Chapter Sixteen

They walked together down the gently sloping track, heading in the general direction of the creek bed that the Doctor had identified as their shortcut to Node Two. An hour (in Earth terms) had passed since the sergeant had asked her ill-fated question of the Doctor. He had not spoken a word since. Catherine did not know whether she should break the silence or whether she had done enough harm already in asking the question in the first place, albeit a question that needed to be asked. Her instincts told her that she would be better to keep quiet, undoubtedly the Doctor would speak when he wanted to and probably not before. Catherine was not going to ignore her instincts this time!

While they continued their trek, the Doctor was not even really aware at a conscious level that Catherine was even there. Yes, he was still holding her hand and still holding it firmly, but it was not a conscious action. It was more like an automatic precaution to help keep a vulnerable travelling companion safe from harm. While the sergeant would be highly indignant to find out that the Doctor might regard her as vulnerable to harm, if she knew, she would be grateful for one thing. There would be no fear that she would be allowed to slip or stumble on the track again.

Catherine’s simple question, “What brought you to the Eye of Orion in the first place?” had been, for the Doctor, a bit like being placed on a medieval rack and having the controls turned a couple of notches. The emotional shock from his part in the destruction of Gallifrey was still too close for him. It was a permanent rack for him; all it needed was for someone to turn the controls and bring the painful memories and feelings back to the forefront of his thoughts. Catherine had, unknowingly, achieved this with her question. Her apology to him may have soothed her conscience, but it really did nothing for him and his pain. He was locked in his own personal hell, a prisoner of his thoughts. But he was the only one who had the key to unlock his prison door.

As the Doctor and Catherine approached the creek bed, the gradient of the track suddenly increased. The sergeant was very glad of her ‘cane’ to assist her down the steep slope. She did not want to have to ask the Doctor for additional assistance. For one thing, he still had not spoken to her since her question to him and for another, Catherine needed to retain her independence – at least as much as she could under the circumstances. As they moved closer to the creek bed, Catherine could hear the sound of running water. When the Doctor had spoken of following a creek bed, she had assumed that it would be dry, but obviously it was not. “How on Earth are we to follow a creek with banks as steep as this, I don’t know,” Catherine thought to herself. If the track became any steeper than it was, she would need to literally lean on the Doctor to move further. Her knee wasn’t recovered quite enough to manage near vertical slopes without more assistance than her ‘cane’ would provide. As it was becoming increasingly likely that the track actually went right down to the creek, Catherine hoped that there was a good solid bridge to cross it. She was doomed to disappointment. As they continued on and the creek came into view, it could be seen that the track did indeed go right down to it. In fact, it went through the creek, across a natural stone causeway. Catherine was not pleased. It certainly appeared as if her desire for independence was about to become a casualty of the steep terrain.

The Doctor, as always, regarded difficult terrain and other apparent insurmountable problems as merely challenges to be overcome. If he had not been in such an introspective mood, he would probably have described it as fantastic and his eyes would have shone with anticipation. He shook himself inwardly and brought himself back to the present, stopping his and Catherine’s trek just long enough to take in the situation. Despite his introspection, he was not oblivious to their difficulties. The causeway was the only way to cross this creek, but he would need to check a few things first. He frowned in concentration and said to the sergeant, “Stay here. I just need to check a few things before we move on. Enjoy the view!” Without waiting for a reply, he dropped Catherine’s hand and set off, nearly at running pace, down the slope to pull up short just before he reached the creek. She marvelled at his agility as she carefully sat down on the grassy, but dry, verge next to the track to await his return.

The view over the creek was breathtaking. Catherine thought that she had never seen a creek with water as clear before. It was so clear as to be almost transparent. The water flowed swiftly over a cream, sandy bottom interrupted only by growths of water-loving plants and the occasional rocky outcrops which poked up above the crystal clear water. Overhanging branches from shrubs growing on the steep banks provided shade which may also have provided shelter for fish and other aquatic animals. It was a tranquil scene to watch.

