Toshiko closed her call to Gwen, assured that Estuko was settling in nicely at her flat and not missing her at all – well, not too much, anyway.
If truth be told, she was missing Etsuko a lot. But she tried not to let Gwen know, and she didn’t want Owen to think she wasn’t capable of parting with her for a few days.
She looked at Owen. He was too busy swearing at the Glasgow city centre traffic to notice anything else. He always got irritated in traffic. Toshiko was sure if she opened a dictionary at ‘road rage’ it would say ‘see Owen Harper’.
“Bloody Satnav!” he complained, switching his anger from the other road users to the technology in the hire car. “What use is it? Where is this bloody place anyway? Christ sake! At least we can find our office.”
“Only because we know where it is,” Toshiko pointed out. “Nobody else can.”
“Well, not since you removed that Google Earth download pointing to the ‘Torchwood Headquarters” - and Jack had strong words with the conspiracy theory twat who put it there.”
“Yeah, that was fun, wasn’t it! All those UFO nerds in the Plas having their photo taken by the fountain.”
“Bollocks!” Owen moaned as he was cut off by a minicab.
“Actually, I think it’s that place…” Toshiko said, pointing to a rather nondescript looking florists sandwiched between a laundrette and a betting shop. The name of the shop was in pale yellow letters on a dark blue fascia above the window.
“You have got to be joking!” Owen said. “He actually put that on the shop front? Is he bloody mental?”
“That’s for you to decide. You’re supposed to be giving him a full physical and psychological examination to establish if he’s fit to run the Glasgow office.”
“Well, my initial diagnosis is, no, he fucking well isn’t,” Owen growled as he searched for a parking space.
Finding a place to park did nothing for Owen’s temper. Eventually, though, they tracked back to the florists. Close to it looked even less inviting than when they had glimpsed it in passing. The big display window had nothing in it except one straggly potted plant with dark green leaves and pale flowers.
“I wish we didn’t have to go in,” Toshiko sighed as Owen pushed open the door and a bell jangled.
There was nobody else inside the shop. No customers, nobody serving. Whatever else they were expecting to find, they had certainly expected somebody to be there to greet them and take them through to the real Torchwood Two headquarters beyond the shop front.
“Funny sort of florist,” Toshiko commented. “There are no bunches of flowers at all. Just potted plants.”
“This one in the window,” Owen told her as he bent and examined a faded label tied to the stem. “It’s called Torchwood.”
“Yes, it’s an aromatic plant from the USA,” Toshiko confirmed. “I’ve seen it on the internet when I’ve been wiping out conspiracy theory blogs. “Still, it’s odd. No cut flowers, not even a bunch of daffodils.”
“Cut flowers are dead,” said a voice with a soft Scottish burr to it. Toshiko and Owen both turned to see a middle aged man, maybe fifty, a little overweight, wearing a deep green jacket and kilt with a brown shirt. The overall effect was to make him look a bit like one of his potted plants.
“I’m sorry?” Toshiko was puzzled by his remark. “But…”
“Cut flowers are dead… Their lifeblood is severed. They last a few days, but after that… they fade. They’re gone. These… my lovely friends… are alive and thriving under my care. When a customer takes one of them home to love and cherish…”
“You have customers?” Owen looked and sounded sceptical. “Never mind. We didn’t come all this way to look at pot plants.” He took out his Torchwood ID and held it up. “Doctor Owen Harper, this is Toshiko Sato. And you just have to be Angus McLeish.”
“Doctor Harper, Miss Sato…” McLeish reached out a pudgy hand to shake with Owen and then bowed to Toshiko. Not the traditional bow that her Japanese family used, but more like a flourishing, theatrical bow. “A beautiful oriental bloom,” he said. “Like the delicate Sakara flower.”
“Cherry Blossom,” Toshiko said as Owen looked puzzled. “Unofficial symbol of Japan.”
Right. Well, I’m just a bunch of stinging nettles. So mind you don’t get stung, Mr McLeish.”
