Chapter Twenty Three

It was still early in the morning, about two hours (in Earth terms) since dawn. Catherine wondered what the sunrise near the Eye looked like. However, regional operations sites weren’t equipped with windows – not only an unnecessary luxury in a working off-world base, but in some situations they could provide a dangerous weakness in the structure’s shield. She smiled as she realised that a week ago she would not even have thought of sunrises or sunsets, let alone wondered what one was like to look at. “It’s the Doctor’s fault,” she thought. “I’ll never be able to look at or think about a sunrise or sunset in the same way again. I don’t know whether that is a good thing or not!” Catherine shrugged her shoulders and sighed. The Doctor had shown her a side of herself that she had thought was long gone, extinguished during her training as an officer for Central Orion Protection and Security. Still, she wasn’t complaining. “Maybe it is a side of me that should be more accessible,” she thought, as she headed into the multipurpose area that sufficed as entry lobby, kitchen and general reception area combined.

As was usual for her, the sergeant was first to arrive for breakfast. She was normally an early riser and had also found it better for discipline if she had breakfasted before her constables. This morning, though, she had an additional reason for wanting to be first to breakfast – she was hoping to catch an early private word with the Doctor about his immediate plans for the next stage of the investigations at the Eye. But the opportunity was no longer available. Catherine walked past the spot in the common room where the TARDIS had arrived the previous night and was both surprised and disappointed to see that the TARDIS had gone. “I was so sure that he would stay around to see the investigation through to its conclusion,” she thought. She shook herself, as if to cast all thought of the Doctor to the back of her mind and started to fix herself breakfast before either of the constables arrived…..

Catherine couldn’t have known, of course, but the Doctor had dematerialised the TARDIS and headed for the Eye soon after dawn. He had always been a bit restless, particularly when he was on his own. This time was no exception. In fact, since this regeneration, he tended to be even more restless than on previous occasions. While he could have used Catherine’s insights into issues at the Eye, she had returned to her team. “As she should do,” the Doctor thought, with an inward sigh. Whatever this may mean to his plans, he couldn’t wait for her or her team to be available this morning.

The TARDIS scanner indicated quite heavy precipitation had taken place near the Eye overnight, so the Doctor needed to ascertain whether there had been any further damage to either the Eye or the indications of the causes of the Eye’s destruction. He didn’t waste time in determining the exact nature of the precipitation. It was much more interesting just to take a look. Besides, he was never one for speculation. He actually hoped that the precipitation was snow. For both a frivolous reason and a scientific one – frivolous, in the sense that it was a long time since he had seen real snow; scientific, in the sense that it would help preserve the evidence as it was. A good layer of snow would be as good as a blanket of foam or irradiation by the sonic screwdriver for the preservation. However, if the snow started to melt, it could be a real problem.

As the TARDIS materialised near the site of its original landing, its characteristic whining sound was nearly deafening in the still of the early morning. Once the Doctor had closed off the instrument panel, he opened the TARDIS door and walked out, eager to see what he could find at the Eye.

There was a feeling of well-being in the air, almost as if the positive ion generation had returned. But the Doctor knew that was not possible as he had automatically scanned again for ion generation before he even set foot outside the TARDIS. He had vainly hoped that his loop back mechanism initiated at Node Two may have back fed up the line and kick started the process again here. Although it had always been a long shot, he had still hoped that it would be successful here, too. But, unfortunately, there was no ion generation at this node. Still the positive ion feeling was there. He looked around and noticed that the ground around his feet was quite damp. That’s when he noticed the damage to the surrounding trees and realised that there had been a large and furious thunderstorm in this vicinity overnight.

He had identified melting snow as a problem, but a far greater problem had existed that he hadn’t considered – a large quantity of rain being deposited here from the storm. It may or may not have destroyed whatever evidence had been present at the Eye. He noticed also that there was no smell of weaponry residue remaining. Of course, this was only to be expected after a heavy downpour of rain. Whether any of the other signs of high-powered weaponry usage remained was largely academic, as he still had his piece of rubble back in the TARDIS for further analysis, if necessary.

