Owen sat in the back of the private ambulance with the sedated patient, watching his lifesigns carefully. The driver was hitting close to the speed limit for the A77 dual carriageway. Owen had impressed upon him the necessity of getting back to the Torchwood Hub in central Glasgow before the drugs wore off. He didn’t want the patient to know he was being moved from the hospital in Ayr.
Not yet, anyway.
He wasn’t without a certain amount of compassion for the patient. He used the word ‘patient’ for a start. He had heard words like ‘subject’ and ‘specimen’ used by the MOD people who had been guarding the private ward where he had been kept since last Tuesday afternoon when his peculiarities had become known.
He felt sorry for the boy. Even if he was what everyone, including Owen himself, thought he was, he was also a child – at least as far as they could tell. He looked about twelve or thirteen years old by Human standards. According to the hospital identification wristband he had been identified as Alexander Gordon, born 2.3.1999. That looked about right. But there was every reason to believe that he might not have been born on planet Earth.
The X-rays and MRi scans taken when he was brought into Ayr General Hospital as the only survivor of a three car pile up on the A79 outside the town had sounded the initial alarms and led to the boy being placed under special protection. They had revealed his unusual anatomy. His heart was found to be three times the size of a normal Human heart, and placed on the right side of his chest, not the left. His lungs were bigger, too, and both of them were contained on the left side of the chest where the heart would be in a Human being. The diaphragm and spleen and other organs were arranged differently to allow for these peculiarities.
Then there was his blood. He had been bleeding from a neck injury when he reached the hospital and they immediately prepared to give him a transfusion, only to find that they couldn’t match his blood type. It looked normal to the naked eye, and under microscopic observation it was clearly made up of red and white corpuscles and platelets. It contained haemoglobin and all the other elements of blood. But they gave up on the cross matching, listed the patient as Type X and gave him a plasma transfusion instead of whole blood.
His brain was different, too. Even the neurologist who studied his MRi scans was hard pressed to explain what the extra partitions of his cerebrum were for or how his mind might work differently to an ordinary Human. Owen had made a couple of guesses, but he wasn’t going to make any definitive statements until he had studied the boy further. Which was why he had pulled every string he had to get him signed over into his supervision and arranged to take him from the hospital back to Torchwood.
Owen was prepared to go so far as to say he WAS a boy. On the outside he certainly looked like one. He was lightly tanned on his face and arms as if he enjoyed outdoor sports. He had dark brown hair and blue eyes in a pleasing arrangement of facial features. He had the right number of fingers and toes in the right combinations. He had the appropriate genitalia for a pubescent Human male. Until this, his first known stay in any NHS hospital, he could have lived his whole life without raising any suspicions.
It was even possible that the boy himself didn’t know he was different in any way. He could have been shielded from the truth. The two people who were in the car he was travelling in might have been instrumental in keeping that secret from him as well as the outside world. They had been identified as Patrick Campbell and Theresa Gough, social workers employed at the Troon Park Children’s Home. Records that Munroe Macdonald had found showed that he had been in their care since he was three years old.
That in itself rang alarm bells for Owen. He didn’t pretend to be any expert on institutional child care, but he was sure that any normal, healthy boy with no known parents ought to have spent at least part of his life in some kind of foster home, if not with adopted parents who would give him a real home and a loving family life. That was what made him think that the social workers knew about Alexander’s differences. They had never risked placing him in anyone else’s care in case he was discovered.
“Poor bugger,” Owen said out loud, putting a gentle hand on the boy’s forehead. He noticed, even with that inexact method of gauging temperature, that he felt cooler than expected. His hospital charts had shown a lower average body temperature than expected - something else to find out about.
But Owen wasn’t worried about that for now. He was thinking about a boy who had spend the best part of his life in an orphanage. His own childhood had hardly been a bowl of cherries. His relationship with his mother had never been great, and his biological father contributed nothing to his life except a surname on his birth certificate and, he presumed, the genetic reason why he had always been called a ‘little’ bastard even by his mother in her least loving moments.
