BY DAVID CARROLL
Imperfect Copy a novel
The Tiger who wanted to be Human a comic
Changeling, with Kate Orman
BY KATE ORMAN
Untitled, by Sarah J. Groenewegen
Forgotten Memories, by Evan Paliatseas
The Rushing of Blood, by Evan Paliatseas
Keeper's Demise, by David J Richardson
NON DOCTOR WHO
Alien To Her, by David Carroll
She Twitched, by David Carroll
The Inner Light, by Kate Orman
Waiting in the Light, by Jonathan Barons
Grandfather's Clock, by Steven Caldwell
Messages, by Steven Caldwell
Inge, by Simon Moore
by David Carroll
The airport guard walked through the main foyer, expertly navigating the myriad crowd. A harried looking women pushed past him. A boy ran into him, wearing the inevitable Batman T-Shirt:
I've had a
superimposed over a picture of a bruised chest, two rib-bones sticking out of the flesh. Hilarious. The boy didn't look up and was lost in seconds. He saw two Japanese looking round anxiously, holding a camera. Obligingly he went over and took their photograph. He was surprised to see them, not many tourists came here.
The guard's eyes were everywhere, and as the conversations washed over him he checked each dispassionately.
"see that movie last night, not bad for a..."
"ective analysis based on last year's figures are blo..."
"you, it couldn't last, that horrible man just ca..."
"ssor, only you, could leave the TARDIS on a boat two min..."
That last one puzzled him and he backtracked slightly.
"Your logic is irrrefutable, Ace. Because only I operate the TARDIS anyway."
"Yeah, well don't try and out-logic me. It was still a stupid idea to go for the walk."
"So you've said."
They were an odd looking pair, him especially. A small, scruffy looking man and a pretty young woman. Scottish and English respectively, by the sound of it. The man looked up and noticed the guard's scrutiny. He had sad eyes.
As the women looked at him resentfully and the man tipped his hat the guard had a sudden feeling that he should ask these two for some papers, means of identification. But they seemed harmless enough and he let the feeling slip by. He nodded in reply to the man and moved on.
As the night wore on the crowds thinned. An ever-increasing fraction became your average alcohol-sodden youth who believed the airport was a trendy place to visit. Or at least throw-up in. But the guard wasn't worried. He was by no means the only one of his kind walking this beat, and they could handle any problem that arose.
And finally, around midnight, the lights were dimmed, and all but a skeleton staff had left. There weren't any more flights tonight. The guard checked security arrangements in the foyer before walking through to the non-public areas for one final surveillance before the graveyard shift arrived.
The corridors were brightly lit, and as he walked a whistle, previously disallowed, rose to his lips. In an hour he would be home with Mary and little Shaun. Even in this city, life could be good.
He looked in one room, and looked again. It was dark and empty, but in the light from the door a playing card could be seen, lying face down and half-hidden under a closet door. The whistle died. The guard rested his hand on his weapon, suddenly wishing the building wasn't so empty, and went to open the closet. The three men who fell out each had worn a pilot's uniform. Each face was set into a huge grin. And each grin was set rigidly in rigor-mortis.
The guard backed away, with every second the implication of the three corpses before him became stronger, and he felt the bile rise through his throat. With a sudden movement he jumped for the telephone, hit the emergency number and shouted into it. There was no reply, only the soft hissing of gas from the receiver. But it didn't matter, nothing mattered. In fact it was all rather funny.
* * *
The year was 1982. Travelling across this planet was a casual matter for those who could afford it, and the world seemed to shrink with every hour saved by pushing these machines to greater speeds. The orbital flights of the next twenty years were on the drawing-boards of the ambitious, encouraged by the still largely unblemished British and American space program, while the inconsistencies in the physical world that would eventually lead to Travel Mat technology were only the occasional unexpected result of experiments performed by nuclear physicians.
This particular trip, a 9:36 Air Ahead flight carrying passengers and cargo to the United Kingdom, was simply one of the hundreds leaving the United States each day. A purely routine Atlantic crossing, and in the half-hour after dinner was served it quietly prepared itself for the overnight trip. Businessmen, not even dreaming a portable computer could be indispensable, lost themselves in reports and portfolios whilst those of less pragmatic nature found solace in fiction. Everything from cheap pornography to the more fashionable authors, MacLean, Donaldson, King and Andrews among them. More lost themselves in the in-flight movie, Tron, whilst others talked quietly among themselves, or simply drifted asleep to the soft hum of the engines.
