Chapter Eighteen

The Doctor thought, “If the bacteria aren’t here, then at least the infection has been limited to the Eye.” Then he realised what the rest of Catherine’s comment meant. He turned, sharply in her direction and said, in an urgent voice, “Catherine! For God’s sake, don’t touch the water or the tiles!”

His voice was sharper and more urgent than she had ever heard it, so Catherine immediately both pulled her hand away and stepped backwards. It may not have been an order, but it definitely sounded like a good impression of one to her, with her officer’s training. Listening to that urgent note triggered her instincts again and she realised there was something very wrong here. This was also the first time that she could remember that her instincts had failed her initially. She was confused. But none of this showed on her face or in her voice when she turned to the Doctor and asked, “What’s wrong, Doctor?”

He didn’t answer her immediately as he was just confirming the coordinates identifying the strongest concentration of positive ions at Node Two. Once this was completed, he commenced saving the coordinates into the memory of the sonic screwdriver for later analyses and manipulation by the TARDIS databases. It only took a short time, but once this was done, he could give his full attention to Catherine’s question. He turned fully towards her and said to her, in a deliberately expressionless voice which was tempered somewhat by the natural softness of his Northern English accent, “Work it out, Catherine. There are strange pink markings on ceramic tiles. The tiles are adhered to a concrete structure using a sand-based mortar. There is plenty of permanent water flowing across the tiles at a reasonably high temperature. What does that indicate the presence of?” The Doctor stood there, patiently awaiting her answer, seeing if her powers of deduction still worked as well when she was away from her policing comfort zone. He was hoping that they did.

Catherine thought it through. To her, it seemed to bring back visions of the beach near the TARDIS with the sand peppered with pink droppings belonging to some local fauna – fauna of a rather dangerous type if touched. “But, Doctor, I thought the beach fauna needed seawater or sand to be present to survive. There is neither sand nor seawater here. Granted there is sufficient heat and the sand-based mortar might just provide enough sand for the fauna to exist, but surely the lack of seawater is a real problem for them?” she argued.

The Doctor considered his response before he replied. “The fauna don’t need the sand to exist, just to reproduce under the best conditions. Sufficient heat and a rough surface will actually be enough. Heated rock would even be sufficient; heated sand-based mortar would certainly be enough.” Catherine looked quite shaken by this, but the Doctor didn’t notice as he continued, following through some train of thought of his own. “The lack of seawater is a problem. Strictly speaking, their need is not so much the seawater itself, but the salts in solution or suspension in the water. But these salts are not present in hot springs, so there must be traces of seawater somewhere near here.” He bit his bottom lip and frowned as he mentally searched all the possibilities of location or concentration of seawater in the vicinity.

His first thought was that seawater might have become mixed in with the spring water by either accident or by design. But there was no salty smell about the water either in the cascade or the baths. There was only the, to his fine senses at least, putrid smell of the hot spring itself. If the plans for a tourist resort on this site had taken off, he wondered, as an aside, how the smell would have been counteracted. Time Lords are not the only race in the universe to have a keen sense of smell. However, the smell didn’t bother humans. He shrugged his shoulders and shrugged off the irrelevant thoughts and returned to the problem of the fauna. Irritated with himself for not being able to solve their ‘puzzle’ immediately, he thought he’d better analyse the water, just in case he’d missed anything.

He changed the setting on the sonic screwdriver to check for the presence of seawater or its salts and walked past Catherine to the baths. Pointing it close to both baths and cascade, being careful not to actually touch the water with either his hand or the sonic screwdriver, he switched the analysis function on. Knowing that the beach fauna was there meant he could not risk a direct analysis of the water as even a few drops of it on his skin could be enough to provide a way in for the organism. The analysis result was not good. There was a faint trace of seawater, but it was very faint. It shouldn’t have been enough for an actual infestation as such. Unless…..

The Doctor stood back a few paces from the edge of the baths and reset the dispersal setting on the sonic screwdriver so that he could do a wide sweep of the immediate area. He tried the analysis again. There was a much stronger reading now and it appeared to be centred below the surrounds to the baths. He didn’t say anything, but his frown deepened, as he switched the sonic screwdriver off and replaced it in the inner pocket of his jacket.

Catherine did not like the look of this at all. The Doctor’s expressionless manner and his deepening frown did not appear too promising. She knew she probably couldn’t help him at all, but she couldn’t just stand by as if she were some ‘bit of fluff’ that he had brought with him for his amusement. “Doctor,” she said, quietly. “What can I do to help you?” For a few moments – it seemed like forever – he didn’t respond at all. She even wondered if he had heard her. But she knew he had. Just as she drew her breath in to ask again, he spoke.

