"No," Harriet Vane said, having given it some thought. "I don't suppose I do believe in spontaneous human combustion."
"Nor I," said her husband, Lord Peter Wimsey. "And I don't read those sorts of books, anyway. But Gerald says there have been two cases within a dozen miles of Denver, and the coroner's quite flummoxed. And there were witnesses, the second time."
Harriet, perhaps inappropriately, formed a mental image of a person going up in an abrupt cloud of flames, like the Devil appearing in a pantomime. That couldn't be right. "What did they see?"
"The second victim acting very strangely, apparently, and staggering out of the pub. Then they heard a scream, and by the time anyone got outside there was nothing much left but a charred skeleton and, for some reason, a boot."
Perhaps her imaginings weren't so very far off, then. "Were the two cases linked, in any way?"
"Not that anyone can tell. But things have been strange at Denver lately-- did I tell you about the meteorite?"
"You did, you know. With much quoting of Donne besides."
"Well. If anyone at Denver gets a mandrake root with child, I shall be duly impressed. But no one's found the meteorite yet. Although I seem to have done a rather good job of the 'woman true or fair' bit."
Harriet was recently enough married to find this impressively romantic, and the question of spontaneous human combustion was, for a time, put aside.
They came back to it, eventually. “We haven’t been to Denver since the wedding; I suppose it’s past time,” said Peter resignedly. “At least there will be something to keep our interest while we’re there.”
“Your mother will be happy to see us, at least,” Harriet said, and Peter brightened a little.
“That’s true enough. I don’t think she quite believes she’s really seen me married yet, and having you around will make a pleasant reminder.”
Peter called for Bunter, and arrangements were made to take Mrs. Merdle up to Denver. Harriet chose her frocks for the trip with a mind towards Helen’s disapproving gaze, and with some regret left behind a rather daring number she had picked up on the honeymoon.
“Bunter, I don’t suppose you believe in spontaneous human combustion?” she asked, watching him run a proprietary eye over Peter’s suits, and make his selections with unerring accuracy.
“I cannot say I have much considered the subject, my lady,” Bunter replied, punctuating the remark with the removal of a minute speck of lint. “It seems unwise to start from a position of disbelief. My own dear mother, for example, has stood firm throughout her life in the belief that there were fairies at the bottom of her childhood garden. So it does not do to dismiss things out of hand.” Bunter’s mother, obviously, was a witness of unimpeachable quality, and Harriet was forced to agree that even the most unlikely events might have some basis in truth.
They arrived at Denver the next afternoon, and were greeted by the Dowager Duchess in a flutter. “Oh, my dears, I am so very happy to see you; not that I am glad of the circumstances, of course, but one must take what happiness one can from tragic events, even very odd ones. And it is so terribly odd, isn’t it? Of course there must be some scientific explanation, but on the face of things it rather looks like the Wrath of God, and makes one look a bit sidelong at the victims. Helen’s afraid it will end up in the newspapers, of course, although I did tell her she ought to worry more about the fires getting out of hand; it has been a very dry season, and the thought of some poor farmer going up in a cloud of flames, and taking the neighbor’s houses with him, doesn’t bear thinking about.”
“Have there been reporters sniffing ‘round, then?” asked Peter, extracting the relevant information from his mother’s speech with the ease of long practice.
“Not yet, but the village people do talk, you know. The news is bound to make its way to London eventually, and then the horde will be upon us.”
“You’d think they’d have had enough of us, after covering the wedding,” Harriet said. Though Salcombe Hardy had been his reliable self, others had been less than kind.
“The press is never sated, I’m afraid,” said Peter. “Always hungry for the next story, and all that.”
Helen, of course, was dreadful. “Oh, Harriet, I hadn’t thought you would come,” was the first thing out of her mouth. “Not that you haven’t helped with a few of Peter’s cases, but this is much more his line, isn’t it? You could have stayed in London, and not been bothered with this awful business.”
“I’m happy to stay at the Dower House, even if I can’t be much help with the investigation,” Harriet said. “It’s lovely here. And it’s quite an intriguing case; I could hardly help being interested.”
“Not to mention that I could hardly stand for us to be parted, when we’ve been united so brief a while,” Peter broke in. “So you can call the fault my own entirely, Helen, for dragging poor patient Harriet along with me.”
