Equilibrium : A 13th Doctor Story – Part 1

Equilibrium

Image Credit: Adapted from Dan Sellers (CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons) and Antranias (Pixabay)

Image Description: The TARDIS arrives in woodland

By Phillip Holdridge

“Doctor!” Yaz exclaimed cheerfully as she opened the door, “you came!”

“Of course I did; I wouldn’t want to miss Ryan’s birthday!” The Doctor entered Graham’s house and followed Yaz into the living room. Ryan was already there, sat at the table holding spider-themed Top Trumps cards. The Doctor handed him a small present.

Ryan thanked her, and tore off the wrapping paper. “It’s Stormzy’s new album, I hope you’ve not got it already,” the Doctor explained.

“But he doesn’t have a new album,” Ryan turned over the CD case, “copyright 2025!”

“Well, it’s very new, ok,” said the Doctor.

“That’s incredible!” said Ryan.

“Not really,” said the Doctor, “you already know I can travel in time.”

“No, I mean it’s incredible that people still make CDs in 2025.”

“Oh…” said the Doctor, “well anyway, listen, you don’t mind if we have a slight change of plan, only…”

“Why do I suddenly get the feeling you’re about to suggest we all stop having fun and go and do something very dangerous?” said Graham, entering the room with a cake ready to go in the oven.

“It’s not that dangerous, probably. It’s just I’ve received this distress call through a crack in spacetime, and if we don’t go soon it might close up!”

“But what about my birthday!” Ryan protested.

“And what about the cake?” added Graham.

“We can still do all that; it’s just a change of venue! Besides, there’s a kitchen in the TARDIS. Come on, birthday cake on another planet! How often does that happen?”

The Doctor led the way into the TARDIS. Although it appears on the outside to just be a small blue police box, the inside of the TARDIS is much larger and generally more cool-looking. The entrance door opens into a large, circular control room, where crystalline pillars surround a central control panel covered in screens, buttons, levers and other gadgetry. This was where the Doctor stood, tinkering with the ship’s complicated controls.

“So, where’s this kitchen you were talking about?” Graham asked, the unbaked cake still in his hands.

“I don’t know, somewhere down that corridor, you’ll find it eventually. I’ve got a virtually infinite number of rooms in this place, you can’t expect me to know where everything is!”

Graham gave a sigh and headed off down the corridor. The Doctor was looking at one of the screens, out into the time vortex. Yaz pointed to what looked like a long gash in the swirling clouds of time. “Is that where we’re going?” she asked.

“Yes, and it could lead anywhere in the whole of time and space, or possibly even somewhere outside of it. All we know is that someone is in trouble, and they need our help.” The three watched the screen as the gash grew closer, until the screen was just a flash of light.

The TARDIS emitted its characteristic whooshing noise as it faded into existence in the middle of an alien woodland. “Ooh, I think we’re in another universe,” the Doctor commented as she looked at her monitor screens, “a miniature universe: just one solar system and that’s it.” She walked over to the door and opened it. “It looks safe out here,” she said.

The Doctor, Ryan, Yaz and Graham stood on the damp soil of the forest floor. They noticed the squirrel almost immediately. It may have had green fur and eight legs, but the Doctor and her friends were used to seeing aliens. What stood out to them was something else. Apparently oblivious to their presence, it’s frontmost paws dug into the earth and pulled up a nut. It then scampered around the trees before returning and burying the nut in the same place. Then it did the whole thing again, and again.

“It looks like that squirrel’s one acorn short of an oak tree!” said Graham.

“I think you’re right,” said the Doctor, “but let’s not get too close! We don’t know what it’s capable of. How about this way?” She gestured to her right. The path led them down a gentle slope through the trees. It appeared to be the height of Spring, and flowers grew all over the forest floor, insects buzzing around them in circles. Above, the oddly shaped leaves were interspersed with blossom. They could even hear the sweet chirping of birds. It seemed like the safest place in the universe: who could be sending out a distress call?

As they walked, the trees thinned out. The slope grew gradually steepe,r and below them they saw a lush valley. A stream randown from a waterfall in the hills to their left and flowed off towards the horizon on their right. Right there, in the middle of the valley, lay the wreckage of a spaceship. At least there were survivors, that was immediately clear. They’d pitched a few tents on the flattest area of ground they could find, and a few people could be seen sitting outside them. The other eight survivors had loaded a makeshift sled with supplies salvaged from the wreck, and were dragging it up to the camp.

“Well, that was easier than I was expecting,” said Yaz. “It’s not often we go somewhere and don’t end up in some kind of life or death situation!”

