New voices came at Luke through a haze of dream-images. He managed to open his eyes for a fraction of a second before the bright lights, the bright reflections off metal, the bright everything sent stabs of pain up into his head.
He didn’t quite know what they’d done last time, but it had felt like massive sensory overload–all illusory, he was fairly certain of that, but still more than enough to blank out all his physical senses and leave him stumbling through an impossible mindmaze that gradually gave way to more nightmares. Now he wondered if bad reactions to recreational drugs felt anything like that–although the headache and sensitivity to light had to be a bit more like a hangover.
…and for all that, this was the clearest he’d been able to think in–well, a while. Maybe they were getting ready to let him go.
Or maybe, he thought as he slitted one eye back open and saw the unfamiliar people crowding into the room with the techs, it meant something a lot more ominous.
A rather round, balding man leaned over to smile at him. “Hello, Luke,” he said. “I’m Bob, and I’ve been hearing that you’re pretty special. I even came all the way out from New York to see you today.”
The rush of relief from having someone, anyone, talk to him was quickly lost in a far more powerful surge of renewed fear. Bob’s expression and tone were completely pleasant, even a bit gentle, his overall impression one of a harmless middle-aged professor or grandfather–and yet, something about him was intrinsically, fundamentally unsettling.
It was the eyes, of course, always the eyes. Bob’s were flat and very cold, eyes that could watch anything without blinking, could let him order anything done and sleep very well every night.
The techs had hurt him. Bob would never touch him, Luke was certain of that, but he was just as clearly in charge of all this, in charge of him and maybe hundreds of others.
“What do you want with me?” he asked hoarsely.
Bob’s smile didn’t change, and he patted Luke’s shoulder once. “Don’t worry. Soon it’ll be like nothing ever happened. You can handle a little more, can’t you? My daughter was younger than you when we brought her through a testing process like this. I think you can be tough like she was.”
This was not comforting. Luke tried to turn his head, hoping in these other people he might find someone a little more helpful or sympathetic, but most seemed to be more lab techs, and the single person other than Bob not wearing a lab coat was a silent black man near the door whose closed expression was just as forbidding. “I just want to know–”
One of the techs flipped a switch as Bob moved back to stand next to the black man, and a buzzing hum filled the air, so high-pitched it hurt, only he wasn’t really hearing it, it was all inside his head, just like everything else, and he couldn’t drive it out, and then everything started to fade under the onslaught of the splintered, madhouse mindscape their instruments seemed to produce. The humming pressed in on the back of his eyes, on every part of his skull, harder and harder, and every hallucinatory vision felt like claws inside his head, like acid pouring through him, he couldn’t breathe and he wanted to throw up and it hurt–
The pressure kept building, past any limit they’d driven it to before, and he could actually feel the needle growing hot in the back of his head, heat and pain expanding from its pinprick point in his neck going down his spine and branching out into every nerve, but that was nothing compared to his head, because it was melting, inside and out, if it got any hotter it might just melt physically (what exactly was the melting point of brain tissue? He’d never had a reason to wonder or care before) and all he could see now looked like lightning strikes in dayglow colors, across his vision over and over again, and each one hurt more, and the pressure was still building and they weren’t stopping. They weren’t stopping at all.
Something heavy and wrong and very, very bad was pushing against his mind, pushing to get in, bleeding through the places all this testing had opened up, and a flash of panic born of instinctive knowledge let him push back for a few seconds, almost frantic, knowing absolutely that things would get a lot worse if that something got in. Only then did he realize that he’d been protecting himself all along, just a little, in his subconscious resistance to the heat and pressure and pain, and once his focus left it even for a moment, that was more than enough opening and his control vanished entirely, sucked away, and everything burned, and he had nothing left to fight it anymore
And then his skull cracked open and the end of the world came flooding in.
Maria felt solid ground re-forming under her as her body took shape again, and just as her senses opened back up, her stomach made a sickening lurch and she dropped to her knees to throw up.
