They found it in a ditch, coated in mud and dust and debris from its fall to Earth. A comet, that’s what the witnesses had said. Crashing to the ground, just like in the movies. But the Torchwood team were on the site in a matter of minutes, and they knew better.
It wasn’t a comet. It was a pod, jettisoned from a ship somewhere far out in space. After a few minutes they were back in the SUV, carrying the fallen object with them and leaving no sign that it had ever been there at all. They’d figure out what and why later. That was what they did.
Gathered round the table in the conference room, the Torchwood team peered at the object they’d found, though no one appeared particularly keen to offer an opinion on it. Watching from his seat at the head of the table, Jack was certain he knew exactly what they were thinking. This machine — whatever it was — looked horribly familiar.
“It looks just like the ghost machine …” said Gwen, eventually. Her voice flickered and died. She was unable to say anymore. The memories of that particular machine were still heavy and sour and painful in all of their minds.
“Can’t blame them for throwing it overboard, then,” muttered Owen, “Why would anyone want to keep one of those things?”
He’d perhaps been affected more than anyone by the events triggered by the ghost machine, though it had been Gwen who’d ended up with blood on her hands. None of them wanted to repeat that nightmare, and Jack knew it.
“We’ll put it into secure storage,” he said, getting to his feet and indicating the end of the meeting, “Deal with it when we’ve got time. It’s not exactly urgent.”
They all knew what that meant. Some of the things thrown into secure storage would probably never get dealt with, and it was often better that way. None of them were going to argue with Jack’s choice. They had enough to be getting on with anyway, really. There were more than enough things that could justify the choice, if they felt the need to prove it.
Only Gwen didn’t look happy with the decision, following Jack down to secure storage with a furious expression on her face.
“We can’t just forget about it, Jack!” she protested.
“Why not?” he asked, looking vaguely amused, “You of all people know what that thing can do!”
“It might not be the same as the ghost machine,” she persisted.
“It’s unlikely to be anything different, Gwen,” he said gently, placing the machine safely on a shelf and giving her shoulder a quick, comforting squeeze. “Just forget about it, ok?”
She nodded unwillingly, and Jack gave her a smile that would usually have melted her to the core. This time it just fuelled her annoyance. She watched him walk of sight, and didn’t even think twice about what she was going to do. With a furtive glance over her shoulder, Gwen picked up the machine. She could feel the hot, uncomfortable sensation of guilt settling in her stomach, but she brushed it aside. She knew she’d made a similar mistake before, but at Torchwood it was impossible to tell what would happen next. This might be nothing like that cursed ghost machine, and she had to cling to that thought.
It was the idea of never actually knowing what this thing was, and what it did, that Gwen couldn’t bear. She’d always been an inquisitive sort of person — Rhys called her nosy, when he was in a bad mood — but since she’d started working here it had become a hunger, somewhere inside. She couldn’t rest until she’d uncovered every detail. She couldn’t just let things go anymore, or accept the offered explanations dished out by the police or the government.
With one last look at Jack’s retreating back, Gwen inhaled sharply and pressed the button. Once you started seeing the truth, seeing what was really out there, it was too hard to step back.
She’d expected a rush of wind, a swirl of colour … or something, at least. But there was nothing. Nothing at all. For a single second, she was standing frozen in the Hub and then, in the same instant, she was somewhere else entirely.
There was still an awareness of Torchwood, somewhere in the back of her mind, but that was all that was left. It was almost a memory, but not quite that strong. Now she was standing in a field, tall grass stretching as far as her eyes could see in every direction. There were no houses, no signs of civilisation, and the only word that came to Gwen’s mind was ‘nothingness’.
It wasn’t cold, though the overcast sky above her suggested it should be. The air was eerily still, and the grey colouring of the clouds seemed to have extended to the rest of the world around her. Everything seemed to be a dull shade of grey, as if all the colour and all the life had been drained out of the place.
Once again, her first thought was of the ghost machine, but this was different somehow. It wasn’t an echo of the past. It wasn’t even a vision of the future. It was still ‘now’. She was just experiencing ‘now’ somewhere else.
