Characters: Jack, Ianto
Spoilers: Children of Earth: Day Four
Beta: Twitter-person @roses_supposes
Summary: On the nature of immortality and the longevity of birds.
Author's Note: I've taken some serious liberties with the timing and interior geography of the Swansea Observatory. We'll just say that in the Torchwood universe, the observatory closed its doors in October 2008 instead of 2009. And that both towers have stained-glass ceilings.
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November 15th, 2008
“There’s a bird that’s immortal,” Ianto said, eye to the telescope, a look of concentration on what part of his face was visible as he stood hunched over the huge cylinder. “Its telomeres don’t shrink or weaken with replication, so it can conceivably live forever.”
His unattended torch was pointed toward the dome of the ceiling, some twenty feet above them, and the wide circle of its light framed four colors of stained glass in almost equal sections; pastels of blue, pink, yellow, green, all pale and distant and bright with the moon and the torchlight. The sky was clear in the open hatch through which the telescope gazed; for once, clear, with the stars visible.
The power was cut through all of South Wales, an unintended side-effect of a new piece of tech. It would come back, eventually. Toshiko was working on it, but for now the Swansea seaside was silent and still and dark. The rest of the observatory was cold and empty, squares of lighter shades on the walls where photographs had once hung, the tower cavernous and echoing up at them. The astrological society had emptied the building of exhibits and lights, but it had left the telescope and computer for more precise removal later, and the alien generator attached to them supplied the only running electricity for miles.
Jack’s torch was shining on the old keyboard. “It doesn’t age,” he said. He tapped a few keys. “It can still die, though. Predators.” A final key. “Saturn. See it?”
“Still,” Ianto said. “Immortal bird.” He shifted slightly to ease the ache in his shoulders. “I can see the rings. I didn’t know that was possible.”
Jack shrugged. “You can see them with binoculars, if you’re really trying.” He stepped back, leaning against the railing in the dark and feeling the empty echo of the air at his back. “And it isn’t immortal. Not really. If it can be killed.”
“It doesn’t age,” Ianto said.
“So do I.” Ianto stood up straight for a moment and rubbed the back of his neck.
Jack smiled slightly. “So do you.” He put his hands on Ianto’s waist and moved him out of the way so that he could bend down and look through the telescope’s eyepiece. “If you’re going to compare me to something, compare me to a cricket.”
Ianto raised an eyebrow, taking Jack’s spot at the railing. He tapped the plastic of his torch against the metal. “I don’t know the reference.”
Jack adjusted the eyepiece slightly. “Eos was the Greek goddess of the dawn. She had two lovers, Tithonus and – the other one. I forget his name. They were brothers. Zeus saw the brother and immediately wanted him for his cupbearer, among other things, so Zeus took him. In exchange, Eos asked that Zeus make Tithonus able to live forever. Zeus did it, but Eos forgot to ask for eternal youth, so Tithonus kept getting older and older and older, until he was senile and in constant pain. So she turned him into a cricket.” He looked over at Ianto, his torchlight catching half of his face with gold, the hair falling over onto his brow shining against the untouched black above it. “An immortal cricket.”
They could hear the rushing of the waves against the shore. The constant push and pull and tumble of the water in the silence, in the dark.
“Jack,” Ianto said.
“So I’m not a bird.” Jack looked up at the ceiling, his face awash in color. “But I guess I’ll never be a cricket.”
Finches trilled in Ianto’s head and he knew he shouldn’t have said anything. But they were in the dark with glass and stars above them, and without light nothing was real, maybe. “There’s the philosophical question of whether death can ever be good. If we assume that death is largely something bad, is there ever a time that death can be good?”
Through all of the imperfect stained glass, the moon traced the walls with shifting patterns like reflections of light off of water. Jack watched them float and said nothing.
“The answer is always to imagine a life that doesn’t end in death. That doesn’t end.”
Jack ran his palm over the smooth metal of the telescope. “I’m gonna be dust one day, Ianto. Sentient dust. When my body is gone.”
Ianto nodded. He slid down from his perch and sat against the bars, legs folded, fingers spinning his torch in little circles on the floor in front of him. “The philosophical problem then is whether immortality can ever be good. If we establish that death can be good if immortality is bad, can immortality ever be good?”
“I don’t like the idea of absolute good and absolute bad,” Jack said. He leaned against the railing next to where Ianto sat, his face out to the open air, the sheer drop through the observatory tower.
