Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart climbed out of his Land Rover and looked through his binoculars at the bleak Welsh mountain ahead. Five hours ago, UNIT bases in Germany and Switzerland had picked up signals from two spacecraft approaching earth. Four hours and forty minutes ago it had become apparent that the two craft were involved in some sort of battle between themselves. Thirty minutes after that, one of the craft had exploded – but not before it had briefly skimmed earth's upper atmosphere and released a smaller craft – assumed to be an escape pod.
The tiny craft had been tracked as it fell, and now the British arm of UNIT had been despatched to find it – and whatever or whoever was inside it. The Doctor, unfortunately, had gone off in the TARDIS with Miss Grant; the Brigadier was on his own with this one.
"Lucky it landed all the way out here," he said to Captain Yates, who had already ordered the troops in the trucks at the back of the little convoy to disembark. "If it had touched down in the middle of a city we might have had some trouble explaining it."
Yates nodded agreement, his eyes focussed on the landscape, no doubt picking out the best routes up the mountain, and identifying cover should they happen to need it.
"Map!" he called, and his driver handed it to him through the Land Rover window. Unfolding it on the vehicle's warm bonnet, the Brigadier placed his binoculars on one corner to keep it from flapping about in the breeze and held the bottom of the map with a gloved hand as he studied the contours on the paper, comparing them with the section of track they had just turned onto. "So, we're here," he said, pointing to the narrow brown line that denoted the minor road that had brought them this far, "And tracking estimates the UFO came down… just here." He double-checked the co-ordinates, and nodded. "Less than a mile, if they're accurate. Now, I suggest we…"
He stopped, as the sudden desperate cry of a distressed infant invaded his senses. He clapped his hands to his ears, but it made no difference: the cry was in his head, he realised, and it sounded exactly like… "Kate."
He knew it was absurd. Kate was nearly seven years old, well past the wailing baby stage, and hundreds of miles away at school, near London.
Yates' concerned tones helped him regain his focus, but the screaming persisted.
"That crying – it's coming from up there," he said, pointing at a rocky outcrop above the tree line.
"Crying?" Yates looked baffled, "What crying?"
"You can't hear that?" The Brigadier looked across at the men who had disembarked from the trucks. Some of them were holding their ears or their heads, one or two had actually started to move towards the source of the noise, but the rest looked bewildered. Raising his voice he yelled, "Who else can hear that baby?"
"I can, sir." Corporal Jenkins clutched his head as he spoke, "Sounds just like my Gareth when he was tiny."
"No, no," Private Watts contradicted him, "Sounds like my Annie."
"Children," said Yates, as another dozen soldiers added different names to the mix, "All of you who can pick up… whatever it is – you all have children."
The Brigadier nodded. "And we're each hearing our own child's crying," he said. In his head, Kate was breaking her little heart, the way she had on that distant night when nothing he or Fiona had done had been able to soothe her. Feeding, burping, changing, lying her down, carrying her about, even singing to her. Eventually, exhausted and desperate with worry, they had put her in her carry cot and loaded her into the car to drive her to the hospital. She had dozed off within minutes, and slept peacefully through until morning when she awoke with happy chuckles while her wrecked parents tried to keep their eyes open for more than a few minutes at a stretch.
"Sir?" Jenkins pointed up the mountain, "We have to get up there. It needs…"
The Corporal finished with a helpless shrug, but the Brigadier understood exactly what he meant. Whatever was making those sounds echo in their heads was in need. But, just as he had never understood what it was that Kate had wanted when she'd bawled the night away six years ago, he had no idea what was needed now.
"Right," he said, "Those of you who can hear the crying – with me. Captain Yates, follow on with the rest of the men at fifty yards distance." He rubbed his forehead, trying to keep his thoughts on the job at hand. "Bring the… the gas grenades," he said, faltering as the screaming in his head intensified, "If you have any reason to believe this… telepathy, or whatever it might be, is adversely affecting us – use them."
The cylinder, which was about six feet long, lay in a patch of heather, its smooth black surface devoid of any markings. It did not appear to have been opened. As the Brigadier approached, he could see that there was a transparent plate of some kind on the uppermost surface, enabling him to see the occupant.
"Lord, that is one ugly baby!" Jenkins said, as he halted on the opposite side of the cylinder.
