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

“Why are we here?” Jean asked as she stepped one pace forward in the winding queue bounded by a series of red velvet ropes and aluminium supports.

“Do you mean in the philosophical sense?” The Doctor replied in typically evasive mode. “The existentialist position is….”

“As you perfectly well KNOW,” Jean countered. “I meant why are we queuing? What’s at the end of the queue? Zero gravity roller coasters?”

“Zero gravity roller coasters are boring,” The Doctor replied. “You need gravity for the tummy tingle and the mild, recreational sense of imminent death that is so therapeutic to the soul. Without gravity it’s just trains.”

“Some people like trains,” Jean pointed out. “So as I said before - why are we queuing? Why are we hemmed in by these ropes and shuffling along like sheep when the rope line is in a nearly empty building?”

“Why are we queuing? Another philosophical question!” The Doctor grinned widely. “It’s because of perceptions of civilised behaviour passed down through countless generations until we are all conditioned to imprison ourselves behind ropes a kitten could topple. We’re all doomed to obey the oppressive rope line – Human, Time Lord, Argolian, Gressian, Syloran. Banjaxian. It’s too late to undo that level of conditioning now.”

Jean wasn’t sure which of the individuals shuffling forward slowly might be Sylorian or Banjaxian or if The Doctor was actually making those up. They sounded a bit dodgy on reflection.

“So why are we in this PARTICULAR queue?” Jean tried again.

“We’re taking the Gellentian moon shuttle,” The Doctor explained.

“What for?”



“Well, it’s better than zero gravity roller coasters,” The Doctor insisted. “Really, it’s worth it. The Gellentian Moons are among the top ten leisure activities in the twelve galaxies. They’re spectacular. You’ll absolutely love the trip.”

“You know, when people tell me things like that, it annoys me. ‘The must see film of the year’, ‘the CD you HAVE to include in your collection’…. I think I shall decide for myself if this is spectacular and if I love it or not. Thank you, at least, for not using the word ‘awesome’ without justification.”

The Doctor decided not to say anything for a little while. The queue moved forward in fits and starts until they passed through a strange kind of portal where a scanning beam went up and down their bodies for several minutes.

“Pass,” said the voice of the portal keeper, a tall, magenta skinned Gellentian with the traditional crimson tattoos across the shoulders, neck and bald head.

“What would be a fail?” Jean asked.

“Carrying any form of video recording device,” The Doctor answered. “Next, the retinal scan.”

“For….” Jean jumped in surprise as a bright light suddenly shone in her eyes.

“Some species are not capable of seeing the full spectrum of colours created by the phenomena. They are given special glasses to allow them to enjoy the experience fully.”

Jean was slightly affronted when she was handed a pair of wrap-around glasses with curiously tinted lenses.

“Yes, humans are among those with the narrower visual range,” The Doctor added.

“And Time Lords AREN’T?”

The Doctor gave her the sort of look that she had no intention of rising to. She followed the rest of the travellers through another portal that didn’t do anything at all and up a ramp into a sleek, decidedly impressive space ‘coach’ for want of a better word. It was called the SS Ronaele – the name was printed above the door and embroidered on the steward’s blouse.

It was luxury travel. There were wide, comfortable seats either side of an aisle with huge curving windows affording an all around view. The seats were a space-age version of memory foam that fitted to the particular body of the passenger. This was useful when the man with four arms and the couple with sharp triangular ridges along the back of their skulls sat down. Jean just thought it was very comfortable.

The Doctor sat opposite her and nodded politely to the couple with the ridged skull. They nodded back.

“Gull Ferro,” said the man reaching out a long arm that stretched across the aisle. The Doctor shook his three fingered hand politely. “This is my brood-wife, Bolli. We’re from Dullse.”

“Nice to meet you, both,” The Doctor replied. “I’m The Doctor, from Gallifrey and this is my travelling companion, Jean Ferguson of Earth.”

“Hello,” Jean said as she, too, shook hands with the long-armed gentleman. His hand felt peculiarly rubbery, like wet fish, but warm and dry – in so far as that made any sense.

Of course, she had no idea how her hand felt to him.

“It’s our thousand day anniversary,” Gull added. “This is our celebratory treat.”

“Congratulations,” Jean told them. Bolli smiled but didn’t say anything. It was possible, Jean thought, that the females of that race didn’t speak. Anything was possible in an infinite universe.

“Would you like a sweet?” A hand reached over the seat back with a paper packet. The hand was the colour of a boiled lobster and had very long fingers. Jean gingerly reached into the bag and was relieved to see something a little like a barley sugar in a wrapper. “They’re very good for first time travellers. They help with the take off.”

