When Brigadier John Benton of U.N.I.T. got Sarah Jane’s phone call he was more than happy to pull strings with his son’s television production company. In fact, so happy it gave Maria, Luke and Clyde a lot of food for thought and none of them could resist asking Sarah Jane some very searching questions as they drove to Beaufort Academy.
“For the last time,” she protested. “Brigadier Benton is not an old boyfriend. Yes, I knew him very well in the old days – He saved my life a couple of times. And I probably saved his more than once. He was a U.N.I.T. officer and The Doctor and I worked very closely with U.N.I.T. back then. He’s a decent man. Very trustworthy. Loyal to Queen and Country… and there’s nothing funny about that, either.”
“But you must have had a boyfriend?” Maria suggested. “All those soldiers around. You must have liked one of them?”
“No, it was a sailor who I really liked. But he’s dead now, so there’s no point in talking about him.”
Sarah Jane’s tone when she said that quietened them all. It wasn’t funny teasing her if it just made her sad. The boys teased Maria instead about Jack Benton. She blushed madly every time his name was said, which they said was going to be a real handicap in their investigation.
“Only if you lot keep saying ‘Jack Benton’ all the time,” she answered. “Besides, I’m kind of expecting to be disappointed. People who look fantastic on TV usually turn out to be quite ordinary in real life.”
“Just think of Sarah Jane babysitting him when he was at the bed-wetting stage,” Clyde told her. “That ought to sort your head out.”
When Sarah Jane arrived at the school and gave her name to the TV security guard in charge of parking, she was immediately directed to the luxury caravan parked at the side of the school. It said ‘Jack Benton, presenter’ on the door and they were admitted before Maria had time to take a deep breath and prepare herself.
“Hello,” said the star of the show, flashing a toothpaste advert smile as he stood up to shake hands with Sarah Jane. “It’s been a long time, Aunty Sarah. You should come and see me more often.”
“Well, I would, if I knew where you were,” she answered. “Seems like you have a busy life these days. These are my young friends. Maria especially wanted to meet you.”
Jack Benton turned the same charming smile and sparkling blue eyes on Maria and she steeled herself not to say or do anything stupid. She was well aware of the two boys making faces either side of her.
“Hello, Maria,” he said. “It’s always nice to meet a friend of Aunty Sarah’s.”
“Nice to meet you, too,” she answered. “But I think you’d better stop calling Sarah Jane ‘Aunty Sarah’ or Luke will die of embarrassment in a minute.”
He laughed. He actually laughed at her little joke. She had made a TV star laugh. She felt as if she could do anything, now.
“Sarah Jane!” The caravan door opened again and another man stepped in. A much older man, dressed in civilian clothes, but with a look about him that suggested a uniform was more usual. “Lovely to see you. I told Jack that you think there’s a problem with this school. He’s very interested. So am I, though of course, unless it is a matter of national security I can’t get U.N.I.T. involved officially.”
“Come and sit down,” Jack Benton said, and brought them all to a nice sofa area. He poured coffee for everyone and then sat, waiting for Sarah Jane to speak. He wasn’t smiling now. He looked very serious. Maria wondered why it mattered to him so much, but he listened carefully as Sarah Jane explained about the hypnotism, the children being taught by subliminal transmissions.
“That’s what worries me,” he said. “This all sounds like cheating to me. There’s nothing in the rules of the Schools Challenge about children being programmed by computer, but it’s hardly in the ethos of the competition. I don’t want our show associated with that sort of thing. It would wipe out our ratings overnight.”
“So you’ll help us?”
“Any way I can. You’re sure that just stopping the recording and disqualifying them wouldn’t do it?”
“We have to put a stop to the whole thing. Your quiz show might be very popular, Jack, but I am sure it can’t be the ultimate objective of all this. We need to find out what that is. Your show is our perfect cover.”
“What is the ultimate objective?” Brigadier Benton asked. “What is the point of making a lot of children clever? Are they really clever, by the way, or is it all just memorisation tricks?”
“That’s what we have to find out,” Sarah Jane answered. “With your help. This is what I think you should do…”
The assembly hall of Beaufort Academy had been turned into a TV studio by a small army of set dressers, prop-men and electricians. The audience of parents and supporters of the two school teams were seated in tiers so that they all got a good view. It didn’t escape the notice of the warm up man that there were very few people supporting the ‘home side’ but he persuaded those that were there to give plenty of cheers to both sides, and make it look authentically impartial.
