Monday, 14 December 2009

Another chance to read....a Torchwood Christmas story...

'Tis (nearly) the season to be jolly and in the spirit of much TV over Christmas (ie loads of repeats) I decided to dust this one down and drag it out of the Archives. Written and posted here last Christmas and deleted early in the New Year, here, for the delectation of those who may not have read it, is Stuff's take on a very Torchwood Christmas. The events of this little yarn are set before this year's 'Children of Earth' mini-series, natch...

Torchwood: O Christmas Tree

by Paul Mount

'A what? You’ve got to be kidding me.’ Captain Jack Harkness stared incredulously at Gwen Cooper, standing on the opposite side of his cluttered desk in his office in the cavernous Torchwood Hub deep beneath Roald Dahl Plasse in Cardiff Bay. Gwen realised that she’d instinctively put her hands behind her back and suddenly she was back at school, facing that formidable old harridan Mrs Sandford, her head mistress, as she took the rap for some juvenile misdemeanour or other. Pushing Mary Craig’s stupid curly head down the toilet, ah, that was the best one… Gwen shook herself; this is silly, I'm a grown woman now - a grown married woman - and it’s a perfectly reasonable request in the circumstances.

'Just a tree, Jack. Just a Christmas tree.’ She paused, considered. ‘And maybe some tinsel. And some lights. A fairy too, if you like…’

Jack stretched back in his chair and Gwen was sure there was a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. ‘If I like? Gwen, Torchwood is a top secret security organisation…’ Gwen raised an eyebrow. ‘…a secret security organisation…’ Both Gwen’s eyebrows were raised and her eyes were wide almonds. Jack sighed. '…an organisation. We don’t celebrate Christmas or any other pagan festival you care to mention.’

‘Maybe you don’t but I do,’ said Gwen. ‘And Ianto – probably. Look, I’m not suggesting tearing the place down and rebuilding it like Santa’s Grotto…just a bit of colour. For Christmas. I thought that after everything that’s happened…’ Gwen knew she’d touched a nerve and she knew that, despite his sometimes off-hand exterior, Jack was still as raw as her and Ianto. It had been less than a year since their team-mates had died and although life was going on, it was going on with difficulty and sometimes things weren’t said which should be. ‘Just to raise our spirits…’ Gwen sensed she might be fighting a battle already lost. But then Jack’s smooth, chiselled features split into a broad grin.

‘I’m surprised you don’t want to run a radio phone-in competition and invite the local orphans in for a look around,’ he said.

Gwen nodded. ‘Well, I’ve got a friend at Red Dragon who owes me a favour…’ she said.

Jack wagged a finger in her direction. He was still smiling good-naturedly. ‘Don’t push it, PC Cooper. Okay, you’ve caught me in a good mood. Things are quiet, the Rift seems to have shut up shop for Christmas so…yeah. Why not? But don’t go crazy. Just a tree and some…balls. And no spray-on snow, it never comes off.’

Gwen squealed, jumped up and down and clapped her hands together. She felt like reaching across the desk and giving Jack a wet kiss but thought it best not to give him any ideas he didn’t already have. ‘Thanks, Jack, thanks so much. It’ll be discreet and under-stated, you know that. I’ve got boxes of stuff at home I can bring in; Rhys got a bit over-excited – you know, our first married Christmas…’

Jack waved her way. ‘Okay, okay, whatever…’ he said. ‘You’ll be wanting time off over Christmas next.’ Gwen, beaming from ear to ear, made for the door out of the office. ‘Oh, and Gwen…none of those long, stretchy balloons. Ianto gets ideas…’

‘Jack..!” said Gwen, mock-scandalised. No sooner had she opened the door to Jack’s office than Ianto, immaculate as ever in sharp suit and tie, hurried in, a worried look on his face.

‘Jack, Gwen, you’d better take a look at this.’ Ianto hurried over to a small TV monitor on a free-standing table nearby. He turned it on and a picture swam into view.

Jack and Gwen exchanged puzzled glances. ‘Jane McDonald?’ said Jack. ‘Feisty girl but I don't see what...’

‘No, not that…’ said Ianto irritably. He grabbed the remote from Jack’s desk and jabbed at it until a much more vivid picture appeared on the screen. It was a local news broadcast although for a moment Gwen thought she was looking at deleted scenes from ‘Cloverfield’. The camera was shaking, sweeping back and forth across a confused street scene of fleeing, screaming people. A red banner across the bottom of the screen read ‘Jason Rhys, BBC Wales News, Live from Cardiff.’ The reporter’s face, flushed and panic-stricken, suddenly appeared on the screen. He was on the move and the cameraman was clearly struggling to keep up with him. ‘

'What’s going on?’ said Gwen. Ianto jabbed at the remote again and the TV’s volume increased although it was hard to hear what the reporter was saying above the background soundtrack of screaming and banging and crashing.