“Tender-handed stroke a nettle, And it stings you, for your pains: Grasp it like a man of mettle, And it soft as silk remains.”
“Grasp me and you’ll get your arm broken,” Owen answered. “Let’s get on with this. Where’s the entrance to your headquarters?”
“Right over there,” McLeish said, pointing to a rack of colourful seed envelopes on the wall. He went to the counter and reached for a button underneath. The section of wall slid back. Owen and Toshiko stepped inside. It was a lift. The door closed and it started to descend. Toshiko clutched Owen’s hand. He was glad of it. Neither of them scared easily. But this place and its owner were creeping them out.
“My diagnosis hasn’t changed. He’s a bloody loony.”
“We still have to do a full investigation of the premises, inventory, notes on current projects. And we need to be careful. Remember, he’s the one who sent us the mood pebble through the ordinary parcel post.”
“I remember,” Owen answered as the lift came to a bumpy halt. The door opened. Toshiko suppressed a shriek as she saw McLeish standing there.
“How did you… You couldn’t have got down here so fast. What’s going on?”
“Ah,” said the apparition in a laconic voice. “You’ve made the usual mistake. I’m Gordon McLeish. You met my brother Angus up above in the shop?”
“Twin brother is it?” Owen asked. “Right. I’ll be doing two medicals then. You can both present yourselves in an hour, in whatever passes for a medical centre around here. Meanwhile, we want to see everything in this facility.”
“What’s the magic word?” Gordon McLeish asked. “Manners cost nothing, you know!”
“Do as I fucking say or you’ll be shut down and out on your ears in two hours,” Owen replied. “Is that magic enough for you?”
Gordon McLeish scowled, but he seemed to have got the message. Owen had not, in truth, planned to be so heavy handed, but ever since he walked into the Little Shop of Horrors above he had been irritated. The prospect of two creepy McLeishes to deal with wasn’t improving matters.
Of course, Torchwood Three only outranked Torchwood Two by default. Technically they were both chartered under the same equal terms. But when the far larger Torchwood One went down, Jack had assumed authority over the moribund Scottish section, and an investigation into just what went on up here was well overdue.
Gordon brought them along a short length of dimly lit corridor, and then through a secure door opened with a key code. They stepped through it into a space that rivalled Hub Central in Cardiff. At least it would if there were not so many plants occupying the said space. Not only were there huge pots with tree sized shrubs everywhere, but there were hanging baskets dangling from the roof beams and the walls and part of the ceiling were lushly covered by some sort of climbing vine.
“I hope these are all Earth indigenous plants,” Owen said. “Any alien specimens have to be kept in special growing rooms with airlocks.”
McLeish didn’t answer him. Owen repeated himself more forcefully.
“Aye, these are all indigenous friends,” McLeish eventually replied. “Our visitors from beyond the stars live in a separate facility where they can be given the care and attention they need.”
“You… are talking about plants, still, aren’t you?” Toshiko asked cautiously.
“Of course,” McLeish assured her. “Look, here. This is a very fine specimen of our namesake, Amyris elemifera, Sea Torchwood, all the way from the Bahamas, and thriving in the special artificial sunlight my brother developed. You’ve seen its sister plant, the Amyris madrensis upstairs. That’s from the mountains of eastern California. They’re exotic beauties from all the way around the other side of our own world.” As he spoke, McLeish actually stroked and fondled the leaves of the large, treelike shrub that stood in the biggest terracotta pot Toshiko had ever seen. It had multiple spindly branches with dark green waxy leaves and dozens of small fruits. The unripe green ones looked like avocadoes and the black, ripe ones had a glossy look to them. Toshiko couldn’t, in all honesty, see what McLeish was so enamoured by. It was just a plant. She didn’t even think it was particularly attractive. The ripe fruits looked rather repellent. She was sure they weren’t edible.
