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Touching Life

By Vanessa Mullen
Page 2 of 9

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.


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Vanessa Mullen

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