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Imperfect Copy

A Novel by David Carroll


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Short Stories

Tabula Rasa

Imperfect Copy: Chapter 8

by David Carroll, 1994

When Ace woke up she felt terrible.

Her eyes batted and she sensed low level light, strangely coloured, before forcing them shut again. She got her breathing under control, through her mouth in the simple pacing of sleep, and tried to work out what was happening.

Mostly she just hurt.

Her legs were stiff and cramped, itching to be moved, her arms were tingling, a light fuzzy sensation moving over the skin. Pain washed in and out of her forehead with sickly rhythm and her throat felt both dry and thick with metallic-tasting slime. And her stomach... it ached, little jolts of pain moving in and out, submerged nauseas rising to sharper cadence in contact with air, then sinking once again. Ace smelt stale sweat and faint undertones of blood and piss and bile. The blanket over her was heavy, weighing her down, constricting and itchy. She heard nothing, all sensation was internal.

'Oh, God,' she groaned, swinging her head limply and trying to get her arms moving. 'Give us some fucken... some...' She rolled her head again, managed to see an indistinct shape moving against the blur. Heard it now. Too late. 'Water,' she said. 'Give us some water.'

She drank greedily of the proffered jug. Spilling half and gargling half to get rid of the layers built up in her throat, and managing to drink some, cold and comforting.

The jug was taken away from her and she snatched at it. Too slow, waist deep in water, too slow.

She lay back and panted and tried to calm things down, focused on specific pains, bring them under control. It didn't work too well, but then she always had thought this mind over body stuff was ninety percent bullshit.

After a while she pushed herself upward over her pillows, finding a more or less comfortable upright position. Just for the sensation she ran her fingers through hair damp with sweat, her too-long nails moving over residual layers built up on her scalp.

I must look great, she thought with an internal grin, and would have laughed if her stomach had been up to it. She opened her eyes to find Andreo standing over her, looking concerned.

'What I need,' she told him confidentially. 'Is a really hot shower. About half an hour long, lots of soap. Shampoo. I don't know, maybe a conditioner, just for the hell of it. Siouxie Sioux playing in the background and a bloody cold mango waiting when I've finished. What are the chances?'

He smiled. 'I could fix you a lukewarm bath next to a fire. I also sing. Badly.' And once again she would have laughed. But even as they shared the joke his English struck her again, as it had the first time, archaic, out-of-practice. She felt out of place, an intruder on the natural.

She dampened the hilarity, without too much effort, and regarded the boy seriously.

'What happened?' she asked, and Andreo's face grew solemn to match her own.

'We were attacked at the TARDIS, it was dark, no-one knew what was happening, you were getting everyone under cover.' Ace nodded impatiently, she knew this bit. 'And then you were hit and had gone under water and I dived down to try and find you. It wasn't easy but I managed to grab your arm in the muck somehow and drag you round the TARDIS, up to the air. I didn't know what was happening, but you were dying in my arms. Your wound wasn't messy, it wasn't so much the blood loss, it was the cold. I could feel the warmth almost falling out of you. So I held on to you, and kept you out of the water as best I could, propped against the TARDIS, and kept you warm. And when you stopped breathing I gave you mouth to mouth until you started again. And then the Doctor came. He had dry clothes which he wrapped you in.' She gave him a questioning look.

'From the assassin,' he continued. 'The Doctor had swum underwater in the direction of the attack until he found the edge of the paddy. And he also found this man people seem to call "the fair-haired man" for want of a better name. I can sort of imagine it, the man peering into the darkness, the Doctor coming out of the water silently. I think the man was knocked unconscious before he saw a thing. Your friend can be pretty scary at times.'

'Tell me about it,' Ace muttered, trying not to break the flow of the story.

