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
First appeared in Bog OffAce lay still, eyes shut, muscles tensed, breathing softly in through her nose to pick up any unfamiliar scent. Nothing, no sound, no smell, no feeling out of the ordinary. She stretched and groaned and rolled over, blinking against the morning light and tasting the all-pervasive sand against her tongue.
Her companion was asleep, unless he was better at this game than she was, and she didn't think so. She licked a finger and ran it gently down his back, watching the muscles' faint stirring as he slept on. She got up, scanned the horizon quickly for signs of trouble, slipped into a skirt and a shirt and started thinking about breakfast.
The camp-site was strictly temporary, a high spot with a staggered cliff on one side, a gentler slope on the other, some scraggy trees for shade and to tie the horses. It looked prepared for nothing more than the scribblings of a few lizards. Even the sand was lazy this morning, the finer particles hanging gently in the air, creating crazy beams of sun through twisted branches. When Ace was poking through the remains of the fire, seeing if any of the wood was salvageable, she heard muffled gun shots from the east, echoing into silence. She didn't look up, they were too far away.
She was more concerned with the cheery sound of the stream not a hundred feet from their position, and she grabbed the kettle and her holster and went down to bathe.
* * *
She waded in slowly, letting the freezing water climb an inch at a time up her legs, washing everything away. Only a couple of feet wide, the stream was surprisingly deep, almost to her waist, and as she stood in the middle and let the waves lap comfortably against her she wanted to scream and splash and throw the water away from her and let it come sliding back. Quick memories of public pools of her childhood came to her -- shabby, indoors, almost-warmed, chemically enriched -- but she hadn't cared, none of them had. And now the goosebumps were climbing her belly, and her nipples were hardening against the expected cold. She slipped slowly under, and her fingertips were the last of it, clutching at the dryness as her hair flowed free and heavy behind her. Then all was liquid and only the dilute sunlight was left to remind her of the world above.
* * *
He was on his back now, turning in his sleep some time before she had returned. He was blinking now, eyes watering at wisps of smoke and the thick scent of bubbling fat rising from the crude pan. Ace grinned down at him, her finger still absent-mindedly running little tracks of water over his chest. "I thought I was going to have to start a war or something," Ace said cheerfully. "I don't know what your normal alarm clock is, but it'd have to be a good one."
"All carefully timed, actually. You didn't expect me to cook breakfast did you?" He stretched against the rough blanket under him, but he didn't attempt to get up. With Ace perched over him, her knees on each side of his lower chest, that would have been difficult. She helped herself to some more bacon. "What a baby," she mumbled through her mouthful. "There's only one thing for it."
She leant over him, feeling her skin slide against him. He raised his torso slightly, coming to met her. He evaded her kiss, pecking her quickly on the tip of her nose. Ace shook her head, teeth bared, a centimetre or two of bacon still visible. He kissed her fully now, licked against the salty meat and Ace released her grip and somehow, with batting tongues and tearing teeth they broke fast, and even when the bacon was gone they licked and probed, searching for flavour.
They broke and regarded each other. She had put her skirt back on, not the dainty thing with tassels she had half-expected when she'd got here, but a heavy and practical cloth, embedded with half a lifetime of dirt. She had the shirt on as well, had even fastened one of the higher buttons. He was wearing less than that and she watched him as he reached for the bread, helped himself to the remains of the meat. When he stretched his musculature was very plain, not overly developed, just giving an overwhelming feeling of fitness, of care for his body. His tan was very dark, and Ace frankly studied the almost black nipples hidden against a tangle of hair. As he ate she watched his strong fingers, the carefully clipped nails, the tendons on his hand. The proximity of him, his sweat, the infinitely fascinating motion of his jaws and darting tongue.
As he finished she leaned over him again, watching his eyes follow the pattern of shadows as the material fell away from her breasts. She kissed him, softly now, closing her eyes and forgot all she knew about him, letting his presence and her mouth tell her all she needed to know. She discovered his scalp, let her fingers explore his tangled hair and as she felt him shift beneath her she rose slightly, taking her weight off him, giving him room. His hands were on her back now, soothing sweeps of sensation that became shorter and harder. She moved her mouth over his cheek, glancing off his ear, murmuring nothing, slid down the line of his chin.
