A land of old upheaven from the abyss
By fire, to sink into the abyss again;
Where fragments of forgotten peoples dwelt
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King
There's blood on his hands. At first, he thinks it's a lingering fragment of nightmare -- in his dreams, blood often rushes like an angry river through canyons of flame -- except that he doesn't remember having a nightmare. Waking never banishes them that quickly. He doesn't remember going to sleep, either. He only sleeps when he must, and it's too soon. The last time was only... a week or two ago?
And why would he fall asleep in a sitting position? His oddly-dulled senses filter snippets of data to his brain. His back is leaning against smooth metal, while his arse is pressing on something equally cold and hard, but with a textured surface. A shelf-like projection juts out just above his head. Beyond it, he can make out rough walls -- a cave? -- and tall columns that split into fluid, twisting branches. Trees? Never heard of a forest growin' in a cave.
Blinking, he returns his attention to his hands. Definitely blood. Mine? There are no visible cuts on his hands, and he doesn't feel pain anywhere. He gives a tentative sniff. The acrid tang is familiar. Not mine, though. What species? His mind gropes for details, and it's like sifting through puzzle pieces turned upside down, with no way to tell which ones are the same colour. Bipedal... sentient...
Some of the blood has dried to rusty patches, but most of it is still damp. Hasn't been that long. Somewhere nearby, an intelligent being is wounded, perhaps dying. Gotta find it... help it. Did he already try to help, and fail? Is that why he has alien blood on his hands? There's no body within sight, living or dead. Maybe it got scared, an' ran?
Only one way to find out. His muscles are sore and his joints stiff. He lets out a soft grunt as he crawls out from beneath the projection, and grasps its edge to steady him as he stands. A wave of dizziness does not help his already blurry vision, but it passes quickly. His surroundings come into sharper focus. The floor of the "cave" is a rectangular grid. The walls are embedded with metallic balls in a symmetrical pattern. The "trees" merge seamlessly into the high ceiling, and appear to be made of the same substance. Not plants, but somethin' organic.
Idiot. Mus' be still half asleep. 'Course it's organic. TARDISes are grown-- bloody hell! One moment, it feels like a thick, smothering duvet is wrapped around his head; in the next, it seems to fall away. He shivers, though the ambient temperature is always kept higher than he likes, for his companions' sake. What happened? What got me so muddled that I didn't recognise the TARDIS?
He reaches out with his mind. All right, old girl? A reassuring touch echoes back across the bond. The calm it brings lasts only for a moment, because he suddenly knows three dreadful truths: the TARDIS is in the Vortex, Rose and Jack are not on board, and the blood staining his hands is human.
Two days earlier...
"We need clorinthium," the Doctor says. "Twenty kilos -- or twenty-five would be better."
Jack grimaces. "That much raw ore is gonna be hard to find, Doc."
"Not raw. Refined, to a purity of .9993 or better."
"Sorry, I misspoke. It won't be hard to find. It'll be damned near impossible."
"You'd better hope not, Captain. 'Less you plan to give up your silly human prejudices about breathin' carbon monoxide."
Rose recognises her cue. She loves her blokes, she really does, but sometimes they can be such... blokes. "Oi! Translation, please. Some of us didn't take A-level chemistry." 'Specially since 'A' is for 'alien'.
"Carb--" Jack begins.
She rolls her eyes. "I know what carbon monoxide is, Jack." I'm from the 21st century, you git, not the Dark Ages. "What's the clori-stuff, an' why is it hard to get?"
"Clorinthium is a mineral," Jack explains. "Soft, like gypsum or calcite. Looks a bit like blue chalk. Nobody bothers to extract more than they need, because it's difficult to mine and has limited uses."
"'Cept one of those uses is in the TARDIS's air recyclin' system."
"So, if we need this clorinthium, but we can't buy it anywhere, then..."
Jack sighs. "Where do you keep the shovels, Doctor?"
Rose is surprised to discover that Jack really means shovels. They're made of some futuristic alloy, strong and lightweight, but otherwise, they might have come out of a normal garden shed or DIY store. Apparently, the vibrations from power tools turn clorinthium into useless dust.
At least finding the stuff is easy enough. The Doctor consults the TARDIS's astronomical data banks, and ten minutes later, the three of them are stepping out onto the surface of CM-2309-6.
"Doctor, how come this planet hasn't got a proper name?"
The Time Lord doesn't take his eyes off the portable scanner in his right hand. "No reason to give it one. It's uninhabited, and off the major space lanes. A scout ship or courier might land here to do repairs or fill up on water, but no one would want to stay."
