Ianto enjoyed working for Torchwood Three, right from the start it had proved very educational. Even now, several years after convincing Jack to hire him, he found that every day, and usually several times a day, he learned something new and interesting. Most of this new knowledge was garnered from the contents of the archives: Reports written by the many people who had given their lives for the organisation since its inception made often absorbing and informative reading, while the assorted items the Rift saw fit to spit out in Cardiff held their own fascination, giving insight into other worlds, the past, and sometimes the future. To someone like Ianto, who absorbed knowledge like a sponge, the archives were an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Being promoted, if you could call it that, to Field Agent brought new opportunities for learning, especially when it meant tracking down living creatures that had come through the Rift, or battling aliens intent on invading earth and enslaving humanity. You really never knew what you’d be faced with next. It was exciting and often terrifying, but that was a small price to pay for new experiences and more information to file neatly away in his mind, where he fitted facts together like jigsaw pieces, revelling in the sheer pleasure of knowing things that almost nobody else did.
Today, the team were on their way out of Cardiff to where a spaceship had been forced to make an emergency landing after being sucked through the Rift during a routine flight. At times like this, Jack could be a fount of information; being from the far future, he’d already encountered a lot of the alien races that wound up on earth either by accident, as in this case, or by design. Ianto envied him that, but Jack only told his team things about the future and about the other sentient species in the universe when they needed to know, saying that he couldn’t give away too many spoilers without risking altering the future. “Creating paradoxes is never a good idea.”
Ianto was driving the SUV, fast but smoothly, unlike the breakneck pace Jack would have set if he’d been behind the wheel. The head of Torchwood Three seemed to be under the impression that the Highway Code, road signs and speed limits in particular, only applied to other drivers and not to him, so Ianto always tried to grab the SUV’s keys first. That way Jack couldn’t argue about who was going to drive and usually accepted the inevitable with a minimum of fuss. Ianto was already quite the expert on Jack-wrangling, and was having moderate success at training him to behave acceptably, at least in public.
Jack was slouched comfortably in the passenger seat giving the team a crash course, excuse the pun, on the aliens who’d had to land so precipitously. “They’re called Antobruns and they hail from a planet known as Brunnonis Four. In terms of appearance, well, they look a bit like slim teddy bears, with oversized ears and a lion-like mane of longer hair on their heads. Don’t be fooled by their looks though, they can be formidable opponents in a fight; they’re very fast and extremely flexible, definitely not people you want to make enemies of. They have their own customs and rituals, which we’ll need to abide by, at least until they get to know us.”
“Why can’t they abide by our customs?” Owen grumbled. “This is our planet.”
“Because this is a first contact situation, Owen,” Ianto replied smoothly. “Humanity’s relationship with their race is going to depend on us making a good impression on them. Technologically speaking, they’re far in advance of us. We really don’t want to annoy them so that they decide to clean up the neighbourhood by wiping us out.”
“Well put,” Jack said, flashing Ianto a smile.
“Could they do that?” Gwen asked, sounding apprehensive.
“No idea, but do you really want to take that chance?” Ianto glanced at her reflection in the rear-view mirror.
“Um, no, I don’t think so.”
“Okay,” Jack cut in. “As Ianto said, first contact is all-important. They don’t know our customs and we don’t want to get off on the wrong foot with them. Smiling is good, but when you smile, do not show your teeth, that would be considered a sign of aggression, and whoever you were looking at might accept it as a challenge to a fight. Such fights are usually without weapons, but the Antobruns have razor sharp, retractable claws on both their hands and their feet, and as omnivores, they have pretty sharp teeth too.”
“Yeah, not people I want to get into a fist fight with, thank you very much,” Owen said with feeling.
“This is our house, so to speak,” Jack continued. “As such, we’re the hosts and it’s up to us to welcome them. They most likely speak Galactic Standard as well as their own language, so Ianto and I should be able to communicate with them directly, but I expect they’ll have universal translators as well, and thanks to Tosh, we have our own. Now, when they disembark from their ship, they’ll wait for us to approach them. Hold out your hands, palms upward, to show you’re not holding any kind of weapon; they’ll do the same. Pick one crewmember and look them directly in the eye, otherwise they might think you’re hiding something. Walk steadily towards the individual you’ve chosen, and when you’re standing right in front of them, vigorously hug them.”
“WHAT?!” It was practically a squawk; Owen looked as horrified as he sounded.
“Hug them,” Jack repeated. “Vigorously. That will prove to them your intentions are friendly, and they’ll hug you back. Don’t object to wandering paws, there’s usually a lot of patting involved, but it’s not necessarily sexual in nature. They learn a lot through touch and since there’s a good chance they’ve never met humans before, they’re going to be curious. Just copy what they do and you’ll be fine. I’d recommend picking one your own size or smaller to interact with. They’re stronger than humans and you don’t want to end up with cracked ribs.”
“I’ll say!” Gwen shook her head. “I’m picking the smallest one there is!”
“Hey!” Tosh frowned at Gwen. “I’m the smallest of us, so I should get the smallest of them. You can have the second smallest.”
“Children! I’m sure there’ll be enough Antobruns to go around!” Jack sounded amused. “Once the hugging stops, you and your new friend will stick together, learning about each other’s customs. I’ll talk with the chief - they don’t have captains as Antobrunonian crews are usually extended family units - and we’ll see what we can do to get them airborne and on their way home again. Everybody clear?”
