Jack Harkness was Christmas shopping. It was something of a novelty to him. It was something he always thought people with families did. And he had never been a family man before. But now he had Garrett and Gray, and this Christmas he was part of an even bigger family.
Gray was chatting away beside him as they threaded their way through the crowds in the Queens Arcade. He wasn’t really listening, and he knew he ought to be.
“The girls are kind of my sisters, aren’t they?” the boy said when he turned his attention to him. “Molly, Gráinne and Niamh are dad’s own daughters, so they’re like... my sisters... in a kind of way.”
“Yes,” Jack agreed. “Yes, they are. If you want to think of them that way.” Calling Garrett ‘dad’ had become second nature to him, now. Calling his girls ‘sisters’ made the same kind of sense. “Do you like the idea of having sisters?”
A very long time ago, it had just been the two of them, brothers, living on Boeshane peninsula with their parents. They had seemed a complete enough family, then. But the war ripped that life to bits, and what they had now was salvaged from the wreckage.
Nobody really celebrated Christmas on Boeshane. In the fifty-first century the original reason for the festival was forgotten by all but a few religious fundamentalists who kept to themselves. The commercial kind of Christmas people tended to have in the twenty-first century didn’t have much meaning on the colonies. Jack had experienced the evolution of Christmas from the Victorian age through the twentieth century, and there had been years, when he was on his own, when he could have easily done without it.
But last Christmas had been his first family Christmas as a guest of Annie Dunne, Garrett’s ex-wife. He and Gray had been made to feel welcome in her home in Ireland. The girls had enjoyed Gray’s company and he had warmed to them. It had been a successful holiday.
This year they were reciprocating. Annie and the girls were arriving tomorrow, the day before Christmas Eve, and staying until after New Year. Gray had happily given up his bedroom for his ‘sisters’ and was prepared to sleep on a futon in the living room. He had dived right into the putting up of decorations and had made a list of presents he wanted to buy for his adopted siblings.
Jack was enjoying doing all that with him. It surprised him to realise that, but it was true, nonetheless.
“Yes, I like having sisters,” Gray admitted. “I like us all being a family.”
“Then we’re all going to have a great time over Christmas,” Jack happily conceded.
There was one possible fly in the ointment. The Rift had been active over the past few days. Ianto and Alun had rounded up a whole collection of flotsam and jetsam that had come through, including a nest of dinosaur eggs that turned out to have frozen before they were found in the grounds of Cardiff Castle and something that looked like a mutant weevil with two heads. Martha had put forward the theory that it was two weevils who had somehow been fused by some kind of anomaly in the Rift process. That was a disturbing enough idea on its own.
But the boys were about eighty per cent sure something else had come through the Rift and hadn’t been intercepted. They had been patrolling the streets all night in the SUV for two nights running, even taking along Ray while full moon was still a week away and recruiting some of the clientele from the After Dark Club as informants. Nothing had turned up, which meant they were either wrong or whatever came through was smart enough to conceal itself in present day Cardiff.
Jack hoped they were wrong. He didn’t want any trouble in the next few days. He wanted Annie to think Cardiff was a safe place where she could send the girls to stay on their half term holidays. Garrett was hoping she would agree to that. But if all hell broke loose with some alien entity while she was here, all bets were off.
So far, today, everything had been refreshingly normal in a way that Jack was actually enjoying. He used to think that living an ordinary life, doing what all the other people did, the ordinary people who shopped in Cardiff city centre, oblivious to the things he knew, would be mind-numbingly boring. But he found himself savouring that simple ordinary life and wanting to preserve it that little bit longer.
“Let’s take a lunch break,” he said, heading to a café that was offering turkey subs with cranberry sauce as a seasonal special. Gray was happy with that idea. Any time spent with his brother was quality time for him. Sitting down and eating in a café, where people would see them and know they were family, that they belonged together, was good.
“Is that coffee as good as Ianto’s?” Gray asked his brother as he watched him lift a cup of espresso to his lips and carefully matched his mannerisms as he sipped his own latte. It was a long standing joke between them. Jack always compared any cup of coffee he bought elsewhere with the brew made at the Hub.
