It was Darius who had summoned the whole Torchwood team to the location, but the sun was up now and he had retreated to the Hub where he was manning the police scanner programme and other essential technology. Shona and Toshiko had both brought their children to the Hub where Dougal’s husband, Sandy, was giving them breakfast before taking them to their respective day care, nursery and primary school.
It was just past six o’clock now and Torchwood, who had been first on the scene, were within the inner cordon around the affected area. The police were manning the outer cordon and giving the members of the public who had been evacuated a story about a gas leak. The inner one was patrolled by U.N.I.T. personnel wearing overalls, some of them taking equipment out of vans bearing Scottish Gas logos.
A gas leak would have been a simple explanation. It didn’t need either Torchwood or U.N.I.T. for that.
A gas explosion would have been heard halfway across the city and it would have left burning debris, a rubble-filled crater, a nasty smell in the air.
It wouldn’t have left nothing.
By nothing they really meant nothing. Where a building had stood for nearly a century there was a black void that sucked at the eyeballs in an alarming way. It looked like a pool of ink that went on for infinity.
It was genuinely frightening even to the Torchwood team who had seen just about everything.
“I’m getting nothing at all from it,” Toshiko said, examining the portable monitor that was capable of measuring over three hundred forms of radioactive particles, radio, sound or light waves and every other possible energy source - as well as some that were not entirely possible according to the usual laws of physics.
Those laws were being stretched just now.
“It’s just NOTHING,” she insisted.
“It has to be something,” Owen objected.
“Well, you go and get me a sample of it,” Toshiko challenged him.
“No bloody chance,” he responded. I’m not going near it. I don’t want to get sucked into a black hole.”
“Do you think that could be what it is?” asked Dougal Drummond. “A black hole?”
“I don’t fucking know,” Owen answered him. “But I’m not ruling ANYTHING out.”
“It’s…” Munroe MacDonald began to express his thoughts, then paused as if he was having trouble framing his words. “When I was a boy… we had to go outside to the toilet. I’d never look up at the sky when I went out there at night. We were in the countryside and there was so much sky to see. It just reminded me how small I was. This… black nothing… does the same thing to me.”
Shona Stewart nodded. Whether she had childhood memories of going to the toilet outside in the dark or she was agreeing with Munroe’s assessment of the black void nobody was sure since she ventured no further opinion. As a former U.N.I.T. soldier she was the liaison with the military. She went to their mobile operations van and ordered steel fences to be erected around the affected area until further notice. The public didn’t want to get near this.
“The police will have to maintain a presence, too,” Owen said. “Steel fences will just be a magnet for the sort of tossers who want to see what’s on the other side.”
“Anyone that stupid DESERVES to be sucked into oblivion,” Shona replied.
“The area is overlooked by four storey high tenements with at least twenty windows on each floor,” Toshiko pointed out. “Unless a LOT of people are prevented from going back to their homes for a long time, the fences are going to have to be really high. We can keep them out of the area, but they’ll be filming and photographing it from the roof by lunchtime. I’m going to be spending all afternoon hacking into conspiracy websites and crashing Facebook.”
Everyone sympathised, but the fact remained that there was very little more they could do at the site. They might as well clear out and let U.N.I.T. figure out how they were going to seal off the area.
“But how does a bloody great building disappear overnight?” Owen demanded as the team got back into the Ford Escape and left through both cordons with precious little in the way of evidence. They had photographed the void with high resolution digital cameras set to normal exposure as well as with lenses that would show up infra-red, ultra-violet and other light waves, but nobody was especially confident that the resulting images would reveal anything.
“What WAS there yesterday, anyway?” Toshiko asked. It was strange that they had been there for an hour and a half and nobody had asked the question.
“Govanhill Picture House,” Munroe Macdonald answered without the slightest hesitation. “It was built in 1925 in rendered brick. The grand projecting entranceway with its lotus columns and two square towers with copper clad hated roofs was a stylised Egyptian influence popular in the twenties.”
Munroe often spoke like that. But usually he was near a computer and it was possible to put it down to familiarity with Wikipedia. The fact that he didn’t even have his iPad in his hands made it all the more incredible.
“Disused, I presume?” Owen asked. “I mean, how many Egyptian style cinemas from the 1920s are still doing business?”
“Yes, the building has been derelict for some time,” Munroe admitted.
“At least there shouldn’t be any Human casualties,” Dougal commented. “Unless some unfortunate was sleeping rough in there, a few rats and pigeons will be the only living beings affected.”
