With a week to go before Christmas Eve, it had snowed in Cardiff. For children and hopeless romantics it turned the city into a winter wonderland. For everyone else it meant dangerously slippery pavements, impassable roads, buses delayed, schools closed, absenteeism at work.
Rhys had moaned about all of those things over breakfast, complaining about how much extra work it would mean to a transport manager like himself.
Gwen listened as usual to his gripes with half an ear and her mind on her the day ahead for herself. She found the drive to work more than a little troublesome this morning, but all the same she was one of those hopeless romantics and she liked the snow. She left her car in the Torchwood garage which had a direct passage into the Hub and walked up and around into Roald Dahl Plas.
There was still a perfect blanket of snow over the Plas. Her feet made virgin tracks in the even whiteness of the ground. Benches where tourists sat in more clement weather made strangely amorphous shapes sticking up from the new ground level. The Millennium Centre looked like a rich, golden cake with a thick layer of icing on top. The Ferris Wheel that had gone up for the Christmas season looked particularly striking in the early morning light with each spar of its unmoving frame covered in a frosting of snow.
The paving slabs around the base of the fountain, which had automatically switched off due to the freezing temperature were all snow-covered but that didn’t stop Gwen finding the ‘magic’ one that was the secret entrance to her place of work hidden beneath the ordinary world of Cardiff Bay.
“Don’t get snow all over the floor!” Ianto yelled as she descended. His warning was too late. The soft snow had already started to melt in the warmth of the Hub. By the time the lift reached the Hub floor a puddle of water overflowed from it. Ianto passed Gwen a mop and bucket and she did her penance for taking the scenic route to work.
Jack came from his office while she was doing that. as she handed the mop and bucket back to Ianto he handed her a travel mug with the lid screwed on.
“Your first coffee of the day to go. I need your PC Cooper manners on a field trip.”
Gwen suppressed a sigh. Going out again was the last thing she wanted to do. The snow was pretty to look at but she fancied keeping her feet warm under her desk for the morning.
“No problem,” she said with the broad smile that her old colleague Andy Davidson had learnt to recognise as covering up a bare faced lie. “Ianto, you’ll have to check the overnight UFO sightings for me.”
“Done that already,” he answered. “All innocent mistakes or pathetic hoaxes.” He smiled warmly at her then turned his attention to Jack. “I’ll get onto that job for you, now, boss.”
Jack nodded to him in acknowledgement then tilted his head briefly towards Gwen. He was ready to go so she had to be, too. She followed him down to the garage and buckled herself into the passenger seat of the SUV. Jack set the alien gismo to turn all the red lights green on what should have been a five minute journey according to the Satnav.
Not that it helped this morning. The jam on Clarence Road that left them admiring the beauty of the near frozen River Taff for nearly fifteen minutes was created by an overturned milk lorry just beyond the bridge. Alien technology couldn’t do anything about that.
“I wonder WHY aliens wanted to interfere with traffic signals,” Gwen remarked absently as she finished the coffee and boredom set in.
“Toshiko said it was meant to be a jamming device for some sort of alien communications system,” Jack replied. “The traffic light changing is a handy but unintentional use for it.”
Gwen went silent again for a few minutes, then as the SUV crawled forward she asked a more pertinent question about their ‘field mission’.
“We’re going to the homeless shelter in Grangetown,” Jack explained. “Apparently there seem to be far less homeless people there than there ought to be.”
Gwen wondered why that was anything to do with Torchwood.
“I keep a close watch on these things,” Jack told her. “I always have done. Among the things Ianto doesn’t like to talk about is the fact that the Cybermen took homeless people to build up their secret army hidden in Canary Wharf. Nobody noticed it happening because nobody notices homeless people going missing. They’re easy targets. Besides, here in Cardiff, they’re always vulnerable to Weevil attack, falling through rifts, all sorts of things. So I DO try to keep a sort of census of the homeless population through the various charities that try to look after them.”
“It’s just as a heads up about possible alien mischief, then, not because you CARE about homeless people?” Gwen asked.
“Whether I care or not is irrelevant,” Jack answered. “There’s bugger all I can do for them by caring. I leave that to the people who run the shelters and go around at night with the soup and sandwiches.”
“You DO care, don’t you,” Gwen said, reading between the lines. He shrugged and then scowled at the source of the problem up ahead. The overturned lorry had spilled hundreds of gallons of milk all over the road and it was rapidly freezing. The police trying to deal with the problem were looking foolish, sliding around in the mess like Keystone Cops.
