20 hours remaining
The Hub echoed every footstep like a death knell. It wasn't quiet; it was judging. The trickle of water down the fountain sounded accusing. The ominous rumble of the airlock door was a threat. Myfanwy's squawking sounded like children screaming.
Gwen had been on the phone with Rhys for an hour, talking quietly about baby names, lost in numbness. She told him about Clem, about Rupesh and Martha, about when she would start maternity leave and how Rhys was absolutely not going to take the baby to his mother's after she went back to Torchwood. A baby could ride in a truck just as easily as sit in a cot in the Hub, and which would make him feel better? They'd have more staff soon and if Rhys didn't want to take the baby to work, she'd just see to it that their new recruits knew how to feed a child. Maybe he'd rather she started working long nights again too so he could sleep without late-night feedings disturbing his precious rest, how did that sound?
Rhys knew her well enough now to let her bury her grief in arguments. He just said, "So long as it's not Jack, eh? Don't want our baby getting confused over who their dad is."
She laughed. It felt wrong.
The boardroom was full of the sound of shifting papers: Ianto neatly laid out files in seven sets of paperclipped sheets with names printed in caps at the top. Gwen and Jack came in behind him, and no one made eye contact.
He cleared his throat and gestured to the table. "Just under forty children in the Cardiff area under the legal guardianship of the Crown and with no connections outside the orphanages," he said. "Eleven are terminally ill, seven with a prognosis of less than six months."
Behind him, Gwen murmured, "God, we're really doing this." Ianto felt his stomach clench and stopped for a moment, shoving it all down.
"Four of them are less than eight years old." He tapped those, set slightly to one side. "The others are ten, eleven, and thirteen years old. I think... I think it's better to ask someone old enough to understand what's happening and consent to it than take someone younger and tell them nothing. We can retcon them if they panic," he added.
"I agree," Jack said softly. "If they're willing, if they know they're saving the world..."
"Maybe we can live with this," Gwen finished. She didn't sound like she believed it. "Let's see those files."
Ianto slid the folders over one by one. "Terry Michael Brown, ten years old, leukaemia. Orphaned at three, he's been undergoing chemotherapy since age six. Chloe Grace Feldman, thirteen, cerebral aneurysm. Bypass surgery failed last month, prognosis is not good. And Olwyn Mari Pritchard, eleven, inoperable brain tumour."
There were no photographs. Just as well. Jack picked up Terry Brown's file. "Which hospitals?" asked Gwen.
"Two at St Helen's, one at Cardiff General."
"Gwen, you take St Helen's; Ianto, Cardiff General. Interview the kids, talk to the doctors and figure out who's our best option between yourselves. Frobisher's custody paperwork is ready to go. Take enough retcon for the doctors too. I'll set things up here." He took a breath. "And I'm going to talk to Green, to UNIT, anyone in that Cabinet meeting. It's possible we can get the 456 to back off if we make this threat without having to use it, but we can't bet on that. Make sure the kid knows exactly what they're getting into."
"What if they don't consent, Jack?" said Gwen. "What if none of them consent?"
Jack looked slowly at the four unopened files. "Ianto, are any of them brain dead?"
"If they were the 456 wouldn't be able to communicate through them. But there's a..." He swallowed. "There's a five year old with severe mental disabilities. Justin Markham. He'd probably never know what was happening."
"That's our last resort. Let's get going."
"...and you'd be a hero," Gwen told Terry Brown, smiling and gently (so gently) patting his hand. "Like Iron Man. Would you like that?"
The boy was so pale, bruised all over from the lightest of touches, with eyes too big for his face and a superhero on his lonely birthday card, eight months old. "Will it hurt?" he asked.
Gwen closed her mouth. "Well, we'll give you lots of medicine so you won't feel a thing. It'll just be a funny... ringing sort of feeling in your head."
"Will it make me better?"
She took in a sharp breath, let it out slowly. "Terry, you remember what I said earlier? This is going to stop all your pain forever, but it won't make you better. It'll mean you don't have to keep wondering how much longer it will hurt. It'll stop tomorrow. You won't live through it, but you'll save the world–"
He started to cry, huge tears in his eyes. He pulled his arm away but he was so thin and weak the light grip of her hand was too much. He wailed and Gwen snatched her hand away. "Shh, shush, sweetheart, it's okay, you don't have to–"
But his wails were loud, too loud, and the closed door wasn't thick enough. Gritting her teeth, Gwen snatched a retcon pill from her pocket, shoved it into his open mouth and clamped a hand over his mouth and nose, bracing her other arm behind him and praying she wasn't holding him too tight. He struggled, looking up with panic in his eyes – but he swallowed.
