The ship shuddered out of Shanghai harbour as the engines ground and whirred, and a wake big enough to surf on travelled the length of the liner, from bow to stern, parallel with the wave painted between the lowest of the windows. On the top decks, the pleasant and open stern, passengers waved aimlessly at dots on the quay and little boats bobbing in the inky waters behind them, and watched the city drop away like a magic trick.
Inside his admittedly spacious, luxuriant, and light-filled berth, Ianto Jones groaned at the vibrations, pulled a fluffy pillow over his face with feeble hands, and waited with gritted teeth for the painkillers to kick in.
It wasn't just that their first mission hadn't exactly gone to plan – although it really, really hadn't, unless Ianto had missed something and the plan had actually been 'nearly get Mickey killed by a) an alien symbiote posing as a biologist and b) hypothermia caused by attempts to escape from the same, and while we're at it, why not have Ianto almost bleed to death thanks to a stomach wound?' – no, it wasn't just that their mission had gone tits-up.
It was more that the aftermath hadn't been fantastic either – they'd had to break John out of a police station after he showed up back in Anadyr covered in blood and looking dazed, because John was to subtle what icebergs were to the Titanic; in the process Ianto had somewhat predictably pulled his stitches badly, and now the words 'infection', 'penicillin', and 'opiates' were very present in his life, and he was without a doubt going to have a scar across his abdomen which made his appendectomy scar look like a freckle.
Ianto really hoped Jack liked scars.
K-9 was 'on-duty', which essentially meant the little robot dog had to do nothing but stop Ianto from trying to call Cardiff every five minutes – Mickey had confiscated the Vortex Manipulator, but there was a telephone in every room – and to ration out his codeine pills so that after the first three he didn't just start taking the rest willy-nilly in a fog of opiates.
Ianto resented all this enormously, but there wasn't a lot he could do, because every time he tried to get up and argue his stomach felt like it was on fire, and the bandages got stained with pus, and the smell of the pus made him feel sick, but if he was actually sick then he pulled the stitches again and the healing process got set back and there was more pus. Right now he'd given up and was wearing a VISIT SHANGHAI t-shirt and some pyjama bottoms, and was lying on his back feeling somewhat sorry for himself.
The door beeped, then banged open, and Ianto tried to sink into the mattress, willing himself liquid until whoever it was went away again and left him to hurt in peace, but as the laws of physics had yet to cede to human will (regardless of what that whining evangelical prat Pye had insisted throughout his childhood), Ianto remained infuriatingly solid and visible upon the bed, surrounded by a wonderfully soft duvet that he simply couldn't be bothered to pull over himself.
"You know you don't have to stay in here," John pointed out, striding in without a hello and immediately rifling through the bedside drawers in search of something or other – what, Ianto could only guess at and didn't want to think too hard on – and bringing with him the smell of rum-based cocktails and smugness mingled with that manufactured but unfortunately effective waft of 51st-century pheromones. Ianto also resented John's ability to smell like sex all the fucking time.
"What do you want?" Ianto growled, lifting the pillow off his face just enough to make sure John didn't steal anything important.
"Your room tab," John dumped something on the floor, which smashed. "If you are going to sulk all the way to Panama I'm having your booze allowance too. And your meals. And anything else that looks interesting. Oh, but you can't drink on that tedious backwards 21st-century medicine anyway, can you? Boring." He threw something else on the floor. It thumped. "Ooh, holy books. Why would anyone have time to read one of those? There are five bars." He slammed the draw shut. "Come on deck, Eye-Candy. Sea air is good for you. And there are dolphins."
"Approximately how long have you been interested in dolphins?" Ianto asked him suspiciously. "You can't fuck them and you're not allowed to kill them, what possible interest do they have for – you know what, if you can fuck them I desperately do not want to hear about it."
"I don't. You do," John's tone was automatically infuriating, lazy and typically very sure of itself.
"And why would you care what's good for me, you fucking lunatic?" Ianto raised himself woozily onto his elbows, his stomach only twinging a little rather than shrieking out with sudden pus-laced pain as it had done a mere hour before, when he'd taken the pills. "The number of times you've nearly got me killed … don't tell me you've magically developed a sense of compassion."
"The coffee on this ship is complete shit," John admitted with a grin that was more wolfish and less charming than Jack's but still recognisable as coming from the same hand-guide on charisma. Ianto felt suddenly and acutely homesick.
"Please get the hell out," Ianto grumbled, pulling the pillow almost entirely back over his face. "Fall in the sea. Drown. Just go away."
"What, did you want me to have your best interests at black and twisted heart, is that it?" John leered, swinging on the door like a small boy instead of the short, awful, forty-year-old man he actually was. "To nurse you back to health and buy you flowers," he said in a sing-song voice.
"I wouldn't want anything of mine near any organ of yours," Ianto said with great dignity, rolling his eyes against the brushed-cotton pillow case. "I've already got one infection."
"Touchy, touchy," John snorted. "I'm not the one with the inferior immune system." He banged the door behind him.
After that Ianto must have fallen asleep – when he pulled the pillow off his face against at last the shadows were different, longer, and his stomach ached again. He was also incredibly hungry, which was bad, because sitting up to eat was painful and the painkillers also tended to kill his appetite. Something else was different, something was changed, but he couldn't work out what.
"K-9?" he ventured, staring at the ceiling with his eyes screwed up futilely against the pain.
"Master?" the dog beeped.
"What time is it?"
"Time in current location is forty-eight minutes past seven pm and thirty … nine seconds," K-9 said helpfully.
Ianto blinked a startled blink. He didn't think he'd slept for so long, that he could have had that long without one or the other of his teammates coming in to his room to either annoy him or reassure him that he could call back and check on Three, as they'd taken to calling the Hub, when they got to their first week-long stop, in the lovely Chuuk lagoon in the South Seas.
("Jack knows where we are, Ianto," Mickey had pointed out about twenty times while they were still in Shanghai, "if he needs us at all he'll get hold of us right away.")
But K-9 was not capable of lying, and hardly prone to inaccuracy, so nearly eight at night it almost certainly was.
Ianto sat up.
His stomach swore at him in the universal language of Ouch, and the smell of infection hit his nose, the back of his throat, like something solid. It was going to need cleaning, the dressings changing again, and Ianto was never sure he was doing it properly. "I wish Martha was here," he muttered, tightening his hands convulsively to hold back the pain. What he actually wished, if he thought about it for a second, was that he was back in Cardiff, preferably without a gaping abdominal tear.
The thought occurred that he needn't even go out foraging for sustenance – this was after all a hotel, albeit one with an engine room. He'd worked in hotels when he was younger, in the BT (Before Torchwood) years. It was possible he could in fact rely on the magic of room service – they were after all on Torchwood's surprisingly prodigious expense account, John was probably running up the GDP of a major European country in the bar, and who was it who authorized expenses most of the time? That was right. Ianto sodding injured Jones.
He could … the decadence of the idea temporarily stunned him. He could order a bloody sandwich and eat it here, in his pyjamas, and not risk yanking his stitches one iota by getting dressed.
Ianto picked up the phone handset, and got absolute silence. No hiss, no dial tone, no operator. Nothing. So much for that genius idea – he checked that the cable was actually plugged in. It was.
"K-9, why isn't the phone working?" Ianto put the handset back in its cradle.
"Oh, very helpful."
"Sarcasm noted, Master."
Ianto considered just flopping back onto the bed, but his stomach made an angry sound at him, like a deprived dog. "Why am I so hungry?" he muttered.
"Statistical likelihood that Master has digested all consumed nutrients required for maintaining his body."
"I've only been asleep five hours, and I just had a bowl of –"
"Five hours and three days," K-9 corrected.
Ianto stared at the little tin dog, his eyebrows bouncing off each other like the weighted balls of an office toy. "… I … what?"
"Five hours and three days," K-9 beeped. "Minute and second values provided if necessary."
"That's not even possible," Ianto muttered, rubbing his hair. It stood up. "Why didn't you say so earlier?"
"I was not asked, Master."
Ianto couldn't help rolling his eyes at this. His stomach made another petulant growling sound. "So where are we now?"
K-9 sat silent and dark for a moment. "Insufficient data."
"Insufficient data?" Ianto yelped. "There are GOD KNOWS how many global positioning satellites circling this fucking planet, you must be able to get a fix on one of them, you ridiculous dog – "
There was another lengthy pause, punctuated only by a whirring sound and some low-level beeps. "Unable to make contact with any satellites, Master."
