Jack parked the SUV outside an unremarkable house in an unremarkable street and walked up the path to the unremarkable front door. It was opened by Alun.
“Thanks for coming, boss,” he said. “I know its short notice, but you really have to see what we’ve seen.”
“I had a DATE, you know,” he said. “Martin, the cute guy from the admin office at Maindy Barracks. He’s been giving me the eye every time I was in there and he finally made a move. We were going to spend the evening at the theatre and then a nice meal, bit of dancing, and see what comes next. And I’ve had to put him off.”
Alun tried and failed to find a witty reply. He decided to stick to business.
“Go upstairs,” he told him. “Turn right on the landing. Second door.”
Jack went upstairs and found himself in a lady’s bedroom. It was not the first time that had ever happened, but not usually on official business.
“This is Beth,” Ianto said, introducing him formally. “She is a friend of ours.”
Jack knew that, of course. He had Retconned her last year when an alien ate her brother’s brain. Obviously, she didn’t recognise Jack. She thought he was somebody Ianto and Alun worked with at the Welsh Tourist Board.
“Hello,” he said, shaking her hand warmly and turning on the charm without having to think about it. “I’m Jack Harkness. I work with these two layabouts. I take it you’re the reason they’ve been taking it in turns to skive off work all week?”
Beth’s face lit up in response to the toothpaste advert smile, despite being in some obvious distress from the broken leg that rested on a leather-look PVC footstool in front of the armchair by the bedroom window.
“I fell getting off the bus,” she said in explanation. “Broke my leg in two places. Ianto and Alun have both been wonderful. They came to see me in hospital, and they’ve been looking after me here at home, cooking, helping me get to the bathroom. I don’t know what I’d do without them.”
“Yeah.” Jack pulled up a chair and sat next to her. “I ask myself the same question every day.” He noted that she had a good view out of the window and had a digital video camera set up on a tripod.
“Rear Window,” he said.
“You’ve seen that film too?” She laughed nervously.
“1954, James Stewart. Classic! They don’t make them like that any more. The way they dragged out the whole thing about nobody believing he’d seen a murder. They just don’t write that kind of cool psychological suspense any more.”
He looked out of the window and noted that her back garden lawn ended in a low fence and then there was a strip of wasteland with scrubby grass and piles of fly-tipping, then a dual carriageway before a stubble field.
Even though it was dark at seven o’clock on a late November evening, the powerful lights of the dual carriageway and a security light in Beth’s garden combined to light up the view perfectly well. He noted that the stubble field was one of the ones they had been monitoring for crop circle nuisances. And the wasteland behind her garden also seemed to have been a recent victim of them.
“Tell you what, though,” he added. “I think we’ll cut to the chase and assume I DO believe you. And you just tell me what you saw.”
He saw the relief in her eyes. Being BELIEVED was always a relief for the witnesses to the sort of weirdness that fell into his remit. He had seen it time and again.
“It wasn’t a murder, like in the film,” she told him. “Well, at least, not an ordinary murder.”
“Maybe you ought to show him the video,” Ianto prompted. “It kind of speaks for itself.”
“Yes, of course,” she said. As she found the recording on the mini-screen she chattered away. “Ianto set this up for me. I thought I might film the wildlife. There’s urban foxes and rabbits, and a lot of birds along the side of the dual carriageway. But instead I saw... It’s… it’s more the sort of thing my brother would be into. I never really believed in it all before. I loved him to bits, but I thought he was DAFT. And then he got killed driving out in the country after some UFO sighting, and I was glad not to have anything to do with his crackpot friends. But… But now I don’t know what to think. And… Ianto says you’re a bit of an expert in that sort of thing. But you DON’T look like a crackpot.”
Jack’s smile widened. He wondered why it was that people expected an ‘alien expert’ to be some kind of pasty faced middle aged type with out of date hair and clothes. It was as if they WANTED those who knew there was something out there, beyond the ordinary, everyday life of this planet to be people you could laugh at and dismiss as a joke.
“Labels!” he said and then he turned his attention to the three inch video playback screen on the digital camera. At first there was nothing there but evening rush hour traffic on the dual carriageway and a rather lovely sunset beyond the stubble field. Then a man wandered across the wasteland in the foreground. He was a bit dishevelled looking, wearing clothes that screamed ‘car boot’ and he had four dogs on assorted leads. He let them off the leads and stood watching the traffic, or the sunset, or both.
“His name is Mr Nellis,” Beth said. “He lives at the end house of the row, alone with the four dogs and doesn’t seem all that ‘there’. The neighbours are always complaining that his house smells of dogs. But it doesn’t really. They just like to pick on him.”
Jack watched the man standing there waiting for his dogs to finish doing what dogs do. He was just standing there.
And then he was gone.
And there was a burnt circle around where he had been and one of the dogs running to the spot, pawing the ground.
“I called the RSPCA,” Alun said in a matter of fact way. “They took the dogs. I thought it best. In case they got run over on the road or shot for sheep worrying.”
Some people might think that irrelevant. Jack didn’t. He was relieved to know the dogs were ok. But he wanted to know what happened to the man. He rewound the digital recording and played it back in slow motion. He was the only one who watched. Beth turned her face away. Ianto and Alun didn’t seem to want to look again. Jack wasn’t surprised. It was pretty gruesome watching a body being disintegrated frame by frame.
