Luke was talking to Sarah Jane on the Skype from his laptop. Clyde was just lounging in the sunshine with his bare feet in the lake beside the castle. He was thoroughly appreciating how ‘the other half lived’ for once, thanks to Luke’s friend from Oxford whose parents had decided to spend the summer in the Seychelles as a change from their stately castle home in Bavaria and let them have the run of the place.
“Bye mum,” Luke said and closed the connection. He was smiling happily.
“Mum is having a great time at the U.N.I.T. reunion week,” he said. “Talking to all her old friends about The Doctor and The Brigadier and Zygons and Daleks and stuff. I suppose U.N.I.T. are the only people apart from us she CAN talk about that stuff with.”
Clyde didn’t look as interested in his news as he expected. In fact, he was looking decidedly grumpy about something. Luke was puzzled. They were on a luxury holiday. The sun was shining. Why wasn’t Clyde enjoying himself?
“Where’s Rani?” he replied, answering a question with a question.
“Pieter is showing her round the south wing.”
“Still? How long does it take to look at a load of old suits of armour?”
“She’s probably taking her time looking at everything. She’s interested in history. She always has been.”
“Pieter is interested in Rani,” Clyde responded. “She’s too young for him. He’s nineteen.”
Luke was a super genius with things like maths and science, but he could be very slow on the uptake about Human relationships. He didn’t get why Clyde was so bothered.
“He’s always showing off that he’s older than all of us. Last night at dinner, he had a glass of whiskey before the meal, and wine, and a brandy after, while we were all drinking fruit cordial.”
“Well, we ARE younger than him,” Luke pointed out. “We can’t change that. But Pieter’s a good mate. He DID invite us all here, after all.”
“I’m starting to wonder if it was a good idea.” He looked across the lake to Rothstein Schloss – Redstone Castle in plain English. It was one of those places that ‘did what it said on the tin’. It really was made of a light salmon coloured sandstone with deeper red around the lintels of the windows and the top of the round tower. Inside, all of the rooms, especially the ‘great hall’ had columns of the deep red around the walls, some of them with carvings of ancient Rothsteins who had been knights of Bavaria in medieval times when the earliest parts of the Schloss were built.
The south wing that Rani was taking such a long time to visit contained a chapel with a fourteenth century high altar and a library that had a huge hand-painted window depicting the family tree of Rothstein up to when the last Kaiser made the Knight Pieter Rothstein into Count Rothstein. Luke’s friend, named Pieter after his noble ancestor, was the son of the present Count, and would inherit the title and the castle one day.
And that was half the reason why Clyde resented the amount of time Rani spent with Pieter. How was he supposed to compete with a nineteen year old with his own castle?
“It’s not as if she’s your girlfriend,” Luke said. And that was true, more or less. He and Rani always insisted they were just friends. They had decided there was no point in anything else when they were going on to different colleges in the autumn and would only see each other properly at weekends.
But that didn’t stop him hoping, and he still felt that Pieter Rothstein was trying to impress Rani with his castle and his obvious wealth.
And he was sure Rani WAS impressed.
Rani was impressed with the castle, especially these very old parts that were kept as a sort of private museum rather than lived in. The library had shelves full of huge leather bound books going back centuries. There was even a Guttenberg bible, the very oldest printed book of all, kept in a special glass case, and the painted window with the family tree painted on it was a real work of art.
Rani hadn’t been in very many chapels, but she appreciated that the place where generations of Rothsteins had come to pray in private with their own priest who lived in a small apartment of his own was something special. There were two painted glass windows here, too, depicting scenes from the life of Christ, and the high altar, carved from that same red stone that was found everywhere in the castle was a fine piece of work. It was decorated with gleaming bronze candlesticks and a huge cross and the front of the altar was covered by an exquisitely embroidered cloth that Pieter said dated from the fifteenth century.
“Most of my ancestors got married here in this chapel,” Pieter told her. “My mother hopes I will when the time comes.”
