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

Jackie was relaxing on the TARDIS console room sofa. She could finally kick off her shoes and sit without worrying about the correct posture after four solid days of diplomatic receptions and tours of inspection on a planet called Xaden Xia which was interested in forming trade ties with planet Earth.

The primary industry of the planet she hadn’t figured out how to pronounce was a sort of grey, lumpy, fungus that could be processed into food. On tours of the fungus farms with mile long sheds growing the stuff under special black light and the processing plants where the fungus was turned into a gloopy grey slop before being freeze dried, Jackie wondered how hungry she would need to be before she tried that stuff.

“You DID eat it,” Christopher told her as he programmed their return journey to Earth. “All the food at the receptions was made from it. That was to demonstrate how versatile the fungus is.”

Jackie made a disgusted face.

“Its not so strange. We had something similar on Gallifrey processed from nuts. And there ARE vegetable alternatives to meat on Earth. “

“I suppose,” Jackie conceded. “Are you going to recommend the Earth governments do a deal?”

“I’m not sure. Earth in the twenty-third century doesn’t have a food shortage. Granted that is because the Dalek invasion sixty years ago thinned out the population, and no amount of pragmatism can make that right, but I don’t think Earth needs it. I told them I might act as an intermediary with a couple of overpopulated worlds.”

“I suppose places with famine could use it?” Jackie suggested.

“No, I’m afraid not,” Christopher admitted. “The Xadens want to sell their product, not give it away. Famine hit societies generally don’t have any money.”

Jackie missed exactly what Christopher said next, but it involved that word ‘pragmatism’ again. She didn’t actually know what it meant, like a lot of words that Christopher used in everyday conversation.

But if it meant that people somewhere were starving while somewhere else more than enough food could be made out of fungus sludge then it wasn’t a word she wanted to know.

“Sometimes I think your job is horrible,” she told her husband.

“I know,” he answered. “And I agree.”

He reached to put the TARDIS in ‘autopilot’ so that he could come and give her a cuddle on the sofa. As he did so, there was a ‘thunk' beneath the drive console and everything went topsy turvy. Christopher managed to initiate the gravity cushions that kept both of them from being injured as the TARDIS forgot which way was up or which was a wall and which a floor for a long time.

When it was over the silence and stillness was eerie. The lights were dimmed and even the usual background hum of the engines was missing.

“Christopher?” Jackie stood up, examining bruised parts of her body but finding nothing seriously damaged.

“I'm here,” he answered. He pulled himself up from the floor under the console and reached out to his wife. They hugged, grateful that neither was hurt in the crash landing.

“What’s wrong with the TARDIS?” Jackie asked. “The lights....”

“We're in emergency power mode. The engines are off. Why... I don’t know. Hold on.”

Several lights were blinking on the diagnostic panel. The data that scrolled down the screen was incomprehensible to Jackie, but Christopher understood.

“This isn’t good,” he said after a while. “The engines aren’t a big problem. They just went offline. They’ll cycle back up again in twenty-six hours. But there is damage to the fluid links and the helmic regulator. With those out of action we can't dematerialise the TARDIS. Also... communications are out. I don’t know why that is. They’re not damaged. It seems to be local interference.”

Jackie immediately pulled her mobile phone from her pocket. She looked at the ‘no signal’ symbol in surprise. Her phone had been ‘souped-up' by The Doctor ages ago. She was used to calling home from anywhere in time and space.

“As I said... local interference,” Christopher said. “And the reason seems to be that we’re in some sort of underground tunnel or cave. There must be metals or minerals around us that block our signals.”

“So... What are we going to do?” Jackie asked.

“I'm afraid we’re going to have to leave the TARDIS. We'll try to get above ground. Your phone will work and we'll be able to call for help. Young Davie can fix a fluid link faster than an oil change on one of his cars.”

“It’s a bit humiliating having to call your grandson to come and rescue us,” Jackie admitted. “Worse than calling the AA.”

“I know. But we don’t have many options. I can fly a TARDIS but I’m no mechanic.”

“What planet are we on?” Jackie asked, next. She peered at the dim view in the exterior screen. It looked as alien as anything she had ever seen.

“I’m not sure,” Christopher admitted. “The localizer is giving anomalous readings.”

Jackie laughed despite being more than a little scared.

“Is that diplomatic speak for ‘we’re lost'?”