"Alright," Ianto said, a sense of determination underscoring his rumbling belly as he got gingerly to his feet. "I'm going to - ow - to find out what the hell is going on here." There was a short, embarrassed silence, and he added, "K-9?"
"I think it's probably time for another pill."
"Affirmative, Master. Your last pill should have been taken two days and three hours ago." A small drawer between K-9's 'eyes' slid open noiselessly, offering up a single pale orange pill in its exact centre. Ianto swallowed it dry, winced, and closed his eyes.
"If I've been out cold for three days … where are the others? I don't see John managing to keep out of here and not harass me for that long," he mused, mostly to himself.
"Insufficient data. Something is blocking my sensors."
"I do not have sufficient data to determine this, Master. Something is blocking my sensors."
Ianto gave the dog a suspicious look and rubbed his hair again, frowning. "That sounded like sarcasm."
He sighed and put his hand on the door handle. He looked down at himself, at his bare feet, at the off-white bandages visible between the sagging waistband of his pyjama trousers and the hem of his hideous tourist t-shirt. "I really, really hope no one sees me like this. Come on, K-9."
The corridors were eerily quiet and free of any movement, silent as the – Ianto stamped on the simile before it could alarm him further. The ship swayed slightly under his feet and all at once he realised what was missing besides the voices of passengers – the thrum and throb of engines, their vibration and the swish and dip of the liner moving forwards.
"I think we're adrift," he murmured, touching the wall beside him.
"High statistical probability, Master," K-9 agreed, trundling along beside him on the red-and-maroon carpet.
"You can't be sure?"
"Something is blocking – "
"Your sensors. Yes, you said." Ianto stopped to check a huge plastic print of the floor-plan, unsure of what he was looking for – his stomach gurgled impatiently, and he pressed on towards the nearest marked one of the bars.
The whole way there he didn't encounter a single other person or hear another human voice. Ianto began to feel slightly spooked by this all-enveloping silence; he caught a kind of hum, just on the edge of hearing, from the bar, and quickened his pace as much as the jarring on his infected gash would allow.
The bar door's windows were high and round, and Ianto pushed the door open with his shoulder without thinking to check for any threat that might lie beyond them.
He stood in the doorway, his throat working violently, as the door swung back and hit him in the shoulder again almost unfelt; there were a lot of people in the bar, but there were even more flies, their buzzing giving rise to a nauseating frequency of sound to wash over what was already a lunch-losing sight.
Ianto turned his face into his shoulder to cover his nose and mouth and to shut out as much of the sight and smell as he could. "Jesus." He could feel his stomach muscles trying to clench and, for the sake of his wound, he fought the bilious twitches as best he could. The stench was overwhelming, putting his own meagre infection to shame.
After a moment or two steadying himself, Ianto flinched and took a step into the room. It was low-ceilinged, well-lit, and very wide, running maybe a third of the width of the huge ship to large portholes on one side, and opening out through glass doors onto a terraced deck at the back, all the way to the sea. Between Ianto and the sternward doors lay a pool table still racked up for a break, several chairs, a bar with mirrored walls, and about three to four hundred dead passengers sprawled across the floor in a soup of something that might have been congealed blood, if blood could be relied upon to have the consistency of tapioca pudding.
The flies inhabited every face.
Ianto felt his gorge attempting to rise again, and his nostrils flared. He stepped carefully among the bodies, a new violent surge of nausea striking him each time his foot encountered something wet, or solid, or not instantly recognisable as floor. A fly tried to explore his face – Ianto brushed it away and baulked as he realised where else its tiny feet must have already walked.
"No human vital signs in this room except for you, Master," K-9 said, coming in deafeningly loud through the insects, through the fog of opiates and shock.
Ianto swallowed a mouthful of bitter saliva and picked his way towards the stern door like a fastidious housewife through a room the family cat has shat in; he no longer had any real plans besides getting out into the open air so that he could stop gagging and think.
With slow deliberation and an involuntary twitch every time something squelched under his feet, brushing flies away from his face, Ianto made his way to the huge glass doors.
They were shut. He slid them open easily, and once the breeze had blown some of his nervous sweat dry on his brow, he turned back to the desolation he had waded through. K-9 was following with marked difficulty, unable to just step over the corpses as Ianto had.
"Oh, God," Ianto said weakly.
"My thoughts exactly," said John Hart in a hushed voice, right by his ear.
Ianto nearly jumped out of his skin.
"Did you - " Ianto stepped clumsily sideways to get out of the radius of John's breath, which smelt rampantly of some sort of out-of-control distillery, " – did you do all this?"
John gave him a look that took a while to interpret – a little disgusted, a little hurt, a little disappointed. "What? Fuck no … this isn't my style, is it?" he cast around for a minute, apparently taking in the devastation with the air of a connoisseur. "Well maybe occasionally. But what would be the point? I had my eye on at least a dozen people on this floating sin palace." John eyeballed him closely, and Ianto fought with the desire to punch him in the face. "The dishevelled-in-pyjamas look suits you, Eye-Candy. You should try it out in my bed sometime. Or out of pyjamas."
Ianto said, "I can't believe you're trying to flirt in a room full of corpses. Not even you would sink that low. Please tell me you wouldn't."
"Just did." John made a face. "It stinks in here."
"It's full of corpses," Ianto reminded him, a touch hysterically. "Where the hell have you been?" He sighed as he watched the little robot dog take a long detour around what had once been a group of pensioners on some kind of chartered holiday.
John frowned. "I only passed out for a few fucking hours."
"What?" John sounded affronted. "Even I get too drunk to function now and then, I'm not the fucking intergalactic boozing champion anymore! We left Shanghai, I got friendly with the expense account and a couple of bar staff, I had a lot of whiskey and a bit of a doze on the golf course down there, the next thing I know I wake up here and find you looking pretty and confused in the middle of barroom carnage."
"You passed out the same day we left Shanghai?" Ianto closed his eyes. "I need more air."
"What are you on about?"
"You've been out for three days," Ianto muttered, stumbling past him into the mercifully fresh and chill salt of the evening's sea air. "And so have I, apparently. K-9?"
"Master?" the little robot struggled out of the bar and onto the deck behind him.
"Any word on where we are?" Ianto leaned hard on a plastic 'garden' table which looked woefully out of place and shut his eyes as the sea air did its best to sweep the scent of death off him. He wondered if it would be unduly feeble to sink onto the floor for a bit.
"Sensors still blocked, Master. Unable to access positioning satellites."
"You can't just figure it out from the Earth's magnetic field?" John scoffed from somewhere behind him. "Some robot you are. Who built you, Sirius Cybernetics?"
"My sensors are blocked," K-9 reiterated. If it was possible for an artificially intelligent metal canine on castors to sound prim, K-9 sounded very prim.
John made a sound of disgust. Ianto straightened up.
"We should find out if anyone else is still alive … and where the hell Mickey is – "
"Oh really?" John sneered. "And who died and made you the leader of this team, tea boy?"
"Hopefully no one," Ianto bit back, rather pointedly.
"I don't have a gun," John pointed out in a whiny voice. He sounded like a child deprived of its favourite toy, which Ianto suspected was very close to being the case.
"We're trying to find people who are still alive, I doubt you with a weapon is going to improve the odds of them staying that way."
"Oh right, and if the thing that killed all those people in there is still on board you're going to snark it to death, is that right?" John snapped.
"I can't just pull a gun out of – " Ianto stopped in mid-sentence and briefly considered what he knew of John Hart, especially the things he'd never wanted to know and been told anyway. John grinned at him and bounced on the toes of his stupid ugly boots. " – and if you can, I don't want to know about it."
"At least let me get a drink," John said, and now he was outright sulky.
John skidded away on the gelatinous covering of the barroom floor, skipped through the bodies like a child through a field of daisies, and vaulted over the bar.
"He's been waiting for ages to do something like that, hasn't he?" Ianto murmured. "Drama queen."
John stood up, brandishing a bottle of something golden, and clutching something else in his other hand. He snaked round the bar this time, leading with his hips (Ianto wished for perhaps the millionth time that the man would do his belt up properly; there was very little decent or bearable about a middle-aged man with his hips hanging out, no matter how good a shape he was in), and as soon as he was in range he lobbed something blue and shiny directly at Ianto, who fumbled but caught clumsily against his chest.
It was a packet of KP roasted salted peanuts. Quite what a British brand of snack was doing in a bar on an American-owned ship sailing from China to Panama Ianto wasn't too interested in finding out.
"Dunno about you," John explained, presumably because Ianto looked like he'd just been handed a dog turd, "but I'm bloody ravenous." He tore open his own packet of nuts as he strolled between the corpses.