“That’ll be on You-Tube in ten minutes,” Gwen said, thanking providence that she wasn’t stuck in the middle of it all herself.
“Well, we WON’T be,” Jack growled. He hit the button that turned on the blue strobes on the SUV windscreen and edged into the empty opposite lane. They by-passed four cars before being stopped by a police officer who came to the driver’s side window.
“You may be Torchwood, but there’s no way through here right now,” he said. “You’ll have to wait like anyone else.”
“I can MAKE a way through,” Jack answered, pushing up his coat sleeve and flipping back the cover on his leather wristlet. “With one press of these buttons I can disintegrate the lorry and all of your cars.”
“I’ll clear the way for you, sir,” the officer said after a few moments of mental debate over whether all the rumours about Torchwood were true.
“That was mean,” Gwen admonished him.
“Beyond the police… outside the government.”
“I’m not sure getting through traffic is what that privilege is for.” Jack shrugged again. Gwen just felt a little ashamed about being part of a trick like that at the expense of the hard-working and unappreciated police. After all, she used to be one of them.
Jack had nothing more to say on the matter, and anyway, with the road clear it wasn’t long before they reached their destination.
This wasn’t a rough and ready homeless shelter but a purpose built centre that actually looked friendly and inviting. The lounge was warm with comfortable armchairs arranged around tables with newspapers and magazines. A shelf contained books and games. There was a television with a Playstation console attached.
The room was decorated for Christmas with streamers, balloons and a tree in the far corner.
“This is the dayroom,” explained Eva Wyn-Jones, the day manager of the centre. “We can accommodate up to fifteen casual visitors as well as our twelve residents who have rooms upstairs.”
“It looks very nice,” Gwen answered, feeling as if Mrs Wyn-Jones was giving them a guided tour of the facility rather than discussing missing homeless people. “What time do you open?”
“We ARE open,” the manager answered with a worried sigh. “This is why I called Captain Harkness. He asked me to contact him if I thought there was anything out of the ordinary among our clients and… all but one of the residents plus I don’t know how many of the casual day visitors have vanished overnight.”
“Vanished?” Gwen repeated the word as she sought for something to say. She wished Jack would say something. He seemed to be leaving her to it, relying on her PC Cooper compassion to bring out everything Mrs Wyn-Jones could tell them.
“Vanished,” she repeated. “All of the rooms are empty. The beds have been made up, everything tidy, according to the rules of the house, but the men are gone, all of them.”
“All?” Gwen queried. “Didn’t you say one resident was still here?”
Mrs Gwyn-Jones nodded and looked past Gwen to a figure who stood at the door from the residential section. Gwen turned and quickly took in the dishevelled woman with uncombed hair wearing a clean but well worn cotton dress and a grey-blue cardigan with men’s army boots on her feet. She could have been any age from twenty-five to forty. Her tired face gave away almost nothing.
“Angela Morgan,” Mrs Gwyn Jones said. “Currently the only female resident. “Angela, if you’ve finished your breakfast, come and sit down. I’ll put your favourite television programme on in a minute.”
Angela sat in an armchair by the television. The manager switched on the set and tuned it to Bid TV. Angela watched the promotion of a set of attachments for a vacuum cleaner.
“Those are quite useless and over-priced,” she commented. “The standard attachments for that machine are quite adequate.”
She said that in a perfectly lucid voice, as if she was an expert on domestic appliances, but when Gwen sat next to her and asked her about herself she withdrew back into herself.
“I’m not trained in psychiatry,” Mrs Wyn-Jones said with a deep, resigned sigh. “But a lot of the residents come with communication problems like that and I have to do my best for them. Leave her to talk about vacuum cleaners and the like. She’s quite happy with or without an audience.”
But Gwen persisted. She needed to ask Angela if she knew anything about the missing men.
“The women’s room is separate from the men’s,” Mrs Wyn-Jones added. “The door between them is kept locked for obvious reasons.”
“They went up the chimbley,” Angela said. Gwen looked at her and then at the TV, but they were still talking about vacuum cleaners. Chimneys had nothing to do with it.
Was that an answer to the question?
