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

“February is the best month to visit Egypt,” said an upper class female voice in a languid tone.

"Why so? another female asked in a tone of one who was expected to respond at that point. "Is the weather better?"

"I suppose it is," the first voice continued. "That's why it is more expensive. Only the best people can afford it. You don’t have to mix with 'industrialists' and that sort."

The other voice didn't answer that comment.

Jenny Flint half turned from where she was sitting on the sundeck of the SS Rameses to see the women who had spoken. The one who despised 'industrialists' was elegantly dressed in white voile and a wide brimmed hat that kept the sun from her face, an outfit designed to invoke envy in other women.

Jenny had no need for envy. She was dressed elegantly enough herself in a pale green sundress with a matching hat. She could even match the accent if she wanted to. She could fit in the social set who visited Egypt in February.

If she chose to do so.

Beside her, Madame Vastra was wearing dark green, her face veiled but her body relaxed as it was warmed by the sun.

Jenny looked again at the woman in the white voile. Her name was Lady Susanna Sotherby. She was accompanied by a thin, plain girl in a plain cotton dress and a plain hat who had just passed her Ladyship a magazine to read before turning her own attention back to the passing view of the Egyptian countryside.

There were several women with titles like ‘Lady' and 'Honourable' on this cruise down the Nile. All of them were accompanied by plain, thin girls who ran about fetching hats, handbags, drinks, and occasionally getting to sit on a deckchair and enjoy themselves. Most of them were poor relations who were brought along on what was meant to be an opportunity of a lifetime but really was just a kind of unpaid drudgery.

Jenny wasn’t sure whether to feel sorry for the plain, thin girls or want to shake some self-respect into them. She was leaning towards the latter.

This was the late afternoon of day three aboard the Rameses, its great paddle wheel driving them inexorably upstream from their starting point at Luxor. They had visited the temple complex at Karnak on the first afternoon and before dinner had their first view of sunset over the Nile.

The ship had carried on through the night and they had breakfasted beside a place called Edfu. The morning had been spent exploring the huge, virtually intact temple there with cool, shaded rooms adorned with hieroglyphs and carved images of ancient kings and queens. The afternoon was an opportunity to relax on the sundeck as they continued on to a place called Kom Ombo. Lady Susanna Sotherby had thought Kom Ombo was a ridiculous sounding name and said so several times.

Jenny had thought it sounded thoroughly exotic, just what she was hoping for on this trip to a foreign country with such an excitingly ancient history.

From somewhere she had learnt that the original name for the site meant ‘golden', and as the sun set over the ruined temple beside the river it really seemed to be appropriately named. Later, in the cool evening, the ruins stood out against a dark blue sky peppered with stars and illuminated by a sickle moon. Jenny had looked at it for a long time, fixing the memory of how wonderful it looked so that she would never forget it.

The visit to the temple by day was all she had hoped it would be. When she had looked at the brochure at Cook’s Oxford Street office she had wondered if one temple of warm, red stone would start to look like any other after a few days, but for her, at least, they had not.

Funnily enough, several people, including Lady Susanna Sotherby had said as much when they elected to stay aboard the Rameses instead of going ashore with the tour guide. ‘Too hot to wander around old ruins’ and ‘I can’t stand another morning being pestered by scruffy natives trying to sell things’ were other excuses.

One consequence of this attack of ennui amongst the beautiful and titled was a sub-group of the plain, thin girls who were allowed to go ashore by themselves for once. They walked in a protective huddle, not talking very much since they were all shy girls who were usually in the background and unused to speaking unless they were spoken to.

Jenny didn’t speak to them. She had other preoccupations. She particularly enjoyed these mornings ashore by Madame’s side. She knew that their exact relationship was a minor topic amongst their fellow voyagers, but she also knew that nobody mistook her for a poor relation along for the ‘opportunity' to be an unpaid personal maid. She and Madame were equals and let nobody make any mistake about that.

