“You wanted something different but not too different. I hope this qualifies.” The voice drifted from the large granite rock a few moments before a tall, thin man clad in a plain olive jumper and charcoal trousers emerged from its face. His head was slightly turned to speak behind him, but his eyes flicked around, taking in the surrounding landscape. After a few steps, he stopped and twirled to the direction he’d come from and sniffed experimentally. “Yes, I think this is what you wanted.”
A second man, a little shorter than the first and wearing a light blue shirt and jeans, appeared through the surface of the rock, his step a bit hesitant. He paused, half-in and half-out of the rock, one hand resting on something within it whilst the other ran through his tousled brown hair, and looked around. “It doesn’t look much different.”
Confused, the first man spun again, staring around him. “How is this not different, Will?” he squeaked.
“I was hoping for something alien, mate.” Stepping fully out from the rock, Will continued to look around, his fists cocked on his hips. “You know. Maybe some purple trees. Weird animals. A pond of mercury.”
Kneeling to scrape up a handful of sandy soil, his companion sifted through it, peering closely at the grains as they slipped through his fingers. “Not likely. Mercury’s too reactive. Impossible to keep native mercury stable in a natural environment.”
Will watched him, then toed at the dirt at his feet. “You know what I mean. This place, whatever it’s called -”
“Morath IV. Fourth planet around Morath. Doesn’t have a real name yet.”
“Right. That.” Will shrugged. “David, this looks just like Earth.”
“It’s nothing like Earth. Look at this bush. Or… whatever you might call it.” David trotted over to a wide patch of deep green, opaque spheres about the size of footballs. “Earth has nothing like this.”
Will gazed out over the dusty, sere plain, which stretched for miles until it reached craggy cliffs in the distance and was dotted with clumps of vegetation similar to the one that David was inspecting. Though the patches were often more than six metres across, and many were much larger, none of them seemed to be taller than hip height. “It’s green, mate, just like Earth plants.”
David pulled his mobile out of his pocket and waved it over the plant as the device trilled. Glancing at its screen, he shook his head. “Nope, not like Earth plants. They’re green, yes, but it’s not chlorophyll. These things don’t photosynthesise, at least not in the way Earth’s plants do. It might do the same thing using a different system. Or perhaps it doesn’t live on manufacturing its own sugars at all.”
“Oh!” Will slapped his hand to his forehead. “I didn’t think. It could be a different kind of green.”
“Exactly. I’d have to run some tests on it to figure out how it lives.”
“Your sonic can’t tell?”
“Nah. It’s just a probe, not a lab. Basic functionality. I haven’t had time to add any bells or whistles. I’m not sure I could. I’m not that good with sonic technology or biology.” Tucking the mobile back in his pocket, he patted the bulbous “leaf” he was squatted by. “This thing’s a bit like a cactus. Deep inside, it’s storing lots of water.” He hopped back up. “But like I said, Will, not like Earth. It might look similar, but it isn’t.”
Will took a new look around at the alien landscape. It truly didn’t look much different from Earth, but obviously the differences could be far beneath the surface he could see. “I guess I need to open my eyes a bit, don’t I? I’m expecting methane seas, not the American desert with football bushes.”
“Oh, that’s out there somewhere, though we’d have to bundle up a bit to see it. Oh, hey!” Pulling a giant grape away from its brothers, David reached behind it, into the mass. “These things are all hanging on one vine. I think this entire patch is one organism!” He grabbed onto the central twisty stalk, giving it a stout pull to watch all of the other spheres in the mass tremble.
Grinning at his friend’s botanical enthusiasm, Will continued to look around, turning on the spot until he spied the granite rock just behind him. “Uh, mate?”
“Aye?” came the reply from deep within the bush. David had tunneled among the green spheres, only his lower torso and legs protruding from the mass. His trainers slipped on the sandy soil as he tried to push himself deeper in.
“How exactly is a big grey rock a good disguise in the middle of this empty plain?”
Scrambling back out of the bush, David looked over the TARDIS as he dusted himself off. “What else is he supposed to look like? It’s not like there’s anything else here large enough to mimic, except the huts, and an extra hut popping out of nowhere would be bloody suspicious.”
“What huts?” Will spun and skirted around the TARDIS. Behind it in the distance stood a cluster of small grey metallic windowless buildings, perhaps ten of them in all, in an area cleared of the low bushes. Among them, piles of containers were stacked against the walls of a few of them and an open-top all-terrain vehicle was parked in the center. “What’s that, then, mate? Some kind of outpost?”
“Nah.” David jumped to his feet and strode over to his friend. “There’s no indigenous sentient life here.”
Frowning, Will tried to puzzle it out. “It’s too small to be a colony. Could be a group of refugees or something, I suppose, but unless they’ve only just gotten here, I’d expect some kind of agriculture or at least a start on it. And some evidence of how they arrived here.” He licked his lips. “Human, though, unless it’s likely for aliens to invent jeeps just like ours. With inflated rubber tyres, even.”
David nodded. “Good reasoning. It’s a human scouting expedition. According to the info I found in the TARDIS’ data banks, they’re assessing the planet for colonisation.”
“Seeing if Earth plants and animals can survive here?”
“That, and seeing what they can adapt.” David squatted to snag another handful of crumbly earth and stood to show it to Will. “Air and soil’s right, or close enough anyway, but there aren’t any animals here larger than a housecat. They’ll bring in their own livestock, but if they can’t live off these plants, then they’ll have to revamp the entire ecology and that’s just not cost-effective.”
Will snorted a laugh. “It’s always down to economics, isn’t it?”
“Of course.” David dropped the dirt and dusted off his hands. “With a universe of planets to choose from, it’s only reasonable to take the time to find the one that provides what you need within the budget you have.”
