Space is silent, according to the laws of physics, strangled by vast distances between molecules, motionless without vicinity to aid the quivers that Newton lined up and explained.
But nothing really ever complies with the laws of physics, not when chance and chaos beckon. One just has to look for breaches; they’re all there, masquerading as reality.
Stars can hiss hello and goodbye to the right instruments, solar winds and arcs of flame sending greetings out across vast distances.
Pulsars, quasars, the cruder announcements of planetary movements, the occasional whir and ebb of stray comets, streaking in from blackness to seek the clicking warmth of suns, the whisper of clouded nebulae, black and shadowed and colored with noise and light.
Man-made things, too, are noisy in space.
Satellite Five. Game Station.
The metal and plastic, girdered and wired and soldered and extruded in a frenzy of construction, fraught with deadlines and purpose, now seemed silent. It turned soundlessly on its axis and circled the orb below — not quite so elegantly as planets and star systems, its celestial betters, completed their appointed rounds. But well enough.
Lights once bejeweled it, ships once approached and departed, moving along the lifeline to Earth. People once worked there, serving up meals, toting up monthly supply invoices, making news, tightening screws, finding entertainment, doing system diagnostics, sweeping floors, watching screens, cleaning lavatories, planning sweeps weeks, selling painkillers, kidnapping contestants.
That was before everything changed.
First the twisting and scraping of an old blue box tumbled into where it didn’t belong. Then the gold and blue of beautiful ships, moving in and bleeding shiny soldiers in rivers towards the living station. Which led, eventually, simply to bleeding, and crying, screams, shouts and whispers, groaning, and an end to noise. Then the gold and blue of loving, destructive, resurrection, so impudent in the face of what was to have been, all done with one song winding round, enthralling and freezing entropy, singing impossibility to success, bringing new noise to fruition. Breathing, and talking, and whispering and crying, and sometimes laughing.
And underneath, the noises that had never stopped; the creak of shifting plates, the hushed currents of air pushed up and down through scrubbers and filters and fans, the legato and staccato of machinery cycling through each appointed round of duty, each varying mission, the 60-cycle hum of systems in abeyance.
The silence in that hall — after the beam’s crackle, after the shouts, after the clang and echo of footsteps, as they held their breaths and lay close to each other waiting for the alarms to stop — was a fraud. If they had been calm enough to listen closely, the echoes of echoes would have come to them. They slipped out from behind loosened wall panels, pulled through forgotten tubes and tunnels, climbed up ladders not included on general Game Station schematics. Someone trained to listen might have noticed how uneven the echoes were, as if whatever generated them was stumbling, tripping.
Jack had the training, but even training fails under the weight of enough weariness and sorrow, enough fear. Govinda and Davitch were aware only that they had to protect each other, blessed with the tunnel vision of panic and love. Lynda knew nothing.
Take away the weariness, soothe the sorrow, kill the fear, and Jack would have followed echoes of echoes on near-silent feet. He would have found the panel, back on the wall, but not flush with it, something his eye would immediately have spotted.
He would have removed it, carefully, and inspected the dark way before him, lit haphazardly with old lights, dirty green and flickering red bulbs.
He would have moved back into the hall to use his comm without alerting his prey. He’d have called Meg, and she would sent her men down to help, quietly, as he ordered.
He would have removed his shoes and tied them to his belt, so as not to cause reverberations of his own, and very warily followed the echoes up to a tiny elevator cab newly descended from above, having delivered its passenger.
Jack might or might not have gone on from there. He certainly would have seen the tiny sign tucked away on one thin girder of the cab, because he was trained to notice things like that. He’d have seen the neat “Floor 80" on it, with some indecipherable hieroglyph stenciled next to the words.
If he’d looked at that glyph closely, it might eventually have become decipherable, and then his heart might have lurched with fear, or rage.
None of that happened.
Instead Jack stood up, recovering from the sprawl he had used to cover his two companions. They stayed on the floor a second or two longer, clutching each other and breathing shallowly. Then they, too scrambled to their feet, still too shocked to say anything. Jack turned to Lynda’s tumbled body, surprise and dismay in his quick curse.
He used his comm to tell Meg to lock down the cafeteria floor if the security protocols could do that by now. He wanted no one moving from where he knew they were. He told Meg the truth, that someone had shot at them. He told her to hang tight, keep cool. Meg shouted questions until he snapped at her, then cut the comm and dropped to a crouch beside Lynda. He rolled her over on her back, grimaced at the white and red blistered gouge on her cheek. Behind him, the two programmers took up positions watching both ends of the hall.
