"Have you found them yet?"
"Sshh!" the Doctor cautioned, unwilling to be distracted. "Wait -- I think I see them..." There was a long moment of silence as he peered intently through the small pair of binoculars he was holding. Suddenly, he grinned broadly. "Here," he said abruptly, handing the glasses to his companion, Dr. Grace Holloway. "Look over there," he told her, pointing to a green copse several hundred yards away.
She took the binoculars, and, training them on the spot he had indicated, twirled the focusing ring to bring the green patch into sharp definition. For a few moments she frowned, unable to see anything interesting, but then gasped in surprise, as a many-legged creature of iridescent shimmering hues, a sort of dry-land walking jellyfish, moved into view. Several more followed, and she stared in wonder.
"They're beautiful!" she exclaimed.
The Doctor smiled, gratified by her appreciation. "Aulorarenes. Very rare -- and very shy. I'm still surprised that we were able to see any."
"It certainly beats bird watching, hands down," Grace commented. "Oh!" Disappointment sharpened her voice. "They just disappeared."
"Probably detected us. Their sense of -- the closest analogy would be smell, I think -- is many times sharper than anything from Earth. They're still there, you know -- they’ve just shifted their surface to let light hitting them pass through more fully. When they're 'transparent' like this, they're practically invisible."
She laughed. "Nature's 'cloaking device'."
"That is where we steal all our ideas from."
Grace laughed again. She was really enjoying this outing. Although she'd hesitated the first time he'd asked, mindful of her responsibilities, when the Doctor had returned and offered her a second chance to travel with him, his assertion that she could return mere hours after she had left had led her to reconsider. She wasn't sure if her companion had been careful in choosing the places they had visited so far, but they'd had nothing happen to them yet that compared to the adventure that had befallen her on the New Year's Eve that she had first met the eccentric Time Lord called the Doctor.
Well, that was fine with her.
"I don't see any more of them around. What next?" she asked, handing the binoculars back to him with a smile.
"Back to the TARDIS, I think," he decided, glancing up at the late afternoon sky, as he stood up and brushed leaves and twigs off his knees. Dressed in his late nineteenth-century ensemble, he was effortlessly sartorial. Grace didn't know if he had taken a liking to the outfit, or if he took so little notice of clothing that he wore it merely because it was the closest thing to hand.
His pronouncement brought an involuntary look of disappointment to her face. Noticing it, he elaborated. "I'd rather we not stay too long -- we might run into some of the inhabitants of this planet, and Kretelans don't appreciate strangers. Also, it's getting late, and there are," he told her, eyebrows raised, "several night hunters here you most definitely would not enjoy meeting."
She stood up quickly. "In that case..." She grinned. "Who am I to argue?"
* * * * *
They moved along through a deep green woodland of squat trees that looked to Grace like coniferous ferns. Scrubby grass grew in patches under their feet, interspersed with bare ground. Small insects scuttled about, while others flew by with a barely-audible hum as the afternoon sun cast comforting red beams through the woodland around them.
They both froze and looked carefully around them. Grace strained her ears to the utmost, but heard nothing else.
"What?" she whispered.
The Doctor shook his head. "Don't know," he replied, equally softly. "Probably just some small creature..."
Then why were they both so uneasy?
They resumed their journey, moving more carefully and quickly. Grace had just started to relax again, when they heard a rustle off to their right.
Then to their left.
And behind them.
They stopped again in dismay, looking at each other, then at the brush ahead of them.
Something moved through the shrubbery in front of them, coming towards them.
"Oh dear," the Doctor muttered. "Well, it was nice while it lasted..."
Before Grace could ask what he meant by that comment, the rustlings increased in volume. More than one creature was definitely approaching them.
Grace stared in astonishment as six large forms emerged from the trees and stopped, surrounding her and the Doctor. Based on the description the Doctor had given her earlier, they had to be the native inhabitants of Kretel. They resembled seven-foot tall insects who shambled along on four legs, retaining two limbs to use as arms. Rather than compound eyes, though, they possessed a row of four dark eye spots, like those of spiders, and had what appeared to be several short tentacles sprouting from their 'foreheads'. Antennae, perhaps?
As disconcerting as their appearance was, though, it wasn't the most unnerving thing about them. Somehow, they managed to project an aura of menace. No, that wasn't quite right, she decided. They were stern. She got the impression that she and the Doctor were definitely being looked upon with disapproval. They had been found wanting.
