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

Stella looked at The Doctor and Wyn as they stood by the table, not saying much at all except to ask each other for instruments. It looked like a pair of surgeons performing an operation.

And it was, in a way. She tried not to look at the pieces of damaged circuit board that were strewn on the table or…

K9’s HEAD separated from the rest of his body which was opened up and all the insides pulled out.

It WAS her fault. She was the one who had not seen the electric fence and would have blundered into it if K9 had not hovered in front of her and taken the massive shock himself. The smell of melted electronics was still in the air and she would never forget the horrible moment when the light in K9’s eyes faded, or the way Wyn had yelled at her for being so stupid and then cried because she thought K9 was dead and then shouted again. Then Stella had cried and shouted back that SHE nearly got fried on the fence and Wyn was more concerned with a stupid robot dog than her.

And that had made both of them cry.

She had stopped shouting now, and The Doctor was sure they could fix him. But Wyn was convinced he would never be the same again and she was really upset.

Not that Stella wasn’t upset about it, too. Even though she had said he was stupid she didn’t mean it. He was technically Wyn’s dog, but he had been around since she was a baby. She had ridden on his back instead of having a kiddy tricycle. When she learnt to ride a bike he had hovered along with her. She loved him. And she WAS sorry.

But right now, nobody cared that she was sorry. They were busy trying to fix K9 and SHE wasn’t needed or wanted.

Neither The Doctor nor Wyn noticed when she walked out of the room.

The workshop was a room she wasn’t very familiar with, in a part of the TARDIS she rarely went. The Doctor and Wyn both went down there from time to time to use soldering irons and cutting tools and the workbench with vices and other tools. But she wasn’t into that kind of thing.

She wondered what was behind the other doors around here. There were LOADS of them. And none of them EVER had names of any kind to say what was there. The bathroom and kitchen both had frosted glass panes in their doors and her bedroom door had a sign that she made for herself, saying “Keep Out, Private” which The Doctor obeyed but Wyn NEVER did. The others you just had to try to remember.

She tried one of the doors. It opened into a big, empty room with a cricket bat lying in the middle of the floor. She closed it again and tried another. It smelt of fruit and she stepped inside and saw a big basket of exotic fruits, again sitting in the middle of the floor.

She picked up a peach and ate it, then pocketed some small orange coloured fruits that looked really tasty and a banana that she peeled and ate as she investigated other rooms. One had a coke machine in the corner. She dropped 10p into the slot and it delivered an ice cold drink – sugar free, of course. There were loads of vending machines like that in the TARDIS corridors. It didn’t matter how much or how little money you put in, they still gave you what you wanted. Nobody ever told the TARDIS about inflation, she guessed.

Then she found one that didn’t open. The Doctor had said once that some of the doors led to ‘in potentia rooms’ that were only there if they were needed. But since when had they needed the cricket bat room? Or even the basket of fruit room or the drinks machine room?

She was SURE there was something in this room. She put her ear to the door and she could hear music. It wasn’t really the sort of music she was into, but it WAS music. And even on the TARDIS music didn’t just play by itself.

She tried the door again. But it wouldn’t budge.

“Sonic screwdriver!” she thought. The Doctor had put it down on the workbench after he had opened up K9’s side panel. He was using ordinary tools to do the repair.

She dropped the banana skin outside the door so she would find it again and back tracked to the workshop. She slipped inside and walked around the bench. Neither Wyn nor The Doctor looked up from their activity. She reached out and pocketed the sonic screwdriver and turned away. Neither of them noticed. She walked out of the room, trying to seem casual. When she was outside she broke into a run.

She found the door with a banana skin outside and pulled out the sonic screwdriver. She knew the setting for opening doors. The Doctor had told it to her once when he was busy doing something else and he had asked her to do it. Setting €£@&. She extended the head of the screwdriver and aimed it at the door. The screwdriver glowed blue and made an interesting buzzing sound before the door clicked audibly. She smiled and put the screwdriver in her pocket and took out one of the orange fruits to chew as she explored.

Inside was a corridor, narrower than the one outside. She could touch both walls easily at the same time. It was darker, too, especially when she closed the door behind her. She took out the screwdriver again and just used it as a penlight as she walked fifteen paces before turning a corner. The music continued as she walked. It was a nice sort of music, though certainly not the kind of thing she would usually listen to on her MP3 player. It was the sort of music that she associated with an old fashioned carousel at a fair - the sort with horses in bright colours and long twisted poles painted gold that went up into the canopy above as it turned around and around.

She had been on a carousel like that once at an old-fashioned travelling steam fair that came to Llanfairfach one Whitsun weekend. Usually they got the modern fairs with everything electronic and loud pop music playing. She liked that sort of thing ok, too. But the steam fair had been something special.

She walked another fifteen paces and again turned. Then another. Then a shorter corridor. Only about twelve paces. She realised that she was always turning right. She was going around inside a square spiral, and would come to the middle eventually.

That didn’t worry her. It just proved that the corridor couldn’t be endless. This WAS the TARDIS, after all. She had heard things about it being infinitely big, and she didn’t fancy walking around infinity. But a spiral she could handle. She wondered what was at the centre. It HAD to be something good. The TARDIS wouldn’t have anything dangerous on board, after all. Well, it DID have some dangerous things. The Doctor told her she should not go into the cloister room on her own. There was that ‘Eye’ thing there that was a bit creepy. And the engine room was like any engine room, full of things that shouldn’t be messed with. But nothing else could harm her. The TARDIS was a safe haven from the dangerous things outside.

At last the corridors were becoming really short. Five paces, then a turn. Then again, and she found herself in a very small room, about the size – she giggled at the thought – the size of a REAL police telephone box. THIS was the REAL TARDIS space.

