Sarah Jane Smith woke up on the floor, the loud clanging of a bell ringing in her ears.
She lay there for a few seconds, slightly disoriented and without a clue as to what had happened. Her blanket was wrapped loosely around her legs, and she was sprawled out beside her bed. One of her pillows was lying on the floor beside her, though the sheet was still half-hanging from the bed. She couldn't see anything else, since the only light in the room was a dim sliver coming from under the door.
She racked her brains as she reached up to grab the bed frame, pulling herself unsteadily to her feet. She didn't remember having any kind of dream or nightmare, and she was fairly certain that she would recall one bad enough to send her falling out of bed. It had happened once or twice since she had begun traveling with the Doctor, but only after a particularly harrowing adventure. And the last few places they had visited had been surprisingly free of such incidents.
Then she realized that she could still hear the bell ringing. It wasn't just in her mind. Her instincts kicking in, she reached for her bedside lamp. She felt a flutter of worry in the pit of her stomach when her fingers couldn't find it and quickly stumbled over to the light switch on the wall. Luckily, it worked.
She couldn't help but flinch as the lights came on, revealing her room to be an utter disaster. Most of her belongings were on the floor, and the small dressing table by her bed was on its side. Its drawer had opened and everything inside was spilling out. The only thing still upright was the bed, with its legs bolted firmly to the floor. Even it looked disheveled, though, with most of its makings still on the floor beside it.
"What on earth?" she said, her brow furrowing.
The bell continued to clang, making an ominous sound that seemed to echo throughout the TARDIS. Sarah felt a shiver run down her spine, an echo of something running through her mind, and without thinking she launched herself at her bed. She grabbed its frame just in time, letting out a surprised shriek as the room seemed to spin. It was almost as if gravity itself had stopped working properly. Before she even realized what was happening, she found herself dangling in midair.
For just an instant the legs of her bed seemed to be sticking out of the wall, while what had been the wall was where the floor typically was. The entire room had shifted, like a box that had been turned on its side. She felt almost like Alice, stepping through the looking glass for the first time. It was as if the world had turned inside out on her, and she couldn't even tell up from down.
The room righted itself without warning, sending her slamming into the bed frame. Her right leg was caught between her body and the bed, and she gasped as she hit it with all her weight. Grimacing, she pulled herself to her feet again and tried to ignore the sharp pain shooting through her leg. She glanced down for just a moment, not surprised to see that it was bright red and showing starkly against her white nightdress. There was little doubt that it would bruise.
"This had better be good," she muttered, starting toward the door. She paused after only a few steps, her mind flashing back to several previous occasions. Life with the Doctor rarely went as planned, and it was always better to expect the unexpected. Glancing down at her nightdress, she quickly changed direction.
She quickly shimmied out of her nightie, reaching down to grab her trousers off the floor. Her leg ached at the movement, and she grimaced when she glanced down and saw the quickly darkening bruise on her lower leg. There wasn't anything she could do at the moment but ignore it. Biting her lip, she hurried finished getting dressed.
With a quick glance around the room, Sarah turned toward the door. Then she paused, quickly grabbing a lightweight coat lying nearby. Just in case, of course.
Shrugging the coat on, she flung open the door and hurried out into the hall. The sound of the clanging bell was even louder outside her room as it echoed up and down the empty corridor. Sarah frowned, a hint of worry playing in her mind. She couldn't shake the feeling that was something was wrong. Even more wrong than what usually passed for normal around the Doctor.
She hurried toward the control room, limping slightly with every step she took. Biting her lip as the thought that she might have done more than merely bruise her leg crossed her mind, she tried not to focus on the pain. "Doctor!"
There wasn't an answer, not that she'd been expecting one. Forcing herself to hurry a little faster, she couldn't help but let out a sigh of relief when she saw the entrance to the control room up ahead.
As she stepped into the control room, Sarah felt her mouth twist into a smile despite herself. The Doctor was scurrying around the console, hurriedly fiddling with dials and knobs. He was frowning, a look of deep concentration on his face as he moved around the console.
Without warning, the bell stopped. Her ears ringing a bit, she slowly stepped out of the entrance and started toward the center of the room. Most of the lights on the console were still blinking, and she knew from past experiences that that probably wasn't a very good sign.
