Turlough had never run so fast in his life. He hauled in breaths of misty air as he raced across the flood plain. Feathertop reeds that had been submerged the month before now snapped at his shins. But their sting only urged him to run faster, and their floodswept angle even pointed out his course along the brook. Pumping his arms in time with his stride, Turlough chanced a glance behind him but saw no one.
Good. He was far ahead. He turned back to his sprint and careened to a halt, flailing his arms and pitching forward onto his hands. He landed with a grunt, setting off a cacophony of chittering clicks and whistles from across the brook. Turlough stood, picking bits of feathertop from his bare knees and glaring at the unseen wildlife as it skittered away.
"That's right, get a good laugh and then bolt." He brushed himself off and looked ahead. A few feet away, the brook emptied into a swampy lake, its surface a bright green carpet of spring moss and lilies. Insects flitted like a second mist between purple blooms, and it smelled like honey and compost. Turlough supposed there was enough standing water underneath it all to make wading a right slog. But he was in luck. Hut-sized hummocks, each supporting a lean scrub tree, rose from the lake every ten to fifteen paces.
A distant cry turned his gaze back to the flood plain. Through the sun's glare on the mist, he saw Glindgreect break through the brush, moving like a willow in the wind.
Turlough grinned wickedly, rocking back on his heels. His feet scarcely made a print in the marshy ground.
"I love this planet," he realized aloud, and took an impossible, springing leap for the first mound.
The Station Grket Two atmospheric outpost was a giant cone, dug point first into the wetlands at the edge of the marsh. Its top tier balanced against the crest of the brush dunes that sloped sharply to meet the flats. A branching network of reinforced rootwood supported the outpost's far side, snaking down five stories along the arc of the building's widest point. The rootwood facade also served as a railing for a wedge-shaped veranda cut into the top floor, and it was onto this balcony that the Doctor found himself politely escorted.
"Please wait here for the completion of the scan," Technician Strrek said, peeling his hand from the Doctor's sleeve as he ushered him out of the laboratory.
"Yes, I'm terribly sorry-" the Doctor said, looking past Strrek's reedy, towering frame toward the monitors inside.
"As am I," Strrek interrupted, "for that is the second display console you have broken today."
"If I could just look at the altitude adjustments-" he said as Strrek steered him weakly from the door. The Grketsch nodded at him, which the Doctor remembered was a sign of frustration and annoyance.
Strrek clucked deep in his throat and said, "Those keypads are expensive to replace. You cannot pound upon them so."
The Doctor squinted up at the sun. He glumly removed his hat from his coat pocket and unrolled it, resigning himself to his exile. "You're right, of course. I do feel like the proverbial bull in a china shop." Strrek blinked at him, uncomprehending, but the Doctor only frowned at the brim of his hat, which he had just torn in an attempt to reshape it. "I'm afraid I'm a bit out of practice at navigating low gravity worlds."
Strrek sniffed the air, his pinpoint nostrils flaring. "There is nothing wrong with the gravity," he muttered, before hurrying back inside.
Alone, the Doctor paced the veranda, but found it difficult to putter and look worried with such a spring in his step. He gripped the rootwood railing and closed his eyes, concentrating on adjusting his musculoskeletal system to a baseline exertion half the power to which it was accustomed. He blinked awake fifteen minutes later to find his hat had blown away across the marsh. But he felt a bit heavier, and Strrek had finally come to fetch him.
"Glindgreect's latest field readings are in," Director Klraact said from the diagnostics console when they entered. She blinked owlishly in the viewscreen's glow, and wrapped spindly fingers like clinging vines around a thin corner to turn the display toward the Doctor. "What do you make of them?" she asked, but the Doctor could tell from the green mottled flush in her cheeks that Klraact already knew the answer.
The viewscreen confirmed his suspicions. "The chain seeding isn't working," he said. "It's getting worse."
The atmospheric dissipation had spread, beyond the initial cracks in the ancient electro-chemical forcefield. The forcefield itself was teetering on the brink of collapse. If it failed, the colonists could only rely on gravity. But Grket's gravity alone could support only a fraction of its air.
Klraact swiveled to face another screen, her fingers ghosting across the delicate controls. Then she sat back, splayed her hands across her cheeks and let out a low harroom-ing sound. "In three years, the damage will be irreversible. Gods, three years."
Two thousand years after the colony's inception, Grket was going to suffocate.
