Chapter 25: Heav’nly Hosts Sing Alleluia
He was drifting, neither awake or asleep, dead or alive. He was aware of voices, hushed whispers, sharp and indistinguishable against the rush of blood pouring through his body. Invisible fingers ghosted through his hair, faltering in their caress, drawing him into the rich circle of existence.
Jack awoke with a sharp intake of breath, his eyes settling on the heavens to centre himself in life. He was alone, the stars his only companions but they were masked in the pall of emissions keeping them far from his reach. His hand went to his chest, wrestling quickly with the weighty buttons of his coat as his fingertips explored beneath the layers of his clothes, pressing down on his exposed skin in a need to locate the steady pump of his heart. It was still there, impervious and beating unseen. He sighed and closed his eyes, listening to the earth rupture under his head, allowing himself a moment to gather his thoughts before he turned in the embalming mud and got to his feet.
He patted himself down, realising his gun and field equipment were missing, his pockets empty, except… He rubbed the smooth fabric between the pads of his fingers as he removed it from the lining of his coat; a navy, claret and gold stripped tie; Ianto’s tie. He looked down at the sorry material, it was ripped, the colours muted with blood, screaming to him, taunting him, reminding him. He balled it in his fist, crushing the silk in his grasp, his face set with determination.
“Jack?” The wind spoke making the captain search the landscape with a keen sense for the hidden.
He reached out to touch a flicker in the air but it was gone before his fingertips could brush its iridescent pool. Jack licked his dry lips feeling more than he could see.
He gazed around the vast expanse; the muddy desert offered no direction, no bearing or track to follow; only the still figures of statue like corpses gave some indication that there was life beyond this barren hell. Explosions spilled across the sky, their firestorm making light of the darkness. Jack followed their path with experienced eyes observing the stretch and span of each missile. He tucked the tie back in his pocket and settled on a course across the muddy drifts of no man’s land.
It was a treacherous journey, lit by the surge of fiery light from shells and the eerie phosphorescent glow of Verey lights which purged the battlefield of movement. Jack stilled against the bleach of their exposing glow making it hard for the spotters to pick out a target, his body becoming just another indistinguishable shadow against the glare. Others, he noticed had taken the same stance, men, stood a few feet away, oblivious to his presence. He studied them in the blazing flare of light, realising there was something odd with their dent against the night; he could see right through them as if they were ghosts. He looked down at his hands and then back to soldiers; he was outside of this time, a fluctuating phase, solid matter while their echoes continued in the snag of Agroná’s time loop without alteration to the moment. She was not powerful enough to affect each circumstance of this instant but only certain elements contained within its fabric. She could bend a few individuals, a limited patch of the battle to her will but not all of the time encapsulated in this bubble. It was a sobering insight in as much as he now understood her focus was elsewhere allowing him the freedom to walk unchallenged through this celluloid frame of time.
The flares died down and the battle continued as it had all those years ago.
Jack carried on until he came to a lip of a trench. Again, his presence was ignored by those soldiers not under the alien’s control, their wraith like energies continuing in the fold of time.
He looked around him at the mill of troops, British; Welsh by the insignia; at last things were looking up.
“Isaac Bevan was my brother,” a voice snarled at him from bowels of the stinking warren.
Jack closed his eyes, maybe finding this trench was not a coincidence, maybe Agroná had set his path after she had killed him. He turned his head and looked at the man with half a face, a cigarette hanging from his torn lips. “And he didn’t belong in my future,” Jack challenged.
Spectres passed through the two men going about their routine without noticing those who had stepped out of time. For them, caught in this moment, Jack and his aggressor did not exist; they were just a stir of the breeze, an overlap caught in their peripheral vision.
Stuart Bevan’s focus fell away from the captain to a young solider sitting against the shored side of the trench reading through a small pocket book. Jack recognised the transparent figure of Isaac, beautiful and whole, unspoilt by death, caught like the others back in the stream of the time. “I’ve lost him, again because of you.” Stuart’s anger raged against the other man as he pulled out his bayonet.
