Title: Out of Dark Places
Authors: The-Silver-Sun and Harkpad02
Word Count: 10500
Warnings/Triggers: Description of panic caused by memories of having been buried alive.
Notes: This story was written as part of the Torchwood Collaboration Festival. Livejournal comm. tw-collab-fest.
Additional Notes: Thank you to Firesnap for betaing this for us.
Summary Still trying to adjust to working without Owen and Tosh, Jack, Ianto and Gwen investigate why hikers have been going missing without trace on the edge of Brecon Beacons.
“Here’s what I don’t get,” Gwen said, straightening some papers in her lap after Jack took a turn in the SUV especially hard. “Most of the people who've gone missing were expert hikers. They’d been hiking in areas remoter than this for years, they had lots of experience.”
She pulled out a photograph of two men in front of a cairn on a desolate hilltop, proud grins on their faces, their expensive backpacks on the ground in front of them. “These two, look,” she said to Ianto, who was sitting next to her on the back seat, and he leaned over to get a better view. “They've been hiking together for fifteen years. How do two mates like this, plus at least four other really experienced hikers before them, just vanish?”
“The other three who're missing aren’t experts,” Ianto offered, settling back into his seat behind Jack and pulling his small pack onto his lap so he could triple check its contents. The other hikers seemed completely random, really, he thought as he rifled his hand over a couple of bottle of water, pepper spray, cereal bars, first aid kit, spare torch and batteries, and the sheathed knife he’d brought from home. He had a pocketknife in his jacket, too. After the last time they were on a case in the countryside it had only seemed sensible to have some extra form of protection with them.
“I know,” Gwen said, putting the photograph back in its folder. “But nine hikers in a month, that can’t just be coincidence, can it?”
It confirmed his own thoughts and Ianto looked around the seat at Jack, and asked. “What do you think, Jack?”
Jack shrugged and kept driving. “We need more than just names and personal histories to go on,” he said, finally. “We’ll know more when we have a look around the place where one of the hikers left her map and note.”
“Clever, that,” Ianto said. “Leaving a map of where you’re headed.”
“Good for us,” Gwen said.
“This area is mining country,” Ianto said, after a few minutes passed with no further conversation. “Maybe they fell into some old workings.”
Gwen looked thoughtful for a moment, and then said, “It would be better than aliens. They could still be alive.”
Jack shook his head and said, almost under his breath, “Trapped underground, I wouldn't call that lucky.”
Ianto wondered if he imagined the shudder rippling through Jack’s shoulders.
It was an hour on the road and they spent most that time of it lost in their own thoughts. The quiet only periodically broken by the rustling noise as Ianto and Gwen re-checked their packs and read through the case notes again. Jack drove in silence.
Jack had been silent for a month now, it seemed.
Ianto sighed as Gwen leaned into his shoulder, probably tired. With only the three of them trying to run everything work had come to occupy most of their time. He leaned back so she could be more comfortable and gave up on talking to Jack.
Houses and shops gave way to farms and fields as they left Rhondda valleys and got nearer to the Brecon Beacons. Once there would have been the towering wheelhouses of the collieries dotted across the landscape. They were nearly all gone now, the only evidence of the once booming industry the barren slag heaps at the heads of the valleys and a cluster of portacabins and tall, boring machinery set up in a field where modern day prospectors were carrying out test fracking to see if there was enough shale gas in the area to make extraction worthwhile.
* * * *
Eventually, they reached layby where the hiker had left her car. It was little more than a narrow strip of gravel between the road and the drystone wall which ran along the edge of the farmland.
The car was long since gone, removed by the police who'd been unable to find anything to explain why its owner had failed to return to it. The only indication that Jean Matthews had ever been there was a missing persons notice, the laminated A4 sheet with its grainy photograph, nailed to the wooden stile that crossed the wall.
The weather was cool and cloudy when they got out of the SUV, and Jack was relieved that there was no sign of the thick hill fog that often covered the higher ground at that time of year.
Jack watched as Gwen and Ianto checked their packs again. They had both had a bad experience the last time they'd investigated anything in the countryside, with Ianto having been beaten and Gwen shot. He hoped they would have better luck this time, after everything that had happened recently he thought that they were overdue some.
Ianto spread a map out on the bonnet of the SUV, and then looked at his GPS tracker. “The last reading we have for Jean Matthews’ mobile is about a mile that way.”
Jack and Gwen turned to look to at where Ianto had indicated. Rising up in front of them were low rolling hills, the scrub covered slopes riven with steep sided water cut gullies, a product of millennia of rain running off the nearby Brecon Beacons.
“We can follow the route on the map left by Ms. Matthews to get to that point,” Ianto said. “With any luck there will be something there to link her disappearance with that of Mr Price.”
Gwen paused at the stile and looked at the missing persons notice. Jean Matthews' image smiled back at her, the woman's curly red hair streaked and blurred where rain had forced its way under the corner of the laminated paper. “Do you think it could be the Rift?”
“This far out?” Ianto said. “I've not picked anything up. Maybe I missed something. Tosh would have been able...” He trailed as he turned away, shoulders slumped.
“I miss her too,” Gwen said quietly, her hand reaching out to rest on his shoulder.
Once, Jack thought, he would have been able to sweep over to them, put his arms around them both, giving and receiving comfort in equal measure. Only he didn't feel able. Not anymore. Not when the guilt of Owen and Tosh's deaths weighed so heavily on him, and certainly not when he held himself responsible for setting the chain of events in motion by failing to keep Gray safe. No, he told himself, better they had a leader who kept them alive than a friend who cried with them and got them killed as well.
Only once Ianto had double checked that the SUV was secure, unwilling to risk a repeat of the SUV's theft the last time a case had brought them to the countryside, did they set off.
