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

The Doctor’s conscious thoughts returned from the blackness of oblivion aware of recent agonising pain even though all that remained now was a thumping headache. He waited for the universe to stop spinning around him before he raised himself up from the floor of the TARDIS console room and looked around. Everything seemed fuzzy. His eyes were wrong.

He blinked several times and the eyes came into focus. It was everything else that was wrong.

Apart from anything else, his clothes didn’t fit. His trousers were too short, the jacket too slack, hanging off his shoulders.

His face felt the wrong shape altogether.

“Oh no!” he groaned. “Not that. Not so soon. It can’t be.”

He dashed around the console searching for a mirror. There should be one. He knew there was one….

No, of course, Amy Pond had borrowed it ages ago and never put it back. He hadn’t bothered to ask her for it. He hadn’t replaced it. A mirror - who needed one of those on a TARDIS console?

He did. He had to know.

He found a monitor that was currently switched off and looked into the dark reflection critically.

It confirmed his suspicions.

He had regenerated.

“No, no, no, no, no!” he cried out in distress. “No, it’s not fair. I wasn’t finished with that life. I still had so much to do, so many places to go.”

It was the Grutax, of course. That last psychic duel had been the final straw. Not that he wasn’t a Master at psychic duelling, the fastest mental gun in the west, but three against one was just too much. His brain couldn’t take any more. It was regenerate or become a mindless vegetable, his consciousness turned into a psychic colander from the dozens of thrusts he had failed to block.

Ok, they had a point. He was, absolutely, one hundred percent guilty of stealing the Eye of Grutax. But then again, they stole it from the Harran, and they needed it for more than just a pretty thing to look at. The Harran lived on a fragment of their former planet, floating in space. The seven foot wide diamond the Grutax kept in their grand temple as a tribute to their god was the very lifeforce of Harran. It powered their artificial sun.

He had delivered the Eye back to its rightful owners and was taking a well earned holiday when the Grutax caught up with him. He had to answer their challenge. He couldn’t have those ugly, dog-headed brutes marauding around Scarborough, scaring the tourists and ruining the fishing season. He had turned up at the appointed time on their space platform to accept trial by combat.

But they cheated. He wasn’t fighting one of them, but a dozen. They came at him one after the other, without respite. Then they came in pairs.

Three was the absolute limit. He had accepted defeat and stumbled back to his TARDIS with the humiliating jeers of the Grutax crowd ringing in his ears.

After that he couldn’t remember anything except that he had managed to press the fast return switch before passing out. That meant the TARDIS was parked on the sea front at Scarborough again. It was safe there. The Grutax had wrung their satisfaction from him. They wouldn’t be back. The British seaside holiday was safe.

But he had regenerated!

He hadn’t expected that as he sank into the blackness of mental exhaustion. He just expected to sleep until his mind had recovered from its wounds.

He wriggled out of the jacket and slung it over his shoulder. He was going to have to find something else to wear, now. He sighed and headed to the Wardrobe.

He made the selection carelessly – blue jeans, open necked shirt, a navy blue blazer. There was a hat that went with the blazer. It looked jaunty and good natured, but he rejected it. He didn’t feel either jaunty or good natured. He was extremely resentful of the need to be this new persona and didn’t especially want to add any kind of signature ‘look’ to it.

He examined the finished result in a full length mirror. It was a depressing sight. The body was tall, thin, just a bit too tall, too thin, making him seem out of proportion, the face roundish with a fair complexion, making him look, overall, like a walking Belisha beacon. He looked any age between fifteen and thirty. He made a mental note to make sure he had photo-ID with him in case he went into licensed premises and was challenged to prove his age.

Not something he expected to do at over a thousand.

He didn’t want to look like that. He wanted his old body back. He wanted to be the angular, square chinned, floppy haired madman in a box who was just starting to enjoy living again after so many disappointments and losses and so much of his soul ripped apart by enemies too numerous to mention.

He didn’t want to start again.

He thrust his sonic screwdriver into the blazer pocket and looked at the assortment of other things he had pulled out of his old jacket. He left the stethoscope and magnifying glass on the dresser next to the mirror along with the goggles and laser tape measure. He kept the pocket watch and unopened packet of freshmints.

He walked back to the console room and for the first time took notice of where he was. It wasn’t Scarborough. It wasn’t, as far as the instruments on the console were telling him, anywhere.

The exterior monitor was showing nothing – not the sort of nothing that meant a broken monitor, but the nothing that suggested somebody was messing around with reality outside of the TARDIS. It wasn’t even white mist. Mist wasn’t just solid white like that. It swirled. There were shadows in it – generally sinister shadows that didn’t bode well.