“Nothing changes, does it?” Will spun around again to survey the plain, his eyes wide with wonder. “Colonising a new world. Seeing this all happening, it’s fascinating.”
David grinned at his friend’s excitement. “I thought you’d like it. Want to go meet them?”
Will frowned at him, not quite believing they could do that. “They won’t mind two random blokes just appearing on their planet out of nowhere?”
“We won’t know until we ask them, now will we?”
“Then let’s find out.” Will fell in next to David as he set off toward the compound. “I’d be interested in seeing their evaluation system. There must be thousands of variables they consider to make their decision. I’d like to see how they track and weight them.”
“I’m sure you would. Actually, you’ll find the computers themselves interesting as well.” David paused to poke at a shiny rock with his toe, then trotted to catch up with his friend. “At this point in time, humans in this sector are using a trinary system in their computers. It’s a phase they went through for a bit, but the difficulties in architecture outweighed the leaps in speed and logic, and they eventually abandoned the effort. You’d find the programming language fascinating, though, Will. I could probably procure for you a system to experiment with…” The two men continued chatting about computer technology whilst they approached the cluster of huts.
As they reached the edge of the compound, David stopped, looking around with a frown on his face. “Odd,” he breathed.
Will felt the strangeness, too. “Too quiet?”
“Aye. The expedition had twelve people. I suppose they could all be inside working, but I should be able to hear something other than the generator, which is…” Concentrating on listening for a moment, he spun to point at a hut. “Over there.” The structure, which looked like it was constructed of plain sheet metal, was connected to all of the others by suspended cables. “Unless they’re all sleeping.” He glanced up at the sun. “At midday.”
Will strolled over to the nearest hut and rapped on the door. “Hello? Anyone there? May I come in?” When no answer was forthcoming, he tried the knob, and the door opened easily. Peeping in, Will found two sets of bunk beds made up neatly, each with two trunks set nearby. The tiny hut had space for nothing else. Stepping inside, he flipped open the nearest trunk and found it full of neatly folded clothing and other personal effects. He closed the lid and trotted back out. “Sleeping cabin,” Will called to David as he emerged and latched the door. “Four beds, not much else.”
“Judging by the size and locations, these two here should be the same.” They trotted off to check the indicated huts and verified they were living quarters, currently empty. The next hut was a small kitchen. The claustrophobic workspace was clean and clear of utensils and cookware. “The other huts must be their lab space. Come on.”
Another small hut housed the central computer. “See what I mean?” David strode in and inspected a massive thrumming machine that took up a quarter of the available space, running a hand down its frame. “This is the cooling unit for that computer.” He jerked his head at a small box, not much larger than a textbook, hooked to the larger unit by thick piping. “Just that little thing, doing the work of a thousand binary computers, but it needs that large a heat sink. And that’s just the beginning. I expect half the generator’s output is eaten by that box.”
Will laid a finger on the processor. “That’s amazing.” He turned toward the holographic console and tried to make sense of it. “I see that information display hasn’t changed much. Still tables and tables of data. And bar graphs here on a map of the compound, it looks like. Power monitoring? Doesn’t look like they’re using much, except right here.”
Stepping up beside him, David pulled out his glasses and leaned in to read the fine print. “Yup, you’re right. Power and CPU usage, all at near minimum. Where is everyone? The lights are on, but nobody’s home.”
Frowning, Will trotted out of the hut and strode to the center of the compound. He spun slowly on the spot, surveying the entire area. Shutting the door gently, David followed him out. “What do you see?”
Will shook his head. “I thought maybe they all went somewhere, but there aren’t tracks in the dust that would indicate twelve people going off together. They could have had another car, I guess, but it would have had to have been a bus to hold all of them, and there are no fresh tyre tracks here either.” He circled to the back of the vehicle. “This thing hasn’t moved in a while,” he noted, toeing the indistinct bootprints that had destroyed the tracks the jeep had left when it last arrived.
Clucking his tongue absently, David headed to the nearest hut to check it, then continued on. The first was a machine shop, with a heavy pan-manufacturing rig to produce equipment of all types, and the next few were biological and chemical labs. All were fully equipped and empty of workers.
“I don’t get it,” David remarked as he strode into a lab and leaned close to inspect an apparatus filled with an opaque, sickly green bubbling liquid. “This is an experiment in progress. If you’re planning to leave, you don’t leave your apparatus on and your logs open.”
Scanning the room, Will shook his head with a sigh. “I’d think you’d take a moment to turn it off, unless there’s an immediate danger. And if there was, wouldn’t there be some evidence of it?”
“You’d think. Curiouser and curiouser.” Glancing at the computer display next to the lab bench, David began murmuring as he read. “Maila Tenson, chief botanist. Albrit Sayo and Chara Illiset, botanists. According to this, the experiment should have been halted weeks ago, but this thing is still taking readings at regular intervals. Loads of data for no one to analyse.” He slipped off his glasses and dropped them in a pocket. “These people have been gone for weeks.”
Walking over to a rack of shelves, Will looked over the array of boxes, tins, and bottles, neatly arrayed with their labels visible. He pulled down a bottle to peer at the white crystals inside. “No sign of an accident, a struggle, or an external attack. A hidden underground space, maybe?”
“That’s an idea. Come on.” As he pulled his mobile out, David trotted out of the hut into the centre of the compound, Will following close behind. “The sonic might be able to detect them if they’re underground. You go check those last few huts.”
“Right,” Will replied as David began spinning around slowly, scanning the ground under the base. He strode over to the nearest unexamined hut and pulled the door open. “Er, mate?”
“Nothing so far,” the man mumbled as he checked the readings and tapped on the display. “The ground’s solid, though it holds a lot more water than you might think under all this sand and dust.”
“You really should come see this.”
David frowned at the confusion in Will’s voice and, stowing his phone, walked over and peeped in through the door. “Oh. That’s not at all what I expected.”