“It’s not very big,” Rani commented. “Wouldn’t somebody who is going to be a Count one day have a huge wedding in a cathedral with hundreds of guests, you know, like William and Kate.”
“You would think so, but in our family we have this tradition of small private weddings and huge receptions for those who weren’t invited to the main event.”
“I’m Hindu,” Rani reminded him, in case he was thinking of proposing to her right there and then. “We don’t do small private weddings. It’s always a huge community thing with lots of ceremony and traditional things going on. I imagine I’ll get married like that one day… sooner or later. Plenty of time for that, of course. I’m only sixteen.”
“I was forgetting that. You are so mature for your age. Poised and sophisticated. And very pretty, too.”
Rani was slightly taken aback. She wondered if he WAS about to propose in this chapel where his ancestors all married. Then he shook his head with a wry smile.
“Unless the law in Germany changes in the next few years my mother will be disappointed. Besides, I haven’t met the right man, yet.”
Rani took in that information without giving anything away on her face. After all, she was practising to be a journalist. She wasn’t supposed to react to things like that.
“I think I HAVE met the right man,” she confided, now that she knew he wasn’t a potential suitor. “I’m not sure he knows it yet.”
“Clyde?” Pieter guessed perceptively.
“Yes.” She was surprised. “I didn’t think it was that obvious. Nobody at home thinks we’re an item.”
“Perhaps not to your friends at home who have known you since school,” Pieter explained. “But as a stranger, when I met you both the day before yesterday, my first thought was that you are a couple. Don’t worry. If Clyde does not yet know it… your secret is safe with me.”
Pieter smiled warmly. Rani responded with equal warmth. She hadn’t really known what to make of Luke’s much older university friend until now when they shared those confidences with each other. Now she knew he only wanted to be a good friend to them all.
“I had better take you back to your Clyde,” Pieter said presently. “Or he will get the wrong idea completely.”
“Oh, that would be typical of him!” Rani responded. “I think we’ve seen it all, anyway. You have a beautiful home, Pieter. All this history and tradition. Just beautiful.”
He thanked her for the compliment before they turned and left the chapel. A side door brought them out of the old wing of the house into a courtyard. The house enclosed it on three sides and on the fourth was a beautifully curving arch of that red sandstone that looked as if it defied gravity. There was no obvious keystone taking the strain of holding it up. Beyond it, the lake began. There was a linked chain across it to stop anyone accidentally falling into the very deep water, but Pieter set it aside and helped Rani into a punt that was moored alongside. Pieter took the pole and punted across the lake to where Clyde and Luke were relaxing. Rani was pleased. Nobody had ever taken her punting before, even if it was only about fifty yards. It was a new experience. She looked down at the crystal clear lake water. It was very deep. She could barely see the bottom. No wonder there was a chain across the arch. There seemed to be a bit of a current, too. Pieter didn’t have to punt very much at first, only when he wanted to change direction and come into land beside the boys. Rani saw Clyde stand up and watch them arrive. It was he who reached out his hand to help her out of the punt, and it would have been a nice, old fashioned, chivalrous gesture if she hadn’t missed her footing on the damp grass around the edge and ended up pushing him backwards so that they both ended up in an ungainly heap. Rani came up giggling at the fun of it, but Clyde looked annoyed. He had tried to be grown up the way Pieter was, and it had gone wrong.
“I have a picnic,” Pieter said, lifting a basket from the punt and climbing out without mishap. He sat on the grass with them and produced smoked Bavarian cheese, a fresh salad with smoked local sausages chopped up into bite sized pieces, a whole roast chicken and individual lemon deserts in porcelain ramekins. There was a half bottle of wine, too, which Pieter drank while the others had bottles of local spring water that were cooled at the bottom of the basket between ice packs.
It was by far the most sophisticated picnic any of them had ever been on, and Luke and Rani at least enjoyed it. Clyde ate the food, but he seemed out of sorts in some way. Rani decided she wasn’t going to ask. It was a nice day. She was enjoying herself. Clyde could work off his snit and enjoy it, too.
