Written for:storm_and_wolf Nine/Rose ficathon
Summary: Singers in this hard but beautiful land often told Helen they knew as many songs as there are stars in the sky. Tonight, with the aid of two impossible strangers, she would help one singer reclaim the stars.
Edit: dr_whuh As ever, he is the man. Thanks, my darling.
Prompts: (1) Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy. Beethoven
Author's Notes: Here, with abject apologies to the supremely patient mkejenkins , is my extremely, very, unconscionably, unforgiveably late second round 2 ficathon story. And what have we learned, kaffyr? Never take three prompts at a time. Only heartbreak and shredded deadlines can come of it. Very quick comment (longer, pseudo-academic notes will follow at the end of the story): Dr. Helen Creighton was a friend of my grandmother’s. She visited and stayed with us many times as I grew up, and I knew immediately, when I took the two prompts, that I wanted to introduce this amazing woman to the Doctor and Rose.
Disclaimer: Doctor Who and its characters are owned by the BBC and their various creators. I earn nothing, and intend no infringements. I simply love them all.
Spring rains had left the road a hopeless topography of mud, loose shale, and rocks lying in wait for hapless vehicles. Helen looked at the right front flat, or where the flat had been before the wheel sank in the slurry now engulfing her ankles, and sighed.
The jack and tire iron sat on the floor of the car, just as muddy as the road, and even more useless. As well-trained as she was in patching an inner tube, training counted for nothing without solid ground on which to place the equipment. Nor would it have done her any good even had she been able to fix the tube, not once she’d realized the axle was broken as well. She wasn’t getting back to Dartmouth tonight.
She eyed the car with the kind of polite venom she’d once reserved for the professors in Toronto, but couldn’t find it in herself to start swearing again. She’d long since exhausted her supply of military curses, and was too cold and wet to start that obscene cycle a third time.
“And of course, it’s almost dark,” she said to no one, fiercely regretting now the extra two hours she’d spent in the village. “And of course it’s Sunday. No one from Halifax is going to come out this way in bad weather, and everyone in Petpeswick will be home for the night behind closed doors like proper Christians.”
And where did that leave her and her precious equipment? Helen thought for a moment. Her people were out of town for the week, which meant that there was no one home to worry when she didn’t return by nightfall. Tomorrow was Monday, and she was reasonably sure to be spotted by some one heading from the eastern shore into the city. But that was tomorrow. And the night was coming.
Petpeswick was nine miles behind her, Halifax 12 miles ahead; both were as out of reach as the stars, which would have been spectacular in the pending dark of tonight’s new moon had they not been obscured by clouds.
She pulled herself back up into the cab of the car, despite the mud sucking at her shoes as if it resented her escape. Once inside, she moved her maps to one side, then twisted around to the back seat, where her cylinders and recording machine were stacked neatly beneath a blanket. She dragged the blanket to the front seat and pulled it around her. Lord, she wished Nova Scotia nights didn’t stay cold so far into the year.
Half an hour later twilight and dusk had come and gone, with no miraculously timely passer-by to rescue her. So here she was, alone, in the dark of a country night. Her heart beat fast. Well, she did have the electric torch, but she hadn’t changed the batteries in quite some time. Damn, damn, damn! And she wasn’t going to run the car lights. She told herself she didn’t want to drain that battery either, and tried not to think about what might step into the beams if she did.
She remembered Mexico, not so many years ago. She’d happily spent nights as dark as this one out in the desert, looking up for hours at the sharp beauty of the firmament and glorying in it as she fell asleep. But that was before her work here; before stories in fishing villages of ghost lights, of white forms mourning near rivers, of red-eyed dogs coming out of the black woods and pacing beside travelers until repelled by running water –
When she heard the sound, she almost stopped breathing in a rush of adrenaline and fear. It was unearthly, a rasp and a howl that faded in and out, getting louder and louder.
The scrubby pasture next to the road had been raggedly bordered with alders and young spruce. Now it was a jagged puzzle of darkness on darkness, but between and beyond the shadows which the trees had become, she could see something flashing.
