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Visiting Hours


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Untitled, by Sarah J. Groenewegen

Forgotten Memories, by Evan Paliatseas

The Rushing of Blood, by Evan Paliatseas

Keeper's Demise, by David J Richardson


Alien To Her, by David Carroll

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The Inner Light, by Kate Orman

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Inge, by Simon Moore


Doctor Who Non-fiction

Tabula Rasa

Visiting Hours

by David Carroll

First Appeared in Burnt Toast#13, 1993

Ace lay on her back in the dark and let her muscles relax. One by one she brought each to life, tensing it just short of cramp and down again. Each in turn, until she got sick of the exercise and just lay there, wondering what to do.

The wall-duct cooled her sweat, but the smell it in brought in was ungodly. It's frigging stupid, she had thought, you couldn't buy something to stick on the floor in the corner and move the air around. I mean what would be the use of that? All the colonies were like that but fucking hell, you'd think someone would reinvent the bloody fan, wouldn't you?

Fucking oath, thought Ace, and stood up and ran her fingers through her damp hair and wondered what to do.

Four standays till the ship was ready. Too long.

Her current ship-mates were spreading each other over the bed in the next room, and up the wall too by the sound of it. Ace wanted none of it, not tonight. She wanted to do something, her body wanted freedom from lethargy and the routine of the two hour work-out she'd just completed.

She hated routine, always had. But for a while now it had seemed that there was only days on ship and days off ship, and the main difference between the two was the number of people in the bar.

Fighting was different, fighting was always different, but lately all the opponents had been blips on a scanner. Adrenalin, but no sweat.

She looked at the grubby console in one corner of the room and considered it resignedly. At least she could see if there were any jobs going.

Most of the channels were hard porn or spectator sport or both, one full of ads for all the various bars and flophouses over the Porton, one relaying twenty stanour news from just about everywhere. She bet even that one wasn't transmitted outside Porton, give the colonists all sorts of nasty ideas. She flipped channels idly, wondering where all the sitcoms had gone, until she found the one she wanted.

The classifieds, everything and anything for sale, in theory if not normally in practise: positions wanted, jobs to be had, flats unoccupied, upcoming opportunities. She screened out all but the jobs and looked at the display in amazement.

The static image showed a head and shoulders of some guy with a strangely familiar set of fake ears. A reward is offered, the message ran, for information leading to the arrest of Marty Mouse, wanted for the double crime of bank robbery and breach of copyright.

"What is this shit?" the girl muttered, and turned the console off. She grabbed some old clothes and went out to see if she could find anything for herself.

* * *

She only got mugged once.

It was still about 1700 when she had set out and the streets still sweated from the heat of the recently set sun. She didn't want the crowded areas, the bars that would be starting to fill, the little arenas. She had walked those paths previously, seeing what fun there was to be had. But the Porton was only half-hearted, its streets weren't crowded, its venues tried to be sleazy and only managed cheap.

The entertainment was imported, the liquor was weak. She'd actually found a stand-up comedian in one of the drinking holes, ignored by all present and with jokes that had been old before she had started travelling. The actual space port around which the area huddled was a small one, convenient for three or four of the less profitable shipping companies, not much else. The colony was stable, not much traffic in or out. No military value, no commercial value over its own existence, and the only organised crime in the area was strictly local and somewhat pathetic.

So while this Porton tried to live up to the reputation that went along with the name, it was too poor, too uninteresting, too quaint.

Ace had already tried the nightlife, now she was playing a different game. There was a certain way of walking, head down, a hurried shuffle through the back streets, past the warehouses. The determined look on your face said you had to be somewhere, and the movement of your eyes said you wished you had picked a longer and better lit route. That walk drew muggers to you like scavengers to a distress beacon, and tonight it didn't take long.

But her heart wasn't in this game, she wasn't paying as much attention as she should of been. There was no precursor to the assault, she heard him coming from fifteen feet, and when he put a hand on her shoulder to swing her into his attack she simply reached behind her and dropped him to the ground.

