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Imperfect Copy

A Novel by David Carroll


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Short Stories

Tabula Rasa

Imperfect Copy: Chapter 12

by David Carroll, 1994

The first time Ace held U[c]tredo in her arms she did it silently, her mind watched as her body acted and reacted; she had known of too many people who'd had their throat opened along with their legs to do it any other way.

But she liked U[c]tredo, liked his easy fitness and the humour in his eyes. He looked good in an unforced sort of way, and they could relax together, drink little wooden cups of sake or rice beer. And, to prove that the art of decent brewing was still alive and well, they'd alternate swigs from his little flagon of 'viskio', apparently otherwise unknown in this part of the world, distiled barley that was close enough to whisky for the name to fit. If it wasn't for the frequent similarities between Esperanto and her native tongue she didn't think she'd get anywhere with it, but she was progressing. Common Latin roots, said the Doctor.

What would he know?

U[c]tredo held his hand up and stroked along the side of her sunglasses.

'[S]irmokulvitroj,' she said. The Doctor had taught her that one, literally 'eye cover', as the population had no reference for a closer definition.

'[S]irmokulvitroj,' he said. 'Vi [c]iam porti ilin?'

That one was easy. "You" and "carry" she got, "vi" and "porti", the latter possibly also "wear". That made "ilin" "them" and, from context, she guessed "[C]iam" would be "always". She remembered something vaguely similar. It didn't matter, she knew what he was saying.

'Ne,' she said, and he slipped the glasses off, frankly staring into her naked eyes.

'Okuloy,' he said.

'Haroj', she said as his hand continued, entangling in her hair, running her own fingers lightly up his back, against his skin. They were in the stable of la Varmega Loko, no sign of that bloody kid, just the two of them and a couple of horses and the flickering light of a torch through the mostly shut door. A lot of hay, dry and soft, and as he removed her jumper ('pulovero') she felt the individual strands scratching against her skin, sensitive now, sensitive to everything. She pulled him close and kissed him, their tongues batting against each other, lapping and hungry as she made patterns on his skin with her fingers.

She removed her own belt when they separated, leaving the knife within easy reach, its position more useful as a distraction than anything else; she could handle herself without weapons. She removed his belt then, making teasing forays under the heavy cloth trousers before removing them.

'Sekso,' he whispered, intently. 'Mirinda. Seksa, sensama, Aso, bela Aso.'

She pulled him to herself again, hands everywhere, kissing him everywhere, and she was silent.

* * *

There are three times as many domesticated animals as humans in Malvarmo, not an unreasonable figure for an agricultural community. There are also more vets in the village than doctors, but only because there are currently two apprentices at what passes for the local animal hospital (and not if you include the Doctor who, apart from Ace's arrow wound and the resetting of a broken leg, has had other things on his mind).

It was one of the apprentices who answered the call about one of the Saliko cows that half fell against the side of a paddy and sprained one of its forelegs. The animal had been in some pain, but the application of a demulcent -- [???] and rutin -- bandage and sprint seemed to relieve the problem. Minor tearing above the leg was treated with a disinfectant paste. The apprentice was thanked and took up the offer of dinner with s-ino Saliko and her two sons. The cow was returned to pasture and now, three months later, has been brought into the centre of town for market day. Some traders from the north are down with a selection of wares not normally seen in this clime, and s-ino Saliko has brought along the more irritable of her two beasts, hoping for barter.

The cow is indeed troubled; it itches intolerably and can find no method of release from the irritation. It does not remember the day of the fall and has accepted the slight weakness in one leg as a natural part of being. But the itching, concentrated above the weak leg, is worse, always there, a distraction the cow recognises as foreign, a disruption to the simple patterns of feeding and excreting and rutting and the quick gratification of cowly pleasures. The itching is caused by an nest of parasitic worms that has formed in the original tearing, deeper than anything our unnamed apprentice vet considered at the time. Still not content in their dark and warm paradise, the worms have been expanding their territory, a small but significant percentage of their eggs surviving a quick trip through the cow's blood-stream to colonise elsewhere, the main nest growing about the hungry worms, carefully maintained under the skin, not breaking through into the hostile environment of the outside world.

