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

He stepped through the third doorway, wondering what awaited him there.

Well, one thing at least was a given. He picked up the fourth globe. He looked at the swirling images from his fourth life. That had been one of the longest of his incarnations. He had survived quite a few near encounters with death – or regeneration at least. He saw some of his enemies from that time floating in the smoke – Davros, of course. He was to be expected, and his hellish creations, the Daleks. Cybermen glinted silvery and menacing in there, too.

There were friends, too, of course. Sarah Jane, bless her heart, Leela, Romana in both of her beautiful incarnations, brave young Adric, courageous but innocent of the ways of the universe, Nyssa, equally innocent but always quick-thinking Tegan who had come into his life very near the end of that time with a sharp tongue and the Human view of the universe that always tempered his Time Lord enthusiasms.

The Time Lords! They had interfered with his freedom more in that time than any other, and he had returned, willingly or unwillingly, to Gallifrey, far more often.

That was one place his Twelve Labours WEREN’T going to take him, he reflected darkly. They couldn’t. That was one rule that couldn’t be broken.

He glanced at the glass case where some puzzle would present him with the means to unlocking the next door.

His emotions clashed in his head as he recognised the Great Artefacts of Rassilon. There was the Sash of Rassilon, possibly the ugliest, clunkiest, heaviest piece of ceremonial regalia in the history of such things. It was composed of twenty-six plates of pure Gallifreyan gold, embossed with the Seal of Rassilon as well as the Seals of the Twelve Ancient Houses – the twelve lines of Gallifreyan aristocracy allegedly sired by Rassilon himself.

There was the Rod of Rassilon. Nobody on Gallifrey thought that was funny. Time Lords didn’t have that sort of sense of humour.

Time Lords didn’t tend to have a sense of humour at all in his experience.

The Coronet of Rassilon, the source of the Lord High President’s power, the telepathic link to the Matrix.

And then there was an empty place where the Fourth Artefact should be.

The Great Key of Rassilon.

Of course it would be. The Great Key had always been missing. Putting all four Artefacts of Rassilon in the same place would hand somebody the greatest treasure and the greatest power in all eternity. That’s why it was lost.

He looked closely at the Artefacts and nodded in understanding. Yes, these were very good copies. The true Artefacts were lost along with Gallifrey.

So he was looking for a copy of the Great Key to go with the copies of the Artefacts of Rassilon.

But WHERE exactly, seeing as he couldn’t possibly look for it on Gallifrey.

As he started to turn away, the case opened itself. He turned back and watched as the Coronet of Rassilon rose up in the air. There was a slight shimmer in the air around it like an early attempt at Colour Seperation Overlay on a film with a limited budget. The Doctor caught the Coronet between his fingers and it stayed there, vibrating slightly.

It might be a fake, but there was power in it of a kind, and it was obviously part of his next task.

He brought it with him back to the TARDIS, along with the globe that he set down on the console with the first three.

There was no destination programmed into the navigation control this time. That surprised him just a little. Then he noticed a shimmer in the air and where the squashy chair was that he sat in sometimes to read or eat, or just sulk if the mood took him, an elaborate throne-like seat stood instead.

The Throne of Rassilon, and Time Lords didn’t have any jokes about THAT, either.

So that was it. A fake coronet and a fake throne but a very real TARDIS and a real Time Lord who had once been inducted as Lord High president. He could still enter the Matrix – or a fake one, at least.

He sat on the throne and placed the coronet on his head. He meant to do it carelessly. He hated the pomp and ceremony of it all, but somehow the sense of occasion took hold of him and he placed it slowly, holding it high above his head first before bringing it down over his hair so that the red diamond at the front was resting on his forehead above the bridge of his nose.

He sensed the diamond starting to glow and felt a dizzy, slightly nauseous sensation as well as a throbbing pain in his temples as his mind was caught up in the Matrix – or the substitute one that the TARDIS was fully capable of creating if it absolutely had to.

When his vision cleared he was standing in the Panopticon the way it had looked when he was a young Time Lord – something like the Welsh National Assembly crossed with Camelot. A huge round table of black obsidian stood on a raised hexagonal dais for the High Council to sit around while the ordinary Councillors sat in the four three-quarter circles of seats around them. Above were galleries where the public could watch the proceedings.

The Panopticon was empty. His feet echoed on the marble floor. He looked up at the sunlight at midday spreading its diffused light through the opaque glass roof. The light filled the huge hall without dazzling the eyes.

Being here, even in a simulacrum of the Panopticon, in a reconstruction of the Matrix, brought back too many memories that he had tried to keep buried for the sake of his own sanity.

