Like sexuality, boarding school rules and paperclips, time can be bent. Since you're talking to me, I'm pretty sure you know that already. It can be twisted, folded back on itself, sliced apart and sewn together. For being intangible, it's one of the most readily manipulated substances in the universe. Right up there with water and a Traxxian after a few cocktails.
Kidding, kidding. The cocktails are optional.
Most of the twenty-first century world we live in has a different attitude about time. There's as many takes on it as there are species on Earth: spirals, rays, wheels, highways, rivers, and that's just the metaphysical - the 'religious' opinions, if you will. That's not even touching on theories of parallel realities caused by choices that fragment-- heh, you get the idea. But just about everyone agrees on one key principle: you can't go back. You can write about it, make movies, sing songs, and daydream, but you can't actually go.
They're wrong, of course. With enough power and the right technology, you can go anywhere (and anywhen) you want. My opinion on whether or not that's a good thing changes by the day. Then again, I only know a handful of the Doctor's stories and I already know that if time was strictly linear, the universe would have been dead a long, long time ago. So I guess, looking at it that way, it's a good thing after all.
Doesn't change the fact that it's an unstable, complicated pain in the ass. Time does what it wants, breaks its own rules, and no matter how important you think you are, it will keep right on ticking away without you.
No wonder I love it. It's the most functional, honest relationship I've ever had.
The reason I bring up time is because this story is about it. This story is because of it. There are reasons why we have rules for time travel, and there are reasons why we break those rules. When you break a rule, there's always fallout. Sometimes if you're lucky, you have the chance to fix it instead of only suffering through.
Sometimes, if you're very lucky, you actually succeed.
But that's sort of getting ahead of myself.
Fair warning, I do that a lot.
If I'm telling this story chronologically, we'd start back in 2007, when - without realizing it - I met my first angel of the Lord. But time's a messy thing the minute the Doctor is involved (and when Captain Jack Harkness is involved, things get messy, period). So we'll start when it all actually kicked off, which was a gorgeous Friday afternoon in April.
If we're talking about me here (Which we are. Aren't you excited? I know I am.), this happened before I met the Doctor. Although at that point in Earth's timeline I'd managed to take over Torchwood, rebuild it in his image, and then disband it. Or maybe I hadn't yet, because the April he took Rose to see the Prince, they were still getting to know one another. It'd be a while before they showed up in the middle of war-torn London to botch a perfectly good con (enter yours truly).
See what I mean? Time gets messy. Dates are sort of irrelevant at this point, and you'd only get confused.
How do I know all this?
Let's just say information tends to fall into my lap.
So. Back to Prince William Arthur Philip Louis. He was getting married. All right looking guy; too British for my taste. The Doctor has soft spots for people, occasionally, which is how the creatures I'd come to know as the Leviathan ended up such a threat in the first place. Bad thing, when the Doctor gets a soft spot.
Oh. Not for Prince William.
Though I'm pretty sure he's got a thing for blondes.
April 29, 2011 - London
Rose hadn't known the Doctor very long. They'd had a few adventures together, but the whole thing seemed a bit of a lark yet. He liked her, she was rather sure of that, and she certainly had more fun with him than she'd had in her previous nineteen years of living. The daring leather jacket, the air of mystery, the whole flying-through-space bit… maybe she was still waiting to wake up.
She mentioned Prince William, and he took her to see the man's wedding. As in, didn't only take her to the procession, but actually into Westminster Abbey, free and clear. Previously, the closest she'd ever gotten to a royal wedding were the broadcasts on telly and of course, the regular tabloid confessionals in the papers. A girl could get used to this. Not the royal treatment and all from the Doctor - his idea of fun was running through the muck like mad on some exploding planet or other - but the experiencing things. The feeling of being behind the big curtain. Of being special; really living all the bits she expected to only glimpse. A girl grows up like she did, takes the bus like everyone else, who'd have felt special? Exactly.
Flushed and excited from sneaking into the ceremony, Rose noticed something strange going on around the TARDIS when she exited the building. The Doctor had been gone a while before, but that was nothing new. She was used to looking round to find him gone. That was, well, sort of what the Doctor… did. It was her job to catch up, and the sooner she learned to run faster, the better.
There were people about; ones Rose knew instinctively were wrong. The Doctor was having a discussion with two men and a woman near the stand of bushes where they'd left the TARDIS. That alone was unusual. His exchanges with people were usually pretty brief, except her - well, except people who were important or dangerous. Rose figured it was some sort of security protocol.
Then one of them made a lunge for him.
Rose watched with a stab of icy shock as he leapt away, the woman's hands passing an inch from his jacket. He pivoted, saw Rose rooted to the spot, and galloped away into the dark without a word. All three people gave chase, splintering as they entered the shadows of the trees.
Rose knew what happened to girls who ran after the hero, shouting his name like a tit. They got snatched and used for leverage. She wasn't about to be anybody's hostage. So she let herself into the TARDIS, and she waited. The Doctor arrived fifteen minutes later, grim as a grave in November.
"Those things aren't supposed to be on the loose," the Doctor said, displeasure tugging his mouth into one wide, feral grimace after another, "they were put where they were put for a reason, and now they're free, and I don't know why."
"What kind of things are they?" Rose asked, naturally.
"They've got a lot of names," the Doctor replied, "ancient Earth mythology calls them 'Leviathan.' He moved to the controls of the TARDIS, pushing buttons and examining screens with a perpetual frown. "On other worlds, they're 'the Hungry.' They're older than me, almost as old as time. Adaptable, intelligent, dangerous... eat anything with a heartbeat. They were locked away in an empty, dead reality because they eat whole worlds. Eventually, they'll make a break for it, but by then the Earth is a charred cinder and this little universe will be strong enough to fight them. Right now, here? Those things will eat every man, woman, child, and pet doggy until there's nothing left."
Around Rose, the vaulted room began to pulse and hum. "How do we stop them?"
"Can't." The single syllable was flat. "Nothing in the universe can stop them. It's still too far behind."
