The Torchwood SUV was doing slightly more than the thirty miles per hour limit for a built up area. Even so, it stopped by the Holmesdale Street entrance to Grange Gardens without any ostentatious screeching of brakes. Toshiko, in the back seat, looked out and sighed. It was a beautiful, sunny day and the Gardens should have been full of children playing, old people sitting on the benches, dogs chasing sticks.
Instead, the park had been cleared. The entrances were guarded by police who were trying and generally failing to move people on. A curious crowd were witnesses to the arrival of Torchwood on the scene. Several camera phones turned their way.
“I’ll have to remove those pictures from Flickr dot com later!” Toshiko commented as she shouldered her equipment bag and opened the door.
“Not necessarily,” Alun replied as he stepped out of the driver’s seat and pulled what looked like a camera phone of his own from his pocket. He photographed the crowd photographing him and noted with satisfaction their frustration as their phones all died on them.
“Temporary effect, unfortunately,” Owen said as he lugged an even larger box of equipment from the boot. “Nosy bastards deserve to get their memory cards permanently fried.”
“Mind you, it’s not surprising we get our pictures taken.” Alun commented as the three of them passed through the police cordon without any delay. “For a secret organisation we certainly have a rather conspicuous vehicle. Putting the name of the organisation on it is definitely asking for trouble.”
“It’s before our time,” Owen explained. “Jack’s predecessor, Alex Hopkins, had it custom built in 1999, including the ‘Torchwood’ logo on the top and side. I don’t think Jack liked the idea, but he’s never bothered to change it.”
“I think he secretly enjoys it,” Toshiko answered. “He always likes to make an entrance!” She groaned as her two male colleagues laughed at her accidentally sexual innuendo. Then she sighed as she looked down the path between neatly clipped lawns and saw more police on duty by the bandstand. “Even the innocent places get tainted by our kind of shit. There’s nowhere safe.”
Owen looked at Toshiko but said nothing. She was right, of course. Those of them who knew that Human beings were not alone on this planet knew that there were no innocent places. Weird shit that would keep him busy in his lab all day could happen anywhere.
It didn’t used to bother Toshiko. Or if it did, she didn’t say so. But she had changed in the past couple of years. And he knew why. She was probably the first Torchwood agent in decades who was a parent. It tended to be a job for single people with no emotional commitments. But motherhood had changed her view of the world. Torchwood was no longer her driving force. It was a job that she gladly left behind when she went home to her little girl.
“The bandstand seems to be where it’s all happening,” Alun said. He smiled as he thought about Ianto. If he was with them, he would no doubt be sharing with them some titbit of information about the history of the rather attractive wrought iron structure. He was content to concentrate on the reasons why it had become a focus of Torchwood attention.
The police had put screens up around it, anyway. Only the dome shaped like a ladies hat was visible. The three Torchwood agents passed through the cordon and mounted the steps to the paved bandstand floor.
All three had a stunned moment as they looked at something that was mind-boggling even for them.
“Fucking hell,” Owen swore, summing it up for Toshiko and Alun, too.
There were two ‘bodies’ using the term in a very loose sense. One was a perfectly whole male who looked as if every drop of fluid in his body had been drained. Owen estimated that he was about thirty-five years old and that he had died some time in the last eight hours. But that time of death was a complete guess based on the fact that nobody had reported a body in the bandstand during daylight hours.
The other body used to be female. That much was obvious from the women’s clothes scattered around the bandstand; skirt, blouse, underskirt, bra and knickers and high heeled shoes.
And what was left of the body…
“It’s… just a skin…” Alun managed to say as he unfolded it for Toshiko to photograph in situ. “A Human skin…”
“Almost intact,” Owen added as he measured it carefully and made oral notes into a miniature recorder. “Adult woman, aged thirty, maybe thirty-five. Caucasian, five foot six, slim build. Cause of death…”
“Being skinned alive?” Toshiko ventured. She stepped back from the remains. She had seen and dealt with some gruesome things, but this was getting on for the worst. The sight of the pale flesh without any bones or muscle or sinew to keep its shape was ghastly. Alun stepped away, too. He flexed his fingers as if trying to get the sensation of having had to touch it off his own skin.
“No,” Owen answered. “I don’t think she was alive. There’s no blood anywhere on the skin, inside or out. It was done post-mortem. But where and how, and where is the rest of the body?”