It was not a pleasant sensation.
Worst of all was the thick silence that surrounded this bizarre tableau. Never had she felt such an air of anticipation.
Finally, the Doctor stepped forward and opened his mouth as if to speak. Before he could say anything, though, the creature directly in front of them moved forward a step and clacked its mouth parts together once sharply.
The Time Lord closed his mouth and stepped back. Neither the Doctor nor Grace needed a translation.
The creatures began to move forward, maintaining their ring. Unwilling to challenge their captors, the two travelers moved with the group and allowed themselves to be herded along.
Except for the mandible snap and the rustle of moving feet through the undergrowth, all was silent.
Talk somehow just didn't seem appropriate.
They had traveled in this slow fashion through the woodland for about a quarter-hour, when the ring of insectoid beings abruptly halted. Grace and the Doctor stood, peering around at their escort in an attempt to see what was happening.
The Kretelans were turning to look at each other. Pinchers were moving, and several mandibles clicked lightly. They seemed to be having a conference of some kind.
Then the entire party stood still, as cracklings and rustlings came from the trees and bushes on their left. A hoarse voice suddenly shouted out.
Grace yelped in involuntary surprise as a coherent light beam zipped by her, almost clipping her side. Behind her, a Kretelan spun around and toppled to the ground, a smoking hole punched in its side.
The next instant, the glade they'd stopped in became a web of beams as the unseen assailants on their left poured fire upon them.
The Doctor grabbed Grace's arm and yanked her down with him. They hit the ground hard, then glanced up in dismay at the carnage surrounding them.
Three of their 'guards' already lay still upon the ground. The other three were making a credible attempt to flee through the trees to their right, but they didn't seem to be able to move quickly enough. Grace looking to her left, saw several running shapes moving towards them through the trees.
They were human.
Two of the fleeing insectoids suddenly crashed to the ground. Grace tried to blink away the afterimage of the light-flare from the rifles the rushing figures had just fired.
"Stop!" the Doctor shouted, jumping up and confronting their attackers. One of the men, rifle aimed and about to fire at the remaining creature, cursed and swerved to avoid a collision.
"You idiot!" the rifleman snarled. "Are you trying to get yourself killed?!"
"What in the high plains of Vandanim do you think you're doing?!" the Doctor snarled back.
The stranger stared as if the Doctor were insane. "What? Saving your lives, what did you think?! Who knows what those things were going to do to you!"
The Doctor abruptly slumped, his momentary fury draining away. "And to do that, you had to kill them all...without even trying to communicate with them?"
One of the other strangers trotted up from behind them. "Couldn't find it, Penn," he told the man the Doctor had been talking to.
"Damn," 'Penn', obviously their leader, muttered. "It might raise an alert. Well, it doesn't matter -- we'll be long gone by then." He raised his voice to carry around the clearing. "All right! Get ready to move out!"
Grace got to her feet. "You killed them," she stated flatly, staring around the glade at the prone forms. "You didn't even give them a chance to let us go."
Penn gaped at her for a moment. "For two people whose lives we just saved, you don't sound very grateful," he finally said, sardonically. "Next time, we won't bother."
"It's precisely this type of moronic violence that gives you humans a bad name," the Doctor muttered, giving Penn the evil eye. "All they were doing was escorting us somewhere. There was no proof that they were going to hurt us."
Behind him, Grace shot a quick look at him, but said nothing.
"What do you mean, you humans?" Penn asked, suspiciously.
The Doctor folded his arms. "You heard me. It's at moments like these that I don't mind being able to say that I come from a much more civilized planet."
"And what planet would that be?" Penn asked him sarcastically.
"Never heard of it."
"That's because we know better than to let ourselves be found by primitives like you."
Grace looked away, discomforted.
As Penn narrowed his eyes at the insult, one of his men, standing next to him, nudged him and rolled his eyes.
The leader glanced sharply at the man and nodded, his mouth twisting in a wry smirk.
"Right," he said. His eyes flicked contemptuously up and down the righteously-indignant figure in front of him. "We have more important things to do right now than to discuss your version of reality."
When the Doctor opened his mouth to protest, Grace elbowed him in the side. Distracted, he glared at her. "Doctor!" she hissed, looking meaningfully at the weapons all around them. He looked around, then back at her with a 'your point being?' expression on his face. She shook her head in exasperation.