Perhaps this was the test this time? Not of his courage or his ingenuity, but of his emotional reaction to the single greatest tragedy of his life.

As he stood there, staring around at the empty seats, sounds began to filter in, like an analogue radio switching on. At first it seemed like one voice, then many but far away. Then gradually they came closer until they filled the Panopticon. They were the voices of generations of Time Lords who had sat in this chamber and argued the finer points of the Gallifreyan constitution or passed laws for the better government of the people of the Gallifreyan Dominions. Some were calm, some impassioned, some angry. Some were eloquent, some hesitant. Some were wise, learned men. Some of them were fools who knew less after a lifetime of learning than they did at the start of those lives.

He thought he even heard his own voice from time to time. Several voices, always among the impassioned ones, of course. It was always so with him.

But they were just echoes. The seats around him were empty. His own footsteps when he turned to look were louder than the loudest voice.

“No!” he cried out, his voice echoing around the Panopticon loudly, far more loudly than it should, even for a place where the voices of High Councillors were meant to carry to the back of the top gallery. It drowned out the voices from the past and silenced them.

“No, I won’t be put through that,” he added. “Leave me alone!”

The Panopticon vanished in an explosion of white light with his voice still echoing in the middle of it as if he had shattered the vision just by shouting at it.

When his vision cleared once more he was still looking at a bright light. It was the Gallifreyan sun, directly overhead as it was at midday – the thirteenth hour. He was looking up at it because he was lying down. When he turned his head he saw an endless plain stretching far and wide.

He saw it from ground level, which is not the best way to get a perspective on anything. He couldn’t stand up because he was tied, hand and foot, to stakes driven into the ground. He was stripped to the waist and feeling the effects of exposure to the direct sunlight already.

At least it wasn’t the Red Desert where the sand was burning hot an hour after dawn. This was a kinder punishment – or a crueller one, depending on how he looked at it. Exposure to the heat of the desert would kill even a Time Lord in a few hours. This would take a bit longer and it would feel endless.

Assuming he planned to meekly take this underserved punishment, anyway. He strained at the ropes holding his hands. At first they seemed firmly tight and unmoveable. But nothing made of mere vegetable fibres was completely unmoveable. He should be able to loosen it eventually.

Of course, he didn’t look strong. This body was the body of a computer geek who had waited in vain through puberty for the physique his online avatar enjoyed.

But that was just the regeneration lottery. Beneath the skin he was still a Time Lord. He still had two hearts and a stronger ribcage than average humanoids. He had the ability to recycle his breathing. He could live without food and drink longer than any other species that walked upright on dry land.

He concentrated all his effort on his left wrist, clenching his fist and straining against the bonds that held him. He heard the fibres of the rope creak a little. Were they stretching, breaking?

Well, not yet. But if he kept going….

Another concerted effort. Yes, the bonds were slacker. He might be able to slip his hand through them. It hurt. The bones of his hands were crushed but he felt the base of his palm, the fleshy bit by the thumb, slide into the tightly fastened rope. He pulled a little harder, screaming with the effort.

Then he was free – or one hand was, anyway. He fumbled with the rope holding the other hand, wondering WHY he chose to free his left hand when he was right-handed.

No he wasn’t. His last body but one was. But he was born left-handed and had been ambidextrous in most of his lives. He told himself not to be so fussy as the knot came loose and his other hand was free.

Unfastening his legs was easy with two hands to do it. He stood up, wobbling painfully. He felt as if he had been pinned down for hours. His legs were weak.

But he willed them to move. He was still in the middle of nowhere and even if it was an illusion it could still kill him. That was the rule of the Matrix – the Time Lord Matrix as well as that Human film that uncannily came up with the same logic. If you died in the Matrix, you died in reality.

He was reasonably confident that a Matrix created by his own TARDIS would keep him safe, but even then he was wasn’t going to test the theory to the limit.

“Come on, I’m not going to walk across this,” he called out, noticing how his voice disappeared in the vastness of the sky. “Let’s get onto the next test.”

And, of course, he suddenly found himself falling through a hole in the ground and landing awkwardly in the dark. He felt his ankle crack and screamed in pain, but the sound was swallowed by a much louder noise.

He was in a railway tunnel and there was a train coming.

He dragged himself upright despite the pain and forced himself to walk on the broken limb until he felt a wall in front of him. He pressed himself against it and hoped there was enough space. As he felt the rush of wind and noise that heralded the approaching train he reminded himself that it was ALL an illusion created by the Matrix, which was created by his TARDIS, which was his FRIEND. He ought to be safe. He hoped he would be.

