Doctor Who: Royal Oak, Chapter Three
By Hrolf Douglasson
Scapa pier lay dark, with only a handful of yellow sodium lights to illuminate its expanse of concrete. Towards the far end, jutting out into the bay from which the place took its name, the three Harbour Department tugboats sat tightly at anchor, hardly moving at all from the motion of the wavelets. The Harbourmaster’s former house, now a mere store, showed no lights from within, and threw shadows across the entrance to the pier itself. Two men stood within another pool of darkness, watching the edge of the water as it lapped against the slipway at the base of the pier.
“And this is where they were unloading last night?” whispered Tam. Beside him, the Doctor nodded tightly.
Tam rubbed his stubbly jaw. “That’s no’ usual in itself, then. Usually, they bring the boat to the pierside, and the diver boys just climb up and away tae their digs.”
“Ah, but they aren’t usually landing cargo, are they?” replied the Doctor. “And it’s the cargo we’re here to see.”
“It gives me the worst o’ feelings to think that they’ve turned against the ship,” Tam went on. “I canna think why they’d want to!”
“No,” agreed the Doctor slowly, “I can’t imagine many reasons for doing it either. That’s part of the mystery: what could anybody want with dead men that old?”
“And that decomposed, either,” Tam pointed out. “Seventy years in salt water can’t’ve done ‘em any good.”
The Doctor shrugged. “I’d say that depends on how watertight the hull still is. If there are bodies in parts where the water didn’t go, they could still be in one piece… and then there’s the parts where the oil leaked into, as well.” He paused, listening to the whistle of the wind and the sounds of distant vehicles driving into Kirkwall. “There’s something going on that I just don’t understand…”
“It’s not like they’re even being up-front and honest about it,” Tam offered. “I mean, if the Navy came out and said they wanted to bring the men out and rebury them somewhere else, well, I reckon there’d be an outcry and an outrage, and probably a right old row about it… but folk’d know about it. They could have their say, and that would be it: a couple o’ weeks of it in The Orcadian and on the radio, like – and then it would be over and done with. They’ve nothing to fear from the likes of us: what could we do? Stand at the water’s edge and hold ‘em off wi’ our shotguns?” He snorted. “So I can’t see any reason for this sneaking around after dark, and eating into good drinking time.”
The Doctor suddenly held up a hand. “Listen!” he whispered urgently through clenched teeth. Tam strained his ears: after a few moments he heard the faintest sounds of motors out in the Flow. Something in his stomach lurched: up to this moment, the whole adventure had held an element of un-reality, of farce or fantasy. Those engines, running long after any decent boatman had long since quit the waves, suddenly made it all very, very real. If this Doctor had been right about the late-night landings, what else was he right about, in spite of his own father’s disbelief?
“What do we do?” he asked, trying hard to keep these new worries out of his voice.
“Nothing,” the Doctor replied. “We just watch.”
“What if we’re seen?”
“What if we are? We haven’t done anything wrong, have we?” The Doctor looked around in a moment of concern. “I don’t think we’ve even trespassed, have we?”
“No: but if yon Navy men are doing this and trying to keep it quiet, they’re no’ goin’ to like finding us watching them, are they?”
“Well if they do see us, let me do the talking, alright?”
“Nae bother about that,” muttered Tam. “Nae bother at aall.”
They lapsed back into silence as the engines grew louder. Soon, the source of the sound came into view, a dark smudge amid the yellow-speckled blackness of the water. The vessel was a largish launch, perhaps ten metres in length, with a superstructure that extended a good two-thirds of its length. It showed no lights from within its cabin and appeared not to be showing any navigation lighting either, yet it came on unerringly towards the slipway.
“That’s too large to put on a trailer,” ventured Tam hesitantly. “Why would they want tae come tae the slip?” But the Doctor failed to answer. His head had turned slightly. Tam copied the gesture: there were other engines coming their way, this time from the direction of the long road that led from Kirkwall to the pier.
He tried to push further into the shadows that hid them as a pair of dark vans came into view, driving past the Coastguard headquarters, along the narrow road that edged the beach, and pulling up at the top of the slipway. Their engines stopped. Men got out, dressed in dark garb and wearing motorcycle helmets; they stood unmoving in a row at the entrance to the slip, seemingly watching the strange boat as it came to a wallowing halt and then began to turn. Beside him, he could almost feel the Doctor’s concentration as he watched.
