Flashing into the Dark

Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.



It's against rules and regulations, but Jack--the man who will call himself Jack--has slipped past caring. He's not sure when that happened, but he's not so good any more at linearity. At some point things came loose, seconds from seconds, minutes from clock-faces, faces from places, places from time. Somewhere (not in the universe, but in his head) a string was cut and then it was all brownian motion. Somewhere (not somewhen, since "when" has been utterly and irrevocably spatialized), he lost the thread and every moment started to exist simultaneously, like shapes on the flat plane of a painting. The Time Agency insists explicitly and stridently on causal logic: A happens, which causes B to happen. They like to keep their ducks in a row. For Jack, A and B float freely.

At some point in his training he remembers the Instructor talking about that, about Spatialization. He also remembers that he stopped listening then, when he realized that, at the Agency, this pathology was the same thing as skill. Linearity was the religion of the Agency but it was Spatialization that an Agent needed, ultimately, to be good at his job.

Once the thread snaps, consequences cease to matter. The Agent is free to carry out his orders without compunction. Death-dealing means little when all moments exist simultaneously. Of course, this makes rules and regulations--even those of the Agency--somewhat of a moot point eventually. With all of time that there is, the Agent's usefulness is brief.

But he was committed then, no backing out, so it was better not to listen. Instead, he tilted his chair back and watched the reflected light play on the ceiling of the lecture hall. Outside the broad windows, a pool, a sun, someone lying on her stomach in the impossibly green grass reading a book. Real paper. Text printed from left to right, top to bottom. B follows A, in proper linear fashion, but close the book and they fold together between the covers. Illicit rendezvous. No strings attached.

He remembers laughing when he realized that the Time Agency makes crazy people. And that crazy people were the best Time Agents. He wonders how long he has, before they have to kill him for being what they need him to be.

He never does get the chance to go back to the original moment of loss, like he planned to when he signed the waiver allowing the Agency to make him mad. Madness was a small price to pay to erase his mistakes, he figured, to have power over life and death, to rewrite history, and in the process, himself. But he never gets the chance. Except that he does have the chance, hundreds of them, but he never takes them. The beloved dead remain dead and he remains himself. In the Flux, what else has he got if he loses himself to change? His cowardice tastes like smoke. And maybe that's why he's breaking rules and regs now, seeking out smoke and fire, traveling without authorization. From the balcony of the officer's club, he can look down on a London lurid and blind and pretend he's confronting himself like a man should. It burns his eyes.

In spite of all the thudding of artillery and the tendency for people, buildings, whole blocks to disappear--or because of it--this past is safe. He's crept up to the edge of the 21st century more than once, but he's not stepped into that territory. If he's going to steal time for himself, it has to be here, in the 20th where Earth is still swaddled in staticky radio signals and slowly thickening greenhouse gases and only one moon keeps falling and falling and never striking home. Earth is small here. Humanity has looked outward but no one of significance has bothered to return that myopic gaze. Jack has so far stolen fifty nights.

Wordlessly, Martin hands him a snifter of brandy warmed by his long, large-knuckled fingers. In the window behind them, a barrage balloon drifts, trailing its tether. Big Ben is dark. Martin tastes like brandy and smoke, but with the fear of exposure sweet and sharp like the edge of a blade against the tongue. Jack devours him greedily like pilfered candy. Martin, with his hollow cheeks and his sandy hair that won't lie down and his mouth, soft and mobile and unused to smiling. He's still asleep when Jack winks out of existence as he's done forty-nine times before.

Back in the Flux, Jack leans his elbow on the console and absently caresses his lip with his fingertip. He's almost in position. Time is a wheel. It will sweep him toward his target and past and then beyond.

He doesn't consider himself an assassin.

He never once touches a perpetrator directly. Without A there can be no B, or so the Agency's logic goes. This time, A is a woman with pale eyes and a tendency to twist her hair around her fingers. In her womb there's a flutter of connection, cell division, a brief burst of life that, in the absence of Jack, will become B, the architect of genocide.