Glindgreect was like no scientist Turlough had ever met. For starters, he didn't believe in cold, hard facts.
"You are swift, Strluck," he said, his thin chest still heaving as they walked back to the outpost. "But I could have caught you."
"I was half a mile ahead of you!" Turlough said, but the Grketsch just chittered a string of consonants that sounded far too much like the laughing underbrush for Turlough's liking.
"That just means we must lengthen the race," he said.
"Glindgreect," Turlough said, wondering how horribly he'd mangled those syllables, "my home world has twice Grket's gravity. You may be taller, but I'm stronger and faster here. It felt like I was flying in that race, and I was hardly winded."
Secondly, Glindgreect was almost as quick to sulk as Turlough. "Now you are merely boasting," he growled, nodding until he was eye level with his companion.
Turlough was never one to let friendship interfere with a tactical advantage. He bounced his steps, feeling lighter than air, and said, "I could beat you in any race on Grket. It's a simple fact."
"I will make a wager on that!" Glindgreect said. Thirdly, he was a terrible gambler.
"Another one?" Turlough said. They had given up finding anything useful for the other to wager, unless you counted pride.
"Any race. I choose." Glindgreect stalked past him in long strides.
"I don't know why everyone insists you're so smart!" Turlough called after him, speeding up. He overtook the Grketsch in the flats before the outpost and waited at the door, opening it with a flourish when Glindgreect caught up. Glindgreect brushed by without a word and took the only lift up to the laboratory. Turlough had to wait for it to return. This didn't count as a race, he assured himself.
Director Klraact and Glindgreect were in a heated argument when he arrived. They spoke so fast that all Turlough could hear were garbled consonants. Glindgreect seemed to be losing ground. He clucked and nodded in protest, and when Klraact pointed him to the field readings, he went silent.
The Doctor looked up from where he was studying a thin vellum data sheet. It was torn on several edges. "Turlough, where have you been?" he asked, moving carefully among the equipment toward the doorway where Turlough lurked. He set his hand on a console for balance, and quickly removed it when a technician glared at him.
"You're late, and the Director's been worried," he continued. "Did something happen with the readings?"
"No. Glindgreect wanted a race," Turlough said. This was clearly not what the Doctor had expected to hear.
"A... what?" he stammered.
"We had a foot race across the marshes," Turlough clarified. The Doctor's expression darkened.
"You had a foot race? Turlough, I do hope you understand the grav"- he stopped and adjusted his spectacles before continuing- "the severity, of the situation. The chain seeding is failing. The entire colony of Grket is counting on Glindgreect's calculations. You cannot monopolize his time with childish contests!"
Well, Turlough supposed, he'd most likely learned what Glindgreect and Klraact were arguing about.
At the console, the conversation rose again and Glindgreect finally harroom-ed, filling the room with sound, and shouted, "Will no one let me think?" before storming out toward quarters.
Turlough lifted his chin, but the Doctor was already occupied with another data sheet.
"I won the race," he said to no one.
The next day, Turlough beat Glindgreect at a race over the brush dunes, at a slog across Strkick creek, and at a jumping game called plol that took longer to explain than to play. They sat together in the outpost mess hall afterward, neither willing to admit that he was tired. The Doctor came in, looking for something approaching tea, but bustled out again with a quick "there's work to be done!" after breaking a mug. Klraact came in too, wringing her hands and scowling at Turlough, but Glindgreect clucked a warning in the back of his throat and she retreated.
"She acts like the sky will fall tomorrow," Glindgreect said.
He sounded unconcerned, but Turlough straightened and thought: it won't happen tomorrow, but it will happen in three years. And the sky won't fall, it will simply float away. Suddenly, for the first time since landing on Grket, his limbs felt like lead.
"Could you return to Grekka Prime?" he asked. "If the forcefield fails?"
His companion flushed gray, but answered frankly. "Our ancient home world has nearly three times the gravity of Grket. If we returned, our brethren would scarcely recognize us. And our lungs would collapse within a day."
"Aren't you scared?" Turlough asked.
Glindgreect harroom-ed and said, "For as long as I have been alive, the forcefield has been failing. They wish me to solve it and my first attempt has failed. But there is still time to think."
"Not today, surely. You must be exhausted," Turlough said through a yawn.
Glindgreect stared at him quizzically. Then he stood and exclaimed, "I have it!"
