Darius stepped into Hub Central. His clothes were redolent of the cold night air. Rain dampened them. But the warmth of the underground complex pervaded them as he moved stealthily, not wanting to disturb Toshiko.
Beside her workstation was a small home away from home with a sofa and a cabin bed with a pink rabbit-covered duvet under which the little girl, Etsuko, was sleeping soundly. There was also a crib for the baby boy, Genkei, born in the first minute of Christmas Day. When she worked overnight and Owen was out on an assignment, Toshiko kept her children close by her.
There was no prurience in his gaze as he watched her breastfeeding the baby. It was a beautiful thing and he felt privileged to witness it. It was a natural act of motherly love. It was a Human act. Darius liked to watch all of Human life, even if he was no longer a part of it.
Toshiko turned her head and noticed him there. She smiled warmly. She had no problem with him watching her.
“Would you like coffee?” he asked as she winded the baby and prepared to settle him down in his crib.
“Yes, please,” she answered. “Thank you.” As she turned to her workstation he went to the kitchenette and prepared the beverage for her. He found a bottle of mineral water in the fridge and drank that as she sipped the coffee.
“Is everything quiet in your…” She still wasn’t sure how to describe his subsection of Glasgow society. Were they a community or a….
“Everything is quiet in the city,” he answered her. “Humans, vampires… at least as quiet as any city ever is. I sensed a fight starting on Sauciehall Street. But it wouldn’t be Friday night without one, would it? And somebody was planning to break into the Halifax Building Society on Gordon Street, but there is a police patrol about to put a stop to that.”
“Good,” Toshiko said. She looked at him and then back to the three monitors at her workstation. One of them was tracking a UFO that would be coming into geo-stationary orbit over Lanarkshire in about half an hour. Torchwood was not the only agency that was aware of it, of course. But Owen had made it clear that U.N.I.T.’s only job should be to keep UFO hunters and conspiracy theorists out of sight of the landing zone and that MI5 had no business interfering at all. The American, French and Norwegian agencies that contacted him got simply told to ‘fuck off’. This was Torchwood’s operation. Owen, along with Lieutenant Stewart, Munroe MacDonald and Dougal Drummond had gone to the rendezvous point fully prepared.
“I remember when it happened,” Darius said. “1971. I was living in London at the time, but it was in all the papers. Everyone said it was the IRA… kidnapping a busload of civilians. But that really didn’t make any sense. Especially since there was never any ransom demand. Then, of course, the alien abduction stories began. It’s almost gratifying to think they were right all along. All the conspiracy theory people. It was aliens, after all!”
“It’s been a long time,” Toshiko agreed. “Even the children will be middle aged by now. The adults will be elderly. Their return to Earth is going to be a huge culture shock. So much has changed. We’re going to have the burden of helping them adjust.”
“Not an easy task. But Torchwood will be ready for it.”
Toshiko giggled. Darius was surprised. He was talking about something so very serious.
“Sorry. But… you sounded so much like Jack when you said that. Torchwood will be ready. It’s… so him.”
“I think that’s a compliment,” Darius replied uncertainly.
“Yes, it is,” Toshiko assured him. “Definitely.” She looked at him keenly. “You loved Jack, didn’t you? I mean… really loved him.”
“Since the first time I set eyes on him,” Darius admitted. “There was sex, of course. Hot, lustful sex. But there was more. He was so unique. So special. Yes, I loved him. But he was much harder to hold onto back then. I knew trying would be painful for us both. Now he has a lover. His heart belongs to one man – and it isn’t me. But I am not bitter. I wish them both well. I bless their happiness. And I… have my own reasons for happiness.”
Toshiko couldn’t help her eyes flickering towards one of the empty workstations. Darius nodded. His smile, with just a hint of sharp incisors revealed, spoke volumes.
“Yes, Lieutenant Stewart is one of those reasons. She is… a much warmer woman than most people imagine.”
“Well, I’m glad for you,” Toshiko told him, deciding not to voice her thoughts about Shona Stewart’s ‘warmth’. “For you both.” Then she turned her attention to her workstation. The ship was coming into position, now. It was almost time.
“Thank fuck for that,” Owen commented when Lieutenant Stewart reported to him that the spaceship was moving into orbit. “My feet are freezing. Why couldn’t they do this in summer?”
“I don’t think they had a lot of choice in the matter,” Dougal Drummond pointed out. “They had to take the opportunity when it presented itself.”
