The Doctor jerked awake, a scream caught in his throat as terror froze his vocal chords. River stood beside him, her face full of concern. She’d grown used to his nightmares in the time she’d travelled in the TARDIS, learnt not to mention them and to never wake him from them. But she hated them.
She silently handed him a cup of tea and watched him try to hide the tremors in his hands as he sipped it.
“One day Doctor,” she said, her face serious, “will you tell me what it is you dream about?”
He looked at her but said nothing.
“I want to know,” she insisted. “It’s… it’s part of you.”
The doctor nodded slowly. “I understand,” he said, his voice tired. “Sit down.
“You know about the time war?”
“A little,” River said. “You hear things. Whispers.”
The Doctor slumped back into his chair. “They’re probably true. Terrible things were done by both sides. By the end of it though, the Timelords were worse even than the Daleks. The creatures we created…” He trailed off, his eyes staring past River into history.
Before she could say anything he spoke again and his voice had a distant quality to it, as though he were speaking to her from far in the past. “It’s the Could’ve-Been-King,” he said. “That I dream of, I mean. The Could’ve-Been-King and his army of Meanwhiles and Neverwheres.”
“That’s what we called him. No one knows what he called himself. He didn’t speak after the age of eight. Never got to choose a name. He screamed sometimes, but he never spoke.
“The children of Galifrey are taken from their families at the age of eight to enter the academy. I can still remember it so clearly, the fear. Standing in front of the great bronzed doors of the academy, 30ft tall and gleaming in the light of the twin suns, knowing that once they closed behind me that would be it. The person that would walk out of those doors in the years to come would not be the same one who walked through them. The time vortex changes you, wipes you clean and rebuilds you in its own image.
“You had one night in the dormitories surrounded by other scared children crying for their mothers and then very early the next day, before the suns had risen, you were taken out through the grounds of the academy to the Garden of Unmaking. In the garden is the Untempered Schism, a tear in the fabric of time itself. One by one the children are lead forward to stare into it. Into the time vortex itself. He was in front of me, I remember. I hadn’t had a chance yet to learn his name… I can remember his screams to this day.”
“What did he see?”
“What we all saw. The majesty of it. The unimaginable scale of it all. It’s… too much. Even for Timelord minds, it’s too much. Some are inspired, some run. Some go mad. We were lucky really, my intake into the academy. Of twelve children, only two went mad. At the time the teachers were pleased, though it a great success. But the Could’ve-Been-King wouldn’t, couldn’t, stop screaming.
“We used to hear him at night, screaming, clawing at the walls of the room they locked him in. I saw him once, when they let him out. You could see the white of the bone at the ends of his fingers where he’d torn away the flesh scratching at the walls, trying to get away from the horrors inside his own mind. He went through reincarnations faster than any timelord anyone had even known. Most of us grow old in their first incarnation. No creature wants to die, not even one who will live forever. But the things he saw… He killed himself for the first time three days after he had been unmade. He went on doing it all his life, trying to escape. He never could. Sometimes a timelords greatest gift can be his greatest curse. There’s no end it all. Never any end to the dreams and the memories and the heartbreak…” The Doctor trailed of, staring into his own past.
River shifted uncomfortably, unsure whether to comfort him. Her movement roused the Doctor and for the first time since he started the story he looked straight at her and smiled, just a little.
“The Timelords, my people, as they were then, before war and killing twisted them into something dark, were a great people, but not kind. The Garden of Unmaking produced some of the greatest poets the worlds have ever seen. We had great artists and craftsmen whose whole lives were inspired by the majesty of what we saw. We were great explorers because those who ran from the vortex never stopped running. We penetrated the very depths of space and time. We were present at the birth and the ending of the universe itself. If the war hadn’t come we might have gone even further, into the blackness beyond the death of the stars. Who knows? But when you get right down to it, what we really did in the Garden was scare little children. We were a people who saw nothing wrong in that. So when the war came… we saw no reason not the create horrors that no one should ever see.
“The Daleks were more numerous than us, and no matter how many we destroyed more would always be created. We fought and we fought and we lost again and again. And then Rassilon had the idea which would make him famous. The idea which lead to his being appointed head of the council. Why should Timelords fight and die in this war? The technology to create life existed, why not use it? Why not create creatures who would fight out battles for us? The council was far gone enough by then that they listened. Agreed.
“To begin with they were half-things, barely conscious, no real feelings. Creatures created simply to obey orders. Probably they didn’t even feel pain. They were the ideal soldiers, but they couldn’t win, not against Daleks. They were massacred in their thousands. And while they and their handlers screamed and died on battlefields, the Could’ve-Been-King screamed in his cell.
“I don’t know who first though of the idea. I like to think it was Rassilon because then all the terrible things done in the dark-times can be rested on one man’s shoulders. The blame easily apportioned. Probably though it was some inoffensive young lecturer at the academy, or one of the Could’ve-Been-Kings nurses. Why created barely alive non-creatures when we could create monsters? Creatures born to hurt and scare and kill.
“A psychic was brought, to look into his mind. The most powerful in all of Galifrey. Trained by the Eternals, according to rumour. She sat, unmoving, for four hours, exploring his mind. The first thing she said when she woke, was that he could have been a king. After that she would never speak of it again.
“They said, later, that he had a great mind. That he should have been a great man. But the Time Vortex was too much for him and all the intelligence turned inwards, his mind turned on itself and put all its power into creating monsters to torment his dreams. They called him the Could’ve-Been-King and they used all the psychics they could find to draw the images from his mind and force them into flesh. The Meanwhiles and Neverwheres.
“I fought in that war. I was at Madrigore. I saw my own blood-kin devoured by the Skaro Degredations. On the fringes of the Medusa Cascade I looked into the mouth of the Nightmare child itself. But none of those things haunt me like the Neverwheres and their King.
“When they were successful the council began to send him into battle with them, leading the horrors from his mind. The initiation had made him mad, but they made him into a monster. By the end he came to believe that he created the creatures himself, by devouring the brains of the Daleks they had killed for him. The last time I ever saw him, barely a month before the end of the war, was the only time I ever heard him doing anything but scream. He was sitting on the battlefield, surrounded by his monstrosities, the blood and brains of slaughtered Daleks on his chin, laughing. That was when I knew my people weren’t worth saving.”
“So you ended it.”
“Yes. I ended it.”
River put a hand on the Doctor’s shoulder, not knowing how else to show her sympathy.
“He’s at peace now,” the Doctor said, unexpectedly. “That’s the one thing I can feel good about in the horror of it all. He’s not screaming anymore.”