A long weekend on Jersey might have been the perfect romantic break. It wasn't the best time of year in terms of the weather, but the scenery was beautiful, the sea looked wonderful - if cold - and the hotel was the best that she had ever stayed in. As she stood outside, gazing at the breaking waves, Gwen almost had to remind herself that it wasn't a break; and certainly not a romantic one. To begin with she was supposed to be here to work, and for another thing her boyfriend was miles away back home in Cardiff. She felt bad about that, especially since she had lied to him about coming here. For one complicated reason after another, he thought that she was on an outward bounds course in the Lake District. Just another lie... she thought to herself, with a rather worrying lack of true guilt. It hadn't begun that way; not exactly. There was so much of her life nowadays that he didn't know about, though, and it was hard to stop the lying once it had begun. Her every day was a lie, as she set off to the job that he knew nothing about, in the secret subterranean headquarters that almost nobody knew anything about, with her colleagues that even she knew very little about. She certainly couldn't tell Rhys that she was going away for a long weekend to investigate something that possibly had extraterrestrial origins. So at some point the work trip had become a "training course", the investigation had become a "management exercise", and Jersey - because it was somewhere that they had always talked about visiting together - had become "the Lake District". Why there, she wasn't sure. Possibly because it sounded outward boundsy. And poor Rhys, who was sweet and kind and thoughtful, and really didn't deserve all the lies, would never find out the truth. It wasn't as though he knew any of her colleagues, so there was nobody to let anything slip. Barring catastrophe, he would probably go on knowing nothing about what it was that his wife really did.
That was another thing that she felt bad about, she supposed, when she stopped to think about it. Torchwood didn't exactly go in for parties, though. You didn't bring your significant other along to meet your co-workers, or invite them to meet you in the canteen to share lunch. The mere thought of Rhys with most of her new colleagues made her smile. She could probably count on Toshiko and Ianto to behave. Owen you could never be sure about. And Jack... Well, that was something different altogether. Gwen had no doubt that Jack would behave perfectly, and would be utterly charming. He was rarely anything else. To have him meet with Rhys, though, would be to bring the whole of her cobweb of lies falling down in pieces all around her; she was quite sure of that. There was no way to maintain even the pretence of normality when Jack was around. Somehow, whenever he strode into a room, a whirlwind of mysteries and weirdness swept in alongside of him. Her life changed every time he was with her. Doors opened, possibilities awoke, questions and answers and oddities blossomed everywhere. She was different, when she was with Jack, and she didn't want Rhys to see that. Not yet. Not until she was sure that they were ready. And if a working trip to Jersey still had to be an outward bounds course in the Lake District... well then they certainly weren't ready yet. Part of her doubted that they ever would be.
"Gwen?" It was Ianto, appearing beside her as he so often did, without so much as a sound. He had used to make her jump, when she had first joined Torchwood. Nowadays she was used to him, although he still succeeded in catching her by surprise. There was something almost unearthly about Ianto Jones. She had no idea where he lived, or what he did with his leisure time, and yet she saw him every day at work. He was always there when she arrived in the morning, and he was always still there when she left. A looming, silent presence in a neat, dark suit. He was still wearing the suit now, even though they were supposed to be blending in - although, being Ianto, he could probably blend in wearing a tutu and a fright wig. His talent for being unobtrusive was second to none. She smiled at him now, and wished that he was easier to get to know. Somehow there always seemed to be a barrier between them, that she could never quite define.
"Ianto." She smiled at him as warmly as she could, his response the same as always. He had a dry sense of humour, and she had seen him joke with Jack more than once; but all she ever seemed to get, especially nowadays, was this air of slight formality, with a hint of nervousness. There were bridges that needed mending; she knew that. She just wasn't sure how to go about mending them. Perhaps she should ask Jack. Perhaps she should just let things be. It was frustratingly difficult to know.
"Jack wants us." He was gone again almost as soon as the message was delivered, striding off the patio and back into the hotel, his neatly shined shoes reflecting the bright sun at every step. Like a butler, she mused to herself - or like she had always assumed a butler to be. She had never actually met a real one.
"Hang on, then!" She hurried after him, but he had already managed to get almost impossibly far ahead. He waited politely by the lift, and then stood in silence all the way up, somehow discouraging conversation. It wasn't easy, she supposed. After all, she had recently conspired with the rest of their colleagues to kill his girlfriend, which wasn't the sort of thing that would usually improve workplace relations. Probably. The fact that his girlfriend had turned into a cybernetic monster that intended to destroy humanity didn't appear to make him feel any better about the loss. She sympathised with that, she supposed. Fortunately she had never had a lover turn into a murderous cyborg, so there wasn't much frame of reference; not that she wanted any. For a moment the image of Rhys lying dead in Lisa's place crept into her mind, and she shut down that train of thought in an instant. She wanted conversation, to help keep such thoughts at bay, but Ianto seemed to prefer the yawning silence. She didn't blame him for that, either. In the end she faced the doors all the way up, waiting for them to open. Nearby, Ianto did the same. Neither of them was sorry when the lift jerked itself to a halt. The sighing of the opening doors make it sound as though the lift was glad to be rid of them.
They all had rooms on the fifth floor, in a row with windows facing the sea. One of the perks of Torchwood's impressive budget, perhaps, or possibly of their oddly widespread reputation. Ianto knocked sharply on the door of Jack's room, between Gwen's and his own, then opened the door without waiting for an answer. He held it open for Gwen, like the perfect, mannered butler, and she offered him a brief smile of thanks. He didn't seem to be watching. Typically his attention already seemed elsewhere.
"Jack?" Their leader was nowhere to be seen. Gwen looked around the room as though expecting him to appear out of nowhere - which, Jack being Jack, wouldn't entirely have surprised her. The room already looked well lived in, though they had been here for little more than a day. The coffee table was covered in computer print outs and cardboard files, there was a lap top on one chair and a palm top on another, and several larger sheets of paper were stuck to a nearby wall. One was a map, another a sea chart, and a third was a series of technical specifications, detailing a number of pieces of alien technology. Gwen had studied them several times, both before and after leaving Cardiff, but they still didn't make any sense to her. She consoled herself with the thought that they were alien, but she couldn't help thinking that they would have been just as unfathomable to her if they had been the specifications of her own fridge.
"Sorry about the mess." He had been standing on the balcony, and for a moment she wondered if he had been watching her, perhaps amused at her obvious lack of comprehension. She quelled the thought immediately. That infernal wrist gadget of his was open, and one hand rested on its keys. He had been working, then; scanning for something, probably. She might have been better able to guess had she known anything at all about what exactly the wrist gadget thing did - other than everything, which seemed to be the case. Even Toshiko, the team's resident gadgetry expert and self-confessed techno-geek, didn't have a clue. Gwen rather supposed it to be alien, which was something of a contravention of Torchwood rules, at least as she understood them. It was easy to pass off as something ordinary, though; it wasn't as if any ordinary civilians would see a man wandering around the streets with alien technology strapped to his wrist. Most of the time it looked like a wide leather wristband, brown and slightly battered. Only when he opened it up was the full array of buttons revealed. He seemed to know how to use it. There were lots of things that Jack knew how to use. Gwen tended to file roughly half of the things that she encountered with Torchwood as "Things that Jack understands". The other half she was still working on.
"Made any progress?" she asked, nodding at the wristband. If she treated it as something ordinary, and pretended that she understood its basic function, maybe he would let something slip. It was a good theory, or seemed it. Not that it was showing any signs of working as yet.
"Some." He flashed her one of his usual dazzling grins, the kind guaranteed to make knees melt and hearts beat faster, though as usual there wasn't any follow through. It was a flirtation of a kind, sure enough; but she had come to the conclusion that Jack Harkness flirted with everyone and everything as a matter of course. It was like an instinctive reaction.
"So is the stuff still on the island?" asked Ianto. The question caught Jack's attention immediately, and his bright blue eyes switched their gaze to the younger man. As usual, Gwen felt a burst of disappointment. Jack was weird and unfathomable and distant and difficult, and very probably dangerous - but to feel the warmth of his stare, or to be the target of his smile, was somehow special. No matter how many strange things she found out about him; no matter how often he confused or even frightened her; there were still times when he could make her feel like a schoolgirl caught in the bright heat of a new crush. She had tried a hundred times to tell herself to grow up, but it never did any good. Like it or not, she was attracted to him. She just wished that she knew how he felt about her.
"I don't think so, but the readings are good." Jack tapped a few buttons on his wrist device, then after a brief glance at the screen, and an apparently satisfied listen to a series of sharp beeping noises, he flipped the thing shut and strode over to the sheets stuck to the wall. "I got some strong signals earlier, and I'd say they were about here at the time." He tapped a point on the map, and Ianto nodded slowly. Knowing Ianto, he had probably already memorised the layout of the entire island, and knew its geography intimately.
"There are some good places to launch a boat in that area," he observed, for all the world as though he had heard Gwen's unvoiced suspicions, and was confirming them. Jack nodded.
"I know. I thought we'd hire a boat today. Take a trip out, and see what we can see."
"I'll get right onto it." Ianto headed for the phone, apparently needing no further prompting. Jack gave a satisfied nod.
"I've talked to the receptionist and several other staff members. A few guests as well. None of them show any signs of knowing anything." It was always good to slip into such familiar territory, and give herself the chance to feel like a real professional again. This was the sort of thing that she had been trained for; police work of a sort. Even now, after all that she had seen and learnt as a member of Torchwood, she was still out of her depth far too often. This, though - this she understood. Asking the right questions, watching as carefully as she listened, eliminating suspects all the while. It was always nice to find your feet, when you spent so much of your time trying not to flounder. "It's not easy, mind, questioning people when I don't really know what we're looking for."
"Smugglers," said Jack, as though this was the answer to everything. She shot him a dirty look, and he smiled. "Yeah, I know. But it's all we've got."
"But are they the type to sell their wares out of the back of a van, or are they more respectable? This is an island of businessmen. There are always deals going on here. A lot of money changing hands, and easy access to mainland Europe. If they're the dodgy kind they're going to keep to themselves; and one more group of respectable businessmen wouldn't necessarily turn any heads. Either way, it doesn't help us all that much."
"Yeah. That's what I figured." Jack turned back to look at the map on the wall, absently tracing a path with one finger. "There's a lot of technology on the market these days, too. Most people won't know what's human and what's alien. We can't really rely on witnesses here."
"Then why get me to question people?" asked Gwen. He shrugged.
"Covering all the bases. You're a good police officer, Gwen. Might as well use that."
"But as you're so fond of reminding me - this isn't police work."
"I don't know." He turned to look at her, eyes bright, lips twisted into a half smile. "We're hunting smugglers. That's almost police work. Just because it's alien technology that they're smuggling doesn't really change that."
"Maybe we should liase with the local police, then," she suggested, only half-joking. "We needn't tell them what it is that we're tracing. They know the area. They might be able to help."
"Er, yeah." Sarcasm gleamed in the bright blue eyes. "Any luck with that boat, Ianto?"
"There'll be one ready for us in an hour." The younger man set the receiver down with a sharp click, rejoining the other two. "Do we have a plan?"
"Other than floating about at sea, and hoping that we spot something, you mean?" Gwen couldn't resist the jibe, though she knew that she probably should. Jack smirked, apparently sharing her amusement.
"You might wanna try remembering the sort of equipment we've got," he pointed out. "That alien tech so much as beeps, and we're going to get an exact fix in seconds."
"And if it doesn't beep?" she asked. He shrugged.
"Well then we'll float about at sea for a bit, and hope that we spot something. It's a nice day."
"... Right." She couldn't help smiling at that. Even Ianto's lips twitched, in something approaching a upward movement. Gwen hadn't seen Ianto smile at anything much since the death of his girlfriend, Lisa - and whilst that was understandable enough, it was a relief to think that the ice might be melting again. Jack clapped him on the shoulder.
"Bring the car around," he ordered, keeping his tone light. "We'll get the stuff together and meet you out front in a few minutes."
"Right you are, sir." With a brisk nod, Ianto was gone, the swinging door making more noise than he had. Gwen watched it click shut before turning back to her companion - by which time he had moved half the room away, and was busy rummaging through a big black bag.
"Why'd you bring him along?" she asked. She had been wondering for some time why Jack had made such an apparently eccentric choice of travelling companions for this mission. Her answer was half a shrug and a bright smile.
"You gotta admit he's nice to look at on long car journeys."
She sighed, faintly exasperated. "That's not the reason you brought him." An eyebrow raised itself in faint amusement, and she scowled. "Well it's not the only reason you brought him. I thought he was... I don't know. The office type."
"There's no such thing as the office type in Torchwood. I didn't want there to just be two of us, and I wanted Tosh back at base to watch the computers. And Owen gets seasick."
"He does?" This was news to her, and interesting. It had potential teasing value. Jack just shrugged.
"Maybe. Here, take these."
"What are they?" He had thrown her two black bags, and was already busy with some others. It amazed her at times just how much equipment they managed to store in their car - and she still didn't know what much of it was.
"Scanners." He tapped the first bag that he had given her. "More scanners." He tapped the second. "And a first aid kit."
"Oh, that's encouraging." She slung one of the bags over her shoulder. "What sort of first aid? Given that we've left our medic sitting in a cave underneath Cardiff."
"Hey, you get a splinter on that boat, and we're more than tooled up enough to pull it out." Pausing only to sling on his beloved RAF greatcoat, Jack collected up a pair of bags and headed for the door. "Come on. Don't want to keep Ianto waiting."
"I'm sure he'll find something to clean to help him pass the time." She followed on, down the corridor and back towards the lift. "Jack..."
"What?" He flashed her a smile, just as usual, but the distant look was in his eyes again. The one that meant he was thinking of other things. Work-related things, or alien-related things, or whatever exactly it was that occupied so much of his mind. She had every intention of finding out one day. All she had to do was work out how.
"These smugglers. Do they know what they've got?"
"Good question." He shrugged. "Met a guy once... very tall. He was selling Cryon energy units on the black market, and didn't have a clue what they were. Had to work my way round half of Cardiff trying to find out who he'd sold the things too, and get hold of them. One mis-pressed button and it could've led to a new ice age." He grinned suddenly, a memory making blue lights spark in his eyes. "He was a piece of work, though. Stole my watch and my wallet. Mind you, it was fun getting them back."
"And these people?"
"If I'm right about what they've got, they can't think that it's human technology. Even given humanity's instinct for self-deception, it'd take some imagination to explain it away as anything other than alien. No, I think they have some idea of what they've got. Whether they know what it does, though - that's a different question."
"So who are they selling it to? I mean, who is there who'd want to buy alien technology, knowing that it was alien?"
"You know that. You got the briefing back at base." The lift doors opened, and they stepped out into the lobby of the hotel before Gwen could answer. A passing tourist blinked uncertainly at the sight of the tall, RAF-greatcoated Jack, with his forties apparel beneath, and Gwen offered her a bright smile in return.
"I wouldn't exactly call that a briefing," she shot back, as soon as the tourist had moved out of earshot. "Tosh said something about private collectors, and Ianto had some photographs of some confiscated equipment. I mean, who are these private collectors? Are there other organisations like Torchwood out there? In other countries?"
"The Americans and the Russians have been trying to study alien tech for years, yeah, but this isn't them. They respect British sovereignty on the alien issue, and they always have." He grinned. "They're scared, actually. Britain's been an alien magnet for years. Anyway, organisations like that have their trademarks. This is nothing like that."
"So it's somebody hoarding stuff in his basement, then? Like an art collector who buys stolen paintings?"
"There are quite a few of them about, yeah." Jack shrugged. "Every so often one of them buys something really stupid, and disintegrates somebody. Hopefully themselves. Most of the time it's just about having bits of machinery on shelves, and trying to guess what they all do."
"Like us then." She couldn't hold back a smile. He gave a short laugh.
"Except we usually guess right, or don't need to guess at all. I don't remember the last time I sent a square mile of English countryside into another dimension by pressing the wrong button on something I'd stuck on a shelf."
She winced. "Oh. Did it ever come back?"
"Did what ever come back?"
"The square mile of English countryside."
"Oh." He raised an eyebrow. "I'm guessing yeah. Otherwise England might be a bit worried about the big hole in the middle of it. Fortunately it wasn't exactly a population hotspot, so it didn't really get noticed in the meantime." He frowned. "Only ever found half the people, though."
"Still a bit like us, then." She blushed slightly, oddly eager to change the subject even though Jack was clearly amused. "I see Ianto."
"Yeah." Jack headed for the door of the hotel, and held it open for her. The bags were large and ungainly, and she was relieved when Ianto suddenly took them from her, heaving them into the back of the SUV as though they were no burden at all. Jack clapped him on the shoulder. "I'll drive. You take a look through the computers, see if you can dig up some information for Gwen. Private collectors."
"Are we doing the hole in the middle of England story again, sir?" Ianto had one eyebrow arched in dry amusement. Jack grinned.
"Hey, it's a classic."
"Yes, sir. If you say so." Sliding into the back of the big vehicle, Ianto folded down one of the computer consoles, and tapped in a few commands. The others climbed in as well, and Jack gunned the powerful engine. "You'll have to excuse him," Ianto observed, as the SUV pulled out onto the road. "Tends to get a bit excited when he gets the chance to leave Wales for a bit. Give him another five minutes and he'll give you the story about the bloke in Aberystwyth who managed to send the cliff railway train into orbit."
"Best thing to do with it if you ask me." Jack eyed them both in the rear-view mirror. "Adaxian thruster, in case you're wondering. Luckily there was nobody on the train at the time." He smirked. "We never did get it back. The railway people still call every so often and ask where it is. I could tell them that it's well on its way to Venus by now, but I don't think that's the answer they're looking for."
"Venus?" She couldn't help thinking that they were joking with her, but Ianto nodded with unexpected enthusiasm.
"It's true. You can follow its progress on the scanners back at the Hub. It looks rather happy, sort of chuffing away across the solar system."
"You're insane, both of you." She folded down another of the computer screens, so that she could look properly at whatever data Ianto had called up. "I'm stuck on an island with two madmen who are determined to anecdote me to death."
"Some other time, maybe." Jack had one eye on the road and another on the dashboard. "Did you program in our destination, Ianto, or am I following some random route here?"
"I programmed it in, yes. Sorry, should have said." The young Welshman leaned forward, so that he could see out of the windscreen. "Shouldn't be all that far."
"No more than a couple more minutes, no." Jack glanced at Gwen in the rear-view mirror. "Read anything interesting yet?"
"It's incredible." She had seen no more than a few sketchy reports, but it was enough to show her that there was a far bigger trade in alien technology than she would ever have imagined. "All that time before I met you people, and I never even imagined that aliens had been to Earth. Well, of course I imagined it. Believed it, maybe. But this? There are people all over the globe who could be sitting on collections more deadly than all the weapons in the world."
"Yep." Jack swung the car off the main road, and headed down a far narrower turning. "Which is why, whenever I get wind of somebody smuggling alien tech, I shut them down. Some of this stuff is dangerous enough in the hands of people who don't know what it is. The wrong person gets hold of it... somebody who really wants to use it... and we'll be looking for a new planet to live on."
"Ouch." Somehow, with Torchwood, each new day seemed to bring at least half a dozen new revelations, and all of them had a habit of being off-putting. Her jokes back at the hotel seemed horribly misplaced now. Jack just flashed her a half smile in the rear-view mirror, before bringing the car to a halt.
"Looks like this is it." He was opening the door of the SUV and climbing out before the others had been able to make a move, both of them left behind, shutting down the computers and folding the keyboards and screens back out of the way. Gwen clambered at last out of the car, in time to see Jack striding away down a wooden jetty, his long coat swirling about his legs. At first, at the start of those impossibly long few months since they had met, she had thought that he was wilfully dramatic. Since then she had come to realise that it was just the way that he was. Jack Harkness didn't try to be dramatic. He didn't try to turn people's heads or command their attention; it was just the way that he was made. In a way she envied him. It suggested at a confidence that she had never possessed.
"We're supposed to find a Mr Roberts," said Ianto, already busy unloading the bags. "Do you see an office?"
