Warm spring mornings with a cloudless blue sky and the sun glinting off the calm waters of Cardiff Bay were rare. Mornings when there was nothing important for any of the Torchwood team to do were even rarer. So Gwen seized the opportunity for them all to come up from their windowless underground headquarters and have brunch in the open air at a café down by Mermaid Quay.
They made quite a crowd. Martha was the only one not in a couple, but she had a text message from her boyfriend that made her smile widely. Ianto and Alun sat close to each other and put the sugar in each other’s coffee like a cosy married couple. Rhys did the same sort of thing for Gwen, passing the salt before she asked for it. Ray and Beth hadn’t quite reached that level yet but they were getting there. Ray enjoyed the sun on his face. Another three nights of full moons was over and he was free from his affliction until next month.
“What time is Jack due home?” Ianto asked.
“He didn’t say,” Gwen answered. “Only that it would be some time today.”
“We’d better not be sitting here when he gets here,” Beth commented. “He’ll think we’ve been slacking off.”
“We have been slacking off,” Gwen pointed out. “This morning at least. But the sort of week we’ve had, we need a morning off. And if Jack doesn’t like it… he can lump it. After all, he’s the one who went off for half term week with Garrett and Gray.”
“I hope he’s as accommodating when we’ve got kids,” Rhys pointed out. “It’s all very well for him to go off…”
“He will be,” Gwen assured him. She sat back and looked around. She worked in the Bay area every day, but except first thing when she arrived and last thing when she left she rarely saw daylight. She felt like an old Welsh pit pony spending her life below ground.
She looked at the sky and the wide bay created out of the remnants of the old docklands that she was barely old enough to remember as a once thriving hive of industry. Across the bay, the Norwegian Church looked especially pretty in the sunlight.
The quay was busy. It always was. While she was below ground, collating data on UFO sightings in south Wales, people were enjoying the shops and restaurants of the popular tourist spot above her. But for once she was above ground, too. She was enjoying the simple pleasure of looking around at other people as they passed by.
A tall woman caught her attention. She strolled along the quay with a dog on a leash whose long, golden fur was almost the same colour and texture as her own blonde hair. Gwen laughed.
“It’s true… about owners looking like their dogs…”
Ray shook his head.
“Not those two. They’re related.”
“I heard about them at the After Dark club. She goes there, sometimes. Not on full moon nights, you understand. She’s…”
“Not exactly. Her mother was a werewolf. Her father was Human. She and her twin brother were born in the ordinary way. Well, if you can call them ordinary. She was born first, then her brother. She looked normal enough. He did, too... for a dog.”
“You mean… one of them was Human… the other was….”
“No,” Ray explained. “Not even that. She looks Human. But she has werewolf blood. On the first full moon, when she was only a few weeks old, she grew fangs and howled all night. After that… every time. When she was older, she had to be caged up on those nights. She doesn’t change fully. Just the fangs and the howling and the mind of an animal instead of the Human mind. She has a padded room with chains. She locks herself in before moonrise. Naked, apparently…”
“That’s just gossip. I don’t believe that,” Gwen said. “Gossip and wishful thinking by men with kinky ideas about a chained up naked woman.”
“Could be. But it’s certainly true that her ‘time of the month’ is more serious than it is for ordinary women.”
“And the dog… does he transform?”
“No. He’s trapped as a dog. He can’t do anything about it. Full moon, she locks him in the basement of her house before she goes to her own room.”
“Must be murder for the neighbours, the both of them howling all night,” Rhys commented.
“Sad story,” Ianto said. “I feel sorry for them both.”
“So do I,” Beth admitted. “And I can’t help thinking about it. Their mother was a werewolf. Their father was Human. What if it was the other way around?” She looked at Ray and sighed. He put his hand out to her. She grasped it firmly. He was her man, whatever anyone thought about their relationship. They had come to love each other despite the difficulties and restrictions Ray’s ‘condition’ imposed. But the possibility of giving birth to a litter of puppies held them back from a fuller commitment.
“I can beat that for a way out crazy story,” Martha said, to take Beth’s mind off her troubles apart from anything else. “See that woman over there… Try not to look too obvious. She’s pretty much used to people staring by now, but give her a little dignity.”
