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

A peaceful garden with reflecting pool overhung with olive trees was momentarily not very peaceful at all. A bearded man in a toga paused in his contemplation of the reflection of the sky in the water. He looked all around for the source of the peculiarly organic yet mechanical noise belonging to a technology his race had never yet dreamt of. He completely failed to notice an archway in the garden wall that hadn’t been there a moment before. He failed, in fact, to realise that it hadn’t been there at all until the strange sound faded away. In his mind, it had always been an integral part of the garden.

Nor did he pay much attention when a small group of young men whose beards were not yet grown stepped through the archway. He didn’t recognise their language, but that was nothing unusual. People came from all over the civilised world to study the manuscripts kept at the Royal Library of Alexandria. Exotic spoken languages were no great surprise. Besides, any man of learning had the written languages of the manuscript – Greek and Latin.

The bearded scholar might have been very thoroughly surprised if he had known that the new arrivals were speaking English, a language that didn’t even properly exist in this age several centuries before a religious cult called Christianity began imposing its method of calculating dates upon the world. It was certainly not a written language yet, and as such, of no importance in the greatest library ever to exist on planet Earth.

“This truly is the cradle of learning,” Chris Campbell told his students as they came out of his Gothic TARDIS into the warm, sultry air of the library garden and felt the ancient sun of northern Egypt upon their un-bearded faces. “The Royal Library of Alexandria is more than just a repository of the written word. It has meeting rooms, lecture theatres, script rooms for copying texts, several gardens for quiet reflection, and, Ren, you’ll be especially glad to know that there is a very fine dining room.”

Ren Sanders, one of those Human beings who defied all logic by being stick thin while always having second helpings of everything, laughed along with the others as he was gently teased.

“It’s a lot like the Sanctuary,” said a young man called Aaron Blaine, another of the newest intake of students getting used to wonders beyond his wildest dreams at his chosen place of further education.

“Like any ‘modern’ concept of a college campus,” agreed a youth who was trying to disguise a rather higher pitched voice than the others. Tracy Macintosh was another of the tyros, half Scots, half Yorkshire, with a distant ancestor from somewhere in the Hydra galaxy from whom she had inherited a latent ESP that was being honed at the Sanctuary. When the trip to ancient Alexandria was announced, she had expressed an interest then much more loudly expressed her outraged feminine sensibilities when Chris timorously tried to tell her it was a male only expedition. She had angrily pointed out that she had as much right to visit something as fantastic as the Library of Alexandria as the men. When even his own sister, Sukie, joined in the argument, Chris had finally agreed that Tracy could come, but that ‘scholars’ were always men in ancient Egypt so she would have to pin up her hair under a linen cap and try not to talk too much. Tracy had scowled balefully at a fellow student who had suggested that the ‘not talking’ would be the real difficulty for a woman like her. Chris, with Sukie as his sister, had long ago learnt not to even think things like that.

“Where are the books?” asked the youngest of the group, Pip, Davie Campbell’s sometimes apprentice who was fitting much more readily into the academic life of the Sanctuary than flying around the universe in a TARDIS.

“In that hall, over there,” Chris told him, pointing to the tallest part of the complex with three floors decorated with columns and pediments. “Remember, of course, that there are very few ‘books’ as you know them. The vast majority of the manuscripts are in the form of papyrus scrolls. Individual sheets bound up into codices are still relatively new.”

It didn’t matter what form the literature took. Pip was hungry to read. Chris let him go off to the reading hall ahead of the rest of the group.

“He’s the same in the Sanctuary,” said Tony, one of the post-graduates of Chris’s unique educational establishment who now helped to teach the new intake. “He’ll read anything, whether on a hand-held tablet or an old-fashioned book.”

“That’s not always a good thing,” Tracy commented. “My mum has the complete works of a writer called Jackie Collins on a memory chip. I don’t think those have much educational value.”

“With MY mum it’s Catherine Cookson,” Chris replied with an understanding smile. “Pip was illiterate when my brother took him from the slave market on his home world. Learning to read was a greater gift even than his physical freedom. For him it’s like the first blind man given a book in Braille, or a paraplegic receiving nerve transplants and learning to walk again. He’ll never take for granted the ability to look at words on a page and understand their meaning.”

