Title: In the Bleak Midwinter
Disclaimer: Not mine, no matter how many DVDs and toys I buy! Everything here belongs to RTD and to Auntie Beeb, who already has my licence fee.
Notes: Thanks as always to Mimarie for sterling beta services any remaining weirdnesses are all mine. Feedback of any variety is much appreciated but not compulsory I'll post anyway! I've suffered for my art, now it's your turn....
17th February 1947, just north of Cardiff
The light was fading before they reached Tongwynlais, the world shading slowly darker in the muffled grey space between heavy cloud and heavier snow. Penny Johnson shivered and huddled inside her thick layers of woollens, grateful for the faint warmth of the tracking unit that she held between her gloved hands even as the truck's rattling, lurching motion threatened to send it tumbling from her grasp. Her breath hung before her, a pale mist that mingled with that of her two companions and threatened to frost the frozen windscreen from within, white on white, and for all the movement visible beyond the glass, they might just be the only creatures left alive on
The world shifted suddenly, sickeningly sideways. Penny gasped and grabbed at Frank's arm as the truck slid, swayed... and steadied, gears protesting as the chained wheels spun for purchase. The dented Bedford QL shuddered violently in place for a moment, but then the engine roared and it started to edge forward once more, the broad blade of the snowplough pushing through the blank whiteness that smothered the landscape.
"Whoops," muttered Jack as he wrestled with the steering wheel. "Sorry think I might have missed the road a bit there."
Penny laughed nervously and forced herself to relax, disengaging herself from Frank's arm. Truth be told, Jack Harkness's driving scared her silly at the best of times, never mind when he had to navigate by guesswork and memory. "Just so long as you can find it again," she said lightly, fumbling with the tracker. "If we end up in a ditch, I doubt we'll be rescued before spring."
"Captain won't put us in a ditch," Frank Milton told her cheerily, his voice muffled behind his knitted scarf. "Wrap us about a tree, perhaps...."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence, guys." Jack worked through the gears as the terrain sloped upwards before them. "What does the scan say, Penny? Much further to the target?"
Penny squinted at the tracker in its Bakelite case. "A mile, perhaps a mile and a half, up in the forests past Castel Coch." She winced as she realised that the gentle slope that they were currently crawling up would be as nothing compared to the steep hills ahead. "Still stationary but there are fluctuations that just won't settle into a pattern."
"It's alive, then?" Frank's gloved hand moved automatically to where his gun was hidden beneath his army greatcoat.
"Doesn't mean it's dangerous," Jack said, though Penny saw a slight tightening at the corners of his mouth.
"Doesn't mean it's not."
Jack snorted, a brief gust of white in the chill cabin. "True enough." He gunned the engine and flashed them a grin that might have been more impressive without the bright red knitted bobble hat pulled down to cover the tops of his ears. "So, let's get up there and see which it is!"
"Assuming we don't just slide backwards as soon as we get past the village." Penny leaned forward to wipe at the windscreen, seeing the greyed-out suggestion of cottages arrayed to either side of their slow advance, barely visible through the falling snow. Wispy plumes of smoke rose from chimneys but there was no light visible from windows, the blackout curtains of the war years now employed to hold the heat of the hearth inside. The world was hemmed in, above and below and around, and it just wasn't fair the war wasn't even two years past, the country still surviving on basic rations and sheer bloody-mindedness, and for a winter like this to hit now....
Hadn't they been tried enough already?
"Think someone should tell the Russians we've got their bloody weather?" Frank shivered and clapped his hands together before tucking them into his pockets, gloves and all. "Been almost a month now."
"Want me to think of a way to warm you up?" Jack asked, but the familiar flirtation sounded forced, the usual sparkle gone as he concentrated on the steepening gradient. "Bad winters happen," he said after a long moment. "No help for it. 1879 was a bastard but I think this one might have it beat...."
Penny and Frank exchanged looks. Sometimes it was all too easy to forget Jack's age.
The cottages grew closer together in the weak beam of the headlamps, flicking in and out of shadow as the plough threw half-crusted snow up and back and into their churned wake. The truck clipped a kerbstone as Jack cautiously negotiated a turn and Penny saw slivers of light appear as curtains twitched aside to see the source of the commotion. "Jack...."