However, the most likely positive outcome from the heavy rain was that it may have just been enough to destroy the ‘sand mining syndrome’ bacteria present there. “Of course,” the Doctor thought, “if we are unlucky, the rain will have just spread the problem further.” The Doctor’s luck in the past had usually held, but he was not so sure this time. But then his emotional shock was such that he wasn’t as sure of outcomes of this sort as he had been in any of his previous incarnations.

The Doctor didn’t waste any more time speculating as to whether the rain had helped or hindered the evidence he was looking for. He quickly walked the short distance to the mound, resisting the strong temptation to splash his way through several large puddles. After all, this was a serious situation which needed to be resolved as soon as possible. As the Doctor approached the mound of damp rubble, he took the sonic screwdriver out of the inner pocket of his leather jacket and set it for detection of ‘sand mining syndrome’ bacteria. He carefully aimed the sonic screwdriver’s beam at the mound, firstly on a narrow, focussed dispersal setting. To ensure that the whole mound was checked thoroughly, he walked slowly around it, aiming the beam over every piece of exposed rubble and every crevice between the pieces of rubble. Nowhere did the sonic screwdriver detect the bacteria.

“That rain was definitely more than just a downpour,” the Doctor thought, pursing his lips as he considered any additional effects of this. “I wonder if it spread the bacteria further away.” He reset the sonic screwdriver on a wide dispersal setting and did a rapid, but nevertheless thorough, sweep of the surrounds to the mound. The sweep reached all the way to the edge of the nearby forest and its damaged trees. But there was no sign of any ‘sand mining syndrome’ bacteria. The thunderstorm had delivered enough rain overnight to destroy the bacteria completely. But the Doctor knew that while this meant that the bacteria itself was no longer an issue and the mound of rubble would not deteriorate any further, it still didn’t solve the problems of how and why it was brought there in the first place and by whom.

He was apparently staring into space, but was really deep in thought considering these problems, when the sergeant and Constable Crane arrived. Constable Black would be joining them later – he was collating the details of his report to local area command in his sergeant’s absence and noting the electronic communiqués sent for her eyes only during that period. Of necessity, this morning she gave him electronic access to the list of senders, subject and sender headers and contents of these communiqués, so she knew if there were any that needed to be replied to immediately. From one perspective, it could appear to an outsider as if she was delegating a job that she alone should do. She was aware of it and would probably agree with them, but the damage to the Eye and its implications were of greater importance. Besides, she knew she could trust Constable Black’s discretion implicitly.

As the sergeant and Constable Crane arrived at the mound, after a short, brisk walk from the transmat point, Catherine was relieved to see that her judgement had not been at fault. She knew the Doctor wouldn’t leave until the problems had been solved! She wondered, yet again, what thoughts were going through the Doctor’s mind. The look in his eyes was completely impassive. It was as if he had turned his thoughts completely inward. What a contrast, she thought, to those mischievously twinkling looks in his eyes she had been used to see from time to time over the last few days. At that moment, he looked, to her, as if he had the weight of the world on his shoulders.

As Constable Crane moved around to take up his security position on the edge of the site, Catherine wished she or her team could help the Doctor in some way. But she didn’t know which sort of help they could offer him. She compromised, by saying in her most cheerful Sergeant’s manner, “Good morning, Doctor. Anything we can do to help?”

The Doctor returned from his inward contemplation at that. He looked at the sergeant and the constable, both standing quietly, expectantly, waiting for him to provide direction. After a moment or two, the broad grin returned to his face and he said, “Hello! Thanks.” He paused to consider, then added, “The ‘sand mining syndrome’ bacteria are all gone now, as a result of last night’s thunderstorm.” His brow creased into a frown as he added, “But the issues of how and why the bacteria were here and who brought the infestation here still remain, even though the bacteria are destroyed.”

Before he became introspective again, Catherine asked, “What about the other evidence, Doctor? The signs of weaponry residue; does enough still remain to be analysed?”

