Fifth in the dystopian!verse series.
All Along the Watchtower
This is the beginning, this is the end. They are, she will realize, really the same thing.
When: Pre-Ground Zero
Jack’s desk is messy. It is a veritable heap of papers and pens and random detritus, and it is absolutely impossible to find anything you want on a good day. On a bad day, it is even worse, and it makes you want to set the entire thing on fire.
Rose Tyler is having a bad day. She is also standing over Jack’s desk, attempting to locate Surveillance Form 2-D amidst the pile of junk that is strewn across it. Glancing at the clock on the bookshelf to her right, she notes that it is approaching ten. She has an assignment briefing at half-past, and she needs the form now, or she will be unable to sign out her Mark VI sub-atomic detector for the mission. She contemplates blowing his desk up.
At quarter past she gives up, and leaves the office to hunt Jack down. The Agency is sluggish in the mornings, and few people litter the minimalist whitewashed hallways. Jack is a creature of habit, and she knows that she will be able to find him in the cafeteria. As she nears the chrome double doors that lead into the food court, the low timbre of male voices reach her, and she wonders at the additional numbers today. Laughter is heard, and it gives her pause. It is not a common thing, laughter, not in the Agency or in their world. She savours the sound.
The sensors swing the double doors open as she approaches, and she steps through into the cafeteria, fluorescent overhead lights almost hurting her eyes. She has never liked this place; the white lighting and sterile tables remind her too much of hospitals and interrogation rooms. But maybe, she thinks, it really is an odd mix of both. They come here to heal their solitary souls, and to find out what they can. It is funny how much people can talk with food in their mouths.
She spies Jack sitting at his usual table in the far left of the room, and walks over to him. He is not alone, and she studies the stranger as she nears them. This man is tall, wiry and lean, and something about the way he holds himself, wary and apart-but-not-quite, tells her that he is a killer. Her instincts tell her to run. His long brown overcoat is draped over the chair next to him, and he sits leaned back, hands tucked into the pockets of his slacks. He wears, she thinks, his outfit like an armour, or a mask, or a shell. His eyes are fathomless and unreadable on hers.
“Rose!” Jack’s chipper greeting is loud in the expanse of the cafeteria, and she almost winces at the volume. She waves a hand in quick reply, and smiles as she draws out a chair and takes a seat next to this stranger. “This is John,” he continues, gesturing to the stranger at the table. She sends him a friendly hello. “He’s an Operative.”
She is surprised at this. She has never seen or heard of John before, not around the Agency or on this continent, and she wonders at his sudden appearance. Her Watcher senses itch to know how he has evaded her notice.
“Oh?” Her brows are drawn and crinkled in curiosity, and John’s lips curve upwards in a small smile. “Which initiative are you with?”
Jack interrupts her question with a disapproving glance. “That’s clas – ”
“It’s fine,” John states, and his voice is low and smooth, like caramel and honey. She finds herself thinking of flies in amber, and shakes off the thought. “I’m with the TARDIS initiative, TARDIS being – ”
“The Treaty Arrangement of the Reconvened Dissenting Independent States,” she finishes for him, and his brows shoot up in surprise. “How did you know that?” He queries. “We’re classified.”
She sends him a secret smile, and his eyes glint in the light at this, like gold dust or gunfire. “I’m a Watcher.”
“Our best, too,” Jack adds, and she squeezes his hand affectionately in response. She notes the way John tracks this action. “So, John, what brings you to Britannia? I thought the TARDIS initiative kept mainly to Americania and Eurasia.”
“It does,” he replies. “But the Agency requested me.”
Her eyes jump to meet Jack’s. The Agency is self-sufficient and far-reaching; their Operatives are brutally trained and highly successful. That they should send for external assistance does not sit well with her, and she frowns at this. A storm is coming, a small voice in her head tells her, and she wonders at the thought.
“Now that,” Jack says, brushing her shoulder lightly, “I really can’t tell you why.”
There is companionable silence for several moments, before John and Jack make to leave, standing and retrieving their coffee mugs and coats.
“Briefing,” John tells her in way of an explanation, and she smarts that she doesn’t know what it is about. His eyes linger on hers for a drawn second, and she is caught up in their depths before he turns away. There are so many secrets hidden in his eyes, secrets she wants to know and the man hidden beneath all of it. The two men depart, and she is alone in the cafeteria. Her heart rate is accelerated.
It is not until she walks back to Jack’s office that she realizes that she had forgotten to ask him for the form.
