Roj Blake, elected president of the 11 worlds of the New Terran Federation, Protector of the people, woke up in the middle of an uncomfortable dream, one that came haunting him again and again. He rose to a sitting position, his body aching with old wounds, his heart beating wildly, sweat running down his back and opened his eyes to the comfortable darkness of his room. Closing his eyes again he lay back, hoping that reality would dispel the remnants of the nightmare. Of course that did not happen. After a while, giving up sleeping, he stood with a sigh and padded barefoot across the room, pulled the curtains open and unlocked the window, revelling in the fresh outside air. It was late spring and the garden below was blooming – roses and gardenias smelled of paradise. After years of confinement in space, Blake couldn’t get enough of open spaces. That was why he’d been so keen on getting rid of the domes- beyond the political symbol of course – that had imprisoned everyone and everything for so long.
Tonight though, no matter how soothing the wonderful garden was, the unease wouldn’t go away. Blake took a long supposedly rejuvenating shower and walked down to his office, waving at the guards on the way. Hot coffee did nothing to make him feel better and after a while he had to admit he wouldn’t get any work done. The Albian situation would remain unsolved a bit longer.
« Get me a shuttle, » he commanded as soon as his personal secretary, a new young guy called Sol, was in. « I’m going to Sixtine. » Sol took a step back, something people often did these days, Blake realized, probably because he was scarier or more bad-tempered than he’d been before. He’d abandoned long ago the thought that he was awesome and intimidating in his glory, something his counsellors wanted him very hard to believe. « Cancel all my meetings for the day, » he added as the young man walked out.
Only when he was sitting at the back of the shuttle did he allow himself to dwell on the memories that fed his nightmares.
They had to go back to Gauda Prime three weeks after the disaster to retrieve some strategic weapons and ships, hoping that the Federation had not been there before them. Although he could barely stand and still felt weaker than a new-born kitten, Blake insisted to go, feeling he had some unfinished business there: he wanted to see the place again, hoping to exorcise the memories of his darkest day. The trip was mercifully short and the drugs alleviated the pain of still fresh wounds. Once near the base they spent some time making sure that no Federation ships or troops were left lingering around and a group of men managed to blow the main door open while Blake stood behind, leaning against the burned trunk of a tree, watching them work while a comforting sun warmed his limbs. The explosions had sealed it closed and it had turned into something more secure still that it had ever been. They had to take the stairs to get to the command room. The effort exhausted Blake. When the heavy sealed door finally gave way, the smell almost made him pass out. A tomb. A tomb for the people who had died there. All that was left of them: rotten flesh, dried blood and an unnatural silence that seem to weigh on the men’s souls. They stood by the door, looking around in horror, unwilling to go inside this grave. Pressing a handkerchief against his nose, breathing shallowly, Blake walked across the room.
“Blake,” Del Grant was by his side, worried, a hand on his shoulder, “Doesn’t it look strange to you? Like someone rearranged the bodies.” Blake watched more carefully the four corpses propped against the wall in a position that couldn’t be natural. One of them was Vila, of that Blake was sure. Another one had long blond hair, a magnificent wig around the rotting flesh of the face. Avon’s crew. Just when the thought hit him – where the hell was Avon? he heard the familiar sound of a gun being loaded.
« Everyone down! » someone shouted. Blake didn’t move. Not because he thought himself invulnerable but because something had walked out of the darkness, his footsteps a bare rustle in the deafening silence and when it came into the light, Blake felt his knees give way and fell to the ground by the bodies of the dead. He didn’t believe in ghosts but this was the closest thing to them he would ever see, reminding him of stories he’d read as a child.
« Avon, » he murmured as if telling the name was making the impossible more believable. Ghostlike indeed, emaciated to the point of looking like a walking skeleton, his hair matted, his skin almost translucent but still Avon, his leather hanging around him, Avon stinking of death and decay. Avon alive.
« Should we shoot him down, Sir? » A man said behind him, his voice reverberating against the bare walls.
“No!” Blake raised a halting hand.
Avon was alive, and Avon was gone. Blake saw it at once by the look in his eyes and the way his lips moved soundlessly. He didn’t seem to notice anyone’s presence in the room and when Del Grant approached him Avon looked through him, then looked through Blake, his eyes empty, frowning at something unknown behind them and laughing softly, his parched lips stretching across this gaunt face…
« Sir? » the voice behind him said again, an urging whisper.
« No. I want him alive. » For a trial? That’s what he would say again and again. When he recovers, Avon will be put on trial, knowing full well, deep down, that Avon would not recover.
« How did he manage to survive? » Grant asked in a shaky voice while Avon resumed his promenade around the room, swiftly avoiding the bodies, pushing away a rotting arm with the tip of his boots, his lips moving silently. The plain picture of madness.
«Emergency rations? » Blake shrugged. “I don’t know.” He didn’t care. Avon was alive.
They took him away: Avon didn’t resist, followed, didn’t react at being pushed around, shoved into a shuttle and later locked in a small room. He drank water like it was the finest wine, and took a few bites of the food he was given, obviously enjoying it. He slept on the bed at night, paced the room or sat on a worn chair and talked endlessly to people who weren’t there.
There was no trial and no public acknowledgement that Avon had been captured.
