Deep below the oil at the heart of the asteroid, a living thing watched two other lives appear. Chris had held close to Bol as they’d fled from the fire above, and it hadn’t seemed like much time had passed since they had started to run. But the thing in the oil had been counting the seconds since then, and it knew it had been a while since they’d come from the caverns above.
“We’ve gone as far as we can,” said Bol, gesturing to the oil that stretched before them. “We should wait, I think. Your friend and mine will come here soon enough, and then we can work out how to salvage the expedition.” He stretched out his arms and sat upon the ground, groaning as the weight of his spacesuit pressed down against his body.
“I don’t like your friend,” said Chris as she sat down alongside him.
”Kala?” said Bol. “Neither do I.”
There was an uncomfortable silence as they both looked out to the lake. Chris was interested in astronauts and very interested in dinosaurs, and Bol was a person who would know a great deal about both. At that moment, though, she thought it would be a bad idea talking about either: the Earthling’s expression suggested he was troubled by more than the death of his friend.
“I’ve always wondered,” he said after too many seconds had passed. “Is it warm? You know. Being a mammal.”
“It’s warm and cold,” said Chris.
“Oh,” said Bol. “Warm and cold.”
The silence descended again.
“Drocks is dead,” he said. “Not much for small talk, after a thing like that. He was always so upbeat about everything. Didn’t understand sadness at all. Some people are like that, aren’t they? I’ve always wondered how they had it going on.”
“I’m sorry,” said Chris. “Can’t you go home? Back to your planet, away from where he died. It’s what I would do if I was you.”
Bol looked even grimmer at that.
“Things are… they’re worse than anyone’s letting on. Oil from asteroids? It’s desperate! But desperate’s better than nothing, right? If something organic like oil can be made in a place like this we might be able to find out the secret; produce some of our own for ourselves.”
He was talking to her like an equal, Chris realised, in a way that a human adult rarely would. And he was open about the death of his friend, which could only mean–
“You don’t think it’s us,” She said. “You don’t believe we’re responsible for the Inverine.”
“I don’t think you have it in you. Fear’s fear, and both of you were showing it. We’re not so different at the end of the day, even with whole planets separating us. I’m not sure Kala ever understood that.”
“Then you trust us?”
“No. You’re not really filming anything, and you’re not telling us why you’re really here. But you don’t wish any harm on us, like that thing in the oil did. I can’t figure out what you do wish on us, though.”
He looked at her, and she could see her face reflected in his helmet, the emotions in her eyes all bare and plain. He’d been trained at this and she was a child, and the gap between their species seemed like nothing compared to that.
“The Doctor’s good at hiding things,” Bol went on. “I know a master manipulator when I see one. But you’re an open book. The way you’re acting… it’s like you want to protect us, I think. Like Hume’s a planet from a children’s programme, where aliens come to save the Earth from ourselves. But I don’t think that’s something that’d happen in real life.”
As Chris was listening there were a hundred adult faces in her head, looking down at her with pity for reasons she didn’t understand. They’d have their own people like the Doctor, she realised, higher ups who’d tell them what to do. She’d never been in an adult’s shoes before, but she’d been in Bol’s position more often than she’d ever remember.
“There’s no such thing as Hume,” she said.
Bol looked confused.
“You mean… you’re some kind of ghost?” he said.
“No!” said Chris. “That’s stupid!”
“Then I don’t know what you mean.”
“We call ourselves humans, but Hume’s not the place that we’re from. We live on…”
She looked down at her feet.
“The Doctor has a time machine,” she said quietly.
Bol nodded very slightly to himself.
“You’re from Earth,” he said, his tone impossible to read.
“Yes,” she said. “We’re from millions of years in your future. But there isn’t–”
Something inside her gave up, the truth spilling out like blood.
“We’ve never heard of you,” she said. “We know a lot, although less than we think we do. But we’ve never heard of your people, and there’s nothing of you left by our time. Until I got here, I didn’t know there’d ever been people on the Earth who weren’t humans. I wouldn’t even have thought that there could have been.”
Bol looked grave. “And the Doctor already knew all of this?”
Chris nodded. “She really isn’t a human. I don’t think she’s even a mammal. She knows a lot that other people don’t, and she said”–
“I can guess what she said. That we never get to the stars, or even survive for much longer. It just all stops, and it’s not so long from now.”
Chris didn’t look at him. “She didn’t want you to know.”
Bol sighed. “If I was honest with myself? I think that I already did. Maybe lots of us do, although we wouldn’t say it. It’s horrible, of course. And it’s stupid. But I can’t say it comes as a surprise.”
“You’re taking this very well.”
Bol laughed. “Well, there’s you, right? There’s Hume! Thinking that all that way in the future the Earth will still have people, only you won’t be people people? That’s amazing! It means that not everything ends.”
“We are people people,” said Chris.
“Yes. Of course you are. I’m sorry. It’s just very strange, when you think about it. You’ve told me that the world’s ending. But for you, it hasn’t even begun.”
“You can’t tell Kala,” he added.
“No!” said Chris. “That’s what the Doctor said, that I shouldn’t tell people, but now I’ve told you”–
“Yes, but Kala’s not people. She believes in this, truly. She needs it. It’s what she’s clinging to, having something to show to her child. Some kind of hope, of the sort that feels actually real.”
“I’m a child,” said Chris. “I wouldn’t want this. My mum’s put herself through lots for me, but I don’t think it’s made things much better. It just made her sad, and the sadness makes everything worse.”
“Your friend would have eaten her other children, but now her son’s older she’d do more for him than my mum would do for me. It doesn’t make sense.”
“No. Often sense is just pretending, isn’t it? On Earth, anyway. And maybe on Hume, as they’re both the same place. Pretending it all fits together, that there’s some kind of control. So we could think we were really good people, just before the whole lot of it ends.”
“You’re a good person,” said Chris.
“I’m not,” said Bol. “But you are. And I have a lot of training,” he added, “so I should know. Good people, no matter what they look like. I’m glad that it’s something that goes on.
“Thanks,” said Chris, fiddling awkwardly with her nails.
They sat silently together in the darkness for a while, still watched by the thing in the oil. It still had the face of a human man, and it was still grinning in its thin and predatory way. But as it slowly started to rise the face around the grin flickered, and just for a second it was another face again.
For a fraction of a moment, the Inverine’s face was the same as one of them sitting above.