Jack pushed up the left sleeve of the casual sweater he was wearing and looked at the LED readout on his wristlet.
“Gellanian research pod skimmed the atmosphere,” he said aloud. “Testing the pollution levels in the stratosphere. They use statistics like that to gauge our level of civilisation. CFC’s are our saving grace. If we cleaned up the planet they’d consider us smart enough to be a threat to them. As it is…”
Garrett put his hand over Jack’s wrist, closing the leather cover over the futuristic device.
“You’re off duty,” he told him. “So am I. If I can switch off from seeing enemies of democracy around every corner, you can switch off from watching the skies for alien invasion.”
“Can either of us really switch off from those things?” Jack asked. “It’s in our bones. You’re a spy and I’m…”
“We’re two people enjoying a drink in a rather nice pub on a remote island off the coast of Galway,” Garrett told him. “I’m not sure the locals would be happy knowing I’m an agent of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and they’re certainly not ready to know about Torchwood.”
“They’re not really ready for us, anyway,” Jack pointed out. “When we said we wanted a room with a double bed…”
“It’s a nice bed, though,” Garrett admitted. “It’s been a good week, so far. Just what you needed, after all you went through with The Joker. But you’ve got to relax more. You need to leave Torchwood behind.”
“I can’t,” Jack told him. “The Twenty First Century is when it all changes. And we’ve got to be ready.”
“You know, that sounds like the tag line for a film starring some Hollywood type with more muscle than brain,” Garrett told him. “WHAT is going to change, and when?”
“You don’t need to know,” Jack admitted. “It won’t be in your lifetime. But we have to be ready. We have to be watching the skies, preparing to fight…”
“But it won’t be in my lifetime!” Garrett sighed. “Then it can wait till after this weekend, until you get back to the Hub?”
Jack looked at his lover’s face and smiled.
“Yes, it can,” he finally admitted. He took a mouthful of the Irish whiskey from his glass. Garrett did the same. Then they leaned back against the high-backed headrest of the seat and turned to kiss each other, the taste of the liquor on each other’s lips heightening the pleasure.
“Jack,” Garrett said when they paused for breath. “Have you ever thought about the future in any terms but preparing the Human race for interstellar invasion?”
“What do you mean?” Jack asked, though he thought he probably knew.
“I mean… I’m forty-four, Jack. Assuming I stay alive… I will probably be a field operative for another six years. Then, maybe five years behind a desk… I’d be entitled to early retirement. Her Majesty’s government will owe me a very nice, fat pension. What would you say to retiring with me? We could… I don’t know… come back here and buy this pub and… and I’ll take that damned thing off your wrist and lock it in the bottom drawer of the dresser and we can grow old disgracefully together.”
“Garrett…” Jack shook his head slowly. “No. We can’t make plans like that. We were never meant to get this serious about each other. It was just meant to be about sex… sex and maybe a bit of companionship… but… we weren’t meant to fall in love. And… No. I haven’t thought about the future. I can’t even begin to imagine the two of us being together in eleven years. You’ve read my file. You know I’ve never had a relationship that lasted that long.”
“Because you didn’t have the chance. You had to leave. Or they had to. Because they died, or you were separated from them. You never been able to take a relationship all the way. But we could. You don’t even have to worry about hiding your… your immortality. I already know about that.”
It was complete coincidence, of course, but just at that exact moment, as Jack looked him in the eye, somebody went to the digital jukebox and chose what had to be the most appropriate song of them all.
When I’m 64, by the Beatles.
“That’s the problem,” Jack admitted. “When you’re ready to retire at fifty-five, you know I will still look like I do now. I’ll still look like this when you’re sixty-four, sixty five, seventy…. When you’re old and frail, when you’re lying on rubber sheets with a colostomy bag and a catheter, I’ll still be hot and sexy like I am now.”
“I know,” Garrett answered. “And… that’s what I’m asking. Will you stay with me? Will you be my toy boy when I look old enough to be your dad? Will you…”
“Will I change your colostomy bag, lift you from the sheets, clean you and dress you and feed you when you can’t do those things for yourself?”
“It’s… the same commitment other people make. All your friends… Gwen and Rhys… Ianto and Alun, Owen and Toshiko… Even Beth and Ray if they can get over his problems... they’re all prepared to face that sort of future. Why shouldn’t we?”
