The lights of Pembroke glowed in the distance. It was only about a mile, a mile and a half, the man reasoned. He had once done a swimathon. That was three miles. Ok, it was back and forwards in a heated swimming pool, not the Irish Sea on a cold April night. But even so…
He jumped, using the feet first technique he learnt at school, twenty years ago, when he got whatever level of swimming badge it was where you jumped into the deep end wearing pyjamas. As he fell through the air, towards the dark water, flashes of movie dialogue came into his mind from about three different versions of the Titanic’s tragic story. When you hit the water, each of the films had managed to convey, you had to swim as fast as you can to avoid being dragged under the sinking ship.
The ship wasn’t sinking. But he kept what seemed like very good advice in the forefront of his mind as the shock of hitting the water drove everything else from it. He panicked slightly as he sank down in the cold, dark sea before he felt himself rising up again through natural buoyancy. He was still alive when his head broke the surface again. He gasped as a wave hit him in the face and filled his nose and mouth with cold salt water. But he was STILL alive. He struck out with a strong front crawl and swam towards those lights.
He WAS alive. And that was more than he could say for certain about everyone else on the boat he was swimming away from.
It was only six o’clock. Nobody else was in the Hub. They wouldn’t be due in for another two and a half hours. Even Ianto was home. Jack was already at his desk. He had slept only a few hours, as always, and then showered and dressed and spent the quiet hours working, thinking, sometimes not working or not thinking, but looking at the accumulated memorabilia on the desk. Memories of a life longer than his youngish forty-ish face betrayed. His hand stroked some of the pieces of what some people might account junk tenderly. He sighed, not exactly unhappily, but in a yearning way as if the life he was living in this here and now was NOT his first choice.
The phone rang and he snapped his mind back to the here and now that was the only choice he had.
It was DCI Swanson, but she was only tetchily passing on a message that was passed to her from the police in Pembroke, who had been asked to interview a patient who had been brought into the emergency hospital at Haverfordwest. Somebody had realised that he was not talking nonsense, but was talking about something that called for Torchwood’s specialist knowledge.
He ended the call from Gloria and then pressed the first speed dial preset that reached the team. Owen carried on brushing his teeth as he listened to Jack telling him he would pick him up on the way. Gwen was already in her car and on her way in to work. Jack told her to head to Haverfordwest instead. Toshiko and Ianto could man the office for the morning while the three of them contained this situation. Ianto had a head cold and probably wouldn’t feel like an hour and a half drive this early in the morning. Toshiko was still in the middle of compiling a computer programme she had designed to map occurrences of the psychic energy of people with natural ESP in the city. Or so she hoped. Jack was half sure it was going to just interfere with satellite TV and annoy all the dogs in a twenty mile radius, but he was prepared to be proved wrong.
Gwen’s Saab, against all odds, and in defiance of the rules of motoring journalism, got to the hospital before the custom made SUV, even using the gadget on the dashboard that made all the red lights turn green ahead. She was waiting in the car park and they went into the hospital together to be met by the consultant who was treating the patient, and the officer from Pembroke police who had decided this was above and beyond his remit. Both seemed intrigued just to meet three of the fabled Torchwood people.
“We put him in isolation because he was so very agitated,” the consultant said. “There’s not a lot physically wrong with him except exhaustion and a little hypothermia but he is so overwrought about what he says happened to him.”
“What DOES he say happen to him?” Gwen asked as the consultant held open the door to the private ward. The patient was quiet for the moment, lying in the bed wearing a hospital gown. He was awake and staring at the ceiling with wide open eyes of somebody who probably needed sleep more than anything else, but was holding onto his consciousness and his sanity for dear life.
Owen went into doctor mode and went straight for the patient’s chart, which told him just about as much as the consultant had just told them. Gwen went to the bedside, slipping into her WPC looking after lost children tone of voice as she spoke to him.
“Hello,” she said. “Can you tell me your name?”
“His name is Stephen Moore, from Dublin, and he’s a journalist,” Jack said as he examined the patient’s personal effects. “Let’s cut through the small talk, here. You write for the Evening Herald? That’s Ireland’s equivalent of the Sunday Sport isn’t it? Tabloid journalism with a blatant disregard for truth?”
“I… never… said… I was a GOOD journalist,” the man said, his voice shaking.
“Fair enough,” Jack conceded. “So what happened to you that requires our expertise?”
“You’re experts on this?” Stephen Moore asked.
“Well, I don’t know yet,” Jack answered. “Tell us your story and we’ll decide if it’s in our remit or if this is just your way of getting a sensational story for your rag.”
“I was a passenger on the overnight ferry from Rosslare. Everything was normal. Rugby fans getting pissed in the bar, kids running all over the place, parents ignoring them. I was up on deck having a smoke. I could see the lights of the town, the harbour. Nearly there. Then… the boat stopped. The engines were still going but the boat stopped. It hadn’t weighed anchor or anything. It had stopped because something was holding onto it. Like a…. a…” He looked at Jack and Gwen. “Look, I know how this sounds. And I don’t want to get sectioned for delusions. But the boat was held in a tractor beam.”
