A Novel by David Carroll
Imperfect Copy: Intermission
by David Carroll
Note: If this seems familiar, you have probably read it as the story Happy By Default in Burnt Toast#8.
There are too many mysteries. Too many grains of sand. Each sentience has its reasons, each object holds its secrets.
To see the patterns, the hand of the sculptor who sets the sand into concrete, you must realise that the sculptor, and the pattern, may simply not exist.
Stories tell a part of the pattern, usually the exciting bits, or the bits meant to teach us a lesson, or tell us to be afraid of the dark. This story will involve a young woman, one who has seen things to be marvelled at, and an old man, who reveals not what he has seen, but only what will be. But not yet, for our story starts with a young man who is feeling unwell, and who will soon die.
* * *
to it, can't you hear it? The air is stale, the cities are failing, perhaps the suns have died.'
The boy heard the voice without quite knowing what was being said, and pushed himself towards it. Through his nausea he could make out a toppled mining-cart in the wide corridor, a worker standing on it and shouting. A crowd was gathering round, added to by the minute from the sparse but steady foot traffic through the access way. No-one paid him any attention, not even those who didn't join the crowd but increased their pace slightly past both it and him.
He kept going, looking for something to quench the unbearable thirst within him, a palpable want for something he could not define. A want which had sucked all moisture from his throat and defined each cell of his body in its little cry for sustenance.
Not in the crowd, but beyond it. He pushed along the wall past the workers in their khaki as they politely stepped out of his way. And for a second or two he became a part of the crowd, looked up at the man standing over them, shouting at them to break free, to live and run and fight before the world disintegrated around them.
The crowd just looked at him, curious perhaps, waiting for the guards to come. And the boy realised that none of them would have been able to explain why they were risking standing here in the first place, risking the crippling fines that passively witnessing such an act of rebellion would bring. They just stood, faces raised, and waited for the guards and the guns they would bring.
And, somehow, not one of them was afraid.
The boy pushed on, cleared the crowd, left it behind. He found what he was looking for, a door set against the featureless white of the corridor. He fumbled with a card from a pocket, tried to insert it into the slot, dropped it, picked it up, tried again, succeeded. He staggered into the smallish room as the door slid smoothly upwards. A familiar voice told him that the charge for entering a rest cubicle was two talmars. The boy, now hyperventilating and with bright flashes before his eyes, staggered over to drink from the water dispenser. Normally tasteless, he now found the liquid disgusting, but he'd accrued another three talmar debt by the time he forced himself away.
Something on the public video tried to catch his attention, the execution of some rebel. But he sank onto the nearest couch and ignored the first couple of words of the broadcast, which were the only ones he heard.
* * *
The TARDIS materialized and the Doctor and Ace stepped out into the cubicle.
'Oh, very tasteful; white on white, with white inlay.'
'And what, precisely, is wrong with that colour scheme?' (though he was still in brown and cream).
'Oh, nothing. But you'd have to admit that a couple of posters would be nice.'
'Are you still going on about that? I told you: in your bedroom, yes, in the console room, no. Nor in the bathroom, food area or anywhere else; and as for the Dead Leopard I found in a corridor earlier, it's on your bed.'
'That's Def Leppard, and it's got to be better than that.' She indicated the large video screen on one wall which seemed to be playing an advertisement for some nameless company. Apparently they made suns. 'Not the most entertaining of places. Can't we ever go to somewhere like Blackpool?' she said, wandering over towards the door.
'Why be so limited? There are far more interesting places in the universe than Blackpool. And it wasn't even all that entertaining the last time I was there.'
'You know what I mean.' The girl was examining the plastic-like door, but all she could see through the translucent material was more white. Still, with a contact pad that looked a dead cert for a door knob she reckoned she'd soon find out.
'Yeah, wait a sec.' She made the contact, but instead of the door opening a harsh male voice, coming out of nowhere, said 'You have exceeded your time limit within this cubicle, and a guard is on the way. Your current fine is ninety two talmars.'
'Professor, company's coming.'
Not getting any response she turned round, only to find the Doctor leaning over a figure on one of the couches. Though they were behind the TARDIS, even from here mostly obscured, Ace gave herself several minuses for observation. She hurried over.
