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

Strax passed through the scullery stamping snow from his oversized boots and paused as he saw Jenny at the big, well-scrubbed kitchen table humming a seasonal song and mixing something lumpy and unappetising in appearance even to a Sontaran who had been raised on composite gruel from the Battalion nursery.

“That looks like the pulped internal organs of a Vlaag Beetle,” he remarked.

“Silly,” Jenny – the only person in the cosmos who had ever called a Sontaran ‘silly’ and lived - responded. “This is a Christmas pudding. It’s full of fruit and nuts and molasses, and spices and sixpences.”

“Sixpences?” Strax was puzzled. “To raise the metallic content of the ‘pudding’? Does this go with the lyric about ‘earth hard as iron’ that you were singing?”

“It’s for luck,” Jenny replied. “It’s a tradition. Even in my house as a child, where we didn’t have much money, my mother managed to put a few farthings into the pudding. It was never a very big pudding, but it went around everyone and somehow there was a farthing in every portion.”

Jenny’s eyes looked back into the past as she recalled her poverty-line childhood in the East End of London. She was the eldest of the half dozen children and the first to bring in a small extra income as a match seller on the unforgiving streets of London. Then it had been a bigger pudding with half-pennies in it and a bag of oranges to share amongst her siblings.

On the whole it hadn’t been the worst life. There was no alcoholism or violence in her home. Even so, she had no regrets about moving up a few rungs on the social ladder when she became Madam Vastra’s ‘companion’. This kitchen was ‘hers’. The scullery maid who scuttled off in fear every time she saw Strax answered to her. She ordered the groceries and set the menus and did most of the cooking within this domestic domain. Preparing for the Christmas feast was a particularly joyful chore.

“Oh, look, it’s snowing again,” she remarked, glancing through the window into the yard where Strax had stabled the horse and put away the carriage now that Madam was done with it for the day. There had been a fall overnight, but it had stopped during the morning. Now, it was coming down heavily once more.

“A snowy Christmas after all,” she added happily. “I didn’t think we would have any at all. Until last week it was almost springlike. I even saw daisies blooming in the garden of St. Pauls. Now it’s REALLY Christmas Eve.”

It all went over Strax’s head. He didn’t understand Christmas at all. He had to be reminded regularly that they didn’t consume Turkish people during the festivities and that ‘Boxing Day’ had nothing to do with any form of fist-fighting. This particularly disappointed him, but since he was the undisputed boxing champion of the St. Pauls district anyway he didn’t REALLY need a special day to celebrate it.

While Jenny was attempting to explain that a rounded Christmas pudding could not, in fact, be used as a cannonball Madam Vastra entered the kitchen. As mistress of the house she had entered by the front door while Strax brought the carriage around to the yard. Divested of her outer garments she looked slender and tall in her dark maroon day dress.

“Good afternoon, my dear,” she said, kissing Jenny on the cheek.

“Did you have a good day with your Ladies Committee?” Jenny asked.

“Passably pleasant,” Madam answered. “We distributed festive baskets of produce among the poor of Shoreditch, Whitechapel and Limehouse – all gratefully received.”

Jenny smiled at her lover. Cold-blooded though she was, she involved herself in many charitable works that sought to improve the lives of the Human poor.

“Have you eaten?” she asked. “I can prepare a cold collation.”

“I popped into Newgate before coming home,” Madam answered. Jenny grimaced. That meant that her Silurian wife had feasted on Human flesh – some miscreant who had escaped the hangman but met with a different kind of capital justice. Jenny quietly wished Madam could confine her appetites to meat cooked here in the kitchen, but every once in a while her primal instincts overruled her sophistication.

“That doesn’t REALLY fit in with the spirit of Christmas, you know,” Jenny pointed out.

“The man was calling himself the Shoreditch Strangler. I think it was a very great gift to the poor wretches of that district. Really, though, I despair of humans sometimes. The Silurian race was just as numerous, yet we had no poverty or hunger.”

“But that’s because you used to EAT the surplus population,” Jenny argued, stirring the plum pudding extra vigorously so as not to allow the image to stick in her mind.

“If humans did the same….” Madam began, but that was too much. Jenny changed the subject quickly.

“There was a telegram earlier,” she said. “It was from The Doctor. He’s bringing a friend – a lady friend - for an old-fashioned Victorian Christmas dinner. I don’t know if he means Clara or River… or somebody we don’t yet know.”

“It will be somebody The Doctor knows and trusts if he is bringing her here,” Madam answered. “We will welcome his friend as we welcome him. Prepare the guest rooms in the usual way. Remember that The Doctor dislikes mirrors in his bedroom. They remind him of how many faces he has gone through.”

