dead voice wailed. “The ones before us and the ones to come.”
“If there was no hope for them, there won’t be anyone who comes here! We’ll all go the same way in the end”—
“It wasn’t enough,” said Chris. “She’s going to lose.”
She looked up at her ancient friend, and despite everything found that she still trusted her.
“Is there anything we can do?” she asked the Doctor. “Anything more?”
The Doctor shook her head. “It’s as I said. All up to her now. But that doesn’t mean she’ll fail, not yet, because she is still fighting, and she’s still alive. And it’s like I always say, really,” she said as she raised her voice a barely perceptible amount— “where there’s life, there’s hope.”
A tiny part of Kala heard that from under the terror and despair. She shook herself back to awareness, looking again at the creatures battling the humans. When she’d come here it hadn’t crossed her mind they could be people, and since she’d found that out she’d been able to see nothing else.
But they weren’t just people, she now saw. They all had something else in common that the Inverine would never share.
She looked her enemy right in the eyes and grinned, the grin of the strong once they know they are not really weak. The Inverine grinned back as furiously as it could, but suddenly it no longer seemed in control.
“You’re alone,” she said. “That’s what it was always about. You don’t even care that we’re people. You hate us because we were alive.”
“NO!” screamed a voice as the Inverine’s grin fell apart. “We’re dead, don’t you see that? All of us are already dead, and… and what in Hell is that thing?”
Kala was swinging her baton before her and all the lake was dissolving, human and non-human figures all pulled into the thing that was rising from the oil. The Inverine had gone pale as it watched it rise, a great sphere sucking in oil as it came up out of the lake.
“You’re the only thing that’s here,” said Kala, “all alone on this dead and tiny rock. And you control everything here, don’t you? It must you so furious, when control never feels like enough.”
“They’re so huge!” a tinny voice was crying. “Time and space are so much bigger than me, and I’m far smaller than I ever knew”—
“Maybe that’s true for you,” said Kala, “but I’m a part of something bigger. Not as big as space and time— but more than either of us could know, something that’s endured even longer than you. It’s seen so many lives over such a long time, and you’re stuck sitting here with nothing. That terrifies you, doesn’t it? You’re afraid.”
The Inverine stared in horror at what Kala had created, at the enormous sphere of the Earth she’d cast up out of the oil. It floated above them in a strangely solid way, all the shapes of the continents as they were here in her time.
The webbed lights of cities were flickering over the sphere, but as they watched they gave out and then were gone. And the planet stood strong and exactly the same, as if it hadn’t noticed the Earthlings were ever there.
The Doctor whipped out her screwdriver and sound filled the cave, and the landmasses of the Earth began to buckle and shift…
...Chris watched with awe as the globe moved towards the Inverine. The shape of its world was no longer truly alien: Africa and South America cracked apart from each other, Asia was congealing near the top of the sphere. It came closer and closer to being her world until it was it, it was Hume— and before she’d even noticed it had gone as well. Africa cracked in two and something went wrong with the sea, and the Earth went on to become something she’d never see.
Black tears of oil were rolling down the Inverine’s face, and it wasn’t Kala who was being taunted now.
“I’m so alone,” said a low voice from nowhere. “Why are you smiling?! Can’t you see that none of this was funny?”
“I can,” said Kala, and she was crying too. “It’s the least funny thing there is, to lose control. You know how I felt, don’t you? You know I needed us to have a future. That I was pushing back against something I thought would destroy me, until the pushing destroyed me even more. It would have consumed me; maybe all of us. Needing to have power over something that we don’t, to keep back a darkness that we knew was really there. But we didn’t have power over it, did we? You were right all along; we were so small.”
The oil planet was above the Inverine now, and the blackness made pools in the hollows of its eyes. Earth no longer looked like a planet that even the Doctor might recognise. It was a place whose creatures would live after even the Inverine died.
And it was the most beautiful thing that Kala had ever seen.
“I thought the world was all about us Earthlings,” she said with her baton held high in the air. “I thought that even when I knew we were going to die. But it’s not true; it never was. We’re just a part of a much, much bigger story. So I see”— she laughed —“because of you… life isn’t about trying to fight that. It’s not about owning the story”—
She grinned like a killer as she thrust the baton down.
“It’s about letting go,” she said.