Once Jack determined that her pulse was steady, he and the others pushed, pulled and lifted Lynda back the way they’d come, not an entirely smooth operation.
-- -- -- -- --
“ — at the hell can we do?”
“Besides staying out of the way of the next shot?”
“Don’t be funny, Jack. I’m serious.”
“I know. Hold on, I’ve got Meg on the horn. Meg, has Orrin been able to get a bead on the...no, no, I understand. Look, we’re coming up. I want to look at whatever he’s been able to piece together from surveillance. Give us 10 minutes. No, I told you, we didn’t see who did it.”
“Ask her did she see any extra guns.”
“Hold on, Meg...Davitch, she’s not going to know anything about guns. Hsieh and Roger said they’d accounted for everything.”
“Well, obviously they hadn’t.”
“Yeah, you think?”
Suspended in the weightless moment between unconsciousness and the waking world, Lynda heard the voices as if they were part of some play heard from rooms, or worlds, away.
The pain flaring in her cheek sucked her into full awareness. She gasped, then explored her face, stopping when her hands touched a bandage.
“She’s awake...Meg, don’t let me keep you, I’m going to see to our patient...yeah, 10 minutes. Bye. Hey, sweetheart, how you feeling?”
That was Jack’s voice. And he was talking to her. Lynda opened her eyes, to see him standing above her, looking intently down while one finger tapped his lips. She realized she was lying on something soft. A bed. She risked turning her head and saw that she was in Strood’s bedroom. She recognized the electric blue walls and the general mess of discarded clothing littering the floor.
“Why aren’t I in my room?”
“Didn’t know which one was yours,” Jack said. “Besides, this was the one closest to the door. So. How about an answer? How do you feel?”
— rose red world and fire...no, that was wrong..ruby danger and golden rose —
The last muddled thought from darkness shredded as she struggled to a sitting position, wincing when the effort made her face hurt.
“Did I get shot?”
“You did,” Davitch said from his position near the bedroom door. He was leaning slightly against the frame, but he was anything but relaxed. “Whoever did it dropped the blaster and just disappeared. Bastard.” Lynda was faintly surprised at his anger.
“It hurts,” she said.
“I know,” Jack said. He looked so tired. “Burns like that always do. You were lucky it only grazed you. Could have been a lot worse.”
She was confused, and the pain made her irritable. “Why was someone shooting at me?” She tried to swing her legs over the side of the bed, but Jack firmly pushed her back down.
“No, not just yet. You may be lucky, but you’re still in shock. That’s a second degree burn and I couldn’t find any painkillers, much less anything to heal you up. I want you to rest for a little while longer.”
“But we — “
Before she could protest further, Govinda walked into the room, carrying a glass of water, something cupped in her other hand, a shirt and slacks thrown over one arm. When she saw Lynda was awake, she looked relieved.
“You couldn’t find any painkillers, but I did. They kept them in the kitchen for some reason. Is paracetamol OK for her, Harkness?”
He nodded. “Should be.”
“Good enough for me,” Govinda said. She held out her fist, and shook it at Lynda, who grabbed at the pills gratefully. Anything to help cut the pain, which had worked itself up, now that she thought of it, to white-knuckle intensity.
“I don’t think I’ve ever hurt so much,” she whispered, after gulping them down with the water.
“Yeah, it’s always worse when it’s the face,” Jack started, then stopped when she shook her head.
She grimaced as that made the pain flare, then schooled her face back to neutrality when the twist tugged at her burns.
“No, I mean, since before. I’ve hurt since I came back. My head hasn’t stopped hurting, and my neck. I never used to get headaches, you know?”
As she rubbed the back of her neck, she looked down and saw that her tee and hoodie were stained with dirt, and some faint prints that might have been blood. Govinda saw her looking.
“Not yours. Mine. The blast hit the wall behind you and what didn’t melt cracked like glass. I sliced myself on some while we were muscling you back here.” She waved a hand vaguely, and Lynda saw the bandage. “You’d have laughed, the way we made a cock up of getting you back here. I dropped you once — sorry. I guess I’m as much to blame as anyone for the aches and pains.”
“Not in my book,” Davitch muttered. Govinda grinned and touched his arm.
“Good thing you’re on my side.”
Davitch shrugged, coloring only slightly. Govinda’s smile softened, before she turned to Lynda again. “Anyhow, I figured I’d find something for you to change into. Dunno whose these are, but they look like they’ll fit you.”
