Unfinished Business, Doctor Who, Dr. Who, Chris Eccleston, Christopher Eccleston, Doctor who Fiction

Back home in London in the 23rd century, it was winter and raining. But Sukie stepped out of her brother’s TARDIS into a spring day in the 26th century. Chris and Davie flanked her as they walked along a path between blossoming lilac bushes and flowering cherries.

“Your TARDIS disguised itself as a portaloo again,” she teased Davie. “It always does that when it comes to the park.”

“I know,” he responded. “I am not sure whether it has a wicked sense of humour or a defective chameleon circuit!”

They all laughed. What the Chinese TARDIS chose to look like wasn’t really important, anyway. Not for Sukie, at least. She listened to her two brothers repeat again the list of rules she had to obey absolutely if she was going to be allowed this very special treat.

“Don’t worry,” she assured them. “We’re not going to elope or something.”

“I never even considered that,” Chris said with a worried glance at his twin. “She’s only thirteen. But in the century Earl plans to take her she’s old enough to get married. You don’t suppose that’s his plan?”

“He wouldn’t dare,” Davie answered. “He knows we’d track him through time and space with a vengeance hotter than hell, and then bring him to see DAD. An angry Scotsman is about the most terrifying thing on this planet.”

Sukie was worried, now.

“Earl isn’t going to do anything bad. He just wants me to come with him on one of his research trips into the past history of his home town. He’s done loads of trips since his birthday, when he got his time car. But he says it’s not as much fun as he thought it would be on his own. And he knows the rules. Besides, if I’m not ever going to be a Time Lord, I’ll never have a TARDIS of my own. And travelling with Earl is the only chance I’ll get.”

“Emotional blackmail,” Chris noted.

“Absolutely blatant,” Davie agreed. “Do you think we ought to call this off?”

Sukie was so outraged by that suggestion she couldn't speak, but she made up for it in her telepathic protests.

“All, right, enough,” Chris told her. “Earl is a transcended Time Lord now, after all. We can trust him.”

Sukie smiled brightly at her two brothers. Then she smiled even more brightly at the young man who waved to her from the top of a flight of steps. She ran ahead and was at the top before her brothers. But there were still rules to obey and transcended Time Lord or not, Earl was just a little bit scared of Chris and Davie.

He shook hands with her.

“Nice dress,” he said to her with a bright smile. Sukie beamed. She had gone to some trouble with her outfit. It was a red and yellow floral Empire dress that gathered just below her bustline and fell in soft flutes to her ankles. She had a lace parasol and a matching bonnet that framed her face.

Earl looked handsome in maroon breeches, an embroidered waistcoat over a frilled white undershirt and a matching jacket. Sukie tried not to let her brothers see how carefully she appraised him - though Davie was unlikely to notice what anyone was wearing once he saw the car.

“So this is yours?” Davie said, proving her point. He looked at the electric blue car with a panoramic windscreen. “2010 Toyota Prius! A design classic even before I got to work on it.” He opened the driver’s door and looked at the converted dashboard. It was much better work than he was capable of in his workshop in the twenty-third century, where he was still experimenting with conversions like his Holden Commodore. He pressed a button that certainly wasn’t on his own car. The Prius shimmered and became invisible. He pressed the button again and it re-appeared.

“Just remember to park it discreetly, all the same,” he said. “You don’t want people bumping into your invisible car!”

“Yeah, got that sorted,” Earl assured him. “You ready, Sukie?”

“Yes,” she said taking a large sports bag that Davie had been carrying for her. Earl gallantly took it from her and put it in the back seat of the Prius before opening the passenger door for her. He made sure she was settled before getting into his own seat. Chris and Davie stood back and watched as the car moved off. They waved back at Sukie’s smiling face before it shimmered and disappeared.

“I think I did a damn good job of that car,” Davie said with no trace of false modesty.

“You did,” his brother agreed. “Did you get a trace on their destination?”

Davie reached in his pocket for a hand held device with a small LCD screen on it.

“Yep. August 30th, 1802.”

“Should be nice weather,” Chris commented nonchalantly.

It was glorious weather. The sun beat down on the electric blue Prius for several seconds before Earl engaged the cloaking device. Sukie looked at the view over what was still pastureland with sheep grazing it in this time. Even the two railway lines and the footbridge over the river were fifty years away.

“The industrial revolution is here, though,” Earl pointed out. “Look at the mill chimneys over there.”

