The avocado troll slips off to talk to Kid Curry...
"Kid," she said, and waited until his eyes came around to focus on her. "I can only imagine how frightened you must be, and not very well, at that. I know you don't want to go back, and I sympathize. But it's not just the endings of stories that are in danger -- it's their beginnings and middles too. Do you want all of that to be erased? Think back to your own beginning. Surely, there must be someone there you loved -- a parent, a sibling, a pet..." she paused, and took a chance "...a sweetheart."
Kid took his breath in so sharply she might as well have punched him.
"Do you want to lose that, too?" she asked, after a moment. "Because it will be lost, unless we do something to set it right."
Kid didn't answer, at least not in words, but his gaze turned inward, as though he were focussed on finding his way through the maze of his memories.
The troll stroked the back of his hand while she waited for his decision. It was then that she noticed the incongruity. "Kid," she asked, "If you were on the run for your life until the moment you came into the cul-de-sac, when did you get the chance to wash your hands and shave?"
He tensed again, the old hostility rising to the surface. "You callin' me a liar?"
"No, not exactly, but..."
"Maybe whoever is messing with your story is messing with your memories as well. Maybe you're not as guilty as you think you are."
Kid Curry turned away almost violently, staring down at the fingers she held in hers. There was a long silence. Finally his other hand came up, tracing along his jaw where the first rough shadow of beard was only just beginning to show, and he shook his head almost helplessly.
"I was down in the valley, that's all I know. Down on the track with my horse sinking under me and the hunt on the crest behind, and the dust- storm came up to hide me, horse and all. And when it was gone... All I remember is, it was night. First it was day and then it was night, and I was in town, but it wasn't any town I ever saw. Where I was, in between, all those hours... I don't know. I just don't know at all!"
They made an incongruous pair, the two of them; the drained dark face of the outlaw, hunched in on himself against the winged back of the wide red chair like a straw doll that had lost its stuffing, and the tubby little troll with her feet curled up under the stool beside him. He'd have laughed to see it, himself, not long ago - jeered until the victim turned and drew, or else mocked him for a coward. You had to run with the mob; keep your side up, or be pulled down in your turn.
More memories welled up, and he let out a quick half-sobbing breath of laughter through clenched teeth. "I always knew I'd swing some day for what I've done - but not like this. Not for ninety dollars and a man I never meant to kill..."
He caught hold of the hand that was stroking his and pulled it towards him, bringing her face up close to his own. "Makes a fine story, don't it? Part of the time you're the hunter and the rest of the time the hunt's after you - not a place to stay, not a friend to trust, not a safe name to call your own. You kill, and kill just to stay ahead, and all the time you're on the run. You take the cash, and somehow it never lasts, and the story goes on - and then you hit the twist. That's the end.
"You know it's the end, on account of it makes a better story that way. You don't go down for all the stuff you've done; no, you go down for the one time you tried to do right, or the one time you didn't aim to shoot an old man and maybe should have. But it's the story says that's the way it's got to be - just so as it can end like it ought to, on a twist."
He took a deep breath. "But this time it looks like something went wrong, doesn't it? Looks like I got twisted clean out of the noose - out of where I was meant to be. Looks like I got another chance -"
"No." The avocado troll is shaking her head sadly. "No, Kid, you can't. You can't leave a story dangling like that. Sooner or later it will start to come apart, and everyone in it - everyone in your past, Kid, everyone who made you what you are. And if you let that happen, then you'll start to go. And every story that touches yours. Your whole world, and everyone you ever cared for - even the beginning." Watching his face, she makes another guess. "Even before it all went wrong."
Kid Curry says nothing; but the very silence is an admission. The spark of animation has drained out of his face, leaving a stony mask. For a moment she is afraid that she has lost him. "Listen." Her voice is urgent. "What happened to you was a mistake - it has to be. Whoever's doing this, the last thing he could possibly have wanted was to bring you here - to us!"
She presses her point as a flicker of interest stirs almost unwillingly behind his eyes. "That must have made your story unstable. He tried to cover up for it, and the whole thing went off-balance. If we can get at the memory of those missing hours, we might be able to get a clue as to just how he's doing it, and work out a way to stop what's going on. We need all the help you can give - and there's a chance -"
She breaks off, leaving the words dangling. He takes the bait. "A chance?"
