CAPTAIN JACK AND THE REBEL QUEEN
Toby Mendosa was boring. He wasn't just unimaginative; he was practically coma-inducing. The Time Agents were a rare bunch - they had all of time and space to play in, theoretically. They could travel to places, to cultures, to eras that were inconceivable to the rest of humanity, and some of them had the sense to learn from their experiences. Some of them picked up a little colour here and there. Toby Mendosa, on the other hand, seemed immune to colour. Of all the Time Agents in all the years available, it had to have been him who had answered the beacon. And of all the Time Agents in all the years available, he had to be one who had met Jack before. Mug's Law was so much more vindictive when it was played out on a galactic scale.
Jack, needless to say, was not impressed. Mendosa had been caught out by him before, and wasn't the type to laugh off such trickeries - so the scam wasn't going to work, he was stuck on Arosa, his ship was impounded, and his credit rating non-existent. Just an ordinary day in many ways, but he had had such glorious plans for Mendosa's money. He had invited the guy out for a drink anyway. You never knew your luck, and anything could happen with a pint of cherry brandy masquerading as raspberryade. Mendosa, however, had declined the invitation. Apparently Jack had invited him out for drinks once before, which Jack certainly didn't remember. Given how boring the other man was, though, that probably wasn't all that surprising. Clearly he had got him drunk on that previous occasion in order to facilitate some scheme or other in addition to the main scam, and Mendosa, sadly, was good with faces. Time Agents shouldn't be allowed such useful memories. It really wasn't fair.
Still - always look on the bright side. He was Captain Jack Harkness, intergalactic criminal, a man who had broken more laws in more time zones than possibly any other human being before him. A man who prided himself in being the cause of new laws in at least a dozen cultures, and being wanted in nine separate decades just on Earth. A setback, therefore, was merely an opportunity in disguise. Or that was the way that he was determined to think of it, as he sat in the gardens of Auric Castle, watching tiny scarlet fishes swimming in a white marble pond, whilst the communicator device built into the computer he wore strapped to his right wrist squawked annoyingly at him. Toby Mendosa was looking for him again, no doubt complaining that he hadn't reported his whereabouts on the hour. It had been made a condition of his 'parole', if one could call it that in a place where nobody but Mendosa himself really cared for the law that declared Jack a criminal. The local authorities had impounded Jack's ship largely just to avoid further official visits from Mendosa, who had done an impressive job of annoying everybody worth the effort. He had no real jurisdiction on Arosa, but he was extremely insistent, and inclined to quote the names of famous politicians who were apparently all personal friends. They had all been dead for the best part of six thousand years, but Mendosa clearly didn't consider this a problem. So the authorities had taken Jack's ship, frozen his financial assets whilst apologising for doing so, and told him not to leave the planet before a final decision had been made on whether or not to officially place him in Mendosa's custody. If they decided to do so, he would be whisked off back to the Time Agency in very short order. A damned shame, given that his former employers didn't know much about his new career as a criminal - at least as far as he knew. It could be hard to tell with the Time Agency, and the various powers behind it. Right now he didn't care, anyway. At least as far as he could see it, the only thing of importance was how he was going to get off the blasted planet with no money, a ship he had no intention of leaving behind, and every guard in Auric Castle under strict orders not to let him off the grounds. So far he had tried climbing the walls - impossible, given the security; disguising himself - impossible, again given the security; and even tunnelling - not a good idea in a castle with walls seven feet thick, built on solid rock. It had seemed like a good idea after several pints of something unidentifiable, made in secret in the castle kitchens by a conspiracy of footmen happy to entertain and to be entertained. A good evening, digging venture notwithstanding, even if the hangover had lasted two days, and caused him to wake up wrapped in somebody's blue patchwork curtains, with one foot being nibbled by a goat. Or the local hybrid equivalent, anyway. Larger teeth, tastier milk. Apparent fondness for fifty-first century toes. One to tick off in the Spotter's Guide To Unlikely Animals Encountered Whilst Drunk, at any rate - or would be if he ever got around to writing it. All things considered, drunkenness, goat hybrids and an interesting new type of alcohol aside, the last few days hadn't got him any closer to escaping. They had, however, introduced him to Idira.
Idira was a lady-in-waiting. Apparently that was a fancy way of saying 'maidservant', or possibly 'bodyguard'. Her job seemed to consist of doing a lot of embroidery, and pouring a great many glasses of fruit juice, ideally whilst loudly flattering whichever government ministers happened to be nearby. It was rather akin to being paid to look pretty, something at which Idira was extremely skilled, whilst also knowing half a dozen different bare-fist fighting techniques, and being capable of killing intruders one-handed, by a considerable variety of methods. They had met when Jack, in the process of looking for escape routes out of the castle, had been discovered by a group of guards somewhere that was apparently expressly off bounds, under penalty of something or other. Idira had come along, insisted that Jack was with her, and had permission to be there - wherever 'there' was. Jack had had no idea at the time, and had only later discovered that it was somebody's private chamber. He didn't know whose. He didn't know why the guards had been there, either, which apparently was why Idira had been so anxious to appropriate him. She had interrogated him for several hours, he had complimented her on her startlingly green eyes, she had threatened to break his teeth, and they had wound up in a local bar, testing the Arosan equivalent to whisky. Idira had got steadily drunk, told him a tale of intrigue and treason within the castle walls, and then got extremely irate with him when he had tried to use her drunkenness to escape. He had neglected to realise that he was just as drunk, and didn't remember a great deal more of the evening. He had a distinct memory of cheese sandwiches, and a very earnest conversation about great traitors in galactic history - and then some sort of brawl with a lot of men in scarlet uniforms who had fortunately been even more drunk than Jack and Idira. After that everything was a blur, but Jack and Idira had been friends ever since. She steadfastly refused to help him escape, but at least with her around imprisonment wasn't so bad. And she was endearingly fond of beating up castle guards.
"Toby is looking for you." Sliding onto the bench beside him, Idira gestured vaguely at the squawking wrist computer. Jack nodded.
"Yeah. I noticed."
"I thought you might have done." She leaned forward, mimicking his posture, staring into the white marble pond. "See anything interesting?"
"Just fish." He shrugged. "Not the most enthralling pond I've ever gazed at."
"You make a habit of it, do you? Pond-gazing?"
"No. Just if there happens to be one around when I've got some gazing to do." He looked over at her for the first time. "Although I kinda like gazing at you too."
"I know. The difference being that the pond won't get up and punch you if you stare too much." She offered him a conciliatory grin. "Let me guess. The staring is to help you think. What is it this time? Tunnelling? A hand-glider built out of old bits of sheet? Training the castle ravens to carry you over the walls?"
"I'll think of something." He leaned back suddenly, staring up at the walls instead. They were huge, grey, stone affairs, built to last in an era when castles had been all but abandoned by the rest of the galaxy. By much of the universe, come to that. Castles belonged to a long, long ago time, of kings and soldiers and gallant princes on horseback - but then Arosa was like nowhere else in this era of technology and supposed sophistication. Mendosa's voice blared out of the communicator again, and with a growl of frustration he raised the thing to his mouth. "What is it?"
"There you are." Mendosa sounded immensely satisfied. "You didn't answer me."
"I didn't?" Jack sounded greatly surprised by this, and Idira laughed softly. Mendosa didn't appreciate the joke.
"You're supposed to report in every hour during the day. It's a condition of your continuing freedom. Much more of this, and I could insist you be taken into custody. There'd be none of your games then."
"If they were willing to lock me up, they would have done by now." Jack hid a sigh. He didn't want Mendosa to know just how annoying he was. It might serve to encourage him. "Look, I've called in. I haven't escaped. I'm sitting in one of the gardens with one of the king's most trusted employees, and you can see that for yourself if you bother to check your scanner. I'll talk to you in an hour."
"See that you do." The link went dead. Jack glared at it. It was so much more satisfying when he was the one who got to break the connection. Idira tried out her conciliatory smile again, but he wasn't watching. "Damn. See, if somebody was to help me escape--"
"You mean if some innocent, blameless person was to risk their reputation, their freedom and their job, just to help a known criminal escape the consequences of his depravity?"
Jack nodded. "Yeah. I'd do it for you."
"I don't doubt it. Your reputation would hardly suffer. Jack, if it was just a question of getting you out of the castle, I might agree to it." She frowned. "Well, no, actually I wouldn't. But that's beside the point. It's not just getting you out, is it. There's that remote control device that was confiscated from you. The king has it, doesn't he? And then there's your ship. That's about half a dozen laws broken before we even start on Toby and the Time Agency."
"That's a no then, huh."
"It's been a no every other time you've asked me. It's a no now, too." She stood up suddenly. "Come for a walk with me, Jack."
"I never miss up the chance to accompany a beautiful lady on a stroll." He jumped up, his apparent melancholy draining away before her eyes. "It should be by moonlight of course, but I guess we can compromise."
"Daylight will be just fine, thankyou. This isn't romantic. I intended it as something of a business proposition."
"You say business, I say romance." He pulled a hip flask from his jacket pocket. "Champagne?"
"You keep champagne in a hip flask? And no thankyou. Business should always be discussed with a clear head, don't you think?"
"No." He seemed genuinely perplexed by her contrary view. "And since you ask, it's not really champagne. The bubbles get uppity and leave. This is a local wine." He took a sip. "It's nice, but it lacks that sparkle. Packs a punch like absinthe, though. I might take a few crates of it with me when I leave."
"If you leave."
"Nobody can hold Jack Harkness prisoner for long." All sign of his earlier moodiness was gone, and the swagger was back in his voice and his stride as he followed Idira away from the pond. She led him towards the sweeping flower-beds, as old as the castle, and filled with more plants than most Arosans could name.
"You could never break into the king's private chambers to get that remote control device. It'll be in his safe. He's had it tested by security experts from several different planets, and none of them managed to get in." Idira smiled fondly at him. "You're good, Jack. I won't deny you that. If even half of your stories are true, you have a real flare for the inadvisable. But the king's safe? You don't stand a chance."
"All of my stories are true." Jack almost sounded insulted. "Several different planets, huh? That's tempting."
"If you get caught trying something like that, you'll be in the castle dungeons before your feet hit the ground. Toby Mendosa won't get you, but neither will anybody else. I don't care how many prisons you've escaped from in the past. You haven't seen anything like the dungeons of this castle. They're twenty-five feet underground for a start."
"You know how to get a guy's attention, don't you." He grinned at her playfully, and slipped an arm through hers. "But I won't be ending up in a dungeon. Not this time. I just spent forty-eight hours in one on Mylos V, and I don't fancy it again so soon. How about you and me, in among all these nice bushes, with my wine to keep us warm? Much better than dungeons."
"It's a warm day. We don't need wine to keep us--" She sighed. "You're going to tell me that we'll be wearing a lot less clothing, aren't you."
"A whole lot less." He let go of her arm and took her hand instead, kissing it gently. "Nobody would see us out here. Nobody but the birds, and they can gossip all they like. I got nothing to be ashamed of."
"The world 'incorrigible' takes on a whole new level of meaning with you, doesn't it." She extracted her hand from his. "Business, I said. Remember?"
"Business goes best with pleasure. Lots of pleasure, a little bit of business. And some wine to make it all go that bit smoother. You know you want to."
"I know that I want to talk." She quickened her pace, so that he had to hurry to catch her up. "When I rescued you from those guards, it was because I had an idea. I could see you being useful."
"It wasn't my overwhelming charm and undeniable good looks?" He flashed her a grin, and pointed to it. "Or my irresistible smile?"
"It was the fact that you're a tenacious bastard, who could probably sneak into anything, and enjoy trying." She sighed. "I like you, Jack."
He grinned at that. "Good."
"But I have certain responsibilities that come first."
"And I have certain--"
"I'm sure you do." She couldn't help smiling at him, though she kept the smiles to a minimum. "What do you know about Arosa?"
"The basics." He was serious now, more or less, realising that she really did want to talk. She was glad of that. For all his flash antics, he still seemed to know what was important. "You're an old Earth colony, but you got your independence about three thousand years ago now. You're all mostly still human, but you've got a little something else mixed in. There's been a lot of cross-cultural influence over the centuries, just like there has been all over the place. Arosa has changed a lot since ditching Earth's government." He shrugged. "I guess three thousand years is a long time on any planet."
"You could say that."
"It's interesting now. The technology is the same as almost everywhere else. You have advanced space flight, you trade with planets in at least two other galaxies, and you use durithium-powered energy cells. That's hi-tech stuff. And yet your countries are ruled by hereditary kings, who live in castles that look like they were built on Earth in the thirteenth century. Hereditary kings. Nobody has hereditary rule anymore."
"We're not that alone. There are other planets that do much the same."
"Yeah. The mad ones. The ones that keep going to war with each other, and invading weaker planets. Blood-crazed lunatics and megalomaniacs wanting to take over the universe. Arosa seems like a nice place - or this country does, anyway. I haven't been to any of the others."
"You think that we're mad."
"I think that you're eccentric. Which is nice, usually. I just don't really hold with the idea of hereditary rule. Haven't you ever fancied a revolution?"
"Perhaps we like things the way they are." They had reached a white stone bench in the middle of an artistic tumble of flowering bushes. They could see nothing of the rest of the castle now, nor of the rest of the gardens. Everywhere was twisting green branches and deep purple flowers. Idira sat down. "Our king is a good man. He rules the country well, and his son will follow suit."
"Even if he turns out to be a lunatic or a warmongering maniac. Yeah, I know how it works. I've read one or two history books in my time, you know."
"You're a Time Agent gone rogue, if Toby is telling the truth. I don't think it's history books that have told you what you know." She stared at him silently for a moment, then sighed. "You remember that when we first met, you were in a private chamber?"
"Yeah." He sat down beside her, somehow contriving to take her hand without her being at all sure how he came to be holding it.
"And there were some guards there too. They shouldn't have been there. That's one of the reasons why nobody bothered prosecuting you. They said that they had followed you in, but we both know that they were already in there. It was the queen's private drawing room."
"So? Maybe they were checking out the security. That's their job, right?"
"Jack this is Arosa, not the Third Dark Age of Durin. They could check up on security without ever leaving the guardroom. They were there for some other reason."
"Meeting with somebody?"
"Who? The king and queen were entertaining, and their eldest son is off world - some space-yachting regatta in the Milky Way galaxy. The other members of the Household are still only children. No, they were up to something. I don't trust them."
"Surely castle guards are all screened? The king wouldn't want just anybody patrolling his corridors."
"Oh, and you're telling me that you couldn't pass a security check if you had to? In the last few months I've heard whisperings. There's a small group of dissidents who want to get rid of the king, and establish a government in his place."
"And democracy is a really bad thing? Idira, you're pretty wonderful, but you've got a lousy head for politics."
"And you think you're pretty wonderful, but you've got a lousy head for politics yourself. Do you think we've had hereditary rule all this time because it's the best we could come up with? It works." She sighed. "Look, I rescued you that day because I thought you could help. Who better to spy on people than you? You've got no reason to be loyal to revolutionary factions or anybody else on this planet. You're not from Arosa."
"Exactly. Why would I want to spy on anybody? Look, if there are people here who want to get rid of some old royal family with no real right to rule, then--"
"What's in it for you to stop them, you mean? You're a real mercenary, Jack."
"Hey, a guy's got to make a living." His eyes narrowed. "But I mean it. Why would I want to help you prop up your monarchy? I'm no freedom fighter, but I don't see why kings and queens are such a great idea. Getting rid of them might be the best thing you lot ever do."
"Regardless of what the dissidents want instead?"
There was a silence. Jack shrugged in the end, looking faintly uncomfortable. "I just don't understand why you're so anxious to be ruled by some guy who's only in charge because his father was."
"I don't expect you to understand. I just want to know if you'll help." She stood up, looking very earnest and urgent, and making him want, quite inappropriately, to leap up as well and sweep her off her feet. Blast the guards for taking away his ship's remote. He could do with a little music right about now.
