The fortune-teller's act was over. The avocado troll stood up.
Now was her chance. With Imran looking after the audience, and the three Divine Mothers on guard against the Gods of Ragnarok, she was free to leave the Big Top for a moment. On the pretense of making sure her team of TARDIS twelve were ready for their act, she went out to check on Kid.
The team stood, dozing, just outside an entrance leading to the wings of the Big Top.
"Hey, Sweetheart," she said, going up to the leader, reaching up to pat her on the shoulder. "How are you? Are Mags and Kingpin treating you well? You ready for your act?"
The leader lowered her head, and the troll looked into the 'horse's' eye. There was a brief flicker, like the movement of a camera shutter, and the avocado troll could see through the eye (like a window) to the inside of the TARDIS: the main dance hall, lined with stalls, the grand buffets reduced to a few leftover rolls and pieces of cheese. Several of the streamers had started to fall, and the balloons were looking limp and wrinkled.
"Let me see Kid," the troll said quietly.
The leader's head snapped up, tense, setting the bells on her harness jangling loudly, her ears flat against her head.
"I-is he really so hurt?" the troll asked. "Does he still want nothing to do with me? I... I only want to make sure he is all right. ...And I need to apologize ...even if he'd never accept it."
Her TARDIS, in the persona of the horse, relaxed visibly. But her head remained high, her neck, arched. The back of the circus wagon opened, and a gangplank lowered to the ground.
The troll sighed. "You're right," she said. "He deserves his apology face to face."
She made her way across the campground to the wagon. And despite the warmth of the summer night, she turned up the collar of her ringmaster's coat, and hugged herself.
Once inside, she hesitated. She'd never been to her TARDIS's zero room, and wasn't sure if she could find her way, or if she'd even recognize it when she got there. As if in response to her unspoken questions, a door appeared in the back of one of the stalls, where none had been before.
Going through it, the troll found herself in a corridor, or rather a tunnel, only as high and as wide as it needed to be to let her through, and only lit brightly enough to give her some sense of direction and orientation. The troll suspected that, ordinarily, there were no corridors leading to the zero room, that it existed as truly separate from the rest of the universe, and that the TARDIS was creating a tunnel at the moment only to lead her there. After the zero room was no longer needed by anyone other than the TARDIS herself, she suspected all passageways leading to it would disappear again, if they weren't already disappearing just behind her last step.
Eventually, the tunnel ended at a high, arched door, and the troll knew that beyond it was Kid Curry, and the apology she needed to make. She pressed her hand against it, and the door swung inward silently.
What she saw made her gasp: a universe of stars, stretching overhead in a high, domed ceiling -- like a planetarium, but also stretching outward along the walls -- more stars than any human or troll had ever seen before, as if she were looking in all directions of time, as well as space, at all the stars that ever were, and ever will be. Only the floor was dark and smooth, and she wondered if that was for Kid Curry's benefit.
"You come back here to check on your little pet?" His voice cut through her amazement, and she looked down toward his hunched form.
"Oh, C-Kid..." she corrected herself, grateful that both halves of his name started with the same sound, and he would never know.
"Put me away in a pretty little cage, with food and water," he continued, "where I can't cause any more trouble?"
Now that her eyes were adjusting to her surroundings, she could see him -- sitting on the gound with his knees hugged tightly to his chest, his forehead resting between them, as curled in upon himself as it was possible for a man to be.
"You're not the cause of our trouble, Kid," she assured him, "far from it. The Gods of Ragnarok attacked you. They hit you hard. I was afraid that if they struck again, it would've been the end of you. And then where would we be?"
"Better off, most likely."
"It's over, isn't it?"
"'It ain't over till the fat lady sings.' And this fat lady," she said, tapping her thumb against her chest, "ain't gonna sing until you and I can do a duet at the victory party."
"Got no reason to sing. I've failed. I let my ... I failed."
"Kid, look at me. Please. I have something I need to say to you, and if I'm going say it right, I've got to look you in the eye."
Slowly, he raised his head, and looked at her.
She could see his past there, in his eyes -- all his fears, regrets, rages, and murders -- like the shadows of fish swimming below the surface of a lake. She felt a chill to her very marrow. But she did not look away.
