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Theme And Variations

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Jack could feel the sensation of his brain rattling against his skull. It hurt like hell, but he couldn’t muster up the strength to move. His thoughts felt slow and sluggish, his body numb.


Tentatively, he opened his eyes and discovered that he was leaning against a window. Rain pelted the glass, distorting the image of the windswept hills that flew across his vision. He looked forward slightly, and saw that he was traveling down a metal track that seemed to stretch on indefinitely. The clatter of turning wheels filtered into his ears. He was on a train.

The Diffuser had worked.

“Um, I’m sorry to disturb you…”

The hesitant voice cut through Jack’s thoughts, and he turned in his seat. There was a young man sitting across from him, dressed in an expensive-looking black suit. The man was looking at him with a tinge of concern. Jack realized he probably appeared a bit off. His mind was still taking its sweet time processing his surroundings, hampering his ability to react. It was as if the electrical impulses had to move through something viscous.

“Hi, sorry. It can be a bit hard to wake me up, sometimes,” he finally responded, giving his best impression of a self-deprecating grin.

“Quite alright,” the man replied. His passive, detached air nearly made Jack laugh. It was as if he was attempting to appear much older than he really was. But his sparkling eyes and the nervous slump of his shoulders undermined the maturity in his voice.

“What is it?” Jack asked.

“I just saw your ticket on the seat there. Says you’re getting off at Swindon, and we’ll be arriving at the stop in a minute.”

“Oh,” Jack replied. There was, indeed, a train ticket sitting on the seat beside him. “Actually, I’m going through to Cardiff. Just a misprint on the ticket.”

They’d told him to say that, if anyone asked.

“Alright. Sorry again, for bothering you.”

“Not at all, Mr…?”

“Jones. Ianto Jones.”

“Captain Jack Harkness.”


An electronic voice sounded, announcing their arrival at Swindon. Jack looked down at his watch and cursed inwardly.


As the train ground to a halt, he stood up. He didn’t miss Jones’s curious eyes following him as he walked down the train car, but he was too busy assessing his surroundings to care very much.

He took note of the other passengers in the sparsely-populated car. A man and woman, holding hands and murmuring to each other, sat in the seat across from his. There was another woman chatting on her mobile, sporting a charming gap-toothed grin. A Japanese woman sitting in the back corner of the car was typing furiously on a laptop. When the train doors opened, she slammed the lid of the device closed and gathered her things hastily.

Apparently, she was destined to make it out of here alive.

“Pardon me,” she said quietly, bumping against Jack’s shoulder as she passed him. He continued walking forward, toward the bathrooms at the end of the car. He stepped inside one of them and locked the door behind him, then flicked open his Vortex Manipulator.

“This is Agent Seven to Beleaguered Castle.”

No response.

“Agent Seven to Beleaguered Castle, do you copy?”

Silence followed. Evidently, the Agency had been wrong about being able to maintain communications. He would have to figure this out on his own.


And he’d have to do it fast.

“Okay…” he began. “I have no idea whether you’re getting this or not. Status update: there are four other passengers aboard this car. There were five when I arrived, but one got off. None of them looks suspicious, panicky, or anything. They’re just civilians.”

He pressed a few more buttons on the wrist strap, and gave a frustrated sigh when it beeped feebly.

“And my scanner’s fried, you assholes. How the hell am I supposed to search an entire train in three minutes without a scanner?”

There was no response from his communicator, and he shook his head. Really, it was as if they wanted this to be completely impossible to accomplish. He swayed slightly as the train lurched forward again, leaving Swindon Station behind. Giving up on his wrist strap, he looked around the tiny bathroom. The fixtures were made of a cheap-looking, silvery metal while the walls gleamed in a bright white. It was claustrophobic and standardized. A staple of early 21st century design.


He caught his reflection in the small mirror hanging over the sink. The dark circles under his eyes were prominent, and his skin looked a bit off-colour. But the Diffuser had managed to keep his body intact when it transported him, which was all he could really ask for. The train curved slightly, and the change in his center of gravity brought him out of his reverie. He turned around to exit the bathroom.


And heard another beep. A much softer one, coming from above him. Glancing upward, he saw a large panel directly over the sink. He reached upward to pushed on the panel, and discovered that it wasn’t held down by any bolts. It came away freely, revealing part of the vent system.

Using the sink as a step-stool, he hoisted himself into the abrupt darkness of the vent.
He fumbled with his wrist strap for a moment and found that the light attachment still worked. The duct was illuminated.


And Jack came face-to-face with a bomb.


“There you are.”


The world re-solidified around him, and it was no longer engulfed in flames. The only sign of the explosion was the ringing in his ears. He felt the distinct sensation of being transported running up his spine, and the need to fidget overwhelmed him. When he attempted to move his limbs, he discovered they were strapped down.

“Agent Seven, this is Beleaguered Castle,” said a familiar voice, filtered through a speaker. He blinked, attempting to focus his vision. The low light of a projection screen drew his gaze, as did the sight of the person to whom the voice belonged.

Right. He remembered this.

“This is Agent Seven. Hello, Martha.”

“Nice to see you, Captain,” she said, smiling. “And that’s Dr. Jones, to you.”


“I’ll live. Now, I need you to recite your name, today’s date, and your current location for me.”

“Captain Jack Harkness. August seventeenth, 5023. And I’m in sublevel six of the Time Agency’s headquarters.”

“Good. You’re not showing any of the signs of severe disorientation, and your vitals seem normal. Can you clench your fingers?”

“Can do a lot more than that with my fingers.”

“Down boy,” she said. “Okay, good. How do you feel?”

“Like I could go for a nap.”

“Well, the more you have to report, the sooner that can happen,” another voice interjected.

He refrained from rolling his eyes.

“Hello, Director Hartman.”

Her image appeared next to Martha’s and she looked at him cooley. “Report what you saw, Agent.”

“Alright, alright. Jeez, it’s nothing but business with you.”

“I like it that way. Now, report.”

“Found the bomb.”

“And the bomber?”

“No. Not yet. Didn’t have time.”

“We can’t give you more than eight minutes. You’re going to have to make time.”

“I know.”

“But remember to–”

“Tread carefully, I know,” he said tiredly. “Don’t stop the bomb going off, don’t play the hero. Don’t do anything to disturb the fixed point.”


“Reactivating the Ripple Diffuser on my mark,” Martha said, pressing a few buttons on her console.

“What, no time for a lunch break?”

“And… mark.”