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

Susan made a pretence of studying the periodic table of elements that were so important in the theory of chemistry. There was no point in explaining to Mr Chesterton that she had learnt to recite the table when everyone else in her class was still mastering basic nursery rhymes, or that the table she used had fifty more elements on it than were known to humans on planet Earth in the autumn of 1962.

Under her breath she sang the rhyme that very young children on her world used to remember the elements. Only the VERY young, that is. By the age of seven she no longer needed mnemonics to remember her lessons.

“Susan?” She looked up to see Mr Chesterton standing over her. “Are you quite all right?”

“I’m….” She wasn’t sure how to respond to that question. He hadn’t been cross with her for singing the elements, or for not paying attention. He had just asked her if she was all right in a kind voice. It wasn’t what she expected from a teacher. His voice, his gentle face looking down at her, made her want to give a proper answer to his question.

But while she struggled for that proper answer the question was forgotten. The fire alarm rang out insistently, and everyone in the school knew what that meant in these uncertain times.

It didn’t mean there was a fire, or even a fire drill. Twice now, when that alarm had gone off, the whole school, students and teachers alike, had been sent down to the cellar.

This wasn’t a fire drill.

“Quietly, children,” Mr Chesterton said in a voice that everyone else would think was calm and authoritative. Susan was the only one who could detect the very slight wobble that gave away how nervous he was. “Quickly, without running, make your way to the cellar. You all know what to do.”

“Is it a drill?” Michael Bell asked. “Or… or the real thing?”

“I don’t know,” Mr Chesterton answered. “But we do the same thing either way.”

The students didn’t ask any more questions. They just did as they were told, quickly and quietly. There were no jokes, no conversations, no silly messing about. Nobody tried to slip off and smoke a cigarette behind the sheds. Mr Chesterton brought the register with him. So did the other teachers who filed along the corridor with their students. Nobody talked. The only sound once the alarm had been switched off was the echo of footsteps on the floor.

The door to the cellar was only wide enough for one pupil at a time, and the steps were concrete, lit by one single bulb in the ceiling above. It was warm, at least. The boilers were down here. Mr Carter, the caretaker was already waiting, dressed in his brown overall. He nodded wordlessly to the teachers and told the students to sit in their class groups.

Everyone did so. There were old rubber mats from gym laid down on the floor the last time they did the drill. It wasn’t as uncomfortable as it would have been sitting on the bare concrete floor. The teachers all took a register to ensure that nobody was missing. The headmaster, Mr Brownhill walked quietly among them all, his mouth a tight line under his moustache. He caught the eyes of the teachers from time to time, but he never looked directly at any of the students.

“Settle down everyone,” he said once, but there was no need to do so. Everyone was quiet. Everyone, children and adults alike, was too frightened to speak.

Once registration was over, there wasn’t much else to do. Mr Brownhill told the students that they could talk quietly. At first nobody did, which was unusual in itself. Any other time it wouldn’t be long before they had to be told to make less noise.

Slowly, nervous conversations started up. Those who had grabbed their satchels before coming out of the classrooms found books to read or marbles and jackstones to play with. The teachers turned a blind eye to sweet eating and even chewing gum that was usually not permitted in the school at all.

The teachers had their own quiet conversations. Susan glanced around and fixed upon Mr Brownhill and Mr Decker, the senior geography master. They were easily the oldest members of staff. Both had been at the school twenty years ago when London was under constant threat from German bombs. They reminisced about coming down here with the students in the first months of the war, before the evacuation orders went around and the youngsters were dispersed to country places. Mr Decker recalled going with fifteen of the fourth year boys to a village in Hampshire where the East End children struggled to bond with the rural ones and education was the last thing on anyone’s minds.

“I was called up,” Mr Brownhill admitted. “Navy. Didn’t get back to teaching until 1946. Surprised to find the school still standing. They managed to bomb everything else around it.”

“They’re not talking about evacuation this time,” Mr Decker noted.

“There’s no point. If THOSE bombs drop, it’s all over.”

