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

“There's a blinking great gap in the blinking bridge," Graham said, gallantly avoiding much choicer swearwords.

“Yes, there is,” The Doctor said, biting back several colourful curses in Low Gallifreyan that she had learnt long before she was a lady.

Graham opened the door. The Doctor told everyone else to stay seated while she checked things out.

She should have saved her breath. As Graham joined her in the unscheduled bridge inspection, Ryan and Yasmin followed behind.

Behind them a few of the other passengers strayed off the bus to look at the problem ahead of them. Curiosity was an interspecies thing.

It was a disturbing sight. A whole arch of the bridge had collapsed. Looking over the ragged edge very carefully it was possible to see some twisted wreckage down in the gorge.

It was something nobody looked at for long.

The other side of the gap where the bridge continued was no less worrying.

“I make it about fifteen metres,” Ryan said, using every inch of his NVQ in engineering to form his estimate.

“I agree,” The Doctor answered. She held up her sonic screwdriver and took a reading. “Fifteen point three-three recurring. Or fifty feet and a bit in old money, and don’t even ask what it is in the local measurement.”

“It’s a serious gap," Yasmin agreed.

“If we reversed a bit and accelerated...." Ryan began to say.

“Don’t even think about it,” Graham cut in abruptly. “I’ve seen that film. All my mates down the depot saw it, too. We talked about it every lunch break for a week, and we agreed it couldn’t be done. It was Hollywood hokum. CGI fakery. No bus driver in his or her right mind would do something that suicidal.”

“Graham and his mates are right,” Yasmin said. “We’re going to have to go back.”

The Doctor sighed deeply, as if going back was a terrible defeat.

When she announced it to the passengers back aboard the bus they were less than happy, too.

There were no hotels less than eight hours drive away if they turned back. Nothing to eat or drink except a few left over rehydrated packs. The bus was comfortable enough for sitting in and sightseeing, but spending a night in it....

“Can’t anyone send help?” Ryan asked. “There is a radio isn’t there?”

“You know, I wasn’t going to mention that," Graham said. “But the radio isn’t working. It did this morning, but after we set off from the Falls I noticed it was out of action.”

“Deliberately?" Yasmin asked.

“Couldn’t say," Graham admitted. “Also, we're out of mobile phone range.”

“The gorge is a blackspot for coverage," The Doctor said. “There are plans for a new satellite in geostationary orbit over the gorge, but for the time being its just a blinking nuisance.”

“But the radio....” Yasmin began.

“That IS suspicious,” The Doctor confirmed. “I wonder....”

“What about using the hovercraft mode,” suggested one of the passengers who had been vociferous about not wanting to go back. “Could we glide over the gap.”

“No,” Ryan answered even before The Doctor could speak. “Hovercrafts don’t fly. They hover over water or land. They need something to hover over. They can’t do this."

“No, they can’t,” The Doctor agreed. “Let me think for a minute. I wonder... I wonder if I could. No... Yes.... Well.... Maybe...”

“You've got an idea?” Yasmin asked, recognising that internal argument The Doctor always had with herself at pivotal times.

“I have. But if it doesn’t work... It would be really dangerous... like fatal.”

“What's your plan?” Graham asked.

The Doctor told them.

Everyone looked at her in astonishment.

“You could do that?” Yasmin asked.

“I think I can. I'm a Time Lord. Time does as I command. All I have to do is concentrate really hard on the empty span in front of us and make it think its still a few hours ago when the bridge was still here. The snag is it takes a lot of mental energy and if I run out of steam before we're through this bus will be – very briefly – hovering where it has no business hovering.”

Everyone had enough imagination to picture that nasty outcome. The passengers talked it over amongst themselves nervously. Graham looked ahead of him and thought about being the one who would drive them all into desperate danger. He would bear the responsibility as much as The Doctor The fact that the censure would be posthumous was no comfort.