She looked around. The building was modern with full central heating. It didn’t have chimneys or fireplaces. The closest thing was a large pvc image of a roaring fire with an elaborate mantle shelf around it that had been fastened to the wall next to the bookcase.
Gwen looked at it. Jack did more than look. He went to the faux fireplace and examined it carefully, confirming that it was just a piece of colourful plastic.
Then he opened up his wristlet and tapped at the tiny keys expertly. He studied the readout and frowned deeply.
“Mr Grayson is here,” Mrs Wyn-Jones said. “I’ll make coffee for everyone.”
Mr Grayson was dressed for outdoors in cargo pants and boots topped by a thick sweater under the overcoat that he took off in the warm room. He obviously already knew Jack who introduced him to Gwen.
“I’m in charge of the outdoor resources,” he explained. “Essentially I go around in a mini-van with soup and sandwiches and spare blankets for our rough sleeping population. I make sure they’re alive and well and keep a count of how many there are.”
“And… how many are there?” Gwen asked.
“Today… a lot less than there ought to be,” Grayson answered. “Barely a handful.” Gwen opened her mouth to say something. “Yes, I know. It’s been snowing. But you would be surprised how many people sleep in doorways and under bridges even in the most extreme weather. Besides, this place was empty all night. So were the other premises we’re responsible for and the Salvation Army shelter. It’s as if most of the homeless of Cardiff have vanished overnight.”
“You’ve checked with the police and hospitals, obviously?” Gwen asked. Jack gave an impatient sigh. HE had already tried the obvious things before deciding this fell into Torchwood’s remit.
“It’s alien intervention,” he said to her in a low voice as Grayson was distracted by the coffee. “I’ve got massive meisson, ion and carbon eleven residuals from that corner of the room. Some kind of transmat beam was used.”
“So they’ve been abducted, all of the men from this centre, and loads more from all over Cardiff?”
Gwen didn’t ask why. There were too many obvious and awful reasons. Though it had been hard to believe at first, the truth about the Cybermen – planting Human brains in the metal bodies – was not even the worst thing she had read about in the Torchwood archives.
“Horrible,” she said. “And at Christmas, too. The worst time of all.”
“That’s just sentimentality, Gwen,” Jack told her. “Christmas is no better or worse time for something like this to happen. Expecting alien races to give us some kind of truce for the holiday is just woolly thinking. Besides, when have humans even given each other a break. There are just as many murders and massacres at this time of year as any other. The FIRST Christmas if you believe in all that led to the murder of babies, remember!”
Gwen’s theology, as Suzie had cruelly pointed out, once, had never left Sunday School. For her the dark realities of Christmas were hidden behind the pretty nativity scenes and joyful carols. What Jack said was all perfectly true but she railed against it and she wished he hadn’t been so brutally stark in his dismissal of her sentimentality.
“Even so….” She began, but she had already lost the argument.
“We’re here to do a job, Gwen. Angela knows more than she’s letting on. Have another talk to her.”
“I’m not trained in that sort of psychiatry, either, Jack,” Gwen pointed out. “Martha would be more use with her. I really don’t know how….”
But he was right. Angela had given them the only real clue so far. If she could only find the right way to talk to her, she might be able to break through the strange shell and get to the truth.
“The chimney,” she said to her. “What happened with the chimney?”
“They went up the chimbley,” Angela said. “Those dishes are very nice. I used to have a set like those.”
Gwen glanced at the television. Bid TV were selling a set of bone china dinner plates.
“The Chimney,” she repeated. But Angela didn’t want to talk about that. Gwen looked around at Jack, but he had his back to her, talking quietly on his mobile phone.
She stood up and walked towards the fake fireplace. It all looked perfectly normal, just a rather kitsch sort of Christmas decoration out of Poundland or somewhere.
“Gwen, no!” Jack called out. He ran across the room and grabbed her far more roughly than she thought necessary. She protested loudly about his actions which had disturbed Angela from her television watching and Mrs Wyn-Jones and Mr Grayson from their coffee.
“Don’t go near there,” Jack insisted. “The energy levels are building again. And Ianto has confirmed it for me – the missing people all came here. He’s got CCTV footage from all over Cardiff – Toshiko’s old system… he’s seen them – the homeless of Cardiff all heading this way as if they were following a trail of breadcrumbs.”
“That’s not possible,” Mrs Wyn Jones protested. “This building should be locked at night. We don’t do drop in services after seven in the evening.”
