Cardiff bus station was deserted at this time of night, the last bus having returned to the depot a couple of hours earlier, and the first bus of the new day not due to start out on its route for another hour or so.
Everything was still and silent until the peace was shattered by the roar of a powerful engine and the screech of brakes as the Torchwood SUV arrived on the scene, skidding to a halt in front of one of the empty bus shelters. Not even the homeless would consider sleeping in a place where there was so little protection from the things that lurk in the dark.
Before the imposing black vehicle had even come to a complete stop, the doors were opening and the men and women of Torchwood disembarked, all of them immediately drawing and checking their guns. Keeping their backs to the car, they slammed their doors and quickly scanned the area by the light of the orange streetlamps dotted about, but nothing out of the ordinary was evident. Silence returned as the SUV’s engine was switched off and Torchwood Three’s leader, Captain Jack Harkness, climbed out of the driver’s seat, long coat fluttering slightly in the fresh breeze.
“See anything?” he asked his team, his American accent sounding oddly out of place in such an unremarkable setting.
“Not so far, the place looks deserted,” a young Welshman wearing a three-piece suit replied.
“Tosh, are you sure this is the right place?” a buxom, dark-haired woman asked. Like her younger colleague, her Welsh accent marked her as a local.
“Positive.” The pretty Asian woman indicated the device she’d been studying. “According to my readings, the Rift opened just past this bus stop, and whatever came through is alive.”
“So where is it then?”
“Use your head, Gwen,” the last member of the team, a grouchy Londoner, cut in. “Stands to reason if it’s alive it’s not just goin’ to stand here and wait to be captured.” He grinned suddenly. “Maybe it caught a bus.”
“You’d better hope not, Owen,” the Captain said. “We’ll have the Devil’s own job finding it if it has; could be anywhere by now and we still have no idea what we’re looking for.”
“That was supposed to be a joke,” Owen grumbled.
“You need to work on your delivery. Okay kids; let’s get started. Tosh, try accessing the CCTV cameras in the area again, would you? Maybe now we’re on scene there’ll be less interference. See if you can get us a clear visual. Owen, check out where it came through, see if it left any traces that might help us narrow down what we’re dealing with. Gwen, Ianto, fan out and keep your eyes open, check any potential hiding places for our visitor. Bear in mind we don’t know the size of our mystery creature, so use your scanners to search for traces of Rift energy.”
The four Torchwood agents nodded briskly and started to carry out their assigned tasks with the calm competence of long experience. Torchwood might not be popular among the ordinary citizens of Cardiff, but there was no doubting that they knew their job. If anyone had been watching, they would most likely have been impressed by the team’s professionalism. As it was, their skill and efficiency went completely unnoticed by anyone, with the exception of a passing owl whose interests lay elsewhere. It was a shame; they really deserved more recognition, not to mention more gratitude, for everything they went through in the course of protecting not only the Welsh capital but the outlying areas as well from sundry alien threats.
Sliding into the back seat of the SUV, Tosh used the state-of-the-art equipment there to wrestle with the CCTV footage from the cameras around the bus station, trying to get a clear look at the Rift flare that had delivered their most recent guest. Unfortunately her efforts were still being hampered by interference and glare. She tried everything in an attempt to enhance the blurred images, but finally she was forced to concede defeat.
“Sorry, Jack, I’m still not getting anything helpful,” she told the Captain with an apologetic smile. The problem was that whoever had installed the security system had set the cameras too close to the streetlamps, making them all but useless.
“It’s not your fault, Tosh, you gave it your best shot. Looks like I’ll have to talk to Cardiff Council again about moving the cameras to more suitable positions. There’s no point even having a security system if it doesn’t do the job it’s supposedly designed for.” He turned his attention to the Londoner. “Owen, find anything?”
“Got some minute traces of slime; they register as being from some kind of amphibian.”
“Nice work. An amphibian would likely head straight for the nearest body of water. It wouldn’t want its skin to dry out.”
“Water or a damp place,” Owen agreed. “Not salt water though, this slime is from a freshwater species.” He looked up at Jack. “Might not even be from the creature we’re looking for.”
