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Imperfect Copy

A Novel by David Carroll


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Short Stories

Tabula Rasa

Imperfect Copy: Chapter 1

by David Carroll, 1994

Ace broke the surface violently, throwing herself at the air with almost painful force. She breathed in, catching the spray of her passage, and coughed up lungful after lungful of wet.

She started to tread water, shaking her head to try and clear the haze from her eyes and brain. Her lungs ached, but she kept breathing, forcing herself into a rhythm, avoiding the periodic waves that washed over her.

How long could she tread water?

The unceasing liquid around her was too cold, and grey to match the sky, and there was no shore in sight. Panic started to take her. Her movements became frantic. She tried to fight the current that was dragging her but her arms were starting to tire.

How long?

But the grey surrounding her was infinitely better then the blackness below her, and she steadied herself, conserving energy.

There were no branches to grab, no debris to help keep her afloat. There was nothing, nothing but water.

The panic was dissolving, to be replaced by calm. And somehow that calmness, that peace, was a thing to be fought. She sensed that. Clarity of mind was only increasing her sense of danger, and somewhere within her she wanted to scream. But all she felt like was floating, closing her eyes, and simply drifting.

How long?

Just a little while, always just a moment more.

Somewhere in front of her something else broke the surface, a figure in white, clawing for open and breathable air.

Doctor! she tried to shout. She couldn't hear herself to know if it worked. But the sight gave her arms new purpose and she pushed herself, with the current now, towards the struggling figure. She felt better, started to feel normal again, dispelling the unnatural quiet in her head.

As she reached him she managed to indicate a direction perpendicular to their current course. Together they swam for a shore and, after a while, they found one.

Ace laughed as she pulled herself onto solid ground, hauling the Doctor those last few steps behind her.

She sat down, not caring that the grass was wet, simply caring that the earth beneath it was solid. She ran her hands through her shoulder-length hair, throwing it out of her face, and wiped the moisture from her eyes with a wet arm. Finally able to see properly she looked back across the water from which they'd just emerged. If there was another side she couldn't see it.

'Think we were pretty... lucky there,' she panted. 'If we'd gone the other way I think the only solid thing we'd have found is the bottom.'

There was no reply from the Doctor, and she suddenly turned to him. Suddenly concerned.

He was lying face up on the grass, and Ace didn't think he was breathing. The familiar face stared upward unmoving, and wet panic collapsed over her again, a tidal wave of fear and exhaustion.

'Doctor!' she cried again, and this time it must have worked, must have been audible, because the figure stirred. The eyes fluttered and the head turned towards her.

'Oh, Professor,' she breathed. 'I thought...' She shook her head. 'But it's alright now. We made it.'

The eyes just looked at her, not quite seeing her. Then Ace noticed her friend was dressed in some sort of white toga that she'd never seen before. Looking down, she found she was wearing the same sort of thing, short-sleeved and knee-length. Pure white and without seam or thread, strange patterns playing across it in the dull light. What is happening? she tried to say. What is going on?

She tried to remember why she had just pulled herself out of an ocean or river or whatever it was. But all she could remember was standing in the TARDIS Console Room and asking the Doctor where they were now.

The Doctor, dressed in silk and crumpled linen, Paisley and cream, had said that this should be quite interesting, and anything they'd done after that simply faded away.

Faded to black, the girl whispered to herself, remembering with a shudder the pressing darkness and claustrophobia of her recent dip.

She sat on the bank and shivered, because there was a slight breeze, and the water was cold, and the Doctor lay beside her, alive but unmoving.

'It's alright,' she said again. Only this time, she didn't believe a word.

* * *

She didn't know how long she sat there before realising that sitting there wasn't going to do anyone any good.

Come on Ace, a bit of action she said to herself, keeping herself company. It's what you're best at. So she eventually stood up and tried to work out where they were. The Doctor's eyes flickered to acknowledge her movement, but that was it.

It was unnerving. No, more than that, thought Ace, beginning to feel that unnatural calm creep back into her bones. It was downright scary. It might not be apparent, but the Doctor was just as fit, if not more so, than she was, he should be able to handle a small swim with no problem. This was something else -- something she wasn't suffering from, or she'd be dead.

