The Could-Have-Been King

Meanwhile . . .

It’s not a very scary word. It doesn’t trigger any deep terrible memories. There’s no involuntary shudder rippling through you. It’s just a way to simulcast time, really, or quick-march to the important stuff. What could possibly be frightening about meanwhile? Unless it’s lurking in the shadows. If it prowls through the darkness, suddenly there is a shudder. Used as a weapon in a war,  it evokes terror even in a Time Lord.

We hear it mentioned only once, in the last half of “The End Of Time.” As the Doctor reveals to the Master what the war turned into, the horror it became, the last thing he mentions is the Could-Have-Been King and his army of Meanwhiles and Never-Weres. Of all the fascinating ideas Doctor Who generated, none got me thinking more than this.

For the record, this isn’t Doctor Who canon. I didn’t read this anywhere, or hear it from some inside source. This is just me playing with ideas.  Don’t be surprised if none of this ever comes up in Doctor Who, because if it ever does, I will be shocked. Pleased, but shocked.

If  Doctor Who preaches nothing else, it preaches that time is not static. The future flows and bends, shifting through a sea of probability.  But “future” is a relative term. The future is what happens after now. If you can travel in time, “now” can happen  whenever you want.  The Doctor says it best in “Blink.”

“People assume that Time is a strict progression of cause to effect. But actually, from a non-linear, non subjective viewpoint, its more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey-wimey . . . stuff.”

 As you change events, you change other things too. Things that happened suddenly can’t. Most of the time, they either fade into the void or spin off into a whole new universe.  But sometimes things that happened once just can’t happen. Sometimes the possibilities that led to them become too remote. The events that allow them to be dwindle away to none, until they are finally left adrift in the Void, an effect without a cause. These impossibilities are legion, but alone, each trapped in its own bubble of not.

All except one. What if one of those impossibilities was Time ruled not by a race, but by one being? Let’s say some immortal creature managed to master all the secrets of time travel and made itself King of Time. Then, in a moment fraught with potential, this creature meets someone like the Gallifreyans. They too have learned the intricacies of Time, and suddenly, there is conflict. Maybe this was the First Great Time War. Outnumbered, outflanked and eventually outgunned, this mighty entity is forced into temporal impossibility. Suddenly no roads lead to the King of Time. No universes exist where it ever was, and so it floats in the Void, a Never-Was. But unlike the others, this Never-Was understands the Void, at least enough to break into some of the other Never-Were’s bubbles. It unites them, promises a road back to reality. It dangles the ultimate carrot; they could exist again. This is the Could-Have-Been King.

And he doesn’t exist, which can put a serious damper on one’s plans of conquest.

Enter the Time War.  Both sides are locked in a struggle for survival. One by one, the rules go out the window as each side grows more desperate to exist. The first rules to go are, of course, the least important. Later, though, the players get serious, and start taking risks.  The Could-Have-Been King is an experienced temporal strategist, capable of considerable guile and cunning, with a powerful motivation. It wants to exist again. It doesn’t get much riskier than that. And so, as the war grinds on, someone contacts His Never Majesty, and he begins to ooze in through the cracks of time.

The impossible occurs.

What does that mean, exactly? Playing with the idea of rubber time, where Time Lords can travel in phone box sized palaces, where does possibility end? At what point does wibbly-wobbly become shattery-wattery?

In this case, it’s all about cause and effect. His Never Majesty is all effect. The causes of his existence are gone, wiped out of the universe. He can be anywhere, anywhen. And since he is an aberration  of the Laws of Time to begin with, he isn’t bound by them. He can be simultaneous. He can bounce back and forth through time at will, with no regard for the “causal nexus” that binds his opponents. He shreds reality wherever he goes. He is paradox unbound, running loose in creation.

And he has help. Imagine an opponent capable of existing at three times at once, past, present and future occurring in the same instant. I don’t mean different incarnations at the same point in space-time, as with the “Three Doctors” and “Five Doctors” episodes. I mean one entity from one point in it’s timeline existing at three or more different points in the continuum at once. It can watch you exist, working your way through your own personal causality until you get to the end. It gets to see all your weaknesses. What’s more, it can act. When you are at your weakest, it can strike. It can, in one smooth stroke, create a weakness in your childhood, create the best conditions to exploit it as you pass through adulthood, and spring it on you when you least expect it. It takes no time at all for such a creature. It happens all at once.