"You have every right to be angry with me, Kid," she said. "You have a right to be furious. I know, deep in my bones, that it's wrong to enter someone's mind without his permission. But I got scared, and I let fear do all my thinking for me. And that made me stupid, and clumsy. And I hurt you." As she spoke, she remembered the pain she felt in his mind just before she pulled away: the confusion, fury, humiliation, and desperate loneliness, as if it were her own. Tears, barely noticed, flowed from her eyes, and down to the end of her long nose. "I'm sorry. I am so, so, sorry."
"What were you so scared of?" The question was automatic, his voice, flat.
A little sound, somewhere between a sob and a laugh, came from her throat. "This," she said. "That the Gods of Ragnarok would strike you down and take away our strongest defense."
"So that is how you see me," he said, "as a guard dog -- an animal you can train and tame and call your own."
She sighed. "I'll admit, C-Kid," she said, "I can't say I like you. If I'd met you anywhere outside the Hoedown, where everyone is welcome, I would have crossed the street to stay out of your way. But you've earned my respect. The way you didn't spit out that jellybaby I offered you, even if you hated the taste. The way you risked your life for a bunch of strange strangers, when you thought the TARDIS was going to go into that cliff face. The way you're willing to fight for the survival of Vortex City, even if most of the folks there would like to see you on the gallows. The world is full of murderers and outlaws. Most of them, though, pretend to be heroes. Most of all, you are honest about yourself. And that's something a weak man could never do. If I could change you, I doubt my fiddling would lead to anything better."
"You pretended to be the Contessa," he said, anger returning to his voice (and she was glad of it -- at least it was a sign of life). "You called me 'Curry', just like she does, to get my attention."
The troll shook her head. "It wasn't on purpose," she said. "I admit: I was clumsy, and wasn't thinking it through. If I had been, if I hadn't panicked, I would have done more to announce to you that it was me. But I never meant to deceive you. Being in a person's mind," she explained, "is a bit like going into a crammed attic: memories, knowledge, wishes, all jumbled together. I reached out for 'name', for your identity, and I hit upon 'Curry' because that's the name I found there. It's how you think of yourself, and now," she admitted, "it's how I think of you."
"How much did you see up there... in that ... attic?"
"Not much: only that you're desperately lonely, and you want to go home, and you wanted it to be the Contessa who was contacting you -- not me. I was trying to tell you," she said, "not to change, not to be a hero. The Gods of Ragnarok are stealing our energy, trying to trap our souls. We're fighting back as best we can. But we could sure use a thief on our side."
"The charm's broke," he said, sagging into himself once more. "Turns out I wasn't worthy of it, after all."
"I think..." she said, "that the lamp has gone out, but it's not shattered. If you can find the spark inside yourself, you can reignite it." She stood, stiffly. "I need to get back," she said. "The intermission can't go on for much longer, and I need to announce our next act."
"'Our next act'? But don't the Gods go first?"
"Not any more. The Powers That Be ruled against us. The Gods of Ragnarok have the last word on all the acts, now. Still, if they break many more rules, then maybe we would have enough to raise formal grievances against Them, and turn the tables back again."
"So they did cheat."
"They attacked you, didn't they? I'd say that was out of line."
The door to the zero room opened, and the avocado troll got the message. She didn't want to leave that haven. But she didn't have much choice.
"We'd love to have you back, Curry," she said, before she left, "if you're feeling strong enough for the battle."
A pockmarked brass ceiling. No mirror behind the bar; only fly-specked boards, stained with the rings of old bottles. There was a stale smell of beer, and the Contessa's skirts dragged in the spills of last night's drink. She paid it no mind.
None of the regular women were present to ply their trade at this hour, and there were only a handful of daytime drunks. But such as it was, the whole saloon had fallen silent, watching her. Famished eyes devoured the gold at wrists and ears, the tight-bodiced silk, the moonstone glimmer of her pearls. The Contessa moved calmly among them, at home here where no lady would venture. She had drawn blank at the Grand Hotel and the rooming-houses downtown. The saloons held no qualms for her. If she still found no trace of the man she sought, there were rougher joints than this to be checked by far...
