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Ex Machina

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Two screencaps (from EQ and from TW) showing hands on Preston and Jack touching magnet balls.

 

Preston entered the dusty room, feeling exactly like he usually felt when discovering secret places – a bit curious and reassuringly calm. He didn’t have to come here now, in the middle of the rebellion. But there were too many changes around him, changes he started himself, and on top of it, he was recently asked by his supporters who will now be ruling Libria.

He never thought of it. He wasn’t thinking almost at all, suppressing his emotions which ran high and doing what he had to do. Now he had to face the consequences. And he did not know what to do.

So he ended up coming here.

A hidden room, in just some common Librian flat, in no need to be hidden anymore. He’ll be losing his isle of calm very soon. As soon as the new Consul will take his position. And Preston had a particularly unpleasant feeling about who this Consul will be.

It was never his goal. The only thing he ever wanted was the possibility for every person – including himself – to live and not to lie with all their life.

Just live and feel and let others deal with the inevitable chaos.

He made a few slow steps across the dimly lit room, taking off his leather gloves. When he went off the dose, he figured out pretty quickly that he was very much a tactile, always in need to touch things – and people – to learn them best. He was now tracing things with his fingers, stroking soft pieces of cloth lying here and there, running his hand across porcelain figures, and finally reaching for the thing that always felt weird and nevertheless made him calm: a small – and probably fake - perpetual motion machine of five silver spheres hanging in a row. He moved one – and the spheres began to click, reminding him of a clock ticking…

However strange it may have seemed, he was feeling how time moved round him. He knew he was changing his time. He didn’t know what will it be in a day? In a month? The machine clicking grew louder and louder, drum-like – overwhelming. And the next second it was just quiet ticking again.

The room was still dimly lit but has changed imperceptibly. He didn’t notice when things around the perpetuum mobile went from colored glass and painted porcelain, embroidery and bronze and wax to mostly metal and paper and polished wood. The lightning went dimmer, the air, colder, its smell changing from warm fragrance of burning candles to damp stone. There were new sounds around him, running water, electronic beeping… human breathing.

It wasn’t a hiding place any more; it was inhabited, definitely inhabited. And the inhabitant sat by the desk right in front of him, watching the rocking spheres. He looked very much like a resistance member, but neatly dressed. Regular features, distant look, lips curving softly into a half-smile. Finally he reached out and held one of the spheres, stopping the machine, ending the ticking.

With it, the hypnosis holding Preston still ended, and it finally felt like proper time to say something. 

‘Where am I?’ managed Preston, his palms ready to wrap around the heavy handles of the guns, the only thing stopping him was the residual feeling of curiosity. The man looked up as though has just noticed there was someone in his room – and beamed.

‘Hello there! Love the coat,’ the man said.

‘Who are you?’

Somehow his own presence here felt terribly wrong. The man seemed to agree with it, because the next moment, there was a gun trained on Preston. An antique gun, seemingly non-automatic, rather worn-out, unnecessarily larger than his own – but still able to kill.

‘Sorry, this is my office, and thus my question, and…' Holding the gun with his left hand, the man opened a leather bracelet on it with the right and pressed a couple of buttons. He frowned on whatever it led to. '…I'd really love to hear your name and the year you come from.’

Preston was still not quite used to the fact that back at Libria he was the one to demand answers, not to report to anybody, and anyway, you don’t try to pull the authority over a man holding a gun, so he said:

‘John Preston, 35th year of the Father's age.’

‘Nice to meet you, John Preston, make yourself comfortable till we figure out what the hell- ‘ the man cut off suddenly and called out, ‘Hey Doc, what's Father's age?’

‘A variation of the future that never happened,’ came the distant answer through the open door of the room. The door that definitely wasn’t there in the hidden room Preston have been in  just a couple of minutes before.

‘So what is the man from that future doing here?’

‘You can ask him.’

‘You are talking nonsense,’ Preston said, sitting down in the offered chair and using the chance to look around. This room could be taken for the offender’s hidden chamber at the first glance, it was full of seemingly chaotic knick-knacks, but they weren’t the sort the offenders collected, and a lot of them looked like nothing Preston had ever seen.

‘I'm talking sense, actually. And he is, too'. The man rose and circled the table, looming over Preston, holding a gun with a nonchalant ease. 'What are you doing here?’

‘Who are you to ask me questions, anyway?’ Preston remembered that he actually was the one to do it, now. Even at the gunpoint.

‘Oh,’ the man rolled his eyes. ‘Doc, this variation of future is wrong – they haven't heard about me!’ He grinned and offered his free hand for a handshake. ‘Captain Jack Harkness.’

His thumb rolled over Preston's hand in a manner that felt weird. Like it meant something. Something Preston should understand, but forgot.

The only thing Preston knew about 'captains' was that they were leaders of the sweepers' formations thus people with only some primitive knowledge of firearms and firefights – nothing to be afraid of or even bothered with. The word and the rank itself originated from the years before the Father's age and were not allowed to be studied by the History Law.

‘It is wrong, but for entirely different reasons,’ a man with mad hair run into the room, stopped, looked at their still-joined hands and rolled his eyes. ‘Jack. Really.’

Another man followed him with more dignity. Sharp haircut, an impeccable suit – at last, someone looking close to normal – but he still made it three people against one. Preston thought he was in a hidden room, where offenders used to keep treasured things... but this room wasn’t a treasury, and those people looked nothing like common offenders. At the same time, they looked a lot like them. 

‘You can put away your gun', the mad-haired man said to Jack. 'Really. You humans and your obsession with those killing machines…'

'He is harmless?'

'Sure,' the man said flippantly.

It was absolutely absurd to call a trained Cleric with his guns in his pockets and spare magazines in the sleeves harmless, but Preston felt it wasn’t the right time to point them out their mistake. At least the Captain holstered his antique gun and sat down in his chair.

‘So,’ he said in an attempt of intimidation. ‘Once again. What are you doing here?'

Preston tried to find an answer that made sense, and failed.

'I don’t know,' he answered in the end. ‘You asked me what year I come from. I may not believe things but I’m no idiot. What was that supposed to mean?’

The three of them exchanged somewhat troubled looks.

‘There-is-a-rift-in-space-and-time,’ started the normal one in a sing-song voice as if he knew these words so well that they lost their meaning.

‘Let me do it,’ Captain interrupted.

‘You always do it.’

‘Yes, because I do it in style.’

‘I'd like to hear to your explanation of all this,’ Preston turned to the mad-haired man. He didn't have to be intuitive to get that the Captain and the normal one considered him dangerous. The mad-haired one seemed to be more friendly to the stranger. ‘What is this place and how can I come back?’

The Captain pouted.

He actually pouted. Preston has never seen a grown-up man to do it.

The mad-haired threw his hands in the air.

‘There is a rift in time and space, which attracts all the timey-wimey things,’ he said moving closer, ‘and you are definitely timey-wimey, with your dystopic government that never happened, fortunately, only it somehow did, as you are standing right in front of me now, which means I missed something, or it wasn't me...’

The choice of a speaker was wrong. But it was too late.

‘...or it wasn't this me,’ the man continued, now pacing around Preston and looking him over like he was a 'thing', and sometimes leaning closer as if to sniff. Or to lick.

Actually, he tried to lick him once, but the normal one cleared his throat and distracted him.

It was now obvious that it wasn’t a capture – that was the good news. The bad was that the three men who welcomed him in such a weird manner didn’t seem to understand what had happened either.

And Preston did the second thing he could do best – calmed his heart down, cleared his mind and prepared for a long troubled talk.

 

~ ~ ~

 

In half an hour, Preston was filled with information he couldn’t fully understand. But the thing that confused him most was how uneasy he felt among these strangers. He used to be the man to finally return the lost emotions to his world but these people were so... so alive that it seemed safer to protect his feelings and his intentions from them. To pretend to be totally reserved - and to fail every time this Captain, Jack, paced round his chair or beamed or looked at him, winking – what was that supposed to mean? – and finally promising to get him back. Certainly. Well, probably. Most likely. We hope so.

It was mad.

He managed to give them only some basic information about himself – name, age, rank and occupation – and got the same in return.

The Doctor, no name given, surfing the time, calling people 'humans' as if he wasn't one himself.

The Captain – Jack – talking like he'd surfed the time as well, now the leader of the organization named Torchwood, dealing with things coming through space and time, like Preston. And extra-terrestrial life forms. There were extra-terrestrial life forms.