Again that little shock of chill fear, and the whole traveling-with-the-Doctor became a bit less of a lark. Rose's eyes narrowed. "So what are we supposed to do then?" She needled, "Run?"
The Doctor looked up, a lot less the dashing anarchist and a lot more the sociopathic serial killer. Or the hero. Sometimes it was hard to tell them apart. A hard knot twisted in Rose's stomach.
"We find out who set them loose and we stop it from ever happening," the Doctor said.
Then he smiled. The knot loosened a fraction.
"We'll think of something, won't we? Come on."
I'll never know how all this would have played out without intervention. The Doctor, Castiel, me - we'd all had a hand in it by then, whether we knew it or not. Maybe it was supposed to be fiddled with. Maybe time's like a half-finished song that way. It just waits around for someone to tweak the harmony just right, until the whole thing's so beautiful it breaks your heart.
Time's one of the few things I can get poetic about. Just about everything else is sharp and cold and predictable. Even life gets that way after a few hundred years. But time - it's so beautifully unstable. It's supposed to be, and that's my favorite thing about it. Maybe I could go back and change my own fate. But what kinds of repercussions would that have? Would it be better or worse?
I'm jumping ahead again. Hey, I warned you.
I haven't had the chance yet to ask the Doctor about those orders left for Torchwood. I don't think he left all of them then, because then, he hadn't met me. But you know that story already. Somehow or other, there were a handful of time-sealed orders left for Torchwood, this one among them. And when the box popped open there was an envelope for Tosh and a typewritten message for the rest of us:
The curious bit came afterward, underneath, hand-written in pen:
5:55AM, 20 December, 2007
Collect item for storage.
Release Date: 11 December, 2012.
It was my handwriting. Although I doubt anybody but Ianto might have noticed that. I'm not the note-leaving kind.
Under no circumstances are you to allow it to wake prior to the release date. No flirting.
So that's where we were. Ianto might have told you how it was wet and freezing and dark already because that was the longest night of the year. Pretty sure Gwen was upset that we were following another arcane directive out of a box and - as usual - I'd told her nothing. Owen was adorably insubordinate under his breath as always. And Tosh had her head buried in her Rift monitor - she probably would have given statistics and completely missed the forest for the trees.
Huh. I never thought about it like this, but all together, they sort of made up a complete picture. Even Owen. Life just isn't right without a measured amount of sarcasm.
But this was me. And by then, it would take a lot more than a winter downpour and a wild goose chase to kill my buzz. I like wild goose chases. I like not knowing. I didn't mind the trudge up the hillside to Carreg Cennan, because whatever was going to be in that castle ruin in a few minutes was a great big fantastic surprise. I remember that I was in a great mood, partly because the Rift energy pulsing over the castle was amazing, and partly just because my good mood annoyed everyone else.
Plus, Ianto brought enough hot coffee for an army. Really, that's all I need to get through a cold night watch.
The soft hum of Tosh's Rift activity reports slipped into the background. I only needed the update for verification, anyway. When you've spent as much time around the Rift as I have, you start to get a feel for it. The Rift thinking about doing something feels tight and full, like something pushing out of a space it's too small to fit in. When Tosh's voice rose a key, and the world started to go all staticky and bright, I already knew it was coming. The rain seemed to slow down, and the castle atrium went blue-white.
They all stayed with me, crouched, Gwen and Ianto's guns raised more for the security of pointing a weapon at something than any real imminent threat. I wasn't worried. Whatever the Rift was about to wash up on our little shore, I could deal with it.
Then space and time opened, and the Rift spat him out. The world brightened more, and then more, and then it literally charred my retinas.
The others had thankfully the good sense - or the instinctive pain response - to look away, but that wasn't me. Not in a long time, anyway. Theirs would have been a permanent blindness, but mine was just blackness and pain for a minute or two. Long enough for Ianto to realize something had happened to me, and put a wet hand on the back of my head. Gwen said what everyone was probably thinking by then, having gotten over their excitement.
"Jack? Are you all right?"
"Fine," I said and clamped my hand over what was left of my eyes, "Bright, wasn't it? Must have left my sunglasses in the SUV."
I fancied a little smoke must have curled past my fingers, because she was on me too, after that. She touched my cheek.
"No you're not. What's happened? Let me see. Owen!"
"I'm fine, Gwen. Everyone else all right?"
"Good," Ianto said, "and it's not up yet, Jack. ...He. He's not up yet."
I kept my eyes covered and refused to let him look until I had eyelids to blink again. All right, I'm exaggerating, it hadn't burned off my eyelids, but it sure felt like it had. Oh, it hurt. But some things just weren't worth upsetting Ianto. He was using that calm, soothing, cop-to-a-murder-witness voice that meant I'd managed to traumatize him anyway and he was trying not to show me.
He deserved a kiss on the forehead for that, and he got one, and then it was on to other things. Things that roasted eyeballs.
We circled the flotsam the Rift had tossed us, everyone wary. The body of a man lay cradled in the litter of leaves on the sunken paving stones. The oddest thing about him was how neatly pressed he was, as if he'd been floating around the Rift in shrink-wrap until it spat him out. Ordinary kind of guy. Had a five o'clock shadow, a kind of careworn face and didn't get much sleep, judging from the eyes. He was dressed like an accountant, or a salesman, in a gray suit, white shirt and blue tie - none of it tailored. Over it all was your average, garden variety trench coat which - while it looked clean at first looks, was peppered with dark brown spots; black at the collar and cuffs. Too big for him. Fanned out like wings at the bottom, all perfectly, oddly smooth. Like he'd been laid out there, put there, rather than dumped.
Most people tumbled out of the Rift looking dumped.
He was thin. The clothes couldn't hide that. If anything, they made it more obvious. Thin and - though he couldn't have been much shorter than me - somehow small. Fragile.
Definitely not dressed to impress, or intimidate.
I glanced up at Ianto, and grinned at the look of horrified pity he quickly smoothed away. Privately, I agreed with him - nice package, poor wrapping. Too bad we couldn't keep him out of deep freeze long enough for Ianto to give him a polish.
