Chapter Nineteen

The Doctor, as usual, did not sleep much during that night. As the first glimpses of a pink pre-dawn glow were just starting to appear again, he was thinking through the issues of the day and the short-sightedness of humanity when it came to money and time to complete projects. Granted, the developers of Node Two had not known of the existence of the beach fauna, much less their unusual reproductive cycle and their penchant for the bloodstreams of humans (and Time Lords) as a place of rest. No-one knew at that stage because humans had never come in contact with them before. He could understand that.

However, what the Doctor could never understand is that when there had been so many contaminations over the centuries that had occurred through not having sufficient safeguards on sewerage outlets – especially those flowing out to the sea across beaches – why should the same mistakes be made over and over again? Perhaps it was someone cutting corners to bring the development in on time and within some grossly underestimated budget? He shook his head in absolute disbelief.

“Humans are so clever and inventive in some ways, yet so absolutely bloody stupid in others….” The Doctor thought, regretfully. “I really don’t know why I continue to like them!” He suddenly remembered a different context, a conversation from long ago in a different incarnation, about a different topic, but with the same result – why did he like humans so much? And he remembered a very sweet, cheerful response from a young woman he was very close to, his best friend at the time. She responded to his question then with “Because you have such very good taste!” It made him smile then and the memory of it made him smile now too, lightening the somewhat grim expression on his face. Sarah had always had the knack of the appropriate comeback line and she had always been so very special to him, although he had never told her how special before he had to send her home…..

The Doctor shook himself inwardly and brought himself back to the present. He looked down at Catherine. She was still sound asleep, her arm still lightly around his back and her head still resting on his shoulder. It had been a cold night and he couldn’t deny to himself that her closeness had made it easier for him to keep her warm and was more comfortable for him too. Although that was as far as it went, he suspected that she would yet again be annoyed at herself when she woke. He sighed and shook his head. Internal anger like that was so typical of human women – the more spirited and independent they were, the more they were prone to berate themselves for any sign of apparent or imagined weakness. They were their own worst enemies sometimes. Usually he would find that mildly amusing, but not this morning. The Doctor’s mood this morning could best be described as mixed. The appearance of the beach fauna at Node Two had affected him more than he had expected. He sighed again.

Although the dawn was upon them, he did not have any urgency to wake Catherine. Today they would be heading back to the TARDIS and after yesterday, he knew she needed a bit of extra sleep. She had already seen the sunrise over Node Two, so there was no need to wake her for an encore. At least she had eventually admitted that it was unique. The Doctor contrasted this more reserved reaction with her reaction to last evening’s sunset. It was strange in some ways that the sunrise was so much more spectacular, yet her reaction was so much greater to the sunset. He was surprised at the strength of her reaction, as she seemed to be herself.

Frowning in concentration, he missed the golden blaze of the sunlight touching one of the pillars of Node Two where he had written his warning message. The fluorescent pen words stood out like some massive advertising sign in the light from the sunrise. This was an additional and totally unexpected benefit of leaving the message. But the Doctor didn’t even see it.

He must have moved slightly, as Catherine started to stir from her sleep. Because she had been sitting closer to the Doctor during the night, she had not felt the cold as much as the previous night, but her muscles were stiff from sitting – even sitting on a specially-designed two-seater like this one. Half-awake, she stretched her arms and legs to alleviate the stiffness. Her left knee was especially stiff, but it seemed as if most of the pain had receded from it. In stretching her left arm out, she realised that she had spent the whole night with her arm virtually around the Doctor – and his around her – not to mention using his right shoulder as a makeshift pillow. Although she felt very self-conscious about this, at least this time she didn’t blush, much to her relief. She took several deep breaths to dissipate her feelings of self-consciousness before she turned to the Doctor, smiled brightly at him and politely said, “Good morning, Doctor.” Sunrise was nearly finished now, but Catherine wasn’t really interested in it. She was more interested in where they were going today and what path they would be following.