Later she would remember, and wince at how childishly she’d clutched at her blanket and thrown it over her head, but the reaction came without a moment’s conscious thought. Under that perceived safety, she listened to her own racketing heart and willed it to silence, certain that whatever had sounded that howl could hear everything she did.
Helen had no idea how much later – only minutes, perhaps, or seconds – she heard the metallic scrape along the sedan’s front bumper. It was definite, that sound, and purposeful. Something had touched the car, and kept on touching it, dragging some part of itself up the bumper from the front headlight toward the door.
In the same instant that she processed the sound, something enveloped her with a darkness so far beyond the absence of light, so fearfully empty and hungry for life, that the night around her which had been so frightening only a moment before now seemed welcoming.
There’s a sticking point in fear, Helen thought to herself with absurd clarity, where one either feel’s one’s heart stop and then nothing more, or one pushes beyond that to feel ice, and cold, and calm.
Very slowly, she pushed the blanket aside. Slowly, too, she moved to the far side of the car and away from the scratching sound, turning her eyes to where she remembered the door handle was. Her searching hand found and grabbed it like a lifeline.
She burst from the car in a graceless scramble, certain of only one thing; she had to escape from whatever was scratching at her car and sucking the light and joy from the very air around her. Her mud-caked shoes had some purchase on the unseen road now that night had frozen its muck, so she stumbled past the rear of the car with relative ease, and started to run back down the road toward Petpeswick.
Helen hadn’t grabbed the torch in her dash, so she didn’t see the large rock that caught her ankle and sent her sprawling into the ditch. She windmilled her arms in a useless attempt to regain some balance, but succeeded only in throwing herself into a splay-limbed pirouette down the slope.
Her already-barked ankle collapsed from the combined insult of gravity and a 45 degree angle, and she landed on her back, unable to prevent her head from snapping back to smash into yet another rocky outcropping.
The pain flared hot and red, then bled white, and Helen gazed blindly into the sky, seeing stars where none should be. As they cleared, something floated into her field of vision.
Helen whimpered, an animal sound of pain and terror.
The thing gazed down at her with what might have been eyes. What might have been its mouth moved, and Helen clapped both hands to her ears to shut out the sound, or what might have been sound, of its voice, of the great black and hopeless universe abandoning her.
It reached out to her, and she retreated the only way she could, into unconsciousness.
Before either could claim her, Helen saw something else. An arm stretched out above her, blocking the thing’s further approach. She thought she saw a man in a leather jacket lean over her, eyes worried; she thought she saw an equally worried-looking young woman with long blonde hair kneel beside her, and thought she felt the girl’s soft warm hands clasp hers. She thought she heard an echo of music. Then her mind refused any more thoughts.
“– tellin’ you it didn’t mean to hurt her.”
“You heard her scream. It was scarin’ her to death.”
“Scaring’s one thing. Hurtin’s another, especially deliberately hurting. It was just looking for help. You know that.”
Silence for a moment, and then the other voice, a girl’s – south London, Helen automatically catalogued the accent – resumed. “You’re right. I know.” She sounded reluctant. “Think it’s just the way it looks. Bit like a ghost, yeah? It almost gave me a fit when we first saw it.”
“All echtoid species look like that when they’re emotionally unstable, Rose. That’s the thing. Poor creature’s so lost and frightened it can’t keep its shape, and its fear was broadcasting so loud that even non-empaths could be affec – ah, here we go. Our second visitor’s awake.”
Helen wasn’t certain how the man knew she’d regained consciousness. She had barely realized it herself, swimming up from the warmth of unknowing into what was apparently the middle of a conversation. For a moment, she thought she heard someone singing, and she wondered if that was what had awakened her.
“So, who do we have here?”
She opened one eye warily, to find two people standing over her, in the bright light of what appeared to be some sort of surgery, if the slightly medicinal smell was any guide. She waited for the pain in her head or her ankle to reassert itself. When neither throbbed, she decided it was safe to move, and gingerly raised herself up on her elbows to look around. Her eyes went wide. This didn’t look like any hospital with which she was familiar.
