Pushing the Barriers
The contents of the locker assigned to me: a tangled assemblage of nylon webbing straps in electric blue spangled with purple. As I picked it up, the tangle resolved itself into a wide adjustable belt with a softly padded inner side, with two circles of webbing attached, also padded. Various plastic loops -- four large, one small -- at what would be the back if this were worn as a conventional buckled belt. At the front a sort of doubled loop affair in webbing, which rather defied description, to which was attached an odd metal contraption, which definitely defied description.
Some sort of harness, perhaps? It looked rather serious, professional even.
The associations my mind threw up were inappropriate here, surely? To this garish nylon concoction? Not a hint of leather or studs in sight.
Although where did I get that image from? Surely I'd never...? It was always frustrating having surrendered so much of my past, but never so much as when provocative isolated images floated back, their context irretrievably lost.
Was this Avon's idea of a joke? The man certainly had the ability to manipulate Orac into providing his own fantasy ideas. And that quickly suppressed look on his face when we'd drawn each other as partners in this little game had been ... interesting.
But then what were the other contents of the locker, these strange shoes? The colors alone were bizarre: maroon suede with olive green laces. Then that slightly inward curved shape. But strangest of all, this smooth hard rubber: not just for the sole but also covering the heel area and forming a broad band around the side of the whole shoe. And they looked far too small. Unlike Orac to have got that little detail wrong.
Oh well, no backing out now. This had after all been my idea.
Teleport. See what Orac had lined up for us now....
Once the teleport disorientation disappeared a new disorientation took over. The rock-strewn sloping ground on which I landed awkwardly was the least of my worries. I reversed slowly till my back was against the rock, then eased myself gently down into a sitting position. Yes, that seemed to help. I tried to calm my breathing, ordered my pulse to slow down. I was on a ledge. Halfway up a fucking mountain. If I liked panoramic views there were plenty to enjoy. I didn't. Concentrate. Where the hell was Avon?
Then he was loping towards me, as if my thought had summoned him. Seeming utterly at ease, damn him. I couldn't even bear to watch his rapid progress, knee deep in heather, silhouetted against the blue sky.
"Blake!" he called. "So what did Orac issue you with?"
"Come and see!" I was certainly not going to move until I had to.
"Is that all? I got an assortment of bits of metal attached to mine. Oh, and a coil of rope."
The sick sensation in my stomach was not going to go away. The objective of this particular game was all too obvious. Had Orac known my weakness?
"So our mission must be to reach the top of this mountain." Thankfully I appeared to retain some control over my voice. I assayed a smile. "If we choose to accept it."
"We have a choice? I seem to recall that the absence of retreat options was supposed to be one of the merits of this little team-building exercise of yours."
An ideal way to keep fit and build team spirit, I had thought -- and probably voiced -- when I first realized that Orac could access the infamous Teal--Vandor combat computer and recreate the simulated environments. Certainly the Liberator crew had its weak links. Vila might be an amusing drinking companion and a highly talented lock-picker but sometimes I worried that his open displays of cowardice might somehow prove infectious. And Avon. The man operated in a team of one: if he could even trust himself, that is.
Reluctantly I shifted my legs in an attempt to stand. Grasped the outstretched hand unthinking and was on my feet before fully realizing that it could only be Avon who was assisting me. "Thanks." Perhaps there was something in the team-building idea after all.
"I had time to investigate before you arrived. There seems to be no way off the terrace. The easiest way up appears to be over here."
I followed him, trailing my hand against the rock face. The nausea redoubled at the mere idea of ascending this vertical expanse of sullen gray rock. I focused simply on reaching the splash of violent color among the natural purple green tones of the heather which must be the rope. Luminous orange with turquoise stripes. Orac must be color blind.
"I've already estimated the length of the rope," he said. "About forty arm spans, so probably a little over fifty meters."
We both looked up at the crags hanging over our heads. A lot higher than fifty meters.
"If we ascend here," he continued, "we might be able to stop there, in that niche." I disliked the way in which Avon appeared to be taking control of the situation, but had to admit I could hardly bear to look upwards let alone plan rationally. The route he appeared to be pointing out followed a deep fissure in the rock about the width of my hand, accompanied by several much narrower cracks that wandered freely over the near-vertical face, repeatedly splitting and rejoining. The fissure petered out some distance below a triangular indent -- presumably Avon's niche. Above this point the angle appeared to relent somewhat and the crag was cut by regular grassy breaks.
