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When Blake agreed to serve a third term as Confederation President after a decade as ambassador, he'd allowed himself to do so on the condition that he take easy days when he could get them. He'd run himself into the ground his first two terms. A man in his forties could get away with that. A man in his sixties had to know better.

So today, he'd come home early, reviewed his messages, returned a few queries and determined the rest could wait. He had a quick supper and then retired to the common room to review the latest documents on the Atlay Restructuring.

Avon got home around the usual time, just after 20:00 hours -- but it was plain this was no usual evening. His scowl was set in stone. Without acknowledging Blake's presence, he marched through the suite to his office at the far end and closed the door behind him.

Well, Avon would talk when he was ready. Until then, best not to dwell on him. Blake cast his eyes back to the Atlay documents, but the details of the Tertiary Reform Provisions for Gubernatorial Colloquia refused to register properly. Today had been Avon's meeting with the Transmech Consortium. He'd prepared for it for weeks, so what had gone wrong? It galled him that these days that he worried so much about Avon. It galled Avon more, he knew.

#

Teeth clenched, Avon sat down at his desk and called up the Atariel Parallel Project's main screen. It requested his ID number for specs access. Now, could he do it off the top of his head? He knew it began with 035 -- that was the general RSO staff code. He started typing and let his fingers pick over the keys: 035-966-AT-47T222. Yes, looking at it, he could see that was correct.

He authorized transfer of the specs to his station, perturbed that some bright young tech had "improved" the layout of the menus. Then, he keyed transfer initiation.

Nothing happened.

He checked the initiation code against the double-coded hard copy he'd taken to keeping in his desk. The code was correct. So he went back to the authorization screen -- and stared in horror.

No files had transferred because he hadn't selected any files.

The new layout had tricked his eye into thinking the full package had been auto-selected. Except it hadn't been: the selectable items all read "0" when they should read "1." It was obvious as black and white. And it hadn't caused him a moment's confusion since he was five years old.

He selected the files and initiated transfer and let his head sink in his hands.

#

An hour after Avon had disappeared into his office, his door whirred open. From the common room, Blake watched him stalk into the kitchen, program his supper for assembly, then get out his medikit and inject his evening booster into his wrist.

Blake decided he might as well plunge in. "How was the meeting with Transmech Con?"

Avon glared at him. "When a contract between the Transmech suppliers and the Office of Remote Systems Oversight has been sealed, rest assured the Presidential Office will be informed through the proper channels." With a rapid precision, he closed up his medikit and arranged his supper. Then, seizing his plate, he retreated once more to his office.

The tone was much as Blake had expected, but the substance revealed quite a lot. No contract. And the emphasis on proper channels suggested that the conduct of the negotiation might be in doubt.

It didn't matter in the grand scheme. Transmech Con was one of three -- no, four? -- major materials suppliers that the RSO Office could contract with for the development of the Atarial Parallel network. It was probably the best but far from the only option. Avon knew that perfectly well. No, it wasn't Transmech that was bothering him. But if Avon wasn't talking, there was nothing Blake could do.

Well, perhaps one thing. With a certain reluctance, he accessed his list of RSO negotiators up for promotion. After a time, his eye fell on Dev Talvin, a man he'd known long ago on the Aquitar Project. Nice fellow, member of the Frontier Charity Club.

Which hadn't existed. It had been a false-memory cover for the AP Surveillance Network. So Talvin had been a Network spy. Maybe. He double-checked the files: no such record. But given the pervasive falsification of Federation records, that could mean anything.

There had to be another way round. Think back. Talvin was the brother of a tech who was a friend... of the sister of an old schoolmate of Blake's who was still working in Remote Systems Oversight. So with a little finessing, he should be able to get a personal assessment the man. He'd seemed a nice fellow -- as far as Blake could remember.

After practicing that sort of mental contortion on several more personnel files, it was a relief to get to bed.

But when, after an hour, he couldn’t sleep, he got up with a sense of resignation and buzzed at Avon's office door.

"What?" snapped Avon's voice.

"Are you coming to bed?" That had become their shorthand for sleeping in Blake's room. Avon's room remained inviolate.

"I'm working." That, of course, had always been shorthand for "leave me alone."

One final try, even if it came out mawkish. "If you'd like, come in later. Wake me; I don’t mind."

"Shut up, Blake."

That wasn't up to his usual standard. But too often over past year, it was how their conversations ended.

"Good night, then," said Blake and went back to bed without receiving a reply.

#

Avon awoke groggy -- but not, he told himself, because of the meds or the neural destabilization, rather because he hadn't got to bed until past 03:00. He'd spent seven hours reviewing the formulas for the Atariel Parallel -- drilled harder than he had since he'd sat for his exams -- and he knew them cold as steel. He ran through a few of the sequences in his mind to make sure. Yes, he had them -- now that, odds were, it was too late to make particularly stunning use of them. Still, it was some comfort to know they were there.

He glanced at the time: 06:27. As he was getting up, it struck him that if he made for the lavatory, he might encounter Blake in the hall, and Blake might start asking Transmech questions. But if he waited until 07:20, Blake would be gone and Avon would still have forty minutes to get to work, which he could manage at a rush -- unless Blake decided to loiter around and wait for him, which he might well do, being Blake.

And, really, hiding was ridiculous.

Avon managed to bathe and dress and get halfway through breakfast before Blake appeared and sat down to coffee with him, eyes on a datascreen. After a few moments, he tossed the screen onto the table.

"Do you know, I feel like chucking this whole Atlay business."

Avon breathed a sigh of relief. Sometimes Blake showed definite signs of intelligence. "Get an aide to explain it to you."