"How can you possibly still have an appetite after all this?" Ianto said, aghast and still a little surprised by the presence of peanuts at all.
"I'm hungry," John said as if it was the most obvious answer in the world, "I didn't magically become full just because the bar smells of dead tourists."
Ianto caught the obvious call-back of his own idiom, but he simply shoved a peanut into his mouth without any enthusiasm and turned to look at the sea in the hopes that it would stop him feeling so disoriented. It didn't. "K-9?"
"Do you at least have a schematic of the ship?" Ianto asked, fully expecting the answer to be in the negative.
"Well thank God for that. Can we get back inside the rest of the ship without going through that bloody bar again?"
"Affirmative. The room next to the bar also opens onto this deck. It is designated 'Ballroom #3: The Hayley Carmichael Ballroom'."
Ianto peered over his shoulder. John was standing in the doorway behind him, drinking tequila from the bottle with his head tipped back and his throat naked and stretched like a bird at a birdbath. "Any idea where Micky might be?"
"None – " John wiped the excess tequila from his lips with his hand and wrist. "Haven't seen him since we left Shanghai, pretty much. He went one way, I went another."
"Exactly … when … did you pass out drunk, John?" Ianto frowned as he jiggled the handle to the ballroom door. It was locked, of course.
John looked almost sheepish. "About an hour and a half after I tried to force you to have some fun for once and you stupidly refused."
Ianto stared at him for a minute, managed to contain his irritation, and said, "An hour and a half?"
"Look, have you ever tried to down a litre of whiskey in one?" John said, becoming quite embarrassed and fidgety. "I'm out of practice, it's this fucking era of yours, everything is so tame, you're all lightweights …"
"No, I haven't." Ianto jiggled the door handle again. "K-9, would you?" he added, "Because I am neither insane nor suicidal." He kept the 'anymore' part to himself: on the very long list of personal information John Hart had no reason to be introduced to, how he'd felt and behaved after losing Lisa was quite close to the 'NEVER EVER ANY OF HIS FUCKING BUSINESS' header. "K-9?"
"Unlock this, would you?" Ianto's stomach gurgled and he hastened to silence it with more slightly flatulent peanuts.
"Why so desperate to find old Mick-aye Smiff anyway?" John remarked, stepping through the door as it opened and giving the empty room a quick sweep, a narrow-eyed reconnaissance stare.
"One, he's in charge of this team," Ianto growled, following him at a distance. The distance was one he'd calculated on the plane to Shanghai from Heathrow, the optimum distance for remaining out of John's horrible personal-space invasion tactics, but close enough to be able to throttle him to death when Ianto's temper finally snapped.
"Nominally," John sneered, poking a spangly blue curtain with the butt of his tequila bottle.
"Two, he has the only potential means of communication we have with the outside world. Everything else seems to be dead." Ianto was aware of slurring a little thanks to the bloody codeine, but he also wasn't aware of his infected gouge anymore, which was, he thought, an acceptable trade. "So far I don't know how long we've been adrift, where we are, or if anything or anyone has been able to track us. The Pacific Ocean is big, John, I want to get hold of Cardiff and get us some bloody help!"
"And Mickey has my Vortex Manipulator," John said, peering behind the curtain. "Oooh, fireworks."
"And Mickey has the Vortex Manipulator," Ianto finished. "You don't seem … bothered."
"This is a nice ship. You know if there's been any externally-generated major temporal distortion that thing will be malfunctioning like a toddler with a head-injury," John added, returning with a cardboard box of what Ianto hoped weren't but suspected probably were fireworks. "Design flaw. Bit of a huge one, really. It's how the Lovely Jack and I ended up stuck in a Time Loop for five wildly romantic years. Partly."
Ianto ignored the goad with greater ease than he might have done a few hours – three days – ago; the codeine was good for that, too. "Temporal distortion? Why the hell would there be – "
"We were out for three days," John said, examining a yellow box marked ' Firecra'. "If your fucking dog isn't lying. Which it probably is. But, y'know, even when I'm re-growing my entire liver from the back-up patch I'm not out that fucking long. When was the last time you spent three days flat on your back … " John trailed off and leered at him, "… and unconscious?"
"Put those down," Ianto said, barely containing a twitch.
"Spoilsport," John said, stuffing a box of 'herine Wheel' into his inside jacket pocket. "You never know when you might need something to explode a little."
"What is that, your family motto?" Ianto sighed, leaving the ballroom via the back door.
"No, that was money always comes first," John said without even a trace of mirth, not even the hint of a smile. "Penge altid kommer først, para önce tüm."
The first three corridors they explored were empty and silent, though the third was partially blocked at the other end by the already-festering body of a plump holiday-maker in a red baseball cap. John sidestepped around the hapless cruise passenger without breaking his pace; Ianto put his free hand over his nose and mouth, spilling peanuts from the open packet he still clutched with the other.
"Why are we alive if all these people aren't?" He asked, muffled by his fingers but not at all keen to remove his hand for the sake of mere clarity.
"Don't question good luck," John suggested, bounding down the next corridor with his tequila raised like a club over his head. "Otherwise it stops being lucky."
"I don't believe in luck."
"Really? You know what your darling Captain's nickname was at the Agency?" John kicked a body in some sort of service uniform out of Ianto's way and took an exaggerated swig of his tequila.
"I'm not interested in his life before Torchwood," Ianto said stiffly. It was probably obvious just how much it bothered Ianto that John had known Jack for longer than he; at this moment he didn't really care what John did and didn't know about that.
"Liar," John said cheerfully, pointing the lip of the bottle at Ianto's face. "And his name was Lucky."
"Oh, and what was yours? Arsehole?" Ianto muttered, tip-toeing between two small bodies, trying desperately not to let his bare, dry-dirty toes touch the slimmest millimetre of what had once been a pair of little girls in sailor dresses.
"Actually it was 'Mr. Deathwish'," John paused by an open doorway and held up a finger. He craned his head into the room, then relaxed. "Thought I could hear breathing but it's just flies having a fucking party," he said, as if this were in any way reassuring.
"Maybe we should check them for injuries …" Ianto choked on the stink as John kicked another corpse into the corridor walls ahead of him. "That you haven't inflicted post-mortem! STOP THAT."
John looked affronted. "I was getting them out of the way, so you don't get dead person on your skin," he explained, as though Ianto was stupid rather than simply possessed of a functioning sense of humanity. "They can't feel it, they're dead."
By Ianto's watch they spent two whole hours prowling the corridors, bars, and upper internal decks, and not once did they encounter another living being that wasn't a fly or a trapped and very angry seagull. By the time Ianto and John reached the service decks, where the corridors were narrower and the windows smaller, in the lower reaches of the ship, it was dark outside and Ianto's gut wound was aching again, working its way up to a proper sharp pain, and his temper was not so much frayed as unravelled. He was also very hungry.
"Kitchens," he told K-9. "Find me the kitchens, there has to be some dried food or something in there – " he was interrupted by a noisy gurgle from his stomach, which apparently agreed with him. Ahead of him John bounced over and around a veritable obstacle course of dead maids and stewards. Ianto was a little disturbed by how normal he was coming to find both the behaviour and its prompt.
"Anyone aliiiiiiiive?" John bellowed, banging on doors.
There was a creak.
Both of them froze.
"K-9?" Ianto whispered.
"One live human female in room F-22," K-9 said loudly.
"So much for subtlety," Ianto wearily raised his foot over an extended arm that still held a mobile phone handset, its screen blank, and counted doors to F-22, keeping his eyes resolutely above floor level. "John, if you don't mind …" he added, as John blocked the last few feet.
"If she shoots you," John began. He still had his empty tequila bottle with him, gripped tight by the neck. Ianto rather suspected the end of the sentence was going to be something like I'm going to use you as a shield, you realise?
"I will be very surprised," Ianto said. He banged on the door to F-22 slightly too hard. "Hello? Anyone in there? Hello?"
Silence was the only reply.
"Hello?" Ianto repeated. "We're not dangerous … well, I'm not … we're just looking for other survivors … Hello? If you're in there, please say something, we want to help you … hello?"
"Hello," John added helpfully, "I can't shoot you because I don't have a gun, and Ianto is morally opposed to violence sometimes! Come out! I'm incredibly good-looking! You won't regret it!"
"You would actually make my job easier by committing suicide," Ianto said in a strained voice. "Hello? Is anyone in there?"