The barkeep was heavy-eyed and slow. She had to repeat her question twice before a faint spark of understanding flickered, back in the recesses of his gaze.
"Never seen him..." His voice held a sullen satisfaction in having bad news to import. "He don't drink here -- never did."
"So I can well believe," the Contessa agreed softly.
For a moment, under her cool glance, smeared glasses and scarred tables sprang into sudden, unwelcome clarity, and the barkeep shuffled. "Wait a minute..." Hastily now. "Here, Slick -- didn't you hear tell this Doc Gallifrey left town, more'n a week back?"
Slick raised rheumy eyes from the empty shot-glass he was nursing, blinking agreement. "Left town nine days gone, headed south." A wheezing thread of a voice. "He done me a good turn once, and old Slick don't ever forget a face. 'Slick,' he says, 'if them boys ever come back, you tell them from me they won't get off next time so easy.' And they never did."
His head began to drift downwards, nodding away again into the past, and the Contessa sank swiftly down beside him, her skirts billowing unheeded across the unswept floor. "You saw him?" Her face was turned up close to the graying stubble of his, without flinching from his breath. "You saw him go?"
The old man shrank from her insistence. "Sure I saw him... headed south. Old Slick, he don't forget a face..." She could get nothing more.
But up and down the tail-end of Main Street, the word was the same. Doc Gallifrey had been in town. Had talked with George, chewed over the fat with Harvey, passed the time of day with Morg and Seth -- his face growing more grave and set in every report she gleaned. He'd come in from the Little River range, up in the hills beyond Ruby City, to the north -- and less than half a day later, had heard enough to send him out again, hell-for-leather down into the badlands. Down into the gathering storm.
No need to ask what he had learned. No need to ask even why he had not sought her aid. Their lives touched, now and then, as strands of legends crossed and wove -- but her power was of a different kind. Enough to show her what was coming -- enough in itself to draw it, like carrion birds to a dying man -- but not a kind he could use. She would have begged his help; but he had gone his own way, unbidden as always, out unasked to face their incoming end and salvage what he could.
In the city all around her, time itself ebbed and flowed, for those with the senses to perceive it; clouding her crystal ball, blinding her powers. All things were uncertain now, one moment ghost-like and then the next second painfully clear, as if their life blazed out by contrast against the faded ground on which they moved... stories whose time was all but spent.
The Contessa walked among them, silent and weary now. Passing for human. Passing for fiction, in a world where fact was stranger than either... Too gaudy, too exotic for respectability. Too elegant and fine to fit in an underworld she knew all too well. Story-teller, far-seer, home-maker, dreamer of joys, exile without a planet... one of a kind.
Doc Gallifrey was gone beyond her reach. The Monitors would not help. Only Kid Curry remained, for good or ill; dark soul, wild card, sent out almost unthinking so many weeks ago... and bearer of the charm.
Zero Room, the TARDIS:-
Stars... stars in their thousands, in their millions, in the wide, wide sky. Open. Silent. Free.
Not the old Missouri stars, tired and twinkling, that had shone down on late chores in the yard back at Aunt Lee's, with little John or Lonie tagging, whining, at his heels.
Not those same stars, almost twenty years and six hundred miles later, that had glittered in the bitter cold of the small hours as horses stamped and men cursed and checked their guns, waiting for the train to grind its way up the grade with fifty thousand dollars on board.
Not the southern stars that had mocked him overhead at the last, as he stumbled, barefoot and gasping, through the lush undergrowth on the rim of the Pacific, his own partners at his heels with murder in their hearts, and the great smoking slopes of Corcovado looming uncaring against the darkening night.
Not even the once-strange stars that mapped the skies above Vortex City; a tracery he knew now as intimately as he knew the scars that seamed his own forearm -- guiding patterns learned over the years of wandering that somehow slipped away from his grasp whenever he tried to reckon them up...
Too many stars -- oh, too bright, surely, to be true? Stars like grains of diamond piled as sand; like ice-crystals on the prairie; like silver hairs on a fox-fur coat... and all around him the darkness stretched out, endless, accepting, at peace. A dream for a man who fled his own dreams. A haven.
