The first time I encountered them, I had no idea what they were. No idea at all. I was so young and naïve then... Not that I thought of myself that way. That's the thing about inhabiting an old body: it makes you feel as if you've lived, even if you haven't. And back then just having left the planet, ever, was enough to make a young Time Lord consider himself sophisticated. Seasoned man-about-the-universe, that was me, except that I knew nothing then, really. Scarcely even knew my own planet's history; it always seemed so boring, so unimportant. If I'd paid a little more attention, maybe I'd have known that my people and the Daleks had a history, one that existed long before I ever came along to take a hand in creating it.
Looking back on it now, all these centuries later, I can't help but wonder... Was there some spark of recognition somewhere in the back of my mind, some elusive sense of familiarity, some vague presentiment? But if there was, I don't remember. It was all just another adventure to me, and when it was over I patted myself on the back and put it out of my mind until the next time. Until I finally realized there were going to keep being next times.
If I'd known, if I'd had even an inkling, I wonder, would I have done something different? And if I had, that far back along my own timeline, along the Daleks', is it possible that some tiny thing, some teeny-tiny minute change could have made all the difference?
There are reasons I try not to think too much about the past. There's always that little voice, isn't there, in the back of your head asking "What if?" And once it starts, it keeps going: What if this? What if that? What if, what if, what if, what if? I'm not immune to it, even if I might like to pretend I am. "What if?" can be a dangerous question for anybody, but it's extra-dangerous for Time Lords, because we do have the power to change the past. If we're arrogant enough. If there's no one to stop us.
If you have a TARDIS, and you're very careful and very clever, it's entirely possible to alter the web of time. A little snip-snip here, a little delicate re-weaving there, and if you're very, very lucky, you can, say, eliminate your worst enemy before it ever really exists, thus saving countless lives, averting tremendous suffering, and, incidentally, preserving your own status as the most advanced civilization in the universe. If you're a little less lucky, you might find yourself involved in a war that extends across all of Time and ends in mutual near-annihilation. If you're really unlucky, well, the results just won't bear thinking about, if only because no one will ever have existed to think about them.
Even knowing all that, I still sometimes find my fingers moving across the TARDIS controls in the right patterns to take me back to the wrong times, idly dialing up coordinates for the points where I could change events simply by giving myself a warning about not trying to change events. I like to think that every time I do it, I'm less likely to actually hit the dematerialization switch. It scares the hell out of me to know that I still might.
But we all have to live with the consequences of our actions. All of us. Even me.
I ended the Time War, as much as it can be said to have ended at all. Everybody seems to know that by now. I don't like to talk about it, but people will ask, it comes up over and over... Well, all right, maybe I do want to talk about it, sometimes. Just a little. Just a very, very little. But here's a secret: I started the War, too. I don't think anyone but me knows that. Not even Sarah Jane, and she was there. Hard to blame her; I didn't even know it myself at the time. I should have, of course.
Ah, there's lots of "what if"s there, along with a whole heap of "could have"s, "should have"s, and "Why in Rassilon's name didn't I?"s. Stop the Daleks' development, they said, or if you can't manage that at least try to slow it down. And I said, "Oh, what a marvelous idea! I'll get right on that!" Well, words to that effect. That was the real moment of choice, right there, the genuine ethical dilemma. Not that business later with the wires. But I don't remember questioning it, not for more than an instant. All that subjective-time offworld, all that rebellion, and somehow I still believed that if the High Council was asking something like that of me, they must know what they were doing. I'd like to go back and box that version of me about the ears, and the Lord President for good measure. Of course, that probably would make the universe explode, or something equally unpleasant.
So instead I go on, try to concentrate on the future rather than the past. Which is harder than you might think for someone who's supposed to be a Lord of Time. It would be so much easier if the bleeding Daleks didn't keep showing up. Every time I face the little megalomaniac pepperpots, it all comes back, all the things I wish I'd done, wish I hadn't done, wish I'd done sooner or better or more often.