“A…” Gwen looked at him quizzically. “By tractor beam you mean what they use in Star Trek to tow other spaceships?”
“Yes,” Stephen answered her. “That’s exactly it. Just like that. It was a whitish blue beam of light and it was shining down from the sky. I couldn’t see a space ship, but the tractor beam was there. And then people started disappearing. All the other smokers and a couple of deckhands just got sucked up in the beam. And I could hear people screaming and shouting inside. And…and… I was scared. I didn’t want to be kidnapped by aliens. And I didn’t want to die. I’m a good swimmer. I keep fit. I thought I might stand a chance in the water.”
“You did the right thing,” Gwen assured him soothingly. She looked at Jack who was holding what looked like a small Geiger counter and was scanning Stephen Moore with it. One of its functions DID check for various forms of radiation. But it was also a handy portable lie detector. Jack’s face was inscrutable, though. She couldn’t tell if he believed the story or not. “Is there anything else you can tell us, Mr Moore?” she asked gently. “Did you see an alien at any time?”
“You believe it WAS aliens?” he asked, surprised by that. “Thank God for THAT at least. I thought… I thought they’d think I was mad.”
“No, you’re not mad,” Gwen assured him. “In fact you…” But then she saw Jack give an almost imperceptible shake of the head and Owen came forward. He had a small gadget hidden in the palm of his hand that they had been planning to test on subjects.
“All right, Mr Moore,” Owen said in a gentle voice that proved once again, that whatever else he might be, he WAS a good doctor who cared for the well-being of his patients. He put his hand on Stephen Moore’s forehead, pressing the gadget against his flesh. At once, Stephen became calmer, quieter and his eyes had a less hunted look, his mouth stopped quivering. Slowly, he closed his eyes and dropped into a REM sleep.
“It makes a good soother,” he said. “Dropped off like a baby. But we don’t know if it’s as good as Retcon for blanking out the memories.”
“So IS he telling the truth?” Gwen asked as she turned to Jack. He was going through Stephen Moore’s personal effects. A mobile phone and MP3 player that would never work again. Likewise the computer memory stick. His wallet contained an Allied Irish Bank Credit card, his press ID card, soggy lumps of what used to be currency, Irish euros and sterling, and a ticket made of glossy paper that had survived slightly better than the currency that showed him to have been a passenger on the 2.45 Irish Ferries crossing from Rosslare to Pembroke.
“He thinks he is,” Jack answered. “But then so do most delusional people. Then again, really good actors can also fool a basic lie detector. And a journalist is pretty good at talking like he believes his own bullshit, too.”
“Why are you sceptical?” Gwen continued. “We’re Torchwood. We KNOW there ARE aliens out there. Why didn’t you want me to tell him we believe him?”
“He’s a tabloid journalist. The worst sort of nosy bastard there is. I’m not saying he isn’t telling the truth. But I DON’T want him to know that.”
Gwen saw the logic in that. But she still felt sorry for Stephen Moore and said so.
“That’s because you’re a big softy, Gwen Cooper,” Jack answered her with an indulgent smile. “You were born to be a kind-faced WPC looking after the lost kiddies and bewildered old folk.”
“Fuck off, Jack,” she answered him. “Don’t be so bloody patronising. Even when I WAS an ordinary copper I did more than just lost kiddies and you know it. But is there any rule that says we can’t have a little compassion even if we ARE Torchwood?”
“None at all,” Jack responded. “So keep on being you and don’t lose the compassion. And don’t lose that fierce streak that tells me to fuck off when I deserve it, either. Now, let’s get back to business….”
Business got right back to them at that precise moment. The police officer rushed into the ward. He was still talking on his radio and when he was finished he reported to Jack that the ferry had been found.
“Where?” Jack demanded. “Get us there, ASAP.”
A coastguard helicopter landed on the air ambulance helipad and picked them up ‘ASAP’. As they flew out over the sea the coastguard filled them in on the details as far as they knew them. The Irish Ferries 2.45 sailing from Rosslare was due in at 6.30. The pilot boat reported its non-arrival at the usual offshore rendezvous point at 5.45 and the coastguard had launched a search while Irish Ferries changed their boards and prepared to tell passengers for the 8.45 return sailing to expect delays. There had been no Mayday from the ferry. It just never turned up.
“Well, that confirms Mr Moore’s story,” Gwen pointed out.
“It proves something was wrong with the ferry,” Jack corrected her. “It doesn’t prove it was aliens. He MIGHT just have panicked and jumped overboard in the middle of an ordinary engine failure.”
“But if it was ordinary engine failure they could have sent a Mayday,” Gwen argued. The scepticism WAS unusual from Jack. WAS it just because their only witness was a tabloid journalist? Well, anyway, they’d know more when they reached the ferry.
It was not far off its proper course for Pembroke, but far enough for it to take this long for the coastguards to locate it. It had drifted, apparently without anyone in control, until it had run aground on the tiny, uninhabited bird sanctuary off the Pembrokeshire coast, named centuries ago by the Vikings as Skokholm. Even the most ardent Welsh nationalist couldn’t quite erase that foreign influence. It’s welsh name was Ynys Sgoc-holm. In both cases it meant wooded island and its population was mainly puffins.