There were mirrors on all of the walls, including the wall where she turned into this space. She looked back and saw, of course, hundreds of Stellas going off into infinity. She turned to her left and saw the same. And again.

But on the fourth wall….

She reeled at the shock for a moment. She didn’t see Stellas. She saw…

Another girl. She looked about fourteen and was dressed in the sort of dress girls wore in the pictures of Llanfairfach Sunday School at the beginning of the twentieth century - a knee length gingham check dress with a dropped waist and sleeves to her elbows. It was the sort of dress that made a girl of fourteen look more like twelve, pretending that she wasn’t growing up and nearly old enough to be working or getting married and having kids of her own.

“I DON’T want to be fifteen,” the girl said. “I don’t want to work in the factory. I like going to school and reading and doing sums and I like to run and play in the sunshine. My big sister Ella never runs and plays. She’s too tired from working all day. I don’t want that. I don’t want to be fifteen.”

“Can you see me?” Stella asked. “How did you get here? On the TARDIS?”

“I’m not there. I’m here - where there are no factories. Are you coming here, too?”

“I don’t think…” Stella stepped closer. She looked past the girl and saw the fairground all lit up in the half darkness of a summer sunset. The carousel was just like she imagined. She really wanted to have a ride on it.

But that couldn’t be right, could it? There WASN’T a fair on board the TARDIS. The Doctor would have told her, surely? And what about the girl?”

“What’s your name?” she asked. “Mine’s Stella.”

“Elsie Langton. I’m from Burnley.”

“I’m from Llanfairfach, in Wales,” she said, recalling that Burnley was in Lancashire, or Yorkshire - one of those places where they had factories in the time when girls wore dresses like that. The boring, miserable, grim industrial revolution that she read about in school history - the same one that made Llanfairfach a mining community.

“Do you like living there?”

“No, it’s boring,” Stella answered. “But I’m not there now. I’m….”

“Come to the fair,” the girl said. “Come on.” She held out her hand and Stella automatically put hers out. She was startled when Elsie’s hand reached through the glass and grasped hers. For a moment she wanted to pull back, but curiosity got the better of her. She stepped forward.

And she was on a hill, overlooking a valley. There was the fairground below and the sun setting behind the hills in the distance.

She looked around. There was no mirror. She couldn’t see back into the TARDIS. She panicked. She reached out her hand and the air shimmered. Yes, it was there. She could feel that her hand had gone back through into the TARDIS. She could go back that way when she was done.

But how would she find the place?

She still had a half can of coke in her hand. She swallowed the rest of it and then put the can on the grass, pushing it down into the soil so that it stayed upright. A little marker for her to find her way home.

“Come on, Stella,” said Elsie. “I want to ride the carousel.”

“So do I!” Stella answered and ran after the girl, down the hill.

The carousel was even lovelier when she reached it. The music from the steam organ swelled as it turned and the horses bobbed up and down. She watched as it began to slow down and there were two empty horses. She and Elsie climbed up and sat tight before the ride began again.

She loved it. She had been on really terrifying white knuckle rides that did things to your insides. As a teenager she was supposed to crave the excitement of the extreme like that. But secretly the rides she loved best were the ones like this, the old fashioned, gentle rides with the music playing and the lights and colour and the smooth up and down motion of the horses. She was sorry when it stopped.

“Can we go again?” she asked.

“We can go again and again,” Elsie said. “But come on and go on something else, first. There’s the swings and the chair-o-plane and the big wheel.”

“Oh yeah! Cool!” Stella’s eyes lit up with pleasure as she ran with Elsie to the steam driven boat shaped swings and climbed aboard. Again soft music and gentle movement made it delightful.

It was starting to get darker, yet still as warm as ever. That made it even nicer. The pools of coloured light in the darkness, the smell of fairground food, the music from the steam organs, strains of different tunes wafting in and out on the breeze.

Then there were the chair-o-planes that lifted her high in the air and swung her around, and the wild mouse ride and another carousel, this one with a Noah’s Ark theme. Stella and Elsie rode two tigers first, then swapped to the elephants before they gave their places to other children.

There were so many other things. The balloon ride was wonderful. They climbed into baskets with coloured balloons above their heads and the ride went around slowly at first, only a few inches from the ground, but gradually the steam driven arms raised up and they were flying around in the air. They both felt a little wobbly afterwards when they stood on the ground again but the feeling wore off as they headed for the pig roast where a boy a little older than Elsie carved juicy slices of meat from the browned carcass turning on the spit and put them in soft bread roles with mustard or tomato relish or apple sauce.

“Does nobody have to pay for things here?” Stella asked as they ate the food and she decided it was way nicer than processed hot dogs. For dessert they had a toffee apple each and when they went back and had candy floss as well Stella decided her low fat, low sugar diet could go to pot for one day at least and had two big sticks.

Afterwards they went on the caterpillar ride where she regretted pigging out on sugar just a bit. She didn’t enjoy that one QUITE as much as she would have liked, but she walked the sick feeling off and then they took a leisurely ride on the miniature steam railway. After that they went down the helter skelter four times and then they thought they were ready for the Ferris Wheel that towered over everything else in the fairground.

“It’s not the HUGEST wheel I’ve been on,” Stella said as they sat side by side in a bright yellow seat with their legs dangling. “I’ve been on the London Eye, and the Singapore Flyer, and the Riesenrad in Vienna and the one on Coney Island that’s been in loads of movies. My sister Wyn always gets scared at the very top, and I don’t think The Doctor is mad about heights either, which is STRANGE for him, being who he is, but he’s game for anything.”

“The Doctor?” Elsie looked at her curiously. “You know somebody called The Doctor?”

“Yes,” Stella answered. “My sister Wyn, and I, we travel with him. Exploring places and having adventures and making things better for people. The Doctor is really brilliant.”