Helen sniffed at this piece of blatant sentiment, but Harriet smiled softly. She would not have liked to be left behind in London. The idea that she and Peter now constituted a unit, to be separated only in the direst of circumstances, rather pleased her; she supposed that Helen, who had never minded long separations from her husband, and indeed seemed to thrive on them, did not share her way of thinking in the least.
“Now, where’s old Denver?” Peter asked, clapping his hands together. “I’d like to get whatever he knows of the story, and I suppose he could tell me who to talk to next. “
Helen retained her look of mild disapproval as she sent Harriet and Peter along to the Duke of Denver’s study. Harriet wondered if it ever really left her entirely; it seemed to be Helen’s default expression. It did her no good as far as wrinkles went, Harriet thought, but she supposed no one had ever dared tell Helen as much.
The study was clearly Gerald’s sole domain, a room entirely free from Helen’s feminine influence. It gave an overwhelming impression of browns and greens, redolent of ancient pipe smoke; the portrait of the horse Peter had once described to her hung on the wall. The desk was surprisingly neat. Say what one liked about Gerald, Harriet mused, but he had a tidy mind.
From the depths of his armchair, Gerald outlined the two mysterious deaths. The first had been a young woman, the daughter of a farmer on an isolated farmstead. She was something of a local Bad Girl, the despair of her mother, and had been out with a party of local youths the night of the meteor strike. In the week and a half that followed, she had seemed to see the error of her ways, and settled down admirably-- until her father sent her to the village to buy a few things, and she did not return. A blackened skeleton was found at the roadside, just outside the village, and the body was identified by a necklace that had not been burned too badly for her mother to recognize.
The second victim he knew less about: a local laborer, he had been in the village pub the night of his death, and had stumbled out-of-doors just before going up like a Roman candle. No one had seen the actual conflagration, but the entire pub had spilled outside to view the aftermath.
“Damnedest thing, to have it happen twice,” Gerald grumbled. “Wouldn’t like to lay odds against a third one. You’ll sort it out, won’t you, Peter?”
“I’ll do my best,” Peter promised.
First order of business was to interview the victims’ families. The local girl’s mother was still too distraught to be of much use, sobbing that her daughter had only just started to turn ‘round and be a Good Girl. The laborer, one Carpenter by name, had been something of a noted local misanthrope, and did not seem much missed by his wife and children. “Though he weren’t so unpleasant, those last few days,” his wife told Peter and Harriet. One of his children revealed that, in the days before his death, the man had spent a great deal of time out of the house, often leaving at odd hours, and that the child had followed her father one night to a shed in a neighbor’s field, from which he did not emerge for some hours. In fact, he had come from the direction of the shed when he arrived at the pub the night of his death.
“Where next, then?” Harriet asked Peter, once their interview was concluded.
“The pub, I think,” he said. “We’re sure to get some witness statements there. And if not those, then some colorful gossip. And if not that, then a good drink.”
The man at the bar looked as if he'd been stamping about the countryside all day, and his two companions little better; all three were muddy to the ankles. The other two were conferring in low tones at a corner table, and did not seem to realize that they were being terribly conspicuous. But the young lady's red hair, worn long and straight, shone without a hat to cover it, and all three seemed to have dressed in the dark in a very strange closet. The men were both in tweed jackets, cut apparently without reference to the last ten years of fashion, and the taller fellow had even more extraordinary hair than the girl. Harriet wondered where they had come from. She rarely saw anyone so Bohemian even within her own circles in London; at Duke's Denver they stood out like a trio of Incroyables at a meeting of Jacobins. Peter caught her eye and inclined his head in their direction; she nodded minutely.
The gangly fellow retreated to his table as Harriet and Peter approached, and the three had slipped out by the time Peter had ascertained from the barman that they had been asking some very peculiar questions about both the meteorite and the recent string of deaths.
“Said they were reporters, my lord, but if they are they’re not staying anywhere ‘round here. It’s indecent, making trouble for His Grace about these accidents.”
“So you think they’re accidents, then?”
“Or Acts of God, and either way there’s no use poking about. Begging your pardon, of course, my lord; if you have any questions I’d be happy to answer.”
They thus determined that Carpenter had indeed been in the pub the night of his strange demise; that he had stood a round, unusually for a man of noted stinginess; that he had seemed quite jubilant, despite his odd behaviour, until he excused himself, staggered out-of-doors, and burst into flames.
“Which tells us that whatever the cause is, it has had the same symptoms across two victims,” said Peter thoughtfully, when they had a moment alone. “And the second victim knew the first. So it might be catching, which is the sort of thing that doesn’t bear thinking about, what?”