As his hands found her breasts she was tracing the contours of his arms with her own fingers. He squeezed her nipples, rubbing the hard little mounds between thumb and palm as the tips pulled gently against the skin beside her breasts, now under them and around. The warmth of the day was everywhere, not a lazy warmth, vital and invasive, preading from between her legs and through her, nestling in her bosom, the massaged flesh feeling heavy, feeling everything.
She was stroking his sides now, establishing a rhythm, and he groaned as her nails pulled into him, leaving behind streaks of paleness like shooting stars. He was scrabbling at her button, pulling her down and running his damp mouth over her, keeping the rhythm. She had leant forward and up, and found the room to find the thickening of hair on his lower belly, pulling at it gently, and as he sucked at a teat like the most demanding of babies she lost herself in the spreading light and let her hand slip between his legs, let it do as it wont. The rhythm was a beat now, pushing at her from everywhere, pushing from inside her. She stabilised her grip on his stiffening member, pulling at it slowly, firmly, in tune with the rhythm, and he ran fingers up her thigh, down, teasing, running in circles, catching at the fine strands and dabbing at the sensitive beads of her flesh. She kissed him again, and lost herself in it, and then she was pulling at his arms, slowing herself, and he lay beneath her now, arms stretched away from him, one hand almost brushing the remains of the fire. She felt along those arms, softly kneading the muscles, slowing, softly, slowing.
She removed the shirt and stretched, feeling a light breeze against her that was wonderful. She opened her eyes, and he was looking up into her full breasts and his expression was focused and dreamy all at once. They both turned their gaze to the folds of fabric around her waist, modestly covering both of them, hiding secrets. She wasn't, of course, wearing anything beneath it, and as they watched she started rocking again, feeling his sex nestled between her thighs. His arms remained outstretched, her own were behind her head, twisting in her hair, and he matched her pace in that secret little arena, warm without need of the sun.
She rose and brought herself down on him, sensing her way, feeling the tip of him brush against her, into position. Lower still, he entered her, only his thickening hood inside her, and as they rocked together, she kept her distance, kept it like that, moving left and right, forwards, backwards, feeling the scrape of his flesh maddening against the most sensitive parts of her. The darkness and warmth were all again, and when she could bear it no longer she descended sharply, and he pulled away and then eased into her, parting her caressing her and her hands were all over him and he'd found her breasts again, and she his mouth and the entwining dampness between his lips, and the urgency was in her, pushing and pulling as their pace quickened, threatening to fall out of her but in again, deeper than anything, again and again, in beat with her heart, her moans, his and hers, and they came together and to Ace it was the flash of nova before the slamming of the safety shields, intensity and then only the memory of it left to wash over and round and through her.
They rested against each other, and ten minutes passed slowly.
More gunshots, far away.
They stretched in the dusty air and rose again to the day. He scattered the fire and packed their bags, in return for breakfast. When he came back up from the stream a little later she laughed, still not used to the sight of him, knowing that, apart from her skirt and his trousers, they looked about the same. Dusty boots, knee high with real live spurs. Old trousers, faded shirts, the inevitable and so familiar hats. She wore a bandanna loosely round her neck, he went without. And the six-guns of course, Colt 45s resting against their hips. By no means the best weapons Ace had handled, but heavy and solid and accurate. They felt good against her.
They readied the horses and swung easily into the saddle.
"What's the plan, hombre?" he asked laconically.
She shrugged. "See what's going on, see if our rep's reached this godforsaken excuse for a town. Relieve some farmers of their hard earned savings."
They grinned and leant forward to kiss each other softly. Then with a quick kick of the spurs they were off, heading east at a steady trot towards whatever signs of civilisation they might find.
