“Erik,” the Doctor said. “I suggest we cut this trip short and return to the tree.”
Erik nodded. “I think you’re right, Doctor.” He gestured to his hunters and they loaded their friends up onto the foldaway silk slings they all carried at their belts, chopping branches to form poles.
They carried them back to camp, the others forming a movable guard around them, and settled them into the backs of the carts, cushioned by the cocoons.
The shadows were already stretching across the stone clearing. The abandoned food hadn't burnt, Pickles had returned and saved most of it. But no one had much appetite.
"It's too late to start out today," Erik said as the guards reformed their perimeter, everyone was feeling very alert. "This is the safest camp we're going to find, stone under us and water and cliffs at our back. We'll start back first thing in the morning. If we push it, and don't stop for anything, we can be back by nightfall."
The Doctor nodded.
“This is going to hit Angela bad,” Erik said as Janet climbed down out of the carts after settling the men.
“One of them’s wife?” the Doctor asked.
“One of them. Yes,” Erik said, with heavy emphasis.
"Ah,” said the Doctor.
On the way back to the tree they found a few more cocoons, but most of them were already deteriorating or half eaten. In the two days of the outward journey all the sunsails had hatched, with the exception of a few rogues such as the grub that attacked Rory. They didn’t find any more unhatched cocoons, and Janet kept a worried eye on the one they had, frequently checking the hormone levels.
Everyone was tense, finding things to do to take their minds off the situation, paying extra attention to things that would otherwise be routine. No one wanted to think about what had happened to Silas and Jonas.
No one dawdled. Erik, Janet, and the Doctor led the way. Although Janet periodically faded back to check on the two men.
She rejoined them. “If whatever this is happens to anyone else,” she said quietly, ”we’re in trouble. We’ve only got the two life support units.”
The Doctor and Erik nodded grimly. “Any ideas, Doctor?” Erik asked.
The Doctor shrugged his shoulders. “Not enough data. But,” he nodded to where Zeke, Chitchi and Nelda were paralleling them in the trees. “They seem to be able to detect whatever it is. They’re keeping an eye on us. With any luck, they’ll be able to warn us. I think that’s why Nelda followed me down to start with.”
Erik looked up into the trees. The three Trelwins, white, gray, and brown, swung along through the trees beside them. Somehow, he wasn’t reassured.
They found a few salvageable cocoons on the way back, it kept everyone’s mind busy to have something to do. They packed them quickly, keeping their guard up, and everyone stayed close to the trail, keeping an eye on each other.
They were taking the shorter leg of the loop back. It was unfamiliar territory to Amy and Rory, but they couldn’t find it in themselves to be fascinated. Their eyes kept going back to the one occupied cart, then darting back to the members of their groups.
They didn’t have any delays on the trail back, although they did get blocked by a small herd of the large deer in the main trail. These were a different breed, just as large, eight feet tall at the shoulder, as what they’d seen before, but these were zebra striped brown and tan, with different horns. They were browsing on the berry bushes and small saplings lining the trail. A gunshot by Eula, using one of the smaller caliber rifles, sent them bounding off.
Which was an impressive sight, given their size, and the fact that they could leap fourteen feet at a jump.
They made it back to the tree in early afternoon. Erik called down the cage, using a communicator Amy hadn’t realized he had. They split up.
“Janet and I will get Silas and Jonas to the medical center,” Erik said. “Doctor, you, Amy and Rory come with us. Eula, you and Shale get that live cocoon to Axel and the handlers, Pickles, you take charge of the cocoons and get them to the mill. The rest of you, help him and take care of the gear. You know the drill." Everyone nodded.
“What about the Trelwins?” Rory asked.
Erik looked down at the three Trelwins who were crouched to one side, watching all the activity. “I expect they have their own ways up the tree.” Erik said. “Although, I’d prefer they stay down here, at least until we can update Sondherson.”
The Doctor nodded. He turned and flashed a handful of signals to Nelda, she signed back and turned to the others. Zeke turned and gave him a calm, level look. Then nodded.
