The Annual UNIT Picnic
(Third Doctor, Jo Grant, the Brigadier, Capt. Yates, Sgt. Benton, the men of UNIT)
The summer air was inviting and warm, better weather than they had hoped for this weekend in June. Several of UNIT's men happily kicked a ball about in the grass of the park while Jo Grant and Mike Yates took their turn with the badminton net.
"This is more like it," Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart commented. "Nothing like a good picnic to raise the men's spirits."
"More like it? More than what?" asked the Doctor from where he'd been helping unload a couple boxes of sausages and condiments to the tables.
"More like, oh I don't know. At least there's no phones ringing or papers to fill out. I just don't want any interruptions. The rest of the men get their picnic next week, so if you're planning any sort of invasion make sure those alien chaps know to wait til then, will you?"
"What? Alien chaps?" The Doctor raised an eyebrow at him. "Sometimes I wonder what goes on in that mind of yours, Lethbridge-Stewart. You know I've nothing whatsoever to do with these invasions." He shook up a bottle of mustard, opened it and sniffed at it.
"Yes yes. Carry on." The Brigadier dismissed him good-humoredly and rummaged in a sack, pulling out a folded apron.
"Whoops! Sorry, Doctor," Jo called as a shuttlecock dropped into his white curls and caught just over one ear.
The Doctor brushed it out of his hair, considered it for a moment and tossed it back to her with a smile. "Why do you call them shuttlecocks?" he asked.
"I have no idea," Lethbridge-Stewart answered from beside him where he was finishing tying the apron on. Calling out towards Jo's back he commanded "You just keep them off my grill!" He picked up a long-handled spatula and turned to the hot barbeque with a perfect military pivot that belied his attire, ready to do battle with luncheon meats. There was a pause.
"What have you done to my sausages?" the Brigadier groused. He tucked his long spatula under his arm like a swagger-stick and looked at the Doctor accusingly.
"I've made a few improvements," the Doctor said. "See? The fat content is lowered, as is the sodium, and they're even vitamin enhanced. Much healthier."
"Health be blowed, man. It's a picnic!"
Benton, who had been standing nearby edged away as his C.O. began to bluster. The Brigadier's 'Kiss the Cook' apron made it difficult to keep a straight face as it was and he didn't want to get caught in a verbal cross-fire between these two.
The Doctor nudged one of the sausages in question where it lay on the grill. "They'll cook faster too."
"They're GREEN," Lethbridge-Stewart pointed out firmly. "The men will not eat green sausages, Doctor."
"They eat vegetables, don't they? Those are green."
"Vegetables are supposed to be green. Bratwurst is not. They'll think you're poisoning them."
"Not if we inform them of the improvement. The texture, for instance, is much improved. Besides, it'll look well enough with the condiments."
"Oh no. You didn't do something to them too, did you?"
"Lethbridge-Stewart, I'm surprised at you. You should know I would never do anything to harm the health of your men. I assure you all the changes are for the better."
"I doubt you'll even notice the difference."
"What did you do to the mustard?"
"Just a slight rise in the proteins, some mineral supplements. It'll go perfectly with the enhanced sausages, especially if they add the relish."
The Brigadier stared at him. "You've done in our relish too?"
"Done it in? I've 'done in' nothing, my good fellow. You'll like it."
"I sincerely doubt that."
"Where is your sense of adventure?" the Doctor said. "I say, mind if I have a look at that barbeque?"
"Sergeant," Lethbridge-Stewart murmured, gesturing Benton to come closer.
The Brigadier kept his voice down, keeping his eyes on the Doctor where he was now kneeling down, doing something to the base of their barbeque.
"The Doctor seems to have mucked about with our food. I'm sure he means well, but I'm sending you to the store to fetch some unaltered provisions. Just in case."
"I understand, sir."
"Now nip off quietly, we don't want to offend him. Be sure to get some sausages, condiments, a bit of dessert. Pick up something extra for the Doctor; it might help sweeten him up when you return."
Benton kept his voice low, smiling. "Yessir. Chocolate cake, maybe?"
"I trust your judgment," the Brigadier said with a straight face. "Go on now."
Benton strode in what he hoped was a relaxed, casual way to the nearest jeep and climbed in, started it up and headed out towards the town.
"Where's he off to?" The Doctor stood up, brushing off his knees.
"Oh, just running an errand," the Brigadier brushed it off and changed the topic. "What are you doing to our barbeque? Or do I dare ask?"
