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Imperfect Copy

A Novel by David Carroll


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Short Stories

Tabula Rasa

Imperfect Copy: Chapter 6

by David Carroll, 1994

Ace pushed the little boat out onto the gently rocking surface of the river. She hadn't been looking directly at the light of the torch, even as Erico held it, had looked away as it flared and burned out. Her night-vision was still good and she helped Andreo's new friend climb clumsily aboard. The Doctor and Andreo seemed to be able to manage. She grabbed the oars and pushed away from the bank, let the boat settle into a comfortable rhythm on the waves and then started rowing. Strong and sure, not fighting the current, but moving across it at steady speed.

The boat was long and narrow, its species fitting in somewhere between a row-boat and a canoe. The four passengers sat in single file, the Doctor first, peering into the darkness ahead. Ace was second, facing backwards, her arms glad for the exertion, her skin cool with occasional spray. The girl was next, tall (three or four inches taller than Ace, anyway, but who wasn't?) with very dark red hair, almost brown, though it looked black in the low light. She had a studious, concentrated sort of face, and seemed to be spending most of the time looking down at the water bubbling and running past the thin skin of wood around them. Andreo was last, looking backwards at the shore, tracing the movements of the torches between the river edge and the village. Their position hadn't been discovered, the searching lights were unpatterned, futile. The four of them were beyond the recrimination of the villagers and their troubles, fire and death and Erico's little betrayal, and the gulf widening every minute, one that Ace knew no-one would be willing to cross.

I've forgotten something, Ace thought as pushed the polished oars against the river. Something important.

But the familiar relaxing of her mind after battle, the calming of senses heightened and sharpened by adrenalin and simple practise, lulled her, refusing to give up its secrets.

Five minutes out into the river and she remembered her night-vision was not being assisted by stars or moon. The whole sky seemed to glow faintly. The same energy that provided the day's illumination must still be at work, but softer, silver and pale.

Ten minutes out into the river she asked Andreo for introductions, and he started. None of the four had spoken since they left the bank.

'Of course,' the boy smiled. 'This is [G]esemio Tanio. She is new to the village, and was under my protection at the theatre. Or at least, she was supposed to be.' The self-recrimination caught Ace by surprise. It was the first time she had heard anything but confidence in his voice. She watched him as he talked to [G]esemio softly in Esperanto. The girl listened intently, and looked at the two travellers curiously.

'Hi,' Ace said with a friendly smile. 'Saluton,' the girl replied, and returned the smile. The Doctor said something from behind Ace: 'Varmega nokto sur la urbo,' and she could tell the exact expression he said it with, sympathy tinged with knowing humour. The girl laughed a little shyly, and replied 'jes'.

But Ace was still looking at Andreo. 'You lost your theatre, didn't you?' she said. 'It was something you loved, and the people who loved it with you need you, and yet you're crossing a river of the dead with two crazy people.'

He looked at her sadly and shook his head. He didn't say anything.

'Sorry,' said Ace, and he nodded.

She kept on rowing.

A little later she wanted to turn to the Doctor and tell him they might be wrong. That if this was the River Styx they might be going in the wrong direction.

Ace had been to places that had claimed to be Hell. She had seen places that did a pretty good job of recreating the stories of brimstone and eternal torment of childhood stories. If someone had asked her what lay beyond death when she was living back in Perivale, she might have said she didn't know, but at least there were ways of finding out. Now, she might say it didn't matter, that you had to do the best you could with the information you had, and what happened when that stray bullet finally caught up with her would happen nonetheless. If someone asked, if she bothered to reply at all.

Now she was rowing through black water, no scent in the air, the only sounds being the river itself and the swish of the boat as it cut through the waves. She had long lost sight of the land behind them, only the occasional flicker of fire gave her clues that the land was there at all.

There was no wind. The current was stronger here, and trickier, full of cross tides and eddies, but she pulled at the oars with one strong stroke after another, and they kept right on crossing that river.

If this is a river, she thought. If there is another side at all. And maybe Hell is just an eternity of water.

Yeah, she thought. All that brimstone set off the automatic sprinkler system. She kept on rowing, steady, oars through water, lift, push forward, oars through water, lift, push forward.

Behind her she heard a tiny creak as the Doctor shifted position, perhaps bending over.

