Take my Breath Away

By Executrix


Terms of engagement

'I don't care,' said the rank outsider (and even worse -- a civilian!) who had incomprehensibly been brought in to teach FSA cadets about developments in matter transmission research. 'If you can't learn the material, you shouldn't have enrolled in the course at all.'

Deke (as his many friends called him) was annoyed, by the tone of voice as much as the denial. The only reason he'd signed up for the blasted course in the first place was that it was hard to get into. He wasn't much enjoying the company of fourteen of the closest approach that the FSA had to soft-bellied, mouth-breathing, bespectacled anoraks.

He'd grown to expect the best of everything, which he'd always obtained, and always earned. They put his picture on the Youth Federation posters three years in a row. In the third year, he got a medal for having more merit badges than any other Patrol Scout.

That's why we have a Federation, damn it, he thought. The best people, the best breeding, the best training, all to produce the best rulers. But if my grade for the course is less than Alpha, or at least Beta with distinction, then I'll drop into the middle of the class on academic standing. Most people like me, some people don't, my family's rich but we're not political, so I won't necessarily get an elite posting when I graduate.

It's not as if I don't have anything else to do, he thought. This was a fair enough perception. He was co-captain of the squash team. That landed him with practice, matches and a lot of admin. work. The Quartermaster Colonel was an idiot, well what would you expect from a staff man, a desk-riding REMF*, so Deke had to do quite a bit of his work just to keep a roof over everyone's head.

Three years of assiduous committee service, team spirit, apple-polishing and boot-licking were not going to be wrecked on the shoals of one man. One man! Anyone in the military would understand, and would make the necessary allowances. But Deke's nemesis had never been forced to develop the military mind-set before he set out to ruin the life of the President of the Third-Year Class.

And Deke, for reasons that seemed compelling at the time, had pulled strings to get into the course. The first fifteen minutes of the first lecture had seemed insultingly easy. Minute sixteen had been rather less comprehensible, and it was downhill from there.

'I need you to tutor me,' Deke explained, in the level tone of reasonableness required in contact with small children, civilians and mad dogs.

'Cadet Krystof shows real scientific potential,' the appointee said. It was plain, from his tone, that he regretted the extreme unlikelihood of that potential ever being put to use. 'He's also quite short of money. Twenty credits an hour moving from your commissary account to his should put you well on the way to learning something. And your family's rich, isn't it? Twenty an hour wouldn't begin to dent your allowance.'

Krystof! Deke thought it was bad enough to have to be in the same room with him, much less in his debt.

'I need you to tutor me.'

'Then for perhaps the first time in your startlingly accomplished little life, you are going to be disappointed, and someone is going to say No to you.'

'I can offer you-'

Deke almost gasped. It was hard to believe that a dark-eyed glance could have the impact of a knee in the groin.

'I'm not interested in what you have to offer. Now get out of my office. Passing grade on the midterm exam is seventy-five, and I'll have no compunction about failing you if you deserve it.'

Oh, that's another thing, Deke thought. Perhaps that's why Lis and I never made a go of it, for all the gruesome pleasure that my mother took in planning our wedding. Lis never stopped moaning about how hard they worked her at uni. Well, she never had to line up every week and see class standings posted on the board. And every blessed thing she did wasn't analysed and numbered and graded and compared with everyone else. She wasn't looking over her shoulder every moment of the day to see if she were doing something that someone might feel obliged to report to the Honour Board and get her court-martialled. They didn't give her an exam every time she turned around. They didn't try to reduce everything to performance metrics so they could kick you in the teeth the moment the numbers declined, or the moment someone else's looked a bit better.

I don't know what the hell this chap has against me, Deke thought. Well, maybe I do. He's not so young as all that any more, the Aquitar Project was a washout, I'm going places, he's stuck. Jealous, that's all.

With the door closed, it was stifling in the tiny office grudgingly allocated to the outsider, hot enough to risk overheating the wretched obsolete computer they had fetched out of the boxroom and lumbered him with. (It was better now that he'd had a chance to soup it up.) With the door open, anybody could see and hear everything that went on, without even bothering to open the surveillance channel. Hobson's choice.