They were talking quietly, but even so Mr Brownhill’s words had been heard by the closest students, who paused in their game of snap with a battered set of cards and looked at their headmaster for a moment before continuing to deal the cards.

Susan was much further away but she heard anyway. She bit her lip sadly and looked away. Mr Chesterton was talking quietly to one of the female teachers, Miss Wright, who taught history, one of Susan’s favourite subjects. The other teachers were quiet. Sometimes they would look up nervously at the ceiling. Susan knew what they were thinking, and not because she had a rudimentary telepathy that meant she could sometimes see into other people’s minds. They were all wondering if the ceiling would protect them if an atomic bomb hit London, or would they all die instantly when the school collapsed on top of them.

And if it did, would they be the lucky ones?

Susan was the only one, adults and children alike, who had ever actually seen the real horror of nuclear war for real, not just in pictures in the newspapers. She caught a drift of Mr Decker talking again, or perhaps she was hearing his thoughts without trying. He was recalling the images taken by reconnaissance aeroplanes over the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the Americans had dropped atomic bombs on them in 1945.

But Susan had seen a whole planet devastated that very same way. It was two years ago. They had landed by accident on the planet called Uragan. The navigation control was off balance and a co-ordinate had become transposed. Grandfather had told her not to look, but curiosity got the better of her. While he was calibrating the helmic regulator she had turned on the screen and seen the blackened, dead world outside. There had once been gardens with trees and lawns, but it was all burnt. The tree stumps were covered in soot. So were the few roofless walls that stood where houses had once been.

A dead world, but with life clinging on in the most horrific way. She saw them clambering around the ruins, people with burnt flesh, clothed in rags, some of them sightless, even more pathetic than the rest, searching among the debris for anything that counted as food. They dug down and found blackened cans that must have been in a store and rushed away quickly, perhaps fearful that the food might be taken from them.

Even as she looked, a fight broke out between two men. She wanted to turn away, but found herself drawn in fascination to the sight. Even when one man drew a knife and the other fell in a bloody heap she couldn’t stop herself watching.

“Child, you shouldn’t see such things,” her Grandfather said, reaching to turn off the screen. “We can go now. I am sorry we came here at all. This is a dreadful place. These few remaining souls... rags of men... they’ll die of the radiation poisoning long before the food is gone... and it will be a mercy when they do. Perhaps in a thousand years, ten thousand, life might begin again in this place, but until then it will be a dead world, a shunned place.”

“Did some alien force attack them?” Susan asked, trying desperately not to think about the terrible things she had seen, but still fascinated by the cause and effect.

“No,” The Doctor answered. “That at least would be understandable. The planet Uragan destroyed itself. The two continents waged war on each other until both were ruined.”

“They were two different races living on one planet?”

“Not even that,” The Doctor replied. “They were one race, one people. They fought what is called a ‘civil war’, though civility doesn’t come into it.”

“I don’t understand why anyone would do that,” Susan told her grandfather. “It’s horrible.”

“Yes, it is.” He reached to hold her in his arms. She was comforted by his embrace. “Sometimes the universe is a cruel place. I knew when I brought you with me that you would find that out. But I thought it would be better for you to learn that sort of truth than to stay on our home world and learn only so much about the universe as others considered fit for your education. At times like this, though, when you see things that your young eyes should not see, I do wonder if I made the right decision.”

“Oh, grandfather,” Susan told him. “Of course you did. I would have hated being left behind.” Of course, she probably wouldn’t have. She was too young to realise the huge change in her life when they had left home in the dead of night and begun their lives as exiles. If her Grandfather had left without her she would have lived a different life, looked after by other people, and never have known any of the things she knew, neither the glorious and wonderful nor the dark and terrible.

If he had left her behind, she would never have even known Earth existed, let alone lived here. She looked around the dimly lit cellar room at the people she had come to know since they settled in the East End of London and she had persuaded her grandfather to let her go to Coal Hill School. She would never have known any of them.

