The atmosphere in the console room was heavy with static electricity, as the control crystals oscillated slowly up and down. The room was empty and the gas lights were turned down low. The engines ground away as the Tardis spun through eternity.
Just beyond, in the galley could be heard the sounds of laughter and life.
“And when you poked that poor man in the face!” the Doctor roared with laughter. “Oh, I could have died from embarrassment.”
Pandora was wearing a gold and green sequined dress and matching striped top hat. She giggled as she tried to defend herself. “How was I to know that was his actual face? It was three feet across and looked like papier-mâché!”
The Doctor was drinking some sort of glowing blue cocktail, and smiling from behind an enormous pair of glasses that spelled out ‘2,000,013’. “When I bring you to an alien world, Pandora, you’re going to have to expect a few aliens,” the Doctor responded.
“Okay, well, you’re one to talk about embarrassment! Pulling me up onto the float with the King of Carnivàle! You could have at least told me that you knew him first.”
Pandora pulled a samosa from a paper bag and split it in two. She bit into one half while she threw the other half of it over Obelix’s head. Obelix jumped and spun, catching it in his mouth, then turning back to her for more. When it was obvious her attention was elsewhere, he turned to the Doctor instead and made a sound somewhere between a whine and a growl.
“Yeah. Colnivox sure knows how to party. Breaking him out of prison turned out to be a pretty good idea after all. Goes to show, you never can tell with people, er, arthropods.” He slid a bit of meat covered in sesame seeds and sauce off of a skewer and tossed it absently to Obelix. The dog snatched it out of the air and turned back toward Pandora, licking his chops.
“Yeah, well, you can put Planet Carnivàle on our lists of places to come back to any day.”
“Sure, but we’ve been to that one now. Let’s see the rest of the universe, shall we?”
The two lapsed into silence, deep in their own thoughts. Obelix eventually gave up waiting and walked to an automatic water dispenser the Doctor had put together at floor level. He began lapping at it loudly and broke the silence.
The Doctor sat up excitedly. “I have something I keep meaning to give you!” He said. He stood up and crossed the room to open a cupboard there.
“A present, for me? You really shouldn’t have,” Pandora said, sitting up and turning to watch him.
“Not so much a present,” the Doctor said, pulling a large binder out of the cupboard and blowing the dust off of it. “More of an FAQ. If you’re going to be traveling with me, there’s bound to be some questions you’re going to ask, and it’s come to my attention that I’m not very good at answering them.” He flipped it open and looked at the first page. “Yes, it is bigger on the inside. Yes, well, I think we’ve covered that one already.” He thumbed through and opened it at a random page. “Ah, here’s a good one: ‘Doctor! I just saw a ghost!’” He stopped his narration and looked up at Pandora. “Technically that wasn’t a question, but I’ll fix that later; it’s the answer that’s good: ‘There is no such thing as a ghost. Trust me. I know what you’ve just seen was pretty convincing, but I’ve been from one end of the universe to the other, from the beginning of time to the end, and though it’s been claimed many times, and I’ve even seen some things I couldn’t initially explain, it was never a ghost. So relax. It's probably far more dangerous.’”
His eyes ran on down the page. “It goes on for a bit about all the things it could be…” He snapped the binder shut and laid it on the table in front of Pandora. “Lots of good info in there. Any bit of it could save your life in case of a Terileptil attack or a deadly pop-quiz. I suggest you read up.”
She opened the binder to a random page and placed a finger halfway down without looking. She examined the page and read off what she was pointing at. “‘Doctor, what happens if I accidentally kill my grandfather?’ And the answer…” she scanned down a little further, “‘Do you seriously go around accidentally killing people? No. Just don’t make an exception for your grandfather and you’ll be fine.’”
Pandora looked up at the Doctor with an incredulous look on her face. “Did you actually intend for this to be useful, or were you just really bored one night?”
Suddenly a loud horn began to sound. It reminded Pandora of the sound they played in those old World War II movies when the submarine was flooding or something. The Doctor cocked an ear to the side, then ran for the console room. Pandora stood up and ran after him. “What is that?” she shouted. “Is that a fire alarm or something?”
The Doctor got to the console where a large red lamp was blinking in time with the siren. He flipped a nearby switch and the noise stopped immediately. After such a noise, the silence had a weight to it, a thickness, like the air around them was made of something like cotton. Pandora held her hands to her ears and flexed her jaw, trying to shake off the effect.