She was quite relieved that he did. After the picnic Pieter asked if they all enjoyed boats and pointed towards a small separate building of the same salmon-pink stone and red tiled roof as the Schloss itself. It turned out to be a boathouse. There was a very smart motor launch moored there as well as a couple of rowing boats, another punt and a pair of kayaks propped against the wall. Pieter invited all three of his guests to join him in the launch for a trip downriver. The lake that was such a charming feature of Rothstein Schloss was called the Roth and started up in the mountains that rose beyond the wooden valley of Pieter’s ancestral home and wended its way down through lowland Bavaria to the sea. It was navigable only in the small rowing boats and kayaks beyond the lake, but downriver it was wide enough and deep enough for the launch.
Clyde claimed a wide padded seat in the back of the boat with a cooler box containing more of that spring water. Rani sat beside him and accepted the bottle he opened for her. Luke was interested in watching Pieter steer the launch, so they had time to talk. Pieter’s name didn’t come up in the conversation more times than Clyde thought necessary and he was satisfied that Rani was really interested in the history of the castle.
“I might even write an article about it,” she said. “A travel/history type of magazine piece. I really would rather be an investigative reporter like Sarah Jane, but practicing different styles of writing will be useful for my journalism course.”
“Yeah, why not,” Clyde agreed. “You can show me around tomorrow and I’ll take photos to go with your article.”
Rani smiled. She liked that idea. Clyde smiled, too. The rich boy didn’t have everything his own way.
The river trip brought them to a small town called Rothsburg, literally, red town. It was really a village with high hopes rather than a town, the sort of place that picture postcards of Bavaria inevitably depicted with lots of peaked roofs with fancy tiling and carved and painted shutters on the windows. There was a pub that looked as if it ought to have a band dressed in lederhosen playing in the beer garden. It didn’t. The juke box had the sort of pop music they were familiar with in England except most of it was in German. They had soft drinks in the beer garden and bought postcards in the little village shop with exactly the sort of scenes they expected on them and looked at the clock tower in the fifteenth century town hall.
“I always thought the history of Germany was kind of violent,” Clyde said when they returned to the launch. “Didn’t we bomb it to bits in World War II in response to the Blitz?” It wasn’t really a tactful question, but after all, Pieter went to university in England. He couldn’t expect people to avoid mentioning the war all the time.
“This valley was so very well hidden between the mountains and the forests that I don’t think your bombers even knew it was there,” Pieter answered. “The same protected it even in the thirteenth century when there were wars with neighbouring provinces. That is why Rothstein Schloss isn’t a fortified castle. It never came under attack. Instead knights of our family went to fight wars elsewhere. My grandfather was in the Luftwaffe. It is possible that he might have been part of that Blitz. But that was a long time ago, and it cannot prevent us being friends, surely?”
“Suppose not,” Clyde replied and left it at that. In any case, his family didn’t even live in Britain at the time of the war. His grandparents on both sides had come from Jamaica in the 1950s. There probably wasn’t much point in him getting upset about the Blitz.
They came back to the castle after an afternoon on the river and changed for dinner. That was something that people did in Pieter’s world. It took the others by surprise, but they adapted. Rani had brought plenty of nice dresses, anyway. The two boys had a couple of outfits that would pass as ‘dinner clothes’. Pieter outdid them, but they tried not to worry about it. The four of them ate a meal prepared by a cook and served by a butler which, again, Pieter took for granted but which was a new experience for the others. Later, they retired to the drawing room and listened to music, played chess and generally amused themselves until bedtime.
It was some time after midnight when Rani was disturbed in her sleep by a strange noise outside her window. The room looked out over the lake and she was surprised to see a white light shining up from beneath the water. She was sure it was nothing to do with decorative uplighting of the castle or anything of that sort. It was something much more sinister.
She pulled on a t-shirt and skirt and put shoes on her feet and went down the back stairs that led out of the south wing to the lakeside. She was a little bit surprised to see that somebody else was already there.
“Luke, did you see it, too?” she asked.
“It fell out of the sky,” he confirmed. “I think it is alien.”