“Catherine, there are all the signs of a potentially major infestation here, but it is directly below us. There is nothing we can do,” the Doctor replied, regretfully. For a moment, Catherine even thought he was about to cry, he sounded so sad. She was quite shocked. If she had thought about it a bit more, she would have kept her distance, but instinct and her compassion for someone who appeared to be suffering took over. She walked over to him and gently put her arm around his shoulders to comfort him. But she didn’t know what to say to him.

Luckily for her, the Doctor hadn’t seemed to notice her arm about his shoulders, as he continued, “The spring water is piped up from beneath to the cascade, but the baths’ water is reticulated through pipes beneath the complex and recycled to provide power. I imagine that they have an overflow outlet somewhere.” Shaking himself out of his mood of melancholy, he jumped clear of Catherine’s arm and turned towards her, his anger at human stupidity taking over. “Those stupid apes!” he exclaimed to her in disgust. “To save time in their development and to cut costs, they’ll have piped the overflow outlet to the sea! Didn’t they know that that opens up all sorts of possibilities for contamination?” He paced up and down for a short time until his anger subsided.

“What are you going to do to remove the fauna, Doctor?” Catherine asked, puzzled.

The Doctor looked at her, with a slightly shocked expression. He replied, “There’s nothing I can do, Catherine. For one thing, there is no way to remove an infestation of the size I estimate it to be. The developers opened up the avenue for these native fauna to arrive and who knows how long they have been migrating here, on and off. Node Two has been abandoned by humans, but another form of tourist has moved in. Perhaps I shouldn’t even try to do anything.”

Now it was Catherine’s turn to be angry. “But Doctor, isn’t there some way of at least warning casual travellers to avoid the place or at least the water here? After all, if we hadn’t seen that infestation on the beach a few days ago, I would most likely have soaked my knee in the hot spring water to help soothe its pain!” It was the first time she had openly admitted to the ongoing pain in her knee. But although it greatly went against her nature to admit to what she thought of as a weakness, she just had to make him see reason somehow.

The Doctor hadn’t thought of it from that point of view, but he was not going to admit it. He knew she was right. It didn’t need the flash of real anger in her hazel eyes to make him take notice. “OK. We’ll leave a permanent note on the gate and near the baths, shall we?”

Catherine wasn’t sure if he was joking or not, but he looked as if he were serious, so she nodded. The flash went out of her eyes and she calmed down again. He smiled one of his illuminating smiles at her and, although at the moment it went very much against the grain with her, she couldn’t help smiling back.

The Doctor felt in all his pockets, even the pockets in his jeans, but he could not find a permanent marker pen or crayon in any of them. “Damn!” he thought. “Where did I put that pen? I had it somewhere…..” Not being able to find it, he looked at Catherine, a little shamefaced. Before he had time to say anything, she took what looked like a permanent, waterproof marker pen – with bright fluorescent ink – from the damaged pocket of her battle jacket and handed it to him. He raised his eyebrows as he took it from her. It was his.

“Before you say anything, Doctor, it fell out of your jacket pocket when I was trying to extract that piece of rubble for you in the TARDIS. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, just jammed it into my own pocket. That’s probably what caused the hole in it!” Catherine explained.

He grinned and said, “Serves you right then for taking other people’s property!” Before she could answer him back, his eyes twinkled and he continued, “It’s just what we need to leave the message!” He dashed over to the nearest pillar to the baths and wrote in large letters vertically between two of the grooves, “DANGER! HARMFUL WATER ORGANISMS PRESENT. DO NOT TOUCH THE WATER!” In addition, he wrote it on a pillar on the other side of the baths and also on the frame around the entry to the complex. When he had finished, he returned to Catherine and asked, “What do you think?”

Catherine noticed that he had only written it in English and asked him why. The Doctor replied, “English is the universal translation language. If you can’t speak English or a version of it, all translators can convert to and from it. That’s one advantage of the exponential rate of human colonisation.”

Something occurred to her, suddenly. “Doctor, you are alien, yet you can speak English without need of a translator. How is that possible?”

He grinned and said, “Well, I’ve got five billion languages, so I don’t need a translator.” There wasn’t really anything she could say to that.

Catherine did need to ask one more question. “Doctor, did you find any weaponry residue when you were writing your messages?” She had noticed, although he wasn’t making it obvious, that just before he wrote his messages, he ran his fingers over the marble-type stone that composed the pillars, not just where he was about to write, but either side of it as well.

