The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness


March 18th, 11pm.
Russell, Maddy, Michael, Alan: Orielton Research Centre
Sam: Lodge Farm
Ross: The Restricted Area.

"Come on out of there," Garel Williams shouts again. Quietly, Sam eases away from the door back towards the open window. He can see torchlight outside, the single beam wavering wildly as if the owner of it is running fast. Sam smiles grimly. Taking a quick breath, he swings himself neatly over the windowsill and lands on the other side just as the farmer opens the door behind him. The blast of a shotgun shatters the night as he begins to run.

The night is too dark to see the would-be burglar properly. It's a man, Sam can make out that much. As the torch swings up he catches a glimpse of a red face and dark hair cropped close at the back. A dark brown raincoat. Sam's foot catches in the belt as he reaches the far side of the farmyard. He scoops it up and carries on running. The yapping of the two farm dogs gets steadily louder.

Then the torchlight dips suddenly and goes out, leaving Sam blinking against the sudden night. He stumbles, losing sight of the road for a moment. An engine coughs twice then comes to life - the deep rumble of a van.

A voice from behind: "Bloody vandals. Bess, Teg, where are you?"

The van detaches itself from the trees and rolls onto the road. Too dark to see anything more than the outline of it, and Garel Williams is too close behind for Sam to risk using his own torch. He slips off the road into the trees at the side moments before the farmer comes into view.

The machine in Ross's hands beeps and whines intermittently. What it is supposed to be detecting he doesn't know. He's not even sure that it's working properly, but he points it at the ground as he walks. Every so often he stoops and digs up a small sample of soil, storing them all separately.

There is no one else around. The main defences, it seems, are concentrated on the roads. That's where the barricades and the guards are. Ross has seen a few people posted at intervals along the barbed wire boundaries, but only a few, and one of those was paying more attention to the cigarette in his hand than the land around him. Ross didn't even have to knock him out to get past him.

He jogs on, sweating slightly in the heavy biohazard suit, wondering whether it would be safe to remove it. Best not to, he decides. If there really has been a chemical spillage here he doesn't want to risk exposing himself to it. He slows as he moves deeper into the restricted area, moving between patches of cover and pausing every few minutes to listen. The night remains silent. Then, finally, he stops.

Before him, the twin lines of the railway slash across open fields. And beside the tracks two jeeps are parked - standard army vehicles, he can tell that just from the shape of them. The headlights of one are full on and in the greyish light Ross can see people moving. None of them seem to be wearing any protection at all, although from Ross's calculations, this is the point where the accident would have happened.

His breathing coming faster, Ross struggles out of the white suit and kicks it aside. Then, crouching low, he creeps in closer...

A police car has pulled up outside Lodge Farm. Both Garel and Susan Williams are at the gate, the two dogs snapping around growling around them and a pair of policemen who are doing their best to calm them and search the area at the same time.

Garel Williams' voice carries the full length of the road outside Lodge Farm, right to the shadowed ditch at the end where Sam is hiding. "Whether they were alien nutcases or not, I don't care. They tried to break in and they left a window smashed. If I hadn't heard them and chased them off, who knows what would have happened."

One of the policemen asks something, too quiet for Sam to hear. "Well, of course I've got a van," Williams responds. "You know I have. But I've not used it in days. It's parked at the back of the house." Another pause. "Yes, you can see it if you like. Not that it'll make any difference. I'm warning you: next time any fool thinks of sneaking around here, they can be looking for the man in the moon for all I care, all they'll get is a backside full of shot. I'm sick to death of this UFO thing: we both are..." His voice fades away as he leads the policemen into the farm yard.

Ross is close enough to hear the occasional snatch of conversation.

"How long is this going to take then?"

"Don't know... Take it as a holiday."

"Boring... Can't take that long to find..."

To find what? Ross raises his head a fraction. He can count six men, three of them sitting in one of the jeeps, behind the glare of the headlight, the other three moving restlessly. Cautiously, he works his binoculars free and puts them to his eyes.