Of course, it was impossible for six people to all look around at the woman without being obvious about it. They tried, but the result of their efforts was that five other people sitting at tables, along with two waiters and three passers by, all ended up staring at her.
The woman seemed to be oblivious to them all as she sat down at a small table on the edge of the café’s outdoor area. She had a pram with her. She put it beside her and applied the brake and then reached in for a baby wrapped in blankets. She then proceeded to open up her blouse to breast feed. Rhys, Ianto, Alun and Ray all automatically turned away with varying degrees of blushes on their faces. The women kept looking a little longer and they noticed what was strange about this woman’s baby.
“It’s invisible?” Gwen queried. “Like Etsuko?”
“No,” Martha answered with an emphatic shake of her head. “It’s even weirder than that. I heard the whole story from a medical student up at St. Helens. She was there with the ‘baby’. He was talking to her and giving her money. I thought he was up to something illegal so I cornered him about it, and he told me the whole story. Her name is Hannah. He… I think I’ll call him Jim. It’s not his real name, but it will do. Anyway, Jim said he had dated her a little over a year ago. He described her as quite ‘keen’.”
“Keen?” Martha’s audience all turned over the word and considered its possible meanings.
“Yes, that’s exactly what he meant,” she continued. “They had an intense sex life for a couple of months. Then she told him she was pregnant.” Martha acknowledged the knowing exclamations that came from the male listeners – even the gay ones. “Yeah, I thought the same thing. But Jim offered to do the decent thing. He offered to marry her, get a place for her and the kid, all of that. And it all looked like it was going to happen. The wedding invitations had gone out. He was seeing about a mortgage, looking at houses within easy reach of the hospital. It wasn’t how he’d planned his life, but he cared about her enough to want to do all that, and he was getting used to the idea of being a dad.”
“Sounds ok so far,” Beth pointed out. “Nothing bad yet. But… there’s a huge, huge weirdness coming up, isn’t there?”
“Hannah broke it off. She said she didn’t want to get married to him. She said she didn’t love him enough, didn’t want to trap him into a relationship that wouldn’t work in the long term, all the usual things. Jim was upset, of course. So he kept trying to persuade her. Then she broke it to him – there WAS no baby. She wasn’t pregnant. It was a phantom pregnancy. Well, Jim wasn’t sure what to make of that. He didn’t quite believe her. He thought she was saying it to get out of the relationship. But he accessed her medical records…. Yes, I know that was totally illegal. But he felt he had to know. He found the ultrasound scans. There was no sign of a baby. Her blood tests showed that all her hormone levels were normal. There weren’t even any indications of an early miscarriage.”
“Well… then…” Gwen glanced around again at the woman. She was still holding her invisible baby to her breast. There was a serene expression on her face. She looked the very picture of a woman who was enjoying motherhood. Except…
“Jim lost contact with her for a few months, got on with his life. He started to date women again. Only this time he made sure he used a condom every time… taking absolutely no chances.”
Martha took a drink of her coffee before carrying on with the tale.
“Just before Christmas, he bumped into Hannah again. She looked about eight months pregnant. He tried to talk to her, but she was having none of it. He let her be. What else could he do. He expected a letter from the CSA to drop on his doormat, citing him as the father. And then, early January, in all the snow, he saw her again. She was pushing the pram. He tried to talk to her again. He wanted to look at the baby. Only when he looked into the pram… there was no baby. There was a sort of bulge in the blankets and he said there was kind of a baby smell – like talcum powder and sicked up milk. But he swore there was no baby in the pram.”
There was a silence around the table. Everyone was trying to work it out.
“So… was there a baby or wasn’t there?” Gwen asked, feeling as if she had lost the plot completely.
“It’s a ghost baby,” Martha answered. “She had a phantom pregnancy… and gave birth to a phantom baby. Even ghosts want to be born, apparently.”
“Fucking hell!” Ray swore. Everyone else echoed his response with various degrees of profanity.
“Well, at least the CSA won’t be after him,” Rhys pointed out. “They’ll never make that one stick.”
“It’s Cardiff,” Beth declared. “Anywhere else, these things… they’d be… what do you call it…”
“Urban myths,” Ianto said. “Just what I was thinking.”