‘…the most incredible thing I’ve ever witnessed, even here in Cardiff where the incredible's fairly commonplace. The Police are trying to evacuate the area and cordon the city centre off but their efforts are being hindered by the sheer numbers of Christmas shoppers on the streets and the absolute pandemonium being caused as they run for their lives. It’s really the most amazing spectacle and…we’ll try and bring you some shots of the scene before we’re…’ A Police officer appeared in view, trying to block the camera as it swept away from the reporter. A gruff, thick Welsh voice cut in. ‘Put that bloody thing down and get out of here before I confiscate it and run you in…’

But the cameraman was nothing if not a professional. He turned the camera in a quick arc and suddenly it was pointing directly along a busy, cluttered city centre street lined on either side with shops and storefronts…and in the middle of the pedestrianised street something huge and green was moving and swaying and all around its base were racing, panicking human beings scurrying in all directions…

Jack craned to look at the screen. The picture suddenly cut off and returned to the studio where a visibly-ruffled presenter was confirming that no-one had any idea what was going on in Cardiff city centre. ‘What the Hell’s that about?’ said Jack.

Ianto stood back from the television and gazed at Jack and Gwen. ‘It’s the Christmas tree,’ he said. 'The one at the bottom of Churchill Way. It’s come to life and it’s rampaging down Queen Street.’

Gwen’s mouth fell open. Jack was already shrugging on his greatcoat and checking that his Webley pistol was fully loaded. ‘This is more like it,’ he said with gusto. ‘Time for Torchwood to get festive.’ He clapped a hand on the disbelieving Gwen’s shoulder. ‘Come on, Gwen. Let's go rockin’ around the Christmas tree.’ And he was off, haring out of his office and racing down the steps towards the clanking circular entrance hatch to the Hub.

Ianto stared at Gwen for a second. ‘We ought to…you know…go with him?’ said Ianto quietly.

Gwen shook herself. ‘Yes. Yes, right…’ At the door Gwen turned and looked at him. ‘Did you say…Christmas tree?’ she said.

Ianto nodded solemnly. ‘I suppose that, strictly speaking, some sort of pun’s called for,’ he said. His brow furrowed. ‘I can’t actually think of anything at the moment…’

‘Ianto! Gwen! Get your asses moving!’ came the voice of Captain Jack Harkness from not far away.

They hurried out of Jack’s office. ‘This is all a bit crackers,’ said Gwen with a nervous smile.

Ianto winced. ‘Poor quality,’ he said. ‘Best leave it to me in future, don’t you think?’

‘I think you’re right,’ said Gwen. As they rushed out of the Hub, bristling with pistols and rifles and anything else they could grab from the Armoury which might possibly give them some advantage against a living Christmas tree, Gwen had, perhaps not surprisingly, forgotten about her plans to deck Torchwood’s halls…

Churchill Way was closed off but a quick flash of Gwen’s Torchwood pass got the SUV waved through the Police ‘do not cross’ line and seconds later Jack was pulling the vehicle up, with a theatrical squeal of tires, at the end of the road and alongside the Zavvi store. Jack, Gwen and Ianto tumbled out of the SUV. Dozens of yellow-jacketted Police officers were milling around and, somewhere around the corner of the Nat West building they could hear a chaos of confusing sounds – screams, crashing, crunching…an odd guttural roaring sound.

Torchwood surveyed the situation. Gwen yanked down the hem of her leather jacket and saw a familiar wiry, curly haired Police figure loping over to them, shaking his head. He jabbed a finger at Gwen. ‘I knew it,’ he said. ‘I knew this was one of your spooky-dos,’ he said.

‘This is nothing to do with us, Andy. You know it never is,’ said Gwen. She and PC Andy went back a long way; it often seemed that whenever Torchwood came calling, anywhere in Cardiff, PC Andy was there to accuse them of being responsible for whatever had brought them to the scene. Jack was gazing intently at PC Andy. ‘PC Davison, isn’t it? Bring us up to speed.’

‘Well,’ said Andy slowly, savouring his moment of superiority. ‘Apparently it was just after lunchtime. Chaos, it was, bloody chaos. The thing just sort of…uprooted itself. Demolished Santa’s grotto.’ He nodded towards the flattened collection of wooden struts and planks piled up nearby. A dazed looking man in a Santa outfit was sitting on a bench, shaking his head in despair. Garishly-decorated presents were scattered all over the damp pavement. ‘It’s halfway up Queen Street, on its way to the Castle.’