Taking a step forward, and then another, Gwen began to walk forward without really feeling as if she was walking at all. This was like a dream, except you were never able to feel in dreams. She could feel now, although not physically. There was a chilly feeling, coming from somewhere deep inside her, and she knew from prior experience that it must be fear. The unknown was always the most terrifying, and this place was far too quiet. She almost wished for Jack or someone to be standing beside her, but she pushed that thought away immediately. She’d be damned if she admitted to needing help from anyone.
What scared her most was the fact that her hands were empty. As far as she could see, this was a sort of projection of herself, not her physical body. And that meant that there was no way of releasing the button on the machine and escaping back to the Hub. She might be safe for the time being, with no obvious dangers in the vicinity, but it still looked as if she was trapped.
And it didn’t look like she was going to be alone for much longer, either. There was a shape forming a few metres in front of her. Hazy at first, but the shadows were growing steadily more solid, arms and legs taking shape, then the more detailed features of the figures face. It was a woman, a little younger than Gwen herself, with blonde hair and eyes that were wide with understandable confusion. She appeared harmless enough, but Torchwood had taught Gwen to take nothing for granted anymore.
As she watched the young woman intently, Gwen knew she was just waiting for a sign that something was out of place - although she was forced to admit she had no idea what she would do if such an eventuality occurred.
The new arrival was taking stock of her surroundings, and didn’t notice Gwen standing silently nearby. When she did, however, Gwen was surprised to see her own guardedness reflected in the face of the other woman. It was an expression she’d only ever seen before on the faces of her co workers. People like her, who had seen things that didn’t fit into the ordinary world that people thought they lived in.
“Hello,” said Gwen, unable to suppress her curiosity any longer, “I’m Gwen.”
“Hi,” said the blonde, though she seemed unwillingly to focus on Gwen properly.
“Do you know where we are?” Gwen asked, as carefully as she could, and the woman, to her surprise, simply laughed.
“Do you?” she countered, and Gwen reluctantly shook her head.
“At least we’re in the same boat,” she laughed, though Gwen wasn’t entirely sure whether she wanted to agree or not yet. By admitting that they were in the same boat, Gwen would both be acknowledging there was a problem and tying the two of them together. Neither was a move she wanted to make just yet.
“How did you get here, then?” the blonde asked, when she realised Gwen wasn’t going to speak without some coaxing.
“It’s complicated,” said Gwen, with a dismissive shrug of her shoulders, “The place I work, well, things there are never exactly normal. You probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“Try me,” the woman challenged, with such a calmness and confidence in her voice that Gwen was actually answering before she had a chance to check herself.
“We found this machine. We weren’t entirely sure what we did, but it reminded us of something we’d seen a while back. We called it the ghost machine, because that’s what you saw, ghosts. We never knew its real name, and we stopped using it in the end. As well as seeing the past, you could see the future too, sometimes. But I couldn’t help myself …”
The woman nodded. There was a strange understanding in her brown eyes, and Gwen felt suddenly nervous. She realised she’d probably said too much, but that it didn’t really matter, because this woman seemed to know more than her anyway.
“That sort of thing happen a lot in your job then, does it?” she asked, but this time Gwen was on guard, watching her words, and didn’t speak at all.
“You can tell me, you know,” her companion said soothingly, “I probably wouldn’t even blink. I bet I’ve seen some stuff that’d give even you a shock.”
“Like what?” Gwen asked, unable to help herself. After all, she might answer. You needed to give a little to get a little, didn’t you?
“Like Cybermen,” offered the other woman, “And Daleks and Slitheen and Ood and Reapers and a werewolf and gas mask zombies and Sycorax and…”
She trailed off, looking at Gwen with eyes that might have been bright with amusement or with tears, it was hard to tell.
“Is that enough?” she wanted to know, and Gwen wouldn’t have had the heart to say no even if she had been unsatisfied. She hadn’t recognised most of those names, but the emotion in the woman’s face was too poignant to be disbelieved.
“Yeah,” she said, “Its enough. And a much longer list than mine.”
“That’s nothing to be proud of,” she retorted, but at least she was smiling now. And it’ll probably grow longer. The 21st century is when it all changes.”