“It is definitely Time Lord for it. The air outside is a bit musty and thin, but breathable. It’s rather cold. Get a coat and some shoes you can walk in.”

Jackie went to do that. The internal corridors were even darker than the console room in the low power mode and she remembered something about rooms ‘folding up' to save power. She hurried back as quickly as possible wearing an incongruous pair of trainers with the silk dress she had been wearing when they left the fungus planet. She put a long coat over it and buttoned it up.

Christopher was wearing a black coat that looked like he was dressed for the office and, in contrast, a backpack that bulged as if it was full.

“Bottled water, energy bars, first aid kit, batteries for a torch, a length of rope in case we have to climb,” he said.

“Climb?” That was a prospect Jackie didn’t look forward to. She hadn’t climbed a rope since PE at school and she didn’t like it, then.

“You’ll be all right,” Christopher assured her. “Come on.”

They stepped out of the TARDIS into an alien place. It was a tunnel of some sort. The walls and ceiling looked strange in the torchlight and the floor rough.

Christopher looked at his sonic screwdriver and turned at a right angle to the TARDIS door.

“This way is going gradually uphill. That is the more likely way out.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Jackie told him, dryly. She wasn’t altogether happy about the prospect ahead, but staying in the TARDIS, waiting to be folded up, was not palatable either.

The air was, as Christopher had anticipated, rather stale, as if it was second hand. And a bit thin. Jackie felt a little light-headed, as if she had swallowed a gin and tonic too quickly.

“Take long deep breaths,” Christopher advised. “Walk steadily at a pace that suits you. Don’t worry. We’ll be all right.”

The way forward was dark. The torch Christopher had brought illuminated only a yard or so ahead.

Some instinct made Jackie look back. She could just see the light on top of the TARDIS where they had left it. A few minutes later when she looked again, she couldn’t see it at all.

She felt a pang of uncertainty. The TARDIS, for all its oddities, all its alienness, was a safe place, almost like home. Losing sight of it this way....

“What if we can’t find it again?” she asked. “There might be miles of these tunnels. We could get lost.”

“We won’t. For one thing, I can always feel the presence of the Artron energy that powers the TARDIS. For another, I don’t think this is the sort of subterranean system you’re thinking of, with lots of branches carved out of the rock by underground river systems.”

“What other sort is there?” Jackie asked. She recalled school trips, too many years ago, to Chiselhurst Caves just outside London and a longer day out to Wookey Holes. She thought she remembered that the latter were naturally formed, with a river still running through to give a clue to the forces of nature at work. The former were man made by ancient flint miners who left tell tale signs of their work on the walls.

Jackie wondered if the race that lived on this planet, wherever it was, had made this tunnel. She looked at the walls and ceiling, expecting to see signs of primitive tools that carved out the space.

There was nothing like that. Instead, the walls resembled the mudflats of the Thames at low tide, with rippled layers. She reached out, half expecting crumbling mud.

It was rock hard, but she couldn’t quite get over the idea that it had once been fluid.

“We’re in a lava tube,” Christopher explained. “That’s when.... “

“I know,” Jackie interrupted him. “I saw that once on a telly programme about volcanoes. The top of the lava cools, but the stuff inside is insulated like in an oven and stays hot and runny and keeps moving until eventually there's a hollow tube left over.”

Christopher smiled warmly at his wife.

“The experts would probably say ‘viscous' rather than ‘runny’, but it comes to the same thing in the end.”

“I never thought they were this big,” Jackie added. “I remember seeing people standing up in one of them in Iceland, but you could get a small car in here...”

“Its a remarkable example,” Christopher agreed.

“Creepy thought though, isn’t it. Millions of years ago where we're walking was full of red hot lava. We'd be dead.”

Christopher nodded. If he let his Time Lord senses wander he could feel the heat of it.

“It wasn’t millions of years ago,” he said. “About three or four thousand years, give or take... Depending on how long a year is on this planet. Some of those Icelandic ones you mentioned are only decades old.”

“I’d rather think of this as millions of years old,” Jackie admitted. “Then I don’t have to worry about it starting up again while we're in here.”

Christopher assured her that wasn’t at all likely. His Time Lord senses were also attuned to things like tectonic activity, and all was quiet.

He didn’t tell Jackie about something else he was attuned to. She would only have a whole new set of things to worry about.

