Chapter 1 - Can’t Trace Time by A.J. Hall
“Bloody ‘ell,” Owen moaned. Blearily his mind began to draft another new entry for the Big Book of Things Owen Harper Has Learned Never to Do Again:
“Rule 187. Don’t accept an unidentifiable cocktail from a man whose preferred tipple is water. Especially if he’s got the access codes for the Controlled Alien Substances cupboard. And definitely not on the day you thought it would be a cute idea to persuade a pterodactyl to piss on his coat.”
Gingerly he opened one eye. And then sat bolt upright, both eyes wide and staring around in sheer disbelief.
“Bloody HELL!” Owen exclaimed, forgetting the Estuary English he’d painstakingly acquired as protective camouflage once he’d arrived at medical school to discover that 92.5% of the population of the British Isles assumed he was gay as soon as he opened his mouth.
Not that he was prejudiced, particularly; five years at a top-flight English public school (“character-building” the prospectus stressed, which had struck Owen from the first as an odd euphemism for buggery, doing drugs and finding new ways to blow up Matron’s cat) had been excellent training for life in general and Torchwood Three in particular. But why would anyone bother going to the trouble of getting into medical school if it wasn’t for the nurses? Phalanxes of birds in tight uniforms simply gagging for a chance to fondle the stethoscope of anything - however embryonic - that might have a chance of turning into a real, live, doctor.
And as for missing out on all that luscious shaggage by being miscast at the outset as the Gay Best Friend of the entire student nurses’ accommodation block - well, sod that for a game of toy soldiers.
Owen Harper, two days into medical school, had decided that his original RP speech patterns simply had to go. And - because he was persistent and really quite thorough at things he happened to care about - he hadn’t let his adopted tone slip since.
Until today. And today was really quite special.
It wasn’t as if Owen hadn’t woken up before in places he couldn’t recognise, with a mouth that felt like the bottom of a parrot’s cage and an imp on time-and-a-half operating a pneumatic drill enthusiastically somewhere behind his left eyebrow.
It was just that the previous places in which he’d found himself hadn’t included an executive swivel chair with armrest controls which looked as though they’d been designed to pilot the Enterprise, located behind a massive mahogany desk with hand-tooled leather top, in an office half the size of the pitch at White Hart Lane with picture windows extending from floor to ceiling on three of its four sides.
Oh yes, and with views through the windows of a snow-bound, sun-lit city which looked unnervingly like Budapest. Or St Petersburg. Or Prague.
Or rather; like any of the above might have looked if it had had a constant stream of sleekly alien-looking low-level aircraft buzzing around in all directions above its streets and what looked like space shuttles ascending and descending in plumes of white fire on a rapid and planned schedule from somewhere in its outer suburbs.
Looking on the bright side, at least this time there wasn’t a naked female who looked like the bastard offspring of Jabba the Hut beaming down at him from an uncomfortably intimate angle.
But otherwise -
“You’ve fucking well landed yourself on another planet, mate,” Owen said aloud. And then his stomach gave a horrid lurch, which had nothing to do with his hangover and everything to do with the fact that he had suddenly latched on to the fact that this was almost certainly nothing more nor less than the exact truth. Either another planet, or another time or an alternative universe. Or, quite possibly - Owen had had his notion of possibility broadened more than somewhat over the last few years - all three.
Although the effort of moving made him want to vomit he moved across the acres of deep expensive carpet to examine the shelves, the view from the windows, the scanty paperwork (printed on some kind of thin plastic) sitting in a tray on the desk and the assortment of pictures and diplomas on the walls. He sniffed the air coming in through the ventilation unit. Even had a go at the thing which had to be a computer, which was lurking on the corner of the desk. He got nowhere with it; you needed Tosh for a job like that.
The computer would only have been the icing on the cake, anyway. Whatever planet, whatever time, whatever universe he might be in, he was now absolutely certain where he was.
Owen swore softly under his breath.
He’d promised himself three years ago they’d never get him into another hospital; not on his feet, anyway. Whatever they offered him. Even if they gave him a free hand, an unlimited budget, and told him he could fucking well run the place.
Fucking well run the place.
He sat down abruptly into the swivel chair, shaking from head to toe. Not the hangover, this time. He took in with a fresh understanding the acres of space, the natural light, the quality of the furnishing - even the sheer inadequacy of the filing cabinet.
He didn’t just understand where he was, he understood what he was.
And it bleeding terrified him.
There was a perfunctory knock at the door and, without time for him to respond, a man entered the office. Owen braced himself for explanations or, perhaps, flight, but the man simply dropped the stack of files he’d been carrying onto the desk and said,
“You must be the galactic! We hadn’t expected you until the end of the week.”
