Title: When the Stars Turn Blue
Summary: Jack Harkness leads a small team of brilliant scientists working secretly underground to create a new technology that could have profound and far-reaching consequences for humanity. But when he receives devastating news and a mysterious stranger enters his life, his concept of reality may be changed forever. Jack/Ianto AU story.
Rating: Adult/NC-17 (overall story)
Warnings: Explicit sexual situations, adult themes, coarse language, dark themes, violence, character death, romance, angst.
Disclaimer: This story is based on characters created and owned by the BBC, and is loosely based on the movie 'The Thirteenth Floor' copyright Columbia Pictures and the novel 'Simulacron-3' by Daniel F. Galouye. No profit is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
Author's Notes: Special thanks to my fantastic beta prothrombintime.
Jack drew in a deep breath and tried to relax as Owen once again went through the routine of strapping him into the chair, clamping the cortical interface onto his head, and affixing a heart rate sensor to his chest. Not for the first time, Jack thought that he must be at least half crazy to be putting himself through this ordeal again. The agony he'd endured the first time was still fresh in his mind, and he wasn't sure that he was ready to repeat the experience.
Owen remained silent as he worked, a grim expression clouding his features. He'd obviously given up on trying to reason with Jack, and Jack was grateful for the reprieve. He just needed to get this done without further debate or discussion. Standing off to one side, Ianto was watching closely, his posture tense, and his features held in a stoic mask of impassivity. The suit jacket that Ianto had eased from Jack's shoulders moments earlier was draped carefully over his arm, and Ianto held it tightly against his chest.
Their eyes met, and Jack tried to give the younger man a reassuring smile. Ianto didn't immediately respond, but after a moment his expression wavered, and he gave Jack a brief, tremulous smile in return. Despite doubting the wisdom of Ianto being present, Jack felt immeasurably relieved that the Welshman was at his side.
"How long, Owen?" Jack asked once the doctor had finished preparing him.
"One hour and thirty minutes," Owen replied as he moved over to his workstation. "You might be able to handle two hours this time, but I'm not taking any chances."
Jack just hoped that it would be enough time. Not knowing where he'd find himself once he arrived inside the simulation, he couldn't estimate how long it would take to make his way to the Ritz again. "Okay," he acknowledged.
Glancing at Ianto one more time, Jack took in another deep breath and closed his eyes. "I'm ready. Do it."
Owen initiated the transfer sequence. Jack convulsed as the now familiar pain tore through him. Then, with a final shudder, his body went still.
"Owen?" Ianto asked as he looked at Jack with an anxious expression.
"He's in," Owen confirmed, glancing up at Ianto and then looking back at his monitor. "Now we wait."
Jack gasped, and a violent tremor coursed through his body. Taking a deep breath, he remained still for a moment and waited for the feeling of disorientation to pass. Then, blinking rapidly, he gazed around and tried to determine where he was.
He soon realised that he was sitting in a large cinema. An unfamiliar grainy black and white movie flickered on the screen, and the strains of crackly music filled his ears.
A warm, soft hand grasped his. "James, are you all right?" an unfamiliar female voice asked him in hushed tones.
Jack turned and saw the pretty face of the red-head from the office looking at him worriedly. She was presumably his date, maybe even his girlfriend. "Yeah, I'm fine," he replied. "Um... excuse me, I'll just be a minute."
Rising unsteadily to his legs, he pushed his way awkwardly to the end of the row without a backward glance, receiving several hissed admonishments along the way. Once he reached the aisle, he quickly made his way up the carpeted aisle, almost tripping several times due to the strange surroundings and near darkness. He felt a twinge of guilt for abandoning his date and for the difficulties he had no doubt just caused for James, his doppelganger, but he had more important things to think about.
Jack rushed through the brightly lit foyer, barely noticing any of his surroundings. A moment later, he was standing in the open air and surveying the bustling night-time panorama of Regent Street. Dodging around a group of boisterous pedestrians, he set off briskly down the street in search of a taxi.