“If you can do it, boss, I'll do my bit,” he promised as he came to the only conclusion he knew he could reach.

“How do we help?” Ryan asked. “Yas and me... What can we do?”

“Catch me if I fall,” The Doctor answered. She turned and stood with her hands clutching the wide, deep laminated dashboard before the single sheet of gently curving glass that was the windscreen. She closed her eyes but carried on looking at the way across the gorge in her mind’s eye as she forced Time to answer to her command.

“She’s doing it,” Ryan gasped as a strange alteration to the view outside the bus was noticed by everyone. They couldn’t fail to do so. It had been twilight outside when the bus reached the bridge, the gorge filled with dark shadows and the last glint of sunset slanting along the western edge. It still was twilight a few metres in any direction except for fifteen metres in front of the bus where it was midday and the no longer missing span was bathed in sunlight.

“Go...go...” Yasmin urged Graham though there was no need. He had already hit the starter and was pressing his foot down on the accelerator.

He was tempted to put his foot fully down and cross the span at maximum speed, but there was still a safe speed limit and he kept just below it, moving the bus into the sunlight, into the recent past of the bridge. The ultra modern windscreen automatically tinted so that he wasn’t dazzled.

Fifteen and a bit feet seemed to last forever. Everyone was holding their breath.

The strain on The Doctor was clear to all. Yasmin and Ryan held her by the shoulders and willed her to keep going just a few more seconds.

Suddenly the daylight winked out as The Doctor’s strength gave in. Graham glanced quickly at the rear view display beside the steering wheel and saw the back wheels of the bus clear the ragged edge of the broken span.

They had made it.

Sighs of relief were audible all around the passengers.

He still had to drive the bus over the rest of a bridge that might not be completely stable. He didn’t look around as Ryan and Yasmin caught The Doctor when she fell back with all the grace of a felled tree.

“Is she all right?” he asked. He could see the end of the bridge marked by a string of decorative lights and he kept that foremost in his thoughts.

“She's out cold,” Yasmin answered, checking The Doctor’s unusual but clearly present pulse. “She said it might happen.”

“She hung in there until we were safe,” Ryan said as a ripple of applause spread around the bus – applause in thanks for The Doctor’s effort as well as Graham's driving. “She did us proud. Come on, Yas, help me get her up on a seat.”

The Doctor was unaware of any of that. The next thing she knew was waking up in a very comfortable bed. There was a fresh cup of tea on the side table. Drinking that banished the last vestiges of a headache.

Yasmin was sitting in an armchair by the window of the hotel room – the luxury overnight accommodation that had made the hazardous journey over the bridge worthwhile.

“What time is it?” she asked.

“Nearly midnight,” Yasmin answered. “You missed dinner, but there is a night kitchen if you’re hungry.”

“Midnight of the same day? That’s not bad. The last time I tried something like that I was out for three days. Is everyone else all right? There were no more incidents after the bridge?”

“No, but we found out some things after we got to the hotel. If you’re up to it, come into the drawing room and we can all talk.”

The Doctor was up to it. She pulled on her clothes and followed Yasmin to the rather nice drawing room that went with the bedrooms and en-suite bathrooms of the penthouse suite. Ryan and Graham were already relaxing with cocoa. The Doctor accepted a mug and sat down.

“First of all,” Ryan said. “Nothing that happened today was an accident. The collapse of the walkway at the Falls, the bridge, even the radio on the bus... All deliberate sabotage. “

“I was beginning to suspect something like that,” The Doctor admitted. “Any idea why?”

“The Sons of Faith,” Yasmin said. “A radical group who want to see a return to religious belief. They want rid of what they see as blasphemous tourism and a return to the devout pilgrimages of old.”

“Oh, Chaos!“ The Doctor exclaimed. “Under what sun in what solar system has holy war ever achieved anything? Foolish, foolish.”

