Not many people ever came into the tourist office under the boardwalk. It wasn’t a particularly inviting one. It was dully lit and the brochures in the window were all a couple of years out of date.
Ianto didn’t want tourists. He didn’t like them. He called them “Muppets” or if he was particularly grumpy, “Fucking Muppets.” But he put on a professional smile when a young brunette opened the door and came inside hesitantly.
“I’m afraid we’re closing in a minute or two,” he said. “But can I help you…”
“Yes,” she said. “No… I don’t know. I think…” She took a deep breath, squared her shoulders and looked him in the eye.
“I’m looking for Torchwood,” she said.
“Ah,” he replied. “That would be the florists you’re looking for. Torchwood is an aromatic plant.”
“It’s not,” she said. “It’s an organisation that hunts down aliens that try to invade this planet. My brother has been taken by an alien and nobody believes me. And I know they will.”
“Miss,” Ianto said in a patient tone. “You really have got the wrong place.” All the same, he was pressing the button beneath the desk that told his colleagues there was something going on in the front office. The team would be watching, listening to the conversation. “Come along now. Nobody believes in aliens.”
“Yes they do. I believe it. I believe some THING has taken my brother. And… and somebody has to listen to me.”
“We’re listening.” The woman turned as Jack stepped in through the door. While Ianto had kept her talking he had come up through the pavement lift and strolled across the plaza and down to the office. “I’m Captain Jack Harkness. This is Torchwood. And you are….”
“Beth Turner,” she said.
“Pleased to meet you, Beth.” He nodded to Ianto who pressed the further buttons that locked the front door and opened the secret panel. She looked scared as he led her through the echoing tunnel, but she didn’t try to get away. She had wanted somebody to believe her, to listen. If she WAS for real, then she had come to the right place. If she was just nuts, or playing silly buggers then she was still in the right place, but she wouldn’t remember anything about it tomorrow.
“What is this place?” she asked as she stepped into the Hub itself. She looked around nervously at the strange collection of alien memorabilia that sat on shelves and desktops all around. She stared at the severed hand in revivifying liquid that Jack steered her away from before she could ask any questions. He saw her lips moving as she read some of the cryptic messages pasted to the walls. He prayed Myfanwy would stay roosting in her nest in the rafters for a bit longer.
“Come and sit yourself down here,” Ianto said in a kind voice as he reached the place where the team sat around a table to eat take out meals. “Would you like a cup of tea?”
Beth nodded. Tea was something ordinary that she could cling to as part of the reality she had belonged to until she stepped into that tourist office.
Jack waited until Ianto had brought her the tea before he began to question her. Gwen came and sat at the table with a PDA to make notes, but also very much in her old role as a WPC. She was there to give comfort and support to the witness/victim, whichever Beth turned out to be.
“Ok.” Jack sat down opposite her. Ianto, though nobody had asked him to, sat beside her. She glanced at him, and at Gwen, and seemed to accept their roles in this situation. But when she looked at Jack she seemed less certain.
He had to be the one grilling her for information. Gwen and Ianto could be victim support, but he had to do the hard talking. He had to find out if she was a) Telling the truth, b) nuts or c) a spy in the camp.
“Ok,” he said. “First things first. How DID you know that Torchwood was here?”
“My brother told me all about you. He’s a…” She blushed in a rather charming way. Not that it especially appealed to Jack. Damsel in distress mode didn’t really turn him on. But Ianto was acting on it. He smiled encouragingly at her. “My brother is one of those ‘conspiracy theory’ types,” she admitted. “He believes all that x-files type stuff about aliens planning a major invasion of Earth. He searches the internet with a fine tooth comb for proof of his theories. And he found you people… Torchwood.”
Jack looked as if he was studying her carefully. But in fact he was studying the virtual VDU on the table in front of him. From her angle she would see nothing. From his, he could see a whole collection of data. One section was a mini-biography of Beth Turner of Riverside, Cardiff. Aged 24, dental assistant, one brother, Celyn, 26. another box scrolled through the missing persons report on Celyn. The police had nothing conclusive about his disappearance last weekend.
Jack was not surprised about that. He had some fixed thoughts about the efficiency of the police.
The other section was giving out readings from a very sophisticated lie detector. It was one of the more useful devices they had cherry picked from the alien junk that came their way. The subject didn’t have to be wired up to any device. They never knew they were being tested. And that, in Jack’s view, made the results far more reliable than when somebody KNEW they were being tested and could, with careful coaching, beat the machine.
So far, Beth at least BELIEVED she was telling the truth.
“Tosh,” he said down his discreet microphone-earpod communicator. “When you’ve got an hour to spare, do another sweep of the internet and wipe any references to Torchwood that aren’t referring to an aromatic plant that grows in Florida.” Toshiko’s answer was on the lines of “When do I get a spare hour” but he smiled and went on with the questioning of Beth Turner of Riverside.
“Ok, so am I to assume something HAS happened to your brother and you want us to find out which particular alien abducted him for experiments?”
“Yes,” she answered.
“What makes you think we do that?” he asked.