A twisted tree, if it could be called that, filled the entire room. With no leaves or anything green to suggest photosynthesis, it appeared like a gigantic mass of writhing wooden vines, in some places as thick as a man’s torso, curling around and over the lab machinery and computer consoles. The bulk of the plant was concentrated at the back of the room and the floor nearest the door was relatively clear. It didn’t look at all like the football bush David had been inspecting outside, and there had been no other indication of nature reclaiming the man-made structures. However, the biggest clue that this wasn’t a natural lifeform were the people attached to it by slender, woody vines. Four of them in total, they had obviously been human at one point, but were now in various stages of being entwined by runners and encased in bark. Two were so covered that Will could not tell what gender they had been, whilst the others were one male and one female. The wood encased their heads, necks, and shoulders, though they all had exposed mouths, which hung open, and eyes that gazed nowhere and saw nothing. Trailing vines behind them that were connected to the main mass, they shambled across the room, tending the machinery and a pool of liquid into which a few of the vines had grown.
“This is what happened to the team,” Will breathed. He pressed a fist into his stomach to quell the queasiness that was brewing in there.
“Yes.” David stepped into the room to get a better view. “I can barely tell one from another. That one looks something like the profile image on those logs. Chara?” he called as he pointed at the least-covered of the four. None of them responded to the name.
“There’s only four of them. What about the other eight?” Will asked, pretty sure he knew the answer.
“Killed, and the bodies destroyed? Maybe absorbed by the mass?” David took a deep breath and exhaled with a sigh. “I don’t know.”
One of the figures moved to a spout by the pool and, with deliberate, clumsy motions, opened the spigot. Water poured out, and the men watched as the level of the pool rose a half an inch over a minute. “What are they doing?” murmured Will.
“Tending it? Keeping it alive? Yes, there.” He pointed at the edge of the pool, partially hidden behind a vine-covered console, where large root-like tendrils emerged from the thick, murky liquid. “Smells like a nutrient bath. I think they’re making sure it’s fed.”
Will nodded, then swallowed before asking the question he didn’t want the answer to. “Do you think there’s anything we can do to help them?”
Glancing at his friend, his own doubt shadowing his eyes, David stepped up to the least concealed of the humans to look at her closely. Vacant eyes stared out of dry sockets, her head hanging limp. Her mottled skin was abraded in places, especially on the hands, covered in dried blood. Frowning, David placed a hand on her chest for a few moments, then leaned in close to listen. “No,” he finally replied, stepping back. “There’s nothing to save. They’re too far gone. I think they’ve merged with the plant, become one creature now. It controls them to keep it fed, but it also feeds them, keeps them alive. Otherwise, they would have starved to death weeks ago. They’ve a bit of breath and heartbeat, keeping the biological processes going, but they’re basically automatons now.”
“I didn’t think so.” Will couldn’t take his eyes off the one bending by the pool, and he watched her turn off the spigot and pick up a long pole to stir the muck.
David gazed around at the wood covering every surface. “But where’d that plant come from? It’s nothing like anything else we’ve seen on this planet.” Spying a computer console that was not yet concealed by the wooden vines, he hopped over the nearest vines and headed toward it.
“Mate, maybe you shouldn’t,” called Will. He glanced at the branches surrounding his friend.
David turned back and, noting Will’s gaze, gave an encouraging smile. “It’s fine. See?” He gestured at the motionless plant around him.
“But, what about…?” He jerked his head in the direction of the tree humans, avoiding actually looking at them. The mere thought of them made him uncomfortable.
“Don’t worry. I’ll just be a moment.” Turning back, he picked his way over the vines and, peering at the computer screen, began tapping buttons. “There might be a log here. Let me take a look. Ah yes. Hold on a tick.”
Venturing into the room, Will stayed within the area clear of vines as he crossed to the pool and peered into the sludgy water. “What’s it say?” he called over his shoulder.
“An experiment. Well, genetic engineering. They were trying to create a natural hardwood out of the native flora, so that the future colonists would have building material. Hm.” David fell silent for a moment as he paged through the log. “They didn’t like the way it came out. The wood was too gnarled to be useful. The last entry says that they were planning to destroy the sapling and - AHH!”
Will whipped around as David crashed to the ground, yanked by a tendril wrapped around his ankle. As he tried to pry it off, another twined around his wrist and pulled his hand away. Leaping over the woody branches, Will dove down to help him, but with one hand to his chest, David shoved his friend back, and Will tumbled backward onto the clear floor. “Get away, Will! Don’t get trapped, too!”
A sharp vine reared up behind David. “Behind you!” Will screamed, but it was too late. The tendril speared David in the back of the head. Jerking straight for a moment from shock, he fell limp, supported by the wooden vines wrapping around his torso, his eyes glowing golden.
With a strangled cry, Will scrambled over the branches to his friend and grabbed him by the shoulders, but the man didn’t respond at all. Thick blood oozed down his neck and dribbled from his nose. The shine in his eyes told Will that he was still alive and that his regeneration energy was trying to heal the injury, but there was no consciousness there. The tendril buried in the back of his head was already spreading to encircle his neck, to shore up its hold on him. Grabbing it, Will tried to yank it out, but it moved only slightly, the stiff wood, slick with blood, holding fast. He had no other way to remove the vines, not even a pocket knife to try to saw them off, and he was sure that they would do the same thing to him if he tried.
“Come on, mate!” he hissed, continuing to pull at the stalk, wedging his knees against David’s back as he tugged with both hands. Though Will couldn’t fathom how, maybe David could fight back himself. He knew that Time Lords were superior in many respects to humans, so he held out hope for a miracle. “Come on! I know you’re in there. Don’t give up!” But his friend didn’t react, didn’t even hear him. Out of the corner of his eye, Will spotted one tendril creeping toward him, and he scooted back out of the way. The vine hesitated, then, changing its target, wrapped itself firmly around David’s right thigh. Clutching at himself, Will stared at his friend, who was sitting insensible, his head lolling forward. What do I do? What do I do?
