I Think Mr Smith Has Had Enough.
A Twelfth Doctor Story.
'I am still being duped. The pursuit of goodness has become pathological, and there is absolutely nothing that should or can take its place. Morality has been dissolved. It has simply ceased to be'.
- Professor Keith Ward, 'God, Chance and Necessity'.
'Is happiness real? Or am I so jaded, I can't see or feel - like a man been tainted. Numbed by the effect - aware of the muse. Too in touch with myself - I light the fuse'
-Paul Weller, 'The Changingman'.
So call this an apology in the form of an open letter, addressed to my vast 'social network' of once-and-future companions. Age or pathos-bleached memory means I can hardly recall most of you, but if it's any consolation, I know I loved you to a man. I remember Susan, of course. I remember Leela. Precocious, steely-eyed Turlough. Poor, wise Adric, and how I was devastated by his loss (even if it still didn't quite jar me awake). And similarly, I remember how ardently I believed I was in love with Rose, though obviously I couldn't have been because I was gleefully able to carry on without her.
None of you would recognise me now. All you'd recognise would be the TARDIS, and ironically, since I myself have grown to loathe it.
Where to start? The point at which I went insane, or the point at which the insanity was defined? The twelfth regeneration was just a few years in, but still more advanced than a lot of the previous ones. I'm all about longevity, me. Perhaps, companions-of-the-past, you're curious to see what my final personality is like? Don't be. I just want to guard it, keep it to myself. In many ways, anyone with a personality less quiet than, say, Tom Hanks, may as well go straight into the Big Brother House and run around in a pink thong. I remember once, during my Tenth Incarnation –that prancing fool—I met Oscar Wilde and liked him very much. In retrospect, the thought of such a verbose, ostentatious raconteur makes my skin crawl. Some might say he needed to be so knowingly pretentious in order to dramatically highlight the fact that everyone is different. But consciousness itself does this very efficiently on its own. If, on your deathbed, you can only think of how you were once persecuted for being gay, or being from an ethnic subgroup, or chased by some Daleks simply because you were a humanoid – I think you're missing the point of Life and Death. And I've lived and died twelve times, so think on.
The ghost of Amy is haranguing me with the idea that I'm a hypocrite, given that I was a good friend of Aleister Crowley, and surely he was far more pretentious than Oscar Wilde? No. He really wasn't. The difference between Oscar Wilde and Aleister Crowley is like the difference between Coldplay and Radiohead, and if you need to ask, you can never understand. Don't even get me started on how much of an oxygen-thief Allen Ginsberg was. Time And Relative Dimensions In Hate.
In any case, suffice to say that, when I was transmigrated into Body Number Twelve, along came more than a trace amount of cynicism. It was just a little more darkness than usual, but gradually it got worse and worse, and if I had to pick a single incident which exacerbated the whole thing, it would be this –
Bristol, 2011, Planet Earth. The Master had kidnapped a tragic, dying Cenogelle. The poor creature's psychic powers were almost completely expended, but evidently it still had enough to be useful in his dastardly f scheme. He'd travelled around various shabby, war-mongering states (chief among them Britain), meeting the leaders and giving demonstrations of his fearful, apocalyptic weapons –which were really just illusions cast by the Cenogelle. His plan, he boasted, was to keep the pretence going long enough to depose all the petty dictators he'd been meeting, then set up a kind of 'evil' United Nations. Incidentally, The Master, real name: Percy Archemorus. Never once called it to his face, though, out of weird respect, no matter how bad the enmity got.
I beat him, just as I always did. Developed a rapport with the Cenogelle and had him cast some visions demonstrating to the various leaders what a complete nightmare The Master really was. Defeated, he went A-1 mentile - and even then I felt a little bit guilty. He stole a Citroen C5 from a bourgeois and drove across the country at speed. The Brigadier, K-9 and myself commandeered a cop car and chased after him. From the start my heart wasn't really in it. For a long time, I'd been growing weary of 'adventures'. Plus, it had only been a few months since K-9 had been back with me. At last I realised how much I truly loved him, loved everything about him, and he was surely the only companion I needed. I loved the movement of his little radar-ears, and the small, jarring nod he gave when he fell asleep. Give up the adventures, I thought. Spend your remaining days taking him for walks, listening to his poetry, letting him chase squirrels (this was particularly satisfying, the squirrels in a false sense of security because K-9 was slow and inorganic).
The Citroen was bled dry at the edge of a windswept playing field and The Master made good on his heels. I exited our car and did likewise, while The Brigadier circled round to try and head him off somewhere. So, the chase: The Master was around fifty years into his latest (pro gratis) regeneration, I was sixty-six into mine. Both of us were athletic, as is the Time Lord way, and were fully capable of legging it indefinitely. Eventually, I caught him in a dead end, as I always did. He brandished a small metal tube, which he claimed was a quantum super-bomb, capable of destroying the entire solar system. Myself, I strongly suspected this was just another placebo, a bluff, a piece of audacious cheek directed to the emotionally-weak.
Very earnestly, "Stay clear, John, or I'll activate it, and reduce your home-away-from-home to a swarm of buzzing photons".
And, yes, I knew there was something unusual in his mind, the way he called me by my real name. Usually, he called me 'Doctor', but with mocking emphasis on the inverted commas. Calling me 'John' gave the whole thing a sense of seriousness I didn't care for at all.
I said, aiming for reverse-psychology, "Go ahead. We're both auld men".
The Master, "That's the spirit. This is, after all, the point where we usually have some revealing, poignant time-out. I tell you something that casts me in a more sympathetic light, just before I escape".
I told him, 'well be about it', to which he smiled, a picture of madness, gesturing quite innocuously with the bomb. "We are both auld men", he agreed. "Tell me, John, do you feel the exhaustion?"
I gave the man no answer, so he ranted on.
"I think you do. How could you not? You wonder at it. It's no kind of physical exhaustion, and nothing a psychiatrist could dissect. Sleep doesn't help. It's like being a prisoner of your own jaded soul, having huge avenues of hope and belief sealed off to you by God Himself".
"Are you trying to turn me evil, then?", was all I could think to ask.
Patronising, "That's it, John. I'm trying to turn you 'evil'. You spend all your time warring against it, but do you actually understand what 'evil' is? I'm not talking about yob thoughtlessness, but that automatic disregard for all other life which an Egyptian pharaoh or Aztec chief might wield. You really think anyone sets out to be like that? To be really, truly 'evil' is simply to be a solipsist, someone willing to weigh the balance of all living archetypes. It's an act of boldness and bravery. You've known me when I was 'good'. Twice. Once, when we were children. Then again, when I'd gone to ground as Professor Yana".
I told The Master, "Get to the point, you". All the time, I stared ponderously at the doomsday bomb in his loosening grasp.
K9 trundled up behind us. The Master heard the activation of the eye-stinger, and struggled to pick him up before he could fire. Too slowly I reacted because, I suppose, I'm an old man, weak and flip incoordinated. Holding him laboriously, The Master moved to the sill of the bridge and threatened to throw him off.
"Do you remember when we were tiny children, we'd take books to the time-criminals in the Central Gallifreyan Prison?"
I pulled a face. " 'Time-criminals'. How can you say that with a straight face?"
"We'd take each prisoner two books. One good, the other blatantly, embarrassingly awful. Then we'd bet each other, which one the prisoner would start reading first. I always bet that they'd read the crappy one first, and I always won".
"I don't remember any of that", I said. I really didn't. "But it seems a little fascist to imagine that, say, a Zygon or a Silurian criminal has the same cultural references as us, to the point where they automatically know that Harry Potter is derogatory crap and Elmore Leonard is good".
The Master, suddenly, was pleased. "So you do remember?"
I shrugged. From the distance, I heard the shrillness of an inter-city train approaching at speed; it brought a feeling of doom to the pit of my stomach. K9 moved his ears hopefully, even as he was firmly in The Master's grasp.
Said The Master, "You will understand, Doctor, in the end. It's the way of things. To give people the benefit of the doubt, in your soul, makes no odds in the eyes of God. Increasingly, it's the only certainty I know in this life. But you always have to take it away from me. Well guess what? Now this is happening".
He heaved K9 over the side in a clumsy motion, I rushed to stop him –only to see my dog fall and be smashed to pieces on the front of the train. I remember screaming wildly.
"Who needs to destroy a world when you can destroy a man's soul?", waxed The Master, satisfied. He coolly departed, not before turning and throwing the doomsday bomb in a hedge. "That's how I roll".
I scrambled to the side of the bridge, through the thorns on the punter side, over the Nazi spikes, through the thorns on the other side, down the filthy embankment. K9 was in two dozen pieces, so much so that for a long time I couldn't focus my attention on any of it. His body casing had detached into five or six gnarled panels; the internal motors and servos were a hateful tangle of silvery slips. Reassuringly heavy and hand-crafted, now conspiring to be utterly irreparable. I tried to calculate whether there might be any residual charge left in the cognitive circuits, let alone the sense-relays. It was really just an act of stupid, ugly faith that I said, 'I love you' into one of his ears. Some children walked across the bridge and laughed at me. If you don't believe that your precious children could be so cruel: that's fine. You don't care about my experiences and I certainly don't care about yours.
I rendezvoused with Brigadier, who made me feel faintly better with his earnest, upper-middle-class consolations. He offered me a ride back to the TARDIS, though I said no – I felt compelled to move among the people I had just saved. Merry Christmas, John. Merry Christmas, Yoko. Caught the bus to Oxford, changed at Abingdon. Even as I entered the remote countryside, it was still teeming. Mire-hearted children had animated discussions about a new Call of Duty game, the very delicate tactics required, the way it was addictive and they'd spent all night playing it. It sounded amazing, admittedly. In general, however, the people who shuffled past me – it didn't feel as though I'd just saved them en masse. It felt as though each living soul was protected by an aura of godless complacency, and timeless. I changed at Harwell. Here, the passengers were a fat part-part-timer, a business woman, a student, a jaded-looking man with a rock-a-billy haircut and an ancient old lady. For a minute or so, I was distracted, mesmerised: though tantamount to a leathery skeleton, I could see through the ages as plain as day. The old woman. She'd not only been a beautiful girl, but a conspicuously beautiful girl, the kind you fall in love with because you feel she's idiosyncratically tied with your soul. How was it that, through her life, that beauty had been gradually, insidiously devalued, so that she'd been left alone to take this horrific, hour-long bus-ride? Perhaps what I was really thinking: why do people have to get old? I felt the horrible, heavy dents of K9's head-unit in my left hand (in my right, the doomsday bomb). And so. Strawberry Fields. Nothing is real. To have constructed a robot dog, simply because you can't stand the grief when a living dog eventually dies – it was either zeitgeist emotional kudos or the epitome of crazy.
"Excuse me, would you mind turning your music down, this is a public place".
The business woman was confronting the student, who was corrupting the air with a bass-line of whiney nu-dance musak.
That's fine. Start a song with a repeated chorus of 'yeah, yeah, yeah'. It's not shameful. Go ahead and do it. 'Yeah, yeah, yeah'. It's fine. It's not shameful. Start with, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah'. It's good. It's not embarrassingly bad. Start it like that. It's not obviously shameful and embarrassingly bad. It's fine. It's fine.
"I've as much right to listen to my music as you have to read your book", said the student.
The business woman hung above him for a time, no doubt steeling herself to sit back down again, defeated. I stood up alongside her. "No point trying to reason with him", I said casually. "He's lost. He's lost to arrogance. I've spent a thousand years trying to reason with creatures like him. Can't be done".
The business woman wagged her eyes at me as though I was A-1 King of the Head-Mentals. To be fair, though.
"If everyone's that annoyed about it", said the student in his affected-adenoidal voice, "I'll turn it off".
He did so, and then pulsed his eyes at me. "Happy now?"
"Yes", said the business woman brightly.
"No", said The Doctor flatly.
Everyone looked at me. For a long time, all of their expectations strained at me like the weird gravity of a black hole. The student breathed laboriously through a crack in his mouth. Default. Yeah; one day I'll try breathing through my mouth. The day after they lobotomise me.
"You represent everything that's wrong with this life. I think an example needs to be made of you".
"I wouldn't touch me if I were you, mate", the student warned me.
"I'm not going to touch you", I told him. "You're going to do it yourself".
I handed him the doomsday bomb.
"Press the red button".
"No", said the student, in a pleased, defiant voice.
I brandished my screwdriver (Philips-head), "Press the red button, son, or I swear to God I'll drive this into the back of your eye socket".
Pretending not to be afraid, merely affronted, the boy walked briskly to the front and told Jim Bowen what had just happened. He never once demonstrated with an imaginary screwdriver, which vaguely disappointed me. The vehicle was promptly pulled over. Jim Bowen, at first impatient with the student -small victories, get 'em where you can— walked up the ranks to where we sat.
"This young man says he's being threatened. Is this true?"
I shook, felt a tightness in my throat and tears in my eyes. Be assured I was quite willing to be arrested, sent to prison even, purely out of spite. The humans: the one species I'd gone out of my way to protect, whose subtle, unspoken morality I'd always tried to exemplify – but they were different now. I'd only recently noticed that they were a people living such mindless contradictions. Recession after recession: people lucky to get any job at all, so the news said – but if so, why are all their children encouraged to spend years training only for very specific, academic jobs? On a cosmic level, such laziness and fear of hard work is a rare thing. Most primate-evolved species carry a genetic memory of the necessity to lead practical, utilitarian lives. It was weird to be so unconsciously decadent.
Weird, I realised, glaring into the soulless eyes of the student, but not unprecedented. The last species to have gone quite so wrong was the Cybermen of Telos. You don't need to subdue your emotions in order to carry on living in a technological dystopia: you only need to have trace amounts of humility. Just like those original Cybermen, everyone on Earth was slowly starting to worship the military. True, conflicts between terrestrial nations interested me about as much as Big Brother, but there were certain things I couldn't ignore. Ninety percent of people in England and America agreed that what went on in Iraq or Afghanistan was really none of their business (this seemed a bit harsh to me: intervene if you must, but only after your own countries are deathless, fully-employed wonderlands). Everyone in the Western World protested that it veered dangerously close to imperialist arrogance for their governments to send troops to occupy sovereign countries. But at the same time, everyone in the Western World fawned over the soldiers themselves, as though they were selfless, messianic angels.
Rather than tiny children waiting for a bus, getting excited about playing Call of Duty: World at War.
Planet Earth doesn't need soldiers, and it doesn't need students. It needs people to work on farms, in factories, building sites, churches, hospitals.
"Grow up", I told the bus driver. "He's a little monster".
"It doesn't matter what he is or isn't", said the man. "You can't threaten to stab someone in the eye".
It was often said of me that I was eccentric. I'm not eccentric anymore. It was often said of me that I was verbose. I'm working on that - but I still wasn't there yet. "Surely that depends on what I wanted him to do for me. It's a Catch 22 situation. If, for instance, I'd said, 'Keep breathing, or I'll stab you in the eye'; surely that wouldn't be a problem, since breathing is a sane, a natural, a necessary thing to do. By the same token, listening to shrill, a-tonal sounds with your phone is surely – an act of unnatural, contrived insanity, like eating dog dirt, like spontaneously trying to force little bits of dog dirt into someone else's mouth. So, taking all of the above into account, is it OK if I disembowel him and dance hallelujah on his grave?"
Jim Bowen frowned heavily and withdrew his phone. I watched his thumb as he calmly padded out '999', but otherwise didn't react at all.
All this time, another keen intelligence was watching the scene. Enter 'Cole Pfeiffer'. On first boarding the bus, I'd identified him as a stronger-than-usual personality, with those pronounced cheek bones, overly-tactile lips and deeply hooded eyes. But God, I thought: I no longer need to get caught up in the lives of interesting people. It's even possible that my subconscious had already guessed he was a years-escaped fugitive.
The jungle is massive. So massive. He invited himself directly into my life.
"Christopher", he addressed me in his compelling Southern-States drawl, while smiling at the driver. "I'd say our practice for today is over. I'm sure we can resume it once we reach a more… receptive audience".
The bus driver stared at him impatiently.
Bluffed the Southern Man, "This is my acting partner Christopher; we're part of an experimental drama troupe travelling between counties. As a man of the world, I'm sure you'll understand that we thrive on the opportunity to interact and improvise with willing members of the public".
"Is this old chap crazy or what?", asked the driver about me.
The Southern Man drew himself back, humbled himself convincingly.
"Ah, but sir. To plumb the human condition in this richest of urban environments is undoubtedly to court madness".
All of this jive-talk was enough to persuade the driver not follow through his call to plod, but not nearly enough to allow us continued passage. We were ordered to leave; I did so coolly, not before leaning close to whisper in the student's ear. "I'm going to find out where you live, and I'm going to get you in the middle of the night".
The cacky bus doors folded shut behind us. I sensed Jim Bowen watching us for a moment before he drove away. Scintillating: the middle-of-nowhere ruddiness. Tufty, sheep-domain fields sloped upwards to become arcane trenches, whole tides of bramble, bright green verges of unkempt grass. The horizon, you sensed, could conceivably show the whole of the South-West of England, except it was always hidden at the bottom of a sharp slope. 'Haunted Blue Torture Box: sixty miles', I thought glumly, and set off walking.
"Hey, you know", the Southern Man said irritatedly from some distance behind me. "There's no need to ask why I just saved you from being arrested. I'll just go ahead and explain of my own accord".
This suggestion of a lack of humility on my part made me feel disquieted. I turned to speak to him, though always keeping my glassy eyes on the heavy grit of the road, the brown trees beyond the verge.
"Thank you for saving me from being arrested", I said in a small, bright voice. Then walked on.
We walked along the side of the strangely-looped country road. I drank in every beautiful sight, every meditative ditch and forest-nook. The man walked directly beside me. For the first time, I noticed he had an artificial hand, which conspired to make me think of the killer of Helen Kimble.
"The reason I helped you is simple: I am a Samaritan. They still exist. I've been around and I know a nervous breakdown when I see one. I'm here for you, sir. I'm here for whatever assistance I can give to you".
About this, I said nothing. However, "I'm John"; give him something of the old Doctor. Friendly, chatty. An everyman friend to every man.
In turn, the man said, "Cole Pfeiffer. A pleasure, John".
"How did you lose your hand?", I asked.
'Cole Pfeiffer' smiled. "My father was a blue collar at a ship-building yard in Massachusetts. One day, I accompanied him to work. He was hasty to finish his riveting so that he could take me out to lunch. Meanwhile, as he slaved and laboured, I played unsupervised with a steam-hammer".
I smiled a little and turned to confront my new friend. I stared at the shape of his dry, purple eyes, the intriguing depth, the unmistakable cunning. "Your father wasn't a ship-builder. You're just saying that because you think it's something I'll respect. I do respect it, in a way. Everything you've done for me and everything you've told me so far has been to develop some kind of faux-rapport between us. This, 'Mr Pfeiffer', is because there's something you want from me".
"John!", he licked his lips and beamed. "You have an acute knowledge of liars! Please believe me when I say that we now have a true and indefatigable rapport".
About this, I said nothing, barely even frowned. "What's your real name?"
"Theodore Bagwell, out of Fox River Penitentiary, US of Stateside".
He laconically offered me his plastic hand to shake, as a kind of joke.
"Mr Bagwell…", I said. Picture a underwhelmed doctor despairingly telling Oliver Reed or George Best that their drinking days are over. "What exactly is it that you think I can do for you?"
"You are a man of power". He spoke slowly, creasing his leathery face at the white atmosphere. "But you're lost, as men of true power usually find themselves in this shady, manipulative world. For instance, John, that rather futuristic device which you asked the boy to press. Am I right in thinking it's a bomb?"
"It's a bomb", I confirmed. For brevity's sake, I told him it was nuclear, only able to destroy a continent, rather than the truth, that it was a quantum-fusion bomb, which would destroy the entire solar system with very little effort. "Would you like to take a look?"
Bagwell peered at me seriously and without pretence. All of a sudden he looked circumspect, no less deadly. We were standing in a shallow layby with a pine-effect farmyard gate. Together with a tangle of seasons-old branches, a row of fir trees stretched off to a modest cusp. Pale sky, compacted, almost no streaks of cloud. It would be a decent enough place to end things. Decent enough company: I didn't dislike Bagwell by any means.
His scrupulous hands passed steadily over the bomb.
"Who are you, John? Quid pro quo".
"Quid pro no", I denied him, and took back the bomb.
We walked for a mile or two together; while I steadfastly kept schtum on my own personal details, he steadily discarded his own. Really, it was like a brochure into his own frantic lifestyle. In prison, he'd hustled his way into the escape attempt of a genius architect who'd purposefully had himself imprisoned to rescue his disparate brother. Similarly, he'd placed himself into the machinations of an African warlord in a feverish, laissez-faire South American prison. Ditto, the corporate-despotic plans of a right-wing general who'd briefly held all the world's energy resources in his corpulent hand. 'I am a survivor', Bagwell licked his lips. 'And with me in your corner, that's most certainly what you will be too'. The man was an interesting character. We walked casually along the broad country road. Broad, all the same a weird intrusion into the rough, grassy basins. Look up sharply and see rubbery telegraph wires running between sketchy branches. Look up and focus.
"Invariably all these great men of power have found themselves in the most ugly, compromising positions. Truth to tell, John, it's the whole reason they fell into my orbit. And I helped them. In each situation, I offered them an alliance, and for a time it was productive. But always, every time, I was left abandoned on the side of some dusty road, just staring at the horizon! Meanwhile, these great men of power, each and every one of them, as soon as they turn their back on me: dead. God offers up my horrific life experience as an aid to others, and without fail, they reject me, and fall into calamity. So I ask you, my friend, will you be the latest one to be lost in the wilderness?"