It was almost forty minutes later when Jack climbed out of the taxi. He hadn't counted on the difficulty of finding a ride at that time of the evening. Relieved that he'd finally reached his destination with what he hoped was enough time to spare, he stared up at the spectacular sight of The Ritz. The entire building was bathed in golden light, and it was set against the backdrop of a perfectly still evening, the cloudless sky a blanket of bright, shimmering stars.
Jack took a moment to just stand there and gaze up in awe. Once again, he found himself sadly wishing that he could have shared the experience with John. Witnessing the wonder and joy on his friend's face would have been a rare gift. He was beginning to understand why John had logged so much time in the simulation. He could imagine John becoming addicted; his inherent thirst for exploration and knowledge fuelling a burning desire to experience every facet of the unique, new world. Jack idly wondered what Ianto would make of it all. Somehow, he thought the younger man would be as captivated as he was.
Glancing at his watch, and reminding himself that he didn't have time to waste, Jack made his way inside and headed for the ballroom.
The room was crowded and raucous, with finely attired people filling the space, all apparently having a wonderful time. The band was playing a lively, fast-paced number, while at least a dozen or so couples were doing their best to keep up on the dance floor. Feeling overwhelmed by the energy and noise, Jack spotted an empty table in the nearest right-hand corner of the room, and he eased his way surreptitiously towards it. He hoped that he wouldn't attract any undue attention. Apart from anything else, he wasn't dressed for the occasion. He felt distinctly conspicuous, attired in an unexceptional brown suit, while all the other men in the room were dressed in smart dinner suits and black or white bow ties.
After settling into his chair, Jack gazed carefully around the room. The table provided him with an unobstructed view of the bar, and he watched anxiously. An older blonde man was currently serving, and Eugene was nowhere in sight. Jack felt a surge of panic as he considered that the man he was looking for might not be working that evening. If that was the case, he had no way of finding him. But then Jack remembered that the deceitful bartender had said that he'd been working on the previous Sunday. Jack tried to remain optimistic.
Fortunately, he didn't have to wait for very long. A few minutes later, Eugene appeared from a door just beyond the left side of the bar area. He moved quickly behind the bar and began helping the other bartender. The man's movements seemed nervous and he was glancing around furtively, as if looking for or expecting someone.
Gathering his resolve, Jack rose to his feet and headed across the vast room, walking determinedly towards the bar. He'd covered half of the distance when Eugene's eyes settled on him, and he froze as he stared at Jack fearfully. Jack faltered in his stride, taken aback by the unexpected reaction. Then the bartender sprinted towards the door he'd exited from several minutes earlier. Jack swore under his breath and took off after him, forcing his way through the throng of people in his path. Reaching the door, Jack pushed it open and stepped through as he heard the other bartender yelling that he wasn't supposed to be in there.
The cacophony of sound was muted as the door swung closed behind him. The room beyond was dark, compared to the harsh brightness of the ballroom. It appeared to be a large storeroom with a long corridor leading away at the far end. There was a row of lockers along the far wall, and Jack immediately spotted Eugene, frantically grabbing something from one of them. He turned and glanced over his shoulder at Jack, and then he took off again, heading down the corridor.
"Hey!" Jack shouted after the retreating figure. "Eugene! I just want to talk to you."
The man continued sprinting down the corridor, completely ignoring Jack's plea.
"Fuck," Jack muttered and ran after him.
Ianto continued to stand at Jack's side as he watched the older man intently. He turned to glance at Owen. "Is he all right?"
Owen turned away from his monitor and looked over towards the Welshman. "Yeah, so far."
Ianto nodded in reply and leaned against the nearby desk with a heavy sigh, his eyes returning to watch over Jack.
Owen studied the other man curiously. "I'll say this for you, you don't mess around," he said abruptly, glaring at Ianto with narrowed, suspicious eyes. "So, what's the deal Ianto, what do you want?"
Ianto's head swivelled to face Owen, and he looked at him blankly. "What are you talking about?"
"Oh, come off it," Owen said impatiently. "You've been here a week, and you've got Jack wrapped around your little finger. You turn up out of the blue, and suddenly Jack's turned gay." He eyed Ianto appraisingly. "You must be one hell of a good shag."