McLeish moved on to show her the doubtful charms of another plant. Owen reached and touched the Sea Torchwood, plucking one of the leaves to look closely at it. McLeish suddenly turned with a mixture of anguish and rage in his eyes.
“How dare you!” he shouted. “How dare you cause such casual and wanton pain to a living thing!”
“It’s just a leaf,” Owen replied, waving it airily.
“Would you tolerate needles stuck into your flesh at a whim?”
“It’s just a leaf,” Owen repeated. “From a plant. It doesn’t have feelings.”
“Have you never seen heliotrope turn its face towards the sun?” Gordon McLeish asked him. “Never seen a tree bleed sap to repair a wound caused by incautious man with his knives and axes, chainsaws and other abominations. Have you never heard them scream in agony?”
“What?” Toshiko looked at him in surprise. “Scream…what can you possibly mean?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Owen said. “Yes, as I said, plants are living organisms. Yes, there is a mechanism within them that causes them to face the sun, to push up their leaves skywards, something that tells them its time to germinate seeds in spring. I know all of that. But a plant is not a sentient life form. And it does not feel pain.”
“How wrong you are,” Gordon McLeish replied. “How very, very wrong. Come. I will show you.”
He led them up a short stairway from the main floor to a glass fronted room not unlike Jack’s office. It was filled with plants. These were a rather more familiar and reassuring collection of roses that filled the enclosed space with a scent that Toshiko would have found pleasant in any other circumstances. Gordon McLeish pointed to a dwarf rose plant in a pot on the desk.
“It’s blooms are fading now,” he said. “As is natural to the species. When the sap is withdrawn and they are dry, removing them is no more harmful that having your nails cut. Deadheading is like a therapeutic manicure for the sweet wee thing. She enjoys it.” In demonstration, he pinched off several of the brown, dry flower heads. Then he picked up a small pair of scissors. “But if the sap is still running, it’s as painful to her as if you had your fingernails ripped out.” He found one of the still fresh blooms and cut it. As he did so, there was a shrill squeal. He at once dropped the scissors and stroked the plant.
“There, my pet,” he crooned. “I am sorry to cause you pain. It was the only way to convince these foolish Sasanachs that their perception of ‘life’ is wrong.” He looked at Owen disdainfully. “That is the sound a plant makes when a leaf or a flower is cut or ripped from it. The frequency is too low for humans usually. I have special sensors in this room that pick up the sound and reproduce it at a level you can hear. But I can hear. I hear the soft murmur of a flower as it blooms, the whisper of the leaves. I hear their cries when they are hurt. There is nothing more heartbreaking.”
“You’re a fucking loony,” Owen replied and turned to look for Toshiko. She wasn’t there. He ran from the room, calling for her.
He caught up with her in the corridor, pressing the button that summoned the lift again and again as if that would make it come faster. She was crying.
“It’s okay, Tosh,” he assured her, putting a comforting arm around her shoulder. “It’s ok. That bloke is a nutter.”
“But that sound….”
“It was the scissors, metal on metal, amplified by some kind of sensor. There’s no way it was real. It was set up. To creep you out. He’s playing some kind of stupid fucking mind game with us.”
“It sounded real…”
“We’ve seen a lot of weird shit in Torchwood. We tend to believe what other people would think was a load of crap. If he did that demo to any ordinary Joe up there walking around Glasgow they’d think he was a crackpot. Look at it from an outsider’s point of view, Toshiko, and you’ll see its rubbish.”
“Well….” She looked at him and managed a weak smile. “I suppose you’re right. Sorry. I’ve been silly, haven’t I? I’m not usually so jumpy. This place really is creepy, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is. But we’ve got a job to do here. Jack’s relying on us. We’d better…”
The lift door opened. The other McLeish brother stepped out. Toshiko drew back from him. Owen just gave him the dirtiest look he knew how to give.
“Seeing as you’re here, you can show Toshiko the rest of the facility while I start on your brother’s medical. And no funny business, ok. Toshiko, if he steps out of line, feel free to kick him in the nuts. And I don’t mean the ones that grow on trees.”