“Yeah. Those. They’d be stories in the pub about somebody the mate of your best friend at work heard about from his mate’s sister who swears it’s true because she heard it from her best mate. But here… Werewolf brothers and sisters walking up and down the boardwalk. Women feeding ghost babies… This city is a magnet for urban myths.”
“Well, we don’t have the alligators in the sewers, at least,” Rhys pointed out.
“Only because the Weevils scared them off,” Alun replied in a dry tone. “But we have all the other urban myths. Ianto and I found the haunted tree one at the weekend.”
“That’s more of a rural myth, really,” Alun added. “Not an urban one. I’ve come across stories from time to time. There’s a place in Pontyprid where they cut down a huge tree to make way for building. The workmen swore that the wood inside was soaked in blood. And underneath they found the skeletons of dozens of babies... it was where the local midwives buried stillborns and miscarried foetuses in the days when unbaptised children weren’t allowed to be buried in consecrated ground. It was a horse chestnut tree, but local children were so creeped out by myths about it that they never went near the conkers.”
“The ‘blood’ in that case was easily explained,” Ianto added. “Old sap gathered in the bottom of the trunk and went dark brown with age. It looked reddish when the tree was cut down. It would have taken Martha two seconds to run a chemical analysis and prove it wasn’t blood. It was true about the skeletons, though. But that’s just a rather sad detail of social history in rural Wales.”
“And you found a tree like that on your weekend break?” Beth asked them.
“No, this one was a bit different,” Alun replied. “We were up in a little place called Llanwellyn. One of those remote valleys where you still can’t get Channel Five even with the digital switchover. Ianto’s Aunt Mary runs a bed and breakfast there. She’s like all the ladies of his family, with a strange kind of blind spot about me and him and what the scripture at Sunday chapel says about our kind of fornication!” He grinned at Ianto, who blushed endearingly. “It was a nice place. Aunt Mary gave us the best room, with a grand view of her big old garden and the mountains beyond.”
“And that tree!” Ianto murmured darkly.
“That tree wasn’t there the last time I was here,” Ianto said to his aunt when they sat at a table in the back garden and she plied them with tea and cakes. He looked at the old oak tree. The word ‘gnarly’ summed it up completely. The trunk was a good five foot in diameter at the base and split into two huge branches that supported a massive canopy. It was dark underneath even on a bright, sunny day.
He realised that his statement didn’t make sense. That tree had to have been there for at least two hundred years. But he remembered coming here when he was a teenager and he was full certain there wasn’t a tree that big in the garden.
Aunt Mary looked disconcerted for a few seconds, then passed him a plate of home made cakes. Alun got up from his seat and walked up to the tree. He put his hand on the trunk and then walked all around it. He came back to his seat, smiling indulgently at his lover.
“That tree has been there since it was an acorn,” he assured Ianto.
“You were never a tree climber, anyway,” Aunt Mary told her nephew. “You preferred to press leaves and catalogue them.”
“I’m sure I never pressed leaves from that tree,” Ianto insisted. Then he put it from his mind. He smiled at his aunt and even more widely at his handsome husband who reached to hold his hand under the table. He was on holiday from the pressures of his work. He was with the man he loved and the sun was shining. Why worry about anything else?
After Aunt Mary’s lunch in the garden they put on their walking shoes and spent the afternoon following public footpaths through the valley. They stopped to eat at a pub that served hot food and then took their time walking back to the bed and breakfast. It was dark when they came in through the back door that was left on the latch.
“That bloody tree has moved,” Ianto said.
“It can’t have,” Alun replied. “You’re getting obsessed with that tree. Stop looking at it if it bothers you.”
“It has. The toolshed was between it and the picnic table earlier. Now it’s in line with it.”
“It’s the angle you’re looking at it. Bugger the tree. I just want a cup of cocoa and a bit of your aunt’s fruit cake... and then... I want...”
“To bugger me?” Ianto asked hopefully.
“That was in my plans,” Alun replied. He grasped Ianto’s hand and drew him into the cosy kitchen. They found the makings of their supper and left the counter tidy before they brought the food and drink to their room. Alun went to close the curtains before Ianto could look out and go on about the tree again.