It wasn't very sensible for me to show how much I hate that little bastard, Avon thought. But as long as Tarrant never finds out why, I'll be all right.


Thank you for not smoking

Another day, another manifestation by Tarrant.

'You're back again. Which are you?' Avon asked, in the spirit of detached intellectual inquiry. He crushed out a cigarette in the ashtray he had improvised from the sign that used to be bolted to the wall. 'A spy, a tart, or both?' It would have attracted notice or even suspicion to disconnect the surveillance channel in his office, but it was simple enough to make it crackle with static and cut out unpredictably.

'Neither, of course. But when I want something, from someone who's fool enough not to give it me at once, then I persist until he changes his mind. A tart? Hard to believe you could mistake me for a girl.'

'Naiveté doesn't become you. Several of your classmates are...commercially available.' And very good value for money some of them too, Avon thought. Only to be expected, given the tax money devoted to teaching them to take orders.

Tarrant stared at him, temporarily unable to visualise such a thing happening.


Choosing to be led

'Yes, that makes perfect sense,' Tarrant said. He tried to find somewhere reasonably comfortable to put his legs, around the deliquescing swivel chair jammed into the tiny office. 'If you'd only said it that way during the lecture...'

'Hardly necessary for fourth-year students manifesting scientific aptitude. Now, for arrogant interlopers...'

'In fact, if you continue to make this much sense, I'll probably get a hundred on the final,' Tarrant said breezily, still rejoicing in his triumphant midterm grade of 76 1/2.

That's what leadership is, Tarrant thought. I got what I needed, because I made him acknowledge who has the stronger will.

Put upon again, Avon thought. He never asked anybody for anything. He would have to be in the extremest need, and deeply humiliated by the exposure of such vulnerability. So, when anyone asked him for anything, what he saw as the spectacle of a prostrate form begging for mercy eventually tended to inspire a horrified and embarrassed compassion.

Avon lit a cigarette. 'Oh, do you want one?'

Tarrant, who didn't smoke (it isn't very compatible with competitive athletics) absently said yes, and noticed an odd pang of disappointment when Avon pushed the packet and the lighter over to him.


Yet it must come

Neither of them was naive enough to think that these close encounters in the cellar were entirely about cybernetics. Both of them wanted them to continue, although in separate ways both were disturbed by them.

Avon, dressing to go out for the evening, discarded a third shirt, put the first one half-way on, and decided not to go anywhere after all. There was a certain kind of bad mood that he associated, by experience, with catastrophically bad judgement.

What a good idea it was to start paying for it so long ago, he told himself. Then, I persuaded myself that it enhanced my measure of control. Now, I can blur the line between controlling the encounter and -- having to pay.

Thirty-four. That's not as conclusive as thirty-five, is it? Oh, there will be many more years in the future. Many more years of insufficient accomplishment, not enough money, far too much obscurity and humility, too many nights alone and too many bad choices for the rest of the nights.

I am not young any more. My face, my body -- there is an air of promise that, at some point, departs. When heads turn to see the newest arrival. At the office. Or somewhere else. When I am watching the promising youngster, no longer to be the watched. Snow White is fairer far than you.

And to see it in someone else? I envy what I lost, I resent its possessor who still holds it, through no merit of his own. It is some consolation that he will lose it too.

I wouldn't like having to ask him to sit down in order to kiss him.

But in the meantime. Aquamarine eyes. The delicacy of the wrists connecting long arms to large, capable hands. Christ in a cyclotron, next thing I'll be hanging around outside the schoolyard in a dirty mac. One can't absorb youth, but at least it can't be drained either, one need not feel remorse about taking anything away from the possessor of assorted erotic triggers: the dewy, unlined skin, the illusions, the tight muscles and clear eyes.

All those straight teeth. From some angles they seemed to go around and around, like a roller towel.

