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Iron Man

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A Prefatory Note from the Author: There was a moment, a decisive moment, at the end of Season Two. The fate of Humanity hung in the balance. One ship—the Liberator—held the pass. And one man held the helm of the Liberator. This, my dear readers—all dozens of you, scattered across the globe--is the story of what happened when he took advantage of this moment to claim power as his reward.

It doesn’t matter what those morons say—our nation’s leaders are a feeble crew. There’s only twenty of them anyway, and what are twenty next to millions who are looking to you?


The worst thing, Blake thought, was that this time he didn’t really have amnesia. A bit of anterograde amnesia about the actual crash, of course, and he wasn’t sorry not to remember the days he must have lain, the stasis functions in the capsule gradually failing, the merciless sun cannonading off the shiny capsule. Later on, he pieced it together. Someone must have seen the capsule, and hitched it to a team of oxen and dragged it to the nearest thing they had to a hospital. That they had taken the capsule, his bracelet, and anything else about his person that seemed valuable, he couldn’t really blame them for.

The hospital’s technology wasn’t up to much. It took far longer for the gunshot wound he had suffered before he went into the capsule, and the concussion and two broken legs that he suffered on impact, to heal than they would have done on the Liberator, or in a top-flight Space Command medical center. Still, they did the best they could, for a penniless refugee who they didn’t know from Adam’s off ox.

As soon as he could, Blake tried to earn his keep by helping with the other patients. By the time he could walk with two canes, he was nearly indispensable. Eventually he was down to a knee brace, perhaps with one cane when the paths were icy or he was very tired after a double shift.

The trouble started at the end of the night shift. A group of nurses and orderlies headed out, in search of just the kind of fried breakfast that kept the cardiologist in business, and of course they asked Blake to join them. As befitted a village, the caff was also the tobacco shop and the newsstand. Blake realized he hadn’t seen a news broadcast for months, so he borrowed a few minims from one of the nurses and bought a paper.

There wasn’t any news from Earth at all until after the local headlines and the Page Three girl and the Page Six gossip column (Blake hadn’t the slightest idea of who any of the boldfaced names were). There was only one page dedicated to Earth news. Most of it was taken up with a large photograph of Avon, grinning madly, posed in front of a very big building with a man in long light-colored robes. Avon clutched a big light-colored book. The headline was “Terran President Avon Grants Religious Freedom.”

After a few blinks and shakes of the head to drive away hallucinations, Blake concluded that it must actually have happened. Or, given that it was a newspaper, someone *said* that it had happened. Or the reporter fabricated it (a term with an appropriate hint of “out of whole cloth”).

After going through a great deal of trouble to get a Tariel cell connection, Blake confirmed that, in some perversion of reality, Avon indeed had managed to be recognized as President of what was now being referred to as “the Terran Domes.” Blake was convinced that this was proof that he himself must have died and failed to pass St. Peter’s divine MOT.

After much more trouble, Blake managed to speak—not to the Man of Destiny himself, of course, but to a series of underlings, one of whom eventually took down the coordinates and said that the President was sending an emissary to bring Blake back to Earth.

His co-workers were all sorry to see him go; took up a collection, in fact. 37 credits 44 minims, a cardboard suitcase of second-hand clothes, a box of homemade kelboa biscuits (from the anesthetist’s aunt’s prized secret recipe) and the promise he could come back any time and they’d even find him a paying job.

No, Blake decided, when he had more time to think it over. The worst thing wasn’t that he didn’t have amnesia, now that he could really have used it off his own bat rather than having his memories stripped away at the bequest of a tyranny.

*All* of it was the worst thing.

“Gosh, you look awful,” Vila said sympathetically. Avon had sent a luxury shuttle to pick up Blake, and had detailed Vila for the task of exposition.

“I’m glad to see that you don’t.”

Blake inspected his old comrade carefully. Vila had a tan. His hair was suspiciously fairer and the hairline suspiciously closer to his nose, which was perhaps rather more prepossessing than before. He also looked much taller. At first Blake suspected built-up soles, but eventually concluded that he just wasn’t used to seeing Vila stand up straight, trying to take up more rather than less space and attract more rather than less notice.

“They’re panting to have you on Speaker’s Corner come Friday,” Vila said. “It’s a chat show.”

“Splendid!” Blake said. “It’s still Monday today here, isn’t it?” (Vila nodded.) “That’ll give me enough time to rest up, draft a few talking points.” He reminded himself not to get ahead of himself, the announcement probably wouldn’t be made then.

Vila shook his head. “You don’t want to do that,” he said. “It’s a trap, like.”

“Assassins?” Blake said.

“No, no, not that sort. But, well you wouldn’t know, you’ve been away, but Friday’s the Worlds Cup final. Speaker’s Corner gets rotten ratings anyway, but it’ll be hopeless with something good on opposite. And what with you looking as ropy as you do, you’ll scare away the punters.”

“The following week then.”

Vila shrugged. “Suit yourself, but that’s Dome Idol semi-finals.” He went through the pockets of his suit (“Isn’t it a lovely bit of schmutter? Have a feel,” proffering the sleeve) until he found his rederiter. “Avon’s opened an account for you with his tailor, so you can get kitted out. Mowed Revolution Air, they call it,” he said, gesturing at the crimson stole draped backwards across his shoulders, a nice contrast to the beige of the soft fabric.

“The staff of Dustburg General Hospital gave me a trousseau. I admit that I’m not elegantly dressed. But why can’t I just go to the Wardrobe Room as per usual?”

Vila cleared his throat. Vila didn’t think Avon was a coward, usually, but he didn’t admire Avon for leaving him to carry the can. “Well. About that. The Liberator. Avon hasn’t got it anymore.”

“What did he do? Crash it into an asteroid the moment my back was turned?”

“You see, when he was being the Hero of the Short War, he thought it’d look good to hand it over to form the core of the new fleet. That’s where Jenna is, Admiral Stannis I should say.”

“I’m very glad to hear that Jenna is all right! But after all that trouble to get it, I’m surprised that Avon would ever let go of the Liberator.”

“What good would it be to him? Except for the money, and he’s got plenty of that now.” Blake stared at him, astonished. “Always saying he wanted it, well, that was just to wind you up. Worked, didn’t it?”

Blake cleared his throat. “Is Cally all right?”

“She’s fine, always swanning about to other worlds representing the T-D. They like that she’s not an Earth Human.”

“And yourself? You look…prosperous.”

“I’m the tax collector for Freedom City,” Vila said. “Jobs for the Boys, and so forth.”

The shuttle touched down. There was a driver waiting with a very, very long black car. Vila put out his hand for Blake to shake. “Best of Terran,” he said. “Avon says you’re on the list for 1400 hours, the guards know about it and everything. This chap here will take you to your flat, pick you up tomorrow afternoon.”

“You’re not staying?”

“Nah, I’m taking the shuttle and heading home.” Although he’d like to be a fly on the wall for the reunion, Vila was glad to let Clever Clogs I and II sort it all out.

The streets were thronged with traffic. The old tramlines were still in use. Small vans (Blake later found out they were called Boopers, from the throaty horns used to summon potential passengers) and even personal vehicles were common. Blake’s heart was in his throat, because, while his chauffeur seemed adept enough, there were many obvious amateurs on the road.

The chauffeur told Blake that his flat was Number 18, on the fifth floor, and promised to retrieve him at 13:30 the following afternoon. Blake took the elevator, and stood in front of the door to Number 18. There was no keyhole, which was just as well because he didn’t have a key, but there was a biometric pad in the center. Blake pressed his hand to it (thinking, “It’s only the hand we need”) and it opened. Presumably Orac had supplied the data.

The flat was small and rather characterless, but comfortable enough and sparkling clean. Blake took a vapourshower and spent five minutes putting away his clothes. He brewed up, and watched the news channel for several hours. There seemed to be only one news channel, amid dozens of entertainment channels, though you had to sit through what seemed like half an hour of commercials for five minutes of programming.

At 20:00, Avon had a half-hour broadcast all to himself. He just sat at a desk in a studio in the cellar of the Palace, reading from a sheaf of acetates while vizclips and slides scrolled behind him. The top story was the repatriation and rehabilitation effort for prisoners released from Ursa Prime, followed by a report on the balance of trade, the revised education budget, and the opening of a mosque in the North Reservoir District. It wasn’t very interesting, all facts and figures. Blake found himself wishing that he had a jumper to knit or something.

Avon looked older, more so than the strict span of time would suggest. Blake knew that was true of him as well, as if the Liberator had relativistically kept them from aging, but it caught up with them afterwards, perhaps becoming their own portraits.

Avon wore a plain dark suit, buttoned up to the top with just a bit of white linen showing at the collar and the wrists, and he had some stuff in his hair to keep the waves in place. A scarf in Enterprise Party colors (purple, white, and green, with a narrow woven-in gold stripe) draped over his shoulders. The desk where Avon sat was open at the sides, so Blake could glimpse shiny black boots fastened just over the knee with two buckles, an effect that Blake found very sexy.

In the interests of stability (and because, Avon said, you never knew who you were going to need in the future, so there was no point in killing them), most of the lower echelons of the military and the civil service kept their jobs.

A few people in leadership positions fled once they saw that their regime was doomed. A few more committed suicide out of remorse. It might have been argued that the notes (for those who left one) had a rather small range of expression, and that the corpses of many of those who did not leave a note looked more surprised than grieved, but who was going to inquire?