“Thank you,” Jean said politely. She glanced around the seat to see a female of the boiled lobster coloured species. She was only about four-foot-eight and almost lost in the memory foam seat, but obviously looking forward to the trip.

“How did you know it’s my first time?” she asked.

“Your tag is set to zero,” the woman answered, pointing to Jean’s hand. She looked but couldn’t see anything. The woman held up her own hand proudly. Jean couldn’t see anything there, either. Perhaps the mark was in that spectrum she was too primitive to see!

“Fifty-seven trips. When I get to a hundred I get a VIP trip with prizes.”

“I’ve got a long way to go,” Jean admitted. She introduced herself, anyway, and found out that the lobster woman was a Berrusian called Aster.

“That’s the name of a flower in my language,” Jean commented.

“Your name means ‘sliver of moonlight’ in Berrusian,” Aster replied.

“That’s rather nice,” Jean said. “I can live with being a sliver of moonlight.

The Doctor was deep in conversation with Gull and a silver haired – literally silver strands – man in the next seat, when the Gellentian cabin steward, her uniform sleeveless and backless to show off her tattoos, advised everyone to sit back in their seats while the anti-gravity seatbelts were in effect and went on to explain how the emergency procedures worked. Jean, who had never been entirely convinced by such things on aeroplanes, was even less certain about how to exit a space shuttle in the event of a crash landing. She just hoped it wouldn’t be necessary.

This was actually the first time she had ever left a planet by ordinary means of propulsion. The TARDIS took off in a very different way. The sensation of very fast upward motion was surprising. She sucked the barley sugar and felt her ears pop slightly just like on a plane, and then as they passed from blue skies to black outside the Gellentian atmosphere there was a brief moment of weightlessness before the artificial gravity kicked in.

The anti-gravity seatbelts were released and the cabin steward brought snacks and drinks around. Drinking something like cool mango juice and eating little biscuits that tasted like peanut butter and cheese at the same time was a pleasant way to orbit a planet before the engines fired up and the course towards the moons was set.

Jean was content to do just that, looking out of the window at the blue-red-orange planet below and the starfield beyond. The Doctor was obviously a little bored by something so ordinary to him and wandered around the cabin chatting with the other passengers.

Then even he sat down quietly to watch the phenomena that could be seen from a point beyond the orbit of the three moons.

It was, essentially, a triple rainbow, arcing between the three Gellentian moons. The colours were iridescent. Without the special glasses Jean could see all the usual spectrum, but with them on there were at least eight more colours which she had never even dreamt existed.

As the shuttle passed across the orbit of the second moon, the sight became even more extra-ordinary. The three rainbows merged and then diverged in a silent explosion of colour, throwing off arcs and spikes of multi-hued light in all directions.

And that was before the shuttle banked around and flew closer to the moons, so that it flew through the rainbow phenomena. The wide windows, curving overhead, affording a hundred and eighty degree view, came into their own now. Those breathtakingly beautiful living colours surrounded the shuttle. The passengers, almost in unison, gasped out loud and continued to gasp out loud as they looked up and around. Near the front of the cabin two pale blue skinned children laughed gleefully and pointed long, slender hands at the sight outside the windows.

“It’s better than the Aurora Borealis,” Jean admitted. “It’s… truly awesome. You can have that word for this. I mean it.”

“So are you glad you came?” The Doctor asked her.

“I’ll definitely remember this as one of the really GOOD things I did with you,” she promised. “I’m a bit puzzled about how it works. I’m sure it’s not possible to go through an ordinary rainbow. It’s an optical illusion that either gets further away or disappears altogether if you try to approach it. So how does this one work?”

“In a totally different way to the rainbows you’re thinking of,” The Doctor answered cryptically. “Don’t be so Scottish, Jean. You’re looking at a miracle of the physical universe. Just enjoy it, don’t worry about understanding it. At least not now. I’ll draw a chart later in the TARDIS if you want.”

“Not at all patronising!” Jean responded bitingly. “Like you wouldn’t move Heaven and Earth to find out the answer to something puzzling you. And that wouldn’t be acting all ‘Gallifreyan’, would it?”

“And that spoils so much of the beauty I see,” The Doctor answered. “You’re lucky not to be burdened with so much knowledge. Really, just enjoy it.”

Jean wasn’t sure he hadn’t just called her ‘stupid’ in some backhanded way, but she took his point and sat back to enjoy the beauty without knowing the physical cause. Perhaps he was right, after all. Knowing everything must spoil wondrous things just a little bit.

