Chapter One: Death on Gethria
Whirling through the Vortex, dwarfed by the infinities of eternity and a limitless universe, a small, blue, cuboid object, with a glowing light atop and windows like white, squarish eyes squinting out into a dizzying, kaleidoscopic tunnel, propelled itself ever onwards.
It was the TARDIS, space-time craft of that most mysterious citizen of the universe, the Doctor. Inside that sturdy, blue exterior, exactly engineered to resemble a twentieth-century London police box’s modest dimensions, there was an Aladdin’s Cave of impossibly advanced technology and seemingly endless accommodation.
At its heart was the control room. Here, on top of a glass-floored platform sat the TARDIS’s multi-sided console. Dancing around it with a fevered intensity, punctuated by spectacularly carefree flourishes and pirouettes, was the Doctor himself. Making adjustments, tweaking an intricate imbalance here, absently flicking a switch or two there, he always took great pride in operating his beloved time and space machine. They had been together for many lifetimes. Many Earthly companions had come and gone, but the Doctor and the TARDIS… they were constants in each other’s lives.
His life’s work had been the accidental but well- meaning interference in the lives of others. He had illegally set oﬀ into the universe, defying the laws of his now extinct people, the Time Lords, because he wanted to explore… to seek out… anything and everything.
He had experienced the extremes of existence. There had been so much terror, so much delight… and everything in between.
He had made so many friends, fought as many enemies. There had been beginnings and ends, joyous meetings, sad farewells. And it was all etched across the face of this man who had had many faces. The one, unchanging facet of his appearance—the scope of his lives and deeds, there in his eyes. There, in the warmth of his ancient smile.
Even now, with the Doctor in his most outwardly youthful body, more than ever, there was something of the ancient about him. There was a weariness… Perhaps even a growing awareness of his place in all things, that made him concerned about the extent of the consequences of his wanderings.
Travelling alone now, he was intending to keep a low profile in the tracks of eternity. Those were his avowed, good intentions.
But the Doctor’s Achilles heel was his curiosity.
Standing back from the console, exuding that pride in his own, latest adjustments, he caught sight of himself in the glass column ascending from the centre of the hexagonal console. The unmistakable signs of his ship’s power were rising and falling encouragingly inside the glass. He beamed a broad smile at himself, tweaked his bow tie and smoothed down his tweed jacket.
‘Somewhere nice and quiet, I think,’ he said to his reflection. He twiddled his fingers, like a safe-cracker about to unlock a fortune. But before he could set a new course, something on one of the festooned hexagon’s opposite surfaces bleeped.
A single, faint bleep. Then another. And another, until the bleeping became insistent, bordering on the downright irritating.
The Doctor had already circled the console and was anxiously inspecting the source of the bleeping. A blinking amber light. He frowned and tapped it. The bleeping and blinking continued.
‘Are you sure, old girl?’ he whispered, moving his ancient, youthful face closer and closer to the amber light. This was not a light he had ever thought to see blinking again. Then, suddenly, it stopped. No blinking. No bleeping.
‘Oh,’ said the Doctor. He felt a sudden pang of sadness; but it was only momentary, because the silence was soon broken by a very distinct tapping on the outer side of the TARDIS’s wooden doors. Something was outside, in the surging Vortex, tapping on the TARDIS’s outer dimensions.
Checking that the ship’s force field was in place, the Doctor dashed from the console, down the steps to the rather quaint wooden doors set into the other-worldly architecture of the control room. He flung the doors open, and there, hovering before him was a small white, glowing cube.
‘Oh, you’re just a baby one, aren’t you?’ he said, beaming with his unique mix of surprise, delight and enthusiasm. In an instant, he had snatched the cube into his hands, thrown the doors shut and dashed back up the stairs to the controls. He held the cube in the light from the console, squinting, intrigued.
In dire emergencies, his people had used these strange, telepathic cubes to send messages. He had used one himself, many lifetimes ago – and not so long ago, he had been lured into a trap by one. But this little ‘fellow’ was a slightly different kettle of fish, he thought.
It was very small. About half the size of your standard Time Lord cube.
‘Looks like something I might have knocked up in a hurry,’ he said to himself. ‘Ah!’
And the thought hit him.
Or rather… the question. Was this one of those moments when something from his future had rocketed back into his past?
Time travel was fraught with these difficulties. He had no way of telling when and where the cube had come from just by looking at it. Best to press ahead and find out what this little messenger had to say to him, he thought.