But he felt the presence of water above their heads. This lava tube was on a sea bed. The fact that it was rising slowly suggested that it would eventually reach land, but he couldn’t be sure how long that would take.

They just had to keep walking.

Jackie wondered how long they had been walking, and how much longer it would take. She had a blister on her heel. It hurt with every step.

But she wasn’t going to complain. Christopher had faith in her. She wasn’t going to let him down by complaining.

Then what she really feared happened. She tripped on the uneven floor and went down hard. Her hands, knees and elbows were bruised and her ankle jarred painfully.

“It’s all right,” Christopher told her. He put the torch down and pulled his sonic screwdriver from his pocket. In tissue repair mode he dealt with all of the minor scrapes as well as the ankle sprain.

And the blister. He fastened her shoe up again and helped her to stand up.

“Any more blisters, let me know,” he told her. “I don’t know how long we might be walking for, and you don’t have to endure any pain.”

“I don’t want to look like a wimp.”

“I'd never think that of you,” Christopher assured her. “I know walking isn’t your idea of fun... Unless its round a shopping centre ... But you’re doing fine.”

“I bet I’ve walked this far around shops without thinking about it,” Jackie mused as they walked on. Her ankle was as good as new and without the blister she felt fully capable of going on. “You used to hike with your dad, back on Gallifrey, didn’t you?”

“Yes. I was always destined for politics, but father made sure I got plenty of outdoor life. Weekends with backpacks and minimum rations, finding food in the wild. There was a plant that grew near rivers that had fruits that looked and tasted like blue cheese. I loved those.”

“Tell me more about those trips,” Jackie said to him. “It'll take my mind off the walking and being stuck in a tube.”

Christopher was happy to do so. His memories of those times when he and his father bonded over a camp fire on the southern plain were fresh and vibrant in his mind. Even now, in this peculiar situation, he could easily recall the sky above them with all the constellations of the Kasterborous sector shining down on their camp. He could recall the fresh, sweet air even in this close, dry subterranean atmosphere.

Jackie felt it, too. Holding Christopher’s hand she could see, hear and feel everything he could. For a long time they walked in the dark place that had never seen the light of any sun or a breath of wind, while at the same time they walked joyfully across a pleasant countryside with fragrant breezes and a warm sun overhead.

Jackie held onto the illusion for as long as possible because it made their predicament so much easier.

But eventually it had to end. She actually blinked in the torchlight that replaced the sensation of sunshine.

“We need to rest,” Christopher said. He put his coat down to sit on and brought water and energy bars out of his pack.

“I wish we had some of those cheese plants from your planet,” Jackie said as she bit into the fruit and grain bar. Then she remembered to be grateful for what she had. “But this is OK. At least its not fungus sludge. Have you got more bars? In case this takes a long time? I don’t want to get to a point where I’m craving the sludge.”

“Yes,” Christopher answered. “I hope we have enough water, though. That might be more of a problem than food.”

“Ordinary caves would have water somewhere.”

“No likelihood of that in a lava tube, I’m afraid. We'll have to manage.”

Jackie bit back questions like “How much further...” and “What if we run out of water?” Christopher was doing his best for them both. Questions he couldn’t answer and complaints about their situation would only worry him.

As they walked on again her mind drifted to Saturday afternoons in front of the TV, usually with her feet up and a nice cup of tea, while watching films about people enduring hard circumstances. There was the one about a bunch of women and kids being marched from place to place by the Japanese army. She hadn’t walked anywhere near as far as they had done, day after day.

There was another film about people in a plane crash in the desert, desperately rationing their water supplies.

She wasn’t nearly as thirsty as that, yet.

She pushed away thoughts about a film about another plane crash where the survivors were forced to eat the flesh of the dead.

“That’s a true story?” Christopher queried. Jackie had forgotten he could read her mind, especially when it was as open as it was now.

“I think so. It happened in the nineteen seventies. I was a kid, then. I don’t really know for sure.”

“Well, we're nowhere close to being that desperate. Even if we don’t get out of the tunnel we might still get close enough to the surface to get a phone signal.”

Just in case, Jackie tried her phone again, but it still wasn’t responding.

“Anyway, if those women could do it, day after day, I can, “ Jackie decided. She wasn’t sure if that one was a true story, either, but if it wasn’t, plenty of other people got pushed around by the Japanese in that way and she could be as tough as they were.

