“Is that an apple?”
Avon picks up the hard green object from the tray. It looks unripe to him. “It appears so.”
“Where on earth did an apple come from?” Vila demands.
“This is a farming planet, remember. Climate, atmosphere and year length are all close to Earth standard. ” Blake’s deep voice is in lecture mode. “Many Earth crops grow here, apples among them.”
“So why haven’t we had apples before?”
Avon doesn’t care in the slightest why not. He lets Blake answer.
“They are seasonal. That’s an early autumn fruit.”
“And what season was it when we arrived?” That’s Tarrant taking an interest. Avon can see where this is going. He takes a small bite. Unsurprisingly he was right. It is sour.
“So that’s proof! We’ve been here, what? Four, five months?” Tarrant has been obsessed by elapsed time since they arrived. The existence of a possible objective method of measurement has him agitated.
“Or,” Avon points out,” they have a storage facility. Or it’s an import from another planet.”
“Or,” Soolin chips in, “just from the Northern Hemisphere. Their autumn is our spring. That’s how planets work.”
“Go back to sleep, Tarrant,” Avon says wearily. ”It doesn’t prove anything. It’s just an apple, and inedible with it.” He puts it back on the tray.
“Eat it,” Vila wheedles. “Please, Avon. I’d love at least a vicarious taste of one. I don’t care if it’s sour.”
“It’s likely to be around four months though.” Tarrant is persistent.
“It could be four months, or four weeks, or four years.” Avon is thoroughly sick of the many variants on this conversation. “What it isn’t is two to three days. Nothing else matters.”
“It will matter when they stop bringing food and water.” Dayna seldom speaks these days except to prophesy doom. More doom.
“Not to you. And not to me for very long,” Avon counters. He starts on the braised unicorn. There are six different types of protein that arrive; even Blake who supposedly knows this planet well has no idea what sort of animal or vegetable they are and Soolin who was brought up here refuses to enlighten the rest of them so Vila gave them all names. Number four is unicorn. It’s not one of Avon’s favourites.
“Four months.” Tarrant is unquenchable, unfortunately. “She could never have intended this; it must be some sort of major catastrophe. Or she’s dead.” He sounds rather saddened at that.
“She isn’t dead,” Avon snaps at him. “She’s busy somewhere. She’ll come back eventually.” The food and water is evidence enough of that. He hopes.
“She said two to three days.” Tarrant insists. “Three days and she’d be back.”
“She lied. And you are a maudlin fool.”
“What about the apple?” Vila insists. “Just a bit, Avon?”
“Shut up Vila!” Soolin is harsh. Avon glances across to Dayna but she says nothing.
“Why did it have to be Avon?” Vila grumbles. “If it was me I’d eat the apple and sleep with that pretty guard. Did you see the way she looked at me today? ”
“How do you know she’s pretty?” Soolin demands. “She’s always in a full body respirator!”
“Ah but she swings her hips rather nicely in it. If it were me…”
“If it were you, Vila, you’d get nowhere. As usual.” Avon says. “Pretty girls never gave you a second look until you opened your mouth, and then they stared in horror and ran away”
“At least I’d try to seduce a guard. It might help. What have you done to get us out of here, Avon? Nothing.”
“Don’t forget what he did to get us in here.” Tarrant’s other obsession.
“That wasn’t entirely my fault. If Blake hadn’t been grandstanding as usual and just told you what was going on…”
“If you’d trusted me,” Blake says, coldly. “If you’d given me ten seconds to explain before you shot me…”
“We’d all have died anyway.” Soolin says. “Just in a different order. Tarrant’s girlfriend sent the troops in, remember?”
“She was not my girlfriend,” Tarrant hisses. “One night, that’s all!”
“One night that you can’t stop going on about,” Soolin hisses back. “It didn’t stop her guards mowing you down with the rest of us. All but one of us, anyway. Somebody got a free pass, didn’t you, Avon? What did you do to deserve that?”
“Whatever it was, I’m undoubtedly paying for it now.” They never let him eat in peace.
He pushes the empty bowl away. He’ll keep the apple, see if he can figure out any way of making it more edible. “Have you got a move for me?”
“Knight to bishop five.” Soolin says. Avon crosses to the chess set made of misshapen console components on a board scratched into the floor. It’s not a bad move. He can beat any of them individually so they’ve taken to playing collectively against him. He can hear them mutter to each other just below his audible range but then they did that before the chess started. He doesn’t really want to know what else they talk about.
He’s dismantled the whole of the console but there’s little he can do with the parts since there’s no power coming into the room. An airlock system has been installed around the door the guards use with a compulsory full decontamination system which also acts as a kill zone. If he could get past the first doors which have both a centrally operated electronic and a deadbolt mechanical lock then they would fry him before he could open the second. The guards don’t bring weapons in and the control system is apparently indifferent to their fate. Overpowering them can be done, with planning, but it has got Avon precisely nowhere; they can’t open the electronic doors any more than he can and no-one comes to rescue them. After the third dead guard he gave that up. The other doors have been welded shut from the outside. He’s tried the ceiling, he’s tried the floor, he’s tried all the walls, he’s tried the air conditioning system. The room in which his world ended has been transformed into the most perfect cell he’s ever been trapped in.