“Looking at it that way, it’s not so bad,” Shona remarked. “Some of the vermin of this city have been eradicated. Maybe if a couple more shitholes like that one vanished into thin air we’d make a real impact.”
“That’s not funny,” Dougal snapped. “There MIGHT have been homeless people sheltering in there.”
Shona looked about to say something nasty in reply to him, but Toshiko shushed her. There was a message from Darius. Owen swung the car around immediately – to the extreme ire of the drivers forced to brake to avoid crashing into each other.
“There’s been another disappearance.”
Owen didn’t say anything in reply. He left it to Munroe to tell them that the missing building was the Kelvingrove Park Bandstand, built in the 1920s as a popular amenity in the park, fenced off in 2001 after long neglect made the structure dangerous and beginning to be refurbished for twenty-first century use. They stopped him from going on to describe the square turret with domed roof and the Ballichulish roof tiles. Nobody was especially interested in details like that about a building that wasn’t there.
“There shouldn’t be many witnesses, at least,” Dougal commented. “This early in the day.”
“I wouldn’t bet on it,” Shona responded “Dog walkers and joggers get up at the crack of dawn.”
A dog walker proved to be the witness who had reported the void replacing the run down but familiar park landmark. Clinging to the lead attached to his golden retriever’s collar he had already given his story to a policeman. Now he repeated it to Dougal and Munroe while Toshiko again found no trace of any kind of energy or particle residue in the affected area.
“There was a weird sort of noise,” the dog owner claimed. “And then a buzzing in my ears. Then I felt like I was walking through treacle and there was static electricity in the air. Bosun’s fur all stood on end. My skin felt like it was trying to crawl off. And then… the bandstand disappeared. I tell no lie. I’m a teetotaller and a Presbyterian. I was stone cold sober and that’s what I saw.”
“Go on home and have a cup of tea,” Dougal told him. “And try not to worry. It’s just an optical illusion, you know, like that David Blaine fellow making things disappear. It’ll all be back to normal next time you come out this way.”
“I’m not so sure I’m going to come this way again,” the witness answered. “I’ll go by the fountain in future.”
“You do that, sir,” Dougal told him. “But a cup of tea is your best thing right now.”
“What do you think?” Munroe asked him as the dog walker went on his way, passing through the hastily erected police cordon.
“I think the police will run out of fencing by the end of the day if we have any more of these,” he answered.
“They’re saying ‘Unexploded bomb’. I’m not so sure Glaswegians are daft enough to swallow that.”
“Me, neither,” Dougal agreed. “But they’ll probably end up arguing over their own theories in the pub until nobody knows where to start on the truth.”
“Aye, that’s the truth.” Munroe nodded sagely. “And the conspiracy websites will doubtless get so far-fetched nobody will believe them anyway.”
“Even so, one of these days we’ll collapse under the weight of the lies told just to keep the general public from knowing how truly terrifying the real world is.”
“You two quit philosophising and come on,” Owen called out. “We’ve got another shout.”
“Another missing building?” Munroe queried as everyone piled back into the Ford Escape and left the police sealing off that part of Kelvingrove Park. Owen was ignoring speed limits and using the alien device that turned traffic lights green ahead of them.
“If you can call it a building,” Owen growled. “This is a fucking joke.”
“Maybe that’s what it is,” Toshiko suggested mildly. “A joke… some kind of alien joke?”
“I’m not laughing,” Owen responded.
Containing the situation the way it had been done in the park was going to be impossible this time. The site where a building had been replaced by a mind-boggling void was a traffic island in the middle of a major junction between four wide and busy thoroughfares. The police were busily erecting screens and redirecting traffic, but it was clear that the damage was done already.
“What WAS here?” Toshiko asked as she scanned the unlikely site with her alien technology and again found no readings at all.
“Anniesland bogs,” Dougal answered her. “A disused public convenience,” he added more politely.
“In a nutshell,” Munroe said. “Built in 1938 in a cruciform shape to provide male and female facilities equally. I can remember when they were kept nice, with flowers in vases by the wash basins, but they fell into disrepair and were bricked up by the council. There was some effort at cleaning up the brickwork a while ago, but conservationists complained that the wrong method was used and the outer skin of the stonework was damaged.”
“Well, how do they like it now?” Shona asked, conveying in her tone her contempt for people who got upset about the stonework on a disused toilet. “What the fuck do aliens want with a Glasgow piss-hole, anyway?”
“If it is a deliberate act by an alien intelligence…” Munroe suggested. “Is it possible that the voids are opening accidentally and swallowing up these buildings?”