The Brigadier had to agree. The thing he was looking at resembled nothing so much as a furry Grouper fish which, as he dropped to one knee beside it, placed a tentacle against the transparent cover. "True, Jenkins," he said, looking for a way to open the casing but finding none, "But I think we can assume that its mother loved it."
Watts had joined them. "Something did, sir" he agreed, "Given it's the only thing that was saved from that ship."
"It's scared," said Jenkins, placing a hand on the cover near the little tentacle.
The Brigadier rubbed his head and tried once again to focus. "Yes, I know. Not surprising really, with what it's been through. And I expect we look as strange to it as it looks to us." He stood up, considering his options. It didn't appear to be a threat. On the other hand, they'd been deceived before, and this could be just the vanguard for a full-scale invasion. But surely if the creature had wanted to cause havoc it could have exited the cylinder in the hours before UNIT had arrived and slithered off to who-knew-where. Perhaps it really was what it appeared to be: an infant.
He sighed, wondering if he was about to make the biggest mistake of his life. "Get something to tie around the cylinder," he told the Corporal, "And detail four men to carry it back to the vehicles."
Getting to his feet, the Brigadier made his way down the slope to where Captain Yates stood. "I'm going to proceed on the basis that it's not an immediate danger," he said, "But we'll exercise extreme caution. You take the vehicle we put it in, Yates, and make sure that only men who aren't parents go with you. We'll take it back to the lab at HQ, and make sure it can survive in our atmosphere before we prize that cylinder open. Maybe the Doctor will be back by then – perhaps he'll know what the damn thing is."
"And if he isn't, sir?"
The Brigadier had already considered that, and had been weighing up the consequences of implementing the idea he had in mind. 'Dangerous' was the word that came to mind, and in more ways than one; but he couldn't think of any other options, not if they were to have a security-cleared top-level scientist on hand when they got the creature back to HQ. "Always have a Plan B, Captain Yates," he said.
The door crashed open as Liz Shaw stormed into the UNIT laboratory, and the Brigadier braced himself for the inevitable verbal pasting he was about to get.
He'd missed that voice, and the way she rolled the 'r' when she was annoyed. He sat back against the edge of the laboratory bench and folded his arms, waiting.
"I have been dragged from an important piece of research in my own laboratory, shoved into an army Land Rover which had no apparent means of modern suspension, and given no explanation for being kidnapped beyond it being a matter of life or death," she fumed. "You can't do this to me! Not again!"
The Brigadier wondered if she had any idea how beautiful she looked when she was angry. He'd tried not to notice, back when she worked for him. Back when he was still married and wasn't supposed to have feelings for feisty, attractive young scientists in short dresses. She'd had her hair cut shorter, he noticed, wondering whether she would be affronted if he commented favourably on it and deciding she probably would.
"We have an alien lifeform here, Miss Shaw," he interrupted, when she paused to draw breath, "And I need someone to save it. The Doctor's off on one of his jaunts, and I don't have time to find and security-check anyone else. I'm sorry." He stood up straight and turned to look at the cylinder. The creature inside it had dozed off as they had driven it back to HQ – "Works every time," Jenkins had remarked, as the screams in their heads had eased off to whimpers and then at last to silence – and had remained mercifully asleep for the entire journey. But the Brigadier could feel it beginning to stir now, its distress surfacing as it wakened. Quite how he was going to ease its anguish he didn't know, but perhaps if they could find a way to at least feed the thing it might help – and they couldn't do that while it was still in the cylinder.
Liz, he could see, was intrigued despite herself, just as she had been on that first morning when she'd started work at UNIT. She still looked mutinous, but she threw her bag and coat onto a chair and crossed the room to stand next to him and look through the cylinder's transparent cover. "That's a face only a mother could love," she remarked, "Any idea what it is?"
"Not the first clue," he said, "Except that we think it's a baby."
As she pulled on a lab coat and set about collecting equipment from drawers and cupboards, he explained what they knew so far, "And now it's crying again," he finished, putting his hands to his head as the wailing started up, though he knew the gesture was futile.
"Well," said Liz, adjusting safety goggles over her face before picking up a small drill and a one-way valve, "Let's see if the thing breathes oxygen. Then you can get the cutting equipment in here."