What it didn’t have, usually, was a berth for a huge cruise ferry. It had simply got stuck in the shallows and tilted about twenty degrees.
The Pembroke lifeboat and two of its air-sea rescue helicopters were working hard to take off the remaining passengers as the Torchwood team landed on the tilted deck by rope ladder. There WAS a helipad on the ferry, but the coastguard said he couldn’t land while it was at that angle. Gwen blanched at the idea, but said she would go first. She had chosen to wear a skirt to work this morning and she insisted she wasn’t going to have Jack or Owen looking at her knickers as they descended even if they promised on their mother’s lives not to peek.
“I don’t even know if EITHER of you HAVE a mother,” she added as she dropped down, deciding straight away that climbing out of a helicopter on a rope ladder was not something she would ever enjoy.
She kept her footing as she reached the deck, anyway, and made her way to the rail to wait for the others. She watched the passengers being put into the lifeboat and noticed something quite obvious about them.
“So yer man was wrong about them all being abducted by aliens?” Owen said as he joined her at the rail.
“No,” Gwen answered. “I think he was ALMOST right. Don’t you see? They’re all children and babies. And there’s only about thirty of them. Where are the adults? A ferry like this would have hundreds of lorry drivers on board, coach drivers, as well as holiday families. There are LOADS of people missing. They took the adults and left the kids.”
“Poor kiddies,” Owen commented as a small baby, wrapped in blankets and a baby lifejacket, was passed down safely into the lifeboat. “They must be bloody scared. Yes, I do have a mother. And I remember when I was about eight, I lost her on the beach. I’d gone for an ice cream and got disorientated about where she was sitting and I was so scared. Even if it only lasted about five minutes. I still remember being THAT scared that I couldn’t find my mum.”
“Why don’t you take that gadget and make them less scared,” Gwen suggested. “Me and Jack can look around the ship. Or is it a boat? Can you remember what the difference is?”
Jack thought that was a good idea, too. So Owen went to take a place in the lifeboat. He carried one of the babies on his knee and two of the youngsters sat near to him, as if reassured by his presence.
“Owen the Gentle is too scary,” Jack commented. “We need to give him a chance to be his true cynical self again.”
“Oh, don’t,” Gwen protested. But Jack just winked at her and set off towards the tilted door to the Upper Saloon deck where they walked through the ice cream parlour and O’Flaherty’s pub. Both were empty. Both looked as if there had been no obvious struggle. There were broken glasses on the floor but that was because the boat had run aground and tilted. Other than that it looked as if everyone had disappeared more or less instantly. The same was true in the Turlough tea bar and the alcohol free Kilronan Motorist’s Lounge.
“Marie Celeste?” Gwen said. “Except the kids are ok.”
“Hmmm,” Jack commented. He was using that same radiation detector again and eying the results critically.
“Ok, so what have we got?” Gwen asked after he had been silently scanning the room for long enough.
“The journalist was telling the truth. There are residual particles in the air here that suggest a powerful transmat beam was used.”
“Transmat?” Gwen was the one looking sceptical now. “Tractor beams and now transmat? Beam me up, Scotty?”
“Yes,” Jack answered her unasked question. “Those things DO exist. Extra-terrestrials have them. Transmats are bloody awful. At best you feel travel sick. At worst it knocks you out for an hour and you take twenty minutes remembering who you are and where you are and why the fuck you wanted to be there in such a hurry.”
“I never know when you’re making it all up,” Gwen said. “You can’t have REALLY…”
“I think you’re right,” Jack answered. “We’re the ones who know that it’s all out there. We shouldn’t be sceptical.”
“Just bloody hypocrites,” Gwen responded. “It’s ok for you not to believe that poor man in hospital, but if I think one of YOUR stories is far-fetched…”
Jack said nothing. He was striding off towards the stairs again, heading to the top deck where he could get access to the bridge. Gwen followed him for want of anything else to do. Her whole purpose here so far seemed to have been to hold Jack’s PDA while he was using the radiation detector. She would have been more use in the lifeboat with Owen. Except that would have been WPC Cooper and the lost kiddies again. Even if she wasn’t doing anything useful she was at least at the sharp end of the investigation, she told herself.
She kept telling herself that when Jack thrust the PDA at her again and told her to write down a long series of co-ordinates and data that he read from the ships navigational computer. That done, he seemed satisfied that their work here was complete.
They were heading back through the motorist’s lounge when Gwen heard the first Human sound they had heard since they boarded the empty ship. It was coming from behind the bank of electronic fruit machines and computer games that continued to play their annoying jingles. She went cautiously, Jack was behind her, his hand on his gun just in case it WASN’T Human. But she hissed at him to put it away as her investigation revealed two young children. They looked about six or seven years old, two boys, and they looked scared to death.
“Hello,” she said, in WPC Cooper mode. “What’s your names?”
The two shook their heads. Of course, children were drilled these days about not talking to strangers.