The normal one – Ianto – a 'general support', thank God, yes, totally normal in everything.

Neither of them knew how to get him back. Or at least they were saying so though the Doctor accidentally dropped ‘I never expected the machine to work it that way’. By 'the machine' they meant the frame of silver spheres on Jack's desk, similar to the one he set going back where he was. In a different world. In a different time.

The Doctor was actually checking it all the time they were talking, looking and touching and pointing at it with a weird blue buzzing device, and it looked like he was ready to take the balls apart to the sub-molecular level. He mostly ignored Jack's commanding tone, and felt free to interrupt him with some irrelevant comments, to which Jack listened very carefully, nevertheless.

Preston wasn't sure about the chain of command here. Surely 'the Doctor' couldn't be any official title? At least with Ianto and Jack, it was clear: Ianto referred to Jack as 'sir' and behaved as a subordinate, pretty well for this mad place.

The only good thing in all this talking was a drink Ianto supplied in seemingly endless quantity. Coffee. A well-known stimulator, with addictive qualities which made it popular in spite of unpleasant taste. Or so it was in Libria.

Here, the drink they called coffee smelled bitter-sweet, and tasted the same, soft and exiting. When Preston tried his first cup, ready for the insipid taste and unpleasant texture of the coffee he knew, he was surprised. It felt smooth and a bit foamy on his tongue, it was slightly bitter with a rich sweetness underneath, and it left soft aftertaste in his mouth. Finishing his cup, he felt Ianto's eyes on him, like the man carefully studied his reaction. By the way Ianto nodded to himself and smiled with just the corners of his lips, it was deemed acceptable.

All in all it took three hours to sort things out. Three bloody hours. Preston had never wasted so much time on a talk before. A talk. He could be practicing at the moment. Or reporting, or getting reports. Or checking up on his kids – in fact, the latter bothered him even more than headless rebellion left behind. He told them about the rebellion too, and about the resistance, and insensibility caused by prozium, and about his whole world, from the very beginning – which, in fact, was only 35 years before now. Before his ‘now’. And only when asked, what the hell he had to do with all that, he explained who he was and what position he occupied. Jack didn’t seem to be much impressed, but rather deeply concerned. For some reason, it was even more disturbing, as if something went out of order.

‘Oh, let me make this clear, in case I missed something,’ Jack said somewhat sharply, ‘You’re telling us that you were the hardest, fiercest, most ass-kickin' killing machine, then changed your side – not that I’m to blame you – but anyway, changed your side and became the sharpest, coolest and, what is most important, the only skillful-in-a-fight leader of the opposite party?’

‘I suppose this is correct.’

‘Crap,’ and Jack leaned back in his chair, covering his face with his palm.

‘I can say nothing but agree,’ Preston said, his lips twitching a bit as if in an attempt to smile, – and earned an approving grin from the Doctor.

'The Doctor and I, we'll check this thing that brought you here,' Jack said, standing up. 'Ianto will give you the tour over the place.’ He gently pushed Preston out from the chair and to the exit, in a way that made Preston moving without thinking, which was disturbing. 'And maybe a walk outside? By the look of things, you need a breath of fresh air. So shoo, shoo!'

Preston didn't get this remark. He had his exercises outside everyday, and actually spent as much time in the fresh air as was necessary for his health.

‘We will have to exit through staff door, sir, because the tourist’s entrance is blocked’, Ianto remarked.

‘Why?’ Jack frowned.

‘I believe someone parked their vehicle on top of it, sir’.

Jack blinked and looked at the Doctor.

The Doctor didn’t seem to notice. 

~ ~ ~

This place was definitely bigger than any hidden room could be.

Preston caught the glimpses of it through the office door and window, but he was still overwhelmed when he went out, into what Ianto called ‘The Hub’. Not by the size – there were places a lot bigger in Libria – but by the clutter. Where in Libria were clean straight lines and sterile surfaces, here, everything was chaotic. Stone and bricks and chrome and brass and plastic, glass and wires, layers of old and new paint, stains of rust and mould. Water pouring down some kind of pillar in the middle of the room, into the dirty pool, the source of dampness and smell in the air. Modern-looking tech switched on to ancient mechanisms, beeping and blinking its lights and screens. Hundreds of things just scattered around without any visible order. Some kind of tech was stacked into a box with the remains of some food, and there was a cup half-full with liquid, tilted right over it.

Ianto steered him straight ahead, giving a running commentary about obvious things, along a lines of ‘here’s a water pillar, and here’s the coffee area’. They passed something looking suspiciously like a small anatomic theatre; on the other side of the pool, Preston saw an armory behind the glass wall, with a hothouse full of greenery over it.

This place didn’t make sense. At all.

The cog door rolled aside in front of him. ‘Here’s a lift’, Ianto said following Preston into it.

In the lift, Preston let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. There was a small hint of a smile in the corners of Ianto’s mouth. He looked like he was waiting for something.

‘You didn’t search me’, Preston remarked.

It wasn’t what Ianto waited for. He raised an eyebrow.

‘The Doctor says you are harmless’, he said.

‘His word is enough for you?’

‘It’s enough for Jack’. Ianto looked thoughtful. ‘Do you have any weapons, artifacts or substances which can bring the annihilation to the entire human race and/or destroy the planet?’

‘No’.

‘Do you have any weapons, artifacts or substances which can bring the annihilation of 321000 people and/or destroy and/or make unsuitable for humans territory of 6652 square kilometers?’

‘No.’

‘Do you possess any abilities to do anything of the above?’

‘I don’t think so.’

‘Then we’re okay’.

‘You didn’t ask if I possess any weapons or abilities to hurt one person.’

‘Oh, this, we can deal with’. Ianto paused. ‘Do you?’

‘As a matter of fact, I do’.

Ianto nodded to himself. The lift doors dinged open.

After the lift and a long hallway, they emerged into another cluttered room, this one small and looking very much as the offender’s hidden ones. A portion of the wall screeched in place behind them. Ianto opened the door in the opposite wall, and for a moment Preston was blinded by the seemingly endless sparkles of sunlight.

‘The sea,’ Preston said. ‘Your base is located by the sea.’

‘Somebody must’ve loved the view.’

‘I remember you saying it is because of the Rift thing,’ Preston paused, then added, lowering his voice a bit, ‘but I must admit the view is most impressive.’

‘Let’s go.’

As they were walking along the bay and crossing the Plass, Ianto made brief comments about the place and the city. And the other cities, and the country, about the epoch itself – which turned out to be the only example of the ‘normal’ world Preston could get so far. It was global and confusing, not only because of customs and politics and the things like – mostly because all people around were colorful, bright, and moved across the streets in a chaotic manner, never in lines. 

‘There’s no need to observe the location that thoroughly. You’re not on duty. Try to enjoy the place.’

‘You said your work was dangerous.’

‘Right, and I’m aware that dangerous stuff usually turns up all of a sudden. But at the moment the Doctor is here, he’s keeping an eye on things,’ they both sat down on a bench overlooking the bay and Preston was grateful for that – he didn’t have to observe the chaotic crowd anymore. ‘Before he helped to adjust the Manipulator, we used to have a lot of trouble fighting things all over the city.’

‘Are you an enforcer?’

‘More like a field agent, lately. But sometime ago I mostly used to stay indoors. You?’

Preston paused, choosing the words carefully.

‘Trained. Always trained, my whole life. That was the point of being Cleric Intuitive – first, never stop learning, second, let your mind wander so that you can understand the mind of an offender. It seemed like I managed, back there,’ he looked up and turned his head to meet Ianto’s attentive eyes. ‘But I do not understand you.’

'Maybe because I did nothing to offend you?' Ianto smiled easily, but his eyes were serious, like he was waiting for Preston to extrapolate.

‘Sense offenders. People condemned for the crime of feeling. I’ve put an end to this. A right thing to do, as it seems to me.’ He fell silent for a moment. ‘So this is how the world looks like when anybody can feel anything for anyone? Neither being afraid nor forced to lie?’

‘I… suppose you can say so,’ said Ianto very, very carefully.

A couple moved into their field of vision, leaning at the railing over the Bay. Both very young girls, they were pressing close to each other against the wind; one had her hand in the other's back pocket. They were dressed in chaotic mix of colors and textures, as everyone dressed here: pants with metallic sprayed ornament and embroidery, long green-and-violet skirt, pink leather jacket, thick blue scarf, heavy leather-and-metal boots with violet flowers or flames on them, big sparkly rings and earrings – the girls mixed in his head in one bright laughing entity, with high voice and unnecessary gestures. One girl touched the other's lips, slowly rubbing at the full lower one, and smiled, leaning closer. Preston blinked.

