Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Tango of the Exiles by Echo Fain






Tango of the Exiles

by Echo Fain


**************

Part Two:



The soldiers wore earplugs to give the visitors a measure of privacy because the doors were much closer.  They'd been escorted to this conference room, given a tray with fresh coffee, and presented with two boxes.

The boxes sat on the long table.  Taking off her jacket to sling it over a chair, Martha perched cross-legged on the sturdy surface as if she was a teenage girl instead of a powerful woman who'd twice held the fate of Earth in her hands, once with a story and the second time with the Osterhagen key.  She didn't look like UNIT. 

Jack poured their coffees and Martha opened the metal box.

This one looked like tin on the outside but was lined with thin lead.  It was a type of strongbox he understood well; Torchwood's Hub had owned several of them, designed to hold archived items which were potentially dangerous with alien radiation.  After examining the lack of radiation output, he was sure there was no reason for fear and his companion began pulling the contents, piece by piece. 

All four of them.

The wool frock coat was burned in places, ruined with chemical fire retardant and sea water.  It was black but looked rusty.  On the table, the article of clothing was crumpled and didn't seem like anything more than a bulky rag.  It belonged to Earth's history, the Victorian era.

"For the small amount of damage, I'd say he was probably laying on all of this.  It must've been under him in the seat."  Martha commented, and Jack made a low querying noise, urging her to the next item.

A brown leather journal with lined pages, a purple gel pen.  Both were entirely 21st century.  The sight of them made Jack grin.  Hadn't Lyn told him that the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries on Earth had been a timezone of fascination, the way another might claim the especial study of Shakespearean England or the Industrial Revolution?

He leaned over Martha's slim shoulder as she turned the pages, revealing them to be filled---mostly filled---with a strange pidgin of language and numbers.  He didn't recognize any of it and then his eyes adjusted, his mind translated---a left-over gift from the TARDIS.  He knew it had also happened for his dark-haired friend when she gave a tiny sigh of amazement.

The flyleaf held a quote, the author's name written as Pittacus of Mitylene.  At a glance, Jack saw Martha mouth the words.  'Seize time by the forelock.'  It was written in a strange form of English, but there was another line of careful script underneath which looked something like Welsh and said---in translation---Field Notes, Equations, Coordinates.

And, there, further down, two words that made his guts clench in surprise.

Torchwood Orion.

"Jack..."  Martha whispered, her eyes on the words. 

"I see it."  He admitted, rubbing at his wriststrap in consternation.  "I remember hearing about Torchwood, when I was at the Time Agency.  I didn't know what it was about, but...Torchwood does go on, away from Earth.  This explains a lot.  Lyn knows too much about Torchwood's missions, the people I worked with.  If he's a Torchwood operative from the future, he might've read the history of the Cardiff Rift and the Hub.  He might've even studied us."

Together, they scanned a few entries, but even translated, the words made little sense.

It was the language of a temporal engineer.

He'd been right.  Lyn was a time traveler, an educated man who understood the intricate nature of temporal science.  He murmured as Martha laid the diary to the side and reached for her coffee.  "Some of those coordinates are for galaxies which won't be explored for hundreds of thousands of years after the first ships leave Earth."

"You think he's been to those places?"  She raised her brows at him over the rim of her cup. 

Jack nodded and leaned over to look into the box.  He reached for the last item.

It was a media storage device, one he knew had been popular in the 30th century.  The disc was palm-sized and less than an inch in depth.  It was made of something like titanium and one side had a row of buttons and a display screen. 

"What is it?  Do you know?"  Martha asked.

"It's the equivalent of a jumpdrive.  Used to store movies, pictures, music, data documents."  He explained, turning the disc over in his hands to study the unmarked posterior side.  "It'll be locked.  Takes a specific kind of password.  Usually gene-based.  Retinal scans, fingerprints, blood sample, that sort of thing."

He put it down carefully.  He'd take the media device with him.  Lyn would probably be very glad to see it, might be willing to talk if he used the thing as a bribe.

Jack sat down on the table's edge, reached for his own mug of coffee.  It was milky and sweet and tasted as if someone had put nutmeg in the brew.  As he sipped, Martha picked up the field journal again and pushed her fingers through the pages, brown eyes thoughtful.

Drinking slowly, he ignored the three guards who seemed to watch nothing from their posts.  Instead, he let his gaze travel over the coat and the disc device.  These were Lyn's personal property.  The coat might be worthless, but the media unit was made of a metal considered to be nearly indestructible and that made it a potential tool.  Not just a bribe, but an opportunity.  What could be stored on it?  What would it reveal about Lyn's timezone and the work of a temporal scientist?

A thought occurred to him.

"Martha...what if he's a Time Lord?  Hidden with a Chameleon Arch?"  Lyn looked like he was in his early to mid-sixties, was scarred and battered, but that didn't mean anything.  He could be Gallifreyan, couldn't he? 

"Somehow, I doubt it but who knows?  A Chameleon Arch alters the Time Lord into different forms, gives them different DNA, and he registers as some kind of human but...he knows about time travel...maybe...maybe..."  She said and the tone of her voice was so strange that Jack looked up and around at her.  "Look, oh...oh, Jack, look at this."

The field journal's back cover was opened, rested on Martha's curled left knee. 

There was a photograph, made of flexible plastic, and it made him think of Polaroid shots from the seventies here on Earth.  He recognized the type; the camera that had made this image was popular in the 22nd century.  It was worn, grubby.

Every single item in the box was from a different timezone.

Not that he was noticing that just yet. 

There were five people in the photograph.  Four men, one child.