'The water's getting warmer,' he said, in English, then Esperanto. 'La akvo varmi[g]i'.

She kept on rowing.

* * *

Timoteo patted gingerly and slowly at Ajlmo Dunstaro's face. The old farmer had already approached Johano Lenkso for aid, but he had gotten the rather haughty reply that the doctors had more important things to do.

Ajlmo winced occasionally, and thought about what was going to happen next. If la Kuracisto and Aso were caught, if they were dead or alive, if they could be found at all.

'Gotta be good at this sort of thing,' Timoteo was saying, trying to break his train of thought. 'Had one guy come in, you know, all cut up he was, dead as your grandmother's aunty. Stuck him on the floor of the cavern, and up he came again. Reckoned the floor was too cold, he did.' Timoteo laughed, sort of, and dipped his cloth in the bucket of water again.

'Fixed him up, I did. Real hurt he was, real cut up. But I fixed him up I did. And right grateful he was too. Silly idiot tripped down the ladder, broke his neck.'

Timoteo shook his head, reflecting on all the silly idiots in the world.

'Still no sign of them,' a teenage boy said, running up and panting. 'We've split up, along the river and curving round behind the village. We'll find them.'

Ajlmo looked at the boy who looked at him. He was trying to work something out.

He recognised the boy's face, but couldn't remember his name. 'Thanks,' he said finally.

The boy nodded and grinned, running off to join the search. Ajlmo watched him go.

'That's the Bieristo boy,' Timoteo observed. 'Getting real friendly with little Nancjo Mendelo I hear. Real friendly.' He shook his head again.

'Come on,' said Ajlmo, brushing away Timoteo's hand and spitting out another mouthful of blood. 'And find somebody to bring them with you,' he indicated the two bodies lying on the grass.

He hurried off northwards, then turned and waited impatiently for Timoteo to catch him up.

* * *

For a while now the spray thrown up by the odd wave against her boat had been noticeably temperate, but there had been no other change Ace could detect.

'Tero. Land ho,' said the Doctor softly, and for the first time Ace's rhythm broke, and she turned and looked where they were heading.

'Oh. My. God.' she said, catching her breath. A small beach was just visible in the light of the sky, looking white and thin, stretching out on either side of them, still half a mile away perhaps. But it wasn't real white. In the darkness she made out flashes of red and orange, glimpses of blue and green and mauve, fleeting, washing in and out with liquid motion.

And beyond the beach, rising out of the beach, was the sky itself. The boat just drifted, tiny, oars spread out to embrace the spectacle.

And spectacular it was. The beach gave the view perspective, showed up the sky as more than just empty space -- but something solid, something glowing very faintly, something large. It arched above them, the curve of what must be a huge dome was very flat, and the sky stretched out and up for miles and miles and miles.

Ace got dizzy, trying to take it in, trying to work out scale and position.

The sky was glowing silver, the beach was a multitude of half-seen colour, and the water around the beach was a pale and luminescent green. It was quite, quite beautiful.

But then she noticed the boat turning with the current and she looked back into the darkness again, and kept on rowing.

She almost laughed to see the expression on the faces of Andreo and [G]esemio as they stared, enraptured by the sight behind her. But she reckoned she had worn the same expression herself not long ago.

It took them less than ten minutes to complete the remainder of the crossing. The Doctor had to direct her carefully the last hundred feet, and as they cruised slowly into the light she saw the delicate structures and myriad tints of great aquatic blooms beneath them and around them. And little fish darted in schools and alone, flashing scales of rainbow hue, quick and unafraid.

Finally, the boat bumped gently against solid land, the beach they had seen, and the four just looked around them with silly smiles on their faces.

'A coral reef,' Ace said, lifting the oars into the boat. 'Well, what do you know?'

The Doctor was the first to step ashore. There was no sand, just millions of little grains that crunched and slid under his feet. The remains of the animals that formed the reef itself, Ace knew, the dead layer of skin covering a gestalt community, a single living organism that stretched out of sight on either side of them.

'Careful,' the Doctor cautioned, stooping to touch the surface. 'It may be sharp'. But he seemed satisfied, and Ace, [G]esemio and Andreo followed him, Ace pulling the boat behind her to free it properly from the waves that lapped on the edge of the world.