Crouching down on the floor, with all the inelegance of a recently born gazelle, the Doctor placed the cube in front of him and began to concentrate his whole mind upon it. Would it work, he wondered? If it did, it would be a sure sign that he had indeed sent the message to himself.
At that precise moment, the cube unlocked itself and a fizz of sparkling, white energy rose from it. As the tiny walls fell gracefully apart and the cloud of particles dissipated, the Doctor’s mind was filled with the impression of something…
He couldn’t quite articulate the thought in his mind. All he knew was, he had to go to the console. He placed the opened pieces of the cube into his jacket pocket and jumped to his feet. His hands set to work, rapidly adjusting coordinates. The TARDIS was quick to respond, her engines groaning reassuringly. Moments later, they thudded to a halt.
The Doctor breathed a sigh of satisfaction. He patted the console and smiled.
‘Clever old thing. Well done.’
He pulled the console’s screen towards him, peering at the whirl of symbols and graphics on it. He’d never been here before, he knew that. But he had heard the name of the place.
‘The planet Gethria,’ he mouthed to himself.
All the readings showed the planet could support a wide range of life forms, so he decided to go outside, pausing only briefly to activate the wall scanner to see what he could expect to be greeted with. He frowned as he saw the barren, desert landscape and some kind of gigantic, ancient stone monument. Hard, grey, granite-like. Just below it, there was a small gathering of humanoids.
‘Bound to be friendly,’ he muttered, half-suspecting his optimism might be misplaced.
But the same kind of compulsion that had led him to set the coordinates for Gethria seemed to be driving him now. He was possessed of a feeling that he couldn’t quite understand. He just knew he must set foot on this world.
The TARDIS had landed about half a mile away from the monument. This gave the Doctor plenty of time to survey the group of humanoids as he approached over the crumbling, dry surface of Gethria. He made no attempt to hide himself. He could, for example, have darted between rocky outcrops, alternately hiding and dashing for cover; but there was really no need, he thought.
The closer he got to the gathering, the more it became apparent to the Doctor that these people were not the slightest bit interested in anything other than whatever it was directly in front of them. He couldn’t see what that was for now; but they were all staring down at it.
As he got ever closer, some indistinct words drifted across to him on the dry, dusty breeze. Although he couldn’t quite make them out, they sounded sombre and respectful in tone.
And then, before he had reached the gathering, as if responding to some unspoken signal, the humanoids began to depart, walking slowly, heads bowed, around the monument, heading oﬀ in the opposite direction to the Doctor. He felt almost compelled to stop, finding himself instinctively bowing his own head, as if he were attending…
A funeral. That was it. It was a funeral. Yes. The dappled grey of the long, hooded cloaks these people were wearing… That was a popular form of funeral attire in… Oh, somewhere in the universe the Doctor had long forgotten about.
And there was the grave. Right where they had all been standing. It had a rather beautiful but stark, engraved, orange headstone – evidently imported from far away. Embedded in the curve of its upper edge were half a dozen small items, encased in glass or something very similar, like fragments of memory caught in clear amber. As with the dappled grey cloaks, the Doctor remembered, the encasing of a person’s chosen mementoes in a gravestone was an age-old tradition in many parts of the cosmos.
As the Doctor began to approach the stone for a closer look, he suddenly felt he was being looked at. Twitching a look to the right, he saw one of the mourners.
It was an old lady. She had clearly paused to turn and look at him.
Their eyes met. To the Doctor, it felt like she was waiting for something. A greeting? Recognition? Something… But for the Doctor, there was nothing. He did not know her.
Perhaps she sensed this, it wasn’t clear, but after a few seconds, she turned her head away and walked oﬀ, following the other mourners at a steady pace, making no attempt to catch up.
Shrugging, the Doctor turned his attention back to the embedded mementoes in glass. He found himself being drawn to what looked like a tiny spaceship. He pushed his face close to the transparent casing around its miniature hull.
‘Hmmm,’ he mused. ‘Anyone at home?’
Crouching, he could see some lettering on the underside of the ship.
‘Made in Carthedia,’ he read aloud. ‘You’re a toy, aren’t you?’ The Doctor grinned his broad grin and ruﬄed his hair. He chuckled to himself. He knew the diﬀerence between a memory and the faint tingle he felt when something from his future was reaching back to him. He knew that sometimes the complexities of time travel meant he had to be patient.
‘Something for another day,’ he muttered to himself.
‘But I shall remember you, little spaceship. I shall remember you.’ And he pointed at it, chuckling again, moving closer and closer to the glass. So close now that the little ship started to blur and the microscopic flaws in the transparent ‘amber’ around it looked like the tracks of eternity, reaching out to tantalise the Doctor.