The track is definitely broken, he can see that at once. Twisted bits of metal litter the grass around the area. Ross lets his breath out slowly. So, the part of the story about the train accident was true, at least.

One of the army men kicks a piece of metal aside and sighs heavily enough for Ross to hear.

"Look on the bright side," one of the others consoles him. "This place is supposed to be full of UFOs, right? You never know, we might get to see one."

Morning. Margaret Ferris raises her eyebrows when Ross fails to turn up for breakfast. Russell mutters something about him doing some extra early-morning research and she shakes her head. "Well, I wish he would say if he's planning to miss meals. We could have given him some sandwiches. Do you know what time he'll be back."

"No, sorry." He stands up and collects plates and bowls together. "Let me give you a hand then you'll have to excuse me for a while. I want to do a bit of internet browsing if that's all right with you."

Scotland: 78566 pages found, the screen reads. Continue? Scam: 15955 pages found. Snatch: 23530 pages found. Squid 8870 pages found. Stewart: 19372 pages found.

Sighing, Russell begins to narrow the search. Scotland and squid brings up nothing but a pageful of regional recipes. Scotland and Stewart together account for thousands of entries. Not surprisingly, Russell thinks ruefully: Stewart is hardly an uncommon name up there. He pushes stray strands of black hair back off his face, pauses to rub the back of his neck hard then narrows the search again to Clachantyre.

What he finds himself looking at is a selection of reports on the incident in Clachantyre. February 1997, he notes, a little over two years ago. According to one article, Vul's attempted murders sparked off a whole series of strange incidents of minor assaults and vandalism climaxing in a full-blown arson attack and then suddenly stopping. And - he has to read it twice to find out - in charge of the police force at the time was a Chief Inspector Stewart.

Saving off the information, Russell taps a few more keys. Search: Hida. 410 pages found. He scrolls down the list. HIDA: Health industry Distribution Association. It sounds unlikely, but it's the only government agency listed. Checking quickly, Russell finds references to them in the UK and the US. Nothing, though, that could like them to either Clachantyre or Pembrokeshire.

Pausing again, he enters HIDA Scotland, then HIDA Pembrokeshire. Both searches give him the same results. 'No match found.'

The others have found an old dictionary and have gathered in Maddy's room to go through it.

"Scam," she reads. "Trick or fraud. Us, origin unknown. Secret - kept or meant to be kept private, unknown or hidden. Snatch..." She smiles round at everyone. "Uh, I think we know what these things mean, don't we? What we need to do is work out what they mean now."

"The scam could be that stunt Harry Pugh was pulling with the luminous footprints," Sam suggests. "The squid is obvious - it's floating in the tank downstairs. And if the secret is whatever the Air Staff people are searching for, that's most of them tied up."

"Yes," Michael agrees, "but what does it mean?"

Maddy closes the dictionary with a snap that makes all her bracelets jangle. "It means we haven't quite worked it out yet, but we're going to. Aren't we, team?"

No one has the heart to contradict her.

Alan looks at her thoughtfully. "I think we're making as much headway with your spells or trances, whatever they are, as any other way. We should look into that a bit more. Why is the dog so sensitive to them, for example? Do animals usually react like that?"

Maddy bites her lip, chewing off orange lipstick. "No... You don't 'spose he's psychic an' all too, do you?"

"Who knows?" Alan's broad shoulders move in a shrug. "If he is, it could be useful, though. Maybe he can help us find Dragna. Are you sure it wasn't him you saw at the farm, Sam?"

"Positive. Dragna's Mediterranean, remember. The bloke I saw last night was white. A bit red in the face from running, but definitely white."

"We could try putting up a notice that we've found a lost belt from a raincoat and see who comes to, like, collect it," Maddy suggests enthusiastically.