Harriet grimaced. The idea of a plague of spontaneous human combustion was not appealing.
They re-emerged into daylight, a little bright against the agreeable gloom of the pub, and found no Bunter. “I hope he’s had better luck than us,” Peter said.
“I wouldn’t doubt it,” said Harriet. “Perhaps he spotted that young woman with the red hair and her friends.”
“If he did, he’s followed them,” said Peter. “Never seen their like at Denver before. Not sure I’ve seen their like at all, to be honest-- what were those fellows wearing?”
Harriet laughed-- trust Peter to notice that, first of all! “If they really were reporters, that might explain some of it,” she said. “You know how eccentric we scribblers can be.”
“I prefer to think of you as charmingly unusual,” Peter said, and put his arm around her.
In fact, Bunter had noticed the odd trio, and contrived to follow them. They had no car, nor even pushbikes, and at first Bunter thought they had walked all the way from Downham Market. But they turned off the road less than a mile from the village, and went into the woods.
“I followed them, my lord, at a distance, not wanting to be noticed; unfortunately, this meant I could not overhear their conversation. They walked through the woods for some time, arriving ultimately at a police box, which they entered and did not leave.”
“Beg pardon, Bunter, but did you say a police box?” Harriet had heard it too, though she might not have trusted her own ears had Peter not spoken.
“A police box, my lord. In the middle of the wood. Once the three young people were inside, I made a thorough investigation of it--” here he produced photographs-- “and even went so far as to try the telephone.”
“Did it work?” Harriet asked.
“I’m afraid not, my lady. Though I am forced to admit to some relief on that count, as I do not know what I would have said had someone answered.”
“Could you find this mysterious police box again, d’you think?” Peter asked.
“Indeed, my lord, I contrived to mark my trail through the woods. Assuming it has not been moved, we might easily find it again.”
“Could that be the shed the Carpenter child saw her father go into?” Harriet asked. “In the dark it might have not have been recognizable as a police box.”
“Don’t think so,” Peter replied. “She said it was in a field, not a forest. And police boxes are rather recognizable. Would you like to track down Carpenter’s shed for yourself?”
“I-- I suppose I could,” Harriet said, only a little taken aback. She had, until now, assumed her role in the case would be one of adjunct, tagging along with Peter and providing whatever insight she could. But there was nothing stopping her from investigating on her own, after all, and she certainly wouldn’t have any trouble with a shed.
When Harriet arrived at the shed, she found that Peter was not the only one who thought it might be significant. The red-haired girl from the pub was there already, picking the lock with a hairpin. So intent was she that Harriet came quite close before she was noticed.
“Oh!” she said, and whirled round, the hand with the hairpin in it tucked behind her back. “You were very quiet,” she said accusingly. She was very young-- if she was a day over twenty-two, Harriet would be shocked-- but she carried herself with the sort of confidence one rarely saw even in much older women. It didn’t hurt that she was startlingly lovely, either, despite her wary expression.
“Bad habit, I’m afraid,” Harriet said. “What were you doing?”
“Nothing!” the girl said hastily. “Only I’ve left something a bit important in this shed, here, and, silly me, I’ve forgotten the key. What a goose I am,” she added unconvincingly.
“We haven’t been introduced, have we?” Harriet asked. “I saw you and your friends in the pub, this morning. You’re reporters, yes?”
“Investigative reporters. Of a sort. It’s a bit complicated,” the girl said.
“Well, I’m an investigator of a sort, as well. Or my husband is, anyway, and I seem to have picked up the hobby. Really I write mystery novels-- I’m Harriet Vane.”
“Oh, I’ve heard of you,” the girl said. “My mum loves your books. Amelia Pond,” she said, by way of introduction, “and you saw me with my husband, Rory, and-- er-- our cousin. His cousin. He’s called Doctor Smith. We sort of... assist him with things.”
“The tall fellow?” Harriet asked. “He seems quite young, for a doctor.”
“He’s older than he looks,” said Mrs. Pond. “But listen, it’s been lovely meeting you-- really lovely, my mum will be thrilled-- but I’ve got to get back to this shed, here.”
“That’s a funny coincidence,” Harriet said. “I was planning to have a look at this very same shed. A man from the village-- but of course, you know about that. Being reporters. What paper do you work for, exactly?”
“We’re more freelancers, sort of thing,” said Mrs. Pond. “Well, I suppose we could take a look at it together.”
