On any given day, George’s Square kept a kind of elegant dignity despite the tourists, the lingerers and the down and outs dropping rubbish and taking up space on the public benches. The City Chambers with its high, church-like spire and the grand war memorial in front of it set the tone and the Georgian edifices on the other three sides strove to match it.
At night subtle uplighting picked out the important buildings but the Square itself tended to be a dark pool of shadows that was best left alone.
At Christmas, elegance and dignity were sacrificed to kitsch. The square turned into a winter wonderland with the great Doric pillar topped by the statue of Sir Walter Scott lit up like a stone Christmas Tree in the centre of an artificial skating rink. Rather than being a place to cross carefully or not at all after dark it was a hub of excitement and activity that drew Glaswegians and tourists alike.
Munroe MacDonald had never tried ice skating in his whole life, but he had recently been taught to enjoy it. His tutor went by the Human name of Amanda when she was outside Lady Heather’s alien brothel where she worked alongside her sister Dassians. Munroe had stopped thinking of her as his favourite prostitute and she didn’t really regard him as a client. They were, in the phrase used by people of a younger generation than Munroe, ‘friends with benefits’. He never used the phrase, but he freely admitted that sex with Amanda was spectacular. In between he liked spending time with her in more ‘vertical’ leisure pursuits. He had taken her to all of the art galleries and museums of Glasgow and to the theatre and cinema. They had spent weekends at the cottage by Loch Ness where Munroe went to make sure the ‘monster’ was thriving in the cold depths of the water.
On New Year’s Eve he was on another ‘date’ with Amanda. They had eaten at a restaurant where they had been often enough to be known by the waiters. They had explored the funfair and ridden the magnificent old carousel horses. Later they hired skates and went out onto the rink together under a clear sky in which stars twinkled despite the light pollution of the city.
It was a beautiful evening that turned into an exciting night as midnight approached. Around George Square people stopped in their activities and turned to look at a temporary digital clock set up above the skating rink. They counted down in unison. They got a little ahead of themselves. There was a near silent second or two before the bells of several city centre churches began tolling the midnight hour. People got ready to wish each other Happy New Year and to sing Auld Lang Syne together.
Then things took a strangely sinister turn. It began with the tenth stroke of midnight – or rather the lack of it. The crowd in George Square turned to each other in wonder as they realised that the hour was three strikes short. Munroe looked up at the digital clock and noted that it had stopped.
“That’s impossible,” he murmured. If the power had been cut, then the clock would have gone blank. It wouldn’t have stopped at 00:00:08.
He looked at his watch. That had stopped at the very same time. So had the slender, feminine watch on Amanda’s wrist. He saw other people pulling back their sleeves to check their own wristwatches and coming to the same conclusion.
“Time has frozen,” Amanda said, her voice sounding strangely loud in the near silence that had fallen over the crowd around them. Only a mild sussuration of puzzled murmurs and whispered questions filled the air.
“Which is completely impossible,” Munroe argued. He reached out and grasped her hand tightly a fraction of a second before George Square was plunged into total darkness.
There were screams – not all of them from women. Amanda didn’t scream, but Munroe felt her body tremble as he pulled her closer to him and waited to see what was going to happen next.
He knew this had to be something that came under the purview of Torchwood. He was almost certainly the one man present who was qualified to understand what was happening – at least he might when something more happened to clarify the situation.
But he really wished he was anywhere else but there at this frozen moment.
How far did the darkness extend? He tried to look around, but the blackout was absolute. Not even a pinprick of light penetrated it. He couldn’t see his own hands in front of his face. As far as he could tell, the darkness encompassed the whole of Glasgow.
The answers came suddenly and horrifically. A light as bright as an artificial sun blinded anyone who didn’t manage to shield their eyes in time. When vision returned, behind the dancing afterimages, people gazed in astonishment and disbelief at a metallic dome that encompassed the whole of George Square, the City Chambers and the three buildings on the south side. The spire of the Chambers barely came halfway up to its full height. It was clearly enormous, clearly not anything made by Human beings.
