The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness


March 15th, 9pm
Sam, Michael, Russell, Alan: The Tudor Arms.
Ross: in a fishing boat off the coast of Manorbier.

The bar room of the Tudor Arms is becoming noisier by the minute. Michael is still in conversation with Thane, leaning forward, his hands moving animatedly as he talks. The door opens behind him and Tanya Green comes in, closely followed by her boyfriend. Her gaze darts around the room and she shoots Sam a nervous smile before making her way to the far end of the bar.

Russell glances at her briefly and turns his attention back to the table where the old fisherman is sitting grumbling about squids.

"I don't care what they think," he is saying now. "They can say I'm mad and it makes no difference to what I say. No difference at all."

"I believe you," offers one of the girls, her hands playing nervously with an earring shaped like a skull. The old man treats her to a look somewhere between scorn and scepticism.

"Hah, you say that now, you and your fancy magazines." He pushes his empty glass across the table. "If it wasn't for folk like me, you people wouldn't have no stories to write." One of the group takes the hint and buys him another drink. He takes it without a word of thanks. "Last time I saw it it was in the Atlantic ocean," he continues. "Thirty years ago it was, and because of that people say I'm making it up. Like I'd make something like that up. It was night - I can still remember it - and I was on watch. No one else. It was a small enough boat, no need to have more than one missing sleep at a time." The girl with the earring is writing this down. "I looked over the side and there it was: a great, white squid, just floating along with the boat. Not moving at all, just like the current was carrying it along, only it was keeping pace with us. I sounded the alarm, of course, but by the time everyone had got up the damn thing had sunk. No sign of it, and never a sign since."

"But you think it'll come back," the girl persists.

He nods and lowers his head over his beer. "Reckon so. And next time I'll be ready and people will have to believe me..." His voice tails off.

"Remember me?" Sam says to Tanya. She jumps and glances over her shoulder and he follows her gaze. "What's wrong? Afraid your boyfriend will show up?"

"He's not my boyfriend." She turns a little pink. "Well, he wants to be. Sort of."

"And what do you want?" The directness of Sam's question makes her blush again. She sets down her glass and sighs heavily.

"I hate this place," she says quietly.

There is a short silence between them. Sam rolls himself another cigarette. "Listen, Tanya," he begins, "have you ever thought of trying hypnotherapy, you know, getting someone to regress you back in time."

She shudders visibly. "Would you want to go back in time?"

"Yes - if I thought it might help."

Smoke curls up, making Tanya blink. She brushes hair out of her eyes and forces a smile. "I don't know. They tried a lot of that when I was a child, it only made the dreams get worse. What if I went and it made them start again?" She looks frightened, almost childlike the way she stares at Sam through the haze of cigarette smoke.

"They've made a lot of progress with these sort of things since then," he tells her confidently. "All they'd do is let you remember everything clearly. Think about it, will you?" He writes down the phone number of the research station. "You can give me a ring here."

She takes the card and looks at it before putting it into her bag. "Will you go with me?" she asks suddenly. "If I decide to try it, I mean?" Before Sam can answer she stiffens and turns away. "Martin's waiting for me. Sorry, I'd better go."

Looking over to the door, Sam sees the would-be boyfriend watching them. His face is shadowed but Sam can tell he's frowning.

Some time later, the group meet up again at the bar and talk quietly between Gwyn Montgomery's remarks.

"Thane looks pleased," Alan comments to Michael. "What were you saying to him?"

"This and that," Michael says evasively. "The main thing is I got some useful information out of him, and he might prove useful again."

"Information?" Gwyn cuts in. "If it's information you're wanting, I can help. Places to visit, things like that."

Alan shrugs. "Thanks for the offer. Listen, why don't we head off? I could do with a walk.

"I want to go up to Lodge Farm," he continues as soon as they are safely out of the bar. "I was thinking of watching the place for the night. Anyone interested?"

Sam nods agreement straight away and the two walk away, making plans as they go, leaving Russell and Michael to check out the beach again.

A few miles out to sea, a small boat is turning, heading further out to sea.

"I hope you know what you're doing," the captain says doubtfully.

Ross spares him a grin. "Trust me. Just another hour or so and I'll be done."

When the boat is in the middle of the triangle area he tells the captain to cut the engine and he struggles back into his diving gear. Pausing to check his torch, he takes hold of the guide rope and lets himself fall back into the water. The familiar, cold shock of water envelopes him.