She returned to her lock-picking with a will. After a few minutes of hairpin-twiddling, the lock sprang open. Amelia opened the doors carefully, as though she expected something to spring out at her.
Nothing did, thank goodness. Instead, a steady green glow emanated from within, the light illuminating an assemblage of mechanical parts that made no sense at all to Harriet. Bits were recognizable-- surely that had been a cogwheel, once, and that the tines of a pitchfork, but to what use they were being put, Harriet could not say.
“Brilliant,” breathed Mrs. Pond. “I’ve found the beacon. One step closer, then.”
“What is it?” Harriet asked.
“It’s a bit complicated. Really a lot complicated, in fact, and I don’t know that it would make any sense to you--” Harriet fixed her with a hard stare. “Well, it’s sending a sort of signal. A distress call, in fact. It’s what brought the Doctor and Rory and me here in the first place.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” said Harriet.
“I’m not sure you could,” said Mrs. Pond. “When I say complicated, I really do mean it. But it’s to do with the meteorite, and these strange deaths you’ve been having, and-- how did you know about this shed?”
“One of the victims was seen coming here,” Harriet said. “His daughter followed him. Did this-- stuff, whatever it is, cause him to burn up?”
“No, no, nothing like that. More a symptom than a cause. But look, I’ve really got to be getting back to the Doctor and Rory, they’ll want to know about this. We can talk later, if you like, and I’ll try to explain things a bit more.”
A sudden impulse took Harriet by surprise. “Come to dinner at Denver tomorrow night,” she said. “All three of you. We’ll talk then.”
Mrs. Pond looked unsure. “D’you think we’ll be welcome? It’s a bit posh, and we’re-- not particularly posh. Won’t the Duchess mind you inviting ragamuffin strangers to her do?”
“She’ll just have to live with it,” said Harriet. “Helen could do with a few more surprises in her life. Not the sort where people burn to death, I mean, but little ones. Unexpected guests at dinner will do nicely. Eight o’ clock, and wear evening dress.”
The next day was spent more in party preparations than in investigations, though for Peter the two were by no means exclusive. Harriet caught Peter interviewing the staff on more than once occasion, and towards midday Helen forbade him from further “bothering the servants with silly questions.” Peter, disconsolate, was left with no recourse but to buttonhole Harriet for a reviewing of the case, which began with the two of them sitting across the table from one another, and somehow ended with Harriet in Peter’s lap and the case notes all in disarray.
“You know,” Harriet noted, between kisses, “I’m not sure if your mind is entirely on this case.”
In fact, Harriet was proved correct in this, and they were very nearly late for dinner.
Amelia Pond, as promised, arrived promptly at eight, her husband and his cousin in tow. Mr. Pond seemed a little overawed by the glittering company, but Doctor Smith proved irrepressible. He was tremendously excited to be introduced to Harriet.
"You're Harriet Vane?" Doctor Smith asked, sounding delighted. "But you're wonderful! The best after Agatha, and you were always better at the psychology."
"Sorry," said Mr. Pond, "but wait-- Agatha Christie? You've met Agatha Christie?"
"Oh, right," said Mrs. Pond. "That thing with the wasps, yeah? You told me about that." Her husband shot a glance her way. Harriet felt her eyebrows go up.
Doctor Smith’s evening dress was unimpeachable, a surprise considering his normal sartorial choices. Mr. Pond looked uncomfortable, but unobjectionable; Mrs. Pond, on the other hand, was going to draw stares. For a number of reasons, among them that she was quite lovely and had stunning hair, but one only noticed these things after coming to terms with the prodigious amounts of leg and back being shown.
Helen was going to have kittens.
Repressing the urge to start questioning them right away, Harriet let the trio be ushered to their table.
“They ought to liven up the party a bit,” Peter murmured to her. “Though I’m not sure Helen will ever forgive you.”
“I like them,” Harriet said. “Is that odd? They don’t fit in the slightest bit, anywhere that I can see, and they don’t even seem to notice. But one can’t help but like them.”
“Miss Climpson’s not found a thing about them,” Peter said. “And even if they’re using false names, which Doctor Smith certainly is, you’d think Mrs. Pond would be the sort to stick in one’s memory. But it’s as though they don’t exist. There is a Pond family in Scotland, which runs to redheads, but no Amelias.”
“So we’ve got two mysteries,” said Harriet. “No-- three. The meteorite, the deaths by fire, and the investigators that came from nowhere. And they’re all linked, somehow.”
