May 21, 2013 by Richard Crowest
In 1989, I was asked by someone who has since become quite a significant Doctor Who writer to contribute a short story for a book he was compiling on the theme of Heaven and Hell. The book, sadly, never materialised but, to mark the programme’s 50th anniversary, I thought the story finally deserved an airing. I’ve given it a polish and slightly rewritten part of the second half, but its essence is the same. It deals with a time before the start of the television series, but reading it again I was struck by how much its emotional tone is in tune with the 21st-century Doctor. Plus, some twenty years before the fashion, it features a zombie apocalypse. You can download an audiobook reading to take with you on your travels. Enjoy.
Her boot skidded and sent a shower of loose stones chattering down the slope – inane voices giving no answers to the question that pushed its way to the front of her mind. She spoke it aloud.
‘How did they die?’
The white haired figure ahead turned and gazed down at her, surprised at the directness of the enquiry. Innocent, questioning eyes met his and his mind reeled, struck by the sudden thought that she might mean her parents.
‘The Kelfarne,’ she said. ‘How did they die?’
The old man sighed, relieved that he did not have to tackle a subject on which his own feelings were still so unsure.
‘I don’t know, child.’ He gazed past her into the valley below. ‘Perhaps we should go back and find out.’
She turned her gaze to follow his, and found that they had risen above the treeline without her even realising.
Beneath them the river snaked among dense clumps of conifers, the open ground between punctuated by boulders and elegant broadleaf trees with bark as pale and brittle as old parchment. And everywhere, on stone and tree alike, an eerie grey-green lichen lent a pale cast to the shadows.
‘Beautiful perhaps, but empty.’ The old man scribbled some notes in a tattered black book and replaced it in his breast pocket.
‘Come, Susan,’ he said, starting down the slope. ‘I’ve seen enough here.’
It was gloomy in the trees after the open light of the hillside, and it seemed to Susan as if some unseen force were pressing down on her like the heaviness that precedes a thunderstorm. She was thirsty from the climb, and knelt to examine the water in a stream that tumbled through a boulder-strewn gully. She looked up as the Doctor approached.
‘Is it safe, grandfather?’
‘As pure as light, child. Drink as much as you like.’
Her hands were covered with scraps of lichen where she had leant on the rocks that lined the banks of the stream, and she brushed them hastily together before cupping them into the water. The taste was as clear as the note of a crystal wineglass, and she stooped to take another draught. Something caught her eye. Through the trees beyond the stream she could make out a rough pile of stones, clearly the work of the planet’s erstwhile inhabitants.
Hastily, she drank down the water cupped in her hands and pushed herself to her feet. Gingerly testing each rock she stood on to make sure it was safe, she stepped out into the stream.
The Doctor’s pince-nez turned his eyes into huge, pale orbs as he scribbled in his notebook. In a wide clearing stood not one but four great mounds of stone, thirty feet across and eight feet high. Around each dome was a ring of standing stones, slabs that were no more than three feet tall on the side nearest the hill, but grew to more than the height of a man nearer the river. All except for the mound that Susan had first seen. Here there was no outer ring, and the mound of stones was unfinished; charred branches all that remained of the timbers that should have held the roof over its central chamber.
The Doctor looked up from his notebook as Susan coughed.
‘Something in my throat. It’s gone now.’ She looked around her. ‘What are they?’
‘Burial mounds.’ He turned back to his notebook. ‘What I was sent here to look for.’ His voice conveyed bitterness at the irrelevance of his task – sent by the Time Lords to survey the ruins of the planet’s only civilisation.
‘What good is knowledge without understanding?’ he heard himself saying. ‘What right do we have to keep the power of time travel to ourselves and not use it for ultimate good? What use is an archive of a dead Universe?’ He saw again the furious face of the Castellan as he had hurled those words at the Lord President on his graduation from the Prydonian academy. Since then, age and experience had taught him to keep his more radical views to himself, but nothing had quenched the anger and frustration he felt – to have ultimate power, and yet to be ultimately powerless.
The sound of Susan’s voice calling his name brought him back to the present, and he looked up.
‘Where are you, child?’
‘Over here grandfather. Come and look.’
He followed the sound of her voice to the far side of one of the complete tombs, where the tallest slab stood, grey with the ubiquitous lichen. Susan was crouched at the base of the mound, and the Doctor bent to see what she was looking at. Directly opposite the standing stone was a tunnel, carpeted with grey dust and barely large enough for a human to crawl through. In the black mouth of the passage grinned the face of a demon.
– O –
‘It was ash on the floor of the tunnels, not lichen?’ Susan peered hard at a piece of the grey moss-algae as one of the ship’s many scientific instruments tried to map its fractal structure.
