Martha stumbled slightly as she landed for a second time. Unable to just stand and watch the destruction of London she'd hit the button on Jack's teleporter again, not caring where she ended up as long as it was away. It wasn't the most comfortable method of travelling and, really, it was the jolt as she landed that had brought the tears to her eyes. She dashed them away angrily. Anger was something that she could hang on to, something to keep the fear away. The Doctor probably wouldn't approve but, for once, she didn't care. She was on her own and she would show him what Martha Jones could do.
Except, looking around, she wasn't on her own. Men and women in suits bustled around what looked like an office, grim but determined looks on their faces as they worked. Martha shrank back, unsure where she had landed and fumbling for the key that would hide her. A hand caught her arm and she found herself facing a tall blond man, a suspicious look on his face.
"Who are you and why..." he began. His eyes sprinted over her, taking in everything in a swift, decisive summary. "Never mind, follow me quickly."
The English helped ground her, the accent rough silk and education. It was stupid, but it was her England; the voices of her lecturers and colleagues, of home and safety, the voice she knew how to love and hate, to argue and reason with. It was all she needed to gather the last scattered pieces of herself together and draw herself up, meeting his confidence with her own.
"Hang on a minute," she stopped him. "Just who the hell are you?"
His lips quirked briefly. Approval she thought or amusement but the expression was gone too fast for her to tell which.
"Nicholas Brocklehurst, I'm an old friend of Jack's…" His gaze rested for a moment on the leather wrist strap that she still clutched. "And I suggest we take this somewhere more private."
She nodded and let him lead her. Jack. Jack's transporter had brought her here and, she had to believe, to this man or someone like him who could help her. They slipped into a side office, unnoticed in the chaos, and Nicholas shut the door carefully behind them.
"Martha Jones, I presume," he said quietly and she stared at him, shocked. "You and Jack and this Doctor have become quite infamous over the last few days. I think you even replaced Osama on the most wanted lists. Don't worry," he stopped her before she could start for the door, "Jack and I have been friends for a long time, helped each other out on a few occasions. The warrant for his, and your, arrest was the first warning sign we had… and then not being able to get in contact with Torchwood..." Nicholas shook his head slightly in irritated denial. "However my superiors were stubbornly convinced you were all a threat to national security. Probably still are, but, unfortunately, communications are a bit disrupted at the moment so I have no way to know that."
Martha watched him suspiciously as he took a seat, seemingly unconcerned that he had left her a clear path to the door, and gestured for her to do likewise.
"Your superiors?" she asked. He cocked his head slightly, saying nothing, waiting for her to work it out, or perhaps just waiting for her to take a seat. She wasn't quite ready to believe him but she had to trust that the key would work if she needed. "You work for the government?"
"In a way." He smiled, a dangerous little smirk that made Martha think of black ties and shaken martinis.
"My God, you're a spy." She had to sit down then. "Who..?"
"MI6." The smirk had been replaced by something softer, encouraging and reassuring, "I'm what is known as an embedded agent and I'm telling you this because I trust you and I need you to trust me and tell me everything that is going on."
Jack's transporter had sent her to a real life Bond; suave, soft spoken and, she suspected, dangerous. Could she trust him? This stranger who claimed to be a friend of Jack and spoke of Torchwood and exchanging favours like it was nothing out of the ordinary. What did an 'embedded agent' do anyway? Embedded in what? Or, was the question: where?
"Embedded..." She looked around but the room could have been anywhere on Earth, and not even necessarily there. The only thing she knew for sure was that she wasn't on the Valiant, where the deep vibration of its engines purred through deck and into your bones. "Where am I?"
If Nicholas thought it was strange that she didn't know where she was he didn't show it. "This is the British Embassy in Washington, or what is left of it - we seem to have got off lightly so far."
"Washington," she whispered, trying to take everything in. She had so much to do and so far to go.
"Now, Martha Jones," Nicholas said quietly but insistently, "tell me everything."
Martha told him.
She didn't know how much time passed as she talked. She didn't tell him everything, she didn't need to, but she talked of the end of the universe, of getting home to find that they were too late, of Saxon's real identity and of trying to stop him. She told him of Jack giving her his transporter and of the Doctor's message. Throughout her recitation, Nicholas sat, still and expressionless, absorbing everything she said. She quickly realised that it felt good to say it, once, just that once, to get it all out into the open knowing she would never be able to tell anyone again. She talked about her family; held on the Valiant, all except for her brother, and how she didn't know if any of them were still alive. Of her fears, of her anger, of her determination and hope. Finally she realised she was repeating herself, talking just to stop this brief interlude from coming to an end.
"Thank you." Her voice sounded rough, scraped raw by what she had borne witness to.
Nicholas looked no different from when she had begun, as if the words had barely touched him. If the decimation of the world hadn't affected him she wondered what would, feeling a twinge of fear. Still, he looked at her with kindness and respect and she forced herself to draw hope from his calm. He shut his eyes for a moment, pinching the bridge of his nose with long fingers, the picture of thought. When he opened them again the light of calculation shone within the sharp blue gaze.
"We need to get you out of here and to somewhere safe," he spoke quickly, "preferably without anyone seeing. Saxon is going to be hunting you even more urgently now."
Martha nodded. She was beginning to itch with the need to move, she had needed to talk but she could feel that her time was now up.
"I've got something; the Doctor gave it to me..." She slipped the key over her head and watched in guilty satisfaction, and a little bit of relief, as Nicholas frowned slightly, eyes darting around the room as he fought to keep looking at her. "It doesn't really work if you know what you are looking for," Martha explained, his focus sharpening as she talked, "but if you aren't expecting to see something..."
"Then you won't," he finished for her. "Interesting. That will make things a bit easier. Keep it on and follow me closely."
He didn't ask her if she was ready. Ready was a luxury they had lost before the first wave of casualties. Now that she knew where she was the scattered conversations made sense; emergency contact procedures to try and identify the missing even as the battle still raged, gathering and distributing information as it came in, taking names from worried relatives desperate to find loved ones or let them know that they were alive. Thousands of frightened, panicked people turning to any source they could reach as communications systems jammed under the weight of traffic. And around the embassy, equally frightened and confused people were trying to make sense of what was happening and do what they could to help.
It was less chaotic than Martha had originally thought. It reminded her of an A&E; so many people weaving around each other doing their jobs in a way that was totally logical and equally incomprehensible to anyone not part of the system. She moved through the noise and hustle like a wraith. People looked in their direction but turned back to their tasks as soon as they saw Nicholas; some gave him little smiles, others glares that bordered on the accusatory as if he could have stopped the disaster that had happened. A few just looked at him blankly with watery eyes, not seeing him but their own and other people's ghosts.
In the centre of the maelstrom was a relative calm, papers scattered across the desk and tacked to the walls showing the latest information.
"Typical," a middle-aged man with a receding hairline was grumbling to a second man as they arrived. "Ignore U.N.I.T. protocols unless it suits them and then everything goes to shit."
"Phil." The exasperation in the other man's voice was clear. "I really don't think you can really blame them for our Prime Minister deciding to take over the world."
The man addressed as Phil humph-ed unhappily. "They are going to blame us. It's going to be Virginia all over again and..."
"Stop." The authority was clear in the cultured voice. "Right now we have more pressing matters to worry about than the diplomatic backlash - we don't even know if there are enough people left alive to pass the legislation. If we could deal with one crisis at a time, please? Right now we aren't in a position to help anyone."
Nicholas knocked politely on the wall, drawing both pairs of eyes to him. Phil turned back to the table immediately, gathering some papers and taking himself away without being asked. One sleeve of his shirt was torn and bloodied Martha saw as he walked passed her, a makeshift bandage staunching whatever wound he had received. She could see the tightness of pain in his face as he went about his work.
The remaining man was tall, striking with his dark hair and blue eyes but without the matinee perfection that Jack boasted. A speckle of grey at the temple hinted at the future while lines scored deep by thought and worry spoke of a past that was not all Champagne receptions. Where Nicholas had needed to ask, Martha trusted this man immediately.
"Mark, I need to step out for a minute," Nicholas told him.
Mark stepped forward quickly, meeting Nicholas just inside the doorway
"Any news on Azzam?" Mark asked quietly. Standing at Nicholas' shoulder, Martha could hear the strain in his voice that he was trying to hide.
Nicholas' hand gripped Mark's arm in apology and comfort. "I'm sorry, I'm still trying to get through to anyone who might know. As soon as I find out anything..."
"Thank you. Be careful." For a moment, Mark's hand covered Nicholas' and their eyes met in a silent cacophony; blue on blue, water on ice. Then the instant was gone, and them with it.
Martha followed Nicholas out and didn't ask. She couldn't, she could only hope.
Beth Halloran watched in horror as the spheres poured through the Cardiff skies. Around her people screamed, anticipating the death that was coming. Others ran, some for shelter hoping that that would save them but more just ran mindlessly, trying to get away when there was no away to get to.
Mike was pulling at her arm, trying to get her to move but something inside her wouldn't let her. She ignored his increasingly frantic appeals, ignored the way that he tried to shield her as the first wave of Toclafane began to fire and the first cries of pain mingled with those of fear.
Mike fell, hit, and she screamed for him. Coming back to herself, she scrabbled at the bloody hole in his torso, trying to stop the bright red bubbles that forced their way up between her fingers no matter what she did. One of the things came closer, glinting prettily in the sun and laughing at her desperation. It didn't fire, wanting to savour her despair as it killed her. The laughter changed to surprise when its knives and blades bounced harmlessly away.
Kneeling by her dying fiancé, Beth glared defiantly at the alien. She didn't know why the thing hadn't hurt her and she didn't care. Rage, grief and fear blanked her of every thought, leaving only instinct behind. Deep within her something shifted.
The woman who had been known as Beth swung the blade that her fist had become and skewered the metal ball as it dared to come at her again. It squealed as it died, an angry frustrated scream that was part electricity and part twisted metal. Kayehla Janees of Cell 114 shook the wreckage away and looked around for another target. There were many to choose from.
Three more Toclafane were disabled before they had confirmed that their weapons could not penetrate the force shield that permeated Kayehla's skin. They withdrew slightly, hovering just out of reach, their protrusions buzzing and whirring in anticipation. The beam was not visible, only a light on one of the stalks hinting that anything was happening at all, but it contained a signal to disrupt the protective field.
Kayehla screamed as the first knife cut a long furrow across her upper arm.
The Toclafane gathered in greater numbers, sensing their victory as they wove around each other in swift bewildering patterns. They had been defied. They had been hurt. They were going to make the mean lady pay.
The fight became fast and vicious. The blades and teeth of the Toclafane bit mercilessly into soft flesh but they took damage in return, losing arms, chunks of carapace and even flight as electrics failed in shows of sparks. The conclusion was never in doubt - the swarm of Toclafane just too many for a lone fighter to hold off for long.
Skin decorated with the shattered remains of her enemies, Kayehla could feel her strength draining from each wound. The human body just wasn't built to take the type of punishment being inflicted on it and, despite everything, that was fundamentally what she had. Pain became too much, her body rebelling against what was being asked of it, as for every sphere she batted away, two took its place. She had failed in her mission but she would not fail in this one last thing - she activated the explosive charge within her and threw herself back at the swarming Toclafane.
The resulting explosion destroyed most of the nearby street, the frontage of the buildings buckling under the force of the blast. Shards of glass, glittering like the edges of the Toclafane knives, blew out from the windows into a deadly hail. Alarm systems shrieked and the smoke rose, a pyre to the fallen.
In the confusion of the Toclafane attack no one noticed that the detonation was anything unusual. Nor the three similar incidents that Cardiff suffered, just a small percentage of the hundreds reported, and unreported, around the world.
"We've lost New York," Skinner said grimly to the gathered agents.
An emergency command post had been set up in one of the conference rooms, control being passed from one person to another as more senior agents made it in. For the last hour that job had fallen to Assistant Director Skinner, one Deputy Director having decided to try and make it to the White House to confirm the situation there and another passing out from a wound he hadn't mentioned. Skinner had sent him off to Scully who, assisted by three agents with first aid certification, had set up makeshift infirmary. The other AD in the room had taken one look at Skinner, Mulder hovering at his shoulder and talking alien invasion like it was a normal thing, and had happily passed the buck.
All the disaster plans, created against the eventuality of a terrorist attack, had been implemented but fell short in the face of the Toclafane invasion. They had power at least, thanks to internal back-up generators. Blackouts were hitting the rest of the city and no-one was looking forward to the coming night. The techies had set up every means of communication they could think up in an effort to find out what was happening and co-ordinate a response. More than one silent prayer of thanks had been offered that the Archangel network had not been affected by the outages and downed exchanges that were playing havoc with the telephone system.
"Communications hiccup?" someone asked hopefully.
Skinner just shook his head, putting the phone handset back in its cradle.
"The whole New York office?" The horrified whisper could have come from any one of the throats in the room. Everyone was thinking the same; the New York office had been filled with their colleagues, people just like them, who had not been as lucky.
"Not just the office," one of the technicians who was working with telemetry from the Archangel Earth Obs satellites corrected quietly. He looked up at Skinner, begging him to deny what the data he was receiving were telling him. "We've lost the whole city."
The silence that met his announcement was the numb shock of the damned.
"The whole city?" one of the agents objected. "You can't lose a whole city!"
"Tell that to the Japanese," Mulder muttered, earning some hard glares from those close enough to hear.
"Jeremy?" Skinner prompted the young tech, ignoring the low swell of whispering behind him. "What have you got?"
"Sir?" Jeremy said, looking as lost as he sounded.
"Report, Agent," Skinner barked firmly but not unkindly.
"I'm not sure what happened exactly, Sir. It looks like there was a build up of those things, lots of them just started heading for the city, ignoring everything else. The images aren't giving us a lot, too much smoke. It looks like most of the city is on fire."
"I don't know. They... there are what look like thin clouds around the outside. It could be an odd effect from the fires but it doesn't move like it should. I think they might have encircled the city before the rest moved in. I'll..."
He pressed a few buttons and the main screen took on the artificial colours of interpreted data projected over a familiar landscape. Dark clouds obscured most of the picture, warring with the thermal readings of the ground beneath. Not everyone could understand the details but even those who couldn't were able to read the pale faces and hear the breathed profanity.
"I've got to..." someone else said brokenly and headed out of the room. Whispers about family in New York followed his departure. A few people began to weep openly, comforted by whomever was closest. Others concentrated fiercely on their jobs as they cried, refusing to acknowledge the tragedy they were witnessing. Mulder watched the display entranced, trying to spot the alien ships which were too small for the resolution to pick up individually.
"Why are you only telling us now?" an agent demanded, focusing on Jeremy as is he was personally responsible.
Jeremy flinched back, frightened. "We had to wait until a satellite was in range," he began raggedly, "it only just..."
"How long will we have this feed for?" Skinner interrupted, glaring at the angry agent who shuffled back into place with a grudging apology.
Jeremy took a deep breath gratefully. "I'll check," he said and turned back to his computer.
His answer was lost as the double doors into the conference room thumped opened. Four men in urban camouflage strode in with the arrogance of the heavily armed. Around the room agents reached for their guns, reacting automatically to the threat. Seeing the paper flourished by the leader, and recognising the whiff of authority in its presentation, they stood down with slow deliberation.
Skinner stepped forward to meet them, not in the least intimidated by the display. He and the commander squared off, every eye in the room on the confrontation. Drama playing out in front of them was a welcome distraction from the disaster that was painted on the wall.
"Major Maynard," the newcomer introduced himself. "I assume you are in charge here?"
Skinner nodded impassively.
"By order of the emergency executive we are here to take Special Agent Fox Mulder into protective custody."
That got a reaction. A jerk of surprise from Skinner and a collective in-drawing of breath from the rest of the room.
"Just who are you?" Skinner growled.
"Like I said, we were sent by the emergency executive and we have a warrant to take Agent Mulder in. It's a matter of national security - that is all you need to know."
"Like hell it is."
Maynard tossed a packet of cigarettes onto the table besides them. The Morley logo bled red across the white cardboard.
"Do we understand each other?" Maynard asked, unblinking.
Mulder started forwards angrily but Skinner held him back.
"Agent Mulder I presume," Maynard said without any hint of humour. "If you'd come with us please."
"And if I don't?"
"Then you…" The major's eyes flicked to Skinner briefly, "…and anyone who helps you, will be arrested on suspicion of treason. We are facing a national crisis, gentlemen, and we do not have time to keep the gloves on if we want to salvage anything from the situation. The aliens are here, Agent Mulder, and you, more than most, understand what that means."
"We should bend over and hope they warm the probes," Mulder suggesting sarcastically.
A slightly malicious smirk stretched Maynard's lips momentarily. "Don't worry, I hear they have someone else for that."
"And here I was hoping for an end to my dry spell."
Maynard looked at Skinner with an expression that suggested he was not entirely sure how to interpret Mulder's particular brand of flippancy but was strongly considering anger.
"Mulder," Skinner said quietly.
Mulder glared at him with a practised indignation. "You're buying this?"
"I'm not buying anything. Yet." Skinner held out his hand and Maynard passed the warrant across without comment. He read it slowly, the muscle of his jaw beginning to twitch as he clenched his teeth harder the further he read. Reaching the end he looked up and met Maynard's eyes. Maynard nodded curtly, confirming, one soldier to another, that the orders were real.
Skinner cleared his throat and turned to Mulder. "It's legitimate."
"Nothing that man is involved with is legitimate," Mulder spat.
"I'll do everything I can," Skinner began, a hint of apology under the steel in his tone.
"But it will take time," Mulder finished for him disgustedly. "And until then I should go with the nice men like a good boy. "
"Mulder..." As much sympathy as Skinner might have for Mulder's situation, there were limits. Any Marine knew that under fire when you were ordered to jump the only question you asked was how high - and then only once you were airborne.
Mulder looked away, refusing to acknowledge any point that Skinner might have.
"Agent?" Maynard prompted.
With one last betrayed scowl at Skinner, Mulder allowed himself to be escorted from the room.
Surrounded by his escort he passed Scully in the hall, her hair dishevelled and posture tired, the muted dissatisfaction of a doctor who had saved more than she lost but knew it was still not enough. Her eyes widened as she took in what she was seeing.
"Mulder? What's going on?"
Mulder turned to her with a bitter shrug, unable to slow as he was led away. "I've been arrested. Apparently Old Smokey needs an alien advisor."
"Mulder?" Scully called after him.
"I hate to say it, Scully," Mulder called back, "but I told you so."
Scully watched him go, stunned into silence. Looking down the now-empty corridor determination slowly replaced shock and she spun on her heel and strode back to talk to Skinner.
Nicholas and Martha sat together in his flat and listened to the newscasts on his laptop with half an ear as they made and discarded plans. Information was intermittent and contradictory, reported by whoever was in the studio; survivors who talked, not because they had any answers but because it was better than silence.
Martha was tracing the route to Mexico on a map when the background litany of confusion stopped. She looked at Nicholas, fearing the worst. Nicholas ignored her, already looking towards his computer, his expression closed. The emergency broadcast warning, when it started, was a welcome relief from the digital dead air whose seconds' duration had taken on the illusion of minutes.
"This is a message to all inhabitants of the United States of America: put down your arms. We have reached an agreement with the aliens which will safeguard the..."
"They're collaborating?" Martha interrupted the announcement, horrified.
Nicholas shrugged slightly and turned his attention back to the maps, pulling a more local one to the top. He'd been expecting it, Martha thought, and the knowledge chilled her. She had never felt so out of her depth before because the idea that people, that entire countries, would surrender to the Master without a fight had never occurred to her.
"It isn't the first time," Nicholas confirmed her suspicions. "Before Saxon took control of them, U.N.I.T. were working to neutralise a similar situation that had developed over here. Most of the federal government had been infiltrated. The question was always whether they were going to fight or deal."
And not fight for the world, Martha heard beneath the words, but fight for domination of it. Another emotion was joining the resolve that had kept her going her through late night cram sessions interspaced with double shifts. A fierce anger that these people had come to her planet and made it into a battleground. She understood Nicholas then in a way that she hadn't before. His focus might be a single country while hers was the world but it was her world and she would do whatever it took. And it wasn't just this world. On her travels with the Doctor she had met so many aliens, so many people, human and otherwise, who just wanted to live their lives in peace. They deserved someone to fight for them.
"Sounds like they decided to deal." She met Nicholas' composure with her own. "I wonder what the terms were."
Nicholas looked thoughtful for a moment. "And whether finding you was part of it." He pointed to the map he had chosen, drawing her attention to the details and away from the enormity of the situation. "The first thing to do is to get you out of the country."
"So I guess a side trip to Disney Land is out of the question," she said, forcing the lightness into her voice. It sounded horribly brittle to her ears but Nicholas gave her a little smile.
"Unfortunately." Nicholas traced a route with his finger that ended at the American border. He tapped the point he had selected lightly. "I've got contacts in Canada, we can probably get you there under the radar. They've tightened the border but it's still got more holes than a sieve."
"Then?" The vastness of Canada spread out before her, too large to be contained by the chart.
"North and West. Sneak back across the border into Alaska and then to Russia." He looked at her and she thought she saw an unwanted sympathy in his eyes along with a respect she hadn't expected. "Can you do it? It isn't going to be easy."
"I'll do it. I have to." Martha smiled, finding a confidence she hadn't known she had. "Can I borrow your Russian dictionary?"
It had taken them the best part of two weeks to get back to Wales. They had only succeeded because Ianto had managed to make contact with Nicholas, whose credentials opened some doors, while Alex had made contact with the local black markets and forced opened more. Between them they had forged a way across Europe where none had existed, taking advantage of the confusion to lose themselves before the travel restrictions made the merely very improbable, impossible. But, as Gwen had commented, Torchwood dealt with the impossible on a regular basis. While the truism had not been met with anything but derision, the reminder had helped more than anybody was willing to admit.
Their arrival in Cardiff was a moment lost in the darkness, the broken brick shells that had once been homes no different from all the others that they had walked through that it seemed to be every city except their destination. It was only as the sun filled in the missing details, etching what remained of the familiar skylines into the air that they believed.
Ianto looked out of a crack between the boards covering the otherwise empty window. It was a sign of luxury, thanks to some anonymous soul who had taken the effort to put up the makeshift shutters, that they had any cover at all. The unknown owner hadn't lived to take advantage of his work, or even finish it, but those windows that had been completed provided a little protection from the day.
They had made it home. Or as close to home as they dared. The Hub had been locked down and while, as far as they could tell, it had remained uncompromised, letting themselves back in through the front door would have had the same effect as sending an engraved invitation announcing their return. The question was what they would do next. It had been plaguing Ianto halfway across France. The others had been so focused on getting back, as if everything would fall into place when they got there. Ianto looked back across the room at the huddled figures of his colleagues: Owen and Gwen leaning against each other, Tosh watching and trying to pretend she wasn't and Alex, frowning as he thought. He looked up, meeting Ianto's gaze, asking a question that Ianto realised had been waiting there all along. He had been wrong; Alex hadn't expected a miracle to greet their arrival - he had just focused on the problem of getting them all here because he thought one of the locals would have a card up their ragged sleeves. Ianto did - he just wasn't sure it was an ace.
"I know somewhere we can go," he told them, "but we need a boat."
It was Owen, to everyone's surprise, who found them a skiff. They waited until the meagre cover of darkness, as if that could make the nerve-wracking eight kilometres safer, and Ianto lead them to the Torchwood facility on Flat Holm. He hadn't known how to describe the place when he had suggested it, or even whether anything had survived to be described, so he had kept resolutely quiet about what they would find there in the face of Gwen's badgering, Owen's sarcasm and Tosh's reproachful silence. Only Alex had backed him, taking the lead when Ianto had been ready to buckle under the weight of the team's curiosity. In many ways that was worse.
An apprehensive hush fell over them as they arrived. Unsure, Ianto suspected, whether they dared to hope. He led them to the underground entrance, conscious of their stares as the door opened and Helen ran to him. Ignoring the rest of them, she hugged him hard, tears welling in her eyes. Ianto felt his breath oof out of his lungs as she impacted against him but, after a moment of shock, returned the gesture. They held each other too tightly, friendly acquaintance suddenly significant after so much loss. Relief that they had made it he had expected, but not the destroying comfort of an action he hadn't known he had wanted. He was almost glad of Owen's sarcasm bringing him back to himself and preventing an embarrassing loss of control on his part as he felt the prick of threatening tears.
"We didn't come all this way just so you could cop a feel from your girlfriend. I'm freezing my nuts off and it's going to be dawn soon."
Helen gave him one last squeeze and let him go.
"Owen," Ianto said apologetically, looking at each in turn. "Tosh, Gwen and Alex. They worked with Jack and me. Helen is the Clinical Nurse Manager here."
"Here?" Gwen demanded.
Helen looked at Ianto. "Flat Holm," Ianto said simply and led the way inside, Helen beside him.
"Jack?" she whispered to him as they walked.
Having no words to explain everything he just shook his head. She touched his hand briefly, pressing the lax flesh and looking at him with more sympathy than he could stand. He looked away and the matter was dropped.
"I'm sorry," he said to her when they had gone a few more paces, finding refuge in the practicalities that could make atrocities into impersonal number patterns and a global catastrophe into manageable immediacies. "We didn't know where else to go. Is it a bad time?"
"Every time is a bad time since those things came." Helen's voice had its own brisk detachment and Ianto wondered how their medical supplies were holding up. "Some of them knew, you know, before it happened." She looked at him sharply but any accusation died stillborn. "They just started screaming or sobbing and wouldn't stop. We didn't realise until afterwards but then we put it together. If I wasn't so glad to see you I'd probably be angry you lied to us about what happened to them. But that doesn't really matter now, does it?"
Very little mattered any more. Behind him the others walked, sacrifices to the greater good whether they realised it or not, muttering to each other. They stopped talking as they reached the first of the rooms, the name plate a graffiti scrawl on the white board.
The sounds were beginning to become distinct and identifiable - sobs and harsh cries made by throats too raw to scream. They passed on. Some doors were open, revealing their inhabitants, others were closed with nothing but the names and muffled noises to mark them out. He heard a gasp from behind him but couldn't bring himself to turn and see which of his companions it had been. They understood now what it was they were seeing. It was only when they had reached the turning for the staff quarters that he risked a glance back. As he expected they appeared as stunned as he had been the first time he had visited. Only Alex seemed unaffected, face closed and harsh in its acceptance that such necessities were a reality. He caught Ianto's eye for a moment but Ianto looked away before he could ask how Ianto had known about the place. That way he didn't have to explain how Jack had shown him around after he returned from his suspension and, when he asked why, had said: "You asked what I would have done if you had come to me and there was any chance."
He'd hoped the underground complex had escaped the Toclafane's notice, that they had had the sense to stay, locked in and safe until the worst was over. It had been too much to hope that it had remained untouched. Even at its best it had been a bleak and crude hospice. There was only so much you could do for people who didn't officially exist with only an abandoned bunker complex and limited funding. The best that could be said for it now was that the concrete decor was no worse than it had been. Medicine and supplies would be at a premium, however, and Ianto wondered how much of their reserves remained.
A keening cry started up, jagged and roughened by the abuse of the throat that it came from.
"Can't you do something?" Tosh asked. She had been pale since they had entered the complex, the concrete tunnels closing in around them.
"I'm a doctor," Owen stated gruffly, "show me the patients and what you have."
"I'm sorry, Scully," Skinner said, "I argued for you." His jaw clenched for a moment before he burst out, "you're a damn good agent. They're fools to lose you."
Scully had expected to be angry - had been angry right up until Skinner actually said the words. She had suspected it was coming. With Mulder gone she had no partner and there was hardly any need for someone with her experience on the X-Files when everyone was now living them.
She had come close to quitting before - returning to medicine, to Quantico - it was having that decision taken from her that she objected to. Ranting at Skinner wouldn't make her feel better. That was Mulder's speciality and the thought of that was more painful than the loss of her job.
"It's okay," she heard herself say. She thought she saw relief in the conflicted expression he tried to hide behind the official impartiality. "You did what you could."
"I've got some contacts..." Skinner offered. "With the round-ups..."
Scully smiled sadly. She appreciated the offer, and the spirit in which it was meant. It really wasn't healthy to be unemployed - as much as the survivors pretended everything was back to normal that pretence was a veneer over the rot.
"There's a medical centre being opened down town. It will be pretty basic stuff - street medicine mostly." She could see from Skinner's frown that he realised exactly what she meant. "I know the director. She needs all the help she can get." Which was an understatement. She had taken Scully around the warehouse building they were converting into a clinic. All that could be said for it was that would be better than the nothing that was the current option for the people in the area. The practical part of Scully's mind wondered how long she and the other staff would be able to work in such conditions before they burned out on all the cases that they couldn't treat. The rest of her, honed by working with Mulder for so long, took that as a challenge.
"You'll call me if you need anything?" Skinner said gruffly.
"Thank you," she said. It was a credit to the man that the offer was not just an empty platitude and Scully hadn't expected anything less. He was a good man in a difficult position and she respected that. Even when they disagreed. Occasionally, when it came to her ex-partner, especially then.
They shook hands solemnly and she took her leave.
"Scully..." Skinner said when she was at the door. She turned towards him, "I'll get Mulder back," he promised.
She could only smile and nod, a fierce gratitude stealing her words. Shutting the door carefully behind her she walked out without looking back.
They sat around the table in what had once been the staff break room because they didn't know what else to do. Once Ianto might have found the compulsive way that Alex disassembled, cleaned and reassembled his guns worrying. Now he, and everyone else, ignored it. Owen's eyes were dark with fatigue and Ianto wasn't sure if he had got more than a few hours sleep at a stretch since they had arrived. As he drooped dangerously towards the table Alex reached out, barely looking, and moved the threatened sections of munitions. It was a sequence that Ianto had watched so many times that it almost seemed the normal way of things.
Playing his part in the drama he placed the mug of hot coffee near Owen's arm. The watery instant (made with barely a quarter of the normal grounds) was better than nothing but, in Ianto's opinion, only barely. Still it kept them going. Kept Owen going when even Gwen and Helen couldn't persuade him to rest properly while they saw to the patients.
Only Tosh rarely joined them, finding her distraction in the antiquated technology and miscellaneous odds and ends they'd discovered hoarded in the various storerooms. She'd claimed a room in which to work. Ianto took her coffee on a regular basis and reminded her to eat and sleep. They all had their obsessions; he recognised his own, returning like an old friend, as he ghosted around the base tidying and organising their meagre resources.
A clatter of footsteps interrupted the soothing click-snick of gun parts and the burr of Owen's deepening breathing. Owen jumped up, his chair crashing to the floor as he looked around wildly, and Alex to spin around, second gun ready in his hand and trained at the doorway. Toshiko skidded to a halt with the help of the doorframe, ignoring the reaction her arrival had caused or the accompanying tension.
"For God's sake, Tosh," Owen snapped when he'd finally focused blearily on her. He looked around for his chair and Ianto charitably put his lack of interest in Tosh's demeanour down to exhaustion rather than insensitivity. Ianto had noted before that lack of sleep seemed to sour Owen's disposition to the point where it could curdle milk. Whatever the reason, his complaint broke the tension. Alex put his gun back from wherever he had snatched it and everything was back to normal. Looking down, Ianto realised his knuckles were white as they gripped the tea towel he was holding and he forced himself to relax.
"Where's Gwen?" Tosh asked breathlessly.
Ianto consulted his mental timetable. "I believe she's helping Helen with her rounds," he told her as Alex said "What's up?"
Tosh seemed too preoccupied to notice. "I've got to tell her..." she began.
"Tell me what?" Gwen said behind her and it was Tosh's turn to jump.
"Gwen!" Ianto didn't think he remembered Tosh smiling like that since the Toclafane had invaded. A cold numbness spread across his chest even as he told himself it was clearly good news. "Gwen," Tosh said again, "Rhys is alive."
"Rhys is alive," Gwen repeated Tosh's news as if the meaning of the words would suddenly become clearer with repetition. Ianto wondered if sign language or, perhaps, the production of pictures would make comprehension easier. He pushed down the flare of fear and resentment over the unknown fate of his sister, brother-in-law and their children while Tosh beamed, too nice to allow the lack of information about her family to dim her happiness over someone else's good news. "Really alive?"
Tosh nodded firmly. It was the first information they had managed to find about any of their relatives, although Owen had told them not to bother looking for his, and any good news was a win to be treasured.
"That's..." Gwen visibly groped around for the word. "That's bloody brilliant, that is!"
She hugged Tosh tightly, bubbling thank-yous. There were tears in her eyes and Ianto felt guilty for his previous mean thoughts. In apology he held a chair out for her and she sat down with a thump.
"How?" she said at last as she calmed enough to think coherently.
Tosh looked away modestly. "One of the world's first radio transmission took place here on Flat Holm."
"Gulielmo Marconi. 1897," Ianto agreed.
Everyone turned to look at him and he shrugged away their surprise at his knowledge. Really - how long had they known him for? Just because he wasn't a specialist they seemed to forget he knew anything besides the right length of time to roast the beans for the smoothest coffee and how to get blood and alien slime out of synthetic fabrics.
Owen looked from him back to Tosh and shook his head in pity. "You are both very sad and need help, you know that," he said but even the rote insult lacked some of its usual bite. "But your point being."
"They didn't take all their kit." Tosh's eyes had a gleam that Ianto normally associated with her discovery of alien rather than human technology. "I got it working again, updated it a bit, linked it in with my laptop to automatically scan the frequencies for other broadcasts..."
Ianto wondered how many days it had taken her to find another signal.
"You," Gwen said delightedly when Tosh's explanation finished, "are a genius."
Everyone except Alex echoed her sentiment and Tosh flushed, pleased.
"I take back everything I ever said about ham radio enthusiasts," she admitted.
"Let's hear it for the obsessive, sad bastards," Owen agreed. "Not you, Tosh," he added quickly when Gwen glared at him. "Good work." He rubbed his eyes and Ianto felt unwillingly sorry for him, aware once again of how hard the other man had, himself, been working.
"Before this love-in gets anymore self-congratulatory, let me make sure I understand this," Alex said with quiet intensity. The frown on his face had taken on an ominous air. The relief that Tosh's announcement had brought them faded under his dark expression; the sun hidden once more amongst the clouds leaving a new chill in the memory of its passing. "Using some of the old equipment you found here you made contact with someone on the mainland?"
"Isn't it brilliant," Gwen insisted, refusing to be put off by Krycek's attitude.
"What did you tell him?" Alex growled.
Tosh flushed again, although whether it was anger or embarrassment Ianto couldn't tell. "I was careful," she said defensively. "No names, on either side. No locations. Just general news, nothing sensitive. The only reason I know about Rhys was that his name came up. I didn't ask."
Alex's face relaxed slightly and he nodded.
"You think you can trust your mystery man?"
"I think so," but there was doubt in Tosh's expression. "Him, but not the radio link - it's totally open. And given time it could be traced with the right equipment. That's why we didn't broadcast for very long."
Alex nodded again. "Owen's right," he said slowly, "you did good."
While not as bright as it had been before, Tosh's smile still warmed the room.
"Now we've got that out of the way…" Owen gave Alex a look he normally reserved for the less hygienically favoured alien infestations. "What do we do next?"
Gwen looked around the silent room, surprise slowly turning into determination.