"There." Liz poured a solution of chemicals, egg yolks and soya milk into the metal container they had found alongside the alien, twisted the lid back on, and handed the whole thing to the Brigadier, trying not to laugh at his 'why me?' expression.
Once they'd established that the canister's inhabitant would not expire in a normal earth atmosphere, and opened the lid with a heavy-duty cutter, the creature had latched itself on to the Brigadier, winding two tentacles around his waist and two more around his shoulders, leaving him cradling the thing like a baby in a sling.
"It's hungry," he'd said, glaring at her as though daring her to giggle, "And I think whatever this thing wrapped around its middle is, it needs changing."
Liz hadn't been able to contain herself. "I think that settles any argument about whether it's an infant or not," she'd chuckled.
The metal container had contained just a few drops of fluid, but there had been enough for her to analyse. The Brigadier had yelled for two soldiers named Jenkins and Watts to assist with the changing duties, and had afterward announced, without a hint of a smile, that they were "calling the damn thing 'Squit'".
Now, as Squit wrapped a tentacle around the feeding bottle and latched onto it with the sucker-like protuberances in the middle of its face, Liz asked how long the Doctor was likely to be. As amusing as it was to see the Brigadier playing mother to a furry tentacled alien, she didn't want to get pulled back into UNIT again. She had found it difficult enough to leave last time, she didn't want to put herself through that again.
Dammit, she'd just moved on from that absurd, juvenile crush she'd had, just got over that hopeless, pathetic longing for the handsome married man she'd found herself working for. She'd got past all that! Or at least, that was what she'd told herself, right up to the moment she'd stormed into the laboratory and found him perched on the edge of the bench waiting for her tirade to blow itself out.
She wondered whether he knew how good he looked in that regulation army uniform, and tried to distract herself by asking again when the Doctor was likely to return. "Haven't you any way of getting in touch with him?"
"I thought I'd explained," he said, shifting the weight of the alien from one arm to the other and kicking a chair out from under the lab bench to sit down, "He's gone off in his TARDIS with Miss Grant – she's his assistant these days. They're rather out of radio range, I'm afraid."
"You mean that Police Box? He actually got it working?"
"And it really is a space ship?"
He smiled. "Oh yes. I've been in it. Ended up in an anti-matter universe at the centre of a black hole. Took this place with it – the whole building I mean. Took some explaining to Geneva, I can tell you!"
Liz snorted, her bubble of belief evaporating despite his earnest expression. "Oh really, Brigadier! If the Doctor's taken himself off somewhere and you can't find him, just say so – you don't need to make up fairy stories!"
He sighed. "Yes, that was pretty much the Secretary-General's reaction too."
As he spoke, a hideous shrieking noise started to sound in one corner of the room, growing louder by the second, and Liz turned to see a familiar blue shape materialising in front of her eyes. She stared as it solidified with a dull thud, sparing a glance at the Brigadier who had got to his feet the instant the noise had started. "Talk of the devil," he said.
The TARDIS door was flung open and the Doctor walked out, followed by a young girl in flares and a tank-top who Liz assumed was the assistant the Brigadier had referred to earlier. She barely looked old enough to be out of school.
"Liz!" The Doctor swept toward her and collected her in a hug before standing away at arms length and looking her up and down, "How marvellous! You're looking as lovely as ever, my dear, the new hairstyle suits you."
"Thank you, Doctor, it's good to see you too," she said, ruefully reflecting that in the hours she had been here the Brigadier hadn't even noticed there was 'something different' about her, while the Doctor had commented on her new look within thirty seconds of seeing her. "You got your Police Box working then?"
"My TARDIS," he corrected, "Yes, she's back up and running now. Well, except for that chameleon circuit. Never have been able to fix that. Now, have you met Jo?" He ushered the girl forward, but as he finished the introductions the Brigadier spoke up.
"Doctor! Miss Shaw is here because…"
"Rassilon's horns, Brigadier! Where did you find that?" The Doctor's exclamation stilled everyone in the room, but his next words made Liz's jaw drop. "You must get rid of it, Lethbridge-Stewart! Get rid of it at once!"
Jo Grant's shocked tones told Liz that the new girl was just as shaken as she was by the Doctor's demand. As for the Brigadier, he was actually backing away, his arms cradling the alien as the little monster stopped sucking on its bottle and rested its head against its protector's shoulder.