“They spoil it,” Sukie complained. “Ugly, dirty things, inside and out. There are kids younger than me working in them.”

“Yes, I know,” Earl said. “I’ve researched this period. Don’t worry, there’s no danger of you going to work in a cotton mill. Not in that dress. You’re a young aristocrat and so am I.”

He climbed out of the car and Sukie did, too. He took her arm gallantly as they walked in the warmth of a late August morning into the town centre.

There were crowds gathered in the streets. Many of them were people of quality, but there were plenty of ‘lesser sorts’, too. The workers from those factories Sukie had condemned obviously had the day off.

“They’re all waiting for the Mayor’s procession to begin,” Earl explained. “The first event of Preston Guild fortnight. They’ll parade up Friargate to the Flag Market, then there will be speeches and stuff before the amusements begin.

“What sort of amusements?” Sukie asked. Earl didn’t answer. He was too busy finding them a good vantage point to wait for the parade.

It wasn’t long in coming. It began with two men carrying a blue poplin banner with the town crest embroidered on it – a lamb lying down with a flag held between its two front paws. Behind that came a fine carriage in which a gravely dressed gentleman and a lady in a silk dress sat. The gold chain around the gentleman’s neck identified them as the Lord Mayor and his wife.

“Nicholas Grimshaw,” Earl explained to Sukie telepathically. “A bit of a legend in local history. He was Lord Mayor of Preston seven times, including two Guild years. No-one else has ever done that.”

“Well, if you only have these Guilds once every twenty years, no wonder,” she replied. “I expect most people are glad to retire before then.”

Behind the carriage came a group of men in rather less elaborate chains who nevertheless made up the town council. After them were the ministers of the churches – the Protestant and non-conformist churches, anyway. This was 1802 and the penal laws still barred Catholics from openly professing themselves in such a way.

After them came the ‘Guilds’, the organisations representing different crafts and trades. Handloom weavers and spinners were the chief Guilds of this town, but there were also carpenters and wheelwrights, coopers, brewers, blacksmiths, all kinds of trades, some of which Sukie had never heard of. Their work was swept away by industrialisation and technology in the next century or two. The handloom weavers were already dying out now. They were being swallowed up by the new machine-weaving in the factories. But for this Guild at least they walked behind their banner in the parade as if nothing was ever going to change.

But it was already changing and Sukie knew where the blame lay. The men of industry had walked alongside the town council and the church ministers, enjoying the patronage of both. She had looked hard at them, and it was possible at least one of them wasn’t going to enjoy his dinner today as a result of her attempts at remote Power of Suggestion. But her sense of social justice still burned.

“But it was this industrialisation that brought wealth and power and expansion to little market towns that were insignificant before,” Earl argued.

“Wealth for some,” she retorted. “But for most, there was just toil and misery in those factories.”

“You’ve really got a bee in your bonnet about all that, haven’t you.” Earl laughed softly, but Sukie wasn’t having it. Her usually soft brown eyes glittered with anger.

“Social injustice is not a laughing matter,” she told him. “Don’t trivialise the terrible conditions people lived and worked under. These fine men in their silk waistcoats and fancy hats grew fat on the sweat of the masses. And your fine Mayor, smiling away, he encouraged them.”

“I know that,” Earl told her soothingly. “But we can’t do anything about it. We’re here to observe, only. We’re here to find out what a Preston Guild was like in the Regency period. We can’t go along changing history by campaigning for Factory Reform.”

“Granddad wouldn’t just observe,” Sukie replied.

“Yes, he would,” Earl answered her. “It was drummed into me by my dad that there is a difference between what can be changed, things that The Doctor would change, and that which has to run its course, as terrible as it is. Fixed points, that kind of thing. Even The Doctor wouldn’t try to change something like the Industrial Revolution. It would alter causality in disastrous ways. And you know that, too, Sukie. Better than I do. He… The Doctor… taught you it himself. I learnt it from his authorised biography.”

Sukie smiled at the idea of her great-grandfather having an authorised biography read by young Time Lords of the future.

“That’s better. Besides, the oppressed masses are on holiday, too, today. So lets just enjoy ourselves.”

Sukie conceded his point. And if truth be told, it WAS fun watching a parade that took place over four hundred years before she was born. This was the privilege of her race, to be able to come and see these things with her own eyes.