As they entered the temple complex through a huge archway covered in interesting carvings the Cook’s tour guide explained that Kom Ombo was a rare example of a double temple. The southern half of the structure was dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek, god of fertility and creator of the world with Hathor and Khonsu. The northern part was dedicated to the falcon god Haroeris or Horus the Elder, along with Tasenetnofret and Panebtaw, Lord of the Two Lands. It had been in a ruinous condition unsuitable for tourists until only three years ago when the French archaeologist Jean-Jacques de Morgan oversaw a large restoration project.

Jenny listened attentively, despite competing voices from two couples with ‘Lord and Lady' titles who were more concerned with making up a Bridge party after dinner than the amazing history around them.

Even the thin girls were annoying. They seemed to have overcome their shyness and were whispering to each other, a sound that was peculiarly loud in a ruined temple with nothing to dampen the susurration.

For both those reasons Madame and Jenny went their own way once the guide was finished talking. They admired the former glories of ancient Egypt quietly and with due reverence to a culture that had risen and fallen while Madame’s people slept in their deep caverns.

“They may have been apes,” Madame remarked, studying the imagery in the temple honouring Sobek, the Crocodile god. “But they showed proper respect to their reptilian betters."

“So I see,” Jenny responded, appropriately.

“But what is that noise, spoiling the peace of this place of reverence,” Madame added. It was a low, rhythmic chanting that was some distance away but echoing through the chambers and corridors of the temple complex to grate on Madame Vastra's highly sensitive ears.

She stalked out of Sobek's temple in search of the source of the irritant.

She found it in an identical temple dedicated to the goddess Hathor.

The chanting, along with a complicated circular choreography that made a maypole dance look dull was being performed by the gaggle of plain, thin girls. Oddly enough, Jenny thought their moving bodies were far less plain than they had been before. They were almost graceful.

Madame Vastra was not interested in such things. She stepped towards the dancers and stared, through her veil, until they stopped chanting and dancing and faced her, plain and chastised once more.

“What on Earth are you girls doing?" Madame demanded in tones reminiscent of a boarding school headmistress who had caught her pupils out of bed at midnight.

“We're dancing in praise of Hathor,” said the ringleader, Lady Susanna Sotheby's poor relation who Jenny thought might be called Alice Bowers. “I found a book in the market, yesterday, that showed us how to do it.”

“Honouring a goddess is commendable,” Madame conceded. “Though it hardly seems appropriate for English girls. Besides, the noise is quite unbecoming. I suggest you find a quieter way to occupy your time.”

Three of the girls murmured apologies and shuffled away. AliceBowers stood her ground and stared at Madame with a mutinous expression.

“You're not my mother. Why should I do what you say? We were doing no harm. Why do you have to spoil it? Mind your own business, you interfering old bag.”

The collection of invectives sounded to Jenny as if they had been bitten back and stored up in her soul until this moment when they suddenly overflowed.

“How dare you!” Madame responded. “Such disrespect...."

Jenny watched Madame cautiously. She had never witnessed it personally, but she knew that Madame had been known to kill her enemies with a single blow and then eat the body. This stubborn girl with her new-found courage was in extreme danger just now.

Perhaps some subconscious warning rang in the girl's head, because Alice turned and walked out of the temple without another word.

“Well!” Madame expostulated. She and Jenny were left in the quiet temple.

“I know she was rude, but I'm not sure she didn’t have a point,” Jenny ventured, aware of Madame’s still seething anger, but risking her wrath all the same. “They all looked happier than I’ve seen them all week. It was a shame to stop them, really."

Madame glared at her. Jenny knew she was glaring even through her veil. She backtracked a little – just a little.

“It was annoyingly noisy, of course. And rather an odd thing for them to be doing. What sort of book gives dance instructions for Hathor worshipping?”

“Some nonsense meant to impress gullible tourists,” Madame replied as her wrath slowly abated. “Come... I am told there is a chamber containing mummified crocodiles. I should certainly see that before we return to the ship.”

Strictly speaking the crocodiles were stuffed rather than mummified, but it was done in reverence to the fearsome Nile reptiles and Madame was pleased by the effort. It took her mind off the insult offered to her by Alice Bowers.

By dinner that evening she had forgotten the incident – or seemed to have. She enjoyed the meal and then a long walk around the promenade deck, arm in arm, as the dusk deepened into starry night.

“I love this,” Jenny said with a happy sigh. “Almost as much as I love orange season in Menton."

