Characters: Owen, Ianto, Jack, Tosh, Gwen, OC.
Word Count: 3917
Summary: A trip out into the countryside searching for the source of strange readings Tosh has been picking up leads to the team becoming not only the hunters but also the hunted.
Written For: spook_me 2017, using, Scarecrow.
Disclaimer: Sadly, I don’t own Torchwood, or the characters. Think of the fun I could have with them…
Owen hadn’t been fond of the countryside even before the whole debacle with the cannibals. For a city boy like him, the wide-open, empty spaces, devoid of people and buildings, seemed unnatural and eerie, even in broad daylight. After dark, it was so much worse and he was buggered if he knew why he’d agreed to come out here in the first place.
Oh, right. Jack hadn’t given him a choice. Just told him to stop whingeing and get in the car because he was coming whether he liked it or not, and it was his choice as to whether he rode comfortably in the back seat or trussed up in the boot with the rest of the team’s equipment. Bastard.
It had still been light when they’d arrived in the middle of nowhere, and how Ianto had known exactly when they got wherever they were going, with nothing but fields in every direction, was beyond Owen. He hadn’t even been using the SatNav, and yet he’d pulled confidently off the road onto a convenient patch of grass by a gate, turned off the ignition, and announced, “We’re here.” Maybe he had satellite navigation built in. Wouldn’t surprise Owen in the slightest; there’d always been something a bit off about the Teaboy.
Anyway, it had already been mid-afternoon of a late October day, the sun would be setting not long after six, and that left them maybe two and a half hours to find whatever it was they were looking for before it got too dark to see. Lovely.
The sky was overcast, as it so often was, which meant it would get dark more quickly, so they needed to get a move on, but they were hampered by not having any clear idea of what was out here, or precisely where it was. They knew it hadn’t come via the Rift, which didn’t stretch this far beyond the city limits, and anyway, the Rift monitor hadn’t registered an alert. But Tosh kept her eye on Cardiff and its surrounding by other means as well, namely tapping into various satellite feeds, and she’d picked up something odd a couple of nights ago, a flare of bright light followed by some unusual energy readings somewhere in the vicinity, presumably, of where they were now parked. As if that hadn’t been enough to get Torchwood’s attention, the police started getting calls the next morning from farmers in the same area about livestock either completely missing or found dead, badly mutilated, and mostly eaten.
Owen couldn’t for the life of him understand why anyone, or anything, in their right mind would want to be out here. If he had his choice, he’d be somewhere else, preferably in a city, surrounded by people, and with plenty of alcohol readily to hand. In his opinion, the dead animals were probably the result of wild dogs, or foxes, or poachers. That was way more likely than some kind of alien with a taste for raw cow.
Across the narrow, winding country lane from where they’d parked in the gateway, fields divided by hedgerows stretched to the horizon. The ones closest were empty of visible life, but farther off Owen could make out cows and the fluffy white blobs of sheep.
On their side of the road, the fields were given over to crops, vast swathes of some kind of grain, wheat, or corn, or maybe barley, waiting to be harvested. Wasn’t it a bit late in the year for that? Owen wasn’t sure, but they’d passed a lot of fields of stubble on their way. Maybe these had been left for the birds or something, but if that was the case, then why all the scarecrows? He could count at least ten of them, dotted around amidst the tall, golden stems, the blustery wind blowing their tattered garments this way and that. They didn’t seem to be doing a very good job of keeping the crows away though; dozens of the big black birds were flapping about and perching atop the poles the scarecrows hung from, cawing raucously and pecking savagely at the straw-stuffed effigies.
Well aware of the extent of the task that lay ahead of them, Jack wasted no time in issuing instructions, sending each member of his team off in a different direction in order to cover as much ground as possible while they still had daylight on their side. They were all experienced, well armed, and would be keeping in touch over their Bluetooth headsets so they could call for help if they encountered anything they couldn’t handle by themselves, but being sent off alone in such an alien environment didn’t sit well with Owen; it put him way outside his comfort zone. Nevertheless, he wasn’t about to protest and have everyone laughing at him for being too scared to walk all by his lonesome through a field in daylight, even though he was packing a powerful handgun with which to defend himself. He did have some pride.
