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

Jackie de Lœngbærrow sat in a quite comfortable seat overlooking a large auditorium. It was not exactly what she called ‘entertainment’. It was more of an obligation. Her husband, Christopher, was representing the Gallifreyan government – that is to say the government formed to govern what was left of the Gallifreyan population in exile on Earth – at an important conference between…

She had been given a wafer thin sheet of plastic that turned out to be a sort of interactive booklet with pages that turned at a finger touch. In over fifty languages, one of them English, it outlined the broad agenda of the conference – peace between two planets, Corri I and Corri II. They were unusual in sharing the same orbit around the star Corralis.

Jackie was no astronomer, but she understood that planets didn’t usually do that. Earth had its orbit, Mars had its own, and all the other planets, around each other, like onion layers. She fully understood that planets did that in most solar systems. This was unusual.

Fingering through the booklet she found these two planets on the sort of diagram with lines showing the orbit. Corri I was on the far side of the sun and Corri II the near side, winter on one, summer on the other. It was strange but a sort of cosmic balance was maintained.

Anyway, with that image in her mind, and doing her best not to think about twenty-first century soap operas, the upshot was that the people of these two planets had been friendly for hundreds of years. Corri II traded precious metals for….

Jackie blinked and re-read the sentence, wondering if she had skipped a line.

“Corri II trades precious metals such as gold and lutanium for water, which the Corri I Archimandrite controls. The increasing price of this commodity is the cause of friction between the two planets and even open war cannot be ruled out.”

Jackie frowned. War over water? War over gold and lutanium she understood. War over oil, or for countries where oil was, which was a subtle difference even Jackie recognised, made sense.

But who went to war over water?

The Konyg of Corri II would, apparently. He stood up and eloquently argued that his people would no longer slave day and night in the mines to pay higher and higher prices for the very basic need.

“Then your people will die of thirst,” replied the Archimandrite nastily. “Which makes the likelihood of war very remote, indeed. Dying men don’t fight very well.” He turned to the intergalactic committee of which Christopher was one. “Your work is done. War is averted, after all.”

“I think not,” the Administrator of the Committee responded. “We are also mandated to reach a mutually agreeable solution to the water shortage on Corri II. Allowing the people to die of thirst is not an option. We shall discuss affordable terms.”

“We will not,” the Archimandrite snapped. “If the Konyg continues to demand lower prices I shall refuse to sell at any price. Again, the result will be thirsty people, and who will they blame? It is not my fault that he is putting obstacles in the way of mutually beneficial trade.”

Jackie shuddered. There was something in the Archimandrite’s voice that was even more repulsive than his physical appearance. As far as she could determine, the people of the two planets were about the same general shape and size as Humans but with a distinctly red tinge to their hair. The Archimandrite was a huge man. To call him fat didn’t begin to accurately describe him. Jackie’s imagination had conjured up the character of Jabba the Hut crossed with the kid from Willy Wonka who turned into a blueberry.

The Archimandrite’s face wasn’t blue, though. It was more like a mottled beetroot.

The only other person Jackie had ever seen who was even half as huge and with anything like that complexion was Les Baxter who used to live on the same floor as her in the old Powell Estate flats. He had died of a heart attack chasing a couple of kids who had done something to annoy him. She remembered his face before the paramedics covered him up. It had been mottled beetroot, the face of a fat man who died over-exerting himself.

But the Archimandrite wasn’t over-exerting himself. He sat there in a chair that would normally be called a two seater sofa sneering at the Konyg, a tall, handsome man who was obviously at a disadvantage. His people needed water, and the Archimandrite could withhold it if his demands weren’t met.

The argument got boring. Jackie turned her attention back to the information booklet. There was too much information in too small print. She couldn’t concentrate on the tables of facts and figures. None of it would stick in her head. She felt as stupid as people thought she was, unable to grasp the fine points of intergalactic diplomacy.

She looked at the image of the two planets in orbit around their sun again, trying not to lambast herself for looking at the pictures instead of the words. The picture was interesting, and below it were a list of useful facts about the two planets.

As she looked closer at the picture something occurred to her and she read some of the text anyway, trying to find the answers to the questions piling up in her head.

By the time the conference was wound up for the day she still hadn’t worked out the answers. She folded the interactive booklet and put it in her pocket before going to meet Christopher in the foyer of the conference hall. He smiled warmly as he spotted her and came to kiss her fondly even though his fellow diplomats were watching.