The oil planet crashed into the lake with a whoomp, the half-solid whack of a body hitting ground. Chris shrieked as freezing liquid flew everywhere, staining her suit so deeply that it no longer had a pattern at all. All three of them were drenched in it until their suits had soaked right through, and they were stained black as the shadows their lights cast on the rocks.
They wiped the liquid from their helmets as fast as they possibly could— but by the time they could see again, the Inverine was gone.
Chris burst into laughter and started to shout.
“That was amazing!” she said as she bounded over to Kala. “You were fantastic”—
She stopped when she saw how the Earthling looked. She was breathing deeply and she was shaking, and Chris could tell her heart was hammering even though there was no sound at all.
Eventually, though, she started to smile too. A happy smile and also a very sad one, like oil and water had learned how to mix at long last.
“Adrenaline,” she said. “Coursing through both of us now. Both of us shaking and laughing. The Doctor was right”— she nodded over to her —“we really are all the same.”
Chris looked wary. “You’re still horrible,” she said.
“And I’m alive,” said Kala happily.
She looked over again to the lake, which now lay still.
“Is it gone?” she asked the Doctor.
The Doctor frowned.
“It’s not dead,” she said. “But it won’t be back here for a while. It’ll sulk in the depths, maybe for millions of years. But it’ll still be here waiting for the person whose face it takes next.”
“Then we’re safe,” said Kala.
“You’re the opposite. That’s what I was trying to hide. But here and now? Yes. Yes you are.”
“You saved me,” said Kala. “I thought you were going to kill us and you helped me live. If there’s anything I can do to repay you, you have to tell me. I’ll do it, no matter what it is.”
“I want to see a dinosaur!” said Chris.
“We can do that anyway,” said the Doctor, “in my Very Amazing Machine.”
“But we never do,” said Chris sadly.
“We’ll do it next. Scouts honour. There was something else I had in mind here. A job that needs a chisel before it does a TARDIS.”
“Anything,” said Kala. “Anything at all.”
The Doctor told her exactly what she wanted.
Kala instantly wished that she’d made a less generous offer.
“You know,” said Kala as she surveyed what she’d carved into the asteroid, “when I asked if there was anything I could do, I didn’t think you’d want something this demanding.”
“People need to stay away from this place,” said the Doctor. “Whatever they look like, and whoever they are.”
“And this is going to help?”
“It’s a Snapcode,” said Chris. “Everyone’s on Snapchat.”
“You shouldn’t be on that, Chris,” said the Doctor.
Chris shrugged. “Everyone is.”
“That’s nice for everyone,” said Kala. “But what is it?”
“It’s a ghost,” said the Doctor. “For something that’s visible just for a moment, before it’s gone away forever. And one day millions of years from now people’ll look at it-–“ she sighed “—and they’ll say that it makes them feel old.”
Kala was looking down at the Earth as it slowly turned. Up here, all the perils of the past and future seemed tiny. There was only the present ahead of her, and only one single world.
“You think it’s all for you, don’t you?” she said. “You don’t ever notice you’re doing it, but you do. You live in a world where everything’s built for people; there are people on the billboard and smiling out of screens. You never even see how the people world with chairs and houses is a tiny part of that world”— she waved at the Earth —“of there.” She smiled sadly. “It seems almost silly, now I’m here.”
“You never felt it,” said the Doctor. “You know it, but you didn’t really know. Not in your body, not in the way that matters. And now you do, and so nothing is the same.”
“You weren’t going to tell me,” said Kala.
“I didn’t know for sure. What the oil really was; what the monster was. I had no idea about any of it.”
“But you knew what happened to my people all along. And you didn’t tell me.”
“I wanted to,” said Chris. “But the Doctor thought it’d be cruel.”
“That seems like no one’s place to say. It is cruel, of course. But I always thought if something like this was coming, I’d want to know. Maybe it wouldn’t be better for me; maybe it’d change the way I saw all this—“
She waved one hand in the air, to indicate the Earth and the darkness. It was day over her planet now, and no trace of her civilisation was visible from far out in space.
“—but I’d want to know. It’s treating me like a person, isn’t it? And choosing not to tell me makes me think… that you don’t trust people. Not to see the world as you think it is.”
“Nobody wants to see that,” said the Doctor.
“Perhaps,” said Kala, “or perhaps you’d be surprised.”