I would have liked to watch that.
The rain eased off to a fine, cold mist. I remember that now, because we were lucky. So lucky it could make me sweat now if I thought about it too hard. That rain could have waterboarded him awake, and that would have been that. Owen and Tosh were at their scanners now that the immediate danger had passed, Gwen still loosely gripping her handgun. I tried not to rub my eyes and observed, waiting for an update.
"Well, it's sort of human, I'll give it that," Owen reported. He picked up one wrist and pushed the coat sleeve back to try for a pulse. "Heart beats, lungs pump, normal everything. But there's something in there, Jack. It's like a nuclear reactor wrapped up in a human body. Without the crazy power signature, you wouldn't even guess. I need samples to know more."
"You know what he is?" I swept Tosh and Owen both with the question. They gazed back at me blankly, then shook their heads.
"Come on," I said, turning, maybe a little disappointed that it all turned out so - well - quiet, "sedate him and let's get him back to the Hub. You can poke him all you want after that."
"That's... going to be a bit rough, Jack," Owen replied, voice gone soft. The cautious tone set off alarm bells, and I turned back, half expecting to see the stranger crouched to pounce Owen like a cat. But no, he was still flat on his back, spread-eagled and unconscious, and Owen was looking at the pen he used to administer anesthetic like he'd never seen it before. Then he looked up at me. "He's been sedated. It's not working."
"So use something stronger," I insisted, returning to the team.
"It doesn't get any stronger," Owen retorted, "you think I'd take chances with something that's not supposed to wake up? That body's human. It should be reacting, unless something's interfering with it."
I don't get impatient. There's no good reason to be. But the conversation was getting us nowhere, and without sedation, our window of opportunity got smaller with every second. I scooped up the body and started down the hill with it. It was lighter than I thought. "So we freeze him before he wakes up!" I called back.
I let Ianto drive and stayed in the back with the cargo. If it was as big and bad as the instructions and Owen hinted it was, I'd be the one to tangle with it. We folded the computers out of the way and propped him on the back bench seat. Sure, we had procedures and apparatus for securing humanoid aliens in the back of the SUV, but worrying about buckles and straps would be a waste of time. We all watched the body like a bomb you can't disarm; all except for Ianto, who - busy piloting the SUV like a fighter jet - kept his eyes on the road. Gwen looked torn. Her conscience was bothering her, and so was her curiosity. She might not have liked sprinting off into the wilderness without a plan, but I could tell she liked shoving the poor guy in a freezer without asking his name even less.
Once again, we got lucky. According to Owen, the guy wasn't playing opossum: he was still out when we hauled him into the Hub. I kept the team in the lab with Owen as he prepared the body for cold storage, and like Gwen, I caught myself wondering about him. What was his name? Where was he from? Why was he so important that we'd been given instructions on what to do with him and when?
I wanted to talk to him before we pushed that drawer in, downstairs in the morgue. But when you get orders like that, you don't bend the rules. You do, and they tend to bend you.
Five years seemed a long time to wait until I got my questions answered. Anything could happen between then and now. But at least I did know one thing for sure: I'd be around to get them answered. I could hold out.
The capsule closed. Owen monitored the readings from its console, and announced that yes, the body had gone into a torpid state. By the time I entered my administrative rights and set the time lock, everyone had resumed their normal lives. Only Owen and I remained in the lab with the capsule. In a few minutes, we'd wheel it downstairs, and push it into one of the empty drawers, and the night would be over.
"What do we do with his stuff?" Owen gestured to the pile of folded clothing on the end of the metal table. Suit, tie, coat and shoes. Everything he'd arrived with. All he'd arrived with. Like the rest of the guy, somehow they looked... small. Sad, without him. I can ignore that sort of thing most of the time. Guess my curiosity got the better of me.
I wasn't - I'm still not - a sentimental person. Can't afford to be. But most of the people in those drawers were dead. We kept them for a reason, and none of them were getting around anytime soon. They didn't need a set of spare clothes. He might. He would.
In the end, I took them, and I put them away. Of course, in a month I'd completely forget I had them. Bigger things to worry about than a cheap suit and a trench coat.
And that was before the Hub exploded.
But you already know how that turned out. And if you don't, you don't need to.
At least not because I'd been shot.
You were waiting for me to say that, weren't you? I don't like to disappoint.
Thinking back now, I wonder what the Winchesters were doing. Things didn't really start ratcheting up with the Leviathan until September, after we brought death back for everybody but me.
Well, me, and now Rex. He wasn't thrilled about that, believe me.
Of course they had to know what was going on. Sam's addicted to current events. Maybe they were searching for their own solution. In fact, I bet they were. In fact, if I could have tagged them to play on my team, we probably would have had the Families cornered sooner.
They'd at least have been a fun distraction.
By October, as far as I could tell, the world was back to the grind. Moving on from Miracle Day. That's humans for you. There were still funerals every day to catch up on the backlog; still news reporters asking what happened to Oswald Danes and Ellis Monroe. But by and large, everyone was happy to return to their morning commute without being badgered by the radio to ponder the consequences of an endless existence.
I decided to stay in L.A. for a while, having forgotten how much I liked the town. Plus, the weather was fantastic - nothing like Wales, and exactly how I wanted it for now. And it was too far for Gwen to move with the baby. Good old Rhys. If I'd told her to go home, she'd have stayed in L.A. just for spite. But Rhys knew just the right balance of leverage and guilt.
Never have been very good at the whole 'guilt' thing, me.
Not that kind, anyway.
The Rift was closed over Cardiff, but future tech, parallel universe tech: still out there. Captain John Hart was watching over a small Rift in Mexico City. Staying in California would cut down on the flight time when he inevitably messed that up, while still keeping plenty of distance between us. Plus, Earth still had the occasional alien invasion, and they could always be depended on to leave their junk behind like picnickers at the park.
Rex had more than enough rage-fueled passion to handle the Three Families. Since he wasn't interested in channeling it into rage-fueled passionate anything else, I left him to it. Too bad. Could've been good for him.
