Chapter 10: Inner Seagullness
"What were they thinking, using birds as weapons?” the Brigadier wondered aloud. “It’s more the sort of ridiculous thing the Master would come up with. You know, like squirting daffodils and blowing up small village churches.”
“That’s occurred to me as well, especially as we know he was here about the time that ship was scuttled.”
The Brigadier turned his dark eyes to the Doctor with sudden concern. “Do you think he was really responsible?”
The Doctor gave a small shrug and paced back to the window. “I doubt he personally scuttled it, if that’s what you mean, but he was almost certainly involved. The Silurians don’t generally make a habit of sinking and looting ships.”
“Well, no matter how it started the problem is we still don’t know how to stop it. That has to be the priority.”
“One of them. I could possibly stop the spread if I could pin down the catalyst that makes it come out of dormancy. The gull's natural-born avarice should most definitely be factored in,” the Doctor said, pacing back again. “And some sort of condition of war, perhaps, seeing as birds chosen for oracles were stirred up during wartimes.” He paused and looked down at Alistair. “What other factors are involved in oncoming war? Surely you ought to be able to help me out here, Brigadier. You're one of the most warlike men I know."
"I certainly hope you didn't intend that as a compliment."
"And peace," the Doctor continued as if he hadn't heard, "comes after war and we find the oracles are back in stasis. What brings about peace in a tribal situation?" He paced back toward the window.
"The death of the rival chieftain and his supporters, I suppose."
"No, no. That just removes the after-effect, the reactive agents." He looked back at the Brigadier's blank expression and tried rephrasing it. "Like scooping out the extra soda after the vinegar is done fizzing. What's the soda reacting to that's no longer there to be causing that further reaction?"
"Soda and vinegar?" the Brigadier snorted. "We're talking men, Doctor, not household chemicals. Unless we're talking about seagulls. I think I'm losing you, but it wouldn't be the first time."
"Or we're talking chemicals that potentially affect both men and birds," he replied. “Something that makes them susceptible. Could be anything, a pollen in the air, something in the food…"
"Speaking of food," Sylvia put in, returning from where she'd set the clothes to washing then worked on gathering items together in the small kitchen. She was carrying a wood tea tray, a stoneware plate of sandwiches and the pot of tea now balanced on it.
"Thank you," the Brigadier said very sincerely appreciating both the food and the interruption. She nodded and fetched three mugs down from a cupboard. "Most generous of you, Miss Fleming."
"Yes, indeed," the Doctor added a bit belatedly. "Many thanks."
"I needed to use this bread up soon anyway," she demurred, pulling out a seat to join them. "My nephew visited a few days back and he had such an appetite… oh, plates! Just a minute," she got back up. "All that reputation about growing lads eating their own weight every day? He proved it!" She fetched the plates and sat back down, handing them around as they both helped themselves to the food. "Nothing like it to revert him to a cave man, too," she added. "He had plenty of good vocabulary until suppertime, then it all turned to grunts. I told him his inner caveman only came out when it was time to eat."
The Doctor, who'd been in the middle of taking a bite, suddenly waved his sandwich emphatically. "That's it, Brigadier!"
"What? What's it?" Alistair was trying to politely identify the filling, though the Doctor obviously hadn't been put off by it.
"If we could overwhelm it with a reemergence of the naturally proper gull thought and behaviour…"
"As if any of those damn gulls could be considered proper…pardon me, Miss Fleming."
"Yes. Precisely!" The Doctor stood and paced a couple steps, then spun on his heel and paced back, tapping the sandwich in his hand before abruptly popping it into his mouth. "We just need to find the trigger for their inner seagullness," he enunciated around it.
Alistair took an experimental nibble, not quite rolling his eyes. "I suppose that would almost sound profound if it weren't ludicrous. Seagullness?"
The Doctor paused, just as obviously trying to be patient. "Let's say you've taken it into your head to write some sonnets on that wall there."
"Or invectives, if it suits you better. You're writing with that pen in your pocket."
"He is?" added Sylvia, intrigued.
The Doctor waved a hand for patience. "Now, someone else comes along after you."
"If you like," he nodded amenably. "I don't like your invective-filled sonnet and decide to write over it."
The Brigadier sat back in his chair and crossed his arms. "I'm still waiting for this to have a point, Doctor."
He held up a finger. "Soon. Now, I take up a good thick brushful of stove blacking and inscribe something more sensible over it as an improvement.” He picked up another sandwich half and waved it in the air for illustration. “Which writing do you think will be the more visible and lasting? The stronger one of course," he answered himself, and gestured at the window. "So what does the natural seagull desire most?"