“Yeah, I know,” Owen conceded. “Their ‘hosts’ offered them a chance to leave. They took it. I want to know about their hosts. What sort of aliens are they? Why did they take these people? Are they responsible for any other abductions?”
“All in good time,” Munroe MacDonald said in soothing tones. “Our first priority is the wellbeing of the Homecomers. We don’t know what their psychological state will be. They might have been through hell all those years.”
“Colin Leitch sounded pretty together when he made contact with us,” Owen pointed out. “He seems to have been their leader all along. I’m looking forward to meeting him.” He paused and stamped his feet on the hard-packed ground. “But my feet are still fucking freezing.”
He forgot all about his feet a few minutes later, though. He was too busy looking up at the bone fide flying saucer that was rapidly descending from the night sky. At first its dimensions were impossible to determine. It could have been a mile wide or the size of a child’s toy. Then Dougal called out from the Ford Escape. He had telemetry. It had a diameter of forty feet.
“That’s not much bigger than the bus they were abducted from,” Munroe noted. “It’s got to be a shuttle from the main ship. That must be still out there.”
Dougal confirmed that, too. Then he yelped in surprise. Everyone looked up. For a brief moment the night sky lightened to brighter than day and as their eyes adjusted to the dark again they were treated to the spectacular sight of a meteor shower to make amateur astronomers the world over weep. It covered the whole sky for several minutes.
“The mothership just exploded,” Dougal reported. “It’s gone… I’m picking up debris, but none of it big enough to be a problem. Most of it will burn up in the atmosphere. The few bits that do land will be unidentifiable.”
“They’ll make great souvenirs for the UFO hunters,” Owen replied. “Meanwhile, we have a job to do.”
The saucer was still descending. Against the backdrop of the meteor filled sky it was a spectacular sight in itself. The rim of the saucer glowed with thousands of blue lights and in the centre was a bright, actinic light that could only be the power source. As it came closer they could see that it was a silver metallic colour and had no obvious windows or doors.
Around the designated landing zone U.N.I.T. personnel turned on large portable lights that illuminated the piece of meadowland that had been carefully cleared of snow in anticipation of the arrival.
“You know,” Owen said as he watched the ship hover just beyond the glow of the lights. “I’ve never actually seen a ‘flying saucer’ this close up before. Most of the aliens we dealt with in Cardiff came through the Rift. Actual space ships landing were rare. It’s rather amazing to find out they really ARE saucer shaped.”
The glow from beneath changed in intensity and then died altogether as the saucer landed on the frost-covered ground. Owen felt his ears ringing and realised he had been hearing a low hum for several minutes that had now stopped.
He took a tentative step forward and then paused. A hatch opened with a hiss of compressed air. There was a dim light inside, and a figure silhouetted in it. At that moment Owen suddenly wondered if this might, after all, be a trap. What if it wasn’t the missing humans from 1971, but hostile aliens. He would be the first to die in their death ray or whatever they brought to conquer Earth with.
The figure moved forward and in the full brightness of the lamps he saw a Human figure. It was a man in his early thirties with his hair parted severely. He was wearing a v-necked sweater and pale beige slacks with the kind of shoes that used to be called penny loafers.
Owen couldn’t have been more surprised if he’d had two heads and tentacles.
“You’re Colin Leitch,” he said as he took another step forward and held out his hand to shake. “I recognise you from your picture. I….” He clasped the man’s hand firmly. It was warm, Human flesh. He was real. “There’s a lot that doesn’t make sense here,” he said. “But the important thing is you’re here.” The doorway filled with silhouettes as the rest of the abductees appeared, slowly stepping forward as if they could scarcely believe it was true. Some of them bent and touched the frost-hardened grass beneath their feet and cried out in joy.
“There’s a bus waiting,” Owen said. “We’re going to take you somewhere safe. We’ve got food for everyone. Warm beds. We can begin the debriefings tomorrow.”
“The others will be glad of the rest,” Leitch told him. “But I am quite willing to talk to you as soon as we have a suitable place to do so. There is much to tell. Important things you must know about our journey.”
“Of course, sir,” Owen answered. “But let us get you all on board the bus for now.”
It was a streamlined, modern bus, very different from the 1971 boneshaker that had disappeared with them somewhere on the Strathblane road. Owen had wondered if putting them all aboard a bus to take them to the safe house was insensitive, but they didn’t seem to mind.