‘This considered normal here?’

‘Well. Yes,’ he could see Ianto tense a little. ‘Jack would’ve explained you better. But in general… yes, everything done for mutual pleasure is normal.’

‘That… that expressing emotions in public is not uncommon?’

‘Oh. Yes, it isn’t.’

'Hey!' on of the girls called loudly and approached their bench, 'Be a love and take a pic, will you?'

She was holding an average-sized camera, primitively designed with a lens that would never, ever allow taking a quality photo with the blinking water at the background.

He could see in the corner of his eye that Ianto was ready to stand up and help, but he didn't allow him to. He decided to take his first challenge here all on his own.

He barely managed two shots of the girls holding hands before they turned to each other and shared a long kiss.

His arms felt such urge to tremble he never felt even when he was holding guns. The latter, in fact, was much easier than looking through this ancient primitive camera.

'Thanks a lot!' said the girl taking the device back.

'That was very kind of you,' the second one added, reaching in her pocket, 'here. It's my birthday today – so thank you!' and they were gone, leaving him with something in a white and violet cover saying 'Milk Chocolate'. 

After he was sure that his voice won't betray the fluttering he still felt inside, he turned to Ianto.

'So,' he asked a bit tentatively, 'what kinds of emotions are exactly normal to express in public?'

'I'd say anything if it's not excessive. That goes with exceptions of course, very much depending on time and place. At the moment I think you're doing good, thougha bit reserved, but not extremely so. Well done for a first-timer.'

'So, there are still some... limits,' Preston remarked. Ianto shrugged.

'They are necessary. It's... more or less common sense'. He looked uncomfortable saying that, as if there was more to say, but he couldn't decide what to say exactly. 'But all the limits are shattered with Jack around, you know.'

Preston wasn't sure if should take this remark seriously, but pretty much he did.

'Looks like it’s time to go back to him anyway,’ Ianto added, getting up, as the first drops of rain fell on their bench, their faces and brought ripples to the blinking water. ‘Means an extra coffee to me. With chocolate.’

'Why so?' Preston asked following him to the Hub, in a brisk step.

‘A cold rain never goes without a cup of hot coffee,’ Ianto answered. His words could be barely heard now, as the wind was growing cold by seconds, and stronger, and the rain wasn't mere drops anymore.

And then it was pouring down, and they were running, along the bay and down the steps. The rain was cold, the wind even colder, the coat heavy – but suddenly, Preston felt as if he was one with the rain and the wind and this bay, this place, even with Ianto, running beside him. The raindrops splashed on his face, covering it with water, and its cool streaks edged under his collar. His straight palms cut the air, the coat flapped around his legs with every move, there were different surfaces under his boots, and he felt it – bricks, tiles, board... He heard his own breathing, and Ianto's, and a heartbeat, faster and faster, and he felt something that he didn't know the name for, didn't know what expression was appropriate. 

~ ~ ~

When they reached the Hub, both were wet from both rain and sweat, and breathless. Ianto was making weird sounds – Preston looked at him in alert, but saw a smile on his face, a wide smile, and realized the sounds he was making were actually laughter.

It calmed down while they were walking through the Hub, stepping aside all the things from their motley chaotic collection. They were right in time to see how Jack’s office was rapidly filling with white smoke coming from his desk, which was currently occupied by the Doctor.

‘Oh hell! That hurt!’ yelled Jack.

‘Still with me?’ the Doctor asked not looking at Jack, entirely concentrated on the Machine.

‘Yeah. But it was really unpleasant, you know.’

‘Go and find something pleasant, then. Or someone,’ said the Doctor, releasing the balls from their threads and arranging them in a circle, ‘You’re not helping anyway.’

‘Hey, I did! It’s not my fault this thing is sort of… hostile to me.’

‘Oh, you think?’ the expression of the Doctor’s face was unreadable.

Jack spotted Ianto and Preston and beelined to them. Ianto signed and straightened, looking every bit as reserved as before, if wet.

‘Give me your coat’, he said to Preston.

‘The man is great with coats,’ Jack added with a grin.

Preston quickly recalled that Ianto was aware he was armed and Jack wasn't – at least not yet, but seemingly not for long.

He felt uncomfortable as his coat was taken away. Not that he couldn't manage three men without his guns, but... somehow they made him feel utterly uncomfortable. They made him feel.

If Ianto noticed that his coat was too heavy for just fabric, he didn’t show it. 'You need a shower', he said to Preston. 'A good long hot shower. Cardiff's rain isn't a thing to joke with. I need one, too. No, Jack, you can't join.' He looked at Jack who was just opening his mouth and added, 'Not one of us.’  

The showers were hidden behind what Preston was still calling an anatomic theatre. They looked the same mix of high-tech and old: chrome and brass tubes ran side by side on the wall, over yellowish cracked tiles, to the plastic-and-glass cabins.

'Here’, Ianto opened a big cupboard. ‘Soap is in every stall, as for the other things – use whatever you like. It’s not like they buy there own stuff anymore’, he added under his breath. ‘Towels, here. T-shirts… and other things, down there – anything in factory pack is fair play’.

He grabbed a couple of bottles and a towel. ‘If you need any help, just call me’, he said and disappeared in the stalls.

Preston was still looking into a cupboard, filled with bottles and jars and things, as colorful as way too many things in this world were, mix of smells shocking his nostrils. Eventually, he reached inside and took one bottle, bright green, with a picture of a smiling dark-haired woman on it. ‘Shampoo for normal and greasy hair’, it said, and ‘Wild Herb & Kiwi’, and a lot more in a fine script on the back.

He unscrewed the bottle. The thick liquid inside smelled like something chemical and bitter-sweet. He didn’t know what kiwi was, but if the smell was any indication, it was acid.

On the other bottle, blissfully grey, he spotted words ‘for men’. The label said that it was ‘oil balance conditioner’. The fine script informed that it was used to ‘Perk up limp tresses with a light, moisturizing conditioner that reduces excess oils, leaving hair full of body and shine’. The list of components promised Water, Cetearyl Alcohol, Stearic Acid, Maltodextrin, Ceteareth-20, Glycerin, Steartrimonium Methosulfate, Benzyl Alcohol, Honey, Fragrance, Methylparaben, Isopropyl Alcohol, Propylparaben, Aminometyl Propanol, Wheat Amino Acids… the list went on and on.

Instruction was to use it after shampoo. Shampoo, Preston was used to. In Libria, you washed your body with soap and your hair with shampoo which was mostly liquid soap. Men and women used the same products, generic, unscented. Here, there were too many things for a simple process of washing; he noticed shower gels, scrubs, and even some ‘eye rescue serum’, whatever it was, and every single bottle smelled differently, and the content had some specific incomprehensible goal. In the end, he grabbed the bottle which said ‘shower gel’ and ‘for men’, took the towel and clothes and fled to the stalls.

The water was a blessing in its simplicity. Hot streams, falling down on him, washing away the cold he didn’t notice he felt after the rain and wind and arthritic dampness in the Hub. He leaned against the wall, letting the water beat upon his back and bent neck. Closing his eyes, he could almost forget that this place was entirely foreign to him, or he was foreign to it. He could imagine he was back in Libria, having a moment of rest among the turmoil of newly freed country. He knew that he would have to go out and do something, do everything pushed on him by people or by chance, be a leader to the troops, a father to his kids, a comforter for distressed, an executioner for unrepentant… to help people feel, and yet, to control his own emotions becauseLibria needed his cool head and clear mind.

He didn’t even have the time to mourn Mary. He only read about mourning in a book. An explanatory dictionary, which he had to turn to when Robbie asked him about something he found in one of poems from the hidden rooms. Mourning was ‘an act of sorrowing’. Or ‘an outward sign (as black clothes or an armband) of grief for a person's death’.

Even now, he didn’t have time for this. But his clothes were black anyway.

He washed up, the smell of gel reminding him again of how different this world was: sharp, fresh, not a scent, but a tang. Everything here was that sharp: colors blinding, sounds deafening, touch overwhelming, even the taste of the air seemed to burn his tongue. He gulped for breath, his chest suddenly too tight, feeling dizzy and barely hearing the sound of running water as the blood hammered in his ears. This isn't happening. But the tiles in front of him were different from what he had at home, and there was this 'shower gel' on a small shelf just in front of his eyes and the light itself was warm yellow, not cold bluish-white he was used to...