There are memories in my mind -- I suppose there are in everyone's -- that stand out with an amazing sort of vividness, a strength that never quite fades. Most of them... Well, most of them I don't talk about. Some things really should be allowed to sleep in one's mind. But I remember, clear as this morning's breakfast, picking up a gun and declaring myself Davros' executioner. I remember honestly believing I was going to do it. I remember stalling, talking instead of shooting, the way I'd mocked a thousand adversaries for doing in the past. I remember how pathetically grateful I was, underneath, for the excuse not to do it, the ability to tell myself for one more day that I wasn't a killer, not that kind. But I take out that memory now, and I imagine shooting him. I imagine his body exploding into ruined shreds of flesh and technology, even as he wheedles and whines and begs. And part of me takes pleasure in the thought, whether or not it would have made any difference to the timelines, or to my own ability to live with myself.
Possibly the Master was right, all those years. We are alike in some ways. Were alike. He was simply more honest about it. If he destroyed a world, or a life, or a species, he'd do it with his own hands and take all the credit. No tricking the target into self-annihilation and then telling himself he wasn't the one to blame. Hypocrite, he used to call me, and he didn't even see me the day I destroyed Skaro. Trying to feel regret at the fact that it had come to that, while deep down all I really felt was smug satisfaction at my own cleverness, at having -- I thought -- finally won the universe's most high-stakes game.
I don't want to be that man. I don't want to be the man who fantasizes about killing, the man who destroys friend and enemy alike. I don't want to be a man who's capable, even for a moment, of considering seizing ultimate power and re-weaving the web of time to remove his own regrets. Nietzsche may have been a tedious dinner companion, but he was right about one thing: spend enough time struggling with monsters and it becomes too easy to turn into one. I don't want that. I like being the good guy. Besides, I've met a possible-future version of me gone bad, and he was a right git.
And so... So, all right, perhaps I've made some recent decisions based more on optimism than on common sense. I mean, come on. Create a hybrid race of human Daleks, find them a nice uninhabited planet to live on, expect them to live out happy, non-violent lives full of smiles and sunshine? What are the odds that that would work? Billion to one, tops. But if that billionth chance had happened, the Time War would be over. Really, truly over, and I could tell myself that I'd turned destruction into creation. How could I not make that choice?
As for what happened in the attempt... It's hard to find words that don't make it sound slightly sordid. But let me put it this way: all species have a drive to reproduce. Humans, Daleks, Time Lords. We want to feel that some part of us continues, that all the things we are, all the legacy our ancestors passed down to us won't be lost to time. And when some physical part of ourselves, the very DNA patterns that make us who we are, reaches out into another piece of the universe to combine with it to create something new, a whole new life, it's a profound feeling. Ask any parent.
I tried to explain it to Rose once: it's how humanity survives. Reaching out to other life, other species, blending, combining, becoming an endless series of new and wonderful things, but never losing that sense of continuity, of humanness. Unto the end of the universe, perhaps. It's not something that would necessarily have occurred to me personally as a solution to that whole last-of-one's kind thing, but once it had happened, Dalek and Time Lord and those lovely adaptable humans combining to create something new, something so full of infinite potential... How could I not try to preserve that? To give it a chance, at least. A tiny, tiny chance. It might have worked. And if it had, if the last act of the Time War had been a birth instead of a death, we would have won. Both of us. We would have won.
Ah, well. Like I said, there's no point in dwelling on what ifs. You make the best choices you can, you try to learn from your mistakes, and you go on. And on, and on... Sometimes it almost doesn't seem worth it, and I find myself imagining walking up to a Dalek and inviting it, finally, to finish the job. I'm so old now. I'm old and tired, and all my children are dead.
But today, at least, I can say: I chose mercy over vengeance. I chose creation over destruction. I chose a magnificent risk in the name of hope over a bleak, easy moral surrender. All in all, I feel pretty good about that. If nothing else, at least about that.
It's one choice I'm not at all tempted to change.