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

It was still two hours before sunrise when Ray and The Doctor arrived at the starting line of the Death or Glory Rally. The moon had set and without its light shining down on the scene the Lyo-llo Flats were proof of the saying about it being darkest before dawn. There was nothing to be seen out there beyond the gravity lights that outlined the first half mile of the day’s trek.

It was cold, but not bitterly so. Already the air was warming up. In any case, all of the competitors getting ready to set off were wrapped in bio-adjustable underclothes that would keep them cool in the day and warm after sundown. They put their chosen style of leather or other fashionable biking attire on over the top.

Ray’s choice was a studded leather jacket and pants with her black lacquered helmet.

The Doctor was in the same clothes he always wore and carried his umbrella even though there was absolutely no danger of rain. He had a helmet, of course - it was against the rules even for sidecar navigators not to wear one - but that was his only concession to circumstances. He put his usual hat down in the foot-space and fastened it on once they were at the start line.

“Ray!” Jes came smiling and gave Ray something small. She looked to see a small silver charm in the shape of a motorbike wheel. “For luck. I hope you and The Doctor have a good ride today.”

“You, too,” she answered, pinning it on her jacket collar. She fumbled in her pocket and found a clean cotton handkerchief. “You can take this for luck. I hope I’ll see you at the overnight camp this evening.”

“You can count on it,” Jes answered her. Then he left them to their last minute preparations. Ray checked the fuel, oil and brake fluid. The Doctor tested the satellite positioning device and the electronic map against the position of the gradually fading stars and the time on his multi-functional watch. He was satisfied.

He did something else, with a gadget not issued by the race officials.

“What’s that?” Ray asked.

“It’s a remote device for the TARDIS. I’ve set her to dematerialise and re-materialise at the first overnight staging camp. She will also send out a signal that will tell me how far away she is, and in what direction. In the event of all this technology going wrong she’ll guide us to her.”

“You’re concerned about the technology, Doctor?” Ray asked.

“Not as such, but it does no harm to have a back up, and my TARDIS has never let me down before.”

“Right you are, Doctor,” Ray acknowledged, deciding not to mention the numerous times the TARDIS had gone to the wrong planet entirely. She mounted her bike and The Doctor settled himself in the sidecar, knowing it was not going to be the most comfortable ride he had ever taken.

They were lined up along with twenty other competitors. The group of the hairy biker ladies were beside them in a solo racing bike, a trike with driver and co-driver and a bike and sidecar. The sleek silver rider was in this group, too, as was a man with a green spiky face and a dwarf with a face the colour and texture of a raspberry on what looked like a child’s trike with an engine tacked on.

There was a long moment when Ray couldn’t hear anything except the sound of her own heartbeat. Then she heard The Doctor calmly speaking to her through the in-ear communicator that meant they didn’t have to shout at each other all day above the sound of the Vincent.

Then she heard the starter’s voice with the slightly guttural local accent giving a one minute warning. She could hear the crowd getting excited about their imminent start. After that all she could hear was her heartbeat again and all she could see was the bank of lights suspended on gravity cushions above the starting line. They came on one at a time, then they were steady for a few seconds before they went off at once. Ray kick-started the finely tuned Vincent and it sprung into life. It only seemed a few moments before the start line was left far behind. Minutes later the 1950s motorbike and sidecar was roaring across the open Flats.

“It’s fantastic!” Ray enthused as she set her course towards the far horizon. “Absolutely fantastic. I’ve never felt so free.”

“Yes,” The Doctor replied in a vague sort of way. To look at him, grasping his brolly and grimacing timidly he gave the impression of somebody who had never gone more than twenty-five miles an hour before.

But in fact, that was just an outward impression. Speeding across the Flats brought back memories he had buried many regenerations ago. He let his eyes see a different view for a little while - The great Red Desert of Gallifrey, burning under the big yellow sun in the orange sky as young Time Lords, full of enthusiasm and their own near-immortality, raced hover-trikes across the sand.

He had been that young once. He had loved speed. He had felt as if he could live forever.

After he had broken almost every bone in his body at least twice he slowed down a little and paid more attention to his studies in thermodynamics and advanced temporal mechanics.

But he understood the thrill of riding at top speed over a near-limitless landscape. He had understood Ray’s enthusiasm when she found out about the rally.

There were those who didn’t understand the attraction of speeding across what looked like a featureless and unchanging scene. Those people generally watched something else when it was broadcast on the live holovid. For those who did appreciate the sport, the drama and the exhilaration, there was nothing better on the whole network. The favourites and the front runners were followed by remote camera drones that showed their progress across the Flats.

The Doctor and Ray were neither. They were of no interest to the Rally fans. They rode for hour after hour without seeing a camera. After the first hundred miles as the competitors chose their individual routes, they didn’t even see the dust from the hairy bikers or the silver rider. The dwarf had been left behind at the start line where his engine had failed in a splutter of black smoke.

