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

The Doctor looked suspiciously at the scanner. Nothing but blackness - another middle of nowhere and nothing location. Was the Guardian playing games with him? He sighed deeply and opened the door, keeping the shield up until he was sure there was an oxygen-based atmosphere and gravity outside. When he was certain he wasn’t going to die of asphyxiation he stepped out into the blackness.

He found himself standing on a black obsidian floor. He was aware that it was only a very narrow piece of floor. Either side there was a black void that sucked at the eyeball and defied measurement. He walked forward until the floor became steps and climbed slowly. He didn’t count them, but there must have been about a hundred before the way forward levelled out again.

A dozen more steps brought him to a wide locked door that barred his way. A low light was directed onto something inside a glass case in front of the door. He looked at it closely.

It was a backgammon set, a very expensive and finely made set. The board was made of ebony and ivory, edged with gold. The pieces were coloured crystal glass. One set was white glass, the other red.

Most of them were. One was a hologram that shimmered every so often to show that it wasn’t quite real.

The Doctor studied the game in progress. Red was just hanging in there. White had one more move that would defeat red and finish the game.

The hologram piece was the one that could complete the game.

The missing piece.

He had to find a missing backgammon piece and finish the game… to open the door?

What was behind the door?

Never mind that for now. What about this backgammon set? He looked at it closely again. The pieces were etched with a symbol.

The symbol of the Yuan Dynasty, founded by Kublai Khan when he became ruler of all of China and Mongolia.

He ought to have realised. This wasn’t just a randomly placed backgammon set. It was one he had seen before. He had played with those pieces and that set against the Emperor himself to win back the TARDIS.

This was Kublai Khan’s own backgammon set.

Ok. He got the idea.

He turned and walked back down those black stairs and returned to his TARDIS. He looked at the globe the Guardian had left. The image of his first incarnation still moved within the shadows. He watched for a while, remembering, in particular, that adventure in thirteenth century China. There had been magnificent moments, and terrifying ones, too. Chinese outlaws, traitors, the wrath of the Emperor, even Marco Polo himself double-crossing him.

Good times!

He smiled as he remembered, then sighed. Susan was with him then. And Ian and Barbara. Friends and family. Now he was on his own, and yes, he did regret that quite a lot.

Ok, Yuan Dynasty China it is, he thought as he programmed the destination and hoped the TARDIS didn’t take him to a Chinese Restaurant in Birmingham called the Yuan Dynasty!

It didn’t. When the time rotor came to a stop the temporal clock indicated that it was the year 1296. That was two years into the reign of Temür Khan, grandson of Kublai Khan, which was a little later than he intended, but it was good enough. The backgammon set was a treasure of the Yuan Dynasty. It would be in the palace somewhere.

The palace was in the city of Dadu, one of the earlier names of the city known as Beijing by the time the Empire had become a Communist Republic. Marco Polo called it Kanbalu when they had travelled with him. It was a city with many names and a rich, magnificent but often brutal history.

If he was lucky the TARDIS would have brought him within the palace itself. If he was really lucky he could find the backgammon set quickly, take the piece from it and get away again without running into anybody.

He probably ought to have known better.

He was never that lucky.

“Oh no!” he groaned as he stepped out of the TARDIS and bumped into a gold statue of a monkey. It was twice his size, and he knew that wasn’t right even before he realised he was standing on a shelf looking down at a sumptuous bedroom that was full size while he was, he guessed, about five inches tall.

It didn’t happen VERY often, but now really wasn’t the time for the TARDIS to get its dimensions mixed up and turn him into an action figure.

The TARDIS was wedged between the wall and the golden monkey. It was more or less out of sight for now. It was safe. So was he – relatively speaking.

One advantage of being this size was that he could, at least, hide in places he couldn’t when he was full size.

The disadvantage was that it took ten times as long to get anywhere.

But perhaps he didn’t HAVE to go anywhere. He looked across the room. Beside the elaborate bed shrouded in silk hangings, was a small table on which a backgammon set was laid out.

The TARDIS had outdone itself. He was IN the very room he needed to be. That was the backgammon set that had once belonged to Kublai Khan.

It was only – what – six metres away – seven, eight tops.

It should only take him an hour to get there.

