Sarah-Jane Smith woke with a disorientated start. Where was she? Why was she so uncomfortable?
More times than she could count that sort of confusion was because she had woken up on the floor of some dungeon or cell as a result of some mishap with The Doctor or, in recent years, one of her own misadventures for which she could blame nobody else.
On this occasion the reason was much more mundane.
She had fallen asleep on the sofa in front of the TV.
On the little table next to the sofa was a cold cup of tea and a note from Sky.
“The play was great. Night night, mum.”
That was why she was on the sofa in the first place. Rani had taken her to a press preview of a new Shakespeare production at the Globe. There was a reception afterwards for hobnobbing and interviewing. They hadn’t been entirely sure when it would have been over, but Sarah-Jane trusted Rani and hadn’t worried about either of them.
But falling asleep so soundly on a sofa that she hadn’t even woken up when Sky got home was a worrying sign.
She was getting old.
“No, I’m not,” she told herself. She picked up the cold tea and drank it anyway. Cold tea was a journalist’s drink, after all.
She looked at the television. It was a flickering square of ‘snow’ after the programmes had ended.
She sat up and groped for the remote, which inevitably wasn’t where she thought she had left it.
“Snow’ on the TV was actually a bit odd. Very few channels, these days, actually shut down like that. Most of them had annoying things like ‘all night poker’ after the scheduled fare, or some kind of rolling ‘preview’ of upcoming programmes. At worst, there might be a twenty-minute advertisement for a golden oldies music box set on endless loop. Of all those ‘fillers’ that one annoyed Sarah-Jane most since she remembered the songs from when they were new and resented the ‘oldie’ bit.
But the point was… TV channels never went off any more.
She found the remote at last and flicked to BBC1, which had all night news, of course. Something about Brexit as usual.
There was nothing wrong with the TV, and nothing wrong with the world. It was still there, behaving normally. Her living room hadn’t been transmitted aboard an alien mothership. Broadcasts hadn’t been blocked by any sort of mysterious forcefield.
Anyone else thinking things like that would be accused of having an overactive imagination. For Sarah-Jane those were real possibilities. But she ruled them out and accepted that her television needed retuning.
Except for a strange feeling that there was something else going on behind all that ‘snow’.
She turned the channel back to where it was when she fell asleep. It was the one that had been running back to back documentaries about how the world’s biggest and longest bridges were built. Not that she was especially interested in civil engineering, but the narrator had a pleasant voice and she found herself learning about compression and tension, and the merits of suspension and box girder bridge building by a kind of mental osmosis.
And at this dead hour of the early morning it was meant to have an hour-long preview of an upcoming nature series with David Attenborough at the helm – the kind of programme that had been on TV since she was twenty. David must feel older than she did these days!
We Are Arriving….
We Are Arriving….
But it was the ‘snow’ again. This time Sarah-Jane looked at it closely. She listened to the hiss of white noise.
Surely there was something there… a voice of a kind. It wasn’t speaking English, or any Human language she knew. If it was an alien language, she ought to be able to make it out. She still had the ability to translate languages in her head bestowed upon her by years of TARDIS travel, soaking up harmless but useful background radiation.
She thought there were odd words she recognised… repeated words that her brain latched onto.
No, she thought. That’s not quite the right translation.
It was more specific than that.
“We is arriving….”
Sarah-Jane laughed softly as she felt herself back in school untangling tenses in French class.
“We ARE arriving….”
On the screen, amongst the ‘snow’ she was sure she could see a shape. It was like one of those ‘magic’ pictures that were briefly in fashion a few years ago. If she concentrated….
No. It failed to resolve into a bunny, or anything else, and looking at it was giving her a headache.
“We are arriving….”
She caught her breath. This was important, and she was thinking about magic bunny pictures.
She left the television on as she went out of the room and walked upstairs.
“It’s time I got a stairlift,” she told herself on the first landing where she used the excuse of looking in on Sky to break the climb to the attic. “No, I don’t. I’m fine.”
She continued up the steeper, narrower, but slightly shorter stairs to the attic. Once, perhaps, a maid might have slept there and trudged up to bed at the end of the day. Now it served a different purpose.
“Good morning, Mistress,” K9 said with an electronic monotone that nevertheless carried a censure for being up at such an unearthly hour.
