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

Jenny Flint sighed and turned over in her bunk. She was far from comfortable despite this being, allegedly, first class travel.

Madame was having no such trouble in the bunk below. She was sleeping soundly enough. Jenny could hear her breathing evenly through her lizard nostrils, a sound quite unlike that of humans breathing.

But Jenny was wide awake. The rhythmic sound of the train speeding through the night wasn’t soothing. If anything, it was rather irritating.

She had already spent longer on trains yesterday than she had in her entire life and she was not really enjoying the experience. Granted, she had once been further than any human had ever been when she and Madame travelled by TARDIS to aid The Doctor at Demons Run, but that had been a much smoother and faster ride.

This torturous journey started at Victoria Station at three o’clock, when the two of them plus Strax in third class, where the seats were strong enough to support him, boarded the Dover train. They had taken tea in the dining car and the scenery of a rainy Kent flying by was dull enough not to be a distraction. Madame spoke cheerfully of the South of France where the weather was warmer than this unseasonably dull April with too much rain and grey, lowering clouds. Jenny had been looking forward to the holiday. She had never really had one before, and the idea of going to another country entirely was enticing.

But after tea there was just sitting still. Then there was the Port of Dover and the transfer to the boat train. The Channel had been ‘choppy’ to say the least. It felt like longer than two and a half hours before they arrived in Calais. There, they transferred to another train, but not before the quite nerve-wracking experience of presenting their passport papers to a little man who spoke English with a French accent and mispronounced most of the words. It was bad enough the way he tried to stare through Madame’s veil as if he doubted her identity. His scrutiny of Strax was even worse. She, meanwhile, was annoyed by the fact that her passport paper listed her occupation as ‘domestic’. Granted, she could hardly travel as the wife of a lizard woman from the dawn of time, but ‘domestic’ was just a bit too insulting. She was more than that. Strax was the ‘domestic’. He was the one pushing the luggage trolley.

The ‘Club Train’ as it was called took them from Calais to Paris. It was one hundred and eighty miles, another four hours of jolting and clanking and noise. They had a meal in the dining car, but Jenny barely remembered what she ate. The awfulness of the journey had completely ruined the experience.

Then they reached Paris. After an hour’s wait on the cavernous, draughty Gare du Nord they finally boarded the overnight train, this Express Méditerrannée.

“Express!” Jenny laughed ironically. The first hour and a half of the journey was the exact opposite of ‘express’. The train had crawled around something called the Chemin de fer de Petite Ceinture. The English translation was just as complicated and basically meant a long, circular line that went wide around the centre of Paris at a very slow, very jolting, very uncomfortable rate. And all that just to get to the Gare de Lyon a mere three miles away from the first station.

And then there had been a delay while some kind of animal in a huge wooden crate was put aboard the baggage car. There had been a lot of shouting and an argument between the handlers. Jenny had seen and heard it all from the window of the wagon-lit. A strange man with round shoulders and a beard and hair so deranged he almost resembled the ‘apes’ Madame was always so dismissive of was apparently in charge of the animal. It was his bad temper that was causing all the arguments among the station porters and the train guard. If he had left them to do their job, Jenny had thought, it would all have been done with less trouble and more speed.

When they finally departed from Gare de Lyon, and the southern suburbs of Paris were behind them, the train did speed up considerably. Compared with the ceinture with its many road crossings and switches, it was smooth, but it was still a train rolling along tracks and she just couldn’t sleep.

“Now what!” she cried out as a disturbance in the corridor outside made it impossible even to think of sleep. She slid off the bunk and grabbed a silk printed kimono style gown that she slipped over her satin pyjamas. She slipped her feet into Turkish slippers before wrenching open the door to come face to face with an angry man wielding a patent leather shoe. He raised it at her threateningly, but she knocked it out of his hand with an instinctive martial arts punch. The train corridor wasn’t quite wide enough for most of her best moves, but she nonetheless reduced the man to a weeping heap on the carpeted floor before glancing around at a second source of noise.

This was a short, petite woman, screaming in French as Strax lifted her off her feet and made her drop the pair of dressmaking scissors she was holding.

“What is going on?” asked Madame Vastra joining Jenny in the corridor wearing her own matching silk bed gown and slippers.

“I was just about to ask,” Jenny answered as Strax let the woman down on her own two feet but kept a three-fingered hand clamped on her shoulder.

“These two men were trying to kill each other,” Strax explained. “I succeeded in separating them without resorting to neck breaking.”

“Small mercies,” Jenny murmured. She noted that the man was wearing good quality nightwear. The woman was in a silk nightdress. They were clearly First Class wagon-lit passengers.

