Chapter 6: Sand and Needles
The Brigadier turned the wheel, following the signs to Alum Bay as he chewed on half of one of the sandwiches the Doctor had bought in the shop. His companion had rapidly inhaled his own, and was now eyeing the other half where it sat on its waxed paper between them. He chewed faster.
"I've been thinking," the Doctor mused as they drove. "The people who used these infested birds as oracles had distinct periods in which the oracle was silent. What factor was silencing it?"
"Didn't feed them enough sacred mice?" the Brigadier grumbled around his food. "How should we know?"
"You really shouldn't talk with your mouth full. Increased activity was linked to troubled times, usually just before…" He lifted a finger thoughtfully. "Unusually bad weather."
"You think this storm…"
"No, I don't. The variations were more lasting, the sort of thing linked to sunspot activity. That would affect crops, bringing a shift in the wealth and power structures of the tribal community, which led to conflicts."
"So…" he swallowed, picking up the other half of the sandwich to the Doctor's poorly veiled disappointment. "…sunspots cause wars."
"Well, it's only one factor," he conceded.
"And this has exactly what to do with these seagulls?"
"One step at a time, Brigadier. You're a terribly impatient man, did you know that?"
Alistair blew out his cheeks in annoyance but managed to not respond. He started in on the rest of his sandwich; it helped.
"Knowing what makes it active might help up to know how to send it back into hibernation again."
"And how in the world do you test something like sunspot sensitivity?"
"Merely hypothesizing. Whatever it is setting them off, it's obvious its levels are high enough now," he stated, indicating the Brigadier's healing cheek.
"The Master may have merely guessed they would be aggressive, or the Silurians may have known of them from earlier in Earth's history. Either way, they've plainly decided to take advantage of it as a way to additionally harry the human populace, if they can get it to multiply quickly enough."
"So what are our options in curtailing that part of the plan?"
"I’m not sure yet." The Doctor considered. "If we could capture one we could observe its behaviour.”
"Catch one? Are you mad?"
"So I've been told at times," he replied, in good humour because he had a puzzle to worry at. "No, I suppose you're right, it may be something quite simple instead, even a type of fish for all we know. Though I'll not rule it out entirely if nothing else surfaces."
"If you do decide to catch one, let me know first. I want to watch you try. I have absolutely no desire to observe them again myself."
Between weathered signs pointing the way to the park and the aptly named Alum Bay Road, it was a simple matter to locate what they were looking for, though a small painted sign declared the park closed for repair there was no barrier blocking the way. The Brigadier guided the car past it and soon an empty car park opened up before them.
Being a long-established British holiday destination, the well-worn small pleasure park stood as it always had near the top of the famous cliffs, though the carousel and other structures were silent, closed up against both the weather and the season. In spite of the Brigadier voicing his doubt that the Silurians would have kept their activities so near such a routinely populated place, the Doctor declared it as good a place to start as any, especially as there was a way to reach the lower beaches. They bundled into their coats once again.
"Always meant to come here," the Brigadier said conversationally over the sound of the breeze and nearby waves. "One of those holiday places you hear about but never get around to." He looked around the damp, cold surroundings. "Not that I can see the charm in it at the moment."
Looking out towards the distant Needles the Doctor suddenly made an exclamation. "Marconi!"
"That's why this area looked familiar. Somewhere about here was where that Marconi chap and I were setting up to test that radiotelegraph he'd come up with. End of the previous century I think. Though the weather was a bit better then. Splendid fellow, if rather impatient at times, gave him a few pointers."
The Brigadier paused to stare at him. "Are you saying you are behind the invention of the radio?"
"Good heavens no! Why would I do a thing like that? Only a bit of wire laid and a some small pointers regarding his antennae over an ale at the hotel; he was quite on the right track already."
As with the road, the way to the bay shore was well labeled and they began their walk down the sloping footpath toward the sea, watching the skies for any strangely behaving gulls. The damp-darkened sands were streaked with mineral colours, the ever-resilient heather and gorse rippling from the salt-scented wind in waves of its own.
