1. The Day the Doctor Said No
This story is for Mark J. Simmons whose request was: Second Doctor, 21st October 1966, Welsh Coal mine Aberfan
Polly was pretending not to pay attention to the raggedy short man with his pudding basin cut. He was fumbling with the controls, his black hair dancing on his head as he jumped up and down in a strange way. Ben was openly laughing, but their host didn’t seem to notice. In fact, he probably didn’t remember that he got company, just as he didn’t seem to remember how to fly his own TARDIS properly.
“It will come back to me eventually. Just bear with me,” he kept telling them, while the confused look of his new face said otherwise.
In the meantime, Polly and Ben enjoyed the show, cheered the Doctor up and tried their best not to laugh at his desperate attempts to get the ship under control. This time however, Ben had been unable to refrain from laughing. It was just too funny seeing the Doctor acting in a silly manner.
“I got it!” He suddenly shouted and pulled a lever.
The TARDIS instantly lurked forward, throwing all her passengers on the floor.
“Ouch,” complained Polly.
“Sorry for that,” apologised the Doctor. “Are you alright?”
He looked genuinely concerned and helped the girl up.
“I’m fine, thanks.”
“I think that we have landed,” noted Ben.
They starred at the central column that had come to a halt. The Time Lord managed to operate the scanner that revealed depressing surroundings.
“I wonder where we have materialised this time…” Whispered Polly.
The Doctor checked his controls.
“Radiation levels are within the norm, the air is breathable and…oh… how silly of me!”
Ben and Polly sent him a quizzical look.
“I know where we are!”
“Well?” Asked Ben.
“We’re back on Earth!”
“When?” Polly wanted to know.
“Why don’t we find out?” Offered the Time Lord while he operated the door.
“It’s depressing,” sighed Polly.
The Doctor simply nodded, his attention elsewhere. The smell of rain was hanging heavily in the air. It was sunny, and yet there was something unnatural about the way the sun shone. A dark mud was covering the ground, making a sulking noise when Ben, Polly and the Doctor walked. It was clear to them that it had been raining a lot in the past hours or days. Polly shivered. Everything seemed so wet that she was starting to feel cold.
The Doctor abruptly stopped and starred at a spoil tip set on the edge of the hill’s ridge.
“There must be a coal mine close by,” Ben said.
He was standing next to the Time Lord, wondering what was so interesting about the pile of debris. Polly looked around her, but all she could see was a black landscape.
“I often wonder why safety is always overlooked on that planet.”
Ben frowned, trying to understand the meaning of his companion’s sentence. The Doctor moved towards a small road and pointed in a specific direction. The couple joined him to discover that they had materialise on a ridge above a small village partially drowned into fog. Ben then understood what the Doctor had meant with his previous statement.
“Considering the amount of debris, this spoil tip must have been there for decades,” Ben pointed out. “Surely local authorities have been consulted regarding the danger of setting a spoil tip on that particular location.”
“Oh come on,” reacted Polly. “Surely you can’t be that naïve. Since when do mining companies consult local authorities on anything? All what matters is their own profit.”
“Never the less safety should never been overlooked. This configuration is too dangerous to be ignored.”
“Oh, I see now,” smiled Polly. “It’s your way of telling us that we should go down to the village!”
“Exactly, my dear!”
There was a twinkle in the Doctor’s eye. The girl took his arm and they both started to walk down the road that soon turned into a slippery path of wet dirt. Ben followed them closely. The walk proved to be quite physical mostly because they had to be very careful not to slip and fall to their death.
The Doctor looked up at the spoil tip and his features darkened.
“I know what you think,” said Ben. “It’s even more impressive from down there. Now I really understand what you meant about safety.”
“Safety against profit, it’s usually a lost cause.”
“And what do you suggest we do about it?” Asked Polly sternly. “I bet people in the village already complained but no one would listen. It’s the usual story.”
“It doesn’t mean that we should give up, right Doctor?”
Their companion nodded absentmindedly. He was still starring upwards. A muffled sound could be heard, like the rumbling of thunder. Only the thunder was growing in intensity and was starting to show the symptoms of an imminent earthquake since the ground under the travellers’ feet was vibrating. A sense of immediate danger overwhelmed Ben who looked at the Doctor only to discover that he too was starring at him as if to get confirmation of what he feared.
“When I say run…” Whispered the Time Lord.
Polly’s piercing scream of fear became the signal. They started to run as the rumbling became a violent thunder. They left the path, climbing clumsily on rocks, clinging on roots and whatever they could find as long as it would help getting out of the way of the thousand cubic meters of debris and mud that were collapsing from the top of the hill.
Ben looked up only to see the black monster created by men about to swallow him. Then he looked down and saw the peaceful village.
“A lost cause,” he whispered, thinking about the lives that where about to be destroyed within minutes.