Penn gestured to two of his five-man crew. "Lester and Gruz, you're on point. Let's go." The group moved forward, then hesitated when Grace and the Doctor showed no signs of wanting to join them.
"After all the trouble we went to for you, you're coming with us. Now move," Penn told them firmly.
"But we have our own transport," Grace told him, smiling in a mollifying manner. "It's back that way..." She pointed back the way they had come. "You've already done enough for us--" Behind her, the Doctor snorted in disgust, and she winced as the men around them glared. "--so we'll just be on our way..."
Penn's eyes narrowed again. "Maybe you do, and maybe you don't. And maybe you'll run into more of those...things that you seem so sympathetic towards, and point them right in our direction. Nope, sorry," he said gesturing with his rifle. "Now let's go.”
Grace sighed. The Doctor glared. But they started walking.
"Typical," the Time Lord muttered in disgust, sulking with his hands in his pockets. "Absolutely typical."
* * * * *
"So, what are you two doing here, anyway?" Penn asked the Doctor and Grace as they walked.
Everybody stared at Grace.
"Well, it's true!" she said indignantly. "What's your excuse?" she demanded, turning to Penn.
"We had to stop for repairs," he told her, shortly.
"Uh-huh," she replied, glancing at him. "And you just happened to see us..."
"Like I said, I won't make the same mistake again."
"So, is it pirates -- or smugglers?" the Doctor inquired knowingly.
Penn almost sputtered. "Look--' He regained control over himself and spun around. "We don't give a damn about your sanctimonious opinions. So shut up. Once we're back to the ship, we're out of here -- you two can stay here and go back to those bugs, or to the devil, for all I care."
"Kretelans! They're called Kretelans!"
"Penn!" It was Lester, running back towards the main party. "Bugs sighted, up ahead!"
Penn paused to consider. "What are they doing?"
"Nothing. Just standing there -- a whole line of them."
"Blocking us from the ship. All right," he said. "So they didn't learn their lesson, eh? Well, we'll just have to teach them again."
The Doctor and Grace stared in renewed dismay as the party unslung their rifles and drew their blasters.
"Listen!" the Doctor said now, urgently, all trace of his earlier flippancy gone. "You don't have to go to all this trouble. Why not just go around them?"
As Penn glanced scornfully behind at them, Gruz slipped out of the trees and rejoined the party. "There's a solid line of them running through the forest as far as I could see," he told them, fear tingeing his voice. "They're just standing there. Darndest thing I ever saw."
Penn sneered. "They think they can stop us, eh?"
One of the other men suddenly called out. "They're behind us!"
And indeed they were. "A trap!" Penn snarled, glaring over at Grace and the Doctor as if they were the culprits.
"Don't look at us!" Grace exclaimed. "We don't like this any more than you do!"
It was now obvious that they were within a huge circle of Kretelans, who, now that their quarry had entered the ring, were drawing it tight.
"Get back-to-back!" Penn told his men. "We'll shoot our way out," he reassured them, as uneasy mutters rose around him at the unnerving sight of dozens of insects advancing upon them.
"No! Don't make the same mistake you made before!" the Doctor urged them.
Frightened as they were, they roundly ignored his advice, activating their weapons and firing upon the insectoids.
Grace winced, anticipating another massacre, but to her surprise, the bolts spattered ineffectually off the advancing forms.
She and the Doctor looked at each other. "Deflector shields?" she speculated, as the men around them continued to fire, uselessly.
"Perhaps," he replied, looking relieved. "They obviously learned from the last attack."
Some of the men, realizing the futility, stopped shooting. Others, panicked, would have continued but for Penn's snapped command to cease fire.
An uneasy silence fell. The huddled knot of humans stared around them at the equally silent ring of dark brown insectoid shapes. The quiet took on an ominous quality, one that Grace fancied she was alone in feeling, until she glanced around and saw the pale, terrified faces of the people surrounding her. Even the Doctor looked unusually worried.
"What is it?" she asked him.
The Doctor frowned deeply and shook his head from side to side. His heavy sigh did little to inspire confidence.
Then, from the line of Kretelans, a dozen dark 'balloons' curved up and tumbled through the air towards them.
"Oh, no--" the Doctor muttered, flinching, as Penn's men blew the balloons apart with extreme prejudice. A fine gray powder began to drift down upon the group. Several of the men laughed derisively at such a poor excuse for a weapon -- until they started to breathe in the dust.