The cow doesn't know this, but it knows it is sick. It cannot conceive of any response to this sickness, but feels it may soon find out.

* * *

'Hey, how about this?' Elizabeto called across the stall. [G]esemio moved over to the girl who was modelling a roll of garish cloth, finely woven cotton, treated and dyed. The pattern was intricate, geometric shapes in blue and green and red somehow melding with darker figures, abstract human shapes, seemingly no two alike.

'It's a bit bright,' the girl said dubiously.

'Yeah, but I thought I could use it for trim. Most of the material is too light to make anything decent out of. You'd freeze to death.'

Both of them were effortlessly ignoring the little man explaining the aesthetic features of the cloth, its durability and quality, it's ease of use for dressmaking.

'But you'd lose too much of the pattern. It's only really worth it if you can see what's going on.'

Elizabeto studied the fabric with a critical eye. 'Yeah,' she said and, tossing it back onto the pile, started going through a different stack of rolls.

[G]esemio left her friend, looking happy enough, to it. She was more interested in the food, anyhow. Having such a bland staple crop meant the Malvarmians were, as a rule, experts in the use of spices and interesting meat dishes. But still, the traders had brought down some malisa kuriado which she was stocking up on, with a reasonable variety of stuffings for the slightly bitter pastries. She also grabbed as much ka[c]igi frukto as she could get her hands on, wondering how much longer the fruit dish, already a little past its prime, was going to last. She might be able to get some space in the Cold Spot for personal storage and, anyway, she wasn't against eating the lot in one go -- as long as no-one was watching.

Raised voices. [G]esemio looked over. The normal background murmur resumed.

Elizabeto was stalking away from the stall, her back turned to the girl, but her posture was stiff -- denial and indignation.

[G]esemio ran after her friend, glaring at the stall-keeper. He spread his arms briefly to say he didn't know what happened. [G]esemio glared anyway.

She fell in line beside the girl, not too close, with an unforced gait. She held up some of the purée and Elizabeto smiled sadly, and shook her head. [G]esemio almost asked, but didn't. It didn't really matter what had happened.

'Do you want to go home?' she asked instead. Elizabeto shrugged and stopped. She looked at the roll of bright silk she had kept in her hands and at her friend, and just looking tired.

They lived together now. There was only so long [G]esemio could have stayed at the Hot Spot and the decision of lodging wasn't too difficult. Andreo had been right after all, [G]esemio had finally realised. He couldn't have approached this girl at the party, there was too much resentment in her. Resentment of males, resentment of the villagers. [G]esemio had once asked her, when she had been in a good mood, why she didn't move away.

'Where would I go?' the girl had replied, and [G]esemio hadn't answered.

Her moods were variable, and she was extremely sensitive to all sorts of things, but she was also a good housemate. And, well, Andreo was still treating [G]esemio no differently than anybody else.

(The little spat they had had or, rather, she had had, was long forgotten, and [G]esemio still did most of the farming she needed to do with the Akvistoj. Petro had said she was more than welcome after the loss of his daughter to marriage some time before she arrived in Malvarmo.)

She wasn't male, wasn't originally from the village, and Elizabeto needed her. Maybe Aso also fitted the bill, if she wasn't such a cold bitch. She was still at the Hot Spot, she and la Kuracisto still had a room each, hadn't been asked to move into permanent residence or move on.

[G]esemio moved her mind away from such a line of thought. It only struck her when she was feeling less than cheerful, which wasn't all that often. She moved back to the source of the current problem and put a comforting hand on Elizabeto's shoulder.

That gesture seemed to be the trigger. It wasn't, but that was an impression she would later remember. That was the point she heard the first shouts.

* * *

Ajlmo Dunstaro didn't usually come to the market, but today he had made an exception. He wasn't interested in what the Northerners had for trade, felt no need for bright fabrics or exotic preserved fruit or whatever else was on offer. He was simply interested in what his fellow villagers had that they considered worth trading. Just out of curiosity.

Perhaps, then, there is irony in what was going to happen but, if so, Ajlmo would never see it.

