Chapter 1 - Paradise Naan by A.J. Hall
Myfanwy lay listlessly across his knees. Her temperature was up something crazy even for a reptile; one couldn’t even stand to touch her with bare hands for more than a few seconds. Her skin was dull, flaking. The semi-transparent third lid almost covered both eyes. Her breathing was laboured, her sides heaved with the effort each time.
Unexpected, she hiccuped. A dribble of foul-smelling green vomit landed on his trousers. She turned her head on one side so she could look up at him. Jack fancied her expression was faintly apologetic. He scratched her eye-ridges and chirruped at her, hoping it sounded reassuring when translated into pterodactyl.
“Don’t fret, girl. Everything’s going to be fine.”
He hoped he was convincing Myfanwy; he sure as hell wasn’t convincing himself. Or, for that matter, any of the Torchwood Three team within earshot.
No change there, then.
A phone rang on the other side of the Hub; he heard Gwen’s voice answering it; a quick, tense exchange, low-voiced. A few seconds later he felt a light touch on his arm.
“DCI Swanson again.”
“Didn’t you tell her we’d got a crisis of her own?”
“Of course I did. She said -” Gwen hesitated. “Well, her exact words were, ‘Do you think I’d be asking you bird-brained nincompoops for help if I wasn’t gambling in the Last Chance Saloon as it is? Tell Good Old-Fashioned Lover-Boy to get his arse in gear and get someone over here now or there may not be a here to get them over to.’ “
Jack breathed in, counted to ten. Made an effort to steady himself, act logically. Do the job he was employed for.
“Well, if she calls again tell her we’ll get someone over there as soon as we can. But make it clear we’ve got a team member down, and Myfanwy takes priority.”
Owen’s expression was one of deep contempt. “Bleeding favouritism. It’s not like you’d shut down the Hub and sit moping on the sofa cuddling one of us if we’d got a cold.”
Ianto coughed. “I’ll just be getting on with brewing that fresh pot of coffee, then, shall I?” He sidled out.
Jack looked up at Owen. “Got your test results? Any progress with a diagnosis yet?”
“No. The impossible I can do at once; miracles take a bit longer.” He put his head on one side. “Also: I’m a doctor, me. Not, repeat, not a vet. Thought about it, I grant you. Looked quite good when you saw it on the telly. But the careers lot at school advised against, said I’d be better off at med school.”
Gwen sniffed. “Decided you were one of those things that shouldn’t happen to a dog, did they?”
Owen’s lip curled. “Well, you ought to know, darlin’.”
Perhaps fortunately, at that moment Tosh – who’d been tapping obliviously away at her workstation for the best part of the last hour – arrived besides him. It was obvious from her expression that her search had been fruitless. She reached out a tentative hand to pat Myfanwy, biting her lip as though stumbling for a way of breaking the news, looking unreasonably guilty at her failure. Jack reached out his hand and enclosed hers in it.
“No luck on the internet, I take it.”
She shook her head. “Not in the on-line archives, either.”
Owen’s voice was heavy with sarcasm. “Ooh, picture my surprise No computer records on pterodactyl diseases. Could that be – let’s see – because the sodding things went extinct approximately seventy million years before the invention of the written word, by any chance? Or is that just one of those weird coincidences?”
Jack swung his feet to the floor.
“Awk.” Myfanwy, disturbed by the movement, could still manage nothing more than a token protest. That, more than anything, indicated just how serious the situation was. He re-settled her on the sofa, put the blanket over her and reached for his coat.
“Right. Owen, you’re in charge here. Keep her warm and see if you can get her to drink something. Tosh; keep sifting the records. Anything springs to mind, either of you; you try it. Gwen; you and Ianto go and see what it is DCI Swanson’s found. Remember; if it’s alien it’s ours, but if it looks like it’s going to be expensive to feed you might see what you can swing off her budget to cover it before we claim it.”
He was already on his way to the lift. He flung the words back over his shoulder. “Well; if the Internet’s let us down perhaps I should try a proper library.”
It hadn’t occurred to Jack that the stacks of Cardiff Central Library went so far back. It was strange, too, that as he penetrated further into the ultra-modern, state of the art building the shelves started to become different, more elaborate, fashioned of carved oak rather than light alloy.