The display of natural wonder lasted a good hour before the shuttle finally turned around and prepared for a descending orbit.

It was then that things took a sinister turn. At first nobody realised that anything was wrong. Then the cabin steward, in the process of bringing drinks around to the passengers, suddenly collapsed, sending the trolley rolling down the aisle, spilling snacks. As passengers stared around in surprise, they, too, started to lose consciousness.

“Doctor!” Jean managed to say before she slid halfway off her seat, the memory foam closing around her in an ungainly way.

The Doctor had time to recognise the invisible gas mixed with the air as a strong neuro-toxin guaranteed to render any oxygen-breathing species unconscious before he, too, was affected.

He recovered a minute before others started to stir. His body was better equipped to clear toxins from his bloodstream than Human or other ordinary species. He was aware that the artificial gravity was reduced. Jean and the couple in the opposite seats were bobbing an inch or two above their seats. The Argolian children near the front of the cabin were floating above their unconscious parents.

Outside the shuttle was an empty starfield. There was no sign of Gellentia or its moons. The only other object to be seen was another shuttle, a duplicate of the one they were sitting in, but called the SS Eleanor.

“What’s going on?” Jean asked.

The same question was being asked all around the cabin. The Argolian mother retrieved her children from the ceiling while the father tried to stalk down the aisle and demand answers from the steward. It didn’t work partly because it is impossible to stalk in reduced gravity and partly because the steward was still picking herself up from the floor and knew less than anyone else.

“Let her sit down,” The Doctor insisted. “Gellentian lungs are highly sensitive. She’s suffering far more than the rest of us.” He gave up his own seat to the steward and gave her one of the juice packs from her own trolley. Gull gathered some of the spilt snacks and distributed them around the passengers while The Doctor checked that everybody was fully awake now and that there were no injuries. Then he forced open the door to the pilot’s cabin. He found the pilot and co-pilot in the same bewildered state as the passengers and cabin crew.

“We’re all right,” he was told when he asked. “But the engines have been locked. We’re in some kind of stasis and we can’t get out of it. We’re trapped.”

The Doctor ran the sonic screwdriver’s analysis beam across the dashboard and agreed with the pilot’s assessment.

“Just sit tight for now, and we’ll send in juice and snacks. I’m trying to find out what happened.”

The pilot was probably the man who ought to have been in charge. A passenger wearing a bow tie and tweed shouldn’t have exerted so much authority, but there was something in The Doctor’s eyes that in all times and all places gave up the wealth of experience he had accrued in his lifetimes. The two men nodded wearily and perhaps a little grateful to hand over the responsibility to somebody else.

The Doctor turned from them, preparing to say something reassuring to the passengers. Before he could draw breath the cabin lights went out. He noticed that the same thing had happened aboard the SS Eleanor. People screamed in alarm, as people generally do when lights go out. Then they were silenced by a booming voice that came from the speakers placed around the cabin.

“You are hostages of the Febrian,” the voice said. “Do not imagine you can escape. There is no way to save your lives except to obey without question what you are told. Any attempt to escape will result in the death of everybody aboard your shuttle.”

There was a pause – for dramatic effect, perhaps. In the cabin there were gasps of surprise and some fearful sobs, but otherwise there was silence.

“If you look out of your window to the left, you will see a second shuttle. That shuttle is carrying fifty-five people – crew and passengers. They are being given the very same message at this exact time. They will have the same decision to make.”

Again, a pause. Again, the same sounds from the passengers, as well as the shrill beep of The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver as he checked the speakers. If anyone had asked he would have explained that he was checking to see if the voice was a recording or a live message being broadcast to the shuttle from elsewhere.

He couldn’t tell either way, and he wasn’t sure what he would do with the information just now. Besides, the voice was speaking again.

“Both shuttles have been fitted with explosive devices. One of the devices will detonate when the passengers and crew aboard one of the shuttles decide that the passengers aboard the other shuttle should be sacrificed. At that point the second device will be made safe and the surviving shuttle will be free to return to Gellentia with nothing further to fear.”

Another pause. This time there was no sound. Even those sobbing were too shocked. The Doctor stood in the aisle with his right arm raised, his sonic screwdriver held in his hand uselessly.

“Any attempt to disarm either device will result in the instant destruction of both shuttles. If no decision is made before a four hour deadline – beginning now – then both shuttles will be destroyed. Either way, the Febrian cause will be served by your deaths. That is all.”

There was another silence. It lengthened to almost a minute before breaking into hysterical crying, screaming and shouting as well as one attempt to open the airlock door. Two of the passengers put a stop to that futile attempt and persuaded the scared man to calm down.