The figure resolved itself into a boy, perhaps her own age or a little older. He was wearing a plain khaki costume, with a strange Incan-looking symbol above his heart. He was conscious -- his eyes were open, but unfocussed. His skin was white, glistening with sweat, his breathing was shallow and forced, and one of his fists clenched and unclenched convulsively by his side. He had recently thrown up, two or three times, apparently without even moving his head. Fine, thought Ace, just what I needed after lunch or dinner or whatever it was. Before saying anything she gave a quick glance round the cubicle to see if there was anyone else she'd missed, but the remaining couches were empty.
'What's wrong with him?' she asked, her voice suddenly sounding too loud.
'Hmmm... he seems to be suffering from some sort of withdrawal. His body has become dependant on some substance recently denied him, pento cyleinic-methyl-hydrane to be precise. It normally wouldn't have anything near this extreme an effect.'
The girl nodded. 'Cold turkey. Very bad.'
The Doctor started to say something, then stopped. He turned and looked up at her. 'Ace...?'
'No.' Too quickly.
She looked down at the boy, his body glistening with sweat and shivering violently, but silent, so silent. She noticed that his vomit was colourless and practically odourless. Are the people here so cowed they will not complain, not even groan in pain, even when they're as sick as this? she thought to herself.
She answered the Doctor. 'Once or twice, only the soft stuff, hash, you know. It was good even, hell, it was great while it lasted, but oh God, what it could do to you... It's like fire, isn't it? And clowns and haunted houses and assignments and pain and boredom and parents and having to go to work in the rain and everybody dying, so much death that...' She broke off. 'Why is life just a list of the things that we hate?'
'Is it?' the Doctor asked gently.
'Yes!' And before he could say anything further she had disappeared inside the TARDIS.
To find a blanket and water for the boy, of course.
* * *
The Doctor was doing something to the contact pad she'd tried earlier. There was a quick flash, and the door slid, haltingly, upwards. She looked up from her ministrations to see a widish and boring-looking corridor.
'The injection I gave him should remove his dependency on the PCM, though he will take some time to recover. Long term effects are a little unpredictable -- it depends on the extent of physical addiction. Stay with him, I have to go now and he needs you.'
'Yes. How long will you be?'
'I don't know, but you should be safe.'
He disappeared. Then Ace remembered, and ran after him. 'Professor, there was a message that said a guard was coming to check the cubicle.'
'I don't think anyone will be bothered with somebody resting for too long. Not today. Listen.'
'I can hear the sound of empires toppling.' Ace grinned, You're starting to repeat yourself, Professor. Then she noticed an overturned high-tech wagon some distance up the corridor. Draped over it were bodies, lying still. The two hurried over.
There were nine of them, four dressed identically to the boy inside, five in some sort of military uniform. Most had apparently been shot, but two of the guards had been beaten to death, their faces covered in blood still wet in the eye hollows and in the soft indents of broken skull.
The Doctor checked each for signs of life, but closed each one's eyes, when possible, in turn. The girl watched him, knew the expression on his face, the old sadness, though only his hat was turned towards her.
And the bodies, nine men who had no chance to be sad or angry or alone. No chance to be anything, ever again. Ace swallowed hard. 'And God meant your life to be so beautiful.' she whispered. The Time Lord looked up. 'What's happening, Doctor?'
'Revolution, the breaking of yokes. Much blood is being spilt, and more than that. Sometimes the news carries faster than the rebellion, and outsiders will always try to capitalise on social chaos.' He looked at his watch. 'They should be here any minute now.'
'Yes.' and hearing the tetchiness in his voice Ace decided that was enough questions, for now at least.
The Doctor hurried up the hall-way and Ace disappeared back into the cubicle, continuing to clean up the bed upon which the nameless boy suffered in silence.
Perivale was a long way away, in an unspecified direction. It was not easy to return, she did not want to return. But as she cooled this boy's brow she retraced those tangled steps through time and memory and thought of another boy. So long ago, so far away.
He had not been silent.
* * *
'Come on Ace, live a little.'
The days were getting shorter and the nights were getting colder, but the girl didn't feel the chill. Not here, with the small fire spitting and playing orange over the gathered faces, its shadows dancing over Horsenden Hill like little demons, holes in the world. Across the circle Stevie and Claire were warming themselves with a bottle of something a little more potent while, closer to the young girl, Shreela was telling yet another variation, still funny, of her story of the little goblins who lived in the water reservoir not far beneath them. Ace shook herself from the story, catching snatches of other conversations, the faint under-tone of cars from the suburb proper, and the cry of some lonely bird to the west, before orientating herself. She took the offered cigarette (not Marlboro these) from Ange with a smile, dragging deeply on it, despite a flavour that just had to be how dirty rags tasted. She kept the smoke within her, closed her eyes and felt it, then exhaled, long and slow. She opened her eyes again. The tip of the cigarette, glowing a dull red in the darkness, fascinated her suddenly. She didn't like fire; behind its beauty lay pain and old memories. But this fire was so small, cupped in her hand she could crush it with ease.
