The Doctor stepped lightly out of the TARDIS and onto the fresh, green landscape of eighteenth century Scotland. He took a deep breath, and a silly, nervous grin crept onto his face. He just stood there for a moment longer, breathing in the clean morning air, before striding off in a probably random direction.
The Doctor had, after much debate, been granted his freedom by the Time Lords, if it could indeed be called "freedom" under the conditions -- or condition, rather. The condition stated that he should be allowed to do as he wished and go where he wanted with his TARDIS, so long as he would willingly undertake any mission the Time Lords assigned to him. This would continue until they decided they no longer needed him, at which point his original sentence would promptly be carried out.
He was, of course, far from satisfied with this deal, but it was better than the alternative and so he accepted it readily. Thoughts of escape, of just flying off in the TARDIS to a place where they could never find him, had naturally crossed his mind, but he had accepted that such a feat was impossible. They were everywhere.
The biggest problem was that he had been traveling with companions for so long, it seemed he no longer remembered how to travel alone, and it happened that he was no longer very good at it. After months of persuasion, the Time Lords had granted him permission to retrieve Jamie. They had also "graciously" installed a circuit that allowed him to better control the TARDIS, which was the only real plus to the whole situation.
So there he was, and he felt excited, nervous, and scared all at once. Jamie, of course, would not remember him. He would have to induce the memories, but he would only be able to do so if Jamie decided he wanted him to, and even then, there was always the chance that Jamie would choose not to come travel with him again.
Before he could worry about all that, though, he had to find Jamie.
It turned out that this wasn't too hard. The TARDIS had been programmed to materialize as close to where Jamie was as possible, and roughly a month after he'd been returned, by his time. So the Doctor had only been walking for ten minutes when he came upon a stream and Jamie, perched casually on a large jutting tree root beside it, apparently lost in thought.
The Doctor hadn't realized how very much he'd missed his friend until he saw him. He'd never before been able to become so close to a traveling companion as he had to Jamie, and he seriously doubted he ever would again. Jamie looked exactly the same; hair, clothing, posture, everything. The boy didn't appear to hear his approach, so he placed a careful hand lightly on the boy's shoulder, trying his best not to startle him.
Jamie jumped anyway, and was on his feet in an instant, brandishing a knife.
"Who are ye and wha' do ye want?" he asked, tensed and ready to strike. The Doctor held up his hands to show he had no weapon.
"Jamie, calm down. I'm a friend," he said soothingly.
"How do ye know my name?"
"I told you, I'm a friend." Jamie relaxed a little bit, mollified by the Doctor's non-threatening stance and tone.
"Well, ye dinnae look very mean, I suppose," he admitted. "So who are ye, really? I dinnae think I know ye."
"I'm the Doctor, Jamie. We did know each other. You don't remember me." A strange look flitted across Jamie's face.
"The... Doctor?" he said mostly to himself, as if testing the words out.
"Yes," the Doctor responded, even though it hadn't really been a question directed at him.
"Why wouldn't I remember ye, then?" Jamie asked, relaxing all the way and sitting back down. The Doctor debated with himself for a moment, then gave in and sat next to him.
"It's a very long story, Jamie. But I could help you remember, if you like." Jamie stayed silent for a while, except to throw a couple pebbles into the river and watch the effects.
"How would ye do that? Some kind o' witchcraft?" he finally asked skeptically.
"You would have to trust me." Jamie skeptical look didn't go away and the Doctor began to feel worried again. If Jamie didn't even allow him to help, he would never get the boy back. The thought made him far sadder than he would have expected. Jamie had fallen silent again, staring at the stream. They sat together for several tense minutes, before Jamie looked up. His eyes were wide and confused, and the Doctor felt a wave of sorrow for the boy.
"I... have blanks where I can' remember wha' I did," Jamie said, as though imparting a huge and terrible secret. To him, it probably was. "At first it dinnae feel like anything, but the more time passes, the more I begin t' notice things. I'm different from how I was only a while ago. I can read! I dinnae used t' be able to read, but now I can and I don' remember learning! And sometimes... I dream impossible things. Great silver beasties and white rooms and, and a big blue box. And sometimes, Doctor, there's someone what looks like you do in my dreams."
The Doctor nodded in sympathy and guiltily berated himself for the pleasure he felt upon hearing that Jamie did remember him, even if it was only in the smallest, most insignificant way. The damned Time Lords couldn't even erase memories properly, and this was causing Jamie pain and confusion; it was nothing to feel happy about. There was no one here Jamie could talk to about this. And without a memory block more firmly in place, the dreams would come more and more often, and snatches of memory would begin to return. But all of this would take years, and Jamie wouldn't understand the memories he'd be recovering. Wouldn't recognize them as memories. For someone living in such a primitive time, random flashes of spaceships and aliens would be maddening. But the dissolution of a memory block could not be forced. He'd have to have Jamie's complete consent.
Given Jamie's time period and origins, the Time Lords had probably not expected Jamie to live very long anyway, and so hadn't bothered to secure the mental block properly. Being thrown back into the middle of a war where he was on the losing side did not have good prospects.
They didn't know Jamie. He could survive anything. He wasn't the most intelligent boy, but that was mostly due to technological ignorance as opposed to a lack of cleverness. And he didn't always catch on to the Doctor's complex plans very quickly, resulting in them landing in sticky situations on more than one occasion. He was also brash and tended to rush into a fight before properly considering the situation. But all of these faults he made up for and more with his intensely fierce loyalty. The Doctor had never seen anything like it in all his centuries. Once Jamie had decided someone was his friend, he would willingly and eagerly defend them with his life. He was strong, and a very skilled fighter for his age. It had been necessary, of course, given his childhood. And he fought all the more fiercely when those he loved were being threatened.
Aside from all that, one of Jamie's most prominent strengths was his incredible adaptability. Of course he didn't even come close to understanding any of the things the Doctor showed him, but even though he was curious and inquisitive, he just accepted that things were the way they were. He liked to ask how things worked, but when he couldn't understand he just accepted it. Jamie didn't walk into the TARDIS and say "that's impossible," he said, "how does it work?" In many ways, this demonstrated an intelligence far beyond average. This acceptance made Jamie unusually suited for time travel, despite his primitive background.
But now, here Jamie was, back in his own time and having dreams about places that wouldn't exist yet for centuries, and no one was around to believe him. Even the most adaptable mind would be driven insane.
Jamie was staring inquisitively at him. "Doctor?" he asked.
"Would you allow me to help you?" the Doctor asked him quietly. Jamie nodded.
"It is extremely important that I have your absolute permission to do this, Jamie," the Doctor said softly. Jamie started to look a little worried.
"Will it hurt or what?" he asked, eyes wide.
"Oh dear me, no, nothing like that," the Doctor assured him. "It's just that if you don't trust me completely, it won't work, and we won't get a second chance." Jamie smiled brilliantly at him.
"I don' ken why I trust you, Doctor, but somehow I do." The Doctor was a little bit touched, and offered Jamie a happy smile in return, then brought his hands up to Jamie's temples. The boy flinched away instinctively, then checked himself.
The Doctor closed his eyes and concentrated. He could feel Jamie staring at him, and it was a bit disconcerting. With some effort, he pushed that out of his mind, blocking out everything around him and concentrating on Jamie's thoughts. He searched for the block in Jamie's mind, and found it, like a big, ugly boulder just dropped right in the middle of everything. It hadn't been refined at all, just stuck there uncaringly. Shoving aside his anger, the Doctor set about dissolving it. Since it was so poorly done, it didn't take much effort. He supposed he was lucky in that respect, at least.
When the last of it was gone for good, he opened his eyes to look at the boy. Jamie was still staring at him with the same expression and for a moment, he wondered if he'd done something wrong and began to silently panic. Then Jamie grinned and threw his arms around the Doctor, suddenly speaking very fast.
"Och, I knew it, I knew you'd come back for me, Doctor! I would've never gone and left you otherwise! They made me forget? Why? How? Wha' took you so long t' come for me? It's been a month!" The Doctor laughed, enormously relieved.
"So many questions, Jamie! All in good time, all in good time, I promise. First, will you come traveling with me again? I would be very pleased if you did."
"Are you joking, Doctor? Why would I stay here?" The two of them stood, Jamie not letting go.
"Come with me, then! We should leave right away. I have a lot to explain..."
They headed off towards the TARDIS. Jamie insisted on clinging to the Doctor's arm the whole way, as though he were afraid it was all just another dream. But it's not, the Doctor thought with satisfaction.
A few months later...
"Ah ha!" the Doctor said, clapping his hands together in excited delight. "We've landed!"
"Aye, but where are we, Doctor? It's no' another Cyberman base, is it?" Jamie asked skeptically, his hand resting lightly on the Doctor's shoulder. "I've had just 'bout enough o' those!"
"No, no, of course not, Jamie. I told you, we're here for a break!" The Doctor flipped a switch and the view screen rose, revealing lush green. "There! See? A nice, peaceful forest. Good spot for a picnic!" Jamie didn't look convinced.
"Maybe, but then where exactly are we, eh? I wan' t' know! What planet?" he asked.
"Well, to tell you the truth, I'm not entirely sure. I don't think I've ever been here before. But I'm sure it will be just fine. Now come on, Jamie! No sense in spending any more time in here." He gave Jamie's arm a friendly pat, pulled the door lever, and walked out.
