The TARDIS materialised softly between a complex maze of stalactites. An old man, frail and unsure and dressed in a frock coat, stepped outside the ship with his granddaughter. The ship now resembled a huge boulder with creepers running around the edges. It had a sort of cloaking device, a chameleon circuit that allowed the space ship to blend in with its surroundings.
The girl with him, who looked no older than a young teenager, wore a white dress with long, flowing sleeves, a brown and battered satchel, and her hair was as black as ebony and it was long and wavy and spiralled down her back. The old man, the Doctor, stood beside her, his expression portraying a sense of disappointment.
“We seem to be a little stuck amongst these wretched things!” he moaned as his coat snagged against one of the sharp hanging rocks. “Careful, my dear, we’re going to have to manoeuvre our way through this lot.”
“My acrobatic skills finally come in handy!” Susan boasted as she led the way and was already bending back and forth between the crags and rocks. She reached the clearing far quicker than her grandfather and had to wait patiently for him to join her. By the time he did catch up, he was breathless and red faced.
“Oh, dear, dear, remind me to materialise outside of a cave next time.”
Susan laughed. “Perhaps there’s something wrong with the TARDIS, she keeps landing a little off. Perhaps she has the flu!”
“Nonsense, there’s nothing wrong with my ship, it’s in perfect working order, nothing can go wrong.”
“Yes, ok, so where are we, Grandfather?”
“This is very exciting, my dear child,” he said as he moved behind her, his protective hands clasping her shoulders in comfort. “We are at Akhaten. Take a look at that, my dear.”
Susan sighed with excitement and stared ahead in awe at the beautiful view before her. Oranges and reds filled the scene with crumbling rocks dancing and wheeling their way peacefully and slowly across the view in front of them.
Flashes of blue and purple highlighted the other colours, making the sight one of the most spectacular images she’d ever seen.
“What do you think Susan, hmmm?”
“Oh, Grandfather.” She beamed. “I think if heaven exists, this is what it looks like.”
The Doctor chuckled. “Well, yes, come along, come along.”
“Are we going to go into the city, Grandfather?”
The Doctor paused; he seemed concerned; his face was lined with uncertainty and doubt.
“Oh, come on, Grandfather! A closer look...just this once. I want to talk to people and look around and see things right up close...just right in front of me, not always observed from a distance.”
The Doctor was hesitant. At first he shook her request away, but finally he softened. “Oh, alright, but follow my instructions implicitly...do you understand? Implicitly!”
Susan squealed in delight and surprised the old man with a quick kiss to the cheek. The Doctor smirked, trying hard not to let out a full smile.
“Yes, yes, well...let’s take a closer look then.”
The market place was bustling with alien life. Dozens upon dozens of wooden stalls were laden with an assortment of fabrics, food in glorious quantities, pottery and art, and most bizarrely- technological equipment that contrasted so much with the almost ancient civilisation.
The Doctor picked up a silver wristwatch. The clock face was green and mechanical; it told the time of various time zones on the system. The Doctor was fascinated by the intricacy of the watch' it was so delicate and small, yet it held so much information and wonder. The clockwork ticked away, making the Doctor ever aware of time, aware of the feeling that he was always in a hurry despite the fact that time was something he was never short of. Time could be anything he wanted it to be, yet he always felt he didn’t have enough; always felt the need to rush off to the next place, study it, and move on. Always move on.
Susan’s eyes danced in excitement. “A market place, a real place to buy anything I want. I can buy clothes!”
The Doctor harrumphed. “Susan, you own too many outfits as it is. Every new place you want a new frock, even on educational trips.”
Susan’s eyes rolled. “They’re all educational trips!”
The Doctor hadn’t heard. “What did you say?”
“Nothing, it’s just I want a reminder of every place I’ve ever been to.”
“That’s what the memory banks are for,my dear, to record all our journeys, all our findings.”
“Oh, but those are just facts and figures, Grandfather. You can’t record the smell of an alien flower, or the taste of a rare rich berry, or the feel of alien silk as it drapes around your shoulders. Those are the things I want to keep and remember.”
“Oh, Susan, my dear, you are far too sentimental.”
“And I think you are too, though you hide it deeper.”
The Doctor considered her thoughts and then nudged her along to let her have a peek at all the things she desired. She held up a long dress, she spun around as she held it close to her, the colours twisting and turning so fast like the image from a kaleidoscope- that the Doctor suddenly felt quite dizzy.
“Oh, it’s beautiful,” she kept repeating. Soon she had put the dress down however and was sifting blue grains of sand through her fingers. “Look, Grandfather, you can fill up an hourglass with whatever sand you like, and the glass is flexible, can become solid, liquid, even gas, and the sand just follows the form of the container.”