Jumping to his feet, he tore at his hair, leaving bloody streaks through the brown mass, and screamed his anger at the vines. “Let him go! Come on, let him go!” Striding around the room, he viewed his friend and the plant from all sides, giving anything made of wood a wide berth, but he couldn’t find anything that stood out, that gave him a clue of what to do. The shambling tree humans paid him no mind as they went about their business. Tendrils followed Will like so many attentive snakes as he moved about the room, but they kept their distance, and he tensed every time they twitched. After a minute, David got to his feet and felt at the wooden collar that now completely encircled his neck. Despite his blank expression, he was apparently satisfied with its security, and he turned and walked over to join one of the tree humans in stirring the nutrient pool, trailing vines like long, thick tresses of hair. Pressing a hand to his chest to suppress his horrified shuddering, Will backed up against the nearest wall and slid down to the floor, watching what was left of his friend in despair.
Deep inside his cloud of grief, another thought clawed at his heart: if he couldn’t rescue David, he had no way to get home or even leave this world. Even if the TARDIS would respond to him, he had no idea how to pilot him. Perhaps a rescue ship looking for this lost colony might land here, but this was far in the future of Will’s time, and in the long shot that he might return to Earth, it wouldn’t be the Earth he knew, with all of his family and friends centuries dead. When David had told him he might never return home from their travels, he’d assumed he meant that he might get killed out here. He hadn’t pictured this type of end. He was stuck here, in this foreign place and time, forever.
Will jumped up, startled by the word uttered by the female figure standing by the control panel for one of the pipe feeds coming out of the wall. The utterance was coarse and dry, like it had been torn from a throat that had not produced a sound in weeks. Though her figure was still and her eyes dead, she was clearly waiting for an answer.
“Why what?” Will breathed, eyeing her warily as he felt for the wall behind him. In case he needed to dodge a sudden attack, he had to stay aware of where everything was.
Completely devoid of emotion, her words were slow and deliberate, as if each thought was carefully considered. “Why did you try to pull out my limb?”
Incredulous that the question had to be asked, Will sputtered his reply. “Because I want to save his life! He might not die if I can get it out!”
A different tree human, one sitting hunched among a tangle of branches, spoke as the original stumbled off to her work. “It is not dead. They are not dead. They still live.” This one had a higher female voice
“Then let him go!”
“It is part of me now. Why did you not try to harm me?”
It was obvious to Will that the plant cared only for asking questions and gathering information, and he turned away, growling, “Leave me alone.”
“You answer my question. Why?”
Will realised that he didn’t know himself. “There’s no reason to? I just want to get that thing out of his head.” It suddenly occurred to him that the plant was curious; perhaps he could appeal to its rationality. He drew in a deep breath to bolster his courage. “Please, mate. Just give him back and we’ll leave, right off. We won’t cause any trouble.”
“It is part of me now. It shall stay.”
“What if…” He scrubbed a hand over his mouth, trying to think of anything to negotiate with. “Well, what do you want? If you let him go, I’ll bring you whatever you want. Anything. We can get you anything.”
“I have what I need. I do not want.”
“Fantastic.” Dropping wearily back down on the floor, Will propped his elbows on his knees and buried his face in his hands. He drew in a stuttering breath and murmured, “You’ve killed him, but not me. Why would you do that?”
“I do not understand.”
Throwing his hands up in frustration, Will screamed out, “Why did you attack him? Why didn’t you attack me? What do you want?”
“No. I stated incorrectly.” The tree woman stood silent and still as, Will surmised, the plant thought. “I wish to understand why you come here but do not try to harm me. You explain that to me.”
Will stared at her. “Why would I come here to harm you? That doesn’t make sense.”
There was a pause before the tree woman pronounced very slowly, as if it was having trouble believing what it was saying,“You are not afraid of me.”
Will took a moment to suppress his trembling before replying, “I’m terrified of you, mate.”
The tree human stirring the bath next to David slowly turned on the spot. Its body almost completely encased in wood, it creaked as it moved. It began to speak with a decidedly male voice. “Yet you do not attack, or try to run. I do not understand. You explain this to me.”
Will turned back around to peer at the new speaker, swallowing against his nausea. “Can you please… please just stick with one mouth?”
“Because it’s bloody creepy!” Slumping back against the wall, he sighed. “I.. I want to talk to one face. Just one. Please.”
The original speaker picked up the conversation as the new one returned to its work. “I shall do as you ask. Why?”
Will gazed back at the tree woman, noting how the branches under her chin and wrapped around her waist and legs supported her weight. Her body obviously had motor control but had lost strength since it had been taken over by the plant. Newly taken, David still moved with power, but the others shambled around, slow and deliberate, like the trees they were slowly becoming. Suddenly exhausted, Will tore his eyes from what he assumed was his destiny and stared at a corner of the ceiling, the only spot of the room he could find that wasn’t crisscrossed with wood. “No. It doesn’t work that way, mate. I answered your questions. I don’t have anything else to tell you. Either let him go or… or…” He scrubbed both hands down his face as he realised he couldn’t think of a single compromise or threat to make. “Just, please, mate, let him go. You don’t need him.”
“It is part of me now.”
“He!” Will almost sobbed. “He’s a ‘he’, not an ‘it’!”
There was a pause before the tree woman replied. “What is the difference?”
Will stared first at the speaker, then at the mass of gnarled wood that filled a good portion of the room. How do I explain this to a tree? “Er… he’s a bloke, so he’s a ‘he’. ‘It’ is, well, it’s a thing, and he’s not a thing.”