"Who the hell is he?"  Martha whispered the words as if they were new.

Jack shook his head as he accepted the picture from her hand.  There was a weird ringing in his ears; it made everything sound too far away, lost underwater.  He stared at each face in shock.

There he was, looking a few years older; his greatcoat was missing but he wore braces, so some things were the same and might never change.  Standing beside him, to his right, was a young man maybe eighteen or nineteen years old.  The youth had dark wavy hair and bright blue eyes, was svelte and muscular in dungarees, and made Jack think of his brother Gray, which caused him a moment of pain.  Beside him, to his left, stood...

No, he couldn't take that.  It was too much.

"Jack, how is this possible?  It's not possible...is it?  Unless...time travel, but...he died.  You can't bring the dead back to life in the future, can you?"

The third man, to the other end of the grouping, was a tall blond with glasses and a crooked grin wearing a black frock coat.  His face was long, handsome but not pretty.  Instinct told him that this was Lyn, but he couldn't be absolutely sure why he believed it beyond the presence of the coat itself, the hair and eyes.  The lanky figure held a blanket-bundled baby to one wool-covered shoulder; the blanket was pink and yellow, the child lost in its folds and held carefully but firmly in his arms.

Ianto Jones stood between them, between him and Lyn.  Ianto wore a proud grin, something he'd never seen enough of when the man was alive and at his side.  Had he ever seen Ianto smile quite that way?  He couldn't remember.

All three of them were grinning, looked satisfied.  The boy smiled.

Ianto Jones.  Out of his own timezone maybe, off his homeworld perhaps.  Happy, truly happy.

Ianto's arms were around their waists, the left and the right.

The picture had been taken by someone who stood close but below the group and the angle was a good one.  There was a log wall behind them, a window.  It was a porch, maybe. 

Jack turned the photograph over and studied the grimy plastic of its back.  Written in black letters, sharp and thin and slanted.  J & I & M, Idris & Charley.

The M made him think of the British spymaster for a moment and then he shook away the thought.  He murmured, his tongue sour with coffee and surprise.  "J for Jack, I for Ianto, M for..."

"He's your family.  Look at the way you're standing together."  Martha's voice still sounded as if she was down a well and a hundred miles away.  "Jack, he's your family."

Why was Ianto in this picture?  How did he get there?  How was it even possible?

He raised his head to stare at her, to whisper.  "I have to find him.  He has to explain this."


***


He'd carried home the contents of the strongbox in a bag after they'd had talked the facility's administrator into allowing it.  He'd also brought the audio cassettes, all sixteen of them.  He had promised to keep Martha updated on what he found and dropped her off in London before heading back to Wales.

It had taken him hours to locate a cassette player.  They just weren't viable technology anymore.  Humanity had moved on to better things. 

He'd left the coat and the journal with its pen in the bag from Scarman Estate, but he had carried the photo in his coat pocket throughout today as he worked with Gwen on uncovering and confronting a nest of vampires right under their nose in Splott.

He carried the photo in his pocket, took it out to study when alone. 

What if Martha was right?  What if Lyn was his family?

Well, Alice was his family, too, and he didn't blame her one damn bit for disappearing.  He had no intentions of tracking her down again.  In her place, he wouldn't want contact with the man who'd killed his son.  And there was no sign of Gray in the wreckage of the Hub.

How was it possible for Ianto Jones to be in a picture taken with a camera which hadn't even been invented yet?  It was a shot of the future, it had to be---it certainly wasn't one of the past.  Why did that photograph exist?  If Martha was right, then Lyn had a very important story to share, one which had been withheld from him on all those quiet Sunday afternoons.

Jack waited until the work day was done and he'd healed from the worst of his injuries.  Vampires were a hybrid species, could do real damage, but they were usually so vain it was easy to trap them.  The human hybrid version was, anyway.  Once Gwen, Rhys, and Anwen had closed the house's main door behind themselves, Jack had poured himself into the evening. 

Back to the study, back to his desk on the edge of dark.  There, with his braces hanging loose at his hips, he opened the first cassette's clear plastic case and pulled it out, fingers nimble on the player's buttons.  Then, with a glass of whiskey, he pressed play.

The label on the ninety-minute cassette was written in Youngston's hand.  Medical report, 1/4/97.  Subject: John Doe Pilot, Lyn.  He couldn't help but smile at that.  Youngston had chosen to designate the subject by what they knew of him.  It was a touch of the lost, the familiar. 

Youngston's first tape started with an explanation of what had happened months before.

The time and date were given.  Just after midnight on the tenth of January, the computers in the Hub went mad just moments before the entire base was rocked by an earthquake caused by Rift activity practically on top of the docks above the place.  There were two people on duty, neither of them Alex Hopkins.  Youngston was one of these two and he'd alerted the rest of the team currently in Cardiff and then gone to investigate only to find the quay was swamped and the entrance nearly drowning in bay water.

Coming out through another exit, he'd used an energy detector to locate the source of the problem.  The Rift looked like rippling fire in the sky, greens and blues and yellows.  The detector pointed him in the right direction and without waiting for back-up, the medic had taken a boat out.  He'd found the ship half-submerged and still sinking and marveled at the fact that it wasn't sitting at the bottom of the bay.  With the help of incredulous fishermen, he'd used the boat's tackle to haul the vessel back to shore.

In the water, even with the boat's lights, he hadn't been able to see the pilot; the pod had come back to the surface upside down.  On the dock and under bright torches, with the help of arriving Torchwood operatives, he turned the oval and discovered that there was a man inside who had somehow survived the crash and nearly drowning, and who was unconscious.  Moving his body revived the pilot, whose flightsuit was burned to his skin. 

