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The Thousandth Man

By Helen Parkinson
Page 3 of 15

Blake wasn't watching Shrinker; his attention was fully taken up with Avon and he was horrified by what he saw.  Avon's flesh, when exposed, was a mass of cuts, some still bleeding, and numerous bruises.  A burn ran across his right shoulder, days old and untreated, and helped explain the guards' attention to that area during the beating.

"Look at him," the voice at his elbow said, tempting, beguiling in its soft intensity.  "He's been to hell already.  How can you let this go on?"

"No," Blake said, and it was the hardest thing he ever did.

Avon, semi-aware, was forced into the chair.  He hurt and he held on to that hurt and to growing bewilderment in order to stay conscious.  He was puzzled, because although he was still being hurt, they hadn't asked him anything.  For days his life had consisted of pain and questions. Now there was still pain, but the questions had stopped.  It didn't make sense.  He became aware of Shrinker; the interrogator was standing in front of him with something in his hand. He didn't consider what the something might be; he hadn't helped before, knowing what they were using to hurt him.  It didn't make the pain any less.  But this was different, he remembered.  This was Shrinker.

"I have nothing to tell you," Avon said.  Talking was difficult, he found. He couldn't seem to breathe properly round the fire in his chest, the ache in his abdomen.  He saw Shrinker smile slightly.  The touch of the neural stimulator to the burn was pure agony.  It drove out his mind in one blinding white flash; a flash that swallowed everything.  Avon screamed, arching against the bindings that held him to the chair, tearing the skin at his ankles and wrists.

Blake had bitten his lip.  He could feel a thin trickle of blood on his chin, taste salt in his mouth, but it didn't hurt.  He hadn't felt anything since Avon screamed.  Avon wasn't screaming now, though his body shook convulsively, but the sound still seemed to echo round the room.

"The pain won't stop, you know," Blake's tormenter said.  "It can be kept at that level, or even higher, for days before there is actual damage save that which already exists.  How can you let him suffer this?"

Unable to speak, Blake shook his head.

Again Shrinker applied the stimulator, seeming to push it into the burn.  Avon's cry was sharp, but he choked it own, trying for control.  The first shock had taken him by surprise; now he knew what was coming.  To be honest it wasn't the worst he had endured recently, but that didn't seem to help, didn't seem o make it any easier.  Shrinker probed further.  Avon jerked as if to pull away, but there was nowhere to go.  Then Shrinker pulled back.  Avon gave a sort of sob and slumped in the chair.

Shrinker paused a moment, considering.  Avon was still conscious, but not fully aware so he gave him time to collect himself.  If he were after information, now would have been the time to ask. Now, while the memory of the pain was still fresh and the senses confused, but that wasn't what this was about.  Blake was the one who mattered.  The longer Shrinker could keep Avon conscious and aware with the pain levels high, the more likely Blake was to capitulate.  He allowed Avon the time he needed.

Avon shook his head to clear it, blinking to get the sweat out of his eyes.  His chest felt as if it were on fire.  The burn was hurting, he thought, more than it had when inflicted, something he wouldn't have thought possible.  He was hot and tired and thirsty.  Avon looked up to find Shrinker smiling down at him.   The man's tongue shot out like a snake's tasting the air.  Briefly he licked his lips.  Avon shivered.

Blake was shaking, his knuckles white as he clutched the arms of the chair, and still the soft voice of his tormenter droned on.  Now he was describing what else would be done to Avon.  How it would feel.  Telling him how easy it was to stop it all.  Blake shook his head, not trusting his voice anymore.  This couldn't go on much longer.  Avon was almost unconscious now; to continue if he passed out was pointless, and they weren't going to kill him.  Avon had to be too important to be allowed to die, he had to be.  Blake clung to that.

Shrinker was ready when Avon recovered enough to once more take in his surroundings.  He picked up a simple medical laser and held it before Avon's face, lose enough to be a threat even switched off.

"Do you know what this is?" he asked.  Avon shook his head, turning his face away. Shrinker nodded to one of the guards, who ambled over.

"No," Blake protested to his tormenter, the first word he had spoken for some time.  Sensing the nearness of his collapse, the other drew closer to him.

"Tell me your plans," he whispered seductively.  "That's all you have to do, and I will stop this, let you talk to your friend."

Blake twisted to look at him.  "No," he repeated, but it was only a tiny refusal now; he was very close to breaking point.  The other man smiled - he was really rather enjoying this.

"A laser probe," Avon's voice came then, soft and afraid.  Blake turned back to the glass, horrified and yet mesmerised by the scene as it unfolded.  The guard was standing behind Avon now, holding his head still.

"That's right. A laser probe," Shrinker encouraged.  "I'm going to burn out your eyes."  This was a calculated gamble; he couldn't disobey Servalan's orders regarding this man, but it paid off.  For the first time he saw fear in Avon's eyes.  Avon believed him and Shrinker had no doubt that Blake did too.

