On the way back up the journey felt as long as it really was. The slopes they’d raced down on when descending were horribly steep to climb up, and even Kala seemed out of breath as she picked her way over the rocks. She was more suited to the ascent than Chris and the Doctor, though, and before too long she’d drawn some way ahead of her companions.
”Is there anything we can do?” Chris asked the Doctor once she was sure Kala was far enough away.
“Only the best thing that anyone can. To have compassion and to show it, when you see that she needs it most of all. Anyone’d feel alone, facing something as big as this. We need to show her how no one ever is.”
“Do you think she’d even care? She thought we were worthless until she learned the truth.”
“That only makes the empathy more important. It’s a powerful thing, when someone who by rights should hate you chooses to love instead. And if there’s one thing I know about Chris Sillars, it’s that you’ve a whole lot of practice in forgiving.”
“I’m not forgiving her. I just don’t want her to die.”
“And that’s not nothing,” said the Doctor. “It might even turn out it’s enough.”
They both held back slightly once they came to the vast upper cavern, to the death-black lake where they’d once seen Drocks be killed. The oil was foaming with hunger as Kala was walking towards it, and from the dark point of its centre the Inverine started to rise.
Everything was silent, and the rocks of the cave were all still. It felt like the asteroid was sat there holding its breath, although there was nothing for thousands of miles that could be breathed.
Kala walked towards her foe as he came up out of the oil, covered in liquid that slicked down his shining sides. His face was exposed and he was sharply grinning, the smile of a species who would one day take over the world.
He didn’t need to speak, not right then. His expression would be clear to anyone with a face. He was a predator with his canines bared, and he was ready to devour his prey.
“There’s no use fighting it!” cried a voice from a long time ago. “He’s killed so many people! We’ll be no different; we’re no different than any of them!”
“It’s hopeless, don’t you see that? It was always so stupid to hope”–
“We’re dead anyway, aren’t we? We should all just give up now and die”–
“The same tricks as before?” said Kala. “They’re not going to work now I’m here. I’ve got someone I’ve always been fighting for, and I’m able to have him here now.”
Her hand was only shaking slightly as she drew her baton into the air. If the Inverine was surprised to see it, he gave no sign: his grin was unchanged as a figure rose up from the lake.
A liquid sculpture emerged of Kala’s son, and the Doctor gave a barely audible groan.
“Oh Hell,” she said quietly. “I was hoping she’d go for something less overplayed.”
“I’ve sacrificed so much for him,” Kala was shouting. “You’ve taken down so many creatures, but they wouldn’t‘ve known what I felt for my son. You can’t fight something as strong as that! Whatever you’ve seen in your time, you haven’t encountered the force of an Earthling’s love”–
The smile grew wider, and something in her cracked.
“Stop grinning,” she said, and it sounded like a plea.
The Inverine stopped everything else instead. Its whole body slipped away as it flashed between forms, and it was Drocks and Bol before it was a man again. It hovered in the void as behind it almost the whole lake was rising, shaping itself into something that had never really been real.
“We’re different to the others!” a voice was crying. “Nothing loves their young like a seahorse does!”
“We’ll go on; you’ll see!” cried another. “No matter how many civilisations died, the Jellians will still endure!”
Kala was still smiling, trying to keep some confidence in her face. But Chris could see the anguish in her eyes and how her smile was fixed not to break, and it seemed like a very fragile thing when next to the leer of her foe.
The shapes rising out of the oil were solid now. Kala was trying hard not to look at them, but the corner of her eye could see spaceships and rockets blasting towards the stars, like the ones in the books that she’d read at night to her son. They’d been in the books she’d read as a child too, and those books had been old even then: the future remaining the same even after it failed to arrive.
It had always disguised what their future really was.
The Inverine was grinning his widest as it all began to dissolve, the oil satellites and UFOs dripping and melting away. For a moment it looked like the whole scene was crying, as if it knew what it meant to have only ever been a lie.
Kala was looking at the back of her oil son’s head, begging her sculpture not to fall apart. But Chris could see his face clench up at the sight, and knew he was facing a terror his mother had fought hard to keep from him. Tears were leaking from his eyes as she watched in horror, and they streamed to the oil as he collapsed into nothing at all.
The oil spaceships had dissolved now as well, and from their ruins the creatures were starting to form. And among them were the figures of Drocks and Bol, who were now holding the hands of her son.
“No,” Kala whispered. “Please. Not that. Please.”
