"I don't think this is London," said Ian, from the doorway of the TARDIS. "Or at least, if it is, they've redecorated."
"It is London," said Susan, although there was a faintly dubious note to her voice. "The spatial co-ordinates approximately match."
"Approximately?" queried Barbara. She had joined Ian by the doors, and was looking out at a scene that was decidedly unfamiliar. The buildings were squat, fashioned from something very like adobe, with small windows that mostly lacked glass. It reminded her of something from the history books, although this clearly wasn't history. The heat was intense, and as she looked up toward the sky, she saw the glint of the sun upon an immense canopy overhead. If this was London, it was a sealed version of it, shut away from the world outside, like some giant ship in a bottle.
"Allowing for... variables," qualified Susan. Such as the Doctor making things up as he went along, thought Barbara, although she didn't say anything. She merely nodded, and looked back out of the doors. Beside her, Ian shrugged.
"Looks like the British weather has improved, anyway."
"Hardly, my dear boy. Hardly." Emerging from somewhere within the Ship, the Doctor settled his hat upon his head as he joined the pair by the doors. "As Susan says, this is indeed London, but far beyond your time. The sun is much closer now, necessitating that dome up there. Far from being better weather, it's quite possibly fatal, at least in large doses."
"Wonderful," said Ian, who had strong feelings on the issue of his home town trying to kill him.
"It's quite interesting actually," piped up Susan, over at the console. "By the look of the data from the scanner, the equatorial regions are no longer habitable. Sea levels have risen, and large parts of what we knew as London have been flooded. I suppose the city has moved north-west over time, which explains why the spatial co-ordinates didn't quite match. That, and continental drift."
"So it's not really London at all," mused Barbara. She wasn't sure how she felt about that. Visiting her planet's future was an interesting prospect, but to stand here, and look out at a city that was different in every way, rather left her cold.
"It is quite interesting though," said Ian. "Even in the future, there's a settlement here. Water always attracts humanity, I suppose. I wonder how many of them are around."
"Not many, my boy." The Doctor hooked his thumbs into his lapels, warning them that a lecture might be in the offing. "Most of the inhabitants of Earth left long ago, and by now have colonised any number of far off planets. There must have seemed little to stay behind for." He blinked up at the canopy, ablaze with refracted light, and dabbed at his forehead with a gigantic white handkerchief. "My my. Dear me, but it's hot! We don't want to be spending much time out there." This was, of course, his cue to step out of the TARDIS, and begin wandering away down the road, muttering about environmental data. Ian sighed.
"We'd better follow him," he said with a wry smile. Barbara nodded.
"Although on the plus side, if the planet is almost deserted, it should be much harder for him to get into trouble."
"In theory," said Ian, not sounding particularly convinced. Barbara nodded, her own scepticism showing in her face.
"In theory," she agreed. Was it the Doctor who found trouble, or trouble that found the Doctor? Probably it was both – at any rate, it had an alarming tendency to happen, and far too often with the rest of them caught in the middle. As though to highlight her concerns, something moved in the shadows between two nearby buildings, and she squinted at it, finding it hard to pick out details in the unfamiliar glare from the dome. "Ian...?" she began, and he nodded.
"I see it. A stray dog, perhaps."
"With our luck, more likely a stray Dalek." They started forward as one, Susan hurrying to bring up the rear, taking a moment to lock the TARDIS doors before she followed them. They walked quickly, catching up with the Doctor as he strolled past that shifting shadow, like a man without a care in the world. Barbara fell into step beside him, whilst Ian moved ahead. He had fought cavemen and Aztecs, he told himself, as his fists briefly clenched and unclenched. He was ready for anything. Anything, that was, except for what stepped out from between two buildings, just as he was about to walk past.
It was a man – that became apparent only after a moment. No more than five feet high, he had thick, heavily folded skin, and no hair at all that was visible. He wore a long, black robe that swung around his ankles, revealing a pair of large, bare feet, with splayed toes that appeared to have no nails. Large ears flapped on either side of his head, a good three times the size of Ian's own, and he blinked at the travellers with small, sunken eyes beneath a heavy brow.
"My dear fellow! Good afternoon." The Doctor, quite unshaken by the man's appearance, started forward with a hand outstretched. The man drew back, staring at the hand as though alarmed by it. The Doctor smiled patiently. "I am the Doctor, and these are my companions. We are visitors here. Visitors, mmm? Hmm, I don't suppose it's a word they're very familiar with. Not these days."
"It's... he's..." Barbara was fascinated and a little unnerved all at once. "Is this... our future?"