“Because…” Jack began to give a perfectly good reason why he and Garrett weren’t the same as the other couples, but it felt like a lame excuse. “I don’t know,” he admitted.
“Jack… trust your heart for once. Dare to think about it.”
Jack thought about it. There were so many reasons to say no. And only one to say yes.
“Tell you what,” he said. “If you stay alive for the next eleven years… if you collect that pension…. Then… yes, I’ll stick with you for the forty, fifty years after that. And… I promise I won’t go looking for anyone younger once your hair goes grey or falls out or whatever.”
“That’s a deal,” Garrett told him before he kissed him again. He did so discreetly. Their seat was in a quiet, almost concealed corner of the pub. Even so, it was causing comment amongst the regular customers. “Let’s go to bed,” he suggested. “I want to be alone with you.”
“I’m not complaining,” Jack answered. Garrett kept hold of his hand as they stood and wound their way through the crowds to the door to the residential part of the hotel.
As they did so, the landlord’s son, Seán, crashed through the outside door. He ran straight into Jack and Garrett and fell over. Jack helped him up.
“What’s up, kid?” he asked. “You look scared stiff.”
“Outside…” he managed to stammer. “The sky… there’s something wrong with the sky.”
“What….” The boy struggled from Jack’s grasp and ran into the bar, still stammering his strange story. Jack watched him for a brief moment and then ran outside.
The boy was right. Something was very wrong with the sky. Jack looked up at it and saw the stars swirling around as if they were performing some kind of elaborate quadrille in the heavens. The colour of the sky was inconstant, too. It was flickering like an old cinema film, black one moment and grey, sickly yellow the next.
As Garrett came to his side and the beer garden filled with the rest of the pub’s staff and customers he opened up the leather cover on his wristlet and looked at the readout on the LCD screen.
“Oh, shit,” he murmured. “We’re in trouble.”
“You think?” Garrett answered him. “What’s happening? Do you know?”
“Well… do you want to enlighten me?”
Jack looked around. The pub wasn’t the only place people were pouring out of now. The entire population of the village was spilling onto the street, looking up at the sky. Some people were screaming, some shouting. Some dropped to their knees and prayed. Some ran about in a panic.
Jack stood there looking at his wristlet.
“Jack… please…” Garrett repeated. “This is… well, it’s not natural, I know that. Is it aliens? Is it….”
“We’re in a time corridor,” Jack told him. “Running forward in time at an accelerated rate.” He looked up at the sky again. “The flickering… that’s days and nights passing by so fast they merge into one… like frames of a cinema film. The stars… are moving around in their usual seasonal patterns.”
“Fucking hell!” Garrett swore. “Why?”
“Nobody knows. The Time Agency in the 51st century tried to research the phenomenon but they didn’t come up with anything more than ‘freak and unpredictable temporal anomalies.’”
“The crew of the Marie Celeste,” Jack continued. “The Bermuda Triangle… open any page in any bargain basement book on the ‘unexplained’ and chances are a time corridor was the explanation.”
“Yes, but…” Garrett grasped Jack’s arm and looked at his wristlet. Most of the data on it was indecipherable. He wondered if Jack even knew what it meant. But there was one readout that he did understand. It was a date and time, year, month, day, hour, minute, second. Every figure except the year and month was changing so rapidly his eye refused to focus on it. The month was scrolling at something like one month every ten seconds and the year once every two minutes.
The year scrolled from 2899 to 3000 as he looked.
“It’s the year three thousand?” Garrett asked. “A thousand years from our own time?”
“From your time, anyway,” Jack remarked. “I still haven’t been born yet. But what worries me…”
“When will it stop? What will stop us?”
“The end of the world in the year five billion and something,” Jack answered. “We’ll burn up with the planet.”
“Five billion…” Garrett looked at the still scrolling readout. He tried to do the maths and gave up.
“We’d have a couple of days.” Around them, frightened people were clinging to each other for comfort. He turned and embraced Garrett, but though he treasured the closeness of his body he didn’t feel comforted. “I… never expected us to die together. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault,” Garrett assured him. “Dying together… before either of us has a chance to get old… all that stuff about the colostomy bags… maybe… that’s not so bad.”
“It is,” Jack protested. “It’s crap. It’s… it’s not fair. But there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m sorry, Garrett. I am so sorry.”
