There was still the washing up to do after the hurried breakfast and the departure of the caravan. The house suddenly seemed too big and too quiet, but nobody knew what to say to Alan. All hands pitched in to clean up breakfast, and Alan did not protest. They were all good workers, and in a few minutes the old kitchen was as clean, Alan told them, as a new pin.
"Thank you," Alan said to them. "I suppose we ought to set down exactly what you need to do. You said you came to gather information--well, there's more than enough of that about, now."
"We've already pulled up water samples," Mike told him. "And we've taken samples from the burned structures. Maybe we can analyze just what sort of fire balls those were last night."
Benton spoke up: "I've worked a little with ordnance, sir. I'm dead sure it wasn't just lightning. The lightning triggered it, acted as a detonator--"
"But what else could run from earth to sky?" Jo asked. "Those bolts came right down from the sky."
"I've seen explosive experts work with man-made fire balls," Benton told her. "Sometimes they're created accidentally. It can happen at digging sights and mines. Methane gas is released in invisible clouds, and then something detonates it."
"Would lightning detonate it?" Mike asked.
"Yes sir," Benton told him. "And it would set off a great fire ball. But onlookers might think it looked like the fireball itself was all the same thing as the lightning. I mean, it happens so fast and there's so much brightness to it."
"Aye, but there's no clouds of methane gas in the village," Alan protested.
"There's natural gas about," Benton told him. "Bottled natural gas, kerosene, and cattle, for that matter--"
With a shriek, a fireball hit the house. Jo screamed, recognizing her nightmare from the day before. Fire ran like liquid down the walls of the outer rooms. Before they even jumped up from the table, the place was engulfed in flames.
"There's a cellar escape route! It's earth!" Alan exclaimed. He grabbed both Jo and Mike, who were closest to them, and propelled them toward the cellar door.
The gas oven and stove, engulfed in flames, suddenly exploded. Benton was thrown into the interior kitchen wall just as the flames raced down it from the ceiling. He screamed.
All three of the others turned, but Alan moved the fastest. His muscular arm caught hold of Benton's collar and jerked him to the cellar door.
All three of them acted instinctively, clapping him with their hands to put out the places where his clothes had caught fire. Then they grabbed him and rushed down the stairs with him.
The air was rushing out of the cellar. Alan tried the ancient cellar door. It was jammed in its warped doorsill. He and Mike put their shoulders to it at the same time. The dusty pane of glass in it shattered, but the door held. Up above, they heard the roof cave in.
"That flooring's going to come down next," Alan exclaimed. "Let's go!" He and Mike hit the door again. Somebody from outside was shouting. A rope with a loop on the end was passed to them, and Alan quickly wrapped it around the door knob and tightened it. The basement ceiling turned crimson above them, and swirls of burning embers came down. Jo held onto Sgt. Benton, who had his hands over his burned face. At sight of the burning flooring above, she shrank down, but she was ready to push him out the door. They heard the whine of an engine, and suddenly the door flew open with a spray of wooden flinders from the door sill. They tumbled into the open air, and strong hands pulled them away from the flaming house. Jo let herself be pulled away. She was guided onto the cool grass. People everywhere were shouting. In the background, the roar of the flames told the end to Alan's house and worldly goods.
All four of them were blind from smoke, and coughing. Jo heard Benton's exclamation, "I'm blinded! I can't see!" And then a voice right over her, the voice of the hands who had caught her and pulled her away, said clearly, "I'll be right there, Sergeant! Try to stay calm!"
She opened her smarting eyes, but the Doctor was too busy with the urgency of the situation to notice. He glanced over her quickly to make sure that her clothes were not burning, put his hand against her neck to check her pulse, then saw that her eyes were open. She was still too overwhelmed from smoke to speak, but he said quickly, and quietly, "It's all right. You're safe now. As safe as any of us." He rested his hand on her forehead for one moment, but she saw his eyes flick over the bruise on her eye that he had given her when he'd struck her. Then he hurried to attend to Benton.