Owen bared his teeth in a smile which was intended to be two parts Weevil and eight parts Carter-Wright, the notoriously sadistic consultant in A&E under whose ungentle training he’d had his first house job. The newcomer blenched, visibly.
“Shouldn’t that be “sir” galactic?” Owen enquired. Without giving the other man time to respond he got to his feet and came round the desk, pressing into the other’s personal space. “I got in a couple of days early, reckoned I’d come and give you all a nice surprise. I do hope you all like surprises.”
His eye dropped to the man’s name badge: ADMINISTRATOR VORSOISSON. His smile must have changed, upped the Carter-Wright percentage, because the man recoiled at least two feet back across the carpet.
Owen, frankly, counted that a result.
So. Vorsoisson was a bureaucrat. With the benefit of eight years in the NHS followed by three in Torchwood Owen still couldn’t think of a homicidal alien he’d met that was worse than the vast bulk of hospital administrators he’d encountered in his time. Aliens ripped your head off or shagged you into a small heap of steaming dust according to type and temperament. By contrast, healthcare bureaucrats worked out on pocket calculators whether they could afford to let you save someone’s life and then, regretfully, told you that it couldn’t be accommodated within current budget constraints.
Somewhere deep in his much-tried brain a flicker of interest sparked.
Unless the team do something clever in the meantime you’ve got several days running this hospital till the real man shows up.
That is: running this hospital as the smarmy alien git-faced bastard boss from Hell. And just think of the hot-and-cold running nurses.
Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy. Talk about the opportunity of a lifetime.
He extended his hand to shake, let his smile drop into something friendlier, less combative.
“Owen Harper. Look - Vorsoisson, is it? - find me some painkillers, would you? I’m not the best traveller in the -” he stumbled, but caught himself in time. “Galaxy. I’m still feeling the effects.”
Vorsoisson nodded - so they hadn’t eliminated jet-lag in this universe, then - and started fumbling in drawers. The office, as Owen had suspected, was excellently equipped. So that was the water-cooler; one would never have guessed it. The painkillers were red pills, smaller than saccharine tablets. He’d have to take a chance that the human metabolism hadn’t altered too much between home and - wherever he’d fetched up. The way he was feeling death didn’t have too many terrors, that was for certain.
He tipped back his head and swallowed, chasing the pills with a gulp of water. The water had a flatly alien after-taste, subtly but profoundly wrong. Still, after the London water Owen had grown up on, anything that hadn’t passed through a minimum of six human alimentary canals before it reached your glass was bound to taste a little odd. Cardiff’s certainly did.
His senses suddenly sharpened by the abrupt relief of his hangover - God, if he could get these analgesics back to Earth and reverse-engineer them he’d be a billionaire the day they got FDA approval - he picked up, suddenly, on the grey pallor underlying his assistant’s healthy tan, recollected the faint shake of his hand as he’d put the pills down on the edge of the desk.
Heavy night for you too, was it, Administrator Vorsoisson?
Falsely genial, Owen grinned. “Feeling under the weather, Vorsoisson? Be my guest.” He gestured towards the pill packet.
Vorsoisson, who’d been in the act of chucking the water-cup into some sort of concealed waste-disposal chute, froze on the spot for a second, and then turned, very slowly, to face Owen full-on. There was an expression on his face which Owen had seen on human features less than a dozen times before.
And all of the others had just been told it was terminal.
“I’m fine.” That was said in the sort of tone which brooked no argument. Given that Vorsoisson was half a head taller than him and obviously worked out Owen wasn’t planning to start one.
Not when there were so many more satisfactory possibilities.
“Right. Good. Great.” He smiled sweetly. “Tell the medical staff I’m looking forward to meeting them in a couple of hours. When we’ve been introduced you can take me on a tour of the facility. I’m a great believer in starting as we mean to go on.”
Vorsoisson nodded, the relief that Owen wasn’t planning to pursue the question of his health plain on his face. He turned towards the computer thing on the end of the desk, and tapped in an access code. The wavering figure of a man, two feet high and insubstantial as smoke, formed above the desk.
“Ah, Williams, is it? Book me the main Board-room for two-fifteen. Tell the whole medical staff our new Director expects to see them there if they aren’t in theatre. If they are, see if they can’t postpone it.”
He paused; the shadowy figure over the plate looked as though he was about to say something.
“Get going, Williams,” Vorsoisson said harshly. “Don’t keep our new Director waiting.”
The shadow man’s expression compressed itself into a vision of exquisitely miniaturised loathing.
“On the job, Administrator.”
He blinked out. Owen leant back in the swivel chair and yawned luxuriously. “I’ve not had the induction course for that thing. Tap me up a float on expenses, would you Vorsoisson? I’m taking you out for lunch. You can tell me about the city - about the planet. About the facility. After all - we’ve got a couple of hours to kill, and I might as well make good use of them.”