The path across the field was well trodden, the grass worn short, and in places the thin upland soil was eroded away to reveal the rocks beneath. The path split once it reached the far side of the field. One path, the more heavily worn of the two, followed the contour of the hill, eventually dipping down into the next valley while the other fainter track led higher into the hills.
“It's the uphill one, isn't it?” Gwen said looking at the steeply rising path.
Ianto nodded, and adjusted the pack on his shoulders. “It never is the easy route for us, is it?”
They stopped just below the top of the slope, and Ianto took out the GPS again. “This is where the last reading for Mr Price's mobile was.”
There was nothing there to indicate any kind of struggle or Rift related activity, and after looking around for a moment Gwen suggested, “Maybe if we get up higher we could see something?” Turning to Jack, she asked, “What do you think?”
“Sure, good plan,” Jack answered distractedly. He'd been on edge about just where the investigation would take them since the comment in the SUV about the area being full of old mine workings. He saw Gwen and Ianto exchange a look that could have been concern or annoyance, but he let it slide, unable to summon the energy or inclination to deal with either.
“What's that down there?” Gwen asked, pointing down into the bottom of the narrow valley at a few derelict buildings, their slate roofs long since fallen in, the walls crumbled and bowed outwards with age. While to the side of the building old freight wagons, their wheels rusted to the tracks remained in overgrown and forgotten sidings that once connected to a long gone branch line.
Ianto got out the map again, and folded it until he had open only the section they needed. “Here it is,” he said, pointing to the small type that read Mine (dis.) .
It wasn't difficult to get down to the mine, just a scramble down the other side of the slope, the low drystone wall around its edge reduced in most places to just a few tumbles of stone.
“It doesn't look like anybody has worked here in years,” Gwen said as they walked closer, seeing nothing to indicate that they aren't the first people to be there in decades.
“It was probably one of the mines that closed when they nationalised the coal mines after the Second World War,” Ianto said, tucking his mobile back into his coat pocket, as he stopped next to one of the buildings. A sign, the writing faded from years of exposure to the elements, hung lopsided from its wall. Just legible on its worn surface were the words Corrwg Drift Mine. While running close to it and heading into the dark of the mine were the rusted tracks that had once guided the pit pony carts to and from the coalface many hundreds of metres away.
“You just looked that up, didn't you?” Gwen asked with a smile that quickly faded as she added, “Which means that when Meredith Price's phone cut out up there.” She pointed back up to the ridge of higher ground. “It wasn't because he was out of signal range.”
Listening to them talk, Jack followed them through the crumbling buildings; it was like he was in a bubble watching Ianto and Gwen carry out the investigation without him. He was sure he should be taking a more active role, but the fear that the investigation would take them into the mine was growing. The irrational fear that the shadows lurking in the entrance of it would somehow come alive and drag him back into the earth consumed more and more of his thoughts.
Something glinted in the weak sunlight near the entrance to mine, and Gwen walked quickly over to it. “It's a camera. A digital one,” she said, picking it up. “I wonder who it belonged to. It doesn't look like it's been here long.”
“Does it work?” Ianto asked hopefully as he joined her at the entrance to the mine.
The screen on the back was cracked and nothing happened when she pressed the on button. Reluctantly, Gwen opened her pack and put it inside. “Maybe we'll be able to get something from it when we get back to the Hub.”
“We should check inside,” Ianto said, taking a torch from his own pack. Putting the pack back on, he approached the entrance to the mine, and switched his torch on.
“I forgot mine,” Jack said, his voice a great deal steadier than he felt.
“That's okay, I've got a spare,” Gwen said. She handed a torch to Jack. Then she joined Ianto just inside the entrance into the mine.
Jack would have been a liar if he'd said that the idea of going into the mine, of being surrounded on all sides by hundreds of tonnes of rock, didn't scare him. But the idea of them splitting up, something that would mean leaving somebody on their own, and vulnerable to whatever took the missing hikers, worried him more. So despite the fear that had started coil in his chest, he switched on his borrowed torch, and followed them into the dark.
The light from their torches did little to relieve the gloom as they walked deeper into the mine. Cut into solid rock the rough-hewn tunnels echoed with dripping water and the sound of their own footsteps. As bizarre as it seemed, Jack thought, his grip in his torch tightening, the sound of water helped. It reminded him that there was open space. It was one of the reasons why he still found being in the Hub bearable.
There was no conversation, all of them listening for any sound that might indicate that someone or something else was in the mine with them. Somewhere ahead of them in the darkness was the dull rumble and click clack of a minor rock fall, the small stones scattering on the rock beneath.
The idea that the tunnel could collapse without warning sent a chill like iced water through Jack's veins, and he stopped. Heart beating faster, breath catching in his throat, he tightened his grip on his torch, trying to use the thin beam of light to anchor himself.
It didn't help that the light only served to illuminate cracked and worn rock around him. Trying a different approach, Jack closed his eyes, hoping that if he replaced the oppressive darkness of the mine with one that was under his control it would help.
He took a shaky breath, uncertain of whether it was working. He has to be able to get past this, he told himself, he has to push the worst of the fear back down inside until they are finished, because he couldn't let Gwen and Ianto do this alone.
The scent of damp earth filled his sinuses, and the memory, terrifying and immediate, of soil in his mouth and nose surfaced, the feeling of utter helplessness overwhelming him. He couldn't move, couldn't breathe, suddenly certain that the weight of all the rock and earth was pressing on his chest, driving the air from his lungs, suffocating him.
His torch clattered to the ground, the light going out as it hit one of the old metal rails, as he pulled at the collar of his coat and shirt in a desperate and uncoordinated attempt to breathe.
Jack was only dimly aware of Gwen and Ianto's torches turning back in his direction as the last few coherent threads of thought deserted him and he dropped to his knees.
* * * * *
“Jack?” Ianto heard Gwen ask as they both swung their torches around at the odd choking noise Jack made from behind. Ianto saw Jack on his knees, struggling to draw a good breath and saw his hands clambering for his face, his eyes clenched shut.