* * *
It was a smaller town than the one they had come from, but essentially similar. More huddled perhaps, and nobody seemed to be trying to farm the stubborn soil around the community. Fewer gentlewomen here, in their long skirts and frills and refinement, more whores. More Indians too, in strange combinations of their native dress and the white man's uniform, the faces she saw looked resigned and weary. Fewer Asians, which pleased her somehow. The town was Lansdale Creek, all wooden slats and cheap glass and weathered paint. There were the old men sitting permanently between splintered verandas and shading balconies, a couple of old women smoking by one of the alleys. Young men with that cocky look in their eye, and the constant movement of horses and chickens and running children. A cart full of barrels was being unloaded by the saloon, and she nodded appreciatively. That will do for starters. Ace and her companion 'parked', as she could only think of it, and as their horses dipped thoughtfully into the provided water trough they went inside.
Nobody reacted, at least not for long enough for her to notice once her eyes had gotten use to the gloom. She ordered a whisky, swigging it as they surveyed the room. Smoke had replaced dust as the principle component of the atmosphere, and through it she made out the usual gang of suspicious looking characters. Throwing some coins on the counter and grabbing a bottle, she found a group playing poker in a corner.
They sized her up, interested as she slapped the bottle down on the soiled table. She only stood there as they finished the hand, a pair of Kings and fours winning taking the money.
"High card stud," said a man with bleached eyes. "Simple enough for ya?"
The man next to him smirked, thinking this the funniest thing.
"We'll see," said Ace evenly, throwing down a coin to start the ante, pulling a chair over. The man grunted and dealt. Ace stared at the cards as they fell before her, ensuring they weren't marked by anything more than whisky and sweat. The face up card was a Jack, the others a five and the Ace of diamonds. The portly man beside her had an exposed King and spoke first.
The next card she received was a two, no good to anyone. She matched bets evenly, not letting her eyes linger too long on any of the hands. The final card was another five. Funny man looked like he was working on a good clubs flush and two of the seven of them threw in their cards. Not much of worth was left but a pair of eights. There was another Ace, no fives and close to three dollars on the table.
She discarded the two and the Jack for an eight and a seven, the eight drawing palatable relief from all but the man with the pair, though it now looked like a straight was likely. Portly threw in soon after and the bets were picking up as Ace swapped the eight for a Queen. It wasn't going to last much longer, and two fives were already beaten. Another two folded, and the dealer announced only one more discard. She slid the face-down Ace into the centre, so as not to disturb the straight, and received the five of hearts in return. She matched bets evenly, and didn't smile.
The flush had fizzled away to nothing. The pair of eights were joined by two Jacks. Ace put down the three fives with a hint of satisfaction and collected six dollars forty for the effort.
The man with bleached eyes looked at her for a time, and nodded. Dealing passed to the left, and the game continued.
Two rounds in (she lost the second to a full house) she started talking, finding out what was going on, who was in town and who should have been. She had some news of her own, and one of the men offered her a cigarette and she declined, but they shared the whisky.
She folded early on the third round and won the fourth, and during the fifth her companion made the sign for danger, finger and thumb extended. He had been sitting talking to another man, cradling a drink, with an eye on the door and keeping in Ace's line of sight.
Ace sighed, but no urgency was conveyed. She lost this hand too. She excused herself and stood up, looking lazily around, following her companion's eyes. A man was sitting at the bar, and their gazes met. He was a pale man, with intense eyes and rigid features, wearing a grey shirt and a black hat without much sign of hair beneath it. His hand rested comfortably by his side.
Ace walked over slowly, standing in front of him. She kept her own hands away from her guns. The man just looked at her.
"Don't smoke," said Ace. "Just don't smoke."
He went for his weapon, and Ace drew her leg back, pulling the stool from under him. He flailed and a shot went off, into the rough floor. Ace had her gun out before he reached it himself. She shot once, fast. The bullet hit him in the chin, pushing the jaw-bone violently downwards, tearing the cheeks and shattering teeth. Blood flew, as slow and lazy as everything but Ace's gun hand.
She shot again, and the man had a neat black hole in the centre of his forehead, a steadily growing pool giving evidence of a somewhat messier exit wound. Some of the quicker patrons sat down, no-one had had time to leave.