"The harnesses are obvious enough, and the rope. But what are these for?" I said, kicking at the rubber-soled shoes.
Avon picked one up and rested it carefully on the steeply angled face of a nearby boulder. Astonishingly the shoe clung there. "Static friction is proportional to force: they should be even more adhesive under a man's weight."
A bizarre collection of ironmongery hung from the belt loops on the second harness. Twenty or so irregular bilaterally symmetrical polygons of assorted sizes ranging from fingernail to great toe, all attached to loops of stiff twisted wire. Several larger metal tubes, hexagonal in cross-section, the largest the size of my clenched fist, attached to thin nylon rope of the same garish color mix and tight weave as the coil of climbing rope. Strangest of all, a collection of sprung gadgets like four-petalled metallic flowers.
"Well, I had been wondering about those. Let us assume that the equipment we have been provided is both necessary and sufficient for a safe ascent."
"I think these might ...." Avon was fiddling around with one of the smaller metal polygons, inserting it in various orientations into one of the narrow cracks. "Look," he said proudly, giving it a hard tug. It appeared to have stuck fast. "So all we need now to complete the system is some sort of a friction device." He picked up the gadget, like a miniature bucket with two holes, that was attached to my harness and turned it over in his hands.
Sitting again seemed to be the best way to control my mounting unease. I pulled off my boots, loosened the laces of one of the rubber-soled shoes and tried to prize my foot inside. Several minutes of vain effort later I realized that Avon was standing over me, laughing. "Actually I think these are meant for bare feet."
He had already removed both boots and socks, placing them neatly beneath his heavy jacket, which now swung casually from a rock spike. Orac would no doubt retrieve them later. I could not take my eyes off him in that tight black polo-neck as he started to slowly ease on one shoe: a tantalizing line of black hair ran up the center of each foot. I tried to get a grip on myself. For Christ's sake, I must have seen the man naked, on the London, surely, if nowhere else.
Minus socks the shoes eventually capitulated. The feeling was odd, constricting my feet in all directions, yet instilling an almost comforting sense of readiness.
The harness was another matter. On close inspection the webbing appeared slightly worn and carried a hint of a salty-sweaty tang. Given the strange associations my brain had dredged up earlier, it felt inherently embarrassing, and the wriggling needed to pull the belt over my hips just seemed to emphasize the size of my stomach. And surely only Avon could continue to appear graceful while hopping about on one leg trying to insert the other into one of the leg loops.
Once on, the way the electric-blue diagonal straps framed Avon's cock and balls made me abruptly aware of the effect those same straps seemed to be having on that portion of my own anatomy. Not that anything directly touched, of course, but by then it didn't really need to. And as for the effect when Avon leaned towards me and grabbed the mini-bucket device still attached to the front harness loop.... Well, I could only hope desperately that he hadn't noticed. At least it seemed to be banishing my nausea.
"I believe this is how it's meant to work," was all he said, pushing a loop of the rope through one of the bucket holes and then passing it through the harness clip. "There," giving me the free part. "If you hold that bit forwards then the rope runs smoothly. Pull it backwards and the additional friction from the S-bend means the rope stops." Concentration was difficult, but the system seemed simple enough. He attached the near end of the rope through his harness and handed me the other. "Now tie that securely in a loop round your belt."
Without another word he turned to the rock face and ran his hands up and down the fissure. I guessed perhaps that he too was nervous. He jammed his left foot experimentally into the crack and tried his weight on it, then leant out rightwards, caressing the rock, and seemed to find invisible balancing hand and foot holds. Then progressed upwards, slowly, carefully, until I realized with envy that Avon climbed like he did everything else, with a deliberate grace.
If I'm honest, this was not the first time I'd noticed that Avon was more than the pure machine-like intellect he so clearly wished the world to focus on. More than once I'd admired the play of muscles under those skin-tight leather trousers when his concentration was safely elsewhere. But what was the use? The man had the poisonous line in sarcasm of a scorpion at bay. And he shrugged off affection as if his exoskeleton were equally thick.