"He's not gay," Ianto said quietly, but with a steely edge to his voice. "Anyway, it's not like that... me and Jack."
"You and Jack," Owen scoffed. "So, what… you're not just fuck buddies?"
Ianto visibly cringed. "Jack's important to me, Owen. I care about him. Jack needs me."
"Seems to me that he was just fine before you came along," Owen retorted. "He'll be fine after you're gone again too."
"I'm not going anywhere," Ianto said determinedly. "You're Jack's friend, Owen… don't you think he deserves some happiness?"
"Of course I do," Owen snapped, but the question seemed to take him by surprise. "And you think you can give him that?" he asked doubtfully after a moment.
Ianto nodded stiffly. "Yes."
Owen shrugged, looking unconvinced. He fixed Ianto with a threatening glare. "Just remember that if you hurt Jack, you'll have all of us to answer to."
"Noted," Ianto replied tersely. He turned and gazed down at Jack's still form. "Whatever you think about me, Owen, I'd never hurt him."
Owen turned back to his monitor. "Yeah, well," he muttered. "You'd better not."
Jack pelted down the long stretch of corridor, his heavy footsteps echoing loudly in the dark, confined space. The wiry bartender was surprisingly fast on his feet, but Jack had managed not to lose too much ground as he pursued him relentlessly. He wasn't giving up when he was so close.
Suddenly, Eugene disappeared, having veered off to the right. Jack skidded to a halt when he reached the junction, and found a heavy wooden door leading to a stairwell beyond. Cursing again, he charged through the door and began climbing upwards. He could hear Eugene ahead of him, probably by no more than a flight or two. He pushed onwards, breathing hard from the exertion.
Continuing upwards until the stairs came to an end, he paused to read the sign on the door in front of him, declaring that he'd reached the roof. Surprisingly, Eugene hadn't exited the stairs on any of the other floors, and Jack had heard the roof access door slam shut only moments before he'd reached it.
Thinking that he finally had the other man cornered, Jack pushed the door open and walked out onto the rooftop of the Ritz. The expansive view of London before him was breathtaking, but as Jack gazed around searchingly, he couldn't see the other man. It was then that he heard an ominous click, and he froze as the cold barrel of a gun pressed against the back of his skull. Jack's stomach fell as he belatedly realised his mistake. He now knew what Eugene had been frantically retrieving from his locker before he'd made a run for it.
"What are you?" Eugene asked roughly, his voice shaking.
Jack raised his hands slowly. "I told you. My name's Jack Harkness. I'm a friend of Charles Wilson. Look, Eugene... I just want the message he gave you. That's all. Then I'll leave, and you'll never see me again."
Eugene pressed the gun harder against Jack's head. "Turn around and step back. Don't try anything funny or I'll shoot."
Jack nodded. Swallowing hard, he drew a deep breath, and then he cautiously took several steps forward before slowly turning to face the other man. Looking into the face he knew as his friend Owen, he was startled by the combination of fear and anger transforming the familiar features. Eugene was visibly trembling and appeared to be on the verge of hysteria. Jack feared that the man might be beyond listening to reason.
"I read your precious letter," Eugene said angrily, glaring at Jack. "I thought it was some sort of joke... all that stuff about going to the end of the world. But then I saw you switch with Ellis. I talked to him... he didn't know anything. He didn't know who Jack Harkness was. He said the last thing he remembered was sitting at his desk at work... then he woke up two hours later, and he was on the floor of the ballroom, staring up at me."
Eugene stepped forward and waved the gun threateningly at Jack's face. "So, I did what the letter said. I got in my car and started driving. I didn't stop for anything. I kept going in the same direction. It sounded crazy but I did it anyway. Then everything became still... quiet... there were no signs of life. When I couldn't go any further, I got out of my car... and what I saw scared me to the depths of my miserable soul."
"I don't understand," Jack whispered, feeling a cold sense of dread settle over him.