Sarah shook her head in amused exasperation when the Doctor finally looked up from the TARDIS' console. There was a surprised look on his face, as if she was the last person he had expected to see. It was obvious that he hadn't realized she was anywhere nearby.
"Yes?" he asked curiously.
Barely refraining from rolling her eyes, Sarah stopped a few feet away from him and met his gaze. "Is there a reason gravity decided to stop working properly in my room?"
He blinked. "Did it?"
"Yes," she replied dryly, "it did. One minute I was in bed asleep, and the next thing I knew my bed was sticking out of the wall.
The Doctor tilted his head. "Really?" He glanced back at the console again, scrutinizing it. "That's odd, I hadn't noti--"
He trailed off suddenly, his eyes widening. He flung his hand out and grabbed her arm, yanking her toward him. His other hand never left the console, and to her surprise he pushed her against it as well.
Sarah didn't even have time to think before the room suddenly began to spin just like her bedroom had. She gripped the console tightly with both hands, well aware of the Doctor's tightening grip on her arm. She was only a little surprised when the Doctor somehow managed to wrap his other arm around her, holding her in place. A wave of dizziness washed over her when, instead of stopping like it had earlier, the room kept spinning wildly.
After what felt like ages, though she suspected it was no more than twenty seconds, the control room suddenly righted itself. They both fell to the floor, and Sarah couldn't help but let out a gasp as she landed on her bruised leg. A sharp, stabbing pain rushed up her limb, and she felt a bit nauseous. She closed her eyes, taking in a deep breath before opening them again.
The Doctor was staring straight at her. "Are you alright?" he asked. His voice sounded nonchalant, but there was no denying the hint of worry in his eyes.
Letting out a shaky breath, Sarah nodded. "I'm fine," she replied. "What just happened? And why on earth was that bell ringing?"
"Cloister bell," he replied, pushing himself to his feet. He offered her his hand, and she took it after only a second's hesitation. "It's supposed to warn me of danger."
Sarah barely held back a gasp as she stood up and put pressure on her leg, but she couldn't help but let out a snort of laughter at his comment. "No kidding."
He smiled at her, though it didn't quite reach his eyes. Then he turned his attention back to the control console. "We've landed," he said, his smile fading into a frown.
Amused despite herself, Sarah made her way over to his side. "You didn't answer my first question."
He didn't look up. "Did I not? Oh, that's interesting. It looks like we're somewhere in the Rphor system."
Well aware that he was trying to change the subject, she leaned forward and looked up into his face. "No," she said pointedly, "you didn't answer me."
The Doctor didn't say anything for a moment. Then he nodded, relenting. "We picked up a distress beacon, an older one. In fact, that particular model was banned centuries ago." He frowned. "It had an effect on several of the TARDIS' systems, as you've noticed."
Sarah raised an eyebrow. "We've picked up lots of distress beacons," she said slowly. "Why would this one make the systems go haywire if none of the others have?"
"Well now, that's the question."
She stared at him, but he didn't say another word. When it became apparent that he wasn't going to say anything else, Sarah glanced at the door. "So where are we?" she asked, gesturing with her eyes.
"Ah," the Doctor said, momentarily hesitating before he glanced down at the console, "you know, that's another very good question."
Sarah let out a quiet laugh. "You have no idea, do you?"
A put out expression appeared on his face. "I know exactly where we are," he protested. "We're on the planet Listronam. Or possibly Ghaijunish. Most likely."
The Doctor shot her an injured look.
"Fine, fine," she relented, holding up her hands in a gesture of peace. "We're most likely on Listronam or Ghaijunish."
He nodded. "Or possibly Xterial Prime."
"Or possibly Xterial Prime," Sarah repeated dutifully, unable to hide her smile. "So are we going to try and find out which one we're on?"
Smiling just a bit himself, the Doctor reached out and hit a switch on the console. The TARDIS doors slowly opened, revealing what looked like an ordinary forest on the other side. Sarah stared out at the scene, surprised.
She walked toward the door, stopping just before she stepped outside the TARDIS. They had landed in the middle of what seemed like an endless number of trees, two of which were so close to the TARDIS that it looked almost as if they had wedged between them. It was fairly dark outside, though a few dying rays of sunlight were streaming through gaps in the leaves up above.