The search proved tedious from the start; the team’s scanners, usually so reliable, seemed confused, unable to pinpoint the source of the odd readings Tosh’s programs had registered two nights earlier, only indicating that it was definitely on this side of the road, and somewhere within an area of approximately one and a half hectares. Owen quickly became frustrated. Bad enough they had to be way out in the middle of nowhere in the first place, but their equipment playing up was just adding insult to injury.
As the afternoon wore on towards evening, Owen and the rest of the team traipsed through field after field, waving their scanners around to no avail; it was like trying to track a ghost. They scared up a lot of birds, some wild mice and other small creatures, and even startled the occasional napping fox, but other than that they found no trace of anything, either living or inanimate. And all the time, the scarecrows loomed above them on their posts. They were seriously creepy, dressed in rags that would flutter in the slightest breeze, and Owen did his best to avoid looking at them. More than once he caught sight of movement from the corner of his eye and all but jumped out of his skin, spinning around, gun aimed, to find it was only a scrap of loose black fabric flapping about, not some unknown menace creeping up on him.
By five-thirty, the sun was well down the sky, and the shadows were lengthening. Daylight wouldn’t last much longer; already their surroundings were growing indistinct and half an hour or so later, as the sun began to sink below the horizon, Jack ordered everyone back to the SUV.
“About bloody time,” Owen grumbled to himself. “What a waste of an afternoon.” He was tired, hungry, and his feet hurt; it would be good to get back to civilisation where he could pop into his favourite pub for pie and chips and a few beers. He’d more than earned it with this wild goose chase. He struck out back the way he’d come with considerably more enthusiasm than he’d shown thus far, a smile on his face and thoughts of the evening ahead buoying his steps.
Sadly for him, his jubilation turned out to be short-lived.
“The readings are getting stronger the darker it gets,” Tosh announced as they all clustered around the SUV, drinking coffee and eating the sandwiches Ianto had packed for them before leaving the Hub.
“Makes sense in a way,” Jack said. “You picked them up after dark in the first place; maybe whatever we’re looking for is nocturnal and hibernates during the day, not generating much in the way of life signs.”
“Maybe,” Tosh agreed. “At any rate, we’ll probably have a better chance of finding this creature, or creatures, now.”
“What, you mean we’re not going home?” Owen could scarcely believe his ears.
“Of course not,” Jack said firmly. “We haven’t found what we’re looking for yet and we’re not going back to Cardiff until we do. Something’s killing animals out here, and judging by the pictures Tosh pulled off the police servers, it’s nothing of earth origin. That puts it squarely in our jurisdiction, which mean we’ll continue our search for as long as it takes; all night if we have to.”
“The downside of that being that we’re significantly more vulnerable in the dark, especially against something nocturnal,” Ianto pointed out. “We should stick together in pairs.”
“You seriously expect us to go out there again at night?” Owen decided he didn’t care if he sounded a bit freaked out, because he was.
“Scared of the dark, Owen?” Gwen teased.
“No, I’m scared of what’s out there hiding in the dark. Whatever it is, it likes its meat raw and bloody; remember? I don’t especially want to become some carnivorous alien’s dinner. Do you?” That shut her up, and she seemed to lose her appetite, abandoning the sandwich she’d been eating. Owen smirked behind her back; score one for Dr. Harper.
As soon as everyone had finished eating, Ianto stowed the leftover food back in the alien tech-powered cooler that lived in the boot, in case anyone got hungry again later, then passed out powerful lanterns and torches, which gave Owen something else to complain about.
“How are we supposed to carry all these as well as our scanners and weapons? I’m not an octopus; I’ve only got the two hands!”