“That’s a good guess,” Rani told him. “Thing from the sky, glowing. Why here? Like Pieter said, even the RAF couldn’t find this valley. Why does it go and land where we are? Couldn’t we have a holiday without alien mysteries to solve?”
“If you thought that, why did you come and look?” Luke asked her. “You could have stayed in bed and pretended you didn’t see anything.”
“I’m supposed to be a reporter, and one of Sarah Jane’s gang. Either way I couldn’t ignore this now it IS here. But I really wish it hadn’t come.”
They both stared at the lake. The glow was just as intense. It wasn’t anything ordinary like a meteorite. That would have hissed and steamed when it hit the water and would be gradually cooling now. Besides, the glow was more blue-white than the orange-red of something that had been burning up in the atmosphere.
“It’s not a ship,” she said. “Unless the occupants are really small. It must be some sort of probe come to find out about the Human race or something.”
“Lot’s of things out there ARE really small,” Luke confirmed. “Mum told me about these tiny creatures like armoured fairies that are so vicious they could hack a man to death if they swarmed around him. And then there are….”
He stopped talking. The glow was increasing. The whole lake looked as if it was lit from underwater.
Then the light felt like it was exploding. There was no sound at all, but Luke and Rani both felt as if they had been hit by a wave of pure light that emanated from the lake. They felt stunned by it and after it had gone their ears rang and their eyes were left with an afterimage of the light.
When they slowly recovered they found themselves in darkness. The glow was gone. Whether the thing that had caused it was gone, too, or had simply expended its energy and remained beneath the surface, they didn’t know.
What happened?” Luke asked. “Was it a probe or what?”
“No idea,” Rani answered. “We’d better get back to bed. There’s nothing else to do here, and I feel really cold all of a sudden.”
Luke agreed. They turned and walked around the lake, back to the castle.
“There’s lights on,” Rani noted. “Somebody must be up.”
“We can’t be in trouble for being out here. There are no grown ups here, except servants.”
“Oh, yeah. I forgot.”
Clyde was first up in the morning. He showered in the en-suite bathroom of his room and dressed before going downstairs. In the dining room the butler had laid out every possible combination of breakfast choices on the big sideboard. He filled his plate with crisp bacon and eggs, mushrooms and grilled tomatoes and sat to eat. Pieter came into the room and said a cheerful good morning before selecting his breakfast choices and sitting opposite Clyde. The conversation flagged after that. The room seemed too quiet. By the time they reached the toast and marmalade Clyde started to wonder where Luke and Rani were.
“Perhaps they went for a walk,” Pieter suggested.
“Why would they go for a walk together?” Clyde responded. “If Rani wanted to go for a walk, she’d go with me, not Luke… or anyone else. Something isn’t right.”
Pieter was unconvinced.
“Look, you and Luke are roommates at college, aren’t you?” Clyde insisted. “How often does Luke get up early and go for a walk?”
Pieter conceded that point.
“But it doesn’t mean there’s a problem. After all, what could possibly happen to either of them? Do you suppose aliens came and abducted them?”
“I wouldn’t rule it out,” Clyde responded.
“Why don’t we check their rooms and see if they simply overslept?” Pieter suggested quite logically.
“Fine, but you stay away from Rani. I’ll look in on her.”
Pieter wondered about the ferocity with which Clyde said that, but said nothing. They both went up to the landing where all the guest bedrooms were and quickly confirmed that neither Luke nor Rani were in bed, and that wherever they were they were not fully dressed, nor had they packed anything.
“Well, what did you expect?” Clyde asked. “Like, they’re going to run away together?”
“Of course not,” Pieter replied. He was becoming concerned now. He called his butler and asked him to check the old wing to see if they might possibly have decided to look at the library or chapel and lost track of time. He and Clyde looked in the south wing where the family rooms were before it occurred to Clyde that they were living beside a deep lake and he ran outside in a panic calling for Rani.
When he had assured himself that they hadn’t drowned in the lake, he accepted Pieter’s suggestion that it was time to call the police.