Ace picked up the black hat that had flown free, tossing her own onto the chest of the man as he was dragged away.
When she returned to the table, she had the Ace of Spades face up, and face down was the Ace of Hearts and the Queen of Clubs.
* * *
Things happened pretty quickly after that.
A deputy Sheriff of Lansdale Creek came to investigate the shooting, but no-one knew much about it and Ace wasn't there. She was at the bank making an unofficial withdrawal. Distracted by the bubbling clerk she didn't notice the old man behind her till it was too late. He had been a pretty good boxer in his youth and managed to land a pretty good blow behind the ear. Ace turned and knocked him aside with her gun, but the floor reeled like the simulacrum of a pirate ship and she staggered, losing focus.
She heard something shouting and fell to one side as a bullet whistled past her. A quick shot and she didn't know if she'd hit anything because the noise, the noise and her head.
She waited fifteen seconds, leaching the confusion from her senses. She moved but somebody moved faster and kicked the gun from her hand. "Well, lookee here," said the Sheriff of Lansdale Creek, and Ace surrendered meekly.
"Likes to hang 'em, hang 'em high," said the Sheriff sometime later, with an unknowable expression. Ace said nothing.
An Indian girl delivered Ace a tray of lukewarm tea, flat bread and dynamite, covered with a cheery cloth. Ace blew a hole in the jail house and leapt through as the Sheriff shouted surprised obscenities behind her. She jumped on the waiting horse behind her companion, who shot the Sheriff dead and the horse leapt into motion and away...
Ace reached forward and grabbed the reins and brought the chestnut mare to a halt. The man in front of her turned round.
"Why sprog, fancy meeting you here," Sabalom Glitz said. "Still, friends like us. Inseparable, that's the word." He casually reached down and ran his smooth palms down one of Ace's legs, squeezing gently. Ace didn't give him the pleasure of reacting to the gesture, stared at him with a stony gaze.
Glitz took back the reins and the horse started moving again, trotting gently from the scene of the crime.
Ah Christ, thought Ace wearily. It's another fucking flashback.
And she was lost in it.
* * *
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 was hit first by the smell, before the floor found horizontal again, before the room stopped gyrating and her head starting feeling face-side out again, an overpowering stench of machinery, etched into the atmosphere around her, grimy and pervasive. It smelt like a car gutted by fire, and under that was a richer smell, that might have been the leather seat-covers, or might have been the occupant.
Ace staggered, arms flailing for a firm surface, finding nothing, it was dark, and lesser darknesses whirled by and her stomach was thinking of joining in this game.
Then the cold hit her and she almost fell then and knew if she did she wouldn't get up again and that it wouldn't take long to die.
She closed her eyes tight, and dropped the bag she had grabbed in one hand and struggled into the jacket she had grabbed with the other. She was wearing some old jeans and a T-Shirt, but only a pair of plain slippers on her feet and by that time the floor was steady enough to do a quick jog, stop her knees freezing up, rub her hands down her legs to get some sensation back in them. The floor was rough, pitted metal, and then she wondered where she was. She opened her eyes again, but that didn't help much.
Ace moved. She didn't know anything about dying (had never seen his body) and whatever the situation had been in her bedroom with the rain tapping and the grey seeping in, now she moved, to stay warm and to stay alive.
There were lights and blurs and half-seen shapes all around her, and she finally noticed the stars above her, brighter than any she'd ever seen. She picked up her back-pack and walked towards one of the lights.
She tried to pick up her steps, avoid unevenness on the ground, keep the circulation flowing, but the cold was getting in everywhere and she kept blinking to stop her eyeballs freezing over.
Ace was a practical child at the age of fifteen. She never once believed, or even considered, as she struggled through the darkness, her shivering becoming more violent by the step, that she had died, and that this was what hell was like.
Time was doing strange things around her, and she thought the shapes were shrinking or maybe just recoiling from her and kept losing the light and it kept changing colour.