The two teams were seated at tables made to look like old-fashioned desks for three, complete with ink blots and graffiti ground into the wood. In the middle was the teacher’s desk, empty to begin with as the lights went down and the floor manager called for applause. Then Jack Benton, dressed as an old-fashioned teacher in a gown and mortar board stepped into the spotlight, smiling and waving at the audience, who applauded even more loudly. He took his seat and composed himself to introduce the two teams. The Beaufort Academy team were a boy and two girls in pristine uniforms who gave their names and hardly cracked a smile. Then the Acton High School team were introduced. And the audience were warmly supportive, even though they were puzzled about the stand in team that had been brought in at the last minute. Nobody could remember Clyde Langer, Maria Jackson or Luke Smith ever going to Acton High School.
The headmistress of Beaufort Academy was puzzled, too. She was sure she knew the three from somewhere else. But there wasn’t much she could do about it now that the recording of the televised competition was under way.
Besides, Beaufort Academy was going to win. She smiled as her team captain beat the Acton captain to the buzzer and answered the first ‘starter for ten’.
Sarah Jane and Brigadier Benton slipped out of the assembly hall along with a young man called Hal whose job for School Challenge Productions was ‘key grip’ but who was also a keen amateur boxer in the middle-weight class. Jack Benton had told him to stick with his dad and Sarah and although it wasn’t in his official job description he was happy to oblige the star of the show that paid his wages.
“It’s this way,” Sarah Jane said as they descended the stairs to the basement, just past the modernist sculpture called ‘school uniform’ that didn’t look like any uniform designed for a humanoid life form.
“This is where we might come across some opposition,” she added as they moved as quietly as possible along the basement corridor. Benton signalled to her and Hal to wait as he stealthily looked around the corner. He reported that there was, indeed, a guard on duty, one with the general build and all of the charm of a Sontaran.
“Queensbury Rules,” Benton said to Hal. “But not yet. Let’s try to look like we’re just lost and confused until we get closer.”
Sarah Jane acted lost and confused very well as she walked right up to the guard and asked the way to the ‘little girls room’. The guard blinked, clearly wondering about a grown woman who used such an expression. He told the three trespassers to stay where they were and reached for his radio before Hal knocked him cold with a very finely judged right hook. Benton caught him before he fell and laid him on the floor. He checked his vital signs and judged that he would be unconscious for a good ten minutes.
“That might not be enough,” Hal said. “That’s a code-operated door. Ten keys and six digits in the code. That’s…” He paused, unsure of the maths. “That’s more combinations than you have time for, miss.”
“No problem,” Sarah Jane answered. She had already pushed up her blouse sleeve and opened the top of her watch. She was pressing tiny keys on the hidden pad very quickly. She smiled brightly as the watch beeped in response, then went to the keypad on the doorframe and entered the correct code.
“I was here before, of course,” she said. “Even if they hypnotised me into forgetting it. Mr Smith has all my memories. And he worked out the key code Miss Beaufort put in even though I didn’t know I had seen it.”
“Clever Mr Smith,” Benton observed. “Hal, keep an eye on chummy. If he stirs, give him another thump. I’d do it myself, but I'm not officially here, yet. Besides, I hate to admit it, but I’m not as young as I was. I get a bit of lumbago on cold days. My swing isn’t what it was.”
Hal was happy to oblige. Sarah Jane and the Brigadier stepped over the unconscious guard and entered the computer room. They were both surprised to see it wasn’t empty. There were teachers sitting in all the cubicles, watching a programme going too fast to see with the naked eye, but Sarah Jane could bet it had to do with being the perfect teacher and not questioning Miss Beaufort’s methods.
“What IS it about?” Sarah Jane asked aloud as she found an empty cubicle and reached into her handbag for a small device that made a very satisfying beep and glowed blue like her sonic screwdriver. She attached it to the computer monitor and stood back.
“It’s one of Mr Smith’s portable attachments,” she said. “Like wi-fi, but just connecting this computer system with his database.”
“So that’s how we went wrong at U.N.I.T.,” the Brigadier noted dryly. “We didn’t give the computer a name.”
“You didn’t give it enough love,” Sarah Jane answered. Benton gave her an odd look. “I meant that he’s like a friend,” she added. “Like K9. They both need loving friendship, just like people. What were you thinking of?”
Benton searched for a reply. He couldn’t find one. He was saved by the loud bleep as Mr Smith’s screen saver appeared on the screen, followed by a stream of data, all at a speed they could read.
