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Touching Life

By Vanessa Mullen
Page 1 of 9

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.



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Vanessa Mullen

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