And what about the camp fire, Ace?
This blaze around which eleven of Perivale's finest were huddled?
Well, what's a little peer group pressure between friends.
But, as it never is, it wasn't that simple, and she'd spent many hours round this fire, watching, talking, listening to the faces around her. The numbers and the faces and the fashions changed, and she herself didn't come here every week, but she sometimes thought that this little fire was like home should be. The cigarettes were a recent addition, and maybe they'd stay, and maybe they wouldn't. She passed hers along to Jay, and perhaps the flames had grown higher and the world less dark.
Two places to Ace's right, Lucas (real name Luke Sanders -- get it, Luke-S, ha ha), left the circle, but not before taking something out of his pocket. He looked like he was doing it secretively, but everybody saw the little syringe, as he had wanted them to see it. He left the circle and no-one followed. Ace looked briefly after him before losing herself, once more, in the beauty of the flames, and the story of the goblins under the world.
* * *
Ace didn't really like Stan, he was the sort of guy who seemed to think that the female race, being born naked, should remain so. While Flo (who was herself alright, if just the tiniest bit strange, and who spent half her time hanging, fully-clothed, from Stan's arm) thought he was sweet, to Ace he was just a jerk. But when she heard about his argument with Lucas, which apparently would have turned nasty had Midge not intervened, Ace was impressed, and a little relieved. The matter was being taken care of.
She even thought of thanking him or something, but she resisted the urge. Stan the Man was almost impossible to talk to seriously, his eyes would start to wander downwards, and she'd start getting pissed off at him again. Better to leave well alone.
* * *
Ace glanced round, and thought tacky, which was what she thought just about every time she glanced round this dump. The café seemed to be trying for an elegant timelessness, but its mismatch simply jarred. From the modern (and pink) chairs to the 50's décor, the obligatory posters of 'golden-age' film stars that you'd not only never heard of, but didn't look like you wanted to, to the sickly music from a radio station that wasn't so much Easy-Listening as Nerve-Shredding. The alternative being, of course, the genuine Wurlitzer clone in the corner. But at least everyone was eating, so she stuck her order pad away and sat down beside Lucas, who was picking listlessly at his hamburger. 'So,' she started in a muted tone, 'how's it going?'
'Alright. School's hell as usual, you ain't missen' much there.'
'Yeah, I'm well out of that place. Newberry still throwing people round?'
'Not that I've heard, but half Bio 2 got stuck on detention when someone let out his precious rats. He grabbed everyone who was near the place at the time, but missed Helen, who'd hit and run.'
'Helen Filetti? Let me guess, humanitarian grounds?'
'Got it in one.'
He fell silent for a while, and Ace once again checked in case someone looked like they could complain about lack of service. Nobody yet. She tried again. 'How are you?'
'Good. Really good. Ange's been a bit tetchy lately, you know how she is.'
'Nothing wrong with Ange.' Ace said, almost sharply.
'Yeah, but...' he lapsed into silence again.
'Maybe she just wants to help you, we all do.'
'Right.' almost bitterly.
'I'm sorry. But we are here, don't forget that.'
'I won't.' He smiled. 'And talking of which, someone's clicking their fingers at you.'
'God, what a job. See you in a sec.'
But when she got back from the insistent customer there was only his half eaten burger. She hadn't seen him leave.
* * *
Ace dodged desperately, slowed down and crouched before veering off to her right. The boy tried to compensate, managed to keep his feet on the treacherous ground and darted after her, diving to tackle. Another dodge, easy this time, and she was free. A second boy was running towards her, but he was going to be too slow. She dived herself, letting out a scream of triumph as the ball impacted on the ground over the line. Her body following in half somersault, half collapse, sending up a wave of powdery snow before lying still.
Midge grinned, his quick breath visible in the winter air as he reached down to help her up. It was an expression mirrored by the rest of them as they jogged over to congratulate her. Her team might actually be back in the match.
Not that anyone cared or anything, it wasn't that sort of game.
She walked back towards the centre, throwing the ball towards Kevin, a friend of Stevie's she only seen round once or twice. Midge stepped in beside her.
'Heard from Luke lately?'