Alan scowls at the carpet. "Yeah, and we'll know him straight away. He'll be the one with pigs flying round his head." He ignores Maddy's hurt look. "We need to find Dragna anyway. I reckon we can handle him. Anyone know when Ross will be back?"

Michael shakes his head. "Today - maybe. If he doesn't get caught. We should..."

Margaret's voice interrupts him. "Today's lecture is on dissection procedures, gang, and you're running late."

Sam groans and stands up. "SITU should be paying us extra for this."

As the day grows brighter over the restricted areas, more jeeps arrive, dropping people off at various points. Ross watches them all closely.

He's now dressed in the same green as the rest of them, courtesy of a lone sentry who left his post to investigate a rustling in the bushes nearby. The shirt doesn't quite do up to the neck but it's a good enough fit to pass, and it came complete with an id tag bearing the name Lt. Keatman and a basic two-way radio. How long it will be before they find the real Lt. Keatman, Ross doesn't know, but he left him unconscious and thoroughly tied and hidden. It's unlikely that anyone should stumble over him for a while.

Ross walks on, using his binoculars from time to time to scan the area ahead of him. So far he has been unable to find any one centre of activity. As he'd suspected from what he saw last night, all the barricades and most of the people are stationed along the roads leading out of the area. The rest of the people are vehicles are fairly evenly scattered along the barbed-wire borders of the restricted zones. The zones themselves are surprisingly quiet. He hasn't seen a single biohazard suit since he stepped over the first boundary.

Some time later, his radio crackles, startling him. "Keatman? Respond. Where are you?"

Ross holds his hand over his mouth to reply. "Thought I saw something. Coming back to position now."

"Then stay in position. You're not being paid to wander off. Did you get a positive sighting?"

"No." He hesitates slightly before replying.

"Keep looking. He's going to have to come through here sooner or later if he wants to get out."

The radio goes dead.

"Now, Snowdon, SIT!" Maddy commands.

The St Bernard wags his tail and jumps up at her, nearly knocking her over. Alan pulls him back by the collar.

"You see?" Maddy says brightly. "He won't do what I say normally. So now I try... this!" She catches Michael's glance and grins at him before her face puckers in concentration.

Snowdon gives a surprised yelp and sits down so fast the floor bounces.

"Inspector Stewart?" The girl's scottish accent becomes even more pronounced. "No, I'm sorry, he left the police force two months ago. No, I haven't got a forwarding address. Who is this calling? Is it a personal or a police matter?"

"Personal. Thank you, I'm sure I'll find him." Russell replaces the receiver. He stands a while, frowning in thought, then goes to join the others in the dining room.

Lunch is a tense affair, the scientists all quiet and tense, Carol Henessey apologising for the inconvenience every other sentence. With the exception of Maddy, everyone is too busy worrying about Ross to feel like joining in any conversation. The only good thing, Michael thinks wryly, is that if the ex-soldier has been caught he'd probably cause such an uproar trying to escape that the whole village would have heard about it by now.

"I'm going to take Snowdon for a walk," Maddy announces the moment she has swallowed her last mouthful. "Is anyone coming?"

Michael agrees straight away, the others a little more reluctantly. But everyone is glad to get away from the centre for a while.

The helicopters are still whirring overhead. Michael stops in the middle of the street and looks up at them. "If they are searching for something they haven't found it yet," he comments. "Why don't you go and check on your new girlfriend?" he asks Sam. "The rest of us can have a walk around and see what's new since yesterday."

Sam and Russell find Tanya at home in her little flat. The window is open and the cushions piled up beneath it are a clear mark of where she's been sitting. She greets Sam with a smile and then sighs.

"I'm beginning to feel more trapped in this place every day," she says.

"Tell me about it." Sam sits down next to her. "How have you been? No more nightmares?"