"It's a monstrously inefficient way to cook food," the Doctor said, successfully diverted. "Look at the heat loss. I've been trying to focus it more efficiently so the heat is directed at your sausages instead of out into the air. Now…"
Sergeant Benton putted into town and pulled into the car park at the local market. There were only a few other cars, a nice sunny summer weekend not being a time anyone cared to waste running errands. He pushed open the glass door to the sound of a small bell and hunted up and down the aisles, gathering mustard, pickles, buns and such. An investigation into the limited selection of meats yielded a large number of bratwurst, bangers, some dubious bloaters and a jumbo pack of frozen chicken patties.
"Having a bit of a gathering?" the matronly proprietor smiled at him from where she was restocking some shelves.
"Yes, a picnic," Benton replied cheerily. "Plenty of hungry men."
"Oh, I know what that's like," she sympathized. "I've four teenage sons myself. Eat like horses they do. Young men?"
"Something like that." Benton added three tubs of coleslaw to his heap and looked about. "Pardon ma'am, but do you have anything like a bakery about?"
"Oh yes, just round the corner there. He'll be closing early, it being a weekend, but he should still be open if you hurry. How about I ring those up whilst you go fetch your bread?"
"Thank you, ma'am." Benton caught himself short of saluting her and went out. The bakery was easily located, and still open. He pulled the door open and paused to breathe the scent of breads and pastries.
"Can I help you?" A round-faced man peered at him from where he was busy wiping things down in the back of the shop.
Benton was considering a generous stack of boxed pies with a sign designating them as being on special. "Yes, thank you. I'll take some of these pies here, I think. What kind are they?"
"Sounds promising. I've a rather large group to feed."
"I'll make you a good deal on the lot of them if you're interested. Been a slow weekend."
Benton considered this. "Done."
The baker beamed at him. "Will that be all, then?"
Benton scanned the glass-topped counter. "Could you box up that chocolate cake there, too? That looks like just the thing."
"What is that?" Jo pointed up into the air just above a large crabapple tree. Yates, who'd been about to lob the next serve her way glanced over and stopped, frowning.
"I have no idea. Looks odd, doesn't it? Doctor! Brigadier!" he called, pointing towards the object.
The thing floated there, silently, looking for all the world like a very large, fuzzy silver-white wad of giant dandelion fluff, or bird's down, a pod of it about twice the size of a large man.
Even as the others began to be aware of it, it began descending, splitting off into smaller bits until most of it was spread out into a sort of cloud. It hovered silently but did nothing else, as if it were simply watching them.
"What is it, Doctor?" called Jo tentatively, "It looks like cottonwood fluff, but it's so big…"
The Doctor was considering it with an intent frown. "Everyone just hold still, be quiet!" he said. "We don't know if it's hostile or not and there's no point in making enemies…." The UNIT men froze.
Some of the downy bits moved down to the scattered shuttlecocks on the grass. Large handfuls gathered around them, lifting them up so they bobbed a couple feet above the ground.
"Interesting. The shuttlecocks resemble themselves…just in plastic…" The Doctor murmured to the Brigadier. "I wonder if they're just looking for something familiar… wait. That rings a bell. I wonder… I wish I could remember…" The Brigadier just looked at him, relying on the Doctor's experience with such things that were outside his own. Hearing him mumble about not remembering wasn't inspiring much confidence.
The Doctor tried stepping forward, raising his hands in a gesture of peace. The reaction was immediate: wads of the fluff rapidly closed in on him, focusing around his white, fluffy hair. Some of them began lifting his curls, waving them about. He held still again, squinting as they came close to his face. He took breath to say something.
As if that had been a signal, the entire ball of the alien down dropped and coalesced around him, lifting him up. Muffled, he couldn't seem to move his arms, he felt his feet leave the ground. But then he remembered.
"Brigadier! Help!" Jo screamed. She ran to the Doctor, flailing without much effect at some of the fluffs with her badminton racquet. She jumped and grabbed at one of the Doctor's legs, continuing to bat at them while clinging to him. The mass of fluff lowered slightly at the addition of her weight than slowly began to rise again. Her call broke the silent caution that still held them.
The Brigadier took a leap and grabbed at the Doctor's other leg, a hefty soldier taking Jo's place in an attempt to add weight. The fluff lowered again then seemed to adjust to it and began edging upward without losing its hold on the Doctor who was now trying to call out to them in a muffled way.
"White!" he was saying. "Make it disperse! Break up the coolers, pillow-stuffing, anything white!"