"Och! Doctor, wait!" The Doctor didn't stop. Giving a resigned sigh, Jamie ran out after him.
The Doctor had wandered a short distance and was examining the ground with quiet glee. "Look at this, Jamie! The soil has almost exactly the same composition as Earth. How fascinating. I wonder where we are..." Jamie, however, was not interested in the dirt. He stared at the trees.
"Doctor, these trees are green!" he noted.
"Yes, yes, most trees are," the Doctor said dismissively.
"No, I mean, they're ALL green!" Jamie insisted, tugging at the Doctor's jacket.
"What are you-- oh! Oh, yes, that is quite interesting. I see what you mean. The trunks are green as well. And no leaves, as far as I can see. What bizarre trees." Distracted, the Doctor wandered further away, and Jamie reluctantly followed. Shortly, they came up before a huge, greyish wall that shone oddly in the light.
"Fascinating," the Doctor muttered, examining it. Jamie reached out and touched it, then shouted when his hand briefly stuck.
"Och, it's all slimy!" he cried, wiping the goo off his hand on a nearby tree.
"Yes, it's curved strangely also. I wonder what it might be made out of." Before either of them could say anything else, the wall moved. It shifted a little to one side, the whole thing rippling a little, and then moved right in front of them, stopped for a moment, then continued moving in the same stunted motions. Jamie and the Doctor both jumped back with a shout of alarm, instinctively clinging to each other.
"Wha' is that?" Jamie hissed.
"Well, Jamie," the Doctor said as they both recovered from the shock, "I'm beginning to have my suspicions about this place. I think that that--" he nodded at the moving wall, "is a slug."
"Don' be daft! Slugs are wee bitty things," Jamie scoffed.
"Yes, on Earth they certainly are, but we certainly aren't on Earth." Jamie stared at him in horror.
"Ye don' mean, Doctor... these trees... they're actually grass?" The Doctor beamed proudly at him.
"Yes, very good, Jamie! That is exactly what I think!" Jamie considered this for a moment.
"I wonder if I could find a giant apple. I am a wee bit hungry," he said, looking thoughtful.
"I very much doubt it, Jamie. I think we'd best get back to the TARDIS. This probably isn't the best spot for a vacation."
"Aye, alrigh', Doctor," Jamie agreed. They turned back only to find their path blocked by something large, tan, and tree-like.
"What--" was all the Doctor managed before a whirlwind of angry, fanged mushroom descended on them. Jamie shouted and reacted instinctively, pushing the Doctor back while removing a knife from his boot in one smooth movement. He adopted a defensive stance and swung skillfully at the attacking mushroom.
He manage to nick it and the mushroom reared back, letting out a chilling cry of distress. Instead of retreating, however, it lunged back down with even more fervor.
"Run!" Jamie shouted at the Doctor, doing his best to dodge the wild attacks. One massive fang left a gash on his right arm. The Doctor scrambled up and looked around wildly for a way to help. Jamie fought bravely and fiercely, but his knife was far too small and there was no way for him to land a decent blow. He quickly realized it was futile and changed strategies, backing away as much as possible, blocking blows and herding the Doctor away at the same time. When they were finally far enough away, they turn their backs on the monster and made a run for it.
The mushroom had long reach, but it was still stuck in the ground and couldn't follow them. They could hear its roars of anger and distress as they ran, without looking back, in the direction they hoped the TARDIS was.
Jamie noticed the thick ropes on the ground and gave a warning shout a little too late. Their momentum was too great and they couldn't stop in time. Moments later, Jamie and the Doctor were swept up into a primitive net trap, and hung there, swinging gently.
"Doctor," Jamie began slowly, "your shoe is in my face." The Doctor shot him a disgruntled look. "Now what?"
"Well, I suppose we have to wait for whoever set this trap to come let us down," the Doctor said.
"I could just cut us loose," Jamie suggested, holding up his knife.
"No, no, I'd rather like to find out. This is a trap made for something our own size, and that's very curious. Put that away before you hurt somebody!" Jamie pouted at him but obediently stuck the knife back into his boot. The angle was difficult and he had to do a lot of uncomfortable shifting to reach.
It was nearly an hour later by the time anything happened, and Jamie was complaining loudly of cramping joints and pain from the gash in his arm. The Doctor was mildly worried about the wound, but there was nothing he could do about it at the moment. He had long since given up finding a comfortable position, having settled on being amused by Jamie's constant fidgeting and how he had to keep rearranging his kilt or risk flashing the Doctor. Jamie's latest attempt had resulted in the Doctor being partly upside-down, and all the blood was starting to rush to his head. He was getting more and more uncomfortable when suddenly an arrow pierced the supporting rope and they both fell right onto the thankfully soft ground with shouts of surprise.
Upon trying to stand up and disentangle themselves, they quickly discovered that they were still securely trapped inside the net. Jamie wasn't amused, and groaned loudly to show it.
"Who are you?" a voice demanded, and the Doctor looked up to see a short man dressed in animal skins standing over them and waving a spear threateningly.
"Oh, dear me. I am the Doctor and this is Jamie. Do you think perhaps you could let us out of here?" he asked.
"Aye, my legs are cramping terribly!" Jamie added. The man gave them each a rough poke with his spear.
"Ow! Well! There was certainly no need for that!" the Doctor protested indignantly, earning himself another poke.
"Now you stop that, y' hear?" Jamie tried to defend him. The man ignored them both and instead whistled shrilly. A group of about five men, each carrying some sort of primitive weapon, stepped out from where they had been hiding. Two of them threaded a large pole through the net and lifted it. Carrying Jamie and the Doctor, the whole group made their way deeper into the forest of grass. Jamie started screaming irately, but the Doctor just sighed in resignation and grabbed Jamie's ankles so the boy wouldn't accidentally kick him in the face.
It didn't take long for them to reach a reasonably small area filled with quaint huts with thatched roofs. Jamie and the Doctor were dropped roughly onto the ground.
"My word!" the Doctor cried, dismayed by their rough treatment. Jamie, apparently fed up, brought out his knife and deftly sliced the ropes. They disentangled themselves and stood, only to find themselves surrounded by short men, each with a large, dangerous-looking spear pointed at them. Jamie waved his knife around, but the Doctor slapped his wrist.
"Put that thing away, Jamie! They'll think we mean them harm!" he admonished.
"Well, they certainly mean us harm!" Jamie protested, but did as he was told regardless.
"Now, you don't know that yet. We should talk to them first."
The circle of men surrounding them parted and a tall woman stepped through. She was much more ornately dressed than any of the other people they had seen so far, and the deference with which the men treated her marked her clearly as the leader. She frowned at them.
"Who let you out of the net?" she asked. Her speech was heavily accented, drawing most of her vowels out much longer than necessary.
"No one--" Jamie began angrily, but the Doctor placed a hand on his shoulder to stop him and he quieted, but adopted a defensive pose, ready to strike at any unfriendly motions.
"We mean no harm. We just came here for a visit," the Doctor told the woman. "We were just leaving when we quite accidentally sprung your trap."
"You have strange garments. Explain."
"Yes, well, we're not from here, you see," the Doctor said. "We arrived quite by mistake. If you would kindly allow us to return to our ship, we can be out of here and you won't have to bother with us!"
"You will not leave! You are the cause of all... this, yes?" she said, waving her arms to indicate their surroundings.
"Err... I'm not sure what you mean," the Doctor said, perplexed.
"These mushrooms! They have become hostile and we have already lost three to their hunger."
"Oh! Oh, yes! I mean, no, no, we certainly had nothing to do with them. We were attacked by one before we landed in your trap! Jamie was injured, look." He grabbed Jamie's arm and displayed the wound.
"Doctor!" Jamie protested and yanked his arm back.
"So you are not their allies?" the woman asked skeptically.
"No, of course not!" As if they had never been under suspicion at all, the woman broke into a huge, toothy grin and her whole stance relaxed. The men around them also relaxed, lowering their weapons.
"I am glad! My name is Kapila, and I am the chief of this village," she said warmly.
"I am the Doctor and this is Jamie," the Doctor said, relieved. "If there is something unnatural occurring here, I would like very much to help. If you would care to fill me in?"
"Of course! We can talk just over there." She pointed towards a hut that was slightly larger than the rest.
"Splendid! Jamie here needs to get his arm patched up, though. Is there someone here who could help him with that while we talk?"
"Doctor! I wan' t' stay with you!" Jamie objected. The Doctor waved an arm dismissively.
"No, Jamie, you need to get that looked at. You don't want it to become infected." He pulled the boy a little closer and whispered in his ear. "Also, you can use this opportunity to explore the area and talk to the villagers."
"Aye, alright," Jamie grumbled.
"Wonderful!" The Doctor turned back to Kapila. "Shall we?"
* * *
He hadn't eaten anything all day, and it was really starting to get to him. Because of this, his exploration of the village had less to do with gathering information and more to do with finding something to eat. A quick overview of the area convinced him that he wasn't going to find anything he would be allowed to eat in the village, and his best bet would be to look in the surrounding forest area. Vowing not to wander too far lest he get lost, he strode out into the forest of giant grass.