Odd noises started to impinge on the silence. He half-glimpsed an orange-furred, impossibly long arm hooking round a set of shelves, almost trod on a discarded banana skin. Also, the books were starting to change. The bindings were all leather now; hand-bound. When he took a book down at random its fonts wavered unsteadily, illustrations stood out in crudely blocked woodcuts.
Eventually he reached a bay where there were chairs, a table, green-shaded library lamps, and an unexpected view out through the window into elaborate, formal gardens. The first book which caught his eye had its title tooled in gold down the leather of the spine: Diseases of the Dragon by Sybil Deirdre Olgivanna Ramkin.
Not quite, but close. After all, one exotic flying lizard that’s got no business even existing has got to be pretty much like another.
He reached out and hooked the book down from the shelves, sinking down at the table to see whether it was – by some miracle – what he’d been looking for.
A discreet cough – delivered with a force which probably measured at least 6 on the Beaufort Scale – sounded behind his left ear. “Sorry to butt in.”
He turned, rising from his chair as he did so. It wasn’t often Jack had to look up to meet a woman’s eyes, but this one was a good three inches taller than him, not counting the piled-up mass of chestnut hair which made her seem taller still.
“Couldn’t help but see what you were reading,” She had the sort of upper-class English accent one could deploy as medium-range artillery. “Just wanted to say, if it’s Storge or the Black Tups that’s the problem, I wouldn’t rely on Chapter Nine.”
She nodded towards the book lying open on the table. “Hadn’t had any hands-on experience of those when I wrote it. Don’t get many cases provided you’ve got well-ventilated pens with good drainage, on a light gravel soil with a south-facing elevation. So I trusted to Jacobson. Draco Vulgaris: Towards a Fimple But Comprehenfive Taxomony of Refpitory Tract Infections, you know. ” She let out an expressive snort. “Book shouldn’t be given space in a decent privy. Lost Mountjoy Terminator Hoverfist Thunderflash of Sto Helit, poor little beggar, relying on the treatments in Jacobson. That was when I realised the man was talking absolute thrums, if you’ll pardon my Klatchian. So I sat down and worked out a fresh set of treatments from scratch. They’re all going in the third edition, but somehow I don’t seem to have as much time to correct proofs as I had before I married.”
She extended her hand. “Sybil Vimes.”
Jack eyed her cautiously, trying to get his bearings. He had found, over an unexpectedly prolonged youth that had, after all, turned out not to be so much misspent as inventively invested, that care with nomenclature paid off in spades every time. She’d admitted to a husband, so Mrs was a solider bet than Miss any day.
Belatedly, he placed the accent.
A longer time ago than he liked to think, Estelle’s godmother – “up from the County” with all that implied – had descended upon them unexpectedly, on an afternoon they’d planned on being alone together. During a momentary awkward silence, while Estelle had been off tidying her hair, the ferocious old lady had fixed him with eyes bright and chilling as a falcon’s and said, “So. Are you sleeping with my god-daughter, then?”
Oddly enough, he hadn’t been. Not then. He’d taken immense care to hold off; Estelle had seemed so delicate; so young and innocent, especially compared to all he’d been and known and done -
And when he’d stammered out something to that effect, Estelle’s godmother had looked him up and down and said, “Don’t be a bloody idiot, man. You could be killed next week – Hell, with these air raids you could be killed tonight. I’m not going to have Estelle moping around because she was ‘saving herself’ and then a bomb sneaked in between you. Saw too much of that in the Kaiser’s nonsense. Grab your chance, boy, then no-one has to be sorry for a might-have-been.”
She’d swirled out in a haze of lavender water and determination; off to the war rooms to tell Churchill what was what, no doubt. Many years later she’d published her memoirs; he’d bought them hot off the press and been more than a little startled by what he’d apparently missed out on during the 1890s and 1900s. Including, it seemed, her. The Dowager Marchioness of Piddletrenthide.
And as for her advice; he hadn’t needed to be told twice. Nor had Estelle, come to think of it.
It occurred to Jack that wherever Sybil Vimes was from, she was all-too-probably the Marchioness of it, too. Worth the gamble, anyway.
He pressed the outstretched hand to his lips. “Captain Jack Harkness. Delighted to meet you, Lady Vimes.”
“Don’t worry about that sort of nonsense,” she said briskly. “Call me Sybil. So. What’s the poor little chap got wrong with him, then?”