Anything involving the Families was mostly research anyway, and I'd rediscovered over the past few months just how much I hated that. It mostly kept us apart, which was how he wanted it. In another fifty years, he'd have to face reality, but right now he wanted to pretend he wasn't immortal. I - vaguely - remembered how that felt. Maybe I didn't respect the decision, but I could understand it.
We had a little team started. Just one other person, a girl named Phil Harper. Found her doing some sort of statistics job in a cubicle farm. You know how easy it is for an alien to hide in a cubicle farm? Way too easy. At least he'd only munched through a few coworkers before I caught him. Phil turned out to be a great help. Sweet girl. Bombproof, had a way with computers, no family, tired of her current life. I wasn't hoping for another Tosh, but I saw some potential in the short term, at least.
Didn't realize how short term. Wish I had. I would have left her there.
Statistics may be boring, but it's better than dead.
The work hadn't been too complex for a while. With scanners only a few years behind current technology, locating quarry was a matter of a few interviews and a couple hours of searching, just like the old days. We'd just started a tertiary project: consolidating Torchwood hardware in the new facility. Warehouses and storage units across the globe held bits and pieces of technology, as a means to ensure that the Hub didn't become our only access point. I hadn't expected its destruction to come so soon, but I had expected it eventually.
I was in Napa Valley when Rex called, squatting on a hillside and observing a pair of letireans from Rexel IV. Several vineyards had been complaining about a greater-than-average loss of produce, blaming foxes. Letireans look something like a cross between a fox, a cat, and a Japanese ki'rin. Thankfully witnesses only noticed the red fur and not the pearly scales.
Or the horns.
As a rule, Rex didn't call. I heard the chime of Rex's Bluetooth coming online, and let the letireans romp off into the dark. "Rex? What's up? You never call anymore."
"Someone found the Hub, Jack. It was eating Phil when I got there."
I froze, only just realizing that I was on my feet and heading for the jeep.
"Then it turned into Phil. Look, man, I know y'all deal with some creepy shit. But you never said anything about aliens treating us like a prime rib dinner. I thought it was all 'take over the world, enslave the human race.'"
I was glad of the swagger in his voice. Rex never could learn to shut up. If he'd been methodical, it might have taken me longer to get moving. As it was, even while part of me still mourned poor Phil and how I'd led her to her death like a lamb to slaughter, I could smile at his bravado.
"Trust me, Rex, we're more like fast food. Do you know where it is?"
"Yeah, I got it. It's not doing much. Seriously, if I didn't know it wasn't Phil? I'd think it was Phil."
"Lay low, Rex. Keep an eye on it. I'll be--"
I heard a crash, faint, in the background.
"Yeah, exactly like Phil. Except for the part where it just started trashing the Hub," Rex corrected. He'd gone from sounding angry to righteously pissed, which meant Phil's death had processed. Bad. Very bad.
I threw myself in the driver's seat and tore out of the vineyard, letireans forgotten entirely. "Rex! Don't move! I'll be--"
He must have had his Bluetooth on. Through my headset, I heard him screaming, then gunfire, and then a scuffle. Rex was on the losing end, from the sounds of it.
I heard Phil's voice.
"Your courage is endearing," she said gently. 'Phil' gently. Far too close to the headset, I heard bones snapping. Rex cried out.
And then I heard Rex's voice, in precisely the same tone as Phil's.
"Oh. I see why. You can't die. How interesting. Are you--"
The line beeped and went abruptly dead.
Six-hour drive from Vallejo to L.A.? I did it in four.
But I was still too late.
My wrist strap agreed. There were no people on this block. Nothing but one big pulsing red point in the middle of the building in front of me. Which meant it wasn't in the building, but underneath.
The Hub. Temporarily, anyway.
Yes, it's underground again. I like secret underground bases. Finding a building with a deep enough basement to hide odd noises and a menagerie of aliens and alien hardware isn't easy. I had some time to kill and a lot of helpful tech. If the idea ain't broke, don't fix it.
Anyway, if you could have the Bat Cave, would you want it? You know you would. Hush.
I tried the lock on the door to the empty building, and found it slightly ajar. Trying to sneak in was a bad idea. If the creature that ate Phil was still masquerading as Phil or - I guessed - Rex, it was best they didn't suspect I knew. I had a better chance of finding out what it was, and containing it, if I could play dumb and get it talking. If I'd known then what I know now, I would have cleared out of there. But hindsight's fifty-fifty.
I let myself into the building and headed for the back. Rex emptied a clip into the thing but - judging from the phone conversation - hadn't slowed it down a fraction. I left my gun in its holster, even though my fingers itched for it.
"Phil! Any chance there's a Domino's open this early?" My voice and the sound of my boots on the metal spiral stairs rang hollow in the empty space, "I'm starving!"
Rex's voice floated up from below, rusty, annoyed, and flawlessly, utterly Rex. "Phil went home six hours ago! Newsflash: nobody runs on the same schedule as you, World War Two."
Got to give these things credit where it's due. They could do an amazing impression routine.
"You're up," I observed, pausing halfway down and leaning on the railing. The Hub was neat. Spotless. Cold and damp, but as clean as I'd left it yesterday morning. For a second or two, I contemplated the possibility that my earpiece - or my memory - had been lying to me. You're in this business long enough, that gets to be a viable option.
Except for the small fact that the neighborhood was empty. I held onto that.
Rex came out into the open before the staircase, and craned his head to look up at me. I grinned like I meant it. "Hiya, handsome. Waiting up for me again?"
His expression wrinkled with distaste. "Couldn't sleep again. For your information, I did order pizza. Not that I'm giving you any."
"Knew I could count on you," I chuckled, and started down the stairs again, "You get any weird phone calls yesterday?"
"Jack," Rex huffed a laugh, throwing his arms open, "Torchwood. Define 'weird.'" He walked towards the command center where we'd set up a card table. There was actually a pizza box. The smell hit me then, and my stomach turned over.
"Weird as in, me or Phil, telling you the Hub was destroyed." I pulled off my headset and made a show of tapping it on the other palm.