Retching coughs rose around them, as the Doctor grabbed at Grace's arm. "Erm, I suppose it's too late, but I would avoid breathing the dust..." he suggested.
"It's too late," she told him fatalistically, coughing so hard as the powder entered her lungs that she fell to her knees. The Doctor hadn't broken into a spasm of coughing like everybody else, but he stood, frozen, with the most peculiar look on his face. "How strange," he muttered. "I do believe it's--"
The last thing Grace saw before she gratefully passed out was her companion dropping to the ground as if he had been pole-axed.
Grace awoke to find that she had been shrink-wrapped. Well, okay, she wasn't wrapped quite that tightly, but she was definitely cocooned in some translucent, elastic material. It was like being trapped in a mummy-style sleeping bag.
After an initial burst of panic in which she wriggled futilely, she returned to her senses and lay back. She was fortunately no longer feeling the effects of the 'dust' that the Kretelans had attacked them with, and the air inside the cocoon had none of that stuffy oxygen-depleted quality of bad air, so she was probably not in imminent danger of suffocating. In fact, air was probably diffusing through the wrapping.
Now I know what a caterpillar feels like, she thought, in a momentary burst of semi-hysterical humor. Very snug.
I really want out of here, right now.
As she twitched her right hand along her side, she felt the contents of her windbreaker pocket and smiled. Reaching in, she removed her Swiss army knife.
The wrapping had just enough 'give' for her to bring her hands together and open the largest blade. It took several minutes of sawing, but the fibers began to part, far more easily than she had feared. Once she had broken through, she was able to cut a large slit and sat up out of her wrap, blinking.
She was in a small, tan, oval room with a curving, bowl-shaped roof above. There was what looked like a curved door set into the wall behind her. Some hidden source of light lent a dim glow to the room. Looking to her right, she saw another cocoon lying next to her.
She climbed quickly out of the remains of her wrap and set to work on what she sincerely hoped was the Doctor's prison. She carefully bisected the cocoon's surface with practiced skill. "Amazing where these surgical techniques come in handy," she observed sardonically, as she carefully peeled apart the opening.
He lay inside, coma-still.
She felt a flash of fear. He looked as lifeless as he had when he had 'died' in his earlier form in the OR where she had first met him.
Of course, then she hadn't known he wasn't from Earth. She'd felt, though, the gut-wrench of failure from losing a patient so quickly and mysteriously.
How was she supposed to have just taken his word for it that he wasn't human?
Well, she knew now, but that didn't help her very much. She still knew very little about what made the Doctor tick, physiologically. And even if she did, she had no medical instruments to check him with.
"Damn," she muttered in frustration. Here she was, a fully-trained doctor, and she couldn't even be sure of her friend's condition. She tried to check for a pulse, placing her fingers on his neck at the spot where the carotid artery would be on a human, but felt nothing. Increasingly worried, she checked for respiration, and to her immense relief, could barely feel him breathing.
"Doctor, can you hear me?"
Smelling salts, she thought in frustration, leaning back on her knees. < i>What I wouldn't do for some smelling salts. Although, with my luck, they'd probably 'kill' him too.
She suddenly leaned forward again, seized by a new concern. What if he was about to 'regenerate' again?
"Doctor, will you wake up!" she exclaimed.
His eyes snapped open with disconcerting suddenness, and she jerked back, startled. For a few moments, he stared straight up at the ceiling, and then flicked his blue gaze over at her.
"You don't need to shout, you know. I can hear quite well."
She almost laughed from combined relief and exasperation. "You seemed to be in a coma," she explained.
"Coma? Nonsense. I was just conserving air." He levered himself up on his elbows and looked disapprovingly at the glistening filaments surrounding him, then back at her, as if she might somehow be responsible for his predicament.
This time she did laugh, and held up the pocket knife. "You're not the only person with useful things in their pockets," she told him, smugly. She stood up and reached a hand down towards him. Relenting, he smiled absently and used her leverage to pull himself up.
While he picked off the remaining strands of cocoon, she wandered over to the wall and experimentally rapped on it. "It sounds...'light'," she observed in surprise. "As if it were thin, like an eggshell."
He joined her, trying an tap for himself. "Not a bad analogy," he commented.