“You’re Team Torchwood. You’re our last defence against the evil of the universe. You protect the Human race from what lies out there beyond the skies.”
“Is there an animated series on Saturday morning?” Jack looked at his colleagues with a sardonic smile. They, too, had thought that sounded very glib and slogan-like as if somebody was trying to sell five inch action figures of them all.
“Ok,” he continued. “So assuming we ARE the people you think you’re looking for, now what? Why do you think your brother was taken by aliens?”
“He was always into that sort of thing,” she answered. “He told me if he ever disappeared it would be them. He said if he was got, I should come and find Torchwood and tell you.”
“So tell us,” Jack said. “What happened?”
Her story took a half hour. Jack was starting to wonder if he should have put as much sedative as he had into the amnesia pill dissolved in her tea. If she fell asleep before they had all the information it would be annoying. Especially when what she was telling him was so important.
“So…that’s it,” she said, stifling a yawn and a sob at the same time.” “He’s gone. And I think… I think he’s dead. And I really do think…”
She toppled forward slowly. Ianto reached her before she hit the table. He lifted her to her feet. She managed two more or less voluntary steps before she was completely asleep.
“I’ll look after her if it’s all right with you, sir,” Ianto said. “I’ll take her home.” He paused. “Permission to stay and make sure she’s ok when she wakes up….”
“Yeah, sure, Ianto,” Jack told him. “Off you go playing Good Samaritan.”
Ianto carried her up the pavement lift. He left her on the perception filtered paving stone while he went to get his car. He put her into the front passenger seat and fastened her seat belt.
“All right, Beth, love,” he said gently. “We’ll get you home right as rain.”
Toshiko watched his tender loving care of their witness on the cctv monitor overlooking Roald Dahl Plass.
“He’s being VERY attentive to her,” she said. “I wonder….”
“Wonder what?” Gwen asked.
“I think he’s interested in her.”
“Oh no!” Owen groaned. “Not Ianto and the conspiracy theory dental assistant. That would be the saddest relationship EVER.”
“No it wouldn’t,” Toshiko replied acidly. “It would be you and whoever you fooled into being your partner. Get on with your work.”
“You get on with yours.”
“Do I detect bickering in the ranks?” Jack said, looking over the workstations. “You know the drill. The one who started it cleans out Mfanwy’s nest.”
As if she knew her name was mentioned the pterodactyl flew across the ceiling and squawked. Owen turned to his monitor.
“You were right,” he said as he examined the results of the advanced polygraph. “She was telling the truth – or at least thought she was.”
“I think she WAS,” Gwen added. “Jack, look at this. I did a bit of research, following up what Beth told us. Celyn had something. He found out that a LOT of fit, healthy young men disappeared in the past three months. I checked the records and all of them worked in offices around Cardiff. Stockbrokers, lawyers, architects – and they all disappeared after the businesses they worked for booked team-strengthening adventure weekends. Celyn found out they ALL booked with THIS company and signed up for last weekend’s trip. He hasn’t been seen since. ”
Jack looked at the website that came up on the screen. He laughed hollowly. He had seen plenty of the sort. Cardiff was close enough to Brecon Beacons to sprout dozens of businesses like it, charging a few hundred pounds per person for ‘survival weekends’ trekking up the mountains, sleeping rough, eating iron rations, testing the ability of people who wore suits and worked in offices all week to be ‘real men’ at the weekend.
“Oh, look,” he remarked sarcastically. “The team leaders are both ex-SAS officers.”
“Yeah, right!” Owen laughed. “If I ever actually MET a genuine ex-SAS man…”
“I have,” Jack said. “The REAL ones don’t boast about it. They understand what discreet means. They don’t have websites with the regimental badge on the flash screen.”
“So you reckon these two are frauds then?” Gwen asked.
“Oh yeah,” Jack replied. “But that’s nothing. You could find another half dozen of these companies online and they’d all have an ‘ex-SAS’ man running them. That’s not the Scooby Doo mystery here. There’s something more.”
“What are we going to do?” Gwen asked.
“You and Rhys have any plans for this weekend?” Jack asked as he sat at the workstation and clicked on the link to the booking form.
“Rhys went off on the train this morning with Daff. Rugby International. England v Wales at Twickenham. If we win I wouldn’t expect him to even notice I exist until around Tuesday when the euphoria wears off.”
“Don’t you mean when the drink wears off,” Toshiko added with a smile of understanding from one woman to another about the male of the species and their habits.
“Whatever,” Jack interrupted. “Tell him your mobile will be out of range anyway. Team Torchwood are going on an adventure weekend with “Who Dares Enterprises”.
“You just booked it? Just like that?” Gwen asked. “For this weekend? Tomorrow?”
“Oh, joy,” Owen said, looking over his shoulder. “We have to be at Central Bus Station at 6 o’clock sharp for pickup.”
“Early night then, children,” Jack said with a grin.
Beth was still sleeping when they reached her house. Ianto drove his car in under her carport and carried her to the side door. He unlocked it with her own keys from her handbag and brought her inside.