Oddly enough, even from that angle, it DID look as if it was closer, now. But Alun put it down to the darkness. In the morning it would be exactly where they thought it was. He kicked off his shoes and threw off his clothes and slid between the sheets. Cocoa and cake and then the arms of his lover was all he wanted.
With no alarm to wake them in the morning, they made the love-making last and then drifted to sleep slowly afterwards. Ianto had not been asleep for long, though, when he woke again. His bladder was sending him urgent messages, but he couldn’t help thinking it was something else that had woke him. A sudden noise?
He went to the en suite bathroom and dealt with the immediate issue, first. Then he came back into a room that was much darker than he was used to in their city apartment. There were always street lights outside. Here, in the valley, there were only a few lights on the main road and those were the other side of the house.
He found the window and pulled back the curtains. His city eyes had trouble seeing anything much at first. Then he yelled out loud in surprise.
The tree really HAD moved. There was no question about it. Now it was where the picnic table had been. If he looked closely, he thought he could see bits of broken table around the base of the trunk. The tree had flattened it.
He grabbed his trousers and ran down the stairs to the back door. He stepped out into the dark garden and looked at the tree. There was no mistake. It had moved. It had moved again since he looked out of the window. Now its branches actually pressed against the window of the room. He heard it tapping against the glass.
Then a light came on in the room and he saw Alun at the window. He was naked and puzzled as he reached to open the casement. Ianto began to shout out a warning, because he felt one was necessary. A tree that shouldn’t be capable of doing anything other than producing acorns and losing its leaves once a year was actually tapping at his window as if it wanted to communicate with him.
Then Alun screamed as he was pulled through the window. Ianto looked up and saw him dangling by one leg. A thick but pliable branch was wrapped around his ankle and it was drawing him closer to the central trunk.
“Let him go,” Ianto yelled, wondering if it was even possible that a tree could hear him. What sort of language did it have?
He didn’t waste time wondering. He saw Alun’s body swinging against the tree trunk. He stopped screaming as he was knocked unconscious by the impact of his head against the unyielding bark. But the branch swung again. It was trying to smash Alun to pieces.
Ianto ran to the garden shed. He yanked open the door, thanking providence that this was the countryside and people didn’t need to lock doors. He grabbed exactly the tool he needed. Back at the hub there were alien gadgets that would have been faster and more effective. But this would do. He powered up the chainsaw and thrust it into the thick trunk. As sawdust flew it occurred to him that he had broken a dozen or so health and safety rules. He wasn’t wearing protective goggles. He hadn’t used ropes to secure the tree and prevent it from falling on him. He was cutting into it in the pitch dark for heaven sake!
“Give him back or I’ll keep going until you’re fucking sawdust,” he yelled. “Give him back, now.”
He yelped as something wet spurted from the gash he had made in the tree and hit him in the face – something with a taint of iron and a sickly sweet smell.
Blood. The tree was bleeding. He had wounded it and it was bleeding. He knew that was ridiculous, but so was a tree that tried to murder people.
He heard a creak above the sound of the chainsaw and looked up. He dropped the chainsaw and it stopped as soon as his hand let go of the trigger. He stepped back, ready to break Alun’s fall as the tree released him. It was a clumsy catch. He hurt his shoulder badly as he bore the weight of him, but he had him in his arms, and he was alive, still. He turned and staggered back into the kitchen.
“Ianto!” Aunt Mary switched on the kitchen light as he came in through the door. Her astonishment probably owed a lot to the fact that Ianto was covered in blood. It might have had something to do with the fact that Alun was totally naked. After her initial shock, though, she handled the situation coolly. She stepped past them and quietly locked the kitchen door then told Ianto to go into the front room while she found the first aid kit.
Alun came around slowly as Ianto and Aunt Mary between them tended to his wounds. His skull wasn’t cracked and there was no obvious sign of concussion. His ankle was badly sprained and painful, but not broken. There were scratches and abrasions all over his body. He opted not to go to hospital. The explanation of what happened to him was just too difficult.
“I wasn’t dreaming, was I?” he said. “That fucking tree... tried to kill me.”
“You weren’t dreaming,” Aunt Mary replied. “I’m sorry, boys. I didn’t think... even when I knew it had moved during the day... I didn’t think it would hurt either of you. You’re not even from round here.”
