Blood-Dimmed Tide Episode Sixteen

Blood-Dimmed Tide

Episode Sixteen

Jeri Massi

In the TARDIS, the Doctor kicked the Master's hand and sent the gun skittering across the highly polished floor. The Master tried to roll onto his stomach to leap up, but the Doctor fell atop him in a savage tackle and used one arm as a lever across the Master's throat with the other arm behind his neck. It was an ancient jui-jitsu choke, and very effective.

Face down on the floor, with the Doctor's weight on him and the expert choke cutting off his air, he tried to gasp out a protest.

"Where have you sent her? What have you done with her?" the Doctor demanded.

"I don't know what happened!" the Master gasped. "No--" But his protest was cut off as the Doctor applied the choke to him. The Master gasped without drawing in any air and tried to get away, but it was useless, and the Doctor did not release the pressure until the pinned time lord was nearly unconscious.

"Where has she gone!" he bellowed into the Master's ear, releasing the pressure a fraction so that the Master could at last draw a breath.

"I don't--" he began, but the Doctor cut off his air again at the denial. A certain frantic struggling that quickly expired without air ended the Master's resistance. After another long moment, the Doctor allowed him to breathe again, but the Master did not even lift his head from the floor.

"I'll ask you one more time," the Doctor said. "Where is she? What's taken her away?"

His chest heaving against the floor, the Master whispered, "The creatures--cannot teleport here. Still restricted. Environment restricts them."

"What does that mean?" The Doctor shouted, shaking him. "Tell me, or your next breath will be your last."

"You know they cannot--read humans--without a stepdown interface."

"Yes, that's true. So what's taken her?"

Helplessly, the Master shook his head. "I don't--know."

The Doctor jerked his arms up as though to use the choke again, but the Master did not resist or struggle, too weak to fight any more. With a frustrated sound the Doctor released him, stood up, and collected the gun. He pocketed it and hurriedly opened the TARDIS control room's storage locker.

The Master lay face down on the floor, too beaten to get up or even look up. As the Doctor pulled out a great wool coat from the locker and a pair of heavy gloves, the Master tried to lift his head.

"I'm going after her. Conditions out there will kill her quickly." He ripped off the main panel from the console and jerked a handful of cabling and circuitry from it. "That should keep you grounded for a while."

Stuffing the cabling into his pocket, he flung the coat around himself and left the TARDIS. Helpless, the Master could only watch him go.

* * * *

For a moment, Jo almost thought she had been dropped into fire. Something burned right through her, and the white glare around her blinded her for a moment. Then she realized that it was not heat, but cold that was burning her exposed skin. Still thinking the Doctor and the Master must be nearby, she looked around, but she was utterly alone on a snowy plain. A brilliant, heatless sun shone down with a cold glare. The flat landscape was dotted with rock outcroppings.

Before she had fairly thought of what to do, she ran towards the nearest outcropping. Then she realized the rightness of the action. Her only hope lay in shelter. She was dressed for desert travel in khakis and light boots, but the temperature here had to be at least twenty or thirty degrees below the freezing point of water. Dry, burning cold seared down her throat and into her lungs. Running did not warm her in such severe cold with such light clothing. She began to panic. She stumbled into the powdery snow, got up, and went on. The nearest spine of rocks was not more than a hundred yards from her. Surely she could get that far.

But she stumbled again, this time going down face first into snow that was over two feet deep. She sprang up, but her muscles were not responding. It became more difficult to lift her feet enough to get through the snow. I can't be freezing to death, she insisted to herself.

She staggered a few paces further, and suddenly the snow itself seemed to erupt around her. White shapes sprang up and down, leaping from smooth, low drifts. She realized that she had stumbled into some sort of playground for what looked like a family of ermine. But more and more were popping up around her. Twenty or thirty. Not a family but a colony.

Suddenly, just as she was wondering if they would notice her, one of them sprang at her and attached itself to her leg, wrapping itself tightly to her.