'Nah, not for a couple of weeks. He was braving the food at the café last time I saw him.' Her voice raised slightly to a worried pitch. 'He's alright, isn't he?'
'Yeah, think so. I mean, he's at school most of the time, looks alright. He's just not talking much, thought you might know how he's going.'
'You asked Ange?'
'Yeah, she said...' But before he could continue someone wolf-whistled (referee, what referee?), the ball was kicked and they were running again. Ace made a brief note to herself to ask Ange personally, before adding her voice to the confusion.
* * *
'Who is it, Dorothy?'
'It's for me, mum.'
And it was. Though the tortured breathing and sobs from the other end of the line made no sense, they called her name. She hung up, gently, shut her eyes, and tried not to cry.
* * *
Ace wasn't allowed to go to the funeral, so she sat in her room and looked out the window and played with the chemicals Claire had smuggled her home from school last week. The only noise was the sound of water against the roof, the only colour outside was grey. Outside and inside.
She understood the analogy, unsubtle as it was. Fire and drugs. And wouldn't it be perfect if he was being cremated out there, his flesh consumed, slowly blackening until it disintegrated into ash. Wouldn't that just be dandy. But no, they were putting him in a hole in the ground, that little ceremony huddled in the rain, because it always rained at funerals. Putting him in a box with only enough room to jerk off or scratch his nose if he got restless. Oh God, thought Ace. Oh God.
She wanted a smoke suddenly, the good stuff, despite swearing herself off it this morning. And yesterday, and the day before. But she forced her attention away from the lingering memory, forced it onto the chemicals being tossed around in her lap.
When she'd initially planned this experiment she had been sure that mixed in the right proportion with the thick grey paste that hadn't come from the school laboratory they would have to do something.
Yeah, something. She thought of her first experiments, four, five years ago. And amateurish as they now seemed she still remembered them clearly, remembered the excitement and power she had felt. In the last couple of months she had not only been able to produce industrial grade gelignite, but working carefully, meticulously, day after day after night, she had actually improved the formula, producing something more powerful still.
But more exciting? She remembered the dirt, a twelve-year-old playing in a dirty alley so that no-one would find her. And she remembered the paint tin jump and twist and melt with a sound like thunder. Red flame, red paint, red freedom, lying in the dirt.
But now she only played with the chemicals, carelessly, dangerously, and wished she were someplace else. Not here, not in England, not in the same house with those down-stairs or in the same suburb as her friend being buried. Not under the rain which had swallowed the sun. Wished with all her heart.
But the chemicals did nothing, nothing at all.
She snapped herself out of it, bought herself back to reality with an almost tangible snap. That was the past, it was over, forgotten. Done with.
soft patter of rain, sharp tang of nitro
She steadied herself, sweating. Looking round for reassurance. Found the video screen.
The endless commercial had been replaced again, and she forced her attention onto it, forced her mind off
They were fighting for screen space. Once or twice the rebels-apparent had broken into the air-waves in a burst of snow and crackle, the first attempt being successful for some ten minutes. But then what looked suspiciously like automated defence programming had taken over, and it had been a running battle ever since. Volume, picture clarity and content veered all over the place.
A man would come on, waving the symbol he had apparently torn from his uniform and shout inaudible commands or threats or something. Replaced by the bright smiles and brighter sales figures of a video prospectus, and again by someone fiddling with a control panel, or perhaps another of the Company's own speeches, or, for minutes at a time, nothing but static. There had even been a small brawl/gun-fight in the background at one stage, though there hadn't been any blood.
In all, it wasn't particularly interesting, but, she consoled herself, at least it was better than
She wasn't sure how long it went on for, perhaps an hour. Over that time the boy's breathing slowed, and some colour returned to his face. He was no longer staring listlessly into nothing, but his eyes had closed and he looked to be sleeping peacefully. After cleaning him up and replacing the white couch-cover (made from some seamless material she hadn't recognised) she'd cooled down his forehead and chest and then sat by him, waiting.
Sex scandal on Algernon Zero, she thought to herself, smiling inwardly at the situation. Though, while cute in his own unconscious way, she admitted he hardly qualified as Object of Lust, Interplanetary. Not that he didn't have some serious competition. Her friends in the gang had gone more for Tom Cruise, Billy Idol, and that new guy, Johnny Depp. David Hasselhoff maybe, and who was that guy Flo kept raving about? Oh yeah, JC himself, John Constantine. But then, Flo was, had been, seriously weird: she watched Knight Rider repeats for the car, and she didn't watch Nightmare on Elm Street for Johnny Depp. Ace herself was more into Johnny Chester and Harrison Ford. That's it, thought the girl. He needs a hat.
