Equilibrium : A 13th Doctor Story – Part 2

Volcano (1)

Image Credit: Adapted from G.E. Ulrich and USGS (Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons) and Peter Tarleton (CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Image Description: The volcano erupts!

By Philip Holdridge

The Story so Far… – Read Part 1 here

Only eleven and a bit seasons after Survival, the Doctor and her friends have finally found just where the tea is getting cold. Or rather, should be. After a trip for Ryan’s Birthday gets interrupted by a distress call, the team find themselves landing on a world in a state of balance, where nothing can change. Their rescue of the crew of the crashed spaceship Sisyphus goes surprisingly well, until, as they try to dematerialise, they find that everything has suddenly become rather repetitive…

And now… something completely similar…

Ten minutes later, the Doctor was still trying to dematerialise the TARDIS. “The gap in spacetime must be closing. Don’t worry though, if…” She was interrupted by a loud beeping from the TARDIS console.

“What does that mean?” asked Dalz.

“Are we under attack?” asked another crewmember. There was a sudden panic as everyone started asking questions at once, and talking to each other. The Doctor checked the screens on the console. Even she wasn’t sure what this particular alarm meant.

“Quiet!” the Doctor shouted, and waited for everyone to calm down, “it’s just the timer on the oven.”

“Ah,” said Graham, “that will be the cake done,” and walked off down a corridor.

“This place is weirder than outside,” said Munith.

Graham returned, “It wasn’t cooked,” he said, “there must be something wrong with the oven.”

“Or more likely, something wrong with physics,” the Doctor suggested. “There’s something out there that’s causing all this, and we need to find it and stop it before we all get trapped here. Dalz, Ryan and Graham, you go uphill. Me, Yaz, Munith and Jacen will go downhill. The rest of you, check the forest nearby.”

“I’ve already said: I won’t take orders from you,” said Dalz.

“That’s not an order,” said the Doctor, “it’s a piece of advice. A really important piece of advice that you’ll want to follow if you ever want to get out of here. And here’s some more advice: never repeat yourself. Never say the same thing twice; never retrace your steps; and keep checking on each other to make sure they’re doing the same. Any questions?”

One of the crew, Eheve, raised a hand. “What exactly are we looking for?” she asked.

“I don’t know, but you’ll sort of know when you see it… hopefully,” the Doctor replied, “I notice you all have communicators, give us a call when you find something.” She waited for more questions. Nobody had any. “All right then, let’s get a shift on!” the Doctor said encouragingly. The crew chattered apprehensively as they filed out through the relatively small TARDIS doors. The Doctor drew Yaz, Graham and Ryan together at one side of the room and whispered quickly, “I’m going to investigate the ship. I think that Dalz is hiding something; I know what people like him are like. I need him kept out of the way while I find out what.”

The Doctor and company boarded the Sisyphus via a hatchway cut into the hull. Light from the outside only penetrated a few metres into the corridor and they soon found themselves relying on torchlight. “I’d like to have a look at the engines first,” said the Doctor.

“I still don’t know why you need to see them,” said Jacen, leading the way, “I can give you all the statistics.” They wandered down a bleak corridor, the torchlight unveiling nothing but featureless walls and pipes running along the ceiling. The corridor opened out into a larger room where a mesh floor surrounded a large block of complex machinery. The Doctor walked along its side, shining her torch up and down its surface.

“What are you looking for?” asked Yaz.

“Anything that might be causing these weird time loops. This is a hyperspace engine: it doesn’t just push the ship forward through space, it manipulates space itself. That kind of thing might be able to cause what we’re seeing if there’s some kind of fault, or if someone’s tampered with it.”

“Ah, I see now,” said Munith, “do you want us to look as well?”

“That would be helpful,” said the Doctor. Munith and Jacen walked off in the opposite direction, torches pointing up and down the sides of the engine as they went.

“What about me?” asked Yaz, “I don’t know anything about hyperspace.”

“Don’t think I brought you here for no reason,” said the Doctor, “doing a repetitive job like this could easily get me stuck in a loop, and I need you to help make sure that doesn’t happen.”

“How?”

“You could tell a story,” suggested the Doctor, “stories are good. With a clear progression of events from start to finish, you’re unlikely to repeat yourself.”