In the short amount of time he was searching, he mostly just found more massive grass. He definitely didn't find anything he'd consider potentially edible. Something, however, found him. Jamie found himself cornered by three tall, humanoid figures clad from head to toe in bright red leather, all holding vicious-looking whips. He didn't even manage a shout of alarm, much less an attempt at defending himself, before he was clubbed over the head and instantly knocked unconscious.
* * *
"Only about six moons ago. At first they were few and we could deal with them by simply avoiding them. But now they are many and we fear to even leave the village area! It is only a matter of time before one grows too close to us and attacks us in our home."
The house--using the term very loosely--they were in was small and had only one room, though it was divided into two by a deep red sheet that hung from the ceiling. Despite its small size and quaint outer appearance, the inside was filled with cloths and pillows and tapestries, all in bold red, purple, and gold hues. All in all, it rather reminded the Doctor of a fancy bordello. The sophisticated embroidery and stitchwork led him to believe that perhaps these people were significantly more advanced than they first appeared, at least in certain aspects. He admired a particularly nice tapestry that contained images that would not have been out of place in the Kama Sutra with detached curiosity, his mind racing to come up with the right questions to ask to reveal a clue about the stupid mushrooms.
"Are the people in this village the only ones? Or are there other villages?" he asked.
"No, there are many like us. We used to have a grand trading community! But now this evil has cut us off. We can no longer get enough food. If the beasts do not kill us, starvation certainly will."
"Oh dear, oh dear," the Doctor muttered, pacing and wringing his hands. Kapila watched him with an almost eerie calm.
"Sit, Doctor," she said, patting the plush, exquisitely embroidered pillow next to her. "It will do you no good to wear yourself out."
"Yes, yes, of course," he relented, sitting with very little natural grace.
"Did they just... spring up?" he asked, feeling a little at a loss.
"We have never actually seen one appear, so we do not know how they do it. They seem to sprout overnight."
"And there are no... normal mushrooms around?"
"We think the beasts have been feeding on them, for there are none left where they were once plentiful. They used to be our main source of food, and along with our cloths, our main trading material."
"That's strange," the Doctor mused. "You seem to have been hit in the very area where it will do you the most damage. Now, I can't be sure, but this sounds to me like a plot. I would guess there is someone behind all this."
"Oh, it all began near the old castle ruins!" Kapila said, the thought coming to her suddenly. "There was some strange activity there in the weeks before all this began. I sent some scouts, but they did not return. Often my scouts are gone for weeks at a time, so I did not consider it until now, with the recent events."
"But this is splendid! If we can get to the castle and stop the source, we can stop the mushrooms! Can you take me there, by any chance?" Kapila's face fell.
"It is too far. We cannot fight the beasts, and we cannot leave the village undefended lest violence comes to us." The Doctor stood and started to pace again, frustrated.
* * *
He took a few minutes to check himself over and assess the surroundings. Aside from his bruised head and the gash on his arm, he was uninjured. Whoever had kidnapped him hadn't bothered to remove the knife hidden in his boot. Presumably, they hadn't known it was there and hadn't found it. The cell walls were made of stone and looked pretty secure, but the door itself was rusted metal and had a large, conventional lock. One that had a keyhole on both sides.
Raising his eyebrow at this, he pulled the trusty knife out of his boot and deftly picked the lock. He was by no means an expert, but this lock was suspiciously easy to pick. He suspected that the cells weren't often occupied, and therefore there was no reason to keep care of them. The door swung open with a loud squeal as the rusty hinges made themselves known. Jamie froze.
When several minutes had passed and there was nothing to indicate anyone had heard, Jamie tucked the knife back where it belonged and crept carefully out.
The room just outside the cell was large and musty, with an old wooden table in the center and not much else. There was a thick layer of dust covering everything. There were two other cells that Jamie could see, their doors wide open. One of them looked permanently rusted that way.
There was also a heavy-set wooden door that looked as though it led out of the room. Jamie tried it. It wasn't locked, so he pulled it open and stepped silently out, body tensed to defend against any attack, should one occur. None did, so he stepped further. He was in a corridor made of the same old stone as the jail room. There were no windows, and that combined with the musty, damp smell told Jamie that he was underground. The corridor was, however, dimly lit with a few low-burning torches. He considered taking one with him, but decided against it on the basis that the area seemed sufficiently lit and he didn't want to have to carry it.
Jamie moved on. There were a few more heavy doors along the corridor. Most of them looked long since rusted shut, but there were two or three that looked as though they had recently been forced open for use. He cautiously opened one of them and peered inside.
It was unmistakably a laboratory. There were long tables littered with beakers, papers, burners, and other, unidentified objects. Although it had clearly been in use far more recently than the rest of the area, it looked as though it had been several weeks at least since anyone had been in it. There was a faint odor that suggested something organic had been decaying in there for a while. Jamie shut the door and tried another. Again, a recently disused laboratory.
Jamie shut that door too and continued to the end of the corridor. He opened the door there and was greeted with an ancient, crumbling stone staircase. The walls here too were lined minimally with burning torches. Shrugging, he carefully made his way upward, struggling to see where he stepped in the dim lighting. One wrong step onto a bit of crumbling rock could mean slipping and falling, most likely not fatally but certainly loudly. He had no desire to alert whoever resided here to his presence, seeing as they had already demonstrated hostile intentions.
He'd gotten the shrewd idea that whoever had kidnapped him had something to do with the unnaturally antagonistic mushrooms. It wasn’t hard to figure out, especially after traveling for so long with the Doctor.
The building he was in was gigantic and made entirely of cold, crumbling stone. It looked to Jamie like the inside of a medieval-style castle. Once he was no longer in the lower levels, the rooms were much better lit with sunlight that streamed through high, thin windows, but it wasn't a warm or pleasant light. It was a light that cast shadows, a light that was never quite bright enough to see into corners clearly. It wasn't exactly sinister, as such, but it was far from welcoming.
The hallways on the ground floor were much larger and the ceilings in certain areas rose higher than any Jamie had ever seen. Signs of use were far more prominent, but there was very little furniture. The skin of some animal Jamie didn't recognize graced the floor of one room as a rug, and here and there would be a small table or a mirror. In one room there was a bed frame, but there had quite clearly not been a mattress in it for ages.
Instinct told Jamie to move upwards. There was another story above him, and he felt he had to find a way of getting there. Yet despite opening door after door after door, he still had found no stairs. He also had not found an exit, and even if he had been able to escape he did not know the way back to the Doctor. It would do no good for him to get lost.
Jamie was becoming seriously frustrated. The castle was so big and everything looked so similar that he had lost track of where he had and hadn't been. He was sure he was opening some doors he had opened before. He'd just given up and plopped down to pout when he spotted something bright red out of the corner of his eye.
Jumping quickly and quietly to his feet, Jamie crept towards the source of the color. It turned out to be exactly what he expected: one of those same strange creatures who had kidnapped him. The leather-clad... thing moved with a lurching gait, as though it did not have complete control over its basic motor functions. Jamie followed silently several meters behind it, hoping it would lead him somewhere helpful.
It did. It led him to a stairwell, the door to which was located in a heavily shadowed corner. Jamie had completely missed it.
There was a gargoyle above the door. It looked massively out of place, despite the fact that it was technically an ugly stone sculpture inside an ugly stone building. What little Jamie actually knew about gargoyles told him that they were supposed to be on the outside of buildings and had something to do with rainwater. He supposed that maybe this one served a different purpose. After all, he wasn't on Earth.
Jamie waited until the sound of the creature's footsteps was a suitable distance away, then opened the door and started up the stairs after it, moving as quietly as he could. They were long and winding, and there were once again no windows. Jamie had to feel with his hands a couple times to make sure he wasn't going to step anywhere unfortunate.
At the top of the stairs was yet another corridor. He saw the distinctive red disappear around a corner and hurried after it. He rushed around the corner without thinking to look first, scared of losing the creature and being lost again. He very nearly skidded directly into the creature he had been following.
"You will come with us," the creature monotoned.
"Gah!" Jamie shouted in surprise.
"You will come with us," the creature monotoned again.
"I will no-- Who's ‘us?’" Jamie asked, backing up slowly and reaching for his boot. He backed right into something hard that he knew wasn't a wall, because there hadn't been a wall there less than a minute ago. The red leather creature that appeared behind him grabbed his wrists in a grip that could easily become bone shattering at a moment's notice. Jamie froze.
"You will come with us," they intoned together.
* * *
“Oh no, oh no!” the Doctor said in response. “He always wanders off. Did they take him in the direction of the castle?”
The villager was so distraught he didn’t respond. Kapila drew the young man aside and waved some incense under his nose. The smoke seemed to calm him down, and she whispered a few words in his ear. The boy nodded, swaying back and forth as though in a trance, and whispered something back. Kapila nodded and patted him on the back.
“Good man,” she whispered as he left the tent. “He lost his sister to the mushrooms a moon ago,” she explained. “He says that your companion was indeed taken in the direction of the castle, though he did not linger long to watch, nor did he follow.” She sighed. “I never thought I’d say this, so mischievous a child he was, but he has lost all his curiosity, and it is a terrible thing to behold.”
The Doctor nodded, sharing her feelings, when a thought struck him. “You said you were traders, you pride yourselves on communication and knowledge. Surely curiosity plays a great role in your society?”