‘Is anybody hurt?’ asked Jack.

‘Lumps and bumps, I think,’ said PC Andy. ‘Most of it caused by people going crazy with panic.’

‘That I can understand,’ said Ianto sagely.

A stout red-faced middle-aged Police Officer ambled over and stood in front of Jack, hands on his hips. ‘And you are?’ he said accusingly.

Jack grinned. ‘Out of your league, I’m afraid,’ he said.

Gwen smiled nervously and stepped in front of Jack. ‘We’re Torchwood,’ she said. ‘This is probably more our sort of thing than yours, er…’

‘Llewellyn,’ said the officer. ‘Inspector Llewellyn. Yes, Torchwood; I’ve heard of you lot. You’ve got a lot to answer for, I understand.’

Jack bristled. ‘Now wait a minute, if it wasn’t for…’

Gwen put a hand to Jack’s chest. ‘Leave it, Jack, this isn’t the time or the place.’ She turned back to the Inspector and smiled. ‘Is the area cleared?’

The Inspector looked over at PC Davison, hovering nearby. ‘More or less,’ said the younger officer. ‘Those who aren’t out of the area are hiding in Next or HMV. There’s a sale on…’

Gwen turned to Jack. ‘So we can go in. Any idea what’s happened, Jack?’

Jack’s pistol was already in his hand, his eyes were gleaming in anticipation. ‘Something weird, Gwen. And weird’s what we do. Excuse me Sergeant…’

Jack brushed past the huffing Inspector and strode off towards Queen Street. Ianto was unloading unwieldly pulse rifles from the back of the SUV and he tossed one over to Gwen who caught it expertly. Gwen smiled demurely at Inspector Llewellyn.

‘The Army boys are on their way from St Athan,’ said the Inspector. ‘I don’t know what you think you can do that they can’t.’

‘Oh you’d be surprised,’ said Ianto as he set off after Gwen and Jack.

‘I’m sorry but that’s just…bizarre,’ said Gwen. Torchwood were standing at the junction of Queen Street and Churchill Way and the three of them were staring up through the shopping precinct where, a couple of hundreds yards away, swaying and listing and lurching drunkenly, a fifty-foot Christmas tree, trailing tinsel and baubles, was moving steadily between the high-walled Victorian buildings of the city centre and heading in the direction of Cardiff Castle and St. Mary St. ‘It’s…ridiculous,’ she said.

‘The Universe is a pretty ridiculous place Gwen, don’t let anybody ever tell you otherwise,’ said Jack, looking across from WH Smith, Game, Clinton Cards and Next, behind the firmly-sealed doors of which dozens of terrified staff and shoppers were craning to get a better view.

‘But a Christmas tree coming to life?’ persisted Gwen. ‘That’s just beyond, isn’t it?’

Jack pulled a face. ‘I’m told something similar’s happened before,’ he said. ‘So let’s see if we can put a stop to it.’

‘All guns blazing? Are we going to shoot down a tree?’ said Ianto, stepping forward and locking and loading a huge chunky pulse rifle.

‘Wait a minute,’ said Gwen. ‘Look, Jack, look…up at the top of the tree…I think it’s on fire already…’

Jack produced a small pair of binoculars from inside his greatcoat. ‘That’s not fire…’ he said. Through the binoculars he could see an odd haze, a strange, shifting mist, gathering at the peak of the tree where once had perched an ornate plastic fairy. ‘It’s proof…’

‘Of what?’ said Ianto. Jack pocketed the binoculars.

‘Possession,’ said Jack. ‘Something’s animated the tree, something that’s come through the Rift.’

‘A possessed Christmas tree?’ said Ianto. ‘What’s the point in that?’

‘Probably none,’ said Jack. ‘The thing…consciousness, life-essence, whatever it is…must have just blundered through the Rift and animated the nearest, biggest thing in its path. The tree’s alive itself in a sense, that’s probably what attracted it.’

Gwen turned away from Jack and looked back towards the tree, dragging its stumpy roots along the street and sending waste bins and benches hurtling in every direction. ‘So an alien has come to Earth and taken over a Christmas tree,’ she said. ‘Rhys was right. He said Torchwood would drive me mad.’

‘Time for nervous breakdowns later on,’ said Jack. ‘We need to get whatever’s in there out before it can do any serious damage.’

‘And how do we do that?’ queried Gwen.

Jack grinned at her. ‘Don’t you believe in talking to plants, Gwen?’ He set off up Queen Street towards the base of the tree.