“I’m going to travel with them,” he said to his team. “In case there are any medical problems. You lot follow along.”
As he turned to follow the last of the Homecomers, he pulled out his mobile phone and dialled his wife’s number.
“Everything is fine this end,” he said. “No need for you to wait up. Get some sleep now and come on up to the safe house in the morning once the childminder arrives.”
Everything wasn’t exactly fine. There were still a whole lot of questions to ask. But he knew from experience that asking too many of them at once would be counter productive. Victims of the Rift, thrown backwards or forward in time were less distressed if they were allowed to tell their own stories in their own time rather than facing a checklist of questions. The same was going to be true of these, the first alien abductees he had encountered in his career as a Torchwood operative.
They were only going a few miles. The safe house was actually the thirteenth century chieftan’s demesne, Bardowie castle, on the edge of the loch by the same name. It was thought to be in private ownership, but actually belonged to U.N.I.T., who conducted their semi-secret business behind the stand of trees that screened the castle and grounds from the yacht clubs and amateur sailors who made use of the loch. A low loader was coming along the same route at slightly slower speed with the space shuttle covered in tarpaulin. There was a large barn where it was going to be safely installed before Tosh came to have a good look at the technology in the morning. Meantime Dougal and Lieutenant Stewart were his liaison with U.N.I.T. to make sure they didn’t turn this into a military operation after all.
That part of the plan went fine. The dining room of Bardowie Castle was already prepared with a hot meal for everyone. There was almost a party atmosphere as everyone ate and drank their fill. Then they were assigned beds. There were eight children among the thirty Homecomers. The original list of the missing had them as five girls, twins, Aileen and Ailis Cameron, aged nine, Molly Dunne, aged thirteen, Annie Waugh, fifteen and Rose MacKenzie, Sixteen; and three boys, Aengus and Robert Adair, aged ten and five and the very youngest of them all, Donald Frazer, aged just three. As soon as they had eaten, they were all taken to what was listed on the floorplan as the billiard room. It had been prepared already as a dormitory. Nightclothes had been provided and in a very short time the children were all sleeping soundly. The adults, including the parents of the children, were shown their own rooms. By one o’clock on that Saturday morning everyone except Colin Leitch was settled in a bed. He went with Owen to the beautifully appointed main drawing room. Although it was very late a glass of single malt from a cut glass decanter on the sideboard seemed the appropriate way to break the ice.
“This is all purely off the record for now,” Owen told him as they settled on two wide, comfortable sofas. “We’ll get official statements tomorrow. But whatever you want to talk about, I’m here for you.”
“My thanks,” Leitch answered. “It’s hard to know where to start, of course. At the beginning, perhaps. That day, January 28th, 1971. Our last day on planet Earth until this. The bus was running a half hour late because of freezing fog. Nothing surprising in Lanarkshire in winter. It was dark, of course, even though it was only just six o’clock in the evening. I was coming back from visiting my mother in Glasgow infirmary. My home is in Strathblane, as you’ll know from your information about us all. Others had been on shopping trips. We were just ordinary people taking a scheduled bus. Then… we were on the long stretch beside Milngavie Waterworks, when the bus was enveloped in a bright, white light. The next thing anyone knew, we were in a metal room… it was on board the spaceship. The women were crying. The children were scared stiff. Then we saw our captors. They were…”
Leitch paused and sipped his drink. Owen waited patiently. The man was ready to talk. There was no need to prompt him. He would go on when he had gathered his thoughts.
“You probably want to know what the aliens looked like?”
“We’d get to that eventually,” Owen answered. “Do go on.”
“They were very tall – at least seven foot. Very thin. Their faces were long. The eyes were dark… no whites, just black ink wells that stared at us from behind a glass panel as if we were curiosities. We could hear them talking in some alien language. Then one of them went to a sort of grille and spoke. We heard the words translated. We were told we were prisoners of the G’Tenc. We were being taken to their planet for experimental purposes. We would not be harmed. We were to be placed into cryogenic suspension for the duration of the journey…”
“Cryogenic suspension.” Owen interrupted him despite his vow to let Leitch speak freely. “That explains… the fact that none of you have aged?”
“That is what I understand,” Leitch answered. “We were still taking it all in when a kind of gas started to pour into the room. It was cold… freezing cold. We struggled, panicked, but we were overwhelmed. That was all any of us knew until...”
Again he paused. This time Owen said nothing.