“Here we are,” he said. “Home sweet home.” He glanced around her living room and then picked her up in his arms and carried her to the bedroom. She was still fast asleep. That drug Jack used would be a dangerous thing in the wrong hands. It made Rohypnol look like aspirin. Not only did it knock the victim out but it wiped at least twenty-four hours of their memory. Yes, determined minds could break through it. Gwen did. But mostly people didn’t know what had hit them.
It worried Ianto. What did it DO to people to wake up and find there was a day missing from their lives? It wasn’t fair. As much as he admitted the necessity of protecting Torchwood’s secrets, he hated having to do it this way.
“All right, pet,” he said as he gently pulled off her shoes and cardigan and put her to bed. He pulled the blankets around her and leaned over to kiss her gently on the cheek. “Sleep well, Beth.”
If he had been Jack or Owen, he would probably have stripped off and slipped into the bed beside her. He didn’t think they would go all the way while she was unconscious. The Rohypnol analogy coldly came to his mind, and for all their faults he didn’t think Jack or Owen would be such total bastards as that. But he could easily imagine either of them copping a feel or maybe fooling the girl in the morning into thinking they’d had sex and she couldn’t remember.
Or maybe he was being unfair to his colleagues. Jack, for all the mythology about his sexual conquests and the general mystery about him, was a kind man underneath it all. Owen was brash and a bit of a predator around women, but he had a caring side to him, too.
Even so, he didn’t think either of them, having put Beth to bed like this, would have then walked out of the room.
Of course, there were things he had to do. He opened the door to the other bedroom. The one occupied by the brother, Celyn. There was a very nice computer, with two external hard drives and all the add-ons and accessories. Ianto turned it on and waited for the Windows welcome screen and the password. Of course it WOULD be passworded. Beth had told them that Celyn was a conspiracy freak. But Windows passwords were the easiest in the world to crack. You didn’t even NEED the kind of specialist knowledge a Torchwood Team member had.
Conspiracy theorists! They all sniggered about them. But at the same time they took them seriously. Now and again they got it right. Torchwood kept an eye on what they thought was going on.
And generally they were left alone unless they actually touched on Torchwood itself. When that happened they tended to get accidents happening to their computers, hard drives suddenly getting corrupted beyond repair.
The two external hard drives here were easy enough to wipe. He left the internal drive of the computer alone though. He looked through it and mostly it contained a family album. The pictures told a bitter-sweet story that Ianto read with empathy and just a little guilt at prying into their private lives.
Beth and Celyn had lost their parents to a car accident when they were very young. They’d spent a lot of time shunted from foster home to foster home. Sometimes separated, sometimes together. When they were adults they had got this house together, under their joint names. Their first real home of their whole lives. They had been happy. Celyn was a bit of a loner, and Beth had not yet had a serious boyfriend who might find her brother living with her a problem. Or possibly that was WHY she hadn’t had a serious boyfriend. Either way, they looked out for each other. The pictures told a nice story of the two of them on holiday, at Christmas and New Year, with friends, birthdays.
And if she was right, if her brother WAS dead, then that nice life was over.
He turned off the computer and went back to the bedroom. He pulled up a big, squashy armchair and sat beside the bed as she slept. He felt responsible for her. He knew he wasn’t. But he felt as if he was.
“So, don’t tell me, you must be for the ‘Who Dares’ weekend?” Jack dropped his rucksack and looked around at a slab of meat in army surplus combats and heavy boots who addressed him.
“Yes, I am,” he answered. “My colleagues from the office should be here, presently. They are usually punctual.”
“Yeah,” Jack answered. He knew they were going to ask more questions, but the arrival of the rest of the Torchwood crew distracted him. The sight of Gwen and Tosh in combats was a distraction on its own. Semi-military clothing was never supposed to look like THAT.
“Hey!” Jack called to them all, smiling one of his toothpaste advert smiles that ought to have been augmented with a CGI twinkle. “You made it.”
The meat slab looked at the assembled crowd and went outside to where a minibus painted in military camouflage colours was waiting. He spoke to another meat slab who climbed out of the bus and came into the station. This one wore the insignia of an army captain on his army surplus gear. CAPTAIN Jack Harkness spotted a bullshitter right away.
“All right, you pussies, fall in,” Captain Meat Slab commanded. Jack sighed. He had HOPED he was wrong about the organisers of “Who Dares Enterprises” and that they WERE professional soldiers at some time in their careers. But that one phrase dispelled that hope. Only in Hollywood fiction did any drill sergeant use a stupid expression like “All right, you pussies, fall in!”
“I’m Captain Greg Hallam and this is Lieutenant Peter Griffin,” he continued as the Torchwood Team looked to Jack for orders as they were accustomed to doing. “We’re your platoon leaders for this weekend. When we say jump you jump. You got that?” Hallam’s eye fell on Gwen and Toshiko. “Say goodbye to your girlfriends now,” he said to Jack and Owen.
“These aren’t our girlfriends,” Jack answered. “They’re part of my team and they’re coming with us.”
“Fucking hell,” Griffin swore. “Sugarbabes on tour. Didn’t you read the fine print? This is an endurance course. We’re not going to wait for girlies to do their make up.”