Jack shrugged. “Right now it’s the only lead we have, so let’s see where it takes us.” He tapped a barely visible communications device in his right ear. “Gwen, Ianto, anything to report?”
“Nothing yet, Jack,” Gwen replied brightly.
“Picking up traces of Rift energy leading in the direction of that patch of wasteland this side of Wood Street, Sir,” Ianto smoothly cut in. “Makes sense; the Taff is just beyond that, closest source of fresh water.”
“Crap!” Owen had been listening in on his own earpiece. “If it gets to the river, we’ve lost it for sure!”
“Not if we catch it first,” Jack said firmly. “Ianto, keep following its trail, we’re on our way.”
The rest of the team converged on Ianto’s position, joining him just as he reached the edge of an area where a building had once stood, but which appeared to have been cleared for redevelopment and then just left. He had his Torchwood special issue automatic in his right hand, and was somehow managing to hold both his torch and his scanner in his left.
“Need a hand there?” Jack asked.
“Take the torch, just point it where I’m walking; I don’t want to fall down a hole or tread on what we’re looking for.”
“I do know how to use a torch,” Jack said indignantly.
“Sometimes I wonder.”
Relieving Ianto of his torch, Jack shone it out across bare earth dotted here and there with weeds, rubble, and litter. “Not one of Cardiff’s most attractive tourist locations,” he commented with a broad grin.
“True,” Ianto agreed with an answering smile, “but it is the most direct route to the Taff, which is probably all our visitor cares about.”
“Point taken. Owen, you and Gwen, left and right; skirt the cleared area until you get to the other side, then make sure our friend doesn’t get past you. Last thing we need is to spook it and have it make a break for the water.”
“On it.” Owen nodded and set off to the left at a fast jog as Gwen took off to the right. Knowing them, they’d probably treat it as a contest to see who could reach their destination first.
As soon as the two reported that they were in position, Ianto started forward again, Jack to his right and Tosh to his left, the three of them keeping in line but a couple of metres apart. Ianto kept most of his attention on the scanner in his hand and the ground immediately in front of him, while the other two swept the ground further ahead with their torches as they searched for signs of their quarry.
It’s always tricky trying to find something when you have no idea what it looks like, so Ianto very nearly ended up doing just what he’d joked about with Jack when handing him his torch.
“Mind where yer walkin’, mate!” The deep, croaky voice came from close to his feet, and Ianto stopped dead in his tracks, looking down. Jack and Tosh swung their torches in the direction of the unexpected voice, illuminating the speaker. It wasn’t much bigger than a rugby ball, and its colouration meant that it blended in with the bare soil well enough to render it almost invisible unless you were looking right at it in good enough light.
“Sorry, didn’t see you. I didn’t hurt you, did I?” Ianto’s manners were impeccable even in the kinds of bizarre situations that were the norm with Torchwood.
“Nah, just missed me. Hullo.”
“Hey there!” Jack crouched down, treating the creature to one of his most dazzling smiles. “Captain Jack Harkness, at your service, and who might you be?”
“Name’s Squinch. Pleased t’ make yer acquaintance Cap’n.” Squinch looked enquiringly at the other two tall beings staring down at him. “Friends o’ yers?”
“Two of my colleagues. This is Toshiko Sato,” Jack gestured to Tosh, “and the fellow who almost stepped on you is Ianto Jones.”
“Pleasure.” Squinch bobbed his body in what could have been meant as either a nod or a bow, it was hard to be sure. Judging by his shape, he couldn’t move his head independently of his body, having no visible neck, but the position of his eyes meant he probably didn’t need to, especially as it appeared that he could swivel them separately to look in any direction he wanted. He looked similar to an oversized frog, but with shorter hind legs and a stumpy tail. His forelegs ended in very dextrous six-fingered hands and as he spoke with the three Torchwood agents, he squatted back on his hind legs and tail, lacing his fingers together across his chest. He appeared to be wearing a small backpack, and had a collar around where his neck would have been if he’d had one, holding a small, black, dome-shaped device against his throat.