“That’s already arranged,” Jenny assured her. “I’m looking forward to seeing The Doctor again.”

“We all are.” Madam glanced at Strax with a sly smile.

“I look forward to crushing the enemy of Sontar with my bare hands,” he said before remembering himself. “Indeed, The Doctor is a welcome guest in this household. May his bones be roasted in the fires of Sontar’s sun.”

“Good old Strax,” Jenny grinned. Then her smile froze as she glanced at the window. She dropped her mixing spoon and ran through the scullery to the back door. “Madam… come and look. The snow is frozen.”

“Snow IS always frozen,” Madam replied. She came carefully. Her Silurian blood cooled faster than humans in winter and she was not especially fond of snow.

She was even less fond of snow that had frozen in the air, hanging motionless like sparkling points of white against the greyer sky.

“It’s… frozen!” she exclaimed.

“Like I just said,” Jenny reminded her.

“But that is quite impossible.”

“What time is it?” Jenny asked. Madam lifted back the cuff of her dress sleeve and examined an exquisite wrist watch. It was studded with diamonds mined on a planet many light years from Earth and given to her by The Doctor on the tenth anniversary of their first meeting. It was his diplomatic way of forgetting that he had found her eating workers in the excavation of the new London underground system that had roused her from her hibernation in the midst of the Human time known as the Victorian Age.

The watch had stopped.

Jenny walked back into the kitchen and looked at the wall clock that kept good time, counting out the seconds with a resounding ‘tock’ and the swish of its pendulum.

The pendulum wasn’t swishing and there was no ‘tock’. The hands were frozen at eight minutes to two.

She went back outside and reported this fact to Madam. Strax meanwhile had gone through the yard and out along the alleyway. He returned a few minutes later to report that he had walked along Old Change, Cheapside and as far as Cannon Street and found every soul there, like the clocks and the snow, as still as statues.

“Time is standing still,” Madam concluded.

“Why are we not affected?” Jenny asked.

“We have all travelled in The Doctor’s TARDIS, through the time vortex. We are imbued with some of its remarkable power. In this instance we are outside the effects of this unnatural temporal phenomenon.”

“Is it all over London, do you think?” Jenny asked. “Or just around here?”

“It might be all over the world for that matter,” Madam suggested. “We must get to the bottom of it. Strax, prepare the carriage.”

“There is a problem, madam,” Strax answered after stepping into the stable. “The horse has NOT travelled in the TARDIS.”

Jenny ran to confirm that Blackie, the hard working carriage horse, was frozen in the act of swallowing a mouthful of hay. She touched his glossy neck and was horrified to find no pulse in his veins, no warmth in his body. His eyes were bright, but they lacked any sign of life.

“Poor thing,” she said, spreading his blanket over his back though she didn’t know how that could help.

“Don’t worry, Jenny, my dear,” Madam told her when she returned to the house. “Blackie is not dead. Nobody is dead who shouldn’t be. They are simply suspended between moments. When this matter is resolved they will all be well and doubtless they will know nothing about what happened to them. Now, put on warm outer garments. Strax is fetching a Hansom and we shall investigate this strange affair.

“Fetching a Hansom?” Jenny was puzzled. “How can a Hansom be any use to us? The cab horse will be frozen just like Blackie.”

She put on her warm coat and hat and soft leather gloves as Madam donned a cloak and hood. Both stepped out through the front door to see a lightweight, two-passenger cab at the kerb. Strax was standing between the traces where the horse ought to be.

“I left the beast and its driver by the stand in Old Change,” Strax explained. “They will come to no harm.”

“You mean he intends to….” Jenny was astonished. “But he can’t. It’s….”

“Needs must,” Madam answered as she climbed up into the carriage. Jenny followed reluctantly and Strax set off at a trot hauling them along the road.

“It feels like… a sort of slavery,” Jenny managed to say. “I mean, it’s just not right.”

“It’s not so long since men were employed to carry the rich in sedan chairs,” Madam pointed out. “Now horses do the job. Yet nobody thinks that is slavery.”

“But horses are not Human,” Jenny argued. Madam raised an eyebrow. “Of course… you are not Human, and nor is Strax. But… still….”

“I will make sure his service is rewarded in some way,” Madam promised. “Meanwhile, let us be alert for anything unusual.”

If travelling by Hansom pulled by a Sontaran warrior in a coachman’s livery was not unusual enough, the sight of people - merchants, ladies, gentleman, boys and girls, all frozen in the midst of whatever they were doing - even a dog with its leg lifted to a lamppost - redefined the word. But Madam didn’t mean that, of course. What she meant was something that hinted at how this had come to pass.