"Everything the letter said was true." Eugene waved his arm in front of him. "None of this is real. It's all just some sick, twisted game. And you're up there somewhere, laughing at us, and fucking with our lives. So, I want to know why? Why are you doing this to us? Who gave you the right to play God?"
Jack shook his head in confusion. He was horrified that Eugene had discovered the true nature of his existence. That wasn't supposed to be possible. It didn't make sense that John would write a letter telling him about the limitations of the simulation. Jack knew the limitations as well as the rest of the team. "You were never meant to know," he said quietly. "You're not meant to be able to see the limitations of the system."
"Yeah, well, it's a bit late for that now," Eugene retorted sharply. "How do I get out of here? Tell me how to get to the real world."
"I'm sorry. You can't," Jack said sadly, swallowing hard and feeling sick. "You're not real."
Eugene shook his head violently, as if trying to banish the unwanted knowledge from his mind. "So, are you real, Jack Harkness?" he said menacingly. "If I shoot you, will you die?"
"No. But you'll kill James Ellis," Jack stated. "You don't want to do that," he tried, still hoping there was a chance he could reason with him. "You're not a murderer."
"What does it matter?" Eugene argued, his eyes going wild. "None of this is real anyway. James isn't any more real than I am."
"I'm sorry," Jack said sincerely, at a loss to know what else to say. "I'm so sorry."
Eugene stared at him in disbelief for a long moment. Jack held his gaze. Then Eugene's shoulders slumped in defeat and he lowered his gun. "What happens when we die?" he asked tremulously. "Do we come back? Do we wake up and start all over again?"
"Everything you believe about the world is true," Jack explained, trying to keep his voice calm. "When you die, you cease to exist." He looked pleadingly at the other man. "Please, I need to see that letter. I need to know what it says."
"It's gone," Eugene said with a shrug. "I destroyed it."
Jack felt his heart sink. Everything he'd been through was for nothing. He looked down forlornly at his watch. He only had a few minutes left. "Please, Eugene. Just tell me what else it said," he begged desperately.
Eugene just laughed hysterically. "Maybe some day I'll see you in hell, Jack Harkness."
Before Jack could react, Eugene leapt up onto the low brick parapet around the edge of the roof, and staring back at Jack, he placed the barrel of his revolver into his mouth. Then he closed his eyes, and his features settled into a look of calm resignation.
"No!" Jack shouted, frantically racing forward, but knowing it was already too late.
Jack watched in horror as Eugene pulled the trigger. The explosive bang filled his ears, and then the other man's body toppled backwards off the building.
Jack's eyes shot open as he let out a shuddering gasp. He took several deep breaths as the disorientation of being pulled from the simulation faded, and he realised that he was safely back at the Hub. His head pounded violently, and an intense wave of nausea passed over him.
Ianto's worried features stared down at him. "Jack?" he asked insistently. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah," Jack managed to croak out, closing his eyes in a futile attempt to push away the pain. "Think I'm gonna be sick," he mumbled.
"Shit!" Owen said and pushed Ianto aside as he began hurriedly unstrapping Jack from the chair.
Ianto looked around and reached to grab a nearby rubbish bin from under Owen's desk. Rushing back to Jack's side, he held it at the ready as Owen removed the last of the restraints. Jack surged forward and promptly threw up into the bin as Ianto held it out in front of him.
"Thanks," Jack muttered as he collapsed back against the chair and took Ianto's proffered handkerchief to wipe his mouth.
"Probably just a side-effect from coming out of the simulation," Owen observed as he fussed over Jack, looking distinctly worried.
"Ianto…" Jack murmured and reached for the younger man's hand, grasping it desperately.
"It's okay, Jack," Ianto said gently. "You're safe. Everything's fine."
Jack nodded absently, but he was struggling to focus as the pain in his skull intensified.
He tried to get to his feet, but his vision blurred, and the room spun around wildly. He swayed for a moment, trying in vain to stay upright. His legs felt incredibly weak, and he was helpless as they suddenly gave way beneath him.
"Jack!" Ianto cried out.
It was the last thing Jack heard before he fell heavily to the floor, the impact violently jarring his body, as the world around him faded into darkness once more.
To be continued...