Ianto watched in fear as Gwen rushed to Jack’s side and tried to pull his hands from his throat. Had he been attacked? Was there someone or something in the mine with them? Ianto shone his torch down the tunnel deeper into the mine and then back towards the entrance, but saw nothing.
“Ianto! He’s not breathing properly!” Gwen said as Ianto joined her, and knelt down next to Jack. Jack was shaking and unresponsive to Gwen’s pleas for him to look at them, seeming to be hell bent on getting his hands to his face. Helping Gwen to hold Jack’s hands, Ianto looked carefully for some kind of injury – a burn or a wound – but he couldn’t find anything.
Suddenly, Jack yelled, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry, just please get me out!” and Ianto realized that Jack wasn’t injured at all, he wasn’t even aware of what was going on. So he pulled him into a loose embrace, hoping to calm Jack enough to allow him to tell them what was wrong. He saw sweat running down Jack’s face and could feel him trembling violently in his arms, but there was no sign that he knew they were even there.
As Ianto tried to ease Jack down off of his knees to sit on the ground, Jack’s arms exploded out, throwing Ianto backwards. Lurching to his feet, Jack turned and shoved Ianto against the wall and then sunk again to his knees. Jack wrapped his arms around himself again; his eyes still clenched tightly shut, and his breathing erratic.
Ianto landed with a thud against the rock wall of the mine, but he pulled himself up and back over to where Jack was shaking on the ground, oblivious.
“What’s going on, Ianto?” Gwen asked, as she knelt down next to Jack.
Ianto was trying very hard to stay calm. “I don’t know, but I don’t think he’s injured. It must have something to do with this place. Come on; let’s get him out of here.”
They both pulled Jack to his feet, supporting him on each side. As they did, he began mumbling between gasps for air, ‘Covered. Covered. Can’t breathe. Covered. It's so dark. Can’t breathe.”
“Jack,” Ianto said, hoping he sounded calmer than he felt. “You’re safe, you’re not covered.”
“Oh, shit. I get it,” Gwen swore.
“What is it?” Ianto asked.
“Covered,” Gwen said, her eyes wide and horrified. “Hart said Jack was buried alive by Gray. I didn’t believe him, though, because he'd told us nothing but lies until then. But it must have been true! Oh hell, Ianto. He must think he’s back there being buried again.”
It all made a horrible kind of sense to Ianto, and his heart sank. He remembered the fear in Jack’s eyes when he returned covered in dirt and pulled them from the cells into a fierce embrace in the chaos of Gray’s return. If he had been buried alive by his own brother then the complex emotions added to the mine they were now in would certainly throw Jack into panic.
He threw Jack’s arm over his shoulder and started walking out of the mine. “Come on, Gwen. We’ve got to get him out of here.” Ianto couldn’t imagine the fear that must have been running through Jack’s body as they had descended further into the mine, but now he knew he had to get him out. He also had a twinge of bitterness; if Jack had been willing to talk to him these past few weeks, maybe he could have helped. Of course, dealing with trauma like this also helped to explain some of Jack’s recent distant behaviour.
Ianto and Gwen dragged Jack back out of the mine; the whole time Jack was gulping air in between muttering, and finally they emerged onto the grass outside the mine entrance and Ianto guided Jack down to the ground and ran his hand up and down Jack’s back to try and calm him while catching his own breath. Gwen managed to take one of Jack’s hands in hers and held it tightly.
“Jack, you’re safe. We’re out of the mine,” she said gently.
Ianto rubbed Jack’s back, trying to reassure him that he's not alone.
Eventually, Jack opened his eyes, tears that had been held back streamed down his face. He took a shuddering breath and pulled his knees up to his chest. Laying his head on his knees, he said, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Ianto said, hoping he sounded calmer and more reassuring than he felt. “You’re okay. Just breathe and try to relax.”
Ianto watched as Jack tried to get control of his tears. Finally, Jack looked up at both of them and said again, “I’m sorry.”
Ianto thought it sounded heavy, like there was more to the apology than just what had happened in the mine, so he just nodded and replied, “It’s all okay.”
Jack held his eyes for a moment and then looked away and wiped his sleeve across his face.
Gwen let go of Jack’s hand and pulled her backpack around to the ground next to her. She pulled a bottle of water from it and handed it to Jack. He took it with a nod and drank. Ianto could see the tension slowly unwind from his shoulders, and he sat back as well, giving Jack some space.
A moment later there was a scream from inside the mine. It was piercing, high-pitched. Terrified.
Ianto stood quickly, and Gwen pulled her gun from her waistband.
“We have to go,” Jack said, as he stood unsteadily.
“You’re not in any shape to go anywhere,” Ianto replied as he turned back to see Jack swaying on his feet. Putting an arm around him he helped him back to the ground. “And you’re definitely not going into that mine again.”
“I can go in and check it out,” Gwen said, stepping toward the entrance.
“Gwen, wait!” Jack said, fearful, almost pleading. “You can’t go in there alone.”
“I’ll go with her,” Ianto said, pulling out his own gun.
Jack looked up at them both and Ianto could read the worry, the fear playing across his face.
“We’ll be okay,” Ianto said, trying to reassure him. “We will.”
Jack's shoulders slumped. “Okay. But be careful.”
They nodded, and then switching their torches back on, stepped back into the mine.
* * * * *
“Have you ever seen him like that before?” Gwen asked quietly once they were far enough into the mine for Jack not to hear.
Ianto paused, uncertain what to say, knowing that Jack valued his privacy on such matters. Eventually, scared of what it might mean, he said, “Not exactly. He's had nightmares, he's woken up so scared he barely knows where he is, but nothing like this, not when he's awake.”
