Maria phoned Luke on her mobile as she and Clyde slipped into the garden of No. 13. He answered straight away.
“I saw your bedroom light on and figured you were on your own,” she said.
“Wait by the kitchen door. I’ll let you in. Mum thinks I’ve gone to bed with a headache.” Maria ended the call and the two of them crept around to the side of the house. Presently the door was unlocked and opened and they stepped into the darkened kitchen. They followed Luke upstairs in half darkness. Hardly any of the lights were on in the house.
“Where’s Sarah Jane?” Maria asked. “The attic is dark.”
“She’s in the drawing room,” Luke answered. “She hasn’t gone up there since yesterday. It’s as if she’s forgotten it’s even there.”
“Let’s go up there, then. We’ll talk to K9 and Mr Smith.” Luke could have pointed out that it was his house, but Maria’s idea WAS a good one. He led the way up to the small flight of steps and the door that closed off the attic from the rest of the house.
It was locked.
“But it’s never locked!” Luke protested.
“Hold on.” Maria pulled out her sonic screwdriver and pointed it at the lock. The word “Alohomora” came to mind. She actually did say it the first time she practiced unlocking things in her bedroom, but it sounded silly and childish. She was the owner of a sonic screwdriver, a very powerful scientific instrument. She was above all of that.
Anyway, the door unlocked and they crept up the dark staircase that brought them into the attic. Luke reached for the light switch. K9 hovered towards them, his metallic tail actually wagging with pleasure. Clyde stroked his ears as Maria went straight to the super-advanced, half alien computer.
“Mr Smith, Sarah Jane needs you,” she said. And that DID feel like magic words as Mr Smith’s keyboards and screen and lots of flashy bits that just looked clever all came on at once and pieces slid out and up and into place.
“Mum is acting really strangely,” Luke said when both of their artificial intelligence friends were ready. “Something happened to her at that school, and she has been totally different ever since. She’s not like HER at all. She’s… someone else. A stranger… an ordinary mother, talking about school shoes and performance table.”
“That’s not even ordinary,” Clyde objected. “My mum never talks about shoes or performances tables.”
“My mum talks about shoes, but not school ones,” Maria admitted. “And my dad thinks performance tables are a terrible way to choose schools.”
“And she really WANTS you to go to the Stepford Academy?” Clyde added. “Seriously, she’s lost her marbles.”
“She’s been hypnotised,” Maria said. “My DAD said it in town this afternoon. She’s totally acting against herself. Only hypnotism could do that.”
“So how do we unhypnotise her?” Clyde asked.
“I can do that,” Mr Smith said. “But you will have to bring her here to me.”
“That’s not going to be a problem,” Maria pointed out. Sarah Jane was calling out to Luke and her footsteps were on the attic stairs.
“Luke, what are you doing up here?” Sarah Jane demanded angrily. “I locked that door for a reason…” She saw the other two there and her expression darkened. “Maria, Clyde? Why are you here? How did you get into the house without my permission? Luke… I am disappointed in you. I thought you were in bed. And instead I find you up here with… Get out, now. Before I call your parents. I should….”
She stopped mid-sentence. Clyde and Luke both looked at Maria as she held her sonic screwdriver up and shone a pulsating blue light in Sarah Jane’s eyes. She stood stock still, frozen to the spot. Luke reached out nervously and touched her arm.
“I’m up to page 133 in the manual,” Maria said. “This is called Pacifier Mode. She’s all right. It wears off in a few minutes. But that’s all the time we need. Help me bring her over to Mr Smith.”
With a little persuasion, Sarah Jane put one foot in front of the other. A little more gentle guidance and she sat in the chair in front of Mr Smith. A drawer slid open. It contained a sort of headset, like a sophisticated pair of stereo headphones, but with an extra piece that came down over the forehead. Luke looked at it warily.
“It won’t hurt mum, will it?
“Of course not, Luke,” Mr Smith responded reassuringly. “I will simply be accessing her brain patterns for the past forty-eight hours and looking for anomalies.”
If anyone else had said that, in any other voice than Mr Smith’s, it would have sounded scary. But Luke put the headset on Sarah Jane’s head. The piece over her forehead lit up with a blue light a bit like the sonic screwdriver. Sarah Jane stared, unblinking at the screen in front of her.
“Ah,” Mr Smith said after a minute or two. “I see the problem. Do not be concerned. Sarah Jane will be all right in a few minutes. But stand back, please, and turned your faces away from my screen for your own safety.”