However, she did have one comment that she just had to make. “If these seats were specifically designed for two people to spend the night seated together, they could have made them a bit more comfortable. All my muscles and joints are so stiff!” The Doctor grinned broadly at that comment, his intense blue eyes twinkling with wicked laughter, but he didn’t say a word. Then Catherine realised that the seats were designed expecting either short-term seating arrangements or that those who spent the night on them were sitting, or half-lying, far closer together than she and the Doctor had been! She did blush then – with acute embarrassment for having missed something so obvious. But the Doctor, being a gentleman, despite the leather jacket, forbore to tease her, although the temptation must have been almost irresistible!

The Doctor reached into his jacket pocket and took out his flask of water from the previous evening, silently offering it to Catherine. He wasn’t thirsty at all, but he thought she might be. She took the flask from him and drank a couple of large mouthfuls before passing it back to him with an abrupt “Thanks for that, Doctor.” Then it was her turn. There were still a few jelly beans and jelly babies left in the bag in her pocket. She took the bag out of her pocket and offered it to the Doctor saying more graciously, “Jelly baby, Doctor?” One thing she would always remember about this journey was eating jelly beans and jelly babies. The Doctor nodded and extracted two jelly babies from the resealable bag. That still left two for later. Catherine did the same with the jelly beans.

“Some breakfast!” Catherine thought. “Glucose sweets and water; good for quick energy, I suppose.” She looked at the Doctor, wondering how, with his height and his boundless energy, he managed to never tire, despite such meagre rations. Then she remembered he was alien, so maybe that had something to do with it. She had never actually asked him which humanoid race he was a member of, but she would, sometime. But she wouldn’t ask him while she was travelling alone with him and was totally dependent upon his generosity to return her to her team. Instinctively, Catherine trusted the Doctor implicitly – somewhat at odds with her training – but she hadn’t forgotten his reaction when she had asked why he had arrived at the Eye. In many ways he was so normal, yet in other ways he was so alien. He was certainly unpredictable, but still a fascinating man.

As the sunrise had now finished and the day was already warming up, the Doctor took his arm away from Catherine’s shoulders. Catherine also removed her arm from around his back and stood up to test her knee. It seemed to be holding up well enough, despite the stiffness. She was determined to manage to walk at speed without the Doctor’s assistance. He reached into the inner left hand pocket of his jacket, took out his sonic screwdriver and switched it on. Standing up and facing back towards the creek, the Doctor took the immediate location readings and then their bearings with respect to the TARDIS. They weren’t quite as close to the TARDIS as he had hoped, but he didn’t expect any major problems. The readings did not indicate any unusual or difficult terrain between their current location and the rocky ‘plateau’ on the edge of the coastline where the TARDIS had landed. However, these were very general readings at this distance and he would take further readings once they were on their way, for confirmation. He replaced the sonic screwdriver back in his inner pocket.

Holding out his right hand to Catherine, he said abruptly, “Coming?” Catherine didn’t answer, but took his hand anyway. She may be sure that her knee was going to hold up under the walk, but she did want to make sure she could keep pace with the Doctor. Walking hand-in-hand was one way of ensuring she didn’t fall behind. She still kept hold of her ‘cane’ as well, just in case.

First stop was the creek – the Doctor’s flask needed refilling and Catherine wanted to wash her face and hands. They carefully negotiated the slope to the creek without incident and while Catherine washed her face and hands, the Doctor stood watch. She was a bit dismayed when she saw her reflection – her hair was very untidy. She quickly pulled out a small comb from a hip pocket and combed her hair into a tidier arrangement, then replaced the comb in her pocket. She thought how much a simple action like that becomes taken for granted. That action in itself made her feel refreshed. Next, it was her turn to be on watch while the Doctor topped up the flask and washed his own face and hands.

He wasted no time in these actions, but Catherine was fascinated with the way he managed to wash both his face and his hands without seeming to look at his reflection. Before he could see his reflection, he made large ripples in the surface of the water so that the reflection was practically invisible. It occurred to Catherine that this wasn’t a normal action. If she didn’t know better, she would have said that it was nearly as if he did not want to look himself in the face.