"No. But Martin's been phoning me. He wanted to know who you were and why I was talking to you, and what I was telling you." She runs a hand through her hair and smiles weakly. "Honestly, if I'd ever thought he was going to get this jealous I'd never have gone back out with him." Her gaze flickers around the room. "They've said we have to stay here until they give us the all-clear to leave. They've offered us a lot of money, but I don't want money. I want to know what is happening and then I want to leave."

"But I don't know what's happening!" Martin Hughes backs away from Alan, his eyes frightened. "He said his name was Peter and he was a magistrate's assistant or something. He's working for the police anyway - he showed me his card. All he wanted was for me to keep an eye on you lot and tell him what was happening. He promised me there wouldn't be any trouble."

"So he lied. A lot of people do that." Alan's face turns ugly with anger.

Michael pushes in front of him quickly before he can say anything else. Meeting and holding Martin's gaze he smiles slightly. "Listen, friend," he says, "this Peter person is paying you to tell him what we've been doing, right? So now, you're going to tell us exactly what you told him, and if you do we may just let you walk away."

Martin swallows convulsively. He turns his head to stare at Maddy who gives him her best aggressive leer back, spoiled somewhat by Snowdon dribbling all down her legs. "Bad dog," she scolds. "And you, you'd better tell us what you know or I'll set him on you."

"I've already told you everything I know. This man introduces himself to me as Peter, shows me his police card and asks me to keep an eye on you. As your friend's been sniffing around my girlfriend I agreed to do it. He gave me a hundred quid and said I wasn't doing nothing illegal and no one would cause trouble because of it. All I've told him is what Tanya's told you, that she's been dreaming about aliens again and you've made her think they're coming to get her."

"How do you contact him?" Michael asks. "Is there a phone number or something?"

"No. He contacts me. The last time was yesterday and he said he'd probably call again in another day or two."

Alan and Michael glance at each other. "Right," says Alan, "next time he phones you'll agree to a meeting with him, and then you'll come and tell us. Understand. Because if you don't..."

He leaves the threat hanging.

"Keatman? Report please, where are you?"

Ross is crouched to one side of a road block, counting vehicles and soldiers. There are eight jeeps and a lorry blocking the road and at least twenty people, some uniformed, three that he can see in plain, dark suits. The radio crackles words at him a second time and he answers reluctantly.

"Patrol. Following orders. Can't hear you too well."

A brief silence. Then another voice comes over. Ross recognises it straight away as Patrick Newsome's. "Listen, whoever you are, we're quite willing to deal sensibly. You won't be the first conspiracy-theorist we've escorted out of the danger zone, and you won't be the last either. All my men have got orders to look for you so all you have to do is give yourself up to any one of them. You'll be driven back to the village and that will be an end to it."

Ross doesn't answer. The men at the barricade still seem unaware of his presence.

"What do you say?" Newsome's voice says. Ross simply reaches for the radio and flicks it off.

Another jeep pulls up to the road-block. The driver talks to two of the men for a few minutes then reverses and drives away. Another hurried conversation and the guards start to spread out. Ross is already moving. Keeping low, he backs away then breaks into a run.

"Halt!" The shout comes from behind him. He doesn't look back.

An army jeep rolls through the village centre. Russell stops to watch it go by then starts walking again. "Lets carry on, I want to check out the restricted areas again." Safer to wait until Ross reports back, but if Ross is caught they'll need a fast way out of the village. The only way to find it is to check the weak points in the cordon. They carry on out of the village, Maddy going ahead, hanging onto Snowdon's lead and refusing Alan's offers of help.

It's not long before they're stopped. "Sorry, folks, you can't come this way."

Michael frowns, pushing himself forward. "It wasn't off limits yesterday."

"It is today. Sorry." The officer's eyes narrow suspiciously. "Where are you going anyway?"

"For a walk. We'll do it somewhere else."

As soon as the group are out of earshot Alan stops. "You know where that road goes, don't you?" he asks. "To the farm. They've cordoned off Lodge Farm."