Figures emerged from within the boat – equally darkly clad, and also, bizarrely, wearing crash helmets. The vessel reversed slowly until its outboards clearly ground against the concrete of the slipway. The men on the shore stepped down into the lapping waves and took hold of long, dark bundles lifted over the rail by the men on the boat. Bundle after bundle was handed over, and stowed within the waiting vans. The figures doing all the loading and unloading seemed tireless, and the pace they set was relentless.
“I’ve got tae admit it,” whispered Tam. “Those bundles, they sure do look like bodies.”
“Bodies in bags,” answered the Doctor, although it was far from clear if he was talking to Tam or to himself. “Bodies in bags. But where have I seen those before?”
“What, the bodies? The bags?”
“The bearers…” The Doctor seemed transfixed as he watched the bundles being put into the rear of the vans. The men climbed back into the cabs, but the engines remained silent. All movement seemed to stop: in the vans, in the boat, in the shadows. Tam found that even he had almost stopped breathing. Then the men aboard the boat vanished back into the cabin, its engines sprang back into life and the vessel headed back out into the bay.
“Now what?” Tam asked after agonising moments.
The Doctor swallowed hard before answering. “We – I – need to get into those vans.”
Tam regarded the tableau before them. “Well, now’s about the best chance you’re likely to get.”
His companion drew a slender object from a hidden pocket, and fiddled with it for a moment or two. Seemingly satisfied, he turned to Tam.
“You can come with me – but you do as I say, without question. If you stop and argue, it could cost you your life, understand? Or, you can stay here and keep watch while I do a bit of lock-picking.”
“That what yon gadget is, then?”
“Well, sort of, I suppose. Lots of other things besides. Well? What’re you going to do?”
Tam hitched up the battered leather belt he wore around his midriff. “I’ll come wi’ ye: yon bueys look a bit useful tae me. Too handy for one man tae deal wi’ on his own.”
“If they’re who I think they are,” murmured the Doctor, “I don’t think we’ll have any trouble.”
He led the way out of their particular patch of shadow, strolling without any undue haste towards the silent vans. Their occupants did not move and their peculiar headgear remained firmly in place, as if frozen. Tam was no coward, and had been in his share of Friday-night fights… but these men unnerved him more than he would care to admit. Everything about them seemed wrong. He stole a sideways look to see if his companion shared his feelings, but the Doctor was walking easily onwards, hands in pockets, eyes darting around everywhere, taking in everything. He angled slightly towards the rear of the nearest vehicle, and although he appeared to be taking no particular care to not be seen, his movements were gentle, without any sudden jerks, and without any unnecessary sound. In his muddy boots with his breath echoing harshly in his ears, Tam felt both visible and loud.
They reached the back doors of the van and ducked in behind the bulk of the vehicle. The Doctor brought out his little device again, and pushed a button: part of it glowed bright blue, and a high-pitched whine cut through the surrounding silence. He grimaced. “That’ll wake ‘em up…” The door popped open. “Inside, quickly!” hissed the Doctor. Tam hauled himself up and into the van, the Doctor hot on his heels and closing the door behind them.
“That ought to keep them busy for a moment or two,” he murmured hopefully. “And a moment is all we need.” His little gizmo shone out again, the only light in the dark cavern of the cargo bay. He lifted it higher, illuminating a handful of tightly-wrapped parcels. Tam shuddered. They looked even more like corpses closer up; to his horror, the Doctor approached the closest of the bundles.
“You needn’t look if you don’t want to,” he reminded Tam gently. The farmer shook his head stolidly.
“You claimed these were bodies coming out of the Royal Oak – and I’m here to see if you’re right. Can’t do that I don’t look in one, can I?”
The Doctor regarded Tam steadily. “Alright, then,” he said solemnly. “Ready?”
Tam swallowed hard and nodded. The Doctor’s long, bony hand reached out, and drew down the zip of the bag.
A wave of foetid air rushed out to meet them: air redolent of salt, of darkness, of oil, of decay, of death. Tam gasped; the Doctor’s face was screwed up in distaste. As the foul air dissipated, the two men bent over the opening. A pale, watery face, with the eyes missing and much of the flesh decayed, met their gaze. The Doctor pulled the zip further; whoever this man had been, he had clearly been a sailor. The sodden and tattered remains of a Navy uniform were still in place around his bones.
Tam pulled back a short way, and met the Doctor’s eyes warily. “Well,” he whispered, “I reckon that answers any questions, eh?”