Since they were bound to have ideas about people not being officially missing until so many hours had passed Clyde called Sarah Jane first.
The police were initially unconcerned about two young tourists who could simply have decided to see the sites. When Pieter mentioned his father’s name and title they became far more active, organising a thorough search of the Castle grounds and the forest in the immediate area as well as taking a boat out on the lake and going over it thoroughly.
A little after two o’clock on that increasingly anxious day Sarah Jane Smith arrived along with Rani’s mother. Clyde was relieved. He didn’t want to have to explain to Rani’s father that she was missing. He had a feeling Haresh Chandra would think it was all his fault.
“How did you get here so quick?” Pieter asked when he had brought the new arrivals into the dining room and the butler had brought English tea for them. “All the way from London?”
“Sarah Jane has these friends in the military,” Gita Chandra said even though the question was not actually addressed to her. “They flew us over to Munich and then a helicopter and a car.”
“You pulled a favour with U.N.I.T.?” Clyde said to Sarah Jane.
“Yes, but never mind that. What happened? Where is Luke? How could he and Rani just disappear?”
“Yes,” Gita added, apparently just remembering the reason for the extraordinary travel arrangements. “Where is Rani? Why would she just disappear? She’s a good girl. She wouldn’t just run away. Something must have happened to her….”
“I don’t know,” Clyde admitted to Sarah Jane while Gita carried on a monologue about how Rani was a good girl, a sensible girl, who wouldn’t do anything so silly…. “We don’t even know when they went. The police think… because they’re both sixteen and a boy and girl… they think they eloped. They’re checking hotels for them booking in as a couple.”
“Oh for heaven sake, that’s ridiculous,” Sarah Jane responded.
“I told them that,” Pieter said. “Luke and Rani are not interested in each other in that way. Rani is Clyde’s girlfriend and Luke is….”
Pieter broke off quickly, avoiding looking at Sarah Jane. Clyde looked at him sharply, but only because of what he had said first.
“Rani told you she’s my…..” he began.
“She didn’t have to,” Pieter replied. “It is obvious that you two are meant to be together. But the police don’t see it that way, and as long as that is their line of investigation they are useless.”
“I agree,” Sarah Jane said. “Which is why I brought my own tracker dog.” Sarah Jane opened a large squashy padded bag that she had left by the door. Pieter nodded in understanding as K9 rolled out of the bag and circled around twice, not chasing his own tail, but scanning the room thoroughly.
“It’s a sort of remote control computer thing,” Gita said in a completely inadequate explanation. “It’s a military secret design sort of thing. Sarah Jane has been testing it for them.”
“Yes, I know,” Pieter answered. “Luke brought it to university. He keeps it in our room. It’s… an intriguing development in robotics. But I don’t know how it can help in this situation.”
“You’d be surprised,” Clyde responded. “K9, what do you reckon, old boy?”
“I am sensing decaying levels of non-polarised ionic particles in the area. I believe something happened outside. Mistress, if you would please open the door for me to go into the garden….”
The butler opened the doors, in fact. He was a butler. He was expected to be discreet about anything that went on in his employer’s household. Attending upon the requests of a robot dog was not something he would be discussing with anyone.
Sarah Jane, Clyde, Pieter, and Gita, still talking even though nobody was listening, followed K9 out along the lakeside. He again circled several times testing the air.
“The non-polarised ionic particles are strongest approximately eighteen metres away from the edge of this large volume of H2O,” K9 announced. “That was the source of the energy burst.”
“In the middle of the lake?” Sarah Jane confirmed.
“That is what I said, mistress.”
Sarah Jane looked at Pieter anxiously. He shook his head.
“The police have already checked the lake. They were not there. What is non-polarised…?”
“It’s a harmless residual trace left over after a transmat has been used in an area,” Sarah Jane responded. “Usually, anyway. But that would only be a very small, very localised trace. K9 is picking it up all over the lake and even as far as the Castle itself.”
“Which means?” Clyde asked a little impatiently.