“Is that a translator?” Tosh asked, gesturing to it.
“That it is. Got good eyes there, mate. All Rift-Hoppers wear ‘em, never know where we’ll end up, so it ‘elps if we can talk t’ the natives.”
“Rift-Hoppers, is that your species?” Tosh was fascinated.
“Nah, my profession; I’m an explorer, I am. In your lingo, I’m a Caladrian, but I ain’t been back t’ Caladria in a frog’s age. Too busy mappin’ the Rift streams. Anyhow, nice talkin’ to yer, but I’d best git goin’, need to wet meself down before I git t’ explorin’ this place. Rift travel dries the skin summat rotten, an’ it’s lookin’ like one heck of a walk t’ the nearest water, not that it smells all that good. Sometimes yer just ‘ave t’ take what yer can get. I’m sure yer busy with important things t’ do too. Cheerio, folks.”
“Wait a moment, please,” Ianto spoke up. “As it turns out, we’re here looking for you. We monitor the Rift and when something comes through we investigate. Sometimes it brings dangerous things, and sometimes it brings lost travellers, but it’s our job to check all Rift events, neutralising threats and helping travellers in any way we can.”
“Is that so?” Squinch sat back on his haunches again. “Sounds like real important work, that does! Well then, maybe yer can direct me t’ some decent water?”
“We can do better than that,” Ianto said. “We can give you a lift. There’s water in our transport, and a nice pool back at our base, or bathing facilities if you’d prefer. Then maybe once you’ve had a chance to freshen up, we could continue our chat?”
“Well now, that’s mighty nice of yer, don’t mind if I do. Is yer transport far? Downside o’ decidin’ to be a Rift-Hopper is me body’s not best suited to all the walkin’, what with ‘avin’ short legs. I swim better ‘n I walk. But seein’ strange places an’ meetin’ interestin’ people makes up for it.”
“I take it not many of your species are in your profession?” Ianto asked with a smile.
“Far as I know, I’m the only one. Always was adventurous though, wantin’ t’ see more ‘n what life wuz like in the next pond. Then I met this ‘ere alien one day. He wuz a Rift-Hopper, tole me all about it, an’ I signed up there an’ then. Got meself fitted with one o’ these ‘ere translators an’ a device fer moniterin’ the rift an’ openin’ portals, an’ I ain’t never looked back. It’s a fascinatin’ life, I can tell yer.”
“I can’t wait to hear about your adventures,” Jack grinned. Reaching up, he tapped his earpiece. “Gwen, Owen, we’ve found our visitor so bring the SUV over and we can head back to the Hub.”
“Gotcha,” Owen replied, and no more than five minutes later, the big, black vehicle cruised to a halt a few meters away. Ianto opened the boot, dragged out a containment unit, leaving the lid behind, and poured bottled water into the bottom. Jack helped Squinch in, and the amphibian sighed with pleasure, wriggling around to get himself thoroughly wet all over, though not before removing his backpack and handing it to Ianto for safekeeping.
“Well now, this ‘ere feels powerful good after all that there dry dirt, an’ no mistake! Thank yer kindly, mates!”
“Our pleasure,” Ianto replied. “It’s usually quite wet around here, you just had the bad luck to drop by during a very dry spell.”
“It talks?” Gwen asked incredulously.
“Most sentient species do,” Jack told her. “It helps that Squinch here has an excellent translation unit, so we can all understand each other. He’s an explorer by profession.”
“Well I never!” Gwen looked quite amazed.
Back at the Hub half an hour later, with Myfanwy locked in her aerie for the sake of Squinch’s safety, the amphibian Rift-Hopper lounged in a bowl of water set on the coffee table while he regaled the team with tales of his many adventures. Jack in particular listened with rapt attention, clearly relishing every word. Later, as he left Jack and Squinch talking and headed for bed, Ianto couldn’t help wondering if his lover wished he could join their new friend, wandering the universe with no responsibilities and nothing to tie him down.
It was very late when Jack finally joined Ianto in bed, leaving Squinch to get some much-needed rest himself, floating contentedly in the Rift pool.