Yaz thought about what stories she knew. One very quickly popped into her head: “Once upon a time,” she began, “there was an emperor who could not sleep. He called in his storyteller and asked, “Tell me a story.” The storyteller began, “Once upon a time, there was an emperor who could not sleep…”

“Maybe not that story,” said the Doctor.

“Oh, of course,” Yaz looked embarrassed, “sorry, Doctor, it was just the first thing that came into my head.”

“No doubt whatever’s causing all this put it in your head. It’s affecting our behaviour so that we fall into its traps,” said the Doctor, “It really is a nasty piece of work.”

Yaz drew closer and spoke quietly, “But surely it can’t be these people who are behind it. They were stuck in the time loops as well.”

“They’re not causing it deliberately, but all it takes is a botched repair, or a captain who puts profits over safety, to cause it accidentally. Anyway, how about we play a game? Word disassociation: we each take it in turns to say a word that’s completely unconnected to the one before, and most importantly, without saying the same word twice. I’ll start: TARDIS.”

“Tree,” said Yaz.

“That’s a connection, the Tardis has disguised itself as a tree before.”

“What, how?”

“The chameleon circuit changes the TARDIS exterior to blend in with its environment. Well, it used to, anyway. It broke ages ago,” the Doctor explained, running her hand over a panel of lights that had been dead for millennia, “ok, you start this time.”

Ryan, Graham and Dalz neared the top of the hill. The vegetation thinned and gave way to bare, black rock. They looked back at the landscape of rolling hills. Below them was the yellow form of the spaceship Sisyphus, looking, despite its size, like no more than a wasp from such a height. Off to their right, they could see the stream become a river, and meander off through distant countryside.

“If it weren’t for the spaceship, we could almost be in the Peak District,” said Graham.

“Yeah, I know where I’d rather be though,” added Ryan.

“This Peak District place is a lot safer is it?” asked Dalz.

“It is, but I’d rather be here. I’m standing here, on an alien planet. Anybody can go to the Peak District, but how many people get to do this?”

Dalz looked a little confused. “Nearly everyone I know,” he said. The three continued up the hill until they reached the lip of a crater. Peering cautiously into it, they saw, below them, a pool of lava, no wider than a large pond, but many times as terrifying. Its unusually still surface emitted a faint orange glow.

“I’m no expert on volcanoes but shouldn’t it be hotter around here?” asked Graham.

“Well I’m not complaining,” said Dalz, “if the lava doesn’t want to cook us to death then who are we to argue with it? Come on, let’s go.”

“I still think it’s worth telling the Doc about,” said Graham.

Dalz had already started walking. He turned his head and said over his shoulder, “Forget about the Doctor. We don’t need to bother her with something as trivial as that.”

Having checked the engines, the Doctor had decided that the cargo hold was the next place to look. The Doctor lifted the lid of a lead-lined packing case and pointed her sonic screwdriver down at its contents. The cargo hold was filled with boxes just like it, stacked up nearly to the ceiling.Each one was filled with tiny crystals, like greenish yellow grains of salt.

The sonic screwdriver made a whirring sound as it scanned the crystals. “A high-energy crystalline fuel,” said the Doctor, “mildly radioactive.”

“I could have told you that,” said Munith, “the captain doesn’t keep his cargo a secret. He calls it Dalzite, after himself of course.”

The Doctor shut the lid again, “Well I don’t trust your captain. I wouldn’t have just taken his word for it.”

“Dalz isn’t really like that; he’s just a little narcissistic,” Munith explained.

“He’s cutting corners anyway,” said the Doctor, “these boxes aren’t fully radiation-proof. We should be safe for…”

Yaz suddenly interrupted, “Hold on, what’s happened to Jacen?” The three glanced up and down the aisle. He was nowhere to be seen.

“Jacen!” Munith called out as loudly as she could, then added, at her normal volume, “he’s probably just seen something and got distracted.” They set out to look for him, checking every aisle and calling as they went. They approached a corner and heard a scuffling sound coming from just around it. “Jacen!” cried Munith again, but it wasn’t Jacen. Jacen was, as Munith predicted, distracted by something he had seen: muddy animal tracks that covered the otherwise spotless metal floor.

Dalz, Ryan and Graham were halfway down the opposite side of the hill, where they were once again surrounded by trees and the sound of birds. One bird in particular caught their attention. It sounded quite a way off, but at the same time easily stood out above all the others. It’s call was a lot less beautiful though, sounding more like a car horn than an animal.

