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

Atalyo, the fourth planet of a system on the outer edge of the Milky Way was famous as the location of the widest, longest, driest salt flats in the said Galaxy. The Lyo-llo Flats – pronounced something like the Earth English word ‘li-lo’ - were twice the square miles, square kilometres, or any other universally accepted measure, of the second biggest, the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia on planet Earth.

The Flats baked under a white dwarf star for sixteen hours of a thirty-six hour day and froze under a planet sized moon called Sweetheart of Atalyo for twelve hours of the night. The two hours after sunset were balmy and pleasant and the two hours before dawn were refreshing, but the rest of the time extremes of temperature were the norm.

The Flats were regarded as the ultimate challenge for people – using the word very loosely – who liked to ride two, three or four-wheeled internal combustion engines.

The TARDIS was parked at the transient village by the edge of the great Lyo-llo Flats where the competitors in the famous Death or Glory Rally were gathering. It was a remarkable scene, and one in which the police box was not especially conspicuous. There were all sorts of shuttle craft and short-range travel pods parked up alongside tents, temporary huts and workshops where the racing bikes, only some of which twentieth century Earth woman Ray would recognise as ‘bikes’, were being given the tender loving care of their owners. Every possible form of bi- tri- and quad-wheeled machine were being stripped down and oiled, tuned up and tested. Two hours after midday when the sun was past its zenith, there were dust trails all over the Flats from riders trying out their bikes, trikes and quads.

Only about half of the ‘people’ were Human looking. Even some of those who were the same shape were strange colours like green or blue or had unusual features like feathers or vines instead of hair, or spikes coming out of their heads making them look like walking conkers. There was a team of trike riders who had fish heads and several different reptilian races. As she walked around, getting her bearings, Rachel Dedwydd found herself pulling her eyes away from the sight of a silver-skinned man with glittering scales instead of hair, dressed in silver leather and mounted on a streamlined motorcycle that was – unsurprisingly – silver.

She hadn’t brought the Vincent out of the TARDIS, yet. After seeing some of the beautiful futuristic bikes and sidecars that looked like space rockets she was feeling a little bit nervous about her 1950s model. She wasn’t entirely sure what the Earth date was, but it was far into her future and that meant that the Vincent was more than just an antique - it was prehistoric.

“Hello, are you entered in the rally?” A Human voice speaking English distracted her from a team of humanoids with long beards and hair growing from their forehead to halfway down their backs. They were wearing leather over the rest of their bodies, so they might have had hair everywhere. She tried not to wonder about the fact that this was an all-female team!

“Hello?” Ray turned towards the voice and was impressed by the handsome man in his early-forties with sandy-brown hair and deep brown eyes. He smiled like he had the Colgate ‘ring of confidence’ and she found herself warming to him on that basis alone.

“I’m Jes,” he said. “Short for Jesse. Jesse Deacon”

“Ray,” Ray answered. “Short for Rachel. Rachel Dedwydd.”

“Your parents couldn’t make up their minds whether they wanted a boy or girl, either?”

“No, my parents prefer Rachel. But… I like being called Ray. And… yes, I’m in the rally. Are you?”

“Yes. I’m a solo rider. I’ve got a 3888 classic Harley-Starcaster. Fifty years since it was made. I got it as scrap and restored it to racing condition.”

I’m… not familiar with that model,” Ray admitted. “I’ve got a 1950s Vincent Black Shadow with sidecar. I’m riding with a friend as navigator.”

The centuries old bike clearly surprised Jes, but there was another detail that interested him.

“Friend?” There was a loaded question in that one word. It was answered when The Doctor came along. Was that relief in Jes’s eyes when the older man with the tweedy eternal bachelor appearance asked to be introduced?

“This is Jes,” Ray answered. “Jes, this is The Doctor. He’s my navigator.”

“Good to meet you both,” Jes said. “I was just telling Ray that I’m racing solo, so we won’t be directly competing.”

Ray couldn’t quite explain, even to herself, while that seemed like good news. She had only met Jes a few minutes ago. Why should she worry about competing with him?

“Yes, indeed,” The Doctor confirmed, passing Ray a strip of coloured celluloid with very tiny letters, some of them not found on a standard keyboard, printed inside the thin material in a manner that could not be forged. “Confirmation of your entry into the bike and sidecar category entry.”

It had taken a bit of Doctoring to get the entry confirmed, of course. Applications were meant to be submitted six lunar cycles ago and the fees paid within two lunar cycles. A TARDIS was handy for things like that. He had sent both retrospectively from the comfort of the console room and then nipped across to the race control centre to pick up the biometric strip that contained the entry details for Team Vincent.

“The briefing for tomorrow morning is in twenty minutes over in the big marquee,” Jes told them both. “After that there’s a buffet supper for all entrants. A chance to get to know each other.”

Then we’d better get on over there,” Ray said. “All of us.”

The Doctor walked a little behind as Jes slipped beside Ray and slipped as easily into a lively conversation about classic motorbikes. Of course, for Ray, classic was something from the first half century of combustion. For Jes, born in the fortieth century, classic was nearly half a millennium later. Even so, there was enough common ground in their comparison of engine cc's and rpm, carburettors and crank-cases, stressed frames and sprung rear sub-frames to keep them going.

The Doctor could have joined in if he wanted. There wasn’t much about anything mechanical that he didn’t understand, but he was clearly not needed in this conversation. Besides, it suited him to watch and listen. He learnt things that way.