“Am I a ‘he’?”
Will’s first instinct was to reply that of course not, it was a tree and a tree’s an ‘it’, but... What, then, am I talking to? It’s not an ‘it’, is it? He glanced at the female figure in front of him, then the male, the only other one with a recognisable gender. But neither of them’s what the plant is. He cleared his throat. “I don’t know. Are you a bloke?”
“I do not understand.”
“No, you don’t, do you? I can’t explain.” He breathed deep to calm himself. “Just… just… just call him a ‘he’.”
“I will. He is part of me now.”
“Yeah,” Will murmured, his eyes closed. “Yeah. I know. You said.”
Silence reigned for a nearly a minute, then the tree woman spoke again. “He is different.”
Opening his eyes, Will frowned at her. “Different from what?”
“He is different from the others.”
Despite himself, Will was impressed. Few beings could tell that David wasn’t human. Though, I suppose, with what it’s doing, it should be able to tell. “Yeah, he is.”
“Why is he different?”
Will shrugged. “He’s a different species.”
“I do not understand.”
Will tried again. “He’s not human.”
“I do not understand. I can make these work.” The four tree humans each raised a hand. “I can make them speak for me. He is harder.” Raising his head, David clumsily dropped the stirring oar on the floor and turned to Will, then said a few unintelligible words. He cocked his head back and forth, as if trying to find a comfortable position, then ran off a few more nonsense words.
Will watched what was left of his friend with morbid fascination. Finally wrenching his eyes away, he shook his head, “I don’t know what you’re saying.”
“I cannot make him speak like you,” the tree woman said as David turned back to the pool and picked up his oar to start stirring again.
Will stroked his chin as he pondered. “I think… I think he’s speaking in a different language, the language he’s most used to. Like I said, he’s not human.” He tried to ignore the reason why the TARDIS wasn’t translating for him like it normally did.
“I do -”
“- not understand!” Will interrupted, staring up at the ceiling in exasperation. He jumped up and strode around the small area clear of vines, trying hard to stop himself from screaming and pounding the walls in anger. “Yes! I know! He’s…” Biting his words back, he fought to calm himself, clenching his fists in a steady rhythm, and didn’t continue until he was sure his voice was even and controlled. “It’s like this, mate. I’m not like you. I’m all soft and fleshy, and you’re made of wood. I’m human, and you’re a tree or something. We’re not the same type of being. Same thing with him. He’s not the same type of being as me.”
“He is soft and fleshy like you.”
“But he’s not the same!” Will shouted. “He’s different! In a lot of ways!”
“In what ways is he different?”
“Well, he…” He faltered. Why am I answering these questions? Why does it care if David is different? “It doesn’t matter anymore, does it? If he’s part of you, he’s not him anymore.”
“You are upset.”
“Yes!” Will exploded, brandishing both fists at the plant. “I am!”
“Why are you upset?”
How thick is this thing? “Because you killed him!”
“He is not -”
“I know! I know!” Will growled. “But you took him and you won’t let him go, and that’s as good as dead!”
“Why does that matter to you? You are alive. You are unharmed. You are not part of me.”
The plant’s placid, rational monotone infuriated Will. “Because he’s my friend!” he screamed and paced off, swinging his fists at the empty air.
“What is a friend?”
Will choked, and he whirled, tearing at his hair. “What’s a friend? What kind of a question is that?” he spat, goggling at the woman.
“It is a question. It does not have a category.”
The odd, unexpected response, in the tree human’s flat voice, hit Will like a bucket of cold water. Blinking as his anger and mind cleared, he took a step back as he tried to explain. “A friend is… It’s… It’s someone you like to be with and talk to and do things with. It’s someone you like. Someone you care about. Someone who means a lot to you.”
“I do not understand.”
“How can you not understand that?” Will’s voice came out in a squeak.
“I have not talked to anyone. I have not been with anyone. You are the first.”
Will stared at the tree woman. “What?”
“I attempted to talk to the others, when I gained a mouth. This one.” Turning, the tree woman raised a clumsy arm to point at one of the unidentifiable figures tending the machinery. “They did not respond. They ran. You did not run.”
Will nodded vehemently. “Of course they ran. You ki- I mean, you took one of them. They were scared. They didn’t want the same thing to happen to them.”
If the plant understood that, there was no indication, as it continued on its train of thought. “They would not talk when they returned. There has been no one else except for you.”
“Oh.” Of course. That makes sense. They only created one specimen for the experiment. “You’re actually alone.”
“I do not understand.”
“You’re just one plant.” He waved a hand at all of the branches and vines around him. “A big plant, but just one. There’s no one else here, right, mate?”
“There is not.”
“That’s what ‘alone’ means. By yourself. No one to talk to, to be with.” He pointed at the tree humans, taking special care to avoid indicating David. “Do they keep you company?”
“I do not understand.”
“Your humans.” Somehow, he was starting to feel more comfortable regarding the humans as part of the tree, and that thought made him shiver. “Did you take them so that you could talk to them? Well, as well as to make your food?”
“No. I make them act, but they do nothing themselves. I do not know if they can talk. I do not think they can.”
Will glanced over at his friend. The bark encasing the back of his head obscured the damage, but he couldn’t imagine that even a Time Lord brain could operate with any semblance of normalcy with a spike through it. “No. I don’t think David could either.”
“What is a David?”
“Him.” He pointed at his friend.
“Is that his species?”
Will frowned. “What?”
“You said he is not the same species as you. You are a human. He is a David?”
Will smiled at the question in spite of himself. “No. David is his name.”
“I do not understand.”
The smile vanished. “His name. It’s what he’s called. Like I’m called Will. That’s my name.”
“What is the purpose of a name?”