Rory’s eyes bugged out. Amy squeaked. That was the first time they’d seen one do that. From the sound of pans clattering behind them, they weren’t the only ones surprised.
The cage landed with a clang, everyone helped load Jonas and Silas into it. They all managed to squeeze inside, but it was a tight fit with the two bodies taking up most of the floor space.
Amy could feel the air getting cooler and lighter, the higher they went. The Doctor and Rory redonned their jackets, with their chutes sewn in, and Amy reminded herself to ask Sondherson for a visitor’s jacket. Eula’s safari shirt didn’t include a chute.
They rose up through the walkway surrounding the bole of the tree, the platform eclipsing the massed spikes underneath, to find a group of people waiting for them.
Sondherson had sent guides to lead the Doctor, Amy, and Rory, back up the tree. Janet and Erik took the two patients up through an emergency network of supply lifts that could be quickly cleared of merchandise in case of emergency. From what Amy saw of it, it looked a dangerous affair, unlike the safety of the cage going down, all they had was low wooden sides. But the hunters zipped up the tree much faster than they’d be going.
Amy watched them lift away enviously. Then sighed and started up the steps, following their two guides up the tree.
On their way back up the tree they noticed that there seemed to be more people around than they remembered from before. Business was still going on. But there was a tension in the air that Amy had thought would have dispersed by now, especially since Zeke hadn’t been seen in the tree in days.
People seemed almost to huddle. For a people who were practically oblivious of heights, they were staying away from the edges, and close to the bole.
Amy, Rory, and the Doctor looked at each other worriedly.
They finally reached the platform outside Sondherson’s office. Amy heaved like a bellows, her legs trembling like jelly. Rory wasn’t in much better shape. Irritatingly, the Doctor still seemed fresh as a daisy, although a daisy sweaty and rumpled from days in the jungle.
The cool breeze at this height was welcome, and they gulped in great drifts of it, getting their breath. Amy smoothed her hair back, and Rory straightened his puffy jacket.
Their silent guides bowed them into Sondherson’s office. Amy noticed there were guards stationed on each side of the door here too. So, the tensions from Zeke’s attack hadn’t
lessened. It was a good thing they’d come to tell Sondherson what they’d discovered.
They stepped into Sondherson’s office, to find a ring of guards, all pointing guns at them. Their two guides stepped in at their back, now armed, and blocked the door.
The Doctor rubbed the back of his neck. “This starts to feel familiar,” he muttered under his breath. He ignored the guards and turned to the administrator. “Ah, Deran!” he said brightly, clapping his hands. “We've come to tell you that Zeke wasn’t the cause of Aaron’s accident. We...”
“Who are you, Doctor?” Sondherson cut him off, looming in front of his desk. “I’ve got 18 people without lifesigns laid up in the single’s Domicile, and four more who plunged to their deaths because no one was around to catch them when they fell.
“We’ve had to start fabricating life support modules to keep up with the demand.
“I’ve checked up on you. There’s no research vessel in orbit around the planet right now, and there hasn’t been for a month.
“And all of this started when you arrived. So, who are you?
” He slammed a hand down on the report on his desk.
“Ah,” the Doctor said, holding up a tentative finger. “That’s a bit hard to explain.”
Sondherson looked meaningfully at his men, guns cocked all around them.
“Then I suggest you speak quickly!”
The Doctor explained, with the usual roundaboutation.
Sondherson glared at him when he was done. “Do you honestly expect me to believe that you are just a group of tourists who happened to blunder across a planet at the butt end of a wormhole?!” Sondherson was staring at them with a sort of chalky rage.
“Yes, that’s...” the Doctor stated calmly.
“I’ll do you one better, Doctor
,” the administrator said with restrained sarcasm. It hadn’t helped that news had arrived of another victim, who’d just been brought in.
“I say you’re from some kind of rival biological firm, here to find, god knows what, discovery. Who knows what Aaron was working on that you might have got wind of. Something worth enough money to kill him for and throw suspicion on the Trelwins.”
“What?!” Rory burst out. “We never!”
“Deran!” Emma thundered up to the door. She leaned in, her face devastated. “It’s Amanda!”