Everything else filtered in through a rapidly disappearing haze of dizziness–someone else being sick next to her, muted sounds of traffic in the distance, grass under her (at least that much was good). Slowly she raised her head to see Jack and Sarah Jane crouched nearby, both engaged in similar activities, and she wondered if she’d be sick again too–but no, she felt fine now, so she got up.
“God, what I wouldn’t give to be young again,” Jack groaned, and climbed rather unsteadily to his feet. “That kind of thing gets rougher every time. Except if you’re drunk, and then it still sucks, you just don’t care.”
Sarah Jane wiped the back of her hand over her mouth and accepted Jack’s help standing up. “Oh, stop whining. At least you’re younger than I am.”
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? Okay, we should be right outside Primatech, which–” He consulted the screen of a palm-sized map reader, probably a far more advanced version of GPS. “Yeah. Just past these trees. So let’s talk strategy for a minute–I’m thinking Sarah Jane with a fake ID can do the nosy-journalist thing up front, see if you can get in that way–worth a shot, anyway–and distract security while you’re at it. That’s right here, by the way–conventional security office, at least, and not much we can do about the other kind.” He tapped a spot on the display, then keyed down to a floor two levels below. “Holding cells are all the way underground, so our closest entrance is here in the back near the loading dock. I’ll break in here, take this maintenance stairway down. Raines said Luke was likely to be held here–” He tapped another spot onscreen– “so that’s where I’ll head first. And Maria…” He glanced at her, eyes appraising.
“Maria can open doors.” Sarah Jane produced the sonic lipstick from her purse and handed it to Maria. “Almost certain to be much quieter and less attention-getting than whatever you had in mind.”
Jack stared as Maria opened the lipstick, switched it on and off, and slipped it into her pocket, grinning. “Is that–”
“Sonic lipstick. It was a parting gift.”
Jack shook his head and began to laugh. “Only the Doctor could look at lipstick and think–well, no, I take that back, a lot of things could stand to be a little more sonic, lipstick included. Okay, well, that actually makes things simpler. No deadlock seals here, and that does computers, right? Should save time on finding out just when we are and where Luke is, and help us shut down their power, which was going to be one of my first steps.”
“The farther we can get without using any of your guns and grenades, the better,” Maria said. “I really don’t want to get trapped down there.”
“You’ll be glad I’ve got those guns and grenades if we do,” Jack said. “Trust me, I don’t want these clowns capturing me either. One more thing–” He unclipped a foam-padded case from his belt and opened it to reveal two sets of earpieces. “One of these and one of these for each of you. These are what my whole team uses to talk to each other, and this one–” He held up the other, a nearly transparent piece of some alien material that glittered faintly in the sun. “It’ll dampen the effect of any evolved human’s power on you, particularly any involving telepathic control–and trust me, that’s a good thing.”
Maria slipped the earpiece in and hooked the other, which looked like a slightly more high-tech Bluetooth headset, over one ear. “Aren’t you going to wear one?”
“I’ve already got one.” Jack snapped the case shut. “And the dampeners don’t work on me.” He jabbed a marker beacon in the ground and took off before Maria could ask anything else, leading them through the trees and toward a building that could only be called “nondescript”–big, white, industrial, very boring. It looked, as it should, far more like a paper manufacturing plant than a secret facility.
After picking an ID and giving Jack the rest so they wouldn’t be found if she were searched, Sarah Jane split off toward the main entrance, and Jack and Maria made their approach toward the back where the ground sloped down to a large loading dock. Workers busily loading and unloading the trucks at the dock paid absolutely no attention to them (“Act like you belong and you know what you’re doing,” Jack told her, “and the vast majority of people will assume you do”). One harried-looking man inside did look up from the cartons surrounding him and the paperwork spilling across–and off–his battered desk, asking if they needed help; Jack flourished a Primatech ID badge and said something vague about a young neighbor wanting to see where he worked, and the man waved them on.
