Zig-zagging in and out from the orchard’s boundary, Jo walked along, keeping her eyes to the ground as she examined grass clumps, mole hills and any other irregularity in the earth without much interest. The bees avoided her, but the smoker she carried was feeling heavy and she began thinking of abandoning it and just taking her chances now that she was away from their boxes. On top of that, she was finding the entire exercise very dull; her mind wandered and subsequently she nearly turned an ankle when an indentation did show up.
“Whoops! Hello,” she said, circling it curiously.
Not that it was an unusual shape, it was more like a regular hole, but there was a noticeable regularity to it as if it had only recently and suddenly been punched into the earth with no evidence of digging around it.
“Probably just a hole from a fence post or something,” she muttered. It certainly didn’t look very interesting, as alien evidences went, but still she supposed it fit the definition of an ‘impression in the dirt’.
She dutifully set down the smoker and pulled out a retractable measuring tape from her purse. “If anything is living down in there, sorry!” she said and poked it into the hole. A little ways down she found the damp spring earth had already filled it a good way up with brown water and it was deeper than she’d at first expected. She pulled the tape back up, encouraged, and turned back to the trees.
“I found a hole near the bee-boxes!” she announced, sending the same small curious goat bounding away as she finally located the Doctor in the workshed. Setting down the smoker just outside the door she pulled off the bee-veil. “Only one, but it looked promising.”
“How wide? Was it square or triangular?” He didn’t look up from the tray of honeycomb he had laid out on the work surface. A partial tray of sandwiches sat near him, apparently brought out there by Mrs. Byrne.
“Um, about a foot wide, I think. Kind of roundish square and deep.”
He looked over at her then. “It was probably a post-hole,” he said with some annoyance and disappointment. “Really, Jo. This is a farm of sorts, after all. Was that all?”
She crossed her arms in some annoyance of her own. “Really, Doctor. Do you think I can’t tell an ordinary post-hole from something unusual? I may be a city-girl, I know, but I do know a few basics about farming and gardening and you really…”
“Very well, very well!” he said, raising his hands in surrender before she could really gather a good head of steam. “Tell me, then, what made this particular post-hole unusual?”
“It was tremendously deep,” she said. “Very regular and straight down, so it wasn’t dug by an animal. Nearly six feet before I hit bottom.”
“Six feet?” His eyebrows quirked in interest. “Significantly deeper than a post-hole.”
She blew out a breath of frustration. “That’s what I said!”
Jo watched as the Doctor paced off the distance from the hole to the orchard’s edge and looked down at the little box of dirt she’d been left holding after he’d decided to go ahead and take a soil sample as well. As he came pacing back she shrugged at him. “Any luck?”
“Possibly,” he said, pondering. He turned back towards the farm and she automatically fell in beside him.
“We have some other clues,” he said as they walked. “For instance, we know they either aren’t advanced enough or aren’t wealthy enough to have teleportation devices because otherwise they wouldn’t be risking discovery by manually picking up the boxes. Also, they only want the honey, not the bees, so they aren’t selling them or eating them.”
“I’ve been told they are considered a delicacy by some of the tribal people here on Earth, so they’re obviously edible.”
Jo scrunched her shoulders. “I don’t want to think about that too much. What’s another clue?”
“What the bees told me.”
“The bees? You mean that singing thing you were doing actually worked? I kind of wondered if you were pulling my leg.” He looked slightly wounded, so she amended “Not that you don’t have a nice voice, I’m sure” to make up for it.
He gave a little snort at that and continued on. “The frequency they respond to is somewhat low, about 80 hertz, which indicates a possible low-phase spectral density drive on the ship, at least while inside the atmosphere. That not only matches up with the purple toned lighting, it narrows the field considerably. Add relative convenience to this solar system and fact they haven’t been destructive or threatening…”
“They even gave the boxes back, sort of,” Jo nodded, trotting slightly to keep up with his longer stride.
“Yes,” he said, slowing down for her. “Not the expected activities of the criminal mind. It may simply be a misunderstanding. And as I was saying about the type of ship, I expect that hole you found was needed as a tether.”