Explaining these basic concepts was harder than he might have thought it would be, and he chewed on his lip as he thought about how to define the word. “Er, it identifies who you are, compared to everyone else.” When that elicited no response, Will searched for a better explanation. “See here. If David and I were here and you wanted to talk to one of us, you’d say the name of the bloke you wanted, so we’d know who you’re talking to. But,” and he shook his head, “you wouldn’t have a name, would you?”
“I do not have a name.”
“How do you refer to yourself, then?” He scrubbed at his mouth with his hand.
“I do not. I am me. I have not needed a word to designate myself.”
Will’s shoulders slumped. “Mate, I’m so sorry.”
“Why do you apologise?”
His arm swept around, indicating the room. “Living alone here, in the dark, with no one else. It must be so lonely.”
“I do not understand. I am content.”
Frowning, he peered at the tree woman. “Wouldn’t you like to go elsewhere, meet new people, do things? Even just see other parts of your world?”
“I am content. I continue to grow. Someday I will grow out of this place and be further. That is natural. I do not wish for more.” The tree fell silent for a moment. “I have enjoyed talking to you. Are you my friend?”
Will jerked back. “Mate, you killed my best friend. Or,” he hastily amended before the tree could interrupt, “you’ve taken him into yourself. Whatever you want to call it. How can I be friends with you, after you do that?” Crossing his arms, he set his jaw, keeping a tight rein on his anguish as he glared at the tree human. “We’ve just talked. That’s all.”
“If we were not one now, could you be my friend?”
Will gazed away from the plant, at one of the computer terminals. With his anger clouding his mind, it was hard to imagine that scenario, but he had to admit that this very alien intelligence was intriguing and, if things had been different, at the very least he’d have enjoyed getting to know it. “Perhaps. I think we might have been. David would have loved to have spoken with you.”
“If he would have liked to speak to me, why was he going to kill me?”
Will’s head snapped up. “Kill you? Where’d you get that idea, mate? He wasn’t doing anything of the sort. Believe me, he’d be the last person in the universe to want to kill you.”
“He looked at the panel. That is where it starts. It looks at the panel, then it brings steel and fire. I stop it, stop the cutting and the flame. Then the next one brings more. That is always how it happens. This time, I stop the fire before he brings it, and he is now me.”
“No,” Will breathed. He understood. He finally understood. Plastering a hand over his mouth, he gazed at the tree woman in horror. “No, you’ve got it wrong. You don’t get it, mate. That’s not what happened. The humans, they didn’t know that they made you, that you were thinking and aware. They thought you were just another plant. They’d failed at what they were trying to do and tried to start over by clearing you out. When you fought back, they got scared and tried harder. If they’d known that they’d created a new intelligent being, they’d have never tried to kill you.”
“I do not want to be destroyed. I want to live.”
“I know. And you deserve to.” Will pinched the bridge of his nose. “We humans, we’re thick sometimes. We don’t recognise sentient life when it’s staring us in the face. And we’re too quick to judge. When we get afraid, we lash out and try to destroy what we don’t understand.”
“You do not. You did not attack me.”
Will swallowed nervously as he realised why. “Only because there wasn’t anything I could do. It wasn’t out of any understanding or compassion. If I had had an axe to cut him out, I probably would have tried, and then you would have killed me, too.” Unable to face the plant, he turned away, staring down at his feet. “And you would’ve been completely justified.”
“But you would not now, even to take back your friend.”
“Don’t make me choose!” Will growled as he whirled back. Advancing on the tree woman, he shook a finger in her face, even though he knew she didn’t see him, her sunken, distant eyes gazing into nothingness. “I respect you and your right to live, but I’d do anything to save my friend.”
“Your respect has little value if you would choose his life over mine.”
“You struck first, mate,” Will sneered. “Whatever your reason might have been, you attacked first, and you still won’t let him go. I’d defend his life, as much as you defended yours when you were attacked.”
The tree woman did not respond, standing limply in front of Will long enough that he stepped back from her, puzzled at the lack of response. At his movement, the woman raised her arm, beckoning clumsily. “You do not leave. You explain.”
Will bristled at the command. “What now?”
“You said you would attack me to save your friend.”
Drawing himself up, tall and straight, Will settled into a defiant stance with crossed arms. “Yes, and I stand by that.”
“You said that is the same as me attacking the others to save myself.”
He nodded. “That it is, mate.”
“I do not understand. It is complicated.”
“No,” he stated firmly. “It isn’t. It’s plain as day. David’s right to live is as important as yours. Or mine, for that matter.”
“What is this ‘day’? How does it bear on what you are saying?”
Will stared speechless for a moment. Of course, nothing was “plain as day” to this being. The plant had never seen daylight, had never observed the progression of day to night and back again. With no windows in the tiny lab it inhabited, it hadn’t seen much at all. It had no basis for understanding, other than what had happened within these four walls, and that not much, just a history of violence every time a new person walked in. “Oh, mate, I get it. Don’t you see?” he murmured, his voice gentle. “We all want to live. No one wants to be killed, and no one wants their friends to be killed. You’re right that it’s complicated, that one life shouldn’t be worth more than another, but everyone values more what they hold dear to themselves. That’s why we have to work together, to work it out so that everyone can live.”
“But the other humans, they tried to kill me.”
Shaking his head, Will bit his lip and paced around his small clear space, his hands on his hips as he walked. “As I said before, they didn’t know. They’d no idea that you were intelligent. They thought you were just a thing. They really didn’t know that you, like them, could think and feel. I guarantee that if they knew, they’d’ve welcomed you and tried to help you establish your life here. They never would have brought steel and fire, and,” he added as he approached the tree woman and ran a hand down the wood encasing her head and neck, “you would not have had to do this.”
“They did not want this.”
“No. They wanted to live, too.” Though he knew it was futile, Will gazed into the woman’s eyes, looking for some glimmer of her former self. “They had their lives, and their families and friends, too.”