'Well, he came back and wrapped you in the dry clothes, and simply carried you into town. Most people had gone to bed again, but not all of them had. Ajlmo and Timoteo, they were the people waiting at the TARDIS, had disappeared somewhere, so it was just the Doctor and you, me and [G]esemio behind you. He walked into town, carrying you in his arms, and nobody did anything. I think they were preparing to burn you alive when they first saw you, but he just walked calmly through them, in this direction,' (Ace had already recognised the room and bed in the GP's house she had woken up in that first time), 'and they didn't do a thing. I didn't see the Doctor's expression, I was behind him, but I don't think it was angry or defiant, do you know what I mean?'

Ace nodded. The Doctor had a calm expression that simply said I know the truth of the matter. She saw herself being carried by the small man through the dark streets, people with torches stepping back, letting them pass. Andreo's voice had been reverential in his description, and Ace understood why. The Doctor could be scary, and she knew he could be a lot of other things as well.

Stuff all the manipulations, the arguments, the games they had played with each other. Ace knew she was so lucky to know this man, so lucky to be following in his footsteps, if only for a part of the journey.

She closed her eyes for a bit and lay back and thought about nothing, just resting in the sensation of being. She opened her eyes again, sensing the story wasn't over. Andreo gave her another drink, longer this time, and promised there would be food coming. He kept talking.

'He took you here, the Lenkso place,' he said. 'The beds were occupied with people injured in the fire at the theatre, but more beds had been brought, and Helano and the two doctors had given up their own beds, were sleeping at the Hot Spot. You were delirious, drifting in and out of consciousness, and the bleeding was getting worse. The Doctor said there was a lot of internal damage, the arrow head had gone all the way through, but the shaft had splintered inside you.'

Ace could imagine it. Most of the wars she had fought were with energy weapons, lethal, but also clean, self-cauterising. Some of them, like the Daleks' weapon of choice, didn't leave a mark, just messed you round internally, and only a peripheral hit on a limb was survivable. She had fought battles with her own hands, and broken bottles and the razor-sharp edges of shattered plastic stools. She had even used a sword now and then, a terrible weapon, clumsy, ill-suited to butchery, they mostly left haphazard wounds, shallow and inefficient. Vibratory weapons were almost as bad, tending to jar off bones at odd angles, sending flesh flying all over the place. She had known people skilled in the art of killing with both the low and high-tech versions of a length of steel, and had admired them, for their tenacity at least. But Indiana Jones had the right idea. Physical combat was messy, needlessly painful and, she admitted, the most fun you can have with somebody you don't like. She sighed. Fighting was adrenalin and gut fear and exaltation in movement, and nothing did it to you like someone in close, swinging something large and heavy.

Arrows were cheating, the worst of both worlds.

She sighed again, and realised that all this reflection, these delaying tactics, weren't going to stop her thinking about what had gone on in her guts. She still felt the nausea and the pain there, though the rest of her body was calming down, and she realised she had to see, before she was told.

She threw back the blanket and stretched her legs in their new freedom. Andreo had paused in the story, waiting her to refocus on the narrative. But she was only dimly aware of him as she pulled up the simple nightie and looked on the bare flat flesh of her stomach. She was also only vaguely conscious of the makeshift and absurd-looking nappy she was wearing. All that was unimportant.

'Oh my God,' she said. 'He operated, didn't he? What in hell with?'

Her flesh was mottled, looking sick in grey and white and pink. And forming a neat cross three inches in diameter, to the left and a couple of centimetres higher than her navel, the skin had been sewn together, thin green strands crisscrossing the incisions, the edges of which had been tucked neatly away.

'Bone knifes,' Andreo said distantly. 'Needles, wooden bowls, clamps tied with string. It took him two days preparation, and I think he was expecting you to die in every hour of those days. I know the rest of us did. And then he opened you up and...' Ace thought the boy may have shrugged. She was still looking at the scar, and things kept floating through her mind like anaesthetic and antiseptics and sterile operating theatres and laser scalpels.

