Doctor Who: Last of the Gaderene: 50th Anniversary Edition, Page 2Mark Gatiss
The door opened before he could reach it.
Jobey was sad to see the old place go. Everyone was sad, naturally.
He stepped over his tool bag and peered through the diamond-shaped mesh of the fence.
The airstrip stretched ahead, broken and weed-strewn now, with grey parabolic prefabs on either side. Fringed by long grass, with the great control tower just to one side, it wobbled dizzyingly in the heat haze.
He could still imagine the place as it had once been, crowded with aircraft, their engines thrumming with power; knots of young flyers in buff leather sitting around in canvas chairs, waiting for the call to scramble…
Jobey shook his head. Those days were gone. And he wasn’t paid to stand about idling.
Somewhere, not too far away, there was the sound of someone shouting.
Jobey tensed, but the sound cut off.
Despite the heat, he shivered and bent down to pick up his old navy-blue tool bag. He would stop off at the pub for a swift half, he decided, just to reassure himself that everything else was just as it should be. Adjusting his straw hat, Jobey straightened up and sniffed, then set off towards the village, hobnail boots ringing off the road. He could hear the quiet chirrup of crickets in the grass, the lazy drone of a fat bumble-bee as it bounced from flower to flower.
Away towards the horizon, there was a sudden flash of white. Jobey blinked and could see it quite clearly, imprinted on his retina. Summer lightning, he thought, and waited for the accompanying rumble of thunder. None came.
Jobey shrugged off his nostalgic mood and smiled broadly. It was a good day to be alive, even if he was alone on this old, parched lane.
Jobey was not quite alone, however. He met someone on the road. Someone who shouldn’t have been there. Someone with dark eyes and a wide, wide smile. Jobey’s shriek of terror shattered the calm of the summer afternoon but no one heard it over the melancholy cries of the curlews.
Jo Grant gave a little yelp as a dark shadow passed in front of her. She had expected to remain undisturbed, stretched out on a gaudily patterned sun lounger up on the flat roof of one of UNIT HQ’s outbuildings and trying desperately to top up her tan. Her week’s leave had been depressingly short of sunshine and she’d spent most of it reading three-day-old newspapers eulogising Britain’s record heatwave.
Small and very pretty, Jo pushed large, round, green-tinted sunglasses on to her forehead, shaded her eyes and squinted. A man was looming over her, a solid black silhouette against the glaring disc of the sun. Self-consciously, Jo’s hands fluttered to her chest to cover up the skimpy pink bikini she was wearing.
‘Sorry, miss,’ said a familiar voice. ‘Didn’t mean to startle you.’ Jo heaved a relieved sigh. ‘Oh, it’s you, Sergeant Benton,’ she said, flashing a winning smile. ‘Thank goodness for that.’
‘Who were you expecting?’ said Benton, moving to her side, his big, good-humoured face creased into a frown.
‘No one,’ said Jo. ‘No one special. It’s just you never can tell what might be lurking around here.’
‘Thanks very much,’ laughed Benton with mock indignation. ‘I’m not sure I like being thought of as a lurker.’
‘You know what I mean.’ Jo raised a finger and dragged her sunglasses back down over her eyes. ‘It’s either some slimy monster or…’
‘Or the Brig on the prowl.’
Benton lowered a broad hand and promptly lifted the sunglasses clear again. ‘Right second time. The Brig wants to see you.’
Jo made a face and, with a sigh, swung her legs off the sun lounger. ‘He can’t say I didn’t try to find him. My name’s in the log. But when I got here, there was no one about.’
She shrugged on a light summer dress as they made their way across the hot roof. ‘And, anyway, I’m still officially on leave.’
She walked quickly on tiptoe, the scorching asphalt under her feet as hot as she’d expected her Spanish beach to be.
‘The Brigadier’s been away too, miss,’ said Benton, helping Jo on to the metal ladder which ran up the side of the building.
Benton shrugged. ‘All I know for certain is that he’s running a very tight ship today.’
Jo gave a low groan and began to climb down the ladder. The metal was warm under her hands, its hot, rusty stink reminding her of school playgrounds. Benton clambered down swiftly, his big army boots smacking the tarmac as he reached the ground.