“I’m the Doctor, and this is Rose Tyler,” the man standing next to her said, not quite patiently. He obviously wanted an answer to his first question.
He didn’t look like a doctor, she thought. And he certainly didn’t sound like one with that rough Mancunian accent. He sounded a lot more like he was better suited to brawling through Gottingen Street on shore leave. Definitely docks, not Doctor.
“I’m Helen,” she said. “Helen Creighton. Where am I?”
“You’re in the Tardis,” the girl said, the capital “T” evident in her voice.
In the light, Helen could see the girl, Rose, was much younger than the man. A daughter, perhaps? She noted the dyed hair with its dark roots, the tight clothing (trousers of some rough denim, cut in some style she’d never seen before) and amended the thought. A hired girl? No, surely a ... a woman for hire would look more like a tart and less like a ragamuffin – she stopped and chastised herself for thinking that way about someone who was looking at her now with the kind and open face of a child.
Helen resolutely put all her confusion, and her impolitic attempts at categorizing, to one side. There were far more important questions to ask. She sat up and swung her legs over the side of the narrow medical bed on which she found herself. A quick inventory showed that she wasn’t in hospital garb; she checked her blouse and saw that it was still buttoned, then smoothed her skirt down and risked a quick look at her feet. As she thought, the mud-caked brogans were gone, but her stockings were still on, although much the worse for wear. She was surprised not to see any bruising about her ankle, though. “What’s the Tardis? Where are my shoes? Why doesn’t my ankle hurt? Or my head? What happened to my car and my equipment? Did you see that ... that ... “ she trailed off, and some of the fear reasserted itself.
“You don’t have to worry about the ... person you saw,” Rose hurried to say. “You’re safe. I mean, you never were in danger, but you definitely don’t have to worry about him. Her. It.”
Helen barely had time to register the odd way Rose referred to her attacker before the man, the Doctor, interrupted.
“Wait. Helen Creighton?” His eager tone caught her by surprise and she nodded.
The grin lit up his face, made him look genially mad.
“Why’s that, then?” Rose turned to look at the Doctor.
“Well, it certainly fixes the time. It’s Nova Scotia, and this is Helen Creighton, and she’s not more than 40, so it has to be, what, 1934? Or maybe 1935?”
Confusion, curiosity and irritation warred briefly before Helen managed to make her next question quite mild. “You know me well enough to make rather impolite comments about my age, but you don’t know what year it is? I’m sorry, but you really are going to have to tell me what’s going on.” After a moment she added, not quite certain why, except that she’d be damned if someone was going to think of her as 40, “It’s 1933. April 29th, if it’s still the same day I left Petpeswick. And I’m 33 years old.”
“Right, sorry. I’m not good with ages,” the Doctor replied, not sounding sorry at all. “But if it’s 1933 ... are we on the eastern shore?”
“Aren’t we in Halifax?”
“Well, then, yes, we’re on the shore. We’re just up the road from Petpeswick. If you happen to know where that is,” Helen couldn’t resist saying in her best schoolmarm voice.
“Oh, I do! You’re recording old songs with a brand-new recording device – or are you still recording on wax cylinders?”
“Doctor...” Rose scowled at him, then turned to Helen with her own slightly manic smile. “I’m sorry. He gets so excited when he meets someone he admires.”
“This is beyond foolishness,” she responded slowly. “Where do you know me from?”
“Well, we’ve never met,” Rose said. “But– ”
“How much are you willing to believe?” was the Doctor’s rather left-handed response. “And would you like a cup of tea?”
“As much as necessary, and I do believe I would like one very much. And perhaps a drop of sherry if you have any.”
Not father and daughter, nor procurer and cocotte, Helen thought, sipping her tea in the library of the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimensions in Space, eh? She wouldn’t soon forget that phrase.) Friends, though. And perhaps more than friends; a May-December marriage? No, no ... more teacher and student with feelings towards each other. She couldn’t really imagine the Doctor and marriage. After all, he didn’t seem to have any last name to give young Rose. Or any first name, for that matter.