"Yeah," Rex passed a hand through the air and peeled open the pizza box, "yeah. Which is why I called Domino's on my way here. In case the Hub-destroying aliens were hungry." He shook his head.
"Don't knock it. I've used a Chicago deep dish as leverage once or twice."
"Whatever. You want any of this or not?"
He sounded... well... like Rex. Not like the one I'd heard before the phone went dead.
The possibilities multiplied. The call I received could have been the result of interference with the headset: static from a parallel universe, or from the future, or aliens playing with a cell tower or a satellite. It could have been something inside my own mind; something playing on my paranoia, my bad memories. I could have been drugged. Everything I'd eaten yesterday came out of various truck stop coolers, but we'd dealt with whole shipments of tainted food products before.
But still. Neighborhood. Empty.
Maybe I kept pushing that off because I didn't want to believe it. Plus, if something knew Rex well enough to impersonate him so thoroughly, wouldn't it know I knew about our last phone call? Was it trying to snow me? And if so, why?
I was still contemplating the options when I reached the bottom of the stairs and my fingers slid through slick black ichor on the railing. I inspected my fingers, then held them up for Rex. "What, you ordered extra squid ink this time?"
He started for me, reaching out for my fingers. And that was something Rex would absolutely not have done. If we sat next to each other at - God forbid - Gwen's family Christmas dinner, and she was the kind of person who said 'grace,' he would have found an excuse not to take my hand. He calls that 'a straight guy thing,' I call that 'repression,' but as it turns out, it's a handy litmus test. The Leviathan wearing Rex's face and memories like a Halloween costume was on a mission to touch me. Rex? Yeah. Not so much.
Turned out someone else had a mission to touch me too. I felt a hand slap onto the back of my head like a starfish and the Hub, Rex, everything... popped out of existence.
When reality came together again, I knew two things straightaway: I was standing in the middle of a thick forest, and I wasn't alone.
"Hello, Jack," said the man I'd put in cold storage.
I knew, because he was wearing a Torchwood-issue medical gown and - by the looks of things - absolutely nothing else.
Yeah. Definitely naked under there.
Fantastic ass, though.
By the time he came to again, I'd run a scan on him and wrapped him up in my arms against the cold. Would have given him my coat, but it was tossed over the back seat in the jeep, which was - according to my wrist strap - several hundred miles southwest of here. Because we were in the Rocky Mountains, for no reason I could make out. Really wished I hadn't been so bothered by the L.A. heat.
The guy though, he gave off heat like a furnace. Up close and personal, I realized he was soaking wet. He smelled metallic, like he'd been swimming in the ocean. The diagnostic I ran confirmed that his vitals were stressed, his temperature was unusually high, and that he wasn't giving off seawater, although he appeared to be doused in it. Maybe he'd been swimming before he came to kidnap me.
The scan indicated he'd only been thawed for a few minutes, which would explain the stress.
Wait. A few minutes?
He opened his eyes. His head swung up off my shoulder like he was a marionette and someone gave his strings a jerk. His forehead nearly collided with my nose. "Hey, hey, easy," I murmured, adjusting my grip on him to help him sit up.
"I apologize," he said primly, in a low smoker's rasp that should not have been coming out of his mouth. I can't explain it any better than that. It just... didn't belong to him. "I wasn't aware of... all the parameters when I arrived."
"Hey, sometimes the best trips are the ones you don't plan for," I said, "so how about we get you somewhere warmer, and then we can talk. Captain Jack Harkness, but it sounds like you already know that. And you would be...?"
"Castiel," he nodded, "and yes, I am aware of your name. You don't need to be concerned, however. I'm not subject to changes in temperature."
And that was when I realized that the ambient temperature hovered around zero degrees Celsius, or maybe a little above, and Castiel was wet to the skin, mostly naked, and not shivering. I can inspire heat in more species than you can name, but as much as I wish I could say otherwise, I'm not that good.
"Yeah," I said, helping him to his feet, "you really aren't, are you? So, why did you kidnap me? And why here? If you wanted a little alone time, you could have just--"
And then he leveled a pair of curious, incredible blue eyes on me, and I remembered he was the guy from the deep freeze, and that he came with a note in my handwriting: No flirting.
The only reason I'd leave a note like that for myself was if I meant it. So I stopped. He tipped his head at me, the way a bird does when it's trying to get a better look at something. "I needed to get you out of harm's way before the Leviathan could touch you and assume your memories," Castiel explained, "This was the first place I thought of."
"Really? Middle of a state park?"
"I enjoy the peace here. And it's isolated," he said, maybe a trifle defensively. I had to smile.
"Oh, hey, no argument here. It's definitely... peaceful. But all my gear's in my jeep in Los Angeles. And my coat. I'll be honest, it's mostly about the coat." I thought about walking as a means to keep warm. Castiel might not be subject to temperature, but I was. Hypothermia would slow me down, even if it wasn't the worst way I'd ever died. Of course, Castiel was barefoot. It should have occurred to me that if he wasn't affected by the freezing temperatures, he probably wouldn't be bothered by pine needles in his soles either. But there you are.
"The Leviathan may have left by now," Castiel looked at me seriously. And when I say looked, I mean looked. He had one of those completely unselfconscious, animal stares. I've never had a problem winning staring matches, but I'm not too proud to admit that he made my stomach flip a little. That could also have been the instantaneous cross-country trek we'd just been on, though. "But it will return, with companions," he continued, "your base is of interest to its entire species."
"What's 'the Leviathan' and why is it so interested in my memories and my base?"
"You have knowledge of the Doctor," Castiel replied, capital letters audible in his tone, "they want that. If you have any equipment utilized in space-time travel in your current location, they will take it also."
"That's classified," I snapped, wary of someone who could say things like that so easily, "and what 'doctor?' My medic is dead."
Then two hands clapped down on my shoulders, and Castiel looked at me square on. I forgot about the fact that he looked small and tired in a wet hospital gown, with all the charm of a career librarian. I felt naked. Not in a good way. I felt like this guy, somehow, could see right down to every secret I'd ever kept.