But this boy had one distinct advantage over Harrison Ford, and the thought, the actual image, of running the damp cloth slowly over his thin white chest again sprang into her mind, unbidden. She looked down at him, lying on the couch, and he did look sort of sweet and vulnerable and...
She placed her palm against his forehead, noting his temperature was still dropping.
And nothing, she thought again, sternly, as she sat beside him, watching him, her ministrations complete. She willed herself to be calm, for her body to relax.
She felt home-sick suddenly. Not for home, not for Perivale, but for the people. People she knew for more than a day at a time. Friends you could laugh with, and share a dirty joke or play rugby or Trivial Pursuit with. For the little things, television and movies and music video. At home she might have had to fight to get to see them, but at least they were there.
The last time they'd been on Earth (she had found a little shop in Istanbul where they sold posters and things) she'd discovered Timothy Dalton had been replaced as James Bond, and she'd hadn't known he ever was. Of course they could pick up broadcasts and put them up on the screen, or the more comfortable viewing areas inside, but the alien shows without context and the Earth (or Earth-like) shows without chronology were mostly meaningless. And the Professor had expressed strong views on time travel to the dictates of a TV guide.
She'd had some breaks of course. Razor's Blade for a start had been a bloody good movie, even if Ford (what was the character's name? Decker or something) had turned out to be a replicant after all.
It was a pleasant nostalgia this, not exactly comfortable, but numbing. And when it didn't look like her charge would drop dead if she left for a minute or two she retrieved a large book from the TARDIS and, after looking up a certain page, flipped through it idly, not paying it too much attention, for she was remembering, and forgetting, things that had been.
Yes, perhaps an hour passed, until with an ear-shattering roar the room seemed to explode into movement, the floor spinning under her as she was thrown from her couch. She cried out in shock and momentary pain as she crashed into the
Disorientation, physical nausea, gut feeling of catastrophe.
Nothing happened. She looked round, noticed the book spreadeagled ungainly, noticed the solid, even friendly, shape of the TARDIS, noticed the video screen torn and hanging loosely, only a thin membrane rippling with image over more wall and a small metal contact. She waited a bit more, ready to drag the boy, lying prostrate near her, into the Ship at the hint of another explosion. Again, nothing happened.
'Just not our day, right.' she finally said, sitting up.
'No', he said weakly, his eyes opening to take in her surprised expression.
He sat up and grabbed her hand, almost spilling the fresh water she'd fetched from the TARDIS. He was back on the couch, conscious, watching her intently.
'Listen,' he whispered.
'Oh no, not you too. I can't hear anything.'
'No, it's...', he struggled, trying to get across a concept that eluded him.
'What, faint? Something missing?' she guessed. He nodded, looking unsure. 'I know, machinery, gas processing stuff?'
'Yes', he said, still looking unsure.
'Thought so, look at this.' She dragged over the book, turning to the page she'd dog-eared. 'Here we are, PCM, Pento cyleinic-methyl-hydrane. That's what clobbered you, or lack thereof anyway. I thought I recognised the group. Several nasty properties you don't want to know about, especially if you're pregnant, which you probably aren't. It's mainly an anxiety inducer -- can create feelings of guilt, apprehension, inadequacy and subservience. Dampens the enthusiasm. Doesn't say anything about addictive properties, but it's only cross-referenced with seventy metabolism categories. I think they missed you out.'
He was looking at her with something akin to wonder on his face, and she realised she was babbling, mostly out of sheer relief. She put the book down, and smiled.
'Hi, my name's Ace. How are you feeling?'
He smiled back at her, the expression slowly freeing his face from its mask of pain. 'Hi', he said.
* * *
His name was Tebor, he was from the planet Pluto -- which had been given life through the power of the Company, and he worked as an apprentice maintaining the ancient machines which provided this sector with clothing. Everybody worked for the Company. There was nothing else to do.
The two talked, Ace's voice dropping to match his timid tones, and gradually it became more confession than conversation. The girl simply listened as he catalogued the atrocities of his masters, a monologue without passion, a list of facts.
He told her about the taxes and the tyranny, about the public executions and the Gatherers, and what he knew about the Collector, though he lived in a palace in another Megropolis, many kilometres away. He told her about Q-Capsules and the recycling allowance, about history he didn't understand and suns he hadn't seen.
