Title: Old Soldiers
Rating: PG. Contains nothing you wouldn't see on the show.
Length: A bit over 4,000 words.
Author's Notes: This was written for settiai, who said, "I'd love to see what some of the UNIT family was doing during any of the major events from the new series (AoL/WWIII, TCI, AoG/DD, or TRB) or Torchwood. Because you know that they wouldn't just sit by and watch ... they'd be doing something." Perversely, my brain insisted to some extent on writing about not doing things. And the story is almost entirely about the Brigadier, though there are a couple of cameos from other old friends. I hope it suits, regardless. And while I'm writing ridiculously long notes, I might also mention that I've used what I believe is RTD's official (though not mentioned onscreen) explanation for what happened to the Cybermen in "Doomsday" and why we didn't see them at the end. Finally, many, many thanks to vilakins, for beta-ing above and beyond the call of duty.
World War Three
He never gets the phone call.
He's laid up in hospital... Some damned problem with his gall bladder. Minor surgery, really, but the doctors don't want to let him go until they've eliminated some blip on his chart or spike on his graph, or some such nonsense. Doctors. They plague his existence, but he knows it's best to humor them, in anticipation of the times when they're indispensable.
It's while he's lying in his hospital bed, thinking about doctors and indispensability and how badly he'd like to simply stand up and walk out of this place and back to his life, that the phone call comes. And is answered by his wife.
The government are convening a panel of hostile-alien experts to figure out how to keep the planet from being invaded again, and retired or not, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart's name naturally tops the list. Not that they put it in those words, of course, not to a civilian, not over an insecure line, but Doris has been with him long enough now that she's an old hand at translating all the things that soldiers and politicians don't say. And, unlike her husband, who's been forbidden access to anything he might find stressful, she's been watching the telly. She tells them that he's indisposed, and refuses to pass on the message on the grounds that he'll rip out IVs, and possibly stitches, and be off to London before his doctors have decided whether he's likely to survive the journey. (When, days later, she finally tells him all this, he has to admit that she knows him far too well.)
The first he knows of any of it is the explosion at Downing Street, news even Doris' formidable efforts can't keep from him for more than a few hours once the doctors have finally discharged him. By then it's being called an accident, of course, and the spaceship a hoax, but Alistair knows better. He can smell an alien invasion attempt with his eyes closed.
When the second call from UNIT comes, he takes it.
There is another meeting, of course, and this time he attends. It's about what he's expected: eulogies, analyses, finger-pointing, long discussions about public perceptions and political spin, desk-bound officers with serious faces and power point presentations asking, "Where does UNIT go from here?"
Bambera approaches him afterwards. Judging from the look on her face, he suspects she's as disgusted by all this pointless chatter as he is, though it's close enough to her usual expression that it's rather difficult to tell.
"I suppose you're wondering why we asked you to come," she says.
He lets his mouth quirk into a wry expression. A smile hardly seems appropriate. "I thought it might have to do with the organization's sudden large number of job openings."
She nods. "Your official job description is 'Exotic Threats Assessment Consultant.' Don't blame me, I didn't come up with it." She pauses, looking at him thoughtfully. "I wouldn't advise trying to say 'no.'"
This time he does smile, a little. "I wouldn't dream of it."
"It does mean you'll have to start answering your phone."
"Ah, yes. Well, I'm sure Doris can be talked out of screening my calls over misplaced concern for my health. Possibly in exchange for some sort of promise involving eating more vegetables."
Bambera makes a face. "There are times," she says, "When I'm glad I married a fellow soldier. Even if he is completely insane." She claps him on the shoulder, her grip every bit as formidable as he remembers. "You'll have the paperwork in a few days." And without another word, she's gone.
"Doctor's orders be damned," he mutters to himself. "I need a drink."
None of the active-duty officers have time to stop for a drink with him, not in the middle of UNIT's current personnel crisis, and there are few people left that he knows well enough to call friends, in any case. But good old Sergeant Benton can always be depended upon. Except, no, it's not "Sergeant" any longer, of course. Simply John Benton, civilian. In fact, he realizes with something of a jolt, the fellow's been a civilian now for many more years than he was ever a soldier. Astonishing, how long old habits can keep their grip on a man. He smiles at Benton across the barroom table and tries to put the thought out of his mind. It only makes him feel older than he already is.