The Brigadier blinked, not understanding what was being asked. "Pillow stuffing?"
Jo understood. "It wants white, fluffy things! Go on! You heard him!" She grabbed the nearest white styrofoam cooler and unceremoniously tipped the contents out on the grass, kicking it with her boot to break it up and tossing the chunks in the air. Some of the fluff immediately left the Doctor and gathered around the pieces, floating them in the air as it investigated them.
At a gesture, a new soldier swapped places with the Brigadier on the Doctor's leg. "Men! White and fluffy things, in the air! Smash up the coolers! Jones, rip open those cushions!"
The men, used to following bizarre orders without question, went to work and soon all of UNIT's coolers were flying through the air in bits, joined by wads of pillow-stuffing drawn by strong hands from bench cushions and an overstuffed quilt that had been dragged along for cooler-insulation. A feather pillow from one of the trucks was gutted as well, adding goose-feathers to the lot. One enterprising man shot spoonfuls of mayonnaise into the air, each one caught by bits of fluff. The fluff darted from one white wad or chunk to another, seemingly fascinated with it. More and more of it detached from the main body and the air was full of fluff, floating bits of styrofoam and stuffing.
Yates grabbed up one of the spray-cans of whipped cream that had been spilled from a cannibalized cooler and shot it into the air. A noticeable batch of the fluff immediately left the Doctor to swirl around it. He shot more of it and again a larger hunk of it detached to go to the cream, floating it into the air. "Sir!" he called. "It's going for the whipped cream!"
The Brigadier was rapidly whipping at bits of the alien fluff, trying to smack it out of the air with his spatula. "Right! Whipped cream! Man your cans!" Seven men left off tossing chunks of styrofoam to grab up cans of cream as Yates threw them. "Caps off! Shake! Fire! Up and to the left! Fire!" The men with cans in hand shot streams of white cream stringing out into the air. More of the fluff diverted towards it, catching it as it fell to form fuzzy caterpillar-like blobs. As the force holding him was depleted, the Doctor lowered back towards the ground then leveled off still a good five feet above the ground in spite of the efforts of the men still pulling on his legs.
Jo, looking around for anything that might help, ran for the nearest truck and rummaged in its back, emerging with a fire extinguisher. She ran back towards the alien mass, shooting extinguisher powder as she came. Two other men, inspired by her idea ran to pull the extinguishers from the other vehicles and soon the cluttered air was filled with a white foaming haze.
Wide-eyed, Benton suddenly pulled up in the jeep, groceries bouncing around in the back seat. Yates ran at him "Quick! Do you have anything fluffy in that lot?"
"Fluffy?" Benton startled. Fluffy was not a word he normally heard from Yates.
Yates didn't reply, plunging towards the grocery bags, tossing hot-dog buns and mustard in the air as he burrowed like a rabbit. "Pie!" he exclaimed, yanking out one of the coconut-cream pies in its box.
Benton tore his eyes away from the melee going on in the park and helped Yates pull out the pies. He'd ask questions later. Seeing as the Doctor was at the picnic, he expected it had something to do with him, so whatever it was would take too long to learn about now anyway. Yates was yelling about the pies and men were all around him, grabbing them and ripping open the boxes. Somewhere he heard the Brigadier's voice, commanding "Ready! To the left! Fire!" but there was no sound of gunshot, only yells, thumps and flailing.
"Hold pies!" Yates was commanding. "Turn!" A phalanx of six men in summer-wear stood poised and ready, pies in hand. Benton scrounged for an additional pie, glad he'd bought so many and got it into his hand.
"Advance!" They all strode forward, Benton running behind them as he discarded the box from his own pie.
"Just above the Doctor! Fire pies!" Yates and Benton threw with all their strength, joining the others in a frontal assault of eight coconut-cream pies that hit the target as only men well-trained in grenade-tossing can.
The fluff shot towards the mass of pie in the air, dropping the Doctor as it did so. He fell back to the ground atop the two men who still gripped his legs in a splash of cream and fire-extinguisher powder. The alien fluff completely released him, coalescing around the mass of pie, holding it in the air. It suddenly began rising into the air, the last stray fluff-bits shooting over to add themselves to the whole.
The Doctor unceremoniously kicked free of the men and scrambled for the barbeque, nearly toppling the surprised Brigadier in the process. "Stay back! Brigadier, get everyone away from the barbeque!"
"Fall back!" the Brigadier bellowed without hesitation. "Take cover!" he added. He thought he had some notion of what was coming.