"It doesn't look too bad to me." Rose scans the area again. It's dry, but hardly a desert. There are small trees scattered about, patches of grass, and she can see a narrow stream running around the base of a low hill. Jagged rock formations shaped like old-fashioned flatirons push out of the ground at a drunken angle. They're all a dusty shade of red, and she's reminded of pictures she's seen of the American West, or certain parts of Australia.
Jack studies the readouts on his wristcomp. "It's what I'd call a marginal planet. Nothing seriously wrong with it. No extremes of climate, no dangerous wildlife or poisonous plants. It just doesn't have a whole lot to offer. You could grow crops with the help of irrigation. There's iron and other useful metals, but not enough to set up a major industrial infrastructure. There are hundreds of more appealing worlds in this sector for expanding empires to colonise."
The Doctor shouts from 50 metres away, his voice echoing off the rocks, "Stop lollygaggin', Jack, an' come an' help me dig!"
"Yessir! Right away, sir!" Jack shouts back, in a cheerful parody of military obedience. He jogs over to the spot where the Doctor stands, pointing his scanner at the ground. Rose follows a few strides behind him. "How far down is it?"
"Only 1.32 metres."
"That's good news."
"The bad news is that it's a thin vein running horizontal to the surface."
Jack strips off his coat and tosses it onto a convenient rock. "Can't say that I've ever been fond of digging trenches. Well, at least no one's shooting at us."
"Like in the First World War?" Rose asks.
"Yeah, and a thousand others. It might not be high-tech, but a few feet of dirt gives pretty good protection, even against energy weapons." Jack gives a wolfish grin. "And if not, it saves somebody the trouble of digging a grave."
"You goin' to natter all day, Jack, or are you plannin' on doin' some actual work?" There's no humour in the Doctor's growling voice.
Rose opens her mouth, but before she can speak, Jack shakes his head at her. Don't. Without a word to either of his partners, he picks up one of the shovels and thrusts it into the rocky ground.
An hour later -- and it feels even longer -- Rose is ready to explode with restlessness and boredom. She tried to help with the digging, until her aching muscles forced her to quit. She's in good shape. She can climb walls and swing from ropes, and God knows she does plenty of running, but she hasn't got the brute strength to be a navvy.
The Doctor and Jack tell her to go in the TARDIS and rest. She doesn't feel like resting. Got all this energy in me, and I've got to do something, or I'll go bonkers. "I'm taking a walk," she announces.
"Don't get lost."
"Don't go far."
Rose lets out an exaggerated sigh. "Yes, Mum. I promise." She heads towards the stream. She could always follow her footprints back, but the water makes an easier guide. Plus, it'll be handy if she gets thirsty. The Doctor has already checked the water and declared it free of parasites and other nasties. Continuing downstream, she follows the little river around the back of a hill, then across an open stretch. Half a mile further on, it passes between two clusters of trees, then veers around a large rock formation.
The trees are between four and five metres high, with thin, drooping branches covered with pale yellow leaves. Rose plops down on a grassy patch between two tree roots, and leans back against the trunk. It's quiet here, beyond the noise of shovels and men's voices. After a few minutes with her eyes closed, she begins to hear the sounds in the quiet. Murmurs from the stream, wind in the tree branches, and a soft whir that might be an insect. From further downstream comes a faint, irregular tapping that reminds her of a woodpecker.
Rose stands up, ready to continue her explorations. The stream has cut a channel through a rock formation the size of a three-story house. The narrow bank between the water and the sheer rock walls is (mostly) level enough for her to walk along. Four times she has to scramble over metre-high boulders. When she comes to the last of these, she stands on top of it, enjoying her new perspective on the narrow gorge. You'd think I was whatsisface on Everest. Not exactly a record-breaking climb. Still, I'll bet I'm the only human -- the only person -- ever to stand here.
Then she sees the flower. At first, she thinks it's just a trick of light and shadow on the far wall of the gorge. Like the Man in the Moon -- or the Moon Rabbit that Mei-Ling's auntie told us stories about. Rose stares intently, not blinking. Those are not shadows or random patterns in the rough surface. The shapes are too even and regular.
She jumps down from the boulder. The stream is narrow enough to leap across, but it might be a slippery landing on the other side. Not a good place to break an ankle. I'd feel a complete prat if the blokes had to carry me back to the TARDIS. Rose wades across in a few quick strides. The water comes up to her knees. It's bloody cold, but at least it's clean. She's slogged through enough swamps and sewers to appreciate that.
Once on the far bank, she stands directly in front of the image sculpted into the rock. It's definitely a flower. Sort of like a daisy, only with wider petals. Parts of the flower are perfectly rounded; others still show chisel marks whose angles haven't been smoothed. It's not finished. Someone's still working on this.
She's thinking about the tap-tap-tap of the "woodpecker" she heard earlier when footsteps crunch on the gravel behind her.