“Were you sitting there through the whole session?” he asked as they stepped out into the yellow sunlight that warmed the capital city of Corri I. “You must have been so bored?”

“Just a bit,” Jackie answered. She couldn’t help a scowl as a large advertising hoarding across the square flashed an image of the Archimandrite. “Somebody with that many chins really shouldn’t be blown up that big,” she added.

Christopher laughed despite himself.

“I’m not allowed to say such things as a diplomat, even if they are true.”

“I suppose I’m not supposed to as a diplomat’s wife,” Jackie conceded. “But then I haven’t had two hundred years of training in the art of negotiation, and barely scraped through o’level in reading without following the words with my finger…”

“You have a post-graduate degree in telling it like it is,” Christopher responded. “So what did you think about the conference.”

“I thought the conference was a load of rubbish. Everyone was falling over themselves to be polite. Somebody should have told Jabba the Architrave to shut his big fat mouth and let everyone else get a word in edgeways, but that wouldn’t be diplomatic, either, would it.”

“Not really, no,” Christopher agreed with an indulgent laugh. “Jabba…..?”

“Star Wars reference. And yes, I know an architrave is a moulding over a window. Your dad was moaning about getting somebody in to clean all the ones in our house last week. It just sounded right. Anyway, if I ask something about this conference can you give me an answer for grown-ups, but dumbed down just a bit so I can keep up?”

“Of course,” Christopher promised.

“Why doesn’t Corri II have any water?”

Christopher didn’t answer at all. He narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. Jackie seized the chance to clarify her question.

“The two planets are almost identical. Same orbit, so it’s not like one is too close to the sun like, you know, Mercury. They’re MADE of the same rocks. There was a geological thing in the booklet. Same atmosphere. There was a thing about that, too. So why shouldn’t there be water on the other planet and… why are people even trying to live on a planet with no water?”

Christopher started to answer her, then stopped.

“Those are all really interesting points, and I don’t have any idea what the answer is. Those two hundred years of training were in politics not geography. My father is better at that kind of thing.”

“Let’s find out, then,” Jackie told him. I’d rather do that than go to a reception held by Archie four chins. If people are really dying of thirst I’m not going to enjoy sloshing back champagne and being nice to nobs.”

“Put like that, I’m not so sure I would, either. Come on, then. If we want anything other than the official tour it’ll have to be by TARDIS.”

The TARDIS was parked in the executive shuttle park on the roof of the luxury hotel the delegates were accommodated in. The view from there was a spectacular one across the sort of space age city Jackie might have expected from the science fiction of her youth. There were huge shining skyscrapers that defied the usual laws of physics and shimmering domes on the Archimandrite’s palaces. It looked prosperous and technologically advanced, and would have been impressive if it wasn’t for the people living without water on the other planet. Jackie couldn’t help feeling that the prosperity of this city and its inhabitants was at the expense of those others.

When the TARDIS was in a stationary orbit above Corri II she was even more certain of that. She looked at the empty desert that covered most of the planet. Only a very small patch of blue signified an ‘ocean’, but it was so small it would probably be called a sea on Earth. Jackie wondered what the difference was, exactly. She knew that a hill only became a mountain above a thousand feet. Was there a point of where a sea became an ocean? Was there a point when an ocean shrank until it was a sea again? Could it get so small it was a lake, a pond, a puddle….

Christopher was saying something. Jackie turned her attention back to him.

“It wasn’t always desert. Look at that topography. There was once an amazing river system. Look at where it was once wide and deep, with a flood plain of hundreds of miles either side. A delta area a thousand miles wide with branches of the main river watering five thousand miles more of what would have been fertile land. Once we would have been looking at something green and lush and full of life.”

“So… what happened?” Jackie’s brow furrowed as a vague memory surfaced. I saw something on telly once about the Sahara desert once being like that… lush and fertile. Something happened to the weather.”

“It might have been like that, here,” Christopher agreed. “Though the scale of it is far greater. The whole planet is dry. And there is a population of ten million suffering because of it.”

He looked carefully at the view of a whole hemisphere then chose a part of it that the TARDIS identified as one of the population centres. He programmed that as a destination. “Let’s go and look at this planet close up.”