Her next string of words comes out in a rush. "What I mean," she says, "is that maybe you have someone else's story in your memory -- maybe whoever is doing this planted the memory of the murder and the lynch mob in your head in order to get you off track -- in order to get you to run..."
"No!" Kid said, violently. "I know what I did. I know what it felt like to hit that old man, the sound his head made as it hit..." For the first time that night, his stony mask was broken, and he began to shake. He clenched his fists to stop the trembling but with little success.
"I'm sorry, Kid," the troll said, trying to imagine the horror of having your own story taken away from you. "But you have to admit, it did get you to run right into that Time Scoop without thinking twice."
"'Time Scoop''?" Kid asked. "What in blazes is that?"
"It's a -- a --" She stopped suddenly. She hadn't realized what she had said until she heard it echoed back at her. Was it really a Time Scoop? Could the Time Lords really behind all this? She shook her head. No, not even they could be so reckless. But she wouldn't be surprised if it was similar technology.... Now, who would have similar technology, and why would they use it?
"Think, Kid," she said to the astonished cowboy, not knowing how to answer his question. "Think hard. Back before the hit on the liquor store, back before you came to that town. Why did you shave? You were going to meet someone, weren't you? Someone important. Someone you wanted to impress." It was all a guess, of course, but she could tell by the subtle shift of muscles around his eyes that she was hitting close to the mark. She just hoped that she herself wasn't implanting false memories. "Who was it, Kid?" she asked, urgently. "How would the story have gone if you had kept that meeting, and not been swept off course?"
She watched his eyes, as his mind traced his steps back into his memory. At last, he took a breath, prepared to speak, when the little turquoise troll bounded into the room.
"The horsey's all better, Hoste-- eep!" she squealed, in spite of herself, at the sight of Kid.
The avocado troll looked from one to the other. The reaction, it seemed, was mutual. If Kid had been ready to say more, he was no longer.
She sighed. "It's okay, Dear," she said. "This is the horse's human. He's going to rest here a while." She turned her mind to the other guests. "Do they all know where we are going, and why? Have you told the Master, Auntie, Zorak and Phi1ip?" she added, remembering that those four were otherwise occupied when Lord Gallifrijan finally got his message to them.
"I -- I didn't want to interrupt them," the little troll said nervously.
"I'll do it," the hostess said. "I want to ask the Master about Time Scoop engineering, anyway. I think we may need his help on this."
One hand crept up to rub at his forehead almost desperately, as if trying to erase the furrowed lines knitted there. Valeyard... Gallifrijan... Time Scoop... And the worst of it was, it all sounded familiar somehow. He didn't know what it meant, but he could have sworn he'd heard it before. And that didn't make sense, because he hadn't. He knew he hadn't. He knew where he'd been. He knew who he was - he didn't have to like it, but he knew...
Only, suddenly, he didn't. Suddenly, he was in a place where stories shifted and changed - where you could remember a murder out of the mind of some other man - where a guy could be framed for a killing he hadn't done, and even he'd believe it - Blind panic was nibbling at the back of his mind.
No wonder these folks were scared. But at least they seemed to know what they were talking about. He didn't. He was way, way out of his depth, and he didn't know what to do.
For a long time after the avocado troll and her little companion had hurried out, the fugitive huddled motionless in the chair, eyes closed, jaw clenched rigid. Finally and unexpectedly, exhaustion got the better of him.
When the avocado troll peeped back a while later, she found that her guest's head had dropped forward against the side of the armchair. His mouth was open, and she could detect a soft but very definite snore.
She took a deep breath. Time to do what she had been putting off far too long. Squaring her shoulders, she made her way through the milling crowd as resolutely as she could, trying not to notice all the people who wanted her to stop and explain what was going on.
"Erm," Imran said, finally, tugging hard at her elbow, forcing her to stop. "We've arrived at Titan Three. What should we do now?"
"Sit tight for just a minute longer. There's something I have to do." Going up to the 19th Century Italian Neo-Classical wardrobe, she knocked at the door (With considerable bravery, she thought).
"Master? Auntie? Cardinal?" she called. "We've stumbled into a major crisis. And we could really use your help!"
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