* * *

S-ino Saliko was in a bad mood. Her cow was considerably worse off. There were more people around it than it could ever remember seeing, more than it, in its own slow way, had ever considered existed. They were crowding round, and voices were raised and there was so much noise and movement. And strange smells, overpowering the evidence of its constant companions, the thin grass at its feet, its own hide and excreta.

S-ino Saliko slaps her beast on the back in frustration, and the pain suddenly wells up, the itching intolerable, and as its master only looks at the blood on her hands the cow half bucks, and swings it head to the left and the right, swinging at blurs of motion, and then it charges.

The women to its left steps back, stunned as the cow's short horn seems to go straight through her arm, finding a hidden room of pain within her, and the women screams. Her arm has flung backwards, and she doesn't feel somebody grab at her, pull her away, only wants to stop her arm from moving, stop it doing anything as she just keeps screaming.

The man on the cow's right was frozen by the scream, instinctively wanting to step forward, wanting to step back from the swinging mass of meat with crazy eyes. He was too slow, didn't do anything, just stood there and grunted as the weight of the cow crashed into his chest, the horn grinding against rib-bone, tearing at flesh, pushing him down, falling down. The man fell backwards against the railing behind him, felt distantly the dull click of his spine against the wood. Then he bounced forward, his body the sole property of the laws of physics, his mind only watching as his own sack of meat fall against the slashing hind legs of the cow, the beast already forgotten him, long gone.

A hoof connected with the side of his skull and he thought he heard something splinter, and everything was only red.

The people in the beast's direct path were quicker, and it swung its head, again and again at the fleeting forms, not knowing where it was going, crashing into a stall, sending shattered wood and woven mats flying. The cow almost tripped, knew it would never right itself again if it lost its balance and managed to keep on its feet. It shook its head, but the noise was louder, piercing its brain, the movement around it more frantic. And the pain inside him shifted over and over and clawed at him, like a predator, the cow thought somehow, something wild, though this cow had not felt such things for generations.

Something thudded into the cow's attention, a sharpening of pain. It looked up to see a man swinging something at it again, a look of fear in his eyes. The cow charged again, the man dropped his makeshift weapon and dived out of the way, only clipping his leg painfully against the heavy beast.

Children were scattering, mothers and fathers calling to their own, people were running. Away from the cow.

Mid-charge, almost incidentally, the cow realised they were all scared of it, scattering before it, there voices shrill, meaningless pleas.

Somewhere, in a place untouched by pain, the cow was enjoying itself.

A young human was in front of it, and it simply crashed through, aware of the body spinning aside. Another human ducked under its horns and away, and it swerved to catch one between its own bulk and another of the stalls.

The other animals were panicking. It could sense that, and it saw one of the horses bucking riderless, its own hooves fast and strong, its voice raised above the humans.

Something stepped in front of the cow, and it paused. Its charge had brought it to a larger space now, away from the constricting stalls, and it half saw a young human snatched from the ground to its left, held in comforting arms.

But something else was there, not far away. The cow considered charging again, throwing its body into the convulsive movement it had just discovered with itself. The pain riddled within his flesh, but there was something else.

A figure standing before him. A human figure. But something else.

It was looking at him, and it was very, very old.

The cow lowered its head, almost ashamed, hidden deep, in that place untouched by pain, where even cows have slow emotion.

It shook its head, trying to overcome the lethargy that was overtaking it.

To its right something moved. One of the gathered humans that had been so scared of it, and perhaps still was, if it could focus properly. But the human was holding a large flowing banner of something, distracting it, and away from the direct gaze of that figure, the cow found the strength to charge again.

The crowd scattered anew, the women with the roll of silk only vaguely seemed to realise why the beast was following her, when the silk was snatched away. A boy had grabbed the roll, was waving it and shouting, and the cow followed where it was led.

It only vaguely saw the figure standing on a table to one side, and paid it no heed.

The figure, almost casually, brought the heavy pole down in the centre of the cow's shoulders, a blow so placed and forced that it broke the cow's spine with a short and audible snap. And the cow felt a surge of everything and then nothing, and was simply no more.