“Don’t forget the police box in the woods,” said Peter.
“No, we can’t forget that. Curiouser and curiouser! And those three are the most curious of all, for my money.”
Things became rather more curious once dinner began. Perhaps as revenge for inviting unapproved guests at the last minute, Helen had seated Harriet with a table’s worth of crashing society bores. Peter, lucky man, was sitting with Doctor Smith and the Ponds. He had his eyeglass out, and was using it to look warily at a metal wand Doctor Smith had produced from a pocket. Harriet strained her ears to hear over the high-pitched tittering of her tablemates.
“...and it’ll make a sort of buzzing sound if it’s got a fix.”
“So you’re saying that with this, you can detect who’s next in line to go up in flames? Jolly fascinating. How does it work?”
“Well, it’s a bit technical.”
“Oh, honestly. You point it and you press the button, Doctor, don’t make it sound like rocket science,” Mrs. Pond put in. She’d had her head bent over something her husband was holding, but now seemed rather more interested in the other conversation.
“Can I give it a go?” Peter asked eagerly.
Doctor Smith looked hesitant. “Suppose it can’t hurt anything,” he said at last, and twiddled with the thing another moment before handing it over.
Peter pointed the wand at a passing server. It made a beeping sound. “Like that?” he asked.
“No, I’m afraid that means he’s perfectly ordinary. Try another one.”
This time, a faster beeping was produced. “How about her?”
“Sorry, no, although-- hm, I suppose-- yes, she’s pregnant! Well, that’s lovely, I shall have to congratulate her later. Try again.”
Peter aimed the wand again. This time, it buzzed. The Doctor’s eyes went wide with alarm. “Okay, nothing to worry about, that just means that waiter’s going to catch on fire in a bit. Probably. Possibly probably. Er, Amy, Rory, I think we’d better--”
But he was too late. The waiter in question, who had been moving smoothly between the tables with a tray of spent glasses, suddenly dropped his burden with a resounding crash, and bent double. “No, don’t!” cried Doctor Smith. “Stop, please, you don’t have to do this--”
The man burst into flames. Really burst, with a sort of fireball effect, one moment whole and the next consumed. A cloud of greasy smoke rolled towards the ceiling; guests shrieked and ran. Doctor Smith and his assistants froze in place, all three looking aghast. Peter stood watching, ashen. Harriet hurried to his side. “Peter--” she began, and his face contorted.
“He was at the pub yesterday,” he said. “He saw the second death. God, the smell--” and he turned away and retched for a moment, until Harriet handed him a glass of water.
“Right,” Doctor Smith said, pitching his voice loud enough to fill the whole room, and drown out the wails and cries of the other guests. “I need everyone to be quite calm, as it’s rather important that I get a list of every person in this room, because-- and it’s going to be a bit difficult to stay calm when I say this next part, but do your best-- what just happened is by way of being slightly contagious, and someone else here is probably next.”
This had about the effect one would predict. Mrs. Pond glared daggers at Doctor Smith, and Mr. Pond looked resignedly around at the chaos before pulling a notebook out of his pocket and starting to take down names. He only managed a few moments of this, however, before he was distracted by the numerous fainting fits, and became occupied with taking people’s pulses and making sure no one was having chest pains.
Bunter had appeared at Peter’s elbow shortly after the conflagration, and at a nod from Peter had brought out his own notebook; he had rather more effectively begun a list of the room’s occupants. Peter was no longer quite so white about the mouth, and had begun watching the people around him with a sharper eye.
The Doctor, meanwhile, was consulting with his metal wand again. “Got a fix!” he cried jubilantly. “Amy, Rory, I’ve got the landing site. Come along, before I lose it again--” and the three of them ran out, without so much as a by-your-leave. Peter and Harriet exchanged a wordless look, and Harriet picked up her trailing skirts in one hand and made to follow Peter out.
They were stopped at the door by Helen, though, who looked very near tears. “Oh, Peter!” she cried. “Peter, that poor man--”
“If you don’t want it happening again, Helen, get out of my way,” Peter very nearly snarled, and Helen took one shocked step back before Peter pushed past her, following the Ponds and their friend out into the night.
“What in the name of Heaven was that?” Peter demanded of Doctor Smith, running to catch up with him and the Ponds. “You had me point that pen of yours at that man, and he just-- just went up--”
That made Doctor Smith stop, for a moment. “You think I-- oh, no, no, no, you’ve got it all backwards. He was going to go up no matter what either of us did; I just gave us a little advance warning. But look, there’s no time for this, either come with us or go back and sort that mess out.”