"I've got no reason to want to get involved in your politics." He looked away. "I'm sorry." He didn't look it, and Idira didn't doubt for a moment that he was lying through his teeth. She scowled, and played her trump card. You just had to know how to deal with a man like Jack.
"I'll help you get away," she told him, her matter of fact tone making it clear that she could easily do just that. "Help me, and I'll help you. It wouldn't be hard for me to get that remote control device of yours, and I can get the impound order removed from your ship, too. That's what you want, isn't it? That's what you've been trying to get me to do ever since we met."
"You said that you wouldn't help me." He looked suspicious, as though doubting her ability to do as she claimed. She shrugged.
"We're all mercenaries in our own way, Jack. What was in it for me to help you before? I wanted something out of the deal too, and with certain things that have happened just recently, I know what it is that I want now. What do you say?"
"You want me to be a spy." He didn't sound impressed - as though espionage was somehow distasteful and beneath him. She shrugged.
"More or less. It shouldn't be too difficult for you. Sneaking around and avoiding suspicion is practically your life's work. That's the kind of thing a spy does."
"Yeah. That and getting shot." He folded his arms, looking for all the world like a sulking child. "I thought we were friends."
"Friends help each other. Come on, Jack. I would never have thought of you as the type to turn down a challenge."
"Challenges I like. Fools' errands are something different. I never get mixed up in politics. You'll always get on the wrong side of somebody in that game, and the kind of thing you're talking about means guns and trouble. I don't like sticking my neck out unless it's for a real profit."
"And escaping isn't a real profit?"
"Not when I'm halfway free anyway, no. A few days from now the king is going to make his decision, and I'd bet you any amount of money that he'll find in my favour. Why would he turn me over to the Time Agency?"
"Any number of reasons." There was a glitter in Idira's eyes. "Chiefly what he might think when I tell him about you being in the private chambers of the queen, creeping around in the dead of night, and in the company of some guards whose loyalty may well be suspect. I can play dirty when I have to, Jack. The king would be only too glad to be rid of you then. You'd be whisked away by Toby, and I doubt you'd see freedom for a long time."
"You wouldn't do that." Jack found that he could no longer entirely read her expression. "You have no idea what they'd do to me. What they've already done to me. It'd be--"
"I would do it." She interrupted him sharply, her tone cold. "I wouldn't want to, and it wouldn't serve me any purpose; but I never make threats that I'm not prepared to carry out. Help me and you're free. I can absolutely guarantee that. Don't help me..." She smiled sadly at him. "Well, you can write the end of that story yourself. You know better than me what the Time Agency might do. Just say yes, and we both get what we want."
"If I don't get shot, or drowned in the castle moat, or whatever the hell else your traitors are likely to do to me." He looked even more like a sulking child than before. "I'll help. I'll be your spy. But if I wind up hanging from the castle battlements, or buried under a rose bush somewhere, I'll haunt this place until it's nothing but dust. I can be pretty damn stubborn when I feel like it."
"I don't doubt it." For a moment she smiled sadly again, looking very beautiful. For once Jack didn't notice. "I'm sorry, Jack. I need to protect the king, and that comes first."
"Yeah. Sure." He stood up, not quite meeting her eyes. "Forget it." Still not properly looking at her, he turned to leave. She called after him.
"There's things you need to know. Information. People. Don't just walk off like this." She sounded, he realised, as though she really was sorry. As though some part of the tough front she had always presented to him might be about to waver. He glanced back at her, though he looked far from happy.
"Buy me a drink. I don't like to discuss business with a head this clear."
"A drink?" She frowned suddenly. "You do understand how serious this is?"
"Oh believe me, I understand." For a second he looked away, almost as though he were trying to avoid her eyes. "I just want a drink. Feels like I might need it."
"This isn't some trick?"
"No." He took her hand. "No, no trick. Just alcohol. Indulge me, yeah?"
"Hardly." She retrieved her hand. "Fine. A drink. It's as good an opportunity as any to talk."
"Exactly." Somehow he had her hand in his again. Some day she was going to have to work out how he did that. She glared at him, and he let her go.
"Jack..." It was probably pointless trying to explain, but somehow she felt that she had to. "I'm desperate. You understand that, right? I have to do this."
"Yeah. You probably do."
"Forget it. Whatever it is, forget it." He flashed her a smile that seemed to say a thousand things at once. "Deal's made, right?"
She nodded. "Right."
"Then there's nothing else to say." He had her hand again, and somehow her laser pistol was in his belt. She was going to have to have words with him, she could tell. "Second thoughts are pointless, Idira. I make a point of always ignoring them."
Somehow, that wasn't too hard to believe.
"Jack, are you really listening to me?" In the middle of a complex explanation of the history of the royal family, Idira was rather concerned by her companion's constant fidgeting. Between a succession of glasses of a particularly strong local cider, he was building a tower out of coasters. It looked to be enjoying a far greater share of his concentration than she was. He nodded vaguely.
"Prince Theobald. Married a colonist from Io. About seven hundred years ago."
"I haven't mentioned anybody from Io. And there's never been a Prince Theobald. Or if there has, I've never heard of him." She sighed. "Jack..."
"I'm listening!" He pushed the tower of coasters over. "What I don't understand is why. Look, you said there were dissidents. Possible traitors in the castle. Okay, fine. You want to stop them. I get that. What's Prince Theobald from seven hundred years ago got to do with the price of apricots?" She glared at him, and he smiled. "Prince Jacob, then. Who you did just mention. Something about him having enemies among the land developers. Didn't you also say that he died fifty years ago?"
"Yes, but the developers were hoping that his successor to the throne would be more--"
"Idira, if you've got traitorous guards sneaking about the castle, they've got nothing to do with a fifty-year-old argument with some builders." He signalled to the waitress, who brought them over another two glasses of cider. She lingered as she collected the empty glasses, smiling all the time at Jack. Jack, needless to say, smiled back. She wasn't especially pretty, and she wasn't by any means young, but she had nice eyes, and he never ignored a pleasant smile. Idira just rolled her eyes.
"I've not seen you in here before," the waitress observed. Jack's smile brightened a little. He liked to be noticed.
"I got barred from the other place." He made it sound like a particularly pleasant form of entertainment. "If I'd known about here first, though, I wouldn't have bothered going there at all."
"Ah, well sir." The waitress lowered her voice conspiratorially. "The other place doesn't sell the local cider, you know. Imports the fruit from abroad. Cheaper, I suppose, but the local stuff is better."
"Sure is." Jack toasted her with his new glass. "The beer there wasn't up to much, either. Plus there were soldiers all over the place. You can't have a good conversation in a room full of men in uniform."
"You're probably right, sir." The waitress leaned a little closer to him, if that were possible. "There's all the privacy you need in here, sir. We don't ask any questions. Have to learn all about confidentiality, when you run a place like this inside the castle walls. My family have been serving the people of this castle for five generations."
"That's very impressive." Idira clearly didn't care. Jack just flashed her the faintest of smiles.
"Can I ask you a question then, er...?"
"Joanna, sir." She was clearly delighted by the inquiry. He nodded.
"Joanna. Can I ask you a question, Joanna?"
"Of course." She put the two empty glasses back on the table, and sat down on an empty chair next to him. "If you're wanting a girl, sir, I do know one or two addresses. Not inside the castle walls, of course, but not too far distant."
"I'm not looking for a girl." At this precise moment. "It's a more general question than that." He glanced across at Idira, smiling at her irritated expression. "Five generations, and you're probably pretty loyal, right? Present at the coronation, danced at the last royal wedding? Toasted the duke of wherever on the day he was born?"
"Of course." Joanna smiled primly. "Not that I'm old enough to remember the coronation. I was there, though."
"Fascinating though this is..." began Idira. Jack hushed her with an almost imperceptible gesture of his hand.
"Is there anybody that you won't allow in here? Anybody who maybe doesn't think quite like you do? I know you like to keep everything confidential, but there's got to be something you've heard, that's maybe led you to bar somebody? Or to prefer not to let them in?" He raised the hand that he had just used to silence Idira, to reveal - where she would have sworn that there had been nothing before - a gold credit chip. Joanna's eyes widened. That was more than she would see in three months. Gold credit chips mostly stayed in the hands of gamblers and rich young business-types. They didn't get flashed around in quiet inns like hers. She smiled even more warmly than before, and hid the chip in her apron.
"There's Captain Stuart," she said quietly, her voice almost too quiet for Idira to hear. "And Captain Rye. They met up in here a few times, before I barred them. I said they were noisy drunks, but the real reason was the things they were saying."
"Traitorous things?" asked Idira. Her voice was a little too sharp, and Joanna looked suddenly awkward. Jack took her hand, and turned his voice to one of soft, warm persuasion.
"What didn't you like about them?" he asked. She frowned.
"They were hinting at things. Suggesting at things. Talking about how this was the last generation of kings we'd see in the castle. I didn't hear anything traitorous, but it was only one step away. If they'd been somewhere more private, I don't like to think what they might have said. Security's too good in most other places, though. People like that can't get the kind of privacy they need without going right out of the castle, and captains like those two can only leave the grounds every once in a while. So they come here and keep their voices down. Here or at the other place. Mostly there, I'll bet. Take any sort over there, they will."
"Thankyou." Unwilling to listen to a rant against a business rival, Jack raised his voice slightly as he thanked her, showing that their private conversation was at an end. She stood up straight away, picking up the empty glasses and disappearing with all the practised speed and silence of a professional waitress. Idira raised an eyebrow.
"Your credit was frozen," she pointed out. Jack shrugged.
"You should always have some liquid assets handy. Anyway, that's not important right now, is it. You know either of those two captains?"
"Of course I do. I'm a lady-in-waiting to the queen. It's part of my job to know everybody in the castle."
"And?" He drank some more of his cider and looked at her expectantly. She sighed.
"I didn't suspect them, no. I thought there were two or three of the guards who couldn't be trusted, but I never gave those two much mind. If your pet waitress is right, this could go deeper than I thought."
"I don't like to boast..." He leaned back in his chair and stretched luxuriously. "Well, maybe a little. Anyhow, I told you it was worth sitting around in here and seeing what turned up. Always talk to the people everybody else ignores."
"And always bribe them with stolen credit chips?"
"It's better than bribing them with your own." He flashed her a dazzling grin that left her caught between wanting to grin back, and punch him for being such a show-off. "And if it makes you feel any better, it was a castle guard I lifted it from. If they can't be trusted anymore, their money is fair game."
"You took that from a castle guard? The guards don't make that kind of money." She frowned at him suddenly. "Which one?"
"Which guard? I don't know. Dopey-looking guy with a walrus moustache. Looks kinda like one of the Village People. Sorry, wrong millennium. The one who looks after the north quadrant. Complains a lot about his boots."
"Acton." Her voice showed distaste. "Blast him. There's only one way he could come by gold credit chips."
"A bribe?" Jack spread his hands wide, showing three other such chips. "And quite a big one?"
"One hell of a big one." She scowled so ferociously that for a moment he thought she was angry with him. "I was going to lecture you on your light fingers, but I suppose I should be glad about them now. Come on. We've got to get to the north quadrant."
"Why the rush?" Jack followed her, unmoved by her haste, and looking sadly back at the last of the cider. Clearly thinking that there were more important things to be worried about than alcohol - or paying for it apparently - Idira hurried him out of the door.
"Acton patrols the north quadrant, remember? Now what might a guard take a bribe for?"
"To leave his post. But he's not the only guard there, and they can't all be on the take. Your security has got to be better than that. If all the castle guards are crooked, you need to make some serious changes to the way you run things here."
"You don't understand. Acton isn't the only guard in the north quadrant, no. But he is the only guard with access to the upper levels of the north quadrant. Nobody could have any real reason to want to get in there, so the only person likely to bribe the guard is somebody who's already there - and doesn't want any questions asked about what he's up to." She swore. "Damn it. We have to get up there."
"Care to fill me in?" She was speeding up all the time, and Jack had to hurry to keep up with her. "It's tough to be a spy when nobody will tell you things." She didn't seem to hear him.
"One of the people closest to the king. It had to be, and I never gave him a thought."
"Call the guards," he suggested, not really sure what she was getting so worked up about. She shook her head.
"Right now the only people I can be sure that I can trust are various members of the royal family. And I can't go reporting this to them. It's not really in my job description to panic the royal household by telling them that they cant trust anybody, is it."
"I don't know. Last lady-in-waiting I met didn't seem to have any job description at all except being sure to lace the queen's bodice nice and tight."
"I won't ask." She was pulling ahead again and he had to catch up, obediently following her back across the grounds, around the side of the castle, and in at the north door. A few guards were there, but they made no challenge to a lady-in-waiting, and soon enough the pair were heading along the wide stone corridors, towards the first flight of stairs. Only there did Idira pause.
"We shouldn't be seen together." It seemed rather late to decide that, thought Jack, given how many people had already seen them - and had also been witness to his attempts to make them very together indeed. He frowned, not quite understanding, and she flashed him one of her rare smiles. "You have to get to know the rebels, remember. My loyalty is unquestionable, and everybody knows that."
"Oh. Yeah." His lip curled in distaste. "The spy thing."
"Well you can hardly have forgotten." She stared up the staircase, obviously torn with indecision. "Jack, can I trust you?"
"I'm not known for my trustworthiness. Generally speaking." He also looked up at the stairs. "Is something supposed to be happening?"
"I don't know. Up there are the apartments of the king's magician. Acton is in charge of the only access route to him, and if I'm right and he's being bribed to keep his mouth shut, I--" She broke off, distracted by his expression. "What?"
"The king's magician?!" Apparently he found this considerably amusing. She glared.
"Never mind that. It's tradition, and anyway that's not exactly important just now. Acton isn't at his post. I have to raise the alarm."
"Why bother?" He couldn't help grinning. "If the king's magician knows you're on to him, surely he'll just magic himself away from here?"
"Oh shut up." Her tone of voice was not entirely unfriendly. "And give me back my gun. You won't look very convincing as an independent agent with a castle weapon stuck in your belt." He handed the gun over, obviously unwilling. "Now get upstairs and see what's going on. Get yourself involved with it, whatever it is."
"If they're doing something they shouldn't be."
"Yes. Who knows how often Acton has been bribed to leave his post? Or what he might be involved with upstairs? Just get up there, and warn them that the alarm has been raised - unless they're doing something really bad. Make out that you're helping them escape."
"So that when you come running in with the cavalry, I get shot to pieces for helping a traitor. I really love your plans."
"Cavalry?" She looked confused. "And you won't get shot. Or I won't shoot you, anyway."
"Thanks. That's one less laser beam to dodge. I'll only have twenty others to worry about."
"Yeah. Shut up. I know." He went up the first couple of stairs, then hesitated and looked back. "How do I know? If they're doing something they shouldn't be, I mean?"
"Well it could be important! I go up there trying to find out what Acton is getting up to, and all he's doing is taking a leak. I mean that's a great start to a relationship. And he probably won't appreciate you bursting in with all the king's men, either."
"He should be here. He's not. He was paid a number of gold credit chips by somebody, and I doubt anybody would pay Acton that much money to go to the bathroom. Now get up the stairs, and make yourself useful."
"I'm going." He turned around again, but once more hesitated after climbing just a handful of steps. "Idira..."
"What?" She thought he was going to make some other joke, or some other comment on how unhappy he was with the plan. Instead he simply flashed her a small smile.
"Be careful. You don't know who you can trust."
"Yeah." She smiled back at him, and was about to tell him to be careful as well - but he simply gave her a brief nod, thenturned and went on up the stairs. He took them three and four at a time, for all the world as though he couldn't wait to begin this latest endeavour, whatever his earlier concerns. If they had ever been real concerns to begin with. Idira shook her head faintly and headed off on her way. For as long as she came to know him, she didn't think that she would ever understand Jack Harkness.