The Doctor came up behind her, gently pushing her through the doorway. She barely hid a grimace as her leg almost buckled. "Coming?" he asked.
"Of course," she said, smiling weakly at him as he locked the TARDIS doors behind them. "Any idea where we're going?"
He grinned as he held up some sort of device. "Absolutely not!"
She stared at the thing in his hand. It looked something like one of the handheld gaming devices that she'd seen in the mid-21st century, something called a PSP4 if she remembered correctly, except that it had what looked like antennae sticking out of its top. Another one of his science experiments, most likely.
The Doctor apparently saw the confusion in her eyes. "I've set this to lead us straight to the beacon," he explained.
Sarah nodded. "So we can turn it off?"
"So we can help whoever's sending it," he said, shaking his head. "We can't just ignore it, even if it's illegal. It's mauve."
She crossed her arms, shooting him an impatient look.
"And then, after we've helped them, we'll turn it off," he quickly added.
Sarah uncrossed her arms. "Good. Which direction are we heading in?"
The Doctor held up the device with one hand, pressing one of its buttons with his finger. A high-pitched whine suddenly emitted from it, causing Sarah to clap her hands over her ears.
"Sorry," he said apologetically as he hurriedly hit the button again, "wrong one. Let me try again."
She glared at him and didn't remove her hands from her ears.
He cleared his throat and pressed another button. Lights flashed on the device, but it didn't make any sounds. Sarah hesitantly brought her hands down, eying the Doctor warily. "Well?"
His eyes focused on the device in his hand, he waved vaguely to their left and started walking. "We need to go that way."
Sarah let him go first. He made it several yards without glancing up from the device before walking straight into a low-hanging branch, at which point he let out a muttered stream of what she assumed were expletives even though he was speaking just quietly enough that she couldn't hear them clearly. She couldn't help but laugh, earning her a dirty look in return.
The Doctor started walking again almost immediately, but she couldn't help but notice that this time he kept his eyes focused on what was ahead of him. There was what appeared to be some type of trail heading in the general direction they wanted to go, and he stayed on it for the most part.
They walked without saying a word, and Sarah felt a shiver of worry at the Doctor's uncharacteristic silence. Still, she couldn't blame him. There was something about the forest that felt heavy, solemn even, as if it did not want to be disturbed. She could hear the occasional sounds of birds and other animals, but they seemed to occur less often the farther they went from the TARDIS.
She looked around as she moved, studying their surroundings. The trees blocked out much of the sunlight, and only the occasional ray managed to break through. It was darker than any of the woods she'd ever been in back on Earth, though she suspected that was because the trees and their limbs were much closer together than what she was used to seeing.
Sarah suddenly caught a quick movement out of the corner of her eye, and she would have sworn that she had seen a flash of something red. She paused, hurriedly turning her attention toward the cluster of trees where she'd seen movement. There didn't appear to be anything there now, but she couldn't rid herself of the feeling that they were being watched. Narrowing her eyes a bit, she took a few steps forward.
"Is something wrong?"
At the sound of the Doctor's voice, she quickly turned back toward him. He was still standing on the path, a curious expression on her face.
Sarah glanced back at where she had seen the movement. There was nothing there. "I thought..." She trailed off, shaking her head as she turned back toward the Doctor. "I'm probably just seeing things."
He shot her a doubtful look. "What did you see?"
"Probably an animal or something," she said as she made her way back toward him. "Whatever it was, it's gone now."
The Doctor eyed her a moment before letting his gaze drift back beyond where Sarah stood. He stared out into the murky shadows of the forest briefly before nodding thoughtfully and glancing back down at the device in his hand.
"Come on," he said, reaching out to pull her gently in front of him, "let's keep moving."
He didn't move his hand from her shoulder, instead leaving it there as he lightly pushed her along in front of him. Although she normally would have objected, for once she couldn't help but feel a bit relieved. There was something off about the forest, the shadows, maybe the entire planet. Just knowing that he was right behind her was enough to make her feel safer, not that she'd ever admit it.
Sarah shivered. Her eyes moved from side to side as she watched for any other movement. She couldn't even hear birds chirping anymore; they had stopped completely, leaving the silence even eerier. The only noises she could hear were the occasional rustle of leaves and the sound of their footsteps.