She blinked and her eyes wouldn't open again and then she worried about how light the gravity seemed to be and about the strange constellations she had glimpsed, because there didn't seem to be the need to worry about anything else, and when she did open her eyes again she gasped in the clean air and a mean-looking woman gazed down at her in the brightness and said something Ace couldn't understand.
Ace felt aches everywhere, and wanted to piss really badly, but she nodded and pulled the ridiculously thin blanket over her and marvelled at how warm the world had become.
* * *
It was cool, Ace could hack it.
It had been explained, once they managed to find a working translator, that she had been found wandering around the exterior of a space port, where the temperature at any given time was unpredictable and the breathable atmosphere only put in place when technicians were working, to be taken away again before any ship's take-off. She absorbed that and would think about it later, but it hardly seemed to matter.
What mattered was that she was here. Here, Iceworld, a little port in the vastness of traversed space, dabbling in tourism because it didn't have the capacity to handle the trafficking of goods. Iceworld, which George Lucas must have dreamed about, the variety of forms of the living flesh around her achieving a thousand permutations. Where wizened drunks told stories in pubs about pirates and screwing aliens and delivering the merchandise, and where the planet Earth was only a ravished dream, a long way away.
She was shown these things by the man who owned the ship whose crew had picked her up, the Nosferatu. She got some strange looks from the rest of the ship's complement, but Sabalom Glitz was always laughing, always charming in the slightly sleazy manner she knew so well and could deal with so easily.
They would sit together and he'd talk about where he'd been and what he'd done, and if he was a cheap crook (which he admitted, if not in as many words) he'd seen things that sounded like paradise, even compared to the sparkle and movement and aromas of Iceworld.
Of course, she admitted, she was probably just tripping out on something way lethal, succumbed to the impulse as she had sat in her bedroom, contemplating the funeral of her friend back in good old fuckville Perivale. And she found she didn't care, would let it roll as long at it lasted.
"When are you going again?" she asked conversationally. "You can't stay in this dump forever."
Sabalom grunted, considering. "Right enough," he said after a while. Two or three days, just letting the crew stretch their legs for a bit."
Ace put down three Queens, a four and a seven.
"Take me with you," she said, a smile on her lips.
"Now, Sprog," the bearded man said, a hint of reproach in his voice. "What could you do on a spaceship, eh? Navigation, operations, armaments? You couldn't operate the kitchen, could you?"
"Well..." said Ace, thinking hard and trying to sound reasonable all at once.
Glitz put down three tens, a wild two and a six. "And that's another eight grotzits you owe me," he said in a satisfied voice.
Ace looked down in disbelief, her smile fading. She picked up the cards to try again.
* * *
Ace had seen spaceships take off by now, oh yes, she was an old hand.
She watched the Nosferatu move out of the shadow of the planet Svartos, the never-seen-sun picking out the detail before the ship accelerated and was suddenly gone. Ace felt old moods shifting within her, dangerous moods, and all she had in the world was her back-pack, an old scrounged mattress and the clothes she wore, and she found a lesser-used tunnel in the maze below the city, and she burnt the mattress and warmed herself by it and thought only of the beauty of flame.
* * *
She explained, as she had explained before, that she hadn't been on a spaceship but she'd be willing to learn, and she learned really quick.
"Uh-huh," the woman said, or the man said or whatever the fucking thing was she was trying to convince.
She drank in the cheaper bars, with whatever she scrounged (this century, whatever century it was, wasn't too hot on social security, as she had already discovered. And she didn't have any ID, of course, and realised she didn't even know who or how to ask about getting something forged). Something there shook its head at her predicament. "In my day," it said, confiding a secret, "in my day the slavers would have got you within forty hours. No initiative these days, none at all." Ace drank to that, and wondered what colour the thing would burn and about the stench of alien fat.
She tried for jobs, of course. She knew a little about car engines, but not quite enough about the slightly larger sort being serviced here regularly. She saw a notice for tourist guides wanted, and the man leant back behind his desk and called her a grubby little slut.