Jack reached the next floor without the slightest idea of what he should do next - hardly an unfamiliar state of affairs, but not necessarily one that was likely to boost his confidence. He looked up and down the apparently deserted corridor, and wondered what exactly he was supposed to do next. How long did he have before Idira raised the alarm? Probably not all that long. He wandered out of the stairwell and along the corridor a short way, somewhat uninspired. It all seemed rather unlikely to him. Just because Acton appeared to be a traitor was no reason to suppose that he was being traitorous all of the time. It seemed far more likely that he was just not where he was supposed to be. There could be any number of explanations for that. Jack had pulled guard duty himself often enough to know how boring it could be, and how tempting a different view could seem to even the most experienced and conscientious soldier. With this in mind he listened at two or three of the doors that he passed, looked for any signs of a struggle just to be on the safe side, and then dismissed the whole thing as a bad idea and headed for the next floor up. Maybe Acton had come into some money. Maybe he gambled on the quiet. Maybe he was as bent as bent could be, but just wasn't misbehaving at the moment. The bribe might be for something he was supposed to be doing in a week's time, or a month's. It could be payment after the fact, for dirty deeds he had done before Jack had even arrived on the planet. Anything might be the truth.
The next floor was as empty as the one below it, as devoid of any sign of misbehaving castle guards. Jack walked through it all anyway, listening carefully all the while, and wondering when he would hear the approach of Idira and her reinforcements. They would look like fools then, the both of them. It wouldn't help her cause any, and he was sorry for that. There probably really were dissidents and traitors looking to steal away the throne - in his experience, kingdoms were plagued with such things.
It was a boring corridor, he decided. Not that corridors were, on the whole, especially exciting places. This one was bare stone, like the rest of the castle, but there were no pictures to soften it, no rugs to warm it. No windows looked out into the grounds, and the lighting crystals were bare and functional, without decoration. The only change to the monotony of the place came as the corridor reached its end - a huge wooden door, carved with strange symbols, set in a stone arch with carvings of its own. The home of the king's magician no doubt. Jack smiled again at the thought of it. He nearly knocked on the door, before he remembered that he was supposed to be trying to catch a crook at his work. The king's magician would just have to live with the interruption. Still smirking to himself, Jack pushed open the door.
He saw a huge room, clothed in shadow and filled with tables and shelves. The shelves were lined with books, bottles and knickknacks of every description, some covered with cobwebs, others obviously well used. In the middle of it all was a mighty chair - a throne of sorts, with richly embroidered upholstery, and tapestried cushions that emphasised the regal air. There was a man sitting in it, and for a moment Jack assumed that it was the magician. He stepped further into the room, wondering what one said to such a person, when bursting into their quarters unannounced. Only then did he recognise the man. It was Acton, and he was clearly stone dead. Another man lurked in the shadows near to him, busily cleaning the blood from a long, triangular knife that he held in his hands. Jack was halfway to reaching for his gun before he remembered that he no longer had it. He didn't even have Idira's anymore.
"Well don't just stand there. We'll have to move the body." The man lowered the knife, clearly not remotely disconcerted by the arrival of a total stranger just as he was cleaning up after an apparent murder. "Rye sent you, yes?"
"Yeah. Of course." Jack walked on into the room, flaunting all the confidence that he could muster. Well, Idira had told him to find out what was going on. This was as good a way of doing so as any other. He looked over Acton's body with a professional's eye. "We'll have to hurry. There are guards on the way."
"Guards? Coming here?" The man with the knife pulled aside a curtain that had been invisible in the shadows, revealing a narrow window that stretched from ceiling to floor. "What the hell are guards coming here for?"
"Acton. They found out that he'd been paid off." Jack hauled the dead man out of the chair. It served to give him time to think, and to be sure that the unknown knifeman couldn't see his face. He didn't want to be betrayed by his thoughts. If this man was awaiting an emissary from the supposedly traitorous Captain Rye, then who was that emissary really? And where was he? Just as long as he didn't arrive before Idira and her reinforcements.
"Oh." The knifeman seemed unsurprised, and largely uninterested. Stepping past Jack, he heaved open a large trunk, newly revealed by the daylight now coming through the window. "You can put the body in here. Nobody will find it."
"Why did you kill him?" Jack hoped that he sounded nonchalant. His companion didn't seem to mind the question.
"He demanded more money from me, and he became violent. It was hardly planned." He shut the chest lid, sealing Acton into his makeshift tomb. "Though I can't pretend that I'm sorry. Now. Who are you? You don't sound local."
"I'm not." Jack tried to be as businesslike as possible, unsure exactly what part he was playing. "I'm a mercenary. Captain Jack Harkness, at your service."
"A mercenary." For a moment the other man looked less than pleased - then he shrugged and nodded. "I suppose it makes sense. A man with no loyalties. Bought and paid for."
"I'm on your side. That's all that matters." Jack went over to the window. He could see guards below him, heading his way, directed by some as yet unseen commander. Idira, possibly. "What do you want to do now?"
"Leave, I suppose. I don't know whether or not my position is still secure. It all depends on whether anybody works out who must have bribed Acton, and I can't believe that it'll take them long to do that." The knifeman fixed Jack with a particularly piercing gaze. "My name is Leith. I have the dubious honour of being magician to the king."
"So I heard." Jack couldn't fight off a smile. "You do much magic for him?"
"Sadly not, no. It's some sort of traditional position. I'm an advisor of course, but I do have one large piece of magic that I'm planning to perform before very much longer. I'm going to make the king's throne disappear. And his crown, his position, his family. His very kingdom." He smiled, rather disarmingly. "It should be quite a thing to see."
"It'll need more than an Abracadabra, that's for sure." Jack matched the other man's smile. "We'd better be going, if you want to be out of here before those guards get in."
"Yes." For a moment Leith didn't move, and Jack knew all too well that he was being sized up. The king's magician wasn't quite sure whether or not to trust him. Then he nodded shortly, and the moment had passed. The danger had gone for now. "Come on." Leith crossed the room, pulling aside a mighty, shadow-drenched tapestry to reveal a narrow wooden door.
"A secret passage." Jack was delighted. Big stone castles had no business failing to have passages. Passages, hidey-holes, and hidden treasure wherever possible. To his surprise, Leith smiled back at him.
"I was rather pleased with it myself. This castle is five hundred years old now. There was no need for secret passages back then, any more than there is now, for most of the inhabitants. This was always intended to be the magician's residence, though. Possibly the original architect was a romantic. I don't suppose that I shall ever know."
"Cool." Jack couldn't help his natural enthusiasm, and since it didn't seem that Leith was bothered by it, he didn't try. Instead he cheerfully followed the other man through the door, hearing it slide closed behind them. Presumably the tapestry would also fall naturally back into place. The tunnel proved to be lit all along by small lighting crystals high up on the walls, the light falling down onto criss-crossed spiders' webs and the occasional indignant rat. "I don't suppose there's any buried treasure?"
"Sadly no. Or none that I've found. This castle was built to suggest at a bygone age of kings, knights and mediaeval what-have-yous, but the comparisons end there. There are no priest holes, no vaults, no torture chambers. The dungeons are impressive, though, or so I'm told. Thick stone walls and no windows."
"Yeah. I've heard a fair bit about the dungeons too." Jack was not too eager to find out what that particular part of the building looked like. "It's all pretty strange. Or it is to an off-worlder. I guess you're used to all of this."
"Perhaps." Leith shrugged faintly. "Castles and kings, no democratically elected government. I've no wonder that it seems strange to you. When we got our independence from Earth, the settlers of the time must have hoped for a free future. Three thousand years on from then, and in many ways this place is more backward than our forefathers on Earth were centuries before this planet was even discovered. We have technology, we have space travel... and yet we're ruled by a royal family that has had total control for generations. It's time for a change."
"That's why I'm here." Jack was almost beginning to enjoy himself. "Who are you planning to put into power in place of the king?"
"All in good time." Leith slowed to a halt, beside another tall, narrow door. "No offence, Captain Harkness, but you'll have to let me take this at my own speed. And it shouldn't make much difference to you anyway."
"Fair point." Jack waited for the other man to unlock the door, then followed him through it out into green-tinted daylight. They were inside a giant bush, grown up against the castle walls, its size providing a perfect shelter for anybody wishing to use the secret passage. Leith pushed the door shut again, revealing that on the outside it was almost indistinguishable from the grey stone wall. He locked it carefully.
"Take a look. See if there's anybody around." He had a natural authority, or perhaps was just used to his position of power within the castle. Jack didn't mind doing as he was told. He had no desire to push things, and risk his already potentially precarious position. He found his way out through the edge of the bush, and found a wide expanse of garden, deserted save for a few distant figures. One of them was a guard, distinct by his uniform. The others looked like gardeners.
"I think we're okay." Rather dishevelled now, and well decorated with cobwebs and bits of bush - but apparently unobserved, which was the main thing. "Where are we going?"
"To a contact point. A village near the castle where there are a number of people prepared to support us." Apparently realising that he had just pulled ahead, Leith glanced back. "What is it?"
"Minor problem. I sort of... got into some bother with the authorities. Nothing that needs to worry you exactly, but I can't get out of the grounds right now. The guards get annoyed when I try."
"Oh." Leith clearly didn't consider this to be a problem. "I'm not meant to leave the grounds myself. You never know when a king will have need of his magician. Taking on the role is like joining the priesthood." He shrugged. "But who cares? I have a transmat beam, so we can go whenever we like. I couldn't build it in my room, as the castle is shielded against such things. Actually so are the grounds, but it's easier to get around the security out here." He smiled, in a perfectly charming manner. "Want to make a guess where it is?"
"Gardener's shed?" Jack looked around, unable to see anything that even hinted at the presence of a transmat beam. Unless this guy really was a magician, and had hidden one in a rhododendron bush. Leith laughed.
"Not even close. A few months ago there were some repairs made to part of the main wall. I showed an interest in the workings of the security system that's wired into it. A little sleight of hand - I'm not a magician for nothing you know - and my transmat was built into the very security system designed to prevent it." He shrugged. "It's easy, when you know how. It's only basic - one destination, there and back. But it serves its purpose well enough."
"I'm impressed." Quite incapable of resisting the temptation to flirt, Jack smiled. "Do you topple kingdoms for a living, or is this just a hobby?"
"I stand to make a fair profit from all of this, I suppose, but I can't really call it a living. I've not done it before."
"Can I ask why now?" Idira's instructions aside, he actually found that he was interested. Jack had no great political convictions, and no loyalties at all to anybody save himself. To risk death or imprisonment in such a way as this was not something that he could see himself choosing to do.
"You ask a lot of questions for a mercenary." Leith smiled suddenly. "Not that I've met many. Why now? Perhaps because now is the right time to do this. But that's enough for now. I'd just as soon not talk so openly, at least until we're out of the castle grounds." He quickened his pace slightly, leading the way past shrubs and flower gardens, towards the outer wall. "Do you see anybody about?"
"There's nobody in sight now." Jack barely needed to look. He had been fully on the alert throughout their hurried walk, and for now at least they were unobserved. "There's a guard on a patrol back there a way. He'll come into sight again in the next ninety seconds. That enough time?"
"Easily." Leith pulled a hand-held scanner from somewhere about his person, and held it up to the wall. Something peeped gently, but Jack didn't look. He kept watch instead, staring out across the gardens, and looking for some sign of Idira. She would want to know where he was and what he was doing. He ought to leave some kind of message. Nothing obvious presented itself to him. He was still wondering when he felt a familiar buzzing sensation race across his skin, and saw the castle grounds evaporate around him. A second later he was standing in a small room.
"Revolutionary HQ," announced Leith, with a touch of humour in his voice. Jack looked around. What he saw was an ordinary living room, at least to all appearances - a coffee table bearing a vase of flowers; a writing desk adorned with family pictures; a mantelpiece lined with model ships. A girl of about twelve was sitting on a chair, reading a holo-novel and eating sweets. She looked up with such disinterest at the arrival of two men in her house, that Jack could only assume she had long become bored with the procedure. Either that or she didn't know enough about it to care.
"Dad's in the study." Sounding distinctly bored, the girl gestured with one hand towards a door. Leith nodded.
"Thankyou." The girl didn't answer. Whatever her book was about, it was clearly more exciting than the revolutionary escapades of her father, the king's magician, and a complete stranger that as far as she knew could be anyone. Jack, who was beginning to find this whole business of revolutions to be just the kind of thing that he liked, wondered what on Io she was reading. Leaving her to it, he followed Leith across the room, and through the waiting door.
It was a comfortable study - well used, and clearly almost lived in. A scuffed desk, barely visible beneath piles of paper, digital files, and at least half a dozen computers, was the centre-point. Around it, lining the walls, were shelves and shelves of books, various forms of data storage, probably eight or nine further computers and a child's toy soldier. It was standing on the end of a shelf, on a pair of sturdy metal legs, pointing a gigantic laser rifle straight at Jack. Tactical squad officer from Earth, his brain filled in automatically. Thirty-seventh century. The uniform was the wrong shade of grey, though.
"Leith." The voice came from the desk, or seemed to. Moments later a man emerged from underneath it, holding yet another computer, two books and several writing implements. He dumped the lot cheerfully down on top of the muddle already on the desktop, and promptly lost two pens, that dived for cover back underneath the desk. "Hello."
"Charnaby." Leith nodded in polite greeting. "This is the man that Captain Rye has sent us. He's a mercenary from off-world. Jack Harkness, this is Stef Charnaby. He's--"
"The engine guy?" Jack was staring about at all of the clutter with a new eye. "The Charnaby drive system? It revolutionised small-scale space-craft." He shook the man's hand with real enthusiasm. "I knew you were from Arosa, but I never thought... Shouldn't you be living in some big mansion house somewhere?"
"The rich man's life never really appealed to me." Charnaby, a rumpled-looking man of about seventy, with flyaway white curls, smiled bashfully. "And besides, I never really became rich. I sold my designs on to other firms. All those sportsmen, racing across solar systems with my engines... they paid their fees to other people." He frowned suddenly. "Are you a sportsman? Never really cared for sportsmen. Nasty, loud, flashy racers, roaring overhead in the middle of the night when other people are trying to sleep. Showing off all over the place, and colliding in mid-air when you least expect it. And the newspeople always try to make out it's my engines that are at fault. My engines! As if they can stop idiots from doing aerial tricks." He frowned suddenly. "Harkness, you say? Could have sworn that Rye told me the name of the man he was sending, and I don't remember it being Harkness."
"I do use other names." Jack smiled placidly, and was fairly sure that he saw no real suspicion. Certainly Leith didn't seem at all concerned by Charnaby's little announcement. "So... what exactly is it that I can do for you guys? I've only had pretty sketchy information so far. I'm happy to work on a need to know basis, sure, but I'm still going to need to know something."
"Yes. No doubt." Charnaby sighed, then gestured to several of the various chairs scattered about the room. "Sit down then. And try not to squash anything important." Jack sat. So far he was inclined to think that Idira had over-exaggerated the threat of rebellion, when the only rebels he had met were an alleged magician, a rather bemused engineer, and his decidedly bored pre-teen daughter. If it hadn't been for Acton's death back at the castle, he could have written all of this off as little more than empty talk. The transmat beam hinted at something more intricate, but it didn't seem to fit with the image he was seeing now, of Charnaby's chaotic domestic arrangements, in the middle of a supposedly traitorous plot. The engineer leaned on the desk, and failed to notice that a good many pieces of paper were dislodged, and slipped away onto the floor.
"You know that we're ruled by a king here?" he asked. Jack nodded. So did Charnaby.
"Yes, of course you do. Everybody does, I'd imagine. Inefficient form of government, as Leith here pointed out to me. I suspect that he just wanted somebody with some political leverage to stand up and support his cause. I do still have the ear of a few people on a few worlds. Anyway, he persuaded me. Showed me how much better things would be in a Republic. I wouldn't be scraping together a living for my daughter, for one thing, if we were governed differently. So we decided that we needed to get rid of the king, and put somebody else in charge. Your job is to help us do that."