She rapped again. "I feel like I could just break a hole right through," she declared, drawing back her hand as if she were about to test her theory. She stopped at her companion's concerned expression.
"Just kidding," she reassured him. "I'd prefer the door, myself."
There were no obvious door controls, no handle, nothing. "Pressure sensitive?" the Doctor muttered hopefully, carefully checking various spots around the outline of the door.
"We're locked in," Grace decided, glumly, sitting down next to the remains of her cocoon. She reached over and began to pick at the strands. "Like silk," she noted idly. "I just hope that this isn't the local version of a cupboard, and that we aren't some giant spider's lunch."
"I doubt it," he told her, wandering away from the door.
"What was all that," she asked him suddenly, with deliberate casualness, "about how 'primitive' we humans are?"
"Hmmm?" he asked, absently. Then, a few moments later he started, as if the words had finally registered, swung around, and stared at her.
She looked steadily back at him, deliberately keeping her facial expression neutral.
He blinked. "I wasn't referring to you, of course," he assured her. "Violence has always a pet peeve of mine."
"Fine, but that was quite a blanket-condemnation I heard back there. I mean, first you save Earth -- about which I have no complaints, by the way -- and next, you're insulting all of humanity..."
"You'd not think so, had you seen what I have..."
"...Consistent you aren't."
He peered at her sternly. "You want consistency? Try the truth instead -- humans are the most exasperating, stubborn, self-destructive beings I have ever seen." He paused for dramatic effect. "You are also," he told her with a twinkle in his eye, spreading his arms wide, "the most enterprising, flexible, inventive adventurers and dreamers that I have ever met."
Grace blinked, disarmed.
"Grace," he continued earnestly, abruptly squatting down to her eye level, "that is the paradox of humanity. I know; I've seen it. Humans will do great things as they move out into the galaxy -- but also commit great horrors." He stood up again and resumed his restless perambulation.
She stared after him, unnerved. It was at moments like this that she was reminded how much more her companion had experienced than she had. The thought of how heavy all that knowledge might lay upon a mind was disturbing.
She shivered a little and returned the conversation to their current situation. "I wonder what happened to the others?" she wondered aloud. "You said earlier that the natives didn't like strangers. How much trouble do you think we're really in?"
He hummed and hawed. "Hard to say. I just know what I've been told about this planet."
"That it's not a good place to be caught trespassing."
"Great," she groused. "So we get to find out the hard way."
"Well..." He suddenly looked terribly innocent.
"Yes?" she inquired brightly.
"Since we've obviously already overstayed our welcome, I don't suppose our hosts would really object to our leaving."
"I was wondering how long it would take you to come to that conclusion," she said dryly. She got up and approached the door. "Shall I do the honors?" she inquired archly, drawing back her foot.
"If you insist."
"Oh, I've always wanted to do this since I saw my first Jackie Chan movie."
Craack! A cobweb of cracks appeared at the sight of her first, cautious kick. Another blow weakened the door yet further. She leaned carefully against it, pushing.
"It's as I thought; there's hardly anything to it," she told him. "It's positively rickety." She gave it a hard shove, and it juddered open, hanging crookedly, partly detached from its 'hinge'.
Outside, they could see a rounded tunnel of the same tan material curving away on both sides.
"Well?" she asked the Doctor as he joined her at the doorway. "Right or left? You're the one with all the experience on this type of thing."
He grinned. "At times like these, one requires a random probability generator," he said, reaching into his pocket and producing a large gold coin. He flipped it, caught it and peered at the result. "Tails," he announced. "We go -- right!"
They set off. The tunnel followed a curving, sinuous pathway, around wall bulges into which were occasionally set doors similar to the one they'd removed. Grace shivered, thinking that it was only a matter of time before they came upon one of the inhabitants. If they were very lucky, perhaps it was this planet's nighttime, and the insectoids asleep. If they slept.
The next instant, they rounded a curve in the corridor and came face-to-face with a Kretelan.
Everybody froze. The Kretelan stared at them, and the Doctor and Grace stared back. Finally, the Doctor took a tentative step forward. "Pardon us," he said politely. "We were just seeing ourselves out." As he moved slowly forward, the insectoid shrank back against the wall as if frightened. Grace followed the Doctor, and they carefully moved around and past the spot where the being cowered.
"Keep going," the Doctor said quietly to Grace. "But don't run."