That had been four years ago already, Blake realized as he walked along the concrete corridors of the highest security prison known as Sixtine. Those who were locked down here, men, women, were the most dangerous, the most relentless criminals of the old Federation. At least they were said to be; that was part of the new regime’s propaganda. Alphas of the highest ranks who had fought Blake, lawyers, generals, senior officers, were imprisoned behind doors that would not open in a foreseeable future. Those were the enemies who had survived the purges, the slaughters that had come with Blake’s victory. Murders. Rapes. Pillages. To a certain extent, Blake had kept a blind eye while the lower classes, especially the Deltas who didn’t all have Vila’s kindness, enacted their revenge. It was wrong, he knew but it had felt then like a vicarious revenge and nothing could ever equate the Federation’s ferocity anyway, he told himself when remorse came to bite him. When the unrest had reached a dangerous level he sent his newly appointed police to restore order. Mostly it went without trouble: sated, drunk with alcohol and blood, people went back home and slept it on. That was when the arrests and the trials started. That was when Avon was transferred to Sixtine and a team of doctors appointed to work on his case. Avon had been given a pad – he started writing what looked like rousing speeches, very much in Blake’s style, later edited – Avon style - to sound more moderate. Blake was still ashamed that he had indeed used some of their best lines during his public speeches. Later Avon lost interest in the pad; or maybe there was nothing to write any longer. The transcripts of his soliloquies seemed to indicate he was no longer in charge – whatever it meant.
When Blake walked into the room next to Avon’s cell, the doctors were sitting around a table, engrossed in a discussion that had nothing to do with their patient, laughing, having coffee. Normal life in an abnormal place. At Blake’s sight they rose, blushing.
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.”
They shook the outstretched hand with various emotions. Admiration for two of them and caution for another one who would’ve risked, had he not been so qualified and enthusiastic, trial and imprisonment. He was blond, charismatic and just a little bit insolent. His name was Carnell. Blake disliked him intensely.
“So, how is he?”
“Unchanged. Still living in that world of his. His brain scans show intense activity. From the recording we can be certain that he is interacting with his crew – Vila Restal, a girl named Soolin and Del Tarrant.” The woman who had been talking gave Carnell a begging look.
“And you,” Carnell, said. “Obviously you are his main concern. And his main… interest.” A sly smile died on his lips under Blake’s glare. “But all in all he lives in his own fairy world.”
“We could give you the transcripts of the discussion he is having. It’s one-sided of course and incomplete as usual but…”
“You do that,” Blake interrupted, feeling Carnell’s shrewd gaze on him. “And then destroy them. I don’t want any of this to leak.” He would have to keep an eye on this man. He was just the kind to make sure it did leak. Their eyes met and Blake had the pleasure to make Carnell look away first. That’s what an ugly scar and absolute power does, he thought. Or maybe just a strong sense of self-preservation.
“May I see him?”
Of course he did. Who were they to forbid him that right? They opened the locked door and he stepped inside. Avon was sitting on the comfortable armchair near the bed, very sphinx-like. His lips unmoving, beautiful just like Blake remembered them; his wide-open eyes staring at the opposite wall. His hands resting on his knees. Avon had no interaction with the world, although he used the bathroom. From what Carnell and his team said though, there was some point where his inner world and the outside world met since he obviously managed to include some fragments of reality in his mental patterns. The pad had been that for a while; now the bathroom, the shower. All that must’ve sounded very exciting to Carnell for a while but after two years he was slowly losing interest. What had once been an extraordinary, complex case, something that could challenge their intelligence and their skills was now only routine and Blake was the only one who still hoped and believed something would happen and bring Avon back. He sat on the bunk beside Avon and tentatively covered Avon’s hand with his, softly stroking Avon’s fingers with his thumb, staring at the still face. He was not certain why he was doing this, why he wanted Avon back so badly now that the anger, the desire for revenge was gone. He wasn’t even trying to understand; his life had become complicated enough that he’d simply came to accept his own desires without analysing them.
They said he’d probably been unstable long before that fateful day on Gauda Prime. Probably being suddenly in charge and without Blake had created some trauma, something Blake found highly improbable. The last straw – a psychotic breakdown brought on by extremely sub-optimal living conditions, isolation and guilt. “You talk like Orac,” Blake had told Carnell. Carnell didn’t like being compared to a machine, but had not replied. Only his offended look had betrayed his wounded pride.
Blake is smiling at the memory when it happened.
“Enough, Blake. I know what you’re trying to do. Seduce me so you can have my ship. Stop it. It won’t work.” The sound of Avon’s familiar voice in the room startled him as the hand in his slipped away
Blake almost fell from the bunk, his chest painful, his head reeling. That had never happened before. The few seconds it took Blake to come round, Avon was gone again. Still he had to try.
“Avon? Can you hear me? Avon?” He shook the motionless man, trying to elicit another reaction.
They had to drag him away. “It’s enough for now,” Carnell said with his insufferable smile. “You have to go; he is badly shaken.”
How could they know? Avon was sitting as still and aloof as before. How could they be so sure? Carnell explained: “his brain activity is registered 24/7. We see how agitated he gets from your visits.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“We don’t know.”
“But this… This is new! He reacted! He talked to me! Saw me! Recognized me!”
Carnell looked at him with an expression akin to pity, his lips clenching. “Yes. Yes it is new. But you shouldn’t get too enthusiastic about it. We’re still a long way….”
Blake slammed the door, tears of rage and dismay blurring his sight. He didn’t want to hear them, listen to them. He’d stopped trusting them.
Back in the shelter of the shuttle, Blake closed his eyes, recalling the warmth of Avon’s hand, and his words. The sound of his voice. He would try again. He would take him away from this place. It was obvious now that Avon had nothing to do there any longer. He could have him transferred in one of the suites in the presidential palace where he could see him. Qualified people taking care of him. Yes. He’d do this. Hire a new team. Get rid of Carnell. Maybe they were lying to him, maybe there was a way to have Avon back. Keep the nightmares away. Suddenly it felt like a crushing weight had been lifted from Blake’s chest; he was breathing again. Once back at the Presidential palace, he’d give the orders and have Avon back home.