Benton smiles back, a little sadly, and raises his glass. "To absent friends," he says.
The Brigadier nods. "And fallen comrades." Glass clinks against glass, and Alistair sips his scotch, welcoming its pleasant burning tingle in his gut.
"You know," he says after a moment, a little surprised to hear himself actually saying the words out loud, "I can't help but wonder what might have happened if I'd been there. Can't help but think I might have prevented it all, somehow. Is that arrogance, do you think?"
Benton gives him a thoughtful, sympathetic look, then shakes his head. "More like survivor's guilt, I'd say. Happens to all of us eventually. It's one of the reasons I got out." He looks away for a moment, and takes a long swallow of lager. "Anyway, from what I've heard, the Doctor was there. If he couldn't prevent it, I'm not sure what any of us mere humans could do."
The ghost of a smile passes across the Brigadier's lips. "Oh," he says, "you'd be surprised." He wonders, briefly, if he ought to be surprised at how well-informed Benton is about the incident. But though the details of what happened at Downing Street have naturally been classified, an intelligent person familiar with UNIT and its sphere of influence could doubtless piece together a great deal from the scraps of disjointed information reported on the telly. And Benton has always been intelligent.
Benton smiles back at him. "Yes, come to think of it, I suppose I do recall a time or two when he needed us to save his bacon, rather than the other way round. Not that you'd ever get him to admit it."
Alistair makes an amused "mmm" noise and takes another slow sip of his scotch. "Ah, well," he says at last. "You're probably right, in any case. If it weren't for Doris confiscating my mobile, you'd most likely be sitting here drinking a toast to my memory."
He says it lightly, but there must be something in his voice which he hasn't intended to be there, as Benton looks up rather sharply from his glass. "Now, don't go blaming Doris," he says gently. "You're lucky to have a woman like her. I've heard you say it yourself often enough, and, if I may say so, it would be a crushing disillusionment if I had to start doubting your word now."
The Brigadier makes a gesture with one hand, as if waving the thought away. "No, no. I don't blame Doris. She was only looking out for me. It's what a good wife does, after all." And he doesn't blame her, not really, although there might have been a moment there, when he'd first heard the news, when... Well, he doesn't particularly want to think about that now. It's not a reaction he's proud of. No, mostly now he blames his own infirmities. And murderous alien bastards, of course. It's always best to lay one's righteous anger where it genuinely belongs. Besides... "If anything, she ought to be blaming me. When she married me, she was signing up to get an ex-soldier, and no matter how many heartfelt promises I make, I never do seem capable of staying entirely out of the business for long."
Benton smiles again and lifts his glass a little. "Well, you know what they say, sir..."
"I do, indeed." He lifts his own in return, his head filled with sayings about old soldiers and thoughts of now natural it still seems, after all this time, to hear Benton calling him "sir." He drains the rest of the scotch and sets it back on the table, a little reluctantly. "Speaking of Doris, I suppose it's past time I got back to her. No sense making her worry more than she already does."
"It was good to see you again, sir," says Benton, and if that first "sir" was deliberate, this one appears to be entirely unconscious.
Alistair rises and claps the man warmly on the shoulder. "You too, Mr. Benton. You, too."
He leaves the pub with a feeling of warmth in his chest that's slightly too strong to be attributable solely to the alcohol.
He spends most of Christmas Day standing on top of a building. Somewhere far behind him is Doris, probably still wearing that betrayed expression that says if the current crisis isn't the end of the world, they ought to be able to handle it without him, and if it is, he ought to be spending his final hours with her. Equally far ahead of him is UNIT HQ, and the chance to help ensure that Doris and everyone else survive to care about having their Christmas ruined.
He knows all this, somewhere in the back of his brain, but it means nothing to him. There's nothing in the world he wants to do except stand right here, in his proper place on this roof, utterly empty and utterly content.