“The next thing I remember I was in some kind of laboratory, strapped to a table. There were probes attached to my head and chest. The aliens… the G’Tenc… were doing all sorts of tests, brains scans, tissue analysis… some of it was painful. They… apologised… They said it was necessary. I asked why. They said they… had to catalogue the Human race… to understand our biology. They… promised that we would not be harmed. They promised we would be returned to our homeworld.”
“They kept their promise,” Owen pointed out.
“No… not straight away,” Leitch told him. “There was… I understand there was some kind of power struggle in the government. The new administration cancelled the research project and refused to allow any more space travel. They ordered that we were put back into cryogenic suspension until a decision was made about our future. We… had no choice in the matter, of course. We were prisoners. We couldn’t fight them. We didn’t dare try… for the sake of the children…”
“I understand,” Owen said encouragingly.
“Well, the next thing, we were all revived… and we were told that there had been a campaign for nearly ten of their years, to have us released and sent home. We had become a cause celebre. The government refused time and again. But a group of dissidents had taken over the cryogenic facility. They released us and brought us to a place where they had prepared a ship. The journey back to Earth was pre-programmed to bring us back and then… a self-destruct programme would ensure it could not be traced. When we came into orbit, the shuttle was automatically set to land us safely while we again slept in cryogenic pods until the ship entered the Earth solar system. Then all we had to do was contact Torchwood and let you know we were coming back.”
“Ten years?” Owen queried that.
“Ten G’Tenc years. I believe that a year on that planet is considerably more than an Earth year. I haven’t dared ask… what year this is.”
“2011,” Owen answered. “You were gone forty years.”
Leitch nodded and sighed.
“I knew it had to be as much as that. The bus we travelled on… the technology we’ve seen already in the few hours we have been home. I… My mother was in her sixties when I saw her last. I suppose…”
“I’m sorry. She died in 1975. She never left the hospital you were visiting at the time.”
Leitch sighed again. Owen wondered if he would cry. He didn’t. He blinked a few times and then drew himself up in his chair.
“I won’t be the only one to have to face hard facts like that,” he said. “It will be difficult for them.”
“That’s why we brought you to this place. We have an orientation programme, to introduce you to life in the twenty-first century. We also have trained professionals… grief counsellors. You’ve probably never heard that term before, but I promise you, they can help. We can bring in priests, ministers, for those who would like…”
“We have been prisoners of the G’Tenc all this time. Now you talk as if we are prisoners of Torchwood.”
“Not prisoners,” Owen replied. “I hope you will consider yourselves our guests, until arrangements can be made. Please believe me, it is better for all of you this way.”
“You talk as if this is a routine job for Torchwood. You have a handbook for rehabilitating lost travellers?”
“Not routine, but we have had some experience of this sort of thing. We’ll do our best. You have my word. We will try to look after you all, until you’re ready to look after yourselves.”
“I understand what you are saying, Doctor Harper,” Leitch answered. “But I don’t know what the others will say. Tonight they are tired, emotional. They are just glad to be back on Earth. But tomorrow, when they think about the situation, you may find them more troublesome.”
“Then, I hope I can rely on you to reassure them,” Owen answered. “And help smooth this transition for them all.”
Leitch wasn’t wholly convinced by his words. Owen wondered what else he could say or do. For the first time since he took charge of Torchwood Glasgow he felt at a real loss. Yes, he had worked with displaced people before. But he wasn’t the one bearing the brunt of the responsibility before. Jack had been in charge every other time.
And even he had made mistakes. Owen remembered when Diane and her passengers had flown into the twenty-first century from 1958. Diane had hated the future so much she had flown off again in her plane, not even knowing or caring if she would live or die. John Ellis had known he didn’t want to live. And he had never had an adequate explanation from Jack about the circumstances of the suicide. He had never come out and explicitly accused him of assisting in it, but he strongly suspected he had.
Torchwood had to do better for these people.
Leitch finished his drink and went to the bed provided for him. Owen stretched himself on the sofa and closed his eyes. Tomorrow was going to be a very long day.
Toshiko arrived at Bardowie Castle at a little after nine-thirty. She was a little bit worried. First of all because she had both children in the back of the car. The childminder couldn’t get to their apartment because of the snow. Etsuko didn’t mind having an outing with her, and Genkei was asleep in his travel crib and didn’t notice anything, but she could have done without having to juggle parenthood and investigating an alien space ship.