All of Chris’s students understood what he meant except one. Andrew Stark really did take the ability to read for granted. He couldn’t remember not being able to do so. A child prodigy, he had earned his first degree at ten and by now, aged nineteen, had three PhDs, from Oxford, Cambridge and Bologna. He had come to the Sanctuary having exhausted conventional methods of education. He looked at the Hall of Manuscripts with the same hunger that Pip did, but a more precise idea of just WHAT he wanted to read.

“Go and find your pre-Aristarchus Homer,” Chris told him with a wry smile. Andrew nodded his thanks and headed in search of a copy of the Iliad that had not been edited by Aristarchus of Samothrace, the successor to Aristophanes of Byzantium as head librarian of Alexandria and noted for his ‘corrections’ of Homer’s work. Chris had no doubt that Andrew’s treatise on the unedited text would be illuminating. He just wondered how he was going to cite his primary source material. It was a matter of historical fact that all the precious works in the Library were destroyed - either in the fire caused by Julius Caesar in 48BC when he besieged the port, by the orders of the Christian Emperor Theodosius I in AD 391 who had banned any form of pagan literature and practice or by 'Amr ibn al-'As who captured Alexandria in AD 691 and subsequently oversaw the destruction of any writings not in keeping with the teachings of the Quran.

All that was in the future. For at least another three centuries the library would be a place of peace known as the repository of the great works of men such as Euclid, Archimedes, Eratosthenes, Erasistratus, and another Aristarchus – this time of Samos - who more than a thousand years before Copernicus established that the sun was at the centre of a solar system containing the Earth and other planets.

Chris wanted to read the manuscripts of that Aristarchus, but more than anything he was appreciating just being here in a place that the fortunes of time had almost eradicated. As his students all wandered off to pursue their own interests he walked quietly under the olive trees, considering the breathtaking ambitions of the Library’s founders to collect all knowledge of the World. They had come close to achieving that ambition and he was privileged to even breathe the air.

As a young Time Lord he could do more than that. He sat by the still water of the reflecting pool where the bearded scholar had been just a while ago and closed his eyes. Without even setting foot in the repository hall he could see the vast shelves stacked with scrolls, ordered in a logical manner that long pre-dated the Dewey Decimal system. With just a little concentration he could mentally reach out to any manuscript in the collection and read it without ever physically touching it.

Indeed, he didn’t even need to ‘read’ in the sense his students understood. He could, if he wanted, simply absorb the text directly. He chose to read the words one by one in strings of sentences purely for aesthetic enjoyment. That was how he had learnt to read as a toddler, cuddled up with his mother on a comfortable chair, long before he knew that he was half-Gallifreyan and destined to be a Time Lord, long before he learnt most of the things he knew from The Doctor in micro-bursts of telepathic information that were immediately implanted in his mind.

Even The Doctor, and every other Time Lord before him, had once had to learn to read word by word, spelling the combinations of letters out. Even Time Lords, when they weren’t too busy for it, still read books, whether physical or electronic, line by line, just for the pleasure of being able to do so.

Ren Sanders had spent an interesting hour watching the scribes carefully copying texts. He had discovered that a peculiar kind of literary piracy was sanctioned by the governors of Alexandria. Any ship coming to the port had to surrender any manuscripts aboard to the library. These were then copied and the copy – not the original – given to the ship’s owner. The original manuscript became part of the Library’s ever-growing collection.

Watching others work, though, had made him hungry and he spent an even more enjoyable hour in the dining hall sampling the interestingly spiced Egyptian menu. When even his appetite was sated he wandered back to the olive grove for a little fresh air.

That was how he came to be the one who found Chris unconscious beside the reflecting pool, one arm trailing in the water. He turned him over and established that he was breathing, but he wouldn’t wake from the state of deep coma he was in.

Ren shouted for help until some men in togas arrived and carried Chris away to what they called the ‘Sanatorium’. Ren understood the old-fashioned word to mean a sort of medical centre, but could not understand why there should be one within a library.

Nor did he understand why he was stopped at the door and told to go away. He protested but to no avail. He was not permitted into the place where Chris had been taken. His frustration and anxiety increased when he failed to find any of his friends anywhere in the library. There was no sign of Pip among the stacks in the repository or of Andrew in the reading room, though the Homeric manuscripts he had so coveted were spread upon one of the tables. Tracy and Aaron were missing, even Tony to whom responsibility for the party fell with Chris incapacitated. He kept asking for his friends among the bearded scholars but they either ignored him or laughed. The lack of facial hair even on the genuine males of their group was a source of amusement. A beard was a sign of maturity and their clean-shaven group just looked like children without an adult mentor.

