There's a good chance I won't be around during the day tomorrow - Thanksgiving weekend. So I'm posting tomorrow's chapter tonight.
~ Chapter V ~
The sounds of muted conversation slowly penetrated the fog of unconsciousness, and Sara was distantly aware that she had, for what she worked out to be the third time in under twenty-four hours, lost consciousness. Every muscle in her body felt stiff, but she registered after a moment that that’s all they felt - she was no longer victim to the constant pain in her head, back, and limbs. She realised her throat was dry as a bone, and began coughing immediately.
The sound drew the attention of the faded voices, which halted instantly. She struggled to open her eyes and found three men standing over her: Joshua, Alain, and Xander. She tried to sit up, but Alain gently held her down.
“It’s alright, you’re fine,” he said softly. “You may feel a little stiff for a while, but you should altogether feel a bit better.”
She nodded, coughing again slightly. “Can I get some water?” she asked.
Joshua had a glass ready, and handed it to her. “How do you feel?” he asked.
She drained half the glass, then handed it back to him. “Fine, I guess,” she said slowly, casting her gaze around the room. Every surface, even the walls and ceiling, were of unblemished stainless steel apart from the tile floor and a tall set of thin glass doors on the far side of the room, through which she could just see a yellowish stone corridor. Standing in front of the doors were the other two men from the apartment: the one she’d heard called Conrad, and the one named Greg, who’d bound her to her chair on her first visit.
“Hang on...” she muttered. “I--“
”Your memory has been unblocked,” said Alain. “The Formatted memories were conflicting with your real ones, and had to be cleared. I was afraid for a moment you’d slipped into a coma, but I managed to get you back here in time.”
“What do you mean, ‘formatted memories’?” she asked.
“The memories I implanted in your mind this morning,” answered Joshua. “To replace and suppress the memory of what you saw at work last night.”
She cast about for a moment, doing a quick mental inventory of her memories. She did indeed find a number of images and ideas that Joshua had apparently attempted to suppress: the attack on the café and Camryn’s death, her battle with the creature, her interrogation by first Greg and then Joshua... and a pair of pills handed to her by Alain after her interrogation.
She sat up properly and swung her legs over the end of the table. “You drugged me,” she said at last, with a hint of indignation.
Joshua nodded, looking apologetic. “It’s called Format. It suppresses short term memory, and leaves the mind in an open, impressionable state. It lets us wipe out and replace the memories of witnesses.”
“Witnesses to what?” she demanded. “What exactly did
I witness last night? What the hell is going on?”
Greg, who’d been leaning against the room’s glass doors with his arms folded across his chest, stood straight and slowly moved towards the table. “You tell us,” he said. “What happened last night at the café?”
“What, you wipe your own memory too?” she asked scathingly. “I already told you what I saw, and Joshua was there for most of it. But there’s something else going on here, isn’t there? Who are you people?”
“Her Majesty’s Protectorate,” said Xander, speaking for the first time. “Torchwood Five.”
One of the words jumped out at her. “Yeah, Josh said that already, the ‘Torchwood’ bit,” she said, more of her memory coming flooding back. “He said you’re some sort of ‘independent agency’. That you were outside government control, apart from the QBDP. Who do you work for then, the military? Are you some sort of private contractors?”
Xander exchanged a meaningful look with Alain, who shrugged. Xander did the same, then folded his arms. “Alright, Ms. Wallace. Torchwood is a secret agency established by Her Majesty Queen Victoria in 1879 to monitor and defend against extra-terrestrial threats to the citizens of the British Empire.”
She stared back at him, then burst into a laugh despite herself. “Extra-terrestrial,” she repeated mockingly. “You mean aliens?”
He nodded silently.
She continued to stare at him, but he said nothing. The laughter died in her chest, and her smile began to fade. “You’re kidding, right?” she asked.
“How else would you explain the attack last night?” asked Greg. “Or the world’s kids chanting warnings and pointing to the sky last year? Planet Earth travelling thousands of light years across space into a horde of talking garbage cans a few years ago?”
“If you’re supposed to protect people from those kinds of things, how come you didn’t? I mean... Camryn, okay, Joshua tried; he was just too late. Fine. But those other things, the... the kids, the... Daleks... why didn’t you do anything then?”
They were silent for a moment; Joshua, Greg, and Conrad exchanged looks with each other, while Xander went white and Alain simple stared into space. It was him who answered her: “We try, Sara,” he said quietly. “But sometimes, we just can’t do enough. Even we have to rely on someone else sometimes. Even if that means we lose people.”
She heard the sadness in his voice, and for a moment he appeared as if he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. She looked away, and addressed her next question to the floor by Conrad’s feet. “So what about now - this... creature, the one that killed Camryn? What is it?”
Xander shrugged again. “We don’t know for sure,” he said. “We have a theory, though. Alain?”
Alain nodded, then marched over to the other side of the room, where a number of large drawers lined the wall. Sara watched them apprehensively, already sure of what they were. Sure enough, when Alain walked up to one in particular and pulled it open, a long table slid out from the wall, on top of which lay the colourless, lifeless body of Hubert Cornett. His eyes were closed now, and she realised for the first time that were it not for the cold pallor of his skin he might have been handsome.
“This was Hubert Cornett, from whose east-Queensbridge apartment we’ve just come. He was killed last night, presumably by the same creature that killed your friend Camryn.”
She lifted herself off the table and moved slowly towards him, with Xander following close behind her. At the edge of the table she stopped, her jaw clenched determinedly against a wave of disgust and revulsion. She gazed silently at the lifeless face, her eyes steadily unfocussing, until she was able to force herself to see it for what it was, instead of what it used to be.
“How did he die?” she asked quietly.
