It was never night in the Doctor’s ship, but sometimes you could tell that it still was. The times when the corridors rested, their lights gone dim. When he and Barbara would go off to sleep, when the Doctor and his granddaughter would pretend they didn’t need it. Everything was quiet, but now he was awake. In that darkness underneath no sky, Ian Chesterton was struggling to sleep.
His eyes went darting once more round his room. It all looked sensible, worryingly so. Sometimes he’d say to Barbara that the Doctor didn’t know them or their world, not really. But then you saw this - every detail exact - and you knew that the not knowing was an act. There were records of the Beatles the Doctor had said wouldn’t come out at all. Not in this timeline! he’d cackled, and he must have known it would make them scared. He must have known everything, Ian thought. He’d know Ian knew they’d all be asleep at this hour.
Perhaps it was that thought that made Ian open his door. That wrong thought, which he’d known was wrong even as he’d walked down to the console room– with the corridors creaking under him like wood, though they weren’t made of matter at all. The Doctor wouldn’t be there, he lied to himself, as he made his way to the front of the alien ship.
But the Doctor was, of course, bent over some buttons like a hunchback. Yet somehow it seemed like the essence of him was gone. He looked gaunt and bowed, like an old man. And of course that was ridiculous, because he was an old man, but to Ian he hadn’t looked that way before now.
“Chesterton,” the Doctor muttered as he glanced up. “You should be asleep. It isn’t wise to be awake at such an hour.”
Ian laughed. “I could say the same thing to you!” he said.
“Not a bit of it,” said the Doctor. “I don’t need rest as you do. It must be a curse, to be such a fragile thing.”
There was something in his eyes that gave him away. He knew Ian could tell that he was lying, but hat he was far too awkward and English to ever admit it.
“I have been feeling my age more nowadays,” Ian said. “Before we left I had more colds than I could count”–
“Yes, yes,” said the Doctor, waving a hand, not listening. He was clicking buttons; the ship was making sounds. It burbled like a stomach, not sounding like a machine.
“You’re taking us somewhere,” Ian said flatly.
“Taking myself,” said the Doctor. “You’re only along for the ride. Sometimes when I am alone I think to make a point of it. To see the sights unencumbered, without you all fussing about. And a sight such as this” — he shook his head — “I would worry it might be too much!”
“Don’t be like that,” said Ian. “We’ve all seen more than we care to admit.”
The images filled his head before he could stop them. Orange fire against the London night. A child spread too far with his legs all wrong. There was a haunted look in the Doctor’s eyes, and it was familiar. He’d seen that look in the boys who’d come back from the war, who were barely months older than him.
Their eyes met very briefly, before the Doctor glanced away.
“Perhaps, yes,” he said quietly. “Perhaps. You’d best come along, then. None of us are getting any older.”
He’d do that sometimes, get his speech wrong. Odd pauses and words out of order– like he wasn’t used to time and was struggling to get it right. Barbara had wondered if his mind was failing, and Ian had tried to think about something else. The Doctor was their only way of getting home; it was troubling to dwell on his mortality. But there was no use thinking about that as they walked through the TARDIS doors. Ian already had much to get out of his mind.
They emerged to a grey street and a bitter breeze. The light was dark although it was still the day; like late November somewhere in the north. It was the summer in the last place they had been; the cold of the air felt wrong. That’s what it was like, thought Ian, to travel in time and space. Your body would always be unsettled. Your mind couldn’t ever get used to it.
Yet this place seemed as unremarkable as another world could be. Cars and cobblestones, cracks in the side of the pavement. It felt familiar. Walking past were two people who looked just like people: an ancient woman with a young boy clasped in her hand.
“Is this Earth?” Ian heard himself saying. “Have you got us home?”
The Doctor shook his head, dismissing hope.
“Don’t let your eyes fool you,” he said. “It’s only like that on the surface. The people here are a long way from those of your world”–
He was interrupted by an awful wail, and Ian gasped in shock. The young boy had hit the old woman with the side of his palm. He was shouting at her now and she was crying, neither seeming to care they were being watched.