"I don't make war on children, Doctor," said the Brigadier, his voice betraying hurt that the Doctor could even think he would do such a thing, "This is a baby!"
"Yes," said the Doctor, "A baby Raptograf. Male, if I remember those ear-ruffs correctly. They're a predatory species, Brigadier, and they'll be preying on humanity when they get here – and that's not likely to be very long." He pointed at Squit. "They'll have already homed in on his telepathic calls. Whoever he belongs to will have formed a hunting pack – they'll be coming here in force."
"Whoever he belonged to jettisoned him in an escape pod from a spaceship that was about to blow up," said the Brigadier, "We didn't wander out into the cosmos and kidnap him!"
"No," muttered Liz, "I'm the only one who gets kidnapped around here."
She glared at the Brigadier, but to judge from the twinkle in his eyes and the way the corners of his mouth tugged upwards, he found her remark amusing. He didn't move from the opposite wall though, and she could see he was checking the windows for the easiest way out.
"Oh for heaven's sake, Alistair!" The Doctor sighed, and rubbed his forehead for a moment, while Liz wondered when he had started dropping the Brigadier's first name into his conversations, "I'm not telling you to kill it. Just… get it off the planet!"
"Right-o," said the Brigadier, dryly, "I'll just nip over to the Space Centre and pop him on the next rocket. It should be scheduled to lift off in… oh, about three months?"
The phone rang, cutting off further discussion as Jo hurried across the room to answer it.
"Hello, laboratory?" She paused for a moment, then held out the phone in the Brigadier's direction. "It's for you, Brigadier. UNIT tracking."
Squit appeared to be dozing, and Liz couldn't help but smile as the Brigadier gently removed the feeding bottle from its tentacle and placed it on the lab bench, before moving across the room to take the phone from Jo. "Lethbridge-Stewart," he announced into the receiver. Liz could see by his expression that the message from the other end of the line was serious – perhaps deadly serious – and her smile faded. "I see. How many are there?"
"The Raptografs," murmured the Doctor, "I said they wouldn't waste any time."
"And what's their ETA?" The Brigadier listened for a moment more, then said, "Alright, Corporal, thank you. Stand by." He put down the receiver and looked across at the Doctor. "Half a dozen ships, same design as the two we tracked earlier, all heading this way. Any ideas?"
Liz had protested that there wouldn't be room in the TARDIS for all of them, but the Doctor had brushed her objections aside - "Come on, Liz, the old girl wasn't working when you were at UNIT…" – and ushered her through the doors.
At which point she had stopped dead and stared around in wonder. "But… it's…"
"Bigger on the inside, yes." The Doctor was already bent over the central console, adjusting switches.
"I suppose everyone says that," said Liz, making herself walk around the room in an effort to take it all in.
The Doctor smiled. "Well, the Brigadier managed to break the mould. Otherwise, yes, that is the standard response."
He pressed a lever and the doors hummed closed. A moment later the centre of the console rose and fell, and Liz felt a faint vibration under her boots. Within seconds, there was the same dull thud that had heralded the TARDIS's arrival at UNIT HQ, and the console ground to a halt.
Liz sighed. "I thought you said it was working, Doctor."
"It is," he replied, giving the console a pat, "We're here."
"But…" She looked across at the Brigadier, who was standing on the far side of the console, still holding Squit. "We're in orbit?" He nodded, and she switched her gaze to Jo who was standing beside the Doctor. "On an alien spaceship?"
Jo nodded too. "I've been to much stranger places than this," she said.
The Doctor switched on an overhead monitor, which showed a bland, white-panelled area piled with crate-sized objects that appeared to be the same black material as Squit's escape pod. "The cargo bay, I presume," said the Doctor, "I expect a reception committee will be coming through those doors at any moment. Yes –" On the screen, five large creatures that were clearly the same species as Squit slithered through the bay doors. They were brandishing what Liz took to be weapons and, unlike the baby version in the Brigadier's arms, they all sported several rows of pointed teeth. "Right, Brigadier," said the Doctor, as the doors hummed open, "After you."
The Brigadier was used to confronting armed aliens – but usually, he reflected, as he stepped through the TARDIS doors, he was armed too. Granted his revolver was usually ineffective, but it gave him a measure of comfort to be able to fire something, and occasionally the bullets at least slowed the things down.