“The fact that they’re all derelict suggests an element of choice,” Toshiko answered him. “They’ve been careful to take unoccupied properties.”
“Except for rats, pigeons and deadbeats,” Shona reminded them. “This is the most ridiculous assignment we’ve ever had.”
“But it’s a dangerous one, all the same,” Toshiko pointed out. “These voids are real, even if we can’t work out WHAT they are. Look, I think we need to find another way of approaching this. And I’m fed up of traipsing around the city catching up ten minutes after the damage is done. I’m going to get a taxi back to the hub with the gear. I’ll see if our technology reveals ANYTHING at all that might pinpoint the next likely target.”
“OK,” Owen agreed. “You’ll have to walk for a while if you expect to find a cab, though. The traffic is building up around here.”
“So what’s new?” Toshiko asked. She shouldered the case with the cameras and energy reader inside. It was heavy, but not so heavy that she couldn’t walk a few blocks with it.
“Toshiko is more of a tech geek than a field agent,” Owen admitted as he watched her go. “And she might actually find something we can’t see on the ground.”
That was his way of reassuring himself and the rest of the team that his wife wasn’t just quitting on them.
“We’ve got another one, boss,” Dougal told him. “He gave me a co-ordinate - 55.878688,-4.287016. According to the Satnav that’s the old BBC studios on Queen Margaret Drive, opposite the Botanical Gardens.”
“Well, that’s better than an old bog,” Owen replied. “Come on, let’s go.”
The Hub was nearly twice as far and involving far more sets of traffic lights than the old BBC Scotland HQ at North Park House, which was nearly a direct line from the Anniesland Convenience. By the time she got into the underground office Darius reported that they were on the move again.
“A place called Bushes Bar on Easterhill Street,” he said.
“In Tollcross?” Toshiko’s face paled and her voice shook. She knew the area well. One of Etsuko’s friends from the swimming club lived directly opposite the long closed public house, now almost hidden by overgrown trees and undergrowth.
That was too close for comfort.
Quite inexplicably she burst into tears. Darius handed her a tissue and she blew her nose with it. He gave her another to wipe her eyes.
“Sorry… it’s just…. Darius… can you keep a secret?”
“Of course I can. My LIFE is a secret.”
“I didn’t come back to look at the tech. I was… REALLY scared.”
“You, scared?” Darius was surprised. “Never, brangioji mergina. You are a mother, twice. That makes you braver than every man in this place.”
“Darius, you are an old-fashioned sweetie,” Toshiko told him. “But this scared me more than anything I have seen in my time at Torchwood, because it seems exactly to mirror a nightmare I have had since childhood.”
Darius said nothing, but he went to the kitchenette and fetched coffee for Toshiko and bottled water for himself. They sat by the computer that was monitoring the situation while she unburdened herself of a secret fear.
“When I was about nine, I read a comic – one of those girls’ things with names like Jinty and Tammy. There was this spooky story about a town where buildings kept disappearing. First odd houses, then the school, then the town hall. Then there was an emergency warning on television - from the Prime Minister – before Ten Downing Street vanished. After that, there was nothing to do but wait until everything had gone….”
Toshiko paused and took a deep breath.
“Just after the last humans had vanished, there was a picture of an alien child waking up in bed and turning to her mother… and she said that she had been dreaming – about a strange alien world.”
For a moment Darius didn’t get the punchline.
“Ah,” he said as the penny dropped. “The Earth… all of our world… was created in an alien’s dream… and when she woke it vanished.”
“Clever bit of writing for a girls’ comic,” Darius remarked.
“Terrifying writing,” Toshiko answered. “The story scared me so much I had nightmares about it – about being left on an empty world when everyone - my friends, family, everything – was gone. I woke up shivering and forced myself to stay awake for fear of dreaming it again. I’ve had the same dream from time to time ever since, and it still terrifies me. And today… that nightmare is happening all around me.”
“You don’t really think the world is about to vanish because an alien is waking up from a night’s sleep?”
“I don’t know. But it makes as much sense as anything else, doesn’t it?”
Darius had to concede the point.
“Except that so far, at least, not one single Human being has vanished from the city. The only buildings that have gone missing are derelict, empty, unused. That doesn’t quite fit your nightmare.”
“No, that’s true,” Toshiko conceded with a note of relief in her voice. “But WHY, then, is it happening? Why does any alien WANT our old buildings?”
“Maybe because we don’t want them?” Darius suggested. “Maybe somebody has a use for them? Is there any reason so far to think the reason for the disappearances is malevolent?”
“No. But… still….”