“So that’s what it was all about?” Sarah Jane said after they had read several pages of it.
“Now that is a matter of national security,” Benton added and reached in his pocket for a radio communicator that he fixed to his ear. He spoke quickly to his subordinate, who was waiting, not too far away, with back up, just in case this did become official U.N.I.T. business. Then he walked calmly to the door. The guard was starting to come around.
“Hired muscle?” he said to him. “Nothing to do with high treason and subversive activities at all?”
“What….?” the guard managed to say.
“Thought not. You have two choices. You can try to fight us, in which case Hal will just knock you on the head again and you’ll wake up in handcuffs. Or you can go sit in this locked room quietly, and later when statements are taken you can tell them everything you know and your co-operation will be taken into consideration.”
The guard rubbed his jaw and decided he didn’t want to be hit again. He stood up and stepped into the room as Sarah left it.
Miss Beaufort was worried. Acton High School were winning. Only by a small margin, but they were winning. All because of a series of picture questions about premiership football teams and their sponsors which the coloured boy had got right. As if that was the sort of thing she expected an academic competition to be about. The other boy had got all the maths questions right, and the girl had proved to be very good at history and popular culture, another area where the Academy were lacking in knowledge. As if knowing who won a celebrity skating contest was intelligent! And she certainly didn’t care that the celebrity who came second was the grinning fool asking these inane questions.
“Fingers on the buzzers for a new starter question.” Jack Benton said. “Which of the two teams competing in tonight’s edition of Schools Challenge is cheating?”
Clyde pressed the buzzer while Beaufort Academy were looking at each other and frowning as if they didn’t understand the question.
“That lot,” Clyde said. “Beaufort Academy. Their headmistress gave them the questions in advance.”
There was a roar of excitement from the audience and a sudden movement at the side of the hall. Miss Beaufort had tried to make her escape, but Sarah Jane blocked her way. She was surprised to feel something metallic clamped around her wrist.
“Electronic cuffs. Move more than five feet from me until you’re released and you get a really nasty electric shock. I really don’t advise testing it.”
Miss Beaufort stood stock still and watched as Jack Benton stood up from his desk and addressed the audience. He explained that the programme office had received information that Beaufort Academy were cheating in several competitions, including Schools Challenge. So his three friends, Maria, Clyde and Luke had stepped in as a planted team. Questions had been fielded that would prove the Academy team had been prepared in advance. There was now enough evidence recorded to prove the deceit.
“So Beaufort Academy is disqualified,” he continued. “Acton High school’s real team will still get their chance, next weekend. We’ll be recording their third round heat against Park Vale, who now qualify as the highest scoring second round losers.”
Jack Benton flashed his brightest smile and the audience broke into spontaneous applause. Clyde, Maria and Luke applauded, too.
“So… it wasn’t just about my competition?” Jack Benton asked later when his father, Sarah Jane and the three bogus competitors joined him in his caravan again. “I mean, it had to be, really. The top prize is only a holiday in Australia for the team and a whole load of top of the range sports and computer equipment for the school. Hardly worth all of that.”
“It was a very long term plan to take over the country,” Brigadier Benton answered. “She had her pupils brainwashed not only into being super brainy, good at sports and everything, but also totally loyal to her. They would pass all their exams, go to the best universities, and then get the best jobs in industry, the military, academia, civil service, government. She would cream the profits once her pupils were CEO’s of all the major corporations, and sooner or later, she would have all the military and government secrets in her hands. Then she could do anything.”
“Power, money,” Sarah Jane noted. “It’s always about one or the other.”
“Treason is what I call it,” Brigadier Benton said. “Not sure how much of it might come out in an open court, though. Chances are she’ll be quietly secreted in a secure mental hospital. The school will be up to the Education Department. They will probably close it down eventually, but they’ll need to put a temporary headteacher in until the parents make alternative arrangements. The official story will be ‘financial irregularities’.”
“This is what your job involves, dad?” Jack Benton said with a laugh. “All these cover ups are in the name of Queen and Country?”
“This is nothing. At least Miss Beaufort is Human. You don’t know what we had to do to cover up the Zygon invasion attempt and the Loch Ness monster swimming up the Thames.”
“Jack, can I have your autograph, now, please,” Maria said. “Before they start on the Zygon story. It’ll bore you to sleep and I won’t get a chance.”
Jack Benton laughed and obliged with a whole bag full of signed souvenirs. His father and Sarah Jane told the Zygon story between them, anyway. Everyone managed to stay awake.