The formal parade passed by and the crowd broke ranks and followed all the way up the long market street called the Friargate where the workshops and shops of many of the tradesmen were. Earl pointed out the cobblers and told her that, in two centuries time there would be a Foot Locker shop there, selling trainers and football boots. Sukie told him that wasn’t progress since the trainers were made in China by exploited workers. Earl replied by telling her that the master cobbler had looked at her in her new dress and thought she was very beautiful. Sukie wasn’t so shallow as to be swayed by that, but she did smile at the second hand compliment.

At the top of the Friargate was the Flag Market, so called because it was a wide flagged area in front of a tall, imposing building that was the Guildhall. A wooden stage was set up with banners and flags all over it. The Mayor and mayoress, the councillors and clergy and the mill owners and men of property sat upon it while the ordinary people gathered to hear the speeches that opened the Guild celebrations properly. They were mostly dull stuff about civic duty and loyalty to king and country, but they seemed to go down all right with the crowd who cheered the Guild Mayor heartily before he and his cohorts left the stage and filed into the Guildhall for their own celebration luncheon.

That left the ordinary people to their own devices. And Sukie noticed that ‘ordinary’ included quite a few men in velvet like Earl and ladies in fine dresses like hers as well as the more dully dressed working classes. They all came, regardless of class for the street entertainments that got under way now. The Flag Market was flanked on all sides by temporary booths and stalls where merchants sold their wares. Some of them were food stalls. Hot potatoes and baked apples were among the delicacies on sale. There were also roasted chestnuts and stalls selling some sort of stringy meat on sticks cooked over a brazier. Sukie harboured some unpleasant thoughts about what kind of meat it might be and decided she didn’t have an appetite for any of that.

“Later, they’re roasting a whole ox,” Earl said, pointing to a place where a huge spit was being set up. “That will be a real treat for everyone. The daily diet of the factory workers is mainly barley bread and cured bacon.”

“I’m not very hungry,” Sukie admitted. “Besides, I’m used to fairs where they sell sticky things like candy floss and toffee apples, and where the protein for the day comes in hot dogs. At least you have a VAGUE idea what sort of meat goes into a hot dog. I’m really not sure about that stuff over there.”

“I think it might be rabbit,” Earl told her. “But I don’t like the way that meat’s exposed to the elements anyway. I think we’ll leave it.

Some of the amusements available were all right. Sukie enjoyed sitting in a double swing with Earl for their allotted time and she was very happy when he won a rosette for throwing six hoops over pegs at a stall. He pinned the rosette to her dress and she wore it as proudly as if it was a corsage.

The main stage where the speeches had taken place was the scene, first of all, of a play, vaguely based on the life of St. George. Apparently he was a sort of patron of the town. The church at the bottom end of Friargate was dedicated to him. That was all right in its way, although the old fashioned style of acting seemed strange to the two time travelling members of the audience.

But Sukie found it odd that after a play with a theme about chivalry and goodness and doing the work of God, the same stage became a place of what looked to her like mindless violence. And that violence was more popular than the play, which had received at best, polite cheers and clapping. The men, especially, but even some of the women, cheered loudly at the bare knuckle fighters, stripped to the waist, who drew blood from each other until one had to be carried off and the other declared the winner. There was a long line of volunteers ready to take on each new champion in hope of cash prizes and side-betting on them was raking in money for those in the know.

But as stupid as that sport seemed, at least the men chose to fight. Sukie refused to even look at the cock-fighting that made for a noisy side show in one part of the square. And the bear-baiting just horrified her. Earl quickly steered her away from that scene.

“They call this entertainment?” she asked tearfully. “How could they? It’s horrible. Absolutely horrible. Those men… uggh.”

“You know, those men are the exploited masses you wanted to protect before,” Earl pointed out. “Does this mean you don’t sympathise with them any more?”

“Well, yes, I do,” she answered, though a little uncertainly. “But even so… how can they?”

“They work hard, they play hard. Could be worse. In Roman times they watched people being ripped apart by lions. Bread and Circuses. Entertainment to fit the times. The worst of the animal cruelty will be stopped in a few decades time. And that bare knuckle fighting style will give way to boxing under the Queensbury rules. You just have to look at it in the long term. We’re here in a slice of history. But it won’t always be like this. Even the ‘hunts’ that the gentry indulge in will be gone by the end of the twentieth century. Think of it that way.”

“I suppose,” Sukie conceded.