At least she had Christopher beside her. She had loved him almost from the first time she met him. Marrying him had been a dream come true. He had given her a life of luxury and comfort beyond her imagining. But right now, with nothing but water and energy bars she loved him more than ever. She knew she could rely on him. He would be beside her to the very end... Whatever that end was.

The end would be what he said, she told herself. They would get out of the lava tube and into the air of whatever planet this was, and then they could get help.

That had to be it. The alternative was too awful to think of... wandering underground until the food and water ran out and they died together.

The dying together wasn’t the worst part of that. They would BE together.

But she would never see her children again. Rose, and the grandchildren, Garrick who was growing faster every day, little Lily, a tomboy and a princess at one and the same time, running around the garden in Wellington boots and a frilly dress.

She bit her lip and stopped herself crying. They WOULD get out of here.

They had to.

“We will,” Christopher assured her. “I promise... As a politician. And you know politicians never go back on their promises.”

Jackie laughed at his joke and felt more confident of their immediate future. They just had to keep going, keep walking.

It was more tiring, now. What had been an almost unnoticeable incline was becoming a definite slope.

Christopher knew that was a good sign. They were no longer underwater, but climbing up to high ground.

Jackie didn’t know that and she felt the relentless slog in her back and shoulders and her ankles. She didn’t complain. She was still determined that Christopher wouldn’t think she was weak.

But she WAS tired, and just a bit demoralised. They had been walking for hours, stopping twice to eat energy bars and sip water. She didn’t dare ask how many miles they had walked already. She knew she couldn’t ask how far there was still to go.

That uncertainty was the worst part of it all.

“I wonder what planet we're even on,” Jackie mused. “What sort of people are we going to find? I mean... Not what they look like. It doesn’t matter if they have three heads or scales or feathers or fifteen fingers on their hands. But... will they be kind to a couple of refugees wandering around their planet? What if we're walking in some banned place... Like a religious shrine. We might be in big trouble.”

The possibility had occurred to Christopher. He had heard plenty of his father’s stories about that sort of mishap.

“I’ll use all of my diplomatic skills to get us out of trouble,” he promised.

It was another of his not completely funny jokes, but it reassured Jackie a little. She began to feel hopeful about what would happen when they finally found the way out into the open air.

What they came to before then caused confusion and made them both wonder what sort of people lived on this planet.

The tunnel opened out into a wide cavern formed, possibly, by a collapsed bubble of lava long ago. But people with some imagination had widened and straightened the walls and fitted in a stage and rows of seats to form an auditorium.

It was quite beautiful, but it frightened Jackie.

“Does this mean that the people live underground?” she asked. “Will we ever get to breathe real fresh air?”

Christopher was wondering what it meant, too. It wasn’t impossible that a society could be sophisticated enough to have a concert auditorium, an obvious sign of advanced civilisation, and yet also live a troglodyte existence in a cave system.

“Sit down here for a bit, anyway. At least we have seats for a change.”

Jackie sat. Christopher gave her another energy bar and some more water. It was warm, now and not so refreshing, but she was glad of it.

“These seats...” she said, looking around. “They’re the right size for us. The people must be more or less like us. Their legs would touch the floor the same and... Their... bottoms... must be like ours to sit like this.”

Christopher laughed, not at her logical process which was perfectly correct in this instance, but the pause as she chose ‘bottoms’ as the least impolite word for that part of the humanoid anatomy.

“Yes,” he agreed. “The people who built this concert hall have comparative posteriors.”

That made Jackie laugh. But then Christopher spotted something in the dim light. He stood up and took Jackie by the hand up the centre aisle between the seats. Behind a jutting out piece of rock there was something neither of them had hoped or expected to see.

A door!

A door with a push down bar to open and a sign above it that would be lit when the auditorium was in use.

The TARDIS translation circuits were still working even if the engines were down. They both read the words ‘Emergency Exit' in English.

“No intelligent species would allow a crowd to gather without a means of safe evacuation,” Christopher pointed out as he pushed on the handle and the door swung away from him. There was a smaller tunnel beyond, but it obviously led out somewhere. He could smell wind and rain ahead.

Jackie was a little puzzled. She understood about TARDIS translation circuits, but at the same time she noticed that the sign actually read as ‘salida de emergencia'.

Which didn’t seem quite so alien as she expected.

As Christopher had predicted, another push down emergency door brought them out into the open air. It was dark, and it was raining, but they were outdoors. Jackie breathed deeply for a few minutes before looking around.