Kapila nodded, “Yes, of course, I didn’t mean to imply it did not.”
“And the mushrooms were a notable event! Did your explorers keep records of where they could be found?”
“Why, yes. We handed out maps so people would not wander into them by accident. Unfortunately, their rate of growth has long exceeded our ability to keep our records up-to-date.”
“May I see them?”
Kapila dug through the stacks of pillows to withdraw a massive sheet of papyrus-like paper that measured about one and a half by two meters. On it, the locations of the mushrooms were marked in colored ink, with different shades and hues marking the dates they sprang up. The Doctor could see Kapila’s curiosity was piqued, for she could not see why this information would interest him.
“We already established the mushrooms came from the castle,” Kapila said.
“Hmm, most interesting. Why yes, my dear Kapila, the mushrooms did come from the castle, but look, here at the outskirts, the numbers are small for a very long time before suddenly, their population exploded and they covered the remaining distance between the castle and your village.”
“Their growth is exponential, of course, even with some deaths.”
“Mushrooms have disappeared or died?”
“Yes, we’ve seen their mangled bases where they once were, as though they had been torn apart; we could only assume that scavengers got to them after they died.”
“But see, the rate of growth of the mushrooms at the outskirts is significantly less than exponential. They weren’t dying of their own accord; something was keeping their population in check!”
“You don’t mean?”
“A predator-prey model much better explains this growth than unlimited population expansion. These mushrooms can be destroyed! We must find out how!”
“No, Doctor, we can’t. You’re proposing we journey to the fringes of the mushroom growth, but that means we must go through the heart of their territory.”
“Well, not quite. Would you be willing to brave a journey through the mysterious with me?”
Kapila looked doubtful. “I will go and aid you however I can. You are our only hope.”
“I’m sorry, my dear, but I’m afraid you don’t have the hair to pull off that phrase. Now we must go!” The Doctor clapped his hands together in apparent excitement and rushed out of the house.
“But Doctor, where are we going?” Kapila called after him. Sighing, she hiked up her dress and ran after him.
Although the circumstances of their journey to the village had been haphazard at best, the Doctor soon found his way back to the TARDIS. It became clear that the giant mushroom they’d fled had not sprung up between them and the TARDIS, but rather, in the confusing environment of the giant blades of grass, they had gone the wrong way. He’d always been curious what it would be like to be an ant; now he knew, and he felt it to be quite an overrated experience.
“Come on in!” the Doctor exclaimed as he entered the TARDIS.
“In there? But it’s small. It is inappropriate for two of the opposite gender to occupy such a small space.”
“Really, Kapila? With the tapestries you have up in your home, you think this is inappropriate? Well, do not fear! Take a look!”
Kapila gasped as she peered into the TARDIS. “It’s bigger on the inside!”
“Yes, yes, everyone seems to think that.” The Doctor shut the door and ran up to the console. “Now hold on. Things may get a little bumpy.”
He reset the coordinates and made sure they would be traveling in space only. Then he slammed down a lever, and the TARDIS began to rock.
“Oh my!” Kapila gasped as she lost her footing. The Doctor caught her, but another sway of the TARDIS sent them both onto the console. “Oh my, Doctor!” she said again. “Now I’m certain that is an inappropriate place to put your hands.”
The Doctor showed her both his hands. “What are you talking about?”
Kapila glanced down. “Oh, never mind.” She quickly clambered off the console. The TARDIS stopped shaking soon afterward, and the Doctor bounded to the door. Kapila followed. “Where are we?”
The Doctor opened the doors. “The edge of the mushroom field!”
The Doctor leapt back, arms outstretched to keep Kapila from moving past him, as a giant mushroom bore down on the entrance. “Don’t worry, we’re quite safe in here.”
Everything went dark. Then the ship began groaning as slime seeped in through the open doorway. The two of them backed away as gill folds began pushing through the entrance, dilating spores all over the interior of the TARDIS. They heard a whistling sound, like air being forced through a tiny hole, and then the entire floor slanted as the mushroom lifted the TARDIS up in an attempt to force it down its gullet.
Kapila screamed as they went sliding toward the door. The Doctor grabbed a lever on the console with one hand and her arm with his other. He grunted, the force of stopping her driving all the air from his lungs. They hung there, panting, as the floor tilted at a steeper and steeper angle. With his hands occupied, there was nothing he could do, and there was no way to turn on the TARDIS’ drive.
“Doctor!” Kapila cried. “The spores!”
The Doctor looked over and saw the spores setting out tendrils that seemed to melt their way into the floor and walls. His attention was diverted when he and Kapila suddenly dropped another inch toward the mushroom’s stomach. The lever was slipping.
The sleeve of Kapila’s dress tore from his grip, and she began falling. She screamed, but she managed to get a firm grip about his leg. The impact caused the lever to slip a little further.
The Doctor glanced at her, trying to see if there was a way he could swing Kapila to safety before she fell any further. That was when he noticed the tendrils were beginning to sprout mushrooms of their own. As though he were watching a time-lapse film, folds and folds of cells began growing and twisting over themselves and spreading until they expanded into fully-formed mushrooms about thirty centimeters tall. Then the growth stopped.
“Oh, that’s not too bad,” he said. They were, in fact, rather cute-looking little mushrooms, insofar as inanimate fungi could be considered cute. The fact that they were possibly fanged did little to worry him, as they were all too far from them to do any harm. “They’re wee bitty things,” he added, quite proud that he could pass for Scottish if he ever met any of Jamie’s clan members.
“I don’t like them!” Kapila said, trying to pull herself up his leg.
“Look, they’re quite harmless,” he reassured her. All at once, flaps on their heads snapped open, revealing shiny black eyes, and the mushrooms opened their mouths to snap and snarl in their direction. Their little fangs gleamed under the TARDIS’ lights as drool oozed out of their mouths. “Well, they’re far away, at least. They can’t get us.” Kapila moaned. Tiny pops, like suction cups being pulled off of glass, sounded as tendrils began detaching from their anchor points. One of the mushrooms flopped from the ceiling onto the floor with a soft squishing sound and rolled around a little before righting itself with little suckers on its base. Then it began bouncing toward them. The Doctor sighed. “Oh dear, me and my big mouth.”
The lever chose that exact moment to give away. The Doctor’s fingers slipped, and the two of them screamed. Kapila clung to him tighter than she had yet, but that did little for them as they slid directly toward the doorway with nothing to stop their fall. The little mushroom snapped at them as they swept past. As they fell closer and closer to the giant mushroom’s throat, the Doctor could see its sharp fangs trying to work their way through the TARDIS’ hull.
Then, there was another lengthy screech of metal against metal as the mushroom snapped about its base, trying to work the TARDIS into its stomach. The action came none too soon as he and Kapila were about to fall through the egress when the TARDIS shook and tilted in the other direction, throwing them clear to the opposite end of the room. The mushroom shook again, this time tossing the Doctor, Kapila, and the baby mushrooms onto the ceiling.
Kapila screamed as one of the mushrooms closed its fangs on her hair. The Doctor hit it. For a moment, there was just more slime as the mushroom’s soft membrane gave way under the impulse of his fist, but then it dislodged and went flying across the room. The Doctor felt a sharp sting as another one bit down on his foot. He shook his foot, slamming it against the floor and squishing it. It exploded in a burst of mucus.
The TARDIS re-oriented itself again, and they slid along the ceiling to crash against one of the side walls. Kapila screamed and covered her face as one of the mushrooms slammed into the wall right above her head.
“EEEEEEEG!” it cried as it splattered into several chunks of ooze.
“Look on the bright side,” the Doctor said, wiping slime off his face. “At least no more spores are coming in.”
Another groan, and they struck the opposite wall. This time the Doctor landed on several of the fungi, which was quite a disturbing experience, although he had to admit that it cushioned the fall quite well and at this rate, the problem of their infestation would take care of itself.
The remaining mushrooms began closing in on them, clearly realizing this might be their last chance to get at their prey. The Doctor kicked at them as they approached, sending them in every direction to explode as they struck various pieces of equipment.
“I feel like I’m Mario,” he muttered.
“What?” Kapila asked, between wild kicks.
“Never mind, just remind me to thank Nintendo one day,” the Doctor said. Then the half-formed idea struck him. “Oh, of course!”
He jumped into the nearby corridor, then promptly fell back out as the TARDIS flipped over yet again. “Oh my giddy aunt!” he exclaimed as several more mushrooms exploded about him.
“Hurry up!” Kapila told him.
“Right, right, of course.” He scrambled back onto his feet as quickly as he could, given that he was trying to find his footing amidst an inch of slime. He charged into the nearest storage room and started tossing plungers into the main control room. “Stick these onto the floor! There should be enough slime that nothing will dislodge them!”
Kapila began following his instructions, and soon, they were pulling themselves amidst a forest of plungers, largely immune to the giant mushroom’s capricious motions. The Doctor spared a moment to pat the TARDIS’ console. “Good job,” he said, proud that it had withstood swallowing for so long. The mushroom was clearly having trouble with its meal, as rumbling moans were filling the air, the mushroom’s lamellae breaking down under the strain of its strenuous activity.
“HYEEEEK!” a baby mushroom told him, popping out from behind a row of toilet plungers. It latched itself onto his arm.