* * *

Elizabeto stepped forward, tentatively. La Kuracisto looked almost embarrassed at the length of wood in his hand and jumped off the table, then he hurried away into the parting crowd. Andreo came over and offered Elizabeto the roll of silk that he had snatched from her. The girl didn't notice, so [G]esemio took it instead and, impulsively, leant forward and kissed the boy quickly on the cheek. He showed no surprise, just grinned back at her, no condemnation in his eyes. She laughed. Elizabeto took another step forward. The body of the cow lay at her feet, legs sprawled. There was still chaos around her, people were crying and some of the horses were only now being quietened. She stared down at the carcass of the animal that had charged her, swerving as she herself had swerved, its breath hot and laboured. It now looked like a pathetic mound, its legs like that. Except its head. Its head didn't look pathetic at all, and for a while Elizabeto just stared at it, half-smiling at the images growing in her mind.

* * *

Ajlmo Dunstaro felt broken and saw only red. He could hear a little though. He could hear a child crying nearby, and through all the rest of the sounds he knew that the child was dying. It was something in the voice.

And he too was dying, of course.

His little stall would be taken over by the Sanktemoj over at the tavern. Or maybe it wouldn't. He thought. Who needed it, after all. Who had really ever needed it.

There were no thoughts of recent plotting in his mind, no little glints of victory in his eyes. He half felt la Kuracisto's hand take his own, but he didn't know what it meant. As the red darkened and constricted around him, there was only bitterness in his heart.

La Kuracisto stayed with the man while he died, his head bowed, his eyes sad. Perhaps he felt the life slip out of the body, perhaps not.

He closed the old man's eyes and left him there to the ministrations of the gathering crowd.

Johano Lenkso was already examining the body of the young boy who had been crushed, his wife tending to the woman with the wounded arm. There were other casualties, but these were the worst, and the man lying and breathing coarsely, his body battered between hide and wood.

La Kuracisto went over to the boy and put his hand on Johano's shoulder. The man looked up and nodded. He stood and quickly organised stretchers and the preparation of equipment back at the little medical centre, before tending to another patient, leaving la Kuracisto to save the life of the child.

* * *

Ace knocked quickly and entered the room.

The Doctor looked briefly up from the book he was reading and smiled, waving her to sit. He turned a page. There were a number of books in the room, Ace had seen them when they had first arrived on one of the barges a couple of days ago. All the little shapes of wood and string and metal were still in the room, but most had been swept into an untidy pile against one wall and, judging by half-glimpses, she guessed there was at least half of that again under the bed.

The books were large, the calligraphy intricate. She had stumbled over a couple of the local volumes in her Esperanto lessons but, phonetic language or not, she had given the process up. Reading was hardly requisite at the moment, and conversational skills were taking precedence.

The Doctor turned another page, more of the same detailed script. 'It doesn't even have any pictures,' Ace said, though the joke sounded flat in her own ears.

The Doctor turned another page and, seeming to come to the end of a section, placed the book aside and looked at her.

'Philosophy, and a somewhat colourful use of metaphors along with it,' the little man said with a smile. 'It was banned at one time or another, but as far as I can determine it was because of a somewhat intimate relationship between the philosopher and a higher authority's wife. Then again, it could all have been slander spread by this man here,' his waved hand could have indicated any one of almost ten tomes. 'It's hard to tell.'

'It's nice to know you're keeping yourself amused,' the girl said. 'I mean, it's not like you had to get us out of this place or anything.'

The words were bitter, and even as she said them she regretted it.

'I'm sorry,' she said. 'I know what you're doing. I'm just... you know.'

What he was doing, as he had explained when the books had arrived, was searching for clues. To fully understand the culture and the history and the geography of this little floating bubble in space, in the hope that there was something they could use. Anything.

'How was the expedition?' the Doctor enquired.

She shrugged. 'Alright. Caught some eel, so that apparently puts me up to junior teen level. Anything I actually fired an arrow at sort of shambled out of the way. Seems I missed psycho bull in my absence, it may have been a easier target.'

The Doctor's hands were threatening to move back to the book beside him, so she pressed onto the matter she had come to see him about.

'Contraceptives,' she said.


'Well, I figured the shots I had in the TARDIS won't be effective because of the, you know,' she indicated her body with a wry grin, 'transplant?' she ventured.

'They have to have something applicable,' she continued, 'Elizabeto apparently never dropped anything unexpected, but I haven't figured out the local prescription system.'