“What is ‘families’?”
Will smiled. “Sorry, mate, but I’m not clever enough to explain that to a plant grown in a lab. Maybe David -” He broke off, appalled that as he got caught up in the conversation, he had forgotten what had happened and still considered his friend to be alive and well. Whirling away, he buried his face in his hands and tried to choke back the tears that suddenly threatened to burst from him.
“He is part of me now.”
“Yes. I know.” Scrubbing a hand over his eyes, Will turned and walked over to David where he stood tending the nutrient pool, his head tilted slightly, held up by the rough wooden collar. Grasping his shoulder, Will peered at the bark encasing the back of David’s head, trying to see if the wood was actually melding with the flesh. So far, it seemed like it was simply wrapped around his neck. “Can you let him go?” he asked one last time.
David stopped stirring and stood slouched and listless, as if the tree were looking him over. His eyes, still glowing, stared unfocused at nothing. The blood trailing down his face and neck was drying, dark streams stark against his sallow skin. “I cannot let him go,” the plant finally admitted. “He will die when I withdraw.”
Sucking in his breath, Will spun to face the tree woman. “No, no! He won’t die! I know he won’t. You have to let him go!”
“He will die. They all die when I remove my touch. I have lost three that way.”
“No, he can recover!” Will trembled with hope. “Trust me, I’ve seen it. He can heal from almost anything.”
“I do not want him to die. I do not want your friend to die. He will continue to live as me.”
“Trust me, mate. It’ll be okay. It’ll take a bit of time, but he’ll be fine.” He positioned himself in front of David and prepared to catch him. “Please believe me and let him go.”
“I will let him go.”
The bark around David’s neck began to recede, unclasping its long fingers, leaving red scratches all along his jawline. The tendrils wrapped around his torso and leg uncoiled, and as they delivered his weight into Will’s arms, the spike pulled out of his head with a sickening slurp, its tip covered with gnarled bloody roots that had been anchored in its target. Will hugged the limp body to his chest and gently lowered it to the floor, murmuring to him, “Okay, David. Come on. Rest up and heal.” He laid him out and carefully cradled his head in his lap, coaxing his shining eyes closed with one hand.
“He is dying.”
Will tried to keep from smiling, afraid to be too hopeful too early. “No. Did you see his eyes glowing? That says he’s still alive.”
“I cannot see. I feel vibration and heat and texture, but I cannot see.”
“Oh. I didn’t know. Well. Take my word for it, mate, they are. That’s him fighting to live.” Carefully laying his friend’s head on the ground, he got to his feet and squatted next to him. “I need to take him back to the ship. He’ll heal best if he’s in a clean, familiar place. We’ll come back, I promise.”
Slipping his arms under David’s back and knees, Will hoisted him up and struggled to his feet; over six feet of even bone-thin Time Lord was heavy and awkward. He nodded to the plant, then, nudging the door open with his shoulder, he trudged out into the sunlight.
. _ . _ . _ . _ .
Stepping out of the face of the granite rock, Will shaded his eyes from the glare off the dusty ground. After days spent in the comfortably-lit rooms and corridors of the TARDIS, even the cream walls of the console room had shocked his eyes when he had entered it, and now this hurt quite a bit. However, even though the time travel capsule’s environment was perfectly controlled, there was nothing quite like natural fresh air to awaken the senses, and Will smiled. He strode forward to pat the bulbous leaves of the nearby bush, then turned to watch his friend emerge from the face of the tall rock, sniffing experimentally. “Everything fine, mate?” he called.
“Yeah. Think so.” With an affectionate smile, David ran a hand down the hull of his ship, then joined his friend by the bush. “Still as fascinating as ever, this is.”
“Come on. It’s this way.” Will skirted around the rock and turned to wait for his friend.
“I remember which way it is, Will,” chided David as he caught up. “I even remember what’s in each hut we looked at.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s just…” Will grimaced with embarrassment. David had already scolded him once for being unnecessarily solicitous, but he just couldn’t help it. He’d almost lost his best friend and he was inexplicably nervous about him venturing away from the safety of the TARDIS. David was far better equipped than he was to survive anything they might encounter, but still...
“You don’t need to care for me anymore. I’m all better now. Well, except for this bald area.” David rubbed the back of his head. “I’ll be the poster child for bad haircuts for a couple of months. I should probably just shave it all off and wait for it to grow back, rather than look like I was attacked from behind by a crazed barber. Yeah, I’ll do that when we get back.” David stopped, rubbing the palm of one hand with the thumb of the other. “Will, thank you -”
Will shook his head. “You’ve thanked me a dozen times already. Leave it, mate.”
“I can’t.” He jammed his hands in his trouser pockets as if he had no idea what else to do with them. “You fought for my life. Again. I can’t express how that feels, to have a friend who would risk himself for me.”
Rolling his eyes, Will shook his head with incredulity at how thick his friend was when it came to things like this. “You’re always surprised that anyone’ll do anything for you, aren’t you? You’re barmy, mate. You’re worth it. Always have been. And you’ve done the same for me. That’s what we do, hey?” He nudged David’s shoulder with his fist. “Besides, I didn’t do anything except talk, and I only did it because you’re my ride home.” He flashed a grin at David, who returned it with a laugh.
“Always the pragmatist, you are,” David quipped.
“Och aye,” he teased back.
“That does remind me,” he said, more to himself than to Will as he wagged a finger in the air. “I need to set up the emergency protocol, to get you home if I can’t be there to do it. I keep meaning to, but I never do. It’s important. Next thing I do.”
“Nope, not the next thing. Maybe after this. Now, come on. I promised it that I’d return, and I’m long overdue.” They hiked in silence to the compound, and stopped in front of the door to the botany lab. “This is it.” David looked a little green, and Will grasped his shoulder. “No need to be scared.”
