Chapter 4: Soft Boiled
Exhausted more than he'd cared to admit, Alistair hadn't the energy or inclination to argue when the Doctor insisted he wrap up in the quilt by the fire and get some sleep. There really wasn’t anything else to do anyway, an unusual circumstance for him; he was soon soundly asleep in spite of the tremendous noise of the passing storm on the thin caravan roof. He slept so soundly he wasn't even aware of the complaints of pipes being forced into place or the alien curse from the Doctor when the shower's hot water finally kicked in and dumped its first rusty load of warm water on his head.
By the time the storm's slow passing brought relative peace to his dreams, it was nearly daylight and the Doctor was singing, finishing up his own make-do bathing and laundering to be ready for another day.
The Brigadier blinked awake, registered the fire still warm and tended in front of him, and slowly sat up.
The Doctor's head popped around the corner from the hallway. "Ah, good morning, Brigadier! Just in time. It's all heated up again and ready to go."
"The bath, of course."
"Heated? I thought there wasn't any power," he said, obediently staggering up, still clutching the quilt around him. He looked down at his knee expecting it to be the swollen up like a sausage but it wasn't. "And what's happened to my knee?" he said, belatedly registering that the muddy pantleg was also neatly rolled up.
"A bit of Temdovian style acupressure, you could say," the Doctor said lightly. "I thought you might want the use of your leg sooner rather than later. Speeds the healing and brings down the swelling something marvelous. Of course Temdovians are notoriously clumsy, probably why they had to come up with it. As to the power, I just rigged a simple wind-powered generator to the hot-water heater; this storm's given it more than enough twirling."
"Simple, right…" the Brigadier mumbled. He almost asked what a Temdovian was and thought the better of it. Some things were just better left for later. Hot bath. That he could understand.
By the time the Brigadier emerged from the hot bath, dressed in his fresh set of clothing and feeling much more alive, he found Mr. Davis had arrived. The man was setting a large brown crockery teapot on the table, half-wrapped up in a towel that had been pressed into service as a tea-cosy, and what looked like a bowl of eggs.
"Ah, there you are," the Doctor said pleasantly, then turned to observe as Mr. Davis lifted the lid of the teapot to examine the contents, which were steaming brown and hot with a pair of cheap tea sachets floating near the top. Apparently satisfied, he replaced the lid. The Doctor smoothly took it from him and poured them each a mug with the grace of a butler, handing the first one to Alistair.
He sniffed the steam appreciatively, then tried a sip. The tea was strong and bitter, though the heat was welcome.
The man was considering his damp hair. "Thought the bath was broken on this one," he said with some vaguely confused surprise. "Glad to see you looking better this morning."
"Thank you. How is your dog?" the Brigadier inquired politely.
"Casey? Aw, he's fine, right fine. Healing up nicely, thanks." He peered into the pot, rearranged the towel around the bowl of eggs then glanced back at up at them. "Glad we could help. Radio says there was a strange sort of accident up on the downs yesterday, good to know nothing like that happened to the likes of you."
The Doctor cast about briefly for any sign of sugar and then set his cup aside. "What do you mean, strange?"
"Why, a man gone off the cliffs. Jumped to his death, he did, or so they figure."
"Visitor who lost his way?" the Brigadier asked.
"No, no. Local man. No one else about on the downs in that weather; his was the only car and they said it was just left standing there by the road."
The Brigadier and the Doctor exchanged a glance. Alistair lifted his tea and sipped from it. "Hmm. Terribly sorry to hear it. Most unfortunate."
"Near any of those nesting gulls you mentioned?" the Doctor asked.
The man harrumphed to himself a moment, but couldn't offer any more details. "Radio didn't say. Maybe just trying to see the ocean and got too close, we've had folk do that, well, visitors anyway.… " He turned his attention back to the bowl of eggs. "Afraid I can't offer you much in the way of breakfast" he said. "With this weather…."
"I'm sure it's fine," the Brigadier responded quickly. "Bound to be better than some of the rations I've faced in the past."
"Gull eggs, that all right? Some folks won't abide them, because of the colour, though they taste well enough with a bit of salt …"
"Colour?" the Brigadier asked.
"Red," the man supplied.
"Red? I'm sorry, I'm not sure what you mean."
"Reddd," the man repeated, drawing it out as if that would make it plainer. "The eggs."
The Doctor turned from where he'd been turning his cloak nearer the fire for drying. "The yolks," he explained as he rejoined them and patted the teapot as if to see if it were still hot. "Gulls have a red egg yolk. More of a deep orange, really."
"True, true," the owner of the teapot agreed.
"Ah," the Brigadier said. "Yes. Well, I can see where that could be a bit startling to someone who wasn't expecting it."
"I gathered them earlier this morning, they have them now, y' know, from now til summer."
"Do you often eat seagull eggs?" the Brigadier wondered, not only to be conversational; he hadn't really ever thought about them as a food source before.
The man considered him with surprise. "No, no," he shook his head. "Hen's eggs are finer, and gulls only have 'em in the spring, but the road was most likely washed out. We used to fetch them from the cliffs when I was a lad, my mum hadn't much to feed all us growing lads. You know how it is. Four mouths and hunger enough for eight stummicks and all of us with only what work we could find. Needs must." With this abbreviated history out he abruptly stopped and gestured at the bowl of eggs again. "Anyway. They're, eh, just soft boiled."
"Thank you," the Doctor said and gave him a small bow that the man awkwardly tried to return before making his way back out the door into the breezy, wet morning where a wagging dog waited for him.