Jack pulled up short a good ten feet away from the tree. Looming high above it was swaying and rolling as it moved slowly forward, its roots crunching across the tarmac, its branches rustling as if caught in an unseasonal breeze. The ethereal mist at its top seemed more distinct from this distance and the tree itself seemed to be uttering, from somewhere or other, perhaps from within every fibre of its being, a strange throaty growl… Jack decided on the direct approach. He cupped his hands to his mouth.

‘Hey, you up there, hey you…’ The tree carried on its ungainly way. ‘Hey, I’m talking to you…’ The tree seemed to pause. ‘Thank you. Politeness costs nothing, even on Earth.’ The tree shivered and roared. Jack tried to remember those negotiation skills classes from his days at the Time Agency; dammit, if only he’d paid more attention instead of playing footsie with John…

‘Now look, I understand that you’re a long way from home – probably – wherever home is. And I understand that you don’t realise what you’re doing, what you’ve done. But you’re just causing trouble where there doesn’t need to be any. You see, here on Earth, trees – like the thing you’re inhabiting – don’t get up and move around. It’s not the way things are here. So here’s the deal; my friends and I have got guns; really, very big guns. We don’t want to use them but we will if we have to because it’s our job to protect this city and its people. So I’m giving you the chance, right here and right now, to…get out of your tree and go back where you came from. No-one needs to get hurt, least of all you…’

The tree continued to quiver and undulate. Then, out of the corner of his eye, Jack saw one of its branches suddenly twist and move and snake out from the body of the tree and hurtle towards him like a fist. ‘Woah…’ Jack threw himself to one side, rolling and turning, as the tree-tentacle swept down and smashed into the tarmac where Jack had been standing. Concrete and earth were tossed up into the air. Jack, crouching nearby alongside a three-sided metal refuse bin, glowered up at the tree. The mist at its peak was whirling agitatedly.

'You really didn’t want to do that,’ growled Jack. Another branch of the tree suddenly flashed into view, arching out from the rear of the tree. Jack moved again and the branch caught the refuse bin and hurled it into the display window of Boots which shattered in a rain of glass. People inside the store were screaming.

Jack was on his feet and rushing back the way he’d come. Gwen and Ianto, both carrying pulse rifles, were running towards him. Jack glanced back and saw that the tree was thrashing from side to side, still somehow emitting that inhuman roar, its branches flailing like living things, smashing windows, upending benches and street displays.

‘You’ve maddened it,’ shouted Gwen above the hubbub, dropping to one knee and fixing the body of the tree in her sights as Jack, breathless, stumbled back towards them.

‘No, Gwen…’ he called out but it was too late.

The rifle throbbed in Gwen’s hands and a bolt of concentrated light exploded from its barrel and sizzled through the air, detonating in a shower of fireworks somewhere in the middle of the body of the tree. The tree roared its fury and began thrashing and lashing out with even more violence than before. The whole tree was moving, turning, its roots crunching on gravel as the lumbering body turned its attention back to the Torchwood trio crouched down below.

‘Now that’s maddened it,’ snapped Jack, tearing the pulse rifle out of Gwen’s grasp. ‘We can’t just blaze away at it, not in a confined space like this. It’s mad, powerful - maybe even scared; it could bring the whole city down.’

‘So what do we do?’ shrieked Gwen ‘Reasoning with it obviously doesn’t work…’

Jack was fumbling with the dial settings on the side of the pulse rifle. ‘We can be subtle…for a change. All-right…’ Jack turned, dropped to one knee, hefted the rifle. ‘We go sonic,’ he said. ‘Sonic is good. I’ve got a friend who swears by sonic.’

‘What are you doing, Jack?’ said Ianto.

‘I’m going to try and evict our friend up there,’ said Jack. He pulled the rifle’s trigger and the device began to emit a low whoop-whoop sound. Gwen and Ianto clapped their hands to their ears and stepped back as the sound crept into their brains; deep, low, monotonous, a steady sonic pulse… The tree was still raging high above them, its branches now supernaturally-animated, as if they had a life of their own, whipping and lashing and smashing windows in both directions. One tentacle swept perilously near Jack who neatly side-stepped, always keeping the pulse rifle trained on the tree’s body.

