Loading the eggs wasn’t as easy as it had sounded when Jack had laid out the plan. The trouble was that the rear of the van had a completely flat floor and the eggs, being round, tended to roll easily. Every time one was put in, it tried to roll out again, usually bringing a few friends along with it and leading to a lot of frenzied grabbing as the team tried to prevent them making good their escape. It would have been funny if they hadn’t been in such a hurry. Ianto frowned; if they were having this much trouble with the un-hatched eggs, it didn’t bode well for their ability to corral the creatures inside them.
After studying the situation for a few minutes, he decided some kind of barrier was required to keep the eggs from escaping before they even had time to hatch; otherwise they could be at this for the rest of the day. There wasn’t even enough slope to the roads around here to tilt things in their favour, so he left the others juggling eggs and went in search of something suitable, vaguely wondering if bringing the glue gun might have been a good idea so they could have stuck the damn things in place.
There was plenty of rubble available, but Ianto discounted that immediately. It was no good using anything heavy because there was every chance that it would shift once the van was in motion en route to the Hub, probably squashing the eggs and whatever was in them. Ianto wasn’t about to condemn the as yet unseen creatures to a messy and painful death; at least not when none of them could hazard a guess as to whether or not they posed a threat. Thankfully, a search of the rubbish dumped in nearby alleys produced a better alternative, an old, paint-splattered tarpaulin, and with a bit of ingenuity and some help from Mickey, Ianto managed to rig it so that it blocked the lower third of the van’s doorway.
With the problem of escaping eggs solved, Ianto organised the team into a chain, passing the eggs from one to another; it was faster and much more efficient than running backwards and forwards, getting in each other’s way. Mickey, being the tallest, was the last link in the chain, standing at the rear of the van and carefully lowering each egg over the tarp barrier in an effort to avoid harming them. He didn’t want to do anything that might speed up their hatching.
He counted them off as he loaded them. “Twelve, thirteen, fourteen…”
The loading went on for quite a while.
“I think this is the last one,” Ianto said, passing the egg to Mickey, “The others are just scouting around to see if we missed any; there’s a chance a few of them might have rolled away.”
Mickey took the egg and plunked it in with its fellows. “Sixty-two in total. That’s a lot; wonder if they were all laid by one creature.”
“We’ll probably never know.” Ianto peered into the back of the van; despite their misgivings and the vigorous movement of many of the eggs, none had actually hatched yet, though they were developing weird bulges here and there as the hatchlings pressed against the rubbery shells from within. It could only be a matter of time before the eggs started to split open. “Better close up and get them back to the Hub.”
Ianto took one door and Mickey grabbed the other, starting to swing them shut, when there was a yell from Jack.
“Hey! Wait up!”
They paused as Jack hurried towards them, two eggs cradled in his arms.
“Stragglers?” Ianto asked with a smile.
“Yep! Found this one,” Jack raised the egg in his right arm, allowing Mickey to take it from him, “under a bush. And no, it wasn’t a gooseberry bush.”
“Shame. What about the other one?”
“Wedged partway under a car down the street.”
“Sixty-three and sixty four.” Mickey put Jack’s two eggs into the van.
“Make that sixty-five,” Owen said, passing Mickey another egg. Gwen trailed up behind him, empty-handed.
“We sure that’s the lot now?” Mickey asked,
Jack nodded. “Looks that way. Close up and head back to the Hub. This is going better than I expected; with any luck we can get them all into one of the cells before they hatch.”
Ianto snorted softly. “You do realise you’ve probably jinxed us now, don’t you? There are sixty-five eggs, seven of us if we include Tosh, and we can only safely carry two eggs each at a time with the creatures inside them jiggling about so much. That means a minimum of four trips each down to the cells, five for some of us, unless we can figure out a way to carry more. Say four minutes each way from the garage to the cells and back again, if we don’t dawdle… We’re looking at a good forty minutes to get all the eggs safely stashed in a cell, and that’s after we drive back to the Hub. Call it an hour minimum altogether, and that’s only if everything goes to plan and there are no delays. Still think we can make it?”
Jack winced. “When you put it that way, it doesn’t seem too likely. Still, nothing ventured… We have to at least try.”
This time the van took the lead, with the SUV sticking close behind to keep an eye on things, just in case whatever was in the eggs hatched and tried to break out of a moving vehicle. Thankfully nothing untoward happened; from her computers back at the Hub Tosh made sure they had green lights all the way, and just over fifteen minutes later the two vehicles were pulling into their assigned spaces in Torchwood Three’s underground garage, where they found Tosh waiting for them.