The next thing he remembered was that he was sitting on the floor of the cabin, water still pouring at him gently. Just what I need, a blackout.

Maybe it was too much for him or it has just become too hot and humid inside. Anyway, he had to come out of here, he's had enough.

The towel was fluffy, the ends of the fiber firm and a bit scratching, the rest, very soft. It stung his skin, oversensitive after wetness and heat, but he dried up resolutely. His t-shirt was too tight but he didn’t have it in him to look for another one. The less contact he had with any objects here, the better. 

When he found his way back to the Hub, Ianto, neatly dressed in shirt and a vest, was in Jack’s office, as well as Jack who occupied his chair, with Ianto standing beside him. He leaned sideways on the table, facing away from Jack, and was talking to the thin air... no, to the earpiece he touched lightly with his fingers.

‘Sorry, but no… Yes, ma’am', he said with a polite smirk and finished the talk. Jack waited until Ianto turned back to him and raised an inquiring eyebrow.

'Gwen says hi and asks whether we have some god-blessed apocalypses to take her away from in-laws', Ianto commented.

'And 'yes ma’am' was about..?' Jack leered. Ianto rolled his eyes.

'She told me to take care of you idiot.'

Jack spread his knees wider, leaned back and made a grimace of indignation.

'Insubordination in the ranks! My, my. So, will you?'

'Will I what, sir?'

Jack grinned and lowered his voice.

'Take care of me'.

Ianto unhurriedly looked him over, eyes lingering below the belt. There was some tension in the air that Preston felt but couldn’t understand, but it sent unexpected slow shivers down his spine. He decided that it was his cue to come in.

Ianto straightened quickly, looking very much like he was caught up at the crime scene and was showing that he has nothing to do with it. Jack, however, didn’t move and just grinned. Again.

‘Hey, I love it when your hair aren’t glued to the skull, you know! Makes you look much more…’

‘Fitting in, I presume.’

‘Well, I was about to say just ‘fit’, with this t-shirt glued to you instead, but I think you got it, yeah,’ and he almost broke into laughter again.

‘What was it that amused Captain so much?’ Preston asked Ianto, as the latter seemed to be much more calm.

‘He’s just in the mood.’

‘Hey, don’t be such a shy guy, will you? As if you- ’

‘Jack,’ the Doctor seemed to have appeared out of nowhere.

‘You’re an evil old man!’ Jack snorted.

‘Only when I have to protect innocent people from your corrupting influence. Now, John…’

Preston looked up, trying to get what the hell they were talking about.

‘Have some good news for you.’ 

~ ~ ~

Luckily, the Doctor knew what this thing which has brought Preston here was. Unluckily, he couldn’t tell how to reverse it. He knew it in theory, but his explanation didn’t make Preston feel optimistic at all.

‘So imagine somebody is, for some reason, in need for something,’ the Doctor was flinging gesturing widely, ‘in any place, any time, any point in the universe. And if this somebody just happens to have this,’ he pulled the now assembled Machine closer, setting it on clicking again, ‘it may find any other point in the universe, any time, any place, where there is somebody, who is also in need for something and has another one like this, and Snap! - they meet.’

Preston carefully threw an uneasy look at Jack, who returned the gaze. They stared at each other for a second.

‘That may not necessarily be two people who get connected,’ the Doctor mentioned, pretending he hasn’t noticed. ‘That may be a group of people, or two groups meeting, or a person or a group sent to a certain place… well, literally, anything. If there is the Machine at the place. Both places.’

‘You mean I’m here on some purpose. Not by chance,’ Preston concluded.

‘Yeah, that’s how this thing works, generally.’

‘And I have to wait and see what is the reason, the need I was brought here for.’

‘Yup.’

‘And it can take how much time?’

‘Don’t know!’ the Doctor said brightly.

So he couldn’t do anything at the moment. But he also wasn’t the man to sit and wait for his lucky chance to get back home. He was an elite enforcer, after all – skillful and clever – and could make his way anywhere. He also saw the only way how not to go crazy here – he had to do something.

So he offered himself for work.

And his offer produced a variety of reactions immediately.

‘Good!’ the Doctor exclaimed cheerfully. ‘I’m glad you’re eager to help here, y’know, Jack needs people.’

‘I’m doing fine!’ Jack returned sharply and added in a more quiet tone, ‘But I don’t want a sudden guest anywhere out of my sight.’

‘I’ll bring the papers, then,’ Ianto concluded in a way that made Preston wonder who exactly was in charge here.

‘So what, we just give… Cleric Preston a job in Torchwood right away?’ Jack asked, somewhat baffled, to his back.

‘Well. That would be helpful,’ the Doctor nodded instead of Ianto.

‘We know nothing about him.’

‘Nope.’

‘He knows nothing about us. About here and now!’

‘No, he doesn’t.’

‘And you mean it can actually do any good?’

‘I told you. This is how the Machine works.’

Jack and Preston exchanged one more glance, much longer and much more uneasy this time. Then Jack’s expression changed, as if he saw something in Preston that set him at ease.

'Okay', he said, 'here be it. Consider yourself a free agent... under Torchwood's command.'

‘At least I won’t have to be a leader,’ Preston said under his breath and the next moment he felt Jack’s warm hand on his shoulder and met his understanding look. I’ll take care of things. Of you.

‘Just fill this in, please,’ Ianto placed a sheet of paper in front of him, which stated ‘Free Agent – Uncontracted’ in the headline and consisted of some standard questions any form in his world could include.

‘Born in the First year of Father’s age,’ Preston said, looking through the sheet. ‘Thought myself lucky. But that doesn’t make much sense to you, does it?’

‘Can’t tell you yet,’ said the Doctor. ‘This variation of the future is highly unstable, but it actually exists, as far as I can see you here. And you know what? This is amazing!’

Preston sighed. He didn’t think himself in a position to be amazed at all.

‘Anyway, just write ‘approx. beginning of the 22nd century’, suppose it’s close enough…’

Two hours passed.

‘Finished,’ Preston said, hanging the paper back to Ianto who listed through it before giving it to Jack.

‘Two children?’ he asked, as if it was the most important information of all, and Preston was grateful for that. He took a deep sigh.

‘That’s why I’m asking you for one and only one thing – work it out as quickly as it only possible. I’m ready to work and to help wherever needed. I do not doubt my children but in… circumstances given I have any reason to worry.’

‘Is it possible that your fellows look after them for some time?’

‘If only they find them sooner than my former colleagues.’

Jack looked aside, pensive.

'Don't worry about the children,' the Doctor said. 'If everything goes fine, you'll come back to exactly the same point when you left.'

'How can you know? You just said you'd never seen such a device before.'

'Oh, believe me! When it comes to time issues, I'm an expert.'

'You expert hardly agreed to stay here and help with the Manipulator! It was pure luck Ianto accidentally pressed the semi-lockdown button the very moment I succeeded to talk you inside.'

'Well, I must admit Mr. Jones managed to spark my interest...’

'To the cookies with the banana filling?'

'...and anyway, you also told me you rebuilt all that in my honour. I'm not vain – very humble, me – but I have to know what is done with my honour, especially if it's done by Jack Harkness!'

‘I have to ask you to name your personal things, except for clothing,’ Ianto inserted politely as the Doctor and Jack stopped to take a breath. ‘Just for us to check.’

Preston nodded. There were not too many things in his pockets, and they were mostly meaningless. So he decided to start from the essential part.

‘Standard Tetragrammaton sidearms, Beretta 92FS, modified. Best balanced for gun kata,’ he took the guns out. If they checked his pockets while he was in the shower, they didn't give it away.

'Oh. It seems I really won't have to teach you how to shoot gun,’ Jack said. For some reason, he looked disappointed.

‘I can do it quite good, I dare say,’ Preston assured and continued, ‘two extra magazines fastened to forearms.’

‘Forearms? You mean…’

‘In the sleeves.’

‘Wow, you really are a movie material!’

‘There’s nothing fantastic about that. The jacket is designed to keep magazines.’ It was obvious.

‘Okay, will take a look later. If you allow.’

‘Of course,’ he placed both magazines in front of him and Jack took one to study.

‘Anything else?’

‘It is mostly useless.’