Suddenly she realized it was getting brighter. Sarah narrowed her eyes as she let her gaze move around. There was no denying that it wasn't quite as dark as it had been just a moment or two earlier, and it was plain that the sun was coming through the leaves much more easily. Still, the forest didn't feel any less dangerous now that she could see it properly; if anything it felt even more unsafe than it had before.
It was like when she was afraid of the dark as a child. Even though she knew rationally that there wasn't anything there, she couldn't shake the prickling sensation at the back of her neck and the silent whisper in her head: but what if there is? Except this time she wasn't scared of whatever was hidden in the shadows. If it remained in the dark, she felt safe; the unknown could only hurt her if it made itself known. With a start, she realized that she'd almost prefer it to be dark and shadowy.
Without warning, the scenery in front of her changed. She came to a sudden halt, too surprised to even be annoyed when Doctor walked right into her. Her bruised leg hadn't been bothering her much since leaving the TARDIS, but it protested as she stumbled and almost lost her balance. The Doctor tightened his grip on her shoulder, keeping her from falling.
The forest had just... ended.
Directly in front of them was nothing but dirt, sprinkled with large rocks and the occasional rotting tree stump. The limbs of the trees on the divide were blackened and dead. Bright sunlight streamed down on them, no longer hindered by leaf-covered tree limbs.
If she hadn't known better, she would have thought that a fire or something similar had wiped out a section of the woods. That didn't quite fit, though; it couldn't be natural. It was impossible for anything in nature to have drawn such a straight dividing line.
"This isn't right," Sarah whispered, her gaze shifting between the lush forest and the barren wasteland.
The Doctor's grip on her shoulder tightened, and when she looked up there was a dark look in his eyes. "No, it isn't."
They stood there a moment, staring out at the desolate area in front of them, before the Doctor held up his device again. He studied it, frowning, before letting his hand fall.
"Is it out there somewhere?" Sarah asked, gesturing toward the plain with her eyes.
He nodded, hesitating as he let his gaze drift between her and the open area ahead of them. His hand dropped from her shoulder as he took a few steps past the tree line and out into the open. When nothing happened, he started walking again. She stood there a moment, watching him, before following.
The plain engendered the same sense of foreboding as the forest, and this feeling only increased the further they got from the trees. She couldn't hear any sounds other than their footsteps and the occasional whistle of the wind past her ears. There were no animals. No insects. Nothing.
The sun was slowly sinking in the distance, and while it was still fairly bright she could tell that it wouldn't stay that way for much longer. It was obvious that it was getting close to night on the planet. And that reminded her...
"Do you know where we are?"
"What?" The Doctor's voice sounded distracted, and he didn't slow down as he glanced at the device again.
Sarah kept walking. "This planet," she explained. "Have you figured out what it's called?"
The Doctor didn't answer. She decided to take that as a "no."
After another minute or so, she expectantly realized that she couldn't hear the Doctor's footsteps anymore. Sarah looked up and froze. He had stopped walking and was staring back at her, an unreadable expression on his face.
"What?" she asked. "Is something wrong?"
"You're limping," he said, frowning. She couldn't tell if it was supposed to be a question or a statement.
"Oh." She glanced down at her leg. It still hurt, but the pain had faded from constant throbbing to a dull ache. She hadn't even realized that she was limping until he had pointed it out, though, now that he mentioned it, she should have known. "I'd almost forgotten. I bruised it when my room decided to go all topsy-turvy on me."
The Doctor made his way over to her side and knelt down. "Mind if I have a look?"
Sarah shrugged, and he reached out and gently pulled up her right trouser leg. His face darkened just a little when he saw the bruise there, and he tenderly reached out to probe its outer edges. She couldn't help but flinch at his touch. He was scowling as he stood up again.
"Think I'll live?" she asked lightly.
His frown didn't fade. "A bruise shouldn't hurt that much," he said. "It might be a hairline fracture. We really should head back to the TARDIS so I can take a look at it in the infirmary."
She tilted her head. "And if we go back to the TARDIS without turning off that beacon, what's the likelihood of gravity going odd on us again?"
His silence told her she was right.
"I thought so," she said, leaning down to adjust her trouser leg. "It really doesn't hurt that much anymore. Let's go and find this beacon, and then you can take a look at it."
