My baby brother aboard the TARDIS was a worry. My baby brother aboard the TARDIS in flight was even more worrisome. My baby brother aboard the TARDIS as it responded to a distress signal sent out by a crashing ship?
Heart attack inducing.
"Full mauve alert, crew of four thousand," lights blared on the TARDIS, alarm bells ringing as the Doctor fell around the console in an effort to pilot it, "I- I don't- what – it's headed straight for – what are you doing?!"
Sparks flew from the console as the bells tolled louder; I grabbed Cooper and threw him to the ground, backing us both up against the railing. I'd never seen the TARDIS like this before, panic clogging up my throat.
"Why would you- argh, that's stupid! You're stupid! A stupid piece of outdated Gallifreyan-" another explosion came from the TARDIS, a few of the lights popping in the ceiling, "I mean, a lovely young thing that was sent to the rubbish heap too early in life!"
Finally, things settled; the calm startling to my overworked senses.
"There we go," the Doctor encouraged, patting the scanner comfortingly, "all calmed down now, okay?"
"What's wrong with the TARDIS?" I asked, feeling secure enough to stand.
"The crashed ship – the Byzantium – is carrying cargo the TARDIS doesn't approve of," he told me, still focused on the Gallifreyan symbols popping up on the screen, "an anomaly centred around the hold."
I tried to figure out a few details on the scanner, if only to ease my nerves, "what kind of anomaly?"
"The kind that's anomalous," he said.
"Doctor!" My glare came moments before we were thrown about again, a deep rumble emanating from the time rotor. I skidded along the glass floor until Cooper caught me, securing us to the console.
When we landed, the Doctor shot off towards the doors without a backwards glance. We followed, because what else would we do, and exited after him onto… an alien planet? We were on a beach, with normal-looking water that lapped at our feet, with more rocks than sand. Rain pelted down hard, soaking us within a few seconds, but none of that was really important.
In front of us, maybe a hundred feet or so away, was a huge decrepit temple. It was several stories high with pillars holding up balconies, statues cut into the stone of huge people with two heads, arms spread out towards the ocean. And, crashed into the roof of the building and giving off huge waves of fire and heat, was the Byzantium.
A fireball like nothing I'd witnessed before; it was incomprehensibly massive, so hot I could feel it from here, the rain leaving tiny little dots of coolness on my skin.
"Were there survivors?" I wondered, recalling how the Doctor had mentioned four thousand passengers.
"I don't know," the Doctor admitted. He seemed solemn, quiet, and – more than anything else – full of sorrow. I knew then, without asking, that he was lying; the passengers were dead.
Over my shoulder, I noticed Cooper gulp heavily. Sharing a glance, I silently regretted letting him come along. His first sight upon leaving the TARDIS was not supposed to be the joint grave of four thousand people.
"Where are we?"
"Alfava Metraxis, the seventh planet of the Dundra System in the Garn Belt," the Doctor rattled off the facts of where we were like he hadn't just told me that we were on an alien planet. "Perfect for humans, so no worry for you two."
"Alien world on my first go," Cooper laughed to himself, "you never had this luck, Erin."
"I wouldn't trade my first time with the Doctor for anything."
After receiving two identical looks from both my brother and my… travelling companion, I rolled my eyes, "boys, get your heads out of the gutter. I meant; my first trip."
"You didn't say trip," Cooper said.
"Shush," the Doctor waved a hand, storming towards the ship.
As we got closer, I saw what had gotten him so excited; a contingent of soldiers had set up in a cave set into the cliff below the temple, with tents and maps set out. They were all human, though, which was more than just a surprise.
When the Doctor strode into the camp, every single soldier stood and took note. No guns were pointed at us, more of a relief than I could ever express, but a murmur did go through them. They knew who he was, alright.
"Where's your commander?" he demanded of the nearest one.
"Father Octavian's in the tent," said a boy – he looked far too young to be carrying such a large gun, "I'll call- Father Octavian!"
For some reason, the Doctor's mere presence in the camp was enough to draw a crowd; twenty or so faces peering at us curiously. I say 'us' but Cooper and I were ignored completely. All eyes were on the Doctor.
"Do they know you?" I asked of the Doctor.
"That soldier said Father, which means they're with the Church. And the 51st century Church and I have had a few… arguments, over the years."
"Wait," Cooper ducked his head between us, glancing at the Doctor uncertainly, "you're telling me that the Church becomes an army? I knew it."
"You knew that the Church of the Papal Mainframe would become a large military force in the late 49th century and would continue that for the next two centuries?" the Doctor laughed to himself, "Erin, you're not the only-"
The man I assumed to be Father Octavian joined us, looking harried. He seemed to be mildly in awe that the Doctor was actually here, "we didn't know you'd be arriving."
"I'd be a poor time traveller if I called ahead," the Doctor had straightened up, a miniscule difference that only I noticed, "the Byzantium – what happened to it?"
"The warp engines experienced a phase shift," Father Octavian explained, "Doctor, might I ask why you're here?"
The Doctor's mouth drew into a snarky smirk, as if they were sharing a friendly joke, "Father Octavian, you know why I'm here. There's something in the belly of that ship and I want to know what it is. Now."
"Doctor, this is a classified mission-"
"The Weeping Angels," spoke up a new person, from the entrance to the command tent, "are a race that come from the dawn of our universe. They're kind killers, usually, because when they murder you, they send you back in time to live out your life in peace."