She was also worried because she had a vampire in the boot of the car. He volunteered to come and help her examine the alien ship, but it was broad daylight now, and this was the only way he could get around.
She drove her car straight into the barn where the space ship had been stored overnight and waited until the big doors were closed again. She went to the boot and opened it. The thick grey blanket inside moved and Darius blinked under the electric lights in the ceiling, but he didn’t turn to dust. He grinned and climbed out as Toshiko went to see to the children. She gave Etsuko a carton of orange juice with a straw and a game to play with and made sure Genkei was still sleeping soundly. They would both be all right in the car for a little while.
Then she and Darius approached the alien spaceship. It wasn’t often that she got to examine a completely intact, working ship. Usually she only saw crashed ones with their technology damaged irreparably. This was an exciting prospect.
“Of course, it is only a shuttle, for short journeys,” she said. “But finding out about it will be a bonus, on top of getting the people back. I’m interested in the alien communications system. But Jack sent a note to say he’d like to know what sort of propulsion it uses.”
“I thought Jack was happy on Earth. Surely he doesn’t want to build his own spaceship?”
“He’s a born pilot. Things like this fascinate him. He’d be up here for a look if he wasn’t tied up with work in Cardiff. Anyway…”
Darius smiled as Toshiko unrolled a set of screwdrivers and got to work on the shuttle’s communications array. He himself examined the power source and declared it to be a very efficient fusion drive that might be adapted to provide a back up electricity generator at the Glasgow Hub.
The communications system proved fascinating to Toshiko. With Darius’s help she detached it from the ship and set the whole thing up on a workbench outside in the barn where she had far more room to manoeuvre. She quickly found how to power it up using ordinary Earth electricity and although it wasn’t operational any more, having nowhere to transmit information to, she knew it was a powerful piece of equipment that she could find all sorts of uses for in the Hub. For a start, she found she could communicate with just about any satellite orbiting planet Earth, from the ones used to broadcast television to some military ones that the British, American and Russian governments would all prefer she didn’t know existed.
As fascinating as it was, she took a break from it at lunchtime. Genkei needed her attention and Etsuko was getting bored with sitting in the car. After feeding and changing her youngest child and giving Etsuko her own meal in her favourite plastic lunchbox she put them both in their winter coats, hats and gloves. Genkei sat happily in his kangaroo carrier while Etsuko toddled along on her own two feet. The snow was deep outside, but that only made it more fun for her.
And she was not alone. Toshiko smiled to see the Homecomer children at play on the snow-covered tennis court. She let Etsuko join in with their games and stood watching them for a while, hugging Genkei close to her. Some of the parents were there, too, watching them closely. It must have been wonderful for them to see the children play. It was the final confirmation that they were home. They couldn’t quite pick up their lives where they left off. There were still those missing decades and a world that had changed so very much in that time. There were family members that were dead and gone, others that were now elderly, who they may never be able to be reconciled with. But they were home. They were safe. Their nightmare was over.
Etsuko was busy making a snowman with little Donald Frazer and the Adair brothers by the time Genkei had dropped off to sleep again. She asked Mrs Adair to keep an eye on her, and went back to the barn. She kept Genkei in his kangaroo as she set to work again on the communications array. There was nothing dangerous about what she was doing. He was perfectly fine snuggled up against her as she worked.
She was getting some very interesting results from her work when, some time later, Mrs Adair came into the barn with Etsuko. She was crying because she had been hit by snowballs that the older children were throwing. Toshiko left her work to go and comfort her.
“You take a break,” Darius said cheerfully. “I’ll take over there.”
Etsuko wasn’t badly hurt. She just needed a bit of attention and some more orange juice. While that was being done, Toshiko talked to Mrs Adair. They were both parents. They had that much in common, even if their circumstances were so unusual.
“Toshiko!” Darius waited until she had finished talking before demanding her attention. Etsuko had decided that her toys on the back seat of the car were more attractive than the snow, after all. Mrs Adair went back outside as Toshiko joined her colleague at the workbench.
“Look at this,” he said, pointing to an LCD screen on the communications panel. It had been blank all the time they were working. But now data was scrolling down it. The language was clearly alien. None of the characters remotely resembled any Earth language. But there was clearly some important information on screen.
“It’s broadcasting,” Toshiko said. “I’m sure of it. It’s a transmission. Except it can’t be going anywhere. The mothership self-destructed and the frequency wouldn’t be strong enough for a deep space communication.”