It lasts somewhere between an eye blink and an eternity; he does not feel remotely competent to make a guess as to which is the closer estimate. And when it's over, he seems to be the only one, of all the confused and frightened people around him, who has the slightest inkling as to what might have just happened to them. The sense of violation is so profound that he has to bend over for a moment and take slow, gulping breaths to keep from vomiting. It's most undignified... and that, perhaps, is the very thought that tips him over from nausea into anger.
He arrives at UNIT ready to fight, to threaten, to scheme... to die, if that's what it takes to get these bastards off his planet. He has a speech prepared which is guaranteed to rouse young men into fighting fervor and make aliens quake in whatever they're using for boots. He is ready, in fact, for anything. But by the time he arrives, it's over. The Doctor has come and gone, and flecks of ash that moments ago had the form of a spaceship are floating gently down to earth.
The Brigadier closes his eyes, as sounds of jubilation and confusion rise and fall around him. He ought to be joining them, celebrating the creatures' defeat, or speculating about who it was who destroyed the ship, given that it wasn't them. (The word "Torchwood" drifts about the room, whispered in the hushed tone of a child repeating a naughty word or a secret he isn't supposed to know.) But he feels so damned useless, more so than he's felt since the day he finally realized his attempt at a teaching career was doing neither him nor his students any good. He feels old. He wishes the Doctor was still here.
When he goes back to Doris, he can't tell her any of it, and not just for reasons of national security. Instead he kisses her and tells her he's sorry he had to leave. But, of course, he can't promise it will never happen again. He can't even decide whether he wants it to or not.
The first time he sees a "ghost," he shoots it. Six bullets, delivered with careful precision to the most vulnerable spots in a humanoid creature's anatomy. It doesn't accomplish anything, of course. Still, one has to try.
UNIT holds endless meetings, speculating and debating and forming contingency plans, but generally doing very little. It's difficult to come up with a strategy for fighting insubstantial apparitions of unknown origin, even more so when they never seem to do anything but stand there. Even people who should know better are beginning to give credence to the idea that the blasted things really are ghosts. Damned foolishness, in Alistair's opinion. Of course he'd be glad for a chance to see his parents again, or any number of old, departed friends, but wishful thinking never helps anything. And no matter what Doris might say, none of them look anything remotely like her sister.
For his part, he insists on crossing the street to avoid the things. He refuses to stay in a room with one, even if it makes him a poor houseguest. And he certainly will not discuss sensitive matters in front of one. His personal current theory is that they're here to gather information on humanity, preparatory to an invasion.
Interestingly, after a few weeks of undisguised hostility on his part, the creatures begin avoiding him, too. He notices that they seem to gravitate towards those who've wholly bought into this "ghost" nonsense, to glow the brightest in their presence. He just wishes he could think of a useful tactical application for this bit of observation.
He never comes up with anything, though, and neither does anyone else. And so the whole ludicrous state of affairs continues, "ghosts" appearing in their habitual places at their predictable times, day after day, until people simply begin to accept them as if they were something perfectly harmless and normal.
It makes him edgy. He finds himself jolting awake in the middle of the night, convinced that something has finally started to happen. Doris usually wakes, and sighs, and lectures him lovingly about not wearing himself out by jumping at shadows. Sometimes she even succeeds in soothing him back to sleep. And he appreciates it, truly. But as much as he loves her, he doesn't think she'll ever really understand. He isn't afraid of monsters and invasions; he never has been. What he's afraid of is that when whatever-it-is finally happens, he might miss it.
He very nearly does miss it when it happens, or at least miss being where he's likely to do any good, simply because he can't bear the thought of attending yet another briefing. They're never about strategy and tactics any more, and even the seemingly endless theorizing about the creature's origins and motivations has died down, now that even the most patently insane ideas have been analyzed into the ground. It's all about "threat assessment" levels, now: upgrading them, downgrading them, defining them... A great deal of bureaucratic nonsense, in Alistair's opinion. He's quite sure there was far less of it in his day, and he's tired of it. He's also tired from not sleeping. And he's an old man, isn't he? No one will begrudge him claiming fatigue and skipping one more pointless trip to London.