“Can you hear that?” asked Ryan. They all stopped and listened.

“Sounds like a Polgregan bison,” said Dalz.

“That’s just what I was thinking,” said Graham. As the sound drew nearer, the sound of other birds died away, until the loud honking was all they could hear. Suddenly, there it was, perched on a thick branch high above them. It became silent, and gazed down, ominously, with its deep black eyes. Its broad, grey bill was as long as its swan-sized body and its forest green wings were flecked with streaks of crimson. They hung, slightly opened, like a cloak around its body, while its feet seemed to be made entirely out of sharp claws. Its mouth opened wide, and let out a terrifying squawk.

Eheve had only been a crewmember of the Sisyphus for eighteen trillion years. It may seem like a long time, but it had to be noted that all but three months of that time had been spent stuck on an alien planet, and that this was still her first voyage. After several minutes of searching, she suddenly realised that she couldn’t remember the way back to the TARDIS. She had panicked and frantically tried to retrace her steps, eventually finding it again. Eheve sighed with relief and leaned against the TARDIS door. The squirrel was still there, burying its nut and digging it up again.

“Hello little squirrel,” said Eheve, walking over to it. The squirrel had been about to bury the nut again, but instead froze. Its nose twitched, and its front paws loosened their grip, letting the nut fall to the ground. The squirrel turned to face Eheve, who started to back away uneasily. It stared vacantly, its tufted ears quivering. “I’m sorry, didn’t mean to scare you,” Eheve said soothingly. The squirrel leapt forward, baring its teeth while its eyes gleamed with insanity.

Munith turned and ran when she saw it, with the others not far behind. A huge bear covered in thick orange fur, with eight powerful legs and one large head that overflowed with teeth. It bounded after them. It moved with terrifying speed, but its weight, and the smooth floor, made it very slow at turning corners. The three dived down aisle after aisle. It always seemed right behind them. They could hear its grunting sounds, and pounding footsteps, almost on top of them now. In one last attempt to shake it off they turned in unison down an aisle to their right. They crashed straight into Jacen, who was still following the trail of footprints and was oblivious to the commotion until it was literally on top of him. The bear kept going, its claws eventually bringing it to a halt. It turned and advanced on them.

Eheve grabbed at the squirrel, pulling its claws off her skin. The squirrel fell to the ground and prepared another attack, but she landed a forceful kick that sent it flying into a tree. She ran into the TARDIS and slammed the door behind her. Once she’d caught her breath, she spoke into her communicator: “Look out everyone, the animals here are vicious. I was just attacked by a squirrel outside the Doctor’s ship.” The Doctor’s party were too busy running from a bear to hear the message, but she got a snide response from Dalz.

Ryan ducked as the bird swooped down through the space where his head had just been. It landed on another thick branch behind them.

Eheve’s voice came on Dalz’s communicator, “Look out everyone, the animals here are vicious…”

“We could have done with knowing that a little sooner,” replied Dalz. He bent down and picked up a long, thin stick. “Come on, arm yourself,” he said to Graham and Ryan.

“What do you expect to do with that?” said Graham.

Dalz waved the stick around in a way that tried to be threatening. The bird turned its head to face him and let out a shriek. Dalz backed away slowly, still waving his stick to no avail. His back came up against something solid, the bark of a tree. “Come on then,” he taunted, though his tone of voice said the opposite. The bird spread out its wings and leapt from its branch, gliding down towards him. Dalz was determined to stand his ground and fight, but as the vicious beak drew closer and he wielded his pathetic stick, barely looking like a twig in his hands now, he realised that that was perhaps not such a good idea. He dodged to one side, just as the bird crashed into the tree where he had been standing. It lay unconscious on the floor. Graham, Ryan and Dalz took their chance and fled, as fast as they could back towards the TARDIS.

As the eight-legged bear approached, Yaz climbed the stack of boxes. They were in one of the places where boxes had been removed, and so she could easily climb it like a staircase. The bear came closer, its attention fixed on the Doctor in particular. With all her strength, Yaz pushed one of the boxes towards the edge of the stack.

The Doctor glanced up and saw a big box of Dalzite crystals hanging half off the edge of the stack above them, right above the bear. “Yaz, no! Those are flammable!” It was too late. The box tumbled down, hitting the bear just above its back pairs of legs, and sending crystals spilling out all over the floor. Sparks and flames danced across the crystals for a second, but then went out.