“What did it to her?” Toshiko asked. “And why?”
“God, I hate mornings when there are so many questions and not enough answers,” Owen said. “Well, I’m not sending either of these to any hospital morgue. They’re definitely Torchwood business. Alun, go bring the SUV up close and break out the body bags. Better make it a sealable container for this one.”
Alun nodded and turned to do as Owen asked. He was glad to get away from the scene. Toshiko, too, stepped down from the bandstand and through the police screens. She looked away towards the war memorial and the trees and lawns, anything but the wreckage of humanity behind her. Her mind was running through some of the other sickening sights she had witnessed since she joined Torchwood, trying to think of something that was worse. It wasn’t helping.
“Hey, Tosh,” Owen called. “Can you pass me the….” He stopped, noticing her absence from the scene and sought her out. “Hey, I need help up there, still,” he said.
“How can you be so cool and professional about it?” Toshiko asked him. “The way you were just making case notes as if the two of them just died of exposure or something. It’s as if… as if you don’t think of them as Human beings.”
“I don’t,” Owen admitted. “I can’t. I couldn’t do the job if I did. Being cool and professional is my only way of getting through this kind of shit. Are you all right, Tosh? I thought you could handle this stuff.”
“Sometimes… it just gets to me. I think, maybe, I’m better doing the technical stuff at my desk, not field stuff like this. Times like this, I’d really rather have a bit of distance between me and… the victims.”
“Tosh…” Owen reached out and touched her on the shoulder. She shivered as if his touch bothered her. “Tosh…”
She turned to him. There were tears glistening in her eyes. He reached as if to hug her, but the SUV drew to a stop beside them. Alun stepped out. He looked at the two of them and wisely didn’t comment about their near intimacy. Tosh wiped her eyes before he could see. Owen took the evidence container from Alun and became cool and professional again. Toshiko left the men to it and stayed in the sunshine with trees and flowers to look at until they had stowed the two sets of remains in the boot of the SUV and were ready to head back to the Hub.
“What’s the matter with Tosh?” Gwen asked Owen, leaning over the railing and watching as he conducted a detailed examination of the two sets of remains.
“Who says anything is the matter with her?” Owen replied with a note of irritation in his tone.
“Nobody did. But Jack took one look at her just now and he’s calling a taxi to send her home. And Alun said she seemed a bit off colour when you were out.”
“Then I suppose she’s a bit off colour,” Owen said and continued his work. Gwen watched quietly. Presently Jack came to join her at the railing. He mentioned that Toshiko was feeling a bit better but he sent her home anyway.
“Anyway, what have we got here?” he asked as Owen completed his autopsy on the dried husk of the male victim.
“I found an ID card in his pocket,” Owen said. “He was recently released from Gloucester prison. Mark Dodd, 25, from Grangetown, speciality mugging old ladies. Nice man!”
“Very nice,” Gwen agreed. “But what happened to him?”
“Something really nasty,” Owen pointed to the wall projection display where she and Jack could see in close detail where he had cracked the dried up chest. He showed them the empty space inside the ribcage.
“Notice this puncture right through the abdomen,” he added, zooming in with the overhead camera. “It goes right through to the stomach cavity. I reckon it’s something like the proboscis of an insect. Chemical analysis of residues inside the cavity shows the presence of formic acid. Found in ant and bee stings. If I had to make a guess, I’d say something quite a lot bigger than an ant injected him with acid, waited until the organs turned to soup, and then drank him dry.”
“Ugghh,” Gwen shuddered. Even Jack swallowed hard before speaking.
“Owen,” he said. “Just to clarify. You’re telling us that we might have a giant insect draining victims around Cardiff… on top of the usual collection of Weevils.”
“Stock up on bug spray,” Owen replied. Gwen groaned at such a terrible joke. Jack shook his head wearily, then gave close attention as Owen covered the giant insect victim and began to unfold the Human skin from the sealed container.
“Check for zip fasteners in the head,” he said.
“Are you taking the piss?” Owen asked him.
“No, I’m not,” Jack assured him. “There is a species of alien that kills humans and wears their skin. Raxacoricofallapatorians.”
“Jack! You ARE joking, aren’t you? There’s no such thing.”