“That’s strange. There’s a mystery here of some sort,” Catherine thought. Her instinct told her that it was something crucial to the Doctor’s personality, but equally that any attempt to ask him about it or to even mention his actions would be met with not only his ‘poker face’ expression, but probably strong anger as well. She definitely did not want to risk that, so she said nothing. But she was determined to find out the answer anyway – seemingly insolvable problems were always a challenge to her! If she couldn’t solve it by straightforward means like asking a question, she would solve it by observation and deduction. Maybe the walk back to the TARDIS would provide her with the opportunity?

The path that they needed to take to return to the TARDIS followed the creek for a fair distance before turning to cross the creek by bridge – a true bridge, this time, not some crafted causeway. This creek path, overhung by large shade trees similar to those in the picnic area, had been added at the same time as the other surrounding facilities for Node Two and had been intended as a romantic walk for lovers or would-be lovers. Although the Doctor and Catherine were slowly walking hand-in-hand along this creek path, it was definitely not the case with them. Neither of them had spoken since they had washed their faces in the creek. The Doctor had become introspective again and after the action with his reflection, Catherine thought it better not to speak to him until it was absolutely necessary.

Eventually, the Doctor seemed to come out of his introspective mood and he abruptly asked her what she had thought about last evening’s sunset. He knew she had been affected by it – he could tell that from her reaction.

Catherine thought about it for a few moments, and then said, “This was probably the first sunset that I had ever really seen properly. I’ve never had the time to bother with sunsets before. Like sunrises, they’re just part of the day. But this one was….. I don’t really know how to describe it…..” The Doctor didn’t say anything as they continued their walk. Catherine frowned while she thought of some way to summarise her feeling about it. Then her frown cleared as she said, tentatively, borrowing from his vocabulary again, “Fantastic, Doctor. It was definitely fantastic!” He grinned and nodded.

By now they had reached the part of the path where it turned towards a narrow bridge across the creek. The bridge was made of timber in the fashion of an old country road bridge. But it was more solid than that and beautifully made. However, the Doctor and Catherine had no time to admire it. The Doctor was keen to press on towards the TARDIS as soon as possible – he wanted to reach it while it was still daylight. “How’s your knee?” he asked Catherine.

“It’s a bit stiff, Doctor, but it’ll do,” she replied with a smile. The Doctor grinned.

They walked quickly across the bridge, and then, on reaching the other side, he stopped and took out his sonic screwdriver again to recheck his bearings relative to the TARDIS. He grinned to himself in satisfaction as he noted the sonic screwdriver readings. After replacing it in his inner pocket, he turned to Catherine and smiled one of his illuminating smiles as he retook her hand in his. His pace then quickened so she was nearly running to keep up with him. It seemed to Catherine that the Doctor was glad to be heading back to his TARDIS. She had to admit that she would be relieved to be back there too. Although nights spent in the open were nothing to her – quite often they were part of her job – she did prefer it if she had her own warm coat with her and wasn’t dependent on someone else.

The countryside that the Doctor and Catherine were travelling through soon changed from the green cool environment around the perimeter of Node Two into a much drier landscape. There were flashes of green from time to time, but that was only where small puddles of dirty water had gathered. On this drier plain, tufts of sharp and spiky yellowing grass ruled supreme. “Careful you don’t catch your fingers on any of that grass,” the Doctor said, as they walked through a series of clumps that were at thigh height. “The blades can be sharp enough to give you a most uncomfortable scratch, if you’re not careful.”

Just as he said that, Catherine brushed the back of her right hand against one of the blades of grass, resulting in a nasty-looking, but bloodless, scratch on the back of her hand. “Damn!” she said, involuntarily. She looked at the Doctor with an exasperated expression as if to say, “Now you tell me!” But she didn’t actually say the words and he bit his lip to prevent himself from laughing at the expression on her face. She could not see the funny side to it. However, she did ensure that she didn’t brush against the grass blades again.