“She knew?” It was Rhys who asked the question of Ianto and Alun. They both still had the wounds to prove that something had gone on at the weekend. Alun was walking with the aid of a crutch and sported some choice bruises. Both of them had scratches on their arms and faces. “Your aunt knew there was a homicidal tree in her back garden and she said nothing.”
Ianto opened up his laptop and showed the team the fruits of his research over the past day or two. It was a series of images taken from weather satellites, a couple of classified satellites that nobody outside of shadowy places in London and Washington were meant to know about and Google Earth. The images were all aerial views of the village of Llanwellyn over the past ten years or so. In each of them the crown of a large tree had been picked out with a red ring for clarity. The same tree was pictured in different positions, the most recent being Aunt Mary’s back garden.
“This is where Owen would sigh theatrically and say something like ‘only in the fucking countryside’,” Ianto said. “Yes, she knew. The whole village knew. They just didn’t talk about it. They called it the lynching tree. It used to stand on the village green, and two hundred years ago, give or take, a couple of highwaymen and a woman who everyone thought was a witch were hanged from it by the locals. God alone knows why. Perhaps they thought a magistrate might let them off with a warning or something. Anyway, it had a reputation ever since as a cursed thing. Everyone gave it a wide berth and all that. At least until the 1960s. A couple of kids went missing. The bodies were found in the car of a local man. He swore he knew nothing, but the villagers were in a murderous mood. They lynched him... on the tree!”
“Fucking hell!” Rhys swore.
“Tell me he really did do it,” Gwen said. “It wasn’t a mistake?”
“I don’t think anyone bothered to find out,” Alun said, taking up the story. “But ever since, the tree was apparently possessed by a vengeful spirit. It actually disappeared from the village green, leaving a hole where its roots were and a trail of broken fences. It turned up behind the post office with the battered body of the postmaster at the foot of the trunk. Official report is that he was beaten up for the keys to the safe. But not even a stamp was missing from the post office. A couple of years later the tree moved again and another man died... and so on.”
“Only in the fucking countryside,” Rhys said, in a near perfect echo of Owen Harper.
“So what did you do?” Beth asked.
“We slept the night on Aunt Mary’s sofa, in the front room, well away from the back garden,” Ianto said. “In the morning, I had a look. The tree was still there, over the remains of a picnic table. There was a big gash in the trunk where I’d gone at it with the chainsaw. There was a sort of reddish-brown sap drying up on it. I got a sample. Martha told me it was just old sap. I also got a sample of the soil from around the base and I kept the pants I had on when I went out there.”
“They had blood on them,” Martha confirmed. “Human blood, not Alun or Ianto’s. It was mixed with tree sap, but it was definitely blood. I can confirm that. The rest, I have no comment about whatsoever, since I wasn’t there.”
“I called a tree surgeon in Cardiff. A team came out the same day and cut the bloody tree to pieces. Then we had a great big bonfire,” Ianto added. “And that’s that. Some of the locals thanked me for it. A few muttered about curses and how that wouldn’t be the end of it. But I think it will be, somehow. Aunt Mary says she’s selling up and getting a little hotel on the seafront at Porthcawl. We can have a free weekend there when she’s set up. We’ll probably take her up on the offer. As long as there are no trees in the back garden.”
“Werewolves, ghost babies and homicidal trees!” Martha summed up. “We don’t seem to have had anything going on this week actually to do with aliens.”
“We did,” Rhys said. “Gwen and me. We were away at the weekend, too. And we ran into some regular aliens.”
“There’s no such thing as regular aliens,” Gwen pointed out. “They come in every shape and size, and some no shape at all. This lot...”
“We were coming back from Gloucester, late Sunday,” Rhys explained. “Big Dai moved there, as you probably know. Married an English girl, silly sod...”
Nobody else in the group DID know about Big Dai’s inter-racial marriage. It hadn’t been part of their social calendar, but they let it pass as Rhys got on with the story.
“We were tired,” he admitted. “Probably ought to have stayed over and come home in the morning, but we kept thinking of sleeping in our own bed. We wanted to get home. Except the bloody car broke down somewhere near the border. The satnav said we were still in England. Gwen was sure we were in Wales. Not that it made any difference. Our mobiles were out of range. Waste of bloody time having them anywhere outside of Cardiff, I’m telling you. Anyway, we passed a roadside café a bit back, and it was open. So we decided to walk back there.”