But at least he had a home life of a sort. Alexander had known nothing but dormitories, common rooms, refectories, where he slept, played and ate with thirty other children, most of whom would have come and gone as they went off to the foster homes and adopted parents that were never an option for him.
For all of those reasons, Owen had a great deal of sympathy for his patient, and he was feeling a little bit shitty because he knew what lay ahead once they reached Torchwood. He was going to be putting the boy into an isolation room and running literally hundreds of tests on him, some of them physical, some mental, many of them intrusive and unpleasant. He was going to put him through something like forty-eight hours of that in order to establish exactly what he really was and where he came from.
And whether he was a danger to the Human race.
And then he was going to decide what should be done with the alien creature living among humans under the assumed name of Alexander Gordon.
And that prospect didn’t please him one little bit.
Owen thought about all of that as the ambulance joined the M77 and speeded up. Less than twenty minutes later it slowed again as it came into Glasgow’s outskirts and headed towards the city centre. An alien gismo on the dashboard turned all the lights green ahead and cut through the morning rush hour traffic until they reached the secure car park at the back of Torchwood Glasgow. Dougal came out with a trolley that they transferred the still sedated boy onto before dismissing the ambulance.
“This is a dangerous alien, then?” Dougal asked as he fastened the chest strap preventing him from falling off the trolley.
“Dangerous aliens come in all shapes and sizes,” Owen reminded him. “We have to consider the possibility that this isn’t an innocent child.”
He felt shitty saying that to Dougal. His own first instinct was that Alexander was just a boy with an unfortunate history. But he knew that might not be the case, and he and his team had to try to be objective about him.
Which was why the first procedure they put Alexander through was a decontamination and a full body scan for hidden explosive devices, both mechanical and organic. This was done remotely, with the boy lying on the trolley in a room with reinforced walls and doors capable of withstanding any blast short of a nuclear one. Owen watched on the monitor from his desk in Hub Central and wondered how he would feel if the boy’s body suddenly ripped to shreds before his eyes.
It didn’t. Alexander was not a biological time bomb of any kind they could anticipate. He was brought into the ordinary medical room and Owen took blood, skin and saliva samples and connected the sensors that measured Alexander’s heart rate, respiration, brain activity, liver and kidney functions and the internal and external temperature of his body.
The blood sample was amazing. Owen studied it carefully. Of course, he had a full report about it from the hospital, but he wanted to see for himself.
“It’s incredible,” he said to Darius who came to assist him with the lab work as usual. “Alexander’s blood is less Human than yours. Sorry, no offence...”
“None taken,” Darius replied with his toothy half smile. “My blood, in any case, isn’t exactly MINE. I have not had a functioning cardio-vascular system for over two hundred years. My body does not produce blood as any other organic creature does. Every pint that flows through my veins is ‘donated’. If you were to examine the blood of my friend, Goran, who lives near the abattoir and has slipped into rather lazy habits, you would find that it is mostly pig.”
“I’ll add that to my list of fun facts I didn’t know before about vampires,” Owen remarked. “But the point still stands. It has all the components of Human blood, but it isn’t. It’s something completely different.” He looked at Darius thoughtfully. “You don’t worry about blood types, do you? I mean, you must have a real mixture of ‘o’ and ‘a’ and ‘ab’ sloshing about in your veins?”
“It is of no relevance to the Undead,” Darius answered. “We cannot distinguish between the types when we drink. Indeed, I had been drinking blood for more than a century before the scientific world discovered that there were distinct types. A German physician, Doctor Karl Landsteiner published his findings in 1901. I remember talking about it with fellow Undead at the time. None of us had ever suspected before that our food source could be distinguished in such a way.”