“It’s what I live for, this history. I love it. I always did when I was a boy, learning it all from books. It was quite a thing for me to actually see Nicholas Grimshaw in the flesh. You know there is a street not far from where I live called Grimshaw Street, named after him. My older sister lives in an apartment down there. Of course, it’s all changed by my time. It was all red brick rows of houses and stuff when it was new.”

“Not much of a tribute to him, then,” Sukie commented. “You really are mad about history, aren’t you? The first time I met you, in the park, you were doing a history project.”

“I’m a Time Lord. In a way, it’s what we’re all about. Being in tune with all of time and space. I’ve just always been more interested in the past than the future, and of planet Earth than anywhere else in the universe. And… I’m sorry if some of it hasn’t been a lot of fun for you, Sukie, but I did hope you would like exploring it all with me.”

“I like being with you,” she assured him. “That’s the good bit. But let’s get away from the bear pit.”

Some of it wasn’t so bad, she had to admit. Further down Friargate there were some athletics competitions going on – running and jumping competitions. They watched a slim young man in a brown jerkin win three races in a row and receive a purse of money which he seemed pleased about. He also won the affections of a young woman who fitted the stereotype of ‘buxom milkmaid’ very well.

“People fall in love all the time,” Sukie noted. “Even if their lives are poor and they don’t have much to look forward to, they still fall in love. They still hope.”

Earl didn’t comment directly. For him love was still a tricky subject. The age gap between him and Sukie was a huge issue.

“Good luck to them,” he said as the couple walked off hand in hand, possibly seeking a place with less crowds to celebrate the young man’s victory in a more intimate way. Earl took hold of Sukie’s arm and they walked back up Friargate, edging around the activities on the Flag Market before going up Cheapside to the long road that cut across the top of the town centre. There, Earl confidently stepped into one of the more respectable of the town’s inns, a place called The Old Bull, and demanded rooms and luncheon.

The landlord of The Old Bull clearly knew how to respond to demands like that from well-dressed young men. They were conducted to his two best rooms. They were dimly lit and the furniture was all heavy, dark wood. There was a slightly odd smell that Earl, for all his historical knowledge couldn’t identify. Sukie was not terribly impressed by the basin of cold water on a pedestal that passed for washing facilities, and she wrinkled her nose in disgust when Earl pointed out the ‘toilet’ under the bed.

“That’s what it’s all about,” he told her. “Roughing it, living the way the people of the time, do. Besides, this is luxury. You have a chamber pot all to yourself and a maid will come and empty it for you. Imagine what those toiling masses have to put up with.”

“You’re just teasing me, now,” Sukie responded. “It will be all right, I suppose. We’re only staying one night. I’m going to have the longest shower ever when I get home, though. And cover myself in perfume.”

“That’s the spirit!” Earl laughed. There was a knock at the door and the landlord himself brought their luncheon, a selection of cold cooked meats and cheese with wheat bread and fresh butter as well as a flagon of ale and a bowl of ripe plums. Since the meat was all from easily identified animals, Sukie didn’t mind eating some of it, and she liked the bread and cheese. But she didn’t want any of the ale. Earl drank some of it and encouraged her to have some of the plums to stop her feeling thirsty. It was a good meal.

“This is the first meal we’ve ever had together,” Sukie noted. “I mean, just the two of us. Not with others around us, like Christmas.”

“I hope it won’t be the last,” Earl answered. He moved from the table where they had eaten to the cushioned box seat in front of the window. He opened the casement wide and looked out onto Church Street and the view past the Guildhall to the still busy Flag Market. Sukie came to his side and he drew her down beside him. His arm slipped around her waist. She didn’t try to wriggle away. Instead she leaned back against his chest, aware of his double heartbeat. Apart from her father, almost everyone she had ever loved, all her life, her mother, her grandfather and great grandfather, and especially her two brothers, all had two hearts. It was a sound she associated with comfort and safety. And from that comfortable, safe place, she appreciated the activities outside much better than when she was among them. She could enjoy watching the crowds go by. She could notice the mix of classes among the crowds, where people in bright colours and rich cloth mixed with people in dull homespun cloth. She noted that the richer people wore lighter colours. White would be a symbol of real affluence, worn by women who had others to do their laundry and who didn’t have to worry about getting dirty in their daily life.

“That’s something I notice about the past,” Earl said. “The way class distinctions are so obvious. In my century there isn’t any poverty and people are paid well even in the lesser jobs. And clothes are cheap to buy. At the 2592 Guild you couldn’t tell who was a Manual and who was an Elite.”