“Don’t speak too soon,” said Ryan. Just as he said it, one of the survivors slipped, and the others lost their grip on the rope. The sled glided back down until it hit the spaceship with a metallic thud. A little dejectedly, the eight turned around, retracing their steps to pick up the rope and start again.

Meanwhile, Jacen was busily stirring his tea. He was sitting on a crate outside his tent with a mug in his hand. Along with the other technician, Munith, he was conducting maintenance on the radio transmitter, which sat in the middle of the ring of tents. Munith emerged from her tent, “I couldn’t find the solar cells,” she said, “I don’t know what’s happened to them.”

Jacen kept stirring for a few seconds before he noticed he was being spoken to. “What did you say? I’m sorry I, um… it’s just I think there’s something wrong with this sugar.” He lifted his spoon out of the tea and gazed at it in bewilderment.

“I said I couldn’t find the solar cells, and never mind about your tea: this is more important. If that transmitter runs out of power, then how are we ever going to get help?”

“You’re right,” said Jacen, putting his mug down on the grass, “I’ll go and look for some.” He turned to go into his tent.

He came back out again a minute or two later. “Any luck?” asked Munith. Jacen shook his head. “I’ll have another look in my tent,” Munith said, “They must be around somewhere.” Jacen sat back down on his crate and picked up the mug of tea, stirring it busily once again.

“I couldn’t find the solar cells,” she said a little wearily, emerging from her tent next to Jacen’s, “I don’t know what’s happened to them.”

There was a pause. Jacen didn’t respond; he seemed preoccupied with his tea. She was used to Jacen being like this. Once, on their first flight together, he had been doing a sudoku on his bunk when a meteor struck the hull. He fell out of his bunk onto the floor, and only after filling out the third row from the bottom, did he remark, “Munith, did something just happen?”

She was about to ask him again when he finally responded, “What did you say? I’m sorry I, um… it’s just I think there’s something wrong with this sugar.”

“I said I couldn’t find the solar cells, and… oh.” Munith and Jacen looked up at the group of four strangers who had just arrived.

The first to speak was the one with the long, grey coat, who looked like she was in charge, “Hello, we got your distress signal. I’m the Doctor, and this is Graham,” she gestured to the old man on her left; “this is Ryan,” she gestured to the young man on her right; “and this is Yaz,” she gestured to the young woman who was also on her right.

Jacen and Munith just stared blankly for a few seconds. “Well… nice to meet you,” Munith eventually managed to say, as though she was trying to remember how, “and what brings you here?”

“The Doctor just said: we got your distress signal,” said Ryan, “we’ve come to save you!”

“Oh yes! I remember now!” Jacen exclaimed, “my name’s Jacen and this is Munith. We crash-landed here didn’t we? And we were just doing maintenance to this, um, radio transmitter here.” Ryan and Graham exchanged bemused glances.

They all heard a faint yelp as one of the salvage team lost his footing and a crash as the sled slipped back down to the ship. “In the exact same spot…” the Doctor muttered to herself. She turned to Jacen and Munith. “The salvage team seem to be having trouble with that sled, maybe they need a hand.”

“We were planning on it, just as soon as we’ve finished this maintenance,” said Munith.

“And once I’ve finished my tea,” added Jacen.

Munith scoffed, “You and your tea. You’ve been stirring that for ages; isn’t it cool enough to drink now?”

Jacen lifted the spoon out of the mug. “There’s something very weird about it, look.” Everybody crowded around, craning their necks to see Jacen’s teaspoon. It was full of sugar. “It just won’t dissolve!” he said.

“Just how long have you been sat here?” the Doctor asked.

Jacen strained his memory, “Oh, um, I can’t even remember. It must have been ages!”

“Neither can I,” added Munith.

The Doctor clapped her hands together, “Well, never mind about that. The important thing is that we get everyone back to my ship. Don’t bother bringing supplies with you; I really think we should get going right now.” She ran off to gather together the salvage team, who had just lost their grip on the sled again and were running off downhill.

Yaz turned to Ryan, “What’s got the Doctor so worried?”

“It’s like this planet’s stuck in some kind of time loop or something,” Ryan replied.

“But us being here seems to have disrupted that. Look at Jacen and Munith. They’re behaving pretty normally now.” Jacen and Munith were standing up now, talking to Graham. Jacen seemed to have given up on his tea and decided to water the grass with it.

“If the Doctor’s worried, then I’m worried. There must be something more to it than that.”

Graham removed a sandwich from his pocket and offered it to the two technicians. “Are you two hungry? I can’t imagine how long you must have been sat there not eating anything.”

“Thanks, but actually, I’m not hungry at all,” said Munith.

“Neither am I,” Jacen added, “how strange.”