Toni Williams did not sleep, but, half-watching the screen, daydreamed brilliant colour and sombre shade. Toni was no Picasso, but she could paint and she painted well. And despite it all, despite a talent that invited her across the Atlantic to work on some of the most expensive movies ever made, perhaps her most wonderful, her most magical, creation was nestled at her breast, breathing softly. She ran her fingers lightly through her son's sparse hair, and daydreamed black on red.
Charles Matley was not in the least bit interested in Tron and while, despite his profession, he read quite a lot, he had left his current book on a seat at the airport. Not much use asking the pilot to turn back, he conjectured. Oh well.
And of course there were the two passengers used to a rather faster means of transportation...
As Ace finished her meal, roast beef with two vegetables and ice-cream for dessert, she sat comfortably back in her chair. No, not sat, she lounged. There were chairs in the TARDIS at least as comfortable as this, chairs that molded themselves beneath you. But there was nothing quite like leaning back and watching the clouds fall, not even having to move, your every desire provided by the staff of immaculately dressed stewards that moved up and down the aisle like so many polite robots. She thought of the TARDIS, so far below them, wending its slow way through the Great Lakes, up the River St Lawrence and out into the ocean. She wondered what customs would make of it in England. Come to think of it, she wondered what customs would make of herself and the Doctor, and if it would be as easy to get off the plane as it had been to get on. She wasn't worried, the Doctor could talk anybody out of anything.
"Not bad for a piece of obsolete technology, eh, Professor?"
"Quiet Ace, I'm trying to sleep" the Time Lord muttered under his breath.
Rolling her eyes the girl turned back to the window. She tried counting the stars, wondering which ones she had visited. But when she turned back to the Doctor to ask, he was snoring softly, giving every indication of being oblivious to the world. She knew better, and she knew what to do about it. Grinning, she called a stewardess over and ordered a Bloody Mary.
* * *
He is nervous, always nervous before he goes on. He puts on his best smile, dresses to perfection. The make-up, the lipstick, have been applied, sometime previously. Sometime. He is ready, he has prepared his props, rehearsed his lines, trained his assistants well, but there is always the fear. The fear he will not do his best, miss a punch-line. The fear that despite his best they won't laugh.
* * *
Ace was finishing her second lemonade when Tron died, its pyrotechnics collapsing into a single point, then dissolving into nothingness. Conversations stopped, heads were lifted from pages. In the silence a voice came over the intercom, high-pitched with a hint of hysteria.
"May I have your attention, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you kindly. This is your captain speaking. On our present course we should reach London by tomorrow morning, or 2001 by the latest, and our current altitude'd make a centipede green. You know, that reminds me of a joke, stop me if you've heard it, no, really. If a plane crashes on the border between Kansas and Oklahoma, what state are the passengers in?"
"What the hell, Professor, someone's playing games. We ought'a...
He was dressed in elegant purple, and leant on his walking stick like the most refined of his species. Two men entered after him, clothed in the purest white, but even the machineguns they carried couldn't draw Ace's attention from the leading figure. He was impossibly tall, impossibly thin. His face, smooth ivory framed by fluorescent green, seemed to have had the flesh selectively melted from beneath it, leaving the eyes protruding, emphasising the chin and upper cheeks. A grin like blood spilt on marble revealed the mirth of the bone and gristle beneath it. The eyes were tinged with yellow, laced with scarlet, and the oh so lovely flower at his lapel only seemed to highlight the fact that its owner was a mockery of nature.
Ace felt sick. She knew this man, had seen him on TV, read his story in the paper, knew what he was capable of. Or thought she did.
The Joker's answer to his own riddle, "a state of confusion", was lost under the shrieks and his own maniacal laughter. Until somebody, one of the stewardesses, tried to move, to escape, and was shot down before they had fully taken a step.