All of this was in the typed medical report, but Jack listened anyway.  He could picture Youngston in his mind, remember the old guy's warped sense of humor.  There was no amusement in the retired Colonel's voice as he talked calmly, dictating the facts without any hint of emotion, which told Jack all he needed to know about how Robert Youngston felt. 

The Hub's medic was badly shaken by what he'd seen and done, even months after the fact.

There was a little tremble in Youngston's voice as he said 'Subject didn't sound human when he started screaming and Nicholas suggested we slit the poor bastard's throat and be done with it because nothing I did could make him stop once he woke up.  It was like he'd seen hell and was still there.'

Jack found that he was gritting his teeth, swallowed more whiskey and massaged his jaw as he listened. 

'I gave him every kind of sedative we had, thought for sure it'd kill him, put him out of his misery, but nothing worked.  I worked on him while Alex and the others did crowd control.  I stuffed a roll of gauze in the pilot's mouth to muffle some of the sound and we hauled ass back underground with the subject on a stretcher.  His skin was still bubbling, still too hot to touch in some places, across his legs mostly.  When he stopped screaming we were almost into the Hub and I knew he'd gone.  I used cardiopulmonary resuscitation on him.  He screamed into me and there was a name but I'm not really sure I heard it correctly.  His mouth...'

The tape clicked where Youngston paused it.  When the audio clicked again, the explanation went on.  It outlined the medical treatment of burns, of working on a man who was screaming and thrashing the entire time until he was strapped down to a table and cut out of the flightsuit's remains.  Youngston referred to recording audio through this, to explain his minute-to-minute actions as he went along with the treatment.

'It's like someone dumped burning napalm on this guy and dropped him out of the sky.  The only part of his front half not burned is the upper face and head.  I know, from the look in his eyes, that he was somewhat lucid throughout this.  I couldn't understand what he said, but he was screaming words.  The injuries sustained to the bottom half of his face and throat didn't affect his voice but destroyed his ability to enunciate.  He repeated the same set of words at me, seemed desperate to get an answer to his questions.  I'm not sure it was all in English.'

The review went on and on and he listened.  Youngston talked of the first forty-eight hours.  He described the seizures, the second cardiac arrest---which occurred near dawn---and how he'd had to use the manual external defibrillator to restart the pilot's failing heart. 

The next three weeks had been a touchy time for the medic, who struggled to keep Lyn unconscious without killing him because every time the pilot was awake, the screaming would start again.

Even unconscious, Lyn had whimpered and cried so loudly that Alex had taken to playing music in the cells for the sake of drowning out the sound of it.  Lyn had responded to some of the music, gone quiet in his unconscious pain.  Youngston had made note of the songs which had an affect and started playing them in rotation.

It was Alex who figured out that the music which caused the unconscious pilot to relax was the collection of tapes from the car that Agent Jack Harkness most commonly used, when working in Cardiff; the Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, Nina Simone.

It was also Alex who figured out that one of the words Lyn was trying to say was Jack's name.  Between them, Alex Hopkins and Robert Youngston, they'd kept that information private.  None of the other agents went around the healing man unless they had to and those who did were given retcon once Lyn was embedded within the Hub's lower levels.

The tape spooled on and Youngston clicked in and out, described the process of Lyn's healing and the three attempts at taking his own life.  The pilot despaired, his speech garbled as he begged them to tell him when he was.  Not where, when.  And when he was given a date, Lyn had panicked and that was when the suicide attempts began.

It was only after his face had started to heal that Lyn's words became coherent and they understood why he didn't want to be in the Hub in 1997. 

None of this was in the typed report.  It said three suicide attempts, but gave no reasons for why.  Jack had assumed, reading, that it was the damage to his body which had driven Lyn to try off-ing himself...but, no, it was the knowledge of where and when he was. 

The off-worlder had been given a cell and all that he might need, to pass the time.  He was locked away and the only people who saw him were Alex, Sheila, and Youngston.  Good old Robert Youngston had stopped visiting the cell after the first six months, once they were absolutely sure that Lyn wasn't going to die from an infection. 

Youngston's medical review of the case finished before the full ninety minutes was done.

Jack rewound the tape and put it back in the box, took out the next one.

Its paper label read 10/1/97 Medical Exam John Doe Pilot.

He poured himself another two fingers of Scottish whiskey and picked at his nails, listening.

'Unconscious now.  Have removed helmet finally.  Damn shame.  I bet he was a lady-killer.  What I've seen of his eyes, grey maybe.  Pupils blown.  Blondish.  Hard to tell until we get him cleaned up.'

Youngston went on to describe what had already happened; how he'd received the subject at the dock, the burns and the first seizure, the stopped heart.  The failure to react to sedatives and pain blockers.  And then 'I need to cut what's left of his clothes off, sterilize and clean his wounds, though I don't know where I'll start, he's one big bloody mess.  Alex wants him alive, at least for a day or two, thinks this poor bastard's gonna be able to tell him something.  Oh, he's starting to rouse again---'

There was a sound like wind whooshing through dead leaves and then a moan that grew and changed and warped itself and faded on that same rattling breath only to return in force, a scream.  He could hear, even through that noise, the thrashing of arms and legs, of a body fighting to escape itself.  Youngston shouted over and through the screams, directing his two assistants, agents pressed into service for this, to help re-sedate the wounded pilot.

Cold horror invaded Jack, stole his strength. 

The report was correct.  That was the sound of a man in hell.