He started to look for a way down from the shelf. It was a VERY long way – about four feet. If he slipped, he’d be looking at another regeneration, and he didn’t think there would be any deals to make this time.

He had plenty of four foot long ropes in the TARDIS. But that was when the TARDIS was over seven feet tall. They’d be shoelace sized now.

But they were better than nothing. He went back to the TARDIS looking for a long coil of rope and a hammer and pitons in case it became a real mountain climbing job. As he reached the console room after equipping himself, though, he noticed that the door was closed. He glanced at the viewscreen and saw a slender thumb and finger closing across it before the unmistakable sensation of the TARDIS being picked up and carried.

“Oh no!” he groaned. He grabbed the console for safety and hung on until the movement stopped.

Not that he was any safer.

“Hello!” He heard a young, female voice speak close to the door as if she had held it to her mouth. “Little man, are you there? Won’t you come out again?”

So he had been seen, on top of everything else.

“I command you to come out,” she said in an attempt at an imperial tone that didn’t quite work.

“Please, are you my Spirit Guardian? If so, please come out and talk to me.”

The voice this time was humble and pleading, and The Doctor could never resist anyone who sounded like they needed help. He stepped towards the door and opened it, standing on the threshold to look at the overlarge face of a girl with the narrow eyes and flattened nose of an oriental. Her face was elfin and naturally pale. She was too young, yet, to use cosmetics to look even paler.

“Hello,” he said. “I’m The Doctor. Who are you?”

“I am Princess Bho Kun Pet of Henang Province,” she said. “Known as The Little Petal.”

“Pleased to meet you, your highness,” The Doctor answered with a cursory bow. “If you are from Henang, why are you in the royal palace in Dadu?”

“I am here to receive lessons from the royal courtiers,” she answered. “Next year, I am to be married to the Khan’s son.”

“I see.” The Doctor said nothing about that. There was nothing unusual about young girls being married into rich families. That was essentially their role in life – as payment for political or military favour for their fathers from the man they were married off to.

“I’m a little frightened about it,” she admitted. “Being a wife is a noble life, and wife to the future leader of all China is a great honour. I am told this always and I believe it to be true. But all the same I have doubts. This is why a Spirit Guardian came to me, isn’t it? You are here to show me the right way?”

“I….” The Doctor considered his answer. “I… will do my best. But… can you do something for me? I need something from you… a token….”

“Anything,” the little princess promised. “Gold, rubies, spices….”

“I need one of the glass backgammon pieces – a white one – from the set over there.”

“That was a gift to me from the Emperor’s son,” she said. “It belonged to the great Kublai Khan himself, may the gods honour his spirit.”

“I know,” The Doctor told her. “I once played against him on that very board. I… let him win as many games as I thought an Emperor ought to win.”

Princess Pet laughed softly and reached for one of the pieces he needed. She passed it to him. It was wider than the door and taller than he was. He had to tilt it to fit it into the TARDIS, but his mission was accomplished far easier than he expected.

“My thanks to you, Little Petal,” he said. “And my advice to you is to follow your heart. You cannot go wrong if you do that. May you know happiness in your heart’s desire.”

“My heart’s desire right now is just to walk in the garden and smell the peach blossom growing on the trees. I am only permitted to go out for a few hours each day with my lady in waiting. I am so bored on my own.”

“I think that could be arranged,” he said. “Hold the box tightly.”

He closed the door and went to the console. Before he did anything he extended a protective field around the princess’s body. Then he dematerialised the TARDIS and re-materialised it fifty yards away in the enclosed, private garden within the palace itself where peach trees were blossoming. It was probably a bad thing to do, but the princess thought he was there for her, and if he could produce a simple miracle or two to amuse her he could call it a job well done.

“Thank you, little Doctor,” she said when he went to the door again. “It is beautiful out here. The air is so much fresher than within the palace. It smells of real peach blossom, not incense and distilled perfume.”

“Yes, it’s very nice,” he admitted. She held the TARDIS in her hands as she walked and he saw the rows of cultivated trees and the roofs of the palace buildings all around. This was far from freedom for a child brought up in the mountains of Henang. It was little more than a very lovely prison yard. Looking up through the peach blossom he was reminded of that poem that spoke of ‘a little patch of blue, we prisoners call the sky’.