Avon had always been self-conscious about the gap between his teeth, the money to fix it hadn't been there, and he was just as glad not to have had bands on his teeth. More recently -- two years ago -- there had been the tooth that abruptly took its departure. Three thousand credits to have it capped. At the time the furniture, and the holiday, had seemed more important.


Couldn't sleep and wouldn't sleep

Tarrant didn't get a lot of time to himself. Much of that was FSA policy. A fatigued cadet was a cadet with limited energy to get into trouble. It was no hardship to put in his simulator time to practice manoeuvres -- in fact, he got an extra hour by telling Krystof that he had been detailed to extra unarmed combat practice and was required in the gym that instant.

But by the time he straightened out the squash team match schedule and practice schedule, did his Aeronautics problems, did some research for his Military Law paper, went for a run, and reviewed his Matter Transmission notes, he was too exhausted to do anything except collapse into bed. At least, as a Third-Year man, he had his own cubicle (the plebs slept in barracks, scondies had roommates).

Tarrant dearly wanted to get to sleep, reveille was perilously close, but his truant thoughts kept him awake.

Who was it? Tarrant wondered. Who was it that could be paid for, that could be had? McCauley? Srijev? Dallysandor? What did they do? What did it cost?

Avon must be lying, it must be something he invented just as a wind-up. It was certainly working, wasn't it?

How would he know, anyhow? How could he? He prided himself on being a scientist -- experimentally? Did he stay cool, self-possessed as someone else was possessed? No one that sure of himself could ever be naked, but what would he look like, unclothed? Where would he put those long, cool, tapering fingers? No, wait, Tarrant reminded himself -- Avon's hands were smallish, blunt, almost coarse. Not very large hands, if that meant...

Tarrant stopped, horrified, and wrenched his own hand away. There were any number of mundane and annoying things he could think about instead, but he would worry about them and it would keep him awake.

Was it Srijev? What a pattern that would make, light skin and dark skin, bodies intertwined. McCauley? Blond hair and dark hair, brought close if they were kissing. Did they kiss? Was that part of the transaction? Kissing, like falling off the world, like feeling a ship tear into hyperspace? Dallysandor -- oh, he had the same high cheekbones, almost a smear of white highlight where the light hit, the same velvet pelt of hair, but a wide, soft mouth.

I will be very upset if I think about this too much, Tarrant told himself. Therefore I will not.


Flying too high with some guy in the sky is my idea of nothing to do

'Tuesday night,' Del said. 'I can sneak you into the pursuit ship simulator room. Don't eat dinner first, so you won't end up wearing it.'

Just after lights-out, when Del opened the door to the simulator room, Avon was inside it already -- no doubt to demonstrate that he had his own resources and was not entirely dependent on Tarrant for entry to forbidden places.

'It's the best thing I know,' Tarrant said, 'Flying. The best thing that ever happened to me. It's -- well, exciting and pure at the same time. My sister used to be mad for horses, I expect it was something to do with controlling something that much bigger and stronger than you are. Well, this is the same thing, only more so.'

Avon sat down at the console and tried to figure out where the on/off switch was. Tarrant keyed in his ID number and authorisation, and the virtual reality display kicked in, so that they were, for all intents and purposes, in the sharp end of a pursuit ship, cleaving through space.

Avon crumpled back against the seat, groped for the harness, and realised that he wasn't really going anywhere.

'State course and speed,' the simulated flight computer said.

'All right, Tarrant, where am I going?'

'Oh, it doesn't matter.' Tarrant picked a set of coordinates at random -- Kairos, one of those dead-and-alive hole that the unpromotable get posted to. 'Standard-by-six.'

'How fast does this thing go?' Avon said, again forgetting that it didn't go anywhere at all.

'We can manage S-by-eight on a sustained basis, perhaps a tenner for a short blast. I've heard a rumour that there's a ship design that can keep up S-by-twelve, but it's not a human ship, hard to know what they get up to.'

Avon gazed raptly at the various levers, buttons, readouts and banks of instrumentation. Tarrant, leaning over the console, close enough for an occasional brush of fingers against a shoulder, gazed raptly at his ensorcelled face.