It was hard going. The sun burnt the salt-laden air which blew into their faces and managed to get in through leather, visor glass and carbon fibre helmet. The sun reflected off the white salt surface of the Flats and would have blinded anyone not wearing some form of filtered lens in front of their eyes.

But The Doctor had never been afraid of a challenge and neither had Ray.

“It’s fantastic,” she told The Doctor. “I feel so very free out here. We’re hundreds of miles from anywhere and anyone, just the two of us and the Vincent.”

“Yes,” he answered. “Veer slightly towards the right. We’re going a little bit off course. We will want to be in the company of other people shortly after sundown. A few degrees out and we could miss the staging camp altogether.”

“No problem, Doctor,” Ray answered and adjusted her course appropriately.

“We’ve done very well for the first two hours. Don’t forget we have to stop before midday. It’s dangerous to travel when the sun is highest.”

“I’ll be ready for a rest by then, Doctor,” Ray assured him.

They lapsed into silence again. The enormity of the space around them even awed The Doctor a little, and he had ridden nebulae in the TARDIS back when his youthful enthusiasm had coincided with the freedom to travel the universe.

The sun rose behind them all the time they were travelling. By the seventeenth hour, it was almost overhead. The heat was intense. Without the thermally controlled undergarments they would be sweating more liquid than they could possibly take in and roasting within their clothes.

Ray stopped the Vincent and they looked around at the flat, featureless expanse of white around them. There was no natural shade at all, nowhere to rest through the hottest two hours of the day.

“This is why nobody attempted to cross the Flats until the invention of easily assembled thermally-controlled tents,” The Doctor pointed out. He unfolded a metre square piece of thermal fabric and laid it on the firm salt encrusted ground. On contact it began to expand outwards until it covered a generous fourteen by fourteen metre area and the walls and roof had inflated themselves.

“It beats traditional camping,” Ray conceded. She watched as The Doctor inflated a second piece of futuristic camping equipment. The structure was about the same size as the TARDIS from the outside, but it had a more prosaic and fundamental use.

“I’ll be five minutes,” Ray told The Doctor. “Can you get the Vincent inside before the engine oil boils?”

By the time Ray returned from the extremely portable porta-loo and went into the main tent The Doctor had brought the bike and side-car under the cool, shady roof of the thermal tent. He was now sitting on the floor opening a selection of rehydrated food packs. Ray had experienced these once before, but she was still fascinated by the way a foil disc opened out to become a cool drink of orange juice that soothed a dry throat from the endless toil across the Flats. Even more incredible was the plate of tuna salad with coleslaw and the fruit compote dessert.

“Of course, the flavours are artificial,” The Doctor admitted as he enjoyed his rehydrated lunch. “But they are the perfect rations for a trip like this. Not only are they light and easily portable, but so are the remains, afterwards. There is no excuse for leaving litter in this unique and unspoilt place.”

“We leave petrol fumes,” Ray pointed out. But all the same, it was amazing how the plates and cups of lunch crushed into a foil ball that slipped into the pocket.

“Actually, At’ay-aliyllo has a unique atmospheric effect that draws harmful gases away from the surface and expels them in the very thin top layer where they escape into space itself because there is very little gravity to hold them. Pollution from the Rally and other internal combustion activities has absolutely no effect on the planet’s ecosystem. Earth technicians are in this century experimenting with an artificial umbrella to do the same thing. When they succeed, they will eradicate pollution altogether from your world.”

“Sounds ok,” Ray admitted.

“Yes, it is. Resourceful humans, as ever. Now you should lie down and rest for the duration of the solar zenith. You’ll be much fresher for the afternoon.”

“Yes, Doctor.” Ray crumpled up her lunch flatware and did just that. The Doctor sat quietly, not needing as much rest as humans. He listened to the rare sound of a Flats Flamingo flying overhead and contemplated an uneventful second half of the journey.

When Ray woke, the sun was no longer directly overhead, but outside of the cool thermal tent it was still as hot and the light still as dazzling. She helped The Doctor bring down the tent and the porta-loo. She tried not to think too much about what happened to the business end of that facility. It compacted down into a foil disc about the size of a dinner plate, but it was the reverse of the rehydrated food. Where they started with something in and were now empty, this disc now contained the dehydrated waste for disposal later.

Once they were off again none of it really seemed to matter. The joy of racing across the Flats encompassed them both. They were enjoying themselves once again, this time with the sun slowly moving lower in the sky. Not that it was obvious at first. Like the far distant mountains that never appeared to be any closer, the sun looked as if it was fixed high in the sky. The long days on Atalyo were a large part of the attraction for rally bikers.