It’s big enough for a reasonable circuit and he runs every day to keep himself in condition, round and round like a mouse on a wheel. He moved the others up against the wall so that he didn’t have to break his stride to go round them; some of them objected to that as disrespectful, he recalls, but he took no notice. This isn’t a cemetery, or a hall of remembrance. It’s where they died, that’s all. He doesn’t see why he should let them get in his way. That was a long time ago and there’s not a great deal left of them to get in anyone’s way any more; bones and clothes, mainly, and bits of blackened dried skin. The decomposition phase is mostly over though the guards still wear their respirators. Avon imagines that the place must still smell remarkably foul but he’s long since ceased to be able to tell.
Three days locked in with his dead would have been horrific. Weeks, months, years, however long it’s been- one gets used to anything, in the end.
The others don’t tend to bother him when he’s running so he does a lot of it. He’s running now when he hears the familiar sound of the decontamination unit. He comes to a slow stop, facing the door.
It’s not time for food. On the rare occasions that they need to do some maintenance they flood the place with sleeping gas first. He’s never had a visitor. So what?
Avon glances back at the others. “This might be your vengeance at last.”
“About time.” That’s Dayna, eyes hard.
“That’s all very well,” Vila protests, “but what happens to us after he…”
“I don’t care.”
Soolin snorts. “Kill Servalan for me. That’s my vengeance sorted out.”
Tarrant sighs, “I still blame you, you know. At least try to do something heroic rather than just dying.”
Blake doesn’t look particularly forgiving either. “After everything we went through, it was you who killed me, not the Federation.”
“I did.” Avon says. “I’m sorry. I should have trusted you, Blake. You were a liar and a trickster and a fanatic but you were always on the right side, even when it was a really stupid side to be on. I should have known that.”
Blake smiles unexpectedly. “Just as long as you know now. Go give them hell, Kerr Avon. For me.”
Avon nods, briefly, turns back towards the door. When it opens he’s waiting.
They decontaminate him, cut his hair and his nails, give him clean clothes and show him his own face in a mirror. He looks as he always looks; he wonders why they think he should be surprised.
She is back, of course. She looks a little older, but then he still imagines her as he first saw her, years ago. She doesn’t have a gun, but there are guards at the door. That’s all right; he just needs a few seconds close to her and the guards will be irrelevant. He thinks that he can arrange those seconds, if he’s careful.
“Avon.” Her voice is as warm as ever. “How have you been?”
He glances at the familiar glass box by her side. “Bored, mainly.”
“Yes.” She bites her lip a little in real or simulated regret. “I’m sorry about that. I was unavoidably delayed.”
Avon snorts. “That’s what Tarrant said you’d say.”
She blinks. “Del Tarrant is dead.”
“I had noticed that, strangely enough. I’ve just spent God knows how long with his putrefacting corpse.”
He laughs. “Tarrant got that right too. He’s going to be unbearable. Even more unbearable.”
They are here, rather to his surprise. He though that they somehow belonged in the room where they died, but no, they are lined up against the side wall, watching with interest. It’s a bit off putting, to be honest, but he’s never had any control over what they do.
She’s frowning at him now. “They said that you talked to yourself a lot.”
“’They’ are wrong. There’s always quite enough mindless babble without my contributing. I tend to keep my thoughts to myself.”
No comprehension. It’s as if he’s speaking in a different language. Her voice sharpens. “Orac? Do you know what he’s talking about?”
“I have reviewed the security tapes. It appears that Kerr Avon has been hallucinating the presence of his dead companions.”
“There,” Tarrant says with relish. “I told you, Vila! Hallucinations.”
“I wouldn’t trust that box to get my weight right, never mind my existential status.” Vila mutters. Avon smiles.
“Avon?” Servalan asks. “Is something amusing?”
“Vila doesn’t much fancy being a hallucination.” Avon tells her. It doesn’t seem to enlighten her much.
“Are you sure he’s not faking?” she asks Orac.
“He is not faking,” Orac says. “He is suffering from a psychotic breakdown brought on by extremely sub-optimal living conditions, isolation and guilt.”
Dayna laughs aloud at the last one and Avon glares at her.
“That’s unfortunate.” Servalan says. “Can he be cured?”
“Possibly. Given the right conditions.”
“Removal from the conditions that brought it on. Freedom, in other words. There are drug treatments but they have to be willingly undertaken to be fully effective. The usefulness of therapy depends on the individual characteristics of the patient.”
“Don’t bother going to a great deal of trouble on my account,” Avon tells her. “I intend to kill you and doubtless get killed in the process or shortly afterwards. I don’t think my degree of sanity will make a significant difference to the end result.”
“Not very clever, Avon.” That’s Blake, frowning at him. The man’s right. He shouldn’t have warned her. It seems that he’s not at his sharpest right now. He needs to focus.