“It’s all right. I’m a police officer. I’ve got a badge I can show you, if you like. I think the lifeboat has gone, but you could have a helicopter ride with us.”
“I’m Mark,” admitted the eldest at last, perhaps swayed by the idea of a helicopter ride. “He’s Jack.”
“That’s a coincidence,” Gwen said with a smile. “HIS name is Jack, too. And he’s not as scary as he looks.”
“Mummy went away,” said young Jack as Gwen helped them both to stand up. “Everyone went away.”
“I know,” Gwen told him. “Don’t worry. We’re going to find them. Jack, you take Jack junior here.”
Jack junior looked as if he had been sick, but that wasn’t the only reason she asked Jack senior to take him. Nor was it that she didn’t want to be WPC Cooper, kiddie cop, while he was still the action hero. It was a bit of both, coupled with the fact that the boat suddenly tilted a little further as it settled in the mud and it was going to be even more tricky getting out into the open air.
“Piggy back,” Jack senior decided and swung the child onto his back. Gwen did the same. As long as the boys held on tight that gave them their hands free to steady themselves as they stepped across the lounge and negotiated the wildly slanted stairs that brought them, at last, onto the observation deck. Jack waved to the coastguard and they dropped a Boatswain’s Chair that they strapped the boys in one at a time. Gwen followed when they dropped it a third time and she no longer cared that the wind blew her skirt so high when she was halfway that Jack could have seen the matching bra, let alone her knickers, if he had been inclined to look. She just wanted to get off that boat, and preferably off the helicopter as soon as possible and back to dry land. She’d had enough of the sea for one day.
The coastguard helicopter brought them back to the hospital at Haverfordwest, where the children were all treated for the minor cuts and bruises sustained when the ferry grounded. That done, they were fed and given fizzy drinks and found beds, cots, or at worst, sofas in a hastily requisitioned visitors room in the children’s department. Meanwhile some thought was given to what to do with fifty plus children whose parents had apparently disappeared into thin air on board a ferry boat in the Irish Sea.
For one thing, keep them away from the Press. The fact that some kind of emergency had occurred at sea was obvious. The activity of the life boats and coastguard helicopters had attracted attention. So did the arrival of the Isle of Inishmore into port under tow and several hours late, and the fact that all further departures of the ferry for the next few days had been cancelled. The police, hospital, coastguard and Irish Ferries were all taking instructions from Jack on how to lie through their teeth about what had happened.
Meanwhile, Jack called Ianto and told him and Toshiko to meet them at the Marina at Milford Haven WITH THE TORCHWOOD BOAT.
Gwen groaned miserably.
“Sorry,” Jack said, though he sounded more amused than sorry. “But this is a mystery at sea. We need to be on the sea.”
“I think I’d be more use here at the hospital testing some of the kids to see if they were affected in any way by the alien technology,” Owen pointed out.
“And I could talk to them some more and find out if there is anything they remember,” Gwen added. “Yes, ok, WPC Cooper and the kiddies. But after all, we’re supposed to play to our strengths.”
“Sounds like excuses to me,” Jack replied. “Ok, sod off then. More room in the boat without the two of you, anyway. But I’m taking the SUV. So you’ll have to be a passenger in GWEN’s car, Owen.”
“I think my cool image will survive just this once,” Owen replied.
“WHAT cool image?” Gwen countered. Jack grinned at them both. They had been the first to break the cardinal rule – no sex between colleagues – but they had gone through the love, the lust, the cooling of passions, the rejection and the outright hatred of each other and come out the other end able to work together with mutual friendly banter.
They got off lucky. Torchwood got off lucky. Two good agents could still work together. Jack waved them off and went to the SUV alone to drive to the rendezvous at Milford Haven, the nearest marina where the Torchwood boat could moor up.
Ianto and Toshiko said much the same thing when Jack explained why he was on his own.
Gwen and Owen got off easy - playing with a bunch of kids while they did the hard work.
“Sounds like Owen and Gwen are getting broody,” Toshiko commented.
“There’s a scary thought,” added Ianto.
“I don’t think so,” Jack replied. “The last thing I heard Owen say was ‘I like kids. But I couldn’t eat a whole one!’”
Ianto laughed. So, Jack noticed, did Toshiko before she turned to pay attention to the long range scanner that he hoped would tell them if there was anything out there in the shipping lanes that shouldn’t be.
“Maybe Owen has a point,” Ianto added as he gave his attention to steering the boat out of the aptly named Milford Haven. They felt the difference in the distinctly choppy waters of the Irish Sea as soon as they passed out of the harbour. “Those children DO need somebody to talk to. What’ll happen to them if we don’t find their parents? Or if we do and they’re…”
He didn’t have to elaborate. They’d all seen various gruesome results of alien abduction, from evisceration to desiccation and much that was worse.
“This will be a tricky one to contain,” Ianto added. “Three hundred people all told, crew and passengers. Alive or dead it’s a problem. If they’re alive, then they’re going to be seriously pissed off. If they’re dead, we don’t have THAT many spare bodies in cold storage.”