“That’s ok,” Toshiko replied. “We’re not going to wait for you to do yours!”
“They’re on MY team,” Jack repeated. “And nobody has to wait for them to do anything.”
“Yeah, whatever,” Hallam said. “Get on the bus.”
Everyone picked up their bags and piled onto the rather old minibus. The Torchwood Team took over the back seat, putting a row of seats between them and Griffin and Hallam in the driver and front passenger seats. The mini-bus pulled out of Cardiff station and headed north-west towards the A470, leaving the city behind.
Jack had the strangest feeling that he was leaving a safe, familiar place for one that was anything but.
Ianto had dozed off now and again during the night, but the morning light saw him awake and alert and waiting for Beth to wake up in her bed. He had more or less worked out what he was going to say to her.
“Hello,” he said as she opened her eyes and looked around blearily at him. “How are you feeling now?”
“Like there’s a herd of elephants in my head,” she answered. “What did I drink and where and… who are you?”
“Ah, bless,” he said to her. “We were only talking ALL afternoon and most of the evening and now you’ve forgotten me? We met in Wetherspoons at lunchtime. You were looking really fed up and I bought you a drink and you told me all about your brother being missing. And I told you about my girlfriend who went missing in London after the Canary Wharf battle. And we had a couple more drinks to drown our sorrows, and then we found a quieter bar and had another drink, and you cried a bit and I cried a bit. And then we wandered around the city centre for hours trying to find some place your brother talked about. Touchstone or Touchdown or Touchwood or something. And we drew a total blank and decided that your brother had been watching too many episodes of the X-Files and went to another pub then a curry and another drink…. After that it started to get a bit of a blur for me, too. But I remember getting in a taxi and you managed to remember where you live, which was better than I could do at that point. And… tell you what, I’ve got coffee on in the kitchen. How about I bring you up a mug and maybe some of it will come back to you once you’ve got a hot drink inside you.”
She smiled weakly and said that would be nice. Ianto bounded downstairs and made two big mugs of fresh coffee. He brought them back to the bedroom and sat in the armchair again as she sat up in bed.
“I’m sorry,” she said as she sipped her coffee. “I still can’t remember your name. And you’ve been so kind to me.”
“Ianto,” he said. “Ianto Jones. I work in a tourist office down by the waterfront. I told you all about it yesterday evening, what a boring job it is and all.”
“You probably did,” she said. “I am SO sorry. I can just about remember going out of the house yesterday morning, thinking about that place I was going to find. Daft really. Should have known. Celyn is a dreamer. All that stuff about aliens and government cover ups. He…” She stopped. Her lip quivered and she looked as if she was going to cry again.
“I’m sorry,” Ianto said, honestly. “I wish I knew how to help. People disappear for all sort of reasons. Sometimes they turn up again. Sometimes…”
“Silly, selfish bastard,” Beth cried. “He was always doing stupid things. Never thinking that I’m here worrying about him. This is the DAFTEST yet though.”
“Hey,” Ianto moved closer and put his arm around her. She cried softly for a little while.
“You were here all night,” she said. “On the chair there. You didn’t…” She looked at him. “I can hardly believe that. A real gentleman in this day and age.”
“My boss has a saying. There’s a time and a place. This was neither.” He hugged her close and let her cry some more. She was entitled to do that. Chances were she would never know the truth about her brother. But her grief was real and she needed an outlet for it.
He was happy to be there to provide the outlet.
“Ok,” Hallam said as the minibus came to a stop in the car and coach park. “This is the end of the cushy lifestyle for the next 48 hours.”
“Cushy?” Owen remarked, wriggling his backside on the not too comfortable seat and wondered how the girls still managed to look cool and together and not a hair out of place after being jerked around in the minibus from hell for an hour and a half.
“We have a twenty mile trek across Brecon before we camp tonight,” Hallam continued. “Tomorrow it’s another twenty miles. Any pussies who can’t hack it get left where they fall. And if you’re lucky we’ll call the rescue services to collect you when we get back. And before we start you will fill in and sign these.” He walked up the bus and passed out legal looking pages. They turned out to be disclaimers absolving the company from liability for any injury or death.
“You can’t expect us to sign THIS,” Owen protested. “You ARE liable for our safety. We’ve paid good money for this trip. We expect to be protected.”
“Sign the fucking form or start walking back to Cardiff,” Hallam answered.
They signed. Jack looked at the box that asked for a next of kin and then drew a line through it. It didn’t matter anyway. He wasn’t going to die on Brecon Beacons. He wasn’t sure when, how or where he WOULD finally die, but he knew it wouldn’t be there.
“So, you’re the orphan of this group?” Hallam said as he glanced at his form. “Nobody cares if you live or die?”
“I care,” Jack replied with a firmness in his voice that made Hallam turn away from him without further comment.
Ianto was still at Beth’s house. He had meant to go after breakfast, but somehow the morning had passed and it was lunchtime. After lunch they just talked again and before he knew it the afternoon had gone by. He had learnt a lot about Beth’s family already last night, but now he listened again as she told it from HER point of view.