'I had to help with some of it,' the boy said, still distant. 'When Gelenkso [???] and Telmo were exhausted. She's their current student. I don't really want to tell you what it was like, but...' He paused, then started again. 'There wasn't much blood-loss, during the actual... you know. He said he didn't have time to prepare transfusion equipment, said there were ways of "persuading" the blood not to flow along certain channels. I don't know what he did, not really, I didn't watch too closely. But when he'd finished he sewed you up again, we found him some limegrass, he said it was strong enough and would dissolve later in the right conditions. And you are still alive.'

'Yes,' said Ace, pulling down the nightie and getting back under the covers. 'Yes, I am.'

Her mind was floating, finding all sorts of random associations, debris from [twenty-six] years of existence. She thought briefly about the two corpses they had found next to the TARDIS. Andreo hadn't mentioned them, and before her mind wandered on she knew she didn't want to ask.

'Where's the food,' she said shakily, 'I'm starving.'

'I'll just...' said the boy, but she opened her eyes, looked at him and he broke off.

'How did you know mouth-to-mouth resuscitation?' she asked.

'We're not complete savages,' the boy replied evenly. 'We may live in wooden huts but we have had many thousands of years of learning behind us. It is something we are taught.' Ace nodded, not yet satisfied.

'How did you know Siouxie Sioux was a singer?'

'I guessed, it wasn't hard in context.'

Ace smiled. 'Yes. I want to thank you for my life. Thank you for everything.'

He smiled at her, and she reached over and squeezed his hand, hard, feeling his strength and his warmth, and she smiled back.

When the food came, she was asleep again.

* * *

'Some, ah, some... yes.'

Johano Lenkso, gesturing vaguely across the table, was passed the little jug of brown sauce by his daughter, poured it sparingly over the beans and steak. The Light was dimming fast, and they had two torches lit for the extra illumination, burning sweetly with mosquito repellant.

He was tired and slightly sore. He had been out of the village all afternoon, overseeing the birth of a child on one of the outlying vegetable farms, some half an hour's ride away. At least the kid had the decency to arrive at a convenient hour, he thought. He was feeling happy with the world, births did that for him. It had had complications, the birth this afternoon. The mother had been in a great deal of pain, barely able to hold her baby once it had been delivered, let alone smile at it, or acknowledge his help. But hold it she did, while her husband held her, and Johano had known again why he did the things he did.

Also at the dinner table was his wife and Telmo, left to tend the surgery all day. A messy but shallow wound caused by a slipped tool at the blacksmith's, some sort of stomach bug that had moved on from a boy to his sister. Johano knew the family, of course he did, and when his wife told him about the case he laughed, and said it was probably the cooking. Evo had laughed in return and agreed.

Telmo was laughing at something now, nothing medical, as that subject was banned from the dinner table. She was a good kid, a little slow sometimes, but eager to learn the craft. And she understood -- he had seen it in her that she knew why she wanted to do this job.

Helano was eating, and regarding proceedings around her with a faintly amused look.

'How'd the meeting go?' he asked his daughter between mouthfuls.

'Good,' she shrugged, though he knew the little smile she wore said she was pleased. 'We've got to start preparation for the harvest next week, and Stefano Niho's requested some extensions. Wants a larger shed and some more storage. We asked him about all the equipment that needed moving, and he had no idea. He seemed somewhat unorganised but,' she shrugged again, 'we're thinking about it.'

'And what will the verdict be?' asked Evo, 'or is that contempt of council?'

'Oh, we'll give it to him alright,' said Helano, and her smile broadened. 'And I've been given council liaison on the project.'

Evo gasped with no small delight, and Johano also grinned. 'Well,' he said. 'Congratulations appear to be in order.' Telmo raised her glass, and all three Lenksos followed as one.

After the impromptu toast Johano met his wife's eye and held it, the two looking at each other, knowing each other. They hadn't slept together in years, in some strange way there had seemed no need. And if she knew about his visits with Elizabeto, well, they had never been too much of a secret. And even they were now finished, and he had felt a sharp stab of anger at the news, but no lasting grief. Johano and Evo worked well together, they knew each other. And though disparaging the council at every available opportunity they knew their daughter, her quiet stares and strange moods, and they knew she wanted this job, and would be good at it.