“We’re trapped, we’re prisoners!” The cries of panic went up around the Square. The same thoughts had occurred to Munroe, but he saved his breath. There was clearly no point in stating the obvious and even less in protesting when there was no sign of the prison guards.
“Be quiet, Human samples,” a voice demanded in a perfect quadraphonic sound with barely any reverberation or echo despite the size of the space it filled. “Stand still for scanning and enumeration.”
The voice had no obvious accent. It was simply English. If there was anyone within the dome who did not speak English, perhaps they heard the message in their own language. In any case, everyone obeyed the instruction implicitly. The survival instinct was strong enough even in the bravest of soul. Nobody dared to disobey.
The scanning and enumeration took thirty seconds. A beam of yellow-blue shimmering light passed across every single one of them in that time and the data it collected was clearly enumerated in as little time.
“We are the Tháím Pháén,” said the perfectly enunciated voice. “We are here to judge a sample of this planet’s population and decide whether it is morally fit to continue.”
There were murmurs of confusion and some people dared to question the Tháím Pháén. They demanded explanations.
They got them. The invisible judges explained that they were guardians of morality. They judged the population of a planet by taking a sample of them and putting them on trial.
“If there is ONE morally good being amongst this sample, it will suffice to prove that the species may continue. If there is not, then it will be evidence for the annihilation of the race.”
Nobody doubted that the Tháím Pháén could do exactly what they threatened. They obviously had powers beyond Human science or technology.
What they doubted was their own moral purity. How could they possibly live up to the expectations of the ‘guardians of morality.’
Torchwood was closed for the night. Even Darius had the night off from the Hub. He and Shona were attending a party at the home of Lady Moira, the matriarch of the Glasgow vampire community. There were other humans – some whom had formed romantic attachments to vampires, some who were related to those who had been ‘turned’ and remained faithful to their unDead kin. They were all welcomed by the Lady and treated kindly by her vampire clan. Human food and drink was available for them alongside bottled water and a carafe of something dark red that was strictly for Vampires.
A vampire babysitter was looking after Gabrielle in a room that had been Lady Moira’s own nursery many centuries ago and which she had furnished in a modern style in hope rather than expectation of it ever being used. Everyone was enjoying the party. At midnight even Vampires had cause to join their cold hands to warmer ones and wish each other Happy New Year. After all, they had survived another year without being staked or otherwise removed from existence by those who didn’t understand that they just wanted to live in unDead peace. Auld Lang Syne meant more to them, with their unnaturally long lives and many friendships long torn apart, than any Human could fully imagine.
It wasn’t very long after midnight that a late arrival reported that something was wrong in the city centre. All the vampires were attentive. ‘Something wrong’ might mean something that made their lives dangerous. The report of a giant and apparently impenetrable dome enclosing George Square didn’t sound like something that could be blamed on the unDead community, but it was strange enough to worry them.
“We should go,” Darius said to Lady Moira. “This sounds like something we have to deal with.”
“Yes, you must,” she replied. “Your little one will be safe here. All the bedrooms have blackout curtains fitted.”
Gabrielle wasn’t susceptible to daylight, so there was no need for that precaution on her account, but it meant that her vampire nursemaid would be able to attend to her even if the crisis continued after dawn. Lady Moira lent the Torchwood couple one of her cars with windscreens that filtered out the harmful sunlight, too. They made their way through the unquiet streets, avoiding drunken individuals and small groups who had forgotten the Green Cross Code several drinks back.
Inside the dome the fear deepened as the consequences of the Tháím Pháén demands sank in.
“Please!” A lone voice cried out plaintively. The beam of light found a thin, poorly dressed man in the midst of the fairground punters. “Please, don’t blame everyone else for my crimes. I’m sorry. I really am. I’ll give the money back. I’m sorry.”
“Ross McCraig!” The voice of the Tháím Pháén identified the miscreant. “Twenty-two years old, delinquent from the age of eight, truant from school, a sneak thief and pickpocket….”