She turned and looked down at him. About nineteen she guessed, with some sort of military uniform now dirty and ripped. His feet was bare, his weapon was only a short length of heavy plastic, its previous use unguessable. Ace sighed, bored with the game. She bent down, and he came at her again.

Not paying attention, not fast enough. He knocked her backwards, through luck and bulk rather then any coherent attack, and for a quick second the adrenalin flowed, battle instincts flared. She struck the boy across his face, whipping his head to one side, distantly hearing the crack. Then she twisted and drove her weight through her leg into his chest, throwing him a metre and into a wall.

He crumpled, and as he slid down the wall Ace's combat stance melted away. She swore under her breath and knelt to examine the damage she'd done. He didn't move this time, made no acknowledgment of her own movement, and his open eyes were unseeing.

At least he was still breathing, though the movement of his chest hitched erratically and as she watched he coughed up some blood. She had broken three or four ribs with the kick, and as she slid hands around his neck to feel his spine, his head moved and she heard bone click against bone. The immediate area of the spinal column seemed alright, but she knew she shouldn't guess about anything. She also knew she wasn't moving him anywhere.

She used the communicator hidden under a sleeve and called for an ambulance.

His eyes were wide with pain, but there was more in them than that. Evidence of the drugs he was on, the stimulants that had pushed him into movement after the harmless but agonizing blow she had first landed. She didn't know if those drugs would force him back to consciousness as he lay here, only causing more pain and damage, but she'd deal with that problem if it arose.

Ace looked left and right. No witnesses, at least none that had stayed around. She searched the body quickly, finding and pocketing the ID card. She stayed with the boy till the ambulance appeared, keeping a close watch on his weak but apparently stable vital signs.

The ambulance landed, and the boy was alone.

* * *

Ace pushed her sunglasses up onto her forehead and smiled into the opening doorway. A weathered face looked down at her impassively, pale eyes darting behind her to see if she was alone.

Ace waited for some sort of response, but none seemed to be forthcoming, the woman regarded her steadily.

Ace looked about, let a slightly nervous look cross her face, but maintained the smile. "Hi," she said. "I was just passing your, uh, farm here and I was wondering if I could stop here overnight." The woman frowned, and Ace hurriedly continued. "I'm on foot see, I'm hiking and according to the map it's another fifteen kli to Duryea. Is that right?"

The woman seemed to consider. "That's right enough," she said shortly, at least proving she had a voice.

"I won't be no trouble, if you've got some sort of barn or something I can stay in there, and I'll pay for the night. And meals too, if you've enough to go round." She let her smile broaden. "Anything's better than the dried stuff I've got in here." She indicated her backpack, only a couple of hours out of the shop but looking more like it had been fifty years.

The woman considered some more, but her icy façade was slipping into something friendlier, and Ace knew she was almost in. "Hiking, you say. Going anywhere in particular?"

"Duryea tomorrow, then up north again. I followed the sea south and am heading back inland."

The woman shook her head, wondering at it. "But why, girl? What are you doing walking round in big circles and knocking on stranger's doors. This wouldn't be the first time, would it?"

"No M'am. But you get sick of tents, just like the food." And Ace turned round, and together they surveyed the flat country dotted with conifers, some sort of mountain range in the distance, and the knowledge of the sea, many kli out of sight to the east. The ground here was rough, sharp edged gravel made up the thin layer of topsoil. The road was barely there, two ruts running into the distance, the ground between them hardened with gel and then sanded, the result almost indistinguishable from its surroundings. The sky was blue, deeper than an Earth sky, and what clouds there were looked lost. Beyond the perimeter fence some twenty metres away there seemed no evidence of humanity, just gravel and rootless shrubs and insects and trees. Beyond the perimeter fence there was no sound, and any wildlife she had heard on the way here was now silent.

"Have you ever been into space?" Ace asked softly. "It's the scariest thing you can imagine, dangerous and beautiful. But its beauty is heartless, cold. I was born here, not a thousand kli away, and I didn't appreciate it, this world that was mine, until I went away. And now I'm back."

She turned and looked again at the woman, met the curious gaze with her own, knowing it was haunted. And, slowly, she was smiled at in return.

