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Touching Life

By Vanessa Mullen
He didn't really know what had brought him into this part of the city with its dim and dingy corridors. Deltas shuffled by, their vague gazes barely focusing on him. Shabby clothes and shabby little lives. There was nothing to interest Avon here; the last time he had been down this way was nearly eighteen years ago, running for his life after killing a rogue dealer in exit visas. Nothing had changed though. Water still ran down the walls leaving coloured streaks on the peeling paintwork; smells of unwashed bodies and stale food still hung in every corner and the heavy, constant sound of the machinery never faded. Nothing had changed. Nothing except himself.

      And yet looking at it one way, he'd merely come full circle. Maybe that was why he was here, to finally acknowledge self-interest triumphant. Greed had brought him to this place originally; greed and a woman. Now he was here again. When he took his place beside Servalan tomorrow, the last traces of his six-year flirtation with the ideals of freedom and liberty would be gone forever. He had everything that could be desired: wealth, power and a beautiful woman. The years and the long struggle to regain power hadn't taken that from Servalan: she was still beautiful. But then again, she'd had help. With himself and Orac beside her, there had never been any doubt of her eventual victory. With an outstretched finger, he traced his name in the condensation on the wall: AVON. Tomorrow was merely a formality, he already held joint power in all but name.

      The years between were nothing. They, and any meaning they might have had, had crumbled to dust along with Blake's bones. Crusaders were nothing. Freedom was an illusion. Wealth was reality.

      The bar was dimly lit, darker even than the corridor. Drawn in by the smell of beer that briefly overwhelmed the malodorous air of the corridors, he entered. People glanced at him as he entered, then turned away, recognising the alpha as an intruder in their territory. Slowly, Avon surveyed his domain. Whether they knew it or not, he had power of life and death here. A word from him and the mutoids would come, guns blazing, spreading fire and destruction at his whim. The thought amused him briefly. He hadn't intended to drink here but now he took a stool at the bar beside an overweight man who sat staring into an empty glass, caught the bartender's eye with an imperious glance and ordered a bottle of rotgut in final memory of a thief he'd once known.

      "You used to have better taste than that," a voice said beside him.

      It took a moment for the timbre of the voice to register. Once he would have known that voice instantly: it had haunted his waking moments as it was later to haunt his dreams. Finally he had driven it away until it was no more than an insubstantial spectre.

      It would cost him nothing to look. The dead had no power to hurt him; but to look would be to give the ghost power, to admit that he was imagining things. But then he had no need to feel guilt, because he denied the existence of anything called a conscience.

      "Afraid to face me?"

      The challenge spun him round to face -- broad flat features, pouched eyes, hair grey but still close curled. He might have tried to deny even that, but for the white line of the scar that pulled down the left eye.

      "I killed you," he said flatly.

      "Then you're as drunk as I am and hallucinating as well."

      He took it in coldly and analytically. Distance made it easier for him to handle the situation. This couldn't be a trap, because even he hadn't known he was coming here. Therefore, this was Blake - a suitable wedding gift for Servalan.

      This was Blake - alive. Curiosity won out in spite of his determination.

      "How did you survive?"

      "Federation surgery. They put me back together before they started pulling me apart again. Rather kind of them, don't you think?"

      Torture. Or the mind machines. There were shadows in the back of Blake's eyes that had never been there before. He sat with a slump that was alien to the dynamism of the man Avon had known.

      "I didn't know," Avon said.

      Blake gestured to the bartender for another drink, paying for it with a grubby credit chip that was probably counterfeit.

      "They didn't tell me," Avon insisted.

      "Why should that make any difference? You've been responsible for the deaths of fifteen thousand people in the last ten years; why should the fate of one battered ex-rebel make any difference?"

      "Why indeed?" Avon agreed coldly, as Blake drained his drink with the ease of long practice. Why should one man make any difference to anything? He had what he wanted now. He had power and wealth more than he had ever dreamed of, and if something drove him on occasion to wander the empty corridors, what of it? He had the right to go where he pleased. He took a sip of the rotgut, felt it burn a fiery path down the back of his throat. "Tell me how you got away."

      "No. You tell me." Blake stabbed a finger at him, and for a moment there was a trace of the old fire present. "Tell me why?"

      "Why I shot you?"

      Blake snorted. "I worked that one out long ago. I even forgave you for that. You were still human then." He rested a hand on Avon's shoulder and it struck Avon as odd that they could even have this conversation. They were on opposite sides now. By morning, Blake would be facing the interrogators once more, but for now, they were both tacitly side-stepping that knowledge.

      Avon signalled for a refill for Blake's glass, flashing a card that made the bartender blink, run a verification scan over it and then become extremely obsequious.

      Blake took a deep swallow, then repeated, "Why?" sounding almost tearful.

      Avon smiled lightly, the edge of his lips curling up cynically. "Why not? Scorpio was gone; everyone else was dead. What profit was there in further resistance?" And you were dead, you bastard. "Servalan made me an offer that any sensible man would have accepted."

      "And the past meant nothing to you? I meant nothing to you?"

      "Nothing." The gulf between them was uncrossable now. His reflection stared back at him from the mirror behind the bar: a handsome man in the prime of life. Top-notch medical treatment could do that. The years since Gauda Prime hadn't touched him at all, not physically. His hair shone dark with the gloss of good heath; his figure was trim and his eyes bright. He was the same age as Blake, yet an observer might have guessed twenty years between them. "Tomorrow, I become her consort. I prefer luxury to rebellion."

      Blake looked him blearily in the eyes. "Don't do it," he begged. He gripped Avon's shoulders with hands that still had strength in spite of all the drink.

      "I've been Servalan's lover for the last twelve years," Avon said with deliberate cruelty. "Why should formalising the arrangement make any difference to you?"

      Silver curls buried themselves in Avon's shoulder. "Just don't do it." Blake's arms slid round in a bear-hug of an embrace.

      This wasn't the Blake he had known. This over-affectionate drunk wasn't the man who had inspired him to folly and beyond.

      "She doesn't love you," Blake mumbled into Avon's jacket.

      "And you..." He started the words as a cynical retort and then let them fall away.

      He'd been naive once. Anna had taken him but a little way down the path of human sexuality, it had taken Servalan's decadence to show him what was really possible. In her company, he'd discovered every kind of sexual pleasure and perversity that was possible to exist. Name a fantasy and it could be supplied. Describe the appearance of a partner and one could be obtained. He'd found the pleasure that could be gained in the control of pain, both giving it and receiving it, in the domination of another human being and in the complete submission to their will. The deepest depths of desire and the heights of orgasm were all his to rule, but that there was one thing he hadn't encountered in so long that he'd almost failed to recognise it. Plain, simple, uncomplicated love.

      He stood again on Gauda Prime, Blake's weight heavy on his arms. "Avon," Blake's voice gasped, and he could still hear the intensity of that plea. Dying, Blake fell against him and he staggered back in shock.

      "Too late, Blake," he whispered in quiet regret. "Too late."

      He pressed an unobtrusive button on his wristband and pointedly removed Blake's arms from around him. Ironic really. If Blake had made a pass at him on Liberator, he would have rejected it out of hand - he really had been remarkably conservative, a true alpha. Now that he had lost all inhibitions regarding the gender of whom he had sex with, he found a Blake who had neither youth nor power. There was nothing here to attract him, no trace of the man who had once held him by sheer force of personality.

      Sensing Avon's lack of response, Blake released him. He gestured vaguely around the bar. "Doesn't it bother you that people live like this? Lives of quiet desperation, trapped within their grade and unable to better themselves." He gripped Avon's shoulder once more, hand insistent. "You could do something about it. You could stop the drugs, open up the domes. Don't you even want to try?"

      Maybe he'd thought about it once upon a time. Maybe he'd once imagined that by teaming up with Servalan he could influence what happened. Maybe. Or maybe it had only ever been self-delusion. Wealth was the only reality.