Padding my ravaged cheeks with dry auld fingers, I stared into his eyes, always worshipping at the altar of truth, me.
"Mr Bagwell, there is just one problem with what you tell me. I know full well that this world is a place of cut-throat perils. I know, also, that you could very well guide me through it. But unfortunately, I look into your eyes and I see evil".
Sure enough, your man glared towards my face as though he could quite casually knife me. But I knew he wouldn't. So I qualified, "Oh, it's not the worst evil I've ever seen. It's blunt and thoughtful rather than capricious and unknowing. That's something. But it's still evil and I, unfortunately, am a good man".
Bagwell, "Says the man who just threatened to stab a teenager in the eye. Perhaps times they are a changin'?"
"And I hate Bob Dylan", I explained.
We'd arrived at a kind of desolate intersection which glided up into an overpass. From there into the city proper. I straightened my arms nervously and prepared to leave him.
"Thankyou for the company, and thankyou for saving me", I said.
"You're a lucky man, John Smith", said Bagwell darkly. "Usually I have a tendency to get what I want, no matter the cost".
I shrugged and walked away through the small concrete struts, the gravel-nooks that smelt of urine and chlorophyll.
The TARDIS, I remembered clearly, was in dank dentist-territory just off a long shopping street. Never had a need for shopping, except in the little novelty hospital shops which struck me as pleasingly existential. Now it was five-thirty, everyone else was out of love with shops as well. The humans – they hurried past on their way to the bus station, or to the very modest houses which clung on between dusty art galleries, an obscure car showroom, a regional HQ for the fifth most popular political party. A trace amount of solidarity? Even just a ghost quantum eddy? Ruined. Positioned like optimal mines on a battlefield there were four charity canvassers.
"Hello, sir. Can I talk to you for a moment about Aid for the Developing Countries?"
I hurried on, embarrassed for her.
"OK", said the girl loudly, "I'm obviously wearing my invisibility cloak".
I stopped. Sadness collapsed on top of me. Dead K9. My beautiful, unique little dog, dead. Flashes came to me of Adric, that bashful smile he'd given just before being blown apart, all to stop a few geek Cybermen doing the rounds. Visions of Rose being pulled away from me; the finest, ethereal love being sacrificed just so a stupid faux-civilisation could be saved. Sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice: always the clichés to give your ugly human minds something to chew on.
"Invisibility cloak: that's funny. Please forgive me. Hell of a day. Tell me a little about your charity…", and in this way I charmingly ingratiated myself with her. She spoke at length about the various disasters which had befallen this distant continent, without much heart, without much consciousness, but hey. I asked the requisite number of questions, some stupid, some sensible, all so that she'd be lulled into a false sense of security. Come the denouement, I asked if their Direct Debit system had an Atrios or a Zeos clause. She didn't know. For a while, we scanned our eyes over the smallprint bullets at the bottom of the form. I pointed to a certain piece of jargon and suggested this might be it. I was already gripping one side of the clipboard: the split second she released the whole thing to me, I took it and threw it on top of a building.
She screamed at me an unconvincing swearword, which was so fey it marked her out as being the most strangulated upper-class nothing.
I felt my eyes burn with weird hatred, and it scared me. It felt a little like regenerating, only without the shining catharsis. Still the fighting talk, verbatim (I remember every word and every nuance), "I'm sorry, did I do something wrong? Did I jeopardise the brilliant, methodical charity of our rock-solid, industrial world? Never mind, I'm sure there's records somewhere of all the things we've made, all the things we've MADE, all the things we've PHYSICALLY MADE and PHYSICALLY SACRIFICED, where we've flatly refused to spend our lives sitting behind desks, like pig-eyed student waxworks".
The charity canvassers all ran away. Result. From the distance, I heard a chirpy police siren and had briskly on my heels. Ranting victory drowned by pathos once again.
Rose, I wonder what you'd have thought of the Console Room in those final days. You would have hated it, I think, for exactly the same reasons I found it so comforting. You see, I'd grown weary of the beautiful coral and lava-orange ovaloids, the arching tendrils rising up to some tulip-shaped omega point. Forget all that. Welcome back to the minimalism. A small white room, just a few integrated pillars and the creme-colour ovaloids no more significant than dinner plates embedded in plaster. And you know it's not the space, it's how you fill it. Fill it with mind, monad, every kind of echoing determination. Teegan. Nyssa. Peri. Mary Jane. Grace. Ah, if I had a hammer. The sight of the time-column rising and falling always did nag at me. Except, no. Don't you see what the TARDIS was, what it represented? I wasn't quite in love with any of them. Their love belonged to some other man, somewhere else.
Hanging on the edge of the console, thinking of nothing, it was all very numb. In all likelihood, it would be a mundane night of inconsequential sleep. Except my subconscious had already made a blunt decision. On the underside of the console was a plastic-shielded button I'd never pressed. I'd barely even touched it in a thousand years, never been curious, always been calmly cognisant that this was the button which a Time Lord must press once he's completely lost his faith. It would take me to Gallifrey, to the Central Time Citadel, there to be 'helped' in my direst hour of need. Only now did I start to wonder, why was this button only concerned with 'faith'? Couldn't I have legitimately used it to take me home in some other emergency? If, for instance, I was fatally wounded and had to warn the other Time Lords of a threat to them? Or what about all the times when I'd been on the threshold of having my mind taken over by some evil alien entity -the Hive, the Mandragora Helix, all those attempts by the Sontarans to plumb my consciousness? I suddenly felt as though I was in some horrific web of manipulation. Or perhaps my mind had already been taken over? Ay? Certainly I'd never felt more in control of my mind, never felt my personality was stronger... but at the same time, that's what they'd want you to think. It was the evil which concerned me. I was starting to see it as a necessity. The Master. Bagwell. Why would fate throw me these very reasonable, approachable men -who just happened to be 'evil'-and in my final regeneration- if I didn't need them? If the universe didn't need them?
The TARDIS dematerialised in an ornate, partially underground holding chamber. I say partially underground; you could narrowly look upwards through a heavy glass platform to see the alienesque spires of the Time Citadel. Pastel sulphur clouds only served to exemplify the air of weird, austere oblivion. I was alone. A barely humanoid robot was sweeping the borders.
Imploringly, "Shall I clean your TARDIS, master?"
" 'Master' ", I said, thinking of K9. "Are you one of those robots that has a soul, are you?"
The robot didn't understand. Big Society. I moved up a broad spiral staircase and into a needlessly-serifed hallway. A junior Time Lord rushed to greet me. I regarded his dark red, heavily-segmented robe. It didn't exactly look stupid, but at the same time I couldn't imagine anyone wearing it if it wasn't their 9-5 job, something midway to a vocation. The young man asked me to wait while a more senior Time Lord was sent for, and would I like refreshments? Refreshments. I wondered who he thought I was, and what I'd come here for. I told him I'd like a sawn-in-half tennis ball fill of salt, and in the meantime go away in no uncertain terms.
I waited, thinking and feeling - nowt. Behind the pillars, I saw further Time Lords; a reasonable-eyed man who was obviously useless, a busy-looking fat man with a very pointed mouth. Good luck to them.
My overlord arrived, arms held straight at his sides, the distinctive spade-shaped head-board of his robe looking absolutely austere.
"Hello, Doctor", he said softly, consolingly. "I am Korasvotn, the High Guardian of Time. Come to my chamber and we'll chat about what's happened".
"How do you know I'm the Doctor?", I probed him.
He smiled very gently. "It would be very easy to say we recognised you by the disobedient chameleon circuit of your TARDIS, but that would be a lie. We identified you specifically by a scanning of your sub-synaptical ether-waves, or the 'aura' as your human friends might call it. I can't deny that we're the original 'Big Brother'".
His chamber was not particularly large, a thin, continuous window arching around the lozenge-shaped walls. Certain sections were modern stain glass, and the side of the room where Korasvotn took his place had a plethora of electronic screens, each showing news reports, young children in school, zoos, capable-looking politicians making bold diplomatic speeches. I hardly took in any of it; my eyes rested.
"Mr Korasvotn. I pressed the button because I've had enough".
"It's as simple and as complicated as that?", said the Time Guardian, his voice infinitely mellow.
I reminded him, "I've had my final regeneration. I'll die now anyway. I'd hoped that it would be a simple matter to relinquish the TARDIS to you and then go away and die in a ditch".
He gave an intense look at the bare desk in front of him, then into my eyes, then into thin air, all in quick succession. Odd, I remember thinking, that a man with such a lofty position could seem so considerate.
"Doctor, I'm a far younger man than you. I've barely lived three centuries. But if there's one cosmic truism I'd say we can both agree on it's this: life is never easy. Life is complicated and insidious, and it would happily drown you in your own emotions if it could".
"Agreed", I said simply.
The man gave a small nod to himself. It was hard to dislike Korasvotn. Even now I think of him fondly.
"I'm intensely curious -", he said at length. "How did it come to this? You were always so full of energy, optimism. In fact, your passion for existential freedom was always our biggest grievance with you".
"It's the humans", I said. "They laughed at me as I was saving them. They laughed as K9 died in my arms".
Here, Korasvotn shrugged his eyes pragmatically. "Cruelty is a regrettable phase which all conscious beings must pass through".
"I don't care", I said. "K9 was a gentleman and they laughed at him".
Korasvotn, "I'm not sure a robot dog can be a gentleman. Doctor, how can you be so out of love with the humans? I thought they were your favourite species?"
I said, and very open-heartedly, "I was shallow".
"How so?", probed the Time Guardian.
Hitching, sighing, I felt my breath take long run-ups as I tried to formulate my words. I seem to remember one of the electronic screens at Korasvotn's elbow was showing a procession of carefully-reconstructed ocean-going ships from Gallifrey's semi-mythological past. Newscasters smiled over their shoulders, smiled back into the camera. I lolled my eyes around the room; the window pane – spotless on the inside. And even on the outside, there was only trace amounts of grime. A very protective world to live in.
"I always used the last quarter of the twentieth century and the first quarter of twenty-first as my base of operations. Though I travelled vast distances into the Earth's past and future, it was always to between ninety-sixty- and two-thousand-and-whatever that I returned. And it was from there that I recruited my travelling companions, mostly. But around 2011, what I experienced in human society jaded me. It made me look at them in a different way. And I'm so sad I can barely talk about it".
"Talk about it anyway", said Korasvotn empathetically.
"All at once, they became arrogance and laziness incarnate, but on a wholly subconscious level. All the economies of the Earth, with the exceptions of a few red and work-ethos-oriental nations, were now built entirely on shifting sands. And they were somehow proud of it. Whoever did tangible, utilitarian work was shunned. And it was all so hatefully thoughtless. And I just remember-"
Yes, the memories were upon me, and I wept bitterly. Flashbacks of all the occasions when I'd visited Earth's pre-history and seen the barely upright apes struggling to survive the most horrifically severe winters. Little dark eyes, black irises in ponderous folds of grey flesh, staring up through the impossible mounds of snow and wondering how they'd survive. Either work, and survive, or die, and let God's love take you. But to imagine life cares about you simply by virtue of your existence in a herd – that's the worst kind of unconsciousness.
Korasvotn stood up and sat fairly near to me on the edge of the small table. He steepled his fingers and glanced down into my puffy-dingbat eyes. Reassuringly, forcefully, "Doctor, I don't care about the humans. It astonishes me that anyone could. The way they think is like – taking a mirror or a book, placing it on your outspread fingertips, putting a ball on it and trying to keep it there for as long as possible. Perhaps you favour rolling the ball from side to side. Or perhaps you think it's best to train your fingertips to remain absolutely still, praying, 'Gods! Please don't let the ball move too much !' Eventually they die, and the ball is dropped, the book is dropped, and that's the end of it".
My lot, at that point, was simply trying to control my damp and roving eyes. I listened fitfully to Korasvotn's words.
"You're in a state, and I respect your judgement that you want to die. However, I have weighty revelations. The weightiest you could possibly imagine. After I've told you these revelations, it's possible you may still want to die, or then again you may be enthused. But I promise you this: you will only be free at my say so. I'm sorry, Doctor, but for you the struggle is far from over".
Intrigued, despairing, I followed the K-man back down the broad spiral stairs, which seemed to have elongated slightly. Presently, some guards in asparagus-shaped helmets were flanking the TARDIS.
"Who are they guarding it from?", I wondered.
"They're just guarding it in general", said Korasvotn affably.
"I would have thought the Planet of the Time Lords was beyond physical danger".
"Atheist fanatics", he smiled opaquely. "They're predictable but persistent".
Enjoyable: the way the Time Citadel was such a giant structure, and yet the rooms were designed with intriguing economy. Slightly squashed corridors processed through to lavish living quarters. The fact they seemed slightly squashed, from above, was no doubt to bait claustrophobia and so nullify it via reverse psychology. Beanbags and the like, pastel colours and domestic yellow lighting suggested this was like some kindly quarantine zone or top-secret bunker. But as I said, I no longer care about adventures, and, intriguing premise or no, I will not willingly be drawn in.
The living quarters gave way to expansive laboratories. Blast doors, anti-crush bulkheads and see-through walls made for an impossibly high-tech labyrinth. And the chambers grew bigger, with bigger machines. I saw multiple time columns, just like the one from my own TARDIS, but here with far bolder colours, a whole palette of simplistic, homogenous strips. Some of the ovaloids in the walls had been pulled out three or four feet to reveal fiendishly complicated reactor-nodes which scared this auld man to death. And then, as we ambled the corridors, the walls started to hint at a large, curved chamber inset. Sure enough, I sighted it through the broad observation windows. The lighting was ambient to say the least.
We stood at the threshold of the vast chamber and, Superman, I'm speaking to you on a frequency only you can hear.
"Doctor, how do you feel?", asked your man studiously.
"Meh", said I.
He led the way towards the centre, across a fine, science-museum carpet. Suddenly, for some reason, the atmosphere or the spring in his step caused his robes to billow in a very stately fashion. Before us in the centre of the chamber was a giant, petrified, four-toed foot. There was a giant clock with hands that looked like cartoon thunderbolts. There was a giant fountain pen, plus cosmic jetsam of all varieties.
Of course, I'd seen giants before, once or twice. This one had been about a hundred feet tall - impressive. But what really stood out was how old it looked, how ornate and gilded.
Lo the man explained everything. And it continued once more. The faintly ham-fisted foray into hardcore science fiction which my life has always followed.
"A decade before you were born, around about the year Epsilon MMMX, something momentous happened to Gallifreyan society. In fact, about as significant a thing as can happen to any society, or to any individual".
"Whatever it was, just stop hyping it", I said cattily.
"No amount of hyping can do it justice, Doctor", promised Korasvotn. "Spontaneously, our whole fleet of TARDISes were pulled off course and forcibly caused to materialise in a vast, hollow asteroid. We have no name for it; it was later revealed to be drifting in the Sisyphus Expanse, the biggest region of lifeless, starless space in the charted universe. The place was pitch black, yet it seemed to be a natural cavern, boasting a limitless supply of breathable atmosphere - something which no one could quite account for. And so the squads of Time Lords disembarked their TARDISes and ventured inwards. Naturally, they suspected an ambush by the Sontarans, the Daleks, or the Nation of Os'Ram -".
"I'm sorry, 'The Nation of Os'Ram'?'", admittedly it was a name I'd heard before, but a very long time ago, perhaps a thousand years or more.
"They were a once proud and powerful race, extinct by the time you started travelling in your own TARDIS. The asteroid-"
But none of this helped. I demanded, "'Extinct'? What does the word 'extinct' mean to us?"
"The Cybermen, soon after they developed their own technique of Time Travel, succeeded in eradicating them from the timeline, as if they'd never existed in any conceptual, dialectical sense".
"Then how come I know that name?"
Korasvotn smiled faintly. "We're getting to that, be assured.
"The Time Lords converged towards the centre of the asteroid. Their scanners showed an unprecedented saturation of Dotlev radiation, also Kmazi particles, all very primordial, exactly the type of conditions we encounter whenever we venture too close to the Big Bang. But here, the temporal elements existed in a state of friction, just as if they were trying to amalgamate with the anginal quantum charges of conventional time-flow. Some of the Time Lords spoke of hearing celestial music, several dropped dead, still others felt irreverent or cantankerous. All had nose bleeds, erratic hearts-beats. They moved falteringly - as all conscious beings do when the only light source is pale torch beams against impenetrable black, the unknown, a slight breeze playing at your flesh from gods-know-where. The read-outs given by their time monitors became increasingly wild and contradictory. The notation, 'Unknown Dimensional Particle' flashed on each screen, again, and again, and again. Those who survived spoke of a sudden hitching of their breaths. That sudden, dramatic moment was all they had to persuade them they weren't dreaming –
"As their torch beams fell upon Him".
"'Him'?", I asked. By the portent in Korasvotn's voice, I had a horrible feeling I could guess to whom he was referring.
"There was no mistaking who it was they were seeing. Even discounting the palpable sense of awe which flowed in the air, it was as though one could tell instinctively, on some grand, universal-implicate level. It was a God. Perhaps God Himself".
I stared with renewed interest at the mammoth four-toed foot.
Korasvotn, "He was alive, though barely. But He spoke to them at length. Each of the Time Lords reported hearing different words, though certain elements could be cross-referenced and gleaned as fact. One, that he had arrived in this universe as a result of some political altercation with the other Gods or angels. Two, that he was dying, fading out of our linear reality. Three, that this universe is corrupt, fully in the thrall of the Demiurge. Even the best races are no more than small children, while the worst are like arrogant teenagers. We Time Lords, the God sighed, were like the adults –though this carried very little equity, since the universe itself is inherently flawed. The God rolled His mighty eyes in numb saintliness and apologised unreservedly".
I hugged the shoulders of my fisherman's jumper, the thin interlacing of sketchy wool. Somewhere, in some relatively parochial factory, a woman, an old woman, an emotionally-fortified teenage girl had knitted me my skin. Perhaps they had believed in God, in some form or another. But this whole business of the asteroid I found distasteful. A small child falling asleep while watching Star Trek V. Philip Pullman: Can I rewrite the Bible to make it more applicable to the human condition? Yes, if you must, as long as you can guarantee every c-unit in the world will read it. In a weary voice, I asked of Korasvotn, "You said that each Time Lord heard something different. How did the God's words differ between them?"
"One -", a very indulgent raise of an eyebrow. "One said He spoke like a laconic rock star. One said He told the salient facts in the style of a post-modern stand-up comedian. There was even an account of the God being so weak that He could only communicate by blinking His eyes in Morse Code".
"How did it all end, then, this meeting of Man and God?"
Without a hint of irony, K. gestured at the petrified foot. "He died in front of them".
'OK', I remember thinking. The belief that I'd got off easily in full swing, running away with me, sweeping me up. "So this is really just some philosophically-respectable lecture of how, having literally watched God die, Time Lords have a moral duty to live every one of their twelve lives, and should care for everyone everywhere, even if it's a losing battle and they get driven insane for their troubles".
"No, Doctor. That's not it at all", said Korasvotn gravely. "This God wasn't just dying. He was willing himself to die. In His impossibly old age, He'd become jaded, bereft of hope".
A sigh from the Doctor. "But for a god to suddenly feel that way suggests a lack of omniscience, meaning He wasn't really a god to start with".
A pleased shrug-of-the-mouth by the Time Guardian, "Not so. He stressed that all the despair He felt, and His immanent death, were concerned only with our universe, not the Implicate Universe which was His natural home. It merely ties with the belief that many religions have, that God enters into our universe to sacrifice Himself on our behalf".
Couldn't think of anything else to ask about the God story at that point: I merely paced up to the artefacts and traced my fingertips over them. The petrified foot was like very fine plastic. The giant clock, the fountain pen, and the sandal which the foot still wore, all seemed to be made of the most resilient metal imaginable. Smooth also. I dimly wondered what spiel a medium would come out with if you placed them in front of the artefacts and told them to take a reading. Oh, they could say anything, though it would still be hard because it would need to 'feel' right. What if God doesn't fit with the lowest common denominator? All you can ever do is be humble to the point of vanishing from His burning eyes. What, are you worried you'll look too meek in front of Him, George W. Bush? Too indecisive, Tony Blair? Too parochial, individual soldiers? (tell me all about Al Queda, about Saif al-Adel, and Khawarij Islam, and the history of the Mujahideen from medieval times to present, and how you always hated watching Rambo when you were a child, and only agreed to play him in the schoolyard once it became absolutely necessary to Protect Your Country).
"What has all this to do with me?" Playtime over.
"Once the God was dead, the TARDISes returned to life once more, and they created a sustained chronoton field to transport the corpse back to Gallifrey for analysis", Korasvotn took a very giddy breath. "Anatomically and on a general atomic level, the God wasn't too different from a lot of giant humanoids. How He differed was a sophisticated photonic field made by a saturation of prokmazi isotopes – in his bones, his blood-stream, centralised around the brain stem".
"Prokmazi, yes", I struggled to remember. Look at me pretending to read this Chinese Newspaper (I am a dog). Look at me, I'm a novelist writing exposition, putting it in a little box alongside my severed ear, posting it to Satan. "This is one of the quasi-existent forces which powers the heart of my TARDIS".
"Correct", said K. "It is the Power of God, and how our ancestors relished the chance to reproduce it, experiment with it. As you said, we used it to make new and improved TARDISes. We used it to fortify Gallifrey. But the question of whether or not to suffuse it into a living mortal – this was a weighty matter, even for a morally enlightened race such as ours".
Eat the exposition. Eat it. Eat it down.
"But who has the right to say no to immortality? On the scale of eternity, we have a responsibility to explore all avenues of survival".
I said, "So, this adoption of God's blood into our bodies –is this what allows Time Lords our twelve lives?"