“Before that discovery, blood transfusions were hit and miss affairs,” Owen said. “Putting the wrong blood type into a patient was introducing a foreign substance that would kill them faster than the blood loss itself. That’s why the hospital was so worried about not being able to identify Alexander’s blood type. But, in fact, they could have given him any blood type. I’ve introduced every common blood type available to a sample of his blood, and it doesn’t cause any adverse effect at all. In fact...” He took a deep breath as he examined one of his prepared samples under a powerful microscope. “Wow. That’s impressive. Alexander’s blood actually converts the donated blood to his own ‘x’ type. It becomes his blood.”
“Unusual,” Darius agreed.
“If I could find out how that happens... if it’s an enzyme of some kind... something that could be replicated... so that people with rare blood types could convert the common type... That would be a real scientific discovery. It would save lives, make operations easier... relieve the problems the blood service have getting enough stocks of the rarer types... It would be the medical find of my career...”
He paused and looked around at the patient. He reminded himself that Alexander was a thirteen year old boy, not a resource to be plundered in the furtherance of Doctor Owen Harper’s dream of winning a Nobel Prize for Medicine.
“It’s worth looking into, anyway,” he added. “Another time. Right now, I’ve got enough to do finding out what Alexander’s story is.”
“Do you think he’s alien, then?” Darius asked.
“I don’t know what else he could be. Have you ever seen anything like him, before?”
Owen wasn’t really expecting Darius to have any answer to the purely rhetorical question that he asked while studying Alexander’s x-rays.
“Actually... yes... I think I have,” he said. “Hang on, I need to talk to Munroe about this. Give me half an hour...”
Darius turned on his heel and ran out of the medical room. Owen watched him go then turned back to his patient. He was stirring as the sedative finally wore off.
“Here,” he said helping him to sit up and putting a plastic cup to his lips. “You’re going to be thirsty. It’s ok, it’s just orange juice. Mind the wires, though. Don’t pull any of them off. I’m still running tests.”
The boy took the cup and drank the juice. He asked if there was any more. Owen poured him some.
“Slowly, or you’ll get hiccups,” he told him gently.
“The other room had a window,” Alexander said. “I could see a field with a horse in it.”
“Sorry, no fields here,” Owen replied. “I’ve got to run some tests... medical tests. They’re going to take a while.”
“Can I go home when you’re done?” he asked.
“Troon Park,” he said. “That’s where I live. Patrick and Theresa... they’re the house parents... or... they were...” He bit his lip sadly and tears pricked his eyes. “The other doctor told me they’re dead.”
“You liked them?” Owen asked him.
“I’m sorry they’re dead,” Owen said perfectly truthfully. If they were alive, they could have answered some questions. “I’m sure the other children will be upset, too. It was a terrible accident.”
Alexander nodded again, as if it was still too painful for him to talk about.
“Where were you going when the accident happened?” Owen asked, trying another way to engage him in conversation. As he did so, he kept one eye on a green light that would turn red if the boy lied in any way. It was a smart bit of alien kit that didn’t even need to be wired up to the subject. It detected miniscule changes in the pitch and tone of the voice, and it was foolproof on anything except fish-descended lifeforms.
“They were taking me to get my new school uniform,” he answered. “I’m going to St. Andrew’s grammar in September. I passed the entrance exam and I won a scholarship to pay for my fees and clothes and everything.”
“So, you’re a smart kid? Do the others tease you for being a swot? I got that when I was at school. I really wanted to be a doctor, and I got the shit kicked out of me for preferring to read than play football in the playground.”
“Bullying isn’t allowed at Troon Park,” Alexander told him. “It’s ok.”
The light turned red briefly, indicating a lie. Owen noted that philosophically. In any institution what isn’t allowed and what actually happens are two different things. But telling on the bullies wasn’t done.
“You want to go back there?” Owen asked.
“Yes. It’s home... it’s where I live.”
Again there was a distinction. There was also a hidden question in the statement. The boy wanted to know when he could go home.
Owen couldn’t tell him.
“You’ve got to stay here for a while,” he said. “While I do these tests. After that...”