“I think we forget sometimes that just because he can't die it doesn't mean he can't be hurting,” Gwen continued. “I mean Gray was his brother. I can't imagine what it would be like to have somebody you cared about do such horrible things.”
Memories raw and painful despite the passage of time seemed to fill his mind, and Ianto's voice was rough when he replied, “I think I have a good idea.”
Gwen stopped, and he nearly walked into her as she said, “Lisa. Oh god, Ianto. I am so sorry. I didn't mean it like that. I...”
“I know you didn't,” Ianto said, finding that he meant it. The fact that he hadn't drawn the parallels, hadn't even considered that extra layer of suffering that Jack was going through until now, hurt more than anything Gwen might accidentally say.
“Did you hear that?” Gwen asked, catching hold of Ianto's arm.
Somewhere ahead of them in the dark something was moving, a skittering of many small metal feet against bare stone.
Ianto nodded, the hand that wasn't holding his torch moving towards the the gun on his belt.
The click clack of feet was joined by a faint robotic hum and whir of gears as two alien creatures appeared. Moving as easily along the walls and ceiling as the floor, they swiftly traversed the uneven rocky surfaces, their featureless oval silvery-green metallic bodies supported by four thin legs that ended in six fingered hands.
“Stop or we'll shoot,” Gwen called out, aiming her gun at them.
The aliens showed no signs of having heard her, or if they had they didn't care and they continued towards them.
Ianto looked at Gwen, and then raised his gun as well, and both fired.
Their bullets ricocheted off the metal skin of the aliens and into the tunnel wall, a small scatter of stones tumbling down from where it had hit. The aliens continued their approach without a change of pace or direction.
“Any ideas?” Gwen asked, her gun still trained on them.
“No,” Ianto replied, his eyes fixed on the rapidly approaching aliens. It wasn't exactly true as he had two ideas. Either they could both stand and fight, and potentially both die or be captured, or one of them could buy the other enough time to escape.
There was no choice to be made between them, at least not in Ianto's mind. He'd give Gwen enough time to escape. Whether it was selfless of selfish he wasn't sure, all he knew was that he couldn't deal with losing anybody else, couldn't deal with having to break the news to Jack, and definitely would not be able to cope with trying to get Jack through it without having a breakdown himself should they lose Gwen.
His hand tightened on his gun, resolved hardening. This wouldn't be a suicide mission. The scream combined with the fact last hiker had gone missing some days ago made him sure the aliens were keeping them alive for quite some time after capture. So he still had every hope that he could survive long enough to engineer his own escape or for Jack and Gwen to organise a rescue.
“We're going to have to run,” he said to Gwen as he tried to fight the fear clawing at him, telling him to run as well, that just because at least one of the hikers was likely to be alive it didn't mean that they hadn't had something terrible done to them. He knew at first hand just what robotic aliens could do to people.
“Right. On three?”
“Of course.” Ianto forced a smile.
The aliens were almost on top of them as Gwen reached three and turned to run.
Pushing his gun back into his belt, his hands shaking slightly, Ianto hoped that would take it as a sign that he would come quietly.
A moment later they swarmed over him, catching and pinning his arms and legs with bruising force, as he shouted, “Gwen, run, just run.”
* * * * *
Sitting on the ground, looking away from the mine entrance, Jack pulled his greatcoat tighter about himself as he tried to stave off cold that was more psychological than physical. He leant back and looked up at the wide open sky above him in an attempt to reassure himself that he wasn't in any danger. It helped a little, but he still felt shaken and wretched, his stomach rolling with barely suppressed nausea.
There had been times in the past when memories of terrible events had overtaken him, had left him scared and shaking, heart beating so fast that he'd thought it might kill him. Yet nothing had been as bad as what he'd felt in the mine. Hell, he wasn't even sure he'd been that scared when he'd actually been buried.
Jack hunched forward again as he tried to push those thoughts from his mind.
The unmistakeable crack of gunfire echoed out of the mine and Jack leapt to his feet, his heart rate, which had been slowly starting to calm, began to race again.
He was staring at the entrance to the mine, caught between the need to know what was happening to Ianto and Gwen and the all-consuming fear that attempting to re-enter the mine would surely bring, when Gwen ran out.
“There are things in there, Jack,” Gwen said, wide eyed, scared and angry in equal measure, as she skidded to a halt next to him. “Bloody mechanical spider things and they've got Ianto.” She leant forward, breathing hard from having run through the mine. “He let them get him so I could get away. What was he thinking?”
For a moment all Jack could hear was a rushing in his ears, the world falling away around him. He'd failed them again, let them face whatever was in there alone and now Ianto was gone and it was all his fault.
He jumped as she placed her hand on his arm, startling back to awareness. “Is he...?” Jack trailed of unable to voice his fears.
“He's alive.” Standing up straight again, Gwen ran a hand through her hair, pushing back from her eyes. “And he's going to stay that way, because he's going to get such a telling off when we get him back. Why didn't he run? Why?”
Jack suspected he knew Ianto's reasoning. Ianto had told him after Brynblaidd why he'd stayed behind to give Tosh a better chance of escape and that he'd do it again if he felt it was the best choice. He'd understood, although he hadn't liked it.
Swallowing back his fear, and hoping that falling back on his training would help him keep things in perspective, Jack asked, “What do they look like?”
“Green metal egg things, about half a metre across,” Gwen said closing her eyes as she tried to concentrate on remembering as many details as she could. “They had four legs that ended in hands. I didn't see any weapons on them. We tried to shoot them, but the bullets just bounced off; it didn't even slow them down.”
Jack understood only too well the feelings of anger and helplessness that seemed to radiate off Gwen, and he wished there was something that he could say that would make it better.
Her description of the aliens helped him though, as Jack remembered seeing them swarming over ships in the repair yards of Cassian Phi asteroids fields, plasma cutters and new sections of hull plating held in the hands. Programmed to keep the ship operational at almost any cost, they weren't good or bad, they just were.