"Sounds straightforward enough. What do you want me to do? Sabotage?"
"Sabotage?" Leith frowned at him, and for a moment Jack thought that he was in trouble. "I can't believe that you were told so little."
"Little? Listen, I haven't seen anybody, or spoken to anybody, since I got to this planet. I've been stuck in Auric Castle with people keeping an eye on me all the time. I never got to meet Captain Rye properly. He told me I was to talk to Acton, and it wasn't me who killed him before he could say anything." He drew in a deep breath, as though reining in his anger. "If anybody has screwed up around here, it hasn't been me."
"No." Leith smiled suddenly, once again the charming man of earlier. "I'm sorry. I hadn't realised that Rye hadn't spoken to you."
"We haven't had a chance to talk since I arrived. He didn't want to say anything on a communications link. You know what it's like inside the castle, with all the security, and it's not like he gets much chance to get out of the grounds. Anyway, you try getting a secure channel anywhere."
"It's alright, I understand." Leith's smile was genuine, or certainly seemed to be. Jack allowed himself to breathe once again. "Look, we'll be here all day waiting for Charnaby's version of events. In a nutshell, we don't want to be a monarchy anymore. We want a president instead of a king, and it's your job to see that nobody else finds out what's going on." He frowned suddenly. "You said that you were a mercenary. You are still a Time Agent?"
"A Time Agent?" For a second Jack blinked at him, before he shook off the moment of confusion, and nodded. "Yes. When I said that I was a mercenary, I meant that I take commissions on the side. The Time Agency doesn't know that I'm involved in this."
"Ah." Leith nodded. " I understand you. We'll talk later about the details, and about the payment that Rye promised you. Before then, our future president ought to meet you. Is she here yet, Charnaby?"
"She's here, hiding in the back, doing her usual paranoid act." Charnaby seemed remarkably disinclined to show any respect for the woman he was planning to help raise to such high office. "She keeps demanding coffee. She must know it doesn't grow on this planet. Nobody outside of the castle can afford to drink the blasted stuff."
"She's here?" A confused house occupied by a confused civilian seemed rather an unlikely place to find the figurehead of a revolution, but Jack's surprise did not last long. This was hardly a conventional revolution. Charnaby beamed at him, his moment of irritation forgotten.
"Oh yes, she's here. We're supposed to be having a meeting later on." He gestured to the back of the study, apparently at a pair of bookcases. "She's in there."
"We'll go on through." Leith stood up, stretching his long legs and smiling his charming smile. The smile seemed brighter and more charming than ever when it alighted upon Jack, and the former Time Agent, interested by everything that he had heard, as well as by Leith's obvious charisma, was happy to see where all of this was going. Without comment he followed the other man through what turned out to be a door, all but hidden by the bookcases. It led to a corridor, that in turn led off into bedrooms and a tidy little kitchen.
"Can I ask a question?" With no idea of how long it would be before they reached their destination, Jack spoke as soon as the door had closed. Leith raised an eyebrow.
"Aren't mercenaries just supposed to take the money and run?"
"Not curious ones, no. This place. Charnaby. None of it really screams 'revolution', does it."
"So what's your question?" Leith still sounded good-natured. Jack wasn't fool enough to think that he would necessarily stay that way.
"A little house. Obvious civilians. You said something about a 'number of people' here being behind you, and I guess two is a number, but are there any more? Or is this just some little operation with big aspirations?"
"By my count that's more than one question." Leith's smile didn't waver, and nor did the tone of his voice suggest at displeasure. If anything he seemed almost amused. "Do you have any more?"
"Yeah, one or two. The great hope for your new leadership is hiding in a back room in some suburban house? And what does any of this have to do with the Time Agency, anyway?"
"Ah, well. That bit we'll come to later." Leith regarded him in silence for a moment, standing still in the middle of the corridor - then he smiled again. "I have my supporters, Jack. I hope that you'll be one of them. Acton, as it turned out, wasn't."
"I don't die easy." Jack smiled his own smile, though it was considerably harder and colder than Leith's. "And it'll take a whole lot more than your knife to send me after that poor guy."
"I would hope so. I don't intend to do business with a mercenary who falls into that simple a trap." For a second Leith's eyes showed indecision, though his smile never wavered for a moment. The smile broadened after that, into an expression of obvious warmth. "I'm going to enjoy finding out if I can trust you. It strikes me that things could go either way. I can't even ask Rye about you, until he can come out this way himself."
"Yeah." This time Jack's smile was warm as well. There was something in Leith's manner that was extremely easy to respond to. "Awkward, isn't it."
"Vexatious." Leith's eyes sparkled. "In answer to one of your questions, yes, our 'great hope' is hiding in a back room here. Apparently she likes it. And in answer to another... no, it's not a big revolutionary movement. I think you'll find out that it doesn't have to be. The king will be removed, his replacement installed, and the people will put up with it. Embrace it or be indifferent, it doesn't matter. They won't stop me."
"You're sure about that? From where I'm standing it doesn't look much like democracy if it has to be forced on people."
"Perhaps." Leith shrugged. "But then I don't care about that. My job is simply to remove the monarchy, and create a republic. After that... well, after that doesn't matter. Stay around for long enough after our work is done, and you can see for yourself." He gestured down the corridor. "Now, if you'd like to follow me?"
"Yeah. Sure." Jack followed his lead, not seeing any sense in refusing. He was supposed to be a mercenary, content to do what he was being paid for. Arguing at any greater length would be foolish. All the same, this all felt odd. Idira had spoken of traitors in the castle and dastardly treacherous plots, as though this were some massive conspiracy to remove the king. In the event it was turning out to be something that was almost comical in its tiny size and haphazard construction. Either there was more than one plot, and he was immersed in one of the more minor ones, or somebody was wrongly estimating the scale of the problem. He only hoped that it was Idira, and not himself. Leith, meanwhile, had reached a door on the left-hand side of the corridor, and gestured at it without ceremony.
"Knock first. She likes that."
"Most people do." Jack knocked hard on the door, happy to be polite, but not at all concerned with maintaining decorum. A voice told him to enter, and with a glance back at Leith he pushed open the door and stepped into the room beyond. It was as unremarkable as the rest of the house - a living room of sorts, much like the one where the girl had been reading a book. Music was coming from some discreet source - a piece from the Jazz revival of the forty-second century, as far as Jack knew. If there was one thing that Earth had proved skilled at, it was spreading its music all over the universe. Timorans from Jack's far future had been known to hum songs by David Bowie, and even Sontarans had reportedly been heard singing Simon and Garfunkel. His always alert eyes took in the worn sofa, coffee table and ill-matching collection of easy chairs, before settling on a woman seated on a hardback chair carefully positioned so that it would not be visible from the room's one, large window. She was about sixty at a guess, hair just turning grey, elegant frame beautifully dressed in something soft, flattering, and perfectly chosen to match the green-blue glint of her eyes. One hand lay on the arm of her chair, and several rings flashed in the glow from the light crystals. Jack had already added up their probable value before the hand moved with its owner, and the woman in the chair smiled a formal greeting.
"Leith." She greeted him with a warmth that might have been real fondness, or might just have been simple courtesy. "And you've brought a guest. Another recruit?"
"Certainly." Leith nodded at Jack. "This is Captain Jack Harkness, possibly of the Time Agency. Jack, this is her Royal Highness, Queen Jena of Auric Castle. Wife of the current king, and chief agent in his intended downfall." This time his smile was a trifle smug. The woman laughed.
"It's all rather dramatic, isn't it. President Jena will do, since that's what I intend to become." Her eyes lingered upon Jack. "Possibly a Time Agent?"
"He hasn't decided yet if he can trust me." Jack smiled at the woman, taking the hand with the glittering rings, and kissing it extravagantly. It was intended to disarm the woman, and get him a better look at the rings, and it achieved both with interest. The queen laughed in ready good humour, and the jewels in the rings told him their most intimate secrets. He could sell them anywhere for a very satisfying sum. "I haven't decided yet whether I trust him, either, so we have to watch each other closely."
"There's a lot to be said for watching somebody closely, Captain Harkness." The queen reclaimed her hand, though not without leaving it in his for a significant period. "And can we trust you?"
"That would be telling." He flashed her one of his most popular smiles, the kind guaranteed to charm almost anything save a Dalek, and was gratified to see the glint of interest in her eyes. Who said queens were distant and aloof? She laughed at him, then looked over to Leith.
"I like this one. I don't like your associates back at the castle. A humourless bunch."
"Yes ma'am." Leith eyed Jack with a look that might have been amusement or annoyance. It was very probably both at once. "The others are necessary I'm afraid. They watch my back at the castle, and help to ensure that you can come and go there as you please. They're a means to an end, and I couldn't take the time to choose them for their sparkle."
"I daresay." She smiled again at Jack. "But this one makes up for it, I think. Tell me, Captain Harkness - what do you think of our plan?"
"I know very little about it." He glanced over at Leith, wondering if now was the time for explanations, but the supposed magician didn't appear to be listening. Small talk clearly bored him. "But a plan to make you the ruler of the country can't be all bad."
"Charmer." She smiled anyway. "And you have no reason to be loyal to the king, I suppose? Where are you from?"
"Here and there." He shrugged. "Nowhere will have me full time. I seem to have a talent for having to leave in great haste."
"Well then try to keep that talent in check whilst you're here. You're not much use to us thrown off the planet."
"I'll do my best." He decided to keep private the fact that he couldn't leave the planet just yet, at least whilst his ship was still impounded in some unknown place. If she didn't already know who he was, she obviously didn't keep a close eye on castle affairs, in which case he wasn't going to enlighten her. It didn't always do a lot for an employer's confidence, to know that their latest recruit was technically still remanded in custody for unspecified crimes. He offered the queen another of his trademark smiles. "From where I'm standing, there's plenty of good reasons to stay around for a while."
"I think I might have room for you in my government, once the revolution is over." She gestured to a chair, indicating that he should sit. "Do you have any special talents that I should know about?"
"I have all kinds of special talents, your highness." He smirked, and she echoed the expression. "I just don't know how many of them I should talk about in polite company."
She laughed at that. "Tell me, Captain Harkness. Might some of those special talents be in the area of confidence trickery?!"
"Me?" He grinned. She was no fool, at least. "Don't worry. I only con people who deserve it." He couldn't help thinking that a woman who sought to aid the revolution that would likely see her husband killed, just in order to take his place, might very well be somebody who deserved whatever he did to her. Idira might have a strange devotion to Arosa's antiquated monarchical system of government, but she wasn't the kind to extend that devotion to a tyrant. King Hari was unlikely to be the type to deserve so treacherous a wife. He let his eyes trail across those tempting, gleaming rings, and hid an appreciative smile. He had missed out on conning Toby Mendosa. Maybe he could make up for that by stealing a rebel queen's jewellery collection instead. Leith coughed loudly at this point, and Jack got the distinct impression that the magician had seen the direction of his gaze, and knew exactly what he was planning. He glanced up at the other man, and shot him a challenging grin. Leith, to his pleasant surprise, smiled back.
"Do you require Jack any longer, ma'am?" he asked. The queen glanced over at him, as though she had only just remembered his presence.
"Require him? Certainly I require him, Leith. Do I need him? Strictly speaking, I don't suppose that I do, no. Why? Do you have other plans for him all of a sudden?"
"We have a lot to discuss, ma'am. I can do it here if you'd rather, I suppose, but you might find some of it rather dry and uninteresting. There is a lot that you already know."
"Yes, yes. Quite." She made a bored gesture with one hand. "Certainly. Take him away, and talk about revolutions. Do what you need to do." She reached out suddenly, and Jack picked up on the cue, taking the proffered hand and giving it another kiss. "Return quickly, Captain. I feel sure that there is plenty more that we can discuss."
"I'm sure that you're right, ma'am." He did his best to ensure that his eyes didn't linger for too long on her jewelled fingers. "Until later, then."
"Certainly." She looked away as he left, apparently doing her best to strike an attractive pose. As the door closed, sealing her inside the room, Jack flashed a grin.
"Know what you're doing, don't you. Somebody just vain enough for you to be able to manipulate her where necessary. Enough brains for her to do the job well, but plenty of room for your influence. Clever."
"And plenty of jewels for your sticky fingers." Leith shook his head. "Touch them before I'm done, and I'll bury you, Jack. I won't have my work compromised."
"I don't know what you mean." Grinning just at the thought of the jewels, Jack offered his companion an entirely unconvincing look of total blamelessness. "You said something about there being lots to discuss. Is this where I finally get to find out what's going on?"
"Yes. It's safe to talk here, and now that you've met our future president you might as well know the rest. You can't help us properly unless you know what's going on." Leith gestured down the corridor. "Come on."
"Where are we going?" Jack was happy to follow on behind. Things were quiet here. There were no immediate threats. Leith quite clearly enjoyed his company, and Jack wasn't going to complain about that. The other man indicated another door.
"Outside. I want some fresh air. Take a walk with me, Jack, and I'll tell you what's going on here. It's an interesting project, and I hope you'll think so too. It's certainly stands every chance of making you a very rich man."
"Yeah?" Jack grinned happily at that. "In that case I'm all ears." Money and jewels. Maybe the spying game wasn't so bad after all.
They walked slowly, down a long, grey-brown road through what might have been a picturesque village, had not the buildings been so functional. The place seemed deserted, and only something that looked like it might have been a duck - one could never be sure, on colonial planets, what was an Earth animal and what was not - disturbed the silence. It quacked at the two men as they walked past its pond, but other than that the place was still. Jack glanced around, a little unnerved by the emptiness.
"It's a working day," explained Leith, clearly realising the direction of his thoughts. "Everybody in the local villages works elsewhere. There are probably a few people here, but you're not likely to see anybody until the early evening at least. It's useful that way. I'm not exactly a celebrity, but the face of the king's magician is hardly unknown - and somebody catching a glimpse of the queen through a window would certainly get us noticed. In entirely the wrong way."
"I'm sure the king's magician can magic himself out of trouble." Jack grinned. "What the hell is that title about, anyway?"
"Oh, it's tradition, like I said. I wasn't going to argue, not since it got me inside the castle. I needed to see how things worked there, and find out who I could get on my side. The job could have been tailor-made for the purpose. Maybe it was, centuries ago. There's something about castles that breeds intrigue."
"Looks that way. I've been around a few castles in my time, and most of them seemed to have more than their share of back-stabbers, traitors and crooks." He smirked. "Kinda like you. And you were going to tell me your plans."
"Yes..." Leith seemed unwilling to talk now, even though he had been the one to precipitate this conversation. "Just how trustworthy are you, Jack?"
"I've never betrayed myself. So maybe I'm not the best person to judge." He shrugged. "You're armed, I'm not. You knifed a guy to death a little while ago because he tried it on. What kind of a fool do you think I am?"
"I have no idea. I just know that I'd rather not have to wind up shooting you when all of this is over. Or even before then." He sighed. "Never mind. We'll worry about that when the time comes. And if it does, Jack... I will kill you without a thought."
"Point taken." Jack looked at him expectantly. "So what's the game?"
"The game?" Leith seemed to like the idea of referring to it all that way. "It's simple, more or less. I'm being paid a great deal of money to see that King Hari loses his throne. A very great deal of money."
"And who's paying you? Bankers? Land developers?"
"Land developers? This isn't about land. This is about..." He frowned suddenly, looking directly at Jack. "Why do you think I need a Time Agent exactly?"
"Time Agents protect the timeline, or so goes the theory." Jack shrugged, unsure where this was going. "They get rid of anachronisms and keep things..." He trailed off. "You're from the future."
"Yes. I work for somebody who runs a very large business here, quite some years from now. A business he's likely to lose. Now his advisors and his financial experts believe that if certain political decisions were altered, and if certain scenarios work out differently this time around, our entire economy would have a different structure. So they came to me, and I said that I'd see what I could do."