Servalan gestures Avon to a chair. He glances at the guards and complies. She looks frankly baffled. “Don’t you care that you’ve lost your mind?”
He hasn’t lost anything, as far as he can tell; quite the reverse. They won’t leave him alone. And maybe he shouldn’t be able to see them and hear them quite so clearly but those seem like fairly minor points. “What was your unavoidable delay?” he asks her.
“The resurrection of President Servalan. The timing wasn’t of my choosing and it was touch and go at times but matters on Earth are sufficiently settled that I can travel again in reasonable safety. I came back as soon as I could. Clearly not soon enough.”
“I never liked Commissioner Sleer. Such an ugly name.” Avon says reflectively, and smiles slightly at Servalan. Soolin makes a face at him and Dayna looks revolted. It is hardly helping. “Can’t you keep them under control?” he asks Tarrant, who seems to be a slightly better bet than Blake for this. “I’m working on something here. Better still, get them all to wait outside. It’s not like I’m going anywhere without you.”
“You’d better not try. I’ve had enough of this planet for at least a lifetime and a half.” Tarrant jerks his head towards the door. “Come on, chaps. Avon wants to woo and/or murder his lovely lady. Let’s give them a little privacy.”
There is muttering but they all disappear eventually. Avon can feel them lingering not far away, probably eavesdropping, but at least he doesn’t have them in his line of sight any more. He turns his attention back to Servalan, who is looking both fascinated and appalled.
“Have they gone?” she asks.
She shakes her head slightly. “I thought you’d be the last person…you are making this up, though, aren’t you, Avon? It’s your little game to punish me for leaving you so long.”
“I told you that he is not!” Orac says, irritably. “Any reasonably competent observer would have detected significant signs of mental instability over the months leading up to the deaths of all his companions and his solitary confinement. Suicide was a far more likely option but psychosis is not inexplicable.”
Avon had never once thought of killing himself; the idea of his body joining the others in their slow decay was enough to make it a non starter. He had tried throttling one of the corpses once- Tarrant, inevitably- in a fit of extreme temper but it had been unpleasantly messy, its erstwhile owner had been extremely scathing and in general it hadn’t helped so he hadn’t done it again. He is well aware that he isn’t precisely at the top of his form, but given that this is the first time in three and a half months that he’s talked to someone whose bloody death he isn’t responsible for (yet) he thinks Orac could be a little less dismissive of his mental state.
“Why did you bother to come back? A simple instruction and the guards would have quietly executed the last of Blake’s rebels. It would have been over. You didn’t need to come here yourself.”
“Is that how you consider yourself?” she asks. “I never thought of you as an idealist, Avon.”
“I wasn’t. But he was right. The Federation leads to the death of everything that matters. In the end I didn’t have to be an idealist to see what had to be done.” He smiles at her. “I think of it more like vermin control than noble rebellion. Start with the Queen Rat and work downwards.”
Her forehead creases. “You keep threatening me. Is that wise?”
“It won’t make any difference, I imagine. I doubt that my avid craving for your death can come as any great surprise. You’re here for a reason.”
He raises an eyebrow at her. “I suggest we cut to the chase. You tell me what you want me to do. I can then refuse and you can execute me, since you have no other leverage left that means anything to me. You have Orac, the teleports and the stardrive already; there is nothing I can deny you except my co-operation. My friends are all extremely dead, I have no way to run and nowhere to run to anyway.”
“Oh, Avon,” she says sadly. “Two days. That’s all I intended. I never wanted to drive you mad, just sufficiently unsettled to be easier to deal with.”
It’s not remotely credible. “The modifications to the base must have been phenomenally expensive. Huge resources were tied up keeping me in there for months. People died. Any you expect me to believe that they did all that on their own initiative after you inexplicably forgot to send word that I was to be released?”
Her chin rises. “Of course I couldn’t send word. You’ve always been a threat to me, Kerr Avon. I couldn’t let you out of there until I could get here to deal with you myself, so yes, I set up the security, authorised the modifications and arranged the budget. Every day that I was fighting for my life on Earth I thought of you locked up here and I knew that only that made my survival possible at all.”
He stands up. She watches, wide eyed, as he takes three steps towards her, drops to one knee and takes her long-fingered hand in both of his. You can always tell from the hands, the way the bones stand up from the skin, the creases around the knuckles. Servalan’s beauty is ageing at last. He strokes the back of her wrist, knowing his hands are as revealing as hers. It doesn’t matter. He doesn’t intend for the process to go on much longer for either of them.
“But, Servalan.” His voice is quiet. She hasn’t pulled her hand away. “What about the others? Did you perhaps fear that they’d escape, too, and take their revenge?”
She says nothing. He runs his fingers up to cup her bare elbow. Her eyes look so large in that pale face. “Have you ever seen,” he asks, “a body decay? I’m sure you’ve seen dead bodies aplenty, but have you ever really watched, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, month by month, as an old friend bloats, putrefies, bursts open, liquefies and finally dries into fragments of skin over dry bone? Five of them, Servalan. Just tell me why in this regrettable but necessary imprisonment pending your full attention I couldn’t have been imprisoned alone?”