“It automatically came on ten minutes ago,” Darius said. “When that lady came into the barn.”
“That’s got to be coincidence,” Toshiko replied. “Why should it have anything to do with Mrs Adair?”
“I don’t know,” Darius responded. “But when she was near me, I felt… I don’t know. Maybe it’s because they’ve been away so long… She felt different…”
Darius wasn’t able to express what he felt exactly, but Toshiko knew that Darius’s feelings were more than just fancy. His senses were keen and his instincts even keener, and if he thought there was something amiss, then she wasn’t going to dismiss him even if he couldn’t be more specific.
“Keep an eye on Etsuko for a minute, will you,” she said. “I need to get something from the Torchwood car.”
The Ford Escape was parked at the front of the Castle. She passed more of the adult Homecomers walking around the grounds. They looked more subdued than the children. They had so much more to think about, of course. But even so they were clearly glad to be looking up at Earth’s sky, and to see their own footsteps in the snow.
She got what she wanted and hurried back to the barn. Darius was actually sitting in the car with Etsuko and playing a game with her. She left him to it. As strange as it seemed, remembering what Darius was, Etsuko seemed happy with his company. She went back to the workbench and found a way to interface the alien communications array with the portable translation device she had been working on for months. She had tested it with some of the alien text stored on the Torchwood databanks and she was sure it worked. But this was a previously unknown language.
At first she thought it wasn’t going to work. All she saw on the LCD screen was gibberish. But slowly it began to come together. Key words were identified, and then, suddenly, she was looking at a full translation.
And what she read horrified her.
Because it meant that everything they thought was true, everything about the past twenty-four hours, was wrong.
She turned and walked slowly to her car where Darius was entertaining Etsuko, still. She carefully put Genkei into his crib and settled him to sleep.
“Look after them both,” she said. “Don’t let anyone else come near them. Especially not any of the Homecomers.”
Darius was surprised by such a request, but he didn’t object. If anything, he felt honoured that Toshiko trusted him that much.
“You know I would die rather than let harm come to these precious children of yours,” he said.
“Yes, I know that,” she answered sincerely. She kissed her baby son and her daughter and then hurried away. Darius noted that she locked the barn door behind her. He had to protect the children from something that would first break down that heavy door.
Owen was conducting an orientation session with some of the Homecomers, teaching them how to use mobile phones and introducing them to the concept of contemporary music and television. They always started integrating Rift victims into the modern world in that way. Phones, music and television were far less emotional than issues like ‘is my grandmother still alive’ and ‘can I visit my sister’s kids’. It was always going to be hard coming to terms with those aspects of their changed lives, but the first few steps at least could be made easy.
An episode of the topical comedy quiz ‘Mock The Week’ was on the big, wall mounted flat screen television. The Homecomers were clearly puzzled by it. The politicians and celebrities being mocked meant nothing to them so the humour fell completely flat, and they found the use of coarse language by the panellists startling. Owen carefully explained that moral values had not slipped in the forty years since they had last looked at television. They had simply changed a lot.
“Everyone is having sex,” complained Mrs Anna Dunne whose daughter was one of the children playing in the snow. “Even on Coronation Street. The last thing I remember, Valerie Barlow had just died, and now… it’s just about sex.”
They all started talking among themselves about the television and the huge changes to society since they were taken from it. It gave Toshiko a chance to attract Owen’s attention. He stepped out of the room and listened to what she had to say carefully.
“You’re sure?” he said. “It’s not some sort of mistake?”
“I know what I saw, Owen,” she answered. “If you don’t believe me, ask Darius. He sensed there was something wrong.”
“I believe you. And I believe Darius,” Owen assured her. “This changes everything. Look… I don’t want you and the kids involved. Go and get the car and get the hell out of here.”
“No,” Toshiko replied. “I’m worried for the kids, too. But you need me. I’m the one who translated the transmissions. I’m going back to the barn to see if I can find anything else out. Anything we can use to stop them.”
“All right. But take Lieutenant Stewart with you. Darius is good in a scrap, but Shona has military experience.”
Toshiko agreed to that. As she stepped out into the crisp afternoon the Lieutenant fell into step beside her. She sighed as she looked at the children at play. Before when she looked at them it had seemed a hopeful sight. Now it filled her with despair.
“What’s going on?” Shona asked. “Doctor Harper told me to make sure my gun was loaded. Why do I need…”
“Because our guests aren’t what we think they are,” Toshiko answered. “They’re not innocent victims of alien abduction. Something else is going on here.”