“But you still have class divisions,” Sukie pointed out. “So do we. Vicki… she lives in a mansion and people call her father ‘Lordship’. My brother, Davie, is a millionaire from selling his solar panel invention. We’re all doing well. But I know there are lots of other people who aren’t so well off as us. A lot of people lost possessions, homes, jobs, because of the Dominator war. We were very lucky in that respect.”

Earl nodded. The Dominator war was something else he learnt about in history. For Sukie it was recent memory. He passed over it quickly.

“When you’re old enough, I hope you’ll be an Elite with me,” he said. “I’ve thought about it a lot. And I would like that, very much.”

Sukie suppressed a gasp and tried not to let him know how much her heart had quickened when he said that. It was as close to a proposal of marriage as a girl of thirteen could hope for.

“The next Guild is in 2552,” he added. “Thirteen years away. By then we could be…”

“No,” she said firmly. “No, don’t. I can’t think that far ahead. I’ll be twenty-six. I don’t want to think about being twenty-six. I’m ok being thirteen. I like being thirteen and having a boyfriend who’s eighteen, as long as he doesn’t forget the rules. That’s enough for me. Don’t jump ahead.”

He was disappointed. She could feel that he was. But she couldn’t lie to him. She was thirteen. Her only ambition for the future was to be old enough to learn to drive one of her brother’s sports cars. The rest was too huge.

“It’s all right,” he whispered. Then to her delight he kissed her on the cheek. It was a fleeting thing. She had barely felt the pressure of his lips on her flesh when it was over. But it was a kiss that held the promise that he was ready to wait until she was ready for more than that.

Meanwhile she was content to sit with him through the heat of the summer afternoon in the cool shade of that window seat, looking out on the bustling streets and listening to the sounds of the Guild celebration.

“Your brothers told me to make sure you take a nap before the evening events,” Earl said just as the bells of a nearby church tolled four o’clock. “You can’t stay up until midnight otherwise. It’s the rules.”

She made a pretence of protesting, but the big, old fashioned bed looked quite comfortable and she didn’t mind the idea of getting a few hours sleep on it.

“Stay there,” she told Earl. “I’ll sleep if I know you’re there to look after me.”

Earl had no intention of being anywhere else. He could hear the public bar below filling up. It wasn’t something Sukie should be exposed to. He was barely old enough to enter licensed premises himself. But if anything inappropriate should occur he was ready to live up to his young Time Lord honour.

When she woke, he went to the adjoining room to get ready for the evening while she made use of the primitive washing facilities and then put on her dress for the grand masked ball at the Guildhall. This was the one part of the day she had really looked forward to. Though she was a tomboy a lot of the time, whose favourite outfit was her Team Campbell firesuit, she nevertheless had a healthy interest in dresses, especially party dresses. Earl smiled widely when he saw her in the snow white chiffon dress. It was as low cut as she knew she could get away with. The waistline was high and the skirt was in two parts. The chiffon skirt had a sheer silk overskirt with pearls sewn on at random. She had pearls in her hair, too, and even in the dim light of the bedchamber she looked luminous.

Earl said so. She beamed and complimented him on his own choice of evening dress. He was in deep plum velvet trousers and jacket with a gold embroidered waistcoat. They both put on velvet cloaks over their finery. It was still warm outside, but a cloak was a sign of affluence.

He took her arm as they walked. She felt proud and excited. This was their first ‘date’. The fact that it was a masked ball in the early nineteenth century only made it a very special date. She noted the envious looks from ladies in less sparkling dresses as Earl presented their invitation in the Guildhall foyer and chose their masks from a selection provided. Sukie’s was made of damask and shaped like a swan. Earl’s was a golden lion that matched his waistcoat.

They stepped into the grand hall and were formally announced as The Earl of Gregory and Lady Susan Campbell. Again Sukie was pleased to see how many ladies, and even more men, looked at her.

“Lady Susan… that suits you,” Earl told her as he led her into the press of dancers. She didn’t know the steps, but he did, and as long as he held onto her she felt confident and graceful. It was a sort of Power of Suggestion. He was projecting the ability to dance like a Regency lady into her mind.

“Susan is my mum’s name,” she said. “Nobody ever calls me that. I’ve always been Sukie.”

“I’ll call you Susan if you like. It’s a grown up name.”

It was, and in the midst of the Mayor’s Guild Ball, surrounded by the gentry of Lancashire, it felt right. But when she was back in London in the twenty-third century she would be Sukie again.