She poured some pink sand into one of the hourglasses and watched as the glass slowly became liquid, the pink bleeding through into ripples across the object. The Doctor took hold of it, as he did, the object re-formed into solid glass.
“Very pretty, my dear, very pretty.”
Susan quickly scooped up a delicate trinket.
“No touching before sale!” an angry alien voice said.
Susan put down the trinket and stood back in surprise. “Oh, I’m sorry.”
“Do forgive my granddaughter; she is a very curious young lady, like that young Alice in the little wonderland.”
The alien’s four eyes widened, his domed head pulsated so that his green brain became luminous with thought. “Granddaughter! And you are her grandfather?”
“Yes. Is that significant?”
“There is an event this very day in honour of the old god, ‘the grandfather’. We take a feast in the halls of worship to celebrate the grandchildren of our world, his children, and all their offspring in the image of the grandfather and all he has done for us.” The alien held out two tickets and pushed them near the Doctor’s hand. “You must attend the great feast of Akhaten. He will expect you.”
“That’s very kind of you, sir, but we shall decline,” the Doctor said, nudging the alien hand away.
“We can’t turn down an invite, Grandfather, it might appear rude to these people. You said before we came here that tradition and worship is important to them.”
“And I respect that life, I find it fascinating, but tradition and obedience aren’t all what they are cracked up to be.”
“Oh, not everything is the same, Grandfather, you know that.”
The Doctor’s eyes darted back and forth for a moment. Susan knew he was curious by the way he was twiddling his fingers. He sighed, reached forward, and gently took the two tickets from the vendor.
“With thanks,” the alien replied. “In one full passing of the minutes, you shall enter the hall of worship.”
The Doctor nodded. “Thank you. Well, Susan, it appears you will need something to wear after all.”
Susan screamed with delight and ran over to another of the stalls. This one was covered with various ceremonial cloaks, robes, and long dresses. Susan picked up a crimson cloak and tried it on; she placed the hood over her head. “Oh, Grandfather, can I have this one?”
“Yes, yes,” he began as he turned to look at the rather grotesque looking alien. “How much for the cloak, sir?”
The Doctor and Susan jumped back, startled when the alien began barking furiously at them. “Do not bark at me, sir! I am trying to purchase your item,” the Doctor roared.
The alien’s teeth protruded from its mouth, and what had appeared as aggression was now clearly a happy smile. The alien barked slower and quietly. The Doctor nodded like he understood. “Oh, I am terribly sorry, madam, I fully apologise. Yes, she would like this cloak.”
The alien woman barked again, and the Doctor nodded once more. “I see. Susan, payment is not cash nor credits, but we must provide her with something of value to us, to our memories.”
Susan bit her lip and had a think. The Doctor patted his coat for inspiration, but the boiled sweets, the little torch, and the wooden yo-yo were hardly of great sentimental value. Finally inspiration struck Susan, and she began unlocking her satchel. She flung open the top and reached inside. She pulled out a small wooden box with Gallifreyan inscription on the front and then opened it. She pulled out a beautiful silver leaf. The Doctor gasped.
“Will this do? It has many memories for me.”
“Put that away at once, child, do you want people knowing...?”
“Grandfather, it’s just a leaf, no one could know...”
“How can such a silly little thing hold a story, a memory?”
“I climbed the trees on our home; I climbed so high one time that I got stuck in its branches. You had to come and rescue me, do you remember that?”
“You cried and screamed, you cut your knee, and you didn’t stop crying until I got to you.”
“It means a lot, it tells a story, and it’s from home. It’s part of me.”
Once again the Doctor relented and handed over the frail but beautiful silver leaf on her behalf. “I hope this shall suffice, madam.”
The alien woman barked and motioned for Susan to keep the cloak as her own. The Doctor began to pull Susan away. “Bye, Doreen,” Susan called back as they departed from the market place. “Thanks!”
The hall of worship was a magnificent building resembling a temple. There were three long wooden tables in the centre and about a hundred or so chairs placed around them. The tables were filled with goblets of fizzing wine, and platters of sumptuous meat and fruit, and there were loaves of bread upon every plate. On each table there was a centre-piece, a glowing orb of light that illuminated the banquet tables making the food appear different colours. When Susan and the Doctor entered, most of the guests had already arrived. An usher took their tickets and stamped them before leading them over to their seats. They sat down gratefully and marvelled at the feast ahead of them.
“Quite a spread indeed,” the Doctor commented.
As the grandfathers and their grandchildren hurried to their seats, a gong was struck by a man in a similar robe to Susan’s. The man had raised markings over his face and to the Doctor’s surprise he began to sing. The man’s voice was so soothing, so melodious, and almost hypnotic. Everyone instantly fell silent and obedient to its chorus.