"Food," the Brigadier said without hesitation. "But we can't starve an entire colony of seagulls, not with an ocean's worth of fish…"
"Starve them? Good heavens no, Brigadier. Haven't you understood a thing I've said? We need to gorge them; excite their feeding instincts into a properly fevered pitch."
"Wait. Are you suggesting we feed the gulls?"
"And this is supposed to cure them?"
"Feeding an entire colony?" Sylvia put in in disbelief. "On purpose?"
"Well, I can't guarantee the results but I think it's fairly promising in its probability. We'd only need to reach those actively nesting." He glanced down at the sandwich in his hand and took a bite out of it.
The Brigadier frowned. "If that's the case why aren't they cured the first time they snatch some poor devil's sandwich?" He absently took a bite of his own and paused as he tasted it, quickly chewing and swallowing.
"It's not enough. That's merely daily subsistence to a foraging avian. We need something to bring out a rabid avarice. Overload their greed circuits. It also explains why the one that attacked you back on the road reacted to my predator call. Self-preservation is another base instinct.”
“But we obviously don’t want to frighten them all to death,” the Brigadier observed. He tapped his healing face. “Though I admit at the moment the concept is appealing.”
“Hence feeding them. From what I can tell of the nodule specimen we picked up, if we boost the bait with a temporary neural absorption blocking enzyme…in quantity…" The Doctor finished his sandwich and fell to scribbling chemical symbols on a napkin.
"A load of spiked seagull garbage." The Brigadier shook his head. "This should be interesting on the requisition forms."
“We can treble its effectiveness with this. Magnesium. Tremendously common element, combined with the enzymes to…” he stopped, then suddenly whirled towards them. “Milk of magnesia!” he said.
The Brigadier tried not to blink. “Milk of magnesia.”
“Yes, I believe that’s what you call it here, isn’t it? Water suspension of magnesia hydroxide. Suspension of powder of brucite. Come now, Brigadier, you must know what I’m talking about,” he continued impatiently. “It’s used for digestive ailments. An infusion could easily be distributed by spraying the food and even the common nesting areas.”
“Yes, of course,” the Brigadier managed. “I was just trying to imagine explaining this on the requisition forms. It’s going to appear our entire organization is abruptly suffering severe constipation. En masse.”
“Ew, did you have to say it that way?” Sylvia asked. “It wouldn’t hurt the birds, would it?”
“Oh, no,” the Doctor said, “It’s very beneficial for avians, contributes to their eggshells and such.” He twiddled the query away with his fingers and turned back to the Brigadier who was looking slightly glazed with what was being asked of him. “Especially if we also boost the calcium content to increase absorption. Come now, Brigadier. You have the entire resources of a government entity at your disposal. The castoffs of the combined canteens alone may be sufficient to the task.”
“Er, yes. I was thinking we can send out a query for fishery castoffs as well.”
Sylvia shook her head at what she’d gotten into. “I’m going to go hang up that clothing,” she said.
Alistair poured a cup of now-lukewarm tea and watched the rain running down the window while he thought. Somewhere in the back of the cottage Sylvia opened the back door and threw out a bucket of water, letting a cool rain-scented breeze sweep briefly through the room.
"Doctor,” he said suddenly. “If they’re at that artillery battery, what do you think is the likelihood they'd be armed? With something more than those little hand things?"
"I must admit it's a distinct possibility. I'd thought so since I realized the area they'd chosen was a source of naturally pure silicate."
He snorted into his tea. “I still don’t see what the blazes has to do with it. They aren't making glass bullets, are they?" The Brigadier looked slightly amused with himself at the thought.
"No; but many of their technological items, including the handheld devices they used on the naval base in that attack are silica based."
The smile vanished instantly. "So it could even be their main munitions factory?"
"It can’t be ruled out, though we don't really know. I think it’s a smaller effort, it may merely be a scientific research base," he hedged.
The Brigadier took a breath. “We need to investigate that battery. I can call for backup.”
“I’d like to take a look around without your clumsy soldiers swarming all over it first,” the Doctor said with a frown.
“Very well,” he agreed shortly. “But once you’ve had your lookabout, I’m notifying UNIT. This is potentially a national security issue.”