On the other side of the camp, Captain Dalz dug his heels into the trampled turf and heaved with all his strength. His crew on either side did the same, and the heavy sled jerked and began to move. It was a mixture of food, cooking equipment, as well as some boxes of power crystals: the ship’s cargo. Dalz knew that the food was essential if they wanted to survive on this planet. The crystals weren’t so important, but Dalz wasn’t prepared to leave behind something so precious. At the bottom lay what was left of the spaceship Sisyphus, a long and slender craft with its yellow paint singed from the heat of the crash. It had dug itself a deep trench through the bed of the stream which ran through the bottom of the valley, and the stream had created a pool of fresh water surrounding the wreck. All of this had made Dalz’s job harder, but he wasn’t going to give up when his crew’s lives depended on it. That was why it didn’t matter to Dalz that they had failed, who knows how many times, to drag this load up the hill. Nor that it was always just as they were about to reach the top that he would trip over and the whole lot would go tumbling away from him.

“Excuse me,” said a voice. It came from just next to him, but Dalz didn’t notice. He kept digging his heels in and pulling, step by step, up the hill. “Excuse me,” the voice said again, quite a bit more loudly. Still, Dalz did not respond. The Doctor waved her hands in front of his face, but he still did nothing. There was a blaring noise as the Doctor held aloft her sonic screwdriver. Dalz let go of the rope and covered his ears, collapsing to the ground.

The sound quickly died away, and Dalz, dazed, rose slowly to his feet. “What happened…” his voice was faint and confused, like somebody waking up from a dream. “Wh- hey! Who are you?” He jabbed a finger at the Doctor. The other crew members around them had also woken from their trance and gathered round.

“I’m the Doctor, and I picked up your distress signal. Now if you can all come this way, we can get out of here. My ship is already ready to leave.” The crew were overjoyed, and a couple even cheered, that is, with one exception: Dalz did not seem too happy at all.

“Just a minute, Doctor,” he said, “what’s the rush? We can’t leave just yet; I’ve got to get my cargo out of the ship.”

“Listen to me, every second we stay here, we’re in danger. Leave the cargo, your crew’s lives are more important,” said the Doctor.

“In danger? Look at this place! It’s Idyllic! We’ve been here who knows how long and nothing’s attacked us. Thanks for the advice, but Captain Dalz Tholp of the Spaceship Sisyphus doesn’t take orders from you.”

The Doctor looked at a rectangular device on Dalz’s hip, “Just how long have you been here? Look at the chronometer on your ship’s log.”

Dalz removed the device from his hip and tapped the screen. His eyes widened. “No, there must be a fault. That’s impossible; the battery should have worn down long before then, not to mention we should all be dead from old age.”

“Whatever it says, I’m afraid it’s most likely accurate,” said the Doctor. “I believe you’ve been stuck in a time loop, repeating the same sequences of actions over and over again.”

Dalz was stunned. He read the figure on the screen again. Eighteen trillion years: he just couldn’t believe it. He realised that the Doctor was right, they did need to get out of here now, or it might end up being never.

As has already been mentioned, the Tardis is much bigger on the inside. As you might imagine, this usually produces cries of, “We’ll never all fit in there!” or, “How does all this fit inside that box?” or even just the classic, “It’s bigger on the inside!” The rescued crew said all of these, and more, as the Doctor and friends tried to persuade them inside. When asked, the Doctor only mumbled something about, “dimensionally transcendental,” and so, understandably, the crew were more than a little perplexed.

“It’s usually best if you just forget about it, and try to pretend everything’s normal,” Graham explained. They found this answer far more satisfying.

The Doctor fired up the controls and the whooshing sound started up. An outside observer would have seen the TARDIS slowly fade away… and then fade back again a few seconds later. “No, no, no!” said the Doctor frustratedly.

“What’s happened?” asked Dalz.

“Just a bit of difficulty dematerialising,” she said, “The gap in spacetime must be closing. Don’t worry though, if I can just give it another try, we should be able to break through.” She pulled a lever and the TARDIS shook. Graham stumbled back into Jacen, who nearly fell over.

The TARDIS began to whoosh and slowly faded away, only to fade back soon afterwards.

The Doctor fiddled frantically with the controls. “No, no, no!” she said.

“What’s happened?” asked Dalz.

“Just a bit of difficulty dematerialising,” she said, sparks flying of the TARDIS console, “The gap in spacetime must be closing. Don’t worry though, if I can just give it another try, we should be able to break through.” The TARDIS shook as she pulled a lever and Graham stumbled back into Jacen, nearly knocking him over. Jacen had the feeling he was going to be there for a long time.

To be continued in the next full issue!

Tides 43 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link

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