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

Tegan looked at the viewscreen curiously. Of all the planets she had ever seen from the TARDIS this was the oddest.

It wasn’t a whole planet. Some time in the past, a disaster had occurred – possibly a meteor strike or a tectonic instability. Tegan paused in her thoughts to reflect on how easily phrases like ‘tectonic instability’ came to her since she began travelling with The Doctor. It certainly hadn’t been in her vocabulary before then.

Turlough came to stand beside her, bringing her attention back to the incredible planet. they both looked at the huge missing chunk – almost a half hemisphere that had been split away from the sphere. The piece actually remained in orbit like a very misshaped moon with hundreds of smaller pieces as satellites caught in its own gravitational field.

“Mexalitha,” The Doctor said though nobody had asked for the information, yet. “It’s almost a myth. The planet that survived an extinction level catastrophe.”

“Survived… you mean people still live there?” Tegan asked. The memory was still cruelly sharp of the ‘extinction level catastrophe’ she had witnessed happening to prehistoric Earth. Scientists in her own era blamed a comet impacting on the planet for the destruction of the dinosaurs. She was one of only a few people who knew that it was actually the impact of a crashing spaceship that caused the devastation. Adric’s face – a silly, childish, annoying face that she had never taken seriously until it was too late – came sadly into her mind.

“Millions died, of course,” The Doctor admitted. “They just couldn’t evacuate the affected area quickly enough. But their scientists were remarkable. They used artificial force fields to clear the atmosphere of debris and maintain the rotation of the planet, ensuring that there WAS an atmosphere. Within a few months the survivors were able to come up from the deep bunkers where they had hidden and begin rebuilding the infrastructure of their society.”

“Impressive,” Turlough admitted.

“Very impressive,” Tegan agreed. “When we say ‘people’ do we men bipeds like us, or purple jellyfish with legs? Not that it matters, of course. I’m not against purple jellyfish if they’re friendly. But just so I know in advance.”

“You know, I’m not entirely sure,” The Doctor admitted. “As I said, Mexalitha is generally regarded as a myth. Even the Time Lords know very little about it. We only FOUND it by chance. The known co-ordinates are out by almost five million light years.”

“You mean we aren’t where you planned to take us,” Tegan responded with a sarcasm laden laugh. “Never mind, Doc, you’ll get it right one of these days.”

Turlough moved from her side to the environmental console. He examined the schematics that showed how the remarkable artificially controlled gravity worked and touched the panel that gave population numbers for the planet.

“Doctor, this isn’t right,” he said anxiously. “According to the TARDIS the planet has no sentient life at all.”

“What?” The Doctor moved around to the environmental controls. He pressed several buttons and the screen flickered. “There… it must have been a glitch.”

“Must be,” Turlough agreed, reading a population of three billion. Then he and The Doctor both frowned as the figure went back to zero. The Doctor tapped the screen and it changed back again.

“Well, does anyone live there or not?” Tegan asked, but neither The Doctor nor Turlough could say for sure. The Doctor admitted that the environmental console might be ‘on the blink’.

Tegan was saved another caustic remark about the reliability of the TARDIS when the viewscreen changed to an incoming transmission. She watched as a handsome young man with deep green eyes and ash blonde hair spoke in a pleasingly soft accent.

“Welcome, travellers to Mexalitha. I am Xalia Hensal, Director of Offworld Affairs, sending cordial greetings to you from the Mexal people. Please proceed to land at the co-ordinates being sent to your central computer and you may be assured of our very best hospitality.”

“Thank you,” The Doctor replied on behalf of his crew. “We will do just that. I hope to meet some of your people very shortly.”

“Please enjoy your visit to Mexalitha,” Director Hensal responded before the transmission ended.

“Short and sweet,” Tegan remarked. “And at least it solves the question. Definitely people down there. And if he’s any example, pretty good looking people.”

Turlough and The Doctor both glanced at her with bemused smiles before turning to the console and initiating the landing at the co-ordinates so kindly provided.

They arrived in a cool, bright, glass roofed atrium decorated with potted plants and statuary. It reminded Tegan of the tea room at the Crystal Palace. The Doctor had taken her and Nyssa there once just before Turlough joined the crew.

“Really?” Turlough responded. “It looks more like the quad at Brendon School to me.”