Lynda couldn’t remember who they might have belonged to. A black shirt, prominent collar, long darts that made it form-fitting, long tails that didn’t look as if they were meant to be tucked in. The slacks were black, too, high-waisted and slightly pegged. They were both crisp and tailored, certainly nothing she’d wear.
(Honestly, Lynda, you always look like you slept in your clothes, he’d said, the night before he told her that it wasn’t her, it was him, which was probably the nicest thing he’d ever bothered to say to her. But she hadn’t known that was coming when he insulted her fashion sense. It wasn’t the first time he’d been disappointed in her. This time, she’d just said you’re being a bastard for absolutely no reason and I don’t have the time for it. Then she’d gone out for a walk, trying to ignore the fact that he was absolutely right, and that it was probably the reason she’d been passed over at the last job fair. That night she’d dreamed of her mother, all smooth hair and beautiful hands and sleek stockings, wrapped in the right color and cut no matter what season. Mother had been standing somewhere, framed in some light-limned doorway; not saying anything to her, or doing anything. Just looking beautiful, even fading elegantly as the alarm scratched at Lynda in the dark morning. Alun hadn’t been next to her when she woke; he’d been in the kitchen alcove, making coffee to share with her during the pending We Need to Talk conversation.)
“Thanks,” she said, taking the garments. Why not? Everything changes.
Davitch straightened and backed out of the room. “Jack?”
“Don’t go anywhere,” Lynda said. “Not yet. Just let me change?”
Jack sighed. “You’re not going to stay put, are you?”
A tiny smile ghosted across her lips as she inspected the shirt. “No.”
“Are you always stubborn?”
“Not really, no. But if all of you are heading back up, I don’t want to stay here by myself.”
Govinda sat down on the bed and nodded. “She’s got a point. What if whoever shot at us comes back?”
Jack shook his head slightly. “I’m not sure who was the target.”
Lynda looked from him to the door, pointedly.
He threw his hands up and walked out. Govinda made to follow, before stopping briefly: “Do you need any help?”
“Well, call if you change your mind. We’re out in the livingroom.”
She shut the door behind her.
Lynda shrugged off her hoodie then, very carefully, pulled the tee shirt over her head. Another involuntary gasp escaped her as the material caught on her bandage, but she continued. Off came her jeans. She stepped into the slacks, which were a little loose on her, but not badly. The shirt would hide most of it. They’d have looked better if she was wearing heels, but all she had were her trainers.
There was a toilette stand in the corner, complete with a wall mirror. She got up slowly and went to stand in front of it with the shirt. She put it on, fingering the dull metallic buttons as she fastened them.
The outfit made her look older, made her skin look very pale. She straightened her back, ignoring the pain in her shoulders as she moved them out of their customary hunch.
The sleeves were too long; she rolled them up past her elbows, then pulled them back down just a little. She leaned hesitantly toward the mirror, peered at her face, and, after a moment’s uncertainty, looked directly at the reflection of her own eyes. They were still the same color, muddy hazel. She fancied she saw glints in the hazel, something in shades of rust and burnt ochre, faded blood and muted flame. Abruptly, she shifted her eyes to the basin. After what seemed like a long time, she looked up again.
She looked like she always had. But not as she felt, not anything at all. And so, she supposed, with the detachment of pain and weariness, she actually didn’t look like herself anymore.
Slowly, she reached up and took the barrettes and elastics from her hair. It fell about her face, heavier than she remembered it being. Alun had always told her it was flyaway. She had always believed him.
There was a brush lying on the toilette. She picked it up and pulled at her hair, until static made it halo around her head before floating back down and past her shoulders. She liked the way it moved, its unexpected thickness. She fingered one strand, drawing it across her face to partially cover the bandage, then let it drop.
She tilted her head, measuring the totality of the stranger she saw. The trim shirt, the clean lines of the slacks, the unexpected shine of the hair. The woman staring back at her was slim, formal, someone who might move more slowly and gracefully than she could.
“The new me. Hello, Lynda, I’m Lynda.”
For a moment, Lynda didn’t recognize the sharp bark of her own laughter. When she did, it only made her laugh again. It threatened to continue, so she put a hand to her throat, tightening it until the laughter sank back and disappeared.
“Onward and upward,” she whispered to the woman — oh, so much older! — in the mirror, before walking out to join the others.
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
“The problem with being up to your ass in alligators is that you sometimes forget your original job was to drain the swamp.”
“An old saying,” Jack said. Davitch looked doubtful.
“What I mean is that we have to stay on task, which isn’t easy when someone’s taking pot shots at us.”