After that, what?
If these tests proved that Alexander was an alien, then what would happen to him? Torchwood’s raison d’être was to protect the Human race from alien threats. But was Alexander a threat?
Of course, Owen wasn’t naïve. He knew that appearances could be deceptive. Alexander was a case in point. On the outside he was a Human boy. On the inside he was something entirely different. But beyond his anatomy, what else was he? A sleeper agent with a hidden agenda in some part of that unusual brain, waiting for a signal that would turn him into a threat to humanity? Was he the advance guard of an invasion force, living among humans in order to learn about our culture, our strengths and weaknesses? What better way to do that than plant a child among us. Our natural instinct as humans is to protect children. Institutional bullying aside, Alexander had been protected. He had been fed and clothed and given the best education available. He was going on to a top grammar school, and from there to university. And from there to a job in industry, in the military, government? Perhaps that was the whole idea. Alexander might be destined to be prime minister one day, with the power to unleash an alien army on the UK, or, indeed, the world.
“Can I have something to eat?” Owen heard the boy repeat his question as he shook off those wild scenarios. He turned away from the x-rays of a puzzling specimen and looked at a confused but unprotesting child who he was treating like a lab rat.
“Yes, you can have something to eat,” he said as he began taking the sensors and probes off him. “We’ll take a break from all of this. Come on. Stand up, slowly. You’ve still got a nasty wound there on your neck. Mind you don’t pull the stitches.”
He was still dressed in a hospital gown, fastened at the back with ties. But there was a bag containing his personal possessions that had come from the hospital with him. Owen looked and found a jumper and pants that were torn and covered in blood from the accident, but there was also the brand new school uniform of trousers, shirt, jumper and socks and shoes still in their packaging. He helped him dress and found a comb for his hair. He looked surprisingly neat and tidy when he led him out of the medical room and along the corridor to Hub Central. He told him to sit at the table in the rest area and found a can of Coke in the fridge and the makings of sandwiches. Alexander devoured it all. Owen looked in the fridge again and found a yoghurt and a packet of freshly baked fruit scones. He buttered the scones and gave them to the lad, making a note to compensate Munroe for the loss of his teatime treat.
“Doctor Harper...” Munroe Macdonald didn’t complain about his scones being given away. He had something else on his mind. “Would you come down to the archive? There’s something there that you need to see.”
Owen glanced at the boy, then looked around the Hub. Toshiko was out, picking up Etsuko from her nursery school, but Shona Stewart was at her own workstation, busily concentrating on a joint U.N.I.T/Torchwood investigation of unusual UFO activity in the Aberdeen area. Dougal was on the telephone. By the expression on his face it was a personal call to Sandy, but Owen let that pass.
Between the two of them they could keep an eye on Alexander. There was no need to restrain him again. Owen gave him another can of Coke and hoped he wasn’t the sort of kid who got hyperactive from too much sugar. Then he followed Munroe down to the archive.
“This is what I thought you should see,” Darius told him when he stepped into the humidity and temperature controlled clean room where Munroe and Darius preserved the more delicate of the artefacts in the archive. Owen looked at the specimen laid out on the table and yelped in shock.
“Fucking hell,” he said. “You’re telling me we have one of THOSE stored down here?”
He stepped closer to the table and forced himself to look at the specimen again. He recalled seeing something like it when he was in anatomy class at medical school. It had been brought in as a curiosity more than anything else, to demonstrate how the subject used to be taught in less enlightened times.
It was a mummified body, essentially. The skeleton was black with age and so were the sinews and muscles that still clung to the frame and the internal organs that had been carefully preserved. By contrast, a network of bright red lines spread over the specimen. Owen knew that they were the original veins and arteries of the body filled with wax mixed with vermillion dye to make them stand out.
The one he had seen in his anatomy class had been an adult woman with the womb carefully preserved. That had grossed him out enough.