She is breathing faster, but she isn’t replying. He knows exactly where his hands are going next. He can break her neck in three seconds; the guards won’t react fast enough. They will die entwined together, which is appropriate enough for this never-quite consummated affair. Enough, he thinks and tenses for his last ever move.
He’s suddenly aware of them crowding all around him. They scream at him to kill her, but no-one could focus with them all so close and so loud. “Shut up!” he bellows at them. Something hits him in the back and he falls onto Servalan, clutching at her throat, but all the power’s gone from his arms for some reason and he can hear them all jeering his failure as he collapses across her knees and everything goes dark.
His spine aches badly where he was hit, his hands are tied and Servalan’s arm shows a darkening bruise, but nothing else has changed. It is still him, and her, and Orac, and the guards at the door. And the others, of course. They seem to have come to some agreement between them on strategy because they’ve stopped talking to him and they are keeping out of his line of sight, although he can feel the collective disapproval of his failure. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why they’ve stopped talking to him. He’s sufficiently unimpressed by their contribution to this fiasco to want never to speak to any of them again either. This really should have been over by now.
“This is a little awkward,” Servalan starts. She has her hands folded in her lap. “My plans require you to be reasonably sane.”
He shrugs indifferently. “Then you should have consulted Orac fourteen weeks ago. Prediction is one of its strong points.”
“Orac says that you might recover, given time and the best available treatments.”
He doesn’t think so. They will be with him until the end now. He imagines that the most powerful drugs might make their voices a little harder to hear, but he’d still know.
“What did you want me for, anyway?” He can’t think of any plan that she might have which wouldn’t go just as well with him dead.
“We think we can guess,” Vila murmurs quietly, somewhere behind him. “Tarrant says you should go for it, and after all he should know.”
Be quiet! Avon thinks at Vila, but he’s fairly sure that no-one can hear him unless he says it aloud. Being insane doesn’t give you telepathic powers, apparently.
“I made you an offer once,” she says. “Our circumstances are very different now, but I can still see certain advantages to offering it again.”
“Have you been paying any attention at all?” he asks, irritated. “I have been trying, with no great success so far, admittedly, to kill you. I intend to carry on the same way.”
“Avon! Listen. This is your chance to get close to real power! Make a difference. Bring down the system.” That’s Blake. “It’s better than dying pointlessly out here. Take it.”
“Aren’t you worried that all that power will corrupt me?”
Servalan laughs. She thinks he’s talking to her. “Don’t you think I might be counting on it?”
“Why would you share power with anyone, let alone an enemy? What are these “certain advantages”?”
She raises her voice. “Leave us!” The guards retreat. If he didn’t have his hands tied…
“Orac,” she says. “Tell him.”
“I predict that the Federation as currently constituted will disintegrate in between three and seven years.”
He stares at the box. “Are you sure? You never told us that!”
“You never asked. And there is a ninety seven point three four probability of this occurring.”
Avon freezes for a moment, thinking. “What will make it disintegrate?”
“The security operation has become too large to be sustainable. On many planets over twenty percent of the population is involved in some way with the repression of the majority and no planet with over a million population has less than 5 percent of its people working directly for Federation control. Those figures are rising. This has two major consequences. Firstly conflicts of interest among security personnel arising from their personal relationships within the general population have become extremely common and secondly corruption and repression is perceived by those personnel to be an acceptable part of the system. Already sixty eight point seven seven percent of Federation investigators’ time is spent dealing with internal corruption rather than dissidents or criminals. This will accelerate until the centre loses all control over the security in the far reaches of the system and the Federation will start to break up. Once that has started it is most probable that the entire empire will implode rapidly.”
It was unexpected but it didn’t sound impossible. Avon looked back at Servalan. “That’s the best news I’ve had for many months. I’m a little sorry that I won’t be around to see it.”
She shakes her head slightly. “Tell him what the post- Federation system will look like, Orac.”
“It is probable that in most places the old Federation security will use their weapons and infrastructure to become local warlords. Any attempt at rebellion will be put down with extreme ruthlessness. Wars will break out between neighbouring systems over scarce but necessary resources previously centrally controlled and distributed by the Federation. I predict a period of at least forty to sixty years before peace breaks out in the majority of the ex-Federation systems. There is an eighty three point one zero chance that the Earth’s population will reduce by at least fifty percent during this period due to war, famine and disease, and thirty three point eight two chance that it will reduce by over ninety percent.”
“Bloody hell!” Tarrant mutters behind him. Avon can only agree.
“I don’t intend to be one of those statistics,” Servalan says. “I went to a great deal of trouble twice over to acquire my empire. I intend to keep it.”
Avon sits back in his chair. “Tell me then. How?”
She smiles at him. “The Federation needs to change. Become nicer. Cut the surveillance back, allow more freedom of movement and association, retrain most of its soldiers to do something useful and fulfilling with their lives, purge the most corrupt of the people in charge of every part of the organisation and instil a true public service ethos across all its employees. Maybe even free and fair elections in a limited way, eventually.”