She sighed and shook her head despondently before coming to practical considerations. “I suppose our bus was targeted precisely because we were on it... Not just tourists but foreign tourists.”

“That’s about the size of it, Boss,” Graham confirmed.

“Well....” For once The Doctor was at a loss about what to say or do, but the others, to her surprise, had already decided.

“So tomorrow I’m driving the bus again," Graham stated. "The company either can’t or won’t send a driver. I think they’re a bit scared of what might happen next. But I’m not keen on being bullied into anything. I don’t much want to give up on our trip after coming this far. So, on we go. Tomorrow we visit the Great Road of Chinun, whatever that is… and cross the mighty River Habdun by a bridge that had better be standing when we get there. Then we arrive at Chenun City by twilight to enjoy sunset over the citadel walls before arriving at the bus depot at the end of the trip.”

“Well, if that’s the plan, we should turn in and be up bright and early for breakfast tomorrow,” The Doctor suggested. She was impressed with the way her travelling companions had come to the very decision she would have made.

The next morning found Graham and Ryan checking the bus thoroughly, not only for possible mechanical faults, but any kind of sabotage or... though they voiced the possibility quietly... explosive devices.

Because they had both seen THAT film, and they didn’t want to have to disarm a bomb along the way.

When they were satisfied, they counted the passengers aboard. They were considerably less than yesterday. The possibility that the bus journey was being targeted by the same people who had destroyed the bridge had made most of them stay behind in the hotel. Only four indigenous people and three visitors from the human colonies of Beta Delta were prepared to carry on.

Fundamentalists, Yasmin reflected as the bus got under way. They made it hard for everyone. She was sure most of the people of this planet who had kept their religious faith were decent, ordinary believers, but these fundamentalists would tar all of them as terrorists.

She knew all about that. Every ‘lone wolf' attack blasted across the media was felt in her community in the worst way. The suspicion, the accusations, the abuse they all suffered was painful.

Her sympathies lay fully with those ordinary believers who were going to suffer as she had.

Ryan had thought about that, too. But he also wondered about the motives of those hardliners who had caused the trouble. It did seem harsh that their religious pilgrimage had been turned into a tourist attraction. Maybe they had a point.

But the way they were going about it was wrong. They had almost killed people at the Falls. They could all have been killed at the bridge if Graham hadn’t stopped the bus in time.

Sympathy with their grievance, yes. But not with their tactics.

Graham was more than a little nervous. The most dangerous bus he had ever driven before was a football special. This wasn’t his idea of a relaxing holiday any more.

But he didn’t like being bullied, and driving this bus was his way of striking back at the bullies.

The Doctor understood the feelings of her travelling companions. Over the centuries she had been involved in all sides of all sorts of conflicts. She had always had a sympathy for hopeless causes. She understood this situation from every side. She was wondering if there was something she could do to bring the government of Carmoia and the Sons of Faith to some sort of agreement. If only the Sons would listen to an alien… if the government would recognise her diplomatic authority....

It might be possible. There were favours she could call upon, friends in high places in the intergalactic diplomatic corps, but for reasons she couldn’t completely explain, it depended on getting this bus to its destination without further incident.

They didn’t realise it, but the Great Road of Chinun was visible from nearly fifty miles out. It looked, from early on like a magnificently conical mountain that came slowly into focus as they came closer.

“It’s not the volcano you mentioned?” Yasmin asked warily.

“No. The volcano that formed Mount Chinun became extinct many millions of years ago,” The Doctor assured her. “The perfect symmetry of the mountain was taken as a sign of God’s ineffability and was especially sacred. The fact that it isn’t considered holy any more is especially sad, really. It was a very special place of pilgrimage and prayer.”

“And a place where these Sons of Faith are most likely to resent our presence?” Yasmin suggested. “Like… I don’t know… a hot dog stand at Mecca….”

She shuddered at her own image of an obscene sacrilege. The Doctor nodded gravely.