“Good morning, K9,” Sarah-Jane answered vaguely. “Mr Smith, I need you… quietly, please.”
K9 gave an electronic dog’s impression of being slighted as his rival, the ostentatious alien computer, went through a modified version of his start up routine.
“Sorry, old boy, but I need the extra umph Mr Smith has.”
K9 might have argued the value of ‘umph’ in a computer, but he settled instead for faithful friend mode and sidled up to the armchair Sarah-Jane had placed in front of Mr Smith. She tickled his mechanical ears while waiting for the computer to be ready and for a way to pose the question to occur to her.
“Mr Smith, are there any unusual signals floating about just now… radio waves, TV, subnet… anything.”
“That is not an easy question, Sarah-Jane,” Mr Smith answered. “We are in London. Quite apart from the airports and Transport for London’s communication system, there are thousands of taxis and delivery vehicles with radios, Citizen Band chatter, not to mention broadcast media and Wi-Fi.”
“Yes, I know,” Sarah-Jane told him. For a moment she wondered if ‘We are arriving…’ could just be a plane coming into Heathrow or a taxi declaring that it was right outside somebody’s door.
But no. The language wasn’t anything from any Human communication. She was sure of that much.
“Something that shouldn’t be there,” she insisted. “I’m not sure. Perhaps you’ll know it when you see it.”
“I will do my best, Sarah-Jane,” Mr Smith assured her. “But it may take time.”
“Your best is all I ask,” Sarah-Jane assured him. She sat back and looked at Mr Smith’s ‘busy’ screen until the whirl of colours started to annoy her. She turned wearily to K9.
“Can you detect anything unusual?” she asked him, trying not to sound as if it was a last resort.
“Insufficient data to process the request,” he answered.
“Sometimes, I wish you could just go ‘woof’ at times like this. Like… I don’t know… Timmy the dog from Famous Five who always looked so bright and intelligent, as if he understood everything the children said to him.”
“I do not know any canine called Timmy,” K9 responded. “But the intelligence of this merely organic creature seems exaggerated in my opinion.”
Sarah-Jane laughed softly. A computer brain that could offer an opinion was way beyond any other artificial intelligence currently available on Earth. K9 was superior to any ‘Timmy’ in every respect except stroking his ears.
“I don’t know, K9. Sometimes I feel I’m getting too old for all this.”
“Professor Marius, my creator and first Master, was fifteen years older than you are, and quite capable of continuing his work,” K9 responded. Again Sarah-Jane laughed, this time more confidently. K9 had actually said something that was emotionally helpful.
Better than Timmy, any time.
“I wonder if I ought to telephone U.N.I.T.?” she pondered aloud. K9 didn’t answer the merely rhetorical question. She reached for the phone, then changed her mind.
After all she had nothing to go on, yet.
And, besides, U.N.I.T. were getting very hard to talk to, lately. Kate Stewart was busy in Geneva, and the people at HQ in London were all new, bright, clever young things who were nevertheless very ignorant of the history of the organisation they worked for. One of them actually queried her security clearance last week. Yes, her code was an old one. It was originally issued in 1973, when she was The Doctor’s official U.N.I.T. assistant. Her security level had been raised several times, since, until she ought to have immediate access to the most secret and encrypted files of any sector of the British military services.
She shouldn’t have had to explain who she was to a telephone operator in Surrey before being transferred to an ‘advisor’ in Colchester who spoke to her in the sort of tone the ‘Millennials’ reserved for anyone over forty-five – downright disrespectful – and who had never even heard of The Doctor, let alone any of her associates.
It took, in fact, nearly forty-five minutes before the call was taken by Captain Erisa Magambo, somebody she finally recognised. She, at least, apologised for the delay and agreed with Sarah-Jane’s assertion that the Sontaran battle fleets could have positioned themselves around the planet in the time it took to place her call.
The Captain had given her a direct number that went straight to the Tower of London, but even so, she knew that the person who answered the phone at this time of the early morning probably wouldn’t know who she was.
They probably hadn’t even heard of The Doctor and wouldn’t understand why even the ‘The’ in that title got a capital letter in the classified U.N.I.T. files.
No, it was too soon to call U.N.I.T.
She boiled the kettle and made coffee, taking it to the sofa to drink. K9 whirred quietly and came to join her.