They followed Jack’s map to a locked and seemingly seldom-used stairwell in the back, then down a few floors, through a hallway toward the building’s center, and into another stairway that required the sonic lipstick to bypass its security code. They walked down for what seemed a very long time, then, steps echoing off the metal stairs, and Maria couldn’t stop the sick adrenaline that kept her tensing at every sound. They’d definitely gone past the point of easy return by now.
And maybe it was just her imagination, but a sense of oppression in the air seemed to get heavier as they descended, keeping time with gradual changes in the facility itself. The second stairway ended before long, forcing them to trick two more secured entryways–Jack took over the sonic lipstick on the second one, using it to open the entire panel and close the one circuit that would let them through without tripping an alarm for their lack of keycode, retinal scan, or approved voiceprint. Maria kept an uneasy lookout while Jack worked, staring up and down the bare white hallway. They’d seen fewer people the further down they went, which probably had a lot to do with the secrecy of Primatech’s other operation, but those they had seen–through narrow windows in doorways leading off the stairs, and once at the end of a long corridor Jack hurried them through–mostly wore lab coats, aside from a few who were clearly armed.
It didn’t help that Jack had started carrying his own gun rather than leaving it in its holster, stepping out first with it raised and ready to fire every time they had to go through another door. She just didn’t know what made her more nervous–the fact that she’d got herself into a situation where guns were involved at all, or that Jack’s obvious experience with such situations meant he thought the gun necessary in this one.
All the same, they managed to reach the level where Luke was likely being held, and Jack found a wall monitor that succumbed to the sonic lipstick and displayed a list of inmates. Luke’s name came near the end of the list, and Maria stared at it in dismay: he’d already been here nearly five days.
“They could be doing anything to him,” she said, her throat suddenly tight. “What if we’re–”
“If we were really too late, he wouldn’t still be on this list,” Jack said, transferring Luke’s information to his map reader. “One way or another.” He gave the sonic lipstick back to Maria and nodded down the hall. “This way. Stay behind me.”
Two other hallways branched off theirs after several meters; Jack checked both and headed left, where the corridor was wider and a bit taller. “If we get into trouble,” he said quietly, “I’ve got a couple smoke grenades, and I might need you to throw one to give us some cover. And if I tell you to run, do it. The sonic lipstick should get you back out the way we came.”
“I’m not leaving without Luke!”
“Oh yes you are,” Jack said. “This is Torchwood, and we’re going by my rules now, one of which happens to be that it’s a real bad idea to get two kids in deep trouble instead of one.” Maria opened her mouth to argue, and he silenced her with a look. “Like I said: this is Torchwood now, and that means you do what I say, even if you don’t like it. There’s no other way everyone’s getting out of here. I won’t leave without Luke,” he added. “Way too much death lately. But if you need to, you will.”
Maria subsided at that, and for several more minutes they followed Jack’s map in silence. Then two Company employees rounded the corner ahead and saw them, the lab-coated woman grabbing for the mobile on her belt and the uniformed man whipping up his gun. Jack reacted just as quickly–he shoved Maria behind him and toward the wall with one hand, raising his gun in the other, body shifting sideways into an unmistakable firing stance.
Neither man got the chance to fire. The lights flickered once, and then a nearby explosion rocked the building, throwing Maria off balance as something like a muffled second explosion she couldn’t hear tore past the edges of her awareness and all the lights went out.
Maria staggered against the wall, head spinning, half deafened–or maybe her ears were fine and everything was utterly, deathly silent. Emergency lights came up a few seconds later, filling the hallway with a dim reddish glow. All three adults had collapsed where they stood, apparently unconscious, but she couldn’t afford much time to understand why the dampener in her ear had protected her so well when people who worked here had no such protection. Whatever had just happened, the Company hadn’t expected or planned it, and that meant she had to take advantage of it as fast as possible.
Jack lay on his side, handgun fallen from limp fingers. She scrambled to him and shook his arm. No response. “Jack, come on, wake up!” She shook him again, harder, and bent to shout in his ear as loudly as she dared: “Jack!”
That brought her close enough to his face to realize he wasn’t breathing.