"Jack," he said, "your attempt to protect the secrecy of your mission is admirable, but it's far too late. I know about the Doctor, I know about Torchwood. I also know that if you don't help me now, the Leviathan will take everything you're trying to protect and use it to destroy the world."
"How do you know?" I asked, struggling with my temper.
"I returned from the year 2012," Castiel replied, "when the Leviathan wins."
And we were back at the Leviathan, full circle, and I still didn't have a clue what he was talking about. I spread my hands. "All right, stop. Full disclosure, right now. What is the Leviathan?"
"There isn't time."
"Then make time."
Although he gave me a you-should-know-this-already frown like a disappointed nun, Castiel told me. The Leviathan are, not is. They're very old, very hungry, and as resourceful as you'd expect from something after that much surviving. Castiel explained how the Leviathan learned that time travel was possible after a chance meeting with the Doctor. Though he kept the details vague, I assumed Castiel had been 'sampled' the same way that the Leviathan in the Hub copied Rex and Phil's identities. As a result, they had access to most of his memories. Once they knew who the Doctor was, extracting all the relevant details was just a matter of knowing where to look. Apparently, Castiel was a font of knowledge on the Time Lords.
He told me how 2012 would wind up if the Leviathan managed to access what they were looking for: me.
I had no real reason to disbelieve him. This was the thing that we'd put in containment, on time-locked orders. Somehow, he was capable of time travel himself, and had come back from the year we set his capsule to release. For now, that was good enough for me.
Apparently it was good enough for him, too. I was mid-question when he tapped a couple fingers to my forehead. Then we were standing next to the jeep, outside the L.A. Hub. I slapped a hand down on the hood as my balance reoriented itself, and was faintly surprised to find the metal still warm.
Well, really, everything was warm. Blissfully warm. Definitely not Colorado.
"Next time?" I laughed, not quite as irritated as I expected to be, "More warning."
Castiel stood next to me. He faced the Torchwood building with hawk-like focus. It was the kind of superhero pose you see in comics: fists curled, chin up, eyes narrowed. He still had on the hospital gown, which might have made the whole thing funny in a Monty Python way. If it wasn't for the man-eating, shapeshifting creature that might be in my basement.
"Your base is clear," Castiel reported, turning to look at me soberly, "although it appears that the Leviathan consumed most of the people on this street."
Skeptical, I consulted my wrist. The scan reported an entirely dark street - not even a red pulse in the Hub. I hadn't seen Castiel pull out a scanner, but hey, I've hidden a gun in some pretty strange places.
"One ate the entire block?" I'd dealt with some hungry aliens before, but that sounded more like the first shot of a pissing match.
"Focus, Jack," Castiel snapped, "we need to move your equipment before the Leviathan returns!"
And that was just it.
"That's Captain Jack," I retorted, rounding on him, "I'm concerned about the fact that something ate a hundred people in a few hours, maybe including my teammates. Trust me, when I'm not focused? You'll know."
I'd spent the past few months alternately being kidnapped or ordered around by American feds. I'd been shot. I'd nearly been blown up. I had every drop of blood sucked out of me by a primordial tunnel through the middle of the Earth that I still didn't understand. Now? I had a freezer-burned alien in a dress with a Rex-sized ego trying to tell me what to do. On a first name basis, might I add. It took every ounce of will I had not to shoot him.
But we had a block full of missing people. One more death wouldn't solve anything, provided that a bullet would even have an effect. I led Castiel into the basement. "What are you?" I asked. I could have asked it in a nicer tone, but I'd used up all my courtesy for the month.
"I'm an angel of the Lord, Captain Jack," Castiel answered, in roughly the same pleasant and understanding tone I'd used. The only angels I've run into are the quantum-locked kind. The ones who hang around cathedral architecture, waiting for people to send on a lifetime vacation to the sixties. He might have been vaguely cute, but he didn't look like sculpted marble.
Did he actually mean 'Lord' as in, 'Our Father Who Art in Heaven'? Or did the Weeping Angels finally get some sort of overhaul?
"Oh ho, that's a new one!" I said. The lights were still on in the Hub, the pizza box still on the table when we arrived. I did my best not to think about Phil and Rex. I'd do that later, when I had the luxury. Whether I believed Castiel-the-angel or not, right now was my only opportunity to move critical items out of the Hub before anyone came looking for them. Whatever the Leviathan didn't get, the law would when it came to investigate the disappearances.
Castiel did that birdlike head tilt again. "I don't understand," he said, then apparently did get it after all. His puzzled expression clouded. "You don't believe me."
I shrugged, stacking equipment in a carton without looking up, "I believe you think you are," I said, which was the truth, "be happy to have this discussion with you some other time. Right now? Help me or get out of my way."
NASA could have used the temperature of the silence in that room to reach Absolute Zero.
I kept on tossing things in boxes, calculating how much room was in the jeep (not much), and what I could afford to leave behind (nothing but the furniture). Then, from the corner of my eye I saw Castiel pick up one of the loaded boxes and start up the stairs with it. He was still in his hospital gown, still barefoot, and still obviously not giving a damn about either.
"We're getting you some clothes, next stop," I told him when he came down for another box. Castiel looked down, as if he'd just noticed his apparel (and lack of) for the first time.
"This is not what I'm accustomed to," he murmured, picked up a carton loaded with diagnostic tech, and went for the stairs again. I watched him go, and not just because his loose closures afforded a fine view.
I wouldn't have called the L.A. Hub 'full' of stuff, but we had it emptied of the critical equipment in ten minutes, and I was pretty proud of that. The jeep held it all with the rear seats folded down, miraculously, but we'd have to be very careful of the speed limit.
"We can't carry all this tech around with us," I said, tossing myself into the driver's seat, "it's a liability. And fragile. I've got a storage unit just outside of town."
"Did any of your associates know about it?" Castiel asked. I hadn't even seen him get in, but there he was, in the passenger seat.
"Just Rex and--damn," I remembered what Castiel said about Leviathan hijacking memories (which just wasn't fair, really), "all right, new plan. Where are we headed?"