"Change history?" Jack was aghast. "You can't go messing around doing stuff like that. It's crazy. You don't know how much you might change. This guy you're working for might not even be born in your new world."
"That's why you're here. You can minimise disruption." Leith frowned, eyeing Jack was growing suspicion. "I was told that you wouldn't argue. No questions, no problems, that's what I was told."
"Maybe Captain Rye wasn't the kind of man I wanted to get chatty with." Jack shook his head. "I don't think you understand what the Time Agency is all about. Sure, we keep an eye on things - but not in that way. I can't shape the past or the future. We're not Time Lords. Far from it."
"That's not what you told Rye. When he hired you, you said you could help me."
"Maybe I needed the money." Jack looked away, down the narrow road. It was just a pedestrian thoroughfare of course - no vehicles used roads nowadays. It looked dusty and oddly archaic, like a road from the long ago days pre-tarmac. "Listen, Leith--"
"If you're going to try to talk me out of this, Jack, don't bother. I cam here for a reason, and I'm not giving up the chance of that kind of money. If you don't want a share in it that's your look out."
"Hey, I'm always interested in making some money. Most of the time I don't give a damn about how I get it. But this is crazy. You don't mess with history. You could wipe yourself out of existence. Create a paradox. I'll mess with this and I'll screw with that, but I'd never be fool enough to risk changing something like this."
"I suppose we must have different priorities then." Leith lapsed into silence, strolling along for a while just staring at the ground. "Look, I like you. Or I think I do. Something tells me that's probably a mistake."
"Thanks. Your point being?"
"That I don't especially want to kill you. It's not a great end to any relationship, especially one that's hardly had a chance to get off the ground. I will do it, though. Get in my way, try to stop me - and you're a dead man."
"I make a point of never interfering in anything that might cost me my life." At least intentionally. Most of the time. Jack did his best to look innocent, though it was hardly an expression that came easily to him. "I'm not going to get in your way. Not when you have a gun and I don't. But you've got to see that this is nuts, Leith. You don't know what you're messing with."
"Then help me! You're a Time Agent. You know Time."
"I travel in it. I use it. I exploit it nowadays. I cheat people with it, I guess. But I can't shape a new history, or help you to create some new world order. Just what kind of mandate do you think the Agency has?!"
"Maybe it's you that's got the Agency wrong. " Leith sighed. "It doesn't matter. Just don't get in my way. I mean that, Jack."
"I never plan on getting in anybody's way." He smiled faintly. "It just happens. Leith..."
"I'm not changing my mind! You can't begin to imagine the money I'll be making out of this. Say the word, and you're in on it. I'd rather have you with me than against me."
"Hey, who said anything about against?! I might not be with you on this, but that doesn't mean I'm going to try to stop you. A man with his eye on a fortune isn't the kind of guy to get on the wrong side of. I'm no fool."
"I hope not." Leith nodded slowly. "If it's all the same with you, I'd like you to stay somewhere where I can keep an eye on you. Just until I'm sure that my plan is going the way it's supposed to."
"Out of one prison and into another." Jack shook his head. "Come on, Leith. I thought you liked me? I thought you wanted to trust me? I have a ship somewhere on this planet. It's been impounded. If I can get to it, I'll leave and you'll never see me again. Believe me, I'd rather be a long, long way away from here if you're going to start messing with history."
"It's not history. It hasn't happened yet." Leith sounded stubborn. Jack flashed him a sad stare.
"For you it has. It's your history that you're planning to change, and that's why it's dangerous. Now if you're going to shoot me, or lock me up, go ahead. Otherwise I'm clearing out. I don't need this kind of hassle."
"Yeah." Leith looked away. "Yeah, fine. Sure. Go. Get off the planet, and go back to whatever it was you were doing before. Being a good little Time Agent, earning that company credit, never really knowing what the organisation you work for is up to behind your back. Believe me, Jack. The Agency isn't what you think it is."
"That I can believe." Two years, gone from his memory - who knew what deeds, what events, what people had gone as well? He was glad that he had left the service. He was even more glad now. "I'll see you around, maybe. Somewhere."
"Somewhere." Leith didn't offer to shake hands. Neither did Jack. Instead he merely turned and walked away. He had no idea where he was going, but he knew that he had to find his ship. That was the only way off this planet. The only way to safety. What the hell did Leith think that he was doing, come back through time with a plan to change history? It was the stupidest thing... He pictured Idira, sitting in the castle, doing whatever the hell it was that ladies-in-waiting did when they weren't brawling with guards in bars. She was waiting for him, wondering what he was doing, what he had found out. She already suspected that Leith was up to his eyeballs in treachery, so she could well have searched his apartments by now, and found Acton's body. How long before she found out something else? Traced him here? Found out what he was doing? She might be in time... but the chances were that she would not. Leith had clearly been working hard for some time now, setting up the means to get in and out of the castle; finding a member of the royal family to aid him in his revolution; choosing guards to bribe. He was an expert at going undiscovered, and if he was having regular meetings outside the castle with the queen; if he was recruiting local dignitaries and celebrities like Charnaby; then he must be close to making some decisive move. Idira might never find out in time what he was up to, and where. Jack swore, and quickened his pace. He had to find his ship. He had to get off this blasted planet. Leave Idira to face the music alone - after all, she had more or less blackmailed him into helping her, so it wasn't as if she were some blameless person herself. Leave her to watch her planet's future changing, with no way of knowing what effect it might have upon the fabric of space-time... Jack swore again. Quickened his pace again. Any other planet. If it was any other planet... but there were things in Arosa's future that couldn't be changed. That mustn't be changed. Except that it wasn't his problem. What did he care? His thoughts drifted back to Idira, and he tried to think of something else - and failed, dismally. He came to a halt, and looked back the way that he had come. There was no sign of Leith. No sign of anybody. He needed to do something. Some small thing that might help without putting him in danger. Sneak back to the room where the transmat device was, and return to the castle? Except that then he would be right back in custody, and likely unable to slip back out to resume the search for his ship. Besides which, he had a definite suspicion that Toby Mendosa was the Time Agent that had been supposed to rendezvous with Leith. Even if he wasn't, he had missed at least one hourly check-in. The castle was not a safe place to be right now. That left Leith's associates. If he could persuade them how foolish this was - warn them that Leith was from the future, and was planning to change their planet's history - maybe they would listen, and this would all be over before it began. Jack nodded to himself. He hated the plan. He would much rather be getting away from here. Something made him start back, though, and head once more for Charnaby's jumbled little house. He just didn't have a clue what it was. He didn't especially want to. All he cared was that, whatever it was, it didn't go making a habit of getting in his way.
The house seemed quiet when he got back there. He made as much of a circuit of it as the surrounding buildings would allow, then easily gained entry through the door by which he and Leith had left. Of the supposed magician there was no sign - either he had disappeared off somewhere into the building's interior, or he had chosen to continue with his walk. Once inside, with the door closed behind him, Jack was better placed to think about what to do next. Charnaby had been friendly, and might be disposed to listen to him - but he was hardly a decisive character. Even if he had been prepared to listen, he wasn't likely to do much afterwards. By the time he had finished bumbling about in his confused manner, Leith might well be on to the pair of them. That left a teenager with her head in a book, and a rebel queen of highly questionable morality. Hardly a great list of potential allies. Still - the queen had obviously liked him, and had made it clear that she wanted him to return. She would listen to him, he was sure of that. She might have no love for her husband, but if she wanted to be president of the new republic, there was a chance that she had some loyalty to her people. Surely if she knew what Leith was doing - if she knew of the far-reaching effects that his plan could have on a thousand other worlds - surely she would be ready to help stop him? Withdrawing her support would be a big step in stopping Leith in his tracks. It seemed to be the only option - so, slipping quietly back along the corridor, he listened carefully outside her door, knocked, and went in.
She was alone, as he had guessed, though he could not have guessed what occupied her. By the look of things she was reading economics reports - lines and lines of figures that scrolled up the screen of her computer. She didn't look up for several moments, until there was a break in the data - then she turned away from the screen and smiled up at Jack.
"Captain Harkness. I'm glad you came back. What can I do for you?"
"I was hoping to have a word, your majesty." He was never entirely sure how to address royals, but if there was one thing that he was good at, it was flattering people. He knew the right tone to take, and she appreciated it. That much showed in every sparkle of her eyes, and every square millimetre of her smile.
"Have several words, Captain. I don't tax them." Her smile broadened. "Yet. Sit down, please."
"Thankyou, your majesty." He didn't sit. She had told him to refer to her as President Jena earlier, he remembered - had claimed that royal titles were too grand. She wasn't complaining at his use of one now, though. Apparently she wasn't nearly as simple in her tastes as she might like people to think. "I need you to listen to me. It's important."
"Really?" She affected fatigue. "Everything's 'important' these days, Captain. People are forever wanting to give me important reports, or tell me of important events. Everything that Leith says to me seems to have the word 'important' in it. What is it that you want to tell me?"
"It's about Leith." Well, he was here. He might as well spit it out. Either she would listen to him or she wouldn't, and he might as well find out which it was going to be. "He's dangerous. Really dangerous. I don't know if he realises what he's getting mixed up in, or what he might be unleashing, but the truth is, he could be threatening the future of the galaxy. He's from the future. I know it sounds a little crazy, but it's not like time travel is unheard of nowadays. You must know that some races have it, right? That certain organisations have access to it? Well he's come back to change certain things here, and a part of that is this revolution. You see how dangerous this is? You see why you've got to stop helping him?"
"I see." She frowned up at him, and for the first time her smiling demeanour held frosty undertones. "Captain... can I ask why you don't think that I know all of this already?"
"Know it?" He frowned at her. "He's told you the truth?"
"He's told me everything. Do you think that I would take part in a coup for just any reason? He's told me the future, Captain - and for me it's very bright indeed. So long as I make certain decisions in the coming years - certain foreign policy and economic decisions - my future is the best that it can be. I think you've come to tell your tales to the wrong person, Captain Harkness." She tapped a key on her computer. "Leith?"
"I heard." The voice came, not from some communications link on the computer, but from the door. Jack whirled. For the second time that day he reached for a gun that he no longer had, and for the second time he cursed the circumstances that had left him unarmed. Leith smiled coldly.
"I'll never understand you, Jack. You reach for a gun that's been taken away. Did someone offer you something, to make you come to me? Like maybe your gun back? Your ship back? Are you even a Time Agent?"
"I was. Once." He smiled nervously. "So, er... talking round the hired help is out. Okay. Nice job on winning her over. Now what?"
"I told you what would happen if you tried something like this." Leith was holding a gun, but it wasn't yet pointing at Jack. It was casual in his grip, almost as though he had forgotten it was there. "I really am sorry."
"No last requests? No stirring final speeches? No kiss for the dying man?"
"No." The gun in Leith's hand whirred as it charged, as he raised it up to point at the man before him. "You should have left."
"Yeah." That much Jack wasn't going to argue with. "Just do me a favour, Leith. Don't do it with the kid watching, okay?"
"The kid?" The word didn't seem to mean anything to Leith at first - then it clicked and he turned around. There was nobody in the doorway; nobody in the corridor. With an oath he spun back around, just in time to see Jack breaking into a run. There was nowhere in the room to run to - it was too small really to run at all. For a second there was a blur of man and furniture - Leith aimed his gun at a target that dodged with an expert's flair - but his shot did nothing save obliterate a picture hanging on the far wall. Jack ducked at the sound, vaulted a footstool without really knowing what he was doing or what the hell he was going to do next - then all of a sudden there was nowhere else to go, and a wall was looming before him. Short of diving behind a chair there was only one course left open to him; and he could only hope that the glass in the window ahead was just that. He had tried jumping through a window once before that had turned out to be made of toughened acrylic. If that happened this time, he wouldn't be waking up half a day later in the hospital wing. Gathering his strength, throwing up an arm to protect his eyes, he hurled himself out through the window. Behind him somebody shouted, but there was no time to catch what was said. A second later he was crashing into a fortunately prickle-free bush, rolling over in a tangle of twigs and big green leaves, fighting his way out onto a dusty road. A laser blast incinerated a branch beside his head, showering him with burning wood. He ducked aside, threw himself behind a low wall, and ran pell-mell at a half-crouch. Other shots slammed into the wall, and he dodged chunks of stone as he ran. Damn it, why did nice conversations so often seem to end in him leaping out of windows and running for his life? And why were guns always involved? Even when he was trying to play at being the good guy, he still wound up escaping angry gunmen. Skidding around a corner, finally out of immediate danger, he looked up and down the road. It was empty. No locals were moving about - nobody was looking out of their windows to see what was going on. Vaulting a fence, he cut across a small garden, wary of pursuit from Leith. Everything remained quiet, though. There were no more gunshots. Deciding that the coast must be clear, he jumped the far fence onto another road. It wasn't hard to decide what to do next. He was out of the castle, away from Toby Mendosa, and away from all the guards trying to keep him in custody. It was a shame to lose the little remote unit, but he could get another. Make another, perhaps, or get one made. It wasn't the end of the world. All he had to do now was find where his ship had been stored, and he was off this blasted planet, out of this confounded timezone, and away to somewhere where nobody was likely to rope him into power games and royal intrigues. It would be good to be back in space. Sod the timeline. Smiling to himself, he started off down the road. Maybe he could appropriate a hover-car. An onboard map might give him some idea of where to look for his ship. He quickened his pace, plans already forming in his mind. Everything was looking so bright that he wasn't really all that surprised when he turned another corner and came face to face with a group of castle guards. He froze.
"Don't move!" One of them was already raising his rifle. Jack smiled nervously.
"Hi. Hey look, I know I'm not supposed to leave the castle, but--"
"Put your hands in the air and walk slowly forward." The lead guard had his rifle levelled. "We know who you are. You're under arrest."
"Oh come on. I haven't done anything." Jack looked from the rifle to its owner, then along the line of other guards. "There's nothing to arrest me for."
"You're wanted for involvement in a plot to harm the king." The lead guard's voice was like ice. His rifle whirred. Jack took a step back. Great. Idira certainly hadn't been slack in making him seem genuine. He forced a smile onto his face and slowly raised his hands.
"I don't suppose you want to listen to my side of the story? Have a coffee? Dinner? No?" His grin wavered ever so slightly. "Okay, you win." He hesitated, then began to walk forwards, obeying the instructions carefully, and keeping eye contact all the while. The guard saw a man doing as he was told, submitting to authority, ceasing to be so direct a threat, and he relaxed just a fraction in response. The instant before he did so, Jack saw the change in his eyes, and hurled himself to one side. The rifle blasted a lethal charge of heat and power into the air just beside him, and he fought to regain his balance. Ran half backwards, half turning, heard another rifle raging - then he was back around the corner and running for his life. He didn't need to look to know that they were coming after him - all of them, their boots pounding on the dusty road, their rifles charging and whirring, blasting and echoing. He crashed through a hedge, threw himself over a wall, forced his way between two houses and stumbled through a ditch. Bushes caught at his clothing and tangled in his hair, and he struggled all the while to stay on his feet, to maintain his lead, ducking and dodging every time one of the rifles made the air around him burn. So random was his choice of direction, so hectic his flight, that he barely noticed when the terrain suddenly became familiar. Somehow he had blundered back to the place where Leith and his associates had their headquarters. He swore, chose another direction, and redoubled his speed. There was no time to think anymore, no time to consider anything. He couldn't wonder about the guards - had they split up, fanned out, gained on him, fallen back? It was all just running, slipping, jumping, hoping that his instincts would see him through. Headlong flights from trouble were hardly a new experience for him, but his heart pounded in his chest as though he were in far from good shape. He wondered for the first time how long he had been running then, but there certainly wasn't time to stop now. Rifle fire still made the air crackle, still made his skin tingle from the heat and the charge in the air. He stumbled and nearly fell, catching himself just in time, and all but fell over a low wall. He thought that he saw somebody watching him then, through one of the windows in one of the houses, but it was nothing more than a vague impression in the back of his mind, and there was no chance to look again and find out. Not that it mattered. Putting it out of his mind, crashing through a tangle of some tough shrubbery, he found himself all at once in an alley. Walls closed in around him, he heard shouts behind, ran blindly along hard paving. A dead end. Damn it, if it wasn't one thing it was another. The whole damned universe seemed against him some days.