She sat with her coffee and her thoughts about what she may or may not have heard.
It was always possible that she WAS starting to ‘lose it’. She had been in denial about how old she actually was for quite a while, now – at least since she became Sky’s mum, possibly even when she adopted Luke. People who assumed she was his natural mother always did the maths and assumed she was at least ten years younger than she really was, and she didn’t bother to correct them. By now she believed it herself.
But now and again she had odd twinges, or she woke heavy-headed and much less alert than she used to wake.
And now she was hearing things?
No. That wasn’t a sign that she was going barmy. That was the opposite. That was years of experience of knowing something wasn’t quite right in the universe.
After all, why wasn’t the channel broadcasting its usual night-time programmes? Something must be interfering with the signal. And that was strange in itself. With the increase in signals of all sorts from every kind of source, the broadcasting companies spent large amounts of time and money ensuring their signals are crystal clear and free of any interruption. It would actually take something huge to break into a television channel like that.
An inner voice played devil’s advocate, reminding her that there were lots of reasons why a channel should be off air. A power cut at the source, for instance.
But power cuts didn’t happen half as often these days as they did when her U.N.I.T. pass was new. Then there had been strikes, the three-day week, scheduled and unscheduled outages, and weather on top of that. But new technology in the National Grid meant that it had been years since London had any sort of major blackout, and that had been a rogue Silurian in a suburban power station.
No, the more she looked at it, the more likely it was that this was something that needed to be investigated.
She wasn’t senile. Her mind didn’t wander, and she didn’t imagine alien languages coming through her TV.
“Sarah-Jane!” Mr Smith’s alien and utterly synthetic voice disturbed her thoughts after an hour. She put down her slightly cold second cup of coffee and transferred herself back to the chair in front of the huge computer screen.
“Is this the signal you are talking about, Sarah-Jane?” Mr Smith asked. One side of his screen split to show a ‘snow’ covered tv screen with shadows almost but not quite resolving into something solid.
The voices were still very faint, but Sarah-Jane was even more certain that they were real.
‘I can augment the signal, Sarah-Jane,” Mr Smith said.
“Yes, please do that,” she said. The snowy image flickered and the shadows deepened, though they were still indistinct.
But the voice was clear, now. The language was definitely alien, the voice best described as ‘runny’ by Sarah-Jane, who was reminded of the sound of salad cream coming out of a bottle. There was almost certainly a more scientific description of the sound, but that would do for now.
Mr Smith provided a text translation on the other of the screen, but it wasn’t needed. Sarah-Jane could understand it all.
‘We are arriving,” it said, and gave an intergalactic co-ordinate and time. These she DID need help with. K9 was immediately forthcoming, and it was a very interesting result, altogether.
“Has anyone else picked up these signals, yet?” Sarah-Jane asked.
“There have been sixteen calls to the BBC about the break in transmission,” Mr Smith answered. “And nine to the CORECT independent broadcaster. But, I assume you mean sources with any authority. I find no evidence that anyone at U.N.I.T., Torchwood, MI5, 6 or 7, or even the London Metropolitan Police are aware of anything untoward.”
Sarah-Jane made a decision.
“Never mind the people. Inform the computer system at the Tower of London that a cloaked Hrexian ship is going to land in Market Road Gardens, Islington, at exactly three minutes past five. The objective, if it is not obvious from that location, is a prison break.”
Sarah-Jane was pulling on her outdoor shoes and locating her coat and car keys as she spoke. K9 was ready and waiting to join her on her early morning adventure.
So was Sky. She was waiting on the middle landing with her coat buttoned over her school uniform.
“Well, you can’t leave me at home on my own,” she pointed out with perfect logic. “I’m a teenager. I could get up to all sorts of mischief.”
“At four in the morning?” Sarah-Jane queried. But she let her come, anyway.
“A prison break?” Sky queried as they travelled through quiet, early morning streets towards the Borough of Islington. “Pentonville Prison is in that area. But why….”
“Anyone with my level of clearance knows there is a wing of that prison where U.N.I.T. incarcerates alien criminals. They have had a rogue Hrexian as a guest since 2005, when it tried to steal the Crown Jewels.”
“The actual Crown Jewels? Kept at the Tower of London, which is also U.N.I.T. headquarters? That couldn’t have gone well for the thief.”