There was a chorus of yeses from the back seat.
“One question,” Ianto said mildly. “Are there visible differences between male and female we should be aware of?”
“Not really; they wear clothing so anatomical differences aren’t obvious, and the differences are more subtle than with humans anyway. Males and females hold equal status; rank within a crew is determined by age and level of skill. The chief can be either sex; gender has almost no impact on an individual’s strength and fighting ability.”
They drove on for a while in silence as the team absorbed the information they’d been given.
“Almost there,” Ianto said at last. “We’ll park off the road, and the ship should be in a valley just the other side of that ridge.” He pointed out the windscreen as he pulled onto a stretch of grass, driving across a sort of meadow and halting behind a small copse of trees at the base of the hill, where they wouldn’t be visible from the road. The team piled out, pulling on jackets against the cool breeze.
“Leave your gear in the car,” Jack said. “We’ll come back for anything we need after we’ve introduced ourselves,” and with that he led the way up the slope onto the ridge. From the top, they were able to look out across a shallow valley, not much more than a dip among the surrounding hills, where a sizable spacecraft sat. It was long and narrow except for a bulbous section in the middle, and one end appeared to be smoking slightly.
As they approached down the hill, a hatch opened on one of the narrow sections, a ramp lowered, and around twenty humanoids filed down to stand in a row alongside their ship.
“Pick your new friend,” Jack murmured.
“Prepare to hug,” Ianto added. “Vigorously.”
Jack’s description of the Antobruns had been basic but accurate, except for one thing; he’d neglected to mention the extraordinary range of fur colours and markings. They ranged from white or cream, through a dozen shades of brown or grey, all the way to a black so deep it had a bluish sheen whenever the sun touched it. Some of the Antobruns seemed to be all one colour, while others had patches, spots, stripes, or splodges of one or more colours on a contrasting background, and all were dressed in brightly coloured tunics worn over loose trousers, though their feet were bare.
The Torchwood team spread out, walking abreast, holding out their hands as instructed, and smiling without showing their teeth.
“I feel stupid,” Owen muttered.
“You probably look stupid,” Gwen replied under her breath, not taking her eyes off the smallish, grey and white striped Antobrun she was approaching. Its eyes were a startling blue.
“No fighting, kids,” Jack murmured, eyes locked with a tall, cream and gold Antobrun with a luxuriant bi-coloured mane.
Reaching the crew of the downed ship, each member of the team enfolded their counterpart in a hug, which was immediately returned. It was almost like dancing, crossed with playful wrestling; they swayed back and forth, side to side, sometimes shuffling their feet to maintain balance, and all the time hands wandered, stroking and patting. Eventually, after about five minutes of continuous hugging, they all separated, although they remained alongside their new friends. And it did feel like they were friends now.
Jack was led over to the chief, a stocky, greying, brown-patched Antobrun, and they discussed the damage to the ship while the rest of the team and the other crewmembers clustered together, exchanging names and asking questions. Ianto did a lot of translating and started to teach their new friends some basic words and phrases in English
Before they knew it, Ianto, Tosh, Owen, and Gwen, along with their friends Kelish, Lillan, Bettu, and Renn, were heading back to the SUV for tools and equipment so that Jack and Tosh could help chief engineer Murrum repair the guidance systems, which had shorted out when the ship was dragged out of normal space by the Rift and pitched out again above earth.
The afternoon sped past in a bustle of repair work and conversations. Tosh and Lillan worked alongside Jack and his new friend Rumyko, helping Murrum and the chief, Tarlo. With so many hands, the repairs were completed in less than three hours. Torchwood and the Antobruns spent the rest of the day learning each other’s customs and, in some cases, language, although the growls and rumbles that were a part of Antobrun speech were difficult for humans to replicate, leading to a great deal of shared laughter.
It was with mixed feelings that Ianto and the rest of the team vigorously hugged their new friends goodbye, a ritual that took easily twice as long as the greeting ceremony, and watched them board their ship. On the one hand, it was good that their ship was repaired and they could head back towards their own familiar region of space, but everyone was going to miss the lively, genial company of the Antobruns. Ianto especially regretted that he wouldn’t have a chance to learn even more about these fascinating people and their society. He could have happily talked with them for days.
The ramp withdrew, the hatch closed, and the team moved off to watch from the ridge as the ship’s engines fired and it soared up into the midnight sky, receding so quickly that within a couple of minutes, they could barely make it out, just one more pinprick of light among the stars.
Jack’s voice broke the silence. “Well done, everybody. As first contacts go, I’d say that was a success. You all did very well.”
“It was fun.” Tosh smiled. “I’m going to miss Lillan though. He was lovely.”
“I think Bettu fancied me,” Owen grinned. “She hardly took her eyes off me.”
“She was fascinated by your wide mouth,” Ianto explained. “Antobrun mouths are quite a bit smaller.”
Owen shrugged. “Whatever.”
“Come on,” Jack interrupted. “We’ve still got a long drive back to Cardiff. Don’t know about the rest of you, but I’d like to get there before dawn.”
Ianto nodded agreement. “I’m about ready for my bed.” Turning on his torch, he began to pick his way down the far side of the ridge. It had been a long and interesting day, and he had a lot to think about on the drive home.
Maybe just this once he’d let Jack drive, as long as he promised not to try for the land speed record.