“So maybe we shouldn’t be there,” Yasmin suggested. “We should respect their feelings.”

“We will, by treating the place with reverence and courtesy,” The Doctor answered. “We will not be picnicking along the Great Road of Chinun, or dropping sweet wrappers. We will not shout or swear or make any disrespectful remarks about the place some people still hold sacred. Perhaps it would be possible to show the Sons of Faith that those who do not follow the faith can still respect it.”

Yasmin nodded.

“Is there anything we ought to do to show willing, like being barefoot or heads covered, that sort of thing?”

“No, nothing of that sort. Common decency ought to be enough.”

“On Earth people steal lead from church roofs and smash mosque windows. Common decency isn’t all that common. But we’ll do our best not to set a bad example.”

As Mount Chinun drew closer it started to resemble a huge helter-skelter from an old-fashioned fairground. The spiralling path all the way from the peak to the wide base was all too easily reminiscent of such a thing. Yasmin, aware of the sacred history of the mountain, tried to get such a secular image out of her head, but it was impossible not to think in such terms.

At least they could manage not to talk about it out loud.

The bus parked some distance from the foot of the mountain and the beginning of the Great Road – to the top of the mountain. The bus party, part alien, part indigenous, walked quietly to a booth where bottles of water were given out to visitors. The water came from a spring halfway up the mountain and was necessary to prevent dehydration on the walk.

“We walk up?” Ryan queried. “There isn’t a lift?”

“Only for the sick and feeble,” said one of the people giving out the water. “And, of course, to descend after completing the ascent.”

Ryan looked up and noticed the closest thing he had ever seen to the great glass elevator of Roald Dahl’s imagination. It was sliding down a cable system that ran from the summit at a gentle angle to come safely to the ground a hundred yards away.

An easier way than walking, to be sure. But on the other hand, with a saboteur at work, at least he could trust his own two feet. Even HIS two feet.

Walking was fine.

The bus contingent set off walking. The gradient was less than they expected, but after a few hundred yards it was noticeable. They found a pace that didn’t exhaust them too much and wound steadily up the mountain.

By the strict Ordnance Survey definition of a mountain that caused distress to patriotic Welshmen, it was actually fifty feet or so short of a mountain. With rest stops and fresh water booths every so often, it was not too hard for fit, healthy people to do. Graham considered himself one of those. A year or two back he might have had to be counted as one of the sick or feeble, but Grace had started him off onto the road to fitness, and life aboard the TARDIS completed the journey. He was fully able to walk the Great Road of Chinun unaided.

Yasmin was enjoying the trek. She was doing so without any unnecessary talking. She felt strongly that it was the proper way to make what she thought of as a pilgrimage. She thanked the people who gave her the refreshing and much needed water, but there didn’t seem to be any need to say anything else.

Because she was among the youngest and fittest of the group she found herself far ahead of the crowd on the last part of the journey walking next to another who saw no reason for talk. He was a native man with the long hair half black and half white, making him about her own age in Carmaoin years. He had been on the tour from the start, sitting at the back quietly, not mixing very much with anyone. She didn’t even know his name. He didn’t know hers, for that matter. They had travelled together now for three days but they were still strangers.

That didn’t seem quite right to Yasmin, but as she tried to find a way to belatedly break the ice they reached the end of the Road and her thoughts were overwhelmed by what she saw at the summit of Mount Chinun.

“Ohhh!” she murmured in awestruck wonder.

She realised that she had seen a sunlit glint at the summit even from a distance, but she had thought of it as part of that helter skelter impression. She hadn’t really expected anything so incredible.

It was a huge golden statue, at least thirty feet high from the feet planted on a waist high plinth to its golden head. It looked like a cross between the Angel of the North and an Oscar statuette.

“Ohhh....” she said again. “I didn’t expect.... “

The young man from the back of the bus looked at her but said nothing.

“In... In my religion we have very strict rules about images of the prophets. I... thought it was the same here.”

