A Sort of Homecoming

What's in the box, Captain?

That's at least repetition number 1500. Of course, he stopped counting at 800, so he could be wrong, and to be honest sometimes he hardly hears it anymore. But still, some part of his brain must be interested because he detects just the tiniest inflection on the "Captain," something almost like a sneer, faint, weary disdain. He's sure the voice is the same as ever, that it's not someone new, but the disdain, that's new. Otherwise the voice has less humanity in it than a Dalek's. He spent repetitions 350 to 420 convinced that it was a computer of some kind, but he's met computers with more warmth, so he's given up that theory and gone back to the original hypothesis.

It's The Boss.

He'd never heard The Boss--back then, or forward then, when he was /will be in his-her-its employ, a superstar Agent, swashbuckler of the Flux--but if The Boss really exists, Jack figures he-she-it would sound a lot like this.

What's in the box, Captain?

Jack wonders why the voice doesn't call him by his Agent designation--rank, serial number, those digits that once located his point of origin, before he entered the Flux--if calling him "Captain" is some kind of a joke. Or an interrogation technique. It's certainly not some kind of deference to his personal dignity. Maybe they would take that away from him eventually, too, the "Captain," the way they've taken away colour and shape and left him with only the white-on-white landscape of the cell. The colour of his own skin seems shocking to him now, when he holds his hand in front of his eyes. He's pretty sure that if he saw his eyes, the blue would be terrifying.

What's in the box, Captain?

He assumes The Boss asks him this question once a day, although there's no way to know for sure, since there is no window in the cell, no sun to trace the shadow of a tree or a guard tower across the wall. There's no door, either. They popped him in through a hole in space and he supposes that eventually he'll pop out the same way, as soon as he tells them what's in the box. The box, though, is in his head, and it's two-years square, and he has no idea what's inside it or why it's so important to The Boss. When he says, "What's it to you? Why do you care?" The Boss answers only, "The Crisis." Even in that mechanical voice, Jack can hear the capital "C."

What's in the box, Captain?

"Two years of my life."

What's in the box, Captain?

"You put them in there, so you tell me."

What's in the box, Captain?

"Playing cards and cigars."

What's in the box, Captain?

"A boy named Martin who fell from the sky. His mouth tasted like brandy. He died singing in the wreckage in 1942."

What's in the box, Captain?

"Cracker Jacks."

"Heroin."

"Dogs playing poker."

"Gwen Cooper, turning, her mouth opening to say my name. Her hair blowing across her eyes."

What's in the box, Captain?

"Fuck you."

What's in the box, Captain?

"I don't know."

What's in the box, Captain?

"I DON'T KNOW!"

What's in the box, Captain?

"God. Please."

Ejaculation has become an aspect of psychic survival. He needs to see something of himself externalized or he'll forget that he exists. He jerks off with his eyes on the almost invisible lens of the camera high up in the corner near the ceiling, comes cursing, studies the white fluid in his palm before wiping it carefully on the floor. After awhile, though, this ritual is not enough--it's too white and is lost in the white-on-white background the way his voice gets lost in the white noise of The Boss's droning repetition--so he chews through his lip and spits blood, a red signature. A blotch that says "Jack Harkness."

What's in the box, Captain?

He wonders what Gwen did, then, when she turned to say his name and saw the look on his face, whether she even saw them, the two men in black trench coats, their mirrored eyes, the way they moved toward him there in the square without seeming to move at all. He wonders if she heard the sound of the dart that tagged him for the beam, and if the smell of ozone hung there in the air where he used to be or if it was carried away and dispersed on the wind that blew her hair across her eyes. He wonders if he had taken his greatcoat instead of leaving it in his office, if maybe then the dart wouldn't have penetrated to his skin. He'd've had a fighting chance then.

He wonders what's outside this room.