His jaw must have dropped. She grinned. “Don’t look so startled, man. I can tell when someone’s been sitting up late with a sick dragon, all right.”
At least, Jack hoped she’d said “tell”. He was acutely conscious that pterodactyl vomit wasn’t the classiest eau de cologne ever invented. Or the most unobtrusive, On the other hand, the English upper-classes had never been too squeamish about wading through shit themselves. At least, provided it was shit with a pedigree or, at least, the chance of a plum colonial possession at the other side of it.
“It’s a she, actually. And – um – not exactly little. She’s got a ten-foot wingspan when she stretches.”
Lady Sybil’s eyes widened. “Good God! Have you ever thought of mating her?”
Before he could respond, she added, “Still, size isn’t everything. Some of those studs who’ve gone hell-bent on emphasising one factor above the rest have bred in all sorts of predispositions and weaknesses. Irresponsible. Whose pens did you get her from?”
“I didn’t. She – just sort of showed up one day. So we kept her.”
“Ah.” It was amazing how much editorial commentary Lady Sybil managed to get into a monosyllable. “Grew too big for someone, I expect. Couldn’t even be bothered to take her down to the Sunshine Sanctuary. Just threw her out on the street instead. Honestly! The necrosing marthambles is too good for some people.”
And then, abruptly, she reached for a pair of gloves that had been resting on the table, gloves which looked like the kind of gauntlets one used for handling radio-active isotopes. She turned to call – well, make that bellow – round the corner of the bookcases, “Vilikins! Tell the Commander I may be a bit late for dinner. Chap here needs my help. Might have a nasty case of Staggers on his hands.”
And then they were going through back through the stacks at a pace which would have done credit to several of the military organisations he’d graced over the years, but which nevertheless didn’t stop Lady Sybil rapping out a set of incomprehensible questions about Myfanwy’s symptoms.
In the circumstances, he thought it was an excusable bending of the security rules to use the invisible lift to get the healer to the patient before his brain exploded. Lady Sybil didn’t blink. The Hub was just as he’d left it; Tosh was back at her workstation and Owen was kneeling by the side of the sofa, trying to get something into Myfanwy’s beak and, judging by the swearing, failing rather badly.
“Off her feed, is she?” Lady Sybil was drawing on her gauntlets as she approached the sofa. “Probably just as well. At least it lessens the risk she’ll blow up on us.”
Owen drew back rather hurriedly from the sickbed. He cast a despairing look at Jack. “Who the hell’s she?” he hissed. “Trust you to claim you were going out to the library and instead pick up some – ah -“
Owen’s eyes took in Lady Sybil fully for the first time. It was, Jack had to admit, the sort of sight for which the instalment plan had probably been invented. “OK, so you didn’t pick her up. Owing to not having an industrial-grade crane in your pocket when you went out.”
There was plenty Jack could have said to that, but then he heard Lady Sybil’s sharp intake of breath behind him. He turned to see her looking down at Myfanwy with an expression that was utterly unmistakable.
Jack’s guts turned over within him. One didn’t go through the Blitz – three times, wasn’t it, by now? - without recognising that look. He had seen it on the faces of countless great-hearted, gently bred women, all determined to do what they could to help, all abruptly confronted with the brutal truth of what high explosive and incendiary bombs could do to human flesh and blood; all having nothing with which to oppose it except the ingrained notion that ‘Only a wet blanket blubs, except in the dormy, and even then only under the pillow.’
He knew, sure as thought-reading, what Lady Sybil’s next words would be. He was turning even as she opened her mouth. “Tosh? As Ianto’s not here could you take over in the kitchen? I think we’ll be needing a lot of boiling water.”
Two hours or so later things were no better; if anything, even worse. Lady Sybil had taken his place on the sofa – Myfanwy seemed calmer that way. The pterodactyl was weakening visibly, despite the hot-water bottles, hot compresses and nasal steam baths for which the industrial quantities of boiling water turned out to be so handy. Neither Owen nor Tosh had devised any solution, and Lady Sybil’s suggested remedies all seemed to depend on incorporating some ingredient that was either utterly impossible to locate (“Grated wahoonie?”) or whose very existence broke several laws of physics, or both.
So matters stood when they heard the singing.