She'd made a quick check for external injuries, with no result, and there was nothing else she could do. She was so tired she didn't think she could drag him any further away from the water.

She shivered, and looked round. It was still freezing.

They were in some sort of large meadow, stretching along the bank and bordered by a line of trees some way behind them. The grass was flat and wet, apparently not from any seepage from the body of water they'd come out of, but with tiny drops of dew. She couldn't see the sun, but the sky had perceptibly brightened in the last... however long. And the air, cold and fresh. She breathed in sharply, not for life this time, but for taste. No matter how many times she encountered it on her travels, Ace thought she'd never get over air that could only be described as delicious.

Somewhere a bird sang, and another. And even the grey of the water was brightening towards blue.

For some reason, Ace remembered all the people who only ever seemed to worry about the weather. It'll be a nice day, they'd say. Perfect weather this, they'd say. Which, where she came from, so many years ago, simply meant it wasn't raining yet.

But it did indeed look like it was going to be a nice day. 'I'm going off to find some help,' she said to the Doctor, and started off across the field, towards the distant trees. At the moment all she could hope for was that the rest of the day would be better than its beginning.

* * *

Do you know this girl? She who is trudging barefoot through damp grass and cold depression.

Do you know the man she leaves behind?

Many would recognise them. Many would say, yes, I have met them, if briefly. They are travellers, stopping nowhere or nowhen for longer than necessary. Stopping to see what is on offer, then moving on after only a sip.

She, Ace, is perhaps twenty-three years old, as measured by a glance, and of slightly stocky build. Fine brown hair hangs to her shoulders, usually tied but now hanging loose and unbound, occasionally blowing across her eyes of equal shade.

She cannot remember how many days she has seen, how many people she has met. There are no clocks to measure her travel, no indicators of time when time is what she travels through. Even her own bodily rhythms seem... flexible. Inconsistent.

It all blurs in the memory, but memory is a strange beast, and restless. It will swallow events and, uncalled for, it will spit them out again. She would think, yes, I have been to Ancient Egypt, I have been to future France. I spent three years chasing Daleks and three days arguing with a Draconian Prince. I have seen and touched and smelt beings and worlds stranger than belief would allow. But I have been there.

Perhaps it is simply sufficient to know she is a traveller.

He, the Doctor, is short of build, and a little portly (and Ace teases him about it, but you know how it is), with dark brown hair that never seems to grow out of his chosen style. An estimate of his age by the unknowing might by fifty, but it would be an uncertain guess at best. There is an air about this man, undefinable but there, a feeling of Age. His blue-grey eyes, now closed, normally sparkle, and an easy smile can usually be found on his lips.

Sufficient to know he is a traveller, and has been travelling for longer than his current companion Ace.

They made a good team, these two. As the girl would say, they did good.

* * *

But this time, something was different.

Ace dragged her feet through the wet grass, distantly enjoying the sensation between her toes and against her soles, and tried to work out exactly what.

She was feeling disjointed, downright strange, and couldn't quite work out why.

The bird-song was loud now, heartening, and while the sun was still out of sight (she couldn't even place the direction from which it would rise) the day had well and truly started. The main trouble, she decided, was that for all she knew she was walking through a field on good old planet Earth, in good old 1987.

She refused to believe she was homesick, not after all this time. She considered herself and what she was feeling, and knew that that wasn't it, it was something else.

She couldn't name the species of tree she was approaching, but she was sure it was homegrown, whilst the morning chorus was unmistakable.

The breaking of that simple continuity of walking out of the TARDIS doors onto a new world, a new time, had left her bewildered, unsure of herself. The whole concept of the alien seemed remote, and even the strange toga she wore could easily be a white bathrobe.

Best not to think about it, she decided. Best to see where they were first. But her mind was being stubborn, and immediately turned to questions about whether she had just left a defenceless man alone and easy prey for predators.