"I assume that's it." Gwen nodded at a prefabricated building nearby. "Not exactly upmarket, is it. Is it a sense of solidarity that naturally leads Torchwood to haphazard organisations?"
"Very funny. I wanted somewhere close by, that didn't ask for too much paperwork. Anyway, I think it's got charm." Ianto dumped the bags in a pile, then instinctively straightened his suit. "Where's Jack?"
"Over there." She nodded towards the end of the jetty, were a man stood watching Jack's approach. He was dressed in the sort of clothing that tourists expected of the sailing fraternity, and held a clipboard in one hand and a mug of something in the other. "I wonder if that's the manager?"
"Probably. I doubt he has much of a staff." Ianto sighed, looking down at the pile of bags at his feet. "Oh well. We'd better get going then, I suppose."
"Let me take a couple of those." She headed around the car to join him, but by the time she reached him Jack was already on his way back down the jetty, the other man in tow. They were chatting like old friends, Jack's familiar warm grin melting its way through the usual social reserve. The grin turned itself onto Gwen and Ianto as Jack approached, and he reached down to lift up two of the bags almost without breaking stride.
"This is Toby," he announced, for all the world as though he were introducing an old friend. Toby nodded a greeting.
"I think you'll find the boat easy to handle," he said, revealing a rich Jersey accent with a pleasantly melodious tone. "It's the blue one. More than big enough for the three of you, and your..." His eyes trailed to the four big bags, "your equipment." He didn't ask, though his curiosity was plain. "Well, if you'll just sign here, er, captain."
"Sure." Jack took the clipboard, signing with a flourish and a smile. "See you later. I don't know when we'll be back."
"I'll be here." For a second Toby seemed about to say more, then smiled awkwardly and nodded a brisk farewell. "Weather reports are good. Good day to you." With that he strode away. Jack grinned rather roguishly at his retreating figure.
"Always did like sailors."
"I doubt he's ever been to sea in his life," commented Ianto. Jack shrugged.
"Details. Come on. We need to get moving. You did lock the SUV, right?"
"Locked it, set the alarm, and even remembered to bring the keys, sir." There was a trace of dry humour in Ianto's voice. Jack nodded.
"Just checking." He retrieved the two bags, and strode off towards the waiting blue boat. "Come on, then. Don't let's keep the smugglers waiting."
"Right you are, sir." Ianto collected up the last of the bags, and gestured for Gwen to precede him. She felt bad about leaving them to carry everything, but neither of them seemed exactly encumbered by the load. Possibly they were being chivalrous; possibly they were just being practical. She wasn't entirely sure that she cared.
The boat proved to be sturdy enough, and with more than enough room for the three of them and their bags. Ianto set about storing everything away almost as soon as his feet touched the deck, and Jack had the engine going almost as quickly. Gwen untied the lines, glad to be doing something useful, then settled back out of the way. It wasn't exactly a warm day, but the sun was bright, the sea was calm, and there didn't seem to be many other boats out. She was more than happy to relax for the time being. With all that she had just heard about the trade in alien technology, she had rather a lot to think about.
"Coffee?" It was Ianto of course, offering her an enamel mug filled with his by now familiar special blend. She couldn't help but smile.
"Do you ever go anywhere without coffee beans, Ianto?"
"Of course." He smiled his quiet little smile. "No coffee beans on the boat, so far as I know. I made this back at the hotel."
"I don't know what I did without you all those years." She took the mug, and sipped carefully. The coffee was hotter than she had expected. "Tastes like you just made it."
"Special Torchwood flask." He raised an eyebrow, and waved a black bottle at her. The ergonomics looked peculiar somehow, as though it hadn't quite been designed for a hand the size of Ianto's. Gwen blinked.
"Alien, apparently. Not what I expected to find in the debris of a crash, but Jack says aliens like their hot drinks too." The young man shrugged. "And it works. Some sort of gel inside. Smells of roses."
"Fine..." Here they were, tracking down smugglers to prevent the possible dangers from the misuse of alien technology, and they were using some of that technology themselves, just to keep some coffee warm. She could almost have been uncomfortable with the implied hypocrisy of it, were it not for the fact that she trusted Jack. If he said it was safe, then it was safe. Somehow he just seemed to know these things.
"Something wrong?" asked Ianto. He was pouring a mug for himself, his dark eyes alternating between watching the level of the liquid, and watching Gwen. She shook her head.
"No, not really. It's just... well how does he know? You find a black bottle at a crash site, and he says it's a flask, and everybody just believes him. How does he know?"
Ianto shrugged. "Just knows, doesn't he. That's Jack. Anyway, just because they're aliens doesn't mean they're all that different, I reckon. Be nice to have a flask of coffee on a long journey like that, don't you think? Or whatever it is they drink on other planets."
"I suppose." She was momentarily amused by the idea of three-eyed, tentacled creatures sipping coffee, and gossiping on their way across the universe. The thought appealed to her. "You going to stay for a chat?"
"Maybe later." He suddenly looked awkward again, the way he did sometimes; as though he didn't always know what to say or how best to say it. Owen referred to it as the Shy Schoolboy Mode, but then, mused Gwen, with more than a trace of fond irritation, Owen would.
"Hey, Ianto!" Busy steering the boat, as though he had been doing so all his life, Jack suddenly called out. Ianto was back into Business Mode in an instant, somehow managing to pour a fresh cup of coffee for Jack, hand it to him, and cover the distance between them in what seemed to be little more than a blink of the eye. Jack took the coffee without the slightest hint of surprise.
"Thanks. Dig out the portable scanner, would you? The medium range one."
"Right." Ianto hauled the gadget out of one of the bags, setting it going with a flick of a big red switch. Gwen knew the long black box well, having watched Tosh build it more or less from scratch. Well - scratch and some small, orange, lozenge-shaped object that Jack had said was part of Deronovian assassination device. He had explained it with his usual flair, as though it were some new piece of office equipment - which in effect was what it now was.
"If we're scanning for alien tech, aren't we going to set off our own scanners?" she asked, going over to see if she could help in any way. Jack laughed.
"Thanks for the tip. We're lucky we've got you along, Gwen Cooper."
"Sarcasm will get you nowhere." She joined him by the wheel. "Shouldn't you be doing something clever with your wrist thing?"
"It's programmed. It'll tell me if it picks anything up."
"Other than us?"
"Other than us." He smiled at her; the usual smile that always warmed her deep inside. "Go ask Ianto for the radar gun. You can sit up front with it. Point it at things."
"And that'll do what exactly?" In her experience, radar guns were strictly for traffic control. Jack's eyes glinted bright blue over the rim of his coffee mug, as he paused to take a drink.
"It's not exactly an ordinary radar gun. It'll help us see what's out there, so we'll have some idea of where everybody is - whether they've got alien stuff with them or not. Just mind the setting. I want to detect boats near us, not in the Mediterranean. Level three ought to do it."
"Okay." She left him to his steering, and made her way back to her fellow countryman. Needless to say Ianto had heard, and had already fetched out the radar gun. It looked much like the kind used by the police, save for its rather more complex controls, and ubiquitous Torchwood "T" logo.
"Do you know how to use it?" he asked her. She nodded, hoping that it wasn't an outright lie. She knew how to use radar guns, certainly - and it was long past due that she started behaving less like a newbie who didn't understand everything as well as the others. He handed it to her and she headed off to her post. It was hard not to enjoy this, she realised, even though she was supposed to be here to work. She had a mug of coffee in one hand, a souped-up, interesting gadget in the other, and she was bobbing about on a beautifully clear blue sea. It was shaping up to be a rather fine day. Only then did she realise how long it had been since she had spared a thought for Rhys. And even then, she acknowledged, with a pang of regret, it was hard to summon any guilt.
In a cave, where the sounds of the ocean filtered softly through the layers of rock, something stirred. There was no natural light in that place. The sun could find no cracks through which to shine. No phosphorescence lit the walls, and it had been a long time since any passing adventurer had brought a torch to see what was there. It was a lonely place, all but unknown. And yet it was not all darkness, for scattered about the ground, small, flickering lamps burned. Lamps to light the work of a creature that knew no night or day; a creature with senses that were not hindered by earth and solid rock. Feet scraped on the uneven ground; a ragged, drawn-out breath cut hoarsely at the silence. Something listened to the world outside; waiting for what was to come. A tongue flickered in the air. Black lips muttered unheard phrases. In the dank space beneath the earth, something was growing more impatient by the hour.
Time passed. Ianto produced more coffee, and some amazingly fresh doughnuts. Where he had bought them from, and when, Gwen couldn't begin to guess - but she didn't ask. It was a bit too much like asking a magician how his tricks were done. Occasionally they passed other boats, sometimes close enough to speak to the people onboard, but none of their instrumentation seemed interested. Jack flirted wildly with everybody they met, throwing a few pertinent questions into the conversation as he went, but nobody sparked his suspicions - though Gwen was sure that he sparked more than a few. Another hour passed. It didn't seem as warm now, and Gwen was glad of her jacket. Another hour, more coffee, some neatly cut cheese sandwiches. The sky darkened slightly, but if there was rain on the way it was holding off for now. Ianto turned on a more powerful scanner, his face reflecting odd green lights from the display, and Gwen blinked away the protestations of her eyes. She had been staring at the little screen on the radar gun for too long. Only Jack didn't seem at all bothered by the passing hours, standing at the wheel, happily munching Ianto's cheese sandwiches, his long coat blowing softly around his legs, He flashed a grin at Gwen once, when their eyes met briefly, but he seemed to be saving his chatter for the people on other boats.
Another hour. Ianto glanced at his watch, and made some comment to Jack that Gwen only half heard. Something about short days and dark afternoons. Jack nodded, apparently unperturbed, and glanced at the gadget on his wrist.
"There's time yet," he said, and scanned the sky with what looked like a practised gaze. Ianto nodded back, and returned to adjust the scanners yet again. Gwen stretched her legs, and found herself wishing for something other than coffee. Hot chocolate would be nice. A big mug, with just a dash of brandy in it, or possibly vodka. A slice of something pleasantly high in calories would set it off nicely, she decided. Something sticky. It was a pleasant daydream, and one that almost made her miss the sudden alarm sound that rang out across the deck.
"About half a mile away, sir." Ianto sounded jubilant. "That's a land mile, not a nautical one. A couple of degrees..." He frowned, and pointed. "That way. Starboard?"
"That's port." Jack flashed him a grin. "We need to work on your nautical skills."
"I'm always ready to learn new skills, sir." The young Welshman returned the smile, before turning his attention to Gwen. "Are you picking anything up in that direction?"
"Hang on a second." She fiddled with the dial, turning the gadget to her left. "Yes, there's something. Several vehicles in the area... sorry. Several boats in the area, so I can't be too specific... but most of them seem stationary, and they're very spread out. Fishing boats, maybe?"
"Could be." Jack turned the wheel, setting them on their new heading. "Or tourists. Or smugglers waiting for a client. It'll be something small, though."
"Rowing boat small?" She peered at the screen, trying to be as accurate as possible. Jack laughed.
"You don't row further than you have to. Besides, if my information is right, they're going to need a bigger boat than that. Not as big as ours, though. Helps avoid being seen."
"You sound like quite the expert, sir." Ianto's tone was light, almost as though he were amused. Jack shrugged, his ready grin suggesting secrets.
"Never hear that old saying, Ianto? Set a thief to catch a thief?"
"Once or twice." The younger man showed no inclination to ask further, but Gwen turned to look towards Jack. He merely smiled at her, the way that he always did, and she knew that the conversation would be going no further in that direction. It seemed rather a shame.
"Do we have some sort of plan?" asked Ianto, before she could consider a different approach. Jack laughed.
"Hell of a time to ask. We're nearly on top of them."
"I did try to ask earlier. You suggested that plans weren't really your style."
"I did, didn't I. Play it by ear, okay? We have to see what they're up to, and I don't want to make them panic. Look natural. Like tourists or something. Get up close, and then..." He shrugged. "We grab them."
"And if they don't want to be grabbed?"
"I wasn't planning on giving them the choice. You stay out of sight. You're not exactly dressed for tourism anyway. Then if things get rough, you can play cavalry."
"I'm not exactly dressed for tourism?" Ianto's gaze lingered on the waistcoated vision from the forties, and one of his eyebrows arched skyward. "None of us is exactly the picture of a happy holidaymaker, sir."
"You think?" Jack didn't seem to have considered that possibility. "Anyway, they don't have to believe it for long. We'll have the drop on them before you can say 'Torchwood'."
"If you say so, sir." Ianto frowned. "I don't want to seem... hesitant..."
"It'll be fine. We board them, grab whatever they've got, get them to tell us who they're selling it to, and have this all cleared up in no time. You know who most of the buyers turn out to be. Half the wealth of the world and a tiny fraction of the brain cells between them. We scare them with a little display of how dangerous alien tech can be, and turn them loose with something to think about. Worked last time."
"Owen's hair was green for three days, sir. And he wasn't the only one. Several people in Swansea are still trying to find out who to sue for compensation."
Gwen couldn't help herself. "Green hair?"
Jack looked slightly shifty. "Only a few of them. And there was no lasting damage. I've worked out the kinks in the plan now, anyway. It'll be fine."
"I hope so." Gwen ran a hand through her hair, only half aware of doing so. "It'd take some explaining to Rhys."
"Okay, could I get a little confidence here, please? Nothing is going to turn green." Jack glanced at his wrist gadget, and then gestured to Ianto. "Get out of sight. We should be seeing them any minute."
"Yes sir." Grabbing some of the more visible pieces of equipment, Ianto ducked down below decks. A second later the coastline fell away slightly as they rounded a curve, and there ahead of them was a small brown boat. Gwen hid the radar gun as best she could, and tried to look like a tourist.
"I'm not exactly dressed for sunbathing," she pointed out. Jack eyed the sky.
"I'd be worried if you were. You still got any coffee?"
"Some." She caught on, sprawling as nonchalantly as possible with the mug in one hand. Jack turned the wheel lazily, and with the guiding hand of an expert, brought their own boat up alongside the other. Two men were inside, neither looking particularly welcoming.
"Hi!" Smiling his widest smile, Jack waved a hand in casual greeting. "You guys fishing?"
"No." The nearest of the two men, a slightly grizzled sort with several days worth of stubble, made no attempt to return the smile. "We're doing a geological survey."
"No kidding?" All wide-eyed American tourist, Jack flashed his bright white teeth and seemed almost to bounce with sudden enthusiasm. "I'm a geologist. Here on holiday with my wife." He gestured to Gwen, who smiled and waved. The second man began to look a little nervous.
"We're not really doing anything today," he said, as though worried that Jack was about to suggest he help them out. "We're just looking around. The real work will start in a day or two."
"Sure. You're doing some preliminary salinity tests on the water, I guess." Nimble and quick, Jack moved suddenly, leaping over the rail and into the other boat. "And here's your equipment. Look at this stuff, Gwen."
"This is a government vessel," growled the more grizzled of the two. Jack beamed at him.
"Sure it is." He bent suddenly, snatching something up off the deck with the speed of a striking snake. "See this, Gwen? First class piece of geological equipment. In a very broad sense."
"Put that down," demanded the second man. Jack's smile became just that little bit more taut.
"It's from Viros VII, a little mining colony about... oh, what... four hundred and sixty-seven thousand light years from here. That's just an estimate. See, the locals loved to dig for minerals, and everybody else in the universe pretty much loved to go there and steal everything. So on Viros VII they got real smart - and real violent. See this little blue switch? I press this right now, and France pretty much disappears off the map."
"I-- You're crazy." The second of the two men backed away slightly, as though that might somehow help should everything be about to explode. "That's just junk."
"No, it's a weapon. Designed to warn whole civilisations that they'd better behave." Jack tossed the little device into the air a few times, his movements nonchalant, his eyes bright and hot. "Course, you know what happened to Viros VII?"
"What?" asked Gwen, rather feeling that she was expected to chip in. He shot her a white hot smile.
"Same thing that often happens when you play with fire. Let's just say there isn't any Viros VII anymore - or much else in that region of space. Just a whole lot of asteroids that didn't used to be there." He threw the box suddenly at Gwen, and she caught it in a sudden panic. "That one's missing the powerpack, mind. So I might have lied a bit about France."
"Then I think it's time you left." Drawing a gun from his jacket pocket, the first man levelled it at Jack. "I don't know who you are, but I do know that I don't want you on my boat anymore. Leave while you still can."
"He's threatening us." Jack gave rather a theatrical sigh. "And in a really clichéd way. I'm almost insulted."
"In their defence sir, this kind of situation does tend to attract clichés." Sounding as calm as ever, Ianto's voice rang out nearby. Both smugglers turned, seeing a young man in an immaculate suit standing on the deck of the other boat. There was a very large gun in his hands, more cannon than pistol, and he had one eyebrow raised as though in question. His nerve apparently gone, the smuggler dropped his own weapon.
"Nicely done, Ianto." Frisking the pair, Jack indicated that they should sit down on the deck, then left them under the watchful gaze of his young associate. Gwen clambered over to join the larger party, looking at the collection of alien items with interest.
"Do you know what all of these are?" she asked. He crouched on the deck, picking up the various bits and piece in turn.
"I think so. Some of it's pretty run of the mill stuff. This is part of a navigational device for a spaceship. Probably safe enough, but if it falls into the hands of a bright enough scientist, there could be real trouble. Earth isn't ready for that kind of technological development. Certainly not with all the in-fighting that's still going on." He tossed the piece back onto the deck, and picked up another. "This is a child's toy. Like those electronic adding machines that human kids have. There are a couple of powerpacks for that bomb you've got there; various bits of weaponry; this looks like a medical scanner..." He frowned suddenly, and snatched back the hand that had been stretching out for something else.
"Trouble?" asked Gwen. He didn't look up at her.
"I don't know. Could be."
"Another weapon?" If it was worse than a bomb that could obliterate an entire country, then she wasn't sure that she wanted to know. Jack shook his head.
"Not a weapon, no. More like a computer interface, based on bio-chemical technology. They were banned right across the galaxy. Had a nasty habit of developing minds of their own."
"Lovely." It looked unpleasant, now that she came to think of it. There were metallic-looking tendrils dangling from it, and it looked unmistakably alien. "Is it safe?"
"Yeah, mostly I guess. Looks like there's a piece missing." He still didn't look hugely enthusiastic about picking it up. "Damned amateurs."
"I thought you said it was safe?"
"It's semi-sentient alien technology, and it can interface with anything electronic. It's never gonna be entirely safe." He pulled off his coat, wrapped it around the device, then tossed the bundle over the railing into their own boat. "If that thing is switched on, it could replace its own missing parts. And if you're a serious collector of alien technology, chances are you'll have something it can use." He turned suddenly fierce eyes upon the two smugglers. "Where was this lot going, huh? Who's your buyer?"
"We're geologists," insisted the second of the two men, looking distinctly uncomfortable. "We found that stuff when we were surveying the area."
"Yeah, sure. And I'm Marie Antoinette. Who were you taking this stuff to?"
"Lost property." There was a mocking smile on the face of the first man. One that was almost its twin flickered briefly across the infinitely more composed features of Captain Jack.
"Aw, look at him." The mockery in his voice was only slight, but it was plain. "We've got a real pro here, people. He's been around the block. Probably been arrested before. Maybe for smuggling cigarettes into Britain? Something a little bigger, maybe, that pays well, but not as well as trading in alien technology? He knows his rights. Knows that the authorities can't do anything to him. Figures that in an hour or two, his lawyer will have him back out in the big wide world, so he can get back to his old tricks. Well here's a little something to think about. We're not the police." In the blink of an eye he had covered the distance between them, and one steel hand gripped the front of the smuggler's coat. "You don't have any rights here. There are no rules, no laws, and nothing that we can't do. So..." A cold, hard pressure appeared suddenly on the smuggler's neck; the round, hollowed shape of a gun muzzle. "I'd talk if I was you. Me, I'm a live and let live kinda guy. I don't like to hurt people, but I will. Ianto over there, though... He really likes to get violent."
"Only when I'm hungry," interjected Ianto. Gwen almost smiled. Jack's lips twitched, but his eyes remained cold.
