Characters: Ianto, Jack, Meriel.
Word Count: 1953
Summary: Ianto has found a book in the archives unlike any book he’s ever seen before; he just wishes he could read it.
Content Notes: None needed.
Written For: Challenge 248: Book at fan_flashworks.
Disclaimer: I don’t own Torchwood, or the characters.
Suzie always used to complain that the Rift never brought them anything good, just the trash that the rest of the universe had discarded for one reason or another. Weevils, broken things, stuff nobody wanted; the detritus of countless worlds she’d never see. It had made her bitter and disillusioned, warped her mind. Ianto had at times almost felt sorry for her, although in his opinion the main problem wasn’t so much in the items the Rift gifted them with as it was in Suzie’s negative attitude towards them.
Yes, they got a lot of random objects from past, present, and future, from earth and from other planets. Yes, quite a lot of it arrived damaged or even broken beyond repair, the Rift wasn’t exactly a gentle means of transport, but to Ianto’s mind, and to Tosh’s, that didn’t make what it brought them any less fascinating.
For Tosh, the pleasure was in figuring out the broken devices and fragments of alien tech, discovering where they’d come from, what they were designed for, and whenever possible, how to fix them. Ianto’s interests were less specific; he was more intent on discovering what he could about the beings who’d created the various items. It didn’t matter to him whether they were some sort of advanced technology or if they were merely ornaments, toys, musical instruments, kitchen implements… They all provided insight into the day-to-day lives of sentient races inhabiting distant planets. Suzie simply didn’t think big enough, she wanted things that could be instantly understood and immediately made use of. She was impatient to reap the rewards of whatever they found. The only thing she ever had anything resembling patience for was the glove, and look how disastrously her obsession with that had turned out.
Contrary to what Suzie had thought, Torchwood did get a great many useful things, but they had to be identified, figured out, and usually repaired before Torchwood could benefit from them, and few of them had any chance of making a significant contribution to the planet at the present time. Advances in technology had to happen at the right moment, otherwise timelines would get messed up and the future might not happen the way it was supposed to. In some ways, Torchwood’s most important job was to ensure that everything happened when and how the future indicated it had, or would, depending on your point of view. It was… complicated.
So while Tosh puzzled over intriguing pieces of alien tech, Owen delighted in the medical and diagnostic devices the tech genius managed to decipher and repair, and Jack took charge of weapons and anything that might possibly have something to do with sex, everything else was Ianto’s responsibility. In his humble opinion the archives contained an embarrassment of riches.
The latest item to catch his eye as he sorted and catalogued their varied contents was a book, a massive tome bound in some kind of shimmery blue synthetic fabric. The pages were of a smooth substance with a texture similar to that of plastic, thin and flexible, yet impossible to crease, and each one was a story, or perhaps a chapter of a story. As he turned each page, words flowed across the surface, slowly enough to be read if only he knew the language. The text was accompanied by moving pictures, making him feel like he was watching a movie with subtitles in a foreign language.
He’d tried to scan a few pages but it didn’t work because both pictures and text were in constant motion. That hampered his attempts to translate the words too; they didn’t stay still long enough for him to copy them into a notepad. It made the book frustrating but endlessly tantalising.
About the only thing he could be sure of was that the language was neither Galactic Standard nor any earth language he’d ever come across, which made sense, because the world the moving pictures showed was nothing like earth and the people were not even remotely human. For one thing they were pale green and roughly cone-shaped, with writhing multicoloured filaments sticking out of the pointed tops of their bodies above a single unblinking yellow eye. Below the eye there was a toothless mouth containing a prehensile tongue, but he couldn’t see anything resembling a nose or ears. Perhaps these beings heard and smelt by some other method. Four stubby legs protruded from the aliens’ flat undersides, each one ending in a three-toed foot, while two ridiculously long, flexible arms stuck out about level with the mouth, one from each side of the body, ending in hands that looked like bunches of short tentacles, able to bend in any direction. Ianto had seen a lot of bizarre aliens in his time with Torchwood, but these took the prize. They reminded him a little of characters in the Mr Men books.
Sitting at his desk in the archives, Ianto turned the pages slowly, watching whatever story was being told play out before his eyes. Sometimes there was a single alien, sometimes several of different sizes, perhaps a family unit. Other creatures featured occasionally, and there were things Ianto assumed were plant life. The beings lived in buildings that looked a bit like massive toadstools, with a triangular front door, and a staircase that wound around the inside of the toadstool’s stalk, passing through holes in the ceiling of each level to reach the one above. A central support column held a fireplace on each level and doubled as a chimney, the smoke escaping through a hole in the centre of the roof.