“Where are you going?” Harriet asked, looking from one to the next of them. They looked wary, a little disheveled from running, and perhaps a little annoyed to be interrupted, but they did not look like murderers. Murderers seldom did, though, in Harriet’s regrettably extensive experience.
“We’re going to where all of this mess started,” Amelia Pond told her. “We’re going to the place where the meteorite landed.”
The meteor, when they found it, looked more or less as Harriet had expected it to look: a great lump of pitted metal, wreathed in smoke. But-- no, that wasn't right; it had crashed weeks ago. "Ought there still be smoke?" she asked, and the Doctor looked approving.
"Not if it were a meteor," he said. "But it's trying to look like one-- or like we think one should look."
"Perception filter?" asked Amelia. Mr. Pond and the Doctor nodded their agreement.
"Must be," said her husband, while the Doctor waved that curious metal wand about. It made a high, whining noise, and the meteor flickered like broken film. Where it had been, in the crater, now lay a craft, not at all like a plane, half-crushed and still smoking about what must have been the engines.
The Doctor and the Ponds did not hesitate, but ran towards the thing, clambering heedlessly over the fallen trees and stones its crash had strewn about. Harriet took Peter's hand, and the two of them paused for a long moment, before they followed.
They came to the dead pilot first, still strapped into its chair. Harriet had seen a statue, once, of a hippo-headed Egyptian goddess, in an exhibit at the National Museum. If this creature looked like anything on Earth, it looked like that. Peter touched its face, the arm that emerged unmangled from the wreckage, the hand with its three stubby fingers. "Cold," he said, "if that means anything at all; if it is anything like us, it has been dead since the crash."
"Back here!" called Amelia Pond, from deeper within the ship. "She's still alive!"
Harriet and Peter scrambled over a spill of wires, and helped each other across gaps in the grating. Harriet found herself acutely aware that the clothes one wore to a dinner-party were not at all the thing for exploring downed spacecraft. Peter, too, seemed to be thinking of this, as he freed his coat from a jagged bit of metal with a distinct rip. "Bunter may forgive the damage, this once," he said. "If ever circumstances were extenuatin'--"
Harriet laughed at that, just a little. But they had reached the back of the ship, and the second creature was still alive.
The second creature did not look much better off than the first. It-- she-- was bandaged in various places, with both a silver-sheened substance and ordinary linen; the linen was stained purple-black. Its eyes were closed as then approached, but they opened to reveal what seemed to Harriet to be both a keen intelligence and a terrible, terrible pain.
It made a groaning sound. "Of course we'll help," said Mrs. Pond, laying a soothing hand on one of the few unbandaged areas of skin. "Can you tell us what happened?"
It made more noises, the Ponds and Doctor Smith listening intently, responding as though it made sense. No-- not as though. "How can you understand her?" Harriet asked, when the creature paused, in too much pain to speak. Mr. Pond was examining the bandages, and trying to take a pulse at the creature's throat.
"Gift of the TARDIS," the Doctor answered incomprehensibly.
"It's because we're, um, travelers," Mr. Pond added, which did not help much. "That blue box of ours-- that's a ship, like this one. It translates for us."
"But you're human; or you look human," Peter amended. "Are you from-- wherever this all came from?"
"Not hardly," answered Mrs. Pond. "I'm from Scotland. Rory's from Leadworth. The Doctor's from… a bit further away. I don't know where she's from, though," she added, nodding at the creature.
"She's Tawerit, which is rather the problem," the Doctor said. "Lovely planet, Tawer. Lovely people. Not the cleverest in the galaxy--" this was added in a low tone, though the Tawerit in question seemed to have lapsed into unconsciousness, "--but they make up for it, you see, by living symbiotically with these rather brilliant energy creatures that are native to the planet. It's quite a good arrangement, really: the Tawerit get a bit smarter, a bit stronger, a bit longer-lived, and the symbiotes get a place to call home. They've evolved together for billions of years, they can hardly function apart anymore. Which is what's happening here, I suspect."
"The other symbiote is loose?" asked Mrs. Pond.
"Got it in one. The poor thing ought to have died with the pilot, but it got shook loose somehow, and it hardly knows how to exist without a body. But it's all wrong for Earth biology."
"So it's been looking after its partner, and building the beacon that brought us here," said Mr. Pond. "But it's also been burning out its hosts."