And suddenly Meanwhile is very, very scary indeed. Meanwhiles are the silent killers in the Time War. Unseen stalkers, they live across your  existence, striking exactly when you are least prepared to defend yourself, using your whole life as a weapon against you. No one is safe. Once such creatures are unleashed, they would be nigh impossible to stop.

So why was there a universe left after the Last Great Time War? Once the Could-Have-Been King and his forces come out, how does reality stand the strain? Not very well. Remember, this is the last thing the Doctor mentions before he says the war became hell. Maybe the only thing to do is Time Lock the whole thing. Turn the war into a massive loop, then pinch the loop off from the rest of time. Don’t let anything in or out. Not ever.

Of all the ideas Doctor Who ever presented, none have seized my attention like the Could-Have-Been King. It is raw concept, an image seeking description. I find it evocative, and in retrospect more than a bit haunting. Its all nonsense, of course, pretty much by definition. Such things can’t exist. Admit it, it makes your head hurt just thinking about it, doesn’t it? So why don’t you just sit back, hit your browser, and go see what someone else thinks for a while.

Meanwhile. . .

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Into the Schism

It began millions of years from now.  It could end hundreds of thousands of years ago. Dinosaurs and our distant ancestors will see different  parts of the same battle unfold.  Death rides the epochs of the Universe. It is a war of extinction waged across all of time. From outside, time is fluid. One can go whenever , wherever one pleases. But from inside, the Continuum requires order.  It is remorseless and fragile. It demands continuity. Bend it a little, it will give. Bend it too far, and it will break. There are islands of certainty, events must happen, and if time breaks at one of them, it it can break badly.

Scared yet?

In any temporal conflict, the most basic destructive act is also your best defensive act; make your enemy never be there in the first place. If you can arrange things so they never existed at all, you never have to fight them.  The Time Lords attempt this in Genesis of the Daleks. (Unfortunately, their Agent in Place, namely the fourth Doctor, opted to merely delay them a few centuries.) For simplicity, we’ll call this a Causality Attack, where  the very existence of your opponent is sabotaged.  If it works, you’ll be the only one to ever know.

Unfortunately, the defense is pretty simple. Get off-world. Go meet people and do things. Become part of the larger cosmos and see if you can tie into one of those events that must happen. If your race has to be there, you can’t be erased.  While this sounds like a nice peaceful solution, keep in mind, it’s the one the Daleks used. They got off-world, met people and killed them.

Alternately, learn to travel in time at some point during your existence. Once you do that, you can defend yourself more directly. Remember, there are only so many times an event can be visited. You can’t have a line of Time Lords popping in and trying to do the same thing over and over. Thwart them once, they stay thwarted.

“But wait!” I hear you cry. “If I can take them out of the timestream before they develop time travel, they won’t be around to develop time travel in the first place!” Ah, but did you eliminate them in an era before they visited themselves? If the answer is yes, then maybe you succeeded. It certainly increases the odds that you made them go away. If the answer is no, then you have allowed them to form a loop. Past and future are still connected, so they are still tied into the continuum.

“But that doesn’t make sense!” you wail, rubbing your temples. “If I make them go away, they should have the decency to stay gone!”

Which brings up a serious weakness in this essay.

It isn’t in Gallifreyan.

If it were, it could handle this topic easily. Gallifreyan is built on the idea that time travel is possible. English is not. It would make sense because here, now, then and there take on fascinating new meanings when you mix them freely, which Gallifreyan can. When your verb tense options include Future Optimal and Past Optional, you can do really amazing things.

In English, I have to muddle along through narrow corridors of cause and effect to describe events. I have to go with what feels right. (Don’t bother me with your logic. This is comic book pseudo-science at its best.) Loops are a form of temporal defense. Your past and your future are linked in two directions, and intelligence can flow. You have a window you can react in. Presumably, you have a certain advantage, because you have access to your own history. Thus you can spot most manipulations easily, and react to them appropriately. One has little difficulty imagining this as the core of Gallifrey’s temporal defense. The Time Lords probably have the most thoroughly looped timestream imaginable.