“That’s all you get in this kind of thing,” Ianto said. He kept spinning the torch, watching with each pass as it lit up the round mirror attached low to the bars across from him, bouncing the light back to his face. “And the question is, what makes immortality bad in the first place?” He looked up at Jack, unflinching. “The boredom,” he said, sending the flashlight around again, “and, in the absence of eternal youth, the pain.”
Jack looked down at Ianto, face impassive. “I’m not a philosophical dilemma.”
Ianto shrugged. “You are.” He looked away.
Jack crossed back to telescope computer. “The lights’ll be back soon. We’ll miss Jupiter.” He tapped a few keys. The breathing sound of the waves against the shore stole a few moments. Finally, he asked, “So. Can immortality ever be good?”
Ianto shrugged again. He stopped the spin of his torch and sat back against the bars. “You tell me.”
Jack looked over his shoulder. “I am kind of the expert.”
Ianto smiled slightly, but he shook his head. “The issue of boredom – that can be solved with memory loss. If you only remember fifty, one hundred, two hundred years at a time, then the tedium can never get so bad.” He glanced up, but Jack’s back was to him, and if he was wrong then Jack didn’t show any sign of it. “But that opens up another problem.”
Jack tutted. “So many problems tonight.”
Ianto didn’t smile. He rubbed at the grit of sand caught in the shallow treads of his shoes. “If, at two thousand years old, you can’t remember what you were like when you were born, what your interests were when you were two hundred, what your job was when you were seven hundred – are you really still the same person who experienced those things?” He looked up at Jack. “Even if you are the same in body, with the same biology. Are you really the same person you were when you were born?”
Jack looked at Ianto. He frowned. “Are you?”
Ianto stared back at him, gaze clear and somewhat desperately untroubled. “Yes,” he said.
“Who were you when you were a baby?”
Ianto shrugged. “My mother’s son. Welsh. I cried when strangers held me. I was still me. I was the mind that would become me.”
Jack spread his hands. “What if I’m the mind that will become whatever I am in a thousand years?”
“You can’t compare this to infancy, Jack. You were forty when you were made immortal.”
Jack’s frown deepened. “I was younger than that. And why can’t I compare this to infancy?”
“You’ve been cognizant for more than a hundred years. You’ve developed to this point.”
“Do you think that I won’t develop any more?” Jack gestured wide, both hands out, as if taking the entire expanse of the tower and the sky as proof for what he was trying to say. “What if I’m going to keep developing mentally through the next few thousand years? What if, from the point of view of myself three thousand years from now, I have the awareness of a new born at this moment?”
Ianto shrugged, looking off to the side, out to where the deck curved with the railing, where the floor dropped away. “Maybe you will. But that means you still won’t be the same person you are today.”
“Why does that matter?”
Ianto looked back at Jack. He blinked, surprised. At himself, it seemed, more than at Jack. “It doesn’t,” he said. “It does to the philosophical problem of immortality.”
“But it doesn’t to you.”
Ianto looked up at him. His knees were pulled against his chest, his torch left forgotten on the ground beside his hand. The moon cast pink light from the stained glass ceiling against his face. The waves crashed outside, where the sea reflected nothing but the moon and the stars.
“It doesn’t to me.”
Jack lowered himself slowly into a squat in front of Ianto, then eased into a more steady kneel. He was a little higher than eye level, and he held Ianto’s gaze in the dark. “If I could make it so your telomeres would never weaken, if they could replicate forever and you would never age, would you want it?”
Ianto’s expression didn’t change, but his eyes were thoughtful, concentrated. The fingers of the hands clasped around his knees drummed against the back of the opposite hand. For a moment there was just the waves again. Then, finally, he shook his head. “No,” he said.
“Why?” Jack asked.
He looked down at his knees. “The time isn’t worth--” He paused, thinking. “I’d be the bird, right? Well.” He looked at Jack, “The time isn’t worth the cage.” Jack frowned, uncomprehending, but Ianto pushed on. “If I didn’t age but I could still be killed, or drown, or starve to death, then the only thing you could do to keep me alive is lock me away. Otherwise, there would be no difference. Can you see that?” He sat up a little more, unclasping his hands and instead wrapping them around the bottoms of the bars behind him. “With this job, it would be the same as it is right now. I’ll die in some violent way. Only then, I would have so much more to lose. An eternity. Everything would change, but nothing would be different.” He shrugged.