“I’m not,” Jack insisted. “I tangled with them once before. Remember the mayor of Cardiff five years ago, now. Margaret Blaine. She was an ugly green calcium-based alien lifeform zipped inside a dead woman’s skin. Got to power by eating anyone who got in her way. And six months before that… the prime minister didn’t die in a gas explosion at Downing Street. It was aliens in skin suits.” He grinned as Gwen’s jaw dropped in surprise. He put his hand under her chin and closed her mouth. “I can show you some very secret files all about it if you like, but I’d have to kill your whole family starting with Rhys afterwards. Believe me, it’s possible. Just because they have a stupid name doesn’t make them any less deadly and if we’ve got another one of the bastards in town, we’ve got problems.”
“There’s no zip on this skin,” Owen assured him. “It looks to me… and bear in mind this has been a really weird day already… You know like snakes when they shed their skin… this rip all the way up the abdomen… the rough edge… something burst out of this skin. Do your big green calcium guys who I’m not even going to attempt to pronounce shed their skins when they grow out of them?”
“No, they don’t,” Jack answered. “That’s not their M.O. at all. This is something different. Do we have any ID on the woman… the skin… who was she?”
“I’m trying to find out,” Owen told him. “But I’m having trouble. Gwen, darling, can you come on down and assist in my investigation.”
Gwen descended the steps warily. When she found out what Owen wanted her to do she almost ran back upstairs again.
“Owen, you have to be joking,” she protested. “You want me to… put my hand… into the skin hand… so that…”
“I can’t scan the fingerprints with it all floppy like this,” he said. “And your hand is the only one that would fit unless we bring Beth down from the tourist office. And I don’t think she’s quite ready for this.”
“And I am?” Gwen queried.
“Just… close your eyes and think of Torchwood,” Owen told her.
Jack watched as Gwen gingerly put her hand into the Human glove that Owen had cut off from the rest of the skin at the wrist. He could understand her reluctance. He wouldn’t fancy doing that himself.
“Ok, that should do it.” Owen held Gwen’s ‘gloved’ hand over the scanner that would read a victim’s fingerprints and check it against all available records, including many that ordinary citizens with their concept of civil liberties didn’t know existed.
It took a minute. Owen looked at the positive match that came up on the computer screen and groaned.
“Jack,” he said. “You’d better call your boyfriend in. This is one of his.”
Gwen insisted that they made the skin look something like decent before Garrett arrived to view it and make a positive identification. Owen did point out that a man with Garrett’s background in espionage at home and abroad must have seen far more unpleasant sights, but she was adamant that they should try to make this easier.
“Yes,” Garrett confirmed as he viewed the carefully prepared body. “Yes, that’s her. Mallory Adams. She's an agent. This is bad.”
“It’s worse than you think,” Jack told him. “We have two theories. Neither of them pretty. Either Mallory has always been an alien with a Human skin disguise… in which case Military Intelligence fouled up when they recruited her… or Mallory was killed, maybe some time ago, and an alien occupied her body. Either way…”
“Either way, we have a security breach,” Garrett said with a groan. “Shit, Jack. Have you any idea what this could mean? An alien with the sort of sensitive information she was party to… She worked in the monitoring department… listening in on tapped phones, intercepting suspect emails… We don’t know how long it goes back… I’ve got to… I need to order a lockdown at the office. We’ll have to go through everything she ever did and check if any past or ongoing operation might have been compromised… I need to…”
“Yes, you do,” Jack agreed. “But Garrett, we need to locate an alien. I need to know where Mallory lived, who her family are, boyfriends…You need to work with us on this. National security is only one part of the picture.”
Garrett seemed ready to protest about that, then he nodded.
“Yes, you’re right,” he said. “I’ll need your office. I need to make secure phone calls, access confidential files…” He looked around at Owen and Gwen. “It goes without saying… Your people are bound by the Official Secrets Act just as much as mine are.” He was aware of the look even Jack gave him then. “I’m sorry. But when Torchwood’s kind of shit crosses paths with …”
“I understand,” Jack told him. “Do what you have to do. But we do need that information to follow up our case.”