He screamed again as the train passed within an inch of his body, threatening at any moment to pull him along with it. The noise and the vibration, the speed and the heat of the rushing metal filled every fibre of his body for what seemed like an endless time even for a Time Lord who could count the passing of microseconds accurately.

Of course, it wasn’t endless. Eventually the train was gone. He was still standing as it raced away from him. He was alone in the dark with the pain of a broken ankle to remind him that he was alive.

“What was the point of that?” he demanded to the emptiness and the dark. “It’s always the same with the Matrix. Lot’s of daft games, scares and near-death experiences. What next? Am I going to be half-drowned in quicksand, fed to a hungry ravel-beast, frozen at the Pole?”

None of those things would have surprised him.

He was a little bit surprised when he limped out of the railway tunnel to find himself on Karn, in a thunderstorm, with no options other than getting wet or struggling on to the door of the castle where he once encountered Morbius, the notorious criminal Renegade from Time Lord society.

Well, he had realised he wasn’t confined to one planet in this voyage of nightmarish unreality. There were no trains on Gallifrey. That had to be taken right out of his own memories of Earth and other planets where such means of transport had been developed. Karn’s wilderness was another experience that was being drawn upon to create a scenario for him to interact with.

His foot was still painful. He needed to rest it. but there was nowhere he could stop until he reached that doorway.

And what lay inside that castle, he didn’t want to know and wasn’t prepared to guess.

If he guessed, was it more or less likely to be the thing he guessed? The Matrix was obviously reading his mind and reflecting it in these illusory scenes. Everything from the Panopticon to the Plain of Contemplation, to the railway tunnel, was a part of his memory, his life experiences. The Panopticon was an integral part of his life for a long time. In his fourth incarnation, he was even installed as Lord High President there, before his fellow Time Lords.

The Plain of Contemplation wasn’t a real place at all, but one that could be conjured in the mind by Time Lords entering a deep state of meditation, often when they were seriously injured and needing to find a focus for themselves to prevent premature regeneration. He had been in such a situation many times, but perhaps more often in that dangerous era of his fourth life when he met so many enemies that he only just managed to defeat at the cost of his own pain and suffering.

The railway tunnel wasn’t anywhere, either. He sometimes dreamt about trains. He had done so since he was a child, even though they were so alien to his own world. If he was to consult a psychiatrist, he would doubtless learn that it was to do with some trauma, either in his past or his future, and represented some deep-seated fear that he needed to face square on and overcome.

That sort of nonsense was the reason why he didn’t go to a psychiatrist.

This location was the most concrete of them all. Here was the scene of one very real and vivid encounter with evil – and that evil of Time Lord making. Morbius was a product of the same upbringing and education as himself, but one who had turned to cruelty and tyranny.

What he didn’t understand was what any of this had to do with the Great Key of Rassilon.

By the time he reached the doorway he was soaking wet, chilled to the bone, and his foot was throbbing with pain. Even if Morbius himself answered the door he thought he would have been grateful for his hospitality.

The door swung open before him. Inside was a hall lit by long candles in silver holders. He stepped over the threshold and was warmed by the candles, but he remained wary.

He was still wary when he reached the Great Hall of the castle. Here, long ago, he had dined with Solon and drunk wine with knock out drugs in it. He had fought Morbius to the death.

Here, now, was a huge fire that drew him despite his wariness. Even Time Lords needed to warm themselves and dry out, even at the fire of an enemy.

A man sat in a chair beside the fire. This was the first person he had encountered at all in his wanderings within the Matrix and his wariness increased.

He wasn’t sure who it was. For a moment he thought it was the clever but demented surgeon Menahdin Solon. Then for an even longer moment he thought it was Morbius himself before his atoms were scattered in the Time Lord execution machine. Then it looked like somebody even further back in the history of Gallifrey – history or myth, depending on your degree of faith.

“Lord Rassilon,” he whispered. “No, it can’t be. If Gallifrey no longer exists, then nor do you.”

This apparition was dressed in splendour, in robes of red and gold with a high collar rising above his head which was crowned with the Coronet of Rassilon. The Doctor reached and touched his own head. He wasn’t wearing it. He wasn’t sure if he had been in any of the sequence of visions he had walked through.

Rassilon was wearing it. Rassilon the Creator of Time Lords, Rassilon the Good, Rassilon the Tyrant, Rassilon who had allegedly returned with fire in his eyes and a fierce desire to bring death to his enemies when he led his people into the Last Great Time War.

Which one did he believe in? That was a fundamental question that The Doctor had wrestled with mentally ever since the Time War, if not before then.

And perhaps that was why the Matrix intended him to meet him, now, and face that question.