“I was thinking it reminded me of the ticket office at the Freiburg Hauotbahnhof,” The Doctor remarked. Because of the TARDIS’s translation circuits, both Turlough and Tegan understood that to be a German railway station but they were saved from asking why The Doctor frequented such places when he had the TARDIS to travel in by the arrival of their host, Xalia Hensal.

“Good day to you all,” Hensal said effusively, reaching to shake hands with The Doctor and Turlough and bowing to Tegan before kissing her hand. She smiled broadly and decided he was even better looking in real life than on the viewscreen, and extremely charming.

“Come to our refectory,” Hensal suggested. “I am sure you will be glad of refreshments after your journey, and I can tell you all you would like to know about you our world.”

“Sounds good to me,” Tegan said on behalf of everyone. “Lead on.”

She was quite pleased when Director Hensal took her by the arm gallantly. The Doctor and Turlough followed behind, both a little non-plussed at their relegation to second place.

“Do all visitors get this VIP treatment?” Turlough asked as they were brought to the refectory. To him it looked and smelt all too much like the same room in his old public school. He tried not to think of sponge pudding and custard.

“VIP?” Hensal looked as if he had never heard of the word.

“I think Turlough means that we’re not used to being met by Directors of Offworld Affairs who invite us to lunch,” Tegan told him. “If we’re lucky it’s a customs officer wanting our intergalactic passports or a parking warden worrying about whether the TARDIS is within the white lines.”

“We have very few visitors to Mexalitha,” Hensal answered. “We endeavour to ensure every traveller who does find us is satisfied by their visit.”

“Shame,” Tegan told him. “From what I’ve seen so far, it is charming. This refectory is beautiful. It’s better than the best restaurants I’ve ever seen – even the Omnicron Pie orbital one.”

“Omicron Psi,” The Doctor corrected her. “It is quite nice. Very Teutonic.”

“Teutonic?” It wasn’t the word either Tegan or Turlough would have used to describe the décor. Both wondered if their understanding of such things was faulty or was The Doctor just making it up as he went along.

They were brought a meal that was more than welcome. They hadn’t shopped for fresh groceries for a long time and the TARDIS crew had been living on reconstituted food for a few days. The dishes put before them were unusual, but clearly prepared by a competent chef and very tasty. They lingered over the coffee as they observed the Mexali people enjoying their meals all around them.

“Everyone seems very chilled out,” Tegan observed.

“Chilled out?” The expression worried Director Hensal for some reason. Tegan wondered if she had said something really offensive in some way.

“It… just means relaxed and happy where I come from,” she explained. “Everyone is… ‘chilled’. There’s no stress, nobody shouting or upset. You have a cool society.”

“‘Cool’ means good in Tegan’s culture,” The Doctor added, realising that references to temperature disturbed Hensal. “She is complimenting you on a very well run refectory. Of course, we have not seen any other aspect of your culture, yet - though there is a school of thought that fine cuisine is an indication of sophisticated and civilised living.”

“I shall arrange conducted tours,” Hensal promised. “What would you like to see?”

It turned out that the three of them were interested in different things, so Director Hensal arranged for two other guides for Tegan and Turlough while he stayed with The Doctor. This seemed a perfectly benign world with nothing to be suspicious about, so splitting up for the afternoon, with a firm plan to meet up again at supper time was acceptable.

Tegan, to nobody’s surprise, was interested to know if there was any air travel on Mexalitha. Her guide, a young woman called Alisso, brought her, via a monorail system that appeared to link all sections of the central city, to the airport. They boarded a small passenger jet that took off vertically before embarking on a scenic trip around what Alisso called the ‘western hinterland’.

“It’s a lot like Queensland,” Tegan commented as she looked at the scenery below through a transparent floor that had disturbed her before she reminded herself that she had been an air hostess serving drinks at thirty thousand feet with nothing between herself and a fatal drop but a few inches of fuselage. Now she was enjoying the vertiginous panorama of mountainous and well watered country that gave way to fertile flatlands where herds of animals roamed. “Queensland without too many towns spoiling it for the wildlife.”

“Most of the people of Mexalitha live in the city complexes,” Alisso told her. “The wildernesses are preserved for the animals.”

