The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness


Orielton Research Centre, March 13th 5.15pm

Peter shifts nervously under the policeman's gaze, glances at Michael and seems about to speak but before he can, Russell cuts in.

"Broken into, you say? What time did this happen?"

Sergeant Harris flips his notebook open. "Between eleven thirty and midnight."

"I'm afraid I can't help you there," Alan speaks up. "I was here, watching the telly. Did anyone else go out?"

One by one, people shake their heads.

"What did the people look like? Do you have descriptions?" Russell asks. "I was out for a walk, but I don't think I saw anything."

"Same here," Sam puts in. "Where is the school, anyway?"

"The centre of town, sir. And no, there are no descriptions. Just a report of three or four people." He sighs and snaps his notebook shut. "I reckon it was children myself." He throws one more glance around the room, his face suddenly becoming stern. "Even so, breaking and entering is a serious matter. If any of you do hear anything, you should get in touch with the police straight away."

Sam nods. "I'm sure we will," he says easily. "Sorry we couldn't help more."

Still frowning, the Sergeant stows his notebook away. "Sorry to have bothered you people, then. You enjoy the rest of your stay - and don't worry," he adds, giving Sam a final hard look, "we will get to the bottom of this. Good night to you."

There is a short silence after he has left, Peter frowning at the patch of carpet between his feet.

Margaret smiles brightly. "Well then, who's on for the pub?"

Back in the room that they share, Peter turns on Michael angrily. "It was you, wasn't it? You broke into the school. That's where you got the list from."

Michael shrugs. "What if I did? You heard the sergeant: nothing was taken, nothing was damaged. And we got our list of names. No harm done."

"No harm done," Peter mutters. "Every time the law is broken there's harm done."

Michael grins, enjoying the scowl that comes across Peter's face. "Tell the police if you're that worried, get us all arrested. Now, I'm going to the pub with the others. Are you coming?"

Peter looks at him blackly for a moment. "I've got better things to do than waste my time with law-breakers."

Michael sighs, irritated, and goes out, leaving Peter glaring at the wall.

The bar room of the Tudor Arms is brightly lit, electric lamps in every corner casting a welcoming, orange glow across the tables. At the bar a tall, dark-haired man is chatting and laughing while he clears away glasses; behind him a darts match is in progress and half the people in the bar are watching, cheering or groaning with each throw. The place is cheerfully busy.

Margaret leads the way straight to the bar. "Gwyn, hi. This is my latest group from the centre."

The dark-haired man looks across, the corners of his eyes creasing into a friendly smile that seems to take in everyone in the room. "Hello, good evening." He offers his hand across the bar and snatches it back just as Sam leans forward, laughing when Sam frowns. "Caught you out there. What'll it be then? We do a very good local beer."

"Don't listen to him, it's disgusting," Margaret advises. "I'll have my usual Gwyn, and I'll buy the first round for these people. Charge it to the centre, will you?"

"Just a coke, please," Russell says quickly. Ross shoots him a puzzled look and orders a pint of beer. He and Alan wander over to watch the darts match, clearing a space for themselves at one of the tables. Soon the two of them are in conversation with the people either side.

Sam grabs himself an ash tray and stays at the bar, leaning with both elbows on the polished surface. "You been working here long then, mate?" he asks Gwyn.

"Long enough." Gwyn pauses halfway through drawing a pint. "It's a good place to be, quiet like but nice, you know. Have you seen much of the area yet? The castle's definitely worth a second glance, and the beach is nice, even this early in the year. Then there's some decent walks if you're into that sort of thing, and a leisure centre if you're not, and..."

He's beginning to sound like a talking tourist brochure. Sam rolls another cigarette and comes back into the conversation as Gwyn is extolling the virtues of the local museum. He clears his throat and smiles. "Well if aliens think the place is worth visiting, it must have something in its favour," he says lightly.

"Aliens?" Gwyn's face turns immediately serious. He leans across the bar towards Sam, his eyes wide. "Aliens," he says again in a whisper that carries halfway across the room. A couple of the regulars look up and groan but Gwyn ignores them. "They're real, you know, mate. I've seen them," he says in the same stage whisper. "Clear as I'm seeing you now..."