“Tether? You mean like a balloon?”
“If a low-phase engine is set on hover, it has a notorious propensity for drifting. Holding them completely in place is almost impossible, so the pilot would likely drop a tethering post. If we were to examine the other locations, I expect you’d find the same.”
“And no one would notice because it looks like a post-hole.”
“Quite.” He ducked under a low hanging apple-tree branch, accidentally breaking off a clump of apple-blossoms. “With the repeat pattern, it’s as if they’re coming back around because they can’t help themselves. Something is driving them.”
“So it’s like a drug?” Jo asked, stooping to pick up the blooms. She twirled them in her fingers, a bit disturbed at the idea of dealing with potential addicts.
“Honey should have no addictive qualities beyond taste.”
“And if it were taste?” A bee hummed nearby and she abruptly dropped the blooms.
“In that scenario, I think it would have to be more like a bad habit.”
“Possibly. A temporary feeling of contentment and calm instead of the more lasting kind that comes from proper health.”
“All right. Comfort food then,”
“Comfort food?” he held up another branch, letting her pass under it then following.
“What you eat when you’re all depressed and bleah. Like pasta and chocolate. But not together, I mean.”
“Mm. The point I was trying to make is that they aren’t native, so there’s bound to be something better that fits them, a native equivalent from their own world. Unless they’re viewing it as merely exotic.”
“Like… like someone who drinks French champagne when what he really needs is just some plain old grape juice.”
“Yes,” he agreed mildly. “Like that.”
“But what if they really do want champagne because the bubbles really are so much more interesting?”
“Then let them drink it — a little. The problem we’re facing here is the repetition.”
“And it’s illegal?”
“The grass is always greener as you say. Though the reality is if it is a chemical need, a non-native substitute will lack what they need to stabilize that craving.”
“I wish everything didn’t have to be so complex,” she said, plucking a bit of half-opened lavender as they came back into the yard. She paused, running it through her fingers.
He looked over at her, bright in the sunlight as she was watched the honeybees sipping from the lavender plants that edged this part of the yard. He was glad to see her fear of the bees had somewhat subsided; the relaxed good-natured chattiness returning. He’d never completely understood quite what it was that triggered the shifting of her moods. “You could say that’s the trouble. It’s entirely possible the honey is too complex in some ways and not complex enough in others,” he said. “So it doesn’t quite match up, though I’m sure the taste is sweet.”
She twirled the lavender sprig, still thoughtful and started walking again. “And everyone loves sweet. You know, just in general, aside from things that are obviously illegal, I still think it’s better to go after something that’s extra special instead of just settling for something mundane.”
“You mean for yourself.”
“I guess so. Mundane is easier to find but not very interesting. I don’t want to spend my life doing something boring.”
She looked up at him seeming sincerely troubled by this. He reached out a hand to smooth her hair in a comforting gesture. “I doubt you ever would! But the mundane, as you call it, doesn’t necessarily equate with boring. I’ve found Earth life to be quite fascinating.”
She tapped him with the lavender. “Ah, but to you it’s not mundane, see? It’s exotic. I live here, so to me it’s boring.”
“Then maybe the answer isn’t in looking for something alien and exotic, but in being able to see your own world with exotic eyes.”
“Ooh, I like that. Exotic eyes. It sounds quite poetry-like.”
“Does it? I suppose it does. Don’t worry, I won’t make a habit of it.”
He went ahead of her to open the shed door, waving her in as if she were entering a ballroom instead of a dusty work building, then turned, frowning as the curious little kid craned its neck around the opposite corner to look at him, then gave a little wheezing cough. Putting out a hand and stooping so as not to appear so tall, he slowly went over to it, then half-knelt in the damp grass.
He spoke a few soft syllables. “Hello there,” he added softly as the little goat suddenly ran to him, nuzzling tremulously into his arm. “What are you doing here, hm?”