‘Yes, my dear. The ashes of the dead.’ The Doctor put a jeweller’s monocle to his left eye and examined the cube of stone he was holding in his hand. It was about five inches across, and its front face bore the carved image of a horned demon, surrounded by a continuous line folded back on itself in a labyrinthine pattern. All its other faces were blank, except for the top which was hollowed into a shallow bowl. The Doctor turned his attention to the two similar stone cubes which sat on a low table in front of him. Both had the same bowl-shaped hollow on their top faces, but each had a different carving. He picked up the nearest, which bore the image of a human-like figure at the centre of a single band which wove in and out of itself in a series of intricate knots. Susan looked up from the analyser as it finished mapping the structure of the algae.
‘It’s strange,’ she said, climbing down from her stool and walking over to where the Doctor sat. ‘These stones are the only things we’ve seen on this planet that aren’t covered in algae.’
‘Even so, one of them carries a fractal pattern – look.’ The Doctor held up the third stone. Its carving was simple and yet beautifully elaborate – a single line which branched and branched again into a perfectly-formed tree. Susan picked up the stone with the human carving and peered at it closely.
‘What do they mean, the carvings?’
‘Oh, it’s hard to say for sure. We can but interpret. Many cultures have a concept of a tree of life – eternal life, perhaps. The humanoid figure could represent existence here, on this planet, and the demon would then be death, don’t you think?’
Susan mused for a moment.
‘You mean one tomb for the damned, one for the souls left to wander the planet for eternity, and another for the saints.’ She put down the stone, and was struck by a sudden thought.
‘Then whom was the fourth tomb for? The one that was never completed?’
The three stones sat in a row on the table, complete and logical. In the Doctor’s interpretation they encompassed the three notions of death that were common to religions and cultures the universe over. Unseen, a panel of dials on one face of the hexagonal console dimmed, and went blank.
The Doctor’s voice was low and quiet when he spoke.
‘There is one other belief about death which persists in a few cultures.’ Their eyes met, and the Doctor paused before he spoke again.
– O –
The Doctor lay on his bed, his mind troubled. His insatiable curiosity had led him back to the console room after Susan had taken herself to bed. Interpretations were not enough, he needed to know the truth. He had set the controls for a time before the extinction of the Kelfarne, but when he threw the switches the instruments refused to respond. The ship’s main circuits were quite simply paralysed. Only autonomous systems seemed unaffected: the biochemical analyser had mapped the physical and genetic structure of the lichen, and fed its results into the ship’s main data bank. Its own readouts showed that the organism contained a number of complex, organic molecules whose effects he could only guess at. Now the old man lay unable to sleep, his mind dogged by more unanswered questions than before.
In another room, Susan stirred, her breathing fitful and uneven. The mirror of her sleeping mind shattered into a thousand fragmentary images. Her body writhed slowly as alien toxins released themselves into her bloodstream from the scrap of lichen she had swallowed, unnoticed, when she drank. Within the depths of the great machine in which she slept, one circuit stirred at the behest of a new master. The telepathic system sprang silently to life, symbiotically sharing the disturbance in Susan’s mind. As drowsiness finally overcame the Doctor, his unconscious senses responded in turn to the power that flowed through the ship.
Image upon image crowded his mind so fast that most were indistinguishable. Slowly, though, some began to push their way into the foreground and resolved themselves into solid reality. The Kelfarne. Almost human, with dark red skin and fiery copper hair. A planet abundant in all that life required, and so lacking in hazards that the evolutionary branches had intertwined and merged to produce a single higher species. So benign was the environment that technological development was almost non-existent – without necessity, there was no invention. Peace. Generation upon generation of peace.
And then the lichen. Things beginning to die, beginning to rot. Everywhere the stench of decay. Of evil. The Doctor sensed the incomprehension of the Kelfarne as their once benevolent planet turned against them. Incomprehension that turned to fear and panic. And beyond all this he could sense the gloating presence of the thing that had destroyed their hope, a single consciousness within a billion, billion one-celled plants. But still fear was not enough. It needed despair. Those that died and were buried it spewed back out of the earth, animate yet not alive. In desperation the Kelfarne began to cremate their dead. Stone burial mounds appeared everywhere, the visible warts of an infected planet. The evil grew, nourished by the pain of the living, and fed until it could consume no more. Trapped within their own despair, the power of the Kelfarne’s mass terror ignited within them and burned them from the face of the planet.
