Owen parked his car in a lay-by on the road beside Craigmaddie reservoir. He stood there for a while, just looking at the strange sight. He and Toshiko had come up here for a picnic last year when they first moved to Glasgow. The wide, crystal clear lake had enchanted them both. They had loved the view across the water to the distant hills.
It didn’t look so enchanting now. The reservoir had been drained over the past week for repairs and there were just muddy puddles and channels here and there on the bottom of a deep trough in the land. Pipes snaked across the trough looking, to anyone with imagination, like alien creatures themselves.
Owen Harper didn’t need imagination to think that the reservoir looked more like something that Torchwood should be interested in. He looked towards the screened off area he had been called out to look at, and knew there WAS something sinister here.
He sighed and pulled on a pair of knee length rubber boots and climbed down onto the reservoir bed itself. It was coated with the decades of accumulated silt and slime that were going to be cleaned up before the water was let back in from the other two reservoirs that served Glasgow. He grumbled to himself as he slipped and slid and barely kept his balance. This was an extension of his general dislike of the countryside as anything other than a picnic area for a few hours on a warm summer afternoon. He was beginning to wish he had delegated this task to somebody else. But Munroe was even deeper into the countryside, making one of his regular close inspections of Loch Ness. Toshiko had packed the kids into the car and gone with him, saying that the fresh air would do them all good. Owen suspected she just wanted a chance of glimpsing the monster, having listened to too many of Munroe’s tall tales. Dougal and Shona were in Dundee checking out a UFO sighting that actually sounded too convincing to put down as the usual nonsense. Darius obviously couldn’t come out in the daylight.
There was nobody to delegate. He had to do it himself. But he was damned if he was going to be in a good mood about it.
There were guards around the screened off section. They were dressed in fluorescent jackets with Scottish Water on the back, but Owen knew they were nothing of the sort. He assumed they were U.N.I.T. If not, then they were regular army called in to contain the situation. They knew who he was, anyway. They nodded and let him pass.
Within the protective screen was something that definitely did come under Torchwood’s purview. Even he stopped and stared when he saw it.
It was a spaceship. Or it was, once. It had clearly been at the bottom of the reservoir for many years. He made a mental note to find out just how many. When WAS the last time the reservoir had been drained for repairs? It had to be ten or twenty years, anyway. Maybe more.
There was no rust. Alien ships tended to be made of non-corrosive materials. But it was covered in silt, and it had been waterlogged. It was shaped something like a rugby ball with one end cut off. At the end, a wide glass section was long ago shattered, even though it must have been strong enough to withstand space travel.
“Any technology it had would be useless,” Owen remarked to the guard who flanked him as he stepped closer. “After lying underwater for so long, there can’t be anything worth bothering with.”
“There are bodies,” the guard told him. “Alien bodies.”
“There are?” That piqued his curiosity. At the very least he might find out what sort of extra-terrestrials had crash-landed in the reservoir. It was something to add to the database of unwanted visitors to planet Earth.
He moved closer to the wrecked ship as a group of men emerged with stretchers. He stopped them and opened a body bag.
The body had clearly been in the water a long time. But it wasn’t a skeleton. There was still a thick grey skin over the bones. It was vaguely humanoid, having a head, trunk and limbs, but wouldn’t pass for Human. It had a single eye in the centre of the forehead above a ridged nose and a wide mouth with very thick lips. The shoulders were wide and the chest broad. If it was a Human it would have been a heavyweight wrestler. The arms and legs were thick and there was a hint of strong muscles.
He noted that the alien’s genitals were in much the same place they were on a Human but were of a proportion that would have made Jack Harkness’s eyes water.
There was no obvious damage to the body, despite the fact that the ship had crashed. It would take a careful autopsy to establish the exact cause of death.
“I’ll need at least one of these bodies taken to the Hub for further examination,” he said. “See to it.”
He expected his instruction to be obeyed. He was surprised by the reply.
“Sorry, sir,” he was told. “We have instructions to take these bodies to be incinerated.”
