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"How have you been feeling?" asks the washing machine.

No. Better to be proper and respectful, here. Keep a disciplined mind. This contraption with the flashing lights and the synthesised voice is a Psychotherapeutic Retraining Computer.

"Better," Avon answers, cautiously. The PRC monitors his biostatistics; it can tell if he lies. That's necessary, he's been told, to facilitate a timely recovery. No one's mentioned what becomes of the records. "I've been advanced to the next level in physiotherapy."

"Your physical well-being is not our concern in these sessions."

Literal-minded thing. There are human therapists and psychomanipulators on the Medical Centre staff. Avon wonders who merits them. Senior Command, maybe. Or maybe there's some benchmark counted in senses and functions and limbs, and a mere six centimetres of laser-charred spinal cord isn't enough. "I feel better," Avon repeats. "Once I'm used to the neural redirection, I might not even limp."

"Is that important to you?"

Is he supposed to say that he'd gladly be a cripple for the Federation? "I'd prefer to be as . . . unimpaired as possible. For the sake of my duty."

"Naturally."

There's a long silence. Is that pre-programmed, just a way to make him volunteer information, or is the machine whirring away inside, processing his thoughts--him--like a string of ones and zeroes? What pattern is it comparing him to, and does he match it?

The pain's starting up, the way it does when Avon loses focus, and he's trying to find something meaningless but cooperative-sounding to say when the PRC asks, "How are your dreams?"

"Vivid."

"Please elaborate." Greedy for data. Sniffing around for a way inside his head. "What have you dreamed of since our last session?"

"Him."

"Do you mean Blake?"

Who else is there? "Yes," Avon says. Blake's in his dreams every night. Blake's in his body where his T10 and T11 vertebrae used to be.

"Do you dream of the incident?" No embarrassment at the euphemism. Maybe that's why he's been given to a machine, so that nothing human will have to face him until he's been fixed.

"No."

"What do you dream of?"

"Killing him." Blake in the sights of a plasma rifle, Blake up close and bloody at the end of Avon's knife, Blake on an archaic scaffold and Avon the hooded hangman. Blake's neck and his boot. Blake's eyes and his thumbs.

"The desire for vengeance is normal," the machine pronounces.

Oh, he'd like to prove it wrong. He'd like to tell it about the dreams where he's fucking Blake, or Blake's fucking him, and how he gets harder and comes more fiercely in those dreams than he can manage with the sexual hygiene surrogate. Avon lost normality long ago. Blake took it from him, not with the rifle he grabbed from a dead guard, but much, much earlier, with a handshake and a smile.

Avon's superiors made him meet with a puppeteer, a genuine psychostrategist, before they sent him into the Freedom Party. Difficulties can arise, the man had said. Personality shifts. Readjustment problems. Purely temporary, of course.

Blake was right about one thing. The Federation is run by liars.

If he told the machine the truth, maybe it could wash his mind clean. Clean and white and empty, and what would be left of him then?

" - the future," it's saying.

"Sorry?"

"I asked what you envision when you think of the future."

"It's not easy," Avon answers, the first lie he's ever told it. In fact, the future's as easy as dreaming. Blake will die, and Avon will die with him, and he will win and he will lose and he will be, at last, free.