The single shot was shatteringly loud, and in its aftermath the screaming stopped. Even the Joker seemed to control himself, only letting out the occasional miscreant giggle, and soon the only sounds were the wails of children and the cries of the woman who had been shot. She had been flung backwards, her legs tangling with the man she had been serving sent her body falling upside-down as her arms flailed through the air. The whole plane seemed to focus on this woman, she was more then three-quarters of the way up the red-carpeted aisle, but even those in front of her knew what was happening, from the sounds. She finally managed to pull herself fully into the aisle, her legs falling with a lifeless thud. She couldn't move further, could only clutch at her chest to try and stop the stain spreading rapidly across it. Nobody moved to her, and even the Doctor could only listen as the breathing became hoarser, more shallow. The battle for breath, for life, took minutes, but ended all too soon.
The Joker spoke. "Thank you Michael, a well executed manoeuvre." and burst into a fresh eruption of chortling.
And suddenly the Doctor rose and, with a "stay there" that was not to be disobeyed, strode down the aisle. His furious gaze seemed to propel the two thugs physically backward, and even the Joker seemed taken aback. The Doctor's voice was low, but with undertones of power. "There will be no more killing, drop those weapons", there was the clatter of obedience, "and you, you...". The Doctor's voice softened, his stare met the Joker's, the soft blue-grey pupils seeming to swallow the madman's blood-shot orbs. "Everything is fine, everything is calm, very calm, perfectly calm..."
The two stood motionless. The foot and a half difference in height went unnoticed as the voice washed over the passengers, stilling the crying of babes. The purple-clad arm, raised in a gesture of grandiose defiance, slowly lowered itself. The face didn't change, the grin remained, but the whole effect lost its power, leaving the Joker looking rather pathetic. Defeated.
Until a small snicker escaped the lips. "Fooled you", the green-haired man gleefully cried, and with a strength belied by his frame, a madman's strength, he grabbed the Doctor, picked him up and threw him backwards into the air.
"Gabriel." At the sharp command the man on the Joker's right broke from his stupor and, still confused, reached for his gun. By the time the thug had picked it up and was aiming the Doctor was recovering, rolling to stand.
Their eyes met for a second.
And a shot rang out.
* * *
The crowd was hushed.
* * *
"Doctor!" Ace screamed and jumped from her seat. Unheeding of the guns pointing at her she ran to, knelt by, the fallen figure in the aisle. The bullet, from an Uzi at short range, had caught him in the lower chest, and he had simply crumpled.
Ace had never seen the Doctor's blood before. It ran over the brown coat, over her fingers as she pulled up his jumper. She briefly raised her hand to stare at the fluid. It wasn't human, but thicker and with a hint of orange. She tore a strip out of her skirt and started to bandage the wound. But the blood was already stopping, and there was no breath. She tried mouth to mouth, CPR, anything, but there was nothing.
The girl looked up into the laughing face of a clown and there was murder in her eyes.
Save it, Ace, you're no use to me like this.
She stopped. She remembered Terra Alpha. She remembered losing control after Harold V's death and almost throwing herself at a gun. And she finally noticed the two automatic weapons pointing at her.
She became self-conscious. Realised she was kneeling with a torn skirt in front of a hundred people.
She realised the man above her could kill her and find it amusing.
But who had spoken? The Doctor hadn't moved. It could simply be a trick of her memory, but it had been so clear.
And suddenly she knew the Doctor was alive. She had seen him battered round before, thought him dead before. Well, he wasn't fooling her this time.
All he needed was time to recover, she told herself fiercely. He had been caught unawares, but the Doctor always came back, always won in the end.
She stood up, flinching away at the purple glove that tried to help her.
"Why, mademoiselle is upset. Surely not on my account."
She ignored him, and this time didn't even bother pulling her hand away as the Joker lead her to her seat, leaving the Doctor lying in the aisle.
But as they reached her seat he slid one hand down her back, goosed her, and Ace burst into silent tears. "You're going to die, Joker. I promise it."
"Ah, but life is short, my dear. So why not enjoy it while we're here." He winked knowingly at her, and walked back to where his henchmen stood guard, stepping lightly on the Doctor's chest as he went.
He turned suddenly, addressing the silent crowd. There was no laughter in his voice now. "Yes, indeed, life is short. But the lengths to which people will go to extend it are sometimes astonishing."
"Get it over with, Joker. What do you want?" a man in his thirties called out.
"Me, nothing. Nothing but a little respect. Gabriel." At his command the goon handed the Joker a knife. The madman ran his thumb lightly up and down the blade, it was a good knife, of fine steel and ornate handle. He threw it down in the middle of the aisle were it lay, innocently.