It didn't help that the Doctor had told him the Raptografs would communicate directly with his mind, that there would be no need for him to say anything. Having Squit invade his head had been bad enough; the idea of one of those teeth-laden adults do the same was… well, uncomfortable to say the least.
He was only a couple of paces from the TARDIS, but the instruction was clear enough.
We found him. We brought him back. The Doctor had told him to concentrate on those two messages; he had also told him it would help if he closed his eyes, but there was no way the Brigadier was going to do that in a room full of alien predators.
"You are a warrior."
A statement, not a question.
"You fight other species."
Only if they try to hurt us. To invade. To take what is ours. I do not fight children.
"You found him?"
We found him.
Images of the day's events flashed through the Brigadier's mind like a film on fast forward, making his head spin. When it finally halted, he found himself on his knees, and Squit was crawling across the open expanse of floor toward the nearest Raptograf adult, who scooped him up and placed him into a pouch on its back. As he watched, a hazy image of Kate appeared in front of him and he reached out to her even though he knew it was some mind trick the alien leader was showing him.
"She is on the planet below."
"Then we will leave. I will mark this system on our charts as 'unfit for consumption'."
"Gratitude – for my nest-brother's hatchling."
The aliens twisted about and slithered out, leaving the Brigadier feeling dizzy and utterly drained. Just before the doorway closed behind them, he'd have sworn he saw Squit look back at him and wave a tentacle.
"Brigadier?" The Doctor helped him to his feet and pulled him into the TARDIS. They went through another set of doors at the far end of the control room, and into some sort of rest area with comfortable chairs set around curving walls. As he sank into one of the chairs, Liz handed him a drink, while the Doctor rushed out again, calling "Just going to get us out of here – don't want to outstay our welcome!"
Alistair sniffed the liquid in the glass Liz had handed him, and took a good swallow, savouring the warm, smoky taste and the appreciating the kick it gave his insides. "Laphroaig?" he said.
She shrugged and pointed to the bottle on a low table in the middle of the room. "Apparently. 1845, according to the label." She sat down next to him and studied his face for a moment. "Are you alright? You look like death warmed up."
He nodded, restraining the urge to reach out and run his fingers through her hair. "I'm fine. It was just a bit… strange."
She laughed. "Strange? Brigadier, you just spent the day nursemaiding an alien baby. We're in a spaceship disguised as a telephone box, which is bigger on the inside than the outside, and you're drinking century-old whisky that the Doctor claims to have picked up fresh from the distillery last month."
He smiled. "Aliens and spaceships are all in a day's work, Liz. That telepathy thing though – something else in my head, reading my thoughts?" He shook his head. "Just a little too weird. Even for me."
The TARDIS juddered slightly and Liz got to her feet. "Sounds like we've landed."
She started to move away from him and as he stood he put out his left hand to catch hers. "Can I buy you dinner?" The words had tumbled out of his mouth before he'd had chance to think too hard, but now she was staring up at him, her mouth open in shock, he fumbled for something else to say. "It's just… I mean… I must owe you that at least, for having kidnapped you away from your work. And you saved Squit's life which actually ended up saving all of ours, so I just thought…"
Liz looked down at his hand holding hers, raised her eyes again to look into his, and for a moment he thought she was going to take him up on his offer. Then she pulled her hand away and her voice, when she spoke, was unhappy. "I'd love to have dinner with you, Alistair," she said, "But I don't think your wife would be too pleased."
She had taken two paces towards the door before he found his voice, and even then all he could say was, "Ex-wife."
She stopped, turned around. "What?"
"Didn't anyone tell you?" He moved forward to stand in front of her. She didn't move away.
"No." She shook her head, kept her gaze somewhere beyond his left arm. "I'm sorry – I didn't know. I didn't keep in touch with anyone. When I went back to Cambridge, I wanted to forget."
She put a hand on his chest, just above the top button of his jacket, and shook her head again. "Not about UNIT." She looked up at him. "About you."
He dared to kiss her then and, as she slid her arms around his neck and pressed her lips more firmly against his, he thought he heard the door open and the Doctor's voice saying "Good grief!"
Or maybe it was only in his head.