He raised his eyebrows in mock surprise at her observation, but was secretly pleased to discover that her observation powers were that keen. All he said, however, was, “Nope. No sign of it. But then that type of stone does not normally absorb weaponry residue. You could say that it had an inbuilt residue repellent quality. Everything around here, except for the baths and the cascade are made of it.” He stopped, to see if Catherine could pick up where his idea left off. She could.

Suspecting yet another test, Catherine looked the Doctor straight in the eyes and continued his train of thought, “If there had been any in the baths and the cascade the fauna wouldn’t have been in evidence?” He grinned, nodded and grasped her left hand with his right hand, accidentally knocking her ‘cane’ from her hand as he did so.

“Time is moving on, Catherine. So should we,” the Doctor said. “Our job is done here. Besides, I don’t like the idea of staying here after dark. No shelter, no water and a terrible smell!” Catherine bent down to pick up her ‘cane’ from where it had fallen on the ground. The Doctor carefully led her out through the colonnade and through the entry out on to the main roadway again. He paused to look around.

There were a lot of things Catherine could have said at this point, but she discarded them all out of politeness and courtesy. In the end, she simply asked, “Where are we heading, Doctor?” He smiled at her question, but he wasn’t telling her. His idea was to head back to their vantage point from the morning. There was fresh water in the creek, hopefully a gentle breeze to blow away the thoughts of the day and a comfortable resting place with shelter for the night. It was also on the shortest route to the TARDIS. If they were lucky, they would arrive there before sunset, so he would have an opportunity to see Catherine’s reaction to it compared to this morning’s sunrise. He was sure she hadn’t taken much notice of sunsets before and he thought it was about time she did.

Catherine realised that the Doctor was not telling her where they were heading. She assumed that it would be towards his ship, his TARDIS. How far they were from that, she didn’t know. Still, providing they didn’t have to climb any steep slopes and her knee held up…..

“How’s your knee?” the Doctor asked her, unexpectedly.

Catherine wondered what had prompted this question, and then remembered her outburst to him earlier. “Damn,” she thought, “He’s going to think I’m one of those complaining females who can’t cope in the field!” Why this should matter to her anyway, she didn’t know, but she felt quite put out about it.

“I should have asked you this morning, but it didn’t occur to me in our rush to reach the Node,” the Doctor added, quietly. Catherine looked at him, half-expecting some sarcasm on his part, but she realised that he really was concerned about her – as he had been from the moment she injured it in the first place. She berated herself inwardly for being so churlish and ungrateful, so for once she answered him totally honestly about it.

“It’s much improved since yesterday, but I don’t think standing all day has really helped it much,” she replied. “But it should hold up providing we don’t have any steep slopes to climb…..” Something about his expression made her pause. “We do have slopes to climb?” she added.

The Doctor nodded and explained, with a rueful grin, “Node Two is in a cul-de-sac, geographically. The only way out of here is back the way we came. Sorry!” He paused, before adding, “It’s about two hours (in Earth terms) until sunset, so we really need to start on our way, now.”

They started off slowly, hand-in-hand, with the Doctor close enough to provide additional support if necessary. Catherine was right about her knee – the standing all day, particularly after the walk in the morning, had tightened the joint and it was making the walking, even with her ‘cane’, a bit difficult now that the terrain was starting to slope upwards. She was determined not to say anything to the Doctor, though. What she didn’t realise was that he could see that determination in her face and he, when he chose, could be equally determined. One look at her face and the Doctor dropped her left hand to place his right arm around her upper back, just below the shoulders, to support her as they headed back the way they came. She was too tired to argue and now that they were moving again, she was grateful for the additional support. Almost automatically, she placed her left arm lightly around his back – as she had done when she was first injured. She didn’t think he’d noticed and it made movement so much easier.

They continued on without any conversation for the next one and a half hours (in Earth terms), until they reached their vantage point from that morning. As before, they were the only ones in the area, so the Doctor carefully guided Catherine to the same two-seater they had occupied that morning. “Don’t run away,” he said to her cheerfully, “I’m just going down to the creek for some fresh water. I think we could both do with a drink, don’t you?” She nodded and smiled slightly at his weak joke. As he had fully intended that she would.