"I'm afraid so," said the Doctor.
"Then it's a murderer," said Peter. "No," he said, raising a quelling hand before the Doctor or the Ponds could protest. "Once is an accident, and twice might be carelessness, but there are three people dead, and if you're right a fourth is walkin' about with an unwanted passenger. It's killing people. It wants stopping."
"It's probably half-mad, by now," said the Doctor. "I don't think it knows what it's doing. Human brains are all wrong for it."
The Tawerit, forgotten behind them, spoke.
"What did she say?" Harriet asked.
"She said we have to stop him. And she wants us to bring their-- their bodies home together." Mrs. Pond looked suspiciously bright-eyed, and Harriet herself felt tears threaten.
"You're not going to die," said Mr. Pond, soothingly.
Harriet didn't need translation to understand the noise the creature made. Yes, I am, it said, and she understood that it was not only due to its injuries that this was so. The Tawerit did not want to live, without its partner.
She reached out blindly for Peter’s hand. Finding it, he gave a reassuring squeeze.
The Tawerit gave one last rasping sigh, and as its dark eyes fluttered shut, a light began to grow around its body. The light coalesced and spun, forming an amorphous cloud in the air above the Tawerit, swirling about itself as it grew in brightness-- and then it dissolved into the air, fading into to nothingness as swiftly as it had appeared.
“That was the symbiote,” the Doctor said softly. “That’s how they go, when they go properly.”
It was Mr. Pond who broke the silence. “We’ve got to get back to the house,” he said. “And find the symbiote before it kills anyone else. We should have stayed to get a list.”
“Then she would have died alone,” said Harriet, and that quieted everyone again.
“I’m nearly sure that Bunter will have a complete list by the time we get back,” Peter said. “We can work from there. That pen of yours ought to give us a sign, yes?”
“Assuming the symbiote doesn’t figure out how to mask its energy signature, yes,” said the Doctor. When Harriet and Peter both looked at him blankly, he amended this to, “Yes, probably.”
On the long walk back to the house, Harriet found herself alongside Mr. Pond. “So you-- travel around, investigating things from outer space, then?” she said. “In a phone box?”
“More or less,” said Mr. Pond. “The phone box also travels in time.”
“In-- I see,” said Harriet, and wished she had read more science fiction and less Classics. “Have you been doing that very long?” she finished up, inanely.
“For a bit, relatively speaking,” Mr. Pond said. “We’re actually on our honeymoon.”
“Ah!” said Harriet, relieved to have something in common. “Peter and I just returned from ours, in fact. We went to Venice,” she offered.
“The Doctor took Amy and I to Venice. During the Renaissance. And fish vampires from space tried to sink it,” he said matter-of-factly. Harriet was beginning to feel she hadn’t quite done the mental groundwork for this conversation.
They returned to a slightly less chaotic house than the one they had left. Bunter had been admirable, but even he could only do so much. A number of the guests and staff had left, but the promised list had been assembled before they went. Harriet rather hoped the symbiote could be identified with a quick scan from what the Doctor called his ‘sonic screwdriver,’ a name which, she considered, did not inspire a great deal of faith.
“We’ve got a few days, at least,” Peter told her. “The Doctor says the burn-out’s speeding up with each jump to a new host, which is damned disquietin’, but we know to look for changes in behaviour, and with any luck his sonic thingummy will pick it up.”
It was Bunter who spotted it in the end. He came to Peter looking terribly unnerved one afternoon, a few fruitless days of searching later. “I have some disturbing news to report, my lord. It’s about her Grace.” Bunter paused, looking a little unsure of himself, something Harriet had only rarely seen.
“Well, out with it, man,” Peter demanded.
“I’m afraid she told me that I work too hard. And that-- and I can assure that I do not agree with her in the slightest-- that you, my lord, are far too demanding of me,” Bunter said. “She also told me she was giving the whole staff the day off, because, and this is a direct quote, ‘we ought to be able to shift for ourselves for a day.’”
There was a pause.
“Right,” said Peter. “I think that qualifies as behavioural changes, yes? I’ll call the Doctor.” He had left them with a small device for this purpose; it was pink, and had an incredibly tiny keyboard. Amy had shown Harriet how to take pictures with it, as it was apparently also a camera, and Peter seemed to have every intention of keeping it once the case was over and done with.
