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Imperfect Copy

A Novel by David Carroll


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Short Stories

Tabula Rasa

Imperfect Copy: Chapter 11

by David Carroll, 1994

Respect your weapon. Know what it can or can't do, know the damage it can cause.

Ace stood alone in the endless stretch of grass south of Malvarmo. The Light had visibly brightened on the walk down here, but true dawn, measured by some abstract notion, was still half an hour away. It was cold, of course, it always was.

Respect your weapon. The archer had been a force to reckon with in ancient Britain. She remembered that somehow. The bow had been replaced by the musket in warfare, not for reasons of speed or range or deadliness, only because you could teach a man to shoot a gun in a couple of days.

Ace had been interested in archery at school, till she actually shot an arrow and it barely went three quarters of the way to the target.

She had witnessed wars conducted with bow and arrow, seen troops armed with lasers mown down by numbers and inferior firepower, their armour no protection against shafts of steel and wood. She had witnessed a horseman pluck a bird from the sky.

She'd once spent a couple of days fucking one of the Naturals, a guerrilla unit famed for their stealth and lack of reliance on technology. Couldn't be detected, couldn't be damped. If he had been as good with his bow as he had been a liar he would have been a force to contend with. Otherwise he had been rather boring.

Whatever she had thought about physical combat, that was unimportant, because now she had a new weapon to master, and she didn't have the benefits of practise from childhood.

She did, though, have a number of other advantages.

It was about a week into the rice harvest (or rizo rikolto), though she'd almost given up trying to impose either the seven or ten day week onto the local three-day cycle. She had worked hard in the last week, mostly tending the big wheels used to thresh the rice. Even the fact that the wheels had been powered by the force of the Markampo River to the north, the same lazy stretch of water attached to the boat-yard, hadn't seemed to make the job all that much easier.

She had learnt that the fairly constant weather patterns in the village allowed four harvests a year. The village was thus divided into quarters, as one quarter was being reaped, the others were at varying stages through the cycle. Everyone helped during the harvest, no matter which stretch of paddy they had jurisdiction over. Most of the actual reaping, threshing, and winnowing had been performed, the village was now turning its attention to the storage of the grain, and the utilisation of the by-product husks and straw.

That wasn't of particular concern to Ace. What did concern her was that, after her week's work, she had been allowed access to a weapon. Like all possessions in the village such things were essentially communal, though armaments were handled with a bit more caution than other goods. They were mostly used for hunting and individual protection whilst travelling, apparently. She had asked Andreo, and he had said the idea of mass combat was essentially unknown. She had pointed out the destruction of the village in the story he had told her during an Esperanto lesson, and he had laughed and said that was different.

No matter. She was now publicly armed, and it made her feel a whole lot better, and her knife was more comfortable on her belt than pressed against her spine in a makeshift sheath.

And now she stood in an empty field, a little before dawn as the rest of the village were asleep or preparing for the regular market that was being held this morning.

Her hair was tied back, as was now customary, and her sun-glasses were held away safe in her right hip-pocket. She wore leather shoes, woollen socks, her normal trousers, thick against the cold. A man's shirt, for practicality (though somewhere the custom of opposite-sided buttons for the sexes had been lost), and a tight jumper to give as little interference to her shooting as possible. She felt fine.

Her and the bow. Four foot two of smoothly carved wood.

Neither Andreo or the Doctor had been there, and it had been a slightly awkward conversation. Nevertheless she and the man had seemed to understand each other, as she had browsed through the stock he had, running an appreciative finger along the smooth surfaces.

He had a variety of lengths and styles, from simple carved wood (taksuso, the man had said) to the composite bows such as the one she had finally chosen. He had seemed pleased with her choice -- not the simple curve of traditional bows or the stabilised designs of the high-tech variety, but one with a flat centre section, curving backward near the ends. The bow had been made in vertical strips, wood on the outside, then lighter-coloured horn and finally a thin layer of sinew facing the archer. The cross-section was flat on one side, curved on the other, and a leather strip encircling the centre acted as both a hand grip and an arrow rest. The workmanship she deemed adequate for dependable performance. Strings proved to be a simpler decision, and she had chosen a length of 'tendeno' (no prizes for that one). She knew the sinew would tend to stretch in humidity and heat, but admitted the water content of the air was going to be reasonably constant, and the alternative linen wouldn't wear as well. She considered the offer of beeswax for the string before accepting. Even the presence of the sheen of wax would affect performance, but she was after consistency more than anything else and the wax would keep the weapon in better shape for longer. Weapon maintenance wasn't a chore, it was a habit.

She refused the little leather pads to protect the fingers from the taut string. Calluses she could also handle, and she didn't want to worry about fiddly little details during any possible action. He was more insistent about an arm guard, again a strap-on leather shield, and she took him up on it.