The sight of this pathetic remnant of a once living being appalled him even more, because it was obviously a child. It was a male child of about ten or eleven years of age, intact in every detail.
Including the one thing Owen was deliberately trying not to acknowledge until he had fully absorbed the appalling fact that this ‘specimen’ was kept in a drawer in the Torchwood archive.
“Doctor Harper,” Darius said to him. “You have noticed.... the position of the heart and lungs...”
“I’ve noticed,” he managed to say. “It’s... this is... the same as Alexander. A larger than normal heart, lungs both on one side of the chest... Yes. I get that. But... what the fuck is this doing here? Why?”
“It’s artefact number one in the records,” Munroe told him “It has been here since Torchwood Two was established by the Royal Charter of 1879.”
“It fucking would be,” Owen murmured. “Item number one for the organisation set up by Queen Victoria to investigate alien intelligence... the body of an alien boy. Did they do this to him?” He waved his hand in the air over the mummified remains.
“No,” Munroe said. “The specimen is much older than Torchwood. It came to us like this.”
“I remember seeing this sort of thing,” Darius said. “In the 1830s.... right up to the 1900s, even, there would be exhibitions... preserved bodies on display. People would pay to walk around looking at them. Sometimes they’d be in glass cases, other times they’d be arranged... sitting in chairs, in groups... with playing cards in their hands or knives and forks for dinner. It was an amusement...”
To his credit, Darius’s expression suggested even vampires didn’t think displaying the dead was an amusing thing to do. Munroe was even more disgusted.
“The 1832 Anatomy Act gave registered anatomists – doctors, medical students – the right to use any unclaimed body left in the morgues. Prisoners and workhouse paupers were commonly given over for dissection classes.”
“Yeah,” Owen nodded. That was what he had learnt on the day he was shown a hundred and fifty year old body. He had also learnt why the government had enacted such a measure. It was to put a stop to the practice of grave robbing and even murder to provide fresh bodies for students to practice on.
“How old is this specimen?” he asked.
Darius passed him a collection of documents sealed in plastic wallets to prevent them falling apart. The first was a handbill advertising a carnival dated 1836. One of the prize exhibits was billed as the ‘living fishboy’. The line illustration was of a boy with what looked like gills either side of his face.
Another handbill was dated 1839, and advertised a ‘curious anatomy’ as one of the chief exhibits of a travelling exhibition of mysteries.
Inbetween those dates was a death certificate for a twelve year old boy named Malcolm Armstrong, who died of pneumonia in January of 1838 and a certificate of consent allowing the body of the said Malcolm Armstrong to be used for scientific inquiry instead of being given a Christian burial.
“It’s signed by somebody calling themselves Edward Armstrong,” Owen noted. “A relative of the boy actually chose to give him away to be turned into that...”
“Probably not a relative,” Munroe said. “Armstrong ran both of those travelling shows. The boy worked for him. He probably gave that surname so that he could give the body to the anatomist.”
“And what?” Owen asked. “He bought him back as a preserved... monstrosity... to show to gawping twats. And what’s this crap about ‘living fishboy’? This kid doesn’t have any gills.”
“He’s obviously not an ordinary child, either,” Munroe pointed out. “And he IS the same as Alexander.”
Owen conceded that much. He forced himself to look at the skeletal head with the mouth open in a rictus grin. He tried to imagine what the boy looked like when he was alive, when clean flesh covered those dried, blackened bones.
And it was Alexander’s face that he saw.
“The veins are ruined by the preservatives,” Munroe said. “But it might be possible to extract bone tissue... from the spine. We could find out if there is any DNA connection with the lad we have upstairs.”
“Fucking hell,” Owen swore. “Hasn’t he been screwed around with enough?” But the idea did make sense. This poor specimen from a hundred and seventy-three years ago and Alexander, born in 1999, did have striking similarities. Of course they had to follow it up. “Do it... in a dignified way,” he said. “And... when you’re done... Do we seriously have to keep him here? Can’t he be buried... in a coffin... with... I don’t know... some prayers or something. It’s not bloody right.”
