Slow Decay

ONE

The sky was taking on the appearance of an old bruise as the sun slipped inevitably toward the Cardiff skyline. Yellows and purples were layered across it, each sliding into the other in a cascade of disturbed colour, like an Edvard Munch painting. Lights were beginning to come on across the city, in buildings and on streets, gradually replacing the actual city with a pointillist copy of itself.

The top of the tower block where Gwen stood was covered in weeds, moss and grass. The vegetation had drifted up, in seed or spore form, from the countryside beyond Cardiff’s suburbs. From where she stood, by the top of the stairway that led down towards street level and the rational world below, the far edge of the building was an impossibly straight cliff edge and the man standing there was poised on the edge of the void, coat eddying around him in the breeze like wings. Ready to fall or to fly.

‘Where can I get a coat like that?’ she asked.

‘You have to earn it,’ Captain Jack Harkness said without turning around. ‘It’s a badge of office. Like bowler hats in the Civil Service.’

‘They don’t still wear bowler hats in the Civil Service,’ she replied scornfully. ‘That went out back in the 1950s, along with tea trolleys and waistcoats. And I speak as someone who worked alongside loads of Civil Servants when I was in the police force.’ She caught herself. ‘I mean, when I was really in the police force, not just telling people that I’m in the police force to avoid having to tell them that I hunt down alien technology for a living.’

‘I bet they still wear them,’ Jack said. The wind ruffled his hair like a playful hand. ‘I bet when all the Civil Servants arrive in their offices in the morning they lock the doors, unlock their desks and take out their ceremonial bowler hats to wear where nobody else can see them. Like a kind of administrative version of the Klu Klux Klan.’

‘Have you got some kind of downer on the Civil Service?’

He still didn’t turn around. ‘In an infinite universe,’ he said, ‘there are undoubtedly planets out there where the entire population has grey skin, wears grey clothes and thinks grey thoughts. I guess the universe needs planets like that, but I sure as hell don’t want to have to visit them. I prefer the thought that if there’s a planet of Civil Servants then there’s also a planet where everyone has an organic TV set built into their back, and you can just follow people down the street, watching daytime TV to your heart’s content.’

The colour was slowly bleeding from the sky in front of Jack Harkness: yellows dissolving into oranges, oranges melting into reds, and everything dripping from the sky, sliding off the back of the night and leaving velvet darkness behind.

Gwen gazed at Jack’s back, trying once again to try and separate out the complex mess of feelings she felt for this man. When he talked about Civil Servants wearing bowler hats, it was almost as if he had only recently seen them. When he talked about alien planets, she could almost believe that he’d been to them. Almost. But that would have been mad. Wouldn’t it?

She wondered, not for the first time, how her life had managed to take such a right-angled turn without any warning. One day she was taking statements and guarding crime scenes whilst technicians in overalls scraped evidence up into plastic bags, and the next she was part of Great Britain’s first and last line of defence against…