Ren was scared by the time he came back to the garden of contemplation where the Gothic TARDIS was parked. He couldn’t get inside, but at least being close to the time and space machine that had brought them here was a comfort. He leaned close to one of the ionic pillars that marked the doorway and felt the faint vibration of the TARDIS in low power mode.

Then he felt a stronger vibration and heard a sound that gladdened his young heart. Another TARDIS was materialising nearby. He turned in time to see another ionic portal resolve itself where there had not been one before, and cried tears of relief when Davie Campbell stepped out into the sultry garden, pushing away an overhanging olive branch.

“How did you know?” Ren asked him.

“When we were kids, Chris and I were in constant telepathic contact. These days we’re both married men and we tend to keep our thoughts a bit more private, but I still know when Chris is in trouble, even when he’s thousands of years in the past. Tell me everything.”

Ren didn’t know much, but he did his best. Davie frowned and shook his head unhappily as he heard that his brother was being kept in seclusion.

“We’ll see about that,” he announced. “Come on, show me where this sanatorium is.”

“They won’t take you seriously,” Ren warned him as he brought him through the quiet corridors. “You don’t have a beard.”

“We’ll see about THAT, too,” Davie assured him. “Is this the place?”

He paused only momentarily beside the firmly closed door that Ren had indicated before it turned out not to be so firmly closed after all. Davie ignored the protests as he stalked across the room towards the palette where Chris was lying. Ren realised that the mark of authority wasn’t in facial hair and had nothing to do with age. Davie was the epitome of it in the way he walked, in the way he held his head, in the flash of anger in his eyes as he looked around at the dozen or more pallets upon which hapless victims lay in unexplained comas.

“Oh no!” Ren couldn’t help exclaiming in horror as he realised that all of his friends were among the patients. He knelt beside Pip who looked particularly wretched with his face pale and drawn and his body limp and unresponsive. Next to him Tracy had lost her cap and the pins were falling from her hair. The fact that she was NEVER going to grow a beard had not yet been noticed by the men who guarded the patients and keep them comfortable, but it might only be a matter of time.

“They’re alive,” Davie promised him. “And they should stay that way if I have any say in the matter. They’re infected by bookworms.”

“By….” Ren was surprised. He thought a bookworm was either a mildly teasing name for an avid reader like Pip and Andrew or the larvae of a beetle that fed on old paper. He wondered for a moment whether bookworms actually liked papyrus, which the books of this Library were made of, before realising that Davie was talking about something completely different.

“It’s a mental parasite,” he explained. “Alien, of course, and rare, fortunately. This is exactly the sort of place it would infest, though, attacking people who are deeply concentrating on any form of reading. It latches onto the deeper intellectual processes involved and renders the victim unconscious.”

“I can understand that with Andy. His obsession with Homer would send me to sleep,” Ren admitted. “What will happen to them?”

“Depending on how much infection there is and whether they’re looked after while they’re asleep it is possible that victims can come out of the coma by themselves,” Davie explained. He noticed one of the attendants trying to feed an old man by means of spooning thin gruel into his mouth. The librarians of Alexandria had brought all the sleepers into one place and tried to help them in the most obvious ways. But it wasn’t good enough.

He knelt beside Pip’s sad form and put his hands either side of the boy’s face. He carefully reached into his sleeping mind and found that part of his intellect that so hungrily devoured the written word. He gave him a different kind of literature to feast upon and, as he hoped, within a few minutes the boy started to recover.

“Did you sleep well?” Davie asked him. Pip nodded drowsily, looking around in astonishment at the rest of the sleepers. “You and Ren nip back to my TARDIS will you. There’s a cupboard, third door on the right inside the inner corridor. You’ll find two big cardboard boxes. Bring them here. They’ll provide a long-lasting cure for the problem. Meanwhile, I’ll get on with waking my brother and the others.

Pip and Ren were both puzzled but didn’t argue with Davie’s wisdom. If the solution to bookworms was in two boxes in a TARDIS cupboard, then they accepted that.

Chris was tough to wake. The bookworm had buried itself deep in his intellectual synapses, but the same method employed with Pip did the trick. Now there were two of them with strong telepathic powers to apply themselves to the rest of the sleepers.