“Oh my, oh dear!” the Doctor cried, shaking his arm wildly. The mushroom refused to let go, and he could feel its fangs sinking in deeper and deeper until a plunger appeared out of nowhere and latched onto the mushroom right above its eyeline. It swiveled its eyes up to peer at the rubber encasing its head and had one moment to issue a loud squeal before Kapila pulled it off him. She whirled the plunger in the air once, then twice, and all the time, the mushroom kept screaming, “YAAAAIEEEEEEEEEEEeeeeeeEEEEEEEeeeeeeeEEEEEEeeeeee!” in time with the Doppler effect of its elliptical motion. Then she let go and the plunger flew against the wall, crushing the creature.
“How are we going to get out of here?” she asked him.
At that moment, they heard a, “HAAAAAAAAIIIIYAAAAAAAAAAAAIEEEEEEEEEEEE!” a thousand times louder than any sound the miniature mushrooms had made. Then there was a sickening GLURP and the TARDIS lurched. The Doctor and Kapila clung to each other as there came one jarring crash after another and the TARDIS spun over and over on its side. Then there was a splash and water flooded the control room. Kapila screamed as the force of the incoming wave pulled them apart. The Doctor breast-stroked toward the console, fighting the current as the water level rose higher and higher. Finally, he reached the controls and activated the engines. Bubbles gurgled from his mouth as he sighed in relief at the familiar vworp, vworp of the TARDIS, and the water began to roar back out through the door when they rematerialized back where they’d been attacked by the giant mushroom.
* * *
Soon enough, they were mostly dry again. The TARDIS was pleasantly free of slime or any other remnants of the attack, although they would have to let it air out for a few days before going on any lengthy journey. The Doctor nodded in approval. Everything always worked itself out in the end, and the absence of a second attack by the mushroom was encouraging. He motioned toward a haggard-looking Kapila, and they exited cautiously.
The Doctor jumped up and down and clapped his hands together when he saw what awaited them. “Yes, yes! My suspicions are confirmed!” Kapila just gaped.
Before them, a gigantic deer some twenty-five meters tall at its head was bent over the chewed-up remains of the giant mushroom and taking casual nibbles, its eyes closed in satisfaction as its tongue swept up the slime that was oozing across the ground. As it ate, several more deer appeared. Further away, he saw a deer grappling with another giant mushroom, darting in and nipping at it, ripping off chunks of its membrane before backing away out of the reach of the fungi’s fangs.
“But they will not approach the village,” Kapila said. “The giant deer are known to us, though we understand few of their habits. Nevertheless, they prefer the forest and the trees to the grasslands.”
“Ah, but we could lure them closer! They seem to enjoy the mushrooms, but there are other delicacies deer enjoy as well.” The Doctor peered into the horizon. “Yes, yes, indeed, there are more further away, enough appetites to eliminate maybe the entire field in hours.”
“But what do they enjoy? You know more than us about these deer.”
“Hmm, well, on Earth, I remember feeding deer with salt licks, you know, giant cubes of salt, but we had to manufacture those, and it’s not like we can just put together enough salt to tempt even one of them. The quantities we’re talking about would have to be enormous.”
“What are you talking about, Doctor? You mean salt as in the white salt we use to season meals with?”
“Yes, yes, of course.”
“But Doctor, salt grows on trees!”
“I, yes, yes, my dear... excuse me, you said what?”
“It grows on trees. These cubes you were talking about. Look!” Kapila pointed, and the Doctor followed her finger to one of the trees looming overhead. Its trunk looked like a thousand vines woven together into one thick mass and was probably twenty meters in diameter. The trunk extended up some hundred meters before exploding into a canopy of leaves. Amidst the leaves, hanging off of branches by some spindly growths, there were small, square-ish white splotches that the Doctor would never have recognized as salt had Kapila not said so.
“You’re sure that’s salt?”
“Yes, we harvest the fallen cubes at times to use on our food. It’s quite a delicacy and very difficult to obtain.”
“Well, I can see why.” If he could see the cubes at this distance, they had to be massive, probably larger than the deer themselves. Well, at least size wouldn’t be a problem.
“Oh no, do you mean the distance? We wait for the cubes to fall.”
“Still, it must take teams to move them.”
“No, the cubes fracture upon impact and are quite easy to carry.”
The Doctor wondered if she was deliberately being contrary now, but knowing she was not, he began to feel uneasy. “Then why exactly is it difficult to obtain?”
“Because the slugs guard the trees.”
“Oh no, it begins!” Kapila said, grabbing the Doctor and pulling him closer to the TARDIS so they could escape at a moment’s notice.
Out of the grasses, a herd of slugs slid into view. The one leading the pack was significantly larger than the others and shimmered with a multitude of colors, like a fluorescent deep-sea squid. Whenever it let out a call, it would expand and contract, forcing air through its skin to call out, “QUEEEEEEEOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAA!”
The ground gave way before their bodies like loose dirt before a glacier, and they left glimmering, iridescent trails of slime in their wake. Their movement sounded significantly soft and mushy, and after their run-in with the mushrooms, the Doctor was glad they weren’t closer; he’d had quite enough slime to last him several centuries. He had a nagging feeling this pleasant arrangement wouldn’t last long, though.
At least fifty slugs were now gathered about the base of the tree, their feelers swaying in coordinated patterns as though part of some ritual. The leader puffed up almost twice its original size.
“ROOOOOEEEEWWOOOOOOOOQUEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSHHHHHHH!” the other slugs replied.
The Doctor frowned. “It sounds like a flatulent, deaf children’s choir. What are they doing?”
“I do not know, but they try to drive off any who approach the salt trees. Only the bravest of our citizens dare make salt runs, for almost always someone on the team returns injured, and several die each year. I would forbid the practice altogether, except my people love their salt too much.”
“You should tell them too much salt is bad for you. It’s true, my dear. Unfortunate, but true.”
As the Doctor thought about the situation, he unconsciously licked his wet lips. He was surprised when they tasted salty. Looking across the plains between the grassland and the forest, he saw the massive craters the TARDIS had left as it rolled into the water. He pointed. “Kapila, do the salt trees always grow around water?”
Kapila considered the question for a moment. “Not around every body of water--that would be unfortunate, as the slugs would be everywhere. But yes, they only grew near water.”
The Doctor brightened. “That’s it! Of course, it all makes sense now! You’ve never seen salt trees by a freshwater pond, have you?”
“Don’t you see, my dear? The ecosystem here is somewhat different from other planets I’ve been to, but it’s close enough to one called Earth that I think all comparisons are valid. Almost all living land-bound organisms need freshwater, not salt water, but those that cannot obtain fresh water must needs create their own or evolve to adapt to the salt water. Clearly these trees are from a salt-water environment, and over the years, they did both. Evolution made them incorporate salt as part of their biological processes, so they need to grow near salt water, but all the excess salt they take up is filtered out and expelled through a secondary branch system up in the canopy. As for the slugs, they’re worshipping the trees! Slugs can’t take salt; any amount they come into contact with will kill them, so the trees hold the power of life and death over them. Their activity suggests they are least semi-sentient, and therefore they would worship the trees as gods. When they are good, the trees extract salt from their environment, and when they are bad, it rains punishment down on them from the skies!”
“Doctor, that’s brilliant!”
“Why thank you, I’m rather proud of my theories myself.”
“But if, as you suggest, the snails worship the trees, how are we going to get the salt? They will protect it with all the zeal of religious fanaticism! We will be committing ultimate sacrilege in their eyes!”
“Well, that’s where the TARDIS comes in again.”
Kapila crossed her arms. “Is that a good idea? Look where it got us last time.”
“Yes, well, mushrooms don’t grow on trees, do they?” The Doctor paused and eyed her suspiciously. “They don’t on this planet, do they?”
“No, no,” she reassured him. “Er, not that I’m aware of, anyway. It’s rather high up. So I suppose it’s safest to say mushrooms don’t fall from trees here.”
“Oh, crumbs. Well, no use in delaying, my dear. Let’s go.”
When they re-entered the TARDIS, the Doctor changed his assessment and decided it needed a little more than some airing out. Thankfully, he knew a great cleaner about 10,000 years from now who did good jobs for a very reasonable price.
He programmed in the new coordinates, hoping they were accurate enough, but the branches were so wide he figured they wouldn’t have any problem. He hit the lever, and the TARDIS began rocking.
A few seconds later, they were standing a hundred meters up and looking down on the slugs below. It was disconcerting that only now did they look remotely the correct scale, but thinking in Earth terms only skewed his depth perception and made his mind trick him into thinking he wasn’t high up, and he hated to think he could fall prey to visual illusions so easily.
“Oh look, there’s a salt block just ahead,” he announced.
He went back into the TARDIS and retrieved a long length of rope. “This should do the job quite nicely.”
The salt blocks were some fifty meters on each side and suspended by a secondary network of vines that enveloped the branches. It looked as though the network extended into the cubes themselves, like the core of an apple, allowing the salt to accumulate to such sizes. The cubes were connected to the vines via one central braided stem.
Attaching one end of the rope to the TARDIS, the Doctor took the other and carefully worked his way down the vines to the top of the cube. The block was surprisingly sturdy and solid, though grains of salt shifted beneath his shoes as he made his way across the surface.
