Since the moment he awoke in the BubbleShock! factory, even before he understood the concept of numbers, Luke could remember having a better-than-average sense of the passage of time and rarely needed to look at the watch he always wore. His estimates of time were often accurate to the minute, and occasionally, when he tried hard, he could mark time to the second. Even under significant disorientation, which happened not infrequently in the life Sarah Jane led, he could maintain an ongoing count of his heartbeats, adjusting for any factors that increased his heart rate, and at least have a good idea of how long he’d been in a place (though without a starting point as a frame of reference, it didn’t help a lot). He could remember losing that automatic count only twice: once when the Bane tried to kill him, and once when the Xylok’s presence in his head drove everything from his mind but blind terror and an animal need to escape.
The first set of tests had flung the count right out of his mind, and every time the techs returned and their instruments scraped through his brain, he found it harder and harder to get it back. It used to be an involuntary sort of thing, no thinking required, numbers flowing by at the back of his mind. Now it was a conscious effort; he clung to the numbers with desperate focus, as if only holding on to something that didn’t change would keep him sane, and even then his count kept slipping.
The techs had come to his cell–he couldn’t think of it as anything else–five times in all by now. Sometimes different lab-coated people showed up instead. They stayed long enough to run three or four tests, and then they left; sometimes one was just a scan of bran activity and that didn’t hurt, but everything else did. He thought they left him alone anywhere from three to six hours in the intervals, but that was a very rough estimate; between whatever they put in his IV and whatever they did to his brain, he didn’t usually stay conscious for long afterward. Even then he couldn’t rest–he dreamed in fractured shapes and colors, spheres and spikes and shiny blades, cacophonous voices and music that sang destruction, all backed by a faint rhythm like a drumbeat.
After the third time, he stopped trying to ask what the techs were doing; they ignored him completely, sometimes discussing whatever results they got as if he were nothing more than an interesting science project, sometimes chatting idly about office drama or plans for the evening. When he could speak, which wasn’t always, there were times he couldn’t keep himself from begging them to stop, let him go, tell him what was happening, but they never gave a sign of having heard him.
He knew they had, though. He could tell that much.
He hadn’t stopped trying to access the telekinesis that was giving them such good readings. That hadn’t changed either. He couldn’t touch anything in that place in his mind, nothing at all, and he didn’t even know how to try. The headache that never went away now didn’t help.
(Luke thought, at one point, dizzy with exhaustion after an especially long test, that this much not-knowing might just drive him mad if everything else didn’t. He’d survived a number of bad situations because he knew things, because he could figure things out faster than other people, because he had the memory of thousands of humans. Now he had nothing.)
The cuffs were sized precisely to his wrists and ankles, giving him no room to slip them even if he knew how to dislocate joints to change the shape of his hands, which he didn’t–and if he managed that, during the short periods he could stay awake, that needle in the back of his head held him prisoner more effectively than any restraints. He had no idea what it might do if he moved too suddenly or tried to pull away from it, and paralysis from severed vertebrae would not do much to help him get away.
And then there was the tag they’d put in the side of his neck, at some point early on; he’d been awake for it, felt the sudden sharp sting of a double-pronged pneumatic injection and lingering burn as it went in. Of course they hadn’t said anything, but he knew what it was for: something about the injection seemed to press on his senses, scraped raw as they were, like the nagging presence at the back of his mind of something he’d forgotten. It was a tracking device, and his certainty of that comforted him a little. Wanting to track him probably meant they already planned to let him go, eventually–but it also meant they’d be following him, they wouldn’t go away, and they’d have to make him forget all of this.
He didn’t want to forget. He didn’t want to forget anything. He already felt inhuman enough.
He just wanted to go home.
A giant round door rolled aside, and Martha led Maria and Sarah Jane into the Hub.“Try not to look at the computers or touch anything that seems alien or delicate,” she said over her shoulder, “and don’t go downstairs. House rules,” she added a bit apologetically.
“Well, my attic has much the same rules, so I don’t blame you,” Sarah Jane said. “Aside from the need for quite as much secrecy, at any rate.”
“Call it a holdover from the old days, if you like, since Torchwood’s pretty well independent by now. You’ve met everyone here, haven’t you?”
“Briefly, at least, but Maria hasn’t.”