Tegan recalled how very well built and tidy the city was, with no slums or overcrowding, no pollution that she could see. It seemed like a perfectly satisfactory way of life.

Turlough was interested in the way the youth of Mexalitha enjoyed their leisure time. A young man called Zan brought him to the ‘gym’. He had been slightly wary of that term, expecting something like the Brendon School gymnasium, a cavern of a room lined with wooden forms where the athletically challenged duffers sat out the PE session and the rest of the boys climbed ropes or vaulted the horse one at a time under the watchful eye of an ex-sergeant major who gave a new definition to the term ‘martinet’.

He was pleasantly surprised by the multipurpose sports centre. There was a well equipped gymnasium and indoor and outdoor pitches for games similar to football and rugby and a sort of tennis using a ball that appeared to have some kind of drive motor inside and could therefore go in any direction imaginable. There was also a zero gravity zone for three-dimensional versions of the games. Turlough found that absolutely fascinating.

“Can I have a go?” he asked as he looked through a huge window into the dodecahedron shaped interior where four goals were set at ninety degree angles to each other and four teams played something like a cross between football and volleyball, using hands, feet and head to pass the ball to each other and aim at the goals.

“Yes, of course,” Zan told him. “Come on, I’ll fix you up with a kit.”

Tegan was sitting beside a beautiful, crystal lake set between two mountain peaks with permanent snow on them. The jet had landed in one of the most popular beauty spots in the western hinterland. The lake was being used for yachting and rowing. The mountain was being climbed by at least two sets of extreme sports fans. Even the sky was the domain of microlites and hang gliders.

“It’s really beautiful here,” Tegan said with an appreciative sigh. “And after what happened to this planet, it really is incredible that so much survived intact.”

She was surprised that Alisso didn’t say anything in response to her comment about the catastrophe. Perhaps her generation didn’t know much about it. After all, several generations had lived in the aftermath. It was just like her generation of Australians didn’t talk about the colonial days when their country was a prison colony.

“Anyway, I could happily live here,” she added. “Mexalitha is a fantastic planet.”

Alissa’s expression wavered. Her tourist guide smile turned briefly to a worried frown. When it returned it seemed more than a little forced.

“That isn’t the wrong thing to say, surely?” Tegan thought with an inward groan. She seemed to be making so many social gaffes. “It IS a beautiful planet. You have no need to be ashamed of that. Really.”

“If you knew the truth….” Alissa said, again losing the tour guide smile for a moment. Then she shook her head and the mask returned. “Come, there is more to see. There is a magnificent bluff with prehistoric cave drawings, and the great plateaux with seven species of mammals unknown elsewhere on Mexalitha.”

“Yeah… sure,” Tegan agreed. “I’d love to see that.” She was puzzled by the schizophrenic mood swing but decided not to mention it for now.

But the suspicion that all wasn’t completely right with Mexalitha stuck in her mind. She met Allisa’s forced smile with one of her own that equally masked her real thoughts as they returned to the jet and continued the tour.

The Doctor sat in the gallery of the Great Assembly of Mexalitha and admired the neo-classical architecture, especially the magnificent domed roof over the circular chamber where all of the Assembly Members sat in their equivalent of a parliament, no Member greater than the other, each having equal weight when making his opinion known about the matter under discussion.

“A truly democratic government,” The Doctor said, as he watched the debate going on down on the floor, thoroughly impressed by a political system free of party divisions and minority interest corruption. “Even my own people have never achieved that. Mexalitha is an example to the sentient races of the cosmos. Yet you have no diplomatic ties with other worlds?”

“We are content to know that other civilisations exist,” Director Hensal answered. “We have no need for more than a casual relationship with them.”

“That is a pity. I would be glad to make representations on your behalf to the High Council of Gallifrey, and to the Earth Federation.”

“No, thank you, Doctor. The offer is generous, but we have no ambitions of that kind. We are self-sufficient and have no need of trade with any other world, and even less need to have diplomatic ties.”

“I am sorry if I appeared to be pushing the matter,” The Doctor said in diplomatic tones. “It is, of course, entirely up to the people of Mexalitha, who are clearly a noble and civilised people.”

“We shall not speak of it again. Let us move on to view some of our cultural heritage. The Society of Histories is a magnificent building which houses the treasures of our past. There is also the Gallery and Library, repositories of art and literature.”