They held each other tightly and tried not to look at the sky. Jack didn’t look at his wristlet, either. He closed his eyes and cursed the irony that he was facing the prospect of real, final, irredeemable death just when he really wanted to live.
Then somebody shouted and pointed and Jack looked up to see the stars moving in the opposite direction. He lifted his arm and looked at the readout now.
“It’s running back,” he said. “It got as far as 5095, the late fifty-first century, and then it started reversing. We’re going back in time again.”
“So we’re not going to burn up when planet Earth is destroyed?” Garrett asked.
“Not… yet…” Jack answered. “I don’t know… maybe we’ll go spinning off in the opposite direction to when the Earth began. We’re not out of the shit, yet.”
“Ok,” Garrett answered him in a philosophical tone. “Ok… so… we’re still going to die together.”
That still wasn’t any consolation. And what really frustrated Jack was his sheer impotence in the face of this crisis. There was nothing he could do except watch the time spin backwards. He couldn’t stop it. He couldn’t even fully explain why it was happening. He had never felt so completely powerless in his life.
“What…!” Garrett exclaimed in surprise. So did everyone else as they found themselves in full daylight. Jack looked around and then looked at his wristlet.
“We’ve stopped,” he said. “We’ve come out of the time corridor. Look…”
He showed Garrett the readout. It gave the date and time as 10.30 in the morning on the day after they had begun spinning out of time. But….
For a second or two as he looked Garrett didn’t realise what was wrong about the date and time. Jack hadn’t noticed it, either. Then it struck them both.
“The second hand is still. Time isn’t moving at all, now. We’ve… stopped.”
They weren’t the only ones who had started to realise there was a problem. A lot of the islanders had begun to move towards the pier where the ferries from the mainland came in. They were looking towards the coast of Galway, some eight miles away.
It was raining over the mainland, and over the sea for most of those eight miles. There was a distinct demarcation line between a dark, stormy day with choppy seas and an iron grey sky and the blue, cloudless sky over the island.
“It’s a different time out there,” Jack said. “We’re in a localised temporal anomaly.”
“Then… don’t we just have to get off the island… go to the mainland…”
“No,” Jack replied. “That might not be a good idea. I don’t know if…”
He broke off and began to run towards the pier. Garrett ran, too. There was already a sizeable crowd. They were watching two men who had just powered up a motor boat and were heading out to sea.
“No!” Jack screamed. “No, call them back. Call them back, now.”
“They’re going to get help,” he was told.
“No,” Jack argued as he pressed and pushed through the crowds to the edge of the stone pier. The motor boat was already close to the demarcation point between the time frozen area surrounding the island and the real time beyond it. He flung off his coat and dived into the sea. It was low tide and it was a high dive. He heard Garrett yell before he hit the water and began to swim with strong, fast strokes.
Ordinarily, he had no chance of catching up with the motor boat, no matter how fast a swimmer he was. But if he was right…
As he crossed the demarcation, he felt it in every part of his body. It was painful. He screamed out loud, though nobody would have heard him. He reached the motor boat, now drifting with no hand at the wheel, and dragged himself aboard.
He looked at the two bodies, aged beyond natural life in an instant as they passed from one time to another. Their deaths would have been mercifully quick. He took comfort from that as he pushed the pilot’s fragile bones away from the wheel and slid into the seat. Before he turned the boat around he looked at his wristlet and noted the local time it was registering.
He turned the boat and drove back into the frozen time zone and back to the pier. Men ran down the steps to help lift the bodies. They exclaimed in horror at what they saw.
“Get them covered… take them somewhere safe,” he said. “Then… I need to talk to everyone… where can we go? Village hall… church…”
The church seemed to be the general consensus. The bodies were wrapped in tarpaulins and brought the same direction up a slight rise from the pier towards the white washed church with its steeple rising up above the village. The two bodies were placed in front of the altar, and the parish priest said prayers over them while the islanders filed into the pews and stood at the back when there was no more room. As far as Jack could guess, the whole population was crammed into the building before the doors were closed. He waited while the priest invited them all to join him in a prayer. When that was done, though, Jack stepped forward. He spoke quietly to the priest who nodded and gestured towards the lectern. He stood up and faced the congregation.