Sondherson’s face went chalk white at the mention of his little sister. He pointed.
Two shots rang out. The Doctor shoved Amy and Rory to the floor. The bullets buried themselves in the wooden walls behind where they’d stood.
Four more men collapsed.
One young boy, the youngest of the guards, gave the downed guards a terrified look and threw his gun away.
“Good man,” the Doctor said.
The Doctor looked around at the fallen men. Rory was already organizing the survivors to give first aid. One guard was phoning for medical help.
“Right,” the Doctor said. “If you want them to live, take me to your fabricator,” he told the shaken boy.
“Do you want
them to die?” the Doctor demanded.
“No!” the boy said.
“I’ll take you, Doctor,” Emma said from the door. “I’ve got access.”
The fabricator looked to Amy like some sort of hopper you’d store dried beans in. Except that one side was a bewildering array of complex controls, keyboards, and a three dimensional holographic screen.
The Doctor cracked his knuckles and started programming. Complex circuitry appeared in the hologram and was layered over by more circuitry, layers of insulation, silver coating, and input jacks were all encased in a handsized covering that looked like a squashed peanut shell.
Two long, floppy wires for antenna ended in earbuds. The whole thing looked like an ant after being run over by a tire.
Amy pulled the fabricated device out of the hopper. She looked it over. It was as thin as a wafer.
“The solution is an ugly ipod?” she asked.
The Doctor scowled at her and took it away. He smiled reminiscently a the ugly device. “I made one of these for a friend of mine once.”
Amy snorted. “What for?”
The Doctor gave her a serious look. “Sometimes it’s not what’s inside your head that’s the problem. It’s what’s outside. Come on, lets go see if this works.”
They made their way up the interior corridors of the tree, following Emma. Amy gulped back a feeling of claustrophobia. The wooden tunnels were cramped, the heartwood walls felt like they were pressing in on her after all the time outside. She found herself using both hands to hold the walls away as much as to make her way up the sloping incline.
They emerged into the brightly lit, higgledy-piggledy cavern of the visitors hall. The hall looked different from this angle. The big double doors were barred shut. And the open curtains of the lower bunk alcoves each held a recumbent, unresponsive patient. Each of the men and women had a triangular life support module on the center of their chest, and a group of concerned relatives and friends milled around.
Medical crew had set up intravenous tubes to feed the oldest of the victims, ones who were in danger of dehydrating or starving through lack of nourishment. The air smelled of wood varnish and antiseptic.
Cindy came up, looking hollow-eyed, and hugged her grandma around the hips, burying her face in her grandmother’s comforting stomach.
Jake tended the bar, solemnly doling out drinks and keeping a pile of sandwiches stocked. Gone was the air of comfortable, jovial, welcome. It was now as silent as a tomb.
“Where’s Aaron?” the Doctor asked, running a reassuring hand over Cindy’s curls.
Emma picked up her granddaughter and nodded. “Over here.”
They wove their way through the distraught relatives. Aaron’s bunk was the lowest center alcove, just catty corner below Cindy’s. The Doctor sat on the edge and checked the life support monitor on his chest. The local physician rushed up. “What are you doing? No one is allowed in here unless they’ve volunteered for quarantine duty,” he said.
He got a good look at the Doctor. “You!
What are you doing here?” he glared, then turned as if looking for security.
Emma laid a hand on his arm. “He says he can help, Paul.”
The young doctor looked at her, then looked back down at the Doctor, who was sitting quietly, patiently, being extremely non-aggressive. “How?” he finally asked, running his hands through his hair and gripping with aggravation, ”We haven’t even been able to identify what it is
, much less how it’s being transmitted!”
The Doctor held up his ugly ipod. “If my guess is right. This should snap him out of it,” he said gently.
The physician looked at it, then took it and turned it over in his hands. He looked helplessly at Emma.
She shrugged, bouncing Cindy’s head where it rested on her shoulder. “You’ve tried everything else, Paul. It certainly can’t make anything worse.”
The young physician handed the device back to the Doctor. “I can’t condone anything that will introduce anything harmful to my patient. Their immune system is as shut down as everything else, even normal bacteria could....”