Servalan, an anorexic for punishment or perhaps just an optimist, was not among them.

What is Pyramus? A lover or a tyrant? (Peter Quince)

“Hullo, Blake,” Avon said. Blake stood on the lush rug, uncertain of where to sit (there were two uncomfortable chairs near the desk, presumably to reduce the duration of meetings, and a small fluffy sofa further back toward the wall). He looked around the office. Blake, and perhaps Orac, considered saying hello but in the end didn’t.

As in a battle {{and}}, Blake thought, {{wasn’t it? And one for high stakes?}} the seconds slowed and rotated so Blake could absorb every detail. The office was large, luxuriously furnished in Perspex picked out in gold, with gold-and-white upholstery and drapes. The Presidential Palace had not been significantly redecorated since the change-over. It hadn’t been very long, of course, and, although Avon justified it as fiscal prudence and conservation of time resources, he liked the décor the way it was.

Before Blake had a chance to say anything, Avon left his desk and crossed the floor and cupped Blake’s face in his hands. He looked up, and Blake was startled by the depth of regret and atonement that he saw in Avon’s eyes. {{There is no art to know the mind’s construction in the face}} Blake thought, wondering once again whether Duncan meant that it was impossible to discern or that any idiot could do it.
And then Avon kissed Blake, eventually dropping his hands so that his arms grappled Blake’s waist. The material of Avon’s tunic was deliciously smooth and soft (“Lovely bit of schmutter” Blake could hear Vila saying). Something underneath it crackled. For a moment Blake was reminded of the pre-Atomic myth of the man turned insect, but then he realized Avon must be wearing a thin crust of body armor.
The kiss continued for more than a moment but less than a minute, and then Avon terminated it, as cleanly as ending a teleport request.

Blake staggered back toward a chair, sat down, breathing heavily and ordering too, too solid flesh to melt, because obviously Avon was going to drag out the “resolve itself into a dew” part of the afternoon.
“You look like you need building up,” Avon said. He went to the desk, giving a ludicrously poor performance of a man strolling casually without a care in the world. He picked up the communicator that accompanied Orac on the desk, and ordered a tomato salad, a grilled steak, mashed potatoes, and a bottle of stout. A few minutes later, a waiter in a crisply starched white jacket and striped trousers delivered the meal.

In addition to the specified items, there were a couple of shapely, golden bread rolls and what looked like a month’s margarine ration but turned out to be fresh butter. “I’ve always detested uncooked tomatoes,” Blake said, lifting the plate off the tray. “I’ll eat tomato sauce if I must but…”

“Really?” Avon said indifferently. “I never noticed.” He took a chipcard from his pocket and passed it over to Blake. “Here, I’ve sorted out a Civil List pension for you. Services to the Restoration and so forth. You should be able to draw some cash from any cashpoint.”

“Thank you, Avon,” Blake said. He assumed that it would be converted to a salary once he took office, but if he drew both, he planned to donate one to charity. For a moment Blake contemplated pushing the tray away, to avoid being any further beholden. Then he decided that was silly, the steak looked and smelled marvelous, and he was hungry. There had been some QuikMeals in the cupboard of his flat, and he reconstituted a few of them, but they perfectly expressed the paradox of “Fast Food.” With his knife and fork poised, he asked Avon “Would you like some of this?”

Avon shook his head “no.” “I’ve had lunch already,” he said. “There’s usually some sort of banquet laid on in the evenings, so to make up for the time and the kilocalories, I just have a sandwich at my desk.”

Blake took a mouthful of beautifully grilled, tender steak, then drew a forkful of potatoes through the gravy. “Delicious!” he said. “I see they do you proud here.” He carefully poured out some of the stout, stopping before the foam overtopped the glass. He wondered idly the last time he had had an alcoholic beverage.

“We’ve got to talk,” he said.

“Finish your meal,” said Avon, echoing billions of men from time immemorial. “Well. As you can see, I’ve been able to more or less keep things ticking over. After we saw off the Andromedans so conclusively, no one else has tried their arm. Jenna’s working with Zen to build up a defense fleet.”

“Defense? Not looking for new worlds to conquer?”

“I’ve killed quite enough people for my liking—most of them under your aegis—and I don’t see the point of killing any more just to put more red on a star chart.”

“You’ve got Jenna, Cally, and Vila working for you, and I see you’re not letting Orac out of your sight.”

“It’s been a tremendous help.” Avon had drawn the salad plate toward him. He took the salad fork from Blake’s tray and, between sentences, started eating the tomatoes. Blake was infuriated almost beyond bearing. Is this the promised end? he leared. To be executed for throttling a dictator for imperialist aggression against a plate of tomatoes that Blake hadn’t even wanted in the first place?

Blake took the last sip of the stout, licked foam off his top lip, and put down his knife and fork. {{Well, I know what I’d like for pudding}} he thought. He cleared his throat. “Avon. You kissed me. What had you in mind?”

“I didn’t get thirty pieces of silver for it, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Avon said. He opened the door to the adjoining room. “Come on,” he said. It must have been a sort of dressing room—half-a-dozen soberly luxurious suits hung on a rail, and there were bins with shirts and accessories. In the middle of the room was a either a large cot or a small single bed, presumably for workday cat-naps. (Blake correctly surmised that Avon had taken over Servalan’s former suite of rooms further inside the palace, and that he enjoyed sleeping in her bed, which was, like Goldilocks’ first venture, too large. But he misjudged what Avon had done with his predecessor’s wardrobe: it was auctioned off, and the proceeds used to re-pave the roads in Dome Nine East.)

“Disable surveillance for one hour,” Avon told the control panel in the wall. He unbuttoned his tunic (Blake counted twelve buttons) and turned around to hang it up. Blake sat down on the bed to take off his boots and socks, and decided he might as well strip off entirely. It was warm in the room {{Of course}} he thought {{That’s what happens if you put Avon in charge of the thermostat and don’t make him pay the fuel bill}}, so he lay down on top of the top sheet. He rested his feet on the neatly folded blanket at the foot of the bed, which had fringes and a woven-in design that Blake thought probably came from one of the Outer Planets.

Still half-in, half-out of his shirt, Avon stopped fussing with his clothes and turned toward Blake.

“Yes!” he said, with unwonted cheerfulness. “That is just how I reasoned you would look.” He tore his eyes away and looked toward the control panel. “Increase light level ten per cent.”

“I suppose I should be flattered,” Blake said, and then “Ahhhnngghhh!” because a significant factor in his Oneness had been assimilated, or at the very least encompassed. He pushed himself up to his elbows and his head fell back as a hand supported his balls as tenderly as if they advertised most of a pawnshop. Blake looked down, astonished at the prospect of Avon on his knees, although in the event he wasn’t. He was crouching profiled near the bed in a bas-relief pose. Nevertheless, Blake was not inclined to look a gift mouth in the horse.

For just long enough for Blake to think “Dammit!” Avon stopped sucking, but it was only to move his hand up, so he could wrap his hand around the base of Blake’s cock and squeeze it slowly and hard, while delicately tracing the veins with the tip of his tongue.

Blake held out for an interval of name, rank, serial number, and football statistics, but eventually yielded to a friendly tidal wave. The images behind his eyes, so fleeting that he couldn’t quite catch them, were beautiful and he almost dared hope some of them were memories.

He did have time to think that, far from a profound ritual of guilt and penitence, Avon seemed to be treating it as an hour’s Afternoon Delight, a break between reviewing the plans for water main repairs and setting the class size for primary schools in Former Labor Grade Population Areas.

Blake decided that Avon was either a very fast learner (in which case he would probably have a printout to refer to) or had done this sort of thing before. Which meant that potential sexual encounters on the Liberator might have foundered on shattered memory on one side, but not inexperience on the other.

After two mind-wipes, Blake was no longer certain of his gaydar, or for that matter any other interpretation of character or intention. Although usually he took a proactive approach to life, he hadn’t felt able to move beyond the crew that had washed up on the Liberator with him. Even though he had plenty of spare bedrooms (particularly if the cabins were to be retrofitted with bunk beds). Blake was not unaware that there would probably be more revolutionary fervor among any handful of Federation citizens selected at random, but Jenna, Cally, Vila, and Gan had become familiar and somewhat comprehensible to him. He didn’t think that even an OEM brain would have contributed much understanding of Avon.

Blake, half-drowsing, heard a discreet creak and felt the mattress drop as Avon (a waterfall of white shirt still depending from one shoulder, underwear sliding off one shoulder but present) climbed onto the bed and lay down over Blake. Avon gripped Blake’s shoulders and moved against him until, Blake being stabbed rather more times than Julius Caesar, they were both satiated.

“We were rather busy before, but this would be a good time to talk about the transition,” Blake said, tugging at a corner of the blanket to cover both of them.

A cold silence descended, obviating the need to ask “What transition?”

“I’m disappointed,” Blake said. “I’d always thought of you as a man of your word.”

Avon gave a better performance of “not furious” than his slightly earlier performance of “not aroused.” “If you want to treat every casual remark as a binding contract, you said that if I got you back to Earth, then I could have the Liberator in exchange. I did, and I don’t see how you can object to my using the ship for purposes of your precious revolution.”