She didn’t really have any special friends in the school. She was the new girl only last spring, when everyone else was already in their cliques. Then, she was a little too brainy, a little too bookish, a little too out of step with the current trends to fit into one of those cliques. But even if there was nobody she was close to, and even though there were a few girls and one or two boys, too, who she really disliked, she didn’t want to see them screaming in agony when an atomic bomb fell on London. She didn’t want Coal Hill school to be a blackened ruin and a few survivors dying by inches as the radiation poisoned them.

Even Bobby Neill who tripped her in the playground and laughed – he wasn’t such a bad person that she wanted him to die like that.

Somebody was crying. Susan looked around and saw a first year girl with plaits sitting with her back against the wall, her knees hunched under her chin and her face hidden by her hands.

Miss Wright, the history teacher went to her. She knelt by the girl’s side and spoke kindly and quietly. Susan listened to her.

“It’s all right, Mary,” she said. “I’m sure nothing has really happened. This is just a drill. In a little while we’ll go back up to the classrooms and carry on with studying the Tudors and Stuarts until home time. Yes, dear, your mum is all right. She’s at home cooking your tea just as usual.”

The mention of something as normal as tea convinced Mary. She stopped crying and managed a weak smile. Miss Wright left her and walked quietly among the first years, making sure they were all right. A few of them looked on the verge of tears. She went back to Mr Chesterton and spoke to him. He nodded in agreement and went to speak to the Headmaster, who stood and called the school to order. He told them they would have an extra assembly beginning with the singing of ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’.

It wasn’t really the most appropriate hymn for singing in a cellar while waiting for the end of the world. It was too much of a reminder of all there was to lose. But it was an easily remembered hymn with an uncomplicated tune and it kept everyone busy for a few minutes.

Susan’s mind drifted to another planet, another time when they had faced something of this sort of terror. Dulos IV was beautiful, a garden world that had not been spoiled by industry and pollution. Susan and her Grandfather had come there not long after witnessing the devastation of Uragan. At first it had seemed the perfect place to make their adopted home. The people were happy. There was free education and healthcare. Sciences and art were valued, and the planet was at peace with its neighbours. The two strangers who arrived in the most peculiar craft ever seen on Dulos were welcomed. They found a nice apartment in one of the towns. Susan went to the school while The Doctor happily worked in the government science laboratory.

Then grave news came to Dulos. Several of the largest bodies in the asteroid belt that orbited the sun of the Dulovian system had been thrown out of that orbit by a solar flare. They were heading towards Dulos. They would cause planet-wide catastrophe.

The government worked fast, building bunkers near all of the population centres, storing food supplies and essentials, making sure that at least some of the people would survive the coming disaster.

Susan’s Grandfather helped with those preparations. His scientific knowledge was useful to them and he was anxious to do what he could. But he fully intended that they would leave before the disaster came. The TARDIS was ready to go.

Susan freely admitted it was her fault. She wanted to see her friends one more time before they left. Her Grandfather met her at the school at the end of the last day. They walked through what had once been happy, prosperous streets, aware of the anxiety all around them of people facing the end of everything in the very near future. The children’s playground was empty, shops were empty because everyone had bought as much food as they could. The streets were full of small clusters of men and women who glanced up at the still benign sky and wondered how long it would be.

Then the sirens had sounded. The emergency announcements rang out over public address systems in all of the streets and parks. People on the streets, and more from the houses and offices began to hurry towards the clearly marked shelter entrances. Susan and her Grandfather looked at each other in deep concern.

“Let’s get back to the TARDIS, child,” The Doctor said. “I’m sorry, but it is time to go.”

They tried. But the TARDIS was in the opposite direction and the wardens were pushing everyone towards the shelters. The sirens still wailed and there was a rising sense of panic.

They had no choice. They went to the shelter. The Doctor said they might try to reach the TARDIS later, when everything had calmed down.

But that wasn’t possible. The wardens appointed for this task were adamant that nobody was going to leave the shelter once they were down there. The asteroids were about to hit the planet. Where they hit the landmass there would be earthquakes and massive damage. Where they hit the oceans there would be tidal waves. Nowhere outside the shelters was safe.