      A light flashed on his wristband. Seeing it, Avon gripped Blake's wrist. "Time to take a little trip, don't you think?"

      Behind him, three mutoids entered the bar, black menace in their step.

      Blake flinched.

      "I think there's things we need to find out," Avon said conversationally. "How you escaped, what you're doing now, what your future plans are." He smiled. "I do hope you'll be co-operative."

      There was fear in Blake's face now. He glanced around him, eyes frantically seeking an escape route that didn't exist. Two mutoids, unmoved by mere human emotion, gripped him firmly by the arms. Blake struggled. Useless. Even sober, he would have been no match for a mutoid's enhanced strength. Avon watched, expressionless.

      With a sudden reserve of strength, Blake faced him.

      "Avon, you must touch the life you take."

      Then, as Avon stared in wondering silence, the mutoids dragged Blake away.

      

      

His room was too hot. Irritated, Avon adjusted the thermostat. He shoved Orac's key into position and demanded, "How did Blake survive Gauda Prime?"

      "Roj Blake did not survive Gauda Prime," Orac declared in prissy tones.

      Avon slammed a hand down on the plastic casing. "Blake survived. I saw him this evening."

      "Fascinating." Orac's tone gathered pace and interest. "If this is true, it would explain several discrepancies in my data. I have long considered some of the information in Servalan's computers to be of extremely dubious accuracy."

      "I want to know where he's been and what he has been doing, whether he still poses a threat."

      "A threat to you personally or to the security of the State?"

      "To both."

      "It will take me several hours to acquire the necessary data."

      Avon nodded sharply. He'd expected nothing less.

      His feet were fidgety. He had the strong urge to be doing something, anything, that would take him away from the problem and the nuisance of Roj Blake. The city beckoned. The alpha levels this time, far away from Blake and the squalor of the masses.

      As he walked the echoing corridors, he was aware as never before of the weight above him, of the pressure of level upon level and the load borne by the supporting columns. His mind juggled weights and tensile strengths, but got nowhere. He couldn't even visualise the basic load-bearing structure, had never even thought about it before today. Blake would have known; Blake was the engineer.

      Blake was dead.

      He headed upwards, seeking to lessen the claustrophobia by reducing the number of floors above him. Here, near the roof of the dome, daylight streamed through occasional overhead panels. It had once been fashionable for people to congregate in these areas, to take the supposed benefits of walking in the sunlight. Like all fads, it had passed. Such areas were largely ignored these days. Life had moved elsewhere.

      You must touch the life you take. The words echoed in his memory. He'd heard the phrase somewhere before, but couldn't place it. It didn't matter.

      The park was somewhere around this area; the dome's designers had decreed that the highest point of all, with its maximum of genuine sunlight, should contain vegetation: a carefully selected combination of plants intended to appeal to the senses of those deprived of all contact with nature. He hadn't been there in years, but it should be empty at this hour of the night.

      Ivy tendrilled down the corridor towards him. There was no exact point at which the park could be said to begin and end, but beyond a certain point, the plants began to sicken and die for lack of light and soil. He walked past broad-leafed herbs and small shrubs until he came to an area of open turf. Standing there, he could see through the time-scarred roof panes to the dim circle of the moon. The stars, if stars there were, were obscured. He could smell the dampness of the earth around him. It carried memories of alien worlds with it. So many worlds. So many memories. Blake.

      What would be happening to Blake now? He tried to keep the thought analytical. It would depend on how important they judged him to be. The mind machines were expensive, reserved only for the holders of the most important information. Of course, Blake, simply by virtue of who he was, would not be given to the lower orders of torturer. They would call the experts in. There were so many techniques that could be employed. His mind flitted from one to another. He'd experienced some personally, witnessed others. That was one of Servalan's more perverse pleasures, watching the torture sessions. To see a man stretched out on the rack, helpless and unable to move, at the whim of whatever torment she could devise. The quick hot touch of pain, or the slow torment of filling a man's lungs with water to the very edge of drowning and then letting him recover only to subject him to it all over again.

      There were only two ways to react to such a session. For Servalan, it was a source of endless sexual excitement. The extremities of human terror induced by a skilled torturer gave her a vicarious high that nothing else could equal.

      For himself, torture gave no such pleasures. It was simply a means to an end. He isolated his emotions from what was going on; the years had not completely dulled the reality of what he had gone through for Anna Grant.

      You must touch the life you take.

      The sentiment was clear, no matter how much he might happen to disagree with it personally. Touching life was precisely what he tried to avoid. Emotional involvement was deadly. Fortunately, he was now immune to it.

      If he was immune, logic insisted, then he should go and supervise Blake's interrogation. He knew Blake's weaknesses. His presence would undoubtedly speed up the process.

      Had he the strength to watch a former friend suffer?

      Yes.

      Because if he had not, Blake would have been proved right.

      

      

Interrogators were always human. Mutoids, though they induced additional fear in the clients, were incapable of reading the nuances of human expression that told when a man was weakening. Basra was one of the best. Fair, slender and good-looking, he was no one's idea of the cliché of a torturer. There was a look about him that said, you can trust me, you can confide in me. Even when he was inflicting excruciating agony, there was always the suggestion that he was somehow doing it against his will. The illusion was supremely useful.

      Avon gazed now at the figure seated before Basra. Two metal bands on each arm held him securely to the chair and further restraints held his ankles. There was no visible sign of any injury, but the face was haggard and the eyes strained.

      "He's an old hand,"{\160}Basra said. "Knows when to fight and when to conserve his strength. Not as young as he once was though. We'll break him. How soon do you need the information? If it's urgent, I can get time on the mind scanner."

      He caught Blake's flinch out of the corner of his eye.

      "That worries him," Basra said, and the note of concern in the voice sounded deceptively genuine. "Blake, you don't have to go through with this." He bent down, touched a hand to Blake's cheek. "I can spare you all that. Just tell us what your plans are."

      There was no reaction. Not even the spit in the face that Avon had half expected. The passion and the fire that had been the heart of the man were gone. He would not have lain there quiescent. He would have responded with insult and disdain for as long as he was capable of such. Unless... The thought struck him even as he turned for the door. Unless he knew something of such great importance that he would conserve every iota of strength to use it in keeping that knowledge hidden for as long as possible.

      He jerked back to face Basra. "Servalan and I wed tomorrow. If they're planning something then, I need to know. Use the mind machine."

      Blake's right hand strained against the restraint, reaching helplessly for something it could not touch.

      "Itching to strangle me?"

      "My amulet." The voice was a hoarse whisper.

      He couldn't see anything obvious. Ah, there was a chain around Blake's neck, hiding under the loose-fitting shirt. He pulled it over Blake's head and held it dangling. The amulet itself was of some form of pottery with a design in clay of a contrasting colour. Avon caught it in the palm of his hand for a closer look. The relief image was of a kneeling man. His hands were raised in supplication to the sky and in each hand was half of a broken weapon. It looked oddly familiar. It was... Memory came back to him.

      He was standing on the flight deck of Liberator looking at the surface of an alien planet. Blake was there, Travis too. In the background there was a statue, hewn out of native stone, its broken weapon held aloft. Blake had said that there were thousands upon thousands of such statues, grave-markers for a dead race.

      "You must touch the life you take," Sinofar had said as she gave each man a weapon. "There are two lessons you must learn. One is the death of an enemy and the other is the death of a friend."

      "Which am I?" Avon said aloud, as he dropped the amulet into Blake's outstretched palm.

      Blake's hand clenched convulsively around it and he gave a great shuddering sigh. "Friend. You were always my friend."

      Basra chopped expertly on a wrist and jerked at the chain as Blake's grip weakened momentarily. "Can't have that. No religious symbols." He tapped Avon lightly on the shoulder. "Come with me a moment."

      Avon stared expressionless, then followed. Basra closed the door behind them.