“I’m glad you're happy,” Madame responded with a warm softness in her voice that only Jenny knew about. Their hands entwined as they walked and Jenny anticipated a quiet moment when they might kiss under that amazing sky.

They never got to that moment. The mood was ruined by the discovery of a prone figure dressed in cream tulle. She had fallen with her head sliding under the port side railing of the Promenade deck and only the fact that some of the tulle was caught up on a lifebelt stanchion prevented her from slipping right over into the Nile.

"It's Lady Susanna Sotherby," Jenny noted as they pulled the woman to safety and rolled her over. "Is she dead?"

"No," Madame answered. "Just unconscious, though I can see no injury to cause it. I'll stay with her if you will go and fetch a steward and alert the ship's medical officer."

Jenny was already on the steps down to the main deck. Very quickly she returned with plenty of people to look after her Ladyship. She was quickly taken back to her cabin and attended to. Madame and Jenny continued their walk, though the romance had gone out of it as they speculated on what had happened to Lady Susanna.

"A touch of malaria?" Jenny guessed.

"Alcohol," was Madame's dismissive conclusion. "Foolish woman overindulging in heat that humans cannot stand – particularly those from temperate climates. I've heard that some women of her social strata also like to indulge in pharmaceuticals."

"Drugs?" Jenny had heard that, too, but she had never seen it. Of course, rich men would frequent the opium dens of Limehouse, but it seemed to be a private addiction amongst women.

And no concern of hers if people with more money than sense took up bad habits.

They went to bed after a while and slept soundly as the ship travelled up the Nile to Aswan, the furthest point of the cruise. The First Cataract made travel by ship impossible beyond that point.

After breakfast a dozen or so passengers, including Madame and Jenny transferred to a pair of feluccas, the traditional wooden sailboats of the Nile. Lunch and tea in picnic style were taken aboard in baskets and they set out for a sail around the islands of the Nile including Seheil with its granite stele, Elephantine with its ruined temple and the uninhabited flora rich El Nabatat. The boat trip itself was exciting, with the three triangle sails catching the wind above the cushioned seats placed for the comfort of the passengers.

There were some absentees from the trip. Of course, Lady Susanna was still resting in her cabin after her unexplained accident last night. Her place beside Lord Sotherby was taken by Alice Bowers who was looking very attractive in pale blue satin and a hat for which several exotic birds had been sacrificed. She was wearing cosmetics and heady perfume which his Lordship was enjoying at very close quarters as they sat together.

Another of the 'plain girls' was also wearing clothes she must have taken from her richer relative's wardrobe. Again, she was accompanied by that female relative's husband. Jenny overheard an inquiry and discovered that Lady Margaret Havenport was unwell this morning. The humble Miss Sarah Havenport, her second cousin by marriage, was kindly accompanying his Lordship on this trip,

That was a bit strange. Jenny had never and had no intention of ever being a 'companion', but she rather imagined that the role would involve sticking with the 'companionee' if they were ill.

NOT going on a day trip with the sick party's husband!

The other two of the 'plain girl' quartet, Florence Hampton and Pamela Chesterfield were accompanied by the First Mate of the Rameses who looked dashing in his officer's uniform and a tall, dark and very handsome Frenchman, Jean-Paul Lenoir, who was an architect and engineer with three impressive bridges and a dam he could rightfully boast about. Both men had travelled on the same ship for several days and this was the first time they had noticed the girls, let alone wanted to 'accompany' them anywhere.

Jenny wondered if their 'companionees' were aware that their wardrobes had been rifled for the best dresses, hats, lace trimmed gloves, parasols and other accessories that a lady would need for a day trip on a Nile felucca.

Were ALL the women they were companions to sick this morning?

And did none of the girls feel they ought to stay behind and dispense headache powders and arrange for light meals in the cabin?

Jenny decided there were more important things for her to think about. The view of the Nile here at the First Cataract where rocks stuck up through the water and the disrupted current hissed and churned as it passed over the shallows was more than enough to occupy her mind.

The architect explained, mainly to Pamela, but to anyone else who was listening, that there were plans to dam the river near Aswan and create a deeper, wider body of water that would allow the Nile to be fully navigable for several hundred miles more. It would be good for Egyptian trade and development, as well as providing civil and military advantages to the government.