He twitched his finger to stop the tape, his mind almost blank with the shock of it.  The screams choked off and there was a clatter of metal on concrete, something falling, and then he realized he could hear words in the howling when it began again, was less a scream and more an attempt to be understood.

'---eres ack, oo ohnt un-er tan, ees, ees, ii a-i-i, ere are eyh?  Ees, oh---ack!  Ack!  Oh, od, eh huuhb!  Ot, is-e!  Ack!  Uhhckkk!'

Jack forced himself still, drank half the whiskey in one swallow, stared at the tape player.

After the shouted words went on, mingling with Youngston's loud commands, for several long minutes, Jack realized that he was starting to understand what Lyn said.  A man whose lips were ripped with second degree burns, whose cheeks and jaw were scalded of their skin, who shouldn't be capable of coherence.

But he could make out a few words.

Jack.  Hub.  Something that could be a plea to God.  Please.

He tried to imagine what it must have been like for Youngston to cut a flightsuit off Lyn's ruined body as the man screamed and screamed and fell silent only when he seized again, over and over.

The screams were getting to him.

The bile in the back of his throat burned like Greek fire.

It would've been kinder, he thought, to cut Lyn's throat and let him bleed out.

Jack stopped the tape after Youngston managed to finally sedate the off-worlder into a new silence.  He was tipsy, felt raw.  As he turned off the lights and headed to the shower, he found himself hoping he'd reached the end of the screaming.  It felt like there was enough of it in his head right now to last him a million years and that was a real shame because he just might have a million years to spare.


***


The audio cassettes didn't get any easier, even after the screaming stopped.  Lyn, slowly re-learning how to talk with his odd, scarred lips, slurred and mumbled his way over words.  Yet he told Robert Youngston more than he'd ever told Jack, with a voice that went from a hoarse rasp to a breathy tenor before finally settling into a rough corduroy that thrummed with Welsh-like vowels. 

After the off-worlder regained his voice, he could be interviewed.  This took months and was done by Youngston, who had formed a rapport with their guest.  From the start, Lyn refused to give a timezone for his point of origin, wouldn't give a name to his homeworld or any other place he'd been.  He said the locations and times of his past shouldn't be recorded. 

Lyn said 'I flew blind into a nebula five galaxies away from here.'

'And it terminated in the Rift?'  Youngston asked.

'Apparently.  That's not normal, by the way.  My Rawleigh malfunctioned.'

'Explain that.'

'I was running fast.  I made a decision to evacuate by using my Rawleigh, which meant my ship would fly on unmanned.  A decoy.'

'What's a Rawleigh?'

'That's...not a topic we should discuss.  What it does is...'  And Lyn huffed a harsh breath and Jack grinned to himself at the familiar noise and then wondered how many of the other man's little habits he recognized without conscious thought.  Sunday afternoons, it seemed, had caught a lot.  Lyn went on.  'Doctor Youngston, I'm a time traveler.  I intended to set a decoy by making a time-jump from the ship.  I think I must've hit a pocket of chronon particles in that nebula.  Not impossible.  My Rawleigh failed or maybe it didn't.  Maybe it just got its coordinate system scrambled.  When I came out of that nebula, I was here.  I saw the lights of a city.'

'This city?  Cardiff?'  Youngston clarified.

'Yeah.'

In other segments recorded alone, the medic talked of how quickly Lyn healed, the daily check-ups and tests revealing that the alien human had a physiology slightly different from an Earth human's.  The Hub's guest was an empath, possessing a psi-gift.

Another interview opened a topic full of emotion and stress.

'What were your first thoughts here?  Do you remember?  You were insistent to talk, but I couldn't understand.'

'I needed to know if they were safe.  Okay.  That's what I tried to ask you.'

'They?'

'My family.'

'Were they with you when your ship came through the Rift?  Were there other ships?  You said you were running.  Who were you running from?'

Silence.  Then the wounded off-worlder sighed.  'I'm only alive because you and your damn boss want me that way.  I'm not supposed to be here.'

'Why do you say that?'

Silence again, followed by 'When can I have my things, Doctor Youngston?  I need to go back to them.  I don't...'  A long pause and when Lyn spoke this time, there was iron in his voice that hadn't existed before.  'When does Agent Harkness return?'

'Why?  Do you know Jack Harkness?'

'Yeah, and I know that we didn't meet here and now.  I shouldn't be here.  I'm pretty sure I would know if he'd ever met a man like me.  I would know, and it didn't happen.  You should let me correct the potential paradox before it occurs.  He doesn't need to know I was ever in the Hub at this node in time.  If you'll let me have my things back, I'll leave.  If I can.  If I can't, there're other ways to ensure he doesn't meet me at this end of my life.'

'If you want my permission to commit suicide, you won't get it.' 

'Look.'  A deep sigh, like the whoosh of a bellows.  'I've crossed his timeline, yeah?  It's not the first time I've done it, but I've always been careful to not meet him.'

'What would happen if you did meet here and now?'

'It'll be the first meeting for him and it'd be in the wrong order.  That's okay as long as he never knows who I am to him, in the future.  I don't look...I don't look like myself anymore.'

The tape clicked.  Clicked again.

Lyn had regained the strength of his voice, continued with the explanation.  'The risk in us knowing each other is in how I might slip and say things he shouldn't hear, because of the relationship we have...elsewhere.  And there's no way to guess what would be the wrong thing.  I can't predict with any statistical surety whether it would have a huge ripple in the universe, but it could unravel my past.  Give me new memories by altering the path he takes from here to there.'