The Doctor fished in his pocket, whipping out his sonic screwdriver, and rapidly did something to the barbeque's base, then yanking away the brackets that held it to its stand, banged on it and pulled something else, then ducked and rolled away from it himself.
Everyone, even the Brigadier who thought he knew what was about, had their eyes grow larger as the body of the barbeque launched. The now far-overdone green sausages fell away from it in flaming arcs. With a roar, a tremendous burst of flame came from the base and the entire thing shot upward like a rocket, almost immediately lifting over the tops of the trees and meeting the alien fluff where it was still heading upward, full of pie.
The two met and exploded; a dramatic fireball of barbeque parts, burnt fluff and caramelized pie bits spattering in all directions. Below, the onlookers ducked under picnic tables, umbrellas and trucks as chunks of grill and blacked, ragged pie-tins hailed down around them. The alien fluff was gone, completely vaporized.
The Doctor uncurled and climbed back to his feet, brushing with futility at some of the mess that clotted his jacket. There was a pause.
"All clear," the Brigadier called, clambering out from underneath a nearby picnic table. Men began to emerge from their hiding places, all of them warily looking upward for anymore projectiles. A light breeze was already dispersing the smoke and ash and the air smelt of burnt pie. "Doctor, have you any idea what that was?"
The Doctor rubbed the back of his neck thoughtfully. "I can't remember clearly, but what I do know of them would indicate they were more likely chance wanderers than an indication of any planned invasion. Not deliberate invasion, that is."
"Yates, start the men cleaning this mess up. Sgt. Benton, stand by. No, go fetch those groceries. Go on, Doctor. Do you expect there to be more of these things about? Should we set a watch for them? Are they intelligent?"
"They aren't intelligent, per se, rather they're part of semi-sentient race that is more of a group-consciousness than individual, spreading more by chance travel than by deliberate targeting. Weeds of the universe, you might say."
"Weeds? You mean they're plant life?"
"That pod of them would have used whomever it had for your equivalent of fish-fertilizer, if you will, except the purpose would have been more to gather something of the world that they had entered into, to familiarize themselves with it so they could take root. They seemed to be drawn to anything that resembled their own appearance in a limited way."
"So they wanted someone for a…a sort of template, for earth?" Jo asked.
"Yes. In that sense, it's just as well they didn't gather me, as it would have confused them terribly."
"To take root?" Jo shivered at this.
He gave her arm a comforting pat. "Not directly in people, my dear Jo, but yes. They would have then gone on to take root the ground. But they would have used that person's elements as the catalyst for their spread of a new colony. A bit like dandelions blown by a child."
"Do you think that was the only one?" the Brigadier asked. His serious statement was somewhat marred by the large blob of whipped cream that bobbed over one eyebrow.
"It's unlikely there would be more than one this far from the quadrants they're normally found in. It will be worth checking into once we get back to the lab, but I highly doubt it. They are difficult to gather or direct. An… acquaintance of mine once tried to gather some, thinking to use them as a weapon and they merely scattered, like herding cats."
"So we've been attacked by wayward dandelions and cats?" Jo echoed, with a small smile, trying to lighten the mood.
The Doctor smiled back at her. Humor always made a marvelous antidote to fears. "Well, it does make for an odd picnic I must say. Usually it's the ants absconding with the food not weeds absconding with the people."
"But why did they choose UNIT, then? Why not some English sheepdog convention or some such?" The Brigadier seemed only half inclined to believe the Doctor's reassurance.
"Because they don't think, or target. Not as you or I would. They merely drift. Sheepdogs, Brigadier?"
Lethbridge-Stewart glanced at the Doctor's wild silver-white hair and then looked innocently towards the trucks, where a couple of the men were busy unloading the remaining bags from the store. Another was dragging a portable campstove from the back of one of the trucks and setting it up to replace the ill-fated barbeque.
"I say," Benton interjected, walking up with his arms full of what was left of the groceries. "It looks like you've all had a pillow-and-pie fight followed by a rocket-launch and fireworks. What else did I miss?"
"Nothing unusual, Sergeant," Jo perked at him, taking a bag from his arms. "The Doctor was just doing a bit of weeding."
"Weeding?" He looked at the Doctor, who was wiping pie from his hair and shoulders.
"Never mind," the Doctor grumbled. "And all my sausages ruined," he added seemingly incongruously.
"Is he quite all right?" Benton whispered to Jo.
"Oh yes," she peered into the bag she held. "Oh look, Doctor! Cake!"