Then she shook her head, exasperated with herself. Really, that topped everything. Sitting in a completely impossible room, in a completely impossible place, after a completely inexplicable brush with something equally and horribly inexplicable – at least until her completely impossible hosts chose to explain it – and what was she focusing on? Was she really that common in the face of the fantastic? She laughed softly at herself. Still, she did wish they’d give her shoes back. The fluffy slippers Rose had supplied as a substitute lacked in dignity.
“Couldn’t find the sherry, but this Armagnac has a good nose to it,” the Doctor interrupted her thoughts with an offering he’d procured from somewhere and brought in with him. “I heated the snifter. There y’go.”
“I take it that the, uh, TARDIS has ample cellars?”
“It’s got just about everything,” Rose said, following the Doctor in with her own mug of tea in one hand, a plate of what looked like shortbreads in the other. “Except milk. We’re always out of milk.”
The Doctor rolled his eyes. It was obviously a long-standing joke between them. “Don’t mind her. I don’t.”
Rose put the shortbread plate down on an occasional table within Helen’s reach; the two of them then settled comfortably next to each other on the sofa opposite Helen’s barrel armchair. The Doctor made room for Rose, who pulled her legs up under herself, then started to go for a shortbread, before asking, “Would you like one, Miss Creighton?”
“No thank you. You’ve given me rather a lot to chew on as it is. And please, call me Helen.”
“Helen, then.” Rose smiled at her, and Helen warmed further to the girl's unaffected friendliness.
But she still had questions.
“You’ve given me a lot to think about, as I said, and I think you’ll agree I’ve taken in everything you’ve told me, and been quite calm about it all,” she said. “And I have you to thank for protecting me from whatever that horror was that attacked me – ”
“Nothin’ attacked you.” The Doctor’s tone was friendly, but brooked no opposition. “What you felt was a defense tactic by a scared and lonely sapient being, one that’s not local. An alien being.”
“Alien.” Helen was sure her flat tone seemed impolite, but she wasn’t immediately willing to believe that the blessedly brief fear she’d felt back on the road from Petpeswick could come from something that wasn’t evil.
“From another planet,” the Doctor said, as if to clarify himself. “One where you’d be alien. And if you landed there, you might well frighten the natives as badly as you were frightened by one of them.” He leaned over and picked up his mug of tea, sipped at it appreciatively. Rose said nothing; she seemed to take everything he said as casually as if he’d just mentioned the weather outside.
Helen licked her lips, trying to decide what question to ask next. All her education, all her adventures in the ambulance service and in Mexico, which she’d always thought of as very broadening experiences, were less than useless in helping her now. But her father had always told her that the use of practical logic surmounted all problems and puzzles, if properly employed. So what would he ask?
“Why was this thing frightened?”
There was the man’s outsized grin again. She felt as if she’d pleased an instructor, then as if she should be vaguely insulted at being reduced to student status.
“It’s an echtoid – that is, it’s an intelligent being of the type usually classified by those who like classifyin’ these things as echtoid. Most echtoid species come from heavy planets, which is why they adore visiting relatively light-gravity places like Earth. It’s a bit like swimming to them; they literally float in atmospheres like yours, and it’s one giant playground as far as they’re concerned.”
All Helen could think to do in the face of that was nod politely while she took as large a swig of the Armagnac as she thought she could without coughing.
To her surprise, Rose took up the explanation at this point. “Some echtoid governments subscribe to agreements, interplanetary ones, about not interferin’ with planets like ours. Insufficiently advanced civilizations, yeah?” She looked to the Doctor, who nodded approvingly. Definitely student and professor, then.
“Anyhow, even if they don’t, they’re usually very good about coverin’ their tracks when they play tourist, which they do a lot, I guess, because ... I guess they’re just naturally playful and like exploring and such. Anyhow, the Doctor says they’ve been comin’ here for hundreds of years, and all they leave are ghost stories. ‘Cos of the floatin’ and the shape changing. They can change shape.” She blew out a breath and pursed her full lips, looking for just a moment as nonplussed as Helen felt. “Shape changers and floaters. ‘M never gonna get used to them.”
