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

The Doctor looked across the console at Marie. She was sitting quietly, marking – that peculiar activity on which Human teachers expended so much of what they called their ‘free time’. He tried to remember if his tutors at the Time Lord Academy to which he was bound for so long ever ‘marked’ outside of their allotted teaching time.

Though they certainly 'marked' everything with a vengeance, he couldn’t remember his tutors having free time, so the analogy was difficult to make.

Marie sighed deeply and closed the last exercise book.

“I saw a programme last week about African children who trekked five miles each way to a school in the desert where the teacher used a stick in the sand for a blackboard. Those youngsters were DESPERATE to be educated. This lot get a free bus from their estate and we have all the latest teaching equipment, even an electronic wipeboard. They have everything handed them on a plate. Yet they act as if learning is a terrible chore.”

The Doctor smiled wanly.


“I went to school for nearly two hundred years. It WAS a chore.”

“Slow learner?” Marie countered. The Doctor smiled a little more widely.

“Come and see something YOU can learn about,” he said, reaching for the remote door control on the console.

They were in outer space, but a force field kept the life-supporting air inside the console room and prevented all but the incredibly super-clumsy from falling out. Marie stood next to The Doctor and looked out at the dizzying vastness of the universe above, below and all around her. It was a sobering view. It made her feel very small and insignificant.

She always thought that The Doctor looked at it and felt very big and significant as if he was in command of all he could see.

“See that reddish patch at roughly two o’clock,” he said, knowing that she was intelligent enough to understand where to look without checking her watch. “See how the stars are dimmed in that area.”

“Yes,” she said. “What is it?”

“It’s a superbubble. A cavity in space filled with heated gases thrown out by the supernova of a star, or maybe several supernovae, and blown together by solar winds. The outer edge of the bubble cools, relative to the core, forming a sort of gas shell and causing the ‘extinction’ of stars that lie behind it - not actual extinction, you understand, just the dimming effect the bubble causes."

“Wow!” Marie commented. “How big is it?”

“That one, only about a hundred million light years. Average size is about three times that.”

“Do humans… in my time… know about things like this?” Marie asked. “Have our telescopes spotted them?”

“Oh, yes,” The Doctor answered with a strangely proud tone in his voice, like a father talking about his child’s achievements. “The aptly named Very Large Telescope at Cerro Paranal in Chile has identified several of them within the Milky Way Galaxy. The clever clogs who run establishments of that sort have even worked out that your own solar system has been travelling through a superbubble for about as long as your species has been evolving. They called it the ‘Local Bubble’ though obviously ‘local’ is a subjective term to those of us with interstellar transport.”

“Wow,” Marie said again, for lack of anything more to say. “So we’re outside of the ‘Local Bubble’ and looking at an entirely different superbubble from its outside right now.”


“What would happen if we went into it?”

“Nothing, really,” The Doctor admitted. “It’s just a different bit of space to the space outside of it, like London is a different bit of England to the rest of it – or in your case, Dublin is a different bit of…”

“Yeah, I get it. What I don’t get is you show me something truly awesome and then play it down as if it’s just a patch of fog on the motorway.”

“Awesome is subjective, too,” The Doctor replied.

"Can we get closer? I mean, I realise its just like coming up to the outskirts of Tallaght, but I'd just like to be up close to the 'skin' of a super bubble."

It was a challenge, The Doctor realised, the equivalent of a playground dare. Not that he had any personal experience of such things. The Prydonian Academy didn't have a playground, or any concept of play as other species defined it.

But he recognized the concept and rose to it.

"Close the door," he said as he strode back to the console. "We're still a million light years away from the bubble. watching the rapid acceleration with your naked eyes would melt your brain."

She was a little disappointed with that. Inside the TARDIS there was no acceleration to be felt at all, only a slight increase of the vibration under her feet. But The Doctor turned on the big viewscreen and she saw a filtered version of their approach to the bubble until a foggy red-grey miasma filled the whole screen.

She moved back to the door and opened it. A wall of the same miasma met her eyes. She resisted the temptation to put her hand out to it. This was the border between two different kinds of space. For all she knew, there might be a suction that would pull her inside.