"Indeed," agreed the First Mate. "The plan is one our company has been watching with interest. It opens up new prospects for the tourism industry. Five, six years from now we will be able to offer journeys by paddle steamer all the way to the famous Abu Simbel temples which are too far away for a day trip by Felucca."

The native Dragoman, a guide and interpreter who directed the Felucca sailors and translated the questions from English and French speaking passengers smiled and nodded.

"Indeed, it is a great plan for the benefit of Egyptian people, though there are some who believe capturing the Nile behind walls of rock and concrete might be bad luck."

"How so?" Madame asked.

"The 'old gods' of Egypt would not like it," the Dragoman answered. "Though expressing views like that is a dangerous thing in itself. The 'old gods' of Egypt are mere myth. There is only one god and He is Allah."

Even Jenny, who hadn't done much comparative theology in her schooling, recognised a political issue there. She had noticed in the temples they had already visited some attempts at defacing references to 'all powerful' gods who preceded Islamic Egypt. In latter times the authorities had recognised that the rich history of Egypt's past could produce real riches through tourism so the defacement had stopped, but it was certainly true that ancient Egypt and the modern country with plans for dams across the Nile were two different places.

The Dragoman skilfully turned the conversation away from politics and religion and pointed out the important landmarks to be seen either side of the Nile as well as in the middle where a string of elongated islands rose out of the turbulent water. Jenny looked with rapt attention, taking in all he had to say joyfully. She remembered from time to time that it WAS February and London was cold, wet and dark. She thanked any God who was listening, even the ancient and mythological ones, that she had this time under the sun to enjoy.

They lunched on the island of Elephantine before visiting one of its most interesting ancient artefacts.

It appeared to be a set of very well-worn steps cut down into the granite rock that supported the island itself. The passage closed over the heads of the visitors as the steps turned a corner. Their guide held up an oil lamp to light the way and to highlight deep lines with figures beside them etched into the walls.

This was an ancient Niloneter. At the very bottom was a portal. At low water it was above the surface of the Nile. When the tide rose, the water rushed in and up the steps. At the time of Inundation, when the fields for miles either side of the river were flooded, the water could very nearly reach the top of the steps. The ancient Egyptians, who relied on the regular flooding to fertilise their fields measured and checked the river's height daily. Records were kept on papyrus scrolls that could be seen in the Elephantine museum.

"Such inventive apes," Madame remarked. High praise from her!

Jenny thought it impressive, too, though she was a little distracted by her fellow tourists. She couldn't help noticing that the two married Lordships with wives lying sick aboard the Rameses were paying a lot of attention to the girls who had accompanied them. They disguised it as concern that the female feet didn't slip on the steps, but there seemed to be far too much arm holding, even so. The First Mate and the Archaeologist were single men. They could do as they wished in the way of courtship, but married men should know better.

Jenny wondered if that made her a prude, or in any way hypocritical. But she didn't think so. Her relationship with Madame Vastra was a faithful one on both sides. Seeing people deliberately breaking that same sort of faith disgusted her.

"Stupid, stupid people," she said to herself. Then she smiled as she realised she had almost thought 'stupid apes' as Madame would call them.

It was a wonderful day trip, anyway, and returning in the dusk with lights beginning to be lit in the settlements along the shoreline was magical.

Aboard the Rameses there was a muted atmosphere. It wasn't until the day trippers had washed and changed and gone along to dinner that they found out why. Before the meal was served the Captain asked for silence and then allowed the ship's doctor to speak.

"There are now four passengers in seriously ill condition. Lady Susanna Sotherby is in a deep coma and Lady Margaret Havenport is also critical. Lady Adelaide Hampton and Lady Anne Chesterfield are sinking fast despite all I can do for them. I have to consider the possibility that their illness is infectious, and therefore beds are being made up in the smoking room, where the four patients can be treated in isolation. If any further illnesses occur it may be necessary to declare the SS Rameses under quarantine. In any case, the boat will be returning to Luxor under full steam as soon as possible. I would ask everybody to remain calm and to report any signs of illness straight away."

