“Maybe nobody noticed,” Owen said in a rare display of totally unwarranted optimism.
“Did you hit your head or something?” Ianto threw his colleague an incredulous look. “Two men brandishing guns, in hot pursuit of something vaguely resembling an upside-down fluorescent orange furry teakettle on three-foot long legs, running right through ASDA on a Saturday evening? How could anyone fail to notice that?” He was breathing hard as he grappled with the creature, attempting to pin down all six of its flailing legs at once and hold it still while Owen sedated it. While it didn’t look all that hostile, you could never be too careful, and anyway its teeth looked quite impressive; sharp little needles lining the wide mouth tucked away below its prehensile trunk. A bite from those wouldn’t improve his evening, and then there was the possibility that it could be venomous. It was impossible to tell just by looking at it, but you didn’t survive in Torchwood by taking stupid chances.
Owen shrugged as he selected a good spot to jab the creature with his needle. “This is Cardiff; people are so used to weirdness they’re practically immune to it. Y’know, now I can see it up close, it sort of does.”
“Does what?” He’d been joking about Owen hitting his head, but the medic’s last comment was starting to make Ianto wonder whether he was right.
“What you said; it looks like an upside-down kettle. The trunk’s a bit like a spout and it’s flat on top… Turn it the other way up and remove the legs…” Owen trailed off at Ianto’s glare. “What? I’m just sayin’ I agree with you. I’m not actually suggesting we dismember it.” He injected the struggling creature and after a few moments it went limp, sagging to the tarmac behind the supermarket like all the air had been let out of it.
Ianto almost fell flat on his face on top of it, but just managed to keep his balance. “You didn’t kill it, did you?” he asked, scrambling off the alien and getting to his feet so Owen could check. Looking down at it, Ianto decided it looked less like a kettle now and more like a set of deflated fluorescent orange bagpipes.
“Nah, it’s still breathing, it’ll be fine. Better get it into the SUV quickly though, don’t know how long the sedative will last and I for one don’t much fancy chasin’ after it again. Bloody thing can really move with all those legs.” Not that he needed to tell Ianto that; Torchwood’s GSO had chased the creature just as far as Owen had. They were both still getting their breath back.
Ianto got on his Bluetooth right away, calling the rest of the team.
“Jack? We got it. We’re round the back of ASDA; could do with a pick-up. Owen’s got it sedated, but since we have no idea what it is, there’s no telling how long it’ll stay that way. Oh, and I have a feeling we’re going to need a lot of Retcon. Either that or a very convincing cover story. Possibly both.”
Jack’s voice came through in his ear, sounding less than pleased. “There was a witness? I thought I told you to be discreet!”
Ianto rolled his eyes. “You did, you just failed to explain exactly how to be discreet when chasing a highly visible alien through a crowded supermarket. Personally I blame those bloody automatic doors. If they hadn’t opened when this thing got close it might’ve just skirted the building instead of going inside. Gwen’s doing what she can to calm the situation and make sure nobody leaves, but considering the screaming when our visitor was scuttling through the fresh produce section, I have my doubts about her chances of success. One person trying to handle over a hundred hysterical late-night shoppers… Well, the odds aren’t exactly stacked in her favour.”
Jack sighed heavily. “Fine, we’re on our way, be there in a couple of minutes.”
Ianto already knew that, he could hear the roar of the SUV’s engine through his earpiece and he smirked to himself; Jack’s arrival wasn’t likely to be any more discreet than his and Owen’s pursuit and capture of the new arrival. “Two minutes, Jack says,” he told Owen. “Probably less, knowing the way he drives.” He’d barely finished speaking before they could both hear the distinctive roar of Torchwood’s official vehicle rapidly approaching, it’s tyres squealing as it made the turn into ASDA’s car park.
“Better hope he doesn’t hit anyone,” Owen muttered. “I’ve got my hands full with this whatever it is; last thing I need is human casualties.”
“I think it’ll be okay,” Ianto replied, crossing his fingers behind his back. “Jack has fast reflexes.”
“You’d know all about that, wouldn’t you?” Owen muttered sourly.
Ianto just smiled smugly. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“Not really. In fact not at all.”
Seconds later, the SUV careered around the corner of the supermarket and screeched to a halt, narrowly missing Ianto, Owen, and the unconscious alien. Jack bounded out of the driver’s seat and Tosh followed more slowly.
“I hacked into the store’s security systems and put it into lockdown; nobody can get in or out until we’re ready to deal with the witnesses,” she explained.
“Good thinking.” Ianto smiled at his friend. “Any idea how we’re going to do that? Retconning every shopper in the store, plus the staff, isn’t really a viable option. I don’t think we’ve even got that much Retcon in stock, and it would take too long to make more.”
“That’s already being handled; I spoke to Gwen, she’s telling everyone it was an experimental prototype robot designed for use in the arctic. The story is, a gang stole it intending to use it as a diversion for a robbery but they lost control of it.”
Ianto was impressed. “Nice! Sounds very plausible. What about us though? I know most eyes were on our friend here, but Owen and I didn’t exactly go unnoticed. People tend to find men running about brandishing guns a bit alarming.”