The abrupt fear she felt gave her strength; she tried to shake it off and then ran from the ring of them. But the one that had attached to her would not shake off. Another one leaped, its folds of skin spread out like a flying squirrel. It wrapped around her other leg. The rest came in pursuit.

"No!" Jo exclaimed, then staggered on. Driven by fear, she got to the rocks and almost immediately saw that the playground for the creatures led directly to the mouth of a wide cave. She automatically went inside, seeking warmth, and only then realized that she was trapped. There was blank darkness ahead and the creatures behind. She tried to pull another of the creatures off. Its dark eyes got big as she pulled on it, but it would not loosen. Another one scrambled up her back and came onto her shoulder. Jo screamed and scraped against the rough wall of the cave to get it off. The entire colony rushed her.

She fell and would have rolled except that even in her fear she suddenly realized that with them clinging to her she was warm again. She hesitated to see if they meant to bite her, but suddenly a wave of warmth went through her from head to foot. It seemed to clear her head from her fear for a moment, and she realized that the creatures were staring up at her with eyes widened from the stress of hanging on while being bashed about the cave, but they were doing nothing else. Two of them shifted to wrap around her thin boots, and the warmth that they generated into her numb feet made her pause a little longer.

As she hesitated, the mass of them shifted around on her, away from her back. Their shifting sent a shiver of fear through her, and she scrambled back instinctively, but a sudden cold wind from outside drove home the necessity of staying with these creatures if she possibly could.

She was painfully thisty from the dry cold and her desperate race and struggle, and the cold had sapped her strength. An unexpected wave of warmth and comfort went through her, but this time she located its source: her right ear. She turned her head fearfully and saw that one of the white creatures was clinging to her shoulder, and gripping her ear, though not painfully. Its face was non-human and communicated no expression whatsoever, a purely animal face, alien and remote. But the warmth spread through her again, and she realized after a moment that she was lying down, prone on her back. I'm so thirsty, she thought, and then she allowed herself the luxury of closing her eyes for just a minute--or until the creatures did something. The warmth quickly enveloped her, and the creatures took advantage of her sudden stillness to blanket themselves over her.

* * * *

Jo stirred as her eyes reacted to the growing brightness around her. Her dreams unexpectedly became more vivid and less dream-like. She thought she was in a firm bed with a deep, soft cover, and a warm fire in a fireplace throwing its light and heat across her.

She was, of course, in her husband's arms, and the morning was filled with a sense of the rightness and peace, and familiarity of a happy home. Only gradually did she ask herself what her husband's name was. Then she realized that she had no husband. And further, that she had no such home, no bed by a fireplace.

She stirred, felt something pressed on her ear, and opened her eyes. She found herself covered by the mass of the snow mice, their bodies flattened out to full extension. The one on her shoulder lay tucked up against her head, its paw against her ear.

She jumped and then failed to get up. A wave of weakness and dizziness washed over her. She had been fasting for more hours than she could count, and her struggle through the snow had weakened her even more. Worse, she was so thirsty that it frightened her. But almost in response to the thought, a dab of water was patted onto her dry lips. She automatically opened her lips and licked it in, then turned her head. One of the snow mice stood by her head. It lifted its paw toward her, and drops of water were pushed into her mouth.

Jo's fear gave way to her desperation for water. The creature offered her its paw, and only then did Jo see that it wasn't really a paw but a cup-like appendage. She had to dip her head and suck the water up from the tiny, living vessel. The result was only a couple tablespoonsful of water. The creature hurried away, and a wave of heat took Jo into blackness for a moment before she opened her eyes to see that the creature was back again, offering her more water. Jo drank again. This transaction was repeated several times, and as Jo drank more and more and waited in the intervals, she became less frightened. The sleeping mass of creatures had undoubtedly saved her life, and she remembered the burning of the cold that had nearly killed her. She was grateful to them and suddenly shivered as she realized how close death had come. The network of prone, relaxed bodies seemed to ripple back in response to the shiver, as though reassuring her. The creature brought her water again and then went to fetch more. Jo saw that most of the creatures had their eyes half opened, but they seemed to still be dormant.