      "He responds to you," Basra said with enthusiasm. "That'll make our task much easier. Listen, take my role. I'll be the nasty guy and you play friend to him. Get on his wavelength. Pretend sympathy. Encourage him to tell all so that you can spare him further pain."

      "I sent him here!"

      "Doesn't matter." He touched a hand to Avon's shoulder. "You're important to him. There'll come a point when he's so confused with pain that he will reach out to you no matter what you've done to him."

      "Why not use the mind scanner? I'll give you the authority. We need speed here!"

      Basra shook his head. "Can't. The main e-m coil burnt out an hour ago. Can't let Blake know that though. Would make him feel that he has a degree of control over the situation and that's fatal. Threatening him with it is almost enough though. I'll ask to use it and you plead with me not to. Pretend you can't bear the thought of what it will do to him."

      Avon stretched his hands out. "He'll never believe me."

      "Then you'd better become a very good actor. You don't believe that e-m burnout was an accident do you?"

      "No. Someone needs to stop him talking," Avon said.

      "Then if you value your own life, help me break him."

      "Treble the security on this building."

      Basra smiled: smug. "Already done and, before you ask, he's been thoroughly checked for bugs, transmitters, suicide pills, and the like."

      Should he warn Servalan? No, she might be asleep by now. Better to update her chief of security. He'd make all necessary arrangements. Avon tapped a code on his wristband, gave the relevant orders and turned his attention back to Basra. There was something so seductive about power. Basra had power of life and death over his prisoners, but Avon had the power of life and death over millions.

      "What are you planning on using?" he asked.

      "He's already been roughened up physically. Nothing major yet. I find it useful to fool people into an over-estimate of their own capacity to resist. Now, we inject him with hightone and repeat the procedure."

      Avon nodded. He knew all about hightone. It enhanced the body's sensitivity tenfold. When used in sex play, it made sensations incredible. When used in torture it made mild pain excruciating and severe pain beyond the capacity of most people to bear.

      "Then we use electric shock therapy."

      Therapy. An odd way to phrase it, but then to Basra it was first and foremost a job.

      "Probably strip him at that point and apply shock directly to the genitals. The humiliation aspect won't count for much with him, but it may add a little extra. These old ones don't really respond to humiliation. When they know they can be broken, they don't even try resisting, they just do whatever you say and try to isolate themselves from it."

      Avon took the amulet from Basra's hand and looked at it thoughtfully. "Why did you let him keep it initially?"

      "Psychologically more devastating if you remove such things at points of emotional need."

      "So we can use it as a weapon against him? I give it and you take it away?"

      The torturer smiled. "You'll do."

      He tossed the amulet into the air, caught it and stuffed it into a pocket. The amulet meant something to Blake. That much was clear. If he could find out exactly what, the information might be very useful.

      

      

Avon knelt beside the chair, a hand touching Blake lightly on a wrist, the other resting on his shoulder. "Blake listen to me. We were friends once. That still means something to me. I know how you feel about the mind machines, what they did to you with them. Tell me what I need to know and I'll do my best to keep you from the machine."

      Blake sat straight and turned his head to look Avon directly in the eye. "When did you descend to this level? You used to be an honest man."

      "Honest!"

      "Honest. Within your own strict limits. You never professed friendship where you didn't feel it. You never asked anyone to trust you. On the rare occasion that you actually gave your word to someone, you gave it unequivocally and you kept it." He spread his hands, palms up, fingers splayed. "This pretence is beneath you."

      He'd known Blake would see right through the charade, hadn't he said as much to Basra? Wait. Perhaps Blake's own words gave him a way. Blake had effectively said that he trusted Avon's word. If he were to give his word not to use the mind machine, then Blake had to trust that, and trust was the first step towards dependency.

      He composed himself mentally. "Blake, tell me one useful fact and I give you my word that we won't use the mind scanner."

      On cue, Basra protested. "We can't do that! He could be holding vital information."

      Avon snarled, "I insist."

      "I don't work for you; I work for Servalan."

      "Ten thousand credits." The words came to his lips unbidden.

      "Done."

      He looked up at Blake. "My word." It suddenly seemed very important that Blake accept him. No matter that the promise was empty, the machine non-functional, it was still important. If a man's word meant nothing, what was left?

      Blake spoke slowly, the words almost too low-pitched to hear. "There is a plan to kill you and Servalan tomorrow." The chair's built-in lie detector gave cool-blue truth to his words.

      Blake wanted to kill him? It wasn't possible. It couldn't be possible. It was logical though. He stared at Blake, sharp claws of betrayal tearing at his gut.

      Basra stepped in, shoving Avon aside. "Now," he said angrily, "we really do need information." He held the hypodermic up, squeezed a drop out to ensure there were no air bubbles and injected its gleaming point carefully into a vein on Blake's wrist. Avon watched in taut fascination as the plunger slid home. Blake said nothing, but Avon noted with determined, clinical interest the sudden tension around the jaw and the involuntary half curl of his hands. Most people he knew took hightone in tablet form, but the intravenous injection would be quicker acting. Basra stood back to admire his handiwork. "About ten seconds should do it." He went to check his equipment racks -- Avon knew from experience that this was simply another act to instill fear into the victim. Basra would long ago have decided what he needed, but the slow study of the numerous implements was a form of torture in itself.

      Watching was easier than thinking.

      Basra selected manacles and a chain, ran his fingers down the shaft of a whip and nodded. He snapped a manacle around Blake's right wrist and the other around the left. Before releasing the bonds on the chair, he first fastened the manacles to the chain and the chain to a ceiling snap-hook. Avon knew what came next. The hook would be raised to a height that would allow Blake to stand on tip-toe. The chair would be removed and placed neatly by the wall and then Basra would begin. First the fists: a few well placed punches, slaps and kicks, just to let his victim become aware of the heightened pain levels and throw him off balance. Then the taunts and jeers, interspersed with more blows while the muscular strain of trying to keep the body upright added to the victim's agony. Then, when the background pain levels were already high, would come the whip, with its sudden searing jolts of pain. Avon leant against the wall and prepared himself to wait.

      Blake had planned to kill him. That sustained him easily through the first few blows. The gasps of pain became louder. He half-imagined that he heard his name in one of them. Blake trusted him. That was a paradox he couldn't grasp. Assume idiocy on Blake's part; that was always the easy option. Another cry. Blake was holding out remarkably well, all things considered. A lot of people were screaming by this point. Ah, Basra had finished with the first phase. He was sorting through his whips, testing the heft of each, giving an experimental swish through the air with careful consideration to the balance of each implement. Having finally made a choice, he came to stand before Blake.

      "Who are the conspirators? When and where will the attack take place?"

      Blake wouldn't tell him. Avon knew it from the set of his eyes. Blake had always been stubborn. He slipped a hand in his pocket and gripped the amulet, demanded that its hard edges and roughness distract him from what was going on. Memory took him somewhere worse instead. He was in Liberator's surgical unit, tending to injuries that he hadn't even known Blake had. The burns and weals inflicted by Vargas's torturer. The torture that Blake had gone through because Vargas wanted Liberator. The torture that Blake had gone through because Avon had tried to abandon him. He'd learnt to respect Blake that day. Respect Blake and loathe himself. It would have been so easy for them to hate one another after that, let anger and guilt erode any chance of friendship. Yet it hadn't happened. Mutual respect, common interests and a shared sense of humour had drawn them into something deeper.

      He remembered...

      A plasma bolt struck Liberator full on. The ship rocked to the blow. Blake staggered and fell. Avon caught him, held him fast--

      Blake screamed.

      Avon was half way across the room before he even realised what he was doing. The lash rose, struck again. Blake arched in agony, hands balled into fists, every muscle taut in a hopeless need to escape from the torment. The scream seemed as though it would never end, rolling its agonised pitch around the room, bouncing from wall to wall in an echo of intolerable pain.

      Avon grabbed him. Held him. Encased Blake within his arms. Felt the sweaty, dripping weight of the body against him.