“In case you’re wondering, I don’t want to go with him, I’m happy here,” Jack murmured, spooning his lover from behind.
“Really?” Ianto sounded sceptical.
“If I didn’t want to be here I could just as easily go back to the station and catch the next bus or train to somewhere else.”
“Not exactly the same as travelling the universe though, is it?”
“Been there, done that. One day I’ll go back out into space, but I’m not in any rush. I have the rest of eternity to do that, and right now I have everything I want right here.” He squeezed Ianto and pressed a kiss to the back of his neck. “I learned my lesson when I took off with the Doctor; my place is wherever you are. Although, if I could take you with me… There’s so much out there I’d love to show you. I’d give you the grand tour, all the best places. Alien worlds where they grow crystals instead of flowers, and space stations on the edges of vast nebulae where there are so many stars that artificial lights are never needed.”
“Sounds beautiful,” Ianto said drowsily.
“Next time the Doctor stops by, I’ll ask him to drop us off somewhere for a vacation. He owes me.”
“Mmmm, okay…” Ianto’s voice trailed off into soft snores.
Squinch stayed for a week, visiting places of interest with various members of the team, before declaring that he should be moving on. According to his portable monitor, there was an interesting Rift current approaching which would be close enough to hop into just after one fifteen in the morning. Tosh checked the coordinates he gave her.
“That’s at Cardiff Central Station!”
“Bus station arrival, train station departure,” Ianto chuckled. “It has rather an appealing sort of logic to it, like roads that are built along ley lines. We do get quite a lot of Rift events in and around both places. Maybe the Rift is drawn to them, or they were unconsciously built where they are because of its proximity.”
“It’s possible, I suppose,” Tosh agreed.
“Splott sees a lot of Rift activity too though, and there’s no bus or train station there,” Owen commented.
Ianto shrugged. “Splott is a law unto itself, Owen.”
Everyone piled into the SUV to see Squinch off, pulling up outside the railway station shortly before one. Entering the almost deserted station, they made their way to platform four and sat down to wait.
“We’ll miss you,” Tosh told Squinch.
“Tell the truth, I’ll miss all o’ yer too. Some o’ the nicest folk I’ve ever ‘ad the pleasure o’ meetin’ in me travels.”
“If you’re ever passing this way again, feel free to drop in, you’ll always be welcome,” Jack added.
“I’ll remember that, mate! Well, looks like it’s ‘bout time I got meself ready.” Squinch shrugged into his backpack and pulled his Rift monitor from a pouch just below his throat. Hopping down from the bench he’d been sitting on, he crawled across the platform to a spot about a metre from the edge. “This ‘ere is the spot, yer better keep well back so as yer don’t get yerselves sucked in accidental like.”
“Don’t worry, we’re staying well clear,” Tosh assured him.
“Safe journey, Squinch,” Ianto called out.
“Thank yer kindly. Righto, looks like me ride’s ‘ere!” The air seemed to crackle before splitting open in a flare of golden light. “Well, cheerio, mates, take good care o’ yerselves!” Squinch waved one hand, then turned and hopped into the portal. It closed behind him with a pop.
“I hope he’ll be alright,” Gwen said quietly. “He’s so small and the universe is so big.”
“He knows what he’s doing,” Jack reassured her. “He’s been Rift-Hopping for most of his life.”
“Rather ‘im than me.” Owen shoved his hands in his pockets. “Who knows where he’ll wind up next?”
“I think that’s sort of the point,” Ianto said. “It wouldn’t be exploring if he knew where he was going.”
“Yeah, well call me crazy if you want, but there’s a lot to be said for knowin’ where you are and what to expect.”
Ianto rolled his eyes. “You work for Torchwood; since when do we ever know what to expect?”
“He’s got you there,” Tosh laughed.
“Whatever. Let’s get out of ‘ere before the Rift decides to dump something else in our laps.”
Turning their backs on the now empty platform, Team Torchwood left the station, heading home to their beds, hoping that the Rift would at least remain quiet until morning.