Ianto’s open jacket on either side of his body took on the appearance of spread wings when the slow back-and-forth roll of his torch found him again, fingers wrapped tight around the bars behind him. His chest felt light and hollow, as though he had no lungs or heart and his breath just dwelt in a cavity within him, rattling around his ribs. He watched Jack watch him until Jack looked away.
Jack looked up at the ceiling. He sighed. “What if you were the cricket?”
Ianto let out a long breath. He unclasped his hands from the bars to reach out for him. He was met with hands through his hair, on the small of his back, lips bumping and missing in strange haste. They overbalanced and Jack landed on his back, Ianto unsupported on top of him, his arms still around Jack’s neck. He sighed into Jack’s coat. “Don’t talk about things you can’t do,” he said.
Jack’s hand on the back of Ianto’s neck shifted so that his fingers could card through the fine hair just above them. “But if I could,” he said. “would you do it?”
Ianto closed his eyes and listened to the waves. His heart fluttered and chirped in his chest. He could have been miles above the earth, he imagined; balanced on thermals, dropping and ascending. The warmth of Jack beneath him, the rise and fall of Jack’s chest. He mouthed No into Jack’s lapel.
“The lights are back,” Jack said, and Ianto looked up at his face.
“How can you tell?”
Jack nodded toward the ceiling. “The sky just got a lot brighter.”
Ianto looked over his shoulder. “Go Tosh,” he said, impressed. He rolled off of Jack and stood up, brushing himself off. “We should get back. We’ll have to start thinking of a good excuse to feed to the press.”
“Simultaneous football matches on every TV blew the power,” Jack said from the floor, and held up a hand.
Ianto grasped it and pulled him up, smirking. “Somehow I don’t see that being quite believable enough.”
“Would it be better if it were rugby?” Jack powered down the telescope computer. Ianto collected their torches. With the sky once more bright will light pollution, they could find their way around without them. Ianto looked up through the telescope hatch.
“All the stars are gone,” he said.
Jack looked up, too, his hands on the small alien generator, turning it off. He shrugged. “They’re still there.” He turned, generator cradled to his chest, and smiled. He opened his mouth.
Ianto cut him off. “Don’t say you’ll take me out there.”
Jack closed his mouth. He frowned.
“Don’t,” Ianto said, fingers tapping nervous and without rhythm on the opposite elbow, arm crossed over his chest, eyes cast away. “I can’t imagine that you ever will. So don’t say it.”
Jack paused. He shook his head. He looked away. “I won’t,” he said. He turned and started toward the door that led to the winding staircase tower. “Let’s go.”
Ianto squeezed their torches together in the palm of his hand. He closed his eyes tightly, took a long breath in, let it out, then followed. The door creaked shut with a yawning metal whine.
October 18th, 2009
Jack stared up through the center of the spiral staircase.
The overcast morning sunlight came grey to the ceiling and was transformed there, transmitted blue on the walls and banisters by the stained glass. The sun was on a pedestal to his right, small and round and yellow, and he set his hand on it. Cold. It was the beginning of a model of the solar system, which traveled straight up through the stairs to the glass, Pluto hanging blue and small and distant, the planets aligned on the Swansea coast. Jack took the first stair.
46 million miles.
Second stair: Ninety-two million miles.
And he kept going, further from the Sun and closer to the Earth, until it was behind him. He ran his fingers over the rings of Saturn as he passed by.
Neptune found the door to the telescope deck, two thousand eight hundred and thirty five miles and a flight of stairs away from Earth. Jack stopped with his fingers on the handle. He could hear the waves. The sound made the place feel desolate, isolated, vacant. And he supposed it was. There was nothing here but the solar system, the stairs, and him.
He could hear birds.
He opened the door and leaned against the doorjamb, looking into the room. It was empty. The telescope and computer were gone, and all that remained were shreds of newspaper from packing, strewn all across the floor, and the banister bars that peered down into the museum tower below.
He looked up. There were birds in the metal rafters. They fluttered from perch to perch, chirping in clipped falsetto, the light on their dark feathers refracted pink, yellow, blue.
Jack leaned his head against the door frame. He let out a shaking breath.
Shredded newspaper. A place ringed in metal bars.
Jack knew that, given the choice, Ianto would have been the bird.
If Jack had asked, Ianto would have been the bird.