Could this be the day, Jack wondered, when the reason for Torchwood’s continued existence really does become public knowledge? Then again, they had ridden out the Cyberman invasion. Canary Wharf – people were perfectly able to accept that the London skyline was changed by al-Qaeda. That, insane as it seemed, was easier to cope with than aliens.
Three hundred people on a car ferry? They would probably put it down to carbon monoxide, e-coli, unexploded WWII mine, anything that would make the unusual events of this day seem a more usual kind of unusual – something that would make people angry, maybe affect the share prices of the ferry company, but not distress anyone. Once again, the world would be kept in blissful ignorance.
The twenty-first century was when it all changed. Yes. They had to be ready. Yes.
But not yet.
“Jack, I’m picking up very strong resonances here,” Toshiko reported as they approached the co-ordinate, not much more than a mile and a half off the Pembrokeshire coast, where the Isle of Inishmore had last had a hand at her controls. From here, her course was that of a ghost ship adrift.
Here was where it all happened.
A tractor beam, Stephen Moore had said. Some kind of scan, too, because they didn’t take the children. AND a powerful transmat capable of taking that many people so quickly they didn’t have time to run around panicking and knocking things over.
Small wonder there was residual energy in the air, still. It wouldn’t last long. The sea breezes would dissipate them. But there was enough to show those who knew what they were looking for and had scanners capable of detecting it, that something outside of Human understanding had occurred.
“There’s nothing there now,” Toshiko added. “Nothing in the sky. If there was a UFO it’s gone now. Unless it’s using a cloaking system much better than anything we’ve dealt with before, anyway.”
Tractor beam, cloaking! If it wasn’t for science fiction they would have no terms of reference for these things.
“I don’t think we really expected it to be here still,” Ianto commented. “It has what it came for.”
Jack considered the possible fates of the abducted people if that was true. There were only a few reasons for aliens abducting humans. There was the old fashioned aliens experimenting on humans. That didn’t happen as often as people thought. Between Torchwood and their counterparts in America, down at Area 51 and such places, they’d probably experimented on more aliens than aliens had experimented on humans. Besides, they usually grabbed isolated individuals who wouldn’t be missed too soon. Three hundred was unlikely.
Another possibility was that they had been taken as live food. But then why leave the children? Owen’s little joke about not being able to eat a whole one was not far off the mark with some species. Children would have been the aperitif before the main course.
The third possibility was slavery. Stealing people for use as slaves was common throughout the universe. It worked much like it used to do on Earth when white people convinced themselves that black people were not people but possessions. Trying to argue the moral issue with intergalactic slavers was a waste of breath.
Then the fourth possibility. Bodily possession. Plenty of things out there that liked to hide inside a Human skin, or incubate their larva in the brain stems of a warm-blooded host whose mind they could use to their advantage, or…
His blood ran cold as he thought about Cybermen as a distinct possibility. But again, why spare the children? True the really little ones would be no use for brain transplanting, but the Cybermen usually disposed of their rejects in furnaces. They didn’t leave them behind.
“Oh….” Toshiko swore loudly in Japanese. Ianto didn’t know what the words meant. Jack did, of course. Because he was able to translate languages in his head. It was a word very unbecoming a well-brought up young woman like Toshiko but appropriate in the circumstances. Jack only had to glance at the scanner to realise that.
Stephen Moore had got it slightly wrong. The beam didn’t come from the sky. It came from below, under the sea, and shone up into the sky after enveloping the boat.
“Toshiko…” He unfastened his leather wristlet and fastened it on her arm before pressing a button on it. “Anti-transmat shield. I got so sick of those things once I made sure I was protected. But never mind me now. You and the baby don’t get messed up by that thing. You stay put here and wait for us.” He turned to his other companion. “Ianto,” he said. “Put that backpack on with the gismos I told you to bring. And come on up on deck.”
“Oh no!” Toshiko groaned. “This was part of the plan, wasn’t it?”
Ianto said nothing. He just slipped his arms into the backpack and followed Jack up onto the deck of the motor launch.
Around them the air shone like silver. They were within a sort of tunnel of silvery light that shimmered and glowed. Beyond it, they could see normal open sea but Ianto knew there was no point in trying to steer the boat out of it. This WAS the plan. Not the best plan he’d ever heard, but it was a plan.
“Ianto, stand close to me,” Jack said. “Transmats are bastards. But if we’re taken on the same wave it dissipates the effects.”
“What effects?” he asked as Jack reached out and held him in a tight embrace that would have been pleasant for both in any other time or circumstance.
“They vary. Some of them make you feel airsick. Some make you hungry and give you cravings for unusual food. Others knock you out for hours and leave you feeling dizzy and disorientated. Very good for those who take people against their will. It leaves them vulnerable.”
As they felt the transmat beam pulling at every cell in their bodies, Ianto let loose a string of Welsh swear words on a par with the Japenese ones Toshiko knew. Jack groaned. He had never learnt to love transmat travel.
He blacked out only for a few seconds. He was still standing. He felt Ianto break away from him and bend over to be quite violently sick. He staggered back dizzily.