“I know a man called The Doctor, too,” Elsie said. “He’s the only grown up here. He looks after some of the little children that don’t know how to look after themselves. He gets some of us older ones to watch out for them. He’s the kindest man I’ve ever met. I’ve never seen him shout or get angry. He makes us all feel safe.”

All? Stella had noticed that there were a lot of children here. There must have been about two hundred in the fairground. They were all dressed differently, as if they were from different historical periods, boys and girls, all ages from about three to maybe fifteen or sixteen. She, at seventeen, was about the oldest, anyway, she reckoned.

What they had in common was that they were happy and having fun.

And that was as it should be, Stella thought. Growing up could be hard work. Even for her, living in a nice home, it wasn’t a picnic every day. They had plenty of money, of course. Her parents WOULD be millionaires if they didn’t spend so much money on trying to feed the whole world and get rid of poverty. Even so, they were well off. Neither she nor Wyn nor their older brothers ever wanted for anything. She, the youngest by a long margin, had always been spoilt rotten. But even so growing up was harder than it ought to be. It was nice to have a respite like this, where everything was easy and fun and free.

And everyone felt safe.

“Come on,” Elsie said as the wheel reached the ground and they got off. “Let’s go on the Derby horses before the fair closes.”

Stella felt a little disappointed to hear that the fair was going to close. She had expected it to go on all night. But she happily made her way to the only ride they hadn’t yet been on. The Derby horses were not like the carousel ones, painted in bright colours. These were actually painted in greys and browns and blacks and made to look as much like real horses as something made of carved wood and paint could. They had saddles and bridles and were arranged in a wide, wide circle under a huge canopy with the biggest steam organ of all in the centre. All the children in the fairground were going there.

There were enough horses for them all if some of the little ones sat up in front of the older ones. She and Elsie shared horses with two boys in the sort of smocks that Edwardian toddlers wore until they were old enough for their first boys’ trousers. The ride began, and it was as much fun as any of the other rides had been. She noticed as they went around in the big circle that the other rides all around were closing down, their lights going out. The food stalls were shutting up, too. Soon the only lights were those on the Derby and the only music was from the big steam organ in the middle.

When the ride came to a stop, the rest of the fairground was in total darkness. Stella looked out and saw the shape of the wheel against the starry sky and the line of the hills beyond. She knew she would never find the coke can and the way back into the TARDIS.

“The Doctor and Wyn will be worried about me,” she said. But nobody was listening. She turned around and saw all the children, Elsie included, lying down on the ground in the middle of the Derby ride. The floor there wasn’t grass or wood as it was under many of the rides, but soft, squashy stuff like a big mattress. The air was still warm and it looked like a comfy place to sleep. Stella found a space and lay down near the two Edwardian boys and even though she WAS worried about the fact that The Doctor and Wyn would be missing her, she quickly fell asleep, noticing as her eyes grew heavy, that the lights dimmed just a little but never went out and the steam organ continued to play very quietly. It was like having a big musical mobile and a nightlight to comfort her as she slept.

It had taken two anxious, patient hours of delicate work, but The Doctor finally slid K9’s side panel into place and pressed his starter button on his back. Wyn breathed in deep and held her breath. There was a flicker of light in the eye panel but that only meant that the electronics were working. Was K9 in there still?

“Mistress!” he intoned. “Master.”

“K9!” The Doctor replied with a relieved laugh. “How are you, old boy? It was touch and go, I must say. You had us worried.”

“Concern not necessary. I am fully functional.”

“Yes, you ARE!” Wyn exclaimed and wrapped her arms around his metal neck. “Come on, let’s find Stella and tell her you’re ok. She was really upset. I need to tell her I’m sorry for shouting at her, too.”

“That’s funny,” The Doctor said. “I can’t find my sonic screwdriver. K9, I didn’t leave it in your tummy did I? Like the old surgeon’s mistake!”

“Negative, master,” K9 answered. “I have no foreign objects, sonic or otherwise, in my ‘tummy’.”

“Maybe Stella picked it up?” Wyn suggested. “Though I can’t think why.”

“I’ll ask her if she’s seen it,” The Doctor said.

Neither of them were worried. Wyn expected to find Stella in one of her usual haunts, the console room, or the home cinema, the kitchen, or bathroom. Or if she was still smarting over the row, maybe in her bedroom.

Stella woke up slowly. Around her the children were all stirring and stretching. She stood up and looked around. There was an early morning mist and the grass on the meadow looked dewy and cool. The fair was quiet, of course. None of the rides were open yet. But there was chatter among the children about breakfast and she felt hungry. She followed a crowd of them to where the pig roast had been. The cold remains of the meat were being handed out in buns along with fresh fruit from big baskets that looked like the one in the room back on the TARDIS. There was a cauldron-sized bowl of milk that the children dipped cups into. She got a share of the food and drink and sat on the steps of the carousel to eat and drink. Even though she had just thought about the TARDIS, she wasn’t worried, strangely enough. All she could think about was when the fair might re-open.

“The Doctor is coming,” Elsie told her and she looked around. There was a man walking along, children flocking around him. Stella was reminded of the teachers in the playground in the infants school. They always had two or three children holding onto each arm the way they clung to this man called The Doctor.

He didn’t look anything like HER Doctor. And yet, in another way, he did. He was about the same height, and maybe about the same age to look at, about 35, although she knew perfectly well that wasn’t her Doctor’s real age. This one had blonde hair that parted on the opposite side to her Doctor and bright blue eyes. He was wearing what looked like a cricket outfit. She thought for a moment of the cricket bat in the otherwise empty TARDIS room and wondered if it had anything to do with him. On top of that he wore a cream coloured blazer with red trim and a straw hat that matched it.