'And if it is too late?'

The girl shrugged. 'Then you can abort it.'

'Hmmm. The main remedy used locally would be the leaves and stem of the kapro-piedo, Ipomoea pes-caprae by Earth terminology. The trouble with that is it simply brings on an early expulsion, accompanied by some degree of discomfort. There are better ways.'

'Yes?' said the girl.

'Solanum aviculare, I think,' said the Time Lord. 'A rain-forest shrub that I can extract solasodine from, acting as a cortisone substitute. There won't be too much of it around here, but I believe I have found reference to it growing near the North Eastern rim.'

'And...' said the girl, a half-smile on her face.

'And there happens to be some arriving on one of the barges due in about four days time. I will even be able to provide you with protection against the more likely forms of venereal disease.'

Ace shook her head in admiration. 'That's the great thing about you, Professor,' she said, slipping easily into old speech patterns, 'you'd never forget a birthday.'

'Well, if you let me get on with my study, I might be able to take you somewhere for the next one. Did I ever show you the Twelve Galaxies?'

'I'm not sure, I lost count. Still, you can't see the diamond sparkle every day of the week, can you? It would lose its shine.' She smiled, because she could indeed remember that beauty.

'I went down to the Cold Spot again,' she said.


'I don't know. It's just a big cavern with food in one section and some dead bodies in another. As long as you don't get them confused, it's fine. But... it's my grave, or the grave of a part of me, and it just seems to be a little uninteresting.'

The Doctor had said the area was likely caused by some malfunction in machinery below the surface of the village. That wasn't particularly encouraging, but there were two others within Harriso, and they had never seemed to cause harm yet beyond the occasional prolonged exposure. The Doctor had also pointed out that the cold must have come gradually if the cavern had been hollowed out by organic means. Certainly steel wouldn't have dented soil packed into the centre region where the temperature was most extreme. Or maybe it was all an unknown ploy by the original designers. As the Doctor had said, it's hard to tell.

'Not everything needs to be exciting,' said the Doctor. 'Just as not everything needs to be significant. Maybe somebody should have told that to the philosopher in question.'

'Yeah, and he would have replied by hitting you over the head with his book. Painful, that.'

'Very,' said the Doctor. And he started reading again. Ace got up and slipped quietly out of the room.

* * *

Erico had briefly looked on at the funeral from afar. It was a small affair and, even to the boy, that was a little reassuring. A dozen people standing round an open hole in the grass, the body unseen when he arrived at his vantage point of one of the trees.

He had not stayed long, just long enough to check.

At the last group of funerals everyone had been there, more or less. The villagers gathered together as if seeking shelter in each other's presence. The fire, the man, Vil[c]jo Trasto, Natalo Te[u]kro. Everyone had come together as if they couldn't stand to be alone.

He wondered how many people had marked how different that occasion had been, if everyone knew, or if it was only him.

There had been sorrow in the village in the last day or two over the death of Ajlmo Dunstaro. But it was private sorrow, not an unseemly display, and Erico had come anyway, to look at the burial -- the filling in of an unmarked grave. Everything was as it should be.

Erico climbed down from the tree to find Andreo there, waiting for him.

The stable-boy didn't speak, waited to see what this was about.

'Are you interested in the theatre?' Andreo said after a while. 'I'm sure you know we are trying to recover numbers from before the fire and I thought you might be approached on the subject.'

'The theatre?' Erico said dubiously. The older boy wasn't looking at him, his gaze sweeping the meadow is a distracted fashion. But it swung to met Erico's own, and his expression was serious.

'Yes,' said Andreo.

'I would like that,' said Erico softly, but with conviction in his voice.

Andreo nodded and gave him a friendly smile, and they walked back to the village together, talking.

* * *

The second time Ace held U[c]tredo in her arms she did it silently. They were in her room at the inn, and afterwards they just lay in the bed, no light but the faint glimmerings of the Fire outside.

He told her stories that she half-followed, not thinking about the words too much, just picking up all she could and following the gist. He didn't mind, they were content to lie against each other and he was content to talk.