"Where did he go?" It was a distant shout. For the first time he risked a look behind him, and saw nobody else in the alley. He was just far enough ahead. Just far enough to find something - anything - to get him out of here before the soldiers caught up. He shook the nearest door, but it was locked. Shook another. Did he have enough time to break in? Probably not. He grabbed another door, and with a burst of relief, found that it was loose. He threw it open, stumbled over the threshold - and saw a very familiar room. A horribly familiar room. He groaned.
"Oh great." The girl had gone. Only Leith and Jena were in the room now. Leith was expressionless; Jena actually looked concerned.
"You look terrible," she told him. Jack sank onto the settee.
"It hasn't been a great day. You might have noticed that." He glanced back up at Leith. "You might want to get moving. The place is crawling with castle guards. It wouldn't be a great idea to get found here with the queen, or I'm betting we'll all be getting a far closer look at the dungeons than either of us wants."
"Castle guards?" Leith glanced towards the doorway, then back to Jack. "And you're warning us?"
"Yeah. Turns out they're as anxious to shoot me as they are to shoot real rebels." Recovering his breath, he leaned back on the settee, managing to look relaxed and almost languorous. "So could be we need each other."
"Could be." Leith frowned. "But probably not. Just whose side are you on?"
"The one that gets me away from angry soldiers with guns pointed in my direction." Jack smiled provocatively. "Gonna give me a gun?"
"No." Leith looked over at the queen. "You'd better get back to the castle. Use the transmat. I can't go back until I find out what those guards know."
"I'll try to find out for you." She turned towards the wall, sliding aside a panel to reveal the controls of the transmat beam, then hesitated and glanced back at the two men. "You won't kill him, Leith. Will you?"
"Not if he can be any use helping me to get away." Leith looked carefully out of the nearest window. "Damn. They're all over the place."
"Told you." Jack joined him at the window, barely noticing when a faint buzz signalled the departure of the queen. "Think they know you're it? They sure seemed to think I was."
"If they suspect you then who knows what they might have found out." Leith swore softly under his breath. "Somebody must have betrayed me. Acton perhaps. I was right to kill him."
"If he's been found, he could be betraying you a whole lot more. Hiding him in your room might not have been such a great idea." Jack went over to the door he had used, and locked it as quietly as he could. He didn't want any soldiers finding it open, as he had done. "Are there any other ways out of here?"
"Yes. I wouldn't use a headquarters that didn't allow me at least one escape route." Leith hesitated, seemingly caught in indecision, then gestured to the door that led to Charnaby's muddled study. "That way. And if you try anything..."
"Yeah, sure. Look, I had a damn good reason for running away earlier. Don't take it so personally."
"I had a damn good reason for trying to kill you." Leith frowned suddenly. "Actually, I still have a damn good reason for trying to kill you."
"I'm hardly going to turn you in when every soldier in the province is looking to blow my head off with an oversized laser cannon." Deciding that there had been enough talk, Jack pushed open the door that led to the study. "I can be of use. Trust me. I'm on your side."
"Like hell you are."
"Hey - your side, their side. Whichever isn't trying to kill me works from where I'm standing. And right now, you're not trying to kill me. Which makes me on your side. Now we've had this argument already. You want to move onto the next one?"
"What we're going to do next?"
"That's the one." Nodding at Charnaby as though this were an ordinary day, and he were in the habit of bursting into other people's studies in a decidedly battered state, Jack headed for the room's other door. "If your cover is blown, you're as screwed as I am. What's your contingency plan?"
Leith hesitated. "What's yours?"
"Usually?" Jack shrugged. "Last time I found myself on the run from an entire army, I hid in the defence minister's summer residence. Got real friendly with his wife. Lovely lady. Unfortunate taste in husbands. Or there was that one time when I got cornered by a pair of young soldiers, and we found we had a mutual distaste for executing me." He smiled at a happy memory. "Now they had some interesting ideas for DIY entertainment."
"So your plan for escaping is to seduce the enemy." Leith sighed. "Maybe we should be going for something a little more decisive?"
"We can't have a fire-fight in a house with a kid in it. Besides, you're the only one with a gun, so it would hardly be decisive in our favour, would it. Trust me, Leith."
"Jack, I doubt even you trust you. Why the hell should I? Half an hour ago you were trying to persuade one of my allies to turn me over to the authorities. Now you swear that you're my best friend just because you've found that the castle guards like you less than I do."
"Hey, intergalactic alliances have been built on rockier ground than that." Jack flashed his companion a winning smile. "Okay, we'll skip smiling sweetly at the soldiers. I'll forget that you're an evil megalomaniac trying to change history, and you forget that I was trying to stop you. Now in about thirty seconds those soldiers are going to start doing a house to house search, and I'd like to be gone by then. Maybe we could leave the arguments until we're somewhere safe?"
"I don't want you found here. Not when my daughter is in the house." Charnaby pointed at the door that Jack was waiting beside. "I'll deal with any soldiers who come through here. I still have some influence where it counts, and I'm still well enough known to make a difference. Get lost."
"We're going, old man." Leith opened the door, herding Jack through it ahead of him. "Down to the far end of the corridor. There's an old drain that runs under the house, and we can use it to get away. It runs for miles."
"Great. Escape by sewer is always such fun." Jack hurried along the corridor, past the room where he had first met Jena, past a room where Charnaby's daughter sat, still absorbed in her book, on down to what appeared to be a bathroom. "Surely Arosa is far too advanced for underground drainage?"
"This village is built on the site of one of the first settlements here. Things aren't usually quite so highly developed on new colonies." Leith pointed to a disinfection unit, and Jack dragged it aside, revealing a suspiciously new-looking hatch built into the wall. "I like to have a back door. Open it."
"Just as long as it's on record that I hate sewer escapes." Jack hauled open the hatch, and stared down into a dark hole. "You've got a torch, right?"
"We don't need one. Just get in." Leith all but pushed him into the hole, and Jack found himself in a steep shaft with sunken handholds. He lowered himself as carefully as he could with Leith hurrying along behind, and saw the murkiness of the tunnel redouble itself when the hatch up above them swung closed. Leith was right, though, and there was no real need of light in the shaft. The handholds were easy to find.
"They'll know where we've gone," he pointed out as they reached level ground at the bottom of the shaft. "With that unit not in front of the hatch anymore--"
"I locked it. By the time they get it open we'll be long gone, and they won't know where we are. That's always supposing they look in the bathroom in the first place." Leith fumbled for something in his pocket, withdrawing a computer that he used to activate a string of light crystals in the ceiling. "Now come on."
"Where to?" Jack followed him without complaint. Leith might have just tried to kill him, but they were both on the run. He had no objection to tagging along for the time being. Leith shrugged.
"Get a hover-car. Get some distance between us and those soldiers."
"Then? We keep out of sight, lie low for a bit, then try again. I still have the queen on my side. I can still make this work even if I have lost my own place in the castle. And don't start lecturing me again."
"I wasn't going to say anything." Jack followed on at his heels, glad of the running. It was something to focus on, besides what Leith was planning. He didn't want to think about that, and the consequences that it could have.
"Good." Leith's pace didn't let up. For a man who had spent who knew how many months closeted in some luxurious castle apartment, pretending to be a magician, he was in excellent shape. Jack wasn't sure how far they ran. Usually he was good at such estimates, but being below ground made it harder to keep track, and his occupied mind was not behaving quite as it should. He couldn't stop thinking of Leith's plans for the planet, and all that they would mean. Some part of his mind couldn't quite categorise the magician as an enemy. Some part of his heart couldn't quite convince himself that what Leith wanted to do was really all that wrong.
"Nearly there." Leith was slowing. Jack did likewise. Another shaft was beside them; some other old access point to a sewer that the rest of the planet had forgotten about. Settlements all over the universe contained such relics, he knew - old sewers, old drains, old river courses, forgotten by most citizens, or never known to them in the first place. Vital concourses for people like him, or for the homeless, the desperate or the depraved. They were often better, more direct routes than the roads above, and he didn't doubt that Leith knew what he was doing, and where they now were.
"Nearly where?" he asked. Leith pointed up the shaft.
"Find out." He pressed a switch on his computer again, and the tunnel descended into darkness. Jack hesitated for a moment. Leith was taking a lot on trust. He could run. Admittedly Leith could have the place lit up again in seconds, but he might have made it out of gun range by then. He could even kick the other man back down the shaft as they climbed. Something made him merely do as he was told, and climb up the shaft using sunken handholds just as before. When he pushed open the hatch at the top, and the pair of them clambered out into bright, warm daylight, he realised that Leith was smirking in obvious delight.
"What's so funny?" They had come up in some sort of alleyway. The buildings seemed different to before - not the houses of a small village, but of a larger town. Leith pushed the hatch back down into place.
"Nothing really. Perhaps I just like escaping."
"Everybody likes escaping." Leith's smile was one that it was hard not to return. He was a cheerful man by nature, it seemed, and his eyes were warm and friendly. Jack couldn't help responding to natural charm like that. "You're the strangest sort of political agitator, Leith. Mostly they're a pretty cheerless sort. All serious and dedicated. You're... not."
"It's just for the money. That's the way you operate yourself, isn't it? You said you were a mercenary. I'm not some political nut. I don't know why my employer thinks that our world - and our economy - would be better this way. I just know that I'm being paid to do what he says. And maybe he's right. I don't know and I don't care. I just want the money."
"Yeah." Jack looked away. "Hover-car, right?"
"You're a strange sort yourself. For a mercenary, you have a very odd notion of wrong and right. I'm not doing anything that you don't do. If you'd been offered the money I'm being paid, you'd be here doing my job now."
"Maybe. Look Leith, your planet's future--"
"Save it. I've heard your arguments." Leith indicated his gun. "Now come on. I'm still not entirely sure why you're still alive, and I'm certainly not going to risk losing you just yet. I don't what side you're on half the time."
"Neither do I." Jack started off down the alley way, reaching the end of it in time to see a number of security men walking past. He ducked down out of sight. "Are those usual patrols?"
"They look like it. A little heavier than usual maybe." Leith scowled. "I suppose they guessed we'd head for the city. They probably assume that I have other allies. None of them can handle the idea that one man working almost alone can bring down a king."
"You haven't brought down the king. From where I'm standing, you don't look like you're going to, either." Jack spotted a second patrol, this time wearing the uniform of the castle guards. "Damn it, that's no ordinary patrol."
"No, it isn't." For a moment Leith looked shaken, as though his faith in himself and his plans was beginning to waver. "Almost like they really knew that we'd be coming here. Charnaby might have told them about the tunnel I guess, but he doesn't know where it leads. He wouldn't have been able to open the hatch and find out."
"Could they have checked its location with some old map?"
"Maybe." Leith swore, and leaned against the wall. "If they catch us, we'll wind up in those dungeons. And twenty-five feet underground isn't where I plan on being tomorrow."
"Yeah. Tell me about it." Jack watched the marching patrols for a moment, then glanced up. "Leith... how did they know that we were in the village to begin with?"
"I don't know. The queen would never have betrayed me. The guards that are on my side don't know about the transmat device, and they certainly don't know about Charnaby. The only person who does is Charnaby himself. And his daughter of course."
"She wouldn't drop her father in it like that. She's too old to go blabbing about the queen to her school friends." Jack closed his eyes. "I am such a jerk."
"What do you mean?" Leith, deciding that the coast was more or less clear, started to leave the alleyway. Jack pulled him back in.
"Hey!" In a second Leith had drawn his gun, but Jack ignored the threat. Pulling the other man further away from the mouth of the alley, to where he should once again be out of sight, he knocked the gun aside. Fury flashed across the magician's face for a moment, and recovering his grip on the gun, he pointed it straight at Jack. "What the hell are you doing?"
"Looking for something." Jack had flipped open the cover on his wrist computer, and was tapping out a series of instructions. "What's the only way they could have known where we were? They were in just the right place when I ran off earlier. Just the right place. And now they're here, too."
"A homing device?" Leith caught on just as the computer started to beep. "Who could have planted that?"
"Somebody who trusts me about as much as you do." The wrist computer seemed preoccupied with a point on Jack's belt, and he unclipped his empty holster. Sure enough, slipped neatly inside it was a tiny piece of metal. Idira. The device proved unwilling to relinquish its grip on the holster, so he threw both back down inside the sewer. That would teach her to try such a trick. She could spend the next three days searching the sewers for all he cared. He was playing this little game strictly upon his own terms.
"Now what?" asked Leith. Jack shrugged.
"Find a hover-car, same as before. They'll give the word that we've gone back underground, but they'll see that we're not moving. They'll probably converge on this point."
"Where we still are," pointed out Leith. Jack grinned.
"But won't be for much longer. I don't know how long a head start this'll give us, though. They'll soon find that holster down there. Some of them will have to assume that it got dropped accidentally and go looking for us down there, but the rest will soon spread out again."
"We'll have to be quicker than that, then, won't we." Leith pointed upwards. "The roof?"
"Always better than the sewer." Using the nearest windowsill as a step, Jack hauled himself up onto the roof of the nearest building. He could see nobody inside, but there was still no reason to assume that nobody could see him. When he bent down to help Leith up, he wondered momentarily why he was doing so. There wasn't time to think about it. He liked the guy, whatever his faults. Leaving him behind just wouldn't be fair.
"Now where?" he asked. Leith shrugged.
"I've mapped out the sewers. I don't know the towns all that well. Only the village where Charnaby lives." He winced. "Charnaby. With that homing device they'll have known which house we were in. They'll have arrested him by now."
"Will he talk?"
"About me? Sure to. About the queen? No. For all his complaining, he likes her. He doesn't think all that much of me, though."
"One thing after another, isn't it." Jack led the way across the flat roof, keeping low all the while. They were on top of some kind of terrace, with a shared roof that stretched apparently for the entire length of the road. The going was easy, though they were only a few storeys above road level, and he could not be sure whether they could be heard down below. Once or twice he caught sight of people in other buildings, watching through windows, but there was nothing that he could do about that. Fortunately Leith didn't seem inclined to shoot any of them. Whether that was through any feelings of basic kindness, or just because it would give their own position away, he wasn't sure. People were pointing, though, by the time they had gone any great distance - more faces were appearing in more windows. One or two people were coming out of the buildings, to stand in doorways and watch from there. Leith growled something indistinct.
"Hey, it's always good to be looked at." Jack made a show of checking his reflection in a puddle, as though to make sure that his hair was alright. Leith pushed him on again, but Jack flashed him as reassuring a grin as he could manage. "Lighten up, okay? There's nothing we can do about it. Get in a panic, and you'll blow this."
"They can see us! How long do you think it'll be before the authorities see us too?"
"We can't make ourselves invisible. Put up with it or give yourself up now." Jack went to the edge of the roof, looking down into the street. "The soldiers are all heading for that drain cover, remember?"
"Yeah, I remember." Leith ducked instinctively as somebody somewhere shouted something that they couldn't hear. "So you've got some great plan, then?"
"Not exactly. But I do have a plan. See that hover-car?"
"Yes." Leith's eyes followed his own. "It's in a crowded street, though. Somebody will see us, and one of them is probably the owner."
"Got any better ideas?"
"No." The magician frowned uncertainly. Now that things were not going so well, his confident and authorative demeanour was starting to crumble. "Jack..."
"Want to end up in those dungeons back at the castle?"
"No." His companion smiled at him, in a manner that Jack found quite delightful. "You're a little unhinged, you know that?"