'I understand.  Lyn...I know you don't want to discuss it, but I need to know if you're handling the physical changes.  You've said there's no more serious pain, but I think there is.  There must be.  You're crying.'

'You should've let me die, Doctor Youngston.'  The accented voice dropped into a hiss, rose to a growl.  'I need to go home.  I need to know they escaped safe.  You tell Alex I want my bloody things or the next time he swans in here, I'll beat him like a fucking drum.'

Slouched down in his chair, Jack rolled his toes inside the thick socks he wore, unable to help the dark smile that crept onto his face whenever the human alien bared his teeth at his captors.  It was hard not to see Torchwood that way sometimes, even when it was him responsible for an alien's confinement.  Lyn's situation wasn't an exception. 

The Hub's medic ignored the threat.  'Ridiculous, Lyn.  I don't believe for a moment that suicide is an option.  If you meet Jack Harkness here, you can use a different name and keep the truth from him.  Your face...it's not likely he'll recognize you later.  Wouldn't that prevent the failure of potentials in his future?'

'It's tenuous at best, but might work.  It'd be better if he didn't meet me.  I can't guarantee that I'll possess the strength it takes, to keep secrets from him.  I've spent too many years lying to him already.'  Exasperation, sadness.

'How long've you known Jack?'

'I met him when I was nineteen, we were...the first span...well, that's odd.  I can't quite put a number on it.  I spent a very, very long time away from them, but by their timeline I was gone only a half-dozen years.'

'You've traveled in time a lot, then?'

'Yeah.  I've more than two hundred years in my linear timeline.'

'You're...hundreds of years old?'

'Yeah.  I know I don't look it, but I'm two hundred and ninety-eight now.'

'Can you estimate how much of that you've spent with him and...what was his name?  Ianto?'

'I don't want to talk about this.  Shall we call it a session, then?'

'Lyn, if we had a therapist, you'd be seeing them.  It's obvious you're in pain over this, the loss of your---'

'What the hell do you know about it?'  Lyn's voice rose, became a hostile roar.  'I lost my family!  If you don't give me my tools, I'll never see my children again!  That makes you my enemy, Doctor Youngston.  I'll die on bloody Earth in a timezone where---Jack can't ever find out that I'm---Ianto Jones is, right now, right fucking now, a fourteen year old boy!  I spent his entire life jumping in and out of this timezone like a damn knitting needle!  It's not just their timelines I've crossed, it's my own!'

'Calm down, Lyn---I can't help you if---'

'You can't help me at all!  Oh, gods, I've lost them.'  It was a sob, the sound of a broken heart.  'I spent all that time away and then there was the Daleks and---I destroyed a planet to protect them, don't you understand?  I'm a fucking war criminal now---I don't have anything but my family!  Not my homeworld, not my Queen, not my rank, not my science---I have nothing!  Those two men are my world, and the children---'

Jack stopped the tape, only vaguely aware that he did it.  He felt numb and hollow at the idea of what he was hearing.  He was being given information about his own future.  He shouldn't hear it, but had found the point of too-late in hearing of a future war involving the Daleks.  He should stop and put the cassettes away and forget what little he knew. 

His finger pressed rewind.  The tape spooled back a few moments and he clicked stop, then play.

Lyn repeated himself and Jack found that it was like looking into a mirror.  Hadn't he felt the same way, loss after loss?  Gray, his father, his mother, every dead friend and every dead lover, the Doctor and Rose Tyler, all of the threads he formed in his life to serve as anchor snapped eventually or melted away.  The off-worlder whom he'd known for nine years had experienced the same sort of free-fall, a large portion of it hitting all at once.  Then, he'd been locked in a cell in the Hub's sub-level and left to deal with it for almost three years. 

Why had Youngston stopped visiting Lyn in the sub-level cell?

'Are you afraid Jack will judge you on your appearance?  The scars?'

'Not important, yeah?  I want to go home.  I won't be judged there.  They'll love me no matter how I look.'

'But you fear Jack Harkness, as he is now, will judge?'

'Your Jack isn't the man I know.  Mental and emotional evolution takes time but they do happen when a man lives as long as Jack.  I don't give a damn what anyone thinks of my face. I earned these scars.'

'Then why do you get so---'

'I look in the mirror, Doctor Youngston, and I don't know the man who looks back at me.  I'm alone here.  I'm the only one of my kind on this world and I don't even have my own face to remind me of who I really am.'

The Lyn he'd met had come to a point of acceptance.  There'd been little left of this fury.

And every word, every thing said, gave him more questions.  What he understood best was that Lyn had chosen to hide the truth rather than start lying.  He could respect that.


***


It was four days before he heard from M.

Give him a year of dirty missions and he would have a cohesive team who could practically read each others' minds.  That was if they survived so long.  He was being very careful with his attempts at finding people to trust with the life of Torchwood.  Thus far, it was still only Gwen and Rhys with Andy Davidson coming in when they needed a pinch hitter from the local, official police.

It was happening more and more that Gwen called Andy in for help or Andy called Gwen with situations that needed to be investigated. 

"It's jumping cold out here."  Andy complained under his foggy breath at Jack as the immortal stalked up and out of the culvert, his RAF coat catching burrs from the dying scrub. 

The harried Welshman was scowling, bared forearms lightly coated in slick goo.  There was a smear of green on his freckled cheek, a bit of alien viscera that hadn't been wiped away.  The police sergeant was collecting small pieces of evidence, dropping the wallets and purses into a bin bag with fingers made delicate by disgust.  "Do you really want a bodybag for him...her?  There's not enough left of this one to call it a corpse."