“Yes!” McCraig admitted. “Yes, I am all of that. But I’m sorry. Please… kill me if you want. But I’m just one man. Don’t… please don’t….”
He pulled several purses, wallets and watches from the pockets of his coat and threw them down – his pickings for the night and raised his hands in surrender. The beam intensified. He screamed in pain and collapsed. The beam shut off. A man tentatively bent down to examine him and confirmed that he was alive, but unconscious.
“Take me!” cried out another man. The beam swung to the far side of the skating rink like a spotlight picking out contestants in a bizarre game show audience. His voice was augmented by the alien sound system so that everyone could hear him clearly. “I am The Right Reverend Erskine Fraser, Bishop of Galloway. I… I have lived my whole life by the laws of God and guided my flock to do the same. Surely… surely I might be that one man that you spoke of. Might I redeem the Human race as Christ redeemed it?”
There was a silence as if everyone was holding their breath in hope. Surely here WAS a man who would prove that the Human race was worth saving. If a Bishop wasn’t morally good, then who was?
Despite Dougal’s work in a secret organisation that fights alien interference with Earth and the fact that he was supposed to be dead, he and Sandy actually did have friends and a social life beyond Torchwood. For New Year’s Eve they were at a party with the title ‘gays and stray-ts’ at a fashionable nightclub in the area once known as Trongate and now known as Merchant City District and noted for its arts and culture as well as commerce.
They were enjoying themselves away from the madness of Torchwood and among ordinary people who thought that Dougal was a security consultant. Dougal had never actually worked out what a security consultant did, apart from recommend brands of burglar alarms and avoided talking about his fake working life almost as much as he avoided the real one. Despite so much subterfuge he managed to keep up conversations with gay and straight couples of his social circle and was happy to spend New Years’ Eve with them.
Even so, after the noise and group celebration of the New Year itself he sought a quiet moment with his own partner. The only place to do so was on the smoked glass fronted stairwell from the first floor nightclub to the restaurant and bar on the ground level. Here was a haven of peace between the two where they stole a kiss and wished each other a Happy New Year.
“That’s strange!” Sandy drew back from Dougal’s embrace and leaned closer to the plate glass wall, looking out intently.
“I could see the Ferris Wheel on George’s Square going round before – above the roofs. And then suddenly it disappeared… as if all the lights went out at once.”
“Maybe it shut down.”
“It shouldn’t. The fair was meant to be open until one o’clock tonight… or this morning, whatever you want to call it. And don’t you think it looks much darker over there? As if a whole section of the city is blacked out?”
“A power cut at midnight on New Year!” Dougal laughed softly. “Fat chance of getting anything done about it.”
Then he stopped laughing. Two police cars sped by the end of the street with their lights flashing. They were followed a few seconds later by a van, again with lights and sirens. In fact, emergency sirens seemed to be heading towards the George Square district from all directions.
“Something is wrong,” he said, feeling as if he had just made a serious understatement.
“You mean something that Torchwood should be involved in,” Sandy replied, knowing a certain look on his lover’s face. “It’s more likely just a drunken fight.”
Two fire tenders screamed past the end of the street.
“Ok, more than a fight. But still not a Torchwood case.”
Dougal looked out of the window again, then back at Sandy.
“You won’t be happy unless you go and have a look, will you?”
“It’s less than half a mile. I can run there in a few minutes.”
“We’ll walk,” Sandy decided. “Hang on, while I check our coats out of the cloakroom. It’s perishing out there.”
Right Reverend Erskine Fraser, Bishop of Galloway, was bathed in white-blue light as the Tháím Pháén assessed him. Then the light turned an angry red. The Bishop screamed in agony. People backed away from him, crying out in horror as they saw his skin blistering and smouldering as if he was being burned alive within the flames of hell.
Then it stopped. The bishop’s charred body collapsed in a heap. Those standing closest to him looked in horror. Nobody dared to touch him, but they didn’t have to do that to confirm that he was dead.