“You’d already helped yourself to the ship before you so much as knew I was alive! And you couldn’t wait to wash your hands of me, could you?”

“Orac couldn’t find you!”

“Perhaps he’d have tried a bit harder with more encouragement from you! I’m beginning to think that you just wanted me out of the way.”

“Not in the least. I’m abjectly grateful that you got through, more or less intact.”

“Then the question is, are you prepared to hand over power? Or to share it, until there can be a proper election?”

“Certainly not. Don’t be ridiculous.”

“But what we just did…oh, forget that, I suppose any two people can see their way clear—or cloudy—to falling into bed if they’re randy enough. What about everything we did, everything we were to one another?”

“You were certainly the most intelligent and interesting person on the ship. Or, not as intelligent as Orac, but you’re better hung. Blake, did I lead you to believe that I shared either your ideals or your methodology? Did I ever so much as imply that I thought you could be trusted to manage a whelkstall? So there’s no warrant for you to think I’m just going to shift over and put you in charge of a whole planet.” Avon righted his shirt, recovered his trousers, and bent and zipped his boots (mid-calf-length, this time). “Did you have a model spaceport when you were a boy?”

“I must have done,” Blake said. “Doesn’t every boy? Whether it’s the latest electronic marvel, or something his mum had to put together on Solstice Eve out of cardboard.”

“I wonder if Admiral Stannis ever did? Either way, it might explain a lot.”

“Sounds like literary criticism—any statement or its opposite is given equal value.”

“Blake, this is the best model spaceport a boy ever had, and I’m not giving it up just on your say-so.”

“It’s not a question of what I want, it’s what’s better for the millions of people on this planet. And not just this one. Earth—or whatever you’re calling it these days—is an influential planet that affects people throughout the galaxy.”

“Naturally I think I can do a better job than you could, so your Kantian argument fails on that level.”

“You bastard!” Blake said, his voice a little muffled by the shirt he pulled over his head. “You took my life, and I want it back!”

“Luck is a very important factor in human history,” Avon said. “I happened to be in the right place. You didn’t. Who knows? The next turn of the wheel may favor you.”

GROO: The more radical elements, spurred by a charismatic leader, did the Dance of Revolution. (Angel 3.14, “Couplet”)

Gradually Blake learned the routes and schedules for the trams and Boopers, the locations of the vizzie palaises, the libraries (shelves rather bare) and the bookshops (doing a land-office business in formerly banned books). He found the large multiple shop (that sold groceries as well as everything else) and the many corner shops. He was glad to see that almost everything stayed open very late; his last time on Earth, he was used to assembling dinner out of whatever unpromising tins remained in the cupboard, after he got off-shift at the Aquitar Project.
Although there was another pub closer to the flat (“It’s called The Fountainhead,” the publican said. “We were going to call it The Invisible Hand, like, but then, what’d we put on the sign?”), Blake generally walked the extra klik to get to Man’s Hope, which seemed to be the Freedom Party local. Which seemed to have been revived behind Blake’s back while he was missing.
Blake preferred to go at off-hours, when the pub was nearly empty; pubs were allowed to stay open as long as they could get a person to man the taps. At peak hours, it was likely that somebody would come up to him, say, “You’re him, aren’t you?” and he’d tense up, wondering if the next move would be a pat on the back or GBH. The distinction was not always readily to be drawn. Anyway, if he went out for a quiet half, a packet of scallion-and-miso crisps, and the match of the day on a screen larger than the one in his flat, he didn’t want to be on the receiving end of nine large measures of spirits.

Blake strolled around the city, noticing first that there were three policemen and a woman in a black suit, sitting on a park bench looking monumentally bored and passing a cigarette back and forth. (Everyone seemed to smoke like a chimney; Blake wondered why there wasn’t a public health initiative to stop it until he saw the tax stamp on a cigarette packet.)

It was startling to see police dressed in short-sleeved light-blue uniforms, with conspicuous name tags. Their headgear was a silly-looking checked cap, not a helmet that turned them into faceless monoliths. Avon said that the uniform was chosen to look unthreatening, but he had shifted most of the police into plainclothes, on the theory that it was much cheaper to let the populace wonder if the fellow in the green anorak was actually a detective and adjust their conduct accordingly.

Then Blake noticed that there was a demonstration going on. The speaker was marginally more interesting than one of Avon’s party political broadcasts, but didn’t find him to be an inspiring orator, and thought he would be even less effective when he wasn’t preaching to the choir.

After awhile, one of the policemen stood up and held up his hand, with the fingers spread. The speaker looked at him, gave a little nod, and began gathering up the acetates on the podium. Blake realized that he must have meant “five minutes” because, a few minutes later, the policeman drew a finger across his own throat, and the speaker cleared his throat, raised the fist of the arm that wasn’t holding his notes to his side, and shouted, “Long live Freedom!” A half-hearted chant began, and then another policeman took the podium. Blake blinked, realizing that a metaphor was about to become concrete: reading the Riot Act.

There was another, louder chant of “You needn’t go home, but you can’t…stay…here,” and the policeman said, “Right! Pubs serving free beer to demonstrators are as follows…” and read out the names and addresses of five pubs in varying districts. Blake shook his head, bemused. Most of the demonstrators dispersed. The cops arrested the ones who threw rocks, and bundled them into a van, along with the woman in the black suit; Blake realized that she must be the duty solicitor.

“Hullo,” Vila said, and yawned widely. He wrapped the dressing gown closer. What appeared to be a very tall blonde wearing red high-heeled shoes and, imperfectly, a man’s shirt, hovered in the background asking if anything was the matter.

“Oh,” Blake said. “I’d forgot. I don’t have anybody to talk to here. What time is it there?”

“S’all right, Roj,” Vila said soothingly. “We’d only just got home anyway. You don’t look happy.”

“Well, it’s Avon,” Blake said. “He’s made ducks and drakes of the place. I suppose I can’t say it’s worse than it was before, but…! There doesn’t seem to be any law enforcement presence other than to stop people from murdering one another in the streets. Absolute permissiveness…”

“Well, yeh,” Vila said. “That’s how you get people to like you. Tell them to eat cake at the circus.”

“But he’s a dictator! Why does he care if people like him? D’you know, the other day—I’ve got a job now, by the way, Corresponding Secretary of the New Freedom Party. When I told Avon, he just laughed and said that in the Enterprise Society everyone is encouraged to work. And then he went over to Orac and printed me out an invoice, said that he was glad to have someone to give it to. It was for two hundred thirty eight credits, for a series of demonstrations over the past three months. I pointed out that they had all been perfectly legal demonstrations, and he said of course they were, he’d be dunning me for court costs otherwise, so I asked him what the hell the bill was for.”

“User fees, innit?”

“That’s what he said. And I asked him what that meant, and he said, grass seed for the Olag Gan Memorial Park across the road from the Palace. Speaking of plants, by the way, why is it that I can’t step three feet without a boy trying to sell me tropical fruit?”

“School leavers,” Vila said.

“But, they can’t be more than fourteen!”

“How much education d’you think Delta kids had, back Before in the Airshed Regime? It’s a job training scheme, for kids who don’t want to stay on for Uni or the Polly, or work in a factory or a hydroponics tower or be office juniors,” Vila said.

“And, you know, it was the damnedest thing, there was a protester giving a political speech, and afterwards the policeman announced….”

“Where there was going to be free beer. Yeah, that was one of my better ideas.”

If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man. (Mark Twain, “Puddinhead Wilson”)

The library wasn’t free, but the monthly subscription, calculated on a sliding scale, was affordable enough for Blake to catch up on his reading. He tried to be frugal, with the goal of saving up enough money to refund to Avon the full amount of his Civil List pension. In the form of many, many bags of very small coins. Preferably sent postage-due.

One day, he passed a boy sitting cross-legged on the curb next to a noisy cardboard box. On inspection, the box proved to be full of puppies. One of them bounded out and stood on its hind legs, embracing Blake’s leg.

“Real friendly, that one,” the boy said. “Hugs everybody.”

“Are they all right?” Blake said. The puppies looked flourishing enough, with bright eyes and plump furry bodies, but with short legs. “Awfully close to the ground.”

“They’re fine,” the boy said. “That’s what this sort’s supposed to look like. I’ve got to sell ‘em all today, otherwise they’ll be put down. Taken out and drowned,” he said, with Restal-worthy pathos.

Blake sighed. “How much for this amiable chap?”

The boy laced his fingers together, cracked the knuckles, and said, “Fifty credits! Purebred! Royal dogs, them Wish Cookies was in the old days.”

“Pull the other one, it’s got bells on it! You can’t tell me that the dogs aren’t worth anything and need to be rescued one minute, then turn around and tell me the next minute that they’re worth their weight in crystals. I’ll give you twenty.”

Thirty credits lighter for the encounter, Blake passed a pet shop on his way home with the dog in his arms. He was able to buy a collar and lead, some toys, and a few cans of dog food, arranging for delivery of a bed and a larger supply of food. He was pretty sure there were some plastic bowls in the kitchen that could be used for food and water.

He was not surprised at all about having to fork over ten credits for the tax stamp on his dog license.

“Why the hell didn’t you find him?” Avon asked Orac. “He wasn’t under any sort of concealment. Yes, there are a good many inhabited planets, but it’s precisely the sort of research that you claim as your forte.”

