It was an unusually tranquil summer morning, one which Adabade felt equipped to handle. It was less like the turbulent, storm-filled summers of recent years, and more like the long-ago gentle warmth of his youth. He leaned on his spade for a moment, ignoring the divots of Plight-dirt that clung to it waiting for somewhere to go, and thought longingly of those times, far off and unregainable. Things were so different now, these last few years. Things went so much quicker; the weather was atrocious; there'd been so many premature deaths, it seemed, men he'd seen grow from children to adults, failing and falling from life before their time. And all that fire falling from the sky: that couldn't be right, could it?
Well, he reckoned to himself philosophically. Things were the way they were. No use grumbling about things you couldn't change, was it?
At least he knew one thing for sure— at his age, he'd seen it all. Nothing could surprise him.
The blue box that appeared from nowhere, landing on and, for lack of a better word, squashing his squash, proved him dead wrong.
"Perhaps I should have some sort of warning attached, for when we materialize somewhere," said a rather worried Doctor, after having helped Adabade up and ensured that it wasn't, after all, a stroke or heart attack that made him collapse, but merely the sheer surprise of having a large blue box suddenly land in the middle of his garden. He thought of explaining that it was more than a big box, that it was in fact a TARDIS, standing for Time And Relative Dimension In Space, and further than that was far bigger on the inside than it appeared from this vantage point, but reckoned this unlikely to help the current situation.
"Like a back-up signal?" prompted his companion, holding onto his arm with one hand and pushing her blond hair out of her eyes with the other. "Beep beep? Beep beep?"
"I was thinking more of a klaxon, actually," said the Doctor, pursing his lips. "You know— WHHIRRP WHHIRRP WHHIRRP!"
"BWAA BWAA BWAA BWAA," suggested Rose.
"Perhaps," admitted the Doctor graciously. He tucked his arm, and Rose's hand, a little closer in to his side.
"Wouldn't that take the fun out of it?" she asked thoughtfully. "Certainly do away with the element of surprise. Not to mention, you'd think that grinding sort of 'vorp vorp' noise it makes would serve as some kind of warning anyway. After all—"
He let go of her hand and turned to her, somewhat taken aback.
"Is that what you think it does? 'Vorp vorp'?"
"Sounds like a mechanical cat being thrown out a very high window," said Rose, nonplussed. The Doctor tutted in dismay, and she grinned. "But I love it anyway."
Adabade finally took his hands away from his face and looked at them. "Are you two for real, now?"
"Yes, but only just," said the Doctor, focusing his attention on the aged farmer with almost frightening intensity. "Sorry to get off topic— are you feeling better? " He scarcely waited for the answering nod, being in something of a conversational hurry. "Good. Can I ask you a few questions?"
The farmer shrugged. "I suppose, if— "
"Good," the Doctor interrupted once more. "Now. Have you noticed anything strange about the weather lately?"
Adabade eyed him askance. "Strange as compared to what?"
"This is the point," the Doctor said earnestly, bending over slightly, hands in his pockets, "where you're meant to burst into fond reminiscence and mention how you don't get proper weather these days, not like when you were a lad." He dipped his chin downwards and eyed Adabade askance right back, competently.
"He means please," put in Rose. "He just skips that bit sometimes."
"Well, I allow as that's true," said the farmer carefully, leaning back against the wall of his shed. "It has been a good bit different these past years. Not like what I remember, to be sure. Colder for one, less rain. More fire out of the clear blue, that sort of thing."
"And the seasons?" the Doctor pressed. "Anything unusual about them?"
"A mite shorter," Adabade admitted, and frowned at them. "What's this about? Some sort of government thing?"
"Just one more thing," said the Doctor, skipping blithely over his question as though it were a chance to say 'please.' He pulled an object out of his pocket. "This is the sonic screwdriver, and it won't hurt you if you stay very, very still." Adabade immediately froze as the alien with the whirring sonic probe moved towards him, eyes wide; the Doctor pointed it at the farmer's frightened countenance for about five seconds, then withdrew it and stuck it back in his pocket. "And," he added, "it wouldn't have hurt you if you'd moved, either." He grinned suddenly, a bright, mad stretch of a grin. His pale face nearly split in two with the width of it. "We'll just be going now, Mr—"
"Adabade," said Adabade.
"Mr. Adabade. I'm the Doctor— this is Rose— thank you, you've been most helpful, et cetera et cetera—" He backed Rose away behind him as he walked off, still facing the bewildered farmer and chattering. "And—" He paused at last, and a look of serious contrition came to his dark eyes. "I'm sorry, I'm so very sorry, about your cucumbers."