Shona opened her mouth in surprise then closed it again. She was not trained to ask superfluous questions. Toshiko had told her enough to know her vigilance and her skills as a soldier were needed and that was all she needed to know for now.
Etsuko had dropped to sleep on the back seat of the car. Darius left her side and rejoined Toshiko as Shona took up position by the barn door. He watched as she ran the translator programme again.
“Everything that’s going on up in the castle is being transmitted,” Toshiko said. “Even the stupid things they’re being shown on TV. All the lessons in Earth history and contemporary politics that we prepared. It’s like ‘Human life 101.’ But that’s not all. I don’t know how, but there’s a second transmission… piggy-backed onto that one. It’s sending information about us… Torchwood… and U.N.I.T… MI5…”
“All our defences against alien invasion,” Darius said in summary. “But WHO is transmitting this information?”
“THEY are,” Toshiko answered. “The ‘Homecomers’. I don’t think… they’re not who they say they are. None of them. Not even the kids. They’re copies or clones or… something… with the memories of the original people, maybe. But they’re not Human. And they’re sending all this information back.”
“Back to where?” Darius asked. “The mothership was destroyed.”
“That’s what we thought. Everyone who was at the site saw the explosion and the meteorite shower. We saw the signal go dead back at the hub. Then Leitch told Owen that it had been set to self-destruct. And it all fitted. Because we had no reason to question it. But we were all sucked into the plan. It never occurred to us that it was all a great big lie, and that the ship is out there, still, picking up these signals.”
Toshiko moved from the communications array to the navigation panel. Her hands moved over the alien keyboard in front of her. Darius thought her typing speed was a little slower than usual. She wasn’t sure of the alien alphabet. But she was picking it up, fast. On a screen in front of her was a view of the moon and Earth as seen by a weather satellite in geo-stationary orbit over the UK. As Toshiko typed ever more rapidly, though, something else began to appear, indistinct at first, shadowy, but even before it gained definition it was clearly a space ship. It was identical to the small one, but the telemetry that was received along with the images confirmed that it was at least half a mile wide.
“A cloaked ship. Hidden from sight, from radar… even from our satellites.”
“And receiving information about Earth – our defences, and our culture. It can mean only one thing.”
“Invasion by stealth!” The barn door opened and Owen stepped inside. Behind him, Dougal Drummond had Colin Leitch plasicuffed and at the point of his gun. Shona Stewart took in the situation quickly and had her own weapon in her hand even before Owen ordered her to watch the door and make sure none of the Homecomers came near.
“So they ARE aliens?” Toshiko looked at Leitch. “You… everyone… even the children. You’re aliens… it’s all a great big lie?”
“No,” Leitch answered. His voice was breaking with emotion. “I don’t understand this. How can you possibly think…” He looked at Owen. “You did tests… medical tests. You took blood samples. We all had… what did you call them… some kind of x-ray…”
“MRI,” Owen supplied. “Much more than an x-ray. And yes, you appear to be Human. You fooled me. You fooled us all. But how do you explain this?”
He nodded to Dougal, who pushed Leitch towards the communications array. When he was within a few feet of it the alien text scrolling down the screen increased tenfold, and Toshiko confirmed that it was security information about Torchwood-MI5 protocols.
“That information is from our databanks,” Owen pointed out. “Something has remote accessed our computers. Something to do with you, Colin… if that really is your name.”
“I don’t know anything about it,” Leitch protested. “All I know is what they told us… the ship… was on automatic pilot. It was meant to self-destruct.”
Dougal Drummond wrenched Leitch’s arm painfully. It was a subtle method of reminding a prisoner that he is a prisoner and encouraging him to talk. But Leitch didn’t seem to have anything to say.
“He’s telling the truth, or thinks he is,” said Munroe MacDonald, who had been standing so unobtrusively in the shadows with a hand held lie detector that the rest of the Torchwood team were startled to hear his voice. “It could be a form of brain-washing or…”
“He’s a fucking alien,” Owen snapped. “Disguised as a human to make us all think that you’re a victim… when all along… Last night, when I talked to you… I was sorry for you, all of you. But you’re a bunch of fucking alien spies.”