“Mr and Mrs Bouchet,” Madame said. “They were in the dining car opposite us on the Calais to Paris train. Mr Bouchet is a wine grower from Lyon.”

Jenny was always impressed by Madame’s ability to recall details about the ‘apes’ she otherwise dismissed.

“We should take them back to their berth and calm them down with some tea,” Madame added. As she spoke, there was another sound of raised voices from another of the First Class sleeping compartments. “Strax, see to that, will you.”

“I’d better help him, in case of neck breaking,” Jenny suggested. Mr and Mrs Bouchet seemed calm now, if anything a little embarrassed. They were willing to be taken back to their private space, away from the gaze of other passengers looking out of their doors to see what was happening.

Strax had opened the other compartment by the simple method of kicking the door inwards. Since the doors opened outwards this had the twofold effect of creating a Strax shaped hole in the wood and knocking one man over onto the floor. The other was so startled by Strax’s appearance that he dropped the broken stem of a champagne glass he had been holding and just stared around him in disbelief.

“Who are you and what are you doing to each other in the middle of the night?” Jenny demanded.

“I’m… Jean Grouès,” the standing man answered. “He is Martin Dessay. He is my… my… companion.”

“Yes, my wife calls me that in public,” Jenny remarked dryly. “Why are you trying to kill each other?”

“He… had a knife,” Grouès said, pointing at a butter knife on the floor near where his ‘companion’ was trying to stand up, hampered by the train motion and a headache.

“And you had a sharp length of glass,” Jenny pointed out. “But WHY?”

“I….” Dessay gained his upright position and looked at Grouès. They both shook their heads. They didn’t know why they had been at each other’s throats. Both burst into tears and hugged unashamedly. Jenny backed out of the room and Strax followed her. The door was useless, so the privacy the two men really needed was difficult, but they made do.

“Now what?” The sound of a sliding door opening and closing with a bang – twice – was followed by two men chasing each other and swearing loudly in the distinct French dialects of Provencal and Breton. Both had colourful and inventive insults. The Provencal man was dressed as a wagon-lit guard. The Breton was in the livery of the bar staff from the ‘club car’.

Strax blocked the way and brought both of them to a halt. The shock of the confrontation brought them both to their senses. They stared at each other and then around at the dark landscape speeding by outside. They seemed perplexed to be there in the corridor instead of at their respective posts as employees of the Express Méditerrannée company.

Strax darted away to break down another door to deal with another angry contretemps that had flared up. Madame came out to the corridor with a large hessian package.

Chamomile tea,” she said giving the bag to the barman. “My personal supply for the month. Make as much of it as possible and distribute it to every passenger who is awake at this time.”

“Oui, Madame,” he answered after a long pause when he might have been wondering why he was taking orders from a lizard woman. He went to do her bidding.

“Strax appears to be calming most of these odd situations,” she said. “Let us sit quietly in our own compartment and gather our thoughts.”

There was a lot of shouting and hysteria in the carriage. There were going to be a lot of Strax shaped holes as well as hinges and locks to mend when this train got where it was going, but the mere appearance of the pyjama cad Sontaran in the broken doorway was enough to shock most of the noisemakers into their proper senses. Jenny and Vastra were free to retreat to their private space.

Madame had already lit a portable samovar on the little table by the window that passed for a sitting room in the First Class compartment. She poured chamomile tea into two fine bone china cups. They drank quietly. A small station flashed by and the lights of a road that the train passed over on a viaduct. Jenny sighed deeply. It was probably beautiful countryside, but it was too dark and they were going too fast to enjoy anything.

“I hate this train!” Jenny complained in weary, put upon tones. “I’ve hated the whole journey, ever since Victoria.”

She didn’t mean to sound ungrateful in any way, but her list of grievances about the Dover train, the boat, the Calais to Paris leg and so on did descend into pure gripe.

Madame put down her cup and looked at Jenny through half-closed slits of eyes that emphasised her lizardness.

“But… my dear,” she said. “That isn’t true. You were delighted with every aspect of it. You loved ordering tea on the Dover train as if you were – in your own words – ‘one of the toffs.’ You enjoyed the boat thoroughly. It was I who could not bear to go up on deck. As for the Calais to Paris train with that simply opulent dining car….”

Madame stopped talking and looked at Jenny even more critically.

“What did you say about the petit ceinture?”

“It was the worst part of the journey of all. The bumping and jolting and the slow, slow, almost stopping then jolting off again….”