“The temporary changes to the rubble were washed away with the heavy rain too, Sergeant,” the Doctor replied.
Catherine looked shocked at this, but before she could say anything further, the Doctor continued, in a brighter voice, “Not a problem, I still have my piece of rubble in the TARDIS!” With that remark, the Doctor turned back towards the TARDIS, showing all the signs of being about to race off in that direction.

But Catherine had no intention of being left behind while he investigated this further. She felt as if she had – no, she did have – a vested interest in being involved in the solutions to these problems at the Eye. Not for career prospects or for job satisfaction or for ambition or for a show of superiority or bravado; this was a personal challenge. Her involvement to date had fired her interest in the process of solving these problems to such an extent that she couldn’t really let the opportunity pass to become involved further. Rather like reading a gripping thriller novel that just can’t be closed until the last chapter has been read. However, she was not about to make the unwitting spectacle of herself again that she realised she must have done earlier by racing after the Doctor. Catherine knew him better now than she had done a few days ago and was not about to become a follower in this investigation. She was determined to be a partner in this process, albeit in some sort of apprentice capacity. With this in mind, she called after him, “Doctor! Do you need any assistance with your analysis?”

The Doctor paused, turned back and looked over his shoulder in Catherine’s direction, and grinned in response. “You coming, then?” he asked her, abruptly. He had hoped that she would want to help with the investigation – not only for her contribution to the solution of the problems at hand, but her unique perspective on the process would be invaluable as well. But she had to want to become involved; he was testing her yet again, even if she was unaware of it. Undoubtedly, if he even admitted to himself that he just might enjoy her presence for its own sake, regardless of her contribution, he would just ascribe it to his heightened emotional state at the moment post-Gallifrey. He did, however, continue to recognise the strongly increasing bond between them and accepted it.

Catherine quietly walked over to where he was standing and said, in a matter-of-fact voice, “I can’t let you have all the fun, now can I, Doctor?” He didn’t reply, but his grin broadened further and his blue eyes twinkled appreciatively as he took her hand and they headed for the TARDIS, neither noticing that they were being watched critically.

Constable Crane watched this small interlude, raising his eyebrows and then shrugging his shoulders. He thought, “I knew there was more to this than George thought there was!”

If Catherine knew that her constable had seen her walking hand-in-hand with the Doctor, she would probably blush an extremely becoming shade of bright red which would have only further convinced Constable Crane that there was, at least, some special bond between the Time Lord and the sergeant. As she was ignorant of this, she was concentrating on the solution to the problems at the Eye, with little thought of anything else. Catherine’s main concerns were with the Eye, but a small part of her couldn’t help but enjoy the short walk to the TARDIS with the Doctor.

She couldn’t remember being drawn to someone as much as she was drawn to him in a long while, if ever. The strong bond that she had felt with him from the start had only increased during their journey to Node Two and back. It was confusing for her in some ways, but as he seemed to be such a caring and intriguing man – albeit alien – she managed to put her confusion to one side and chose to enjoy his company while she could. Even apart from the opportunity for her to make a real positive contribution to the investigation. As they approached the TARDIS doors, she smiled at him and asked, “How can I help, Doctor?”

In the interim, Constable Black had finished his collation of the reporting and communication details from the period of his sergeant’s journey with the Doctor. It wasn’t an onerous job, but it needed someone who would be thorough in the task. Fortunately, most of this had been located readily to hand and could be collated quickly. All that remained was for him to run through the lists of the communiqués that the sergeant had just this morning given him access to. There weren’t many of these – after all, she had been absent from the Eye for less than a week (in Earth terms) – but he saw three which disturbed him and they were all from their local area commander marked ‘urgent, confidential and reply required’. All were sent to her not long after she had left the Eye with the Doctor. “Well, I did all I could under the circumstances,” the constable thought. “But even if I had had access to those communiqués, I wouldn’t have been able to reply to them anyway.” Even so, he didn’t like the idea of having to drop this ‘bombshell’ on the sergeant…..

(* To be continued….. *)