Finally the door was unlocked, the clunk of the mechanism loud in the quiet corridor, and Ianto exhaled with relief as he looked down several inches at an anxious face.
"Hello," he said, "I'm Ianto Jones, this is John Hart – "
"Captain," John said sulkily.
"- are you okay?"
The short woman in the doorway stared at him for a moment before saying in a too-loud voice, "Other ear, please."
"Pardon?" Ianto blinked, temporarily non-plussed.
The woman in F-22 was very short – five foot three at most – and wearing kitchen whites without a hairnet over her short black hair. She turned her head and tapped her left ear. "My right ear doesn't work," she said in the same slightly congested tones. "Please say that again."
"Ianto Jones," Ianto repeated, trying to shape his words clearly and use better diction that he usually bothered with, "and John Hart."
"Captain," John repeated.
She nodded to indicate she'd got it this time. "Frankie Hao Lin."
"Frankie?" John snorted. Ianto sighed.
"Easier for you to say than Xiu," Frankie said with a polite attempt at a smile that, Ianto thought, probably masked considerable and entirely deserved contempt. "What is happening?"
"We don't – " Ianto began.
"Dead bodies," John interrupted, far too cheerfully. "Everyone's dead. Except us."
"I know," Frankie said patiently, although she also sounded a little taken aback, "this is why I stayed in my room."
"You got a gun in there?" John asked, and Ianto groaned.
"What did he say?"
"Ignore him, please, he's insane," Ianto suggested.
"I'm not the one walking around a ship full of corpses in my bare feet with an open wound," John observed, "so don't you go impugning my sanity, Eye-Candy."
"Why is he talking about guns?" Frankie asked, too loudly to be whispering. "Is this man your friend?" She looked very worried, and adjusted something behind her right ear – her hearing aid, Ianto supposed.
"NO," he said emphatically.
John was behind him in a single leap, draping an arm over Ianto's shoulder – which he had to stretch up to do – as if he owned him.
"No, he's my lov-er," John drawled.
"I am not, get OFF me," Ianto tried to shrug off the arm.
"We were on our honeymoon," John continued with maddening smarm, bumping Ianto with his hips.
Anger bubbled up through Ianto like gas through swamp water; once upon a time he had planned to get married, he'd tried to guess where he could take Lisa on honeymoon that would be a surprise, that would excite her without making her exasperated that he'd tried too hard, and being reminded of this fact hurt more than a direct poke to the festering hole in his midriff. Through gritted teeth Ianto growled, "Isn't it amazing how I can speak two languages and I still can't find one word in either of them that adequately covers just how much I FUCKING HATE YOU?"
John whipped his arm away without making the usual remark about Ianto being 'beautiful when angry' – Ianto could feel his face burning in the ringing silence that followed his outburst and although he didn't look he could guess that poor Frankie was staring at him. He put his hands over his face – it was hot – and breathed in for so long that his stomach twinged, and finally said in a very quiet voice, "we still need to find Mickey."
"Excuse me," Frankie said, looking from one to the other.
"Yes?" Ianto pulled his hands away from his face. He felt sure he looked like a crazy person, and what with John in the same frame of reference that was entirely unfair.
"Are you leaving?"
"Yes," Ianto sighed. "Yes. Sorry. Yes, we are."
There was a very long silence during which Frankie looked at him and Ianto tried to read her expression and failed, and John began to hum something under his breath that sounded suspiciously like We Are The Champions and Ianto had to bite his lip to remind himself that punching John in the head until he stopped looking and sounding like John would not really put Frankie at ease. Finally he took a step back and said, "Er …do you want to come with us?"
She brightened immediately. "If it isn't any trouble. I don't want to get in your way."
"I don't want to inconvenience you at all."
John shoved Ianto along the corridor ahead of him and barked over his shoulder, "Stop being fucking polite and get moving."
Frankie stepped out into the corridor, baulked immediately at the banks of corpses piled up against the walls, and stared for a moment at K-9. "What is – "
"That's K-9," Ianto said wearily.
"Robot dog from the future," John elaborated.
Frankie shrugged, as if to say she'd seen weirder things working on a cruise ship, and averted her gaze from the maids lying on the carpet. A thought struck Ianto. "How …. How long have you been hiding in there?" he pointed back to the room.
"Hours, and not days?" he persisted.
"We were in Shanghai yesterday …" Frankie trailed off and gave Ianto a suspicious look. "…weren't we?"
Ianto shook his head. "What's the last thing you remember before finding … well, before all this … all this happened?"
"I was … I had to take a break from my shift, I had a …" Frankie mimed clutching her stomach and screwed up her face, "… a sickness, a bad one. My lunch was not very fresh. Mr. Denton was embarrassed by this so he said I should sleep until I felt better and he wouldn't take it out of my wages."
"And that's what you did?" The three of them followed K-9 back towards the door they'd entered the corridor by.
"Yes, I slept until I felt better." Frankie turned her head away from a hand that protruded, limp and fly-strewn, from an open door. "I wish I was not such a heavy sleeper."
"I slept through it too," Ianto said gently, "and I'm a very light sleeper. I think something's not right here."
"I think the correct phrase to use now is 'no shit, Sherlock'," John sneered, shoving past them to investigate the staircase with his tequila-club in hand. "Right, Dog, I have to carry you, do I? You're rubbish. Why can't you hover? I could have made a better fucking robot when I was six out of the contents of the bin – "
"Shut up, John," Ianto sighed.
John scooped up K-9 with bad grace and glared back over his shoulder at Ianto and Frankie. "So if we meet anything dangerous what am I going to do, throw Winalot here at them?"
"K-9 can hold them off," Ianto decided not to mention the little dog's laser capabilities until it was absolutely necessary for John to know about them.
"With what, pedantry?"
"John, shut up."
As John trudged up the stairs with K-9 in his arms, bitching under his breath at every step, Frankie whispered to Ianto, "Is he …?" concluding with a fairly graphic and easy-to-interpret gesture.
"Er, no, more …" Ianto made a circular 'everyone' gesture.
"Oh. And … um … you?"
Ianto thought about this for a while, taking the stairs slowly, one at a time. "I'm …" he reached the first landing. "I'm … taken."
"No you're not," John said from half-way up the next flight of stairs. "He doesn't care and you know he doesn't, you're just deluding yourself – "
"K-9," Ianto said in a loud voice, "feel free to electrocute John when you get to the Top Deck. As many volts as you can spare."
The rest of the journey was undertaken more or less in silence; Ianto had to go ahead of John to wrestle with the final door-handle and nearly fell on hid face as he forgot about the six-inch-high metal lip of the doorway. The only thing that stopped him was John's forearm as the man tucked K-9 into his opposite armpit and blocked the doorway with his free arm.
"You're not fit to lead a pillow fight," John said, jumping out onto the salt-slippery deck and depositing the robot without much in the way of care.
Ianto inhaled. The air was clear and clean and salty, and he could tell there must be more unfortunate bodies some fifty yards down from them, for a flock of assorted seabirds had congregated on one spot and were making a truly infernal racket as they squabbled and bounced and sniped at each other. Ianto had never been particularly comfortable with the cries of seagulls – they always sounded like they were laughing – and with the addition of a wide gamut of other avian opportunists to the cacophony the whole chorus sounded like half of hell had got loose and got drunk.
"You really think Mickey's up here?" he asked, doubting it already.
John shrugged. "It doesn't smell as bad as inside, does it?"
Ianto turned to help Frankie over the lip of the door but she'd already made her own way over; he supposed if she worked on the ship she probably already had plenty of practice dealing with the bizarre doorways.
The three of them and K-9 began heading bow-wards, towards the cloud of seabirds, and Ianto realised the end of his bandage had come loose.
As they got closer the cries of the fighting birds grew louder and harsher, until, within twenty feet or so, they were so violent and raucous that Ianto winced at them. John ran at the birds, waving his arms and shouting, and the whole great cloud of them – some of which he'd only ever seen on TV before – took off like a picnic blanket being unfurled.
They didn't stay away long, but it was long enough for everyone to catch a glimpse of what they had been feeding upon; the slightly bloated forms of one adult and one child.
The birds had been at them so thoroughly that it was impossible to tell the sex or race of either, and from both bodies long ropes of stinking entrails had been tugged by fierce bird beaks, flopping in great grey cables as they uncoiled around the bared flesh and stained clothing. Ianto's throat closed over at once – he saw Frankie's eyes widen, and she clamped her hand over her mouth.
They both dashed for the side of the ship, but it was Frankie, unhindered by a rotting gut wound that jarred at every step, who got there first.