“Seriously?” Chris laughed when he realised what the cure for the bookworm was. “THAT actually works?”

“It does,” Davie assured him.

Applying the solution to Andrew Stark was interesting. For a while his mind rejected anything that didn’t serve to improve his mind in the highest possible way. Eventually even he was brought back to the conscious world by Davie’s unusual method.

Ren and Pip were back by the time Chris and Davie had revived all of the Sanctuary students and were starting on the ancient Greek and Egyptian readers who had been affected. They were even more puzzled by the thoughts floating around their short-term memory as they woke from their dreamless sleep of ages.

“What… is… a Numskull?” asked a puzzled intellectual with a very fine, mature beard.

“I was wondering the same thing,” Andrew Stark added. “Why am I thinking about things like that?”

“Because its time you did at your age,” Chris told him. “It’s all very well reading Homer in his own handwriting, but you are lacking in cultural capital if you don’t also know about Numskulls. Apart from anything else, they saved us while Homer left us flat.”

“We’re not saved yet,” Davie contradicted his brother. “We’ve got to eradicate the bookworm from the Royal Library of Alexandria and ensure it doesn’t get a foothold again. Ren, Pip, open those boxes and distribute the contents. Everyone in here start reading right away to give yourselves extra protection, then we’ll get the rest of the library patrons cracking on with it.”

“How does reading a comic strip protect me from these creatures?” Andrew demanded.

“Because the bookworms are intellectual snobs,” Davie answered him. “They only feed off the higher intellectual brain functions. All the philosophy and astronomy and deep, mystical poetry is a feast for them. But the adventures of Billy Whiz doesn’t take any effort and it starves them out.”

Ren stared at the contents of the two cardboard boxes, wondering how it could possibly be the answer to an alien threat in Ancient Egypt, but even in the short time he had been a student at the Sanctuary he had come to trust both of the Campbell brothers. As absurd as it seemed, he set about distributing Davie Campbell’s collection of the Beano – some five hundred of the many thousands of editions printed between the year AD1938 and AD2023 when paper magazines were superseded by instant download electronic copies. They were a unique collection since the offices of the printers and their archive were destroyed in the Dalek Invasion of 2264 and the look in Davie’s eyes showed just how painful it was to give up something so precious.

“I can get them again,” he said ruefully. “It will be hard work, though. It took me nearly six weeks of time and space travel, going into different newsagents for each week’s copy, to put together that lot.”

“And now you are donating your collection to the greatest library in the history of Earth,” Chris told him. “I don’t think it will rate as important as Mark Anthony’s wedding gift to Cleopatra of the entire Library of Pergamum, but it is much more colourful and entertaining.”

“Two questions,” Ren asked as he looked around the largest of the reading rooms and saw bearded men chuckling as they read about, not only the Numskulls, but characters like Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx and the Bash Street Kids. “One, how come these people can read comics printed in modern English and two, won’t their inclusion in the library be a HUGE paradox?”

“Those comics have been stored in my TARDIS ever since mum decided they took up too much space in the house,” Davie answered. “That’s long enough for the ink to soak up a huge amount of Artron energy. And ink is a powerful chemical, you know. Look at the effect even the ordinary substance has on people’s emotions. For a short time, at least, the comics will act upon the reader and allow them to read them in their own language just as if they had travelled in the TARDIS. When the energy runs out, they won’t be able to translate and it will have an additional side effect of letting them forget they ever read anything so strange. As for the physical presence of the comics causing a paradox, sadly they, along with all the other treasures – the Pergamum manuscripts, all those Homeric tomes Andrew is so enamoured with - will be lost in one or other of the fires that consigned the lot to mythology. Within a few decades the exact inventory will be forgotten.”

“Oh, that’s a shame,” Ren commented, but his attention was not on the future destruction of literature. Rather he was watching a peculiar orange glow coalescing around the comics in the hands of the library patrons. It rose up a few inches above the pages and then dispersed. “Is that the….”

“Yes, it’s working. Everyone is reading the Beano and the Bookworms are starved of intellectual energy. They’re fading away.” Davie smiled widely and rolled the last copy of his precious comic before stuffing it in his jacket pocket. “Come on, let’s leave them to it. If anyone is still in the mood for reading, there’s always the Lux Library Planet in the fiftieth century. Mind you I did hear something about flesh eating dust around there. How about the good old British Library. Nothing nasty ever happened in there.”