I steadied myself with a fortifying shot of A&S before entering the interview room. I know, I know, and you might even be right, but I needed it. There are some things you can't reasonably expect a man to face while sober. Too much uninebriated stress is bad for the constitution, scientific fact. Anyway, your judgment is misplaced because I barely drink at all these days.
The man waiting behind the interview table didn't look much like Blake. He was older, coarser, greyer, and gaunt enough that I made a mental note to give him a half-dozen protein packs on his way out if the interview didn't go too badly. The man had his head bowed, but he looked up when I came in. His eyes were both clear and normal.
That was a relief. I'm still shuddering over the one who'd blinded himself with a laser probe.
I took the seat across from the man. Two cups of tea were set out on the table, quietly steaming, and a plate piled high with biscuits. That got a raised eyebrow from me. Not that the plate was present – it always was, part of the formalities – but that it was full.
The man might have an illness that prevented him from eating, though medical hadn't found anything wrong with him other than malnutrition. Or, he might be a spiritual nutter on a fast. Those were the worst; the ones who actually believed they were Blake. Or, the man could be just polite, or extremely strong willed, or both. In which case… Who knew? They all had different motives.
"You look hungry," I said, nodding at the plate. "Take one."
"I had one," the man said.
I frowned. So much for polite. "Have another then."
The man smiled and picked up a biscuit, inspected it carefully, and then ate it slowly, washing it down with a sip of tea. The man was starving. There was a longing gaze that came with it when you were near food that you couldn't keep out of your eyes, no matter how hard willed you were. But, give credit where credit is due; because the man didn't bolt down the entire platter or guzzle the whole cuppa in one go. Instead, he licked the crumbs off his fingers and managed to look dignified doing it.
"They're very good. Not synthesized."
"The chocolate topping is, and the sugar, but the rest is real. Even the tea."
"Expensive. People might think it's a bit strange, wasting real food on a fake."
"You admit it then?"
"What do you think, Vila?"
The man leaned back in his chair. It was hard backed and uncomfortable, but he looked relaxed. He didn't look much like Blake, but his body language, that was perfect. The ones who looked like Blake and acted wrong made me angry. The ones who looked nothing like him but had the act down made me uncomfortable. I couldn't tell you which lot was more unnerving.
At least this one looked older. It was amazing how many of them forgot that. Twenty-odd years since Gauda Prime and Blake was eternally thirty-six. Looking at how young some of the imposters were was almost enough to make you want to get shot down and resurrected yourself if it was that good for the waist and hairline.
The man was still leaning back in his chair, waiting for his answer. So I gave it to him:
"I wish you'd stop. That's what I think. You're the eighth one this month, and you aren't very good. I don't know what you want: Money? Food? Power? Attention? I think you're all bloody selfish. Showing up on Avon's doorstep in a dead man's clothes and expecting him to welcome you in with open arms. You do know what happened to the original, don't you?"
"He didn't shoot Yon Boswell," said the man.
And didn't we all wish he had? Trust Avon to shoot the right Blake and then welcome the wrong one with open arms, and then leave me and Dayna to deal with the fallout.
"Boswell was the first, wasn't he?" The man said. "Did his research, got a full face transplant, all of it. And Avon did accept him as Blake."
"Gave him half the galaxy," I muttered. "The idiot."
The man chewed his knuckle thoughtfully. "Did you accept him?"
"Who's interviewing who here?"
"You did," the man said, smiling with the certainty of his assumption.
I looked at the ceiling. As if those white speckled tiles had any answers. Well, maybe the ghosts floating out there in space somewhere beyond did. Gan, Zen, Cally, Tarrant… Blake. I always wondered if they'd be sad about what had happened, or pleased that Avon had finally managed to show how much he cared, even if it was too much, to the wrong person, and far too late.
"We all did." We were all fools. We knew the worst of people, but we still didn't expect it. Even Avon… though I've got a feeling Avon knew he was being played, right to the end, and that he'd gone along with it to make amends, or to punish himself, or because he just didn't care at that point and was willing to suspend disbelief for a fleeting bit of fantasy. Who could tell what Avon thought about anything, really? "We knew about the clone, but that was hardly public knowledge then. Boswell showed up and… we all wanted it to be true, didn't we?"