He was silent for a moment, then said: “His occipital and temporal lobes suffered extreme trauma. Essentially, the bottom of his brain received a strong physical blow.”
She furrowed her brow, trying in her head to picture what kind of hit could damage the bottom someone’s brain. “That’s... not possible, is it? What kind of attack would...?”
Alain looked up at her, his face grim. “I believe that Cornett’s death was the work of an alien life form that had taken residence at the base of his skull. It appears to have fed on the amino acids and neuropeptides of his brain, or at least used them in some form - Cornett’s body was nearly drained of them, particularly serotonin.”
“It... it ate his brains?”
Alain shrugged. “Not precisely, but accurate enough in its own way. The injuries to the brain, as well as the bruising of the deeper tissues at the base of the skull, indicate that the creature forced its way out of his body last night, killing him in the process. But we found no evidence of the creature in the alley last night.”
Sara understood. “It had moved into that homeless man instead,” she said. “Like a... a hermit crab. It’s a parasite.”
“We think so,” said Xander, nodding. “We’ve been following a number of similarly mysterious deaths for a number of weeks now. We’ve been watching Cornett, unsure whether he was a suspect or a potential victim, for four days now. His behaviour had become increasingly erratic. Alain, Greg, and Joshua were pursuing him last night when Joshua violated orders and chased it into the alley, where it was forced to change hosts quickly. It tried to hide, thinking it could throw us off its trail now that it was in a new host.”
She nodded - she was able to work out what had happened now. She had heard the creature abandon Cornett in favour of a new host. While she hesitated in the back room, unsure what to do, it must have gone around to the front, entered the store, and murdered Camryn while she had been stretching to peek into the peephole in near-total darkness. If she had been more decisive, if she had known the right thing to do without hesitating, she may have been able to save Camryn somehow. Tears welled up in her eyes, but she forced them down.
“Why did it kill Camryn? If it was trying to hide, committing a violent murder only a block away from where it had last seen you wasn’t exactly brilliant. It could have just... acted like normal. Tried to blend in.”
“We’re not sure what degree of control the creature has over the host,” explained Alain. “It may be complete physical control; or it could be as simple as suggestive thought, something as easily dismissed as a food craving. It could have been that the host was trying to find help.”
“And when Camryn didn’t know what to do, he killed her?” she asked, disbelieve etching every syllable.
“The creature likely introduced urges and compulsions far too powerful for the host to ignore,” Alain in his maddeningly calm baritone. “Instincts such as fear, hunting, possibly even reproduction could have lead to the attack. We may never know for sure.”
“And what about those things you found in Cornett’s apartment?” she asked. “That didn’t look like any mildew I’ve ever seen.”
“We haven’t had a chance to analyse them yet,” said Xander.
“But they’re likely a source of food,” supplemented Alain. “My initial scans show they have remarkably high levels of serotonin in their systems. They could be an emergency food supply of some sort.”
“Alien power bars,” laughed Greg.
Alain shrugged again. “We can’t know more until I’ve had a chance to take a proper look at them.”
Xander nodded. “That’s your next priority. Set your scans on automatic,” he ordered before turning towards the three men standing quietly behind him. “Conrad, I want you to take a few of Alain’s samples and set up some scans of your own. It might give us more than just a medical picture of their make-up,” he said. “When you’re done that, you’ll join myself and Greg. We’ll be investigating another of Cornett’s unsold properties.”
Conrad nodded understanding before rushing through the tall glass doors and disappearing down the hallway. Greg gave Sara a small smile before following him. Joshua stepped forward. “What about me?” he asked.
Xander turned to him with his eyes narrowed slightly. “You’re going to take Ms. Wallace home and Format her memory again.”
Sara whipped around to face him. “Wait, what?” she spluttered. “But... you can’t! Your drug almost made me a vegetable once, you can’t just say ‘oops, try again’!”
Xander folded his arms. “Well we can’t very well let you keep your memory of what you saw, can we?”
“Why not?” demanded Sara. “I give you my word that I’ll never tell anyone.” Xander laughed mirthlessly and turned to leave the room. She turned to Alain. “Please, tell him - you’re the one who said it almost put me into a coma the first time. Are you really just going to let him dose me again?”
Alain gazed at her silently for a moment. “I recommend a stronger dose this time,” he said slowly, breaking eye contact and turning to his computer readouts. “She seems to have a natural resistance.”
Sara gaped at him, then looked to Joshua. “Are you just going to let them drug me again? A normal dose almost made me comatose; a stronger dose could kill me!”
“Alain knows what he’s doing,” said Joshua quietly. “Sara, please... there are two ways to Format someone. Don’t make us do it the hard way.”
She glared at him, her hands bunched into fists at her sides. “Fine,” she said through gritted teeth. “Take me home then, *******.”
“So where are we headed?” asked Greg as he climbed into the passenger seat of the van.
“An old warehouse about a mile north of town,” answered Conrad, pulling his seatbelt across his chest in the back seat before tugging a laptop out from the case on the seat next to him.
“And what’s so special about this old warehouse?” Greg demanded, as Xander pulled open the driver’s side door and clambered into his own seat.
“It was on Cornett’s list of unsold properties for nearly a year and a half,” replied Conrad. “And before that, it had been abandoned for three. He picked it up dirt cheap, but never made any effort to repair it or bring it up to code.”
“Do we know what we’ll find there?”
It was Xander who answered him this time. “We never do,” he reminded him. “But if the creature was mining its host’s life for resources, this warehouse would be the perfect place to hide any of its technology or information from prying human eyes - weapons, computers, possibly a ship it arrived in.”
“We’ve never found a ship before,” piped up Davies. “Do we expect to this time?”
Xander pushed the van into reverse and barrelled backwards through the pitch-dark driveway and into the street. “We can always hope,” he replied shortly.