"The Leviathan are everywhere," Castiel replied, glanced at me, and for once had the decency to look worried, "I'm... not certain. My main objective was to stop them from gaining access to you."
"That's all right." I pulled out onto the empty street, careful not to draw attention to the vehicle until we were well out of the neighborhood. "Then we find a new storage unit, and we keep moving. And," I glanced at one bare knee, way too close to the floor shift to avoid touching, "we get you those clothes."
Castiel tugged at the hem of the gown and shifted in his seat. "That would be ideal."
We were also no closer to figuring out a solution. Also according to Castiel, we now had time to solve the problem, but even with my tech stowed safely away, I was still a walking liability. They got me, they got the jackpot.
No pressure, or anything.
Maybe I should have been more worried about Rex, but I wasn't. I knew I'd find him eventually, or he'd find me. That kind of certainty is one of the perks of being indestructible. Maybe I'd have to cut him out of a Leviathan belly, or maybe he was just laying low in another part of the city. Until I could tell the difference between the real Rex and the counterfeit one, I wasn't going anywhere near him, let alone looking for him.
According to Castiel, the Leviathan could look like anyone. They were difficult to spot and better yet? They were everywhere. If they were all looking for me, the best thing to do was find a place without people.
Kansas ought to fit the bill.
Why were we driving, you ask? Yeah, me too. Castiel could hop back in time a couple years, then kidnap me to Colorado and back. Los Angeles to Kansas should be a snap, right? When I said something to that effect, though, all I got for my trouble was a glare and a lecture on how angels did not have bottomless personal resources, especially while also believed to be dead and thus trying to dodge Heaven. While he would very much like to handle this as quickly as possible, his batteries were fried, thank you very much, and would be for the immediate foreseeable future. He was more formal about it than that, but you catch my drift. Apparently angels of the Lord are a little touchy about being powerless. I changed the subject. "So what's the most efficient way you know of to defeat these things?"
"The Leviathan are impossible to defeat," Castiel declared, "conventional weapons are useless against them. It appears the application of certain chemicals can hold them off for a time, but only temporarily. There's only one clear means to stop them indefinitely."
"Containment?" I guessed. Castiel's nod was solemn.
"They were released into this world by accident. They need to be captured and returned to Purgatory. I believe the Winchesters resurrected me for this reason. It was only by chance that I happened upon the reason why the Leviathan have become so unstoppable."
"'The Winchesters?' What organization is that?"
Castiel's head snapped up. He fixed me with a look so hard and cold that I was almost sorry I'd asked. Almost. "They are my brothers," he replied, sharp, and I caught the tiniest flicker of lunacy in those dark blue eyes, "they gave their lives for mine. I have an opportunity to save them and their world, and I will not waste it."
I thought of Phil. Esther. Tosh and Owen.
I could understand the crazy gleam. But craziness like that?It just gets more people killed.
Considering his reaction to my last question, I didn't correct him about the 'resurrection' he mentioned. Though, I was curious how he'd managed to overlook the high-tech freezer he'd climbed out of.
"Torchwood has some artifacts that might be able to hold a Leviathan," I offered instead, "but everything's been scattered for a few years. I've just started tracking things down and cataloging them again. Take the wheel; I can log into the database with my laptop."
"I've never operated a vehicle."
Why didn't that surprise me? "Then you can learn a valuable new skill while you're at it," I said.
"The speed limit here is ridiculously high," Castiel's voice tightened a little with aggravation, nerves, or both, "I could destroy the vehicle, or severely injure other motorists."
"I know! Fun, right? It's a straightaway, Cas. In the middle of nowhere on a weekday: there's nobody out here but us. Just keep it under ninety and stay between the lines." I pulled the jeep onto the shoulder.
Five minutes. With my insistence, and my help, it took the angel five minutes to figure out how to drive. A stick shift, even. He never got honked at! He didn't grind the gears! It certainly wouldn't be the last time I'd be subjected to Castiel's superhuman learning curve, but as firsts went, that was definitely a little humbling.
And I don't like being humbled. "You were bluffing," I accused.
Castiel shook his head. "I don't bluff. My last attempt went badly."
In twenty minutes I felt safe enough to open my laptop, leaving him to watch the road while I connected to the Torchwood software. In no time at all, the desktop was replaced by familiar soft blue undulations. Our software's almost sentient, did you know that? It's an organic living thing, happy doing exactly what it does - compiling and organizing data. The Torchwood software is another orphan rescued from the Rift before it could fall into the wrong hands. Well… not that Torchwood hands are any more or less right than anyone else, but we're definitely less likely to kill it or worse - reprogram it to aim and launch nuclear weapons.
The cursor in the database search function blinked a question at me. Interacting with the sleek, intuitive design reminded me so much of Tosh that it ached. I knew what I could search for, but the item location catalog was only accurate through 2008, and anything listed inside Torchwood 3...
I chose 'search functionality by species' from the dropdown, and on a whim, typed "Leviathan" into the search bar.
The search returned a single result: the Portable Prison Cell we'd used to contain a variety of aliens in the past. Most recently, we'd used it to catch a gaseous alien inhabiting a girl named Carys Fletcher. There was a Tosh-era flag attached to it, which I clicked after a glance at Castiel, to be sure he was still focused on the road.
The following is a direct transcription of the message in an envelope accompanying time-sealed orders regarding Stasis Subject #555. The message also included orders to link the Portable Prison Cell to the search term "Leviathan," and to take Retcon to remove all memory of this addition to the database.
Jack? If you're reading this, to be honest, I'll be glad of the Retcon. I'm having a difficult enough time keeping this from you as it is. I wish I understood why I can't tell you. Please explain all this to me when you get it. (added by T_Sato, 20/12/2007)
I read the message over several times, then logged out and turned off the laptop. A number of things crossed my mind: questions, emotions, memories, and for a few minutes I simply let them flow unchecked. Sometimes you have to. Sometimes not acknowledging them will have a worse outcome than if you let them control you completely. It has to stop somewhere, though. I took a deep breath, and chased all the irrelevant ones off.