Too old, by heaven

In military environments, chow is not served fashionably late. Tarrant and Avon went to the nearest tavern that was not absolutely an FSA hangout, and drank rather more rather quicker than they would otherwise, and ate something they didn't particularly notice. They left when, if they walked quickly, they could just about get Tarrant back in time for lights-out.

'And are you seeing anyone you're especially fond of?' Avon asked, squinting against the lemon-lime glare of the street light.

'In a way,' Tarrant said.

'Oh. Do I know her?'

'Also in a way.' Slenderly, he thought.

'How old is she? Your age?'

'No, yours.'

'Let the woman still take an elder than herself! And what does she look like?'

'Oh, about your height.'

'Tall, then. That's nice, Tarrant, a tall woman would be a good match for you.'

'Dark. Sardonic. A voluptuous mouth,' Tarrant persisted desperately, already a little angry.

'Not worth you.'

'Goddamn you to hell, Avon, stop the game. You know that I'm in love with you.'

He laughed, and Tarrant flushed darkly, as much angry as humiliated.

'Boy, thou speakst masterly!'

'And I'm a man. I'm not a boy. I'm a man.'

'Anyone who says that usually means he intends to use his fists -- or his prick -- in some way that the recipient would rather not have them.'

'And damn you deeper, you have no right to laugh at me!'

'Oh, Tarrant, how could anyone resist such a sublime invitation?'

'Del. My name is Del. Call me that.'

'Really? My first name is Kerr. Don't.'

'Teach me,' Tarrant said. 'You like that, don't you?'

'Entirely a function of how stupid, ignorant and pig-headed the putative learners are.'

'Break me in. Wouldn't that excite you? Having me -- because I'm a virgin, that way.'

'Are you, Tarrant? Are you?'

'What in fucking hell is that supposed to mean?'

'Tarrant, Martin Brezhino is -- well, if not a friend of mine, someone that I know.'

'Who's he?'

'He was Pol Henriques' lover. Well, I suppose he had no business with a boy like that, but he loved him. And one day Pol simply left him cold, because he said he was in love with someone else. With you, Tarrant. He said that you were as selfish and cold and unsatisfactory in bed as any reader of shopgirl romances -- or any purity crusader! -- might wish, but he thought of you as his lover nonetheless.'

'Henriques? Well, we were roommates our scondie year, we mucked about a bit after lights out, but you couldn't call that sex.'

'I don't see why not.'

'Just fooling around, it didn't mean anything...'

'It meant a lot to him.'

'Well, I suppose it would, to him, but we don't want that sort around here.'

'That's awfully reductive, isn't it? As if it were so simple to determine what sort of person someone else is. There are more complications of response, of feeling, of need, of connection. And one motive for tyranny is that we persecute that which we fear, and kill that which we have temporarily at a disadvantage.'

'That's why we've got an army, isn't it? To fight tyranny.'

'You've really fallen for it all, haven't you?' Avon said.

'All what?'

'Hurrah the Federation, jolly good for our team, smash the alien slime.'

'I wouldn't say I'm naive, or ignorant, or manipulated, certainly not, but I'm patriotic and I don't see what's wrong with that. I love my country, don't you?'

'I'm a queer,' Avon said. 'I haven't got one.'

'How the hell did they ever give you a security clearance? And for this place?'

'Well, they didn't, quite. Loving little hands at home.'

Tarrant wasn't sorry that Avon said 'at home' just as the gate loomed up, and he could slam his ID card into the scanner and shut the gate in Avon's face.

At one time, Avon would have insisted on confronting Tarrant. He had imagined Tarrant sitting down awkwardly (tumbling a long way to the ground), crying in an unpractised way, when he realised what he done, when he'd notified the Honour Board of violations of FSA Regulation L17.204.6 (unlawful sexual acts performed by a service-member). And when Pol, dismissed from FSA, disgraced, but theoretically with six years of military commitment left when he got out of the brig. Theoretical, because it didn't take very long at all for PFC Henriques to get killed in a border skirmish somewhere hot and dry and generally unpleasant enough for him, very possibly, not to mind much.