Michael glances around the bar room and fixes on a table where three people are sitting. A girl in her twenties and a man a little older than her both look very ordinary but their companion is drawing stares from all over. He is about sixty, a thick mane of silver hair brushed straight back from his lined face, his eyes piercing blue. Despite the warmth of the bar he's wearing a heavy, dark purple velvet jacket and resting on the chair next to him is an ebony cane topped with a silver death's head.

Weirdos, Michael thinks. And he should know, he's seen his fair share of them in his time. He wanders over and dumps his leather coat on a nearby chair. "Hello," he says. "Let me guess... you're not regulars, are you?"

The girl giggles and shakes her head.

"Martin Thane," the older man introduces himself. He looks at Michael expectantly as if he expects him to know the name. "Fortean Times," he adds, frowning. "Don't tell me you've never heard of it?"

It does sound familiar. Michael digs back through his memory. "One of the X-Files magazines, isn't it?" he asks uncertainly.

The lines round Thane's mouth tighten crossly. A manicured fingernail taps the table top sharply. "Not a bit of it, boy. The FT is big - the biggest journal of the unexplained this side of the Atlantic."

"For the moment," adds the younger man. "I'm Richie Wardens, from Crop Circle Quarterly. Smaller than the Fortean, perhaps, but we're getting there, aren't we Vicki?"

The girl sitting beside him nods, setting several silver pendants jangling. "We're here following up the aliens story," she adds unnecessarily.

"Really?" Michael pulls a chair round and sits down. "Found out anything interesting so far?"

The audience around the darts board lets out another cheer.

Somebody has pressed a pack of darts into Ross's hand and, grinning amiably, he stands up to take his turn. Alan sits back and watches him, his lips moving silently as he keeps score. A few minutes pass and he turns to the girl sitting at the next table. "I suppose it's usually quite quiet around here," he says. "The only thing I've heard about this part of the world is that business about UFOs in the seventies."

The girl nods, her eyes still on the game. "I wasn't here then."

"Have you seen anything this time round?" Alan asks cautiously. "I saw something in the newspaper about it starting to happen again."

"Yes, and around here people would say they saw pigs flying if they thought it would get them an audience." She finishes her drink and smiles her thanks when Alan gets up to buy her a refill. "Though to tell you the truth," she adds when he comes back, "I'll be glad when all these rumours stop. No offence, but ever since this started it's been heaving in here. I used to like coming here but now you can't move for alien spotters."

"...flashing lights down on the beach," Gwyn is saying to Sam and anyone else who cares to listen. "Saw them clear as I'm seeing you here now. And when I went down to look..." his voice rises dramatically. "Footprints. All glowing, they were, like someone had walked along with paint on their shoes. Only it wasn't paint, and in the morning it was gone."

At her table, Vicki of 'Crop Circle Quarterly' has produced a notebook and is scribbling furiously, her lower lip caught between her teeth. Feeling Michael's eyes on her she glances up irritably. "Don't think I'm going to tell you anything," she says. "I'm not about to let you steal my story on this."

Richie lets out a burst of laughter. "Vicki, you're paranoid. Who would want to steal one of your stories for God's sake?"

"Someone with more sense than you, that's who," she snaps back. Michael stiffens at the sharpness in her voice but Richie doesn't even blink.

In the far corner of the room another argument is gaining momentum.

"I know what I saw," a young man says, crossing his arms and glaring around. Several of the people round him laugh and he flushes and sets his glass down hard. "I know about these thing," he repeats stubbornly. "And I'm telling you it was the remains of a sub."

"A sub?" Russell wanders up behind him.

He looks up, obviously glad of the support. "There we are, you see," he says to no one in particular, "that's one person who believes me. In Ireland, it was. Me and my mates were on duty there and saw a load of stuff washed up on the beach. You'd have thought it was just a load of scrap metal unless you knew better - which we did. It was a submarine - or what was left of one. But some of the side panels had holes in." His lips tighten as if he's waiting for someone to disagree. "Holes. Like something had eaten through them. We reported it to the right people and they said it was all old stuff, rotted by the sea and that, but it wasn't." He nods emphatically. "I saw the metal around those bite holes and I'm telling you it was fresh."

"Strange," Russell agrees. "What do you think caused it?"