“It’s not bad,” Jack replied. “But they don’t have Ianto’s feel for the coffee machine. He treats it with the same kind of care and attention I used to give the plane I flew in the war.”
“Ianto is nice, but I’m glad he isn’t your boyfriend, now. Garrett is...”
“Yes, he is,” Jack said. “He’s all of that.” Then he grimaced as he noticed a woman who had walked into the cafe just as Gray mentioned his boyfriend. She gave him what was very definitely a ‘dirty’ look and only reluctantly took the table across the aisle from theirs because the café was full and there was no choice. She glanced at them several times while waiting for the waitress to bring her order. Jack looked away from her, looking out of the window to where a one man band dressed in a Santa costume was playing Christmas songs so loudly they swamped the ambient slow jazz playing inside the cafe. It was the worst kind of seasonal cliché, but it was the sort of thing that appealed to Gray, for whom this kind of Christmas was new and exciting.
Then something about the Santa struck him as odd.
“Gray,” he said calmly. “Get down under the table. Cover your head with your arms. Like the drill we learnt on Boeshane. Quickly.”
“Jack... what’s wrong?” Gray asked. “It can’t be them, here...”
Jack knew it wasn’t the enemy they had been so scared of back then, and he hated reminding Gray of that fear. But there was an immediate danger and he had to protect him from it. The attack drill they learnt in the colony school might save his life.
He had to protect every other innocent in the café, too. He stood up and turned away from the thing that was drawing close to the plate glass window and called out to them.
“There’s a bomb!” he yelled. “Everyone get out... through the back. Move, now.”
Most of the customers did as he said. Cardiff had seen more than its fair share of explosions in recent years, most of them caused by things that had come through the Rift, even if more mundane explanations had been given. Cardiff people were ready to duck and cover when somebody shouted ‘bomb’.
The homophobic woman obviously wasn’t from Cardiff. She began to protest about the disturbance and accuse him of everything from trying to evade the bill to trying to scare her out of her wits.
“Lady, get down or your head will be blown to kingdom come,” Jack said, launching himself at her and pushing her to the ground, covering her with his own body. For a split second as he did so he actually wondered if he had over-reacted and whether he was going to be arrested for affray and possibly sexual assault.
Then the robot santa outside the window exploded. The compression wave shattered the window and his world filled briefly with noise, heat and pain.
When he came around, he was in his office in the Hub. He guessed that Torchwood had sprung straight into gear as soon as they got wind of the explosion. They had extracted him from ground zero before the ordinary paramedics had got close and brought him back where he was safe.
He heard Gray’s voice close by and was relieved. While he was still coming to terms with being alive again he focussed on what the boy was saying.
“Honestly, Auntie Annie, we weren’t anywhere near that place. There’s no need for you to worry. It isn’t even as bad as you think. They’ve only closed off one part of the shopping centre. People are still going in the other side of it, doing their Christmas shopping. We’ll show you, tomorrow. Dad wants to talk to you again.”
Jack opened his eyes and saw Gray pass the telephone to Garrett, who was sitting on the edge of the desk looking deliberately nonchalant, as if he was a method actor who got into the role even though he was only giving an oral performance.
“The press are making a mountain out of a molehill, really,” he told his ex-wife. “We were too late to slap a D-Notice on them and it was already on the internet that there was an explosion. Of course, everyone thought terrorism. But it was nothing of the sort. It was a gas fault.”
He paused. Annie was talking on the other end of the line.
“Annie, would I lie to you?” he asked. There was another pause. “That was different. It was national security. I lied to everyone about that one. But you know, if I thought there was ANY danger here in Cardiff I wouldn’t be letting you and the girls come over tomorrow.”
That seemed to satisfy her. Garrett said something affectionate to her in Irish and closed the call. He turned and saw Jack watching him. He came to the sofa and leaned over to kiss him.
“If you have to keep turning yourself into minced beef, at least I get to be the first to kiss you when you’re back,” he said. “Christ, you were a bad sight when they opened the body bag.”
Jack could just about remember the shards of glass embedding themselves in his back, a piece slicing into his neck, severing his jugular. He guessed minced beef was a pretty accurate description of his body when it was recovered.