“I knew it wouldn’t turn out well,” Orac said.

“You’ll have to let me be the judge of that.”

“You carbon-based forms are always whining, ‘I’m only human.’ A clear admission that to be human is to lack judgment. And which of us has precognitive powers, then?”

These violent delights have violent ends/Like fire and powder which, as they kiss, consume (Romeo and Juliet)

Blake woke up with a start, and looked for the source of the thin, mechanical whine that had awakened him. Blake sat up and saw that Avon, dressed in a shirt and trousers made of some kind of thin, stretchy knitted stuff, was operating a rowing machine and watching a news broadcast with the sound turned off and a caption crawl at the bottom of the screen. Blake enjoyed the spectacle for a minute. Avon turned off the machines and climbed back into bed.

“Suits you,” Blake said, stroking down Avon’s back. “The sports kit, I mean. You looked rather silly puffing away in your invisible boat.”

“It’s very good exercise,” Avon said, patting his midsection with proprietary accusation. “There’s a fully kitted-out gym in the south wing, but I seldom get there. Sometimes when there’s a Foreign Service briefing, Cally will lead the senior staff in those exercises of hers.”

Blake bent down to collect the post from the doormat of his new flat, located in an Architectural Development Area. Blake couldn’t help thinking of it as a Delta precinct, and expecting knife-wielding Dreamheads to lurk around every corner.

At first he thought it was positively pre-Atomic for so much of communication to take place on paper. But, if he were in Avon’s shoes, not only would they have lower heels, but he probably wouldn’t want to allow unrestricted Tarial access either. Cally pointed out that the postal carrier positions were undemanding and well-suited to rehabilitated mutoids and released political prisoners. He flipped through the limited amount of news in the newspaper, shook his head at the degree and kind of rubbish in the plethora of ads, and then scowled at the coverage of the previous night’s charity ball, resolved to give Avon a piece of his mind the following day.

Blake flashed his Central Office Access badge, and the palace guards waved him through.

“I didn’t enjoy finding it out in the gutter press,” Blake told Avon, thinking that poor-quality journalism was playing far too great a part in his life lately. “Who is that girl? The tall blonde you were photographed with?”

“She’s my bodyguard, you great lump,” Avon said. “Her name’s Soolin. She’s from Darlon-IV, which apparently is a good place to be *from.* You’d be amazed how much ordnance she can pack into an evening gown.”

“Even if you didn’t feel comfortable inviting me as your companion…yes, yes, I know, the conservative element to be placated, you’ve told me often enough…Hal Mellanby was the guest of honor! I would have enjoyed meeting him!”

“And so you shall. He’s booked in to the best medcen in the Terran Domes to get his vision sorted out. They made a dog’s breakfast of your legs at that place you landed, I’ve seen your medical records.”

“They were very kind,” Blake said, waiting for a connection more official than a comma splice to appear between the two sentences. “They devoted scarce resources to a stranger.”

“I daresay. But let modern medicine have a go. You’ll be sharing a room with Mellanby, you’ll have all the time in the world to chat.”

You have filled my cup with lumps of sugar. I have asked for bread and butter. You have given me cake.

“Two-thirty on Wednesday,” Blake told Soolin. “He said that you’ll say it’s Ferro-Igneous Manufacturers, but that if you look closer you’ll see that they canceled so they can co-sponsor the reception with the Aromatic Esters Guild.”

Soolin updated the appointment file, then returned to her earlier task (mapping the route to the Aromatic Esters Guild reception in order to put a sniper on every rooftop someone else might). She suspected that the largest group actually wanting to assassinate the President was the civil service. In literal terms, it might be silly to keep a dog and bark yourself, but at least the dog didn’t mind, and indeed might enjoy a productive exchange of barks. The agencies that were the surprised recipients of Avon’s unscheduled forays outside the Palace were never grateful for the generous insights into how he would do everything better if he had their job.

“And what should I have the kitchen send up for lunch?” Soolin asked. Blake started to say, “Oh, anything,” but remembered in time to tell her to leave off the tomatoes. If the ample serving of bangers and mash was intended as an insult, it was an ineffective one; Blake enjoyed it thoroughly. (Avon had a plate of gravlax with watercress and cucumbers, and guava sorbet rather than Blake’s apple-and-bramble pie.)

“Why did we never do this before?” Blake asked. He always thought that it would have been preferable to have more time between lunch and bedtime, but he recognized that it was something of a luxury for Avon to find any time at all for their liaison.

“It would have put me in a false position, when I hadn’t the means to leave, and you controlled the Liberator.”

“Well, by the same token, doesn’t this put me in a false position?” Sometimes—often—Blake felt like a little milliner, kept by an affluent industrialist who seldom found the time to drop by the pied-a-terre. But at least the milliner could go off and make some hats.

“Of course it does,” Avon said. “But that’s your lookout.”

You are a lady—and wherever ladies are, is Hell (Man and Superman)

“You should feel right at home,” the guard said. She was plain, snub-nosed, and hadn’t even bothered to have her uniform tailored or the gray in her hair tinted. “They put up a dome just for you. You needn’t worry, no one can get at you there, there’s plenty of security. And you’ll have a house of your own. Each of you. Fully stocked, with deliveries laid on regularly.”

Servalan suspected that Avon had hand-picked the guards, to make sure that only the women were heterosexual. It would be just like him.

She was also fairly sure that he had been the source of the order that she go into exile without any of her possessions. None of the furs, the gowns, the footwear hand-stitched from the hides of endangered species. And, more to the point, none of the jewels that could serve as flight capital as well as ornament. When they frog-marched her onto the Londinium, they strip-searched her, and took away her clothes. They gave her a paper gown, with ties that irritatingly failed to tie, for the trip to her cell.

The cell had stainless steel walls, a stainless steel sanitary unit behind a half-wall, a stainless steel shelf bolted to the wall and a stool, ditto and ditto. The stainless steel bunk had a foam mattress glued to it. As for the sheets…Servalan would have fired or perhaps exiled any parlormaid who used anything that rough on the Presidential Palace’s dishware or bric-a-brac.

A section of the wall had a vertical seam; looking closer, Servalan saw that it opened up with a press of her hand. There was a rail, which was only a foot wide but didn’t need to be any wider because it held nothing but half-a-dozen long, shapeless grey-beige dresses (three short-sleeved, three long), a dressing gown that looked like teddy bear fur, and a lime-green puffa jacket. Underneath the rail were two pairs of stout brown brogues. There were also cubicles stacked with cotton underwear, ankle socks, and a few crimplene nightdresses.

Every cell had a hard copy, bound in white artificial leather with gold tooling, of the deluxe Human Races Scriptures: Kerr Avon Version, containing the Douai Bible, Koran, Book of Mormon, Science and Health With Keys to the Scriptures, the Diamond Sutra, the Bhavagad-Gita, Dianetics, Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the Analects of Confucius, with bound-in ribbon bookmarks and an integral magnifier for the very small type.

Servalan lingered as long as she could over the ritual of dressing, but she couldn’t figure out how to refresh her makeup with the contents of the shelf between the sink and the six-inch-square metal mirror (a tin of tooth powder, a toothbrush, a cake of coarse soap, and a wooden comb).

“Better hurry up!” the guard said cheerfully. “Nearly time for dinner!”

“Dinner? It’s scarcely teatime,” Servalan said, her heart sinking as she realized that cocktail hour was not even a possibility.

“Got to get it sorted before the end of the shift!” Servalan looked around her cell, but it was void of blunt spoons.

They went past other cells, which had empty suitcases stacked in the corridor in front of the cell doors.

There were about two dozen prisoners. Servalan reassured herself that, as the only woman, she would be the cynosure of all eyes, the capricious monarch of a harem (although none of her fellow prisoners was youthful or attractive enough to last a minute as a staff officer).

By the time Servalan got to the Mess Hall, all the seats at the large table in the center of the room were taken. She commandeered a smaller table, reminding herself that wherever The MacGregor sits is the head of the table. After the stew of mutton and white beans there was a batter pudding with squares of some kind of fruit that had bled throughout. “Jolly good!” said ci-devant General Mivox. “Pig’s bum! Just like at boarding school!” The men around him laughed nostalgically.

Servalan cleared her throat and raised her voice. “*I *didn’t go to boarding school,” she said.

No one paid the slightest attention.

After the twenty minutes allotted for the meal, the prisoners were marched to the Muster Room, which had a samovar of cocoa, several small square tables, a vizscreen, a basket of rederiter tabs, and shelves of worn-looking games and jigsaw puzzles. Servalan was certain that each puzzle lacked a few critical pieces, with a guard detailed to prune any that had managed to arrive complete.

Another guard read out the official proclamation of perpetual exile on Epinal, and put up slides of the prison dome. It went without saying that, since Epinal lacked a breathable atmosphere and the inhabitants were likely to shoot any humanoid on sight purely on principle, there was not much to be achieved by escaping from the terraformed dome.

Engines started to grind and throb. “That’s it, then,” said a guard. “Have a look as we take off, last time you’ll ever see Earth.”

“Oh, no,” Servalan said. “I’ll be back.”

“I’ll be spending more time in T-D,” Cally said, “So I suppose I’d better get some…” Cally paused, trying to remember which one was civilian clothes and which one was a warlike religious leader. “Mufti!” she said triumphantly.