She looked up, desperate for a distraction from her internal pessimist, and noticed guiltily she had lost track of where she was going. The trees were almost upon her, but while there was still no sight of civilisation bar a thin trace of smoke rising somewhere in front of her, she realised she could hear it. At this distance it was subtle, but unmistakable. Dogs barked and men called to one another. Cows, and even a distant rooster, cried out to the new day, and there were the sounds of dragging and hammering and creaking that said these people didn't wait till nine before punching in for work.

And the smell, no longer quite so fresh. She had never been on a farm before her current travels started but now, years wiser, there was no question.

She nodded, pleased, and quickened her stride. Ducking through the trees she discovered they formed the boundary of a straight, dirt-packed road, and riding towards her was a man on a horse. Imagine that, thought Ace, a man on a horse. But she remembered the Doctor, and didn't smile.

She yelled, and waved her arms, and jogged towards him, watching him carefully for any sign of hostility. 'Help me,' she said, and the water must have taken more out of her than she thought, because her voice suddenly cracked, sounding desperate and small in her own ears. 'Help me.'

The man, dressed in a rough woven tunic and trousers, broke the horse into a trot and bore down on her, reining it in to stand beside her. Ace looked up at him, letting her tiredness show on her face. 'Help me' she said again, breathless.

'Kio [g]enas vin fra[u]lino? Kiu vi estas?'

Ace blinked at him several times. 'What?'

'Parolu klare. Kio [g]enas vin?' He was looking down at her, not quite unpityingly, but with a clear air of impatience. Ace wasn't sure what to do. Her brain had suddenly seized up, she... she just didn't know what to do.

Translator, she thought dimly. She knew all about translators -- the twenty-fifth century Earth colonies didn't speak English and she only ever had patience to learn the guttural, universal cant of the mercenary. And no translators were needed in her travels in the TARDIS.

She pointed back the way she had come. 'The Doctor,' she said stupidly. 'He's hurt.'

He looked at her suspiciously, then turned his gaze along the direction of her finger. He muttered something like "stulta" to himself, sounding disgusted. But then he reached down with one arm, seeming to offer her a lift on his horse.

She drew back, instinctively, and took a closer look. He didn't really look like a farmer, but he had enough brawn to be used to physical labour. His clothes, while of natural fibre, were brightly coloured, and he had some sort of emblem, an eagle or something, over his heart. The same emblem had also been etched into his leather saddle and one of the largeish sacks attached to it. The man's hair, almost black, was roughly cut, but he was clean shaven and his blue eyes were clear and without apparent malice. She had already registered the distance of his hand from the dagger at his belt, and calculated the odds of her grabbing the spear carried by his steed.

But she was still too cold, and mostly she stood and blinked at him.

He seemed to come to a decision, and he grabbed a saddle-bag from behind him, pulling a woollen cloak from it. He offered it to her and, still wary, she snatched it, wrapping it round herself.

'Bonvolu. Mi nur deziras helpi vin.'

She decided. She didn't know what he was saying, but it seemed friendly enough, and she was sure one of those last words had been "help". So she smiled and nodded, and let herself be pulled up behind him.

Then, at a slow but steady trot, and with Ace pointing the way, they rode through the road's natural boundary and back the way she had walked.

She had her arms around his waist, keeping her balance well. Every now and again he glanced round and they sort of stared at each other, baffled for a while. But they didn't say anything, and he didn't seem to have any trouble following her silent directions.

It didn't take long, but the sudden warmth of the cloak and the motion of the horse (not to mention its own warmth against her bare legs) was already making her drowsy.

When they got there, however, she cleared her head and jumped off the animal with no hesitation. The Doctor still lay there, and with a cry she ran to him, somehow certain he was dead.

He wasn't. His condition hadn't changed, but she felt no relief at the fact. Standing above him, she didn't think she could feel anything. Only empty and confused and stupid.

The strange man had dismounted behind her, coming forward to kneel before the pathetic figure. She didn't protest, didn't say anything, just let him do what he wanted.

After a while he looked up.