“Be careful!” Kapila warned. “We have observed the cubes with our magnifying devices, and this one looks ripe.”
“Ripe? What do you mean--” He heard a creaking noise. “Oh dear.”
He took one flying leap and grabbed the vines as the salt cube shuddered and broke loose, the stem fraying and snapping into a thousand whirling strands that threatened to pull him down with them. One flew right past his leg but missed, and then the cube was rapidly shrinking from sight.
“MOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” one of the slugs bellowed as the cube landed on it. “Mroaaaaawwwrr?”
There was a wet popping noise as the slug exploded. The Doctor paused in his efforts to climb back onto the branch to stare. “That’s curious. Salt’s sort of supposed to desiccate slugs.”
“I guess our worlds are not so alike after all,” Kapila answered, helping pull him back up.
“Oh my,” he said, wringing his hands. “I didn’t mean for them to get hurt.”
“It serves them right!” Kapila stamped her foot.
The Doctor looked at her in shock. “My dear, we have killed an innocent creature.”
“I think not,” Kapila said scornfully. “These are the big slugs, larger than most. Every half moon, they raid villages to steal people and throw them into the great salt lakes. If you are right, then they were sacrifices to the salt tree gods.”
“Oh dear,” the Doctor said.
“We are more fortunate than most, since we are in the grasslands and far from the trees, but every so many moons, we lose a child to them as well.”
“I suppose that gives us the moral high ground, then. Well, we must not delay. Let’s try to get another one, a little less ripe this time, please.”
They found one a little ways further down the branch. It was smaller than the first, but not significantly, and the Doctor managed to get the rope tied around it. Then he retrieved a blowtorch from the TARDIS and cut the stem. There was a brief, concerning moment when the rope reached the end of its slack and threatened to pull the TARDIS off the branch, but the TARDIS was heavy enough to hold its ground.
“Now let me show you what else the TARDIS can do,” the Doctor said. He activated a second set of controls, and the TARDIS gently lifted into the air.
“Oh, I like this method a lot better,” Kapila said.
“Now this will require a lot of fine-tuning, so why don't you operate the controls and I can guide you from the door?”
Kapila backed away. “No, no, I wouldn’t begin to understand--”
“Oh, it’s easy! See this, just push it in the direction I tell you: forward, backward, left, or right. I’ve fixed the altitude so it won’t go up or down, which should be fine since the ground here is flat, though if you must make adjustments, you just push this knob up or down.”
“That’s it?” she asked dubiously.
“Yes, my dear, see, you’re a natural!” he cried when the TARDIS responded smoothly to her touch. He rushed to the door. “All right, now first we must lure the deer, so we must move a little further into the forest.”
He guided her slowly toward the herd of deer, then put two fingers between his lips and whistled shrilly. All the deer perked their heads up, their ears swiveling around to identify the source of the noise. Then they saw it, and he could feel their attention focus on the salt cube, but none moved.
“All right, they’ve noticed us, but we must move a little closer. Come on, forward a little, yes, now right, right, oh, left a bit, now right a little more, yes, yes, perfect! Oh no, it’s running away. Forward! Forward! No no no back!”
“Make up your mind!” Kapila yelled. Then the TARDIS shook, and the Doctor winced. The salt cube swung forward in a deceptively slow arc and slammed into the terrified deer.
“OOOOOOOOOOAAAAARRR!!!!” it said as it flew into the air. Kapila’s jaw dropped as the deer soared past the open doorway, its eyes wide open and its mouth foaming in terror. Then there was a loud thump as it hit the ground again.
“It’s ok!” the Doctor announced. “It’s getting up. It’s all right.”
Now all the deer were approaching out of curiosity, which did not bode well for the species’ long-term survival, but things looked quite good for the Doctor, anyway. One of the deer finally approached the salt cube and licked it tentatively. Its ears perked up, and it was about to try a second taste when the Doctor yelled, “BACK!”
Kapila hit the controls and the TARDIS soared away. The deer took only one moment to ponder this development before it took off after them. The others noticed and quickly followed behind, and soon there was a stampede. Then the Doctor noticed a problem.
“Kapila, up!” Nothing happened. “Up!”
“What? Up? Oh up!”
After the first slug exploded from the falling cube, the others had broken from the ritual and scattered, but now they were regrouping and the TARDIS was headed straight for them. Even worse, the salt lick was low enough that it would likely hit a slug. The Doctor didn’t know how the deer would react to an exploding slug, but he didn’t want to take any chances. They needed to get this done so he could find Jamie.
“Doctor, it’s stuck!”
“There’s a safety! The green button next to the lever.”
“There’s six green buttons!”
“The moderately large-sized one!”
“AAAAAUUUUUUUURRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHH!” One of the slugs doubled over on itself and unfolded into a giant leap as the others whistled dramatically in what the Doctor could only assume was a war cry. It flung itself onto the salt cube, and the TARDIS tilted.
“Oh no,” the Doctor managed before he fell out through the doorway. There was a great glurp, and he was hit full on by a wave of slime as he plummeted toward the salt cube. He landed on its surface with a loud, “Oomph” and quickly stood up to grab hold of the rope. The cube was now swinging wildly, and he could hear Kapila screaming back in the TARDIS. The deer were now trampling through the slugs’ territory, and the slugs were retaliating by slamming their bodies into the deer and trapping them with slime. Before long, however, one of the slugs let out a long, lowing cry and as a unit, the group turned and began chasing the TARDIS.
“Doctor, what do I do?” Kapila cried.
“Fly us back to your village! Can you do that?”
“I think so! Should I go up?”
“No, the deer are still following! Keep going-- AGH!” He ducked as a slug went flying over his head. The cube caught it as it swung into the slug’s downward arc and there was a huge explosion.
“What happened?” Kapila yelled.
“The slugs are after us, that’s all. They seem to be intent on punishing religious blasphemy.”
“We’re not luring the slugs back to my village!”
“I’m afraid you have to, my dear!”
The TARDIS banked sharply right, and the Doctor nearly lost his grip as the cube began swirling in erratic circles. “Try to drive a little more carefully!”
“MOOOOO!” The cube slammed against one of the slugs and flung it into the face of one of the deer, whereupon it promptly exploded. The deer reared upward and kicked the TARDIS.
“AAAAAAAAH!!!” Kapila flew out through the doorway and landed next to the Doctor.
“Who’s driving now?” the Doctor asked. Kapila gave him an incredulous look. “Hold on tight!”
They pressed themselves against the rope as the cube slammed into one of the deer. Massive strands of fur tugged at their clothes before the deer soared away. Then they screamed, “AAAAAAAAAAAH!” as the cube swung the other direction and plowed into a slug.
Overhead, the TARDIS began spinning madly, and though the altitude lock was still holding, it was beginning to lurch drunkenly, unable to follow a straight line. The cube began spinning as well.
“Oh no!” the Doctor cried. Their feet lifted off the cube as they began spinning with the TARDIS round and round and round.
“EEEEEEEEEEEOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!” Several slugs got caught up in their tornado and their remains went spinning out in all directions. Then the TARDIS let out an erratic sequences of bleeps and bloops and began losing altitude. Thankfully, through the blades of grass that were slamming into their faces, the Doctor could make out the village growing larger up ahead.
“Well, this will work out nicely! Hold on!!!”
They closed their eyes as the cube struck the ground. Massive clods of dirt exploded into the air as they plowed a furrow through the grass. The rope went taut, then made a creaking sound before it snapped. The TARDIS went flying off into the distance and slammed into the ground with explosive force.
“Let go, let go!” the Doctor yelled as the cube began flipping over. He and Kapila both let go and went flying ahead of the cube. They landed just as it flipped upside down, but then they realized they were still in its path.
“YAAAAH!” Kapila covered her face with her arms. The cube struck the ground, bounced up over them, then landed beyond her and kept rolling. It began fracturing, and by the time it reached the village, it had shattered into thousands of pieces.
“Look out!” the Doctor cried.
Kapila rolled over just as a giant hoof came down on where she had been. The Doctor stood and ran to her. Then he had to push her out of the way as an enraged slug, glowing bright red, glided past.
“My village!” she screamed.
“Mushroom!” the Doctor screamed.
The two of them jumped out of the way as a giant mushroom buried its fangs into the ground. It pulled up, and let out a rumbling roar. As one, giant mushrooms reared their heads all over the grasslands, and the deer paused, looking around. Then they turned from the village and began bounding toward the mushrooms.
“Yerk?” the offending mushroom said. Then three deer tore it apart.
“Ha ha! It worked! It worked!”
“Oh, oh dear, oh my,” the Doctor said, wringing his hands.
The slugs were tearing at the buildings on the outskirts of the community, and terrified villagers were running into Kapila’s own home for shelter. The Doctor and Kapila ran up.
“Don’t you have any weapons or anything?” Kapila demanded.
“I don’t... let me think...”
“Oh my, I-- oh look.”
The Doctor pointed at the closest slug. It had stopped attacking, and colors were swirling through its skin in a pattern of confusion. “QUUUUUUUEEEEEEeeeeeeeeeeooooooo.”
Water began seeping through its skin in greater and greater quantities, and then it simultaneously expanded and imploded. Slime went flying through the air as the slug exploded.
“Yes! Of course! The salt, my dear, the salt!”