“You don’t know me,” he said. “I’m a visitor to this place. I was supposed to be on holiday, getting away from my work. But… what happened tonight puts me back on duty again. This is my work. We are all victims of something called a temporal corridor. The whole island was caught up in a rare phenomena and moved out of its normal time.”
“Bollocks,” somebody in the congregation called out amidst murmurings of disbelief and fear. The priest admonished him for using a profanity in church
“You all saw what happened,” he said. “The sky… the stars. We were transported forward in time to the fifty first century, and then back again. We should have been pulled back to where we started like a piece of elastic. You’d have all just put it down to some kind of freak weather or the aurora borealis or something and gone to bed and forgot all about it. But something went wrong. We got stuck. Literally stuck. This island is frozen in time at 10.30 am on the morning of Friday, April 9th, 2010. But beyond the island, it is March 3rd, 2114 – a hundred and four years later. That’s why…” He pointed to the two wrapped bodies. “Anyone who crosses the line… the hundred and four years catches up on them instantly.”
“What about you?” A man Jack recognised as the landlord of the hotel bar they were staying at asked the question that somebody was bound to ask. “You’re alive.”
“I didn’t cross the line,” he lied. “I don’t know what it looked liked from the pier… it must have been an optical illusion. I never crossed over. The boat drifted back before I got to it. But the men were already dead.”
Again there were murmurs of quiet conversations, but he could sense that they had accepted his explanation.
“So what are you going to do about it?” he was asked. “If you’re the expert...what do you intend to do?”
“There’s nothing I can do,” Jack answered. “We just have to wait, and hope, pray, that the anomaly corrects itself and we get back to our proper time. And until it does, nobody can leave the island. You’ve seen what will happen.”
“Nobody can come to the island, either?”
“What about the children?” It was a woman who asked the question. Jack was puzzled. There were children sitting with their parents in the congregation. He didn’t understand the question.
“There is no secondary school on this island,” the Parish Priest told him. “The older children travel to the mainland and attend school as weekly boarders. They would normally come home on Friday afternoon…”
“Oh.” Jack scanned the faces of the people in front of him and shook his head sadly. “No, I’m sorry, your children can’t get to you. Neither can anyone else you know who lives on the mainland. They’ll all be perfectly safe. I know that’s very little consolation to you, right now. But they’re safe. They’re not a part of this.”
It wasn’t any consolation at all. Women, men, too, were crying as the reality of it all sank in. Jack saw a man in the front row trying a mobile phone. Many others tried the same, as if it had just occurred to them to try. There was no signal. There was a mobile phone mast at the highest point on the island, but it was not receiving or transmitting any signals. It was cut off as much as they were.
“I’m sorry,” he said again. “I’m sorry there’s nothing more I can tell you. I don’t even know how long this will take. It could be hours, it could be days. It could be weeks…”
“It could be forever!”
“We’re going to die…”
Jack looked around as the murmurs rose to full voiced protests. He tried to calm them, but his powers of persuasion seemed to have peaked when he lied about the position of the motor boat. He was grateful when the Parish Priest stepped up to his side and gently moved him away before calling for another prayer for deliverance from their trouble. He walked away down the aisle and out of the church. He blinked in the sunlight and turned to walk uphill. He felt Garrett’s hand slip into his and they walked together up a narrow lane that led to an even narrower and steeper path up to the top of the island where, millennia ago, the ancestors of the islanders had built a ringfort. In the lee of its ancient walls, Jack slid down onto the soft, cool grass and sighed deeply.
“Are you all right?” Garrett asked him.
“No,” he replied. “I… hurt all over. A hundred and four years… my body is still adjusting… every bone aches… my muscles feel like jelly.”
“You don’t look any different,” Garrett told him. “There’s not a line on your face… You can really do that… where those two men turned to dry bones, you can just absorb all those years…”
“I guess I can,” he answered. “Didn’t expect it to be so painful. Immortality isn’t always a picnic…”
“You never said a word to anyone… Jack…”
“I’ll be ok in a while,” Jack assured his lover. “I just need… need to rest… need quiet… Need you beside me…”
“I’m here,” Garrett told him. “I’m not going anywhere.” He laughed ironically. “There’s nowhere to go anyway. I’m stuck here just like everyone else. I’m cut off from my kids, too. If this doesn’t right itself, I’ll never see them again.”