“Head towards Newgate Street,” Jenny suggested. “Perhaps this is an elaborate gaol break.”

“Good idea,” Madam agreed and Strax turned towards the narrow, dark street where London’s most notorious prison cast a brooding shadow on even the brightest day. All seemed quiet there. The high-sided prison van stood outside the main door, the guard and driver as well as their horse frozen on the spot, the prisoner in the back shackled by time as well as the cuffs on his wrists and ankles. Inside the reception area more guards were mute and still, but all of the doors were locked securely. No supernatural escapes were taking place.

“Perhaps there is some kind of robbery going on,” Jenny next suggested. “The Tower of London, Bank of England… Buckingham Palace.”

Even though conveying them this far had been little hardship to Strax, his head turned towards his passengers and he couldn’t fail to hide his worried grimace.

“We cannot visit ALL of those places this way,” Madam decided. “We must choose the most likely target. Let us apply logic to the problem. I doubt that anyone who can stop time really needs to steal the Crown Jewels or the gold reserves of the Bank of England. I think it must be political. The monarch may be under threat of abduction or assassination. Strax, to the Palace.”

Strax had got his second wind now and turned the cab in the general direction of Buckingham Palace. The last time he had visited there it was as footman to Madam who had been invited to receive a medal in thanks for her efforts in disposing of several notorious murderers. The method of disposal was not discussed.

The audience had been a private one with only a few attendants to notice Madam’s ‘unusual’ appearance. The conversation with the monarch had been an unusual one, too. Most British subjects were awed and obeisant in the presence of their Queen. Madam Vastra spoke to her as an equal or… if anything… slightly inferior. Queen Victoria had seemed unaware of this change in the status quo – or perhaps she kept her thoughts about it to herself.

“It’s still daylight,” Jenny remarked as they reached the edge of Green Park. “It ought to be nearly four o’clock by now and getting dark. How much longer do you think it will be before time starts up again?”

“Not until this matter is resolved, I rather think,” Madam answered. “Which is why I hope my surmise was correct. If we must look elsewhere for the cause of the problem it will take so much longer.”

All was uncommonly quiet along the Mall. The Guards on duty at the gate, famed for their ability to keep standing to attention despite any provocation, were even more stiffly attendant. The gates stood open to let in a carriage that was stopped halfway through. Madam identified the occupant as The Right Honourable William Ewart Gladstone, Prime Minister of Great Britain and Ireland, adding the opinion that he was doing his job better in this frozen moment than at any other time in his political career.

“I suppose he must have been coming here to speak with Her Majesty,” Jenny suggested. “He’s not the one anybody wishes to assassinate or abduct, at any rate.”

“No, indeed,” Madam agreed. She climbed out of the cab and reached out a hand to help Jenny to step down. Once they were clear Strax let go of the traces and the Hansom sank forward. All three slipped through the open gates and crossed the forecourt to the palace. There, again, doors had been opened to receive the Prime Minister and there was no opposition to their progress through halls and ante-chambers until they reached the royal drawing room.

The warmth coming from that room was the first clue that time was behaving normally within. Fire obeyed the laws of physics just as snow did and when those laws were in abeyance the flames going up palace chimneys were frozen in place, giving off no heat. Jenny had noticed how cold it was up until now but had decided it was pointless to comment on the matter.

There was a group of people sitting near the roaring fire beside which a huge Christmas tree festooned with decorations stood. Her Majesty, Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, Empress of India, was dressed in her familiar widow’s black, lightened only a little by a white lace collar and veil and topped by the ‘small diamond crown’ that sat more easily on her head than the heavier ones but – as Jenny tried not to imagine - made her look just a little bit like an iced bun with a cherry on top.

Sitting opposite her, with their backs to the door where the three newcomers had just entered were two aliens with pale blue hairless bodies. They were talking in confident tones about their proposals to reduce the suffering of Britain’s poor. Victoria seemed to be keenly interested. She didn’t even notice the three new arrivals until they were almost at the fireplace.

“Why, Madam Vastra, Jenny… and Commander Strax… How very lovely to see you on this festive day.”

“Good afternoon, Your Majesty,” Madam said with a slight bow of the head and a rather curt tone.

“Good afternoon, Your Majesty,” Jenny repeated, bobbing her very best curtsey.”

“Fraternal Greetings from the Sontar High Command to the King of Earth,” Strax added with a salute that very nearly took his eye out. Madam sat in an empty chair between the Queen and the alien strangers. Strax and Jenny took up positions either side of her that could become defensive ones at any moment.