“You don’t get it, Ma’am,” Jack responded. “Whether you were open for business or not, they came in here, and they didn’t go back out again through any door, which means….”
Jack stopped. He wasn’t entirely sure what he meant. Hundreds of people had come in here and stepped deliberately into a transmat beam in the corner of the room to be zapped up to… whatever! It actually sounded a bit far-fetched even to him, and he had seen just about everything.
“They came here,” he insisted. Gwen looked as if she believed him. She would believe him if he told her Father Christmas was real. Angela believed him, too. But Mrs Wyn-Jones and her colleague looked at him sceptically. They dealt every day with the realities of life on the cold streets of Cardiff. They didn’t believe in what they couldn’t see, and nothing even in his deep well of charm and persuasion was going to change that.
“Jack, look!” Gwen’s agitated voice broke into his moment of self-doubt at the same moment that his Vortex Manipulator beeped shrilly. He didn’t need to look at it to know that the energy readings were going off the scale. Besides, everyone, now, was staring at the space in front of the ‘fireplace’ poster where a glowing white light was coalescing into a solid form – one that increasingly looked like a Human being – or at least something that resembled a Human in its outer form. Both Jack and Gwen knew anything was possible beneath a perfectly innocuous skin.
“Stop right there!” Jack demanded, pointing his Webley automatic at the man who tried to step forward. He looked normal enough with a trim grey-white beard and neatly cut hair. He was wearing a neatly pressed suit and a white shirt with a tie.
“Oh my goodness!” Mrs Wyn-Jones stepped closer, staring at the man. “Llew…. Llew Davies… it is you, isn’t it? I hardly recognised you… You’re… you’re….”
“Clean, sober?” Llew smiled warmly at her. “Yesterday I was a hopeless mess. You gave me a formal warning about drinking in my room. You told me to clean up my act or I would have to leave.”
“Yes… yes.” Mrs Wyn-Jones looked at Llew and then at Jack who was still pointing a gun at him. “It’s all right, Captain Harkness. I know this man. He’s one of the residents. I… I will vouch for him.”
“That’s too easy,” Jack responded. “Any alien can scan a man’s brain and pick up his memories.”
Gwen looked at Llew, then at Mrs Wyn-Jones, and at Angela, who had moved from the sofa and was approaching the new arrival with a wide smile on her face.
“You came back for me,” she said. “LLew… you came back for me.”
“Yes, I did,” he answered, grasping her hand. “Angela, you should have come with us last night. I know you were scared. I shouldn’t have left you on your own. But I’m here to tell you it’s all right. It’s everything we were promised… everything we could have hoped for. You and I could be happy there, together.”
That was too much for Angela to take in. She withdrew back into her strange shell and told him about a canteen of cutlery for sale on Bid TV. But she knew it was him. The only person not yet convinced was Jack.
“He said you would have a hard time accepting it,” Llew said, stepping forwards despite the gun still pointed at him. “Wait a minute. He’s coming to explain.”
“Who’s coming?” Gwen asked. “Jack, I think you COULD put the gun down. I think it’s all right.”
Jack didn’t move a muscle. He still suspected some kind of alien trick. He was even more certain that he was right when the air shimmered again in front of the faux fireplace and another figure began to coalesce.
The fact that this man looked a lot like himself didn’t make him any less suspicious.
“You can lower the gun,” the other man said in his own voice. “But move back… as far back as you can get without actually leaving the room. You’ve done enough time travelling to know about the Blinovitch Limitation Effect. We can’t get too close without causing major problems for causality.”
Gwen had never heard of the Blinovitch Limitation Effect, but she had figured things out.
“He’s an older version of you, Jack,” she said. “Look at him. He’s identical except for a bit of grey hair around the temples and a couple of lines around the eyes.”
“Gwen!” the older Jack laughed softly. “Only you would notice the lines. I would have had more, but in the eighty-ninth century cosmetic surgery is as easy as using an ATM.”
“That’s definitely you, Jack,” she told the present day one, but he had decided that for himself. He had holstered his gun and stepped well back. “Eighty-Ninth Century?”
“The year 8881, in fact,” older Jack said. “The week before Christmas, just as it is here. We chose the same time of year so that the settlers wouldn’t find it disturbing, as if travelling into the future to make new lives for themselves wasn’t disturbing enough.”
“You’d better explain yourself a bit better than this before Jack shoots himself,” Gwen told him.