She purposely met his gaze. "I'm fine," she said, smiling a bit. "Honestly, it's just a bruise. I'm certain of it. I've had a lot worse, and you know it."
Though he still looked doubtful, a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. He reluctantly nodded as he stood back up. "Are you certain?" he asked, reaching out to pat her arm.
"Absolutely." She shot him a reassuring grin.
Still looking a bit doubtful, he squeezed slightly before pulling his hand away.
Suddenly a piercing cry cut through the air.
Sarah looked around, startled. She stepped even closer to him before she quite realized what she was doing, pressing tightly against him. "What was that?"
The Doctor's brow furrowed. "I'm not sure," he said, glancing down at the device again. It was obvious from the flashing lights that it was pointing in the direction from which the cry had come. "Maybe we should head back to the TARDIS after all."
She blinked in surprise. "But what about the beacon?"
"It's getting dark."
Sarah bit her lip. If she wanted to be honest with herself, her leg was beginning to throb again. And that cry hadn't sounded particularly friendly. On the other hand, they were going to have to find the beacon eventually. If they didn't do it now, they'd just have to make the arduous trip once more.
"It was getting dark when we first left the TARDIS," she pointed out.
Another shriek sounded, this one louder than the first. And closer.
The Doctor raised an eyebrow. She could see a hint of worry in his eyes, and she felt another shiver run down her spine.
"I take your point," Sarah said, giving in. "Let's head back for now."
"Good idea," the Doctor replied. He grabbed hold of her shoulder, quickly steering her back in the direction they'd come from. "Between you and me, I don't like the sound of those cries."
As if on cue, another shriek rang out. His hand dropped from her shoulder to her hand, grabbing it tightly.
"Between you and me," Sarah replied as they picked up their speed, "neither do I."
Several more shrieks rang out behind them, each of them louder than the first.
Out of the corner of her eye, Sarah saw a hint of movement coming at them from the left. It was too far away to see clearly, but it was obvious that it was heading in their direction. "Doctor..."
He glanced behind them. Speeding up without saying a word, he pulled her along with him. She lurched slightly at the sudden increase in pace, but she didn't comment. Forcing herself to ignore her throbbing leg, she concentrated on breathing. The faster they moved, the harder it became to take in enough air.
The Doctor suddenly groaned, his free hand flying up to his head. He stumbled slightly, almost pulling them both down, before regaining his balance and continuing on as if nothing had happened.
"Doctor?" Sarah asked, not even trying to hide her concern.
He shook his head, dropping his hand from his face. "Psychic energies."
"Psychic energies?" She gulped in a lungful of air, ignoring her burning sides. "What do you mean by psy--"
Sarah's foot caught on something, and she broke off abruptly as she felt herself go flying. Her hand was yanked out of the Doctor's grip as she fell to the ground, her coat catching and ripping on a nearby rock. She let out a gasp when she landed on her bruised leg, her vision momentarily dimming around the edges as pain shot out from the injury.
A shadow fell over her, and she looked up. Her heart promptly skipped a beat.
She'd seen all sorts of aliens since she'd met the Doctor, but none of them had been like this. It hovered above her, its wings making a whistling sound as they cut through the air.
She stared up at the creature, unable to move. Psychic energies, the Doctor had said. She hadn't quite understood him then, but now she did. It was as if her body had frozen. She'd never been turned to stone, but she suspected it would feel something like this.
The creature's body was vaguely humanoid, although the appendages that most resembled feet and hands were tipped with long, sharp claws. It was dark brown in color, almost black, and it was covered in what looked to be glistening scales. And then there was its face...
"You'll love these books, Sarah Jane. Harry Potter, the series is called. J.K. Rowling. They'll be popular in, oh, about twenty years now."
She'd yet to actually make it through all eight books in the series - though the Doctor kept telling her she'd love the Pillar of Storgé if she ever made it that far - but there was no denying that the creature's face looked like the description of the villain from the books. Its skin was dark-colored instead of chalky white, but other than it was just how she'd imagined it. Slits instead of a nose, burning red eyes... and a mouthful of pointed, shining teeth. Almost like a snake.
Then there were its wings.
Her mind flashed back to a picture she'd once seen in a book she'd found in TARDIS. A reaper, the Doctor had said with a shudder when she'd asked what it was. Something she shouldn't worry about and hopefully would never see in her lifetime.