Toshiko didn’t want to go with McLeish. She wanted to get out of this weird place and go back home. Of course, Owen was right. It was a trick. But the business with the roses had unnerved her. Even though Owen’s explanation made sense, she wasn’t entirely sure. The last thing she wanted to do was see the rest of the complex in company with one half of the creepy duo.
But Owen was right about that, too. They were there to do a job. He was doing his. She had to do hers.
When her job was done, though, she was only too glad to get away. She walked so fast when she got out of the shop that Owen had to run to catch up with her.
“You need a dose of normality,” he said. “Drinks, dinner…”
Toshiko looked around at the ordinary, busy Glasgow city street. People were coming and going, there were brightly lit shops, cars and buses. She turned back and looked, almost expecting the strange flower shop to have disappeared like one of the ephemeral buildings in Harry Potter or something. It was still there, between the laundrette and a betting shop, looking dull and uninviting but definitely real.
“Drinks and dinner are a good idea. But back at the hotel. I’d like a shower and a change of clothes. I feel like I need to wash that place off myself.”
They did just that. An hour later they were both dressed for dinner and were shown to a table in the hotel restaurant. Owen ordered a thick round steak with roast potatoes and selected vegetables and a pint of beer. Toshiko had paprika chicken and salad with a glass of wine. In the warm, pleasant atmosphere she tried to put what she had seen in Torchwood Two out of her mind, but halfway through her meal she stopped eating and just looked at her food instead.
“What’s up?” Owen asked her.
“I was just thinking. When I was looking around the facility, I asked McLeish about the artificial sunlight that he developed. I said it could be used for growing food, you know, feed the world and stuff. And he went right off the rails. He said he would have nothing to do with such an idea. He said that eating plants was vile murder.”
“So… what does he and his loopy brother eat?”
“I asked him that. He said they eat animal flesh and fruits and vegetables that have fallen naturally from the plant, you know, like windfall apples. Until the seeds germinate, you see, they don’t consider them to be alive. So that’s ok. But food like this… your potatoes and veg… or my salad… eating this is nothing short of atrocity.”
Owen looked at Toshiko, noting the way she had put down her fork.
“What? Come on? Don’t tell me it’s put you off eating?”
“Not exactly. But it did make me think… I mean, what if he was right?”
Owen very deliberately sliced into a roast potato and ate a piece. Then he cut a chunk of his steak and chewed it carefully. Finally he speared a julienne carrot and put it into his mouth.
“Nope, doesn’t bother me one little bit. I feel a tiny, tiny bit guilty about the steak. But only because I’m a doctor and I know red meat isn’t good for me. I’m not going to get upset because a spud gets peeled and roasted to feed me. And I don’t feel at all sorry for carrots. It’s bollocks, Tosh. Meat, vegetables, fruit, bread… it’s all part of the food chain. The one we’re at the top of. Lettuce is down the very bottom. Tough luck on it.”
Toshiko picked up her fork and ate some of the chicken, skirting around the humble lettuce.
“Did you see anything unusual in the special facility, by the way?”
“Yes,” she answered. “They’ve got a massive collection of alien plant specimens. I went through his inventory carefully. You would not believe some of them. Giant fungi that respond to ultra violet light, plants that grow in ice, with natural anti-freeze in their chlorophyll. There’s a cactus with poisonous spines. McLeish said that they’re a natural paralysing agent and there’s no known antidote. A whole section of hydroponic plants. And then…” Again she put down her fork. “The weirdest of all… they’ve got a huge room with a glass wall and an airlock to get in and out. And the plants in there… they’re about the height of a man, but they grow in about an inch of dry sandy soil scattered on the floor. Their roots are just sort of dusted with it. And… I was almost sure one of them moved. I didn’t exactly see it, but I looked away and when I turned back, it seemed to be in a different position.”
