“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 says 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’ll 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.
“So why are the Sontarans supposed to be such great warriors?” Martha asks at some point. “Because you ask me, their strategies were pretty stupid when it came down to a pitched fight. They did better when they were trying to be sneaky.”
“Yeah, but that was because they underestimated you,” he points out. “Arrogance makes everybody stupid.”
She gives him a look, one that is usually given to someone who has said something outrageously hypocritical. The Doctor cheerfully defies it, adding, “Plus, in their defence, they would have won if you hadn’t had me.”
“But knowing your enemy’s allies is part of knowing your enemy,” she says, not giving up on the look. “You know, I think Colonel Mace is right. The Sontarans aren’t the only ones who underestimate the human race, Doctor.”
Her words feel like a slap in the face, like one of the verbal buckets of cold water that Donna was so good at dumping over his head. It seems strangely adult for Martha, who (he admits in those moments when he can’t stand himself any longer) too often let him run right over her. It was Martha who pulled up a chair in New New York and refused to budge until he explained what the Face of Boe meant, but it was also Martha who played his maid in 1913 without complaint. She was quite willing to listen to him, but much less willing to stop him.
Now... now he can see a glimpse of someone who might use the Osterhagen Key. Oh, Martha, he mourns. You were supposed to change them, not let them change you.
And then she says, “You go on and on about how they’re the ‘finest warriors in the galaxy’, but you left them out of the Time War.”
The Doctor chokes. He wasn’t expecting that, and he doesn’t recover from it gracefully. Human arrogance usually amuses him, but this is different than their bravery or their science; she has no right to comment on this. “Oh, come on, Martha,” he says with calculated exasperation, pulling carelessness about him like a cloak. “That’d be like – like asking a toddler to help you fight World War Three.”
This time, it isn’t just a look he gets; Martha’s jaw drops at his arrogance, leaving her staring at him with a dumfounded expression on her face. After a moment, though, she rallies admirably. “Is that how you see us?” she sputters. “Like – toddlers? Just babies to be shoved in a corner and protected?”
“Not at all!” the Doctor protests. “The Time Lords didn’t shove anyone into a corner to protect them.” That is a truth, so true that it could be a Truth, with the full weight of Capital Letters; what he says next is even truer. “It was more like we didn’t really have time to be tripping over the lesser races.” He’s not quite sure where this idea of benevolent predecessor races has come from; every elder species he’s ever met have been a completely miserable lot. Frankly, you don’t get to be a Higher Race without being miserable, selfish bastards.
“Do you even hear yourself?” Martha asks incredulously, “‘Lesser races’? It was human technology that got you back from the end of the universe, mister.”
“Petty trick,” he shrugs, knowing his blithe dismissal digs far deeper than his anger would. What he’s doing right now is equally petty, but he doesn’t care – she deserves it, for picking at old wounds, and sniping like this somehow makes the aching silence in his head easier to bear.
“Really? It took us back a hundred trillion years to the right time and the right planet, which is more than you’ve managed on some occasions,” she snipes right back, and that actually does make him angry.
“What is this about?” he asks incredulously. “My driving?”
“No! It’s about humans being able to time travel just as well as you, given half a chance!”
“Just as – what, being able to hop backwards and forwards in Time, you think that makes humans a Temporal Power?” he asks, truly surprised. Actually, if that is what humans think, then that explains a lot. “Create a few paradoxes, cause your enemies to have never existed, call it a War? That’s not a Time War, Martha, that’s not even a skirmish. That’s a – it’s a temper tantrum, at best.”
“Then what is a Time War?” She sounds just as frustrated as he feels, and he frowns at her. She’s the one nosing into his dark past.
“It’s a war that uses Time itself as a weapon,” he explains the obvious. “I don’t mean little tricks like paradox loops or time locks – though, good on Tosh for figuring that out – I mean things like lock-states, the de-mat gun...” He hesitates. “The Nightmare Child.”
“You’re just saying names, you’re not explaining.”
And he thinks, oh, well, why not?
Multi-lock-states are tricky to pull off – tricky, and stupidly dangerous to do for anything except a cheap trick like this. This is how he trapped Daughter of Mine into a mirror – every mirror – but he’d done that leisurely, methodically, with the TARDIS to back him up. This is much more reckless, but he had a lot of practice at it even before the War, and then a great deal more during, when nobody did anything outside of a TARDIS-powered lock-state. This is how the Nightmare Child was born – too many people shoving bits of Time together until part of it became something else entirely.