“What about the woman?” Jack asked. “She was under me...”
“She wants the shopping centre to pay for dry cleaning her coat,” Ianto Jones told him. “You bled all over it.”
“Ungrateful cow,” Jack commented. “How many other casualties? And... are they really swallowing that gas explosion chestnut? I did shout ‘bomb’ before all hell broke loose. Surely that was a giveaway.”
“My office is making sure ‘gas’ is the official explanation,” Garrett confirmed. “Yours have ensured all the eyewitnesses are decidedly fuzzy in their minds about what happened.”
“I’m not,” Jack said. “A robotic Santa Claus blew up outside the café. I saw it with my own eyes.”
“We know,” Alun told him, stepping forward with a piece of evidence in his hand. Jack took it from him. It was a metal face, painted a jaunty red and yellow, but no less sinister for that. There was a bevelled edge where it fitted to the head.
“How did you know it was a bomb?” Garrett asked. “Not that I’m questioning your judgement. It was a good call. You saved a lot of lives. Gray was right in the blast zone and he doesn’t have a scratch on him. Everyone else in the café walked away, shock, minor cuts, bruises. Same outside in the arcade. Everyone was already running away when the explosion occurred. But what tipped you off?”
“He... I mean it... opened its Santa coat. And it had the word ‘boom’ written across its chest,” Jack answered.
“I’m not. It did exactly that. Deliberately. The fucking thing...” He paused and remembered that Gray was still in the room and regretted the swear word. “It was looking right at me... and...” He looked at the sinister face and turned it so the others could see. “It’s a tin face. It has no expressions. But I swear it was leering at me... malevolently. Then it showed me its chest... and I didn’t really look at it after that. I just knew I had to stop other people getting hurt.”
“My hero,” Garrett told him, kissing him again. “Anyway, my people are sticking with the gas story. The police will co-operate about that. But robot Santas are your ballpark, lover. The ordinary authorities are just going to contain the situation for you.”
“Good,” Jack replied. He sat up and accepted the clean shirt that Ianto had ready for him. A duplicate of his favourite military greatcoat was on the coat hook, but he wasn’t going outside, yet. The answers to most of his questions right now were likely to be found in the Hub.
“Jack, dad’s going to take me back to his office for a bit, then he’s going to finish the Christmas shopping with me,” Gray said. “Is that all right?”
“It’s perfectly fine,” Jack replied. “I’ve... kind of gone off shopping for a bit. You have a good afternoon. I’ll see you later.”
Jack knew it wouldn’t just be the two of them hitting the shops later. Garrett had the resources at his disposal to make sure nothing sinister got near the two of them. He was confident they would be ok. He hugged his brother and his lover and watched them depart up the restored pavement lift before getting down to business.
“We recovered more than the face?” he asked, looking again at the sinister mask and resisting the urge to put it up to his own face and look through it. Something about that idea both compelled and repulsed him.
“Plenty,” Alun told him. “Down in the containment laboratory. Want to come and see what we’ve found out?”
Jack did. He followed Ianto and Alun to the lift that took them down fifteen floors. The containment laboratory was in that part of the Hub designed in the fifties to withstand the nuclear attack everyone had expected then. It was also designed to stop a nuclear explosion inside from getting out. It had a decontamination airlock on the entrance for when they were dealing with anything potentially contagious.
“Garrett’s lot broke a hell of a lot of scene of crime procedure over this,” Alun pointed out as they stepped through the inner door. “By rights everything should have stayed in situ. But they commandeered a police van to transport all the Santa pieces to the Hub for us.”
“Good,” Jack said. “Bugger procedure. I want this over today. So does Garrett. We want a happy, peaceful Christmas and no crap from alien entities or enemies of the state. This gets sorted before Annie’s plane touches down tomorrow morning.”
Ianto looked at him curiously.
“We all want a couple of quiet days to enjoy Christmas,” he pointed out. “But isn’t that just a little personal, boss?”
“This IS personal,” Jack replied. “It looked at me. It came towards the window where I was sitting and stared right at me before it exploded. I was the target.”
Ianto and Alun exchanged glances. Was Jack being paranoid or just over-reacting to what had happened.