"Marie, quick, close the door," The Doctor called out urgently. She did so immediately.

"What's the matter?" she asked.

"I'm getting a signal " he replied. "From somewhere inside the bubble. I think might be from a TARDIS."

"There aren't any other TARDIS… TARDi… TARDISes. There isn't even a proper plural for them. Yours is the last one."

"The last known...." he answered. "The last living TARDIS. This could be.... I think it is...."

He stopped taliking. Marie looked at him closely and saw his Adams Apple bob as he swallowed hard, trying to hide a wave of sadness.

"Doctor, what's wrong?" she asked, moving around the console that he seemed to be using as an emotional as well as a physical barrier between them. She placed her hand gently on his arm. He looked at it in surprise but did not shake it away.

"This signal could only be picked up by another TARDIS,” he explained quietly. "By another Time Lord. No other craft, no other space traveller, could receive it. The signal is sent out automatically when the Time Lord in charge of a TARDIS has died. It is the call to bring him home for the proper funeral rites."

"Oh.... oh, Doctor, I am sorry."

That well meant comment woke something inside him. He jerked away from Marie’s touch.

"Why should you be sorry?" he asked with an alien coldnesss that stung her. "You weren't responsible for the death of a Time Lord, were you?"

"Well, of course not," she replied defensively. "It’s just what people... decent people... say at times like this. You were upset... and I wanted to show you that I cared."

Again his mercurial mood changed. He looked contrite.

"Yes, yes, of course. Sometimes… sometimes I forget about these things."

"You forget about manners?"

"Yes... when there are far more important things to think about. Hold on."

She just processed his instruction in time to grab a piece of infrastructure. The TARDIS swooped and tilted violently and she thought wryly about her earlier observation about the lack of acceleration inside the console room.

She was just starting to feel a little space sick when the TARDIS stopped abruptly. There was a peculiar clunking noise like very large bolts engaging and then an absolute stillness.

"What happened? Did we crash into something?"

"We locked onto the other TARDIS," The Doctor answered. "They're designed to be compatible that way, like plug and play hardware."

He checked the environmental console and frowned. "Not much atmosphere in there. We'll need helmets."

He ducked under the console and scranbled about for a few minutes before coming up with what looked like a pair of toy space helmets.

"There's no glass in this," Marie pointed out. "And doesn’t it need some sort of air tank?"

"Time Lord technology," The Doctor answered. "The helmet automatically converts whatever gases are in the atmosphere into whatever gases the wearer needs. In the vase of an oxygen breather it produces the best mix of good, unpolluted air possible. Your lungs will think its their birthday."

She put the helmet on. He did the same, then opened the door. There was a hiss of compressed air and Marie looked into a dark room beyond the threshold.

"No light?" she queried as The Doctor stepped past her confidently. She looked down at the faint line between two doorways and then followed him into the unknown.

As The Doctor stepped into the console room a low level blue light came on around the perimeter and the console in the centre lit up.

The moment Marie stepped inside an alarm went off and she found herself glued to the spot while an invisible weight pressed against her chest.

"Doctor!" she managed to gasp.

"Stay very still. Don’t struggle. The TARDIS has identified you as an alien, and therefore a threat. I just need to override the defense circuits."

“Do it quickly,” Marie gasped. “It’s crushing me to death.”

“A slight exaggeration,” The Doctor remarked as he ran his hands over the strange console, searching for the right keys to press. The doors of all TARDISes were compatible, but the rest of the components were not. Consoles were very much a personal thing.

“Drrr….” She couldn’t even articulate her words now. It really WASN’T an exaggeration. The pressure on her chest was painful and potentially fatal. If he didn’t find the right button soon….

“Got it!” he exclaimed triumphantly. Marie sagged forward and gasped for breath. “Told you it would be all right.”

She stepped towards him, contemplating a good slap for his careless attitude to her safety. He deserved another one for not even looking at her. He was studying something on the console carefully.

“The anti-alien defences are off now, but the TARDIS reconfigured its internal structure. It’s going to be harder to find the Cloister Room than it ought to be.”