“Look, I talk about timelines, but Time is not just a line,” he says as he sets it up in his head, poking at probabilities.
“Wibbly-wobbly ball, you’ve said,” Martha says, sounding significantly less hostile now that he’s started explaining, although from the way her arms are folded across her chest she clearly hasn’t forgotten his earlier insults.
“Yeah, but even this conversation – you think that it’s progressing linearly, because you’re sort of limited in what you can perceive.” He shrugs. “But even in this conversation, no time-travel involved, it’s – fuzzy. There’re other ways that this conversation could be going – that it is going – you forget a word here, change something there, maybe I walk around a bit, gesture, turn away. But you only see the most probable present based on the most probable immediately preceding moment – you don’t see all the other possibilities. I do.”
“And that’s a weapon?” she raises an eyebrow.
In one set of possible states, possible ways that this conversation could have gone, he’s done exactly as he said and walked around to stand behind her. Now he wrenches one of those states forward, pulling at it until it falls sideways; in its past he is shoving away, locking himself out until that present is ripped free of its history. It's instead forced to merge with the most-probable-present, the only present that Martha sees. From her point of view, he’s teleported behind her.
“Yes,” he says, and she jumps, turning with a soldier’s reflexes. “It is.”
“Oh my god. How did you – ” she gasps.
“I picked a different state – a different way this conversation could have gone. And I locked in this present with the other past.” He looks at her gravely. “That’s why humans can’t fight a Time War, Martha. Because you literally can’t see or react to it – it doesn’t exist for you until it’s already done.”
At last, there is proper horror creeping into her expression. “And the Daleks – they could do that?”
“No. Well, yes. Not as easily. But they can see it being done.”
“Why don’t you do that all the time?” she asks, and somehow she’s gone all accusing again, which he doesn’t think is very fair. “There were so many times – so many people who have died – ”
Her words hit like a punch to the gut, and he sees –
- Rose slips, she slips, and damnit he can’t keep her from slipping but he can get Pete there to snatch her out of the air –
- “Just DO IT! DO IT!” he screams at the Daleks, but in the back of his head he pulls at probabilities and they don’t, they never do –
- Ms. Foster tells the men to kill them, and the odds are good that he’s too slow to react: he dies in a hail of gunfire. But in another possibility he hangs on and lives, makes himself real, and he grins at her, holding two sonic devices against each other –
- he and the Master fight for an entire year, and the long game always goes to the Doctor, but the Master wins all the short fights, even the very last -
“I do use it all the time!” he exclaims, rocking back on his heels. “Honestly, Martha, the number of mad adventures that I have – I mean, otherwise I’d’ve died a thousand more times than I have! I stall for time, I let the villain reveal all his plans, I encourage the good guys to duck at the right moment – I pick out the possible present moment that I like and I try to force it to be true. It doesn’t always work – it’s shoving at Time itself, you know. And I don’t do it as blatantly as I did right now because, except for cheap tricks, using it like that is very damaging to Time, and I like reality the way it is – namely, intact. Using it like that too often...” he swallows. “Martha, a Time War chews up reality, and what comes out the other side isn’t very nice.”
She’s backing off again, looking slightly sympathetic. Oh, Martha. Always caring, she is, even after going and becoming a soldier. “Well, we’re not too bad, are we?” she asks.
In another time and place it would be the perfect thing to say – but right now, it’s the last thing he wants to hear from someone who will be willing to use the Osterhagen Key in a few months; it practically drips Earth-centrism. “I don’t think the residents of Cassiopeia would agree,” he says, coolly off-handed.
“Standard spiral galaxy, about four times the size of your own – the largest in your Local Group, actually. One-point-two trillion stars, and absolutely packed with life. There are more intelligent species on just one spiral arm than you’ve got humans living on earth – literally, billions of them, lots of which have populations numbering in the trillions or quadrillions, because if there’s one thing you lot do when you get out to the stars, it’s reproduce.”
“And, it...” He can tell from her expression that she can see the general direction of gloom-and-doom that this is heading in, but his tenses have confused her; she doesn’t really get it.