“Don’t worry, I thought of that too; you’re security people tasked with getting the robot back. If we introduce a low dose of Retcon in gas form into the ventilation system, the witnesses should accept the story.”
“I know Owen’s been working on Retcon gas, but I didn’t know he’d got it to work yet.” Ianto turned to the medic, one eyebrow raised in a graceful arch.
Owen smirked. “Remember last Wednesday when you were convinced you’d already made and handed out the mid-morning coffee when you hadn’t?”
“I remember.” Ianto scowled at Owen. “That was you?”
“Yep! Trial run, one of several.”
“You bastard! You could’ve told me; I thought I was losing my mind!”
“Wouldn’t have been much of a test if I had told you. I needed to make sure the suggestion would hold, which it obviously did.”
Ianto considered that. “I suppose, just don’t be surprised if you find yourself drinking decaf for the next week.” If Owen thought Ianto was just going to let it slide…
“Oh come on! Lighten up! It’s not like you’re the only one I tested it on.”
“You used us all as your guinea pigs?” Jack didn’t sound too pleased at that revelation.
“Wasn’t like I could go out and test it on the general public, was it? Had to make do with what was available. Anyway, what matters is, it works and I’ve got some in my kit.” Owen dug around and pulled out a bottle of small red pellets. “Just dissolve…” he paused for a minute, running calculations in his head, “five should do it I think. Yeah, drop five in a dish of water inside the ventilation system, or maybe don’t even bother with that… Tosh, can you unlock just one door?”
It was a dumb question, considering who Owen was talking to, but Tosh just smiled. “Yes, of course. Any door you want.”
“Right…” Owen counted out five of the red pellets into a plastic measuring cup that looked a lot like the ones you got with bottles of mouthwash. “Take these into the store, gather everyone together in one place, so you can ‘apologise’ to them for any distress caused. Pass yourself off as the inventor of the stolen prototype or something; you’ve got all the technobabble down, they’ll buy your act. Thank them for voluntarily remaining in the store, that way they won’t remember being locked in…”
Tosh was nodding. “I get it. Then before Gwen and I leave, asking everyone to please remain where they are and continue their interrupted shopping, I just add some water to this,” she held up the pot, “and put it somewhere out of the way.”
“It’ll evaporate completely, no detectable residue. If someone finds the cup they’ll just assume it fell off a bottle and someone stuck it on a shelf so nobody would fall over it.”
Ianto smiled approvingly. “Clever.”
“Have Gwen deal with the gas pellets while you’re talking to everyone, Tosh.” Jack turned to Owen. “How long do the pellets take to dissolve?”
“Two or three minutes, but it’ll take maybe five to ten minutes after that for the gas to spread throughout the store. We keep everyone locked in there for say another fifteen minutes after that, it should do the trick.”
“If we offer to pay for their shopping as compensation for any inconvenience… That should encourage them to stick around.” Ianto looked questioningly at Jack, who nodded.
“Use the discretionary fund.” That was the money Torchwood got from selling earth antiques and scrap metal that fell through the Rift, quite a lucrative business. “What about CCTV within the store?”
“Already erased. I’ll make sure the store manager thinks he erased it himself on my request to keep details of my prototype from getting into the hands of my competitors.”
“And if anyone took photos?” Jack wanted all bases covered before they got started.
“I’ll set up search parameters on social media to alert us if anyone uploads pictures,” Ianto said, “but the way people were scattering and hiding, I doubt anyone had the presence of mind to take a few snaps and with the speed our friend here was moving, even if they did all they’d have got would be a bright orange blur.”
“Good. Ianto, you go with Tosh. Owen, help me get speedy here into the boot. We’ll head back to the Hub and get it settled then come back for the others.”
The cover-up operation went reasonably smoothly, the gas worked like a charm although the three people in closest proximity to its release point fell asleep. Thankfully the gas made them so suggestible it was easy enough to convince them they’d simply fainted from stress. Wielding the discretionary fund’s credit card, Ianto moved from checkout to checkout once the gas had dissipated, paying for everyone’s shopping and making sure anyone who looked like they could use it got a few extras thrown in. It was a small price to pay for getting to field test the Retcon gas, and it wasn’t like Torchwood couldn’t afford it.
Once the shoppers had all left the store, and Ianto had arranged taxis for anyone who needed them, the three team members piled into Ianto’s car, which Jack had brought to pick them up, it being less conspicuous than the SUV. Owen had stayed behind at the Hub, monitoring the new guest and making it as comfortable as possible.
“Witnesses all dealt with?” he asked as the team trooped in from the underground garage.
“Yep! I think we just proved the effectiveness of your Retcon gas. Good work, everybody.” Jack flashed an approving smile at his team. “Go home and get some rest; you can write up your reports tomorrow.”
Nobody was about to argue with that order.
Ianto set to work shutting down the Hub for the night, making a final check on the residents, old and new, relieved to see than despite its rough handling, the orange alien seemed none the worse for wear.
There would always be the risk of witnesses to their work, but Torchwood would continue to come up with new ways of covering up exactly what was going on in Cardiff. It was part of the job; humans simply weren’t ready to deal with the existence of aliens from outer space. They were better off not remembering such encounters; they’d sleep a whole lot better that way.