When you find this message, the Leviathan will be too widespread to contain. Return to July 10, 2010, to a place called Bootback, Kansas - Castiel will know where. You absolutely CANNOT attempt to stop the events taking place. Castiel must be allowed to open a portal to Purgatory and return what he has taken. The events surrounding his involvement are fixed points. You have a small window of opportunity to contain the Leviathan.
DO NOT ATTEMPT TO SAVE CASTIEL.
DO NOT TELL HIM ABOUT THIS MESSAGE. Let him continue to believe he was rescued by the Winchesters. You don't know them yet, but you will. They're the good guys.
You haven't been flirting with Castiel, have you, Jack?
"Torchwood has one device with sufficient power to contain a Leviathan," I said, "unfortunately; its last known whereabouts were Torchwood 3, which means it could be anywhere."
"The explosion," Castiel's voice was low. He pulled his eyes off the road to look at me; I saw the flash of blue from my peripheral vision. I kept my eyes on the scenery, trying not to be angry at him for knowing. However he knew about the explosion, or the surrounding events, it could only be the Cliff Notes version.
He wasn't there. He didn't see.
"Yes." I kept my voice brisk and businesslike without too much trouble. "Something as small as that might have survived the blast, but it's about the size of a paper football; not easy to spot. It could have been overlooked, it could still be there. Or it could be sitting on some little girl's bookshelf in Cardiff. The battery's got to be dead by now."
Castiel didn't respond. When I looked his way again, his brow was furrowed. I guessed he was thinking, but if he was frustrated or angry or anything else, I certainly couldn't tell. So I changed the subject.
"So where are we going, in Kansas, specifically?" I asked.
"An abandoned train depot in a small town called Bootback," Castiel replied.
"And that's where everything started?"
"Yes," Castiel said, then paused."...Actually, that's false. 'Things started' long before then. But that is where the door to Purgatory was opened."
"Who opened it?" Hadn't a clue what Purgatory was, although I guessed Castiel would tell me it was something along the lines of Dante's Inferno. And hey, now I knew it had a door. Got to start somewhere.
Castiel paused. His knuckles whitened on the steering wheel, and I found myself faintly surprised. He hadn't been driving long enough to know how cathartic squeezing the wheel could be.
"I did," Castiel said.
"I'm a good listener," I added, "…actually, I'm fairly bad at it. But I'm interested, so you've got that going for you."
Castiel's gaze cut to me a second time. While he looked at me, it felt like he was searching for something. Trying to predict my reaction, maybe. This time, I met him halfway. And you know what? Looking into Castiel's eyes for those few seconds felt like getting too close to a lightning strike. Even with a claim of being drained, I could feel the living power in him while he tried to search me. It was an adrenaline rush.
It was fantastic.
And hot. I wasn't thinking so much anymore about the fact that a hungry lion had a better disposition, or that I just couldn't make myself believe eighty percent of what the guy was selling - at least, not what it said on the tin. I was thinking that he looked hot driving my jeep, and that he was the most interesting thing I'd run into since Gwen went home to Swansea. And how often are interesting things not trying to kill me? These days, anyway.
"I was trying to save my friends," Castiel said, "But I lacked the power necessary to stop some… larger players whose intentions would have brought them harm. Purgatory was the best source of that power. That's the best explanation I can give you. As you don't believe in the existence of angels, you'll likely find other details suspect as well." His voice was bleak.
"Probably," I agreed with a shrug; then smiled, "but wanting to save friends, I understand. Didn't go as well as you planned?"
"No," Castiel replied, "although I initially believed I had accomplished my goal, in the end I still put them in danger."
"Wouldn't be the first time that's happened," I tossed the information to the back of my brain to chew over and kept up a front of nonchalance. I even went so far as to kick my boots up on the dash. "Happens to me more than you'd think."
"I know," Castiel said darkly.
"What do you mean, 'you know?'"
"Oh, you are not getting away with a comment like that without an explanation. Remember: I have until Kansas to get it out of you."
"It's unfortunate that you're immortal, Captain Jack Harkness," Castiel said with a sigh, eyes and hands focused on the road, "killing you would be an expedient way to keep your information safe from the Leviathan."
"Hey, they could still get viable DNA from a corpse," I pointed out.
"Not if you are ash," Castiel retorted. He shot me a warning glance, like he was seriously contemplating the idea.
"Try it, Halo," I said, only half joking, "and you'll wish you'd never met me."
Castiel made an impatient noise in his throat. "I already do."
I couldn't help it. What I know about human mythology regarding angels could maybe fill a postcard, if you wrote big, and suddenly all of it was working against me. I saw Castiel in one of those flowing white robes with the big druid sleeves and hood, and a pair of chubby little white wings, and a gold halo just like you see on Christmas cards. Except this particular Christmas card angel had his teeth bared and his eyes narrowed like he was planning to murder you. Or have mind-addling hate sex.
Like I said, I couldn't help it. I laughed. I laughed until I almost cried.
"Castiel?" I gasped, "Never stop being honest."
The most miraculous thing happened after that: Castiel smiled. I realized I'd never seen him do it before. It was tentative and gone in a flash, but definitely there.
"I'm... sorry," Castiel said, "I should simply have said I'd prefer not to continue the discussion." He sounded genuinely contrite. I wondered who'd taught him that one, considering his stellar social skills everywhere else.
I shrugged. "Hey, it's all right. When you lose people, you--" I remembered Angelo. Though my grief over his loss had initially been years and years ago, it was freshened both by his recent death and the changing landscape as we neared the California-Nevada border. We were less than two hours from his mansion in Henderson - a high-end suburb of Las Vegas. "--wait. Angelo." I swung my legs down and sat forward, drumming the dash with my fingertips. "He had his people comb the wreckage after Torchwood 3 was destroyed! If anyone's got it, he does."
"Where is his storage facility located?" Castiel asked. I grinned.
"On his estate," I said, "Cas, we're going to Vegas!"
I never did find out how he knew about me.
At least, not then.