      "Let him down."

      Basra complied and winked.

      Blake slumped as the chain released his weight, and fell to his knees. Avon was there, letting Blake's head rest on his shoulder, feeling each shuddering heartbeat and each pain-filled intake of breath.

      "Blake, you crazy, stubborn, stupid..."

      "Guilty," said a voice into his shoulder. There should have been a smile in that voice, a twinkle in the eye that belonged to it. There was none.

      "Tell me," he whispered. "I can put an end to this. Tell me."

      The bowed head lifted. Chained hands rested on his shoulders. "I can't," Blake said. "This is the only chance there is. Servalan has to die."

      "And what about me?"

      Brown eyes looked directly at him. "I will regret your death as much as my own."

      It was too much. Avon staggered to his feet and stood, all too aware of his own rapid breathing. "Basra, you take over for a while. I need a coffee." It was a coward's escape, and he didn't need the look in Blake's eyes to tell him so.

      He staggered out into the corridor and stood under the air-conditioning vent, needing the blast of cool air to revive him. Sweat cooled on his skin and the jangle of his nerves eased to a tolerable level.

      What hour was it? He'd lost all sensation of the passage of time. Three in the morning? No wonder he felt so tired. He really did need that coffee.

      

      

The canteen was warm and comfortable. Apart from himself, there was only a small, dumpy woman in a white overall, dunking a croissant in a bowl of coffee. Avon chose to sit alone, collecting his coffee and a bread roll from the dispenser. The coffee wasn't bad here. Considering that machines all over the dome were supposed to deliver identical products, it was amazing how much the taste of coffee varied. He took a cautious sip, blew on the surface to cool it a little, and tried to relax.

      The wedding was scheduled for midday. If any attack was going to take place, that seemed the obvious time to do it. In theory, he could cancel it, but in practice it was out of the question. The preparations had taken half a year. The invitation list alone had taken two months to draw up as every minor dignitary in the Inner Worlds tried to wrangle an invitation. The loss of face occasioned by a cancellation was unthinkable; it would suggest that they had no control over their people. Besides, what had he to go on? A warning from a man nobody had heard of for over a decade. A man who was widely believed to be dead. He could just imagine Servalan's reaction. He sighed, transmitted an update to the chief of security and took a bite of his roll.

      Basra sat down in the chair beside him and plonked a coffee and an apple turnover down on the table.

      "Thought I'd join you for a bit."

      "What about Blake?"

      Basra grinned. "Strung him up again and gave him some more just to remind him who's boss. You did well there -- gave him hope and then snatched it away completely. Almost did it. He was on the very verge of breaking before he hit plateau." Avon must have looked confused, because Basra waved a hand airily and elaborated. "Give a man a pain overload and sooner or later the brain refuses to accept it. Just stops registering. We call that plateau. You wouldn't usually see that; we don't show the plateau cases to visitors, rather spoils the entertainment value."

      "So what now?"

      "Give him half an hour or so. Feed him if you like. Give him something to drink. It'll all reinforce his dependency on you."

      "We can't afford half an hour."

      "Have to. I'd normally leave a lot longer. Just being left alone can often be effective on a man who needs people. I'd judge him to be one of those. Am I right?"

      Avon stared into his coffee. "Blake was always good with people."

      "Getting to you is he?"

      "No."

      Basra carried on as though Avon had said nothing. "Use it against him. That kind of person always responds to a threat to his friends. You're the only 'friend' we have. I'll come down on you as hard as I can. You make him feel that by holding back, he's hurting you. If all else fails and we're running out of time, then we'll shatter the relationship abruptly and hope that cracks him."

      "How?"

      "You hurt him personally. The worst possible way that you can imagine."

      

      

"Blake."

      Blake stirred, opened his eyes, squeezed them shut again and then looked at Avon. He lay in a heap on the floor, wrists still linked by their length of chain.

      "I brought you a drink."

      "I'd rather have a pee."

      "I'll help you." He lifted Blake to a sitting position, ignoring the gasp of pain as his hand encountered the bloody lacerations on Blake's back. He'd no idea whether Basra would have permitted it, but working in a room smelling of excreta had no great appeal. "Come on."

      Blake got his feet under him and struggled upright. Leaning on Avon for balance, he took slow, careful footsteps towards the steel toilet in the corner. The slack in the chain gave out just before he got there.

      Blake stood still. "Well?"

      "Well what?"

      "Do you trust me?"

      Avon threw back his head and laughed. "I can just see you overpowering me and sprinting down the corridor, defeating the guards single-handed, killing the alarm system and picking all the locks."

      Blake said nothing, simply held out his wrists. With a shrug, Avon went to fetch the key and released the manacles.

      "Thank you," Blake said quietly. He stood for a moment, rubbing his wrists, then went and relieved himself.

      There was an awkward silence. Avon searched for the right words. He had to get close to Blake, get under his skin somehow. He looked at the shirt that hung in ragged strips on Blake's back.

      "Let me get that off you. Once the blood dries it'll stick to the fabric; it'll be agony when you take it off."

      Blake's sudden snarl caught him unprepared. "Isn't that the object of the exercise? Stop playing the bloody hypocrite!"

      "I'm so sorry, I tend to get a little argumentative when my life is on the line. What did you expect me to do? Sit down and invite you to have a cup of tea?"

      Had he thought Blake's fire gone? Blake whirled on him, pain lost in passion. "I had hoped there was something left of the man I once knew. I believed in spite of all the evidence that there were actually some shreds of human decency left in you. I came here--" He stopped abruptly and Avon pounced.

      "Came?"

      "Forget it."

      Avon snatched the amulet out of his pocket. "Tell me, or I'll smash this."

      Level-eyed, Blake looked at him. "That would probably be a good idea. It's a weakness I can't afford any longer."

      Avon thrust it under his nose. "What the hell is it?"

      "A reminder."

      "Of what?"

      "Of myself."

      A reminder of Roj Blake? That had to be a laugh. Which Roj Blake? The Freedom Party crusader, the man who led a rebellion on the London, the Blake of Liberator, the Blake who'd been a sucker for every helpless bunch of rebels in the galaxy, the--

      Memory. Albion. The shock of seeing Del Grant; the mixture of bravado, guilt and the threat to five million lives that had made him volunteer to attempt to disarm the solium device with Grant. The memory of Grant's threats to kill him. Blake: If anything happens to Avon, I will come looking for you.

      He came out of it abruptly, flung the amulet to the floor.

      "What the hell is that thing?"

      "What did it show you?"

      "What is it?"

      "I told you. It's a reminder. It can only show you yourself."

      But that man who had cared enough about Anna Grant to risk his life to prove something to her brother was long gone. He had died in five days of torture and never surfaced again.

      "Do you want to know something funny?" he demanded.

      "Tell me."

      "That bitch, Anna. I went back to Earth. Can you credit that? I went back to find the man who'd tortured her to death. All I had was a name: Shrinker. I spent five days in rooms like these, only to discover that she'd betrayed me. She never cared at all."

      Blake's face crumpled. A sound came from him that could have been a laugh or a choked cry or even both at the same time. Hands clasped to his face, he sank to his knees, still in the grip of some uncontrollable emotion.

      "Ah, Blake!" Basra's voice sounded impossibly cheerful. "Ready for the next session, I see." He reached out a hand, grasped a handfull of clothing and yanked Blake to his feet. "Strip."

      Blake stood unmoving, tears tracing faint lines down his cheeks.

      "Strip."

      Automaton-like, Blake stripped methodically, first the shirt, then his trousers. Without waiting to be asked, he removed his underpants, letting them fall unheeded on top of the other garments.

      "On the table." Basra gestured to the table with its chest strap and wrist and ankle restraints.

      Blake took a step towards it, faltered. "I can't."

      "Oh, but you can."

      "No." His voice faltered and broke. "No!"