Jack slowed himself to the others’ pace as they headed out. Davitch and Govinda walked on each side of Lynda just behind him, and, on his orders, none of them stayed more than a pace apart. Lynda wondered if that wouldn’t make them easier to get all at once. She kept her eyes front as they walked past the ruined section of wall and relaxed only after she entered the lift and the doors had closed.
“Do you really think there’s any chance of finding our shooter in the cafeteria?” Govinda asked as they rose.
“Never hurts to check,” Jack said absently. He looked preoccupied.
“No, I suppose that’s true. I’m just worried about our timetable.”
The look Davitch gave her was priceless.
Govinda started to glare, then laughed slightly. “Listen to me...timetable? I’ve got to be kidding. I haven’t got the slightest idea of what I’m talking about.” Another moment of silence, then “Damn, I wish I had a fag.”
The lift opened at Floor 56, directly onto an unexpectedly large, low-ceilinged room. It was lit with row after row of yellow-blue fluorescent bars, each centered above corresponding rows of trestle-style tables. Broad archways at each end of the room opened on what appeared to be similar dining halls to the left and right. Opposite the lift was the food line, a kitchen area visible behind glass partitions. The institutional food smell, redolent of indifferent steam table roast beef and tired chip frying oil, made Lynda gag.
The crowd which had made Control almost unnavigable were more spread out here, but nearly every table had its complement of men and women. Many turned to look at them as they walked in, but others were more interested in polishing the last food from their plastic plates. Neither fear nor confusion could blunt the hunger of the recently revived.
“We’re not staying long,” Jack said quietly. “I want to ask Meg and Hsieh about something, and get up to Archive Six. We’ve got a lot of work to do. Meg!”
The floor boss had jumped from her chair at one end of the hall even before the lift doors had fully opened, heading their way at a barely contained run. When she got closer, she gasped at Lynda’s face.
“Bloody hell, you weren’t kidding...that looks nasty.”
“Oh. Yeah, it hurts. Not nearly as much as it did,” Lynda said, remembering to smile in spite of the stabbing pain.
A tall Asiatic security man, with the placid geniality of the very big and the born enforcer written across his face, joined them. He acknowledged Davitch and Govinda, narrowed his eyes at Lynda’s injury, and addressed his comments to Jack.
“I put a watch on the secondary exits when Meg got your call, but honestly? It’s like shutting the barn door after the horse is gone.”
“Hsieh, right?” Jack nodded to him, professional to professional. “You’re absolutely right, but it never hurts to keep everyone where you can see them.”
Hsieh grunted his agreement, then gestured in the direction of the diners. “You probably have a couple more hours of grace, you know.”
“How do you figure that?” Davitch asked.
“Here, let’s sit down,” Hsieh said, motioning them toward a nearby empty table, a little removed from the others, with chairs rather than benches. Once everyone had found a seat, he resumed. “Everyone was irritable when they walked here. Lot of people started talking trash once they got out of your earshot, sorry to say, although the bloke you shut down wasn’t doing any of it. And then they got one whiff of the cooking...god on a blue surfboard! I’ve never seen anything like it. They couldn’t get in line fast enough. If I hadn’t gotten a couple of my guys back there to dish up swill, I don’t know what would have happened. Lucky the caf never shuts down.
“Anyhow, everyone’s stuffed now. I know I am. Don’t think I’ve ever been so hungry. And if I wasn’t working on staying awake, I’d just find me a spot under some table for a nap. This lot are probably going to do the same thing.”
“Excellent,” Jack said, with a trace of relief. “People are my biggest — no, make that my second biggest — problem right now. If they want to relax for a bit, let’s encourage it. It’s a shame we can’t move some cots in here.”
Hsieh looked self-satisfied. “I think I know where I can scare up something to fit that bill.”
“Grab a couple of folks to help you,” Meg interjected. “Believe it or not, Mayhew will probably take orders nicely. That lad, the one with his granny? He’ll do fine. Ask Cherrie to tag one or two more.”
The big man looked in the direction Meg indicated. “Sure. I can use the muscle. Besides, the more we get the rubes involved in doing things, the less they’re asking why we’re not doing anything.”
That elicited an awkward silence around the table, until Jack said, “We may look like we’re making it up as we go along, but it’s not that bad. Trust me.” He didn’t smile as he said it, probably because Hsieh didn’t look like the kind of man who’d believe a smiling stranger.
“Not like I have a hell of a lot of options,” the latter said, shrugging. “I want to get off this sodding bucket as much as anyone, and I haven’t the slightest clue how to do it. So if you’re telling me you’ve got a plan, I’ll believe you, won’t I?”