The Doctor had taken hold of Polly’s hand and was dragging her behind him. The girl stumbled a few times, but managed to restore her balance. She forced herself to look straight ahead, focusing on where she put her feet. She knew that her survival depended on whether she could make it on time to a safe zone and she trusted the Doctor to lead her there. She never expected him to fail and yet she saw him slip even before he realised that he was falling.
“Keep running!” He screamed desperately, before letting go of her hand. “Keep running!”
Polly’s eyes widened with horror as she saw him fall freely, unable to hold on anything. Her survival instincts kicked in at that moment and she ran as fast as she could, but it wasn’t enough. She got caught in a wave of soil, mud and debris and she lost her balance, hitting the ground so hard that she was instantly knocked out.
The silence was almost unbearable. Polly’s first thought when she opened her eyes was that she was deaf. She was laying on her back on the ground, half covered in mud and debris. The sound of her efforts to get free convinced her that she wasn’t deaf, but when the silence returned she felt helpless and lonely. She managed to stand and looked downwards. She started to sob as soon as she saw that the cottages on the way to the village had disappeared, engulfed by the landslide. She refused to look further down as she knew that the village itself would have sustained heavy damage, not to mention heavy casualties.
“Ben! Doctor! Where are you?” She called out.
All she could see was the muddy substance that had once been a spoil pit at the top of the hill now covering everything. She forced herself to keep her mind blank, dismissing her knowledge about landslide or tidal wave effects, catastrophic events usually occurring at the other end of the world. The chances of survival were awfully low. Yet she had survived. She clung to the hope that her companions had too. She tried to define where she had last seen the Doctor, but it was quite impossible to recognise anything. Even the path had vanished. She tried to retrace her steps the best she could. At some point, she wondered if she should go back to the TARDIS and search for a device that could help her locate her friends. A bitter laugh came out of her mouth as she realised that she would have no idea what such instrument would look like anyway.
She startled and turned around. Ben was getting up, a few meters away from her. He looked awful, as if he had been buried in the mud. Polly was so happy to see him that she hugged him anyway.
“Wow, someone is happy to see me! Where is the Doctor?”
“I don’t know, I couldn’t find him…”
Ben’s face expressed his concern:
“We need to find him quickly. Can you remember where you saw him last?”
His friend shook her head and explained how they got pulled apart.
“Alright. Let’s work it from my position then.”
Polly couldn’t help but feel impressed at Ben’s composure. Despite the dramatic situation, he managed to remain calm and she wondered if it was just an act. They started to walk slowly, looking carefully everywhere, calling out the Doctor’s name.
“I think that I can see him!” Suddenly said Polly, pointing downwards.
“You stay here, I go and check.”
Ben ran as fast as he dared, his eyes locked on the ground. There was indeed something almost completely buried straight ahead. As he came closer, the young man recognised the Doctor’s jacket. He didn’t waste any time and pulled the piece of cloth. As he expected he encountered some resistance. The Doctor had been buried alive.
“Polly! Come down and help me!”
He pulled harder and soon the Doctor’s short frame came into view. With Polly’s help, Ben managed to lay the Time Lord on his back and brushed his face that was covered by a mixture of soil and mud. The girl waited anxiously for her friend to check if the Doctor was still breathing, but before Ben could do so, the Time Lord opened his eyes and sat upright before he started coughing.
“Oh my word, what a dreadful experience!” He finally complained.
He then took notice of the couple and smiled:
“You look awful.”
“Speak for yourself,” Polly smiled back.
She was starting to relax now that they were all together.
“I say, we should go back to the TARDIS and get cleaned up,” offered the Doctor.
“No, we can’t.”
Polly shivered when she heard Ben’s serious tone. Even the Time Lord seemed surprised before he looked down at the village. He then considered Ben, and the girl was moved by the sadness in his eyes.
“I understand, but I’m afraid there is little you can do about it,” he said sympathetically. “It’s already too late, history is on its course.”
“Nevertheless, I can’t turn my back on them. It’s my duty to go and try to help save as many as possible.”
The Doctor opened the mouth as if he wanted to add another argument against Ben’s idea, but decided otherwise. Instead, he reached for Polly’s hand and the girl helped him get up. Both followed Ben who was leading the way, his face expressing his determination.
As they approached the village, they got a proper sense of the catastrophe that had occurred only minutes ago. The disaster was beyond imagination. From where they were standing, Aberfan looked like a ghost town.
“It reminds me of Pompeï…” Said the Doctor softly.
Ben shot him an angry glance:
“Only this time, it’s mankind killing men, not a volcano.”
“One could argue that building a town near an active volcano is very similar when it comes to disregarding general safety…”
The young man seemed very upset, but as he was about to snap back, he remembered that the Doctor had probably witnessed so many disasters that he was able to detach himself from the tragedy. Ben sped up a bit both to reach his destination faster and to put some distance with the Time Lord.
“I should probably follow him,” whispered Polly. “Someone has to look after him. I’ve never seen him like that before.”
