And I Shall Wait Forever
(The spiraling of winter ghosts)

I had been dead sixty one hours before I plucked up the courage to approach the Airman. He was one of the new arrivals and was going through reorientation, looking wide-eyed at everything and fielding questions from the Journalist who'd turned up out of the blue with her trademark notebook and pencil at the ready. She had an unerring knack of sniffing our new arrivals like a shark sensing blood at a distance, turning on them with a gentle ferocity and slipping in questions sharp as a knife blade between Cheshire Cat smiles. I don't know why she bothered. There were no magazines here to publish her articles, no committees to report to, no Hyde Park Corner from which to address the masses. Still she persevered with her mantra: "can you remember how you died"; "do you recognize any of the faces in the following sketches"; "what year did you come from'. Trying to make a map from the glittering facets of our unexistance, from a place whose mysteries defied unravelling. We all felt for her.

There have been a lot of servicemen here coming and going, in dribs and drabs, in small parties, in groups large enough to staff a tower block, but from his bearing I knew at once he was the definite article, the Airman, as it were. The original Captain Jack Harkness. He looked remarkably handsome for someone recently burned to death in a dogfight. I think he too was having difficulty coming to terms with this strange afterlife for he kept staring at the back of his hands every now and again, as if not quite believing they were solid. The same hands that once held my beloved.

The system is compassionately cruel: at first only sight and hearing work. You can touch and lift items but they have no temperature, no texture. Only later do the other senses slowly come back. I guess it's to hammer home the fact of your death so the shock passes sooner and you can begin to assimilate that bit faster. It always struck me as the kind of logic a machine would come up with: starting the services one by one on reboot. It's an imperfect existence for a human: without recourse to digestion or respiration, without the need for love or sex. But we are no longer human, are we? We're materiel

He'd been assigned Luke to oversee his needs. I'd known Luke only briefly when he was alive though it was still disconcerting to see his body undamaged. Limbs are replaced, naturally, but pre-death cosmetic appearance isn't normally altered. There’s no practicality in repairing all but the most debilitating scar tissue. I suppose on this occasion it was part of the bargain offered to him to join with the system. He’d regained a perfect body but now he had become much more than an ordinary man. "I am a barometer of the process," he'd said kindly, to the Airman's utter bemusement.

We're not sure what function they are supposed to perform: guards or therapists. They're easy to spot, clothed entirely in a thin mist that clings to their form like a tunic, thickening and thinning with movement – at times the only thing it shields is modesty. Whether this is out of affectation or necessity no one knows. Those of us who volunteer to change (and given the other option we all give in eventually) are never the same again. Comforting, paternalistic, but never garrulous. At any rate they’re always unfailingly willing to listen if not to answer.

Luke remained the same cheerful person he'd been in life if a trifle more obscure: "I am the judge of the change. I guide the lines that the process may continue." This made little sense to the Airman. It continues to puzzle those of us who have been through the cycle enough times to grasp an overview of our situation. Poor Luke. He’d been so positive when he was alive despite all the setbacks fortune had thrown at him. Giving up most of his humanity to serve the greater need must have been far easier than picking up a gun and becoming what he hated above all in the whole world: violent.

As the Airman had failed to identify a single one of her drawings the Journalist peeled away disappointedly and made off to a nearby group. She was forever trying to turn reality on its head and prove her world vision correct. I'd never met Him but I knew from talking to others that He could be exceptionally charismatic and she, of course, had been closer to Him than most. It’s terribly hard for people like her to accept the situation. The system isn’t tyrannical enough to force her to fight but there are only two ways out of here – becoming like Luke or choosing like me to be a foot soldier.

Sixty one hours. That was one thing about death. It gave you a very precise notion of the flow of time – though of course time itself was meaningless here. A side-effect no doubt of Their technology. We'd pilfered it at some stage – or will pilfer it (tenses become meaningless too) – from Them and adapted it to our needs. It was only fitting, I suppose, to turn Their weapons against Them.

I had perhaps a few hours left before I was called to serve again. I'd lost count of the number of times I'd died in the War. It left a narrow window of opportunity to speak to the Airman about our mutual friend. By the time I was killed again we'd be in different parts of the cycle. It could be thousands of hours before our time lines synchronised again, if ever. The isolation had its recompense: the last face to face meeting with Lisa hadn't been easy. The system hadn't bothered to remove the cyber implants – after all they did give her an edge in battle – so she's destined to spend the rest of eternity walking about in a chrome suite.

It would be easier for him I thought. He'd been trained to be a killer. I was merely an office junior, albeit in an organisation dedicated to the protection of the human race. We'd been created to deal with Him, the great enemy. The poor Airman was used to more mundane foes. Knowledge of the Time War must have been an almost impossible a concept to take in. Yet he was still a soldier at heart, bred to obey higher orders unquestioningly. He'd prefer life at the front to the long hours regenerating here.

Our sphere of operations was only a tiny theatre of the War. A mere fractal segment of a front line that spanned galaxies and aeons. I’d heard rumours of other participants: hideous alien machine-creatures without recognizable arms or legs they said. Those of us from Unit or Torchwood knew what they meant. We weren't allied with them although we made fortuitous use of their involvement. We didn't waste resources fighting the enemy of our enemy.

We fight against terrible odds, against a foe equal to the gods in Their abilities. We do what we have to to win, make use of every possible advantage at our disposal. But we are human, eternally imaginative. We created a fighting force out of men and women His action had touched. Those sad creatures whose lives He had prematurely shortened; those whom He healed, those blessed or cursed to be His companions for a time. We raised against him an army of people he'd recognise in the slim chance that would give us an advantage however small. A battalion taken from every age of the Earth's life and beyond: from the earliest fire-worshipping tribesmen to the last pure-bred human – a scrap of a creature steeped in toxic vanity and greed. The are trained in the use of weapons and sent out into the void that they may bring us victory. And when they die the system brings them back to try again. An eternal battalion.

We will win in the end. Their empire is waning, the power that once kept Them unassailable is failing. And when They fall the human race will be free to evolve, to make our own mistakes however fatal as a species they may turn out to be. Perhaps then I will be allowed to die for the last time. Sometimes I wonder how He feels. What must go through His mind as people He considered friends take arms against Him. What pressure must also come from His own people as They are attacked because of His past and future interference in our affairs. Guilt by association.

The Airman had given up trying to extract anything understandable from Luke's explanations and was staring at a gesticulating Roman general who was trying in vain to explain tactics to a man in a black eye-patch. "Captain?" I asked softly careful not to startle him.

He slowly turned to face me. "My name is Yan," I said. "I believe we had a friend in common."