What happened next was to haunt Ianto for many worried years to come, which, in a lifetime as full of traumas as his had already been, was something of an achievement.
As Frankie stood on tip-toes and gripped the rail to steady herself, her back heaving, something long and dark and wide and impossibly fast zipped out of the dark waters like a bad dream – the first Ianto saw of it was the towering, dripping, shadowy thing slipping itself around Frankie's waist like an affectionate arm.
She yelled, but before Ianto could even blink both tentacle and cook had gone, and the wheeling, shrieking seabirds had already begun to settle on their morbid supper again.
"Did that just happen?" Ianto asked in a shrill voice, very rattled indeed. He wanted to hold something to keep himself upright, but the options were John and a railing over which someone had just disappeared, and neither seemed particularly safe. "Did a fucking huge tentacle just – "
John nodded, an inappropriate and alarming light dancing in his eyes like the reflection of a burning building. "When I come from those things are extinct," he said, his teeth gleaming under the ship's floodlights. "They were just a footnote in one class on naturally occurring time manipulating species … I spent three fucking days trying to sleep through hours and hours of crap about Why Gallifrey Was An Example To Us All About How Neutrality Can Never Work – but those things – "
"Wait – wait – wait – " Ianto squeezed his eyes shut. The afterimage of Frankie vanishing into the night remained. "What are you talking about? A tentacle just pulled Frankie into the fucking sea, we've got to save her … somehow …"
"No it didn't," John said, his eyes still sparkling.
"What? I just saw – "
"It pulled her into a temporal pocket." John looked like he'd just stumbled on a goldmine guarded by a dormouse. "K-9!"
K-9 remained silent.
"K-9, can you scan for recent temporal distortions and prove my bloody point to Mr. Slow here?" John was all but skipping from foot to foot.
K-9 said nothing.
"Don't ignore me, you miserable piece of tin shit!"
"I am not programmed to take orders from you," K-9 beeped.
Ianto turned back to stare at the dark sea which rocked the huge ship like a gentle hand. There was not so much as a ripple to act as a sign of anything lurking below the water. "K-9, humour him, please."
"Humouring." There was a grinding beep that sounded unpleasantly like a computer with toast in the disk drive.
"Massive temporal distortion has just occurred five point two feet from John Hart." K-9 confirmed.
"I told you." John stared out to sea. "If I could only get one of those fuckers back to … I could make a fortune. I could buy a galaxy with that kind of money. No one's seen one for thousands of years …"
"John," Ianto said, too tired to be anything but exasperated, "we have to rescue Frankie if there's any chance she's still alive – it's our fault she was up here – "
"Actually it was your fault," John grinned and bounced on his toes.
" – that thing might have other people wherever it's taken her – "
"What?" John dragged his gaze away from the ocean again. "Probably." He sounded distracted. "The question is how I'd catch one in this backward bloody century – "
"John," Ianto snapped. "Rescue, not … hunting." He tried to tuck the end of his bandage into his pyjama trousers, but it just fell back out again right away. His hands were, he noticed, beginning to shake a little. Not at all helpful for staging a rescue attempt against something the size of a … well, something with tentacles that big. "I suppose if we just stay here it'll come back for us?"
"Eh?" John gave him a you are insane look. "Hell no."
"You're right," Ianto murmured, no longer really listening, putting the heels of his hands to his temples, trying to force his thoughts clear through sheer effort of will, "we need some sort of a –"
Which was as far as he got. A splash caught his attention and truncated his sentence. He didn't have time to do more than try to work out from where it had come before several thick feet of slimy, ice-cold muscle slapped itself around his midriff and tugged.
The pain from his wound was so excruciating, so staggeringly intense from nowhere, that Ianto promptly lost his grip on consciousness and tumbled into the engulfing arms of the black.
The first thing that Ianto noticed on scrabbling desperately back to the shores of consciousness was that he felt quite sick. The next was the blinding sunshine jabbing at his closed eyelids. He peeled them back cautiously, peering up at first through a protective curtain of eyelashes, and found he was staring up into a flawless bright blue sky, unfettered by a single cloud, by even a solitary gull. The ground below his back still moved up and down like a ship, but more violently than before, and now it creaked.
He reached out slowly with his fingers; rough planks greeted the tips, and Ianto hastily crossed his wrists over his chest instead.
"Ianto?" called a blessedly familiar voice, and Ianto shot up to his feet far too fast. This did nothing for the nausea, and when Ianto remembered he was wearing pyjama trousers and thus had no pockets in which to hide his hands he felt even more uncomfortable. "IANTO!"
Mickey enveloped him in a friendly if not wholly welcome hug – Ianto was not, he'd repeatedly explained, a very embrace-oriented person – and patted him on the back.
"Shit," Mickey continued, "if Frankie hadn't told us she'd seen you I'd still be convinced you were dead … what happened?"
Ianto peered over Mickey's shoulder and slightly to the side. They were on a ship. "I don't know, this tentacle came up, hit me in the stomach and … knocked me out." The ship was a good deal smaller than the one he'd been on a moment before, and wooden, and patched with dried, reddish … something … all over the place. The sail hung in mauled tatters so fine that it looked more like a bead curtain.
"Knocked you … oh, right, you're all septic and oozing. That must have killed." Mickey winced. Ianto noticed he was holding Frankie's hand – she smiled hesitantly at him – and he considered saying something sarcastic about Mickey being a fast worker but settled instead for raising his eyebrows at the whole scene.
"How long have you been …?" he tried, leaving the ending entirely up to Mickey. It was a tactic that frequently worked with both Jack and Gwen, although Martha was wise to it and tended to force him to finish the sentence 'for the sake of clarity'.
"It's hard to say – the sun never sets – " Mickey screwed up his face, "- but it's been a while, we've had about fifteen meals, at least, and three of them since Frankie got here, and – "
"Three?" Ianto tried to shade his eyes from the sun with his hand. He was embarrassed to discover that this only served to highlight how dirty he'd managed to get groping around corridors of corpses for the last few hours. "She only got snatched off the boat five minutes ag- oh."
"Oh?" Mickey was giving him an expectant look.
"John said something about a temporal pocket," Ianto said, frowning half from the memory and half from the light.
"John said something conceivably useful?" Mickey stared.
"I know. I think he knows what that … tentacle thing … was." Ianto sighed. "But of course I couldn't get a straight answer out of him."
"Listen," Mickey said, in a low, urgent voice. "Frankie told me – " here he gave her hand an obvious squeeze, and Ianto refrained from rolling his eyes with difficulty, " – everyone else on the ship was dead, that you were the only ones around –"
"We didn't find anyone else," Ianto agreed, "but we had only searched the rear of the ship by then …"
"Right. There are five of us here besides me and Frankie and I think I've figured out a pattern," Mickey muttered, jerking his head towards the stern of the ship. "Mike was asleep, he got drowsy after taking sea-sickness tablets – Hannah was dozing because she was jetlagged, Gina and Carla had … well, they were all shagged out …"
"Tactful," Ianto gave in to the urge and rolled his eyes good and hard.
"I thought so. And Hector ran smack into me on the top deck," Mickey half-pointed; Hector appeared to be a boy of maybe ten wearing a Jurassic Park t-shirt and lime green shorts. He currently had a digit up his nose and seemed well enough – he gave Ianto the finger as soon as he noticed him looking, "we both lost our balance on something oily, and must have knocked ourselves out … Frankie here was recovering from food poisoning … I'm guessing you were out cold from the painkillers … which just leaves John as the possible anomaly. Which is hardly unusual."
"He was passed out, drunk, on the golf course, apparently," Ianto stared at his bare feet. They were filthy, and he didn't want to think about what with. "The eternally classy Captain Hart."
"Sounds about right," Mickey agreed. "More to the point, it fits the pattern. I can't make sense of fucking pattern, but it fits it."
"Look," Ianto said after an awkward pause, "I don't mean to seem insensitive, but you mentioned meals and if K-9's right I haven't eaten anything but a packet of bar nuts for three days."
"… three?" Mickey frowned and moved his lips a bit.
Ianto cleared his throat.
"Oh, right, yes. There's … provisions … in the hold. They keep replenishing themselves – don't look at me like that, they're totally okay – but I suppose it might … agree … with what you said about a temporal pocket. Although it's more of a loop, really. Isn't it?"