Jo set her little box of dirt on the work table and picked up one of the cheese sandwiches that still sat on the plate, nibbling at it. Outside she heard him murmuring little noises at that goat she’d glimpsed, but at least he wasn’t singing to it in any goaty way. She smiled at the whimsical thought.
The Doctor abruptly came in very businesslike, brushing past her, not to do anything with the box of dirt he’d been so interested in only a few moments ago, but to stuff what appeared to be his own handkerchief into a clean glass jar. He patted his pockets, finally pulling out a small chemical testing kit he’d apparently brought along from the lab.
“Jo, in light of what I’m now supposing will be the nature of our visitors, I’ll need a candle,” he said, adding a little water and holding the jar with its wet bit of cloth in it up to the afternoon light that came through the window. He dropped something in with a dropper. “Hm-hmm. One of those short ones off of that kitchen table would do. Some cider vinegar, if it’s available, and I think a bit of rubbing alcohol. Clean cheesecloth, a knife, a good sized bottle of whiskey or similar spirits, cinnamon, a bottle of lemon juice — or any citrus really… lemon would be best, a few whole cloves… yes, that’ll do for a start.”
Jo nodded and quelling her curiosity about the sudden rush and the strange collection of oddments so abruptly requested, headed for the house. She was afraid she’d forget most of it if she didn’t.
Mrs. Byrne shook her head over the generous collection of household goods that she was helping Jo pile into a canvas sack. She only balked at one thing.
“Whisky?” the lady’s eyebrows narrowed a bit suspiciously as she held the two dusty bottles she’d pulled from the back of a cupboard. “I don’t see why anyone needs something like that for anything to do with bees. If he’s wanting a nip, why doesn’t he just say so?”
“I don’t think he’ll be drinking any of it, Mrs. Byrne,” Jo said patiently. “Whatever he’s testing it must need something with the high alcohol content.”
“He’ll be the one with high content,” the woman said, unconvinced. “I’ve seen the excuses men use. Pretending it’s just for medicine, saying they need it to clean the tractor engine, all that sort of nonsense.”
“All right,” Jo said, resigned. “That’s all right.” She reached for her purse and dug inside it for keys.
“What are you doing?”
“Driving to town,” Jo said. “I have to get him what he needs for his work, it’s part of my job.”
“Oh, now…” the lady blustered uncomfortably, following her. “I won’t be sending you out, not to have you going to buy liquor, a young lady alone in one of those places?”
“I’ll be fine,” Jo assured her. “Really, don’t worry.” Leaving her hostess at the steps, she ran out to Bessie, trying to remember how far it had been back to the nearest town. She was halfway into the seat when she jumped back out, realizing she hadn’t taken the rest of the items out to the Doctor yet, or even told him she would be leaving. Going around the house rather than through it, she slipped through the gate and nearly ran right into Mrs. Byrne again.
The round little beekeeper was clutching the heavy canvas bag of goods that clinked with bottles. She looked a bit abashed. “I admit I’m right glad to see you haven’t gone yet. I, well, I suppose it’s all right. Here you are, but you be a good girl, and tell your man he’s not to be tempted by it. I won’t let him in the house if he’s drinking, I won’t. My man had to sleep outside, and that’s the rule my house still abides by.”
Jo gave her a little impulsive embrace. “Thank you, Mrs. Byrne! Thank you.”
Coming back into the shed with her treasures, Jo was surprised to find the little goat with its legs comfortably tucked beneath it sitting on the bench inside. The Doctor was sitting beside it, one hand stroking its back in a comforting manner.
“Oh,” she said. “Well, look who came to visit!” She hefted the bag onto the work surface and turned to have a closer look.
“In more ways than one,” the Doctor said softly. “Don’t worry, she won’t hurt you.”
“What?” Jo, who had been reaching out a hand to scritch its head stopped. He’d been talking to the goat.
The little kid turned its eyes from the Doctor to her and she gave a startled gulp, stepping back in surprise. They weren’t goat-eyes. They were too round, too dark, too almost-human, like those of a wide-eyed child in a darkened room.
They were alien.