Helen was having a late breakfast in the morning room when the Doctor and the Ponds arrived. They filed in after Harriet and Peter, Bunter trailing in last of all, and took up positions in a loose semicircle around Helen. The Doctor pointed his sonic screwdriver at her, and it buzzed. “It’s her, all right,” he said.
“I beg your pardon,” Helen said, and smiled instead of demanding shrilly to know what was going on. It was a bit eerie. Harriet could see that Peter was grimacing, just as Harriet was. “What seems to be the problem?” she asked, or rather, the intangible creature from another world that was inhabiting her asked.
“The problem,” said Mrs. Pond, drawing out the words, “is, that isn’t your body, is it? You’re wearing it like a bad hat, and it doesn’t suit you at all. So go on and get out of there. We’re on to you.”
Now Helen looked a bit more like herself. “How dare you speak to me that way?” she demanded. “How dare you?”
“You’re not fooling anyone,” the Doctor said. “And we won’t let you hurt anyone else. It’s time to let go, now, I’m sorry but you can’t go on like this.”
The sonic screwdriver was buzzing faster, now. The Doctor gave it a shake, and a hint of worry crossed his face. “Not a lot of time left,” he said quietly. Helen looked murderous, and there was a glow of light building around her hands. “And, oh dear, I may have forgot to mention, Tawerit energy symbiotes do grant you the ability to shoot lightning from your hands, although they’re usually very good about not doing it in polite company.” He skipped sideways, a bolt charring the spot on the rug where he’d stood a moment ago.
“She died last night,” said Mr. Pond, and a stricken expression crossed Helen’s face. The glow around her hands faded to nothing.
“No,” she whispered. “She can’t be dead. I was going to get her home.”
“I’m sorry,” said Mr. Pond. “But there was never much chance of that, was there? You knew that from the start. You’ve been killing people, which is the last thing she’d have wanted, to buy time to build a beacon and patch her up, but she’s gone now. You need to go too.”
“But the beacon worked,” said Helen, her voice plaintive. “Help came. You came.”
“We weren’t soon enough,” said the Doctor, and suddenly the young man looked much, much older. “Sometimes we aren’t soon enough. I’m sorry. But you have to end this, before anyone else gets killed. There isn’t a lot of time left.”
“Would she have wanted this?” Peter asked, his voice cold. “Your wife. Would she have been willing to trade the lives you’ve taken to save herself?”
“No,” Helen answered, looking away. “She was better than that. Better than me.”
“Then do the decent thing,” Peter said. “In her memory. Don’t take another life.”
“She asked after you,” Harriet said. “At the end. She wanted you to stop.”
Helen sagged, like a puppet with cut strings. “Then I will stop,” it said. A golden glow began to coalesce in the air above them, and Helen fainted dead away.
The golden glow hovered uncertainly in the air for a few moments, swirling in one direction and then another. Then it seemed to come to some decision, and simply dissolved, as the other had done.
The Doctor and the Ponds relaxed. “That’s an end to it, then,” said Mrs. Pond.
Mr. Pond went to Helen, rousing her gently. She sat up, demanding peevishly, “Whatever am I doing on the floor? And who are all these people, Peter, have you invited them to breakfast as well as dinner?”
“We were just leaving, actually,” said the Doctor, and Peter and Harriet followed him out with Bunter and the Ponds. “She most likely won’t remember a thing,” he told them in a low tone as they left the room. “Just keep an eye on her for the next few weeks, make sure she hasn’t suddenly got really good at maths or anything, and she should be fine.”
“So that’s it, then?” Harriet couldn’t help but ask. “It’s all over?”
“Well, we’ll have to do something about that crashed spaceship, but the TARDIS can probably give it a tow to the asteroid field, and then we’ve got to take the bodies home to Tawer. But yes, that’s about it.”
“And you do this sort of thing all the time?” Harriet asked.
“Well, no,” said Mrs. Pond. “This was actually a bit low-key, for us. Usually there’s a lot more running involved.”
“Sounds jolly interestin’,” Peter said, putting his arm around Harriet. “We mostly just get murders.”
The Ponds and the Doctor exchanged a look. “You wouldn’t want to come along on a trip or two, would you?” the Doctor asked. “Just for a bit. Call it a second honeymoon.”
“We only just had our first,” Harriet pointed out.
“Then call it an early first anniversary present,” the Doctor answered. “Anywhere in time and space. Want to give it a try?”
Peter looked at Harriet. She smiled at him, and nodded.
“Only if Bunter can come, too,” he said.