"It isn't unusual," the Doctor noted waving a hand at the eggs while settling onto a vinyl-backed chair that had probably once matched the Formica. "The province of the poor, in some cases, and the delicacy of the wealthy in others. Common effect with any food that's difficult to harvest." He shifted to put his long legs nearer the fire and waved a finger to indicate the Brigadier should do likewise.
"You hinted at him to feed me, didn't you."
"Well, we could both use a bite, don't you think? I couldn't let your pride get in the way."
"My pride?" the Brigadier said in disbelief, watching as the Doctor produced two spoons and handed him one.
The Doctor ignored him, picking up an egg and expertly tapping it to open the top, then gesturing at the bowl. "Well, eat up."
He picked one up and tapped the shell. "I left Benton watching out for things, he's going to be wondering what happened to us."
"Oh, I walked up to that farm earlier on and put in a call," the Doctor said airily, rapidly finishing his egg. "Told him we aren't likely to be back today."
"And why aren't we?"
"Why, that Silurian outpost, of course. We still need to find it."
"Right." He spooned up some egg and considered the dark colour, then tasted it. It tasted like…well, egg. Slightly relieved, he finished it and chose a second one.
"Also called for a tow," the Doctor continued. "Though with all the damage they've had from this storm, I expect it'll be a bit of a wait. What is it?"
This last was directed at the Brigadier, who was frowning and prodding at the inside of the second egg he'd opened. "I don't know, very odd," he replied and pushed it across to the Doctor. "Take a look."
The Doctor pulled it over and peered inside the opening. Looking greatly intrigued, he gently poked the dark, fibrous netted ball inside then plunged a hand into his coat pocket to rummage around. Extracting his sonic screwdriver, he paused to make a few delicate adjustments to the settings then poked it down in the opening. There was a tweeble noise and he adjusted a setting again.
"Well?" the Brigadier asked impatiently. "It's all in a mass. Is it some kind of mutation?"
"This isn't a natural seagull egg at all, Brigadier. I don't think it's even of Earth, at least not originally. It's an incubating nodule… waiting…" he scanned it again and squinted at the readings that came back. "…apparently, for an avian host."
The Brigadier closed his eyes a moment and rubbed his forehead. "Did you just say what I thought you said?"
"That this is a nodule for…"
"Doctor. My breakfast has just turned out to be an alien being. Is this correct?"
"Well…essentially, yes. More like a potential being, like a seed. I'm sure the others are fine, the odds of there being two in the bowl are quite small. Go ahead."
"I'm…not hungry anymore, thank you."
The Doctor carefully peeled more of the shell away, revealing a red-orange fibrous, spongy mass. "I've seen something like this before. They would have amazing staying power in this state; who knows how they came to be here on Earth in the first place, but I suppose that's a moot point now."
"I don't care how the blasted things got here," Alistair grumbled, feeling there was somehow something inherently unfair about it, then suddenly looked up. "You said avian. Does this have anything to do with those birds out there," he waved an arm vaguely towards the ocean, "acting as they did?"
"Very likely. This sort of thing would quite easily take over a gull," he replied almost absently, teasing a fiber out of the egg-shaped tangle in front of him and carefully manipulating it with his fingertips.
"Oh that's fine news, isn't it? Possessed seagulls." The Brigadier's eyes darkened at a the next logical step in that progression. He leaned forward. "They won't do that to people, will they? How much of a…"
"No, no danger to any human," the Doctor interrupted, waving him back. "Minds are more complex, body chemistry is wrong."
He sat back, not entirely reassured, and drummed his fingers on the table. "Well, that's some comfort I suppose. Still, rabid seagulls going after the populace…"
"This isn't a disease, Brigadier. It's a one-on-one subsuming of the common avian's neural network to an alien equivalent." He gently pried the ball apart, trying to see the darker maroon center. "Interesting colouration, don't you think? I wonder if it's the minerals."
"What do you mean, equivalent?"
He glanced back up. "This sort of thing," he said, tapping the mass, "isn’t a dominant life form. Very likely more instinctual than reasoning and possibly utilized for food as well. In fact, it's entirely probable that they were left here by some exploratory visitor years ago."
"Yes. Rather like accidentally leaving behind some chickens. Or chicken seeds, if you will." He seemed mildly amused at the thought.
"Damn irascible chickens," the Brigadier said, looking out the small window towards the cliffs. He fingered the cut on his face. "How many do you think we're dealing with?"
"Hard to say. Can't be many if that man was surprised that his dog was attacked, though I wonder now if that accidental death he mentioned…"
"That occurred to me as well."
"… precisely. We may have found ourselves unexpectedly on the beginning of a tide, Brigadier. I expect any eggs the infested birds lay will mutate into additional nodules. Most likely placed among the unaffected ones like a cuckoo might."
"And it's nesting season," Alistair said in dismay. "How will we be able to tell which ones are real eggs from false? We can't break all of the eggs on all of these cliffs…"
"Simple candling would show the difference…" the Doctor murmured half to himself, prodding at it again.
The Brigadier bopped the tabletop in frustration, setting the bowl of eggs wobbling slightly. "And we can't candle every egg on those cliffs either! There must be a million of the little devils."
"Thousands, anyway," the Doctor said absently, still preoccupied in spite of his companion's vehemence. He reached for the remaining eggs and carefully began cracking them one at a time, setting them back in the bowl as they turned up normal. As he had guessed, there was just the one odd one.
He wrapped the poppy-coloured object in his newly-washed handkerchief and pocketed it. "Well, if you're done with your breakfast, let's see what we can find out."