The man sung the lyrics, I bring thee together, Grandfather. I bring thee songs of peace. I walk with the children; we live in your vision, your grace, and your love. We live in you, in constant duty and hope. We summon the heart of the grandfather, and banish evil away.
When the man stopped singing, everyone started to cheer almost too loudly for such a quiet and solemn place of worship. The Doctor frowned, his eyes rolled a little, and his fingers tapped awkwardly on the table. He was impatient to get eating and let them be on their way. Susan was hushing his grumbling and his rudeness.
“Other cultures, Grandfather, their rules, besides, wasn’t his voice the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard?”
“Hmmm...maybe second best, my dear. He hasn’t heard me sing, ha ha!”
“Of course, Grandfather, of course.”
The feast was a grand and important function and despite his trepidation at first, the Doctor found himself getting involved and conversing with other grandfathers around the table. He had eaten a large amount of food and had unbuttoned his top button on his trousers, letting out a sigh of regret at his gluttony and then he resumed his conversation with some other men.
The Doctor’s conversation was interrupted by the strange whirring sound that seemed to be coming from one of the walls. The Doctor instinctively grabbed Susan’s hand.
“What is that?” Susan whispered as the whir continued.
The people at the feast waited for someone to speak. The singing man held out a device and the whirring in the wall stopped.
“Thank fudge for that!” the Doctor harrumphed loudly so that the entire room turned to stare at him. Susan wanted to laugh so hard. For a man who was keen to remain mysterious and uninteresting he was always so loud and obvious.
The singing man ignored the Doctor’s rude outburst and all eyes fell back upon the man with the most gracious voice Susan had ever heard. He started to sing again, the Doctor’s face seemed angry once more.
“What is this...a musical?”
Susan hushed him again. “I can’t take you anywhere.”
The singing man continued to sing the song that sounded the same to the Doctor as all the verses he had sung throughout the dinner. Susan was smiling and enjoying the performance, she nudged the Doctor to join in, but he was adamant that he was not going to participate in a sea shanty. Susan sighed and sang along herself. She was really excited about the feeling that came over her when she joined in, but there was something about the man that suddenly frightened her. He was staring behind them, so deeply staring that Susan began to shiver. His face no longer seemed relaxed but more distressed and frightened.
Susan gasped as the man was lifted in an orb of light into the air; he was floating above them and seemed to be chanting quietly.
“What’s happening?” Susan murmured.
The Doctor’s eyes flashed an interest that hadn’t been there before. He remained quiet and simply watched as the man appeared to be dragged backwards. The man suddenly let out a terrified scream, no longer able to remain poised and composed.
“Help me!” he yelled. “I’m not ready to go!”
Susan jumped up from her seat. “But he doesn’t want to go! Grandfather, he’s terrified!”
The Doctor’s face suddenly showed a look of anguish and fear. “I’m afraid so, my dear.”
“What’s happening? Why is he being taken, and where?”
The Doctor looked around the room; everyone’s faces displayed the same concerns. “It would seem, my dear, he is some kind of offering to this grandfather of theirs.”
“But...he’s scared...I don’t like it.”
“Neither do I, but what we think is not the issue here.”
“But nothing! Like you said, their culture; their rules, you understood it child, you just can’t see it when it appears strange to you.”
“But how do we know this is normal here?”
The Doctor grabbed Susan’s hand and he began to pull her along, out of the room, and across the market place back to the caves. He didn’t look back, just kept running, and kept pulling Susan as she resisted the escape.
Before she knew it, they were greeted with the familiar hum of the interior of their home and the Doctor was closing the doors with a flick of the switch. He put the ship into flight and the column began to rise and fall noisily as the ship de-materialised and took them away from the system entirely. Susan fell to one of the chairs in distress.
“I’m not sure if that was right, Grandfather, we just ran away. He could have been saved, maybe he wasn’t meant to be offered, what if we were wrong?”
“That’s just it, my dear, how can we ever know? Trust in me as your grandfather.”
“Like that man trusted in his?”
The Doctor frowned. “We must all believe in what we can and what feels right.”
“Sometimes a grandfather can let someone down.”
She sighed unhappily and took off the cloak, draping it over the chair. The Doctor patted her on the shoulder in sympathy. “I understand, Susan, I really do. Your old grandfather is a bit of a mystery to you, a bit of a mystery to me too. I didn’t want to ruin your good time. We had fun also, did we not?”
“Yes, Grandfather,” Susan replied, looking up at him. “Yes, we did.”
“Well, we keep on going then? Travelling? Seeing things? New fashions await you, my dear grandchild.”
“So you’ll let me actually buy a real dress on the next planet then?” She giggled.
“Behave yourself and we shall see.” The Doctor ruffled her hair and embraced her in a hug. “Off we go,” he said. “Wonder where we’ll end up next, would you like to know?”