At first she thought that they were all holding hands with each other, but then she ammended her observation. The creatures did not have hands as such, nor even paws as such. They seemed like flippers, she thought, but that wasn't right. She was interrupted by another drink, and now when she looked at the inhuman nurse caring for her, she realized that its hand-like appendages were more like pads: sensitive, membranous pads of thin muscle that could be flattened like a dish or cupped. The creatures were joined pad to pad as they lay on her and dozed. The one on her shoulder had one of his pads pressed to her ear.

As she at last had enough water, she turned to look at the one on her shoulder. As her awareness grew, he also seemed to become more curious about her. He lifted his head. He kept the one pad to her ear--she could feel and hear his pulse through the membrane and muscle--and used his other hand pad to touch her neck right over the caratoid artery. She stiffened at such a knowing touch from what seemed like a wild animal. He drew back and then to her surprise widened his flat pad. It expanded to nearly twice its size, and he would have laid it over her eye, but she gasped and flinched. Instantly, the pad shrank to a mere peg, and he touched her only very lightly at the corner of her eye and then withdrew. The instant reduction of the pad to such a tiny peg made her suddenly laugh--a slight, gentle sound that made all the creatures lift their heads and look at her warily. She instantly was silent and felt frightened once more.

The one on her shoulder suddenly made her ear feel warm--a good and comforting sensation that seemed to rush through her. She glanced at him without moving. He generated another wave of warmth through his pad on her ear. The others settled down.

They seemed to not like sound, she thought. Indeed, they had been silent from the moment she had seen them, even in their frolics with each other in the snow, even during their desperate hunt of her across their playground.

The memory troubled her, and she frowned as she looked at the creature on her shoulder. He continued his quiet inspection of her. Once again, he touched his free pad--now expanded again to a flat, soft plate--to the artery in her neck, and she allowed it, though she could not help a certain tightening in her breath as he touched her.

But he sent the warmth into her again through both pads, and she realized that he was deliberately assuring her. He once again moved his hand pad from her throat to her eye, and she allowed it this time. It was a definite, deliberate examination of her. The idea that these creatures were not only intelligent but actually rational occured to her.

"Can you understand me?" she asked quietly.

The result of her speech was electrifying. The network of creatures on her bolted upright and swept back like a wave from her, all the way down to her knees. She jumped, startled at the reaction, and also noticed that her clothing was slightly damp from snow that had fallen on her and melted. The chill air that drifted into the cave instantly stripped the warmth from her.

The whole group of them had moved as one, still attached to each other through their pads. Some of them made a line right to the creature on her shoulder. He had not retreated with the others. He kept his right pad on her ear and touched his left pad to the pad of one of his peers. The creatures came back up her to her shoulders and resettled themselves onto her as a blanket, protecting her from the cold.

The one on her shoulder withdrew his hand pad from his peer and with perfect balance extended a foot pad instead. The second creature, still connected by one hand pad to the network of the creatures, took the foot pad, and then slipped his own slim foot down between Jo's body and her arm, into her arm pit. She felt the pad press in exploration against the cloth of her damp shirt, and the creature sent a jet of warmth down into his pad, expanding it, using it as some type of sensor.

Being touched and examined by these things began to alarm her as she wondered how detailed this inspection might become. On her shoulder, the leader sent another wave of warmth to her ear, assuring her. She relaxed her arm and moved it away from her side slightly, allowing the inspection by the second creature. The knowledgeable little creature expertly fitted his flattened footpad against her arm pit, and she realized that he was finding the pulse where it was strongest.

It all gradually made sense to her. The creatures were finding her pulses. Suddenly, the warmth of the pad on her ear began to make sense. He was deliberately using his pulses to soothe her. It was a form of communication.

A human can't communicate that way, she thought, dismayed, but as though in reply the leader directed another wave of warmth to her ear, and the sound of his pulse against her ear, steady and alive and warm, assured her. She took in her breath, exhaled, and relaxed, submitting to the examination.