‘We will just take a look and maybe study something, if you allow. Not going to take it away from you,’ Ianto said in a careful tone again. Preston sighed and reached into his pocket.

An ID, hi-tech but rather limited in use even in his own world. A box of photos, almost forgotten. A red lace, never forgotten. Car keys. A chocolate bar given by the girls on the Plass. And at the bottom of the pocket…

He smiled, truly, properly and perhaps for the first time here.

‘I think you can keep it. Won’t be needing this anymore, wherever I live.’

And he took out his pneumatic syringe with an empty dose case.

It was taken carefully by Jack and passed to the Doctor, who observed in thoroughly and said, not smiling, but in the most sincere voice:

‘That is so good for you, John Preston. Now I can say, welcome here.’

‘And ‘here’ is..?’ Ianto had already explained it to him, but it was never unreasonable to make sure you're not going positively crazy.

‘21st century, city of Cardiff, Earth,’ Jack pronounced. ‘Now a place for you to work and – oh hell, to live. Ianto, do we have any place for John to live?’

‘I would suggest my place, sir, as far as it’s mostly unoccupied.’

The Doctor raised an eyebrow at Jack. Jack smirked.

‘Okay then, now go home, you two, it looks like I already have a company for tonight.’

‘Hey!’

‘Then I wish you to have the best time, sir,’ Ianto answered, smiling with only the corners of his lips, and headed for the door with an inviting gesture at Preston, encouraging him to follow. 

~ ~ ~

‘Welcome to my place,’ Ianto said, opening the door and turning on the lights.

Two rooms and a kitchen, not much different from what he was used to, except for colors. Along one wall of the living room, there were boxes, neatly piled on top of one another, with colored labels. There were words on the labels, from what Preston discerned – description of content, and two names, separate or together: Ianto and Lisa. It was weird, to have things in boxes in your own flat, but who knows what customs this world has.

But most surprising was that fact that there were a lot of personal belongings lying all around, here and there. Hidden rooms didn’t surprise Preston, he knew they were meant to keep stuff, but he could never imagine that a person, a single person could need so much in a flat where he lived alone. There was a huge plasma screen in the living room, making Preston remember uncomfortably the screens of Libria and the voice of the Father, constant, never-ending, everywhere – but here the screen was black and around it there were a lot of bright boxes, straightened into neat rows on shelves. Some more boxes were piled on a low table in front of the screen, along with cups and plates and newspapers – even newspapers here were full of colors and images! – and some books.

There were more books on the windowsill, and several picture frames on the wall, filled with pictures of people. The biggest one had a ten or so pictures in it. Preston stepped closer to look: he recognized Ianto, smiling or laughing or making faces, and also Jack, his white teeth shining in every picture. There was also a third man, with a tight smile, and two dark-haired women. All of them looked close: they were holding each other, or looking at each other, or doing something with each other… In the lower corner, there was inscription in a careful hand: Happy Birthday, Ianto.

‘Gwen sometimes has the weirdest ideas about birthday presents’, Ianto said uncomfortably. He took his own coat off and reached for the Preston’s to take. But Preston didn’t let him.

‘Thank you, but I can manage myself. I already owe you too much. Please just show me to a place where I can sleep.’

‘Not going to have a dinner, then?’

‘I’ll…’ that simple offer struck him, it has never occurred to him that he could just go to other’s person house and have their meal like it was his own. ‘I’ll probably wait till I have a chance to make myself useful and then ask Captain Harkness for a payment. I won’t need much, just to buy food.’

‘Nonsense,’ Ianto cut off, standing right in front of him and looking him in the eyes. ‘What do you usually have for dinner, then? I don’t have much here but we can always order.’

Preston highly doubted that anybody in this world ate what was included in his Standard Pack.

‘I’d just like a cup of coffee. If it is possible.’ He could go pretty well on liquid alone, at least for a couple of days.

Ianto smiled as if he’d heard all the thoughts racing through Preston’s head, and picked up the phone. 

~ ~ ~

That’s how the true dinner must look. And smell. And taste.

‘That is actually just a takeaway,’ Ianto, now dressed in a t-shirt, was cleaning the table. ‘You’ll have to have a dinner with Gwen sometime. Her husband’s cooking can surprise even Jack,’ he smiled a little, ‘but Jack will never admit it.’

‘Why did he allow me to stay?’

Ianto took two cups and placed one in front of Preston, taking a seat across the table – but still very close.

‘Because the Doctor said so. Did you hear what he was saying?’

‘I did… but it didn’t make much sense to me. At that moment I was… was a bit…’ he couldn’t find words to express how his shattered mind was falling to pieces and most of all he didn’t want Ianto to know that. So he just left it and pressed a white cup to his lips, tasting the familiar drink and feeling how calmness slowly flew through his body.

‘To put it briefly, you’re here because we need you. We don’t know why or what for. But a person never goes though time without a purpose,’ he paused. ‘Last time we had to deal with it, it was hard. It’s probably never easy. So the question is…’

‘…why me?’

It was Ianto’s turn to take a sip from his cup.

‘Almost. How it can help you in turn.'

'I doubt it can.'

'It can. Look at the Doctor going all excited about you. For him, you’re a challenge. A mystery. And he likes mysteries.’

‘So, a challenge. A problem, even.’

‘That doesn’t mean he doesn’t see you as a man. That is just not obvious at first. Many people blame him for his seemingly light nature – one moment he’s here saving the world, next second he's gone leaving them to deal with the consequences. But sooner or later, everybody ends up liking him.’

‘A challenge for me,’ Preston said, deeply concerned. ‘And not just one.’

Ianto kept quiet. Preston looked around, taking in his surroundings once again. He studied this kitchen for almost an hour, and still felt like his mind couldn’t absorb even this small place. Ianto said it was considered very simple by this world’s standards – the word he used was actually Spartan, a historical reference Preston decided to look up in his spare time – but for Librian mind, it was excessive. Like everywhere in this world, it was a mix of textures and colours and things, though the colours were subdued, and things organized. In the dark window, the reflection of this room looked more like Libria, more brownish-grey and obscure. He found himself staring at it, his eyes wandering around, stopping at Ianto's calm face. This man would've fit perfectly to his world, so accurate, intelligent and reserved. For a moment he imagined they both were at Preston's kitchen, and almost felt like dreaming they were partners, having a rest after a busy day, only drinking not sour Librian, but Ianto's proper coffee.

Ianto put his cup down softly. The sound brought Preston back from his trance; he supposed it was the intended effect. He drained his own cup of now-lukewarm drink and rose to rinse it.

‘Will you please now show me to the place I can sleep?’ 

~ ~ ~

He woke suddenly, surprised at first that he was sleeping on a pillow, but quickly recalling the events of the day before. Everything was messy enough already but judging from bright light turned on in the middle of the night and Ianto’s voice and abrupt movements around the flat, it was about to become even more so.

‘You woke? Great. Welcome on probation.’

Preston stood up sharply, searching for his jacket, checking it and discovering that his spare magazines were left somewhere in the Jack’s office.

‘Is it always like this?’ he asked, buttoning the jacket.

‘Torchwood is not exactly nine-to-five. Hey! Gonna need this,’ Ianto threw him an earpiece, which Preston put on immediately.

‘Tap once to speak. The rest on the way. Now go!’

They left the flat almost running, rushing out of the house just in time for the Torchwood car to screech to the curb, and getting inside on the back seat.

Jack was driving and at the passenger’s seat there was the Doctor, saying how totally unused he was to anybody’s other transport. It looked like this talk has started earlier.

‘At least it doesn’t have any brakes to screech,’ Doctor yelled over the sound of engine.

‘As if nothing else screeches there!’

‘Yes, but it is more convenient to drive!’

‘Shall I remind you that it was you who once parked us front door to the concrete?’

‘You know it was because of excessive gravitation level there-‘

‘Later!’ Jack cut off, turning the wheel, and they finally saw a building, blazing like it was on fire – or like somebody was shooting fireworks inside.

‘What’s the deal, Jack?’ Ianto asked.

‘Somebody is using cyber technologies here,’ Jack replied through clenched teeth. Ianto just closed his eyes for a moment and his mouth twitched a little.

‘What’s cyber technology? Here?’

‘Danger!’ the Doctor snapped.

‘Yes, thank you. I already figured it out.’

‘Once people, now modified, kill easily and hard to kill, and oh yes, did I mention emotionless,’ Jack panted out, turning off the main road and now going sideways, in the shadow of the trees.

