Characters: Ianto, Jack, Tosh.
Word Count: 1541
Summary: Torchwood and mysteries go hand in hand. One of the best parts of Ianto’s job is trying to figure out the things that fall through the Rift.
Written For: Challenge 252: Key at fan_flashworks. Also for the ‘Paper’ square on my bingo card.
Disclaimer: I don’t own Torchwood, or the characters.
Mysteries were among the things Torchwood did best. Half of the things that fell through the Rift were so strange that no one could make more than an educated guess as to what they might be, but to Ianto’s mind half the fun of the job was trying to figure things out. He spent hours while working in the archives speculating on the identity and purpose of the various objects he was cataloguing, then more time discussing his theories either with Jack, or with Tosh.
Sometimes Jack would know what the mysterious object really was, and after listening to Ianto’s ramblings would laugh and burst his bubble, other times Ianto would be proved right, but on many occasions his theories would remain just that, with nobody able to prove or disprove them. That was okay though; as often as not the reality was less interesting than the possibilities he came up with.
He’d been studying this mysterious item on and off for months, with occasional input from Jack and Tosh. At first glance it seemed to be a book, about the size of one of those glossy coffee table volumes. Its pages were of the thinnest, smoothest paper he’d ever seen, but could be neither creased nor torn. They were also almost transparent so that the writing on each side showed through on the other, and in fact you could look practically right through all the forty-two pages at once to the back cover, the writing appearing as nothing more than blurred lines.
It looked to be handwritten rather than printed, a flowing script that was in no language Jack could identify. Not even Tosh’s translation programmes could make any sense of it.
“Maybe it’s a code of some kind,” she’d suggested, switching to another set of programmes, designed to crack every cipher Torchwood had ever come across, but still the book had held tightly to its secrets. After several days she’d finally admitted defeat. “There are two possibilities; either it’s in a very obscure language we’ve never seen before, or it’s in a code we can’t crack unless we find the key.” She’d smiled sympathetically at her friend. “This might just be one of the mysteries we’re destined never to solve.”
“Perhaps,” Ianto had agreed. “But that doesn’t mean I have to stop trying.”
So that was what he was still doing, whenever he could spare the time, because there was one other mysterious aspect to the book for him to explore, namely its cover. It was ridiculously thick for such a slim volume, the front cover alone having more than twice the depth of the rest of the book, and was made of something resembling wood, although the scans Owen had done on it revealed that it was more like horn. Despite its size and its unreasonably elaborate binding, the whole book weighed no more than an average hardback novel, yet its cover was so strong that no matter how hard he’d tried, Owen had been unable to chip or scrape a fragment off for more thorough analysis. In fact he’d broken a scalpel trying.
While the back cover was smooth, without texture, and perhaps four millimetres thick, the front cover had a thickness of just over three centimetres, and was also heavily carved. Not only that, but it was made up of small segments in an assortment of random shapes that fitted together a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, and every single one of them moved. Press one down and several others got taller, or shorter. It was as addictive as any of Erno Rubik’s fiendish puzzles so Ianto had left it on his workbench in the area of the archives he’d dubbed his office, and would often sit there getting on with other work and intermittently poking at the book’s cover. He didn’t know what the aim of the puzzle was, for all he knew it could be an alien game and the book’s pages might hold the instructions on how to play it, but what he wanted was to try and get all the pieces to the same height so he could clearly see the patterns carved on it. Maybe they’d give him a clue to the book’s contents.
There were four hundred and twenty pieces altogether, arranged roughly in columns although the number of pieces in each column varied. With a lot of trial and error, and thanks to his excellent memory, Ianto gradually became familiar with the effect pressing each segment had on the other pieces, and three months after the book fell through the Rift, he had five separate sections of the cover nice and flat, aside from the carved design etched into them. He still couldn’t make out what, if anything, it depicted, but he was making slow progress.
Another six weeks found two of his completed sections now joined together and another section taking shape. The puzzle was becoming an obsession for Ianto, and more than once Jack had to forcibly drag him away from it or he would have spent all night playing with it. Still, the further along he got with it the faster the segments settled into place until there were only three of them too high, and four too low. The last bit was tricky because it meant raising and lowering segments already in place to adjust the last seven, then getting them to go back where they belonged, but at last he pressed one final segment and…
A shallow drawer slid out of the book’s front cover. Inside was a single sheet of stiff, opaque paper, the key to the whole mysterious book! When laid behind each of the book’s pages, the markings on it combined with the writing on both sides of the page to make it readable, if you happened to know Hamarthen. Ianto didn’t, but he could recognise the language when he saw it, and he happened to be in possession of a Hamarthen to Galactic Standard dictionary, one of the more useful reference books that had fallen through the Rift over the years. Fetching it from the shelf behind his desk, he settled down to begin translating, first to Galactic Standard, and then to English. It was a slow and tedious process, but he was so close to unravelling the mystery of the book completely that he wasn’t about to stop until he succeeded.
Coming up into the Hub some hours later, he found Jack and Tosh were the only two people there, the others having already left for the night, but that was okay; they were the only two who’d appreciate his discovery anyway.
“I’ve solved the puzzle and deciphered the book!” he announced, waving said book in one hand and a sheaf of printer paper in the other.
“Finally!” Jack said. “Does that mean I don’t have to compete with it for your attention anymore?”
“Don’t tell me you’ve been jealous of a book.”
“You’ve been obsessed with that thing for months,” Jack grumbled. “I feel like I’ve hardly seen you!”
Ianto rolled his eyes. “If they gave awards for exaggeration, you’d take the gold.”
“You really know what the book says?” Tosh interrupted eagerly.
“Yep!” Her friend beamed at her.
“So what is it?”
“Life, the universe, and everything!” Ianto announced grandly.
Tosh looked awed. “The ultimate secret to existence?” she asked breathlessly.
“No, sorry.” Ianto’s lips twitched into a wry smile. “Just Douglas Adams Hitchhikers novels, abridged and translated into Hamarthen, but the way it was protected, written in code, the key locked in an elaborate puzzle box… Anyone would think it contained valuable secrets or something of religious significance.”
“Religions have been founded on stranger things,” Jack said with a grin. “Books get out into space, find their way to other worlds, and sometimes the locals ascribe a greater significance to them than their contents merits. I met a primitive tribe once who worshipped a Denobrian cookery book. Of course they couldn’t read a word of it, but it was their most valued religious artefact.”
“So you think the Hamarthens believe Hitchhikers Guide and its sequels tell a factual story?” Tosh asked.
“Maybe, or it could be a joke. Who knows?” Jack turned to Ianto. “What about the carving on the front?”
Putting his printed out translation on Tosh’s desk, Ianto turned the book so the other two could see the cover. On it was carved in loving detail a pair of mice, standing on their hind legs and holding a copy of the book between them. “My money’s on it being a joke.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” Jack said mysteriously. “Have you ever met a Hamarthen?”
Ianto shook his head. “No. As far as I known we’ve never had one come through the Rift. Even London didn’t have any information on them; a few bits of their technology and some examples of their language, which they never had much success with translating, but no pictures or other images.”
“Well, I’ve met a few, even been to Hamartha, a very long time ago. They’re pleasant folks, highly intelligent, and a very advanced race by our standards, but they happen to bear a striking resemblance to white mice. Make of that what you will.”