      "Yes!" Basra exult{kern 50 0}ed in triumph. "Got him! I don't know what you did to him, Avon, but it worked. Ask him. Ask him anything you want to know."

      Avon took a step forward, only half believing, not even certain how he'd achieved this supposed effect. "When will the attack take place?"

      "Tomorrow noon. During the wedding ceremony. You'll die. Servalan will die, and I'll be free."

      "You'll be dead," Avon hissed.

      "Isn't that freedom," Blake asked.

      "And if I give orders that after my death your life is to be prolonged for months if necessary, each second to be passed in slow, lingering agony?"

      "You can't stop it. I will die when you die." He laughed, a half-insane sob. "All life is linked."

      Comprehension struck with the force of a plasma bullet. "You bastard! You found IMIPAK." He whirled round, pressed a key on his wrist band. "Avon here. Get me the fastest ship available. Bay 7. Half an hour. Avon out."

      "It won't help, you know. They'll use it as the ship leaves. I suppose I should be grateful for that."

      "Where is IMIPAK's key?"

      "I don't know. I took great care to ensure that I didn't know."

      "Why?"

      "In case I was captured."

      "I find that hard to believe. You've remained hidden for over a decade. The probability of you being picked up now was vanishingly small."

      Blake said nothing, simply stood, weariness etched into every line of his face.

      "Why?" Avon demanded again.

      Blake glanced at the abandoned amulet on the floor. "Ask Kerr Avon. He would have known."

      "To quote your own words. It's a weakness I can't afford."

      Basra stepped in. "We need names, contacts. One of the people he knows will have the information. We'll have to pull in as many as possible before dawn."

      Blake shook his head.

      "On the table," Basra said briskly.

      "Go to hell."

      A punch in the stomach doubled Blake up. Before he'd had time to recover, Basra had moved behind him and flipped the table to vertical. A shove thrust Blake hard against it; as he struggled to straighten himself, Basra flipped the chest band around him and cinched it tight. A kick on a lever, and the table flipped back to horizontal leaving Blake struggling helplessly like a breached whale. The whole process had taken no more than three seconds.

      Basra moved smoothly round the table, dodging waving limbs and securing them as he went. Finally satisfied, he surveyed his handiwork.

      "Much better. There really is no point in resistance you know."

      Avon was beginning to find the constant cheerfulness grating. Basra sounded like a bad comedy act set half way between a nurse and a schoolteacher.

      "Now for your medication. It'll need topping up by now."

      Definitely a nurse.

      Basra pottered around the shelves, checking ampoules and considering their contents. Avon sneaked a look at Blake. Tension ran through his body like a taut thread. His fists were clenched, his head arched back and a faint tremor shook his jaw. Basra held up a small vial of straw coloured liquid with the air of a magician producing a rabbit from a hat.

      "Voila!" He switched into schoolmarm mode and addressed Avon. "We'll use the hightone, of course, but I think this will produce a little something extra."

      "What is it?"

      "I think it would rather spoil things if you knew. Wait and see." He made up the two injections systematically, long, fine fingers moving with graceful care. As he moved towards the table, Blake struggled frantically, sinews straining to move him even a fraction away from the approaching needles. To no avail. The first needle slid home. Basra removed it carefully, dabbed a finger at a small spot of blood and held the second one aloft, letting the light shine through the pale contents before that too was injected under Blake's skin.

      All was silent apart from the faint sussuration of the air conditioning and an odd gurgling noise as fluid moved through a pipe somewhere. Blake lay quiescent now, eyes closed. Basra tapped Avon on the shoulder and whispered into his ear. "Remember, his weakness is emotion. That's where you have to hit him."

      Blake moaned faintly.

      "You've got a couple of minutes before the drug takes full effect. I don't know if there's any useful information in that amulet, but if there is, I suggest that you get it." Seeing Avon's hesitation, he added, "Unless you'd rather die tomorrow."

      It was difficult. The past would draw him closer to Blake, but maybe that very closeness was the only weapon that would work. Blake would never willingly betray a friend, but what if a friend betrayed him? But then to betray him and break him, one had first to become that friend. Avon sighed, and picked up the amulet. Show me Blake, he demanded of it. Show me Blake.

      Memory:

      A late night on the flight deck, their watches coinciding, playing chess and debating over the origins of the game. Avon laughed as Blake made some ridiculous pun, and retorted with an even worse one. It was ridiculous, but satisfying. Avon was surprised to realise that he was happy.

      Talking about revolution. Blake's belief in the right of every man, woman, child and (god help them) even alien genetic construct to life, liberty and happiness. Challenging that belief and the consistency of its execution. "You told me that you wanted those decima creatures to survive. Logically, you should have let the aliens kill me rather than had over the power cells." "Would you rather I had done?" Blake challenged. "No, but I question the consistency of your logic." Blake had gripped him on the shoulder. "I'm afraid my logic has failings where my friends are concerned."

      Blake going back for Cally when she was captured. No doubts. No hesitations. An understanding of the risks, but a willingness to face them anyway.

      Blake's vision. His faith in a future where things were genuinely better and his certainty that it was possible to get there from here. That belief that was so tangible that it drew you in, made you believe if not in the vision, at least in the man holding it. As long as Blake held true to that vision, Avon had--

      Blake moaned again, loud enough to snatch Avon from his dreams. He was twisting against his restraints, body moving in small shifting motions. The electrodes, black coated wire ending in gleaming metal tips, hung from a stand by Basra's side.

      Blake shifted again, lost in some dream of his own. Whatever the dream was, it must have been a good one, because Blake was half-erect. Then again, it could have other origins. Fear could do that, make a man rigid from adrenalin alone.

      Basra snapped his fingers. "Wakey wakey."

      Blake woke with a start, jerking against the chest restraint and falling back again. His breathing was ragged and uneven. It seemed to take him a moment to relate to his surroundings. His eyes wandered until they fixed on Avon.

      "Avon," he said softly, "don't do this to me. Not amex. In the name of whatever you hold sacred, not amex."

      Basra rubbed his hands together in glee. "Perfect!"

      "Why amex?" Avon demanded, as if he didn't know.

      "You'll find out." Basra reached out and laid a hand on Blake's naked abdomen. Blake flinched from the touch. As Basra turned the touch into a long lingering caress that curved around Blake's loins and skirted his genitals, Blake began to shiver. His erection firmed even as Avon watched, his cock growing full and hard.

      "It won't hurt you; it's only an aphrodisiac."

      Blake shuddered and gasped for air as Basra circled a finger around his nipples. "A prelude to rape you mean. They find it amusing to try and make you beg for it."

      Basra grinned. "Natural whores, all of them." He slid an expert hand down Blake's leg, moulding his hand to the calf muscles and feeling their strength as Blake struggled to escape the touch. "We're virtually doing a public service, if you stop to think about it. Really ought to charge them."

      "That's obscene."

      "You think so?" He cupped Blake's testicles, rolled them in the palms of his hands until they were tight and round. Blake clenched his fists tighter and stared rigidly at the ceiling. His penis strained in the same direction, equally rigid.

      He'd played this game a hundred times with Servalan. I'm your prisoner. You can do whatever you want with me. Make me desperate for sex. Make me want to kiss your arse, do whatever you say. But this was the reality and it was different.

      "Stop."

      "Not now. Another ten minutes of this and he'll come crawling to me, begging me to fuck his arse."

      "No."

      "Something a little more direct then." He took the electrodes from their stand. "Look at me, Blake. You know what these are. You know what they'll do. You also know what I want. Names. Contacts. Meeting places."

      Avon watched in fascination as the electrodes slowly approached Blake's rampant cock. Blake's breathing was quick and shallow. The hair on his arms and legs stood on end. The electrodes paused in the air, a few centimetre's away from their target.

      "Give me a name."

      The merest shake of the head indicated Blake's denial. In a quick, delicate motion, Basra made contact. Blake came in a jerking, shuddering scream and passed out.