She released his nose and he sucked in a breath, and she held him till the sedative took effect. His eyes glazed over and he went limp. Gwen settled him into the bed and tucked the blankets up to his chin, and tried not to hate herself. This one would still have a chance.
His jaw and cheeks were already bruising. She'd have to retcon the night nurse who let her in, too; a visible handprint would buy a world of trouble, if it formed clearly enough. She sighed and took out her phone to text Ianto.
He'd already messaged: No luck here. Coming to St H. Call me when you can.
Damn. She rang him.
"No luck here either yet; Terry Brown's too scared."
"Olwyn Pritchard's tumour is in her frontal lobe; the nurse said it affects reasoning and inhibitions."
"So she can't consent," Gwen sighed. "All right, well, one more. Where are you?"
"Parking downstairs now. Shall we do this together?"
"I was hoping you'd say that. This is hard, Ianto."
Through the speaker, she heard him take a long breath. "I know. God knows what it'll be like if this one says yes."
"See you in five."
Chloe Grace Feldman was thirteen, with long red hair and endlessly curious. When Gwen started off asking about her aneurysm, she described why bypass surgery wasn't possible anymore in a way that made more sense to Gwen than the doctor's explanation. "I probably won't turn fourteen," she added quietly; calm, accepting. Exactly what they needed. Gwen hated it, hated herself – then thought of the disabled five-year-old and hated that more. "They said they're going to refer me to the Make a Wish people before then."
Gwen took her hand and smiled. "What would you wish for?" Chloe shrugged, glancing sideways at Ianto for a second, then back to Gwen. "I don't know. Maybe Disneyland. I've never been."
They would never fit in a trip like that in time. Gwen nudged her playfully. "Nothing else?"
"Well..." she smiled shyly, ducking her head. "When I was little I wanted to be a princess, but I know that's not like the movies. I'd have to marry a prince and it's not as much fun as everyone says."
"I think Prince William's a bit old for you anyway. Maybe Prince Harry?" Gwen teased.
She giggled and shook her head. "No, I don't need that. Just someone nice."
"You're a lovely girl. Any young man would be lucky to have you," Ianto said, smiling, and Chloe blushed spectacularly.
"Thanks," she squeaked. Then her smile faded. "But that won't happen now. I'm going to die."
Gwen squeezed her hand and glanced at Ianto. He nodded and came round to sit on the other side of the bed. "That's what we wanted to talk to you about, love," said Gwen. "You know what's been happening lately, with all the children?" Chloe nodded. "Things are about to get much much worse."
She glanced between them. "Why?"
"Someone very bad is threatening our planet," said Ianto. "Someone not from this world, and they're using children to do it."
Chloe's brow furrowed. "You mean, like, aliens?"
"Do you believe in aliens, Chloe?" Ianto asked.
She shrugged. "I guess there could be, right? The universe is really big."
Ianto nodded. "It is. And– Can you keep a secret?" he asked, more intense than was necessary, but it made Chloe nod eagerly. "There are aliens," he said in a low voice. "And some of them are wonderful and beautiful. We've met a few," he said, nodding at Gwen.
"It's our job," she explained. "Once we found one that washed up in our oceans and it was huge, and it was growing so fast it was probably still only a baby. We think it was a star whale," she whispered.
Chloe's eyes were huge.
"But not all the aliens are good," said Ianto, and she looked back at him.
"They're making us talk, the nurses said so." Ianto nodded. "They want to hurt us?"
"Yes. They said if we don't give them one out of every ten children in the world, they'll kill us all. That's more than a hundred million children, Chloe."
"You've got to stop them!"
"We can't," said Gwen. "But you can. If you want to."
Her eyes narrowed, intelligent and suspicious. "How?"