“Triffids!” Owen half smiled. “The nutjobs keep Triffids. Wouldn’t surprise me. Still, walking alien plants – that’s only slightly weirder than our resident Weevil collection in the vaults.”
“Except we don’t breed Weevils. McLeish said they started with one seed. They let it germinate and grow, and propagated new plants from the original. Now they have twelve of them.”
“That’s different,” Owen conceded. “They shouldn’t be breeding them. At least not that many. That goes beyond experimenting with the species.”
“McLeish didn’t seem to regard it as experimenting. He seemed to think they were nurturing them. And… even Jack isn’t nuts enough to go into a cell and pet a Weevil. Angus McLeish went in through the airlock and walked around these plants, stroking them, talking to them.”
“So, we’re agreed that both brothers are round the potty bend?”
“Yes,” Toshiko answered.
“Ok, when we’re finished eating, we’ll contact Jack and tell him what we’ve found.
They had a nice suite with two en suite bedrooms and a pleasantly appointed drawing room, all at Jack’s expense to make up for their long journey. Toshiko put her laptop on the coffee table and set up the secure webcam connection to Torchwood Three. He was expecting them to report in, and she was delighted to see him holding Etsuko on his knee as he sat at his desk.
“Gwen thought you’d like to see her,” he said, then told the baby to ‘wave to mummy’. Toshiko waved back to her enthusiastically before Gwen came to take her from him and they got down to the serious point of the communication. Toshiko outlined what she had found, especially the ‘Triffid nursery’ and the fact that the McLeish brothers were breeding them. Then Owen gave a digest of his report on the medical and physical condition of the two men.
“They’re both suffering anaemia and high cholesterol,” he said. “A high protein, low vitamin diet would do that. Eating meat and no vegetables. And according to every psychological test I know of, they’re total fruit loops. Mentally unbalanced is too mild a term. They’re delusional. All that stuff about hearing plants scream, irrational, introverted to the point of paranoia. I don’t think either of them have left the building for years. They’re completely unfit to run the facility.”
“So you would both recommend a shut down? Jack asked.
“Yes,” Toshiko and Owen both replied at once.
“All right,” Jack said. “Go ahead. You have my authorisation. Do you want back up? Are they likely to take it badly?”
“I think they’ll flip their fucking lids,” Owen answered. “I’m going to get them both sectioned under the Mental Health Act, anyway. They need to be safely out of the way when we close down the facility and dispose of their experiments.”
“I’ll arrange for Ianto and Alun to join you in the morning. I can pull a string or two with U.N.I.T. and have them flown up there. Don’t make any move until then. These two…”
“Is there something else?” Owen asked.
“I’m not sure,” Jack answered. “McLeish and McLeish have been on their own up there for about ten years. The staff just drifted off. But Gwen did some digging earlier. There might actually be a man missing. We’re not sure. He was with Torchwood One under Yvonne Hartmann. He was due to go up there and meet with the brothers when things went pear shaped in London. After the Battle of Canary Wharf, he got listed among the missing. No body found. It was assumed that he was cyber converted, but there’s room for doubt. Maybe he got to Glasgow before the proverbial hit the fan down there. But if he did…”
“What?” Owen grimaced. “You think the loopy brothers turned him into compost or something?”
“I wouldn’t rule that out,” Toshiko pointed out. “They have a huge mulcher down there. Angus McLeish showed it to me. Dried leaves, dead plants, go into it. Apparently they consider it natural for plants to feed other plants, the circle of life sort of thing.”
“I wouldn’t rule it out, either,” Jack said. “So don’t try to shut them down until you have some extra help. And take your guns. Be careful, both of you.”
“Don’t worry,” Owen assured him. “I’m not going to end up as plant food.”
Talking to Jack was a slice of their own kind of normality. When they ended the call, both felt a little empty. Owen looked at Toshiko. She looked back at him. There was a silence that grew more awkward the longer it went on.