“They're Nelemid maintenance droids,” Jack said, running through their options in his head. The droids were designed to operate under conditions that most other technology would fail in, very little short of concentrated energy weapons fire would slow them down – and even that only worked because you shot the legs off and stopped them from moving. “We're going to need the energy guns from the SUV.
Jack hated the idea as much as Gwen did, but he really didn't see any alternative. They needed more powerful guns, specifically the compressed energy blasters that they'd packed in a crate in the back of the SUV, if they were going to stand a chance against the Nelemid droids.
Gwen looked back at the mine, conflicted look on her face, and Jack said, “The sooner we go, the faster we get back.”
“Okay.” Gwen gave one last look at the mine and then headed back through the tumble of buildings towards the slope that lead back up to the footpath.
It was the length of time that they'd be gone that worried Jack. It was a mile back to the SUV, and Jack knew that it would take them a good ten to fifteen minutes given the terrain. It would be close to half an hour before they could get to Ianto, half an hour in which anything could be happening to him.
They covered the distance as fast as the steep and uneven ground would allow.
Having this to focus on, Jack found, actually helped push back his other fears, keeping them in secondary position where he had some control over it, as least until this was over.
They were both breathless when they reached the SUV, but neither of them slowed down, Gwen running round to the back of it ready for Jack to open the boot so she could retrieve the guns.
The mine must have had road access; although the coal would have been shipped out by train, the workers would have arrived by road. And if there was a road they could drive back to the mine in a fraction of the time it would take to walk. All they needed to find out was where it was.
“Is there another map in there?” Jack said, pulling things out of the glove box, hoping to find one there.
“No, but I've got one,” Gwen said. She opened her pack, and took out the map.
It only took a few moments to locate mine on the map, the faint blue lines of an access road shown leading from it back to the main road. After folding the map back up, Jack put the keys into the ignition.
“Do you really think that's a good idea?” Gwen asked. “Maybe I should drive.”
“I'll be fine,” Jack said. He wanted to have this to concentrate on, needing something to prevent him thinking about their imminent re-entrance to the mine.
Gwen didn't look convinced, but got into the passenger seat beside him.
Moments later, Jack swung the SUV out of the layby, before pushing it quickly up through the gears until it was going as fast as the winding road would allow.
It took less than two minutes to reach the access road to the mine. Unsignposted, it looked like an old farm track, and Jack knew that he wouldn't normally consider it a viable route; the dry stone walls on either side of it were precariously close to the wing mirrors of the SUV.
It did nothing to deter him now. And the SUV pitched and rolled as Jack pushed it to go faster across the rutted surface of the unmetalled road
Ahead, he saw a sagging wooden gate across the track, the timber half rotted with age. There didn't seem to be any point in stopping and attempting to open it, so Jack just drove through it.
“Bloody hell, Jack,” Gwen snapped at him as the shattered timber disappeared under the wheels of the SUV. “Getting us killed or the SUV written off isn't going to help anyone.”
“I know what I'm doing,” Jack replied, eyes fixed on the track and the roofs of the mine buildings that were coming into view. His hands hadn’t stopped shaking since they first entered the mine, and Jack gripped the steering wheel tighter, as though not being able to see the tremors would mean they were no longer happening.
“Do you? Do you really?” Gwen asked still sounding scared and angry.
Jack didn't reply.
Another minute and Jack brought the SUV to a screeching halt outside the mine. Quickly climbing out, they went round to the back and unloaded the guns.
As they approached the entrance to the mine, Gwen moved to stand between it and Jack. “You're not going to zone out again, are you?”
The honest answer was that he didn't know, couldn't know, until he was back in the claustrophobic depths of the mine, whether he was going to be able to function. He decided there was no way he could tell Gwen that, though. So he picked up the energy gun with a determined look on his face, and said, “Of course not. Now let's do this.”
* * * * *
Ianto fell heavily to the ground as metal arms grabbed him and pinned him, squeezing him hard enough to leave a bruise, but at least having the courtesy to not snap his bones as they held him. He winced as the robot pulled him off of the ground, switching its iron grip so that it could carry him down the mineshaft. He could tell that trying to escape this grip would be useless, so he watched and tried to get a look at the metal being carrying him away.
He still held his torch and could see the green metal underside of the robot and was frustrated to discover no seams whatsoever, which would make slipping an explosive inside the creature AT-AT style impossible, even if he had got some. He knew he’d have to keep his eyes peeled at his surroundings, and hopefully something from the mine could be used as a weapon. He could feel the air getting cooler and cooler, though, as they obviously went deeper and deeper into the mine.
A few minutes later, he had to squint as the robot carried him into a place that was distinctly not the mine any more. He drew a sharp breath when he realized that it was a metal hatchway they'd passed through and that they were now progressing down a long, metal hallway toward a brighter light ahead. He was also able to see that he wasn’t the only person who was being carried into the strange place. Another person, obviously a hiker from their attire, was hanging limply in the metal arms of another robot ahead of him. They must have been the source of the scream he and the others had heard earlier.
Maybe they’d tried to escape? Maybe if they worked together an escape would work better this time. It didn’t look as though they were conscious at the moment, though. Ianto went back to ignoring the hard grip of his captor and looking for a way out.
They emerged into a big, hexagon-shaped room with low lighting a minute later, and Ianto noticed that the air smelt stale and musty. He turned his head to get a better look at where the robot was taking him, and he blanched.
Set into the far wall of the room were six metal chairs surrounded by tangles of cable and wires. Four of the chairs were occupied, the people in them wearing metal helmets with wires running out from them. They had also been fitted with metal sleeves on their arms that had multicoloured wires running from them into a nearby computer terminal.
He watched in horror as the robot ahead of them slid the hiker, a woman about Ianto’s age, into one of the free metal seats. The metal helmet was lowered mechanically onto her head, and her arms were pinned to her side as the metal sleeves slipped around them. She was unconscious, but her face was unbruised, and she looked peaceful.