When he walked forwards, I was immediately hit by a sense of deja vu; like I'd seem him somewhere before. The man wore an all-black tight fitting combat suit, with various knives and bags attached to him, and the most curious feature of them all was the mask that hid everything from his cheekbones down.
"There was an Angel in the Byzantium's hold," he finished, softly.
The Doctor cursed lowly under his breath, hand running through his hair, "that's what you're after?"
Father Octavian sighed to himself, "Doctor, this is still a classified mission."
"Father, do you honestly think your chances would be better off without me?"
Silence reigned for a few moments as Father Octavian considered his options; it was broken when he waved us over to the command tent, with the man in black accompanying us. "Far as we know, the Angel is still trapped inside the ship, our mission is to get inside and neutralise it. We can't get through the top, as we'd be too close to the drives."
"Radiation would kill us all in a heartbeat," the man said, "unless you were a Time Lord."
That got my attention. Everyone else seemed downright awed by the Doctor; he… seemed to disagree with that opinion. He also seemed to really dislike the Doctor.
"It'll just kill me in two heartbeats," the Doctor replied.
The man smiled mysteriously as we entered the command tent, where a thick table was set up; above it, projected in a soft blue light, was a hologram representation of the Byzantium with a few layers of tunnels below.
"We'll blow through the cliff face and into the catacombs that lead right up to the temple – we can make our way up to the ship through those."
"Dark catacombs?" Cooper wrinkled his nose, "great."
"It won't be much better when we leave them," the man said, "'cause then we'll be on a ship that could explode at any moment with a Weeping Angel."
Cooper glanced at the handgun strapped to the man's thigh, "can't you just shoot it?"
A quiet laugh escaped the man, "Weeping Angels turn into statues when you're looking at them. Shooting a statue doesn't do much good."
"Then," I cautiously looked between the Doctor and Father Octavian, "how do we stop it?"
"Weeping Angels quantum lock themselves when witnessed by a living being," the Doctor carried on the explanation, studying the map of the catacombs, "they literally cease to be when your eyes are on them. So, Father Octavian, how do you plan on stopping it?"
Father Octavian didn't look like he appreciated the Doctor's tone, "by overloading the Byzantium's drive core. Fifty years ago a Weeping Angel was destroyed when another galaxy-class cruiser crashed into it. The Byzantium is the same class of ship, with a more powerful engine."
"Wait," I had found the flaw in their plan, "we're climbing into the Byzantium – if we blow it up, we'll all die too. It's a suicide mission."
"Oh, no, my first trip isn't going to be a suicide mission!" Cooper shook his head rapidly.
"Brother Kaleb has already thought of a way out," Father Octavian nodded over to the man in black, who, oddly, looked annoyed to have his name revealed.
"Remote teleportation to the local human colony," Brother Kaleb said, "only enough room for a few troops, so some will be left behind… if the Angel doesn't get them first."
I stared at him with a mildly unenthusiastic expression, "sounds wonderful."
The next few hours were spent co-ordinating the mission; who would go in, who would go back to the Church ship waiting in orbit, who would be left behind on the Byzantium if we were successful, who would be taken to safety. It all made my head spin for various reasons, though not as much as it would've done a week ago.
Cooper, on the other hand, didn't react at all like I'd expected. Four thousand people had just died and now we'd learned of a killer statue dressed like an angel and he was taking it all in his stride. In fact, he was currently sharing hot chocolate – which was apparently required on all Church missions – with some of the clerics.
"He's just like you," the Doctor said.
We were stood a way aways from the others, at a table filled with all the information gathered about the Angels; I'd stopped reading over the Doctor's shoulders a while ago, finding the brutal tales of being trapped a hundred years in the past a bit too disconcerting.
"You're both adaptable," he told me, nose stuffed in a book.
"He's fifteen," I said, "he shouldn't even be here."
"You could both leave whenever you want, just pop in the TARDIS and activate Emergency Protocol One," the Doctor peered over the top of the book to give me an attempt at a raised eyebrow, "which you should do."
"I'm not leaving you to face that thing alone," I insisted.
I was rewarded with a smile I'd never seen off him before; sort of toothy and warm in a way that made my stomach tingle. It was all nice until the Doctor decided to speak again, "you're more alike than you want to admit."
"He's sporty, I'm artistic, I'm the daughter of second-generation Welsh-Chinese immigrants, his birth parents were from Nigeria, I can speak four different languages, he can barely muster up the proper 'your' when texting," I listed each of these things off as the Doctor grew more and more amused.
"Welsh?" was his only question.
"I lived in Cardiff 'til I was seven. Welsh is one of those four languages I can speak."
The Doctor seemed positively intrigued, "and the others are?"
"Not important with the universe's deadliest angel out to get us," I pointed out.
"True," the Doctor said, smile sliding off his face.
"I don't like this plan of theirs," I whispered, "overloading the drive core? Will that even work?"
"It will, but not in the way they expect," the Doctor tapped one of the photos of an Angel knowingly, "Angels feed off of radiation – that's why they send you back in time. You live out all of your years in the past and they feast on the residual chronon energy."
I understood what he was telling me was very important, I just didn't understand what he was telling me. "Chronon energy?"
"Time energy," he simplified, "your entire life is already spread out in front of you – including all of the different possibilities. The Angels send you back a century and all those futures cease to exist, with the chronon energy still there. Angels eat it, they become stronger, send their next victim even further back in time. Happened to me, once, in my last body. I ended up stuck in 1969 with Martha for three months. Had to work in a chippy."