"And it's been a long, long boat ride, with very little to eat." He dug the gun a little harder into his prisoner's neck. "So tell me. Who are you and who are you working for?"
"Name's Hollis. Alan Hollis." The man was rigid in Jack's grip, his face taking on an unhealthy greyish tinge. "Listen, I just pass stuff on. I mean, the market's out there, so why not take advantage of it? Everybody needs to make a living. Right?"
"Sounds like a bribe to me, sir." Ianto spoke almost jauntily, apparently enjoying the idea of being the team's resident psychopath. Jack nodded.
"I agree. I think I've heard enough. You wanna take him below decks for a bit?"
"No!" Hollis struggled briefly, but the gun in his neck discouraged him from trying too hard. Behind him the other smuggler stirred restlessly.
"Don't talk to them, Alan," he muttered. Hollis swallowed as best he could with his throat obstructed.
"You want to switch places and try saying that? Game's up. Look, a while ago we found some stuff when we were out at sea. Yeah, we were smuggling cigarettes and that sort of stuff. Not exactly big players. What we found, though; we knew it was something special. We kept it for a bit. Tried to figure out what it was. Then when we were in France again a few weeks later, just as we put ashore, somebody met us right on the beach. Said he'd pay good money for what we'd got. Did, too, and after that we didn't look back. If somebody's going to pay us that kind of money for junk that nobody else wants, I'm not going to argue."
"Even though you've got no idea what you're selling, or what it's capable of? You've got no idea who you're giving it to, or what they're going to do with it?" Gwen's voice was sharp, and she realised that she had slipped back into her old police mode. Hollis scowled.
"It's just junk. It doesn't do anything. I don't know what your game is, with all this stuff about alien technology, but I do know that there no such thing as aliens."
"There's not, huh." Jack released him all of a sudden, and looked back towards the pile of bits and pieces on the deck. "Tell that to the owners of that little lot. They might be interested to know that they don't exist."
"Military stuff. It's military stuff, that's all." The second man sounded sullen, apparently angry at being caught out. Jack sighed.
"Yeah, whatever. Look, these two aren't going to tell us anything. No sense keeping them around. Get the rest of that stuff aboard our boat, Gwen."
"Right." She hesitated. "What are you going to do?"
"What do you think? Like I said, they're not going to talk. So we've got no use for them." He raised his gun again, and levelled it straight at Hollis. "Think you can scupper the boat okay, Ianto?"
"No problem." Ianto maintained a steady, affable smile. "I can make sure that it's never seen again, and them with it. You don't need to waste the bullets, sir. They'll drown sure enough when the boat goes down."
"What?" The second man had gone as white as a sheet. "You can't mean that. You can't... We have rights!"
"Not here you don't. Like I said, we're not the police. We're nobody official." Jack smiled down the barrel of his distinctly old-fashioned Webley revolver. "Which is better. It means we get to kill you, and never have to worry about doing any paperwork."
"Jack..." Gwen was looking back at him with widened eyes. "You can't do that."
"Why not?" Ianto offered her the same steady, unconcerned smile that he had been pointing at the two smugglers. "Think of the taxpayers' money that'll be saved if there's no trial. And think of how much easier it'll be for us, not having to explain what they're being tried for." He shrugged. "Besides, I like sinking boats."
"Ianto!" She looked aghast. "Jack, at least give them another chance!"
"They're not going to talk." He sighed, as though exasperated. "Yeah, okay. But they only get this one more chance. After that I let Ianto loose with the explosives." He turned sharp eyes back to the cowering pair before him. "Well?"
"I--" Hollis swallowed hard, looking from Jack to Ianto to Gwen, and lastly to his ashen companion. "We always sell to the same person. The man who contacted us that first time. We don't have a name, and we don't know anything about him, except... well except I don't think he's real." His eyes drifted to Jack's gun, pointing straight at him all the while. "I know how that sounds, but I'm serious. We never get close to him. We leave the stuff, he leaves the money, and we each pick up what the other's left. Except we never see him holding the money, and we never see him picking up the stuff."
"And I keep telling you, that doesn't mean anything." His companion seemed to be trying to distance himself from the story. "Just because you think you saw--"
"He walked through the rocks! Like they weren't really there!" Hollis's eyes were bright with pleading. "Look, I'm serious. I mean it. I was watching him, and he walked straight through them. Maybe they're not real, or maybe he isn't. All I know is, there's a local legend that says there used to be a witch living in some caves on the French coast, right by where we meet that man every time. And witches... witches do magic."
"You believe in magic, but not in aliens?" Jack shook his head. "No. Forget it. Ianto, get started on sinking the boat."
"No!" Hollis shook his head so hard it seemed in danger of coming loose. "I'll take you there! It's close to when we should be meeting him now. The man. You can see for yourself, but I'm telling you, you'll see the same as I did, if you look long enough. He's not real, and maybe that witch is."
"You're going to get us both locked up in the funny farm." The second man looked disgusted. "He's imagining things. We'd both been drinking a fair bit. Gets cold at sea, especially at night.
"Find out soon enough, won't we." Jack looked over at Gwen. "You got everything loaded up?"
"Not quite." She had stopped what she had been doing in order to listen to the conversation, but hurried now. Jack's eyes snapped back to Hollis.
"Suppose we believe you. That we're going to meet a non-existent man and a witch. How much stuff have you sold them already?"
"Not much. Another load this size, and some isolated pieces before that. We found this weird shipwreck. It's empty now though. I was hoping the witch might know where we could find something like it." He smiled nervously. "You believe me, don't you. About her."
"I always keep an open mind." Jack nodded suddenly, briskly. "Okay. You take us to the meeting place, and we'll see that you don't face any charges. You could get life for having this much alien stuff on your boat, but it's the buyer we really want, so I'm prepared to make a deal. If you co-operate."
"Life?" The second man sounded scathing, but there was uncertainty in his eyes. "No law I've ever heard of mentions alien goods."
"Don't want to broadcast the fact that there's aliens visiting the planet, do we." Jack looked back to Ianto. "Rum, I think. That's a good, sea sort of drink, right?"
"I believe so, sir, yes." Nodding his head in his oddly butlering way, Ianto bent to one of the bags that they had brought with them. Gwen was only mildly surprised when he produced a silver flask from one of them, and, giving it a quick polish, handed it to Jack.
"Thanks." Jack pulled off the lid, raised the flask in toast, and offered the two smugglers a roguish grin. "To partnership." He took a swig, then replacing the lid, tossed the flask to Hollis. The grizzled sailor looked to be all fingers and thumbs as he struggled to get at the liquid, and when he finally managed to open the flask, he made only a hasty, cursory gesture of acknowledgement of the toast, before downing a sizeable measure. His companion was no less thirsty.
"That's good stuff." Smiling shakily, Hollis wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "You could fight witches with that."
"Maybe." Jack smiled disarmingly, and took back the flask. "Night."
"Night?" Hollis looked confused. "It's not ni--" He got no further, and slumped into an ungainly heap. His companion seemed about to react, but before he could do so, he too went limp. Without missing a beat, Jack began searching their pockets. "We got everything, Gwen?" he asked. She nodded, caught by surprise.
"Yes, I think so. What...?"
"The usual. Amnesia pill, with a good dose of sedative. When they wake up, all they'll know is that it's not a good idea to go boating drunk. You can tip off the coastguard if you're feeling generous. Make sure they don't get into trouble while they're sleeping it off."
"But all that talk..." She frowned. "It's not really illegal to--"
"Window-dressing, that's all. How could it be illegal to deal in alien tech?" He flashed her one of his disarming grins. "Think about it. Who'd make the law? And while we're on the subject of window-dressing, what was all that earlier? You thought I was really going to kill them."
"I... didn't." She didn't sound entirely convinced, and realised that she was blushing. "Well... you sounded convincing."
"I hope I did." He found a few pieces of paper in Hollis's pockets, but nothing else of note. The boat had no cabin to speak of, and there didn't appear to be a log. A single map proved to be the extent of the boat's paperwork, and picking it up, Jack climbed back over the railing. A few minutes later, the smugglers' craft was drifting away.
"Now what?" asked Gwen. "They didn't tell us where they were going to be meeting this 'non-existent man'."
"They didn't need to." Jack flipped open his wrist device, and turned in a rough half-circle. "They said enough. Over there, I think. There's something interesting right on the coast."
"New heading then, sir?" Ianto seemed to have settled into a new place at the wheel. Jack nodded.
"I think so. Gwen, call in. Get Tosh to sweep the area. Ianto..."
"Coffee's just over there, sir." Ianto had an eyebrow raised in dry amusement. "You know, one of these days you're going to swallow some of that stuff, and then we'll be in a right mess."
"No chance." Throwing the flask of doctored rum back into one of the bags, Jack retrieved the coffee and took a long drink. "You'd have to be crazy to swallow that stuff. Tastes of... industrial chemicals. And shadows."
"Thanks." Looking up, mobile phone poised, Gwen threw him a half-hearted glare. "Once upon a time, I drank some of that."
"Our first date." He smirked. "Maybe I've got a more sensitive tongue."
"I am not going to continue with that conversation." She pressed a button on her phone, activating the speed dial, and made a show of turning her back. Jack laughed.
"Full steam ahead, Ianto."
"Aye aye sir." The younger man adjusted the speed, then fell back into his customary silence. It was only when the shape of the coastline loomed large above them that he slowed the boat to a halt, and spoke up again.
"I take it that we wait here until we hear from Tosh?" he asked. Jack nodded.
"Makes sense. No lights though." His voice was barely a whisper. "And don't forget how well sound travels over water. It's nearly dark, too. Noise travels even better at night."
"And we don't want the witch to hear us." There was obvious amusement in Ianto's voice, despite its tiny volume. Jack smiled back at him, the dying light flashing against his eyes.
"Don't be too dismissive," he said, and there was a strange note of seriousness in his words. When Ianto opened his mouth to question him, though, Jack merely flashed him a quick wink, and turned away. Ianto frowned. He would never have expected Jack to believe a story of witches and non-existent men; but with Jack you could never be entirely sure of anything. That was probably one of the attractions, mused Ianto, though as ever, clouds gathered in a part of his mind. One of the attractions, yes - but just as surely, it was one of many, many dangers.
Toshiko answered almost as soon as Gwen telephoned, her voice suggesting that she was pleased to have something to do. Gwen almost laughed.
"Surely it can't be all that slow in the office?"
"We're not exactly busy, no. Sometimes I think the exciting things only ever happen when Jack is nearby. How's it going on Jersey?"
"We're not on Jersey anymore. We're on a boat. By France, apparently. Jack seems to know what he's doing with a boat, so I'm taking his word for it." She sighed. "And now Ianto seems to know what he's doing with a boat as well. Sometimes I feel like the class dunce."
"Oh, ignore them. They're just showing off." Tosh sounded breezy, and clearly glad to be having a conversation. "Everything's alright, then?"
"I think so. We found the smugglers. They had some story about selling the alien tech to a witch who lives in a cave. Jack wants you to run a scan on the area. He said something about finding something interesting with his... wrist thingy."
"Oh, well. If his wrist thingy said there's something interesting, there's something interesting." Gwen heard the unmistakable sounds of fingers clicking on a keyboard. "Whatever it is, it's one hell of a gadget. Ah ha. Found you. Now, hang on..."
"Have you tapped into a government satellite again? Only we did get that memo..."
"Oh, I've fixed the program. They'll never know I was there." There was more clicking, as Tosh's agile fingers tapped out their commands. "Jack in a good mood?"
"He's talking about witches living in caves. I don't know if that's good or bad." Gwen frowned. "Why?"
"Oh, it's just... well with him and Ianto both gone, we sort of missed one of the pterodactyl's meals. When I arrived here this morning, I found it with half a sheep. And we're not really supposed to let it do that anymore. I thought you might like to tell him. If there's a good moment."
"We're about to go hunting through caves for a witch, and you want me to find a good opportunity to tell him that the pterodactyl has eaten another sheep?" She shook her head. "Why is it that lately every conversation I have sounds like the weirdest one ever? Alright. I'll try to slip it into the conversation somewhere. Provided you come up with something useful."
"I'm getting some data through at the moment. You'll have to give me a few minutes to look it over though..." Always easily distracted by reams of figures, Toshiko's voice trailed off a little. "Anyway, it was Owen's fault."
"About the data?"
"No, about the pterodactyl. Since you lot left he's been playing with that bloody basketball most of the time. Makes a hell of a racket, and the pterodactyl won't settle, then. You'd think it'd be used to Owen by now, but obviously not."
"Obviously." Gwen almost followed that with: 'Is anybody used to Owen?', but stopped herself just in time. Owen himself might be oblivious to it, but Toshiko carried quite a torch for him - and finding out recently that Gwen and Owen had something of a relationship had not been easy for her. It could so easily have meant the death knell for Gwen's fledgling friendship with the shy technician, and now that they were properly friendly again, she didn't want to risk ruining things. It was generally better to steer the conversation as far away from Own as possible. She smiled awkwardly. "So, er... are those readings giving you anything useful?"
"Yes..." Tosh trailed away again momentarily. "I'm getting two readings fairly near to you that I don't think could be caused by anybody local. The usual sort of local, anyway. Does Jack think that this is a collector?"
"Sounds like it. The smugglers said that they'd made several sales to whoever it is." Gwen had to smile. "The witch in the cave. Sounds like one of Enid Blyton's."
"Well, these readings do suggest that there's quite a bit of tech around. Nothing that any ordinary human should be running around with, certainly." Tosh's fingers clicked at the keys again. "There's one blip coming from the coast. Right on the coast. I can't be specific about what sort of device is causing it, but whatever it is seems quite power-hungry. It's causing some quite major fluctuations in the local electricity grid. Too random to make the authorities suspicious though, I should think. Then there's another reading that looks like it might be underground. Totally different in style. Your witch?"
"Sounds like it." Gwen sighed. "Great. So it looks like we're going to have to go underground as well. Thanks Tosh."
"Glad to help. Tell Jack that I'm sending a more detailed rundown to his laptop. And you lot be careful if you're going to go crawling around in caves in the dark. You don't have your medic with you."
"I know. Jack reckons Owen gets seasick, though, so I suppose it was best that we left him behind."
"Owen? Seasick? He didn't get sick when we were speeding around Cardiff Bay earlier this year, chasing some young lunatic in an alien glider. Despite Jack's best efforts."
"Really?" Gwen thought back to Jack's comment, and frowned to herself, then shrugged and managed a smile. "Must have got the wrong end of the stick then. Never mind. Thanks for all the help, Tosh. You want to talk to the others?"
"No, I don't think so, thanks. One of them is bound to ask after the pterodactyl." Gwen could see Tosh so clearly in her mind as the other woman spoke; seated by her computer, glasses on, her expression one of mild harassment when anything was keeping her from her beloved work. A recalcitrant prehistoric beast on a sheep-killing spree definitely came into that category. Gwen smiled.
"Speak to you later then. Bye."
"Bye Gwen." There was a click of the phone going dead. Gwen pressed the button to close the call at her end, then headed back towards the others.
"Well?" asked Jack. He and Ianto were standing side by side at the wheel, looking like the least likely pair of sailors ever. When had they become so comfortable with each other, she wondered. Things had been so fraught after the business with Ianto's girlfriend; but now there was barely daylight between them. Ianto's body language seemed to have changed entirely.
"She's sent some stuff to your laptop. Two readings, she said, that couldn't be caused by human equipment. One on the coast and one underground.
"The witch and the non-existent man," commented Ianto. Jack smiled.
"Looks like it." He retrieved a laptop from one of the bags, and flipped it open, pressing a button on his wrist gadget as he did so. Gwen guessed that that prevented him from needing a telephone line or a wireless hotspot, but she wished that she understood how. He flashed her a typically cheerful grin, and yet again she put off asking the question. Somehow she didn't think that he was really going to explain the gadget to her anyway.
"What you got?" asked Ianto. Jack tilted the screen so that the younger man could see.
"Some kind of projection device. Check out those wave patterns. I think our smuggling friend was right, and that man doesn't exist. He's a projection. Sort of a sophisticated hologram. Betcha."
"Toshiko said that there was no way to tell what sort of equipment it was," Gwen told him. Jack shrugged.
"Tosh and her computers are the best you'll find, but they don't know everything. Sometimes you need to have a little more first hand practical experience." He frowned down at the screen. "And there's our witch. She's not that deep, but I'll bet she's not easy to get to. She wouldn't want too many potholers dropping by for tea."
"You're talking like there really is a witch living down there." Gwen caught the glint in his eye, and frowned. He didn't really believe that - did he? He smiled at her; the lop-sided, one corner of the mouth smile that managed to mock and yet still look endearing.
"There's something down there, yeah. Somebody who wants to buy alien tech. Whether it's a witch, a woman, or an alien from the Planet Zog, I don't care. I just want to make sure that nobody is going to go blowing France off the face of the Earth, or worse. Ianto?"
"Follow these co-ordinates. Gwen and I will go ahead, and you take the rear. Time yourself, and try to stay about twenty minutes behind us. I need you to be as quiet as it's possible to be, you got that?"
"Yes sir." Ianto hesitated. "Weapons?"
"Yeah. Bring at least two handguns with you. I want a back up. And bring a stun gun, too." Jack had already bent to the bag that held the weaponry, and was handing Gwen a stun gun as he spoke. She took the automatic pistol that he handed her as well, though she had never been very happy with a gun. They were fun to use on the range, but it was all rather less fun for real - especially since she had been shot herself. Jack flashed her a smile.
"You probably won't even need it. Nine out of ten times, these alien tech nuts are rich types who wouldn't say boo to a goose. Geeks with more money than they know what to do with. They couldn't hurt you if they tried."
"Of course." She smiled back, managing not to do it shakily. "Um... so if we're going ashore first... how do we get there?"
"Usual way people go ashore." He bent to a locker, and hauled out what looked like a big grey bag, tossing it overboard. There was a sharp hiss, a splash, and a second later an inflatable boat bobbed gently on the surface of the sea. "There you go. We all set?"
"Good luck, sir," Ianto offered. Jack smiled at him, and clapped him on the shoulder.
"You too. And you be careful. I'm not losing you out here."
"Of course not." Ianto smiled briefly, then turned his attention back to the wheel. "And don't forget the oars."
"Smart ass." Jack smirked, as though some highly predictable piece of innuendo was about to follow this comment; then instead he turned away, collected the oars from the locker, and threw them down into the boat. "Come on, Gwen. And keep it silent."
"Right." She climbed down as carefully and as quietly as she could, wishing that she possessed a fraction of the balance that Jack displayed when he followed her a second later. He bent to the oars, and without another word, took the little boat in to shore. Soon enough they were climbing out onto the beach, and Jack lifted the little boat out of the water, setting it down above the high tide mark. A glance at the wrist band, a quick look back out to sea, and then he was off, striding away to his left. Gwen had to hurry to catch up to him, struggling to be as quiet as she could.
It seemed to be an attractive place; what little she could see of it. The darkness, combined with the speed and urgency of their movement, didn't exactly allow for sightseeing - but it certainly looked like the sort of place that she might like to holiday in. The thought made her mind go back to Rhys, and she felt the by now accustomed burst of guilt. Poor Rhys. Living each day secure in a world of lies. How could she ever explain this to him, though? How could she go home at the end of this escapade, and explain to him what she had been doing, and why? That just wasn't the sort of conversation one could have with Rhys. He was a man of certainties and conventions. He wasn't a part of a world where an apparently immortal officer, who had been having adventures before he was born, went hunting for witches in a cave on the French coast. Rhys had trouble suspending his disbelief long enough to watch Wallace And Gromit.
They had been going for some ten minutes when Jack's wristband emitted a single, high-pitched beep. Jack came to a halt immediately, raising one hand to signal to Gwen to do likewise. She looked around, unsure what was going on.
"Trouble?" she asked, keeping her voice as low as she could. He shook his head, turning in a rough circle, eyes glued to whatever readout his mystical wristband possessed.