Another voice spoke: "Here's water, Miss Grant," the Brigadier said. She took a long drink from a canteen that he held for her, and then she gasped, "Mike? Alan?"
"They're all right," he said. "We're evacuating to the church. Can you stand?"
She thought that she could, but when she did, she realized that she was trembling from head to foot. A wave of heat hit her, and she looked in time to see the house collapse into a flaming pile of debris. To her horror and embarrassment, a sob escaped her, and then she began to cry. It wasn't even for herself or for the nearness of their escape. All she could think of was Alan and his books--the Bibles, the history books, the slim red Psalter that he sang from every morning. And Ruth--all the remains of her that he would have treasured--were now destroyed.
Never at a loss in a crisis, the Brigadier spoke quietly and firmly: "Miss Grant, if you are able to do your duty, I require your help."
"Yes," she sobbed, but she brought herself back under control. "I can., sir," she said more steadily.
* * * *
As a building made of stone, the church seemed the safest place to shelter from the fire bolts. Over the next two hours, a hurried transport took place, in which the few injured were moved to the church, the pews cleared to one end of the sanctuary, and temporary cots and partitions were set up. The Brigadier arranged for the vestibule to serve as commissary and mess. There were a few back rooms, normally used as offices, that he quickly converted: one to a makeshift surgery and one to a briefing room and headquarters.
While this commandeering of the stone building was going on, most of the other villagers cleared out. Even those who had been burned in the fires were not injured so very badly, and by late afternoon they had fled in their cars and trucks as well. Dr. Kirksey--the village general practitioner who had seen to Jo--Alan, and three or four other men remained. Mrs. Haverlea, Dr. Kirksey's nurse, also stayed on.
The radio that had been their link with the outside world had been destroyed, but the Brigadier ordered that the jeep's small radio be removed and set up in the temporary briefing room. Mike and Jo worked on this while Alan went round to the closed shops and found provisions for the remaining few people who were staying.
The coffins had been moved the night before into the basement of the church, and as no more bolts fell from the skies, the remaining men ventured out to dig graves.
The Doctor saw to Benton himself. Benton's most urgent problem was pain from his burns, and Dr. Kirksey ventured out into his office to bring back a supply of drugs and burn medication. But even after the sergeant was treated for the moment, they had to monitor him. Burns by nature can worsen in the first few hours.
He came around in the late afternoon.
"Where am I?" he asked, for his eyes were bandaged over.
"In the church," the Doctor told him. "On a cot. The late afternoon sunlight is coming in through one of the stained glass windows. And Mrs. Haverlea is rummaging around the cartons of bottles that we brought in, trying to arrange them as efficiently as possible. How are you?" he asked.
"Am I blind?" Benton asked with something like a sob.
"Which hurts more, your eyes or your hands?" the Doctor asked him.
"My hands, sir. Lots more."
"That's because your hands have quick reflexes, Sgt. Benton," the Doctor told him. "No, you are not permanently blind. You actually got your hands in front of your face before you hit that wall, and you closed your eyes, too, to judge from your seared eyelids. The burns on your eyes and around your cheekbones are not all that serious, though I know that they must be painful. But it's your hands that concern me."
"What can you do, sir?" Benton asked.
"I can keep out infection," the Doctor told him. "And I can try to minimize your pain. I won't know for another day exactly how serious it is. Would you like food?"
Benton shook his head. There was something pathetic in seeing the big, strapping soldier with his eyes bandaged over, helpless and patient in bed.
"I've got to limit the pain medication," the Doctor told him. "But we can have a go with some acupuncture points."
"Anything you say, Doc. The pain is pretty bad," Benton told him.
"All right. Mrs. Haverlea, would you move that light for me, please. I don't need it any more."
