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A Scale of Violence

By Judith Proctor
Page 2 of 4

      Soolin felt the smooth touch of the stylus in her pocket. Just how much adjustment did it have? How far was it safe to adjust whatever the Federation had done to Gan's limiter? The madman who had broken her arm was only a twist of the control away from her. What would he do if he realised that she controlled him? The pain in her arm was fuzzing her thinking. He was the last person whose help she wanted - and she had no choice but to accept it. She twisted the join, trying to guess a small increase, and tried her best to fake supportive sympathy: "You can do it, Gan. You have to." She cradled her broken arm. "I can't fight like this."

      Gan swallowed, drew himself up to his full height, and looked back down the corridor. "Maybe it's just because it's so long since I tried to fight against it. I feel stronger now." He smiled down at her, a friendly smile that was a world removed from the calm abstracted smile of the torturer. "It's easier when I have somebody else to fight for." He flexed his fingers, leaving Soolin with the distinct impression that he was looking forward to the fight.

      The wait was even worse than it had been the first time. If she'd adjusted the limiter enough to allow Gan to attack the guard, then by definition, he was capable of attacking her. How much of his personality was innate and how much was controlled by the limiter? Vila had always reckoned that it was the limiter malfunction that had driven Gan to a murderous state, but suppose it was the other way around? Suppose that Gan was naturally a psychopathic murderer and the personality he showed now was artificially created and maintained only by the electronics embedded in his brain?

      A thud distracted her momentarily. Gan came back around the corner, another smile broadening his face. The paragun in his hand came up to point at her and her nerves almost snapped. Only the self discipline that had kept her going for so long prevented her from flinching. The key to being in control of any situation was to act as though you were in control. People always reacted to appearances. She reached out, took hold of the gun by its muzzle and fitted it into position on her left arm. Adjusting the stabiliser to fit her arm length was the work of a moment and increased the weapon's stability greatly. She sighted a couple of experimental shots before she was satisfied that she could use the weapon effectively left-handed, then gestured to Gan to move ahead.

      As they passed the guard on the floor, she glanced down, unsure whether to be relieved or not at the fact that he was still breathing.

      "How many more guards between us and the exit?"

      "Two, I think."

      "Don't you know."

      "I'm sorry; I've only been here a week. Doctor Pirelli thought an agricultural world might be good for me - I came from Zephron originally."

      A farmer? Plausible perhaps. The Zephroni did tend to run to heavily built types, possibly due to the higher gravity.

      She caught sight of a camera on the wall ahead and froze, gesturing to Gan with her gun. He nodded and fell back.

      Silence.

      Soolin realised that he was waiting for her to suggest something. In a whisper, she asked: "Are the cameras continually monitored?"

      Gan spread his out hands, palms upwards.

      Okay, the choice was to disable it, destroy it, or bluff it. She hadn't got the skills to disable it, destroying it would probably set off an alarm. That left bluff.

      "Gan, take the gun."

      He nodded, then added quietly. "It may not work. I don't hold any official position here. I came with Pirelli because I'm his patient."

      Soolin bit her lip to stop herself saying the unsayable. They'd believe it all right. Anyone who'd seen the torturer's victims would be incapable of believing that he could aid an escapee. She almost didn't believe it herself.

      "It'll work if I look scared enough."

      They processed down the corridor in single file, Soolin willing herself not to look up at the camera. Each step on the hard flooring was another step towards possible discovery. She was aware of the gun behind her, knew without looking the exact part of her spine that would be burnt away if the trigger were pressed. Time seemed to draw itself out into a long strand that became thinner and more brittle with each step she took. As they passed the camera, the strand snapped and she whirled around to snatch the gun, almost shuddering with relief as she felt it fit snug along the length of her forearm.

      "It's natural to you, isn't it?" Gan said, almost wistfully.

      "Huh?" The pain from her arm was fuzzing her thinking.

      "The gun. You can kill. I envy that."

      "You want to be able to kill." She said it flatly, hating him for the urge, hating him on behalf of all men and especially on behalf of those who had killed her family.

      Brown eyes regarded her evenly. "I'd like to have the choice." He shrugged off his jacket and before she'd had time to work out why, he removed his shirt and ripped off a voluminous sleeve. "I've nothing to use for a splint, but it'll help a little if I set it and make a sling. You can't afford to be distracted by the pain."

      He reached out for her broken arm. Soolin braced herself for the touch, allowing gentle fingers to probe for the break that they themselves had caused.

      "I'm going to try and re-align the bone," he warned. "Don't cry out or they'll hear you."

      Hear her! Didn't he know that the whole complex ought to be familiar with the sound of her screams by now! She gritted her teeth as he pulled at each side of the break, then almost collapsed in relief as the pain shifted from agonising to merely dreadful. Gan tore down the side seam of the sleeve, opened it out and fastened it carefully around her arm and neck. It allowed him to come too close. She could feel the heat of his body, smell his sweat. Her throat knotted; her whole body tensed, demanding fight or flight. The gun in her hand was her only link to control. As long as she had that, she was complete, she was safe, she could kill...

      Gan completed the knot behind her neck and stepped away again, catching the look on her face as relief slumped her muscles.

      "You don't like to be touched?" he asked gently.

      "No, not after..."

      He nodded in understanding. "I've heard stories of what goes on in these places."

      Another corridor, this one wider with decorative geometric patterns on the wall. They emerged into a gallery and Soolin stopped in horror. She knew this room. The blood has been cleaned away, but that changed nothing. This was a place of death. Pirelli's words echoed in her head: "She's the only one left." Had the others died here: Dayna trying to snatch a gun from the floor; Vila, shot in the back; Avon standing by the body of his erstwhile leader? Or had they survived their injuries only to die in the slow horror of Federation torture? Her eyes flicked sideways in helpless speculation. Had Gan killed them? Pray God that it hadn't been so. Especially for Vila. Terrified of pain, Vila nonetheless had his own kind of bravery, but an attack from an old friend would have snapped him like a dry twig, a piece of kindling to be used and burnt in a brief flare of light.

      She knew the way out now; knew the way they'd come in, every hopeless step burned into her memory, sealed there forever by the shock of what had followed. On automatic pilot, she walked out of the tracking gallery, neither knowing nor caring if Gan followed her. The guards would be in the hanger - she could deal with them alone. Footsteps retracing that fatal path, she came to the point she'd known she must reach: a plain panel set in the wall, just like so many others she'd already passed, a number stencilled onto it - 7b.

      It made no sense to look. Gan had said they'd searched behind every panel. But then why hadn't they found Orac?

      She was aware of Gan behind her. It had to be a trap, but for the life of her, she couldn't figure out what kind of a trap it was. She would never come this way again; if she didn't look now, she would never know. Her hands pressed slowly against the panel and slid it aside.

      "What are you doing?" Gan demanded.

      "Looking for Orac."

      "He's not there."

      "Quite the contrary," came an irate voice from the back of the compartment. "Kindly remove me from here immediately. The dust level is proving most deleterious to my circuits." Tiny lights flickered in the darkness.


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Judith Proctor

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