"Doctor", Korasvotn smiled at the high drama, "will you sit down for a moment?"
I noted that were no chairs. The Time Guardian spread his arms to indicate the floor, and we sat cross-legged among the fragments of the ancient God. Surreal scenario, even for me. Turkish delight exposition: tasty.
He asked me, "Did you never wonder why we asked so little from you in your duties as a Time Lord?"
This was a fair question. I felt my old jaw move in the most subtle manner. "I always just assumed that, as the universe grew older, was decimated by wars and recessions, there were fewer scientists able to mess around with time. But I was sent to Skaro to divert Davros and the Kaleds from creating the Daleks. There can't be many jobs bigger than that".
Said Korasvotn softly, "The Time Guardian of that period secretly knew that the Daleks could never be erased from cosmic history. They're too much of an archetype".
I felt distaste. "You sound like a Dalek sympathiser".
"Just between you and me, I suppose I am", said Korasvotn. "But it's only vague sympathy. The kind of bizarre sentiment that denotes a truly conscious mind".
"But look", I moved stiffly on the luscious red carpet, "whether we're just ordinary men in time machines, or angelic beings derived from the gods, we're still no less vital than bobbies on the beat. An ever-ready policeman on every street corner, willing to take on whatever comes their way".
Korasvotn grew darker. "You're wrong. You're infinitely more than that. Here at the Time Citadel, we couldn't have cared less if you saved the Earth once, a hundred times, or never. And this is why –
"That Time Lords regenerate twelve times and then die is disinformation. It's a lie which we perpetrated throughout our society since we first started to experiment with the God's blood. The truth is, it allows us unlimited regenerations. As a species, as individuals, we are now immortal".
"Oh my god". I remember putting my head in my hands, having a delirious love-hate relationship with the deep creases of my brow. "No. Please no. Are you telling me there's no way I can die, even if I want to?"
Waiting for the man to answer, I'd never known such isolation. Not isolation from other people, because who cares about that, but isolation from the soothing anaesthetic of my own lateral thinking, my own avenue of capricious eternity. I stared through my burning eyes at the charcoal shadows at the recesses of the chamber. A voice, a soothing voice. Korasvotn's.
"Gods know that I am a compassionate leader. I have a way, Doctor, for you to become mortal again. But I can't give it to you. You are our only vanguard. You were the first Gallifreyan to be treated with the God's blood. You are the most important man in the universe. We have no other way of knowing how eternal life will effect us, except by observing you. And we think it would be bad form, in cosmic terms, to grant the general population deathless eternity without knowing the psychological effects".
"Quite right; eternal life will drive you all insane", I sobbed. "I am irrevocably damaged, and all I want to do is die in a ditch".
The Time Guardian manoeuvred his face low beside mine; his grey eyes pierced and probed.
"How can you be sure you won't recover?"
I sobbed and my body folded across the ground. All quite pathetic. Too much exposition, boy. Tarzan in the jungle, got a belly-ache. Wants to do a toilet.
The Daleks entered the labyrinth and moved quickly, also carefully, shifting their extermination arms in a deliberate fencing motion. From the long rank of Time-Cadets residing behind a fallen pillar, a single man was annihilated. Beside him, a man with blonde hair and a nimble mouth did not react; he fired boldly at the eye piece of a Dalek a few spaces inwards from their main vanguard. Deliberated by nothing, determined by nothing, a further man was removed from the line of defenders. The nimble-mouth man was hardly cognisant: he saw the oddly-pronounced haze of radiation, but no sign of the trademark outline of bones. He felt it; a horrible magnetic clenching in the air, plus a sickly, irradiated vacuum playing across his left side, a bloody protestation by all the membranes in his nose. On the whole, he was grateful that a man had died so close beside him. It spurred him on. He broke ranks and rushed out onto the battlefield.
Truly, the Time Lords only ever had one advantage over the Daleks during the initial stages of a planetary invasion – the indigenous population would look at these angular metal shells and assume the whole creature was robotic. The truth was a saving grace, that the Daleks were living, zeal-filled beings, sometimes blatantly irrational but always capricious. They rarely acted methodically while things were going well, and when things started to fall apart, there was only the ire. In a way, he felt profoundly sorry for them.
He ran, rather than bolted, to a central area of ground. In front of him, the badly-targeted flash of an extermination ray caused the light spectrum to ripple and quake. This also happened at his left, and his far-left. Peripheral distractions showed the wedding-hat aliens fighting furiously, being trapped in a brief stalemate where they threw ineffective molotov cocktails, or were exterminated just as they raised their stringy blue biceps.
"YOU WILL BE EXTERMINATED".
It was deadly, it was heartbreaking. It was the timeless, godless singularity created when deadliness and heartbreak cancel each other out. On most planets which had narrowly survived the Daleks, the scholars had noted this mental tic well. 'You will be exterminated'. Why would a parasitic humanoid lifeform need to take receipt of the knowledge that they're about to be burned away by genocide? It wasn't like a spontaneous report to God, since the Daleks were notoriously atheistic. You had to wonder if they even knew they were speaking aloud.
War should be like sex; best done when you're nigh-thoughtless. Don't even have it as a catharsis, just an eruption of God's weird idiosyncrasy. This, at any rate, was what the nimble-mouthed man thought as he clung to the side of the blue-and-silver Dalek. Even as he fixed the EMP dough to the eye-stalk, he was aware of the extermination arm craning into his kidney. Enter a race lasting fractions-of-seconds – and go. The creature was partially paralysed, and chose to careen wildly from side to side. Mr Nimble-Mouth leapt from his victim just as it was accidentally consumed by the extermination field of a comrade Dalek. It was a rush of excitement. The excitement was childish and he felt ashamed.
Near the edge of battlezone, a Dalek exploded, followed by another at the opposite edge. An alien going to town with a rapid-fire incendiary was annihilated, and the man dived and snaked his body to retrieve the weapon. It still felt horribly radioactive, yet he brought it to bear all too easily on some of the deadliest Daleks of the vanguard. The silver-on-black one who moved backwards and forwards excitedly, still managing to pick its targets as if from a brochure. Acrid, stubborn smoke clung to everything now. Simultaneously, several rays seemed to come dangerously close to his limbs – if only there was time to judge where they'd come from. He simply manhandled the nearest Dalek, a mighty DeStijl stalwart. Hacking at the eye-stalk his tomahawk, making ridiculous efforts to aim the extermination arm – it was all as inexorable as sunrise.
And in this way, the battle faded, with a flood of humanoid soldiers dispelling the Daleks one by one. Even in the dying moments, many were exterminated, touched by the wand of some smooth, careless God.
Still the man thrust and swung his tomahawk until all danger fell away. Only then did his steady hand run a handkerchief over that nimble mouth as he blinked, staggered a little, stared at the sky.
The image on the screen changed unexpectedly to what was obviously 'a short time later'. On a Gallifreyan Troop Ship, the nimble-mouthed man was being interviewed.
"You're a very determined warrior, John", said a senior Time Lord.
"I don't see myself as a warrior, but thankyou all the same".
Time Cadet John Smith, age forty, finished fixing his riverboat tie and brushed down the suede dress jacket. When the motion was complete, he continued to hang his fingertips from the lapels.
The old Time Lord asked, "If we agree to your application to be a Time Lord, do you think you'll always fight so hard?"
Youthful John Smith said, "I'll fight where it's prudent, where friendship and diplomacy fail".
"Well", thought the Time Lord. "That's what's called moral integrity. But I wasn't questioning your nobility, Mr Smith. As you fought, you know, you seemed very unmindful to the danger to yourself".
With gusto, "Perhaps we should have let the Daleks win, eh? Gained a foothold and taken over the planet?"
"You have the same ideals as me", the senior man smiled. He steepled his dry old fingers over the red robe, cast his eyes magnanimously. "Once one becomes a Time Lord, and is infused with the ability to regenerate after death, is given a TARDIS, we are in a unique position of power, and it's a cosmic truism that with great power comes great responsibility".
"Quite, quite", said John Smith, slightly dazed. "But we must also be -"
He faltered for a second and searched for his words, which was an unusual and vaguely reassuring mannerism which John Smith Incarnation One was subject to.
"—also be symbols of the benevolence, the kindness which is inherent in the bohemian lifestyle".
At these words, the old Time Lord shook his head in wonder and was quite content.
The time scanner was deactivated.
"Do you remember any of that day?", Korasvotn asked me.
"If I hadn't just watched that footage, I'd never have remembered it again. But yes, I recall a little of my life from that time. Those sacred days, those endless days, you gave me".
Three inches above his head – Gallifreyans are not big on Kirsty McColl.
"That man", Korasvotn sat back in his deliberation chair. His eyes became glassy, as lost in thought as a conscious being can be. "You were so steely and decisive. It's hard to imagine you could change as fundamentally as you have. If you had to, would you still fight the Daleks like that today?"
"No", I said flatly. "Anyone who fights in a war, who isn't directly, personally oppressed by the enemy, is a -t". No offence, Mike. No offence, Brigadier.
"Well, I didn't mean to upset you. In truth, I am awed by your sensibilities".
Now I also relaxed back in my chair. Tantalus relaxes forward in his vines. I stared up at the fancy lights spaced out in an arch. How I was going to enjoy delivering my own little revelation.
"I misled you people. My motives for wanting to become a Time Lord weren't noble at all. At best they were human. At worst they were nightmarishly self-indulgent. If there's even any difference between the two".
He asked me what I meant and I gleefully told him. Smiling exacerbated the feeling of warmth in my eyes from where I'd been crying: I remember that.
"These are the events which prompted me to become a Time Lord. My dog Cleggie died, viciously separating me from the ability to love anything without the most sophisticated spiritual provisos. My girlfriend left me, ensuring I'd never want to have a fully-requited love affair with a woman again. Then finally, my parents both died. And I entered that numb, glacial, philosophically-dense wonderland which perhaps all bereaved children find themselves in. Stare at the swirling trees and see them being moved by the most inhumane God imaginable. Sense the morality-skimming oblivion on every street corner and every buzzing light bulb. Everything is wrong with the universe. Everything is designed to make you choke on despair. But at least it's the Final Frontier, the ultimate zeitgeist. I remember thinking: I could explore this place. I could fall in love with it.
"But no. Just as everyone else panics and runs away, so did I. I was so sure I could become a part of that arch-meaningful sorrow. But then one day it just happens – one day you're communing with your dark God, then the next you're thinking, 'what shall I have for tea tonight that will be 'nice'? What stupid film will I watch, what time shall I go to bed tonight, so that I'm fresh for work and won't 'upset' myself or my boss?'
"As surely as we think, we are all the most shallow hedonists. I was all ready to enter into the transcendent oblivion of black emotional hysteria. But no. I was placated and distracted by something as frivolous as a Time Machine and 'adventures', and the chance to live my life twelve times over in a neat little row. Wake up. Grow up. I hate you, Doctor. You're nothing more than a naked homeless, living in a skip, having a conversation with a bottle of cider about Bodger and Badger".
From second to second, it fascinated me how Korasvotn was able to sit and absorb my freakish ire. The burning gaze was set in his direction; it took in his body, caused to his diorama to fuse until it resembled some kaleidoscopic throne. Because the colours were super-saturated, all contrast shifted into swarms of scuzzy heliotrope. A kind of time vortex you only ever see while having a nervous breakdown.
"John". That calm, silvery-pastel pout of his. "You're doing yourself a disservice. I know about the first trip you took in your TARDIS. I know how bold and transgressive it was. You could have gone anywhere, and done anything, and yet you went here, and did this. So please don't pretend you're any kind of a spiritually cheap or frivolous man".
He activated the time-scanner once more.
Somewhere, against a bleached Holyland sky, the basic sandy-plaster hut materialised in great sweeps of luminous energy. A TARDIS, with a fully-functioning chameleon circuit; how do you like that? For all the world, it was absolutely uniform to the sandy-igloo design of the time. The shadowy recesses of the door: deep, impenetrable. Within was a ridiculously youthful Doctor standing tensely beside the antiquated console, readying himself as much as possible. Yes, there they go through his head: all the questions of Divine Fate, providence-at-a-price, the sacrifice of all things at the altar of cosmic grace, even if it's that gentle solidarity which one individual being feels for another.
Except, no. Specific solidarity is always better than love based on a lowest common denominator. It just is. Don't even think about it. Just do it. Like a rat up a drainpipe. I have a soul. Save Jesus. Save Jesus.
He hunched down and passed through the door. The heat was something else, making him feel hollow and arbitrary. Ditto the long city outline slanting off to a pale blue sky. A few palm trees here and there, weirdly, just the way we all picture it in our imagination. On the left, Golgotha Hill.
The Doctor winced and tried to focus on individual features. To his chagrin, he succeeded.
Surrounding him there were at least a dozen other time machines. The disparate time travellers stood listlessly beside their machines, reference smokers in a car park.
"A newcomer", said a geeky-looking man in a pastel shirt, though as he spoke a further time machine appeared in a little flash of carbonised plutonium. "Newcomers", he corrected himself.
"Look", said a woman with overbearing eyes, "The fact remains, we can't all save Him. We can't be like a mob. How do I know that your motives are pure?"
A man in a long coat, time machine like a steam-punk chemotheraphy unit, massaged his face in exasperation. "It doesn't matter if one of us is evil or not. Jesus won't allow Himself to be manipulated. As long as one of us is doing this with all the integrity of our soul, He'll know the point we're making: that He's making a mistake by dying for us".
"What you say is true, but-", the man in the pastel shirt paused. In amongst all the arguing, no one had noticed that the Doctor was away and marching up the hill. They could only watch with sickly anticipation. The sickliest anticipation in the world.
Into the peripheral of the crowd, which held just a few mumble-mouthed women and mindless men. A small boy pointed at the gentlest man in the world as he was crucified: he screeched and laughed mindlessly, as is the default state of most human children.
"Enjoy it while you can, young man", said the Doctor as he passed.
The central area of the crowd featured prostrate women and numb-looking men. Very simply, he had no time to wonder which of these were disciples or just prominent believers. He barely had any notice to steel himself against the foreboding look which he strongly suspected Jesus would direct at him. And so he fixed his eyes solely on the tip of the spear as it moved to plunge into The Man's side. The Roman centurion was needlessly nimble on his toes, and it all seemed horribly homoerotic. But then, that's the military for you. No offence, Mike. No offence Brigadier.
The Doctor took aim with his sidearm. None of the onlookers reacted, presumably because they'd never seen any kind of gun, let alone a ray gun. Reluctantly, his marching feet shook to a stop, the better to direct his aim. Funny, sickly: he could sense his hearts-beats pounding wildly, and yet his breaths were drawn so falteringly it was as if he was comatose. The sand was stolid at his feet - also dreamlike.
The Centurion braced himself, massaged the grip of his spear. Jesus lolled his head, never more acquiescent.
The Doctor fired. Heat, sweat and a small moment of delirium caused him to blink. He found himself back aboard The TARDIS, gun proffered at nothing but ovaloid walls.
"Very clever", he said to no one, about nothing in particular.
He left the Control Room, emerged through the small doorway into the desert. The crowd of time travellers. "A newcomer". Blinking back the cursed sun, he fixed his eyes at the crowds on top of the hill. He ran. The peripheral of mumble-mouth women, mindless men. The nightmarish kid. Believers or desciples? The homoerotic Centurion.
He took aim and fired.
A different kind of heat and delirium caused him to blink. He found himself back aboard The TARDIS. He allowed the gun to fall briefly at his side.
"Deuced" - which was the strongest swear word he knew at that time.
His feet carried him quickly but weakly from the Control Room. He blinked away the cursed sun almost as if it was a joy. He ignored the shabby futurism of the time travellers. Up the hill. People. Believers? The child laughed, always to bring some human continuity to the sense of determination.
The Doctor stood before Jesus, plus his friend with the spear.
"You really don't want to be saved", said The Doctor. "That's fine".
Jesus looked at him.
"But what about the horror inherent in the human personality, and the way it will take over in as little as two thousand years? What about that? Aren't you worried all this will fall short?"
Jesus creased his eyes in a beatific smile.
The Doctor shrugged. "Very well. If that's the way you feel, I -", he stumbled and searched for his words, "I'm inclined to go for a pleasant evening with Greta Garbo and Betty Compson, and we'll drink alcohol and stare and the lights, and dance as though we don't have a care in the world".
The Doctor turned; the time-scanner focused on his prim and youthful face, left Jesus far behind.
Korasvotn observed, "I've said it before; I don't care about the humans in the least. I could care less about their insipid gods. In my humble opinion, it's the biggest mistake for you to let them upset you. And yet, John, don't you see - with your very first trip in The TARDIS, you were willing to accept such responsibility, for their whole world, their collective eternal soul. Don't you feel the same responsibility now, for Gallifrey?"
I told him yes, a little bit, except my hearts lay with the Earth; I couldn't bear to see it carry on so shamefully. And that was that.
A quiet period. As I grew more preoccupied, I fidgeted. I remember affixing a beautifully warm clump of fingers around my lips and never wanting to move them again. The angle of the chair was conducive to brooding. I felt sure I could drift away. Nevertheless, I fondled the creases on my brow and the tufts above my ears. Memories of memories. Our rusty submarine washed up on a beach; the sound of waves enveloping and receding.
"Taking into account what you've told me about my origin - do you suppose I had any special connection with him? Jesus, I mean?"
Korasvotn was surprised, also unflappable. "How should I know? Everyone would believe they have a special connection with the gods".
"Except -", what remained of the muscles on my brow rippled and ravaged my eyebrows. "No one except mentals and serial killers would entertain the possibility that they are contemporaries of the Gods".
As if to say 'well, chestnut!', Korasvotn tapped his fingertips playfully. "The consensus of our research into sub-quantum interlacing indicates there's no such thing as coincidence, that Prokmazi templates of pure meaning often lose coherence as they travel backwards and forwards though time, but they never vanish altogether. It's an interesting subject".
Interesting? My thoughts moved in the most ghostly manner: I resolved to tell the Time Guardian what was really on my mind. The Macra.
"I'm not referring to some broad 'rapport' with the universe. I'm talking about barely diluted solipsism. I have a very strong memory –
"It was in my second incarnation. I arrived at a distant human space colony. With me was Jamie, a girl –Polly- and a young cockney called Ben. Secretly, I felt more than a little prejudice towards Ben, though I didn't loathe him, either, and he made an interesting change. He seemed loud, and frivolous, but then, so was the time and the place from which he'd come. No sooner had we arrived in these subdued, subterranean ducts, than a madman ran past us. Being little goody-two-shoes, we helped the guards restrain him. It was only later, as we became further embroiled in the intrigue, that we found his ranting of giant insects wasn't quite so insane after all. The insect-stroke-crab aliens had set up a system whereby the humans were perpetually in the thrall of subliminal programming. We tried to escape a couple of times. At one point, I found myself outside in the planets atmosphere.
"And it made the eeriest sound you can imagine, like some kind of defiantly inhuman hymn. Sonorous, reverberating, ravenous, to the point where I started to go mad, and this arch-ambient sound had always been a part of me, the deepest part.
"But I was compelled to go back in. We were all taken prisoner and sent to work in poisonous gas mines, where the madman who'd started the whole thing promptly died before my eyes. We were only saved ourselves when Ben, who'd fallen in with our captors, managed to shake himself free from the programming. It was the last time I'd ever allow myself to feel prejudice. From then on, I promised myself, I'd only ever judge people by their actions, not what they seem like on the surface. Reasonable?
"When we were back there, in the TARDIS, Polly and Ben started to argue. Ben maintained that the subliminal manipulation of the colonists was similar to how people were treated in Communist Russia back on Earth. Polly insisted it was more like the mindless post-war baby-boom of the capitalist countries. They argued, and argued, and argued, Ben laughing annoyingly, Polly stamping her foot in that way unique to sixties girls. He'd say something like, 'but they spouted all of that indoctrinated rubbish about why hard work was essential to the colony – like those words were all they had, just like communism'. Said Polly, 'That's just it. That's the whole point of communism – no one can indoctrinate you, because you live by your own hard work, your own responsibility – you carry it inside you where no one can change it'.
"They championed capitalism and communism at length – these two shining twenty-somethings, who, rather than actually live by either capitalism or communism, had chosen instead to travel in a magic police box with this wonderful old bohemian, this wonderful old bohemian, this stoical, flute-blowing bohemian in his mysterious box of adventures; Mr Majorium's Wonder Emporium.
"And they asked me what I thought. Whereupon I fell down and had a fit. Down like a sack of potatoes. The potatoes rolling out of the sack and then down a drain into hell. If only I was unconscious. But the delirium had a hold on me. Lying there on the floor of the TARDIS shaking like a locomotive, there was only one thing in my head; the name of the madman who'd tried to warn us.
"Don't you see? It was the universe trying to get through to me, even at that early stage, to warn me how frivolous my lives were. But did I listen? Did I want to stave off the madness?"
I stayed for some time in the compound with Korasvotn. The rich decor spoke of a far more stately time, while the rough-hewn chairs with their 90-degree backs never let you forget you were there, alone with your tick-tocking mind. You're of interest to the Time Lords, you, with their infallible weighing of history and insouciant sci-fi logic. Boiling down to it, I believed everything K. told be about my importance as their psychological vanguard into eternity. But it didn't make me any more willing to participate. I remember one very interesting exchange took place just as the suns were going down. As we spoke, junior Time Lords swapped the red-and-brown daytime drapes for the heavy black night-time ones. This, even though we still had another quarter of hour of daylight, the long period of atmospheric gloaming. Perhaps the drapes had some significance in Time Lord ethos. Austere colour regulated by heavy blockades of black. Certainly I liked the night-ambience: with all the illumination coming from low, faux-flaming wallmounts and deco table lamps, most individual tables and chairs took on wholly mythic proportions. Elongated and eerily God-like.
