“I’m glad you could make it,” Martha says, handing him a generous slice of chocolate cake. There’s a cherry on top, and the Doctor pops it into his mouth, absentmindedly tying the stem into a knot with his tongue. “Though I hope this doesn’t mean aliens are about to invade during my birthday party. The first time through was bad enough.”
The words are joking, but there’s something in her tone that is serious and sad and – and he really doesn’t want to go there. Instead he spits the cherry stem – tied in a perfect bow – out onto the plate, and protests, “Nah. I’m just here for the cake. I love cake! I once won a cake-eating contest on Diraklia VI, and that’s no mean feat considering I was up against a Gwummph. Four stomachs, you know. Like cows, except more purple.”
Oh, dear, he thinks, watching her face out of the corner of his eye. She’s not about to be distracted by prattling.
“I didn’t really know how many candles to put on this one,” she sighs, poking at her own slice of cake with her fork. “I borrowed the scanners at UNIT, you know, when I got the job. Biologically I’m twenty-four. But I’ve got this extra year’s worth of memories. And a set of clothing that I picked up in a year that never happened. How does that work, that the clothing stays, the memory stays, but the age doesn’t?”
The Doctor makes a face. “It’s a paradox machine, Martha. ‘Course it doesn’t make any sense.” He takes a bite of cake, wrinkles his nose at the lack of bananas – all the cakes on Diraklia VI had bananas; those people knew how to make a cake – and speaks around a mouthful of chocolate, “I could never work it out either.”
Oh, dear, he thinks, that came out a bit wrong.
She raises an eyebrow. “This has happened to you before?”
He looks at her. It’s a very long look, from his point of view, but a very short one, from hers – Time Lord, after all. He doesn’t want to talk to her about this, but it’s oh-so-clear she needs to know, and how much does he owe this marvellous, fantastic, brilliant young woman standing in front of him? Only twenty-four years old, and she saved the world. She saved him.
“During the War...” he starts, then stops and swallows his mouthful. “Well. We had at least a score of paradox machines going at any given time – so to speak. Cannibalized a whole bevy of TARDISes to make ‘em – we had to, you see. With all the mucking about going on, the universe was barely holding together.” He shrugs, awkwardly. “And, well, there’s all sorts of timey-wimey stuff that goes on that only time travellers notice. Things that happen, then get erased, but you remember them and the other thing and it really gets tangled up in a knot, except that would imply it’s a string, and when I said wibbly-wobbly I meant it - it’s not nearly as linear as string – ball of glue, maybe?”
He is not looking at her. He already knows what he’ll see if he does.
“How many years have you lost?” Martha’s trying not to sound horrified, he can tell. But there’s also a desperate note underneath the horror – desperation and relief, the relief of being in the presence of someone else who understands.
You really don’t, he wants to tell her.
“Oh, a year here, a year there,” he shrugs, glibness returned. “A bit harder for me to keep track, really! I mean, I don’t have any of that aging stuff to tell me when somebody’s reset a bit of the universe, now do I?”
Lie, lie, lie. Like he couldn’t feel every nuance of the tangled mesh of Time, no matter how gluey it gets; like he doesn’t know exactly how much of it has born and died and taken part of him with it. Entire pieces of his life, wiped out of existence...
...oh, like it matters. Anyone else who would’ve remembered is dead. Either way... there’re only memories left.
This is how it begins: at the end.
Afterward, everyone called it the Fall of Arcadia, no matter whose side they were on. If things had gone slightly differently, then the Time Lords et al would have called it the Liberation of Arcadia, the Arcadians would have called it the Homeloss, and the Daleks would have called it A-WASTE-OF-TIIIIME! But then both sides twisted one thread of Time too many.
Before the War Arcadia was a beautiful planet. Vast blue-green forests wound their way from the poles to the equator, broken only occasionally by plains of cerulean grass. Pink crystals littered the bottom of sunlit seas filled with diamond fish, and every evening the solar wind would swirl about the rising twin moons, filling the skies with dazzling light. And, like most beautiful things in the universe, it was equally deadly – the planet’s surface was abundant with a naturally occurring, incredibly toxic compound that the Daleks were using to refine their latest weapons. The indigenous population, though immune to the toxin, were not immune to Dalek lasers, and soon found themselves enslaved.