Prisons didn’t have to have bars.

Yet this was the life she had been born for. She would be wife to Temür Khan’s son, whose name escaped him at this moment. The Yuan Dynasty was a long and complicated line. She would be as happy in that honoured place as she could make it for herself.

If she had asked to escape from the palace and avoid the marriage he wasn’t sure what he would have done. That was the sort of interference in historical events he was forbidden to get involved in by very old laws that still prevailed even though the ones who made those laws were dust.

“I wish I could eat one of the peaches,” Princess Pet said wistfully. “It will be months before the trees bear fruit. There are only dried peaches to eat.”

Another wish to grant. The Doctor adjusted his sonic screwdriver and aimed a wide beam at one of the trees. In the space of a single minute the blossoms fell and the fruits started to grow. A minute later and they were ripe. Princess Pet reached up and plucked one. It was soft and juicy and delicious. She used her long, delicately painted fingernail to cut a piece out to give to her Spirit Guardian. He thanked her and ate it as she picked a half dozen more fruits and put them into the large pocket at the front of her silk gown.

“I’d better put it back the way it was,” The Doctor told her. “Or people will be worried.”

He made another adjustment to the sonic and reversed the process. Princess Pet laughed with joy at the sight of the fruits turning back to blossom again. She clapped her hands in excitement.

“Oh, you are clever,” she said.

“It’s nothing,” The Doctor told her. “Perhaps I should take you back inside, soon, before you’re missed.”

“Oh, just a little longer,” she begged. She carried the TARDIS with The Doctor inside through the peach garden and through an arch in the wall at the far end into a beautiful contemplation garden with a pond fed by a gentle mini-waterfall over rocks and a wooden bridge crossing it to a swing seat with a shade over it. Princess Pet sat there gently swinging with the TARDIS still held in her hands.

“Not too fast,” The Doctor told her. “I’ll get seasick.” In fact he had set the TARDIS’s inertial dampeners to counter the movement as it was carried and it wasn’t too bad.

Then Princess Pet stopped swinging and pushed the TARDIS into her pocket with the peaches. The Doctor heard voices. Pet screamed and tried to run. The Doctor felt the difference in her pace even with the dampeners on. He felt her struggling as she was grabbed and then a tipping as she was carried. The TARDIS tumbled about along with the stash of peaches, but the pocket was deep and there was no danger of falling out.

He heard a gate creak and then the sound of a horse neighing and a rough voice telling it to be quiet – as if that could possibly help. He guessed that the Princess had been shoved into the back of a cart or carriage and held down by something. Then there was the unmistakable feeling of travelling by horse drawn vehicle.

It was an abduction, of course. The Princess was being taken from the palace by force.

Was it his fault for letting her go into the garden? Was this the reason she was made to stay in the palace except when an escort was available to watch over her?

He felt guilty and very responsible for her welfare.

He slipped out of the TARDIS and climbed over the peaches and out of the pocket. He made his way along the folds of silk until he was near her ear.

“Princess,” he whispered. “Don’t worry. You’ll be all right. I COULD get you out of here now the way I got you out of the palace, but it might be a good idea to find out more about what these people want. Are you brave enough for that?”

“Yes, I am,” she answered. “As long as you’re with my, my guardian spirit.”

That made him feel guilty again. He wasn’t a guardian spirit, just a very small Time Lord.

“I’m going to put something in your ear,” he said. “It will allow me to talk to you without anyone else hearing. All you have to do is THINK your reply.”

He didn’t actually put anything physical in her ear. That would be dangerous. But he adjusted the sonic screwdriver one more time and pointed it down the ear canal. It established a telepathic link between them.

“Can you hear me?” he whispered.

“Yes, my Guardian,” she answered.

“All right, I’m going back into your pocket where I can’t be seen. You think about what happened in the garden and try to remember the names of anyone involved. This MUST have been an inside job. Somebody inside the palace set you up to be taken.”

That salved his conscience a little bit. The kidnap must have been planned in advance by somebody with knowledge of the palace. The getaway vehicle was ready and waiting right outside.

“Can you still hear me, Pet?” he asked once he was back in the TARDIS. He could visualise what she was seeing, now – very little. She had been covered in some kind of sack.