The Doctor sighed, knowing there was little that would sway him on that front. Instead he pulled the little pieces of pottery from his pocket again and set them on the table. “I’ve done a bit of testing on these shards. That’s why I made the suggestion I did regarding the addition to the bird’s foodstuffs. The level of magnesium in their food supply may be the key to how they’re being managed.”
“Shards of what?”
“You remember the urns we read of, from that museum collection?”
“You found them? Those whatchacallum destruction egg ones?”
“Bits. What I wanted to know was what the nodules were suspended in, as it may have been a factor in keeping them dormant for so long.”
“The inner surface of every piece is coated with magnesium.”
He put down his cup. “Magnesium again. If it’s a recurring factor, do you think they’re using it for explosives, then?”
“Your mind is unfailingly militaristic. It’s a very common mineral element, used for much more than incendiary weapons,” the Doctor said, slightly irritated. “Though yes it is also has the ability to ignite, that isn’t what we’re talking about here. It was probably a thickened suspension that filled the urn, possibly a paste to induce dormancy. If the Silurians have found a way to artificially lower the level of magnesium in the nesting gulls, they would be susceptible to the influence of the nodules. ”
“Well, that’s something.”
“And lowered magnesium causes aggressiveness! Which reminds me, I also found this: dolomite,” he said, nudging the bit of pinkish pearly rock he’d picked up on the beach onto the table. “I found it over by the crevasse they’re using as a vent for whatever they’re doing.”
The Brigadier dutifully considered the plain little rock, observed that it looked like a plain little rock and looked back up for enlightenment. “And this is significant why?”
“It isn’t naturally occurring here. Dolomite is a result of a tropical climate, like Earth’s past, not as it is now. It starts out as calcite, of which this island obviously has plenty, but would need magnesium, salt and heat to be changed to this form. And the colour of the cliff-face around the vent indicated it was the activity directly correlating to that vent that was causing it.”
“So. Magnesium again?” he guessed, feeling like an echoing sounding wall and still not really knowing what mattered. How Miss Grant could do this day after day he had no idea.
“Well, it isn’t common rocket exhaust at the very least.”
There was a slam of the back door and Sylvia came around the corner looking a bit windblown and wide-eyed. They both looked at her.
“Sorry,” she gasped, “I was just finishing hanging the wash…one of those gulls came at me. I’m all right.”
The Brigadier stood decisively. “We need to investigate that battery.”
“Not yet,” the Doctor said quickly. “There’s not enough daylight left.”
The Brigadier looked at him sharply. “Yes, there is. Don’t play games, Doctor.”
“Oh, very well.” He looked mildly annoyed, then sat back and looked up at him as if measuring him up. “There’s a little more research I want to carry out first before risking any sort of confrontational encounter.”
“I wasn’t planning on a confrontation.”
“You can’t help but be confrontational, Brigadier. It’s in your nature.”
“And it’s in yours to be obscure! Will any of this research of yours endanger anyone?”
The Doctor’s voice rose to match his. “What a strange mind you have, Lethbridge-Stewart. I mention scientific research and the first thing you think of is violence.”
“Just a straightforward answer, if you please!”
“Doctor…” he growled warningly.
“I mean no, it’s exceedingly unlikely anything violent would commence,” he clarified acerbically, rising from his chair. “Though of course I can’t rule it out in entirety.”
“Which is why I need to be prepared for it!”
“Keep them away until I’ve had a chance to see what we’re up against!”
“And what if what we’re up against kills someone in the meantime?”
“Brigadier! ” he glared.
“Doctor! ” the Brigadier glared back, puffing through his moustache in irritation.
A hand with a deck of cards on it suddenly stuck between them. “Cards?” Sylvia offered with false perkiness from where she’d been watching the back and forth. “I mean, if you aren’t going anywhere right away it would pass the time and keep things civil.”
The Brigadier and the Doctor looked at one another.
“I play a mean Pontoon, unless you’d rather play Rummy?” she asked pointedly.
“Forgive us,” the Brigadier said, turning to her. “By all means, something more civil would apparently be quite a good suggestion.”
“Yes,” the Doctor said, suddenly giving one of his elegant bows in her direction. “Forgive us for allowing our differences to overcome the etiquette of polite society. We’ll do what we can to make amends. Brigadier, would you like the honour of choosing the game?"
Alistair found the sudden formality almost ludicrous and returned the bow in proper English schoolboy fashion. “No, no. By all means, I insist you choose first, sir.”
The Doctor suddenly flashed a bright smile. “I say, have you ever played Arcturian Moon Poker?”