“That’s a good idea. He will need your support. He doesn’t know what awaits him down in the village. Neither do you… I wish you could be prepared for what you’ll see… I wish I could prevent you from going there.”
The Doctor seemed so worried that Polly felt a sudden urge to hug him. Then, she ran as fast as she dared behind Ben.
“I’m so sorry,” sighed the Doctor.
The first word that came in his mind was “chaos”. Panic had taken over what remained of the village, or so it seemed. People were running in utter confusion screaming and crying. They all had the same words in common:
“The children! The children!”
Ben didn’t like the sound of that. He joined a group of men armed with shovels. Their strong features and the air of determination on their faces suggested that their intention was to help those in need. Soon, Ben was carrying a shovel too and was walking towards the heart of the catastrophe. Polly had managed to reach the village, but she had to struggle to keep sight of her friend as people came in her way, blocking her progress. As they came closer to the site that had suffered the most, the atmosphere became heavier. Despair, pain and horror were gathered together in one place. They were so strong that Polly got the sickening feeling that she was breathing the emotions and that she would soon collapse. If hell existed, then she had found it. When she discovered that a school full of children had been on the path of the murderous wave, she couldn’t walk further. She leaned on the remains of a wall and remembered the Doctor’s words. He was right, she wasn’t prepared for that kind of catastrophe. It was too much to bear. She took refuge under a porch and watched as everyone tried to rescue those trapped under the thousand cubic meters of debris from the spoil tip. She heard words of hatred towards the National Coal Board, she heard desperate screams as the first bodies were pulled out. She felt something wet on her cheeks and she realised that she was crying. Suddenly she wished that she didn’t leave the Doctor. There was nothing she could do here. She wanted to be with a friend, but most of all, she needed to feel secure. She retraced her steps, looking for the Time Lord. No one paid attention to the girl covered in mud. It was as if she was invisible. She entered a narrow street to avoid a crowd of rescuers and her eyes caught sight of a familiar figure sitting on the ground. He was like a ghostly apparition in the last vestige of fog. Polly ran towards him and kneeled in front of him.
“Doctor! We must do something!”
The Time Lord was sitting cross-legged, head down as if he was sleeping. But the girl soon realised that he was petting a dirty kitten.
“I found him trapped in the debris,” he explained. “The poor little creature was shivering from cold and fear.”
Polly recognised the cat’s breed, a Chartreux from the look of it.
“Doctor,” she insisted. “We must do something!”
“And what exactly do you propose we do?”
The Time Lord raised his head to stare at her and she instantly sensed that he already knew what she was about to say.
“Let’s take the TARDIS, go back in time and warn the village. We could save them!”
“No, I’m sorry,” gently said the Doctor.
“Why? We can do it, we have the means!”
“That may be but we can’t interfere.”
“Oh come on! That’s what you do all the time!”
“To a certain point. This time there is nothing I can do.”
Polly sank on the ground and spoke with anger:
“It’s not that you can’t do it, you don’t want to do it! It’s different! You’re looking for excuses but in fact you simply don’t care about them, about us!”
“Now, that’s not fair,” said the Time Lord on that quiet and irritating tone. “I understand that you let your emotions speak but try to think about the consequences. Major disasters like the one you witnessed today have consequences. As a matter of fact new laws will be implemented. Safety rules will be implemented too. The lives lost today will save countless lives in the future. If we save those children, who knows what disaster will occur tomorrow. Would it be fair on those who weren’t meant to die and who will because of a decision we took today? No. We just experienced a fixed point in time; one that we have no right in amending.”
“But it’s so unfair…”
“I agree. And I’m deeply sorry that I brought you and Ben here. I should have realised sooner what was about to happen. I should have protected you from all that.”
“It’s alright Doctor. You couldn’t know that hell would break loose today. And I’m the one who insisted upon trying to save some of the victims. ”
Polly jumped on her feet when she heard Ben’s voice behind her. His face was drawn and he looked older.
“Please let’s go somewhere else,” he added.
The Doctor got up, the kitten safely tucked in his arms. They walked in silence, leaving the village behind them. It took them some time to climb the hill to reach the TARDIS. As she was about to enter the time machine, Polly cast a last glance to their surroundings.
“I feel bad for those poor people. In a way, we abandoned them to their fate,” she whispered to herself.
When she reached the control room, she saw that the Doctor had put his jacket on the chair with the kitten on it. The pet was starring at her and Polly read a deep wisdom in its eyes.
“What happened to the cat?” I asked.
We were still sitting on the couch. The Doctor was deep in his thoughts as the memories came back to him.
“Well, we named him Eccleston and kept him with us until Polly and Ben left. I decided that it would be best for them to look after him. I missed him a lot, because he was such a great companion; smart, clever, all that sort of things. I kept in touch for a while. I think that he died of old age in a good house. I can’t be sure of course, but that’s what I like to think.”
“But if he died, then…”
“Oh sorry, that was a poor choice of words. He regenerated of course and our paths crossed again after I had experienced one regeneration myself.”