At first there was noise, panic, frightened people, children separated from parents, husbands seeking wives. Then things settled down a little. Families found places to sit together in the huge rooms designated for daytime use. Men with clipboards went around taking names and addresses and allocating beds in the dormitories and tickets to claim rations of food and drink as well as for the shower queues.

“This isn’t right,” The Doctor said quietly. “There are too many people in this shelter. The figures were calculated based on everyone being at home in their family units. They didn’t consider the office workers and school children going to the nearest shelter when the sirens went off.”

“It does seem rather crowded,” Susan admitted. She was glad that most of the school children were here. They were her friends. She spent some of her time with them on that first day. She hadn’t thought about what the overcrowding might mean as time went on.

It meant that there weren’t enough beds in the dormitories. The children slept two or three to a bed. Many of the adults slept on the floor. The Doctor was allowed a bed because he was elderly.

It meant that food rations had to be carefully calculated. There never seemed to be quite enough to satisfy the hunger even of people with very little to do each day.

And it meant that people very often argued with each other. Small things like a man spreading a blanket for his family to sit on that encroached a few inches into the space allocated to his neighbour started a bitter row. The wardens broke it up only by putting both men into solitary confinement in rooms designated as storage for a whole day. The women and children of the two families eyed each other in smouldering silence until they returned, then retreated to far ends of the dayroom.

Some fights were more serious. They had been confined to the shelter for a week and a half when a murder happened. There were a dozen witnesses who saw one man knife the other in the stomach because he had accused him of stealing rations. The man who did it was put in solitary confinement by the wardens.

Susan didn’t see the murder. Nor did her grandfather. But they heard about it. People talked. There was nothing much else to do.

There were other deaths. One whole family was found lying together under a blanket in the dayroom one morning. They had taken overdoses of headache tablets.

That happened twice more. There was nothing anyone could do or say that would stop people from doing terrible things like that. They thought about their future and it seemed too bleak.

“What will happen to everyone, Grandfather?” Susan asked one morning.

“I don’t know,” he answered, a very unusual answer for him. He always knew everything.

“I’m sorry for them,” he continued. “But there is nothing I can do for them. As soon as it is safe to go out of the shelter we’ll return to the TARDIS. We’ll leave this place. But what will become of them, I do not know.”

Susan thought he probably did know. He knew there was no hope for them. It wasn’t to do with food or water supplies, though those were scarce. It was the fact that everyone was in so much despair. It was the lack of hope that doomed them.

It was the fact that the wardens increasingly held onto order among the people by laying down strict rules about who could go where and when. They issued tickets for everything, even the use of the library which was the only relief from boredom. They enforced silence in the dormitories and cut the rations of anyone who broke any of the rules.

And nobody complained about it. They accepted the rules, increasingly hard as they were, and obeyed the wardens. They told each other that the discipline was necessary for the greater good, for the future of them all.

Then one day there was a startling announcement.

“There are too many people here in the shelter,” they were told. “We have come to a difficult decision, but one that will ensure that the fittest and the youngest will survive until we have word that we can leave the shelter and begin the rebuilding.”

There were murmurings among the people, but the wardens called for silence.

“We have decided that everybody over the age of sixty-five must leave the shelter,” the head warden continued. “We estimate that conditions above ground will be inimical to life for months, but they must take their chances. The rest of the community, the productive, the fit and healthy, will have the best chance of survival without the burden of those who cannot work.”

The murmurings became an uproar. The wardens again demanded silence, threatening harsh penalties on those who continued to protest. Susan watched in dumbstruck astonishment as the people slowly quietened and accepted the inevitable. She wondered what it was about the wardens that made them so acquiescent. They had been chosen from among the ordinary people. They weren’t an elite of their society. There was no reason to obey them in anything, let alone an idea as monstrous as this.

It hadn’t yet sunk in with her that her Grandfather was far older than sixty-five. He was among those the wardens meant to exile from the shelter.

When it did, she clung to him fearfully, tears filling her eyes.

“No!” she cried. “No, it’s wrong. It’s murder. You can’t….”

“Silence, girl,” one of the wardens replied. “Or you will be punished.”