The solid steel drew Jack to its edge. “You lost him ninety years ago when he drowned.” Somewhere deep in his subconscious he could hear Ianto’s voice reprimanding him. ‘That’s it Jack, goad the man with the big, sharp, pointy blade’
Stuart took a step forward, the long knife threatening. “NO! You took away his chance to live again…”
“Sorry, but time doesn’t work like that, I had a handbook somewhere…” He patted his pockets. “… Can’t remember the actual clause, think it was three point four, lots to do with paradoxes and fabric and streams and, did I mention paradoxes..?”
The soldier snarled into the gaping wound showing more broken teeth. “I’m going to cut you into little pieces and feed them to the rats…”
“Fritz is hungry, wants fresh meat.” Another soldier, a boy really, joined Stuart, a large rat perched on the top of his arm; both had a hungry glint in their eyes.
The creature nuzzled the youth’s face and set to work gnawing at the scorched and bloody flesh down its master’s left side.
“Stand down.” The order was crisp, its inflection as cold as Thomas Rees’s grey eyes.
Bevan was torn, his bloodlust threatening to overwhelm him; he did not move. “I said stand down!” The officer commanded again.
“He killed Isaac, he’s mine…” Stuart’s eyes became large and brutish.
“No, we’ve had no instruction; we’ll keep him here until we do.”
Stuart swallowed and turned to his commander. “And when we do?” he licked his lips, bayonet still pointing at Jack.
“Then you can have and enjoy your revenge.” This seemed to satisfy him and he gave Jack a mock salute.
Evan Thomas began to giggle causing the rat to stop tugging on a springy artery. “Three, two, one…” A shot rang out, piercing the night.
There was a commotion at the far end of the trench and a stretcher was rushed to that location. Thomas Rees looked at Jack. “Welcome to the suicide ditch, Captain Harkness, if you will come with me, please,” he added.
The man led Jack silently through the trench until they came to a vacant and secluded alcove once used by snipers. Rees sat down and gestured for the captain to do the same; Jack complied watching the other man carefully. “What now?” He asked.
“We wait.” The Welshman’s voice was distinctively soft as he eased himself back against the sandbags.
Thomas sighed. “Dawn. At dawn we all die again.” He took off his cap and began to polish the badge. Jack could see the depth and track of the bullet hole in the side of his skull; close range he observed.
The ghostly spectacle of two men carrying a stretcher passed them by, it occupant dead, shot through the head. “Novices,” Rees stated sadly, “first time in the trench they can’t resist peering over the top. Bang!” His voice followed the cortège as it disappeared along the narrow walkway to the scrape of lights across the sky.
He positioned his hat back on his head. “They just want to glimpse the Hun, they never do, all they see is darkness.” He laughed mirthlessly. “I know, I speak from experience, only mine was self-inflicted.” He wiped his fingers across the peak.
“Why did you join up?” Jack observed the sorrowful change in the officer’s face.
The flint coloured eyes met his own. “Because I am, was, a coward, in a world full of brave men I found it is easier to face death than do the right thing.” His hand slid to his breast pocket and pulled out a photograph.
Jack studied the picture; it was wrong. The image was hazy as if it was out of sync here and now, its colour bleeding in smudges into the darkness. It cried out with a sickening static that Jack knew all too well but could not place.
Thomas Rees fondled the captured moment seeing what Jack could not, his thumb stroking through the distortion. “How did you find us?” he asked without looking up.
“I thought your mistress led me here,” he answered honestly.
“She is elsewhere,” the officer replied, eyes narrowing. “There has been a change; I can feel it burning through me…” He looked at his hands. “…Like time is shifting.”
He glanced at Jack. “Maybe it’s because you are here, maybe it’s the loss of Isaac but I can feel something stirring.”
He turned back to the photograph. “Why are you here, Captain Harkness?”
“Agroná has dragged two members of my team back here; I’ve come to find them and stop her if I can.” Jack’s words were weighted and serious.
Thomas’ hand squeezed the image, buckling it. “Who?” He looked at the opposite wall.
The question surprised Jack. “My doctor and my archivist.”
“The two men from the graveyard earlier,” Rees stated; Jack nodded.
Thomas stood, his back to the other man, he looked skyward at the deadly fire. “She is testing me,” he whispered more to himself than Jack, “she believes I am still the man I was. She is punishing innocents.” His gaze fell to the photograph once more.
“She always has and will.” Jack watched the other man closely.
Thomas went to answer but his argument fell short of a shell burst. “How will you stop her?” He said softly, looking over his shoulder.