“No,” Leitch protested again. “I’m not. There must be some way… something I can do to prove…”
Leitch screamed. Dougal stepped back from him, his hands raised, to prove it was nothing he had done to him. Owen stepped closer as the man sank to his knees, groaning in agony. Toshiko turned and saw Darius at the alien communications array. He looked surprised by the result of his own actions.
“What did you do?” she asked him.
“I… made the signal reverse… sent it back to the source.”
“But… It’s killing him!” Munroe exclaimed. Leitch was on the ground spasming painfully. Owen knelt beside him and cut the plasicuffs before putting him into the recovery position. There was nothing else to do until the fit passed.
“Sir!” Shona Stewart called from the door. “It’s happening to all of them. Not the children… but all the adults…”
Toshiko ran to the door. The Lieutenant was right. She could see four of the adults from there. All of them were collapsing in pain. The children in the playground were crying and screaming with fright.
Owen made a decision.
“Darius, shut that off and come and take care of him. Everyone else… come and help.” He began to run, reaching for his ear communicator to call up help from the U.N.I.T. operatives who were maintaining security around the complex. Twenty-six people were going into grand mal seizures at the same time. He needed to help all of them at once or some of them would die. As he reached the nearest of the victims he called to the others telling them what to do, how to put the patients into recovery, clear their airways, make sure they didn’t bite or swallow their own tongues. He told one of the U.N.I.T. men where to find emergency blankets to cover those that had fallen in the snow to prevent them freezing before the fit passed.
“Owen!” As he did his best for all of the victims he heard Darius calling him on his ear communicator. “Check their nasal cavities. I just found something. It came out of Leitch’s nose. It’s some sort of… well, I stepped on it. It was like a bug…”
Owen looked at the man he was kneeling beside. His nose was bleeding. As he watched, something slimy and blood-covered slid out of his nostril and fell into the snow. It flailed around for a few seconds and then went still. The snow seemed to have killed it.
Killed was the right word. Owen reached into his pocket and found a small specimen container. He scooped the thing into it along with some of the snow. It looked like a small beetle but with a metallic sheen to its carapace.
“Destroy those things,” he told everyone else. “Stamp on them. Crush them to bits. Then get these people inside where they’re warm and safe.”
Nobody died. There was that much consolation. They saved them all. They started to come around slowly, complaining of massive headaches and no memory of what had caused them to fit.
Owen examined the bug he had captured and found that it was part organic and part advanced nano-technology that was worthy of further examination. He also discovered that it had some kind of cloaking ability that made it invisible to the MRI, X-ray and any known method of scanning a Human body.
Darius meanwhile confirmed that the stream of information about Earth had stopped when the bugs were neutralised.
“The Homecomers were innocent dupes,” Owen concluded at a Torchwood team meeting that took place in the smoking room of the Castle in the late afternoon once it was dark enough for Darius to leave the barn. “They were being used to gather information about Earth – about our defences, our ability to fight, and also about how ordinary Earth people lived – so the aliens could integrate themselves into our world before showing their true colours. A classic stealth invasion with a twist. They decided to use the victims they kidnapped all those years ago as their advance fifth column.”
“They’re all going to be ok?” Toshiko asked.
“I want to check them all out tomorrow to make sure there are no long lasting effects,” Owen replied. “But I think they’ll get over it. The kids are shaken up. But they’ll be ok, too. Kids are resilient. They bounce back, even from seeing their parents collapsing in the snow.”
“So it’s all over for them,” Toshiko added. “We can carry on with their rehabilitation.”
“Except we still have a bloody great alien spaceship in geo-stationary orbit above Scotland,” Munroe MacDonald pointed out. “We’ve got to decide what to do about that.”
“I have an idea,” Toshiko said. “But we’re going to need to talk to the Prime Minister, first. I can’t use military satellites that nobody is supposed to know this country has without getting permission.”
Owen made the call. It was near midnight when he got the return call giving Torchwood permission to do what Toshiko believed she could do with the alien communications technology and the officially denied Earth military technology. Etsuko and Genkei were tucked up in bed in the same dormitory as the Homecomer children. The adults all came down to the shore of Bardowie Loch and waited quietly, looking up at the cold, starry sky. Toshiko held onto Owen’s hand. Darius stood close to Shona Stewart, though they didn’t hold hands. She considered herself on duty, and hand holding wasn’t appropriate. They all waited and watched.
There was a sudden bright light and then the sky was filled with meteorite trails for the second night running. This time, they could be sure that it was fragments of the spaceship burning up in the atmosphere.
This time it really was over.