“Sure you are,” her crop-haired companion said indulgently. “You’ve gotten used to lots stranger. Thing is, though,” and his face lost its good humor, “it’s hard to communicate with echtoid species at the best of times.
“They’re intelligent, no doubt about that; they’ve conquered interplanetary and interstellar travel in their own way, and all their systems are at peace. Like Rose said, some echtoid systems were even willing to agree to the Shadow Proclamation protocols. Civilized and intelligent. But– ”
“A ‘but’. Dear me,” Helen said, raising an eyebrow.
“Not all of them subscribed to the agreements. Not because they planned anything malign, just because they didn’t seem to understand the idea. Echtoids don’t communicate easily with beings from mid-sized and non-gas giant planets,” the Doctor said. “Don’t much communicate like us at all. It’s generally all silent with that lot.”
“Oh, like scientifiction,” Helen said, without thinking. “I’ve read a few issues of Amazing Stories myself. I’m familiar with telepathy.”
“Well, it’s not like they communicate thoughts, exactly. Or emotions, exactly. It’s hard to explain,” he said, and now he seemed apologetic. “They do have aural tones, but since they only use ‘em when their shapes include mouths, it’s usually under circumstances that aren’t fully understood by non-shape changers. And each planetary system of echtoids uses them slightly differently. It’s a right mess if you’re not careful, or if you don’t know what group you’re dealin’ with. Which we don’t.”
He jumped to his feet. Helen suspected he didn’t much stay put in any one place for long. “And that’s the problem. When they get upset, or frightened, it becomes almost completely impossible for life forms like humans to connect with them. And they broadcast all the fear or anger they’re feelin’ – it’s a defense mechanism left over from an earlier point in their evolution – which makes it even worse.”
Ah. Helen nodded slowly. “So this ... this – ”
“Yes, thank you, Rose, this echtoid came to our Earth to ... hmm ... to play, and somehow was cast away, lost without a way back whence it came?” The thought was unexpectedly sad. “And I suppose it was so forlorn and afraid that when it encountered me, it suffused me with terror when – oh, my. It could simply have been trying to ask for help? To ask the way home?”
The Doctor nodded from behind the sofa. “Yup. The TARDIS got a scrambled call for help, so unintelligible that all we could go on was the color– ”
“Mauve.” He didn’t offer any more explanation than that, and Helen didn’t ask. “That, and a fairly accurate species flag and location echo. Lucky for us. And it.
“We got here, landed in a field close to the road – ”
“The field – wait, was it the TARDIS that made that unearthly howl? I thought it was the creat– I mean, the echtoid.”
“Howl?” The man actually looked injured. “The old girl makes a little noise when she materializes. Wouldn’t call it a howl. Exactly.
“Anyhow, we materialized, and we soon found it, and you. Not the best of meetins’ , obviously.” He rested his hands on Rose’s shoulders and she reached up to grasp one of them, an action so unthinking that Helen fleetingly thought she couldn’t imagine Rose or the Doctor without each other.
What she felt, though, what stood foremost in her thoughts, was shame.
She knew it was irrational; from what these two were telling her, the strange being that approached her on the road might have provoked the same reaction from anyone, perhaps even them.
But now she knew it as more than a sound, or a frighteningly amorphous shape. It was a traveler, far from its home, and hopelessly searching for a way back ....
She had heard so many songs of loss and sorrow, sung by old sailors and fishermen in tiny cottages by the rocky coast, songs that told just that story.
Their eyes had sometimes filled with tears as they sang their plaints, those weatherbeaten men with careworn faces. They sang to remember the men who’d never made it back, they told her sometimes, in phrases both plain and poetic. They sang to remember the ones the storms took, the ones lost to warring with the elements, or to wars fought on the broad, broad oceans ....
She looked up, to see Rose gazing at her quizzically, then shook her head slightly. “Sorry; miles away. I was just thinking. How small-minded I must sound to you. How parochial, to have that reaction.”