“What? Hold on. You can’t do that. These are an unknown extra-terrestrial race. They need to be examined carefully. We need to find out who they are, what sort of alien, whether they were hostile or benign. Whether…”
“Sir, please stand aside,” said one of the men. He pushed open his Scottish Water jacket and placed his hand on a holstered pistol. “If you don’t stand aside, I will have to use necessary force.”
Owen stood aside. He watched the line of stretchers head towards a van parked by the roadside. Then he turned to see more men in Scottish Water fluorescent jackets setting charges around the ship.
“No!” he exclaimed. “What are you doing? What’s going on? Who authorised this? Stop!”
He began to run towards the ship, then realised that everyone else was moving rapidly away from it. He turned and ran. He heard somebody shout and then his ears rang as the ship exploded behind him. He resisted the urge to hit the ground, because the ground was so filthy. Then he tripped over something hidden in the slime and fell headlong into it anyway.
“Doctor Harper, will you please come this way,” said a voice as he struggled to his feet, trying to brush the mud from his clothes – a pointless exercise since it just spread the stuff even more thoroughly.
“I’m not coming anywhere,” he replied. “You can’t do this… I’m calling…”
“Calling who, Doctor Harper?” He turned to see a man wearing a smart pinstripe suit with long rubber boots. “The police, army, Torchwood? I’m afraid not. Please just come quietly.”
“Who the hell are you?” Owen demanded. “What is going on around here?”
The stranger didn’t answer him. He pushed up his left sleeve and touched a gold band on his wrist. Owen gasped as the man actually shimmered and, for an eyeblink, wasn’t a man at all.
“What the fuck!” He began to back away. “What the fuck are you?”
The man still didn’t speak He looked past Owen and nodded imperceptibly. Owen turned around just in time to see one of the men in fluorescent jackets aim a stun gun at him. He yelped once as the electrical charge shut down his senses and he slithered down into the mud again.
When he came around, he was clean and he was wearing warm clothes. He was sitting on a soft armchair and there was an open fire roaring. Somebody set a glass close to him. There was brandy in it.
“Where am I?” he demanded. He started to stand up but found his legs were still strangely weak. “What am I doing here?”
“You are in my home, Doctor Harper,”said the same man who had spoken to him at the reservoir.
“And who are you, then?”
“I am known as Robert MacHugh. I am a man of property with, as you will have deduced by now, a great many loyal employees.”
“That lot at the reservoir. They weren’t army at all. They were your people? So… why? What’s your interest in dead aliens? And why did you kidnap me? What’s going on?”
“Please stop asking questions, Doctor Harper. I WILL get around to explaining why you are here in a little while. First, we need to tell you some other vitally important things.”
“For a start, that things are not always what they seem, Doctor Harper.” McHugh again touched the band on his wrist. He shimmered and turned into a live version of the one eyed aliens Owen had seen carried out of the crashed ship. The living version was still grey, and the resemblance to thick elephant hide didn’t end with the colour. He wasn’t wearing a suit in this form, but a kind of all in one sleeveless bodysuit in a darker grey than his own skin.
Owen swore again. The alien shimmered and turned into a Human being again.
“I thought I dreamt it… but you did it before… at the reservoir… before one of your henchmen zapped me! You’re… a fucking alien in disguise.”
“You will note that you are not being restrained. If you really wish to leave here, I will not stop you. But if you would like to know what this is all about, sit right there, drink your brandy and listen to me.”
Owen weighed up his options. The promise that he could leave may have been genuine, but even if he took the chance, he had no idea where he was. He wasn’t even sure how long he had been knocked out for. It could be dark outside. He could be miles from home. He didn’t fancy wandering around the Scottish Highlands all night.
Besides, he did want to know what was going on.
He picked up the brandy glass and sniffed it suspiciously. It didn’t smell like anything other than a very good quality liquor. He took a sip, then a longer gulp.
“Ok,” he said. “I can give you fifteen minutes to explain what the fuck is going on.”
“You are a stubborn man, Doctor Harper. You still attempt to maintain some semblance of control over what is happening to you. Free will is a fine thing. You value it. And that is, perhaps, why you might understand something of what I am going to show you.”