Not many frames. It was still only about ten seconds long. It had happened in an eyeblink in real time. But something, some kind of energy had been focussed on that place and it had turned Mr Nellis into constituent molecules before he even had a chance to scream.
That was the one merciful thing about it. It was quick. He would not have felt anything.
“It’s not a transmat, boss,” Ianto confirmed as Jack turned to look at him. “I took readings. There’s none of the usual residual energy. There ARE faint traces of Human DNA on the ground within the ‘crop circle’. It’s as if he was sucked into the ground.”
Even Jack shuddered at the thought. Beth looked at Ianto, though.
“You took READINGS?” she said. “When you went out there to look, I thought you were… I don’t know, just LOOKING. But….” She turned and looked at Jack again. “He called you boss. They both did. They work for you?”
“At the tourist board,” Jack answered. Though he knew that cover was coming unstuck. It wasn’t just because of what Ianto had just said. It was because she was a witness to the sort of extraordinary things that trigger the memory of when extraordinary things had happened before. She was starting to put two and two together.
“The tourist board don’t investigate crop circles,” she pointed out. But then Jack’s attention was turned from her. He stepped over her broken leg and pushed open the window and jumped out of it. Alun and Ianto took one look and darted downstairs to reach the back garden in the more usual way.
Beth looked out of her window. In the light of her security lamp she saw a figure standing in the middle of a new crop circle on her back lawn. At first it looked like an alien of the sort her brother was obsessed with. A long, skinny grey body with no clothes, but no sex organs of any sort to put clothes over. As Jack landed in a crouch and sprang towards it, the creature shimmered and changed to look like an ordinary Human with a coat, shirt and trousers and shoes and ordinary Human features.
Beth saw Jack throw something that looked like a skimming stone at the ‘man’. The stone emitted some kind of energy pulse that looked like glowing bars enclosing him. When Ianto and Alun reached the garden he pressed something on his wrist and the ‘bars’ disappeared. Alun took something from his pocket and pressed it against the alien man’s neck. He collapsed unconscious. He and Ianto picked him up between them and took him away while Jack retrieved his ‘stone’.
As if witnessing proof that aliens do exist and can make themselves look like human beings wasn’t enough to turn her world upside down, Beth had yet more to contend with in the next few minutes. Jack and Ianto came back up to her bedroom. Jack was using a communicator on his ear to tell somebody to arrange evacuation of the whole street. He said to call it an unexploded WWII bomb. He laughed and agreed with the person he was talking to that it WAS a lame excuse that they’d used too many times before, but it worked. He glanced for a moment out of the window and suggested that the dual carriageway was closed, too. The man on the other end of the conversation told him that would be difficult.
“So what if a few commuters are late home for their shepherds pie!” Jack replied. “We need this whole area sealed off, all civilians out of the way. Get U.N.I.T. to do what the taxpayers of Great Britain pay them for, and tell their commander he reports anything he finds to ME.” He finished his conversation and then he turned to Beth. “You’re coming back with us,” he told her. “It’s the safest place for you.” Ianto was already shutting her bedroom window and taking the camera from the tripod. Jack reached to lift her from the chair. She pulled away from him.
“No,” she said. “I’m not going anywhere until I know the truth. Who are you? Who are any of you? Ianto….”
“Beth,” he said as he put her camera into its carry bag and slung it over his shoulder. “I’m sorry, love. I never wanted to lie to you. But please trust us. I WILL explain. But Jack is right. You’re not safe here.” He put his hand to his ear, where he, too, now had a communicator in place. He listened to a message and then reported to Jack that Alun was mobile in the SUV with the alien secured in the back.
“We’ll take your car,” Jack answered. “Come on, Beth. It’s for your own good.”
She looked at the crop circle in her back garden and wondered if they could get any closer. Could they turn up in her kitchen?
“All right,” she conceded and allowed him to lift her. He was careful to avoid hurting her broken leg and she actually felt very safe in his arms.
“You’re very strong, Jack,” she added as he carried her downstairs.
“I work out,” he told her.
“I suppose you’re gay, though,” she observed. “Same as those two. Would be just my luck. All the NICE men I’ve known lately are.”
“I don’t do labels,” he answered. “But I don’t mix business with pleasure, either, I’m afraid.”
“Oh well,” she sighed and made do with hanging on around Jack’s neck and resting her head against his shoulder until they reached Ianto’s car. He put her into the back seat, very gently, and made her comfortable before he took the passenger seat. Ianto, having made sure Beth’s house was locked up and putting her keys in his pocket, drove the car. As they turned off the estate, Beth noticed that the police were already starting to close off the roads. Jack got onto his communicator again and gave the registration of the car they were in. They were waved through while an army Land Rover leading a convoy of two four tonners, both with the back flaps closed down tightly, followed by another Land Rover, passed them in the other direction. All that in the time it had taken for Jack to carry her downstairs.
“Who ARE you?” she asked him. “That you can get so much happening so quickly?”
“We’re Torchwood,” Jack told her. “We’re beyond the government, above the law. The army, the police, when I call, they drop what they’re doing and take orders from me, instead.”