“Lead on, Director,” The Doctor told him.

Turlough considered himself a decent sportsman, and it didn’t take him long to master the technique of moving through zero gravity while propelling a ball towards his fellow players. When he actually scored a goal he received the congratulations of his own side as well as the opposition.

He was, in short, enjoying himself much more than he could remember enjoying any game of rugby or afternoon in the gym at Brendon School. He shuddered in memory of the cold and mud of the sports pitches and the smell of adolescent sweat in the changing rooms. This was so much more civilised, so much more amenable.

“Well played, Turlough,” he was told as he showered and changed back into his familiar blazer after the match. “Come on down to the Commons with us all. We’ve got beer and vapes, and I dare say you’ve never experienced Mexalithan music before?”

“No, I haven’t,” he admitted. There was still plenty of time before he had to meet back up with The Doctor and Tegan. He was happy to be counted as part of this group of friendly youths. He felt as if he fitted in here far better than he ever had at Brendon School, or on Earth generally.

Tegan thought that the cave paintings were interesting, and she actually spotted two of the rare mammals of the plateau, but she still couldn’t get away from the conviction that something really wasn’t right about her guide.

Or perhaps something wasn’t right about the planet. It was hard to imagine what that could be. Everything she had seen was breathtakingly beautiful. But the more she thought about it, the more she was sure that some great and terrible secret was being hidden from her.

That conviction deepened as she watched the view from the jet on the way back to the city. The stewardess brought her and Alissa coffee and snacks and she thanked her.

“No need to thank me, madam,” the stewardess told her. “It’s my job.”

“I did air stewarding,” Tegan answered. “Not many people ever said thank you. But we’re much more than just waitresses. We’re trained for all sorts of eventualities - first aid, depressurisation, emergency landings at sea or on the ground. It’s a really serious job.”

“Yes, madam,” the stewardess said in a curious monotone before returning to the galley.

“When the catastrophe struck all the emergency personnel must have been on high alert,” Tegan said to Alissa. “I suppose jets like these must have been used in the evacuations… anything capable of flight.”

“We cannot talk about it,” Alissa answered her. “Please don’t press me on the subject.”

“I guess it must have been a really bad time for the people who went through it,” Tegan conceded. “But surely you learn about it in history. How can you not talk about it?”

“We cannot,” Alissa insisted, and Tegan realised what she was saying – not that they wouldn’t talk about it, but they couldn’t.

“You mean it ISN’T taught? You don’t know what happened?”

“I cannot talk about it,” Alissa insisted. “Please… we are returning to the city by the coast. The view is very special. The islands….”

“Yes, all right. I’ll look at the scenery like a good tourist. But I know something is wrong, and I wish you would tell me what it is.”

Alissa shook her head and refused to say anything else that wasn’t connected to tourism. Tegan just wished the journey was over and she was back at the refectory with The Doctor and Turlough. She needed to talk to them about her concerns. She needed them to tell her she was wrong, that everything about Mexalitha was perfect and nothing untoward was happening.

If The Doctor told her that, she would definitely believe him.

Turlough wasn’t bothered by any part of life on Mexalitha apart from the smoking of ‘vapes’. These turned out to be slender glass vials through which the youth of Mexalitha ‘smoked’ a mixture of low tar nicotine and various fruit flavourings. He thought it tasted disgusting and absolutely nothing like the cigarettes he had smoked behind the bursar’s potting shed at Brendon School. The Mexali youths had no concept of ‘organic’ cigarettes. They were completely accustomed to their ‘vapes’. Most of them had secretly developed the habit in their early teens much like any schoolboy and now openly indulged as independent young adults.

That was the only thing about the Mexali youths that struck Turlough as in any way exotic. They ‘vaped’ and drank beer in their common room and talked about their future ambitions much as his peers had done back on Earth. It all seemed surprisingly familiar – surprising because he felt so comfortable with it. He thought he hated that kind of life. He did when he was stuck on Earth in the stifling confines of Brendon School.

The Doctor had enjoyed a surfeit of culture. The three beautiful neo-classical buildings that housed the art, literature and historical treasures of Mexalitha had been all he had hoped. His only regret was that he only had one afternoon to drink in all that was on offer. He felt he wanted to familiarise himself with every bit of it.