      The silence left in the wake of the scream had a hollow quality all of its own. Avon could hear the pounding of his heart, the flow of the blood coursing through his arteries, the irregular sound of his own breathing. Blake's fear was infectious. He wasn't sure how much longer he could stay.

      Basra fastidiously wiped off a drop of Blake's come that had landed on his overall. "He'll come round in a few minutes. The dose I gave him should be good for anything up to an hour, so we'll be able to start again as soon as he comes round. You're doing very well. You've got him half-way to believing that you're on his side. Fight me. Encourage him to confess to you and avoid the pain."

      He was doing well was he? Not half as well as Blake was.

      How many other times had Blake been in situations like this? Twice that he knew of, but that didn't mean there hadn't been more. What kind of courage did it take to carry on fighting, knowing that something like this might lie ahead? Had Blake expected to be captured on this occasion? Could he himself have ever faced his experiences at the Federation's hand if he hadn't known that Tarrant and the others were keeping a round the clock watch, ready to pull him out the moment he called for help?

      He ran a finger down Blake's unconscious cheek, "Blake," he said softly, "remember Liberator? Remember how we used to sit and argue at night? You'd tell me your plans, and I'd pick holes in them. You'd rework them and run them past the battle computers until you got something that had a remote chance of actually working? Then I'd tell you that you were a fool and that you'd get us all killed -- but I followed you anyway because I loved you."

      "It'll be a lot more effective if you tell him when he's awake."

      Blake shivered and the pattern of his breathing changed slightly. His eyes blinked open, haunting pools of fear and emptiness.

      Basra's lips twisted. "Going to tell him now?"

      "Tell him what?" Avon snarled.

      Basra addressed Blake. "You should have woken up sooner. You just missed a rather touching declaration of undying love."

      "I said nothing of the kind."

      "You forget, the recorders run permanently in here." He walked over to a small computer screen set in the wall. "Keywords 'remember Liberator'. Replay from that point until change of speaker.

      He heard his own words repeated to him and boiled in impotent fury. Worse even than Basra's mocking look was the expression on Blake's face. Hope blossomed there for a moment, bright as a new born star, then died away to be replaced by black despair.

      Basra looked at him and gave the faintest of nods. "I think I'll leave you two alone together for a while."

      Avon willed Basra to spontaneously combust, but Basra simply smoothed a crease out of his overall and left. Even more irritating, Avon knew with total certainty that Basra would be watching the monitors.

      He drew up a small stool to the table and sat down close by Blake's head. "Tell me," he said. "Tell me and let this be over. I don't want to hurt you any more."

      "You know I can't."

      "Why not? It's just names, just words."

      "Those names are people. People who trust me. People who will end up here if I betray them."

      "Look, you know Basra will get it out of you eventually. Tell me now and spare yourself."

      "Spare me, or spare you?"

      He acknowledged the truth of that with a grimace.

      Blake fidgeted, trying to shift his position without success. He exhaled, a deep long breath. "How big a dose did he give me?"

      Avon didn't want to reply. Basra's intent was all too obvious: make love to him while he's helpless. Bring him close to you. Betray him.

      "How much," Blake insisted.

      "Enough for another hour."

      Blake winced. "Do you want to know something funny," he said after a moment's pause.

      "Tell me."

      "You're my Anna Grant."

      Avon slapped him hard across the face. "Don't you ever..."

      "Ever what? Suggest that I loved you and you betrayed me?"

      "There's no comparison. I went through five days of hell for Anna."

      Blake shifted again, muscles flexing and contracting, as though he was trying to counteract an itch and was unable to scratch it. Avon didn't even need to look to know that his erection was building up again.

      "I was waiting for you last night. I don't know if I was more afraid that you wouldn't come or that you would. They told me it was hopeless, that the risk was unacceptable, but I insisted that I try. What does the loss of one old man matter in comparison with the chance of saving hundreds of lives? What is the worth of a human soul?"

      "What do you mean?"

      "I'm here because I believed in you."

      "That is a lie. I didn't know I was going to that bar myself."

      "Check the vocal readouts."

      Avon stalked over to the computer screen. "Voice print analysis. Statement beginning 'I was waiting'. Determine true or false."

      "Statement has 95% probability of truth."

      He slammed his hand against the screen. "You bastard. You lying, manipulative bastard. How the hell did you know?"

      "You know I won't tell you that."

      "Oh, but you will." He took two long, angry strides to Blake's side, grasped his shoulders and shook hard. "Who knows me well enough to predict my movements? Who's the traitor in my own household?" He shook again, violently. "Who?"

      He might as well have been talking to a lump of plastic.

      "There are worse things I can do to make you talk."

      "I know."

      It was the calm acceptance that thew him. What could he really do that was worse than any of Basra's little games? Rape? Blake feared that, or at least the games that went with it. Thoughtfully, he teased out a curl of Blake's hair, feeling the springiness of it, then allowed it to bounce back into shape. Blake stared stonily at the ceiling. There was stubble on Blake's chin, a short roughness that scraped at the back of his hands as he passed them over it. He traced a finger over the lips, then dropped a fleeting kiss on them. He could smell Blake's sweat, strong and musky. He wanted him, wanted the heady mixture of strength and helplessness, wanted the anchor, the certainty that had always been Blake.

      "Tell me," he whispered. "Tell me and I'll make it wonderful for you."

      His own need growing, he caressed Blake's neck and shoulders, massaging the knots in the muscles, rejoicing in the strength that he found there, in every helpless move that Blake made in response to his actions. He bent, placed his lips to a nipple and sucked, swirling his tongue around it, rasping it. It hardened under his ministrations to a small perfect nub. He flicked it with the tongue tip. Blake cried out and bucked under him.

      "No! Avon, for pity's sake no."

      He'd almost allowed himself to forget where he was. "I'd begun to think you were enjoying it."

      "Enjoy?"

      "Have I hurt you yet?"

      "Every time you kiss me for profit. Every time you touch me to gain information. Every time you feign love to play the whore. I'd rather have Basra."

      He should have known.

      He was caught in the middle of the dark. There were pathways, but he didn't know where any of them led. He could walk out in anger and abandon Blake to Basra, telling Blake that it was by his own request. He could rape Blake if he could find the strength to do it. Or he could unstrap him from that accursed table, take him into his arms and make love to him. It was a dream, and he wanted it so badly that he was almost shaking with the force of it, but it was a dream that would have to end when he handed Blake back to the torturer. He couldn't go through with it.

      He had to leave and leave now. He had to leave because Blake was winning this encounter and he could not afford to let Blake live. He had to remind himself how much depended on this. His life. His future. His power. He ought to hate Blake, but he couldn't even find it within himself to do that. He knew Blake's mind too well. If he had been able to persuade Avon to join him, it would have given the possibility of a bloodless revolution, a take-over from inside. As it was, they would both live or they would both die. Blake was fifty, too old to have the stamina that he'd once had. If he was as emotionally shaken as Avon, he'd probably crack before dawn. That gave them several hours to pull in suspects, find those who were vulnerable to pressure and start following leads.

      Without looking at Blake, he left.

      

      

His body yearned where Avon had touched it, cried out for more. His soul wept in agony. Memory demanded the comfort of his amulet, but the past was a false refuge and had betrayed him. He had hated Avon for so long after Gauda Prime, hated him for trying to kill him and for the Federation tortures that had followed in the aftermath of that attempt. Escape with the aid of a rebel sympathiser had changed nothing. Hate had obsessed him to the point where killing Avon had seemed more important than destroying the Federation. He'd drifted, achieved nothing.

      Working in yet another fleapit bar, trying to earn a pittance in a job that demanded no identification papers, he'd been cleaning the toilets with their peeling paint and dirty mirrors. Damp had got into the silvering of the mirrors, leaving black blotches. Staring at his reflection, he'd seen Travis look back at him. Trick of the damp, the eye patch might have been, but it shook him.