"Michael." The other thug produced a bundle of white fabric. The Joker demurely held the bridal dress out in front of him, modelling it, before throwing it down beside the knife.
He spoke again. "Everyone in this plane will die. Everyone." He leant forward, his voice seductive, purring the words. "Unless on the stroke of twelve midnight I am presented with a virgin sacrifice. Said sacrifice to be held before the great doors of the cockpit at the said hour. Attendance is mandatory and young girls half-price."
Nobody said anything. There didn't seem to be anything to say.
The time was 10:34.
"I'm going to retire now, these late nights take something out of you. But never fear, my guardians will keep you company. And anybody with any funny ideas, please keep them to yourselves, I do so hate competition. Probably wind up with some decorous holes in the fuselage, knowing my trigger-happy friends here. But first a bit of mood music, to help you make that all-important decision of who's it going to be."
The movie screen lit up again. But Tron, with all its glory and metaphor did not return. And while Airport '77 was not the most popular choices of inflight movie, there is, as has been said, a first time for everything.
Shock after shock. And trite as it was, some people still reacted, some would react to this over everything else. But nobody moved, and the Joker simply stood there and beamed.
Until he turned, and leaving the knife and the dress, the dead woman and the Doctor, behind him, went back into the cockpit.
His absence left a hole in the room.
People shook themselves, trying to wake up.
The two thugs stood there, impassively.
Yet another person fainted.
It was 10:41.
The Joker's head appeared around the door, a cheeky grin on his face. "And oh yes. Anybody who had the fish is in trouble. See you in the funny pages."
* * *
They weren't laughing.
"He is going to kill us. All of us. My God, how can we just stand here and pretend he'll keep a promise he's probably already forgotten let alone ever having the intention of keeping!" Ace was shouting. It felt good to shout. The unfamiliar tears had been wiped away and her old friend, the anger, had slipped into the gap, uninvited but not unwelcome.
"Well, what do you suggest. We politely ask him to reconsider, maybe?" the man's voice was calmer, but even the distraught girl could feel the strain behind the flippancy.
"No, we... oh, I don't know. I just wish I had some Nitro-9 and a clear shot at that maniac. Or even Jungle Jim over here to clear the air." She smiled coldly at the man standing not five feet away. He was impassive, but then again he could afford to be, thought the girl bitterly. A gun made up for an awful lot of conversation.
"Look, this is all very well and I assure you the sentiments are shared, but it does not help, and if you don't have anything constructive to add I suggest you go back and sit down. Right now." His voice had steel in it, and worse then that, he was right. She was acting stupidly. Not that she didn't have a right to be, but she was better then this.
"OK, I'm sorry. Let's start again shall we. My name's Ace, etc, etc, and how are we going to get out of this one alive?"
It was 11:02.
The group of them were seated at the first class passenger's bar at the front of the plane. In the twenty minutes since the Joker had left them with his ultimatum some sense had been salvaged from the chaos, the end result being this little congregation.
It had started when the man who had called out previously stood up, tentatively, and called for anybody who though they could help. The result wasn't exactly overwhelming, but soon the dead woman, whose name was apparently Amanda Steel, and the Doctor were moved respectively into one corner at the back and an assemblage was gathered for what amounted to a War Council.
Ace had briefly tried to explain that the Doctor wasn't dead. But hadn't pressed the point when she saw the pitying looks.
Most of the passengers simply hadn't moved. Reactions varied from uncontrolled weeping to a state approaching catatonia and the remaining air-stewardesses that could still put up a façade of calm were assigned to help those most stricken. Some prayed, some cursed, and a couple of people seemed to regard the proceedings with almost amusement. Belied by the sweat of their foreheads.
Ace felt like standing up and shouting at them, snap them out of their apathy, get them to do something.
But then, of course, the deaths started.
The first victim was a young boy with a soft pattern of freckles and brown hair. Through his tears, he started laughing, and laughing, and laughing. And when he stopped laughing he was dead, the skin of his face stretched unnaturally into gleeful rigour. He had had the fish for dinner.
And for a while after that the two guards had needed their guns. They fired selectively, carefully, one shot at a time.
And so some thirty-five people died, most either charging the guns, or laughing through their own vomit as they tried to get rid of their last meal.
That was ten minutes of her life that Ace would never remember. Everything that had already happened, and the horrors that were still to come would haunt her, but not those minutes, not ever.