“Cloister Room?”

“It’s a room at the heart of every TARDIS,” The Doctor explained. “It’s a peaceful, restful place. If the Time Lord who owned this TARDIS was able to do so, he would have gone to the Cloister Room. It is a dignified place to die.”

“Dignity?” Marie seethed inwardly. “That’s something I’d have appreciated. Instead of being treated as an enemy alien.”

“It is against the rules to have non-Gallifreyans aboard a TARDIS,” The Doctor commented. “I disabled the intruder defence system on my TARDIS long ago, but others of my race might have been more selective about their travelling companions.”

“Can you manage to sound a bit less racist – or speciesist. I wonder if I would have LIKED any of your people.”

“Probably not,” he admitted. “This is very awkward. It’s still transitioning. No sense in even leaving the console room, yet. We would be completely lost.”

“Why is this console so much smaller than yours?” Marie asked, hoping to get a sensible answer to a more specific question.

“This TARDIS was designed to be operated by a single Time Lord. Mine was meant for a team of six.”

“So why….” But he wasn’t going to answer that question. He pressed a big blue button and a sheet of thin film slid out of a slit in the console. It was a map of the inside of the TARDIS – at least Marie hoped it was.

“The new configuration,” The Doctor confirmed. “Come on.”

“Why the hurry?” Marie asked as she took two steps to The Doctor’s one along a hexagonal shaped corridor with purple spot lighting every few yards. “If he’s already dead he can surely wait a little longer.”

“This configuration may not hold for long. I have no idea how long this TARDIS has been in low power mode. It might be months, years, or centuries. The engines may not be fully online. Even if they are, anything might trigger a reconfiguration with us still inside.”

Marie tried to imagine the consequences of a TARDIS reconfiguring its rooms with them inside. Would they end up trapped within a wall or floor like modern art installations? Or would they just get liquidated and their molecules included in the fibre of the new layout?

“At the very least we will be hopelessly lost,” The Doctor pointed out, as if he was aware of the more fatal consequences. “We could be walking around for days and never find our way back to the console room.”

“Let’s hurry, then,” Marie agreed. She quickened her pace and kept up with him as well as she could.

When they came to a dead end she was disconcerted.

“Did you read the map wrong or are has it reconfigured already?”

“There’s a hidden door,” The Doctor replied. “I just have to find the key.”

He ran his hands carefully over the perfectly smooth, featureless piece of wall. Marie couldn’t see anything that might be a key, or a keyhole, or anything but a piece of wall.

But The Doctor smiled triumphantly. He pressed one apparently ordinary place on the wall and the floor beneath them dropped away.

“What!” she exclaimed. There was nothing under her feet, but she wasn’t falling, only descending slowly. “What is this?”

“Gravity lift,” The Doctor answered. “Going down.”

“Gravity lift?” she decided she didn’t want to know any more until they reached solid ground.

When they did, they were in a wide room that seemed to have been furnished out of a 1930s art deco catalogue. It was so white it was almost dazzling, with white sofa, white carpet, white cabinets on white walls and black and white pictures in white frames.

It had everything except for a door.

“This is getting monotonous,” Marie said. “What is wrong with an ordinary door?”

“A semi-sentient machine is testing us to see if we are worthy," The Doctor answered. "There is a way out. We just have to find it."

"Oh great!" Marie's tone was distinctly irritated. "So what do we have to do? Strip the wallpaper and find the secret door?"

"Move the furniture," The Doctor replied.

"That would have been my second guess," Marie remarked sarcastically.

"See that picture on the wall above the dresser."

She looked. It was a three dimensional effect image of the very room they were in.

Or was it? She looked closely, then back at the real room around her.

"It’s like one of those spot the difference things in puzzle books. That standard lamp is the wrong side of the sofa, and...."

She picked up a white marble globe whose etched continents and oceans were alien and unknown to her and moved it from the dresser to the coffee table. The Doctor shifted the standard lamp. Marie looked around for more differences and swapped a mirror and a cameo portrait of a swan on opposing walls. The Doctor shifted the sofa half a foot to the left.