“Let me introduce you to our new friends,” the Queen continued. “This is Garr and Stolin from the Styggaran Confederation. They were just explaining to me how they plan to reduce the misery of the poor of these British Islands.”

“And… how would that be achieved?” Madam Vastra asked. “As much as might be done at this time of year has been done by all who are willing to help. The central problem, to my mind, is that the poor have too many children to feed and not enough food.”

“That has never been a problem on Sontar. The breeding nurseries are supplied with sufficient clone-feed.”

Her Majesty looked at Strax but like almost everyone who heard him say these surprising things about his race, she seemed not to have understood him completely. It was much like the people he met in the street who failed to recognise that heads the shape of potatoes that join directly to the body are not quite Human.

“Our proposal is to thin out those families by taking a tithe of the children,” Garr explained. “It will be done quietly and without any fuss while the population is under the effect of the time suspension.”

“What…. No!” Jenny was appalled. “You can’t just take children away from their families, especially not at Christmas. And not like that… without even telling them what’s happening. It’s horrible. It really is.”

“Not at all, my dear,” Victoria told her soothingly. “It’s a very reasonable idea. I am quite certain that everyone will understand that it is for the very best and be so much happier with their burden lightened.”

“You can’t be serious,” Jenny protested. “The idea is absolutely… monstrous. It’s… it’s….”

“What do you propose to do with the children you take?” Madam Vastra asked the two aliens, surprised that nobody had asked the question, yet.

“They will be sold as a delicacy for the tables of the Styggaran aristocracy at the Feast of the Two Moons,” replied Garr, though by the reasonable and pleasant tone in which he said it, even Jenny was almost convinced he was offering a lifelong holiday in paradise. For several seconds she nodded in agreement. So did the Queen who had a rather silly smile on her face. Madam Vastra was puzzled, as if she had heard two different things at the same time. Strax was not even attempting to contribute anything to the debate. He maintained his position as Madam’s hired muscle in case of necessity.

Quite by chance Jenny glanced at the mantelpiece above the roaring fire. Amid boughs of carefully sculpted holly and berries a beautiful bone china nativity scene was placed in the centre, probably a unique set made by Royal Doulton under their Royal Warrant as a special gift to Her Majesty. Jenny, shaken from her stupor, moved quickly and snatched up the manger with the baby Jesus lying within the finely detailed bone china hay. She waved it in front of the surprised Queen’s face.

“Did you read to the end of this story, Your Majesty. Do you remember what King Herod did to the babies in Bethlehem. THAT is what you are proposing.”

“Proposing….” Queen Victoria murmured, catching the last word of what was being said. “A Modest Proposal, Jonathon Swift… the poor producing babies to sell as meat to the rich.”

“We do not have rich and poor in Silurian society,” Madam Vastra said, still struggling with two alternative views of what was happening. “But as I was saying to Jenny earlier, we do not have hunger, either, because….”

“And I told you not to go there,” Jenny snapped with uncharacteristic anger towards her reptilian wife. “HUMANS do not eat their children and we don’t let aliens eat them either. King Herod is dead and gone. We live in better times than that. Even if life is far from perfect for the poor… even though this little bit of china in my hand is probably worth enough to buy a turkey dinner with trimmings for the inmates of the Whitechapel workhouse, we don’t resort to horrible ideas like that. We… we make do with what we have and give thanks to God and providence for it like… like Tiny Tim in Mr Dickens’ book and… and….”

But Queen Victoria was still smiling in a very silly way at the two aliens and only listening vaguely to Jenny’s brave speech.

There was only one thing for it.

“Strax… you’re the only one here who isn’t an actual British citizen, so it isn’t treason if you do it.”

“Do… what, boy?” Strax asked.

“Slap Queen Victoria… hard.”

Even Strax with his confusion about gender was puzzled by such an ungallant order. He glanced at Madam, who in turn looked at Jenny - who waved the china manger at her. She turned back to Strax and nodded.

Strax slapped Queen Victoria in the face. The sound of Sontaran flesh making contact with the softer parts of a Human body echoed around the room.

Queen Victoria woke from the hypnotic daze that Garr had put her under. She leapt up from her chair pointing at the two aliens and calling for her guards.

“Your guards aren’t available just now,” Madam told her. “But allow us.”

While Strax exhibited far more agility than might be expected from such a stout, clumsy looking figure and rendered Stolin unconscious with his best upper cut to the chin, Jenny clonked Garr on the nose with the china baby Jesus and Madam put him into a chokehold that could kill if she applied enough pressure. She applied just enough to paralyse the alien while leaving him conscious.