He risked a glance back, and saw the insect still immobile against the wall, staring after them. Then they turned a corner and were out of sight.
"Well, if they all react like that, then perhaps we'll be able to just walk right out --" he began.
He abruptly stopped and grimaced, shaking his head. "Blast," he muttered. "Must be an alarm."
Grace blinked. "What? I don't hear anything."
"You wouldn't. It's just above the range of your hearing."
"Well, I heard that!" she exclaimed, grabbing his arm and looking back in alarm as the sound of many limbs scrabbling off in the distance came to her ears. "Let's get out of here!"
* * * * *
Several twists and turns brought them to an intersection. They paused for a few moments to catch their breath and decide on a direction. One branch of the tunnel curved levelly to the right. The other curved left and upwards.
"That way," the Doctor advised, pointing to the left-hand way. "If we're underground, the way out will be upwards," he explained.
Grace shrugged. "Fine with me," she replied. "As long as it's away from whoever's chasing us."
As if on cue, they heard sudden movement close behind them. Another Kretelan, this one green, came shambling around the corner they'd just turned. It halted momentarily upon seeing them, but then continued, heading straight towards them.
"They don't seem to be as leery of us anymore," the Doctor observed, as they both backed rapidly away.
"Where did it come from?" Grace exclaimed. "I didn't hear anything!"
As if in answer to her question, one of the occasional doors set into the tunnel walls swung open, as another green insectoid emerged. It joined its fellow, stalking towards the fugitives.
They hurried up the tunnel away from their inexorable pursuers.
"Well, they don't stop, but at least they can't move very fast," Grace commented, hopefully.
"Yes, that's something," the Doctor agreed. "But if they should surround us..." his voice trailed off, as he sniffed suspiciously at the air.
The next instant, Grace smelled it, too. "What is that?" she demanded, wrinkling her nose.
The now familiar scratching noise came from close behind. "Why do I get the feeling that we're being herded somewhere we don't want to go?" Grace said, discouraged.
Continuing onwards, they rounded a large curve and found themselves entering a huge open space, a circular amphitheater. Made of the same tan 'adobe' as the rest of the structure, with a domed roof that curved away high above their heads, it was thronged with hundreds of Kretelans. In the very center of the room was a round seething pool about ten feet across of some brown and viscous fluid, the source of the peculiar odor. Next to it sat a pedestal on which was perched a small globe about the size of a basketball and the color of hematite.
The natives were ranked on rising concentric platforms that ringed the room. The sound of clicking mandibles was silenced as soon as two humans appeared. The sudden quiet seemed to be that of expectation, though, not of surprise.
"We were supposed to come here," Grace said.
"Yes," the Doctor agreed, as several green insectoids appeared behind them, effectively blocking any attempt they might have made to flee the auditorium. "Well," he said quietly, betraying neither fear or hope, "now we'll find out what they want."
The Doctor and Grace advanced further into the huge space. The green 'guards' stayed behind at the entrance.
It was one of the most eerie experiences of Grace's life, walking alongside her Time Lord companion into that huge, thick silence. It was almost as if what she thought was silence really wasn't, as if some subtle form of communication she couldn't quite sense properly was going on around her, and she shivered. She glanced aside at the Doctor. His face was grave, his bearing alert, but she could tell nothing else from his expression.
They stopped automatically several meters short and to the right of the pool, as if bid to do so. From the ranks of Kretelans, one rose and ame towards the two humans. It stopped and stood, regarding them sternly.
Grace found herself staring at the floor, obscurely ashamed. Next to her, the Doctor bowed his head momentarily, as if he felt a similar emotion. Then he suddenly looked up again.
"No," he said defiantly. "I do not accept this."
Grace blinked and looked up again at the tiers of insectoids surrounding them, as a whispering murmur of rapid clicks rose around them.
The 'judge', as Grace had begun to think of it, stood staring at them for a moment, then gestured peremptorily with one limb at the globe.
The Doctor, striding forward, placed his hands upon the globe. His expression abruptly changed.
"Yes," he said, concentrating. "That is better. You're coming through much more clearly..."
"Doctor?" Grace asked carefully. "Can you understand them?"
"We both can, to some extent, but their mode of communication is so different than ours that we're picking up only the fuzziest edge, such as basic emotions," he explained carefully to her, his brow furrowed. "This is...an 'enhancer' that should allow me to communicate directly with them, mind-to-mind."
