Avon leaned over Orac, staring at the connections with bleary eyes. He ought to stop. It was late and he was tired and he knew that he should try and sleep ... but with sleep came nightmares and he didn’t want the nightmares. He was tired of the nightmares. He was just … tired of everything.
“There,” he said, sitting back. “That should be enough, Orac.”
The computer hummed, checking its components. Avon waited. Orac never thanked him for any of these sessions, of course, just acknowledged that they had happened. But then, why should a computer thank somebody for its continued working? It wasn’t like Orac was alive.
“Satisfactory,” Orac announced, obviously deciding it was all in correct order. Avon was reaching out for the key when the computer spoke again.
“I have a question for you, Avon.”
That was unusual. Avon stared at Orac for a moment. Orac didn’t generally ask questions, except when it was complaining about insufficient data. What had Avon done that warranted something from Orac?
“Ask then,” he said, automatically injecting disinterest into his voice, even though it hardly mattered with the computer.
“Why do you not heal the scars on your body?”
Avon stared at Orac for a moment, suddenly feeling strangely cold.
“What makes you ask that question?”
“It is a question that your crew members have been putting forth since I was forced to join them. Listening to their theories has been, on occasion, vaguely interesting but it has become clear that none of them ever intend to ask you, I shall do it instead. I prefer fact to theory.”
“Which crew members?”
“All of them have debated the issue at one point or another. The most recent to put forward the question was Soolin.”
Ah yes, it would have been. They had been on Yevelta, a tedious, damp place that had even managed to soak through his leathers. He’d stripped off later, changing and she must have looked at him whilst he was doing so. Damn her. And the others …
“Orac, do you have a record of this conversation?”
“As I was activated whilst this was happening, I was forced to place the whole of it in my memory banks.”
Since Orac had just been asking about the conversation in question, Avon decided not to take that grumble seriously. He folded his arms.
“Replay it for me.”
“I am not a tape recorder, Avon!”
“You are if I require you to be!”
For a moment, there was silence, except for Orac’s whining hum which sounded louder and crosser than usual. Avon was quite used to that. He remained still, arms folded, waiting for Orac to comply. He had no doubts that Orac would eventually obey. The computer was stubborn and difficult but it belonged to Avon and it knew it.
Abruptly, Soolin’s voice echoed from Orac’s innards, perfectly clear and with no electronic distortion. The sounds of the others could be heard too; the faint clink of a bottle on the rim of a glass, the sounds of movement and breathing. It was a little disturbing but Avon quickly forgot to worry about it, more interested in listening to the words.
“I thought you said the Liberator had regenerative medicines?”
“It did.” Tarrant’s voice, sounding grumpy. Doubtless missing the days when they had owned the most powerful ship in the galaxy. Avon could hardly blame him. Did Tarrant really think he was the only one who had called the Liberator home? Did he think none of the rest of them missed it?
“So why does Avon have so many scars?”
A pause. Avon could almost imagine the expressions on the others faces. Deciding if they were going to answer or not, perhaps. Or looking at each other with slight awkwardness.
“Oh, Avon’s scars.” Vila’s voice, slightly slurred. He was drinking too much wine these days. But as long as he remained useful, what did it matter? Avon could hardly judge. When had he last slept had a natural sleep? Of course, he was in control of it, he was always in control and Vila never was … “He’s always had those. Blake saw them right back when. I think he thinks they make him look tough.”
A stupid comment, of course and one that Avon suspected wasn’t entirely meant. He and Vila had discussed his scars briefly in private. Vila had discovered them after the incident in Space City. He couldn’t understand why he had allowed it now but back then, he’d been more easy, more stupid. Kissing Vila had seemed quite natural after such a success and bedding him even more so. He should have realised that afterwards, Vila would question him about the scars that he had been touching. Of course, Avon had refused to answer. Vila had left it at that, exhibiting some rarely seen sense.