There was another hiker, a man, sitting in the chair next to her who was also unconscious and slack-faced, but the three other people, two men and a woman, did not look peaceful, they were pale as death, their clothing was in tatters and their cheeks hollow. They had obviously been there a while and whether they were even alive was questionable.
Suddenly Ianto was shoved onto the last remaining chair, and the helmet settled down onto his head. It was the feeling of the metal, the sight of the robot holding him into place that brought back the memories of the conversion chambers at Torchwood One and sent Ianto reeling.
A moment earlier he’d been rationally trying to examine the room for some method of escape, and now he was seeing Cybermen streaming in through the hatch entrance, hearing screams and smelling smoke. He screamed and writhed, adrenaline kicking in as unadulterated fear coursed through his veins. Lashing out, he grabbed the robotic arm in front of him and wrenched it, hearing metal scrape on metal and seeing smoke rise from the joint.
With some effort he managed to free himself from the metal chair and scramble away to another corner of the room, and that was when he saw it. Lying on the hard metal floor was a long, black cable, coiled like a snake next to a bank of computers.
As one of the droids skittered over to try and capture him again, Ianto grabbed the cable and poured all of his strength into wrapping it around as many legs as he could. He managed to loop the cable around all four of them in one swipe and wrenched it tight around the legs. The robot clanged to the floor, squirming futilely until smoke poured from where its limbs connected to its body, and it fell to the ground with a grinding of gears, and then there was silence.
The other droid had detected what had happened, and Ianto had to duck as it closed on him and swiped at him with a metal arm. Unable to see another piece of cable, Ianto clambered across the floor away from it.
The ceiling of the room was fairly low, and when Ianto looked up he saw another cable. It ran the length of the ceiling, and Ianto was tall enough to jump and grab it. As he pulled it sparks flew and a buzzing sound filled the room, as suddenly the lights on the chairs holding the hikers went dim.
He yanked the cable again, and as the second robot closed on him he managed to pull it free. He lunged, wrapping the cable again. This time the robot got a good kick into Ianto’s side, but he gritted his teeth and reached again, getting the cable around the four steel legs of the robot. He yanked again, pulling and groaning and finally seeing the smoke and hearing the gears again, and this robot, too, fell to the ground with a thud.
“Not much on the defensive skills, are they?” he said to no one in particular, and he took a few deep breaths, leaning on the wall nearby to catch his breath. After a moment, he heard a gasp from behind, and when he turned around he saw that the woman who had been brought in with him had awoken. He rushed to her side. “Hey, it’s okay. Just hang on; I’ll get you out of there.”
The woman’s brown eyes went wide when she saw him, and she struggled against the restraints.
“Wait, just try to stay still. I’ve got to figure out how to get these arm restraints off,” Ianto said.
She looked at him in panic. “Who are you?”
“Ianto Jones, ma’am.” He leaned in for a closer inspection and was disheartened by the lack of a clasp or locking mechanism that he could wrench with to get it off. The metal was seamless and solid. The woman had leaned back, was taking deep breaths, and Ianto looked up at her.
“Are you hurt?” he asked.
She didn’t respond right away, and he wondered if there was some sort of drug involved in the arm sleeve. But then she gave a hysterical laugh and said, “You mean besides being trapped by a robot inside a metal thing in a mine?”
He gave her a wry grin in return and stepped over to the other hiker, who, based on the missing persons description he'd read, Ianto thinks might be Meredith Price, and felt for his pulse. He was alive. When Ianto checked the other three people his heart sagged as he realized they were all dead. Too late. He stepped back to get a better look at the computers lining the walls. One set had gone dim when he pulled the cable, but it didn’t affect the restraint system in place.
He knelt down at the base of the holding chair and spent a couple of minutes tracing wires, hoping to find one connected to some sort of power source before any more of those robots came back. He hoped Gwen would be back soon; being around these machines was making him more than a little jumpy.
Eventually he found a wire that might be the one, and he yanked it. As he did a soft hissing noise came from the chair the woman was sitting in, and he looked up to see that the metal casing on her arms had slid down off of her, and she slumped forward.
Ianto caught her and eased her down to the floor in a sitting position, and at that moment he heard voices he’d been wishing for, Gwen was talking to Jack, so he called out, “Gwen, over here!”
Jack and Gwen rushed into the room and Jack rushed to Ianto’s side. “Are you all right?” His voice sounded ragged, worry permeating his gaze as well as his voice.
Ianto found that the sight of him was overwhelming, so he just nodded and grinned. Gwen knelt down next to him and the woman.
“What happened here, Ianto?” she asked.
“Well, I managed to stop those two robots; there’s no sign of any more. Here,” he said, scooting away from the woman and letting Gwen slide in behind to hold her up, and he knelt down next to the other chair. “He’s alive, just unconscious.” Ianto pulled the same wire that had freed the other woman and the metal casing holding the man up slid off as well. Ianto caught him in his arms and looked at Jack.
“What do we do now?” he asked.
Jack looked around the room. “This ship’s been stuck here a long time. They must use organic technology to power and control the ship. I’ll bet those chairs were part of the main control station for the original crew.” He stood and moved to a computer panel, biting his lip and typing for a few moments. The screen in front of him lit up with words in a language Ianto had never seen before.
Jack read for a minute and turned back to them. “It’s a research vessel. The log talks about the crash here – it crashed and was buried. It’s been here a very, very long time.” He paused and typed some more. “The communications are obviously burnt out and the crew has been dead for a long time. These robots must be operating under their old programming; they were just trying to get the ship up and running again.”
Gwen looked up at him. “So what do we do, Jack?”
He looked around the room. “We destroy it. Most of this tech is useless to us, and not much works any more anyway, and we can't risk more of those droids activating and taking more people. I think I can rig it to blow with a little work.”