The rest of the people looked up, as if seeking answers in the air above them to the many questions they wanted to ask about what they had witnessed.
“This man has failed our test,” the perfectly pitched voice said. “He is guilty of grave hypocrisy. He professed to be a moral leader, but he has helped cover up a terrible crime.”
“What crime?” The question susurrated around the dome. The Tháím Pháén gave no more information, but the Human imagination filled in the blanks. There were enough reports in the newspapers about priests abusing children and bishops turning a blind eye. There were always questions about diocesan finances and how the collections taken from ordinary, honest church-goers were spent. There were any number of ways that a Bishop might have committed a sin of omission by allowing illegal activities to continue under his auspices.
As crowded as they were, the people moved away from the dead bishop, leaving a wide space around his body. Nobody wanted to be near him. Quite apart from the theories they were all forming about the crime he had covered up, they felt betrayed. The bishop had promised to be the one moral example that would save the Human race, and he had failed. What hope was left for them?
“What about me?” The question passed through the mind of every prisoner beneath that metal dome. A few of them had real crimes on their consciences. A car thief broke down in tears, much to the astonishment of his friends who had thought he was ‘cool’. A businessman who had embezzled a lot of money from his company dropped to his knees and loudly confessed to everyone around him.
Many people were on their knees, praying. How many of them regularly went into a church was questionable, but with their lives at stake, they prayed now, many of them loud in their recitation of sins they were suddenly finding hard to bear. It was surprising how many respectable looking citizens of Glasgow had cheated on their partners or ‘borrowed’ money from the petty cash, shop-lifted some odd item in their youth… the list of sins was wide and varied, though sex was a recurring theme. A psychologist might have made something of the way so many people thought that unfulfilled fantasies about infidelity were sinful.
But the psychologist was too busy crying and admitting to lustful feelings for his secretary to compile notes.
Owen and Toshiko had been to a party, but they left twenty minutes before midnight. They walked home, wrapped up in winter coats, aware of the sound of private celebrations happening in houses all around them. Premature fireworks lit the sky from time to time and drunks, lone or in groups, noisily staggered along the pavements of Tollcross, sometimes getting in their way, but mostly just proving that everybody else had been having a better time of it.
“I’m sorry,” Toshiko said for the tenth time. “It really was a bad idea. I just thought… being a part of the local community group….”
“It’s fine when we’re campaigning for a twenty miles per hour zone outside the primary school,” Owen said. “But these are not people I want to party with. I may be getting too old for the clubbing scene, but if I ever get to the stage where bingo is the highlight of my evening, just shoot me.”
“I thought the real low spot was when everyone lined up to pass the balloon between their legs,” Toshiko admitted with a suppressed giggle that she let out to the empty street. “I’ll never be able to look Caroline Lennox in the eye again after the way she tucked her skirt up in her knickers….”
They both laughed. A passing drunk wished them a Merry Christmas. They laughed again. Then the sound of cannon fire in the distance, and the explosion of dozens of fireworks, a loud cheer from a nearby house, all told them that it was midnight. Owen stopped and grasped Toshiko in his arms. He kissed her fondly, despite the wolf whistles that came from the crowd across the road.
“Happy New Year, Tosh,” he said.
“And to you, Owen,” she replied. “Let’s go home and give the baby-sitter time to get to a party.”
Then both their mobile phones went off at once and they knew that the baby-sitter would have to stay on duty a lot longer than planned.
“Shit!” they swore in unison before Toshiko dialled a taxi, knowing it was going to be at least double rates tonight.
Few people had volunteered themselves to the Tháím Pháén after seeing what had happened to the pickpocket and the bishop. Now, the searching beam found people at random and laid their souls bare for all to see. Those whose offences were small – like the woman who had been taking sugar sachets home from the café where she worked weren’t rendered unconscious. There did seem to be a level of proportion in the punishments meted out. She yelped as she received a painful electric shock from the beam and wept at the shame of having her petty theft laid bare in front of friends and strangers alike.