Of those that had initially come forward, only eight remained and somehow they got organised, somehow they got the nodded permission of the guards to congregate by the bar, away from the noise and the smell. And somehow Ace controlled herself enough to join them.
The girl looked round at them. They ranged in age from a boy in his late teens to an elderly man she guessed was in his early sixties. There were only two other females in the group, one a severe looking business woman and the other a sensible-looking girl called Toni, somewhere in her twenties. Her baby, introduced as Adrian and not one of the eight, was being wooed patiently back to sleep, his mother's arms protecting him from reality. The only other name Ace remembered from the quick introductions was that of the guy who had started organising it all and seemed to naturally take the role of leader, one Charles Matley of casual clothing and age around thirty.
One of the businessmen spoke first. "Hadn't we better actually arrange something in case... well... we've only got an hour."
"Yeah, maybe we could take a census, what would be your preference between sacrificer or sacrificee."
"Well, we should at least..."
Charles waved them all to silence. "Fair point. We've got to ask it sooner or later. Who, here, is a virgin? I'm afraid I must rule myself out."
There was an embarrassed silence.
"But why bother, he's hardly going to meekly give himself up, say 'Right, she's dead, please return to your seats. We arrive at London in five hours' and actually land us all safely."
"He's got to land somewhere."
"And can anybody actually fly this thing if we do get rid of him? I have a distinct feeling the actual pilots aren't around."
"So we're back where we started. We don't really have much choice."
"We'd be better with an all-out attack, as long as we can get rid of the two heavies, he shouldn't be much problem."
"You reckon? Did ya see how he threw that guy backwards?"
"And those two 'heavies' are hardly easier, even if we could overpower them one misfire and we could all be dead anyway."
(All this within earshot of their guard. As somebody had said, there wasn't that many alternatives.)
"I agree, our chances of getting away with anything now is slim. We'll just have to go through with it unless something comes up."
"And then what?"
"Whatever happens. But it simply may not be necessary, the Joker goes through mood swings, personality swings, God, he changes his sense of humour faster than his socks. He looks like he's on some theology high at the moment, who knows why, he probably doesn't. But if we do what he says it might satisfy him."
Ace was getting sick of this. As John Cleese had said 'Right, this calls for immediate discussion'. Nothing was happening. "Look, let's forget the deep and meaningful bits, OK. The guy's a killer, and undoubtedly loves the idea of us bickering over who's prepared to kill who."
"What, are you some sort of God-damned psychiatrist or something."
Matley spoke. "No, just your average reporter who's scared shitless. And if you want your census I'll use the knife if I have too, I just pray to God I won't." He and Ace turned to look at each other.
The girl herself spoke up. "Yeah, well I suppose I'd do it if it came to it. But since no-one else is offering I suppose I better volunteer for sacrificee. I just won't be getting a Pulitzer for it."
"But are you a..." Ace looked at the man who had asked, then at the guard. "Of course, or I wouldn't volunteer, would I?"
"I suppose that means, I mean, well, I volunteer as well." Ace looked at the teenager in surprise. He'd been all but silent so far, and she hadn't expected to hear anything from him, let alone this. Was he just being macho and showing off to her? No, she decided, he wasn't, or least she didn't think so. Like the rest of them, like herself, he was simply frightened. And he didn't have the Professor to save him. I've got a Doctor up my sleeve, she thought, somewhat hysterically.
She smiled at him. "No, got to do this one by the book. If he doesn't get a female virgin he'd probably be on highly pissed off. Anyway, do you know how ridiculous you'd look in this dress. But... thanks."
In an evening of silences, this seemed the longest.
"Well," said Ace, taking the dress and knife from the bar. "Toni, could you come and help me with this bloody thing and, Charlie", she threw him the weapon and picked up two bottles of Vodka. "come on. I think we're going to need a drink, and don't you want to interview me or something?"
* * *
He is nervous, always nervous before he goes on. He puts on his best smile, dresses to perfection. The make-up, the lipstick, have been applied, sometime previously. Sometime. He is ready, he has prepared his props, rehearsed his lines, trained his assistants well, but there is always the fear...
And so it goes. Always. Until the part about the unborn babe.