The wings were long and tattered-looking, almost wraith-like. They looked as if they'd just erupted from its back, and the skin that connected them to the rest of its body was rippled and scarred.
The creature let out a hiss, its eyes narrowing as it focused on her. Sarah gasped as her body unfroze, and she instantly spun around and scrabbled to her feet. Her leg still throbbed, but adrenaline kept her moving. There was a screech behind her, so loud that it made her ears ring. She could hear the sound of rustling wings, and she knew that she only had a second.
Sarah let out a gasp as the Doctor appeared out of nowhere and threw himself at her. She hit the ground with a thud, and her breath was forced out of her lungs as he covered her. The tracking device that he had been holding fell to the ground beside her head.
She could still hear the creature's wings.
Sarah's breath hitched in her throat as the Doctor let out a strangled cry. A splash of something warm and sticky hit the side her face, and she knew instantly that it was blood. "Doctor!"
The creature let out another shriek, almost as earsplitting as the sound that the tracking device had made earlier. At that thought, her eyes widened. It was worth a shot.
Not even pausing to think, Sarah reached out and grabbed the device that had fallen from the Doctor's hand. Hindered slightly by his weight holding her down, she managed to press the button he'd hit earlier. The familiar high-pitched whine instantly started up again, and she couldn't help but grimace as her eardrums protested.
The creature let out another loud cry, and then she heard the flapping of wings moving off.
She lay there a moment, gasping for breath, before turning off the device. "Doctor?" she asked hesitantly, her ears ringing. "Are you okay?"
With a groan, he pushed himself up off her and collapsed beside her. In the silence, she could hear that his breathing was unusually ragged.
Sarah quickly pushed herself into a sitting position. As soon as she was upright, she hurriedly looked around. Then she turned her attention back to the Doctor.
When she saw him, she couldn't help but gasp.
The sleeves of both his coat and the shirt underneath had been ripped, revealing his right arm. Blood was steadily streaming from a deep cut. Sarah hesitantly reached out to touch his arm, only to freeze when he hissed in pain and jerked away.
"How bad is it?" she asked, her voice breaking slightly.
The Doctor finally looked at her, flashing a toothy grin that she didn't believe for an instant. "I can barely feel a thing."
Sarah returned his gaze, unamused. "Handkerchief?" she asked, holding out her hand.
His smiled faded as he reached into his pocket and pulled one out.
"I'm not lying," he said after a moment or so had passed, sounding almost surprised. She suddenly noticed that his eyes, usually bright and glittering, had an almost glazed look to them. It was subtle, and it would probably be unnoticeable to someone who didn't know him very well. But it was there. "I don't feel any pain. It just stopped."
Worry immediately flooded through her. "Some type of venom?" she guessed, reaching out to touch his arm again. This time he didn't pull away. "Something to incapacitate its victims?"
"Possibly," the Doctor said, reaching down to poke at the injury with his good hand, "though I'd normally notice something like that."
She reluctantly looked him in the eyes again. They were still glassy, his pupils moving sluggishly as he returned her gaze. Biting back a gasp, she let her gaze drop down to his arm again. Without saying a word, she pulled away his ripped sleeve enough to wrap the handkerchief tightly around the cut. "Think that will keep you from bleeding to death on me?"
"Sarah." His voice sounded almost like a sigh, and there was a hint of something in it that she couldn't quite make out. It wasn't worry, not yet, but she thought it sounded similar. Vague concern, maybe? "What's wrong?"
She didn't answer, and she shuddered a bit when he placed his hand on her arm.
Sighing, Sarah looked up. He was watching her, waiting for her reply. "It's your eyes," she said softly. "They're starting to glaze over."
He blinked in surprise. They stared at each other for a moment, neither of them saying anything, before he nodded. "We should get back to the TARDIS."
Sarah hesitated slightly, her gaze drifting down to his arm. "What about the beacon?"
There was another shriek in the distance, higher pitched than that of the creature they'd encountered.
"Later," they agreed in chorus.
Not even trying to hide her fear, Sarah pushed herself to her feet. She held out her hand to the Doctor. He accepted it gratefully, letting her help him up.
Then his legs crumpled beneath him, sending them both sprawling back to the ground.