It was hot and dry. The sun beat down on the dusty, cracked path that led to the population centre. It was a small town built of modern materials. In the square there had once been a fountain with a pool around it. The ornamental part was rusted and obviously hadn’t been used for decades. The pool was choked full of the burning sand that blew on the hot wind and coated everything.

Beside the fountain was a huge tanker like those Jackie was used to seeing carrying milk or oil. This one had been lifted off its carrier and was just sitting there with a coating of sand over the logo and words that, thanks to the TARDIS translation circuits she saw as ‘Water Bank’.

There was an armed guard next to the tanker and a small number of people gathered, waiting with plastic containers. The guard and two other men with the Corrian words for ‘water steward’ on the backs of their uniforms were keeping a close eye on the old town square clock. When it struck sixteen the guard issued orders for the people to line up in an orderly way. They did so without argument and one of the stewards started to issue water from the tanker, taking what looked like either money or some sort of token from each citizen. The other steward marked off names on a clipboard. Nobody was going to get more than their allotted share of the water.

“Hello, are you visitors?” asked a woman clutching a gallon container of the water and with a small child holding her skirts as she approached Jackie.

“Yes,” she answered. “We’re….”

“We’re an official fact finding cartel from the Diplomatic Service,” Christopher said with a hypnotic smile and a voice that radiated authority. The guard and the two Stewards glanced surreptitiously at him then continued their work with conspicuous efficiency.

“That’s… interesting,” the woman said cautiously. “Whatever you are, the sun is going to be at its zenith in a half day-mark. If you are unused to our climate you ought to be indoors. Come with me. I have little to offer in the way of hospitality but what I have is yours.”

“Our thanks,” Christopher told her in his most diplomatic tones. He glanced at the water container and Jackie didn’t need any telepathy to know his thoughts. His gentlemanly nature made him want to take the burden from the woman, but his training in diplomacy actually taught him not to interfere.

His gentlemanly nature won over. He took the container wordlessly. The woman caught her child’s hand as she escorted her guests to her home.

The little house was as clean as anything could be with no water to spare for washing and the same film of sand inside and out. The woman introduced herself as Juno and her child as Romo. Her husband, Kie, was a miner, working his shift. Jackie found her easy to talk to. Though thousands of light years from Earth and living on a planet with obvious troubles she was a mother making ends meet and bringing up her child just as she had been on the Powell Estate with Rose. It was as if she had known Juno all her life.

Jackie let Romeo sit on her knee. Juno asked if she had a child of her own.

“Three,” Jackie answered. “Rose, my eldest, has children of her own. I’m a granny already. But we also have Garrick. He’s eight, now, and Lily, our baby girl… another flower.”

“Three children,” Juno said wistfully. “Nobody on Corri II would dare have more than one. Food is too expensive.”

Jackie felt guilty. Even before she married Christopher and lived in luxury she wouldn’t have imagined not being able to afford more than one child. It really was a sign of the extreme desperation of the people here on this planet.

“I’m sorry,” she said with a sincerity that the diplomatic life rarely called for.

“Don’t be,” Juno told her. “We’re lucky. Kie has a job. We keep up with the water rates. We manage.”

Christopher hadn’t known people like Juno in his life. He said little as his wife and the lady of the house talked, but he noticed everything. He noticed that the hot herbal tea they were offered despite the heat of the midday hour was served in very small cups. He noticed that most of the food in the cupboard was in tins, preserved in natural juices. He noticed that the tins were stamped with a similar logo to the one on the water tanker. Food and water were both controlled by one organisation, and that was never a good thing.

Jackie noticed in the time they spent as Juno’s honoured guests that no water supply was the most irksome when it came to ‘bathroom’ facilities. In fact, neither ‘bathroom’ nor ‘facility’ was the appropriate word for what Juno and her family had. From the depths of Jackie’s memory words like ‘earth closet’ and ‘night soil men’ mentioned long ago by her grandmother were the polite words to describe the arrangement. Her grandmother had necessary used the impolite words, but a few occurred to her anyway.

But it was also clear that it hadn’t always been that way. There were paintings on the dusty walls of a fountain where children played in the sun and of a wide river flowing through fertile green fields. When asked, Juno proudly mentioned that her father was the artist who had painted those images when she was a little girl.

They were done with watercolour paints.

Nobody painted, now. Water was too previous to use in paints.