Gwen took a breath. "We have a machine that can send a sound wave to them so strong it'll destroy them. Nothing left. Boom. But you know how they can only talk through children? Well, that means we need to send the signal through a child to get to them. We're looking for volunteers. Because it–"
"Because I'm dying," said Chloe. Gwen paused, mouth open, then closed it. "There's lots of kids," said Chloe, thoughts flickering across her face until landing spot on the right conclusion. "There's nothing special about me 'cept I'm dying. And if that's why... you... It's not safe, is it?"
"There's a lot that's special about you," Gwen assured her.
"But yes," said Ianto. "That's why we're asking you. We don't want to ask someone to help if it means stealing years of their life. "
Chloe's eyes darted between them and her breathing quickened, but when Ianto took her hand, she clung to it. "That's why you've come in the middle of the night. To take me away."
"Never without your consent," promised Ianto. "If you say no, we'll go right now and you'll be fine. We only came now because we don't have much time."
"The aliens said we have to give them the children tomorrow," said Gwen, "and the Prime Minister's going to do it."
Chloe tried to steady her breathing. "One in ten," she said. "They could take my friends?"
"Yes. They could. We don't know how they'll pick who goes."
Her eyes filled with tears. "They'd pick me anyway, wouldn't they? If they have to send kids they'll send sick ones first!"
Gwen and Ianto glanced at each other. "It's quite possible, yes," said Gwen.
Chloe started to cry. She tried hard to hold it in, taking deep breaths, gulping air down, but it didn't work. Gwen shuffled up the bed to sit by her and wrapped her arms around her, and she buried her face in Gwen's shoulder. "Shh, sweetheart. It's okay."
"No, it's not," she said, muffled and clenching Gwen's sleeve.
"No," said Gwen, "it really isn't. I'm so sorry, love. So sorry."
Arranging transfer of custody was disgustingly easy; Frobisher's paperwork held up even though it was the middle of the night and the nurses were cheerful as they trussed Chloe up in warm clothes and into a wheelchair she didn't really need. "Experimental procedure, hmm?" one said brightly. "I've heard wonderful things about the new research. Just imagine if it works!"
"Yeah," Chloe said quietly. "It'd be great."
Ianto wheeled her down to the lift while Gwen ducked out to ring Jack. Chloe said nothing as they went down and signed out, or as they approached the SUV. She looked up as Ianto parked her, up at the sky and the pinpricks of stars, small and pale in the faint light from the parking lot lamps. She breathed the air in deep, and for the first time since realising what was happening, smiled. "It's really pretty," she said. "They don't take me out at night."
Ianto paused, hovering by the rear door. "How long have you been in hospital?"
"A year and a bit." She was still looking up, appreciating the stars more than he had in a long time.
"Would you like to sit up front? Better view."
Chloe nodded quickly. Ianto opened the passenger door and reached in to adjust the seat, and turned to find that Chloe had climbed out of her chair and was ducking under his arm. The she stopped: The step up was as high as her thigh. "Need a hand?"
She frowned and nodded. Ianto slipped an arm behind her shoulders and under her knees; she weighed nothing at all, and she linked her arms around his neck as he lifted her up. "Thanks," she said, looking down again.
Ianto nodded, freeing the seatbelt from where it had gotten stuck behind the seat. "Here you are."
She clipped it into place. Eyes still on her lap, she asked, "What's your name?"
Oh. Er, they had forgotten that, hadn't they? "Ianto Jones. At your service," he added, bowing his head to make her smile. It worked. "My friend is Gwen, and we're going to go meet Jack; he's getting the machine ready."
Chloe suddenly stopped fidgeting. Ianto cursed himself. "It's, uh, it's not ready yet," was all he could think to say. "And you know, we might not have to use it." No, that was exactly the wrong thing to say: Don't give her hope. "Probably will. But we're going to try everything else first; we're going to tell the aliens we have a superweapon and our best and bravest agent ready to use it. It's possible they'll back off. Not likely, but– What?"
Chloe was looking at him in a way he couldn't decipher. "You think I'm brave?"
That, that was something he knew the answer to. Taking her hands, Ianto leaned in and said, with total sincerity, "I think this is the bravest thing I've ever seen anyone do in my entire life."
A smile blossomed across her face, bright and sweet. "Really?"
"Yes, really." He smiled back. "You are amazing."
She glowed, blushing and picking at the fabric of her blanket. Ianto suppressed a squirm, really not sure what to do now.
"I'll, ah, just bring your chair back."