He remembered feeling the same way when he was a new student at the Prydonian Academy. As soon as he was registered at the vast Academy library he set about reading everything he could. On his leisure days he could invariably be found in the art galleries and museums of the Capitol. The great paintings produced in the old times before Time Lords eschewed art for logic and let computers make paintings were his passion.

“I would love to be able to spend more time here,” he admitted as he left the library with Director Hensal. “Your literature is so rich and diverse. I am impressed beyond words.”

“I am glad you approve,” Hensal answered him. “Feel free to extend your visit and spend as long as you like enjoying our amenities.”

“That is kind of you,” The Doctor said. “I shall look forward to that. But now, I really must get back to my friends. They will be wondering about me.”

“They will know that you are safe,” Hensal assured him. “There is nothing to fear on Mexalitha.”

“Well, of course,” The Doctor replied quickly. “I never doubted that. Nor, I am sure, will my friends. But they will think I have got myself lost or forgotten all about them.”

He laughed to show that he was joking but Hensal didn’t seem to understand. He hurried along to the monorail and looked frustrated at the leisured pace of the train, as if it would be a terrible disaster if they were late returning to the refectory. Nothing The Doctor said could reassure him.

As it was, all three TARDIS travellers arrived at the refectory at very nearly the same time. Turlough was full of enthusiasm for zero gravity sports and Mexali beer, and a firm vow to give up all forms of smoking.

“So you should, at your age,” Tegan admonished him. The Doctor was talking about Mexali literature while they chose food from the supper menu. It wasn’t until they were enjoying their meal that she was able to bring up her concerns about Alissa.

“It was as if there is something really wrong here and she wanted to tell me, but she couldn’t. It was like… I don’t know, somebody from Soviet Russia who is used to toeing the party line about what a great place it is to live, but now and again drops a hint about how miserable it is.”

She looked around the airy refectory where dozens of Mexali were enjoying their evening meal in cheerful groups of friends and family. It didn’t look like they lived under an oppressive regime. The Doctor confirmed that he had seen nothing but signs of a benevolent government and an open society.

“They don’t even have to work full time until they’re twenty-five,” Turlough added. “The boys I was with all have part time jobs in the morning and are free to enjoy themselves after that. Doesn’t sound so bad, does it?”

“It all sounds too good to be true,” Tegan said. “That’s what I’ve been thinking. It’s as if the whole population is putting on a show just for us. But why would they do that? What’s it for?”

“I don’t know,” The Doctor admitted. He looked around the refectory and frowned. “Tegan… when we were on the TARDIS, you said something about Director Hensal….”

“Only that he was rather good looking,” she answered him, wondering what that had to do with anything.

“Yes. I thought that was odd at the time.”

“But he is good looking,” she protested. “What’s odd about that?”

“Describe him.”

“Tall, blonde hair, blue eyes… a bit pale, but the sort of physique that wouldn’t be out of place at Surfer’s Paradise.”

“What?” Turlough looked at her in surprise. “Are we talking about the same man? I saw a short, balding old man in spectacles. He looked like my old Latin master.”

“And to me he looked something like the Castellan… a man nobody could ever imagine in bathing trunks at Surfer’s Paradise,” The Doctor added. “Tegan… this room… describe it.”

“Like a really nice London restaurant… the sort in the big hotels up West. I had tea at the Ritz once, with my aunt. It was really swish….”

“Not like my old school dining hall, then,” Turlough queried.

“I’ve never seen your school dining hall,” Tegan responded. “But from what I did see of that old pile, I doubt it.”

“I’ve never seen his school dining hall, either,” The Doctor said. “But I did have supper with Sigmund Freud in 1936. We went to a rather nice place not far from the University of Vienna. This is very nearly an exact replica of it.”

“You mean, we’re all seeing different things… according to our own expectations?” Tegan suggested. “Turlough’s experiences of Mexalitha have all looked a bit like life back at his school. Mine… a sort of mix of London and Queensland. All the scenery on the trip was so familiar….”

“And I have so many experiences… but somehow the neo-classical architecture of Northern Europe stuck in my mind and moulded themselves around me.”

“But….” Turlough had a question on his lips, but he couldn’t quite express it. Tegan felt the same.