McHugh stood up and went to the fine mantelpiece over the roaring fire. He picked something up and held it out. Owen eyed it suspiciously before reaching out to take what appeared to be a glass Rubiks cube without any colours or patterns to complete the puzzle. He turned it experimentally.
“What the fuck!” he yelled.
“Really, Doctor Harper,” said the voice of McHugh somewhere close by. “For a man of education you have a very restricted vocabulary. Do you realise how often you have used that same oath since you and I met?”
“Yes… but…” Owen stared around. He was no longer sitting in a warm drawing room. He wasn’t even on planet Earth. He looked up at a sky that was a mottled yellow colour and had two suns and three moons in it all at once. He was in a courtyard of some kind, surrounded by high buildings made of a white substance unlike any building material on planet Earth. There were only a very few windows in the buildings, and they were small and near the flat roof.
The idea that this was some sort of prison came into Owen’s mind.
“How…” he managed to stammer. A complete sentence was beyond him.
“You are still sitting in an armchair in front of a warm fire,” McHugh said. “You are in no danger. This is a sensory recording… an echo of events. It is technology far beyond anything even your organisation has ever had access to thus far. But, please, don’t worry about that. Watch what is unfolding.”
What was unfolding was horrifying. Owen watched as a group of the one eyed aliens were marched out into the courtyard. They were escorted by guards wearing black and carrying fearsome weapons. They marched in a tight square. The guards watched them at all times.
While they were marching, another group of the same aliens came out into the courtyard. Owen shuddered as he watched the guards line this group up against the wall and then form a firing party. The guards watching the exercising group told them to keep marching and keep facing forward. They weren’t permitted to look around when the volley echoed off the walls.
“What the… what was that for?” he asked. “Why were those men… or whatever they are… why were they executed?”
“For free thought. For questioning the government, asking questions, for suggesting that there might be another way of living except that prescribed for the citizens of Astria.”
“They execute people for thinking?”
“Not if we kept our thoughts to ourselves. But some of us were foolish enough to voice those thoughts, to express them practically… writing poems, painting pictures, singing songs. The people who were killed… their crimes were no worse than the others… the ones made to witness it. They did that every few weeks as an incentive to those undergoing the compulsory rehabilitation programme. They chose the condemned at random.”
“That’s….” Owen tried and failed to find a way to express his feelings about that particular cruelty. “I’m sorry.”
“Why should you be sorry? It is none of your doing.”
“This planet isn’t perfect,” he added. “We’ve had our times… wars… where prisoners were not treated well… The Nazis… what they did to people in their death camps… the Soviets and their gulags for political prisoners… but… nothing like that. It’s terrible. And I feel for them… for what they’re going through.”
“Yes, you do,” McHugh said to him. “Yes, I can see that. You’re a man of compassion, Doctor Harper. But you’re also conflicted. Your compassion normally extends to the Human race. Aliens are your enemy. Torchwood exists to protect the Human race from extra-terrestrial threats… to destroy anything that isn’t Human.”
“That’s true… our main remit is to protect Earth. But I’m a doctor. I became one because I value life. And…”
“Human life. Not alien. Our appearance repulses your senses. Your first reaction to me when I let the perception guard down was fear. You thought that I was a monster…”
“Yes,” Owen admitted. “Yes, I did… but only because… you sprung it on me. It was a shock. I don’t…”
“Everything is afraid of what is unlike itself. When I came to this planet, I thought the Human race was repulsive. The disguise I had to wear disgusted me. The soft flesh, bi-focal vision… And you all looked alike to me. It took a long time for me to get used to my adopted planet and its indigenous population.”
“You… all look alike to me…” Owen admitted. “And yes… you’re a plug ugly lot. But that doesn’t mean I can’t feel compassion when you show me something so outrageous as that. I just… can’t believe that such cruelty was inflicted by your own kind. I mean… I know humans… we’ve done the same. The Nazis… they justified their horrors by making out that the Jews and the gays and the others they murdered were less than Human. And white humans did things to blacks because we were convinced that our God made them inferior and we had the right to treat them that way… Is that what happened on your world?”