"We can't be the only civilisation that's found a way of becoming immortal. There must be others that can advise us. What about the Vorlons? Or the Monolith-builders? Or the Wormhole Prophets?"
"The Vorlons are too elusive. The Monolith-builders and the Wormhole Prophets are too subtle. I'm afraid a lot of the known eternal races are. It seems that this mysterious, unspeakable subtlety might well be part and parcel of living forever, and we may have no other choice than to slowly adopt it. But I'm convinced there must be a missing psychological link between our sensibilities now and the type of mind that can flitter and move freely in eternity".
I said boldly, "What if there's no problem with our minds? What if it's just that God hates us and doesn't think we deserve to live forever?"
"If that's the case", Korasvotn shrugged, "we have to find a way to placate this singular 'god'".
I remember sighing deeply at this point, your man smiling at me as though we were nothing more complicated than Hollywood screenwriters trying to splice together two mismatched scenes, keeping continuity happy, keeping the momentum and characterisation happy. Or, no. Not characterisation, since when had that ever been important? Having learnt that this was not in fact my final regeneration, I shuddered to think what bizarre new man was waiting to fill my shoes. I thought I'd hit a new low in terms of the gobshykey prancing of Ten. But god knew it could only get worse. Probably younger, too. Who would I be?
Justin Beiber with the buffoonery of Benny Hill?
Prince Harry in tap-dancing shoes?
F Harry Potter?
On finding myself as one of the above, I'd like to think I'd have the presence of mind to instantly throw myself from a tall building and skip an incarnation. But there's no guaranteeing I would.
No, I resolved never to regenerate again. We would sort this out. Korasvotn would grant me my mortality one way or another.
He led me to a rather monastic sleep chamber and told me to bed down for the night, after which we'd meet some of the brand new Time Lords who'd only just qualified for TARDIS use. He said that, in a philosophical sense, these were my children.
"I'd sooner have my brain acupunctured by rogue Scientologists".
And he laughed at that and wished me goodnight.
I slept about as well as ever, and had a very distinct dream. I was with Nessa (not to be mistaken for Nyssa), my very last companion before things started to turn sour. We were in the small airport of the Spanish island which was her parent's home. Something had happened to the hand rails of her wheelchair, and I was having to push her (this would never have happened in reality, Nessa being fiercely independent). Still she seemed happy enough and periodically turned to smile at me. Myself, I was unnerved. I was unsure which period of my life this was, which incarnation I was in. As we moved, I surreptitiously scanned the airport lounge for a mirror of a sheer surface to look in. There was nothing, just the vibrant green pot plants that befitted a suave Spanish airport. At the broad windows overlooking the planes coming in, and going out again, there came a sonorous noise. Nessa and I both sensed some kind of attack. But it was music, 'Somebody Up There Likes Me' by David Bowie, played at an altogether apocalyptic volume.
Nessa leaned around in her chair and hugged my waist.
"Don't die, Doctor, I love you". Crying.
I fumbled an explanation that I was old, and weak, and too haunted to carry on living. Hostesses screamed; oval pot plants rolled onto their sides. I hugged your girl, and told her everything was going to be fine (it wasn't). The insane reverberation of 'Somebody Up There Likes Me' caused the runway tarmac to open up and swallow whole planes. In this manner, the world itself started to disintegrate.
The next morning was stolid and weird; I felt like Prince Philip meeting some foreign students. Nice. Their plush, orange-highlighted living quarters merged seamlessly with the unintentionally dark catacombs where they tinkered with their TARDISes. Wry smile a-go-go, Korasvotn introduced me first to a semi-sympathetic-faced girl wearing the traditional garb of the café intellectual. I asked her where she was going for her first trip, and she told me, to the birth of some galaxy I'd never heard of. What sort of people did she have in mind as her companions? Perhaps, she mused, one of native Plant-People of the Dernus Sector, or someone who could help her in her studies of non-lithospheric rock formations.
They were all the same: young, with stupid smiles - and ssshh boring. I wish I could tell you otherwise. There was one young man and his robot assistant (come back Kameleon) –having received grants from Galactic Geographic magazine and the Committee for the Promotion of Racial Equality in Space Administration, was away to study solar vin yards in the Prometheus Galaxy. "Rubbish", I said, in an attempt to tease him. "You're going straight to 1978 to burglarise Philip K Dick's house for answers". Only he didn't know who Philip K Dick was or why he'd want to rifle through his things (why would he? It was me). When I became bored, trying to bring myself down to his level, I asked what his favourite wine was. He said the Delta MMMXIV Centuri Rose, definitely. Why, I asked him. He didn't know.
Frowning like the last piece of wretched cartilage inside a Cyberman's helmet, I walked around the TARDISes for an indeterminate amount of time, then took my grievances to Korasvotn.
"All as bland as a castrated snooker table".
"Blandness isn't a crime", said K-man the optimist.
I said lightly and venomously, "No, it's not".
"You must admit, John, they fall short of the out-and-out hedonistic attitude which you've accused the younger generation of having".
I put my head in my hands, felt my pulse throbbing away at different points on the surface of my tear-reddened face. I wanted to collapse on the floor, but made it as far as portable equipment carousel. "A tour of vin yards? Rock formations? Their subconsciouses have selected the weirdest niche interests as a direct substitute for the hedonistic activities which they know –which they know- are shameful. But it's still no nearer to having a proud, holistic vision of where you belong in the universe. For God's sake!"
Korasvotn tried, "They have to start somewhere".
Getting up, spreading my arms at my fellow Time Lords, and why not?
"We are all here, in this corrupted universe, for a reason. As Time Lords, we don't have to go to any particular place or any particular time, but we do have a responsibility to bait the universe out by challenging whatever it throws at us. This could involve being embroiled in a Silurian invasion, or it could just be the lowest common denominator, chatting to an auld cleaning lady about nothing, about grind-stone-nothing. And when I say 'could', I mean 'probably'. Go on, hands up. Hands up, anyone who thinks you've got it right".
No one raised. I did hear a jowly, bestubbled boy say, 'He's been around Humans too long'.
A shrug, a concession. The edge of the platform which held the various TARDISes had adjustable floodlights built in to the kick-plates: dim at the moment, I allowed my eyes to loll around them for seconds on end.
"The humans, yes. They used to be beautiful, conflicted creatures. Now they're just walking sacks of unconscious greed. The last time I was on Earth, it was the Olympic Games, and they all thought, yeah! This noble thing; this will get us all out of recession! Except, noble? Imagine there was no God and no Heaven. Or imagine a temporarily unresponsive God and a quantum-indeterminate Heaven, as seems more likely. An Olympic athlete enters the scene, with their ambition to be best badminton player in the world. And? How does this impress God, with its complete lack of psychic reflection and cosmic relevance? Considering all the things that person could be, or could ever be, in the face of disembodied eternity, why would they aspire to merely being the best at moving their physical muscles in a certain way, and for a stupid, arbitrary game?
"God hates you. God hates you all with your selfish, parochial vocations. God hates you, and so do I, and if there was any justice, you'd pilot your TARDISes inside solid rock and be stuck there until the end of time, you arrogant, bourgeois, pebble-eyed slags to a man.
I walked stiffly to a broad observation deck several floors above, which held a calming view of Gallifrey's modest mountain ranges. Korasvotn followed me immediately, and I felt happy that he obviously hadn't paused to apologise or reassure the young Time Lords.
"You have a visceral and dynamic pep talk".
"Rain. Streets. Them", I said, lost, because Korasvotn had obviously never seen Taxi Driver.
We stared at the mountain ranges, modest. It was a blustery day. Deep, heavily-layered voids of cloud moved quickly from right to left. I love dramatic gusts of melancholy cloud, me. Love it as much as the next person with an eternal soul. But, move forward; you can either have torrential rain to wash away the bourgeois or you can have a searing heat-wave to fizz you away, alone, to Heaven. Just - don't expect a mix. In the little courtyards and stupid back-streets, tiny birds hopped primly on the ruddy-red grit. Gallifreyan birds look much the same as Earth birds, except an Earth blackbird or an Earth starling will look slightly more beleaguered.
I noted that all the prospective Time Lords were happy and bourgeois-conceited, and that's why they were doomed.
Korasvotn looked at me as though I was speaking random words, solemnly bumbling away with free-association. Perhaps I was. In for a penny, though. Suggestion: being happy and bourgeois-conceited is hardly something which eternal life can build on. It's like asking Henri Charriere to write a sequel to Papillion in the margins of a poncey bathrooms catalogue. This is why we're failing, and can you hear the drum beat, Doctor? Think of the persecution the Christians faced, either from their own Old Testament God or the Roman Empire. But at this, Korasvotn: frown city. Thoroughly unwilling to go down the road of pain or flagellation as a means of appealing to God. Ah Sir, you're assuming pain and sorrow are artificial. What if they're nothing more than the decreasing, concentric rings which fall naturally around the heads of Those Who God Has Chosen? Do you hear the drum beat, Doctor? If, I asked keenly, I found someone who had truly suffered, yet who still held some sort of enthusiasm for life, could he or she take my place as the vanguard of the Time Lords' experiments into eternal life?
Hear the drum beat. Just as loud as you like, no more. We stared at the mountains. Korasvotn warned that there'd been pained and unhappy Time Lords before. I glared at him: my eyes emitted the drum beat as surely as they absorbed the light spectrum. Have you ever turned someone who is evil into a Time Lord? Perhaps we need to develop some kind of godlike moral amnesty? The beat; eyes narrowed at the momentous crashing of the beast-hide. Who did I have in mind?
A Gallifreyan computer can go most places and do almost anything. Certainly the one in the Central Research Citadel sifted through the files of the FBI on Earth as though they were cobwebs. What I found horrified me, though not quite to the point where I was dissuaded.
Theodore Bagwell was born of an evil that was both stereotypical and nightmarishly elaborate. In a dusty, underachieving Alabama town, he embodied every cliché about degenerate backwater towns – but here, it was as though fate was using those clichés to make something infinitely more solid and nuanced. Born of his father's relations with a mentally disabled sibling, Bagwell was at once immersed into years of sexual abuse and violence. And what a man his father must have been: not merely a paedophile, he used his son as a kind of weird, intellectual gambit. Memorise whole volumes of the Encylopedia, The Dictionary, The Bible – or be beaten with a strap; a choice that makes the mind boggle.
Or does it? Bagwell's father had his son develop the knowledge and the eloquence of the most sophisticated university scholar, with the final aim of making him President.
Because you little creatures like your universities, don't you? You like your powerful, administrative jobs, don't you? Nothing else is conceivable. Without sin, stone, you.
Almost a poster-boy for cause-and-effect, Bagwell became a sexual predator himself, not to mention a cold-blooded murderer, kidnapper, prolific con-man and white supremacist gang-leader. And this was even before the weird odyssey which started once he entered the notorious Fox River Penitentiary. Intriguingly, everything he told me that first day, about being an amoral advisor to some of the most powerful, clandestine forces on Earth – was true. At one point, he'd been decisive player in keeping a new, world-saving agricultural method firmly in the hands of right-wing big business.
Not that this mattered to me; I was in it for the character study.
Once I convinced Korasvotn that, no matter what happened, I was firmly resolved to die, one way or another (perhaps Jack H. and I could research the matter together?), he agreed to make me mortal, as long as Bagwell shaped up well as my successor in the TARDIS. My theory was that, even with the darkest form of evil, if you gave that person nigh-infinite power, it would gradually temper them – a permanent, cosmic temperance. It took just a little dance of outrospection to convince Korasvotn.
Who'd read his rap-sheet just as carefully as I had, "He's going to take the TARDIS and, without hesitation, kill all his enemies, abduct children, and assume the role of galactic despot".
"He will not. At the moment, these urges are in him purely because he's powerless, and the powerlessness has turned him into a shallow, delirious beast of a man. Having universal power, however, will automatically synchronise him with the universe itself –which is neither good, or evil, just deeply, boldly alive".
"Why was it never enough for you, then, John?", asked the Time Guardian lightly.
I simply shrugged my low-slung shoulders. "Because I've gone on too long being small and parochial".
Said the man, "You've saved our galaxy more times than I care to think. These were not the actions of a small, parochial man".
But I smiled bitterly. "If I saved the galaxy, that's a happy coincidence for you, not for me. I remember once, I saved the Earth from a collision with the Space Titanic. One of the passengers from the lower decks came up to me and asked why they should follow me or listen to a single word I said. He was a deeply annoying man, and I just replied something like, 'Because I'm The Doctor, and I'm going to save everyone, because that's what I do'. That kind of niche arrogance is something you don't come back from".
So, away to Earth to recruit Theodore Bagwell into the Time Lord ranks. Korasvotn suggested a five year probation period. If Bagwell behaved responsibly (or at least, neither raping or killing), my mortality would be granted. But make no mistake: they would be watching him. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. The Boy Who Kicked the Universe in the Balls of Good and Evil. No bestsellers here. Just bits of torn-up call-girl cards in a railway siding. Why are you even looking?
As I prepared to leave, a moustachioed Time Engineer noted how unresponsive the chameleon circuit of my TARDIS was, and would I like it fixed?
I regarded the waxy blue surfaces of the old wooden box. I used to get the impression that if you looked closely enough, down through the layers of varnish-like paint, you'd see the individual age rings of the tree that had made it. Except, how could you? It was all a sophisticated illusion. An undisguised TARDIS is just a surprisingly muted pillar of energy.
Unn-nn-nn – there's a cream cracker under the sofa, mother. Away with your goddamn pathos, you granny-mouthed swine.
"Hell yes, fix it".
You granny-mouthed swine.
The first couple of times it happens, it's eerie when you go back in time and come near to meeting yourself. Perhaps you'll catch a glimpse of the back of your own head as you depart into the distance, and you'll feel giddy, as though the mere act of going back puts such a dangerous satanic impetus in your brain. But I got used to it. A long time ago. I watched myself as I walked up the slight rise to the town centre, off to start a physical row with a mouthy charity worker, and god-speed Y B E. Also watching me go was Theodore Bagwell. I slowly moved in behind the man.
"Don't freak out", I told him in a voice that danced and subverted any kind of apprehension.
Bagwell cracked open his mouth while his grey eyes narrowed me into luxurious widescreen.
"I confess to a certain dazzlement, sir. Your twin brother?"
"No". My words were bright; I deliberately made them light and alienesque. "Come and sit beside me on top of the embankment, Mr Bagwell".
He smiled the dry, considerate smile that was as much his trademark as the teddy-boy quiff, the slight snake-hiss whenever his sentences ended with a double-s. Soon we were seated a few yards off from the speeding little cars, all of them intermittent and vaguely ethereal.
"I'm sorry I called you evil so abruptly", I said.
"Any offence I may have taken is strictly minimal compared to the sheer… fascination you present to me, Mr John Smith".
This was how I broached it. And it was strange, the way this alt-righteous speech just flowed from me. "I'm going to give you more fascination than you can feast on in a thousand years. But first let me give you the most difficult concept. When we first met, you worked so hard to build a kind of faux-rapport between us. This wasn't necessary, and it never will be. Theodore Bagwell, you are a man who has never known complete honesty, from anyone. Don't feel embarrassed or overly victimised. Life is a monster. This is our rapport. Now, I can vaguely imagine the roaring, zeal-filled drives that go on inside you. Do I judge you for them? No. Because they're finite, they're pieces of an abstract, psychological puzzle. As big or as small as you need them to be, but all part of that vast, abstract puzzle nonetheless. And you –will- start believing in the abstract, Mr Bagwell, if you choose to come with me".
From their purple, Will Eisner-style sockets, his dark eyes scanned me. "Come with you where, may I ask?"
"Listen, never mind that for a few minutes", I said with a casualness that awed my own ears. "The summary is: I will never sell you out, I'll never stop believing in you. But a condition applies. No more law-breaking".
I paused, realising that the phrase 'law-breaking' was horribly twee and too careful in sparing him his blushes. Yet what could I do? "I speak not as some sanctimonious old fart, but as the representative of a brave new world where anything is possible. The crimes you've committed in your life all seemed apposite and necessary, because this was always such a capricious and nightmarish world. But I can take you to new worlds. If you still need to feel zeal, that's fine, but it will be subtler, more primal. Your emotions: nobody's fool and above everything".
I waited a little. Bagwell angled his skinny cranium towards me. He toyed with the malleable fingers of his false hand. "I swear, you sound midway between a kindly old drill sergeant and a wondrous Minister of the Lord!"
Hands on hips, I corrected him. "I sound midway between an auld ballacks and a Scientologist in a jiffy bag, but that's my fault: I'm trying to break this thing to you gently".
"Either way, my fascination is unabated. And you can relax, sir. My criminal days are over. These days, the only pursuit I find myself lusting for is to wake in the morning a free man and to hear the birds singing their timeless affirmation in the green leaves above".
A nod from me, plus a good-natured little mouth-shrug. "Well, let's be about it. I'm not getting any younger".
It's a kind of sci-fi voyeurism to describe people's reactions when they discover that the TARDIS is bigger on the inside than the outside. You all know the score, anyway, and I could always sympathise. For me, it would be like climbing inside the head of Jordan and unexpectedly finding thoughts. Surprising, but hardly more than cheap magic.
The chameleon circuit fixed, it was now seamlessly amalgamated into the shallow underside of the dual carriageway. I laid my palm in a very un-messianic fashion against the flecked concrete. A ghost of white light led the way, a glimpse of shining creme ovaloids.
"I would say -", Bagwell creased his always-measured expression, "we're deep in Arthur C. Clarke territory".
"This is the real thing".
"We are talking!", he gasped. "A highly classified government spaceship!"
"It's called the TARDIS. No government owns it. And it can travel in time as well as space. Very occasionally between dimensions and into N-Space".
After a short period of looking at the walls, he examined the time column and the controls, because, let's be honest, that's all there is to look at. It was always either the console or each other. Weirdly; no one had more of a passion for learning the controls than Adric, yet in my memory, he's always looking into my eyes and smiling. It will be good to see you again, Adric.
"Complicated?", I asked him.
At once, Bagwell boldly laid his hands across two random dials – the gravametric ping initiator and the input-flash-input override, which, unnervingly, would have dematerialised us if he'd pressed it. On a blank section of the console, he bent and flexed his artificial fingers in ire. "I think I may lack a certain dexterity if I tried to pilot your – TARDIS".
Moving close, I carefully examined that faintly ridiculous artificial hand of his.
"Really, this is no problem. We'll get you a new one. Would you prefer a Return of the Jedi robot hand or a whole new cloned one? Ah, I realise some people are unnerved by cloned limbs. But really it's your choice".
The eyes of this evil man shined away at me; the tentative smile, the terseness in the lips: minimal.
"Simples, and there you go, we're on a far-off planet in the midst of an alien civilisation. And now we've left the Earth we can even say the word 'civilisation' with a straight face. Planet Urbachoze".
Bagwell walked purposefully from the TARDIS. "That is one deliciously smooth ride. Is it always so calm a passage?"
"No", I admitted.
"The gravity", his eyes shone, even as he raised his arms in fascination. "The gravity is more severe, I fancy".
"Well, yes", I agreed. "I'm surprised you can feel it though; the TARDIS usually goes some way to generating a psychic matrix which accustoms our senses to the environment. Also, in this way, we can interact with the locals, no matter what language they're speaking in".
A curiously excited expression became fixed on his dry skin. Two pretty young natives passed before us from along the avenue of shining industrial bays. He bowed out before them. "Ladies, might I...?", and promptly stood back to admire them, their shoulders, the shape of their skulls - all indistinguishable from two mid-teenage humans. "Please forgive the imposition, it's just that I am an Earth man, and this is my first foray onto an alien world. I am staggered, all around, I truly am".
"OK, welcome", said the Urbachozean before walking on and smiling enigmatically at her friend.
"They seem very much like our own species, Mr Smith. Not that I'd dream of accusing you of duplicity, what with all the -", he eyed the sky with his ravaged eyes, the large belt of asteroids like giant, opaque cataracts, "-other evidence".
I reassured him, "You'll see lizard men, blue-skinned mandarins, people made of tree bark. I once had a travelling companion who was a talking penguin. Believe it. But yes, I often wonder about the universe's propensity towards human-type creatures. Most galactic biologists agree that, from the moment any given planet forms, a type of universal evolution takes over, apart from on worlds where the atmosphere is particularly funky with silicon or sulphur, or the gravity is a bitch". I breathed lightly and attempted a gambit. "If you were of a mind, it would be tempting to think that God must favour the human archetype. I can respect that view: it's closed-minded, but then, closed-mindedness can speak of loyalty and love, which are the most awesome points of view the universe can give us. Mr Bagwell, in spite of all you've been though, do you still believe in these things?"
We were pacing easily from the vicinity of the TARDIS, across the well-regimented car park, towards the cube-like buildings where Bagwell could have his hand replaced, if he so desired. Further Urbachose citizens sauntered between us. Self-absorbed for the most part, a few of them looked into our eyes and gave tiny smiles of acceptance. Bagwell's head tilted, the question half-formed in his mind as to why all the people we saw seemed to be teenagers.
"John!", he spoke up with sickly, insincere incredulity - which I didn't mind. "This is turning out to be a day without match. Forgive the stark flavour of melodrama inherent in this question, but, have I died? Is this some scintillating aperitif of the afterlife?"
I looked closely into his eyes. "You know full well this isn't the afterlife. There are no weird dividers here. This is just the place where we get free".
He narrowed his eyes at a tom-boyish Urbachosean, an expression which could either be sexual avarice or a desire to reign in the guady, undeserved liberty held by all other living beings. Unpleasant. "One man's freedom is another man's prison".