"The last clue is always the awkward one," Marie stated. “It always turns out to be patently obvious, right in front of your face, but you can’t see it for looking. At least not without sneaking a look at the answer page."

The Doctor looked at her in a disappointed way.

“You’re surely NOT the sort of person who looks at the answer page? That’s worse than reading the end of a mystery first or sneaking a look at Christmas presents.”

“I only do puzzle books when I’m stuck in bus depots, train stations or airport lounges,” Marie replied. “On such boring occasions I can’t be bothered with being meticulous. I just want the time to go by quickly. Who cares about the answer page?”

“I have never been stuck in a bus depot,” The Doctor admitted.

“You haven’t missed much. But if you want to find out what it’s like, I recommend the Dublin Busarás for the most soul destroying experience.”

“I think I’ll pass up the opportunity,” The Doctor replied. They were both just bantering while trying to see the last difference between the room and the picture. The Doctor was having just as much trouble as Marie, so it was clearly not her inferior Human brain letting her down.

“THERE!” they both exclaimed together and reached for the picture of the room. In the picture, it was hung in portrait rather than landscape. Marie was past caring about such things when the image automatically rotated in the frame. What satisfied her most was the series of clicks and the appearance of a white door in the wall next to the picture.

She reached for the handle, then changed her mind and let The Doctor go first.

Not that letting him go first had helped when they went into the console room at the start, and it didn’t help, now. She still found herself suddenly enclosed in a glass tube that was rapidly filling up with water.

"Doctor!" Her scream was lost in a collection of rapidly ascending bubbles. She was submerged, but not drowning. The weird helmet that she had forgotten all about was still converting the ‘o’ part of ‘h2o’ into oxygen in a bubble around her face. Through the air, the water and the curved glass tube she could just make out The Doctor. He was standing there, looking at her strange prison and doing nothing.

"Doctor!" she protested in another series of bubbles.

Then the glass tube vanished, along with the water. She stood there, bone dry and puzzled.

"Let’s get going, shall we," The Doctor said with just too much impatience.

"What the...." Marie gasped in astonishment as she hurried after him. "What was all that and why didn’t you try to help me?"

"You weren't on any danger. It was just a fumigation programme. You ARE an alien, after all. The TARDIS reacted against you just like a body reacts to a foreign body in it. You've been neutralized."

Marie was speechless with rage. She fumed incoherently and pretty much futilely as she took two steps to every one The Doctor took along the corridor, down several staircases and through some very odd rooms.

One of the rooms was empty except for an old fashioned floor mirror on a gilded swing frame and a pair of boots. The remarkable thing was that they walked into the room, around the boots and back out of the same door but into a completely different place.

“The Return Room,” The Doctor explained.

That’s not what a Return Room is,” Marie complained. “A Return Room is….” She sighed and gave up fighting that point.

Another room was lined both sides with mirrors. Stepping between them created an unnerving effect of hundreds of Doctors with hundreds of Maries standing next to him, disappearing into infinity.

"Never get between two mirrors," The Doctor said gruffly, moving towards the exit door quickly. "It’s very dangerous. "

"How?" Marie asked, but The Doctor didn't explain and she was left to wonder for herself about some sort of soul draining effect.

Next there was a dark, musty smelling library full of the sort of scrolls and great manuscripts written on vellum and bound in leather that not only upset animal rights campaigners but might well exude wisdom even without reading them.

One book was chained to a reading desk. Marie reached out to open it, but The Doctor pulled her away.

"What now? " she demanded.

"That is the biography of the Time Lord this ship belongs to," he said. "It was writing itself until the moment of his death."

"Then it would say what happened to him."

“Yes, but it would do you no good. Your brain would be turned to soup from the attempt."



"Is there a book in your...."


"And would that one turn my brain to..."

"Yes. So don’t try looking for it."


She meant it. She didnt need her brain mushed just to satisfy the inevitable curiosity about who exactly The Doctor really was.

After the library it got boring again. For a while even conversation ceased as Marie failed to think of any questions to ask and The Doctor didn’t volunteer any information. There was nothing but the sound of their footsteps echoing along more corridors.