“That’s an awful lot of power,” Beth told him.
“Yeah, it is,” he answered. “Isn’t it a good job I’m a NICE guy. Imagine if I was a megalomaniac who wanted to take over the world.”
“You’re ego’s big enough for it,” Ianto told him with a cheeky grin. Jack laughed.
“So…” Beth continued. “You really ARE alien hunters. Like… like the Lone Gunmen!”
“How do you know about THEM?” Jack asked.
“They’re my brother’s friends. They call themselves that. They got it from…”
“The X-Files!” Jack’s laugh had a scathing note to it. He frequently wondered just what sort of total geeks named themselves after a fictional group of total geeks from a TV series about alien conspirators.
He hadn’t realised that the geek group who had given him a better collection of crop circle data than even they had managed to compile at Torchwood were connected to Beth’s dead conspiracy theory brother. They all used aliases taken from the same TV series and Gwen and Toshiko hadn’t yet worked out who the other members of the group were. Mind you, it was only a matter of time. They had traced the real name and address of the geek leader through a fundamental mistake when he had handed the crop circle folder to Jack in a dark and empty car park on a wet Tuesday night a fortnight ago. His cloak and dagger precautions had not extended to his car. Toshiko had got clear pictures of it on the CCTV as it left the car park after the ‘drop’. He was a computer salesman who lived in a one bedroom flat in Gabalfa.
He touched his communicator again.
“Owen,” he said. “When Alun gets in with the SUV you take the alien to the cells and he can take Gwen and go and pick up ‘Fox Mulder’.”
“You want to bring that TWAT back to the Hub?” Owen answered in surprise.
“Yeah, why not. We’ll give him the full VIP tour as long as he doesn’t wet himself with excitement. We’ll be Retconning him afterwards anyway, so what the heck. But I want to ask him some questions about what he knows.”
“You think he knows ANYTHING?” Owen answered doubtfully.
“I think he knows more than he thinks he knows,” Jack replied. “For once the geeks have hit on something and they MAY actually be able to tell us something important.”
He ended the communication and turned to look at Beth. She tried not to show him that she was in a bit of distress.
“Did they give you painkillers for the leg?” he asked.
“Yes, but we left in such a hurry,” she pointed out. “I don’t have them on me.”
“Ok, when we get to the Hub I’ll have Owen sort you out. He’s our Medical Officer. He can give you something for the pain.”
“With a dash of Retcon?” she asked. “My brother was the daft one. I’m not stupid. Ret…Con… It’s some kind of amnesia drug?”
“We’re NOT going to Retcon you,” Ianto promised her.
“Why should I believe you, Ianto?” she replied with a bitter tone in her voice as she blinked back tears. “You’ve lied to me since…” Jack watched her face and could see the history of her relationship with Ianto replaying in her head. “Oh, my GOD! I met you when my brother went missing. I… I thought you were the kindest man I ever met. I thought you… I never would have let you… We had SEX because I liked you. I trusted you. I wanted… But it was all in the line of duty for you. To keep me occupied. You’re not even INTO women. I was just…”
Ianto bit his lip and tried to keep his mind on the road ahead. Their way back to the Hub was being facilitated by the police, who cleared the road ahead at each junction. But he still needed to drive carefully at the speed they were going, in the dark and with a drizzling rain starting. He really DID have to concentrate. He couldn’t let his feelings about Beth overwhelm him now.
“Beth,” Jack said to her. “Please calm down. Ianto can explain it all to you later. He has my permission to tell you everything you have a right to know about him, me, Torchwood, and how you’re connected to us. I give you my word you will NOT be Retconned. You won’t be harmed in any way. I hope you will still be friends with Ianto and Alun when you know the truth and forgive them for deceiving you. Because everyone needs friends and you don’t seem to have many of them. I think you need us as much as we need you just now.”
Beth looked at him and looked out of the window as Ianto parked the car near Roald Dahl Plas. She reached for the door handle and found it locked.
“Let me out,” she demanded.
“Beth,” Jack continued. “The secret entrance to our secret batcave is hidden in plain sight and it’s busy out there. There’s a concert on at the Millennium Centre. The last thing we need is bystanders watching the two of us manhandling a screaming woman in a plaster cast. So please be calm RIGHT now or I WILL use the knock out gun I have in the glove compartment.
He was bluffing. The knockout gun was in the SUV. But Beth calmed down enough for them to lift her out of the car and carry her in through the tourist office entrance.
“This really IS where you work?” she asked Ianto.
“Of course. You’ve met me here a few times for lunch when we were…”
The word he was looking for was dating. But he caught a look in her eye. She didn’t seem to blame Jack so much. He hadn’t lied to her. He hadn’t met her for lunch, dinner, cinema, theatre. He hadn’t gone back to her house, or to his flat for what he remembered as very nice, very satisfactory, sex. Jack hadn’t deceived her. Ianto had and she was disappointed in him.
Ianto still said nothing. He locked the front door and reached for the switch that opened the secret entrance. Jack carried her through to the lift down to the ‘batcave’ otherwise known as the Hub.