And arrows, of course. Six of the hunting arrows with heavy blunt heads -- the design offering a more efficient kill on small game -- six to practise with, having no more than a sharpened and fire-hardened end to the wood, and six 'proper' arrows, or so she thought of them. The treated bone heads were broad and sharp, used against larger game and man. Each was fletched with turkey feathers, if she guessed correctly, always two pale and one darker vane. Those she was given were twenty six or so inches in length, the distance from her chest to her outstretched arm and a bit more. A hunting quiver to wear against her back and, incidentally, a one-piece leather sheath for her knife, and she reckoned she was doing pretty well for herself.

She had watched the man in the shop (whose name had been Luko Lestano, about forty years old and looking prematurely grizzled) string the bow, holding one end against his foot while he slipped the little loop over the opposite end and into its little niche. He was slightly confused by her gestured insistence that he demonstrate the stance, and it was about then he seemed to realise she hadn't shot before.

His first response was to give her a different bow. She looked with dismay at the new weapon, a simple wooden one, the same strange curves as the original one but a little shorter -- and obviously weaker. She looked at him with puzzlement, restraining annoyance.

He smiled and, with the one she had chosen, moved smoothly into position, the arrow at full extension, held the stance for a second and relaxed. He offered it to her to try the same.

And she couldn't. At what she reckoned was a bit over thirty pounds she stopped, with a full third of the arrow still in front of the bow's body, and she simply couldn't put any more weight into the draw. Thirty pounds was ridiculous, even in her condition. She loosened, shook her arms, took it slowly and tried again. Unfamiliar muscles strained and she didn't do much better.

'Labori [g]is,' he said sympathetically, indicating the bow.

'Yeah,' she said, taking his word for it, and meekly accepted the smaller bow like the beginner she was.

He considered some more, and somehow managed to convey that it was important not to draw the bow without an arrow in it. Safety tip numero uno, or something. At her understanding nod he was apparently satisfied, and he again went into position for her, and she recognised it as a fully instinctual move, and acknowledged, to herself, the experience he had with his craft. He held the stance while she studied the position of his legs and arms, the bow held away from vertical, twenty degrees to the right, the arrow anchored high on the cheek, sight along the shaft, the three fingers holding the string and the light resting of the arrow between the top and middle digit. He showed her his own bow, a composite like her first one, over five foot long and with a string of silk no less, and they went outside and she watched him as he put an arrow into a four inch wide post from a hundred metres.

She knew 'dankon' for 'thank you', and he'd smiled at her and probably wished her luck.

Last night she had practised simply holding the bow. Not shooting it, that was for this morning. Just getting acquainted with the weapon, become used to the feel of the sinew and leather and wood against her hands.

Mimicking the man's stance as accurately as she could she then practised flipping an arrow out of the quiver and into the bow. Real Robin Hood territory, this. It was a bit of a juggling trick, the dark feather needed to be vertical to ensure proper nocking, but she had mastered similar tasks and it wasn't too hard. What had been difficult was assuming the stance and flipping the arrow from rest -- the weapon was unbalanced and tended to swing, or she'd clench it too tight and not position it correctly, or the string would catch on her arm, or the sheer length of the weapon would get in her way. She practised till the exertion took its toll on her stomach and then went to bed.

She had woken this morning in agony from the cramps, but had developed her own exercises to relieve the pain and was now ready to try a different stage of the training.

Time, in other words, to actually shoot an arrow.

The hair of the dog.

She assumed the stance, and drew back the bow. Full extension, forty pounds, the weight felt good. Not aimed at anything, not thinking about a destination, her thumb pressed against her cheek, using her back teeth as an anchor point. Almost casually she relaxed her fingers, letting the weight go, the string snapping forward, against the arm guard under her jumper, the arrow suddenly and simply gone.

She held her position for a second or two before looking for the projectile, caught a glimpse of it against the morning sky and lost it again.

She relaxed, shook her arms and legs in the chill air. Without hurry she took another arrow and resumed the stance, same feet position, same anchor point. She loosed again, same procedure. The weight on her arms vanishing, the soft whistle of wood and sinew through air. Don't follow the arrow's flight till you have completely finished the motion of shooting.

She relaxed again, and shot again, six times in all. On the fourth the bow slipped somehow in her grip, the release of tension jarred her hand and she lost it, the fast-moving string striking her torso, and she watched the weapon bounce a couple of times before settling, smugly, at her feet. She picked up the bow and the arrow and finished the set. Then, just strolling, she walked over to see the results.

She only found five of the arrows, scattered up to twenty metres apart, the closest eighty-five metres from the mark. She wouldn't have found half of them if the grass had been any longer.

She fired the five back the way she had came.

This time she made a conscious effort to watch each arrow's progress from the start, the shafts not flying in a straight line but seeming to twist, weaving from side to side as they left her. She also seemed to notice some spin on them, theorising it was created by the slight angle of the fletching feathers and the difference in drag between their two surfaces, stabilising the flight.

She found all the arrows this time, but they were spread over twice the area of the first group.

Again she shot the five, ignoring the flights as she had the first time, and now she was rewarded with a much lesser variation in their distribution, each travelling about a hundred and ten metres.

She repeated the procedure twice more, with no visible improvement in performance, and had a rest.

Know your weapon but, now, think of nothing. Think of water.