The Doctor paused and knelt, rubbing some of the lighter sand between his fingers. "This is nearly pure white silica. I wonder if that's part of what attracted them here, purely aside from any strategic attributes…"
Lethbridge-Stewart snorted at him in mild disbelief. "I hate to tell you this Doctor, but nearly every beach on Earth has sand."
The Doctor smiled up at him. "Silica, Brigadier, not just sand. Useful for making glass, pottery….and microcircuitry, among other things." Standing, he dusted his knees. He looked as if he were about to say something else, but changed his mind.
They went along well enough at first, but upon seeing the long series of wooden steps leading steeply downward ahead, the Brigadier hesitated. The Doctor, likewise aware of his friend's weak knee, seemed to have reached the same unspoken conclusion.
"I'll head on down and see what I can find. Perhaps you could keep a lookout above. We don't really know what we're looking for yet, so anything is fair game."
"Right," Alistair agreed.
"Just watch out for those birds if you get near the edge," the Doctor added a bit cheekily as he strode away. "I don't want to have to catch you!"
Moving faster now that he was alone, the Doctor rapidly trotted down the steps, making his way to the shallow shoal and its lone pier. He worked his way along the lower edge of the cliffs towards the Needles to the south, pausing now and then to poke at the taupe and gold coloured ridges or to nudge beach debris, of which there was plenty after the storm's passing. Seabirds bobbed in the waters and circled on the updrafts near the cliffs, but none seemed inclined to be anything but curious about him.
As he neared the far end he noted a part of the cliff face that had recently crumbled; a tumbled heap of orange-streaked sand splaying out over the pebbly strand, several feet high at the top. Just beyond it the promontory rose up in shadowed jags of calcite-rich rock. He eyed the surrounding ridges and cautiously approached it. Picking his way along the shallowest part of the collapsed heap he paused to gather up a small piece of rock. It was smooth, pearly and more pink in colour than its companions; it matched, he realized, the rock right around a tunnel-like crevice or shaft, which had appeared before him now as an oblong maw in the cliff face.
He hefted it in his hand thoughtfully. “Interesting… and ah, that’s more like it,” he said, suddenly striding forward to pluck an angular black bit out from among its the surf-tumbled smooth companions. It was pottery, a broken shard with a fragment of ancient writing pressed into the clay. “Very promising,” he murmured. “Somewhere about here, then, allowing for the tidal movement…” he turned, scanning over the cliff carefully.
Considering the crevice in the cliff he narrowed his gaze with a frown. It was partially obstructed by the recent storm damage that, to his eyes, had been brought on by a fairly obvious recent and deliberate widening of the cleft. The concealing ridge that had previously hidden it from view had fallen away from the newly weakened the cliff face.
And there was movement inside that tunnel.
Slipping the curious rock and bit of pottery into his pocket, he moved quickly to flatten himself behind a small outcropping near the tunnel's entrance, watching gratefully as the incoming waves foamed over the pebbly sands, erasing the most obvious signs of his tracks. After a pause there was another shuffling movement. He heard a hissing breath, barely audible over the sound of the breeze-driven waves.
All too familiar, a strangely reptilian profile came forward, its bulbous eyes moving to cautiously take in the cold daylight. The Silurian awkwardly emerged from the partially obstructed cleft carrying a metal rod which it briefly prodded into the pile of debris in a businesslike manner before removing a red box from its belt. Stooping, it set this strategically along the heap then retreated back the way it had come.
The Doctor leaned forward for a better view. The box blinked. Seeing the telltale signs of a flashing detonator counting down he wasted no time jumping for the sheltering crevice himself. Turning slightly sideways he rapidly followed the padding creature up the sloping, rough path inside.
A distinct whump followed him; the Doctor braced himself against one of the walls as bits of gravel and dust rattled down. A whoosh of cold followed, clearing the air as the crevice was more fully opened once more to the sea. The Silurian was hissing something to itself ahead; he adjusted his stance in case it turned back to check on its handiwork but there was no need. The footsteps shuffled forward again and after a pause, he followed.
The cleft had by this time turned into a regular machine-hewn tunnel, still curving slightly upward and south into the depths of the promontory. A metallic sound alerted him to a doorway which opened and shut in the gloom ahead. Carefully approaching it himself, he found a grey metal door in the wall of the tunnel, a typical military design apparently borrowed from the artillery battery nearby. The tunnel continued beyond it. Considering a moment, he briefly explored beyond the doorway but it merely went on sloping upward into darkness, silent and featureless, as well as growing smaller and more smoothly rounded. The sound of the distant ocean echoed softly around the walls.