“No,” he said. “It’s a distress signal.” The Doctor removed his glasses and bent over the console, peering into a scope that lit up the area around his eyes with a soft green glow.
“There’s a ship in distress out here in the vortex?” Pandora asked.
The Doctor continued to look into the scope, but his hands found various controls on the console, and he first turned a wheel anti-clockwise, then flipped up a bank of switches, finally pushing a button before standing up and responding. “Not in here. We were passing through a point in space and time where, outside the vortex, there was a ship in distress.” He ran around to the next console section and pulled back the large telegraph lever. The crystals ceased their movement, and the engines died down. The Tardis had returned to normal space. “Looks like we aren’t heading straight back home after all.”
The Doctor went to the next section over and flipped another switch. The monitor came to life, and an Indian woman in a naval uniform appeared in the air above the console, reaching forward past the camera. The image had a fish-eye quality to it, as she was closer to the recorder than it was set up for. Her expression changed, and she stepped back as she recognized that the camera had started filming. “Mayday, Mayday!” she called out in panic.
“We can hear you!” Pandora called out. She waved her arms frantically, then felt stupid for doing so and put her arms back down.
“It’s a recording,” the Doctor said. “She can’t hear you.”
The woman in the recording continued. “This is Captain Aarti Chadha, of the Medical Ship Nirmala Joshi. We were on a relief mission to the Ganges Sector when the ship came under fire and was crippled.”
There was the sound of a distant explosion, and a shower of sparks behind her made Captain Chadha duck before continuing. “We’re uncertain whether it was a meteor shower, or an enemy attack. Long range sensors have been destroyed, and no ships show on short range radar. Please, if you have fired upon us, we have no weapons, and life support is down. We surrender unconditionally! Whoever hears this, we are in desperate need of rescue.”
There was another voice, this one male, and the captain turned to look behind her. “Captain! Sensors have picked up a planet with a breathable atmosphere!”
“How much oxygen do we still have on board ship?” the captain asked.
“Half an hour at most!” came the response.
“Make for the planet!” the captain ordered. “Order the rest of the crew to life rafts!” She turned back to the camera. “Our position and current time is embedded in a carrier wave with this message. Please, please, help us in any way that you can!” She reached forward again, her arm disappearing from view, then the image became static-y for a moment and the message looped. “Mayday, Mayday!” she called out.
The Doctor switched off the monitor and peered through the scope again. Then he hurried to a set of dials, twisting them carefully. He flipped several switches, primed a pump and ran back to the monitor, turning it on.
“There’s a part of space called the Ganges Sector?” Pandora asked.
“That was your take-away from the distress call?” the Doctor responded disapprovingly.
“No, but I figured you are already taking care of the important stuff, I could do with a history lesson,” she said defiantly.
He paused for a moment, on the verge of arguing, but opted for the explanation instead. “Spoiler alert — in your future, the Earth becomes too polluted to be habitable. Now, did humanity band together to solve this problem?” he asked rhetorically, as he continued his dance around the Tardis console. “No! Of course not. They reverted to nationalism and started building great big ships. They set out into the galaxy, the Russians beating the pack. The American-Chinese Alliance headed out to 34Tauri, while you lot jumped on the back of a Star Whale. The Scottish went their own way, and the Indians, well, they claimed their own section of space, the Kamadhatu.”
“Wait, the Earth gets abandoned?” Pandora repeated, aghast. “The Americans and the Chinese are allies? Star Whales are a thing? The way you explain things Doctor… You always leave me with more questions than answers.”
The Doctor sighed. “That’s why I made the FAQ, which I can see you haven’t bothered to read yet,” he said, annoyed.
The Doctor turned the monitor back on, and a large ship, emblazoned with a red cross, appeared over the console, moving slowly. The Doctor kept an eye on it while turning a crank and flipping more switches. A timer appeared, along with a dotted line representing the ship’s trajectory. As the line extended further out, the ship shrunk to show the scale, as the arc of a planet appeared at the terminus of its path. “Oh, I don’t like those entry parameters,” the Doctor said.