“And pigs will fly,” Soolin says scathingly. “That viper doesn’t mean a word of it.”
“Of course not,” Avon agrees. “But she does have to solve her problem somehow. Let me hear her out.”
“That’s very disconcerting. I wish you wouldn’t do that,” Servalan tells him. “I don’t feel that I have your full attention.”
“They tend to interrupt, I’m afraid. My apologies. Go on. You had got to free and fair elections, I believe. I presume bread and circuses were to follow.”
She flickers a frown at his levity. “Orac. What will happen if I appear to implement the above reforms?”
“You will be perceived as weak. There is an eighty three point zero five probability that you will be supplanted in an internal coup.”
Ah. “That, I presume, is where I come in.”
“A reforming prime minister appointed by a strong president. It’s a tried and tested formula for implementing controlled change in an authoritarian society.”
“You must have a puppet that you can use. You don’t need me.” His mind’s racing.
“The problem with puppets is that people are always looking for the strings. I need someone who appears to be totally independent, and already has a name as a reformer.”
“Rebel,” he corrects.
“It makes no difference. People know of you, Avon. They remember Blake. The ones who don’t matter will believe that you are truly implementing reforms, and the ones who matter will know you’re under my control. Between us we can keep the Federation on its feet.”
That wasn’t a great incentive. “What’s in it for me?”
He can barely hear her enumerating through Dayna’s furious tirade. “You can’t even think about this for a second, Kerr Avon!”
“…to live. And live in considerable wealth and comfort. You will have the power to change things….”
“Thinking about it is what he ought to be doing,” Vila is snapping back. “We don’t all want to die again!”
“ … the worst excesses of the system and introduce reforms of your own devising. You will be the second most powerful person in the galaxy….”
“She doesn’t mean a word of it!” “But, listen,” “Chance to get close,” They are all arguing now.
“…save billions from the misery…”
He puts up a hand to silence her. “May I have a short period alone to think about this?”
“Certainly. Shall I have some refreshments brought in?”
“Just some water, thank you.” He’s got to keep a straight head.
She leaves with Orac. Blake gets in first. “At least you have the sense to stop and consult us!”
“I’m not consulting you,” Avon’s voice is cold. “I’m telling you all to stop babbling in my ear when I need to concentrate. I can’t follow a conversation when you do it but each time I have to tell you to shut up I look more psychotic. Where is that going to get us?”
“She doesn’t seem very put off by your madness so far,” Soolin says.
“She’s desperate enough to hope that I’ll do anyway, but she won’t keep thinking that forever. Up to now it hasn’t mattered but from now on I won’t talk to you if I’ve got company, and it would be much easier if you didn’t talk to me.”
“Except that you need our advice,” Tarrant says. “We’re a team, not a bunch of ghosts dragged along in Prime Minister Avon’s glorious wake. You’re not going to go along with that, I presume?”
“Of course I am. You wanted me to do something heroic, Tarrant; well, here it is. I’m going to save the Federation.”
“I suppose it’s a natural next move, after shooting me,” Blake comments. “And you end up marrying Servalan, I presume.”
There’s an interesting thought. “My plans haven’t got quite that far.”
“You can’t do this,” Blake is intense.
“I thought you wanted me to seize power?””
“That was before we found out the Federation was dying. All we need to do now is let it die.” Blake’s eyes are gleaming.
“And the civil wars?”
“Are a chance for people to fight for their freedom at last.”
Avon shakes his head. “I was never very keen on your brand of fanaticism, Blake. I prefer the path to freedom a little less drenched with blood.”
“This isn’t a power share,” Soolin says. “You‘ll be her minion. You know that.”
“It’s close enough.”
“Close enough for what?” Tarrant demands.
“Close enough to reach out my hand, Tarrant. When the time comes.”
“You are completely and utterly mad, Avon,” Vila says. “You do know that, don’t you?”
“Let’s try to keep that small fact to ourselves from now on, shall we?” He looks round at them all. “I’m going to do this. You can help me or you can try to get me killed.”
“And what about vengeance?” Dayna speaks for the first time. He wonders sometimes what death did to the warm hearted girl he used to know. None of the others seem to have changed.
“I won’t forget what she did, or what I did. The time will come.” He doubts that any of them would let him forget.
“Yes,” he says to Servalan, before she has a chance to speak.
She inclines her head. “Good.”
“But I want Scorpio.”
“Scorpio?” An eyebrow raises in surprise. “The stardrive has been removed and the computer system is damaged beyond repair. And as for the structure…it’s a wreck, Avon. And a freighter- hardly a suitable ship for the Prime Minister.”
“It’s the only ship for this Prime Minister. You want me trailing clouds of reflected glory- I need my ship, not some characterless Federation clone. I want it done up as it was before Tarrant crashed it.”
“I landed it!” Tarrant protests. “A little heavily, admittedly.”
“You may not have the star drive, and you may not have Orac,” she says. “I did not go to all this trouble just to give you the tools to let you go back to playing rebel the first chance you get.”