“It never existed. Not anymore.” He looks down at his shoes, unable to meet her eyes. “When the timelines re-absorbed into each other after the War, Cassiopeia got left out. Across every reality, that galaxy has never existed. The Nightmare Child ate it. Devoured every last soul, one at a time.”
He waits for her to say something else, to demand to know what the Nightmare Child is, but after a moment all she says is, “I’m sorry.”
“Your night sky is literally darker than it was before, because there are less stars in it,” he replies, still unable to meet her eyes, still seeing Cassiopeia die and knowing the horror of what he’d done, to lead the Nightmare Child there. Because that’s the other truth of the Time War: the lesser species will never have the same ability to manipulate Space, either; they will never be able to reproduce the feats of stellar engineering that the Temporal Powers took for granted, ever since Omega drew forth the Eye of Harmony, the first black hole. They will never annihilate galaxies for fuel, or as bait, and they will never be able to use block-transfer computations to hold off entropy; one day, the universe will fade into heat-death. And if any of these lesser races would have evolved or grown, then they’d have been locked away in the Time War with all the rest. It’s an inescapable trap: You survived because you are lesser. You are lesser because you survived.
“The truth is – ” he hesitates, half-wanting to keep this wrapped up to himself, but feeling the pull, the wish to tell someone else something, anything, “ – the Sontarans did fight in the Time War. So did the humans. And... pretty much every other race that ever lived. And you died. You all died. There were so many Years That Never Were, and you – you got stepped on, in most of them by accident. Your star would be burned up, or your galaxy – or sometimes the entire Virgo Supercluster, and I’d say that was a bad day but if it wasn’t your bit of the universe it was always someone else’s. And you all died.”
He would say that they died ‘over and over’, except they didn’t. He’s explaining a multi-dimensional concept in single-dimensional terms again, but the Doctor doesn’t quite think that Martha would understand if he tried to explain that all those Years That Weren’t happened simultaneously.
“We’re here now,” Martha says softly.
Equally softly, the Doctor replies, “Yeah,” and in no possible state in this conversation does he say, You’re here because I shoved Cassiopeia into the Maw in your place, because I happened to like your insignificant little planet.
Instead he just turns and leaves.
A Time Lord can feel everything that was, is, and could ever be – which isn’t to say that they always know which of those possibilities will be, although they get a general sense of which probability clouds should be. A timeline is really is more like a river than a simple line; it goes in generally one direction and is contained within its banks, but there are many currents and wavelets within it, tiny variations on how history might have gone. The mouth of the river is the present, and from there it spills into the sea. Each alternate reality – each alternate timeline – is its own river, and the sea is the infinite future, unbounded except for the terrible whirlpools which are Fixed Events (though even they, too, have their small variations).
But as the War deepened the past fractured and split until it contained just as many threads as the future. He didn’t just sense what was, but all the things that could have been, and it was just as difficult to sort out as the future was. He felt like he was treading water out in the middle of the vast ocean, with no land in sight, no boundaries at all except for those dangerous whirlpools, which sought to draw him in and drown him, sucking him down into the abyss.
The High Council cannibalized fourscore more TARDISes and considered them enough to deal with the Nightmare Child – because what threat was a child to them? But they were dusty old senators - they sat on their planet and they never really got out and lived, not until the end when they were fighting for the lives that they’d wasted, staying at home and doing nothing at all. They and the Daleks, who sought only to kill, could fight around the Fixed Events, until the shape of the War became more or less wholly defined by them. The life or death of one person could be just as important as the fate of an entire galaxy.
But the Doctor had been across Time and Space, had stood at the center of more momentous events than he cared to recall, and the fractures in his own timeline were infinitely more complicated than the High Council’s. And as he and the few other Great Meddlers of the universe found, fourscore paradox machines were not enough.
There was a race of Sun-cysts dwelling in Sol, a tiny little yellow star around which the Doctor’s favourite planet happened to orbit. During the largest battle of the entire War – if you go by sheer numbers of combatants present – the Nightmare Child appeared from the Void, devouring everything that crossed its path. The timelines shifted and suddenly the Doctor recalled going to negotiate with the cysts, managing to get them to agree to move to a star about which no habited planet orbited. But simultaneously he failed at those negotiations, and in petulant anger, he trapped the lot of them within a helium cage – and he failed at negotiating and they nearly incinerated the TARDIS – and he never thought about it and went out for ice cream instead –
The pasts split and multiplied exponentially, all of them existing at once. In most of them, however, he rid Sol of its cysts, and instead of humanity desperately fleeing Earth in the year ten million, they expanded out into the stars with wonder in their eyes. Earth wasn’t eaten by the sun until the year five billion, and the evolutionary descendants of humanity threw a party and watched their homeworld burn.