He shrugs. "Search me. I don't know anything that's got teeth that big." He goes back to arguing with his friends, leaving Russell to gaze around the room. A group is forming around Thane's table, listening to his account of how he was almost kidnapped by aliens from Venus and only escaped by throwing salt into their eyes. At another table an old man in a fisherman's cap and jacket sits staring dourly into his pint of bitter. Over at the bar, Gwyn's bursts of laughter are becoming grating, louder even that the cheers from the darts group.

Ross is winning his game comfortably, earning himself mixed looks of admiration and annoyance. He throws his final set of darts almost casually, finishing on a double five to win the game. He is grinning widely as he rejoins Alan just in time to hear him ask the girl he's sitting with about Tanya Green.

She looks surprised. "Tanya? Yes I know her. She works in the Spar just down the road from here. Why?"

"No reason." Alan drains his glass and stands up, catching Ross's glance. "I've heard her name, that's all. See you later."

Promising to be there for the second round of the darts tournament tomorrow night, Ross follows him to join the rest of the group at the bar.

"I got Lewis Phillips' phone number out of Gwyn," Sam tells them quietly. "His sister doesn't live here any more, apparently, but him and Tanya Green is a start."

Russell nods and yawns. "We'll get to work on it tomorrow. I think I'll take a quick walk then turn in for the night if no one objects."

Leaving the pub, Russell heads back to the research centre, but turns down a side road before he reaches it and walks along until he reaches the beach. Everything is quiet, even the sound of the sea muted beneath the pale moonlight. Pushing his hands into his pockets, Russell walks until he runs out of sand and reaches the flat rocks at the far end of the beach. He is just about to turn back when he stops, staring at the ground ahead.

One of the rocks up ahead shows faint markings, faded, almost silvery, but still far too bright to be just a trick of the light. Russell walks forward slowly and stoops over them, tipping his head on one side to see them better. He could almost believe that what he is seeing is the trace outline of a pair of footprints. He straightens up with a smile of satisfaction. Glad that he stuck to coke tonight - no one can accuse him of getting drunk and seeing things - he starts back to Orielton at a slow jog.

It is gone midnight when the others return to the centre. Michael creeps into his room expecting to find Peter sleeping. But his bed is empty, apart from a note lying on the pillow. Michael picks it up and reads it.

'I'm not prepared to work with people who are so eager to break the law. Don't worry, I won't tell the police you were involved in the break-in, but I've contacted SITU and I'm pulling out of this operation as of now.


"It's a shame about Peter's mother, isn't it?" Carol Hennessey says over breakfast the next morning.

When the others look back blankly she purses her lips in surprise. "Didn't he say? He told me before he left last night - he had a message that his mother was ill and he had to go back to her right away. Barely had time to pack his things, poor man."

"Yes, poor man," Michael echoes with feeling, his fingers crimping the edge of the note in his pocket.

The morning passes quietly. Two lectures, one on general biology, the other on marine science. Between them, one of the junior staff at the centre leads a guided tour of the base which turns out to be dull for the most part - a lot of rooms full of filing cabinets and cases of unidentifiable fish. The morning paper carries no mention of aliens, only a science-fiction quiz night at the Tudor Arms the coming week. There is a short piece on the school break-in and a quote from someone called Harry Pugh suggesting that it might have been the UFO come back for the school children.

Lunch is a casual affair in Orielton's kitchens. None of the staff are there, and Sam pulls a chair round to where he can see out of the open door before they start to talk. "I've been checking up a few phone numbers and addresses," he says, smoothing out a sheet of paper on the table in front of him. "It's hard to know which of these are the school children from our list, but we know Lewis Phillips' number, and we can talk to Tanya Green at the shop I suppose."

"I've arranged to look around the castle this afternoon if anyone's interested," Alan offers. "And we need to talk to Carol Hennessey - Phil Lake, too. I think they may know something they're not telling."

Russell nods. "And tonight we'll go back to the beach. There's something I want to show you."

"If you're an enthusiast, I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed. It's not very impressive." Susan Carter, the caretaker of Manorbier castle, leads the way up the steps to the castle. She's about sixty and plump and she's puffing hard by the time they reach the low iron gate at the top.

Alan smiles encouragingly. "All castles are interesting. You say someone actually lives here some of the time?"