“Do you want to watch a bit of TV?” Owen asked, just to break the silence. “I think we’ve got a selection of satellite channels.”
“There’s nothing worth watching on any of them,” Toshiko answered. “I might take a bath and then get an early night. Today was a long day, and it’s going to be even longer tomorrow.”
“Ok,” he answered, trying not to sound disappointed. Sitting on a hotel sofa watching TV was hardly a date. But he had allowed himself a sliver of hope. Jack knew about the below the radar nature of their relationship. Owen was pretty sure that was partly why he had sent the two of them up here on this field mission. He was encouraging them to get to first base in neutral territory. But somehow it didn’t seem to be happening, and none of his usual chat up methods would do in this situation.
He put on the TV anyway, simply because the silence was too much to bear. He didn’t bother to watch it. It was background sound as he read through his notes on the McLeish brothers and wondered just how they got to be quite so obviously unhinged. Was it working for Torchwood that did it? There was plenty of evidence to suggest that going off the deep end was common among Torchwood personnel. There was Suzie, for one. Before her, Jack’s immediate predecessor as Cardiff director, Alex Hopkins. And his predecessor, Fergus MacManus. They were all completely schizoid. And Ianto’s old boss at Torchwood One, Yvonne Hartman, was bit of a nutter by all accounts.
It was the job. It drove people nuts.
“Not me,” he told himself. “If it starts to get to me, I’ll get out. I can always go back to the hospital, treating Human patients. Put Torchwood behind me.”
Except he knew he couldn’t do that. Yes, of course, he could go back to his old job. But Torchwood would always be a part of him. The knowledge that the world was full of that weird shit would be with him till he died.
And if he left, he would have to leave Toshiko.
He drifted off to sleep thinking those kind of thoughts. When Toshiko came through from her room, dressed in a dark pair of loose fitting pyjamas, her face pink and her hair damp from the bath, he didn’t even stir. Toshiko put a cushion under his head and bent to kiss him on the cheek.
“Goodnight, Owen,” she whispered. She switched off the TV and turned down the light before she went back to her bedroom.
Owen woke suddenly in the dark. Something had woken him. Something that didn’t sound right. He listened carefully, keeping very still. There was somebody in the room, moving about. It wasn’t Toshiko. She didn’t have such heavy footsteps.
Then he heard a scream from her room, suddenly cut off as if her mouth was covered. Owen jumped up from the sofa and ran for the door. He never made it. Somebody felled him with a crack on the back of his head. As he blacked out he heard Angus McLeish telling his brother to check if he was alive or not.
He woke to find himself lying on some sort of hard, metallic surface in a dimly lit room. He guessed it was somewhere in Torchwood Two. The McLeish brothers must have brought him there. But he didn’t know where exactly he was, or what was making the loud noise that was going right through his already pounding head.
“What the fuck?” The noise turned up a few decibels and the surface he was on began to vibrate and move. Something wet and unpleasant hit his face. He reached up to wipe it off. It was mulched up leaves. He remembered Toshiko telling him that there was a machine in the facility that turned old, dead vegetable matter into compost.
“Oh shit!” The machine was inches away from turning Owen into compost. He yelled in shock and planted his feet firmly on the metal rim either side of the wide aperture with spinning blades that chopped up everything that was fed into it on the metal conveyor belt. He pushed his hands against the smooth steel sides of the hopper and inched himself upright. He tried to climb out, but he was assailed by Angus McLeish who tried to beat him back down into the diabolical machine.
“Get the fuck off me,” Owen screamed as he grappled with the loony brother. He tried again to climb out, but Angus pushed at him and he started to fall. He reached out and grabbed Angus by the shirt collar. Angus fell forward over the side of the hopper and Owen yelled again as he saw what happened next. It wasn’t something he would have wished on anyone. He felt a little sick as he saw Angus’s foot sucked into the blades. He felt something warm and wet hit his face. It was ground up flesh and blood. Angus screamed in terror. Owen tried to grab him, but it was too late. He climbed out of the hopper as McLeish was dragged forward. He found the master switch to cut the power to the machine, but he knew as the blades stopped that it was too late. McLeish had stopped screaming. Owen looked back into the machine and saw the top half of him caught in the aperture. His blood and gore spattered face was frozen in an expression of horror and agony. He wondered if it would be better to turn the machine on and let it finish the job. He decided against it. The sound was just too grisly.
