Constable Jeffrey Crane, being a man who was not at all interested in why things happened, was becoming excessively bored with all this discussion. He yawned and looked around him, hoping vainly for some intruder or disturbance that he could shoot at. Even a light breeze rustling through the leaves of one of the nearby bushes for instance; anything that would give his itchy trigger finger an excuse for a workout. But there was no such disturbance, much to his disgust. He could never appreciate why his colleague, Constable Black, could interest himself in the causes behind things. As far as he was concerned, George was just showing off in front of the sergeant and this, in his mind at least, highly suspicious looking character they called ‘Doctor’. “’Showing off’ to either of them is not going to gain you that promotion you want so much, George!” Jeffrey thought, unfairly though as Constable Black actually was not interested in promotion – just in doing a thorough job. He yawned again, loudly – loudly enough to be heard by his sergeant. A moment later, he wished he had been a bit quieter, as he drew Catherine’s ire down upon his head, as she turned to look in his direction.
“Constable Crane,” Catherine said, in a withering tone to him. “Your police off-world training, at least, must have given you some semblance of good manners for you to have passed your exams. What you may choose to do in your own time is your business, but while you are on my relief you will recall those good manners and observe them or suffer the consequences!” Her expression was very serious, so he knew she meant what she said. He did not know which consequences in particular she had in mind, but from the look on her face, he thought that they wouldn’t be particularly comfortable. Under the circumstances, he responded with an apologetic, “Yes, ma’am,” and lapsing into silence, continued to stand on guard while the others concentrated on their investigations.
Catherine, her face retaining its serious expression, turned back to the Doctor to see his bright eyes twinkling, a visual indication of his barely-suppressed hidden laughter. His half smile had become a broad grin. “Fantastic!” he said, before becoming serious again and the frown returning to his brow. He seemed to start to look introspectively again and be preoccupied with some weighty problem. Catherine was partly concerned, but mainly irritated that the Doctor was not apparently willing to share his knowledge with the law enforcement group. “After all,” she thought, “We are the ones who will be culpable if this all goes wrong!” The irritation showed on her face, but the Doctor, despite looking in her direction, was not seeing her face at that moment. His thoughts were literally light years away from where they were, trying to remember where, and when, he had seen this type of shrinkage before and more importantly what the outcome had been. “I know I’ve seen this before, but where and when?” he muttered to himself, but just loud enough for Catherine to hear him, albeit unintentional that she did.
Angry at his own lack of recall, his frown deepened and his striking features took on a type of mediaeval look – rather like one of those grotesque imitation-gargoyles seen gracing the stonework of many of Earth’s major universities. Not grotesque due to something fearful, but grotesque in appearing as if he had been drawn as a type of caricature of himself. Of course, it was the frown and the intensity of the anger in his blue eyes together with his high cheekbones that were to blame for the impression. Her irritation abated completely as she looked at him in complete astonishment. The change in him was quite frightening – or would be if she was not a law enforcement officer trained not to let her imagination run away with her! Unusually, though, the change did not detract from his features, merely sharpened their intensity.
He must have been aware she was watching him, because he seemed to return from whichever part of time and space he was ‘visiting’ and smiled at her with a true smile, not a grin. She started to smile back at him – she just couldn’t help herself really. There was something fascinating about the way his smile illuminated his whole face and made his blue eyes shine as if they were a pair of highly-polished, high-quality sapphires; she just had to respond in kind. The Doctor, of course, was almost completely unaware of the effect he was generating, but that was part of his ninth incarnation’s charm. The thought, however, did cross his mind for a moment that Catherine was very attractive when she allowed herself a genuine relaxed smile. Not that she was unattractive otherwise – just that the smile was an improvement over her serious expression. Then Constable Black called his name and the moment was lost.
“Doctor, why is the shrinkage the most interesting?” George asked. He may not have been ‘showing off’ before his sergeant and this strange man they were all following and he may not be looking for promotion. However, he did feel a small bit of pride that his thought had apparently been the most interesting.