He had a stick of celery pinned to his lapel, which struck Stella as the daftest thing she had ever heard of. Or nearly as daft as the question marks on his shirt collar, anyway.

But he looked kind. His blue eyes were as gentle as HER Doctor’s brown ones. He stopped and looked at her with a puzzled expression, then sent the little children around him to get breakfast and go and play as he came up to her.

“You’re new here?”

“Yes,” Stella answered. “I came in through a mirror.”

“Ah,” said the man the children called The Doctor and he sat on the step next to her. “It’s often mirrors. Sometimes wardrobes, sometimes puddles, through the pages of books, or at the top of trees. There’s a bit of a fantasy fiction theme to it. But….” He reached out and touched her head. He looked puzzled. “You’ve had a row with somebody recently. I can feel the remnants of the tension. But it was nothing that wouldn’t blow over. I don’t think you were really meant to be here.”

“I probably wasn’t. I heard the music and found the mirror. I had a really nice time with Elsie, but I probably should go back. Wyn and The Doctor will be REALLY worried by now. I’ve been here all night.”

“The Doctor?” He looked really puzzled now. “THE Doctor.”

“Yes,” she said. “The Doctor. He’s my friend. And Wyn’s. And my mum, too. But she knew a different one of him. Way back. Wyn knows two of him. But I never really got to know her other one. He used to come to see Wyn and my mum and dad, but I never really talked to him much. I like the one we’re with now.” She stopped talking and ran what she had said back in her head. “None of that made any sense, did it?”

“Possibly,” he said. “What’s your mum’s name?”

“Josephine Grant Jones,” Stella answered.

“Jo Grant?” he smiled. “Yes. I remember her well. And you know a later Doctor? What number?”

That would have been an odd question to ask about anyone else. But Stella understood what he meant.

“Mine is Ten. Wyn’s first Doctor is Nine. Mum’s was Three, I think.”

“I’m Five,” he said. “And very pleased to meet you.”

“So you ARE one of them… one of him?”

“It’s confusing, isn’t it?”

“No, it all makes perfect sense. After all, this place is in the TARDIS. Why wouldn’t you be here.”

“No it isn’t,” The Doctor said.

“Isn’t what?”

“It isn’t in the TARDIS. Was the mirror you came through on board the TARDIS?”

“Yes.”

“And where was the TARDIS?”

“Orbiting a planet called Zexupixifadfer. And don’t ask me to repeat that name again. Anyway it wasn’t very nice. We were glad to get away.”

“Very interesting. You’re the first to come here from somewhere other than Earth. But of course you’re FROM Earth. So perhaps that’s why. But no, it’s not in the TARDIS. It’s not really anywhere. Or perhaps it’s everywhere. At least everywhere it’s needed.”

“What is this place? And why are all these kids here? Where are they from?”

“Everywhere,” The Doctor answered. “From all times, all places.”

“And they’re here because….”

“Because they didn’t want to be where they were. They WISHED themselves here.”

“Huh?”

“I can’t entirely explain it myself. And let’s face it, I’m the smartest person in most of the universe so if I don’t know how it works, nobody does. But these children, they were all of them unhappy for some reason. Problems at home, bullying at school… that little lad there… he was buried in the ruins of his house in the London Blitz of 1941. He was the only one alive, and he was wishing hard he could be somewhere else, and the next moment he was here.”

“A bit like Peter Pan and the Lost Boys?” Stella said. “They don’t want to grow up?”

“They CAN’T grow up here. And yes, that’s a pretty good analogy. I never gave the place a name before. But Never-Never-Land sounds about right, really. Or Wonderland for you mirror ones. Or Narnia, something like that.”

“But they’re all lost kids?”

“Yes.”

“So…” Stella thought about it a bit. “When there are stories in the news about little kids going missing and we never hear about them…. They’re never found… Is this…. Do they all come here?”

The Doctor sighed and looked around at the children. He bit his lip and there was a sad look in his blue eyes.

“No,” he said at last. “Not exactly. I wish it WERE true. But there’s only a few thousand children altogether in this place. I’m afraid a lot of the time those stories are just what everyone fears – the work of evil-minded humans who take pleasure in destroying innocence. A lot of the time it’s just as horrible as you imagine it is. But just now and again a child’s prayer, a child’s wish, coincides with a portal that brings them here.”

“Oh.” Stella looked disappointed. “It would…. Well, I know you couldn’t just go to a parent of a lost child and say, ‘Look it’s ok, he’s in a really nice place with a fairground and he’s really happy.’ But it would be good to think that, wouldn’t it.”

“Yes, it would,” The Doctor agreed. “Some of them ARE kidnapped children. A child who has been snatched from a loving home by somebody who wants to lock them in a cupboard and hurt them is certainly unhappy enough to wish themselves here. They’re some of the ones that can’t go back.”

“Why not?”

“Because.…” The Doctor swallowed. “Because after the police have found their bodies… there’s nothing for them to go back for.”

“Oh.” Stella tried to say something else but the words died somewhere between her mind and her mouth.

“Those children.…” The Doctor pointed to a little group that sat together making daisy chains. “They can’t go back either. They came from a place called Belsen. And those… they were on a slave ship going from Africa to America. Those two boys – they were being transported to Australia for stealing bread. Those were in an Indian village that was devastated by cholera. Their lives were at an end. There was nothing for them. But somehow, their wish was granted. They’re alive here. They’re happy. They’re allowed to be children. Not slaves or prisoners, or unwanted Human rubbish to be disposed of.”

Stella considered all of that solemnly.

“So… how come you’re here? Did you wish yourself here?”