“Easy there,” said a voice with an Irish accent and he felt a strong pair of hands on his upper arms. “It’s ok, fella, I’ve got you.” Jack was aware of a linen shirt and broad-shoulders and a smell of engine oil and cigarettes that suggested a lorry driver. A big, strong one. In more romantic circumstances he might have asked his name. Right now, he just made a good wall to lean against until he felt like he could manage free-standing again.
When his eyes focussed properly without tiny silvery bits floating in front of them he looked around. They were in a cell made of metal bars and a mesh floor. There were other cells above and below. The people in the one below were pretty upset at Ianto being sick all over them. He looked out through the bars and saw three tiers of the same cages all around what seemed to be a large, roughly oval cargo hold.
There was a wide floor with something in the middle that glowed. He wasn’t sure what that was just yet, but he hazarded a guess that it was connected with the abductions.
A lot of the people WERE still unconscious, Jack noticed. It obviously depended on individual constitutions. In this cage there were only four people fully awake. The Dublin lorry driver who made a good wall, a man in a business suit who hugged a laptop computer case to his chest as if it was precious to him, and a man and a woman who looked like a couple. The woman was crying.
“So, who the feck are you?” asked the Dubliner.
“Believe it or not,” Jack answered. “We’re the rescue party.”
“Right, and who’s going to rescue YOU?” the Dubliner responded and those in earshot laughed as people in desperate situations laugh, at things that aren’t especially funny.
“Don’t worry,” Jack answered. “I’ve got a plan.” He started to examine the bars. They were made from a strong alloy. They wouldn’t bend. There was no door. No lock to unlock with the universal sonar lock-pick device he asked Ianto to put in his back pack.
“You were transmatted straight into the cages?” he asked.
“If that’s the word for what happened, then yes,” the man with the crying wife said. “But please… can you tell us… do you know…
“Please,” the crying wife interrupted. “Do you know what happened to the children? I don’t see any of them here. What did they do to them?”
“The children are safe,” Ianto assured the woman. “They’re all being looked after in hospital.”
That fact susurrated around the cages and brought relief to some of the parents.
“Who are THEY?” Ianto asked, the question Jack was about to ask next as he considered their escape from the cage. “Have you seen any of the aliens?”
He possibly shouldn’t have used the word ‘aliens’. The captives all seemed to be in a state of denial. They didn’t want the word ‘alien’ mentioned. Anyway, saying it out loud caused another susurration, a less positive one. Some people started to cry again.
“No, we haven’t seen anyone or any thing,” said the husband. “We just woke up here. I don’t know what it’s about at all. Whether it’s some kind of weird government experiment or aliens or…”
“You have a funny idea of what your government might do to you,” Jack commented. “It’s aliens. They have transmatted you to their ship on the bottom of the sea. But…”
The fact that they were underwater caused a fresh susurration. People didn’t like THAT, either.
“Ok, calm down,” Jack told them. “Actually we ARE here to rescue you. But it might take a bit of time. So just bear with me.” He examined the bars again. “Ianto…” He held out his hand. He was gratified when Ianto handed him exactly what he needed.
It had been in the archive for about five years now, ever since Torchwood put a stop to the activities of an alien jewel thief who kept doing over diamond vaults. It was, as Jack alone knew, one of the less lethal products of the Villengard factory. Jack found it hard to imagine what non-criminal use they thought it might be used for.
Its proprietary name was the TriSoMat – Triple-Sonic Matter Disrupter. Ianto, last year when he did a stock-take in the archive, labelled it as the Acme Portable Hole, which Jack thought summed it up very well. It worked just like it did for Wylie Coyote. He opened out the thin plastic-like sheet and placed it over the bars of the cage. It instantly melted away every part it had touched. Experiments at the Hub had proved that it did that with metal, concrete, stone, brick, wood, plastic, glass. It didn’t do anything to living flesh. Jack had not asked what experiments were conducted and on who or what to find that out. But anyway, it made holes in walls and that was what they needed. He folded it carefully afterwards for re-use and climbed through, dropping the seven feet of the lower cage to the floor of the cargo hold. Ianto followed, then the Dubliner and they helped the crying wife down before her husband joined them. The man with the laptop had trouble getting down while refusing to let go of his computer, but he did it eventually.
“What about us?” asked somebody in one of the other cages. “Please…”
“I’m sorry,” Jack said. “I need to find out what we’re dealing with first. Just try to stay calm. All of you. I’m going to get you out. I’m going to help you get back to your kids. You might have missed your connecting trains and your meetings and whatever. But I’ll get you out.”
Nobody was especially happy about that, but they accepted it. For the moment.
“It’s something to do with THAT thing,” somebody else said, pointing to the glowing object in the middle of the floor.
“I rather suspected it was,” Jack answered. He strode off towards it. Ianto followed. The civilians looked at each other and then came behind them.
“What the feck IS that?” asked the Dubliner, beating everyone else to the question.
“It’s…” Jack knew what it was, but he really didn’t want it to be. He looked at it again and reached for his wristlet before he realised he didn’t have it on. He had a strange feeling that he was in the presence of many more lives than he could see in the cages. There were only about three hundred kidnapped humans. But in his soul he felt as if he was in the presence of thousands of lives.