“Of course,” Soolin told the vizscreen. “Are you busy on Wednesday morning? I’d be glad to take you round the shops.”

As a senior Foreign Service officer, Cally wore a dark green uniform, with four rings of gold braid on each sleeve, and a gold cord slung from her left epaulette and running across her body. She had just returned from a tour of agrarian worlds, which tended to be conservative, so she had her uniforms made up with the optional mid-calf-length skirt and laced boots.

“I daresay you’re sick of green,” Soolin said. “Pity, it’s quite fashionable this season. But then so are pastels.” She paused to think. “I don’t suppose you can analyze anything as silly as fashion with logical principles, but everyone seems to be mad keen to distinguish between men and women. They wear dark colors, we wear light ones. Everyone wears trousers and boots for day, it’s much more practical, but blokes wear long jackets so we wear bum-freezers! And they wear cami-knickers underneath, so we wear bras and pants.” She didn’t think that a brassiere did much for Cally, or vice versa, but kept her counsel.

Cally bought an evening dress with ruffled cap sleeves and a water-color print; she said that Jenna had had one rather like it, on the Liberator, and Cally admired it. She bought a mauve trouser suit with flared trousers, and a light blue tweed one with tight trousers, and an assortment of blouses and jumpers; she had a lifetime supply of Enterprise Party scarves.

Armed with shopping bags, they sat down in the Palm Garden, where Soolin was well-known. The waiter immediately brought a huge pot of tea, an oval platter of sandwiches, and a three-tiered cake stand.

“Lovely!” Cally said, munching on a triangle of egg mayonnaise. “I forgot to eat lunch.”

Soolin hated people who forget meals.

“I daresay yours must be a difficult job,” Cally said.

“Very diplomatic! But that’s what I’d expect from a diplomat.” Soolin pushed up her scarf to reveal one of the clips. It was a large oval, in shiny lavender enamel, and it looked out of place with her well-tailored ensemble in fine broadcloth. “It was early days,” she said. “And I don’t know whose idea these silly scarves were. The intercom went, and Avon asked me if I had any nail varnish in my desk. I told him of course I did, one silver, one lavender, and one crimson. He told me to come into his office and bring the lavender varnish. He opened up his hand, and inside it were two big oval diamonds—they must have been earrings at one time, and I can guess whose!—but he’d had a pin back and a scarf clip put on them. He put them down on his desk, opened up the nail varnish, and painted it onto the diamonds. After it dried, he handed them to me and said that if it all went tits-up and I could get away at least I’d have something to be going on with.” She spread jam on a crumpet. “So, you see, I take my job very seriously.”

They looked like trees walking around. (The Gospel According to Mark)

When Blake woke up after surgery, after he stopped shivering uncontrollably, pulled the covers up to his neck and then irritably pushed them down again, he found that he had been moved from the operating room to a large room with two hospital beds. He rather wished that he had asked to stay awake to watch the surgery—it would have been interesting—but perhaps there was a digital record he could view later.
Blake’s bed was closer to the window. There was a translucent curtain between his bed and the other one. He peeked around the edge, and saw a man he surmised was Hal Mellanby. There were two teenage girls, one black and one blonde, sitting at his bedside.

“Dr. Mellanby!” Blake said. “It’s an honor to meet you at last.”

“Same here, Mr. Blake.”

“Call me Roj,” Blake said, a little sad that that would make one person in the universe who did so.

“Dad’s name is Hal,” the black girl said. “He doesn’t stand on ceremony.”

“That’s Dayna,” Mellanby said. “And that’s her sister Lauren over there.”

“Dad’s just guessing,” Dayna said. “It’s been so long since he could really see us, you know, that he’s acting on very old memories.”

“Kids!” Hal said. “Who’d have ‘em, eh?”

This was not a path Blake wanted to go down, but fortunately he was taken off the hook by the arrival of two doctors, a nurse, and physical therapist. The nurse whisked away the covers. The physical therapist beckoned to Blake, who slowly scooted on his bottom to the edge of the bed, turned around, and was startled by how much faster his legs worked than he was used to. The obbligato of pain in his left knee—Blake had thought of it as a steam whistle—had shut off.

Blake slung one arm around the shoulders of each doctor, and they left the room, although Blake sometimes found himself charging ahead, then slowing down for fear of tripping, which made him more likely to trip.

They went back to the room. The doctors ran scanners over him until he felt like a theramin, and pronounced themselves satisfied but said that Blake should stay for a couple more days of monitoring and therapy.
When they weren’t being treated, Blake and Mellanby often strolled through the lush and beautifully landscaped grounds of the hospital.

“I can’t get over it,” Mellanby said. “Seeing through my own eyes instead of the sensor visor. Having that third dimension.”

“What they used to call miraculous, eh?”

“No, it’s just weird. Having to learn how to see, when everybody else just takes it for granted. It’s a reminder, I guess, that there’s always another layer lurking back behind of what we can see.”

“Well, there’s space and time…I suppose that all the shadows of our past actions are there, but we have a blind spot for them.” Or, he thought, we can only hope that our experiences merely made us half-blind as Travis, not blind as Tiresias. Or Oedipus.

“Your ‘friend’ hasn’t been around to visit,” Mellanby said.

“I don’t think he ever goes much of anywhere, just holes up in the Palace reading bluebooks and doing paperwork. I can’t fault his work ethic, but of course I’d rather he spent his time in sordid dissipation. I mean, if you’re going in the wrong direction, there’s no point in getting up early and sprinting.”

“Kind of a mixed marriage, huh, you two?” Mellanby asked. “Bedfellows make straaaange politics. One thing when you were thrown together like that on the Liberator, but now it’s just hard to figure out.”

“I feel a bit ratty talking behind his back, considering that I am—that we both—are beholden to him for being here in this antiseptic palace! We're in love with each other, but we never seem to agree on anything. But, actually we weren’t lovers on the Liberator, all that didn’t start up until I got back to Earth.”

“Yeah, but we’re playing in the big leagues now,” Mellanby said. “You want to shape history, don’t you? Take the things that are wrong and set them right? So that means thinking about what needs to be done, not just personal relationships and who likes who or doesn’t. I got enough of that from my girls when they were in Junior School.”

“Do you think the people would support another regime change, so soon?”

“As a movement, we Progressives have to prove to them that they should.”

“Sometimes I find myself thinking that I might get away with assassinating Avon,” Blake said, half to himself. “It would depend on the quality of the conspiracy, of course. And as for a purely personal murder, it seems a perverse incentive that I’d be more likely to get away with it than any lesser crime committed against a man who has his own police force.”

Mellanby shook his head. “My wife’s been gone a long time, so maybe I’m remembering it all too rosy, but that doesn’t sound like a really healthy relationship to me.”

“I can’t tell you how glad I am to see you so well and so happy,” Blake said, “Jenna…or, should I say, Admiral Stannis.” He raised his glass, glad that he could get a reservation at such a smart restaurant on short notice. (What was now known as the Palace Quarter abouended in elegant restaurants and extortionate boutiques.) “Shall we drink to the old days?”

Jenna’s gin and tonic sloshed as she slammed the stemmed glass down on the thick damask of the tablecloth. “No, I won’t!” she said. “The present administration isn’t perfect of course—nothing is! Never has been!” But you’re mad if you think it isn’t better for us—and people everywhere--to be able to live without fear, in peace and prosperity, than it was when we were running for our lives up and down the dregs of the galaxy. If I go back to trading—and I might, I’d like to make some real money for a change—I’m glad it’s in a good atmosphere for business. And sooner or later, there’ll be jobs for everyone who’s willing to get off his bottom and work.”

“He’d be glad to hear that he’d get at least one vote. If he ever held a free election.”

Jenna shrugged. “Depends on who the opponent is. It isn’t as if I liked him—never did, probably never shall—but you’ve got to consider what he’s done. People feel safe now. They can speak their minds…”
“Because he’s made sure that it doesn’t matter what they say!”

“Surely you can’t make him responsible for changing human nature. There have always been a few of your kind about—idealists—and sometimes they leap up on a plinth and give a beautiful speech and find that they’re at the head of a parade. Sometimes it turns out that they’re at the head of an invasion force. It’s in the lap of the gods if they win or lose.”

Blake looked down at the table. “Let’s not quarrel! Thank goodness that you’re doing so well. I’ve been out of touch,” he said. “About fashion as well as other things. Does that” (meaning the large diamond heart clasped by gold hands on her left hand) mean that congratulations are in order? To the lucky chap, I mean.”

Jenna smiled. She took a holo out of her handbag. “Tyl Bragelson. His family owns a big chain of multiple shops, here and on other planets. He’s dreadfully jealous of Zen, of course, but I told him he’ll just have to get over it!”

Blake realized that he had been quite, quite wrong as to who was his rival for the Liberator—and, furthermore, she had prevailed.

Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge.

Avon (in shirtsleeves, his jacket arranged on the back of his desk chair) looked up from the pile of various forms of digital and hard-copy work on his desk, smiled at Blake, and smiled again with relief when he deposited a very large file into his Out tray. He knew it was pointless—indeed, counterproductive—to complain to Blake about just how much work he had, because then Blake would only offer to take it off his hands.

“When are you going to hold elections?” Blake asked. “You can’t put it off forever.”

