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Doctor Who: Royal Oak, Chapter Five

By Hrolf Douglasson

The Doctor was already on the phone when Tam finally emerged from his bed the following morning. He stared at the plates of greasy bacon, egg and tomatoes that sat on the grubby formica of the kitchen table, and wondered vaguely where they had come from.

“Fathir’s no’ up in th’ morn yet…” he ventured after a moment or two.

“Don’t worry, I can cook!” grinned the Doctor, taking his ear from the handset. “You don’t get much signal here, do you? I had to try every phone I had on me, including Rose’s and Martha’s – and nothing! What do you people here do for communication?”

“Ye’re holdin’ it,” Tam pointed out. “Should I be takin’ one o’ these in tae fathir, then?”

“Mmm – kettle’s hot, too. Didn’t know whether to do tea or coffee.”

Tam snorted a laugh. “I dinna think fathir’s ever even tried a cup o’ coffee!”

“Oh. Well, I’ll do both: how’s that?” The Doctor spun around the kitchen, seemingly aware of where all the necessary ingredients were kept. “I needed to get on to people early,” he explained, “and it seemed a bit bad form not to start on breakfast. Tuck in: I’ve had mine.” The whirlwind stopped for just a moment as the Doctor frowned reflectively. “Mind you, I might be ready for another one…”

“Who’re ye trying to reach?” Tam asked as he picked up a plate and a freshly-steaming mug.

“UNIT, among others – but they’d be my first choice, especially after we saw the Slabs.”

“What, that awful lot from the telly?”

“Who? What? No! No, no, no: this is UNIT: United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, unless they’ve changed it again. I know them, they know me… I’ve got a friend who works with them, Martha – this is her phone.” He waved the device so Tam could see, as if it conveyed more than the fact that he held it. “But there seems to be a problem reaching them – or her. She can’t be on honeymoon again, can she?” He put the various telephones down and jammed his hands into his pockets as he continued to pace the little room. “UNIT are the experts on… well, you’ve already seen the Slabs so I suppose it’s not giving too much away to say that UNIT is an organisation that deals with extraterrestrials… there are others, like Torchwood… but I’m not on such good terms with them right now. UNIT was our better bet… but I just wish they’d get a better switchboard!”

“So after saying all that, ye’ve not gotten through to them?”

The Doctor paused again, and grinned sheepishly. “That’s about the size of it…”

Now it was Tam’s turn to smile. “Ye could ha’ just said so!”

“Sorry. I get a bit carried away: and we need some help with this.”

“I’ll tak this in tae fathir afore th’ eggs go hard,” said Tam as he saw the Doctor’s expression change to baffled frustration. “And then I’ll be back.”

His father was still asleep when he went into the darkened room. He had not taken the news of their findings well – but neither had he appreciated the nearly-empty bottle his son had brought back with him. It had taken the Doctor’s bringing a second, unopened one into view to placate him… and now that one lay empty in the kitchen bin as well. Tam looked down at the old man with mixed feelings. He’d be like a bear with a sore arse when he did finally wake, and like as not he’d still be refusing to accept what he had been told. And now the Doctor was on about extraterrestrials and special army units that dealt with them… which suggested that maybe the little green men were out and about more than folk kenned. And how would this Doctor know about them? Unless he was one of them, perhaps… but then wouldn’t he be able to get through to them? Shouldn’t he have codewords and such? Or was he…

He returned shakily to the kitchen. “You’re one of them, ain’t ye?”

The Doctor looked up with a string of bacon-fat dangling from his mouth. “One of what?”

“The extraterrestrials all these UNIT bueys are designed to deal with.”

“Oh.” The Doctor looked crestfallen for a moment. “That was quick: what gave me away?”

“Just that I ken bueys who’ve been in th’ army, and they’ve never said a thing about any of these set-ups ye just rattled off. So either ye’re in th’ army and a part of this UNIT – or ye ken about ‘em because ye’ve had trouble wi’ them yoursel’.”

“Very good…” The Doctor thought for a moment. “Not all of us are hostile,” he said eventually. “I’m a time traveller: the last of the Time Lords. My people all died in a war – a war we fought to keep the rest of the universe safe. We thought – well, I thought – we’d won that war. Turns out we didn’t. The bad guys are still out there.”

“And yon things doon at th’ pier – they’re the bad guys in your war?”

“What, the Slabs? No: they’re nothing, just cheap labour. They’d have no use for the bodies in the Royal Oak. Question is… who would?”

“There’s nothing to say I ought to even trust you, is there?”

“No, I suppose not – other than that your cows like me, and I did make breakfast.”

“That’s good enough for now, I suppose,” admitted Tam, pulling out a chair and sitting across the table. “So what do we do now? If yer friends are nae answering their phones, it’ll be just thee and me dealin’ wi’ the whole o’ this, then.”

“If we knew what it was, well, yes.”

Tam fixed his companion with a steely gaze. “Ye must hae some idea, man!”