“Don’t,” the Doctor said, surprisingly gentle. “Even I could feel the effect, and I knew what was goin’ on. What that poor thing’s been broadcasting ... well, there’s a reason that echtoids leave ghost stories in their wake, even at the best of times.”
She smiled faintly. “It’s altogether possible, then, that many of the stories that my friends have told me didn’t involve ghosts, but aliens. I wonder what Mr. Henneberry would say to that?
“But you still have a problem,” she said, straightening up and turning as serious as the Doctor had earlier. “The creature’s out there somewhere, and you need to find it, I suppose.”
“Oh, no,” Rose said. “We were able to get it into the TARDIS; the Doctor even managed to coax it into quarters of its own – ”
“Shielded, which is why you and Rose aren’t fightin’ the flibbertigibbets right now,” the Doctor interjected.
“– but we can’t talk to it. We can’t find out who it is, or where it’s from, or where its ship is. If we could find the ship, maybe we could fix it. An’ if we knew where it’s from, we could get it home, even if the ship was a total loss,” Rose finished up.
Something went click in Helen’s head, a soundless implosion of – not understanding, not quite. It was more a feeling of what she could describe as nothing more than intense waiting; waiting to understand what she was to do next. It was the certain knowledge that she would know, soon, if she just kept a part of her mind quiet, in order to hear.
It didn’t happen often, the little click in her head. She told few people about it. She was an academic, albeit a bit of an accidental one, and she could ill afford to give more fodder to some of the heavy-jowled stuffed-shirts at Dalhousie or the U of T who already thought she was out of her league with her self-developed folkloric practices.
But she told a friend once. Sometimes she got directives, she said; sometimes something would tell her to go one way, or do something. And she’d do it, and it would be the right thing to do.
Her heart beat just a little faster. “Could you take me to see it? To see the echtoid?”
“Why? Not runnin’ a zoo here, y’know,” the Doctor said, looking wary.
“I didn’t think that for a minute,” Helen said, her tone turning a bit sharp. “But I doubt I’ll get much chance beyond your TARDIS to see a person from another planet. And – you may think I’m being rather forward to say it, but I have some communication skills of my own, as you apparently know. Perhaps it would be willing to let me know a little more, since it tried to, ah, reach me back on the road.”
Rose and the Doctor both stared at her; he with a measuring gaze that made her glad she had not mentioned her inner signal, and Rose with wide eyes.
“You sure you want to do that?” the girl asked. “It’s a bit weird, you know? Unsettling.”
“I think I’ll be fine, now that you’ve explained what it is. And as you said, Doctor, all I have to remember is that it might well be more frightened of me than I of it.”
“Right, then. How d’you expect to get through to it?” The Doctor was taking her seriously, Helen saw. That was good, but a trifle unnerving. It also meant she had to do more than wait to get an unheard directive –
– there was that echo of song again ... “Is there a Victrola playing somewhere?” she asked her hosts, her train of thought derailed as she tried to pin down the source of the faint trill of minor notes.
She didn’t think the Doctor could be surprised by anything she said, but his eyebrows shot up and he looked as bemused as his craggy face allowed. “No. You hear something?”
“Music. I hear music.”
Rose put down the shortbread she’d been nibbling, and looked at Helen, her usually mobile face very still, and somehow older. For a moment, Helen thought she saw a flash of gold in the girl’s huge brown eyes. “A song?”
Helen nodded. The two women looked at each other over the table, and she felt a sense of release, as if the wait was over. She knew at least one thing; she wasn’t the only one who heard music in this strange place. And she would have an ally in Rose, when she announced her plan. Once she knew what it was, of course.
“Doctor, are we anywhere near where you found me?”
The Doctor eyed her, then Rose. For a moment, he said nothing, and Helen fancied she could see gears shifting just behind those remarkable blue eyes of his. Then he nodded. “Yup. In a field close by, like I said.”
“Could you take me back to my automobile? And would you mind very much if I brought my recording equipment into your wonderful ship?”
To be concluded