It was still dark when he opened his eyes.
Harry blinked and realised that he must have passed out momentarily. Probably as well, he thought, pulling himself up out of the thick mud or slime that had provided a mercifully soft landing. He grimaced as he did so, not so grateful when he found how sticky it was and noted the unpleasant smell, like unidentified old rubbish.
“Harry!” came an anxious voice from what sounded like much too far above his head.
He made it to his feet and stared upwards but without much illumination. “I’m all right,” he shouted back.
“He’s all right,” he heard the Doctor say. “See, Sarah, what did I tell you?”
Sarah shone a torch back down at him, leaning over the edge. He turned away at the sudden brightness. “Don’t worry, Harry, we’ll get you out of there.”
He hadn’t been thinking of that till she said it. Now he was registering exactly how far away they both seemed and finding it a miracle that he wasn’t lying in the mud with a broken bone — or a broken neck.
“Can you reach?”
Harry looked about him, wondering what on earth the Doctor was talking about and eventually noticed that he was dangling his scarf down towards him. The problem was that it stopped several yards above his head. “No,” he said wryly.
“We’ll go back to the TARDIS and get a rope,” Sarah shouted back. “You’ll be all right, won’t you?”
Honestly, what did she think of him? He said, “Well, I’m not exactly going to go anywhere, old girl.”
“Very funny,” she said and both her head and the torchlight disappeared from his view. Distantly, he heard the Doctor saying, “I don’t know how anyone could walk right into a hole that big.”
Sarah only said thoughtfully, “I wonder what it’s doing there. It’s sloped at this end — looks almost as if someone designed it that way.”
“It’s not important,” the Doctor returned airily. “It’s plain that no one’s been here for years. If that thick-headed oaf would only look where he was going …”
Harry was almost relieved to be out of earshot as they moved away. Not only did it mean that they were on their way to bring back practical help, but he would be spared any more of the Doctor's comments on his clumsiness and other shortcomings.
He put a hand to the wall of the hole he had so carelessly walked into. And it was true, he had been too busy teasing Sarah to notice that someone had left a huge, gaping hole in the middle of the cavern floor, but how should he have been expected to know that? People should jolly well put up notices, even if it was a deserted alien planet.
He ran his hand along the wall, moving round with an effort, to check that he hadn’t chanced upon the entrance to some tunnels, but it was quite definitely a hole. And by the smell of it, probably some ancient rubbish tip or cesspit. It was, all told, exactly his luck.
He leant back against the wall and sighed, waiting for them to return. He tried to calculate how long it had taken them to get from the mountain ledge where they had left the TARDIS to this cave, but it was hard to say. First the Doctor had insisted in going in the opposite direction, despite Harry and Sarah trying to persuade him that it really was important to answer the Brigadier’s request for help rather than explore. Then, once they’d found themselves at a dead end, they’d seen a waterfall in the distance that the Doctor claimed was the galaxy-famous Falls of Alyon and couldn’t possibly be missed if they were this close.
After that, there had been a lot of awkward climbing until they’d come into the cave for a rest. He decided that he had at least an hour or so to wait, if not more.
It was then that he heard the sound.
It was faint at first, indistinct — could even have been the result of his moving around in the thick, gloopy mud — but it persisted.
“Hallo?” he tried. “Is someone here?”
It was dark enough that he could have missed someone else stuck down here, although he didn’t like to think about what sort of state that they must be in if that were so.
“Mmph,” it said, sounding a little more human, or sentient at least.
Harry crouched down. “Do you need help?”
“Help,” it echoed faintly, but it was definitely a word.
He forgot the unpleasantness of the substance around him and knelt down in it on his hands and knees, trying to find the speaker. “Where are you? Have you been stuck here long?”
“Oh, forever,” it said, its voice barely more than a breath.
His hands hit something vaguely solid in the mud. “Look, I may be able to help you.”
“Yes, help,” it said more firmly.
He wished he could see better. He was getting more used to the lack of light and could almost make out a darker shape within the shadows, but it wasn’t much. He should have asked Sarah to toss the torch down to him rather than run off with it.