Another random example who was treated mildly by the alien judgement was a tramp known only as ‘Duff’ to anyone who knew him. The Tháím Pháén identified him as Andrew Duffy, who had abandoned that name and the life that went with it after an attempt at insider dealing that cost his stockbroking firm and its investors millions of pounds. The aliens judged that he had punished himself far more than his crime deserved and turned the beam off him without any physical pain.
“They understand the concept of mercy,” Munroe noted. “And they understand that some crimes are not as heinous as others. And yet….”
“They’ll destroy this whole planet if there isn’t one wholly good person here in this crowd at this moment!” It sounded as if Amanda was stating the obvious, but in fact she was pointing out the curious anomaly between what the Tháím Pháén had threatened and the way they had dealt with individuals. Would they really kill the whole Human race when so many of them were guilty only of the very smallest immoralities?
Could they be reasoned with? Could they be persuaded not to go on with their ultimate plan? The Human race might depend on that possibility rather than finding a wholly moral character in George Square.
Owen and Toshiko were the last of the Torchwood team to arrive at the cordon the police had set up on all of the approach roads to George Square. They pushed their way through the crowds gathered to stare at the black-metallic dome and found Dougal and Sandy trying to convince a police officer that they had business inside the cordon.
“We’re Torchwood,” Owen said with a firm air of authority. “All of us. And you need us in there.”
“I have already told these gentleman that we have two representative of that organisation co-ordinating with the emergency services already. My orders are not to let anyone else in.”
“Who got here before us?” Owen asked, but Dougal didn’t know.
“I’m not sure it would make much difference,” Toshiko pointed out. “We can see from here that this is bigger than anything we’ve dealt with before. What more can we do except wait to see what happens, just like everybody else.”
“I don’t do waiting,” Owen replied testily. “And I don’t take orders from petty, jobsworth coppers, so get out of my way or start looking for a new job in the new year.” He glared at the police officer for two seconds before yanking the cordon tape until it broke and stepping forward. Dougal, Sandy and Toshiko followed while the police officer was trying to tie the ends of the tape together and keep back the surging crowd while calling for back up on his radio.
Toshiko was right, though. Inside or outside the cordon there wasn’t much more to learn about this strange alien incursion.
“Boss!” Darius’s voice called them to the shelter of the black limousine that comfortably accommodated all six of them. They appreciated the in-car heating while he filled them in on what he knew. “I went up on the roofs of Queen Street Station,” he explained. They didn’t bother to ask how he did that. He was a Vampire. The tops of buildings were his favourite nocturnal haunts. “Then I flew over the dome itself. It is big, metallic – I could smell it. Not a metal found on Earth, though. And it was vibrating at such a high frequency it was almost motionless.”
Toshiko, with a degree in physics, was the only one of them who understood why a high frequency vibration was indistinguishable from lack of motion. It was significant because it suggested some kind of mechanics involved in the structure.
But why was it here? What about the people who were in the Square at midnight when it arrived? Were they alive or dead? Had the dome materialised around them, making them prisoners, or had it landed on them, crushing them to death?
“If we could rig up some kind of transmitter, something that could penetrate the dome, send a message to whoever, whatever is inside... assuming anything is.” Toshiko tried to think of scientific solutions.
“Why don’t we go and bang on the door and tell them to fucking well open up?” Owen suggested.
“There isn’t a door,” Shona told him. “That’s one thing we’ve managed to find out. It’s seamless, impenetrable.”
“The police were talking about the army coming in… with mortars,” Dougal said. “I heard them on their radios while I was trying to convince them that we had credentials.”
“They can’t!” Toshiko exclaimed. “We have to stop them. There might be people in there.”
“I don’t think mortars would make a dent in that thing,” Dougal added. “If there is anyone inside I think they’ll be safe.”
“At least the army are doing something. We’re absolutely fucking useless sitting here,” Shona pointed out. “I thought we were going to do something.”