"Doctor," I prodded, "Angels feed off radiation?"
"Ah, yes… erm, Angels usually just eat chronon energy but, if there's none around, they'll eat normal-ish radiation, too. Now, with a ship like the Byzantium, the hyperdrive would've split on impact – right now, the entire place is flooded with drive burn radiation, cracked electrons, gravity storms. Death-inducing for us, a scrumptious feast for a single Weeping Angel."
"This just gets better and better..."
"However," he quickly carried on, "the explosion of the hyperdrive – and the Byzantium – will be too much for the Angel. It'll gorge itself to death."
I gave him a very serious, unamused look, "we're going to feed the Angel 'til it dies? Death by radiation poisoning?"
"If in the same vain as 'death by chocolate', then yes."
The laugh that escaped me was loud enough to capture Cooper's attention, who echoed it back in the same way. If we weren't on an alien planet surrounded by Clerics, I would've thrown something at his head. As it was, I just pulled my tongue at him.
When I turned back, I caught the last few seconds of a somewhat… sappy expression of the Doctor's. "What?"
"Nothing," he insisted, "I was just… thinking about Brother Kaleb."
I didn't believe him, which he knew, but I let it slide, "what about Brother Kaleb?"
"I don't trust him," the Doctor said, "he's hiding something."
"You don't trust anyone and he's barely said more than five sentences around you."
"I trust you," he said.
I smiled, "and I trust you. The point still stands, though."
"After almost a thousand years of travelling through time and space, I know a trustworthy person when I meet them. I knew it with you, I knew it with Cooper, and I knew it with almost all of my companions before you two," the Doctor nodded to where Brother Kaleb was talking with Father Octavian, "and that man is hiding something."
Following his gaze, I tried to see what the Doctor did. He was right, in a way; there was a certain something about Brother Kaleb. A familiarity in the back of my mind that kept scratching away… "I keep thinking I know him. Like, he's got a face that I know – which is ridiculous, because he covers half of it. Why?"
"They call him 'Brother' - in the Church, that's sort of… special forces. He gets sent on the toughest and hardest missions," he gestured towards the photo of the Angel again, "like this, for example."
"The toughest and hardest missions… he needs to keep his identity hidden?"
At the Doctor's nod, I was hit by empathy for Brother Kaleb; mustn't be easy, living his life without ever letting someone see who he really was. A bit like the Doctor.
The floor began rumbling beneath our feet, great vibrations that moved all the up to the roof, before a large boom came from further on in the cave; smoke began to rise in the distance and soldiers began scurrying equipment back and forth.
"We're off," the Doctor winked before joining Father Octavian.
Ignoring the two of them for now, I caught Cooper's eye and beckoned him over; with a roll of his eyes, he crossed the space.
"You're not staying," I informed him.
"It's way too dangerous. You're only fifteen, Coop; most of these people are trained soldiers and they think they're all going to die," crossing my arms, I levelled on him the most commanding stare possible, "the TARDIS is safer for you."
My little brother sighed quietly, still in his Coal Hill school uniform, and began to speak softer than I ever thought was possible, "Erin, I'm not leaving you to face that thing alone."
You're more alike than you want to admit.
Damn him. Damn the Doctor. Damn his stupid bow tie, too.
"Alright, fine, but you listen to what Father Octavian says, you don't wander off, and if that Angel comes after us, you run like hell and forget about me."
"Okay," he said, like it was no big deal.
"Okay?" I uncertainly parroted back. It wasn't normal for Cooper to agree so easily. "Um, they're moving into the catacombs now."
Shaking my head in an effort to clear it, we approached where the Doctor, Father Octavian and Brother Kaleb were 'discussing' the plan of action.
"It's risky to take civilians on such a dangerous mission," Father Octavian spoke as we reached their side, "they could be a liability."
"Erin's not a liability," the Doctor said, exasperated, "she's already saved my life twice."
"And the boy?"
Simultaneously, we gazed at Cooper.
"What?" he asked, defensively.
"He's still a child," said Father Octavian, "I don't like bringing him with us."
"Neither do I," the Doctor began, "but Erin's responsible for him. It's her decision."
Simultaneously, they gazed at me.
"I..." it was unnerving, to have them all staring at me with such intensity, "well… Cooper's my baby brother, so I'll protect him with everything I have. He won't put us at a disadvantage, I swear."
Father Octavian studied me for a moment, "Brother Kaleb vouched for you. I'll trust his judgement."
He left, then, to join his men at the entrance to the catacombs, leaving two very puzzled humans and one 6" tall jumble of Gallifreyan anxiety.
"You vouched for me?" I asked, trying to catch Brother Kaleb's evading eyes.
"From what I've heard of the Doctor, he chooses his companions with great care," Brother Kaleb nodded towards the entrance, "come on. The Angel is only gaining in strength."
"He doesn't just pick his companions with care," Cooper chatted, "he picks his companion's younger brothers with care, too. You know, a plane almost crashed into our house? 'Cause of the WiFi? Do you have WiFi in the 51st century?"
"We have an advanced form of it that spans the known and settled universe," Brother Kaleb answered, "but Wi-Fi as you know it died off about the same time as the second colony was set up on Mars. They found Martian ruins with advanced alien tech. Changed everything about it."