Earl held her in the proper way as they danced. He stayed close to her when they sampled the food laid out on a grand buffet table and when they climbed the stairs to the gallery overlooking the grand hall to watch the press of dancers below. He was happy to be there with her. He had grown to love Sukie in a quiet, slow-burning way that he knew was going to stand the necessary test of time until he could be her boyfriend in the proper way.

So when they went up to that balcony it WAS just to watch the dancers. There were a few couples there in the dim light who had taken off their masks and were indulging in some passionate clenches. But Earl did no more than hold Sukie’s hand.

It was still a half hour to midnight, and they were contemplating going back down to the dance floor again when something startling happened. Every one of the lights went out, plunging the grand hall into darkness. Some of the women screamed. One or two of the men did, too. Earl was just puzzled.

The lights had gone off just like an electrical power cut, suddenly and completely. But electricity was nearly a century away from being invented, let alone installed in buildings like this. Even patent gas fittings were decades away. The great chandeliers in the ceiling of the grand hall and the smaller lights fixed to the walls all around were fitted with tallow candles. Even if there had been a huge, sudden draught it was unlikely that they would all go out at once. Besides, he hadn’t felt a draught.

And he knew very well it would take several servants with ladders and lit tapers to relight all of those candles. There was no natural way every one of them could come back on again in an instant as they did less than half a minute later.

“Sukie,” he whispered. He was still holding her arm. He had gripped hold of her instinctively when the lights failed. Now he looked at her in the light. There was nothing obviously wrong, but something made him reach and pull off her mask.

He gathered his wits enough not to scream as he looked at the vacant, unfinished face of what definitely wasn’t Sukie.

“Earl, cover your ears!” He heard the commanding voice directly in his head and immediately obeyed. The sonic wave was painful even so. But the effect on the entity that had taken Sukie’s form when the lights were out was even more dramatic. It literally began to melt, like candle wax.

So did all the other women in the gallery. He stepped away from the rapidly disintegrating simulacrum of Sukie and risked a look down over the balcony. The same thing was happening to all of the women in the grand hall.

And the men weren’t taking any notice of it. He looked around at those closest to him. Then he looked at the nearest wall mounted candelabra. The light was steady.

Somebody had frozen time.

The sonic wave stopped. All the Human men were frozen and all the non-Human women had melted away. But two figures wearing matching wolf masks moved. Earl turned towards them. Relief and panic seized him in equal measure.

“Don’t… please don’t blame me,” he pleaded. Chris Campbell clasped his hand on his shoulder as Davie bent and examined the remains of the Sukie copy with remarkably calm and scientific judgement.

“Exo-carbon facsimile,” he said. “When the molecules are still fluid they disintegrate if you immerse them in water or use a sonic wave.”

“We’re not blaming you,” Chris assured Earl as he repeated his plea. “This was nothing you could have prevented.”

“We were here all night and we didn’t spot anything wrong until the lights went out, either,” Davie added.

“You were here? Spying on us?”

Chris and Davie exchanged glances.

“We could lie and say we thought we’d enjoy a Regency Mayor’s Ball?” Davie said to his brother.

“Or admit that we were a TAD worried about the two of you, inexperienced as you are, in a strange time zone and decided to keep a discreet and non-interfering eye on you,” Chris added.

“Either way, no time to worry about it now. Just be glad we ARE here. Come on. Our TARDIS is in the foyer.”

Earl followed the two brothers. Despite their cool banter around him, he could sense that they were shocked and worried by this strange turn of events. They were worried about Sukie. So was he. Just how worried hadn’t quite sunk in yet. He was still emotionally numbed by the way his fantastic evening had turned into a nightmare in a matter of seconds.

“You froze time?” he asked as they threaded their way past immobile figures to where the Chinese TARDIS was disguised as a statue of the Prince Regent.

“This could take a while,” Chris explained. “And we figured it would cause less panic this way. We fix things, put everyone back where they belong and time snaps back.”

“So things can be fixed?” It hit him then, as he stepped over the threshold into the TARDIS console room. He blinked several times and his breath caught as he thought of the alien thing that had taken Sukie’s place. “She’s alive? She’s ok? Then where is she? And how do we get her back?”

“Bigger picture, Earl,” Davie warned him. “Sukie matters to us all. But there’s at least three hundred other women in need of rescuing, too, and a potential invasion of Earth to thwart.”