“Do we really want to get rid of it?” Gwen asked.
Ianto agreed. Blowing a ship to pieces without any exploration seemed . . . wasteful. There was also the issue of the dead hikers, and the three that remained unaccounted for. Although he suspected that they were dead as well, their bodies moved from the chairs to make space for the living.
“There’s nothing here that I don’t already know, and it’s not going to do anything but be a liability. We have to get rid of it.”
“Okay.” Gwen nodded reluctantly as she looked at the dead men and women in the alien chairs, her eyes sad with the realisation that they were too late to save anybody else.
“You two get these hikers out of here,” Jack said as he turned back to the bank of computers.
“Are you sure? I don't think we shouldn’t leave you here alone,” Gwen replied.
He shook his head, “You two need to get these people out of here. I'll be alright. This won’t take long.”
Ianto stood and hoisted the man onto his shoulders. “Be careful, Jack.”
Jack nodded and Ianto and Gwen looked at each other as she helped the woman to her feet. They started out of the ship and back into the mine, separating from Jack once more.
Only once they were gone did he turn his attention back to the ship and how to destroy it.
He knew there would almost certainly have been far more droids on a ship this size, definitely more than the half dozen they'd encountered. The ship's systems were probably already working to activate more to replace the ones they'd destroyed.
Buried deep in the mine, the Nelemid ship was surprisingly well preserved, considering it must have lain there for centuries. Jack knew it must have been that long as the force the ship would need to have crashed with to bury it that far into the ground would be considerable. If the mine workings had been in existence at the time of the crash they would have collapsed, burying the miners alive.
He suspected that the reason that the ship and its droids had only just become active lay in the recent test fracking being carried out a couple of valleys over. The fracking had caused a minor earthquake just as the ones carried out in Lancashire had, only here it had triggered the partial collapse of a section of tunnel wall which had resulted in the ship and its droids having access to the surface for the first time since the ship crashed.
Inside the ship, the air is cool with a vaguely metallic tang. It's a familiar scent to Jack, who'd spent so many years aboard various ships prior to being stranded on Earth. He took several deep, shuddering breaths of it, trying to clear the damp earth smell of the mine from his nose.
It was harder with Gwen and Ianto gone to push down his fears, and as Jack reached the engine room, his chest was once more starting to feel tight from the fast, shallow breathes he was taking.
The engine, Jack was pleased to note, was of a relatively simple design. And a quick inspection revealed that it would just be a case of re-routing the power flow past the fuses and switching off the regulator, which was designed to prevent just the sort of power build up that Jack was planning to create.
The fuses would have to be removed first, otherwise there was the possibility that, with the regulator off, the charge passing through them would have already built to a critical level and they would explode when he wrenched them free of their housing.
Cold sweat beaded on his forehead, as he removed the fuses. The knowledge that the consequences of making a mistake would range from bad, such as having his hand blown off, to catastrophic with the engine room exploding and bringing down tens of thousands of tonnes of rock and metal on top of him, added to the steadily growing feeling of panic that was setting in.
Jack's hands were shaking by the time the last of the fuses were removed. With that job finished, he turned away from the engine and leant his back against a wall.
Closing his eyes, he tried to breathe more evenly, but the air seemed as if it were getting thinner, the once familiar metallic tang mutated into something choking and bitter.
It was an effort to keep the task on track when every nerve in his body was screaming 'get out, get out now' but Jack forced himself to open his eyes again, and turn his attention to the engine control panel.
Concentration slipping, Jack knew that he wouldn't get a second chance at it should he fail. Eventually, he managed to get into the control panel's systems menu, and started making the changes needed to switch off the regulator.
Only once Jack was sure he'd switched off every safety feature he could think of did he finally press the engine ignition button and wait.
For a moment nothing happened, and then there was a deep thrumming noise as the ancient engines started to power up, the feeder tubes to the main energy relays glowing brighter and brighter as the stored charge increased.
There was no time for satisfaction at a job well done as Jack knew that he now had just minutes to exit the mine.
Rationally, Jack knew he'd given himself plenty of time to get out of the mine, but rational thought was quickly departing again. His breathing becoming ragged once more, he shoved himself out of the engine room and tore down the metal hallway to the hatch. Moments later he was back in the mine, stumbling when his feet hit the uneven and rocky ground of the mine floor.
He caught himself, stood up, clapped off the dirt and rubble sticking to his sweaty hands, and started running. He was running so fast that he kept tripping, and while he knew he should slow down, it was as if he was watching himself from above, careening through the cave like a pinball, gripping his torch tightly but unable to actually control his own limbs and behave rationally.
The mine shaft seemed to narrow, the walls closing in on him, while the air was getting thinner and harder to breathe. After a couple of minutes of running, he fell once again, his boot catching on the rusted rails, and his vision swam as the world seemed to tilt on its axis.
He clenched his eyes shut, gulped at the air and opened his eyes, stumbling to his feet again. He had to get out of there. The mud would come, the dirt would fill his nostrils, his hands would be bound to his sides with rocky bands, and he would be trapped here with these ghosts forever – this is what he knew was waiting for him if his feet couldn’t carry him out of the mine.
He couldn’t stop gulping at the thin air, and the phantom sound of mud raining down on him made his chest constrict in fear, but he willed his feet forward, threw his arms out to try and keep from falling any more, and stumbled out of the mine.
* * * * *
As he did so, he heard a sound from the mine, and looked up to see Jack stumbling out into the light. His face was streaked with sweat and dirt, eyes wild and unfocused, and Ianto realized that Jack hadn’t even slowed down as he emerged. He was stumbling past when Ianto reached out and caught his shoulders and heard the familiar gasps from earlier.