Avon attempted to turn his head away, but the guard held him still.    Burn out your eyes. Shrinker's words echoed in his mind.  To blind him!  He was afraid and he knew it had shown, that Shrinker knew his fear.  He swallowed it down.  To show fear was to let them win and he weren't going to win.  But to blind him!  If only there was a chance to call the others - but he couldn't do that here, not now.  And later, later when he was blind and helpless, he couldn't do it then, either. Avon realised that he had miscalculated, and the fear was replaced by a kind of resignation, and with that, oddly enough, came defiance.  Avon looked straight at Shrinker and allowed the hate, the defiance, to show in his face.  Shrinker hesitated.  He was used to terror from his victims.  He could despise them as they grovelled and begged, as they offered him anything for their lives or their sight.  But not this man. This man simply waited, his face reflecting hatred and contempt.  The stare was unnerving.  Suddenly Shrinker wanted nothing more than to destroy those eyes which disturbed him so.  He glanced briefly at the light - it still glowed red.  Blake still wasn't talking.  He turned back to that face, to face that stare, and knew he had to destroy it.

Blake half rose from his seat as Shrinker swept the probe downwards towards Avon's' face.  He heard Avon scream, a shrill sound that choked off abruptly, and Blake collapsed backwards.  Avon, too, was slumped in the chair, head down, unmoving.  The guard grabbed a handful of hair jerking is head back to expose the burned and bleeding flesh to Blake's horrified eyes.

"Bastard," Blake said, unsure even as he said it if he meant one of the interrogators or was referring to himself.

Shrinker watched Avon for a moment.  The man was out cold, hardly surprising considering the amount of pain the laser inflicted, and he hadn't exactly been 'fighting fit' to begin with.  It ought to have made him feel better, to see the creature who had so disturbed him thus destroyed, but it didn't help at all.

"Shall I bring him round?" the guard who had held Avon's head asked.

Shrinker shook his head.  "Take him back to his cell," he said.  He glanced at the mirrored glass.  "Blake, this will continue as soon as h is conscious, unless you decide to talk to me."  There was no response.  "Take him to his cell, too," Shrinker said finally.

A guard moved to clip the restraints that held Blake to his chair.  The tormenter had moved away.  Blake peered around the guard, watching the screen as Avon was released and dragged out of the other room.

"Up."  The guard pulled him to his feet and shoved him towards the door.  Blake stumbled slightly as he tried to walk; his legs were shaking as if he had been running too long.  As the door opened in front of him, Blake realised that the men passing were the guards he had just seen with Avon, and that the unmoving lump they dragged between them was the unconscious form of his friend.  He dived forward, away from his own guard, to fall to his knees in front of the other man.  Avon was still unconscious, his head hanging.  Blake reached out with shaking hands to hold Avon, lifting his head so he could see his face.  A guard moved to intervene, but Shrinker waved him back.

"Avon?" Blake said, appalled as he finally saw Avon's face.  One side was masked with bright red blood which ran freely from his horribly injured right eye.  "Oh God, I'm sorry," he whispered to the unresponsive man, moving his thumbs as if to caress the ruined face.  Shrinker nodded once and the guard who had moved before thudded the butt o his gun between Blake's shoulder blades.  Blake fell forward, releasing Avon, whose guard dragged him on.  Twisting on the floor, Blake was able to watch as they hauled him into a nearby cell.

"Very touching," a voice taunted him.  Blake twisted further to find Shrinker leering down at him.  "It might have been more convincing, however, if I didn't know you could have stopped all of it at any time.  What kind of a man are you?"

"Why you..." Blake launched himself at Shrinker, fully intending to tear the man's eyes out with his bare hands if he got the chance.  Shrinker sidestepped him easily and the guard clubbed him to the floor.

Shrinker wiped the back of his hand across his mouth as he studied the furious man.  "Take him to his cell," he said, and turned away.

As the guards pushed Blake into the cell, one of them spoke to him.  "That wasn't very bright, you know," he advised.  "You get him mad and he'll take it out on your friend.  Still..."  He considered.  "Maybe that's how you like it, eh?  Rather his skin than yours?"  The door slid shut on Blake's enraged face before he could respond.

Blake collapsed onto his cot.  He was shaking with impotent anger.  He tried to slow his breathing, to control the response, but it didn't help one bit.  He wanted to stop this, he wanted to personally tear Shrinker limb from limb, he wanted to tell them everything and beg them to let him talk to Avon, but he couldn't give way. Not when Sula's plans were so close to completion.  Anyway, it was too late; Avon was blinded.  The idea was too horrible to contemplate, but it was done now.  To surrender would be to make that sacrifice a vain one, and he couldn't do that.  Very soon now Servalan would know the full extent of their plans, would understand why he had kept silent.  Bleakly, Blake wondered if even that was worth the price that had just been paid.

***


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