‘Where’s the Doctor?’ asked Jo.
Benton gave a small, humourless laugh. ‘I’ll leave the explanations to the Brigadier,’ he said, giving her a cryptic wink and heading off in the opposite direction.
Jo frowned and, pushing at the double doors, made her way inside the building.
She blinked repeatedly, the contrast to the brightness outside making the interior seem unnaturally dark. The water fountain and bubble-hooded phone booth loomed ahead, wreathed in shadow. After a while, she grew accustomed to it and soon found her way to the Doctor’s laboratory.
Jo pushed open the door and looked about her as it swung back into place. The room was hot, stifling and silent. The lab bench with its Bunsen burners and hooked sink taps was in its familiar place as was the hat stand where the Doctor hung his cloak. Three stools had been moved carefully into the corner, forming a neat triangle.
Jo turned at a thudding, buzzing sound close by. A bluebottle was banging itself repeatedly against the windows and she moved swiftly across the room to release it. Warm air filtered inside as she opened the window but the fly continued its pointless attack on the glass.
‘Go on you stupid thing,’ cried Jo exasperatedly.
As she moved across to open another window, she stopped. There was something wrong. The stools were arranged too neatly. The hat stand was bare. The lab bench, usually so cluttered by the Doctor’s complicated electronic lash-ups, was wiped clean. And in the corner permanently occupied by the battered blue shape of the TARDIS, there was nothing.
The empty space yawned like the dusty rectangle left after a painting has been removed from a wall. Jo blinked slowly, then turned as the door opened again.
Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart was standing there, hot and uncomfortable in his uniform. There was a sheen of sweat over his face. He looked Jo in the eye and then glanced down at the floor.
‘That’s right, Miss Grant,’ he said flatly. ‘He’s gone.’
A decaying jet stream had left a wide, wispy track across the cobalt blue sky. Alec Whistler, DSO, Wing Commander, late RAF opened one rheumy eye and gazed at it with some disdain. A small, neat-looking man in his sixties, he was comfortably ensconced in a deck chair in the garden of his cottage, dozing in the afternoon heat, a heavy book spread across his mustard-coloured waistcoat like the wings of a butterfly.
He snapped his eye shut and snuffled to himself, enjoying the warmth of the breeze which stirred at his curly grey hair and the pressed neatness of his summer blazer. His face was deeply tanned except for one whole cheek which was badly scarred and remained white as an aspirin.
Another jet chose that moment to boom across the sky like the echo of a distant thunder clap and Whistler sat up sharply, his beady green eyes fiery with indignation. ‘Blast those things!’ he bellowed to no one in particular. ‘Can’t a fella get a moment’s peace?’
A softer, sweeter voice drifted down the garden in response.
‘Now, now, sir. No need to get yourself into a lather. You were just as bad in your day.’
Whistler smiled to himself as the comfortable plumpness of his housekeeper, Mrs Toovey, hove into view. She was carrying a tray of tea and biscuits. ‘That was different,’ he grumbled in response. ‘We were fighting a war, remember.’
‘I remember,’ said Mrs Toovey gently.
She set the tray down on a table next to the Wing Commander and began to pour the tea. Whistler watched her with quiet satisfaction, enjoying the rich orange co
lour of the liquid and the diffused sunlight filtering through the delicate bone china of the cups.
Whistler slurped his tea and shot another venomous look up at the sky where the jet streams had formed a crisscross grid of cloud. Wild horses wouldn’t get him up in one of those modern things. He’d seen them up close, of course. Fast enough, pretty enough. But not a patch on the crates he’d flown in the forties. By God, they knew how to design a plane in those days. He let his gaze wander across the garden.
It was large and beautifully tended, with a large barred gate at the far end which led directly on to one of Culverton’s small roads. Close to the gate was a bulky tarpaulin which occupied much of the land beneath a cluster of lime trees. Whistler gave it a little smile and then turned as Mrs Toovey began speaking again.
‘Today’s the day, then, sir,’ she said with a sigh.
Mrs Toovey gave a sad smile which creased up the sides of her squirrel-like eyes.
‘The aerodrome, sir. Officially closed as of today.’