'We're on a spaceship,' she said when she turned round, looked up along the edge of the sky, putting aside the beauty of her surroundings. 'Or in some kind of man-made cavern. The whole world.'

'Yes,' said Andreo, and something in his voice made the Doctor and Ace turn to face him. 'Didn't you know?' the boy replied, genuinely puzzled, and fell silent under their stares.

* * *

The Doctor ran his hand lightly over the metal surface. It obviously was metal, from this close, but he peered closer, just to make sure. His fingers didn't quite touch the surface, they skidded over it, half a millimetre from the slightly luminescent material.

'Forcefield,' he told Ace, but she wasn't listening, she had ears only for Andreo. The Doctor listened to the boy and investigated the wall that was the sky at the same time. He knelt onto the pure white grit, its surface uneven and full of holes, the occasional crab staring out at him. He started digging beside the wall, but the grains slid back down, hampering his efforts almost immediately. Certainly there was no break in the metallic surface, as far down as he could see. He went to the bank of the river, where the lukewarm water ran over the coral in little tides. But there was nothing to be learned there, only the bank sloping down and away.

There were no rocks by the river, and no tides to allow molluscs and the like their semi-aquatic existence. He had seen no birds, nor evidence of them, but he knew the crabs must have their own predators, as yet unseen.

The beach was perhaps ten metres wide, and from this position its curve was too flat to see. The Doctor wondered if the beach was growing or shrinking, and how wide it had been when it was built.

He sighed, and wandered back to the trio of youngsters sitting on the rim of the boat.

Andreo had stopped looking incredulous a while ago, and had already explained about Harriso, the world within a dome. There was still, he assured Ace, a big difference between not knowing the names of cities and not knowing the structure of the world. Ace hadn't been too sure about that, but had told him to keep talking.

The world was a circle, he had said, five hundred kilometres in diameter. The River did not circle the world, it started as a stream coming out of the ground, running for six hundred kilometres around the circumference before disappearing into the Forest. It grew huge with distance, but nobody knew how wide, and nobody he knew of had seen its ultimate destination. All he knew was that it didn't come out of the Forest.

Ace asked him questions. He said there were seasons, when the patterns of temperature and even the quality of the light changed. In Malvarmo though, it was simply cold and wet all the time. All water flowed south in Harriso. The rivers and streams that started in the dry country at the north of the dome made their slow way down, merging and dividing, finding their way into a series of lakes, and perhaps into the River itself, though no-one could say where.

'The River,' Ace asked. 'Why is it called the Styx?'

'Because it is,' the boy replied, shrugging. 'It is the boundary. Everything goes south, and many people believe that the souls of the dead go south as well. Across the River, to whatever is on the other side.'

He looked round, and indicated the glowing wonderland, and that seemed to sum it all up.

That was when the Doctor came and sat beside them.

'I don't think we're going to be able to get through,' he said. 'Whoever built this wasn't too keen about escapees. There is no metal in Harriso, is there? Nothing that can be used to cross such technology, or even develop a counter-technology to solve the problem.'

'Maybe it's a prison,' said Ace, and then addressing Andreo: 'Maybe your great-grandaddy stole some bread.'

'And maybe it's not,' said the Doctor. 'There's still not enough information.'

Ace shrugged. 'Yeah, but at least we know what the problem is.'

'Do we?' said the Doctor. 'Why were we in the so-called River Styx yesterday morning? Where were we before that? And explain this.'

He reached for Ace's left arm and pulled up the sleeve. She looked suspiciously at the area exposed, waiting for some explanation. 'I don't see anything,' she said finally.

'No. Throughout the time you have travelled with me you have had an inoculation scar, tuberculosis I would guess, right there. It was very faint.'

Ace studied her own tanned skin intently, but it was unmarked. There was nothing there at all.

* * *

The four of them walked along the beach anyway, looking for something that could get them through the sky. A door, a disturbance in the coral, even some change in the water, the Doctor advised. A launch window, Ace joked, though she then tried to explain the joke to Andreo and failed miserably.

There was nothing. The beach was straight. The exact shoreline itself was no ruled edge, but there was nothing unusual to be found. No change in the surface of the dome, not even a mar or stain or indication of age. 'Now if I had some proper equipment,' said Ace with her hand on the wall, but she didn't, and they kept looking.

