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As Time Goes By

By Judith Proctor, Vanessa Mullen
Page 1 of 1

(After Cygnus Alpha)

      

      The corridors seemed to be a mixture of hexagonal and straight sided ones. Avon hadn't yet been able to determine what the rationale for the difference was, apart from the obvious fact that the hexagonally walled ones didn't have any doors leading off them. It wasn't terribly important right now. What was important was that the treasure room lay down the end of this particular corridor and if he didn't grab some for himself before Blake got around to taking an inventory, he might not get another chance. He cursed Jenna mentally for having been so insistent on retrieving Blake from Cygnus Alpha. It would have been the perfect place to dump a crusader - he could have spent years happily formenting revolt against Vargas.

      "Jenna? Can you lend me a hand?" Blake's voice.

      "Sorry, only me." Avon turned into the medical unit, curious to see what Blake had discovered.

      "Ah." Blake looked mildly embarased, then shrugged slightly and winced. "I need a hand getting this tabard off."

      "Indeed?" He halted on the verge of a more pithy comment. Blake looked tired, and his eyes were creased with pain. Gently, he lifted the top off, questioned Blake with his eyes, and then unfastened the shirt and started to slide it off Blake's shoulders. Blake's sudden gasp stopped him.

      "It's sticking."

      There was blood all over Blake's back, black and encrusted, gumming the shirt firmly to him. And when had that happened? Who had had the temerity to flog Blake while he and Jenna were playing with diamonds? Silently, Avon fetched a basin of water and soaked the fabric, easing it away from the angry weals. Guilt stung him Blake had saved him from Liberator's defence system. He wasn't normally so callous of his debts. Besides, it was quite one thing for Avon to abandon Blake; it was another entirely for Vargas to injure him. He felt proprietorial: Blake was his territory; Vargas did not have his permission to trespass there.

      "What happened down there?" he asked, mesmerised by Blake's blood, flowing red in the bowl as he rinsed out his cloth.

      "Two good men died." Blake turned on him in sudden, sharp fury. "And where were you?"

      "Problems with signal congestion. Too many bracelets. It took us a while to sort it all out." A change of subject seemed in order. "What did Vargas do? What did he want?"

      "Liberator, what else."

      Another debt then. Avon removed the last of the shirt and gazed at the pattern revealed. The long thin lines of the lash, and in their centre, a small burn in the shape of a hand. He could visualise the scene now: Blake, half naked, tied to a frame and unable to move; the lash in the hands of his torturer. But now, the blood soaked lash was set aside, instead there was the iron, freshly glowing from its brazier. Blake would sense something worse was coming, try to turn his head, even unable to see what it was, he would fear it. Then, he would feel the heat approaching, there would be the pungent smell of burning as the heat scorched the fine hairs on his back. Finally, the scream, as the iron bit deep. Avon could hear that scream; in his mind, it blended with Anna's as she cried out under the interrogator's hand. It was his worst nightmare, not knowing what had happened to her. Had she died cleanly, or had they tortured her to death, trying to gain information about him?

      "Tell me about it."

      "I'd rather not discuss the details, thank you."

      His finger hovered over the scar, tracing its outline without touching. He had a morbid desire to understand Blake, to know what gave him the strength to refuse under such pain. Instead, he interrogated the medical computer. More forthcoming than Zen, it gave him treatment instructions, even unbending so far as to reveal where things were to be found.

      "Take this." He thrust the tablet into Blake's hand.

      "What is it?"

      "Antibiotic. Unless you'd rather fall prey to whatever interesting specimens of bacteria lurk on Cygnus?"

      Blake swallowed it. Avon found a healing pad and applied it to the cuts. Blake protested at the touch, but gave way to his ministrations.

      "Was it worse than Earth?" He found it hard to imagine anything worse than this mutilation of another human being.

      Blake laughed, a horrid bark. "Ever heard of DNS?"

      "No."

      "Direct Neural Stimulation. They don't need to mess around, they go directly to the pain centres of the brain." His shoulders bunched with tension.

      Avon rested a fleeting hand on Blake's shoulder. "I'm sorry I asked."

      It was as though Blake hadn't heard him.