Jack held the other man’s gaze. “I don’t know.”
Gwen fell to her knees in the snow taking Tosh’s weight as she slumped backwards. The rambling flakes dusted the Asian woman’s face making her pale skin almost glass like against the spill of her hair. “Tosh?” Gwen’s grip tightened; just like her colleague’s on the manuscript.
“Tosh?” Again there was no reply.
Gwen placed her hand on Tosh’s forehead; it was icy cold, she pulled her friend closer. “You bastards, you promised!” She looked to the glowing stone in front of her.
Tosh’s eyes shot open, their colour swirling with light. She took a deep breath. “Life, death, rebirth. Life, death, rebirth…” The mantra raced from between her ghostly lips gilding the air with a golden light. “Help me to stand, “she pleaded.
Gwen hesitated. “Gwen, please.”
They both staggered to their feet, Gwen supporting her colleague’s light frame. Tosh clutched the book close to her chest holding her free hand in front of her. The manuscript blanched against her dark coat and then blinked like a thousand suns into the darkness. Gwen shielded her eyes against the intense flash of light channelling though Tosh’s outstretched hand. The beam split into four and coursed to the imbued stones, its light eddying above them, moulding itself into four gossamer forms; an old man, a wolf, a stag and a youth. The human shapes stretched out their arms, illuminating more than they could reach, the wolf bayed at the night sky in a flare of light that called to the heavens and the male deer shook its majestic head with a regal temperance that stirred the stars to bequeath their energies. “It’s happening,” Tosh whispered.
“What…?” Gwen didn’t get to finish as the stones began to rise from the ground to unite with the figures suspended above them. “Fuck.”
Like the falling snow the ethereal forms scattered onto the rock below them making them glisten against the darkness turning them into pure light. Their beams coursed across the graveyard, each taking up a position at the far corners, their unbroken ray of light enclosing the whole of the area making a an impregnable boundary.
The manuscript flew from Tosh’s grasp into the air, its pages split against the night, stopping in the centre of churchyard. The four stones fell heavily to the ground, their bases buried securely in the earth.
The graveyard fell silent and dark, the snow falling like pale petals on the covered ground. The two women waited, their breathing intense against the spark in the air as the manuscript’s pages fluttered in the tune of rebirth.
“Tosh?” Gwen’s question dodged the tombstones.
“It’s not finished.” The other woman’s gaze was on the book.
The stones seemed to breathe out, each expelling a broad arm of light that captured the manuscript in the flicker of their burst. Its pages turned and symbols floated in spiralling flames toward the rigid trunk of the yew; the combined beams following its written path until they struck the wood and forged a bridge between times.
A scream shook the graveyard and just for a second the tree’s great crown folded into the shape of a crow.
“It’s sealing Agroná’s connection with the past,” Tosh stated wearily resting against a vast family tomb.
Gwen stepped forward, her eyes never leaving the gap cleaved open by the book. “But Jack, Owen and Ianto are still there..!”
Jack felt it rip through the trench, an invisible shockwave erasing and correcting the slips in time.
Thomas turned to him looking to the photograph before slipping it back in his pocket. Jack had watched the image clear under the surge of energy and another take its place, the amorphous shape of before disappearing into time.
A fissure of light opened before him; in its centre he saw the graveyard. “She will fight this,” Thomas informed him, “even now she calls to us.” He began to wane in the dim light. “You must go.”
Jack stood. “I’m not leaving any of my team behind.”
“I will bring them back to you.” Thomas held his gaze.
Jack looked deeper into the steel of his stare. “Why?”
“Because I am not the man I was. I can put it right.” He touched the captain’s shoulder. “I will stop her and bring them back to you, I promise.” He released Jack and checked his side arm.
Harkness shook his head. “How?”
“By breaking the pact.” He placed the gun back in its holster, his words holding a certainty in their influence.
The light from the tear grew stronger. “Go, wait for us, there is nothing you can do here.”
Jack hesitated but there was something in the officer’s eyes, a determination, a hope, a need for salvation, that he, himself recognised and trusted. “Okay, ten minutes, then I’m coming back in.”
Thomas Rees nodded as he vanished into the night to answer Agroná’s raging cry. Jack turned into the light and fell back to the churchyard.
Copyright ©RMC April 2018