She browbeats Donna into agreeing to allow her to sign out her Mark VI equipment without Form 2-D before discovering that she has been pulled from her assignment. She is livid at this slight – your skills are no longer required on this mission, Ianto Jones tells her – but she swallows this down, because Jones is an Operative, and she is just a Watcher, even if she is the best. Operative Jones is tight-lipped when she demands to know why, and anger burns the back of her chest.
“The Operative we’re sending in for this has just relayed that he doesn’t need a Watcher,” Jones tells her, and she clenches and unclenches her fist in fury. “And no,” he continues, noting her questioning glare, “I can’t tell you why. You know that’s strictly classified.”
Classified. It is a word she comes to hate. She wants to know everything, wants the information of the world spread out like a canvas before her to do as she pleases with it. She is a Watcher, and she is meant to know things. She takes a deep breath, and exhales slowly. She is a Watcher, and what they won’t tell her, she will find out.
The Repository is on sub-level thirteen, a sprawling cavern of files and books and records. Everything there is to know can be found here, if you know where to look for it. The room goes on for miles in all directions in the expanse of the underground. It takes five hours just to travel from one end of the Repository to the other. You can look for everything here, she remembers hearing her mentor say, but you will only ever keep looking if it doesn’t want to be found.
There is no organisation to this archive, no ostensible manner of arrangement. Files and papers and reams lie strewn about in teetering haphazard heaps, some yellow and fading with age and others crisp and copy-warm. This is the playground of the Watchers. This is their fort of information, their realm of knowledge. No one but the Watchers can find anything here that doesn’t want to be found. This is their secret, their in-your-face booby trap.
John, she thinks, and decides to start there first. She doesn’t know his last name or code name or Operative title, but she is a Watcher, and the TARDIS initiative is not as obscure as it would like to think it is. Her palm is scanned, and she is allowed access to the Repository archives. She pools all she knows about him together, and generates a series of numbers that she keys into the terminal.
You don’t kill a Watcher, she remembers the saying going, not when they probably know when you die.
528491, she enters, and smiles when an automated transporter draws up next to her. She steps onto it, scans her palm again, and it takes her forty minutes deep to the Northwest of the Repository. She is brought to a high mahogany shelf, stuffed with thick leather-bound tomes caked with dust and age, and she puzzles at this. 528491, she recalls, and looks up five shelves, two books to the right, eight alternate titles beginning with A to the diagonal left, down the sum of the first four prime numbers, nine hardcovers over, and the first one to the southeast of that.
She pulls out a thick file, decidedly out of place in this shelf filled with ancient texts. It is nondescript, this folder, beige and typical of military dossiers, weighty and solid in her hands. She hesitates for a brief moment before flipping it open. She pushes away the thought that this feels almost like betrayal.
John Smith, the personnel information sheet reads, and there is a photo of him attached. He looks younger here, she thinks, less hard and more idealistic. Less tired. The hollows in his cheeks are not so pronounced, and he borders on handsome. He would be handsome, she amends, if not for the haunted look in his eyes. It is a look he carries around still, and she wonders at this.
Theta, she learns his code name is, and is amused at its similarity to hers. The Greek alphabet, she thinks, and traces the swirling sign of theta on the sheet with her finger, followed by the looping rho that is hers. Death, she recalls. Theta is the symbol of death. Her finger stops abruptly.
The Doctor, she discovers, is his Operative title, and she puzzles at its non-conventionality. She has heard of The Master and The War Chief and The Rani, but nothing as, well, good as The Doctor. She ploughs on, and finds that he is twenty-eight, a native of Britannia and a graduate of the Prydonian Chapter of Operative Academy. She is vaguely impressed at this; the Prydonian Chapter is well known for being the best, though also infamous for producing the most rebels. She makes to turn the page, fingers slipping for purchase on the smooth paper.
“I was quite a hell-raiser back then, during my Academy days.” He is there, leaning against the metal shelf in the row ahead of her, cocky grin and arrogance coating him like second skin. She drops the file, and gasps as the sheets scatter in disarray on the concrete floor.
“What are you – How did you get here?” She gathers the dropped sheets in hasty, jerky movements, mind flying in a thousand directions at once. For him to be here would mean that the system of the Watchers is compromised; the knowledge of decades and lifetimes hang in the balance – Operatives should never, ever know what the Watchers know.