Jack could have sat in his office while MI5’s Deputy Director for Wales was co-ordinating a lockdown of the Cardiff Headquarters. His own security level was at least equal to Garrett’s. He chose not to. They trusted each other, on a personal, intimate level, and as professionals with jobs that they couldn’t talk about over dinner like ordinary people. He sat on the sofa in the rest zone and drank coffee as he went over the notes Owen had made about the two cases. He wondered how a recently released mugger had come into contact with an alien disguised as a Secret Service agent. Perhaps he had spotted her walking home through the park and marked her as a victim. Or had he stumbled across her in the process of ‘shedding’ and become her first meal after emerging? He couldn’t imagine any other way the two were connected.
No wonder Toshiko was tired of it, he thought. She was worrying him. He knew only too well what could happen when a Torchwood agent reached the end of their tether. Alex and Suzie were two of the more explosive examples whose blowouts had tragic results for others. He knew perfectly well the number of suicides there were in the history of Torchwood. It was worse when the organisation was so much bigger. Then it was easier for the signs of stress to go unnoticed until it was too late. His team was small, but at least he knew them all. He knew when they were acting out of character, when something was bothering them. He would know if any of them were going to go down the same route as Suzie or Alex.
Garrett came out of the office. He looked worried. He was so distracted he almost walked past Jack. He stopped as his lover stood and let him touch him on the shoulder.
“I’ve got another agent missing,” he said. “Michael Protheroe. He and Mallory have been seeing each other socially for the past six weeks. He didn’t report in this morning. And he lives in Grangetown. Not far from the park. She could have been coming from there when…”
“You’re going to the address?”
“Ok,” Jack said. “I’ll come with you.”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” Garrett protested. “This is my department.”
“If whatever was inside Mallory’s skin is hiding out there, then it’s my department,” Jack reminded him. “Come on, work with me.”
“I... don’t want to work with you, Jack,” Garrett sighed. “I want… to keep work and pleasure separate.”
“Yeah, so do I,” Jack answered. “But right now, our worlds have collided and we have a job to do.” He looked around as Ianto approached carrying his greatcoat. He had anticipated his need. He handed him his revolver, too. Jack checked it was loaded and slipped it into the hip holster.
Garrett sighed and followed him to the pavement lift. They stood close together on the platform, but not quite touching. They walked side by side across the Plas to where Garrett’s car was parked. Neither said anything much until they were close to the address in Grangetown where the missing agent lived.
“I’m sorry if I seemed cool towards you,” Garrett told Jack as he parked the car outside the semi-detached house. “This is a difficult situation for me. My whole department is compromised. I’ve got two missing agents, now. And I’m not sure what to do. If they’d been shot by terrorists, I would know. If they were kidnapped by Al-Qaeda, at least we could expect to find their bodies in a shallow grave sooner or later. But this… I don’t know what to expect. And… I don’t know if you can tell me, either.”
“I tend to have a few less certainties in my line of work,” Jack answered. Garrett checked his gun before getting out of the car. Jack did the same. They approached the front door openly, but cautiously, their hands close to their weapons, but not yet drawing them in a street in broad daylight where civilians might be alarmed. They stood either side of the glass panelled door as Garrett rang the bell. There was no answer and no sound to indicate that anyone was moving inside the house.
“Try this,” Jack said, handing Garrett the alien lock pick that saved Torchwood a lot of trouble breaking down doors and made entering into buildings a much more discreet procedure. Garrett used it on the door and pushed it in slowly. There was a chain on it.
“That’s not a good sign,” Garrett said. Jack agreed. He reached into the pocket of his greatcoat for another alien device. The multipurpose penknife had a sonic blade easily capable of cutting through the sort of metal doorchains were made of. “You’d best take your lockpick and try the backdoor,” Garrett added. He checked Jack’s wristwatch against his own. “I’ll give you one minute and we’ll go in together…”
Jack nodded. He slipped around the side of the house and found the back door. That was locked, too, but the alien device made short work of it. He checked his watch and then pushed the door open and stepped into the kitchen.
He found nothing there except two plates of untouched food that had gone cold as much as twelve hours ago. It was a nice meal, salmon fillets and hollandaise sauce. A meal somebody would prepare for a romantic dinner with somebody special.
“Jack!” Garrett called out urgently. Jack pulled his gun from the holster and moved quickly but cautiously through the house to the drawing room. He found Garrett bending over the body of what used to be a man until he had been turned into a dry husk.