The Doctor was not taking the time to admire the scenery. His concerns were to ensure the safety of the causeway for their crossing, particularly with Catherine’s injured knee, and to determine if the water itself provided any dangers. Once again, he extracted his sonic screwdriver from his jacket pocket and switched it into analysis mode. He knew that the best way to analyse the content of the water would be to take a sample, but he didn’t have anything with him that could safely extract the water without any skin contact. It was unlikely, but it was always possible that the water could have some chemical in suspension which could react like an acid on even a Time Lord’s skin. His only option was to actually dip the end of the sonic screwdriver into the water and test it that way. He knew he could repair the sonic screwdriver, if needed, once he returned to the TARDIS. It was a calculated risk, but it was a risk worth taking.

As he bent down and carefully dipped the end of the sonic device into the water, he switched the setting to direct analysis mode. It whirred for a couple of minutes, before he extracted it and read its indicator. The water was normal, cold fresh water, presumably filtered through the sand, and there was no sign of either the presence of beach fauna – which usually preferred salt water to fresh anyway – or the ‘sand mining syndrome’ bacteria. It also seemed to show no sign of the weaponry residue present at the Eye.

“Fantastic!” the Doctor thought, as he carefully wiped the sonic screwdriver on his jumper. Now that it was dry, he replaced it in his inner jacket pocket. The Doctor had expected the water to be clean and fresh, however, it was always useful to have expectations confirmed. He looked up to where Catherine was sitting and indicated to her to come down.

Catherine tried to stand up, but the combination of her weak left knee and the slope was not allowing her to do so. “Great!” she thought, sarcastically, “Just how do I stand up now?” The sergeant half-turned herself and put her weight on her right knee. She pivoted around so that she was virtually on all fours; so far, so good. All she had to do now was to lean on the ‘cane’ and transfer the centre of gravity to the ‘cane’ so she could haul herself upright.

This was easier said than done, unfortunately. After trying unsuccessfully twice, she took a deep breath and said to herself, “Third time lucky!” and tried again.

This time, she had some unexpected assistance. The Doctor, seeing her trying unsuccessfully twice, raced up the slope and reached her just in time to lift her gently to her feet as she leant on the ‘cane’ for the third time. He looked so concerned. Once again, he quietly asked her, “Are you alright?” She nodded and gratefully held onto his hand as they carefully moved down the slope to the causeway.

The causeway, itself, was a low ‘natural’ sandstone bridge set in the bed of the creek. Presumably, it was placed there when the track was built. Like all causeways, the creek ran over it; the depth of water here was about midway between the ankle and the calf. As the Doctor and Catherine crossed the causeway and scrambled up the other side – thankfully not quite as steep as the other bank – Catherine asked, “Doctor, I noticed that the causeway is made of sandstone, yet it still appears to be smooth.” He nodded in encouragement. She continued, “Is that natural or not?” He shrugged his shoulders. The sergeant was becoming slightly irritated now, so added, “Did you find any evidence of weaponry residue when you checked?”

Catherine had learnt enough about the Doctor by now to know that despite his flippancy and tendency to moodiness, he left nothing to chance. She knew that he would have checked for the presence of the residue as well as the bacteria. If she had considered the beach fauna, she would have realised that that too had been checked for. The Doctor’s only response to her question was brief. “Nope, none,” was his reply. She had to be content with that as his ‘poker-face’ expression had descended upon him once more. There would be no other answers to be received from him until he changed moods again.

Again, Catherine wondered how they were going to follow a creek bed that had a full running creek in it. At the moment, they were just following the track. She hoped that track eventually led to Node Two, and sooner rather than later. Her knee was causing her some discomfort and it really looked like it needed rest.

The Doctor was deep in thought, not really in one of his depressed moods of melancholy, but still introspective. He was aware though of where they were and where they were heading. This track was definitely, according to the bearings he took ages ago on the main roadway, the shortest route to Node Two. He had over-simplified the situation a bit when he referred to this part of the trek as ‘following a creek bed’, but in general terms he had been correct. The track did indeed stay within sight of the creek and would do so for most, if not all, of the way to Node Two. Their most besetting problem was always going to be how much walking Catherine’s injured knee would be able to take within the remaining daylight.