"A theory," he told her, then smiled suddenly, and strode away to his right. She followed. There was a short stretch of sandy beach where they were now standing, scattered with many rocks; and amongst them was a small, metal device. It was roughly rhomboid in shape, with many irregularities that Gwen was fairly sure were buttons - controls of some kind. Jack crouched beside it, and assuming that it was therefore safe enough, she did likewise.
"Alien?" she asked. It was a fairly redundant question. It certainly didn't look like anything that might have been made on Earth. Jack nodded.
"Teroan, actually. It's a leisure device. Projects images, sorta like holograms, but keyed into particular frequencies. Particular brainwaves, so that only certain people can see them." He nodded at it. "It could be transmitting anything right now, but we can't see it."
"The non-existent man," realised Gwen. Jack nodded.
"Exactly. Here." He tapped a few controls on the wristband, and a small, bright blue image floated in the air beside his arm. A man, sure enough, standing and waiting patiently on the beach. "That's a little of what the smugglers would be seeing if they were here right now."
"But how did it talk to them?" The little blue man blinked out of existence at the press of a button, and Jack shrugged.
"Couldn't be pre-programmed with key phrases, or it wouldn't be able to interact properly. It probably alerts a controller when the smugglers arrive, and he or she runs the speech program from a remote location. Which explains Tosh's second reading." He nodded, looking almost approving. "Good way of staying anonymous."
"When you have green skin and a long nose?" joked Gwen. Jack smiled.
"It's possible. Anything's possible. But if it's not a witch that we're dealing with, it might just as well be an alien. And an alien probably wouldn't want to be seen. Plenty of them look like us, but a whole lot more don't."
"Widens the playing field rather." She frowned. "But if she gets alerted when the smugglers come, she must know that we're here now?"
"I've been jamming it. Had some idea what to expect, after we got Tosh's report."
"So you think that our witch is..." She frowned, trying to remember what race he had named earlier. "Teroan?"
"No." He shook his head, looking away out to sea. "Not unless she's been here a whole lot longer than oughta be possible. The Teroans are all dead. Their whole planet was destroyed in a war, hundreds of years ago. They didn't have time travel, and they didn't have any colonies. I don't know of any that survived."
"I see." She wanted to ask him more - how it was that he looked so sad when he couldn't possibly have known either the planet or the people. How he knew about the war in the first place, or had ever come to hear of the Teroans - but she knew from experience that he would likely flash her a bright grin, and then change the subject completely. He was annoying that way.
"Come on." He stood up rather abruptly, and she followed him back on their original course. She had no doubt that he could find whoever had programmed the Teroan device, and had no doubt that following him was the right thing to do. He seemed distant now, though, and she wondered if it was worth trying to speak to him. He had pressed the need for silence, though, and she didn't want to be the one to initiate conversation as they grew closer to where they were going. In the event, it was him who spoke first.
"We need to watch our speed," he commented. "Lost a bit of time looking at that thing back there. We can't let Ianto catch up if he's going to be our rear guard."
"Okay." She sped up a little, though his own speed didn't seem to have changed. "Do you know how much further we have to go?"
"Not much. Horizontally, anyway." He flashed her a smile, almost invisible in an increasing darkness. She had lost all track of the time, but they were well on their way to nightfall by now. Usually Jack would have been wearing his bluetooth earpiece, which bore a bright blue light and consequently made him at least partially visible - but without it he was as invisible to her as she must be to him.
"Horizontally?" She realised what he meant, and groaned. "Of course. How far down is she?"
"Not that far. Creeping down tunnels in the dark is a great way to get overheard, though. If you want to stay up here...?"
"Are you telling me to?" She didn't like the idea of being left behind. He shook his head briefly, and she nodded. "Good. I'm coming."
He nodded as well, though slowly. "Okay. But once I give the word, no more talking. No more noise at all, you got that? And best draw your gun."
"What happened to rich geeks who are easy to shut down?" He had emphasised several times that there was usually no danger with dealers in alien tech. He shrugged.
"I abandoned that theory. Whatever we've got in that cave, I'm pretty sure it's not some rich guy with an awkward hobby. We have to find out what it is, and see what it's up to. I'd rather it not know we're coming."
"Of course." She followed him onwards again, until their trail led them to the mouth of a cave. It was large and dark and forbidding, and for a moment her nerve failed her. Thoughts of old horror stories flashed through her mind, but instead of some terrifying beast looming out of the darkness, she saw only Jack. He tapped at the controls on his wristband, and smiled his usual smile.
"Looks kinda forbidding, huh."
"We're going in there?" It struck her that they should have torches. Torches and ropes and helmets - the kind with lamps stuck on the front. Not the best way to arrive unnoticed perhaps - but far less disconcerting than standing here with an automatic pistol and a worrying lack of vision. To her surprise Jack shook his head.
"No. Too obvious. Too visible. People come here."
"They do?" It seemed an odd place to come. He shrugged.
"Wouldn't you? In daylight, at least. They come here, they have their picnics and their barbecues, and all that stuff. Any witch or alien beast hiding in a place like this would get found eventually." He shrugged. "Unless she eats the tourists."
"We've gone from rich geek to man-eating alien beast in the space of an afternoon. This isn't encouraging, Jack." She looked around. "Okay, so where do we look?
"This way." He swept his arm in a slow arc, until the wristband beeped again, then knelt down just past the entrance to the cave. "Where's a good way to hide a door?"
"Under a rug," she suggested, only half sarcastically. He smiled.
"True. I love a good trapdoor. But that's not what I meant. A really, really good place to hide a door is inside another one. Look." And he pulled aside some of the wiry beach grass that grew inside the mouth of the cave. There, almost on the ground, was a rough hole, far too small to crawl through, and half blocked by large rocks with sharp edges. Gwen frowned.
"We can't get through that," she pointed out. Jack merely smiled, and tapped once again at the wristband. The rocks blocking the hole faded away before her eyes, and she found that she was looking now at a hole that would be more than comfortable to pass through. She blinked.
"Holograms?" she asked, hoping to sound suitably au fait with such things. Jack nodded slowly.
"Sort of. A little more solid than that, but a similar idea. You ready?"
"Silent running from now on?" He nodded, then pulled something from his pocket and tossed it to her. It seemed to be a pebble, bright red, and clouded with silvery veins.
"Leave that at the entrance," he told her. "I don't want to lose Ianto. We might just need him keeping rearguard."
"Right." She watched him slide through the hole, the smooth movement showing his easy grace. A few seconds later he had gone, vanished into the darkness that lurked beyond. It was surprisingly easy to follow him, the hole leading to a passageway that seemed unnaturally roomy. She flattened the grass a little around the entrance, put the red pebble where Ianto should have no trouble spotting it, and then looked around at what little she could see of her new surroundings. Not exactly inspiring, she decided - and definitely far too dark. It wasn't as bad as it could have been, though, and the going underfoot was reassuringly level. A hand touched hers, and she smiled at the invisible face beyond it. This wasn't so bad. Not really. Whoever or whatever they were after, it would have no knowledge of their presence here; couldn't possibly guess that they were creeping now towards it, silent in the impenetrable dark. They would catch it by surprise, deal with it however Jack saw fit - within reason; she was good at making sure of that - and then they could all go home. She could return to Rhys, and ease her conscience at her lies. She could tell him how much she loved him, and make the guilt fade away, and tell herself that what she felt for Rhys was so much stronger, so much more real, than the things she felt for the walking enigma behind the hand now gently holding her own. It would all be alright, in just a few hours. Her world would return to normal.
She just wished that she could really believe all of that.
Beneath their feet, something moved. Something that walked with a slow, heavy tread over rocks and stones and shells. The feet moved quietly, as though their owner were listening to other sounds above its own; unwilling to drown out the approaching steps with unnecessary noise. Two people were coming; two people who moved oh so quietly; or thought that they did. Two people who knew that something dwelled in the caves, and were coming here especially to find it. A tongue flickered in the air, tasting subtleties that most creatures would never have detected. Hormones, floating even from a distance; pheromones; sweat and skin and racing blood. Humans. Humans who came from above, determined and resolute, and completely unprepared. Black lips smiled a crooked, toothy smile, and the tongue that ran across them tasted something else; some other subtlety born by the warm, subterranean air. A man and a woman, but... not like the others. Not like the ones who usually wandered the beaches, with their buckets and their rods and their maps in plastic bags. The woman tasted of courage and guilt, like two halves of one life clashing in the middle. But the man... the man tasted of up and down and back and front. Of past and future and faraway places, and places further than that. He tasted of excitement and weirdness, and of things that shouldn't be, and the black, flickering tongue trembled in a moment of unfamiliar excitement. Such things, coming here of their own free will, so unsuspecting, so sure of their own secrecy. A soft, almost girlish giggle escaped the black lips. It was all so intriguing, so unexpected; and coming ever closer all the time. Feet scraped on rock, and a misshapen body moved onward through the cave. Back into the shadows. Back into oblivion to wait.
In the world outside the caves, night fell in earnest. A fisherman found a drifting boat, where two men who smelt of rum slept the sleep of the newly innocent. Toshiko Sato, with no Jack to send her home, stayed at her workstation and watched the streams of data roll on by. In a fashionable bar, Owen Harper bought vodka tonics for a beautiful medical student, until they were both too drunk to do what he had been hoping for. An old drunk found an alien weapon, washed in by the Rift, and atomised himself and it without ever knowing what he had found; and a young boy, who should have been asleep in bed, watched through his bedroom window whilst a pterodactyl swooped and glided through the chill Cardiff air. And Ianto Jones, an automatic pistol in one hand, and a portable scanner in the other, stooped to look at a shining red stone that lay on a patch of flattened grass. He bent down to it, and it flickered in a familiar pattern, changing to a soft, strobing effect when he picked it up. One of Jack's toys, programmed to glow for the benefit of select biorhythms only, and all but invisible in the current darkness for anybody who was not Ianto. He slipped it into his pocket, then followed Jack and Gwen into the hole. He had no idea where he was going, and his heart raced uncomfortably. So dark, so silent. So alone. Jack was here somewhere, though, and that was enough for Ianto. Gun levelled at nothingness, he pressed on into the unknown.
Although the ground underfoot seemed smooth enough, at times it sloped quite sharply. It wasn't easy to keep walking, completely blind, and make absolutely no noise. Every so often Gwen slipped slightly, and Jack had to steady her as best he could. It was easier for him, with all his experience, and all his training; but for an amateur like her it was almost impossible. Corners tricked them, lurking unseen; the roof lowered every so often, a trap for unsuspecting heads; occasionally the floor fell away, and Jack had to grope ahead to find where it began again. They were not travelling especially far, but so slow was the going that it seemed as though they had been walking for hours. Only when the tunnel widened out did he stop, peering into inky blackness in an attempt to see where they were.
It was at times like this, he mused, with a part of his mind that he knew should have been busy upon more urgent matters, that it would be useful to be an Urlond, for their kind communicated by scent alone. No worries then about being overheard. As it was he had to rely merely upon squeezing Gwen's hand, and hoping that she got the message. Wait here. Don't move. When he let go of her and moved onwards, she didn't follow. He smiled to himself in the darkness; a hard, taut smile. Things were still going okay. Which, he admitted to himself, with a slightly less hard smile, was usually the time when things began to go wrong. This time though, luck was apparently on his side. He pressed on, each foot placed carefully, each breath measured and as silent as physically possible. He could hear Gwen breathing behind him, loud in this weird, dark place; but he told himself that this was because he was hypersensitive to the sound, to her presence, to the need for silence. There was still no reason for anybody or anything to know that they were coming, and to be listening out for company.
A step. Did something move, off to his left? His gun swung to cover the unseen maybe, but there came no second noise. Perhaps he had imagined it. Perhaps it had been nothing more than an insect, crawling on loose stone. Other step. Silence. Other step. Still the silence reigned. The smile almost came back, then. He might be lost in the darkness beneath the earth, but perhaps the universe was on his side tonight. Another step. Something skittered in the blackness up ahead; something unmistakably alive. Instinct took over then; a whirlwind rush of motion born of hard training, hard living, and hard experiences on a thousand unforgiving worlds. He didn't need to see the danger to know that it was there.
The first that Gwen knew of the situation was a scraping of shoes on rock; a sharp, harsh sound in front of her and slightly to her right. Less than a second later, before she had time to react, a heavy force crashed into her, knocking her to the ground. She tried to fight back, before her instincts told her that it was Jack; before her senses were able to react to the familiar shape, the familiar feel, the familiar scent of the man who had changed her life. One of his hands was pressing against hers, checking that her gun was in her hand; the other was reaching for her mouth, pushing against it. She smelt the metal-and-polish smell of his old Webley revolver, still in the hand that was ensuring her silence; then hand and weapon were gone, and she knew that Jack was pointing the gun at something. What it was she couldn't tell. She couldn't see anything; couldn't move properly for Jack's weight against her. There was just silence and darkness, and rocks pressing into her back; just emptiness yawning around her, that only her imagination could fill. She strained her eyes, searching for something in the nothingness, hearing Jack's irregular breathing, showing her his tension and concern. He didn't get scared, or didn't seem to; she had asked him about that once. He could still be scared for her, though, and the thought of that; the thought of what might be out there, causing him to fear for her safety; made her pulse race even faster, and her imagination run into overtime.
"Visitors..." The voice came from somewhere off to their left. Gwen felt Jack move, and knew that he had changed his aim. A throaty, rough giggle scratched its way out of the darkness, this time off to their right, and again Jack's aim changed. Gwen heard the frustration in his breathing, and wondered what her own breathing was telling him. A shuffling sound stole the thought away from her, and her mind pictured a scuttling, many-legged creature crawling across the rocky floor. Her blood ran cold. The gun felt heavy in her hand, cumbersome and useless. She couldn't see where to fire it, and if this was some alien monster waiting to strike, her weapon wouldn't necessarily harm it anyway. The laugh sounded again, as though the creature behind it was taunting them with its invisibility. Jack muttered something under his breath that Gwen didn't catch - then suddenly in a flash he was gone. She felt the pressure move itself; his hand was no longer holding her, his weight was no longer against her. His footsteps thudded against the ground, and then, briefly, there was light; a flash as though from a flare. In a tiny second, Gwen saw Jack, silhouetted, a flash of fire apparently contained within his hand; saw the shadowed form of some weird, misshapen creature; then as darkness fell again she heard the Webley crash into life. Three shots rang out, and none of them ricocheted off the walls. For a moment she felt a brief burst of hope, before the taunting, hoarse laugh came again. A second later there came a grunt of pain from Jack, and the sound of a body falling.
"Jack!" Instinct told her that it was stupid making a sound, but common sense told her that whatever they were facing knew perfectly well where she was. Something moved up ahead, followed by Jack's voice, telling her to run. Run where? She didn't believe for a moment that she could find her way back out of here by herself, and certainly not whilst pursued by a creature that was clearly at home in the darkness. Instead she tried to grope her way over to her friend; but long before she could reach him, the laughter came again. It was right beside her this time; so close that she felt breath wash across her face. Stinking, rancid breath, hot and moist.
"Having trouble seeing?" The voice sounded female, but harsh and brittle, like a growl made of glass. Gwen swung around; felt something touch her face; and tried not to yell out. The laugh mocked her; Jack told her once again to run. Even if Gwen had intended to obey him, she couldn't, for as her eyes sought him, uselessly, in the dark, a hand wound itself around her arm. She struggled, lashing out and hitting something warm and hard. Something that gave her a brief, rough shake, then leaned close to her, and told her to close her eyes.
"Let go of me!" She fought back, but it was painfully obvious that her struggles were useless. The gun was twisted from her grasp, and something that felt like a finger touched her face. It pressed against one of her eyes, as the voice warned her once again to close them. This time, without quite understanding why, she did so. Immediately, as though a switch had been thrown, she felt sudden bright light pricking her eyelids. The world was dark no longer. Cautiously, fearful of what she might see, she opened her eyes once again.
They were in a cavern, bigger than she had expected, though the roof was not especially high. She could see no sign of what was causing the light; no bulbs, no lamps, no flames; just rocks everywhere. There were fossils set in the ground at her feet; stone eyes staring unblinkingly from the walls; and weird pieces of alien machinery piled in teetering heaps. Jack was some fifteen feet away, sprawled on the floor, staring up at her with clear frustration in his eyes. There was blood on his head, but he didn't appear to be badly injured. As she watched him, he rose to his feet. A little stiffly perhaps, but easily enough.
"I told you to run," he said. His eyes held hers, and she frowned. There was an intensity in his expression; a gleam that told her not to look away. The fingers that gripped her arm curled more tightly around her, and her frown deepened. Was he telling her not to look? She had thought earlier, when he had set off his brief flare, that she had glimpsed some misshapen creature. It couldn't really be that bad, though. She was sure of that.
"I couldn't run. Run where?" Warm breath crept across her cheek; stinking, fish-scented breath, that made her want to recoil. She held her ground. She was a member of Torchwood, damn it. She wasn't going to shrink away from whatever was standing behind her. Jack had given her fair warning, but she had her own mind to make up; and if she was about to be eaten, she wanted to know what by. Slowly, hoping to appear as unthreatening as mortally possible, she turned her head.
It looked female; in that first, hesitant gaze, that was somehow the impression that she got. About her own height, though slightly hunched, which suggested that she might be taller. Two arms, much like those of a human's, grew from humanoid shoulders; and a second pair, stunted - vestigial almost - seemed to project from the region of her collarbone. Her legs were the same - one pair apparently humanoid, a second, smaller and apparently useless, dangling from her hips. She wore ragged, greying clothes, but they did little to hide the strange mishmash of scales that replaced her skin in irregular patches. Only her head and her hands seemed free of the scales, but they were a pale grey in colour, creased and worn; her lips and tongue a necrotic black. A horrified gasp stuck somewhere in Gwen's throat, and her legs went suddenly weak.
"She doesn't like the look of me." The throaty, hoarse voice came from a mouth that stank of decay, and Gwen saw the black tongue - inhumanly long - flicker across ragged, grey teeth. A lumpy misshapen face stared back at her - no, not necessarily misshapen, thought Gwen. She had no way of knowing how this creature was supposed to look - and a set of surprisingly human-looking blue eyes glinted with mockery. Beside each, another appeared half-formed, bursting out of the skin like the pustules of some dreadful disease.
"What is it, Jack?" Fascinated, appalled, Gwen couldn't drag her eyes away. Somehow she always expected him to have the answer. Somehow he nearly always did.
"Our witch." He came a little closer, and one of the complete eyes, and one of the smaller ones, moved to track his progress. The black tongue snaked out of the mouth, clearly tasting the air. "You can see why she uses that hologram as a go-between."
"A necessary ploy. Most human minds are so small." The mouth dragged itself into a smile, that seemed to emphasise the lumps of the head. "But not yours." Gwen felt herself thrust aside, the talons on the hand that had gripped her making their mark as she was pushed out of the way. "You're different."
"Hey, what can I say? I've always been special." Jack advanced a little more, smiling all the while. "You're not so ordinary yourself. And you pack one hell of a punch."
"Pain is the simplest message to deliver." The tongue flickered again. "You taste of alien energies. Why is that?"
"Maybe I'm an alien." Still he came closer, moving slowly, casually. The black lips seemed to be trying to match his smile, but each attempt produced something ghastly and cold.
"No. You taste too human for that. It's more like... sauce, poured over a meal."
"Is that what we are?" asked Gwen. "Lunch?"
"I eat fish." The creature didn't look at her. "Wriggling eels and jellyfish. Usually."
"Glad I asked." Gwen tried to catch Jack's eye, searching for inspiration. Should they try to shoot this creature? Attack it some other way? He must have some plan, surely? He seemed focused only on their host, however, and didn't look Gwen's way at all.
"You're pretty dismissive of humans, but some of them are useful to you. We met your smugglers." A smile played about in the corners of Jack's eyes. "They won't be coming here again." An angry hiss came in reply, and the tiny, clawed hands of the second pair of arms waved and snapped at the air. "There something in particular you're after? Some piece of technology?"
"Are you offering to help me find it?" All four eyes blinked slowly. "No, you don't want to help me. I can taste your disapproval. Strange little man. Your blood smells so rich, so... odd. Perhaps I should eat you. See what else you taste of."