I hadn't even thought of this stuff when I was on Starship UK, "do we still call it Wi-Fi?"
As we approached the entrance, which consisted of a hole in the ground with a ladder that led to darkness, two clerics were offering masks – made of a clear glass-like structure that let us read lips – and a shot in the arm.
"What's this for?" I asked, never too fond of needles.
"Masks for the disease, shots for protection against radiation," the Doctor rattled off, accepting both his shot and mask with little to no fuss.
Cooper and I, on the other hand, had different ideas.
"Disease?!" Cooper asked, so loud his voice broke halfway through.
"The Aplans – who built this temple and originally evolved on this planet – died out four centuries ago, from an outbreak of Petrifold Regression," Brother Kaleb explained, accepting his shot with only a minor flinch, "it's incurable, so once it started spreading there was nothing anyone could do."
Father Octavian carried the history lesson on, passing out handheld torches to us, "law dictates that we leave a century to allow planets to decontaminate after an extinction event like this. We gave it two hundred years and created a human colony, with a population of six billion."
"You humans really do get bored easily, don't you?" the Doctor asked.
"Wait, if this stuff is incurable – we catch it, we die?" I glanced uncertainly at the Doctor, "the catacombs might still have it in the air, if they haven't been touched in four hundred years."
"That's why half the clerics are staying here," Father Octavian nodded towards his soldiers, "they're decontaminating the area and sealing it behind us. The colony won't die from Petrifold Regression, I can assure you."
"It's transmitted through the air," the Doctor reassured, taking one of the masks and gently fitting it over my mouth and nose, "this'll filter what you breathe. Long as you keep it on, you'll be fine."
"Doesn't protect us from the killer statue though, does it?" Cooper mulishly asked.
The descent into darkness wasn't particularly fun; it was a twenty foot drop, only lit up by the torch above me, and the sides of the tunnel pressed into me at all times. When I reached the bottom, Cooper helping me off the ladder, I was met by a gloomy cavern – the hairs on the back of my neck rose up, a childhood fear of the dark coming back in full force. This was different from the Star Whale's mouth… here I felt vulnerable.
"Bit darker than I was hoping," the Doctor said, "do we have a gravity globe?"
"Grav globe!" ordered Father Octavian; at his word, a young cleric – the same one who'd originally spoken when we'd arrived – stepped up, handing over a large spherical device over to the Doctor.
"Are these the catacombs?" questioned Cooper, trying to use his flashlight to pierce the all-consuming darkness.
"Technically, it's a Maze of the Dead," came Brother Kaleb's answer, "the traditional name is an Aplan Mortarium – the majority of them were built over seven centuries ago. This one is closer to a millennia. Rare."
The Doctor took their conversation as a cue to light us all up; he kicked the grav globe into the air, where it stalled for a moment before shooting up above us, illuminated like a little artificial sun. The Maze was revealed to us, though I'd rather it stayed hidden.
It reached up for another five levels, not including the one we were on, with twisting stairways covered in cobwebs and dust. Stone caskets lined the walls, only occasionally, with the majority of them being made up entirely of shelves of bones, or just skulls piled up on each other. And, on every available flat surface, clustered in the hundreds, were stone statues. All around us, decayed and fragmented, with missing arms, legs, the odd head.
"Shit," said Brother Kaleb.
"We're looking for the Angel in all those statues?" Father Octavian asked.
"Statuary," the Doctor corrected.
Father Octavian did a double take, "what?"
"When you look at a group of statues collectively, you use the noun statuary," the Doctor gestured to the statuary around us, "you go to the art gallery, say to Pastor John; 'oh, isn't the statuary lovely'."
"Is this… really the time, Doctor?"
"I suppose not, no," with a grumble, the Doctor flicked his torch back to the nearest group of statuary, "it's the perfect hiding place."
"B-but the Angel is still on the Byzantium, right?" Cooper approached a statue and shined his light up one decayed nostril, "it can't be here."
"Well, if the Angels are only stopped when someone's looking at them, and everyone on the Byzantium died during the crash," I gulped heavily, "then, well… the Angel could be heading towards us right now."
Cooper glared at me over his shoulder, "the next time one of your boyfriends invites me on a trip, I'm telling him to smeg off. First Alton Towers, then this."
"It wasn't Lewis' fault you threw up on the loop-de-loop."
"The one advantage we have is that the Angel doesn't look like these… like the statuary," Brother Kaleb pointed up to where the grav globe was casting shadows on all six layers, "we'll have to go up. Keep an eye on the perimeter. Do not trust the shadows."
"Right," Father Octavian beckoned towards his men, "check every statue in this chamber. You know what you're looking for. Complete visual inspection."
I never thought I could be so terrified over a statue.
The Maze itself was incredibly creepy; everywhere I looked, statuary stared back. The renderings of women reminded me of a decaying corpse, with the same rotting smell. I stuck behind the Doctor and Father Octavian, the 'leaders' of our suicide mission, knowing that I'd be little help if we found the Angel.
When we find the Angel.
"Sir!" called a cleric, "side chamber!"
Father Octavian glanced over, inspecting his troops, "take Angelo and check it out. Keep in radio contact at all times. Catch up to us once you're done; we're moving out now."
"Splitting up always goes well," I murmured.
"Every soul on this mission knows what they signed up for," Brother Kaleb said.
At first, I was surprised that he'd chosen to speak to me. He didn't exactly seem the friendliest. Then again, I hardly knew him. "There's a killer statue on the loose. Sticking together would be safer."