"Well, I'm going to find Rhys," she announced. "Go to him..."
"We're on a bloody island," Owen interrupted wearily. "We can't afford to pop out so you can get your leg over."
"We have to get supplies," Gwen pointed out. She looked at Ianto and he gave her the nod of conformation that she clearly expected. They hadn't discussed it but they all knew that they would have to risk a trip to the mainland soon if they didn't want to cut rations further. Flat Holm had been many things but self-supporting was not one of them. "We could get him at the same time, bring him back here."
"And then what?" Alex asked quietly. "How long do you think it will take them to find us if they actively start looking?"
Gwen shook her head. "People must go missing all the time. There's no reason they'd come looking for us."
"And you're willing to bet all the lives here on that?" Alex took a step forwards, facing off against Gwen across the table.
Ianto, Owen and Tosh exchanged worried looks.
"And your alternative is what?" Gwen demanded, undaunted. "That we do nothing?"
"Bloody hell," Owen said quietly. "Should we warn her he's armed?"
"I'll go and get Helen," Ianto whispered back, "we should probably all be here for this discussion."
"Wuss," Owen hissed but his expression suggested that given an excuse he would have left the room on Ianto's heels.
Ianto could have found his way through the twisting corridors of Flat Holm in the dark. Indeed, had a few times when the generator had cut out. Judging by previous occasions, Helen would be most of her way through her round and without her appreciated but unskilled helper she was probably making better time than normal. With that in mind Ianto cut right and headed towards the last, and most difficult patients.
She had just finished turning down Alice's bed when Ianto found her. Alice, huddled quietly in the corner, looking at the floor as she always did when there were people around. Her hair, the fading blonde of an aged photograph, fell over her face. They had never been sure if she was hiding herself from the world or the world from herself. Only Jack, to Ianto's knowledge, had seen behind that veil and whatever he had seen had made him give orders that she shouldn't be pushed to answer that question. Ianto thought Alice might have come to tolerate him a little over the time she had known him. He greeted her, as he always did, and her posture relaxed slightly - although he could have sworn she had been watching him from the moment he walked in her room.
Helen looked up when he spoke, tucking the last edges of the sheet in with brisk efficiency.
"Gwen sent you to take over, did she?"
Ianto began to say that, no, actually, she hadn't, but in the face of Helen's surety and the presentation of a heap of dirty sheets he conceded with alacrity. Arms full of washing did not preclude conversation, although there was a certain absurdity about the situation whose direness only underlined the inherent humour.
"We need you in the meeting room," he said as Helen ushered him out in to the corridor.
The trolley used for rounds (the perennially squeaky wheels of which Ianto had an ongoing battle with) took all of Helen's attention as she manoeuvred it out of the door. "Gwen and Alex?" she asked as the back wheels bumped over the threshold.
Ianto blinked. Had it been that obvious that a confrontation was coming? He supposed something had been bound to happen sooner or later; the combination of reaction, confinement and inaction had worn on everyone. They'd probably only lasted this long because Owen had been working himself past the point of exhaustion and therefore past the point where he'd had the energy to continue an argument.
"Tosh found evidence that Gwen's boyfriend is alive," Ianto said as if that explained everything. In all the important ways it did.
"And now she wants to go tearing off and right the world while he wants to wait until he knows where to stick the knife." Helen looked up at him and his heart sank. "Now, as I understand it - it's my job to keep my patients alive, not to stop people who should know better from yelling at each other. That's your job."
And if Ianto could do that then he would use his magic powers to turn back time, save the Earth and bring Jack back.
"You should be part of the discussion," he said instead, "it'll affect you as well."
"And everyone here, not that they understand what's going on, poor souls. Out there - that's what you do…" Ianto looked away from the pity in her expression. "Here, this is what I do. You have to decide between you what you are."
"Helen," Ianto began but she cut him off.
"This is all I have left." Her hand felt warm against his cheek, real and alive in a way that nothing seemed to be any more. "You leave me this. Now go and save the world - and see if you can arrange some more supplies while you are at it."
She moved on to the next room, the slight whine of the trolley telling him that at least one of the wheels would need fixing again soon. He could call her back, argue with her, demand that she came back to the meeting room with him. Instead he walked back alone.
"We go out there and we help them," Gwen was insisting as he came back within earshot. "That's what Torchwood does."
"No." Alex's voice - low enough that Ianto could barely make out the words but those he could hear brooked no contradiction. "Stopping alien invasions is what Torchwood does and Torchwood failed! Now is not the time to be distracted by inessentials."
"But we have to go back - what about the Rift?" Gwen was saying with increasing vehemence and volume as he slipped in the door. "The weevils?"
Alex's attention flicked to him for a second before he turned back to Gwen. "Too dangerous," he shut her down sharply.
"Where's Helen?" Owen hissed as Ianto sidled closer and sat down. Ianto shook his head minutely and Owen rolled his eyes. Neither of the two combatants paid any attention to their exchange. It was strange sitting around the table together again - he didn't think they had done it since they arrived. It took him back to how it had been before, the spare seat just waiting for Jack to come bounding in with an outrageous comment or a stupid joke. He sucked in a breath, pushing down how much missed the man and concentrated on the present.
"We must be able to do something!" Gwen said firmly and Ianto wondered when the argument had moved from saving Rhys to saving Cardiff, or whether, to Gwen, saving Rhys and saving Cardiff were the same. But then saving Jack and saving the world had become somewhat synonymous in his mind so he could hardly blame her.
"Not for them," Alex said quietly.
Gwen stared at him in disbelief.
It visibly took her a few tries to find the words she wanted. "I thought we agreed I was in charge of the everyday stuff while Jack was away."
"And you think this situation counts?" There was no concession in Alex's tone, just a mocking undercurrent that Ianto hoped Gwen had missed. He had something in his hands, playing it between his fingers like a magician practising slight-of-hand.
"So what?" Anger was definitely building under the frustration, not, Ianto thought, that it would do her much good. Alex had been annoying the hell out of Mulder for years and if his feelings for Mulder hadn't stopped him then any camaraderie he shared with Gwen certainly wouldn't. "We sit here and do nothing?"
Ianto wondered if he should tell her it wouldn't work. Jack would have argued back, maybe even given her a chance to change his mind. He could be reasoned with in a way Alex couldn't, you just had to approach him right. Ianto suspected it was guilt but had never been able to prove it. And Jack could be worked around much more easily than Alex could, not that Gwen had quite worked that out yet. That realisation came with time and cynicism.
"We train," Alex said slowly, the thing in his hands flashing in and out of view between his fingers. Gwen bristled even more at the implied insult to her intelligence. "We drill, we watch and we work out where we can hit them that will hurt the most - where it will help the Doctor's plan."
Whatever it was. Nicholas had alluded to it and strongly hinted Martha was his source, and the lynchpin of the scheme. Under torture Ianto might have admitted that he had slightly ambiguous feelings about the Doctor. Further torture might have wrung out the admission that jealousy played a not inconsiderable part in that ambiguity. However, faced with the world ending, that meant diddly-squat; Jack would follow the Doctor into Hell, had done so, and, therefore, so would Ianto. It shouldn't have surprised him, given what Alex had told him about meeting the man, that Alex's reaction had been even more fervent.
"And what about everyone else?" Gwen had clearly been one of those people who had taken to heart the adage about not jumping off a cliff just because everyone else had. Not that Jack was the best person to rely on when it came to cliffs - he would always walk away from the landing. "What about all those people out there who are counting on us to keep them safe?"
"What about them?"
Gwen stood suddenly, the chair grating with unpleasant violence against the floor. "I have to go," she announced.
Alex said "Where?" as the rest of them said her name, their voices merging in a desperate plea that was lost under Alex's clipped demand.
"You said it yourself," Gwen threw back at them. "We failed; Torchwood failed, U.N.I.T. failed. It's over."
"We can't just give up," Tosh objected, her voice sounding small and unsure after the certainty that had been thrown around.
"I am not giving up." Gwen smiled with the calm of the resolved, or the suicidal. "I am going to do my duty and that is helping those people out there." She looked around the table before looking at Alex. "You want to fight - then hand me a weapon and we fight. But you don't want to do that because of this 'grand plan' that you think is being cooked up. You want to just abandon everyone and everything else. Well, I won't be part of that. Those people out there - they need saving too and I won't just sacrifice them because you think it's bloody expedient." Her appeal expanded to take in the rest of them. "You saw what was happening; people are frightened and have no idea what is going on but at least they're alive and I'm going to help them stay that way. Whatever she is doing, Martha doesn't need our help - those people do."
Alex didn't argue - just put the thing he had been playing with between his fingers onto the table and opened it. They all looked at the retcon tablets it contained. He pushed them across the table towards where Gwen stood. She paled. Saying nothing he reached into his jacket and pulled out his pistol, laying it on the table with a gentle thunk next to the pills.
Their eyes met - incredulous to intractable. "Your choice," Alex told her.
"Wait a minute," Owen objected, "she goes out there with her memory wiped she's going to be a sitting duck."
There was no mercy in either Alex's voice or his expression. "She goes out there without her memory wiped then we're all compromised and we can't risk that."
"And she's right here," Gwen cut in.
"You want to leave," Alex addressed her directly, "those are your options."
"I don't want to leave," Gwen objected, "but we need to be out there as well as in here, helping keep everything together."
Alex shook his head. "It's too dangerous," he said. "We can't do both."
For a brief and hopeful moment, Ianto thought they might just keep having the same argument, over and over until fate or circumstance resolved it for them.
"You're just going to abandon everyone?"
There was a definite irony that they were having this conversation in the place of the abandoned and unrehabilitatable.
"For now," Alex agreed, "yes."
"Jack would never let you do this."
But he would, Ianto thought. If that was what it took then Jack wouldn't just let Alex, he would be giving him the order. Alex' mouth twisted into a fractured smile and Ianto could read that same knowledge in the mocking glitter of the hard green eyes. "Shame he isn't around to raise an objection."
Gwen looked around the room, trying and failing to find any support. Owen wouldn't meet her gaze, glaring angrily at the corner where ceiling and wall joined in uneasy alliance.
"Ianto?" Apparently his own perusal of the sorry state of his shirt cuffs was not as strong a deterrent. "Why aren't you saying anything?"
"Because he's right." The words tasted like bile in his mouth, necessary but unpleasant. Was it betrayal or loyalty? He wasn't sure. "It'd be too much of a risk."
Would Jack blame him for not keeping them all together? For letting Alex drive Gwen out and not doing anything sooner. He'd have followed Gwen in any other circumstances but they were out-matched, out-gunned and fighting a lost war. That was something Alex had experience in.
"Tosh?" Gwen prompted.
Tosh flushed. "I don't like it, but... " She looked away from Gwen and down at the table.
Gwen slowly picked up a pill. "I can be more help out there than I can in here."
Alex's fingers closed around her wrist before she could lift it more than a few centimetres.
"Not yet. When we go for supplies."
"You'll take me to Rhys?" she insisted.
They stared at each other for a long time before Alex nodded and longer before Gwen dropped the pill. Alex let go of her arm in return. She cradled it against herself, rubbing the skin where she had been held and watching Alex with defiance and fear, and more than a little loathing.
Ianto searched for something to say to her and when he couldn't find it looked at the others only to find Owen and Tosh were at an equal loss. He didn't dare look at Alex. There were monsters outside but there were monsters inside as well. He had always known that but it was easy to forget. To the drum-roll of their silence Gwen left the room, her dignity pulled around her in a rebuke more damning than any words could have been. By the time they looked back the tin was gone, Alex's gun had been returned to it's holster and he was, once more, examining the barrel he had been cleaning meticulously when Tosh ran in.
Owen took a deep breath but then thought better of whatever he had been about to say. With a significant glance at each of them he walked out. Ianto hoped he had given into his exhaustion and gone to find a quiet place to sleep rather than gone after Gwen. While Gwen needed someone, Owen needed sleep more. With Rhys resurrected, again, he doubted Gwen would be receptive to any comfort that Owen could offer.
He turned to Tosh but there seemed little left to say. They would find their words again but the shush of the wadding sliding through the barrel encouraged them to silence. Flat Holm had never felt more like a mausoleum and they like the walking dead. Her hand touched his for a moment, reminding of the times after Lisa's death when she had sat with him. Before America. Before he and Jack found a new understanding. He smiled at her and made her coffee. Full strength. They would be going for supplies soon.
Two nights later Owen made the risky journey across the bay. Gwen was barely conscious by the time they got to the address Tosh had given them. He handed her to Rhys along with a lie to explain her absence and an explanation which was barely heeded in Rhys' joy that she was alive and his vocal concern about her state. Owen slipped away without a goodbye.
The wind whipped passed her face as the dogsled raced across the snow. The Mountie at her back was quiet as he drove, unlike his friend who whooped and hollered as he steered the second sled alongside them. But as the days passed and the cold settled deep in their bones, even he quietened to a grim determination.
When the silence grew too oppressive she asked him to sing and he did in a strong, rich voice.
At night they sat around the fire and Martha tried to learn Russian from the book she had borrowed from Nicholas, or talked in broken Mandarin with the Mountie who spoke a little and had offered to teach it to her. His friend watched them, listening to the words as they filled up the night, alternatively melodic and guttural, and muttered about both of them being freaks.
Tosh knew she was frowning but she couldn't help it. Something had been fluttering on the edge of her understanding for hours and it was really beginning to bug her. Coffee, she had finally decided, was the answer. Or at least a good approximate until the real answer made itself known.
"Milk's gone," Ianto told her apologetically as he boiled the water. She could have made it herself just as easily but he seemed happier when he had things to do so everyone let him get on with it.
"Doesn't matter." She didn't normally take her coffee black but it was so weak that further dilution by dairy would have reduced the caffeine to homeopathic levels. "Thanks."
The cup was warm in her hands as she stared down at it, the little grits floating in a decreasing spiral, unhappy reminders of the cheap instant they had come from.
"You're supposed to drink it, not stare at it," Owen advised from the doorway. "Or is the answer to life, the universe and the Toclafane hidden in there?"
With a mental click it all came together - the missing piece of the puzzle - and she had just enough presence of mind to grab a chair before she sat down with a bump.
"Tosh?" Ianto sounded so concerned, so close and yet so far away. She wanted to answer him at once but the thoughts were spinning and whirling in her head like the coffee grounds in the cup, all coming together into one perfect pattern.
"I think I have something," she whispered.
"Well, don't give it to the rest of us - we're running short on antibiotics," Owen joked but his voice was strained and she realised with a bit of a shock that he was worried for her.
She knew she probably looked wild but the reverberations of her new understanding were still thundering around her mind. If she was right... If, if, if... "Get Alex."
Owen and Ianto looked at each other and Owen nodded. It did not take Ianto long.
"What have you got, Tosh?" Alex asked, slipping into the seat opposite her.
A foreboding flicker of déjà vu nearly stopped her replying. The last time she had had good news it had cost them Gwen. What more would they lose this time?
"Not found," she dismissed quickly, before she could change her mind, "but I have an idea." How to put it into words so that they could see what she had seen? Jack had always told her to start from the beginning when she wasn't sure. "It was that message from CERN."
Movement caught her eye and she saw Helen moving away from the door. No matter what they'd said she'd refused to have anything to do with what she referred to as their 'hypotheticals'. The patients were her concern and Tosh wasn't entirely convinced that she didn't see the lot of them as more than a new set of cases - largely self-sufficient but still worthy of admission and to be humoured but taken no more seriously in their delusions than any of the other inmates.
Alex frowned, recapturing her attention. "CERN's been quiet for weeks."
"I know," Tosh nodded vigorously, "but something about that last message bothered me: 'Can't stop the signal'."
"The poor buggers were geeky fanboys," Owen dismissed. It wasn't the first time they had had that conversation.
"Says the person who got the reference," Tosh snapped back. "But what if they weren't?"
"A bunch of physicists in the world's largest basement? Give me a break."
Alex waved Owen to silence and he subsided. Tosh wondered if he was scared of Alex or if he had just come to the conclusion that it was not the right time.
"What if we were thinking about it wrong?" Tosh said with growing conviction. "We didn't hear the inflection of the original - what if it wasn't an inspirational message but a warning?"
Alex followed the path of her thoughts quickest. "That they couldn't stop the signal."
He nodded and Tosh could see the growing awareness of what that might mean in the brightness of his eyes.
"What signal?" Owen asked the obvious question.
"I don't know," Tosh admitted, looking at Alex to see if he was still with her, "but there is only one system still running."
"Archangel," Alex confirmed. "Which Saxon was instrumental in getting set up." There was a bitter sort of respect in his tone as he spat, "clever bastard."
"Look, it's a good theory. But you know the first thing they said when the shit hit the fan?" Owen asked rhetorically, "'It wasn't us!'"
Tosh frowned. "Of course it wasn't them. They hadn't brought the collider up to operating parameters."
Owen rolled his eyes. "The point I am trying to make is that they knew even less than us. And they found this and we didn't..."
Tosh knew he didn't mean it as an accusation but it was hard not to take it as such. She tried to ignore the pang of regret for her missing equipment - for how long it had taken her to realise what should have been obvious.
Owen must have seen a hint of it in her face as he hurriedly continued, "I don't mean that.... You..." he stalled. "Look, what I am saying is that you're good. But we've had no clue that there might be something until now. Isn't it more likely that this is just wishful thinking?"
"No," Alex answered for her, "it makes too much sense. A signal, an embedded signal doing... something. Something vital to their plan."
"Can we block it?" Ianto said quietly. Tosh looked at him. It was the first thing he had said since her announcement and the look on his face held a hard determination that frightened her. It was a look too close to how Alex had frequently looked when he first arrived in Cardiff - an expression that she had started seeing again recently.
"I don't know," she apologised. "I need the Hub computers to do this properly. I need them to even confirm what we suspect..."
"I'm not sure we want to block it." Alex's low rumble cut off her explanations.
They all stared at him with greater or lesser expressions of incredulity.
"She's going to use it, isn't she," Ianto said without inflection, "Martha."
They all considered that idea and the disbelief slowly faded into something more calculating. Tosh wasn't sure they were coming up with the same equations but they were, at least, using the same numbers. However, the more she thought about it the more she wondered what they could do. Without knowing the exact plan they were as likely to betray Martha as to assist her.
"So how can we help her?" Owen broke the silence.
"We can't," Tosh sighed. "Maybe Gwen was right…" She ignored the soft, derisive sound Alex made. "We need to concentrate on keeping people alive so that someone other than the cockroaches benefit when she and the Doctor finally pull the rabbit out of the hat."
"And maybe if she had waited a few weeks rather than haring off then we could have put a plan together that helped everyone," Owen grumbled and anyone who didn't know him might have assumed the complaint referred to her. Gwen's antipathy to Alex had been easily explained - Alex was the dark side of Jack that Gwen did not like acknowledging existed. Owen's animosity Tosh had never understood.
"Have you heard anything about how she is doing?" Ianto asked politely, heading Owen off before he got up the courage to criticise Alex directly. The last thing they needed was another fight.
"Good," Tosh said quickly and caught the flash of relief that she had caught onto the plan, "from the sound of things. Got people together, organised a neighbourhood watch... that sort of thing."
"She does realise that the neighbourhood is a pile of rubble, doesn't she?" Owen spat, distracted but unmollified.
"I don't think it matters," Tosh said, surprising herself with her vehemence. "It's bringing people together, making sure they only have to fear the aliens and not each other."
"Come on," Owen objected, "that's stretching it a bit, isn't it, Tosh?"
Tosh shrugged. "No lights and no police... At least nothing worth the name. It's not just weevils and Toclafane that are a problem."
Owen blanched and Tosh remembered Lizzie Lewis. "Okay," he conceded roughly, "I get your point but..."
"WMDs in Tyrgyztan," Alex muttered aloud.
Owen looked confused. "What?" he said.
"WMDs in Tyrgyztan," Alex repeated. "Saxon must know that Martha is out there and trying to do something and if we can figure it out so can he." Tosh decided against pointing out that they hadn't actually figured it out. "So we create a diversion, a smoke screen." Alex leaned forward, inviting their confidence. "I used to play this game with Mulder all the time: you want to make sure he doesn't investigate something - you give him a different mystery to solve. You spin it right and you can get people to do anything."
Owen, playing what Tosh was beginning to think of as his self-appointed role of sceptic, said "And you think leading Mulder around by the nose means you can manipulate a psychopathic megalomaniac who has taken over the world?"
"Because he's a psychopathic megalomaniac." Alex stressed the first word with care. "Give him something he understands and he'll chase that rather than looking for the real goal."
"Okay," Owen said, "so what are you proposing?"
"We set him searching for something that doesn't exist." Alex made a fist and released it in a magician's reveal. "Something that isn't Martha. That way even if we're wrong we get him chasing his own tail and give her a bit of cover."
Tosh nodded in quiet agreement. It could work. For the first time in a long time she felt a bit of hope rise. Finally they had a way to fight back. Next to her Owen was nodding as well and that made her feel even better.
"The 'WMDs'," Ianto said thoughtfully. "There was a project in the files, Torchwood was trying to create a weapon that could kill a Timelord." He paused for a moment, suddenly aware that he was the focus of attention. "It didn't get very far," he explained quickly, misunderstanding, Tosh suspected, the reason for their combined interest, "partly because there wasn't enough information. But it was never officially closed down - just got so embarrassing that they buried it."
"And what happened to the results?" Owen asked. Tosh could hear an understandable eagerness in his tone despite the obvious implications that there were no results to speak of. And even if they had come up with a prototype - how would they have tested it? Until word had come via Martha and Nicholas telling them otherwise, the only Timelord that Tosh had heard of was the Doctor and he didn't seem like the type to let Torchwood try and kill him for experimental purposes.
Ianto shrugged slightly. "It was a Torchwood One project," he said as if answered everything, which it did.
"That's perfect." Alex brushed the need for an actual, and working, example away as unnecessary. "We have to assume that the Master has access to the Torchwood One and U.N.I.T. files so he can verify that it was being worked on. We just need find a way to put out the word."
"And get some better equipment," Tosh said firmly. "If this is a communications war we need something more that a short range radio." If, even knowing that it was a trick, the idea of such a gun existing had perked Owen up then what could it do if the story spread? Just the idea that maybe there was a way that they could fight back; that the Toclafane could be beaten... Tosh could feel her mouth pulling into a smile as she thought about the implications.
Alex grinned back. It wasn't a reassuring expression. "Ladies and gentleman," he announced, "the Resistance starts here."
Mulder had discovered the hard way that banging on the door produced nothing except sore hands. Giving up finally he retreated back to the pallet bed, pulled his knees up to his chest and nursed his bruised knuckles and ego.
When they brought him food, soft drinks and even a thermos of coffee, he'd ignored it - suspecting that they had been dosed with something. He couldn't stop them coming for him but he could at least be in his right mind when they did. Stone-faced, silent guards removed the untouched plates, replacing them at regular intervals with fresh fare. He thought he caught some hostile looks from the guard he had named Chuckles and met them with airy indifference.
After two days, thirst drove him to break his self-imposed fast. When he suffered no ill effects he threw caution to the wind and attacked the rest of the food with such speed that he nearly brought it straight back up again. For hours he waited for the drugs to take hold but the only symptom was the removal of the gnawing in his stomach. After that he ate the food when it was brought to him, only husbanding the coffee until he was a close-run race as to whether he or entropy would claim it.
Boredom became his greatest enemy. Jogging around the room provided some relief but the space was too small for such methods to be effective. The rest of the time he sat and waited or ranted at the door, demanding information, conversation or entertainment as suited his mood. He spent hours explaining to the tape he was sure was running the more far-fetched of the theories he had encountered, intermingling them carelessly with the plots of his favourite movies and graphic descriptions of what his captors could do to themselves and each other (assuming that a number of his captors were young, female and extremely flexible in both physicality and morality).
He fell silent eventually, the fight seeping away and leaving him lethargic and bitter. He estimated that it had been the best part of two weeks before the door opened to reveal a familiar face.
Mulder looked at the doorway distastefully, not bothering to get up. "I hope you aren't here to give me my sponge bath. Or should I be more worried about the thumbscrews?"
"Really, Mr. Mulder," the man in the doorway protested, "you're here for your own protection."
Mulder's expression shaded towards polite astonishment. "Now why don't I believe that," he drawled.
Leaving the door ajar, Spender walked into the room.
"Regardless of what you believe, it is true."
The open door called to Mulder with a siren offer of freedom. He ignored it, focusing instead on the loathed figure whose promises were less sweet but just as perilous.
"Where's Scully?" he said shortly.
He had little hope that his question would be answered so started with genuine surprise when Spender said, "Dr. Scully is alive and well." He smiled at Mulder's reaction, taking on an air of paternal understanding that grated rather than soothed. "As to why she isn't here - which I assume is your next question - while she is a very talented woman she does not have the necessary skills that make you so valuable."
Mulder laughed, unable to help it as the sound burst from him in a humourless, acrimonious cascade. "You want me to help you?" he said. "Are you smoking something other than nicotine? You staged a coup, allied with the aliens who just decided that Earth looked like a fun place to take over and then had me kidnapped..."
Spender dismissed the last charge with a flick of his cigarette. "For your own protection," he repeated. "As for the rest - a temporary measure only. Think about it, Mr. Mulder - as you noted, they were well on their way to taking over the world. Our best defences against them had proved useless. So we made a deal, which saved hundreds of thousands of American lives, and gives us time. What would you have done?"
Mulder sobered, glaring. "You aren't interested in time - just power."
"An astute observation," Spender conceded, "but irrelevant. Power comes in many forms."
He raised a hand and gestured shortly with his fingers. The door opened further to disgorge a short stream of soldiers, each carrying a heavy box. Mulder scrambled to his feet but they paid no attention as they marched smartly across the room and began to pile the boxes in the far corner.
"And here come the torturers?" Mulder muttered.
Catching his words, Spender frowned. "You really must rid yourself of this misapprehension," he chided, dismissing the men with another wave of his hand. Mulder gave Chuckles and Cheery, his regular guards, a little wave as they departed. They ignored him. "These boxes," Spender said when he had Mulder's attention again, "represent all the information we have been able to gather on the aliens and Mr. Saxon."
That was the second time Spender had surprised him with information, which made him even more suspicious. Leopards might change their spots but he couldn't believe that the Smoker would change his stench. "Why are you showing them to me?"
For moment he thought Spender wouldn't answer but then the old man smiled. "Because we want leverage, Mr. Mulder," he said, "and I think you might be the person to find it. You have always shown a…" He paused and Mulder got the impression he was selecting his words carefully. "…commendable…" He nodded slightly, pleased with his choice. "…instinct for this kind of investigation, even when we might have preferred that your efforts were directed elsewhere." The smile grew wider and more knowing. "Why do you think we kept you on the X-Files for so long?"
"And pulled me off them when I wouldn't play your little game," Mulder retorted angrily. "You still haven't given me one good reason why I should lift a finger to do anything more than flip you off."
Mulder thought the disapproval was for his vulgarity until Spender shook his head and said, "I should have thought it would be obvious," in tones that suggested he was talking to a small child, "I assume you have some naive fantasy about resisting. Maybe even some form of rebels fighting nobly against the alien menace. What better way to prove your worth to them than by providing them with information that might be vital to the cause? Where better to start looking?"
"And you are going to just let me go, are you - once I have this mythical answer?" Mulder asked sarcastically.
"Of course not. But I'm sure your fantasy will involve a rescue scenario at some point."
"You don't think that sounds rather pathetic?" Mulder scoffed.
"Possibly," Spender said with that smirk that Mulder hated so much, "but then curiosity has a lot to answer for, doesn't it. Good day, Mr. Mulder. We will talk again."
"Wait..." Mulder began.
Spender kept walking, not even pausing when Mulder launched himself forward only to be caught by Chuckles who had been waiting at the door. He struggled hard enough that Cheery came in to assist. The pair of them threw him onto the bed hard enough to wind. He was vague aware that they must have had orders to use minimum force since they offered no further violence but the door was still locked behind them by the time he managed to get air back into his shocked lungs. He raged for a while, demanding answers, his release and Scully with no meaningful effect.
He sagged finally, glaring at the boxes as the physical manifestations of his predicament. He lasted nearly ten minutes before inquisitiveness got the better of him. He didn't even notice when they brought his meal hours later. He did notice the coffee. Eventually.
The wind from the bay insinuated itself unpleasantly into every gap and chink in their clothing. Ianto had never put much stock in feng sui but he was beginning to see why the positioning of a building at the end of a long, straight road was discouraged. Between the sagging remains of the Millennium Centre and the houses, the plaza seemed to funnel more than its share of cold air inland and, while this effect wasn't as noticeable at ground level, it would add an extra difficulty when trying to sneak into a twenty-one-meters tall, damp and slick structure while not being seen by murderous, flying aliens.
"I never thought I would be breaking into the water tower," Tosh shivered beside him. They were huddled on the paving slab which acted as the platform for the invisible lift when the Hub wasn't shut down and the lift turned off. Luckily the invisible part was independent of, and Ianto's research suggested preceded, the installation of the lift mechanism and so offered a comparatively safe place from which to mount their assault.
"Normally you can't. Even with a breathing apparatus the pressure of the water is too high - Torchwood made sure of that. But with the water off..." Which was why Jack got so antsy whenever they had to turn the fountain off to let the council make repairs to the plumbing. The tower itself might have been build to withstand a nuclear strike or an alien invasion or both (whatever came first) but Torchwood had definitely contracted the aesthetic cover out to the lowest bidder. Between retconning the contractors and guarding against possible infiltration during the council-ordered inspections neither he nor Jack got much time to themselves. Or with each other.
Tosh nodded and even in the dark Ianto could practically see her putting things together in her head. That, of all of Jack's recruits, Alex had been the only person to independently consider 'emergency' exits, and therefore entrances, said more about Alex than about them. Now, having turned her mind to the problem, Ianto had no doubt that Tosh would solve it. She had, after all, a lot more information at her disposal than Alex had had: everything any of them knew about the schematics of the tower and the security system that Jack had installed. So while Alex had had a half-crazy theory, Tosh had a plan and the access codes. All they needed was that and a little luck.
The next hour was filled with alternating terror, frustration and brief triumphs. They carefully attached and hoisted a rope ladder to the top of the tower and Tosh began the delicate process of breaking in. Three times the sensor that Tosh had cobbled together had buzzed its warning, sending them both scrambling for the familiar flagstone and its concealing cloak as Toclafane hummed by. Once they were forced to stop, hardly daring to breathe as a human patrol came down the road alongside the plaza. Only the drum roll of boots, loud in the silence of the night, had given them enough warning to freeze, Ianto on the paving stone but Tosh flattened against the top of the water tower. They had been lucky - the patrol had continued on its way without either looking up or spotting the incriminating tail of rope which hung like festive bunting celebrating their presence.
Things went a little faster after Tosh had made her way through the roofing layer and disabled the first two sensor arrays. That cleared enough room for Ianto to join her in the damp darkness of the space inside the water tower. It was tight and uncomfortable but once they were shut in (all their equipment with them) they only had to worry about setting off the Hub's defence systems. Even so it was an arduous and delicate process and Ianto became much better acquainted with a number of interesting phases in Japanese that, while he was sure she knew them, Ianto would never have believed Toshiko would say aloud.
At last they stood at the base, water soaking into their shoes from the remains of the pool. The Hub looked just as they had left it, except for the empty feel. Even the drip of water held an element of reproach rather than welcome, dampening any joy in their return - it was something about the grave atmosphere (imbued as it was, through lifelong indoctrination of how to act in solemn, dead places) with its compulsion to talk only in respectful whispers. Ianto wanted to shout and chase the unwanted silence away.
Tosh went immediately to her workstation, wet footprints marking her passage like ghost trails. The monitors lit up with happy sighs as her fingers began their tap dance over the keyboard. She frowned slightly as she concentrated, running diagnoses and juggling systems. Trying to make it look as if nothing had changed while clawing back every advantage the Hub computer could give them. She was immersed in her world; Ianto went to his.
Maybe it was because the archives were almost exclusively his domain but they did not seem empty in the way that the rest of the base did. Standing amid the tightly packed shelves, cluttered with the flotsam of many worlds, it was easy to imagine that all he had to do was go back up the stairs and everything would be as it had been. He had always retreated down to the embrace of the stacks when he needed the serenity of order. Even in a world gone mad, here was control. Which was why he knew exactly where to look to find what he wanted. And if he didn't look straight away no one would blame him. They weren't in a hurry.
He did emerge eventually, duty and his own sense of bloody mindedness not allowing him the masochism of delusion for too long. Whether it was habit or some remnant of that brief illusion, it felt strange not to immediately start his normal tasks and he could not stop the longing glance towards his coffee machine. It really had been a long time since his last cup of good coffee. It might be a small thing compared with the end of the world as he had known it, but it was a small thing that he could do something about.
"You got it?"
Tosh asked, looking up from her computer and delivering him from temptation.
In answer Ianto laid an artefact box on her desk. The black case was a little battered under the thin layer of detritus that had taken advantage of Ianto's absence to invade the archives, another grievance to lay at the Master's door, but was otherwise just as he had left it. He flicked the clasps and opened the lid. Tosh smothered a sneeze as the dust mushroomed off it and Ianto gave her an apologetic look. She waved his concern away and peered closer at what lay within. It could have been a gun - the barrel, grip and trigger design were pretty universal amongst species with prehensile fingers - it had certainly been mislabelled as such until Jack had happened to spot it and, amused, corrected the identification.
"Looks impressive," Tosh admitted. "What does it actually do?"
Ianto allowed himself a small grin. "It immunises the target against a rather nasty and virulent type of extra-terrestrial VD. There's a vial missing but I don't think that matters – gives Martha something to be searching for. It seemed appropriate." Neither of them was particularly given to physical gestures of affection so the swift but firm hug surprised him. From the slightly embarrassed way Tosh focused on the artefact as she drew back, it had surprised her as well.
"How's the computer restructuring coming?" Ianto offered quickly.
"Slowly. I can get some systems running without bringing everything online but…" She grimaced. "I can keep the power consumption minimal so it looks like we are still on automatic... No one will know we've been here - but it will take a while to isolate the subroutines, let alone re-write the system."
"How long a while?"
"Longer than we have now. I'm going to stay. It will be safer than my making multiple journeys and we need more processing power than we have at Flat Holm. I can do the calculations here."
Not that he needed to ask. He'd seen the files about her incarceration and, even if he hadn't, he had seen the way that Tosh shrunk in on herself in Flat Holm.
"Really. I can do more good here and Alex is right about the crossings being dangerous. I can give you a narrow-beam radio to take back."
She looked so hopeful he just nodded agreement.
"The good news is - I think I've de-coupled the lift from the main system. I should be able to run it manually without needing to bring everything else online. We shouldn't run it often but the occasional use should be hidden by fluctuations in the rift energy."
"Are you going to be okay in here on your own?" He had to ask - one last attempt so he could at least tell the others he tried.
"Are you going to be okay out there with Owen?" Tosh retorted. She looked around the Hub and a slightly sad smile flickered at the corners of her mouth. "Don't worry," she assured him, "I've got the computers - what more do I need?"
There was no answer to that.
"Leo? Leo Jones?"