Jack felt a stab of guilt. He hadn’t thought of that. He had thought about his team back in Cardiff, Gwen and Toshiko, Owen, Ianto and Alun, Beth. He had thought about Etsuko, starting nursery school this week while he was away. He had forgotten about Garrett’s three girls living with their mother in Wexford.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He reached out and held his lover as they both gave in to their emotions for a while.
“Do you think it will right itself?” Garrett asked when they stopped crying and lay, emotionally and physically exhausted, side by side on the grass. “Could it be as easy as that?”
“I don’t know,” Jack answered him. “We have to hope that it will.”
“If it doesn’t, then, we will all starve to death, won’t we?” Garrett reasoned. “This island… it’s a rock sticking up from the sea. There’s no more than an inch of topsoil covering the rock – and that was artificially created by hundreds of years of spreading rotting seaweed on the fields. Nothing much grows here. No crops. There are a few donkeys and pigs, a couple of cows grazing on what grass there is. But the food in the shops, in the houses… it all comes from the mainland. And if there is no mainland for us… then… then I don’t know how long we’ve got even if we can organise some kind of rationing.”
“I died of starvation once,” Jack said, almost as an aside. “In the desert in Aden, 1919. Stranded with another soldier… six days away from the nearest oasis and a single day’s rations, two days of water. I knew we wouldn’t both make it. I made it look like I was eating, too, but I gave him my share. I managed four days before I couldn’t go on. He actually dug a shallow grave in the sand for me before he carried on alone. I came back to life… dug myself out… carried on walking… died of dehydration twice before I was found by a camel train. Of course, by then, my mate had got back to the barracks and told them I was dead. So I headed back to Cardiff and took up my old job with Torchwood.”
Garrett smiled faintly at the anecdote, but it only served to raise another disturbing possibility.
“That means… you can’t die that way. So… if it really gets that bad… you’ll be stuck here on your own…”
“I know,” Jack said quietly. “I already thought of that. And… I don’t want to. I can’t. When we talked… in the bar… about staying together… If I got to be with you until you died of old age… that would be all right. I could cope. I’d be heartbroken, still. I’d be in floods of tears at your graveside… but I’d be ok. I’d get over it. But… but not this. I’d rather find a way to die alongside you. I’d rather do that than… than be stuck in this limbo for eternity. You realise the sun hasn’t moved. It should be gone midday by now. But we’re stuck at ten-thirty in the morning. It’ll be ten thirty in the morning until this is over, one way or another. No night, no sunset, no sunrise. This is it.”
“That’s going to drive people nuts,” Garrett replied. “You might not be the only one trying to kill yourself if this goes on for long.”
“Then we’ve got to stop wallowing in our own self pity and start acting professionally. These people are going to need our help, even if the only thing we can do is stay cool and think straight.” Jack stood up and breathed in deeply. He looked up at the time-frozen sky and then turned to set off back down the hill. Garrett caught up with him.
The village was already looking different as they walked through it, back to the hotel bar by the pier. The shops were all being closed up and battened down as if for a storm. The owner of the Spar mini-market that was the only grocery store on the island stood outside his premises with a shotgun while his son did the boarding up of the windows.
“Is that really necessary?” Garrett asked him.
“There’s only two gardai on the island,” the grocer answered. “Sergeant O'hEidhin is protecting the post office against looters, and Gard O'Riain is controlling the crowds at the pharmacy.”
“Crowds… at a pharmacy?” Jack was puzzled but Garrett thought he knew.
“People trying to buy sleeping pills, aspirin, anything that’s lethal in large doses.”
“It’s starting already?”
It had started. As they came back around to the church the Parish Priest ran to them and urged them to come with him.
“I don’t know who you are, exactly, but you seem to have some understanding of all this. I’ve got a young widow trying to kill herself and her children.”
They followed him back into the church. The two bodies had been placed in closed coffins covered by black cloth. In front of the altar now was a young woman with eyes that had seen misery enough before this happened. Her two children were about three or four years old and were frightened because their mother was, but not aware of the danger from the knife in her hand.
“Máire,” the priest said gently as Garrett stepped close and she looked at him with desperate eyes. “Will you let this man talk to you?”
“No,” she replied. “Father, it’s my fault. This evil that’s upon us all. It’s my fault. I dishonoured my husband’s memory. Séamas Mac Suibhne has been staying over with me… in my bed. And… and he with a wife and three young of his own on Inis Mór. And I was thinking of leaving the island with him… to start over… he had a job offer in Spiddal and… And it’s my fault for going against God’s will.”