"I think you might find me a little hard to swallow." Jack's smirk seemed unhealthily cocky to Gwen, but she didn't say anything. He had the floor now - there was nothing for her to say. And perhaps, if she stayed quiet, she might be able to do something. Her eyes scanned the cavern, looking for the gun that she had lost. The creature hissed.
"You're very confident. But you're only human."
"And that's nothing to what you are, right?" For a second it seemed to Gwen that there was something else in Jack's voice, besides the verbal swagger. Pity? She dismissed the thought. Jack had no reason to pity this creature. All too frequently, Jack gave the distinct impression that he didn't pity anything very much at all.
"Do you know what I am?" There was a scratching of feet on rock, as the creature moved closer to Jack. Gwen's blood froze, but she kept her mind focused on her task. Find the gun. Then she could help Jack.
"I know what you are, yeah." This time Gwen was sure that she could hear pity in Jack's voice. "And I guess that means I know what you're trying to build, too." He turned away, heading for one of the piles of alien junk leaning against the wall. "Having problems are you?"
"Maybe." Quick as a flash she was beside him, one powerful hand gripping his shoulder. He felt the talons bite through his clothing, and stifled a wince. "There's a lot of information inside that head of yours, isn't there."
"It doesn't do too badly." He tried to break free, but found it impossible. "Look, it's not going to work. You've been trying to make something for a long time now, right? Months, gathering all the equipment you can, looking for that last vital piece? You're not going to find it. I'm sorry."
"No you're not." The hand gripped him more tightly, and he felt the blood run from his shoulder. "But it doesn't matter. You know what I need. You know how to do this." She dragged him closer to her, so that he could feel the heat of her rancid breath on his face. "You'll help me."
He shook his head. "I can't do that."
"Oh, you can." The black lips twitched into a smile. "Or your friend over there; the one who thinks she's being subtle about looking for her gun? I can have her dead at your feet before she can scream your name. Tell her to forget it."
"Gwen." Jack turned his head slightly, to see past the misshapen bulk of his captor. "Leave it."
"What?" She had seen the weapon, and moved now to pick it up. "You're giving in?"
"Whatever you think you can do with that gun, believe me, it won't work. Bullets won't do the job."
"Fought these things often, have you?" He was so infuriating at times, the way he seemed to know so much, but shared so little. Still so new to all of this, Gwen wanted more answers than he was prepared to give. He struggled briefly against the grip on his shoulder, sighing in frustration both at his own helplessness and her stubborn nature.
"Gwen, trust me. Forget the gun. Bullets aren't any good here." He was glaring at her now, his blue eyes fierce and intense. So bullets wouldn't be any good. Did that really mean that she wasn't supposed to try? Did he really expect her to stand back and do nothing? A thought occurred to her suddenly, and her hand went, instinctively, to where the stun gun was hidden beneath her clothing. Maybe he wasn't trying to make her surrender. Maybe he was trying to send her a message. Feigning acquiescence, she threw down her gun.
"Fine. Bullets are no good. I get it."
"Well done." The creature released Jack, pushing him against the wall. "I may not kill you now."
"Lucky me." Well aware that their captor's attentions were mostly tied up with Jack, Gwen let her hand move once again to the stun gun. She drew it silently, and without looking for any sort of confirmation from her companion, thumbed the switch from the stun setting over to kill. Better to be sure, she reasoned. There was not likely to be much chance of a second attempt with this creature - it was going to be the first shot or nothing. Thinking back to all those times on the shooting range; all those pieces of advice and lessons learnt in the field; she took careful aim, tightened her finger on the trigger, and fired. There was a flash of blue electrical energy; a powerful arc that made her retinas sting; and only with blurred vision did she see the result of her actions. Whirling, even as the gun was firing, the strange creature threw up all four arms to protect itself; the two tiny, useless ones as well as the more ordinary pair. Still held by one of her taloned hands, and hurled like a rag doll into the path of the blast, Jack took as much of the shock as she did, the blue light crackling between them like some maddened serpent. With a choked off cry, Jack went limp. The creature stared down at him as the light show faded, then let him fall. Gwen took a step back. She hadn't really thought this through all that well, she realised, as the creature bore down on her, apparently unscathed by the attack. Plan B. There had to be a Plan B. A clawed hand caught her arm and, despite her struggles, held on tightly. Or a Plan C? Plan C would be just as good. With Jack slumped on the ground, oblivious, and all weaponry apparently now rendered void, she couldn't think of anything at all. Almost the last thing that floated, somewhat inanely, through her head was that there was a scorch mark on the arm that held her. The stun gun had done some damage then, albeit superficial. Maybe this monster wasn't entirely impervious to harm. No sooner had this notion flitted through her mind then, to her considerable surprise, her captor raised a free hand, and delivered a perfect, powerful right cross that connected squarely with Gwen's jaw. Abruptly the world was one of darkness once again.
It was so horribly dark; but Ianto was used to the dark. It had been his home away from home for so long, way down in the bottom of the Hub, where nobody else ever went. All those weeks caring for Lisa, hidden away, and half the time never daring to put on a light. Never knowing when one of the others might come looking for him. So he had grown used to the dark, using it to protect Lisa from herself as much as from discovery by the others. Keeping her from seeing herself. Protecting her newly sensitised eyes from too much light. Her vision had been so much better after the Cybermen had got at her, and without the full compliment of circuits and processors to help her use that heightened ability, she had found lights uncomfortable. The thought of her made the familiar dull ache rise within him; the confusing sense of her loss. He no longer knew quite when he had lost her; whether the person he had hidden within the Hub had ever been his Lisa, or had been just an enemy using him, until she was strong enough to make her move. All those confused feelings; all those mixed up emotions. The desire for someone to blame, the need for someone to hate; the guilt when it felt that he might be moving on. Confound the dark, and blast the bloody silence. He had to think about Jack and Gwen, and whoever else might be down here. He couldn't think about Lisa now. But he could never stop thinking of her of course; not entirely. Only, perhaps, when there was somebody there to help him.
He dragged his thoughts away from the past, focusing only on the darkness, and not what he saw within it. Tried to concentrate, to listen for any sound up ahead that might mean danger, or that might mean the presence of his friends. He had a clear sense of time usually, and had thought that he would know how far ahead of him they were, but somehow in this subterranean world such certainties slipped away. Had it been twenty minutes after they had left him that he had reached the shore? Had he matched his pace with Jack's? Was he moving faster than them now, or slower? Jack would move fast he was sure, but Gwen would probably slow him down. Ianto didn't want to close the gap too much. He had to hang back; had to be there as back up, and not reveal his hand too soon. Jack had told him to do that, and he didn't want to let Jack down. Jack was his leader. Jack was... Jack. Jack knew how to make that dull ache go away.
He heard gunshots as he walked. Knew the sound instinctively, and felt his heart do a dance inside his chest. Jack's gun - the sound of the Webley was distinct. There was no ricochet, which suggested that the shots had found a target - but who had fired them, and who had been the target? He stood still for a moment, listening for other sounds. Screams, perhaps, or further shots. Nothing. Nothing loud enough to reach him, anyway. The gunshots had been quite far away. Jaw set firm, he started on his way again, determined to maintain the same steady pace as before. If he ran he would fall. He would make a noise and give himself away. Jack wouldn't thank him for that; certainly not if it turned out that he had panicked over nothing. So he kept walking, kept his mind as still as he could make it, and tried to keep his breathing steady. The whole world must be able to hear his racing heart, he was sure; and he struggled to bring it back under control. Focus. Be calm. He was supposed to be the unflappable one, after all. He had to maintain that façade now.
The darkness increased as he walked onward. Further downhill; always away from the surface. He wasn't sure how he felt about that. There was a strange feeling of alienation; as though the rest of the world was creeping further and further away from him, and there was nothing that he could do to prevent that. Obstacles tried to trip him, and his progress slowed to a virtual crawl, but still he didn't let himself dwell on negative thoughts. The ideas came occasionally - so far from the surface; so far from escape; how could he hope to outrun some pursuing enemy when there were holes in the ground in front of him, and when occasionally the ceiling dipped down so low that he had to stoop? He had to feel his way all the time. This was no terrain in which to suddenly find yourself in danger - but these were thoughts that he had to quell. He could feel sweat pricking the skin between his shoulder blades, and he realised then that he hadn't even loosened his tie. He smiled at that; a tiny, invisible smile, lost in so much black. Owen would have something to say about that - Ianto, going pot-holing in a three-piece suit, the creases all still in the right places and the tie still knotted to perfection. Toshiko would roll her eyes and look disapproving, offering a word of support as though she really thought that Ianto's feelings had been hurt. And Jack would smile that small, suggestive smile that he had first produced within five minutes of their first meeting, and tell anybody within earshot why he approved so highly of Ianto's dress sense. It was a strangely encouraging little scene, conjuring up a warm, bright image of the Hub in the back of his mind as he walked. He missed the Hub. The security of it; the bright lights, the comfortably cluttered look of it, the feeling of knowing where everything was, and where everything should be. The sound of the pterodactyl high up in the ceiling; the smell of coffee and pizza and encroaching damp. Jack had asked him to come, though - out into the field, where the real action was. He hadn't been out on an assignment since they had nearly got themselves eaten by a bunch of villagers in the Brecon Beacons, and it was usually so easy, almost fun, to shut down dealers in alien tech. This wasn't quite what he had had in mind, he mused, as his head connected once again with a low hanging of rock, and he stubbed his toes for the fourth time in as many minutes. There had been gunfire up ahead, he couldn't hurry, he didn't know what he was heading towards, he didn't know what else was down here, he was entirely alone - and, he now discovered, he was up to his ankles in seawater. Brilliant. This definitely wasn't what he had envisaged, when Jack had first broached the subject. In fact he seemed to remember talk of sea breezes and a comfortable hotel; definitely no pitch black caves, soggy socks and the possibility of witches. But then that was Jack all over, really. He was down here somewhere, with a job to do, and something that had needed shooting. He needed Ianto, and was expecting him to come. That in itself was enough to keep the young Welshman walking. And tightening his grip on his handgun, he tried to quicken his pace.
Gwen awoke with a throbbing head, and a jaw that protested painfully when she tried to groan. She opened her eyes and blinked up at a depressingly solid rock ceiling. Underground, right. Great.
"Welcome back." It was Jack's voice. He was sitting on the rocky floor a few feet away, leaning against the wall. He had taken off his waistcoat, and, Gwen now discovered, folded it up and put it underneath her head. She sat up slowly, grateful for the gesture.
"Hi. You alright?"
"Yeah, fine. Right as... slightly singed rain." He held up his right arm, and she saw that the shirt sleeve was blackened, the button half-melted. "That gun packs more of a punch than I thought it did."
"Sorry." She took his hand and looked ruefully at the burnt sleeve, checking the now healed skin beneath. "I really didn't mean to shoot you as well."
"Yeah. I got that." He shrugged. "But it's not like it's gonna leave a scar, and I have plenty of shirts. You okay, though? You were out for the count when I woke up."
"Fine." She rubbed her jaw. "She punched me. I thought aliens were supposed to do... alieny things. It was like being caught up in some street fight, back when I was still on the beat."
"Yeah..." He looked away, and she followed the line of his gaze. An oil lamp, old and dusty, which was supplying them with light, and the curve of the cave wall beside it. A trickle of water, running away across the floor. All was quiet, and, as far as she could tell, all was still.
"Any sign of her?"
"She's here somewhere. I can feel her." He shrugged. "I don't think she's close by, though. We'd hear her breathing."
"What a lovely idea." She didn't want to think of that strange, almost patchwork creature lurking just out of sight. "Where did the lamp come from?"
"I don't know. Long ago smugglers? The French Resistance? It's just about old enough for either, and they probably both used these caves. She needs light just like we do."
"I can't see her going into a local store to buy oil for it, though. Or matches."
"It's not oil." He picked up the lamp and held it closer to her. "Smell it. That's white fuel."
"And I'm supposed to know what that is, am I?" She sniffed delicately, and was rewarded with a scent rather like her bathroom, after she had been using floral shampoo. "Alien?"
"At the moment. Humans will use it one day too." He set the lamp down again. "It's long-lasting and clean. Good when you live in a cave underground, with no ventilation. Something else that our two friends supplied her with, I guess." He grinned suddenly. "Nice, isn't it. Haven't seen a lamp like this in years."
"Right now, the only kind of lighting that would really be welcome is my sitting room light. Or possibly my television screen." She handed back his waistcoat, and settled down beside him. "Now stop being all enthusiastic about the lighting. You're worried."
"Yeah." He flashed her a rather distracted smile. "I'm that transparent, huh?"
"Not usually, no. Annoyingly not, as it happens. Maybe this light shows up your worry lines."
"I have worry lines?" One hand went to his forehead in mock horror, and she smiled. He matched the expression, but it didn't reach his eyes this time, and soon faded. After a second he lowered his voice, until it was so quiet that she could barely hear it, and had to lean closer to him to hear him speak. "Yeah, I'm worried. My watch has stopped. Fried by that stun gun."
"You're worried about the time?" She lifted her arm, peering at her own watch, but Jack merely shot her a disapproving glare.
"You think I didn't try that already? Does that thing even know how to keep accurate time?"
"It's usually only five or six minutes fast." She shrugged. "Gets me out of the house nice and early in the morning. Look, it doesn't feel like I've been out of it for long, and you're not usually, so I doubt it's much later than it was." She remembered their young colleague, and his detail to remain twenty minutes behind them. "Oh, right. Ianto."
"I want to know where he is. How far behind us he is. Can't be far now.
"What about that thing?" She gestured to the watch-chain that hung from his the front of his waistcoat, but he shook his head.
"That doesn't work the same way. How long were we here before we got zapped?"
"I don't know. Maybe... five minutes? Ten? I wasn't really paying attention."
"Me neither." He scowled, and she tried out an encouraging smile.
"It's dark. That probably slowed him down."
"Not Ianto. I told him to be twenty minutes behind us, and you can guarantee that he will be. Trouble is, I don't know when that twenty minutes ends. Or if it already has. He might walk in any moment."
"Well... maybe she won't see him." It was a pathetic attempt at optimism, but she tried it out anyway. Jack didn't look at all encouraged.
"You saw her. She could taste us in the air. Sense us. And if she knew about us, she'll know about Ianto. She might not have noticed him before, with us to hold her attention, but she'll still know about him before he knows about her." She nodded, acknowledging the truth in that. Poor, unsuspecting Ianto, likely to walk into the same trap that had been sprung for them.
"Do you have any way of contacting him?"
"Not that won't give him away, no. And if he's got half the sense I think he has, he'll have turned everything off anyway. Can't have Tosh or Owen give him away unexpectedly."
"Yeah." She tried out a hesitant smile. "Well look. He can take care of himself. You said that when we were caught up in the Brecon Beacons that time. He's an adult, you said. He can--"
"That was different." He flipped open the cover of his wrist gadget, clearly scanning the area to see if he could pinpoint their colleague. "He asked to go to Brecon. He's only here because I... Well, he didn't ask to come. And some pitch black underground cavern is hardly his natural environment."
"Knowing Ianto, he probably has 20-20 night vision." Her smile became a little more sure, and she gently changed the direction of the conversation. "Anyway, she hasn't killed us. That's a good omen, right? Which reminds me. Why hasn't she killed us? I mean I'm not complaining... but if she's got something horrible planned..."
"She didn't need to kill me. I was already dead, remember?" Jack's mind was still elsewhere, but he made an effort to return it to the present out of deference to her. "Maybe she thought you weren't a threat anymore, I don't know. It's kinda hard to second guess somebody whose thought processes aren't working properly anymore."
"She left the light on for us."
"For her, not for us. There's a few lights on around the place. She needs them to help her work." He gestured out beyond the reach of their little circle of light, to where other such gleams marked the position of other such lights. "That big light she turned on earlier must take a lot of power, and she needs to conserve that. It's needed for later. She still needs light to see by, though, so as much as she can she'll be using these things to get her work done."
"The thing that you said she's building?" He nodded, and picked up the oil lamp again.
"These are bright enough for most of her work. She'll use the big light for the more intricate parts, but there won't be much of that, and it'll all be done by now I'd guess."
"You know what she's making, don't you."
"Yeah." He nodded slowly. "A beacon. It's what they all build." He shrugged suddenly. "She won't finish, though. She can't."
"You won't let her, you mean?"
"Not exactly." He sounded reticent again, something that she was used to from him, but that she frequently found annoying. "Building a beacon is basic stuff, so long as you've got a few electrical components. Soon enough, though, she's gonna hit a brick wall, just like they all do around now, 'cause they never know what they have to do next. And that's something I can't help her with."
"I do wish you wouldn't talk in riddles so often. What is she? Do you know?"
"Yeah." He didn't seem about to elaborate, so she glared at him in her best no-nonsense manner, the expression that she had used with troublesome members of the public in her days as a police officer. It elicited a small smile from him, though a humourless one. After a moment he shrugged. "She's human. Same as you and me."
"Human?" She didn't seem very human to Gwen. That one set of eyes, perhaps. Something about the placing of some of the limbs. Other than that... "You're sure?"
"Yeah, I'm sure. Well, she was human, if you'd rather."
"Then what happened to her? Come on, Jack. Give me some answers. We're stuck in a cave underground, and some weird... thing... might be about to have us for breakfast for all I know. I'd like to have a little more information."
"I doubt she's gonna eat you. And she's not a thing. She's a woman, probably in her thirties. Not local, going by her accent. A tourist, maybe."
"What happened to her?"
"Spores." He had a distant look in his eyes, as though casting his mind back. Sometimes when he got that look it seemed as though he were looking back to some long ago lessons, though she couldn't help but wonder what sort of school taught the things that he knew about. "Etrax spores. From a meteorite, probably. Usually the way."
"Etrax spores? Meteorites?" It made as much sense to her as quantum mathematics, and she sighed. There was no sense in getting annoyed with him. She knew him well enough by now to know that he would take it calmly and patiently, and that no amount of frustration on her part would make him talk any sooner. "Just once I'd like to have a conversation with you that I can follow from beginning to end. Conversatons like normal people have. About current affairs and the weather, and what was on TV last night." He flashed her a brief smile.
"Been some years since I last watched TV. Sorry. They still show that one with Bodie and Doyle? I liked that."
She rolled her eyes. "Jack..."
"Meteorites. Most of them are safe enough, I guess. But the right meteorite, the right conditions... sometimes they hatch."
"Hatch?" She was fairly sure that she had a meteorite somewhere. Her grandfather had given it to her when she was seven, telling her that it had come from far out in space. A strange lump of too-heavy metal or stone - as a child she had never been quite able to decide which. He nodded.
"The spores get inside you. They're just tiny little things. Not much more than flower pollen. They integrate with biological systems, and kick-start the body's cell replication abilities. The main drive is to nurture the spores themselves, and give them what they need to grow, but in the process the host undergoes a whole lot of changes."
"Extra limbs? Scales?"
"Yeah. Like I said, it kick-starts a lot of processes. The body kinda goes into overdrive. A flurry of activity and cell growth. The host's DNA getting mixed up with the Etrax DNA. That sort of thing."
"Charming. Is her mind still her own?"
"Partly. She'll remember who she really is, and her own personality will still be dominant at least some of the time, but the Etrax spores have a certain amount of control. Their needs and hers are the same now. She isn't the same person anymore."
"Tomorrow..." She hesitated. "or whenever we get out of here, anyway... I'm bringing in a meteorite that I have at home. I want it scanned."
He smiled at that. "Worried?"
"I don't want spores growing in my head. That's what the lumps are, right? The spores growing?"
"Sorta." He shrugged, almost looking as though he was trying to save her from the details. "There'll be a lot of tumours, because of all the cell replication. The spores help keep them from being fatal, as it's in their interests to keep her alive for now. For as long as they need her. But yeah, most of those lumps in her head are the spores. By the look of her, they're not all that far from hatching out. There'll probably be anywhere between five and ten of them. Little snakes about four inches long apiece. Ugly little things. They'll bust out of her skull, eat whatever's left..."