"Not here. This is where everything changes". Then, because it seemed prudent, I explained the nature of the Urbachoseans.
"As little as five-hundred years ago, because of some inherent radiation in the atmosphere, the Urbachoseans were only able to live to between fifteen or sixteen years, seventeen on the extreme outside. They had the same threshold of puberty as humans, so reproduction was something of a problem, but because they'd never known anything else, their civilisation simply adapted to it. It was quite a civilisation, too. No wars. Child-like innocence, but with none of the child-like gobbiness or hyperactivity which you get on Earth nowadays. Personally, I can't imagine having all the stages of mortal life repositioned across such a short life-span. Can you?"
Bagwell narrowed his eyes at me with a trace of malevolence only narrowly visible. To be expected. "Yes, John. You're telling of the deepest, darkest regions of intergalactic anthropology, where one man's freedom is no longer another's prison, and disfunctionality can freely be traded for functionality, and everyone worships some strange alien god".
"Alien god, yes", I said thoughtfully.
Before we entered the hospital block, we took a seat on a long bench made of finely-compacted crystal. A little way further up, we watched as a Urbachosean baby played with rod, around which a magnetic ball levitated. The mother, seemingly seventeen or eighteen, sat back reading an old-style physical newspaper, possibly the alien equivalent of The Times, or The Guardian, but obviously not The Daily Mail.
I heard myself speak up, abruptly, "I should point out, they thwarted the problem with their life-span some time ago. They found a way to stop the ageing process dead, so they can live a hundred-or-so years in teenage bodies. Not a bad deal, eh?"
Said Bagwell. "It sounds like a peachy existence to me. I'd have liked a shot at it myself. But if these good folks don't age, how is it the reaper ever claims them?"
"Cancer", I said, unsure if it sounded as though I was making some kind of pitch-black joke, then adding "Space-cancer", which didn't help.
Your man looked at the homely grey skies and smiled that dry, crocodile grin. "Well, nonetheless, it certainly seems like some kind of utopia around here".
"True. And they've actually got even more of an edge than that. Evolution is a wonderful thing - though don't let me say that in front of Richard Dawkins' gabbling C3PO head. Faced with vast tribes of hormonal, sex-obsessed teenage boys, what do you suppose evolution did to stop all of the girls being ravaged to death?"
"John, I really cannot imagine", said Bagwell with a telling dryness.
"Well", I smiled. "It's to do with that – rich, secret, black-and-white intimacy which we all seek out through sex. Evolution gave the Urbachoseans a kind of psychic threshold based around intimacy. If they try to have sex with each other, but there's not really any intimacy or love, or if it's not requited – well, the guilty party starts to feel it too. Your predatory wideboy or girl will feel every nuance of their partner's displeasure. It's a hell of a thing, by all accounts. When the sex is bad or forced, it's like an execution. When it's good, it's beyond our human sense of pleasure".
I expected Bagwell to be guiltily subdued. He was, a little. But he was also rakish. "A society midway between the Marquis De Sade's wildest dream and Andrea Dworkin's perfect world".
"I would say so. And it works well. They can still lie to each other, and so they can still have the dubious boon of capitalism, but when it comes to their emotions, they're nobody's fool. Let me demonstrate. You'll like this -"
I called over a passing Urbachosean, a beautiful, sandy-mop-haired girl (woman?), who flounced before us and smiled.
"I'm John, this is Theodore".
We both shook hands with her, and she bobbed her head in a hippy San Francisco motion.
"As you can see, we're visitors here, from the Planet Earth. Your planet is quite amazing".
"Thanks", she said in a husky voice.
"I want to show you something, it will make your day. Every time you think about it, for the rest of your life, you'll laugh". I fished out my pocket computer and brought up a video compilation of Miranda Hart. "This is the greatest comedian on Earth".
She took the computer, sat between us and watched clips of Miranda Hart accidentally shutting her skirt in a taxi door and having it ripped off. A postman saying to Miranda Hart, 'Thank you, sir', and her pulling a face, as though it was more ironic that she might look like a man, rather than a satanic door-wedge crossed with Jabba the Hutt as a housewife. Miranda Hart doing the vacuuming and getting tangled up in the lead, and you must surely laugh at this, you must surely laugh at this, you must surely laugh at this and not be distracted by the fact that she's performing the universe's broadest, most contrived sitcom on the universe's least convincing set.
Missy-miss the Urbachosean made a first, brave attempt at laughter, which was one-hundred percent fake, but at least it was there. After that, she cringed. Her mouth and eyes became horribly numb. I had only expected to feel the same, but the refracted emotions were worse than I could possibly have imagined. I started to weep bitterly and uncontrollably. I fell from the bench, developed a copious nose-bleed, vomited spectacularly onto the concrete, then had to fight with every ounce of strength to avoid evacuating my bowels. I continued to weep even after the girl (woman?) had shut off the computer.
"I'm sorry!", I clung to her thighs. "I'm sorry I made you watch Miranda Hart! I'm sorry I made you watch Miranda Hart! Please just understand, I'm sorry!"
She helped lift my body back up onto the bench. She cradled my shoulders and ran her fingers through my hair, a picture of the Madonna and child.
When she'd left, it felt – it felt no more significant than when a hay fever drug finally starts to kick in.
Briskly, Bagwell said, "John, I'm really not in the market for emotional catharsis".
"It's a hell of a thing", I breathed.
"Who is Miranda Hart?"
Said I, "The polar opposite of everything that is or ever could be funny. It's just as well I didn't give her Tracy Emin and tell her she's Earth's greatest artist. Sure, and I would've had a brain aneurysm and died".
"We live by small mercies", said Bagwell simply.
"Just as well", I started, my ire not depleted in the least, "I didn't play her James Blunt and tell her he's the zenith of human music, or else I would have torn my own ears off and savaged my head against a wall until death came as a blessing".
"Relax, boss", Bagwell winced towards the mysterious pale sun. "You're among friends now".
We stayed for a week or two on Urbachoze while the doctors went through the rigmarole of growing Bagwell's new hand from your drrrty, drrrty stem cells. We took rooms in a hotel that had a strange sort of moving ceiling decoration, to start with very distracting, then as time went on, weirdly meditative. An off-duty maid called Kutea joined us in the bar as I told Bagwell of my Time Lord adventures and he told of escapades on the run. Looking for treasure that had been buried in the desert and subsequently had houses built on top of it. Slyly assuming the emergency sleeper-identity of an international data-thief. It was eerie, though. Over a thousand years of universe-shaking adventures, and I still felt inferior to a mere earthly criminal. Eerie, also, I suppose, that I wanted to pass up speaking of my adventures just in order to hear Kutea's stories of all the stupid rich guests and the fire drill which had accidentally lasted a whole night. Was this the effect of the Urbachozean's empathy-invoking aura? Was the aura even something contrived, or was it a natural gift from God which the humans had long-since lost because they were 90-percent crass gobshykes?
Witness first hand (no pun); Kutea looked down and, in a fairly innocent voice, asked how Bagwell had lost his hand. We were all drunk, and relaxed.
"The Devil makes work for idle hands. Best to have as few as possible".
She gave a smile, all proud at how well she was starting to know Bagwell's world. "You've lived the life of an adrenaline-surging desperado. I think someone was hand-cuffed to you, and you were racing through woodland, and that someone took a cleaver to you".
Bagwell's eyes became downcast, subtly harsh. All of a sudden, he was no longer so drunk or relaxed. Kutea raised her girlish hands to cover her mouth. "Oh, Theodore! What stupid thing have I said? What painful thing? I meant-"
She struggled with her words, the way you just don't hear people doing on Earth. She proceeded to tell a horrible story, which I wasn't in the least bit ready for. "I meant that there is no way we can avoid it, and we are like cowboys. Just cowboys all alone and doing what we can to survive. When I was twelve, I was at the lagoon behind my parent's redoubt. With me was Berla Kolass, a boy my junior, and—the sun was in my eyes. And I had always thought, they can never do it to me because I am too strong-willed. But I failed. He did it; he hypnotised me. So that I couldn't link with his mind to drive him away".
Neither of us pressed the point about what had happened during the hypnosis. Bagwell merely blinked, hard, staring midway up the alienesque liquor rack. Rounding down his shoulders, he looked quickly into her eyes and smiled.
" 'Cowboys'. How is it we're a gazillion miles from Earth, but you know of the existence of cowboys?"
She smiled once more. "The day you checked in, I went to the computer at the library and read everything I could about Planet Earth".
And in this way, they started to fall in love.
"To cowboys, doing what we can to survive!", boasted Bagwell, and raised his glass. Simultaneous chinks from Kutea and The Doctor, and perfect drunkenness resumed.
It's altogether beautiful where I am now, and I confess I'm distracted from the telling of my final years.
Besides, blah, blah, blah. Look at me, I have a personality. No you haven't. You've got a weak little template given to you by God. In the manifold branches above my slumped body, I hear and occasionally see a thrush or a blackbird singing beautifully. The ornate pitch of notes cascade and echo slightly in the dirty chlorophyll atmos. Also, about something the human mind simply can't conceive of. I think I could listen to the sound forever, but could I really? Babooshka yai yai.
In the TARDIS Console Room, Bagwell flexed his new fingers and shook his head in wonder. Kutea beamed and fidgeted on her toes, as if the operation had been just as liberating for her. She'd chosen, as a no-brainer, that she'd accompany us on our journeys. There was almost no reluctance at all to leaving her home planet, and in this way she reminded me of you, Rose.
Bagwell tipped back his head. "John, just one thing gives me pause for thought. You're never short of cash – to pay for this hand of mine, for instance. How exactly does a Time Lord come by his supply of what one can only call 'filthy lucre'?"
"Generally, we ingratiate ourselves with the locals so that we never have to pay for anything", I said, deadpan yet playfully punching Kutea on the shoulder. "Failing that, there is a machine in the Ward Room, just beyond those doors, that can replicate any unit of currency in the known universe. Though it can be temperamental and more often than not gives only small change".
"But there must be planets that have untapped deposits of gold and diamonds", said Kutea. "Surely it's just a simple matter of filling your pockets?"
Bagwell placed his skinny hand over the top of hers on the Time Console. "I like the way this girl thinks".
We continued to talk of the wonders of the universe for an hour or more. Then our feet seemed to sway heavily downwards as the TARDIS made a lurch in the Time Vortex. We had materialised unexpectedly, in open space, too. This alarmed me only slightly. I activated the view-screen and enjoyed hearing the buzzing sound. These days, since I only ever go to places I already know well, I'd forgotten the pleasing motion of the shutters, the matte majesty of the screen itself. Before us was the edge of a mighty beige-and-blue planet, which I vaguely recognised. Several suns and several oversized moons, far bigger than Earth's, each to create super-delicate patterns of light and shade - but generally they kept the entire sphere in a grey haze.
Through this haze, no need to wince, we saw something interesting taking place on the surface. At first I took it to be vast fields of luminous moss or perhaps seas of lava. On-and-off it flashed like some novelty toy. I brought up times-thousand magnification, then times-ten-thousand. We saw – a sudden burst of energy, and the outline of hundreds of thousands of x-ray-like skeletons. We saw the vanguard of Daleks leisurely rounding up the vast crowds and exterminating them en masse.
Kutea screamed and clasped her hands over her mouth. "Those poor people! It's a nightmare". Without making eye-contact with either of us, she rushed from the Console Room in horror.
"Genocide?", asked Bagwell.
"They're called the Daleks, the second most abhorrent race in the galaxy. The people buying it, I believe, are the Armongs".
"They really don't stand a chance", said Bagwell, fascinated.
"They don't. And hell if I care".
Our man visibly blanched. He laughed, though he was shocked. "John! That's a remarkably unsympathetic point of view for man who made me promise 'no more law-breaking'. Am I to suppose you aren't the perfectly enlightened liberal you led me to believe?"
I didn't answer directly. Instead, "I read about this. The Armongs started to receive planetary distress signals from a civilisation in another solar-system, which was slowly being lost to mass famine. The Armongs hadn't quite perfected a means of manned, interplanetary flight, but they felt they had just enough know-how to make two colossal space-pods full of food, shelter and medical provisions. The only problem, where-the-muck-alice was all the money going to come from? The Central Armong Government raised the taxation of its citizens to the point where their society crept into the bitterest of recessions every other year. Irony upon irony, just as the space pods were launched, their own people reached a tipping point where their society could no longer function as a civilisation, and mass murder broke out.
"And then, irony upon irony upon irony -", I gestured at the screen, "the space-pods went awry and strayed into the path of a Dalek Saucer, which promptly set out to investigate and conquer the source".
Bagwell's reaction: he dipped his eyes, dipped the pitch of his charming Southern semi-lisp. "Some might say that what these Armongs tried to do was noble nonetheless".
"Some might say Miranda Hart is hilarious". I shrugged my mouth at length, and then, anyway, "Shall we go down there and save them?"
"I thought you didn't care, John?", warned Bagwell.
"I don't, but the girl obviously does, and I hate upsetting the people I love".
Theodore Bagwell puckered his lips and eyed the view-screen nervously. "All the same, it doesn't look as if there's much we can do against such a terrible onslaught".
Said I, "You'd be surprised. The Daleks are actually dicks to a man. They're so quaint I almost love them".
Unconvinced, he smiled joyously, "They're so quaint, boss, with their annihilation rays that make all but your black skeleton shine like Chernobyl. How can three puny humanoids like us hope to deflect the course of a war?"
I shrugged, and it's testament to how well I was starting to trust the man that I told him something I'd never told anyone before.
"A very long time ago, before I started to travel in this machine of mine, I was very much in love with a girl called Mary Viveash. She said she loved me, too, but she didn't. What's going on there? We split up acrimoniously. But even now, ten centuries later, I often have dreams where we're together, and happy - but I never quite have the presence of mind to figure out that this is impossible. No matter what stupid little storyline we're involved in - that's all it is, a novelty. Just like this. Travelling from planet to planet in my magic box, getting embroiled in 'adventures'. Chewing gum for the mind, all of it, never with any kind of frontier or the slightest possibility of transcendence. Perhaps the Daleks and all the other monsters can sense this ennui on some spiritual, subconscious level, and that's why they never make a serious attempt to kill us. But the fact is, we can materialise down there, right in the heart of that war, spin them some zany jive-talk, disrupt their convoluted plans - and then just waltz out of there".
And so we did. In attendance on the planet was a new kind of Dalek Emperor who was obsessed with having insidious propaganda recorded by members of the subjugated races. Just ruin it, though. Just get them to 'think for themselves', then use the Dalek's own transmitters to send out an electro-sensitization pulse to make their fleet explode. All very standard fare, but it made Kutea happy, and Bagwell was reasonably motivated to help.
When I first told him how I'd like to gift him the TARDIS, and eternal life, he was suavely incredulous. But if there's one moral to my relationship with him, it would be this: if you're willing to put faith in someone, just do it, as long as they're enough of an anti-hero. No conflict of interest except from the weird, alt-rational dictates of their own soul. Before long I was leaning back, a little wry-mouthed, watching as he altered the Control Room from minimalist white to a kind of playboy / Jaguar plush - green leather and lacquered walnut, lighting from the White House. As he redecorated, his choice of music stirred the heavily-conditioned air quite magnificently: Sunny Rollins doing Mack the Knife. 1956. Good year. Kutea had never heard anything like it and beamed throughout.
On Gallifrey, Korasvotn swept aboard the TARDIS wearing an ominous black robe with a very modest head-plate. Tick-tock smooth-move: knowing Bagwell's (justifiable) hatred of authority figures, I introduced him simply as a fellow time-traveller. They nodded and awarded each other prim smiles. Then, after chit-chat that was a cross between Martin Amis meeting a homeless, and a homeless giving Martin Amis some high-minded benefit of the doubt, the bestowing of eternal-life was initiated. I watched, a little fascinated, as Korasvotn hit the sequence of dials and switches that I always assumed would result in a self-destruct –and the self-destructing of a TARDIS is a hell of a thing. As it was, the Time Column rose to an unprecedented height and started to glow transcendently. Bagwell and Kutea, even though they now had a more-than-rudimentary knowledge of how to run the TARDIS, must have wondered what on earth was happening. My bad self, I only dimly remembered when this ceremony had been performed on me, all those centuries ago. I'd been self-absorbed, in a very harried, hurried, stupid way.
Korasvotn invited them to place their palms on the Time Column. The energy within surged as it soaked up the richest and most primal prokmazi photons from the TARDIS engine, from the Time Vortex, from God.
"This seems like one hell of a microwave", joked Bagwell.
"It's a rare thing for non-Gallifreyans to become Time Lords", Korasvotn smiled solemnly. "You should feel honoured".
Kutea said, holding almost nothing in reserve, "We do, sir".
It happened abruptly: not-quite-conscious snakes of energy danced away from the Time Column and into Bagwell and Kutea's mouths and eyes. They arched their spines in a worrying cosmic juxtaposition of sex or heroin use. How long the process took is difficult to say, even if it wasn't so dazzling. How long does it take for transcendental ju-ju pith to amalgamate with your soul? I can't remember. Seconds? All I remember from my own experience was that it felt a little like dreaming. Of everything.
They folded forwards and backwards, eventually to brace themselves against the flashing console, limbs like sleeping bags. The energy receded and the Time Column obediently fell.
"How do you feel?", I asked, really just for something to say.
"Johnny boy -", Bagwell plumped his lips. "On one hand, I feel the same, on the other, I feel like-"
Said Kutea, "I feel like I want to go to some hip-hop dive bar and have a rap-off with the sneeriest-faced girl in the whole place. I feel like I want to deliver an impassioned speech to an army, or drink a famous playwright under the table".
I remember smiling a little sadly, "Then you must go and do all those things. The TARDIS belongs to you and Mr Bagwell now".
Korasvotn regarded me, a very underplayed twinkle in his eye.
"What of you, Mr John Smith?", asked Bagwell. "You fell from the sky to deliver my life, to gift me your very home. What will become of you?"
"Retirement", I said. "Perhaps in the Bladerunner sense, perhaps not. What matters is that you two live rich and contented lives. Can you assure me of that?"
"Sir, we can", said Bagwell, shaking my hand.
I leaned in close to his ear, "We probably won't meet again, but if we do, we may not recognise each other. We must have a secret code-phrase".
"Why -", he grinned crookedly, no less indulgently, "would we fail to recognise each other?"
"You'll understand when it happens". I searched my mind for a fairly noteworthy phrase. "Bagwell, you must say, 'Klaatu Barada Nicto'".
I turned away. Kutea hugged me. It was a delicate little prompt, my discretion told me, to begin backing out of the TARDIS. I regarded the far walls for the last time. I even remember losing it slightly, mumbling 'it's bigger on the inside than on the outside', under my taken breath and to no (r)astard in particular. Always staring at the console, the pastel ovaloids, the wonderfully bright lights from no single source, the reposed Time Column. No sentimentality here, you understand, just a grappling with God-like tension. Kutea delicately clasped shut the doors, as in the back ground, I saw Bagwell deliberating over the controls. His left hand hovered. His right hand, subconsciously, was in full swing tapping out the Drum Beat.
Korasvotn and I watched them dematerialise, and I tried to not to count the individual warps, or listen to the weird phantom-sounds that remained in my head long after silence reigned.
"It's none of my business, John, but – regrets?"
"None that I can't live with", I said, which is true. A gnawing impatience took me over, "They've taken my place. Can I become mortal now?"
Korasvotn was stern and thoughtful. "You know our arrangement, John. If he doesn't murder anyone within five years, if his travels in the TARDIS teach him humility and reserve, then you'll truly have swapped places. Only then will I make you mortal".
I nodded limply. "O.K. O.K. Take me to Earth".
There is a story about T S Eliot, that even after he found world fame with the publication of his first book, with various houses offering him funding to be a full-time poet, he flatly refused to give up his job as a junior bank clerk. He said that he loved the monotony and the way it let him observe the minutiae of day-to-day life. Whatever. I just want you to understand: that's the exact opposite of what I did.
January 20, 2011; I marched into the sprawling Burger Shark restaurant and, smiling gravely, put myself forward for the position of General Restaurant Floor Assistant. Of course, all of it was weird. For one thing, such an arch-menial job was surely a young person's game, and I was roughly sixty-six years into my current incarnation. I was lucky that, due to the recession, the retirement age in Britain was becoming increasingly nebulous. Plus, the area manager, Chuck Berry (yes, that really was his name) was easily fooled when I showed him a press-cutting saying that I'd been a McDonalds Employee of the Year as little as a month ago (good old psychic paper). Why did I leave? I shrugged and told him it was probably no more significant a move than a top-ranking Cuban general defecting to Red China. And also, they caught me making a coat out of meat, Gaga-style. But God almighty, nowadays I hate having to use funny, snappy dialogue. Let's watch Friends. Let's watch Friends on E4. It's a documentary about oblivion. People will never form a genuine spiritual bond through snappy dialogue. They'll only ever form it through sheer exhaustion.
And I felt exhausted, I felt alive, I felt the weight of all humanity on my shoulders. In short, this was where my thousand years of decadence and hypocrisy would start to be redressed. All that time travelling in the TARDIS, going wheresoever I wanted, lecturing humans about the wonders they could achieve if only they lived up to their potential – never the tiniest acknowledgement to those who did the very worst jobs imaginable, in turn the most socially valuable jobs imaginable.