Ianto rolled his eyes as if he couldn’t believe how thick Owen was. “We’re working in pairs, remember? Torches go in pockets, in case they’re needed when we locate what we’re looking for. One person has a scanner, the other carries the lantern, and both of you keep your guns at the ready.” He frowned. “Why do I even need to explain this?” he asked the darkness.
“Wait a minute,” Gwen butted in, “how can we work in pairs when there’s five of us? Someone’s going to be left over, and no way am I going out there on my own!”
Owen snorted. “Now who’s afraid of the dark?”
Gwen swatted him with one hand. “Shut up!”
“Children!” Jack put a stop to the argument before it could go any further. “Settle down. Gwen, you’ll be with Tosh and Owen. One scanner,” he pointed at Tosh, “and two lanterns. Ianto and I will pair up. We won’t be able to cover as much ground as quickly as before, but as Ianto pointed out, the darkness puts us at a disadvantage. We all need someone to cover our backs.”
“Yeah, right,” Owen drawled, “guess that means the three of us will be doing all the work while you two are off canoodling in the corn.”
“Grow up, Owen,” Ianto sighed wearily. “There’s something out here that might well be ripping livestock apart; this is hardly a suitable place or time for ‘canoodling’ as you so charmingly put it. I’ve no more desire to become something’s dinner than you do.”
“Keep your comms switched to receive and shout out if you find anything,” was the final advice Jack gave his team before they went their separate ways, Jack and Ianto going left while Owen, with Tosh and Gwen in tow, turned right just inside the first field. Not that Owen felt it had been necessary for him to say anything; they were all capable Torchwood field agents and knew what they were doing, but Jack always had to have the last word.
Searching the fields in the deepening darkness, with only their lanterns for illumination, was so much creepier than it had been in daylight. Even the scarecrows, which had been unnerving enough by day, gained an additional aura of menace. Owen had never liked scarecrows anyway; they were the stuff of late-night horror movies, and had provided plenty of fuel for his nightmares when he was growing up. Maybe he shouldn’t have been watching those movies in the first place, but then his mother had never cared enough to stop him, so he figured it was as much her fault as his own. Scarecrows just gave him one more reason to hate the countryside, as if he didn’t have more than enough of those already.
Tosh kept her head lowered, watching her scanner, while Owen and Gwen flanked her, their guns at the ready and their eyes constantly searching the darkness beyond the pool of light cast by their lanterns. There was no sound aside from their footsteps, their breathing, the rustle of small animals, and the occasional mournful hoot of an owl. Even the breeze had dropped to nothing as night fell, and somehow that made the air feel oppressive despite the chill that was setting in now that the sun had set.
“Picking up anything?” For the life of him, Owen couldn’t have said why he was whispering; it just seemed wise not to draw undue attention to themselves.
“Not really,” Tosh murmured in reply. “It’s weird; the readings are getting stronger, but I can’t pinpoint the source, like it’s everywhere and nowhere at the same time.”
“It’s spooky.” Gwen glanced nervously over her shoulder yet again. Despite teasing Owen earlier about being scared of the dark she was jumpy and on edge, wishing she could be anywhere other than the middle of an un-harvested field at night. Chasing Weevils through the dark alleys of Cardiff was less nerve-racking than this. She shifted her lantern into her right hand, gripping it awkwardly because of her gun, and reached up to her Bluetooth earpiece with her left, clicking the tiny button to transmit. “Jack?” Her voice wasn’t much above a whisper either.
“Gwen, you find anything?”
The sound of Jack’s voice in her ear was strangely reassuring, even though he and Ianto must be well over a mile away by now. “No, not yet. Just checking in. Tosh says whatever her scanner is picking up, it’s like it’s nowhere in particular but everywhere at once. Makes it hard to home in on anything.”
“Ianto’s having the same problem. Just keep searching; whatever it is, it’s definitely out here somewhere.”
“Will do. Be careful.”
“Aren’t I always?”