“That... doesn’t really seem likely, Captain,” Alun said. “Bombs aren’t personal. They’re usually aimed at causing maximum casualties and maximum damage. If it had shot you...”
What Alun was saying made absolutely perfect sense, Jack conceded. Alun had the military experience to be able to make judgements like that with confidence. And he was damn sure Garrett would agree with him. The bomb as a terrorist device was not personal. Bomb makers and bomb planters, suicide bombers, none of them cared who they killed or maimed – men, women, children, young or old, rich or poor, non-combatants or so-called legitimate targets, it scarcely mattered to them.
He knew it, too.
But on this occasion he also knew that the accepted theory was wrong.
This was personal.
“It was after me,” he insisted. “The fact that other people could have been killed along with me only proves that the bastards who sent it didn’t give a shit about Human life.”
He looked at the table full of remains behind a bullet-proof plexiglass screen of the ‘clean’ area, entered through another airlock door. Martha, of all people, had been laying out the pieces just as she might lay out organic remains in preparation for an autopsy. She applied the same careful rule to this non-organic body, and she had done a pretty good job so far.
The larger pieces, the head and limbs, were relatively intact. The bomb had been in the robot torso. The pieces of that part of the body were much smaller and thoroughly bent out of shape. But even so, she had managed to put most of the jigsaw together. Jack looked closely at part of a chest piece with the letters ‘bo..’ written on it.
It was personal.
“I can tell you one thing, right away,” Martha told him through the speaker grille. “This thing is what the boys have been looking for all week. Its soaked in Rift energy.”
“Ok,” Jack accepted. “That might be useful later. What else?”
“The material it’s made of... it’s nothing that exists on this planet in this time,” Martha added. “It’s metal, but flexible like plastic. And...”
She turned to the electronic microscope where she already had a prepared slide. The image was enlarged on the wall screen. Jack was a lot of things, but a micro-biologist wasn’t among his skills. He wasn’t entirely sure what he was looking at. It seemed to be some kind of bacteria that was dividing and sub-dividing as bacteria did, increasing itself.
“What is this?” he asked. “What does it have to do with....”
“The plastic-metal... it’s living... it replicates and grows. It... repairs itself.”
Jack looked at the mask he still held in his hand. It had born traces of the explosion. There were dents and fire damage inside and outside. The paint was scorched.
But now it was shiny and new like a toy in the Christmas department.
Jack dropped the mask and drew his gun. He emptied all six barrels of his Webley into it. At that range, the metal was pierced through.
And even as he watched, the holes closed up.
“It’s getting faster,” Ianto observed. He and Alun pulled their weapons, modern automatic pistols with clips of nine bullets each. Neither were entirely surprised when the same thing happened.
“Jack!” Martha yelled. “I think...”
“Martha, get out of there,” he told her. “Get away from that thing.”
Martha didn’t need telling twice. She reached the airlock door to the clean room. It would be a half a minute before she could open the outer door. Jack watched the ‘body’ on the table inside. It wasn’t reconstituting itself exactly as he expected it to do. Rather, it was reforming. Each dismembered part was remoulding itself and forming into a small version of the original robot. The size of the model depended on how much material there was to begin with. The leg pieces made into two three foot tall models. The arms were slightly smaller. The badly broken up torso turned into a toy army of five inch action figure Robot Santas.
And all of them were fully animated.
“This isn’t happening,” Ianto said as he put a new clip into his gun and shot the twelve inch model reconstituted from the face mask. It fell over with a steaming hole through its head, but almost immediately began to reform itself again.
Martha was out of the airlock. Jack grabbed her and the four of them ran for the larger airlock that was before the main door. Inside they had a two minute delay before they could get out into the corridor. It was long enough for one of the medium sized robot Santas to explode against the inner airlock door, shattering the glass and turning itself into small debris that quickly reconstituted itself into half a dozen action figure sized Santas.
“So much for bomb-proof glass,” Jack commented. “But they can’t get out of there. Once we’re through this main door that’s a sealed room. It doesn’t even have air vents for the small ones to get into. The door can withstand a nuclear explosion from inside.”