“Fine.” He’d never expected her to relinquish either. That’s a longer game. “Fit it out with,” he pauses as if thinking.
“A T57 drive and the latest Braid navigation system,” Tarrant supplies. Avon passes that on. “And fully automatic systems. I want to be able to fly her on my own. You can leave the remnants of Slave in there; I might find a use for them.”
“Very well.” She pauses. “Anything else, or can we go now?”
“One last thing, then I’m all yours.”
After all this time they are far too familiar; he refuses the respirator or the decontamination unit. “What do you want me to do now?” he asks them. They talk about it among themselves while he brings the remains out himself, sealed in black bags; it takes several trips.
“We’ve decided that here will do,” Blake tells him. “It’s not as if any of us have homes to return to. Bury us in the forest, and mark the place in case anyone needs to find us again.”
Avon hunts around, finds a place next to a natural waterfall and sheltered by the huge trees. It’s easily accessible from the base. The grave of Roj Blake might be visited by a few people, he imagines, particularly given the way he intends to use the man’s name to endorse his proposals. He might as well make it a pleasant pilgrimage. He was going to dig the graves himself but after twenty minutes struggling with the heavy soil he enlists the help of some local farmers and it’s done in an hour without any Federation involvement.
Blake is furious over his plans for the memorial stone, but Avon doesn’t budge. It’s propaganda and he needs it to support his position; the final draft makes great play of their struggles for freedom while failing to mention that the fight was against the Federation. Soolin thinks the whole thing is laughable and Tarrant just sulks because his name isn’t as prominent as Blake’s. Vila has been unusually quiet ever since Avon scraped his mortal remains up from the console room floor. He really doesn’t like being reminded that he’s dead.
Avon has been on Gauda Prime too long already, fourteen weeks too long, but he doesn't intend to leave Scorpio behind. It will take a couple of weeks to get her in a state to fly again as far as the Federation dockyards for the new systems. He spends the time fiddling with what's left of Slave without much success, and going for long walks alone in the woods, well armed. The leaves are starting to turn orange, the temperature chilly. Autumn.
The solitary walks have a purpose. They have a lot of talking to do. After months of the same aggravatingly pointless conversations they have real plans to make. None of them much like what he intends to do but they all want a say in how he does it. Avon's willing to listen, up to a point; after all this time he'd be a fool not to recognise the value of their collective experience, as well as their individual flaws. Blake wants to move far too fast towards political reform, destabilisingly so. Soolin argues for far more independence for individual planets than Servalan would ever countenance. Vila's mostly interested in what Avon gets out of being Prime Minister. Tarrant, slightly to Avon's surprise, is the one with the most practical suggestions for how they can work around Servalan and the existing Federation structures to achieve some sort of meaningful change.
Dayna has nothing to say. Avon feels as if she's not quite as much there as the others. He can't say he's sorry- her unremitting hostility is hard work- but it's odd to see her drifting at the edge of the group as if none of them mean anything to her any more.
By the time Scorpio is ready to take off they have the outlines of a reform program. There are parts that Avon thinks Servalan will find very difficult to swallow but they are the most necessary ones. She knows she has to bend a little or the Federation will break and she loses everything. He's impatient to get back to her and get started.
Scorpio refitted is everything Avon wants; fast, controllable and automated. They had wanted to redo the interior in a manner befitting his new status but he had insisted that she was to look just the same. When he walks on board he often finds the others at their posts or playing games in the rec room or gathered around the main view screen arguing. Occasionally he even catches sight of one of them asleep in a bunk. It feels as if they have some sort of independent existence here, albeit one that has no impact on the material world, not just ghosts hanging around at his shoulder. It's a responsibility partly lifted, a weight off his mind. Only Blake looks sometimes as if he doesn't quite have a place but Avon can't bring Liberator back for him. Scorpio will have to do.
Finally, Earth. And Servalan.
"Avon. At last. I’ve missed you. How are the voices? "
"Is there a good answer to that?" He settles in the chair next to her.
She dismisses the guards, somewhat to his surprise. "I have your reform program," she says.
"Wrong. You have your reform program. I'm about to tell you about mine. I think you'll find it very interesting. "
" I think you may have misunderstood." Her voice has hardened. "I am in charge, Avon."
"Did I say otherwise? I will expect your authorisation at every stage, Servalan."
She leans forward and for a moment he thinks she's going to lose her temper, but she seems to think better of it. "Very well then. Tell me your plans and I will consider them."
"Nice work," Tarrant murmurs. They are mostly keeping quiet as asked, thankfully.
The arguments go on for three days. Avon resigns twice, even though he hasn't been officially given the job yet, and spends several slightly worrying hours in a detention cell when she really does lose her temper. In the end they agree on sixty percent of his proposals, which is about five percent more than he expected. Orac’s doom mongering really has her worried.