He turned and went back upstairs, leaving his colleagues to do what they had to do. In the few minutes it took him to reach Hub Central he indulged in a little self-examination. He remembered all the reasons he became a doctor in the first place – to help people, to save lives. And he remembered the reasons why he gave up being one, at least to live patients. He had become hard, cynical and bitter after Katy died. He had stopped caring about living Human beings. He had been a miserable bastard with few friends and no social life to speak of, who was perfectly at home in an underground mortuary dissecting aliens.
But slowly he had re-emerged from those depths. Toshiko had been the catalyst. When he began looking after her during her unexpected pregnancy he had remembered all those reasons for becoming a doctor again. Her wellbeing, and that of her child had driven him, and once Etsuko was born, there was no turning back into the miserable bastard again.
If he had still been that hard, cynical man he had been for a while, how would he have dealt with Alexander? Would he have treated him as an alien specimen, no different from the preserved body in the vault? Would he have kept him sedated and performed intrusive surgical examinations of his unusual anatomy with the sole aim of learning something that would help Torchwood to be more ready to fight alien threats to planet Earth.
Would he have agonised over what to do with the boy when he was done with his experiments back then? Or would he just have held a cyanide soaked rag over his face and then filled his veins with wax resin?
No. Owen stopped at the door to the Hub and breathed deeply. No, even at his most cynical, cold, miserable bastard moments he wasn’t a murderer. He wouldn’t have done a thing like that to a Weevil, let alone a boy – even an alien boy.
He stepped through the door and looked around. He couldn’t see Alexander at first and he had a moment of panic. Then he noticed that Toshiko was back. Etsuko was sitting on her playmat with a colouring book and a bucket of crayons. Alexander was sitting with her. Genkei was sitting on his knee and he was playing pat-a-cake with him.
Alexander was a mystery, possibly alien, possibly dangerous. Owen had a vague feeling that he should have stopped him playing with his son.
But he didn’t. He poured himself a cup of coffee and sat watching him. He seemed to enjoy amusing Genkei. He had the right kind of patience for the repetitive games the eight month old liked to play. And he certainly wasn’t doing either of the children any harm.
“Doctor Harper!” Munroe called to him in his earpiece and told him that Darius was bringing the tissue samples he wanted to the medical room. He thanked him for that and stood up. He looked at Alexander again and made a decision.
“There’s no point in him being here all afternoon,” he said to Toshiko. “Why don’t you take him and the kids to the park... then maybe MacDonalds or something.”
Toshiko thought that was a good idea. She got Genkei and Etsuko ready to out. Alexander seemed pleased to be included in the plans. He had been in hospital for three days and nights before coming to Torchwood. He was ready for some fresh air.
“Is that a good idea?” Dougal asked as he watched them leave. “I thought he was a dangerous alien? Even if he isn’t... he’s in our custody...”
“Fuck that,” Owen replied. “Toshiko is a Torchwood agent. The kid’s with her. He’s still in our ‘custody’.”
He turned and went back to the medical room. Darius was already setting up the tissue samples for examination under the microscope. It took less than half an hour’s work to establish the first solid fact in this case.
The preserved body from the 1830s was a close DNA match to Alexander. They were related.
The problem was, even that solid fact didn’t lead to any further explanations about Alexander and where he came from.
He spent the afternoon following a half dozen leads that turned out to be dead ends, then gave up. He rang Toshiko to tell her he was calling it a day and was only slightly surprised to learn that she had brought Alexander to their house.
“Well, where else is he going to go?” she asked. “You can’t leave him restrained in the medical room all night with Darius watching over him.”
“I wasn’t planning to,” Owen answered. In fact, his original plan had been to keep Alexander sedated overnight while he ran more tests on his heart, respiration, body temperature and other functions. But he was starting to wonder what the point of any of the tests was, and Toshiko’s idea struck him as a better one. Apart from being more pleasant for Alexander to spend the night in a family environment for the first time in his life, it meant he could go home to the house he had spent so much money on instead of spending the night in the Hub.