“Usually, it is so,” the young man answered. “This is the ONLY example. Four hundred years ago a monk called Gignan Sung had a vision of God Personified appearing here on the mountain. He made the statue with his own hands.”

Yasmin nodded. She stepped closer to the huge sandalled feet of the personified god. She reached out a hand then withdrew it quickly.

“Touching the feet of God is permitted,” her companion assured her. “See how smooth the metal is from countless generations of pilgrims touching the feet in reverence."

Yasmin reached out again, closing her eyes as she touched the sun-warmed metal.

She had not yet made the pilgrimage to Mecca required of her as a Muslim, but she knew how she expected to feel when she arrived at that holy place.

She felt something like it now. It wasn’t her religion, and there were people who would be appalled by her ‘betrayal’, but she felt a genuine spiritual moment as she stood at the feet of the Carmaoin God.

When it was over, she stepped back with her eyes blinking but her mind at peace.

“Thank you,” said the young man. “For giving respect to the Faith.”

“I’m glad I did,” Yasmin answered.

“So am I,” the young man answered cryptically. Yasmin might have asked him what he meant, but the others were arriving and he drew away from her, shy and recalcitrant again.

“Ryan, Graham,” she said quietly as they reached the top. “Don’t chatter or anything. Just go and touch the feet of the statue and close your eyes in... in reflection... just for a moment. “

They did as she asked, though whether either of them really experienced it as she did was doubtful.

The Doctor did it without being told. Yasmin wondered what gods, if any, Time Lords honoured, but she certainly seemed to get something from the moment in touch with the Carmaoin one.

The other Carmaoins from the bus waited their turn and were suitably affected by the experience for people who had embraced atheism. The Beta Deltan humans caught the sense of reverence and stood quietly and decently aside.

Everyone spent a few minutes admiring the breathtaking view as they waited for the scenic lift to take them down from the summit

Ryan was not the only one who viewed the fragile looking glass cabin warily.

“It will be safe,” the quiet young Carmaion said to him. “For the sake of your good friend it will be quite safe.”

Ryan said nothing in reply, but he stepped aboard the cable lift thoughtfully. The thoughts he was having lasted through the picnic lunch in a non sacred place at the base of the mountain and right up to when they were back on the bus again.

He waited while Yasmin did her best to explain what she had felt at the statue to The Doctor, who understood what she was saying much better than he did.

“That young local,” he said when he had a chance. “He’s… a believer… in the old religion everyone else gave up on.”

“Yes,” Yasmin said. “And if he’s an example, so quiet and gentle, then it is a shame they have lost their faith. “

“He’s one of the terrorists,” Ryan said, and repeated what the young man told him at the entrance to the lift. Yasmin gasped in shocked surprise. The Doctor nodded.

“I’m going to have a few words with that young man,” she said. “Yasmin, hold onto the good feelings you had. Ryan… you might be right… but keep an open mind for a little while. “

She made her way between the seats to the back of the bus where the young Carmaoin was sitting, idly glancing out of the window at the passing scenery.

“Alloin,” she said, sitting beside him. He looked around in surprise. “Alloin Mercud. That’s the name on the passenger list. If it isn’t your real name, never mind. It will do for now.”

He looked at her curiously and said nothing.

“My friend Yasmin was struck by your deep faith, and your patience with her… as a non-believer.”

“Your friend has faith. It does not matter where it comes from. She has a spirit of truth that does not offend the Lord.”

“She does,” The Doctor agreed. “As for what my other friend thinks….”

“He is right. I… I am one of the Sons of Faith. I was sent to watch what happened. I… I confess I blocked the radio so that help could not be sent, but the rest….” He sighed deeply. “Nobody was meant to be hurt. The walkway at the Falls… it offends the Great Lord by making the Path of Faith into a ‘safe’ tourist attraction. The danger inherent in the old path was a test of courage and faith. But the break should have occurred before the day began… when nobody was there.”