The ancient voices weren’t saying anything anymore. They were howling and crying with fear, and Kala now knew that nothing separated them from her. She screamed out with them until her voice merged with theirs, all of their pain indistinguishable as the creatures moved in for the kill.
But there was one way Kala was different from the people who’d come here before. No one the Inverine had preyed on had ever met a member of the species who would come next– let alone one they could think of as a friend.
“Kala!” Chris shouted as loud as she could with her lungs. “You can’t let it beat you. That’s not really your son in the oil. He’s alive and he’s on the Earth now, and he needs you.”
“You don’t know what it’s like!” said Kala desperately. “To see your child in so much danger right in front of your eyes”–
“Of course I do!” shouted Chris. “I’m a child; I see it all the time! Don’t you see that you’re not any different? You’re the same as everyone who came here; the same as us. Bol was glad when he found out where I was from,” she shouted as she remembered, “because it meant that there was a future, that there was Hume. And you didn’t need to save it because it was all still there. It’s all still fine, long after your people are gone.”
Kala nodded very slightly. She gulped, and looked back at the Inverine.
“I thought she was a monster just like you,” she said. “Just like everyone here that you killed. And she’s trying to save me. All your oil people would’ve done, wouldn’t they? If only they’d stop being scared. Maybe they’d have people to fight for them, if that had happened. If they’d all only stopped being so scared of their future”–
From the oil before her shapes were beginning to rise, hundreds of human figures that glistened in the beam of her light. They looked still and determined as they gazed at the oil army of the Inverine, and just for a moment Chris could see its grin twitch at the sides.
“If this is what the future is,” Kala was shouting, “then I’m not afraid of it, because there’ll be people like her! The Earth I know might not have long to go, but kindness doesn’t have to die with us. You think I won’t fight for my future? I’ll go one better.”
“I’ll get it to fight for me,” she said.
The oil humans lunged at the creatures the Inverine had summoned, the people of the future fighting the ghosts of the past. Neither Kala nor the Inverine were grinning now. They were both locked in concentration as the sculptures they had summoned punched and kicked, two armies battling in a furious pattern of oil.
Chris tried to work out what was going on as the oil figures splattered against each other, but it was hard to make out anything at all. Briefly, she saw several oil humans grab on to something with oil wings as it rose up out of the throng, before they dragged it along with them back to the chaos of the fight. But eventually one thing became clear– the army of the past was beginning to overwhelm the human one Kala had summoned.
In the middle of the sea of battling oil, the Inverine allowed itself to smile once again.
“All of them will die,” a dead voice wailed. “The ones before us and the ones to come.”
“If there was no hope for them, there won’t be anyone who comes here! We’ll all go the same way in the end”–
“It wasn’t enough,” said Chris. “She’s going to lose.”
She looked up at her ancient friend, and despite everything found that she still trusted her.
“Is there anything we can do?” she asked the Doctor. “Anything more?”
The Doctor shook her head. “It’s as I said. All up to her now. But that doesn’t mean she’ll fail, not yet, because she is still fighting, and she’s still alive. And it’s like I always say, really,” she said as she raised her voice a barely perceptible amount– “where there’s life, there’s hope.”
A tiny part of Kala heard that from under the terror and despair. She shook herself back to awareness, looking again at the creatures battling the humans. When she’d come here it hadn’t crossed her mind they could be people, and since she’d found that out she’d been able to see nothing else.
But they weren’t just people, she now saw. They all had something else in common that the Inverine would never share.
She looked her enemy right in the eyes and grinned, the grin of the strong once they know they are not really weak. The Inverine grinned back as furiously as it could, but suddenly it no longer seemed in control.
“You’re alone,” she said. “That’s what it was always about. You don’t even care that we’re people. You hate us because we were alive.”
“NO!” screamed a voice as the Inverine’s grin fell apart. “We’re dead, don’t you see that? All of us are already dead, and… and what in Hell is that thing?”
Kala was swinging her baton before her and all the lake was dissolving, human and non-human figures all pulled into the thing that was rising from the oil. The Inverine had gone pale as it watched it rise, a great sphere sucking in oil as it came up out of the lake.
“You’re the only thing that’s here,” said Kala, “all alone on this dead and tiny rock. And you control everything here, don’t you? It must you so furious, when control never feels like enough.”