The Doctor held up a hand. “No drugs, no chemicals, no intrusive rays or radiation. The absolute worst thing it can do, is do nothing,” the Doctor assured him. Amy heard that deep note in his voice, however. The worst thing it could do, in his estimation, was
Paul took a deep breath and nodded. The Doctor started to reach forward. Amy spoke up. “Shouldn’t we wait for Jute?”
The Doctor looked up at her. She shrugged. “I don’t see any relatives here for him,” she waved at Aaron, lying so pale on the cot, his kindly ascetic face as motionless as wax. “Shouldn’t he have someone here when he wakes up?”
The Doctor gave her a brilliant smile. “Thank you for that vote of confidence, Amy.” He looked at Emma and the doctor. “Has he got any relatives here?” he looked around at the other people who were milling around, waiting, and tending to the other patients. Some had started to gather, wondering what was going on.
Jake shoved forward from the back of the crowd. “If you’ve got some way to cure him, do it now. We’re all here for him. Jute would only thank you for healing him quickly.” The others muttered and nodded.
The Doctor looked around at the audience and licked his lips. “Right.” Only Amy realized how nervous he was. He was brilliant, but that didn’t always make him right. And if he’d misunderstood what the Trelwins told him...
The Doctor leaned forward in the alcove and brushed the old inventor’s silvery white hair away from his ears. He gently inserted the earbuds, hearing the sigh of anticipation from the crowd behind him. He switched the device on.
The crowd behind him breathed out in disappointment. The Doctor jittered one knee, nibbling on his lower lip.
Aaron blinked. The Doctor perked up. Paul leaned in.
The old man stretched his face and yawned, blinking his eyes open. He stared up at all the familiar concerned faces around him. He blinked some more, his eyes crusty, and focused on the one unfamiliar face.
“Who are you?”
The Doctor grinned like a maniac and shook the man’s limp hand energetically. “I’m someone who’s very glad to meet you!”
The Doctor held up a halting hand as Paul tried to nudge him aside to examine his patient. “What is the last thing you can remember thinking, Aaron?”
The white haired inventor looked up at him with a quizzical expression, his eyes darting around at the unfamiliar alcove and all the beaming faces around him, obviously wondering what was going on. He looked back at the Doctor, the Doctor raised inquiring eyebrows at him and gave him an encouraging smile.
“I was thinking that a practicable artistic sense is proof of higher cognitive functions. Why?”
The Doctor studied him as if he was looking for a relapse. “And that was important, why?” the Doctor encouraged. The elderly genius lit up and started spouting off a monologue about cognition and higher brain functions and social behavior and psychobabble and latin words that rivaled anything the Doctor ever came out with. His eyes sparkled, his face was animated with his discovery, and he waved his hands to illustrate his points, seemingly surprised to find an intravenous IV inserted in one of them. He started picking distractedly at the tape around the tube, still talking, the Doctor humming and inserting questions here and there urging him on.
Amy found herself grinning so hard her face hurt, tears standing in her eyes, she was biting her knuckles. It was like watching the Doctor talking to an older version of himself. The old man was most definitely alive, vitally so, despite his rather dehydrated, raisiny appearance.
Paul stopped trying to interrupt. There was a general sigh and some sniffles and muffled tears from the crowd. Obviously the old man was fine.
Eventually the Doctor wound down his discussion with Aaron, having filled in the old inventor with what had happened, and encouraging him to let Paul examine him. He stood up and made way for the local doctor. The physician started to take off the Doctor’s ipod device but Aaron stopped him.
“No, leave it on. I understand the principle now. That Doctor is quite a clever young man...” The Doctor grinned, overhearing that and turned to Emma. The locals had been hounding her with requests for their relatives to be next. At least until Sondherson and his group of guards had been trundled in, then every hand had been needed to prepare and transfer the new patients.
"Doctor, what's causing all this?" Emma asked quietly.
He looked at her, then looked at the influx. “I'm not sure yet," he said. "But, I think you should start mass producing those units as quickly as possible.”