“You don’t have the right to punish me,” Susan replied. “You are not my guardian. My Grandfather is. And I will not be silent unless he tells me to be.”

The Doctor said nothing. He met the warden’s cold eyes with his own deep brown ones that seemed, at this moment like wells of compassion in a place where that quality had been lost.

There were a few others who cried, who did not like the decision that meant their grandparents must be sacrificed, but the hold the wardens had on everyone was absolute. They hugged and kissed and said their goodbyes and prepared for the parting.

“No,” Susan insisted. “I won’t stay here without you, Grandfather. I’ll face what is out there with you.”

“Absolutely not,” said one of the wardens. “You’re young, you can work, you can be mated with a young male and be productive….”

“I will do nothing of the sort,” Susan replied. “I am going with my grandfather. I would rather die than live among people who would allow this to happen. I can’t believe that nobody else will speak. Janell, Cora, Hal… we were friends in the school. Will you let them do this to your grandmother? Will you not say something?”

The young people looked shaken by her words, but they turned away. They had accepted the word of the wardens.

“I’m going,” Susan insisted. “Don’t try to stop me.”

The Doctor stood, leaning on his walking stick with one hand and with the other putting a protective arm around Susan. The two of them were at the front of the group of people who were to be put out of the shelter. They didn’t look back. Some of the others did, longingly, regretfully, taking one last glance at their loved ones.

The Doctor opened the big door that had been sealed since they entered the shelter. He did so carefully, uncertain of what might be beyond it. The others drew back, and were relieved that there was nothing dangerous there, no fire, no flood water, no noxious gases. But the door was still underground. There was a tunnel and a set of steps before they got outside.

The door was slammed shut behind them all. They heard it locked and bolted, barring the possibility of their return. Somebody switched on a torch that lit the way out. They walked slowly, silently until they reached the steps and climbed up to the outer door.

“Grandfather!” Susan cried out as they stepped through that outer door into bright sunshine. “It’s…”

It was a warm, sunny afternoon. Everyone blinked for a while in the unaccustomed light before they looked around. The street was deserted, but it looked very little different than it did before they hid away in the shelter.

“I don’t understand,” one of the old men said. “We were told that the sun would be hidden for years because of the debris thrown into the atmosphere. The planet would freeze. All life would be impossible.”

“It looks fine to me,” Susan commented. “The sky is clear and beautiful.”

“Very beautiful,” The Doctor agreed. “I wonder….”

What he was wondering went unfinished. It was drowned out by the sound of a hovercopter overhead. It had the markings of the planetary government on it and when it landed two men in uniform appeared. They had guns, but they kept them holstered. They signalled to other men inside the hovercopter who wore the armbands of medical officers.

“Does anyone need assistance?” they were asked. “Are you injured?”

“I’d like a beer,” one of the old men said. “Do you have any?”

“Not with us,” the medical officer replied. “But we can sort you out with that later. Are you all there is in this district? The only ones left?”

The Doctor appointed himself spokesman for the group and explained about the people in the shelter below.

“Thank the heavens,” said the officer. “We’ve found nothing but the dead so far.”

“Dead? How?” The question was asked by several of the group.

“Suicides, mass suicides. People in the shelters believing there was nothing to live for. It was awful. Men, women, children, all lying together for days, weeks, and there was no reason for it at all. The alert was pre-emptive. There was no planet wide devastation. Most of the asteroids were deflected by the sun’s gravitational pull. The ones that hit the planet… there was a major tsunami on the coast of the southern continent. There have been thousands of lives lost there, and there’s a crater in the middle of the Eastern Desert. But the greatest population centres here in the north were hardly affected by the asteroids. The only casualties were self-inflicted.”

“Oh, that’s horrible,” Susan said, tears welling up in her eyes again. She felt her Grandfather’s arm tighten around her shoulders and she was glad of the comfort. This time, though, she cried for the people who had suffered so unnecessarily, because they had heard the sirens and thought it was the end.

“Go back down there,” The Doctor said, pointing to the entrance to the shelter. “Break down the door if you must. Get those people out of there and tell them the truth. The ones who appointed themselves wardens… you might need to protect them. There may be some retribution once they all have time to think. Susan, come on, child.”