He was a messenger for the government of Harriso, apparently a fairly loosely-knit structure residing in Centrejo -- not surprising situated at the exact centre of the huge dome. He usually didn't get up that way, apparently, but travelled in a huge loop round the southern area, keeping the information circulating and coordinating with other messengers in one of the bigger towns about a hundred kilometres to the north. His route was some three hundred kilometres long, and he travelled it every twelve or so days, stopping the night wherever was convenient. 'Mi veti,' said Ace, I bet, running a fingernail in circles round his left nipple.

He laughed and pulled her closer again, but she was silent.

* * *

The third time she held U[c]tredo in her arms they had been drinking at the tavern again, and she half told him a bit about herself, and la Kuracisto and la Dalekoj. They wandered into the night and managed to find the paddy with the TARDIS in it, managing not to get too wet in the process.

Ace felt the side of the time ship yet again, but it was dead, the almost subliminal hum that had always been there simply wasn't. It was just a darker shadow in the night, and the two sat on the four-month-old platform and finished the bottle of viskio between them.

They both knew how to drink, how far to go, and when to go too far. Tonight they didn't, and they held each other and felt the faintest breeze against their skins.

Ace stood up, and U[c]tredo stood beside her. They removed each other's clothes, and she had to move a little higher onto her toes to kiss him.

And then he had her against the TARDIS and they kissed each other hard, and his hands were over her face and along her arms and over her breasts and between her legs and her hands ran scratches down his back and kneading his buttocks and encompassing his sex and he was supporting her against the rough surface and they moved together in strenuous waves and she was not silent.

* * *

The day was warm, and even the cold under her wasn't a distraction, and [G]esemio lay comfortably on the grass, watching the performers. It wasn't always like this, of course. A lot of work was being put into logistics and writing and the making of props and the creation of backdrops and arguments about layouts and, yes, the learning of lines.

But although [G]esemio had looked in on a lot of the other stages of production, they held little actual interest for her. She had not, however, tired of this particular pleasure, just lying and watching.

She had seen enough to know that it all wasn't going as well as it could do. Andreo had underestimated the number of people who had seriously rejoined the venture, and there was little or no success being had in the building of a new theatre, or even the designing of one, judging from the contention on that score.

But there was some real talent still available, in a number of fields, and Andreo was doing a good job keeping them all talking to each other.

Andreo was beside her now, keeping a slightly sharper eye on the actors than she was, occasionally muttering under his breath, though whether she was a part of his intended audience was hard to tell.

And on the other side of Andreo, of course, was...

No she wasn't.

[G]esemio had glanced sideways and Aso was not to be seen. The girl always had a quiet way of moving around, a grace in her movement that [G]esemio both envied and disdained, and which, she admitted, could obviously still startle her.

If Andreo knew of the girl's disappearance, he gave no sign.

She sat up and glanced around.

Ten people, three performers stumbling over a speech. Nothing else, no Aso.

There was a sudden shout of surprise and fear, breaking into the day. And now the speech ceased altogether, and everyone was looking round.

Aso came out of the woods some fifty metres away, pushing somebody in front of her, out of a slightly thicker clump of the low lying bushes. It was a man, and he was walking in a scuttling, hunched fashion, the girl behind him and bent slightly over.

Everyone just watched as the two approached the group. The man's face was downcast, and nobody made any sign of recognition.

When they'd got within five metres everyone had seen the sharp bone knife pressed into the stranger's throat, realised why he was walking in such a fashion. And everyone flinched when Aso casually tripped the man, pushing to his hands and knees.

The knife hand had followed him down, and when the two had stopped the sudden movement the man was straining on the edge of his fingers caught between a knee in his back and the knife at his neck.

And, though she hadn't recognised him up to this point, not with that defeated walk, the travel-stained clothes, the too-long hair, something pulled at [G]esemio, and she felt suddenly faint.

'He say he knows you,' said Aso, addressing her, her, and now it was her that everyone was looking at, with sideways glances. Even Andreo was looking at her, though directly, and with an air of waiting.

[G]esemio took an unsteady step forward as the man focussed his terrified gaze on the people in front on him.

'Dad?' she said softly, with nothing but surprise in her voice.

Her father opened and closed his mouth once or twice in acknowledgement, but looked incapable of anything more.


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