Preston felt like somebody was making fun of him.

‘It's not a good time for jokes, Captain.’

‘I agree. Just remember, you can’t chatter or reason them, and there is a big fat chance that you can’t shoot them, too.’

Jack spoke about danger, but his words were strangely calming, maybe because there were nothing new in this situation for Cleric Preston. Deal with the problem, put down whoever may interfere and don’t get yourself killed. Preston had no illusions about himself – he was good at all of the above, separately or at the same time. And the position he occupied when he left the country proved that not only was he good – he was exceedingly perfect.

Jack stopped the car a few meters away from the main road, brightly lit with the lamps which surrounded the building. There were still these fireworks inside, and grinding sounds of steel, sharp and loud.

‘It shouldn’t be like this,’ the Doctor muttered under his breath, deeply concerned.

‘It shouldn’t be at all!’ Jack returned. The Doctor paid no attention.

‘Something must’ve gone wrong. Well, gonna check this out!’ he unfastened the seatbelt and before anybody could say a word, was quickly pacing to the front door of the house.

It was a bit different from how Preston always imagined a force operation.

‘Don’t tell me it’s normal.’

‘It’s not. But for him, it works.’

‘Only for him,’ Ianto added. ‘Don’t try to copy any of these tricks at home, kids.’

‘Ok. Do we have a plan?’

‘Check for your arms. We follow.’

The Doctor stopped under the streetlamp, hands in his pockets, taking a look around almost lazily, as if he was just passing by. Jack moved cautiously around, hiding in the deep shadows, behind the scrubs and trees. Ianto and Preston followed suit. Ianto had an unreadable expression fixed on his face.

They didn’t have to wait long. There were steps, heavy and kind of mechanical. A half-dozen of figures appeared from around the corner. They looked vaguely human at a first glance, but there was metal all over their bodies, gleaming in the dim light, and they were definitely armed.

Preston stole a glance at his… teammates, probably. Ianto was very, very still, his hand clenching a gun, and there was a light sheen of sweat on his brow. Jack, farther away, closer to the Doctor, was also motionless, but didn’t look so tense, more like ready to jump any minute.

The guards, or whoever they were, went straight to the Doctor, aiming their guns at him.

‘Hallo there’, he beamed, rolling from tip to toe on his feet.

‘Intruder’, said mechanic voice. ‘You shall not pass’. 

‘Oh, but I will!’ the Doctor said cheerfully and raised his hands. ‘As a detainee. I surrender. Take me to your leader’.

The guards moved into the light. They looked like the weirdest thing Preston ever saw. They were human, mostly – but with metallic armor over their bodies, which looked like it was made from some bits and pieces into a complicated net of shields and drives. There were also helmets on their heads, with handle-like extensions on top. They were naked under all this metal, and looking closer, Preston understood that it wasn’t an exoskeleton – it was built into their bodies. Not so long ago, because there was still blood on flesh and metal.

'They look injured,' Preston whispered.

'Try 'upgraded',' Jack hissed back.

'Upgraded, this?'

'He must've been using the metal he could find around here, and earthly materials are hardly suitable for cyber-conversion. They vary, they shatter and they're in pain,' Ianto's sigh sounded almost like a sob. 'Probably cannot electrocute, that's why they’re armed.'

As soon as the Doctor and his guards were far enough, Jack signaled to follow. They turned around the corner just in time to see the procession going into the door. It closed with an audible ‘click’ of locks, but Ianto was beside it in a second, pressing some odd-shaped device to it. The lock clicked open.

Inside, the building was huge, and filled with mechanical screeching… and screams. There were human screams among all that noise, Preston was sure of it. They almost deafened him, echoing from the walls. He tasted copper on his tongue.

They stood near the beginning of a long straight hallway. The guards were leading the Doctor away right in front of them. But Jack didn’t go after them; instead, he moved to the side, checking the intersecting hallway for the cameras and doors.

'Maybe we're getting away with it, after all,' Ianto said, watching Jack. 'It was obvious that something like this would happen, though.'

'Why?'

'The monsters and the Doctor. One is always followed by another. He can handle anything and leave unharmed. It's only those following him who get harmed.'

'So why are we following him?' Preston started but cut off, as  hardly visible Jack standing by the next corner signaled at them.

'OK, go at the count of three,' Ianto ordered, but they hardly managed to move. The sound of a fire round ripped the air, right from the place where Jack was standing. Several vaguely gleaming figures were seen behind him, at the far end of the hallway.

Jack didn’t scream. He just stopped for a second, his eyes turning into glass. Then he coughed up a splatter of blood and fell face first.

Preston's body moved on it's own accord to the closest cover, the images streaming through his mind: Mary in the fire, Partrige in the church, Viviana looking at him for the last time… nameless offender in his arms, painting his fingers red.

Jack, face down on the cement floor, blood coming out from his open mouth.

He dared to look out: figures moved in the semi-darkness of the hallway, movements strangely similar – not even trained soldiers of Libria could move so simultaneously. Metal gleamed on their bodies, and on the guns in their hands.

‘Preston’, Ianto hissed from the opposite side of the hallway. ‘Cover me’.

Not waiting for his reaction, he ducked forward, to Jack.

Preston knew it was stupid, reckless – they could always take away the body later, if they survived. But there was something inherently wrong in the sight of Jack lying there on the floor, on the way of the metallic army marching closer and closer.

He didn’t have the time to think about it, actually – he felt it, all at once, in the split second when he jumped from his cover to the opposite side of the hallway, emptying his magazines into oncoming Cybermen, giving Ianto time to drag Jack behind the corner.

The closest Cyberman fell, with metallic crash and clatter. The others didn't even stop for a second. They were far enough, but coming closer and closer every second, step after heavy ominous step. Their bullets whistled around Preston.

They crouched in the cover, Preston near the corner, Ianto beside him, holding Jack in his hands. He looked eerily calm. With impeccably white handkerchief, he wiped away blood from Jack’s face and gently closed his eyes, but never let him go.

As far as Preston managed to figure out, Ianto wasn’t the man to behave illogically emotional while on duty, very much like himself. Maybe that was why it was Ianto whose presence made him so calm and self-confident even here. So Ianto’s behaviour had to make sense, it simply had. His eyes were still on Jack’s lifeless face, lips moved slightly as if in attempt to say something he didn’t want to be said aloud. Ianto waited, and Preston waited too.

Suddenly, Jack gasped and reached forward in a wide uncontrolled gesture. Ianto held him tight, caught his mad gaze and murmured softly, ‘I’ve got you. It’s okay, I’ve got you’.

Seeing him, Jack calmed down visibly, and with a couple of deep breaths, he became himself, more or less. He squeezed Ianto’s shoulder and received a tight smile, then disentangled himself.

‘What was going on while I was out?’ he asked conversationally.

‘I guessed there must be some point. But this was… unexpected,’ Preston managed between the gulps of air as Ianto helped Jack to his feet.

‘Long story, some other time,’ Jack coughed. He didn’t seem well, even if obviously much better than a moment ago.

‘How can I be sure it is still you and not some hostile technology?’ Preston said, squeezing his gun and ready to fire at the slightest sign of danger. Jack and Ianto exchanged a bit embarrassed looks.

‘He has the point,’ Ianto said after a second and then added, addressing to Preston, ‘you have my word.'

Preston decided that it was better than nothing.

They made it down the intersecting corridor, temporarily not able to fight back. Ianto was still holding Jack, who moved heavily but straightened with every step.

'Too many, Jack,' Ianto said. 'Need to find another way round. Why did you have to go straight ahead at the first place?'

‘If many,’ Jack said impatiently, ‘say how many exactly. Ten? Fifteen?’

‘No less than thirty.’

Jack let out a deep sigh and closed his eyes for a moment as if accepting what was about to come.

‘Okay, I go at them and you two go for the exit.’

Preston wasn’t sure he understood the plan. Ianto got it in a second.

‘No, Jack’, he said forcibly, ‘no!’

‘Listen to me’, Jack took him by shoulders. ‘I can take it. I will come out of here, and hopefully bring the Doctor with me. You go outside. Wait.’ He nervously glanced over Ianto’s shoulder to where the steps sounded very close. His voice became desperate. ‘Run, you two, goddamn it!’

Ianto was breathing heavily, but Preston didn’t move. He didn’t turn his head or let out a single sound either. The time was right, he couldn't keep putting it off anymore.