      He had become the thing that he'd fought for so long: a creature who had abandoned all emotions bar that of revenge.

      He'd known then what he had to do, known the one place where he might be able to find again the man who had once been so different from Travis. It had taken him a year to reach Sinofar's world. Amersat wasn't on the trade routes. People who had been there never went back again, and they told strange stories of ghosts and the dead. He made it finally with a group of archaeologists whom he'd convinced the planet was worth investigating. Whether they'd found anything worthwhile was a moot point. They'd excavated a few of the millions of graves and made learned comments about the aftereffects of atomic war, so presumably they were satisfied. Sinofar never appeared to them, but then he'd never really expected her to. She'd come to him though. Not a day older, she was as serene as she had been when she'd forced him to fight Travis face to face.

      They had talked long, deep into the night of that world and through to its dawn. They'd spoken of friends and enemies and the waste of war, of things past and present. As the sun rose, she had given him the amulet.

      "Touch your own life," she had said. "If you wish to remember, it will help you."

      He'd summoned Avon, dark of hair and bright of eye, found in that phantom of the past an understanding of things more recent: Avon had shot in the terror of love betrayed. With understanding, finally came forgiveness and peace. They were no different. He had hated Avon, because he loved him.

      With peace inside him, he was able to return to his Cause. With love, he had found the hearts of men once more. Now, that salvation was to be his undoing. He had lived too long in the past, become too close to the Avon of his memories. For all his cruelties, this Avon was too close to the Avon of his dreams. He showed through in unguarded moments, in words of love, and then vanished once more behind the mask of the tormentor. He had not the ability to hate this man.

      If he could not hate, Avon would break him.

      

      

The white-painted corridors that he walked were plain and featureless. No pictures, no furniture. Nothing to relive the drab utilitarianism of it all. Nothing to suggest that humanity had any place within these walls. It was a relief to re-enter the warmth of the cafeteria. Here, there was colour and texture: the warm orange tones of the thin carpet and surprisingly naturalistic scenes on the wall that depicted a forest complete with strange exotic creatures hiding in the undergrowth. It was relaxing and he needed to relax.

      Basra glanced up at him and raised an eyebrow.

      "Never have taken you for the emotional type."

      "You have an overactive imagination." It lacked the bite of his better retorts, but he was tired.

      "Still, you made some progress. I'll go back in a minute; just let him get suitably desperate first."

      There was no sign of a monitor. The corner of Avon's brain that wasn't desperate for sleep wondered where Basra had concealed the screen.

      "Is there anywhere here where I can find a bed?"

      Basra gestured to the entrance of the canteen where a gourd-bearing vine draped over a doorway. "Go down the corridor until you reach admin on the left. They've a bed in a side room for when round-the-clock work is needed. If it's free, you can use it."

      Avon nodded as Basra got up to leave. Everything seemed to be catching up with him at once. He felt horribly tired, but he needed a drink before he turned in. He dialled a hot qunilan and set it steaming on the table before him. Head resting in his hands, he watched the steam form into lazy spirals that thinned and vanished as they rose. Tomorrow, no today now, the crowds would gather round the giant public view-screens to see him and Servalan wed. Food rations would be increased for a week in celebration, a few minor criminals would be pardoned and he'd have the security he'd always wanted. So powerful that no one could touch him.

      The quinlan was getting cold. He took a deep draught, letting the spiced malt soothe its way down his throat.

      His wristcom chimed and he acknowledged the call: "Avon."

      "Basra. They've fixed the scanner."

      "I thought there weren't any spares?"

      "We pulled rank on Paris. They dismounted the coil from their machine and flew it over. We've just finished installing it and the calibration tests should be complete in about half an hour.

      "Congratulations."

      "Your friend here seems most distraught. Seemed to think you wouldn't let it happen to him."

      "We all make mistakes. Avon out."

      He stared at the quinlan, gripped the mug, and drowned it in one swallow. The taste was that of bitter ashes.

      

      

The room seemed smaller and Basra larger. He was tucking his penis back into his underpants as Avon entered. Blake still lay supine on the table, but his legs were no longer bound.

      Basra grinned in welcome.

      "Go on, take a go. You know you want to. He's a good, tight arse; don't reckon anyone's been in there in years."

      Avon paused in the doorway, the bright light from the corridor throwing his shadow clearly on the floor before him.

      "Go on. Fight's out of him now. Once you can feel contempt for him, he won't bother you any more."

      Blake lay limp, listless, head turned away. Instinct told Avon that he was finished; the scanner wasn't even necessary.

      He was off the hook. If the scanner wasn't necessary, then he didn't have to break his promise. No matter that it had been broken in spirit, technically it was still intact. Light glinted on the chain of the amulet where it had been discarded on the floor. Thoughtfully, he picked it up, careful not to touch the amulet itself. What was it Blake had said? It can only show you yourself? He unfastened the catch, let the chain run though his fingers.

      "Lift his legs up, will you?" he asked Basra.

      Anticipation flashed in Basra's eyes as he moved to comply. Funny, in all this time he'd never though of Basra as a sadist, just as a man who took pleasure in a job well done. He stepped behind Basra's turned back, flicked the chain round his neck and pulled with all his strength.

      It took a surprising length of time for Basra to die. Avon stared at the corpse with an odd sense of dislocation. He didn't feel any different; it was as though absolutely nothing had happened. He'd crossed the Rubicon, yet there was no sense of having done anything out of the ordinary. He coiled the chain up neatly in a hand and returned the amulet to his pocket. Slowly, as though within a dream, he went to release Blake.

      Blake seemed lost in a dream of his own. Even when the shackles were removed, he didn't stir. The eyes were open but focused on nothing. When Avon brought his hand down sharply, there wasn't even a blink. Blake had gone somewhere else where nobody could hurt him any more.

      It was ridiculous. His hands started shaking in delayed reaction. Didn't Blake realise that they had to get out of here? They had to outrun IMIPAK. They had to outrun Servalan. It was impossible.

      He stripped Basra, kicked the carcass into a corner, and lifted Blake. Cradled in Avon's arms, the rebel seemed impossibly heavy. Avon lowered him onto Basra's overalls to provide some protection from the cold, tiled floor. Time didn't seem important any more. What was important was that he help Blake. Surely in this godforsaken room there had to be something that was more conducive to preserving life than destroying it? They couldn't afford their victims dying on them.

      A search eventually revealed a small drawer with a basic kit of medical supplies. He seized on the tissue regenerator with all the relief of the guilty pardoned. He needed to roll Blake over to be able to use it. What was that position you were supposed to lie an unconscious person in to prevent them choking? He eventually settled for positioning Blake with a knee out to one side and a hand resting almost under his chin. It looked about right. He worked the tissue regenerator in slow, rhythmic motions over the weals on Blake's back. There was a strange fascination in watching the cuts fade away into smooth, unbroken skin. If only all injuries could be healed so simply.

      Had Blake suffered any internal injury? He hesitated a while before inserting a finger into Blake's rectum, but was relieved to find no trace of blood. He wiped the finger viciously on Basra's overall.

      Now what? He had ten, fifteen, minutes at the most before the scanner was ready and no idea of what he was going to do next. His mind was working at the speed of sealant gel, nothing seemed to make sense any more. He knelt and moved Blake's head to rest on his knees while he was thinking. Touching Blake helped steady his increasing sense of panic. There was no logic to it, but the feel of another human being was comforting. He stroked Blake's hair, bent and kissed him on the lips.

      As if cued by an appropriate children's story, Blake began to stir.

      "Blake, wake up. We have to go."

      At the sound of his voice, Blake started.

      "It's all right. You're safe. Actually, I'd better rephrase that. You're safe, if I can figure out how to get us both out of here without raising an alarm."

      Deep, brown eyes looked up into his own and the faintest of smiles crinkled around them. "What's wrong with just walking out? You are consort to the Supreme Empress."

