I never intended to write this. The epilogue you just finished reading - the sentences I typed three months ago, with the Time Ring and a rifle by my side - those words were meant to be my last. Instead I find myself adding a new conclusion, a new ending to the story of my life. It may be folly, but the truth must be told. Here, at the last, I can only hope you will believe me.
Having completed the original epilogue, I set about putting my affairs in order. A life accumulates so much clutter, scraps of paper and keepsakes that mean little to anyone else. After such a disorderly, often chaotic career I was determined to impose some semblance of sense on what I left behind.
I burned dozens of notebooks and hundreds of documents, things that had seemed so precious once. I gave most of my clothes to charity shops, along with the few garments I still had that Dodo wore. It was while sorting her things I found four pictures of us together, taken in a tube station photo booth. Her smiling face, my arms round her. We were broken in our different ways, but looking at the photos it was clear we were in love.
I stared at those images for hours, remembering the smell of her hair, the sound of the world rushing by outside the booth, the faces I pulled to make her laugh. She loved to laugh, to escape the misery of what we had been through. A few days after the photos were taken, Dodo was dead - murdered by the Master's mind-controlled puppet Francis Cleary - and I was disgraced, distraught. Destroyed, in fact.
I would give anything to change that, I told myself. Anything.
One of the last documents I burned was a folder of JFK quotations. I had collected hundreds of them, searching for the perfect words to match each section of my book. As I dropped the file's contents into the fire, one page fluttered away, escaping the flames. I picked it up and read this:
History is a relentless master. It has no present, only the past rushing into the future. To try to hold fast is to be swept aside.
The words set my mind alight, thoughts tumbling over themselves. I was preparing to die, resigned to the fact that my future and JFK's fate were bound together, a destiny I had to fulfil for history to be satisfied.
Something else was nagging at me, the words of someone who had loomed large in my life: the Doctor. I devoted years to investigating the many men who bore that name. There was something one them had said that gave me hope: ‘Perhaps free will is not an illusion after all. If that is the case, then history can be changed...’
I had travelled back in time once, using the Time Ring to intervene in the events at Dallas on November 22nd, 1963. What I saw that day convinced me I would have to return there, to fulfil a path chosen for me by the Master. He had manipulated me for years, and even now I was still performing his bidding, even though I knew he was pulling my strings.
But what if I refused? What if I chose a different path? What if the Doctor was right, and free will was not an illusion? I could change history, if I wanted. Not the history of the world, but my own personal history. I could go back and make things right. I could undo the greatest mistake of my life.
The idea was so simple, so tempting - and yet so impossible.
I did not have the means, or the ability to make this fantasy happen. Yes, I could go back in time - I had seen the older version of myself in Dallas, I knew it was possible. But the Time Ring was a one-way ticket, with the destination of Dallas, 1963 already fixed by the Master. I had no way to change that, neither the skills nor knowledge to rewire the Time Ring.
But I knew someone who might: the Doctor.
By now my weary heart was racing, as the excitement and the impossibility of what I was contemplating threatened to overwhelm me. I had spent twenty-five years convinced I had to complete a circle, mourning the life I could have had, blind to the fact another life might be available to me. It couldn't be that simple, could it? Perhaps not, but I decided to try. I still had the Time Ring; my challenge was finding the Doctor.
I had kept a distant watch on UNIT, its rare forays into the spotlight and more frequent interventions from the shadows. Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart had long since retired but still appeared sometimes when required, such as an incident involving a nuclear missile transport near Lake Vortigern.
But the operative known as the Doctor had vanished.
Different men with different faces calling themselves the Doctor were active across Britain during the 1980s. But all mention of the Doctor stopped after a supposed sighting in 1989 during a spate of domestic disappearances from the London suburb of Perivale. It was as if he had ceased to exist.
I scoured the news for any sign of the Doctor, looking for oblique references to a mysterious stranger who appeared at a time of crisis and slipped back into the shadows as soon as the worse was over - but there was nothing.
The realisation I might never find the Doctor was crushing. I had dared to hope for another end to my story, and it was slipping away. My health was failing, too many years and too many bad habits taking their tool. I had to make my last journey soon, while I still could - while it still mattered.
Then, a few days ago, an old, yellowed envelope fell from inside a book I was packing to deliver to a charity shop. No name was written on the envelope, but it still had the remnants of a red wax seal, a single letter D just visible in the wax.
I opened the envelope for the first time in a quarter century, hands shaking. Inside was a single sheet of white paper. On it, a telephone number and four words: Call me. The Doctor.