The Doctor’s body jerked as if electrocuted. Locked within Susan’s dream, the shock of what he saw was genuinely physical. There, in the midst of that great conflagration he saw a face he knew. A face he loved. His daughter. Susan’s parents, sent, like him in their wake, for the only purpose the Time Lords knew – to observe. All the powerlessness he had ever felt now returned to him amplified a thousandfold. Their ship damaged, unable to leave and forbidden to interfere, they were caught up in the genocide and were gone. As he saw that beloved face distort and darken, his mind was swallowed by an echoing blackness. He felt again the despair of the Kelfarne, but this time made real, made personal. Inwardly, he howled his pain and fury, and felt the blackness burn into him like acid. Almost too late, he realised that he had succumbed to the same force that had killed his daughter; destroyed an entire species. Mentally, he tried to hurl the despair from him, but it was like pushing at a vast black cloud with his bare hands. He shifted his focus, strove to force one tiny hole through the cloud and admit the faintest glimmer of light – to find one single reason to live.
Susan. Suddenly he was awake, but a new fear gripped him. His limbs ached terribly as he hauled himself to his feet and shuffled down the corridor. She lay rigid, her breath rasping in and out of failing lungs. Her skin burned to the touch. At the corners of her mouth, small grey-green patches had begun to spread across her cheeks. The lichen had a new host.
Stumbling, the old man dragged himself to the console room. He had no more than a scrap of intuition, but it would have to suffice. This psychoactive organism had physically invaded his granddaughter. Soon it would reduce her to a rotting husk. But far worse, in his hunger to understand it, he had let its very essence – its genetic code – loose inside a telepathic machine of almost infinite power. As yet it had very little understanding of what it might be able to achieve, but he could almost feel it learning.
His fingers clawed at the dials of the biochemical analyser. His reddened eyes scoured screen after screen of genetic information, searching desperately for any weakness. No – he stopped himself – he must not give way to desperation. He slowed his pace, calmed his breathing, scanned methodically for tell-tale evolutionary glitches.
There. A simple sequence that could be disrupted by an enzyme. Something the analyser could synthesise. He set it to work. Once that was complete, he dared to hope, the same enzyme’s genetic code could be fed into the data bank as a virtual lytic weapon. The machine was still connected to the main systems, after all. Which meant, of course… The uncomfortable thought struck him, a fraction of a second before the physical blow.
He sprawled across the floor, every joint screaming in pain. He peered up through the dim night-time lighting of the console room to see Susan – or something that had been Susan – standing over him, her arm raised to strike again. The glaucous mass of lichen was now a mask that covered her face and spread down her neck, but within, it controlled her utterly. The Doctor dodged her next blow and scrambled to his feet. The figure lurched towards him, driven by the telepathic force of the infection within the ship. He stumbled round the console, leaning against it for support. She followed, stiff-limbed and inexorable. A delicate chime from the analyser marked the completion of its task. With a gentle hiss, a slot at the side of the machine slid open, revealing a glass vial of clear liquid. Susan’s head turned towards it. The infection understood. It knew the danger. But Susan was on the wrong side of the console, and the Doctor skittered across the floor to reach the machine just ahead of her. Her arm came down with impossible force, and the device shivered into fragments. Before she could raise her arm again, the Doctor grasped her wrist. The sudden touch of warm skin on skin shocked something within her, and she paused for a fraction of a moment. It was all he needed. His other hand held the vial – he pressed it to a livid vein on her forearm, and its tiny needle drove the fluid into her bloodstream.
– O –
The Doctor awoke in his chair, pain in every joint and limb. His mind reeled for a moment, trying to recall where he was and what had happened. The sight of the inert figure on the bed in front of him brought everything back into focus. Her bedclothes were soaked in perspiration, but she slept calmly now and was breathing steadily. Her skin was perhaps a little grey, but it was smooth, and a faint blush of health was beginning to tinge her cheeks. Something told the old man that she would remember nothing of the nightmare they had shared. That was his burden alone.
In the console room the instruments hummed gently, and the only remnants of what had passed were the ruins of the biochemical analyser, amongst which lay a fragment of lichen, grey as the ashes of the dead. Dead that included his daughter. The Time Lords had never told him how she and Susan’s father had died, and he had been warned not to try and find out. He felt suddenly sick at their hypocrisy. The Kelfarne had been destroyed by their own despair. Even one small spark of hope could have been enough to save a whole race. But what hope could a mere historian bring as she came to catalogue their downfall?
The Doctor looked at the scanner. Outside, the sun was rising, – the ultimate symbol of hope. He turned to the console and began checking the instruments. A few systems showed residual signs of damage – the chamaeleon circuit, for one. Another remained completely out of operation. He eyed the label thoughtfully – ‘Stattenheim Device – Do Not Tamper’. Feeling suddenly younger than he had for many years, he set the controls for a new destination.
Now, and England.
– O –
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning…”
T S Eliot – Little Gidding