“I wish he’d just phone,” she sighed. “That’s what makes me so sure he’s dead. I’m sure he would phone if he could.”
“You’ve tried his number? His mobile?” Ianto asked.
“Yes. I keep getting the number not available message. I’ve left dozens of voicemails. If he is alive he’ll think I’m bonkers, calling so often.”
“No, he’ll think you’re a great sister who cares about him.”
“You think?” She smiled. “I think it's a shame you haven’t got a sister or brother you can talk to. You’re a great listener. It’s been nice.”
“I ought to go,” he said.
“Don’t yet. I’ll cook supper. Do you like lasagne?”
“Yes. I love it.”
Twenty miles, mostly uphill. At a killing pace set by Hallam and Griffin. Everybody was determined to keep up and not complain, but the rest periods had been far too few and everyone was exhausted beyond all endurance when they were finally told they could pitch their tents.
“Remind me why we signed up for this,” Owen said to Jack as they put up their two man tent together and watched as the girls actually did the same quicker and more efficiently and then sauntered off to the spring to fetch water for tea.
“We wanted to prove we had stamina and endurance,” Jack answered, knowing that Hallam and Griffin were both near by.
“Ah, is that what it was. Nothing to do with being cocky bastards who think we can do anything?”
“Could be that,” Jack answered. “For what it's worth, I think we’ve all done ok.”
“Speak for yourself. I’m bloody exhausted,” Owen answered. “It’s all right for you with your military training… whatever it was.”
Jack smiled. They had all tried leading questions like that for as long as they’d been a team. He never rose to them. There were tales he could tell if he could. Sometimes he wished he COULD tell them. But it was better to keep SOME things quiet.
“So,” Hallam stood over the two of them blocking the sunlight and Jack wondered if he had heard the comment about military training – and then wondered why it mattered if he had. “Which of the sugarbabes do you shag?”
“Neither,” Jack answered. Owen said the same.
“You faggots then?” Hallam added. “Can’t think why you wouldn’t have had one of them otherwise.”
“I’m their boss, and I don’t take advantage of my position,” Jack answered. “The rest is none of your business.”
“I reckon they’re both lesbos anyway,” Hallam said. “Wouldn’t be worth the effort.”
“Oi,” Owen replied, standing and facing up to him. Jack stood too, a hand on Owen’s shoulder. “One more word like that and I’ll smash your fucking face in.”
“Yeah, when you’re hard enough!” Hallam laughed.
“I’m hard enough,” Owen answered.
“You’re not worth the effort, either,” Hallam said, turning away from him.
“What the hell was that about?” Owen asked when he was out of earshot. “I thought I was going to get flattened. Couldn’t stick one more piece of crap from him but I was sure he was going to paste me!”
“That guy is a SCUMBAG,” Jack said. “A bully and a misogynist as well as a liar. He’s never been in any military organisation. He’s certainly not SAS. His set up is a fraud.”
“How can you tell?” Owen asked.
“Well, for one thing…” Jack pulled up the sleeve of his combat jacket. Underneath he wore the wide leather wristlet with miniaturised scanner and GPS and various other useful gadgets that Owen had never thought to ask about. It was as much a part of Jack as that toothpaste smile and the eyes that looked as if they could bore into your soul. “See this.” Owen looked at what looked like a mini-pacman game to anyone sad enough to make such a comparison. He recognised it as a smaller version of the sort of monitors they had back at the hub.
“Lifesigns detector?” Owen noted the two blips that must be himself and Jack, standing close together, and he saw two moving ones that were the girls coming back from the spring. They were all a pale blue colour.
“Pale blue is Human lifesign,” Jack said. “This gadget is smart enough to differentiate species.”
“Those two are RED.” Owen looked at the representations of Hallam and Griffin.
“That’s how I know they’re not SAS. Aliens don’t usually pass the selection.”
“They’re fucking aliens?”
“And we’re alone on a bloody mountain with them.”
“Stay cool,” Jack told him. “Until we know what their game is, at least.”
“Can I at least get my gun out of my backpack?” Owen asked.
“Yes,” Jack told him. “Keep it concealed though. I’ll tell the girls.” He looked around for them. “Where are they?”
“They went up around those rocks,” Owen said, pointing to an outcrop some thirty yards from where they were.
“Why?” Jack asked.
“Because they’re girls and they’re not going to take a piss in front of us, let alone a pair of wankers who call them ‘sugarbabes’.”
“Good point,” Jack conceded. “Well, it's as good a place for a quiet chat with them as any. Let’s be prepared to avert our eyes, though.”
As it happened, the girls were not doing anything that would embarrass their male colleagues. They were standing there, staring at thin air.
“Hey, what’s happening?” Jack asked them as he stepped up and put his arms around their shoulders.
“Jack,” Gwen said, turning slowly. “You know when Suzie went off the rails and you were on the pavement lift and she told me that perception filters don’t work when you’ve been around them for a long time and know all about them…”
Jack vaguely remembered Suzie saying that a fraction of a second before she shot him in the brain. He wondered why she brought that up now.