“Yes, I hear you. I think Shi Gang Kuo was there. He is one of my father’s men. He was sent to Dadu with me, but I never liked him. He never smiles. I think he was the one who told them where to find me. But he isn’t in the carriage. There is a man from the palace – and two strangers.”

“We need to know if there is anyone else involved, wherever they plan to take you, and then I think we can put my plan into action,” The Doctor said. “You hold on there, Princess.”

It was a risk. Right now there were only three of the gang to deal with, and one was pre-occupied with driving. There could be any number of them at the destination. But his plan was based on the element of surprise and a certain amount of fear and superstition among the lower classes of thirteenth century imperial China.

The carriage came to a stop after an hour of jolting travel hidden beneath the stifling covers. The princess was lifted, still bundled inside the sacks and carried by two or more of the men. Their rough voices called out to another, a female, who replied impatiently.

“Be quiet and get her inside, quickly, before she makes a noise,” the woman said. “The Khan will have our heads if we are caught.”

“He will pay a lot of money to have her back,” said one of the men.

“Only if we are not found, first,” the woman insisted. “Shut up, you fool until it is safe.”

“That’s Ling Jao Shi, my calligraphy teacher,” Pet told The Doctor. “SHE is part of this?”

“Money is a stronger force than loyalty for some,” he answered. “Unfortunately I have found that out far too many times.”

He almost had his plan ready now. Just one more minute, until they were all inside the building. With walls around them it was easier for the TARDIS to focus on a wide group of people.

He dematerialised the TARDIS and immediately initialised a wide materialisation taking in all of the people who were outside – the princess, as well as all of her kidnappers. As he hoped, they were all too petrified with fear to put up much resistance. They all bowed low on the floor and begged the ‘terrible spirit’ not to harm them.

“I won’t harm you,” The Doctor replied once he had them all bound and tied. “The Khan will decide what to do with you, and I rather suspect you already know the penalty for laying hands on his son’s betrothed princess.”

Their responses to that were supplications and pleas for mercy, but mercy in this instance wasn’t The Doctor’s to give. They belonged in the Khan’s dungeon and their fate would be his choice.

He didn’t take them to the dungeon, but to the throne room where the Khan was giving out orders to his soldiers to search the city for the missing princess. They didn’t notice the TARDIS materialising at its miniature size, but when The Doctor adjusted the dimension manually, it grew from a toy to seven foot in seconds. The Khan rose from his throne as the princess emerged and told him that her kidnappers were prisoners within the strange box – all but Shi Gang Kuo.

Shi Gang Kuo was with the soldiers. He had wasted time staring at the magical blue box and left it too late to run. He was taken easily and thrown to the floor in front of the Khan. The Doctor pushed the other prisoners out of the TARDIS one by one, to the astonishment of all who saw a box barely big enough for two people. This was a time when magic was not only believed in, but held in awe, though, and they had no doubt that The Doctor WAS the princess’s guardian spirit who had taken her back from her abductors.

“I remember my grandfather telling tales of such a box,” Temür Khan said. “Is this the same?”

“It is,” The Doctor answered. “I bring good wishes to you, great Khan, and fortune upon your house. You suspected that the princess might be in danger, I think. That is why she was not to go into the garden without an escort. Forgive me for being her escort on this occasion. It allowed me a chance to flush out these dishonourable traitors who have betrayed your royal trust.”

“Indeed, we are in you’re a debt, Spirit Guardian,” Khan said. “How can I repay you?”

“I have my reward already,” he responded, aware that the backgammon piece, now restored to its proper size, was in his pocket. I shall be going now. Princess, remember, follow your heart and be joyful, and when peaches are in season, enjoy your fill of them.”

“Yes, Doctor,” she answered. “Goodbye, my Spirit Guardian.”

He went back into the TARDIS and closed the door. Presently he left the court of the second Yuan Dynasty Khan behind and returned to the place where the locked door waited to be opened.

He put the backgammon piece in place of the hologram and then moved it the six places that captured the opposing pieces and took his home to win the game.

There was a very soft click – he thought there really should have been something more dramatic – and then the big black door opened…

…To reveal another door and in the space before it another puzzle and a crystal globe filled with images from his second incarnation. He picked it up and glanced at the new puzzle.

It was going to be a long day.