"This is where you work?" Chloe's nose wrinkled as they walked in from the carpark, arm looped through Ianto's elbow for balance. "It's..." She bit her lip.
"It's what?" asked Ianto. "It's all right, we don't mind."
"It's old. And really broken," she peered over at the water-stained concrete and exposed bricks. "Can't you fix it?"
"Capturing aliens doesn't leave us much time for renovations, I'm afraid," said Ianto.
Jack had moved the couch Clem died on and set up a circular platform in the space under the 'Torchwood' wall tiles. The clear zone was marked by wide circle of tape, but for now it was full of tools and half-connected cables as he lay on his stomach, working on the transmitter. He looked up briefly as they came in.
Pointedly, Gwen walked up and said, "Jack, this is Chloe."
He paused, then rolled over and to his feet, all charm and smiles as he shook her hand and said, "Good to meet you, Chloe. Thanks for coming to help us."
She nodded politely, still looking around. Jack looked faintly surprised. "Well," he said, "we've got a lot of work to do here and Ianto, I'm going to need your help with all this. Gwen, you can take her up to the boardroom for now. We don't have much in the way of toys but there's got to be some good books around."
"Jack, it's three in the morning; I'm sure she'd like to get some sleep."
"No!" Chloe said, and immediately shied away into Ianto's side, embarrassed. "I don't wanna sleep," she mumbled. Ianto patted her shoulder awkwardly.
"Of course not," said Gwen. Over her head Jack mouthed "team meeting, now". Gwen nodded. "Chloe, would you mind waiting in up there for me?" she pointed up to the doorway that led to the boardroom. "I'll just be a minute."
She looked at the walkways and nodded. Gwen smiled, "There you go, I'll be right on up. Would you like something to... I don't suppose you drink coffee."
"We have everything for a hot chocolate," Ianto offered. Chloe smiled a little. Gwen nodded.
"There you are! I'll bring you a cuppa in just a minute. Go on, now."
Jack's eyes followed her as she climbed the spiral staircase and jerked his head towards the nearest computer. "I called Green," he said, opening the folders Ianto had set up for the digital recordings of all the hacked phones. "Outlined the plan. But since we can't give him proof it's going to work, he's not willing to risk the 456 'calling our bluff' and is going to round up the kids anyway."
"Jesus," said Gwen. "Does the man have no soul?"
"I think he's part Slitheen," Jack replied bitterly. "First five minutes all he said was 'how did you get this information?' and 'who do you think you are?' I told him to shove it. The conversation went downhill from there."
"So now what?" asked Ianto. Jack sighed.
"I told him I'm not letting him give away those kids, but if we can't get someone to deliver our ultimatum to the 456 we're just going to have to go for it." He glanced up at Chloe, wandering the upper balcony. "And hope it works."
Ianto nudged Jack's hand off the mouse and scrolled through the files. "You didn't delete the your call with him, right?"
"The new representative to the 456 is Colonel Oduya, from UNIT." Ianto double-clicked on a file and brought up all of Oduya's contact numbers. "Let's bring it to him."
Jack nodded. "Good idea. But why'd you want the recording of my call?"
"Well," said Ianto, looking up innocently, "if we need to get Green out of the way."
Gwen and Jack grinned and Jack slapped his shoulder. "Great idea. I'll call him now. Ianto, go through the rest of these recordings, see what else you can find. Gwen..." He paused, looking Chloe's way again. "Keep her occupied. Any distractions you can think of. We don't want her backing out at the last second."
"She's a brave girl," Gwen said solemnly. "She volunteered for this to keep her friends safe, and she knows she's dying anyway."
"Maybe," said Jack. "But everyone gets scared when they're about to die. Everyone."
Gwen nodded and sighed. "If it were morning I'd take her out. She's a princess girl, I'm sure we could find some dress shop or something to make her happy."
"We still have most of tomorrow before the 456's deadline comes round," said Jack. "Take her first thing. Here," he dug out his wallet and gave her a credit card. "Almost an unlimited line. Spoil her. Anything she wants."
Gwen took it gratefully. "That'll help. But it's four hours till anything opens and she's a smart girl, Jack. I don't want her figuring out how exactly she's going to die."
He grimaced. "Slip something in her hot chocolate, let her sleep until morning. That much less time to panic."
She rubbed her face and sighed. "I hate this, Jack. I hate us."