“I need a technician to look over my TARDIS,” the Doctor said absently as he strode down a corridor, most of his attention fixed upon the device in his hands instead. It looked like something built entirely out of scraps, and the Doctor was attempting to rewire it one-handed. “She’s not handling the paradoxes well.”
“That’s because it’s old, Doctor,” Councillor Flavia chided him. “That it has managed to handle them at all is nothing short of a miracle. You must take one of the newer models, before that old machine gets confused in the middle of the Vortex and falls completely to pieces with you inside it.”
“She’s not an it,” the Doctor replied through a mouthful of wires, irritated at Flavia’s insistence upon depersonalizing his TARDIS. It was an entirely too-common habit among Time Lords, of late.
“She is old, then,” Flavia said, exasperated. “The point stands. She has sub-standard systems, barely adequate shielding – if you weren’t so good at temporal manipulation, you’d have been killed when the Daleks captured her last week!”
“I was,” the Doctor mumbled, and for a moment the terrible emptiness of the timeline in which he had died overwhelmed this one, and he had to wrench his mind away from it. In this timeline he dropped the device; in another timeline he tripped over his feet; in another, he suffered an aneurysm and died a second time, much to Flavia’s shock and horror; on a planet millions of light-years away, he forgot what he was saying mid-sentence...
He grit his teeth and rode out the storm, as his present fractured into multiple timelines to meet up with past possibilities, spreading his mind across multiple realities. It had been happening more frequently of late. But this time, when his consciousness snapped back, it only reduced to three realities, leaving his mind in pieces.
In one, Flavia was looking at him in concern. The Doctor smiled brightly at her. “Technician!” he proclaimed.
“If you’d just take a newer model – please, Doctor. We can’t lose you. Anything with better defences, and better weapons...”
The Doctor bent to pick up the dropped device, fussing over where the wires had come apart again. When he straightened, his smile had dimmed into something gentler. “Councillor, I don’t need weapons.”
For myriad reasons – the asteroid arrived early, or late, or there was a badly timed, too-large solar flare, or a quasar happened to be pointing in the wrong direction, or just straight-up manipulation by the Daleks – in infinite timelines, intelligent reptilian life never evolved on Earth. There was no base of hibernating Silurians underneath Wenley Moor, and the nuclear research station there never experienced unusual power-drain problems (although they did experience significant management problems, which eventually lead to it being shut down). The Master never aided the Doctor with the Sea Devils, and he didn’t escape from UNIT custody – or he escaped earlier, or he escaped later –
In some timelines, there were still Silurians and they still hibernated, with fewer bases and in different locations, but these were rarer. War was war, destruction bred destruction, and on the whole it seemed that each new timeline possessed less life than the last. Still, the Doctor clung to hope that if the War ever did end, he could push the Earth back to something resembling its original timeline.
After all, if he could hope that the War would end, he could hope for anything.
The Kotasti had fleets. The Alterans had fleets. The Daleks had fleets.
The Time Lords did not. When they felt the need for a fleet, such as at Arcadia, a Time Lord would drop in on their allies and demand one. This did not make them popular with said allies, but since everyone was quite aware that the Time Lords were responsible for the vast majority of Dalek defeats, they generally shut up and did as they were told.
In fairness, the Time Lords did attempt to create fleets. Indeed, more than one remarked that if only they’d had a fleet before the War had started mucking up all the timelines, then it would never have become a Great Time War in the first place. Attempts to build a fleet after the fact did not work very well at all. The growing of a TARDIS could not be rushed, not even by cheating with time travel, since the mind of a TARDIS is spread across all of Time and Space. Producing new Time Lords, too, was a problem; the Untempered Schism had been contaminated and drove new Time Lord Initiates insane more often than not, turning them into gibbering wrecks that whispered of the darkness, the silence, the end.
From a human perspective, the Time Lords should have been utterly crushed. It should not even have been a contest. Their population numbered only in the millions – not even in the tens of millions – infinitesimally small by the standards of a star-faring race. They didn’t even do much star-faring, for that matter, preferring to confine themselves to a single planet. Their last war had been fought eons ago, and their people had long since fallen into indolence. The Daleks, on the other hand, were nigh-uncountable, spread across the galactic filaments like aphids on a tree.