‘God, Jack, the noise…’ called Gwen, her face contorting with pain. ‘Nothing’s happening…’

‘Give it time!’ shouted Jack. ‘Just a few…more…seconds…’ Even Jack’s face was starting to twist in agony as the steady, low, throbbing pulse of sound reverberated deep into the very core of his being. Just a few more seconds…

At the top of the tree the shimmer of mist became thicker, more viscous, more solid…the tree itself began to quiver, not with its usual frantic thrashing but with a strange sub-molecular vibration…the tree seemed to be enveloped in a new haze, as if it was being slowly, subtly, pulled apart…

‘Ha ha, that’s it baby, come on, do your stuff…’ shouted Jack as he saw the first signs of the fruits of his labour. Windows nearby were shattering of their own accord and he could hear more people nearby screaming. Just a few more seconds…just a few more…

Then there came another scream – a low, unearthy roar like some terrible wind. Tears streaming down his face, veins bulging in his forehead, Jack looked up and saw that the mist at the top of the tree had turned into a funnel of smoke, like a tornado, whirling out from the top of the tree and shooting up into the grey afternoon sky. ‘Come on, come on…’

Suddenly a whistling sound, like a kettle, and a great rush of wind…and it was over. The mist has spread across the sky like a deep dark cloud – and then it had gone. Jack wrenched at the controls of the red hot pulse rifle and the painful throbbing sound was cut off in an instant. The tree, standing there as if was about to fall apart, suddenly righted itself and quietly, without fuss, slumped to one side and came to rest against the Queen Street entrance to the Queens Arcade, its branches rustling peacefully in a low breeze.

Jack, gasping, dropped the pulse rifle and fell to his knees. His head was buzzing and somewhere in the middle of the sound of his brain vibrating he could hear sirens and voices… Gwen and Ianto were at his side, helping him to his feet. He could see their mouths moving, the anxiety written on their faces, but he couldn’t hear what they were saying… That damned buzzing…

By the time they’d led him back towards Churchill Way his hearing and his equilibrium were returning. People were emerging warily from the shops and the Police were already swarming up Queen Street. Inspector Llewellyn hurried by, scowling, and muttered something which, in the fug in Jack’s brain, sounded like “-king Torchwood lunatics” but he really couldn’t swear to it.

Ianto sat Jack on one of the few un-upended benches and gave him a bottle of water proferred by someone who emerged from WH Smith’s. Gwen was talking to PC Davison. ‘Are you all right, Jack?’ Ianto said through the buzzing.

Jack swigged back the water and mopped his brow. It was surprising how quickly his constitution was able to get him back to normal. He grinned at Ianto and ruffled his hand through the younger man’s hair.

Gwen came up and crouched in front of him. ‘What the Hell did you do, Jack?’

‘Like I said, shooting at it would have probably have gotten us nowhere,’ said Jack.

‘So you went sonic, yes, we gathered that,’ said Ianto. ‘But what does that mean in the real world?’

‘It means,’ grinned Jack, ‘that I used the sonic settings on the rifle. I vibrated the molecules of the tree to the point of displacement – I vibrated it apart. Whatever that thing was inside the tree, there was nothing for it to be inside. The tree ceased to exist as a tree, just for a few seconds – it was just the sum of its parts. Without a physical entity, the thing inside found itself homeless.’

‘That sounds ominous,’ said Gwen, staring up at the glowering sky. ‘So you may have made things worse? Who knows where that thing will turn up next?’

Jack got to his feet. ‘No, really, don’t thank me,’ he said wryly. ‘I’m hoping it was so disorientated by being thrown out so quickly that it went straight back through the Rift. I’m hoping…’

‘And if it didn’t?’ said Gwen.

‘Then we’ve got an intelligence which can bring inanimate objects to life loose in Cardiff.’ Jack touched Gwen’s chin. ‘My gift to the city.’

The street was now becoming thronged with people again and there was an excited buzz of chatter in the air. ‘Ianto, get a cover story out there – something about an animatronic tree going haywire, you know the score…’

‘I’m on it,’ said Ianto, touching his earpod communicator which he had already patched in to the Hub’s computer communications network.

Jack put an arm around Gwen’s shoulder and allowed her to escort him back to the SUV. ‘Come on, lighten up, we beat the tree. What’s the worst that could happen next?’

Gwen rolled her eyes. ‘I can’t even begin to try and imagine it…’

‘Let’s go home, you’ve got work to do.’

‘I have?’

‘Oh yes. Christmas decorations, remember?’

As they turned the corner back into Churchill Way, Gwen glanced over her shoulder along Queen Street to where the Christmas tree was sprawled across the street, intrigued shoppers prodding it and wandering around it.

‘Yes…well…maybe that wasn’t such a good idea after all,’ said Gwen. ‘Maybe I’ll just stick a sprig of mistletoe somewhere instead…’

Jack laughed. ‘Now that’s my kind of Christmas…’

Copyright Paul Mount 2008

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