“Look closely here,” she said, pointing at what still seemed to be fresh air. “Tell me what you see.”
“I don’t see anything,” he answered. Just more bloody mountain.”
“Wait a minute,” Owen said. “She’s right. Concentrate, Jack.”
Jack concentrated, and felt like a bloody fool when it came into his vision. After all, he had more experience of perception filters than anyone else on this planet.
Ianto enjoyed the lasagne. He genuinely enjoyed Beth’s company. She was cheerful through the meal, only occasionally looking around the room at things that belonged to her brother and sighing. When she looked HIS way, she smiled. He was glad of that. She had a nice smile. And having somebody smile that way AT him was something that hadn’t happened for a while. He was happy to be smiled at that way.
You’re here in the line of duty, he reminded himself now and again. This isn’t social.
“Bloody well feels social,” Ianto told himself. “And it’s nice. I spend my days cleaning up crap and covering up filth. Surely I’m allowed something NICE in my life for once.”
“Ianto,” Beth said in a quiet voice. “If I asked you something, would you not think bad of me. This isn’t something I do ALL the time. I’m not a slag or anything. But… would you stay the night again… only this time… not on the chair.”
“You think I’d be more comfortable on the sofa downstairs?” he joked. She laughed and there was a genuine twinkle in her eyes.
“No, silly,” she answered, reaching out her hand to him. A moment later she had her arms around his neck and they were kissing. Ianto told that part of himself that was being boring about ‘duty’ to go screw himself.
“It’s a bloody alien ship,” Jack said. “Hidden up here on the bloody mountain.”
“Who by?” Toshiko asked. “And why?”
“By Slab and Grue,” Owen said. “Jack says they’re aliens.”
“I’ll take Jack’s word for it,” Gwen said. “But.”
“Tosh and Owen, go back to camp and make out like Gwen and I have gone for a…. you know… a ‘romantic’ wander. It’ll appeal to their filthy minds.” He walked up to the entrance hatch and began working out how to open it. “Keep your guns where you can reach them. If you have any reason to think you’re in immediate danger, shoot. Don’t hesitate.”
“Are they going to be ok?” Gwen asked as the two of them did as Jack asked. She noted the way they clasped hands. It was probably so that it looked convincing the way Jack suggested – that they had made two couples – but she wasn’t sure it wasn’t PARTLY because they wanted to offer each other a little comfort as they went back to make campfire conversation with two aliens who made people disappear.
“I had to make a judgement call,” Jack answered as he heard a satisfactory click inside the door mechanism. “I don’t know if we’re any safer here.”
“You kept me with you because I’m the least experienced…”
“Gwen, you’ve got to get that chip off your shoulder one day. You’re one of the team. You might not have faced down so many ugly bastards with nostrils in their forehead and fangs growing out of both mouths, but you have your own experiences to bring to the team. You were a smart copper before we got you. Tosh and Owen were just a pair of techno geeks. Me….” He stopped and looked at her. “Well, I’ve been around. You know that. But that doesn’t make me MUCH smarter than the rest of you.”
“Ugghh!” Gwen had forgotten her question as they stepped inside the alien ship. There was a smell that assailed them both that drove anything else from their minds. They both knew what it was. Gwen was reminded of a time when she went into a house where an old woman hadn’t been seen for a while and the mail was piling up behind the door. They found her in the living room, sitting in her chair, decaying.
The smell of rotting Human flesh was a distinct smell. One Jack could differentiate from rotting flesh of several other species. But they ALL turned his stomach.
“Messy eaters,” he said as he opened the bulkhead door where the smell was strongest. He stepped back as the bodies fell out.
Seven bodies. All in different stages of decay.
All with the brain missing and a hole in the back of the skull where it had been scooped out.
Gwen looked at the freshest one. She recoiled from touching where brain tissue and bone and flesh was still raw. But she turned the body over and looked at the face.
“I think this is Beth’s brother,” she said. “He looks like her a lot.”
“Yeah,” Jack answered. He looked as if he was staying calm about it. But when Gwen went to him and touched his arm he was trembling and a vein in his neck seemed to throb. “Let’s get back to the others,” he said. Again very calmly. But only because he was holding in what he really felt.
The air was fresher outside. But they were walking back towards two alien murderers who they had left their friends with. Both dreaded what they might find.
“Hey, lovebirds,” Owen said as they reached the campfire. “Tea’s hot.” He poured hot, well stewed tea from a jerry can boiling on the fire into metal cups and offered them to Gwen and Jack.
“I was never a boy scout,” Jack said as he looked around at Hallam and Griffin sitting on the other side of the fire, at Tosh sticking close to Owen, something she didn’t usually want to do, and Owen absently rubbing his hand over his lower back where his gun was concealed beneath the combat top. “But I am sure there are things people are supposed to do around a camp fire.”
“What, like toast marshmallows and sing songs?” Hallam laughed. “This isn’t kiddy camp. This is real life.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Jack drawled lazily. A flicker of his eyes towards his team-mates had them all tensing and checking their concealed weapons. “I think it could be time for truth or dare. Like… truth… what species are you and what planet were you born on?”