"One of them, my dear. One of them. As I said, humanity, for the most part, left Earth long ago. They're out there, far above you, building new worlds. Some of them look much the same as you. Others have evolved over time to suit new circumstances. Different gravity levels, different environmental situations. Just like this fellow here." He withdrew his apparently threatening hand, and hooked it, with its compatriot, into his lapels. "A whole new dawn for humanity, hmm? Hmm! You see the changes to cope with the greater temperature, of course? The extra skin, to allow for greater loss of body heat, and the bigger ears for a similar purpose. The eyes, adapted to the brighter light. All quite fascinating. Quite fascinating!"
"It's..." Barbara wasn't sure what word she was reaching for, but the one that her brain kept returning to was 'dislocating'. And it was, she realised. Travelling to a different planet was one thing. You could comfortably expect to find things that you didn't recognise on a different planet. On Earth, though, there should be humans. Recognisable, human-looking, humans. Instead she was faced with something that seemed to be a different species entirely. Ian nudged her shoulder in a friendly fashion, offering her a smile that was clearly intended to encourage, even if it carried its own dislocation, hidden somewhere in the back.
"If it's any consolation, we probably look a bit weird to him, too," he pointed out. "I wonder if their folklore carries any traces of people looking like us? The way that we've preserved cave paintings of Stone Age man, back in our time."
"It's like the Thals and the Kaleds after their war, in a sense," said Susan. "Changing, I mean. Growing apart."
"Yes, my dear. Quite. Quite!" The Doctor seemed delighted with the comparison, although the future human merely seemed irritated by all the discussion. He was clearly attempting to lead them somewhere. Out of the sun, perhaps – to him, Barbara reasoned, they must look woefully unable to cope with the heat and its dangers. She stole a look up at the dome that went some way to filtering out that too-large, too-powerful sun, and had to blink quickly at the unaccustomed brightness.
"It's like it's the end," she said quietly, falling back into step with Ian, as the Doctor and Susan went ahead, with the man of the future. "Like one of those dystopian novels."
"Post-apocalypse, yes." He nodded slowly, then his eyes crinkled at the corners with a gentle smile. "Although I'm surprised to hear you say so. Are you a secret science fiction fan, Miss Wright?"
"Not so much these days, no." She returned the smile, laughing a little at herself. "I've read a few things like that over the years. I'm not just a stuffy old history teacher, you know."
"Perish the thought." He turned a little more serious. "I know what you mean, though. It is an end, really. The end of humanity as we know it, on Earth at least. These are the ones left behind. Do you suppose there's any trace left of the cultures we knew? Whether they've retained any literature or music from the old world?"
"Perhaps, if they're capable of preserving it, or if they even understand what it is. It might not be relevant to them. If their society is so very different, then their culture might be too. You see it all the time in history. Civilisations rise... civilisations fall. I suppose races do too. I just hadn't thought of it before."
"Maybe this is how the last few Neanderthals felt!"
"Maybe it is." She stole another glance up at the dome, and this time Ian looked up as well, to that unfamiliarly large yellow disc above the glass. "I wonder how long they have left. Whether they even know. This doesn't look like a technological world, does it."
"Somebody must have built that dome; but no, most of what we can see looks like it comes from years before our time. Technology changes, though. Who's to say that we'd even recognise any technology from this period? It might be purely biological."
"Or the dome-builders might be long gone, and this might be a truly post-apocalyptic world. And if they don't have the technology, then they have no way of escaping that sun. One day it's going to be too powerful for any glass dome."
"Yes." He nodded slowly, thoughtfully. "Over time, more and more of them will get sick. Plant life won't be sustainable."
"And then eventually the sun will swallow the Earth up entirely. You know, even with all of the time travel that we've done, I've never thought about it. The past, yes. We've seen a lot of that. I never stopped to think about what the far future might look like, or that one day we might see something of it. Our people gone. The Earth itself gone one day."
"It's not something that we need to worry about. Even for these people, it's a good way off yet. And for us it's all thousands of years into the future."
"And yet it's also today. Today we're probably the last human beings left on Earth; the last Homo sapiens anyway. It might be thousands of years into the future, but it's also right now. The end, Ian. I suppose I sound morbid, but it's just so... so profoundly odd, in a way that other planets somehow aren't."
"Yes, I know what you mean. Somehow even the Stone Age was recognisable. They looked like us then. We've found common ground with alien species before though. Intelligent life has its similarities. Its priorities. It's probably no different here."
"Probably. That doesn't change the... the dislocation." She smiled suddenly. "I'm sorry. I must sound like a dreadful wet blanket."
"No, you sound like somebody who's had a shock. Just because I'm not saying the same things, doesn't mean that I'm not feeling the same way. I'm just not as good at putting it into words as you are." He pulled her close for a brief, comforting hug. "We just found out that our race is extinct. I think we're allowed to wallow a little. If this doesn't call for sadness and nostalgia, I'm not sure what does."