He brought her to the boardroom because it was the nicest part of their workplace built into what used to be a coal dock. It was also the warmest part when the main area was in low power mode at night. He sat her on a chair and Ianto pulled another one up to rest her leg on. Owen came in with his medical bag to give her his professional opinion and some painkillers that had not yet passed any government licensing board. He promised would deal with all her aches and pains in a few minutes.
“Thank you,” she said to Owen, and she swallowed the pills with a cup of tea Ianto brought her. Owen hadn’t lied to her, either, so she bore him no ill will, but she still looked at Ianto with hurt eyes.
“Ok,” Jack decided it was time to get down to business. “Owen, you’re running tests on the alien blood sample. I’m going to talk to it in the cells. Ianto, you stay with Beth. Talk to her. Tell her what she needs to know. Particularly, tell her that any lies you’ve had to tell her are MY fault, not yours. I’m the reason you have to keep your work here a secret.”
Not strictly true. It was the Torchwood charter that made them a secret organisation. But as the Director of Torchwood he had to uphold that edict. The buck stopped with him.
He looked up at the glass front of the boardroom from the Hub floor. Ianto had pulled up a chair next to her and was holding her hand as he tried to convince her that the only thing about their relationship that was a lie WAS the job he did. There were probably more important and vital things Ianto could be doing right now. But Torchwood wasn’t JUST about chasing aliens, it wasn’t just about protecting the Human race. There were people involved and they mattered. Ianto’s feelings mattered. So did Beth’s.
He hoped they’d figure it out.
Meanwhile he was going to have a look at an alien that could make itself look Human. The best sort if they just came to live quiet lives on a planet that didn’t want to do them any harm - or just to refuel. The worst sort if they came to make trouble, because they were impossible to tell apart from ordinary humans, or even the ordinary aliens who just wanted a quiet life.
He let himself into the cell block. There were the usual suspects in there; a collection of weevils going cold turkey, and a Ciretician fugitive. It growled at him as he passed and flexed its leathery wings, but it was going nowhere until the police of its own planet arrived with the extradition warrant.
The unknown alien was in the last cell on this floor. He looked at it through the reinforced door for a long time before he spoke.
“Treating you well, are they?” he asked. “Not that they HAVE to. On this planet there are all sorts of rules about how Human prisoners are looked after, and rules about the humane care of animals in captivity. But we have NO rules about how we deal with aliens, except the ones I MAKE! And if you think I’m a soft touch, if you think I’m just a weak Human, think again. I’m your worst nightmare.”
“Do you really think you scare me?” the alien answered. “You ARE a weak Human. And your species will be destroyed from within. I am not alone.”
“I’m sure you’re not, but we’ll find your buddies soon enough. Meanwhile I’m coming in there in a minute to hurt you. You’ve taken on Human form, so you have a central nervous system. You can feel pain. And I’m going to make you understand the meaning of the word.”
The alien laughed. Jack knew he shouldn’t have made a threat like that unless he was willing to follow it up. And he wasn’t a bully. He didn’t want to have to beat up anyone, not even alien scum. Then his communicator crackled.
“Owen, you got something?”
“Come on up and have a look. I think you’ll be interested.”
“Ok, one minute.” He looked at the alien. It looked back at him with its stolen Human eyes. “I will be coming back,” he told it. “Don’t get comfy.”
He went back upstairs. Up in the boardroom Ianto and Beth were still holding hands and both seemed to be crying. Jack thought that was PROBABLY a good thing. Tears were cathartic. He turned and found Owen at his workstation.
“This alien,” Owen told him, pointing to a screen that displayed a graphic of a double helix strand of DNA. “It’s very nearly NOT an alien. About eighty per cent of its DNA is Human. It has assimilated a Human.”
“I suppose we have no way of knowing WHICH Human?” Jack asked.
“Lucky for us, we DO!” Owen turned to another screen. “Gwen did this bit in the SUV on her way back in with your conspiracy theory twat,” he added, not wanting to take credit for somebody else’s effort.
What Gwen had found was a police file. It was last updated on October 7th, 1987 when a sex offender called Charles Nilles had apparently dropped off the face of the planet, having failed to report to his parole officer as a condition of his early release from Durham jail.
“He was taken by crop circles in Durham in 1987 and turns up assimilated into an alien in 2008 in Cardiff?”
“No,” Owen answered. “Look closer at the mug shot. And then…” Owen turned to another screen and called up the digital film from Beth’s camera. He forwarded to where Mr Nellis was walking his dogs.
“Nilles… Nellis?” Jack looked from the 1987 picture of Charles Nilles to the digital image of the late Mr Nellis. Twenty one years. The face had aged but the features were the same.
“He did his OWN disappearing act, changing his name, keeping his head down, keeping his hands to himself so nobody in the neighbourhood knew he was a kiddy fiddler!”
“I saw it change,” Jack said. “It was a standard grey, straight out of the conspiracy theory files. Then it turned into a Human. Doesn’t look like him. He’s a lot younger. But same hair colour, same eyes. He’s a variation of the pattern you would get with Charles Nilles/Mr Nellis’ DNA. I wonder if there would be a fingerprint match.”
“Yes, there would be,” said a strange voice and Jack looked around to see the man whose ‘code name’ was ‘Fox Mulder’ flanked by Gwen and Alun. “I can’t believe I’m actually in the secret Central Command Centre of Torchwood! And the professionals NEED my help!”