He turned at the sound of his name, hefting his plank of wood-cum-club in as threatening a manner as he could manage and cradling Keisha's sleeping body closer to him. The woman addressing him was middle-aged, her brown hair cut into a casually-smart style that went with the neighbourhood. Or what he imagined the neighbourhood must have been like.
"Who the hell are you?" Shonara would have had a go at him for swearing in front of his daughter. He swallowed down his fear for her. She and Boxer might not have been in the house, he kept telling himself that, hoping he could make himself believe it. If he and Keisha hadn't stepped out maybe they could have done something. If he and Keisha hadn't stepped out maybe they would have been in the house as well.
"I'm Sarah-Jane Smith," the woman said impatiently, as if he should have known that. "You are Leo Jones?"
"Yeah," he admitted. He wasn't ready to drop his guard just yet, not for some crazy lady who somehow knew his name. He'd been running from people who seemed to suddenly know his name ever since Martha had rung him with that crazy warning. He didn't know what she had got herself - got them - into and he didn't care as long as he could keep his daughter safe. And then those things had come and protecting his daughter had gained a new urgency.
"Good," Sarah-Jane said, "we've been looking for you. I'm a friend of the Doctor's…"
"Okay," he snapped, annoyed now, "first: who's 'we' and, second: who's this Doctor guy and why should I care about his friends?"
"Mum!" A young voice shouted in warning and they both whirled to see a boy running towards them "They're coming," he panted as he skidded to a stop in front of them. Leo supposed that went at least part way towards answering his first question.
"No time," Sarah-Jane said quickly to him and then looked down. "Mr. Smith?"
Leo was wondered who she was talking to and had just about convinced himself she was a crazy woman when a slightly mechanical voice spoke from the vicinity of the her lapel, "Yes Sarah-Jane."
He jumped back, wary. The boy watched him curiously as Sarah-Jane talked and he stared right back.
"We've found him," she said. "But the twenty-threes are coming our way. Can you help?"
"Affirmative. I am monitoring your situation. My records suggest that if you take the turning to your right you will find a location that might meet your needs as a temporary refuge. I would suggest you hurry. The authorities are closing in on your position."
"Right," Sarah-Jane said briskly, "Let's go. Luke..." The boy, Luke, was already off and running, "Mr. Jones?" She looked at him and he realised it was decision time. He could feel Keisha stir, beginning to wake and he prayed she would stay asleep a little longer. He could hear a vehicle, which meant either military or medical personal and he didn't see a hospital around. He made his choice.
"Let's go," he echoed.
She smiled at him, quickly, before taking off in the wake of her son and he followed her. Keisha was heavy in his arms and he made shushing, apologetic noises to calm her as the jostling brought her to full awareness. She didn't cry and that restraint on her part broke his heart all over again. Halfway down the alley they had been directed to Luke was stopped, wrestling with a door.
"It's locked," he said when they drew close. He rattled the door to demonstrate.
"Stand aside," Sarah-Jane instructed. She pulled what looked like a lipstick out of her bag and pointed it at the lock.
Leo stared at her horrified. "What do you think you're doing?"
"I'm getting us somewhere to hide," Sarah-Jane said with no hint of insult. She reached out and the doorknob turned easily in her hand. "In you go, Luke."
She shepherded them through the door, closing it behind them and pointing the thing in her hand at it again.
"There," she said with satisfaction, "that should throw them off the scent. Now we have a little time, so let me tell you about the Doctor..."
The Hub was never totally silent, between the contented purr of the electrics and the other, more mechanical, noises from the older equipment. Still, compared to the cacophony that was Torchwood Three on a normal day the acoustic footprint of one woman was barely enough to register. Barely enough to distinguish the vast echoing cavern of the Hub from the cramped and lonely cell where U.N.I.T. had thrown her the last time she had committed treason. In every other way, however, there was no comparison and the simple fact that she had chosen this refuge, that she had willingly chosen this treason, made even more difference that the presence of amenities beyond a hole in the floor. Compared to the rest of Cardiff she was living in the height of luxury. It was almost a shame to disturb the peace but by Tosh's calculations they should be ready - even if they had Owen's help getting the equipment set up. Now it was just a matter of bringing it all online.
"There," Tosh said as she keyed the strokes into the computer which would change the angle of the beam transmitter a fraction, "is that clearer?"
"Much," the voice replied. Thanks to that micrometer adjustment, she could now identify Ianto's dry tone across the line. She'd never thought she would be grateful for the amount of destruction that the Toclafane had wrought but without it they never would have got the line of sight from the top of the water tower to the pillboxes on Flat Holm. Most of the five miles might have been over water but there was normally a whole lot of bay development in between. "Are we secure?"
About as secure as they could be given the situation, she thought. "Yes. We're secure." If the beam had been intercepted they'd have been dead already. The Toclafane weren't noted for their subtlety - that was left to their human collaborators who would still need to break her encryption before they could eavesdrop. "But we better keep it short."
"You'll be glad to know the communication gear you sent back with me works…" She was pretty sure he was teasing her. "…And that's all we have to report this end. Unless you particularly want to hear about the ongoing issues we have been having with the sewage system."
She smothered a laugh.
"I've got a bit more to report here," she said and took a deep breath, "I've found the signal. It's definitely there."
"You sure? It could be interference." Alex's voice broke across the line. He really wasn't as mysterious as he thought he was; she could hear the eager fear in his voice and knew it wasn't her he was really questioning. "Some kind of feedback?"
Or maybe she was projecting.
Tosh shook her head emphatically, despite knowing that no one could see the movement. "That was what I thought, but I've run it three times and I checked the wiring. Whatever it is, it's there."
It had been easier not to think about the implications in anything but the most scientific terms when everything was just numbers and patterns on the monitor screen. Facts and figures had always been easier to deal with than people. For years she had told herself that that was enough and by the time she acknowledged it wasn't she wasn't sure how to change.
"You're scary sometimes, you know that?" Ianto again, respectful and affectionate, and then Alex was breaking in with, "Could it be the way he controls the spheres?"
With the clarity of the signal, they could be across the room rather than across the bay.
"No," she said immediately. "I don't think so. They seem to be autonomous." Although that could be faked, but the more she thought about it the more that didn't fit with what they had seen and heard. How intelligent did artificial intelligence have to be before it was a separate entity? But even if it was some sort of prompt or instructions - why broadcast it across the human network where it could be spotted rather than on a separate network directly to the Toclafane?
"Can you identify what it does?" Alex asked and for one frightening moment she wondered if he could read her thoughts. But then logic reasserted itself, sparking an idea.
"Yes and no," she said as she typed, pulling up old files until she found the ones she was looking for, "I couldn't find anything that matched but..." It was there. It was definitely there. "It is similar to the readings we got off those telepathic aliens last year." She was a genius.
"I remember those guys," Ianto said faintly in the background. "Creepy." She remembered the little shudder he gave when he said things like that. "They kept giving Owen funny looks. Can't imagine why,"
There was a muffled 'Oi' in response. Owen was clearly taking a break from his patients to be there. Maybe he missed her after all.
"Everything is confirmed then," Alex said firmly, ignoring the muted insults she could hear traded behind him. She wished, sometimes, that she could just goof around the way the others did. Only Alex shared her restraint, especially now - this was too important for anything else. This was where it all started. She waited for instructions. Instead Alex continued, "we actually had something else to ask: now you have everything set up, would the Hub be able to support all of us without giving our presence away?"
"We aren't really set up to be a medical facility," Tosh said doubtfully, "but I'm sure we could convert some of the cells. It might take a while."
"Don't worry about the patients - Helen has offered to stay here with them as long as we send her regular supplies. It'd just be Owen and Ianto."
Owen and Ianto? She hadn't lied it had been fine on her own, and it was easier to work without anyone breathing down her neck, but it gave her a warm feeling knowing she would be seeing them again.
"I think I could squeeze them in," she said. Jack's voice chuckled in the back of her mind and she pushed away the surge of loss. She couldn't help Jack, but she could do this. "What about you?"
She could hear the hesitation in the silence. "I'll be in Washington," Alex admitted at last. "If you can get me there."
She tried to not let the why worry her. The why could wait, she needed to focus on the how. It wouldn't be easy... and she'd have to make sure she covered the systems at both ends and both ground and air transit...
"I'll need a bit of time to hack into the systems and get the travel documents."
"Take as much as you need," Was she imaging the relief that she wasn't questioning him? Or was it her confirmation that she could do what was required that caused his voice to relax? "We need to get this right."
It was be easier if she had help though. Help from someone who knew what boxes she would need to tick.
"Nicholas?" she asked.
There was a definite and thoughtful pause. "If you like. But don't take any risks."
Tosh translated that as Alex trusted Nicholas as long as Nicholas was not compromised. She had the sudden, frightening, thought that they might be too late and the help that Nicholas had given them in those panicked days immediately after the invasion had already been discovered. Contacting Nicholas at all could be a trap. She frowned. She'd just have to find a way to make sure that didn't happen. If there was one thing she enjoyed, it was a challenge.
"You got it. I'll try and have everything ready for when you arrive."
"Can you transmit the most recent patrol readings?"
She tapped in the required commands. "Transmitting," she warned, hitting the return key, "now."
It didn't take long.
"Received," Alex confirmed. "Expect us sometime in the next three to four days. Longer than that and we'll signal." If they could.
She heard "See you soon, Tosh," from Ianto and a farewell grunt from Owen before Alex said "over and out."
She closed the connection. Five minutes later she realised she was humming to herself as she started easing her way into the network via the (now defunct) Social Security system. When it came to computers, she was just damn good.
The trip to Washington had been fraught, even with the secret service papers that had secured his passage. It was rumoured that the Toclafane occasionally attacked official flights and Alex saw no reason to disbelieve those rumours. Even having walked through the shell of Europe, he hadn't got a real idea of the level of destruction... not until he saw it from the air. Alex had thought that nothing could shock him any more. It was unpleasant to be proven wrong. At least, unlike some of the officials with whom he had shared the flight, he hadn't broken down.
A solidly built, sombre woman who had probably heard every joke about Eastern European shot-put teams greeted them as they disembarked. When she spoke her accent was pure Middle America and had probably made her a fortune projecting calm and good will across PA systems everywhere. She checked their papers dissolutely enough that Alex concluded that she had no authority beyond summoning more spherical assistance if she suspected a problem, something that she did not want to do. Far better for her not to notice anything that she might need to question. In its lackadaisical way it was some of the first public resistance he had seen. He got her name and a smile when he asked - it was small but enough to suggest it would transform her face if it could be coaxed into full bloom.
A familiar figure greeted him as he was ushered into what remained of the terminal building. One thing you could say for world domination - it definitely made customs quicker. George was easy to spot amongst the greeting party, her red hair the one bright spot in the whole place. His fellow travellers disbursed with all the trepidation of virgins at a junior prom, individuals finding their dance partners or coalescing into small groups for moral support before they slipped out to find what rooms their dates had reserved. A handful of Toclafane waited outside, chattering their curiosity to each other. A few less hardy souls paused uncertainly at the sight only to be chivvied on by their escorts.
George led him straight past them to a dark car so nondescript that it might as well have had 'FBI' stencilled on the front. They didn't speak until she had pulled out of the airport system and were on the freeway.
"I have your itinerary Mr. Mansfield," she said formally, her eyes flicking deliberately from the road to the dash.
He grunted thanks, needing to respond and hoping it was not enough for a voiceprint. He watched the buildings go by as they headed deeper into the city proper. The lack of other cars made the journey quick but emphasised how eerily quiet Washington was. Not really surprising when the political machine had ground to a halt, but another jolt none the less. Maybe it was different coming back to a place he had once thought of as home. He supposed this was how it must have been for the others returning to Cardiff. He felt a twinge of understanding but not enough to make him regret the stance he had taken. Just as the others would be doing in their city an ocean away, he would have to learn its twists and turns once again. Find the secret ways to move around that the Toclafane didn't control. Find how many of his contacts were still alive. Nicholas could help with the latter at least.
George pulled off the road into a virtually empty car park. Pasted to the wall of the building adjoining it was a large poster proclaiming the establishment had a licence to serve food and drink. One difference of the Agreement was the continued existence of restaurants rather than the communal ration centres that the UK now boasted. But with the import and export of food, along with other products, virtually non-existent it was only the reduction in population that had staved off the food crisis. At least, for enough time that rationing could be brought in before widespread starvation took hold. The US had always had more sufficiency of basic produce, although he imagined fuel was at a premium, and if what they had seen in Europe held true elsewhere the Toclafane had targeted the population centres rather than the crops. The fanciful thought came to him that any surviving Amish were probably not only feeling fully justified but perfectly positioned. He wondered if they might be interested in a little, non-violent, resistance.
George relaxed when the door to the restaurant closed behind them. Holding up a hand, two fingers raised, to the waiter she led Alex to a table near enough to the old man playing smoky blues on a guitar missing one of its strings so as to interfere with external surveillance.
"Hello 'Victor'," she said as they sat down.
"Deputy Director Blake," Alex greeted, "assuming it is still Deputy Director."
"For what it's worth." The blue eyes dropped unhappily and Alex wondered what persuasion had been required to keep her in the new FBI. He was willing to bet it hadn't been voluntary and that Nicholas was taking advantage of that antipathy. In which case, George's presence took on a few new dimensions that Alex needed to consider carefully. Not that it was entirely unexpected given whom he was going to see. Was it a test of trust or a demonstration of it? There was no way to know and Nicholas was unlikely to tell. As if in confirmation of his suspicions she looked at him again and said, "Mulder's alive, we think." He wondered who 'we' was in this case. "He was taken into 'protective custody' before the ink on the Agreement was dry."
It was only when her hand covered his that he realised he held the knife from the table achingly tight in his fist. He forced himself to let go, placing it carefully down on the gouged Formica. It was dull anyway. The reunion was easier after that. They made small talk while they waited for their food to arrive during which George let him know the fates of their other mutual acquaintances. In return, he gave her news of the rest of the world as they ate. The meal was good, much better than anything Alex had eaten recently and if the portions were small by normal American standards they were still more generous than he had become used to. He reminded himself not to become used to a full belly.
They lingered, listening to the music, for long enough that Alex suspected they were waiting for some signal. It came in the form of two chirps on George's mobile. She took it out, checking the missed calls.
"Time to go," she told him. He let her pay when she insisted.
They fell back into silence as they left the restaurant, giving anyone who might be listening nothing but the hum of the engine and the occasional tick of indicators.
The British embassy had escaped relatively unscathed, but then everything was relative. George pulled up by the gate to the Residence. It was both manned and guarded, the sentries tracking their approach warily with their snub-nosed SA80s. He didn't recognise any of them which was good because it suggested that they wouldn't recognise him either.
He could see Nicholas, waiting, just behind the barrier. He got out, hefting the little luggage he had brought with him over his shoulder.
"It was nice to meet you, Mr. Mansfield," George said as she shook his hand. He did not need to look to know the slip of paper she had palmed was her address and contact details. He appreciated the gesture although he had no intention of putting her in that kind of danger.
He squeezed her hand gently in thanks.
Nicholas met him at the gate, signing him in with an almost unreadable scrawl that Alex didn't think could be read as 'Brocklehurst' even with a considerable level of imagination. He'd apparently changed his handwriting as well in the time since Alex had last seen him.
He caught a glimpse of Mark talking to a scared-looking couple as Nicholas led him further into the residence. He was hollow-eyed, doing his best to keep the broken shards of the world together because he was too good a man to walk away. Alex didn't envy him that job. He and Nicholas ducked away hoping they hadn't been seen in return. Alex knew without being told that Mark needed to be kept clean - it was what Nicholas did.
The secure rooms were much as he remembered. Nicholas carefully locked the door and closed the blinds. That done they looked at each other for a long moment, taking in the relief and reality of them both standing there. Then they were embracing, fists thumping each other's backs in greeting.
"Did you guys ever fuck this one up," Nicholas said.
"What?" Rhys demanded.
One of two soldiers stared straight back, not at all intimidated by a large Welshman getting in his face, while the other shifted uneasily behind him.
"We have a Gwen Cooper listed at this residency," the foremost one snapped. His accent immediately gave away the fact that he wasn't a local boy, which only served to lower Rhys' opinion on him further.
"We've got half the bloody city in this 'residency'," Rhys snapped right back. "What are you going to do about that, then? You can't get so much as a moment's privacy to take a dump in peace. Not that any of you lot'd care seeing as your heads' are so far up..."
"If you wouldn't mind," the second soldier tried.
"...You're probably more constipated than I am," Rhys finished. He glared at both of them defiantly.
"Gwen Cooper," the first said between gritted teeth, "before we have you arrested and executed."
That was just rude. "No need to be like that," Rhys huffed.
The threat was real enough but he couldn't quite imagine these two executing anyone. You got to recognise the type that would pretty quickly. These two were old school - probably embarrassed as all get out what was being done by the new volunteers that wore the same uniform as them. Not that it excused them in Rhys' mind.
"She's in a meeting." He looked them over. "I suppose you better come in." He stepped aside reluctantly and let them in.
Stepping around the children playing in the hallway Rhys lead them to what had once been the front room. Lack of space meant the meeting had overflowed into the hallway and he had to barge his way through. The complaints dried up as soon as the speakers caught sight of the two uniforms following him. A few faded away, not wanting to be part of whatever was about to happen. Others straightened up, watching the two soldiers with unfriendly vigilance.
"This isn't easy for any of us." Gwen's voice was loud and clear even in the hallway. Good set of lungs on that girl, he thought proudly. "But you can't just take things. We have to stick together, help each other out."
He stuck his head around the door, not surprised to see which of the persistent troublemakers was getting the talk. When Gwen had first suggested the community meetings he had thought she was nuts, hadn't stopped him backing her, but it was nuts. It worked though. The soldiers had the good sense to wait until the meeting closed. Or possibly they were just afraid of the meeting turning into a lynch mob. He'd heard rumours going around that in some places, the ones where the Directive 23 U.N.I.T. Auxiliaries were made up from more volunteers than conscripts, no one in uniform dared go into the housing projects without heavy escort. And if he had heard the rumours then the two sorry specimens must have done as well, making them either brave or idiots. Or they had really pissed someone off - which came back to the brave or idiot options.
There were a few more items to deal with - local matters, warnings, the upcoming electricity shortage... the normal. Rhys listened with half an ear, more interested in watching the two interlopers. Neither of them were giving much away but Rhys got the feeling they were impressed. As they should be. Sometimes he would just look at Gwen and think he was going to burst with how much he loved her. And then she'd go and do something like this and he would realise that he could actually love her more. He hoped their two visitors got a good feel of what was going on because if they tried anything then they were going to have a fight on their hands.
It ended eventually and this time it was Rhys following as the soldiers pushed their way through the crowd. Gwen smiled at them when they got close, a friendly smile that carefully reminded everyone that the rest of the room was still full with waiting people who were very interested in what was about to happen.
"Can I help you gentlemen?" she said.
"Private Harris and Private Jenkins, Ma'am. We need to ask you about Torchwood."
"Torchwood?" Gwen sounded out the word thoughtfully and then she grinned. "Sounds a bit rude, that does." She nudged the nearer one who looked a little shocked. "So what is that then? The new heating proposal? They couldn't have come up with a better name?"
"Nah," one of the spectators said helpfully. "It's those pillocks from down by the bay."
"Wait," someone else chimed in, "aren't they a taxi company. You see that car with the name on the side."
"I thought it was an escort service," suggested a third.
That got a general laugh. Gwen shrugged at Harris and Jenkins with a 'what can you do' look as the conversation turned into inventive combinations of those suggestions intermingled with a few personal aspirations.
"I'm afraid this is a serious matter," Harris (or possible it was Jenkins, Rhys wasn't sure) said. "They are wanted for treason and dereliction of duty."
"Really?" Gwen's eyes went wide and the hubbub in the room stopped. "And you think some of them are here?" she said into the lull.
"Where are the other members of Torchwood, Miss Cooper?" Jenkins (actually Rhys was pretty sure it was Harris) asked ominously.
There was a moment of stunned silence and then Gwen burst out laughing. The tension on the room released and everyone was laughing with her. Rhys wished he could join in.
"Me?," Gwen tried her best to pull herself together. "You have to be kidding. An open book, me. Police. At least I was. Now it's more neighbourhood watch." Some of her pride in what they had accomplished shone through the deprecation.
"After you left the police force..." Harris insisted.
"Left?" She was sober now, looking at them closely with what Rhys thought of as her detective expression. "No. I had an accident. Got a bad crack on the head breaking up a fight. Right barroom brawl. Last thing I remember - catching my head on the wooden partition, how embarrassing is that, and then I'm waking up and..." she spread her hands.
"So you remember nothing between this incident and..." Jenkins asked, trailing of invitingly.
"A couple of weeks ago." Gwen finished for him. "Wake up to find this lummox crying like a girl."
"Hey," Rhys objected gruffly. He had a reputation to maintain. Shedding a few tears when Wales scored the winning touchdown was expected, and maybe he'd got a little emotional over that film Gwen had made him watch with the cowboys but she made it sound like he hung his balls up by the door when he came home. The soft smile she gave him appeased him somewhat. After all, he thought he had lost her. Her hand found his and squeezed it.
"Excuse us a moment," Jenkins said, dragging his companion away.
Rhys just had time to catch "It's her" before their low voices were out of earshot.
"What do you think that's all about," Gwen said to him quietly.
Rhys shrugged. He could never lie to Gwen and saying anything would probably result in his lying and Gwen catching him.
The two soldiers conferred quietly but emphatically together. The entire room seemed to be listening intently but, as far as Rhys could tell, unsuccessfully for any clue as to what would happen next. Rhys would have given a lot to be a fly on the wall behind them. They weren't happy, he could see that. They could join the fucking club. Whatever was decided they began to walk back.
"So what's the procedure?" Rhys demanded, stepping in front of them and daring them to try and get past him to Gwen. The rest of the room rose up behind them, standing still and silent but clearly ready.
"To take you both in for questioning" Harris said. Rhys might have given him points for bravery - if he wasn't clearly an idiot.
"You can't do that!" Rhys didn't see who said that but they seemed to speak for the crowd. A low rumble of support greeted the words.
"We can" Harris said, addressing the room, "if we believe we are being lied to."
"We know that the accident story isn't true," Jenkins said a little desperately, voice pitched towards Rhys, "so what actually happened?"
Harris continued to try and reason with the crowd but Rhys was more interested in Jenkins. "Why are you asking me?"
Jenkins rolled his eyes. "Because we've been briefed on how Torchwood operates and memory-wipes are part of their MO." He looked over at Gwen who was standing with her arms crossed watching the conflict with a frown.
"They did this to her?" Rhys asked.
"Then I'm glad they are bloody dead." Rhys' voice rang out louder then he intended and every eye in the room turned to him. "What?" he demanded.
"Who'd dead?" someone at the back asked.
"Bloody Torchwood," Rhys said without a second thought.
Harris and Jenkins looked relieved.
"Look," Jenkins said hopefully, "if you can help us then we can just report there was an error, no Gwen Cooper here just a Gwen... what's your name?"
Rhys was about to demand to know what business it was of theirs and then realised where they were going. "Williams," he said.
"Right," Harris agreed, "a Gwen Williams and a Tom Copper and it was all a bit of a mix-up. Welsh accent - crossed wires, you know how it goes."
Rhys wondered if they had been planning that in their little whispering session.
"No Gwen Cooper here," one of the crowd obligingly echoed. "No one here but us chicken."
"I was always against battery farming..." they were off again. The insults occasionally dropping into Welsh although, especially when directed at the two English soldiers.
"Maybe you should show the gentlemen out," Gwen suggested.
Harris looked like he was going to object be Jenkins jerked his head at the crowd and Harris gave in.
"Be back in a sec, Love," he gave Gwen a quick kiss.
This time crowd parted easily for them.
"How do you know they are dead?" Jenkins asked on the doorstep.
"And if I tell you, you drag me in for questioning," Rhys shook his head, "and if I don't then you get out the thumbscrews all the quicker, is that it?"
"No," Jenkins said. He looked around quickly. "Look, Torchwood were a bunch of dangerous cowboys but they put the Earth first, if you know what I mean."
"Ross," his companion hissed warning.
Jenkins looked at him. "You going to tell me it isn't true?" he challenged.
"You know what'll happen if they hear you talking like that," Harris pleaded.
"So turn me in when we get back."
Harris looked shocked at the idea. "Idiot."
"If you two boys have finished kissing and making up," Rhys interrupted. Both men flushed. He frowned at them. "I tell you and you make sure no one comes back and bothers Gwen?"
"Nobody there but you chickens," Jenkins tried jovially but it fell flat.
"Some weasel-y guy, said he was a doctor, he told me when he dropped Gwen off. Said he saved her. Half-dead she was and he didn't look much better. Fed me some cock and bull story about where she had been. You want my opinion - those people, whatever you called them, they're dead. And that there guy did the decent thing and brought my Gwen back home before crawling off to die in his own gutter."
The two soldiers exchanged looks. "Could be Harper," Harris muttered.
"Hey," Rhys objected.
"Don't worry," Harris said, "you and Mrs Williams won't be bothered further."
"Not on the basis of our reports," Jenkins agreed firmly. "We'll tell them that we heard rumours that most of Torchwood are dead. Maybe they'll stop looking."
Harris didn't look hopeful.
"Jenkins! Harris!" The bellow from down the street had both men jumping frantically to attention. This one had a lot more bird shit on his shoulders and a pinched expression that suggested he would much rather continue the investigation back at the station. Jenkins and Harris transformed into cardboard cut-out soldiers, backs straight and faces devoid of all thought and personality.
"I assume if you have so much to say we will be taking that man back with us?" The question, projected as it was, still retained the slight edge of sarcasm. Rhys had to force himself to breath normally as it struck him just how lucky they had been. Behind the man two other soldiers were leading a protesting prisoner to their van.
"No, Sir," Harris yelled smartly back.
"Confirming the address, Sir," Jenkins added. "Mix-up in the paperwork, Sir."
They about-faced with a neat pivot Rhys hadn't seen since Strictly and started back at a not quite march. Rhys wondered if they knew they were walking in time or whether it was automatic.
"Twll dîn pob Sais!" he waved cheerfully. [Welsh insult about the English]
They looked back at his voice and for a moment he saw the impulse to wave back, but a swift look at the omnipresent glare from their leader and they were double-timing it back to him. Rhys rolled his eyes and shut the door. 'Poor bastards'.
It took Frohike a moment to realise that he hadn't typed the mysterious greeting and another to dismiss the idea that either his computer was talking to him or Langly was being funny.
"Guys!" he yelled.
The first thing was to turn the machine off and get it quarantined. They'd have to assume anything on the hard drive was compromised until they could run a full forensic diagnostic. It was just lucky that they'd initiated emergency protocol and the other machines were all off.
The others arrived as he was frantically disconnecting wires.
"We've been breached," he said in response to their confused questions.
That shut them up.
Half an hour later, after a heated debate and the non-arrival of anyone to kill or arrest them, they carefully risked hooking the computer back up to the external connection. Frohike turned it on and they all waited impatiently as it booted up. The desktop display sat there, blankly, and did nothing.
"Are you sure..." Langly began, reaching for the keyboard.
Frohike slapped his hand away. "Wait."
A few more minutes passed and the shuffling behind him grew increasingly pointed.
"Woah!" Langly said as the command terminal popped up.
Frohike didn't bother to say 'told you so', instead opting for the more important "What do we do?" The 'told you so' was pretty implicit.
"We answer it," Byers said quietly. He held up a hand to stop the obvious objections. "I know it could be a trap. But they've obviously got into our system already. If we can keep him talking then we have time to try and trace the signal."
"On it!" Langly was reaching for his own computer before he'd finished talking. "You get them talking, I'll take them down."
Frohike rolled his eyes but turned back to his own screen. He stretched his fingers over the keyboard, thinking.
> 64 bytes from unknown host: icmp_seq=0 ttl=49 time=46.272 ms
He hit return and waited.
> 2 packets transmitted, 1 packets received, 50% packet loss
"We missed something," Byers said at his shoulder. "What was the first message?"
They both stared at the waiting cursor.
"Maybe we need to send a response to that?" Byers suggested.
"What?" Frohike drummed his fingers on the edge of his mouse mat "A/S/L?"
Byers raised his eyebrows. "Would you answer that?"
Byers nodded towards the screen. "Neither will he." They both contemplated the difficulties of social pleasantries. "What's the first thing you associated with 'hello'?" Byers asked.
Frohike smiled - they were dealing with a hacker after all.
> 2 packets transmitted, 2 packets received, 0% packet loss
"We're in," Byers said. "Langly - how's it going?"
"In where?" Frohike muttered as Langly insisted he would have the trace in a moment.
The screen changed again.
> Are you in the book depository or on the grassy knoll?
"You think they know who we are?" Byers said, surprised.
"No," Frohike couldn't quite hold back the sarcasm, "I think they just hacked into any random computer. Langly?"
"I need more time," came the reply. Frohike snorted.
> What do you want?
The reply came almost immediately.
> Magic Bullet 775818255
"The Kennedy bullet?" he asked Byers.
The other man shook his head. "The exhibit number was CE399 so it isn't that."
The messages were all about computers and them. Unfortunately computers and numbers rather went together and had since they had been invented so that didn't really narrow down the possibilities.
"Maybe it isn't a what," he said as an idea struck him, "but a when. Like an edition of the newsletter."
"Too many digits for a date," Byers dismissed.
"Depends," his fingers flew over the keys. "Got it! Tue, 02 Aug 1994 09:04:15 GMT"
"Unix timestamp," Byers nodded appreciatively. "Where are the back issues?"
"Third box from the right, left store room," Langly said from the other side of the room. "This guy's good. I haven't seen encryption like this before. Ever. It's better than the shit that Archangel is running and that is black-belt kung fu."
"You're saying you lost it?" Frohike needled.
Langly's replay was forestalled as Byers returned, printout in hand. "Second August '94. Volume 9, number 415." He waved it at them.
"Nine, four, fifteen." Frohike echoed. "Are you as creeped out as I am?"
Byers shook his head, slapping the paper down on the table and tapping it firmly with his fingers. "Wait until you get this - the two headline articles: UFO activity in the north-west, I think we can discount that, and a piece on the government's co-operation with aliens and a call to fight!"
"Shit," Langly breathed.
Byers took a deep breath. "Guess we know what they want."
"What they say they want," Langly corrected.
"What they say they want," Byers agreed. He looked back at Frohike. "Maybe you should ask them how he knows about us."
Langly gave up with a scowl. Switching his computer back off he wandered over to join the other two. "You think he'll tell us?"
Byers shrugged. "It'll be interesting to find out. Frohike?"
Frohike thought about it.
> How did you get this number?
The reply took slightly longer this time.
> A fox chased a rat down a hole and found us in wonderland. But when he woke we were gone and in our place a rainbow of every colour.
"British spelling," Byers noted. Frohike nodded.
"I wish he'd stop talking in code." Langly complained. The other two stared at him. "What! It would be easier than this cryptic shit."
"You're just cranky because you couldn't traced the signal," Frohike pointed out.
"Like you could do better."
"Would you two stop it?" Byers broke in. "I think we have something a bit more important to focus on here." They looked at him and he pointed at the monitor.
"Didn't Mulder say he had that freaky trip back to Oxford with the accident?" Frohike muttered.
"Yeah," Langly agreed. "He said it must have been a good weekend because he couldn't remember it very well."
"And he was going on about the divine Doctor Scully's hair."
The other two nodded in agreement. Taking a chance Frohike started typing again.
> What can we do?
"What the hell are you doing?" Langly objected.
"Asking," Frohike said. "We don't have to do it."
> Details further contact transferred. You can't crack it - you can't come.
"Move over," Langly insisted. "No way this guy's kung fu is better than mine."
"I thought you weren't interested," Frohike pointed out, shoving back as Langly tried to push him out of the way. "You're just sore because you couldn't trace the signal." They squabbled ineffectually, only stopping when Byers reached around the other side and took control of the keyboard.
> Who are you?
There was a pause, and they waited breathlessly.
The name repeated again and again until he reached out and killed the window. Around the world the same question was being asked on one terminal after another. They all got the same answer.
Nicholas was used to having to make quick assessments and it was his expert opinion that Alex looked like shit. Not that any of them looked their best and Alex carried it well, but he was ghost-pale and much thinner than when Nicholas had seen him last. The lack of bulk was even more noticeable as he greeted him and Nicholas was even gladder that the necessity of stashing Alex for a few hours had ensured he got a decent meal.
"I assume I have you to thank for my escort?" Alex said.
Nicholas ducked his head with a little smile. "It seemed a good fit," he admitted. George Blake was a good woman in a bad situation - it behoved him to help her out. And there were other advantages, some of which he was sure Alex had guessed.
He waited patiently while Alex looked around the room suspiciously.
"Are we secure?" Alex asked.
"As secure as we can be." There was always some element of trust required within any organisation and the security services were no exception. While alien invasions of one type or another had been planned for, or so Nicholas assumed, there hadn't been any procedure in place for when the elected officials of one's own country decided to take over the world. Or worse, succeeded.
For a start no one was quite sure where that put the monarchy. Deposed, obviously, but rumour had some of the royal family still alive and building up a resistance. In theory the ultimate authority, and therefore loyalty, lay with the crown but in reality the hands on the reins had been elsewhere for years. Hands which were now gathering the entire world into their grasp. Some had decided that their duty was to support the new order and the pre-eminence of Great Britain within it. Others saw their duty as resisting the usurper who had enslaved the people of Britain along with the rest of the world, even if they had elected him. En masse the entire civil services, public and considerably less so, had split with personal loyalties becoming more important than professional ones. Nicholas suspected that the reports and psych profiles that were held on all of them could probably have told those who wanted to know which way any given agent was liable to jump - but those records had been destroyed. Probably by someone loyal to the old regime rather than the new.
As a result life went on as normal - but with a lot more horse-trading. And one of the advantages of being based in a foreign embassy was that it was a lot harder for someone to get into the metaphorical stables and tamper with things.
Alex nodded and, apparently satisfied, set down.
"You going to tell me why you took the risk of coming here?" Nicholas asked. Tosh's message had been unexpected, and clever, he definitely had to give her that, but light on information as circumstances demanded.
Of all the things he had guessed, Alex's "We know what Martha is doing," was not among them. "Or at least we know how," Alex finished. He cocked his head in question.
Nicholas thought about what he was offering. "Don't tell me," he said, "I don't need to know unless you need me to."
He knew Alex understood the implications of that.
Alex nodded. "If we can work it out so can they."
"You have a plan?"
Alex talked and he listened. It was a beautiful plan - dangerous but logical and Nicholas could find nothing in it that contradicted what Martha had told him. While he'd repeated the essence of his first conversation with Martha to Ianto - knowing he would pass on to the rest the Torchwood team - he hadn't dared give him the full details. Information was the key. Everything depended on who had it. Politics, diplomacy, espionage or business: the principles were the same. Although Mark always made claims about comparative moralities whenever they had argued the point. The pang of regret when he thought about Mark was ignored with the ease of long practice. He would have to leave, and sooner rather than later, no matter how Alex's scheme played out. He hoped Mark would forgive him, both for not bringing him in and for deserting him without a word. But, with luck, not too soon. A little righteous anger would make his lack of involvement more apparent.