"Nostalgia." She sighed. "Yes. All those familiar things that nobody else here has any memory of. The other buildings that used to stand here. Right here, more or less. Statues and noisy people. Smog and oily boats on the Thames. Fish and chips."
"Car horns, and newspapers, and children shouting in school corridors."
"I don't imagine the coastline even looks the same now. Susan mentioned continental drift. Britain isn't Britain anymore, or even in the same place anymore."
"Nothing stays the same. Nobody should know that better than an historian."
"I know." She smiled very faintly, and her eyes roamed around the small, squat buildings; a settlement from out of the past, beneath a singularly futuristic sky. "Life is change. I just don't think I've ever missed London more. Our London. Or... maybe I have, and I'm just being silly. I'd just really like to see something familiar right now."
"What am I then? A stranger?" His mock outrage earned him a brief laugh, and she took his arm, as though by way of condolence.
"Yes," she told him. "You're very strange," laughing again when he failed to think up a suitable riposte. The moment's good humour did not last. Almost immediately she drew to a halt, and they stood together in the wide and empty road, her laughter forgotten in a moment of sudden annoyance. "Blast. We've been left behind. Who's going to look after the Doctor if we get lost?"
"Susan's with him," said Ian, who was rather enjoying the leisurely pace, and the chance to look around properly. To spot the familiar amidst the exotic; the things that could never change – not really. A curl of smoke rising from a chimney; a string of laundry drying in the still, warm air. Somewhere nearby, what sounded very like a dog barked sharply, and there was a the unmistakeable shout of a child in answer. The sun loomed near, the world turned on. People were still people, whatever the changes in shape.
"We should still hurry," said Barbara. The fact that the Doctor and Susan had travelled together for who knew how long prior to their meeting with the two teachers was immaterial as far as she was concerned. The old man and his granddaughter had become their responsibility somehow, in ways that went far beyond their dependence on the Doctor to pilot the Ship. Ian nodded, understanding her concerns. Danger followed all four of them, but it tended to follow the Doctor more closely. It was not good to let him out of their sight for too long. As one, the pair quickened their pace, rounding a corner in time to see the Doctor and Susan backing away, with as much haste as the Doctor could manage, from a line of the future Earthdwellers. Ian came to a sharp halt, his increasingly practiced eye scanning for the threat, just as Barbara beside him was doing the same.
"No weapons," he said quietly. Barbara had spotted something else, however, and with a gentle pressure on his wrist, she alerted him to it – the smoke rising from the chimney; the huge stove roaring away in the building behind the line of locals.
"Ah," said Ian. "I suppose meat probably is in quite short supply in this dome thing."
"Which I'm sure is most unfortunate," added Barbara, "if not exactly an excuse."
"True." He eyed the line of aggressors – five of them, which was too much for him to take on alone, even with his much improved fighting skills. Barbara was game enough, he knew that, but the Doctor and Susan were less use. Nonetheless they would have to try something, and the sooner the better.
"Barbara," he said quietly, a plan forming in the back of his mind. "If I distract everybody, do you think you could sneak into that building, and try a little sabotage? Give the fire a helping hand, perhaps?"
"A respectable teacher like me, indulging in arson?" She arched an eyebrow, as though much affronted, before giving him a quick nod, and an equally brief smile. "Yes, I think so. A fire could be nasty under this dome."
"Exactly." He was not greatly enamoured of the idea – they had already heard at least one child in the vicinity – but any fire ought to be brought under control quickly enough with the five locals so close by. Quickly enough to ease Ian's conscience, but long enough, with luck, for the four travellers to make themselves scarce. "I'll head over there and start making a noise. You pick your moment, and then get busy."
"Be careful, Ian."
"You too." He hurried away, and a moment later so did she, heading in the opposite direction. She heard him shout, and she waited just long enough to see him pushing and shoving at the closest of the locals, before she clambered through a low, narrow window, and assessed the stove. It was basic enough – a form of fuel that she didn't recognise, but the stove itself was familiar; and fire was fire, whatever the year that it was lit in. A quick perusal of the room's contents turned up a set of tools, and she used several of them to rake out some of the burning fuel, and scatter it about the room. A little home-spun cloth, spread over a nearby table; something rather akin to paper, or perhaps papyrus, lying on a rough shelf; some energetic blowing from her, to help things on their way – and soon enough there was a curtain of flame leaping up from the floor. She hurried back to her window then, scrambling through with what she liked to think was at least a little dignity, just as the first shouts of alarm came from outside. She was quite prepared to go rushing to Ian's assistance, but by the time she rounded the corner of the building, he had extricated himself from his earlier struggles, looking very little the worse for wear.