“I don’t know,” Sarah Jane had to admit. “And I don’t think K9 does, either. I’m sorry. I really thought I could do something. I thought K9 would find them. I thought….”
Sarah Jane started to cry. Clyde hugged her. Gita looked at them and started to sob, too, as if the reality of the fact that her daughter was missing had caught up with her after the excitement of the hurried flight and finding herself at a German nobleman’s castle. Nobody hugged her. She sobbed loudly but to herself.
“It’s all right, Sarah Jane,” Clyde told her. “I mean it WILL be all right. I’m sure we’ll find them soon. Luke will be totally embarrassed that you came all this way for nothing and….”
He was about to say something about Rani, but the words stuck in his throat. With two women crying he was close to doing the same thing. But he couldn’t. He had to hold it together. He had to be the man for Sarah Jane and Gita. Besides, he couldn’t look that soft in front of Pieter.
“There is nothing to be done out here,” Pieter said. Clyde wondered if he was imagining it, or did he have a catch in his voice as if he, too, was trying to be manly in front of the women. “Let us go back inside. The police will tell us if they have any news, even if it is unlikely. Other than that I don’t know what we can do.”
He was right. For the moment they were helpless. In the house, at least there was the butler bringing more tea. It helped a little bit.
“I don’t know how much tea I have drunk over the years,” Sarah Jane said. “Mostly military tea. When I was with U.N.I.T. and The Doctor, there was always some crisis or other and the first thing anyone would do is make tea. Sergeant Benton usually. He was a big, brawny man, chiselled chin, tough as nails, and an expert in tea making.”
Gita had gone quiet, now, only occasionally sniffing or hiccupping or sighing deeply. Now Sarah Jane was the one talking just to fill in the silence.
“Mistress,” K9 piped up. “I have contacted Mr Smith by the Subwave Network and shared my findings with him, but he has no ideas, either. He said he would try to access his deep archive memory cells, but it is this dog’s opinion that he is talking balderdash.”
Sarah Jane laughed despite herself. Balderdash!” Only The Doctor could have taught K9 to use a word like that.
“K9, you and Mr Smith really need to stop hating each other one day.”
“Mr Smith is an overgrown computer and I am a robotic intelligence,” K9 replied. “Neither of us are capable of hate. It is simply a matter of data incompatibility.”
Pieter had been listening to the odd conversation between robot dog and woman for a while, but he found it just a little too strange. It was all very well when Luke used it to test his computer programming theory back at Oxford, but having it here, in his home, under these strange, worrying circumstances, was another matter.
He quietly left the dining room where they had all gathered. He went through the residential wing and passed through the long gallery that brought him to the library and chapel, the unlived in museum part of the house. He stood for a little while in front of that window with his family tree on it before he went to the chapel. He didn’t pray exactly. He was not really the praying sort, even though his mother was quite devout. But he had always liked the peace of the old chapel. It was as if the place was imbued with a special kind of tranquillity.
He remembered the conversation he had with Rani yesterday. It was the easiest conversation he had ever had with a girl. Rani was unique in that sense. He hoped she was safe, wherever she was.
He sighed deepl, then turned around quickly, aware that he was not alone.
“I… wondered if you’d thought of something the rest of us hadn’t… some hiding place in the castle where they might have got lost. A secret passage….”
“It’s… not that sort of castle,” Pieter replied. “We never had to hide priests like they did in England in certain times or anything like that.”
“Well, anyway….” Clyde paused awkwardly and then decided to say what he really wanted to say somewhere that neither Gita nor Sarah Jane could hear. “When you said it was obvious that Rani was my girlfriend. You know, we’ve never… nobody really thinks of us that way.”
“Well, perhaps it is time they did,” Pieter responded. “I know you’re both young.…”
“You’re only nineteen,” Clyde responded. “Three flipping years. Will you get off this thing about being older than us? Besides, you don’t even have a girlfriend at all.”
“I don’t want a girlfriend,” Pieter replied. “I want….”
Again the catch in his voice. Then Clyde ran back the earlier conversation and remembered something else Pieter had said, as well as about Rani.