He snapped back up to his full height, swaying, inelegant, looking up at the giant monument. One day, this would mean something to him, he felt. One day…
But not today.
As the Doctor turned and left the graveside, striding oﬀ back to the TARDIS, he was being observed.
Deep within a vast, metallic complex, surging with the power of a terrifying, almost unimaginably superior technology there seethed the hatred and determination of a single, powerful intellect. Contained within the bonded polycarbide armour of a Dalek, this creature was the result of generations of genetic manipulation. Manipulation with but one aim: to furnish the Dalek race with a controlling force that could see into the frenzied chaos of the Time Vortex and read its unfathomable patterns.
This was the Dalek Time Controller.
The upper grating sections of its casing, just below its dome, were diagonally circled by revolving rings, like the whirling debris fields around a gas giant, appearing solid from a distance, but close up… Close up, they burned with the energy of the Vortex that unfolded in the open gateway in front of this ultimate form of Dalek life.
Its eyestalk twitched, agitatedly, as it followed the image superimposed in the centre of the Vortex. The Doctor was still moving towards his TARDIS on the planet Gethria.
Inside its casing, the mutant body of the Dalek Time Controller quivered with something very like anticipation and delight. Behind it, not daring to approach the open gateway into eternity, a squad of high-ranking Daleks eased a little closer to their soothsayer. They too had spotted the Doctor.
He was now entering the TARDIS. The door closed behind him. A few moments later, the TARDIS groaned the hoarse groan of its temporal engines and was gone.
In a voice infused with an almost exultant, dark determination, more guttural and yet more delicate than any other Dalek’s voice, the Time Controller finally spoke.
‘It is beginning…’
At another, precise point in the infinity of space and time, a young girl was terrified – and it was becoming more and more diﬃcult for her to remember a time when she had not been. She sat, hunched, hugging herself as tight as she could, and shivering in spasms of cold and fear so relentless and all-consuming that it felt to her as if the cold and the fear were becoming the same thing.
She squeezed her eyes tight shut again. But all she found in her mind were terrible memories she could almost not bear to think about. She remembered the shouting, running, an explosion… Sheer terror.
There had been a man. He was kind, she had thought. He had rescued her… Her and her little brother.
Her little brother!
She remembered him calling out to her. ‘We’ll come back for you! We’ll come back for you! I promise!’
The thoughts were too painful and she opened her eyes again. The memories faded into the grimy, grey- silver walls of her boxed, featureless cell. She stared at the angles of the walls, followed the lines where they met the low ceiling, looked down to where they met the hard, metallic floor. Not for the first time, she felt the rising panic within her that this would be all she would see for the rest of her life. Seized by the fear of this unending blankness, she found herself cherishing the dim hope that a Dalek might come again to feed her. Just one Dalek with some food. Just something to break through the nothingness.
But there was nothing. Just the low, muﬄed heartbeat of the Dalek ship’s power and the vibration of its engines.
Time flowed past, but she had no way of knowing how fast or slow. Was this just a minute? Or days? Was she a grown-up now? Had she spent her whole life here?
One of the walls suddenly slid to one side, revealing a Dalek behind it. Her heart leapt with anticipation. It was carrying a small tray in its sucker arm. Extending the sucker downwards, it dropped the tray onto the floor. A bowl of something disgusting-looking jumped violently on impact, spilling some of its grey, foul- smelling contents.
In that moment, she caught sight of her distorted reflection in the burnished bronze of the Dalek’s armour. The image was dull and warped, but she could see… she was still a little girl. She still had a lifetime of captivity ahead of her.
She started to sob, uncontrollably. Perhaps, she hoped, she would cry her life out and fade away from this horrible ordeal right now. She could almost feel the relief of it all being over.
‘Eat!’ shrieked the piercing electronic voice of the Dalek. ‘Eat!’
It was like a hard slap to her face. The tears dried up and she looked into the bowl. How could she eat that? And then she remembered…
Her favourite thing in the whole wide world…
Jelly blobs. Sweet, sweet jelly blobs. So bad for her teeth. But so utterly delicious. If she pretended this food was jelly blobs, she could eat it and the Dalek would stop shrieking.
She reached into the bowl and fished out the imaginary jelly blobs, believing with every bitter, gritty, slimy mouthful that their sweetness was filling her mouth. And, for a moment, she could see how she might live through all this. If she could always find this one place in her mind, this one memory of her favourite thing, then she could see how she could carry on living.
‘Eat! Faster!’ shrieked the Dalek.