Tom Branson had been living in a grand English house for long enough now, but sometimes he still took refuge in the Grantham Arms for some comparative peace and quiet, either after the estate work was done or to get a bite to eat there at midday. Not that he didn’t get glances and muttered comments and the like here, too, but at least he knew what the rules of the game were and he could have a pint without any fuss.
He’d only just walked over to the bar to get the landlord’s attention when he saw the man glance behind him suddenly. Tom could hear the shifting movements of the few other regulars in the place, as they also turned to look. Instinctively, he did the same.
A girl was standing in the doorway — a short, pretty girl, wearing the most outrageous dress he’d ever seen. It didn’t just reveal her knees — it went a whole lot higher, and was only a thin sleeveless thing anyway, despite the weather outside. No wonder she’d attracted everyone’s attention, even aside from merely being a woman in a public house.
“I’m looking for the Doctor,” she said, out of breath. “I don’t know if any of you have seen him in here, but —”
One of the men moved over to her. “No, love. And we don’t want your sort in here, either.”
“Speak for yourself!” someone else called out. “You can come over here with me, pet, I don’t mind.”
Tom considered ignoring the situation for one, brief moment, but she’d asked for a doctor, for God’s sake, were none of them even listening? He turned around and walked over, getting between her and the first man before he could forcibly remove her from the pub.
“Hey,” said Tom, “I think the lady said she was looking for a doctor.” He turned to the lady in question. “Is somebody hurt, miss?”
She swung around, and gave him a glare that nearly made him step backwards. Then she sighed. “Not a doctor — the Doctor — he was supposed to be here. You can’t miss him anyway — he’s always getting himself into trouble, and then there’s that stupid cricketing outfit —”
“Well, he hasn’t been in here this afternoon,” said Tom. “I’ve only just got here myself, but you can be sure of that.”
“How would you know?”
Tom grinned and nodded over at the few pub regulars in the bar room. “They’d still be talking about it otherwise. We don’t get many visitors in this place, ‘specially not lost cricketers out of season. I know the village well, though — I could help you find him, if it’s important.”
“Believe me, it is. You have no idea,” she said, and then gave him a smile. “Thanks. I’m Tegan, by the way.”
Before he could follow up by giving his name in return, something else entered the pub. It wasn’t even vaguely human, or any kind of animal he knew. It stopped in the centre and snarled at them — a fantastical, scaled lizard-like thing, shorter than a man, but armed with sharp teeth and claws and a bad attitude.
“What the hell —?” Tom let his voice trail away as he stared blankly at the impossible creature.
It bounded onto the nearest table and hissed at everyone. Suddenly, loose objects started flying around the place, as if it had conjured up a pet whirlwind. People started yelling and running for the exits, while he stood there, next to Tegan, still gaping.
“Oh no,” she said. “I knew it! I knew one of them got away!”
Tom grabbed at her, partly in alarmed instinct, and partly to try and shield her from the missiles. That dress wasn’t going to be any protection once there was broken glass flying about.
“This is why we have to find the Doctor,” she shouted in his ear.
Tom ducked a flying beer mug, and hastily dragged her down with him under the nearest table as more of the regulars made their escape. “You know what that thing is?”
“Yes, worse luck,” Tegan said, still keeping her voice raised to be heard above the row. “Look, what’s important is that we need to destroy it before it hurts someone!”
“If it’s escaped from a zoo or something, maybe we should just, er, corner it?” said Tom. He risked looking back over at it, poking his head out from under the table, and lost conviction as to that idea. It was more like some kind of devil than any part of the animal kingdom he knew.
Tegan pulled a face at him. “It’s a nice thought, but they’re completely vicious. Trust me on that.”
“So, any idea how we get rid of it?”
Tegan grabbed at something on the floor beside her — he thought it was a dart — as a couple of chairs went flying past them. “I know what to do. If you could just distract it for a moment, let me get near enough, then I’ll deal with it.”
“Distract it? How?”