But while the Daleks were merely as time-sensitive as any other Higher Race, the Time Lords were called thusly for a reason. Individually, they were feared, but the whole was so much greater than the sum of its parts.
And then there was their Defender, their Maverick, whom the Daleks had named and so created. They had called him Ka Faraq Gatri, the Bringer of Darkness, and now when he appeared, stars went out.
So the War ground on, and the Time Lords slowly went mad.
“Time is unravelling,” the Black Guardian told the Doctor in one of their infinite pasts. In this one the Six-Fold God was sitting in the TARDIS’s kitchen, sipping tea – all six of the aspects present, for the first and last time in (this) history.
“Thank you, I hadn’t noticed,” the Doctor snapped sarcastically, adding more sugar to his tea. (It ended up too sweet, while in another reality he took a sip and was dismayed to find it plain.)
The White Guardian attempted a smile, but it collapsed before it ever had a real chance to form. “Can you feel the true scope of it? The dimensions themselves are folding and unfolding. No universe has escaped it.”
“I’m an Ephemeral, not an idiot!” It wasn't like he could ignore it, not with his consciousness spread across alternate realities as it currently was. Time Lords were time-aware, but they weren't supposed to be reality-aware, and it was driving him and the other renegade meddlers mad. Already the Rani was gone, wiped from each and every reality by her own hand, making all of the Doctor’s memories of her nothing more than hallucinations. Far too many of the Master’s timelines now truncated at or before the Cruciform; the Doctor was desperately afraid of what that might mean, desperately afraid that the Master, too, might have decided to erase himself to escape the insanity.
“We cannot remain,” said the Azure Guardian, speaking so softly that her mouth barely moved behind her great, bushy blue beard. “This War – if we do not leave, it will be Eternal.” The horror that coated her words was so thick that the Doctor looked at her with concern – at her, a being beyond Time itself.
In his very first timeline – assuming that he was remembering correctly which one was the first timeline – three of these creatures had sent him dashing about like a puppet, and he hated them (or he thought he did. He knew what true hatred was now). The other three he'd never met. But in a myriad of other timelines, he had met all of them, bested them, and been bested by them. He knew all too well their priorities and their tricks.
The Red Guardian was by far the most single-minded of the lot, and not one to play tricks, not in any timeline that was or would be. “You know what the High Council plans, Doctor. They will end all of Time and Eternity as well, in their bid to ascend beyond it. They will doom everything to pay for their survival.” It paused. “It cannot be allowed to pass.”
“You let the Daleks pass freely enough,” the Doctor replied bitterly. None of them answered that; it was not an accurate comparison and they knew he knew it. If their morals had not been grounded so far beyond his own, he might have argued the comparison anyway – but it was a futile endeavour. The Daleks would exterminate all other life; the Time Lords planned to unmake all of creation. The Guardians cared not a whit for the former but greatly for the latter.
The Gold Guardian stood, glared at them all, dumped her tea in the sink, and strode from the room. The others watched her go.
“I – we – have one last game for you, Doctor,” said the last of them, the most amoral of them all. “A toy from outside of Time – a bit of Eternity, just for you. One that could capture, oh, all of Time, if you wanted it to – or just a select bit.”
The Toymaker had never, ever, played an unrigged game. “Really?” the Doctor asked, his eyebrows shooting up. “A select bit?”
“Very select,” the Toymaker assured, but the Doctor wasn’t looking at him.
“It will return the balance,” the Azure Guardian stated calmly.
“Then why the hell haven’t you done something before now?” the Doctor demanded. The handle of his teacup suddenly shattered in his grip and the cup dropped, spilling tea everywhere, but he didn’t care. (Simultaneously, he managed to put the cup down carefully, before his hands started shaking so badly, and began dabbing at liquid that wasn’t there.)
“The Nightmare Child began this schism,” the Azure Guardian said, “but it is you at its center. Consider, Doctor. You have so many pasts, and so many futures, that your present has split itself as well – no, don’t deny it. No number of paradox machines can contain your timelines, Doctor, not anymore; you are the Oncoming Storm, the past, the present, and the future, across all the dimensions. And so we can give this piece of Eternity to you, Doctor, you alone among Ephemerals.”