But the creatures were delicate in their feelings, and gracious. The examination was complete. The second creature withdrew his footpad from her arm pit. The little female who had given her water detached herself from the group and went on all fours to the back of the cave. Jo made a mental note that though they could easily walk on their hind legs, they seemed to prefer a sort of loping walk on all fours, the pads of their hands and feet reduced to sturdy, muscular stumps.

The female returned in a moment with something in her mouth, something that she brought right up to Jo's face. Jo shrank back. The leader directed assurance to her through her ear, but she shrank away as she saw that the female had a type of cave cricket in its mouth and was intent on pushing it at Jo. The meaning was only too clear. They expected her to eat it. Somehow they knew she was hungry.

She turned her head away and looked mutely at the leader on her shoulder, imploring him with her eyes.

This was of no use whatsoever, as the creatures did not seem able to read or send any facial expressions. But he seemed to read her fear and revulsion through her pulse. One of the creatures in the living blanket touched a pad to the female's pad, and there was a moment's communication. Jo thought she could actually see the transmission of pulses from the leader on her shoulder, through the network of creatures, and over to the female. After a long moment, the female crunched down with her teeth, ate the cricket herself, and swallowed.

Jo wasn't sure if she was projecting her own interpretation onto the snow mice, but they seemed to be disappointed and faintly troubled that she would not eat. She suddenly wondered how it was that she knew that the one on her shoulder was male and the one who had tried to feed her was female. In fact, as she glanced down at the group of them, she knew as she looked at each one whether or not it was male or female. But as she puzzled over this, she knew for certainty that the leader would be Ootuk, the matronly female who had given her water would be Onaugh, and she began to name the others. And as she thought a name for each one, a series of one or two pulses came to her through her ear, slightly different each time. She guessed, but was not sure, that she might be calling a sort of roll, and each of the creatures was sending back to her an acknowledgement through the network as she identified each of them.

* * * *

The Doctor's first grim survey of the bitterly cold landscape did nothing to cheer him. Survival here for a human with no warm clothing, no means of making fire, and no food was a bleak prospect indeed. But he sighted a spiny ridge of rock formations a couple miles away. There was some hope of caves there, some hope of shelter, perhaps a subterranean spring that Jo might find. He wondered about the mind parasites. They also were inhabitants of this world, and though he was reasonably sure that they were normally oblivious to humans, he was also aware that there could be many species of the creatures, and some might be more sensitive to humans than others. The image of Jo being whisked into their lairs was unbearable.

He shrugged himself deeper into the coat and made a straight path for the nearest ridge of rocks. But the walk was longer than it had seemed. He toiled for a couple hours through the snow, all the time looking for some sign of her, some track or trail that would tell him she was here somewhere on this desolate planet.

* * * *

Ootuk was more confident than Jo about their ability to communicate with each other. She had now gone nearly twenty-four hours without food, and from the pulses she sensed through his pad on her ear, and certain sparks and memories of bits of shame and embarrassment that they evoked in her, she wondered if he were remonstrating with her for her refusal to eat crickets.

On a hunch, she focused her thoughts on crickets themselves--disgusting, slimy things with antennae and legs everywhere. To her surprise, several of the snow mice sat up on her, awakened from their comfortable doze. Ootuk seemed startled, to judge by a quick bunching of the pad on her ear and then its relaxation.

His pulses were then too mixed and complex, but she got the distinct idea that he was displeased. This distressed Jo. The memory of the soldiers' disdain for her was too fresh, and her own feelings over the last few weeks had been bruised enough as everything had been pulled out from under her. Though part of her wondered if she were not half mad or just fancying all of this, she focused on her own distress. She just could not eat crickets, but she did not want Ootuk to be displeased with her.

The result was another electrifying jolt through the network. And though she had not thought to be specific in what she was thinking about the last few weeks, one of the creatures smoothed its pad over the finger that had been broken. One of the females touched her bruised sternum. They generated many pulses to each other and to Ootuk as they made these discoveries, and she sensed Ootuk calming all of them.