The wheel turns, carries him toward his target, past it, beyond. His ship rides the ripple of change as a woman dies and a whole world of innocent people doesn't. The Agency he returns to wears the marks of the change, creases in the smooth surface of things that only he notices. He recognizes no one, although each stranger occupies a familiar position, fulfills an unchanging function. Each Time Agent carries his own universe inside his skull, and the reality he looks at when he stops to collect his stipend is meaningless, a shiny, shifting surface on which he can find no purchase.

Martin doesn't resist at all when Jack throws him back against the wall and tears the buttons off of his uniform shirt, but his hands are hesitant, uncertain, when, instead of kissing him, Jack curses brokenly against his neck and his knees give out and his weight drags them both to the threadbare carpet. Awkwardly patting Jack's shuddering shoulder, Martin says, "War is hell." And they laugh so hard and so long that Jack has to lie on this back on the floor and hold his gut with both hands in case he bursts.

Martin falls asleep on top of him. His slight, bony weight pins Jack to the world.

In Jack's head, a woman simultaneously is and isn't. The entire population of a planet is and isn't. Each moment floats freely in space without causal connection. Outside, beyond the black-out curtains, London is crumbling, tumbling toward the future like debris cascading down a slope. People disappear in the rubble. Someone mourns; some mother or brother or child grieves. Grief, he realizes, is the special gift of those who, although they can look back, can only go forward. Jack has never known envy like he feels right now.

On his wrist, his locator is pinging. He raises his arm and smashes the wristband against the cast iron leg of the bed.

"It's okay," he tells Martin, who wakes with a start, eyes wild. "It's okay. We can sleep." He gets them up off the floor and onto the spring-shot mattress.

Martin doesn't make it, Jack knows. In Jack's mind, Martin's already lying on his back looking up at the sky, and the sky is painfully, delicately blue and clear except for the dirty smoke trails of falling planes. He's singing something silly, but he's caught on the refrain and the rhyme keeps bringing him around and around again without any forward progress. Beside him, Richard Kendle, eighteen, from Swansea, is holding a ladybug in his burned-black hand and is crying, snot-faced and blubbering, because the beetle is dead and he killed it. He killed it and he didn't mean to. And beside him Martin is singing and bleeding and dying. And he's also here, loose-jointed and sated in a boarding house in London during the Blitz, Jack's sweat cooling on his skin.

Jack strokes back the sandy hair from the young face, brushes a finger across his slightly open mouth. He wants to grieve for him, and for that woman who died/dies/will die with her fingers twisted in her hair, and for the world of innocents who died/die/will die/don't die and who will never know her name.

He's breaking rules and regulations, but once the thread has been cut, consequences cease to matter.

Retcon has no flavour, but he mixes it carefully with brandy, anyway, a larger dose than is strictly necessary, sips slowly, sits on the edge of the bed, bare feet on the floor while he smokes Martin's last cigarette. He makes it to his ship just in time.

When he wakes up, he listens to his own recorded voice speaking at him like a stranger, learns to hate the Time Agency for what they did, for stealing two years of his memory. He spends some time trying to find out why, but he never gets really close to an answer. Anger burns for a long time, and resentment, but they're all tied up with some kind of weird desultory resistance that he knows in the dark places of his mind is really a cover for fear. Whoever Jack Harkness was during those two missing years, he's maybe not someone this Jack really wants to know.

He picks London, during the Blitz, for his cons. It makes sense. It's smart. The uniform makes him look hot.

For some reason he can't quite understand, it feels like something he's stolen. It feels like home.



--the end--


Extremely Pretentious Notes:  Northrop Frye says that we experience narrative in two ways: first, as though we're on a train, each event arising in time and linking causally to what comes subsequently like the ties of a track; second, once we come to the end, like a painting, in which all events are related, not in a linear logic or fashion, but spatially, symbolically, poetically.

As for canonical errors arising from my Janey-come-lateness, my apologies. *frets*

*The title is taken from Dylan Thomas's Fern Hill




Feedback welcomed at troyswann@yahoo.ca.

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