And perhaps she could have got a job as a waitress or something, make enough to afford a room of her own. But she knew more about that profession then she wanted to and, she also knew, that would be the end of it. Caught in that rut she would never have enough money, enough useable skills. She would never get out of Iceworld.
She had studied a little, from stolen books. She knew, for example, that Glitz's spaceship was an obsolete model of the Nightcruiser range which was getting a little unfashionable anyway. She could give a pretty accurate summary of its capabilities, and a number of other ships as well. But it was all boring statistics, and she lost most of them in a black on white haze.
So she drank, and persisted. She saw now that the sparkle around her was only the cheap glitter of kitsch jewellery, the movement and aromas nothing but the sticky dregs of a drained glass. The men suggested she do anything and anyone for money, but she begged and stole and even for a tourist trap the food was cheap and the liquor shoddy.
What friends she made spoke little and were soon gone, away to a universe she heard so much about. She spent what was about her sixteenth birthday holding an empty bottle, squashed against a chill wall, listening to supposed friends fucking noisily nearby. She thought of her mother then, and wondered how everyone was at home, and hoped the old cunt had choked to death on one of her boyfriend's dicks.
She was cold, and gulped at the bottle in her hand, but the warmth had all gone away. Remember old drama classes when you had to come up with things to do with a brick? She thought about the bottle. She could make it into a rocket-ship, or find nine friends and go bowling, or use it as target practise for more useful skills, or collect alien insects with it, watch them crawl around inside until they died. She thought of pulling it up into her, masturbating with the slick edge like a sick boy's fantasy. Thought about using it on her friends, striking them hard with it, bringing howls and bruises and retaliation. Thought about dragging the broken end of it through their flesh, or through her own flesh, or to ram it into her own mouth and strike it against the wall, pushing the shattering glass back into her throat. All to feel something but the cold.
She threw the bottle away, and it bounced like she knew it would. She stood up, found there was nothing to do, sat back down and tried to go to sleep.
* * *
Glitz was back, not long after that.
"Still here, Sprog?" he said in mild disbelief. "Nobody actually stays here, you know, it's a hole. Good for the tourists," he reflected.
"Then take me with you," Ace said fiercely, leaning forward. Glitz looked contemplative, but didn't say anything.
He was travelling light this time, just him and somebody called Dibber who looked a couple of bricks short of three bricks. He was off somewhere, doing something. Ace didn't care.
The man put down his cards, the eternal look of smugness deepening only slightly when Ace threw her own hand down in disgust.
"What do you want," he said suddenly, leaning over.
"You know," she whispered, something squeezing unpleasantly in the back of her throat.
Glitz grinned and leant closer still, running his tongue along the girl's lips. She sprung back, stung, running her own tongue across her flesh. Glitz only watched her. "I..." she said.
Glitz moved the little table aside and stood up, over her. She stood, not matching his height, and they were very close. She put her arms around him experimentally and squeezed, feeling his solidity.
"That's right," he said softly and had a hand on the back of her neck now, scratching and pulling at the flesh in a fashion Ace found she didn't really mind at all.
She kissed him then, half expecting electric sparks or instant infatuation, but it was just slightly warm and moist flesh, and his beard felt stiff and unpleasant against her but she gulped at him, and he was moving in strange ways and their tongues met now and she let it in her mouth and felt the hard little nubs of his teeth with her own.
He was pulling at her top now, sliding it free from her jeans and getting his hands beneath it, pulling at the flesh there too, scratching her stomach and darting up between her breasts, then across to caress fleetingly at her nipples, which seemed to respond to his touch of their own accord.
She squeezed him again, trying to get under his own jacket now, and he picked her up without losing the pace or urgency of his movements, and carried her inside and to his bed.
"I've never..." Ace wanted to say, gasped it as she was lain full length on the blanket. He seemed very big again, looming over her.
She'd kissed before, of course she had, and Stan the Man had felt at her tits back at school, till she got sick of the game and pushed him away. And now Glitz stood over her, removing his jacket and his trousers, and her body was doing strange things like one of her dangerous moods had found an outlet that didn't involve fire and burnt memories. She undid the button of her jeans, and struggled with them before remembering the fly was still done up. She pulled it down and Sabalom Glitz took the ends of her jeans and pulled them off her.