Orac could've given the truth of it. Did, eventually, when forced. The convival little rat-in-a-box never volunteered a peep before that, only saying that, "the survival of Roj blake is a possibility." Not, "It's a possibility, but that man is a fraud." The mechanical bastard. It probably thought it was funny watching us all run about, or else it was running some kind of bet with the other Tariel cells in the neighbourhood on what Avon's reaction would be.
"And now you get... eight a month, you said? That's impressive."
"So is half the galaxy." I watched for the man's reaction, but he only looked a bit wistful. Maybe he was starting to realize that his plot wouldn't work. "You go near Avon now and say, 'hello, my name is Roj Blake' and you might as well be walking into a Mutoid rehab centre with an open wound. That's the main reason we do all this screening, you know, not because one of you might be Blake, but to try to drum it into you that if you go near Avon you'll meet a fast and dirty end from him, or from me."
"From you, Vila?"
"From any of us. Us who survived. Dayna would bring you down before you could blink. The last thing Avon needs is more bad press."
"You'd do that for him, after what happened?"
Yes, I thought, we would. But that wasn't really the question. The question was, "why?" and the truth was… I had no answer, had never had an answer. Once, I was friends with Avon, or something like friendship; comradeship, maybe? Comradely crew mates? Crew mates, anyway. We were both in the same frying pan together. Next, and a bit at the same time, I was scared of him. Later on, now, I felt sorry for him. I took a long drag of tea and wished that it was something a bit stronger. The shot was wearing off already. The room was too quiet, so I started talking to fill the space:
"He's not romantic, you know, not like the biopics make out. He's about as charming as a pit viper, but he's almost as smart as he thinks he is and he's done a lot of good straightening up the mess the Federation left behind. That's how he's still President even after Boswell. That and Orac. But… he's Avon. Maybe he'd chuck you out an airlock to save his skin, and definitely he'd gun you down if he got half a chance, but after everything that's happened to him. To all of us who were with him. Damn it. You people don't even think about it, do you?"
"I think about Avon a great deal."
"I'll bet you do."
"What would happen, if I were real?"
I looked the man up and down again, assessing. "You'd better not be religious. I much prefer the fakes who are after money. I hate sending people to the shrink, even if they clearly need it. Makes me feel like a hypocrite."
The creases at the edges of the man's eyes deepened and the corners of his mouth twitched into an amused, self-aware smile. "I do not believe that I represent the second-coming of the Resurrected Blake."
"Do you believe that you are spiritual twins? Or that he speaks to you in dreams?"
The man laughed. "No."
"That's a relief then."
The man continued grinning, ear to ear. "I believe that I am Roj Blake."
The man rubbed his neck and gave a wry, 'don't blame me' look that was too achingly familiar to trust. "This would be simpler to prove if the Federation hadn't destroyed all of my DNA samples."
"It wasn't the Federation. It was Servalan, covering her tracks."
"And then the Liberator was destroyed. I suppose that precluded you taking a hair off of one of my dressing gowns?"
Strike one, I thought. You never wore a dressing gown. You slept in your clothes, never mind the wrinkles. We all did.
The man frowned. Probably something in my expression had informed him that he'd misspoke, but he didn't attempt to rephrase or make a correction. That was very Blake-like of him; not admitting to a mistake. I almost took off the strike, but no. Eight this month, twelve the last. The man didn't get any allowances for being stubborn.
"It's a ripe mess," I told him. "You imposters show up, claiming to be Blake, and there's no good way of refuting you. Medical checks the measurements, but that's not certain, not with surgery."
The man picked up another biscuit. Again, he examined it before taking a slow, savoring bite. He must have thought they were loaded down with suppressants, or worse, the way he picked at them. It would be a good idea, probably, but most of the imposters were non-violent. Medical did a good job of weeding out the ones who were and there was a panic button under the table for the ones they missed. Usually my finger was glued to it for the duration, but I hadn't touched it once this interview. Funny that.
The man chewed and swallowed. "Do you believe that Blake could still be alive?"
"I told you. We do these interviews to warn you people off."
"Then why do you check measurements?"