He looked like he really WOULD wet himself in excitement in a minute.
“We don’t need your HELP,” Jack answered. “I just want to fill in some blanks.” He took hold of ‘Fox Mulder’, whose real name was the traditionally geeky Maurice Pratt, and pressed him down into a seat next to Gwen’s workstation. She sat and quickly called up the files with the crop circle data in them.
“It’s happened again, hasn’t it?” he said. “Somebody has been taken by the circles.”
Jack didn’t answer. Gwen didn’t say anything. Owen wasn’t interested. Alun was looking up at the boardroom and seemed to be in another time zone to everyone else.
“I know,” ‘Fox’ continued. “I’ve been studying these things for ten years.”
“Ten fucking years?” Owen looked at him scathingly. “Have you nothing better to do with your life?”
“No,” he replied. “I haven’t.” He ignored Owen and pointed to the screen. “What you have there is ten years of logging every sighting, and matching them to reported disappearances of innocent Humans. It doesn’t happen every time. They’re very hit and miss. They mostly keep hitting fields. That’s why the crop circles. But sometimes they hit a spot where somebody is standing.”
‘Fox’s tone of voice changed on that last sentence. Now he seemed to be talking from experience. Jack listened more carefully and looked at the skinny young man closer.
“Ten years ago, I was sixteen. I was out with my dad and our pair of greyhounds, racing them against each other on the meadow. Then I heard a noise – a sort of hissing. And my dad was gone and there was a crop circle where he was standing. One moment he was there, the next… and nobody believed me, of course. They reckoned he’d just run off, tired of being a single dad, responsible for me. Time for me to stand on my own two feet.”
“I’m sorry,” Gwen said to him kindly.
“So am I,” Jack added. “Even if the police didn’t believe you, there should have been a file. We should have flagged it. We should have at least noted it as a possible alien abduction among our cold case files.”
All of a sudden as he looked at Maurice Pratt, he didn’t see a geek, a conspiracy theory ‘twat’. He saw a victim who Torchwood should have tried to help a decade ago. Somebody they had failed.
The trouble was, people took crop circles and alien abduction stories as jokes. Even TORCHWOOD did sometimes because there were so many hoaxes. But the police didn’t take it seriously at all. Missing persons statements left out the details that would have been flagged by Torchwood’s computers. The picture was always incomplete. ‘Fox’ wasn’t a geek, or a twat. He was a determined man who sought the truth, and deserved their admiration, not their mockery.
“You mentioned fingerprints,” Jack continued. “How did you know…”
“Because three years after he disappeared my dad turned up, dead. Or at least they said it was my dad. It was an accident. He was knocked over by a car. The fingerprints matched. They called me to identify the body, but it wasn’t him. It didn’t look like him. The hair and eyes were the same. It could have been his brother, if he had one. But it wasn’t. They took a blood sample from me and compared it and confirmed that it was him. But it WASN’T. It was an alien. It had assimilated my dad’s identity. But nobody believed me, of course.”
“WE believe you,” Jack said. And again his theory was right. Being believed made a difference. ‘Fox’ looked up at him with gratitude written all over his face.
“But if it’s an invasion, body snatching, taking over the Human race, how come it’s so hit and miss?” Gwen asked. “Why do they do it in the countryside? Why places with so few people in them?”
“That I don’t know,” ‘Fox’ answered her. Jack, too, admitted to being stumped. Alun and Owen had no answers either as they stood and looked at the schematic on the screen. There had been hundreds of crop circles virtually ringing Cardiff over the ten years ‘Fox’ had been mapping them.
Why Cardiff? Well that was obvious. The Rift. It was like a welcome sign to all the weirdness of the universe. But it was clear none of the circles had ever been within the city itself. The closest was the one in Beth’s back garden, the most recent.
“Weird way to take over a planet,” Gwen continued since nobody else seemed to have anything to say. “I mean, they’re in a space ship hovering or whatever… surely they can pinpoint where people are?”
“No,” Jack said very slowly as if a theory was creeping slowly into his mind on tiptoes. “We’re missing something. ‘Fox’ has put missing persons reports together with crop circles. Ok, I’ll accept that. But they DON’T coincide with any UFO sightings. At least I don’t think they do? Gwen… call up Tosh’s files. She’s got UFO sightings for the past two years collated. Do a comparison.”
It took Gwen longer than it would have taken Toshiko, but she was away this week, visiting her relatives in London who hadn’t seen Etsuko yet. She had to manage.
“No,” she said at last. “We have LOADS of UFO’s around Cardiff. But the only one that coincides with a crop circle was the one that picked up your alien friend, Terry. That’s just a coincidence.”
“Crop circles don’t come from the SKY,” Jack said. “They come from underground. They come up in random locations where there’s SOIL. Our cities and towns full of people are covered in concrete, tarmac, brick, deep foundations, layers of hardcore under the roads. They can’t get through there. Whatever they are they need SOIL.”
“Ooooh!” Gwen responded. “I’m never going to the park again.”
“Makes you think, doesn’t it!” Owen commented. “But why not Glastonbury at Festival time? Bumper Harvest! They must be bloody thick aliens.”