“Oh, don’t worry,” he tells her, waving an indolent hand at her obvious unease. “You Watchers are a sneaky lot, this system you’ve got here is madness.” He looks at her, slowly, eyes raking up her stiff form. “I’m only here because I like to know where my file is kept, and you,” he pauses, tapping his chin, “you’re very good at this. I’m honestly surprised you were able to track my file down with the scant information you had.”
“I’m a Watcher,” she starts, before pausing. “And I’m the best.”
His eyes are measured on hers, almost contemplative. “That you are, Rose Tyler, that you are.” She opens her mouth to speak, to demand how he knows her name, but he beats her to it.
“Rose ‘Rho’ Tyler, age twenty-five. The Agency’s best Watcher. Part of the POWELL initiative – the Pact Of Wales, England, and Localised Liaisons, formed even before Britannia, mind you. Carries a Beretta 3032 Tomcat, though I can’t resist pointing out that the .32 ACP cartridge of that is rather underpowered, don’t you think? Likes chips. Mother, Jackie Tyler, deceased. Father, Peter Tyler, Torchwood initiative, deceased. Anything else?”
She is stunned, too shocked to feel afraid at his casual summation of her life. Her mind draws a blank when she tries to coherently reply. “You – You talk a lot. Really. A lot.”
He stares at her for a brief moment, before breaking down into laughter. “That’s all you can say? Me, an unfamiliar Operative, accosts you in the highly-secure Repository with everything there is to know about your life, and all you can say is that I talk a lot?” His mirth annoys her, because his words are true. She frowns at this uncharacteristic feeling of trust and familiarity that she has around him, and berates herself for her lack of caution and eloquence.
“Yeah, well, it’s not as if that isn’t true,” she shoots back at him, slightly flustered and caught-out by his unpredictability. “Look, I have to go. It was nice meeting you and everything, but I’ve got things to do, lives to save…” She trails off, stuffing his file back into the shelf where she found it and turning to head back to her transporter.
“I was the one who got you pulled from that assignment, you know,” he says conversationally, nonchalance dripping from voice. “I asked Jack to pull a few strings to get you dropped from that.”
Before she can register what she is doing, she turns and rounds on him, eyes ablaze. “Why would you do that? You are not an Agency Operative, regardless of whether they requested for you or not. You have no say in the way things are done here!” He holds his hands up in mock surrender, and his eyes are dancing when they meet hers.
“We-ell,” he begins, drawing out the syllables. “That mission was routine, and you’re good, you deserve better.”
He pauses, and sends her a slow smile. “And I only take the best.”
She bristles at his arrogance, but she cannot help but feel drawn to him, like a moth to a flame. “But what makes you think the best wants to join you?”
“Oh, Rose,” he says, and his grin is so smug that she is so very tempted to knock it off his face. “Because I am the best. I’m brilliant, me.”
He has wandered over to her other side, and is fiddling with the transporter controls. She wants to tell him that it is DNA activated, but decides to watch (she is a Watcher, after all), and observe what he does. He pops open the screen console and works with the elaborate wiring and circuitry as she looks on and ponders their bizarre exchange.
“Theta,” she calls, experimenting with the word, rolling it around in her mouth. He pauses, a jerk almost, before resuming his tinkering. She is curious and intrigued by this man, this odd stranger who burst into her life. “Why don’t you like that name?”
This time, he stops his work entirely, and turns to face her. “How did you – ” Realisation dawns, and he smiles a little. “You’re a Watcher,” he surmises, before she can repeat it to him. He returns to fiddling with the controls. “No one calls me that, not anymore.”
“It was an Academy nickname,” she concludes, and he shifts a little in surprise. “Yes, it was.” Not content to be one-upped by her, he throws a question that nearly stops her breath over his shoulder.
“Just like Rho, isn’t it? Rho was your Academy nickname.” She swallows once, and then again, words stuck in her throat. She doesn’t respond, not for a long while, and he turns towards her after several drawn-out seconds. Her eyes are dark and secretive on his. She nods once, a slight tilt of her head, graceful but almost-jerky. She is a walking paradox, he thinks.
“So, Rose,” he continues, stepping away from the transporter and wiping his hands on his slacks. The transporter rolls off towards the main landing where she had come from, the result of his tinkering. She gapes.
“You – The transporter. It left.” He hums his agreement, and is bemused by her surprise. “How am I going to get back?”
She draws her eyes up to meet his, and finds them full of excitement and thrill. “Rose, Rose,” he tuts. “Didn’t they ever teach you this in Watcher training?”
He comes up next to her, and takes her hand. His hand is warm in hers, and she thinks she could get used to this.
“Run,” he tells her.