They did as he asked. None of them were even tempted to peek. The flashes of light that bounced off the walls and glinted off every reflective surface in the room were enough to convince them that turning around WOULD be bad.
Then it stopped. For a half a minute nobody dared turn around, still.
“Luke?” Sarah Jane called out. They all turned and ran to her side. “Maria, Clyde… Oh, it’s good to see you both. I thought… oh, oh dear. What have I….Oh Luke…” She pushed off the headset and stood, hugging Luke tightly. “Oh, I am so sorry. All of you… come here…”
“Are you back?” Maria asked.
“Yes,” she answered. “Though I’m not entirely sure where I’ve been. Oh, I HATE being hypnotised. It’s horrible. That was the worst part of going around with The Doctor. Even HE did it to me once. I HATE it.” She looked around as she tried to think back over the past twenty four hours or more. “It’s all so fuzzy… but… Oh, Maria. I was so rude to your dad. What must he think of me?”
“I’ll sort dad out,” Maria said. “Even if I have to use Pacifier Mode on him. But what about that school? That’s where it happened.”
“I can’t remember anything properly after going with the headmistress. The next I knew, I was driving you all home and talking about what a great school it is and how Luke would do well there. As IF I would really send him there. Park Vale is the best place for him.”
“Can I have that in writing, please, mum,” Luke said. “In case you change your mind again.”
“I won’t,” she promised. “But…”
“I have data,” Mr Smith said. “I recorded the memories that were subdued by the anomaly in your brain, Sarah Jane.”
“Let’s have a look,” Clyde suggested.
“Let me have a cuppa first,” Sarah Jane said. “My mouth is very dry. You’re mind probe has very strange side effects, Mr Smith.”
She made tea. Luke ran downstairs to fetch cake from the kitchen. They all sat almost as if they were going to watch a film.
And it WAS a bit like watching a film. A film that they were seeing through Sarah Jane’s eyes as she walked with the headmistress through the corridors of the school, past finely crafted art and sculpture that made it look a nice place to work and to learn. Then they turned and went down a flight of steps, and things looked quite different. This was the basement, with plain, whitewashed walls and pipes running along the ceiling. On screen they heard Sarah Jane asking where they were going. It was a strange place for the headmistress to have her office.
“There’s something else for you to see first,” said the headmistress. “Come along. It won’t take very long, and afterwards you won’t have any doubts about Beaufort Academy.”
Sarah Jane clearly had a lot of doubts about the door they came to. A heavyset man in dark clothes stood outside it. He looked like a guard, not a teacher. And when she hesitated, Sarah Jane felt his hand on her shoulder. She had no choice but to step through the door.
This room was obviously directly underneath the dining hall where the refreshments were being served. It had the same dimensions, except that the ceiling was lower and it was only dimly lit with green-tinted lights around the top of the walls. The whole space was divided into alcoves with a large computer screen and a chair in each. At almost every chair there was a student. They had large headphones over their ears and they were staring at the screen. There was no keyboard and their hands were resting in their laps. They simply watched the screens, blinking from time to time.
“There’s nothing on the screens,” Maria pointed out as they saw it all through Sarah Jane’s memory. “It’s just a flickering white blur.”
“No,” Luke answered her. “There are thousands of images every second. “They’re too fast to see. It’s like when you spin a spinner with all the colours of the spectrum and you get white.”
“Luke is correct,” Mr Smith said. “I can slow down the data.”
“Do it,” Sarah Jane told him. And on screen everything slowed. It wasn’t immediately obvious, since the students were hardly moving. But the headmistress’s hand as it passed in front of Sarah Jane’s face once, did so extremely slowly. And when Sarah Jane slowly turned to look at another screen, this time they saw images and text, all still passing very quickly, but not so quickly that Maria couldn’t recognise the history text book that was in her school bag.
“But they’ll have finished the whole book in a few minutes at that rate,” she protested.
“Seconds, more like,” Luke added. “300 pages at 100 pages per second…”
“But how do they learn it like that?” Clyde asked.
“Subliminal learning,” said K9. “The images passing by the eyes repeatedly at super fast speed will be imprinted upon the brain even without the eye being aware.”
“Ok,” Clyde conceded. “For geeks and swots. But what about the sports? You can’t make somebody a good footballer like that.”
“Apparently you can,” Sarah Jane answered him. On screen she turned her head again and they saw a boy watching page after page of football techniques, graphic representations of positions on the pitch and models of how to perform set pieces such as penalties and free kicks. “If you take somebody who is already fit and good at the sport and feed them all of that….”