They stayed much longer than the hottest hour. Despite the difficulties, Jackie enjoyed the visit to somebody she felt such an affinity with. When Christopher tactfully said it was time to go, she was sorry.

And when she reached the TARDIS, when she was private, when she was in the cool, dust free air of the console room, where the water could be spared for tears, she cried.

Christopher left the console and went to try to comfort her. With her head buried in his chest he heard her say something that sounded like bubble wrap.

“Bottle tops,” she repeated, leaving him none the wiser. “When I was a kid it was bottle tops, sent to Blue Peter, for recycling, to make money to build wells in Africa. By the time Rose was the same age it was aluminium cans. Nobody got milk in bottles any more. But she did her bit, too. It was Rose who asked the question. You know Rose. She always asks questions – the right questions. Its why your dad is so crazy about her. She asked how many more wells we have to build before the job’s done. I mean, between when I was doing the bottle tops and Rose was collecting cans, shouldn’t they have started to crack the problem?”

“It was a very good question and the only answer I can think of is that it is far more complicated than just building wells.”

“Yeah,” Jackie nodded. “I suppose that’s it. But the funny thing is… even though I collected as many bottle tops as anyone else… I’m not sure I really cared about the people in Africa. Not really care. I felt sorry for them and all that, but it was far away and they were just faces on the news. If I’d ever been to Africa and really seen them… if I’d been given tea made with water that cost them so much… seen their kids… known their names….”

She cried again. Christopher waited for her to finish.

“Who is this Peter fellow, anyway and why is he blue?” he asked.

Jackie gave a hiccupping laugh.

“Well, whoever he is, he doesn’t have the power of a Time Lord with diplomatic privileges. I’m not leaving things like this. I don’t think what happened here is the same as the Sahara desert or where the Nile shifted its course over centuries, or even over use of the water resources such as caused the shrinking of the Aral Sea. Something deliberate has been done to this planet, and I’m not going to let it go on a moment longer than it has to.”

He turned back to the main console and studied the data carefully. It wasn’t his expert field at all, but his father was a scientist and this was his TARDIS. It found what he was looking for without him even realising it even WAS what he was looking for.

“It couldn’t be,” he murmured as he programmed another materialisation. “It couldn’t possibly be….”

The TARDIS materialised. Christopher hit the door control and ran outside. Jackie followed, wondering what it was that couldn’t possibly ‘be’.

When she saw it up close she agreed that it couldn’t possibly ‘be’.

“What is it?” she asked as she looked at a wall of water that had to be a mile high and at least a thousand miles in either direction. There was no actual physical barrier, not even of glass. The water was held back by an invisible force of some sort.

“A force field, an immense force field across the watershed of a whole continent,” Christopher answered. “Every drop of water that fell in the mountains is damned up behind it instead of filling the rivers.”

“This didn’t get here by accident,” Jackie said. “It’s not climate change, either.”

“No,” Christopher confirmed. “It’s the Archimandrite.”

“Jabba? Really?”

“Who else would go to do much trouble? Who else is profiting from the desperation of the Corri II people? He did it so that he could sell them his water at extortionate prices.”

“Can you prove that?”

“No, I can’t. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to leave things as they are.”

“If you do something with the TARDIS computer and get rid of this force field….”

“The river beds are so dry, for so long…. And there is so much water there. If I just remove the shield there will be an inland tidal wave. The towns along the river… Juno’s town, and countless others… they’ll be swept away.”

Jackie nodded. She wasn’t credited with much imagination, but she’d seen Deep Impact and a couple of other films involving sudden floods of water. She could fill in the picture for herself.

“I might be able to lower the shield by a couple of feet and create a controlled overflow,” Christopher suggested. “Enough to give the people hope that things are going to change.”

Jackie looked up again and imagined a couple of feet of water plummeting down. She realised that this was not a good place to be standing when that happened and hurried back into the TARDIS to watch from safety.

It was spectacular. She stood at the door as the TARDIS hovered in front of the force field and watched a curtain of water tip over the edge of the invisible wall all along the length of it. It hit the parched ground and stirred up dust before the mass of water started to spread across the land. At first it looked as if it was going to flood the whole countryside, but after a while what didn’t seep into the dry soil found the lines of least resistance, the streams and rivulets that eventually poured into the great river.