“That’s assault!” gasped Ian. “We should do something”–
“It is,” said the Doctor thoughtfully. “It is. But I don’t think we can intervene. It isn’t appreciated, for a stranger to interfere in a child’s discipline. Quite possibly we’d do more harm than good.”
“It’s the child who’s needing disciplined!” said Ian. “He hit her!”
An odd smile appeared on the Doctor’s face, like there was a joke only he understood.
“I expect you think of me as some old coot,” he said. “But there’s more to my kind than you’ve known. What if I were to say that where I’m from I could be the child and my dear Susan the grandfather?”
Ian laughed. “I’d think our adventures were finally getting to you!”
“Perhaps they are,” said the Doctor. “But this is precisely why I have some of them without you, my boy. Your mind isn’t always large enough to accommodate the possibilities.”
Somewhere nearby a shrill bell started to ring. Ian watched astonished as old people came out of a nearby building, into a flat yard that could only have been a playground. As he stared they began to play games just like children: he thought he saw hopscotch, and possibly something like tag. But the movements of these people were slower than children’s, more delicate. A fall on the concrete might shatter their bodies and bones.
“It isn’t safe,” said Ian. “They’re too fragile to play like a child.”
“The young can be fragile,” said the Doctor with a smile. “That’s why these souls need their children to protect them. But they will become stronger, given time. Their bones will come thicker. Their minds, they will slowly get less rigid. They’ll get older and wiser, until one day they’ll be grown down enough to become a child”–
Ian’s eyes widened.
“You mean to say,” he said, “that on this planet they age the wrong way round?”
“No,” said the Doctor haughtily, “I do not mean to say that at all. First, they are elderly, and when they are old they are children. Whether theirs or yours is the right way round” — he shrugged — “that is not for a wanderer to say.”
It was easy for Ian to slip into thinking of the Doctor as an old man, his views from a time when Victoria was still on the throne. But he was beyond time, wasn’t even a man. That was never more clear than in a place such like this.
“You can’t really believe that,” Ian said desperately.“Can’t I?” said the Doctor merrily.
“Of course not!” cried Ian. “People develop over the years, whether they’re human or… or whatever these people are called! Surely you believe in progress? That people do get wiser; that the world might just follow them too?”
“Yes,” said the Doctor. “I believed in progress once. But that was so far in my future. I don’t think it’s happened to me yet.”
Ian thought of his life before travelling: the Blitz then the Service then school. A series of events one after the other. You put a story onto it and justified things. Perhaps everything could have been in a different order, and he’d justify it just the same.
My child, my boy. The Doctor was always calling him things like that. Like he thought that Ian was less than him. Perhaps that hadn’t been what he’d meant at all.
He looked back over to the old people who might have been young. It reminded him of London when it was evacuated, almost all the children’s faces gone. He was one of the ones who didn’t go. He’d resented the elderly before the end, like they had nothing to offer the Allies. Tempting to think that children would rule better, that they might have stopped it–
“Are there wars here?” he said out of nowhere.
The Doctor looked surprised.
“Of course,” he said. “Why wouldn’t there be?”
“Well,” said Ian. “I suppose I’d hoped children might do better. It’s foolish, I know, especially from a teacher. Old Windbourne in English made me read Lord of the Flies.”
“No,” said the Doctor. “These people have an army. Conscription. The men join when they’re young enough to fight. Or just about, you know how such things go. The fellows, they’re not always ready to take it.”
He chuckled mirthlessly to himself.
“Their minds and bodies both strong enough to die,” he said. “Well, we both know that’s a nonsense, don’t you think?”
“It makes me think of what my father said to me,” said Ian. “That old men would send the young off to the Front, all the while knowing they’d be safe in their homes.”
“They did,” said the Doctor. “And what of it?”