Ross is running flat out when he reaches the barbed wire. A gun shot screams out behind him and he ducks instinctively. So much for dealing sensibly with people. Another guard runs at him from the side, gun half up. Ross glances around quickly, sees a clump of trees a few hundred metres away and sprints towards them.

More shouting. A sharp crack and pain like fire streaks through his left arm. He gasps and staggers but keeps going. The shadows of the trees close in around him and he flings himself into them.

Sam catches up with the others at the main gates of Orielton. Tanya is trailing along behind him and gives them all a nervous smile, patting Snowdon as he pads over to sniff at her.

"There's someone waiting to see you," Margaret Ferris says as they come in. "A foreigner - Italian or Spanish or something. He said he knew you." Her eyes narrow doubtfully for a moment. "Anyway, he's in the coffee area..."

"You took your bloody time," Vul Dragna says as Alan opens the door.

Alan pauses then walks forward. He feels his arms tensing up and he makes an effort to keep his hands open by his sides. The others crowd in behind him, Sam making sure that Tanya is safely behind them all. Michael shifts slightly to put himself between Dragna and Maddy, his protective stance spoiled somewhat by Maddy hopping about trying to see over his shoulder.

"It's Dragna," she hisses. "Cool! He's the..."

"Quiet!" Alan snaps. "What do you want, Dragna?"

"What are you offering?" He smiles, the scar that runs down his face twisting his lips to one side. "There was this little bit of trouble in Scotland, see? People acting weird and stuff, and all because of aliens, or so they told us. Right in the middle of it was this group of investigators asking questions and causing trouble. Now, call me mad, but there's suddenly another fuss about aliens and - what d'you know - another group of weirdoes turn up asking dumb questions."

"I think you'll find the whole village is full of weirdoes," Michael says, eyeing the madman coldly while wondering if there are enough of them to hold him down when he turns violent. Remembering what happened last time, he rubs his side slowly.

Vul catches the movement and grins. "Hope I didn't hurt you too much. As I was saying, another group of weirdoes turns up. I reckon you know more than you're letting on, and you're going to tell me everything you know, starting right now."

"And if we don't?"

"Then I'll walk out of here, nice and peaceful, like. And I'll come and talk to you one at a time when you're not expecting it. First question - where are the fingers?"

"The fingers?" Maddy wonders.

Ross makes his way slowly along the road to the research centre. He is limping and he holds his arm stiffly. Only a flesh wound - how many times has he heard army doctors say that? He grins ruefully. Flesh wound or not, it still hurts like hell.

A dark brown van is nose down in the ditch at the side of the road. Ross glances at it as he passes but, seeing no one around, he carries on walking.

"Don't play stupid. I know they're here somewhere. They need them to wake the alien. Somebody shut that bloody dog up." He leans back against the wall, bringing both hands up over his face. Alan tenses himself, ready to move.

A soft tap at the door. "Sorry to disturb you," Margaret says. She casts a sharp glance at Vul then looks back to Russell. "Uh, it was Ross I wanted actually, but one of you might do instead. There's a gentleman here says his van has run into a ditch just down the road. I thought Ross's Range Rover would do to give it a quick tow out."

Russell glances at the others, his eyes showing clearly what he is thinking. One damn thing after another. "We're a bit tied up at the moment. Can this man wait a while? Where is he?"

"Right here, laddie." The voice that comes from behind her is unmistakably Scottish. "The name's Stewart. Andrew Stewart."

Turning around, Sam sees a heavy-set, red-faced man, wearing an old brown raincoat.

Vul lets out a roar of rage. Kicking away from the wall, he flings himself at the door. "Stewart? Stewart, you bastard. Where have you hidden the fingers?"

Margaret screams. At the same moment Snowdon sets up a howling the hound of the Baskervilles would have been proud of and Tanya clutches her head and staggers sideways. And Ross stumbles in, his left sleeve torn and crusted black with blood, just in time to see Dragna leaping right at him.

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