“It didn’t. Hence the miscreant went to Pentonvile. I must say I’m not sure the practice of imprisoning alien criminals that way is quite in keeping with our idea of due process. They don’t get a real trial, only a military tribunal under an obscure Emergency Provisions Act. Of course, we can’t have public trials for aliens, and it’s the best we can do, but it just doesn’t feel quite ‘British’, if you know what I mean.”
Sky understood better than most teenagers would, but she wasn’t sure what her response should be.
“What do Hrexians look like?” she asked, opting for a question with no moral or social connotation.
“Like one-eyed pale purple dwarfs,” Sarah-Jane answered. “Or maybe goblins. You’d think, to look at them, that they belong in some animation, like Smurfs or Minions, with their own line of cuddly toys and lunch boxes. But actually they are rather vicious and utterly untrustworthy. Born thieves, too. Known across the galaxy for stealing anything not nailed down.”
“Like the Crown Jewels?”
Sarah-Jane parked her car near the mid-Victorian park just around the corner from the late Victorian prison. She extracted her sonic lipstick from her handbag and checked with Mr Smith through her holographic watch. The ship was due any moment.
“Walkies, K9,” she said. Sky grinned and got out of the car, too. For all the world it really was like going for an early morning walk with a dog. Fortunately, it was TOO early for real dogs and their owners. There were a pair of determined looking runners who went by so quickly they couldn’t even have noticed K9’s shape in the shadows.
The runners had left the garden before Mr Smith signalled the imminent arrival of the alien ship. At the same time, a siren disturbed the peace of the neighbourhood.
“What’s that?” Sky asked, nervously.
“It’s the prison,” Sarah-Jane answered. “The prisoner has escaped.”
“How?” Sky asked. Then she felt a strange vibration under her feet and a bulge appeared in the lawn. “No… seriously? An escape tunnel? How corny is that?”
“Very corny,” Sarah-Jane agreed. “Watch. This could be interesting.”
There was another noise, now. It was like a washing machine in final spin, but a little quieter. Sky looked up to see something like a large silver composting bin appear in mid-air above the bulge. A round door opened in the base and a strong light illuminated the bulge. Sky expected it to be a transmat beam, but it was much more mundane than that.
“It’s just a trapdoor to let the escapee in?”
Sarah-Jane laughed and warned K9 to be ready. As the trapdoor widened and the ship hovered a metre from the ground, the grass bulged further and a two-foot-high, purple-skinned, one-eyed creature in a prison issue overall shook soil from itself and grinned widely.
“K9, stasis field around the ship,” Sarah-Jane called out. A bright blue beam emanated from K9’s nasal probe and enveloped the ship. Meanwhile Sarah-Jane’s sonic lipstick did the same to the escapee, rendering it immobile.
“That does the trick,” Sarah-Jane said with a note of satisfaction. Sky looked at her quizzically. The attic had a lot of alien souvenirs, but this one was a bit too big.
But there was no need for that. There were sirens approaching as well as the insistent one from the prison. Soon a convoy of military vehicles and one with ‘HM Prison Service’ on the side were ranged along Market Road. U.N.I.T. people poured across the lawn armed with weapons designed by Torchwood that did a similar job of placing the ship and its occupants in stasis.
“Better late than never,” Sarah-Jane remarked just a little acerbically as Captain Magambo saluted her briskly. “If I could pick their transmissions on my television, your lot should have been on the ball.”
Captain Magambo didn’t even bother to make an excuse for the failure. Under her diection, though, U.N.IT. made up for lost time. The entire spaceship was placed on the back of a tracked vehicle and taken to a low-loader outside the Gardens which had an escort of both military and prison service as the escapee and his would-be rescuers were taken back to Pentonville. A team of U.N.I.T. men set to work repairing the damage to the lawn. The whole crisis was over in less than half an hour. There was no denying the efficiency of the operation.
“Won’t they all just tunnel out again?” Sky asked.
“The cells are being fitted out in six-inch-thick steel,” Captain Magambo answered. “The stuff bank vaults are made of.”
“Well, I’m not sure that’ll keep an alien bank robber in check,” Sarah-Jane pointed out. “But that’s not my problem. I need to get home and make breakfast for Sky before she goes to school. Come on, K9, good dog. Home.”