He doesn't do it, of course, tempting as it is. He might not wear the uniform any more, in his capacity as a "consultant," but he still feels the same old sense of duty. No matter how many times in his life he's told himself he's done with it.
And so, when the shoe finally drops, he's sitting in a stuffy briefing room under the Tower of London, trying desperately to stay awake as a junior officer drones on about efficiency ratings or some such thing, and discovering a new and somewhat disconcerting sympathy for all the inattentive schoolboys he once attempted to teach.
There are no ghosts in the room, of course. UNIT's long since sealed up the areas of the base where they've tended to appear. Their first indication that something's happened comes as a shout from the fellow manning the base's security cameras, followed quickly by the ringing of an alarm as they jump to alert status. Giant monitors spring to life on the walls, showing scenes of the building and the surrounding streets, streets filled with translucent forms that are now shimmering and taking the sudden solid form of--
Cybermen! The Brigadier nearly laughs. It is by no means anything he's expected, and it hardly counts as good news, but after all these weeks of ignorance and speculation, those emotionless metal faces seem almost comfortingly familiar.
The klaxon suddenly cuts off, and all at once he's surrounded with the usual organized pandemonium of an emergency military mobilization: soldiers pounding their way down the corridors, the noise of weapons being checked and orders being barked. It's all as familiar to him as the sound of his own name... except that this time he has absolutely no place in it. In moments, he's left standing alone with a handful of worried-looking civilian advisors and the small contingent of troops designated to guard the interior of the base.
His mind, however, is busy reviewing everything he knows about Cybermen, about the deployment patterns of the "ghosts," about the troop strength and manpower of UNIT... No, not simply of UNIT. Of the world. The answers are not at all encouraging. In fact, it's exceedingly clear that humanity is going to need every scrap of help it can get.
"Right," he says decisively, turning to the soldier next to him. "Corporal, give me your hat."
The young man -- correction, the very young man, and, good lord, when did UNIT start recruiting infants? -- looks at him, confused. "I'm sorry?"
"Your hat, corporal. I happen to be short a uniform at the moment, and I don't think it will do to go dashing out onto a battlefield without some sort of identifying insignia, do you?"
The corporal reaches up to touch the top of his UNIT beret uncertainly, then drops his hand back to his side. "I'm afraid I have no orders about allowing anyone here to--"
The Brigadier draws himself up to his full height, spine rigid with long-practiced military bearing, and looks down at the fellow with an expression that's served him exceedingly well over the past several decades in cowing soldiers and students alike. "Young man," he says, in a voice that goes perfectly with the look, "I was fighting against that enemy out there when your father was still in nappies. Not to be immodest, but I am very possibly the world's foremost human expert on these creatures. Now, Her Majesty's government has hired me as an alien-invasions consultant, and, by God, I am going to go out there and consult!" He holds out his hand, expectantly.
"Good lad," he says, as his fingers close around cloth. "Don't worry. I'll see that you get it back."
He does, in fact, continue to play out his role as consultant, attaching himself to the officer in charge. There is an art to telling a military commander who's not under you in a chain of command what to do. You have to make him feel like a wise and reasonable leader soliciting your good advice on his own initiative, rather than someone whose authority and intelligence are being challenged. He used to hate it when he caught people trying that on him, but he has to admit that it works.
And his advice is sound, as far as it goes. He knows these kinds of creatures, these emotionless enemies. He knows how they fight. And he knows the Cybermen particularly, knows their vulnerabilities. Unfortunately, of course, they haven't got very many. And gold bullets, when he inquires, turn out to be entirely lacking.
If his knowledge helps to save lives -- and he allows himself a bit of quiet pride at the thought that it does -- it quickly becomes clear to him that it hasn't saved them for long. The enemy is too numerous, too implacable, too strong... And the intelligence reports that are still coming in, in steadily dwindling numbers, indicate that their ranks are still growing, through means best not contemplated when one has a need to keep a clear head.