Whistler set down his tea cup on the table and shrugged. ‘Oh that. Today is it?’
Mrs Toovey gave him an admonishing look. ‘As if you didn’t remember, Wing Commander. Sitting there, pretending you’re not fussed about it when it’s been getting your blood pressure up, regular as Big Ben, these past six months.’
Whistler harrumphed and fiddled with one of the buttons of his waistcoat. ‘Can’t say I care one way or another now. Country’s gone to hell in a handcart and that’s that.’
Mrs Toovey smiled to herself. ‘Max Bishop says there’s going to be some sort of announcement tomorrow morning.’
‘Max Bishop. At the post office. He says there’s some people arrived and they want everyone to come to the church hall tomorrow at ten.’
Whistler, who didn’t think much of Max Bishop, looked round and frowned. ‘What do you mean, some sort of announcement?’
‘What I say,’ muttered Mrs Toovey, pulling a crumpled tissue from the sleeve of her cardigan. She sneezed suddenly. ‘Ooh,’ she said, dabbing at her nose. ‘Bloomin’ hay fever. There’s nothing worse.’
Whistler cleared his throat. ‘I thought it was all decided. Defence cuts. Aerodrome mothballed. Isn’t that what the men from the ministry said?’
Mrs Toovey shrugged. ‘Max says it’s not the Ministry of Defence that want to talk to us. It’s someone else.’
Whistler stretched back in his deck chair and closed his eyes. ‘Well, I’ve said my piece. No one wanted to hear. So this particular old soldier is going to quietly fade away.’
He crossed his hands over his chest; a splendid figure still with his precisely clipped grey moustache and striped tie.
There was a distinct flash of light between the trees. Both of them saw it and Whistler scanned the sky for any sign of cloud.
‘Storm coming, you reckon?’ he said.
Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart was not having a good day. First, of course, there was this blasted weather. Heat, he maintained, was not good for the military mind. Made everyone far too sluggish. It was, after all, Britain – a cold, wet, sensible sort of place – which had once ruled half the globe. There was a patience and level-headedness that came from living on a damp little island which other countries simply couldn’t match. Hot weather bred intolerance and downright bad temper. No wonder all those Latin countries were in a permanent state of revolution. If Cuba had rain and cricket to concentrate on, decided the Brigadier, Castro would never have had a look in.
Secondly, there was the inactivity. After a particularly busy spell, UNIT had suddenly gone awfully quiet, leading Jo Grant to take leave and the Brigadier feeling like a form master presiding over a summer-term class that had gone on too long. After one morning too many shut up in his stuffy office, he had wandered down to the laboratory to see the Doctor. But when he got there, as the nursery rhyme had it, the cupboard was bare…
The Brigadier rubbed his forehead with a handkerchief and downed a tall glass of lemonade in one go, ice tinkling as he lifted it to his mouth. He set the glass down on the lab bench and swivelled round on his stool to face Jo Grant.
‘So that’s it, essentially, Miss Grant. While you were away on leave, the Doctor simply vanished.’
Jo smiled wryly. ‘Is that why it’s so neat and tidy in here?’
‘Quite. The Doctor never lets the cleaners anywhere near this place. They’ve been making up for lost time.’
Jo chose a stool for herself and sat down heavily. ‘But he’d never just go without saying goodbye. I mean… he just wouldn’t.’
The Brigadier wiped lemonade from the ends of his moustache. ‘Well, he’s free to come and go as he sees fit now, Miss Grant. To be perfectly honest, I’m surprised he’s hung around as long as he has.’
Jo shook her head. ‘No. There has to be an explanation. He’s gone off somewhere in the TARDIS and got held up.’
The Brigadier nodded. ‘Perhaps.’
Jo ran a hand through her unruly blond hair. ‘Everyone else seems to be taking a holiday,’ she said brightly. ‘Why not the Doctor?’
The Brigadier frowned. ‘He’s not exactly the type to take notice of the factory fortnight, is he? I mean, what if something important came up?’
Jo let her gaze wander over to the empty corner where the TARDIS always stood. ‘He’ll be back. I know he will. In the meantime, sir, I think you should mellow out for a bit.’