The Doctor waited until everyone ran out of words and quietened down before speaking.

“I think we all need to stay focussed,” he said. “This is a difficult situation, but….”

“It’s not difficult,” somebody replied. “We just all have to agree that our lives are more important than the lives of the people over there.”

“But they’re not,” somebody else answered. “Those people… are just like us. They don’t deserve to die and I don’t think I can choose to kill them.”

“I know I can’t,” Jean said in a clear voice that she was deliberately steadying. Behind her, a much quieter, shaky voice agreed. It was Aster, the small, lobster coloured woman. Jean reached and took her hand reassuringly. A lot of people were holding hands. Gull and his wife were sitting on one seat together, holding each other tightly. Others who were clearly strangers held hands.

“I don’t want other people to die,” said the Argolian mother. “But my children….”

She was hugging her children so tightly they were starting to wriggle and complain about being restrained. The Doctor looked at them sympathetically.

“This is called the Nash Equilibrium,” he said. “It’s a game play in which the two opponents have no idea what each other’s situation is or what their opponent’s decision might be….”

He was forced to stop talking by a near gestalt outcry.

“Doctor, that really doesn’t help,” Jean told him when the noise died down. “Knowing that there’s some sort of NAME for this situation… it just doesn’t help. It just tells us that the Febrians…. Whoever they are… don’t have any original ideas.”

“Who ARE the Febrians?” asked Bolli, brood-wife of Gull. “And why would they want to kill us?”

“I have no idea,” The Doctor admitted. “And that’s unusual for me, I have to admit.”

“Who cares who they are,” answered the Argolian father. “Some sort of terrorist group who attack soft targets in order to draw intergalactic attention to themselves. What does it matter? They want us to die, that’s all.”

“Why us?” somebody asked. The Doctor looked around but he wasn’t sure who asked the question.

“No reason,” he answered. “Just bad luck.”

“I can’t die here,” said a woman with purple hair. “My children…. They’re at home….”

“OUR children are right here,” replied the Argolian father angrily.

“I don’t have any children,” the Banjaxian man cut in. “Does that mean I should die?”

“At least you have no dependents… nobody who needs you.”

“My life is just as important as yours….”

“Stop it,” The Doctor ordered. “This does nobody any good.”

But his universal authority was not strong enough to prevent the argument that was breaking out. Everybody was frightened. Everybody was thinking of their own situation, their own families, their own fear.

And that was understandable. They didn’t want to die. They were ordinary people with no special training for life and death situations. They were scared that they would die any moment, because fifty-five complete strangers in the other shuttle might decide to save their own lives by killing them.

At the same time, the thought of killing those fifty-five people to save themselves was utterly repugnant even to those who had been for the idea generally.

This was a classic Nash Equilibrium, but he knew he wasn’t going to mention that again!

“We need to take a vote,” said the Argolian father. “Raise your hands if you think we ought to save ourselves by letting the other shuttle blow up.”

At least twenty people raised their hands immediately. Five more did so slowly, as if fighting their own conscience first.

“That isn’t right,” protested Gull. “We shouldn’t decide something like this by a show of hands. Nobody should have to look guilty in front of everyone else. It ought to be a secret vote.”

“I agree,” said the cabin steward. “I can get pens and paper. We can write down what we think.”

“No!” The Doctor countered. “This isn’t electing a class president. It’s about choosing to murder fifty-five people.”

“It’s not murder,” he was told. “WE didn’t place the devices. WE didn’t start this. We’re just trying to save ourselves.”

The Doctor had no immediate answer to that. In the meantime, the steward passed out the pens and paper. Almost everyone started scribbling right away. The Doctor felt a little proud when Jean screwed her paper into a ball and threw it away before turning her face towards the window. It was her quiet way of abstaining from something she thought utterly repugnant to her nature.

She kept looking away as the steward collected the papers and brought them to the front of the cabin. She then carefully collected them.

“Twenty-five votes for allowing the Eleanor to be destroyed,” she said in a dry voice. “Twenty against. There… are ten people who refused to vote.”

“Well, that’s their problem,” said a voice from the back of the cabin. “There’s a majority for detonating the other device.”

“They didn’t say a majority would do,” Aster piped up bravely. “I think they meant that we ALL have to agree… like in a trial jury. And… and I’m NEVER going to agree. I would rather die than kill other people.”

“It’s not for you to decide that my children should die,” responded the Argolian mother. “I don’t know the people on the other shuttle. I don’t know their names or what sort of people they are. I can’t care about them. I can only care about my family. And I would rather THOSE people died than my children.”