“What?” Gwen repeated with uncharacteristic sharpness.
“The 21st century …” the woman began, but Gwen had spoken before she could finish.
“Is when everything changes. Jack always says that.”
“Jack?” asked the woman, and Gwen nodded.
“Jack Harkness. Captain Jack Harkness. He’s my boss.”
The girl inhaled sharply, her eyes widening.
“Oh my god,” she murmured, starting to shake, “You’re from my world …”
“It can’t be your world!” gasped Gwen in alarm, and the girl rounded on her, furious.
“Yes it is!” she snapped. “I was born there, grew up there, travelled the length and breadth of its time and space and dimensions. I thought I’d die there.” She paused, giving Gwen a wry smile. “I guess I did,” she added.
“What d’you mean, you died?” Gwen asked, feeling a sudden icy sensation gripping her chest, but before the woman could open her mouth to speak, she began to fade. The colour was bleaching out of her clothes and her hair and her skin, like an overexposed photograph. She was dissolving away back into the nothingness she had seemed to appear from.
“No!” she gasped in horror, “No, not yet …”
Gwen took a desperate step forward, a strange, inhuman desperation gripping her chest, but she knew already that the situation was futile. There was a strange tugging sensation at her own navel, and she knew without really having to think about it that she was disappearing too.
“Who are you?” she managed to ask, though everything around her was becoming black and hollow, and she couldn’t see the woman or the field anymore.
“Rose,” she heard her saying, somewhere in the darkness, “Rose Tyler …”
And then she was standing in the Hub, with Owen shaking her fiercely and whatever she’d just seen a whole world away.
“What the hell were you playing at, Gwen?” shouted Owen as he snatched the machine out of her hands, “Haven’t you learnt anything since working here?”
Even if she had wanted to answer him, she couldn’t. She felt slightly sick, like she’d been woken too early from an impossibly deep sleep. Owen’s words washed over her, but went unheard. It took several sips of steaming coffee to help return her to more-or-less normal.
Jack had guided her into a chair, and was now stood calmly at her side, waiting until she was ready to speak. She was glad he hadn’t started to disparage her as Owen had, and she was aware of the doctor hovering in the background, itching to launch into another tirade. It was probably only Jack — and maybe curiosity — that kept him silent.
“What did you see?” asked Jack, gently.
“I’m not sure,” Gwen replied, “It wasn’t like the ghost machine. I didn’t see anything from the past, or even the future. I was just in a different place.”
She paused, taking another mouthful of coffee, and trying to work out exactly how she could explain where she’d been, and the what she’d seen there. She knew they wouldn’t be able to understand, but she had to try, at least.
“There was a woman there,” she said, “And …”
She broke off, unsure of what to say next. She was aware of Owen and Tosh both staring at her as if she was a specimen in a lab, and Ianto watching from a distance with a mixture of mingled interest and concern. It was only Jack who watched her impassively, with no emotions betrayed by his face. This was slightly reassuring, and Gwen managed to force herself to continue. After all, it was Jack’s opinions she really wanted, and his reassurance.
“She seemed to understand. It was like, like she knew …”
Knew what exactly? How it felt to learn about the world outside their own planet, and to be both fascinated and terrified by it all?
“She knew about Cybermen,” Gwen informed them, deciding it was easier to simply ignore that train of thought, “And all these other things.”
“Did you find out her name?” enquired Tosh, fingers poised over the keyboard.
“She said it was Rose. Rose Tyler.”
If Gwen hadn’t been so absorbed in her own experience, she might have noticed the look on Jack’s face. But her eyes flickered to Ianto, who spoke first.
“There was a Rose Tyler killed in the battle at Torchwood One,” he said softly, and Gwen felt a sudden, horribly sensation of nausea sweep through her.
“Oh God,” she whispered, “Where did I go?”
Before anyone had a chance to answer her question, Jack spoke. And it wasn’t what she wanted to hear, for once.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, white faced and furious, “You won’t be going back. I’m taking this back to secure storage”
“But Jack!” gasped Gwen, too taken aback to react when he snatched the machine out of her hands, “You can’t! We don’t even know what it is yet! We don’t really know where it took me …”
“She’s dead, Gwen,” said Owen nastily, “Where d’you think it took you?”