Gwen could practically see Jack’s wide, cocky smile and she huffed a brief laugh as she heard Ianto’s voice chime in dryly in the background, “Not noticeably, no.” She clicked out and shifted her lantern back into her left hand again.
Following Tosh’s lead, the three moved slowly deeper into the field. Thanks to the meandering course they were taking, by this point Owen couldn’t have said which direction the road was, never mind the SUV, even if his life depended on it. He hoped they wouldn’t have to beat a hasty retreat, because as things were, they’d probably end up running around in circles. What if they never found their way out and their bones were discovered months, or years from now, stripped clean by predators…? He quickly shut down that line of thought; it wasn’t helping his nerves.
How much time passed, none of them could say for sure, but at some point the moon rose, huge and full, like a silvery balloon floating against the black backdrop of the night sky. The extra light was welcome, even though it created shadows where there hadn’t previously been any.
Their breath steamed in front of them. Owen’s feet were getting cold; he wished he was wearing something more substantial than trainers, but he hadn’t really expected to still be out here after dark. At least he had gloves on so his fingers wouldn’t go numb. It wouldn’t be good if they got attacked and his hands were so cold that he couldn’t pull the trigger.
It must have been getting on for ten when things started to take a turn for the worse. Passing one of the many posts that supported the overabundance of scarecrows, Gwen stopped dead as her two teammates continued on. “Owen?” she called nervously.
“What?” He glanced back over his shoulder.
“Why isn’t there a scarecrow on this post?”
He sighed, exasperated. “How should I know? Maybe the farmer didn’t have enough to go around, or maybe it fell off, or got stolen. What does it matter? We’ve got a job to do; a missing scarecrow is the last thing we need to worry about, so come on. Don’t want to be out here all night, do you?”
Gwen shook her head and hurried to catch up, putting the missing scarecrow out of her mind for the moment, but a few minutes later, as they continued to make their way through the tall stems of whatever crop this was, they came to another post, and there was no scarecrow on that one either.
“Coincidence,” Owen asserted stubbornly, urging the girls ahead of him and glancing nervously back the way they’d come. “It’s just a coincidence, okay?”
Two might have been a coincidence, but three in a row? The three teammates clustered around the base of the third empty post, keeping their backs to it and looking around warily. After a moment of not seeing anything else untoward, Tosh turned to the post, playing her scanner over it.
“I never noticed before, but the residual readings around the posts are a little stronger than the ambient,” she murmured.
“What does that even mean?” Owen spared her the briefest of glances.
“I can’t say for certain, but maybe something was here that was masking itself,” Tosh said, “and considering the size of the area I’ve been picking up readings from, that could mean quite a lot of somethings.” She looked up at the empty post.
“The scarecrows?” Gwen asked.
“I don’t know, but… It’s possible what we assumed were ordinary scarecrows might not really be scarecrows at all.”
“Shit!” Owen cursed. He juggled lantern and gun, reaching to tap his Bluetooth on. “Jack?”
“Are you two noticing a lot of empty posts where the scarecrows were earlier?”
“Huh. Now that you mention it, we did pass an empty post a minute ago. Didn’t think anything of it.”
“Yeah, well we’ve found three empty in the last ten minutes, and I couldn’t swear to it, but I have a horrible feeling they were occupied last time we passed this way.”
“Okay, so not scarecrows then?”
“That’s what Tosh thinks.”
In another field a mile and a half away from Owen and the girls, Jack and Ianto shifted to stand back-to-back, so nothing could sneak up behind either of them.
“Did anyone happen to count the scarecrows earlier?” Ianto asked, joining the conversation.
“No, but I’m starting to think that might have been wise,” Jack said.
“At a rough estimate, somewhere between fifteen and twenty I think,” Tosh cut in. “Sorry I can’t be more accurate.” She sounded apologetic, as if she felt she’d somehow let them down. “I should have thought to log their positions before we started our search, if only for their potential as landmarks.”
