The stillness in the chamber was like something thick and tangible in the air. Stark’s swaying, ashen-faced figure stood in the doorway, glaring wild-eyed from whatever nightmares the phantoms had played into his mind. Hazelbrook, the technicians, stood frozen, their eyes fixed on the gun. The Doctor, his arm gripped in Stark’s fist, stood frowning at the floor, apparently pondering the possible solutions without much success.
Angela took a careful step forward, her hands held up where he could see them, fingers spread.
“Colonel, please listen. Things aren’t as they seem. We’re not creating those gas creatures you saw, we’re trying to keep them contained...”
“That’s enough!” Stark barked out, jabbing the gun in her direction. “I won’t listen to any more lies. You scientists, I’ve been patient and I’ve taken your advice and look what’s happened. You killed my men.”
“Your men aren’t...”
“Quiet!” He seemed to draw himself into himself and recover a measure of self control. “I’m not going to argue with you, Doctor Castle. Switch off that machine immediately or I’ll do it my way and start shooting holes in it.”
“If you do that,” the Doctor spoke up, acid dripping from his tone, “you will doom the entire human race to a long-drawn out and horrifying death. Is that really what you want written in your obituary?”
That wasn’t going to change Stark’s mind, but at least it distracted him. He tugged at the Doctor’s arm, pulling him off balance, and his lips drew back from his teeth as he pressed the gun into his ear. Angela cast about for an idea and the only one she could think of was a very, very foolish one. There was a time when she would have dismissed it without a thought and tried to think of something more sensible, but this was not that time.
“Colonel...” Her face glowing with sincerity, she spread her arms wider and moved step by step towards him. “I’m sorry, I really am. I know I’ve not been the scientific advisor I should have been. I’ve let you down, I’ve been misled by other people when I should have known better. I should have listened to you, but you confuse me, you always have. You wouldn’t have realised because you never really even looked on me as a woman, sometimes I felt you barely knew I existed. The truth is... I love you.”
Stark’s jaw sagged open, his already confused eyes widening to incredulous circles.
She widened her eyes piteously and continued her advance.
“It’s true. Oh, Colonel, I should have told you this long ago, but I was so afraid.”
She closed with him, running her left hand up the arm which held the gun while her right snaked up to his neck and ran caressingly over his cheek. Stark’s face twisted from one expression to another, disbelief, horror, embarrassment and anger all tumbling over one another in quick succession. He wasn’t buying it of course, not really. But for the time it took his scattered wits to gather enough self-possession to push her away, he was pointing the gun at no one.
The Doctor’s bony fist smacked hard into Stark’s chin, sending him reeling drunkenly away to crash down amongst a stack of electrical spares.
The Doctor tucked his hand into his armpit and sucked his breath in through his teeth as though he had struck his thumb with a hammer. Angela rolled her eyes.
“Oh, pull yourself together, Doctor.”
He glared at her resentfully.
“Next time you can do the punching part and we’ll see how you like it.”
He glanced down at Stark’s crumpled form and kicked the gun away under a cabinet. He looked back at her accusingly.
“Did you just use feminine wiles on him?”
“If you can call that wily.”
* * * * *
Two technicians were enlisted to haul Stark’s unconscious body out of the Sanctum and abandon him on the gravel outside. The soldiers were recovering, but had no fight in them, and were sitting scattered around the grass with heads bowed, replaying in their minds the experience they had just suffered. Only Crombie, his eyes still pink from the tear gas, was on his feet and hurried to his officer’s aid.
“He’ll be fine,” the Doctor advised him. “But you lot had better push off. Remember, what we just made happen, we can make happen again.”
Crombie eyed him warily but without real hostility. He nodded slowly.
“We’ll go, Doctor.”
He gave Angela a little nod of acknowledgement and turned to begin rounding up the men. His powerful voice was lowered to a gentle rumble to steady their shattered nerves and bring them back to reality.
“They’re not going to be gone for long,” Angela said as she walked back into the building at the Doctor’s shoulder. “I know Colonel Stark. He’ll wait as long as it takes to get ready and then he’ll be back.”
The Doctor nodded.
“I know. But I think I may have that covered. I had time for another call after I phoned you.”
* * * * *
The following morning, Angela’s prediction was proven accurate. It had taken that long to have full chemical warfare suits sent from Porton Down and Stark and his men were fully kitted out like astronauts as they approached the Sanctum main entrance for the second time.
“On my mark, follow me straight in,” came Stark’s voice, cracking and spitting over the helmet radios. “I’ll lead the way to the heart of the Sanctum. Once you’re there, smash everything that looks as if it’s powered, especially the large glass ball at the centre of the room. Avoid human casualties if possible but not at risk to yourselves.
“One moment, Colonel.”
The voice which cut across them was a deep, strong sound, not loud but rich with the easy confidence of a voice which is habitually obeyed.
All the soldiers wheeled to find themselves confronted by a heavyset old man, wrapped up warm in a thick brown overcoat, a lean junior officer in dress uniform his only companion. Aged, watery eyes inspected them steadily. One pink-mottled hand clutched the head of a walking stick, the other stroked the remaining thin white whiskers of a sharply clipped military moustache. His shoulders seemed bowed beneath the weight of his large, grizzled head, but his feet were planted squarely on the ground.
Stark bolted to attention, more as though someone had slapped him into that pose than as if by his own decision. His eyes started wide with surprise.