The Time Lords wouldn’t have cared about such a tiny, backwater world, but the improved weapons had become a problem. The Doctor knew this. He was the one who had told the Council this, and led the attack.
Ever after, the Doctor would always regret that the first time (in a manner of speaking) he set eyes upon Arcadia it was a glowing, dying wreck. The ruined corpses of thousands of Dalek saucers spun idly in orbit, some of them passing dangerously near the open door of his TARDIS.
“Not much like the pictures,” he sighed, leaning against her battered wooden doorframe. She’d taken hits earlier and there’d been no Time – hah! – to repair her. Not yet. Maybe not ever. Of course, the Council would be perfectly happy if he’d just take another ship, rather than clinging to an old beaten-up Type 40...
He never would.
He stood in the TARDIS’s open doorway and watched a world burn below him. The Kotasti fleet had evacuated the few Arcadians that they could reach, at his orders. It wasn’t enough; the fleet’s onslaught had no doubt wiped out the bulk of the natives when the Dalek defences fell. But at least the Daleks had paid for their subjugation of this world, even if the price was Arcadia itself. The Time Lords didn’t have the resources to hold such a rich target against the Daleks, were they to take it back through force or trickery. The Daleks had been too dug into the timestream for either side to use such basic cheats as supernova’ing the sun or dropping a black hole into the system. So – it was this. Straight, open warfare, no creativity, no subtlety, just the slow, red burn of destruction. He wasn’t sure which depressed him more: the tedium of it, or the tragedy.
“My Lord Doctor,” chimed a voice from behind him, and he ducked his head back into the TARDIS proper, raising an eyebrow at the viewscreen. The Kotasti commander’s eyeless face stared back at him, hisher mandible’s clicking nervously. “There’s – there’s something you should see – ”
The Doctor turned to his own console, tapping at keys, nudging levers with a spare foot – and, oh, look at that. Grinning widely, he rushed back to the doorway, just in time to see it fill the sky. “Oh, look at you!” he crowed, ignoring the commander’s clicking queries from behind him. “Look at you!”
Even as he stood there he could feel the timelines starting to unravel and reweave. Some of them – a great many of them – were his own personal lines. New pasts dripped over him like glue, changing, and changing, and changing, and it was just so remarkable that he had to beam with joy. Life – life! From this war!
And as Arcadia burned below, the Lord Doctor laughed with delight at the newborn Nightmare Child.
Once upon a time, in 2164, Daleks invaded the Earth. The Doctor left his granddaughter, a wonderful young girl named Susan, with a wonderful young man named David, and the pair of them lived happily ever after – well, until David grew old and Susan didn’t, but that didn’t matter because it never happened anyway.
Instead, the invading Daleks were eaten by Thing That Wasn’t when it slipped the chains of the Could’ve Been King. The Neverweres tracked it down and leashed it again, much to the disappointment of the Time Lord High Council, who agreed that the Thing had good (bad?) taste, even if it did leave behind rips through time and space like a dog might leave behind tracks after rolling in mud. Susan, Ian and Barbara had swiftly grown bored with the twenty-second century, since the alien invasion had really been the only interesting thing that (should have) happened in 2164. So the Doctor twisted the controls, they all went crashing about, found a new planet, and had a truly marvellous adventure. The Daleks, on the other hand, did not.
The entire re-weaving didn’t really chop that much off of his personal timeline – only a few hours. Eventually the Doctor took Susan back to the Academy, and she turned the entire place on its head for a while. He visited – not often, but he did – and was immensely, overbearingly proud. (A few more days, here and there – nothing major, simply tourist planets skipped, sights left unseen...)
(Except that he’s a Time Lord, and quite aware of all of his personal timelines. Has he seen those planets or not?)
When the war started, Susan continued to follow in his footsteps, and then the Doctor saw her quite often indeed – she commanded a tenth of their forces.
(Later, he will think that he will never see her again. He will be wrong.)