Martha nodded and pointed out the rest of the Torchwood team, most of whom seemed too preoccupied with whatever was on their computers to do more than lift a hand in greeting. “Gwen Cooper, Ianto Jones, and–”
A door off to the side swept open, and a ludicrously clean-cut, handsome man in old-fashioned clothes and braces came striding toward them. “Welcome to Torchwood!” he said, his American accent just as pronounced as Elle Bishop’s had been. “Thought I’d see you down here eventually, Miss Smith, and I have to say, you’re looking just as good as the last time I saw you. Oh, and sorry if everyone ignores you a little, we’re not really that rude, just having a bit of a Weevil problem today.”
“And Captain Jack Harkness,” Martha finished, smiling.
“The one and only,” the American said. “Well, sort of.” He shook hands with Sarah Jane, holding on just a little longer than convention dictated, then turned to Maria. “And who’s this?”
“Maria Jackson,” Sarah Jane said. “Friend of Luke’s and mine.”
“Nice to meet you, sweetheart,” Jack said, managing to sound chivalrous and gentlemanly rather than condescending. He offered his hand, and Maria took it, thinking he meant to shake it; instead he bent and kissed the back of her hand.
A surprised giggle left her mouth. Apparently Jack had a lot of practice charming people.
“Seriously, where do you find these kids?” Jack asked Sarah Jane. “Your son, and now her? They’re adorable!”
Sarah Jane gave him a look that had sent lesser men and not a few aliens running for cover. “And fourteen.”
“Relax, mama bear,” Jack said, lifting both hands in surrender. “I’m just making a completely objective observation and not being inappropriate at all. Just, you know–” He glanced at Maria with that movie-star grin. “In a few years, swing by Torchwood again, and bring your friends. At that point I might possibly hit on you when it would be no longer potentially illegal and also really gross.”
“I’ll, uh, keep that in mind,” Maria said.
“Okay, Jack, enough flirting,” Martha said. “Time for business.”
“Right,” Jack said, and the easy smile never left his face, but something in his eyes changed. “I wasn’t expecting you just yet, and not with company, welcome as it might be. What’s up?”
Martha nodded toward a conference room of some kind off the main Hub, and after they were all seated, she said, “That energy spike you lot and UNIT sent me to check out? It’s just got a lot more complicated.” She explained what she’d found, bringing up detailed information Maria really didn’t understand on a screen at the front of the room, and then Maria found herself recounting her part of the story yet again with Sarah Jane adding what Mr. Smith and her instruments had told her. Jack’s face darkened as they spoke, his eyes going flat and hard and not a little dangerous, and Maria couldn’t help wondering why his eyes looked so much older than the rest of him did, what gave her the distinct impression he’d been through a war–no, more than one. More than just a couple of wars, even.
Jack Harkness wasn’t your average prettyboy, apparently.
He was silent for a few moments after they finished speaking, and then he said, “Yeah, this should be interesting.” He hit an intercom button. “Ianto, call up Raines and Petrelli, will you? I’m gonna need to call in a few favors. Lean on Raines a little if you need to; he’ll come around eventually but it might take a bit. Patch him in to me as soon as he’s being cooperative. Then Petrelli–he won’t put up as much of a fight, so he’ll actually call back if you tell him to.” He leaned back and regarded the other three in the room. “Claude Raines. That’s what he calls himself, anyway. Used to work for the Company until they figured out he was helping hide other evolved humans, and then they tried to have him killed. He’s been living invisible pretty much ever since, and I mean that literally. We’ve been helping hide him the last year or so, though–came back to England not long before that explosion above New York, you might’ve heard about that one, and I happened to run into him on the street when he was visible. If you think he looks familiar, imagine my reaction.” He pressed another button and a picture filled the screen: a slightly scruffy bearded man, all hard lines and piercing blue eyes.
Sarah Jane shook her head. “I don’t recognize–”
“Picture him without the beard.”
She looked again. “Oh!”
“Yeah,” Jack said. “You’ve probably seen photos of his incarnations between the ones you knew. I traveled with him.” He shook his head. “Anyway, he’ll be able to tell us something about the actual Company building and security, and Petrelli should be able to fill in whatever they’ve changed since Raines worked there. Probably. Torchwood’s dealings with the Company have been…a little erratic.”