'It's only thirty,' he remarked absent-mindedly.

'Only thirty!' Jack's voice pitched. But Preston wasn't listening.

‘I’ll need your guns.’ 

‘No way. That’s me who’s in command here,’ Jack choked. ‘Sorry.’

‘A pair of guns. I’ll need them,’ he repeated, whether Jack wanted to listen or not. It only mattered if Ianto did. ‘Mine are half empty; they’ll go as a backup. See?’ He made sure both Ianto and Jack saw how his sidearms were drawn inside the sleeves and clicked to their place. ‘I need a basic option now.’

Ianto nodded and quickly reloaded his gun, then reached inside the jacket and took out another one.

‘Unused,’ he said. ‘It’s actually a backup for one man whose antique can fall to pieces any minute. Well, it was, until now.’

Preston weighed both guns in his hands. They were Torchwood standard, not designed as a pair, but at least similar; fully loaded. Slightly heavier than his own and, according to Ianto, only twelve rounds each. Twelve. While his own sidearms could carry fifteen.

New. Not got used to. Not a problem, he thought, not after the Hall of Mirrors – and smiled, not wide, but as a man who was sure of what he was about to do. And the next moment he was serious and reserved again.

‘Please,’ he said, leveling his breath, ‘don’t you ever tell the Doctor about it.’

And he got up, walked to the main hall and stood tall, like thousand times before.

Lowering the guns, lowering the gaze, feeling how the air moved round him – ready to do the first thing he could do best.

The Cybermen were there in a second, and it was that single second the first of them were to live.

Front-45-sides. Get back-plunge down-change stand-more fire-ten down. Spin front-two guns-in turn-six more.

One comes close; spin two guns-in his palms-in a block-tear his head-handle wide apart. With the half of his head.

Arms ahead-guns in hands-spin two times-fire four times-just nine left.

Move side-get one-feel air-get two-one blink-two down.

One turns, one bleeds, four risk, all dead.

All thirty – within seconds – fall dead.

He froze. He could hear Ianto’s gasp and feel Jack’s shock. He turned slowly, looking at them, coming back to reality, then bent down and took Ianto’s guns from where he dropped them when they became useless.

‘Think-two-rounds-left-in-each-of-mine,’ he said with almost undisturbed breath but feeling tired, tired like never before. Jack glowered at him.

‘We should learn this.’

‘Jack,’ he said, his voice sinking, not even noticing he’s just called the Captain by name.

‘We must learn this. To live,’ Jack repeated and headed to the end of the hallway.

Preston felt like the floor was crashing under his feet at every step and was grateful that Ianto waited for him. 

They were too much in a hurry to look around, but overstepping the fallen Cyberman, Preston couldn't help but notice the way their bodies were warped to fit the metallic exoskeleton. It looked surreal, chrome and steel protruding from flesh, thick wires braiding over skin... One's head casing cracked open, and there was brain visible inside, untouched by the shot, but covered with wires and microchips.

They opened the door in the end of the hallway, the door the Doctor was taken to, slipped inside quietly and were hit by the wall of hot air filled with the smell of scorching metal and burning flesh. The source of the sounds was here, too – the screeching of saws, the whirling of drives, and screams. Gut-wrenching screams.

The room was big like a hangar, and along the walls, there were some units, looking high-tech if not for the fact that they were made from mismatched scraps. There was something like an eerie mechanical spider hanging over each of them, every leg ending with a knife, or saw, or drill, whirling and buzzing and cutting into people – people tied to the units and screaming their lungs out.

In the middle of the room, surrounded by armed Cyberman troops, was the Doctor. He was talking animatedly to the man in a chair, and his voice sounded surprisingly clear in the noise.

'Oh, Lumic, you're a clever man. I'd call you a genius, except I'm here.' He tapped his finger on a chin, thoughtful for a second. 'It feels like deja vu. Though I'm really a genius, and not shy to admit it. Anyway! You are so clever. You invented all this'. Making a wide gesture, the Doctor bounced up and down in a way absolutely unfitting for the setting. 'How do you miss the last bit of knowledge making your invention redundant?'

'What is it Doctor.' The voice of the man in the chair echoed over the room, devoid of any intonation, any shade of emotion. Measured as a metronome.

While he was talking, Ianto edged to the sidewall, behind the closest unit. By Jack's silent signal, Preston took cover, arms ready.

'Humans!' The Doctor exclaimed in glee, and the next moment, all the units went dead.

The silence would have been as deafening as the noise was, if not for the screams of people still on the units. Nobody could switch them off, as Ianto did with the machines.

'It's over, Lumic', the Doctor said quietly, with deep sadness in his eyes. 'You can't fight humans.'

'I can,' Lumic said, and his cybertroops trained arms on where Preston and others were hiding behind the unit and slowly moved forward, every step as even as Lumic's voice.

'What for?' the Doctor asked, never looking their way, circling Lumic's chair.

'You care Doctor. You can know grief. Rage. Pain. Does it hurt.'

'Oh yes,' the Doctor breathed.

'Then I will hurt you.'

'No, you won't.'

The Doctor was standing behind Lumic's chair, holding one of the wires strained tight.

'Stop it,' he said gently, 'Stop it, Lumic, and we'll help you. I'll help you.'

'Or you'll kill me,' Lumic said, and the Doctor pursed his lips. Jack moved in his cover, scowling, his entire body tensed. 'But you can't'.

'Why not?'

'Because all the people you see around die with me'.

The Doctor froze, and slowly looked around, not at the Cybermen ready to shoot, but at people still in units. They were cut up, body parts missing, insides torn out, but they were still screaming and moaning and squirming in their restrains.

'The cyberblock is inserted first', Lumic said. 'They are all switched on to my brain. I die. They die.'

The Doctor faltered.

'Stop it', he asked. 'Lumic, please stop this madness.'

'I won't. Will you.'

'I will,' Ianto said emerging from between the units. He was fast, faster than anyone expected, or maybe surprise glued everyone to place. In a blink, Ianto was near the chair, grabbed the wire the Doctor was still holding, and ripped it out.

Lumic screamed, but the sound came to a halt as he jerked in scattering of sparks and went still. The screams ended only a half-second later. The guards suddenly went lax, like puppets on cut strings, and fell down in a clutter of metal and guns.

Now, the silence was not deafening but dead.

In the silence, Ianto was panting hard, looking at the Doctor with a fierce challenge in his eyes. Then he bent over and was violently sick.

They walked among the corpses. Once, Ianto stopped dead in his tracks, looking down at one body, with dark skin in between of metal panels, and moved on only after Jack brushed his back with his hand.

The Doctor stopped several times, tsking at some bodies and looking generally sad, but in the very beginning, when he opened his mouth, Jack said firmly:

‘Don’t you dare say a word, Doctor. Not now’.

Oddly, the Doctor shut up.

‘I have to do the clean-up’, Ianto said when they reached the door. ‘Count the bodies, get them back to the Hub… I will need a lorry, I think. It’s Sunday, they will charge more… I suppose I can call Rhys, if Gwen is okay with him participating – I’ll need the car, not the driver, I can drive myself. And load them myself. Actually, we should buy a lorry for Torchwood. Will it be too much to have a lorry with Torchwood logo on the side? People already know that Torchwood is something at the Bay…’

‘Ianto’, Jack said softly, and Ianto stopped his monotone monologue. Jack steered him out of the door by the shoulders, and never let him go all the way to the SUV.  

Jack drove them back to the Hub, cutting corners and breaking every limit possible. The Doctor was chatting all the way, commenting on Jack’s driving skills, on views of Cardiff, on the weather, and not caring that nobody answered. Ianto was eerily quite in his passenger’s seat. His hand was clenched into tight fist, and Preston couldn’t help noticing it.

He waited for an appropriate pause in the Doctor’s monologue and then asked him in a low voice (as low as the sound of engine would allow):

‘Can you explain me something?’

The Doctor looked at him intently and then settled back on the backseat.

‘What is it?’

‘I suppose I missed the briefing. What was that we had to deal with?’

‘Trouble,’ the Doctor said, but Preston didn’t buy it. ‘Well, there was that man, John Lumic. Used to work for the Torchwood headquarters in London – now that was a weird place, if you ask me. A huge territory, times and times larger than you’ve seen today, all destroyed.’

‘How?’

‘Their own fault. They made Cybermen come from the other world.’

‘Like me?’