Ian sighed. “I don’t know if that’s better or worse than here.”
The Doctor glanced over at some wizened men who were skipping rope. They were swinging it delicately, the ones in the middle stepping over when the length of it nudged on the ground.
“It’s different,” he said. “Perhaps that is all we can say.”
He sighed and was silent for a while.
“She might be dying,” he said, very quietly.
“Who?” said Ian, astonished. “Not Susan?”
An awful thought occurred, and his heart was ice.
“Barbara?” he said. As he did he realised he sounded far more alarmed at that name, but the Doctor didn’t notice or didn’t care.
“Oh, no,” said the Doctor. “Not someone who you’d know. Not yet, at any rate. You’d have to travel a long time before you did.”
That didn’t make sense to Ian, but he didn’t want to ask. He watched as Doctor became lost in the games of the elderly schoolpupils, a strange form of sadness playing across his face. There was something about this place that meant something secret to him.
“There’s no adventure here,” said the Doctor to Ian softly. “My life isn’t all about running around. Sometimes I stand and I watch, while the ship is asleep. But I am glad that you’re here tonight. Ian.”
Ian looked over to him, astonished.
“Doctor,” he said. “I don’t know that you’ve ever called me by my given name”–
“My boy,” smiled the Doctor, “names pain me for all that I’ve seen. It took me a time to manage to bury my own. But when it matters, I assure you. I know to address you as who you are.”
Suddenly he cackled, a harsh and sudden sound.
“And it’s a necessity, anyway,” he said. “Now nobody will believe if you say that this wasn’t a dream.”
Ian glanced at him, affronted. “What makes you think I’ll tell anyone about all this?” he said.
“Of course you will,” said the Doctor. “Why wouldn’t you?”
“Well…” said Ian. “Because you don’t want me to. And it is the done thing, that an old man should keep his few secrets.”
The Doctor looked at him oddly, then nodded. He drew himself up to his full height, for what it was.
“Then it’s as I said. Age doesn’t show us for what we really are. There’s still nobility, in a man as young as you.”
Ian spluttered. “I’m not that young!” he said. Then he frowned, a thought finally occurring to him.
“How old did you say you were, Doctor?” he added.
The Doctor opened his mouth as though he might actually answer–
–but then he chuckled softly, turning back towards his ship.
“Come along, Chesterton,” he said softly. “You’ll be needing your sleep soon enough.”
Then the door of the ship was wide open, then he was gone.
Ian looked back at the world where they had come. It wasn’t such a bad place, not really. If you squinted a bit it could almost be like home. A man could do well in a land like this, if he were to grow old instead of young. They might exhibit him somewhere and pay to see. It’d be less work than teaching, at the end of the day…
...He thought of Barbara, and London, and adventures still to come.
“Forwards, then,” he said to himself. “A man must always go forwards.”
He stepped back into the TARDIS, the door behind him closing with a thud.
Ian did sleep that night, and more besides. In the odd timeless space of the TARDIS he had an impossible dream– of the kind that’s never forgotten on awakening; which is stranger even than an adventure in space and time.
And time was strange in it, too, in the way that it can be in dreams. So he was still in the Doctor’s ship and in his classroom; overhead the sky was peaceful and on a screen it was the end of the world.
And his blackboard was propped on the side of the TARDIS console and the pupils were listening intently, to the random words he was saying that made sense to his sleeping brain. But those pupils were all of them ancient, all of them were old, and at the back of the class was the Doctor always giggling and quick to cause trouble. He was the most difficult of them all, Ian thought. He’d have to have words with his grandfather.
And then the pupils were children again and the Doctor was someone else entirely, someone was shouting about the Bay of Pigs and someone else that the atmosphere was catching fire. And the children were terrified and shouting about their deaths, that they were much sooner than they should have been, that surely their teacher should have known. And then the whole Earth was melting down like wax and time seemed to be melting round him, too…
...within and outwith that awful dream, the Doctor’s TARDIS howled through the void.