“Well,” Owen answered. “I’m definitely Human and I was born on Earth.”
“Usually I would challenge you on that, Owen,” Toshiko answered him. “Your eyes are definitely set a bit close together.”
“But that’s still within the normal parameters for a Human,” Gwen added, teasing him. “Heading towards the freakish, but still Human.” She turned to Jack. “How about you, Captain?”
“100% Human,” he replied, though he didn’t specify the planet of his birth. “And how about you two?” He looked at his wristlet then at Hallam and Griffin. “Nope. Totally wrong chemical make up for Human. You’re solid alien, whatever you are. Not one of those seven foot green bastards in Human skin suits. They’d be a different chemical make up again. Nope. You’re definitely NEW aliens as far as I’m concerned. And THAT’S saying something. Because I’ve met them all in my time.” As he spoke, with a disarmingly hypnotic voice he was moving around behind Hallam and Griffin. Owen took his lead and reached quietly for his gun. So did Gwen and Toshiko. Jack nodded his head and grabbed both men by the neck, pressing down on pressure points that should, assuming their alien physiology was not MUCH different from Human, cause them a certain amount of paralysis of the limbs and as much pain as he felt like inflicting. The other three stood and pointed their guns at the two alien heads.
“Yuk,” Toshiko commented as they all watched the Human faces change in an instant to snarling fangs and huge red eyeballs bulging from the sockets.
“Still not sure about the species,” Jack said. “But we’ve definitely got the truth bit out of the way. So let me guess the rest. You bring people up here on your adventure treks and they become supper?”
“Why bother?” Owen asked. “Cardiff has its share of derelicts and Big Issue sellers and sad wankers with dogs on a piece of string that you could have if that’s all it's about.”
“We do not just seek MEAT,” the alien formerly known as Hallam retorted. “We seek knowledge. We seek strength. We take the BEST. We devour the brains and gain their knowledge, their skills.”
“Of course,” Toshiko said. “Look at the sort of people who sign up for these kind of weekends. Executives “team building” – architects, stockbrokers, lawyers.”
“So you EAT the best of the group?” Gwen tried not to be sick as she looked at the alien faces. “That’s what trawling up the mountain is about? To pick the best?”
“So why don’t the others complain when they get back?”
“Good question, Tosh,” Jack said. “I know this is all boring exposition and the longer we all stand here listening to you the more time you have to figure out a way to kill us all, but humour us. HOW is it that the stockbrokers and lawyers and architects don’t call the police when they get back home.”
“We use THIS,” Hallam said, reaching for his pocket.
“Watch it chum,” Owen said. “Keep those hands where we can see them.” He reached into the pocket and extracted the alien object Hallam had been going for. It looked like a sleek, streamlined torch with lots of buttons on the side. As he examined it, Tosh and Gwen moved closer, their guns steady in their hands, fingers on the triggers, ready to fire at the slightest sign of trouble.
“Wow!” Owen said enthusiastically. “This looks like…. Hey, Jack, we can USE this. It’s a memory modifier. You know, same principle as the one in Men in Black. A REAL memory modifier.”
“As easy as that?” Jack whistled. “You just make the others think the victim was never with them on the trek, maybe make them think he’s taken leave from work. And…” He remembered the forms they filled in. “I’d be the one, wouldn’t I? The one with no next of kin. The one nobody would ask questions about. You were going to EAT MY BRAIN!”
“YES!” Hallam snarled.
“But what happened with Beth’s brother then? HE had HER as his next of kin.”
“He was a conspiracy theorist,” Jack remembered with a sad sigh. “Those sort never fill in questions like that. He would be too obsessed with MI5 using it to build a profile on him. He left the form blank and they ATE him.”
“Poor Beth,” Gwen said.
“Owen, Tosh,” Jack spoke very calmly and quietly. “Come either side of me here. Keep your guns on these two bastards.” They did so without question. Nor did they question when Jack told them to press the barrels of their guns against a certain place in the back of the two alien necks.
“Fire,” he said, still calmly and quietly. Neither thought twice about it. They fired. Jack felt alien blood spatter his hands and he felt the muscles he was pressing down on spasm once and then relax as the bodies collapsed.
“Good work,” he added.
“You killed them?” Gwen looked down at the bleeding bodies. “Just like that… executed…”
“Yes,” Jack told her. “Gwen, we’ll have the discussion about what makes us judge, jury and executioner of alien scum that murders innocent people over coffee back at the hub. It’s too bloody cold up here for philosophy.”
Gwen was about to reply to that when a shout cut the air and they heard the ring of rifles being cocked.
“British Army, drop your weapons.”
Jack turned slowly and took in the six man squad of camouflaged soldiers that surrounded them. Beside him his team gripped their weapons tightly and he himself took a firm double handed hold and pointed his at the one wearing captain’s pips on his shoulder.
“Torchwood,” he answered. “YOU lower your weapons and stand down.”
“DROP your weapons, hands on heads,” the Captain replied.
“TORCHWOOD!” Jack insisted. “If you don’t know who we are, then get on your radio right now and find somebody who does.”