‘I should what?’
Jo grinned. ‘Relax, Brigadier. The weather’s gorgeous. The summer’s here. Nothing’s going to happen.’
The hand which hovered over the controls was plump, pale and waxy, like a doll’s.
It moved in a swift and silent pattern over the winking panels, depressing delicate, membranous panels and switches. Then two hands were at work, tracing a spiralling red line that rose and fell across a row of small black screens inset in the controls like dark, watchful eyes.
The red line was stationary for a moment and then spread across the screens like a blossoming flower. A detailed map, coloured a luminous green, rose beneath the red tide. Culverton’s church appeared as a full, three-dimensional image. The wave of red light washed over it but its appearance didn’t alter.
At the side of the screens, nine rectangular holes yawned empty, like sockets in a metallic jawbone.
The hands moved towards them and rapidly slotted in eight objects. The ninth remained empty, shadow pooling inside it.
The red light on the screen grew noticeably more intense. Someone moved forward: a bulky shape, dressed in black. Its hands, pale as winter berries, came to rest on the controls, fingers dancing about on the cold metal as though in great agitation. Just visible in the flaring red and green light, something beneath its skin began to shift…
Whistler heard the engines first. Throbbing low and with an almost menacing growl.
She was there again and he was trying to warn her, grabbing her hand and dragging her from the crowded mess bar. He opened his mouth to speak but everything seemed to have slowed down. His voice came out like a wound-down gramophone record.
Any second now and the noise of the bomb would cut out. Then it would fall. Fall as it had that night and take her away again…
The noise of the engine continued. Whistler opened his eyes and, with a start, realised he was in the living room of his cottage. He stayed in his armchair for a moment and then moved to the window, drew the curtain to one side and peered out into the purplish glow of the dusk.
A convoy of lorries was trundling past, the beams of their headlights bouncing off the old stonework of Culverton’s houses. On and on they went, perhaps twenty of them, shattering the warm stillness of the summer night. He stayed by the window, watching the ominous black shapes, until he realised Mrs Toovey had come into the room.
Whistler turned back inside and clicked on a
lamp, throwing a warm orange light around the parlour of his cottage. It was a beamed room, its thick plaster walls hung with horse brasses and large watercolours of old aeroplanes.
Mrs Toovey had taken a seat and was listening, her head cocked to one side, to the rumbling wheels and the occasional hiss of brakes. The small bay windows rattled as the convoy passed by.
‘Well,’ said the old woman at last. ‘What’s all this about then?’ Whistler shrugged. ‘They seem to be heading for the aerodrome.’
Mrs Toovey frowned. ‘These new people Mr Bishop was on about?’
Whistler turned his fob watch over and over in a ruddy hand. ‘Seems likely.’
He cast another glance towards the window. ‘Damned inconsiderate if you ask me.’
They listened to the convoy in silence. Finally, Whistler glanced down at his watch. ‘I think I’ll go for a pint,’ he muttered, slipping the watch into a waistcoat pocket.
Mrs Toovey rose too. ‘All right, Wing Commander,’ she murmured. ‘But…’
Whistler turned round, eyebrows raised.
Mrs Toovey was wringing her hands. She unlocked her fingers and let them fall to her sides. ‘Be careful, sir.’
Whistler gave her a cheerful smile. ‘My dear woman, what do you mean? This is Culverton, you know. And…’
‘And nothing ever happens here,’ she said, completing his familiar maxim. ‘I know, but I mean… the lorries and everything. Mind yourself when you’re crossing the road.’
She raised her hands and gently tightened the knot of Whistler’s tie. He gave her hand a little pat. ‘Of course I will, dear lady.’
Whistler walked into the hallway and selected a tweed hat from the coat rack, then turned back to Mrs Toovey. ‘No need to worry, anyway,’ he smiled and reached over to where a small, battered box lay on the telephone table. He flipped it open and picked something out. ‘I’ve got my lucky charm.’
He held up a small, crystalline object about the size and shape of a rabbit’s foot. It looked like jade and glinted dully in the light from the fire. Whistler dropped it into his waistcoat pocket and a moment later was standing outside the door of the cottage.