"And then use the beacon she's made to call all their little snake friends to join in the meal. Suzie was right. Earth gets all the revolting stuff."
"It really doesn't, you know." He looked at her quite sharply then, his blue eyes strangely bright. In a second the businesslike look was back, and he shrugged. "And you're nearly right. She'll have started the beacon, sure - but like I said, she can't finish it. See, the final piece of it is her. The Etrax use biology in more ways than one. The beacon will be telepathic."
"They'll use her brain?" Gwen looked faintly green. Jack flashed her a half-smile, slightly apologetic.
"Not quite. They'll have eaten most of it. But yeah. Part of the brain, full of Etrax DNA, and just waiting to beam a message out into space, telling the Etrax that there's food and hosts here aplenty. And I am not having that."
"Glad to hear it." She smiled at him, in the spluttering light from the oil lamp, feeling oddly comforted by his grim determination. Torchwood had something of a habit of screwing up; of lurching from disaster to disaster, and somehow managing to save the Earth along the way. More by luck than by judgement half the time, at least as far as she could tell - and the other half of the time it seemed to be them putting the planet in peril in the first place - but somehow Jack always seemed dependable. Jack seemed to know what he was doing. Most of the time. He glanced sideways at her, and his blue eyes warmed her from within.
"So," he said, voice deadly serious. "Got any ideas?"
It was darker now. Darker than he had ever known it before. The familiarity had gone - no longer was he reminded of snatched hours spent with Lisa; of the depths of the Torchwood Hub, where nobody else had ever thought to go. This was deeper - more like a darkness of the mind. Jack was waiting, though - wasn't he? Jack was waiting, somewhere, and... but who was Jack? Why was he fighting his way through all this darkness for a man he didn't know? Jack? Jack who? His head protested, but his legs kept moving, though he no longer seemed to be getting anywhere. The walking was in his mind now as well, it seemed; just like the darkness. Walking and not-walking; seeing and not-seeing; head hurting, muscles aching, world spinning. And through it all the thought of a man whose name he couldn't remember. A tall man. A man with a big smile, and a whole lot of darkness. More darkness. Ianto would have smiled, except he was no longer sure that he remembered how to make his lips move. Everything was darkness. Every bloody thing, inside his head and out of it. He couldn't think of anything else; couldn't remember anything else; couldn't process anything else except endless sodding blackness that made him want to scream. But scream at what? The darkness was all that there ever had been. Why fight it, when there had never been anything else?
Just walk on, even if your legs no longer exist. Just stare on, even if your eyes no longer exist. Just think of the man with the smile, and hope that it'll make sense one day. Or that something will. Just walk.
And try so very hard not to give in.
"You don't have any ideas?" Gwen was taken aback to say the least. Alright, so he was hardly infallible - but he did usually have something up his sleeve. Even if it was something hopelessly reckless and slapdash. Maybe he just didn't want to speak his plans aloud, she reasoned. After all, there was no way of knowing if they could be overheard. He killed that theory in an instant, though, by gesturing expansively with his arms, and speaking in his usual, far from reserved voice.
"We've shot her with the only weapons we've got. What do you suggest?"
"Well not giving up, for starters." She knew that his moods could be mercurial, and at times he seemed sunk in a sort of despair; but he didn't usually let those moods get the better of him when there was work to be done. Besides - just a few minutes ago he had been happily reminiscing about oil lamps and 'white fuel'. A thought struck her. "Have you known people who were taken over by these spores?"
"Not personally." He shrugged. "Well, not directly. Guy I used to know lost his wife, but she'd turned out to be a government plant looking to sell out his whole family to the local despot, so we weren't real sorry to see her go." He frowned. "Well, actually I think he probably was. And it's not easy having a reunion with your estranged wife when she's got snakes bursting out of her head."
"You destroyed the snakes, though? You stopped them from sending their signal?"
"Yeah. But there were six of us, and we had..." He trailed off, almost as though he had been about to say something indiscreet. "Well, we had some good guns. Nothing like what we've got here. If we could damage them before they hatch, we might have a chance, but if they're at full strength when they break out..." He shrugged. "They burst out so fast, and they're violent and hungry. I don't know how we could stop them then."
"We've got a cave full of pilfered alien technology," she reminded him, and he nodded slowly.
"And no way of getting to it."
"There's that explosive device back on the boat," she added, before admitting that the fact that it was back on the boat rendered it largely useless. Jack grinned.
"Plus there's that whole 'blowing up the whole of France' thing. I wasn't exaggerating, you know. And I don't want to blow up France. I like France."
"I don't think much of its caves." She leaned back against the wall, feeling uncomfortable, useless and afraid. "I can't see her. Can you?"
"No." His eyes scanned the cave. "But she's over there. That's where the beacon was. Not much more she can do to it now, but the instinct to build it is still there. She probably won't leave it alone until they break out of her head and do the last bit themselves."
"Charming." Gwen suppressed the urge to shudder. "I am not dying in a cave with worms eating my brain. Just so we're clear on that."
"We're clear." His eyes roamed the cave, restless and intense. "She's too hard to second-guess. Usually, if I'm stuck in a cave with a psychopath, I can plan ahead. Think about what they're likely to do. But half of her mind has gone, and a good chunk of what's left is a bunch of separate creatures filing the gaps. How do you know what that sort of brain is going to be thinking?"
"Animal instinct?" asked Gwen. "I mean, I know it's not exactly the same thing, but a mindless creature with its thinking being done for it by a sort of snake thing... well, it doesn't sound too different to the drunks I used to deal with on a Friday night, if you get my drift. Forget higher brain functions. Go for the basics."
"Survival." He smirked. "Or sex with a Cardiff barmaid. Guessing we can rule out that last one, though."
"Probably." She was watching him expectantly, she realised. As though he would suddenly pull some plan out of his metaphorical hat, just because she needed him to. His expression was not encouraging, though - and she could hardly blame him. They still couldn't see the woman, and for all they knew she could hear every word they said. And besides - it was hard to play on somebody's survival instinct when they already knew that your weapons were useless. A thought struck her. "What about decapitation?"
"No thanks." He smiled at her withering glare. "Nice idea, and right now it's probably the one thing that would kill her, yeah - but not the snakes. They'll be able to survive on their own by now, and they can strip the flesh off a man in ninety seconds. I'd rather they stayed in her head for the time being." He glanced at his watch, and scowled. "Damn. Forgot."
"We've been talking for about five minutes, I think." She consulted her watch, and got another dirty look for it. "What? Look, I've never been good at keeping exact time, alright? Drove my first sergeant mad. We don't all come from the military, you know."
"I know." Jack climbed to his feet, walking towards the edge of the lamp's odd-smelling glow. "This is a mess. The left hand doesn't know what the right hand's doing, and it's hardly for the first time. That settles it. We go to Plan B."
"There's a Plan B? But you said that you didn't--" She frowned. "Hang on. There was a Plan A?"
"Call this one Plan A, then. I'm flexible." He stepped out of the light, vanishing into the dark, and she hurried to follow him.
"Stay there." His voice was low again, although it didn't sound as though he were trying not to be heard. She began to protest, but he sounded as though his mind was made up. "I need to know where you are, Gwen. I got anough variables as it is."
"But what exactly is Plan A?" she asked. He reappeared then, just on the fringes of the light's boundary, and offered her one of his familiar grins. She groaned. "There isn't one, is there."
"I told you. Ianto's on his way. She'll know about it, the same as she knew about us. I want to make sure she doesn't have the chance to do anything about it. She took us down without flinching, and I don't think Ianto is gonna be any more lucky. Do you?"
"He doesn't stand a chance." She had long suspected that there was more to Ianto than coffee-making, but all the same - he lacked the field experience of the rest of the unit, at least as far as she knew, and he was clearly no Jack Harkness. "Be careful."
"Aren't I always?"
"No." He grinned at that, and was gone again. She sighed, staring after him with a feeling of complete uselessness. She had no idea what he was going to do, but she couldn't imagine that it would be particularly circumspect. He hadn't long revived, either - a second fatal injury too soon after the first would be far more draining to him. She had seen that before. He wouldn't care, though. She knew him well enough by now to be sure of that. Throwing caution to the wind, and ignoring his instructions, she hurried after him into the dark. He would need her help in this. She wasn't sure of it exactly - but she very much wanted to believe that it was true.
Jack certainly didn't believe that it was true - but then there was a side of Jack that would always be a loner, and liked it that way. Not that there wasn't something to be said for armies. Large armies, preferably with the sort of weaponry that came from at least three hundred years in the future, and could destroy most things known to man. Right now he didn't even have the Webley that was ordinarily his constant companion. He had no idea where he had dropped it, and with the current low level of lighting it was likely to remain invisible. His right hand moved instinctively to his wristband, but he didn't bother using it to run a search. Later perhaps. After all, he already knew that the gun wouldn't be any use.
He walked without hesitation, despite the dark. The little patches of light that illuminated parts of the room showed him a veritable treasure-trove of alien gadgets wanting further attention, but he ignored them all and carried on walking. There might well be weapons there; or things that could be used as weapons; but he had no doubt that his hybridised captor knew exactly what he was doing. If he made a move towards any of the equipment, she would be upon him in an instant. So he kept on walking, drawn by his instincts, heading for the place where he was sure that she was. Where he had seen, in the bright illumination of earlier, the cobbled-together beacon that was to be its creator's last work. As he approached he saw her at last, the vague shapes within one of the patches of light resolving itself into her bizarre form; into her hands busy tightening, adjusting, calibrating; into the beacon that she would never finish. He came to a halt, then; standing where he was until her movements slowed and she turned around.
"I keep repeating bits," she told him, clearly not remotely surprised by his arrival. "I keep doing the same things over and over again. It's as though I don't know what to do next. But I've always known what to do next. Even at the beginning, when I didn't have a clue what I was doing."
"Waiting for inspiration?" he asked. She laughed slightly, without much humour.
"You think? I thought perhaps I was waiting for the snakes to hatch out of my head and finish it for me." She took several steps towards him; fast, lumbering steps; but he stood his ground, and met her furious eyes. "Snakes inside my head. I heard everything."
"That was sort of the point." He smiled gently, sadly, and still held her gaze. "I wanted to see how much of you was left. I'm sorry."
"Are you?" She didn't sound convinced. "You want to stop me. To stop them. You don't care about anything else."
"Maybe." He frowned, trying to gauge her mood. "So are we going to put our cards on the table here? I like to know how things are."
"I don't." She gave a funny little smile. "Actually I liked it rather better when I didn't know how things are. I want to disbelieve all the things that you said, but I can't. One morning I woke up, in my caravan along the coast, and I came here to this cave and I stayed here. And I knew things that I couldn't know, and things happened to me..." She stared at her second pair of arms. "And then you came and I smelt the air, and I could taste that you were different, and I didn't even stop to wonder why. I'm more them than me now, I suppose."
"Could be." As far as he knew there had been no exact studies. Each individual case was too different. "Probably depends on how many of them are in there."
"Snakes in my head." She gave a little laugh. "I thought you were dead. I put you to one side. That was instinct, wasn't it. Something for them to eat when they hatch out. Gods, I'm storing meat for them. And I know how it tastes. I knew how you would taste. Have I eaten people before?"
"They might take control of you sometimes. If they need sustenance they're not getting otherwise." He suspected that it was rather more frequent than that, but he didn't press the subject. The last thing she wanted to think about was how rarely her mind was her own; how often she had killed and eaten humans. Tourists wandering the coasts; the best kind of prey. They were close by, there would be no immediate alarm at their disappearance, and with luck they would have plenty of money. Part of her would be well aware of all of that, but that wasn't the part that he wanted to talk to just now. She began to tremble.
"I've been waiting for you. I knew you'd come, after you'd finished talking it all through with her. There was something I wanted to ask you, but I don't remember it now."
"If it was how to help you... I'm sorry, but I don't know."
"No. Wasn't that." She flashed him the oddest of smiles. "I laughed when you first started to talk. Meteorites and spores. Snakes and brains and beacons, and creatures from other worlds. I thought you were mad." She cocked her head on one side, as though listening to something, and a shiver passed through her frame. "But when I think about it, I can feel them moving. Gliding through my brain. Is half of it really gone?"
"Probably, by now." His eyes narrowed, and he watched her carefully. "You sound human, but I make a point of being suspicious when I'm dealing with brain-eating snakes. Who am I talking to? You or them?"
"Me." She laughed briefly. "But how would I know?"
"I guess you wouldn't. Probably doesn't matter anymore anyway."
"That sounds final. No deals? No compromises?" Her second pair of hands waved rather vaguely in the air. "Aren't you supposed to try to talk me into co-operating with you?"
"Half of your brain has been replaced by alien snakes. Even you don't know if it's you or them talking. And you want me to try reasoning with you?" He shook his head. "I'm sorry. I want to help. And it's weird, you know? 'Cause I never used to. Seems to be a compulsion lately. I'd kinda like to shake it, but I can't."
"How inconvenient for you."
"Sure is." His eyes strayed, briefly, to the beacon, but she smiled and shook her head.
"For now." He could hear footsteps, scratching on the cave floor, and knew that Gwen had followed him. Even an inexperienced rookie too foolish to follow a sensible order couldn't fail to home in on the sound of people talking. And if he could hear her, so could their unstable friend. She had probably realised before he did. He tried a different tactic, strolling forward a few paces, and looking around at some of the accumulated junk. "Did all of this come from those smugglers?" He had intended it as a casual question, but she laughed at him.
"What are you digging for?"
"This and that." He flashed her a typical Jack Harkness grin. "People who get infected this way usually collect stuff. It's the human half of you trying to fulfil the desires of the Etrax, without really knowing what those desires are. I've never seen somebody collect so much, though. What were you before?"
"Before?" She frowned at him, and her eyes shifted restlessly. "Don't think about before. Just a dream. This is real."
"But you did have a life before. Before the meteorite, before the cave." He took another step forward, trying to seem as unthreatening as was physically possible. "You mentioned a caravan. You were here on holiday?"
"Heading south. Going to meet... there was a conference..." She shook her head hard, almost as though to dislodge the snakes. "Curator. Librarian. Books and exhibits and dusty shelves, and don't think I don't know that she's trying to creep up on us." She smiled then, all teeth and dry giggles. "I know everything. Everybody who approaches, I know. Everything that moves, I know. These caves, and the beach above them. I know about all of you, and I'm ready for all of you too."
"All of us?" Jack tried to sound casual, trying to gain the upper hand. "How many of us do you think there are ?"
"Think, know, smell, taste." She frowned at him. "You shouldn't have tried it. I was strong. I am strong. Creeping up on me, trying to surprise me in my lair. That's not friendly." She laughed. "I should call the police." The laughter stopped abruptly. "And my head hurts. Are they close to hatching?"
"Maybe." He took another few steps towards her, changing his voice so that he sounded reassuring; though not especially gentle. "They've had control in the past. You didn't know what was happening. Now that you do, your consciousness is asserting itself more. You're feeling the pain more. You're a little more confused than you have been."
"So I should give in?" She frowned, head cocked on one side. "I can hear them. Can you hear them? Slithering about in there. Can you see them? Are my eyes like windows? Can you see inside?"
"No." He dragged up another smile. "Look, why don't we go outside? We have a boat. In no time at all we could have you--"
"I'm not going anywhere with you. No cure, you said. No way to get them out. No way to stop it. You just want to get me away from the beacon, so that when the snakes come they won't be able to make more come. That's it, isn't it."
"Yeah." He didn't bother trying to lie. "But you are you - or bits of you are. Do you really want them to send for more of their kind? Do you want this to happen to anybody else?"
"I don't care." She sounded very much as though she meant it. "Not about anybody else. There's not enough room inside my head for anybody else." Her eyes shifted to his right, to where he knew that Gwen was lurking in the darkness, and he thought about calling out to her that the game was up. Instead he summoned up yet another smile, and concentrated on the woman before him.
"I can understand that. You've got a lot to deal with. So why not let me help you? If you heard everything I said earlier, then you know I've dealt with this sort of thing before. I have equipment. So do you. All this stuff you've collected - I can use it."
"Not to help me." He had advanced so far that he was almost upon her now, but she seemed unfazed by his proximity. Instead she reached out with one hand, almost touching him. "You can't help me. But I thought maybe they could."
"They?" He couldn't think who she meant. "Who's they?"
"Them. The snakes. You can't help me, so maybe they can. All I have to do is help them build their beacon without killing me. I'm not coming with you, and you have no way to help me anyway. You said. And your weapons are useless. You tried them already." The tips of her fingers brushed the sleeve of his shirt. "I think... maybe you should shut up now."
"That's hardly going to do any of us any good." He tried to move forward, but her fingers against his sleeve were suddenly like iron, holding him back with the barest of effort. "Now look..."
"At what? At snakes inside my head? And tumours, you said. Lots of tumours. I need them to keep me alive. I don't need you. All you have is problems without answers, and words without meanings. You say you want to help, but all you want is us dead and the problem gone away. I could let go, and we'd eat you in a flash. Me and them. I think they'd quite like to. See if the meat tastes as different as the aura. You crackle." Her eyes narrowed. "But what would happen if we ate you? Could we go on eating forever and ever, and you'd just keep coming back?"
"I really don't want to know." He moved her restraining hand aside. "Look... can we start again? Do you have a name?"
"No name, just snakes." She smiled at him; a smile that was almost dazzling. It didn't last. "Just snakes and headaches, and three little humans waiting to see what happens next."
"Three?" He caught hold of her hand then, although he was sure that she could shrug him off in a moment. "Where's Ianto?"
"The other one? He tasted... interesting. Like the woman. Touched by so many strange things, but not made of them like you are. No, I didn't eat him. I felt him coming, and I went to get him when you were dead. And then you weren't dead anymore, and you were talking, and I had ideas. And why not? He's young. Young and strong, and that's got to be worth something. Hasn't it?"
"I don't know." For a moment he considered calling out to the other man, but since he had heard nothing from him yet, he had to assume that Ianto was not capable of talking. If he was anywhere nearby he would have heard Jack's voice by now. "What did you have in mind?"
"It's simple." She beamed at him like a child. "I don't want them to use my brain. So why can't they use his? It's healthy. It's young. So they plug him into their machine instead of me, and then everything will be alright."
"You think?" A flash of anger heated his words, driving all trace of smiles from his face. "Where is he?"
"Your friend is almost on top of him. If you could taste the air like I can, you'd know it." She kicked at a lamp on the ground by her feet, and it rolled over towards Jack. "Take it. Light it. You'll see him."
"I think she's telling the truth, Jack." Obviously deciding that there was no longer any point in pretending that she wasn't there, Gwen spoke up out of the darkness. Her voice sounded almost querulous, concern showing in the words. "I can... I can feel something. I think it's a leg."
"Don't move. I don't know what she's done to him. Don't touch anything." He fumbled with the lamp, lighting it with a match from his pocket. The warm light swelled in his hands, the familiar scent of the alien fuel washing over him. Turning his back on the hybrid woman, he all but ran towards Gwen, until she loomed up on the fringes of the lamp's glow. Sure enough there was a leg beside her, clad in a familiar black material. Jack held the lamp up, jerking to an unsteady halt on the rocky floor. The light showed him more detail, then, though still not quite enough. He wanted brighter light. He needed to see exactly what was going on.
Ianto was lying on a row of wooden crates; battered old things that might have lain there for years. He was unconscious, but when Jack fumbled for a pulse, the beat that he found was anything but natural. Not just unconscious, then - there was something else wrong with him. He didn't react to the sound of his name, nor to a gentle shaking, and Jack soon found the reason why. Thin wires, almost invisible at first against the dark colour of his hair, circled and criss-crossed the top of Ianto's head. There were sharp contacts piercing the skin; drops of blood tarnishing the metal. In the flickering light of the oil lamp it was hard to see exactly what was what, but Jack didn't like to think how deep those wires went inside the head. Focused on the tableau before him, he was startled when somebody tried to take the lamp away. Only when Gwen's voice broke through from the world outside did he realise that it was her trying to take the lamp, trying to give him another free hand. He relinquished his hold then, but not to give greater attention to Ianto. Instead he rose to his feet, turning back to face the woman still waiting beside the beacon.
