Chapter One: Wonderland and Wanderers
"Guess what I got today, Jack!" the Master exclaimed gleefully.
Jack, exhausted and not really interested in anything that might make the Master happy, strongly considered letting the caisson he was supporting by main force alone simply drop. So he'd be squished into jam. So what. He'd be back tomorrow for another round.
"I was downstairs today, doing my inspections, minding my own business, not causing anyone any trouble," the Master proclaimed in grandiose and wholly dishonest innocence. "Out of these slums you people call homes, a woman came after me with, of all things, an old service revolver. Says my people murdered her baby and her daddy, and she wasn't going to miss the chance to take a shot at me."
Jack waited for the punch line. He knew it would be cruel, probably unnecessary, and most likely insane. "Well, I couldn't let an accusation like that go uninvestigated, could I?" said the Master with a pout. This was despite the fact that most of the surviving humans on the planet could easily say the exact same thing. "I looked her up, and wouldn't you know it, she was wrong! Well, sort of right." He chuckled as he tried to imitate the Doctor's trick of speech (from back before the old man had become mostly silent). "Well, completely right in fact, but in effect mistaken. I judged her to be a liar and I've ordered her brought on board!"
The Master laughed grandly and vaulted up to stand on the caisson Jack was supporting. "I have my very own Alice for my wonderland now, Magic Jack! Isn't it lovely?"
Jack would never remember what happened in the next few minutes, but when he breathed again, he was hanging from his reinforced chains by his arms, with the floor not there to support him. Ah, the old slow crucifixion again. Uncomfortable.
"You almost got me, this time, Jack," the Master said, peering through a wall of glass that Jack hadn't noticed at first. He wasn't laughing anymore. He was grim and vicious and all the more deadly for being nearly thwarted. "Can't have that, can we?" He laughed without any humor, the noise every evil villain seemed to strive to acquire, coming to the mad Time Lord effortlessly. "Here, breathe this."
The Master hit a button that opened a hatch behind Jack. The Valiant, well up into the stratosphere as it hovered above the Earth, lurched violently as the cabin mostly depressurized. There was barely enough oxygen. It was also freezing cold and the wind was intolerable.
Jack looked through the glass to see the Master's retreating back. He imagined, instead, Alice's strong, attractive face peering at him, not one trace of her father in her physical attributes, not one trace of any parent she had in her temperament. He imagined her weeping over…
Jack didn't even hear it himself when his defeated cry rang out to the abandoning heavens. "Oh, gods, if there's anyone out there who even can listen to me, please, please help me. Please."
"Oh, the water is wide, and I can't cross o'er. Neither have I wings to fly. But give me a boat that can carry two, and both shall row, my love and I…" The voice belonged to a woman, and sounded both Welsh and tragic as it wreathed a pale pianissimo through an abandoned block of flats in what had once been London.
A man's voice twined with hers, equally Welsh, a soft, pain-haunted tenor that rose and fell around her melody line, an old harmony that suited an old, old tune. "For love is gentle, and love is kind, and love is sweet, when first it's new. But love grows old and waxes cold, and fades away, like morning dew."
They joined the chorus with a dark, moody baritone, and a darker, coarser bass. The song comforted the night. There wasn't anything else that could be done.
An unfamiliar shadow falling across the floor silenced the song. No one in the burned out flats knew anyone who had electric lighting anymore, so they were all very concerned. When a human-looking blonde appeared in the doorway of the former flats, all four people in the room considered her carefully. "Hands up," said the smallest of the men, finally, drawing a weapon seemingly from nowhere. "You're too clean to be here on legit business. Who are you?"
"We have a mutual friend," the woman said in a very strangely accented voice. It sounded as if she naturally spoke entirely differently from the way she was trying to speak, but it wasn't the affected speech of someone trying to sound of better birth. (Although, to the youngest man's ear, there was some of that as well.) She turned off her light and stepped more clearly into theirs, revealing a small, sad-eyed blonde in a blue leather jacket, dark jeans, and a jumper.