"Barbara, you star!" He raced to meet her, giving her a brief, triumphal hug, before gesturing to the Doctor and Susan to get a move on. They had, as always, caught on quickly, but the Doctor's limbs did not have any of the speed of his brain, and it was with difficulty that he hurried along in Susan's wake, the girl stopping every few feet to look back and check on his progress.
"Go on, Susan!" encouraged Barbara. "Get the doors unlocked. We'll bring the Doctor." The girl nodded, clearly seeing the sense in this, although she did not hurry off anywhere near as quickly as she might. Ian and Barbara, meanwhile, settled into place one on either side of the old man, and did their best to resist scooping him up and running with him. Even by having saved his life, they would never hear the end of it.
"They seemed quite friendly," he was saying, to nobody in particular. "Quite friendly. Most disconcerting to suddenly find that one is on the menu." He glared quite sharply at Ian, as though holding the science teacher personally responsible for the actions of his fellow Earthdwellers. Ian bit back a sudden urge to apologise.
"Never mind that now, Doctor," said Barbara, shooting a brief glance behind them. The fire was quickly disappearing, and already she could hear shouts. The words were not clear, but the sounds themselves were more than decipherable. An alarm was being raised. Sooner rather than later, they could find themselves with an entire settlement on their heels – and very likely ahead of them as well. The Doctor huffed and puffed at her, as much in objection to the indignity of it all as through a lack of breath, putting on an extra burst of speed when the TARDIS was at last in view. They tumbled together through the open door, all but falling through the wide, double doors beyond, and into the familiar safe harbour. A second later, a heavy stone followed them, flung with enough might to send it rebounding off the top of the control console, and clattering away somewhere out of sight. Susan quickly shut the doors. They heard muted voices then, in protest; fists and sticks hammering on the outside of the Ship. The Doctor fired off a ferocious glare at the now unseen city behind the doors, before dusting himself off, straightening his attire, and – with a gleam of amusement in his eyes, no doubt in anticipation of the stir he was about to cause – he dematerialised the TARDIS. All at once the thumping on the walls ceased, and for a second silence reigned.
"Well well," said the Doctor, and hooked his thumbs into his lapels. "That was a narrow squeak, hmm? Yes, yes. Quite. And now, I think, a cup of tea. Susan?"
"I'll help you to get it ready, Grandfather." She led the way, her natural colour and poise already restored, the safe haven of the TARDIS being the perfect restorative. Barbara watched them go, then sighed, and leant heavily on the console.
"An entire school of tearaway teenagers were never as hard to keep an eye on as those two," she said, not without humour. Ian smiled.
"You enjoy it really. Nice job with that fire, by the way."
"I think I tore a hole in my cardigan."
"Better than being eaten."
"Not a trade off that I had ever given serious consideration to before, but yes, I suppose you're right." She fixed him with a particularly sharp look. "I'm never sure whether I wish that I shared your optimism, or if I'm extremely glad that I don't."
"If it helps, I'll offer to mend your cardigan."
She laughed then. "Thank you, but no. I shall probably be changing it soon anyway. Goodness knows where we'll end up next."
"I vote for a planet of vegetarians." He folded his arms, leaning back against the console, and staring at the doors as though he could still see what had so recently been beyond them. "Disconcerting, wasn't it."
"We've seen our future."
"And it tried to eat us."
"And that might have been the least odd thing about it." She stood beside him, an almost identical pose, and an almost identical set of thoughts behind her eyes. "It was the end of the world, Ian. Or near enough. I know it wasn't really the end of humanity. The Doctor explained all of that, but... I don't know. The end of the world sort of is the end of humanity, when you think about it. We are what it made us into. Aren't we?"
"We all evolved together, yes. Out in the stars, on other planets, it's bound to be different. They'll change. Maybe in ways that they won't notice, or that won't even be visible, but they'll change. Just like that lot back there did. So yes, I suppose it was the end. After the end, really." He sighed – a long, drawn out sigh, that spoke of chapters ending, and pages being turned afresh. "And it's happened. It's our future and our past now. No sense brooding over it forever."
"Yes, I know." She still looked a little sad, standing beside him in her cardigan and her sensible shoes – the very vision of mid-sixties London, contemplating the end of all that it meant to be human. She smiled though, when he threw a smile at her, and gave a little sigh of her own. "That cup of tea that the Doctor mentioned did sound awfully nice."
"I was just thinking the same thing." He gave her a mock bow, and offered an arm for her to take. She did so, her smile not quite hiding a sadness that lingered in her eyes. He imagined that it was echoed in his own, and didn't mention it. Let her have her nostalgia, for a dead race, in a far off time, in a city that they no longer recognised. Soon enough something new would come along, and chase their sorrows away. That was, after all, the beauty of time travel. Today, the end, but tomorrow...?
Well, tomorrow was an entirely different story.