Kid Curry took a deep breath, and stood up, letting the last sick dregs of fury drain away. Allowing himself finally to see his surroundings as they truly were. No prison, no kennel -- but a sanctuary. A place a man could keep in his heart, or search a hundred years and never find again.
A few paces away, the little green troll stood, hesitating, unspoken hope clear in her eyes as she glanced back. 'We'd love to have you back, Curry...' And she'd meant it.
He remembered tears trickling down that long, comical nose; real woman's tears on the tip-tilted face of a yellow-green creature the size of a child. Tears shed for him, that he'd refused to see...
'I am so, so, sorry...'
Their eyes met. He nodded, slowly, with an effort. It was suddenly hard to speak. Harder than he'd ever dreamed.
"Yeah." He drew another deep breath. "I'll come --" Held up his hand as she rushed into speech, fending off the words he didn't deserve, trying to make a space for the hardest thing of all --
"Lady... I never meant to hurt you none..."
And at his throat, wakened to life, the blue charm stirred; and he knew the Contessa was thinking of him.
She left the last word: 'yet', unspoken. She hoped that word would remain unspoken always. But she had glimpsed enough of the darkness of his mind to know she must never forget that it was there.
She had also seen enough to stand by her earlier conviction: what this man was, and what he had done were two different things. The man was worthy of the gryphons' respect, as well as her own.
She gave a brief nod and ducked through the door leading out of the zero room. The journey from that center to the outside world was one best made alone. He would come, he said, but she imagined that he would come at his own pace, when he was ready.
The corridors leading outward seemed shorter than they were going in. She wondered if the TARDIS had been giving her time to compose herself, before, and was now hurrying her on. Or it might just have been a figment of her imagination.
She paused by the leader of her TARDIS team and patted her on the shoulder again. "Thank you," she whispered.
When the the team of twelve had first appeared as part of her TARDIS's real-world interface, she had thought of them as androids. She'd been wrong. They were no more androids than the metal gryphons on Titan Three had been androids, or Compassion. Perhaps, on the other hand, Sweetheart's team had started out as androids, and she had since projected more of her personality, her sentience into the leader since coming to Jubilganza, in preparation for the Circus. The troll realized with a pang how much she had taken her TARDIS for granted since they'd adopted each other during that dark, strange time so long ago.
As if in response to the troll's thoughts, Sweetheart turned and licked her face.
"Great!" she said, laughing (finally letting the tension that had been building since Kid Curry's collapse drain away). "Swapping tears for horse slobber -- brilliant!"
She pulled the handkerchief from her jacket pocket, noticing, as she did so, that it now held the same night sky as Imran's Cloak of Audience. Perhaps it had caught some of the the pro-fun energy that was released when Imran struck the fortuneteller's hand. She dried her face and carefully refolded the handkerchief, slipping it back into her pocket.
"How do I look?" she asked Sweetheart.
There was another flicker in the eye, and it changed into a mirror.
She grinned when she saw her image. One of the stars stuck to the apple of her left cheek, and another on the tip of her nose. "Perfect!" she said, and she went into the circus ring to announce the next act.
Daibhid's Rucksack and the seventh Doctor were just finishing up their act. The rucksack was juggling seven balls, and the Doctor was juggling the rucksack plus five pins. Then, suddenly, the rucksack leapt from the Doctor's hands (drawing a gasp from the crowd, who thought it was a drop), somersaulted, and landed neatly beside him. Then they tossed pins and balls into the air, and caught them as one.
The applause was thunderous.
"Wasn't that wonderful, Ladies, Gentlemen, and Gods?" our ringmaster called out, as she trotted into the center of the ring, applauding herself. "And now, if I may have your attention, prepare to be dazzled as the Doctor battles himself in a dazzling display of epee artistry!"
She went back to the sidelines, and peaked out the tent flap. She scanned the campground for Kid Curry, finding his silhouette at last, standing next to his old brown, looking up at the stars. His back was toward her, but she could see the faint blue halo around his head -- the light from the Charm.
A strange halo indeed, for a strange angel.
Meanwhile, Gordon and Saville have troubles of their own...Previous chapter Next chapter