The Doctor looked a little puzzled for a second, but then it all made sense. “It’s the Laws of Thermodynamics! These time loop things we’ve been observing, you’ve got to break the Second Law of Thermodynamics to have them! It states that entropy is always increasing in a closed system until it reaches equilibrium, and so to have the same thing happening repeatedly forever is just impossible. The sugar not dissolving, the cake not cooking, the fire not igniting, those are just necessary side effects!”

The bear was incapacitated, but still alive. It spoke, “Yes. I see what the other worlds do. They let entropy run its course, and eventually they succumb to heat death. They die and become just an empty void of thermodynamic equilibrium. But not me. I choose to live forever. I manipulate the laws of physics so that I can repeat myself; so that I do not die. Until you came along, that is. You are ruining everything!”

“Who exactly is talking right now?” asked Yaz.

“I am this world,” said the bear again, “this miniature universe; I control every part of it. This creature is just a part of me. I can send other beasts to destroy you.”

“But just think about what you’re doing,” said the Doctor, “you’re trying to live forever by just repeating yourself for eternity? You might live for long after every single other world has died, but you won’t have achieved anything! Wouldn’t you rather live and die but have done something worthwhile in between?”

“No!” the very air itself seemed to shout, “I won’t listen to pathetic mortals. I will destroy you!”

“I think now might be a good time to get out of here,” suggested Munith.

The Doctor agreed and seized a communicator, “Everyone back to the TARDIS now!”

The injured squirrel outside put up no resistance to the crowd of people who rushed into the TARDIS. Eheve sat, leaning against the TARDIS console. She looked a mess but wasn’t seriously injured. The Doctor stood facing everyone. She had a plan, or at least, part of one. “This planet is sentient, and it’s controlling the laws of thermodynamics. It tries to suppress any kind of combustion, but I think if we make a big enough explosion, we could overwhelm it, and then maybe it will be weakened enough to allow us to escape. I’m pretty sure it will work. Well, a bit sure anyway, if only we can work out how.”

“One thing we noticed on our little expedition,” said Graham, “was that this hill is a volcano.”

The Doctor’s eyes lit up, “Then I know exactly what to do.”

The TARDIS materialised in the cargo hold of the Sisyphus. The door opened and the crew poured out, seizing as many boxes they could carry and hauling them back through the door. They needed as many as they could get. In the distance, they heard the howl of animals, sent to hunt them down. The planet itself was working against them. As they began to hear the pounding footsteps echoing as the creatures entered the hold, everyone dropped what they were carrying and fled for the TARDIS, hoping that what they had would be enough. The door slammed. The beasts howled triumphantly.

Suddenly, the TARDIS was hovering over the crater, tilted on its side. The Doctor pulled a lever and the doors opened. Everybody held on tight, and held their breath, as the boxes slid out of the door, tumbling into the lava below. The door closed again, and just in time. The world was taken a little by surprise, and though it fought back with all its strength, the explosion was too big to contain. The hill didn’t just erupt, it exploded, sending shards of rock and lumps of molten rock flying. The ground cracked, and the whole planet shook. It tore a hole in time and space itself which the TARDIS flew proudly through, at last escaping back to its own universe.

It materialised back at Graham’s. A while later, the Doctor and Ryan were standing in Graham’s kitchen talking. The living room was, after all, too full of astronauts to fit them in. “Not such a bad birthday after all, is it?” the Doctor asked.

“I’ve had worse, at least,” he replied.

Jacen entered the kitchen. “I couldn’t have a cup of tea, could I? Only I’ve been wanting one for a very long time…”

Epilogue

Cracks spread out across the whole surface of the planet, and the whole of its crust collapsed into an ocean of molten rock that surged with waves as high as mountains. In a few hours, there occurred what an ordinary planet would have done over billions of years, as the surface solidified into seas and mountains. Trees and other plants sprouted and grew in a matter of minutes, and the world was just as it had been before. Through the crack in space and time that still lay open, a yellow cargo ship accidentally strayed into this small universe and came to an emergency stop in a small valley. If you looked closely at its scorched paintwork, you could quite easily make out the name, ‘Sisyphus.’

Tides 44 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link

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