She ignored him, though she felt the nausea rising in her chest again. She looked desperately over at Jack, her eyes trying to communicate with him her need to learn the truth. But his just turned and walked away, and there was something in his expression that she didn’t dare argue with.
Days passed. They felt like eternities. She woke up and went to work, then went back home to Rhys, or over to Owen’s flat for comfort and sex and a nice healthy dose of guilt to keep her awake through the rest of the night. And even if she didn’t go home with Owen, she still couldn’t sleep, because the thought of Rose and the netherworld was never really out of her mind. It had become an obsession, in the same way Eugene’s death had done. Except he had been a ghost. Why wasn’t she able to shake Rose’s memory? Was she some sort of spectre as well? Had she visited the afterlife, such as it was?
It was nearly a month after they’d first discovered that machine when she finally snapped. She wasn’t entirely sure what the trigger was, though Owen’s snide comments about a ‘guest’ in the morgue certainly didn’t help. He’d made crude jokes about whether the man might be in ‘Gwen’s little shadow world’, and he hadn’t meant for her to hear, but she had and it had hurt. She was well aware that Owen wasn’t anymore hers than she was his, but she still expected some degree of loyalty.
So she waited until the doctor had gone home, and Tosh too. Ianto was still in the Hub, and Jack, of course, but she wasn’t sure where, and doubted they’d notice if she remained behind as well. It was almost too easy to find the shelf which the machine had been placed on, left to gather dust in the darkness. Rows and rows of alien artefacts. They must have meant something to some creature out there, once.
Reverently, Gwen lifted the box down from the shelf. She found her hands trembling when she opened it, though she couldn’t be sure of this was anticipation or fear. A little of both, she supposed. She wasn’t sure how she’d react if her theory was correct, but was also fed by the need to know either way.
She stepped back through into the nothing world. The ghostly wind tugged at her hair and clothes, but she didn’t feel it. There was no chill in the air, no sense of menace hovering on the breeze. Just nothing, not even Rose, for which Gwen was partly relieved as well as disappointed. The many questions she had had been burning in her mind for what seemed like an eternity now, but she still wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answers.
On the other hand, another, considerably stronger part of her refused to just walk away. It was the same impulse that had driven to follow Jack when she’d seen him in the hospital. Gwen knew that even if it dragged her into a world she didn’t necessarily want to be a part of, she’d never rest easy without the sense of peace that came with knowledge. If you could call it peace.
There was no sign of Rose, but she didn’t know when she’d next get a chance to use the machine unhindered. She already knew that no time passed in the real world when she was here, thanks to Owen, and supposed that she should make the most of that. She sat down again a skeletal tree, a new presence in the otherwise bare grassland, and she waited.
It seemed like she waited forever, or for no time at all. Hovering there, between worlds, she wasn’t sure. But Rose appeared eventually, paler than Gwen remembered, with dark rings around her eyes. She wasn’t looking at Gwen, even when the other woman scrambled awkwardly upright. She was staring straight past her, as if she expected — or wanted — someone else to materialise nearby.
“Hello again,” said Gwen, and, somewhat unwillingly, Rose turned to look at her, forcing a tired smile to her lips.
“Who … who are you looking for?” Gwen couldn’t help but ask the question, and immediately wished she hadn’t, as tears sprung up in Rose’s eyes.
“No one,” she said, “I know I’ll never see him again. But I can’t help hoping sometimes …”
She fiercely wiped her tears away with the back of a hand, and Gwen gave her a sympathetic smile, taking an automatic step closer to her.
“Who is he?” she asked, trying to sense whether the other woman wanted to talk or to simply bury her head in the sand. She blamed her years in the police force for making her act like this, trying to sense moods and emotions, always trying to help. Sometimes she wished she didn’t care so much, but she also knew it was no good to try and chance her nature.
“He was called the Doctor,” said Rose quietly, “And I loved him, once.”
“And why can’t you find him?” Gwen pressed, taking one step closer to the question she was, even now, afraid to ask.