"That's right, my love. Lady Montford." She fumbles a key into the padlock on the gate and leaves it hanging open when she bustles through. "Well, that's to say she stays here occasionally. Can't say I blame her for staying away, can you? Who'd want to live in a castle nowadays?"

Behind them, Ross looks up to the television aerial jutting crookedly from the top tower. It seems that her Ladyship wants to make sure she's never bored here at any rate, he thinks drily. He looks around, half expecting to see a satellite dish as well then shrugs and follows the others into the castle.

As castles go, this one is certainly not impressive. The decor is subdued, almost modern in the tiny rooms and the narrow windows let in very little light. The rooms that Susan opens are all bare and the air feels stale and cold.

"Are there any other rooms?" Alan asks.

"The private rooms, yes. I'd let you see them too if it was up to me but really it's more than my job's worth. Lady Montford is very particular, you know. Likes to keep her private rooms private. Come on, loves, I'll take you back."

They come out of a low, arched doorway to stand in the courtyard again. The stones smell of damp and in one corner there are a couple of beer cans and the foil cartons from a takeaway dinner. "Kids," Susan mutters, shaking her head. Ross hangs behind, prodding the walls cautiously. All the stones seem solid enough and the moss looks as if it has been undisturbed for centuries.

Back at the centre, Michael and Sam are talking to Carol Hennessey in her office, a sunny, comfortably furnished room with a bay window overlooking the sea.

"You weren't here in seventy-seven, then," Sam asks.

Carol lifts an eyebrow and shakes her head. "Don't tell me - you've been talking to the UFO crowd and they're paying you to ask questions for them. "No, nineteen eighty I started work here. It just feels longer."

"The UFO thing is interesting, though," Michael persists.

She shrugs. "Not particularly. We're too busy looking at the sea to be watching the sky here. And the sea's strange enough without inventing creatures from other planets. Ask Phil to show you his fish collection."

"He already has." Sam gives her a crooked smile. "The UFO people would probably say it was aliens doing that, I suppose. Either that or some sort of military experiment." He watches Carol closely as he says it, but she doesn't react.

"We've never seen any military action round here," is all she says. She smiles apologetically and picks up a file from the desk. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll send you back to Margaret's capable hands. I've got a load of work to get through today."

Leaving Carol, they go to talk to Phil in his lab. He has three portable PCs open around him and is tapping notes into all of them, seemingly at random. He is not pleased to find himself disturbed. "Military experiments?" he grunts, "I doubt it. He pauses between experiments for long enough to glare at Michael. "I don't want to be rude, but can't you see I'm busy here?"

Glancing at each other, Michael and Sam leave him to it.

Dinner is at seven as before. It is gone eight by the time Russell leads the group down to the beach. "It was over there I saw it," he begins, as they turn the corner onto the sand. "I..." His voice fails. He stops dead, his mouth falling open.

The beach is crowded. Michael recognises Richard and Vicki Drew among the crowd - but no sign of Martin Thane, he notes. Richard has his camera pointed at the ground and is snapping photograph after photograph while Vicki scribbles notes in her blue exercise book. Other people are standing in groups, some with cameras or note pads in their hands, others just staring.

It is the ground that holds everyone's attention. Or rather, what they see on the ground when they look down. The sand is covered with tiny, pea-sized crabs, all milling about, their pinchers working furiously. Roughly the colour of the wet sand, they'd probably blend right into the beach if they stopped moving. Their shells, though, are an amazing assortment of different shapes and sizes, some of them ridged, others plain as if the sea has scoured them smooth. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of them. It looks like the whole beach has come alive.

Ross watches in amazement as a dozen or more of the tiny creatures circle an empty coke can and snap at it, tearing off delicate chunks of the metal with their little, hooked claws. Alan whistles softly to himself while Sam stands and shakes his head slowly, his cigarette burning forgotten between two fingers. A crab makes it up onto his shoe and he lets it stay there, watching it in fascination.

Then, as if by some signal, the whole beach pauses as if frozen still. The crabs stop moving, even the ones by the coke can and then, a few at a time, they burrow back into the sand and disappear. The beach is silent save for the sound of Vicki's pen making frantic notes. Then everyone starts talking at once.

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