“I think you’re on the wrong track there, mate,” he said. “I’ve known Luke a lot longer than you, and I’m pretty sure he’s not….”
Pieter smiled oddly.
“Then… perhaps it is unrequited love and always will be. But believe me that my concern for him is as strong as your concern for Rani.”
“I believe you, mate,” Clyde assured him. “Blimey, I thought you were trying to get her from me. So how come you brought her here, and not….”
“Because she was interested in the history,” he answered. “That’s all. There doesn’t have to be an ulterior motive for these things.”
“I guess not,” Clyde conceded.
“We’d better get back, before they worry about us, too,” Pieter said. Clyde agreed. They walked back across the courtyard, noticing that it was starting to get dark. It was nearly ten o’clock in the evening. A whole long summer day had passed in fear and anxiety and they still knew nothing. Clyde was disappointed that K9, Mr Smith, and all the technology they had between them could come up with nothing to help them. He had always put his trust in them, and they couldn’t do anything. He never felt more hopeless than he did right now. As for Sarah Jane – she was just a worried mother at the moment, fretting over her son.
The fact that a few things had been cleared up between him and Pieter was a small crumb of comfort, but unless Rani came back safe and sound it remained only a crumb.
And there still didn’t seem to be anything else to do except wait and drink tea. There was a cold collation on the sideboard but nobody wanted to eat. They didn’t even talk much. Even K9 sat mutely on the floor by Sarah Jane’s feet. The butler, who really ought to have finished his duties by now, popped in now and again and quietly asked Pieter if they needed anything, but all they needed was news, and he didn’t have any.
Midnight came and went. Pieter told the butler that he could go to bed. They wouldn’t require his services further. He gently suggested that everyone else should try to sleep, but nobody moved from the dining room. Gita dozed fitfully, snoring in a rather unladylike way that would have made Clyde laugh any other time. Tonight it just felt like a peculiarly normal thing in a day that was peculiarly abnormal.
Sarah Jane looked sleepy, but deliberately kept herself awake. Clyde thought he couldn’t have slept if he wanted to. His mind was more busy than Mr Smith’s motherboard going over all of the normal, ordinary Human possibilities including somebody trying to kidnap the rich Count’s son and grabbing Luke by mistake and a dozen other ideas, as well as all the extraordinary things he knew were possible like Slitheen trying to use Luke’s brilliant mind or Judoon, Graske, the Trickster, all kinds of other strange and terrifying things.
Then the dining room door opened again. Clyde had almost stopped looking around expectantly. Every time he had hoped it was them and it was just the butler or the maid or somebody who didn’t really matter right now.
So when Luke and Rani stepped into the room, still wearing a curious mix of nightclothes and day clothes, he almost didn’t believe his eyes.
Then his ears were deafened by the combined screams of Gita and Sarah Jane. The two women almost broke sprint records and reached the door in a dead heat. Rani and Luke seemed utterly amazed at the fuss.
“Mum, how did you get here?” Luke asked when he was able to breathe again.
“Where have you been all this time?” Gita asked. “Rani, my dear, are you all right? Did anyone hurt you?”
“All what time?” Rani asked. “We were twenty minutes at the most. What’s going on?”
It took several minutes and the decision to allow Clyde to explain on his own instead of everyone talking at once before Rani and Luke finally understood that they had been missing for nearly twenty-four hours.
“But we haven’t,” Rani insisted. “We went to look at the weird light in the lake. Then there was a sort of flash of light… and when it was gone… we came right back here.”
“Tuesday,” Luke added. “About one o’clock on Tuesday morning.” He looked at the big, old grandfather clock that stood against the dining room wall. It was just about to strike one. It fitted in with all he remembered.
“Luke, my leibling,” Pieter said quietly. “It is Wednesday. You have been gone a whole day.”
“Gone where?” Rani asked. “I don’t remember anything…. Ohhh!”