"What did I say about a temporal pocket?" Ianto felt himself getting cross. Seasickness, homesickness, hunger, pain, and a visceral sense of shame at being in public in his pyjamas were all vying to gnaw at the shreds of his (bad, but usually extremely restrained) temper. "And how is it you know what one is? I've been working for the Torchwood Institute for six bloody years – "
"Different universe," Mickey said in something approaching a whisper – clearly he was trying to avoid freaking anyone out, perhaps even Frankie – "much more common in a parallel without Time Lords, no one really worked out why."
For some reason this casual reference to something he could never have experienced made Ianto feel shitty and quite, quite small. It was different when John did it, Ianto thought irrationally. Mickey was meant to be on his side, he was meant to be normal. Although, technically, as a team there weren't actually meant to be sides.
"I hate to go on about this," he said, instead, "but I probably ought to eat something if I'm going to be of any use to you." Not, he thought with a sudden stab of acute homesickness, that was going to be of great assistance anyway, sans Hub, communications network, back-up, K-9, and even his beloved coffee machine.
Mickey touched Frankie's elbow gently and cast a glance over his shoulder, and she left, giving Ianto a small encouraging smile as she went. Ianto found himself being examined by a concerned gaze, Mickey's hand briefly on his shoulder.
"Are you okay?"
"I'm fine." Ianto didn't exactly shrug Mickey's hand off, but he made it quite clear that's what he would have done had he not been respecting the team hierarchy to the bloody letter.
"Sure? You're looking really pale. And sweating a lot." The searching look on Mickey's face said I know you're talking bollocks, Ianto Jones, don't lie to me as loudly as if Mickey had barked it out loud.
"Massive septic wound?" Ianto suggested, wiping his face with his wrist. There was a lot of very cold sweat. "No painkillers?"
Mickey accepted this and let go of his shoulder at last, turning towards a raised hatch in the deck. "Come on, then. Hold. I really hope you like breadfruit."
"Never had it before in my life." In fact he wasn't even sure he'd seen one.
"We have a lot of breadfruit."
Ianto did not bother to point out, as Mickey led him astern, that the large room which they stepped into was not actually the hold, but instead he peered through the bright tropical sun streaming through the large glass windows. There were hundreds of breadfruit saplings, breadfruit trees crushed against the ceiling, breadfruits littering the floorboards among the shards of broken pottery, some mouldering charts, and more plants coiling their roots through the boards in desperate search of sustenance.
"No rats?" Ianto asked, pointing at where the nearest fruit lay whole and unblemished across a plain brown book.
"No sign of them that we've found." Mickey almost smirked. He seemed quite sprightly for someone who'd apparently been living on a diet of mostly breadfruit. "Buuut … there's a ship's cat about the size of the Beast of Bedford, which might account for that."
"Bodmin," Ianto corrected absently, stooping to pick up the fruit. He weighed it in his hand – it was lighter than he was expecting, and the skin felt almost like a basketball.
"Beast of Bodmin Moor, not Bedford," Ianto said, not really thinking.
"Shit, wrong parallel," Mickey said with a tinge of despond. "Sorry, that … keeps happening."
This time it was sympathy that flushed through Ianto in a great red-hot tide. He'd not considered how difficult it must be, adjusting to being back in a whole different universe … one that walked and talked like the old one, but which wasn't it at all. He wondered if he should say something instead of just standing there like an idiot, but Ianto'd never been much good at knowing what to say. Things seemed to go better when he let other people do the talking for him … Jack, Gwen … he opened his mouth but what came out was, "Have you given much thought to how to get out of here?"
"Plenty," Mickey passed him a knife.
"And?" Ianto opened the breadfruit with difficulty.
"We're fucked," he said grimly. "I don't have the first fucking idea how to get out of this. The Vortex Manipulator won't connect to any kind of communications system anymore, it just beeps and cycles lights and beeps again." He rolled up his sleeve to the elbow to show Ianto the cycling blue glow. "And I have no idea how to try to make it do anything else." He gave Ianto a hopeful look.
"John's the only one who knows how to use it," Ianto said, with a shake of the head and a sinking feeling going all the way to his toes. "We're fucked."
"We are so fucked," Mickey agreed, leaning on the doorframe. The ship lurched almost correspondingly, making Ianto lose his footing for a moment. "Eat your breadfruit."
While Ianto tried to figure this out they began heading back out onto the deck. "And K-9?" Mickey added.
Mickey put his hands over his face one at a time, stopping dead in his tracks. "Okay. That … thing … hasn't come back for anyone here yet. It must still be looking for survivors on the liner?"
"But why?" Ianto tried a piece of the breadfruit. It didn't really taste of bread, per se, but it was sort of spongy. Eating it for three days, or five, or however long Mickey and the others had been on the sailing ship under the endless sun, didn't seem like an enjoyable diet at all.
"Fucked if I know," Mickey admitted. "Nothing's made any sense so far, and Hannah is getting on my nerves."
The sun outside was intensely bright but not too hot. Ianto's stomach made loud appreciative noises as it got to grips with the breadfruit, and Frankie looked up and smiled as she spotted Mickey's approach.
Something huge and black and out of focus, as if it was blurred by terrible speed, rocketed out of the water and hurled something onto the deck, retreating into waves again before anyone could even exhale. The ship rocked violently in the wake, and its passengers stared as a wild-eyed, red-jacketed figure stumbled to his feet and yelled, "AS SOON AS I'VE FIGURED OUT HOW, I'M GOING TO BLOODY HAVE YOU, YOU SWIMMING GOLDMINE!"
"That answers the 'where's John' problem," Mickey muttered.
"Does it?" Ianto sighed. "Now he's our problem again."
John still clutched the empty tequila bottle by the neck and looked both manic and disoriented. The other survivors were very surreptitiously shrinking away from him with glazed expressions.
Mickey hurried forwards. "John."
"Oh, it's you."
He held up the Vortex Manipulator by its strap and let it dangle in the breeze. "How do I work this?"
John snatched it out of Mickey's hand the moment he was close enough, and Ianto cringed involuntarily. Letting John have anything that might be conceivably used as a dangerous weapon made him deeply uncomfortable.
"See that?" John pointed with a grubby fingernail to the cycling glow as Ianto edged closer.
"Means we're in a time loop – a temporal pocket. Everything native to this temporospatial region resets itself after … four hours. Bloody short loop." He seemed amused. "Covers about … half a square mile, projects back about three hundred years. See? That's what that circle there means. No, the light blue one. Trincentary. See?"
"Riiiight …" Mickey said in a voice that betrayed very strained patience.
John rounded on Ianto. "Eye-Candy," he said, punching him in the arm none too gently. Ianto bit the side of his tongue and stopped himself from hitting John back pretty much by the skin of his teeth. "You remember I said Jack and I got partnered up for five years in a time loop?"
"Vividly," Ianto growled, rubbing his bicep crossly. It wasn't as if the information hadn't been playing on his mind constantly ever since or anything. Just whenever he looked at Jack or had been trying to sleep or John grinned at him or there was oxygen in his lungs.
"You think we'd have been there for five years if it was possible to get out of it using one of these?" John sneered, dangling the Vortex Manipulator like a dead fish. "Of course," he added as their faces fell, "that was an artificially-generated loop designed to block Time Agency interference, that's why we were there in the first place … it just sort of turned into a holiday from ethics when we realised we couldn't get out …" a faraway look stole over John's face and Ianto felt the burning desire to punch him in the mouth rise up again. "… but lucky for us this is a naturally-occurring loop. I think."
There was a silence.
"Can't you look a little pleased?" John complained.
"Excuse me," called one of the other survivors – a woman wearing a red and white sundress, her thick, curly hair tied up with a bandana, "but what the hell are you people talking about? And who are you guys?"
Ianto groaned as John squared up his best 'charming' smile, and said, "Don't worry, ma'am, we're from Excalibur –"
"No we're not," Mickey sighed.
"Torchwood," Ianto corrected. "We're from Torchwood."
"I can't help where you personally are from," Mickey interrupted, shoving between them before Ianto's usually carefully-dampened temper could get the better of him, "but we're still a division of Torchwood even if we haven't yet settled on a name – "
"And what's Torchwood supposed to be?" the woman persisted, sounding exceptionally unimpressed.
Ianto found himself exchanging a look with John. They both shrugged and looked to Mickey. "You're in charge," John smirked, "you explain."
"We, uh. We usually deal with things like this," Mickey said, scratching behind his ear with an awkward expression on his face, "only normally we get some warning. And have the right equipment with us. And some way of contacting out base. And back-up. We're not nor- alright, well. We're not always taken this much by surprise. I promise."
"So what you're saying is you're useless," the woman in the sundress said coolly, folding her arms over her chest.
"Yes," John said emphatically.