“Nobody ever said that life on other planets was more intelligent than us,” Jack pointed out. “We still have a lot of questions here, though. Most of them, our friend down in the cells can answer. But he can wait. I think I want to have another look at Beth’s back garden. Alun, you come with me. Owen, Gwen, you work with ‘Fox’ and see if you can get anything else from the data.”
“Sir…” ‘Fox’ turned and looked at him. “You’re going to a crop circle site… to try to find out what’s underneath….”
“Yes,” Jack answered.
“Please… take me with you,” he asked. “I want to see… If you find one of the things that killed my father… I want to see.”
Jack hesitated. He didn’t know what they were going to find. And taking a civilian into an area he had gone to a lot of trouble to evacuate was foolhardy at best.
But maybe they OWED him that much.
He nodded. Gwen reached in her pocket and pulled out a blindfold. Jack watched in surprise as ‘Fox’ allowed her to put it on him.
“He insisted,” Gwen explained. “He said if he didn’t see where our base was, we wouldn’t have to ‘zap’ his memory after.”
“Zap?” Jack chuckled. “You watch too much TV, Fox. We don’t use anything that goes ‘zap’ to erase people’s memories. Anyway, come on.”
“Boss,” Alun said. “Maybe Owen or Gwen ought to come with you. I…”
Jack was puzzled for a moment. Then he recalled that U.N.I.T. were in charge at the site.
“You work for Torchwood,” he reminded Alun. “Beyond the government. Above the law. As for the army, even U.N.I.T… If anyone tries to piss you about, piss back at them with authority.”
Alun nodded and smiled a little more confidently and took hold of ‘Fox’ as they headed for the pavement lift. ‘Fox’ was aware of a sensation of upward movement, then the night air on his face before he was guided to the SUV. Jack took the blindfold off him when they were away from the bay area and heading up the wrong side of the A4232 towards the part that was closed off to other traffic. He was quieter than Jack had expected. Perhaps because he was heading towards a location where he might come face to face with the creatures that killed his father. He was close to finding the truth he had sought for so long. That alone must be a scary yet heady thought to contend with.
Jack felt a bit scared, too. He had seen what these things did. They turned Human beings into something else. He wondered what that must be like. Was there any semblance of memory, of knowing who they once were? Did they grieve for their families that they would never see again? Did they rage against the injustice of it all?
He remembered the Dalek Emperor talking about building an army out of Human captives. He had wondered then if those mutated creatures had any memory of what they used to be. The same with the Cybermen who put Human brains in steel bodies. THEY needed an emotion inhibitor to stop their victims going mad with grief and pain.
What about these creatures? This seemed worse because what they became still looked Human. Even Mr Nellis, or Nilles, whose conviction was for a crime that made Jack want to kick him where it hurts until he lost the ability to use it any more, didn’t deserve THAT.
They reached the outer perimeter of the army lockdown and the SUV was waved through automatically. Alun drove them to the end of Beth’s street and they walked from there. Jack was pleased to see that the instructions he had called through before he set out were being followed. There was a mechanical digger at the bottom of Beth’s garden and a deep pit had already been dug. There were soldiers in it now, finishing the job with shovels.
“Reminds me of an old joke that went around the barracks,” Alun said as they watched the work being done by men in fatigues. “Sean writes to Mary from prison. ‘Dear Mary, the guns are buried in the back garden.’ Mary writes back a few days later. “Dear Sean, the army came and dug up the garden.’ Sean writes back ‘Dear Mary, now plant the potatoes.’”
Jack laughed. So did ‘Fox’. It wasn’t the funniest of jokes and it was borderline racist, but standing there watching three more pits being opened on the wasteland between the garden and the dual carriageway they needed something to take their minds off what they might be about to find.
“Sir…” A U.N.I.T. officer approached them. Jack stepped back so that he actually addressed Alun. He noticed a flicker of recognition in the officer’s eyes. And maybe something else, too. Jack recalled Ianto telling him that Alun had suffered some gay-bashing in the army. He watched as Alun drew himself up and gave the officer a direct order. He queried it and Alun replied with a snap in his voice and a reminder that this was a Torchwood operation and the army took orders from them.
“That felt good,” Alun admitted to Jack. “Thanks, boss.” He was going to say something else, but a shout went up from the pit. Jack was there first, followed by Alun and ‘Fox’. They watched as the soldiers passed something up from the pit and dropped it on the ground in front of them. Jack crouched and examined it closely, trying to avoid touching it if he could.
It was a shell, like a pupae that a maggot had turned into a fly inside. Except it would have to be a maggot that was at least three feet in diameter in its widest part and nearly five foot long. It was cracked open. Whatever had pupated had done it ages ago.
He had a strong suspicion what it was. It had Mr Nellis/Nilles DNA.
As he straightened up he heard a gun shot and a yell from below in the pit. Alun was holding the gun. One of the soldiers had yelled as Alun fired down, hitting a three foot wide ‘maggot’ that was crawling out of the trench wall. It was white, slime-covered, and dead. Yellow blood poured from the bullet hole in the blunt end that seemed to pass for a head.