K9 had quietly moved towards her and scanned her with his body scanner. It was harmless, painless, but she swooned dizzily like an old fashioned black and white movie heroine. Clyde was there as an old fashioned black and white movie hero and held her upright. She recovered after a few confused moments. Meanwhile K9 had scanned Luke while he was busy watching Rani. When he, too, swooned, Clyde was the only one who wasn’t surprised that Pieter held onto him, although Sarah Jane soon took him over as a concerned mother.
“I remember!” Rani exclaimed.
“Me too,” Luke added.
“Oh! You won’t believe it. I think we’d all better sit down. Is there any tea? Could we get something to eat? I’m hungry.”
There was plenty of tea, and the cold collation provided a meal for them all. Gita found her appetite now that Rani was back, safe and sound, so did the others. But they were more concerned with hearing their story than food.
Especially when they heard the story.
“The thing that dropped into the lake WAS a probe sent by an extra-terrestrial space ship,” Luke said. “They had sent down loads of them into different parts of Northern Europe. They… they’re called Sacora… They were on a survey mission, sampling flora and fauna of different planets, just finding out what grows in different kinds of air, different environments. They are just supposed to scan. They are absolutely forbidden to take any plant or animal from any planet. It is purely so that they can understand the diversity of life in the universe fully.”
“And....?” Sarah Jane was puzzled. K9 was whirring softly as he contacted Mr Smith for information about the Sacora.
“And they were nearly finished. They were beaming their probes back and somehow or other we got caught up in it and beamed up as well.” Rani said. “They didn’t find us until after they’d done a hyperspace jump out of the solar system and they were really upset about it. They kept apologising and everything, bringing us drinks and a sort of bread stuff that they live on. They said they would get us back as soon as they could travel back through the hyperspace jump.”
“They said they could get us right back only a few minutes after we left,” Luke added. “They said we wouldn’t even know we were gone because they had a way of blanking our memories of being aboard.”
“They must have miscalculated,” Rani said. “They got us back a day late. And the memory blanking didn’t last long.”
K9 confirmed that the Sacora were a peaceful race interested only in exploration and mapping of the galaxies.
Gita looked absolutely amazed, not so much by the story Luke and Rani told but the calm, matter of fact way they told it, as if being accidentally abducted by aliens happened to them every day.
“What am I supposed to tell your father?” she asked. “I’ve got to ring him and say you’re ok.”
“I think,” Pieter said. “You’d better say that Luke and Rani got lost in the forest and they’re tired but fine now. I’ll ring the police and tell them the same. This is something we should probably keep to ourselves.”
“I quite agree,” Sarah Jane added. “The less people know about this, the better. And when we’ve done that, everyone should get to bed, especially you two. You’ve missed a whole night’s sleep.”
“Well, we haven’t really,” Luke pointed out. “We got some sleep on the spaceship. We’re all right, really.”
Gita insisted that Rani should get to bed as soon as possible, though, backing up Sarah Jane. Even Pieter had to admit that the two mothers were probably right.
The next morning Luke made his way down to the breakfast room and filled his plate hungrily. K9 was with him. Pieter joined him.
“Your mum and Rani’s mum are both still asleep,” he told him. “Clyde and Rani already had their breakfast. They’ve gone for a walk.”
“A walk?” Luke was surprised. “I’ve never known them to go for a walk before.”
“Maybe they will more often in future,” Pieter answered him. “I think they will take more time by themselves. People who are ‘going steady’ as you say in Britain, do that.”
Luke was still processing that information when Pieter changed the subject.
“You really did take being abducted by aliens very calmly,” he said. “As if it had happened to you before.”
“It has,” Luke answered. “Long story. I’ll tell you about it sometime.”
“No time like the present,” Pieter suggested, pouring coffee for them both. “We’ve shared a room for a whole term and I’ve never heard any of this before. It’s a whole side of you I don’t know. I should like to get to know you better… in that way.”
Luke took the coffee from his friend and sat back in his chair thoughtfully. He had often wished he could tell Pieter the whole story, but he had never felt the time was right. Or where to start.
Pieter smiled encouragingly.
“Well,” he said. “There was this alien creature called the Bane….”