It didn’t take him long to race down to the creek – it wasn’t very far away – and do a quick check to ensure the water was drinkable. Next, he washed his hands and his face and cupped his hands together to take a large drink of the cool water himself. He then pulled a very large apple from one of his outer jacket pockets, washed it in the cool water, dried it on a clean handkerchief from one of his inner pockets and wrapped it in the handkerchief before placing both in the outer pocket. This apple would be Catherine’s and his main meal this evening. Now, what he needed was a container of some sort to put some water in for Catherine. “I know!” he thought. A long time ago, someone – he forgot who – had given him a present of a small sterling silver ‘hip flask’, complete with the hallmark of the maker. It had a fair capacity, but was slimline so that it could fit in one of the elegant suit jackets he had worn at the time, without spoiling the body line of his jacket. Well, his incarnation at the time did fancy himself as a bit of a dandy! He inwardly shivered at the thought. Still, the flask was something he carried with him in case he needed a reliable drinking container when in the field and, thanks to its slimline design, it took up next to no room in a jacket pocket. He quickly filled it now and then turned to race back up to Catherine.

By the time he reached her, he had been gone only ten minutes (in Earth terms). There was still a bit of time before sunset, although it was already starting to become colder. The Doctor sat down next to Catherine on the seat, putting his right arm around her upper back, with part of his leather jacket spread out behind her to keep her warm, as previously.

“Catherine,” the Doctor said to her with one of his illuminating smiles. “I have a treat for you.” She looked part surprised, part wary. What was that old saying about gift horses, again? He continued, “A feast!” Catherine raised her eyebrows. “OK, not a feast, but a freshly washed apple and a flask of water between the pair of us,” he added. “Which would you like first?” Catherine indicated the apple. “But I haven’t any means to cut it in two, I’m afraid,” the Doctor said.

“But I have, Doctor,” she said as, once again she pulled the small, but sharp, penknife-like tool from the right-hand pocket of her slacks. The Doctor solemnly handed her the apple – minus the handkerchief. She quickly sliced it exactly in two and handed him back his half. As the knife’s cover was a built-in cleaner/steriliser, she didn’t need to worry about cleaning it; just to close it up again and return it to her pocket.

“Now that’s what I like to see – a joint effort!” the Doctor said, grinning broadly with a twinkle in his blue eyes.

They were both hungrier than they realised – the apple disappeared very quickly. Next, the Doctor offered the flask of water to Catherine for a drink. She looked a bit sceptical about the container.

“I assure you, it does contain water!” the Doctor said, with mock indignation, choosing to pretend to assume that her scepticism related to the contents of the flask, not the flask itself.

Catherine apparently wouldn’t ‘play along’ with his joke, however. She said, “Doctor, I’m sure it does. I’m just surprised at the genuine silver of the flask!” She took a couple of large mouthfuls of the cool water from it, regardless.

The Doctor pretended to look hurt at her comment, but didn’t succeed. It also didn’t help that Catherine burst into laughter as she passed the flask back to him. As he placed the flask in his pocket, he thought, “She really should laugh more. She is an interesting and unusual woman, but she is also very attractive, particularly whenever she smiles or laughs.”

Then completely unexpectedly, the Doctor said to Catherine, quietly, “Thanks for your understanding earlier today. I tend to have down moods a lot lately and sometimes it sort of takes over a bit.”

She didn’t know quite what to say; she would have sworn that he hadn’t even noticed her at the time. “He really is an intriguing man. And very caring too,” she thought.

Without thinking, she stretched her left arm out under his jacket to rest it lightly around the back of his waist. She felt warmer and more comfortable that way. Once she realised what she had done, she blushed, but did not want to draw attention to it by moving her arm away. Most men she knew would jump to the wrong conclusion about this. She hoped the Doctor wasn’t one of them. His eyebrows did go up slightly and his eyes twinkled mischievously, but he didn’t jump to the wrong conclusion. He knew there was no amorous intent from her, as she knew there was none from him. Still, he pulled her a little closer to him, anyway. It was more comfortable for him that way, too.

It was nearly time for the day’s sunset. The sky was becoming suffused with a magnificent orange glow. Long orange fingers of the last rays from the sun for that day were stretching out towards the edifice that was Node Two. It glowed as if lit by some fire from within. The Doctor had seen it the previous evening, so he wasn’t really watching it properly. He was more interested in Catherine’s reaction to it. And reacting to it she was. That in itself was a surprise to them both.

Then before they both knew it, the sunset was gone and night had descended once more. Catherine was very tired from the day’s exertions, so closed her eyes and, like their night in the forest, turned to rest her head on his shoulder.

(* To be continued….. *)

Coming Soon