“No,” The Doctor answered. “I PUT myself here. Or a part of me, anyway. I’m not really…. Well, I’m surprised you didn’t wonder. The REAL me would have regenerated into another me. The sixth one. This.…” He held out his hands. “I look and feel real in this world. I have all my memories of being a Time Lord. Of being ME. But I’m really just a copy. The real me created this me in the TARDIS, to come here and be a sort of guardian, to help some of them get home, the ones that want to. And the rest - to protect them. He knew it would be a permanent job, and he couldn’t stay.”

“Guard them from what? I thought this was a nice place.”

“It should be. But there’s a Darkness here that comes now and then. Something that frightens them. it frightens me, for that matter, but I can fight it, hold it back, protect them.”

“What sort of Darkness?”

“Just hope you’re not here long enough to find out,” The Doctor said. “We really should see about getting you back. You shouldn’t even be here by rights. You weren’t really unhappy enough to wish yourself here, were you?”

“I was kind of miserable. I did something stupid. And Wyn was mad at me. And The Doctor.… Well he wasn’t mad. It would have been kind of easier if he was. I think he was just disappointed in me. But… no. I don’t want to stay here forever. I want to get back to Wyn, even if she’s still going to be mean to me. And to The Doctor. MY Doctor.”

“Come on then. You can join today’s crocodile.”

“Crocodile?” She had visions, possibly engendered by the idea of Neverland, of a large reptile, and wasn’t sure she wanted to ‘join’ one of those. But of course crocodile was a word for a line of people walking along together, and when The Doctor stood up again he put his fingers to his mouth and whistled. A group of ten children all formed up in a line, in pairs. They all looked at The Doctor hopefully.

“Elsie,” The Doctor said, turning to Stella’s friend from the night before. “Are YOU going to join us today?”

“No,” she answered. “I don’t want to go. I don’t want to work in a factory and never be able to run free.”

“Ok,” he said, accepting that answer. “See you later. Come on, children.”

“Why did you ask Elsie if she wanted to come?” Stella asked The Doctor as she walked at the head of the line, beside him, holding hands with a little boy of about three or four in a Blackpool football shirt that Stella was pretty sure was the current one of the year she left Earth. This boy was of HER time and place.

“Because Elsie, like you, really shouldn’t be here,” The Doctor said. “What she is afraid of is growing up. She doesn’t come from the really awful time when children were worked to death in the factories. By her time there are maximum working hours, regular breaks, factory inspectors. I’m not saying that it’s a picnic, but it isn’t anything terrible, either. Elsie has a loving family, friends, and she would soon enough discover that having a wage in her pocket, even when she’s paid some of it over to her mother for her keep, is a freedom of its own kind. The freedom to buy dresses and hats for walking out on a Sunday with a young man, the freedom to take the train to Blackpool on bank holidays and enjoy the carousels she loves so much. The freedom to save a little each week and call it her own nest egg for the future. Having to work hard for her living isn’t something she should be running away from. I’m hoping one day she will realise that and be ready to go home and face up to her responsibilities.

“Will she be able to?”

“Nobody ages here. She is forever fourteen and three quarters as long as she stays here. If she tells me that she wants to go home, then she can come along in the crocodile and we’ll find the portal that opens out into Burnley in 1909 and hopefully she will only have been gone a few hours and everybody will be so relieved to see her they’ll forget to ask where she’s been.”

“Oh. Does that mean… There’s a way back for me where I won’t have been gone overnight and Wyn won’t be really upset and worried?”

“You care about her not being upset?”

“Of course I do. She’s my big sister and…” Stella paused. The Doctor looked at her and smiled. “Well… you know…”

“Yes, I do. It’s not ‘cool’ at your age to tell people you love them. It goes unsaid but you hope they know it anyway.”

“Yeah. That’s about it.”

“May you should tell her.”

“She’ll think I’m coming down with a space lurgy if I do anything that soppy.”

The Doctor laughed. He turned to look at the other children as they walked up the hill and out of the valley. Some of them turned and waved to the ones staying at the fair. Stella waved to Elsie. Then they moved on, up and over the rise and down into another valley.

Stella remembered something.

“Doctor, I left a marker where I came in. It’s back there.”

“It won’t be now. The entry portals fade after a few hours. The way out will be in the maze.”

He pointed down and Stella looked at the biggest maze she had ever seen. It covered the valley - an intricate maze of hedges, with, here and there, things that glinted in the sunshine.

“Portals?” she asked.

“Yes,” The Doctor said. “We have to find the right ones. It’s a sort of game for the children. They enjoy it. I suspect it’s a test to see if they REALLY want to go home.”

They started to descend towards the maze. As they did so, though, something started to happen that made it all much less fun. It got colder, suddenly. And darker. The sun was blotted out by a black cloud.

“It’s going to rain,” Stella said.

“No,” The Doctor answered. “Worse. It’s the Darkness. Children, come together. Huddle up. You know what to do.

He gathered the boy in the Blackpool shirt into his arms and crouched low. The children all moved in around him. They murmured in frightened voices and he spoke calmly, reassuringly, promising them that it would be all right and that it would all be over in a little while.

The Darkness descended, blotting out all of the light, and closing around them all. There were things in the Darkness - noises, voices, strange sounds. They were the stuff of nightmares. They were, Stella realised, the things that so many of the children must have run away from - slave drivers with whips, factory foremen with blackthorn sticks, teachers with canes, drunken fathers with their belts folded in their hand to administer a ‘hiding’, cruel men with bad breath and large hands that clamped over a child’s mouth to stop her screaming, school bullies who pulled hair and shouted cruel words. Parents rowing, voices raised in anger. Physical blows and mental cruelty from everywhere. Exam papers and parents expectations, ballet tutors and gym instructors, piano teachers all piling on the pressure to succeed.