Renegade and meddler, that was him, he thought bitterly, because though others had rebelled and run he’d raced past them all – that never changed, not in all the pasts he had. And look what it got him – a fractured Moment of Eternity, as his own reality expanded beyond what Time itself could hold.
“You can end this travesty,” said the Red Guardian. “Use this gift, and the War can be Time Locked inside it, trapped in Eternity.”
“Then why haven’t you done it?” the Doctor cried.
“This Moment is yours, Doctor,” the Azure Guardian said. “It is yours alone to use.”
“You don’t know what you ask,” the Doctor whispered, horrified.
“We do,” the Red Guardian replied, and held out the assembled Key to Time.
In the beginning, there were no black holes. There were no galaxies. There were only a few stars, and very large, very diffuse clouds of gas and dust.
And out of the dust, underneath a red star, was born the planet Gallifrey. The Gallifreyans looked to the stars and the clouds and the gas, and they thought it very beautiful, but mostly they found it to be very inefficient. Their first efforts in solar engineering had produced a second sun, which they deviously set in orbit about their planet and kept there mainly for aesthetic purposes, but also to shout to the stars: We command you.
But the stars were small and Space-Time was vast. If they wanted mastery over it, then they would need something that could make more than just a dimple upon its fabric. They needed something that could do more than just bend Space-Time. They needed something that could break it.
So Omega, the greatest solar engineer of Gallifrey, created just that.
It was horrific. It was terrible, and terrifying. Rassilon looked upon what his equal had done – and there were only two among the Gallifreyans who could equal him – and knew that Omega was dead, that he had given his life to create something far greater than himself. In his honour, Rassilon led the elite of Gallifrey to the horizon, and they looked into the abyss, the Schism, and they became something more. They became Time Lords.
And they went out into the universe, and created galaxies from the dust.
Most of that history was gone now, wiped away when Rassilon dropped the Eye of Harmony right into the middle of the Big Bang, cementing Gallifrey at the center of all possible universes and within none – universes filled with black holes, little pieces of the great Eye, and new and more flexible physics. But the Time Lords remembered some of it, and they continued to toy with black holes, linking their TARDISes to the Eye and drawing power from it.
The Nightmare Child was born of frayed Time, and it liked to eat other bits of frayed Time more than anything else. It had been on the Doctor’s tail since eating Davros (which hadn’t happened for him yet, but that was hardly important), and when he’d run away it had followed some of his timelines back to Earth, and was happily chewing down upon them, deleting bits of his life. If it was allowed to continue, it soon would devour the entire planet.
Something enormously complicated was needed to distract it, some great big rip in time and space. The supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way would have worked, but it would also have been counterproductive; without that black hole, the Milky Way and therefore the Earth would never have existed in the first place.
And the truth was, the Milky Way was his very favourite galaxy, and it was simply too important to him for the Doctor to seriously consider giving it up to the Nightmare Child. Timelines spun away from him, and he knew that if the Milky Way was eaten, then the vast bulk of his infinite timelines would change as well and his present self would become an entirely different sort of conglomerate. One that, when he examined it closely, made him turn away in shame. One that made the night sky even dimmer.
“Damn,” said the Doctor in his current form. “Damn damn damn.”
And he fed the Nightmare Child Cassiopeia’s black hole instead.
“Doctor!” Martha calls after him, then runs after him, before he can get through the door. It attracts attention – most of the people here are from UNIT, and from overhearing their whispers he’s well aware that the only reason he wasn’t swamped on sight was that Martha made it quite clear to everyone that if he did show up, they were to leave him alone. And not salute him. Which he was grateful for, really, but now he realizes that coming at all was a bad idea and if he still had Donna he wouldn’t’ve been so stupid as to cross timelines like this, but he’d just wanted to see someone who was still happy, who thought he was still happy – and now he’s ruined that.
“Doctor,” she says again, much closer, putting her hand on his arm, and he sort of wants to lean into it and let someone else support him for a while.
He can’t speak, he can’t even look at her, but she fills the silence with an apology. “Doctor, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t – I shouldn’t have pried.”
It’s ridiculous, her apologizing to him, after what he’s said. Oh, Martha.