They were in a flat place that could have been a landing place for alien space ships. Further away were mountains and rocky outcrops darkly silhouetted against a slightly less dark, but starless and moonless night sky.

“Its bloody freezing... And of course it had to be raining,” Jackie commented. “Planet Rain. No wonder they live in caves.”

“I’m not sure they do,” Christopher remarked. “Try your phone, now.”

Jackie eagerly reached in her pocket, then groaned in dismay. She showed her husband the blank screen.

“I forgot to turn it off after the last time I tried. The battery is flat.”

“Never mind. We’re not finished, yet. Come on, sweetheart. There’s a road here.”

“A road? Like... A road... With cars. “

“Without cars at the moment,” Christopher conceded. “But roads do tend to lead somewhere.”

He took her hand as they walked. It was a dismal trek in the rain and a wind that blew in their faces, but Christopher was right. The road had to lead somewhere.

It led to another, slightly wider road. Christopher suggested that they had been following a road intended just as a way up to the auditorium. This was a more general purpose road.

He turned left and they walked on.

“This wind is coming over the sea,” he said. “I can smell it.”

“I can’t smell anything,” Jackie answered him. “My nose is running faster than the rain. I wish we were in the nice, dry lava tube, still. No, not really. But I wish we were SOMEWHERE.”

She WAS complaining, now. She was near the end of her tether. The phone going down, her own fault, had been a bitter disappointment. The wind and rain felt like the last straw.

Except it wasn’t. A few minutes later there was another disappointment that really topped the lot.

They both stopped and turned at the engine sound and the bright lights that dazzled their eyes. Christopher tried to signal their need for help but the vehicle just sped past, spraying them with muddy water from a puddle.

“You rotten, ignorant ratbag!” Jackie yelled at the receding backlights as tears of frustration overcame her resolve.

“The driver may not have seen us,” Christopher suggested diplomatically.

“More like he just didn’t want two soggy wet people in his precious bloody Ferrari,” Jackie responded, too angry to realise the importance of what she had just said.

Then the lights of another vehicle appeared in the middle distance. This time Christopher stood in the middle of the road and forced the driver to stop or risk knocking him over.

What stopped was no Ferrari. It was a truck of no obvious make. In the back two goats lay among straw.

Jackie would gladly have sat with the goats, but when Christopher explained, in perfect honesty, that their transport had broken down, the farmer opened the door to the passenger seat. Christopher and Jackie shared the space gladly.

“You must be tired, Señora,” the farmer said to Jackie.

“You have no idea,” she responded, trying to remember in which language ‘Señora' was the way to address a married woman. It was somewhere that her friends from the old Powell estate could get to on budget holiday packages.

Which meant....

“We really need a hotel,” Christopher said to the farmer. “Is there one nearby?”

“Do you mean a simple, cheap hotel, Señor, or an expensive one?”

“Expensive one, please,” Jackie begged, thinking of en-suite bathrooms with big sunken baths full of bubbles.

Christopher felt in his coat pocket for his wallet containing several universally accepted credit cards and confirmed Jackie’s preference.

“I know just the place, Señor, just a few miles away.”

One refreshing whirlpool bath later, Jackie was sitting on a comfortable king size bed wearing a dressing gown bearing the logo of the five star Gran Castillo Tagoro hotel and talking to her eldest daughter on the phone.

“After all of that worry, it turned out we were on Earth all along, on blooming Lanzarote of all places. Yes, the whole place is volcanic rocks, and this lava tube is world famous. Not to Sandra Ellis, of course. She probably never shifted off the beach that time she bragged about coming here. But its famous to other people. And, yeah, they really do have a concert hall down there in the tubes and everything. They do guided tours in the summer season, but this is winter and its all shut up and looks so completely alien, we really thought we were somewhere else. Anyway, love, kiss the kids for me. We'll be home soon enough. I'm going to enjoy this bed, and tomorrow I’m having a spa treatment while Christopher meets Davie and they go and get the TARDIS fixed.”

She put the phone down and looked at Christopher. He had bathed, too, and was dressed in the male version of the complimentary dressing gown.

“Blooming Lanzarote!” she repeated to him. “Of all places.”

Christopher just smiled and stretched on the bed beside her. Considering how many other possible places they could have landed, Lanzarote was fine by him.