A week later Avon is inaugurated as prime minister with great pomp. Blake writes him a passionate speech about his long struggle for liberty and he tones it down a little and delivers it to much acclaim. He's due to start on a grand tour the very next day in Scorpio with suitable honour guard of pursuit ships to usher in the first reforms across the Federation while the President stays on Earth and keeps an eye on her possible rivals.
Avon gets back to his rooms late and exhausted after the ridiculous ceremonial and finds Servalan sprawled on his bed.
“Oh, this means trouble,” Vila says cheerfully. “Watch out, she’ll eat you alive, Avon.”
“Madam President.” Avon bows slightly. “Last minute briefing?”
“Prime Minister.” She smiles. She’s wearing something tight enough that he can see every curve. “We have an alliance. I thought we might celebrate.”
“No,” Blake says vehemently and the others back him up. “This we will not allow, Avon. Not for a moment. Send her away!”
“Excuse me for a moment,” Avon says politely and retreats two closed doors away. “Be quiet,” he tells them. “This is nothing to do with you.”
“She murdered us,” Soolin says. “How can this be nothing to do with us, Avon?”
“She’s using you for her own ends already. We’re not going to let you sell what’s left of your soul.” That’s Blake, righteous as always
“Also it’s just really icky,” Vila adds. “I mean, Servalan!”
“And how will you stop me?” Avon demands.
“We’ve got that one all worked out,” Vila says. “We did expect this.”
“We don’t think you’ll perform particularly well with a soundtrack.” Tarrant says cheerfully. “Can you imagine Vila’s voice whispering crude encouragement in your ear at critical moments? Or Blake lecturing you on some of her worst atrocities? Or I could tell you what she was like when I…”
“Enough!” Avon snaps at them. “You’ve made your point.” He wants her but not in front of a mocking crowd. They will drive him crazy and he will berate them and she will think he’s insane, and that’s not a good way to start this.
“My apologies for that,” he tells her on his return. “I have a dreadful headache. Hopefully I will see you in the morning before I leave.”
She has too much pride to let him see her taking offence. Maybe she doesn’t take it. Maybe his refusal keeps him interesting. They part on civil terms next morning.
“Avon! I didn’t hear you knock.” Servalan’s rooms are dark. He flicks up the lights and sees Orac beside her bed. That’s useful.
“I didn’t knock,” he says. She’s in a sheer black nightdress, very becoming. She sits up in bed, smiling at him.
“You’ve taken your time.”
It’s been three years since he was made Prime Minister. Three years of politely refusing her seductions. She’s got a couple of pretty young men around but neither is here tonight; Avon made sure of it.
“Yes. It’s been a long wait.” He sits down beside her, close enough that she can run her fingers down his thigh. It’s a little distracting.
“Focus!” Soolin hisses and he focuses.
“Orac. What is the current prediction for the continued existence of the Federation?”
“Given maintenance of the current policies, there is a eighty three point five five percent chance of the Federation continuing to exist in its present form in ten years time.”
“We did it.” Her hand is warm. “I cannot tell you how grateful I am, Avon.”
“We did,” he agrees. “Orac, another prediction please. What will happen if the planets currently requesting independence are allowed to leave the Federation?”
“Out of the question!” Servalan’s nails dig in.
Orac doesn’t need to calculate. Avon asked it this several days ago. “Approximately seventy percent of the planets will achieve a stable government within five years.”
“And the Federation?”
“Will continue as a voluntary alliance of planets and star systems centred around the Earth, approximately one third of its current size. It is likely that there will be an irresistible public movement towards the restoration of some form of democratic system.”
Avon smiles. “That,” he tells Servalan, “is what we have done. And when I say “we”, I don’t mean you and I.”
“I have a stable Federation now. I’m not giving up one single planet of it,” she tells him.
“We didn’t think you would, which is why it’s now time for the Federation to have a change of President.” Three years of complicity in Servalan’s excesses because he hasn’t had the power to stop her, not without jeopardising his position and all his reforms. It’s been a filthy business. It stops here.
“You’re threatening me?” She laughs at him. “If you kill me your newly overhauled legal system will see you imprisoned for life.”
“I’m fast asleep in my bed right now, as far as the security system is concerned. In about thirty minutes a suicide bomber will break into this room. Her explosives will detonate before she gets the chance to discover that you are already dead.”
“You won’t do it,” she tells him confidently.
“We?” Her eyes narrow. “Who have you been conspiring with, Avon?”
“Oh, the usual bunch.” He smiles at them. “Scorpio’s crew.”
“Scorpio doesn’t have a crew. You always insist on flying her solo.”
“But I’ve never once flown her alone.”
For the first time she looks scared. “Your hallucinations are back, Avon. You’re not well”
“They didn’t go away. They just got better at not interrupting.”
“So you’ll do what, next? Declare yourself President? Run the Federation yourself?” Her hand is still smoothing across his thigh.
“Not for long. We need to introduce a constitution with the right to free elections and for planets to secede. After we’ve done that I’ll resign. I’ve had enough of the dirty work.”
“And what will you do?” She sounds genuinely curious but he can hear the nerves underneath it.
“Take Scorpio and leave.” He shrugs. “I’m sure we’ll find something interesting out there. It always used to find us with alarming regularity.”