* * *
Ace stood at the end of the aisle looking resolute. She had been looking resolute for five minutes now and nothing was happening. And the dress was uncomfortable. So she sat down in the nearest chair, and tried conserving energy instead.
Charles Matley smiled at her wanly. He looked more nervous then she did and in his hands the curved knife moved backward and forward. Backward and forward. The lights glinted off it, emphasising the edge. She felt dizzy, disorientated, and for a moment she could actually feel it. Feel the knife enter her. Sun hot as it sought her heart, spilt her blood. A metaphorical deflowering. She gave a small start, crying out, as if she had died and nothing had changed.
She ripped her sight away from the knife forcibly, shaking. Charles noticed and put it down, out of her sight. And then he just sat there, on the edge of his seat, and watched the door, muttering feverishly under his breath.
She looked toward the people that made up the 'audience' to this farce, and they just sat there and did nothing. A moment's spite flared in her. Why should she do this for them, why should she go through this while they expected her to die for them.
Looking at them, she knew. They weren't fighting because they were mourning. Mourning themselves. The Joker was just ... too big. To them, inexorable.
She was doing this because she could.
She looked toward the Doctor. No movement. He simply lay there, as if catching up on the sleep he usually scorned. Doubt crossed her mind. He had always been there. Before she had met him she had fought for something she could never articulate. Against her parents, the authorities, even Manisha and the rest of the gang at times. And then she had met a funny little man with a question mark on the end of his umbrella.
Why he seemed to fulfil something fundamental to her she could not guess. But she felt as if he had been created for her. For her alone.
He lay unmoving. And then they were out of time, for the Joker had entered from the cockpit, and everyone was looking at her.
She stood up. The room was holding its breath. Lets get this over with, it was saying, and quickly, so we can get back to living.
But the Joker, beaming brightly at the gathered entourage, seemed in no hurry. Ace noticed it was still a couple of minutes to midnight. My, didn't time fly.
He came up to her, ignoring her glowering expression. "Hi", he said amiably, in the loudest stage whisper she'd ever heard, "are you a... I mean, have you, ah..."
"Yes, you are a virgin, or yes you have had sexual intercourse in this or any other life?"
He was getting to her, she could feel her anger, the simple urge to lash out at his perversion, rising. And he knew it, she could tell by his smile. But she forced it down, forced herself to forget his words and just give the answers that would keep as many people as possible, and hopefully herself, alive. "Yes, I am a virgin."
"Oh, good." He wandered away again, turning to face the crowd.
"We are gathered here today, to join this man and this woman" he intoned, arms raised in solemn ceremony and nodding toward Ace and Charles, "in holy matrimony. Well, perforated anyway. Who was it that said a dagger is a tool with a sucker at each end? Hello, and how are you enjoying today's adventure?" His ramblings had brought him around to Toni, standing to one side, Adrian mercifully asleep.
Against the madman's presence she could only shut her eyes. Lights, colours, flashed in her darkness, and she held her baby close. "My what a fine young man you have there, may I?" The Joker reached out one gloved hand, tentatively.
Mother and son fell to the ground, the carpet blood red beneath them.
"Oh dear. So sorry, static electricity you know, million to one accident. If I was you, I'd have another drink. Oh, bit hard, eh? Well, anyway, where was I?"
Ace was already moving. Stuff waiting for the appropriate or dramatic moment. This bullshit was going to end, right now.
She pulled out the bottle of Vodka tied against her right leg and previously hidden by the dress. With a much practiced manoeuvre she had a match out and the alcohol-soaked cloth burning within seconds. Then she threw it.
Not at the Joker. No matter how much she would love to choose that particular target.
The bottle crashed into the ready weapon of one of the guards, shattering, spreading flame and broken glass in a liquid arc.
The guard was yelling, clutching his bloodied chest and flailing his weapon arm in the air. The sleeve had caught alight and the sub-machinegun swung loosely on its strap.
But Ace wasn't worried by the hoods, and shouting at Charles for the knife, sprang finally for the Joker. The reporter, looking slightly dazed himself at the unexpected progress of the plan, managed to pass the weapon to the charging girl without killing either of them. Then grabbing his own bottle, hidden behind the back of his jacket, he leaped at the weapon of the second guard. No time to light it, the gun was already swinging round, looking for prey.