A fine sprinkling of white crystals was falling from the sky, pieces of the cube that had burst upwards on the first impact. Now they rained down on the slugs, and one by one, each exploded. Soon, the village was covered in slime but safe from any further attacks. In the surrounding area, the deer were making good work of the fanged mushrooms, and the Doctor grinned.
“Oh, this will take forever to clean up,” Kapila said, but she was smiling too.
In the village, people were exiting from the central dwellings and looking around in wonder. Then they began cheering, and the young man who had brought the news of Jamie’s capture ran up to them.
“Thank you, Kapila! Thank you, Doctor!” he said. “And look!” He picked up a handful of slug from the ground and put it in his mouth. “It tastes salty!”
Kapila and the Doctor exchanged glances, but at the boy’s prompting, they each took a bite. Kapila nodded in surprised approval. “It tastes good!”
“Well, looks like you won’t be starving any time soon,” the Doctor said, chewing thoughtfully. “Hmm, tastes like chicken.”
The boy took their hands and led them back to the village. The other villagers surrounded them, jumping up and down in excitement, and there was talk of a feast, but the Doctor held up his hands and requested silence. When the village had calmed, he announced, “Today’s developments are indeed great news, but the struggle is not over. Now that your village is safe, I must rescue my friend and make sure the mushrooms do not return.”
Several villagers stepped forward. “We will accompany you and make sure you are safe.”
The Doctor glanced at Kapila who nodded, so he accepted their offer gratefully. “Thank you, but we must leave immediately.”
“That won’t be a problem,” a brawny man said.
Kapila brushed some slime off his sleeve. “Surely you will want to get clean.”
“If I remember correctly, I heard a stream when we first arrived. Is there one between here and the castle?”
“I’m sure fording it will get me quite clean, then.”
Kapila nodded. “You are a great man, Doctor. Good luck!”
The Doctor grinned and bowed. “At your service.” Then he ran for the castle, slime sloshing between his feet and the soles of his shoes. This wasn’t quite the relaxing vacation he’d had in mind, but he had to admit this adventure had a sort of unique charm to it.
* * *
The room was large but had a slightly low ceiling. This posed no problem for Jamie, being a little short, but the leather creatures were tall and had to stoop. The room was featureless and devoid of any objects, except for the monstrosity in one of the back corners. The room was dominated by a giant glass jar, the sort pickles might come in, but instead of pickles it held what could only be described as a giant, greenish brain floating in a clear substance. There were wires coming from the lid that connected to some kind of speaker.
It became immediately evident that the speaker was the brain's way of communicating.
"Ahhh, so this is the boy! He does look delicious," the brain said, its voice female and soothing, but also with an undertone of quiet static.
"Ye're a brain? Ye're responsible for all these beasties? How?" Jamie asked, aghast. He struggled futilely against his captors for a moment.
"The inhabitants of this planet are weak. It takes so very little psychic influence to change the plant life." If a brain could grin, this one would be doing so now. The gentle female voice took on a distinctly prideful tone.
Jamie was terrified, and desperately trying not to let it show. Monsters and aliens and robots he could handle, but what was he supposed to do against a giant psychic brain in a jar? It seemed pretty helpless to look at, but who knew what it could really do? Even the Cybermen were preferable. At least he understood them to a degree.
"How do you like my boys? They looked so very much like you, once upon a time." The brain mused. Jamie was horrified.
"Wha' did you do to them?" he asked, not sure he really wanted to hear the answer. The brain laughed.
"Oh, I just enhanced them. Made them stronger, faster, more durable. They're just shells now. I had to get rid of their will so they'd do my bidding. And, of course, I dressed them. Aren't they lovely?"
"No! It's sick!" shouted Jamie, disgusted.
"Ahaha, and what would you know of it, you tiny--" The brain stopped mid-sentence and let out a deafening, echoing howl. "Intruders! Intruders! How did they get here?!" it bellowed. "Go, take care of them! Leave the boy. I'll deal with him." The minions obeyed instantly, letting go of Jamie's arms and stalking out the door.
Jamie sunk to his knees and rubbed at his arms, relieved to have full circulation returned. It's the Doctor, he thought. It's got to be!
* * *
"Because," the Doctor explained, "if we don't stop the source, they will just come back. Also, I am sure that Jamie is in there and I must get him back." Now that his mind was no longer occupied by an immediate problem, the worry and fear for his friend that had been shoved into the back of his mind had surfaced and was filling him with dread.
"What are we waiting for, then?" asked Guida, a large, burly man who was Lani's opposite in almost every way. He didn't speak often, but everything about him was big and loud. He even breathed loudly.
"It's always better to assess the situation before barging in," the Doctor said. "But it looks quiet enough to me. In my experience, that's usually a bad thing, but I suppose there's no way to find out what's in there without seeing for ourselves. No sense in waiting any longer." Despite his calm tone and words, every fiber of his being longed to charge in; every nerve felt on fire, and adrenaline surged through him. With considerable effort, he forced himself to remain outwardly composed.
The final member of their little party was a short, stocky, bald girl named Qu. She was a good friend to Kapila and her self-appointed protector. She didn't say much unless necessary.
They approached the castle, doing their best to stay hidden, even though there didn't seem to be anyone to hide from. It was definitely a foreboding structure. Despite it being broad daylight out, the castle was lit as though it were the middle of the night and overcast to boot. It made an extremely surreal image.
"This doesn't belong here," the Doctor said in wonder, pressing the palm of his hand to the cold stone. "In fact, I'd guess that it isn't, in any real sense, here at all. That's why the sun doesn't appear to shine on it. I suspect it's really somewhere else, somewhere where it's currently nighttime."
"That doesn't make sense! I can see it! It's right there! I can touch it!" Lani whined.
"Yes, well, I'm afraid I don't really understand it either. It's all speculation on my part. I've really never seen anything like this; it's quite fascinating." He pulled himself away and turned to the large double doors. "Shall we go in?"
"Uhh..." Lani began, but Guida and Qu each grabbed a giant iron ring and pulled open the massive wooden doors, then stepped briskly in. The Doctor followed and after only a moment's hesitation, Lani did as well.
They found themselves in a giant foyer. There were several doors on either side of them and a short half-level staircase at the end. Curiously, sunlight streamed in through the high windows, though it cast more shadows than it dispelled, and the Doctor wondered exactly how much of the castle was here and how much was elsewhere. Above them hung a very, very old chandelier. The Doctor moved forward a few steps and beckoned for his companions to do the same, not trusting the rusted metal hooks to keep the chandelier above them instead of on top of them.
There was hushed quiet, but it didn't stay that way for long. With no warning, doors on either side of them burst off their hinges and a tall, leather-clad humanoid stepped out of each. They both held whips which they cracked menacingly.
"Run!" the Doctor shouted, recovering first and pushing the others forward towards the stairs. "Find a room!" Qu threw open the first door, then slammed it shut again. The Doctor found another and opened it to reveal an empty room. "In here!" he called, and all four ducked through. The Doctor slammed it shut and turned the lock, and Guida shoved an old, rotting dresser in front of it.
"Well, that won't hold them for long," Guida noted.
"We have to find a way of getting rid of them!" the Doctor said, pacing and trying desperately to think.
"Why don't we just fight? There are only two of them," Lani suggested, bouncing on the balls of his feet, itching for a fight.
"Oh, I very much doubt that would work," the Doctor said. "They are far faster and probably far stronger than any of us. No, we need a plan." The door shuddered from an outside blow, but held.
"The door at the top of the stairs," Qu began, "It leads to a cellar of some sort. The door is much heavier than this one, and there's a bolt lock."
"Simple but brilliant! If we can lock them down there, they might not be able to get out," said the Doctor excitedly.
"Okay, but, if they're out there, how do we get out of here?" asked Lani. The Doctor paused and thought for a moment. The door looked close to giving.
"Okay, here's what we're going to do," the Doctor said. "They're obviously mostly just drones, which means they're not too intelligent. If we stand against the wall on either side of the door, then when it opens and they come running in, we can slip out behind them. Guida, I'm going to need your spear." Guida looked doubtful, but handed it over anyway. "Good, good," the Doctor continued, and then went about explaining the rest of his plan.
Two minutes later, they were all pressed against the wall, waiting breathlessly. It didn't take long. One final blow and the door and dresser both came away, and the creatures burst in. There was a moment of confusion when they found the room seemingly empty that the Doctor and his companions used to slip out. They raced down the hall and the Doctor hauled the door open. It was perfect. Unlike the other doors, this one was extremely heavy and reinforced with what looked like iron. It was still made of wood, but it was at least six inches thick. It took up over half the hallway, and all four of them had no trouble hiding behind it. At the last moment, the Doctor threw the spear down the stairs.
The creatures dashed out of the room and, hearing what they thought in their tiny minds was their prey running down the stairs, ran down themselves. The Doctor waited a moment and then slammed the door shut, turning the lock and throwing the bolt. Then he sagged against the door, relieved. The relief didn't last long, however. He shot back to his feet.
"Jamie!" he said, and started to rush off, then paused when he realized he had no idea which direction to go.
"What?" asked Guida, confused. "What's the rush? Isn't that it? Didn't we get them?"