Against a foe that is temporally active, a Causality Attack can be successful, but probably won’t be. Besides, if it is, fight’s over and we can stop thinking, which is no fun at all. But if it fails . . .

Well, if it fails you  go back to the tedious business of actually blowing your opponent up. This is where the large scale military engagements begin. Obviously, you want to engage your opponents when they are technologically at a disadvantage, so the further back along the timestream you can catch them the better. Your opponents are going to like that idea, too. Now, some subset of the Laws of Time appears to have clauses about anachronistic technology. It is apparently uncool to just go back and arm yourselves to the teeth with high tech as soon as your ancestors figure out the concept of pushing buttons. Considering what we have unleashed on our own with what we could puzzle out by ourselves, I think that’s probably for the best.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t tinker. Say for example, a promising young scientist has all the pieces in place to invent a key piece of technology. All he lacks is support and funding. Cut that support off, his work is delayed, perhaps even cancelled out entirely. Make sure the support is there, and you have something good cruising up the timestream, building up inertia as it goes.

This creates an opportunity for a Temporal Cascade Attack.  What’s that, you ask? Allow me to illustrate. At some point in the timestream, the enemy maybe-wins a major engagement, which we’ll call Battle 1. Three key technologies were instrumental in Battle 1, which we’ll refer to as A,B and C. Now you have targets. Travelling back to the eras where Technology A was acquired, be it through conquest or invention, you somehow sabotage  it. If the enemy got it by conquest, make sure the plans get destroyed before they get captured. If they learned how to do it themselves, stop or delay the research. Odds are you won’t keep them from developing it ever, but you stand an excellent chance of delaying development, which means the weapons aren’t as good as they were supposed to be. This changes the dynamic of Battle 1. Perhaps the enemy still wins, but suffers huge losses. Do the same with Technology B, and Battle 1 is almost certainly lost.

But wait, the Cascade continues. Battle 1 is a catalyst for Event 1, which gives the enemy a major boost . With Battle 1 lost, Event 1 is now changed. Perhaps it doesn’t happen. Perhaps it happens differently. Either way, the enemy has lost ground again.

You can even destabilize an opponent by helping them at the wrong time. Let’s assume Battle 1 was supposed to be a defeat, and because it was, the enemy took a necessary break and gathered resources. If they suddenly win Battle 1, they now press on. Now they encounter something too strong for them, maybe a new race or some other variable. They are, as a result, badly hurt.

So battle in time quickly becomes all about intelligence, how to gather it, and how to use it. The more you learn about an opponent, the more you can harm them. Particular units, commanders, and scientists need to located temporally and shadowed, looking for weaknesses.  History becomes a weapon, but one that responds best to a light touch.

I’ve only touched on a few of the options available. Do you have any thoughts?

Timey Wimey Stuff

When last we met, we were discussing transcendental pears. This is because it is easier by far then the topic of cross temporal tactics. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that before I could get into tactics, I had to spend some time on parameters. Since I am using the Last Great Time War as my starting point, this means discussing the Laws of Time.

Which basically means I get to make a lot of stuff up. Despite the long history of Dr. Who, we know very little about the Laws of Time the Time Lords lived by. We do know they liked the past and future kept separate. Being in the same place more than once at a time is dangerous. If you doubt me, just watch Father’s Day.So right away, we take away a tactical option. There won’t be any fuguing, a’la Zelazny. You don’t get to summon half a dozen of yourself from out of time to fight with you. You get to be here once, and once only, so make it count.

Another thing, once you are involved with events, you aren’t allowed to move around inside them. There’s no nipping back to three hours ago to get the key you forgot, or snatching someone from the jaws of death. You can change locations all you want, but not your temporal coordinates.