Several people cheered a little, but not entirely with conviction.

“We have to make a decision,” Gull pointed out. “They gave us four hours, or we’ll ALL die, anyway.”

“But you CAN’T possibly agree with killing all those other people,” Aster protested. “You can’t….”

“Bolli is expecting,” Gull answered her in a quiet tone. He grasped his wife’s hand tenderly. “We are going to be parents.”

“That’s… wonderful,” Aster told them. “But can you really go home… can you have your baby… knowing that fifty-five people….”

“I can’t,” Bolli said with a deep, mournful cry. “I want to have our baby. I want to live… but I don’t think I COULD go on living knowing a thing like that….”

“Do you think ANY of us feel good about this?” asked the steward. “It doesn’t matter if we’re married or not, if we have children or don’t. We ALL want to live. If there was some way to save the other people… but there isn’t.”

“Maybe there is.” Jean turned from the window and looked at everyone around her. “Maybe… we need to think this through differently. Maybe… it isn’t everything it seems to be.”

“What do you mean?” The Doctor was the one who responded to her after a surprised pause.

She didn’t answer him. She turned, instead, to the cabin steward.

“How many of these shuttles are there?” she asked.

“Four,” she responded.

“And what are they called?”

“This one is the Ronaele. There is also the Aras, the Ecila and the… the….”

The cabin steward paused and turned to look through the window at the other shuttle.

“Yes?” Jean prompted her.

“The Yllas,” she continued. “They’re all Gellantian girls’ names.”

“So where did the Eleanor come from?” Jean asked. “It looks identical to this shuttle. It must be from the same fleet. But there isn’t an SS Eleanor.”

“Oh, my Voss!” cried Gull. He was echoed by several other oaths to deities and some much cruder swear words. The Doctor straightened his bow tie and waited for the penny to finish dropping.

“Eleanor is Ronaele spelt backwards,” Jean explained even though there was no need. Everyone had worked it out. “That’s NOT a real shuttle. It’s a sort of echo of this shuttle. I don’t know how it was done. The Doctor said earlier I shouldn’t question things I don’t understand. Or maybe that’s not what he meant. But anyway, the point is… the point is… this whole moral thing… about whether we should kill the other people to save ourselves… it was all a big lie.”

“Yes… but….”

Everyone thought of the question but they couldn’t quite put it into words. Finally Gull spoke up.

“If we’d chosen to blow up the Eleanor… would we have been killing ourselves?”

It was a question even The Doctor couldn’t answer. Was it a bluff or a double-bluff or was it just a way of making innocent people commit suicide.


“Or would it….”

“What if….”

There was only one way to find out. The cabin steward passed the papers around again. Everyone wrote down what they thought should happen now. The steward collected the votes and carefully counted them.

“It’s unanimous,” she announced. “We’ve all decided we won’t allow the Eleanor to be blown up.”

“I think we’ve made the right decision,” The Doctor said in a quiet, calm tone.

“So what now?” asked the Argolian father. “When do we know if we’re right or wrong?”

“If we’re wrong, I don’t suppose we’ll know anything about it,” Gull said. “It’ll just all be over in a moment.”

“Doctor!” Jean called out in excitement. She was the first to notice. Then the other passengers rushed to look out to the left. The SS Eleanor was vanishing along with the starfield behind it, to reveal the planet Gallentia and its three moons with their fabulous rainbows arcing magnificently.

“Doctor!” The pilot called from the cockpit. “We’ve got control of the ship. We can land.”

“Then go for it,” The Doctor shouted back. Everybody back to their seats. Steward… engage the anti-grav belts. Let’s get home!”

He sprinted back to his own seat opposite Jean and let the invisible belt fasten him in place. The shuttle turned towards the planet and began its descent. Soon they had passed the terminator and were in the atmosphere, with daylight outside the windows. Faster than seemed safe the city began to rush closer. Then they could make out the space port. The shuttle decelerated rapidly and made a safe, smooth landing.

Of course, there were questions. The Gellentian Security Service took full statements from everybody.

But one question remained.

“Who ARE the Febrian?” Jean asked as she and The Doctor headed back to the hanger bay where they had parked the TARDIS. “What WAS it all about?”

“I don’t know,” The Doctor answered. “I will have to find out. I think I’d like some words with them. But right now… how about we get out of here. Do you fancy a trip through Blackpool Illuminations on top of an open tram. I don’t think ANYTHING can make trouble with that.”

“Go on,” Jean told him. “I’ll risk it.”