"I don't know anything about space, but you're welcome to stay. And don't worry about no barn, either, we've got a spare bedroom you'll feel right at home in."

Ace grinned, and wiped a layer of very real sweat off her face. She was in.

* * *

The house was sparse and tidy, coloured mainly in unflattering shades of grey which was, judging from the plane she had flown down in, the current fashion.

Ace was offered some disgusting fruit cordial and sat at the kitchen table while her host cooked dinner. Rosie Menjoul wasn't the most talkative of people, but the two of them filled out half an hour comfortably enough. Trivialities mainly, some universally applicable views on local politics matched by a couple of hurried details about a fictional home town. It all seemed friendly enough, and the woman looked gratified at being asked for more of the drink. And at last she went and rang some sort of unwieldy plastic bell, and the rest of the family arrived for the evening meal.

Mr Menjoul was introduced as Donald, a big man, as creased as his wife and seemingly amused constantly by some private joke. He shook Ace's hand at the introduction, pleased at the firmness of her grip, and said she was most welcome indeed.

And lastly the daughter, a thin girl Ace knew to be seventeen, with pale hair and downturned face and whose name was apparently Sigourney. This privately amused Ace no end, but it wasn't that surprising, and it could have been worse. She knew people whose translator's name list went from 'Arsehole' to 'Zycunt'. She had actually already seen the family's names, which had been as unintelligible as expected, and 'Menjoul' was an approximation.

Dinner consisted of meat and vegetables, both of types unknown to Ace, and some fairly decent noodles on the side. The meat tasted like beef but seemed to come from a much smaller animal, and the vegetables were bland but edible. After individual graces from all present (Ace's 'destiny pulls, but let the sun light our path' was accepted with a smile and a nod from Rosie) the conversation settled down and almost became interesting.

The Menjouls, she was told, weren't farmers by necessity, but earned their money in town, Donald running a small business that did everything from cut hair to sharpen blades.

"The individual touch," said Donald with satisfaction. "That's what people want, what they keep coming back to. A kind word and a good hand. 'Course, Rosie here ain't just the prettiest face you've seen today, we grow our own food, got some animals out back. I'll show you later, if you like, Rosie's proud of her garden, she is, and rightly so."

"Stop showing off, dear, I'm sure Ace here has seen a million vegetable patches," his wife rejoined, not trying too hard to hide her delight.

"No, no..." said Ace, halfway through a mouthful. "It's fine."

"What do you do in space?" said Sigourney suddenly, her first words since she started eating.

Ace considered, but here truth was best. Truth was important.

"I do lots of things," she said to a silent table. "I've been a courier, for everything from food to information. I've acted as a representative of various official bodies on administrative duties, I've been a bodyguard and a spy. But mostly I am a soldier, a Dalek-killer, whatever pays the most."

"Whatever..." said Donald slowly, as if trying to work out the obvious question.

"That's nice," said Sigourney, without taking her eyes off her plate, and it was Rosie who eventually broke the silence.

"We've got a son in the Navy," she said. "He sent us a momento from Earth itself a couple of months ago. Fighting for the empire, every boy's dream, and he made it. And girls, of course," nodding towards Ace. "Though Sigourney here is content with the farm and dancing once a week with the boys, aren't you dear?"

Sigourney smiled, sort of.

"You must be very proud of your son," Ace said softly.

"We are," said Donald simply and firmly, and the conversation moved to simpler matters.

* * *

"Well?" said Ace, turning in the darkness.

"Well what," said Donald, his voice sounding a little dry.

"Well, aren't you going to try something at least a little seductive. A few well-worn words, a friendly hand on my arm, sweet nothings in my ear. Isn't that why you brought me out here?"

"I..." The man seemed sad, lost in his own vegetable patch. Except of course it was his wife's.

"But no, you're frightened. You want to and you're scared. That's why you're only standing there, limp as yesterday's breakfast. Prefer simpler prey, do we?"

"You..." he said, trying to work it out.

"I like the garden," Ace said on the way past, "sort of old-fashioned." And she went inside.

* * *

The mattress was soft enough to sink into, and cool against the night's heat. It was the boy's bedroom of course. The one in the navy, and a threedie of a spaceship on one wall proved it.