He knew that while the track’s surface remained even she would be able to manage the walk itself, albeit at a slower pace than he would have used normally, with a bit of support. Between his strong grasp of her hand, her ‘cane’ and her own, so human, sheer bloody-mindedness, they should be successful. But the gradient of the track concerned him. When Catherine had been unable to climb to her feet unaided due to the steepness of the slope near the creek, he started to have doubts about her ability to cope with the terrain in this vicinity. He admired her spirit and her desire for independence, but he was concerned that if she needed assistance, she might not ask for it until it was too late. His readiness to assist her was not only a practical means to enable them to reach their chosen destination quickly, but also partly in admiration of her attitude. Somehow, he didn’t think she appreciated it too much. An old expression he’d heard somewhere came to mind as he thought of that – ‘tough bikkies!’ Where he’d heard it before, he couldn’t quite recall. Perhaps it had been an expression of Tegan’s? He shrugged his shoulders. It didn’t matter. The main thing was that they reached Node Two tonight.

Some time later, the Doctor and Catherine reached a portion of the track where it both widened and flattened out to run along the top of the creek bank. It was quite an attractive view and it was quite unexpectedly high. There were large shade trees deliberately planted into the side and top of the creek bank here and a suspicion of what would be called on Earth a picnic area! There were even timber seats to sit on under the shade of the trees. The Doctor realised that this must have been part of the facilities created for the hordes of tourists who were expected to flock to Node Two, in the days before it was closed. He thought this would be a pleasant place to rest for a short while – although she wouldn’t admit it to him, he was well aware that Catherine needed to rest her knee. Her walk had been gradually becoming slower and she was definitely showing signs of, to his experienced eyes at least, over-tiredness.

They had walked a long distance since they had crossed that causeway at the creek itself. He estimated that they might only be an hour, maybe an hour and a half (in Earth terms) away from Node Two. Turning towards her, he said, “Catherine, would you mind resting here for a while? I need to recheck my bearings for Node Two.” Without waiting for an answer, he guided her over to a large comfortable-looking timber seat in the shade of a large nearby tree, the shade reminiscent of a large English oak tree or maybe a Moreton Bay fig tree. She gratefully sat down on it, leaning her back against the chair back, without replying.

The Doctor, of course, did not need to recheck his bearings. The picnic area was so high, he could actually see Node Two in the distance. But he made the pretence of taking out the sonic screwdriver and checking the bearings anyway. His estimation had been correct. They were about an hour (in Earth terms) away from their destination. He had always heard that the sunset over Node Two was spectacular, but that sunrise at Node Two was absolutely breathtakingly beautiful. Now he had a chance to test these stories out. They would be reaching Node Two just after sunset. “Fantastic!” he thought. That was, until he looked over towards Catherine.

Catherine had been more exhausted than either she or the Doctor had realised. No sooner had she seated herself comfortably on the timber seat than she fell asleep – sound asleep. The Doctor was not tempted to wake her. He knew she needed her sleep. The seat she had fallen asleep on was not only a large comfortable seat, but had been especially designed for two adults to sit comfortably on it – a true two-seater. Some architect with a romantic vision had organised that this seat be oriented in the direction of Node Two, so that its occupants could watch either the sunset or the sunrise – or both, if they had such inclination. Of course, there was no thought of romance here. It was only two close travelling companions taking a well-deserved respite in a long journey.

It was near to sunset when the Doctor sat down beside Catherine and put his arm around her shoulders to help keep her warm. Temperatures tended to drop suddenly in this area and while the cold wouldn’t bother him, even without his leather jacket, he had travelled with enough human women in his time to know that they were susceptible to cold. He awaited the vision of sunset and was not disappointed…..

(* To be continued….. *)