Then Marie went through a short phase of wanting to slap The Doctor when she broke the monotony by complaining about the endlessness of the corridors.

"Don't be silly," he answered. "Nothing in a finite universe is endless. A TARDIS interior is large, and could be considered a micro-universe in itself, but it is not infinite."

She fumed inwardly again. The Doctor ignored her feelings - or if he was aware of them he said nothing.

Maybe, she considered, she was being selfish. After all he was under a lot of stress. The only reason they were trekking through this madhouse was to find a dead Time Lord, possibly a friend, maybe even a relative of his. Perhaps expecting him to consider her feelings was too much.

"YOU could have looked at the biography," she said. "It wouldn’t melt your brain.”

“No, of course not. My brain is capable of absorbing the mental energy given off by a Time Lord biography.”

“You didn’t look. Is that because you dont want to know or...."

"I’ll know soon enough, " he said in a hollow tone. "Whoever it is, he deserves the same rites as any other Time Lord."

"You mean even if it is somebody you don’t like?"

“Odds are I don’t like him. I didn't like most of them," The Doctor conceded. "A very few I hated with every fiber of my being. Even fewer I liked. But... you are right. This is easier if I don’t know who it is."

Marie nodded in understanding. Or at least as close to understanding as she could manage. Perhaps only another Time Lord could really understand what he was really going through.

They walked on in silence again, but Marie felt a little more sympathetic towards The Doctor than she had managed before now. She drew close to him and even wondered if he might let her hold his hand in a gesture of solidarity.

Then he stopped abruptly. Huge double doors loomed ahead.

“Is that it?”

"The cloister room, yes,” The Doctor replied. He stepped forward and pushed both doors decisively. Marie followed.

They emerged at the top of a wide marble stairway overlooking a magnificent garden. Powerscourt sprang to Marie's thoughts. An English equivalent might have been Stourhead in Wiltshire, while a modern citizen of Rome would have been reminded of the public park at La Villa Borghese.

Not that he was asked, but if he had been, he might have mentioned a particularly beautiful park on the southern continent of Gallifrey. He swallowed the homesick moment the memory gave him.

Whatever it reminded either of them of, it was a vista of natural beauty tamed by hedge sculpting and lawn maintenance as well as careful selection of which plants should be allowed to grow where. A weeping willow was clearly meant to grow beside a pond just as the coppice of oaks further away shaded the brook that bubbled away from the pond.

Follies of stone and brick were dotted around, ivy deliberately trained to make them look ancient.

The Doctor strode across the neat lawn to one such folly in the Palladian style to be found in all of those places the cloister room was reminiscent of. He quietly entered the building through its one small wooden door beneath the colonnaded pediment.

Marie went to follow, but paused on the threshold. Here, definitely, was the body of the dead Time Lord. He lay on a stone pallet. Beside him was something Marie hadn't expected in a mausoleum of this sort.

It looked like a well, but what it contained was more like perpetually moving, stirring mercury. The glow from the well illuminated elaborate carvings on the windowless walls and threw The Doctor’s shadow into sharp contrast as he bent over the corpse.

"What is that?" she asked in a quiet voice befitting this last resting place of the Time Lord.

"It's the Eye of Harmony - a fragment of a shattered star that powers a TARDIS. Very dangerous, but almost unlimited energy. And yes, there is one on my TARDIS, but it is under a heavy cover as it is meant to be. He must have opened it intending to immerse himself on the last moments."

"Like a kind of... self -cremation?"

Marie wondered if that was insensitive, but The Doctor nodded in surprise and relief at not having to explain further.

"I can finish off what he started," he said. Marie watched as he began a simple kind of ceremony according to Time Lord tradition. She had no part in it except as a witness, but even that seemed to be an honour in its way for a mere Human.

Then she saw something that made her yelp in shock.

"Doctor ... he's alive!" As she cried out the apparent corpse suddenly reached out an arm to grip The Doctor by the leg and tip him over onto his back. At once, the previously dead man pounced on him. They wrestled desperately with The Doctor struggling against a crude attempt to strangle him.