“And the bridge….”

“It should have made you turn back. But for a miracle that defies even my faith, that would have happened and nobody would have been hurt. As for the glass lift…. It should have merely stalled midway. I would not have let anyone be hurt. That is against every precept. We do not kill or maim in the name of our God.”

“That alone sets you apart from every fundamentalist in the galaxy,” The Doctor told him. “But people COULD have died. It is a dangerous path you and your Brotherhood have chosen. Isn’t there a better way to make your feelings known to the government of your world?”

Alloin was thoughtful for a long minute, but he shook his head sadly.

“The Government will not listen to the wishes of such a small minority of Believers.”

“How hard have you tried?”

Again, Alloin thought about The Doctor’s question. Again, he shook his head, but this time with an ironic smile.

“You think we have not tried hard enough?”

“It is possible. But… Yasmin… you admired her purity of spirit. But… I'm pointing no fingers of blame in either direction, but would it shock you to know that men of her faith and men of the faith Graham and Ryan’s forefathers adhered to have fought bitterly and terribly for a thousand years, to the great pain and sorrow of both sides.”

Alloin opened his eyes wide as he saw in his mind just a few images The Doctor planted there, from the Crusades to the World Trade Centre.

“Would you try harder to spare your world such sorrow?”

“I… I must. Knowing what you have shown me… I would not be a true Believer in a loving God if I did not.”

“Can you make your comrades understand, too?”

“I must do that, also. It won’t be easy. There are some who will think I am weakening in my resolve. But there are others who will listen… those who will be shocked by the near fatalities they were responsible for. They can, I hope, be persuaded to abandon such actions in favour of… of negotiation.”

“Good man,” The Doctor said. “We’ll be in the Citadel in a few hours. Say goodbye to Yasmin before you go on your way. I think she would appreciate it.”

“I… will do so,” he promised. A man of less faith might have suspected a trap, a chance to draw the attention of the authorities to him. Alloin took The Doctor at her word – as she fully intended him to do.

Later, those favours would certainly be called in. For now she intended to enjoy the last few hours of the bus trip.

It was a pleasant and uneventful journey. The bridge was whole and they crossed without incident, all but Graham who was watching the road, enjoying the play of afternoon sunlight on the wide, sluggish river below.

Sunset over the citadel walls was spectacular, too. After that the most exciting thing was Graham’s first alien traffic jam before they finally reached the glittering glass and steel bus depot that smelt, like any bus depot, of oil and petrol.

Yasmin walked out to the cool city evening with Alloin. There was a police presence, of course, but they were not looking for a Carmaoin who mixed with foreigners. She said goodbye in the shadows and wished him well in the future.

In that way, he passed out of her life, but she knew she would think of him again in the future

She thought of him when they were ready to leave Carmoia at the end of their visit. It was a week later, and the media was full of the news that the government were negotiating with the Sons of Faith with the intention of allowing free religious practices and the protection of Sacred monuments from commercial exploitation.

“There will never be cheap models of the God Personified on sale at the mountain,” The Doctor said with satisfaction.

“I thought you might do something clever and Time Lordly like the bridge thing,” Graham commented. “I didn’t expect good old-fashioned diplomacy.”

“I was an old-fashioned diplomat in my younger days,” she answered. “Besides, I only set the wheels in motion. The rest is up to them.”

“I hope it all works out for them,” Yasmin said. “They must. Doctor... Do you know what happens in the future?”

“No, I don’t,” she answered. “I could find out. But I prefer to leave the future to take care of itself. I think we should just have faith that they’ll all do the right thing.”

“I expect you're right,” Yasmin agreed. She smiled and sighed softly and thought about that life affirming experience on the mountain, her encounter with a man of great faith, and for a startling moment, with his God. It was one of the memories she would carry with her long after she had done travelling with The Doctor.