The light was moved away. He struggled to get out of his jacket and to his surprise found that it was taken from him. He turned and saw Jo there. Mrs. Haverlea was at the other end of the sanctuary, still organizing materials.
"Jo," he said quietly.
"Is that you, Miss Grant?" Benton asked.
"Yes, I'm right here. I was so worried for you," she said gently. She looked at the Doctor. "Can I help you, Doctor?"
For a moment he only looked at her, and then he said. "Yes, I may need you. Sit right down there if you will. In Mrs. Haverlea's chair."
She did, and he took up Benton's arm, careful of the bandaged hand, and silently examined it. After a moment he pressed his thumb very hard into the forearm muscle close to the elbow, on the ventral side of the arm. He maintained the pressure, and then slowly eased off, shifting his thumb as he did, maintaining a rotating pressure for several minutes as he looked at Benton and listened for his breathing. He repeated this same operation at several different points on the arm, and after about ten minutes, Benton said quietly, "That does reduce the pain, sir. I feel like I could bear it better."
"We may make it better yet," the Doctor said quietly. He nodded to Jo to show him the time, and she held up her watch for him. He nodded, calculating the time left before Benton could get another dose, and then continuing to the next pressure point. In another ten minutes, the sergeant was asleep.
The Doctor stood up silently and offered her his hand. She stood up and left with him.
Out in the vestibule, Alan and another man were setting up for dinner. Jo looked up at the Doctor. "I'm so glad you're back," she said. "I knew it wasn't you. I knew it wasn't."
"I would never want to hurt you, Jo," he began.
"I know that the person in there who eased Benton's pain is not the same person who attacked me," she said. "Something took you over. I saw it happen."
"It did take me over," he agreed. "But you have met that person before," he told her soberly. "That person would devour you if he could, and me, and everybody else who is left in this village."
"Who is it?" she asked.
"Do you remember the Keller machine?" he asked her.
"Of course," she said. "It survived by creating fear in people and then absorbing the psycho-kinetic energy that they generated. It killed all those people in Stangmoor prison."
"Do you remember what I warned the Master?" he asked again.
"Yes," she said. "That neither you nor he were powerful enough to control it," she replied. "But Doctor, we blew it up. It was never even recovered in the wreckage of that explosion."
"The explosion blew off the casing of the machine," he told her. "It may even have damaged the creature itself. But it has recovered, Jo, and it is far more dangerous now. That machine that the Master built to house it--it served as an interface for the creature to locate human prey. Until the Master gave it a specialization tool, it was never all that powerful, nor very dangerous to humans. This species of creature lives as part of an ecosystem on another world, and we timelords have had to be wary of them because they can home in on us. But humans were pretty safe from them, until the Master showed it what to do, brought it to earth, and built it that interface."
"But the machine was destroyed," Jo said. "We do know that much. Nothing man-made could have survived that explosion we set off."
"The creature has found a new interface," the Doctor told her. "But it has not yet gained control of the interface. It can't localize on specific humans yet, so it creates these natural disasters to generate huge outputs of the type of energy it needs to survive. It terrorizes masses of people to stay fed until it can control its new interface."
"We mustn't let it get a new interface!" Jo exclaimed. "That would be worse than this! It would just destroy people one at a time like it did in Stangmoor! Why, it got so powerful in there that it transmaterialized. It went through walls and locked doors. Weapons didn't affect it. Nothing could contain it." She looked up at him fearfully. "How did it find another interface?" she asked.
"It homed in on me," he told her. "I am its interface."
* * * *
For a stunned moment she only stared at him. Then she asked, "How can it use you as an interface?"
"I'll explain it all to you and the Brigadier and Mike Yates directly," he said quietly. "But for now I am blocking it out. This collar helps me. I think I've got it right now." He tried to smile, then turned to check the meal preparations. "We'd better eat," he said, turning back to her. "And then we'll have our briefing, before nightfall."