After walking quickly for a further hour (in Earth terms), but without a word spoken between them, the Doctor broke the silence to suggest that they have a short rest, when they were finally clear of this spiky grass. Without a break soon, he was concerned that Catherine’s knee might not hold up for the next four hours or so (in Earth terms) that he estimated it would take for them to reach the TARDIS at their current pace. From his readings taken earlier, there did not appear to be any shelter between here and the TARDIS and he did not want to spend another night in the open, when they were within reach of their goal. Besides, he wanted to analyse the readings from Node Two amongst other things.

He also presumed that Catherine would have some form of report that she would have to write for her superiors as well. “Reports,” he thought, “are one of the constants of any human bureaucracy, regardless of wherever or whenever I have been involved with them. I don’t imagine that the Central Orion Protection and Security bureaucracy are any different.” The Doctor, himself, while being very good and creative with respect to writing, always made a point of avoiding reports. For some reason, whether human or Time Lord, people couldn’t appreciate that he would rather be doing other more worthwhile endeavours than writing reports that aren’t read properly or are forgotten as soon as they are read…..

It was mid morning and Constable Jeffrey Crane had already left the regional operations site hours ago for the Eye of Orion. His colleague, Constable George Black, was halfway through writing a weekly report to the local area commander on the recent events at the Eye, so was waiting to finish it before joining him. This was a report normally presented by his sergeant, but in her absence, the job fell to him as the senior officer on duty. He had been awake most of the night trying to write this report. Their local area commander expected fine details, regardless of whether, as Constable Black and Constable Crane suspected, the report was even looked at beyond the proverbial ‘tick and flick’ type of review. It wasn’t the first time he had written the report – the team tended to share this work around, where possible. There was a report template that they all used, as their local area commander was particular about how the reports were set out and had an annoying habit of sending them back with rude comments on if they didn’t look the way he wanted them to look.

The main problem that Constable Black was having related to how he documented the Doctor’s involvement, their invalid arrest of him and most importantly, their sergeant’s absence – and continued absence. He had a little bit of leeway in the completion date for the report, but not much. If he only knew when the sergeant was returning! Although neither of the constables would admit it, they were both concerned about their sergeant. It wasn’t so much her continued absence, or even her continued absence in the company of a suspicious character like the Doctor, but the not hearing anything from her that was bothering them. Catherine would have been highly surprised to know that, not that they would ever tell her. This would, of course, not be included in the report! Constable Black thought a bit more about the report’s content and suddenly had a bright idea! He would document all the Doctor’s findings and surmises about the Eye, as far as they knew of them, simply noting them as facts. The Doctor would not be mentioned. Not only did that circumvent the need to mention anything of the sergeant’s absence, but it meant that he didn’t have to report on their abortive arrest of the Doctor, either.

It was clear from the Doctor’s earlier reactions that he was not going to take the opportunity to have them charged with wrongful arrest, so what did they have to lose by not mentioning him at all? A weight seemed to lift itself off the constable’s shoulders as he thought of that. It took him another two hours (in Earth terms) to complete the report as thoroughly as he could and check it for errors. But once it was completed, he felt a great sense of satisfaction as he sent it off electronically to their local area commander and noted its immediate receipt. He thought about how much he hated writing these reports, but hopefully, the sergeant would have returned in time to write next week’s report! Then he secured the regional operations site and transmatted himself to the vicinity of the Eye to join his colleague in their guard duty at the remains of the archway…..

It was now two hours (in Earth terms) since the Doctor and Catherine had had their impromptu rest on the journey to the TARDIS. Both seemed improved for it. Catherine’s knee was still holding up well to the walking and the Doctor’s mood had definitely improved. He seemed less introspective than he was in the morning and more light-hearted in his conversation – at least that’s how he seemed to Catherine. Further readings taken during their pause had confirmed that the Doctor and Catherine were still heading in the right direction for the TARDIS.

The spiky grass had given way to more conventional open grassland now and the terrain was generally flat. A gentle, cooling breeze blew across the roadway that they were walking on. Catherine’s hair was blowing across her face a bit in the breeze, but as she and the Doctor were still walking hand-in-hand, she wasn’t particularly concerned if she couldn’t see where she was going from time to time. The main thing was to follow and keep up with the Doctor and although they were moving at a fast pace, it wasn’t too fast for her knee to cope with. They didn’t talk much during the walk, except for minor comments about the scenery and other trivia from time to time. Catherine did wonder if she could risk broaching a question that related to the issue with his reflection from the morning, but decided against it as being too personal. The Doctor was not so reticent on personal questions – or one, at least.