Sarah Jane frowned. “You mean Torchwood has worked with them.”
“In the past, yes. Before Canary Wharf. When it came to them and, ah, similar organizations, some of which were of an even less dubious nature and pretty blatantly dedicated to bad stuff, like this one multidimensional law firm, seriously bad news–general policy was to deal with them if it was mutually beneficial, stop them if they represented a really obvious threat, and agree to stay out of each other’s way the rest of the time.”
“This Company,” Sarah Jane said in a rather deadly voice, “obviously thinks nothing of kidnapping children. And Torchwood works with them.”
“Before Canary Wharf,” Jack repeated. “I didn’t like it either, and it’s something else I’ve changed. Mostly now we keep an eye on them. But all due respect, ma’am, your son is hardly just a child. Grown by the Bane, genius-level intellect, bits and pieces of thousands of humans in him–even without his telekinetic potential, he’s something different, something new. That’s already attracted attention.”
“But they’ve got him right now,” Maria burst out. “We need to do something, not just sit here talking!”
Jack smiled at her, but something in his expression was a little bit sad. “We are,” he said. “We will. Just got a few things you need to know first, plus–” He touched an earpiece. “Gwen, new priority–I need a complete profile on that energy signature. We’re going to need it synched up for a quick trip. Should be plenty of spillover.” He nodded to Martha. “You too, actually.”
Martha left the room, slipping by Ianto, who stuck his head in. “Raines is ready for you. Only had to drop one really heavy hint about how much he owes us.” He glanced at Sarah Jane. “Also I may have mentioned there’s a 14-year-old involved. He acts tough, but he’s got a pretty big soft spot in there. I’ve sometimes wondered if he secretly has a thing for puppies too.”
“I’ll be just a minute,” Jack said, already heading out of the room. “See if you can’t get Petrelli–”
“Already waiting for your call.”
“Remind me to give you a raise. Or, you know, something. Oh, and these two need to know about the mules, okay?” Jack disappeared into his office.
“Guessing that doesn’t mean animals,” Maria said.
“That would make things simpler, and we can’t have that,” Ianto said, taking Jack’s chair. “No, they’re…you understand these so-called evolved humans have a huge range of abilities? No one person has more than one, of course, except a couple very specific cases, but they have powers right out of comic books. Like control of electricity. Like teleportation and time travel. The Company employs some of them and attempts to control others, which often means people with powers disappear. Temporarily, anyway.”
“So they might just let him go, you mean,” Sarah Jane said.
“Ordinarily, he’d probably show up again in a day or so with a tracking chip in him and no memory of where he’d been. But from the data we got, we think–well, the man was what we’ve been calling a mule. They experimented with a formula to give ordinary people powers at one point, which created an entirely different mess. A few years back, though, the Company figured out how to graft specific powers onto people who don’t have any at all, but they have to do it for very specific, short-term purposes because it’s something a normal human brain isn’t built to handle.”
“That’s why that man looked so dead,” Maria murmured.
Ianto nodded. “You’ve heard of thralls in mythology? That’s more or less what they are. They can use their power when ordered to and follow other direct instructions, but that’s about it. The one you saw will probably get two or three round-trip transportations before the stress on his brain kills him. But if he looked dead, it’s because he already was. There’s not much left when someone’s mind has gone through that.”
Maria’s thoughts made several jumps forward very quickly and reached a conclusion she didn’t like at all. Feeling a little ill, she said, “But they can’t do that to Luke. Could they?”
Ianto hesitated. Jack, coming up from behind him, continued as if Maria hadn’t spoken. “They used a mule to bring Elle Bishop forward in time. That’s important because it means they picked up on an energy spike from Luke–from the whole thing with the moon, I’m guessing–through time. It was powerful enough to reach them there and significant enough that they didn’t wait a few years to get him. But it also means we can track them–mules are incredibly sloppy, bleeding energy and leaving the clearest residue you could hope for. With those patterns, some alien tech we’ve picked up, and a little bit of Rift energy, we should be able to get to the Company’s building at the time Luke was taken, give or take a few days. It’s not exact.”
“If he’s in the past, can’t you just look at their records and get the right date? We could–I dunno, couldn’t we even show up right when they took Luke and get him back before they’ve done anything to him?”