He got those sort of feelings from time to time. The strange things that had been done to his body in the past tended to make him a living barometer for all sorts of things.
He looked at the egg, and knew instinctively that it was the source of those uncanny feelings. Egg was the right word for it. It looked like a very large duck egg – about his own height and proportionally wider at the top than the bottom. The surface had the texture of an eggshell and it was a mottled pale blue that gave it the appearance of something organic. It was opaque but it glowed from within and he could see the shadows of what looked like thousands of smaller eggs that moved around as if they were suspended in some kind of liquid. It was held in a sort of egg box at the base, though Jack suspected some kind of stasis field was also being employed. Or anti-gravity cushions.
“So what the FECK…” repeated the Dubliner.
“It’s a race bank,” he answered. And that left nobody any the wiser, not even the members of his own team. He looked at their blank faces and smiled his toothpaste smile that usually reassured people. This time it didn’t work. There was too much weirdness going on. “I’ve come across it before,” he said. “Don’t ask me how. Just take it from me it’s NOT something we want to make use of for the good of humanity. The Human race is not ready for THIS. It’s….”
“Boss,” Ianto said, cutting him off mid-sentence. “There’s some kind of panel in the floor here. I think it goes down into another room.”
Jack looked and then opened out the portable hole again. Moments later they were looking down into the dim glow of a computerised ship’s bridge. Jack dropped down. The others peered down curiously but had no inclination to join them down there.
These computers had never been intended to be operated by any form of organic life. There were no keyboards, no monitors. These computers only communicated with other computers. It was a completely automated system.
“Ianto, come on down here, and bring the laptop your man there has,” Jack called.
The man was extremely reluctant to give up his laptop. Jack had to repeat himself twice, and then the Dubliner lost patience, swore as only a Dublin lorry driver possibly could and snatched it off him. He passed it to Ianto and he jumped down quickly, landing a little heavily but hanging onto the computer. Jack was already opening up panels with a very handy alien screwdriver out of the backpack. The aliens who developed this system had never heard of Microsoft and their system was not compatible with anything Human, but Jack was already a pretty nifty bodger and patcher long before he perfected his techniques with a master of bodgery who had a ship way more sophisticated than this one. He soon had the laptop networked up to the alien computer.
“You’ll invalidate my warranty!” wailed the businessman, apparently having trouble with seeing the bigger picture. Everyone ignored him.
First, Jack wanted to know what it was all about. The burning question. WHY. And he was gratified to find a data file that explained it all. Everyone else saw a stream of incomprehensible symbols something that came from PC World shouldn’t be able to display. Jack could read the words.
“They’re called…” he hesitated. The name of the species was unpronounceable in English. The best he could do was ???. “Ok, never mind what they’re called. But they’re not nice people to know. They are a tribe with seriously genocidal tendencies to anyone not of their tribe. They massacred several other tribes on their planet before they were finally caught and the whole lot of them sentenced to be disembodied and their consciences incarcerated in the egg. Their planet has no death penalty, you see,” he added with a sardonic grin, knowing there were WORSE things than execution when it came to the justice systems of the universe.
“Ok,” Ianto said. “So WHY are they here and why are they kidnapping people?”
“Does it matter?” asked the husband, looking down on the three of them. “Aren’t you supposed to be getting us out of here?”
“Yes, it matters, Jack answered. “Because we have to know if they’re going to have another try. They’re here because sympathisers set up this ship to travel through space with the egg, in order to find a planet where they could harvest bodies. Think of them as the opposite of a fishing trawler. They’re under the water trawling for boats that come into range of their ‘net’. They’re not ready yet. They need FAR more people than they got from that ferry. When they have enough the egg will crack open and the consciousnesses can occupy the captured bodies, take over their minds…”
“Feck!” said the Dubliner. And that summed it up.
“Can you get us out of here NOW!” demanded the husband.
“Please,” added the crying wife. “The children…”
“I think I can,” Jack said. “I’ve accessed the transmat controls. But the only way to get THAT many people back is to do a direct reverse, sending them back where they were taken from.”
“Ok,” said the Dubliner. “Fine by me. Go for it.”
“The PROBLEM is that where you WERE is now empty air above the sea.” Jack considered that problem for a moment then clicked on the start menu button on the laptop. He smiled as he saw that it had the Skype programme installed, that turned a computer into a telephone. He plugged in his own headset and dialled the first of several numbers. It took some considerable powers of persuasion to convince the coastguard, Irish Ferries, the police, the Port of Pembroke and any number of other authorities that they had to pilot the Isle of Inishmore back to the exact co-ordinates it was at when it all went wrong for it. Finally he called one more number.
“Owen, give the kids a cup of orange juice and retcon each and get them on the bus that’s coming to pick them up. We’re going to reunite them with their parents.”
It took a while, of course. Long enough for Jack to worry about what could go wrong with what he was planning to do.
“What COULD go wrong?” Ianto asked him. “People ending up in the sea? The lifeboat will be on standby.”