"I've got it, I've got it...." The Bedford shuddered and lurched into reverse, the snowplough a sudden dead weight, then jumped forward once more, finding the road this time. "There we go." Jack crunched through protesting gears, then glanced across at his companions. "What's the matter? Worried the locals are going to fall on us like wolves?"
"On us? No." Frank peered out of the window. "But with the fuel tanks on this thing?"
"Fuel rationing's hard enough in summer," Penny said, looking down at the dim lights of the tracker. "At least food rations they can supplement with what they can catch. I'd rather they not try to catch us it's not as though we can run very fast right now...."
Jack laughed and patted the steering wheel. "Think they might mistake old Bertha here for a rabbit?"
"Says the man who appears convinced that rabbits are large, woolly and white?"
"Yeah, yeah." Jack didn't look terribly repentant. "Didn't see you complaining about the lamb stew at the time. Anyway, we've got bigger teeth than " He broke off, frowning at the road ahead. "Aw, crap."
"Problem?" Frank's hand moved to his hip.
"Nothing we didn't expect," Jack told him, eyeing the smooth, white slope that now rose steeply ahead of them, climbing sharply into the hills above Tongwynlais. "Hold on tight, boys and girls let's see if I can remember where the bends are...."
Penny clung to the tracker with one hand and to Frank with the other as the truck began its torturous ascent. Jack's face was a mask of concentration as the snow before them became the sum of their world, its soft and slippery contours hiding dangers that would not even register as such come the spring. The metal prow welded to the front of the snub-nosed cabin cut through the worst of the drifts, occasionally scraping hard against the road beneath, and Jack cursed under his breath each time the wheels found a hidden bump or dip or fought for purchase against hard-packed white. The cardboard box they'd placed beneath the seat slid back and forth, occasionally bumping the back of Penny's heels, and she hoped that the Thermos flasks of hot tea and soup would survive the treatment. The sandwiches in their brown paper wrappings were likely immune from harm, no doubt frozen through to the point that they would be impervious to anything bar the heavier weaponry strapped to the racking in the covered truck bed behind them....
"Whatever's at the end of this, I hope it's bloody worth it," Frank muttered, barely audibly audible over his scarf and the shuddering snarl of the engine. "Or, at the very least, edible."
Penny smiled, grateful for something to distract her from her freezing toes and their slow climb into the hills. "If it isn't, we could always get Jack to shoot another sheep."
"No good," Jack said, never taking his eyes from the road. "You want to try finding something white and fluffy in this?"
Frank snorted at that and Penny laughed... then frowned as the tracker's dials began to jerk. "We're getting close," she said, feeling her pulse skip in sudden anticipation. "Another quarter-mile, perhaps."
"Do we know what we're looking for yet?" Frank asked, peering over at the illuminated box in her hands.
"Think I might. Sort of." Jack spared them a quick glance as they raised their heads to look at him, then nodded at the road ahead. "See anything?"
Penny frowned and leaned forward to wipe at the screen once more. The white expanse before them appeared to level off somewhat, then rose gently once more as it veered to the left, vanishing behind the dark and shadowed shapes of snow-heavy beech. The thick white flakes were falling more slowly now, twisting in the light of the truck's headlamps and in the faint, pale wash of moonlight that
"We're in a snowstorm cloud cover's solid from here to Pontypridd." Frank's hand moved back towards his gun. "That's not moonlight."
"Good lad." Jack smiled, though there was little humour to it. "Still, look at it this way at least we'll be able to see what we're doing."
"And they'll be able to see us," Penny said quietly, her words hanging as mist before her. She hated this part, the lull before the storm, knowing that they were going to face something but not knowing what. Frank had been a soldier and Jack was... whatever Jack was, but she had just been a junior banking clerk before Torchwood exploded quite literally into her life. She wasn't the only woman on the team, and after two years as an operative she could handle a weapon as well as any of the men, but it was sometimes hard to forget her mother's voice lecturing her sister and herself on 'ladylike demeanour', harder still to forget the fates she had seen befall others.... She swallowed hard, forcing down her fear, and made herself concentrate on the twitching dials. "Around this next bend should be in the trees, but it's... diffuse somehow?" She tapped the side of the box gently, then again, a little harder. "It's large and it's constantly shifting but it's as if it's barely there."