“But… my dear, we didn’t travel on the ceinture. Strax took charge of the luggage at Gare du Nord and boarded the train. We took advantage of the hour’s wait plus the time it took to negotiate the ceinture and enjoyed a carriage ride through the centre of Paris. We even had a detour along the quays. You were delighted to see Sainte Chapelle and Notre Dame against the night sky and the pleasure boats on the Seine all lit up. I believe I even promised a stop over in the city on our return to see those sights at our leisure. But you were happy, then. You were happy when we finally boarded the train and had hot cinnamon milk here in the compartment before retiring to our bunks.”

Jenny stared into her chamomile tea and realised that Madame was right. She had been having a wonderful time. The journey to Paris was the most exciting one she had been on since that trip in the TARDIS, and the carriage journey through Paris absolutely sublime.

She remembered it that way, now. The other memory, of being disenchanted with the whole experience, was the one that felt unreal, like a fading nightmare.

“What has been going on?” she asked. “Why did I think I hated everything?”

“I don’t know,” Madame admitted. “But I suspect it is connected with the odd behaviour of other people tonight.”

“Something in our food?” Jenny queried. “No. That can’t be right. Not everyone was on the Calais train at dinner time. And the staff are affected, too, so its not the bedtime drinks.”

“It’s not the food,” Madame confirmed. “It’s something that affects Human minds.”

“Only Humans?”

“Well, it hasn’t affected me,” Madame pointed out. “Nor Strax. It seems only humans have been overwhelmed by anger and resentment.”

“Everyone was fine earlier,” Jenny surmised, before Madame could launch into a lecture about ape brained humans not having evolved like her own reptilian race. “Only after we went to bed….”

“Only after the train left Gare de Lyon,” Madame corrected her. “The staff didn’t go to bed. The last station is the point where matters began to deteriorate.”

“Which means….”

“Something came aboard the train at Gare de Lyon that affected all of you.”

“Oh….” Jenny’s thoughts whirled. In both of the memories, including the fading, false one, she had watched out of the compartment window as a little man argued with staff about the handling of an animal in a crate.

“We never saw what kind of animal it was,” she recalled. “What if it was something… unusual?”

“What indeed?” Madame agreed. “Come, my dear. We need to look closely at this creature in the luggage van.”

They collected Strax on the way. He had subdued most of the arguments by now. Sheepish and embarrassed people were glad to see him pass by the broken doors of their compartments as they sipped chamomile tea and wondered exactly what had happened to them.

All was quiet in the club car, though the bar staff were clearing up signs of a fight that had sent glassware tumbling and three men who felt themselves too manly for chamomile tea were drinking whiskey sours and watching each other suspiciously.

Three more Wagon-Lit carriages, a Pullman car, the dining car set for breakfast and the kitchen where the meals were prepared were all quiet, now, though there were signs of earlier trouble. Finally, they reached the luggage van. It was off limits to passengers, but such arbitrary rules meant nothing to Strax. Another door strained at its hinges.

“Oh no!” Jenny exclaimed as she saw the devastation within. Luggage had been thrown about with some force. At least one trunk was burst open, the contents strewn about.

The animal crate was broken open from the inside out and there was no sign of the animal. Before they could wonder about that, though, they had to attend to the two men who lay motionless on the floor.

“This one is dead,” Madame said of the guard in the uniform of the Express Méditerranée company. “His neck is broken.”

“This one lives,” Strax said of the small man Jenny recognised as the owner or keeper of the crated animal. He had a gash on his forehead and bruising to the softer parts of his face and was blissfully unconscious. “Should I kill him, now?”

“No, Strax,” Madame answered. She produced a bottle of smelling salts from the pocket of her silk robe. Jenny wondered how she had known to bring such a thing along, but it did its job, reviving the small man quickly, though far from pleasantly.

“It’s gone!” he exclaimed in horror as he sat up and took in the dead man and the empty crate. “Lord have mercy on us all.”

“What’s gone?” Madame demanded. “What foolishness have you committed?”

“The train is still moving?” the man asked. “How long until Lyon?”

“Not until 8.40,” Jenny answered. “It’s just gone three. Five hours.”

“Then we may not be too late,” the man said. “If it can be caged again before we reach a populated place….”

“Cage WHAT?” Jenny asked. “What exactly did you have in there? It obviously wasn’t a monkey or anything… normal. It was affecting the minds of everyone on the train.”

“It is….” The man shook his head. He looked at Strax and then at Madame cautiously, but not, Jenny noted, with any particular surprise.

He had seen non-humans before.

“I AM non-Human,” he said to Jenny. “I am Cazla Venn, a Cendan Bounty Hunter. The ‘creature’ is my prisoner. I am taking it to Marseille where an agent of the Atraxi will take charge of it and pay me what I am owed.”

“Does any of that sound right?” Jenny asked Madame Vastra.

“I understand his mission. But I do not know his race, nor have I heard of the Atraxi.”