"There's too many of you. I can't interview you all. We give a generic warning to the ones who are blatant fakes, slap them with a fine and send them off. You nearly got sent off. You look nothing like him. You know that? No effort."
"Why the biscuits?" the man asked. "If you want to discourage this behaviour, it seems paradoxical to encourage those who put the most effort into it."
"It's a test. A psychostrategist watches the recordings and makes deductions."
"To tell you if I am Roj Blake?"
"To tell us if you're liable to go round the twist and try to assassinate Avon. That has happened you know."
The man sighed. He didn't look much like Blake, but his expression was perfect. It was the exasperated look their Fearless Leader had always got when the bickering wasn't fun anymore and it was time to get things done. "You stole my watch, Vila."
I groaned. That was strike two, and three. And four, five, and six as well, probably, or however that game worked. The watch was practically legend now. It was always an even toss up as to whether or not a Blake would use it. This one had been refreshingly original. I felt irrationally disappointed that originality was going to lead to a depressingly familiar ending.
"That's the ploy Boswell used. Do you lot even try anymore?"
The man looked genuinely shocked. "He must have dug deep, to get recordings from the holding cells."
"He was one of the psychostrategists assigned to Blake after Carnell went AWOL. He didn't have to dig deep. He had everything conveniently at his fingertips."
"I gave you the watch later."
Predictable. "He figured that out by looking at my wrist."
"You aren't wearing it now."
"Aren't you observant. Want a gold star?"
"What happen to it?"
"He asked for it back."
"You should be. Now get out. And stay away from Avon."
I pushed my chair out, stood up, and turned for the door. I was half a step away from it, and freedom, and a soothing nightcap, when the man spoke again, and with my back turned – damn. The man sounded like Blake. It was too easy to believe that, if I turned around, it would be Blake sitting there. Not some skinny old fraud who wanted... something. They always wanted something.
In that way, they were all like the man they were impersonating; He'd wanted something too.
"What if I were Blake?" the man said. "Hypothetically."
I didn't turn around. Why bother? "I'd say the same: get out and stay away."
"I'd ask why," the man said, to my back, "but I understand. If I knew about Boswell, why did I sit back and let it happen? I didn't know, Vila. I didn't know anything for a long time. When I came back to myself, the war was over, the rebellion was won, and Avon was beset with imposters. I didn't mean to betray you all. I only had a dream…"
"And now it's been realized," I said, spinning to look at the man and remind myself that it wasn't Blake. "Avon did that, for you, for the man you're pretending to be. Now can't you leave him in peace?"
The man started chewing on his fingers again, looking over his hand at me with inscrutable brown eyes. Suddenly, he took his finger away from his mouth and stabbed the air, grinning. "I'm not stupid, Vila. I'm not expendable. And I'm not going until I finish what I came here to do."
I blinked in surprise and turned my head to the side. Originality, apparently, was back in play. "Why are you quoting Avon?"
"If Boswell had my files, it is reasonable to presume that he could predict anything I might have said in the past, or at the least, replicate my speech patterns and make you believe that he was quoting something I'd said in the past. Am I correct?"
"Well, now. If being myself has got me labelled as a pretender, then perhaps pretending to –"
"The way he did a number on Avon, I wouldn't be surprised if he'd had access to those files as well."
The man faltered, and rallied poorly. "Logic, Vila?" The words and the motions were right, but they didn't click. They were… acted. The man rubbed his hands against each other deliberately, watching for my reaction.
"Aren't you going to say something?" the man snapped. His hand drifted to his mouth again, and that… wasn't an act.
I was lying before, when the man asked about the biscuits. They were more than a test; They were there in hope, whatever that was good for. Blake's favourite flavour. I didn't have to do the interviews. I hated doing the interviews, but –
"Your silence is fascinating," the man said. I wonder if he knew how ridiculous the monotone growl he was attempting came off as? He sounded less like Avon and more like a choking sheep.
There should be a word to describe the feeling you get when second-hand embarrassment leads to an epiphany. Or maybe that isn't a common enough experience for a word of its own. I waved my hands to get the man's attention. "You can stop. You're terrible at acting, you know that?"
"Really? I thought I was rather good." The man paused. "I am sorry about the watch, Vila."
I reached into my pocket. "Don't worry. I stole it back."