"Coming from Nutso The Time Warrior, that's quite a compliment. Ever hot-wired one of those babies?"
"Hot-wired? If that means what I think it does, then no. You think we can?"
"I think we've got about sixty seconds to try." Jack let out a deep breath. "Only one way to find out, anyhow. Come on."
"What? Now?!" But Jack had already gone, leaping off the roof as though they were no more than one storey up. Leith groaned, following him as quickly as he could. By the time he had gone more than a dozen paces, Jack was already swinging up into the front of the hover-car, and somebody in the street was already shouting in protest. Leith doubled his speed, running awkwardly. His knee hurt. He must have landed badly. People were running to cut him off, and he was sure that there were soldiers amongst them. Up ahead, the engines of the hover-car burst into whirring, rumbling life.
"Come on!" Jack was shouting out of the still open door, gesturing wildly with one hand. Leith dodged somebody's hand and promptly slipped, his knee letting him down at the sudden, jerking motion. The engines of the hover-car growled as they were pressed into sudden speed. Jack was taking off, realised Leith - taking off and making his escape. He tried to run faster, but he was limping now, and there were more people than ever before.
"Are you coming or staying?" With a heavy thrum the hover-car swung down, neatly scattering most of the gathering populace. Leith steadied himself on his good leg, blinking in surprise at the open door of the car. Jack rolled his eyes. "Half the army is coming, and they've got guns that I don't want to be in range of. Now get in!"
"I--" He broke off, scrambling into the car and promptly falling into the back when Jack gunned the engines and sped the car off across town. They were just above the heads of the people, lifting slightly to skim some low buildings and speed away towards the wide open spaces beyond. Leith disentangled himself from a seat, and struggled to look out of a window.
"I can't see any vehicles. The soldiers must be on foot."
"There'll be vehicles. We just have to get enough of a head start for that not to matter." Jack was clearly jubilant. Breakneck escapes were always highly satisfying, at least in his opinion, and he couldn't resist giving the car a little waggle. The controls were simple, which was fortunate, and driving the thing came naturally to him. Such things usually did. Leith shot him an annoyed look as he finally managed to scramble over the seats and into the front.
"Do you have to drive like a madman?"
"Yeah. Usually." Jack grinned at him. "Hi."
"Stop looking so pleased with yourself. My knee hurts from jumping off that roof." Leith flopped into the front passenger seat. "My shoulder hurts from falling over when you took off. My fingers hurt from clinging on for dear life, and I think I banged my head."
"Sorry." Jack, needless to say, did not sound in the least contrite. "Should I kiss it all better?"
"Just get me out of here." Leith frowned suddenly. "And why did you come for me anyway? You could have made a break for it."
"We're a team. In a weird, twisted way."
"You're my prisoner. Or you were. And you want to stop me. I tried to kill you."
"Yeah, but we're still a team. Besides, you're good company. I like your smile, and it's always good to have somebody to talk to." Jack checked for other traffic, then let out a whistle. "We're alone."
"Nobody's following us?"
"Somebody's sure to be. For the time being the coast's clear. That means we can get away, if we make the right choices now."
"You mean if I agree to give up my plans to dethrone the king." Leith shook his head. "No. I won't do that. Maybe you should have left me behind in the town."
"Oh come on... look, you've blown it. They're on to you. Give up now, and you can go back home and forget any of this ever happened. Right now we're home free. We can go anywhere, and nobody is going to be any the wiser."
"No can do." Leith reached inside his jacket, and when Jack looked over at him, he saw that the other man had drawn his gun. "I'm sorry Jack."
"Oh you're kidding. Leith..."
"No. This is no joke. I'm going to be rich, and you're not going to stop me. Head for the castle."
"For the castle?! Now you really have to be kidding. They know us there. What the hell can you want from the castle?" Leith merely raised an eyebrow, and Jack groaned. "Oh no. Are you in love with her or something?"
"No. I don't think so." The magician's hand tightened on his gun. "Never mind that. Just get us there quickly, and park this thing out of sight. I'm going to get the queen, and I'm going to put her in her husband's place if it kills me."
"At this rate it'll kill both of us. Look, what good will it do going to get her? She's safe where she is."
"And my cover is blown! How long before the guards that I bribed start talking? How long before people start putting two and two together? When those guards were outside Charnaby's house, I recognised a few of them. They weren't all just guards, they were members of the king's personal staff. You ever hear of a lady-in-waiting called Idira? Well she was one of them, and she's smart. How long before someone like that starts to wonder? I won't leave the queen in that kind of danger."
"There are other possible presidents."
"True. But I want her, and you're going to take me to her." Leith gave the gun a little shake. "I can just as easily shoot you, and drive this thing myself. It'll be easier with the two of us... but not impossible with one. Now drive."
"Yeah, sure." It was never a wonderful idea to argue with a gun. Jack sighed, and turned his attention back to the controls. "Which way? I don't know about you, but I don't have a clue where we are right now."
"Head west for now. I'll tell you when to change direction. And Jack?"
"No funny business, right?"
"That's right." Leith settled himself down to watch the pilot and the terrain, and Jack settled himself down just to drive. That would teach him to try to save somebody. Next time, maybe he wouldn't bother. Some people just didn't deserve sensational rescues.
Jack guessed that they had been driving for about an hour when the castle's towers first appeared on the horizon. He approached from the rear, and eventually brought the vehicle to a standstill beside an overgrown thicket of bushes and trees. The castle looked impregnable at close quarters, and with all of its security, all of the surveillance, breaking in seemed quite impossible. Jack found that he was oddly delighted by the challenge.
"The queen's rooms are towards the centre," observed Leith. Jack nodded. That much he did know.
"Which complicates things even further. If she lived by the outside wall we might stand a chance."
"I'm not leaving without her." Leith drummed on the dashboard with his fingers, driving Jack to distraction in the process. "I need her. There's nobody else that the people would support in the king's place."
"That's your problem." Jack leaned back in his seat, regarding the castle with interested eyes, quite unable to stop himself from trying to solve their dilemma. "I wish I still had access to my ship. I could transmat in and out in a second. It's been powered down though. Without the remote I can't do anything."
"Mine doesn't have transmat capabilities. It took all the space on board just to fit in the time drive. Horrible, awkward device. They're not easy to come by for ordinary people."
"Yeah. There's a good reason for that." Jack folded his hands behind his head, trying to think. "So what about the old favourites? We could disguise ourselves as castle guards?"
"There's too many people around. Too many people who know that we're not guards." Leith shook his head. "Getting in there by stealth is impossible without my transmat, and we can't use that without going back to Charnaby's place."
"That'll be full of soldiers. They probably found the transmat and dismantled it anyway." Jack shrugged. "If stealth is impossible, why not just go right on in there? You say it's only a matter of time before somebody figures out that the queen is involved - and you're right about Idira. She is smart - so why not cut your losses and get in there, grab the queen, and take off? Sure her cover will be blown, but it won't necessarily matter."
"We'll be fugitives." Leith didn't sound convinced. Jack shrugged.
"Hey, you already are. Whatever way you turn, you're going to be a wanted man. If you want to carry on with your revolution, you've already got to do it with everybody knowing what you're up to. Why not have her support in the open? Better than having her found out and stuck in the dungeons, where she'll be no use to anybody."
"You could be right." Leith looked back towards the castle's towers, then nodded his head slowly. "She's usually in her private chamber at this time of day. That's on the third storey. Do you think this thing can go that high?"
"How the hell would I know? This is the first time I've ever driven one." Jack shrugged. "Must have gone that high at times when we were flying out of that town. For a short time, I can probably do it."
"It can't be for that short a time if I have to get the queen out of a window." Leith looked troubled. "She's not young, you know. Not that young. And she's not exactly used to climbing out of windows, especially if there are likely to be guards shooting at us."
"We can always leave her behind." Jack made as though to reach for the controls and drive them away from the castle, but the gun in Leith's hand jerked alarmingly.
"No. We're getting her. I need her, and I won't leave her behind." Leith nodded, as though to confirm his intentions to himself. "Take us in. Aim for the window with the blue curtains, and don't stop for anything else."
"You realise that they'll come after us? We'll have one hell of a drive on our hands, if we're going to stay ahead of the soldiers here. They'll have ships as well as hover-cars, and they'll be armed. They're sure to have a better top speed that this thing, too. This is no racer."
"We don't have anything else. You drive well. You handled her fine when we were escaping from that town. You kept us ahead of any pursuit, and you lost the soldiers with no trouble at all. You'll do it now, too."
"I wish I had your confidence." Jack grinned suddenly. "Actually, I usually have twice that much confidence. It's just being shot at that I have an issue with."
"Then drive all the better." Leith steeled himself in his seat. "And take us in."
"You're the boss." Wishing for the thousandth time that he had never come to Arosa, Jack gunned the engines and skimmed over the castle walls. An alarm blared instantly - violent peals as if of some massive bell, that seemed to make the car itself vibrate. Gunshots sounded out immediately, and the car rocked slightly as a laser blast caught one of the doors.
"Get us higher!" Leith looked momentarily panicked, though he recovered himself well enough. Jack did as he was asked, though he knew that he couldn't get a hover-car high enough to be out of range of guns. All that he could do was swoop and weave about to the best of the machine's limited manoeuvrability, speeding all the while towards that window with the blue curtains. It took all that the little vehicle had to reach the window, but it proved impossible to maintain the height. A figure stared out of the window as Jack fought with the controls. He could see that it was the queen, gesturing wildly, but he could not give her his attention now. He had guns and guards to think about, as well as a car that was just not quite up to the job. Beside him Leith swore.
"You have to get us up there!"
"What do you think I'm doing? You think I want to get shot down?!" Jack struggled with the controls, sending the car bouncing up again. Maybe I can land it on the roof. It's not a big jump out of the window from there."
"She's the queen, not an acrobat!" Leith was gesticulating wildly at her, apparently in answer to her own unfathomable gestures. What they were saying to each other, Jack had no idea. He doubted that they did, either.
"You have any better ideas?" he asked. Leith just glared at him, and with an answering roar of protesting engines, Jack brought the car up one final time, lodging it precariously on the roof of whatever part of the castle was beside the queen's chamber. A laser blast struck the door by his head, and although the metal held, he felt the heat and winced.
"Come on." Jumping out of a car when there were people shooting was a damned silly thing to be doing in anybody's book, but by his own admission Jack was not particularly skilled at being sensible. He was rather hoping that the proximity of the queen would act as a shield of sorts. If not then he would be coming down off this roof the hard way. Leith followed him, stumbling on old tiles and many years' growth of slimy moss.
"What's happening?" The queen was leaning far out of the window. Jack swung up onto the sill beside her, in a move that rather pleased him. He liked to think that the guards below had been impressed as well, though they didn't especially look it. They had stopped firing though. Clearly he had been right about them not wanting to risk shooting their queen.
"Your majesty." He flashed her one of his usual winning smiles, though she didn't return it. "Change of plan."
"You're insane." She looked back as an almighty thump sounded against the door to her sitting room. "I locked the door, but it won't hold forever. A few good laser shots and they'll be in here."
"Then hurry up." Jack offered her his hand. "They're onto you - or they will be soon. Leith here wanted to play the gallant rescuer, so if you wouldn't mind hurrying up? I don't want to die on a mission as stupid as this one."
"Your majesty..." Leith seemed suddenly unsure what to say to her, his earlier confidence apparently gone. "I... I've made a mess of things, but there's still a chance for all of us if we can get away. I know that this isn't what we'd planned, but the only alternative seems to be the dungeons." He ducked sharply as a laser blast scarred the wall close to his shoulder. Somebody below shouted something angry, but it was impossible to hear from up above. Another terrific thump shook the door.
"Leave the castle?" The queen shook her head. "No. Leith, I wanted to be President, but I thought that I would always be here."
"You will be here again, just as soon as we've managed to defeat the king. Ma'am, this is the best thing. The only thing." He gazed at her imploringly. "Please. If we're to dethrone him, we must stay out of the dungeons. Both of us."
"Insanity." She shook her head. "It's insanity. Why did you come here? They'll know about me now. You've ruined everything."
"I had no other choice." Leith took her hand, suddenly angry. "You have to come with us."
"Now that you're here, I hardly have a choice." She flinched as the door behind her shook again. Another gunshot flashed up from the ground, striking the hover-car and making it rock alarmingly. From the other side of the door came an answering shot, and the smell of burning wood. Jack tried out a gentle smile.
"We don't have much time," he told her. Another shot or two and the hover-car would fall. Somebody on the ground would realise that soon enough. She nodded at him.
"One or two things. I must have one or two things."
"Your Highness!" But she was already gone, disappearing into the room. Jack swore, and scrambled in through the window after her. She was grabbing things from every surface - far more than they could ever carry. "Your Highness, you can't take all of these things! And there isn't time!" The door rocked again, as though to underline his comment, and the queen jumped.
"Stop firing!" she shouted at the door. "I am your queen! I command it!"
"I don't think that's going to stop them now." Jack tried to hustle her towards the window. In just a moment the guards on the ground would see her running of her own volition towards the ship. They might just take the initiative then, when they made the obvious assumption. Her presence would no longer be a shield. "Come on. We have to get out of here."
"Take these." She was filling his hands with jewels, stuffing them into the pockets of his jacket. "Carry them for me. Look after them for me. I won't leave them behind. They were presents from leaders and businessmen all over the galaxy. Keep them safe."
"Huh?" It wasn't often that somebody was obliging enough to give him their jewels. He nodded mechanically, then without ceremony pushed her out of the window. She stumbled into Leith's arms, running with him towards the hover-car as Jack jumped down in their wake. Another gunshot hit the hover-car, and it wobbled again.
"Hurry up!" Jack was swinging up into the driver's seat whilst the other two were still running across the roof. Another gunshot. Another alarming wobble from the hover-car. Quite suddenly there were men at the window with the blue curtains, and Jack could see that they were shouting. He couldn't make out the words from inside the car, above the sound of the shots from below, but he could guess what was being said. They were shouting for their queen, and she was making it quite clear where her allegiances lay. Leith's gun was in his belt; there was no sign that he was forcing Jena to run. One of the guards at the window raised his gun.
"Hurry up!" yelled Jack again. He gunned the engines. Another gunshot hit the car, and the vehicle lurched alarmingly, jolting towards the edge of the roof. It took all of his strength on the steering controls to keep from sliding further. Leith was pushing the queen in through the door now, struggling in after her, laser blasts knocking chunks out of the roof by his feet. He had barely got the door closed when a volley of shots hit the car, and with a screech of metal on tiles and stone, the vehicle toppled over the edge. Jena screamed, Jack wrenched back on the controls, and the world tilted in the windscreen. His stomach tilted with it, and he closed his eyes to right his senses, jerking back on the stick in his hands. With a scream of the engines and a horrible wrenching sensation they were upright again, skimming over the heads of soldiers on the ground. Leith let out a long, deep breath.
"Don't go relaxing yet." Jack was still fighting the controls. The car had taken one too many hits, and the steering felt spongy. The queen, squashed between them, was sobbing, and every few seconds another gun blast made the vehicle dance. Jack thought that he could hear other engines above their own - pursuit, without a doubt. Leith fired a few shots at the soldiers to try to give them some leeway, and with all the speed that the hover-car could muster, Jack took them back over the wall and out towards open ground. His hands and wrists were stiff, his arms were tired, and the hover-car felt as though it were about to give up. It was all he could do to maintain their speed. He closed his mind to the likely proximity of the vehicles that were sure to be following them, and focused his mind on escape. If they could ditch the car and find somewhere to hide; hole up for a while, and then find some other means of transportation; if they could just stay ahead for the time being, they could still have a chance. He had been in worse positions than this in the past, he was sure of it. Just because things looked hopeless, didn't necessarily mean that they were. Though it was a fairly good indicator, admittedly.