But now, somehow it didn't seem to matter, and nothing Avon could say or do to Tarrant would make Henriques alive again, or make him retrospectively love Martin Brezhino instead of Tarrant.


And I for no woman

'I'll bet you can't fly a plane,' Tarrant said.

'No. When I was your age, you could have cars. I had one, after a fashion, so I can drive a car. And repair one, until the point past resuscitation.'

'Well, a pal of mine has a little parcel delivery service, just short runs, so he's got a plane. Kiddie car,' Tarrant said dismissively. 'Screw with the computer to get me day leave on Thursday, and I'll take you up and let you co-pilot.'

Avon stood on the runway, in a suit of dark blue coveralls, the zipper not quite fastened all the way to the collarbone. There were no pockets for him to put his hands into, so he stood with his hands behind his back. Tarrant thought he looked wonderful.

As Tarrant approached, Avon undid a brown paper parcel, and took out a much-adventured brown leather jacket with a mouton collar. 'I think it'll fit you,' Avon said. 'I rented it at a costume shop.'

Tarrant put on the jacket. There was a pair of aviator sunglasses in one pocket, and he put those on too.

Avon took a long white silk scarf out of the now-crumpled brown paper, and looped it around Tarrant's neck. They stood close, not needing to kiss. For a moment they were both happy, for the same reason, at the same time. They would have paid a lot more for that than they had to, at that time.

The brown paper skittered away, blowing down the runway.

Later, of course, collection was made in full.

Tarrant took the pilot's seat and motioned toward the co-pilot's seat. 'Right, first we'll do a pre-flight check-up. The clipboard is wedged next to the seat. Thing to remember is that all those gauges are calibrated, like, the first thing in the morning. As long as the needle stands straight up, you've nothing to worry about. When it starts to list and droop, you've got problems.'

Tarrant's pal Novlicek kept the airplane in good repair, so the pre-flight checks went smoothly. Tarrant activated his air traffic pre-clearance, locked into the control frequency, and got the wheels up quickly and smoothly.

When the tiny plane first nosed upward, the sheer acceleration and change in orientation pushed Avon back into the co-pilot's seat, his eyes softly closed, his chin tilted upward, lips slightly parted.

Oh yes, Tarrant thought, watching him. Yes.

And then it was Avon who watched Tarrant, echoing his commands ('rudder left 45 degrees...check...'), observing his movements, learning the cant and the pressure to manipulate the yoke and other suggestive aeronautical protrusions.

Avon had occasionally been in commuter hovercrafts, and twice on an interdome shuttle flight, but those were large featureless tubes, with the passengers almost like goods stacked on a pallet for shipment. This was the first time he had been in a small plane, with oceans of air displayed in the panoramic glass bubble that protected him and revealed all the element that could threaten him.

By comparison, the other warm human body nearby seemed very close indeed, and very much kin in an atmosphere that was otherwise (however beautiful) alien.

They spun a thread of common purpose between them, a creation and a connection.

'So, what do you think?'

'Down there, you're arrogant,' Avon said. 'Up here, you're -- confident. Accomplished.'

'No, not about me,' Del said. 'About -- this.'

'It's wonderful. Thank you for giving it to me.' I won't, I daren't, owe him, Avon thought. So I suppose I must give him something. And if, from his perspective, however bigoted and idiotic, it is a question of initiation, then I must give him a good account.

A good thing that, just on the off chance, he had arranged an overnight leave for Tarrant. And a good thing that he had checked his grandparent inventory -- it never does to take compassionate leave for the same person's funeral too often. (The military will allow plural per capita funerals, as long as no one is a pig about it.)

Tarrant, all sighs and tears, was all made of faith and service, fantasy, passion, and wishes. He was all adoration, duty, and observance, all patient and impatient, all humbleness and purity, all trial and all observance.