“Thinking back,” Gwen added. “We probably should have known better. It was like one of those films where people break down on a dark, stormy night and see lights at some old castle...”
“But it wasn’t an old castle,” Rhys pointed out. “Or a big old house surrounded by trees. It was one of those places that looks like a franchise but isn’t. The colour scheme was that of a Little Chef. But it was called Mandy’s Kitchen. It was brightly lit and felt quite welcoming in the dark. We were glad to find it.”
It was busy. That was the only surprising thing about Mandy’s Kitchen. It was nearly midnight, when a little place like it in the middle of nowhere ought to have had two truck drivers lingering over coffee and a waitress wiping down empty tables and changing the sauce bottles.
But it was full. Nearly every table was occupied by people of different ages, elderly couples, middle aged, families with children, some of whom were playing noisily in the ‘Jungle Gym’ annex. Everyone had suitcases by their tables. They were people who were travelling a long way.
“I didn’t see a coach outside,” Rhys said quietly. “And anyway, why would they drag their cases out just to get a late supper?”
“I don’t know,” Gwen answered him. Actually, she really wasn’t paying attention. She was tired and hungry and she was more interested in getting served.
“I’m sorry,” said a woman in a red gingham apron with ‘Mandy’s Kitchen’ embroidered across it. “We can’t serve you. We’re going to be closing, soon.”
“Rubbish,” Rhys answered. “That waitress is taking an order from that family over there. And there’s a table free beside them. What is this? Some sort of anti-Welsh thing? Our money is as good as theirs. We want the all day breakfast, twice, two mugs of tea and extra bread and butter and don’t get funny or I’ll report you to the trading standards office and get you shut down.”
The woman opened her mouth to respond, but there was something about Rhys when he got onto an issue that reminded Gwen of a rottwheiler. A slightly overweight rottwheiler that liked to lie in front of the fire with a pair of kittens snuggled up to it, but definitely something with teeth.
The waitress told them to sit down and went to fetch their order.
“Rhys the rant!” Gwen giggled.
“Well, it’s bloody stupid, isn’t it,” he answered her. “It’s like those places that serve breakfast up to 11.30 and won’t even do a slice of toast at 11.31!”
“I don’t think it’s because we’re Welsh, though,” she conceded. “I mean... she didn’t know we WERE Welsh until you spoke. It’s not tattooed on our foreheads or anything. Besides, if you want prejudice, try being Ianto and Alun or Jack and Garrett trying to book a hotel room. They really have problems with unreconstructed attitudes.”
Rhys grumbled a bit more and settled down as the mugs of tea were brought. He was even happier when the all day breakfasts, in generous portions, were served. He put both brown and tomato sauce on the plate and dug in. Gwen ate her own food. At midnight she wouldn’t have chosen bacon, sausage, eggs and all the trimmings if Rhys had given her chance to look at the menu. But it wasn’t too bad. The eggs were freshly done, not sitting on a warming plate going rubbery and the bacon was crisp. She washed it down with tea and didn’t object when Rhys ordered two more mugs.
“You should have called the AA before we ate, you know,” she pointed out. While they waited for the second mug of tea, she went to the payphone. She was rather surprised to find that it wasn’t working. Neither was her mobile, still.
She asked a tidy looking middle aged couple if they had a phone, offering to pay for the call. They shook their heads and said the phones weren’t working. She asked a man in a brown suit and he held up his phone and showed her the ‘out of range’ signal.
She looked around. There were a couple of men who HAD to be lorry drivers. They would have CB radios in their cabs. She started to move towards them, but Rhys headed her off.
“This is bloody weird,” he said. “That woman there in the red jumper. She’s the manager... she said there’s no charge for the meal, as long as we get going right now. She said there’s an all night garage about a quarter mile up the road with a phone that’ll work.”
“What?” Gwen looked at the woman. She deliberately turned away to talk to another customer. Everyone was looking away from them. Even people who were sitting in seats facing them somehow managed to look away.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Rhys said. “But I think we should do what she says. Let’s get out of here.”