The dead creature slithered out of the hole, pushed out by a live one behind it. Alun fired again as Jack yelled at the soldiers to get out. He didn’t need to tell them twice. They were clambering up the scaling ladder as fast as possible. The one who got onto it first scrambled out of the pit, helped by Jack. ‘Fox’ reached for the second. The third…
Alun gave a gasp of horror as a third maggot slithered out into the trench and touched the man who was still trying to get up the ladder. In an eyeblink he was gone. He didn’t even have time to scream. But the maggot was changing. Alun watched as its outer body hardened into a pupae case.
Jack and Alun both opened fire on it. Blood that was half alien yellow and half Human red poured from the wounds as it disintegrated.
“THAT…” ‘Fox’ shuddered. “That’s what happened to my dad?”
Jack took hold of him by the shoulders and pulled him away from the pit. “Come on. Beth won’t mind if I make you a cuppa in her kitchen.” He looked around at Alun as he holstered his weapon and nodded.
“Burn them,” Alun ordered the soldiers. “Fire incendiaries into the pits. Use petrol. Just burn those things. All the pits… burn them all.”
There was no question of anyone not obeying his order this time. The arc lamps that lit the scene were soon cutting through smoke and flame that rose up from the pits.
Alun turned from watching them and stepped into the kitchen. A man in a suit stepped out of the shadows and followed him. Jack looked up from where he was sitting with ‘Fox’ at the kitchen table.
“Martin?” he exclaimed. “What are you…”
Martin said nothing. He beckoned to Jack from the kitchen door. He stood up.
“Get yourself a cuppa, Alun,” he said as he stepped past him. Martin moved outside.
“My name isn’t Martin,” he said. “And I’m not with the army. I’m with MI5. My name is Garrett. Martin was a cover name. And… the date we should have had tonight… It WAS to find out what Torchwood know about these bloody crop circles.”
“You used me?” Jack had a vision of Beth’s face as she looked at Ianto and Alun earlier this evening. He felt the same sense of betrayal.
“If it helps, I’m really sorry we had to call it off,” Garrett told him. “But right now… I have to congratulate you. You’ve cracked the mystery that’s kept everyone guessing for decades. Everyone was looking at the skies. Perhaps it needed somebody who lives and works underground to think that these things come from below. It was a good night’s work, anyway.”
“People have died,” Jack pointed out.
“MANY people have died,” Garrett answered. “This has been going on for decades, all over the world. MI5, MI6, DGSE, BND, FSB, ASIS, CIA, all have agents on it. We’ve known there was a connection between the crop circles and disappearances. We also got as far as working out that people APPEARED in the circles, too. We’ve been following that up for a LONG time.”
“And you never thought to share this with US?”
“Beyond the government, Jack. Your remit. We don’t have any obligation to share anything with you. Besides, it was our business, not yours.”
“How so?” he demanded.
“The Human-aliens, they don’t just continue the ordinary mundane lives of the people they assimilate. They get into business, politics, industry. Not all the way, so far. The Prime Minister is one hundred per cent Human. So is the Cabinet, but only because the member for Salisbury had a fatal accident just before he was appointed as Foreign Secretary. The Americans have the same problem. They’ve been getting crop circles since the 1940s.”
“Don’t tell me… JFK was an alien?”
“If he was, I wouldn’t be at liberty to tell you,” Garrett admitted. “The point is, we’ve been clearing up the end results for years. This is the first time we’ve got close to stopping them BEFORE they assimilate anyone. We’ve taken a big step towards eradicating them tonight. And… I was authorised to tell you that much.”
“Thanks,” Jack answered coldly.
“We’ll work through all the crop circle sites,” Garrett added. “They’ll all be excavated, burnt, like these ones.”
“Gonna be a whole rash of gas leaks and unexploded bombs then? You know those excuses are wearing really thin around Cardiff. We use them all the time.”
“Yeah, probably,” Garrett replied. “But you know as well as I do, people swallow all sorts of lies.”
“Yeah,” Jack answered, and there was a catch in his voice as he said that one word.
“WE have to lie to people, sometimes,” Garrett added. “I had to lie to you. You lie to other people. We’re professional liars. But… I still would like to have dinner with you – next week maybe? And that’s the TRUTH.”
Garrett reached out his hand and touched Jack’s cheek gently and he smiled the smile that had attracted him in the first place. But he still felt stung by his deception.
“I’ll think about it,” Jack told him. He turned away and went back to the kitchen.
“We’re done here,” he told Alun and ‘Fox’. He walked with them to the SUV and took the driving seat. He was strangely quiet as he drove them back through the security perimeter. When he was a mile or so beyond it, he stopped the car. He turned and looked at ‘Fox’.
“You know what happened to your father, now. Even by Torchwood standards that’s pretty horrific. Can you live with that? Does it bring you closure on that part of your life? Or would you rather…. We don’t have anything that zaps. We have little white pills that dissolve in a drink. We can go sit in a late night café and I’ll drop one in a cup of coffee. You’ll wake up at home and you won’t remember any of this. But you still won’t know what killed your father.”
“You’re giving me the CHOICE?” ‘Fox’ looked at him in astonishment.
“I must be going soft in my old age. But, yes. If you choose, you can get out of this car now, go home. Of course, I’m going to have Ianto and Alun scanning the internet regularly. If any mention of us, any description of the batcave, ends up on any blog, forum or website, we’ll be on you like a ton of bricks.”