Avon thought, I will help you if I can. I would love you if I could. I will content you if what pleases you contents you. I will satisfy you if ever I satisfied man.


As the worm turns

Anna flicked through the dossier. 'You do think well of my abilities,' she said. 'I've met him, you know. At a party. He was swathed in black leather, leaning against the air. Prettiest thing there, including the tiger prawns and the flower arrangements, but he could change a nine-credit note in threes.'

'And now he's sleeping with that boy at FSA,' Servalan said. 'With the sweet face and the bright blue eyes.'

'What have you got against the poor bastard, anyway? I can hardly chase down every faggot on forty-five planets.'

'We don't like clever people who won't do what they're told,' Servalan said. 'And he must be up to something, we need you to find out what.'

'And if he isn't?'

'Then get him up to something.'

Anna didn't care much for reading, so she had never been to the warehouse where approved books were converted into datacubes, and banned books were stored (available only to those with the proper clearance levels). And so she didn't know which banned book Servalan was quoting.

'They say that there are only two possibilities: to be the hammer, or to be the anvil. But I don't think that's right. There are many more options than that.

'But I do think that either one holds up the looking-glass, or one stares into it. If you have -- if you be that glass, Bartolomew, then Avon will love you. That's what brings him off, you see. When he satisfies himself with that image.'


E'en so quickly may one catch the plague

It must have been those damnable printing presses, Avon told himself (although he didn't feel any the better for having an explanation). Thousands of years of literature explaining that falling in love is a direct divine intervention -- like being hauled off by an eagle for immoral purposes. Like a flaming arrow shot directly into some bit of you that you would much prefer to be arrow-free. A noble and tragic experience befalling some poor fool who would suffer and die for it in the compressed space of the play.

But once you could start selling books to the bourgeoisie, then all of them insisted on their own little passionate experiences. So love was downscaled and democratised, made less dangerous and sent downmarket. And the purveyors set it up so the right couples would end up together, even if they had to chop and change with some other couples.

This, Avon thought, feels archaic. As if Tarrant had infected me with his love but it does him no good. He has not purged himself of the pestilence, his fever has not abated, and although neither one of us can sleep in peace, or think for a moment without interruption, I am in love, but not with him. How enjoyable it was to caress him -- every touch like a skipped stone that kicked up waves of adoration in which to bathe. Poor bastard. I don't know what he'll do with the adoration now.


For how do I hold thee but by thy granting?

Avon pushed the test paper over to Tarrant. 'Seventy-eight,' he said. 'I would never have believed it. People do change. And that's my cue, Tarrant. It's the end of term. I won't be teaching here next term. We ought not to see each other again.'

'I need you more than ever. I can't stand it if you leave me.'

'It's for your own good. If we make a clean break, then you can carry on with things and perhaps no one will have noticed and you can get on with your career.'

'I don't care about that any more.'

'Of course you do, don't be stupid.' You don't want to end up like Henriques, do you? Avon thought. He felt too guilty about Tarrant's misery to say it.

'There's someone else. You're leaving me for someone else.'

'Well, yes. But I thought it would hurt less if the dentist gave you a lollipop.'

'Who is he? I'll kill him. I'll smash his face in and he won't be pretty for you anymore.'

'Ah, Tarrant, at least you get to laugh at me. She -- no, really, she is a woman, I'm not being camp -- is beautiful, but that almost doesn't matter. That's by the by. I'm damned if I know why you thought you were in love with me, but I suppose you saw something in me you thought you needed at that time. I reminded you of something you had lost, or showed you a possibility that you couldn't have imagined quite by yourself. Or, quite simply, you liked the looks of me and you couldn't let yourself go to bed with me without a scattering of dragées over the surface. And what she has that I think I need, is comprehension. I didn't think that anyone who knew me so well, could accept me so completely.'

'Damn you, damn her, damn both of you. I hope she ruins your life the way you've ruined mine.'

'Oh, she probably will,' Avon said. 'But I don't care.'


*Rear Echelon Mother Fucker.


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