They broke the gaze, moving back to finish their meal. And Johano knew again why he did the things he did.

* * *

'You should be in bed,' said the Doctor.

'Yeah, well,' said Ace.

The wind blew over them, cold, from the East, but not very strongly. The water stirred around them, and Ace had seen fish swimming between green and untended shoots, ugly things, fat and dull grey and lazy. No fish now, scared by the ill-defined shadow of her legs over water.

Cold water. Waist deep.

She resisted an urge to break the still surface, brush her fingers against the submerged weed, pale and scraggy. It's the light, she thought. The light shining from the unbroken sky was flat, as if the hours-old dawn hadn't ended. Nothing looks good under a light like this.

'What are you doing?' she asked, as the Doctor searched through the tangle of bits and pieces scattered around his little platform someone had built beside the TARDIS. The Doctor grunted, finding the nondescript cog he was looking for. 'Building...' he said, fixing the cog to a spindle on the foot-high thing sitting before his crossed legs, spinning the cog freely then pushing it into place with a small click. He looked pleased, and finished the sentence. '...a key. Fortunately the amount of voltage isn't of concern, it's the pattern of the current, quite tricky, but you don't build these things so just anyone can walk into them.'

Inside the thing, which seemed little more than a concentration of the mess surrounding the little man, there was some sort of wheel containing a wooden spoke the size and shape of a new pencil. It looked like it was designed to spin inside the wheel, rubbing a small pad of some heavy material over the inside surface. Ace's eyes started deciphering the wheels and supports and pulleys held taut with string, a three-dimensional puzzle with a twist she couldn't quite see. She followed the little mechanics around the same self-contained circle twice before giving up.

'Static electricity?' she said incredulously. 'What are you going to do, stick one finger in the dojigger and another in the keyhole?'

'No, no...' he said, still in the same distracted voice. He was searching again, and his hands found two lengths of metal and passed them to her, but the search continued. 'From my umbrella, of course. There are some internal connections made with bits of badges, but not too many. The village has only kept two of the spokes, the rest of it has gone north somewhere, along with the TARDIS key. Nobody's quite sure where, probably caused all sorts of controversy then got stuck in a drawer somewhere, so...' He indicated his contraption with a slight smile, fiddling with something in his hands. Ace just wanted to hear him talk, listen to the familiar voice as she gazed across the paddy. 'Anyway, we're lucky even to have these, or so I'm told. A couple of years back there was some big theft, all Malvarmo's valuables were stolen, these among them.'

'They don't seem to have gone too far,' Ace murmured.

'No. [G]ako was a bit short on details, but apparently the thief was caught in some village thirty kilometres that way,' the Doctor waved vaguely, 'and was hung on the spot.'

'Well, he won't be doing that again, will he?'

'Apparently not. Anyway, the spokes will conduct well enough, stabilising the flow for control purposes is the main problem.'

'Doctor,' said Ace.


'What's going on? Where are we, why are we here, who owned the stiffs that guy showed us, and when...' she considered, 'when do we get out of this shithole?'

'Ah,' said the Doctor. 'It's a bit of a long story.'

'That's never stopped you before.'

He turned his attention away from his apparatus and looked at her properly for the first time. 'It's good to see you,' he said, 'we were a bit worried about you for a time.'

'Yeah, Andreo showed me your handiwork. Hell, I don't even know when that was, time's been a bit strange lately.'

'You first woke up six days ago, I believe. You've been out before that for some time.'

Ace grinned. 'No wonder I feel hungry, though since I doubt they've invented the drip I can't see how they fed me at all.'

'Don't underestimate what can be achieved with the materials at hand, you should know that. Anyway, it wasn't necessary. I woke and fed you under hypnosis, liquids to start with of course, solids after a while. You should have no trouble eating most foods at the moment.'