Stella recognised one of her own nightmares in among them all. A different sort of nightmare, because none of those other things had ever troubled her. It was much more abstract and puzzling. Her nightmare was of being in space, just sort of floating, looking at a planet that was very clearly dead, and feeling a deep and terrible grief in her heart. She knew the planet must be Earth, because that was where everyone she loved was, and that was why she felt such grief. When she was in the grip of the nightmare it felt very real, but of course when she woke up it was all ok. Especially now that she had travelled with The Doctor and knew that Earth was going to be fine for billions of years, and only going to die when all the people had moved away to other planets.

Funny thing was, she had that nightmare before she knew The Doctor and had travelled in space.

Even stranger, The Doctor seemed to have a similar nightmare. At least THIS Doctor did. She didn’t know about her own one. The nightmare that swirled around him, trying to wear him down was simply that he was the last person alive in a dying universe, alone in the emptiness.

“It’s not REAL,” The Doctor called out. “None of it is real. Everyone, push it away. It’s not real. It’s just a bad dream. It can’t hurt you unless you let it hurt you. Believe me. Believe IN me. If you don’t let it scare you it can’t hurt you. Believe in ME.”

“I believe in you, Doctor,” Stella answered. “I’ve always believed in you.”

She believed in him even as the Darkness pressed in even more, until she couldn’t even see him beside her, or any of the other children, as the sounds of fearful things intensified.

Dark - needed light. She fumbled in her pocket and found the sonic screwdriver. She pressed the button and the blue light illuminated her face. She held it up and to her amazement the small penlight grew in intensity and throw its light much further than it should. She could see all of the children huddled together, The Doctor trying to hold onto as many of them as he could in his own two arms. The light was enveloping them all, and pushing back the Darkness. It was like a shield of light.

Then the Darkness was gone. The sunshine was back. The children slowly stood up and looked around. The Doctor stood. He looked at Stella holding the sonic screwdriver. He gently took it from her hands.

“I lost mine ages ago. A Terileptil disintegrated it.”

“You can borrow that one until I get back to the TARDIS,” she said. “Will the Darkness come back?”

“Not now. It usually happens when we’re on the way to the maze. You slept in the fair last night? Under the big canopy?”

“Yes,” Stella said.

“That seems to act as a shield. The lights and the music hold back the Darkness. The children never have nightmares when they sleep there. But the Darkness comes at other times.”

“When some of the children are leaving?” Stella asked.

“Yes.”

“I wonder.…” As he reformed the crocodile and they started to descend towards the maze entrance, she thought about it.

“Doctor,” she said after a while. “It’s kind of obvious, isn’t it?”

“What is?”

“The Darkness is OBVIOUSLY all the things that the kids are scared of, that made them want to come here. It tries to scare the ones that have decided to go home. It’s trying to make them change their minds.”

“Very likely,” The Doctor said. “Now you come to mention it. Although I never thought it had any sentience. It isn’t deliberate.”

“No, probably not,” Stella conceded. “But maybe… I wonder if the others, the ones that want to stay, sort of do it subconsciously, because they don’t want their friends to leave.”

The Doctor looked at her and frowned. Then he smiled.

“You might have something there. This place is created by the power of the imagination, after all. The darker side of the imagination creates the Darkness. Clever girl.”

“I think it’s your doing,” she answered. “I don’t think I WAS that clever until I met you… The Doctor. My Doctor. Though… I suppose… he’s the end of the line. So there must be some of you in him, in his memories. So he IS you, isn’t he? But you’re not him yet. Because he hasn’t happened.” She stopped. “Ok, that only just makes sense. I’m going to quit while I’m ahead.”

“Good idea,” The Doctor answered with a broad smile. “But anyway, that WAS good thinking. Knowing WHY it happens may help me to fight it more easily. Usually it goes on for a lot longer, and it’s much more scary. Some of the children do run back to the fair and put off going back. But we’re ok today. Everyone’s happy to go on.”

“So I did good, then?” Stella asked.

“Yes, you did. Thank you.”

“I don’t always do good in the TARDIS. I’m in the way.”

“Do I say that? Does you sister?”

“No, but….”

“You’re not in the way. They both love you. But you’re a family of a sort together in the TARDIS. Sometimes in the best of families there are little problems. But nothing that can’t be sorted out.”

“You think?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Ok, then,” she said. “Let’s go.”

They stepped into the maze through a rose arch full of blooms. The Doctor paused and counted the children. She noticed that the arch disappeared once the last child was through.

“This is the point of no return,” The Doctor said. “They’ve decided to go home, and that’s that. I can’t get out either until the last one is home.”

“We WILL find the way, won’t we?”

“Yes,” The Doctor answered, though he looked at the little boy next to him and bit his lip as if he wasn’t sure.

“Doctor!” Wyn was starting to worry. “She’s not in ANY of the usual places. I’ve looked everywhere. I tried her mobile, but it’s in her coat pocket over there on the hatstand.”

The Doctor looked worried, too. He was looking at the lifesigns scanner. He could see his and Wyn’s lifesign. Even K9’s electronic brain registered as a non-organic lifeform. But there was no sign of Stella anywhere in the TARDIS. He looked at the viewscreen. They were still in orbit around Zexupixifadfer. She could not have LEFT the TARDIS.

“The monitor must be playing up. Come on, let’s go back to the workshop and then backtrack slowly. She might be in another room. We’ll try them all.”

Wyn nodded miserably and went with The Doctor to start the search. K9 hovered along with them, his head and tail down mournfully.

They had been exploring the maze for about ten minutes when they found the first portal. It was a puddle. When they looked into it there was a reflection of a school playground. It was quiet. There was only a small group of students there. The Doctor turned to a girl of about sixteen who was wearing the same school uniform.

“Tracy,” he said. “Remember what I told you.”