“I ran into a tree the other day,” he blurts out before he can stop himself. He’s still not looking at her, but he can feel her double-take anyway, and he has to mentally review what he’s just said in order to understand why. Oh, right. “I mean, I met a tree – nice fellow, from the Forest of Cheem – they’re descended from your rainforests right here on Earth, lovely people.”
Around them, an oddly-shaped bubble is forming, as the more polite UNIT personnel try to give them some space and the more curious ones attempt to eavesdrop on the legendary Doctor talking about alien trees.
“He had no idea what Gallifrey was,” he says, still almost disbelieving it himself. “No idea at all. I thought, I mean, the Forest of Cheem, they’ve got probably the best racial memory in the universe, they’d remember, but no – he knew what the Time Lords were, but of course he knew, I’ve mucked about with the Forest too much for them not to know.”
Martha doesn’t stumble at all over the idea of a sentient tree, now that his verbs have been cleared up. “Was the Forest on Gallifrey, before?”
“No, of course not,” he says automatically. “Gallifrey hated outsiders, aliens. Complete xenophobes. No, but – you all used to speak of Gallifrey,” and he’s used his planet’s name three times in the last minute; that has to be some sort of record for this incarnation. “Everyone on Earth, in every nation, in every time-period – even before you lot went out to the stars. And on all the other planets, too, every species, every culture, through all of history. Everywhere I went, I couldn’t get away from it. It was the news travellers brought. Priests lamented it. Prophets saw it. On so many worlds, it was the beginning of their creation myth.” Oh, how he remembers that, how the name of his lost homeworld had stalked him through the universe, how he’d fled before it. “‘Gallifrey,’ they’d say. ‘Gallifrey has burned.’”
“How?” Martha asks, tentative but still curious, willing to grab answers as long as he’s willing to talk.
“It was the echoes. When the Time War ended, everything that had come undone – it all sort of snapped back together all at once. It sent ripples through the universe. But they fade, like any other echo. I thought the forest of Cheem might last, but – oh, it doesn’t matter.”
He runs out of things to say at last and closes his eyes. The feel of the earth spinning around the sun sweeps out from under him, and for a moment the only thing keeping him anchored to this reality is Martha’s hand on his arm.
“I’m sorry,” she says quietly as he struggles to pull himself together, to plaster on a grin and stuff everything back in its box.
For a long moment he is tempted to remain here. To stay. He could wait for the Daleks in secret and then help his previous self take them down instead of relying on the metacrisis – he wouldn’t have to sacrifice Donna, he’d get to keep her – and he could take the Reapers on, he could. He’d worked it all out after Adelaide, how he could have sorted the Reapers if she hadn’t gone and shot herself – and with Donna right there, his own previous self wouldn’t do anything so stupid as that. He could do it, he could –
In the back of his head, there is a sound like the Cloister Bell ringing. The Doctor jerks around to stare unerringly in the direction of the TARDIS, even though there are several walls between him and her. The bell-tone feels like a funeral dirge, like knocking, and suddenly staying is the last thing he wants to do. “I have to go,” he says, not quite managing to keep his voice steady.
“I’ll see you around,” she says, her eyes dark and worried.
“Yes,” he agrees, but there’s none of the certainty that should be there when discussing an event that he’s already attended. “Twice more, at least,” he adds. Martha’s eyes widen, but she drops her hand, takes a tiny step back, and offers him a way out anyway.
The Doctor does what he’s best at, and runs.
Sometimes a change would spawn longer timelines. Mostly they spawned shorter ones, as everything died around him.
He was all eight of his regenerations at once, now, and more than that; in many timelines a regeneration went differently, or he (or sometimes she, now) ran through them quicker and got to nine, ten, eleven, twelve – all the way up until thirteen, and when that one ran out sometimes the Council gave him more. It was mad, being so many people at the same time, but it was better than being dead, because he was that, too; in increasingly many timelines he didn’t survive to reach this point at all. Oh, he knew exactly why the Eternals could no longer stand this War, why they’d left; existing in so many states at once might be their default, but when all those states were of War, such existence turned into Hell.
Yet it was this same warping of his self that seemed to make him immune to the very different kind of warping spreading throughout the Time Lords. Ever more of them whispered of the Ultimate Sanction, of transcendence, of an escape from the horrors of war. He had to believe that he was immune, at least – for if it was not some outside force acting upon both him and his people, then he would never be able to forgive them for suggesting such an abominable scheme. Yet Rassilon’s careful politicking spread, and by the time it came to a vote from the Council – with seventeen dedicated paradox machines just to ensure that this timethread could not be cut out – the verdict was nearly unanimous. The Doctor felt its ramifications wash over him in a single united Moment across all of the timelines.