The house was a bit further way from the city centre than the flat they had started in. It was a detached house in a leafy avenue near Tollcross Park. Trees and bushes shielded the late Victorian villa from the street and the back garden was a safe place for the children to play in. It was the sort of home he had expected to have with Katy. Now he had it with Toshiko. It was a place to raise a family, with suitable schools within easy reach and a leisure centre across the park where Toshiko had already enrolled both children in the toddlers swimming club.
He felt a sense of satisfaction when he parked his car on the drive and let himself into the house. He walked through the hall to the drawing room with French doors out to the garden. Toshiko was sitting on a shaded garden seat with Genkei on her knee. Etsuko was splashing about in the big paddling pool they had installed in the garden for these rare summer days when it was possible to use it. He looked around for Alexander.
“He’s in the hot tub,” Toshiko told him. “He’s using my seaweed and sea salt crystals. You can smell them from here.”
“He shouldn’t really be in there,” Owen said cautiously. “He still has stitches in that neck wound. If it gets infected...”
“It was what he most wanted to do,” Toshiko replied. “He said he loves swimming. But he isn’t allowed to do it very often. Only when his house parents were supervising. And it didn’t seem fair to let him watch Etsu having water fun and not letting him...”
“Really?” Owen was surprised by that. “Why wouldn’t they let him swim without supervision...”
He stepped towards the high sided hot tub that had been one of the special features of the garden when they bought the house. He could hear splashing as he approached and knew the boy wasn’t in any danger. But he wanted to make sure he was all right.
He looked over the side of the tub and gasped in surprise as he watched Alexander slide down under the seaweed and sea-salt scented warm water. The first thing he noticed about him was his hands and feet.
They were webbed.
Then as several minutes passed by and he was still underwater, he noticed something else.
He had gills behind his ears. He was breathing underwater.
He had his eyes closed, but he must have sensed Owen’s presence. He opened them and his mouth formed an ‘o’ of surprise. He pulled himself up into a sitting position. Owen noticed that the gills closed immediately and he took a breath of air through his mouth. Owen reached out and touched his neck. Interestingly, his wound had also closed up. It must have been a side effect of the morphing from one state to another. The sutures could still be seen in his flesh, but they weren’t closing a wound any more.
“Does that feel better?” he asked.
Alexander opened his mouth to speak. At first, his words were incomprehensible. He was speaking an unknown language. Then English words slipped in between the foreign ones and he spoke clearly.
“I’m... I’m sorry,” he said. “I know I’m not supposed to... But I knew it would make the pain go away. And... and I do like the water. Patrick used to bring me to a place near the Home, a quiet beach where I could swim without being seen. You... won’t tell, will you? Please... He said I shouldn’t tell other people.”
“I’m not going to tell anyone,” Owen said. “But I would like to talk to you. What was that language you were speaking? What were you saying?”
“I don’t know,” he answered. “When I’m saying it, I understand. But then it goes... and I forget. It only happens when I’ve been in salt water. It doesn’t happen when I go in the bath or shower..”
“Go underwater again for a little while,” Owen told him. Alexander did so. Owen turned and ran into the house. The room next to the drawing room had been designated as the study. Toshiko had a duplicate of her office workstation there with all of her programmes on it as well as some alien artefacts that she found useful in her work. He grabbed a hand held device that she had developed from some of the alien technology.
It was best described as a universal translator. It was only the size of a transistor radio, but the micro-micro-chips inside it contained thousands of samples of alien languages. When a new language was recorded onto it the processor found commonalities in the phrases and produced an English approximation of what was being said.
Alexander had to lie down under the water six times before the translator found enough commonalities. When it did, Owen was surprised and satisfied by what he heard. It went a long way to explaining a great deal.