The captain kept eye contact with Jack but he nodded slightly to his sergeant who spoke into his radio quickly before moving forward and speaking quietly to his superior officer.
“Who were they? And where did they go?” Owen asked as the sound of the army helicopter died away, leaving them alone at the top of the mountain again.
“THAT, was the SAS,” Jack answered. “There you go, Owen. Now you’ve met the real thing.”
“They could have given us a lift,” Toshiko said. “I’m all for discussing the moral implications of our action back at the Hub. But we’re still a twenty mile WALK even from that horrible minibus.”
All their hearts sank as she said that. They looked at the tents and the camp fire. Getting a night’s sleep and setting off first thing in the morning seemed like the best option.
“No,” Jack said. “I want to get this wrapped up tonight. Owen, help me get these two bodies into the ship. We left the door open. It shouldn’t smell as bad as it did, and we MAY be able to seal off the cockpit.”
“Are you saying you can FLY that?” Toshiko asked him.
Jack didn’t reply. The others did what he told them. The smell of decayed flesh was repulsive, but they had ALL at some time dealt with death in its worst aspects, and the promise of NOT having to spend the night on a mountain and then walk down it in the morning made them inclined to endure the unpleasantness.
It made them disinclined to talk much in the course of the journey back to Cardiff by cloaked space ship. Owen was absorbed in his examination of the memory modifier and wondering where he could get some test subjects. Toshiko and Gwen spent the time examining the bodies and collecting identification from them. Gwen insisted on doing that. She talked about bringing closure to the families of the missing men.
“No families are going to see THOSE bodies,” Jack told her as he landed the craft in the middle of Roald Dahl Plass. “After we get out I’m setting this to take off again and explode outside Earth’s atmosphere. Aliens and victims alike will be vapourised.”
“So Beth and the others will never know if their loved ones are alive or dead?”
Jack again said nothing. He did what he said he was going to do. They watched from beside the fountain as Jack ran from the ship and joined them. They felt a slight vibration and air displacement. He heard the noise as the ship took off. That was all they knew of it. They could only assume that it DID blow up outside the atmosphere as Jack said it would.
“Jack,” Gwen said as they drank coffee together in the familiar comfort of the Hub. She had Celyn Turner’s driving licence in her hands. “Are you sure there’s nothing we can do? You have those bodies in cold storage. You could arrange something…”
“You know it’s NOT our job to do things like that,” he told her. “Getting rid of alien predators that threaten humanity is our main remit. We’ve done that. And we’ve got the memory modifier as a nice souvenir. The rest isn’t our business.” He glanced at her. She had an expression in those big dark eyes of hers that made him feel like he’d just kicked a puppy. He sighed. “No promises,” he said.
Ianto and Beth were both fast asleep when a loud knocking at the door disturbed their Sunday morning lie in. They both stirred, but Ianto reached the window first.
“It’s the police, love,” he said. He recognised Gwen in her old PC uniform and Owen in one that must have come from a fancy dress shop.
“It must be about Celyn.” Beth looked fearful as she began to pull on her clothes. Ianto opened the window and shouted down to wait a few moments. Their expressions registered no surprise at his presence.
“Miss Bethan Turner?” Gwen said politely as they stepped inside. “I’m Sergeant Cooper. This is PC Harper. I’m afraid we have some bad news.”
Beth turned to Ianto. He put his arm around her shoulder and brought her through to the drawing room. Gwen and Owen followed. They informed Beth that a body had been found in a car wreckage. Owen showed her a partially burnt library card and other contents of Celyn’s wallet.
“Can I see him?” she asked.
“You can view the body at the morgue,” Owen told her. “But I have to warn you. It will be a shock. The body is badly burnt.”
“I have to see him,” she insisted.
“I’ll come with you, love,” Ianto promised. “I’ll see you through this.”
“You’re a good man, Ianto,” she told him, kissing his cheek. “Thank you for looking after me these past few days.”
“Least I can do, pet,” he said. “Come on, you get your coat. I’ll make sure the house is locked up tight then we’ll be ready to go with these officers.” He glanced at Gwen and Owen and they nodded to him imperceptibly.
“Beth’s brother IS dead then?” Ianto said as he brought mid-morning coffee to the team the next day and sat with them.
“He is,” Jack answered. “But… let’s just say the body we substituted was pretty in comparison.”
“She’s very cut up about it.”
“Of course she is,” Gwen said. “But she’ll get over it in time. And you’re taking care of her meanwhile.”
“Ianto…” Tosh began. “Do you… I mean…”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “At the moment, I’m just helping her through losing her brother. If it DOES become more… It won’t compromise Torchwood. Any more than Gwen living with Rhys does. You have my word on that.”
“If it looks like it might, you will have to break it off,” Jack told him.
“I understand that, sir. But… I just…”
“We’ll play it by ear,” Jack promised. “Come and talk to me if anything about the situation worries you. Otherwise… I wish you luck. I hope it works out for you.”
Ianto looked at Jack. He nodded quietly and drank his coffee and thought about heading up to Riverside to see Beth after his work was done tonight.