Brother Kaleb fell back slightly, so we were walking at the same pace, "maybe so, Mrs Wilson, but the decision is Father Octavian's."
"I'm not one of his men, Brother Kaleb, and I'm sure free speech is still around," I turned my gaze to the nearest statue, "also, I'm not married."
That, for some reason, made Brother Kaleb stumble on his next step.
"So," Cooper hopped up to the Doctor's side, "this is an Aplan Maze of the Dead. Who, um, who were they?"
"Some of the greatest builders this side of the Garn Belt," the Doctor pointed upwards, to where the grav globe was hovering, "there's a reason why the Byzantium hasn't squashed us all like tiny, culturally diverse ants. This entire place is a marvel of engineering."
"You talk about the Aplans like you've met them," Cooper said, sounding unsure.
The Doctor brushed off my brother's lack of certainty like it was lint on his shoulder, "of course, I've met them. Had dinner with their Chief Architect, once, 'bout three centuries back. Amazing fellow."
"But Father Octavian said they'd been wiped out for four centuries."
"And you were born two thousand and ninety-nine years ago," the Doctor grinned to himself, "time travel, Cooper, allows the dead to live past their allotted years."
Stopping still, Cooper stared after the Doctor in open shock, "I'm almost three thousand years old?"
"No," I said, pushing him forwards, "you're fifteen years old. If you were almost three thousand years old, you'd be a pile of really smelly, dirty bones."
"I'm like Jesus," Cooper said, faintly, "a black, non-Jewish, beardless Jesus."
"What am I, then?"
"Three thousand and eight years old," answered the Doctor.
My upper lip curled back in mild disgust, "that age difference just got switched around."
We came to a bottleneck chamber, a small tunnel exiting out to a ritualistic altar flanked by more broken statuary. The dust was so thick in the air that I could smell it, like an old bookshop, thick layers on every surface. After a few moments of staring, I realised that the walls were made of skeletons – hands and legs crossed from a few hundred different corpses.
For me, it was harder to look at the little skeletons.
"There's too many skulls," I said, disjointed to the rest of my mind, "for every body, there's two skulls. Is that part of their religion?"
"No, it's part of their biology," Brother Kaleb picked up one of the fallen skulls from the floor, dusting off front, "Aplans had two heads, with separate personalities."
I took another look at the skeletons, but it proved too much; the empty eyeholes of the smallest skulls seemed to burrow deep in my head. I was staring at a mass grave. The entire Maze was just hundreds of bodies, of souls, resting together. How many people was I stood over, just at this moment? All of those lives, with love, and heartbreak, and stubbed toes, all gone.
I thought I understood death. I thought, after Lewis, I could cope with it.
I was wrong.
"Stop thinking about it," whispered the Doctor, right down my ear.
"Erin, you've moved on from death before. Your fiancé, your pet tortoise; you've grieved before," a hand gripped my waist and turned me away from the wall. I was confronted by the sight of his shirt buttons and bow tie. "Push it out of your head."
I tried to do what he instructed; focusing on the maroon fabric of his bow tie, I stared at it in stony silence until the buzzing in my head calmed down. The others, Cooper and Brother Kaleb, barely noticed us in the quiet embrace that the Doctor had somehow gotten me into, but I noticed.
Pulling away, I managed to bring myself to meet his gaze, "how did you know I had a pet tortoise?"
"Saw the grave at your house," the Doctor said, easy enough, "fresh flowers."
"Speedy was my best friend for twelve years," I snapped, "and he was a family pet – my grandmother had him before me."
"Erin," he sing-songed, "calm down."
"We're standing on the graves of a few hundred children, forgive me if I have a crisis."
"Now isn't the time," he instructed, "that Angel could be around the next corner. I won't allow you to die here."
I opened my mouth to argue back, annoyed with the allowing, only to duck to the ground as a burst of gunfire ricocheted from the other side of the room. We all scattered, certain that the Angel had come for us, when the first cleric we met spoke up.
"Sorry, sorry, I thought-" he pointed at the nearest statue, "I thought it looked at me."
Father Octavian, with anger I hadn't thought him capable of, wrenched the gun away from him, "we know what the Angel looks like. Is that the Angel?"
"No, sir, it is not," mocked Father Octavian – I decided there and then he was a dick, "according to the Doctor, we are facing an enemy of unknowable power and infinite evil, so it would be good – it would be very good – if we could all remain calm in the presence of décor."
Silence reigned after the first few moments, the ripples of Father Octavian's belittling speech making their way to each individual; I spotted Cooper, ready and willing to say something stupid, but before he could, the Doctor stepped up.
I knew he was angry, everyone knew, though the reason behind it was subject to debate. It was either because Father Octavian used his information to whittle down the cleric's self-confidence, or just because the Doctor disliked bullies.
"What's your name?" he asked the cleric, an arm 'round his shoulders.
"Um, Bob, sir."
"Don't call me 'sir', eh? You're a higher rank than I am," the Doctor punched Bob in the arm, "it's a great name, that is, Bob. Always love a Bob. Bob Marley. Bob Cryer. Bob the Builder. Bob Babybell."
"It's a Sacred Name," Father Octavian informed us, annoyance quite clear, "we all have Sacred Names. They're given to us in the service of the Church."
"Sacred Bob," the Doctor joked, "more like Scared Bob now, eh?"