"And if you are caught?" Nicholas asked when Alex had finished.
Alex reached into his jacket. "Ianto says the dose I've got with me should take my memory back to about the time we landed in England." He placed the retcon in Nicholas' hand. "I take it and when I wake up you brief me on what I need to know. "
Nicholas had trusted him before - he was trusting Nicholas now. "Are you sure about this?"
"I'm the only one who has the contacts. It has to be me and it has to be this way - just in case something goes wrong."
The problem was he was right. Nicholas didn't like it but he couldn't disagree with it.
"It's certainly a new way of beating jet-lag," Nicholas agreed, closing his fingers around the small orange canister. "How long will it knock you out for?"
Alex checked his watch. "It acts as a strong soporific - I'll probably be out until morning if nothing disturbs me before then."
"My room," Nicholas said decisively. "You can sleep there and it'll be safer than putting you in one of the spares. You never know when we are going to get a run on boarders."
"What about you?" In any other situation the way Alex asked the question would have sounded distinctly salacious.
Even beaten down, Alex was a damn attractive man. And he knew it.
"I can find an excuse to be elsewhere," Nicholas demurred. He could see the speculative gleam in Alex's eye and met it with a bland smile. "Setting up a few contacts for you," he finished.
Nicholas led the way to his room quickly. Once there he locked the door.
"God knows when you are next going to get a chance at a hot shower. Leave your clothes. I'll get them washed for you for the morning."
Alex thought about that for a second, weighing the odds. They came up in Nicholas' favour as he stripped unselfconsciously, throwing a grin over his shoulder as he padded naked towards the bathroom. Nicholas chuckled to himself and picked up the discarded garments. Checking them he found nothing in the pockets, not that he had expected to. He made a mental note to find Alex some hardware to take with him. He knew Alex well enough to know that being unarmed must have been making him twitchy.
Nicholas waited until he emerged, freshly scrubbed and looking better for it although the signs of longer deprivation would take more than a hot meal and a hot shower to wipe away. At least he would look the part for the role he would be playing.
"Clothes in the cupboard if you want them. The door locks from the inside and outside," he explained, demonstrating the mechanism, "I'll take the key with me."
They clasped hands.
"Take care," Nicholas said.
There wouldn't be any apologies between them - it didn't work like that.
He waited until Alex had swallowed the tablets and fallen asleep before he went about his duties. He had a lot to do and even more to think about.
David Smith was thirty-two years old. He was born in Finsbury Park and went to medical school in Edinburgh. There was a funny story about how he ended up in Cardiff that he told nervous patients. It was a total fabrication but it worked and it was much more interesting than the truth that, after graduating thousands of pounds in debt, it was the first position that he had found.
What David had not counted on when he started dating a girl from his local tennis club was that a light-headed spell during a match one Saturday would lead to the discovery of a much more serious underlying condition. His girlfriend had stuck by him and they had begun talking about marriage if his treatment was successful. They didn't discuss what would happen if it wasn't (although Dave had dropped a few hints about favourite music and poems). That was before the Toclafane came.
"Here's the thing," Owen said, taking a seat by the bed, "one doctor to another: you're fucked."
David blinked, surprised and offended. "Surgical intervention..." he began to argue.
"Yeah," Owen agreed, cutting him off, "but you might have noticed there isn't too much of that going on right now. Not unless you're providing 'essential services' and unfortunately medical personnel no longer fit into that category."
"So you're here to save me?" David said sarcastically.
Owen looked down for a moment. You could joke and rage and pretend you didn't give a damn but it was never easy telling someone that they were going to die. "Can't, I'm afraid. But I am trying to save a lot of other people and I'm asking for your help."
"You aren't kidding, are you?" David stared at him incredulously.
Owen shrugged. "Wish I was."
"So what is this?" The aggressive note hadn't left David's voice. "I'm getting the 'make your death have meaning' speech?"
Owen leaned back in his chair, trying to find a position that was comfortable, or at least looked close to it. "If you want," he allowed. "But I figure it already has a whole lot of meaning for you."
David studied him carefully and Owen waited for him to draw whatever conclusions he needed, however long it took and however numb his arse got in the meantime.
"So what do you want?" David said at last.
Owen took a deep breath. "I want to die. And I want you to go into remission."
"Unless you have a miracle up your sleeve," David said slowly, "there is only one way I can think of for that to happen."
Owen held up his arms so that his cuffs were clearly visible. "All out of miracles, unfortunately."
"So give me the sales pitch." David crossed his arms over his chest. "What warm and fuzzy feeling am I supposed to be getting out of this?"
Owen had thought about that long and hard. Looking through the profiles of terminal patients, finding those that best fitted their needs, Owen had asked himself what he would say to whoever they selected. Just after handing a death sentence to someone who knew that, in normal circumstances, they would have lived was a bad time to ask for a favour. In the end Owen had decided to go for what he would have wanted to hear.
"You'll be sticking it to the arseholes who have made sure you have no chance of getting your operation."
After a moment's thought David Smith began to smile.
Dr. Owen Harper's body was found in an alley two weeks later on a wet and blustery Thursday evening. The response when the curfew patrol that stumbled across the corpse reported their find was minimal. The large bullet holes that had perforated his torso made for an obvious cause of death and with resources for homicides a whisker from non-existence that was that. Evidence, found in the deceased pockets and mostly turned in to the police, suggested a possible black market deal gone wrong or some other falling out between thieves.
Case officially closed, the funeral was held mere hours after the body had been found and a day before representatives of the government arrived, alerted when the name was red-flagged by the system. 'Funeral' was probably an exaggerated term for the utilitarian disposal of corpses that had become the norm, but at least the recovered Dr. David Smith was there to see the man who had helped him be committed to the flames.
"Alex," Nicholas asked carefully, "do you know where you are?"
Alex pushed down the panic as he realised he had no idea. The room was nice enough, a reminder of pre-Invasion life. He was clean and dressed in borrowed clothes while Nicholas' suit looked like it was sleep-wrinkled on his behalf. Nicholas took his silence for an answer.
"You are at the Embassy in Washington." Alex refused to let his surprise show as Nicholas continued, "you're safe for now."
Which, Alex thought, meant nothing beyond Nicholas' next move not being to put a bullet through his head. At least not while Alex was looking at him.
"Why am I here?" seemed a safe enough question so he asked it.
Nicholas nodded as if that was the right answer.
"I'm here to brief you. When you are ready." He indicated the pile of familiar looking clothes on top of which some unfamiliar looking weapons waited him. On the table next to them what looked, and smelt, like a full English breakfast waited for him. He could feel his mouth watering.
The gun and knives were a nice touch. It would be a dangerous bluff to give those back to him if it was a set up. Sure Nicholas had been helping them get back to the UK, but he wasn't in the UK he was in Washington so something had clearly changed. Nicholas stepped back, giving him space to get up and dressed. He didn't even raise an objection when Alex ducked into the bathroom. Not that there was any way out but it meant he could check the gun in private (it seemed to be in working order) and Nicholas didn't see where he secreted everything.
Feeling much better prepared, he flushed the toilet for show and went back into the main room. Sitting at the table he could see that there was more food than one person would account for.
He ate only what Nicholas had tried first but by the end of the meal realised he had eaten the lion's share of the double serving. He'd been hungry. He definitely remembered that. He waited for any sign that he'd been drugged but none came. He nodded to Nicholas finally -whatever game was being played, it was time to go onto the next stage.
"What's the last thing you remember?" Nicholas asked and Alex was sure it wasn't idle curiosity. There were a lot of good reasons why Nicholas would ask that question but there were bad ones as well.
He thought hard. "France," he said at last. "We'd arranged to be let into the tunnel maintenance areas. We thought we could get through that way." That wasn't quite true but it wasn't wholly false either.
Nicholas nodded encouragingly, "and then?"
Alex felt the panic starting again and pushed it down. "I don't know."
"It's okay," Nicholas' voice was warm and reassuring. Alex hadn't quite worked out whether he trusted it.
"You want to tell me what's going on?"
"You took retcon. Voluntarily. It was a precaution in case you were compromised."
That made sense. And certainly fit with the dog-pissed-on-the-carpet taste in his mouth when he'd woken up. Nicholas placed an empty plastic container on the table between them, moving his hands clean away to his side of the table. Alex picked it up and checked it. The label on the packet said 'Extra Strong Sleeping Pills. Dose: 1pd' and the proscribing doctor was an 'O. Harper'. It didn't prove anything but it added to the general verisimilitude.
"What would they be asking? If I was compromised," Alex couldn't quite keep the sarcasm out of his voice. If Nicholas answered then at least he would know what they were trying to get from him. If.
"The location of resistance headquarters," Nicholas said without hesitation.
"Not here then?"
"Not here," Nicholas agreed. He was going to run, Alex realised and for the first time truly believed that he hadn't woken up in some convoluted trap.
"I don't remember." That frightened him a little. He should know. He must have known at some point but now the information was gone. "I don't remember," he repeated.
Was this what it was it had been like for Mulder? His yesterdays so fluid that it was a wonder he could find his way home at night. Although Alex had always been happy to help him with that part. Was it better that he never knew how much the periphery of his world shifted around him? At least Alex had the salve of knowing why he didn't know. He still found he didn't much care for the feeling.
"So why am I here?" Now the question actually meant something and Alex expected a proper answer. He could feel Nicholas' eyes on him. In the morning light the pale blue irises were almost slate grey - unfriendly, intransigent and giving away nothing. He met the gaze easily, having nothing to hide that mattered any more.
Eventually Nicholas nodded.
"We found something in the archives," he said quietly, "reference to a gun that was developed to kill Timelords."
Now that was worth a few days' memories. He probably hadn't shagged anyone interesting in that time anyway.
"Where is it?" It was a chance. Damn, but it was a chance.
"That's what we are trying to find out. We think it was in component parts and the last known location of one of the parts..."
It all sounded depressingly familiar. "Was here?" he finished. He hoped it was at least 'here' Washington rather than 'here' America because it sure as hell couldn't be as simple as 'here' at the Embassy.
Nicholas nodded, "Martha is searching for them but it's a big world and the longer it takes the less of it there is to save. And she isn't the only interested party."
Alex assumed Nicholas wasn't referring to him. Although he would dearly love to have a chance at Saxon himself. He suspected he was a long way down that particular list, but he was quite willing to queue jump should the opportunity occur. Putting such agreeable thoughts aside he contemplated which players might still be in the game.
"The Consortium?" It wasn't really a question - they were the only other group standing. That Alex remembered anyway. That little memory issue was going to get annoying really fast.
"We believe so," Nicholas confirmed. "They are currently playing ball but…" They were double-crossing bastards who only cared about their own interests Alex added in silently. "…if they got the gun, then they could make sure they were in a position to take over everything. Assuming they don't have it already."
And wasn't that a cheering thought: a choice between overgrown Christmas baubles and sentient oil slicks.
"You want me to infiltrate the Consortium?" he guessed.
"If you can," Nicholas said but his tone wasn't encouraging, "but we don't expect miracles and as far as we know the kill order is still in effect." Alex had got around that before and could again but it would make it considerably more difficult. "But you have…" Nicholas paused so briefly that if Alex hadn't been paying such close attention he would have missed it. "…or had, contacts that we don't have access to."
It sounded like a suicide mission except that Nicholas was actively dissuading him from the riskiest, but most potentially fruitful, course. There was one possible explanation for that of course.
"Nicholas - who made the call?"
"Gwen," Nicholas said shortly.
Alex's eyebrows rose. That hadn't been what he expected.
"I gather there was some discussion," Nicholas elaborated. "The end result was that you volunteered for this mission."
Alex could read between those lines on that clearly enough. There had been a power-struggle and he had, apparently, lost to Gwen. That was... embarrassing. He hadn't believed that she had the nerve to pull that off, let alone send him off on a goose-chase like this afterwards. Obviously he'd been wrong. He'd probably volunteered all right - it would have been better than the alternative. You couldn't have two dogs barking from one spot and apparently the bitch had won.
"There's an added incentive," Nicholas broke into his thoughts. "One of the first executive orders of the emergency council was to take a certain Special Agent Mulder, FBI, into protective custody. "
Alex sat up straight. Mulder had survived the attack? That made things a little bit more interesting. Had Gwen known that? He looked at Nicholas, knowing the question was probably clear on his face and got a tiny shake of Nicholas' head in response. If anyone could track down that component it was Spooky Mulder. He was better than a bloodhound where the weird and wonderful was concerned - that was why they kept him around even when he managed to dig up the most inconvenient things possible. And probably why they had grabbed him this time as well.
Alex smiled. "Right," he said, "you better take me through my reporting protocols and then tell me everything you know about the current situation in Washington, both legitimate and underground."
"Your contact is Tom Algy," Nicholas began…
Owen caught the spray bottle that Ianto tossed him and frowned. "I don't think they are the type of guys who like getting perfume."
"It's not for them. It's a variation of that pheromone spray we found last year."
Owen scowled. "It isn't that sort of meeting," he pointed out shortly. He'd been there and done that. Would he have done it again? Maybe. If Susie hadn't been mental and Jack hadn't been an arse - the whole technology-stays-in-the-Hub had been a ridiculous prohibition.
Ianto rolled his eyes. "It's diluted. A lot. It shouldn't do more than make them more inclined to like you."
That Ianto thought Owen needed all the help he could get went, very clearly, unsaid. Patronising wanker.
"How sure are you about that?" he demanded. Ianto got the pinched expression that he got when he was insulted. Owen didn't care - the guy brewed coffee for a living not alien perfume. Just because some people didn't mind putting out for the job didn't mean they all rolled that way. Not with a bunch of hairy guys anyway and what was the chance that the local black market was being run as a lesbian collective? "It's my arse on the line if you're wrong."
As he'd found out the last time. Balls up and a half that night had been. All he'd wanted was to forget everything for a few hours. He supposed he'd succeeded.
"And all our arses on the line if you're wrong," Ianto retorted. "Forgive me if I don't want to trust to your dazzling wit and winning personality. Don't worry - what we had before was weapon-grade." Owen stared. Ianto was joking, wasn't he? But Ianto just carried on as if he hadn't said anything surprising. "What you have there is barely illegal."
"Barely?" Owen repeated.
"In comparison." Ianto shrugged. "I wouldn't get caught using it while running a con anywhere this side of Raxacoricofallapatorius."
Which wasn't what they were doing at all. Quite.
"Right now that would probably be an improvement on being here." Wherever that was. Owen had a theory that Ianto just memorised the names from files and had no more clue about where the places were than he did. Or he just made them up.
Ianto thought about that for a moment and then he gave a little nod, agreeing with himself more than Owen. "Possibly. It's supposed to be a lovely place."
Owen told himself not to ask. He did it anyway. He'd never been that great about taking advice and he didn't see why that should exclude his own.
"Why are they so hot on the stuff anyway?" Ianto looked surprised. Sarky bastard. "In simple words that a mere medic can understand."
Ianto was looking at him curiously, as if he was some strange new alien that had popped through the rift and said 'hi'. Or possibly he was just passing gas - it wasn't as if he paid that much attention to the teaboy's facial expressions. Except this one was beginning to make him feel downright uncomfortable.
"Spit it out," he growled.
"It was connected with a few rather nasty war crimes," Ianto said in that annoyingly precise way he had when he actually knew something. "It's under consideration for inclusion on a few intergalactic chemical weapon blacklists - what better way to conquer a planet than make everyone love you?" Ianto looked at him with an expression that suggested he was having trouble understanding that not everyone was an anal freak like him who cared about cross-referencing every bit of alien crap that came through the rift. "It was developed as an alternative to truth drugs for use in interrogation. What did you think it was? Alien deodorant?"
"Well, yeah." But he was beginning to get a different picture and it was one he didn't like at all. Why the hell hadn't Jack told them when they found the stuff? Probably some bollocks about not changing the timeline but they needed to know these things. He'd needed to know. Because then he wouldn't have...
Ianto had lost interest in when Owen stopped talking, turning back to his console and futzing around with it. Which was what he needed to be doing as well. He had a meeting in a warehouse to get to and some less than-upstanding people to liaise with. Turning up late probably wouldn't be the best start.
He had everything. He was ready to go. He... "Ianto..." Owen paused for a moment and then shook his head; he just didn't have the words to ask what he needed to. It was too late now anyway. Not that he could remember their names. "Don't worry."
"Jack had them both retconned." Ianto said without looking up.
Christ! That was... cold. Owen stared at Ianto in disbelief. He had... no he couldn't process that, not yet. And Jack had... Fuck. Jack had chosen to cover it up and just continue as if nothing had happened. Had let him go on thinking it was nothing. Was that Jack just clearing up after his team because they were his team? If Susie hadn't pulled her psycho bitch act would he have woken up in a hospital somewhere with nothing but a story of a near-fatal accident and subsequent coma to explain his lost years? Would he have woken up at all? Or would Jack have decided to retire him permanently with a bullet rather than an engraved carriage clock? One thing was definite, if he'd done it again that would have been it. But if he'd just known then he wouldn't have done it the first time. Would he?
The meeting went well. As well as it could have gone, and, yeah, Ianto's little gift might possibly have helped. Not that Owen planned on telling him that. He still didn't sleep for a long time that night, thinking hard, the bottle gripped so tightly in his hand that it was a wonder neither glass nor flesh gave under the pressure. He repeated to himself he hadn't known. It didn't help. He wondered if Ianto had known that. Bastard.
It had worked. Nicholas stuffed a final pair of socks in his kit bag and frowned. He hated to leave Mark in the lurch but it would be safer for all concerned if he dropped out of sight and the sooner the better. Sooner or later Alex would get caught and he would be implicated. Cardiff was probably the safest place he could be - if he could get there.
The soft knock on his door caused his hand to tighten for a moment on the handle of his bag. Picking up his gun from where it waited on the side, he quickly slipped it into the waistband at the back of his trousers. It was probably nothing but it never hurt to be sure. Like all the other surviving Embassy staff, the ones deemed too essential to be sent elsewhere, he had been living in the complex structure that housed the adjacent residence and embassy. At full strength they would have had trouble finding room for everyone even if they took shifts. As it stood they hadn't even had to do more then the most minimal doubling up on rooms. They'd have another room free soon enough; he checked the gun once more, one way or another.
He eased the door open, enough to see Mark waiting on the other side.
Damn! If it wasn't so serious, Nicholas might have acknowledged a certain sardonic amusement at the situation. Mark really did have the devil's own sense of timing. Submitting to the inevitable, he opened the door just far enough to let the man in.
"Mark," he greeted warmly. It was a faint hope, but if he could head off whatever problem was about to be laid at his door it would better for all concerned. And despite everything (such as common sense) he was glad to see him.
Mark's eyes slid to his bag, "Leaving?" It really was too much to hope that it would have passed unnoticed.
"I've been called back to London for a special briefing," Nicholas lied.
Mark's lips quirked slightly. "Dare I ask about the outfit?" Nicholas liked to think there was a hint of appreciation under the teasing. He suppressed a few thoughts about how he could distract Mark from both his appearance and his impending departure, at least for long enough for him to get away.
"I'm catching a flight back on a U.N.I.T. transport," he said instead. It had the advantage of being, strictly speaking, accurate. He did try and not lie to Mark. More than he had to, any way.
Mark looked him up and down. "I've always wondered how you must've looked in uniform."
Nicholas let himself smile back. "You should have said," he murmured.
They hovered for a moment on the edge of doing something they both knew was foolish.
"Yes, well..." Mark gesture was eloquent and essentially meaningless.
One day they would make a mistake and go too far. "Why are you here, Mark?"
The atmosphere in the room changed as Mark sighed. "I don't know what the hell I am doing, Nicholas."
So that was the problem. "The best you can," he said sincerely. He offered the desk chair to Mark, taking the edge of the bed for himself. He couldn't afford the time to have this conversation but, equally, he couldn't afford not to. There was too much riding on the work being done here, both that which Mark knew about and that which he didn't.
"I feel like a traitor," Mark admitted as he sat.
"Don't," Nicholas said sharply, "ever think that." This was not the time, not with Alex out there somewhere and his defection imminent. They needed Mark in place.
"The personnel lists..."
"You didn't hand them over," Nicholas pointed out gently, "Saxon already had them."
"And now?" Mark's looked at him, desperation making his normal presence even more compelling. "What am I doing now?"
He'd never thought it would be so difficult not to reach out to someone.
"You're keeping your people safe. You're making sure they have enough to eat and drink..."
"I'm a bloody kapo," Mark burst out, rising in a sharp, angry action. Unable to stay seated in the face of his own accusation.
"No!" Nicholas followed him up, catching both of Mark's arms and forcing Mark to look at him. He met the anger and recrimination in Mark's expression with his own belief in Mark's integrity. His belief in Mark. Slowly Mark stopped struggling against his grip, sagging slightly within it instead.
"It seems like it from where I'm standing," he said bitterly. "Should I be thankful that I am not expected to hand out the punishments along with the regulations?"
"For Christ's sake, Mark..." Nicholas let him go. It was that or do something extremely unwise. And, yes, there was more than a little truth to Mark's complaints, it would be disingenuous to suggest otherwise. However they both knew that his resignation would make things worse for all the remaining embassy staff and their dependants and Mark held the old-fashioned, and rather sweet, belief that his position meant that he was responsible for them.
Nicholas let him stalk back and forth between the bed and the desk, working off some of the energy and frustration.
"You think I don't know that half my staff are hiding children in the west wing so they won't be taken into 'care'." Mark's hands slashed down, emphasising his agitation at every step. In any other situation it would be fascinating to watch, Mark was normally so self-contained. In any other situation he wouldn't be listening with mounting concern, and not a little respect, as Mark detailed more than Nicholas had realised he knew about of the extra-curricular activities that had been going on at the embassy. "Or that our backdoor has become the place to go for the best quality forged papers, permits and letters of transit. It's practically Casablanca out there and I don't know if I'm supposed to be Rick or Captain Renault but I am getting damn tired of doing nothing but looking the other way."
How many times did he have to tell Mark not to trust him? If Nicholas hadn't known about what was going on, if Nicholas had decided his duty to his country was to his government and his oath rather than his species... Mark had just hung himself and half his people out to dry. "Why are you telling me this?"
"I saw 'Victor' at the embassy the other day." For a brief moment he thought Mark was casting him, rather unflatteringly, as Ilsa but then realised that Mark was referring to the cover identity that Alex had been using. He must have gone down and checked the visitors' book. Clever boy.
He said nothing.
"What's going on, Nicholas?" Mark pressed, stopping in his pacing to face Nicholas directly. "None of it would be happening if they hadn't got your tacit approval."
This was too dangerous. Mark had to be kept clean.
"I think you over-estimate my influence," he said, dry mouthed. Silently begging Mark to drop it.
"And you're insulting my intelligence," Mark snapped. He thought of Mark going toe-to-toe with Warner, willing to sacrifice the moral authority of half the western world just because he believed in those stupid, perilous concepts of 'right' and 'fair' and knew he wouldn't.
If Mark had been less intelligent then it would have been much easier. Nicholas let his eyes drop. "Never."
"So just lying to me then?" And Mark has no damn right to sound that hurt and defeated when he knew who Nicholas was and what he did and why.
"Mark..." Nicholas began. He wanted to be angry but he couldn't bring himself to be. Wanted to look Mark in the eyes and lie to him. He had before. He would again.
"Nicholas," Mark stopped him.
They stared at each other, neither willing to back down. Mark looked tired, broken in ways Nicholas had never expected to see. He knew what Mark wanted and he had a nasty suspicion that it was more than a want, that it was something Mark needed to keep going. Because Mark was a good man for whom the job had always been about more than Queen and Country and he was halfway to believing that he had betrayed everything he held dear. And Nicholas knew, although that knowledge could break them both, that that included him.
They shouldn't be in this situation, Nicholas thought, it had become too personal. It was his fault – Mark didn't know better, or, more likely, didn't care. He should have officially asked to transfer after Tyrgyztan when he knew he was compromised. 'We'll take it under advisement,' they'd told him when he had reported his concerns, 'we need someone who can keep Brydon in line and you have his ear now. Keep us informed of any developments.' He should have insisted when Jane left but with the attack on Azzam and then... then it was too late and they were here.
It was one more reason why he had to leave.
He nodded, slightly, barely, hating himself for giving in but knowing he couldn't not give Mark that much. Mark breathed out; a sigh of held breath that meant nothing and everything.
"And now?" Mark asked quietly.
They both knew what had to happen next. The only question was whether Mark would make it more difficult for him. "Are you going to turn me in?"
Mark's smile didn't reach his eyes. "As far as I know you have been called back to Whitehall for a special briefing. While unusual, there is nothing especially odd in that situation."
It was more of a blessing than Nicholas had been expecting.
"Mark..." Unable to find the words Nicholas kissed him, swift and brutal.
"I know," Mark assured him and his lips were hot and desperate against Nicholas', a frightening combination of hello and goodbye and always and nevermore. "Me too."
Just before his right hook caught Mark square on the jaw Nicholas heard the whispered "Good luck."
Skinner had moved; the block of flats that had held his old apartment had been deemed unsafe and any surviving tenants re-housed. It had amused Alex to hole up there for a few nights. It wasn't as if anywhere in Washington was 'safe'.
It had been harder than normal to follow Skinner home and set up surveillance. Not that Skinner had become any sneakier, but the military curfew made it harder to get around. He'd learnt a few tricks by then, and so it was merely difficult but not impossible. He still moved into a much closer, more convenient derelict as soon as he could. There was no point making life difficult for yourself.
He waited two weeks, collecting information from other sources and trying to find the cracks he could crawl in. He did a few minor jobs, earned a few favours and a bit of hard currency. Nicholas was gone, he'd suspected that would be the case and when he saw George, once, briefly, she'd confirmed it. He hadn't stuck around and she'd let him go. Literally - he'd been scavenging medical supplies from an abandoned hospice. It was good work – profitable in both money and favours - but it got him no closer to the action. He needed information and it was the sort of information that only an insider would know, an insider who might possibly be willing to listen to reason.
"Hello," Alex said congenially and was rewarded by seeing Skinner jump. "I wouldn't," he warned as Skinner automatically reached for his gun. If Alex had been in a complimentary mood he would have noted that Skinner's reactions were a credit to his drill sergeant. It was almost a shame that the effort were too late before it had even started.
"You and I need to have a little talk," he continued when Skinner had sat down, his hands held very carefully away from his sides. "Starting with how you managed to lose Agent Mulder..."
She knew she wouldn't have made it far without the Mountie and his partner. And his wolf who seemed to have a sixth sense for when the Toclafane were coming. They'd stuck with her all the way from Canada to the steppes of the Verkhoyansk Range. She hadn't expected that - and didn't think they had either. She had heard them whispering to each other in their sleeping roll in the nights before they reached the Canadian border and again as they came up to the coast, harsh and conflicting hisses that didn't need distinguishable words to make their meaning clear. Still they stuck with her and kept her alive when there seemed nothing around but snow, ice and rock.
The found people again, eventually. A gulag in all but name nestled into foothills. They left her then, losing themselves back into the wilderness and she knew that they would be returning home taking her stories with them. She wished them luck and hugged them tight. Sometimes she wondered if they had made it back.
The journey grew easier from there, moving from town to town and camp to camp and telling the stories she had perfected in the long, chill nights. And they grew as she travelled, swelled with news of the people she had met to give heart to the new friends she was making. In return she learned of friends she'd never realised she had; an entire network growing up around and in front of her to help support her path.
And it wasn't cold. Why Martha had had a vague notion that all of the Russian Federation was like Siberia she wasn't sure. As soon as she thought about it, it was obvious that it was a stupid presumption that owed more to the residue of cold war propaganda than any reality - at least once she got out of the Arctic Circle and the eastern mountain ranges. Still, it was a thought that reoccurred on and off even after both she and the country had both thawed out, interleaving with her fear and grief like the silence between notes in a score. Russia was cold and vodka and fur hats, balalaikas and that wonderful frantic, kicking dancing... at least in the same way that England was tea and cricket and the hunt ball. The vodka, at least, was not a total slander and in keeping with her own stereotype she heartily embraced the ubiquitous tea that was comfort and welcome wherever she went.
The bastard was waiting for him, huddled in his leather jacket and the shadows. Just once Skinner wished he'd slip up and get himself shot breaking into the FBI garage. He wasn't a naive man - Nam had taken away nearly all his illusions and being in charge of Mulder and the X-Files had taken the rest. Nor did he didn't consider himself a religious one, however it offended his sense of justice that so many good people had died and the traitorous weasel was still walking around.
"Krycek," he growled in recognition.
The renegade smirked at him as he walked closer and he forced himself to unclench his hands. It was an effort; something about the man just made him want to hit things. Preferably Krycek-shaped things. Soon, he told himself, soon the bastard would get what was coming to him.
"I told you I'd be back," Krycek said quietly. "Did you get the information?"
So he really was playing it all the way. Did he think that Skinner didn't know that he had been working for the British? For those fuckers who handed the world over to the aliens?
"I made some calls," he hedged.
He was close enough now to see that Krycek wasn't obviously armed, his hands shoved in his pockets and his shoulders hunched. But with Krycek looks would always be deceptive and Skinner wasn't about to take any chances.
"Come on, Skinner." The rough voice held a hint on impatience. "What have you got?"
"I might be able to put you in touch with someone."
Alex's eyes narrowed. "They had information about the gun?"
"I didn't ask," Skinner said sharply. "I can put you in touch with someone but that is where I bow out."
There was definite contempt in Krycek's expression but the feeling was mutual so Skinner just added it to the long list of things that Krycek owed him for.
"And I thought you would jump at the chance to help free the world." Krycek's tone was sickly sweet and Skinner wasn't entirely sure whether or not the words were intended as an insult.
"I would," he said. His grim expression didn't waiver any more than the muzzle of the gun he pointed straight at Krycek's chest.
"What's this, Skinner?" Krycek sneered. "Need to feel the big man? This is too important for your games."
Skinner took great pleasure in saying, "This isn't a game, asshole," and thumbing the safety off.
Krycek scrambled away from him, one hand out in a gesture of peace and supplication. It didn't suit him and Skinner couldn't help smiling at the feeble effort.
"Damn it, Skinner." There was an edge of desperation in Krycek's voice that he found he rather liked. "We don't have time for this."
He could see them in his peripheral vision, the shadows closing in. He knew that they must have had some sort of surveillance on him, probably did even before he made his deal with the devil.
"Just doing what you asked," he said with malicious solicitude. He'd waited too long for this moment. This was for Mulder as much as himself. "It turns out that there were a few people who were anxious to talk to you as well."
Krycek went down fighting, Skinner had to give him that. The dark-clad thugs clearly hadn't been ordered to be gentle and Krycek wasn't going quietly. But then he probably had a good idea what was in store for him.
"Double-crossing bastard!" Krycek hissed angrily from the ground where two muscled toughs, blood smeared from one of their noses, had him pinned. "I hope whatever you're getting is worth it, because you've just thrown away the world's only chance."
Skinner ignored him as he was hauled away, still howling disparagements. As if anyone would trust him with something that important. Krycek was delusional if he thought his miserable, lying carcass was worth anything to anyone beyond the chance for a little payback. Luckily, as Skinner had discovered, some people put a pretty high price on payback. He found himself smiling as he waited.
Spender stepped out from behind a pillar, the ever-present smoke forming a vaguely florescent blur around him.
"Mr. Mulder will be released this evening," he said, "as promised."
Skinner had done things that haunted his conscience; this definitely wasn't one of them. He was still smiling as he walked away.
"We have a problem," Owen said grimly as Tosh walked out of the kitchen, juggling two mugs and a bowl. "There's some guy in uniform standing on our lift."
"Here…" She held one of the mugs towards him and they juggled crockery for a moment, Owen briefly ending up with her bowl of what they were charitably calling porridge as well as his mug of tea. He shrugged and held them both as she put her tea down on her workstation, slid into her seat and pulled the keyboard towards her. She nodded vague thanks as he put her breakfast down, attention on her monitor and the blond soldier who seemed to be looking back at her. "Has he been doing anything?"
"Nope." The word popped in the air as Owen moved around to lean against the back of Tosh's chair, watching the screen over her shoulder as he sipped his tea. "Just standing there. He seems to be waiting for something. Thanks, by the way."
"Wish we had some more working cameras," Tosh complained. The man stood there doing nothing. Owen reached around her, grabbing the porridge he put it decisively in her hands.
"So do we let him in?" Tosh said when the porridge was gone and he still hadn't moved. "He might have some syrup in his kit bag and anything is better than that goo on its own."
Owen stared at her. "Are you crazy?"
"No, I just don't like plain porridge." She caught his expression and shrugged. "Look, he clearly knows about the lift."
"He could have just happened to pick there to stand," Owen argued.
Tosh frowned. "In all your time working here - how many times has someone 'just happened' to stand there?" She pointed at the screen, waggling her finger to indicate the general area. "Doesn't happen - it's part of the perception filter."
Owen began to argue only to find he couldn't actually think of anything that disproved her case. It also explained why no one had ever fallen down the hole when the lift was down.
"Okay," he conceded slowly, "so he probably knows about the lift. That doesn't mean we should let him in especially when there are only..." He looked around the room. "Wait, where's Ianto?"
Tosh barely looked around. "He's probably in the archives?"
"What the hell is he doing down there?" The question was more annoyance than actual desire for information. Since Alex had left Ianto had been spending more and more time amongst the stacks of artefacts. When asked he always said he was looking for things that might be useful for them. Occasionally he even produced something.
Tosh shrugged, recognising the demand as rhetorical.
"For fuck's sake." Owen hit the button for the intercom and spoke loud enough that the mike on Tosh's desk would pick him up. "Ianto - we've got an unknown individual outside, possibly hostile and looking for a way in. Get your arse up here." He released the button and shook his head at Tosh. "Between the archives and the cleaning," he muttered. He looked at her, "Can't you get him helping you on your code-breaking or something? It's bloody creepy."
"He does..." Tosh began and Owen cut her off before he had to listen to her 'poor Ianto' sob story.
"Human or alien?" Ianto asked as he emerged from the doorway that led to the archives, confirming their suspicions. Owen idly wondered what would happen if he got Tosh to lock the door. Although the last thing they needed was a heap of teaboy in the middle of the floor which was what they would probably get. Either that or cleaned out of existence. Not a good result either way.
"Two arms, two legs, head," Owen counted off as Ianto got closer. "How the fuck do I know - it's not on my slab."
The last thing he was expected was for Ianto to take one look at the screen and break into a smile.
"Let him in," Ianto told them, "he's a friend of Jack's."
"Is that a euphemism?" Owen muttered to Tosh as Ianto went off to meet the lift. She was not entirely successful in smothering her giggle behind her hand. Somehow that made Owen feel better.
"Come on," Tosh said. Pushing herself away from her desk and following Ianto. Not knowing what else to do Owen did the same.
"Ianto," the man said as the lift came to a halt. He stepped forward and the two embraced. Owen looked at Tosh and raised an eyebrow. She twacked him lightly on the arm in response.
"Nicholas," Ianto returned. "It's good to see you. Any news?"
"Later," he promised as they parted. "So this is the Hub." He looked around, his gaze stopping on the two people staring back at him.
"Owen Harper," Ianto said leading Nicholas towards them, "and Toshiko Sato - meet Nicholas Brocklehurst."