“It’s not,” Garrett assured her. “It’s not your fault at all, Máire. God isn’t punishing you for wanting to love somebody. That’s not how He works. If He did, He’d have punished me long ago. This is nobody’s fault, any more than the winter storms or the shortage of water when it’s a hot summer. This is just a different sort of natural disaster and it wasn’t God’s will, and it wasn’t anyone’s fault. Certainly not yours. So… give me the knife and… and whatever you feel you need God’s forgiveness for, the Father will hear your confession and he’ll pray with you. But don’t harm those little ones, and don’t harm yourself. Come on…”
Jack and the priest both stood and watched with bated breath as Garrett gently coaxed the desperate woman to reach out and hand him the knife. They both sighed with relief as he threw it out of reach and embraced the woman and her children. They waited until her sobs had subsided and then the priest took Máire and sat her down in a quiet corner of the church while she confessed her fornication with a married man. The priest’s housekeeper meanwhile came to take the two children and give them orange juice and comfort.
“Have you noticed something,” Jack said as Garrett came to his side and they walked back out of the church. “Máire was the only one in there. You’d have thought a few more people might have wanted to go to confession or say a few prayers.”
“I bet the pubs are full to bursting,” Garrett replied philosophically.
He was right. The two other pubs that they passed on the way to the quayside were packed.
“If it’s technically still 10.30, they shouldn’t even be open for another half hour,” Garrett joked.
“If it’s technically 10.30 all day, I dread to think what will happen if anyone tries to call ‘Time’,” Jack answered, equally in fun. But both realised that an island full of people trying to drink away their troubles would be a major problem. They automatically picked up their pace as they headed back to their hotel.
The public bar there was crowded, too. And the patrons were not happy. Jack and Garrett watched from the slightly quieter resident’s bar side.
“Ten euros per half pint,” the landlord said to his customers. “Fifteen for a shot of whisky. Anyone doesn’t like it, O’Mahoney’s are charging twenty.”
“It’ll probably be the same at the grocers when he’s finished battening down the hatches,” Garrett pointed out. “And the petrol pumps. We ought to think about organising something… profiteering is against the law, after all.”
“The law, at the moment, is Sergeant O'hEidhin and Gard O'Riain,” Jack pointed out. “I don’t think there’s a lot they can do. And we have absolutely no jurisdiction here except for a certain natural talent for making people take notice of us when we speak.”
That natural talent was needed there and then. The protests about the price hikes had reached a peak when one desperate drinker climbed over the bar and attacked the landlord. Jack was like a coiled spring as he leapt over from his side. He had the attacker flat on the ground with his hands pinned behind his back in a matter of moments.
“Enough,” Jack said. “This is me using minimum restraint. I can really hurt you if you prefer. But it would be better if you just calmed down and went home. What’s your name?”
“He’s Séamas Mac Suibhne,” the landlord said.
“Is he, indeed!” Jack hauled the man to his feet. “Then forget going to your own home. Go and meet Máire Ó Broin at the church and take her and the kids to their home. They’re your responsibility, now.”
Séamas looked at Jack and blinked twice and then turned and jumped back over the bar. The press of customers parted to let him go. Jack went to the optic and poured two single shots of whiskey. He gave one to Garrett and drank one down himself. He rang up the price of the two drinks at the till and put a ten euro note in the drawer.
“You can keep the change, just this once,” Jack said to the landlord. “You’ll serve everyone here one drink at the regular price and that’s their lot.” He turned and looked at the crowd. It had quietened down considerably now. Everyone was expecting him to say something.
“When you’ve had your drink, get away with you. There are old people in outlying cottages, people like Máire with children to look after, people who are just worried sick about what’s happening. Organise yourselves and go and look after each other. Knock on doors, make sure your friends and neighbours have food and fuel and they’re keeping their spirits up. And no looting or stupidity or you’ll have me to reckon with. And I’m much nastier than Sergeant O'hEidhin.”
Again, there was no reason for any of them to listen to him, much less obey. But the landlord cleared his throat and asked who was first and began serving drinks to a much calmer crowd. Jack slid back over the counter and rejoined Garrett.
“You want to repeat that trick in the other two pubs?” he asked.