“That’s what this is about?” Earl asked. His head was spinning. He watched as the two brothers worked at the console. He felt incapable of doing anything else. At least until Davie spoke to him sharply and ordered him to come and monitor the helmic regulator.

“It’s a classic invasion by stealth,” Chris explained. “Replacing all the women with copies… provided with some kind of basic brain pattern from the hosts, of course, so that they can infiltrate society without being detected, fitting into positions of power.”

Earl opened his mouth to speak, but the brothers were ahead of him.

“Yes, they’ve made a fundamental mistake. Women in this era are far from powerful. They must have completely misread the social dynamic.”

“But… who are they?” Earl asked. “Who’s doing this?”

“You’ll see in a minute,” Davie told him. “But I’ll need help. The ship has anti-transmat shields. We need to force the TARDIS through. Chris, you take the Thermal Decline. Earl, the Distaff Turnkey.”

It wasn’t a very difficult job, but it was one that required precision and he did it conscientiously, knowing that getting it right first time brought him closer to rescuing Sukie.

Brought her brothers closer to rescuing her, he amended. He was just there for the ride.

“No, you’re not, Earl,” Davie told him. “We need you. We need the edge against these creatures. You’re a fully transcended Time Lord. And I know you’ve got a bit of courage in you. So get ready.”

That was encouraging. As they broke through the shields he braced himself mentally and physically for the task ahead.

“They got the dominant gender wrong,” he pointed out. “Did they get the century wrong, too? What’s the point of invading Earth in 1802? The industrial revolution is barely begun. Technology is still primitive.”

“It won’t be if a race like the Tectil get a foothold,” Davie explained. “They’ll use their agents planted among Human society to fast-track technological development. Earth will have hyperspace travel and nuclear fusion by the 1840s and it will be populated by power hungry galaxy conquerors building battle ready motherships instead of steam trains.”

“Tectil?” Earl turned the name over. “From the Jacondia Seven system? Mutable calcium based life forms. Plunderers and scavengers with designs on galaxy wide domination?”

“Text book definition,” Davie told him. “Good memory. What do you know about their weaknesses?”

“Nothing at all,” he responded. “I don’t think they have one.”

“Oh, yes, they do. Definitely, they do. What other calcium based lifeform do you know of?”

“Raxacoricofalipatorians,” he answered quickly.

“And the way to deal with one of those?”

“Vinegar… ascetic acid.”

“Tectils have rather stronger constitutions. Their molecules hold together rather better. But…” Davie ducked under his console and rummaged in a cupboard before bringing out three plastic bottles with directional spray nozzles. “Vinegar based concentrated cleaning fluid. I use it on the TARDIS’s solenoids. Cleans them up nicely. And if you hit a Tectil directly in the face it will be blinded and disorientated for anything up to an hour. More than long enough for what I plan to do.”

Earl didn’t dare ask what Davie planned to do. But he obeyed without question when they stepped out of the TARDIS into a metal walled corridor with the faint vibration of a space ship in parking orbit. Davie told him and Chris to find the women while he was going to head to the engineering room.

Chris closed his eyes briefly. Earl felt his psychic projection as he felt for carbon based lifeforms on a ship full of another species entirely. Then he nodded and began to walk purposefully.

They turned a corner and came face to face with four Tectil guards. Chris got three of them in very quick succession. Earl hesitated for a moment before aiming his bottle of solenoid cleaner. The humanoid creatures squealed and clutched at their faces and he was rather horrified to see lumps of their skin peeling off as they slumped to the ground.

“Aren’t you supposed to be a pacifist?” he asked Chris as they stepped over the writhing guards and kept going. “In my time, you’re famous for it. The Quietman you’re called. People talk about your philosophy of inner calm.”

“Sukie is my sister,” he answered. “And Earth is my planet. Inner calm is no use to me when both are at stake.”

That was as much of an answer as he was going to get. Earl got ready to fight again as another group of Tectil guards approached. This time he didn’t hesitate. He got three of the four. Chris said nothing. Causing anything pain went against his principles, and the disabled guards were clearly in agony as the vinegar melted the flesh off their faces. But neither could afford to have qualms about it for the reasons Chris succinctly outlined.

“They’ll survive,” Chris pointed out as they moved quickly down a long stretch of corridor having taken down two more guards. “Their flesh grows back quickly. They won’t even scar. But meanwhile the fumes released when their upper dermis is exposed zonks them out.”

“I hope they stay zonked for a while,” Earl replied. “How far to the women?”