"Understanding the situation's not the problem. The problem is I need a crib sheet to keep track of all this jargon."

And you're not the only one; is that the point? The ice was getting thin again.

"Then make one," said Avon coolly.

Blake chuckled. "Oh, I have. But new terms will keep cropping up."

Avon glared, silently daring Blake to offer him like advice in return, while Blake sipped his coffee and pretended not to notice. To his credit, he didn't offer anything.

#

That evening, Blake got home weary from several hours of Atlay negotiations. Those gray-robed representatives always made him shudder, as if they'd done something to him that he couldn't quite remember.

And they had, of course. Not these people, but Travis and his agents, brainwashing him all those years ago. He'd heard about it many times -- most recently from Avon, reviewing the Atlay massacre with him in preparation for these Restructuring debates. But for himself, he could only recall a few fragments, nightmarish impressions of doing and saying things he'd never do and say. He had too many memories like that.

Lost in thought, he didn't notice for a moment that Avon was sitting at the table with a supper he didn't seem to be eating. Once he got his own supper assembled, Blake joined him.

"How's Atlay?" asked Avon.

"Much as to be expected."

Avon gave a slight smile. After a minute or two, he said, "Transmech Con is signing on as materials supplier. The report will be in your office tomorrow."

Blake stared. After last night, it was the last thing he'd expected to hear. "Congratulations."

Avon shot him an inscrutable glance. "I... am not the one responsible."

"Who is?"

"No one, Blake. They signed on because the Confederation is largest employer in the human-populated worlds and they're not stupid enough to throw away the money."

Blake watched Avon study his fork. "Are you going to tell me what happened?"

That won him a look in the eyes. "Yesterday, the Transmech negotiator asked me to explain the equation that governs the gold-carbon ratios in the Parallel processors. I couldn't remember it."

"That's not your job, Avon. You're RSO Director, not a tech."

"That is what I told him."

"It's the truth."

Avon took his plate into the kitchen. "The truth is that a competent director engaged in a negotiation primarily concerned with bulk purchase commitments should be able to explain how those commitments are calculated. By now, I suspect the entire Transmech board is aware that the Confederation's RSO Director does not display that level of competence." As he spoke, he pulled out his medikit and injected his booster.

"Sounds to me like you're overreacting."

"Perhaps." Avon resumed his seat. "But we both know this won't be the only time my. . . that I may be unequal to my responsibilities. My faculties are not improving."

"Fairly stable though." Blake let the question reach his eyes though not his words.

"For now."

"Then, for now, it's just a question of compensating. You could write down equations you think you'd need for meetings. Most negotiators would in any case."

Avon gave him an icy look. Then, carefully, he said, "In a position as significant as the Directorship of RSO, the consequences of any inadequacy in such techniques could be unwarranted."

Blake had to replay that sentence to make sense of it -- and then give it another half-play to work out what it actually meant. It had been coming, of course, but he hadn't expected it quite so soon. "You want to resign."

"I think I'd better."

"Sleep on it?"

"I have."

"All right. Let me sleep on it then."

"You don't have the authority to refuse my resignation."

"No, I don't." All at once, Blake felt leaden. "But just give me some time to think it all through, will you?"

Avon eyed him. "All right."

#

That night, Avon spent hours catching up on administrative work generated by the Transmech Con negotiations. He was more than ready to be rid of this job. It had never been his ambition to be a bureaucrat.

Perhaps he could stay on as a designer for Atarial Parallel network -- or maybe even fall back to programmer. In that line of work, the gradual decline of his mental acuity would be less detrimental. It would mainly just slow him down, require additional test runs to catch bugs he let slip through. And he was still the Confederation's chief expert on Orac -- perhaps he could retrieve custody of the computer from RSO headquarters...

And use it as a prop for his own decaying brain? The idea was pitiful. Orac would find it pitiful.

He went to bed with a pain behind his eyes, a symptom of the neural destabilization. The sleeplessness, however, came from the meds. Around 02:00, he got up to get a pain pill. The last thing he wanted to do was talk to Blake, and the very idea of sex was fatiguing. Nonetheless, he found himself steering a course into Blake's room. How very like a child, the thought flashed ruefully through his head.

He slipped into the bed, hoping that Blake would not wake up -- but he did, as he always did, with a start, like an animal frightened into a sudden, frozen alertness. Avon drew him into an embrace and felt Blake's hand close softly on his arm. For a while they lay there in silence.

"You know," said Blake at length, "I don't care whether you resign."

Avon grinned. "I find the depths of your concern quite stirring."

A hint of a laugh from Blake. "What I mean is I believe you're equal to staying, but there are competent enough people to take your place. Good people. Either way, it doesn't touch you. You are still yourself."

A chill stole over Avon. Well, that was the crux of it, wasn't it? "Someday, I won't be."

Blake sighed. "Someday, none of us will be anything anymore. We're more than lucky that we've made it this far." He shifted slightly to face Avon in the darkness. "You had your entire brain pattern removed by the Ultra and then reinserted -- and it took almost thirty years for you to show a single ill-effect. Hard to complain about that."

"I'm not complaining." He pressed closer to Blake, chiefly so Blake couldn't look at him. "I don't have much of a problem with dying. Living with my brain half gone is... problematic."

"I know. And when I truly believe you're ready to go, I'll see to it."

For a moment, Avon stopped breathing. That was more to the point than he'd expected. "Well," he said finally, "wouldn't that be ironic."

After a pause, Blake said, "We'll see. For now... we have now. It's all we've ever had really."