"Is that Hannah?" Ianto whispered.
"However did you guess?" Mickey muttered back.
"Hey," Frankie snapped, taking everyone by surprise, "at least they're trying to think of something, all you've done since I got here is bitch about breadfruit and try to call your lawyer!"
Team B leaned back in united shock, Mickey trying to stifle a smile. A second later his face fell and he groaned.
"What?" Ianto searched for somewhere to put the remains of his breadfruit – John snatched it out of his hands and frisbee'd it overboard, and Ianto chomped down hard on his own tongue as he fought to hold onto the unravelling end of his tether.
"A solution just came to me," Mickey said. He didn't sound quite as happy about this as Ianto would have expected. "It's not pleasant."
"So?" John regarded the other passengers with interest, and Ianto got the sinking feeling in his guts again.
"If this is a naturally-generated time loop and it's been generated by that … thing …"
Ianto and Mickey both glanced at John. John looked alarmed. "What? I never said I paid attention to those training sessions! They were theoretical! I HATED THEORY! And it was fifteen fucking years ago!"
" – surely," Mickey went on, shrugging, "if we, uh, destroy the source of the time-loop, the pocket collapses and … pwoof … we're back where we started?"
"Now might not be the best time to admit this," Ianto said drily, "but when I said I was at Oxford, I was reading English Lit, not temporal physics. I don't even think that was an option for some reason." He neglected to add anything about having only been there for a term before being recruited to the Institute, or about being mostly certain that he'd only got the place because the college rugby team were crying out for a decent winger. There were things it was best to keep to oneself.
Mickey made a face. "Do either of you have a better idea?"
John said, "Probably, but I like yours. I have no idea how you're going to swim out and find a time-distorting giant squid-thing and kill it with no weapons, but I am really looking forwards to watching it."
"You are not helpful," Ianto growled.
"I'm good-looking, I don't have to be helpful as well," John retorted, fiddling with his Vortex Manipulator as he strapped it around his wrist. "Ooh, hey. Activity four fathoms straight down. Lots of it. I wonder if there's more than o-" he stopped and gave Mickey and Ianto a bright, glassy smile. "Ah, I just remembered what they're called."
"Is that going to help?" Mickey asked, pinching the bridge of his nose. The gesture looked familiar, but Ianto couldn't place it; perhaps it was only the frustration that he recognised. For all he knew Mickey was simply trying to contain an exasperation-nosebleed from having to listen to John for too long in one go; in which case Ianto could entirely sympathise.
John shrugged. "I will think of something," he said, striking a pose that would have been counted as noble on someone six inches taller and less predisposed to being a colossal dick, but which on him just looked silly and melodramatic. "Because I am brilliant, and an unfettered and original creative genius." He sounded like he was quoting. He also sounded like he desperately wanted to end the sentence with 'so there'.
"Who told you that, the little goblin voices in your head?" Ianto muttered.
"I'll have you know I was second in my intake group for lateral thinking. Got a commendation and everything," John said with an exaggeratedly wounded expression, because he really did have uncomfortably good hearing when it suited him to have it.
"Oh yeah, and who was number one?" Mickey half-yawned. Ianto smiled internally – they'd discussed this while he was in hospital back in Anadyr: sometimes the best way to deal with John was to be very, very bored by him.
John's expression soured unexpectedly. "Who do you fucking think?" he growled. "But oh! Look! He isn't here. You're just going to have to settle for the man with the Catherine wheel in his pocket."
Catherine wheel, Ianto thought as John sulked off into the stern cabin, Catherine wheel.
"Who the hell was that?" Hannah snapped as soon as John was out of sight (but probably not out of earshot), this time sticking her hands firmly on her hips.
Catherine wheel, Ianto thought, clutching half-heartedly for the rail to steady himself, which might have worked better if the rail hadn't been several feet away. It was possible a firework could be used as a weapon, wasn't it? Ianto mused. They were after all made with gunpowder … he tried to shake the thought away; he wasn't the big ideas man, or the weapons man, or the huge heroic gestures man.
Ianto watched as Mickey attempted to allay Hannah's very vocal worries. He was, Ianto thought a little despondently, The Other One. The tea and coffee man. The communications and maintenance and transport man. And, recently, the pus and painkiller man, and now the dizziness and an odd ringing in his ears man.
He looked up from the deck, where his gaze had drifted. The rest of the assorted passengers had clapped their hands to their ears and he quickly followed suit as the ringing became unbearable, more and more like the intense drone of a mosquito. The ship pitched, something cried out in pain – Ianto was chewing hard on the inside of his mouth so he knew it wasn't bloody well him – and the waters of the slate-blue sea boiled like a pan of chip fat.
Too many tentacles to count were rising from the sea like a forest – something like a mangrove swamp at low tide (and Ianto really needed to find a better hobby than watching UKTV Documentary while half-asleep, didn't he?) – thick, black, red-smeared and obscene-looking, they frothed out of the surface of the water and Ianto grappled with the urge to fling himself face down onto the deck and put his hands over his head.
Still the ugly things kept on coming, and behind their multitudinous slimy darkness Ianto could begin to make out huge teeth and white, staring, bulbous eyes the size of icebergs, more than ten of them, their eeriness not exactly diminished by the phosphorant glow that surrounded them.
All in all the thing or things looked rather like what Ianto imagined going mad must feel like, and he realised that in the midst of this terrible ringing his mouth was hanging open and his legs were buckling out from beneath him. It's so fucking big, he thought, unnecessary though it was. What can it possibly want with us?
He was so transfixed by the giant tentacles and the terrifying eyes that he barely noticed John rocket out of the stern cabin and roll most of the way along the deck. "Have you seen – "
"We've seen," Mickey said quietly. "They're sort of too big for us not to see."
"I don't mean that," John said insistently, "my Vee-Em is going craz- what?" There was a brief but telling silence. "Holy shit."
"It – they – it's not doing anything," Ianto said at last, unable to tear his eyes from the unspeakably vast creature.
"I know," Mickey said, but he didn't sound impatient. "It's … just … there."
"FIREWORKS," John shouted as the ringing started up again. "FIREWORKS WILL SOLVE THIS."
"No, John," Mickey said automatically, but Ianto, hands back over his ears, realised that there was a vague and worrying possibility that John might actually be right.
"NO WAIT," he shouted, "DOES THIS SHIP HAVE ANY GUNPOWDER ON IT?"
"BARRELS AND BARRELS – " Mickey stopped shouting and simply mouthed, this is not a good idea to him.
John said something – what, Ianto couldn't tell, but he was willing to bet that it in some way involved joy at the prospect of being able to resolve something by blowing someone up – and dashed back to the stern cabin. All around the ship the waving forest of tentacles gyrated slowly and gracefully, and dripped rust-red ooze from them like so many punctured shower-gel bottles.
The first of the tentacles dipped as slowly as a drunk student through the tinny, reverberating air, and John Hart came staggering out of the hatch locked in a fond embrace with an iron-bound barrel clearly marked with the word 'npowd'. "—ipulator – urn-out --- reflex temporal - - ARE YOU LISTENING?"
"YES," Mickey shouted, "I JUST CAN'T UNDERSTAND YOU."
"ALL NORMAL THEN." John ferreted out a roll of duct tape from somewhere Ianto couldn't see and didn't want to know about, and began sticking something to the top of the barrel. He pulled something out of his sleeve and examined it – probably the Vortex Manipulator although Ianto accepted there was an evens chance it was also a used tissue or a piece of chocolate; the incessant ringing was all but making his eyes bleed and it was very, very hard to think.
John stamped over to them – Ianto had by now edged over to Mickey in the selfish hopes that his body mass would blot out some of the ear-raping shrill shriek that seemed to be coming from everywhere at once – and bawled, "I CAN EITHER COMPLETELY WIPE IT OUT AND GET US BACK TO THE POINT BEFORE IT SHOWED UP AT ALL, OR –"
"WAIT, WHAT?" Mickey yelled back.
John leaned over and pried Mickey's hand away from his ear – Ianto saw his face contort in pain as the agonising ringing attacked his unprotected eardrum – and said something. Ianto was no great shakes at lip-reading despite many, many hours spent watching TV with the sound off, but he got the general idea that Mickey was being offered the choice between two evils. Since it was John offering, Ianto was also pretty certain that neither option was exactly morally squeaky clean.
"SCREW THE VORTEX MANIPULATOR," Mickey yelled, "WE HAVE TO PRESERVE AS MANY LIVES AS POSSIBLE."