“It’s not just about saving the Earth from alien interference, is it?” Darius said quietly. “It’s also about understanding why these strange things happen.”
“Yes, it is,” Toshiko agreed. “In this case, we don’t know anything, except what one old man said he felt when it happened – a static electrical sensation.”
“Yes, that’s what I felt, too,” Darius confirmed. “I was up on the roof of the tenement opposite the old picture house with some of my vampire friends. Nothing sinister, you understand, just hanging out and thanking providence that we were all still unDead and not completely Dead. Then it happened, and I headed back to the Hub as fast as possible to call you all in.”
“So static electricity precedes the disappearances,” Toshiko mused. “Actually… I think….”
She turned to the workstation and began to type so rapidly Darius looked away. His eyes couldn’t water, but if they could, following her nimble fingers would have done it.
Within a very short time she had brought a map of the city up on the screen with an overlay using data from a weather satellite that she had temporarily re-tasked to concentrate solely on atmospheric disruption within the greater Glasgow area.
“There,” she said, then reached for a communicator. “Owen, get to 55.854842,-4.216818 as quickly as possible. Darius says it’s the old Whitevale Public Baths – another disused building. If you step on it, you might be there before it disappears this time.”
Owen swore like a man who had lived in Glasgow long enough to learn a few new swear words and called his team away from the latest disappearance. They all fastened their seatbelts firmly. They knew what Owen’s definition of ‘step on it’ was. The green light gismo wasn’t enough. Toshiko had called the police and asked them to clear the roads between Tollcross and Whitevale.
“Will getting there in time to see it make any difference?” Shona asked. “I mean, it’s not as if we can set a trap to stop it happening. We don’t even know what’s doing it.”
“I’ve been chasing around all morning and getting there too late,” Owen replied. “I want to see this bloody thing happen in front of my eyes just for once, even if I can’t do anything to stop it.”
“Maybe witnessing it will tell us something more than we knew before,” Dougal suggested, though he felt a little of Shona’s disillusion even as he tried to be positive. They needed some kind of a break in this wild goose chase.
Insofar as the long defunct Victorian swimming pool and Turkish baths was still standing when the Ford Escape reached it, they were, at least, ahead of the game now. That something was about to happen was obvious even from within the car. When the team stood and looked up at the once proud brick and Ashlar façade from the days when a swimming pool was given the same grandiose look as a town hall, they could feel the static electricity around them. The very air felt thick and moving was difficult. Time itself seemed to have stopped.
“It’s going!” Owen called out, his voice stretched like the sound from an old cassette tape with the batteries going down. The huge building dissolved in front of their eyes. For a moment the outer walls were translucent and they could actually see the former pool and the changing rooms, now nothing but detritus and rubbish.
Then it was gone, a black void left in its place.
“Well, that was useful,” Shona commented dryly.
“Wait, Darius says there’s another static build up near here,” Dougal reported. “Somewhere…..”
He turned and looked at the two 1960s Brutalist style tower blocks known as Whitevale and Bluevale. Like the much older baths they, too, were derelict and empty and facing demolition.
He started to run towards the flats. Shona turned to alert the others then set off at a run after him. Owen watched the two of them run and headed for the car. So did Munroe. His days of running much more than a few yards were well and truly in his past.
By the time they caught up with Shona, the two blocks of flats were gone.
So was Dougal Drummond.
“Where the hell did he go?” Owen yelled.
“Into the flats,” Shona replied. “The door was broken in…. He ran inside. He said he was going to find out what it was all about.”
“The stupid bastard!” Owen swore. “Even he can’t survive that.”
“I know!” Shona said in a voice that was curiously broken. She and Dougal weren’t lovers. They were barely friends most of the time. But they were colleagues, comrades in arms. They had looked out for each other on countless field assignments.
But this time Dougal had looked out for her by leaving her behind.
“How could he?” she asked. “How could he just do that?”
“Because he wanted to know the truth as much as any of us,” Owen answered. “Shona… come on. Let’s go back to the Hub.”
“Don’t let anyone talk to his bloke, yet,” Shona said as she turned from staring at the empty air where the two towers should have stood. “It should be done properly.”
“I know,” Owen assured her. “It’s… not the first time for me, breaking that sort of news. I know what to do.”
“It’s not the first time for Sandy, either,” Shona acknowledged. “But that won’t make it any easier.”
Owen nodded without words. He was well aware of that. He was aware, too, that in the face of a fallen comrade, the hard-cased lieutenant was cracking just a bit. By the time they reached the Hub she would have rallied, no doubt. She certainly wouldn’t reveal to either Sandy or Darius, her own lover, that she felt any kind of emotion over Dougal.