'Venu, ni devas venigi kaj lin kaj vin al varma loko.' She didn't protest. She watched him pick up her friend and drape him over the horse. She didn't protest when he jumped up and almost physically dragged her up behind him. And she didn't protest when, sometime during the journey, warm darkness rose up and claimed her for its own.

* * *

He didn't sneak into the village under cover of darkness. Appropriate, he thought with a grin, but hardly necessary. As the Light dimmed he rode his horse slowly over the grass walk-ways, between house and paddy, and found his way to the market square and beyond.

Many hours ago another horseman had ridden into this village, with two strangers on his horse, but this man was here on different business.

No-one much saw him come, and none noted it beyond a glance. The kids playing games in the square played round him, as if he wasn't there.

It was a knack he had, nothing too special, but handy.

He reached to catch a mis-thrown leather ball, throwing it back to a dark-haired girl, perhaps six or seven. She smiled at him and turned away.

He got off the horse, and walked it the last couple of hundred metres towards the tavern, and while he had never been in this village before it was easy enough to find. The noise, of course, and the myriad flickering of tiny flames, and he could smell it.

But before he got there he stopped momentarily and stared into the village Fire. It was too easy. There, caught in branches below the full heat of the flame was half a scarf, not woollen but cotton, no protection against the cold this far south. And even though the remnants of the cloth had lost their insignia in the burning, the sheer quality of the material told him what he wanted to know.

She was here, and she imagined she was here to stay. He frowned slightly, and looked round. The darkness was thickening, the children were shouting their last shrieks and cat-calls, already faint. The scrap could have lasted there a half-hour, perhaps a whole one at the most. The village had at least five hundred people in it, almost two hundred buildings, and by now she could be in any one of them.

He wondered if she had found someone to stay with, told some story to gain her a bed for the night. More likely she was holed up in some shack somewhere, shivering and wishing she was home again. Home with daddy.

Then again, maybe not.

He glanced into the fire again, and with his knife he pulled the half burnt scarf away from the clinging kindling, watched it drift upward to be consumed into ash.

He turned away and led his horse to the inn's own stable, noting contemptuously that the lodging was called the Hot Spot, undoubtedly with more optimism than sense. A young teenage boy took the sable-brown mare and thanked him with an idiot grin.

The fair-haired man did not respond, but left the horse in the boy's hands and went into the tavern.

* * *

The stable-boy's name was Erico Sanktemo and he had been working in the Hot Spot's stables less than a week. It still felt good when somebody left him an animal. Left it for him to take care of. The carrying of straw, the cleaning out of the stalls -- these were an easy price for the responsibility. He reached up to run his hands through the wonderful coat of the new horse, and watched its owner as he entered the smoky room whose noise filtered out to him in waves.

Perhaps the man would get drunk tonight, unpleasantly so, as the men in the tavern could get at times. His own father got that way at times, and quick with the lash when he did. Perhaps that was why he had felt uneasy in the fair-haired man's presence.

All Erico knew was that even with the horse's short warm hair between his fingers and the grin still on his face, he didn't really feel good at all.

He grabbed a stiff brush from the pegs above his head and led the horse into the darkness of its stall.

* * *

Things happen in darkness.

It was always in darkness that Vil[c]jo Trasto walked home. For twenty years he had come out of the tavern at five minutes past closing and, ignoring the unlit torches laid out around the village Fire, he found his way through back-streets and over fences back to his cold and little hut. He'd often joke that he had never taken the same route twice, and what he didn't tell anyone was that he considered this his village, his own. Nobody needed a torch to find their way in their own village, darkness or no.

His wife had died in the darkness. She had always been weak, and one morning after he had staggered back to their room from breakfast he had found her. Still lying in bed, a bit of blood in her mouth, dead for hours.

Nobody had ever told Vil[c]jo why.

His only daughter worked in the darkness, and it broke his heart to think about it. So he didn't think about it, and if father and daughter passed each other in the street of an afternoon neither would acknowledge the other.

Children were scared of the dark, and Vil[c]jo knew why.

In the darkness Vil[c]jo felt his chest press against something hard, a high fence perhaps. Perhaps he was near the cattle-yards tonight, though he didn't hear anything that would make him think so.