He ran around to another section and began typing. Half the monitor began filling with scrolling text, too fast for Pandora to read. “The ship’s automated logs,” he explained. Then he pointed excitedly. “Ah! They managed to launch escape pods before the crash. Good. Three survivors, it looks like. No, wait, there’s a fourth.” He began turning a pair of dials, and the monitor zoomed in on the tail end of the path. Just before the dotted line intersected the planet, four smaller dashed lines sprouted from the first.
The left half of the monitor now showed the planet as a greenish sphere, with the ship carving a red gash along its surface. There was a cluster of three blinking blue lights nearby the end of the red streak, and one further out.
“This’ll be a milk run. We’ll pick up a few passengers and drop them off at wherever home is. What do you say, Pandora? Want to go save Captain Chadha and her crew?” He let the question hang in the air unanswered, as he went back to operating the controls of the Tardis console.
He set the destination coordinates, then ran to the telegraph lever, but he stopped with one hand on it. “Oh, no,” he said, all color suddenly draining from his face. He let go of the lever and took a couple steps back. “Oh, no, no, no, no, no.”
“What is it?” Pandora asked.
“The coordinates. I recognize them. Oh, this is bad. This is really, really bad,” the Doctor said in a tense whisper.
“Yeah, kind of got the part where it’s bad. What is bad?” Pandora persisted.
“Didn’t they see the beacons?” he yelled, clutching at his hair with both hands. He turned a dial, and the view of the planet zoomed out again. “Wait a minute — no, that’s not right. Where did all the beacons go?” He adjusted the coordinates slightly and threw the telegraph lever.
“Doctor, what the hell has got you so scared all of a sudden?” she demanded.
He paused to look at her nervously, but didn’t answer. He reset the lever and ran to the doors, throwing them open. Pandora could see blackness through the doors, and the planet from the monitor now spinning slowly below them.
The Doctor leaned out of the Tardis with his arm extended. When he came back in, he had a handful of course metallic dust. “They’ve been pulverized,” he said in awe, sifting the dust through his fingers and letting it fall to the floor.
Pandora closed the doors and stood with her back pressed against them. “Doctor, I don’t understand. Please tell me, what’s going on here?”
The Doctor seemed to make up his mind about something. “I need to tell you a story, so you’ll understand,” the Doctor said. He put an arm around Pandora’s shoulders and guided her to the wide-armed leather chair he used for reading. He turned it to where it faced the console, and indicated for her to sit.
Pandora sat down and the Doctor ran to the console. He reached underneath it and disconnected a couple latches. A panel swung out and he pulled out a headset attached to two cables. He turned back toward Pandora and placed it on his head. The image of the greenish planet hanging above the console was replaced by an image of Earth.
“This story takes place on another planet, one you are quite a bit more familiar with,” the Doctor started.
“You could just say ‘Earth’,” Pandora said sarcastically.
“When it’s your turn to tell a story, you can tell it your way,” the Doctor said. “Now, ages ago, a small meteor entered the Earth’s atmosphere. Its outer shell became scorched, but it survived to crash into the great plain at the base of the Transantarctic Mountains.” Above the console, the planet rotated to show its Southern pole, and a burning streak ending in a snowy crash. “It turns out the heat of atmospheric entry is a vital part of the biological cycle of a particular plant.” The picture zoomed in further and showed the meteorite crack open, and two seeds popped out into the snow.
“Unfortunately for the plants, they’d landed in a part of the world where it was too cold to take root, and there they sat for tens of thousands of years.” The seeds on screen got covered in millennia of snow, and the seasonal expansion and retreat of the Antarctic ice. “Until an expedition in the mid-seventies uncovered them. The scientists brought the curiosities back to their base, and contacted the funders of the expedition back in England. The decision was made to keep one of them frozen for preservation, but to let the other thaw so it could be examined.” The seed on screen was left under lamps in a laboratory.
“While one of the researchers was present, the seed pod opened and a whip-like tentacle stung him. At this point, UNIT got involved, and I was called in. I arrived in Antarctica on a cargo plane with my companion Sarah.” The monitor now showed a man in a long coat and multicolored scarf with big bushy hair and a floppy hat. Next to him stood a pretty, dark haired girl in a thick fur coat.
“Is that what you looked like, before you, uh, regenerated?” Pandora asked, with a deeply mischievous smile.
The Doctor turned to look at it as well. He felt idly at his nose, then turned back to face Pandora. “The one in the scarf, yeah. But that was more than a few lifetimes ago.” He returned to his story.