“Michael Protheroe?” he asked.
“Yes,” Garrett nodded. “And…” He pointed to something lying in the corner of the room. Jack approached it slowly, his gun held ready. But the thing was no threat to anything but his stomach acids. He swallowed hard as he closely examined the discarded exo-skin of an insect that could have stood as tall as he was. It still had a vaguely humanoid centre of gravity, and possibly walked on two of the eight appendages it had to choose from. But it was definitely insectoid. Something like a beetle or cockroach.
“This proves one thing,” Jack said as he took a deep breath and turned around to look at Garrett.
“Mallory was coming here when she transformed first. Maybe she was close to her first skin shed when the mugger attacked her. She responded instinctively. Killed him and fed. Then carried on to boyfriend’s house… needed to feed again. Only salmon fillets weren’t going to satisfy her… she had him.”
Garrett nodded. The theory made perfect sense. He didn’t feel capable of adding anything more.
“What was that?” Jack span on his heels as a very slight noise upstairs alerted him. Garrett wasn’t very far behind. They both had their guns ready.
They both fired at the creature that flew at them with an angry chitter as they entered the master bedroom. Both hit it in the abdomen. Yellowish liquid spilled from the wounds. But the creature barely paused. Jack pushed Garrett to the floor and covered him as it attacked them with razor sharp mandibles that cut into the back of his greatcoat.
Then it flew away. Jack turned his face and saw it smash through the window. He jumped up and was in time to see the creature flying up into the clear blue sky on the gossamer thin but aerodynamic wings that spread out beneath the hard protective carapaces. It became a speck in the sky as it accelerated away. He turned back to see Garrett standing up and making his gun safe now there was nothing to shoot at.
“They can’t be killed?” he asked. “We both shot at it.”
“We shot wildly, at a moving target,” Jack pointed out. “Next time, make it aim shots at the head. I’ve not come across many things that can survive having their brains pulped.”
“Will it come back?” Garrett asked next.
“I don’t think so, not now it’s been discovered.” Jack put his own gun away and reached for his mobile. He called Alun and Ianto and told them to bring a couple more body bags.
“Warn Owen he has another alien skin to examine. And… another poor sod who got in her way.”
“Jack…” Garrett said when he had finished with his phone call. “Tell me if I’m talking nonsense… seen too much science fiction on TV or whatever… Is it possible for that… thing… to have absorbed Michael Protheroe’s brain, and acquired his knowledge as well as… as… food?”
Jack took a moment before answering.
“I don’t know for sure. We don’t know exactly what that creature is, except obviously an insect capable of flight. But I have heard of aliens that can do that.”
“Then I need to go back to my office right now. Michael Protheroe was party to information vital to the security of the British Isles and most of continental Europe. I have to escalate the security lockdown. I have to…”
“You have to take a deep breath and calm down,” Jack told him. “Or you’ll crash your car before you even get to your office. And when you get there, you have to look like you’re in charge and you know what you’re doing.”
“I know,” he admitted. “It’s not the first time I’ve lost colleagues. But not like this. It threw me.”
In the hallway, out of sight of the ghastly remains, he let Jack kiss him warmly before he left. Jack watched him drive away and sighed. He understood Garrett’s reaction. It was never easy losing colleagues. And to lose them like this was a shock.
He hated it as much as Garrett did when Torchwood’s peculiar kind of business spilled over into MI5 work. Most of the time they managed to keep it separate. Both of them left their jobs behind when they met in the evening. They gave each other a taste of the normality other people took for granted. They went to the cinema or theatre, pubs, restaurant. They came home and had sex. They never talked ‘shop’. When Jack let himself into Garrett’s flat, he was never greeted by the old line “How was your day, dear”. But when they were both working on the same case, even if it was from different ends, it was harder to do that. They both had a little more trouble switching off and leaving it behind. And it bothered them both.
Alun and Ianto arrived in The SUV. They took the remains out of the house as discreetly as possible. As they did so, another car arrived. Two of Garrett’s people to make the dead agent’s house secure, remove the hard drive from his computer, collect any papers, personal or otherwise he might have, erase every trace of Michael Protheroe from the property. It was what they did.
Back at the Hub Owen was able to tell them that Michael Protheroe’s brain had been punctured by a proboscis and drained as well as his other vital organs. Owen couldn’t say if that gave the insect access to the victim’s memories and knowledge.