He tried to walk round the fence, but it moved, and blocked his passage.

'Who is it...?' Vil[c]jo muttered, a little incoherently. 'Who's there?'

He felt the first blow as something hit him across the face with incredible force. But he didn't feel the second.

He awoke briefly a little later, to the noise of someone screaming.

But it wasn't him because it was very bright, so bright, and nothing happened to Vil[c]jo in the light. Nothing ever.

When the darkness came again he fell into it gladly, and he heard the screaming die, fading with distance.

* * *

Hours later, and the dawn was still the dawn, even without a sun. Darkness left the village alone for a while, and pale Light sparkled through dew-laden web and off quick-bubbling stream and slow-moving field.

There is something pleasant about the dawn. So many people experience it so many times. It is nothing special, not when it will happen again tomorrow. But it is... pleasant. Because even if we aren't going to be here, it will happen again tomorrow.

But dawn is also a time for discovery, as unpleasant truths come out from sheltering night.

The village knew both darkness and dawn, and was pleased to alternate. If it noticed the darkness had no stars and the dawn had no sun, and considered it strange, it kept its wonder to itself.

* * *

When Andreo returned from his examination of the furthest paddy on his parent's farm, his father was waiting for him, knee deep in water. But he wasn't working; he looked preoccupied with something weighing heavily on his mind. Andreo cleared his throat noisily, and his father looked up quickly, with a start of guilt. He smiled at his son, obviously troubled.

'There's no sign of more Fasting Disease among the fish,' the boy started. 'I think we should wait a while before draining the field.' His father nodded slowly, and the boy waited, wondering what was going on.

'You know old Vil[c]jo?' was the eventual response. It wasn't really a question, but Andreo nodded, and replied that he did.

'Kejlo just came round. He said that they found Vil[c]jo in the market this morning. He'd fallen into the Fire on his way home. He must have died quickly.'

Andreo frowned, and turned away.

'There's another thing,' his father called after him. 'You weren't here yesterday so I couldn't tell you then. Two people were washed up from the River yesterday morning. They were found by one of the government riders.'

'Two of them? But there's never been...'

'Yes, I know. But that isn't the main cause of worry. I didn't speak to the Courier in person, as he had already left the village when I heard. But apparently the two were both adult. A young woman and an older man.'

'A woman?'

'So they were saying yesterday. The two were apparently taken to the Lenkso place, but Evo wasn't answering any questions. Go and get some good clothes on. I think we should pay them a visit.'

Andreo nodded and, following his father, went inside.

* * *

Erico had watched them take the old man's body from the fire. A group of ten or more men, his father among them, were gathered round the subdued flames, talking in hurried whispers while Erico and the woman of the inn watched from the safety of the building.

Every now and again someone else would arrive and join the little congregation. The word had travelled fast.

The man was nothing but black. Erico had seen him often at the inn, drinking with the other men sometimes, in a corner alone on other occasions. Those were when it was worst for him, for he would sit and do nothing but drink all night. Erico had felt sorry for the man. (Not "the man"; Vil[c]jo Trasto, his name was Vil[c]jo).

And now he was nothing but black. His skin had ruptured like unpierced sausage, his hair and clothes had burnt away. Erico was glad that at this distance he couldn't see what was left of the man's face.

He wanted to turn away and be sick, but he hadn't eaten yet this morning. He wanted to go and help the men-folk, but he wasn't old enough yet. He stood with the women, with his silent mother and the crying Anabelo, and watched.

Erico noticed the fair-haired stranger who had given him the horse to care for early last night. He was one of the crowd, helping take the body away to the Cold Spot.

Hadn't the stranger been talking to Vil[c]jo last night? Erico couldn't quite remember. He had only glanced round the room quickly before going to bed, tired from his new duties. But he thought the two had indeed been sitting together.

But everyone said that what happened last night was an accident. The man had finally found a route which didn't lead home after all. Erico knew from experience what adults would and wouldn't listen to and, for now, kept his silence.

Things were happening in this village. Strange things. And all Erico could do for now was watch the consequences. And hope.