They took another break around the sixth hour past midday. Again, The Doctor erected the thermal tent and the portaloo. They ate rehydrated ham sandwiches and crème caramel with iced coffee and rested for an hour before moving off again.

Now the light from the gradually setting sun did change with every hour that they travelled. At one point Ray slowed the Vincent to a stop and she and The Doctor watched with fascinated awe as the white vista before them turned silver and yellow and then gold before fading to white again. It was a phenomenon only seen from deep within the Flats at a certain time of day when the sunlight was at a particular angle and refracted through the atmosphere. It was called the Lyo-llo Colours.

“That was impressive,” Ray said with a satisfied note in her voice as she got ready to start off again.

“Wait,” The Doctor told her. “Do you see something over there – it must be at least three miles….”

“I can’t see three miles,” Ray answered. But that wasn’t true. She could see much further than that in this wide place. She saw the silvery glint that The Doctor pointed towards.

“Isn’t it just a flash of light, a reflection of something?”

“Yes, but a reflection OFF what?”

It could have been nothing. Ray was half sure one of the other competitors hadn’t been so careful with their portaloo remnants. But she turned the Vincent towards the place where they saw the glint. The Doctor would not be satisfied until he investigated.

“Oh, no!” Ray stopped the Vincent and climbed off at once. She ran to the place where the Silver Rider lay on the hard-packed salt. His beautiful bike was a twisted wreck and so was he. “Doctor, he’s broken… I mean… really broken… split in two.”

The silver man wasn’t bleeding, because blood didn’t run through his veins. Instead, a sort of liquid metal was congealing around the two halves of his abdomen.

“Yes….” The Doctor was with her in a moment, bringing, of all things, the box of plate-sized portaloo discs. Ray watched in astonishment as he placed one of the discs against the upper part of the silver man’s body and then joined the lower half as if he was gluing a plastic model together.

She was even more astonished when the strange mend began to mould the two halves together. When the silver man moved his limbs and opened his eyes her incredulity had already been stretched to breaking point.

“You’re all right now, my good man,” The Doctor said to the Silver Rider. “Your bike is wrecked, though. You’ll have to send out an emergency signal. They’ll come and get you within the hour.”

“Thank you,” the Silver Rider replied in a voice like mercury pouring over iron filings. “I am most grateful to you.”

“How did you crash?” Ray asked. She looked around. The terrain was perfectly flat, just as it was everywhere. There seemed no reason for the bike to be as badly damaged as it was, and she couldn’t imagine what would have cut him in half that way.

“I do not know,” the Silver Rider admitted. “I was going perfectly well, and then it felt as if… as if I had hit an invisible wall. I felt my body break and after that, of course, I felt nothing at all until I was repaired.” He looked at The Doctor. “Again, I thank you, and I am grateful that you had the knowledge of my species.”

“It was the least I could do,” The Doctor replied. “The hover-copter is coming. You will be all right, now. If it’s all right by you, we shall carry on with our own race. We would like to reach the stage before the night gets too cold.”

“Yes,” the silver rider told him. “Yes, I will be quite all right, now. Thank you once more. Good fortune on your own journey.”

Ray looked back at the Silver Rider as he sat beside his wrecked bike. She wondered if he would be all right on his own.

“Doesn’t he need any sort of tent while he’s waiting?”

“His species don’t suffer from the heat or cold,” The Doctor assured her. “They are living metal which regulates its temperature automatically, and as you saw, they can be repaired as long as it is done within an hour of the injury.”

“So I saw,” Ray agreed. “Do you think it WAS an accident, or was his bike sabotaged?”

“Yes,” The Doctor replied. Ray waited for a further explanation, but there wasn’t one. She mounted the Vincent as The Doctor settled himself in the sidecar and set off on the final leg of the journey for this day. The sky began to turn a darker colour as the sun dropped ever lower.

It was dark but still in that warm, sultry two hours of grace when they rode towards the bright lights of the overnight camp at the end of the first day’s stage. After they crossed the finish line The Doctor took the Vincent to the TARDIS while Ray went to collect the official data strip with their stage time and their starting position for the morning’s stage. She was pleased to see that she had finished eighth in the bike and sidecar class, even with the detour to help the Silver Rider.

“Hi, I’ve been waiting for you.” Jes was there, smiling widely at her. Ray smiled back. “You’re probably ready for some real food, by now. Come on to the refectory tent and tell me all about your day.”

“There’s plenty to tell,” she said. “It was a real adventure.”

When The Doctor reached the refectory, he found Ray talking animatedly with the handsome and charming Jes. He thought about breaking into their conversation, but that would just have been mean. They looked so comfortable together.

Besides, there were others he wanted to talk to tonight. He left Ray and Jes to their cosy supper and turned towards his own chosen company.