“Will you tell your son?” said Chris. “I would want to know, if I was him.”
“I want to. But I wouldn’t know what to say.”
“You tell him the truth,” said the Doctor. “That you’ll do everything in your power to fight for him, because you love him even more than the world. But if that fight fails you’ll love him all the more— the time you have together will matter more than anything could. People always say that children are the future, don’t they? But it doesn’t really matter if that’s true. He’s still your son; still worth cherishing. And you don’t need to tell him he’ll grow up to do good in the world, because he already has. And he already will,” she said, “however the future might go.”
Kala fell silent, looking down at the Earth in the void.
“You see?” she finally said. “You even knew the words. And you were still the most scared of any of us, though you had the least to lose.”
She bent down to Chris, trying to ignore how pink and strange she was.
“You’ll take good care of it,” she said. “Won’t you?”
“I’m eleven. I don’t get a say in how the whole planet’s run! And we do it really badly, anyway.”
“See, Doctor?” said Kala with a smile. “Your friend understands. Truth hurts, but telling it’s still better. I hope she makes you see that in the end.”
“Take care,” said the Doctor softly.
“‘Till the end of the world,” said Kala.
She walked on over the horizon, to the place where her small ship stood.
“Funny,” said the Doctor after Kala was far enough away. “A Snapchat. It’s a thing you use up and throw away. And it’ll be near the last thing left of her civilisation; the only way they’ll know it was ever here.” She looked down at her eleven year-old friend. “It makes me feel properly ancient.”
“It makes me feel sad,” said Chris.
“Yes,” said the Doctor. “It does that to me, too.”
She looked back down at the shapes of the ancient Earth.
“Best be getting back,” she said. “Your mother’ll be wondering where you are. I’d say we’re a bit early for her yet, but I don’t think we will be by the time we get you home.”
“Hold my hand,” said Chris, and the Doctor squeezed it tightly.
They walked the tiny distance to their Police Box, ready to jump to their tiny slice of time.
“Absurd is what it is,” said someone in a pub an epoch away, “seventeen billion pounds spent on the thing, and they can’t even get a picture of the rock they’re landing on! Best of British, eh? Makes you wonder what they’re doing up in charge.”
Milosz looked up at the blurred picture on the screen, a posh woman’s voice explaining the image failure in a way that even sounded convincing to him. Before today, he’d have argued with that man, defended the project and his work and been proud to admit he’d been part of the whole thing. People like that man were part of the problem, he might have said. But after everything that happened – the Snapcode and how everyone had reacted – he didn’t quite remember what the problem had even been.
Someone brought over his food: bolognese covered in orange cheese. In some factory somewhere they’d have taken some grey or white cheddar, and they’d have put in the colour which everyone knew that cheese was. And people would see it and think how it looked like cheese, and hardly ever think about how there was something underneath. Milosz’s cheese was melting in an unappealing way, and suddenly he didn’t feel hungry at all.
“Unbelievable,” said the complaining someone again, and Milosz decided to order a stronger drink.
He looked up at the fuzzy picture of the asteroid, at the secret he was one of the only people who knew. He thought of himself on the warm and tiny speck of his planet, of the tinier speck where the only human outwith it would soon be. Suddenly he wanted the world he knew to be much larger, to blot out the vastness of space that stretched so long…
...but not forever. They’d told the astronaut the flight would be a challenge, but none of the simulations had prepared him for how bad it really really be. He kept thinking about the thinness of the metal around him, how it was all that sliced between him and a colder cold than he could ever imagine. He felt terribly exposed as he hurtled through space to the asteroid— and very aware that he had to pretend to be brave. He’d might fumble his first words when he landed, but that would be okay. He told himself how Neil Armstrong had done that too.
No one would ever compare that man to Neil Armstrong, though that wasn’t something he’d ever know: soon, he’d know nothing at all ever again. Already back home new errors were being found, in the engine and his spacesuit and his air. Someone on the planet he’d left was writing his obituary, as unlike him they now knew that he was doomed.
Nobody would ever know about that, of course. Nobody would feel the panic of the country behind the scenes, as its people waited for a victory that would never come. Nobody would feel the panic that was worse; the man breathing rapidly as he knew he’d never taste air again. Nobody heard him scream. Nobody saw him plead.
And nobody knew how he died in the oil below.