Philosophically black-and-white? Not quite. I knew modern humans, and there was no way I could directly imitate their arrogance. To show my blue-collar grit to God, I myself would have chosen to work in a factory. Yet not one in a million humans would ever deign to work on a production line, whereas gaudy fast-food restaurants like Burger Shark were –slightly—more desirable to them. Why? Obviously, the service industry is the more hateful and soul-destroying area to work in. For one thing, you're around the general public and they'll see you in your ridiculous 'Burt Racoon' uniform. Also, food is grubby. So explain it to me, humans. I genuinely want to know. Factory work is something that's proud. It requires physical dexterity and determination - and even though you'll never be paid for those qualities, it doesn't mean they won't exist in your soul. Why are you letting the manufacturing industry die? Are you really telling me that it's more satisfying to spend twelve hours serving food to an anonymous procession than to have something permanent, physical, something with intricate parts moving through your fingers?
Basically, I grappled with this question: in order to teach them humility, should I spend the rest of my life doing the job they hated or the job I hated? What would Jesus do?
The red-and-blue apparel fitted me well, and it was surprisingly fortified against my old bones. About my old bones, however: in much the same way the TARDIS had acted as a translator between myself and the alien races I met, it now seemed obvious that it had also been a blanket psychic painkiller for all the wear-and-tear my body picked up. Now it was gone, I periodically felt the most anguished spasms of arthritis.
I don't recommend arthritis at all. It was the cruellest physical pain I've ever known, and I had an odd kind of relationship with it. Whenever it came, in my wrist and shoulder joints (too much time learning against the Time Console?), it felt so powerful that I could hardly even register it as pain, at first. My mouth would gasp, and for a second or two it would feel like – the rapture. Then came the gnawing agony. Deal with it.
At Burger Shark, we alternated between five-and-a-half hours taking orders at the front desk, five-and-a-half hours preparing the weirdly uniform meals in the back. Occasionally, especially at night, we'd have to operate the little intercom booth where orders from the drive-in section were processed. At first, I believed this was surely the Burger Shark job that I'd hate least, since I neither had to face the general public or handle the grubby food. Just one problem: I found that I actually –needed- that grating, hypersensitive torture to focus my mind on the work. Just speaking to people on a tiny microphone caused me to picture them in my mind as exotic aliens. Argolins, Caxtarids or Ice Warriors, all of them with their war-like impulses cured and now pursuing disappointingly insipid domestic lives. Besides, I conquered my ennui at facing the general public within a month or so. Certainly, you know that a civilisation was gone into terminal decline when you're working at a slavish fast-food restaurant and you still feel beatifically, existentially superior to the customers (and for more information on any of the above, see Diaries 2011-13). In the seventies, my friend John Lennon said, 'Woman is the Nigger of the World'. But during my first week at Burger Shark, I was sure I'd find, 'Manual worker is the Nigger of the World'. What I actually discovered, in the end: 'Manual Worker is the invisible martyr who keeps the world turning, and misogyny and racism are both in Jurassic Park, along with Golden Grahams, Orange Aeros and society's self-respect'.
Perhaps the greatest fear of working in a fast-food restaurant is the insidious lack of pride, which in turn weakens any kind of leadership structure. The answer? You don't need a leader. You're doing one of the unpleasant, unsatisfying jobs in the world, which automatically makes it one of the most noble jobs in the world. Oh, it would be nice if your government had some kind of sudden moral zeitgeist and created an inverse minimum wage, with corporate executives and media yuppies getting £5.75 an hour, while, upon their retirement, the average non-skilled manual worker would become a millionaire –that would be fair and reasonable, but it would also suppose the human mind can hold humility as an existent concept. And I don't believe it can. You may as well ask them to describe the colour epsilon-rhythm-ultraviolet.
Rant continued: allow me to give you an example of this failing, from my years at Burger Shark. Often, as I worked in the little oblong kitchen containing the burger grills and the chip fryer, my partner was a man called Eddie. The name 'Eddie' conjures images of a jovial, darts-playing truck-driver from the eighties– but this Eddie was a smooth-jawed, smooth-scowled cussing machine, unmarried and curiously sensitive. I listened to him as he talked about his favourite films, how much he hated evangelists, how he was profoundly indifferent to the royal family (this was the year the Queen died). However, some days and nights he was curiously sullen, and I could tell he was building up for a long lament. 'Let's be about it. Let it all out', I'd tell him – and he was away. He'd rage, bitterly, at the company owners, how our wages were an insult considering the, not necessarily skilled, but unusually diligent work we did. Ah, Eddie. I should mention that Burger Shark, though it has a dozen chains, is nowhere near to being as monstrous a multinational as McDonalds, Pizza Hut or Burger King. In fact, the company was set up by a husband and wife as early as 1978, on the husband's slender inheritance. In other words, they only survived and only flourished by being skinflint misers. Who were we to criticise them? It made sense to be a skinflint, considering that the last fifty years had seen an exponential increase in recessions, like contractions in Mrs Satan's childbirth (who will be the Anti-Christ? Jamie Oliver? Yes). The recessions, said Eddie boldly, were caused purely by the greed of banks. And I remember shrugging at that. I explained that the banks held little or no responsibility for the recessions. They granted loans and mortgages to almost every family in Britain, loans and mortgages that were an expression of nothing more than unthinking greed. Whilst this was undoubtedly an evil business practice, from the banks point of view, it was a utilitarian business practice nonetheless. But the people taking the loans? They had no philosophical argument except naked hedonism, flanked on either side by emperor's-new-clothes laziness.
By the close of my discourse, Eddie was always conceding points like crazy, though I still felt guilty as though I'd been lecturing him. At which point I'd always make a joke, like pointing into the frying machine and whispering, 'Each one of those chips has an eternal soul'. Eddie was usually so disinclined to laugh it was a real achievement to give him a belly-shriek. Sea Devils go home with a whimper.
With a whimper. In the end, E. left Burger Shark's employ to go 'off the radar' selling his friend's pirated computer software (which he himself barely understood). With a contracted work force, Chuck Berry believed that we'd be able to leave the burger grill and chip fryer as a one-person job. I know the others struggled, but I was just about able to manage, because, frankly, I was hardcore. Or at least I was physically.
After a few weeks, I noticed how distinctly the twenty-kilo immersion sieves which dipped the chips into the cooking vat resembled a vintage Cyberman's helmet. They were exactly the same shape, with the galvanised metal handles looking just like the coolant pipes which led into their computerised craniums. There was even a ponderous-looking slit and two little outspill holes where those strange, strange eyes should have been. All of this, a weird little novelty. Nothing more than weird little coincidence, right up to the time when I was lifting one of the sieves out of the fryer – and the slit-like mouth seemed to bellow at me. I recoiled in shock, let it slip from my hands. I fainted –
It was a deep kind of unconsciousness, but also urgent; the much ballyhooed Drum Beat was always in play. I woke and cleaned up the mess before anyone came around. This was about three AM, and there was barely one or two people to serve. As I resumed my work - It's fine, I thought. I haven't forgotten you're there, Death. Everything's fine.
Throughout these last years, there's one thing that's stopped me from becoming completely aloof. One person. Perhaps I really just have the same psychological drive as everyone else – the need to be loved by someone, or to scour-out an ambience which suggests the universe itself loves me. Firstly, talk about Yvonne. Yvonne had the most distinct job at our notoriously laissez-faire branch of Burger Shark; she could conceivably have called herself our leader, if ever there'd ever been a single scenario where orders needed to be given. As a duty, she made sure the pallets of frozen burgers, etc., were unloaded in exactly the right ratios. She also maintained the machines and the computers, and good luck to her, because I always found them unutterably boring and hateful.
Yvonne was beautiful, with a ready smile that belied an unusual level of stoicism. She was not particularly slim (which is a characteristic I would have assumed was essential for someone I'd half fall in love with, myself being at hearts a shallow, red-blooded male), but her jawline was sleek, like a kind of weapon. Like a kind of smiling weapon. On more than one occasion I made her cry with laughter. On more than one occasion, I caused those narrow, never-judgmental eyes to flicker into realms of unseeing, uber-thoughtfulness. Plus, breathless moments of unspoken, un-quantifiable flirtation: too many to count. The problem came when Chuck Berry, upon his retirement, promoted her to new area manager. In turn, she asked me to be the joint area manager, sharing her duties almost fifty-fifty.
I had to explain that all I desired was to be the lowest manual worker. She couldn't understand, at least not to the point where it made any kind of flat, emotional sense. She suspected that I was doing it as a matter of honour, perhaps to a long-dead parent who'd spent their whole life as a non-skilled blue-collar.
I had to explain, no. 'Honour' is too flamboyant a concept. I was committed to the drudgery because it held secret levels of very involved thoughtfulness, a world-justifying meditation thrown up once all human weakness was rejected.
"You're talking like an alien, John", was one of the things she said to me.
Something else she suggested, citing my bogus CV, was that I'd spent my whole life in menial jobs, and wasn't it natural that I'd now progress into management?
I wasn't prepared to be questioned so insightfully, and I spoke far too freely. Old bones and frown-scarred face notwithstanding, I felt horribly young and naive as I told her, "This is a spiritual universe. Nothing else matters. God wants us to honour the grinding utilitarian path the world grew up with, then scram".
"You're the most unusual man who ever lived", she said, as a kind of promise. After a breathless, ten-second kiss, she was gone.
Yvonne, I hope you survive. But 'unusual' is an accolade I can only accept from my ally God.
The 12-hour shift patterns of Burger Shark featured four nights, followed by three days off, followed by four day-shifts. It was a decent enough system, with many things to recommend it. Firstly, you had week-days to walk around towns and eat in cafés without the tide of gaudy, mouthy children which constitutes life in modern Britain. But then, I also started to think of the shift-pattern in the following way. Day one and three of the three-day break would obviously be spent sleeping in order to recover from / prepare for the horrible drudgery. This meant that day two, the middle day, was nothing but a beautiful, super-dense ball of time and energy waiting to be used up, no allegiance to anything, every minute to do with unbridled freedom. With this philosophy in play, I divided the day in two and, setting out almost in the middle of the night, would walk as far as I could, in a wholly random direction. At the half-way point of the day, I'd turn back with glad heart, having walked surprisingly far. It was a subtler way of being 'a traveller' than using a TARDIS. Just as satisfying, though, if not more (see diaries 2012-13). One occasion saw me reach the outskirts of a city, where a man having a nervous breakdown tried to gift me his Omega wristwatch, a golden handshake from his company boss. I took it as well.
Topping that, however; the time I met Ria. Let's talk about art. I'd been walking all day and, having covered about twenty-five miles, was nearing the turn-back point. But I found myself in a strangely intellectual little Gloucestershire town beset at angles by a half-a-dozen busy rail tracks -obscured between iron-guilded buildings and every inch of it elevated at least thirty feet above the ground. Passing through a Tarkovsky-esque wilderness of dripping leaves, I came upon Ria, hard at work beneath one of the smaller arches of a majestic Victorian rail bridge. She was on a ladder. Decorating the roof of the bridge. With tens of thousands of coloured bottletops, buttons and ringpulls, all embedded in industrial glue.
The effect was engrossing, and kaleidoscopic, and if you were feeling the slightest bit mescaliney, you'd probably be lost forever.
"Are you impressed?", she asked me, smiling.
"I am impressed" –I didn't qualify the statement with anything, knowing that I'd sound like nothing more than a gushing Times correspondent; in other words, a lippy ballacks.
She climbed down the ladder and pointed out a slightly more secluded section of the bridge, where she and her husband Jorgey had created a wild mosaic of hundreds of blue-black tap-washers, all set to a design that was halfway between the trees of Van Gogh's 'Starry Night' and the ears of an insane pagan hare.
"Aren't you nervous that the Cybermen will try and stop you?"
"'Cybermen'?", she blinked. "What are Cybermen?"
I forced the absent-mindedness out of my head. "I just meant – people. Busybodies".
"Most of the time, Jorgey and I do it at night –I'm just here today touching things up. I'm not nervous about being seen. No one's ever said anything".
We had coffee together and the turn-back margin be damned, boy. In her non-artistic ventures, this integrated Polish immigrant (I thought she was American – what a buffoon), worked as a mental-health assistant, setting straight disorientated former prisoners and society-warped teenagers. She asked me what I did, and I told her the truth, that I was a fast-food seller with wildly disproportionate spiritual ethics. Lord, and just from staring into my eyes, she could tell that I was artistic, or at least some kind of counter-cultural beachhead.
And really, this was when the shame started to set in. No, not shame. Somewhere between ennui and smiling sadness. That, once upon a time, the TARDIS would have been sitting just around the corner, and I'd have taken Ria and that mysterious, lurking genius Jorgey to all the planets where they still have a sense of artistic awe, artistic serendipity. Such places do exist, believe me. As it was, I just walked away, back towards Burger Shark. The day I met that wonderful beret-wearing, field-trench-wearing artist beneath the bridge.
Listen to that, friend. Little waves of hype. Come deeper with me into the sea of hype. Let me tell you about what happened next; the finest day of my lives. Up to my neck then deeper. Level with my eyes and mouth; and under. Viva drowning. I think of her - and the TARDIS is forgotten, the Daleks, Gallifrey, all that pain which is integrated into my soul. Barbara-Anne* appears and all of it is done and done.
Is there a Mr Carter in the room? The sea, or even just the Severn Estuary, was tantalisingly beyond the radius of how far I could walk in my single bona-fide day of freedom. I therefore decided to go anyway, take a Taxi home if necessary, blow a week's wages and so what? Of my nine-hundred pounds a month, after the cost of my lodgings, I still had at least half to play with. Perhaps I should have got even more by applying for a Government Arbitrary Lifestyle Payout - had kids, or bought an X-box, or coated my legs with gold. What? The Government Arbitrary Lifestyle Payout doesn't cover buying an X-box and coating your legs with gold, only having kids? Listen to me.
By the time I reached Sharpness, my old legs were complaining like George Costanza and for a long time all I could do was stare at the little square docks of ex-Navy supply ships sitting ponderously deep in the water. It was a sunny day. I bought a Magnum and a copy of The Times from a little newso that probably hadn't sold anything to anyone who wasn't a sea-hauler in months. Through tall, crisp water reeds in a perpetual state of decay, I walked along a concrete launch-strip which had been abandoned for half a century. Tarkovsky looks on enviously. And Tarkovsky looks on enviously: standing fifty yards away on a jetty was a hard-work-scarred beautiful woman, densely-serendipitous body language, arms folded at her shoulders with all the thoughtless protection of gnarled sunflower petals.
And Amy, you were so sure you had the finest red hair in the universe.
She stared hauntedly into the deep water beneath her. Periodically, she leant forward onto her knees as if to spew.
Let the records show that I am not usually the sort of man who 'bothers' beautiful or sexy women. I refer you to the way Five and Six travelled for so many years with Peri, oh-so nonchalantly (Five's regeneration –a giddy vortex of her astonishing breasts and that distinctive 1986 Versace perfume). Beautiful Peri, with your strange, beautiful willingness to hang around with an every-man cricket-obsessive and the grumpiest man in the universe. And yes. When I recall how Ten pranced and showed-off in front of Madame Pompador, I just want to crawl into a hole and die. When I think of Grace and Rose, and feel that strange, cool shame, in a way as easy as breathing, still shame nonetheless.
So why did I approach Barbara-Anne*? I suppose just the memory of when my other companions had eaten cacky alien food and been sick – for some humans, it's as easy as sneezing, while for others, it's the most unpleasant sensation in the world. Whatever, Barbara-Anne* seemed to be having a terrible, numbing experience.
"Are you alright, there?", first foot on the jetty, throwing the Magnum into the reeds in case the sight of it made her feel more sick.
She swivelled around and stared at me for a long time, such is Barbara-Anne's* way.
"Just indigestion", she said. This was a lie – it was barely two weeks since her father died and the grief was still gnawing away inside her, trying to rob her of her soul. "I thought the water might relax me".
"I thought something similar. It's very deep in the locks, but also very still. I can't get enough of it. Fairy tale".
She stared at me. Hell of a thing. You wonder if you find a person beautiful per se, or whether you find their expressions beautiful, which is surely what we should aim for, since expressions reflect the inner life. But then again, 'By thirty, we all have face we deserve'. What did she see when she looked at me? A face that was deserved three dozen times over? The confluence of effortless emotions around her grey eyes suggested she saw it all as clearly as day. They were searing, directed straight into the heart of me. There's no other way of saying it.
"Are you from one of the ships?"
"No". I was blushing, the sheepishness in my cheeks feeling like a magnetic repulsion.
"I just saw your fisherman's jumper and thought -"
"It's just one of my cheap little trademarks", thinking how easily I'd got off, considering I used to wear shirts with question marks on the lapels, Jason's Technicolour Dreamcoat, Ten's student sneakers. "I wouldn't mind working here at all, though. Peaceful is the word".
Barbara-Anne* moved her rigid arms down to her side. "A person could be driven mad by such peacefulness".
"Nice", I said.
She asked me if I'd seen the crashed underwater plane which lay a little way down the tow-path. I think I shook my head in grave excitement. "Please show me. The thrill and the pathos of sunken planes sends me into crazy-itch-awe".
"It is an eerie sight".
Leading on, walking gingerly, she noticed my half-eaten Magnum laying on the compressed water reeds.
"What the feck is that? Who throws away a half-eaten Magnum?"
Because I couldn't think of anything better, I done a truth on her, saying that I thought she was being sick, and didn't want to seem insensitive. Shaking her head and smiling, my torso filled with a magic space nebula such as would make the Hubble telescope blink. God knows how badly my pupils were dilated; I could only hope the spiking sunlight in the low-hanging trees was forcing it away. Barbara-Anne* was guarded too, except for the way her subconscious made her crane her neck, hanging on my words.
How the thing could have crashed there was something of mystery, given that it was within such a built-up system of canal locks, all of it presided by medieval cedars. Nevertheless, there it was, fifteen feet down in the murky water, nudged in close by the sheer concrete wall. It was, as far as Team John and Barbara-Anne* could tell, a two man, single engine stalwart – the sort of thing which tows gliders up. The partially dislocated wings were dark red. The main body was gloss white, subdued by dense shadow par excellence.
"God Almighty, that is truly mental".
"Mental, mental, chicken oriental", said Barbara-Anne*.
We stared for a long time. She took a picture on her phone, but it didn't come out.
"Do you think there's corpses in there?", she asked.
Shrugging my lips, m'lord. It was too dark by half to see through the angled windshield. "I can't imagine. Both of the cabin doors look closed, though".
"Perhaps whoever swam down to rescue them was fastidious enough to close the doors afterwards", B.* suggested.
"Perhaps they bailed with parachutes and the doors snapped shut on their own", I suggested.
"If this was a horror film", she winced her beautiful eyes at the water, "we'd look down there and suddenly see someone moving around in the cabin".
"I wouldn't be scared", I said, as a joke, but at the same time thinking of the skeletons-in-the-spacesuits I'd seen in The Forest of the Dead. "Frankly, I don't know. Should we go and tell someone?"
We stared down at the plane, the whiteness made faintly luminous because of the murk. How long had it been there, eh? There was no rust that we could see. In all, there was a distinct feeling, wholly illogical, that it had either just happened, or else happened a decade ago.
"They're obviously dead by now", said B.* "The amount of time we've been up here having a chat-fest".
I eyed her nervously, asked, 85 percent as a joke, "Are you the ghost of one of the people who died down there?"
Barbara-Anne smiled, but also seemed grief-stricken. "That would be a sad story".
"That would be a weird, desolate story, and it would be worse for me, because I'd have to live with it".
She cringed ecstatically, "Is it actually worse, being alive than being dead?"
I thought for a moment, then went for a joke, went in for the kill like a rat up a drainpipe. I gestured animatedly. "Look, while we're up here debating life and death, those people down there could be drowning upside their heads. Are we going to swim down or not?"
"Not", she jerked her head playfully. "First things first. I owe you a Magnum".
We walked back to the little newso and I allowed her to buy me a Magnum. She had a Solaris. We ate them on the quay, beside a monolithic freighter with some old sci-fi name. A harbour man strolled past our lounging legs, and we did not mention the plane.
Surface details were exchanged, names, what we did for a living. You know by now how proud I am of Burger Shark. Barbara-Anne* was curiously subdued, however, when she told me she was 'a full-time carer for the elderly'.
Believe that it was me who stood up first. She turned her head, not quite directly facing me, hardly hiding her fear that I was leaving. As I stared into her beautiful eyes, the majestic peaceful-thunder of her brow, I vowed that, if we fell in love, even fleetingly, I would never take it for granted.
I brushed the cack off my trousers and stared nervously at the quay. Truly it was seaside rock; the creamy concrete was mineral-heavy with distinct shards of silver and black silver.
"There's nothing we can do for them, anyway. I can't swim. I definitely can't dive".
"I can't remember if I ever learnt to swim either", I said.
"You don't –remember—if you ever learnt to swim?"
"I am the auldest man in the world", I said weirdly.
She blinked and messed with her hair. "I've enjoyed this mad adventure we've had".
"Please promise me you won't think about it every moment for the rest of your life", said John Smith the sit-com actor.
"I won't", she said with mock defiance. "I also like thinking about squirrels, the Marx Brothers, and, of course, Star Wars".
I laughed abruptly. Battleship sunk. Toy duck shot out of the water by a sniper.
"Shall we walk around here until we find a pub?", I asked, feeling quite fearless. "I promise no funny business".
" 'I promise no funny business'? Who are you, Hugh Grant?"
"Very well. Shall we walk around here until we find a pub, and then afterwards I'll murder you and sell you to white slave traders?"
She led us to a pub on a cloistered, grit-ravaged rise, in a little compound which looked like a tennis court but wasn't. The place seemed dangerously under-used, just as a good pub should be. The twenty-five miles under my feet would soon start to take their toll on my wakefulness, I knew, so I ordered something that would keep me awake: whisky with Coke and a spoonful of brown sugar. Even so, I'd only be good for three rounds or so, and I warned her as much.