“No. We didn’t even have such an excuse. We did this to ourselves. We… once, three generations before the scene you witnessed… actually elected the government that has oppressed us for so long. We thought they were going to rescue us from economic disaster. They promised so much…”
“Yeah… politicians do that,” Owen noted. Then he wondered if the comment had been frivolous. After all, the broken promises of the governments he had known in his lifetime had never lead to the sort of outrage he had witnessed.
McHugh told him to turn the cube again. He did so and found himself in another vision of the history of that sad planet. This time he was immersed in something like a montage of scenes. First he saw the celebrations as the new government took office, promising a better future for all - all except the old government, anyway. They were packed onto a ship and launched into space. The new government said they had gone into voluntary exile to a planet called Sol 3.
“There were theories in the old days, that nothing of the sort happened. People said that the ship was nowhere near powerful enough to reach any habitable planet and that they went to their doom. But very few people actually cared about their fate. They were too busy getting used to the new way of life. And for a while it actually seemed as if the new way was working. They nationalised all the industries… took them under government control. They were no longer subject to market forces. Mines produced ore, foundries produced metals, factories made goods whether there was a profit to be made from them or not. If there was a surplus of a commodity, then the government gave it away. Every citizen of Astria owned a sky car because the factories had built enough of them. Of course, the fuel cost a fortune and there was a compulsory tax on ownership of a car. The same happened with vid-receivers. Every household received their free set – which had to have a special licence to operate….”
“Oh, let me guess!” Owen interjected. “Vid-licence inspectors would come round to anyone who claimed they didn’t have one.”
“It was against the law not to have a vid-receiver,” McHugh responded dryly. “The licence was simply another tax on the working people. Mostly people didn’t complain, because they all had jobs. The fact that everything cost so much and they had very little to show for the work didn’t seem to bother them. Not so long as they got free cars and vid-receivers and the chance of getting rich in the weekly lottery.”
“That sounds horribly familiar,” Owen said. “We have a lottery here, too. You must have seen it.”
“Yes. But in your lottery, people actually do win money. On Astria… well, it had been going on like that for nearly fifteen years when somebody actually questioned it. His name was Yucron Ido, a clerk in the lottery payment office. He actually found out that the winners of the weekly draw were fictional. The names didn’t exist on any register of citizens… and of course, not to be on the citizen’s register was against the law, so all citizens were registered. He began checking all the previous winners and found that there wasn’t a single real winner, ever. Not since it began.”
Owen said nothing. He could make a guess about where this was going.
“He contacted a friend who worked in the Department of Information. What you would call the Media. Yes, there was such a thing. Of course, it was heavily regulated. Anything that smacked of criticism of the government would not be permitted. Any suggestion that life on Astria was less than ideal was unthinkable. And exposing a fraud like that… His friend… his name was Yakhir Grase… he fully believed it. But he couldn’t have published it in a mainstream data cube. It would have been fatal to them both. By the way, Doctor Harper, you said fifteen minutes. It has already been longer than that.”
“I… think I can stay a little longer. I’d like to know where this story is going.”
“This story is going underground. Grase knew a lot more than Ido, a mere clerk, did. He had been compiling evidence of the government’s frauds upon the people for years. He knew about huge profits made from ore exports while wages had been capped for decades. He knew that there were abundant harvests every year even though there had been a ban on couples having more than two children and staple foods were rationed. He also suspected that people were being imprisoned for the slightest crimes and that executions were happening behind the gaol walls.”
“So he kept the lottery story quiet.”
“He didn’t put it in the official data cubes. But he let Ido into a great secret. There was an underground media. In the basement of the central information office, they used an old fashioned printing press – paper and ink - to produce a news-sheet with lists of missing people, presumed arrested and held without trial, and exposing all of the lies told by the government in order to control the people. These newsletters were distributed secretly. Slowly the truth was being told. People began to understand that they were being used. An underground movement was growing.”
Owen nodded. He could see how that would happen. People – even ones with grey hide and one eye – could only be pushed so far. He watched images of the secret movement meeting in hidden places, talking about revolution.
But he knew that the first images he had seen – the prison, the prisoners trudging in a beaten, demoralised circle, the executions – they came after these events. The revolution failed.