They walked perhaps two or three kilometres in one direction, then returned and walked the same in the other direction. Nothing.

Andreo told them little more on the journey. He didn't know the nature of the dome, or its origin. He did know that the soil of Harriso was, in general, about ten metres deep and the same unbroken surface was below them as well as above. It was certainly possible to visit the boundary between sky and ground north of the Styx, but he had never seen it himself. There were stories, he said with a grin, of people knocking timidly on the wall, only to hear the knock returned. The Doctor asked if anyone had ever tried seriously to breach the wall, and Andreo said no, nobody had.

They got back to the boat and sat on the ground. Ace rubbed a distracted hand through the fine grit, a shallow trench that never got too deep.

Andreo and [G]esemio were talking softly to each other. The Doctor was musing something about metal, about how there wasn't any. Ace dug her hands into the surface and let the damp material run through her fingers. Badges are metal, thought Ace for no reason at all. Badges are metal. Badges.

She looked up hurriedly, forgetting her excavations. 'Andreo,' she said urgently. 'You didn't tell us about the dome over the world because we didn't ask.' He nodded. 'Do you know of a blue Police Box... a tall blue box about two metres high. Is there any record of such a thing?'

Andreo nodded again. 'There is an object that meets that description in the village. It's on one of the northern farms, in the middle of a paddy. People have travelled great distances to come and see it, and it is as impervious to our efforts to open it as the sky is. No-one much bothers with it these days.'

Ace grinned and the Doctor smiled. 'Well,' said Ace. 'Not much point hanging round here then. I told you we were going in the wrong direction.'

'You did what?' the Doctor said, with raised eyebrows.

'Nothing,' she muttered, almost inaudibly. She stood and grabbed the oars, pushed the little boat back into the water, and the four climbed aboard. [G]esemio was last in the boat, taking one last look round, looking like she wanted to stay for just a while longer. But she got in, and Ace pushed away from the shore.

It had to be well past midnight by now, and as they moved away from the edge of the world Ace started to feel tired, and her arms started to complain, if only gently, about the work ahead.

She ignored them, only looked at the sky as they got farther away, stroke by stroke, at first moving round the coral branches just under the surface, whose beautiful and delicate surface could rip their boat to matchwood. And slowly the glow faded with distance, and at some indefinable point the sky stopped looking like a metallic wall on a beach, but was only eternal space over the lapping waves, and the faintest light was that of a small moon, shining like a welcome beacon, somewhere above and behind her.

She rowed into the steadily colder water across the River Styx, a little vessel in the middle of a huge expanse of lapping waves, perhaps five miles from shore to shore. The rhythm of her rowing relaxed her, and she looked into the night sky and thought about the stars.

* * *

There was no wind on the little coral beach; the convection of air moving inwards and upwards within the dome of Harriso did not touch this little corner of the world. But gravity and the weight of the nearby water, the scamper of the little animals and the growth of the structure on which the beach stood, all these forces acted on the grainy surface.

The footprints were the first to go -- only faint anyway, they couldn't survive for long.

The little trenches dug on whim took longer, but grit slid down the sides, dulling the edges, and holes were dug in and around them.

The trough caused by the dragged boat took the longest of all. But soon -- days or months perhaps, it doesn't matter -- all evidence of that was gone as well. The beach was as flat as it ever had been, and white for no one to see, and stood undisturbed between the River and the sky.

* * *

[G]esemio told them a story on the way back across the River. She hadn't said a lot throughout the journey so far. She had been confused by the talk in English, unsure about the identity of the strange girl and stranger man. And, yes, she had been frightened by the very idea that this was the River of the dead. The Styx was talked about on the plantation where she grew up, reverently by some, by others something to swear by. She had never thought she'd see it, and even this far south she hadn't really expected to find its shores. But when she realised what they were doing and where they were going she had felt a little knot of fear, and also something like exaltation. Not exactly excitement, but a feeling of the inevitability of wonders to be.

Everybody thought about the other side of the River, but nobody had crossed it before. Nobody.

And all it had taken was a small boat and a strong pair of arms.

She looked back at the last hour or two, and wondered if her feelings had been justified. The "koral rif", as the strangers had called it, had been very beautiful, full of gorgeous colour and movement. The edge of the world itself held no wonder for her, she had seen it before, a couple of years ago on one of her family's holidays. It was big, and it was spectacular, and she simply felt that something else should have happened, something more dramatic than an exhausting hike, not to mention a quick return to the village where the fair-haired man still lay in wait for her.