She nodded. Unexpectedly, he touched the bruise along her eye, his fingertips as gentle as a feather. "I'm sorry, Jo."
"It's all right," she whispered. Then she smiled up at him. "You black it's eye, and I'll call it square."
"Is there anything else I can do to make it up to you?"
She almost burst out with a laugh. Sometimes his insight into human feeling was startlingly accurate. At other times he was amazingly unaware of the beings he was forced to live with.
Laughing at him would have injured him, so she said, with a sly smile, "Let me go first in line to dinner?"
"Get on with you then," and he did smile at her.
A somewhat labored introduction between the Doctor and the villagers had been made earlier in the afternoon. They could not be blamed for not warming up to him, as his spectral double had been terrorizing them for the last two days. Yet he had participated in the rescue of Alan and the others, and Alan himself was cordial to him. So he moved among the villagers within the boundaries of their toleration. But as Jo followed him with her plate to go and find the Brigadier, she heard several of them mutter in wonderment at her. They would have preferred to see her in the company of Captain Yates or the injured Sgt. Benton.
The Brigadier met them in the sanctuary. "Mrs. Haverlea will see to Benton's next pain shot," the Doctor told him. "We ought to have a briefing."
The Brigadier nodded. After an entire night spent navigating through flooded countryside and a day spent in evacuating a town, he was somewhat haggard. "Just let us get a couple of plates," he said. "We'll join--" He was interrupted by a shout from the vestibule out front.
"Oh, what the--" But he caught himself. They were, after all, in a sanctuary. "Let's go!" he exclaimed.
Out front, they saw that one of the villagers who had left earlier had returned. His face was ghost white, and his eyes staring.
"Oh Alan!" he exclaimed. And to everybody's shock he fell on his knees before the stunned Alan. "Alan forgive me for tellin' you this!" he cried. "Oh, why has this happened?"
"What?" Alan thundered, his face suddenly stark white, but his eyes terrible.
"One of them fire bolts rained down on the caravan from the village! There wasn't any way to get word back to you until just now!" the man exclaimed. "The ways are blocked, and the lines are down, and the air ways have been closed down for fear of the bolts."
The gasp and exclamation of grief from the group of people was nearly as horrible as the wailing at the memorial service had been. The poor man who was bringing the news broke into sobs, nearly hysterical.
"Oh Alan! Mary and Kara are dead, and PC Collins is dead, and all the rest except for the few in the very back of the caravan, those in the luggage van. The rest were incinerated." And he stopped, there on his face before Alan and the others, and sobbed into the worn carpet of the church. "All dead! All horribly dead!"
Jo covered her face with her hands, but she still heard Alan's thunderous wail. He fell to his knees as well. "Oh if they were yours from the beginning, then why have you done this?" he cried. "If they were yours and you gave them life, why did you snatch it away like this?" He went down on his face. "Oh my wife and my children, and all I hold dear! Why have you taken them? Why have you treated them so?"
* * * *
The worst thing of all was to leave them in a time of such need; to retreat into the back office and close them out, to behave with each other as soldiers and intelligence officers and rationally analyze their information and use it to make a plan, instead of staying out front and grieving with them.
Mike's face was so white that he looked almost like a skull, and the Doctor looked weary. The Brigadier resolutely held himself together, meeting the latest phase of the crisis with resolve. Jo didn't really know what to think or what to do. She had told Alan earlier that she had seen death before, but suddenly she felt that she had never really seen death before.
They heard another loud outcry from the sanctuary, as the villagers coped with their shock.
The Brigadier spoke quietly, looking out the window: "There came also another, and said, Thy sons and thy daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother's house: And, behold, there came a great wind from the wilderness, and smote the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young men, and they are dead; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee."
"And Job worshipped," the Doctor added. Then he said, "We know what it is, and we know where it is. All we have to do is find a way to destroy it."
"How do we know what it is and where it is?" Mike asked.