“Both of you, hold hands with me. Form a circle, and concentrate on my face. Don’t look at anyone or anything else. You know that I’m real. Focus on me.”

He looked directly at Tegan. She was the most real person he knew. In all the time he had known her she had dealt with him in an honest, open way, even when she was angry and hostile towards him. She was utterly without deception.

Turlough looked at The Doctor, the man who had forgiven his deception when he was under the influence of the Black Guardian and been steadfastly honest with him from the very start of their relationship.

Around them, the refectory full of happy Mexali diners dissolved away until they were standing in a plain room of four solid white walls. The only object in the room was the TARDIS.

“What is this?” Turlough asked.

“This, I am afraid, is the reality that we were unable to see from the moment we came into orbit above the planet. Even before Director Hensal contacted us,” The Doctor told him. “This is what Mexali architecture really looks like.”

He reached for his TARDIS key and headed towards the familiar blue box. Tegan and Turlough followed him. As soon as the door was closed he went to the console and typed rapidly at a keyboard for several minutes.

On the viewscreen they saw a dead planet beyond the block building they had been standing in. A once beautiful city was now ruins swept by unforgiving winds.

“You mean they DIDN’T survive the catastrophe?” Tegan’s eyes filled with tears as she thought of Alissa and the people in the refectory, the holidaymakers at the lake, the hang gliders and picnickers enjoying the sunshine, the herds of animals roaming the wilderness.

“The boys I was playing games with… drinking beer and vaping….” Turlough added. He wasn’t teary, but there was a catch in his voice.

“All those books, the art, the heritage….” The Doctor added with a sad tone. “All of it was a memory of what Mexalitha WAS before the disaster.”

“They’re dead?” Tegan asked, a sob escaping with her words.

“No.” The Doctor typed again and a string of data scrolled across the viewscreen. “No, not dead. Remember when Hensal was upset about you saying that they were ‘chilled out’. That’s because the whole population of the planet are deep below the surface… in cryogenic suspension chambers.”

“Chilled….” Tegan shuddered. “Oh, Doctor….”

“They’re all alive,” he continued. “And perhaps one day, when the atmosphere clears they will revive and begin picking up the pieces of their lives, rebuilding their cities, re-introducing the wildlife to the countryside. They made sure genetic samples of all the flora and fauna were preserved. The great herds will one day roam across the plains again. But not for a couple of centuries.”

“Then what did we see?”

“A glamour,” The Doctor explained. “The computer programme that is controlling everything… maintaining the gravity and atmosphere shields, keeping the cryogenic units ticking over… it seems to have some kind of sub-routine in the event of anyone visiting the planet. It is programmed to show them what they want or expect to see. Or perhaps what they SHOULD see. I imagine if Daleks or Cybermen came here they would see a dead world with nothing of use to them. We were seen as benign explorers and we saw an ideal world… one we would go away from with some pleasant memories.”

“Alissa… she knew it wasn’t real. She tried to tell me.”

“Alissa is one of the people who are safely preserved in the cryogenic chambers,” The Doctor told her kindly. “Part of her memory imprint was used to show you a typical Mexali woman. She must be a very strong willed individual. Her determination to tell you the truth kept overriding the programme. She was the only one who did so. Even Director Hensal only gave the game away by reacting to the word ‘chilled’ in a peculiar way.”

“So what do we do about it?” Turlough asked. “Can we stop the computer from running the programme?”

“No,” The Doctor answered. “Besides, it isn’t doing any harm. None of us are hurt by what we saw. A little sad about it not being real, but that’s all. The chances of any other visitor arriving before they wake up and start living their real lives are about a million to one, anyway. Mexalitha is a myth even to the Time Lords. Let’s just leave it that way.”

He reached out and put his arm around Tegan’s shoulders. She blinked back her tears and managed a smile.

“We have a time machine here,” she said. “Couldn’t we jump forward in time and see if they’re doing ok… you know, once the planet is up and running and open for business properly.”

“Yes, we could do that, if you like,” The Doctor assured her. “But first… how about a slap up dinner at the Omicron Psi orbital restaurant? I don’t know if either of you have realised, but both of the meals we thought we ate there were part of the illusion. We ought to be ravenously hungry.”

“I am,” Turlough admitted. “As long as sponge and custard aren’t on the menu.”