'What does the coral eat?' Ace asked, as she and the Doctor regarded the ceaseless roiling of the River Styx. It was an evening, the harvest two days away, the Light still good.

They had each tasted from the river, and it had reminded Ace of ship's water, endlessly recycled, clean again, sterile.

'And why bother recycling before it gets to this point?' she continued, kicking in some dirt. 'If the water cycle goes north to south it must all be transported back again outside the dome. Why not recycle on the way, it would be a lot more realistic for the natives.'

'I don't think realism was of primary concern to our designers or, at least, they had some other considerations. Why have a River of the Dead at all?'

The question wasn't rhetorical. Ace considered. 'Myth,' she said, 'the unknown, magic.'

'Keeps the population sane, at least, that would probably have been the theory. And maybe the sterilisation is just part of the magic. Maybe the coral is a garden wherein the gods can play.'

They looked over the waves.

'I've being trying to affect the Aleph Nul's computer system psychically, using the low range telepathic field of the population as a stabilising platform.'

Fletches. Ace dismissed the thought.

'Any luck?'

'Not at the moment, I seem to be able to locate power lines and the occasional decision circuit on a service pipe, but no localised processors. The theory's a bit vague, but I'd say the computers were shielded or simply spread very thinly. I'm now trying to find some pattern in the power distribution. It's a bit complicated.' The Doctor smiled. 'Like the key.'

TARDIS key. Gibberish. Outstretched hand. Ace lost it.

'And you can actually reprogram something if you find it?'

'With luck. I'm actually hoping for a simple "open door" command, even passive access to some unencoded databases would be useful. Or a metal detector.'

Ace nodded.

'Doctor,' she said.


'We're going to get out, aren't we? Nothing is insoluble, it's just a matter of time.'

The man nodded. 'A matter of time,' he said.

Ace opened her eyes. Andreo had said there were some targets down here somewhere, and it took a couple of minutes to find them neatly stacked against the boundary trees. Archery wasn't a favourite sport round here, she had been told, and hunting was a far better measure of skill. But these were here for the practise of those that wanted them, and Ace gladly took the opportunity. The targets were actually a frame made up of almost ten layers of loosely hanging, closely-knit nets, each separated by half an inch or two of space and the outer-most layer painted somehow with the familiar target. Ace looked at them dubiously, unsure of their ability to either stop or hold an arrow, and aware that a hit to the thin frame might collapse the structure. It didn't really matter, and since they were here she assumed they would do the job. She set up a single target and took a distance of forty metres.

Five arrows at a time again, no relaxation between shots, but no hurry either. She fired a lot flatter this time, and again she wasn't concerned with a destination, simply aware a target was there.

It took three salvos to get the arrows in any sort of consistent pattern, most of them even hitting the target, almost floating in the web that seemed woven so as to constrict around the shaft. Now she had the rhythm she let her eyes look at the target, see the position of the final shot in relation to the position the bow had been held in.

On the fifth salvo she was locking her elbow somehow, and the loosed string started hitting the area above that protected by the guard, her jumper not much not much of a shield. She moved her right shoulder fractionally forward to compensate and now the string was hitting her left breast.

She had to stop then, the skin was tender and the pain flared through her. She closed her eyes for forty-five seconds and willed the stubborn pain away.

She sighed and continued, fired one of the two training arrows left in her quiver. Managed a correct stance this time, but too stiff, the arrow sailing over the target by a couple of inches.

Her gut was behaving itself at least, but it was the rest of her that seemed to be complaining. If there had been a sun it would be high, and she went and sat in the diffused shade of a tree.

Block out everything, external sensation, internal complaint. Think of anything.

'Hey, I thought I saw...' Ace trailed off as the man turned to her, the same clear eyes and hair and face. He smiled when he saw her. It was the man she had found when she have left the Doctor, looking for help, the man on the horse. Only now he was standing outside la Varmega Loko, not looking totally unsurprised at seeing her.

'Saluton,' she said. 'Mi ne paroli Esperanton puto.'

'Mi a[u]di vi. Vi [s]ajni plibonigi de lasta tempo ni renkoni.'

Ace shook her head, uncomprehending. 'Last time? Lasta Tempo?'

He nodded, a little unsure himself. 'Aso,' Ace said, pointing to herself.

'U[c]tredo,' he replied. 'Fari vi... trinko? Sakeo?'

'You said the magic word. Jes, jes,' said Ace. And they went inside.

One arrow left, then she'd collect them all, have a quick look for the one she'd lost, and go back to see if anyone had missed her. It had been a good morning's work, and she was happy enough with her progress.

But she still had the last shot of the day.

In her time Ace had thrown shurikens and fired catapults and shot laser-rifles. None of them were easy, but she had persevered, built the rhythm of weaponry into her, learning to use instruments of war. Learning and developing decidedly non-trivial rituals in coping with a new weapon, a new situation, combat. Combat was always different.

But some things never change, not since her first throwing-star, embedded in the crumbling brick of a school wall.

Half aware of the target, the little circle of weld yellow, Ace picked up the bow, fitted the arrow smoothly, drew back, fired.

Thinking of mum.


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