“That sounds a bit far-fetched even for us,” he pointed out.
“We can’t rule it out, though,” Jack said. “It might have been the whole reason why the creature was posing as Mallory Adams. Garrett couldn’t tell me what vital knowledge Protheroe had. But he works for MI5. We can use our imagination. It’s important. And hostile forces may have that information. We need something that will lead us to this creature… and any more of them there might be.”
But Owen had reached the limits of his medical knowledge. There was nothing more he could tell Jack.
“The only thing we can do, then, is search the city and environs for giant insects. We need to co-ordinate this. Garrett’s people, U.N.I.T., I don’t know… Environmental Health… Gwen phone them up and ask them where beetles are likely to hole up if they’re disturbed from their usual feeding ground. Let’s get a couple of helicopters in the sky. They might be able to spot it…”
“Jack,” Owen said. “How come it didn’t kill you and Garrett? I mean, you say it flew at you, gouged your back. But it didn’t try to suck your brains out. Or… did it…”
“No, it didn’t,” Jack answered. “I don’t think I could actually survive that. I’ve never tested the theory. Don’t plan to. But I have a kind of an idea that I need my brain intact to come back to life.”
“It’s fed twice. Maybe it’s reached its limit,” Ianto said as he examined the gash in Jack’s greatcoat. “Some insects… butterflies, for instance… once they pupate, they can’t eat any more. They don’t have a mouth. They mate and lay eggs and that’s the end of their life cycle.”
“Ok, I’m not sure whether that’s good news or not. The thing is probably not capable of sucking anyone else’s brains out, but it could lay eggs… multiple eggs, I suppose, and start the cycle all over again.”
“Then we need to find it, fast. Gwen, ask Environmental Health where beetles lay eggs, too.”
Jack called upon every resource he could find. But the only result was a series of complaints coming up on the police database about the number of helicopters flying low over the city. Gwen’s queries about beetles and their habits suggested dark, damp places were likely hiding places. Given that the Weevils already claimed most of those as their territory that didn’t leave very many obvious places. But Ianto, Alun and Jack checked all of them that they could think of.
Finally, as the night closed in, it was obvious nothing much could be done. Jack scaled down the operation. Two of the U.N.I.T. helicopters stayed in the skies, searching for anything that might be flying around the night sky. One of them reported seeing a prehistoric bird. To their surprise Jack told them to ignore the pterodactyl.
Jack sent his team home. He called Garrett just on the offchance that he might be going home tonight. He really would have liked some quiet time with him.
“Sorry, Jack,” he said. “This thing is bigger than you can begin to imagine. We’re all going to be working all night. I don’t even have time to meet you for a cup of coffee.”
“That’s ok,” Jack said. “Duty calls, after all. How about breakfast, tomorrow? Do you think you’ll be done by then? It’s going to be a nice morning. I know a place with chairs and tables outside, down by the waterfront. They do the best all day breakfast in South Wales.”
“I don’t know, Jack,” Garrett answered. “I just don’t know when I’ll be finished, here. I’ll call you. I promise.”
Jack had to accept that. He put the phone down and sighed as he looked around his office. He stood and went to the door. The quiet, night time Hub used to be a place he found soothing. The patterns of the screen savers from Toshiko’s workstation cast interesting patterns in the half dark.
But he was restless. He knew the feeling would have subsided if he could have gone over to Garrett’s apartment and enjoyed a late supper and a cuddle on the sofa and some hot sex afterwards. But that wasn’t on tonight. So he did what he used to do before he had sex with a regular lover to ease his mind. He sought a high, lonely place.
It was only just midnight. The city was still busy. Even the Plas had a few hangers on after a concert at the Millennium Centre that had just finished up. If he couldn’t be with the man he loved, then Jack didn’t want to be alone in a crowd. He would rather be completely alone. So instead of going up on the pavement lift he went down to one of the less well used passages that went from the Hub right under the Plas and up a rarely used stairwell that wasn’t monitored by the CCTV security system at the Welsh National Assembly. He emerged onto the unusual roof of the Senedd near the conical top of the eco-friendly debating chamber and walked around the glass section. He had planned to walk right to the very edge of the overhanging flat roof. Up there, in the dark of night, was the quiet solitude he craved.