He said that no-one listened to anyone else, because no-one had much to say. No-one had ever listened to him before, and that was one of the strangest things.
And throughout it all he just looked at her, looked at her intently, her face, her hair, her clothes. Whenever she tried to catch his eyes his glance shied away, when she broke in to ask a question he answered quickly, sometimes stumbling over the words in his eagerness.
Eager to please, perhaps. Accustomed to obedience, or...
It was like Stan's, that gaze of his. But while Stan was content to lazily trace your curves when he thought you weren't watching, wearing that infuriatingly smug little smile of his, this was something more. Something somewhere between desire and awe.
Hey, she thought. I dress strangely, I probably talk strangely, I haven't spent my life cowed by dictatorship. When has he ever seen anyone like me before?
The thought was supposed to be funny, lighten the mood a bit. It didn't work, and she just felt uncomfortable, nervous.
She wondered if she should be angry with him, but she felt only pity, hearing his tale and knowing that he had lived with things all his life that she could comprehend but not understand.
She knew he was weak, but she also wished he'd stop looking at her quite that way.
He continued talking, and was explaining the horrors of the Maternity System when the second explosion went off, more violent than the first, or perhaps closer, and once Ace again found herself sprawled on the floor. She groaned, tried to sit up. 'Right, something's definitely got to... be done...' she trailed off, suddenly wary. Suddenly not so sure about anything.
He was looking down at her (how'd he recover faster than I did?) with the same wondrous expression in his eyes. He seemed to smile as he reached a hand out towards her. 'Don't touch me!' she hissed, bringing an arm up fast to block his tentative gesture, too fast, she over-balanced and crashed backwards again. Her head contacted the floor with a dull thud, sparking flashes of light in front of her eyes. Don't black out, she thought desperately, not now, don't
She had gone out the next day, after the telephone call, to try and find him, prompted by a sleepless night and the thought of just how serious this could be. It was a school day, but that was no problem for her, and she doubted it would have worried Luke any.
The sun was out, not exactly warm, but winter had passed and it was a nice enough day. The streets were silent and as empty as ever; distant cars, distant dogs, even an overly loud TV set at one point, only emphasised the stillness. And didn't she wish she had a car? To travel the miles she walked today and, finally, simply to drive away.
Luke's house. No-one home.
Horsenden Hill. Only ashes.
Youth club. Uh uh.
She checked her watch: close enough to morning tea time at school. He wasn't there either, and neither was Ange. She didn't think they were seeing each other any more, but...
Ange's house. With a police car outside.
And the girl herself opened the door. She had been crying, and at that moment Ace knew, the knowledge like a kick in the vitals. 'He was trying to give it up.' Ange said hollowly, the two just standing there, the door frame between them. 'For a long time, I don't know, since that night maybe, remember that? 'Cause it had got him then, he was on the Big H and the bastard didn't tell me until it was killing him.'
Someone came up behind the girl, Constable Mitchell, Ace somehow remembered, though she tried not to. Any preference she had for men in uniform did not extend to English policemen, and right now she wasn't feeling anything but sick. Ange asked him if they could go outside and, after taking Ace's promise not to go away, he agreed. He didn't have to take her name.
Next to the car Ange broke down and cried again, and Ace held her. 'I'm sorry', she whispered. 'So, so sorry.'
'He, uh, he came round this morning, he was sick, you know, real bad, sweating. Mum and Dad had gone, musta waited till they left, and he wouldn't let me ring the hospital. He just sat there and talked, and he offered me some. He had some, and some needles, just sort of showed me and said would I like a hit, best thing, he said, best thing in the world. I said no, and tried to ring the police again but he tried to hit me, and I ran away, and called next door, and when they came he was just lying there, and he died in the ambulance.'
'So sorry,' said Ace again. 'I mean, he called me, I knew he was on it, I knew, and I just didn't...'
'No!', said Ange, and she almost shouted it, breaking out of Ace's arms. And in her real vehemence Ace saw a spark of the fiery, head-strong girl she knew. 'No. It wasn't your fault, never think that. It wasn't mine, though I knew it too. It's just a shitty world, and he was up to his neck in it. But so are we, just because we aren't dying yet doesn't mean we aren't.' She stopped, looked round, embarrassed, hoping nobody had walked by and heard her, perhaps crossing the street to get away from the crazy people. 'Not your fault...' she whispered, a secret between them.
Ace didn't want to answer that one, not now, and they just leant against the car in silence, two friends in the sun-shine.