His heart sank as he realized that Jack had been thrown back into another panic attack, and he steadied Jack and said, “Shhh. Settle down. Breathe, Jack. Breathe. You’re safe. You’re safe with me and Gwen and we’re out of the mine and everything’s going to be all right. Breathe, Jack, please.”
But even as Ianto saw him fight to control his breathing and knew he was trying to settle down, his gasps turned to sobs, and Jack’s body trembled as tears streamed down his face. Ianto guided them far enough from the mine entrance to feel safer, and then eased him down into the grass again. He sat down next to Jack and was surprised when he was enveloped in a clinging embrace and he was selfishly gratified that he was able to hold Jack again, to offer comfort to him when he hadn’t been allowed to before.
Kneeling down next to Jack, Gwen asked, “How are you feeling, any better?”
When Jack didn't reply she looked at Ianto, as questioning look in her eyes.
“I don't know either,” Ianto said pre-empting her question. “He's not said anything to me.”
Gwen thought for a moment then said, “Maybe we should get the paramedics to check Jack over once they've seen to the hikers.”
“No,” Jack said looking up at her, his voice hoarse. It was bad enough being this weak in front of Gwen and Ianto, to allow complete strangers to see him like this was more than he could take. “I'll be okay.”
“You're not okay,” Gwen said, exasperated. “You've not been anything like okay the whole time we've been here.”
“I know!” Jack snapped back before he could stop himself. Standing, he pulled free of Ianto's comforting embrace. The shocked looks on their faces was more than he felt able to deal with, and he turned away from them before the looks turned to ones of pity. “Just leave me alone.”
“Will it help?” Ianto asked sounding doubtful that it would, and disappointed but unsurprised that Jack was pushing him away again.
Jack stopped, shoulders slumping. He felt cold and weak and tired now that the adrenaline rush that had fuelled his flight from the mine was receding. He hung his head and closed his eyes, aware of how much he was still trembling. “I don't know.”
“Then come on and sit back down,” Gwen said, with an encouraging smile.
Jack couldn't find any will to disagree and allowed Gwen to walk him back to Ianto, and help him sit down.
As he did there was a rumble deep below the earth, the ground beneath their feet shuddering, as a cloud of dust burst from the entrance to the mine, then all was still.
“The ship,” Gwen said looking towards the mine entrance where the dust cloud was settling across the ground.
Jack nodded, feeling exhausted. He'd hoped there would be some kind of relief when the ship was destroyed, removing the possibility that he would have to go back underground, only there's nothing, just a fuzzy sort of numbness that's neither good nor bad.
They sat quietly together, Jack's ragged breathing slowly become more even, until the whir of rotors could be heard coming nearer, and a few moments later the bright red helicopter came into sight over the top the high ground surrounding the valley
“I'll go and talk to them,” Gwen said, although she looked reluctant to leave Jack. “We need to find out which hospital they're taking the hikers to. We might need to retcon them if they remember too much about being in the mine.”
“It might be better to give it to them anyway,” Jack said, hating the way his voice shook. “They shouldn't have to remember that place. Being trapped, helpless. It does things to...” He stopped and swallowed hard, as a fresh wave of nausea surged through him.
“Hey.” Ianto put his hand over Jack's and threaded their fingers together. He knew only to well that feeling of utter helplessness, the images if the fall of Torchwood One and of Brynblaidd in all it cannibalistic horror, still caught him sometimes. Their power to ambush him and drag him back there, powerless to fight the terror consuming him was something that he was convinced would be with him for the rest of his life. “Stay with me okay? You're safe. It's over, remember?”
The helicopter circled twice more, searching for the best place to land, before landing on an area of flat ground to the side of the entrance to the mine. Gwen waited until the paramedics had got out before going over to them,
“I'm sorry,” Ianto said once Gwen had gone.
“For letting yourself get caught?” Jack asked uncertainly, everything going on around him still seemed a little disjointed.
“No. Not for that.” Ianto looked down. “For not realising how much you were hurting until now. I should have helped you more.”
Jack sighed. There really wasn't any way Ianto or Gwen could have helped more than they had. Not when he'd resisted or outright refused all their attempts at closeness or conversation since it happened. Ever since Gray's reappearance and Owen and Tosh's deaths it had felt like he'd been caught in a mire of grief and guilt, the overwhelming weight of it all dragging him down into darkness.
“Are you going to be alright?” Ianto asked when Jack hadn't replied.
“Eventually,” Jack said, his voice still scratchy. The mind numbing panic he’d felt inside the mine was slowly receding, but he still felt emotionally raw, his usual defences stripped bare by everything that had happened.
Ianto gave his hand a small squeeze. “I know how hard it can be to talk about things, but I’m here, and Gwen is too, if you want to talk.”
“Not yet,” Jack said, surprised by how much relief he felt just by knowing the option was there, even though he knew there was a chance that he’d never be ready to talk about any of it. “But thank you. Having you and Gwen here, it helps.”
Despite his heavy greatcoat, Jack felt chilled to the bone, and he moved closer to Ianto until they were sitting shoulder to shoulder on the rock. After a few minutes had passed, Jack felt Ianto tentatively put his arm around him.
Leaning against him, Jack closed his eyes, finally allowing himself to accept the comfort and reassurance being offered and which he'd been denying himself.
Only once the hikers were safely on board the helicopter and its rotors were spinning again in preparation for take-off, did Gwen rejoin them.
Gwen came and leaned into Jack for a moment and then stepped toward the car. “Give me the keys, right?” she said with a smile.
Ianto watched as Jack hesitated and then dug them out of his pocket and tossed them to her.
She nodded and unlocked it, heading for the driver’s side. Ianto felt Jack lean against his shoulder as they both walked over to climb into the car themselves. They settled into the back seat and as Gwen drove toward the main road, he felt Jack sag into him and he wrapped his arms around his lover with a small smile. It felt good to hold him again, and maybe now, maybe after all of this, they could all climb out of the dark together.