“I’ll only fail my exams if I let the fear of failing overwhelm me. And even if I DO fail it’s NOT the end of the world. There are six form colleges where I can retake them. I can catch up. My life won’t end in a brown envelope with lots of D’s and E’s inside. I won’t be a failure.”

“That’s right. Now, off you go. Geography O’Level awaits you.” She stepped forward. He caught her arm momentarily and whispered something. Stella caught part of it as the girl smiled and stepped into the puddle. She slipped through it and they saw her briefly in the playground walking towards the other girls before the puddle dried up.

“You told her the answers,” Stella accused The Doctor as they walked on.

“No, I didn’t. I just told her that she was better at physical geography than Human geography and do the question on coastal erosion not the one on population and migration.”

“Still sounds a bit like cheating,” Stella told him, although she remembered doing the same paper the year before last and she was inclined to agree on that point.

The Doctor and Wyn looked at the corridor of nameless doors and sighed in unison.

“I SHOULD at least get some sort of colour code,” The Doctor said. “All these doors. And even I’m not sure what they are.”

“The cricket bat room was the strangest one,” Wyn said. “WHY a cricket bat?”

“I think it was mine five regenerations back,” he answered.

“I thought you were into football. Preston North End.”

“I am, always have been. But I’m also a pretty good fast bowler.”

Wyn decided she wasn’t going to say anything. She opened another door and they both looked at the basket of fruit.

“Somebody’s helped themselves,” The Doctor observed. “Stella must have been hungry.”

They left that room and moved on. Then K9 waggled his tail and his head pointed. They saw the banana skin. They looked at the door nearest to it. The Doctor tried the door and it opened. He looked at the narrow corridor and heard the music.

“Oh!” he said. “THAT explains it. Come on, Wyn. I think I know where she might be.”

Wyn looked at the corridor and wondered about the music and why The Doctor was looking less worried now, but she and K9 followed him with a little more hope now.

“Frankie,” The Doctor said, as they came to a wardrobe that was incongruously built into the hedge. “What did I tell you?”

“No use hiding in the wardrobe. I have to go to my mum and tell her what Uncle Gavin keeps trying to do. It will make her cry, and it won’t be nice having to tell a policeman about it. But Uncle Gavin won’t be able to frighten me any more.”

“Good boy,” The Doctor told him. “Ready?”

Frankie nodded and opened the wardrobe door. Stella saw there was an identical door on the other side. He opened it and stepped out into his bedroom before the wardrobe vanished. Stella shivered as she ran the conversation through her head.

“He WILL be all right, won’t he?” she asked The Doctor.

“He’ll need some help. His mum will be there for him. So will lots of people whose job it is to help him. In time, he will be fine.”

The Doctor reached out and squeezed her hand as they moved on. Another puddle in another playground and The Doctor advised a girl of ten in a blue school uniform dress and cardigan to tell her teachers and parents and anyone she could about the bullies. Never mind what they said they would do if she told. Another boy went back to the garden of his house assured that, even if his parents DO get divorced they would both still care about him and things weren’t as bad as they seemed right now.

Two more were going back to face up to the sort of problems young Frankie had. The very idea made Stella feel sick. She thought fondly of her own dad, a bit daft at times, his head always somewhere else, with some grand plan for the better welfare of the world. Sometimes he forgot about the better welfare of his own daughter and she had to remind him she existed. But he loved her. She never doubted that. So did her mum. And for the first time since she went off with Wyn and The Doctor she missed them just a little bit.

“Call them when you get back and say hi,” The Doctor told her, and she never even thought to ask how he knew. He WAS The Doctor. Of course he knew.

“What is this?” Wyn asked The Doctor as they walked along the strange, winding corridor.

“Something I had almost forgotten was here,” he answered. “Stella must have been more upset than we realised, or she would not have been able to find it. If she was a year or two older, she wouldn’t have, either. Only children can ever pass through the portals. Or me. But I’ve been told quite often that I’m a bit childish so….”

He rambled on a bit more in that way. Wyn was used to him doing that. She knew if she waited long enough he would get to the point.

A girl called Caroline went through another wardrobe ready to admit that she broke the crystal vase that used to belong to her great grandmother and was a family heirloom. That left just Stella and the boy with the Blackpool shirt as they reached the middle of the maze.

“That’s the way back to the TARDIS!” Stella said excitedly as she saw the TARDIS room inside the mirror that stood there so incongruously against the hedge. “I’m nearly home.”

“Yes,” The Doctor told her. “But…” He looked at the little boy. “Stella, I need you to do something for me. I need you to take Sam back with you.”

“Well... ok. But… WHY?”

“Because there isn’t a portal for him. It’s complicated. YOUR Doctor can explain. He’ll understand. Are you ready?”

“Yes, I think so.” She looked at The Doctor, then she looked at the mirror and the view inside of the strange room in the TARDIS. She gasped as she saw HER Doctor with Wyn and K9 turn the corner into the space. The Doctor – HER Doctor - smiled widely and waved at his other self. The blue eyed, blonde Doctor smiled and returned the wave and then his face became serious. His eyes looked a little unfocussed and so did HER Doctor. She guessed they were talking to each other telepathically. He held out the sonic screwdriver and HER Doctor grinned and mouthed ‘Keep it. I’ll make a new one.” She didn’t hear his words. The sound must only go one way in the portals, Stella figured. But even so she understood what he had said.

“Ready?” The Doctor asked her. Stella grasped Sam’s hand and they both stepped through the portal. She turned and looked and waved. He wasn’t in the maze now. He was standing on the hill above the fair. Elsie came running and stood next to him and waved as well. Stella waved back. Then there was a shimmer and the portal became a mirror reflecting her and Sam and The Doctor, Wyn and K9 standing there.

“Would somebody like to tell me what’s going on?” Wyn asked. “Where were you, Stella, and who was the guy in the weird get up, and who’s this little kid with the dodgy taste in football teams?”