“Good idea, but no,” Jack said. “Those mules are about the furthest thing from natural time-travel you can imagine. You’re not going to get lasting problems in the fabric of reality, but you also won’t get normal temporal activity. Time’s in flux.”
“Now I know you’ve traveled with the Doctor,” Sarah Jane muttered.
Jack’s half smile didn’t reach his eyes. “I just confirmed a lot of info with Raines and Petrelli–recent Company activity, where they keep people they’re testing, how to get in and out–so we’re good to go as soon as everything’s calibrated right. I’m thinking the fewer people the better, so probably just Sarah Jane and I–”
“Luke’s my friend too,” Maria said, “and I’ve been helping Sarah Jane for months. I want to go.”
“As much as I don’t want anyone put in danger,” Sarah Jane added, “the last time I tried to chase her away for that very reason, it backfired on me rather spectacularly.”
Jack hesitated, looking at them both, then nodded once. “Okay then. You do understand the risks pretty well by this point. Bathroom’s down the hall if you need to use it before we go, which might actually be a good idea, because this system’s a bit iffy and not exactly comfortable. I’ll just be a couple minutes grabbing things and then we’ll go from the center of the Hub–”
“Hang on.” Maria stood up. “Neither of you ever answered my question.”
Jack met her gaze squarely. “That’s right. I didn’t think it was necessary. You’re both already motivated to hurry, so expanding on a worst-case scenario, likely as it might be, didn’t seem wise.”
“Right then,” Sarah Jane said. She had turned very white at Jack’s obvious implication, but her voice didn’t waver. “Now you’ve confirmed it, so explain.”
“Follow me, then,” Jack said, heading for his office. He pulled an old-fashioned greatcoat from his desk chair and shrugged it on, then began hunting through drawers and cabinets. “Short answer’s yes, probably they could. That might well be their intention.” He holstered a handgun and dropped a few extra clips of bullets into one pocket, then spread a webbed utility belt out on the desk. “He’s new, completely different from the telekinetics they’ve seen before, but he can’t independently use his abilities. So if they can force his mind open enough to control him and yank his telekinesis to the front, they’d destroy everything else in his head doing it, but they’d get a powerful weapon who would probably give them hundreds of uses before dying. Glad I told you?”
The sick feeling in Maria’s stomach grew, but she said, “Yeah, I am. It’s important. Now we know why we have to get there fast.”
“Yes,” Sarah Jane said, eyeing Jack. “If we can. You can’t be certain when we’ll get there.”
“I’m sorry,” Jack said. What looked an awful lot like a couple small grenades and a little grappling hook joined the utility belt. “We can’t make this any more precise–or less dangerous. Could be we get scattered into atoms. It’s not easy to control, which is why we don’t really use it, and only when we have major energy residue like this to follow.”
“And if we don’t make it in time and they’ve already…” Sarah Jane swallowed hard. “Already made Luke into one of these ‘mules.’ What happens then?”
“We deal with that if it happens, and you have my word I’ll do everything possible to make sure it doesn’t. That’s all I can tell you.”
You mean, Maria wanted to say, that he’d be as good as dead, only more dangerous, and you’d keep him here, wouldn’t you? You’d be sorry, but you’d do it. She could see Sarah Jane reaching the same conclusion, but neither said anything.
“Okay then,” Jack said, sliding a black rubberized case into his pocket and clipping another pouch to the belt, “time to go, unless you wanted that pit stop–no? This way.” He buckled on the belt and strode out to a platform in the center of the Hub, his coat flapping at his ankles, and motioned for Maria and Sarah Jane to join him on a circle of metal maybe twice the size of a manhole cover. All three had just enough room to stand, facing outward, shoulders touching, their bodies forming a triangle.
“Powering up the field now,” Gwen called down to them. “Should be 30 more seconds. Starting the clock.”
“Probably a good idea to hold hands,” Jack said.
“So we, what, don’t lose each other in transmission?” Sarah Jane asked. Her fingers closed over Maria’s.
“Well, yeah, that too, but it makes things a little more fun, right?”
Maria rolled her eyes, but she didn’t release either of their hands.
“Good luck,” Martha said from beside Gwen, and then a lot of lights flashed, Gwen said, “Transmitting…now,” and Maria’s body dissolved into darkness.