“The man who had been injured was now bedridden, with a low temperature and green sores all over his body. The spot on his hand where he had been stung had spread all the way up the arm, scabbed over with a scaly green, almost bark-like substance. We drew some blood and ran some tests. The man’s blood no longer had any platelets, they’d all been replaced with schizophytes, a sort of plant bacteria. The man’s mental state continued to degrade, and the scabby material covered more and more of his body. He broke out of the infirmary, killing a man in the process. Before we found him, he had completed his transformation.”
“What happened to him?”
“He’d been taken over by a Krynoid. This is how the plant reproduces, sending out seeds that incubate inside other life-forms.”
“So, like the movie Alien,”
The Doctor sighed. “Yes, I guess. A bit. But with plants.”
“Fortunately for us, the cold slowed down the Antarctic Krynoid to the point where it wasn’t capable of spreading. It was caught in an explosion, and destroyed. But a rich fellow in England got word of the new discovery, and he purchased it and had it shipped to him. He was obsessed with plants, believing them to be superior to humans. He’d heard what the Antarctic one had done to a man, and purposely let it attack one of his researchers. Before I could get back to England and recover the seed, the man had been entirely transformed.” The monitor showed a lumbering mass of writhing vines and roots in a vague approximation of humanoid form. It seemed to move by growing quickly in one direction, then the mass would flow along and extend another group of tendrils. From a distance it looked like the figure walking, but up close, it was more like roots seeking out improved soil.
“Unlike your Alien movie, this creature can control all plant life near it.” On the monitor, ordinary ivy started choking up pipes, tearing down communication wires and strangling people. “I couldn’t stop it. The creature was growing at an incredible rate, and in the end, UNIT firebombed it, taking out a country manor and half a village along with it.” The monitor showed the creature again, this time dwarfing the country mansion. But a squadron of jet fighters flew overhead, dropping bombs on the creature, destroying it. The Doctor took off the headset and replaced it under the console. The monitor went dark. “The Krynoid, as large as it was, hadn’t yet produced any seeds of its own. If it had, the Earth may well have been overrun.”
“Why are you telling me all this?” Pandora asked.
“Because the planet below us is where those seeds originated. A hundred million years ago, the planet below us was a diverse ecosystem with plants and animals, insects, birds and mammals, but a plant was evolving that would end all that. The planet was overrun a million years ago, and every life form on its surface, and even below, is the Krynoid. The entire planet is essentially one single living creature with no other thought in its head but to expand. And what does a creature like that do when there is no where left to expand into? Why, it tenses like a mousetrap, just waiting for anything to land on its spring-loaded trigger.”
“I don’t know if the crew of that ship is even alive anymore. The Tardis sensors are overwhelmed because the planet is one single massive life sign. I’ve got to try anyway. But I want you to sit this one out. It is too dangerous for you. Stepping outside would be signing your death warrant.”
The Doctor walked to the wardrobe, and Pandora got up and followed him. “No,” she said, “if it’s as dangerous as you say, then you need someone to watch your back.”
“This is non-negotiable,” the Doctor said, looking through the clothes in the wardrobe. “Every square inch of that planet out there is a deadly trap. One paper cut would mean your certain doom.”
“How is that any different from you going out there?” Pandora asked.
“It isn’t. Except that I know what I’m doing, and I have… an environment suit.” He found an orange jumpsuit with a wide rigid collar and began putting it on. “Besides. I promised Obelix he could come along on this one. He’ll have my back.”
“How is it going to be any safer for him than it is for me?”
The Doctor zipped up his jumpsuit and began searching through the wardrobe again. “Because, he can fit into… Ah! This little beauty.” He pulled out a white environment suit, smaller than his but with the same rigid collar. It was made for a four-legged creature and had a badge sewn onto the shoulder bearing the letters ‘CCCP’.
Pandora was looking at the Doctor very doubtfully, so he lifted the suit to look at it himself. “What? Sure, Obelix is a lot bigger than Laika ever was, but they make these things sort of one-size-fits-all.” To demonstrate, he undid a strap on one of the legs, and it accordioned out to its full length. “Now. Helmets.” He handed Pandora the canine space suit and started looking through a group of boxes in another section of the wardrobe.
He came up with a pair of mismatched helmets. “Obelix!” he called out. “Walkies!”