“There are some distances you can’t cross,” Rose replied.
Her voice was calm, almost flippant, but Gwen was adept enough at reading people by now to see the pain behind her façade.
“What’s the distance?” she pressed, using what Owen had dubbed her ‘social worker’ tone of voice. It was supposed to be comforting, even in difficult situations, but she always felt so ridiculously patronising.
“Worlds and worlds,” said Rose, with a dry laugh.
“Death is the one thing no one can control,” said Gwen, in a manner that was supposed to soothing and comforting. It definitely wasn’t supposed to make Rose burst out laughing.
“Dead?” the blonde woman chuckled, “You think I’m dead?”
“Well … aren’t you?” asked Gwen, now completely bewildered.
“No!” Rose said, shaking her head, “And there’s no way the Doctor is.”
“Then where are we?” asked Gwen, desperate to be able to believe her, but unsure at the same time. “You said you were from my world!”
“I am …” said Rose, pausing and frowning, “I was. It’s, well, it’s complicated. You must have heard of the theory of parallel worlds, all lying alongside each other?”
Mutely, Gwen nodded.
“I was born in your world, but I ended trapped in this one.”
Gwen didn’t dare ask why.
“This is some sort of in between place,” Rose continued, “As far as we can tell, anyway.”
Gwen didn’t dare ask who ‘we’ was, either.
“I can see your world,” said Rose miserably, “But I can’t get there.”
“So this field must be your world, then?” asked Gwen, intrigued despite herself.
“What d’you mean?” asked Rose, bemused, “We aren’t in a field. It looks more like a workshop crossed with a warehouse to me …”
After a moments silence, the truth finally clicked. While Gwen saw the field, an overgrown echo of Rose’s world, the other woman saw the ethereal image of the Hub, just out of reach, and for one, wonderful moment, they shared a look of complete understanding.
“That’s the Hub,” said Gwen, “Its where I work.”
“And Jack works there too?” asked Rose. Gwen nodded.
“He thinks you’re dead,” she said, quietly.
“I thought he was,” Rose countered, and then she smiled softly. “I’m glad he’s not. He’s one in a million, Jack Harkness.”
“You can say that again. Being recruited by him was the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to me. And the scariest.”
“If you don’t mind me asking,” said Rose, slowly, “What exactly is your job?”
Wrong footed at first, Gwen was horrified to realise that she actually could answer the question. What was her part in Torchwood?
“Well,” she said, thinking aloud, “Tosh is the computer genius. Owen’s our doctor. Jack’s the boss, and Ianto …” she paused, “Well, Ianto makes us coffee and looks good in a suit.”
“I wasn’t asking about them,” Rose laughed.
“To be honest, I don’t really know what I bring to the team,” said Gwen, unable to believe she was actually admitting this. “When I started working there, Jack told me to make sure I didn’t forget my outside life. To make sure I didn’t forget what it meant to be human. Like the rest of the team have.”
“Doesn’t that make you the human perspective for the team?” asked Rose, and Gwen frowned. She didn’t like this line of questioning. She didn’t like how it made her feel.
“I don’t know,” she managed, eventually, aware of Rose’s eyes fixed on her.
“Aren’t you scared you’re going to lose your humanity too?” Rose asked, though she didn’t sound as if she was prying. She sounded sympathetic. She seemed to understand, and Gwen wasn’t entirely sure whether to be comforted or worried by this. She nodded, unable to speak, and Rose didn’t bother speaking again either. They just stood there, silent, sharing their unspoken thoughts and fears and each drawing comfort from the other, somehow.
But then the moment passed, and Rose swore, loudly, as she began to fade just like she had the first time. Gwen now knew that someone in her own world was disturbing her, but before either of them had a chance to speak, the blonde woman was gone, and Gwen was alone.
For one, horrible moment, she realised that, since nobody knew she was down in secure storage, no one would come and disturbed. But then she thought that no alien race intelligent enough to build this sort of machine would be foolish enough to leave the leader trapped. All it took was control. Gwen willed herself back into the Hub, and, with a slick, soft sort of movement, she was there again.