'Yeah, yeah, but if pain persists. I'm actually not too interested in the gory bits right at this instant. But yes, it's good to see you too. Good to be here, I suppose. If I knew where here was.' She glanced once more round the flat countryside under the dull light. The TARDIS was real, solid and blue, sitting in the middle of an abandoned rice paddy, and now with an obviously hastily-constructed walk-way snaking over the water to this platform. The village was small with distance behind her, the trees perhaps a little more numerous than on the farms closer in.

She just gazed into the distance, at nothing in particular, and listened as the Doctor told his story.

'During the early years of the twenty second century the Earth governments were in somewhat of an apathetic state when it came to space travel and colonisation. The solar system was fully colonised more or less, but no cost-effective interstellar travel had been developed, and the only substantial thing space had offered thus far was warfare, and the planet was having quite enough of its own internal problems in that regard as it was.

'There were still, of course, many individuals interested in seeing Humanity gain a foothold beyond its current domain. One of these was an Edwar Harrison, the administrative and possibly creative talent behind a company called Jseda Technology. The company put out a series of advertisements calling for colonists on an "Eternity Ship", as they called it, a fully self-contained vessel built to travel at sub-light speed through the interstellar void.'

'What, a generation ship?'

'In principle, but with one main difference. The Eternity ship didn't have a destination, it just travelled, and was designed to maintain its passengers and their descendants for,' the Doctor shrugged, 'eternity.'

'Yeah, and what's the catch?'

'The catch was that they never went anywhere. Before the Aleph Nul, the first ship in the fleet, was even completed the company come under the intense scrutiny of some government body. The full details weren't released to the public, but apparently there was a lot of illegal technology and dirty politics being thrown around in the construction process and the project was cancelled. Harrison was thrown in gaol for a couple of life-spans, all monies refunded, and that's about all there was to it.'

He paused, looked around at his mess of recently-carved components strewn over the wooden planks, looked into the same distance that held Ace's attention. The girl waited for him to continue, for the inevitable conclusion.

'Except I now believe there was more to it than that, and that this world called Harriso is simply the interior of the Aleph Nul or one of its planned sisters, the ship completed and launched without public knowledge. It should have been obvious, I suppose. The double-'R' in "Harriso" puts the word outside standard Esperanto, it shouldn't have been that hard to trace it back to its origin.'

Ace looked at the Doctor, though he wore the same distracted expression. She shrugged. 'Yeah, don't know why I didn't do it myself. So, do you know how far out we are, how long ago the ship was launched?'

'No. By the local calendar it is the year 1640, and this is supposedly measured since the departure from Earth. But the current generation don't seem to know a great deal about their history. They don't know anything about the Earth they left, and the word "Kosmo[s]pio", spaceship, is just another proper noun. Even in what passes for reference material in the village there are some worrying contradictions in dates. It's a somewhat arbitrary question, but I think this ship has been travelling for a lot longer than sixteen centuries. Of course, it's possible that the history is manufactured and we are only one generation from blast-off. We could conceivably still be in dry-dock, and be able to walk off if we could find the door. But I don't think so, for various reasons. I think we can assume we are somewhat isolated.'

'Yeah,' said Ace. 'It's a long way to the shop if you want a sausage roll. That's all very nice, but it doesn't answer any of the nitpicky little details like that.' She threw a glance at the TARDIS, solid and friendly and closed to them.

'Yes, yes, I'm getting to that.'

He had found and was fitting another component, in no great hurry. Ace stood up, stretched her legs which still felt stiff and lethargic. The walk out here had tired her, a fact that had silently distressed her. Her body felt fuzzy, slowing her thoughts, jumbling the questions in her head. She twisted her neck from side to side, stretched her arms out backwards and swung them through the air, feeling the taut muscles protesting. The Doctor started speaking again and Ace resumed her position, feeling the roughly-hewn planks through her warm trousers, her feet dangling over the water. It didn't take long, however, to forget sensation, and concentrate only on the words.