‘Well, technically…’ the Doctor started eagerly, but cut off at the look at Preston’s face. ‘…yes, in general, you can say so.’

‘And?’

‘Lumic was converted, partially, along with some of the others. He escaped, don’t know how. Started to build conversion units, tried to convince me he wanted to be healed. Oh yes, the problem was, he understood ‘healed’ not the way I did, you could see the result. ‘Healed’ himself, almost ‘healed’ his men and headed off for the rest of the world. The thing is, he was human, at least partly. That's why he came so far.' The Doctor looked right at Preston. 'He had human passion, human imagination, human cunning – and single-mindedness of a Cyberman.' He sighed. 'What a waste of a brilliant mind.'

In the back mirror, Preston could see that Jack's lips were pursed, Ianto's face greenish-pale and glistening with sweat. Thankfully, they were coming close to the Bay Area. Jack put the car to a halt in front of the waterpillar.

'Roald Dahl Plass. Out', he commanded. ‘Ianto, wait in the car.’

Fresh air, cold and salty, was a bliss. Preston rose his face to the dark cloudy sky, taking in the Plass, empty in the night, carefully chosen lights transforming it into a piece of art.

There was a blue box in front of the pillar, with the sign on what looked like a door, saying that it was 'Police Telephone Box'. Jack looked at it with strange sadness, then turned to the Doctor and took a defensive stance, legs set apart, shoulders spread wide.

‘Spill’, he said with a challenge in his voice.

The Doctor looked at him, and at Preston, and run his hands through his hair.

‘Will it make any good?’ he asked sadly.

‘Don’t think so’, Jack answered.

‘Then I better go’. The Doctor looked at Jack with a deep sorrow in his eyes.

‘If you should’, Jack responded evenly. The Doctor looked around, sighed and suddenly grinned from ear to ear.

‘C’me on, Captain! I’m not that passive-aggressive, you know,’ he exclaimed, clapping Jack on the shoulder. ‘The TARDIS is full to the rim, I have to go now’.

Jack smiled, but there were tense lines around his eyes. The Doctor ignored them.

‘Goodbye, John Preston’, he waved to Preston. To Jack, he cast, 'See you around’, turned on his heels and went straight to the box.

In a short second while the door of the box was open, Preston caught a glimpse of lights inside, green and yellow and golden, looking like they were further away that the size of the box suggested. Then the door closed, and a lamp on top lit into life. There was a weird sound, the whirling of engines, the rush of air, with a supernatural feel in it – and then the box blinked out, like it never was there.

Preston stared at the place it occupied just a second ago. Jack didn't waste the time. He called Ianto out from the car, and threw the keys to Preston.

'Take it to the garage. It's programmed in the navigator. When there, call me, I'll tell you how to get to the Hub'.

Ianto nodded to Preston on his way to the pillar. He looked like he was deep in trance. Jack caught up with him, and together, they stepped on the place where the box was before. Suddenly it was hard to look at them; Preston blinked, and they disappeared entirely. 

~ ~ ~

Right-handed car and left driving were strange, but not that complicated. He reached the garage without any trouble and got inside through a variety of automatic locks and detectors. Stopping the engine, he tapped the earpiece and tried:

‘Captain?’

‘Yep,’ Jack sounded tired, almost as much as Preston felt. ‘The door on your left, follow the main corridor, won’t get lost. It leads to the Hub’s first sub-level, you’ll see the steps up when you’re there. See you.’

When Preston reached the Hub, Jack and Ianto were both on the sofa in the coffee area, sitting very close, Jack's coat thrown carelessly over the sofa's arm. Ianto was still looking absent, but he nodded to whatever Jack was murmuring to his ear. His hands were tightly wrapped around a cup of coffee.

Preston stopped, not wanting to interrupt them. But Ianto raised his gaze and smiled at him, a weak version of a polite smile that didn't reach his eyes.

'Ianto. To my office', Jack ordered. Ianto got up and slowly moved to the office, taking the cup and the coat with him.

Jack made a deep sigh and closed his eyes for a moment. Then he turned to Preston.

‘You okay?’

'Not the first time. Not the last, probably. I'll just need... practice,' and before he could think of anything else to add, he fell at the sofa, almost uncontrollably. Hoping very much it looked casual and relaxed.

He heard Jack walking around, opening drawers, clinking with glass. Then he sat down heavily beside Preston and put a warm hand around his shoulders. A glass was pressed into Preston's hands, half-full of golden liquid.

'Drink', Jack ordered in pretty much the same manner he ordered Ianto to go to his office a couple of minutes ago.

'Alcohol,' Preston stated in a plain voice. He could smell it, he had before.

It felt to him like Jack's arm, and his presence, and the cool glass in his hand were the only things to keep him on the edge of consciousness.

'Yes. Whisky. Red Label, total shit, Owen always knew shit about spirits, but it doesn't matter now'. Jack's words were a tiny bit slurred, of tiredness, possibly, and his voice hitched at the name. 'It will help you relax. A drink, a few hours of sleep. Or do you want to talk?' He stroked Preston's shoulder in encouragement.

'Can't choose the question to ask first,' he let out a painful grin. 'Hope it helps.'

He made a gulp, at first feeling an urge to cough out the fire running down his throat and closing his eyes for a moment, recalling the vivid images of tonight – the Doctor, pacing round the Lumic's chair, Jack, holding Ianto on their way back to the SUV, Ianto, holding Jack, waiting for him to come back from the dead, Jack – dead...

'Am I doomed to kill wherever I end up?' he asked, not sure if he was addressing to Jack or to himself. 'That's why I'm here now, right?'

Jack chuckled without any fun in it and leaned back, staring at the ceiling.

'Are you doomed to kill?' he paused. 'There is a chance that you are'.

'Not encouraging,' he swallowed again. It was easier this time. 'What questions am I allowed to ask you, anyway?'

'You can ask whatever you want; I'm not obliged to answer'. Jack's fingers rubbed on his shoulder in circles. 'As for encouragement... if you need it, I can say that you don't have to kill. It may even be true. You can, for example, go live somewhere far away from guns and bad guys, and then, you have a chance not to kill anymore. But if you stay here... well, duh. And from what I heard about your Libria, it's not the most peaceful time and place in the Universe, either'.

'Not my choice where to be born. Or whom to become,' he stared at the glass, suddenly empty. 'I keep thinking that if I ever come back, there will be enough trouble for me there even without killing. And I don't know how to sort it out.'

So, he let that slip, finally. Like whatever.

'You offer me a choice and I thank you for that. But I can see no misinterpretation of the words 'needed here'. I know what duty is,' he fell silent for a moment thinking he had nothing to lose. 'So I just wish you could help me. And I will do whatever required.'

Jack was silent for a minute.

'You are a good man, John Preston', he said eventually, his tone warm and sad. 'And surely not a coward. When you come back, you'll sort it out. As for now...' He suddenly hugged Preston, drawing him into firm one-handed embrace. 'I'll take care of you'.

His eyes had a distant look at them, as if it wasn't just Preston he was talking about.

Then he grinned.

'Anyway, you are a perfect recruit for Torchwood: skillful, clever and a pleasure to look at'. He winked at Preston.

It was like tearing the paper away from the window, or stroking the puppy's fur – immensely emotional and at the same time calming, and just the right thing. Jack did confuse him, though, but he thought that as soon as he'll get used to the world around, he will accept Jack's weird manner, just along with anything else normal here.

'Okay, I think I have a question,' he threw a look at him. 'Does it help? Coming back in his arms, does it?'

Jack looked stunned by this question. For a second, his eyes sparkled, and he glanced at his office; then the usual friendly expression was back.

'Like nothing else in the universe', he said softly.

'So stop wasting your time on me and go,' Preston said, pushing the glass back in Jack's hands.

Holding an empty glass, Jack looked at him, raised an eyebrow, and then smiled, a real, wide and sincere smile.

'Take your rest', he said, getting up. 'This sofa is quite comfortable, and if you need something...' he glanced at the office again, 'deal with it'.

He disappeared in the office, leaving Preston on the sofa with a well-worn quilt.

Not exactly nine-to-five, he recalled, making himself comfortable, relaxed after the drink and in the warmth of the quilt. It seemed like you never knew when the alarm will go off next time. But until then, he was going to have a proper sleep.

In the not-quite-silence of the Hub, full of electronic beeps, and murmur of water, and rustle of draughts, he heard something like a heartbreaking sobbing, and a soft soothing voice. Or maybe it was already a dream.