Christopher placed the TARDIS above the resulting wake and it ran just ahead down the valley the river had once carved through mountains and onto the flood plain where it had meandered lazily and where many small mining towns had been built. At these settlements people came running to see the miracle. Many of them joyously plunged into the water, feeling its coolness on their bodies for the first time in their lives.

“I hope they’ll be all right,” Jackie considered. “If there hasn’t been water for so long, I don’t suppose any of them can swim.”

“Good point,” Christopher considered. “But I can’t really give them lessons right now.”

They stopped at the village they had visited before. Juno was among the people who had come to the riverbank to see what they had not expected to see in their lifetimes. She and her son were dancing with joy along with the rest of the villagers.

The armed guard and the water stewards were nonplussed. They stared at the crowds who washed themselves in the river, who gathered water that didn’t have to be rationed, and who no longer recognised their authority over the precious resource.

“You lot had better start looking for new jobs,” Jackie said to them.

“There is more to do,” Christopher noted as he watched the happy scene that he had been able to create. “But we need to talk to the Konyg first.”

The next morning the Konyg was late to the Conference. The Archimandrite made a very dull speech about the noted indolence of Corri II citizens. The fact that he made such a speech sitting in his own huge chair was something that the committee, schooled in diplomacy, made no comment upon.

Then the Konyg arrived, marching onto the conference floor with a confidence and majesty that had been lacking in him before.

“I am pleased to inform the conference that water is flowing in the rivers of Corri II once more,” he said. “The source of the problem was, you will all be surprised to learn, an outside agency artificially interfering with the natural process. The….”

“That is a lie and a slander,” the Archimandrite interrupted, attempting to rise from his chair but flopping back down again according to the laws of gravity. “I know nothing about those dams. They are….”

“My dear Archimandrite,” The Konyg went on in a cool, steady tone. “I don’t believe anyone mentioned anything about dams. In any case, no finger of blame can be pointed until a full investigation is carried out. I will be asking the Intergalactic Committee to put that investigation in hand. Meanwhile I wish to convey my thanks to you, Archimandrite, for all your help during the crisis which is now over. There is, of course, a lot of work to be done. We need irrigation projects to make the land fertile again, horticultural programmes, even restocking the rivers with fish….”

“Of course,” the Archimandrite said with a greedy smile. “I should be glad to discuss terms for such a programme of recovery….”

“Oh, there is no need,” the Konyg assured him. “I have already made contact with the Venturan government. They are putting together a complete package. Their terms are very reasonable, too. It turns out that the precious metals from our mines are worth nearly four times as much on the Intergalactic Commodities Market than simply selling locally. If only you and I had known that before now. You might have made much more from the ores we were selling to you. But no use dwelling on the past. The future is where we must look from hereon. My people will only need to work a quarter of the hours they work now to pay for these marvellous improvements to their lives. They will have so much more leisure time to catch enjoy the fruits of their labours. I expect watersports will become popular with them.”

“That is wonderful news, Konyg,” Christopher announced on behalf of the committee. “I am sure the Archimandrite will be the first to congratulate you on this new turn of events.”

The Archimandrite looked as if congratulations were the last thing on his mind, but he managed a few not quite completely sincere words before he finally managed to haul himself off the chair and waddle out of the conference room, his huge body shaking with barely suppressed rage and frustration. The Konyg watched him go before turning to the Committee with an invitation to view the newly watered planet as well as the remnants of the shields that would need thoroughly investigating to find out how they got there.

It was good news for the Konyg and the people of Corri II, and Jackie was pleased to visit Juno again and see how her life was transformed by the reappearance of the water. Mostly it meant that she joined in with a huge spring cleaning operation that left the little house sparkling.

But there was a vicarious pleasure, too, in the news that the Archimandrite was deposed a few days later. Not only was he implicated in the water scandal, but he had kept most of the profits from the venture for himself. The people of Corri I were either outraged that they had not shared in the bounty or that they had been innocently implicated in the crime. Jackie confessed to being puzzled about that, and Christopher wasn’t sure, either. It didn’t matter. His reign of oppression was over.

“Considering that they elected him in the first place I wouldn’t trust them to get it right next time, either,” Jackie remarked about it all. “It’s like the Americans. One crook replaced by another crook in the White House.”

“It would be undiplomatic of me to comment,” Christopher answered with a smile that suggested that he agreed fully with her.