She nods. “I could resign as well. You need some company apart from your delusions.”
“No,” he says, with a touch of regret. “You have to die, I’m afraid. You’ve murdered too many people, and too many of those were my friends.”
“You’re not a cold blooded killer, Avon. You never have been.” She’s starting to get really nervous now.
“But you are. I made a promise, Servalan. They’re here now, waiting. They’ve waited long enough.”
“They don’t exist!” She’s half screaming at him now in frustration. “You’re mad, Avon. Don’t you see that? Insane!”
“And who made me that way?” He catches up her wrists in his hands, holds them tightly. “Why the bodies, Servalan? You never told me, did you? Why?”
“Because I wanted to break you,” she tells him. “Because they defied me for too long. Because you were beaten, Kerr Avon, and I wanted you to stay that way. I did it because I could. How are you going to kill me?”
“It’s done.” He shows her the fine needle in his palm, the scratch on her wrist. She’s already turning even paler than usual. He takes her wrist again, feels the pulse weakening as she slumps sideways, her huge eyes still watching him. He’s got no stomach for any more goodbyes so he just sits quietly and the others stand round the bed, also silent. He is sorry that Cally isn’t here, or Dayna, who disappeared for good a couple of years ago. He hopes that wherever they are they know what he’s done.
Afterwards Avon takes Orac and returns to his rooms. The explosion comes on cue a few minutes after he gets back.
“Got it!” Blake says. He’s been watching the scan monitor. “Seven six five by eight four four.”
Avon decided years ago not to worry about how the others do the things they do. He repeats the co-ordinates aloud for the ship’s computer, nicknamed Vassal by Vila. It’s got a lot of Slave incorporated, though the personality seems forever lost. He doesn’t miss it much.
They’ve been chasing this object for a couple of days now. Initially it looked like no more than a bit of space debris but when they came near it developed the ability to move independently and scarpered. It doesn’t move very fast but it’s good at losing them. Some sort of active camouflage, Tarrant thinks.
Tarrant comes round now to look at Blake’s screen. “Its spectral range has changed again. Vassal, can we get another size estimate?”
“Point five eight metres by point three four meters by point two zero metres,” the ship’s computer says. “Approximately two thirds of the volume of the last measurement.”
“Thanks,” Tarrant says, absently. “It might be burning off part of its mass. At this rate…” He tails, off looking at Avon. “What’s wrong?”
Avon is standing very still. “Vassal,” he says slowly. “What question were you answering?”
“The request was for a size estimate of the unidentified object.”
“And who asked it?”
There’s a pause. “No data.”
“What do you mean, no data?” He’s stalked over, is staring at the console. “Whose voice was it?”
“Replay the sound recording of the question.”
“No such recording exists.”
“How many people are currently on board Scorpio?”
“One person is on board.”
“What’s going on?” Vila has joined them. “Avon? You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.”
There’s a logical explanation. There must be. He turns away from the machine. “Never mind. It’s not important. We’re going to keep this distance from it for now and watch.”
For the next couple of hours he sits at his post, eyes closed, listening to the familiar small sounds of Scorpio; the people moving around and discussing the scans, the ship’s drive humming, Vassal making routine reports. A couple of them try to get his attention but he ignores them and they leave him alone. An hour, two, and then he catches it; Soolin, this time, speaking to Vassal and the ship slightly adjusting course.
They’ve been doing it for weeks, he realises, and it feels so natural that he’s been oblivious.
Maybe he’s hallucinating the ship’s responses now as well. Maybe he’s in a padded cell somewhere and everything around him is unreal. Maybe he’s dreamed everything in the last five years from shooting Blake and the bodies to running the Federation and murdering Servalan. Maybe Scorpio and her people have a psychic connection that can’t be broken by mere death. There’s no way to tell.
“Are you asleep, Avon?” Blake asks, amused.
“Quite possibly. But it doesn’t matter.” Avon opens his eyes. “Tell Tarrant to stop lazing around pretending to be incorporeal. We’re going to chase that thing down and he’s Scorpio’s pilot. It’s about time I stopped doing all the work around here.”
Turns out he’s right. Scorpio’s controls respond to Scorpio’s people, even if Vassal insists that there’s still no-one but him on board and Orac goes further and claims that the entire automated computer system has become somehow corrupted and that the rest is merely Avon’s psychosis.
The computers are wrong. There are five people on Scorpio. The records show that four of them are buried on Gauda Prime. There’s the Roj Blake Freedom Visitor Centre there now, selling little statues of them and duplicates of the memorial stone as souvenirs. The records also show that the fifth was Prime Minister and Interim President of the Federation of Planets, for a while. You’d think that this meant that he gets to be in charge, particularly as he’s the only living person on board. It’s not usually that simple, of course, but he does generally get his way, even if he has to work round Blake to get there. That’s nothing to do with being Interim President or breathing; it’s because he’s Avon and Scorpio is his ship, and these are his people and after everything he’s been through he’s damn well going to keep them.