The Doctor matched his look. “Have you any idea how many planets there are out there?” he asked, waving a hand vaguely skywards. “How many galaxies, how many timelines, how many civilisations rise and fall every single day? How many races, species, life-forms, travel through your little sector of space every minute? How many atlases, guidebooks, encyclopaedias, databanks, all contain some sort of reference to your little world? They call it everything from Mostly Harmless to Hostile: worthless to valuable, strategic to inconsequential. Thousands, if not millions, of species know about Earth – and they all have their own little opinion of it. Some want it, some want bits of it, some want to just come and admire the view… and I’ve got no way of knowing which of all these has engaged Slabs to come and retrieve corpses from a sunken ship off a remote group of islands, that’s been there for seventy years or more!” His chin sank onto his steepled hands and his eyes unfocused in thought. “Why now? Why these corpses? What do they have that all the other bodies in the world don’t have?” He looked up. “If I was an alien flesh-eating monster – which I’m not, by the way – why would I want to have all the trouble of getting these men out of the water and out of that ship? There’s fresh bodies being made very day, all over the world: what would these have that all those others don’t?”

“Age?” suggested Tam uncertainly. “Maybe they’re softer for bein’ in the water for so long. Maybe it improves the flavour?”

“Don’t think so… you don’t eat soggy, ancient meat, do you? Yeah, you hang it for a day or two, get the juices to their best… but seventy years?” The Doctor shook his head. “It’s not that, though I’m inclined to agree that it must be age related somehow.”

“Well, why don’t we no’ just go back down there and ask yon Slabs?”

The Doctor grinned. “Because they can’t talk!”

“But they must be driving those bodies somewhere…”

“Yes… yes, they must, mustn’t they? But I don’t want to go charging in anywhere without at least some idea of what I’m likely to find myself facing. The key to dealing with any threat is the understanding of it beforehand.”

“Well, when it comes to chargin’ in anywhere, I’d be inclined to round up a few of the bueys from the pub to gae wi’ us – if only to sort out the Slabs.” He looked quizzically over the rim of his mug. “Just out of interest: how do ye deal wi’ a Slab?”

The Doctor appeared not to hear. “Age,” he murmured, lost in thought still. “Age… so many changes since then…”

“Aye,” Tam agreed with a nod. “Fathir goes on about it all the time. The tellie, of course, an’ cars – or more of ‘em – mobile phones, space travel – ye’d ken all about that one, o’ course… air travel, too, though I’ve no’ flown at all… he can still mind when we got electricity out tae the farm…”

The Doctor’s hand waved slowly, as if groping for something intangible in the air. “You’re on the right line, I’m sure,” he said, “but none of that rings any bells. Anything else?”

“Oh aye, plenty! We’ve no’ even started on the stuff that’s touched us personally yet! Well, mebbe the electricity… but th’ ol’ man’s been in an’ out o’ hospital these past few years, what wi’ his arthritis and his heart disease… I’ve had the tests for that an’ all, ye ken, on account o’ it bein’ genetic…”

The Doctor’s head shot up to stare at him. “Genetics?” he echoed.

“Aye: me fathir an’ me, we’ve got the gene for heart disease…”

“Genetics…” murmured the Doctor in awestruck tones. “Genetics… DNA. Genetic manipulation… there’s plenty of species interested in that sort of thing, and quite a few not above stealing their sample material, either. But it still brings us back to the why of pulling such old corpses out of a sealed – or almost-sealed – ship in such deep waters.” His head sank back onto his hands and his lips pursed thoughtfully.

Tam racked his own brains. “I canna think of much else,” he said eventually. “Maybe it’s the being in the water that does something? There’s no men left on the four Kaiser’s ships still at th’ bottom here: they were scuttled, not sunk, and so they all got off. Most of those ships were recovered, anyway, long before the last war. I think they still take bits of those last four, when they can get ‘em, but it’s no’ easy and the steel gets a good price from what I hear.”

“Why’s that, then?” asked the Doctor idly.

“I dinna ken for sure, but I understand they use it for scientific instruments. Is it something about it being uncontaminated?”

“Uncontaminated? Uncontaminated by what?”

“Well, I wouldna’ ken about that! They date from the Great War, not th’ Second one… so they went down long before anyone invented th’ Bomb, o’ course – and they’ve been down there in the deepest parts o’ th’ Flow ever since. Maybe the water’s kept ‘em free of radiation or something? But they’re older’ n’ the Royal Oak, so I dinna see how this helps us any…”

When the Doctor looked up this time, there was a beaming smile on his face. “Tam,” he said excitedly, “the Royal Oak went down before that bomb was dropped on Hiroshima as well… and it’s about the only wreck from that age that’s accessible and has bodies still on it!”

“And so what difference does that make?”

“It makes a decent motive for some species to be digging inside it,” the Doctor replied. “It narrows down the range of suspects, Tam – but most of the names on the list aren’t ones I’d want to be messing with.” His apparent good mood evaporated almost as swiftly as it had arrived. “We are now in very dangerous territory indeed. I need to get hold of UNIT!”

Tam put his hands flat on the table. “All the time ye’re faffin’ around trying tae get a hold o’ folk who don’t answer their phones is time yon Slabs are pullin’ more o’ those poor men out o’ the Royal Oak! Doctor, man, we canna wait! Ye’ve still no’ explained wha’ these aliens would be wantin’ wi’ those bodies – but that says tae me that it canna be good, whatever it is. Folk around here willna thank ye for dawdlin’ around…”

“Alright then: but this has to be done as I say. It’s bad enough that so many died when the ship went down – I won’t be responsible for any more, and if we go on with this, there’s a good chance that people will die. Lots of people, Tam: people you know, maybe even you yourself.” He turned tortured eyes towards the man sat opposite. “I need you to understand that, Tam: this isn’t any sort of game.”

“Desecrating a war grave is nae a game either, Doctor. Drive me tae the pub when they open: I’ll round up the bueys.”


Royal Oak: Chapter Six