“Toshiko!” Owen turned from the grim scene and ran through the dark passages of the facility. He still wasn’t sure where he was, exactly, but he figured up was probably good in an underground maze of passages.
He stopped once and looked at a large, empty room behind a glass partition. It had an airlock door, but it was wide open. He noticed that there was about an inch of sandy soil on the floor. There were strange trails in it as if a lot of things that didn’t have feet as he defined them had shuffled around.
The trails converged on the open door, and some of the soil was transferred into the corridor. Something – maybe several somethings – had come out of the room. Owen recalled Toshiko’s description of the ‘Triffids’ and decided he had better arm himself, somehow.
This facility, unlike Torchwood Three, seemed very short on weapons. But he headed for the medical room. There were some possibilities there. He found what he needed and headed up to the main Hub floor.
His suspicions were realised as he emerged from a stairwell and concealed himself behind a large potted plant – another fine specimen of that Sea Torchwood McLeish was so fond of. He watched as a dozen or more plants, at least as tall as a man, and with a vaguely humanoid shape to their branches and tendrils, shuffled about on their roots like prisoners in an exercise yard, or children in an early twentieth century school playground doing ‘drill’
Gordon McLeish was there. So was Toshiko, in dark blue pyjamas and no shoes, tied to a metal chair. She looked all right. Scared, but unhurt, so far at least.
McLeish was speaking, not to Toshiko, but to the weird alien plants around him.
“There, my precious ones. Be patient a little while. My brother has disposed of the male interloper. We don’t need him. We want a female to join us. We haven’t had a female transformation before. And after this, we will go forth and multiply. We will be masters of this planet, returning it to nature, clean and free of pollutants, a planet where plants are supreme.”
The plants rustled their leaves excitedly. Toshiko strained at the ropes that held her to the chair and her eyes glittered with anger despite her fear.
“Let me go, you crazy… Keep those things away from me. You’re completely mad. Plants… alien plants… as masters of Earth. What about the people?”
“There will be no people,” McLeish answered. “Flesh and blood, Human DNA will all have been converted to vegetable matter. These… my beautiful friends… they were all Human once. The seeds… the first seed… it infected one of my lab assistants, John McInerney. He changed rapidly. It took no more than three days for his whole body, blood, bone, hair, to be turned to what you see here. That was him… the one with the open seed pods.” McLeish pointed to one of the strange plants. It shivered and shook as if acknowledging the recognition. “The process took longer with my other Human experiments… the other Torchwood personnel and the more unwitting volunteers… some of them were customers in the shop above, some were homeless that nobody would miss. And that one who came from London, poking his nose in here the way you and your friend did. There he is…” Again he pointed out one of the plants. Owen wondered how he could possibly tell them apart. This one shivered violently and seemed to shrink back away from McLeish and from the others of its kind. “Yes, the seeds from the Human/plant hybrid took longer to take root. The process was longer and more painful. But I was able to experiment and find out ways of making it more efficient. It is a pity the original mind is so completely subsumed. Although that last one, I think he has some vestiges of memory. He fought, resisted. There is still something about him. He doesn’t quite accept his new existence. I expect that will be the same with you, my dear. You will resist. But it is inevitable. The microseeds have been expelled into this room. You’ve breathed them in. They’re in your bloodstream already. All you need is a few minutes breathing pure nitrogen and the process will be irreversible.”
“But you… you’ve been…”
“Yes… I have breathed them in, too. My body is almost completely saturated with the seeds. I’ve been in their company for so long. My brother, too. Soon we will be ready to take the last step and become one with them. Then we will leave this place and go out into the world, under the sun, and begin to take over the Humans that infest this planet, and make them, too, into pure and blessed plants.”