And now he was groping under the undies, and taking his own off and his penis was hard to attention above her and she stared at it with sick fascination and wondered how big it was supposed to be.
She felt nothing now, really, only echoes of what she had felt before, because it was all too quick, all too sudden and she wanted a bit of room to move and he was coming down on her.
"Take me with you," she managed to say again as he slipped off her undies, though they caught on her ankle and he twisted them this way and that to free them and then spread her legs and positioned himself between them.
Sabalom Glitz grunted something and bore down on her, inside her now and Ace tried not to cry out with the pain of it. She tried to wiggle away, back off slightly but it was all impossible and he stroked her and she stroked him because it seemed the right thing to do.
She lay back and relaxed then, letting him finish what he wanted to do. She turned to face the wall, and found herself chewing her lip to distract herself from it all.
Take me with you, she might have whispered to no-one at all. She closed her eyes, but England seemed a very long way away.
* * *
Ace jolted fully aware when the gentle rhythm of the horse paused and changed and finally stopped. She noticed a dun-coloured mound was actually a rough tent erected against the side of a hill and that the area, while clear of human debris, showed the unmistakable sign of human activity. She slid off the animal after Glitz and he lead it a little way away to tether it.
Ace considered. She should know where she was, or rather, even though the journey had been made only half-awake she should be able to trace it back to civilisation. It was well into the afternoon by now, but still smotheringly hot and she was sweating slightly, accented in the slight cool from the mouth of the tent. If her body could retrace their path it was leaving her mind out of the picture. Her hands almost absently brushed over her hips, though her guns where back in legal custody somewhere, and she ducked down under the material and into that coolness.
"Hello Ace," said a friendly voice, vaguely familiar to her, though she knew who it was.
"Hello doughnut," she said, matching the tone as her adjusting eyes flicked over the stance of the figure and the lie of objects scattered about the small area, looking for threat, for anything wrong. Finding nothing, her eyes flicked back to Melanie Bush and started taking in details.
The woman swigged from a flask and threw it at Ace, who caught it gingerly between finger and thumb. Mel's initial drink was only a politeness of course, there were too many ways for poison to be passed for it to have any guarantee of safety, but that wasn't why she had been brought here and Ace drank gratefully. It was some sort of berry juice, though she couldn't say where it was from, and it was tangy and ice-cold. And Ace had appreciated the gesture of politeness so she sat down on a little stool that seemed to have been provided for her and waited to see what was going on.
"The man," said Melanie, "that you are travelling with. His name is not Ley Culadon as he has told you, but Co Lu Ertarno. If you do not recognise that name, I can tell you he is a business man of renown in certain circles. He has a well-deserved reputation for treating his competition, and the associates and families of his competition, badly." Melanie shrugged. "Since Mr Glitz and myself have found ourselves in a similar area of enterprise as Mr Ertarno, and that our markets have recently coincided, we have decided on a little preventative maintenance."
"I knew who he was," Ace said eventually.
"No you didn't," said Mel.
Ace laughed, briefly. "OK, OK. So you've come to tell me I've got a lousy taste in men and to get me out of the way while you knock off my holiday companion. Are you sure you're not part of the local scenario, you fit right in."
Indeed Mel was wearing leather and coarsely-woven cloth and the occasional tassel. The beds were the same uncomfortable set-up that Ace herself had been using recently. There wasn't much else in here, but what was was all Wild West, late 1800s. Except maybe for the berry juice, Ace supposed, but what was a little anachronism between friends?
"Now now," said Mel with a smile. "We aren't 'knocking' anybody off, we're the good guys remember. It's just that the authorities have been informed that certain illegal objects are in Co's possession, and he's going to have a hard time explaining them off without showing a few more of his rough edges."
"And I was in the way?"
"Not exactly, but once we realised who he was with, we did a little research and decided to get you out of the range of fire. But anyway, it's been ten years from my side of the fence. You've got to tell me how you've been going and when you saw the Doctor last."