There was nothing else to be done. Nothing they could say or do or feel that would make it all better again.
They didn't want to go inside, didn't want to sit in the familiar lounge-room and face the policeman with all his fake sympathy and real suspicions. But after a while, with unspoken agreement, they both stood up and went inside anyway.
Still partially blinded by the glare, Ace saw nothing but black in the hall-way: a tunnel with no end. The floor lurched as she stepped over the threshold, she flailed, trying to get a grip on the shifting ground, toppled forward. She made a grab for Ange, but the girl had become paper-thin, crumpling and tearing in Ace's fist, providing no anchorage as the endless tunnel became a bottomless pit.
She twisted upright, suddenly, clearing the haze as she managed to reach her feet. Someone, Tebor (and what sort of a bloody stupid name was Tebor, anyway?) fell backwards away from her, cowering, falling to his knees. She advanced on him quickly, hoping to drive him further backwards and downwards, but he just remained there, eyes down-cast, refusing to look at her. But that was all right, he'd look at her soon enough when she...
what? Kicked him in the teeth?
Why would she do that? And why was he frightened of her? He was actually kneeling in front of her, head down, waiting for a blow.
She stopped, looking round, looking down. Everything was as it should be. The room was exactly the same, the same weird white light reflecting off the couches and walls and the large blue box. It reflected off a thin sheen of sweat on Tebor's forehead. She remembered her own fear, fear of this boy who she'd nursed back to consciousness. But it seemed ridiculous now, trivial, paranoid. Was it? She didn't know.
The back of her head was starting to protest, a dull ache that made it hard to think, and the disorientation and guilt of another boy's death weighed in her stomach as if it had never left.
not your fault
And she almost kicked him, there and then, because Ange had been lying, it had been her fault, and...
This was crazy. This was seriously insane-like crazy, she thought to herself, and went back to sit on the couch, giving it all a couple of minutes to start making sense.
Tebor looked up, still cringing, his eyes full of fear and resignation, and she smiled weakly at him.
'Here, I'm sorry, it's
He stood up, and went to take a drink of water from the dispenser. He moved slowly, looking weak and shaken, but then he actually smiled timidly back at her, and she felt the confusion lift from her. It was all alright. It had worked. It had actually all worked out. She almost laughed.
Then she heard it, faint, yes, but audible. 'Listen...' she whispered, wondrous. Then she did start laughing, and the boy laughed with her, softly, gaining strength. As if he'd never laughed before, which, Ace considered, he probably hadn't. That only redoubled her fit, and God help her if she didn't actually roll on the couch in acute merriment. 'Ah, welcome to the human race.' she said to the boy when she could finally speak. 'It's not always fun, but it's worth the price of admission.'
When they'd calmed down a little he explained that she'd been out for perhaps ten minutes or quarter of an hour. He had thought of moving her onto a couch but she'd said "don't touch me", and with the explosions and all it probably wouldn't have been safe. Yes, there had been a third one while she was unconscious.
This, Ace decided, was decidedly worrying. 'We'd better go see what's going on, or find the Professor, anyway. He's probably in all sorts of trouble by now.' So she explained, briefly, about the Doctor and the TARDIS and confused him no end. 'But don't worry about that. Come on, a bit of excitement will do you good.'
And so they went.
They were called Martians, though they didn't live on Mars and hadn't for many generations. They had been a proud people, these Martians, but time moves on, and they were only one of an uncounted multitude of form and species, and people forget.
The eight planets which were their own were beautiful all, and cold to bite the blood, and they needed no others. But computers do not forget, records are kept from the earliest of times, and there are those, who in finding these records, turn their minds to former glory. Yet the hope for Mars had long gone, swept aside in Humanity's lust for real estate -- a force to form an empire whose planets were as people under the old empires of Caesar and Khan and President.
Empire fell, and Federation arose, and certainly on the face of it the "Martian" delegate had just cause, but the "Earthlings" owned the Solar System and that was the way of it.
But people forget, and the Earth died slowly, and if they were eventually bought out by the Usurians, well, Federation members come and go, and the Federation had its own problems.
And now the Martians, if only those who cared about events of millenia past and claimed Mars as their own, were back. And if Mars had been gutted in the "Company's" mineral exploits they would simply take what was left: the remnants of the Human Race.