It's a hateful thing to have to admit, but it's impossible to deny: humanity is losing, not merely this battle, but the war. High-caliber weapons, careful targeting, and clever tactics can take down the Cybermen one by one, but one volley of Cyber weaponry can leave a dozen dead soldiers in its wake, or send an armored vehicle up in flames.
In the end, it comes down to an uneven contest between the enemy's inexhaustible numbers and the humans' dwindling supply of ammunition. The time for careful planning and advising from behind the lines is over. The lines are here, and there is nowhere to retreat.
The Brigadier adjusts his borrowed hat and hefts his sidearm. It won't be of any more use against these monstrosities than it ever was, of course, but it feels good in his hand, nonetheless. Like an unspoken declaration of his intent to go down fighting.
He empties the gun directly into the face of an approaching Cyberman -- a suitably defiant gesture, he thinks, and it does seem to slow it down, very slightly. For a moment he considers throwing his gold wedding ring at it, too, but he can't quite bring himself to do it. If he has to die, he would rather die wearing it.
But the blast of retaliatory fire he's expecting doesn't come. In fact, the sounds of combat are rapidly fading out all around him. The battle, it seems, is over...
And the Cybermen are taking prisoners.
A metal hand clamps down on his arm, hard enough that the gun falls from his instantly-numb fingers. Another hand grabs his shoulder, and good lord, he's supposed to be the expert, but he's forgotten how infernally strong these creatures are.
"Your resistance will cease," it says "You will be upgraded. You will become one of us."
"Over my dead body," he says. He's a little proud of the way it comes out: strong and steady, exactly the way it ought to.
The Cyberman's grotesque, immobile face is incapable of displaying an emotional reaction if it had one, and its robotic voice is utterly, horribly matter-of-fact. "Yes," it says.
The Brigadier has never been one to give in to fear, or even to acknowledge its presence, but the sudden surge of cold terror that runs through him is almost enough to bring him to his knees, if the Cyberman's steel grip on his shoulder would permit it. He closes his eyes, just for a moment, and admonishes himself to pull together, to think. If escape proves to be impossible, he will have to force it to kill him in some way that will damage his brain. They won't be able to use him, then, won't be able to make him complicit in his own species' destruction. Far better to die human in a worn-out body than to be a perfect metal monster.
The Cyberman tugs at his shoulder, doubtless preparing to march him away for conversion, and he opens his eyes, ready to watch for his chance.
What he sees makes absolutely no sense.
All around him, Cybermen are staggering and flailing, as if fighting off an unseen attack. The one holding him lets out an eerie metallic scream and lurches backward, yanked off its feet by some incredible, invisible force. It clutches at his shoulder, hard enough to send waves of pain shooting through his body and drive him to his knees after all, but its fingers finally slip free, and it flies away from him, feet-first.
Clutching his shoulder, he watches them -- hundreds of them -- falling into the sky, being sucked into what look like luminous cracks in the air, and winking out of existence. The whooshing and the screaming and the human shouts of surprise and wonder seem to go on forever, and when it finally stops, the hush is almost deafening.
"Well, Doctor," he says into the silence. "Left it a bit late this time, didn't you?"
He stands up, very carefully. His heart is beating far too fast, and possibly not in precisely the rhythm it should, his shoulder is a bruised and throbbing agony, and last year's surgery scar offers him an unpleasant twinge as he straightens.
But, all in all, he must admit, he feels rather good. He feels alive.
"Thank you, anyway," he murmurs, and he imagines the Doctor, somewhere, looking satisfied.
It takes him a while to track down the young corporal, given that he never quite caught the fellow's name, but he does eventually return the hat.
"And if I ever ask for it again," he says. "Don't give it to me. I've said it repeatedly, I know, but this time it's true: I really am too old for this sort of thing. I believe I've now officially had more than enough excitement for one lifetime. I'm going to go back to my wife and spend the rest of my days puttering about in the garden and actually getting some sleep, and, by God, I'm going to enjoy it. Tell your superiors that if they want another alien expert, I recommend looking up Liz Shaw."
He has to admit, though, he does feel just a tiny bit disappointed when he finds out that he completely missed the Daleks.