"Another bin bag."  Jack agreed, turning in a circle to study the scene, and eventually he came to a different decision.  "We could burn her, instead.  Save us any more work.  There's a flame thrower in the boot.  We could burn off this patch and then light up the washery, get rid of the others."

"That'd be favorite, ta."  Rhys gave a choking cough, straightened to crack the bones of his back.  He, too, had alien on him.  The smell from the culvert was strong, sour like milk gone off.  "I'm not keen on scooping up this sodding mess.  We'd need a shovel to get all of her."

The two befouled men looked at each other and then at Jack.  Neither of them seemed too anxious to continue dabbling in BEM guts.  It was Andy who sighed and shrugged, irritation lacing his words.  "Oh, yes, let me just go and get the bloody thing, shall I?"  And then, wiping his long fingers along his jeans, the blond officer headed for the black Range Rover.  "I had plans today, you know.  You could've done this without me."

"It was your mission."  Jack gave a grin he didn't feel.  "Your cousin."

Gwen was dealing with the only outside witness.  Andy Davidson's contact, she was a plump Tesco cashier with a shock of penny-bright hair.  Gwen Cooper had already managed to corral the woman to the other side of the vehicles, away from the culvert where Rhys and Andy were working.  The two stood in the tall weedy grass, their backs to the scene.  Andy's cousin was smoking a cigarette.

This didn't seem like a location to find BEMs, but there was no accounting for taste and now Blaenserchan had become the popular place for a spot of romantic murder for one particular alien with a penchant for dating and then killing Valley women.  The abandoned colliery sat in a valley overgrown and lost to time since its closing in 1985.  The only thing left of it was the washery, a towering concrete structure topped by a rusted catwalk. 

After all that he'd seen, an alien female Bluebeard was the last thing he'd expected. 

Raxacoricofallapatorian serial killers.  What the hell would be next?  Many of the species were murderous, true, but they usually went in for bigger things and worked in groups, sticking close to their family.

Andy Davidson had called Gwen yesterday with a story that had been passed along to him from his cousin, the redoubtable and fierce Sian-Mari.  According to her, there was something odd about Huw Griffins, the manager of the local Tesco in Pontypool.  Despite having the most distressing digestive problems, he never failed to have at least one woman on the go and over the last four years, several of them had disappeared, leaving behind families and jobs and without any warning or explanation.  Sian-Mari was, Andy said, convinced her boss was a murderer.

As a favor, Andy had investigated a bit on his own and returned with the idea that this was more than just a killer or even a serial killer.  Out here, following the fat store manager, Sergeant Davidson had seen something that shouted alien-alien-alien.  He'd watched Huw Griffins unzip himself out of his human skin and become a massive green female monster.

They had come out prepared with Super Soakers full of vinegar and then laid in wait for the disguised Raxacoricofallapatorian.  Huw Griffins showed up, of course, but things had arrived pear-shaped and then turned into a hostage situation.  Huw had arrived with Sian-Mari in tow; the woman had ignored Andy's warning and confronted the alien with what she knew of him.  She'd been meant to die in the valley and be fed to the penned infants.

Huw Griffins wasn't Huw at all but a nesting Henng Fel Sharlaveer-Vem Slitheen, who had used the abandoned washery at Blaenserchan as a nursery.  She'd come to Earth with a clutch of eggs in need of nurturing.  The infants were voracious and the killings, it seemed, extended beyond the occasional date-murder.

With her hostage in hand, Henng had tried to buy her way out of trouble, begging for mercy from Jack and his team.  She'd confessed to the deaths of dozens, shown them where she had kept the cast-off clothes, shoes, wallets and purses.

Andy had shot Henng with his Super Soaker when she charged at Rhys.  The two of them were covered in Slitheen and being very careful to not get in each other's way.  They worked well together, but sometimes tempers flared. 

Gwen had taken it upon herself to kill the nest, a heroic climb to the top of the washery on a rotting metal ladder.  At a much larger distance from the nest when the infant Slitheen exploded, she was still calm.  The lack of Raxacoricofallapatorian guts probably had a lot to do with her sang-froid.

She was likely wondering if Anwen was okay with Andy's mother.  Unsure of what they were facing here, she'd insisted on coming along and with both parents away from Cardiff and on a mission, an impromptu babysitter had been tossed at the little dark-haired girl.

Andy came back, shivering in the brisk autumn air.  His short hair was tufted up in the front; he'd wiped at his face again, trying to get rid of the green slime.  He looked almost fierce, his dark green eyes narrowed as he hefted the flame thrower over one bare forearm, its fuel pack cinched into place at his shoulders.  Jack shared a glance with the young Welshman whose smile got more wintry with every mission.

"Need help?"  He offered.  He'd managed to come out of this one without injuries or the same sick mess which covered the other two men.  There really was nothing for him to do, at this point, except figure out how to deal with the remains and even that was being done without him. 

"Got this."  At the start, Sergeant Andy Davidson had made an unlikely operative, but he was efficient and that was something to appreciate.  "You go charm Sian-Mari.  Gwen's good, but I'd prefer it if we didn't have to use retcon on her and she sounds like she might talk."

How had they reached this point?  Andy talked about retcon and flame throwers and behaved like a man who'd seen far too much and knew he'd be seeing far more in the near future.  The team, what there was of it, was clicking but they were exhausted; too much to do and not enough people to work with.  It was a warning sign, that Andy could become nonchalant about what the lanky Welsh cop called 'the spooky do'.

Jack's mobile began singing.  He pulled it out of his coat pocket.

"Harkness."  He left it at that.