What's in the box, Captain? What's in the box, Captain? What'sintheboxCaptain?What'sintheoboxcaptainwhatsintheboxcaptain--

It's possible that the silence began while he was asleep, because he sleeps as much as he can now, living in dreams, tasting remembered kisses, feeling the grain of his desk in the Hub under his palms, listening for the rasp of the TARDIS, drinking coffee, fucking, running. He runs a lot in his dreams, across the moors under an angry Welsh sky. In the dreams he sees himself, a silhouette on the near horizon, running across the wind-tossed edge of the world. He can't see what he's running toward, but he wind tastes like rain and his lungs burn and sometimes he laughs.

So it's possible that the silence came then, while he was running. When he wakes, he doesn't recognize it right away, but when he does, it doesn't register as an absence, but as a presence, like someone looming stonefaced in the room with him. It's so palpable that he finds himself backed into the corner, his eyes wide as though somehow he can see it. He waits tensely for it to end.

It doesn't end.

It doesn't end.

And it doesn't end.

And he knows that The Crisis has come, and maybe gone, too, and the box in his head is still locked and his white-on-white cell still has no door.

He's free.

He laughs for a long time, a thin sound that he'd find really fucking scary if he wasn't already two-thirds gone crazy.

Jack lives.

And he lives.

And he lives.

He supposes he might live until the stars burn out, until whichever one is beyond this room grows fat and red and lugubrious before collapsing inward to devour itself in the greedy pull of singularity. Maybe he'll live until the universe winds down, gives up, goes cold. Maybe he'll live longer. He's curious enough, and crazy enough, to want to wait and see.

So he's actually surprised and weirdly disappointed when time buckles under the stress of The Crisis, whatever that may be, and the cell bucks and twists and he sees himself doubled and tripled and multiplied a million times, a mise-en-abym of endless iteration, selves captured in all kinds of odd postures of resignation and defiance and despair. The cell stabilizes for a moment like an intake of breath and then the universe tears open with a howl and he falls through.

And Gwen turns, her hair blowing across her eyes, and says his name.

He staggers against her, gets his grasping fingers tangled in her hair for a second so that she winces and reaches for him.

"Are you all right? Jack?"

Twisted in his fist, the sleeve of her denim jacket is as alien a texture as he can imagine. He hangs on as the ground heaves, once, up and then down again like something massive has passed under their feet. But Gwen doesn't seem to notice it at all.

On the far side of the square, two men in black trench coats are watching them.

"Jack?"

"Yeah."

Gwen's lips are painted pink like a doll's. The shadow of the water tower paces its stately circuit ahead of the sun. The sky is blue above mackerel clouds and the wispy curves of horse-tails. A gull hovers, head into the wind, wobbling over the flapping striped canopy of a chip wagon. And for some reason, the sheer, common beauty of it fills his eyes with tears.

"Are you all right?"

"Sure." He blinks into the wind, reaches out to brush Gwen's hair away from her eyes, smiles. She smiles back, watchfully. He shows more teeth. "Shouldn't I be?"

He shouldn't be.

The skirl of memory slithers through his mind and slips away, an eel into darkness. The gull tips its wings and dives for the chips crushed on the cobblestones beside the wagon. Across the square, the men in trench coats are gone.

With a laugh, he grabs Gwen's hand and pulls her toward the street.

"I thought we were getting Chinese," she protests, but she runs along beside him anyway.

"I got a new place."

He buys everything on the menu.

"Celebrating?" the guy behind the counter asks.

"Yep."

"What?"

"I have no idea."

When they stumble breathlessly into the Hub with the food, Tosh looks up from her workstation and laughs. "Feeding an army, are we?"

Ianto smiles and goes to clear the detritus of the latest crisis off the conference table.

Nostrils flaring, Owen comes close, peers down his nose at the logo on the takeaway package, and says, "So, what's in the box, Captain?"

For no reason either of them can understand, Jack drops the box and smashes Owen in the mouth.


--the end--


Notes:  Just a little more musing on Jack's connection to the Time Agency, sort of. The title is taken from a U2 song, which I realize, now that I look at the lyrics is weirdly a propos for this story. I suppose my brain remembered what I didn't. Or something. Which, now that I think about it, is also weirdly a propos.

Feedback welcomed at troyswann@yahoo.ca.

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