She knew then that she had communicated to them--communicated more than she had intended. To some extent they seemed to have read her thoughts and memories. But if they were able to read her thoughts, it was a method that was still dependent on her pulses.

Ootuk shifted the pad on her ear, sending another jet through his muscles and veins. The warmth against her ear and the pulse itself did comfort her. Then she realized that he was expanding his pad, which she had thought was at full extension already, laid like a saucer against her ear. But the membranous, muscular pad grew warmer, swelled, softened, and fitted itself more perfectly to conform to her ear, then expanded and slipped around the lobe so that the ear was encased by it. He directed more blood through it, and the warmth and the pulse in the better fitting pad on her ear suddenly raised a wealth of memories so distant that Jo did not know if they were real memories or some sort of human consciousness buried in her. She seemed to remember her mother's heartbeat all around her, a dim place like this, warmth, and occasional light. The womb, she thought, but who could remember that?

Ootuk lay against her, straddled her shoulder, his warm, pancake belly on the side of her neck, his pad on her ear, his head on her head. Another reassuring pulse went through his pad. He was not displeased with her. He did not want her to feel grief or fear. She would have fallen asleep again, but he asked a question of her--a question of trouble and danger. Pulse communication does not use words, but if a human had phrased the question, it would have come out as something like Is the Stranger coming for you?

The question frightened her and awakened her, for she was already aware that this planet was populated with the most ruthless life form in the universe. And she did not know who the Stranger was, who this being could be that Ootuk thought might hunt her down. But Ootuk soothed her. He possessed some certainty that the Stranger could not find her here. But he asked the question again: Is the Stranger coming for you? But she did not know the Stranger.

He was troubled with himself for having frightened her so badly, and she sensed him recalling the many injuries on her that gave testimony to warfare and struggle. He modified his understanding of her yet again, taking into account the new details that he understood. He rushed blood and pulse to his pad on her ear, assurances of safety with him and the People--for that was what they called themselves, if it could be put into words.

The others followed his example, distressed that she would not understand how safe she was among them. On inspiration, Ootuk raised his gray and white head, the faint light from outside casting his finely chiseled profile almost in silhouette.

If he'd had ears, he would have looked almost catlike, though slightly larger than a cat. He turned his eyes to her, though she knew that in the dimness he could not see her nearly as well as she could see him. The gesture, she knew, was an imitation of a human gesture, gleaned somehow from his communion with her: the tender glance of affection and reassurance. But she knew he did not understand whether it was the arch of the head, the expression of the face, or the glance of eye to eye that communicated comfort. The creatures did not communicate with eyes or voice. A glance, a look, meant nothing to them.

Still, he meant it to be kind, and she relaxed as she looked at him. Like any human, the sensory input through her eyes affected her, and the beautiful creature, endowed with a certain dignity and strength all his own, was reassuring. She had no idea how these gentle, docile creatures could survive on a planet where the mind parasites held sway, but perhaps they truly could protect her.

* * * *

Back at the TARDIS, the Master was fully recovered. Several hours had passed since his unsuccessful struggle with the Doctor. But on the surface of this planet, he would the greater advantage in a fight. He knew the landscape and the terrain. A hunt through the back rooms of the TARDIS yielded up warm clothing, a small pack of food, and a prize better than all the rest: a crossbow and four darts, still in good condition. No doubt the Doctor had collected the items as curiosities, or as souveneirs of some great hunt in a bygone century. Bu they could still serve the purpose for which they had been designed--to pierce flesh and muscle with enough force to strike the heart.

The Master surveyed the damage that the Doctor had done to the console. It was irreparable without the circuits that the time lord had taken with him.

"Right Doctor," the Master said under his breath as he shouldered his way into the coat and belted the quiver of darts around his waist. "I've always enjoyed a hunt through the snow when the kill is mine." He picked up the crossbow and went to the console to open the doors.

Go to Episode 17.

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