A Dangerous ConceptBy Nova
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'Reality is a dangerous concept. Each one of us interprets it in a different
Terry Nation, The Way Back.
Avon passed his second hour in the cell calculating the angle at which the mutoid must have struck his wrist in order to cause his teleport bracelet to fly across the room and land at the Federation base commander's feet, just as Blake rasped, 'Jenna, teleport now!' During the first hour he had, of course, tested the door and walls for possible escape routes, finding none.
By the end of that time he had established two things. Firstly, that the odds against his bracelet unlatching were ninety eight to one, a piece of information that was statistically consoling but otherwise irrelevant. And secondly that, since none of his fellow crew members had returned to rescue him, the Liberator had presumably been driven off by the base's pursuit ships.
In which case, he would have to rely on his own resources for the time being.
He leaned back against the wall, assessing the situation. A holding cell in a Federation outpost. Seamless reinforced plass walls that blocked even the slightest sound. A self-sealing chute for ration drops, a vacuum toilet unit, a hard mattress, a rough blanket and nothing else: most importantly, no light. Conditions that came close to sensory deprivation, although he could move around to the extent that the cell's five square metres would permit.
**Still, that makes my captors' intentions reasonably clear. They plan to break me in the most economical manner possible: by snapping my links to reality and then leaving me alone to drive myself mad.**
Having always feared madness, he was paradoxically cheered by this analysis. 'Depressives used to cope better than most in Old Earth concentration camps,' he remembered Blake pontificating at one point. 'They'd been expecting the worst all their lives, so they were almost relieved when it happened.' Avon privately counted himself among the depressives and his expectations had always been low, which, if Blake was right, meant that his chances of survival were correspondingly high. Escape might be impossible but at least he had a short-term goal.
'No one breaks me,' he whispered and as his words echoed back at him, unnaturally loud in the silence, he realised what he needed to do. He would have to create an alternate form of reality, powerful enough to counter the effects of isolation and bring him through this ordeal unscathed.
'The mind is its own place and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.
What matter where, if I be still the same?'
**Fine words. Let's see whether I can prove them correct.**
To begin with, he returned to the project he had been working on, just before Blake roped him into the raid: researching Zen's basic systems, in an attempt to locate and neutralise some of the more inconvenient commands programmed into the Liberator's alien technology. Given his photographic memory, it was easy to recall the display that he had been studying and continue on from there. For a long stretch of hours he barely registered his surroundings, too absorbed in his calculations to notice the darkness or the confined space.
But Avon had never been a pure theoretician, preferring to get results by a process of trial and error. Without access to Zen, he eventually found himself stalled. A period of mounting frustration followed, during which his body began to play tricks on him. His eyes strained at the cell's artificial night, searching for variations in its impenetrable blackness and, improbably, finding them. He rubbed his eyes, looked again and saw chrysanthemum flowers of light explode on the dark, spreading and melting like fireworks. Too real: he was cringing back into a corner of the cell to escape from them before he recognised them as hallucination. Far too real: like the sea sound that turned out to be the rush of his blood, the drumbeat that he finally traced to his own heart, the voice calling his name, the chilly drafts that swept through the temperature-controlled cell.
**Illusion. All illusion. You must take control.**
He dug his fingernails into his palms - **I hurt, therefore I am** - but the pain was not convincing enough, so he jerked his wrist to his mouth and bit down hard. That steadied him. Slumping back against the wall, he caressed the dents in his flesh and began to devise ways to measure the passing of time. The intervals between the arrival of the ration bars. Careful observation of his biorhythms. A set pattern of sleep and exercise, physical and mental, to create a routine that would parallel his shifts on the Liberator.
In this manner he managed to get through two sleep cycles, fending off the hallucinations with relative ease. Then his body betrayed him again, dissolving suddenly into the dark: a hallucination so complete that for a fear-filled second Avon was convinced he no longer existed. He raked his nails down his cheeks, ploughing furrows of pain into the skin, rolled onto his stomach and ground himself full-length against the hard mattress. The harsh prickle of the blanket and an aching throb from an unnoticed erection. He gasped and wrenched at his zipper. Gripped his cock and pumped feverishly.