“You just didn’t want her to change her mind about the free meals,” Alun said to Rhys with a chuckle.
“Well, there was that,” Rhys answered. “But... I don’t know... to look at them, everything was normal... they looked like regular people. But there was something that creeped me out. I really wanted to get away from that place, and since they were happy for us to go...”
“We walked to the garage,” Gwen said. “She was right. It was only about a quarter of a mile away. And it was open... well, there was a guy behind a glass grille, like you get late at night. There was a payphone, but it didn’t matter because the mobiles were both working, now. We called the AA. Then we bought some chocolate and coke from the garage and started to walk back to the car.”
“And that’s when we saw the UFO,” Rhys explained. “A real UFO... cigar shaped, silver, shiny. I mean, at first it looked like plane lights. But it got lower, and there was no doubt about it. It was a bloody UFO. There was no way even Torchwood could cover it up. Anyway, we saw it land. Right next to Mandy’s Kitchen! We ran back there, in time to see everyone from the restaurant lining up to get into the ship. They were carrying their suitcases and walking up a gangway like they were going off on a holiday.”
“I thought we should stop them,” Gwen admitted. “I thought maybe they were brainwashed religious cultists or something. You know, where they’ve been told that a spaceship is coming to take them to the promised land or something. But what could we do except watch. There was just the two of us and all we had for weapons were a couple of cans of coke and a bar of fruit and nut. We couldn’t do a thing.”
“It took about half an hour for them all to get aboard. Then the ship took off vertically. Then we saw the manager come out of the restaurant and lock up. We cornered her and demanded explanations, but...”
“She pulled out this torch thing from her pocket,” Gwen continued. “And shone it in our eyes. I fainted. So did Rhys...”
“I didn’t faint,” he protested. “Men don’t faint.”
“You fainted, you big lug. Same as me. We woke up about ten minutes later. The restaurant was dark and quiet. Nobody about. The AA van went past us on the road. We ran to catch up with it. The mechanic fixed our car and we carried on home. There wasn’t anything else we could do. I’ve been back to look at the site in daylight. There’s nothing strange. Not even a bit of radiation from the ship. And the day staff at the restaurant say it closes at ten and they don’t know anything about it being open at midnight. I’m still not sure what it was all about...”
“Halpans,” said Jack Harkness nonchalantly. Everyone looked around and wondered how long he’d been sitting there with a cup of coffee in his hands and a bacon sandwich on a plate in front of him. He looked healthily tanned and relaxed like somebody just back from a holiday.
“Come again?” Gwen responded.
“There’s a file on them from the mid 1980s,” Jack continued. “Check it out, later. But essentially, the Halpans... there are about half a million of them on Earth, give or take. They came in the 1920s, originally. Their planet was suffering from catastrophic sunspots and freezing up. They evacuated all but a few hardy souls working in envirodomes to monitor the situation. The plan was to get everyone back when the planet defrosted. By the time they could, of course, a generation had been born in exile. Some didn’t want to go back. Their homes were here. Some jumped at the chance. Anyway, every decade, they send a ship to pick up those who’ve decided to make the trip. Apparently it’s an absolute Garden of Eden now. The ice age swept away all the pollution and gave them a fresh start.”
“And Mandy’s Kitchen was a pick up point?”
“Well, good luck to them,” Beth said. “That sounds terrific.”
“What about knocking us out?” Rhys demanded. “What was that about?”
“It should have erased your memory of the whole thing,” Jack explained. “Any ordinary civilian it would have. But you’ve both spent too long in Torchwood with all our weird shit. You’ve built up an immunity to that sort of thing. Don’t worry about it. Chalk it up to experience. Meanwhile, anyone want to hear about how Garrett and I fought the Bandon Banshee?”
“Don’t be silly, Jack,” Gwen responded. “That’s from Harry Potter.”
“Don’t bet on it,” he replied. “Pass me the coffee pot and order some more toast. And if everyone’s in the mood for stories, I can tell you a good one. Don’t worry, it’s not the one about the nymphomaniac Siamese twins.”
He leaned back in his chair. Gwen poured him the coffee and sighed happily. Jack was back in charge and the world hadn’t come to an end on her watch. That would do for her.