They both watched as it hissed again, and then leapt up onto the bar, sending more glasses flying. A pint mug hit the floor beside their hiding place with a thud.
“Right,” Tom muttered to himself. “Distract it. You’re sure about this? I don’t want to be in the middle of distracting it and find you’ve legged it. Not that I’d blame you, but I think I need to know in advance here.”
Tegan looked at him. There was a very determined set to her face. It was, Tom thought in wry resignation, an all too familiar expression for someone acquainted with the Crawley sisters.
“You don’t have to. I’ll try anyway — and I’m sure the Doctor will turn up. Well, as long as nothing’s happened to him.”
“Just asking,” said Tom. He took a deep breath and scrambled out from under the table. Then he edged himself towards the door and kicked it shut so the thing didn’t have a handy avenue of escape. He dodged a further missile — a small bottle — and braced himself for the next part.
He ran at the bar and threw himself at the creature, grabbing at it before it had a chance to realise what he was doing. They both fell with a crash behind the bar. Tom landed on top of it, which winded it enough for him to try and keep it pinned down, although it recovered rapidly, wriggling under his hold and trying to bite him.
Where was she? he wondered, as he tried to keep the creature there with increasing difficulty. Maybe she’d gone and he was going to get his head bitten off by this unearthly thing which had much larger teeth — no, fangs — than he’d appreciated from a distance. Oh God, he thought in panic as he struggled with it, it really was going to bite his head off.
It hissed again in preparation for a lunge and he did the only thing he could and punched it as it moved forward. It halted it momentarily, but that was all — he seemed only to have annoyed it. In response, determined to get the better of it, he pushed it down hard, all his weight and resentment behind it. He’d failed too many other times at one thing or another, and he could at least finish off this bloody thing, whatever it really was. It halted its attack, if only for a moment, giving a slight gasp, and it was satisfying to see it react at last. It bit his arm but Tom hung on grimly, still determined not to fail.
Then, suddenly, Tegan was there at last, crouching down beside him. “Hang on,” she said, and stabbed at an odd bulbous lump on the creature’s chest with the dart she’d picked up earlier. The lump burst like a boil — and he could have lived without seeing that, or getting the resulting liquid on his shirt — and the creature heaved a long sigh before melting away, leaving only a large violet puddle on the floorboards, and the dart lying in the middle of it.
Tom breathed out again and then slumped back, shaken, against the bar. “Right, like you said, no problem at all. Not any more of them about, are there?”
“There’d better not be,” she said.
“Well, if that’s how you finish it off, you should have said. We could have fetched the darts team.”
She gave him a look, as if taking proper notice of him for the first time. “Are you all right?”
“I think so,” he said, but he didn’t try to move yet. He wasn’t sure he could. He was beginning to shake slightly in reaction. It wasn’t solely due to the monster — it was an abrupt reminder of other fights he’d been in or hadn’t had the chance to be in, which was sometimes worse. He glanced down at his arm, which was stinging now. The creature had torn the jacket and there was blood seeping through, but it didn’t look too bad.
“Hey, are you sure?” she added, crouching down in front of him, looking at him with concern.
He grinned at her, mostly in light-headed relief that they were both still in one piece. “Don’t worry, I’m Irish — I’ve seen worse.”
“Well, all right, no. Nothing like that. What was it?”
“An alien,” she said and gave an apologetic shrug. “It’s not as impossible as it sounds, believe me.”
Tom tried to make sense of that. He felt certain she didn’t mean ‘alien’ in the way that might be used for him or any other foreigner (her included, probably, going by that unfamiliar accent). He wasn’t sure he wanted to know any more, because any other answer made at least one of them crazy and he had enough problems already.
“Are you all right?” he asked instead, which he should have done before, if he’d thought.
“Oh, I’m okay. I’m used to this sort of thing, worse luck,” she said, holding out a hand to him, and they helped each other up. “And at least we stopped it before —” She shot him a much more serious look, and then shrugged. “Well, we did. This time.”