Jack nodded after a moment. “Right. So here’s the situation. Someone shot at us and that means someone is either crazy — which could be the case, I certainly never count that out — or someone doesn’t like us — which we probably shouldn’t discount, either. Although I think we’ve been pretty charming about trying to save their asses.”
Govinda’s smile was grim.
“However, we have one other possibility,” the Captain continued, his mouth twisting around the words. “Someone doesn’t want us to figure out a way to get off Game Station.”
Lynda started to laugh because that was so obviously a joke, but stopped when she saw his thin-lipped head shake. Davitch tapped a finger nervously on the table top, and licked his lips.
“Go on, Jack.”
Jack looked up at the ceiling, and rubbed his hands through his already unkempt hair. His jaw was shadowed with several hours of beard, which only served to make him look even more haggard than he actually was. Although, she thought, that wasn’t much of a stretch.
(Hi, Lynda, he’d said, all charm and bright eyes as he introduced himself, Captain Jack Harkness, and she’d felt herself blush, especially after the Doctor had shot his lieutenant a sour look. Jack hadn’t seemed to mind. He was shining with confidence.)
“Did everyone get moved off Floor 300, Meg?”
“Good. That leaves Floor 80. Which, I assume, is still refusing to let anyone in?”
“Yeah,” Hsieh said. Then his eyes narrowed again.
“You think the trouble’s there?”
Jack held up a finger, and Hsieh subsided.
“One more question, and I’m not expecting an answer, but — did Iris Anders make it back here?”
Meg frowned. “Anders?”
“The SITM administrator we snagged up in Control,” Davitch said.
“I know Anders,” Hsieh said heavily. “She used to be the SITM liaison with Security. Unpleasant twat — beg your pardon ladies.”
Jack steepled his fingers, caught Davitch’s eye and then looked at the programmer’s drumming fingers. Davitch snatched them away from the table, looking abashed.
“What’s your point, Jack?” Lynda asked, feeling her stomach go light.
“She’s not here. She left the apartment not five minutes before we were attacked.”
“Oh you can’t be serious!” Govinda interrupted. “That woman?”
Jack’s eyebrow threatened to disappear into his hairline. “What, you think someone needs to look dangerous to be dangerous?”
“Well, no, but —”
“No buts,” he said. “Some of the worst killers I ever knew looked like elementary school teachers.”
Meg looked dubious, but kept her voice low. “So, leaving aside what she looks like, you think she’s the shooter?”
Jack shook his head, reluctantly admitting, “Not sure she actually did the deed herself, but — Lynda, did you notice anything when I sent you to get her in the head?”
She shook her head. “But I’ll be honest, she made me feel odd. It was the way she looked at me. There was something in...I dunno, maybe I’m just imagining it now that we’re talking about her.”
“No, sweetheart, I don’t think so,” Jack said. “I think your instincts were spot on. She’s the key. We have to find Iris.”
He sat up straight again, an odd satisfaction warring with anger in his face and voice. It seemed to wash away his weariness, which made Lynda want to cheer. That energy might not last, but it was a hopeful sign. If he could just be strong a little while longer...but that seemed so unfair to him, she unexpectedly thought.
“You think she’s on 80,” Govinda said flatly.
“Has to be,” Davitch said softly, clearly catching Jack’s mood and argument. Then his jaw dropped. “Oh hell. Of course it makes sense.”
Govinda’s dark eyes filled with worry. “What?”
Davitch controlled his agitation. “Think, ‘Vinda. What’s on 80?”
“Ground Force — oh my God.” She smacked her forehead. “They’re in the Ground Force studio suite. Oh fuck.”
Meg’s jaw dropped, which made her look, incongruously, quite comical. “Wha — oh.”
Govinda nodded, her face ashen under the toffee.
“A little less shock, a little more information?” Jack said, quite calm now.
“Jack, we’ve got a real problem, here,” Davitch said. “I’m really sorry. Really, really, sorry.”
“Ground Force uses live firepower. The show, I mean. That’s the whole point of it. Those studios are built to handle everything short of tank battles. They’ve probably got an arsenal down there.”
Jack put both hands on his head and blew out a long, whistling breath.
“That’s what I was afraid of.”
Hsieh said nothing, but waved over one of his men.
“Roger, did you ever pull Ground Force duty?”
The second security man shook his head. “Why?”
“We may have a problem in the Ground Force suite.”
As Hsieh spoke, the cafeteria was plunged into darkness.
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