"Y-yes, s- yes, Doctor," Cleric Bob admitted this with a quick glance at Father Octavian.
"Good. Scared makes you quick. Anyone who isn't scared in this room is a moron."
The Doctor's no-nonsense response had us all blinking in shared shock – most of all it was a slap in the face to Father Octavian.
"Cleric Bob," he began, solely to remind the Doctor just who was in charge, "regroup with Christian and Angelo, stay with them to guard our six. Go!"
Cleric Bob, with one last glance at the Doctor, carried out his orders, running off back into the Maze. I watched him go, wondering if I'd ever see him again.
"C'mon," Cooper said, tugging on my elbow, "we're moving on."
He was right, I noticed; Father Octavian, Brother Kaleb and the clerics had started up to the next level, with the Doctor following at a sedated pace. He was inspecting the statuary, sonicing each one as he passed.
"You doing okay?" I asked, brushing some of the dust from his curls.
"Glad I'm fit with all this climbing," Cooper looked up to where the Maze hung over our heads, "guess those two heads did the Aplans some good."
We began to walk, picking our steps carefully through the scattered finger bones and discarded skull fragments. I was paranoid of the statuary's empty eyeholes, which made me think they were watching us. Cleric Bob's fears weren't so silly, now.
"Imagine having two heads," I said, "sharing your body with a whole other person."
"It's not like it's the most alien concept ever. Conjoined twins exist back on-" Cooper randomly laughed, "we're actually on an alien planet. Thanks for letting me tag along."
"You're not tagging along," I gently corrected, "the Doctor invited you along. That makes us both his companions."
"And you're not at all angry that I'm here?"
"I'm angry that your first trip includes a killer statue. I'm not angry that you're here, Coop."
He sent me a grateful smile, one with lots of shiny teeth; it was his trademarked 'very happy' grin. I realised, then, that it'd been months since I last saw it.
By the time we reached the Doctor's side, we'd made it to the Maze's fourth level; it was made up of tightly compacted tunnels, made even smaller by the statuary lining the sides.
"How did the Aplans die?" I asked, somewhat randomly.
"Petrifold Regression," Brother Kaleb said, "it spread across the planet in a manner of days. Turned every man, woman and child into a statue. That's what we're looking at now; their remains."
"The statues… they're the Aplans?"
The Doctor stopped walking ahead, catching Brother Kaleb's eye, "the Aplans walked into their Mortariums to die?"
"It was a mass suicide, of a sorts," Brother Kaleb shrugged, "there wasn't anything they could do. Even with two heads, a cure was out of the question."
"They were a lovely species, the Aplans," the Doctor reminisced, offering a hand to guide me up the last few steps, "very relaxed, sort of cheery. Comes from having two heads, I suppose; you're never short of a best friend with an extra head. All through your life, just having someone there with you, going through the same things, feeling what you feel. The arguments were bad, naturally, but they got good at plastic surgery to rebuild all the chewed off ears and noses after a few centuries."
At the top of the staircase was another, larger chamber, darker than I was expecting it to be. I flicked on my torch, only to jump as I found a statue mere feet away, much closer than the rest of the statuary.
"Doctor," I began, "something's off."
"I… I'm getting that, too," he span his flashlight across the statuary, slowly turning on the spot, "something's been nibbling at the back of my mind ever since we climbed down. Where's Bob and the others?"
"He's guarding our six with Angelo and Christian," Father Octavian reminded him.
The Doctor pointed his light down the way we came, highlighting the lack of clerics, "then where are they?"
Frowning at the Doctor's words, Father Octavian clutched at his radio, "Bob, Angelo, Christian, come in, please. Any of you, come in."
Static was the only response from the radio. It came out in short crackles, each one another nail in the coffin. Father Octavian looked to Brother Kaleb, who tried on his own radio, "Angelo, you there?"
"They're dead," Cooper was the first to say, verbal filter gone entirely, "the Angel killed them!"
"Angels don't kill," I said, "they send you back in time."
"Yeah, so you can die in the past! It's not in the Byzantium anymore," Cooper turned to Father Octavian, surprising me with his directness, "you've walked us into a deathtrap."
"This wasn't my plan," Father Octavian replied, apparently getting defensive because of a fifteen year old, "Kaleb was the one to suggest it."
"The plan is still going ahead," Brother Kaleb was quick to reassure, "the blast zone from the Byzantium will take out everything in a ten kilometre radius. The Angel can't escape that."
The Doctor's quiet, yet pained, noise drew our attention from the brewing argument. He was staring, stone-faced, at the nearest statue. He looked… lost, in a way that I'd never seen before.
"Oh," he said, again, filled with meaning that I just couldn't understand.
"Doctor?" I prodded, approaching his side cautiously, as I would an injured animal, "what is it?"
He didn't say anything; not a single sound left his mouth in the fifteen or so seconds he stared at me, eyes actually watering. If I had to put a title to what was currently carved into his face, it'd be that of a regretful mourner. He was genuinely horrified, by what I didn't know.
"Doctor?" I asked again, taking his elbow, "you're scaring me."
"I'm sorry," he said, the words escaping him in a whisper, "I am truly sorry. Cooper's right – this is a deathtrap. Bishop, I had no idea. I made a mistake. We all have."