But it would be a lie.
“What the hell!” Munroe was the only one looking back when Darius sent another message – a new build up of static energy in the exact same position. The others turned in time to see the Whitevale tower re-appear like a photograph beginning to form in the developing fluid of a photographer’s studio.
“Shona….” Owen began. But she was already running back towards the tower as it solidified once again. By the time he and Munroe caught up they could see her hugging Dougal Drummond. She had thumped him hard, first, and she was raging about how stupid he had been, but she was hugging him at the same time.
“What happened?” Owen demanded. “This isn’t your formal debriefing, you understand. You’re going to be writing a report until your fingers seize up, and I’m going to give you the medical of your lifetime. But in two sentences or less, what the fuck happened?”
“They… apologised for the inconvenience,” he answered. “They also suggested I might be short of iron in my blood and I should eat plenty of red meat.”
“Who did?” Owen asked, but Dougal was clearly exhausted by his experience and those two sentences were as much as he could manage. “Get him into the car. We’re going back to the Hub.”
Dougal was starting to recover his faculties by the time they reached the Torchwood Glasgow headquarters. There was no need to worry Sandy with the fact that he had been Missing in Action for a full fifteen minutes, or that he had been technically dead during part of the experience.
“It would have killed any ordinary Human,” he admitted when he sat down to that debriefing with Owen. “Me or the Captain down in Cardiff are about the only ones who could have survived the transfer.”
“To an alternative dimension where Earth technology has got along at a different speed – no Dark Ages or Luddites, no World Wars holding things back. They understand how to transfer matter through the Void to their Earth.”
“You mean humans with some kind of futuristic tech are responsible for this? Not aliens?”
“Humans, yes,” Dougal insisted. “But twenty times smarter than anyone in this reality – except maybe Einstein or Steven Hawking or some of the Nobel Prize physicists, and I think most of them would be in the beginners class over there.”
“So if they’re so clever, what do they want our old crappy buildings for?”
“For decontamination,” Dougal replied. “They detected an interstitial bacteria that thrives in cold, damp places. Eradicating it in their universe was simple enough, but they found it had escaped into ours. If left unchecked this bacteria can actually start to develop into a multi-celled organism that swallows whole cities. It’s a skin of slimy flesh that suffocates all organic life. At least two dozen places in Glasgow… derelict, unwanted buildings like the baths and the Whitevale tower, the Anniesland Conveniences, were breeding sites for this bacteria. So they zapped them through the void to be cleansed.”
“Are you telling me that every single one of the missing buildings….” He glanced at Darius who confirmed seven more disappearances. “They’re all away for cleaning?”
“And they intend to send them back afterwards?”
“Yes. They completed the decontamination of the Whitevale Tower as a priority so that they could send me back with it. The others should be back by the end of the day. Like I said… they apologise for the inconvenience. They said they would try to find a way to cleanse without relocating the buildings in future, but the safety of our civilisation was more important than maintaining secrecy.”
“Bloody hell,” Owen swore. He couldn’t think of anything better to say. It was a lot to take in. The existence of other dimensions with other versions of Earth was something he understood to be true. His own theory about the Weevils of Cardiff was some kind of Rift gap connecting an Earth where evolution had taken a nasty blind alley. But the idea that they were in the kindergarten compared to a Human society somewhere beyond the Void was far too humbling for him.
“Toshiko has a cover story that is so absurd it might just work if the buildings ARE coming back,” he said. “The TV and internet news are going to put out the announcement that the disappearances were done with huge mirrors and bending light, with some pseudo science to explain how it can be done. A fake conservationist group are going to take credit for it. A publicity stunt to highlight how many buildings in Glasgow need to be rescued from the wrecking ball, that sort of thing.”
“That’s the daftest thing I’ve ever heard,” Dougal said. “All due respect to Toshiko.”
“Yeah, that’s just it. It’s so daft people will have to believe it. if they don’t, then they’ll just have to prove the theory wrong. And by the time they’ve done that, everything should be back to normal, anyway.”
“And they’ll be dismissed as cranks. Yes, I suppose it will work. One of these days, though, it’ll prove easier to tell the truth than keep up the lies.”
“When that day comes, I want a bigger budget and an office with windows,” Owen said. “And medals for everyone who put up with this shit in secret for all this time.”
“I already have medals,” Dougal retorted. “I’d rather a big payrise.”
“That would be good, too,” Owen agreed.