He's not expecting to find much else so he's not disappointed. No doubt government people have already thoroughly searched the area at least once. They'd have picked up anything there was to find. Nevertheless, Ross makes a thorough search, moving slowly. Well over an hour has passed by the time he climbs back into the boat.

"Find what you were looking for?" the captain asks cheerfully.

Ross grimaces. "Yes and no. Lets go back."

He breathes a sigh of relief when he sees the coastline growing larger in front of them. After a full day of the sea the warmth of his car is an appealing thought. He turns to the captain. "Thanks."

"You're welcome." White teeth flash in the dark. "Any time you want to have another trip out give me a shout. I should be able to fit you in - I'm not that busy this time of year, truth be told. Just come down to the quayside and ask for Neil. If I'm not there myself, someone'll know where to find me."

"I'll remember that."

A short while later the boat bumps up against the stones of the quayside. Ross gets out, thanks the captain again and counts out cash from a roll of notes in his jacket pocket. Then, hunched over against the cold, he starts back to the car.

The roads are dark, only a few street-lights showing the way through the village, and these end well before the last house. Ross is forced to drive slowly, never quite sure where the next bend in the road is going to be. In the day it was a pleasant drive but now it is taking all his concentration. The moonlight throws up dark shadows that only make things worse and in places the trees huddle over the road, their branches touching overhead as if they're conspiring to make the night as dark as possible. Several times Ross catches the pale glimpse of some animal flitting across in front of him. The last time it is an owl and he has to brake sharply to avoid hitting it. It rises into the air with a screech that sounds like glass splitting.

It is almost midnight when Ross comes within sight of the lights of Manorbier. He breathes a sigh of relief. Eager to be back, he puts his foot on the accelerator, his speed edging up from thirty to forty-five. And then, as he comes into a shadowed dip between trees, something else flashes across the road before him. He gasps and slams his foot down. The brakes scream. The car skids then stops with a jerk that throws Ross forward against the seat belt. He sits where he is a moment, staring into the night.

It was no bird, this time. Too big for that, and all in white. More man-sized, though the head was the wrong shape, and...

Swearing, Ross releases the seat belt and swings out of the car. The night is quiet. He grabs a torch and runs to the edge of the road, shining the wide beam full circle. Nothing. Only the jagged shapes of the trees and the road curving away behind him.

Manorbier beach has sprouted tents overnight. A dozen or so hunched shapes are pegged precariously to the dry ground at the top of the sand. Closer to the sea a camp fire is burning and the sound of voices and laughter drifts up. Someone is cooking sausages; the scent is enough to make Michael's stomach groan.

"Come on," Russell says. He starts forward.

The footprints on the rocks are still there. A little more faded than the night before, but clearly visible. Following the direction of them, it seems to Russell that they are slanting towards the sea in a direction that would put the starting point somewhere beyond the road at the top of the beach. Only, of course, there is no trace of the prints on the sand. He bends down to look closer and is sure of it. It is as if someone - or something - walked from the road to the sea but the prints only started to show once they hit rock.

"Strange," Michael says, raising his head to look around. From where the two are standing, the tents further up the beach are so many dark shadows, crouched over like animals ready to pounce and for a moment the hiss and pull of the waves on sand becomes the buzzing of bees. Michael shivers and straightens up. His face is as pale as ever but under the moonlight his mouth has taken on a determined set. "Lets see what else there is," he suggests. He starts to move before Russell has chance to reply.

There is nothing else to see. If there was any other evidence of peculiar happenings the UFO seekers have destroyed it all. Closer to the tents the ground is littered with chip wrappers and crisp packets and the sand is so churned by footprints it is impossible to say if any of them are unnatural.

After a thorough search Michael gives up and goes back to the research centre. But Russell stays behind and for a while he simply sits on the damp sand gazing up at the sky. The sound of the waves is constant, the only light the orange flicker of the camp fire. The place is so quiet it is hard to believe that anyone would bother to come here, let alone aliens.

Ross pushes a wet branch out of his face and swears again. He has long given up relying on the torch and is moving slowly, circling back to the car. He has seen nothing besides that one, brief glimpse of something alien on the road. He comes out of the trees and stops. The car is still there, untouched. He starts back to it then chances his mind and squats down, searching through grass and leaves with his fingers.

After a moment he smiles, gets up and jogs to the other side of the road to repeat the process. The ground under the trees is too full of stones and weeds to carry any marks, but the edge of the road is soft mud, and in the mud on each side of the road there are prints. Nothing special to look at them, the ridged mark of a shoe. But it is proof that someone crossed the road at this point. After pressing several large stones into the ground to mark the spot, Ross gets back into his car. By the time he reaches Manorbier he is whistling. The day hasn't been a complete waste of time after all.