“Not your fault, Tosh. We didn’t know they were what we were looking for,” Jack replied. “If we had, we’d be back in Cardiff by now. Anyway, we had no reason to suspect them. Seeing scarecrows in a field of corn isn’t the kind of thing that’s going to set the alarm bells ringing.”
“I guess you’re right.”
“So what now?” Owen asked.
“Last night they went after nearby livestock to eat,” Gwen said. “They’ll probably do the same thing tonight. We should head back and check out the fields across the road.”
Owen shook his head. “You’re forgetting one thing.”
“They have a source of fresh meat available a lot closer than the cows and sheep over the road.”
Gwen looked vaguely puzzled. “They do?”
“He means us,” Tosh said quietly.
“Best thing we can do is keep moving,” Jack said firmly. “Standing still like this we’re sitting ducks.”
“Or standing ducks,” Ianto muttered.
“Maybe we should head back towards the SUV though,” Owen suggested. “It’s more defensible than being out on the open. We can regroup there and with any luck, these creatures, whatever they are, will come to us.”
“We’re closer to each other than we are to the SUV,” Ianto disagreed. “Might be best to work our way towards each other, then head for the road once we’re all together.”
“Ianto’s right,” Jack agreed. “Strength in numbers. Just keep your eyes open, guns at the ready, and watch your backs.”
“Don’t need to tell us that,” Owen griped. “We’re not new to this and we’re, not idiots. Okay, let’s move out. Gwen, take point. Tosh, you’re in the middle and I’ll bring up the rear.”
“Which way do we go?” Gwen asked uncertainly, looking around.
“That way.” Tosh looked up from the PDA she’d pulled from her coat pocket and pointed. “I can home in on Jack’s wrist strap with this and keep us on the right track.”
Somewhere far off among the tall plants, Jack was using his wrist strap to home in on the other members of his team and the two small groups began to wend their way cautiously towards each other through the eerie, moonlit landscape.
They’d been walking for maybe ten minutes before Owen’s group became aware of faint rustling noises among the tall stems to one side of them. Gwen automatically started to veer in the opposite direction, away from the sounds, hoping to elude whatever was creeping towards them.
“Stay on course, Gwen,” Tosh snapped.
“Stay on course! Whatever’s out there could be trying to drive us into a trap, but we’re not going to be spooked and herded like animals; we’re armed and we can defend ourselves if need be so just ignore the noises and keep going straight ahead.”
Biting her lip, Gwen changed direction again, resuming her previous course and forging onwards. After only a few more paces they could hear the faint sounds of movement coming from both sides and glancing back the way they’d come, Owen thought he caught a glimpse of a shadowy figure flitting across the narrow track they were creating as they walked.
“Jack? Sounds like we’re surrounded,” he whispered into his Bluetooth, having nudged the button with one knuckle of the hand holding the lantern.
“Same here.” Jack kept his voice just as quiet and low. “Should reach you in another fifteen to twenty minutes.”
“A lot can happen in twenty minutes.”
“Nothing we can’t handle.” Jack’s confidence bolstered Owen’s, which had been starting to flag a little.
“Right. They try anything they won’t know what hit ‘em.”
“That’s the spirit.”
“A little bothered they might try to sneak up behind me. This is one of those times I could really use eyes in the back of my head.”
“Been there, done that,” Ianto said quietly. “Not as helpful as it sounds, it gets seriously disorienting looking in two directions at once, especially if you’re trying to walk at the same time.”
Owen snorted. “I remember. Gave yourself a concussion, didn’t you?”
“If you think double vision is bad, you should try quadruple vision.”
“No thanks; think I’ll pass.” The banter helped, not distracting Owen, whose eyes never stopped their scrutiny of his surroundings, but calming him with its sheer normality in the middle of a stressful situation. Ianto was surprisingly good at defusing tension with a perfectly timed quip. It was one of the qualities Owen appreciated most in the other man.
TBC in Part 2