“No,” Jack answered. He looked at the ordinary watch on his other arm. “The gardai can handle them. I don’t think anyone else has realised… the daylight confused them. But it’s actually three a.m. Five hours since this began at a bit before closing time yesterday evening.”
“So… I want to go to bed. I want to have sex with you and then sleep for a couple of hours and hope that we wake up to find the clock running again and everything back to normal.”
Garrett smiled. That was a plan he could live with.
The sex was good. Afterwards, Garrett fell asleep very gently and quietly, wrapped in his lover’s arms. Jack pressed close to him, savouring his warmth. But he didn’t sleep. Something kept him awake, thinking deep, worried thoughts, thinking about the sacrifice he might have to make, one much harder than merely dying. Dying was easy. He had plenty of practice at that. But to save the lives of everyone on this island, he might have to risk losing everything he loved, including Garrett.
He thought it over as the hours ticked away on the clock by the bed and the watch on one of his wrists, but stubbornly refused to move a microsecond on the temporal chronometer on the other. He let Garrett sleep. Hearing his soft breathing, his steady heartbeat, was comforting to him. Besides, it might be the last time he got to lie this way with him. He wanted to savour every moment of it.
When Garrett did, finally, stir, it should have been nine o’clock in the morning. As soon as he opened his eyes and looked up at the window he knew it wasn’t.
“We’re still stuck in the time warp, or whatever you want to call it?”
“I really hoped….” He sighed. “I dreamt about Annie and the girls. We were going to drop in on them on the way home.”
“You still might,” Jack told him. “I have an idea. Let’s… get dressed and take a walk, and I’ll tell you about it.”
They didn’t go uphill this time. Nor did they go down to the pier. Instead they took the coast road along spectacular cliffs with breathtaking views of Galway Bay that would be less disturbing if it wasn’t night time beyond the patch of blue that the island was stuck in. They came, presently, to the Aer Arann terminal where those tourists who didn’t fancy the ferry boat could arrive in style. He looked at the three passenger helicopters and the four man Robinson R44. The smaller machine would do for what he had in mind.
“It’s dangerous,” Garrett said to him. “And what you said about… They’ll take you back… I’ll never see you again.”
“You’ll get to live. You’ll be able to see Annie and the girls. She’s still quite fond of you, you know. If you took the desk job a bit sooner than you planned, so she doesn’t live in fear of losing you, maybe there’d be a chance… She could be the one who’ll still love you when you’re 64.”
“I care for her a lot,” Garrett admitted. “But you’re the one I want. It’s… not fair.”
“But you understand why I have to do it?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Ok. Can you distract whoever’s inside the office there, while I get to the chopper.”
Garrett kissed him once, very quickly, then went to do as he said. Jack ran towards the parked helicopter, hoping that it was not only unlocked, but fuelled up.
Both of those prayers were answered. He glanced at the controls for a few seconds, familiarising himself with them, then he pressed the ignition switch and heard the sound of the rotor blades powering up.
He was already hovering over the terminal when the radio crackled and an urgent voice contacted him.
“I’m just borrowing it,” he said. “I’ll bring it back in a half hour, tops. That’s a promise from Captain Jack Harkness.”
He switched off the radio and turned the helicopter out to sea. Half an hour was more than enough time to do what he had to do. It would take a minute to reach the demarcation between their frozen reality and the real time beyond. After that, ten minutes at the most to calibrate the emergency signal.
And after that, his future, his life, was in somebody else’s hands.
And he had no reason to believe that they would be kind to him.
He felt all of the pain again as he passed over the line and a hundred and four years of aging caught up with him. His hands shook and the helicopter veered off course until he brought it under control again. He set it to autopilot and it hovered by itself long enough for him to do what he had to do.
The emergency signal was something built into all vortex manipulators. It was supposed to send the signal automatically if it wasn’t able to detect a pulse. That was why it was worn on the wrist, of course. No Time Agent would ever remove his or her wristlet except under duress, and many an Agent’s life had been saved by their comrades turning up to find out why they had done so. It was also useful for finding dead Agents and retrieving both the body and their anachronistic equipment.
Jack had disabled the automatic signal even before dying became an occupational hazard for him. He didn’t want Agents coming for him.
He still didn’t. But they were the only ones who could do something about this.