“Mad,” Toshiko repeated. “You’re completely mad. You’ll never… I won’t become one of those things. I want to see my baby. I want… Owen, help me!”
“It’s ok, Tosh,” Owen replied. “I’m here. I’m going to get you out.” He stood up, grasping the Sea Torchwood plant in one hand, and with the other holding up a long, slim gas lighter used for igniting the Bunsen burner in the medical lab. He brought it near the leaves. “Tosh, we take the word for granted. Torchwood. We don’t think too much about it. But do you know why these plants are called that? It’s because they burn really easily. McLeish, let her go, or I will burn one of your precious friends. Do you want to hear it scream in agony?” He brought the lighter nearer. He scorched one of the leaves. McLeish’s face paled with grief as a pleasant incense like aroma filled the air.
“You fiend!” McLeish cried. “Angus… stop him.”
“Your brother is dead,” Owen told him. “I think he’d be happy. He’s been made into compost. He’s part of the circle of plant life.”
“No!” McLeish’s voice raised several octaves in his grief and shock. “No. My friends, take him… kill him.”
The plants rustled menacingly as they stopped aimlessly shuffling and began to move towards him faster than he would have thought possible.
One moved faster than the others. Owen wasn’t sure, but he thought it might have been the one McLeish identified as Torchwood One’s man. The one that resisted the transformation. As it drew closer, its leaves rustled in a different way. Owen was certain that there was a voice of sorts in it - a dry, leaflike voice, struggling to form words.
“Dooo… ittt… end thisss… pleassse…”
Owen turned the lighter up full and applied it to the Sea Torchwood plant in several places. It caught easily. It was probably a little too dry anyway, growing indoors. It went up like a… well, a torch. Owen stood back as the walking plant moved towards it and he guessed what it was going to do next.
“End… yess….” It seemed to say as it bent towards the burning plant and ignited its own leaves. It turned and moved away, a walking torch, bumping into its fellow victims of McLeish’s madness and setting them alight, too.
Owen moved fast. He dodged the smouldering plantlife. Gordon McLeish gave an anguished cry as he tried to block him. Owen punched him in the face, sending him flying back towards the one that had asked him to end it. He saw branches like limbs fold around McLeish, setting his clothes alight, burning him.
“Tosh!” Owen reached her and cut the ropes with a sharp scalpel he had picked up in the medical lab. “Come on, quickly. We have to get out of here.
Toshiko said nothing. But she clung to Owen’s hand as they dodged past burning plants that flailed blindly and bumped into each other, spreading the conflagration further. Owen wondered briefly why there was no sprinkler system against the possibility of fire. But it was too late to criticise the McLeish’s health and safety record now. He and Toshiko ran for the main door. Once through, Owen operated the manual override and sealed it. He looked around the corridor beyond and saw low level emergency lights in the shape of arrows, pointing towards the fast evacuation stairwell. They ran for it, through a fire door and found themselves in a yard at the back of the row of shops. There was a smell of stale steam from the laundrette vents, but no smoke. The fire was self-contained in the subterranean facility.
“It will burn until the oxygen runs out,” Owen said. “By then there will be nothing to burn.”
“The two brothers… they’re dead.”
“And all their victims. It’s over, Come on. Mind how you go in your bare feet. Let’s find a taxi. We’ll get back to the hotel and call Jack. Tell him what happened.”
“Torchwood One was destroyed by the Cybermen. Torchwood Four is still ‘missing’. Now Torchwood Two is gone. We’re the only ones left.”
“The undefeated,” Owen replied. As they came out onto the main street he saw a taxi rank and steered her towards it. There may well be consequences of what happened tonight. But right now he only had two worries – making sure the driver didn’t look too closely at Toshiko in her pyjamas and getting him to wait while he went to get his wallet from his room.