As the doctor sat, the Captain fielded a number of questions about the non-stop return journey which had already begun as they gathered in the dining room. The Captain did his best to assure the passengers that their safety and comfort was his first priority.

Dinner was a sombre meal that nobody lingered over. Afterwards most people stayed in the dining room, since the smoking room wasn't available. Two groups of four played Bridge. Some read books or magazines. Everyone was just passing time until it felt about right to go to bed.

Jenny noticed that Alice Bowers and Lord Sotherby were still acting very cosily. So were Sarah Havenport and Lord Havenport. Both couples were utterly shameless about their activities.

"Don’t you find it strange that the four sick women are the companionees of the thin girls," Jenny remarked.

"I'm really not at all sure 'companionees' is a real word," Madame replied. "But the coincidence has not escaped my notice."

"Have you also noticed that the thin girls look less thin, less pale, less plain, as their companionees have taken ill. Almost as if they were thriving now that they aren't being eclipsed."

"I have noticed that, too," Madame confirmed. "Though I am still uncertain about that word."

"Do you suppose it is just coincidence?" Jenny asked.

"No!" Madame responded emphatically.

"Neither do I,"

Madame watched Alice Bowers accepting Lord Sotherby's arm around her shoulder.

"She doesn't look as if she will be going to her bed any time soon. I wonder…."

Jenny looked at Madame and smiled. She knew what she was being asked to do without any more words passing between them.

"All I need is a hatpin," she said. "I'll see you in five minutes in our room."

The job took no more than that. In the privacy of their first class berth they examined the object Jenny had extracted from Alice Bowers' second class cabin with a hatpin for a lockpick.

"It IS a book describing how to perform rituals," Madame said after looking at the vivid illustrations as well as the text. "But it isn't Egyptian, ancient or modern."

"It isn't?" Jenny looked at the figures performing an elaborate dance. They had the angular style of figures carved into rock or painted on a temple wall.

"That language is not from anywhere around here," Madame insisted. Jenny looked closer. The text was an odd kind of script but, absolutely not modern Arabic or the hieroglyphs of the Old Kingdom.

She was used to written languages being readable as well as spoken ones because of her time in the Doctor's TARDIS, but this one didn't seem to need it. The words on the page shimmered as she looked and she felt them in her mind without any effort of reading.

"That's… strange," she said.

"That's a book that didn't originate on this planet," Madame replied. "I don’t know how it ended up in a market in Egypt, but it is thoroughly alien and dangerous. Those girls… they couldn't have known what they were doing…. At least not at first."

"They copied…." Jenny sought for a word to describe the ritual on the page. "The spell…." That was the only word for it. "This is a spell book."

"A Carrionite spell book," Madame confirmed. "The Carrionites are a murderous race who use a kind of science based on the power of words to reshape reality to their will. My people encountered them trying to infiltrate a breeding hive and expelled them after a bloody fight. Our friend, The Doctor, has come across them, too."

"These words in this book…."

"The 'spell' Alice Bowers decided to share with her friends… is a very dangerous one. If it isn't broken by a counter spell there will be four dead women on this ship long before we reach Luxor."

"Lady Susanna and the others…."

"The spell transfers all of the energy and essence of one being to another. The girls named their… their 'companionees' in the performance we saw them doing at Kom Ombo. Almost immediately those women started to fade and the girls were revitalised, confident… even alluring to men."

Jenny thought about that. She didn't much like the snobbish Lady Susanna or any of the others. She couldn't help feeling it served them right for treating their poor relations as unpaid servants and drudges.

But it wasn't right. Alien 'word science' couldn't be used this way.

"There is a counter spell?" she asked.

"There is. But it has to be said by the four who said the first spell. We need to get them to co-operate."

"We need to get all four of them in one place," Jenny said. "They won't be happy about that."

"This is one time when I wish we had Strax with us," Madame admitted. "But…."

She turned a page in the strange book and nodded. "Loth as I am to use more of this evil work, I think we might turn some of it to our advantage. Come along. The sun deck will be quiet at this time."