But she had seen the other side of the River, and was returning to tell the tale, and she reckoned she owed the others something for that. And she owed Andreo a lot more. She didn't know if he had worked out that the fire at the theatre had been intended for her, but it was probably pretty obvious.

So she told them a story. At first slowly and then with more confidence. There was also, she assured them, not much to tell.

[G]esemio Tanio grew up on a fruit plantation a couple of kilometres outside the town of [C]inujo, which was in turn about one hundred and fifty kilometres west of Centrejo. It was a large plantation, twelve hundred hectares worth, mostly citrus fruit, some apples. Her family ran the plantation, and owned all that land and a couple of shops in [C]inujo as well. And life was good enough, plenty of room to run around in, lots of shady avenues and enough secret places, unkempt and wild, to keep any little girl happy.

Two months in every year the plantation was chaotic with workers and their families, picking the fruit and partying into the night, every night. Often she would join the parties, sometimes she would just sit in a tree, for hours on end, and watch, endlessly fascinated by the detail. But most of the year the plantation was silent, and she could run where she pleased and swim in the little streams undisturbed. The only other children around were her two brothers -- the younger as wild as she and training as a city guard, the elder was a quiet boy, interested in books and history and the like. He went to [C]inujo once a week to study, and one day it killed him, crushed under the wheels of a cart laden for market.

Ace watched her carefully as she spoke of these things, gauging the truth of her story as best she could, using the girl's voice and Andreo's translation. It sounded like the rustic charms of The Sound of Music with a bit of tragedy thrown in to keep the modern listener interested. It was told matter-of-factly, but it was all sincere enough, and she looked fit, probably spending more time climbing trees than picking daisies on this "plantejo" she talked about. And as for the ending, she was betting on a forced marriage or a disallowed love affair.

After the accident, some ten months or so in the past, life on the plantation changed, and the family suffered the loss badly. [G]esemio's mother was a sensible woman, handling most of the administrative details of the business, and she continued on much as before. But her father grew moody and temperamental, at times striking his children, rarely interested in their problems or little victories. During the last harvest he got into a vicious argument with some of the pickers, and fifty of them walked off, swearing never to return. The remaining brother spent more and more time in the city with his friends, and [G]esemio, without friends, now spent whole nights on the plantation grounds, sleeping wherever convenient.

But she was also growing up, thinking of the city and its people, thinking of the plantation, not as a home or a playground, but as a business.

Her mother knew all the paperwork, people to hire, the sources of equipment and the places to sell. [G]esemio herself knew about the cycles of growth, all the little details needed to take care of one hundred and ninety thousand fruit trees. But one day [G]esemio asked her father about running the business, and he simply laughed at her. 'Oh no,' he said, 'no, indeed not'. And a week later she was put into a room with an eighteen year old idiot and told to get acquainted, and the day after that she ran away.

Simple as that, she said. Only, just to complicate things a little, there is someone chasing after her. She doesn't know much about him; she calls him the fair-haired man because it is his only distinguishing characteristic. She knows he is very dangerous, skilful, intelligent and violent.

And that was the end of the story.

Ace nodded, glad to have picked the ending. She also wondered if Andreo knew that the part about the eighteen year old idiot had been a lie. The Doctor would, of course, though the girl lied well. Her voice had been steady, and only her eyes had betrayed her, anxious to see if the lie had been believed.

But Ace didn't say anything, and only vaguely wondered what really happened to set the girl off. It didn't matter, she reminded herself. They would be away from here before dawn, and even if they weren't, this girl's secrets were no concern of hers.

This "fair-haired man" was another matter, without doubt the assassin that the Doctor had already met. She knew he was a problem that had to be sorted out, but only after they had found the TARDIS. Once back in familiar territory all this would be a lot easier to handle.

The story had taken longer than perhaps had been anticipated, and only five minutes after its conclusion the Doctor indicated land directly ahead, and in another minute she was climbing onto the bank, as tired, but not as wet, as she had done so forty-four hours earlier.

The four of them looked round warily, as they had already done while still in the boat. But the current they had crossed had carried them quite some distance downstream. All was quiet, no torches, no shouts, only a lot of grass leading away into darkness.