And suddenly it was Mel. The woman had been older, spoke in a measured tone about business competition and research. She had aged well, wasn't quite as thin but had the unmistakable tan of a traveller and the comfortable fitness of those who don't travel for leisure. Her hair was shorter and perhaps a bit darker, her voice was imperceptibly deeper. But now it was the same woman Ace had met in a bar on Iceworld, who got cross with Glitz and Kane, who screamed at whatever monster came along but was happy enough to go just about anywhere with the belief in her own safety.
Ace took another drink. "Well, I've been alright, doing odd jobs here and there. The Doctor's doing what he normally does, last time I saw him. A year or two now."
"Getting himself and everybody else into and out of trouble again?"
"Regular as clockwork."
"Yeah, well, Sa and I are doing fine. The Nosferatu II is long gone, no surprises there, but we've got a comfy little cruiser. Still haven't got the old rogue out of chasing every dirty credit in sight, but we're earning legit money as best we can and he's even managed to work out what all the pieces in a chess set do."
Ace laughed again now. "And have you found any hidden birthmarks yet?"
"Well," said Mel, smiling conspiratorially. "We've seen some sights well enough. You've got to do something between star clusters." And they both laughed.
Ace could hear Glitz outside, not sounding like he was doing anything specific, just moving about every now and again.
She leaned forward. "Remember old cold nose and Puff the Magic Dragon?"
"You mean that woman you poured the milkshake on? She looked like she could do a bit of fire breathing every now and again. And we had legions of the living dead wandering round at about half the speed of a 286..."
"And Kane developed an advanced case of skin cancer..."
"And we still managed to spend half our time hanging around in bloody corridors."
They were still laughing and Ace jumped forward and struck Mel across the face with a short sharp blow, grabbed the girl's hair and twisted her around and managed to get a decent hold on her neck to render her unconscious. Her other hand was already grabbing for the gun Mel was carrying. She hadn't made much sound, but there was no time to check if the piece was loaded or not. She sprang for the entrance, rolled away from where she knew Glitz was standing and came up on her feet, the heavy pistol cocked and aimed at Glitz's right eye.
The man had his own gun out, but it wasn't pointed at anything worth shooting. Ace looked at him and he slowly stooped to place the weapon on the ground, and then back up again.
"Didn't she explain?" he said, the old charm still there, the winning smile, the slightly hurt expression. "We were pulling you out. We didn't know it was you till it was too late, but we came for you. We got you out. You don't want to be doing anything rash do you?"
Ace hadn't known her companion's identity at the start of the holiday, he was an agreeable stranger she'd met on the way here, and they thought pairing up was a fine idea. But they'd done more than screw each other senseless in the meantime. Ace was no assassin, but moving round the front of the war a lot gave her certain connections, and she didn't mind doing a little courier work on the side -- and she had somewhat of a well-earned reputation herself. In certain circles.
A deal had been struck, and in Ace's profession a deal wasn't exactly a licence for loyalty, but was nevertheless treated with some respect.
That was what this was about.
Ace was doing well for herself these days, hadn't felt the slick walls of entrapment for quite some time. But she could remember them well enough.
She smiled at Sabalom Glitz. "I wouldn't worry too much about it," she said. "We're the good guys, remember." And she lowered the gun, only slightly, and shot him in the balls.
The shadows were long now, and night not too far away. Ace went and spoke softly to the horse still tied nearby, though it seemed unperturbed by its master's fate.
Before leaving she paused, considering briefly. She returned to check inside the tent, paying scant attention to the prone woman. It wasn't too hard to find the deck of cards. She had always been vaguely contemptuous of those who left trademarks of their work, it struck her as sloppy. But still... She selected four Aces and the two of clubs and left them in a fan, weighed down by Glitz's gun.
She untied and mounted the horse, careful navigated it round the screaming and blubbering figure in the middle of the camp, feeling the comfortable wash of air on her skin as she picked up speed in the direction she knew the little town of Lansdale Creek to be.
Almost exactly due West. Of course.
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