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There is a spot on the pavement in Cardiff where reality is thin. Sometimes, the ghosts of different pasts can be seen.
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“I can see the desert from here,” Sarah Jane tells Jack, when they are both standing together on the paving slab that forms the ‘visitor’s entrance’ to the Torchwood Hub. Then, she tells him a story of a world that was destroyed in 1911, when they had failed to save it (she doesn’t elaborate on who ‘they’ are, but it is clear enough who she means). They’d come back to 1980 and found a dead world, with nothing but lifeless sand being blown about by cold winds. Then they’d gone back to 1911 and stopped the destruction, and so restored the future.
Jack closes his eyes, and as he listens to her description, he can feel the winds start to blow. He knows then that if he opens his eyes he will be looking at that same, dead, world, as real or more so than the one where he is standing in front of a fountain in Cardiff. Just one more in a sea of possible futures and pasts.
Sarah Jane only notices the effect from here, where it is strongest. He's surprised she notices it at all. None of the others in his team have ever even felt a twinge. Maybe it takes someone who has travelled in time to feel it. Maybe it is even due to their connection to the machine that has left its impression on this stone and by extension on the earth beneath it. Although that doesn’t quite make enough sense, because then Sarah Jane, who he knows travelled in it for far longer than he did, should be more sensitive to it than she is. She had more time to form a bond.
Whatever the cause, if he focuses too much attention, especially here, on what could have been, he will see it. As clearly as if it were real.
He shivers in the cold breeze that shouldn’t even be there. He tries thinking of something else, to drive away the image. Unfortunately the desert image is a strong one. So many things could have caused it, not just the event Sarah Jane says she helped prevent.
There was the past in which Margaret Slitheen had been allowed to stay on as Mayor of Cardiff. That also resulted in a desert here, though it was a little hotter than the one Sarah Jane described. As was the one where the original Slitheen plan went through. Then there was a world full of walking corpses, with methane gas so thick in the air that Jack feels himself suffocating just from the illusion. He doesn’t know where that one came from exactly, but he can guess.
He doesn't want to dwell on them. That only makes them more real to his mind. So he starts talking. Explaining, as much to himself as to her, how this can be happening. Of course, he has very little idea of exactly how, but as long as he can convince himself there is a reason it happened, he can build a wall of words between the two of them and these alternate realities where there is nothing but death.
The words come easily enough. He’s had over a hundred years of experience in dealing with all sorts of phenomena, and he’s had to write plenty of reports for the bureaucratic upper echelons. (He would consider himself blessed that they were gone, except that, standing here now and thinking about it, he can see the metallic, unliving world that could so easily have resulted from the debacle that had removed them .) Those reports had to at least sound as if he knew what he was talking about, even if all they boiled down to was ‘we don’t know, but it’s dangerous’. He's learned how to technobabble with the best of them, and he falls back on those skills now.
Sarah Jane isn’t having any of it. He doesn't notice her exasperation building because he’s too caught up in his words, but her interruption hits him like a slap in the face. “Honestly, sometimes you’re just as bad as the Doctor!” she says, bitterly. It is the first time the name has been mentioned this explicitly between them.
It brings him back to the real world with its sharpness, and for a few seconds he doesn’t know how to reply. Her remark stings, but he is away from all those terrible worlds, and he doesn’t know how to thank her for that. So he just keeps silent.
He drives her back to London that night. Neither Sarah Jane nor he are inclined to say much, so he starts thinking about the Doctor. He’s managed to keep thoughts like that in his subconscious for so long, it almost hurts to have them come back out again. And he’d just managed to force them down again after the last bad bout.
He’d had a bad time previously, when, after a century-long wait, rumours of a Doctor working for UNIT surfaced, and it had turned out to be the wrong one. He’d been beating himself up over that for a long time, had even escaped to the US for a decade or two, just so he wouldn’t have to jump at every mention of the man. But back then, the thin place in reality hadn’t yet been there, right where he’d made a home for himself. And he’d had the luxury of being able to escape. It would have been extremely unlikely for his Doctor to show up then and there, so close to one of his previous selves.
The more recent ‘bad time’, though much shorter, had also been far worse.
Because almost the right Doctor had come to Cardiff, and Jack had to lock himself in a cell with a timed release mechanism to keep from running out to the TARDIS there and then. At that point, he'd been cursing his luck at ever even meeting the Doctor. It seemed to have brought nothing but misery for an unnaturally extended period of time. Never mind getting to be the hero, he thought; if it meant this, he’d rather be a coward. He'd really meant it, too. This time, it wasn’t just a shared joke. And at that point the earthquake of the Rift opening had struck, and the world had seemed to end.
All the cells had suddenly seemed to be filled with people in old-fashioned gas masks, passively standing around. They'd been outside the cells, too. After a loud sound (something falling over?) all of them had broken out in a repeating chorus of “Are you my mummy?” Jack’d been banging on the door of his cell, trying to escape.
Then the shaking had stopped, and he'd realized he had his eyes closed. But even with his eyes open he'd been able to see the vague forms of people in gas masks wandering through the Hub. He'd also seen the décor of the Hub during the war as a ghostly overlay over the current one. As soon as the timer released the door, he'd escaped the Hub. He hadn’t returned until he’d been well and truly drunk -- the first time in decades.
That hadn’t helped either. Only when the Rift activity had decreased significantly did the ghosts stop appearing. For all that time, Jack hadn’t slept, had barely dared to blink. And ever after, if the Rift was acting up, the ghosts of his failure, of the world that would have been had he never met the Doctor, showed themselves in the Hub. With his eyes open, that was all they were: mere ghosts. But they were more real than reality when he shut his eyes.
He’s managed to get past it, mostly. His team and his work mostly keeps him grounded in the real world. He can escape to high places, where the effect hasn’t taken hold. But Sarah Jane´s words have reinforced the effect too strongly in his mind. On the drive back to Cardiff, Jack already knows he won’t sleep tonight. Tonight, there will be ghosts. But as long as he keeps his eyes open, he’ll be sure that this world is
the real one.