“That’s not the only thing,” Jack answered. “If the ship is even a degree off course when I reverse the transmat people could be sent back to the wrong space. It might not BE space. It might be a wall or a floor or…”
Everyone else used their imagination. Jack didn’t have to. He had seen it once. A spaceship whose navigator had misjudged a hyperspace jump. When it came out of it there were people embedded in walls, floors, bodies with the heads outside the ship in the vacuum of space. He didn’t even want to think about the burnt and scalded bodies in the kitchen area that had materialised halfway through hot ovens. Or the remains that used to be Human that they found in the engine room.
The ones that died quickly were the lucky ones.
Jack didn’t tend to pray. He had seen too much to believe any merciful god existed and had done too much that would be considered sin to expect to be listened to anyway. But right now he was doing the closest thing to it. Because he didn’t want to be the one that did that to other Human beings.
When the call finally came in to say they were ready above he sent everyone else back to the cage. He told them they had to be where they were when they were originally transmatted. He wasn’t sure that was necessary, but at least he couldn’t hear the businessman whining about his laptop. He didn’t need any distractions.
He looked at Ianto. His eyes said “I trust you”. He was exuding trust with every pore of his body.
“Thanks,” he whispered to him and pressed ‘Return’ on the laptop. Above in the huge cavernous hold there was a bright white light that lit the hole in the ceiling and the crying and complaining and grumbling voices were all cut off. Jack pressed keys anxiously until he got the scanner to tell him that everyone was alive and well and most importantly, in one piece.
“Ok,” he said. “Our turn next.”
He had set a delay on this one. The two of them climbed back up through the hole and stood around the egg, hugging it tightly. Again there were a selection of Welsh swear words as the transmat enveloped them and they found themselves back on the deck of the motor launch.
“It didn’t seem so bad that time,” Ianto admitted.
“The ‘lives’ inside the egg absorbed the worst of it,” Jack answered as Toshiko rushed up from the cabin and embraced them both.
“What the hell is THAT?” she asked, staring at the egg.
“The cause of all the trouble,” Jack answered. They all looked around and saw the ferry on its way back to Pembroke under the reserve crew that had come out on the pilot boat. Jack looked up and waved to the coastguard helicopter hovering above and they lowered the Boatswain’s Chair. He strapped the egg into the chair and then climbed up on the frame itself and waved for it to be hauled up.
“See you back on dry land,” he shouted down to Ianto and Toshiko. They waved back to him before he clambered into the helicopter and hauled the egg in behind him. The Helicopter banked and turned and headed towards Skokholm, the uninhabited island. Uninhabited, that is, except for birds. The helicopter rose above the rocky island and Jack pushed the egg out. As the helicopter rose even higher and flew up he saw it smash on the rocks and the smaller eggs break apart. He saw almost every bird rise up from the rocks in a flurry of wings and a gestalt squawk that he was fairly sure sounded like an alien word that roughly translated as ‘bollocks’.
The ??? needed bodies. Nobody ever said they had to have HUMAN bodies.
Jack wasn’t keen on the death penalty either – not just because he’d had it imposed on him more than once – and he’d already arranged for the Royal Navy to come out and depth charge the alien ship.
An hour later the passengers and crew of the Isle of Inishmore were brought into the departure lounge at the Irish Ferries terminal. They didn’t know it, but they were going to be the first Human subjects for a gadget Owen and Toshiko had been working on for a while. They had reverse engineered the memory modifier they confiscated from the brain eating aliens on Brecon. They had developed, they hoped, a sort of memory modifying grenade that should be effective up to one hundred feet away from the epicentre.
After the time delayed grenade had gone off Ianto stepped back into the room. There was a glazed, silent look about everyone but it would wear off soon. Meanwhile he began explaining how apologetic Irish Ferries were about the eight hour delay because a WWII submarine with live torpedoes aboard had drifted into the sea lane. He assured them that they would all receive a full refund and hoped they would travel with Irish Ferries again.
“Not bloody likely,” said the first man to respond. He was sitting next to his wife and children who were sleeping across two of the seats. “Next year I’m not going any further than Llandudno. Bugger Irish Ferries.”
“That’s the spirit, sir,” Ianto answered as he picked up the memory modifier from the table and turned and went out of the room leaving the passengers and crew to grumble among themselves.
“You never gave the moaning bastard his laptop back,” he told Jack as he joined the Torchwood crew on their way to find a decent restaurant in Pembroke. Jack had said that lunch was on him before they went back to cars or boats and headed home to Cardiff.
“Serves him right,” Jack answered. “It was full of internet porn anyway.”
“The memory modifier worked perfectly,” Owen said, preening slightly. “But WWII U-boat - LAME excuse. Totally LAME.”
“Worked though,” Ianto pointed out. “That’s all that mattered.
Gwen looked like she was about to launch into a complaint about civil liberties. She had been very unhappy about Retconning the kids. Memory modifying 300 people was even worse.
“Tell me another way, Gwen,” Jack said to her. “The 21st century is when it all changes, but for the time being it is better the people don’t know it’s changing.”