"It is the creature from the Keller machine," the Doctor told him. "It is an amazingly intelligent being, bereft of morals apparently, that once lived upon high frequency energy waves that were generated naturally on its home planet." He came over to the table and sat down. "The Master somehow brought it to earth, created the machine that housed it in Stangmoor prison. That machine provided it an interface with humans," he told them. "Until then, human brain activity was not really noticeable to this creature or to its species. But with the Master's interface, the creature discovered that it could actually stimulate the human brain to give off the frequencies that it required. In Stangmoor prison, it relied mainly upon fear, though until the riots began it was also subsisting on violent fantasies and thoughts of violence. But fear was the easiest thing to induce in the humans around it. It used its interface to interact with humans--to step down its own frequencies to communicate with human brain and nervous activity."
"I thought we destroyed it," Mike said.
"We destroyed its casing," the Doctor told him. "And thus destroyed its interface as well. Perhaps we injured it severely, but it has recovered. It has entrenched itself, and it has processed all the information that it picked up while it was on a direct interface with humans. I think that's what it has been doing these last two years: planning and conserving its strength for the great assault it would make in due time."
"But why hasn't it starved to death?" Jo asked. "Without its interface, how did it live?"
"Well, it may have used its knowledge of the interface itself to adapt better," the Doctor told her. "And we see even now that it is relying on creating mass generations of fear, natural disasters rather than individual and personal illusions--"
"Wait a moment," Jo protested. "It did create an illusion for me. I thought I was trapped in a burning house!"
"Ah!" the Doctor told her. "But it was using its interface, then: Me."
"You? Are its interface?" Mike asked, incredulous. The Doctor nodded.
"The creature simply took me over when the time was right," the Doctor told them. "It operates on an extremely high frequency, and its ability to over write lower, slower frequencies enables it to take over brain activity of those organisms that operate with frequencies high enough to be intelligible to it, but not so high that they can defend themselves against it."
"But why you?" Mike asked. "Why not anybody else?"
"Because my brain activity operates at several high frequencies," the Doctor told him. "Not as high as the creature is capable of, but higher than what humans can sustain. The creature can actually communicate with me, Mike. It cannot really communicate with humans without an interface. It just does things to them to kick up their brain activity to a level that it can use."
"So because it can get into your head and fool with things, it's trying to make you its interface," the Brigadier said. "You become the bridge from it to us."
"Yes," the Doctor agreed. "While I was chained to the hospital bed, it used me to raise the great Sphinx, and through me it was rewriting the Sphinx's largely passive mind to become much more aggressive and much more responsive to direct telepathic commands. As these operations drained its strength, it continued to create havoc here in the village. And as it learned to use my mind effectively, it created the spectral version of me. Through me, it could fine tune its victims to produce as much energy as possible."
"And you had no knowledge of all this?" the Brigadier demanded.
"If you're asking if I could see what was going on or if I knew what was happening, the answer is no," the Doctor told him. "When it made itself manifest to me, I understood some of what was going on. The rest I've figured out from these events and from the notes I made after the events in Stangmoor prison."
The Brigadier sat down. "How do we fight this thing?" he asked. "How do we find this thing?"
"It has to rest periodically," the Doctor told him. "That was how I got away from it. I escaped to my TARDIS during its resting phase. It couldn't reach me in there. And now, this thing 'round my neck is keeping it out."
"But what does that tell us?" the Brigadier asked. "It operates at a signal so high that we cannot jam it. It's impervious to explosion and fire. We don't even know where it is!"
"Of course we know where it is!" the Doctor exclaimed. "Within one or two square miles, anyway."
"We do?" Jo asked.
He looked around at the three of them. "Haven't you been listening? I thought I told you it had difficulty detecting human brain activity because the frequencies are so low."
"Yes?" the Brigadier asked.
"Well if it's attacking this village," the Doctor said. "It must be here, nearby I mean. It's somewhere in the village, generating fear and destruction."
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