“They’re so huge!” a tinny voice was crying. “Time and space are so much bigger than me, and I’m far smaller than I ever knew”–
“Maybe that’s true for you,” said Kala, “but I’m a part of something bigger. Not as big as space and time– but more than either of us could know, something that’s endured even longer than you. It’s seen so many lives over such a long time, and you’re stuck sitting here with nothing. That terrifies you, doesn’t it? You’re afraid.”
The Inverine stared in horror at what Kala had created, at the enormous sphere of the Earth she’d cast up out of the oil. It floated above them in a strangely solid way, all the shapes of the continents as they were here in her time.
The webbed lights of cities were flickering over the sphere, but as they watched they gave out and then were gone. And the planet stood strong and exactly the same, as if it hadn’t noticed the Earthlings were ever there.
The Doctor whipped out her screwdriver and sound filled the cave, and the landmasses of the Earth began to buckle and shift…
...Chris watched with awe as the globe moved towards the Inverine. The shape of its world was no longer truly alien: Africa and South America cracked apart from each other, Asia was congealing near the top of the sphere. It came closer and closer to being her world until it was it, it was Hume– and before she’d even noticed it had gone as well. Africa cracked in two and something went wrong with the sea, and the Earth went on to become something she’d never see.
Black tears of oil were rolling down the Inverine’s face, and it wasn’t Kala who was being taunted now.
“I’m so alone,” said a low voice from nowhere. “Why are you smiling?! Can’t you see that none of this was funny?”
“I can,” said Kala, and she was crying too. “It’s the least funny thing there is, to lose control. You know how I felt, don’t you? You know I needed us to have a future. That I was pushing back against something I thought would destroy me, until the pushing destroyed me even more. It would have consumed me; maybe all of us. Needing to have power over something that we don’t, to keep back a darkness that we knew was really there. But we didn’t have power over it, did we? You were right all along; we were so small.”
The oil planet was above the Inverine now, and the blackness made pools in the hollows of its eyes. Earth no longer looked like a planet that even the Doctor might recognise. It was a place whose creatures would live after even the Inverine died.
And it was the most beautiful thing that Kala had ever seen.
“I thought the world was all about us Earthlings,” she said with her baton held high in the air. “I thought that even when I knew we were going to die. But it’s not true; it never was. We’re just a part of a much, much bigger story. So I see”– she laughed –“because of you… life isn’t about trying to fight that. It’s not about owning the story”–
She grinned like a killer as she thrust the baton down.
“It’s about letting go,” she said.
The oil planet crashed into the lake with a whoomp, the half-solid whack of a body hitting ground. Chris shrieked as freezing liquid flew everywhere, staining her suit so deeply that it no longer had a pattern at all. All three of them were drenched in it until their suits had soaked right through, and they were stained black as the shadows their lights cast on the rocks.
They wiped the liquid from their helmets as fast as they possibly could– but by the time they could see again, the Inverine was gone.
Chris burst into laughter and started to shout.
“That was amazing!” she said as she bounded over to Kala. “You were fantastic”–
She stopped when she saw how the Earthling looked. She was breathing deeply and she was shaking, and Chris could tell her heart was hammering even though there was no sound at all.
Eventually, though, she started to smile too. A happy smile and also a very sad one, like oil and water had learned how to mix at long last.
“Adrenaline,” she said. “Coursing through both of us now. Both of us shaking and laughing. The Doctor was right”– she nodded over to her –“we really are all the same.”
Chris looked wary. “You’re still horrible,” she said.
“And I’m alive,” said Kala happily.
She looked over again to the lake, which now lay still.
“Is it gone?” she asked the Doctor.
The Doctor frowned.
“It’s not dead,” she said. “But it won’t be back here for a while. It’ll sulk in the depths, maybe for millions of years. But it’ll still be here waiting for the person whose face it takes next.”
“Then we’re safe,” said Kala.
“You’re the opposite. That’s what I was trying to hide. But here and now? Yes. Yes you are.”
“You saved me,” said Kala. “I thought you were going to kill us and you helped me live. If there’s anything I can do to repay you, you have to tell me. I’ll do it, no matter what it is.”
“I want to see a dinosaur!” said Chris.
“We can do that anyway,” said the Doctor, “in my Very Amazing Machine.”
“But we never do,” said Chris sadly.
“We’ll do it next. Scouts honour. There was something else I had in mind here. A job that needs a chisel before it does a TARDIS.”
“Anything,” said Kala. “Anything at all.”
The Doctor told her exactly what she wanted.
Kala instantly wished that she’d made a less generous offer.