Returning to the doorway he paused at the sight of more small pottery fragments and half-kneeled to finger them. Choosing a couple of the larger bits, he slipped them into his jacket pocket then turned his attention back to the door. An experimental hand to the latch found it lifted easily; he slipped through.
In the gloom ahead the short hallway opened on a narrow natural cavern that had apparently been improved upon with electricity and an assortment of non-human technology by its current residents. The Silurian he’d been following, apparently the junior member of the trio he could see, was giving his report of the tunnel clearance.
“The air-flow is functioning,” the voice hissed, finishing his report with a bob of the head. “ The opening is back to full capacity.”
“The damage will no doubt be attributed to the storm by the humans,” nodded the taller Silurian. “You did well to clear it so quickly.”
“Wasted opportunity!” the older, third one creaked in frustration. “It is a shame we could not have used it for cover to attack, now that is lost.”
The younger one quivered in agreement. “Yes! While they are in confusion. Why do we wait?”
“There will be other storms,” the older one said with some resignation. “And we will need more weapons than we have so far. You forget that they have weapons now as well. Still no news from the sea base?”
“No,” the tall one admitted. “Still none. The transmitter is working.”
“Then why haven’t we heard from them? Fix it!”
“I have!” The tall Silurian’s eyes locked with his superior’s challengingly.
“Fix it again,” came the threatening hiss of reply. The other two looked away from their leader and bobbed their heads submissively.
“We could clear this island,” the younger one muttered. “They are only humans. They can do nothing to stop us.”
“Nothing to stop you? Is that truly what you believe?” asked the Doctor, stepping out from the tunnel.
Unaware of anything being more amiss than usual, the Brigadier huddled in his coat while watching the wheeling sea birds suspiciously and trying to stuff the feeling that he was being rather useless.
Noting a pair of coin-operated telescopes mounted at the edge of a pathway, he made his way over to them and, randomly choosing one, inserted a coin while wishing to high heavens he'd thought to bring along his own trusty field glasses. Not that he knew he would need them on this trip, but when did anyone know what would be needed in this line of work? A mental note was made to commandeer a spare set to keep in his glovebox as soon as they got back. Maybe two.
The telescope digested his coin and whirred its obscuring flaps out of the way. He looked at a blurry sky. Adjusting the focus, he worked at swinging it to provide a more useful view, in spite of being heavy and disinclined to stay anywhere he pointed it.
He'd just begun to focus with a somewhat indulgent touristy curiosity on what little he could see of the lighthouse at the end of the rocks when the telescope made a little grinding sound and the flaps closed over the glass again. Muttering, he shoved another coin in the slot. The view stayed dark.
He smacked it firmly then shoved his weight into it, giving it a good shake, a technique that he'd often found success with on recalcitrant and shoddy military equipment and occasionally men. There was a metallic noise somewhere inside the coin slot and the flaps obediently whirred back out of the way again.
Looking through it he found the shaking had completely lost the view of the lighthouse; instead he was looking as a small column of steam. He frowned; it was rising up from what appeared to be distant buildings he hadn't noticed before. Pulling away, he craned around the scope, squinting to compare it with the natural view, then quickly looked again.
It was coming from the old artillery battery; it had to be that, there wouldn’t be any other collection of buildings on the neighboring promontory. The battery that was supposed to be abandoned and closed.
A huge, heavy gull slammed into his back scratching and beating around his head. He ricocheted off the swinging scope, instinctively ducking beneath its metal case, stumbling over the footrest that ringed the post and fumbling for the handgun that wasn't there. His weak knee twinged, but that was the least of his worries at the moment. He hadn't even seen it coming. Screaming, the creature flew up and circled to dive murderously at him on the other side, trying to get at him to tear with beak and claw as he scrabbled for a rock, any rock, of throwable size. The beak clacked off the metal, snapped at his arm.
"Get away from him!" unexpectedly came a woman's voice. "Get away!"