“Whether you believe in me, whether you believe I am good or evil, friend or enemy, this fire is warm and you need it. Come, sit.”

The Doctor sat. He needed to rest his leg, anyway. It was unbearably painful, now.

The fire was more than welcome. He felt its heat deep within himself. A change of clothes might have helped him more….

He looked down and was surprised – and then again not surprised – to find that he was no longer wearing his own soaking wet clothes. He was dressed in a Time Lord robe with the Seal of Rassion emblazoned upon it in gold.

It was so long since he had worn such robes. He might have given in to nostalgia if he hadn’t been so wary of his fireside companion and refused to think of anything but the present moment.

“I am not really here,” he said aloud. “This is all part of the illusion. I am really in my TARDIS, using the fake Coronet of Rassilon to create a fake Matrix world….”

“To seek a fake Great Key of Rassilon,” the possibly fake Rassilon added. “Yet the one thing that is real is the truth in your hearts.”

“Philosophy,” The Doctor replied scornfully. “I don’t need that. Plain words, please. Whether you are Rassilon or not, are you on my side?”

“Do you believe I am?” he asked. “Did you EVER believe that Rassilon was your Creator and your Friend?”

“Yes, I did,” The Doctor said. “When I was younger, before I was forced to leave Gallifrey….”

Rassilon’s eyebrows raised in question. The Doctor scowled in return, caught out by a distortion of the truth.

“Before I CHOSE to leave Gallifrey because it was no longer a society I could believe in. Yes, I thought Rassilon was a good man. Later, I was less sure. I thought he was probably a tricky sort that I couldn’t trust. And the Time War didn’t do much for my faith, either. Though, frankly, I never quite believed THAT was the real Rassilon… not the one I believed in… the Creator. Not returning as a harbinger of death and destruction for all.”

“Trust your instincts, son of Gallifrey,” the possible Rassilon told him.

“I always do. I’d be dead if I didn’t,” The Doctor replied.

“And what does your instinct tell you about me and about this situation?”

“It tells me to run while I still can.”

“No, that’s the primal fear of all sentient beings at work in you. The same one that told you to run when you looked into the Untempered Schism as a boy.”

The Doctor didn’t even bother to ask how he could know about that. Either this was the REAL Rassilon speaking to him or it was a simulacrum created by the Matrix which in its turn was created by the power and semi-sentient intelligence of his TARDIS. Either way his whole life was an open book.

Either way….

“It’s a long time since you really trusted your instincts. And it is a long time since you forgot the arrogance that surrounds everything else about you.”

“I am a Time Lord. Arrogance is a part of us. I always assumed we got it from you.”

“That is very likely true,” Rassilon admitted. “I will allow that much. But what is it that you have not done for a very long time, son of Gallifrey?”

There were a lot of things that he hadn’t done for a very long time, but only one came to mind just then.

“I have not admitted that any man is greater than me… and that I owe obeisance to him,” he answered in a voice that trembled ever so slightly. Then he did something he really hadn’t done for centuries.

He knelt before Rassilon, his head bowed in humility before his Creator.

“My Lord,” he said. Anything else he might have said stuck in his throat. But maybe there was no need for any more, no need to qualify what he had said in those two simple words.

“Raise your head, Son of Gallifrey,” Rassilon answered. “Look at me.”

He raised his head. Rassilon was standing, holding out his arm with his palm outstretched. For a moment, The Doctor wondered if he was meant to kiss it, like a supplicant before the Pope.

Then he noticed that he was holding something. The Great Key shone in the firelight as it revolved slowly on the chain dangling from his fingers.

He reached out and took it.

“You’ve earned it,” Rassilon told him. “Not by the games you’ve been put through today, but by every act of selflessness of your life… every death you suffered for the sake of countless others.”

He was tempted to say something facetious about that. He knew he HAD regenerated each time because he had to give the full measure of his life to prevent something terrible happening to innocent lives. But he had never asked for any reward for doing it.

And if he had asked, a fake Key wouldn’t have been his choice of reward.

But it WAS what he set out to do right now. His quest was over.

He opened his eyes and found himself back in the TARDIS, sitting on his usual comfy chair. The Throne of Rassilon had disappeared. The Coronet slipped from his head and he caught it by the hand that wasn’t holding the Great Key.

His foot was better. That was a relief. If anything was going to be carried into the real world it would be that injury. But he stood up on it and felt fine.

He walked out of the TARDIS and into the unreal world of the black doors. He walked through the first three doors and came to the fourth. He placed the coronet where it should be, then the Great Key in the place reserved for it.

The fourth door clicked open. He stepped through, wondering just what lay ahead this time.