Owen would have sworn that Nicholas' eyes lit up when he heard Tosh's name. "Doctor Sato," he stepped forward and took her hand, "a pleasure to finally meet you at last."
"Doctor?" Owen hissed to Ianto.
"PhD," Ianto hissed back, rolling his eyes. Owen had known that, he just tended to forget. It wasn't like Tosh ever pushed the point.
"And Doctor Harper," Nicholas turned to them and they jumped apart, embarrassed. Owen shook the proffered hand unhappily. Nicholas' handshake was firm and dry, professional. For some reason that Owen couldn't define it irritated him. Maybe it was just that this stranger spoke with such familiarity when Owen had no idea who the fuck he was. Owen certainly wasn't about to discount that possibility although he was sure he could come up with some more reasons without trying to hard. He didn't like the way the guy had been smarming up to Tosh, for a start.
"You said you had news?" he asked, needing something to say that wasn't a lie about how glad he was to meet the other man.
"I talked to Alex." Brocklehurst's name fell into place in Owen's mind. So this was the famous Nicholas? "Everything went according to plan, and he is briefed and out there. He has his contact so you should be getting word soon if you haven't already." He looked at Tosh as he spoke and she nodded. "I spoke to Martha just after she escaped from the Valiant…" He took a breath. "Ianto - Jack's there. Saxon has him."
Ianto's head came up with a snap. For a moment there was hope in his eyes and then it faded, realisation turning his expression into something cold and remote. Nicholas said nothing, meeting the transformation with the calm of someone who had already run through all the arguments. Owen thought he detected a hint of sympathy, but it was the understanding of a nurse ready to rip off a plaster.
"He was alive, last we heard," Nicholas said gently.
Owen was about to point out that he was hardly going to be anything else, then it hit him: Nicholas didn't know. Meanly, that made him happy. He looked over at Ianto to see if he was going to say anything about Jack's secret but Ianto didn't look like he was about to say anything particularly coherent any time soon. Owen supposed he should be thankful that the man wasn't having a breakdown in the middle of the Hub. The teaboy was made of sterner stuff than he appeared; you learned something new every day. Not that he could really blame Ianto for his reaction - Owen was having a few problems himself with thoughts of what a psycho like Saxon could do with a man who didn't stay dead and Tosh was looking a bit green around the edges suggesting that her imagination was also running riot.
The computer beeped and he jumped, pulling himself back from a world of blood, pain and the type of scientific questions that could give doctors a bad name.
"Sorry, that's me," Tosh said. With a nod to all of them and a little smile for Nicholas she withdraw back to her desk. Within moments the tapping of keys announced her detachment from the physical world.
Enough was enough, Owen decided. "Ianto, why don't you go and see if you can sort out somewhere for our guest to sleep?" he suggested firmly, "Take his stuff. I'll give him the tour."
Ianto looked at him, startled. Too pale, shocky-pale, but Owen doubted the silly bastard would ever admit it. Nicholas was watching him closely as well, Owen noticed, the sort of blank, assessing look that only medical staff had a legitimate excuse to develop. He didn't object to Owen's suggestion though, giving up his pack easily enough when Ianto reached for it.
"There's the room Alex used," Ianto suggested, sounding stronger that he had any right to given how on the edge he had looked. Being busy seemed to calm the guy down and, even with the preparation already done on the room for Alex's couple-of-nights stay, the area would probably need cleaning. Ianto's second favourite activity after daydreaming in the archives, Owen thought sourly. But it would give him a chance to have a few words with Mr. Nicholas Brocklehurst in private.
"I'm sure that will be fine," Nicholas' hand rested on Ianto's arm for a moment. The two of them looked at each other. Whatever he saw it must have been acceptable because he let go with a friendly squeeze and let Ianto retreat into the depths of the Hub.
Owen was still pondering whether that meant anything when Nicholas looked at him expectantly.
"Right," Owen said. "This way. That…" He pointed as he spoke."…is the medical bay, that's our desks, that's Jack's office." He led Nicholas towards the stairs to the meeting room. "Kitchen. Greenhouse." He waved in about the right direction. "And this is the meeting room," he shut the door behind them and crossed his arms, glaring at the other man. "That's the Hub. Now what the hell is going on? You can't just come in here and take over."
To Owen's profound annoyance Nicholas grinned slightly. "Actually I could." The smile faded and Nicholas wandered over to the window that looked down on the main area. He watched for a moment before turning back to the conversation. "But that doesn't mean I will. I'm here for one reason - Alex blew my cover. Think of it as an exchange scheme."
"The thing is - I know him." They faced off across the room. "I've worked with him and he might be a scary bastard but I know he'd take one for the team. You - I don't know."
"You don't," Nicholas agreed. Owen really wished the guy would get angry because it was making him look like a jerk and he didn't need the help. "Jack does. Ianto and Alex do. Tosh knows of me. Talk to them. Because, with Alex gone, you need someone who can co-ordinate things." He walked forwards, stopping when only the impenetrable width of the conference table stopped him. "Tosh has got the communications covered, and I don't know of anyone better, but she needs to concentrate on that. Likewise you've got the smugglers and black marketeers to deal with and, from what Alex said, are expanding to infiltrate the medics. You are going to be out and about too much to be able to concentrate on the bigger picture. And Ianto just doesn't have the experience for something like that yet."
Owen would have really liked to argue with that. "But you do?" he sneered.
"Yes." The word was said without emphasis or inflection.
Nasty suspicions were beginning to form in Owen's mind. Nicholas wore the uniform easily but lots of people were wearing military surplus and Owen had assumed the U.N.I.T. insignia on his epaulettes were a part of his disguise. Ianto certainly hadn't mentioned rank when he introduced Nicholas. He uncrossed his arms and gestured for Nicholas to take a seat.
"How exactly," he stressed the word, "do you know Jack?"
A flicker of something Owen didn't want to think about too hard flickered across Nicholas' expression. He thought it might have been amusement. "I first met him in Bosnia in the nineties."
That didn't even come close to Owen's definition of exactly. "I take it you weren't there on holiday?"
"Deployed there for three tours... officially." Owen wasn't sure he wanted to know what that meant. "One in Northern Ireland before that. My company found something unusual and Torchwood sent Jack to collect it. I acted as liaison."
Not U.N.I.T. They wouldn't call Torchwood if their arse was on fire and Torchwood had the only extinguisher this side of Pluto. Regular army then, and with frontline experience. That explained a lot. And Jack clearly had a thing for the military style, which probably explained more.
"And you immediately hit it off," Owen suggested insincerely.
Nicholas laughed. "He was a crab tosser who came in, disrupted my unit and made a nasty job much harder," he said harshly.
Owen blinked. That hadn't been what he was expecting. "You clearly worked it out."
"We did." Nicholas' tone gave no clues as to how that had come about. "And he offered me a job."
"A job?" Owen blurted. "Here?"
"With Torchwood." Nicholas corrected and Owen did the maths. Torchwood One would have just been coming into its power then and they would have loved to get someone with Nicholas' experience on their payroll. No, Nicholas wouldn't have ended up in a backwater like Torchwood Three. He met Owen's eyes and Owen knew before he said, "I turned it down."
"Why?" Owen said bluntly.
Nicholas smirked. "Got a better offer."
Owen stared at him. They both knew he could have written his own ticket with Torchwood One and as much as he hated Torchwood occasionally he couldn't imagine doing anything else. And Nicholas had found what was, presumably, an alien artefact, had handled himself well enough that Jack had been ordered to recruit him and he clearly knew about aliens yet had refused the position. What the hell could trump Torchwood?
"What do you do?" he said at last, finding suddenly that his mouth was dry.
"I worked in the Foreign Office," he said, "for MI6." If he was taking any pleasure in Owen's slack-jawed response, Owen couldn't tell. "Now," he continued, watching Owen intently, "take me through what I don't know about the set up."
Too startled to object, Owen did.
I know you don't trust me - you made that clear at our last meeting. But this is bigger than us so I hope you will actually read what I have to say before dismissing it and me. If you are reading this then Skinner must have done something right and got you out of wherever they locked you. I hope he didn't have to trade too much - he hasn't got much soul left as it is. No, actually, I don't care. The world has gone to hell and the old men have decided it is better to serve than to resist. They're fools, but you know that as well as I do. If you're trying to find a way to blame all this on me - go ahead. The people that I work for thought we had them contained but we were wrong. Not so much a miscalculation as our inability to predict the impossible. And, yes, now everyone is paying.
We once meant something to each other. More than once. You probably don't remember and are, even now, cursing me for a liar. So be it. Believe that I am the murderer, the liar and the coward you so often named me if it helps. But for the sake of what we had I'm telling you this - there is a chance. There is a weapon that can save us, a gun that can kill aliens, can kill THE alien. If we can find the pieces and put it together before they can get it then we can stop them. Maybe when you discover that that is true you will believe me about the rest. While you don't trust me, I trust you to do the right thing and so I am begging you (I know you've always liked the idea of making me beg): if you find any information about the gun then find a way to pass the details on. To me or, if you won't trust me then, to the resistance. The important thing is that the message gets through. I'm sure you'll find a contact if you try hard enough. Good luck and try to keep your head down - your protection only extends so far.
I leave you with one last thought - I found evidence about your sister's disappearance. I believe the being known as the Doctor helped her escape the Consortium's plans for her. I can show you the proof when we next meet.
If you believe in nothing else - believe in that. And in him.
Be seeing you,
P.S. Scully, I know you are reading this. Now you have your proof, probably more than you wanted, but don't let that blind you. The world needs him alive and it is up to you to sit on him when necessary and tell him when he is jumping to unfounded conclusions. He may be right a lot of the time but the stakes are too high for random guesswork. I'm appealing to you as a rational person - think about this and the information I have given you on its own merit. Hell, confirm what you can from your own sources (carefully), but don't let Mulder disregard everything just because it came from me and don't let him do something more stupid than normal.]
Scully handed the note back to Mulder. "Interesting," she admitted. "You believe any of it?"
"David Smith?" Gwen hadn't been entirely sure what she was expecting when she had agreed to meet the smuggler but it hadn't been a wiry man with a Kermit-the-frog smile and knowing eyes.
"And you must be Gwen Cooper," David said with heavy irony. "And, now that the introductions have been made, can we get on with this?"
Gwen couldn't quite hold back the giggle, a combination of tension and excitement. "Jumpy, aren't you," she teased.
"It's funny, see," she continued, "because I used to be a cop and chased guys like you."
She couldn't put her finger on it but there was something about that man that seemed familiar. Maybe she had chased him, way back before her accident. Maybe it was just the hard, jittery look that she had seen on too many faces, including her own.
"Look," David broke in, "you wanted to see me. I hope you had a better bloody reason than to reminisce about what our lives were like before, because you don't know shit about me."
"Sorry," Gwen said, offended. "Just trying to make conversation."
"I'm not much for small talk," he said and Gwen realised that was as much of an apology as she was going to get, "So what did you want?"
"This house," Gwen began, "belonged to Harry John Parker. He was a bit of a local legend around here: made a fortune and then went a bit doolally when his wife died." She waved her hands to make her point. "Shut himself all up in his house. Anyway, he died last week, poor man, heart gave out, and he made me promise to give you the keys. 'For the war effort' he said."
She was still a bit sore about that. Not that she had been hoping to get anything herself, and he had been nice enough to let them use his house for some of the families that had desperately needed somewhere a bit better to stay, but still, she'd been the one who had been with him, there, until the end.
"To me?" David didn't sound as if he believed it either.
"He wanted me to find Owen Harper to begin with," Gwen admitted, "but it turns out he's dead. Which made him laugh…" She stopped as the oddness of that struck her. "…which is a bit odd now I come to think about it, and he said to find David Smith."
David's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "How long ago did he die?"
'Not so hush-hush,' Gwen thought smugly. 'And not so bloody all-knowing either despite how he liked to act.' That made her feel a bit better about the strange looks and heavy silences.
"About a week," she ran the numbers through her head again and revised that, "maybe two. It took a little while to get the message through. Not a very social lot, you guys, are you?" she added pointedly.
David didn't reply, just held out his hand for the key.
"You knew this Owen bloke, did you?" Gwen said as they walked inside.
She just caught the look that David slid towards her. "You could say we were close." The odd tone was back, the one she couldn't quite identify but it weighed his words with unaccountable meaning.
"Oooh," Gwen breathed as everything become clear. She looked away embarrassed. "Well, I'm sorry for your loss," she mumbled. It took all sorts after all.
David rolled his eyes.
The door to the library-cum-storage area was locked, as it had been every time Gwen had visited. It took David three tries before he found the key that opened it. It was hard to tell how big the room was due to the long lines of shelves that bisected and vivisected the space. Each shelf was heaped with bric-a-brac as if the archivist had stayed just long enough to lay the space out and then given it up as a bad job. It was possible there was some semblance of order or logic in the placement of the objects but, if so, it defied any immediate interpretation. She stepped closer to get a better look.
A blocky silver arm curled around an unidentifiable construction of spikes and ridges.
"Bloody hell," she said finally. "What is this stuff?'
David looked at her for a long moment. Gwen got the impression he was waiting for something. "No idea," he said at last. She let him wander to and fro down the rows, playing idly with the fingers of the silver hand. They moved more easily than she had expected they would, matching the flex and bend of her own fingers as she pushed at them.
"So what exactly does this Resistance of yours do?" she said aloud.
David stopped, spun around and stared at her.
"What?" Gwen asked innocently. Bored of the hand she picked up a book that was sitting near it, only to put it down again when she realised it was written in a foreign language she didn't recognise.
"You don't have to tell me," she continued. "Only I think we could help each other out. Because you need to know about what's going on out here and we've got the guys who are going into those factories every day and the people who have been told to guard the doors and might just happen to know what the codes are and we know who volunteered to put on a uniform and who got rounded up and had their family threatened if they didn't walk round on patrol. And it occurs to me that that is the sort of information that might be very useful to someone like you."
"And what do you get out of it?" David growled. If he thought he that was intimidating then he really needed to get out more from wherever smugglers and Resistance figures holed up.
"You work with us. We work with you. Unofficial like. I let you know what I hear, and I hear a lot. You make sure that the wrong people don't pay for your little stunts and maybe you use some of your influence to get us some of the stuff we need, not what you think we need. Because to me that sounds like a pretty sweet deal. Especially when I could scream and cause you all sorts of problems."
David looked at her for a long time. Finally he nodded.
Gwen grinned. "I wouldn't have screamed," she said him conspiratorially.
"It wouldn't have done you any good it you had." David waved a hand around at the walls. "Soundproofed."
Gwen watched him as he started picking through the shelves, muttering to himself.
"Y'know, I don't think David's your real name," she said conversationally, taking great delight when a solid thunk followed by a succinct profanity suggested he'd misjudged his footing. She hadn't realised fighting aliens would be so much fun.
The words were beginning to swim in front of Mark's eyes, the ink running together like blood down the page. Which was what it would be if he enforced these ridiculous orders. There had to be a way around the instructions. God knew how many British citizens (and he refused to stop thinking of them as such in the privacy of his own head) were scattered around America. He didn't even know how many they had living in the Residency complex. He knew the official numbers but he wasn't so naive as to think that told the whole story, nor so reckless as to demand it. In the back of his mind a voice that sounded very much like Nicholas whispered unpleasant truths about plausible deniability and there being things it was better if he didn't know.
He missed Nicholas. Phil had come into his own as a deputy but there wasn't a day that passed in which Mark didn't wish Nicholas was by his side. He recognised the irony of having made a confidant of someone in Nicholas' position - Nicholas had never made any secret of the fact that his duty was to a power higher than Mark's. He might as well have rung Whitehall up and told them everything directly, at least back when communication with Whitehall was as simple as picking up a phone. But Nicholas had stood by him over Tyrgyztan and on a hundred other minor things. Had come close to admitting that he was currently working with the Resistance. And then he'd left, damn him. Mark's lips still tingled from the kiss and his jaw ached from the punch. Hardly fantasy material but then his fantasies weren't like they used to be. He doubted anyone's were.
Once he had thought change was a good thing but now change was further misery - whether that was in the form of new orders or the swarm of men striding in through the outer door with every indication they had the right to do so. He could clearly see them, out through the cracked window of what had once been Nicholas' office, but he refused to react even as the noise in the other room dropped to a frightened silence and the intruders scattered with trained precision, taking loose positions around the walls and by the exits. He'd been in the US long enough to recognise the distinctive baring of their law enforcement operative and the dark suits and sunglasses were growing closer to a uniform every day. No good things came from authority any more and these men had authority so it was a question of what they wanted. Maybe it was petty but Mark had dealt with these types of situations, if he conceded an inch he would be excepted to give up a mile and he wasn't sure they had that much left. Their only hope of coming out of this with something left was to play the game, pretend that the grim-faced men came with requests that could be denied rather than demands that had to be met because then, maybe, they would believe it too.
So he stared at his desk, seeing nothing but the scene playing out in his peripheral vision. The distorted stutter of challenge from Phil and the rumble of demand becoming rapidly firming denial and suppressed anger. His people hadn't quite gone back to what they had been doing before but now they were watching the agents with suspicion and disdain rather than fear. He'd never been prouder of any of them. He just hoped that he wouldn't let them down.
Eventually, as had to happen, a small party broke away and headed in his direction. He continued ignoring them until Phil knocked on the door frame and opened the door just far enough that he could look in.
"I'm sorry, Ambassador," he said politely, "I have some gentlemen here asking for our assistance. I've explained that we can't help them but they insist on talking to you..." The slight stress Phil put on 'gentlemen' firmly categorised them as anything but.
"That's alright. I can see them." Mark stood up as Phil ushered the leader in, coming around the desk to greet them. His mother had always told him that it never hurt to be polite. Of course she'd never seen it wielded as another weapon in a diplomats arsenal but it was still a good rule to live by. The other two men who had accompanied them across the room waited outside, taking up posts either side of the still open door.
"Assistant Director Skinner," Phil introduced clearly, "of the FBI."
There was a ripple from their audience in the other room, a few low mutters stirring the disquiet.
Mark refused to let his smile slip. "How can I be of assistance?" he asked, putting his hand out to be shaken. A sheaf of paper was thrust into it instead.
"We are looking for Nicholas Brocklehurst," Skinner said brusquely.
Mark wasn't sure if he should feel relief or fear at that announcement. His previous, and he'd thought unassailable, wishes of Nicholas' company were banished from his thoughts, replaced by a profound gratitude that Nicholas was far, far away - from the embassy, from Washington and from him.
He handed the subpoena back without bothering to look at it. "I'm afraid we can't help you," he said truthfully. For the first time in a long time his smile felt genuine.
"I suggest you read my warrant, Ambassador," Skinner's voice held an undercurrent of something that raised the hairs on the back of Mark's neck and there was an equally implacable challenge in his eyes, "it comes directly from both Saxon's office and the Emergency Council of the United States and supersedes any national prerogatives which may once have existed."
This was about more than one missing man. 'What the hell have you done Nicholas?' Mark thought, quickly followed by 'keep doing it'. He gave Skinner the courtesy of looking down and skimming over the writ. It was no more and no less than he has expected - and completely, thankfully, useless.
"So I see," Mark kept his tone bland because the alternative would be altogether unprofessional (and counterproductive). "You misunderstand me - we are unable to help you because Mr Brocklehurst is not here." He let that sink in for a moment. "He's been recalled."
"Yes. By Whitehall." So far as he'd been told. Somewhere Nicholas was laughing at him. Bastard. "You'll have to get in touch with them."
Skinner's eyes narrowed, clearly unimpressed with both Mark and his answers. He looked Mark up and down before dismissing him to look around. Mark knew what he saw: the cracked and unreplaced glass wall that separated his office from the mockery of organisation that existed beyond. Everything was disarray and make-do. Paper, used and reused, was stacked everywhere and pinned to walls. Lists of names, crumpled pictures, and scraps - a legacy slowly deteriorating.
"What," Skinner asked, "exactly, do you do here?"
They survived. "I'm afraid I don't quite understand you question."
Skinner gestured to the people watching them, to Phil, an encompassing action that just served to remind Mark of just how much he had to loose.
"All these people still refer to you as the Ambassador - but Ambassador of where?" Skinner said in a tone that suggested his reasonable nature was being severely tested. "I somehow don't think you still have the Royal seal of approval. And so the way I see it - you don't have diplomatic immunity any more."
Out of the corner of his eye he could see Phil shift uncomfortably. What would have happened if Nicholas had still been there? If he had been, like Skinner suspected, hidden somewhere in the the building. Would Phil have been willing to hand him over to protect everyone else? Would he? The idea left a foul taste in the back of his mouth but was that logic or his personal feelings talking? Or were they the same. Policy had always been never to deal with terrorists, dissidents or government sponsored, but Mark knew better than most how expediency could rule over principle - especially when principle would get innocent people killed and 'government sponsored' could become 'government' and a necessary diplomatic evil that had to talked to in the name of international stability. No - for better or worse he could not have handed Nicholas over. But he would have hated Nicholas for every death that his continued liberty cost. Better he was gone and the question was moot.
Mark thought guiltily of the order still waiting for him on his desk. The order that was not moot however much he might wish it and which told him the price that needed to be paid for their continued existence.
"Do I need it?" he asked. It was an admission in it's own way.
He could see the sneer of triumph in Skinner's eyes. The bubble of dislike that had nothing to do with his orders.
"We will have to search the building."
Mark didn't dare look towards the door and the people waiting beyond. They had heard - with the door open they couldn't have not - and the tension coming from the room was so palpable he found it hard to believe that Skinner's agents hadn't picked up on it. More likely they had and it just served to make them look more guilty. Which they were - but not for the reasons that Skinner believed.
"I'm afraid I can't allow that. I can give you my personal guarantee that Nicholas Brocklehurst is not here. I suggest you check with whoever your contact is in Whitehall. He left two weeks ago - I have the paperwork if you would like to see it?" It was too much to hope that he could actually prevent the search but maybe if he could buy enough time the word would get out somehow. He didn't think Skinner was a bad man - there was something else going on here and he wished he knew what because neither of them would like the result if Skinner's men carried out his threat as things were. They needed time and he needed information. "Phil - could you leave us for a moment. I'd like to talk to the Assistant Director in private." With a look that Mark didn't even try to decipher Phil went, shutting the door as he left. He turned his full attention back to the agent in front of him. "I get the impression you don't like me. I'm curious: have I done something to insult you personally or is this purely official disapproval."
Skinner's expression gave away little and his tone less. "I don't believe we've ever met."
"We haven't," Mark pressed. "Which doesn't answer my question."
He waited. This was the moment where Skinner would either walk out or talk. He hoped his judgement was still sound and the man was fair-minded enough to give him this. He didn't seem like the type of man that they normally sent on these types of missions - nothing so mean and vindictive. And he had come honestly, and openly, in the daytime rather than sneaking in during the night. That meant something although Mark wasn't sure what.
"I don't appreciate losing a good bust due to political pressure," Skinner said at last.
Mark could appreciate the sentiment but failed to see the relevance. "This conversation would go a lot quicker if I knew what you were taking about."
Skinner grimaced. "My agents arrested Alex Krycek..." he began.
"Which they had no right to do," Mark said flatly as they faced-off. This was what it was about! This was why his people were standing in the other room terrified? All because some of Skinner's agents hadn't done their homework. Mark was horrified to realise that he found it funny. Professionalism, habit and awareness of his responsibilities kept him from showing any of his amusement. It was hysteria, he told himself, the product of too much stress, too much loss and too many sleepless nights. All he could think of was that besides them, burning a hole in the desk, were the latest orders in all their madness and he were arguing about something that had happened a world ago. But Assistant Directors didn't get that way on a whim, at least they hadn't before and if Skinner had had agents when Alex had been in the Embassy then he was definitely one of the old guard. Which meant that this wasn't some baseless grudge or petty resentment and Mark had to acknowledge that Skinner probably had a good reason for it. A reason good enough that anyone who willingly associated with him was also suspect.
Which was probably fair. Mark would not have been surprised by anything that Skinner laid at Alex's door. When he had asked Nicholas how you stopped an assassin, Nicholas had told him 'the same way you catch thieves'. Two weeks later and Alex was standing besides him like shadow. And now, Mark thought of all the arguments, justifications and explanations he could make but everything came down to one fact. One that had such shaky foundations that it was more hope than logic: Nicholas had trusted Alex with Azzam. Mark had stared Warner down with less.
"You knew what type of man Krycek was," Skinner ground out. The pitch was different but the tone held echoes of Jane's incredulity that he had no problem with Nicholas' continued presence. Maybe that had been the beginning of the end of their relationship - when she had confided in him how Nicholas had threatened her and his response had been a sympathetic assurance that she had not been alone in that.
He could claim he hadn't known - Nicholas had kept any details from him that he deemed to politically sensitive for Mark to be allowed official knowledge. But it would be an insult to both Skinner's intelligence and his own. He had not known but he had suspected. He had seen. And he had been grateful. Nicholas had refused to explain himself but had given credit to Alex for not only Azzam's safety but for ensuring that Nicholas' injuries had not been more severe. As if being shot wasn't enough.
He was supposed to be persuading Skinner that they were trustworthy but that, he realised, would be impossible. Skinner was what he seemed, a good man in a difficult position trying to do the best job he could. But to him it was them who were irredeemably tainted by association which meant good man and bad job were, for once, in alignment. This was not something that he would be able to talk them out off so he gave the only answer he could, unsatisfactory as it was: "The type who was willing to put his life on the line to protect my son."
Skinner laughed bitterly. "Krycek never gave a shit about anyone's life but his own. Whatever he told you, he was here for his own reasons and if he left before you kicked him out then he probably got it. I hope you counted all your files."
He'd counted the people who might not have been alive without Alex's intervention. "I trust the person who ran the checks."
Skinner's expression hovered somewhere between disgust and pity, Mark thought pity might be just winning out. "That wouldn't be this Brocklehurst would it."
Damning Nicholas further. "It would." Mark refused to admit any doubt.
"And still you're covering for him?" Skinner spat. Mark might have guessed what type of man Alex Krycek was but Skinner had his own guesses when it came to Nicholas. Guesses that Mark could not deny were probably pretty accurate. Duplicitous bastard was the least of it. He just had to believe because otherwise he had nothing left.
"He's not here Agent Skinner," Mark let some of his weariness show. "He left weeks ago and we haven't had any contact with him since then."
Maybe, if nothing else, Skinner might be willing to believe that Nicholas had deserted them. Mark had the uncomfortable feeling that Nicholas would be proud of him.
"And you want me to believe that he has gone back to London?"
That would have been nice, although it seemed unlikely. Mark would settle for him accepting that Nicholas had gone. "All I can tell you is what I was told. He received his orders and left."
"And you didn't try to stop him?" Mark could hear the frustration in the question but that was good - that meant he was beginning to believe.
The amusement, bitter and burning, threatened to break through again. "Why would I?" So many years working together, half-wondering all coming down to a hasty, broken promise kiss and the apology of a quick uppercut to the chin.
"You're just another one of Saxon's lackies." The words was sneered with contempt.
Mark couldn't find the emotion within him to be angry. "Aren't we all," he agreed. He danced to the mad man's tune because Nicholas had asked. Because while he danced others could walk in the shadows and find the puppeteer. Nicholas had asked and he had to believe because otherwise he just danced and his feet were too tired for the marionette's quickstep. "Who pulls your strings, Assistance Director?"
"No one pulls my strings!" Skinner growled.
Defensive, Mark thought, too defensive.
"Would that we were all so lucky," he said gently. "But then the arrangement your Emergency Council came to appears to be serving your people well. One might easily forget that you had also been subjugated."
That barb struck deeper than Mark had intended. "How dare you suggest..."
"I'm not suggesting anything," he placated.
Skinner caught sight of the order on the desk, recognising the style and heading even upside-down. He grabbed it, looking at it just long enough to confirm what he suspected before brandishing at Mark as proof.
"Your strings, Ambassador? Is it handing people over to other humans that sticks in your craw or are you worried about what Brocklehurst might tell us about the British alliance with the Toclafane leading up to the invasion?" Mark felt any hope draining away as Skinner jerked his head towards the window. "When are you going to tell them? Or do you just hand over the names and then pretend it is nothing to do with you when they vanish in the middle of the night?" He threw the paper back onto the table. "The only thing I can't work out is whether you were used along with those poor bastards out there or whether you were part of it all along."
He'd nearly had him. Now he had nothing. "Neither, Assistance Director." Both.
"We'll see." Skinner opened the door, the two agents waiting their falling in behind him as it stepped forward. "Your boss, here, has orders to hand a dozen of you over to the Black-Eyes," he announced. "We can offer protection to anyone who has information about the whereabouts of Nicholas Brocklehurst."
Skinner's words carried across the room like a death sentence. For a long moment there was stillness. Then a pale hand went up. Anne-Marie, Mark thought her name was. She hadn't been one of his staff, wasn't even a British national - just one of the... what did Phil call them? The refugees. She didn't have any reason to be in the room except someone who did didn't want to leave her alone. The closest thing they had to a suicide watch. Even now, as Mark looked at her, her eyes were red and swollen, her mouth drooping at the edges with unlevened sorrow. She had no reason for loyalty - but at the same time Mark couldn't think what information she might have.
"Ambassador," she said timidly, ignoring Skinner totally. "About the Black-Eyes. I'd like to volunteer."
"No..." Mark began, horrified, but she stopped him.
"And I think Henry would as well," Anne-Marie continued, gaining confidence as words tumbled over each other in her hurry to get them out. Mark thought it was the most emotion he had heard out of the normally silent woman. She looked down for a moment, embarrassed. "He's been hoarding pills."
There was a murmur of shock - Mark wasn't sure if it was the hoarding, the implied intention or that Anne-Marie had known and, until that moment, kept quiet.
"I'd like to volunteer as well, Ambassador." That voice Mark knew - Beth. She'd worked in analytics and could pull meaning out of seemingly random figures and told the dirtiest jokes after a few glasses of wine at the office party. Stick-thin and worn, she seemed lost inside the remnants of the suit that she wrapped around her like armour. They had been practically, and occasionally literally, forcing her to eat, her appetite driven out of her by what she had seen and the loss of her husband and their two children, the youngest not yet two.
"Count me in." The voice was male and rough with pain, the speaker was lost amid the crowd and Mark didn't catch who the face to go with the voice.
Another: Etash. He'd been a relatively junior civil servant, just joined them on the diplomatic career track before both diplomacy and careers were rendered void. His evaluations had been promising enough that Mark had warned Nicholas off trying to poach him for Intelligence. Quiet. A large family he hadn't spoken about often and a partner at home that he hadn't been ready to introduce to his colleagues yet. The pot of money on those wagers probably hadn't survived either.
Other voices, some he recognised and some he didn't.
"I can't just let you..." Mark tried again. The idea of handing any of his people over was abhorrent. There would be a way around it. Mark didn't know what it was yet but he would find it somehow. He had before. "We'll find a way."
"Please," Anne-Marie said and there were tears in her voice. "We know how hard you have fought for us - we appreciate what you are trying to do. All of you. But we... I..."
"We," the male voice amended for her.
"We don't want to go on like this," she continued. "We can't. Maybe we aren't as strong as the rest of you, I don't know, and I'm sorry but you can keep watch on us and eventually we will find a way. Let us do this for you. Let our deaths have a purpose."
Mark stared at them at a loss for words.
"Let us do this," Beth agreed.
'I can't,' Mark wanted to say. 'If we give up one person, even one volunteer, that is too many'. But he was having trouble meeting some of the eyes in the crowd. Suicide wasn't uncommon, as much as he might have wished otherwise. They did what they could to keep everyone alive, to find them some hope to cling onto against the dark pull of depression - if they were successful it was due to sheer desperation on their parts. The need not to find another body, not to have to deal with another death. Was it as selfish of them to force people to keep living when every day was a torture to them as it was for those who just wanted to give up and finally escape the pain and misery and destruction?
Skinner cleared his throat, clearly as troubled as Mark as this display. The look he now gave Mark was hard, but not without contemplation, and Mark wondered how this fit with his supposed villainy.
"We'll be back when we have checked with London," he said gruffly.
They both knew he would be back but, Mark consoled himself, they'd be ready next time. They had enough warning now that the children-he-didn't-know-about could be hidden away where they wouldn't be found in the search which would inevitably follow. Skinner would probably still suspect that Nicholas was there, or had been, would keep believing that until they found conformation that he had been long gone by the time they had even started looking. Mark knew Nicholas well enough to believe that there would be a trail away from the Embassy for his pursuit to follow - at least for so far. Maybe following it would distract them from whatever there was still there to find.
Mark hoped Nicholas had got safely to wherever he was going.
That was a problem for the future. Mark even didn't bother to watch as Skinner collected his men and led them out - he had more important issues to deal with. Ones that might not have a future at all.
He ached all over. They had questioned him for hours. At times it had felt like they were cutting off his arm again and he had screamed, lost in the pain and his memories. But he hadn't told them anything. Coward, Mulder had called him so many times, coward and traitor. Not this time. This time he had spat in their faces, bloody globs of saliva he couldn't really spare, and answered their queries with profanity, impossibilities and inanities. Anything but the truth - which was, at least, something he had had a lot of practice at.
They had grown tired eventually, tired of his obstinacy and faltering coherency. They had hosed him down with freezing water, sluicing away the salt tears that stung the cuts on his face and the snot that clogged his breathing. He had wished he could dissolve into the flow, become lost amongst the blood, sweat and urine as it escaped with the other detritus down the drains. He felt so strung out that it did not seem so unlikely that all the pieces of him would not just wash away.
The callous treatment had revived him somewhat, but not enough that he could walk back to his cell. He took vindictive pleasure in the damp smears he left on the guards tasked with carrying him - drying his skin as much as he could on the absorbent cloth of their uniforms.
They left him, giving him a last few kicks in farewell, and he shivered on the cold floor where they had dumped him, shaking from reaction as much as the chill. He lay there - abused muscles spasming and his eyes pricking with tears as that twitches pulled at his stiffening bruises. Distracted by this new discomfort he didn't notice at first that the shadows were moving, thinking that it was the flickering light playing tricks on the eye that wasn't completely swollen shut.
Slowly he became aware that one dark pool did not sway blurrily like the many shades of gloom that surrounded it - it oozed forward; his nightmare slithering out of the darkest of his dreams. Inexorable and terrifying it continued towards him. Death he could face – death was an end. This was a beginning. His body would no longer be his. His mind would no longer be his. His knowledge… He found the strength to move in his panic, scrabbling backwards until he was trying to crawl through the wall.
It lapped over his feet, unconcerned and unaffected by his hysterical kicks, clinging slick against his skin as it flowed higher. It bound his hands when they tried to push it away but that didn't stop him trying as the obscene silky touch, a mockery of a lover's caress, rose to his genitals and began to creep up his chest. It blinded him when it reached his eyes, absorbing his tears as they fell unheeded. It crawled into his ears, deafening him to everything but his own panicked heartbeat, and filled his nose until there was nothing but the stink of kerosene. He kept his mouth shut for as long as he could, against the feel of it moving over his lips and the bile rising in his throat and making him gag. When he could no longer hold out it smothered him. So much worse than the water his inquisitors had held him down in; they had pulled him out to shout questions as he gasped for breath, this time they let him drown in the choking, viscous hold of living oil and the knowledge of his failure.