"We're equal", said Barbara-Anne*, her back to the bar and staring rigidly through the dirty window. No sign of the sea. "I must have got about four hours sleep in the past week".
"Are you OK?", I asked, more worried than I'd been for anyone, in a long time.
"It's just – stress". She did not elaborate. "Either way, three rounds will be my limit, too".
A dozen rounds later, we were touching each other's arms and mauling out our anecdotes on the bar top. Of course, God knows it's either extreme bad form or extreme spiritual zeitgeist to fall in love via alcohol – but either way, a human mind will never understand how it works. Barbara-Anne*, by the end of it, was very drunk indeed, though she never lost control of her smile. Around the middle of our boozing, two Charlie Hungerford style yachtsmen took a booth seat. They smiled with delight at how such an auld, foldy-faced, tufty-haired bohemian such as me could score such a mesmerising woman. I simply raised my glass in their direction.
Come eight o'clock, we prepared to leave. I stood up, did not feel dizzy, but had to fight for every step. Barbara-Anne*, on the other hand, felt dizzy, had plenty of energy in her legs, but in recompense couldn't trust them at all. Before leaving, I took a moment to lean back on the bar and rub my temples. Is there a Mr Carter in the room?
"Did you know", I said to the barman, "There's a submerged –submerged?- Did you know there's an underwater plane just along the way, so?"
"Oh yes", he spread his palms on the bar and grinned. "That crashed there in 1999, on a summer afternoon. There were helicopters and all sorts".
"1999 was a good year", said Barbara-Anne*.
"Did anyone die?", I asked, drunken eyes coolly narrow.
"Oh, no", Mr Barman breathed heavily, almost regretfully. "From what I read, the pilot had cardiac arrest. The plane just coasted out of the sky, clumped the canal wall, then floated there on the surface just long enough for the harbour medics to get him out. Once it sank, they must have just thought, sod it".
We stumbled out into the wondrously fresh air of the gloaming. Barbara-Anne* watched every move I made (but then again, I must have been doing likewise). The ennui swept over me; I walked over to the tall wire fence and stared out at the Severn Bridge, the red pylon lights shining like stars.
Massaging my temples. "Don't cry", I warned myself.
B.* came at me from behind and hugged me something fierce. She thought I was just having trouble being happy. Perhaps I was, but at the time it felt more specific.
"In the past, The TARDIS would have been sitting right here, and without further ado, I would have taken you to that summer afternoon in '99 and we'd have looked on as the plane swept down out of the blue sky, and we'd have got into some kind of intrigue, and your mind would have been blown".
"My mind is already blown, John", she whispered in my ear.
"All the same, it's a bummer to be so one-dimensional", I pouted.
We walked slowly out into the farm-addled wilderness. "What's 'The TARDIS'?"
'D'oh!', I thought. Quick on my toes, and perhaps due to the Devil's Piss, "This is the one day off I have per week. And when I woke this morning, I told myself I'd spend the whole day writing The Great Britsh Science Fiction Novel which I promised my Dad I'd someday write. Instead, because I'm weak-willed, I just went for a walk. That's what the novel is called – 'The TARDIS'".
"Oh, but John. Aren't you glad you chose this one-dimensional world, just for a day?"
We kissed passionately, no less so because of the drunkenness. She slipped my hand up under her crisp shirt and onto her hip. Not a gram of extraneous fat, but warm, irradiated, tingly like I don't know what.
"Does this feel one-dimensional to you?"
"No. Not", said I.
We kissed, long and dizzily. Or – dizzily? That suggests something unpleasant. Rather, we were safely preserved in our own private Time Vortex. For the past hour or two, it had been Barbara-Anne's* plan to phone a taxi which would take us back to her house. But there was no time for that now. We narrowly eyed a nearby barn.
"And really", she said urgently, "how can you be sure we aren't in The TARDIS right now?"
Footnote go. Even if I had the time to write about everything Barbara-Anne means to me, I really don't trust you humans to understand the true meaning of romantic love. Sorry. You could easily cite Rory and Amy, and I'd be forced to agree that she's the last thing he'll think about as universe dies, the first as it's reborn. All those thousands of years he spent as her cosmic sentinel, thanklessly, without hesitation. But still he had doubts, even after he'd fallen inside that wondrous universe-shaking love. Not me. My belief in Barbara-Anne is like my belief in God. It is the answer to life itself. Black-and-white. Uncompromising as the Big Bang was uncompromising to nothingness. At any rate, if you're interested, see Diaries 2013 - 15. It's true that when we met, she was profoundly depressed following the death of her ninety-year-old, wheelchair-bound father, who she'd been caring for since forever. Naturally, as a kind of horrible psychological obsessive, I feared that I was just a Freudian substitute for him. Except, no chance. I met Freud once, and he was the King of Ballacks. No girl wants to make love to their father, and especially not in some elliptical, psychological core. They just don't.
The salient moments from our earthly relationship, if you force me to choose, are as follows.
We were sitting by a lake at dusk. Barbara-Anne was hungry for just one more Solaris from the ice-cream van, before it upped and swerved off into the gloaming, sans the Thomas Tallis sadness-baiting. I gave her my wallet; remained on the heavy concrete outcrop staring at the water. When she came back, I saw she was staring at a small photo. I didn't think it was anything she'd found in my wallet. I didn't even recognise the two people it portrayed, not to start with. They were a prim-mouthed twenty-something man with a sinewy nose, and a girl with sculpted-round cheek bones, average-sized but unusually well-deployed breasts, the last truly black hair in the universe, smiling Egyptian eyes...
I froze in horror. Yes, it was a photo from my wallet. The fact that it was not something I'd looked at in over nine-hundred years was hardly extenuating. There I was, age twenty-eight. And there was Mary Viveash, deep in my arms as if butter wouldn't melt.
"Who are these two?", asked B. "Your parents?"
"My brother", I said lightly. This was close enough to the truth, close enough to the human conception of what regeneration is, that it hardly felt like a lie.
"Is he still alive?"
"No, he died ages ago". Again, close enough.
"What was his name?"
I felt myself cringe. "His nickname was always, 'The Doctor'".
"What about Missy Smiley-Smile?"
"That was his -", I cringed again - the cringe almost destroyed me, "girlfriend".
"Is she still alive?"
"Probably", I sighed. "Although I hope not, she was a slag, and she broke his heart".
"That's harsh", said Barbara-Anne with a deep, meaningful smile.
I shrugged at this. I wanted to say something like, 'Well, I've had nine-hundred years of soul-searching, and I'm still one-hundred percent sure she was the Whore of Babylon, so yes'. As it was, I compulsively rubbed the tufts of my hair. "I'm sick of that goddamn photo. Will you throw it in the lake already?"
Barbara-Anne thought, just for a second or two. "You shouldn't throw away a photo of your brother, if he'd dead, even if he was some kind of dick".
I brooded on this. "You're quite right, I'm certain".
I took the photo and, using my Victorinox, cut away the immortal cancer that is Mary Viveash. " – but it doesn't mean this has to stay".
Barbara-Anne held the incised head and shoulders of Viveash. I held myself from nine-hundred-and-fifty years ago. She pointed out, "But look at the angles where you've cut her away; you'll always look at it and know she used to be there, and it will be a kind of victory for her".
"No", I scowled. "She doesn't think like that. She has no emotional sophistication, believe me".
"But she did -". Barbara-Anne's beautiful, default-swaggering mouth rarely if ever went limp. But now was such a time. "She did have some kind of emotion? Emotion based on fear of loss, based on there being too few chances in life, just like the rest of us?"
I had always imagined, you, that my final victory over Mary Viveash would take place at the end of time, when our rival armies (she with the Cybermen and the Autons, me with the Daleks and the Ice Warriors) had fought each other to a standstill. Us facing each other, perhaps beside a precipice. And I always imagined killing her with no regrets, they don't work, no regrets now, they only hurt.
As it was, my final victory over her came in a wholly different way. A surprising and far more pleasing way. I stared at Barbara-Anne's tight beige trousers, the way they smoothly, grudgingly connected with the white prefabricated stone. Bearing down, I held out her arms in the style of a sex-attacker, only the sex-attack victim never tries to raptor a thousand little kisses onto the face of the monster, never snakes down a hand to open her flies. Come the almighty gust of wind, and it was safe to imagine the two halves of that goddamn photo being blown into the lagoon. I had other things to think about, singing holy war, holy war, the holy war is over and the infidels are dead. Just say hello and wave goodbye.
The main accumulation of events. It's hard to imagine this was only a day ago. But imagine it, please. Bit-by-bit, my consciousness was starting to return from the night shift fall-out slumber. I'd been dimly aware that Barbara-Anne was sketching me while I slept. As I became resolutely awake, I carefully studied her through the cracks in my eyes. She'd temporarily suspended her pencil and was simply day-dreaming. I wondered what the music was sipping out through her Archos headphones. Her eyes, while still in the room, were flickering beautifully.
"Where are my pancakes, woman?", I kidded.
As we kissed, oh passionately, I heard the suave music that was filling her head. I asked her what it was. The soundtrack of Get Carter, the Michael Caine kitchen sink gangster film. For a time we listened to the brilliant main theme, with its lilting lounge affirmations, jewel-encrusted harpsichord plucks and suave-insistent bongos. Honestly, I couldn't imagine what kind of story could use such an arch-meditative-yet-culturally-vibrant score. With Track Five, 'Looking for Someone', a Northern Soul Gospel daydream, we were energised in each other's arms. With Track Seven, 'Something On My Mind', an amazing, heavily-percussed, lascivious synth number – we were away.
"This is some punchy music", I noted.
"I suppose it's my favourite record of all time", she said.
"Only 'suppose'? That's no good to me".
She looked steadily into my eyes, holding my neck and abdomen as if they were rails on a bucking fairground ride. "Listening to it is a holiday thing, and I haven't been on holiday for ten years or more.
The story is – I was going away to the Lake District with my parents. It was a year or two before my dad had his first stroke, and we were all pretty happy. En route, we stopped at a service station, and I just found it laying there in the car park. 'Get Carter'? I'd never seen it. There was just a picture of Michael Caine, proffering the barrel of a shot-gun, as if about to shoot a maths teacher he was also fairly fascinated by. Back in the car, I played it over, and over, and over again. Hell of an album. I can probably recite all the dialogue off by heart".
I imitated the Geordie-jeans barman I'd just heard, " 'Is there a Mr Carter in the room?'"
" 'Like two piss-holes in the snow'", was Barbara-Anne's softly-spoken Caine impression. 79 Percent accurate, which, by my estimation, counts as unusually good.
"What's the film like?", I asked. "I was around in the sixties".
B. shrugged. I stared at her beautiful, slender shoulders. "I've never seen it. Never got round to it".
"I bet it would be weird for you", I said.
"Yes. We'll get the DVD some day".
Because it was a sin to waste time after crash-sleeping, I got up and moved into the kitchenette to make us coffee. At the counter, I gasped in pain and flexed my arthritic bones until they stopped hurting. Twelve hours of lowering a diving bell of chips into a lagoon of boiling fat – hardcore.
"Working at that place, as you do", said Barbara-Anne lightly. "I'm not sure if I should be proud of you, very proud of you, or insanely proud".
I blinked, produced a kind of flip-eating grin.
"It's nothing to be proud of. Why would you say that?"
She suggested, "You're trying to re-introduce communism, all by yourself".
Said I, "It's not communism. It's just a way of thanking the universe. You thank it by showing that you know the score, that academic or managerial conceit is worse than so-called drudgery. Besides, if you're remotely conscious, if you have the tiniest trace of an inner life, how can you even feel drudgery? What they think of as drudgery is just the nature of a utilitarian universe, or the approach of death. Just deal with it, you apes. I hate you".
Barbara-Anne gave a very satisfied pout. She then phased out slightly, though still pouting out her love for me. "Fear of death, eh? I haven't been scared of death since I was a tiny child. Surely it's as passé as The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?"
"Surely it's as gauche", I said, "as eighties shoulderpads?"
"Surely it's as antiquated", she said, "as the beta-max?"
"Surely it's as broad and as ballacks", I said, "as Miranda Hart?"
"And yet, why exactly are we so unafraid?", she wondered.
Said I cryptically, "God was drowning, and drowning, and all He could do in the end was swim for the surface".
Later on, Barbara-Anne stayed at home to cook our tea-time meal while I went out to buy whisky, etc. As soon as I'd left the front door, however, I was on the b-atch-box to Black Moon, the second-hand shop in town. The place was famous for having three walls of second hand DVDs, all at four pounds a go. I was willing to bet that they had Get Carter in there somewhere, but really didn't have time to look – I therefore asked one of the bored teenage assistants to find it for me, and I'd pay a fiver over the odds. While he was doing that, I marched directly into Argoose and paid half a month's wages for a Xemul Home Projector System, capable of giving a twenty-foot by twenty-foot picture, always with a brightness that would make an outback full moon feel shabby.
Her eyes pulsed when the gazillion lumens portal was opened, and she smiled and rubbed some stupid tears away. Carter Takes a Train. We were truly enraptured, myself for the first time since forever.
Dreaming. A revenge-sated Jack Carter strolls easily down the disused mining tracks, that curious, desolate place, inner-city, tho there's no particular evidence of civilisation.
Carter. Yes, Carter. No. A kind of psychic shorthand identifies him as me, not least because beside him is Barbara-Anne. She's clinging to his side, just across from the shoulder-slung shotgun. In fact, on her regal-sardonic lips, there's a smile as though she's enjoyed the searing catharsis every bit as much as me. A happy time, except in my own dreaming mind, there's not the least time for reflection.
The Gallifrey Gang smile dryly as they move towards the TARDIS, which is the same as ever except that it's turned an ethereal pink-white, with white indentations, casting white shadows, no black at all apart from the windows. Throughout it all, I sense my satisfaction at Barbara-Anne's touch. On the rocky ridge above us, meanwhile, a woe-mouthed, middle-era Cyberman picks his way around to scout out a good firing position. I don't see the guy fire; it's not a regular Cyber-blaster shot anyway. No blob of phosphoresce, rather an unflashy, old fashioned firing-pin affair. I am shot through the temple and fall down dead. Barbara-Anne weeps and folds herself in against my collar bone quite magnificently. The sound of her crying: steady, almost like laughter. It makes me feel that everything is OK. Everything is fine with the world, endgame clockwork, smooth, rich. The sense of finality is exactly the thing which sanctifies our passage into Heaven.
And then it all went wrong. I'd often been around fellow Time Lords as they started to regenerate, but after seeing it once, I always had to look away. There were two types. Your body was either consumed by fire-out-of-hell, or else the fabric of reality itself would start to snag and warp around your extremities. And there I went. My body rippled. I started my descent into Hell. I screamed and shouted for it to stop. I sensed myself kicking and tearing wildly at the bed sheets – but evidently, this was all part of the dream. When my eyes snapped open, Barbara-Anne was still sleeping beside me.
Sleeping, but not peacefully. Her temples writhed, her jaw was prone to terrible spasms. No doubt she was having a nightmare just as terrible as mine. Just as -? She gasped and woke. We hugged and her body shook as if she was still screaming, on some very deep level.
"I don't care for that dream, at all", she managed to say.
"Tell me", I said grimly.
"—We were together. It was Get Carter, at the end, and you were Jack Carter. Only here, it was a robot that shot you. After you died in my arms - that was the terrible part. The air around you seemed to be pulled inwards, like a kid playing with Photoshop. And once it steadied itself and became all un-blurry – you were someone else, a stranger".
Just managing to get out of bed, I nonetheless felt sick and helpless.
"It wasn't a robot", I started to elaborate, almost at random. "It was a Cyberman".
Barbara-Anne blinked her reddened eyes. "What's-"
I took a deep breath. There in the stillness and silence of our beautiful, suburban cubby, I'd never felt quite so lost.
"Barbara-Anne, I love you insanely, you know that don't you?".
A knocking came from the front door.
Barbara-Anne blinked, gave a sort of hurried smile.
I continued my sickly confession, "I love you more than any other human, any other mortal, could ever love anything. And there's a reason-"
The knocking at the front door became slower and steadier, obviously to indicate sarcastic ire. The volume, if anything, got louder. I felt my head quivering with each knuckle-rap.
"The story of my life is as -"
Like two actors in a badly-improvised art-performance, I moved to confront the infuriating knocking-of-the-door even as Barbara-Anne leapt from the sheets and clasped my shoulders. "Let's just find out who's at the door. I love you, too, no matter what".
To phased even to curse, I slipped on my boxers and a T-shirt and went downstairs to the hullabaloo. On the other side of the frosted glass, I saw a scarlet-clad woman with her knuckles poised to harass the door, again, and again, and again if ness. Heading her off by opening wide, I came face to face with Mrs Sladen, my former landlady.
"Hello", I said atonally.
"Mr Smith, I'm sorry to disturb you. Or at least, I was sorry to disturb you when I first started knocking ten minutes ago". She gave a very stylish frown at my boxers, at the beautiful, T-shirt-wearing woman who appeared behind me. "I won't ask what you were doing".
I struggled to imagine what she could want, since I'd paid the last of my rent and left her premises in pristine condition. "Mrs Sladen. It really is good to see you, but it's a little early-".
"This is isn't a social call. This is a simple plea, Mr Smith, for you to dissuade your suave, gangster friends from breaking into my house in the middle of the night to try to find you".
Suave, gangster friends…? I so desperately wanted time to think, but the universe gave me none. Mrs Sladen stepped aside and I saw him, in his blend-in-with-the-Earthmen demob suit. I drifted out into the light, just to get the tiniest bit more understanding.
Korasvotn smiled gravely. "Well, John. I'm sorry. All bets are off. Your apprentice has turned evil, become despotic".
"Details…?", I breathed, a heady mix of fear and impatience.
"The most salient is that in little under an hour, he will take the TARDIS to the Oval Office, try –and succeed—to annex the United States of America as his own private land. This, even with my displeasure around all things human, is unacceptable".
Perfectly imitating a tactless man, I leant in close at the Time Guardian's side. A pleasing grey opaqueness around his pores and his skinny cranium marked him well as a man not of the Earth. Also the shape of his eyes: always too ready to engage in matters ethereal.
"You're lying", I came in closer.
"Why should I lie?", he asked softly. "In my life, I've tried to lie infrequently. It's a childish business".
Clenching my jaw, cacky hatred swelling beautifully inside the floodgates. "The Time Lords have lied to me constantly, of pseudo-life and pseudo-freedom, all of it in the thrall of desperate bourgeois politics. I know –I know—why you're doing this. It's micro-managed megalomania. Dead peasant insurance. You just want me because you've got time invested in me".
Naturally, I expected this tirade to be the start of a discussion. But it was not. His eyes tuned-out, his voice – profoundly soft. "I have a favourite quotation about the life we Time Lords lead, ironically enough from this very cursed planet. 'And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them. One woe is past; and, behold, there come two woes more hereafter. Seal up those things which the seven thunders uttered and write them not'".
The man smiled bashfully and apologetically. He stood tall, grasping my shoulder warmly. He then gifted me a strange, glowing blue sphere. "If you don't want to believe what I've told you, it's up to you. But Bagwell is your responsibility. This is a Koraseq Sphere, also known, colloquially, as a 'time-magnet'. The next time Mr Bagwell programmes the TARDIS to enter this time-frame, it will automatically be re-routed to your position. But beware, John. His army is formidable, and he will delight in setting them against you".
"The Cybermen?", I asked dryly.
"Yes", Korasvotn pursed his lips and frowned mightily.
At a loss, feeling the moments speeding away, I started to beg him. I did so without even realising what I was doing.
"Please make me mortal".
"I can't do that, John".
"But don't you see? I can't change again. If I change again, I'll simply go mad, and what use is a crazy man to you?"
"In the face of eternity?", wondered Korasvotn. "It is as well to study a crazy man as a sane man".
"Please", I said, the exhaustion in my voice sounding low and sonorous to a wholly ridiculous degree. "I am in love. I am love. If you've ever been in love, you'll know that you must have everything or nothing, and whatever you want in your heart, now, is all that matters, or will ever matter, in any conceivable universe".
Your man blinked and frowned. He came to my side, and whispered in my ear so that no one else could hear (for this I am eternally grateful). "In which case, you would have killed yourself after Mary Viveash, and never become a Time Lord in the first place".
Mrs Sladen frowned, worried for me like an old friend, then departed also.
I retreated onto the stairs and sat pensively with Barbara-Anne. I held her hand, while my right hand moved decadently on the smooth oak banister.
"I'm a time-traveller. From a whole society of intergalactic time-travellers".
She angled her head at me; a meditative eyelid covered all but a third of her pupil, the left eye hidden entirely by an easy conflagration of red hair. "Yes. I figured this out from a couple of separate clues".
"What clues?", I smiled sadly.
"Firstly, I started to read the one book you brought with you. 'The End of the Affair', which was awesome, by the way. Inside the dust-jacket, I found a ten pound note. From the year 2021".
I nodded tersely, enter a dim memory of having put it there, once upon a time, as a kind of reward for whoever ended up owning my favourite book.
"What else was it that gave me away, damn your beautiful eyes?"
"There's something alien in your chest, where your heart should be".
I felt my eyes go wide. Like Ulysses on the mast, I'd always resisted the urge to place my ear over her ribs and listen away, simply for fear that she'd follow suit and discover my dirty secret. How the? What the?
"I simply have two hearts", I shrugged. "I didn't think it was that noticeable".
A heavy crease spread down her freckled cheek, absolutely alluring. "In the throes of our sex, I develop the senses of Daredevil".
"And how did you know conclusively that I was no Earthman?"
The flank of red rivulets swept away and I was gifted both eyes, riding as high and giddy as foil balloons on a flat Mediterranean sea. An odd kind of smile, too: no particular happiness, just endless, reassuring pride.