“That’s enough of that for now,” he said. “Enjoy the hot tub for a bit longer. We’ll call you when tea’s ready.”
He brought the translator and sat next to Toshiko. He replayed what he had gathered from the sessions with Alexander.
“When he’s speaking in the alien language... he can remember another life... before he came to live at Troon House as a Human,” Toshiko said, summing up what she was hearing.
“He remembers living in salt water, breathing through gills, only occasionally coming up into air where his body transformed.”
“He was only three years old...”
“But he remembers it. At least he does when he’s exposed to salt water and transforms into his natural state. When he dries out it’s just a vague dream and he can’t recall any of it in detail. I think that’s something to do with his unusual brain shape. There are two distinct sections – two lots of memories - one for dry land, and the other for in the water. And they don’t connect.”
“So... what are we actually talking about?” Toshiko asked. “What sort of creature is he? Where does he come from?”
“If I’m right, he comes from not very far from where he lived his ‘Human’ life. I’m going to make some phone calls, and tomorrow, we’re going to take a bit of a trip. We’ll bring the kids. They’ll enjoy it.”
They started off early the next morning. It was an easy hour’s drive with very little traffic slowing them down to bring them to Troon. There, they boarded a motor launch that Owen had arranged for. Alexander seemed happy to be on the sea. Toshiko was less certain about it. She didn’t really have much affinity with boats. But Etsuko was delighted with the unexpected excursion.
“Where are we going, exactly?” Toshiko asked.
“Towards the Isle of Arran,” Owen answered. “Alexander was actually found there when he was three, wandering on the beach. So the records Munroe dug up said. He was sent to the orphanage on the mainland. But I think his real home was somewhere between the two.”
Owen didn’t say anything. He was watching Alexander. The boy was even more excited than before. He was leaning over the side of the boat, trailing one hand in the water. Owen noticed that the hand had become webbed. The other was still an ordinary Human hand.
Then Alexander gave a very excited cry and began pulling off his jumper and shirt. He kicked off the shoes and socks he was wearing, too and then dived into the sea. Toshiko gave a shocked cry, but Owen just switched off the engine and looked over the side of the boat. The water was surprisingly clear and unpolluted. He could see the boy swimming down and before he lost sight of him he was sure he saw somebody else swimming with him.
“He got lost in a storm,” Owen explained. “When he was three. He was separated from his family and washed up on the island. Of course, he couldn’t tell anyone what had happened. He didn’t understand English at that point. And by the time he’d lived a few years in the orphanage and learnt to speak he had forgotten about that life – except when he got to swim in salt water and his true form emerged. The two house parents from the orphanage knew about him. But they didn’t know what to do about it. They just kept the secret.”
“So....” Toshiko’s question went unspoken.
“This is where he comes from. Under the sea, somewhere. He’s not an alien. He’s just a rare species of Earth humanoid... a merboy... a selkie, something there are legends about.”
“And he’s gone home?”
“You’re sure? I mean... what if he’s just... drowned?”
“I’m sure,” Owen insisted. “He’s ok. Later, we can do some computer hacking and change the records so that it looks like Alexander was transferred to another orphanage. Nobody will worry about him.”
“As easy as that,” Toshiko said. “Just like when we substitute bodies and fake death certificates for people who’ve been eaten by Weevils or had their brains scooped out by aliens?”
“But with a rather more satisfying result,” Owen conceded. “He’s gone back to his own kind, where he belongs. He might even have a family, there. I just wish....” He sighed deeply. “Alexander wasn’t the first of his kind to be washed ashore. There was one a hundred and eighty years ago, give or take a few years. He was put on show in a carnival as ‘the fishboy’. And when he died... he went on show in the same carnival as... as an anatomical curio. And then he became inventory No. 1 in the Torchwood Two archive. And there’s nothing I can do to make that right.”
And because he wasn’t a hard, cynical bastard anymore, he raged against that injustice and grieved for the wrong.