Alecto > im reeding wind in the willows and hav 2 rite a report on it. can any1 hlp me?
TAlgy > mite b abl 2 hlp. who far u got? wat u got 2 rite about?
Alecto > ratty
TAgly > wat u need 2 kno?
Alecto > anything!
TAlgy > not red that bit recently
Alecto > what was the last bit you red?
TAlgy > just b4 the weasils let bager out of toad hall
Alecto > ratty not invited 2 the party? :-(
TAlgy >not that i remember - bager and mole go back to the wild wood and see toad but thats it
Alecto > doesnt seem rite. u kno y weasils let bager go?
TAlgy > no srry
Alecto > :-(
TAlgy > mayb ratty and toady did it - ratty thort toad new a sekret tunnul in 2 toad hall. cant remember what happened. will reed more
Alecto > thnx
"You know, Byers," Frohike said, reading over his shoulder, "I never realised your talent for sounding like a thirteen year old girl."
Byers gave him the finger and turned back to the bulletin board, trying to work out how to say that the last report they had from Ratty was more concerned with Toady getting him into Toad Hall than getting Badger out.
"Will I live, Agent Scully?"
Scully almost didn't recognise her to start with, her hair mostly gone and the bruises and swelling distorting her features. Even her voice was changed, roughened by the smoke. But some people she didn't forget and the woman who had let Alex Krycek walk was one of them.
"I'm not with the FBI any more, Deputy Director," she said primly.
George laughed. "One of the lucky ones." The laugh turned into a harsh cough, rough and painful. Rather than argue the point Scully reached for the cup of tepid water that sat on the side table, putting the straw to George's lips so she could sip.
"Thank you," George whispered. Her eyes had watered from the pain; it felt wrong not to wipe away the tears but there was no sterile cloth with which she could. "I notice you didn't answer my question."
"I don't know," Scully said, "there was a lot of damage." And infections killed more than the initial injuries did - what had once been minor annoyances becoming life threatening.
George closed her eyes. She'd known, Scully thought. She'd heard rumours that some agents had been ordered to kill any wounded they came across, not due to callousness but to save them drawn-out, painful deaths. Making a quick decision she sat on the edge of the bed.
George's eyes opened as she felt the bed sag. "It must be bad," she joked. Scully could see the pain around her eyes and wished that there was something more she could do for her.
"The explosion at the server farm." George said simply.
Scully forced herself not to react. It had been so serious that, even with any sanctioned information suppressed, it had been the source of most of the gossip and speculation across the city since it happened. "I heard about that. They got the backups as well as the working files, didn't they?"
"Yes, they did." Scully thought she didn't sound upset. If she could ascribe any emotion to that soft whisper it would be triumph.
Scully looked over George's injuries again, reassessing them in the light of this new information. "You must have been very close to the explosion."
George met her gaze, "I was."
Helplessly, Scully reached out and touched George's hand - the skin was warm, heat memory of the fire licking under her skin.
"Why did you do it?" Scully asked quietly. For a moment she feared she had gone too far, there was no reason for George to trust her and even the most-innocent interpretation of her question could damn one, if not both, of them.
George's fingers curled around her own. "Because it had to be done," she said, her eyes drifting shut as grief stole away the strength that had kept them open. "We lost someone. There was a chance they could trace his contacts, get deeper into the network."
Scully stared at her. "You didn't have to tell me that," she said quietly.
"Yes, I did." George's voice was flat, almost peaceful. "You said yourself - with my injuries it could go either way. I need you to get the message back for me."
"Why me?" The words burst out of Scully's mouth before she could stop them. This was Mulder's speciality, the chance meeting leading to the hidden conspiracy. She had teased him occasionally, believed him often and always reminded him he needed to find proof. Then he had been proved tragically right and here was another conspiracy, one that she would cheerfully be part of, being offered to her out of the blue. It should be Mulder here, listening to these confidences and, in the madness of this new world order, becoming part of one of the conspiracies that he had so despised before. Maybe in this topsey-turvey world it was right that this too had been reversed.
She could feel the effort it took George to open her eyes and raise her head, her fingers digging into Scully's hand against the pain.
"Because Alex said I could trust you."
"Alex?" Scully frowned, trying to think of any Alexes they had in common. She could only come up with one but it didn't seem believable. "Alex Krycek?!" For a moment she pulled away, both hands going to her mouth as if she could push the words back into the realm of the unsaid. George flopped back against the bed, breath escaping in a pained sigh at even the negligible force of her landing.
The thought of Krycek vouching for her... A cold feeling twisted her guts - Krycek had been in a position to vouch for her. "Was he..?" She wasn't sure what she was asking: was he in the Resistance? Was he the person they had lost necessitating the attack on the server farm?
No wonder they had risked the attack - from what Mulder had said, that man would say, or do, anything to save his skin. She wanted to cling to that thought but she had seen some what happened to people who fell in the Consortium's hands. Even if Krycek had been the most trustworthy man on the planet (the world might have ended but it had not gone that far) he would not be able to hold out against the enhanced interrogation techniques that would be employed against him.
"He helped put us together," George whispered. "He shouldn't have been out there but he thought it was too important."
Scully couldn't quite believe her words as she said, "How bad is it?"
George's eyes rolled towards her and Scully was shocked to see they were wet with unshed tears. She had never thought she would see someone cry for Alex Krycek.
"It would have been worse if he hadn't been so insistent on secrecy. Anyone he had direct contact with has gone into hiding. Except me – but, one way or another, I will be declared dead tonight. If you help me."
"It wasn't coincidence you were brought here was it?" Scully said slowly.
Slowly, painfully, George smiled. "Alex didn't leave very much to chance," she said. The moment passed and she looked away. "Not that it was enough in the end."
In that moment Scully resolved never to give Skinner the details of their conversation. She looked around the room. Sitting there, amidst the sick and the dying, it was the easiest decision she had ever made. It was the work of moments to exchange George's name with that of another patient whose condition was past 'don't know' and into 'just a matter of time'.
"Thank you," George said when she returned to her bedside.
Scully perched on the side of the bed again. "It was the least I could do," she said honestly. "Tell me how to get the message through."
"He didn't catch up with you and your partner then?" George mumbled.
Alarmed Scully reached out and touched George's forehead with the back of her hand. It was hot and George pushed into the touch of cool skin against her own. Jaw set, Scully stripped of her jacket and folding the sleeve she dipped it in the cup of water.
"No," Scully said shortly. It was difficult to hold the bulk of material so she could dab the damp section to George's brow, but the slight relaxing of the furrow-lines made it worth it. "He didn't."
"So what was the deal there?" George's voice was beginning to slip, her words slurring slightly as her concentration wandered a few steps down the paths that her mind was beginning to dream up. "Him and your partner?"
Scully frowned, unsure what George meant. She sounded coherent but the words didn't seem to make much sense. "Mulder? He and Krycek hated each other."
"Is that what you call it?" George murmured, amusement making clear what she was insinuating.
"It wasn't like that," Scully said, shocked. The idea was just to horrifying to contemplate - after everything that Krycek had done to Mulder, had put him and his family through... Part of her wanted to explain that to George, to justify the hostility that Mulder rightly felt, and she felt on his behalf. But there was little she could say that George didn't already know, hadn't already dismissed as hearsay. And it seemed beyond cruel to argue the point here and now when George was actually morning Krycek's loss, and when she was racing time and the dark flush of fever she could see colouring George's cheeks.
"Shame," George sighed. "At least someone would have been having a good time. This is what you need to do..." She didn't give Scully a chance to respond as she laid out the contact procedure.
Her eyes were bright before she finished, her words falling over each other and her breath coming in wheezing rasps. Scully had to stop her when she started repeating herself for the third time, no longer entirely coherent but determined to make sure Scully understood. Assured that she did, George lapsed into a vague silence only broken by occasional relapses into explanation and finally by inconsequential non-sequiturs.
Scully continued to blot her forehead until the water ran out, hating the feeling of helplessness that gripped her and wishing she could do more. When there was nothing else, she held George's hand, offering whatever solace her presence could bring.
She left in the morning with a new sense of purpose and the resolution that the second thing she needed to do was have a long talk with Mulder about a certain letter.
"Nicholas..." Ianto spoke quietly.
Nicholas looked up at him, his face freezing as he took in Ianto's expression. It told him all he needed to know.
Ianto nodded, swallowing against the lump in his throat that was made up of all the words he was supposed to say but couldn't. There were no magic words that would make better another loss amongst the millions that Saxon owed.
"He was called in for questioning about the resistance."
"He didn't know anything." Nicholas' face was pinched but his voice was steady. "They didn't believe him?"
"No…" Ianto didn't know if it made it better or worse but Nicholas deserved to know. "He refused to co-operate."
"He... damn!" Nicholas said softly. "Damn! Damn! DAMN!" With the last emphatic hiss he brought his hand down sharply on the table. "Stupid, opinionated, moralistic..." His voice broke leaving only a whisper. "He should have given me up."
Ianto wrapped his arms around Nicholas's bowed form and said nothing - it was all there was to say.
The stone sung to her.
Harold had given her the stone because he wanted her to hear the drums. They sounded like a double heartbeat. She'd been so proud when she'd told him, but he'd just looked sad. She didn't like it when her Harold was sad.
The stone told her lies about why he was sad. They did that sometimes. She ignored them.
There was a visitor today. Harold wanted her looking her best. She had a position to up-hold now. She put on the red dress he had ordered for her. She didn't like it very much - it made her feel exposed and uncomfortable, but it was the one he had given her to say he was sorry the first time he had hit her in his frustration at the Doctor, so she wore it.
The maids did her hair and the stone whispered of plots and plans and hate and love. At least it didn't whisper about pity the way it had last time when the bruise was fresh. She'd had the maids punished for that. She didn't need their pity.
The man was standing there when she walked in. She supposed he was quite handsome in that sort of floppy, Hugh Grant way that appealed to some women.
"I'm looking for my sister," he was saying in one of those lazy American accents that sounded like all the vowels hadn't quite got out of bed. She'd never liked Americans. At least this one wasn't fat.
"And you think she is here?" Harold was amused, she could tell. He'd have that tone when they used to plot together, laugh at all the silly politicians running around after them. She wondered if the American didn't realise they were laughing at him or just didn't care.
"I was told that the Doctor knew where she was." He knew, the stones whispered, he knew and he didn't care. "That he'd taken her."
That got a reaction. "How old was your sister, Agent Mulder?" It really was so thrilling when Harold took charge like that - sweeping in and doing what needed to be done. That was what had impressed her about him when they first met.
"Samantha was eight," Mulder declared.
"Oh Doctor," and the words were like caress, "There's a bad name for the sort of person who abducts little girls."
He leapt nimbly up the stairs, taking them two at a time when the fancy caught him. Catching the bell he used to summon his pet. Why he kept him she didn't know. The stone didn't like him - it made her head hurt. Not a song but a screech in her mind like everything in the world had suddenly gone out of tune.
The Doctor emerged from his tent, wrinkly head bobbing on his scrawny neck in its ludicrous turkey fashion. Mulder stared at him, unashamed of his fascination and just as clearly a little disappointed with what he saw. Harold sauntered back down the step, arms wide to present his prize.
Mulder looked from the wizened creature to the charismatic man who ruled the world and back again. The Doctor just looked up at his jailer with rheumy, suspicious eyes and Harold grinned at him. Returning to the main level he slung a friendly hand over Mulder's shoulder and steered him forwards.
"I've been hearing bad things about you, Doctor," Harold said, a slight sing-song taunt brightening his voice. "Freaks were bad enough but children..." he tutted disapprovingly. "What have you got to say for yourself? Or has some bad person been lying to Mr. Mulder?"
The Doctor shook his head, a refusal rather than an answer. "There's only one thing I have to say to you," he said, ignoring Mulder entirely.
Lucy shivered. She'd heard that growl before. That was Harold's angry voice. The voice you obeyed quickly. The voice she'd never heard until the Doctor arrived and spoilt everything. It was the voice that led to pain and bruises and sorrys, although there had been less of the latter recently. The stone whispered that he wasn't sorry at all – that was how she knew it lied.
"You wouldn't want to disappoint the nice agent would you?" Harold purred, the cat playing with its prey, "After all he is an officer of the law."
The Doctor glared at him stubbornly.
"Or I could just kill him," Harold mused, "what to do, what to do? It's an answer for him either way, isn't it? What do you think, my dear?"
Around the room the soldiers shifted to attention, ready. Mulder stood stock still, her husband's arms tight around his shoulders so he couldn't pull away. He'd used to hold her like that. Tell her she was special. His faithful companion. She smiled at him. He loved her - she knew he did, no matter what the whispers said. She tried to decide which answer would please him most.
"I don't suppose I could re-phrase my question?" Mulder asked before she could speak and Harold laughed although she didn't think it was that funny.
"I like you," Harold said, "I really do. Really, Doctor, how can you resist that face? Tell the poor boy what happened to his sister?"
"Bang!" the stone whispered in her head. "The resistance will find the gun. Bang and then he's dead... poor Lucy... nothing left... nothing..."
"No," she shouted, not caring that everyone had turned to look at her. Stupid rock. It wasn't even a real rock – just a stupid bit of discarded rubbish. Alien litter – that was all it was. It didn't know anything. She wasn't nothing. She'd never been nothing, no matter what he said. He hadn't meant it. He loved her. She threw the not-rock away from her. Not caring that Harold would be angry or that the silly man had picked it up or that the hideous Doctor-freak was watching her with sad eyes.
Still hearing the whispering echoes in her mind she ran.
The four buildings squatted in the landscape, the wire enclosures spreading out around them in expanding ripples. Qianru signed that they would have to go around them and Martha nodded. Within the compound she could see people moving, too far away to see them as more than grey flecks against the dull ground. Martha wondered if she would meet some of them; she hoped so. The Resistance was getting better at finding her, or maybe she was getting better at finding them, and they always directed her towards people.
She consulted the phrase list she had been given. Between wear blurring the words, the handwriting which strongly (and accurately) suggested it had been written in a hurry in the dark and her pronunciation she was constantly amazed that anyone understood her.
"Zhè shì shén me?" she asked, gesturing towards the buildings for luck. [What is this?]
"Fusion power," Qianru said carefully.
They smiled encouragingly at each other. As far as Martha could tell Qianru had worked on her family's farm before the invasion. Officially she transported supplies, unofficially she transported whatever was needed. And that included one trainee doctor with a story to tell.
They started off again, skirting the perimeter of the compound without getting any closer. If she squinted at the sky, Martha could see glints of Toclafane around the plant. Qianru pointed away into the distance. There was nothing there - yet - but Martha had faith. Where there was industry there were people and where there were people there was an audience - and she had a story to tell them.
Mulder stalked down the corridor, guards on either side of him, asking himself again, just how stupid and naive could he be? Scully would give him that 'I told you so' look. She wouldn't mean to but he could read it in her face even when it wasn't there. The best he could offer her was that he wasn't dead. He knew that had been her biggest concern. Even then she would have come with him if he'd let her. He'd carefully not told her when he was leaving. He didn't doubt she was aware now that it was too late and was probably waiting impatiently for him to come back so she could give him a piece of her mind.
It amused him to make bets with himself over how long Scully would hold herself back before she started asking questions. He gave her thirty seconds for 'are you all right?'. Longer for 'what was Saxon like?' and longer still for 'did you see the Doctor?' Anything more she would wait for him to tell her if he chose. He would tell her eventually, let her comfort him as the words stuck in his throat: the Doctor had known nothing about his sister. It had all just been another one of Krycek's lies. So much for his proof of good faith.
A figure in a well cut, suit strode into his peripheral vision - the presence of a lone civilian walking freely among the ranks of soldiers catching his eye. He looked again, hardly believing what he was seeing. Then he was running. He hadn't thought about it, his body taking off while his brain was still processing his disbelief. The guards chased after him, yelling at him to stop but he had the advantage and reached his target before they reached him.
"You bastard!" he hissed, grabbing the well-tailored shoulder and pulling the man around. He was going to going to slam that double-crossing weasel against the wall and...
Krycek stared at him, eyes black and face impassive. Mulder recoiled.
It wasn't Krycek. Or it was, but not any more. He remembered the feel of the oil slithering into him in Tunguska: the desperate panic of it on his skin... under his skin. Fighting against the blackness it forced on his mind even as part of him wanted to dive headlong into that oblivion and away from what was happening to him.
The thing kept staring at him, unblinking and unemotional and he stared back, unable to do anything else. He couldn't shake of the feeling that it was looking through him. Mulder shivered, his fingers instinctively gripping the stone he had picked up like it was a lifeboat. The alien was hungry. Mulder didn't know how he knew that because it exhibited no change in expression but he was sure it wanted him. Wanted to get inside him, and crawl around his mind. It took a step towards him, pink lips parting and Mulder hurriedly backed away. He didn't get far before the guards caught up, clustering around him until Mulder wasn't sure if they were arresting him or protecting him. He didn't resist as they hustled him away but as he looked to find the not-Krycek watching him leave he couldn't help the humourless laughter that echoed around the corridor.
"Explain this to me again?" Nicholas said.
Owen, Tosh and Ianto looked at each other. It was Ianto that spoke, "Thomas Reginald Brockless, known as Tommy, born 1894, cryogenically frozen by Torchwood in 1918 - which makes him 24 or 114, depending on how you look at it."
"And this Tommy is frozen and you want to thaw him out?"
"It isn't really a question of want," Owen put in. "We have to defrost him every twelve months or so. Just for a day - then it's back to being a human ice cube."
If he had been anywhere else Nicholas would have suspected that the piss was well and truly being taken. "I assume there is a good reason."
"Other than Jack liking to have pretty... Ow!" Owen hopped sideways as Tosh kicked him. He scowled at her.
"He's supposed to do something," Ianto smoothly took over the narrative. "We don't know what but we know it is important."
Now that was more hopeful. "And you think that could be related to what is happening?" Nicholas pressed.
He knew he had guessed wrong from the rueful looks.
"Nice thought," Owen admitted, "but no. We just have to check he still works. Annual MOT as it were."
Nicholas thought about it. "Do you have everything you need? We can't afford to waste resources if there are living - and currently breathing - people who would benefit from them."
Owen shook his head, "Not unless we froze them first."
"I'll bear that option in mind." He looked from one face to the other. It was something he could give them that was normal. Normal for Torchwood at least. "Let's do it. When you are ready, Owen..."
"Already set up," Tosh said gleefully.
With Owen glaring at him defiantly, Nicholas just put out a hand to indicate they should go. Owen really was ready he noted when they reached the medical bay - Tommy laid out carefully on the table with a sheet modestly arranged over the lower portions of his body. Ianto's touch, he suspected. Tommy wasn't a bad looking young man or he would have been if he was alive. Dead wasn't a look Nicholas had any appreciation for, at least when it came to aesthetic appeal - there were a few people he could think of that it would suit well.
"Everyone ready?" Owen asked as they took their positions. He stood by the body, Tosh close by to assist. Nicholas had hung back to observe and Ianto stood next to him, ready to leap forwards and help or backwards into the main area of the Hub should he be needed there.
"Just out of interest," Nicholas whispered, "what happens if you can't wake him up and he hasn't done whatever it is?"
Ianto shrugged. "Put him back into storage with a note on his file saying they need advanced technology to revive him," he said in a matching low voice. "You never know what will fall through the rift - one day they'll find something and be able to wake him up again even if we can't."
"You seem sure we have a future." Nicholas noted.
"No." Ianto looked straight ahead, refusing to look across at him. "But we have to pretend. That's why we are doing this, isn't it?" he said rhetorically.
Nicholas gave him the expected response and they both stood and watched as Owen injected the required medication into the IV line. Nothing happened.
"Come on," Owen muttered. The heart monitor answered him with a steady buzz. "Right, paddles. Charging to 200. Clear."
Tosh stepped back, any response she might have made lost as Tommy's body jolted.
"Charging 360," Owen said when the brief blip of interest returned once more the monotonous line, "Clear!"
Nicholas wondered if he was supposed to step in and make them stop. How long would Owen keep going before it became clear it was futile and the only thing to do was pack the soldier back in his box in the hope of a future miracle?
The peak repeated, a second time and a third and Tommy lurched up, flailing around him in uncoordinated panic. Nicholas and Ianto rushed forward together, Nicholas blocking a wild punch for his pains, as they restrained Tommy before he could do them or himself any injuries.
"Tommy!" Toshiko said emphatically and he looked at her with something like recognition. "Tommy," she said again, "listen to me."
He blinked, confused, but Nicholas could feel the tension draining away and knew she had him. He nodded to the others to let go and give Tosh space as she spoke.
"It's me, Toshiko." She took his hand. "Do you remember?"
"Toshiko," Tommy echoed, his expression becoming softer and infinitely more heartbreaking. He looked at her, resigned and unhappy, but when he said, "it gets harder every year," it took Nicholas a moment to realise what Tommy was actually alluding to (Nicholas was sure that his mind was not normally that far in the gutter. Clearly working in Jack's office had an unhealthy effect). Nicholas backed away quietly - this was Torchwood business and he did not want to intrude more than necessary. Still, he watched as Owen put a hand on Tosh's arm for a moment, silently offering reassurance, and Ianto hovered at her side. Focusing on the man before her she took a deep breath.
"Tommy, we have bad news..." she said softly.
The room was sumptuous, by pre- or post- invasion standards. The plump leather chairs a reminder of a by-gone age when lives were made and broken in gentlemen's clubs to the accompaniment of a fine cognac brought by discreet and impeccable servants and the occasional hand of cards. The back rooms of government had been a considerable step down even if the players had remained much the same. This place, like a few others around the world, was a nexus; changing the world around it while remaining untouched by the ravages it wrought. The smell of old tobacco infused the air, comfortable and redolent.
The men and women (a few rare instances whose advancement had nothing to do with more enlightened thinking and everything to do with ruthlessness) sat around the room and spoke in the carefully polite tones of people whom power and privilege had forced together without regard for personal animosity.
An immaculately tailored doorman admitted a latecomer before returning to his position, gun ready should it be needed to preserve the sanctity of the room to which he was guard and porter.
"Now we are all here." The words held more than a tint of rebuke. "We can address the distressing rumours that I am sure you are all aware of."
"If this is about that Doctor," one of the younger men began. Younger put him in his forties.
"I don't believe I was addressing you, Mr. van Statten," the first speaker interrupted, "your opinions on the subject have been noted, however Mr. Saxon is not inclined to turn over either his prisoner or one of his 'children'…" The word was loaded with a heavy contempt. "…To satisfy your curiosity or complete your collection. We have much more important matters to consider. Mr. Spender, you have a report for us?"
The man addressed looked around the group, drawing on his cigarette one final time before stubbing it out.
"A number of our operatives have reported speculation about the existence of a weapon that is capable of killing someone of Mr. Saxon's physiology. For the most part this could be dismissed as wishful thinking on behalf of the masses, fed by some of the more unfortunate examples of what I believe is called 'popular culture'."
"You said for the most part?" the first speaker noted.
Spender lit another cigarette. "One of our contacts in the FBI was approached by someone claiming to be part of a resistance movement. They were trying to gain access to our organisation in search of this supposed-weapon."
The first speaker frowned. "That suggests a serious security breach."
"One that has already been taken care of," Spender dismissed. "Some of you might remember Mr. Krycek from when he worked for us. He was taken into our custody and while he proved unusually recalcitrant we now know everything he does... I'm sorry… did"
"The weapon is real?" van Statten demanded, drawing glares of disapproval from around the room.
"A gun," Spender confirmed with a little smile. "Created by a secret organisation in London to destroy the Doctor. I'm sure they would have appreciated the irony, were they still in existence. A few rag-tag survivors continued to operate and it was at their behest that Mr. Krycek made his attempt."
"Has he been turned over to Mr. Saxon?" the first speaker demanded.
"Alas, no," the saccharine falseness of the regret oozed through his tone. "It seems that in pursuit of the information, one of our allies inhabited Mr. Krycek." The geniality dropped away and Spender looked around the room with a sharp gaze. "Which leaves us with the question," he said, focused now on the first speaker, "of how best to utilise the information at our disposal?"
"Are you suggesting that we conceal it?"
"I am suggesting that we might not want to run to Mr. Saxon with every unconfirmed rumour." The logic was sweet with rot. "We have, at best, confirmation that there is a resistance - hardly news - and that one of their more untrustworthy members is after a gun he thinks will be effective." His eyes drifted again, lighting on whom they would with an apparent randomness that was wholly misleading. "Truth is what we make it, gentlemen."
There were a few thoughtful nods from around the room.
"We are bound to report terrorist activity," the first speaker growled over the faintest murmur of discussion. "It would not look good if it become known that we had access to this information and did not pass it on when it does become common knowledge."
No one questioned that it would become so. The whispers had started; it was all about the best way to manage the outcome.
Spender waited for a moment but no dissent was voiced. "If that is the will of the committee," he acknowledged with polite disdain.
"Although," the first speaker allowed, "perhaps a review of the artefacts within our control would be prudent? Mr. van Statten, see to it that only those of us in this room have knowledge of the final report. We wouldn't want any misunderstandings to get out."
"And if we happen to find the gun?" Spender asked silkily.
The first speaker permitted himself a small smile. It didn't reach his eyes. "Then perhaps a re-negotiation would be in order." There was silence while everyone considered the implications of that and made their own calculations. A few members caught each other's eyes, silently questioning and confirming alliances. "Are we all agreed?" the first speaker said when no objections were raised. He looked around the room, receiving a terse nod from each person. He left Spender until last. The motion was passed with unanimous disavowal. The first speaker pursed his lips and went on. "Is there any other business?"
Spender coughed discretely and all eyes turned back to him.
"You had something more to add?" the first speaker asked in a tone that strongly suggested that the answer should be in the negative.
Whatever answer Spender would have given was pre-empted by the sound of a thud from outside the door. The room went quiet but this time the silence was expectant rather than thoughtful.
Only Spender did not look around as the door opened, more concerned with persuading his Morley to draw. Satisfied that it would stay lit he looked up. The intruder regarded the room dispassionately, his eyes flowing from green to black. It nodded stiffly and stepped aside, clearly ceding the floor.
"Our allies have some concerns," Spender said drawing most of the rooms attention although a few eyes remained fixed on the still figure by the door, "which they wanted me to share. As you may know we arranged for Mr. Mulder to have an audience with Mr. Saxon and his prisoner in return for certain..." The lips twitched in what might have been a smile. "…Well, in return. Apparently during his time on board he came into possession of a fragment of the allies' ship…"
The hub was as dark as it got - a concession to the human need for a differentiation between day and night. They worked shifts more often than not, but they still kept something close to Cardiff time. Except for Jack's office - there the light was always on. Partly a symbolic gesture, but mostly because there was almost always someone working there. Sitting at the desk Nicholas read and re-read the reports spread out before him and acknowledged that it was time for a break. He rubbed his fingers over his eyes and mentally promising himself more than a few seconds shut-eye soon. Always soon. By most sane measures it was a little past late and getting later.
From the muted sounds outside the office he wasn't the only person still awake, so it wasn't until the door opened that he looked up. Of all the people he had expected to see at his door, Tommy was the last he would have guessed. He waited as Tommy hovered on the threshold like a guilty secret he hadn't quite found the nerve to reveal. His clothing was an odd mix of Ianto's and Owen's, not quite fitting but the best that they could manage. He had his hands in his pockets, trying for casual but... Nicholas blinked and forced his eyes up, reminded of the way Tosh's eyes had followed the slightly-too-tight fit of fabric across Tommy's arse earlier that day. Her interest had not gone unnoticed by her comrades but when she had caught their shared grins she had met them defiantly with a "Oh, like the rest of you weren't looking!"
"So, you're the boss now?" Tommy said at last.
Nicholas shook his head. This was Jack's office - he was just helping keep the chair warm for a while until Jack got back. "I'm just helping them co-ordinate everything."
Tommy thought about that. "And then you'll slip back into the shadows?" he said slightly sarcastically.
Nicholas chose to ignore the insinuations. "Yes," he said simply.
Tommy looked surprised at that. "Why?"
Nicholas shrugged. There were many possible answers to that but none he owed to a stranger. Tommy shifted uneasily.
"Tosh said you were a soldier."
"You were an officer?" The way Tommy said the word, Nicholas wondered if he was being asked to admit to fornicating with animals.
"Did she tell you that?"
"She didn't need to." That, Nicholas thought, could be interpreted in many ways. But the look Tommy was giving him had no malice in it - just an open innocence that almost hurt when he asked, "Why did you leave?"
So many reasons. He gave the one he thought Tommy was most likely to understand.
"Because by the time I got my orders something had already gone wrong."
Let him make of that what he would.
"I knew that something must have happened," Tommy confided, "when Jack wasn't there. He's always there, waiting... unless there is a war on."
Nicholas paused, confused. "I thought you were frozen in 1918."
"That's right…" The impossibility of it didn't seem to worry Tommy. Maybe he thought they froze and defrosted Jack as they did him. Two travellers taking shortcuts through time. Except Nicholas knew that wasn't the case. "Didn't meet him then, of course, because he was out at the front. Back the next year, and every year since. Three weeks later he's off again and they tell me the war to end all wars hadn't even done that. So when I woke up and no Jack... Didn't think it would be this bad though."
Every year since 1919, except for the Second World War. Nicholas had teased Jack about how little he had changed since they first met. Apparently it had been a lot longer than that.
"I don't think anyone did," he said automatically, still processing what Tommy had told him. "Some of the people we're working with... I never thought I would be working with some of those bastards - and I'm sure they said the same about me."
Whatever he was saying, Tommy seemed to be relaxing so it must have been right. How was Jack doing it? Alien technology? Or maybe he just looked human and was something else, something that looked like a man... and Nicholas could vouch for that, if nothing else; he'd given Jack a very thorough examination back in the days following his discharge (and there wasn't a smutty joke or innuendo about that which Jack had managed to resist). So, if not human, then something with a very, very close physiology. And responses.
"They tell me I am supposed to do something - save everyone," Tommy said too quickly, the words falling over each other in his effort to get them out. "Maybe this is it? The thing I'm supposed to help with."
That focused Nicholas' attention.
"I'm sorry, Tommy," he said softly, "But, whatever it is, this isn't it."
Tommy slumped slightly and Nicholas cursed himself for a fool. He handled people better than this.
"You're sure?" Tommy asked in a small voice. Twenty-four, Nicholas reminded himself, not a child. Although he sure as hell seemed like one. Nicholas was sure they weren't that young back in his day. Not that that would have stopped him, not back then and not now.
"So they tell me. Believe me," Nicholas said with brutal honesty, "if I thought I could use you then I would do."
They stared at each other.
"You really were an officer, weren't you?" Tommy said slowly.
Not what he was really asking, what he couldn't ask: would you have sent me out to die?
Nicholas didn't look away. "Yes," he said.
Tommy took a deep breath. It was interesting watching the play of emotions across his face as he assimilated that knowledge. He nodded slowly.
"The first thing I learnt in basic training," he said, "'don't volunteer for anything'." He stared at Nicholas, chin raised with defiant stubbornness. "But I want to help."
"You are," Nicholas assured him. It was the first time he had seen Tosh smile in months and a reminder for all of them what they were fighting for. And, if they had to put that reminder back in its box, then at least they all knew it was there for the future. Maybe he had found a way to use Tommy after all. "But this isn't your war."
There was a noise across the Hub and Nicholas thought he heard a faint, smothered 'Tom... oh' over the hum of the systems. He clearly wasn't the only one to catch the noise as Tommy stiffened.
"I better go..." he said uncomfortably and Nicholas hid his smile. The sound had definitely been in the more feminine vocal range and while there were many totally innocent reasons why Tosh might have been looking for Tommy, there were many more reasons that weren't innocent at all. There was little enough of joy or comfort to be had and he wished them the best.
"It is never a good idea to keep a lady waiting," Nicholas agreed innocuously.
Tommy blushed. "No. I..." he stammered.
Nicholas really hoped that he didn't think that they had been subtle.
"Go," he said with enough command that Tommy practically jumped to attention.
With a slight, comical grimace as his automatic reaction, Tommy went, face flaming but clearly experienced enough with army humour to know that there were times it was best to just shut up. Even so, he turned after a few paces.
"Thank you," he said seriously. "Think about my offer."
Nicholas could just see the small figure waiting for him on the other side of the Hub, a light in her hand. He got up to shut the door that Tommy in his haste and embarrassment had left open. He stopped for a moment, watching as Tommy hurried across the Hub, lost in the gloom only to be revealed again as a second shadow next to the one waiting. It was, Nicholas had to admit, a good view.
"Lucky Tosh," Ianto said quietly, echoing his thoughts. Nicholas didn't bother to be surprised that Ianto had been nearby.
"How much did you hear?" he asked, walking back to the desk and waiting for Ianto to follow him.
"Enough." As expected, Ianto stepped inside and, unlike Tommy, shut the door behind him. "Are you going to think about it?"
"I thought." He slouched down in the chair, his weariness returning, multiplied and abetted by a sudden feeling of loss he couldn't quite ignore. It was a noble offer, but there was little they could gain by it except another body and bodies they could get. "Let him sleep this one out." Ianto nodded, agreement or approval Nicholas wasn't sure. He argued with himself for a moment before giving in. "Ianto," he began carefully. He could see the wariness in Ianto's posture at his name. He had heard what Tommy had said about Jack then, and had known. At some point they would have to have words about withholding possibly pertinent information but not right then. "If whatever kept Jack alive since 1918," he said slowly, "is keeping him alive now... Then, if we get him back…" They might get his body but not the mind or the person that went with it... he couldn't do it; seeing the faint hope in Ianto's expression he couldn't bring himself to take it away when his fears might be needless. "Be patient with him," he said instead. "Living through something and surviving it can be two different things."
"Especially with Jack." Ianto's face was set and Nicholas knew he had heard what Nicholas hadn't said. The knowledge had probably haunted his sleep since Nicholas had confirmed he was being held. He wished he had known then - it would have been difficult for Ianto not to know Jack's fate but faced with this alternative it might have been easier. He wanted to promise that, if they got the chance, they would get Jack out - but it would be meaningless. They would never get such a chance and to suggest the possibility would be cruelty more then reassurance.
He let them both off the hook.
"Some day you are going to explain that," he said lightly.
Ianto relaxed. "Some day I will."
They both smiled. It might happen.
"Go and get some sleep," Nicholas said kindly.
"Yes, sir." It wasn't hard to imagine Ianto saying those words to Jack in that same tone, respectful and impertinent at the same time. Or Jack's reaction, which would hardly be conductive to sleep. If they had been different people in a different situation... Nicholas shook his head in amused disbelief as Ianto pointedly held the door open rather than going through it himself. Giving in to both internal and external prompting he put his papers away for the night. There were no decisions that couldn't wait until the morning.
They walked together down to the sleeping areas, the silence between them warm and companionable. Reaching Ianto's room first, Ianto lifted his head slightly in question. Sometimes comfort was just the sound of a friend's breathing to let you know you weren't alone with your nightmares. Nicholas followed Ianto inside.
Mulder dreamed of lips kissing their way down his spine. Of a rough, familiar voice saying "God, Mulder," as if the two words expressed a single thought. Hands stroked him, opened him, entered him and somehow it was right. In his dream he wondered how he could not have noticed when it was gone.