Feeling strangely proud of herself, she returned the machine to the shelf and sauntered home. She wanted to boast of her discovery to someone, feeling the same sensation of pride she always did when another mystery was solved, but there was no one she could tell. Except, perhaps, Rose?
The next day, after her co workers had headed off home, or, rather more accurately, to various Cardiff drinking establishments, Gwen slipped back down to secure storage. She was no longer afraid about slipping into the nothing-between-worlds. And, by her own reasoning, since she now knew what it was, she shouldn’t even want to. She wanted to see Rose just one more time, and, despite the fact that they were whole universes apart, she couldn’t get the other woman out of her head.
Rose wasn’t there, though. Gwen could have waited hours, or minutes, or no time at all, it was hard to tell. But in the end she gave up, and released the button. Back to her world, but only for now. She would see Rose again, and, in fact, her next chance was only a few days later.
Owen was apparently ill and off work, though the amount of alcohol he’d consumed the night before suggested it was simply a bad hangover. She had no idea where Ianto, Jack and Tosh where, but they weren’t anywhere near secure storage, and that was enough for Gwen. She was getting almost used to this by now, but she didn’t like it. She didn’t like lying to her friends, and she also knew that espionage wasn’t her strong suit. It was only a matter of time before she got caught out.
If she’d seen Jack appearing out of his office and follow her into the heavily locked room, Gwen might have realised that she’d been found out even earlier than she’d expected. As she pressed the button, he darted forward. Close enough to travel with her, but not quite close enough for Gwen, wrapped up as she was in thoughts of Rose, to notice.
This time Rose was already there. She was standing in the shadow of the tree with a hand outstretched, and Gwen knew at once what she was trying to do. She wondered how many times she had come here, searching for some sort of route back to her world and her Doctor. How many times had she gone home after failing again, with the desperation that fed her being extinguished a little more each time?
She looked even paler than she had the last time Gwen had seen her. The shadows around her eyes had deepened and darkened, giving her an almost deathly appearance. Rose was wearing herself out to the point of collapse, but Gwen knew that nothing she could say would be able to stop her. She could see a little of herself in the other woman, and that was what really worried her.
“Don’t, Rose” Gwen pleaded as she hurried towards her across the ghostly field, “Please don’t!”
She knew that Rose wouldn’t listen, but somehow felt better for saying it. At least it got the blonde woman’s attention, and she looked up from her task with exhaustion showing in her formerly bright brown eyes.
“How long have you been here?” Gwen asked, and Rose gave a half-shrug, her cheeks flushing pink with embarrassment.
“How long, Rose?” asked Gwen again, and this time she answered, shuffling her feet like a child who had been cornered by their teacher.
“I don’t know,” she admitted, “But I’m so close! I can’t just give up now!”
She actually half believed her words, thought Gwen sadly. That made things even more difficult.
“I had a look on the internal interface,” Gwen said, “About parallel worlds.”
“And?” Rose gasped, with such hope Gwen almost turned and ran, rather than break this girl’s heart all over again. Believing in a chance to find the Doctor might be killing her, but it was also making her feel more alive than she had in years.
“It said you can’t get back. It’s impossible.”
With a deep, shuddering sigh, Rose nodded.
“I know. I’m trying to feel it, but I can’t. Why can’t I feel it?”
She had taken another step towards Gwen. The other woman could almost imagine her scent, her warmth. Part of her longed to reach out, to bridge the distance between them and just touch …
“I want to go home,” Rose whispered and wordlessly, helplessly, Gwen stepped forward. She didn’t know what she could have said to make it better, or to let Rose know she understood. But before she even had a chance to think of an idea, Rose had moved to. Tentatively at first, Rose pressed her lips to Gwen’s, and, a moment later, Gwen was returning the kiss.
Jack, hidden a few metres away, blinked. He’d spent so many years working for Torchwood, and yet there were still some things that surprised him.
It wasn’t lust. It was hardly even love. It was desperation, it was comfort, it was the need to feel someone else close to you, close enough to share the fear inside. Neither of them were exactly alone anymore, and, for a few moments, this nowhere place felt real. For a few moments, even Jack felt almost alive.