“In the eighty-ninth century, planet Earth is as close to a paradise than it has ever been. We’ve eradicated most diseases, solved poverty and hunger, and since about three-quarters of the people have actually migrated to colony planets it is actually quite an empty world. I got involved with a project to bring people from the past, when homelessness and poverty was rife to a better life in the present – or the future from your point of view. Try not to get hung up on that. Llew here is an example of what we can do medically. His alcohol dependency, the manic depression that made him drink and contributed to his homelessness were dealt with in a one hour session of intense therapy. His body is clean, his mind clear, and one haircut and fashion makeover later he’s a new man.”
“It’s true,” Llew confirmed. “I feel like I have my life all over. That’s why I wanted Angela to join me. I want her to be a part of my life. The same therapy can help her mental problems. She used to be a teacher, you know, before she had a breakdown. They want teachers in the future.”
“Yes… but….” Jack was still suspicious.
“Jack, I think… we really ought to believe them,” Gwen told him. “I think this is for real.”
“Of course it’s for real,” older Jack assured her. “If you have any further doubts, come and have a look. Not you, Jack. Better if you stay out of all this. But Gwen, you come. And you two, Mrs Wyn-Jones, Mr Grayson. Come and see where your customers have all gone. There’s a Christmas party about to start. They’ll love to have you as guests.”
Gwen looked at Jack. He was shaking his head, but she shook hers back at him.
“It’s the only way we’ll know for sure. Let me go, Jack. Let me go with you. I trust you… now and in the future. I really do.”
“Gwen… no.” Jack insisted. But he knew he couldn’t stop her. Not if she was really determined. She stood with the older version of himself. Llew joined them, holding Angela’s hand, guiding her gently towards her new, better, life. Mrs Wyn-Jones and Mr Grayson looked at each other and then joined the party. The older Jack adjusted a setting on his Vortex Manipulator. The white light coalesced around a much larger group and swept them away into a stable time vortex corridor that would take them to the eighty-ninth century.
Jack was left alone. He sat on the sofa and switched off the television. He waited in a brooding silence for a long hour, wondering how he would explain to Rhys what had happened if his own instincts had been right, after all.
After a second hour he had stopped brooding and was pacing the floor anxiously. He knew what he would say to Rhys, and it was a meeting he dreaded. He knew there would be anger, recriminations. He thought about Gwen’s little girl, spending her first real Christmas grieving for her mum.
“Shit!” he swore. Then his heart skipped a beat. He could feel the Vortex Manipulator vibrating on his wrist. Energy levels were building up again. He put his hand on his gun but kept it in the holster for a few moments longer than he usually would. There were two possibilities – one was an alien nasty come to fight him. The other….
Three figures solidified. He dared to breathe a sigh of relief, though the possibility of alien simulacrums hung in the back of his mind.
“Jack!” Gwen ran to him and hugged him tightly. “Jack, it’s all right. It really is. They WERE having a Christmas party. There’s a huge hall here where this place is, like a cathedral, but for people, not religion.”
“Gwen….” Jack hugged her back and trusted his instincts. It felt like her. The kiss she planted on his cheek in her excitement felt right. It was Gwen.
“We stayed a little longer than we should,” Mrs Wyn-Jones explained. “Angela went straight to therapy. We wanted to be sure. When she was done, you wouldn’t know her. She looked so confident, so alive inside. Llew is taking care of her. I think they’ll be good together.”
“There’s nothing for you to do here, now,” Jack pointed out.
“There will always be homeless people. Social Services will refer them to us. They’ll be in need of soup and sandwiches in the night, all of those things. And… maybe some of them can join the others. There is still plenty of room for them in the future.”
“Up the chimney,” Gwen said.
“Up the chimney,” Mrs Wyn-Jones responded with a smile.
“Ok,” Jack decided. “I don’t know what this is going to look like in the report Gwen is going to write up. I think I’ll take her out for a mince pie and a brandy coffee first, anyway. It’ll make her spelling go wobbly, but it’ll be worth it.”
With that he put his arm firmly around Gwen’s shoulders and steered her outside. On the pavement, before they got back into the SUV he hugged her again.
“Forget what I said earlier,” he said. “It does matter that it’s Christmas. And I hope you have a good one, Gwen.”
“You too, Jack,” she replied. “Merry Christmas, Captain Harkness.”