Avon stretched out a hand toward the large white book on his desk. “The Israelites spent forty years wandering in the wilderness. One can’t rule out the possibility that one of your ancestors was navigating, but it is believed that God recognized that you can’t enslave a man and then, out of the blue, tell him that he’s free.”

“You expect to cling to the greasy pole for four decades?”

Avon shrugged. “I’m sure I’ll be sick of it long before then.”

“And are you sick of me?” Blake asked.

“Not in the least,” Avon said.

When the door closed behind them, Blake pushed Avon down onto the bed (Avon’s eyebrows rose, but he didn’t say anything) and knelt over him, precariously crosswise, to dispense with Avon’s shirt. He immediately moved on to wrenching open Avon’s belt and unbuttoning his fly. Avon wriggled cooperatively, but Blake plunked him back down with a hand on his chest.

Blake took a bitter pleasure (like a burnt croissant) in the reversal. He was powerless but damn well not impotent. On the Liberator, if Avon’s prick had burst into flames when he happened to be sitting on a fire extinguisher, he would have rejected Blake’s mildest suggestion about the remedy.

Now, however, it seemed that there was nothing Blake could suggest that would be too outré. Avon demonstrated an interest in elaborate bindings that suggested experience in small-press publishing, and an enthusiasm for being flattened and pounded that hinted at happy memories of a past life as a veal cutlet.

“No, carry on,” Avon said. “It’s so rare for anything that happens in this office to genuinely surprise me.”

“Everything off but the boots,” Blake said. “Naked, you wouldn’t be exposed enough.”

“All right,” Avon said, with a slight quirk of a smile. He started to sit up to facilitate the process.

“Leave them on,” Blake said.

“The topology is impossible,” Avon told him. “That might work if the bottoms of the trousers were flared, but they’re quite tapered.”

Blake opened his pocketknife, and sliced away until he had destroyed enough custom tailoring to start ripping.

“Are you afraid of me?” Blake asked.

“No,” Avon said, so simply that Blake not only believed him but thought that, if it were a play, the audience would have applauded. And thought that, for once in his life, Avon was actually telling the truth.

Avon took a long breath. “You know what I want to know,” he told Orac.

“Of course I know. But I’ve been busy, haven’t had a moment for trivia, and at any rate isn’t it an abuse of office to direct efforts that ought to be directed to the public fisc to…”

“Just tell me the truth,” Avon said.

“The truth? You can’t handle the truth. It’s not my fault you won’t like it,” Orac said, obediently delivering the requested data and appending an explanation to the stark address. “At any rate, you must have suspected…”

Avon sat stunned for a little while, then started to laugh.

They have never understood, no reason that they would, but if anybody could…how you have to finish the hat (“Sunday in the Park With George”)

“Oh!” Avon said, rubbing his head up and down against Blake’s shoulder, and stretching. “I was asleep,” he said, in the tone of voice of a man saying, “There’s a rhinoceros doing the Rose Adagio on the hearthrug.”
“Yes,” Blake said, “I expect it’s time for us to get ready for the reception. I’ve had a shower, while you were asleep.” He was going to say something about there still being plenty of hot water left, and checked himself, realizing that it was one of the most luxurious hotels in the T-D, there would be enough hot water to bathe a squadron and then wash the Liberator.

“Yes,” Avon said. “You smell like soap. Come back to bed, stop prowling.”

“I hope I can rely on your friends for basic standards of civilized behavior…”

“I doubt that,” Avon said. “They’re all too rich to bother. And they’re just allies, possibly temporary ones, and no friends of mine.”

As he dressed, Blake continued, angrily, “I can’t shake off those foul accusations, although there wasn’t a grain of truth in them. But no one seems to mind a bit that you actually did try to embezzle all that money.”
“That’s because they know damn well that if you left them alone in a room with a well-filled wallet, they’d be tempted and probably more than that, but if you left them alone with a choirboy, the only thing they’d worry about is how much tropical fruit the lad would manage to unload on them. The reason those accusations were made in the first place was to give your enemies a chance to project all their fears onto you.” In an impressive three minutes, Avon got into his sashed and bemedaled full-dress uniform.

“Come on,” he said, giving a finishing tug to Blake’s tuxedo bow tie. Blake was willing to forgo NFP colors, but there was no hope of getting him into an Enterprise Party scarf. They compromised on a pre-Atomic-style formal suit for him. “Time to go and have bloated industrialists bribe me. Fortunately for me they’re too stupid to realize that they wouldn’t even get a look-in if I weren’t already prepared to do what they want. Between that and whatever isn’t nailed down so I can steal it, I’ll be well provided for should regime change occur.”

“That’s not funny.”

“It’s not a joke, I’m perfectly serious,” Avon said. “After all, there are some individuals to whom I feel I owe a duty of candor.” (To himself, Avon admitted that this category comprised one individual; but then, there was no point telling Orac anything, it had independent sources of information and inevitably put the worst construction on everything.”

“That’s it,” Blake said. “I’m off. For good.”

“Not again?” Avon said.

“I’m quite serious,” Blake said. “I simply can’t go on ignoring who, what, you’ve let yourself become. My personal feelings can’t go on outweighing what I know is morally right. At least the tyranny of the Federation had some dignity to it. For all the venality and self-serving, some of *their* crimes at least were motivated by a genuine hatred of freedom and independent thought, not just cynicism and ‘what’s in it for me’ and ‘I’m all right, Jack.’”

“Oh, did you want to give me a list of people to be imprisoned or tortured or murdered just so you and your allies can enjoy the spectacle of martyrdom? Or is it just your rivals you want out of the way?”

“This is not about my political ambitions—which I don’t believe you will be able to stifle forever, by the by—but about what you’ve done to our homeland. You’ve prevented any kind of meaningful debate, set up barriers to independent thought—“

“Blake, most people don’t have independent thoughts. They want someone to do their thinking for them. I give them that, and I make it possible for most people to just get on with things and lead placid lives.”

“How can you despise people? An entire species…”

“So would you, if you’d actually pay the slightest attention to them instead of worshipping your noble abstractions.”

Blake left quietly.

Avon sat on the bed for a few minutes. Then he called Soolin. “Plan B,” he said.

“Right,” she said, changing out of an unobtrusive green cocktail dress suitable for working security detail and into a gold-bedecked purple sari. She rearranged her coiffure to accommodate a paste copy of one of the tiaras in the State Jewels.

“Oi!” said one of the workmen carrying a very large carton through door of Servalan’s cottage. “We’re here for the bed.”

“Excuse me?” Servalan said.

“Yeh. This here’s a bunk bed. Well, it will be once we put it together. Seems that accommodations for women are a bit lacking, so you’ll be getting a roommate. That’ll be nice, won’t it? Girls together? You can braid each other’s hair and that.”

Together we can make it to the end of the line/Forever’s gonna start tonight (“Total Eclipse of the Heart”)

The doorbell buzzed. Blake looked at the monitor, vaguely recognizing the handsome young man nattily dressed in a white uniform with lines of gold buttons. (He thought that Blake might get a kick out of uniforms—from his side, of course, not the unfortunately attractive Federation kit, but he refused to be seen in the ridiculous light-blue camouflage uniform more often than strictly necessary.)

“Hullo,” the visitor said. “I’m Del Tarrant. May I come up?”

“Of course,” Blake said, feeling greatly at a disadvantage. He was slopping around his flat, trying to catch up with the tangled financial affairs of the People’s Party of Xaranor, a Freedom Party affiliate. Blake wore an old pair of trousers (he was surprised to realize that he’d been on Earth long enough to *have* an old pair of trousers), a singlet, and a cardigan that bore the stigmata of his early experiments in cooking.

Olag bounded over, a disgusting old tennis ball in his mouth, and slobbered on Tarrant’s uniform.

“I am sorry. I don’t know how to talk him out of that,” Blake said.

“Quite all right. You see, I’m here to talk you into something. I’m a Lieutenant Commander in the Astronautical Branch of the Defense Forces. I was FSA-trained, you see, pre-War, but I had my differences with the regime. Usually being a deserter would be something of an obstacle to high military rank but, well, it’s a funny old world, isn’t it?”

Blake returned to the couch with a couple of bottles of beer, opened them, and clinked his bottle against Tarrant’s.

“Cheers!” Tarrant said. “I didn’t do it full-time, or for long, but before I, well, went, I had some surveillance assignments. Your operations were supposed to be kept top-secret from the general public, but those of us with access to the information were fascinated. Not all for the same reasons, of course. But the more I saw, the more admiration I had for you. A man of principle. A man who was willing to risk everything for what’s right, and who racked up some impressive successes with very few resources. And some--” (he grimaced) “--unpromising material.”

Blake noticed that the beer bottles had been abandoned to the small table in front of the sofa, and that Tarrant was sitting very close to him. And leaning in.

“Of course,” Tarrant said, “We had a lot of visual output. So I could see that you’re a damned attractive man. And that voice! I played some of the voice recordings over and over. Said that I was looking for location clues, of course. But that’s not why.”

Blake wondered if there were alternative explanations for the presence of Tarrant’s hand on his upper thigh. Blake knew that if he saw Tarrant in a bar, he probably wouldn’t even bother to offer him a drink, because he’d expect a dusty answer from someone so much younger and better adapted to life in T-D.