"Just what do you think this is going to achieve?" His voice was as hard as the rock that surrounded them. "What have you done to his head?"
"I don't know. Not really. I think I saw what the snakes know, and our hands did the rest." She looked momentarily confused, then smiled again. "You see? It pays to know they're in there."
"Let him go." He took a step towards her, before the realisation that there was nothing he could do to her brought him up short. "This won't work. You can't plug him into that thing. Your brain is full of Etrax DNA. It's been changed by what's happened to you. His hasn't. It won't be any use. It won't work."
"It has to." Her own voice was hard as his had been moments before. "I won't die. I don't want to die. You see how you like it, suddenly finding out that there's things growing inside your head, and that there's nothing you can do about it. That they're killing you, and destroying your brain, but there's no way to get at them. What am I supposed to do? Cut them out myself? But you said they'd eat us all if I do that."
"There's nothing that you can do. I'm sorry." He took another step towards her, though this time not through anger. "You said that you could see what they know. Why can't you see this? It's your brain that they need, not his. His heart rate has gone crazy. You've got wires inside his head. You don't know what they're doing to him."
"Filling his brain tissue with electrical signals. Searching for the right frequency." The words fell out of her mouth, clearly without meaning anything to her, and she smiled briefly. "All I need to do is plug him into the beacon, and everything will be fine. They won't need my brain anymore."
"They'll still eat your head to break out into the world. They'll still use your brain. They'll have to! Ianto's won't work!" He advanced on her, eyes showing his fury. "You could be killing him. And all for nothing?"
"It's not for nothing if I get to live." She snatched up one of her tools, brandishing it like a weapon as he bore down on her. "I've got a right to try to survive. Why should I let them kill me? What did I do to deserve it? It's not fair!"
"Jack!" It was Gwen's voice, sounding urgent. He didn't look at her, and she raised her voice. "Jack! Something's happening. I don't think he's conscious, but I think he's trying to speak."
"His brain is being stimulated by electricity." He didn't look back, and didn't take his eyes off the maddened woman before him. "At best it's just causing his muscles to move. At worst... anything could be happening inside his head right now. He could be trapped inside a nightmare, and we can't get to him." He took another step forward, heedless of the metal object being waved at him. "You're so good at accessing their thoughts, try accessing the right ones! Listen to them! They don't want Ianto for their beacon. All they want him for is as meat when they hatch. It's your brain they want, and it's your brain they're going to use. Listen to them!"
"No!" She swung her makeshift weapon, and he was forced to dodge aside. "They can use his brain. It's perfectly good."
"And when they burst out of your head? Half of your brain is already gone. How are you going to cope without them filling the gaps? And what about all the tumours? The only reason you're still breathing is because the snakes need you. You're already dead. The person you used to be is long gone."
"I'm still me." She sounded terrified now, but he kept pushing. He was too angry now, too desperate, not to.
"You don't know that. You can't know that. Your brain is a mess. It's been chewed to pieces by snakes living inside it. All entwined around it, and around your spinal column. You only know what gets filtered through them. You've got enough independent thought to try fighting them now, but only somebody who knew you before could tell you if your personality is still your own, or something that's been chewed up and spat out by some alien snake." He could hear Gwen calling to him, no doubt trying to tell him that he had gone too far; but he couldn't worry for the wellbeing of a woman he couldn't save. He had too much else to worry about. A few more paces and she was backed up against the beacon, with no more space to retreat. The two fledging arms scratched at his chest, but he ignored them, making a grab of the piece of equipment that she had tried to use against him. He didn't even notice that her second original arm was not fighting him; didn't think of it at all until a terrible, burning pain tore through his ribcage. He thought that he heard Gwen scream, but she sounded impossibly far away. Suddenly strangely weak, he fell back a few steps, gasping hopelessly for breath. He wasn't sure when he fell to the ground, and was only dimly aware of the impact.
"Jack!" Gwen was beside him, and he wanted to tell her not to be such an idiot. Ianto needed her more than he did. Ianto could die. He couldn't speak, though, and looking down at himself, with some distant part of his diminishing consciousness, he realised why. Something was sticking out of the right-hand side of his chest; something that seemed to have entered his body through the left-hand side, just beneath the ribs. It had certainly taken out one lung on the way through, and given the amount of blood that seemed to be choking him, it had probably done a good deal of damage elsewhere as well. The pain was diminishing, though. That was good. Harder to think when the agony of that first wounding was still burning its way through his nerves. That it was ebbing meant that he was close to death, but he wasn't scared of that. Certainly not nowadays. With an effort he focused on the woman looming over him, his blood staining three of her hands.
"Look at him dying," Her voice sounded almost like a croon. "Struggling for breath, and coughing up blood. Poor boy. But it won't kill him, not really. And yet he thinks he can make decisions about whether I should die. See what happens now, shall we? What happens if we don't pull the pipe out? Does he stay dead? Or does he lie there and choke on blood forever and ever and ever?"
"You're bloody mental, you are." Straightening up, Gwen clenched her fists, ready to try to fight the woman hand to hand. At her feet Jack made a strange sound that almost sounded like a laugh. She frowned at that. He wasn't laughing at her - was he? He caught at her, grabbing weakly at her ankle with one hand.
"He's telling you not to fight me. He knows you can't win." The mockery in the sharp voice made Gwen want to punch the woman now, but she lowered her fists, looking down at Jack. He looked so pale, so horrific; the blood still dribbling from his mouth. She could tell what he wanted, though. There was nothing that she could do for Ianto, but he wanted her to be with him anyway. Eyelids already fluttering closed, Jack was ebbing fast. Gwen crouched beside him, one hand on his shoulder.
"Ianto's not going anywhere," she told him. He didn't object, though she wasn't altogether sure if he was capable of it. She almost sure that she could feel the disapproval coming off him in waves, though. Not knowing what else to do, she took hold of the pipe that skewered him, and tried to pull it free. His eyes jerked open, and a soundless cry of pain formed on his lips.
"That's it. Hurry him along." Their hybrid tormentor laughed cheerfully, then with sudden, startling brutality, slapped Gwen aside. "But I said it stays. We'll see how he likes coming back to life again with it still in him. If he can."
"Just leave him alone." Sprawled on the ground, head stinging, Gwen found that she was fighting back tears. He was dead now; she could see that. How many times had she seen him die now? She wasn't sure, but she knew that it never got any easier. Shot by Suzie, electrocuted by Lisa, stabbed by some maddened woman who was less than half human now... and how could he come back to life with a piece of pipe speared through his body? She reached out one hand, the tips of her fingers just brushing his. He didn't move. She hadn't expected him to.
"How long?" The woman shouted it with real ferocity, and it took Gwen a moment to realise that it was a question. She glanced up.
"I - I don't..."
"Until he wakes up. How long?"
"I can't say. It varies. Not long usually, but..." But how long did it take a body to repair that much damage, and how could it even try at the moment? She wished that she understood the process, but even Jack didn't know what happened, or how. She had no way of figuring it all out. The woman glared at her, and gave a loud, angry hiss. It was a bestial sound, vicious and cold, and the tip of her long black tongue darted in and out of her mouth as the noise died away. At the same time, a shiver ran through the misshapen body, and its determined stance began to flag.
"He should have helped me," the woman muttered, the anger apparently gone; then in the space of a breath it was back again, and her four eyes glittered in the lamplight. "Should have..." Another hiss interrupted her sentence, and all of a sudden Gwen felt her blood run cold. That bulbous head - that head full of tumours and snakes - was starting to pulsate. She was horribly certain that she knew what that meant. So too, it seemed, did the woman. Her legs began to tremble.
"No." She reached up one hand, feeling her head, touching one of the pulsing lumps. "No, not now. I don't want--" Her eyes sought Gwen's. "Please. Help me!"
"I... I don't know how." If Jack didn't know of a way, then there was none. Gwen was sure of that. Certainly no way that was open to them here. She shook her head, wanting very much to slink away into the darkness where she could no longer see any of this. "I'm sorry."
"But it's not fair!" The woman was gripping her head now, her eyes standing out, the veins beginning to show in her neck and in her arms. "It's not fair! Help me!"
"I can't." Gwen did back away slightly then, though only as far as Jack's head. She wanted to protect him, but she didn't know how. If he was right about the snakes being able to eat a man in ninety seconds, then there was nothing that she could do anyway. She heard the woman sobbing, but didn't look up at her at first. When she did again, it was to see blood beginning to dribble from her mouth.
"It'ssss not fair..." The voice was more sibilant, the words sounding sharper and more pronounced. "Pleassssssse. Help me..."
"I can't." She crouched over Jack, willing him to revive, wanting very much for him to take charge now. He didn't even move. Desperate, dropping to her knees, the hybrid woman began to sob. Gwen almost wanted to hold her then, to try to tell her that it would all be over soon, and not to fear the end. She had done it before, once, for a man caught up in a road accident when she had still been an ordinary police officer. Platitudes, meant well, yet meaning little. In the event she said nothing at all, even when the sobs were choked off by more blood, and the woman began to convulse on the ground. After that there was nothing but silence - and the ever increasing violence of the throbbing in the grotesque skull.
So much darkness. So much pain. He tried to walk, but his legs had long since lost the energy. He tried to look left and right, but his head wouldn't move, and it felt as though thousands of thorns had caught in his hair. He couldn't shake them free. He just became more and more tangled, with every movement, every breath, every thought. The thorns were on fire, or so he believed - or perhaps it was his head that was burning. Perhaps it was both. Neither made much sense, but then nothing else did either. All of his points of reference had gone.
He thought that he had heard people calling his name at one point. Familiar voices? Possibly. Nothing seemed very familiar anymore, including his own name; but he thought that it was him they were calling. Faces went with the voices - a woman, cheerful, open; a man... a man with a smile and layers that needed exploring. But why did he see them in his mind half-clothed in metal, with dead and empty eyes, and grasping hands? And why couldn't he remember their names? He tried to reach out to them, but they were too far away, and he couldn't move his hands. The fire, of course. Had it burnt right through him now? Would he ever move again? He made one last attempt to reach out to his friends, but they seemed to have disappeared. He couldn't hear them anymore. Couldn't hear anything anymore. There was nothing but the fire now, like lightning and explosions and laser knives, cutting his brain in half. Cutting deep inside his mind. Slicing on and on until nothing but madness was left.
It took three attempts to pull out the pipe. Gwen didn't want to know what it was caught on, or what damage she was doing by dragging it out; she only knew that it had to come out, and that she had to do it as soon as possible. She told herself that Jack was dead, and that he wouldn't feel it; that the damage would heal, and he would be alright again - but the sounds that the pipe made on its journey through his torso made her stomach heave. It didn't help that the hybrid woman was lying so close by, twitching and jerking, and occasionally managing a blood-choked sob. Her eyes were open, and she seemed to be watching, but Gwen couldn't tell if there was any real awareness left. She hoped not, but the occasional blink, the occasional ghost of a facial expression suggested that there was something going on in her mind. She wondered if it hurt to have your brain eaten away; if the woman could feel the teeth of the alien snakes, and if she was still capable of any degree of thought or fear. She decided that she didn't want to know - any more than she wanted to know if Jack was aware of what was happening to him now. All she could do was concentrate on her task, struggling to keep hold of the pipe, and fighting it every inch of the way.
"Jack?" She was calling to him as soon as the pipe was clear, even though there was a gaping hole in his side, and another in his chest, and goodness knew what sort of a mess in between. "Jack?" But there was no answer, and no movement, and no gasping breath of resurrection. Just the scuffling of a woman not yet allowed to die. Other movements caught at her attention occasionally - Ianto, she thought, with a twinge of guilt. But what could she do for him? His body convulsed occasionally, as the wires did strange electronic things to his brain, but she couldn't help him. She didn't know how to free him. All that she could do was wait for Jack to come back to her, and hope that when he did he would know what to do. The minutes were ticking away, though, and surely the moment of the snakes' birth must be creeping ever closer? When that time came they would all be eaten, if somebody had not thought of a way to stop them. She shook Jack's shoulder, and willed him back to life. Was there less blood now? Was the hole in his side smaller? She couldn't tell. And nearby the woman was beginning to cry, and Ianto was muttering something indistinct, and she knew that she should be doing something for both of them. Putting the woman out of her misery? But how, if only the snakes could kill her? And she wasn't sure that she was able to do such a thing anyway. And Ianto... Hopeless, helpless, she buried her head in her arms, and tried not to give in to her despair. There had to be something. There had to be. She didn't like to think that she might be prepared to give up.
"What... what's happening?" In an explosion of gasping and coughing, Jack forced the question out. It came with a thin stream of blood, and a groan of such obvious pain that Gwen felt a burst of irrational guilt. She leant over him, but he was fighting her, struggling against her calming hands, and trying to sit up.
"Take it easy," she told him, even though she had been wishing just moments ago that he would do something. "You need to rest."
"Rest? Are you kidding?" The words sounded painful; his throat seemed raw. Each breath sounded tortured, as though his insides were still struggling to heal themselves. He pressed one hand to the left side of his chest, and choked back a sob. "Feels like everything got torn up. I... I don't remember it hurting this much in a long time. Can't see much."
"I'm surprised you're moving yet. You look..." She let the words trail off. It was hard to know what to say to a man who had just returned from death - and a violent death at that. Were there protocols for such occasions? Probably. Somewhere. He managed a haggard grin.
"Tell me the truth, Gwen Cooper. How do I look?" She had to laugh then.
"Bloody lovely. But Jack..."
"Yeah. Mad woman. Snakes. I know." He drew in several deep breaths, clearly feeling his strength return. "Ianto?"
"Alright for now, I think." She shook her head. "Oh, I don't know. I don't have a bloody clue, do I. But I don't know what to do for him, and that woman's head is about to hatch, and I don't know what the--"
"Okay." He coughed one last time, and wiped the blood from his mouth with the back of one hand. "Snakes first, Ianto later." He forced himself to his feet with a clearly painful effort, and she hurried to support him. "Don't suppose you've got glass-coated exploding bullets on you?"
"Does anybody on Earth have any?"
"Probably not, no." He leant on her as they crossed the short distance to the place where the woman still lay. She stared up at them as they approached, but when her mouth tried to form sounds, nothing but trickles of blood came forth. It seemed to Gwen that the twitching was more powerful than before. More like convulsions now, and almost constant. Jack crouched down beside her, and checked her pulse.
"Is she aware of all of this?" asked Gwen. Jack didn't answer immediately, apparently preoccupied by the throbbing skull. He touched it delicately, and winced.
"I think so," he said in the end, then shrugged. "The snakes are still bridging the gaps in her brain. Until they get past a certain point, she's aware to a degree, yes."
"Then she can hear us?"
"Probably." He straightened up, clearly still in pain. "She's not likely to be a threat anymore, though. She can't do anything right now but lie there and twitch."
"I can see that. I was worried... I mean..."
"Save your sympathy. It won't help her now." He looked around, taking stock of their surroundings. So much alien equipment, but nothing like enough time to go through it all in the hope of finding something that might help. He shook his head. "No time for frills. Grab as many of these lamps as you can."
"The lamps?" He was heading for the nearest one himself, but his movements were still sluggish.
"Lamps. Flickering things. Come on, Gwen. I'm not exactly speedy right now. I need your legs."
"I..." She stopped the thought, and nodded. "Of course. Wait here."
"At least ten. Doesn't matter if they're lit. Just make sure they can be."
"Okay." She hurried away, tripping on loose pieces of rock, grabbing the lamps wherever they lay. There was certainly no shortage of them, and most sloshed when she picked them up, showing that they still held plenty of fuel. When her arms were full, she hurried back, to find Jack crouched once again beside the twitching woman. The strange floral scent of the white fuel was strong, but strangely different to before. Gwen went to him, and set the lamps down.
"Do you want me to light them?" she asked. He shook his head.
"Just open them. And quick. I don't think we've got much time."
"Open them? Why would I...?" Only then did she notice that the woman's hair was wet, and she realised why the smell of the fuel was different this time. It wasn't the infusing scent of heated oil drifting into the air. It was the neat smell of the liquid itself. "Jack! Jack, she's still alive!"
"Yeah. And if you want to stay that way yourself, you won't argue. I can't save her, but I think I can save us. Those things will kill us in a moment, and then finish that beacon. And who's going to stop them with us dead? Or you and Ianto dead, and me..." He shrugged. "Whatever. I'm sorry. I don't have any choice."
"But this?" She caught his arm, but he pulled it free with a sharp cold look.
"It'll stop them, or help, at least. I think. I don't know, but have you got any better ideas, Gwen? You know how to stop alien snakes? Yeah, she might feel this. But she's past helping, and I can't think about her now. Now give me those lamps." Mechanically she handed him the first one, but backed away afterwards, putting the lamps on the ground. He didn't seem to notice her withdrawal, snatching each lamp up off the ground in turn, opening it, and pouring its contents over the woman. It seemed to Gwen that the wide, staring eyes grew wider with each container of fuel; that the periodic whimpers seemed more desperate, more pleading - but there was no way of knowing whether that was just in her imagination. Only when Jack had dowsed her to his satisfaction did he stop, and take a moment to consider the woman herself.
"Jack..." tried Gwen, one last time. He didn't respond. Instead he pulled a matchbook from his pocket, and looked from it to the woman. Gwen could see the side of his face, by no means a clear view, but there seemed no trace of sympathy or remorse. Either it was all in his eyes, or there really was none at all. For a moment she thought that he was going to say something - but instead he stood up, and fumbled with his matches. A second later there was a tiny flame in one hand, and this time Gwen was sure that the woman's eyes were wider. She wanted to run over; to blow out the match and stop Jack before he did this; but she knew that she was just going to stand where she was and do nothing. There was nothing that she could do. Jack was right. Closing her eyes, she turned her head away, and tried to think of something else. Even so, she saw the flash when it came; the sudden burst of flame that flared up when he dropped the match, and the woman caught fire.
"Gwen." He was using his no-nonsense voice, and she knew that she couldn't carry on ignoring him. When she opened her eyes and turned around, though, she couldn't help but cry out in horror. The woman was thrashing on the ground, the flames engulfing her, her clothes and hair ablaze. Gwen started to run towards her, but Jack caught her and held her back.
"It's not what you think. The thrashing is because of the snakes. They're hatching. Think what that's gonna do to your nervous system."
"You're sure of that, are you? You know what she's thinking right now?" She struggled, but he didn't let go. "Jack, I--"
"You're gonna save her, is that it? Put the fire out somehow? And then what? I've seen this, remember? I know what they look like when the snakes hatch. They all thrash about like that. If she felt that fire at first, she isn't feeling it now. What the fire hasn't burnt away, the snakes have eaten. She's got nothing left to feel with."
"You..." She shook her head and looked away, not bothering to finish chiding him. He let her go then, and bent to pick up the metal pipe that had speared him before. It was still coated in his blood, still slick. He wiped it on his trousers and took careful hold.
"You don't think you've hurt her enough?" Gwen couldn't help saying it, though she knew that she was being cruel. Jack didn't answer, but his look told her that she should arm herself likewise. She frowned then. "The snakes?"
"I said we had to think of a way to hurt them before they hatched, remember? If we're lucky, that's what I just did. There's hardly anything left of the brain by now, and they'll have been too busy protecting that to worry about anything else. But don't go thinking they're dead. Should be weaker, though. In theory."
"In theory?" She found something that looked like a giant spanner, and tried to look ready for anything. Jack shrugged.
"They haven't eaten us yet. That means the theory's good, right?" He frowned. "I think." Carefully he approached the thrashing woman, and nudged at her head with one foot. The fire was dying down now, the heat diminished, and they could look at her properly without the flames hurting their eyes. It was not a pretty sight. The flesh was red and scarred, gone altogether in places, and naked bone showed through what was left of her face. Her eyes were gone, but still they seemed to stare. Gwen could have sworn that she saw the now lipless mouth move. A second later she was sure.
"I see it."
"She's not going to get up?"
"Well if she does, we're screwed." He poked at the woman's head with his pipe, causing chunks of roasted flesh to fall away from the bone. Gwen heaved. Beneath the flesh, the bone was rippling, beginning to break apart.