He dreamed of aliens and lies. Of climbing into the back of the truck and finding a man with no eyes or mouth locked in a metal box. Of a bright light lifting him away and another man-who-wasn't with a bright poniard trying to kill him. He remembered the recoil of the gun in his hands as he fired and the noise ringing loud in his ears and then the light blinded him, ripping through him. It held him immobile as he watched the two aliens fighting, their shapes flowing from one form to another until he no longer knew which was which. He saw one standing triumphant, sightless eyes looking at him, and the light said 'forget' and he was just looking at a flashlight, the beam shining in his eyes and the cage empty behind him.
He dreamed of another light, simpler and more playful. Of a ship that hovered over him, the bright rays playing against his body and singing into his mind. A ship that remembered the stars, not just an air force base in Southwest Idaho, although he didn't know how he knew that.
Of being held down and the prick of needles. Words drilled into his brain and cemented there with silver glue.
Of staggering towards a car and Scully waiting for him, worried and determined. Knowing he had lost something but not knowing what. Not knowing where he was or why he was there but glad Scully was there and was safe.
And then she wasn't. He dreamed of Scully being taken and racing to find her.
He dreamed of breaking into a medical facility. The scared man at his side blurring between the Alex he remembered and the Krycek of the future. Finding Scully where Alex said she would be, unconscious and chained to the machines around her by tubes and wires. Frantically trying to pull them out while Alex hissed at him to be careful and to hurry up. Carrying her out together, not sure whether she was alive or dead now the electronic ping of her heartbeat had been replaced by wailing sirens.
Running, always running, Scully a dead weight in his arms and Alex almost lost in the shadows besides him.
Alex saying to him, "They can't know it was you," with insistent belief until Mulder agreed to do it his way. Leaving Scully at the nearest hospital where she would be found while Alex tried to draw their pursuers away. They caught him eventually, grabbed him as he tried to go home. He didn't know where they took him but, by design or accident, he caught a glimpse of Alex, struggling against his own captors, before the bite of syringes sparked forgotten memories… and then they too were drained from his mind. They put him back in his life as skilfully as they had taken him. This time they left him Scully and that was enough to make sure he didn't remember Alex who had been dragged away - only Krycek who had betrayed him.
He dreamed of his life shifting around him. Small changes that might be tricks of memory hiding deeper secrets. Of hours, days, weeks changing and warping in his memories until the truth was something made up by the shadowy men as they went along. Scully standing by him throughout, fearful of his lapses and hating that she couldn't quite trust him but willing to stand by him anyway.
He dreamed of his father's face, angry and bitter even in death. The blood crept from him, moving with the same blind seeking that the oil creatures had had. It wasn't until it stopped, pooled and spent on the cold bathroom floor, that he truly believed it wouldn't keep going and devour the world.
Except the bathroom had never been carpeted.
Memory was coming back in stroboscopic flickers. The feeling of rage and hate, so fierce it seemed to consume him. His reasons were muddy, dark and murky and honed by long resentment, but he knew what he needed - he needed to kill the man in front of him. The man who had teased him with lies and beaten him down with unfair accusations and unreachable expectations. The man whose neck felt so right within his hands, whose head he wanted to beat until the expression of disapproval was nothing but a bloody smear.
The sound of a gunshot made him jump back, fingers spasming in reaction and shock. His gun was gone from his holster, gripped tightly in his father's hand. And then his father was falling away from him, falling... and he was still waiting for the pain to hit.
He crouched by the dead body, unsure what he was feeling or who he was. Fingers touched his face, his hair. Cool. Grounding him within the flesh that seemed only loosely his.
The voice that went with that presence, low and full of bleak humour. "By the time they're finished with you, you won't even remember I was here."
There was the press of lips, dry against his temple, and even with his new understanding he couldn't work out if it was benediction or a mocking reminder.
The regretful touch was gone, replaced by many uncaring, professional hands. He knew time had passed, that he had sat a lone vigil for the dead, but time only affected him in bursts, leaving him to swim in bright nothingness betwixt and between. The men who came told him their truths in expanding moments of clarity, filling in the holes in his mind, even the ones they had to make first. When he believed they sent him home - his father dead on the bathroom floor.
Alex had been wrong. They couldn't make him forget that he had been there.
He dreamed of the blood smearing Krycek's face. Of the feel of triumph and vindication as his punches sank into Krycek's body. The sense of loss as Krycek struggled away, desperate and confused.
The knowledge in Alex's eyes that he should walk away from Mulder - but that he wouldn't.
He dreamed of meeting Krycek, time and again, sometimes greeting him with kisses and sometimes with violence.
The name Torchwood burned in his mind.
He dreamed of pushing Krycek against the wall outside a small tourist office in Cardiff bay. Of Krycek turning the tables, his leather jacket partially shredded by Weevil claws meant for Mulder. Being pinned to the wall by Krycek's solid bulk and being assured that Krycek's strange, dangerous, lunatic friends would try and find Samantha for him. Krycek kissing him for the first time, for the hundredth time, and kissing Alex back as he had so many times and never before. And Mulder knew this was just another in the long list of first times and last times and stolen moments that had been taken from them.
He dreamed of impossibilities. Of a box he hadn't been allowed to see into and a man dressed in black who had come to hurt his sister. Of Krycek, taller to his child's eyes, standing in his parent's old kitchen on the Vineyard and telling them both that he had come to take Samantha to a safe place while news of the Nixon scandal broke in the background. This Krycek with his 70s leathers and empty gun waiting until Samantha was gone before looking at him with eyes that begged for trust, and said "Fox - we need to talk."
One by one the layers of his mind were peeled open.
Scully found him curled into a foetal ball and whimpering. In another life she would have called for medical help, but here there was none so she got him into bed, held his hand and hoped.
"Well?" Owen asked. They huddled in the lee of an old gasworks. He vaguely remembered being fascinated by them as a kid. Now they were just one more feature of the landscape and an ugly, rusty one at then. Still, they'd degraded better than some of the nuclear power stations had.
"I talked to her," Nicholas said. "She's been doing some interesting work."
If, heaven forefend, Ianto and Jack had ever found a way to breed, Owen suspected the resulting annoyance would be something like Nicholas bloody Brocklehurst. Jack apparently had a type.
"Interesting 'useful'," Owen pushed, "or interesting 'off her rocker'?"
"Interesting, interesting. She must have been a brilliant scientist." It was hard to see in the dark but Owen thought he detected a bit of respect there. If that was the case then she must have been good. "I can see why she was referred to us." Brocklehurst fell into a pensive silence.
Somewhere in the night a fox cried. Tosh had suggested the urban foxes were actually moving back to the countryside now that their main source of food was gone and it couldn't happen quick enough for his peace of mind. The things made a fucking awful noise.
"And the down side?" Owen said. The murdered-baby yowl came again and he shivered.
"Her son is missing, not confirmed dead, or at least no proof that she believes, but no contact either." Nicholas shifted in the dark and Owen tensed until he realised the other man was just getting more comfortable. "A rumour placed him in one of the work camps but when she followed it up, it turned out to be a false lead."
Owen sighed. There was always something. "So probably either obsessive or delusional." That seemed an unfair categorisation. "Or both. Can we trust her?"
"No," Nicholas said immediately. Not even a pause to think about it, which never boded well.
"So it was useless," Owen spat. They didn't do in-person interviews lightly - they were too dangerous. It made it all the more galling when they came to nothing.
"I said we couldn't trust her," Nicholas corrected, "not that we couldn't use her."
"What are you thinking?"
"That we know what her price is," Nicholas said as if it was obvious. "If we can get her son out or get conformation he's dead then we own her. In the meantime, give her something to be working on, something that it doesn't matter too much if we lose. And don't let her come into contact with anyone who isn't expendable."
Owen stared at him, or at least where the dark bulk that marked his presence. "You're an ice-cold bastard, aren't you?"
"That's what they paid me for."
"Burning," Mulder whispered, "all burning. All the willow trees and paper birds... but they can't get away no matter how fast they fly. Ash on the wind. All ash."
"Mulder?" Scully said gently. He didn't hear her. He never did.
He was crying again and she wiped the tears from his cheeks. When the episodes had first started, she had thought that his sorrow would break her heart. Now the tears were a welcome relief from the pain and rages and the fugues.
"A ghost walking the earth and a ghost in the machine," he mumbled, "they look and look but they don't see. Can't catch what you can't see. Not unless it wants to be caught." He laughed, a dry, rasping noise that was as much bark as anything else. Scully was used to it now but it had taken a few times before she had realised what the sound was. "Voices. So many voices. All talking and you can't make them stop. The ghosts talk and people listen. They have the words, they give the people their voice."
He looked up - reaching out he fingered her hair where it hung besides her face. For one brief, wonderful moment Scully thought he saw her. "Fire," he said, "the fire is coming and they'll all burn. Fire people dancing under the rising sun. And all for the sake of the implacable ghost."
Scully sat with him as he quietened, stoking the soft fuzz of his hair. They'd had to cut it down to nothing after he had started pulling it out in fistfuls in his anger and pain. Under her touch it felt like rabbit-pelt, and she had to work not to think of Mulder as a small, timid creature cowering against her. That wasn't the Mulder she knew. She cursed Krycek for sending him on the wild goose chase that had brought him to this state.
He settled finally, lapsing into what might have been sleep. Sighing, she sent a message to Skinner to relieve her. The Gunmen needed to know.
There was, Helen presumed, a person concealed beneath the vast heap of bags, packs and other miscellanies that were tottering towards her. She grabbed the most precariously balanced container, hefting it with the ease of long practice before shutting the door behind her visitor.
"That's a bit easier," Tosh said, "thanks. If you could grab the red case on my back as well - that has the medicines in it and Owen said something about some of it being fragile."
The case was easy enough to spot - the familiar warnings symbols would have told her the precious nature of the content even if Tosh hadn't. She took it, unclipping the webbing that held in it place, and Tosh let out a deep breath.
"Right," Helen said, "let's get this away and then have a cup of tea - you must be frozen."
Tosh smiled gratefully.
It was something of a surprise that Tosh had been sent, Helen thought as she led the way. The system of supplies that had been set up with the fishing boats seemed to be working for everyone and it was far less risky. She'd never met any of the people involved and she'd been assured they had no idea about her or the facility. Or so they had told her. Ianto was a nice enough boy but she'd met many nice boys in her line of work and most of them didn't have the sense God gave a gnat. As for the rest of his friends - the doctor had been helpful but they had been barely a step up from the unfortunates in her care. And, of all of them, Tosh had seemed the least happy there. It wasn't the patients - they hadn't seemed to bother her although they disturbed most people. It was the place itself had weighed on her. Claustrophobia possibly, they'd had a patient with it a few years ago who had been uncontrollable until they'd realised he was convinced that the walls were going to crush him. They'd forgiven Jack eventually - they always did.
The Tosh who walked along with her now was an altogether different person from the one who had left with Ianto only to stay on the mainland. She was still thin and tired (who wasn't these days?) but there was a strength about her that made Helen actually believe that they hadn't all been delusional.
Tosh didn't start conversations, Helen noticed as they put the supplies away, but once started she made up for it and the work went quicker for it. It was as if she had brought some of the positive energy she had found with her along with the anti-psychotics.
"It's a shame there isn't anything to drink in there," Helen said as they put the last of the supplies away, "we could have had a real girly night, the two of us."
Tosh looked a little shocked, but recovered quickly, a shy grin breaking out. "Well I do have my laptop with me. I might have a few movies..."
For the first time Helen thought about when it would all be over. When that happened she was going to take whoever had sent Tosh over with the supplies for a big drink.
"Good afternoon, Doctor Scully." The words were said pleasantly enough, if one ignored their source.
"Mr. Spender," Scully acknowledged. She waited, not entirely sure what the man was doing in her flat. Five minutes, she thought, he had five minutes and then she would insist he leave. If they had come to arrest her then she could at least try and get them out before they disturbed Mulder. It seemed a ridiculous thing to concentrate on in the face everything of Spender represented but just knowing that Skinner would see to it that Mulder was looked after - that thought gave her strength as she waited, knowing herself a mouse before a snake and hating the feeling. She didn't dare look towards the bedroom where Mulder lay. There seemed little chance that Spender wasn't aware of Mulder's condition but until she knew for certain she would protect him in whatever way she could.
Spender sucked meditatively on the cigarette in his mouth. Scully remembered reading that the tobacco industry was one of the few doing very well out of the current situation. She'd wondered then if they had a patron securing their success.
"I hear you are doing well. Doctor Pierce speaks highly of you," he said at last. "Highly enough she has been covering for you to the employment agency." His voice had the dry crackle of late autumn leaves caught by the frost.
"If you were going to take me in then you wouldn't be talking to me," Scully said. Confidence was something that you either had, or learnt to fake well, if you wanted to get on in the FBI so she knew that when said aloud the words didn't have the ring of doubt that they had had in her head.
"That wasn't intended as a threat, Doctor Scully, merely an expression of concern." And Scully would as soon believe a carnival mirror - at least that was honest about it's distortion. "Sadly," he continued, the false sympathy oozing from his words, "the current climate doesn't look favourably on long term carers."
"I don't know..." Scully started to object.
"Please don't insult both our intelligences," Spender cut her off. "How far has Mr. Mulder's condition deteriorated?"
Scully refused to react to the question - confirmation of her suspicions of Spender's involvement was the first step towards a possible treatment. While she knew others might disagree she had always found the known less frightening than flailing around in ignorance.
"What do you know about his condition?"
If she knew then she might be able to treat him. And if not at least she could prepare herself. Spender did not seem inclined to give her that relief.
"I suggest you answer the question, Doctor," he said, the soft suggestion hard in the air. "Unless you want me to have him removed to where we can monitor him ourselves. I was inclined to leave him with you."
The hint of hope. How many times had Mulder gone chasing off after that meagre promise? Privately, she had often thought him a fool, wished he would see the hope as false and not get drawn in. Now she understood how alluring the hope of hope could be.
"His periods of lucidity are reducing," Scully admitted slowly. "He seems to be slowly retreating into his own mind."
Spender nodded slowly as if she had just confirmed his expectations. Had he been spying on them? It wasn't such an unlikely scenario. Or did he just know the progression of the affliction and was only now fitting Mulder into the pattern.
"You will excuse me if my friends check on him - not that I distrust the accuracy of your diagnosis." Spender's voice was back to silken concern, sickly with poison.
"I don't think..." Scully began. It seemed to be her fate that day to be interrupted. Her eyes widened as two men entered in laboratory coats accompanied by four security guards.
Spender pointed towards the bedroom door. "I believe you will find the patient in there."
"No," Scully cried, leaping forwards to block their way. Two of the guards caught her arms, holding her back. "What are you doing?" she demanded, furious.
"Calm yourself, Doctor Scully," Spender soothed, "we're trying to save his life. And ours." He turned away from her, ignoring her demands for attention. "Take the samples and get them back to the lab," he instructed his men.
They let her go when it was too late and she rushed to Mulder's side, her anxiety a discordant mix of friend and Doctor. Her professionalism won as she saw the bedding pushed carelessly aside and Mulder lying even more carelessly amongst the disorder. She forced her personal feelings to the back seat as she checked for any damage done by Spender's men, putting everything to right as she went. She wanted to take them to task but didn't trust her voice in her anger. It boiled inside her, demanding retribution for the insult to her friend, demanding an apology for discrediting a profession that she shared and believed in. Luckily, they were gone when she looked up. All except Spender, who watched her with the indulgent air one would give a child.
"What did you do to him?" she demanded, furious to find that her eyes were wet and her voice cracked.
Spots of blood dappled the injection sites, the love-bites of human mosquitoes. She would wash his wounds, tend them with antiseptic to prevent infection and pray that it was enough.
"Just a few minor tests," Spender assured her. "It is a shame you didn't come to us earlier. We might have been able to save him but I fear it is too late."
The sheets too would need cleaning where the drops had smeared against the cloth. Other smaller patches, damp from unknown solutions or dirty smears from bags and cases thoughtlessly dumped for convenience rather than cleanliness mocked the care she had always taken.
"We will be back if we need anything more." Spender paused in the doorway, turning back to her as if a thought had just struck him. "And do take as long as you need to care for Mulder - It has all been arranged with the employment bureau."
"Go to Hell," she snarled, too hurt and angry to be diplomatic.
Spender smiled, amused, if anything, but her show of temper. "I think we might already be there," he said amicably. "I'll see myself out."
"Sorry," Ianto apologised, his voice clear over the new headset, "change of plan. We have a medical emergency and Owen is out in the workcamps so we can't contact him. Tosh, can you ask Helen if she would be willing to abandon her charges temporarily. It would just be for a few days and I can fill in for her while she's gone."
"What happened?" It had seemed like a good time to upgrade the equipment at Flat Holm when Nicholas had suggested it. They should have known: if it wasn't one type of disaster it would be another.
"Minor riot," the tension in Ianto's voice wasn't quite covered by the dry delivery. "Banning rugby was a definite mistake."
Tosh didn't ask. She'd find out soon enough when they got back. If they thought it couldn't wait until Owen made it back then it must be bad. Better to focus in the practical things, the rest they could deal with then they got there.
"How soon do you need us back?" she said, reaching for the timetable of tides and patrols that was now a permanent decoration in both Flat Holm and the Hub. And actually she'd be glad to get back. Helen was great but she missed her equipment and Flat Holm reminded her too much of the U.N.I.T. cell that Jack had released her from for her comfort.
There was a pause and a rustle that she interpreted as Ianto reaching for his own copy of the schedule. "Tonight if possible. Things got a bit serious."
Which could mean anything from broken bones to multiple fatalities and probably fell somewhere between the two. It would also give her a chance to check the message lists. It had been nagging at her that normally they swapped message halves in batches of fifteen but the last set Ianto had given her had only had fourteen in it. She could have miscounted, you could only decode so many messages before everything started to blur and that was why they split the messages in half, decoded them and then switched to check each other's work. But something about it had been bothering her and she couldn't quite put her finger on it.
"I'll ask Helen," she agreed.
"It's me," Scully told the microphone she knew must be there somewhere and rapped the required sequence of knocks on the hidden door. She waited. "Come on, guys," she muttered.
The smell in the abandoned building that housed, and hid, the entrance to the Gunmen's hideout had never been great and time wasn't improving it. At least there weren't rats. The Toclafane had too much fun chasing them for their population to take advantage of the now-derelict nature of vast swathes of the urban landscape. She heard the door click and let herself in quickly.
It was quiet. For the first time there wasn't someone to greet her and the inconsistency made her reach for the gun she had failed to give back when Skinner had failed to ask for it. She walked forward carefully, preparing herself for whatever she might find.
The three men were sitting in different corners of the room, not speaking. An almost visible, angry pall hung about them. Scully sighed and put her gun away. She had seen them fight before. It never lasted that long.
"I know why I'm having a bad day," she said with as much cheer as she could muster. "What's your excuse?"
They turned towards her. In the dim lighting it was hard to tell but she thought she could see the telltale signs of tears and immediately regretted her words. This was clearly more than a caustic disagreement between friends. She started to apologise but Byers beat her to it.
"Japan's gone," he said miserably. "Destroyed."
Langly tried to say something but couldn't, waving her away as he turned back his face crumpling.
"My God," Scully breathed. "It just doesn't seem..." She didn't have the words to continue. Staggering a few steps she found a chair and sat down before her knees gave out. Even after everything that had happened, it was too much, too big, to seem real. It was a scene from a disaster movie or a comic book. Not something that happened in the real world. She knew it was probably shock - that what it meant, the loss of life, would sink in later, but at that moment the sheer scale of it took it beyond her immediate comprehension. The loss of New York had shocked the nation's consciousness even amidst the decimation of the world. It had been the single biggest tragedy on American soil. Other than Geneva, the losses in Europe had been more infrastructure than population - Paris, Nuremberg, Strasbourg, Milan might be little more than holes in the ground but the human cost had been psychological rather than physical. An entire country was something else again. "Why wasn't it on the news this afternoon?" she asked desperately. She didn't think they were wrong. She knew they weren't wrong. But just for another moment she wanted to believe otherwise.
"Information blackout," Byers said. "The Executive doesn't want anyone to know. Here, anyway. It's different outside the Agreement - Saxon put it out as part of his morning bulletin. There are reports of riots when the news hit."
"It got nasty," Frohike agreed. Scully could imagine. How would she react with that information boasted from the skies? How would the people in the street react? Shock - definitely. And then fear... and anger. She sometimes wondered if they had forgotten how to be angry - too worn down in their misery and the difficulties of survival.
"And from the chatter getting through the filters," Byers said into the silence, "it sounds like he's blaming the Resistance - trying to turn the people against them."
Still 'them' rather than 'us' even with her. She wondered slightly jealously whether Mulder would have got an 'us' - would have been accepted as part of the club. She dismissed the thought. She could ask for an 'us' in the same way Mulder would have done but it was safer to always think of 'them' just like the gunmen spoke of 'them'. It was so hard to even trust your own thoughts. And harder not to double-guess what had happened. What sort of person valued themselves over an entire country that they would let it be destroyed rather than turning themselves in? How could people, how could anyone, not wonder that?
"Is it working?" she asked.
"Partially," Byers admitted. "Everyone is used to the reprisals but the stakes are higher. Some people are saying that sacrificing one person would have been worth it." His tone of voice suggested he wasn't sure himself what he believed.
"Or that he would have destroyed Japan anyway because Martha was there," Frohike pointed out.
Byers nodded, conceding the point. "They say she got out on the last boat," he said to Scully. She got the impression that this was something that had been discussed before between them.
A feeling that was confirmed when Langly spoke up. "But then they also think she rowed across the Atlantic which is clearly unlikely."
"You just don't like to admit..." Byers began.
Scully tuned their argument out. It was their way of dealing. She could respect that but it wasn't hers. Standing up she made her way to Frohike who had fallen silent. She felt like she was made of spun glass, ready to shatter at any moment. She refused to shatter.
"Is it true?" She said quietly. "That Martha was in Japan?"
"No idea," he shrugged. "Her exact whereabouts are on a need-to-know basis. All we know is Asia."
'We' this time. In their ignorance, if nothing else, they were a 'we'.
"So she could have been there?"
"...and I'm telling you it just doesn't make sense - given the time frame in question, no one could row across the Atlantic..." Langly's objection broke into their conversation and by mutual consent they moved away.
"I hope not," Frohike muttered. It was a sentiment Scully could only agree with. "Tea?" he offered with a tentative smile.
"What the hell just happened?" Owen asked rhetorically as Tosh raced past him.
The door to what had been Jack's office still bounced against its frame where she'd slammed through it. On the other side of the great glass panels that made up the walls of the office he could see Nicholas sitting composedly at his desk, just like any other day. Just like every other day.
He wavered for a moment between chasing after Tosh to see if she was all right and storming into the office to demand what was going on. He chose the latter. Once he'd got the truth out of Nicholas he'd have a better idea how to comfort Tosh. If it were just a, perfectly understandable, reaction to the world being taken over by an insane psychopath then it would be better to leave her until she pulled herself together. He'd certainly broken down a time or two, not that he would admit that to any of the buggers here. It just hit you sometimes, like the world had taken a sudden jink to the side and you weren't in it any more. Detached - or not detached. Detached was easier, because all the other times that shift brought the world crashing down on your head and all you could think of was how wrong everything was, and you were and how little you could do to change it. He preferred anger.
Nicholas looked up as he walked in. He didn't bother to knock. He'd rarely knocked for Jack so why bother just because a Bond wannabe had taken over the office? Even if he was a lot less of a twat than he'd first appeared.
"Owen," Nicholas greeted him.
He flopped down into the chair waiting by the desk. A box of tissues sat within easy reach, the topmost ones snatched at so haphazardly that a bunch of them stuck out. That was a bad sign. It also spoke of premeditation.
"Are you going to make me ask?" Owen said.
Nicholas frowned at him slightly, as if he was trying to puzzle out the trick in Owen's question.
"Tosh," Owen elaborated.
The frown deepened. "You didn't hear the announcement this morning?"
"What - the daily drivel?" Apparently he'd missed something important. Well, staying abreast of current affairs wasn't his job. They told him what he needed to know when he was meeting with the seedy underbelly and the rest of the time... "I spent most of the last week either up to my elbows in other people or passed out. So what did the bastard say?"
Nicholas passed a hand over his eyes, bringing thumb and middle finger together to pinch the bridge of his nose. It was bad, whatever it was.
"The Master targeted Japan," Nicholas said without inflection.
Owen stared at him, waiting for the punch line. It didn't come. "Fuck," he breathed. "Does she have family there?"
He should know that, he thought a bit guiltily. But then they never really talked about family - except Gwen who talked about everything and look how well that worked out for her.
"Her mother's side of the family," Nicholas confirmed. Spooky-boy would know - probably had files on all of them tucked away somewhere. "She hadn't been able to trace whether any survived the invasion."
That made sense. He vaguely remembered her asking if there was anyone he had wanted found. He couldn't remember if he'd laughed or told her to fuck off - both responses bubbled to the surface. He'd probably laughed and then told her to fuck off. This was clearly the point where he was supposed to be curious about whom else she'd been searching for - whether Ianto or Nicholas had little, white-haired grandmothers fearfully hoping for rescue. Would that bring them closer together? Bond over how many dearly departed relatives were out there that he couldn't save. Screw that.
"He was after Martha?" he said instead. Because that was their one hope right there and it would probably fail and they'd all die horribly but at least then he'd get a break. It couldn't be over yet though or Nicholas wouldn't be so goddamn calm.
"We don't know," Nicholas said, "but our last confirmed sighting didn't put her anywhere nearby."
At least she was out there doing something rather than stuck in a never-ending M*A*S*H rerun.
"Then why?" As if the insane bastard needed a reason.
Nicholas looked out across the Hub in the direction the Tosh had left and Owen followed his gaze, not understanding. It hit him like a bucket of ice water, the chill passing right through his flesh to his bones.
"Christ!" He was leaning forwards before he realised he had moved, gripping onto the hard wood of the desk as if he could find purchase on the smooth surface and stop himself being washed away in the madness. "Are you sure?"
Nicholas looked at him with an infuriating calm. "He offered a trade," Nicholas said. How the hell had he missed that? He thought back but the long days of authorised work and the long nights of unofficial just blended into a blur of blood and exhaustion. He'd slept though most of the morning sermons, an uneasy sleep but sleep nevertheless and he'd had to take it whenever he could. Even now he could feel the pull of tiredness making him stupid and clumsy; the weight of the news pressing down on him and threatening to send him running off into the dark after Tosh. He refused to let it, forcing himself to listen to what Nicholas was saying instead. "...twenty-four hours for 'Alecto' to give herself up. "
Owen slumped back. "How did he know..?" he asked weakly. He couldn't cope with this.
"We don't know for definite he did." How could Nicholas sound so bloody placid? Like nothing touched him? Owen couldn't decide if he was envious or freaked out. Even Jack, who could be a right bastard when it came to it, showed more feeling. "He could have just picked Japan at random," Nicholas pointed out, "or he may suspect," which seemed more likely. "My best guess is that their part in Saxon's production was finished so they were expendable... or we may have a leak." Which was downright terrifying.
Although, the part of him that could still think when he was up to his shoulder in intestines and a patrol had been spotted pointed out, if we were compromised why bother with Japan rather than just vaporising Cardiff?
The horror of it struck him again. They couldn't give her up. What would the do without her? Ianto did the decryption with her but she was the one who built the network, who hacked her way into and out of the Archangel system and opened up the guerrilla war on that unexpected front. The ghost in the dark net. The spider running across the fragile web that held the resistance members together, repairing and reacting to keep the whole intact.
"What's she going to do?" he said.
They would have to retcon her as they had Alex. Take her even further back so she had no knowledge of the Hub or the computer.
It had become almost standard practice. He carried enough to wipe his mind and he was pretty sure Nicholas and Ianto did as well whenever they went out.
"Do? The deadline was this morning."
Targeted Japan, not was targeting. It was over. Japan was...
"Wait…" There was something teasing at him, drawing him away from the horror he didn't want to contemplate to something closer and easier to focus on. "So you are saying the Tosh didn't know about this?"
And there was the anger that he had been missing. It burnt away the miasma of fatigue that had been clouding his mind and replaced it, if not with hope then sheer bloody-minded defiance. Saxon and all his evil was too far away, too big, it was like getting angry at the world (not that he hadn't done that as well) but Nicholas was right there.
"She was at Flat Holm," Nicholas confirmed. "She didn't hear the ultimatum."
The only good thing about that stinking place was that it was far enough underground and so cut off that even the daily announcements didn't get through.
"And you didn't tell her?" He didn't bother to keep the accusation out of his voice. A nasty suspicion was beginning to form and it wasn't one he liked at all. Adrenalin pumped through his body, reminding him he was still alive. In the old days he'd have gone out to find a fight or a fuck when he felt like this. Well, his cock hadn't been good for anything but pissing with for a few months now, much to his disgust, and there wasn't much available that wasn't trade goods, which left him one option.
Nicholas looked at him with his shuttered look that gave away nothing. "I didn't," he agreed.
"How awfully, bloody convenient for you." The sarcasm dripped from the words and Owen let it, enjoying the acid bite of the syllables on his tongue.
"Not really. It's why I sent her there." The unemotional response took his breath away.
"You..." He couldn't find the words to throw at him. The logic of it spun out before him, precise and cold. Ianto must have known, wherever that chickenshit was hiding. Seen something in one of the dispatches and taken it to Nicholas who'd ruthlessly cut Tosh out of the loop. Ianto wouldn't have the balls for something like that but he'd follow Nicholas' lead just as he had followed Krycek - desperate to puppy after someone without Jack holding his leash.
And he'd been so fucking easy to get around. They hadn't even bothered to think up a scheme to cut him out - they hadn't needed to; he'd been so out of it already. Him and Tosh. Shit. He understood now and he had to find her.
"Owen…" The soft voice stopped him before he made it to the door. The air was thick around him, trying to smother him and he had to get out before he screamed. Before he punched something.
"What?" he demanded, too angry to care particularly what Nicholas had to say for himself. A little part of him, the doctor part of him that had to make choices about who and how much of them he could save, knew that later (much, much later) he would probably understand what Nicholas had done and why. Might even agree. That made it worse because he would have to go and find Tosh knowing that everything he said to her would be tainted with that lie.
"Make sure she's okay." For a moment he saw a crack in the armour, and what the decision had cost, and then it was gone.
He nodded quickly. There were only a few places Tosh would go. He couldn't make it better but he would do what he could - that was all he could ever do.
She had never realised how beautiful the desert could look. Sand was sand after all and you didn't go to the seaside to look at the beach. The sunsets were a bit of a disappointment, but you couldn't have everything and when all the colours of oncoming night were reflected in the dunes around her it didn't seem to matter. In her less optimistic moments, she thought this desert was where the world's bruises were hidden, blushing pink in embarrassment at the shame - tender reds fading to streaks of greens and purples.
The rocks rose in twisted, pitted shapes, carved by a hand greater than any human and topped by sand so white it looked like snow. In all her travels with the Doctor she had seen amazing, beautiful, terrible worlds; things that she would never have believed possible and would never forget. She had never thought that some of those things would be on her own planet.
"You will have to decide soon," Ahmed said as he walked over.
She looked across as he sat down next to her. "I know," she said. "I've been putting it off too long."
He handed her a glass of tea and she sipped it carefully, avoiding the leaves with the proficiency of practice.
"You'll miss us," Ahmed teased. "We treat you the best."
"I'll miss you," Martha agreed. "Although I'm not so sure about the camel."
"I enjoyed your stories." For a moment Ahmed looked as young as his year rather than his experience made him. "You love this Doctor."
"Yes." It had become easy to say after months of repetition. 'His name is the Doctor. I love him.' How many times had she said those words or some combination of them? "But he'll never love me - not any more than he loves everyone." That she'd never said aloud before. She wasn't sure what had prompted her to say it then. Maybe it was just time. She had started walking for the Doctor, continued for the world but she would finish for herself.
Ahmed shook his head solemnly. "This doctor of yours is a fool. You should leave him and come live here with me."
Martha laughed, her spirits lifting. Ahmed grinned at her, pleased with her reaction and undisturbed by the implied rejection. She didn't think she had met such a bunch of unrepentant flirts in her life but oddly had not felt pressured to respond to their overtures. It made her think of Jack and half the time she didn't know whether to smile or cry at the memory - on this occasion it was definitely the former.
"See," Ahmed said, "who will make you laugh if you go?"
"I don't know," she told him honestly. "I really don't know."
All she knew was that she had to keep moving - keep telling her story so that when the time came the world would be ready. And now she had to decide: continue north and pass through Turkey and on to Europe, or at least what remained between the radioactive pits? Or turn back south and make her way through Africa to Morocco and then across the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain. She knew the Resistance had contacts in Europe, she would get all the guides and assistance that she needed if she went that way. Africa was more of an unknown proposition.
Even as she thought about it she knew the choice had already been made. "South," she said with confidence. "I'm going to Africa."
"Nicholas," Owen yelled as he burst into the hub. "Gwen just sent word - they've got Helen. Some guy she used to help recognised her and the bastard turned her in!"
"Shit! They'll be holding her at the station until the military boys come and pick her up. Was she carrying?"
"Does it matter?"
"It might make a difference to what state she's in when we try and get her out."
It was the type of storm that raised the dead - the rain beating the ground in an unremitting tantrum while ghosts screamed in the wind, demanding back the bodies that had been taken from them and grasping with strong, invisible fingers anything that they might use in lieu. The storms had been worse since the invasion. They said that Saxon had frozen the Nile and turned the Sahara to glass. Baleka didn't know if that was true but whatever he had done it had sure messed up the weather systems and that interested her.
She watched the rubbish and debris whip through the streets and got ready to run. At the first hint of a lull Baleka darted from cover. The rain soaked her instantly but she ignored it, focusing on the broken doors that offered shelter. She could remember the first time she had walked through those door - so proud of her scholarship and petrified that being the top of her class in her village meant nothing in the city. They said that the old university was haunted. She had her own theories about that. She'd certainly never seen any ghosts - just a few other lost souls like herself who had risked the storm and the guards and the Toclafane. She reached the porch, nearly jumping back into the rain as the empty metal frames of the doors snapped at her. She caught one, realising too late that there were still fragments of glass on the inside edge. She got inside, skidding right into what had once been the social area and hunkering down against the wall. She breathed deeply knowing the worst was over for the moment. Slowly she dared to look at her hand, letting her head fall back against the wall in relief when she realised that the door had been made with safety glass and the shards had been uncomfortable but not sharp enough to cut.
She levered herself up quickly. She had studied the storms, knew how long they lasted, she had time - but not a lot. She could have made the trip to the labs in her sleep. There were occasions during her doctorate when she could have sworn she had done just that, juggling job and research through shear determination. She had refused to give up before, she wasn't going to let something as minor as an alien invasion stop her now. Not when her research had suddenly landed on her doorstep.