In despair, he unlocked his bit of Eternity and stepped within.
He sat in the TARDIS for a very long time. Outside around him, the War raged on, began, ebbed, frothed – but never ended. This was a war that stretched across the whole of Time, and there was no end inside of Time. For this war to end, the universe itself would end.
Safe within this Moment, Time couldn’t touch him. The War couldn’t touch him. His own timeline moved forward and went nowhere, for he was the Paradox Machine, now. Futures died out as his presents consolidated, dragging his mind back into sanity, and forcing his pasts to merge into a single stream where –
He never left Susan in the year 2164, because he never had a granddaughter. Two curious teachers never followed a strange girl home from school and stumbled into a space ship. Eventually a human did wander in by accident, though, just in time for him to take off without realizing he had an unexpected guest.
Jamie and Zoe never had their minds wiped, because he never called his people to get the War Lords’ victims back to their proper eras. The War Games that they encountered had a mix of aliens from various cultures but only one time, for the War Lords had no War Chief to lend them time-travel technology. But it turned out that humans were not the most vicious species in the universe after all, and when the dust settled, they all three died and only the Doctor came back to life, stuck on Earth with a badly damaged TARDIS and only a Level 5 planet’s resources to assist in repairs.
The Master still bothered him on Earth, but then, the Master was, like him, a Great Meddler, pasts and futures and present split – or so he explained it to himself at the time. They didn’t hunt each other through the Matrix, though, because the Matrix was never built (and the silence echoed so loudly, he thought he’d gone blind and deaf).
The Rani, of course, was already wiped from Time.
The Monk followed the Rani.
Borusa didn’t go insane and send four of his incarnations to the Death Zone, because there was no Borusa and no Death Zone, either.
The White Guardian never sent him to find the Key to Time, and he never met a young Time Lady who had attained a triple first at the Academy. There was no Academy, and the Six-Fold God had passed out of Time with the Eternals before the universe began, leaving the Key to Time in his TARDIS, ready to lock the Moment shut.
He was never put on trial by the Valeyard. (But he forgave the Valeyard now, because if he had the chance, he would kill his younger self, too. His only criticism was that the Valeyard should have aimed at his first incarnation, before he ever went to Skaro in the first place.)
He never went to Skaro.
He never came from Gallifrey. Like his memories of the Rani, his recollections of his homeworld were fake and always had been. His timeline sprung full-formed from nothing in a British junkyard one November in 1963, leaving him born feeling three centuries old. But those centuries never happened.
The Hand of Omega never collapsed that first black hole, and Rassilon never harnessed the Eye of Harmony. No Time Lords looked into the gap in the universe, and the only thing that kept any black holes in existence was the first and last TARDIS, the only TARDIS, with its bit of the Eye. She was never merely a run-down, outdated old ship – she was the most powerful construct in the universe, the lynchpin upon which creation rested: destroy her heart, and the universe itself would come undone –
The Doctor cried.
There was no other solution that he could find – he, a master of pulling gambits from thin air (or hard vacuum, as the case might be) was stymied, here and now, at the most important junction in his entire existence.
The Key sat waiting in the Lock. But as soon as he turned it... it would stop everything. The universe would be over – a simulacrum would take its place. Much of the original would be excised out, banished behind the largest Time Lock ever forged. The Time Lords would be purged from every reality and sentenced to Hell: his very own Ultimate Sanction.
With them would go the other Temporal Powers, and more lesser worlds than even he could properly comprehend. He’d become the most horrific mass-murderer ever, far surpassing the Master’s death toll at Logopolis – that had been but one reality. And at the same time he would bring life to countless new species on countless new worlds as lesser races winked into being, replacing their predecessors.
(You must have been like God, the Master breathes, and he cannot deny it.)
He stared at the Key, for an eternity and no time at all, stared and thought and dreamed as the Valeyard came to life in the back of his mind and whispered do it, DO IT.
The Doctor reached out, cringing, thinking, there’s no other way, and –
- turned the Key –
- (connected the wires) –
- (pulled the trigger) –
And all the skies of all the worlds went dark.