Father Octavian was just as stunned as I was, "Doctor? Is it the Byzantium? Will the explosion-"
"No, no, the explosion will be fine. It'll take out this entire mountain," the Doctor hooked an arm around my waist and heaved me away from the statuary, in the centre of the clerics, "Brother Kaleb, the Aplans -"
"What about them?" Brother Kaleb seemed impatient, shuffling on the spot, "the Aplans are dead."
"Tell me about them, the defining characteristics," the Doctor requested.
With a sigh, Brother Kaleb acquiesced, "died out four centuries ago from an unexplained outbreak of Petrifold Regression, most notable for their impeccable architecture and two heads-"
"There we go," the Doctor murmured.
"Their heads?" Brother Kaleb repeated, eyes wrinkling at the corners, "what about them?"
"They've got two," I said.
The statue closest to me was a broken remnant of a woman; her limbs were posed like she was reaching out, trying to grab something that was eternally out of reach. The rags of clothing she wore were melded to her skin and difficult to discern amongst the cracked fragments of skin. Her face, which must've been hauntingly beautiful once upon a time, was too decayed to make out any real features. According to Brother Kaleb, this woman was once an Aplan.
And, for the first time, I realised what was wrong
"The statuary only have one," I finished.
Penny in the air…
"Oh," Brother Kaleb staggered away, checking the statuary nearest, "oh, why didn't I notice that? Why didn't anyone notice that? We've been here for two hundred years!"
"Low level perception filter," the Doctor tried to rationalise, "or maybe we're all thick. Everyone, at the back of the room – don't ask stupid questions, don't ask for a toilet break, and only blink when I tell you to."
The clerics, which at some point had shrunk down to three women and four men, gathered behind the Doctor. For some reason, their readied their guns, as if they'd be of any use against stone.
"Switch all of your torches off," the Doctor instructed.
"Are you sure?" Brother Kaleb did turn his light off, reluctant though he may be, "if they are-"
"We need to know for certain," the Doctor said. Once every torch had gone dark, he held out his own as a beacon of safety, "I'm going to turn this one off, too, only for a second."
"Doctor," I began, without knowing how the sentence would end. I knew, in the back of my head, that if we were surrounded by Weeping Angels, our chances of survival just went into negative numbers. As a result, in the front of my head, I reasoned that if I wanted to tell the Doctor something, now would be the time to do it.
And yet, the only thing that escaped my mouth was, "I hope you're wrong."
"So do I," he replied with a grin.
The final light went out, only for a heartbeat, but it was enough.
Every statue, every single one, had moved; crawling towards us on the floor, reaching out with half-crumbled fingers. The eyes were fully opened, two stone spheres that sent chills right through my spine. It was like I was watching as my future was ripped away from me in milliseconds.
"They're Weeping Angels," came the Doctor's unnecessary confirmation, "every statue is a Weeping Angel."
"Bob, Angelo, Christian," Father Octavian said their names with dawning horror, "they were dead the instant they left us."
"Father," began Brother Kaleb, the only one without his gun out, "what do we do now?"
"We carry on ahead," Father Octavian answered, with no noticeable hesitation, "if a single Angel is a danger, I dare not think of what an army could do."
"I don't understand," Kaleb began to murmur; he strode off by himself, up the staircase behind us. It was bringing us closer to the Byzantium with every step, which was now a relief instead of a death sentence, "the Aplans had Petrifold Regression. They must have – how else did they disappear over the course of one solar night?"
"Can Angels take over other statues?"
Kaleb waved off my question, "yes, that's been seen before. They took over the Imperial Gallery of Phyxis-9, once. But that's not what's happened here. They keep the physical characteristics of the statue they take over – those Angels don't have a second head. They're not Aplan."
"Well, maybe, er," I tried to think of something, "the Angels can send you back in time, right? How old is this place? A thousand years?"
"Roughly, yes," Kaleb gestured towards the wall carvings, "they refer to Kings Antonius and Declonius. Far older than the other Mazes. It's always been a hotly discussed topic – the Mazes were first built a whole continent away before spreading here, yet this place was three centuries older."
"What about the Petrifold Regression?" the Doctor asked, at our side like he'd been there the entire time, "where did that come from?"
"No one knows. It's been a complete mystery ever since we first started colonising the planet. It's not untrue – I've seen the statuary it left behind. Two heads, like it should be. But… Doctor, is it possible that the Angels brought the disease with them? As a way of creating more of themselves?"
"It..." Kaleb's question brought the Doctor to a standstill, "well, yes. Petrifold Regression is a disease like no other – there won't even be a cure for it until a few billion years have passed. No one's ever been certain where it originated from… and… Brother Kaleb, correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't there an outbreak of Petrifold Regression on Phyxis-9?"
"Doctor," Father Octavian grabbed him by the elbow and swung him around so that they were face to face, "are you telling me those Angels could infect the colony?"
"They could. They could also leech the Byzantium of all power and turn the colony into dust. They're not exactly lacking in numbers, are they?"
"If that's true then I need to contact-"
The Doctor chuckled scathingly, "as if the Angels would let the signal go through!"
"It is not your place to-"
"SHUT UP!" roared Cooper.
The brewing argument halted, drawing our attention away from the Aplan mystery and towards the fact that our torches were beginning to flicker on and off.
"The Aplans have been dead for centuries," Cooper began, "we're still alive. Those human colonists are still alive. I know where our priorities should be. This entire thing is redundant! I know what happened!"
"You do?" I asked, out of weariness more than anything else, "can you explain it? My head's turning to goo with those three going in circles."