“I’m open to suggestions,” Owen sighed. “Right now, I haven’t a bloody clue.”
“Amanda of Dassia!” The voice of the invisible Tháím Pháén rang out clear. She cried out in terror.
“No, please!” she begged. “Please don’t judge me. I know what I am. If that offends you… then….”
“Leave her!” Munroe shouted. He stepped into the beam of light that enveloped Amanda and pushed her out of it. The beam stayed on him. “Whatever my sins are, I admit to them, but don’t hurt that woman. She is guilty of nothing.”
“She is a prostitute!” the Tháím Pháén argued.
“She is a Dassian. Prostitution is an honourable profession in her culture. As you should know. You scanned her. She is not Human. You cannot judge her by Human moral standards, and you can’t hold her up as an example of the Human race.”
“You are correct on both counts,” the Tháím Pháén admitted. “She will not be judged. You will, instead.”
The beam intensified. He felt his skin tingle as if needles were being stuck into every inch of it, but it got no worse than that. They weren’t torturing him, and they weren’t punishing him. It was just part of their process.
Then the tingling stopped, though the beam stayed on him.
“You have passed the test,” said the voice with no more emotion than it had displayed when denouncing the bishop. “You, Munroe MacDonald, have led a life of service and duty. You raised a son, and mourned a wife. You continue to give service for the good of humankind. Your only vice is your attachment to the Dassian woman – and that is mitigated by your selfless act when you defended her, knowing that we could so easily have killed you.”
“I… hoped that you would show mercy,” he replied. “The Tháím Pháén understands the concept. I sought to impress upon you the need to show it to the… the Dassian woman.”
“You are proof that the Human race has the potential to throw off its immorality and steer a true course. Our judgement is complete… for now. We will return in another time to test whether our mercy has been rewarded or rejected.”
Munroe blinked as the beam was switched off abruptly. The next moment he clung to Amanda’s hand in pitch dark again. He held his breath, waiting for what he hoped would happen next.
The Torchwood team were still trying to decide what they ought to do next when they were aware of a change in the situation. They were among the witnesses who saw the solid, seamless, impenetrable dome simply fade away, becoming first opaque, then transparent, then completely gone. The fairground lights and the garish decorations around Sir Walter Scott’s tall plinth came on together. The uplighting in front of the City Chambers illuminated the spire again. The skating rink was bathed in strong blue-white light as before.
People poured out of the square despite the efforts of the police to try to keep them there for ‘debriefing’ and ‘statements’. They wanted to go home and thank their stars that a man they had never met before had somehow saved all of their lives.
That wouldn’t actually happen. The Torchwood team were distributing cups of tea with Retcon in. By the morning they wouldn’t even remember the toll of midnight clearly. In case anyone slipped through the net Toshiko would be monitoring all of the news outlets and conspiracy websites and blocking any references to aliens in the centre of Glasgow. If they could do nothing during the crisis, at least they could mop up afterwards.
Munroe and Amanda avoided having to talk to the police, but when Owen met them he demanded a full written report.
“It’s going to be worth reading,” Munroe promised him. “May I see Amanda safely home, first, Doctor Harper? It’s been a traumatic time for her.”
Owen stepped aside as an ambulance drove into the square. He didn’t yet know it was to pick up the body of the deceased Bishop of Galloway, the only fatality of the strange event. Later, he would be called upon to provide a suitable cover story for how the Not-So-Right-Reverend died, but right now he was in the dark about the whole affair.
“It’s a bank holiday,” he conceded. “I suppose the written report can wait for a day or so. Go on, bugger off before I change my mind.”
Munroe thanked him and took Amanda to find a taxi on this extraordinary night. Owen watched him go wondering just what the report would contain when he finally received it, then he decided going home and sleeping late on the first morning of the New Year appealed to him more than getting his teeth straight into a Torchwood mystery.
“I’m getting fucking old,” he complained as he summoned another taxi. “But I’m still not going to another bloody community group party.”