"Captain, your choice of operatives is questionable.  Have you hired Sergeant Andrew Davidson yet?  If you do, you might keep an eye on his mother as a potential source of strife for your little street gang."

Walking through the overgrown scrub, he gave a snort and tamed his voice into something snarky despite the rising trepidation he felt.  How did M do it?  Where did his information come from?  Were there cameras out here, too?  Or was one of them carrying a bug?  Obviously, the spymaster knew that he was using Andy on missions; what else was known?

"If I thought you knew anything real about the man, I'd be actually listening instead of rolling my eyes."  Jack said, putting some distance between himself and the others.  He walked along the bottom of the hillside.

"Naturally.  Keep it in mind.  You might have cause to regret him, later."

Jack raised a brow, twisted his tone into a flirt on the off chance that he might unsettle the prim British man whose voice was pure public school.  "I don't think you called to make recruitment suggestions.  When're you gonna take me out for drinks?"

M was unflappable.  "This little stray of yours, Captain Harkness, has become a point of some national security interest."

His left foot dragged, caught on a tussock of grass roots, and he came to a stop.  Over his shoulder, he could see that Gwen had turned around at the rust-colored sedan and was watching him with knitted brows.  He made a face, as if he was bored with the call.

He was far from bored.

He wondered what it would cost him, this obvious admission from M.  If the smirking bastard had serious designs on Lyn, he wouldn't be hearing about it.  But for the admission to be landing in his ear, there would be another favor tacked onto his bill.  Someday, maybe soon, he'd look up and find himself staring into those cold blue eyes, his marker called in.

"Yeah?  How so?"  He kicked at the tussock and shifted out of Gwen's stare.

"You presented me with a man who cannot be seen on CCTV."

As if that was the most amazing thing about Lyn.  He personally thought the idea of the off-worlder's age was more intriguing.  He was worried to discover that he understood and forgave every last thing that had failed to cross the off-worlder's lips in their Sunday chats, after the last few days of listening to audio cassettes and finding out just what kind of man Lyn really was.

The electronics invisibility had its purpose, no doubt.  In the 51st century, that wasn't unusual.  It did, however, confirm something about Lyn which was never directly said in any of the interviews Youngston had conducted.  The alien human couldn't have been just a soldier.

Lyn had talked of rank, of a Queen, of science, and sometimes those words had carried a steely calm, a sense of authority which was the flip side of moments when that quiet, gentle voice had broken with a sob when talking about his children.

"You haven't seen him, then."  A question with its doubts.

"Listen to what I have said, Captain."  M gave a deep sigh, as if exasperated with him.  "He cannot be seen by CCTV cameras.  He is, however, not invisible to the human eye."

Jack found he had nothing to say to this.  He felt relief.

"I will send you the details."  The ginger spymaster informed him.

"Wait---"  Jack caught his breath and shoved a fisted hand into the pocket of his coat, wanting to ask for more and knowing that M would see it as a sign of emotional weakness where this particular 'stray' was concerned.  Blood in the water.  Instead, he asked.  "How did you find him?"

M paused and the silence creaked under pressure.  Then.  "I put your data in the hands of someone capable of careful, deductive reasoning.  He was able to locate your man without leaving London."

London.  Lyn had run to London, a city where he would be stared at every single day.  A city where his scars would draw notice and no mask could ease the eyes that followed, judged.  But...a city of eight million living bodies.

The perfect place to hide.

Ianto would've realized this so much faster.  Acknowledging it was painful.

The air he held in his lungs burned.  He let it out slowly and then bit the inside of his lip to force himself to speak in a normal tone of voice.  "Lyn's in London."

"Yes, and living there quite fearlessly, I must say, for a man who does not belong on this planet."  There was a smile in the words which he didn't care for.  "You will receive the information you need."

M had figured out that he was hunting an alien human.  Little warning alarms in his skin went off, making the hair at the nape of his neck prickle.  He could just imagine what was happening here, the things not being said.

The government wanted him to know that they were aware of what Lyn was and they hadn't made a move of their own yet.  The eyes lingering on Torchwood would grow in number.  There might arrive a day when Lyn would walk into a meeting with M and never come back out.

He lifted his chin in a challenge that no one could see.  "Huh.  I thought he was from Wales.  What makes you think he's an alien?"

"Please do not hesitate to call upon us again."  M was pleasant.  "I always look forward to a different view of the world."

Click.

Jack pocketed his mobile and rocked up onto the toes of his boots as he considered his options and found that, since starting an earnest search for the missing off-worlder, those options had shrunk down to only one.  One option. 

He would take M's information and go see for himself. 

Then, he'd make a decision about how to live with the knowledge.

With a bright grin, he turned to walk back towards his team.


***


After Saturday turned into Sunday, he dreamed.

Gwen's green eyes held an accusation.  She had heard him out until he said the words 'alien human' and then her face had gone hard, distrustful.  Her words cut in over his.  'No.  A world of no, Jack.  Jack, listen to yourself.  You can't be seriously considering something like that.  We don't know what he represents---he could be a spy, part of a sleeper cell, the first wave of an invasion---'

As if he wasn't an alien human himself. 

As if she didn't know and trust him.

He tried to explain more, to offer his evidence, but she only argued and then backed away from him, her head shaking negatively while Lyn, scars covered in black linen, refused to meet his gaze and only sighed, his words a raspy whisper that went on and on while a sloshing, thumping roar echoed around him.

'I asked you to leave me alone, Jack.  You don't understand how hard it was, seeing you every Sunday.  You looked at me and you dared to feel pity.  I didn't come to London to hide, Jack, I came here to finally live.'