Ace was yelling, her blood running hot as she targeted in on the purple figure turning to meet her. The curved blade in her hand felt a part of her, the unfamiliar weapon mastered at a moment's notice. Even her long skirt seemed to fulfil its role, moving around her legs gracefully, not impeding their motion. Now this was living!
The figure met her with a smile on his face, and with a quick twist of his arm threw her effortlessly behind him.
Ace hit the wall of the plane and landed in a heap on the floor. She tried to rise but her skirts had suddenly lost their nerve and were tangled hopelessly. She sensed a movement in front of her and rolled desperately. A playing card flashed through the air. But this card was printed on razor-thin steel and embedded itself into the wall an inch from her head. It was a joker, mocking her.
She reached for her left leg, found her catapult. But she knew she was an easy target in the seconds that followed. When nothing happened, she looked up.
Chaos ruled in the airplane. Her charge had broken the spell and it looked like half the remaining passengers were trying to rush the three hijackers suddenly. And mainly getting in each others way. The repressed fear and frustration and horror of the last hour and a half had finally burst, and blows were lashing out regardless of their target. After the silence the roar was deafening.
And of course, many people had simply remained in their chairs, still dazed, still impotent.
Charles was doing well, and both goons had lost their weapons early on, Ace hoped to hell no-one would try to pick them up in a fatal bout of enthusiasm. But the two were putting up more then a fair fight against the mob. She noticed with satisfaction that the one she had got with the cocktail was doing rather less well then his compatriot. Some of the braver, or more suicidal, of the men had even tried to gang up on the Joker. They weren't having as much success, it would take more then numbers to overcome this maniac with his martial arts and lethal gimmicks.
Well, they'd planned for this. And while Charles insisted he'd play this role she'd known it would fall to her. In the momentary calm around her, she used the knife to cut her skirt to knee level and readied her catapult. Scrambling over the chairs, and bodies, towards the back of the plane she reached a section of uncongested aisle. She stood on one on of the seats and took aim. Her position and the Joker's height made him an easy target.
No longer enraged with the fierce hotheadedness of her earlier attack she felt calm. Restful. Even Toni and Adrian's half-seen fused body being kicked round under the struggle didn't affect her. That would come later.
"Hey, Joker." Her voice was surprisingly powerful over the ruckus and even the now-ignored movie. "You, the bastard a couple of cards short of a deck."
The Joker turned towards her, chuckling. Some inconsiderate had gotten their blood down the front of his suit, but despite that he seemed distanced from the combat, it seemed to flow around him.
And indeed the melee was losing its momentum, the first attackers had paid dearly and he was simply moving among them, choosing targets at random, using his cards as knifes. She knew he could stop the fight, his presence and charisma easily a match for this near-panic. He didn't, and Ace knew why. He was enjoying himself immensely. Well, enjoy this, arsehole.
She fired. He moved, very fast, but the stone hit him in the arm. She knew that with his reflexes she had no chance of hitting anything vital, but she could distract him, get him to take notice of her. So she fired again.
Hadn't her parole officer said that her 'antics' were simply juvenile ways of gaining attention. If only he knew.
She pushed away the distracting thought. And distracting thoughts were the last thing she needed at this precise moment, her plan actually looked like it was working. She fired, again and again. And now he was coming towards her. She ran, up the aisle, people cringing as she passed them.
She had a lead on him, and he had to push through the crowd. But she would run out of places to run very, very quickly.
* * *
As the Joker passed a figure stacked in a corner at the end of the aisle it began to stir.
There was a number associated with this figure. If you had the knowledge you could calculate this being's age. And if you used smaller time units for a more precise answer the numbers simply got bigger.
Big numbers never matter in the end.
The pain that wracked this body was not physical, not caused by the bullet it could feel rubbing against its spine. Indeed the bullet had done little permanent damage, there were so many back-ups, by-passes and fail-safes built into his physiology there was small chance of that.
Instead it was the pain of age, not measured in centuries or seconds, but in deaths.
The deaths of friends, of the barely known and the unknown. Deaths witnessed, and deaths caused.
But despite its pain the figure moved.
It was time to come to the rescue again.
* * *
Great, thought Ace, it had to be dark, didn't it.
Repocketing a small piece of crooked wire, another of the things she wouldn't leave home without, she slipped quietly into that darkness. There were more subtle ways of getting through locked doors than high explosive, though the reason she had first learnt this particular skill seemed very far away.