“What made you choose to join Central Orion Protection and Security, Catherine?” the Doctor asked. He had always been curious as to what drives someone to join groups like that. Even when he had been exiled to Earth and was working as the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT) scientific advisor, he had wondered what led to people becoming involved in security organisations. But he had never had the opportunity to actually ask someone before.

Catherine thought about it before she replied. Strangely enough, it did not occur to her to tell him to ‘mind his own business’, or words to that effect, which would have been her reaction to most people asking that question. He wanted to know – therefore it was quite reasonable for him to ask. So she replied, truthfully, “I joined the agency because I like problem solving; I have been told I have an instinct for the irrational; I have a good memory for faces and trivia; I always want to keep challenging myself with new things; I always wanted to travel. There was nowhere else where I could indulge myself with these and still challenge myself sufficiently to keep myself from becoming bored.” She paused before adding, “I should have had some burning desire to arrest criminals shouldn’t I, Doctor? But I didn’t. You did ask…..”

The Doctor grinned and his eyes twinkled appreciatively. “I know another option that would cover all those things…..and more,” he said, without specifying. “Those characteristics plus everything else I know about her would have made her a good TARDIS travelling companion, if I had been looking for one,” the Doctor thought. “But I’m not!” He was to remember this conversation from time to time over the coming days, for no particular reason, other than it would keep recurring to his upper thoughts.

They continued their fast progress in silence for about another half an hour (in Earth terms), until a very welcome smell appeared on the breeze – the smell of salty sea air.

“Can you smell that change in the breeze, Catherine?” the Doctor asked, excitedly. He didn’t know whether the smell was strong enough yet for her human olfactory senses to pick up on it. Sea air on the breeze could only mean that they were approaching the sea again. They couldn’t be more than about half an hour (in Earth terms) away now. And the nearness of the sea, of course, meant they had nearly reached the TARDIS.

“Do you mean that salty sea smell, Doctor?” Catherine replied. He grinned.

They raced along the path now, until the ground started to slope downwards gently and rocky outcrops started to appear in the grassland. “We’re nearly there, Catherine. How’s the knee holding up?” the Doctor asked, as they slowed down. Although he couldn’t wait to reach the TARDIS, he was very conscious of her knee with the slope – it was gentle now, but he expected that there would be quite a considerable drop, or at least a steep slope, when they approached the ‘rocky plateau’ where the TARDIS had landed.

“It’s managing so far, Doctor,” Catherine answered. She had noticed that he had slowed his pace with the slope and while she was very grateful for the thought and the consideration, she was not going to admit it.

He nodded with more understanding than she realised, as he said, “The slope will be steeper from here as we approach the ‘plateau’.” Without further comment, he moved closer to her and held her hand tighter for additional support. The slope was becoming steeper and, after about ten minutes (in Earth terms), the TARDIS came into view as they reached the edge of the path above the ‘rocky plateau’. There was a drop of about three metres (in Earth terms) from the edge where they were standing to the ‘plateau’ beneath. The Doctor dropped Catherine’s hand and without a moment’s hesitation, jumped down to the ‘plateau’ below. He landed perfectly on his feet, with no sign of injury, and turned and grinned at her.

Catherine said to him, a bit sceptically, her hands on both hips, “That’s fine for you, but how the bloody hell do you expect me to reach there?”

His grin broadened into one of his illuminating smiles as he simply held his arms out to her and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll catch you! Jump!”

She didn’t trust herself to reply to him politely, but the look she directed at him spoke volumes anyway. It appeared that she had no choice, but to launch herself off the edge and trust him to catch her safely, so she did. She landed perfectly safely and effortlessly in his arms, as he had intended. He then set her down on her feet and they both walked over to the TARDIS. The Doctor unlocked the doors and they went inside.

(* To be continued….. *)