“Yes, but I wouldn’t put it past them,” Martha pointed out. “The way their molecules replicate, they must be capable of generating enormous power. And... look.”
They looked and saw what she meant. The small Santas weren’t staying small. They were growing even as they watched.
“Living metal. It replaces, replicates, grows, just like organic material.”
“So pretty soon we’re going to have an army of full sized robot santa bombs in there.”
“And there’s precious little hope of them staying in there.”
“Then we have a REAL problem. The containment laboratory won’t contain them. The Hub is compromised. We may have to evacuate.”
“And then what?” Alun asked. “When they’ve overrun the Hub, what’s to stop them getting out into Cardiff and creating carnage?”
“Us,” Jack replied. “We find a way.”
The outer door opened. They all rushed out into the corridor. Jack sealed the door, but with the knowledge it wasn’t going to stay sealed.
“Martha, get upstairs,” he said. “You and Beth, both of you get out of the Hub. You’re non-combatants in any situation. Save yourselves.”
“I can’t just leave you,” she protested. But Jack was adamant. She turned and ran for the turbo lift. He looked at Alun and Ianto.
“You’re going to tell us to run, too, aren’t you?” Alun said. “Forget it. We’re with you all the way, Captain.”
“There’s nothing you can do,” he told them. “If you’re caught in the blast, you die.”
But they stood firm.
“Ok, then we need a plan,” he said. “We need to...”
Ianto’s mobile phone rang. He reached for it and reported that the call was from Gwen.
“Ianto, I can’t get through on Jack’s phone,” she said. “Don’t tell me he’s got himself killed again and his phone died, too.”
“Yes,” Ianto answered. “But this isn’t a good time, Gwen. “We’ve got big problems at the Hub.”
“Rhys and I are on the way in. We’ve got something interesting. I was meeting Rhys at Harwoods, going to lunch with him, when one of the lorries smashed through the front office. It was being driven by a robot dressed as Father Christmas, would you believe.”
“I would believe it,” Ianto said. “But... Gwen, those things are dangerous. Did you hear about...”
“Dangerous, you’re telling me. It had a gun shaped like a trombone. But, listen, we dealt with it. Well, Rhys dealt with it. He was brilliant. My hero. You’ll never guess what he did.”
Ianto listened to what Rhys had done to save Harwoods Haulage from Robot Santa carnage, and he was impressed. He was also inspired.
“Boss, I have an idea what we can do to neutralise them. It’s a long shot, but it might just work.”
“You’re not going to give them a lorry full of Chewits are you?” Jack asked as he backed away from the supposedly secure and bombproof door. There had been a muffled explosion followed by a disturbing bulging in the metal. The robots were sacrificing themselves to get out of the containment room.
“It DOES involve a lorry,” Ianto replied, explaining his plan quickly. Part of it involved Jack putting himself up as bait. That didn’t thrill him one little bit. But it was the only plan they had.
Ianto and Alun had to follow Martha up to the Hub Central. That was the first part of the plan. Nobody else was going to risk their life in this. Jack waited and watched, just the other side of the first bulkhead door that was set to come down if a lockdown was initiated. He had already vetoed that idea. All it would do is leave them with a huge repair bill when the Santas had blown their way through every bulkhead to the outside world.
“You know, something just occurred to me,” Jack said to the others, listening in on the com system. “These things are really powerful... they can break through our bomb-proof doors. The one in the arcade... it could have levelled the building. What we got was a relatively small explosion, mostly directed towards the café, like a shaped charge. Targeted at ME, like I said all along.”
“But WHY would it target you, Jack?” Ianto asked. “It came through the Rift. Are you saying it did that just to get to you? Surely any enemy you have in the future... where they have this sort of technology... knows that you can’t just be killed.”
“That’s why... it’s what it was all about. I was the only target. I can’t be killed. But it was guaranteed that we’d investigate... bring the evidence back here. It was about getting into Torchwood. The whole thing was an elaborate infiltration game.”
“That’s a good theory, Jack,” Ianto told him. “What about Gwen and Rhys, then?”