I have,” Strax said, much to everyone’s surprise. They were all used to considering him as a slightly dim potato with a homicidal tendency and problems with gender pronouns. They forgot that he was once the commander of a Sontaran war battalion.

Curiously, that definition of first impressions of Strax included Cazla Venn, who seemed to recognise a Sontaran on sight and was clearly uncomfortable being as close to him as he was.

“Ma’am,” Strax continued. “The Cendan are known as a former enemy of Sontar – former, because the Eighteenth Battalion under General Vax sacked their home planet, laid it waste and scattered the survivors to the fifteen corners of the galaxy. We know the Atraxi as the justice race who captured the villainous Rutan High Priest who ruthlessly and treacherously smote the valiant Twenty-Fifth Battalion and imprisoned him in their jail in the hollowed-out centre of a dead planet.”

Madame and Jenny looked at him in surprise. Venn looked with unease.

“And exactly WHAT race is your prisoner who was so dangerous it could telepathically turn sweethearts and friends into violent enemies before making its escape from this pitifully inadequate wooden box?” Madame asked.

“A Vodan Mind Bender,” Venn answered. “But this isn’t an ordinary wooden box. It is tempered Cendan steel with a chameleon skin to blend in with its surroundings. It ought to have held the Vodan. Its mind SHOULD have been neutralised by a stasis field. This human luggage guard damaged the lock by spilling the liquid called ‘coffee’ on the mechanism. The creature broke free and killed him. It must be recaptured before the next city or it will raze that place to the ground.”

“All right, but where do we start looking?” Jenny asked.

“We don’t,” Madame answered coldly. She turned and breathed in deeply through flaring nostrils, then took three strides that took her to the corner of the luggage van. She pushed aside two large boxes and gave a cry of disgust as she looked at the dead body of a man who was not born on planet Earth. He was in two pieces, though whether that was the cause of death or the fact that his skin had been ripped from his body was difficult to tell at first glance.

“The blood of a Cendan is significantly different to Human,” she said as she turned away. “I didn’t detect the smell at first. Strax… hold him. He’s the REAL prisoner.”

“Of course!” Strax confirmed as he placed a thick hand on the imposter’s shoulder. “Vodans are shape shifters as well as mind benders.”

“You couldn’t have told us that sooner?” Jenny asked as the Vodan snarled viciously and darted forward from Strax’s grasp, grabbing her in a necklock and edging towards the locked luggage van door.

“Open that,” he ordered Strax. “Or I will kill her.”

Madame nodded to Strax who opened the bolts that secured the door. A tremendous draught and the noise of the train rushing along the tracks assailed everyone’s ears.

“Do you mean to fly?” Madame asked. “We are travelling at more than fifty miles per hour.”

“Fly, yes,” the Vodan answered. He laughed as his body changed before their eyes, sprouting sturdy wings that would, assuredly, carry him into the sky, taking Jenny with him as a hostage, or possibly a meal.

Except that Jenny was nobody’s snack. As the Vodan took another step towards freedom she kicked backwards into his shin. She lost one of her delicate Turkish slippers in the effort, but it was enough to free herself from his grip and send him falling backwards out of the luggage van.

He gave a cry of triumph as his wings bore him up, then a suddenly cut off scream as his body, wings or no wings, was hit by the locomotive of a freight train on the opposite track. Madame was the only one with eyesight quick enough to see him dragged under the mighty wheels before Strax pushed the door shut, cutting off the noise and the pressure of displaced air.

“Are you all right, my dear?” Madame asked Jenny as she stood up, searching in vain for her missing slipper. It was already a half mile back on the track along with the almost certainly unrecognisable remains of the shape-shifting Vodan Mind Bender who was beyond doing either trick any more.

“I’m fine,” Jenny answered. “Absolutely fine. I feel as if a weight’s been lifted from my head.”

“The telepathic influence is gone,” Madame confirmed. She looked around the luggage van and made a decision. “Strax… put the body of the Cendan into the crate and seal it. At Lyon I will meet the Atraxi agent. He can take custody of the body and make what arrangements he can. The death of the guard will look like a robbery gone wrong. The French police will deal with that. Doubtless they will take statements from us all, but I shouldn’t think they will learn very much except that many passengers had a disturbed night.”

“And what do we do after you have talked to the Atraxi agent?” Jenny wondered aloud, thinking that Madame was making a night of carnage sound all too easy.

“We continue our journey to the South of France, to our villa holiday in the warmth of a Riviera spring with orange blossoms beneath our bedroom window. Oranges used to grow all over the land you call England in my time… before it got so dreadfully cold. It will be absolute bliss.”