“He is Sam Withers, and he has a story of his own,” The Doctor answered. “Tell you what, take him to the kitchen and find ice cream while I set us on course for Earth.”

Stella explained to Wyn about where they had been while they fed Sam a large bowl of ice cream. She went through several emotional states. Amazement, worry, concern, a little bit of jealousy about the fun she had while in the ‘Neverland’ or whatever it was called. And relief that she came back.

“A lot of the kids don’t go home?” she asked.

“A lot of them came from horrible places. I mean, Nazi concentration camps, African slaves, that sort of thing. Why would they want to go back?”

“Good point. But what about him? The other Doctor said there was no portal for him? But why?”

“He got there by mistake,” The Doctor answered as he sat down at the table and helped himself to ice cream. “Sam was at a football match with his dad, coming out of the stadium at the end of the game, loads of people around. His dad stopped to talk to somebody he knew. He let go of Sam’s hand for a moment. When he turned around a moment later, no Sam. The police were on the case right away of course. As the days went by it became a nationwide search, massive media coverage, posters on every lamppost, the whole thing. You know how it is. But there was no trace of Sam, dead or alive.”

“And?”

“And we don’t know. Sam vanished off the face of the Earth. Nobody knows. I’ve checked twenty, thirty years into the future. But there was never a trace. No body ever found. His parents never knew if he was dead or alive.”

“Schrodinger's Cat,” Wyn said.

“What?” Stella looked at her with a puzzled expression.

“Schrodinger's Cat,” The Doctor repeated. “It’s a THEORY by a clever thinking type called Schrodinger, obviously. He said that if you put a cat in a box with a device that releases poison slowly, then until you open the box the cat is potentially alive or potentially dead.” Stella looked at him and Wyn with an appalled expression. Both seemed to accept this animal cruelty very calmly. “Yes, I know. Don’t worry, it’s a THEORY. Schrodinger was a very nice man who never did harm to any cat in his life. But the point is.…”

“The point is,” Wyn continued. “The parents of any child that goes missing are in the same situation. Either their child is dead or he is alive. Until somebody opens the box.… Same with people waiting to hear about relatives Missing in Action in war or waiting for the lists of the dead after a disaster of some sort. And it’s horrible. Because even if a body is found eventually, at least that’s closure. They can grieve and get on with their lives. But if they don’t know, if they’re stuck with the closed box for day after day, month after month, maybe year after year….”

“Yes, but.…” Stella protested. “HE said that the ones who can’t go back are the ones where the body IS found.”

“Yes,” The Doctor confirmed. “But that’s where the system came unstuck. Sam is very young. He knew he was scared. He knew he was a long way from his dad. ‘A portal opened because he was so scared. But he didn’t make a CONSCIOUS wish. He wasn’t old enough to know about wishes. We think THAT’s why he has no portal to get back.”

“So…” Stella wasn’t sure it made sense. But then sense had gone for a long walk the moment she stepped into the TARDIS the first time. “What….”

“He told me to make it right,” The Doctor said.

“How can you do that?” Wyn asked.

“We’ve materialised. “Come on.”

He picked up Sam in his arms and Wyn and Stella followed him back to the console room. K9 was waiting patiently.

“We are in the correct temporal location, master,” he intoned.

“Well of course we are,” The Doctor answered. “I programmed our destination VERY carefully.”

“As opposed to sticking a pin in the map of the universe as usual?” Wyn commented. But The Doctor wasn’t listening. He was looking at the viewscreen. They were outside Bloomfield Road, Blackpool’s football stadium. The crowds of fans were pouring out of it. They spotted Sam and his dad. They saw his dad stop to talk to another man in a Blackpool shirt. Then somebody walked in front of their view and when it cleared Sam wasn’t there. They looked carefully, but it was like a needle in a haystack. There were too many people around. They saw Sam’s dad beginning to panic, calling out, running towards a policeman who was on crowd duty.

“You do it, Stella,” The Doctor said. She took hold of Sam’s hand and stepped out of the TARDIS. Wyn and The Doctor watched as she walked up to one of the football club’s own stewards who assisted the police on match days. They saw her explaining that she had found this lost child. Then Sam’s dad and the policeman came running. There were hugs and tears. The policeman and the grateful father both turned to thank Stella for her good deed, but she had already quietly walked away back to the TARDIS.

“Well done,” The Doctor said, hugging her.

“He’s going to be ok?” she asked him.

“He’s going to be fine.”

“Doesn’t it cause a wobble in causality or something?” Wyn pointed out.

“No,” The Doctor explained. “Funnily enough, it doesn’t. “Schrodinger's Cat is potentially dead or potentially alive and causality has no say in the matter until the fact is known one way or another. The newspapers will have to find a new headline for a week or so. But there’s bound to be a politician doing something he shouldn’t to amuse them.”

“We did good then?” Stella asked.

“We did,” he answered with a smile. “As for you…”

“Are you mad at me for going in there? I know I should have come right back. But it was nice… fun….”

“Course I’m not mad at you. I’m glad you WANTED to come back.” He put his arms around her and hugged her tight. Wyn hugged her too. And then Stella hugged K9, VERY glad to see him. after that she went to the coat stand and found her mobile phone. It was a souped up phone, of course. She could easily phone from Blackpool to South Africa, no trouble. She talked to her mum and dad for a long, emotional time. When she was done she grinned happily.

“We’re in Blackpool, still?” she said.

“Yes.” The Doctor looked at the viewscreen. It was only a few minutes but the TARDIS was now sitting in an empty car park outside a closed football stadium. The fans had all gone off home, or to the pub, or wherever football fans went.

“Good. I want to go to Blackpool Pleasure Beach. It’s got a REALLY GOOD Carousel.”