“I’m not going out there,” he said aloud in a distinctly truculent tone, noting that he had regenerated with a slightly Welsh accent. “Why should I? If somebody is playing games with me why should I walk into the trap?”

Nobody answered, of course. He was alone in the TARDIS – between friends. For a while he had been telling himself it was good to travel on his own, not responsible for anybody else, choosing where he went and what he did.

Except right now he felt more lonely than he had for a long time. Regenerating alone was lonely. It had happened twice that way in the past – once in a mortuary in a San Francisco hospital and the last time in the TARDIS when his Tenth incarnation knew it was impossible to hang onto life any longer.

And now it had happened again and he knew he was going to open the door and find out who or what was out there just simply because he needed to talk to SOMEBODY even if it was his worst enemy.

He reached for the lever and opened the door.

White nothingness pressed against the invisible shield between the inner and outer dimensions of the TARDIS. It looked like a wall of nothing.

“No such thing,” The Doctor grumbled as he stepped into the nothing.

“See what I mean,” he added as the nothingness cleared and he found himself standing on an impossibly neat lawn surrounded by impeccably topiaried hedges. He knew perfectly well that topiaried was not a proper word, but he was too angry with the universe in general to care about grammar.

And he was extremely suspicious of this lawn and those hedges. He knew he had seen them before and that he had a right to be cautious.

“You!” He turned and saw a man sitting at a garden table with a parasol shading it. The man was dressed in a white suit with a panama hat and was sipping a glass of orange juice like the Man from Del Monte making an appraisal.

“What did you do to my TARDIS?” he added as the man put down his glass and turned to look him over.

“I simply re-directed it for you,” the man replied. “Do sit down, my dear Doctor. Have some of this Venesian mango juice. It is delicious.”

“I don’t want juice, and I don’t want anything else from a rogue Guardian.”

“Ah, I see your mistake,” the Guardian said calmly. “The last time you encountered one of our kind it was a trick. You were led to believe that good and evil were two separate and distinct things and that you could defeat one by doing the bidding of the other.”

“And it turned out that good and evil were one and the same person,” The Doctor admitted. “Which makes more sense, really. The sentient universe generally consists of people who are neither one nor the other but somewhere inbetween. Except for Daleks, of course. There’s no question about their evil.”

The Guardian nodded in agreement.

“But that trip down memory lane aside, what am I doing here? And what are you up to this time?”

“First, let me assure you that I mean you no harm,” the Guardian answered him. “I am not the same member of my race that you encountered before. This likeness of a humanoid form… is merely one we use when interacting with mortals like yourself who prefer a physical body to interact with. Our disembodied sentience is too upsetting. Please, sit and have some juice. You must be thirsty. Regeneration takes its toll on a body.”

“How did you know….” Without any conscious effort on his part, The Doctor slid into the other seat and raised a glass of juice to his lips. It was cool and delicious, and he appreciated it more than he wanted to admit. The Guardian was right. The physical body always took a battering during regeneration. A glass of juice was the very least thing he needed.

But a Guardian had never turned up with refreshments before when he was regenerating. What was all this about?

“You didn’t want to regenerate this time,” the Guardian said.

“I’ve NEVER wanted to. It is painful and emotionally draining. It is terrifying to the people around me.”

“But all part of the bargain with fate that Time Lords accepted long ago.”

“I didn’t sign up for it,” The Doctor grumbled. “That was long before my generation.”

“Nevertheless, you have enjoyed being a Prince of the Universe for countless years. The bargain has suited you well.”

“I wasn’t ready this time. I only have so many lives, and the last one was wasted. There were still hundreds of years left in it.”

“Of course. That’s why I intercepted you. I can offer you a chance to return to your eleventh incarnation.”

“No, you can’t,” The Doctor responded. “Nobody can do that.”

“The Guardians can. Life and death, even the life of a Time Lord, is in our power. You can take back the most immediate regeneration.”

The Doctor looked at the Guardian suspiciously, not quite ready to believe one of those ancient, mysterious, and annoyingly tricky beings as far as he could throw one of them.

“What do I have to do for you in return? You lot don’t give anything away for free. There’s always a catch.”

“There are a series of tasks for you to complete. Twelve of them.”

“The Twelve Trials of Hercules?” The Doctor smiled at the mythological reference.

“If you like, though I can safely say there will be far less animal by-products involved in the tasks I have for you.”

“What tasks?” The Doctor asked.

“Eleven tasks for each of your past lives and a last one I shall assign if and when the others are complete. They will be tests of your mental, physical and moral fibre. They will be dangerous….”

The Doctor laughed hollowly.

“Danger goes with the territory. You lot haven’t the foggiest idea what it’s like out there in the universe. Everything is trying to put one over on everything else, dog eat dog doesn’t begin to describe it. Dog eat dinosaur-headed humanoid, more like.”