John said something else, then added in a yell presumably intended for Ianto's benefit, "IT'LL BE WORSE IN THE LONG-RUNG AND WE WON'T HAVE IT ANYMORE – AND THE POTENTIAL FOR CREATING A PARADOX – "
"SINCE WHEN HAVE YOU CARED ABOUT TEMPORAL STABILITY?" Mickey shouted, and Ianto looked up. The black tentacle, moving molasses-slow in puzzling contrast to its previously terrifying speed, was almost upon them.
"LESS DELIBERATION, MORE EXPLOSIONS," Ianto suggested. His head felt like it was being squeezed in a vice, and he was sure that his nose had started to bleed.
John said something else, which Ianto didn't need to be able to lip-read to understand that it was something along the lines of I've been waiting ages to hear that from you or knew you'd come around to my way of thinking, and he was finally too tired, disoriented, and worried about the giant Time-Squid-thing to try and pull John's head off with his bare hands.
There was a moment in which time seemed to become sticky, and John and the tentacle moved like stop-motion as he swung the barrel onto his back, thrusting it into the grip of the huge, slippery creature.
Ianto gave in to the urge to throw himself face-down on the deck. After all, he reasoned, how much worse could things get?
Something wet and huge and cold touched his back, and he threw himself forwards along the surface of the ship. The friction against his stomach was like a smack in the head; it knocked him out instantly with a slap of pain so hard that he was unable, afterwards, to
When he woke Ianto was pretty sure he was dead.
Okay, Owen hadn't said anything about death being wet, or tasting of damp tin, or involving his stomach throbbing, but there was definitely no sane explanation for –
Ianto opened his eyes and wished very hard that he hadn't.
There was absolutely no Torchwood protocol for this. He knew. He'd memorised the hand-guide. He still doggedly updated the hand-guide to reflect Three's experiences in the field despite no one else ever reading it, because somewhere inside him the hopeless belief still persisted that if he just tried to impose order on the chaotic mess of the universe enough, it might finally take and the inexplicable and savage crap would stop happening to him. And this, this, had never happened. There was no record of anything like this at all. There were no instructions.
Ianto Jones sat up in the burning-wet insides of the beast's mouth and stared at the back of its myriad ragged teeth. His brain kept quitting – every time he tried to consider his situation the sheer weirdness of it overwhelmed him and left him mentally numb while his midriff shrieked and swore at him, dulling his cognitive abilities even further –
The barrel lay on its side five feet away.
Not really sure at all what he was doing anymore, Ianto slipped and slithered his burning-skinned way to it on his hands and knees, elbows and thighs, not able to gain much purchase on the acidic gunk.
The Vortex Manipulator was taped to the top, and emitted a dim and intermittent blue glow; it was this, he realised from behind the mists of shock and pain, that allowed him to see the barrel, the teeth, the stinging rust-red slime on his hands and arms, and everything else that was making his brain break down every few seconds.
Ianto peered at the Vortex Manipulator. A large "03" was blinking on and off across the majority of the thing's surface, and the bit John had pointed out as cycling earlier was also flashing now. He stared at it with a mounting (if detached) sense of desperation. Was it meant to be doing that? Was the "03" a setting or a stuck countdown or a reading of levels of something? The only thing Ianto recognised was the communications icon, and that was as black and lifeless as the inside of a grave.
His hands and face stung and his feet burned. The smell of … it surpassed description but logic suggested "Time Squid digestive fluids and/or saliva' was a good bet … was overpowering, tugging at his much-abused gag reflex, getting in his watering eyes as he fumbled with the controls of the Vortex Manipulator. The gaffer tape holding the device firmly to the barrel of gunpowder didn't really make it any easier for Ianto to see what he was doing.
This is it, Ianto thought wearily as he poked the numerical display with the tip of his index finger. This is how I'm going to die. Half-digested in a giant sea thing a million miles and three hundred years from home and anyone who gives a shit. The display beeped faintly, and changed to "0301".
"Great," he said aloud. "What the fuck does that mean?"
"A user's manual. A 'help' function. Is that too much to ask?" Ianto muttered, hitting another button with his thumb. The feeling of background queasiness intensified.
"Is this counting up?" he groaned, although it very clearly was.
"Trust something John owns not to make any bloody sense – "
Ianto blinked tears out of his eyes – they stung so badly now that the numbers before him were almost unreadable, and it was impossible to quantify whether his stomach, his bare feet, his naked hands and face, or his burning eyes caused him the most pain.
"Yes, but what does that – " he gave up and hit the same button three times with his thumb. Dying inside sea-life while arguing with a 51st Century gadget, he thought, who could possibly ask for less? His thumb slipped from the surface of the gadget in question and he took what he calculated to be one of his last breaths of foul-tasting air.
Something grabbed the entire universe of Ianto's perceptions, picked it up, twisted it like a wet sponge, and made him feel as if his own brain was throwing up. The ground – tongue – innards – whatever it was – remained relatively steady beneath him, though, as he closed his eyes, simply rocking like a ship at sea.
It was only when light hit his eyelids and the rumble of an engine joined the dip and rise of ocean travel that he forced them open again.
Ianto was standing in his cabin, covered in filth, reddish goo, and clutching John's Vortex Manipulator with both hands. It was rather inconveniently swaddled in gaffer tape, but this was far from the most important thing on Ianto's mind at the moment – he lurched sideways, and only just made it to the wastepaper basket before being sick.
It was not a very impressive upchuck, a mere vile-tasting dribble of neon yellow bile speckled with lumps of something spongy-looking, but coupled with the immediate searing abdominal pain his retching caused, it kept him doubled over the basket even as the cabin door opened.
"Ianto?" Mickey sounded more concerned than disgusted, which was a pleasant if unwarranted surprise.
"Fuck," John muttered, snatching the Vortex Manipulator out of Ianto's unresisting and frankly almost limp hands, "it's completely burnt out! I didn't set it that high! You changed the – you've killed my – "
"Did that just happen?" Ianto asked weakly, wiped his mouth on a hand-towel and backing away from the vomit-filled bin.
"Yes," said Mickey.
"With the … the squid?"
"And it ate me."
"We thought," John said cheerfully, still staring at the blank, dark panels of his Vortex Manipulator with an expression of loss, "that you were dead."
"Oh. Good," Ianto said even more weakly. "For a moment I thought I'd gone mad. What happened?"
Mickey grinned a very tired-looking grin. "K-9?"
"Master?" The dog trundled forwards from the corner of Ianto's cabin smartly.
"Current time and location, please?"
"The local time is twenty-six minutes past two pm. We are approximately twenty-eight nautical miles out of Shanghai Harbour at 122 degrees and 27 minutes of longitude east," K-9 beeped.
"Affection noted, Master."
"I don't under- " Ianto began, but as his brain finally started to respond to the lack of immediate peril he found that he did after all. "Oh. I see. We're back at the beginning again. Am I going to have to avoid myself?"
"Nope," Mickey smiled. "We're not here. Well, we, but we're not."
Ianto put his hands over his face. "Changing your inflection doesn't mean I have any clue what you're talking about."
"We're back where we started," John said, stuffing the inert Vortex Manipulator into his pocket as Ianto peered out from between his fingers. "With those three missing days of drinking to get back to."
" …so how is it I can remember what happened?" Ianto sat back on his bed. It felt obscenely, profanely comfortable. The stinging from every bit of exposed skin was beginning to fade a little, though not nearly fast enough for his liking.
John said, "It's incredibly complicated – "
"On second thoughts I don't care," Ianto groaned.
Mickey said, "I'm assuming that if we remember, the others on board the transport ship probably do too. You might want to look them up at some point on this cruise, see if you can get yourself a few free drinks for, you know, saving their lives."
"You're beginning to sound like John," Ianto said warily.
"No he isn't," John said from the doorway with palpable indignation. "I would have said 'demand sexual favours and a fat wadge of cash' at the very least. If not a lifetime of grateful slavery."
"At any rate," Mickey got up. "Right. I'm off to see if I can find - ahem. Anyway. The usually lines of communication are shafted now John's wristband's out of action, but you can always call Three on the ship's phones, if you want to be the one to report all this?"
"Stop trying to get out of writing it up," Ianto said. He tried to stretch, and it ached. "Maybe – nnnn – maybe later. I'm going to have a shower." He winced. "And some painkillers. And dinner. And some bloody sleep."
Mickey gave him a double-thumbs up and a small, infinitely amused smile as he left, and Ianto replied with a very thin smile. Tired or not, he wasn't sure how much he was going to trust sleep after all that.