"You're principled. You're absolutely unwavering to what you believe is justified, and yet, with this society, it's like bows and arrows against the lightning. But still you try".
Time flitted away on the face of my Omega watch, the gift from the stranger having a nervous breakdown. It seemed to be making stupid halts and sluggish, minute-only advancements. Stupid, but still I was grateful. It allowed me time to spew out the lion's share of exposition for B's benefit. Gallifrey. Bagwell. My dick-Faustian gambit to become mortal. It's testament to her emboldened, zeitgeisting mind that she at once asked me my favourite question. The one few humans think to ask.
"I've read a few science-fiction stories. Ray Bradbury, Philip Jose Farmer, whatever. I know about the Butterfly Effect – that the tiniest movement anywhere brings about an unseen cavalcade of changes, which completely alters the whole world. When you apply this to time travel, it just causes the greatest sssh-storm anyone can imagine. And so how could a time traveller deal with this power, this infinitesimal, schizophrenic responsibility?"
My answer (I realised I could probably say His name with impunity and embarrassment-free, since He'd be driving me insane soon enough anyway), "The Butterfly Effect assumes that there is no God".
"So there is?"
"Oh yes. You have to go back and do something fairly drastic in order to muck history. As quantum waves are marshalled by a macrocosmic implicate order, so is history, even to the point where, their parents never having met, a baby will appear out of nowhere on the steps of an orphanage. There are always counter-plans and alternative routes".
Said Barbara-Anne, "I always knew He existed. The only question is, why does He allow us to suffer like this? Does He communicate with us just through the passage of time, the 'feel' of it? Is all the suffering an illustration to prove we have free will?"
This cursed debate, I thought. Certainly we'll have it. But it's not everything, not even a hundredth of everything. I hugged her; her arms fell across my back and squeezed away at my fisherman's jumper. I breathed in the smell, that latent cosmic energy which always resides between her thin shoulders and buoyant red hair.
"Please understand that what I tell you now are probably my own theories, and cannot be proven as fact".
"Speak on, mister", said she. "I'll make a redacted copy for Richard Dawkins".
"In the thousand years plus that I have lived, I've had a number of human companions. I've always wanted to take them far out into our infinite universe and show them all the mighty civilisations. Did you ever read 'Star Maker' by Olaf Stapledon?"
"I believe it was in the Gollancz Masterworks series", she said. "I think I read about it in the Orbit Encylopedia, or saw it on some unpretentious BBC Four documentary. I would have liked to have given it a look in, but I never saw it secondhand. To buy it new was out of the question, since I couldn't get my own novels into print, and would rather see hardcore sci-fi die out as genre rather than admit that quango publishers own the world".
"Keep that zeal always", I said quietly into her eyes. "In any case, 'Star Maker' is the most epic novel ever written about interplanetary civilisations versus cosmic entropy. It gives such an inspiring picture of the resilience and determination a civilisation would need to survive in the face of universal contraction. Unfortunately, the novel bears no resemblance whatsoever to the real space-faring races. True, every race which evolves upwards from mud-crawlers to intelligent, industrial, city-dwelling creatures will have some pioneering Neil Armstrong figure. They'll have their own Nelson Mandella, a Dali Lama, a Jesus. But unfortunately, they'll also have spew-eating capitalism, 'altruistic' warmongering, welfare laziness, unthinking overpopulation. And these things will destroy them, B, often long before they leave their own solar systems. It is my pessimistic belief that consciousness itself, when birthed into a finite, death-bound form – is automatically doomed to fail. When you're tied to a stomach that needs to scour for sustenance, when you have to compete for a romantic mate in difference to any kind of god's-eye discernment, when you believe you're the centre of the universe, but aren't willing to take the responsibility as such because you're too fascinated by what your own little 'society' will let you get away with -
"In other words, mortals are all, by their very nature, selfish and frivolous. Why would God want to concern Himself with that? It is my considered belief that, at best, we might be able to communicate with Him through a kind of morse code, but the individual taps sent out by the psychic expulsions which come each time we die. But who in Heaven or on Earth would want to listen to us in the meantime?"
A bulletin newsreader fascinated by the hysterical stories flashing up on the autocue, privately smiling all the same. B never looked away once. We could never have had that conversation anywhere else than in that dappled-but-never-dim stairwell. Flanked by the long slants of clean brown shadow, she looked so young and thoughtful. As if the two were mutually inclusive traits.
"You argued with that man about becoming mortal. Is that so that you can be with me?"
"Correct", I said. "You, B, are the denouement of everything I am. I have died twelve times now, and the resulting dialogue with God has been, I fear, nonsensical. Maybe nothing more than random words. 'Jumper. Toffee. Canoe. Balls. Jumper. Toffee. Canoe. Balls'. I can only hope that He understands it when I die now, and there're no further messages. That we're ready, that we just want out".
"Viva to that", agreed Barbara-Anne. "Just – viva to that".
A large open space was required for the showdown. You don't want any innocent bystanders getting hurt, do you? We ran out towards the peripheral of town, or rather, Barbara-Anne ran and then patiently treaded-tarmac while I scuttled like a speed-walking Old Man Steptoe. No arthritis had ever effected me from the waist down, but that didn't mean there wasn't a world of tingling and cramp. I developed stitch in both my chest cavities, which I faintly enjoyed, because who ever died of stitch?
We legged it through housing estates flanked by a recession-abandoned construction site and several very quiet builders merchants. A lot of the roads were winding. You humans and your winding roads in housing estates. Let's just go to straight to Rome. Or at least, that's what I'd normally have thought. I never wanted our search to end, because the sight of Barbara-Anne flipping and skimming her body sideways was so beautiful. Aesthete central; from my perspective, the oversized creme and steel-grey houses didn't even have upper stories, they just blurred out into the white sky. And never be afraid of taking those tight little alleyways in housing estates. The weirdly angled houses are simply sour-faced mausoleums to slink past.
Those slidey-tile games where you move bits of a mosaic around to make the right configuration. All too often there were beautiful countryside fields, reasonably far-reaching with freeform hedgerows, very dark green. You could imagine it was all being kept by a wondrously stubborn family of gypsies, generation after generation, simply because they love the bleakness of flat, inhuman greenery. The name of the last bit of concrete we walked along? A newly-erected council street sign declared, 'Good Wolf Lane'.
And then we stopped at a tufty green wilderness which stretched off to a vanishing point of five-miles distant woodland.
"What happens now?", she asked me.
"I don't know exactly", I puffed. I liked the way she asked me questions even though I was terribly out of breath. I liked it even more when she savagely kissed me.
We kissed for some time. When she was done with me, my lungs at optimum, I kissed her in turn.
"We need to listen out for a sound. A very specific kind of sound, like -"
God almighty, and how to describe the thing? I tried blowing the muscles of my throat together, like your dad does when he clears his throat. Alas it just sounded like mentalist thunder.
"It sounds like – God running his biro over a piece of sand paper, but in slow motion, but at the same time with a thousand ghost pterodactyls singing their way into the far reaches of eternity".
B gasped a little. "Should be a fulfilling day just for hearing that".
"You also need to keep your eyes open", I said. "It will fade in-"
Clever little narrative, nice and abrupt like a heart-attack; even as the Koraseq Sphere stared to flash, a thirty-foot elm tree moved from evil translucence to shameless solidity. The noise, more ethereal than I could ever have described it, shook from the tree-tops to the high heavens.
I watched Barbara-Anne's palms spread open nervously.
"That should have been the ending of the Blair Witch", she said.
The Blair Witch…? Explain it to me later. We'll meet everyone in the end.
A strip opened in the trunk. There wasn't much of a glimpse into the control room, no ovaloids, no console. From the alienesque recesses came a dozen Cybermen. I say a dozen – I didn't bother to count them. They levelled their gauntlet-blasters at our heads, and I knew instinctively that this was the end.
"Take us to the President", said Brains.
B stiffened at the horrible sound of his cybernetic voice, the way you really have to concentrate to understand their tone, then inevitably are disappointed when you find they're just secretly depressed, secretly guilty mechanised dullards. In unrelated matters, let's watch some News footage from the army bases in Afghanistan. Myself, I just marvelled at how any conscious being could have emerged from a small, artificially-lit room into a green pasture and not even glimpse at the rolling, sun-glinting tree tops. But then, the approach of death makes you one hell of an aesthete; I don't apologise for that.
"There's been a change of plan, I want to speak to Mr Bagwell". Almost laughing at the bravado that was oozing from my mouth. Otherwise, no more the Tenth and Eleventh Doctor gab, I promise.
Brains; "Take us to the President or be obliterated".
Myself, "I'll take you to the President, and I'll a buy a Big Issue, but first I need to see -"
Bagwell eased his skinny body between the sentinel Cybermen. He looked more or less the same as when I'd seen him last, except for a Frontios-silk shirt, which I'll admit suited him.
His recessed eyes swept across Barbara-Anne all the while he spoke to me.
"Well, Mr Smith, it would seem you've foisted a detour on us. My friends and I were just on the way to Washington DC, the Heart of Democracy, there to deliver a petition for the common man".
"Politicians are very dismissive of the common man", I said. "It may be as well to have these fine metal gentlemen take over America and enslave the world".
Bagwell sneered as if to say, 'hilarious'. "Who is your delectable companion?"
"This is Barbara-Anne", I said in an undertone that gave nothing and took nothing. He moved forward by a swagger of the shoulders, took her hand, moved it just a inch or two with the intention of a kiss – Barbara squeezed his fingers and pulled them up to her own lips for a kiss that signified nothing except - post-modern humility, knowing humility, evil-baiting amity.
Our enemy, our enemy, not yours - craned back his head and crocodile-grinned. "What a truly edgy impasse, so highly charged. A veritable gala of good versus evil".
"I'm sorry, Mr Bagwell", I said. Truly from the hearts, I was.
The man-among-Cybermen folded his arms and leant back on his hips, ponderous. His eyes moved deeply in the wondrous white sky, seeing nothing. "'Sorry', John? Well, don't keep me in suspenders", he glared lasciviously into Barbara-Anne's eyes.
"I don't want to lecture you", I told him, again being perfectly candid and true to my hearts.
But your man pointed out, "I think you very much want to lecture me, boss, otherwise you would not have diverted my time-ship".
I shrugged and shook my head. "It sounds like a lecture, but it's not. These are all mistakes I laboured under myself. Good and evil. Work-ethic and laziness. These are all human extremes, based on mortality. But we're not mortal, you or I. Why fall in with either good or evil when we can go anywhere and do anything? I thought that the part of you that was so nakedly, unashamedly evil would be cleanly converted into some rarefied fascination, and you'd be so gently self-absorbed, like God. I thought you'd become the most peaceful creature in existence".
Bagwell stared briefly at the grass beneath his feet. He smiled loosely. "You know that famous philosophical proposition, John - if a tree falls over and no one is around, is there any sound? I always believed that was such a childish conundrum. I mean, even if there's no one around, the sound waves are still there, alive in the air as teenie-tiny vibrations.
"And the devils and the angels of our fathers. If I am given power to do whatsoever I like, and there are no devils or angels to whisper in my ear, am I being good or evil or just - peaceful? You say peaceful, John. I say that the evil is still there, still alive in the air, like a drum beat. And you need only hark your ear for a moment and you'll hear it as plain a day".
Looking into his eyes, I could tell that all bets were off. You would probably have seen it sooner if you were there.
"Where is Kutea? I was so sure an Urbachosean companion would tip your temperance".
"She decided to return home, due to a difference in, shall we say, intellectual scope".
"I thought that you loved her", I said.
These words were a mistake. These words were a means of progression and nothing more. This mistake was a means for us to progress. To progress we must beat the wasps nest with a stick. No one is truly scared of death, they just think they are. These mistakes are our deliverance.
He asked me what I knew of love, and he shot Barbara-Anne. Bullet the first took apart her abdomen. Bullet the second, her chest.
I am laughing about it now, the way I instantly cried, or seemed to. How can you go from dryness to having a completely sodden face in the space of a second?
A little blood came from her mouth. And I knew she was dying in earnest, not by any death-rattle, but by the way her wide eyes rolled and moved ponderously, rolled and moved ponderously. She was trying to think of something meaningful to say, but simultaneously measuring the seconds as they spilled away.
"I love you", she managed.
I told her I loved her more than anything.
She convulsed and her eyes started to fuse. 'I love you' was good, but still she searched.
"There's always a stuffed zebra on the balcony", she said.
I am keen to hear her explanation to what this means. Perhaps it's the way I'll recognise her house when I arrive in Heaven?
In a shudder of wild agony, she was gone. Bagwell promptly shot me, in the abdomen. Hell of a messy wound; hurts worse and worse, even in spite of the 30cl bottle of Glen Orchy 'space- medicine' I've subsequently drunk. I fell backwards in the tufty grass, but made efforts to crawl back beside Barbara-Anne's corpse. This annoyed Bagwell; he grappled with one of the Cybermen's gauntlet-blasters, trying to get it to obliterate her body into a cloud of radiation. The Cyberman barely reacted, and in any case, their weapons can only be fired by the internal circuitry.
"Remove that poisonous slut from the face of the earth", he gestured at the body.
Roger-roger, Tony Blair. The whole of my right side was scorched.
Bagwell promptly stood over me and levelled his revolver at my head. I felt a desperate fear, unlike anything I've known before.
"Please don't kill me. I'll do anything you want. You don't understand – I can't die like this".
Of course, Bagwell smiled. "That's hardly the brilliantly enlightened, cosmic-weighing philosophy I've come to expect from you, John. All this talk of God and eternity, and you're scared of a little thing like death!"
Begging, followed by undiluted anger, "Bagwell, you stupid, stupid idiot! You don't understand! If I die now, I'll change, I'll become some other stupid, lost wretch. And all my love will be gone. It's fine to hate and it's fine to kill. But not me, not like this".
I calmly regarded his dark, disdainful eyes, and elaborated. I tapped a bloody and burnt finger against my as-yet-unscathed cranium. "You don't understand. We're inside here. We'll all get to Heaven inside of this. My brain is like a door to heaven, beyond all good and evil, but not if you kill me and it all changes. Just, for once in your stupid hick life, try not to be such an anal, passive-aggressive buffoon".
I think perhaps it was the novelty value of this cussing which prevented him from killing me. Or at least, I presumed he hadn't killed me – I fell into several very ugly states of semi-consciousness. My thoughts like a child's lower-case writing scrawled on a cave wall. An almighty flash in the air, which could equally have been nothing more than my painful, tear-drenched eyes blinking at the ozone. Then, following the flash, a thousand years of stupid, weak-willed delirium.
And then again, blink, glimpse; all the Cybermen turning and firing everything they had at the sky.
Semi-consciousness, blink, glimpse; something huge, white, luminous towering above us all.
No time for a relapse into semi-consciousness, I realised. Not this time. I forced myself awake. I forced myself to look into the sky and uncover what all the fuss was about.
Two angels hovered neatly above the TARDIS. They smiled at me.
"Klaatu, Barada, Nicto", they promised.
The Cybermen fused and fell down dead. Bagwell grasped his revolver and fired desperately at the luminous angels. Ah, Theodore.
The male angel alighted on the ground and angrily cuffed the revolver from your man's fingers. "Back in the TARDIS", he commanded him.
Bagwell's mouth drew horribly limp. His arms and legs: stolid, as clockwork ticking to a halt.
"Get back in the TARDIS", the angel repeated. He did so and 'that was the last I ever saw of him'.
The female angel alighted a metre or so in front of me. Lots of people would be awed by the beauty, but I still had Barbara-Anne in mind, as I do right now, as I will for eternity. But yes, the angel. Let me describe her, because it was a strange kind of beauty, even in terms of aliens and beings celestial. Her hair billowed richly like something from a Tarsem Singh film. In general, there was all the lighter-than-air buoyancy and rippling gauze which renaissance culture has led us to expect – but she also seemed –
It's difficult to explain. Earthy. Conspicuously well-contrasted to the dark and capricious Earth atmosphere. The angels were at once impressively ethereal and also remarkably easy to comprehend. Make of it what you will.
"Do you recognise me, John?", asked the female.
Dutifully, I looked closely. I recognised her at once, and again it's difficult to explain. I recognised nothing physical.
"Kutea. How are you?", I wept.
She smiled regretfully. "I hate seeing you in such pain".
"Pain shmain", I blustered. "You – you're from the future. At some point you must have gone back to Bagwell and straightened him out. How far head are you now?"
The Kutea angel stared at me with a kind of pride. "I am old enough to be your grandmother, and the grandmother of all the stars in the sky, and the grandmother of Galactus".
"Nice – 'The grandmother of Galactus'", I pondered. I then felt my attention fall on the body-shaped outline of scorched earth. I breathed deeply and prepared to ask my big question, and God help me if she said no. "Hell of a thing Barbara-Anne dying like that. Still, it could never have happened much differently. Can you make me mortal?"
I braced myself.
"I don't understand", said the angel.
"I want to die", I said impatiently, just for a minute with Six in my head. Six with his stupid coat, but otherwise I couldn't have been more proud of him.
"This is a strange thing to desire".
"I want to die. It's the only possible way that Barbara-Anne and I will be together again".
She brooded, and then smiled. "Forgive me, John. You'll appreciate that concepts such as 'life' and 'death' mean very little to us nowadays. I think what you want is to stop regenerating and to go to Heaven, as you are now. Am I right?"
Head in my hands. "Yes".
The angel raised her eyebrows. She looked far up into the sky, where the day-time ghost of the moon was languishing nicely at the scale of a marble. "This is like Neil Armstrong asking the Moon to hold still while he plants the flag. If you do not want to regenerate again, you will not. If you want to go straight to Heaven, you will. Know this to be true, John. The torture we lived through as mortals will never be an easy memory, or even satisfying, but it's not something we'd have wished otherwise".
So I eased back onto the grass. I shifted my eyes comically to try and ease away the puffiness. John Carter slings the shotgun over his shoulder and absent-mindedly swats the sniper's bullet away – it's a day we can all look forward to.
"We have a barbed relationship with the mortals", revealed Kutea. "In the centuries to come, Teddy will be very much preoccupied by the killing of Barbara-Anne. The guilt will almost drive him insane".
I stared at the slight, glowing crack in the tree-trunk. Glowing because there was an angel in there, or simply because it was the natural, alienesque inclination of the TARDIS? Hard to decide.
"Tell him I forgive him, as long as it doesn't happen again", I said. "Tell him also that he pulled off wearing that Frontios-silk shirt very well".
She glanced towards the TARDIS.
"Do you want to go?", I wondered. "You have my leave".
"Is there anything else I can do for you, John?"
"As they say on Earth, 'See you on the other side'".
Team Bagwell departed, and I started my long, devastatingly painful walk into the wilderness. My final earthly possessions: this notebook and pen, a dirty mp3 player that I found in a ditch several weeks ago, a well-translated copy of the Koran, my wallet, a vintage Darth Vader toy, a yo-yo, a bottle of Glen Orchy 'space-medicine' (now empty), a bag of jelly-babies (two remain; black and black - deal with it), my pocket watch, a Pac-Man game, several prize conkers and Bagwell's revolver minus five bullets. Pockets like Harpo, me. What a character I am (shiver).
For a long time now, I've imagined dying in a ditch, but I thought it would actually be nice to head for a rise, even just a little rise, see the horizon, see a rabbit perhaps. I walked as far as I could, to the best rise I could find. I tried to find some nice music on the Mp3 player, but it was all terrible. Except for an album called, 'The Altogether'. Track Seven is pretty stirring.
I slumped down and stared at the beautiful landscape, have been slumped down ever since. The number of times I've had the revolver raised and ready: three. The humans say it's the coward's way out. But then, the humans also say, Miranda Hart, here's your Bafta. There is no argument. Everything's black and white. It's not the coward's way out, it's the coward's way in. But, sure, and I looked at my watch. It was twelve-ten in the afternoon. Who would choose to end their mortal, mortal, immortal existence at twelve-ten in the afternoon? Nnn-nnn-nnn, there's a cream-cracker under the sofa, mother. Nnn-nnn. Look at me, I'm complaining about death. Nnn. I am writing these words merely as a way of killing time until sunset, but then secondarily as a warning to all my still-living companions.
Don't lose your nerve. And beyond that, it will be good to see you all again.
Latterly, I've been pausing to appreciate the hallucinations. I'm beset by two distinct varieties; some I look at and, a second later, I can gleefully accept were hypnogogic phantoms. The way Constable stormscapes tumble down in the high atmos like a theatre curtain. The way the dying spikes of sunlight warp and kaleidoscope like the Time Vortex. However, there are other hallucinations, so compelling it seems faintly dishonourable or hasty to dismiss them as daydreams. I'm talking about the Daleks. Wherever there's anything even remotely resembling a flat surface, there they are, tanking forward in their final conquest of Planet Earth. Sometimes I'll shout at them, and they'll look. Their dodgem horns will flash as they answer back, but I'm too distant to hear and far too innocuous a target to 'exterminate'. Where is Davros? I long to see him again. You could always argue with Davros, you could always get into some kind of protracted conversation with him. In many ways, he was a fascinating man, with no pretence. It will be good to see Davros again. I can't imagine what he'll be like in a universe where there is nothing left to conquer.
'COME ON!', as Ten or Eleven might have shouted, in all their ugly bluster.
These Daleks-of-the-mind; I find them so beautiful. As my body starts to tingle, and this is it. I want to tell all of them that I love them. I'm being exterminated, but they're forgetting to give the physical gesture. Come on, you salt-shaker mother-lovers. They will deliver me to Barbara-Anne. They can't ignore me for long. I am John Smith, and I have a date with a stuffed zebra on a balcony.