Tom thought about that, and the damage it could have done if it had headed into one of the cottages, or the schoolhouse or somewhere that wasn’t the Grantham Arms in the middle of the day. He shivered. “Yes.”
“And thanks,” she said. “It’d have been a lot more difficult if you hadn’t helped.” She gave a short smile. “Sorry, I didn’t even ask your name, did I?”
“It’s Branson. Tom Branson. And if I ask anything more about you or that — that thing, will I regret it?”
Tegan laughed. “Probably. It’s the kind of thing that happens when the Doctor’s around. Talking of the Doctor, I should go find him in case he’s got himself in trouble as well.”
“Look, if you’re going out there again,” Tom said, and then coughed, embarrassed, trying to find something to say that wasn’t offensive or interfering, and in the end settled for the most tactful thing he could think of: “It’s cold out. If you want my coat —?” Then he stopped again, remembering that he had an unknown purple substance splattered down the front of it. He’d been trying not to think about that.
Tegan glared at him for a moment, before her resentment died away, and she pulled a rueful face, glancing down at her odd outfit. “We were supposed to be visiting my Grandfather, not turning up here. I should have known by now we’d arrive sixty years too early and a couple of hundred miles out.”
“You’re not making any sense at all, you know.”
Tegan coloured. “Oh, me and my big mouth! Look, I didn’t say that, okay? I’m going to go and find out where the Doctor’s got to, and you can go back to whatever you were doing.”
“Somehow I doubt I’ll be getting a bite to eat in here now.”
They both surveyed the devastation around them. It was impressively thorough: broken tables and windows, chairs lying about everywhere, with shards of glass and spilled beer all over the floor.
“No. Sorry about that,” said Tegan, and they exchanged a guilty look.
“Tegan,” a newcomer said, striding in. He had to be the Doctor she kept talking about, Tom thought. There couldn’t be many people running round Grantham in an odd cricketing outfit like that. There was a slighter, younger man with red hair following him. “There you are! I did tell you to stay in the barn, didn’t I? Turlough thinks one of the creatures may have escaped.”
Tegan grinned. “Too right it did. It’s gone, though. I did what you said, and we got it. Me and Tom here, I mean.”
“Shame about that, really,” said Tom. “If it had stayed in one piece, they could have put the head up on the wall over there. Would have brightened the place up no end — given the regulars something to talk about for years.”
“Sorry,” said Tegan. “Maybe you could keep what’s left in a jar or something?”
The Doctor gave her a reproving look. Tom also recognised that sort of expression only too well and pegged him as another aristocrat, however well-meaning he might be.
“Well, in that case, thank you — er, Tom, did you say?”
“Branson, yes.” Tom said, as the Doctor shook his hand with enthusiasm.
The Doctor beamed and then raised his hat to him. “Then thank you for your assistance, but there’s no time to hang about here — mustn’t keep Tegan’s grandfather waiting!”
“That’s not what you said earlier,” Tegan pointed out. “You were the one who wanted to stay. You were the one who said there was something odd about that barn.”
The Doctor gave her another frown. “Tegan.”
“And I still don’t see why we have to visit Tegan’s grandfather anyway,” Turlough added.
It was his turn to get a reproachful look. “I promised Tegan,” said the Doctor.
The three of them were still arguing over it, although in what Tom hoped was mostly a friendly way as he watched them walk out of the door, leaving him standing in the wrecked bar-room.
“Any idea what the bloody hell that was and what just happened?”
Tom started, and turned to see the landlord cautiously emerging from the backroom. “No. No idea at all,” he said, and beat a hasty retreat out of the Grantham Arms. It was going to be bad enough explaining this back at Downton. It wasn’t as if pretending it was a regular fight would make it any better. And he could just see the Dowager Countess’s face if he started claiming that aliens had landed. He wasn’t sure if she’d even heard of H. G. Wells yet, let alone fiction turning into reality.
“Oh God,” he said under his breath, and wondered if it would have been better if the thing had bitten his head off after all.