“Did you fall down as well?” he asked. “Someone really should have put up a sign before they left a whopping great hole like that lying about.”
“Been here so long,” it said, growing faint again.
He pressed what seemed to be its arm lightly. “Well, it won’t be much longer now,” he said cheerfully. “My friends have gone back to get a rope. Soon have both of us out of here. Now, are you hurt? Any broken bones?”
“Nothing broken,” it said, and it moved now, as if it was sitting up. “Only weak — nothing much left to me. Tell me about you.”
He coloured in the darkness. “Nothing much to tell,” he responded instantly. “I’m Sullivan — Harry Sullivan. I suppose we both share a tendency to not look where we’re going, but -.”
“If you want to help, talk to me,” it said. “Please.”
Harry wasn’t one to ignore a cry for help, even if it came from an unknown creature he’d found at the bottom of a hole on an alien world. “Erm, well. What shall I say?”
“Start with how you got here.”
It was sounding stronger by degrees, he thought, encouraged. “Well, we travel about the universe in a sort of spaceship that looks like a box. It may sound unbelievable, but that’s the Doctor for you. I’m just hitching along for the ride. In fact, we weren’t supposed to be here; we should have been going straight back to earth, but I think the Doctor was glad of any old excuse to postpone the journey.”
It was listening so intently that he was almost unnerved. “I’m not very good at telling stories,” he said apologetically.
“Carry on,” it said. “Don’t stop.”
Harry shrugged and then sat down, his back against the wall. “There’s three of us — the Doctor, Sarah and me. The Doctor and I are supposed to be working for an organisation called UNIT, but he’s not awfully keen on the idea at times, so he whisked us away on a quick trip to the moon along with Sarah, who’s a journalist, only I touched something I shouldn’t and next thing I know we’re thousands of years in the future and there’s a lot of giant insects trying to kill us. It’s been sort of one long round trip since then. Met all kinds of weird and wonderful creatures, put my foot in it, fallen down a hole and got called names by the Doctor, but I like to think he doesn’t mean all of them.”
“What about you?”
He scratched his head, feeling uncomfortable and then realised he’d got even more mud in his curls. “Oh, I was an MO in the navy and then I got seconded to UNIT. Well, it was after that little trouble with Jeffries thinking it’d be a wheeze to — well, no need to go into that now, but I get the feeling that Commander Phillips was only too happy to put my name down for that secondment. He never did think much of the army — said he was sending me somewhere I couldn’t do too much damage. I suppose I should have known that Jeffries was up to no good.”
It said nothing and he sighed, realising that none of that had could have made sense to an ailing extra-terrestrial. Sarah would have accused him of babbling. “Do you know what the navy is?”
“Yes,” the unknown creature said. “I do now.”
He frowned slightly. “I say, you’re not human, are you?”
“In a way,” it — or he — returned. “Carry on. When I’m strong enough, I’ll explain.”
He stared ahead into the darkness. “Look, Phillips shouldn’t have had that post — he was never a good officer, and what he was asking Jeffries to do was completely unjustified, so when he wanted me to help him fake an illness, I thought it wouldn’t do any harm. It was a shore posting, you understand. Anyway, trouble was Jeffries hadn’t been completely straight about what he was up to, either, and next thing I knew we were both in hot water and the Commander was only too glad to shunt me off elsewhere when the chance came along.”
“Unfair,” said the other.
Harry shook his head cheerfully enough. “Not really. I should have known he was up to something. Anyhow, it’s been an experience at UNIT and the Brigadier’s a much fairer chap than Phillips, so I’m no hurry to go back. Almost first thing I had the Doctor as my patient and I wasn’t exactly an expert when it came to alien physiology. Then it was giant robots and mad scientists and I got a chance to try a hand at espionage -.”
“That didn't work out, either?”
He admitted, philosophically, that it hadn’t. He got to his feet, having had enough of sitting in the mud and looked upward hopefully, even though he knew it could not have been anywhere near long enough for the Doctor and Sarah to have returned.