Alan and Sam wait together in the shelter of a pair of trees at the edge of Lodge Farm. So far all has been quiet and Sam glances at Alan quizzically. "If we're intending staying out here all night how about we take turns to go on watch?" He yawns into the back of his hand. "I don't know about you but I'm getting tired."

Alan nods without taking his eyes off the farm house. "I'll take first watch if you like. It was my idea, and I..."

"Hush." Sam stiffens, coming half to his feet.

The two hold their breath, not moving. A pause and then the sound comes again. Alan hears it too this time. A scuffing and then the snap of a twig.

Silently, Sam rises to his feet, Alan following. In the farm yard a dog barks twice.

"There," Sam whispers, pointing. They move forward.

A thin, little man creeps up to the farm gate. There is a hold all slung over his shoulder and he holds it awkwardly with one hand, glancing about nervously and apparently not seeing Sam and Alan hiding close behind because he reaches the gate and takes hold of the top of it, preparing to swing himself over.

While Sam is preparing to sneak up on him, Alan takes the more direct route. He stands up, takes two quick steps and grabs hold of the intruder just as he is spinning round.

"Right, what are you doing here?" he demands.

The stranger lets out a yelp of pure fear, his hold all dropping to the ground. Alan's eyes widen. "Hang about, I've seen you before. You were in the pub tonight, weren't you? What was you name, now..?"

"Harry," the man snaps, fright taking on an edge of indignation. "Not that it's any of your business. You're not supposed to be here, you know."

"Neither are you." Sam stoops to examine the hold all. He pulls out a torch.

Harry makes a grab for it. "Leave that alone. It's mine." His voice is loud in the still air. He tries to struggle free of Alan and only manages to kick the gate by mistake. Both dogs start barking immediately. Harry groans. "Now look what you've done."

But Alan is looking down. "What's that on your hands, Harry," he asks.

"What?" He giggles nervously and tries to pull away again. Alan holds his hands up forcibly and turns them palm up. All three are silent as they look at the patches of silver across his finger tips.

"Paint?" Sam wonders. He is interrupted by a voice from the farmhouse.

"What's going on? Who's out there?"

Harry takes the opportunity to pull free and scuttles to one side. Garel Williams' voice comes again. "I have a gun, you know. And I'm not afraid to use it. Who's there?"

Harry takes to his heels, leaving his bag where he dropped it. Sam picks it up. "Come on," he mouths. They start down the lane, ducking into cover as the sound of a shotgun punctures the sky.

Only Ross, Michael and Russell turn up for breakfast the next morning. Halfway through one of the junior staff puts her head round the door. "There's a package for you Mr Myers. Said it had to be signed for specially."

Ross nods his thanks and gets up. He returns a few minutes later empty-handed. Ignoring Michael's curious stare he sits back down. "What's the plan for today, then?" he asks.

The plan, as it turns out, has to revolve around Orielton's timetable. A two hour lecture in the morning is followed by a session with Phil Lake looking at various computer models of marine life. Phil is the only one who seems to find it interesting.

During a break in the afternoon Russell slips away to the library again, this time searching the reference books for lunar charts.

The next full moon is in four days time, which means the last one was February 19th. And, going back to 1977, the full moons were 12th July, August 2nd and September 6th. Laying out a time table of alien activity alongside the charts, Russell tries to find a connection. An hour later he is still looking. As far as he can see the events twenty years ago were random, all happening in August, but not linked to any particular moon phases. And this time... he scratches his head, rereading today's newspaper. UFO seekers causing trouble in the village, two reports of little silver men, interest rates staying steady, local train services facing a day's disruption, and investigations continuing on the school break-in. Maybe there is a link with the phase of the moon, but if there is he can't see it.

Half-way through the afternoon, Sam is called to the phone.

"Sam?" comes Tanya's voice. "It's Tanya Green. I've - I've decided. If you can find a hypnotherapist I'll go. As long as you come with me, and as long as Martin doesn't find out." She sounds nervous, even over the phone line. "You've got to promise to come with me, though."

"I promise," Sam tells her. "I'll make some phone calls right away and get us an appointment."

"Right." Her voice trembles. Sam can imagine her hand clutching onto the phone.

"Don't worry, it'll be fine." He wishes he sounded more confident. All of a sudden it seems that some of Tanya's nervousness is rubbing off onto him.