“Where are we going, grandfather?” Susan asked.

“To the TARDIS. We have stayed among these people too long.”

“We’re not going to help them get back on their feet?”

“If they can’t do that for themselves, then they don’t deserve to survive. They aren’t the people we thought they were, Susan. We can’t help them.”

Susan accepted her Grandfather’s decision. The two of them walked away as the soldiers brought the rest of the people from the shelter up into the sunshine for the first time in months, to be reunited with the elderly men and women they were prepared to sacrifice for the good of all. They didn’t look back at them.

They found the TARDIS exactly where it had been all along and stepped inside. The Doctor put it into orbit over the planet. They saw the crater in the desert. They saw a devastated coastline where the tsunami had hit. But the planet was still inhabitable.

“So many of them died, when they didn’t have to. They panicked. They despaired.”


“Yes.” That was the last word her grandfather had spoken about the planet and its people. They went away, never to return. Susan hoped that the people of Dulos managed to recover from the disaster, to become the clever, happy people they used to be. But she knew her Grandfather would never take them back to find out. He had made up his mind about that.

She looked around the cellar where her school friends were singing another hymn. At least most of them were. Some were crying. Some were just sitting there, numbly staring at the ceiling and wondering if it really would protect them.

“Stop!” Susan cried out as the hymn finished and before the headmaster had chance to speak again. “Please stop. This IS just as drill. I’m sure it is. The bombs aren’t coming today. Maybe they never will. Maybe the politicians will sort it out. Please, let’s go back upstairs and do maths and geography and history like we should on any ordinary day.”

She was crying openly by the time she had finished speaking. Miss Wright came to her side, putting a comforting arm around her. She looked towards Mr Chesterton, who nodded and went to speak to the Headmaster and some of the other teachers. Then Mr Brownhill calmly told the students to line up in their registration groups to go back up to their classrooms.

Susan didn’t do maths, geography or history. Nor did many of the others who had been crying in the cellar. They were given notes to take home to say they had been unwell and were allowed out early. Mr Chesterton offered Susan a lift home, but she declined, saying that the walk would do her good.

She walked through busy streets where normal, ordinary life was going on as usual. Yes, they were under the threat of atomic bombs because of something that was happening thousands of miles away between the Americans and Russians, but here in London life was carrying on. The man selling the Evening Gazette from his street stand called out in his incomprehensible way. The fish and chip shop was just opening for afternoon business. The betting shop was full of men listening to the results of a horse race somewhere in England that they had staked their last shillings on. Cars and buses passed her by as she hurried home to Totters Lane and the junk yard with a police box in the corner.

“Grandfather?” she called out as she stepped into the TARDIS console room. The Doctor appeared from one of the back rooms. He was surprised and worried that she was home early, and concerned by the note that said she had been unwell at school.

“I wasn’t unwell,” she answered. “I was….” She quickly explained about the drill, and about her thoughts while they waited in the cellar, about the dead planet of Uragan, and about the foolish people of Dulos who had thought the end of their world had come when it hadn’t.

“Grandfather, you’ve seen Earth’s future, haven’t you? The atomic bombs….”

“It won’t happen,” he promised her. “Planet Earth has come very close to disaster just now, but they will get it right, yet. There have been a few frightened people who have done as the Dulosians did – there have been suicides by those who think that a better way to die than in a holocaust. But most of the Human race has more courage and determination than that. They WILL get it right.”

“Oh, I’m so glad,” Susan answered. “But I suppose I can’t tell anyone that. Even if they’re frightened like they were today, I can’t tell them.”

“No, you can’t, Susan,” The Doctor told her. “You cannot ever tell these Humans what you know about their future. I know it is hard, but if you wish to live among them, that is the price to pay.”

Susan nodded. He was right. He always was.

“Let’s sit down and have a nice cup of tea,” her Grandfather said. “That’s the one thing Humans really got right. Tea. An excellent beverage.”

Yes, Grandfather was always right.