“Your proposal is rejected,” she told him.

“Indeed, it is,” Queen Victoria added.

“Then we will take the children with maximum force,” he answered through gritted teeth. “Our ship is in orbit on the dark side of the Earth moon where your primitive astronomical devices cannot detect it. Thousands of troops are ready to descend. There will be bloodshed. There will be grief. There will be no selection. EVERY family will suffer loss, not merely the poor.”

“My goodness,” Queen Victoria murmured, her eyes turning towards a portrait of her own large family when Prince Albert was alive and she wore far more colours. She was a mother, grandmother, even a great-grandmother now with her offspring married off to the great royal houses of Europe. She fully understood what it would mean to every family in the British Isles, rich or poor, to lose a child.

She also realised that Madam, Strax and Jenny were too few to stop that terrible thing from happening. Her face paled and her lips trembled as the hopelessness of the situation sank in.

“If I only had a Sontaran Ion Canon,” Strax lamented. “It would melt a hole straight through the moon and vaporise the enemy ship.”

“I hope we can find a solution that does not involve such desperate measures,” Vastra told him, but she was out of ideas, and if Strax COULD have accessed such a deadly weapon she might have had to consider it as an option.

While she was still wondering what to do, the drawing room doors were flung open and the air was filled with the strains of Silent Night played – in utter contradiction - extremely loudly and incongruously on a set of Scots bagpipes. Everyone’s attention was drawn to the player – the gaunt, grey-haired figure of The Doctor. He was wearing a bearskin that he had presumably stolen from one of the Guards outside the palace and a pair of sunglasses of a style that wouldn’t be designed for at least another century.

In the midst of the distraction, Stolin woke from Strax’s knockout blow and tried to make a run for it. The Doctor whacked him around the face with the bagpipes which let out a sympathetically desolate groan. He dropped the instrument and finished off the Styggaran child stealer with a kick to the back of the scrawny blue legs and a neck pinch worthy of any Vulcan science officer.

“Doctor!” Madam Vastra exclaimed as he began restraining both aliens with pairs of electronic cuffs that he pulled from his apparently bottomless jacket pocket. “Don’t think that I’m not grateful to see you, but how….”

“Never mind how he got here,” Jenny interrupted. “Doctor… they have a ship hiding behind the moon ready to kidnap millions of children.”

“Not anymore,” The Doctor replied. “I called the Shaddow Proclamation as soon as I noticed the time freeze shenanigans going on. The Judoon have the ship in custody. Hold on a moment.”

He pulled down the glasses on his nose so as to look more carefully at the settings on a new, streamlined version of his ubiquitous sonic screwdriver. He pointed the device at the two aliens who were immediately surrounded by a silvery glow. A few moments later they vanished as they were transported to the Judoon prison ship.

“Call that my Christmas present to planet Earth,” The Doctor said. He glanced at the drawing room window and counted slowly. On ‘ten’ the snow began to fall normally again and there was a shout of consternation in the corridor outside. The Doctor turned and told the newly revived guards that the blue box was his property and the lady beside it was with him. He brought the lady - a petite, dark haired women in her mid-sixties but still retaining more than a hint of youthful beauty – into the drawing room, brushing off the chamberlain who tried to announce them.

“Your Majesty, Madam, Jenny, Strax… this is my very old friend, Miss Sarah Jane Smith.”

Sarah Jane made her best effort at a curtsey which satisfied the Queen that she was a loyal subject, unlike The Doctor who never made even the most perfunctory bow.

“Sarah Jane hasn’t travelled with me for a very long time,” he added. “But I was all out of present ideas and thought an old-fashioned Victorian Christmas would make a nice festive treat.”

“Now that the old-fashioned trouble has been cleared up,” Sarah Jane added with a voice of long-suffering experience. She glanced at The Doctor’s three friends and wondered just how authentic a Victorian Christmas with them would be.

“I’ve made a plum pudding for your visit,” Jenny said, perhaps reading the uncertainty in her face. “And Strax has put up decorations. He tried to hang cluster grenades on the tree, of course, but I persuaded him that glass baubles were better.”

“Plum pudding can wait until tomorrow,” announced Queen Victoria as she found herself unaccustomedly left out of the conversation. “Tonight, you must all be my guests here at the palace for MY Christmas supper. It is the least I can do to thank you all for your help in this crisis.”

“Will there be Turks on the menu?” Strax asked as everyone else heartily thanked her for the invitation.

“Turkey, Strax,” Jenny quietly corrected him.