“And now you’re back on the market again. I’ve never been shy about asking for what I want. Faint heart ne’er won fair lady, and vice versa,” Tarrant said. The presence of his hand between Blake’s legs, and his arm around Blake’s shoulders, really seemed to narrow the possible explanations even further.

“I can’t see you tomorrow—maneuvers and de-brief—but could we have dinner on Thursday?”

“Of course,” Blake said once again. He closed the door gently, still vibrating from Tarrant’s parting kiss. Yes, he supposed, he *was* a hero. And why shouldn’t he be rewarded for it? Shouldn’t *somebody* be appreciative?

He called for Olag. “C’mon, boy,” he said. “Let’s have a walk.” Perhaps, he thought, there’s a graveyard we can walk past and whistle.

Avon clicked off the gossip column and logged out of the tabloid. “Tarrant!” he said.

“Tarrant is young, handsome, and brave,” Soolin said condolingly. “Three very good reasons to dislike anyone.”

“A morsel cold on Caesar’s trencher, that’s all I have to say about *that*” Avon said, continuing to grumble subverbally.

XANDER: She clings. She’s sort of needy. She’s also really greedy.
ANYA: His eyes are beady.
XANDER: This is MY verse, HELLO!
(“Once More With Feeling”)

Gradually, Blake was making acquaintances at least, and perhaps friends. In one sense, it was reassuring that people who knew him only as one of Olag’s Dads liked him. In another way, it seemed like yet another erasure of his history. One whose name was written in water, although so far, despite the best imperial efforts, there wasn’t a tombstone to engrave it on.
It was only a Friendly, but Blake was glad to have a pair of tickets for the match; if he had ever been to a football stadium, it was before he could remember it. But the day did not start well. At first glimpse, he was glad to see that Del was wearing a normal football scarf tied around his neck, not one of those ridiculous backwards-shawl numbers. On second glance, however, he realized that it was a Wargs scarf.

“Dear god, Del, you’ll get us killed with that thing.”

“But everyone at FSA supported the Wargs, and I’m not going to stop now.” Tarrant shrugged, and took off the scarf and put it in his pocket. “Let’s not quarrel about anything so silly, Roj.” He put his arm around Blake.

Blake backed away, with a slight “pas devant les enfants” gesture. “What’s the matter?” Tarrant said. “Are you ashamed of me?”

“Of course not!” Blake said. “I’m ashamed of my neighbors. Or, rather, not entirely convinced how proud I should be of them.”

“Let’s go back to your flat, then,” Tarrant said. “Watch the match on broadcast…”

The door opened. Servalan stood up and spun toward the door, fingernails extended to a possible weapon should she have to defend her life.

Then she saw who the guard was shepherding. She moved back from the small table and the two armchairs, climbed the ladder, and staked her claim to the top bunk.

“Hullo, Bartholomew,” she said.

Cally sighed. “This isn’t the best time to do this, of course, Roj,” she said. It was just after midnight. The car park at the shopping precinct was nearly deserted, but still brightly lit.

“I do realize,” Blake said. “And thank you. There was no one else I could turn to, you see. I’m embarrassed that Del will find out. Perhaps Jenna… although both of you are off-world so often. And…even if you were both here, well, I think you’ll be more patient than she would be.”

“It’s rather like the Liberator!” she said brightly. “First of all, trigger the voice acceptance recorder…there, next to the cigarette lighter. I’ll show you how to operate on full manual, eventually, because you might be off-world where the vehicles are less sophisticated.”

Just another piece of Terran Dome backwardness. Cally fondly remembered the celebration of her clone-pod Dozenth: first all of them seated in a circle in the huge vehicle in the amphitheater, operating it smoothly with their minds in unison; then, at the signal, the individual cars breaking apart like wedges of shortbread, each clone taking manual control of her own chariette and racing the others. Cally came in third.

She says that I’m her hero (My hero! She says)/I’m perfect, she swears (you’re perfect, goddammit!) (Follies, “The God Why Don’t You Love Me, Oh You Do, I’ll See You Later, Blues”)

Blake glanced down, terror in his heart. Yes, he had been right when he noticed that the ring on Tarrant’s hand wasn’t there anymore. Weeks earlier, he asked his P.A. DorLeetha if rings with a silver heart in two little hands were common. She said they were, and if the crown on the heart pointed down toward your fingernail, it meant you were fancy-free, but if it pointed up it meant that your own heart was engaged. And speaking of that, she said, lots of people used gold ones with a diamond as an engagement ring. (A memory of Jenna flashed back.) Not that two blokes could get married, of course, but she said sometimes that made them faster to pile on the jewelry when they wouldn’t have to back it up at the Registry Office or, nowadays, in church.

Blake took both of Tarrant’s ringless hands in his. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m not giving you what you need, and it’s only going to get worse. We should pack it in, so you can find someone who really will make you happy.”

Olag ran over, panting. Tarrant, sublimating his impulses toward dog-kicking or worse, seized the tennis ball (whose texture had, if anything, deteriorated) and threw it at the fruit bowl, resulting in a satisfying splatter of guava pulp down the rug and all the way to the wall. “You’re giving me the elbow for not being enough like somebody you couldn’t get away from fast enough,” he said, poised at the door for his exit, wiping his hand on the wallpaper.

“But that’s my point, you see,” Blake said. “You ought to have someone better for you—someone better than a battered old crock with no sort of judgment about these things.”

The seventh meeting of the Government in Exile Preliminary Drafting Committee for the Constitutional Convention came to order at 11:13, which wasn’t bad for a 10:30 meeting.

Avalon sat at the head of the table. Her aide, Gervinus Speelbek (rivaling Cassius in physique and bonhomie), sat at her right hand. Blake wondered if every person in power, or on deck to achieve power, had an assistant echo. Travis had played that role for Servalan, Soolin apparently did for Avon, and Speelbek obviously intrigued to become the Richelieu of the successor regime.

“We’ve got to get *him* out of the way,” Avalon said, carefully omitting the name as if he would appear in a puff of smoke if mentioned. “Best-case scenario is to keep up the pressure for a general election at the earliest date. Bearing in mind that we mustn’t take for granted that we can win without a sound campaign strategy!”

“Oh, he’s not as bad as all that,” Blake said. “Of course his policies have been the worst thing for the Domes, and we need to fix that as soon as possible. But he could have had us all against the wall…”

“Not just you, you mean?” Speelbek said.

Blake cleared his throat and glared. “We mustn’t forget that the current regime has some accomplishments to its credit. Abolition of slavery, elimination of the grading system, free speech and free press. Pity about the stranglehold that religion is being allowed to resume. One would think that anyone being at all rational would look back at history and realize that religion has always been one of the greatest, if not the greatest, enemy of progress…”

Now it was Speelbek’s turn to glare. Blake looked closer. He realized that the hideous chunk of metal on his chest, that Blake had assumed was flaunted to show that Speelbek could afford a very large necklace, was in fact flaunted to show that he could afford a very large crucifix.

Blake made a note on his yellow pad: Get some new allies.

“We’ll have to focus on economic justice,” Avalon said. “Theoretically, trades unions are legal, but their membership figures are disgracefully low, they’ve got no bargaining power.”

“They’ve achieved a low level of trust,” Cally said. “They are widely perceived as greedy and corrupt.”

“As if greed had a bad reputation ‘round here,” Blake said bitterly.

“But that’s just the thing,” Avalon said. “Only among the wealthy, or those who’ve convinced themselves they will become wealthy. The question is what is to be done for—or by—the people at the bottom of the pyramid.”

“I’ve often wondered about the people displaced by all this rebuilding going on,” Blake said. “Where do they go?”

“I believe that the number of residents outside the Domes has grown significantly,” Cally said.

Speelbek cheered up again. He made a note on his yellow pad: Send representatives to register Outsiders to vote.

Posters and graffiti—often elaborately stenciled—represented an important mode of political discourse. Later historians surmised that it was because of the role of art students, with plenty of time on their hands, in insurrectionist circles.

NFP supporters stenciled the walls with a triangle, with an A at the apex and a B and C at the base, captioned “Hope:” A for Avalon, B for Blake, C for Cally. This symbol was frequently accompanied by an image of a long-nosed mongrel, lifting its leg over a Dome, captioned “Cur.”

One Tuesday, Avon exchanged his usual suit for a black polo-neck jersey, topped with a t-shirt printed with the “Cur” stencil, edited with the addition of a very, very big cock. The broadcast was otherwise the usual recitation of practicalities.

Blake, who couldn’t stop himself from watching the Tuesday broadcasts (although he was honest enough not to claim it was for vocational purposes), had to award Avon some style points.

When I try to organize, my little Force explodes (Emily Dickinson)

Blake reflected that his revolutionary predecessors were wrong: power grows from the mouth of a dustbin.

He went through the door of his constituency surgery, hung up his jacket, nodded thanks for the cup of tea handed over by DorLeetha (Blake brewed up in the afternoons), and sat down at the desk to sort through the various complaints.

Many of them involved dogs, because this was an area of pent-up demand. It was all very well if you had a dog of your own, but when you went off to work in the morning, and the wretched things barked (unlike Olag; Blake considered his loyal canine’s daytime behavior to be impeccable), then the neighbors would have something to say to the Borough Counselor. The primary source of complaints, however, was municipal rubbish collection.