Ace lay in the darkness, half asleep, tired from the day and her exercises. She thought of the Doctor, how could she not? Even after two years, with Heaven between them, he was never far away.

What are you doing, Doctor? she thought. And do you think of me?

Ace slept.

* * *

Breakfast was more familiar than last night's meal, and Rosie fussed over the eggs and the toast and the sort-of-grapefruit juice. There was no sign of Sigourney, and Mr Menjoul, she was informed, had already left to open shop.

The day was cooler than the day before, and Rosie said it looked a good day for walking. "Should have woken up earlier," she said amiably, "and gotten a lift with Don."

Ace looked at the patterns on her plate, listened to the woman with half an ear.

"I've got two friends I came ashore with. Quite taken with each other they are, very friendly," Ace said.

"What was that, dear?" the woman asked. Ace repeated the statement, louder this time.

"Oh," said Rosie, puzzled. "That's nice."

"I mean, they're both male, so at least they've got a lot in common."

"Ah, yes..."

"Except it's illegal, isn't it?" Ace looked up from the plate. "These shit-shifting colonies are all the same. 'Against nature,' they say, and 'causes reduction in population growth, our most important asset,' they say, conveniently forgetting that the only reason anyone would colonise this cesspit in the first place is that there's already too many people. Do you have a stance on this issue?"

Rosie Menjoul just looked at her young guest, her expression trying to settle between astonishment and defensive tears. But not anger, Ace noted. She continued.

"And you tend to your vegetable garden, don't you, and cook dinner for your family and raise your children and talk to the other wives in town about who would make a nice chief of police. And if your husband comes home drunk you just flinch under the blows. You betray yourself, which is your choice, and your daughter, which isn't. Do you agree with this statement? Argue for or against. Or don't you give a damn?"

"Get out," said Rosie, through the tears that had finally won. "Get out of my kitchen."

Ace nodded, picked up a almost-apple from the table and walked outside.

She breathed in deeply, and it was indeed cool, which was good. She let the breath out slowly, and adjusted the pack into a more comfortable position, and set off down the road.

"Ace!" someone called behind her, and she turned.

It was Sigourney, coming round the side of the house. Ace smiled, and just for a moment she wished she could hear her name as an alien sound, find out who she was to this girl.

"Ace," the girl said again, and walked a little closer. And then stopped.

Ask, thought Ace, fiercely. Ask me. I cannot, will not, take you with me unless you ask. Unless you know what it is you are doing.

The look of longing didn't leave the girl's face, but her words were hesitant. "Say hello to my brother," she said. "If you see him." She smiled at that, sadly. "I'm sorry, it was a stupid thing to say. Of course you won't see him. Space is big."

"Yes," said Ace. "You just wouldn't believe."

And she turned and walked away.

* * *

Ace and the figure on the bed regarded each other, curiously perhaps. She wondered if he knew he was in detox. It was almost two days since she'd seen him and with no spinal damage he would have been out within hours if not for the shit in his veins. Well, the girl amended, either that or they haven't got round to him yet.

Ace threw the ID card onto the bed. "Your sister says hello," she said.

"You've... what have you done to them?"

"Nothing, just paid them a visit."

"What in hell for?"

Ace thought about it. "Curiosity, for the hell of it. Because I was bored."

"But... you saw my parents? Fucks, the both of them. It's why I'm here." Here Porton, not here hospital. That was unsaid between them.

"If you say so. But look at the bright side. The fucks of the world can't last long, can they? Our lot's sorting it out, another generation or two, a hundred years at the most. No problem."

"You reckon?"

"Trust me. Hey, you want some leezane?"

"You've got some? Where, can I... when..."

"Kidding," said Ace. "Catch you later."

* * *

Ace lay on her back in the dark and let her muscles relax. One by one she brought each to life, tensing it just short of cramp and down again. Each in turn, until she got sick of the exercise and just lay there, wondering what to do.

Two standays till the ship was ready. Too long.

Her current ship-mates were arguing bitterly in the next room.

Ace wanted none of it.


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