The date had been the clue. 5095 - two years after he had chucked it all in and ‘gone rogue’ as they called it. They were researching temporal anomalies like Time Corridors, then. That had to be the reason why the corridor started to reverse at that point. The Agency had worked out a way to stop them, maybe. Except it hadn’t completed for some reason, and they were left stranded here.
The signal would tell them there was a problem. They would come looking. They could help get everyone back where they belonged.
After that, he didn’t care what they did to him.
Well, he cared a lot. But if it meant that Garrett could go to see his kids, if the islanders got their lives back, then it was worth it.
The signal transmitted. He saw a green light blink twice to show that it had been received. He had done it. He gripped the controls and turned the helicopter back towards the demarcation line. He was still hurting and he was fighting dizziness, nausea and blurred vision. He wasn’t sure why the blurred vision. Maybe short-sightedness was one of the effects of the rapid aging.
He reached to adjust one of the controls. He thought he knew it by touch, but he must have hit the wrong button. He felt the change in the engine sound. He heard the rotors falter and the helicopter go into a dive that he knew he had no time to do anything about.
He managed to switch the radio back on.
“I’m sorry, I might not get your helicopter back in half an hour, after all,” he said seconds before the jarring impact of the machine hitting the sea.
Jack woke up in the hotel bed he had shared with Garrett for the past week. He noted that his eyesight had rectified itself while he was dead. He was glad. He wasn’t sure glasses would go with his image.
He glanced with his mended eyes at the window. It faced south-west. The red-orange slanting rays of a setting sun cast interesting colours on the wallpaper opposite. He raised his arm to look at his wristlet and was disturbed to see that it wasn’t there.
“I hid it,” Garrett said. He reached into the drawer of the bedside cabinet and gave the leather wristlet to Jack. He fitted it over the pale part of his wrist where it had been for countless years and noted that the temporal readout was now telling him that it was seven-thirty on the evening of Friday, April 9th, 2010. The seconds scrolled away at normal speed.
“They fixed it… the Time Agents.”
“They came, saw the problem and fixed it in about five minutes flat. The ferry with the school kids coming home for the weekend just rolled in.”
“Good,” Jack said. “Everyone is ok.”
“The agents looked for their man who had sent the signal. I told them that he went down with the helicopter after sending them the message. They used a scanner to try to trace your body, but concluded that you must have been swept out to sea, along with your wristlet.”
“They think I’m dead?”
“Most of them do,” Garrett continued. “Their captain… he said his name was Jackson Southam. He asked if I knew a man called…”
Jack sat up in the bed, his eyes wide as he heard a name he hadn’t heard for a very long time on the lips of the last man he expected to speak it.
“He said… if I knew somebody by that name… then I was very lucky. And… I should take care not to lose him… But… if he ever… ever wanted to come home… he said… the other stuff was straightened out. There are no criminal charges outstanding. Nothing more serious than a formal reprimand for insubordination.”
Jack said nothing. He seemed to be lost for words – which was something Garrett wouldn’t have thought possible.
“In your MI5 file, it does say that Jack Harkness probably isn’t your real name,” Garrett added. “They know you took that name from an RAF pilot who died in 1941.”
“Yes,” Jack said. “That’s true.”
“Doesn’t matter. I know you as Jack Harkness. Fell in love with you as Jack Harkness.”
“You’re the only person outside of the fifty-first century who knows that name,” he said. “Nobody else… ever…”
“You’ll never hear it again if you don’t want to,” Garrett said. “But… the point is… you don’t need to be afraid, Jack. You can go home to the fifty first century and be that man again… Jack Harkness CAN have died in a helicopter accident off the coast of Galway.”
“No,” Jack insisted. “I’ve nothing to go back for. The Agency may not have any outstanding issues with me after all, but I’ve no reason to go back. That other guy… the one whose name you’re not going to mention ever again… he died in the helicopter crash. He’s gone.”
“You’d give up the chance to go home… where you belong…”
“I’m needed here, in the twenty-first century. Everything changes… and…”
“Yeah, I heard that,” Garrett told him. “I thought maybe you wanted to stay for me.”
“Oh, yeah,” Jack answered. “Prospect of those rubber sheets and colostomy bags. Yep. That was really tempting.”
“Captain Southam was right,” he said. “I am very lucky. And if you feel up to it, the landlord says any drinks we want tonight are on the house.”