“I’m not scared. I’m just…” He drew in a deep breath before continuing. “I don’t remember a thing past the pain of that blow, but to think I was a zombie, basically dead and controlled... I thought, well, I assumed I could come back from anything short of a double shot to the hearts, but if it hadn’t been for you, that was it for me. Half a second and I was gone.” He shook his head, staring at his trainers in embarrassment. “I’ve gotten sloppy and reckless. That plant taught me something I’d forgotten. I’m just like everyone else, and I can’t let my pride win. I can die, and I’d rather not just yet.” Straightening to his full height, he nodded at Will. “I’m ready. Please introduce me properly to this new lifeform.”
With an encouraging smile, Will pulled the door open and gestured for David to precede him into the dark lab. As before, woody vines covered the walls and floor except for a large clear space near the door, as if the plant was welcoming them by giving them a place to stand. The converted human that had spoken with Will days earlier, who was tending one of the inflow pipes, abandoned her work and loped slowly over the tangled branches to stand in front of the two men, her head lolling to one side. “Greetings, Will and David.”
“Hoy, mate,” Will replied. “I promised we’d return. Sorry it was so long. David took longer to recover than I thought.”
“I do not understand. Why do you apologise?”
“For not coming back for such a long time.” Will paused, and when no reply seemed forthcoming, he explained again. “It’s been seven days since we talked. I didn’t even bother to pop back here to let you know.”
“You have returned as you promised. I do not understand what other consideration is relevant.”
“I think,” David remarked, “that your friend does not experience time like we do, or at least it’s not important to it on the scale of days. Maybe even on the scale of months or years. That is utterly fascinating.” He stepped forward and bowed to the tree human. “I’m David. Pleased to meet you properly at last. Will has told me that he taught you the concept of names. Have you taken one that I might address you by?”
“I am Mate.”
“Oh?” David bit back an amused grin, his eyes twinking. “How did you choose that name?”
“I did not choose it. Will gave it to me.”
Taken aback, Will glanced between David and tree human in surprise. “I did? I don’t think so. I never gave you a name.”
“You addressed me as ‘Mate’ many times.” At that admission, Will’s cheeks coloured and he turned away to cough. “It did not make sense in the context of the conversation. I conclude that it must be my name.”
David settled back into a relaxed stance, his hands clasped behind his back. “It’s a fine name, but you’ll find that Will calls a lot of people ‘mate’, including myself.”
“Will indicates you as David. I am Mate.”
“Fair enough.” His lips curving in a tender smile, he added, “I think you should know that the word as he uses it means ‘friend’.”
There was a pause before Mate replied. “I am content with that definition.”
David eyed Will, his pride in his friend shining in his eyes. Will again glanced between the two of them, then rubbed a hand over his mouth to conceal his embarrassed smile. “Me too, Mate.”
“Mate,” David began, bowing his head a bit, “I”ve come to apologise for intruding and inadvertently threatening you, and to thank you for letting me live.”
“Apology and gratitude are not necessary. We achieved understanding.”
“Maybe.” He thumbed his earlobe. “I plan to make sure this does not happen again. When we leave, we will visit the humans who sent this expedition and explain to them what happened. I can’t stop them from coming here if they want to, but if they do, they will respect you and deal with you fairly.”
There was a long moment of silence before Mate answered. “I welcome more humans if we speak on common terms.”
“I think you can. As you said, understanding will be achieved. I’ll make certain of that.” Looking over at Will standing to his side, David nodded with determination.
“In the meantime, m- Mate,” Will stuttered as he stumbled over how he was using the word, “whilst David was still recovering, I was thinking about what you said, about growing and living, that you’d see the world someday.” He gestured up at the walls of the hut. “Would you like us to tear down the ceiling and walls of this place? Except for a few places where the pipes feed in, you don’t need them, and then you’ll be able to see the world around you. You can be a bit further right now.”
Again, there was a long pause before the tree human spoke again. “I want that.”
“It’ll be quite a change,” warned David. “Direct sunlight means it’ll be much warmer, and your pools will evaporate faster, but we’ll build shelters over the pools and the machinery to help them last as long as possible.”
“My food will not last forever. I have been working on putting down roots in anticipation of this. I accelerate that.”
David knelt to inspect the floor, placing a hand on the smooth concrete. “We can do that, too. Smash some of this so you only have dirt to work through.” He looked up at Will, his glance asking for his assistance with this more difficult project.
“I don’t know what you’ve got in the TARDIS, but they’ve got to have some machinery around here, for digging wells and things.” Will nodded. “Shouldn’t be too hard.
Standing back up, David dusted off his hands. “We can make the tools we need with the pan-man rig in the other hut. Should be able to make a powered jackhammer, and if not, there’s always the good old sledgehammer. But if we can’t do it that way, we can cut the back wall down to the ground and Mate can grow out there.” He pointed back behind the main body of the plant.
Stepping out amongst the tangled branches, Will studied the indicated wall. “Yeah. That might be the best way to do it.” He turned back to the tree human. “We’ll get it done, one way or the other.”
“I thank you.”
“Gratitude isn’t necessary, Mate. I won’t leave until you’re secure.” He eyed David, who nodded his approval of the plan and of his friend’s determination to protect and provide for the new sentience.
“Let’s get started!” David clapped, then rubbed his hands together. “Let’s go see what we can make. Oh, you’re going to love that rig, Will. And of course, there’s the TARDIS stores, what little there is. This’ll take a few days at the least.”
“Fine by me. More time to get to know you, Mate.” Will hopped back out into the clear space and turned back to the plant. “We’ll be back when we’ve got a plan. Probably tomorrow.”
“I will be.”
“Good. Come on.” Thumping David on the shoulder, he spun on his heel and the two men ducked out of the hut to begin their task.