The government had issued an official map of boroughs within the Domes, and permitted anyone who had 200 petition signatures and paid a C100 fee to the Electoral Board to run for Borough Counselor. Blake found it instructive, and often depressing, to gather the signatures, and he was by no means certain of election. Now, at his own expense (or rather, that of the Freedom Party) he maintained an office and paid an assistant. There was a weekly meeting with the bureaucrat assigned to the Region, and a monthly meeting of all the Borough Counselors with a SuperRegion Coordinator.

One of his proudest accomplishments was the Science Careers Initiative for Former Labor Grade Youth. He managed to get a small amount of funding to bring scientists to lecture and perform demonstrations at some of the rougher schools; arranged for school trips to the science museum; and brokered part-time jobs at laboratories, hospitals, and engineering firms.

The pilot program for election of Borough Counselors was officially declared a success. It was expanded to create a 500-member Parliament given the task of advising the President. Blake surmised that the size of the assembly, and the coalition government form, were cunningly chosen to prevent anything from ever actually getting done.

Blake looked at his calendar: Brats ‘n’ Rats at two. DorLeetha was long gone. She was a great admirer of Dayna Mellanby (Blake suspected this was because of the strong resemblance between the two), and had prevailed on Blake to write her a recommendation to the Polytechnic to prepare for T-D Aeronautic College, as Federation Space Academy was now called. It would have been even better if Tarrant had written her a recommendation, but Blake couldn’t bring himself to ask.

Dayna herself was now employed as a junior weapons designer at Mellanbys. Lauren was a student at the T-D Academy of Dramatic Arts (After joking to himself that Avon should certainly be the patron of TADA, Blake was astonished to see in a vizcast that Avon actually *was*.)

The seventeenth time that the Parliament, agreeing on something at last, petitioned for a domes-wide General Election, Avon acceded to the request. Despite his statement that if nominated he would not run, and if elected he would not serve, he managed to get a respectable number of votes. It was never determined how many of those were paid for, and it was hard to repose entire confidence in computer voting when the outgoing President was a computer expert.

Because of her name recognition on dozens of worlds, and because she was a photogenic young woman, Avalon headed the NFP ticket. There were 27 parties represented in the election. The NFP scraped a victory, although it was obvious that the four next most popular parties would have to be consulted to be able to govern effectively.

It was not necessary to turn Avon out of the Presidential Palace by force. In fact, when the electoral commission came to report the election results, and the news crews turned up to get a soundbite on his reactions, no one could find him at all. His clothes—and Orac—had vanished, there was no evidence of foul play, and a month later the lobby was as salubrious as ever. The new government just got on with things.

LOPAKHIN: So—goodbye. Time to go. We may turn up our noses at each other, but life goes on regardless. The only time my mind is at peace is when I work without stopping for hours at end. Then I feel I know why I’m here. (The Cherry Orchard, Act IV)

After three years as Vice President (of what was once again called Earth, on the advice of a re-branding agency), Blake often missed the Liberator days. Not the ever-present risk of immediate death, of course, or the moral dilemmas—but the feeling that the next day might take him to whatever new world could be reached at Standard by Twelve, where something exciting would happen. He couldn’t remember what, as either an activist for the first Freedom Party or the commander of the Liberator, he had expected to happen. Probably he thought that he would have died, either on Cygnus Alpha or before ever reaching it.

Most of the off-dome assignments went to Cally under her Extra-Terrestrial Bureau remit, but Blake had been assigned to set up a missile base and teleport station on Irkutsk The Third. Blake did not delude himself that this job was particularly important, but it was halfway through the election cycle, and contributions were urgently needed. The Renovation Coalition faced heavy and well-funded opposition. If the mission went well, he would get favorable lease terms. If it went very well, he’d even get some of the money back for the party coffers. It would certainly be needed. Blake chaired the Defense Appropriations Committee, and the latest proposals from Mellanby & Daughter were breathtaking.

The first item on his schedule for the Irkutsk mission was a tedious official dinner at a private home. There hadn’t been a photograph of Sebastian Melmotte in the file, which didn’t surprise Blake much. Billionaires were, by epithet, “reclusive,” just as serial killers were quiet and kept to themselves.

Blake arrived early, and the SecuriBot at his heels allowed him to wander through the grounds. (Irkutsk the Third was an Exterior World.) About half a kilometer from the chateau, there was a small house with the north wall made up of gigantic windows. He looked through the window and was surprised to see himself: the opposite wall was covered with mirrors, with a handrail attached at waist height. There was a long off-white leather sofa, a grand piano, and ranks of bookshelves surrounding what Blake assumed was a bedroom and ensuite bathroom. He could just glimpse what looked like a very big brass bed.
Still looking in the mirror, Blake could see a man approaching the house. The image resolved into a darkly clad man in middle years, averaged-sized, with a close-cropped fringe of beard seasoning his jawline. He still put stuff in his hair to make it wave.

“I knew you’d turn up sooner or later,” Avon said. Blake tried to look blasé.

“So you’re Sebastian Melmotte? Nice little holiday chalet you’ve got here,” Blake said, gesturing toward the main house.

“I live there. This is where I keep the protégés,” Avon said. “Suitable for artists—courtyard laid on for use of sculptors—writers, actors, and dancers. The scientists get to sleep in the main house with me. They’re more sensible.” Avon unlocked the door, walked through it, and Blake followed him. Avon turned on the lights. Blake sank into the beige leather sofa. Avon opened up an obsessively stocked drinks cabinet and handed him a snifter of thiurberry eau de vie.

“How are you getting on? I seldom bother with the foreign news. I can’t quite say that I found T-D a planet of brick and left it one of marble, but I don’t suppose you’ve come for the damage deposit,” Avon said. “Certainly you inherited a peaceful planet and a balanced budget. In fact, there would probably have been a surplus if you add back in the money I stole.”

“You’re obviously not short of a bob,” Blake said. “Why not give it back?”

“Not a chance in Hell,” Avon said.

“Perhaps we’ll just take it,” Blake said, nettled.

“You’d have to find it first, wouldn’t you? I’ve got better at hiding it since the old days.”

“What happened?” Blake said. “One day you’re master of all you survey, next day you’ve vanished.”

“I got tired of it,” Avon said. “It seemed that every day, there was another layer of people I had to go through just to get anything done. I came here because the climate’s good and ready cash is as good as a passport. That, and the patent bar is quite good. I spent the first couple of years in the laboratory, inventing things.”

“Those deflector shield patents were yours? I should have realized. Mellanby & Daughter have done very well by them. You know, Soolin never said a word about where you went. She’s still Head of Security for the Presidential Residence.”

“Cally got a bit of a promotion, but otherwise everyone except me is just where they used to be. I’m the only one who made a change. I hope King Ro at least sent you a chest of jewels as a campaign contribution.”

“Chance’d be a fine thing! Still, we do have a refueling station on Silmareno, and it’s quite popular for R&R. I went there myself, last year, for a holiday.”

“Well, I’m sure your mission here will succeed,” Avon said. “I’ve got more money by at least an order of magnitude than anyone in the nominal government, so they’re all terrified of me. If I tell them to jump, they will.”

“Kind of you to do me the favor. But I suppose I deserve it. You’ve no idea how many tedious meetings I had to attend—and stay until the bitter end—just to keep your assassination off the agenda.”

“I see that you executed Servalan,” Avon said, mentioning neither that he hadn’t done it, nor that, in the event, Anna wasn’t important enough to be killed.

“Not personally,” Blake said. “There was a plebiscite, you recall. So many people suffered under the Federation, and there was popular sentiment for it.”

“Yes,” Avon said. “You can always rely on the mob to be brutal. Well, you’re the one who has to suck up to them, not me. I daresay our past association is one thing that kept you from the top job,” Avon said, sounding far more satisfied than remorseful. "How do you like being second in command?"

“I like there being a democratically elected government very much. I like that we are working toward economic justice as well as freedom of thought.”

“But what did I do to constrain freedom of thought? I let people spout any bloody nonsense they liked, as long as they weren’t violent with it.”

“You let anyone who paid for the privilege do just as they liked, no matter how they treated their workers or how much havoc they caused to the environment. And you financed the whole thing with regressive taxes. Thank you very much for that; we’ve had to raise income taxes over and over again, which means that everyone with two vems to rub together is angry at us. And as for being vice president, well, I have my hopes for promotion in the next election cycle.”

“You’re older than Avalon, and you weren’t provident enough to include term limits in the constitution,” Avon said. “By the time you can get her to budge up, the voters will want a glossy new model, and the New Freedom Party will kick you out to fend for yourself. Has Tarrant any political ambitions, do you think?

“I’d rather be President, of course. The job of Vice President has been described, by someone who held it long ago, as not being worth a bucket of warm spit.”

“What he said was, ‘a pitcher,’” Avon said. “That’s much funnier.”

“Bucket,” Blake said.


“Off to the races again!” Blake said comfortably, finishing off the eau de vie. At first it was nearly as nasty as tomato juice, but it improved over the time it took to drink. He smiled.

He could see no shadow of a second parting.

A Conclusory Note from the Author: And there I leave you to, as it were, your expectations, my dear readers. You must decide if this is because they never again parted, or because Blake had the sun in his eyes. But then, how useful a precedent is a nineteenth-century novel about a work-shy snob and an empty-headed bitch? No one ever called Blake snobbish or lazy, or Avon empty-headed.