“Why do you think it could be the most interesting, Constable?” the Doctor responded to George’s question. Constable Black just looked blankly at him – not because it was unexpected that he be questioned, but because he didn’t have the faintest idea as to why shrinkage would be of interest and couldn’t begin to guess. Observation had always been his speciality, not deduction. That he left to his sergeant. He shrugged his shoulders. Seeing the constable’s blank expression and the shrug, the Doctor sighed inwardly. “Just another stupid ape,” he thought, “not much better than his trigger-happy friend over there.” The Doctor looked over towards Constable Crane who was very ably, and quietly, standing guard while they worked. Jeffrey had apparently taken his sergeant’s words to heart.
“Doctor, it’s because the shrinkage is out of place, isn’t it?” Catherine asked, tentatively. “It shouldn’t be happening.” She thought for a moment, and then added, “At least, it shouldn’t be happening here.”
“Well done!” the Doctor promptly answered, turning back to look at her. He had recognised her unique instinct, logic, determination and sensitivity when he was under arrest, so he was now more than a little interested in her ideas on this subject. He folded his arms and raised his eyebrows, slightly – a piece of body language which in a human could be rather off-putting, but in a Time Lord was meant as encouragement. To the sergeant, who was unaware that the Doctor was not human, it was slightly disconcerting. She looked at him, part apprehensively and part expectantly, waiting for him to continue.
The Doctor explained, “There are many things that can destroy or break down stone or brick walls – both natural and artificial. Erosion, abrasion, high-powered or high-energy weapons for instance.” He paused, hopefully for Catherine to comment, if she wished. He was not disappointed. “Of course!” she said. “We know that there were high-powered weapons used here because of the silky residue on the rubble!” She seemed quite pleased with herself. The Doctor nodded and grinned.
His expression became serious again. “Shrinkage is the key here. The almost complete disappearance of the mortar is a symptom of this. Over time, a certain amount of shrinkage can happen on a large scale due to natural factors, but it is not progressive. Progressive shrinkage of this magnitude of stone or brick constructions can only be caused by one type of agent – any one of a group of bacterial infestations known colloquially, if inaccurately, in this part of the galaxy as ‘sand mining syndrome’. But I’ve never heard of any of these bacteria being within reach of Orion before.”
It was left to Constable Black, who had been following this conversation, albeit passively, to ask the obvious question, “Why ‘sand mining syndrome’, Doctor?”
“Humans always try to explain things in terms that they can relate to easily, Constable. Sand mining in its simplest and crudest form means the sand is sucked in to one end of a machine, processed to extract whatever minerals are being sought and then the waste expelled – and that is basically how these bacteria work. Each of the blocks of the stone archway was made of a compressed mixture of sandstone over concrete. Neighbouring blocks were held together by a strong, yet flexible, sand and water-based mortar. The bacteria devour sand-based compounds – sand, mortar, concrete, sandstone, leaving a thin film of icy slime behind them, which eventually solidifies, contributing to that coldness that you noticed, Sergeant.” The sergeant’s clear hazel eyes started to look a bit like two blocks of ice, themselves, as she thought through the Doctor’s words.
The Doctor left off his ‘lecture’ as both the sergeant and her constable were looking a bit bemused by this information – George, from the information overload itself; Catherine, from the idea of some sand-loving bacteria roaming the galaxy destroying local monuments, buildings, even sandy beaches. She found it offensive, somehow, and asked, “How did the bacteria arrive here, Doctor? You said they were not normally part of this environment.”
He considered whether he would tell her or not, eventually deciding that she should be perfectly capable of working it out for herself. “How do you think they arrived, Sergeant?” he replied.
“I suppose there are two ways an infection can arrive through space – either under its own means or by a carrier of some sort?” The Doctor nodded. Catherine continued. “If this infection is unknown in this vicinity – you said that you hadn’t heard of it this close to Orion before, Doctor?” He nodded again, but did not interrupt her ‘explanation’. “That would make it unlikely that the bacteria arrived without assistance. So a carrier must be involved and the carrier would have had to come from one of the infected areas…..a tour group, perhaps? Or whoever was responsible for the weaponry residue?”
“Well done! Unlikely to be a tour group – your customs and quarantine processes are too strict here for that. We are indeed looking for the source of the weaponry,” the Doctor replied. There was no grin or smile on his face, this time. The implications were far too serious.
(* To be continued….. *)