"Get us out of here, Jack!" Leith had given up trying to take pot-shots, the erratic motion of the car making it impossible to be sure of his aim. Instead he put the gun away, and tried to shelter from the fusillade turned against them. Jack scowled.
"What do you think I'm trying to do?!" The car lurched alarmingly and he gave up any attempt at conversation. He had to concentrate. Crashes were unpleasant at the best of time; crashes in the vicinity of enraged soldiers anxious to make an arrest were definitely best avoided. He thought briefly of Idira, and wondered if she had bothered telling anybody that he was supposed to be on their side. Then he wondered if he actually was on their side, and had to conclude that he didn't actually know. He had rather lost track just lately.
"Faster! Go faster!" Jena was practically screaming in his ear, her voice shrill and painful. All things considered, he couldn't help thinking that she hadn't been such a great choice for a future president. At the first sign of a real rebellion she would probably have retired to her chambers and refused to come out. A volley of gunshots slammed into the floor of the car, and he could think of the queen no longer. It was all that he could do now to stop the vehicle from dropping like a stone.
"In front of us!" Jena's voice was agonising at such close quarters. The poor woman was afraid - Jack might have been sympathetic, if he had had the time. If he had been a more sympathetic person, and more inclined to worry about the health of banshees screeching in his ears. He looked up briefly, to see what she was shouting about, and saw a sleek grey hover-car rising into view just ahead. He went for the brakes, twisted the steering, batted away Jena clawing at the controls. Something made an unpleasant wrenching sound deep inside the engine, and a shower of sparks flew out of something above his head. He could hear gunfire, though he wasn't sure where it was coming from now. He was no longer even sure where it was hitting the car. He could think about nothing but the controls, fighting gravity every inch of the way. Bright lights flashed out at him from the hover-car in front and he spun the steering column, but the response was sluggish at best - then with a strange smashing, splintering sound, the windscreen was simply no longer there. Jena gave a howl and tumbled forward, thrown by the jolting of the car, vanishing out through the hole as though plucked by some invisible hand. Leith tried to catch her as she fell, but his feet were caught beneath the dashboard, and he couldn't even get close. Jack had a fleeting glimpse of her as the car rocked and bucked - a dusty and dazed figure in the middle of a road, already surrounded by guards. She didn't look badly hurt. Fortunately they hadn't been all that far above the ground.
"We've got to go back for her!" Leith looked wild. Jack shook his head. Even if he had been inclined to try to rescue Jena, there was no way that he could have managed it. He could barely keep the car in the air. The steering was almost gone, and the engines had long since lost their usual hum. There was an ugly, throaty growl from them now, punctuated irregularly by a choking cough. It was no surprise when he turned the control stick and nothing happened. The steering had finally gone completely.
"Jack! We have to go back for her!" Leith made a grab for the controls, but nothing happened. Jack didn't even bother fighting him off. The car bucked violently, as though rebelling against the creatures that sought to control it. The last thing that Jack saw clearly before he knew that they were going down for sure was a row of soldiers taking aim. After that all was light and dark, up and down, hot and cold. He knew that he had been thrown clear of the car, tumbling out through the broken windscreen, but he didn't know how far he fell, or what had happened to Leith. There was nothing but a moment of spectacular disorientation, before he was hitting the ground with a sickening, agonising thump. He rolled with the landing as best he could, trying to minimise the damage, fighting to keep his senses as he crashed through undergrowth and coarse grass. The noise of tearing, screeching metal filled his ears, though there was no answering explosion. Head far from clear, the notion of escape the only definite one in his mind, he fought his way to his feet and blinked dazedly around. He was beside a road, lined by a low white wall. He tried to get over it, with half a mind on the idea that a road would be a good thing to follow right now. The wall seemed to move as he tried to climb over it though. Suddenly there were two walls - three - all wobbling and blurring in front of his eyes. He fell over it in the end, and hit the ground hard on the other side. Guards were grabbing at him then, hauling him upright and dragging his arms behind his back. He fought, though he could tell that it was useless. These were strong people, and angry. He gave in in the end, choosing acquiescence in favour of breaking an arm.
"No!" A woman's voice was shouting, but the sound was indistinct. "Leave him alone! He's on our side!" There was a jumble of further conversation that he was almost too dazed to hear - then suddenly the hands on his arms were gone, the jostling scrum of bodies was relieved, and there was an entirely new grip on his shoulder. He managed a shaky grin.
"Idira. I thought you'd forgotten about me."
"Hardly. I thought you were dead. I thought I'd sent you on a suicide mission, but you were..." She smiled, though it barely registered with him. "You were amazing."
"I do my best." He had no idea what she was talking about, but apparently he had done something that pleased her immensely. "Might have been nice if you lot had appreciated it a little more."
"Yes. I'm sorry about that. The shooting, the crash... There was nothing I could do. We nearly killed you, and you've done so much for us. I would never have believed that the queen... if you hadn't..." She was staring up at him, obviously concerned. "Are you alright?"
"Yeah, sure. A little woozy." So that was it. She thought that he had engineered all of this to unmask the traitorous queen. Well, who was he to disappoint her? Maybe she was right anyway. Damned if he knew. He smiled at her, then glanced sharply around. "Leith. Where is he?"
"Thrown clear like you were, I'd guess. I haven't seen him. There are guards all over the place though. We'll get him."
"He's desperate." Jack was surprised to discover how concerned he was. There might be shooting. He didn't want Leith to die. "I have to find him."
"Jack, let the soldiers worry about him. He's their problem, not yours."
"You made him my problem." Jack stepped away from her, heading back towards the crashed car. It looked like nothing more than twisted metal - unrecognisable as the car it had once been. He was lucky he had been thrown clear, he realised. If he had still been inside it when it had hit the ground, he would probably not be alive to think about it later. For a moment he wondered if Leith might not have made it out, and he wondered if that might not be for the best - then he saw a shaky figure rise up out of the undergrowth at the side of the road. It was unmistakably Leith, though he looked a mess. He was fumbling for the gun in his belt, obviously still determined to make his escape.
"Put down your weapon!" Some nameless guard was levelling his gun. Taking advantage of the fact that everybody else was looking at Leith, Jack punched him sharply in the side of the head. It was an entirely automatic reaction, and one that he couldn't begin to explain. Leith had to be captured - but Jack was damned if he was going to let the soldiers' job be too easy.
"Everybody get back!" Leith was taking a few steps forward. He was looking this way and that, undoubtedly searching for the queen. "Jack, come on. I need your help. If we can get to my ship I can try again. Travel back again."
"This is crazy." Jack walked towards him, moving slowly, ignoring the soldiers who shouted at him to stay back. Idira was following as well, a gun in her hands now too. Jack didn't want either of them shot, especially one at the hands of the other. He cared for the both of them, and right now he wasn't altogether sure how to prevent either one of them from firing. "Leith, we can't get away from here. They're all over the place. They'd never let us go."
"Have you seen the queen?" Leith's gun was pointing in a hundred different directions at once. "Is she safe? Did she survive?"
"Yeah, she survived." Battered and bruised and probably not making much sense just now, but she was alive. Leith nodded slowly.
"Good. I didn't want her to be hurt. Not a great way to run a revolution, is it, getting your president killed before she can even begin."
"She'll never be president now." Idira took another step forward. "You're under arrest. Now get out of the way, Jack."
"Give him a moment." Jack turned back to Leith, hoping to get through to the man. "She'll kill you. Her or one of her men. They're everywhere."
"I can still get away." Leith sounded almost sulky. Jack could sympathise with his stubborn stand - the poor fool didn't want to go to prison. With all that he had heard about the castle dungeons, Jack could entirely understand why.
"Leith, give up." Idira wasn't speaking at all; was just staring at the pair of them, gun levelled. Jack could see the ice in her eyes, and he knew that she would fire. Leith would be a dead man in seconds, unless he managed to kill Idira first. "Leith, damn it!"
"We can still get out of here!" Leith's voice sounded desperate. "Grab a hover-car, make a break for it. I have a ship, and you've got one somewhere too. We just need to make it to one of them."
"You wouldn't make it six feet." Idira spoke without emotion, her words quiet and measured. "And don't think that I won't shoot you, if you stay in my way Jack. My only loyalty is to the throne."
"Yeah. Your great king, and his great hopes for the future." Leith sounded disgusted. "My way would be better. None of you are prepared to even think about it."
"You really want a world without a monarchy? Well that's your prerogative. So why not go and find a planet that's already a republic?" Idira smiled coldly. "Now drop the gun. There are thirty of us. We have Charnaby and Queen Jena in custody. Your rebellion is over."
"Not necessarily. I can try again." Leith's hand shook on the gun. Jack sighed an imperceptible sigh.
"You know I can't let you do that," he said softly. Leith looked over at him, and Idira took the opportunity to advance a few steps.
"A fortune, Jack. My employer will pay a fortune if I succeed with this. You can be richer than you'd ever imagined. My world would be so different."
"Yeah, I know." Jack reached out, putting his hand over Leith's and forcing the gun down to point at the ground. "And you don't know how different." He gave the hand a twist, not surprised to find it almost lifeless. Leith's cool fašade of earlier had long abandoned him in the face of so much pressure - and whilst he might want to be rich, he wasn't suicidal. The gun fell with a quiet thud.
"Thankyou." Idira pulled out a pair of handcuffs, twisting Leith's unresisting hands behind his back. "I appreciate all of your help."
"Yeah. Even though you'd happily have shot me a few minutes ago." Jack stepped out of the way as two guards came up to lead Leith away. He tried to catch the prisoner's eye, but there was no response from Leith. Thinking about the dungeons that the former magician was heading for, Jack could only sympathise. The idea of such incarceration made him feel sick. Idira waited until Leith and his escort were gone, then let out a long, long sigh.
"I thought I was going to have to shoot him. Not really my thing if I'm honest."
"You're pretty convincing for somebody who didn't really mean all her threats." Jack didn't look at her, and Idira followed his line of sight, to see where he was looking instead. Leith. She sighed.
"He's a criminal, Jack. He would have killed the king, and probably the heir to the throne as well. Maybe others in the royal family. And to think that the queen herself was involved in that."
"She wanted her husband's power for herself. Wouldn't be the first." Jack was still staring after Leith. "He's not such a bad guy, you know."
"No. Only a killer. He murdered Acton, and who knows how many others. Remember Acton? I found his body stuffed into a trunk in Leith's apartment."
"He said that was an accident. Acton was trying to sting him for more money."
"That hardly makes him innocent. And this was all just for money? He mentioned an employer?"
"Yeah. Some businessman from his own time. Leith is from the future."
"Seriously? When I got to Jena she was saying something along those lines. I thought she was just raving."
"No, she's not." Jack finally tore his eyes away from Leith, and sat down on the small white wall that ran along the side of the road. "Leith was from the future, and somebody was paying him to come back and change history, so that... well, so that his business would be doing better. They thought that removing the king would shape certain future events..." He trailed off. "They couldn't have known. Or maybe they could. Leith certainly didn't seem to know what he would be changing."
"You're serious, aren't you. He wanted to change history?"
"Talk to him. He might tell you." He shrugged, and looked over to where Leith was disappearing into a hover-car. The car's engine whirred, and the vehicle rose up into the air. "Though I doubt it."
"Stop looking like you're sorry for him. He's a killer."
"I let him down. Yeah, I know. Bad guy. I have some experience in that area myself, though, you know. And I like him."
"If you're thinking what I think you're thinking... don't even think it."
Jack frowned. "What do you think I'm thinking?"
"He stays where he is."
"Oh. That." He shook his head. "I wasn't going to try to spring him. He's too dangerous. Probably."
"Probably?! I may be no expert in time mechanics, but he wanted to change history. Isn't that just a little bit dangerous?!"
"Yeah. A man wants to change his world's future, that shouldn't necessarily make him a bad guy. Not really. But some futures just have to stay as they are."
"I should hope so too. There's great things in our future." She sat down beside him on the wall. "In a few weeks from now, the king is leading a delegation of representatives from every country on Arosa. The plan is to begin a series of talks with the leaders of many of our neighbouring worlds. To form alliances, so that we can work together more closely. You know what the universe is like, Jack. You know the races that live in it. We need to band together against some of them. Certain of them that are never going to live peacefully. The king hopes that we can all stand together out here, and protect all the local inhabited worlds against attack. Plus it'll be good for the economy in the long run. Sure to be."
"Sure to be." Jack nodded mechanically. "I guess Leith hoped to prevent all of that by losing the king. Big events like that... events that effect so many worlds... you can't change that, can you."
"You should know that better than me. But I'd say that it would be madness to try." She smiled rather faintly. "And our next step is to make sure that nobody else gets sent back here to try again. That's our problem, though. Not yours."
"You're telling me. This was never my problem to begin with." Jack watched the milling soldiers for a while, then glanced back at Idira. "You know about Toby Mendosa?"
"Toby? He's disappeared. When he ran off, with no more talk of taking you in, I did begin to suspect that he hadn't been entirely honest with us. He was involved?"
"Leith intended to use him to try to minimise the effects of changing time. I'm not sure how, but I do know that that is way outside of the Time Agency's mandate. I just hope he was moonlighting on this."
"Will you try to find out?"
"No. Not my problem. I have my dealings with the Time Agency, but they're of a very specific nature. I don't plan on getting any more involved than I am already. And I don't plan on giving them any more reason to come after me."
"Probably sensible." She laid a hand on his, rather unexpectedly. There was something in her palm, and he knew it straight away for what it was. The familiar shape of his ship's remote unit was unmistakable, and with unmasked delight he took it from her. Idira smiled at the look on his face. "Well, I did promise. And you can't wait to go, can you. I shall miss you, Jack. Damned if I know why."
"Everybody misses me. I'm a very popular guy."
"Yes. In particular with bounty hunters, I'll bet."
"Probably. Here and there. But everybody's wanted in at least one timezone, right?"
"In some strange parallel universe where we're all time-travelling criminals, you mean?" She shook her head. "You should stay here, Jack. Go straight. You're far in your own future, so the risks are lessened. We're a long way off the beaten track. You've helped to save the king's throne, and he's sure to be grateful. You might even end up with a title. Jack, Earl of Harkness."
"If Harkness was a place, I don't think I'd want to be earl of it." He stood up. "No, I'm getting back out there. There are things... well. Things I have to do. But thanks for the offer."
"At least come back to the castle. The king wants to thank you personally, and there may even be a reward."
"I doubt that." Especially once somebody notices all that missing jewellery. "I don't do big farewells."
"Yeah." He kissed her hand, then reached out to pull her into an embrace. She didn't resist. She had argued with him, fought with him, and seriously thought about shooting him, but a farewell kiss wasn't really so bad a thing - especially since he might yet change his mind. He might stay for a while. It could be rather nice getting to know Jack Harkness that little bit better. She was still thinking those thoughts when the arms around her became suddenly insubstantial, and the lips pressed against hers faded away. He had gone. She smiled a little sadly at the last glow of light in the air, then turned around and headed back to the others. If that was the way it was, then so be it. For her, there was work that still had to be done.
The computer was pleased to see him, or so Jack liked to think. Lights blinked when he appeared on board the ship, which was, admittedly, just the consoles powering up again. It looked like a hello to him though, after a fashion. He threw himself into his seat and stared around at the familiar controls. He hadn't been gone that long, but it felt like ages. It wasn't natural, to be stuck in one place, one time. Happily he caressed the ship's battered lines.
"All systems engaged," the computer told him, as passionless as ever. He chose to interpret that as a fine display of adventuring spirit. What else could it be, when she cared even less than him about where and when they went next? He patted a console, and smiled at the computer that didn't care, and the ship that cared even less.
"Then let's get out of here." He pressed a button; felt power surge; felt his ship begin to move on its way. He had jewels to sell, beings to meet, places to visit. That was the sort of thing he did, and it would be good to be doing it again. Arosa could look after her own. He had seen what lay in her future. The last thing he wanted was to be there to see it again.