*Ydyw’r Un a’m cwyd i’r lan.
\Ydyw’r Un a’m cwyd i’r lan.”***
Baritone and soprano twined together; reacted against each other; went in wholly different ways, unable to be together, unable to be apart. Did the thing with the twiddly bits. Did it again, backwards and quite possibly sideways. Did it with added descant. Caused hair to rise on the backs of spines: even, Jack thought wildly, on things that didn’t actually have hair, or, quite possibly, spines.
Myfanwy struggled weakly up into a couchant position. Lady Sybil reached up her hand, scratching down behind her ears.
Gwen and Ianto, arms round each other’s shoulders, burst through the door and into the Hub.
“What the -?”
Gwen’s eyes fixed on him. Her hand went to her mouth.
“Oh. Oops. Sorry.”
She and Ianto were giggling like teenagers. “It was one of those, you know, one of those. You told us about them. Months ago. Look like eight foot long purple ducks.”
Ianto looked hardly more stable. He was, at least, trying, to communicate though. “You know, sir. Omicrolagulans. From Frexilaren Sigma Minoris. The ones with the defence mechanism that floods their opponent’s brain with endorphins. Sir.”
Gwen sniggered. “And if you think we look bad, you should just see DCI Swanson.” She turned to look at Myfanwy. “Oh, poor petal, poor love. Still not feeling quite up to things, are you?”
She moved towards the sofa and then tripped over a discarded hot-water bottle, shooting forward under her own momentum, hands outspread to save herself.
Myfanwy, alarmed already, reared up, wings flapping, breaking free of Lady Sybil’s restraining arms, hissing and snapping.
“Down, girl! DOWN, I tell you!”
The pterodactyl reared up yet further, her small eyes mad and frantic with panic.
Jack could see disaster unrolling in front of him as though in slow motion. He dived despairingly forward.
“No, Myfanwy, don’t -“
The pterodactyl turned, responding to his voice. Her razor-sharp beak swept across Jack’s throat.
The seven-foot skeleton stepped out of the shadows.
INDEED. MOST INCONVENIENT.
The Hub was in pandemonium; only Lady Sybil, focussed on calming Myfanwy – the pterodactyl seemed to have exhausted herself with the effort – seemed to be keeping her head. Jack looked down from a height upon his own body, the great gouts of blood from the severed arteries slowing to trickles and then stopping altogether.
FORTUNATELY I HAPPENED TO HAVE AN APPOINTMENT IN THE VICINITY ANYWAY.
Jack turned to face the skeleton; spotted the blue pin-pricks of light dancing in its eye sockets, the scythe, the robes - and reached the obvious conclusion.
“Oh, not again.”
Death reached into his robes. ALBERT CONVINCED ME IT WAS WORTH THE INNOVATION FOR YOU. He extracted a stopwatch and held it up to the light. YES.
It pressed the button on the watch. The hands started to move again. Death opened its robes and tucked it back inside. Jack could see the wounds in his throat closing, healing, vanishing –
Words, sight, memory, intuition suddenly flowed together. A glimpse of the life-timer – the other life-timer - inside Death’s robes. Lady Sybil’s expression on first seeing Myfanwy. ANOTHER APPOINTMENT IN THE VICINITY.
”*Hold it right there*”.
Jack’s hand snaked out; caught cold, polished bone. He had been taught about anatomy long ago, by experts: “These are the bones of the wrist. They are several, and here and here is where the subject will feel the pain as you break each of them - “
His breath was a harsh rasp in his throat – which, abruptly, he thought must be wrong, somehow, though he couldn’t for the time being spare the effort to work out why.
“NO. You aren’t going to take Myfanwy. She’s one of my team.”
REALLY? SHE JUST KILLED YOU.
Jack snorted. “Yes. That’s what I just said.” He paused. “And at least in her case it was accidental. Suppose we cut a deal?”
Death paused – made a gesture with his free hand. Time stopped around them.
THAT IS – OCCASIONALLY – ALLOWED. AND THE CIRCUMSTANCES ARE UNUSUAL.
Jack took a deep breath, and grinned. “Right. One hand of poker. You win – you get to take me instead of Myfanwy. I win – we both go free and clear.”
THAT SEEMS HARDLY FAIR. I AM NORMALLY OFFERED DOUBLE OR QUITS.