“Do you think they’ve left you?” the stranger asked.
He glanced back, startled, the thought never even having occurred to him. “Of course not. They wouldn’t. Not the sort of people who would do that to a chap.”
“Sorry,” he murmured.
Harry said, “No hurt taken. You don’t know them, after all and I suppose I look a hopeless sort of travelling companion, stuck down a hole like this.”
“The Doctor sounds unusual,” he commented.
He laughed. “That’s an understatement. When it comes to mad scientists, he takes the biscuit, but he’s a marvellous chap. You’ll see when he comes back. Sarah and I never know what he’ll take it into his head to do next.”
He felt tired suddenly, and he knew he’d already said too much. The Doctor would have pointed comments to make about knowing who he was talking to before he opened his mouth and gave too much away. He’d been trying to help, that was all, and now he had an uneasy feeling that it might have been a bad idea. “Sarah’s a great girl,” was all he said this time. “Plucky as anything. What about you? How did you get to be here?”
“That’s a much longer story,” he — it? — said quietly. “Not anything like as interesting.”
He felt slightly dizzy now and leant back against the wall again. “I say, you’re sounding better.”
“I told you that you could help me.”
“Well, glad to be of service.”
“Carry on,” he insisted. “I’m still not all I should be.”
He looked upwards again. “They’ll be here soon,” he said, forcing himself to sound cheerful. He could happily have lain down in the mud and slept, but he remained standing. “I think I’d feel better if you told me something about yourself.”
“I’ve been stuck down a hole forever,” he said. “Believe me, it isn’t interesting.”
It dawned on him that his voice was starting to sound oddly familiar. He closed his eyes and told himself that he was imagining things about his fellow prisoner. “Forever?” he tried in confusion.
“Until you came,” he told him.
Harry realised that everything was far worse than it had appeared. He was not only stuck down a hole, but there was some kind of alien down here with him and it wasn’t as friendly as it had appeared by any means. He fell back to the ground, the growing weakness finally conquering him. “Who are you? What did you do to me?”
“Nothing,” he said, standing over him. It was so hard to tell in the darkness, but it looked like him now. Sounded like him, too. It was an eerie feeling. “I was nothing, waiting to come into being and then you arrived after so long and shaped me.”
His vision was blurring now; he was going to pass out if he wasn’t careful. “I don’t understand.”
“No, I don’t suppose you do,” it said. “Not that I mean you any harm, but there’s only enough energy here to keep one of us together.”
Harry pulled himself back into a sitting position. “The Doctor’ll notice. I mean, if you’re some sort of mud monster, he’ll spot it straight away. You might as well give up now.”
“I was mud,” he said and gripped his arm firmly with a hand that felt as human as his own. “Isn’t that how we all began? I change a little faster, that’s all. And you’ll lose yourself here and then it’ll be only me left.”
He swallowed, unable to help being afraid that he was right. “But that’s nonsense!”
“No wonder your Doctor has such a low opinion of you,” he said. “I’m sure they’d be better off without you. Let’s hope they do come back — I don’t want to be left down here with a fool like you.”
Harry felt a spark of anger that gave him enough strength to try and fight back. “I told you. You don’t know what you’re talking about. Anyhow, I’m not letting you do this. Goodness only knows what you’d try to do to Sarah or the Doctor.”
“You’re too weak,” he said with a smile in his voice. “I felt the balance turn. It’s painless enough, don’t worry. You’ll just lie there and dissolve. You can feel it starting, can’t you?”
He dragged himself to his feet hastily, the fear that it was true getting him out of the mud. It was no use trying to tell himself that people didn’t grow out of slime in a matter of minutes and he couldn’t possibly melt away, because after a fellow had been travelling with the Doctor for a while, it was difficult to be sure what was impossible and what wasn’t. Right now, this felt so possible that he was turning cold.
All he knew was that he seemed to have stupidly talked himself into this trouble, so maybe he could talk himself back out of it.
“I told you; I’m not letting you hurt Sarah and the Doctor,” he said stubbornly. “When they get back here, I’m going to be the one climbing up that rope. I’m not that easy to get rid of.”