      "Imagine that your whole body is on fire. You're burning, burning in the fires of hell, and there's no escape. You can't run. Your body is strapped down, you're helpless, and you're screaming, screaming, until your throat is raw."

      It wasn't tactful to ask, but he was drawn into it, had to know.

      "Did you tell them what they wanted?"

      Blake slumped. "How the hell do I know? I recall trying to hold on, trying to buy my friends time to run, but I don't know. I only remember snatches."

      "I thought some of it was coming back now?"

      "Fragments. I can tell the false memories now, they lack depth, but I can't access the real ones. Family, friends, I can't touch them." Fists bunched, jaw clenched with passion, "They took it all away."

      Blake was a shell of a man. Fragile and empty. What had he been before they emptied his mind? What had he been when living drugged by the administration? Avon tried to imagine all that vitality and determination drained away. It was a violation.

      On Earth, Avon had been one of the elite; the intelligentsia were always spared the pacification drugs. On the London he'd shared Blake's pattern of eating and starving. He'd felt the dimming of his own mind. There had been days when simply getting out of bed had seemed like too much effort. But Blake, Blake was the one who had insisted, cajoled, and made them all start on the next cycle of going without food and drink so that they could think and plan head. To think of Blake permanently drugged, living in a dream, it was too much to bear.

      He felt a sudden urge to protect this idiot, who was so clearly incapable of protecting himself.

      He fixed his concentration on the job at hand. The healing pad seemed to function well. The swelling was subsiding and the colour of the skin fading. Blake would probably carry the marks until the day he died, but the pain should be easing off now. The physical pain at any rate. He ran a hand down Blake's back, feeling the smoothness of the skin.

      "Does that feel better?"

      Blake nodded. "Where does it all end?" he asked softly. "So many dead, and the only way to justify their deaths is to fight on."

      There was no answer to that. Personally, Avon wasn't in the least upset by the death of a couple of his fellow convicts, but he suspected that Blake was thinking mainly of those he'd lost on Earth. Those who had died because they had been related to him or had believed in him. What weight did Blake bear for their loss?

      And Blake was going to go through it all again. The system had destroyed him once, nearly destroyed him a second time, and now, here he was, staggering to his feet to take it on yet a third time. That took guts. And when Blake failed, as he must inevitably fail? When he was betrayed, as he must inevitably be betrayed? Who was going to take care of Blake and pick up the pieces?

      Blake turned to face him, and Avon was lost. There was a plea in those eyes, the heart cry of a man who had taken more pain than he could bear and could no longer shoulder the load alone. Then, having revealed too much, he looked away.

      "Blake," Avon whispered. "Look at me."

      He captured Blake's face in his hands and looked deep into his eyes. Words were beyond him, he couldn't have said what he wanted to. He kissed Blake gently on the lips, an affirmation of love, fealty, everything that he could express. An endless moment that spoke heart to heart, soul to soul, that bound Avon in ways that he didn't even want to consider.

      Blake's hand squeezed his gently in thanks, and the moment ended. Without words, Avon escorted Blake to his cabin and left the exhausted man to sleep.

      

      

Avon slept soundly that night, untroubled by dreams. He was at peace, and that was a rare enough occurrence in itself.

      In the morning, he sought Blake at breakfast.

      Blake glanced up from his food as Avon entered, then returned his full attention to consuming a bowl of some pink alien mush.

      Avon, paused, disconcerted. "Blake?"

      "Save your breath, Avon. You don't need to maintain the act any longer. Jenna told me - everything."

      Jenna? His mind was awhirl. Cygnus Alpha had had been a lifetime ago.

      "Oh, you needn't worry." Blake sounded horribly sarcastic. "You're quite safe. I won't toss you off the ship. Your way isn't mine."

      Avon's hands betrayed him, reaching out for Blake, wanting to touch him and shatter the nightmare.

      "Go peddle your shop-soiled charms elsewhere."

      He fled. The pain was too great to handle in Blake's presence. Like all things that hurt him, he would bury it deep inside, batten it down and never let emerge for others to see. But it would still be there.

      He had given his soul, and he couldn't take it back.

      

      


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Judith Proctor ,
Vanessa Mullen

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