"So, small, numerous and frisky." Jack wrestled the truck into the turn. "Great."
"All we need's a flamin' hive," Frank muttered darkly.
Penny shook her head. "I don't know it's hard to say. I think...." She trailed off as they rounded the bend and she could finally see what lay ahead. "Oh!"
Jack stood on the brakes and heaved hard against the steering wheel, swinging the front-heavy Bedford violently around on the shallow slope. Penny shrieked, diving after the tracker as it escaped her grip, then gasped as they came to a sudden, shuddering halt, half-convinced that he'd finally taken them off the road and almost entirely certain that they were under attack. Neither Jack nor Frank appeared to be scrambling for weaponry or escape, however, and so she cautiously raised her head from the equipment to see exactly what the Rift had delivered to them this time.
Her initial impression had been of multitude pinpoints of light, as if the snow itself had come alive and shining, stark and strangely beautiful. Now, peering through the icy windscreen, she could see that the snow was still falling, spiralling down to settle where it would, and the lights were something different, something separate, something that wasn't simply falling but instead....
"You know, I think I'm definitely tending towards 'not dangerous' on this one." Jack laughed and killed the engine, throwing open the cabin door and leaning out to gaze around in clear delight. "Would you just look at that?"
Penny looped the tracker's carrying strap carefully over her shoulder and followed as Jack jumped down to the frozen ground. The truck lay almost broadside across the snowbound road, blocking the path of any foolish enough to be out in this weather, and Penny nearly fell as her foot caught in an icy rut thrown up by their abrupt halt. A hand on her arm kept her upright and she smiled nervous thanks up at Jack....
And then she saw and all thoughts of caution evaporated into utter wonder.
Above them, all around them, tiny lights danced amongst the snowflakes, fine points of brilliant white fire sketching patterns through the frozen air. The trees rose, tall and skeletal, to either side of the pale ribbon of road, their weighted branches meeting overhead in a patchwork of leafless limbs, and every twig, every knot, every crack and every crevice was picked out in shining needlepoint for a good fifty yards around.
It was, without doubt, quite the most beautiful thing that Penny had ever seen.
"Well, bugger me," Frank breathed as he joined them, gazing up at the starry arch of branches high above their heads. "This is what we've been chasing?"
"Looks that way." Jack thrust his hands into his pockets and tipped his head back, watching the lights as they drifted around them, occasionally darting in and then away again, as if examining these uninvited newcomers. "Penny?"
"What?" she asked, her breath misting in the frozen and gleaming air, then realised that she still had the tracker. "Oh!" She fumbled with it for a few moments, squinting at the readings. "I... yes. Yes." She laughed in relief and delight. "This is all there is."
"What are they?" Frank asked, enthralled. "You're sure they're not "
"Not dangerous," Jack said with certainty. "They're just... here."
"Hibernating." Penny rubbed at her nose, trying to get some feeling back into it. "My Uncle Morris has a farm there are these flies that appear from nowhere every autumn and crawl in everywhere in his south barn, get into all the little nooks and crannies to sleep until spring. Just like these." She nodded to where the animated sparks had settled onto and into the gnarled bark of the beech trees. "It's cold, so they're hibernating."
"And glowing," Frank noted. "Not too big on camouflage, whatever they are."
"Time for a closer look." Jack reached out, cupping his gloved hands around one of the dancing points of light before it could flit away. Penny watched as he drew it close, peering between his fingers... then frowning and opening his hands to reveal something small and round and glassy and barely flickering in his palm. Looking closer, she could see a spherical, translucent body with three small round balls eyes? and what might be a short beak at one end, with a trio of long, gleaming filaments protruding from the other. Diaphanous membranes, like tiny cellophane wings, ran from between the apparent eyes down to the triple tails, trembling delicately against glove leather. The thing was barely the size of a bee, delicate and beautiful and
The filaments twitched, curled, and the light flickered out with a sudden finality, leaving the creature little more than a crystal bead in Jack's hand.
"It's dead?" Penny couldn't keep the dismay from her voice.
"Looks like you were half right." Jack sighed and awkwardly fumbled a sample pouch from his pocket, tipping the tiny corpse into it. "They're settling in to wait for conditions to improve, all right, but from the way this one reacted to being warmed up even slightly, I don't think they're hibernating. I think they're aestivating."