"How did you find us?" asked the woman, sizing up the other woman with grave curiosity.
"I was looking for you, if you're Torchwood, but I didn't find you." The woman looked up at the nearly destroyed remnants of the building they were squatting in. "I used to live here," she admitted. "In another life, this is where I spent it."
"Yeah, well, we're not up for company, so just shove off," said the thinnest of the men.
"Owen Harper," said the blonde with a shake of her head. "An ass in any Universe."
"How'd you know my name?" Owen demanded.
The woman smiled wryly through a mouth a bit too wide. "We've met," she said, shortly. "That makes you Ianto Jones, and you Gwen Cooper. I'm not sure who you are," she apologized to the last man in the room.
"Rhys Williams," the man introduced, eyeing the blonde as if contemplating knocking her over to search her for weapons.
"How on Earth did you end up joining this lot?" the blonde asked. "Where's Tosh? We need to get moving, fast."
"You've not given us a name," Gwen said. "You're neat and trim and organized. You could be working for our Lord and Master." She spat those last four words with all the vicious contempt of a woman forced to worship a sewer rat.
"I can't give you my name. It creates problems for various reasons." The four moved into a hasty circle and the woman held up her hands as if expecting them to jump her. "I'm not armed," she insisted. "I'm never armed." She frowned and then said, "Our mutual friend told me to tell you 'Rhea Sylva'. Apparently, she means something to you, too."
Owen nodded. "God of War's missus," he commented.
"Birthed the twins Romulus and Remus," continued Ianto, "who were raised by a she-wolf after they were abandoned on the mountain to die. Meanwhile, their mother was…"
"Made into torch wood," said their guest.
"Jack always had the strangest sense of humor," Gwen said.
"Wait!" cautioned Rhys, "how d'you know that boss of yours sent her? I thought you didn't even know he was alive."
"That's Jack's password," Gwen said. She turned to the woman. "Can we call you Rhea?"
"Just as well be Lupa, me," said the newly christened Rhea. "Works either way, call me what you will, but we have got to get going, now."
"Where are we going?" Gwen demanded.
"Back to Cardiff, I'm afraid," Rhea said regretfully.
"Listen, lady," protested Owen, "you got no idea what we went through to get back there and then away again. It's not happening."
"It'll be much easier this time," Rhea said. "Ah, there you are, Tosh. I was starting to worry about you."
Tosh, slipping around the corner behind Rhea, had a broken baseball bat in her hand. She looked like she'd been about to use it, when the blonde pivoted on a heel and struck like an adder. She did nothing particularly violent, just one moment, Tosh was holding the bat, the next she'd dropped it and was nursing stinging knuckles.
Owen shoved past Rhea, grabbing Tosh and checking her over. "Not armed? What the hell'd you hit her with?" He was furious. Rhea let the faintest of smiles show.
"She's with you?" Tosh asked, surprised. She turned to the newcomer, apology in her expression. "Sorry, all I heard was 'working for our Lord and Master'. You're very fast."
"You were quick thinking," the blonde said. She bent over and picked up the bat, turning it over and over in her hand. She nodded suddenly and handed the bat back to Tosh. "Keep it – it's a good bat. Saved my mum's life, once, this thing."
"She says she used to live here," Gwen said, "and she gave us Jack's password. Says he sent her."
"Where'd you learn to fight like that?" Rhys asked, fascinated. "That'd be a great trick in a pub fight."
Rhea grinned. "I like you," she said. "Keeping optimistic. I picked it up at another Torchwood."
Ianto moved from where he was gathering their equipment to stand between the woman and the others. Gwen was entirely certain he was about to argue.
What stopped Ianto, what stopped everything, was the terrifyingly familiar machine whir of the Toclafane in flight. It sounded like a scissors sharpener and smelled like an abattoir, and there was a high-pitched sort of whistle as well, just in case the vile little things weren't horrible enough.
There was no one on watch – they'd gotten distracted by the newcomer, and now there was every likelihood they were all going to die. Gwen looked around frantically for a place to hide everyone and fast. Owen and Rhys reached for weapons, Tosh and Ianto's eyes both scanned for hiding holes. Only Rhea did something different and unexpected.