Jack shrugged. “The people offering them are – normal. You don’t have to turn up four times in three months for them. I damn near count as a job lot. You could pretty much say I’m doing you a favour. Think how this could rationalise your schedule. Anyway, it’s the only offer on the table. Deal?”
Death, it seemed, was nothing if not literal. A pack of cards had already materialised in the long bony fingers, and he was starting to shuffle.
REMIND ME. HOW DOES THE SCORING GO AGAIN?
“Oh,” Jack said rather blankly. The cards, face up on the table in front of him, told their own story.
In life and in death there is one great constant truth.
A straight flush beats a full house. Always.
That wasn’t the way it was supposed to go.
I DO SEEM TO HAVE QUITE A FEW OF THE LITTLE SPIKY ONES. IS THAT GOOD?
Well. The answer rather depends on which side of the table you’re sitting.
Jack looked back, down into the Hub. They were all there, still frozen in time, grouped round his body. In a second or so, he supposed, the wounds in his throat would reopen, and matters would start to take their course. Without him, though. Eventually the team would get the idea he wasn’t coming back this time. He’d have liked the chance to say goodbye, but -
He felt something part inside him, something that had been under tension for so long it had never occurred to him what relief it would be to feel it snap. Jack, unexpectedly, started to grin.
“So what happens now?”
Death grinned back.
HOW ABOUT A CURRY?
That was – unexpected. Jack took a deep breath, before realising that breathing was, after all, just a habit. One he could give up any time. And, in fact, just had.
“Um – ah – sure.”
I USUALLY GO TO THE TAJ MAHAL ON NEWPORT ROAD WHEN I’M HERE. THEY DO A LETHAL CHICKEN PHAL.
Joy, unconstrained, was bubbling up inside him.
“The Taj Mahal? Why not?” His head cocked at a cheeky angle. “You know, that looked fantastic when it was first built.”
REALLY? I REMEMBER IT AS A RATHER UNPLEASANT VICTORIAN TERRACE. WITH PARTICULARLY POOR SANITATION. I USED TO BE ROUND HERE A GREAT DEAL IN THOSE DAYS.
“I meant, the one in India.” He grinned. “Shah Jehan’s great mausoleum. Of course, I’m surprised it’s still standing these days. Contractors are contractors the universe over. What went into those foundations wasn’t what Shah Jehan paid to go into them. At all.”
AND HOW DO YOU KNOW?
WELL? AFTER ALL, SOMEONE TOLD ME ONCE THAT BEING DEAD MEANS NEVER HAVING TO CURTAIL A SHAGGY DOG STORY TO A SOUNDBITE.
Jack turned, looking Death right in the eyes. Death maintained what had just been proved, by actual experiment, to be a perfect poker face.
I UNDERSTAND IT WAS INTENDED AS A PUNE, OR PLAY ON WORDS. BUT YOU WERE SAYING?
“Well, it all started when we’d got caught in a meteor storm, coming through the outer reaches of the Asteroid Belt -“
“So,” Jack repeated very patiently, “what happens now?”
USUALLY THEY BRING MINTS.
“I was rather expecting an after-life, not an After Eight.”
AH. YES. THAT.
Death sounded almost apologetic. He reached inside his robes. Jack felt a sudden sharp stab of apprehension.
Death put the stopwatch down on the curry-stained table-cloth. Without his touching anything that Jack could see the hands started to turn again.
So far as Jack could tell that was genuine regret.
I HAD HOPED YOU COULD STAY.
“So I can’t? Why can’t you ;do something?”
THAT PART IS – NOT MY DEPARTMENT. Death paused. CAN I OFFER YOU A LIFT BACK?
The white horse clopped across Roald Dahl Plass in the sort of anonymity which prevails when people really, really don’t want to see what’s in front of their eyes. Jack scrambled off just next to the fountain. Death paused for a moment.
WELL. BE SEEING YOU.
The horse clopped off again. It was almost out of sight before Jack bestirred himself. He put two fingers into his mouth and whistled, loudly. The robed figure half turned in the saddle.
“Next time,” Jack shouted across the square, “We should make it the Red Fort.”
There was a momentary gleam of white as a bony hand was raised in acknowledgement, and then - nothing.
Once more burdened by breath and blood Jack turned to go back into the Hub.