At least it usually was. He was stunned to discover that he was not alone up there. He flattened himself against one of the large oval dimples in the roof that contained the ventilation ducts for the committee rooms and public areas. He held his breath as the two individuals walked past a few inches away from him. What was that word that described something stumbled on by chance when careful searching failed? Serendipity? That seemed too nice a word for the million to once chance that he was on the same roof as Mallory the killer bug and what he could only assume was her mate.
They stopped just around the edge of the same dimple. Jack stepped slowly closer until he could see and hear them. The male, still looking Human, dressed in a business suit, spoke in an angry chitter. Jack was almost surprised when the alien language translated in his head. It was so long ago that he travelled in the TARDIS and thereby acquired that very useful ability to understand virtually any language in the universe. He almost expected it to have worn off by now.
But it hadn’t. He listened carefully as the male railed at Mallory for wasting one of her two growth spurts on a useless Human wastrel. She protested that he had been hurting her. He had grabbed her and dragged her onto the bandstand, pulling her clothes off. So close to a shedding, she had been unable to help herself. Her true form had asserted itself and after bursting out of the Human skin she had instinctively fed on the nearest source of protein – the mugger turned would-be rapist.
“It was foolish. You absorbed nothing from him but a sink of degradation. I can feel his worthlessness. If you had bided your time, you could have had a much bigger prize. Your position in the intelligence headquarters was perfect.”
“I got plenty of information from the other one,” Mallory protested. “Enough to ensure our young will be able to take over this miserable human province when they mature. I have knowledge that will allow them to infiltrate nuclear installations, missile silos... Our kind will multiply until there are enough to lay waste to the surface of this planet while lying low in safe places below ground with enough humans to use as food stuff until it is safe to emerge as the sole surviving race…”
“Thank you, Miss Exposition,” Jack thought as his imagination easily pictured the future envisaged by these creatures.
“Even so,” the male said. “You should be punished for your foolish haste.”
Jack almost yelped in sympathy with Mallory as a razor like protuberance ripped through the front of the business suit and slashed at her insect body. She cried out in pain as one of her wings was severed. She slipped to the ground, her chittering cry continuing as her mate’s Human form began to split apart and the insect emerged. Jack watched him spread all of his insect limbs as the soft exo-skeleton dried and hardened in the air. Then he leaned over Mallory. She cried out again as he began to mate with her. Jack watched in horror, his gorge rising. He could see her egg sac in her lower abdomen. It was slightly phosphorescent, and it heaved as the fertilised eggs began to grow. He wondered just how long it would take for them to hatch and mature into…
Into what? Larva? Grubs? More counterfeit humans, each possessing the knowledge that was such a threat to national security?
He raised his gun, ready to fire at both of the sickening creatures. Then he saw something that compounded his horror still further. The male, having fertilised the eggs, extended its long proboscis and penetrated Mallory’s insect brain. She let out another long, chittering scream. When he was done, she was left just alive enough to incubate the eggs, but all the memories of Mallory Adams, of the mugger who she had fed on first, and of Michael Protheroe, her last victim, had been absorbed by her mate.
Jack lost his cool ever so slightly. If he had given it a moment’s logical thought, then the sensible thing would have been to shoot the male in the head first. But all he could think about was those eggs hatching and spreading the infestation still further. He emptied all six of the bullets in his revolver into the egg sac. The creature that used to be Mallory jerked but it was too far gone even to cry in pain. The eggs burst open and greenish-yellow, phosphorous bile poured out. He was sure there wasn’t one single egg left alive as he turned and tried to run.
The male screeched in anger and gave chase. Jack was sure-footed and agile and he knew his way around the Senedd roof. He had been up here many times. But the creature could fly. Not very well, it had to be said. Obviously really good flight came with the second shedding of skin. This first version of the insect form managed to rise up a few feet and hover over him. He ducked and avoided its deadly, slashing blows, but as it landed again the creature was between him and the skylight he had come up through. He had no way off the roof.
Well, he had one way, at least. He could jump. But it would kill him. Usually that wasn’t a problem. He would wake up with a bit of a headache and his teeth feeling as if they had all just been reinserted into his gums. But if the creature followed him down and fed on his brain he was fairly sure he wouldn’t wake up again. And an alien who already had dangerous national security secrets would then know everything about Torchwood, and much more besides.