"I suppose it was too much to hope that they'd burn to death too," she commented, as a blackened, snake-like head poked its way out of the broken skull. Jack used the pipe to haul the creature out, and dropped it onto the cave floor. In the grim light of a lamp and the still smouldering host, it looked wicked, but also rather pathetic, it's scorched skin smoking. With one blow, Jack crushed its skull.
"Part-roasted is better than raw," he told his companion, as a belated answer. "But they're still dangerous, so keep your eyes open."
"Come to Jersey, Gwen. It'll be fun. We'll chase some smugglers, see the sights, enjoy some sunshine... and spend the night in a cave battering alien snakes to death." Another of the creatures wriggled out of the woman's head, flopping down onto the ground. It hissed, bearing a mouth full of teeth, and Gwen hit it as hard as she could. It caught hold of the spanner with its mouth, and she barely stifled a squeak. Jack crushed the creature with three powerful blows from his pipe.
"You love spending time with me," he told Gwen, clearly unmoved by her sarcasm. "Right ear. Look smart."
"What?" She turned in time to see another snake bursting its way out through what had once been an ear, and winced. "Oh, that's revolting."
"Ya think?" He was busy poking at the mangled remains of the skull, trying to get at whatever other snakes still remained. "You should see what it's like when you don't barbecue them first. Little mouths full of brain tissue, blood all over the carpet..." A loud hissing noise interrupted him, and a snake began to slide up the pipe. Gwen made a move towards it, but Jack snatched away her spanner, and used it to force the creature onto the floor. "You don't want to touch one of these things with your hand," he told her, beating the thing into submission with an almost clinical precision. "You get the ear one?"
"Yes. Do I want to know what happens if one of them touches me?"
"Depends. But bearing in mind that they can burrow into your skin faster than you could ever hope to get them off... probably not."
"I hate you." Another snake burst out of the roasted corpse, this time from the neck, bringing a trail of spinal cord with it. Jack dealt with it quickly.
"Look on the bright side," he told Gwen, his smile typically bright. "You could have spent the day doing paperwork."
"Or the night with Rhys."
"True. But be honest... life or death situation or sex. Which would you rather have?"
She glared at him. "Sex. And don't tell me you'd choose differently."
"Probably not." He suddenly flashed her a big grin. "Although sex in a life or death situation? That's a different story. Actually it's quite a lot of different stories."
"I probably don't want to know. Just... did we get them all?"
"I don't know." He poked again at the woman's ruined head. "Problem is, they can get down inside. We should really destroy her whole body. Mincing would be good."
"You have a very different definition of the word 'good', don't you. And if you're seriously suggesting that we take her back to the Hub to dispose of her there..."
"No, probably not." He frowned at the body, as though contemplating the different ways of getting rid of it. "Acid bath maybe."
"Got one of those handy, have you?"
"Is this going to be some other revolting anecdote about alien snakes?"
"Could be, yeah." He looked up at her, blue eyes catching the light from the flickering lamp. The woman herself had stopped glowing now, cutting down on the available illumination, but relieving Gwen no end. "Does it look like she's moving to you?"
"You'd better be joking." She inched closer, peering down at the hideous corpse, and as if on cue, one of the legs bent and straightened. Gwen leapt back as though pulled on a string. "She's alive! But that's... Kill her!"
"I already did." He aimed an almighty blow at the body, but even as it landed, the corpse was climbing to its feet. He clubbed it around the head with his pipe, the makeshift weapon sinking into what was left of the head, and almost lodging there. He had to fight to pull it free. "There must be a snake inside still. Man, even I think that's disgusting."
"Don't joke about it! Kill it!" Gwen manoeuvred around behind the woman, smacking her long spanner down onto a bony shoulder. There was no reaction. The dead woman began to bear down on Jack, as though considering him personally responsible for her misfortunes. Jack dodged, trying to keep up a steady barrage of blows.
"What do I do?" asked Gwen, as another of her attempted attacks proved pointless. Jack shrugged, rather preoccupied now with avoiding the flailing hands of the dead woman. He swung his pipe at her again, but she caught the weapon and yanked it out of his hands.
"That's not good."
"Look out!" Yelling the warning somewhat needlessly, Gwen winced in sympathy as the heavy pipe narrowly missed Jack's head. The assault gave her inspiration though, and she swung her spanner with all her might. It smacked into the burnt and battered remains of the head, spattering the rocks with gobbets of blood, bone, and various things that Gwen didn't want to identify. Most of the top of the head fell onto the ground, and she kicked it cautiously to be sure that there was nothing living in it. Its loss didn't seem to have any effect on the woman's advance, though, the snake or snakes inside the brutalised body still clearly able to keep the arms and legs moving. Jack dodged again, but he was hampered by his desire to stay where there was enough light by which to see.
"I could look for weapons in all that alien gear?" suggested Gwen. Jack shot her a glare that suggested he didn't approve. Given that she was hardly an expert in alien tech, she could sympathise. It seemed to her that they were running out of options, though - just as Jack was running out of space in which to manoeuvre. Only when one last minute dodge caused him to crash backwards onto the ground did he finally yell out a suggestion.
"What about it?" She ran to it, although her first instinct was to try to help Jack. He was scrambling backwards, trying to avoid the flailing pipe, his eyes fixed nervously on the snake head that was pushing its way out of the woman's burnt and peeling chest.
"She plugged Ianto in it. I think..." He rolled to one side, and managed to make it back to his feet again, only to be knocked back down as the pipe finally made contact. "Turn it on!"
"Won't that hurt Ianto?" She was looking for an on switch, with absolutely no idea of what it would look like. Jack laughed, rather painfully.
"Right now, getting my brain fried before I get eaten sounds like an attractive option. If we're lucky he'll fry the beacon, not the other way around."
"And if we're not lucky?!" She had found a switch - the only one that there appeared to be. It was big and black, and looked rather like it belonged on an electric kettle. This time the answer was just a grunt. Smacked across the back by the pipe, Jack had collapsed. "Jack?" He didn't seem to be moving, and the dead woman was turning now to Gwen. "Jack?! Oh, great." Resisting the urge to close her eyes, she pressed the switch. There was a dull clunk from somewhere nearby, and without even a pause, the dead woman continued her advance. "Oh..." Somehow swearing didn't quite seem to cover it.
"Turn it on." At last beginning to move again, Jack struggled to sit up. Gwen began to back away.
"Oh." On his third attempt he made it to his feet, and stood swaying like an inexperienced drunk. "Damn."
"Plan B?" she asked hopefully. He rubbed his head, looking from her to the beacon to the lumbering host with distressingly uninspired eyes.
"There's one trick," he told her, as he began to head towards her, still clearly unsteady. "Never let me down yet."
"What?" There was a snake looking at her, staring out from between two ribs, its mouth full of charred flesh. Jack smiled, somewhat haplessly.
"Hit it," he offered. Gwen, trying to put the beacon between her and the dead woman, shot him a disbelieving look.
"The beacon! Hit it!" He snatched something up from the ground to use as a weapon, and hurried as best he could to help her with the lurching host. "Now!"
"I... Oh, what the hell." And with all the force she could muster, she slammed the palm of her hand down on the top of the machine. It juddered and wobbled, something inside it buzzed - and with a flash of bright blue light from somewhere underneath, it burst into life. Nearby, Ianto began to thrash.
"Oh god. Ianto." Leaving Jack to deal with the dead woman, Gwen ran over to her young associate, looking on helplessly as he bucked and rocked on his makeshift bed. Sparks flew from the wires that sank into his skin, and his eyes flew open. "Ianto, can you hear me?"
"Don't touch those wires." Though his eyes were focused solely upon the dead woman, Jack's words were clearly meant only for Gwen. Her hands snatched themselves back from the wires like those of a guilty child.
"Don't touch them! He's incompatible. With luck he'll burn the machine out." The dead woman swiped at him, and he lashed out at her hands with a chunk of rock.
"And then what?!"
"And then we worry about Plan B." He dodged another swipe, hurled his piece of rock at the protruding snake's head, and finally, throwing caution to the wind, rugby-tackled the host. Together they crashed to the ground, rolling over in a tangle of limbs and scorched flesh. Nearby, an electronic scream rose from within the beacon. Ianto began to mutter and mumble, his head rocking from side to side. Gwen tried to still him; tried to make sure that he didn't swallow his tongue as he thrashed as though in the throes of a fit. Nearby, Jack was straightening, the woman held above his head. Her body struggled for a moment longer, then suddenly went limp, and with an expression of grim determination upon its scorched face, a snake burst out of her chest and headed straight for the nearest of Jack's hands. Ianto let out a yell; a strong, acrid smell filled the air; and with what was rapidly becoming the last of his strength, Jack hurled the battered corpse onto the sparking, spitting beacon. "Get down!" he tried to yell, though it came out as little more than a gasp. A second later, the sound deafening within the confines of the cave, the beacon exploded. Gwen threw herself over Ianto in an effort to protect him, feeling the ground tremble beneath her feet, and her head protest painfully at the noise. Only when she was sure that it was over did she straighten up and turn around - to be treated to the sight of a thousand tiny bits of a human corpse as it rained down around her. Her stomach churned. Nearby, sprawled on the ground, Jack slowly stirred.
"Ow," he said, with considerable feeling, then blinked around at the gruesome vista. Unidentifiable body parts lay everywhere, the strange mingled with the familiar, the smell disturbingly similar to that of a summer barbecue. To Gwen's horror, Jack reached out and picked one of the parts up, holding it aloft with a grin. It was several moments before she realised that it was a snake's head.
"Got it," he said, with considerable satisfaction, then hurled it away into the smouldering remains of the machine.
Ianto awoke with a violent headache, and the urgent need to throw up. He conquered the latter, which was just as well, he discovered a few moments later, as he was lying on his back and didn't seem able to move. Gwen was nearby, smiling at him reassuringly, which for some reason he didn't find reassuring in the slightest.
"What happened?" he asked her. He had a vague memory of being lost in the darkness, and of seeing familiar people turned into Cybermen. If it had all been a dream, then it had been a horribly realistic one. She gave his hand a squeeze, which made him feel rather like a terminal patient in a hospital bed. "Where's Jack?"
"Here." Appearing suddenly on the periphery of Ianto's vision, daubed with blood like some gory nightmare, Jack Harkness grinned cheerfully, and gave Ianto's hair a fond ruffle. "Hang on in there a moment, would you? And don't try to move."
"What happens if I move?" For some reason, Jack's presence was the reassurance that Gwen's hadn't been. Somehow the atmosphere already seemed lighter. Jack shrugged.
"Not sure. Worst scenario? The top of your head gets ripped off, and your brain gets torn to shreds."
"Right..." Ianto blinked a couple of times. "So the weird feeling in my head right now is...?"
"A complicated network of wires, fixed into your head by a madwoman possessed by alien snakes." Jack's smile didn't seem to have abated. Ianto frowned.
"Okay." His head was throbbing. Beside him, Gwen glared at Jack.
"We need to work on your bedside manner. Couldn't you have found a better way to say that?"
"No... it's fine." Ianto didn't want them arguing. He had enough of a headache as it was. "But this madwoman. Are we expecting her back?"
"I'd hazard a guess at no." Jack disappeared momentarily, and Ianto felt an unexpected burst of disappointment. Seconds later the cheerful face reappeared, and beamed with what was probably entirely misplaced confidence. "Mostly 'cause she exploded all over the cave."
"Ah." Ianto tried to nod, and gave up. "At least that explains why it looks like you had a fight in an abattoir."
"Yeah. Not exactly looking my best, am I." Jack disappeared again, then reappeared with what seemed to be a gigantic wrench. It didn't look anything like the kind of tool that Ianto would have imagined being used to deal with wires attached to his head. He winced.
"Yeah?" Jack used the wrench as a hammer, to smash something nearby. Sparks flew up, though Ianto couldn't see what from. Oddly this was not encouraging.
"You're not perhaps thinking of calling Owen? Or possibly a brain surgeon? It's not that I don't have faith in you, but..."
"But that's a bloody big wrench, sir. And I'm just a little dubious about what you're going to do with it."
"That makes two of us." Jack straightened up again, taking a moment to offer his young companion another smile. "Some of the technology is organic. In theory, if I take out the right bit, the wires will retract, and there'll be no damage done."
"I like that theory." He tried to relax, though it wasn't easy with Gwen holding his hand. She meant well, he told himself. It was just that he didn't tend to go in for that kind of thing very much. Not with Gwen, anyway. Somehow they still didn't seem to know each other very well. It didn't help that his head was still full of images of her half-cybernised, tangled in metal and wiring like Lisa. Jack had been like that too, in whatever dreamworld had been masquerading as his reality, but somehow it was easier to dispel such images with Jack. Ianto closed his eyes for a moment, and tried not think about where he had been. Wherever it was, he didn't especially want to go back there. Odd, though, that Gwen and Jack had seemed to be there too.
"Is there any particular reason why I'm wired up like this?" he asked eventually, deciding that for the time being he preferred conversation. Gwen frowned.
"Something to do with her brain being eaten. And actually, it turned out to be for the best."
"Yeah. You were our secret weapon." Jack hit something else, and more sparks flew into the air. They were green this time. Ianto wondered if that meant anything in particular. "Your brain can cause one hell of a short-circuit when it's rigged up right. We should bear that in mind next time we-- Ah ha."
"Jack..." began Ianto. The captain laid a hand on his shoulder, briefly, fleetingly, and then disappeared again. Strangely Ianto felt his confidence grow - at least until an almighty crash rocked whatever contraption he was lying upon, and made his ears ring. Acrid smoke billowed up around him, and a flurry of multicoloured sparks danced up into the air. It was rather like being trapped inside a firework. Seconds later, with possibly the most hideous squelching noise that he had ever heard, something slid out of his head. Lots of somethings. The sensation was impressively revolting. Strong hands gripped his, then, and he felt himself being hauled to his feet.
"I... eurgh." He sagged, head suddenly reeling, and found that he was being supported by a very willing pair of arms. They were familiar, he realised, though he wasn't used to them being sticky. He could smell blood, and something that smelt remarkably like roast chicken. Not unpleasant, though he realised that it was probably going to be ruining his suit.
"You okay?" asked Jack. Ianto nodded, almost sure that he had just blushed a deep red.
"Fine. I... a little wobbly."
"No problem. You're welcome to lean on me anytime." There was a broad grin behind the words, and Ianto pulled away, looking flustered.
"I... think that I feel a little better now thank you, sir. Although I'm not sure that I can say the same for my shirt."
"No, I think mine's had it too." Jack eyed his entire outfit rather mournfully. "And the waistcoat."
"It's certainly going to be interesting getting you both back into the hotel," observed Gwen, with just the hint of a smile. She looked shaken, thought Ianto, and he wondered what they had been doing. Whether he or they had had the easier time of it. Jack made a face.
"We'll worry about that later. For now screw the hotel. I just want to rest for a bit." He sat down on the makeshift bed that had been Ianto's resting place. "This has not been one of my better nights."
"Mine either, I suspect." Ianto hesitated a moment, then sat down as well. "I feel... something like a cocktail shaker probably does. Or would. If it... could." He smiled slightly. "If you get my drift."
"We do." Gwen shot Jack a meaningful look. "And somebody ought to do something about that. He needs medical attention, Jack."
Jack smirked. "Looks just fine to me." He nodded though, and rested a hand on Ianto's shoulder. "Strictly on medical grounds... stare into my eyes for a bit, would you?"
"Got a medical degree as well as everything else have you, sir?" Ianto smiled rather endearingly, and did as he was told. It was remarkably hard to hold the intense blue stare, especially with Gwen watching, but he did so. "Now what?"
"Ideally I'd get you to strip off for a full medical." Jack's grin was contagious. "But as it stands we'd better put that off until we're back in the Hub. And there's an actual doctor present." He seemed to come to a decision. "Gwen? Probably a stupid question, but can you get a mobile signal in here?"
She fished around for her phone, and tried it. "No. Too far underground I suppose."
"Yeah. Not really a surprise, I guess. Okay. Go on up, and call Owen. Tell him what happened to Ianto... well, as best you can. None of us is exactly an expert in this line, I know. Ask him if he's got any advice other than to take it easy. Then you'd better call the boat hire firm. The number's on the paperwork that came with the boat. It's... well, it's somewhere onboard. Tell them we'll get them their boat back as soon as we can." He frowned. "I think that's everything. "Make sure that there's nothing on display, then come on back."
"And bring some coffee?" asked Ianto. Gwen had to smile at that.
"You ought to see somebody about that addiction." She nodded. "Fine. I'll be back as soon as I can, but I don't think I'm going to be getting in and out of this place in a hurry."
"No rush. Take one of the lamps, though. It'll make the going easier." Jack reached into his pocket, and threw her his matches. "I've got a caveful of alien artefacts to think about. So take your time."
"Alien artefacts?" Ianto looked around, taking an interest now that his head seemed to be clearing. Jack nodded, getting to his feet. There were still twinges in his torso, but he knew that there was nothing really wrong. He at least was going to be fine.
"Not for you." Gwen was heading towards the tunnel that had brought them into the caves not so very long ago. "Make him take it easy, Jack."
"Sure." He held up a hand in farewell, and watched her disappear around a bend. "She's right. You should rest. Your eyes are good and clear, but I don't have a clue what just happened to your head."
"Whatever it was, it wasn't much fun." He smiled faintly. "But I really do feel fine now. More or less. Honestly."
"You look it. You take a licking but keep..." Jack trailed off with a smirk. "Well, metaphorically speaking. You're on light duties though. Until I say otherwise."
"Yes sir." Ianto gestured around them. "So do light duties include helping here? I take it that there's more stuff that we can't see?"
"Loads - but you better stay sitting down. It's not like you'd be able to identify most of it anyway."
"But you probably can. You can tell me what it all is." Ianto shrugged. "Might be fun."
"You think?" Jack flashed him a cheery grin. "You're a bad influence on me, Ianto Jones."
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean, captain." The young Welshman smiled his modest smile. "Anyway, I'm on light duties. I think that forbids bad influences."
"Only the really bad ones." With a smirk Jack picked up one of the pieces of junk that lay close by, tossing it to his companion. "Here. Three and a half thousand light years that's travelled, just to wind up in a cave with us two. You know what it is?"
"It's certainly interesting." Ianto turned it over in his hands. "Is it some sort of engineering tool?"
"Nope. It's a whisk. For cooking." Jack shrugged. "Aliens like omelettes too; there's your random fact for the day. Still think this is gonna be fun?"
"Yes." Ianto couldn't hide his enthusiasm, or his inexplicable delight. This seemed a far better way of learning about aliens than fighting them in rainy Cardiff alleyways. "What's next?"
"You're weird, you know that?" Jack picked up another object, and threw it into the waiting hands. "Alarm clock. From Gerosa, a little world right on the other side of the galaxy. Seventeen moons, and all of them visible with the naked eye."
"Nice, is it?" Ianto turned the clock over in his hands, wondering at the alien script. Jack smirked.
"How would I know?"
"I can't imagine." They shared a smile that lingered enjoyably, until Jack bent to pick up something else.
"Here. Medical scanner. Seems to be broken. And this is more Gerosan tech. Think of it as an ipod, but with no need for headphones. And here..." He picked up something grey, and threw it over. "Partial trilobite fossil. Been lying on this cave floor for around two hundred and fifty million years, and it's the weirdest-looking son of a bitch I've seen in a long time. Doesn't have to be alien to be interesting."
"Fair point, sir." Ianto turned it over in his hands, rather charmed by it. Jack smiled at his bent head.
"So am I boring you yet?"
"No. Sorry." Ianto flashed him a quick smile. "Actually, I think I'm good for a few more hours yet. Turns out I'm a bit of a geek."
"There's a lot of it about." Jack shrugged. "Well, we got a while until Gwen gets back. Just remember you're supposed to be taking it easy."
"I'll be as good as gold, Jack. Promise."
"I don't think we need go that far." Jack flashed him another wicked grin. "Alright, Ianto Jones. Let's see what we got."