      He gestured over to Basra's corpse. "There's a slight complication."

      "Ah."

      "And it'll be on the security record--"

      "--which can't be destroyed from here," Blake finished for him. "However, the staff can only view it via the computer."

      It was a relief to discover that his mind was beginning to operate at its normal efficiency once more. He pressed a button on his wristcom.

      "Orac, deny access to all except myself and Blake to the security record for cell C4. Use Servalan's authorisation code."

      "Is Blake with you?"

      Blake pulled his wrist down. "Orac, this is Blake. Plan B is now in operation."

      Avon snatched his arm back. "What the hell is going on?"

      Blake pulled himself up to a sitting position and faced Avon. "I'll explain if you can tell me the the answer to a question."

      "That depends on the question."

      "You leave this cell, incinerate Basra's body, make the security record inaccessible. That leaves a mystery, but it's presumed to be by Servalan's orders. What then?"

      Hollowness pervaded. The future was something intangible; there was no reality to it, no sense of what would be. The only thing that seemed real any more was Blake. Blake knelt stock still with his hands resting on his knees; he was becoming erect. Forget it. Ignore it, even as Blake was, and concentrate on what was important.

      What was he going to do?

      Was it still possible to back and marry Servalan? No. Not only had he betrayed her by releasing Blake, but the hot rush of his own blood told him whom he wanted in his bed. Servalan was ruthless, exciting and beautiful, but nothing mattered to her beyond her own power. Yes, she loved him in her own way, but she loved his amorality, his willingness to kill, the darkness in his soul. Blake managed to find things in him that no one else found, harder things, things that weren't easy to acknowledge: honour, truth, even a remnant of humanity. Was that tattered scrap of feeling for his fellow man capable of becoming anything more? That was what Blake would ask of him. What could Blake give him in return?

      "Answer me a question."

      "Very well."

      "Why were you in that bar?"

      "Orac gave me a thirty percent probability that you would go there. I had to talk to you alone and there wasn't any other way to do it."

      "You could have sent a message, arranged a rendezvous."

      "Would you have come yourself, or simply sent someone to arrest me?"

      He acknowledged the truth with an inclination of his head. "Probably the latter. But you must have known that I'd probably do exactly what I did do even if we did meet in person."

      Blake's head dropped into his hands and a tremor shook through him. "Orac gave fairly high odds on that too."

      He slipped his arms around Blake's shoulders. "It's all right." He kissed the back of the bowed neck, nuzzled the skin gently.

      "Don't."

      He pulled away, hurt.

      "I'm sorry. Look, I've got five, ten minutes at the most before this drug starts to drive me crazy. You need to tell the scanner room that I've already confessed everything you need to know, and you need to get rid of that body. You might as well register it as me in the log."

      It made sense. He departed post-haste to visit the scanner room and find a trolley. By the time he returned, Blake was looking distinctly on edge. He paced up and down the room, taking short, choppy steps. His hands fluttered over his skin as though he was trying to ease a multitude of tiny itches. Avon held his arms out in invitation, but Blake shivered and declined.

      "If I touch you, I'm gone. Just get that damn thing out of here."

      Obeying Blake's request, Avon dumped the corpse onto the trolley and flipped a sheet over it, covering the face. He'd already located the incinerator. The ease with which he'd found it suggested that it was in frequent use, a thought that he found slightly disturbing. How many of the people who came in here never came out again? It was the work of a few minutes to take the body there, record a death on the terminal and feed the body onto a conveyor belt. He didn't wait for it to vanish fully from sight before he returned to Blake.

      Blake was shivering. His erection stood large and proud before him. Avon admired the self-control that had let Blake wait for him, rather then just jerking off. He locked the door and slowly drew off the leather of his tunic, Blake's attention was fully on him, eyes drinking him in, but as he stripped off his jumper, Blake stepped back, eyes downcast.

      "What is it?" Avon demanded. "Not your type?"

      "You're still beautiful," Blake said simply. "I'm old, I'm ugly. You don't want me and I'm not quite reduced to asking for charity." His hand touched his cock, started working.

      Avon came and grabbed him by the forearms. "Fuck youth. Fuck beauty! Do you think I haven't had them all? I've had the genetically engineered, the surgically altered, the ones who spend a thousand credits a day on cosmetics. I could have a virgin every day for the next ten years if I wanted one. I don't want that endless sham; I want you."

      Blake's arms went round his waist and they were kissing with an intense ferocity, lips pressed, tongues thrusting and twining. It completely lacked finesse. It was incredible.

      He struggled free long enough to loosen his trousers. Before he could even push them down, Blake was onto him, sucking at the fabric, clawing at the fly. The leather was yanked open just far enough to free his cock. Blake devoured it, hands working feverishly on his balls and the base of his cock, mouth engulfing the head. There was no subtlety to it at all, no nibbling or licking, just raw, naked need. Blake swallowed him deeper, almost choking in his efforts to take as much of Avon as possible. When Avon started to thrust, Blake's efforts redoubled, the two of them working in a frantic ballet of sex. Avon came in a pulse of glory and fell to his knees, half-dizzy with the sensation. Blake didn't even pause. He was behind Avon, bending him over, licking him, thrusting in a tongue, lubricating Avon with his own semen.

      Blake's penis pressed into him. Blake's voice whispered his name. Blake's arms wrapped around his body. Something within him surrendered to the intensity of that passion. Each thrust was a anodyne for loneliness, each cry a promise for the future, the strength of those arms a testament to love. He was in some impossible world where experience was total; the fire rebuilding within him with every movement of Blake's body had become the only thing that mattered: the whole focus of his existence. Even the sound of Blake's voice faded into oblivion. There was nothing else but the stretching of his body, the pulse against his prostate and the joy of being joined to Blake. A second orgasm grew within him, not sharp as the first, but a slower thing that grew as a warmth spreading through his body. He felt the final jerk as Blake came, held himself poised for a long instant, then relaxed to press his trembling body to Avon's back.

      They lay, still joined, side by side, Blake encasing Avon in the shield of his arms.

      

      It was strange to hold Avon like this, after the empty years, the hate and the heartache. Soon, they'd have to talk but for now it was enough just to be here. Orac would be carrying out other elements of the plan that they'd spent so long working on together.

      When he'd returned to Earth, he'd known that Orac would be essential to any long term success, but it hadn't been easy making contact without alerting anyone else to his presence. He'd finally managed it with the aid of a young maths prodigy. It had taken a paper on non-Euclidian tessellation to do it, but he was proud of the fact that he'd realised Orac would never be able to resist the lure of a new mathematical discovery. Once contact had been made, the rest was easier than it had had any right to be. Orac never forgot anything and Servalan had killed Ensor, the man who had created Orac and imprinted much of his own personality onto the machine. Killing Servalan was easy to agree on, but Avon was another proposition. Orac and Blake both had reasons for wishing Avon to live, yet Orac's predictions for the future with Avon as a Federation ruler were bleak indeed. Only if Avon could be turned from his inbuilt need for wealth and security would he be able to use his abilities in a way that would help all.

      He clutched Avon closer, feeling the need to hold tight to reality. Orac had warned him of the risk he was taking, and it had been close, so very, very close. The memory of pain was seared into his bones. Nightmares would doubtless haunt him for years as they had done so in the past. What would Avon's demons be? Would he too remember this night with horror? What would he say when he learned that Servalan was dead, that Orac had given the order for her death an hour ago? It was logical. She had to die before the wedding so that Avon be free of suspicion, but surely there had to have been some affection in the relationship?

      They had only passed the first hurdle. The Avon he'd finally found tonight was the Avon he had always loved: a man of unshakable integrity and strong passions. It was the other Avon he had to fear, the one who had lived a decade or more with Servalan. He'd found himself, but for Avon the journey had only just begun.

      He'd miss the amulet, but he no longer needed it now that he had Avon in the flesh.

      Avon needed it now.

      It was his.


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