Vila hadn’t mentioned that Blake had talked about them before that. Damn Blake. Avon had forgotten the man had seen them but yes, he’d insisted on taking Avon’s shirt off after Exbar. Avon had been woozy from exhaustion and the pain from his arm, he had barely noticed what was happening until Blake had suddenly asked if Avon wanted the old scars healing too. He’d reacted too much, given too much away with his frantic refusal but Blake had calmed him, said it was all right and that he’d leave them, that Avon was just fine and should rest and was safe and cared for and wanted …
Yes. Well, perhaps that last part had been a stupid, sentimental dream that the soma had eased him into. At any rate, it hadn’t mattered. Blake had left the scars alone and never mentioned them again. Avon supposed he’d been stupid to imagine that Blake had forgotten them. Doubtless that was what Orac meant when he’d said everybody had discussed the scars.
He realised that Orac was still repeating the conversation and dragged his attention back, scrabbling to remember what he’d been hearing while not listening. He couldn’t get it back into his mind but given that he was now listening to Tarrant laugh about something, he supposed it probably hadn’t been terribly important. Just Tarrant.
“Life Avon’s led, it’s hardly surprising he’s got some scars. Personally, I’m surprised he hasn’t got a few more from people stabbing him in the back.”
Ridiculous for that to hurt, given that he’d already dismissed Tarrant in his mind. Tarrant was a fool. A young fool. There was so much he didn’t understand …
“Still.” That was Dayna, sounding pensive. “I’d like to know. I bet there’s some brilliant stories. I asked Cally once but she wouldn’t talk about it.”
No, Cally wouldn’t have done, would she?
“That’s enough, Orac.”
Orac stopped with a whir. Avon stood up, moving away from the table. Without thinking about it, his left hand went to his right arm, running up the underside of it. Stories …
“There were other conversations,” Orac said, sounding almost smug. “Blake and Jenna discussed this on more – ”
“That’s enough, Orac!”
He took the key out for good measure. He didn’t need to hear any more. He certainly didn’t want to think about how Orac had apparently been recording all of their conversations He would have to ban Orac from repeating anything that he had said to the others later on. He wasn’t going to have them spying on him!
Slowly, he fumbled with his jacket, shrugging it onto the floor with a thud. Equally slowly, he unfastened his shirt, easing the black silk over his shoulders. He bent to remove his boots and then his trousers and his underwear. Naked, he looked at himself in the full-length mirror that still hung in the room, taking in each scar and mark scattered over his body.
The one on his right arm was almost gone now. That had been there the longest, since childhood. He thought of it as Tal’s scar, the scar he’d received for stepping the way when his father had aimed a blow at his little brother. The whip had cut deep and the cut had become infected, they’d had no money to heal it. Avon didn’t remember much about the time after but he remembered waking up to pain and Tal’s tears, remembered the long hours he’d had to take to make his arm work properly again. It had taught him two things, that money was what mattered and that to get money, you had to be healthy. It was stupid to take a take a blow for somebody else if it then put you out of commission. And that had changed everything between him and Tal … no, he wouldn’t think about that, he wouldn’t … it had been a long time ago, Tal had been dead for years and Avon did not miss him. Of course he didn’t miss him. He didn’t miss anyone.
He let his hand drop and it fell to his side, squeezing the scar that splashed over the side of his belly. The scar he’d got from the dealer, selling the fake IDs. Oh, he’d been so stupid to let himself get shot. But he’d been innocent then. It was hard to remember now, hard to remember that he’d found the gun awkward to handle, been uneasy with it in his hand. Hard to remember a time when he wasn’t completely comfortable with weapons. But there had been a time and that time had nearly cost him his life.
He’d hated that scar for a long time. It had been a reminder of his failure, of how he’d been stupid, clumsy and thanks to that stupidity, Anna had died. He felt differently about it now. That scar had saved his life. If he’d returned when he was supposed to, he would have fallen right into the arms of the Federation. Anna’s last lie, that she’d let him go. Did she think he was a fool?