Frank stamped his feet in the snow, tucking his hands under his armpits. "They're what?"
"Aestivating it's too hot for them," Jack told him, tucking the pouch away again. "Some desert rodents do the same thing sleep through the hottest part of the year, instead of the coldest. With these...." He chuckled softly, his gaze growing distant. "There are worlds out there where no human can walk without a high-end exosuit; worlds with mountain ranges of ammonia ice and frozen quartz, every surface a prism, a mirror, catching and reflecting light every which way." He shrugged. "Believe it or not, our little friends here are camouflaged where they come from, a swarm like this is more than enough to dazzle any predator."
Penny looked up, trying to imagine the world that Jack described, the world that these tiny alien fireflies had lost forever. "Poor things," she said sadly as they danced around her head. "They think it's high summer and even the heat from our gloves can kill them...."
"So what do we do with them?" Frank asked. "Just wait 'til spring?"
"Pretty much." Jack trudged through the snow to the back of the truck, dropping the tailgate and vanishing within for a few moments, emerging with a box of glass collection jars. "Here we'll collect what we can for the archives. Should be able to sweep some off the undergrowth easily enough." He handed them a jar each. "The rest won't last long and if our getting here was anything to go by it's unlikely they'll have too many visitors before they go."
"Let nature take its course." Frank nodded, then tipped his head back to gaze up at the shimmering branches once more. "Still, least we got to see them, even if we had to play Scott of the bloody Antarctic to get up here. Too much ugly comes through that Rift...."
"If some make it back to the Hub, maybe we could arrange something for them in the cryostore?" Penny suggested hopefully, blinking snowflakes from her lashes as she fumbled with the lid of her jar. "For study, I mean. Make sure they're harmless?"
Jack looked at her for a long moment, then smiled. "I'll radio ahead, get Elouise and Greg to set something up. We can pack a munitions case with snow, use that to insulate the jars in the back. Take some photos of the foliage too, if the camera hasn't frozen up again." He wrapped an arm around her shoulders, the half-hug awkward through their layers of wool. "It's not often we get this, is it? A little bit of beauty amidst the grey of a dismal age the least we can do is share it with the others, right?"
Penny leaned into him, feeling suddenly tearful. "Yes," she said, her voice cracking a little, and she cleared her throat hastily. In truth, it wasn't that she wanted to share so much as that she simply wanted this moment to last, this reminder that there were glories in the universe as well as horrors... but even beneath the vests and the jumpers and the fur hat and the three pairs of thick socks she wore, she was so cold that her very bones ached, her extremities numb and her lips chapped and sore. "Yes," she said again, watching as Frank, his scarf still firmly wrapped around nose and mouth, carefully shook a shining bracken frond into his jar. "It's beautiful. So beautiful...."
"Yeah, but frostbite isn't. My toes'll grow back yours won't!" Jack gave her shoulders a brief squeeze and released her, grinning as she looked up at him. "Come on, we need to get moving, get back to the Hub. You thought getting up here was fun? Bertha's going to have gravity on her side on the return trip and I'd rather not let it get too icy before we risk those hills again...."
"Of course." Penny nodded and forced herself away from him, crouching beside a half-buried hawthorn to gently tap gleaming points of light into their chill glass prison. They were so tiny, so brilliant, so sadly doomed by the world they now found themselves in....
She glanced back at Jack ageless, immortal Jack who would outlive them all, human or otherwise and pushed that thought aside. In her heart, she wanted to think that the memory of this one frozen and glorious evening might be something to look back on in her old age, but she had been a part of Torchwood long enough that she couldn't fool herself into thinking she would ever see her dotage.
But if she had just one year left to her or fifty, she would remember this.
The snow fell and night drew in and two quite alien worlds brushed feather-light against one another, the inhabitants of each at the very limits of their endurance. Breaths misting and fingers freezing, caught up in the sheer wonder of the moment, Penny and Frank and Jack took their samples and gathered their memories as a thousand thousand tiny alien beasts, as bright and as brilliant as stars fallen to earth, danced amongst the snowflakes and swarmed in the bare and broken canopy overhead.
~ fin ~