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Chapter 23 - Can't Trace Time by A.J. Hall

Owen woke, lapped in the warm after-glow of orgasm. The familiar sounds and smells of the Hub were all about him; water dripping down the pipes, the odd squawk from high above their heads, the faint whiff of preservative from the mortuary.

Sodding appalling class of office accommodation they expect us to put up with. That’s the public sector for you. No respect for the staff. I ought to write a stiff email to HR. Get the Union onto it.

He smiled and yawned.

“So I see you’ve regained consciousness, then.”

Jack’s voice was amused, unconcerned. Owen might, another time, have been inclined to kick up a fuss about that - after all, it was Jack’s fault he’d been in the predicament in the first place - but right this minute he rather thought he wouldn’t bother. He snuggled back under the duvet and felt the camp-bed creak beneath him. No need to open his eyes just yet. With eyes shut he could still pretend the warm flat accent was Bel’s. Albeit, given the difference in pitch, Bel suffering the backlash of a chesty cold. Or after having smoked a packet of Marlboro’s while drinking straight Islay malts all evening, possibly.

But close enough for Government work.

He made his voice indifferent, casual.

“Out long, was I?”

“‘Bout eight hours. Give or take. We’ve been taking it in turns to monitor your vital signs.” The thread of humour in the warm, flat tones deepened. “Until it became almost embarrassingly apparent that your vital signs are in excellent order. So I sent the guys out for Chinese.”

There was a pause; the voice became a tad more serious.

“As your boss, perhaps this is a good time for the official reminder that, once you’ve gotten totally off your tits, deciding go play with one of Tosh’s unidentified alien artefacts makes you a prime candidate for a Darwin award. Hell, Owen. Do you want free storage for your personal effects for the rest of the millennium?”

That was enough to snap his eyes wide open, all right.

“I fucking like that! You gave me that cocktail in the first place!”

Jack shrugged. “How come I’m expected to know you’re allergic to absinthe?”

“That abortion of a concoction was based on absinthe?”

Jack looked faintly shifty. “Well, mostly absinthe.”

Owen loaded his voice with sarcasm. “Ah. Mostly absinthe. So that’s all right then.”

Predictably, Jack shifted back onto the attack. “Anyway. Whatever was going on in your bloodstream, as a senior Torchwood operative your commonsense should still have kicked in before you picked that thing up and started twiddling. No-one knew what it did: it could have been a weapon or a space/time matter transporter -“

“You mean it wasn’t?”

Jack looked - for him - almost apologetic.

“Er, no. Home entertainment device, actually.” He continued, rather rapidly, before Owen could protest. “Tosh got a line on it eventually. To be fair, I’d have recognised it a bit earlier, but that model got dropped in favour a competing format after a couple of years -“

Owen sat up straight; he was breathing hard. He could hear the edge of hysteria in his own voice, but couldn’t stop it. Nor, some part of his mind told him, did he particularly want to.

“So essentially you’re saying I was kiboshed by some bleeding alien Betamax?” He reached blindly out for the device: Jack intercepted his wandering hand and caught it, tight. This time there was a level of something else in Jack’s tone. Something - speculative. Something - and this was the part that really dropped the salt onto the raw wound - something almost compassionate.

“Of course, there’s no way of telling what it was you accessed. Index files were all corrupt. Could have been anything. History, fiction, fantasy.” He paused. “Or just good old-fashioned porn.”

“Got a ticky-box for ‘all of the above’, have you?” Owen snarled.

He swung round on the camp-bed, wrenching his hand from Jack’s grasp, putting his feet to the floor with such violence the camp-bed almost up-ended. He was standing before a thought struck him. He turned, looking down at Jack, who hadn’t moved from the stool he’d been sitting on. There were, after all, questions that the boss might, just might, be able to answer. And certainly no-one else in Cardiff was likely to be able to.

“Ever come across a hermaphrodite?”

Jack raised his eyebrows, unfazed. “Natural or cosmy?”

Owen’s face must have shown his bewilderment. Jack sounded like someone explaining the bleeding obvious to a not-over-bright child.

“Were they born that way or did they opt in?”

Owen gulped. “You can? Er, people do?”

“Sure. Happens all the time.” Jack’s face creased in a manic grin. “One place I heard of, a long ti- ” He sneezed, unexpectedly. “A long way away from here, they’d got the full procedure down to less than an hour. No anaesthetic needed. ‘Bout as much pain as mild sunburn. Less hassle than getting a tattoo.”

Owen’s hand stole to the base of his spine, touching the spot on which from the age of seventeen until less than eight months ago he’d sworn he’d had a Tantric mantra emblazoned in an elegant blue circle. Until Suzie, almost choking on her giggles, had chosen to disabuse him of that particular notion.

Vindaloo with extra poppadums. Special. For the fuckwit ferengi.

He’d avoided having sex with anyone who might know Urdu ever since.

“Of course,” Jack said, “It made high school kinda interesting there.”

“Um - ah - ack?”

“Well, you know. You go out with a few guys from your class - have a few beers, do tabs, whatever. Fetch up on the Strip. Everyone egging everyone else on to show just how far they’re prepared to go. No-one in those places cares, long as your credit chit passes and your retina scan shows you’re over age. All good clean fun. Until you wake up next morning thinking, ‘Shit! I couldn’t really have -’ And then reach your hand down.”

That grin, Owen decided abruptly, didn’t actually have any business being attached to anything sane. And he wouldn’t pledge his medical reputation it currently was, either.

“Of course,” Jack added thoughtfully, “provided you could cope with the PMS it made for amazing sex.” His grin, implausibly, got even more feral. “Or so they tell me.”

Owen thought about responding to that one. And then thought about not responding. And then thought that thinking about responding needed more energy than he thought he had at this precise moment. Or was he, perhaps, over-thinking things?

Jack got up from the stool next to the camp bed. “Well, if you want to get your clothes on we could still catch them before they got past the crispy duck.”

Owen shook his head. “You go on. If you like. Me, reckon I could do with an early night.”

Jack raised his eyebrows. “Early night? As in: hot bath - cocoa - hot-water bottle - lose yourself in a good book, maybe?”

Owen looked straight back at him. “Got any better ideas?”

There was a pause. It felt like eternity. Jack blinked first.

“OK. Well. See you in the morning.”

Outside the rain was sluicing down buckets in the chill, orange-black gleaming of the Cardiff night. The wind howled, lifting up waves white over the edge of the waterfront.

Owen leaned head down into the storm, his fingers caressing the warm bulk of the alien artefact as he headed for home and bed.

THE END