Andreo said they'd go inland, avoiding the village and working round towards the appropriate paddy, and the TARDIS. Can't be that hard to find, he said with a grin.

And it wasn't.

* * *

Ace winced, and followed the Doctor into the paddy. The water was knee high, soaking through her rough trousers immediately. And it was cold, and there was no sound but ripples of water. No sound, real silence, the sort you never got in the city or in space. She thought that maybe she could hear the crackle of the village Fire, but maybe she couldn't. It was like a lull in conversation, except the world had stopped. Even the ripples had stopped, and she, and the Doctor, and the two behind her, stood there waiting for something.

A bird called, a long way away, but that wasn't it.

'Come on,' said the Doctor, and Andreo and [G]esemio joined them in the paddy and they made their way over to the TARDIS.

Solid, familiar, black in the night. The Doctor ran his hands over the surface, murmuring something under his breath. Ace wondered if anything was wrong.

Sometimes the TARDIS hummed to itself and you could feel that it was alive. Sometimes it was still, and it felt like it was waiting for something, like they had been not long ago. Now there was nothing, it sat in the middle of the paddy and was only there.

They had no light. Somebody lit a fire. Ace tried to move but she was too slow, the water was deeper now, up to her waist, pulling at her legs. She had no weapon, nothing.

'[S]losilo?' A man said, coming out from behind the Police Box, the man who had attacked her earlier. He was holding something out, something bright, Ace flinched, but it was a key. Only a key and she relaxed again. The TARDIS key.

The water was eating into her, the cold biting.

Another man appeared, holding the torch that had been lit, except she saw it was some kind of lantern, previously shuttered. About forty, with thin face and sunken eyes. In the flickering light she thought he looked like a grave-digger.

The Doctor reached for the key, and Ajlmo Dunstaro drew his hand back, just a little.

'Anta[u] vi iri, restis io vi diocezo' he said softly. The Doctor looked at him, curious, looked back at her. Ace wanted to shake her head, no, no, whatever it is, no.

The Doctor moved, or she thought he moved, but he was suddenly holding the key. He fumbled it into the lock, turned... His hand turned, the key didn't. He tried again, the key wouldn't move.

The Doctor slumped, letting his hand fall away, suddenly needing his TARDIS for support.

'Veni sur,' Ajlmo said. Ace wanted to hit him again, only harder. This time the Doctor followed the man, and Ace behind him. She rested a palm against the old blue surface on her way round, for luck.

Floating behind the TARDIS was a little barge, long and thin and flat. On the barge were two bodies. Wrapped around one was a white linen suit, crumpled, around the other a combat suit. It deflects lasers, Ace thought. Very useful that, could come in handy.

The clothes, and the bodies beneath them, were rigid, long frozen. But Ace could see little droplets of moisture forming on the flesh, and she knew it would be getting softer. Mushier, she thought.

'Dudek jaroj,' said Ajlmo.

'Twenty years,' whispered the Doctor.

He turned suddenly, looking out at the darkness around them. The arrow meant for his chest bounced off the TARDIS and sank beneath the water.

'Everybody down,' yelled Ace. 'Go, go.'

Ajlmo fell into the water with a splash, hitting the barge with a flailing arm. The bodies of the Doctor and Ace, long dead, rolled a little and stabilised. The Doctor, the live Doctor, slipped down under the surface like a disappearing act. Ace turned to see if Andreo and [G]esemio were under cover. The other man dropped the lantern and pure darkness fell.

Something pushed her backwards, against the TARDIS, and something clicked behind her. She looked down, couldn't see anything, but she felt the stick protruding from her stomach, the three taut feathers still quivering. She moved slightly and something scraped behind her, something hard against the time ship.

She clenched her teeth together, hard, resisting the urge to cry out in the sudden, shocking pain. She pressed her hands around the wet base of the arrow, pushing down to keep her guts in. But it was a small, clean wound, straight through. Left hand side, she thought. Stomach, small intestine, descending colon, perhaps the kidney. I think I'm going to be sick.

She slid into the water slowly, her jaw relaxing, her mouth open. She thought briefly of little fish made of rainbows, swimming in a field of eternal black roses, and then: Maybe they'll bury me side by side, and then nothing at all.


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