He learnt something about Jes, but it wasn’t anything he chose to talk about right now.

It would wait.

The assortment of species were accommodated in the marquee by an assortment of chairs, some with reinforced bases. The organisers of the event were natives to Atalyo, slender, tall humanoids with very pale skin that they protected from the harsh sunlight by wearing dark wrap-around shades and headdresses similar to the style called a Keffiyeh or Kufiya in desert parts of Earth. Seeing their hairless white heads under the protection of the marquee was a little startling after getting used to them outside.

The chief organiser of the Death or Glory Rally was one of the tallest and thinnest of the species. He looked, Ray thought, like a well sucked vanilla lolly pop. But there was nothing so homely as that about what he had to say.

Death or Glory was rightly named, he told them all. For the incautious, the Flats were dangerous. There were sudden sheer cracks where the salt flats dropped away for thousands of feet and parts where the salt crust was too thin and metres of acidic water lay beneath. Even on the proper route, a breakdown could leave a competitor stranded under the burning sun or the freezing night sky.

For those who reached the far side of the Flats, there was glory. Even finishing was an achievement, let alone finishing first in any of the various classes. That was why some five hundred people of all sexes and every imaginable species were prepared to risk the dangers.

Before the meeting broke up, one member of each team was given their satellite tracking device with the safe route across the Flats already programmed into it and invited to take what looked like an ivory coloured egg from a huge glass jar. Inside the egg was a number. It was the order in which the competitors, in batches of fifteen, would set off in the morning.

Inside the egg Ray pulled from the jar was the number eighteen. That suited her. She didn’t really want to be among the first, nor did she want to be the last to set off. This was a rally, of course, not a first to the chequered flag race. The times from each of the twelve day stages were added together to determine the winners. Times from the previous day determined when each competitor set off the following morning.

“It sounds so exciting,” Ray commented later at the buffet supper when she and Jes ate spicy chicken wings and canapés along with two other Human racers, colonists from the Deltan system, who spoke with American accents about past attempts to complete the rally. “I can’t wait to get started tomorrow morning.”

“You probably won’t finish on your first time out,” said Banning, the more experienced of the two – in that he had failed to finish eight times by his own admittance. “It is a tough course, especially for a woman.”

Ray held back her feminist hackles and assured Banning that she was quite capable of managing a bike she had been riding since she was twenty. She didn’t mention that she had a male navigator. The Doctor was busy chatting with two of the hairy biker ladies.

“They under-estimate the number of deaths, of course,” said Maxwell, the other of the Human riders. “One or two make it interesting, draws the viewers on holo-vid live. But two years ago there were fifty-two fatalities. They don’t talk about that.”

“There were NOT fifty-two fatalities among the competitors,” Jes contradicted him. “There were four, all very stupid people who tried to take short cuts over dangerous sections of the Flats and paid the price. The rest were on a tour bus that stupidly tried to follow the rally without any satellite positioning and got lost. They died of hypothermia trying to walk to the staging post without a compass and with cloud cover obscuring the stars after sundown. It was tragic but no fault of the race organisers. In fact, I would go so far as to say nobody has died who stuck to the safety instructions.”

Maxwell was suitably chastised. Ray was immensely relieved. She had heard rumours like that all around the marquee in the course of the buffet. But now Jes had put her straight and she was coming to the conclusion that much of the danger was exaggerated. Surely anyone with common sense could avoid most of it, and she had plenty of common sense.

Her common sense told her not to trust either Banning with his misogyny or Maxwell with his rumour mongering. She felt more certain about Jes’s cool confidence.

The Doctor seemed perfectly at home with all of the different species who were going to be competing tomorrow. Ray felt strangely shy of them and stayed close to Jes and the other humans. She knew she shouldn’t feel that way. She knew she probably looked just as strange to them, but she just couldn’t make small talk with a man with an orange spiky face, let alone the hairy biker ladies who positively scared her to death.

It was cold and dark when the meet and greet buffet was over. Ray pulled her coat close around her and looked up at the moon, four times as big as the Earth one. The stars were unfamiliar, too, but that was something she was getting used to by this stage in her adventures in the TARDIS.

“Bed,” The Doctor told her when they reached the police box. “It’s an early start tomorrow, remember. The Vincent has to be at the starting line by six o’clock.”

“That’s not as bad as it sounds with a thirty-six hour day,” Ray admitted. “Time for a good eight hours sleep. I’m excited, though. I will probably toss and turn for a bit.”

“If you don’t settle down the TARDIS can pump sleeping gas into your bedroom, you know. She’s likely to do that even without my say so if you’re too restless.”

Ray wasn’t sure if he meant that or not. She decided not to chance it. As soon as she was in bed she put everything she had seen today and everything to come tomorrow out of her mind and settled down for the sleep she knew she needed.

The Doctor stayed awake a little longer, studying the route to the staging post at the end of tomorrow’s first day’s rallying, noting where the dangers lay and where the safest and shortest road was.

He also thought deeply about one or two things he had found out in the course of the afternoon and evening in the base village – things about the Flats, about the rally, and about some of the other competitors and their methods and motives.

He thought a lot about Jes and the way he had slipped so easily into Ray’s field of interest. That was something that might prove as treacherous as thin salt deposits if he didn’t keep an eye on developments.