His shadowy double said, “But I don’t mean anyone any harm. And I’d do a much better job of being you. Hard to be worse, after all.”
“Thanks for the offer,” he returned dryly, “but I’ll stick with being me, if you don’t mind.”
He heard it sag back against the wall and felt a fraction stronger. Encouraged by that, he said, “Right, well, now I’m just going to ignore you. I’m sorry about all this, but it’s hardly my fault and you can’t go round stealing people’s lives.”
Harry remained steadfast. “Yes, stealing. Anyway, I’m not going to take any more notice of you. If you stop this, I might ask the Doctor if he can do anything for you, but not if you try to kill me again.”
“No!” he cried out.
He folded his arms and whistled. “Not listening!”
Into his head came memories of Sarah telling him in no uncertain terms to get his hands off her; the Doctor bawling out to the universe that he was an imbecile. He wavered momentarily and then guessed that it was trying to make him lose hope. “Stop it,” he said sharply and the creature gave another short cry.
“You’ll kill me,” the mud being said desperately. “You’ve already had a taste of life. Why is right that you should have that and I’ve got to go back to being nothing? You don’t know what it’s like. I mean no harm, I promise. It’s only that there’s no other way. Let me have the chance!”
Harry caught at his arm as he fell, despite himself. He had a point. If only one of them could survive, then wasn’t he as bad if he insisted on letting the creature die? He swallowed. It had tried to trick him, he thought, but then maybe he was gullible and you couldn’t really blame the thing for trying. He could hear the Doctor saying that. Who was there to say which of them deserved to live or die? He found that he was shaking slightly. He hoped it couldn't tell, but he had a feeling that it could.
“I didn’t trick you,” the alien that sounded so like him said. “I only asked you to help me — and you did. Don’t take it back. Let me try. You don’t want to kill me.”
He was right, Harry acknowledged and, as his rival straightened himself, he felt the weariness fall over him again, dragging him down like a ton weight. He slid against the wall, back into the mud. It had said there wasn’t enough energy for both of them and drained was exactly how he felt now.
He was a doctor himself; he’d thought about death and hoped it’d be quick, whatever else it was, and preferably in his sleep after a long spell as a doctor in a quiet village somewhere. Although, that dream was already twenty years out of date. No wonder Sarah called him old-fashioned. He hadn’t thought it would be millions of light years away from home, helplessly dissolving into this viscous substance all around him and that nobody would even notice.
He sank down further and wondered if he really was starting to dissolve at the edges. It felt worryingly possible and he was too exhausted to care.
The Doctor had said he didn’t use his brain enough. Try and think, he told himself in a last ditch attempt to find a way to stay alive. Well, he thought tiredly, the trouble seemed to be down to this mud or whatever it was, so it seemed a good idea to get up out of it. If he only could.
The creature that was stealing his life crouched back down suddenly. “I’m sorry, old chap, but there was no other way — and I promise you I’ll make a good job of your life.”
That, he thought was the outsize in cheek, and he mustered enough annoyance at that to push himself back into a sitting position.
It was no good getting sentimental about the whole thing, he told himself. No doubt living as sentient mud on a deserted planet wasn’t much fun, but it still didn’t give a creature the right to go round taking other peoples’ lives. He certainly couldn’t trust it to go back to the TARDIS in his place. Who knew what it might do once it got back to UNIT, even if it kept its word and did nothing to harm Sarah or the Doctor?
Besides, the Doctor probably would notice and then the thing would get its comeuppance, only by then it would be much too late for him and that was no use to anyone, was it?
He pulled himself to his feet, using the wall behind him for support. “Enough is enough,” he said. The words came slowly and with an effort, but he was not having this. “I’ve told you. You can’t have my life. I’m using it already.”
“It doesn’t look like it,” the mud being said and this time they were even. This could still go either way. “You fall into a hole; your clever Doctor friend thinks you’re a fool and the girl doesn’t think much more of you. All you’re good for is following people’s orders — and often you can’t even manage that!”