“The revolution never got off the ground. The government had its spies. They were biding their time until they were ready to strike. Mass arrests… families interned… the cruel, random executions. It was sheer chance that the two who began it all…. Ido and Grase… were never among those executed. Or perhaps it wasn’t chance. Perhaps it was deliberate…”
“The ultimate cruelty… letting those two see their followers killed… letting them feel guilty, feel the responsibility for those deaths…”
Owen put the Rubiks cube down and accepted a refill of the brandy glass.
“So… I’m guessing that the next part of the story is about escape. Some of you got away from the planet… came here and made new lives for yourselves.”
“So…. Don’t tell me… You’re one of those blokes… Ido or Grase?”
McHugh smiled softly.
“No. I was lucky. I wasn’t even there. I was one of the exiled government who left Astria right at the beginning.”
“You landed on Earth by mistake?” Owen asked. “Instead of…” He paused. “Oh… I see. Sol 3… that IS Earth, isn’t it?”
“We came to Earth. But we still had contacts on Astria. They sent those image cubes... We knew what was happening. We laid our plans. We arranged for a prison breakout, for ships that got the political prisoners away from the planet… ships with hyperspace capability. There were eight of them…. Seven landed safely in quiet, secluded locations. Most of them in the Scottish Highlands. I think you probably have some data at Torchwood about the high rate of UFO sightings in the Highlands… we’re responsible for some of that, I’m afraid. The refugees have been settled among the Human population. But the eighth ship… it was the last one to leave. Ido and Grase were among the passengers.”
“They were among the dead… the ship in the reservoir… the bodies that were taken out of there… I am sorry. Especially when… they got so close. They made it here to Earth… after all they had been through. I really am sorry.”
“Your sympathy is appreciated. Compassion… is something we have observed in many humans. You have a capacity for cruelty, too. Perhaps as great as our own. But our people have found peace here. Of course, we dream of returning to Astria. And the time may well come. Perhaps not for a generation. It may take that long before the spirit of rebellion is awakened again. But when it is…”
“You destroyed the crashed ship… but you have others… you’ve got them hidden… biding your time… I don’t need to know where, do I?”
“You do not. It was pure accident that you were involved at all, Doctor Harper. Torchwood was contacted before I was able to dissuade U.N.I.T. from getting involved and put my own people on the clean up job. You were a dilemma. We have lived among you in peace. We wish no harm to any Human. Killing you was never an option. But there were some far-fetched plans about keeping you hostage, wiping your memory with chemicals… bribery, blackmail. It was my idea to simply tell you the truth. That way, you would go away satisfied. You wouldn’t be plugging away at the mystery until you became a threat to our peaceful existence here.”
“So now I’m… what… an ally… a co-conspirator?”
“I like the idea of ‘ally’. We don’t ask anything of you, Doctor Harper, or of Torchwood… or, indeed, the Human race in general except for the air to breathe and the space to live. But to know there is at least one Human we can trust with our secret…”
“On the record or off it?” Owen asked. “Do I open a file on Astrians living among us?”
“That is for you to decide, Doctor Harper. I will trust your judgement.”
“Ok,” he decided. “Ok.
He drained the brandy glass and wondered if he would be offered another. Things couldn’t get much more surreal from the comfort zone of a couple of drinks.
“The bodies… Where did hey go?”
“We have them here,” McHugh said. “There is a small private chapel attached to this house. Though I have no use for the religious practices of the Human race it serves as a place where our heroes may ‘lie in state’. Many of our people are coming to pay their respects. When they have done so, there will be solemn cremations, with all honour due.”
“If U.N.I.T. had got hold of them, they’d be dissecting them. So would I if I’d taken them back to the Hub.” Owen nodded. “Yes, your way is better. Good luck to you.”
“Thank you. But I have detained you for far too long,” McHugh told him. “Your car was taken back to Glasgow and left in the railway station car park. But I can arrange for transport to wherever you should care to go.”
“If you mean that, then somebody can take me to Loch Ness. My wife and kids are up there with a man who looks after the monster! I think I’d like to join them. I… feel I’d like to be with my family right now.”