Where the hell was that sound coming from?  What was it?  It reminded him of wringer washing machines, the kind used by housewives everywhere a hundred years ago.  He couldn't look away from the aging man whose thousand-yard stare made them into strangers once more.  Lyn wouldn't look at him, studied something beyond.

M stood beside Lyn, wore that bland knowing expression which turned sharp with an arched brow.  He could practically see inside the spymaster's brain and what he saw there made him want to use that damned umbrella as a weapon.  He'd cut that face to ribbons, snap that neck, grind that smile under his bootheel.  But it was easy to see he was too late.  M had gotten to Lyn first and now he'd never understand, never know.

Ianto reached out and caressed his face, pulled him in for a kiss, but the kiss was cold and tasted like blood.  The hands that held his cheek, his jaw...they were like ice.  He drew back and found himself alone and Lyn's voice was there, soft and breathy as if he'd broken himself with screaming. 

'I'm still a man, still alive, and I sat nine years in Flat Holm just for the sliver of joy your pathetic weekly visit brought to my solitary imprisonment on this world.  Far away from here, I gave my life to you, for you, and look what it's cost me.'

Ianto, in his arms, eyes blurry, begging without words and a trembling mouth.  Owen re-sewing the cut in his dead hand with dead fingers, unfeeling.  Tosh giving him a smile she didn't mean, a mask she wore in her discomfort.

Alex pulling the trigger, always pulling the trigger. 

Youngston asking.  'When's your birthday?  Does it translate to Earth?'

Lyn's distant, soft moan of pain so visceral that it felt like a slit throat draining away blood and life.  'I deserve this.  I do.  I'm just a war criminal.  I killed my Queen and destroyed my own homeworld in a war I never had a chance of winning.  All to save Jack, all to protect Ianto and Idris and Charley.  Why'm I condemned for loving them?'

Gwen jokingly complained about the mess he'd left in Thames House, laughed and then became Alice, who stared at him with horror and shock.  Ianto's blue eyes shifted, became Stephen's.  Owen and Tosh sat together on the Hub's autopsy bay steps, shoulder to shoulder and blocking his way as he tried to reach Gwen, who was arguing with Rhys again, Anwen in her arms.  Lyn's pewter-dark eyes held no recognition when they swept his way and narrowed in confusion and he knew that the off-worlder's memories didn't include him anymore.

From behind him, M asked.  'Why did you come back, Captain Harkness?'

And Jack fell to Earth.

He clawed at the duvet, scrambled to a sitting position against the headboard of a bed he'd allowed Gwen to pick out for him because he had no interest in household decorating.  His breath was harsh to his own ears and he stared at the darkness of his bedroom, absolutely certain for a moment that he was surrounded by a hundred faces, a thousand voices.

His first thought was scattered, nearly incoherent.  'I thought...I...'

His second thought was little better.  'What...'

The third was like a whisper, made his breath catch.  'November the first.  Closest translation for Earth, Lyn's birthday is...November the first.  That's...that'll be...tomorrow?  He shouldn't be alone, he shouldn't, not like I was, not like...'

His heart was pounding.  He gathered the duvet up against his bare chest and leaned back into the headboard.  Just a nightmare, just a bad dream, and considering all that he'd learned in the last weeks, not a surprise. 

Jack shakily lifted his wrist and checked the time.  It was too early, five after three in the morning.  The world outside was sleeping and he was a hundred and fifty miles from London, where he'd find Lyn today.  And he would find the older man.

On Monday---tomorrow?---the skinny off-worlder would be three hundred and twelve, having lived on Earth for fourteen years. 

Older man.  Lyn was older than him, if he didn't count the years he'd spent buried under Cardiff, which he didn't.  He'd spent most of it dead, lost in limbo.  It didn't count.  Lyn was older.  The idea of it caused the corner of his mouth to quirk up in a half-smile.  He didn't know many people who were older than him.  Just one other.  The Doctor.  His oldest friend would most certainly applaud what he was preparing to do.

With a groan, Jack pushed the blankets back and climbed out of bed.  He wasn't going back to sleep.  Might as well get a start on the day.  He picked up his mobile and started towards the shower.  He texted Gwen, well aware that she wouldn't get the message until she woke, hopefully hours from now.

'Going to London for the day.  Hold down the fort?  --Jack'

He'd just laid the mobile down when it chimed, lighting up.

Gwen.  Awake, after all.

'Sure.  Why London?  New mission?  --Gwen'

He wondered if she ever asked herself if Torchwood was worth the focus it demanded, that every single time they left Cardiff, it was assumed to be a mission or an investigation.

'No.  Taking a personal day.  Kiss Anwen for me.'  He paused and then added  'And Rhys.  --Jack'

He was still grinning at the idea of Rhys' reaction to a kiss that was meant to be from him when he stepped into the hot spray and went to work chasing away the last of his nightmare.


***



2 comments:

  1. I was thrilled to see a new chapter posted, but even more excited to realize that this is indeed part of your wonderful larger series. It’s like reconnecting with an old friend.
    In this chapter, your descriptions of Lyn’s pain, physical and emotional, are heartrending. So were the brief memories of his original team. But the mystery that is Lyn, first seen as he is now in "Terminus", is slowly starting to unravel. I enjoyed the new team coming together as a functional unit, and I’m even more curious about Mycroft’s involvement. Captivating instalment.

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    1. thank you very much, my dear. your support is always welcome and hoped for! this story is an AU of what I've done previously, but it also works as a different path of what I've written before...something that could be the canon-story of what happened to our favorite temporal scientist. time travel stories make that possible. :D

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