As she moved silently through the stacked crates of the cargo bay, navigating with the lonely glow of a distant bulb, she gripped the knife tightly to her. Her stones had all been fired, her options had all run out. This was it.
Somewhere behind her the door opened, and closed again.
The only sounds were the muffled cries from the passenger area and the hum of the engines, forcing this machine through the night sky.
And her own heartbeat.
* * *
Time changed, became fragmented.
He comes out of the darkness, his white face that of a ghoul, his purple coat blending with the shadows. He is grinning like an idiot.
She starts, panics, throws the knife.
She runs into the darkness, crashes into a crate, rounds the corner. She can't hear him, but he is behind her.
She sees a crowbar, lying innocently beside a case. One of the workmen must have dropped it. She lunges for it.
And a gloved hand lands on her shoulder, pulling her back, turning her round. She looks up into two blood-shot eyes, eyes governed only by insanity. They were the eyes of a man who could know you, know every part of you, because he knew nothing about himself.
* * *
She was transfixed by that stare, even as the hand left her shoulder, moved to caress the oh so lovely flower on his lapel.
"Say good night, Acie", the Joker whispered, a suggestion of a smile upon his lips.
And she knew. How she knew she did not know, maybe the earlier reminder of Terra Alpha did it, or maybe it was written in his eyes. But she knew.
So she clapped, and whistled, and cheered. And she laughed.
In the silence the laughter echoed hollowly, bounced off the walls, whispered between the crates.
The man stopped. Just stood there in the dark, and listened. Listened as the laughter swelled, surrounding him. Becoming a multitude of voices, applauding him, loving him. The spotlight was still on him, the faces were still hidden, but the crowd was there.
Still laughing, Ace reached down behind her, found the crowbar, raised it above her head.
She stopped laughing.
"You're terminated, fucker." And she brought the weapon down, hard. And again, and again.
And then she went to look for the knife.
* * *
He comes out of the darkness.
* * *
"Hello, Doctor". Ace was trying to be calm, trying to be brave. She was kneeling in the darkness and in her lap lay the Joker, the knife at his throat. But her voice had cracked and the tears once again ran down her cheeks.
"Ace". He was behind her, and she had not looked round. But she'd known he was there, he always was. His voice was low, and dangerous.
"He's killed so many people. Not just here. So many. He killed Toni, Adrian. He hurt me."
The Doctor was silent. He might not have been there.
And she finally cried out. "HOW DARE YOU! How dare you just stand there and accuse me. Haven't you murdered, haven't you just wiped out the odd space fleet or fried the odd planet. What makes you so damned special?"
"Oh, Ace" The Doctor walked round the crying girl, crouched to reach her height. But she refused to look at him.
"Does this man deserve death, or do you want to kill him?"
"You know he does. Yes, it's both, but he deserves it." Her shaking hand had drawn a thin line of red against the chalk-white skin.
"Does he? Haven't you, just for an instant, known this man. Seen him. Does he deserve it?"
"But you, you... That's not fair. That just isn't FAIR!"
"Only death is fair, only then are all men treated equal. And as for the Joker, his society will not kill him, they take responsibility for his actions because they believe he can be cured. What right do we have to say otherwise? And he has his own battles to fight, and all of them are against himself. And even those aren't the only reasons." She finally looked up, finally met the compassion in his eyes, finally dropped the knife. Do I deserve this, she thought. Do I deserve such love? She didn't know. No, worse, she didn't think so. But he thought she did, and for her, for now, that was enough. The Doctor stood, reaching out with his hand. "Come on Ace, let's go see how your friend is doing."
She pulled herself up, dropping the Joker roughly against the floor. The Doctor bent down again and, with a single finger to the forehead, made sure the madman would not wake up for a good many hours to come.
But perhaps even the Doctor shuddered at the grin that remained.
Then wiping Ace's tears away with his scarf, the two of them walked away, out of the darkness.
* * *
"Now, young lady, we ought to do something about your abuse of the English language. 'tis not polite to swear."
"No, but neither is scaring people half to death."
"Bags I fly"
"Oh, yes? And when was the last time you landed a commercial aircraft?"
"Whereas I suppose you taught the Wright brothers everything they knew."
"Well, now that you come to mention it..."
* * *
The curtain has fallen, and for a while the fear has been banished. For a while...
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