She slapped the light-switch. She'd discovered early on that the buildings still had electricity. Apparently the ghosts in the basement liked their little comforts. Her equipment was where she left it. If there was one thing she had learned it was to make something out of nothing. The scopes came on with a flicker and a pfft of static. She could feel the charge in the air building up against her skin. The light display would start soon. The computer whined when she turned it on, the smell of burnt dust rising from it in acrid complaint. At least the mice hadn't been at the cables this time. With a few command she started the sensor and camera feed. The lens was slightly cracked and even if she had managed to find a replacement she wouldn't have been able to get up on the roof to replace it. If she couldn't watch the storm directly (and, despite what her brother said, she wasn't actually suicidal) then this was the next best thing.
A flash of silver caught her eye. For a moment she thought it must be piece of detritus catching the light but to her practised eye it seemed to be moving against the wind. She stepped back, her hands coming to her mouth in a gasp as she realised what it was. She had never seen one of the Toclafane out in one of the storms, not since the first one. It was buffeted by the storms and Baleka found herself laughing as she watched it. Even the great Toclafane couldn't beat the storm - not when she raged like this. This was the Earth fighting back against the indignities she had suffered.
The sky flickered, bright and angry, and the lightning cracked down. The storm was almost on top of them, the bang of thunder following before the image on her screen had cleared. The sky had taken on an angry red tint and across it the lightning arced like a living thing, wild and free. She wished that everyone could see this - the alien trying to flee from the elements with no more success than the people had tried to get away from them.
And then it fell. Baleka was sure of it - one moment the sliver blob had been fighting the currents and between one flash and the next it was outlined with a violet-blue halo and dropping like a stone. It did not plummet for long, the storm claiming its prey and whisking it away as a new plaything. She had never seen anything like it. She didn't think anyone had. She scrabbled for the keyboard - praying that the stream had recorded. It had. She had it all: the readings, the film... everything. Maybe everyone could see this.
Maybe it was time to confirm her suspicions about what was going on in the basement.
"Ianto!" Tosh's voice over the radio was tight with fear. "They know where you are! Get out of there! They're coming."
For a split second he felt relief. Damocles' sword had fallen and the waiting was over.
"How close, Tosh?" he asked calmly. He'd known that Torchwood would be the death of him ever since Jack had held his gun to his head. That Jack's eventual forgiveness meant it wouldn't be Jack's bullet that killed him didn't really change anything; it had still been a reprieve not a stay of execution. The question was just how dearly his life would be sold. Ianto Jones was many things but cheap was not one of them.
"Close," she admitted. "I'm pulling up the schematics - there has to be a way to get you out of there!"
They both knew there wasn't but neither of them was going to say so.
"Keep looking, Tosh," Ianto encouraged, "I need to check something."
The silencer was where he remembered, tucked in a drawer in the room that Alex had claimed as his. It took him a few tries before he could screw it on because his hand was shaking. He returned to the communications room and put the gun on the table as he turned back to his workstation.
"Tosh," he said quickly, "I'm sending you some files. Priority order. Are you ready?"
He could hear the suppressed emotion in her voice, threatening to break her businesslike tone. "Ready."
He pressed the button that would start the transmission - the first thing on his mental to-do list.
"Tosh…" Maudlin, melodramatic declarations bubbled at the back of his throat. "Don't let Owen get away with anything."
He could hear her breath catch in a sob and switched the audio off before he could hear her reply.
The gun felt heavier than it ever had, cold and frighteningly real in his hand as he walked quickly to the patient rooms. A few of them had come back with basic telepathic abilities. They had been some of the hardest to deal with, crying softly but constantly from the moment that the rift had opened. That morning they stopped, calm and almost smiling. He had thought it strange but been too thankful for the reprieve to care. When they had discussed this eventuality, trying desperately to find some way that they could fight, he had assumed that they would be the most difficult as there would be no chance of subterfuge, but they crawled straight to him, silently putting their foreheads to the barrel of his gun and shutting their eyes when his finger trembled on the trigger. The first even reached out to help him. His heart broke as they both squeezed the trigger.
Ianto couldn't bring himself to remember the fun, innuendo-filled sessions of weapons training with Jack because this wasn't fun or exciting or stimulating or any of the other things that Jack had made their lessons. This was dark and bloody and unpalatable. He knew that Jack could be all those things, could be the monster that Ianto had once accused him of being, but he also knew that Jack had never wanted him to follow him down that path.
Instead he imagined Alex standing beside him, talking him through what he needed to do. Alex, who had drilled him down in the makeshift range that he had set up in the bowels of Flat Holm before they had made the move back to the Hub and the facilities there. Alex, who had promised to teach him to kill. Alex, who was probably dead.
"I'm sorry," he whispered to each one, "I am so, so sorry."
After the first he threw up. By the third his hands had stopped shaking on the gun. By the ninth his eyes were dry. Alice kissed him with invisible lips and the sound of the shot was lost in the crash of the front door falling.
He could hear them then, calling to each other, and he hurried deeper into the complex. The distorted children's voices echoed down the corridors behind him - high-pitched, angry whining as they discovered again and again that their anticipated play had been prevented. There was no one to scream in terror, no victory to be won or satisfaction to be had. Just empty husks watching their unopposed advance.
They found him at last, as far back and as far down as he could go, hoping to lure as many to him as he could. They floated towards him, humming, spinning balls of death; guns and their blades poised to punish him for their disappointment. Their disappointment... He had tried to keep Torchwood together for Jack, only now there was no Torchwood, no planet and no Ianto for Jack to come back to even if he wanted to...
He fired until he ran out of bullets, the rounds making little impact. They waited until he had nothing more to throw at them than his despair and that they accepted gladly.
They came closer, blades purring in delight as they cut the air, and called to him with their helium voices, making him promises of pain and death.
Remembering the words of encouragement Alex had brought back with him from the Doctor, Ianto laughed.
"Don't worry," he told the Toclafane as they came towards him. Setting off the explosives he brought the world down around all of them.
"Switching to omega protocols," Langly announced tightly. "Dark for twenty-four."
The atmosphere in the room turned immediately sombre.
"I'll go," Frohike said. "You handle the electronic relay."
"You'll never make it to Mulder's," Byers objected even as Langly said "On it."
"Scully will be at the clinic," Frohike carefully tucked two of the home-made tasers in his coat pockets. "Skinner's Mulder-sitting - she can get him to switch the signal off."
They did not question his knowledge of Scully's schedule, nor did they joke as they would have done at any other time. Byers nodded and with a nod in return Frohike left by the door that not even Scully knew about. The first times they had done this there have been handshakes and painfully forced joshing. Byers wasn't sure if it was repetition that had worn them down or if they were becoming numb to the death and fear - the shadow of what had happened to Japan blotting out other, smaller, horrors.
He slid in besides Langly just as the other man was completing the final line of code that would send the warnings out to their contacts. Some hidden, existing for mere moments in the darkness of cyberspace, and others visible but their meaning obscured to any but those who knew: 'the network is potentially compromised'.
Afterwards they reformed, slowly and carefully; a new pattern emerging from the old but always with something missing. The gaps were never large - one node, maybe two or three, that didn't reconnect or which sent false signals and was quickly cut away. But each of those breaks were people like them.
"Who gave the order?" Byers asked. "Alecto?"
Langly's obsession with the hacker was part respect and part rivalry and at any other time something to needle the other man about. As it was Byers suspected that Langly knew more about the ad hoc network of resistance than anyone but their anonymous contacter.
"Wayland." Langly said shortly, his unhappiness clear in his voice.
Byers frowned. "He's our secondary contact."
They looked at each other, both thinking the same thing.
"I'm sure they didn't get him," Byers tried, suddenly unsure what he was supposed to say but feeling he needed to say something.
He was surprised when Langly stood up, thrusting his chair back under the desk with unnecessary vehemence and said "We'll know in twenty-four hours," before stalking away.
Byers sighed. They each dealt with things in their own way. Langly was right - all they could do was wait.
The order for the executions was met with a muted muttering. In a general, defeated, way some reprisals had been expected although the quantity shocked even the numb and exhausted population of Cardiff. In the hope of preventing worse atrocities, the military council decreed that ten people would be shot for each Toclafane attacked (those in power would never admit that the explosion on the island of Flat Holm had succeeded in destroying any of the Toclafane in case it gave people ideas which the much trumpeted destruction of the terrorist base failed to quash).
Gwen Williams, defiantly wearing her wedding dress, was number 35.
"She's in Europe," Tosh said as she laid down her headset, "she's going to have to detour around some of the radiation so we're probably talking about a couple of months before she hits the Channel."
Owen looked at her through the V of his crossed feet where they rested on the desk and wondered if there was any chance he could get her to stop. She drove herself too hard, he thought. He understood the impulse but it would do none of them any good if she worked herself to collapse. She couldn't have stopped what happened in Japan, and she couldn't have found out about the attack on Flat Holm in time to do any of them any good. None of them had seen that coming. Knowing that and believing it were different things though and Owen had held her as she cried herself to sleep in his arms.
Now he watched her losing herself in her work under the excuse of professionalism and there wasn't much he could say to dissuade her since necessity was almost always on her side. He could just pick up what slack he could and try and keep her going. He had never realised how much Ianto did around the Hub in addition to helping Tosh with the decoding and Nicholas with the logistics. He was slowly learning in between his long shifts as David Smith, Doctor and Blackmarketeer. Owen never thought he would miss the sarcastic bastard but there was a overdressed, prissy hole in their lives.
At least Gwen had been mourned - Dr Smith had stood among the silent and angry mourners and wondered if he was about to be caught in a riot. He hadn't told Tosh although he knew that made him as bad as Brocklehurst.
"Is she heading for us?" Owen flipped the coin he'd been playing with up and caught it again. It came up heads - or at least 'strange alien creature'. He was pretty sure it had landed with the same creature uppermost every time he'd done it.
"Us, us, or us - UK?" Tosh asked rhetorically. "Indication is that she is planning on heading to the UK. Whether she knows about us or not is debatable."
"Nah - she knows about us," Owen disagreed, "she's met at least nine trusted Resistance contacts, not to mention that disk we got across Africa to her, and bugger-knows how many affiliates." He saw the objection formulating in Tosh's expression and held up a hand to forestall her. "Okay - she might not know who is behind it but she knows we exist, that's all I am saying. That and she seems to have run with the gun rumour Alex planted so might have a clue Torchwood is involved somewhere." The last point had come to him as he was speaking and he was rather proud of it. Maybe baiting Tosh wasn't the best way of cheering her up but it was all he had.
"She's a clever woman," Nicholas said behind him. Owen jumped and swore as he dropped the coin and nearly followed it to the floor. "What we need to do is get her properly briefed, preferably before she gets over here. The situation in the UK is too volatile."
That was short and curt. Not that Brocklehurst was anything else these days. Owen had never told Tosh about the night after Flat Holm when had caught Brocklehurst standing on the lift and talking to the night sky. He'd flicked the sound on, curious as to what the man was doing. '...so sorry Jack,' he was saying. 'He was a good man. I tried to keep him alive, keep them all alive, and...'. Owen shut the sound off quickly and retreated back to the room where he had left Tosh asleep. It had been a long night for all of them. And in many ways it had never ended.
"We could probably smuggle someone to France on one of the supply barges," Owen mused. "The question is who gets to play illegal immigrant?"
Brocklehurst looked at him without expression but Owen could sense the suggestion being weighted and considered. "That would be me," he agreed.
Owen blinked, surprised. It wasn't often that Brocklehurst gave unconditional approval to one of his ideas.
"Why you?" Owen demanded suspiciously. He was half-tempted to suggest that they toss for it. It was strange alien creature all the way. He really should put the coin back on Ianto's desk.
"Because," Nicholas said, "by that point I'll be the most expendable, I have the most experience moving through hostile territory, I speak French and I can actually remember Tosh's codes."
...'I tried to keep him alive, keep them alive'...
Against that a medical personal permit for travel within the UK seemed trivial. Owen looked over at Tosh for some help but didn't get any. He didn't really blame her; Japan still cast its shadow between them. Maybe Nicholas was right - he should be the one to go.
"Okay," Owen agreed.
They had two months - they began to plan.
It watched closely as the body beneath its hands shuddered back to life. It was a shame that their agreement with the Master did not extend as far as giving them full access to the now-breathing figure before it. The one it inhabited was a good specimen as far as humans went - but it was still human. The other... it was not sure - and it wanted to know. It wanted to crawl into its mind and mold itself into every cell in its form. Knowledge was power. It had picked that thought from the many frantic glimpses of its host's thoughts before it had suppressed them and had felt vague astonishment that the creature had advanced to such a level.
Maybe that was been why this host was left alive by its last owner. Such a creature was too useful to be squandered when it could be used again later and it had felt the memory of the other the minute it slid inside - the host's unconscious mind recognising the touch and quailing into the obedience it had previously learned even as instinct and self rebelled. It was a pointless response - instinct was the refuge of unevolved beings thus was easily overruled and it had no need of any sense of self that the host might have had so that could be easily suppressed as well.
It wanted knowledge - like the knowledge it had of the creature that the Master kept as a pet and like the knowledge the host had had of the specimen the Master kept bound in the bowels of the ship. And what knowledge that had been. Their human servants had not even asked for this information, caring only about the weapon that the host had searched for and their petty intrigues. They searched for the gun now, not knowing that there were other, equally profitable, avenues of inquiry to pursue.
The eyes of the creature quivered open. The reaction time was as predicted and thus pleasing. If the source of the creature's revivitive ability could be identified and isolated then new, better - more reliable - hosts, could be created. The host consciousness fluttered restlessly against his control, reminding it of the shortcomings of human stock, even such as it now inhabited. The mouth of the specimen was shaping the designation of the host - pleading. Some disorientation on restoration had been observed before. But it was undoubtedly that appeal, as futile as it was, that had disturbed the host memory. It took firmer control, imposing its will on the body and mind of its host. The reaction of the host mind grew more frantic, then lay dormant once more. Satisfied, it eased its command slightly. The immutable weight of the host's body was uncomfortable, as it always was, when it withdraw all autonomy from the limbs and organs. Soon enough they would rise again and it would have a more suitable host. One that was not so limited...
It looked at the specimen that was now looking at it with an expression that the host memory identified as a defiant glare. As this information was irrelevant it ignored it and went on to the next set of protocols. It had, after all, all the time in the world - and that was running out quickly.
"You again?" Martha grinned, trying to push down the shock. When Nicholas had smuggled her out of Washington she had never expected to see him again, and certainly not in the middle of France. There was no point in asking what he was doing there, not when she'd been told she was being taken to see one of the resistance leaders.
Nicholas gave a deprecating little smile and Martha reminded herself that he had a long history with Jack and really the whole Bond ideal wasn't that attractive anyway. The hug felt good, warm and solid and real. There had been times when she had begun to wonder if it wasn't all some surreal dream. Of which a few of the more bizarre aspects suddenly made more sense.
"I suppose I have you to thank for that ridiculous gun rumour," she said when they stepped apart. "Really - four parts scattered around the world?"
"It worked," Nicholas noted sombrely. She'd forgotten in the excitement of meeting him again how practical he could be. It had scared her a bit when they first met. Now that she understood a little better it scared her a lot more. Nicholas gestured to the small table on which food had been laid out. "They've been chasing their tails trying the find the pieces and totally dismissed the sedition you've been spreading under their noses," he said as they sat.
He had a point, Martha conceded reluctantly. What the Doctor would think about the whole gun aspect she could worry about later when it was all over, sometimes you just had to use what you had. And eat what was available. At least the food looked fairly fresh and she thought she could recognise all of it.
"You couldn't have let me in on it?" she complained lightly, helping herself to bread. The soup looked, and smelled, like chicken and vegetable with a little barley for luck. She chose to believe that was what it was. "What was I supposed to think when this hulking Russian comes up to me and starts talking about alien-killing super weapons?"
A hulking Russian who had had better English than she had Russian but not by much, which had lead to an unfortunate misunderstanding. Luckily his friend had been to university in Liverpool and the worst thing that could be said about his English was that he had picked up something of a scouse accent along with his biochemistry degree. He'd straightened everything out and told her the rumours. She'd told them about the Doctor.
"What you did," Nicholas said, spoon poised as he answered, and for a moment Martha wondered how he knew. Then common sense reasserted itself: the Resistance had spread the word, but information hadn't just flowed one way. "Listen to them…" He smiled slightly, knowingly. "Get them to listen to you."
This was her life; sitting in the wine cellar of an abandoned chateau and swapping black humour and Machiavellian plots over watery broth. Not what she had really planned for her future but how many people expected an alien invasion?
"I figured out a few other things along the way as well," she told him and he looked at her with respectful inquiry as he ate his soup. She could imagine him at embassy dinners, sipping soup from the ceremonial silver with exactly the same look on his face while unsuspecting aides told him more than they meant to. She wasn't about to fall into that trap. "I assume you have some fake gun you have mocked up."
Nicholas put down his spoon and reached below the table for a hard case that sat on the floor beside him. He placed it carefully on the table and, flicking the clasps, he opened the top so that she could see within.
"Fancy," Martha said with an admiration she didn't have to feign. It definitely looked alien, which could mean anything. "What is it?"
"Alien medical device," Nicholas said po-faced. "I'm told it's used for immunisations against a number of extraterrestrial venereal diseases."
Martha stared at him incredulously and then burst out laughing.
He shut the lid, fastening it securely again before he handed it to her over the table. "You have Ianto to thank for that."
"Wait." She took a deep breath, forcing the giggles away. Stowing the case by her own chair she wiped the mirth from her eyes. "Who's Ianto?"
She'd told him about seeing the end of the universe, about Saxon and the Doctor and what had happened on the Valiant and she thought it was the first time she had ever seen Nicholas look surprised. He hid it quickly, which was the only thing that made Martha believe it had actually happened. "Jack never mentioned him?" Nicholas said cautiously.
Martha racked her memories. It was hard to think back to the time before the Toclafane, when it was just the end of the universe and not the end of the world. She remembered Jack mentioned a team, friends, but no one in particular. "Don't think so."
"It doesn't matter," Nicholas dismissed, turning back to the food. Martha kept staring at him until he looked back up. She made the traditional 'tell me more' gesture. "He was a colleague of Jack's back in Cardiff," Nicholas said and Martha wondered about the softening of his expression and the hint of a smile.
"Another one who fell for the famous Harkness charm," Martha joked.
There was a pause. Not a joke then.
"Something like that."
"Oh!" And Jack had just jumped on the TARDIS to find the Doctor? Granted he probably hadn't realised quite how far, or should that be how long, he was going to end up going. "Well," she said, "nice to know that Jack has someone to come home to."
Nicholas' eyes dropped for a moment. "He died a few months ago."
The soup was cooling, a slight scum of fat congealing on the top.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. It seemed so inadequate.
Nicholas nodded and, with mutual and silent consent, they let the matter drop.
When they had finished eating Nicholas gathered the plates together, stacking them carefully at the back of the table. Leaning forwards, he fixed Martha with a penetrating stare.
"Now, tell me how the Resistance can help you?"
She had known it had been coming. She took a deep breath. This was the end game.
"What I need..." Martha began. Nicholas listened carefully as she outlined her plan. "So you see," she finished, "it all depends on my getting to the Valiant at the right time. Could you help me with that?"
"Actually, yes," Nicholas smiled, it was not a nice expression, "I have just the person."
"Yes!" Tosh announced triumphantly.
"And to what," Owen asked, sticking his head out of the kitchen area, "can I attribute this sudden burst of good feeling?"
After a week of travelling around the work camps near Cardiff with too little medicine and too little hope for everyone who needed it he'd returned to the Hub wearier than he remembered being in, well, ever. These days the Hub was the one place he felt safe enough to sleep and even then it was often fitful unless Tosh was there, watching over him.
"This..." Tosh hit a few buttons.
Nothing noticeably happened.
"I guess you can't get it right all the time," Owen commiserated.
Tosh glared at him and picked up a broken artefact. Its original purpose was lost but it functioned well as paperweight. Hefting it a few times she lobbed it towards the door.
"Tosh, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you throw like a..." Owen stopped, starring. The artefact hovered in the air, the light distorting around it the only clue of what had happened.
Tosh watched smugly as Owen inched towards the hovering object, slowly putting out one hand to poke at it with his finger.
"Okay," he admitted as his finger met increasing resistance until, just short of the bullet, he could not push forwards any further, "I'm impressed. What is it?"
Tosh entered another command and the artefact dropped, Owen catching it out of surprise.
"It's a time lock. If the hub is breached then it surrounds us in a time bubble and nothing can get in."
Owen gaped at her. "Nice," he croaked. He hadn't even known something like that was possible and Tosh had just built it.
"I'd been working on the theory for a while," Tosh admitted, "and after what happened at Flat Holm..."
"You did good, Tosh," Owen assured her. He felt something more was required and just went with the first thing that his over-tired brain presented him. "I've just got one question: why does the bubble trap everyone in the Hub and not whatever's attacking?"
Tosh stared at him.
"I mean," Owen continued, knowing he was digging himself deeper and not sure how to stop, "you can't have that much food in the fridge so how long are you assuming the Hub will be sealed for? Don't get me wrong Tosh, it's amazing - but I'm not sure I'd want to be trapped for eternity while I wait for the cavalry to show up." He waited for the argument but none came. "Tosh?"
Tosh had already turned back to her computer, paying him no attention. Owen shrugged, finished the last of his sandwich and went to get a shower. After all, the sooner he washed, the sooner he could try and sleep.
"Go, go!" Madam Mbaye chivvied them in her thick French accent as she pushed them out of the back of the house. From behind them they could hear the crash of the front door being kicked in.
Martha thanked her quickly and they were running again, ducking along the twisting alleyways between the buildings.
"I always wanted to visit Rouen," Martha panted.
"Great cathedral," Nicholas agreed as they skidded to a halt, the noise of many feet on hard stone warning of an approaching patrol coming from their right. "Down here."
They crouched down behind a half-wall, waiting. The footsteps rose to a crescendo and then faded as they turned the other way. They looked at each other and let out the breaths they had been holding. Nicholas began to get up but Martha put out her hand and stopped him, touching the key at her throat. He nodded understanding and waited as she raised herself up to check whether the coast was clear. Sinking back down she nodded.
"This can't go on," Nicholas said. "Head for Dieppe. It isn't the best crossing but it isn't the worst either and you don't have time to get to Calais. I'll arrange for someone to meet you on the other side."
Martha frowned. "What about you?"
"They're getting too close," Nicholas eyes drifted to the key and Martha knew what he was thinking. It had been nice to have company but two were harder to hide than one. "I'll head south," he continued. "Try and make them think you are going back to Spain."
She wanted to grab his arm and tell him not to go which was ridiculous. He gave her a little boy grin, which transformed his face, his expression briefly impish and challenging. She could at least console herself that he knew what he was doing.
"Got the gun?" he asked, serious again.
Martha patted the case. "Got the story?"
Nicholas tapped his temple with two fingers.
They shook hands and separated, each taking a different direction down the street.
Skinner tested the temperature of the cloth against the inside of his wrist. It was warm but not uncomfortably so. Satisfied he dipped it back in the bowl and began to sponge Mulder's skin. Giving the other man a sponge bath was not something he would ever have imagined doing a year ago. But then a year ago the idea of an alien invasion, of aliens at all, had seemed preposterous despite the best efforts of the man who now lay on the sagging bed in front of him.
He wondered if Mulder could tell that he had taken over the mainstay of his care. Of all people, Agent Scully was not someone he had ever thought he would see breakdown. It was that as much as what he owed Mulder that had made him offer to take over from her. She was out there, where she needed to be, saving the living rather than waiting for the impossible. He suspected she knew that too, deep down, or she would never have agreed. As stubborn as Mulder.
He dipped the cloth again, talking as he worked for his own comfort as much the patient's. It was easier to pretend that there was something still there to communicate with. When the bath was over he would move the unresponsive body to avoid pressure sores, and check the feeding tube and catheter. It needed the two of them to change the sheets so that would have to wait until the evening. Skinner sighed remembering all the times that he had wished Mulder would just shut up. Now he would have given anything just to have another argument. And to stop wondering every day if they were doing the right thing keeping him alive even though neither of them could let him go.
"Burst transmission from Nicholas," Tosh said, fingers flying over the keys and she keyed in the necessary commands to decode it, "'Blue 15 Nemasis amd+1 Echo3. Achilles to deliver package'. That's it."
"That's it?" Owen repeated, incredulous.
Tosh shrugged. "He must have been in a hurry."
No need to wonder why or speculate on his lack of inclusion in the plans. There wasn't anything they could do about either of those things and Brocklehurst had known the risks. Owen wondered if the bastard was still alive.
"Fuck," Owen swore, reaching for a map of the south coast. "He couldn't have given us more than a day's warning. I'm never going to make it to any of the Echo sites."
"You'll have to send someone else." Tosh scribbled down numbers on a scrap of paper and passed it across. "Here are the co-ordinates - who is closest?"
"Milligan," Owen said after some thought. "I can't pull Clifford off his route."
They looked at each other, knowing what the message meant.
"Should we warn him?" Tosh asked quietly.
"No, we send him in clean," Owen said immediately. Hating himself he joked, "I can't believe I said that - shoot me Tosh, I'm turning into bloody Brocklehurst. I'll be sacrificing countries next." He saw her face and stopped. "Sorry," he said roughly.
She nodded slightly and gave him a weak smile. Together they began to compose the signal.
"Three minutes to align the black hole convertors..." the hated voice said over the telecast.
On the monitor the pixels switched and the numbers began to flick down.
"This is it, dudes," Langly said, "the final countdown."
Frohike looked over at him and scowled. "Just don't burst into song."
"Watch it, twinkle-toes," Langly shot back.
"It's beautiful," Byers breathed. They fell silent, following his gaze to the third display window.
"Is that..?" Frohike said.
The image was changing, the colours shifting from muted, sickly tones to something stronger. New links were growing from the smaller end-nodes, too many to see individually but glowing brighter as they combined.
"The Archangel network," Langly confirmed. "Something Alecto asked got me thinking so I wrote a little visualisation. That's the hidden signal."
"Or it was," Byers said. "Are you recording this?"
Langly gave him a withering look. "Of course."
"What's it doing?"
"Joining us together," Frohike tapped at the screen. "A network drawing power from all the people in the world and directing it to..."
"The Doctor," they said together.
On the screen Martha Jones explained to the Master and the world what could be done with fifteen satellites and a telepathic field. As they watched the bright areas swelled.
Nicholas leant against a wall and sucked in a much-needed breath. He was pretty sure he'd lost any pursuers but it had been touch and go for a few hours. He wasn't entirely sure where he was - a few scattered ruins suggested there might have been a farm of some kind. Maybe even a small, scattered village. It had probably been picturesque - the sort of place tourists had driven through and stopped to pick up bread and cheese for a picnic lunch.
From one of the ramshackle structures a figure emerged, something bulky in his arms. Nicholas scrambled into the shadows. Reaching for his gun he waited to see if he had been spotted. As the person came closer, Nicholas could see it was a man. He was old, dressed in worn and dirty clothes and an equally abused hat pulled down on stringy, white hair. The ground was torn up and he picked his way carefully through the ruts in the mud, apparently unaware he was being observed.
Nicholas weighed his choices and stepped clear of his concealment, gun held carefully behind his back. It took the old man long enough to see him that Nicholas suspected his eyesight was fading. His reaction when he did was one of total shock, jumping back and clutching at his rough bag. He recovered quickly, overcoming his initial fear to glare at the interloper on his patch.
« Bonjour », Nicholas greeted warily.
The old man appeared slightly mollified at being addressed politely. « Bonjour », he replied.
Nicholas squelched down the urge to revert to his school days and respond 'ça va?' Instead he said, « Est-ce qu’il reste encore quelqu’un ici ? » [Is there anyone else here?]
The man looked around at the mud, stone and sagging timbers. « Non, ils sont tous partis. Tous morts. À part moi » He gave a toothless grin, « Et toi. Et les fantômes. » [No. All gone. All dead. Except me... and you. And the ghosts]
Nicholas let himself relax although he wasn't ready to take his hand off his gun yet. « Les aliens? » [The aliens?]
The man spat and gave a very Gallic shrug. That was answer enough. He eased the gun into the waistband of his trousers. There was no need to reveal he was armed if he didn't have to.
« Qu'est-ce que vous faites ici ? » he asked before the other man could demand the same of him. [What are you doing here?]
Another shrug. « C’est la fin du monde : il devrait y avoir du vin. » He reached into the sack and pulled out a bottle so that the neck could be clearly seen. The man took a step closer, peering, and Nicholas forced himself not to react. He must have seen something he approved of because he hefted the bag again. « Ça vous dit? » he offered. « Ça maintient les fantômes a distance. » [It's the end of the world - there must be wine... Join me?... It keeps the ghosts away]
Nicholas bit back the harsh laugh that threatened to choke him. « Ça doit être du très bon vin. » [It must be good wine]
« Le meilleur », the man boasted and Nicholas didn't have the heart to disagree. For all he knew it could be. The old face crumpled in sympathetic folds. « Vous avez beaucoup de fantômes? » [The best...You have many ghosts?]
How many people had died in Japan? Did that make him better or worse than Christopher who had been willing to sacrifice a few hundred lives in the name of politics, ambition and, incidentally, the overthrow of an oppressive regime? He'd had enough ghosts even before the invasion. He'd lived with them easily enough but losing Mark had cut him deeper that he had thought possible. And all the others; Ianto, Alex... « Beaucoup trop. » [Way too many]
The shaggy head nodded as if the answer was expected. « Vous faites partie de la Résistance? » [You are with the Resistance?]
There was no point in denying it. « Oui. »
« Ma mere etait dans la Résistance. Elle disait, 'Les Allemands m'ont pris mon pays et mon mari'. Ensuite, ils ont pris son frère. Maintenant, les aliens prennent mes enfants. A cette époque, j'étais trop jeune pour combattre et aujourd'hui, je suis trop vieux. Mais je fais ce que je peux. » He shifted his hold on his prize to make a rude gesture into the air. [My mother was with the Resistance. She said, 'The Germans have taken my country and my husband'. Then they took her brother. Now the aliens take my children. Then I was too young to fight and now I am too old. But I do what I can]
« Je suis désolée » It seemed the only thing Nicholas could say. [I'm sorry]
« Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Vous avez de la famille? » [The more things change, the more they stay the same. Do you have family?]
The question caught Nicholas unawares and thoughts of Azzam and Mark sprang into his mind before he could stop them. He tried to banish the instinctual response. They had been a family but not his.
« C’était compliqué », he hedged. [It was complicated]
The old man coughed and Nicholas realised it was a dry laugh. Experience amused by the confusion of what he saw as young love. « Vous étiez amoureux d'elle ? » he weezed. [Did you love her?]
Something tightened painfully in his chest. But Mark was dead - it didn't matter any more. « J'aurais pu tomber amoureux de lui », he admitted. [I think I might have loved him.]
« Ah », The laughter stopped and Nicholas waited. « Il est mort? » [Ah... He is dead?]
Nicholas nodded, finding himself strangely reluctant to say the word that would make it true. « Il a refusé de me dénoncer. » [He refused to sell me out]
« Ça ne tient pas chaud la nuit. » The man said, not without sympathy, and Nicholas suspected he'd had his share of cold nights even before the invasion. Shifting the bag once more he reached out one thin, weathered hand and gripped Nicholas' arm. « Suivez-moi, » he said decisively. Letting go with one brief pat, he gripped his bundle carefully and walked away. [Cold comfort in the night. Follow me]
Nicholas shrugged and followed him. The path ran away from the tumbledown buildings. It was overgrown and without his guide Nicholas wouldn't have noticed it. It wound upwards, between the trees and bushes of a small hill - another bump in the rolling countryside. Nicholas thought again that once it would have been beautiful. They came out near the top, the trees thinning to allow for a clear view to any travellers who passed that way. A memorial stone, pitted slightly from wind and rain stood lonely vigil across the valley.
The old man patted it familiarly, sitting down beside it and reaching into his bag. It was to be a picnic after all, Nicholas thought amused. Mark would have loved this. For no reason his eyes stung and he turned away. When he turned back two battered tin cups sat on the grass and their owner was occupied gouging at the cork of the wine bottle with a small penknife. He won the fight, forcing half the cork into the dark liquid. It splashed slightly, red stains seeping into the grass.
Nicholas sat as the wine was poured. A sad smile creased the wrinkled face further as he passed over one of the mugs. « Je ne pense pas que ca la dérangerait que l’on partage », he said with a nod to the monument. [I don't think she would mind sharing]
« Merci. » Nicholas took a sip gingerly, expecting vinegar. It was very good wine.
Somewhere, far away, an announcement was being made, too faint for them to hear. They looked out on the desolation and raised their drinks to each other's ghosts and a pyrrhic hope.
« Le Docteur. »
"Dana," Skinner greeted.
Scully looked from him to the still figure on the piled mattresses. "Any change?" she asked. Any hope was long gone but she asked anyway.
Skinner shook his head, saying nothing as she went over and bent down beside the makeshift bed. Mulder didn't stir, even when she reached out and gently touched his cheek.
"He'll be sorry he missed this." Scully tried to force some levity into her voice as she stood up. "The end of the world. Just so he could say he told us so."
"We should go outside," Skinner said reluctantly, "everyone's gathering."
"Will he…?" Scully began.
"He'll be fine," Skinner put a supportive hand on her shoulder, "unless you can tell me otherwise."
She wished she could. Surely anything was better than whatever had happened to Mulder. For a long time she had prayed for him to get better. Now she just prayed. Scully nodded and Skinner squeezed her shoulder gently. She covered his hand with hers for a moment, silently thanking him.
With one last, lingering, look at Mulder she followed Skinner from the room.
They walked down to where the big screen that had been set up in the local mall, joining the other people who mingled there. Together they counted down, offering up their voices.
Alone in a shabby room a comatose man mouthed two syllables.
"It's time," Owen said softly.
Tosh nodded and they walked to the lift together. It was hard not to look around the Hub as they rose through it and not think of all the good times that they had had. Of all the good people who weren't there with them.
"Just us left," Tosh whispered.
Owen didn't say anything - just put his arm around her and squeezed her shoulders. It felt right. They moved apart as they stepped off the paving slab, but not very far. Owen's arm nudged hers, their fingers entangling.
They stood hand in hand and looked up to the sky, both pretending not to notice the soft tracks of tears as they said the Doctor's name.
The Valiant shook as time whirled backwards around it, buffeted with turbulence as paradox-fluxes formed and burned off around them.
In one of the cabins, the host wretched, sobbing with pain and a fear only partially his own. Oil dripped from him, running from his eyes, nose and mouth. Running. It had felt the telepathic shock wave; felt the temporal backlash as the world ended and began, felt itself cut off from its brethren... It had to get out, get away. Panicking it tore itself cell by cell from the host, ripping itself from the host and away. It found cracks in the floor, slipping into them and down to the bowels of the ship. The screams in its mind faded in and out as time eddied and broke. Pulling itself through the skin of the ship it flung itself into the air. The time-stream ripped it to pieces and then it was gone.
Back in the cabin Alex, desperate to know where he was, crawled towards the window and shakily pulled himself up to look out. The sun shone down on a renewed world that blurred before his eyes as the last of the oil inside him was washed away.
Thousands of miles away, half-way up a mountain, four bundled figures looked around the empty, daunting slopes. One of him, hugging his hands to his sides against the cold, turned to the other three.
"Okay," he said, "Where the fuck did Krycek just go?"