"Oh, no, no. Those were just drones! They're being controlled by something, or someone. And besides, we only locked them in the basement! That may hold them for a couple days, but it won't hold them forever unless we get rid of their controller." A thought struck him. "Oh dear, what if Jamie was down there?" He wrung his hands worriedly.
"Over here!" Qu shouted, having found another set of stairs with quick and efficient competency.
"Right, right, yes, that's a good idea," the Doctor said, and followed her up.
* * *
He made a dash for the open door, but it slammed shut in front of him. He tugged at it futilely, then whirled around.
"It won' open! Why won' it open?" he asked wildly, hating the feeling of helplessness that came from not being able to reach the Doctor.
"Psychic, remember? A mind this large, my masteries don't stop at telepathy!" boasted the brain.
It's a giant brain in a jar, Jamie thought frantically. Wha' do I do? How do I kill a giant brain in a jar?
"Wha' do ye want with me? Why no' just kill me?" he asked, stalling for time so he could think. Thinking wasn't his job! That was what the Doctor did!
It's a brain! In a jar! his mind supplied helpfully. Wha' am I good at? Fighting. Just fighting, and getting into trouble. I can't fight this! I can't even get to it! It's in a jar!
"Is it not obvious?" the brain was saying. "I wish to turn you into another one of my beautiful boys. Do you like to be whipped? They love to be whipped. You will love it as well, shortly."
Jamie wasn't really listening to it, which was probably a good thing. His train of thought had come to the obvious conclusion. Wait! I can get to it! It's just in a jar! It's made of glass! I can break glass! And if I break the glass...
He lunged. He threw his whole weight at the jar, his shoulder slamming against the glass. Nothing happened. Then the brain started laughing, loud and long.
"You didn't really think that would work, did you? You can't break this! No amount of battering will shatter this glass." The brain continued laughing, but Jamie ignored it and looked around for something to hit it with. Now his shoulder ached as well, and he regretted his rash attack.
The stones in the walls and ceilings and floors were old and crumbling, and there were bits of rock sitting all over. Most were too small to do any damage to anything, but a few were larger. He ran for one, picked it up, and hurled it. Without pausing to see if it did anything, he grabbed another one and threw it as well.
He glanced over at the brain as he ran for another stone. There was not even a scratch as far as he could see. Refusing to give up, he hurled another stone. Nothing. He searched for another stone large enough to possibly do any damage, but there weren't anymore. Everything else was just pebbles and dust.
Jamie thought frantically. The awful laughing noise the brain was making was driving him to distraction. He covered his ears, but there was nothing. No ideas were coming. There was nothing he could do. And the Doctor! What was happening to him without Jamie to protect him?
The Doctor flew into the room. Jamie's head snapped up, and he fell right on his ass in surprise.
"Doctor!" he cried. Three other people followed him in. Jamie paid them no attention at all.
"My word! This takes "mastermind" to a whole other level," said the Doctor, then walked over to Jamie.
"Jamie, I'm so glad you're all right! Are you hurt?" Jamie shook his head mutely. The Doctor gave him a brief hug, and then stood.
"Doctor, what the hell is that?!" shouted one of the men the Doctor had arrived with. It quickly occurred to Jamie to warn the Doctor.
"What is this invasion? Where are my boys?" the brain roared in furious confusion.
"Doctor, it's psychic! It controls people," he said urgently, standing up. The Doctor's face lost a little of its color and he spun around, barking orders to the people behind him.
"You three! Get out of here, now! Get back down and wait for us outside! If we don't come out within the hour, just run for it. Do not argue, there is no time for it, just do as I say." There was only a slight hesitation from the three, then they rushed out. The Doctor slammed the door behind them and locked it.
The brain had fallen silent. The Doctor turned and froze. Jamie approached him, cautiously.
"Doctor, wha's been happening? How do we beat this thing? I tried to break the glass, but it's a wee bit too strong for me." The Doctor didn't acknowledge him, instead staring at the massive jar. Jamie placed a hand firmly on his shoulder. "Doctor, why are you all wet?"
"Ah ha!" the Doctor suddenly cried victoriously. "Never mind that now, Jamie," he said quickly, then addressed the brain again. "You think your pitiful telepathic skills are any match for me? You cannot take over my mind!" The brain let out a soundless bellow of fury.
"If I cannot have yours, then I will certainly have the boy’s! He does not have the mental guards you do," the brain said. Jamie cast a panicked look at the Doctor, his right hand tightening on the Doctor's shoulder and his other falling to grip his arm. The Doctor just gave him a friendly, reassuring smile. The brain let out another chilling roar.
"I cannot see his mind! What is this block? He is primitive! None such as he should be able to block me!"
The Doctor stepped forward and out of Jamie's grip. All the friendliness from a moment ago was gone from his posture and his expression. When he spoke, his voice was cold and frightening. He was nothing like the kind, silly Doctor Jamie knew.
"No," he said, "you cannot see this boy's mind, because he travels with me. My ship protects him, and nothing so powerless and insignificant as you shall have any hope of breaking that barrier. Now I offer you a choice. You return to wherever it is you came from, or you die right here." The brain laughed at him.
"I may not be able to penetrate you, but neither do you have any hope of killing me. Your boy already tried!"
"So you will not leave?"
"Never! I am invincible!"
"Oh, but you are not." The Doctor looked truly sad and regretful. He turned to look at Jamie. "You tried to crack the glass already?" Jamie nodded.
"Aye, but I couldn't. There isn't anything in here to hit it with, Doctor. How do you plan to--" He trailed off. The Doctor smiled briefly at him and pulled his recorder out of an inner pocket on his jacket.
"Where physical force fails, Jamie, specific sound waves can crack even the hardest of glass." Jamie clamped his hands over his ears just in time as a loud, clear, shrill noise rang out. The brain screamed, for the first time in terror. A crack appeared in the glass of its jar, which quickly grew. Smaller cracks branched off from the first. Above them, the glass of the windows cracked as well. Abruptly, the Doctor stopped playing.
"Get down, Jamie, now!" he shouted and lunged to shield his friend as Jamie instinctively obeyed. Then the windows shattered and a rain of glass shards fell all around them. Moments later, the glass jar followed, spilling a watery liquid out all over the floor. The speaker shorted out, silencing the final terrible sounds of the dying brain.
After a minute, the Doctor carefully stood, picking bits of glass out of his hair and shaking off his jacket. Jamie stood as well, doing the same.
"Not injured, are you, Jamie?" the Doctor asked kindly. Jamie shook his head, staring at the giant brain oozing out over the floor. He wrinkled his nose.
"Let's get out of here, Doctor. That smells," he complained. The Doctor began to agree, but stopped short when the entire room flickered.
"Oh no, Jamie! We have to get out of here at once! With that thing dead, there is nothing keeping the castle here! It's going to collapse in on itself!" They both sprinted for the exit, careful not to slip on any of the glass covering the floor. The Doctor swiftly unlocked the door and they bolted out.
"I hope you know which way you're going, because I don' ken I remember!" Jamie yelled.
"I hope I do too, Jamie!" the Doctor yelled back at him. The floor beneath their feet was shifting in and out of existence in some places, and they were having to be inconveniently cautious not to step on any areas that didn't exist. They found the stairwell and raced down it, then bolted for the exit. The doors were already open, and they shot out together. Behind them, the entire castle flickered, gave a giant groan, and then disappeared for good.
They both paused to catch their breath. The large, burly man hurried up to them. "That's it?" he asked.
"That's it," the Doctor confirmed with a happy smile. The man nodded.
"Lani and Qu went back to the village. I'll take you there now. Kapila will want to thank you.
"Ah, well, we are grateful for the offer, Guida, I'm sure, but would you be so kind as to take us back to our ship instead?"
"You don't wish to stay?" Guida asked.
"I'm dreadfully sorry, but we'd really better not. We must be getting on our way," the Doctor said. Guida looked thoughtful for a moment, then nodded.
It wasn't actually that long of a distance to the TARDIS, and the trip was pleasantly free of feral fungi. Guida was actually only able to take them as far as the place they'd sprung the trap, but they thanked him and the Doctor was able to find his way to where it’d crashed with reasonable ease; he only had to follow the giant scorch marks in the earth.
“Why’s the TARDIS upside down?” Jamie asked.
“Oh, never mind that, Jamie. In you go!”
"Och, I'm beat," Jamie said with relief as he entered. The Doctor followed him in, watching him fondly. “It’s a wee bit smelly in here, isn’t it?”
"Oh, I’ll get it cleaned, don’t worry. I think I had better take a look at that wound on your arm, Jamie," he said. "All that activity couldn't have been good for it, and it wasn't properly taken care of to begin with." Jamie rolled his eyes, but didn't bother arguing.
As he stepped forward to allow the Doctor a look, he tripped over an inconveniently placed shoe. With a shout of surprise, he began to topple over. He threw his arms out to protect himself, as he saw the Doctor make a belated movement towards him out of the corner of his eye. His hands caught the control panel, and he gripped it to stop his fall. One hand slammed down on the coordinate controls, and the other grasped and pulled a lever.
"Oh, no, Jamie! What have you done?" the Doctor exclaimed. The sound of the TARDIS dematerializing filled the air. "Random coordinates! We could end up anywhere!" Jamie removed his hands from the console as if it burned and stared in shock.
"Doctor," he said slowly, "what do you mean, anywhere?"