“Back up plan... in case the first one failed. It went after another Torchwood target. The two of them have been here often enough to glow with Rift energy. Easy targets. Trust me, it’s something like that at the bottom of it all.”
“We should contain these things before we worry about where they came from,” Alun said. “Get ready, Jack.”
He was ready. He saw the containment laboratory door bulge out and break. Two full size robot santas emerged, followed by a collection of assorted sizes like a macabre toy promotion.
Jack jumped up and down waving.
“Hey, Santa, come on, here I am. I want to sit on your knee and tell you what I want for Christmas.”
The Santas headed towards him. He waited until they were all past the bulkhead, then he gave Ianto the order to drop it down. It did so with a resounding crash of solid iron. The Santas weren’t worried. They didn’t plan to return that way. Jack turned and ran to the end of the corridor. He paused by the stairwell doors and again encouraged them to come close. Another bulkhead slammed down as soon as they were all beyond it. He dived through the firedoor to the stairwell, knowing full well that wasn’t going to last five minutes. He made sure they were following him as he ran. He was deep in the Hub. There were thousands of steps. He didn’t get out of breath easily. That was another of the advantages of his immortal state. He could keep on going longer than most mortals. But he still had limits. If they got close enough to blow him up again before he got to the top, the plan would fail.
They kept on coming. He managed to stay ahead of them. By the time he reached the garage level he was breathing heavily, but he thought he had a bit more left in him. He ran through the empty garage. The boys had prepared for it, moving the SUV and their Audi out onto the car park by the Plas. There was nothing between him and the outside world except the dark bulk of a Harwoods articulated lorry jammed right up against the garage door. He ran up the ramp and to the far end of the freezer compartment.
“Come on then, Santas, come and get me. I’m in a nice confined space, now. We’ll make a lovely mess when we explode together. Come on...”
The Santas moved in on him. He waited until they were all in the lorry with him before he gave the signal. Alun closed the door, cutting off the light. He flicked on a pocket torch. The first thing it illuminated was the frozen Santa that had tried to get to Rhys and Gwen. Rhys had really been a quick-thinking hero. He had stalled the Santa with a co2 extinguisher – basically pressurised dry ice. He had realised straight away that cold disabled the robot. And he had pushed it into the back of the refrigerated unit.
The Santas were still moving, but sluggishly. He was banking on them being too cold to explode. Their molecules were slowing. The pliable plastic-metal was becoming less pliable. The below zero temperature was overwhelming them.
“Ironic really, isn’t it, guys,” Jack said as he felt the hum of the engine starting up. “Santa and snow... synonymous. But it’s the one thing you lot aren’t up for.”
There was no response. Not that they’d exactly been chatty to start with. But now they were barely moving. The smaller ones were already turning to ice cubes. The largest ones were shuffling and sliding on the icy metal floor. Soon they were completely immobile.
So was Jack. He moved through the frozen Santas and crouched down behind the door, hugging his arms around himself and trying to conserve his body heat. It was only a short journey to the facility they planned to use. He really wanted to stay alive this time. Two deaths in one day was just self-indulgent.
He made it. He stayed alive. But he was hurting by the time Alun opened up the back and caught him in his arms. It took him a long time to get the feeling back in his fingers and toes and to stop shivering, even with a thermal blanket and a hot cup of coffee. By that time, Ianto and Rhys had transferred all of the frozen Santas, big and small, into the Iceland warehouse.
“We’ve only got the floorspace until New Year’s Day,” Ianto pointed out. “It was where their Christmas turkeys were stored. But they’ll want the space to stock up for Easter.”
“That’s long enough,” Jack told him. “I need to get onto U.N.I.T. They have something that will help. A formula developed in the 1970s that dissolves metal... even living metal. They can help us out. But it’ll wait till after Christmas. No need to ruin anyone’s holiday.”
“We need to find out what it was all about,” Ianto reminded him. “And where the bloody things came from.”
“That can wait until after Christmas, too,” Jack insisted. “I want... for a few days... what everyone else has... I want my family, a Christmas tree, lights, food, drink. I want to watch Gray and the girls open their presents. Those bastards nearly robbed me of that. They can wait. So can all the other alien shit. Torchwood Three is closed for the Christmas season.”