The aliens were clearly vegetarians, and often appeared to be gardening or farming, planting crops or harvesting them. Their lives seemed peaceful and happy, almost idyllic, and the weather was mainly fine, a pale yellow sun shining in a pastel green sky during the day, while three moons and countless stars shone by night. The strange beings never seemed bothered when it rained, they didn’t wear any kind of clothing and water just ran off their bodies as if their skin was rainproof. In several scenes they appeared to be dancing around, splashing in puddles, and having a good time. Ianto almost envied them; they were so carefree. It must be nice to live on a world where everybody got along and helped each other.
“So this is where you disappeared to.” Jack said, appearing in what passed for the doorway. “You’ve been down here for hours; everyone else has gone home. What’s got you so fascinated?”
“I found a book…”
“I can see that.”
“It’s amazing, Jack! The pictures and the text move, but I can’t really understand the story because I don’t know what language it’s written in. I’m not sure if it’s a novel or what.”
“Moving pictures, huh?” Wandering across Ianto’s office space and around the desk, Jack leaned over his lover’s shoulder to peer at the book and gave a delighted laugh.
“What?” Ianto twisted in his seat to look up at his lover.
“It’s The Zurms!”
“Zurms? Is that what these aliens are? Do you know their language?” Ianto asked excitedly.
Jack shifted to perch on the edge of the desk, the way Ianto usually did when they were in Jack’s office. “I hate to have to tell you this, but the Zurms don’t have a language.”
“They don’t?” Ianto sounded disappointed. “I thought every alien race had its own language.”
“Aliens do, but The Zurms aren’t real people. Sorry to shatter your illusions but they’re characters in a series of children’s stories.”
“Oh.” Ianto looked at the pictures again and then smiled sheepishly up at Jack. “I should probably have figured that out for myself; everything in their world is just so perfect…”
“Like a lot of children’s books they’re meant to teach important life lessons, like sharing, and being kind to each other, and doing what their parents tell them to. I used to read the stories when I was a kid. Haven’t thought about them in forever.”
Ianto grabbed onto that. “So if you used to read them, you must know what language this is, right?”
“Nope, sorry, no idea, but it doesn’t matter. The Zurms stories were popular on hundreds of planets, but it was too much trouble to publish different editions for each planet, so an inventor came up with a brilliant idea: intelligent paper. Well, it’s not exactly paper, the books are more like very advanced computers. Here, let me just…” Jack flipped back to the beginning of the book. Inside the cover was a panel with writing in it, in the same language as the book’s text. Placing his hand over the panel, Jack held in there for maybe thirty seconds and when he took it away, the panel was blank.
Ianto stared at it. “What did you just do?”
“Reset function. Now…” Jack picked up one of Ianto’s pens, and leaving the nib retracted, wrote inside the panel in Galactic Standard. The words appeared as if by magic. “That should be enough.” He turned to the first story and after a moment words began to scroll slowly across the page below the pictures once more, but this time in a language Ianto could read and understand.
Ianto’s face lit up. “That’s amazing! Can it do that with any language?”
“Any that it’s been programmed with.”
“So not earth languages then.”
“Not yet, no, but you’ve still got the English / Galactic Standard dictionary the Doctor had the TARDIS create for you, right?” In reality it was less of a book and more of a mini handheld computer.
“Of course I have.”
“There should be a universal socket concealed in the book’s spine. Just plug the dictionary into it and leave it overnight; by morning if you want to you’ll be able to select English as your language of choice.”
“I think I may just do that. It might only be a collection of children’s stories, but this is by far the most amazing book I’ve ever come across.”
“Some day centuries into the future, there’ll be a lot of books like this, most of them for children.”
“Lucky kids, growing up with such treasures.”
Jack stood up, putting his hand on Ianto’s shoulder. “Come on. Since the others have left for the night I was going to order in something for dinner so think about what you’d like. And bring the book with you; we can read it together while we eat.”
Laughing, Ianto did as he was told, following Jack towards the stairs up to the main Hub, the book tucked in the crook of his arm.
Time passed, and a few years later the wonderful book gained a brand new fan.
“Time for bed, sweetheart. What story would you like to hear tonight?”
“Zurms, please Taddy!” the little girl said eagerly.
Meriel nodded. “Uh huh! The one with the Ziggles.”
“Okay then, if you insist. Let’s get you bathed and into bed and then we’ll read all about the day the Zurms met the Ziggles.”
Ianto scooped his daughter up and tucked her under one arm before heading for the bathroom, where Jack was running her evening bubble bath. He and Jack had both read the Zurms book to their little girl so many times they could recite it word for word, and Meriel knew it almost as well as they did, but like a lot of small children she loved the familiarity and never tired of hearing the stories over and over again. As much as he liked the Zurms himself, sometimes Ianto wished his daughter would ask him to read her something else. Ah well, there was always tomorrow.