“I ran the data you sent me through mainframe, but I didn’t get any hits from our alien database. Whatever creature these eggs belong to, it doesn’t look like anybody at Torchwood has ever come across them before. I hacked into UNIT’s database too; same result. It’s unlikely that they’re bird’s eggs though. I’ve done some research and the closest thing I’ve found are the eggs of various reptile species right here on earth.”
“Snakes?” Gwen asked, looking alarmed.
“Not necessarily.” Tosh shrugged. “Snakes aren’t the only reptiles. They could just as easily be lizards, some sort of crocodilian.”
Gwen pulled a face. “That’s not exactly comforting either.”
“Maybe they’re dinosaur eggs!” Jack suggested with a wide, suspiciously hopeful grin.
“They might not be reptiles at all,” Ianto pointed out. “Just because they vaguely resemble earth reptile eggs doesn’t necessarily mean anything. They’re just as likely to be the eggs of insects, or a completely unfamiliar type of life form.”
“Ooh,” Tosh said, eyes wide. “Remember the eggs of that silicon creature in the Star Trek episode ‘The Devil in the Dark’?”
Ianto nodded, grinning at his friend. “That’s a great episode, and it’s a good illustration; they could be something totally alien and we’re not going to have any idea of what we’re dealing with until after they hatch. For some reason, my scanner couldn’t really penetrate the rubbery shells, so all I could tell for sure was that there’s something alive and moving inside them. I couldn’t get any details on shape or biology.”
“There are some very weird life forms in the universe,” Jack agreed. “I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe could be alive, never mind intelligent. Okay, let’s get on with this. Ianto, if you could prepare a cell for our guests?” he looked enquiringly at his lover. Ianto nodded and went off to arrange accommodations. “The rest of you, ideas on the quickest method of transporting sixty-five football-sized eggs down three levels to the cells?”
They were still discussing options when Ianto returned ten minutes later to report that a cell was ready, well away from any of the other residents for quarantine reasons.
“Have we decided on how to transport them yet?”
“Gwen suggested stuffing them in pillowcases, but I doubt we’d get more than two in each,” Tosh said.
“That would still at least double the number of eggs we can each carry and halve the number or trips,” Gwen pointed out.
“I only have eight pillowcases though,” Jack said apologetically.
Ianto shrugged. “It’s a start. Owen, how about body bags?”
Owen face-palmed. “Damnit, I should’ve thought of that. We should be able to cram eight or nine eggs in each one, maybe even ten if we’re lucky. The eggs aren’t that heavy either so if we pair up, each pair can carry two body bags at a time between them, just holding the ends. Plus, they zip closed so if any of the eggs hatch along the way, they’ll still be contained. Between pillowcases and body bags, we might only have to make one trip. Hang on while I go get ‘em.” He jogged off to the autopsy bay to fetch half a dozen bags from his stash while Jack headed in the opposite direction to fetch the pillowcases that weren’t currently in use, digging them out of the laundry hamper in his quarters. Coming back, he handed them to Tosh.
“They’re a bit used, sorry.”
Tosh smiled. “That’s okay, we’re all wearing gloves for protection anyway,” she teased. “I think grubby pillowcases are the least of our worries.”
Owen puffed his way back into the garage and bent over, hands on knees, to catch his breath. “Had to go down to the morgue to get them, forgot I’d run out up here.”
“Right, open them up and spread them on the ground behind the van. We’ll fill one at a time and zip them up as we go.
It only took a couple of minutes to get everything organised; then Mickey and Andy cautiously unfastened the van’s doors, cracking them open slowly. Nothing made a break for it, so Mickey leaned in and peered over the tarp, letting his breath out in a relieved sigh.
“Our luck’s holdin’ so far. The eggs are jigglin’ about all over the place in there, but I don’t see any hatchlings.”
“Keep all your fingers crossed they stay that way while we’re moving them,” Jack said, starting to look a bit stressed. “We must be running short of time by now.”
“We could do that, but it might make it a bit difficult to pick the eggs up,” Ianto joked, holding up his hands with fingers crossed. It wasn’t much of a joke but it effectively broke the tension that had been building among the team, making everyone groan and laugh.
Jack climbed into the back of the van, saying that if anything harmful hatched, he could withstand an attack better than the rest of them. Once he’d managed to nudge the eggs aside enough to get both feet on the floor, he started passing eggs down to the others, who systematically packed them into the waiting bags. They were wriggling so much by now that they were getting difficult to catch and hold on to, so it was just as well that it wouldn’t be necessary for the team to carry them in their arms.