They had worked for months, carefully, silently, and then one man came along and literally overnight started the very revolution against the Company they had been striving for. They didn't recognise this man, for they hadn't read all the old records, and what connection could there be with him and ancient history? Certainly such an advancement of the plan caught them off-guard, but it was no matter, it was time to act, and so they did. There weren't many of them, and they weren't officially condoned by the current Martian Government, but there were enough, and they weren't going to use economics in this battle.
Like so many before them they put on their armour, loaded their weapons, prayed to their gods, and went out to fight the good fight. The fight for justice and that which was rightfully theirs.
VIII'I had a friend in Perivale, that's where I lived. I had a lot of friends back there, though some of us weren't really friends, we were just sort of lumped in together. Prisoners of Perivale someone reckoned.' Ace said softly, her voice cracked, her breathing heavy and quick with exhaustion. 'This friend, she was into comics and things, all sorts of crazy stuff, and she told me about this book she'd read. This boy enters a strange land, sort of medieval, and a lot of people are trying to kill him, and he's really scared. But he's not too scared, because he thinks it's a dream and he'll wake up any minute now. Any minute.'
She shook her head, wiping the thin trickle of blood away from her eyes. Quick footsteps ran down the main corridor, and she ducked further behind the giant green corpse that was their temporary shelter. But the footsteps didn't stop, no-one looked down the smaller access-way where it, and they, lay. A moment later they were followed by a heavier, determined tread, and the girl prayed, really truly asked for divine intervention, that the monster wouldn't investigate its fallen comrade. It didn't, and kept on going.
'This boy did all sorts of strange things, he and his friend, because there was this other boy with him. You know, they take out an entire camp of werewolves with machine-guns. Two twelve year olds. But one day they go to this old man's hut, and the boy sees this clock, and it's a big candle with markings in it and it burns down to a marking every hour. And he can't handle it, just that clock, because he knew then that it wasn't a dream. If this was his dream the clock would be full of cogs and wires and water pumps and have a cuckoo or something. But it was just this big candle.
'I had another friend, and she once said it was a shitty world, and sometimes I think that the only thing I've learnt since I started travelling is that it's a shitty universe. But you know that, don't you?' she looked down at Tebor, still lying where she had dragged him after the ambush which had separated them again from the Professor. He was staring up at her, staring through the eye-lids she had closed.
Ace licked her so-dry lips and continued. 'I know you can't hear it any more, but out there there are people running. People fighting and shouting a lot. And, you know, that sound makes me feel glad to be alive. Makes me feel like something's happening. Is that selfish? I'm not sure.
'But this isn't a dream, or some sort of hell where we dream after we're dead. Because if it is I know when I fell asleep, and there was no reason to live, no reason to feel good about anything. And now I go on shopping sprees on alien planets and sit round the TARDIS all day and see waterfalls with no bottom and hear the sounds of people fighting, and I can't feel bitter or anything. I can't feel like the universe is out to get me because most of the time I just feel good. Feels good to breathe.' A gun went off somewhere near, quickly followed by a fierce exchange of fire. The girl flinched, but the fight didn't last long.
'I suppose the Professor has something to do with it, and he's a great guy, though he doesn't always understand. He's out there somewhere, saving the planet, and he's got to do that, he's got to do the big things, because if he doesn't the planet doesn't get saved.' the girl stopped suddenly, wondering if she was raving. Wondered if she should be hiding behind one corpse and talking to another one about concepts she somehow understood, but had trouble visualising let alone putting into words and sentences. What did life have to do with big candles and sounds she probably only imagined in the first place? Crazy talk.
It wasn't crazy, not really. She was just mourning this boy that she had known so briefly, and didn't really know at all, in the only way she could. By dragging out her own pain and doubts, and God knows she had enough of them. But so did everyone else, and life goes on regardless.
She had once told someone that she had been trying to extract nitroglycerin from gelignite that day when her friend was being buried. That wasn't quite true, but the lie had come easy. No need to think.
Was she at peace now with that memory? She might not come out and say 'I was taking active steps towards suicide', but would she...
Suddenly, more footsteps, the heavy kind. She glanced over her makeshift shelter and spotted one of these "Ice Warriors", as the Professor had called them. It was wounded, and was carrying what she knew from experience was a big bomb. It walked by.
And suddenly she no longer cared about suicide or anything else. It had all became so much boring rubbish.
'Right, stay here. This guy's up to no good.' She leapt quietly over the body and moved to the corner. She turned briefly back to her friend, hidden from this angle. 'I'll be back. I promise.' She looked round the corner and disappeared, not even registering the grin on her own face.
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