* * *

When Ace woke up she felt wonderful.

Wonderful and very hungry.

She opened her eyes straight away, orienting herself, position of the walls, position of the door, identity and any threat posed by the man standing above her. It was the Doctor, and she smiled and gratefully closed her eyes again.

She stretched in the warmth of the bed, just felt her skin slide against soft sheets. She wanted to snuggle deeper beneath them, wanted to lie there till the light she sensed through her closed eyelids went away and came back again. Wanted to do it for the sheer hell of doing it.

But she opened her eyes again and looked up at the Doctor as he sat beside her. He was looking in the most perfect of health and his previous, slightly worried, look had faded. She sat up against the thick pillows behind her, and they just smiled at each other for a while, the smile of friends who really don't need to say anything.

The thick smell of eggs and bacon filled the air, and the dry tang of burning wood, and the lovely natural aroma of the thick blankets over her bed, and the thin smell of water and wet.

Crackling of wood, crying of birds.

And while there were no windows in this room, the door was slightly ajar, and soft light poured in between the wooden planks from which the walls were made.

It was morning again. She knew she had already had slept through a day, it was morning again, and she felt wonderful.

'Do you know where we are?' she whispered to the Time Lord.

He shook his head. 'I wanted to see you were all right first. But as far as I can tell we're in a farmhouse surrounded by rice paddies and several feet above water, and if someone doesn't offer us the breakfast they've just cooked I think we should go on a little foray.'

'Yeah!' said the girl enthusiastically, and threw the covers back to get out of bed.

'Nu, ree enliti[g]u vin amba[u], rapidu,' a friendly and firm voice said from the doorway. A woman was standing there, an open smile on her face. Ace swallowed hard. Not this again.

'Ni perfekte bonfartas, mi certigas vin. Sed [c]u ni rajtas [g]eni vin por matenman[g]o?' Ace looked at the Doctor in surprise; she didn't understand the words, but they sounded fluent.

It was the woman's turn. 'Matenman[g]o por tiuj kiuj...'

'Hey,' Ace shouted, interrupting the flow. 'Woah, slow down. What the hell are you two talking about?'

The woman looked puzzled and came further into the room. In the new light Ace saw the small wooden chamber properly for the first time, and noticed the bed opposite hers where the Doctor had obviously slept. She also noticed he was now wearing a woollen set of men's night-clothes, too big for him, and that she was wearing a well-made but simple cotton nightgown.

Fine, thought Ace. Let's not get distracted. One thing at a time.

She said it again, slowly and clearly. 'What are you two talking about?'

'Ace?' the Doctor asked, obviously puzzled. 'You can't understand that?'

She felt like yelling at him, but she didn't. 'No. I can't understand a word of it.'

The Doctor frowned, glancing at the woman who was in turn looking in disbelief at the two of them. 'Kie ni estas?' he said to her urgently. 'Kiu estas tiu loko?'

'Malvarmo' she answered him. 'La vila[g]o Malvarmo.'

The Doctor asked her another question, and Ace didn't even bother trying to follow it this time. The conversation became a little heated, and Ace got very bored.

But then the woman said 'La rivero Stikso.' And Ace noticed that because of the Doctor's reaction. Not fear exactly, she wouldn't say that about him. But it was close.

'La Stikso?' he breathed.

She nodded, then said something else and smiled, almost apologetically.

'Hey, remember me?'

'Yes, yes.' The Doctor waved a hand at her, then, obviously coming to a decision, didn't ignore her after all. 'This kind lady is speaking Esperanto, one of the "pure" languages that arise now and again -- this one from nineteenth century Earth. Apparently everyone in the world speaks Esperanto.

'She says we are in the Village of Cold, though perhaps Notwarm would be closer in context.' He spoke kindly, as if preparing her for a shock. 'She also says that yesterday morning we were washed up by the side of a river or, again closer, the River. The name of the River is the Styx. She calls this River the border between the living and the dead. I wonder...' the Doctor continued, though he now seemed to be speaking to himself. 'I wonder what old Ludwig would have thought of his language being adopted by the citizens of Hell?'


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