Turlough leaped up. "The solution for the forcefield?"
Glindgreect's wide mouth broke into an all-too-familiar wicked grin.
"For the race. We shall race to collect Nglentha berries."
"We will place our piles here, and here." Glindgreect indicated two spots at his feet.
It was gray early morning. They stood in a secluded grove at the far side of the swampy lake. The mounds were closer together here, nearly stepping distance in places, and the scrub trees had flowered after a sort; they each sported wet leaves covered with large, sticky blue orbs, in a canopy fifteen feet above the mounds.
"Those are Nglentha berries?" Turlough asked, frowning at the smell.
Glindgreect clucked a yes. "The first one of us to collect thirty wins the race," he said, and immediately sped for the nearest tree. Turlough followed, shimmying easily up into the branches and clamoring among the sticky leaves. The branches were slippery and the berries squelched through his grip. He had collected five when he looked down at Glindgreect.
His competitor stood at the foot of a nearby tree, with a pile of at least ten berries at his feet. Turlough looked on, astonished, as Glindgreect took a modest leap, opened his mouth and flung out a six-foot-long tongue, flicking a berry into his hand and dropping it onto the pile. Turlough blinked, and Glindgreect had another one.
"That's not fair!" he cried, nearly falling from the tree.
There was no mistaking Glindgreect's full-throated laugh. "With a tongue like yours, it's no wonder you can hardly speak. All those awful vowels!"
Turlough was about to protest when, from his vantage point, he saw the open water ripple. Then it heaved up in an unbroken swell.
"Glindgreect", he said. "What is that, behind you?"
Glindgreect turned around. "Oh," he said, backing away. "Oh, I'd forgotten how fiercely they guard nests in the early spring-"
"Nests? " Turlough said, trying to find somewhere to wipe his hands. The water heaved again, a huge dip and push. "I thought you said these were berries!"
"Did I?" Glindgreect cocked his head. "I think I meant... eggs?"
"What. Is. THAT!?" Turlough repeated, as with a great splash, a twenty-foot flatworm burst up from the lake's surface, raining moss and lilies, flapping its side cilia and hissing through a circular mouth of sharp teeth.
"That's a Nglentha!" Glindgreect said brightly.
The Nglentha reared and roared up at the mound. Turlough clung frozen to the treetop. "Glindgreect, get into the trees! Out of its reach!"
"Don't be ridiculous, they lay their eggs in the trees! Anyway, you never climb them if you're smart-" Glindgreect stopped and stared open-mouthed at Turlough. Then he ducked and ran as the Nglentha thrashed, wrapped its huge flat tail around the trunk of Turlough's tree and pulled. The whole canopy bent toward its gaping mouth.
It was very lucky for Turlough that on Grket, he could fly. He leaped screaming away from the tree and crashed onto a far mound next to Glindgreect, who was still staring, dumbstruck, at the undulating Nglentha.
"Strluck!" He clutched Turlough's shoulders as he rose, smiling like a lunatic. "Don't you see? The forcefield--we've been climbing trees all this time! Only idiots climb trees!"
The scrub tree snapped in half with a loud 'crack'. Glindgreect ducked again, and a wad of green slime hit Turlough in the chest.
"All this time!" Glindgreect said. The worm barreled toward them, and Turlough wondered what the Doctor's lecture would sound like if he let Grket's premiere scientist get eaten by a Nglentha.
"I hate this planet," he said, and then wrapped an arm around his friend and sprang away with all his strength.
"We must untether the forcefield from its poles," Glindgreect said as they staggered into the laboratory, slime-covered and soaked. Turlough collapsed into a chair and broke it, but he was ignored.
"Are you mad?" Klraact said, but Glindgreect was already typing furiously at a console. The Doctor came up behind him, studying his charts.
"We initiated the chain seeding by scaling the poles, like climbing a tree to reach its canopy, and now we are just crawling inefficiently across the high atmosphere," Glindgreect said. "We must untether the field and instead let it sweep along the path of a standing relay. We will set up ground bouncers here, and here, to bolster the relay controls like a flick of the tongue. Rising atmospherics will even let it self-regulate."
"My word," said the Doctor. "That's-"
Another chair crashed to the floor. It was Klraact's. "Brilliant," she finished. Her whole body shook with relief as she stood. "Do--do you think it might work?"
"It will work." Glindgreect grinned at Turlough. "As long as there are no Nglentha to chase us away."