'Have you ever heard the maxim that you can't stop progress, that once an idea has been had it cannot be suppressed? It's an attractive notion, but it doesn't make much sense. Researchers bicker, results are kept secret and are finally lost. I don't know how often time tunnel technology has been developed on Earth, but I have seen several examples. Each built from scratch, published in obscurity or ridicule, self-contained and finally self-destructive. Do you know what I mean?'

Ace shrugged. The questions were rhetoric, but by his slow build-up she judged he was leading somewhere she wouldn't want to go. The Doctor continued.

'Another such idea is essence technology. The essence is an extremely tight-band energy field associated with sentient beings, the final link between a massively parallel neuron structure and self-awareness, both a copy and an influence on the physical brain. To those societies who do discover the energy field it often becomes the representation of the soul, particularly since the inevitable release of such energy signifies true death. Essence release is a short-lived but intense phenomena, and there is nothing mystical about it, despite the essence being linked to psionic awareness. Such a release can be measured, quantified and stored. There have even been creatures who fed on such an energy release, and their existence was an abomination.'

'Was?' said Ace, but the Doctor smiled quickly, without mirth, and continued.

'The people of Earth have never held onto such technology, and whenever it appears it has been suppressed efficiently and ruthlessly. But it has appeared, from time to time, and I am saying that it is more than possible that Jseda Technology had access to it, used it in the design of this spaceship and the management of its population. Any essence release can be recorded, and with access to genetic and physical information at the time of death, a body can be regrown, the actual brain function reimposed. A death can be... reversed.'

'You're saying that people can be... copied.' Ace finally knew what this was about, and suddenly this was no longer a short and troubled stop-over in an alien village, no longer seemed like something so temporary. Her mouth was dry with familiar fear, but she felt no adrenalin rush, none of the thrill that is the usual companion of fear. She felt cold and tired, and she didn't flinch, but finished listening to what the Doctor had to say.

'Copied, stored, mass-produced, regressed, interchanged, whatever is required. The technology is impartial.'

'And so we're... I mean, those bodies we saw are...'

'Those bodies are the Doctor and his friend Ace, who died almost twenty years ago. But, listen to me, I want to tell you something important.'

She listened.

'I am the Doctor, and you are my friend Ace. Yes? Do you feel any different?'

She felt cold and tired, and now she felt empty. Not betrayed, not by the Doctor, or Glitz or any of the ones she had thrown her heart at, wanting something, no, no, but again and again. Her guts ached, and she felt a bit dizzy, her blood sugar low and under-compensating for shock.

But Ace held herself in check, concentrated on herself, her limbs and skin and torso, on what they felt like to be inside of. She concentrated on her memories, looking for contradictions, weak-spots, things that shouldn't be.

'No,' she said. 'I feel fine.'

The Doctor was holding her now, somehow, held her at arm's length and looked her in the eye. 'Yes?' he said gently.


He embraced her, lending her warmth, and for a brief instant she relaxed against him, as to a father. But then she stiffened, and pulled away. 'It's fine,' she said. 'I can handle it.'

He nodded, and resumed work. A little cog turned, by some mechanism pushing the inner spoke round the wheel, but slowly.

'Two things,' she said.

'And two in return.'

'What killed us?'

'I don't know. There isn't a mark on the bodies, nothing else I can determine now, and while several people remember our visit, our bodies were found in that condition, unexplained. My turn. I know you will continue your exercises, but go easily on your stomach. If you start bleeding internally I may not be able to help you in time. Exercise your arms and legs, go for walks, build up to heavier stuff.'

She nodded briefly. 'If you had,' she said, 'a reliable battery, proper connections and fine control, would you be able to open that door?'

'I don't know, but I think I could. And I would try.'

She nodded again, slower. He pulled something out of a trouser pocket. 'These were stored with the umbrella spokes, I thought you might want them.' He tossed her a pair of sunglasses, her sunglasses, the black surfaces not even dulled by time. She put them on and, stealing a short piece of string from the Doctor's mess, she tied her hair back into its familiar ponytail. She smiled down at him. 'You're the doctor,' she said, and turned to walk back to the village.

He looked after her for a while, then continued working on his key.


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