He climbed to three or four meters, then stopped and fished around one-handed, trying out one piece of metal after another from his harness in the crack. From below I couldn't see his face but imagined his lips slightly parted, tongue between teeth, with that look of absorbed concentration I'd seen so many times when he was playing around in the depths of some electronic Liberator system with a laser probe. So different from the studied indifference that his human crewmates usually elicited. Eventually, he hooked the rope through, then continued on upwards.
The sun had swung round far enough by now to strike the rock face directly. For a moment, the folds and billows of rock above me looked magnificent rather than threatening. Close up, the rock was crinkly, rippled, abrasive to the touch. Warm, not cold as I'd imagined. Just about nose height, a pocket sported a forlorn-looking heather, which still managed to poke up a couple of purple flower spikes. The shadowed depths of the fissure supported damp mosses, while the face was sprinkled with little outcrops of white lichen and an abundance of tiny bright red mites.
In the sun, the rock looked almost inviting. In another of those free-floating memories, I suddenly recalled scrambling around those chalky escarpments with Inga. How many years ago?
Flooded with a whole range of primitive, almost childish urges, I tried to remember how Avon had got off the ground. He'd made it look so easy. He'd started with one foot in the fissure -- like that? Yes.... Now what? At this close range, the rock no longer looked bare; indeed its teeming opportunities seemed to inveigle my fingers. As I inched up that vertical fissure, the rope above my head remained reassuringly taut. An orange-and-turquoise-striped umbilical cord connecting me to safety. Well, to Avon, but that might be the nearest approach to safety on offer. Strange thought. Just don't look down.
And then that comforting fissure ran out.
And there I was pressed against the rock, the ground so far away as to be almost invisible, the next move clearly impossible. The rock bulging outwards at me, pushing me off-balance. There just isn't a hold. Shaking all over. Looked down between my feet. Bad idea. Shit. Waves of nausea running through me.
"Shit. Tight rope, Avon!", I shouted upwards, "I can't do this, I'm going to fall off. Shiiiit!"
"Of course you can do it," floated down from far above me, out of sight.
"I can't. I really can't. I'm going to fall off." Why the fuck did you take me on this route? You must have known I couldn't do it. "Shiiit! Can't you get that rope a bit tighter?"
Left foot shaking so much that I could hardly keep it on the hold. Fingers cramped with hanging on for grim life. If I don't move soon I really will fall. Hyperventilating, breaths coming like sobs.
"Fucking get on with it, can't you? I'm not hauling you up here, Blake, you're too damned heavy. I've got you. Just give it a go, you can do it. Just relax, reach out slowly rightwards."
Just can't take it any more. Reaching tentatively rightwards, edging over the rock. Off balance, terror taking over -- retreat.
"I can't. I just can't. Shit. I'm going to fall!"
"You can. Just get on with it! I've got you, Roj," floated down reassuringly.
And somehow, with the words, the courage to reach rightwards again, fingers finding not a hold but something -- enough? Sliding balance slightly over rightwards. That's better, now it's working. Then god knows how, but my feet have moved up a bit. Explosive fusion of rock and sun and me and Avon. Magic. I didn't fall. Shit. That was close.
Crux over, coasting to the top on pure adrenaline. And then I was sitting on the ledge, still hyperventilating, leaning back against Avon's warm body, his strong arms wrapped around my chest, the solidity of his support a counterpoint to the breeze on my face. I could feel his breath against my neck, smell the unique smell of his sweat mingling with my own. Every millimeter down my spine all too aware of him, my cock uncomfortably constrained by the harness. For once he did not come up with some flip line. I've no idea how long we sat there. Probably minutes; it felt like a lifetime.
Eventually he said gently, almost wonderingly, "You suffer from vertigo. I hadn't realized."
And suddenly I wanted to offer him something. Something more.
I opened my eyes. The blue of the sky merged into the blue of the lake, maybe seven or eight hundred meters below. I shut my eyes hastily then forced them open again, focused on the immediate surroundings. Tufts of grass, rock rather crumbly, one straggling heather protruding through the untidy loops of orange rope which occupied most of the tiny ledge.
Turned round so that I could see his face.
"Thank you, Avon."
And Avon smiled.
And perhaps I knew the lesson Orac was trying to teach me.
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