“Not far,” Chris answered. He stopped at a bulkhead door and projected his mind through it. Then he unlocked the door and stepped through. Another door faced them directly ahead. “The women are behind that.”

“No guards?”

“They don’t expect anyone to get this far.” Chris used his sonic screwdriver on the lock. “We need to move fast, all the same. Our trail of zonked guards is a giveaway.”

The space beyond the locked door was best described as a holding pen. The ladies of the Guild ball, still dressed in their finery were standing there unmoving.

“They’re in an induced catatonic state,” Chris said examining a few of them. “That’s good. They won’t know anything about it. They’re even standing in the same positions they were in before they were transmatted here.” He looked around and then smiled. “Even better. The transmat controls are right over there. All I have to do is reverse the process. They’ll return a few seconds after we destroyed the copies.”

“I found Sukie,” Earl called out. Chris followed him to where his sister was standing, trapped in the same catatonic state as the Human women. It was distressing to see her that way. Earl was choking on the emotional lump in his throat as he embraced her and kissed her unresponsive cheek. Chris bit his lip and reminded himself that he was older than Earl and had to set an example. But it was a struggle. Inner Peace was very far from his emotional state right now.

“Earl,” he decided. “This transmat, I can put everyone back where they were… and I can bring the remains of the copies back up here in exchange. If you stand close to Sukie, I can send you back down with her to make sure she’s… make sure they’re all ok. We’ll be along just as soon as Davie’s done sabotaging the engines or whatever he’s doing in there.”

“Yes,” Earl said. “Yes. I’ll look after her.” He put his arms around Sukie’s shoulders and held her close while Chris initialised the transmat. As it began to enfold him he saw three Tectils burst into the room. He thought he saw Chris turn and fire what was left in his cleaning fluid bottle at them, but it was too late to help him.

He blinked and looked around at the balcony of the guildhall, exactly where he and Sukie had been standing when the lights went out. She was still catatonic. So were the other women, but at least they were real women, now. The time freeze was still holding the men.

The only movement was a Tectil that had been caught in the transmat beam. Earl reached for the squeezy bottle he had shoved inside his jacket and caught the creature square in the face. Its screech of pain was cut off as a transmat beam caught it. A second beam set Chris down in the same spot. He grimaced and wobbled slightly before regaining his poise.

“My brother is a very clever engineer,” he said. “Sabotaging engines is too easy for him. Instead he’s flooded the whole ship with calcium carbonate – zapping the crew – wiped the star charts and logs from the navigation system and then pre-programmed the ship to hyperjump to the Seguan sector, where it will lock into permanent orbit around the planet Omex Minor – populated by giant sandworms that devour calcium. They’ll have a fun time trying to take over their bodies!”

“So… none of them are dead. We didn’t kill anything?”

“No.” Chris looked happy about that. Earl was, too.

“I’m only eighteen. I don’t think I need to start counting alien notches on my guns, yet. I’m glad there was another way.”

“So am I.” Chris looked around at the noise and air displacement that heralded the arrival of the Chinese TARDIS, disguising itself as a spiral stairway to nowhere. Davie stepped outside briefly. He stepped towards Sukie and carefully measured her brain activity with his sonic screwdriver.

“She’s starting to come out of the coma,” he confirmed. “They all will. The time freeze should collapse about the same time. There might be a bit of confusion. Make some loud remarks about bad wine. People will think that explains it. We’ll be off now. See you back in the twenty-sixth century tomorrow afternoon,”

“You’re not going to watch us any more?” Earl asked.

“Do we need to?” Davie replied.

“I… suppose not.” Earl watched as they stepped into the TARDIS and it dematerialised. Then he turned back to Sukie. He wrapped his arms around her shoulders again and held her close. He felt her give a deep sigh as consciousness returned.

“What happened?” she asked. “Did… something go wrong with the lights?”

“Yes,” he answered. “Something…” He heard somebody else ask a question and made a comment about the wine. He was surprised when he was fully believed. Below, in the hall, the musicians were trying to find their places. Soon the music resumed. The strange moment passed.

“I haven’t drunk any of the wine,” Sukie pointed out. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” Earl assured her. “Everything is fine. Do you want to put your mask back on and dance until midnight?”

“No, not really,” she answered. “I’m a bit tired. It’s been fun, apart from the weird bit just now. But I think I’d like to go back to the hotel and sit by the window with you for a little while, and then go to sleep.”

“Sounds ok to me,” Earl agreed.