"They was squash," said Adabade, but they were already gone and the potential for yet another squash joke went unfulfilled.
"And so, now?" said Rose, hopping along at the Doctor's side as he strode purposefully off along the plain. "Now are you going to tell me where we are? When we are? Why we are?"
"The planet of Second Plight, named for when Emperor Hadun realized he had to spend an entire year with just his mother-in-law for company, under his own law which dictated the penalty for shooting a duck— well, I say duck, more like a lizard but tastes the same, tastes like a duck, that is— that didn't belong to him. It was all an atrocious accident, but had the most astonishing— " He frowned. "Don't much like the word 'atrocious' actually. Stop me if I say it again, will you?"
Rose considered this just as much as it deserved. "What was the first plight?"
The Doctor gave a little mouth-shrug. "Politics. Now. Whenwise, a comparative time to your own, except they call it the Age of the Twentieth Pineapple. We're not, in fact, too terribly far away from the earth. You may have noticed similarities. Humanoid inhabitants—"
"That doesn't mean much. You've taken me billions of miles away and I've still seen humans." She poked him in the arm a few times. "You look a bit like one yourself."
"Still," he said, and shrugged. "Humanoid inhabitants, house-like structures, one sun, breathable air—"
The Doctor stopped short and looked at her, mortified. "I did rather, didn't I? I know I should get a warning signal, but I suppose it won't do any good for gardens."
Rose laughed. "No, I mean— you did, but they were squash plants even before that."
"Were they? I was sure they were cucumbers. Ah well, that's too bad isn't it? Ruined a perfectly good apology by apologizing for the wrong thing. That'll teach me to be specific."
"So why are we here, Doctor? You never did tell me. And it's got to be something serious, the hurry you were in. I thought we'd spend at least another day on Half-Charm— "
"Don't blame me for that!" he protested. "How was I to know there would be a major political uprising just as we were sitting down for tea with the Prime Minister of Chiswick? Mind you, if it'd been real Chiswick, proper Earth Chiswick, like I thought it was, we'd have been stuck in good regardless. Have you ever seen anyone stabbed to death with knitting needles, Rose? Don't ever attend a Ladies Aid Society Political Meeting at which rum is being served."
"Doctor—" She tugged at his arm once more. "I really would like to know. When you pulled up that information, or report— whatever it was— on the TARDIS console— you got all serious. I'd like to know why."
He turned away from her and walked on. "I'm very good with time, Rose, really very good, mostly because I've had a lot of practice. Not everyone counts time the same, of course— there's really no cosmic clock, and not everywhere has day and night, or seasons or tides, or any of that sort of thing. In fact there's one place— I'll have to take you there sometime— where it is always Saturday afternoon just before the beach bars close. Fascinating how they discovered themselves in that state, especially without even working from a preconceived notion of 'Saturday,' nevermind 'afternoon'. And I can tell you for certain that the bartenders aren't overly pleased with always having closing shift and never being able to close, though Celestina says—"
"Celestina?" she prompted immediately.
"Yes, Celestina. She's a bartender. She, er, tends the bar." The Doctor lifted one hand and scratched just behind his ear, looking slightly bemused and a tiny bit guilty.
"I see," said Rose.
"Anyway, Celestina says the tips make up for it somewhat, seeing as everyone's drunk almost constantly, just as a matter of course, you see, and a bit loose with their spare change— but I've sidetracked myself, and admirably so. The point is, Rose, Second Plight also works on a time very similar to Earth's own, complete with 24-hour cycle and everything. At least, they used to."
"How do you mean?"
"For the last seven years, they've steadily been losing a bit more daylight every evening. They're down to about a five and a half hour cycle now, between dark and light, with no sign of improvement."
"They're—" Rose wrinkled her forehead in thought. "They're losing time?"
"Yes. And there's one other thing, something that makes it even more serious, Rose." He turned to her again to emphasize his words. "The inhabitants age differently than you do. It's the night, their sleep-cycles, that ages them, that moves them along in their timelines, and not the passage of time itself. They're running out of life, Rose, and very quickly."
"That old farmer— " she started.
The Doctor pulled the sonic screwdriver from his pocket once again, and clicked it through a few setting still it whirred in rhythmic bursts, the significance of which was lost on Rose, a language only he could understand. Until, of course, he chose to tell her.
"About thirty years old, I should reckon," he said quietly.