The thing about the Nightmare Child, the thing that made it really terrifying, was that it was so...personal. A single death is a tragedy; ten billion deaths are statistics. Except that the Nightmare Child gobbled them all individually, one by one, with agonizing slowness, deaths drawn out forever and over in the blink of an eye. The Doctor felt the timelines change, and it was like watching a half-knitted scarf unravel into yarn, one stitch at a time, every stitch full of love and life and meaning.
The second time the Doctor saw the Nightmare Child, before the Fall of Arcadia (in his own timeline; it should have caused a galactic implosion but Paradox Machines) he wasn’t laughing. He was praying (in the way of an atheist) and cursing (in the way of a gentleman) and trying to pull off a last second rescue of Davros’s ship. The wrecked cruiser tumbled toward the maw of the Nightmare Child, and the Doctor’s TARDIS hurtled after it, as he tried and tried and –
- all of a sudden, it all tangled up together, past and present and future. Dark rage lashed out, and back on Skaro the Doctor had made a different choice. He’d joined the wires, the Daleks had died, and he had committed genocide –
(Something deep and terrible inside him whispers, Practice run.)
- and it didn’t even matter, because the damned paradox machines allowed it and they couldn’t be shut off, lest the entire universe implode.
It was at that moment he began to understand that the War could not be won.
The revelation caught him off-guard. The Doctor nearly flew too close, was almost eaten himself. Instead, he watched Davros be unmade, struggled with the controls, and barely flew the TARDIS out past the last layer of teeth. Behind him, the Maw snapped shut.
The renegades were called home one by one early in the War. The Doctor had been there at the very beginning – but then, he was on far better terms with Gallifrey than most renegades (and this War had always been his). The others were summoned when conscription measures were passed with a sizable majority. Ordinary children of Gallifrey were accustomed to order and made poor warriors, but the Nameless were already well-versed in chaos, and thus exactly what the Time Lords needed.
The Rani came willingly enough, lured by the promise of Gallifrey’s support in doing whatever she wanted to the biochemistry of other species, so long as her experiments had the slightest potential for military applications.
The Monk was far more reluctant to be called to heel until the Doctor himself hauled the other renegade back to Gallifrey. He was sent to liaise with the lesser races that became mixed up in the War, countering Dalek schemes with his own.
If certain members of the High Council had not been so convinced that the War Chief was needed, that renegade might have been left to the dust – but instead they turned the husk of a Type 38 TARDIS into a paradox machine and changed his fate from execution to forced regeneration, then brought him forward in Gallifrey’s time. Spared from death and presented with the opportunity for unrestricted conquest, the War Chief went eagerly to his bloody fate.
The Master’s resurrection was more complicated, as he had been executed by the Daleks themselves and fallen into the Eye of Harmony. The Celestial Intervention Agency had to go back nearly a year in his relative past before they could sneak under the Dalek blocks and prevent his death. The Doctor’s TARDIS, made nauseous by the presence of the nearby paradox, made an emergency landing in San Francisco, 1999, and he stepped out the doors only to be gunned down several relative days before he should have been.
On the positive side, the regeneration did go quite a bit more smoothly in the new timeline, and he didn’t end up with any pesky double-helix human DNA spliced into its own. Without that inferiority, he didn’t lose half so much of his memory – although he did end up spending an entire day tracking down Chang Lee so he could get his screwdriver back.
He invited the boy to come with him, but on their very first stop they fell straight into the horrors of the Skaro Degradations, and Chang Lee died far from home.
The whispers ran across the universe. This is the Last Great Time War, they said, on every planet that ever amounted to anything – for how could it be anything else? Twice before races had warred across Time, and on both occasions they had been stopped by the mighty, mysterious Time Lords, the greatest of the Temporal Powers, who were like unto gods to the lesser races. Now the Time Lords themselves were embattled, and the other Temporal Powers flocked to their banner – the Kotasti, the Alterans, various Osirans –
- even the Eternals, until all of a sudden they were gone, fled from all reality, every reality, like they’d never been part of it at all.
Surely, the universe could not afford another such War. Surely, the Time Lords would never again allow an enemy race to grow to be such a threat.
But on the front lines they whispered, Surely this will be the death of us all.