A fountain-burst of sensation flooded him, warm and sticky and human and real. But seconds later the warmth ebbed away, leaving him more empty and alone than before. The darkness crowded in on him. A drumbeat dinned through his ears. He leapt up, gasping for breath. Swung a fist at the vacancy. Lost balance and collapsed, swamped by a surge of terror that accelerated into a claustrophobic panic attack where he alternately raged and shouted, sobbed, hyperventilated and battered his body against the walls. Finally, frightened by the intensity of his terror, he gritted his teeth, clenched every muscle in his body and held himself still, until he had isolated the source of the fear.
**Oh, I see. So I am lonely. Apparently, even the intellectual lightweights on Liberator serve some sort of purpose. Easy enough to say 'I do not need anybody at all' when I can immerse myself in work. But right now I would even be glad to see Vila.**
Once he had defined the problem, the next step was to find a solution. If companions were what he needed, why not invent a companion? That hypothesis interested him and for a moment the darkness seemed less palpable. Then it pressed down on him with renewed force as his practical mind began to struggle with the task. What type of companion might he require? A counter-irritant to relieve his frustration? (Someone like Vila, for example.) A scapegoat for his ill temper? (Vila again.) A friend, whatever that might mean?
Or, perhaps, a lover.
**That's right, make it difficult for yourself. In case it has slipped your memory, let me remind you that you have not taken a lover in two years - and precious few before that. Are you sure you can remember what it was like?**
But, despite his self-directed sneers, the idea would not go away. It lodged under his breastbone, a fist-shaped ball of warmth. A lover. He could create an ideal lover, the lover he had never found, to be his companion here. A brief delusion to sustain and support him. To give him the sense of being needed that, in this extremity, he appeared to need.
Smiling fiercely at the dark, Avon started to make a list of the qualities his ideal would require. Confidence. An easy sensuality. Verbally adroit. Inquiring. And, above all, bright. He considered the list but, even as he approved it, he felt his heart contracting. It was too abstract or, to put it another way, he was too pragmatic to believe in abstractions. Apparently, he would have to choose from among the people he already knew.
Straight away Anna Grant's face glowed on the midnight air. Then, just as abruptly, her image dimmed. Too many painful memories there and besides, Anna's tragic death had always seemed somehow inevitable. Not Anna then, nor any of the other women or men he had slept with, since he could vividly remember his very cogent reasons for terminating those connections. No, he needed to select someone with whom he was able to contemplate beginning a liaison. Someone whom he knew well enough to predict their reactions.
Someone from the Liberator, in that case.
Stretching out on the mattress, Avon called up his crew mates, one by one. Jenna's charms were obvious but obvious charms had never appealed to him. Cally's fey pre-Raphaelite beauty came closer to his type, although, when he investigated that possibility further, he discovered that he had no idea of what went on in her mind - and preferred not to know, finding telepathy a rather disconcerting concept. Gan raised the ghost of a smile. Vila widened the smile.
**An amusing notion but not really possible to take seriously a relationship where both parties are amoral.**
Which brought him, by two simultaneous logics, to Blake. Roj Blake, possessor of the most over-active conscience at which Avon had ever lifted an eyebrow. Roj Blake, who was, unless he could come up with an alternative source of ideas, the only one left.
'Blake,' he whispered experimentally and the cell blazed with light, Blake at the centre of it, so vivid that Avon almost reached out to touch him. Stubborn chin, soft full mouth, expressive brown eyes guarded by heavy lids and eyebrows with an interrogative lift to them: and, of course, that tempting riot of curls.
Well now, it seems I remember Blake more clearly than anyone else. Does that mean he qualifies for the role I have in mind?
He expected to laugh and dismiss the idea but found himself transfixed and thrilled. Blake? Running his hands through Blake's tumbled curls? Touching a finger to Blake's full mouth? Impossible in reality but as a fantasy, the image had a certain power. And, in simple self-defence, he had certainly studied Blake enough to bring him into this cell.
What's more, he could easily identify the exact point at which he and Blake might have become lovers. The London, two days out from Earth. Avon, product of a solitary childhood and a semi-solitary student and working life, taking refuge in the shower room while the others slept and starting to shake uncontrollably in reaction to endless weeks of enforced companionship, first in the holding cells and after that on the prison ship.
Then the sudden shock of arms closing around him from behind. Knowing, without turning to check, that Blake was holding him and instinctively leaning back into the embrace, steadied against a broad warm chest until the shaking stopped and he became aware that the big hand stroking his hair had moved past reassurance and on towards desire.
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