The Guardian waited until he had finished talking.

“It will sometimes involve making hard decisions that will affect the lives of people other than yourself.”

“Hah!” The Doctor responded. “You mean like last time, with the Key to Time, turning an innocent young woman like Princess Astrid into an inanimate piece of a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle.”

“That was not your decision to make. She knew it was her destiny. But it could be harder than that… as hard as when you let Amy and Rory go, or when you had to take away Donna’s memory of everything she had been to you.”

“How do you know about that?” The Doctor demanded. But it was a stupid question. The Guardians knew these things. They weren’t exactly gods, as such, but they had the same kind of omniscience.

“If I say yes to this ‘quest’….”

“You understand that the Guardians will not intervene in any way if you get into trouble. You are, as they say, on your own.”

“Oh, of course. That goes without saying,” The Doctor responded. “I mean, since when did Guardians intervene to help anyone? And since when have I ever ASKED anyone to help me? I didn’t even ask you for THIS. You intercepted my TARDIS and brought me here. You made me an offer you know I can’t refuse….”

Of course he could refuse. He could accept the inevitable just as he had every other time he had regenerated. He could go back to Scarborough or the Cat’s Eye Nebula, or anywhere else he wanted to go. He didn’t have to accept this assignment from this tricky character.

If the Guardian hadn’t told him there was a way he never would have considered the possibility of winding back the clock and regaining his previous regeneration. He WOULD have accepted it, eventually.

But now that he knew he could do that….

Now, if he said no, if he walked away, then it would be there, in the back of his mind, nagging at him, teasing him with the opportunity lost. It would never let him be.

That’s why it was an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“Say I do accept… and I’m not saying I am… what do I have to do?” he asked. “What’s the first labour?”

“It will be made clear to you when you return to your TARDIS and begin your journey.”

“I didn’t say I accepted, yet,” The Doctor protested.

He blinked. He was no longer in the immaculate garden surrounded by topiary. The Guardian wasn’t there. He wasn’t even sitting down. He was standing outside the amusement arcade on Scarborough’s Foreshore Road in the sunshine of a summer’s day. A woman looked at him oddly and walked a little faster away from him the stray lunatic shouting to himself.

He glanced around and spotted the TARDIS parked next to an old deckchair shed by the beach. He crossed the road and walked towards it, then stopped and leaned against the railings, looking across the sand at the lighthouse on the harbour wall. His mind drifted to the time, so many regenerations ago now, when he and Leela had been trapped in a fogbound lighthouse with a murderous Rutan killing indiscriminately. It was a chilling thought on a beautiful day, just one of many dark memories he had within him.

He was procrastinating. Standing there by the beach, thinking random thoughts from the past just to avoid going into the TARDIS.

If he went inside, then he would set things in motion that weren’t wholly of his choice. It was clear to him that setting foot in the console room was his acceptance of the deal. It would be the start of the Twelve Trials of The Doctor. The capital letters wrote themselves in the air as he wondered once again if he really did have a choice about it.

He strode purposefully towards the TARDIS. He unlocked the door, aware that he had been observed by a child eating an ice lolly who must have been wondering what he was doing going into an old fashioned police box while not wearing an old-fashioned policeman’s uniform.

He closed the door behind him and looked around to see what was different about the TARDIS. What was it that would take him to the beginning of a whole new adventure that he knew he had finally accepted?

Then he saw it. He stepped closer and reached carefully for the object sitting beside the time rotor. It was something like one of those snow-globe souvenirs that you could buy right outside the TARDIS in any sea-front shop in Scarborough.

Except this wasn’t made of cheap plastic and there was no snow inside. The leaded crystal globe sat upon a silver stand with symbols embossed into it that made his heart lurch with nostalgia. It was the oath of allegiance to Gallifrey that he had taken when he was a very young Time Lord with far less of the cynicism he had acquired over the years.

Inside the globe was swirling white mist or smoke, and if he looked at it for long enough he saw images within it of himself in his first life, as that young Time Lord with the Oath still ringing in his ears, as a bitter old man who had grown to hate all that Gallifrey stood for and had fled his home world with his granddaughter in hope of finding a more perfect society to live among.

It was obvious what this symbolised. It was the first instalment of the bargain – his reward for the task he was about to undertake.

He put the globe back beside the time rotor and felt it clamp down under its own gravitational field. It wouldn’t fall off no matter how bumpy the ride got. Then he turned to the drive control and noted that a destination co-ordinate was already programmed in.

He glanced at the screen to make sure the child with the ice lolly had moved on before initiating the dematerialisation.

The Twelve Labours of The Doctor had begun.