“I swear,” ‘Fox’ told him. “Jack… thank you. I….”
“Just get out of here before I change my mind.”
‘Fox’ opened the car door and climbed out. He walked away like a man who would like to run away but wasn’t sure if that would make them pursue him after all. Jack watched him turn a corner before he started the car up again.
Back at the hub he went straight down to the cells. He pulled up a stool and sat on it outside the alien’s cell. He crossed his legs and gave the impression of being relaxed and at peace with himself.
“I won’t talk,” the alien said.
“Ok, don’t,” Jack answered. “I’ll talk instead. I just wondered if you have access to any of Mr. Nellis’s memories. You have so much of his DNA, you must have some residual memory, some piece of his mind. I wondered if you could remember when he went to jail for doing revolting things to young children. Maybe you remember what the other prisoners like to do to child molesters in prison. Do you remember any of that?”
The alien said nothing. But there was a flicker of the eyelids, a twitch, a vein in the neck that throbbed.
“Turns out I have a friend in MI5. I think I’m going to have dinner with him next week. I don’t know why I’m telling YOU that, actually. But the thing is, MI5 are even dirtier players than we are. Right now he’s arranging to plant evidence in Mr Nellis’s house. Videos, pictures, kiddies underwear. And I’ve let him have a couple of pictures of you to change the mug shots on your police record. Meanwhile, another friend of mine, DCI Swanson, is going to be told where she can pick you up. And basically, that’s you off my hands for a long time. But the thing is, I can see that when you get to jail you’re put in the general population where they’ll do unspeakable things to that frail, Human body you assimilated. Or I can get you a cell in the ‘special’ wing where you’ll just have to deal with creeps who want to be your bedtime friend. It’s up to you, basically. You know what you have to do. Just fill in the blanks for me, like what your species is, and where you come from. How you got here. How many more there are, not counting the ones we fried tonight.”
The alien looked at him. Jack’s face was impassive.
He began to speak. Jack flicked on a very small digital recorder that he confiscated from an alien one time.
A little later he came back upstairs. The hub was quiet. Gwen and Owen had both gone home. Alun was with Ianto and Beth in the boardroom. He went up there. A section of the dried pupae case of the creature from the pit was on the table, looking like an unusual souvenir of a junior school nature walk. There was a coffee pot that looked more interesting to Jack at that moment. He poured himself a cup and stood and looked at the three of them. Alun was sitting close to Ianto and they were both talking quietly with Beth.
“For the official record,” Jack said as everyone became attentive to him. “The creatures responsible for crop circles are called Uziga, from a planet called Uziga’Ro. I’ve got a star co-ordinate for it, but again just for the official record. The planet no longer exists. One starship containing genetic pods – basically boxes of giant maggots – escaped as the planet exploded from tectonic instability. It travelled on autopilot looking for a suitable planet with soil that the pods could bury themselves in. It found ours and jettisoned the pods into the atmosphere. Some probably didn’t make it. They may have hard landed and been smashed to bits, or landed in the oceans and disintegrated into fish food. Some landed on soil and buried themselves in it. They would stay there for decades, maybe, before the right conditions caused them to start to… germinate… for want of a better word. That’s when crop circles would break out. Even then most just died for lack of suitable material – that is Human DNA - to bond with. It wasn’t the most effective alien invasion we’ve ever had. But they’ve been successful enough… up to now.”
“Now we know what to do whenever a crop circle turns up. We’ll be sharing this information with MI5, the CIA and their equivalents across the world. Wherever a crop circle appears, there’ll be a mechanical digger and a flame thrower.”
“Can I go home, then?” Beth asked.
“There’s a big smoking hole in your back lawn and squaddies tramping mud into your kitchen lino and drinking your tea,” Jack told her. “I had a room booked at the St. David’s Hotel tonight – on the off chance, as it were. I’m not going to be needing it now, so I’ll give you a lift over there in a minute. Or these two can take you, if you want. Have you forgiven them?”
“Yes,” she answered. “I… I remembered everything, you know. About being here the last time. And Ianto told me what really happened to my brother. I DO understand why you thought I shouldn’t know, but I’m… I’d rather know the truth.”
“The truth…” Ianto looked at Jack meaningfully. Would she still remember the truth when she woke up the next morning in the St. David’s Hotel? Or would he and Alun be charged with slipping the Retcon into her nightcap?
“I really am going soft, I think. I let ‘Fox’ off without a Retcon, and I am damned sure we’re not going to do it to you, either. You’ve just made up with these two. I can’t take that away, now.”
“She’s a receptionist,” Ianto pointed out. “Suppose we give her a job in the front office. Pretty girl, nice, friendly personality. And Alun and I can get on with more important things like the bloody inventory.”
Jack looked from Ianto to Beth. She looked back at him with an anxious, hopeful look. He thought about the Hub in the old days, when it was fully staffed. Beth on reception would make a team of seven. A long way from the two hundred they had at their wartime peak. But getting there.
He smiled and nodded. Beth smiled back happily. He wondered if she’d be as happy when she saw her back garden tomorrow. But all in all, it hadn’t been the worst evening’s work.
And he WAS still on for a date with Garrett next week.