She seemed to be doing some sort of breathing or concentration exercise. Her eyes were closed, her face serene. She took a great deep breath and let it out very slowly. Her eyes remained closed. "Right," she said, holding out her hands, "I know you don't trust me, you've only just met me. Do you trust Jack?"
Gwen and Ianto said, "yes," Tosh said nothing, just nodded. Both Gwen and Tosh murmured a yes at almost the same time, realizing that Tosh's nod would do no good. Rhys trusted Gwen's trust, Gwen knew. Owen was the hold out, but he rolled his eyes, then glanced around rapidly to see if he could spot the impending doom. "Doesn't look like we've got a choice, does it?" he demanded. "Whatever you're going to do, get on with it."
The blonde smiled, a beatific smile not unlike a child's. "My mum adores you," she said. "No idea why." She seized Tosh's hand. "Everybody catch hands and stay as close as you can possibly get – yes, you too, Ianto, as close as humanly possible. I'm terribly new at this."
"New at what?" Tosh asked, sounding slightly frantic. Gwen felt her hair standing on end and realized it wasn't fear causing it. Some sort of weird static charge seemed to be building in the air around them.
The blonde woman opened her eyes. Gwen would have sworn she saw something glittering and wholly inhuman, but the woman turned her face up and away before the former PC could be sure. "Don't look," the blonde commanded in a very soft tone. "Hold tight, close your eyes."
Everything went very, very strange.
If Gwen had still been present at the burned out Estate building that used to be called Bucknall House, she would have realized that the sound left hovering, disembodied, in the air behind them was the very same noise she'd heard just as she discovered Jack had disappeared.
A computer monitor from the defunct planet Earth detected a highly unusual activity on the Earth's surface. It tried to talk to other monitoring devices, compare notes, check itself. It failed to find anything else working.
Unfortunately it was programmed, in that event, not to lie quietly and continue to analyze the situation, but to draw as much attention to itself as possible.
It succeeded admirably.
"What did you do?" Owen demanded, frantically, dusting himself down with flickering hands. "What did you just do?"
Tosh, rather amused by how white his face was, watched to see what the blonde would admit to and what she would not. Tosh herself was almost desperate with the urge to pounce on the woman and demand answers. What sort of technology did this, where had she acquired it…
"Where are we?" Rhys, far more practical, it seemed, than the entire Torchwood team, asked the question they all should have asked. Mind, Gwen and Ianto checking the perimeter was reasonable, just as Tosh investigating the unique technology. That meant…
"You're shirking, Owen," Gwen snapped. "Make sure everyone's okay before the panic attack, all right?"
Gwen's accent always got thicker when she was upset. Tosh smiled behind a hand she lifted quickly to cover the smile. Her job was to question this woman. She got to it.
"You said you worked for Torchwood before," she started. "I'm assuming it wasn't Torchwood One, or Ianto would have recognized you?"
The blonde frowned. "Can we just deal with what we're in the middle of, and leave question and answer for later?" she asked. "Is this, or is it not, one of the lower levels of your Hub?"
Gwen blinked in shock. "It is," she realized suddenly. "What in the hell happened here?"
"It looks like someone blew up the whole base," Ianto announced from an open doorway. His voice didn't sound the slightest bit shocked. Typical Ianto, Tosh realized, he just called it as he saw it.
"Isn't that special?" Owen complained. "What are we doing back here? It was all we could do to get away from here the first time."
"How did that work?" the blonde asked. "Jack said you'd been sent to the Himalayas. I was prepared to chase you up a mountain range."
"How'd you find us anyway?" Gwen wondered.
"I told you, I didn't find you." The blonde sighed and sat down on a bench. "Look, if you had your equipment and I knew what I was doing, I'd let you question me and scan me and everything else to your hearts' content. But there's no time!"
"What's so damn important!?" Owen insisted.
"Your Lord and Master, as he calls himself, has Jack's daughter."
Tosh had never heard silence quite so loud.