The rest of the afternoon passes quietly and come evening, while there is still enough light to see by, Alan, Sam, Michael and Ross sneak up the steps to Manorbier castle. The padlock on the gate takes all of thirty seconds for Sam to dispose of and they file in quietly, half-expecting to find something waiting for them around the corner. But there is nothing.

Ross stops in the small courtyard and looks up. "I reckon we need to start there," he says, nodding to the highest tower where the TV aerial flashes in the fading light.

The stairs wind round, ending abruptly on the battlements. The wind has picked up and a few cold splashes of rain are falling, spreading in dark stains on the map Sam has brought. Ross produces binoculars and turns slowly, surveying the area.

"If you leave out the beach and take the farm and the school as two points of a triangle," Sam says helpfully, "the third point will be..." he pauses, "about three miles out to sea in that direction."

"That's a lot of use," Ross mutters, but he swings round to look anyway, staring for several minutes before he lowers the binoculars and shakes his head. "It's no use: I can't see anything unusual out there."

"Why don't you keep watch here while the rest of us take a proper look around the place?" Michael suggests. "We might find something new." He starts back down the steps without waiting for agreement. Alan and Sam exchange shrugs and follow him.

The steps take them spiralling down into a low corridor. A passageway that leads to Lady Montford's private rooms, Alan remembers. He hesitates a moment then turns in that direction.

The first room is some sort of sitting room by the look of it. A sofa against one wall, thickly carpeted floor, heavy oak cupboards and a television tucked into a corner. Everything is freshly dusted and smelling of lemon polish - the work of the caretaker, no doubt. They move on, checking out a bathroom and a second sitting room. Then Sam opens a door and stops dead.

"Who's been sleeping in my bed," he enquires softly.

The bedroom is as clean as the others, the dark furniture gleaming where the light catches it. But the bed covers are crumpled and creased, pulled completely off the mattress on one side.

Michael steps over carefully, moves one of the pillows and pulls out a sheaf of papers. He leafs through them, frowning.

Every recent report of alien sightings is here, the relevant pieces circled in red ink. And there are other articles too, from two years back, detailing the arrest of someone called Vul Dragna. Arrested for various crimes including the attempted murder of three people in the Scottish village of Clachantyre, a later reports states that he was sectioned under the mental health act to be detained 'until he is no longer a danger to himself or the community at large.' The name Vul is underlined every time it appears.

Up on the tower Ross suddenly swings round. Someone is coming through the gates of the castle. Or rather, he darts to one side as he reaches the top of the steps, vanishes behind a low part of the wall and appears again, clambering heavily over it. Looking through the binoculars, Ross sees his face clearly. Dark, Mediterranean skin is marred by an ugly scar that cuts across from mouth to right ear. Part of the ear lobe is missing, too. The mouth is set in a scowl that seems to hate the whole world. As the figure starts across the courtyard, Ross turns and dashes down the steps.

Michael finishes reading the papers and hands them to the others. "What do you make of this?"

No one answers. No one gets a chance, because footsteps sound in the corridor outside and Ross races into the room. "There's someone coming," is all he has time to say before other footsteps are heard, faster this time, and coming directly towards the room the four men are standing in.

A quick glance round is enough to know that there is not enough space for all of them to take cover.

"You're not going to believe this," cries Margaret, bursting into Orielton's library.

Russell looks up. "Believe what?"

She only smiles. "Come and see."

Michael is already in the lab when Russell arrives. And every staff member too. Phil Lake is at the centre of the fuss, beaming as if he's lit up from inside. When Margaret slips in behind Russell he raises a hand to her in greeting. "So now we're all here," he says. "Take a look at this."

Russell stares, his mouth falling slowly open. Spread out on a pair of tables behind Phil is a squid. It has to be a squid - it can't be anything else. And it's a big one. Its body alone takes up the whole of the tables. Greyish tentacles hand down limp in a full circle around it.

No, on second thoughts, big is too much of an understatement.

"Forty foot across," Phil says proudly. "And it weights a ton and a quarter."

"Is it dead?" Michael asks. Phil glares at him.

"Of course it's dead. How long do you think one of these can survive out of water. It was dead when we found it, you fool. All I have to do now is find out why. Any of you who want to watch me cut this beauty open are welcome to stay and watch." He reaches for a case beside him and opens it. Inside, saws and scalpels of various sizes are laid out in a row. Phil selects one and licks his lips. "I told them," he says. "They wouldn't believe me, but I was right."

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