"Doctor!" Marie searched for a weapon to use against the fighting man but the mausoleum was empty. She tried to pull him away with her bare hands but he threw her off him as if she were a discarded cloak.

Her efforts at least allowed The Doctor to get the upper hand momentarily. He struggled out from under the weight of his fellow Time Lord and pinned him against the edge of the bier where he had ‘lain in state.’

"Dreyfus Vorte," The Doctor growled. "I thought you were killed in the first battle of the last Time War. You escaped.... when so many good men died."

Something in The Doctor’s disgusted tone suggested that this was one of his people who fell into the ‘dislike’ category.

"I was wounded," he replied. "Fatally wounded. Even after regenerating... my last time... I was weak... dying. The Eye of Harmony could sustain me indefinitely but only in endless stasis... waiting for a Time Lord to find me."

"Why?" Marie asked. Vorte ignored her. The Doctor answered without taking his eyes off his foe.

"He wanted the life cycle of a young Time Lord. He wanted to steal his lives and live again. Unfortunately he got me. .. old, worn out me in my twelfth body."

"But you're not,” Vorte protested. “I can feel you. Your face is ancient, but you have a whole cycle within you. How? If not by the same means I planned? A little hypocritical, old friend."

"We were never friends," The Doctor answered. "You were a bully at the Academy and at the Chancellery. You rose through the ranks on the backs of weaker men."

"That is what weaker men are for," Vorte answered contemptuously. The pause for exposition had given him a second wind and he fought again.

The Doctor had his second wind, too, and he wasn't slowly dying. He fought back hard. All Marie could do was watch them both and hope for a chance to help The Doctor against his enemy.

It could have gone on for hours, but for one chance. Both men were pressed against the side of the Well of Harmony.... or whatever The Doctor had called it. For a heart-stopping moment Vorte pushed The Doctor's head back over the parapet. The silvery light illuminated his steel coloured hair and his head could have been immersed in the deadly pool.

Marie lunged forward and grabbed Vorte’s neck, pulling him away. Her action changed the status quo immediately. The Doctor slid from under his enemy and grabbed him. Vorte swung, but unbalanced himself. He fell headlong into the Well.

The Doctor cried out and tried to grab him, but it was too late. Marie backed away but not before she saw Vorte’s face, twisted in silent agony, melting away.

“Is… he gone?” she asked as The Doctor, too, stepped backwards from the Well.

“Yes,” he answered. “He’s gone. The first Time Lord I have met in so many years, and it had to be such a worthless coward. And now even he’s gone. Come on.”

He turned and walked out of the mausoleum. Marie followed and was surprised to see the Palladian garden shrinking around them. It now looked just like a matte painting on walls that seemed claustrophobically small.

“The TARDIS is starting to close down now that his body is gone,” The Doctor explained before she asked. He hurried towards the much smaller door than they had entered the cloister room by. They both stepped through and found themselves immediately in the semi-dark console room. The brightness of the other console room in The Doctor’s TARDIS was indescribably welcome. Marie ran to that door, hopping over the threshold into the place she knew and felt safe in, where she had left the pile of marking that was her connection with all that was normal.

The Doctor followed her and quietly closed the door. There was that thunk again and then the faint hum as the TARDIS went off on another journey, possibly back to Tallaght, possibly somewhere far more interesting.

“It was an accident,” Marie said when the silence began to be worrying. “You didn’t kill him.”

“I know,” The Doctor answered.

“All right, then. So don’t go letting it prey on your mind. That sort of thing isn’t healthy for anyone, not even a Time Lord.”

“I won’t let it prey on my mind,” The Doctor promised. “I was thinking of showing you how a Superbubble gets started, if you’re interested. Riding the solar winds in a TARDIS is quite invigorating. It’s… what do you humans call it …. A white knuckle ride.”

“Sounds good to me. Let me sort out and put away those exercise books, first, though. They’ve already got tossed around enough. Any more rough treatment and they’ll disintegrate.”

“Worse things have happened to homework,” The Doctor opined. Marie felt sure he was right.