Harry smiled suddenly. It had seemed almost to be able to see inside his head, but he realised now that while it could to some degree, it was still only a creature made of mud and it couldn’t always understand what it saw.
“Why don’t you follow my orders and die?” it shot back at him.
He shook his head, though it was not easy to ignore the creature. In the time he had been down here, it had built up a considerable hold on him.
“It’s not worth fighting for — they don’t want you around. They might as well have me to play gooseberry as you. What difference would it make?”
He said, “You don’t understand at all, do you? I think that means I get to be the one who has my life. For one thing, it’s not like that — and even if it was, that’s not the point.”
“It’s not the point that they despise you?”
It hurt, despite himself. “I don’t think they do, so steady on. And even if they did, it doesn’t matter if I can be of any help to them.”
The creature was the one sinking back down now. “I don’t see.”
“No, you don’t,” said Harry, crouching back down over it as it slipped into the mud. “Not that I’m one to go preaching, but I can be a friend to them even if all you said is true. It doesn’t matter what they think about me. Everyone says duty and all that is old-fashioned, but, like you said, I’m here to do what I’m told as best as I can. If you can’t fit that into your muddy head, then I don’t think you’re ready for a full-blown life yet. You’ll have to work on it the hard way, like the rest of the universe.”
It was right under the surface now, a vague form, as it had been earlier.
“Sorry, old thing,” he said, feeling much more like himself already. “I was always told to make sure I left things exactly as I found them, so I think I’ll get out of here as soon as I can and you can be the one to stick around here.”
He waited for the Doctor and Sarah to come back, leaning against the wall and keeping quiet in case he set the creature off again. It seemed to have gone, but he didn’t want to take any more chances. It had been a near run thing and he had no mind to compound the error of falling straight into an obvious trap by ending up as foul-smelling goo. Who would?
“Harry!” called Sarah at long last.
He grinned to himself, relieved beyond words to hear her voice. “I’m here.”
“We’ve got a rope,” she told him as they lowered it down.
“And do try to climb up without falling off,” added the Doctor. “You’ve caused enough trouble as it is. You do realise it’s too dark for us to reach those falls, don’t you?”
He still could not stop smiling. He took hold of the rope and gave it a tug, just to check that it was secure. He wasn’t the only one of the three who made mistakes. “Sorry, Doctor,” he called.
“Don’t you listen to him,” said Sarah. “I bet it’s not the right falls at all and anyway, we were clearly lost -.”
“Lost?” he heard the Doctor respond in outrage. “Lost? I tell you, Sarah -.”
Harry kept on climbing.
When he emerged at the top, the Doctor gave him a toothy grin and then started reeling in the rope. “You really have got to start looking where you put your feet, Harry.”
Sarah moved forward to hug him instinctively and then halted, wrinkling her nose at the smell. She shone the torch directly at him and, once he’d stopped feeling blinded by the light, he could see her biting her lip in an effort not to laugh. “What happened to you?”
“Muddy down there, was it?” asked the Doctor, unable to resist. “Well, we’d better get you cleaned up before we take you back to the Brigadier.”
Harry followed them, heading out of the cavern. “Yes. Just as well I wasn’t wearing my uniform or he'd have something to say about damage to government property.” He wiped his hands on his handkerchief, which had remained almost clean.
“You smell revolting,” Sarah told him cheerfully. “What was down there — or don’t I want to know?”
He smiled. “Oh, nothing but a lot of sentient mud that wanted to take over my life, but I managed to convince it not to bother.”
“Really?” said Sarah and laughed at him.
He didn’t mind. “It’s true,” he protested.
“I’m sure it is,” she humoured him, but she took his hand as they clambered over the rocks at the entrance, trailing after the Doctor.
She made a face at him as they emerged into the light. “Harry, something’s rubbed off on my sleeve.”
“Sorry, old girl,” he said unrepentantly.
Their voices faded into the distance as Sarah retorted darkly, “Harry Sullivan, if you call me that once more, next time I’ll push you into a hole.”