Cooper began to lead our little group as he spoke, more commanding than Father Octavian had been for the entire trip, "four hundred years ago, every Aplan on this planet got turned to stone. Probably not long after the Aplans discovered this place – they must've dug in or something, waking up the Angels. They must've been down here for centuries already, decaying and dying. Not enough energy to fight the Aplans head-to-heads. So, instead, they send the Aplans who found them back in time by around six centuries… and to make sure no one else would find them, they released the disease to kill the planet. The displaced Aplans build this place to make sure that there isn't a massive bloody paradox or something..."
I was actually really, amazingly, incredibly impressed by his skills of deduction. "God, Coop, how'd you figure that out?"
He pulled a dusty old book from his blazer, "I found this diary one of the workers kept and it explained the whole thing. Made the stone bit up myself, but it makes sense, yeah?"
The Doctor and Kaleb swooped forwards at the same time – the Doctor managed to yank the book first, flicking through the pages so quickly they were a blur, "and you didn't think to tell us then?"
As the Doctor and Kaleb inspected the book, Cooper rolled his eyes, "you're welcome."
"It's all in here," the Doctor said, "they found the Angels and retreated – half of the nearest city was gone within the hour. The original group was sent back a few centuries and the leader decided that they'd build the Mortarium so there wasn't a paradox. Apparently, the Angels were in the mountain – they were too weak to attack properly."
"The Byzantium must've woke them up," Kaleb added on, "the Aplans weren't as advanced. No space exploration tech."
"Sir!" called one of the clerics, still watching our back as this all went down, "Angels approaching! They're looking more like the photos now!"
"We need to move," Father Octavian quietly said, "Mr. Wilson is correct – our concerns must be towards those still breathing."
"If we survive this, I'm gonna kill you," I told Cooper, grabbing his hand, "you don't keep stuff like this to yourself – Cooper, that stuff was important!"
"I just told you!" Cooper protested as I pulled him along, "I didn't think it was that important until now!"
"You didn't think the book about how the Angels took this planet was important before now?!"
When we reached the top of the staircase, we spilled out into a massive cavern; high above us, splitting through the surface, was the metal hull of the Byzantium. Floating between us and the ship was the grav globe, flickering along with the torches.
"It must be about thirty feet up," Father Octavian said, "we brought climbing gear… but it'll take too much time to set up."
"There's got to be a way," I said.
"There's always a way," the Doctor reassured me.
"The statues- the statuary," one of the clerics called, "they're advancing along all corridors! And, sir, my torch keeps flickering."
"They all do," replied Father Octavian, "retreat to the inner circle and form a protective line."
"How do we get out?" I asked the Doctor, "you must have a plan."
The Doctor sent me an incredulous look, "oh, must I?"
"If you can figure out a way to escape the Star Whale's mouth, then this should be child's play," the unconvinced expression on the Doctor's face made me pause, "this… this is gonna be child's play, isn't it?"
"Two more incoming!"
"Clerics, we're down to four men," Father Octavian seemed unshaken, but his men were less so; we'd entered the Maze with twelve or so clerics. To see so many of them fall – without even realising they were dying...
"The torches are dying because the Angels are draining the power," the Doctor said.
"We can't see them coming in the dark," Kaleb said, "which means we'll be having tea with the Aplans."
Cooper laughed, "yeah, I'd rather not. Can't we just… climb up?"
"With what?" I asked.
"Octivvy said they brought climbing gear," Cooper said.
"Father Octavian also said that it'd take too long to set up," Octivvy snapped.
"You've got something," I told the Doctor, "you have, I can see it in your face. Doctor?"
"Trust me?" came his question, facing the Byzantium but looking at me.
A sigh fell from my lips, "when don't I?"
"Cooper, Kaleb, trust me?"
The two shared a glance, shrugged, then said, "yes."
Next, the Doctor turned to Father Octavian, "trust me?"
"Sir! Three more incoming!"
Looking back at his men, mere shadows of what they once were, Father Octavian nodded, solemn, "we have faith, Doctor."
"Then give me your gun," the Doctor requested. Father Octavian, without any hesitation whatsoever, passed over the handgun he kept strapped to his thigh. "Now, I'm about to do something stupid, dangerous and smart; when I do, jump!"
"Jump?" Cooper repeated, sounding dubious, "you want us to out-jump the Angels? I should've brought my Space Hopper."
"That would've actually been quite useful," the Doctor said, "as well as immensely fun."
"Doctor," Father Octavian began, "what's the signal to jump?"
The Doctor waved the gun in response and everyone who were in its path ducked immediately, "this is!"
"More incoming!" the clerics yelled, "we're surrounded, sir!"
"Marco, I can see that," Father Octavian snapped.
"Where are we jumping to?" I asked.
"Nowhere," he told me, with a half-mad grin, "just jump. Far as you can! No do-overs, so make it count, yeah?"
I nodded, trying to calm my racing heart; every five seconds or so, the grav globe would go out and the Angels would be a few inches closer. We were now a tightly packed circle, blinking torches spread out – the Angels, mostly still deformed but a few more solidly built, trapped us on every side.
"Jump to safety?" I clarified.
"In a manner of speaking," the Doctor said, moments before he fired the gun. In a heartbeat, the cavern went pitch black and I could hear whooshing air as the Angels made their move.
And, with a huge breath, my feet left the floor.
Here's hoping this works!