As soon as all the eggs were safely packed, the team paired off and picked up the body bags. Tosh went first, carrying five eggs in three pillowcases. Next came Owen and Gwen, each holding opposite ends of two body bags stretched out between them, then Mickey and Andy with another pair of body bags, and finally Jack and Ianto bringing up the rear with the last two. Negotiating the stairs with their burdens was a bit tricky, especially getting around the tight turns on the small landings halfway down each fight, but they succeeded, arriving at the open cell door just under eight minutes later. They put everything on the floor inside the cell and quickly set about emptying the bags, noticing as they did so that about a quarter of the eggs now had small tears beginning to form in their stretched surfaces. It wouldn’t be long now.
Jack hooked the last egg out of the last body bag, set it down with the rest of the clutch, scooped the bag up one-handed and exited the cell. Ianto hit the button to close the clear partition, and another that activated a force field just the other side of the reinforced Perspex window, an additional precaution again harmful gasses and airborne microbes. The quarantine cells had their own air supplies, which could be tailored to the individual needs of whatever was being held in them. Not everything that came through the Rift could cope with Earth’s atmosphere.
Tosh picked up the PDA Ianto had brought down earlier, setting scans running on the cell’s interior sensor arrays; they would pick up any changes in the air composition inside the cell as well as analysing the creatures as they hatched in order to provide suitable living conditions.
“Well, that’s that; I wasn’t sure we’d make it in time, but we did. Good job, everybody.” Jack smiled proudly at his team.
“Not too shabby,” Owen noted.
“We should probably finish clearing up and get our reports written,” Ianto added, leaning on the end of a dividing wall, where it jutted out between cells.
“Probably,” Tosh agreed, but despite that, not one of them made any move to leave, eyes fixed avidly on the eggs on the other side of the glass; they were rolling about, twitching and jerking, and several had clearly visible splits in them. Sometimes it was possible to catch tiny glimpses of the creatures within as the eggs moved.
“We’d probably be more comfortable upstairs, watchin’ on our monitors,” Owen mused.
“Go ahead if you want to.” Tosh sounded distracted.
“I don’t; I was just sayin’.”
They fell silent, completely absorbed in what they were watching, until at last, one egg tore further and something poked out briefly before disappearing back inside again.
“What was that?” Owen asked.
“Looked sort of like a flipper,” Ianto replied, frowning thoughtfully.
Whatever was in the egg must have been turning around, because moments later, a head emerged into the light, blinking, and over the next five minutes, several more eggs seemed to sprout heads.
“Do you think we should help them?” Gwen glanced at Jack.
“Only if any of them seemed to be in distress,” Jack said firmly. “If we blunder in there to help we could accidentally damage them instead.”
It was another ten minutes before the first hatchling managed to wriggle its way out of its egg.
“Oh, it’s so cute!” Tosh gasped.
“Owen, we’re going to need to find out what they eat pretty quickly.” Jack was grinning as he watched the first-born shuffle towards the glass partition.
“I’ll get on that in a minute.” Owen crouched down. “Hello there, little fella.”
“It could be a girl…” Ianto cocked his head to one side, studying the new arrival.
“Or some other gender unique to its species,” Jack pointed out.
For a heartbeat, everyone tore their eyes from the baby to stare at him incredulously.
“What? Just because earth species generally have two genders doesn’t mean everywhere else in the universe is the same. Some have three, or even four!”
Owen shook his head in disbelief. “Only you would make a point of knowing that.”
“Biology is still taught in the fifty-first century, Owen; it just doesn’t focus exclusively on the creatures of one particular world,” Jack defended himself, pouting.
There was silence again as more of the eggs hatched, some of the youngsters scrambling clumsily over each other to peer at the big creatures outside the hatchery while others started chomping on their now empty shells.
“Makes sense that would be their first meal,” Owen murmured, staring into bright, curious dark eyes. “Uh, we could have a slight problem here, folks; if they imprint on the first adult they see, then they’re probably gonna think we’re their parents.”
“So what? I’m sure we can work out a babysitting rota.” Jack was completely unconcerned, watching as the last few eggs hatched, even the one that had temporarily been used as a football. He’d have to get Owen to check that one over very carefully for damage; it looked a bit wobbly, shuffling more sideways than forwards.
Ianto smiled contentedly. So far, so good; they’d got all the eggs back to the Hub and hatched them successfully, now they just needed to figure out what they were going to do with sixty-five large baby turtles in various shades of pink… One thing was for sure; they’d soon outgrow this small cell and need somewhere bigger, preferably with water to swim in. The flippers were a dead giveaway that they were basically aquatic.
Ah well, they’d cross that bridge when they came to it. Life with Torchwood was rarely dull, and almost never straightforward, but days like this made it all worthwhile.