If this were some Hollywood version of the truth, I would have dialled the number and the Doctor would've answered within three rings. But reality is less co-operative than fiction. It took nineteen days of insistent calling to get a reply. Nineteen days of phoning the number at least five times every hour I was awake, my hopes growing fainter with each failure. I checked that the number was still working, still active - it was - but nobody was home.
When someone finally answered, I almost dropped the phone from surprise. Here is our conversation, as best I can remember it:
‘What do you want?’ a brusque voice demanded in a well travelled Glaswegian accent.
‘Is that... the Doctor?’
‘Who are you? How did you get this number?’
‘Spit it out, man!’
I’d spent so long rehearsing the conversation. Now it was finally happening, all my careful preparation eluded me.
‘My name is James Stevens--’
‘Never heard of you.’
‘You gave me this number.’
‘Twenty-five years ago.’
‘Hmm, doesn't sound like me. Goodbye --’
‘No, please! It's about the Master!’ A long silence. ‘Are you still there?’
‘The Master - what's she done now?’
‘It's about a Time Ring, and the woman I loved. Her name was Dodo.’
‘Look, I’m in the middle of something right now. What year is it?’
‘It's a simple enough question.’
‘1996. Today is April 6th, 1996.’
‘Can you be in Brighton tomorrow?’
‘I suppose so--’
‘I'll see you by Dodo's grave at midday.’
The next day I caught a train to Brighton, and took a taxi to an old stone church on a hillside. I hadn't been back since the funeral, and it took some time to find Dodo's grave. The headstone was overgrown, so I pulled away the weeds and cleaned it as best I could.
As I finished, a stranger strode towards me through the graveyard. He was in his fifties, with a gaunt face and greying hair. He wore a dark frock coat over black trousers and boots, a white shirt buttoned to his throat.
‘Mr Stevens, I presume?’
I pulled the Time Ring from my coat pocket. ‘I need your help - with this.’
He took it, studying the device's inner wiring. ‘Have you used this?’
‘Twice. It took me to Dallas the day JFK died, and brought me back.’
The stranger nodded as if there was nothing remarkable in my words. That was the moment I knew for certain he was the Doctor.
‘And what did you see there?’
I told him about the Master's scheme, seeing my older self fire the fateful shot that would kill a president. As I spoke we walked along a hilltop path until exhaustion got the better of me. I sank on to a bench - the same bench where I had gone after Dodo's funeral - to conclude my story.
‘So what do you want me to do, Mr Stevens?’
‘You once told me that history could be perverted - or changed. You also told me Dodo was a friend, and that she died before her time.’
The Doctor stared out to sea where distant storm clouds were gathering. ‘I’m sorry, Mr Stevens, but I can't intervene. Everyone dies eventually.’
‘But Dodo died because of the Master. He didn't pull the trigger, but he might as well have. She didn't deserve to be gunned down, to be murdered.’
The Doctor didn't reply at first. I could sense my chance slipping away. ‘I’m sorry, truly I am, but--’
‘She was carrying my child.’ The words tumbled from my mouth before I could stop them. ‘Dodo was planning to tell me the night she was killed. I have to make amends for that. She was alone and vulnerable because of me. I have to right that wrong. I have to try. Please.’
I don't know if it was my desperation or my words that got to him, but I saw the Doctor's body language change, his shoulders relaxing. He looked down at the Time Ring. ‘If I do this, there's no guarantee you will make it back.’
‘That doesn't matter. I would sacrifice anything to save her.’
After another long silence, the Doctor reached into his coat pocket and extracted an antique jeweller's eyeglass and a strange tool unlike any I’d seen before. He sat beside me and worked on the Time Ring for several minutes, the tool emitting high-pitched noises.
‘Your destination - what date and time? Be precise.’
Every detail of that day was burned into my memory. ‘August 11th, 1971.’
A whirr. ‘What time, and where?’
‘Wandsworth Common will do, about 6pm.’
Another whirr. ‘You’re sure about this?’ I nodded. A final whirr, and the Doctor returned the Time Ring to me. ‘I've given it a boost, so you should get there safely. But as for coming back--’
‘One way will be enough.’
‘I must warn you: if you use it twice, the Time Ring will likely disintegrate in the continuum. You would be lost forever.’
He stood up, pocketing his screwdriver and eyeglass. ‘I doubt we will meet again, Mr Stevens. I hope you find what you’re seeking.’
I held out my hand. He frowned, as if the gesture was foreign to him, before shaking my hand. ‘Thank you, Doctor.’
He nodded, and strode away. ‘Give my best to Dodo when you see her!’