His hand wandered again, upwards slightly. The scars here were faint ones, little silvery marks that littered his ribs. Interrogation scars. The Federation could torture without marks, often did in fact but sometimes, they liked more physical methods. A reminder that you were a criminal, that they knew what you had done. And sometimes because the sight of your own blood broke you faster than pain.
Funny, how seeing blood could be more frightening than feeling agony. Seeing the bright red, feeling it trickling over your skin. A tangible knowledge of potential pain and death.
He found himself smiling grimly. He hadn’t broken. There had been nothing to break and the Federation had known it. They’d known he was guilty, they’d known his only motive had been desire for money, thanks to Anna. They had tortured him for the practise, probably.
He had healed the scars from the second interrogation. They had been unnecessary. They had meant nothing.
Another scar on his leg. That one still hurt sometimes, usually when they landed somewhere cold. He made sure none of the others knew about that. It was none of their business, they would only want to heal it and it was Cally’s scar. They had been on Hoaros together. It was strange but he couldn’t remember why any more. He just remembered the heat of the place, the way sweat had trickled down his neck and soaked Cally’s hair. The way his gun had been too hot in his hand and so he’d put it away. Stupidity, rank stupidity. He hadn’t realised the creature was under the sand until it emerged and sank its teeth into his boot. God, the pain. Cally had been on the ball, of course. She’d grabbed his arm, fired her own gun and the creature had dropped – but if anything, the jaws had only tightened on his leg. It had taken a while for them to free him. He remembered Cally soothing him with her mind as she’d worked, her mental voice easier than her physical one as he’d lain there in the heat, loathing the faint sounds of pain that he hadn’t been able to stop himself making. He’d had to let Tarrant come down and replace him and gone to the Liberator alone to heal himself. And he had, for the most part … but he’d kept the scar.
The others wouldn’t understand, he was sure of that. There were some things that you needed to remember. They needed to be marked, they needed to be recorded where you could never forget them. Memories couldn’t be relied upon. Blake was living proof of that. Even if people didn’t attack you, there were other ways that memories couldn’t be relied upon. You had to have something to make it real. You had to have something that made it matter.
Vila had a scar too, a curve that went over his shoulder. Did Vila remember Avon taking that blow for him? Did he even care? No, of course not. He hadn’t been marked. Why would he remember the moment? That was why it was so important …
Dayna had a scar too, a small one across his back. Tarrant's scar was higher up, a random twist over his collarbone. Neither of them knew. Neither of them would understand if they did. Jenna had a scar, a slash on his arm that was small but vivid pink, raised when he touched it.
Blake had no scars named after him. He had healed the wound on Exbar. There was nothing else. No other injuries, no other marks. Nothing to show. All meaningless. Doubtless, Blake had no scars of his own either. He liked other people to do his dirty work for him. People like Avon.
The burst of anger faded, leaving only exhaustion behind. He was torn between blaming Blake absolutely and a weary awareness that everything was his own fault. He had chosen this life, at least some of it. He had to live with it. Just a little longer.
Turning, he slotted Orac’s key back into place.
“Orac, I want you to erase all the conversations about my scars.”
“Erase?!” Orac’s voice rose in a shriek of fury. “I gather knowledge! I do not erase it! Once something is recorded, it should not be deleted!”
Avon found himself smiling dully. Hadn’t he just been thinking something similar? What were the scars for if not a record?
“Then the conversations are to be locked in your memory,” he said. “You will share them with nobody, even if asked. They are simply something that you will know.”
“Oh very well,” Orac huffed. “The conversations are locked in my memory. Although why you are so sensitive about them, I cannot imagine.”
Avon didn’t answer. How could he? Orac was a computer. It could never understand. Orac could not be marked, of course. The casing could be damaged but the computer didn’t feel it. A machine could have every part replaced and still, in the end, be the same machine. Orac felt nothing, inside or outside.
Sometimes, Avon envied Orac. Not that he would ever admit it. The very sensation of envy was simply proof of how far away he was from what he wanted.
Life would be so much easier if he were a machine.