The time was nearly midnight. Most nights there were still passengers enjoying the night air, but tonight, with the disturbing idea of a communicable disease aboard the Rameses, most of them had gone to bed early. One small group of men were playing poker in the dining room. None of those enamoured of the girls were there. Jenny decided she didn't want to know where Lord Sotherby and Lord Havenport were or who might be with them.

The sundeck was quiet, lit only by a gibbous moon above and the riding lights of the steamer below. There was a cool, fragrant breeze and the sound of the paddles inexorably threshing the water.

Madame opened the book. She showed Jenny the body movements that went with the words. They made a slow, sinuous dance. As she performed it, Madame said the words in a rhythmic chant.

Jenny felt self-conscious. She didn't want anyone to see her dancing on the sun deck. When she heard footsteps on the stairs she stopped. Madame stopped chanting, too. There was no need to go on. The four girls were coming, compelled by another devious Carrionite spell – this time one that took away free will.

It started to wear off as the girls reached the sun deck. That left Alice Bowers and Sarah Havenport rather embarrassed and a little cold since they were both wearing very flimsy lace underwear and thin, gauzy peignoirs that shouldn't ever be seen outside of a bedroom.

The other two were in more modest nightclothes and dressing gowns, but they, too, looked embarrassed to find themselves on the sun deck in the moonlight.

"You're here to repair the damage you've done with your games," Madame said in her headmistress tone. "You will cancel the words that are going to kill four women in a very short time otherwise."

"No," Alice Bowers replied, supressing a shiver as the night air ruffled her peignoir. "No. I won't go back to being Susanna's unpaid maid. I won't go back to being ignored, invisible. I don't care if she dies. She's a selfish woman who doesn't even love her husband. She only married him for the title."

"I won't, either," Sarah Havenport added.

"You WILL," Madame answered. "Otherwise I will use the power in this book to persuade the Ship's doctor that all four women were poisoned. You will all hang for murder."

That made them think, but even with such a prospect they still held out.

“You don’t have to go back to being drudges,” Jenny told them. “This confidence you all found... It can't all be from a book. It must always have been in you. It won’t go away f you don’t let it. But you MUST stop this before it's too late. Don’t you see? You must....”

The girls looked at each other. Indecision played across their features. The two wearing lingerie shivered.

Then Alice stepped forward and reached for the book.

“No dancing,” Madame said. “Just say the words... All of you.”

They said the words. There were no mystical auras of any kind, no feeling that any change was taking place. When they were done, nobody was even sure it had worked. They looked at each other uncertainly. Then Alice looked at Madame with a firm, decisive expression. Madame nodded. Alice turned and hurled the book out into the dark. The splash a few moments later had a satisfying finality to it.

"How do we know it worked?" Sarah Havenport asked. "What about… will they get well, now?"

"We shall have to see," Madame answered. "Tomorrow, perhaps, we will know something. But I have reason to believe that everything will be put to rights."

“Sone things need putting right without the book," Alice said. "I have to tell Lord Sotherby I don’t want to be his mistress. What sort of man carries on like that with his wife dying? I'm not having him do that to me when he's bored. I’ll find a decent man for myself.”

“I think..." Pamela Chesterfield said with a soft smile. "Jean-Paul... IS a decent man. He talked about... I'm... probably.... Yes, I think I am going to Syria with him after we get back to Luxor. There’s a place there... He thinks it might be the actual site of the Tower of Babel... From the Bible. I can help him, and...”

“I don’t want a man at all,” Sarah Havenport said. She reached out and took Florence Hampton's hand. There was a sigh of pleasure from Florence and a low murmur of surprise from everyone else, even Jenny, who hadn’t spotted THAT at all.

“You see,” Madame said. “You didn’t need a book of mischief at all. Now, come on. Everyone back to your beds. Wandering around dressed like this....”

The headmistress tone was back, but since she was absolutely right, nobody protested.

Back in their cabin, Madame's mood changed again as she smiled at Jenny.

"I should get you some lingerie like that," she said.

"I should get MYSELF some of that lingerie," Jenny answered. "I'm your wife, not your pet, remember. We ARE equals."

Madame looked at her with a quizzical expression for a moment, then smiled deeply and drew her down onto the bed in an embrace that would scandalise almost everyone else aboard the SS Rameses.