“Nuts to it,” Clyde protested. “No way that’s how they beat us 11-0, by being computer programmed with Ronaldino’s best moves!”
“This way,” said the headmistress and they realised that Mr Smith was playing the data in real time again. “You sit here, Miss Smith. You’re going to watch our Parental Orientation Programme. And when you’re done you won’t have any more questions at all about Beaufort Academy.”
“I have a lot of questions now,” she responded. “And if you think I’m going to sit like a dummy and be hypnotised by….”
The heavyset man’s hand came down over her mouth. Sarah Jane clearly struggled but the headset was put on her and she was forced to look at the screen. Again Mr Smith slowed down the data and they all saw the Parental Orientation Programme, a series of images and text that were meant to convince the parent that Beaufort Academy was the best possible school for their child, and that the staff there were professional and efficient and there was no need for the parent to have any questions or qualms about what went on there.
Seen at ordinary speed, it didn’t actually seem all that convincing. But they could all guess how the repetition of the assurances at super fast speed would work upon the brain. They saw how Sarah Jane had been ‘persuaded’ to enrol Luke in the school.
“She took me to her real office after that,” Sarah Jane remembered. “And I signed all the forms and gave her my credit card. Oh dear, it was a HUGE amount… I wonder if I can cancel it?”
“I will deal with that,” Mr Smith assured her. His screensaver whirled around for a few minutes, then Sarah Jane saw her credit card account on screen and the huge sum paid over to Beaufort Academy was erased and her balance restored.
“That’s very clever,” Maria commented. “Good job my mum doesn’t have access to Mr Smith. She’d be able to go on a shopping spree and then wipe her card clean!”
“That’s WHY your mum doesn’t have access,” Sarah Jane pointed out. “Nor anyone else, either. That’s a very dangerous function, Mr Smith. Please don’t use it again unless it’s an absolute emergency.”
“Very well, Sarah Jane,” he replied.
“Don’t suppose he can access Beaufort Academy’s computers and wipe them?” Maria suggested.
“Negative,” Mr Smith answered. “They are behind deadlock firewalls. Even I cannot penetrate it.”
“Then we have to get in there,” Maria said. “We have to stop them. This isn’t right. I mean, I know it isn’t aliens or anything. But it’s not right. Those kids are being treated like memory sticks, not kids. It’s not right.”
“Yes,” Sarah Jane agreed. “It isn’t right at all.”
“Let’s raid the place, trash the computers,” Clyde suggested.
“I think not,” Sarah Jane immediately replied. “That’s breaking and entering.”
Not that it had stopped her before, she thought. The LAST time a school gave her cause for concern she had got in through a side window using a handy alien device that stopped the burglar alarm going off. The fact that The Doctor and his friends had already broken in through the front door didn’t make it any less illegal, and the fact that the school was being run by aliens would probably not be mitigation in a court of law.
“We need a legitimate reason to be there,” she said. “Then we can just do a bit of snooping around. Difficult now that Luke isn’t going to go there, though.”
“School Challenge,” Maria said. “It’s being recorded tomorrow… They’ll have an audience. We could get tickets…. Mr Smith could get us tickets. He’s even got your credit card details handy!”
“That’s a thought,” Sarah Jane said. Then she smiled widely as Mr Smith accessed the website for the School Challenge programme. Maria smiled, too, but for a different reason.
“See, that’s why I wanted our school to get through,” she said with a squeak in her voice that Sarah Jane had never noticed before. “It’s presented by Jack Benton. He is SO… gorgeous.”
“We should be grateful she didn’t call him a muffin or worse,” Clyde responded. “Look out. Maria is turning into a fangirl!”
“My mum thinks he’s great, too,” she said. “He’s the one thing me and mum DO agree on. He’s GORGEOUS.”
“Yeah, his boyfriend thinks so, too,” Clyde added caustically.
“I know him,” Sarah Jane said in such a deadpan tone that for a long moment there was no reaction. Then Maria turned to her.
“YOU know HIM?” she asked. “HOW?”
“I used to babysit him when he was little,” she answered. “He’s the son of Brigadier John Benton, commander of U.N.I.T. I think his dad was always a bit disappointed that he didn’t join the army. But he seems to have done well for himself. I really ought to catch up on what’s on TV sometime. I never knew he was so well known.”
“Well known!” Maria’s voice had almost reached the pitch where K9’s ears would twitch. “He’s…..”
“Yes,” Sarah Jane said, while she waited for Maria to compose herself. “I think we’ll be able to get into the school tomorrow."
To Be Continued...