Grace went matter-of-factly forward and placed her hands on the other side of the globe. Instantly, a wave of garbled images swept through her mind, overwhelming her, and she recoiled from the globe, gasping.
"Sorry." He glanced at her ruefully. "I think that was me. This appears to be meant for only one person at a time. When I have enough information, 'll give you a synopsis."
"Sure," she conceded, shaking her head dazedly.
Left out of the loop as she was, she was forced to watch the Doctor's facial expressions for a clue as to what was being communicated.
What she saw did not reassure her. The Doctor's face, initially creased in concentration, grew even graver. All the Kretelans in the amphitheater seemed to be leaning forward intently, as if concentrating on the Time Lord standing before them.
Suddenly, the Doctor's face twisted. "No!" he protested. "We never intended--"
Grace leaned anxiously forward.
His face smoothed over again, and he broke off contact, stepping carefully away from the globe as if he had suddenly become fragile. Then he looked up at her, and despite his now level expression, she knew the news was bad.
"Well?" she asked quietly.
"I think it would have been better if we had not come here," he said, evenly. "Our hosts blame us for everything untoward that has happened today: for trespassing, for the murders of their brethren in the forest, for the inconvenience of having to subdue Penn's band and capture us, and last but not least," he paused with an involuntary grimace, "for the destruction of one perfectly good door."
"They blame us--?" she said in involuntary surprise. "But it's not our fault, except for the trespassing -- and the door! Explain to them."
"I did. Several times. They're not impressed with our line of reasoning."
"What about Penn and the others?"
"As they see it, we two were there first, and all that followed was directly due to our presence. What we see as coincidence, they see as meaningful. We are, so to speak, the 'prima causa'. They left Penn and his men behind, just watching to make sure that they would leave the planet, which they did, when they came to."
Grace's jaw dropped. "You mean they just let them go, and they're blaming us? That's insane!" she expostulated.
"It is not," he replied, looking at her sharply. "It's a different way of looking at reality, and no less valid than yours, or mine. You're a traveler, now. Did you really think that everybody you met would think the same way that you do?"
She glared back at him. "I hadn't really thought that much about it," she admitted. "But I am not going to take the blame for those murders."
"I'm not asking you to. But it's important that you understand why we're in this situation."
"Well," she said, calming down somewhat, "What next?"
He glanced over at the 'judge', who had been standing nearby throughout their exchange, waiting patiently, then at the viscous pool to their left, and hesitated before answering.
"I'm afraid that they regard our appearance and the day's calamitous events as evidence of our having offended their deity, if I understood them correctly," he told her. "They do appear to be a somewhat xenophobic species."
"They say that due to the grievous nature of our offense, there are only two choices: the first option, which would allow us to properly expiate our sins, is for us to voluntarily climb into this pool here," he nodded at the bubbling brown pool, "and, I quote, 'allow our essences to rejoin the organic primordium'."
Grace's jaw dropped again before she noticed and shut it. "And the other?" she asked, faintly.
"They didn't want to talk about it; evidentially they consider it a fate too horrible to even think about."
She stared at the evil-smelling brown pool. The 'judge' wandered over a few steps, clicking hopefully. Glaring at the insectoid, she backed away from the pool. "Don't get excited; I'm not going in there," she told it.
The Doctor sniffed and agreed with her. "I shouldn't want to, either. I recognize the odor now -- it's a strong mix of corrosive acids."
Grace shuddered -- she'd seen acid burns. "They actually think that we'll just go in there, and let ourselves be dissolved?!"
"Well, when I asked them about that, they told me that, as a concession to our, ah, 'spiritual weakness', they would be willing to 'remove our heads for us', once we were in the pool."
Grace stared at him, then at the insects around them, as they leaned encouragingly forward. "I do not believe that this is happening," she said finally, shaking her head. "No, wait--" she corrected herself, raising a hand to forestall whatever comment the Doctor was opening his mouth to make. "I do.
"I think it would be safe to say that I can answer for both of us," she continued, walking resolutely over to the hematite globe and placing her palms gingerly against its surface again. She felt a slight tingle, as if from a low voltage of electricity, took a deep breath, and began to speak with all the conviction she could muster, hoping the Kretelans would understand her.