Feeding on his brain while he was already dead would probably be less painful than having that proboscis boring into his forehead while he was still alive, he reasoned. But so long as he was alive, he took that chance. He dodged the creature twice more and wondered how long he could go on. He slightly rued his habit of carrying an old fashioned six shooter gun rather than a modern automatic that would have given him a few more rounds to fire into the male. Or if he had been thinking straight, he would have killed the male first, then dealt with the eggs and the female.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, he reflected as he dodged another blow from the creature passing over his head.
Then he heard a sound that he didn’t expect. A loud, prehistoric squawk. He looked up to see a streamlined, bony head and wide, leathery wings. Myfanwy the pterodactyl was never exactly a tame creature. It wasn’t in her DNA. But she must have learnt his voice in the years she had been the Torchwood ‘pet’. She bore down towards him. He saw her sharp beak gouge into the side of the insectoid head. The creature screamed and hit out at her, but she swooped up again. Jack reached out and grabbed her foot and hung on tight as he was pulled up into the air. He looked down and saw the creature on the Senedd roof. It was wounded, but alive still.
He felt Myfanwy swoop down again to attack once more.
“No, don’t,” he yelled. “It’s wounded. It’s going nowhere. You don’t have to fight it any more.”
But she wasn’t a tame pterodactyl. She didn’t respond to voice commands. And she saw the insectoid as something to attack and kill. Jack held on tight to her scaly leg as she went in for the kill again. It felt a little like being a fighter pilot again, diving towards the enemy. But in a plane, he had some glass and metal protecting him. This was far more terrifying.
Again Myfanwy pecked at the head. She seemed to know that was the best way to kill, her beak penetrating the exo-skeleton and damaging the soft tissue inside. She swooped up again and Jack contemplated jumping off. It would only hurt briefly now. Myfanwy would finish off the insectoid. It wouldn’t be able to eat his brain. Was it an attack of mild cowardice that made him hang on as she went into another dive?
This time the insectoid was done for. Its screech was cut off as the pterodactyl’s beak penetrated far enough into the brain to do terminal damage. The creature fell onto the Senedd roof, pulped brain tissue oozing out and mingling with the faintly glowing mess of the destroyed eggs.
“Ok, honey,” Jack called out. “Could you do me a favour and let me down gently, now.”
But he knew that wasn’t likely. Myfanwy circled her dead prey twice, rising higher each time. Jack looked down and judged the best moment to let go, aiming to land on a piece of Senedd roof that wasn’t covered in insectoid gore.
He misjudged it by a few inches. He felt himself falling past the roof. He reached out for the edge and missed. He closed his eyes and tried not to think about how much it would hurt when he hit those elegant, sweeping steps up to the front entrance to the building. In the last moment before his back broke in three places he hoped his mobile would still work when he came back to life again.
He woke in a body bag that was being moved in a rough, irregular way that told him he was being put into the back of an ambulance. He felt the bag being secured in place and a few minutes later the ambulance started up. He unzipped the body bag and noted that there was nobody in the back of the ambulance with him. He pulled himself out of the restraints and stood up. He was still wearing his coat but his gun and mobile phone and the rest of the contents of his pocket were in a plastic box. He reclaimed them and opened one side of the ambulance door a crack. The ambulance was on Pierhead Street. He waited for it to slow down at the traffic lights on the junction with Bute Place and jumped down. He jogged back towards the front of the Senedd. Overhead, Myfanwy was still circling. She would head back to the Hub when she was ready. He didn’t have to worry about her. He pulled out his mobile phone and noted that it was still working. He dialled Ianto’s number first, apologising for ruining his night and asking him and Alun to come and join him in a rather disgusting clean up operation. Then he called Garrett.
“Your leak is plugged,” he said. “You can scale down the lockdown. When you’re done, come and join me watching the sun come up and we’ll have that early breakfast as soon as the café opens.”
Garrett’s reply was a positive one. Jack sighed contentedly. This had been one sod of a night, with some experiences that would give him nightmares if he wasn’t careful. But the aliens were dead. Earth was safe. Torchwood had saved it again. And if his reward for the effort was to watch the new day begin with his lover, then that wasn’t so bad, after all.