We’re also told there are fixed points in time. Some events MUST happen. In human history, Pompeii is such an inevitable event (in Fires of Pompeii.), as is the first colonization attempt of Mars (in Waters of Mars.). The death of the Doctor counts, too (in The Wedding of River Song.). Tampering with such fixed points leads to consequences both cosmic and dire. Does this render certain races safe? Humanity has two such events it can call its own. Does that mean we are temporally unassailable until we go to Mars? Or can other races fill that gap?

So the Laws of Time in Doctor Who bear little resemblance to the Pirate’s Code. They aren’t merely guidelines. There are consequences to face, so both sides have to follow them. They can be bent. The Time Lords are able to let the Doctor meet his different incarnations more than once, but it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t without risk.

What the Laws of Time we can extrapolate give us is a  timestream that is soft from the outside. One can move around in it and enter or leave it at will. Once you engage with  it, however, it is rigid and unforgiving. And as with most rigid things, it’s fragile. It can be damaged. Damage it too much and it will break altogether. Even entering it too often near the same place can damage it.

Outside, you can move freely, plan freely. You can even gather some intelligence, although precise data is rare. What you can’t do is change anything. Time plays around you like a movie, and you have the remote.  You can choose when to move, but once you come in, you’re committed. Succeed or fail, you have one chance.

So the stage is set. We know what the two sides need. We know what they can do, and more importantly what they can’t. When next we meet, we get dangerous.

Playing in the Big Leagues

One of the most interesting things that has come out of sci-fi for me recently is the concept of of the Time War from Doctor Who. It’s  not that its  a new concept. Wars in time have appeared numerous times in science fiction. From the Outer Limits episode Demon with a Glass Hand to the Infinite Worlds core campaign idea for GURPS, the idea of a conflict running through the epochs of the world, or even the universe, is compelling. In most versions I’ve encountered, it is a war fought in small units for key points in the continuum, to shape reality to the desires of one side or the other. It’s a spy thriller with an ever changing backdrop, or a surgical strike to correct a single event.

The Time War between the Daleks and the Time Lords of Gallifrey is a different sort of conflict altogether. We are shown huge fleets, told that worlds have been destroyed. History itself twists around the war, which for the safety of the universe itself  is Time Locked, inaccessible to everyone.  We hear mention of the Nightmare Child, and the Maybe-King and his army of Never-Weres. The imagery evoked is vast and terrifying. All of existence is at stake.

How would such a war be fought? What could the possible objectives be?  What sort of tactics would come into play? What are the risks? The stakes? How far can each side go? How far is too far?

Because this topic gets VERY big, VERY fast, I am going to narrow my focus to the war between the Daleks and Time Lords, using their priorities to ricochet ideas through. I’m also going to break this up into several different posts to keep my momentum going. Maybe later I’ll play with other objectives and strategies, just for fun.

For this post, we begin with the fundamentals. What are the objectives of each side?

In any conflict involving the Daleks, this is a simple question. The Daleks are capable of only one objective; kill anything that isn’t a Dalek. Any war against the Daleks is automatically a battle for survival. The opposition can therefore have only two viable responses. They can run, or they can fight to the death.  The Time Lords chose to fight. Therefore, the ultimate objective of each side is the extinction of the other.

Of course, when you allow for time travel, “extinction” has a slightly broader definition. One does not have to kill an enemy off in the long term.  Play it right, and you can make it so they never existed in the first place. Be careful with that option, though. Payback is a bitch. So another  critical objective is secure your own causality. Make sure those events that let your people develop into what they become don’t change.

And this is where things go pear-shaped. See, events don’t occur in a vacuum. One thing really does lead to another. In a universe where species mingle, how other species treat you on contact shapes what you will become.  Now you have to protect their causality, too.

Here both sides of the Time War are fairly safe. The Time Lords are, if not the oldest, then one of the oldest races in the universe. No one else influenced their evolution directly. There is only one chain to watch for  most of time. As for the Daleks . . . well, they are alive, which means whatever species they encountered is dead. Simplicity has its advantages.

Now, of course, you have to go on the offensive. You have to degrade your opponent’s causality as best you can.  And here’s where the pear goes transcendental.

Which makes it a good place to stop for now, because from here it gets REALLY fun.

See you next time.

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