"We are not going to get into that pool. We're sorry some of you were killed. We didn't do it; we didn't want it to happen. Maybe you think you have the right to execute us, but we will not accept the blame for the murders. That's how we see what happened today." She stepped wearily away from the globe, and rubbing the sides of her arms as if cold, looked up at the beings surrounding them.
"Do you think I got through to them?" she wondered aloud, walking back over to her companion, who was intently watching the 'judge'. "Well, I guess we'll find out what the other horrible choice is now," she said, sadly.
The two travelers drew close together, expecting a mob of angry insectoids to descend upon them. The Doctor, noticing the drawn expression on Grace's face, put an arm comfortingly around her.
Around them, the natives sat still and silent.
The Doctor and Grace waited tensely.
Finally, a wave of creaking and clicking ran through the crowd. Grace, able to comprehend only the faintest threads of their communications, nevertheless felt that it was a wave of dread.
Oh, no, she thought, despairingly. Here it comes.
The 'judge' backed rapidly away from them, as if they were contaminated. As it reached the edge of the amphitheater floor, it stopped, and, raising its segmented arms, stood momentarily frozen.
The air was electric. The throngs above them paused in fascinated horror, as Grace and the Doctor looked on in suspense.
The 'judge' brought his pincher-hands together with a snap that cut through the air. The edifice itself seemed to sigh.
Then, the hundreds of insectoids within the hall simultaneously turned their backs on the two alien criminals, and stood facing away from them.
"What in the heck?" Grace muttered, frowning.
Next to her, the Doctor was staring no less, but with more comprehension than his companion.
"Shunned," he said in amazement. "We're being shunned!"
"I've seen it before -- it's the worst punishment imaginable to a communal species," he said, taking her arm. "Let's go."
"They're just going to let us walk out? After all the trouble they say we caused?"
"Yes," he told her, with some asperity. "Or would you prefer to wait and see if they change their minds?"
"No," she replied quickly. "Going's fine."
They walked briskly out of the amphitheater. As they drew near the green 'guards' who had chased them in earlier, the massive creatures moved quickly out of their way, turning so as not to have to look at them.
It took them a little while to find their way out of the structure. They came upon several more insectoid natives as they searched for an exit, but each time, the creatures offered no resistance, instead scrambling to avoid them and refusing to look at them.
"How do they know?" Grace whispered to the Doctor. "They weren't in the auditorium."
The Time Lord shook his head tensely. "Nevertheless, they know. We can speculate later."
Despite his unease, they were challenged not once during the journey back through the settlement, built all of the same tan-colored 'adobe', to which they'd been brought. They hurried gingerly down the main thoroughfare, heading out of town, as natives on either side turned pointedly away, positively reeking of contempt.
It was disconcerting, to say the least. If she had been one of the natives, Grace conceded, she probably would have felt terrible. As it was, though, she was practically giddy with relief.
Once out of town, the Doctor stood considering for a moment, then pointed off through the countryside. "The TARDIS is in that direction," he told her. "If we keep up a brisk pace, we can be there in less than an hour."
"Okay, but we're not really in that much of a hurry now, are we? They're obviously not going to attack us."
"True," he conceded. "To them, we no longer exist."
"I have to confess that I really don't see why they considered this punishment so much more horrible than that acid bath," Grace admitted. "Though I'm certainly glad that they did."
"For all intents and purposes, we've 'died', our sins unexpiated. Imagine if your existence was never ever acknowledged again, by anybody, as if you were invisible. I don't imagine many people could live like that for very long, and the Kretelans seem to be even more communal than humans. It's similar to the vodoo 'death curses' of your planet; people tend to fulfill such deathwishes. If we'd jumped in the acid pool, our deaths would at least have been 'honorable' in their eyes."
"Oh," Grace said, a trifle shakily. "Well, no offense to their religious beliefs, but this I can live with."
The Doctor smiled. "Me, too. But we've already caused enough disruption here. It's high time we were on our way."
"It almost sounds," she said critically, hurrying to keep up with his strides," as if you agree with their blaming us for everything that happened."
"In a way, they are right. Think about it," he suggested. "If we hadn't been here and been caught trespassing, then Penn and his men might not have felt the need to attack our escort in order to 'rescue' us."
"But they might have attacked them anyway; they were frightened of the Kretelans."
"True. But then they would have been the 'prima causa', and responsible for their own deeds."
"So the moral is --"
"--that even the simplest actions can have the most far-reaching results."
"--stay the heck off of Kretel," Grace finished dryly.