At last I came to a spacious, round hall, hardly visible in the dark. There were nine doors in the underground; eight of them led to a labyrinth which eventually ended in that very same hall; the ninth led (through another labyrinth) into another round hall, identical to the previous one. I do not know how many such halls there were; they were multiplied by my impatience and misery… With terror, I tried to adjust to that doubtful world; I ceased to believe there could exist anything else except nine-door halls and then yet another hall forking from there.
J. L. Borges, Immortal
Sometimes it is difficult to tell whether one has awakened. Sometimes there seems to be more than one layer of dreams, so that when you think you've opened your eyes, you may really find yourself in just another dream and realize that what has happened to you has been merely a transition from one illusory realm to the next. All the while your eyes, your real eyes are closed and reality is elsewhere.
No, it is not, the other voice says, because the pain is real and it's always there. It is a bird of prey pecking at my insides. It is like the visitation of some cruel god of the Real, whose wrath the sleep may mitigate but never fully erase.
These two feverish, dream-like thoughts are his first upon waking up.
He knows he has been dreaming. There has been a constant flow of impressions and images, although they now elude his memory. All he can recall is that there has been a tearing pain woven into each one of these dreams, the pain too strong to be an illusion.
The pain, the predatory beak which in his dream pulled and tore at his entrails, now becomes even stronger and more predominant as he gradually wakes up. Also forcefully signalling his return to reality, comes a cough which sends a gush of thick, salty liquid up to his mouth. He is lying on his back and a streak of it pours down from the corner of his lips.
The first view is of the ceiling: the light is strong, unpleasant, painful for the eyes. He lowers his gaze, raises his head a little and is able to see a line of forcefield restraints across his body. There are also monitoring wires attached to his chest.
This isn't his base: there is no such equipment in his base. There is a certain mild scent, too. It is familiar, although it takes a while before he is able to relate it to its corresponding milieu: it is the scent of air, filtered and recycled, on a space station or aboard a spaceship.
So he is not on Gauda Prime any longer. After that unreal, nightmarish encounter with Avon in the tracking gallery – after Avon had shot him three times – someone with resources and medical skills saved his life, at least temporarily, and took him away.
With dark forebodings, he looks around to establish who and why, already anticipating the answer. The restraints block all his movements, so he wouldn't be able to get up even if he had the strength. He can only move his head from side to side. Not much can be seen from this position, except for medical scanners at the side of his gurney. On one of them he spots the Federation insignia.
He closes his eyes in despair. So we've failed. I've failed…
Fragments of images and conversations come back to him, like the pieces of a mosaic he failed to put together in time to prevent disaster. Klyn talking about heightened activity around the base… Flyers without clearance, unmarked transporters… The Federation. Someone betrayed us. I should have known. I should have read the clues.
With a shudder his thoughts shift towards the others, his comrades from the base, and he wonders what has happened to them. Their faces hover behind his closed eyelids; he wishes he had some of Cally's abilities now, and could somehow sense whether they're dead, or captured, or maybe have managed to escape. Then, there were Avon's people. What happened to them? What happened… to Avon?
For all he knows, Avon may be on this same Federation station. He may even be in this same room, perhaps as badly wounded, perhaps secured to another gurney just a few feet away.
He hears footsteps approaching. A young medic enters his range of vision. He starts checking the monitors and entering their readings into his datapad. Thin, with high cheek bones and restless eyes, he appears nervous and insecure; his palms sweat and he has to wipe them every now and then before typing a new row of figures.
The medic's face turns away from him, and the footsteps go away. Shortly afterwards, they are heard again. This time the medic is accompanied by an older man with straight dark hair, in the black uniform of Federation Security. In a low voice, the two of them discuss something briefly. He cannot hear them from where he's lying, but it isn't hard to anticipate what comes next.
One thing about the Interrogation Division, they never waste time. He winces as the needle pierces his arm, not so much with pain as with the dread of what the injected drug will do to him. The uniformed man leans into his face.
'Blake. Your medical condition is grave, so don't make it hard on yourself. Your chances of survival will greatly increase if you co-operate.'
The voice continues, flat, professionally detached. It tells him that Federation intelligence knows that he was building an army and accumulating resources at his secluded base on Gauda Prime with an intention of launching an attack in the near future. The operation was to be coordinated with the troops led by Avalon and some other rebel leaders. They now want him to disclose all about this plan – its timing, projected targets, the other leaders' names and locations, communication frequencies, cover schemes.
His heart sinks at the thought of how much they already know.
'Who betrayed us?'
He knows the question will not be answered. Instead, there is the ominous hum of an activated mechanism and the ceiling lights begin to flash in irregular patterns. He closes his eyes in feeble defence. In his present condition, how long will he be able to resist the truth drugs? Not long enough: hundreds, maybe thousands will be butchered because of him.
Because of Avon, he corrects himself. He grits his teeth and curses silently. He thought he had forgiven Avon, but it was too early to say that.
Date: 8/11/259 NC
Med. record h2092, entry 1-3
E. Danyloff, M.D.
As requested by the Interrogation Division, the prescribed drug was administered at exactly 14:07.
Given the prisoner's overall medical condition, his vital signs must now be closely monitored.
All the sensations now seem to merge into a blur, through which only the throbbing of his wounds cuts like a clear laser beam. The rest is an undifferentiated nightmare, consisting of the maddening flicker of ceiling lights, the sound of his own hoarse and feverish breath, and of the beads of sweat trickling down his forehead as he pits all his strength of will against the drug-induced compulsion. Time seems to be measured only by rounds in which the interrogator's voice repeats the questions, persisting, demanding: What sub-sector were you planning to strike? When? Name your projected targets. Where are the troops located? Where were they to be coordinated from? Where is Avalon? What frequencies do you use to contact her?
There is a beep from the com unit and with it the flow of questions momentarily ceases. From a far-off corner of the room where the speaker is situated, he can hear the interrogator reporting to the voice on the other side, discerning vaguely some of the phrases. 'Nothing yet, sir.' 'He's still resisting.' 'I don't know.' This is followed by sharp critical words from the other side; the voice demands to know, 'How much longer?'; the voice insists that the prisoner must be made to talk quickly.
Then, gradually, he becomes aware something strange is happening to his hearing. The voices seem to fade out and he can no longer discern even the fragments of conversation or individual words. Then they quiet down completely and he cannot hear anything at all.
The same numbness takes possession of his other senses as well. The lights above his head grow dim and their flashing no longer disturbs him. His body, too, is suddenly insensate and very cold; the pain in his belly subsides and is almost gone.
The mist obstructing his sight grows thicker and thicker. For a moment he sinks into complete darkness, and then surfaces once more. Now the mist is gone and his sight is clear again, but he is somewhere else.
He sees Avon. Not the desperate, haunted man dressed in black who screamed words of distrust and shot him in the tracking gallery on Gauda Prime: but the younger, fresher man he knew a few years back, his cold, cynical, elegant, self-contained second-in-command aboard the Liberator.
And he is aboard the Liberator; they both are. Avon is sitting by his side on the flight-deck couch in one of his typical sparring postures: with his arms crossed and his body positioned straight ahead, and only his head half-turned towards Blake. The expression on Avon's face is also as he recalls it from Liberator days: sealed lips and a slightly menacing shine in his eyes, betraying the half-irritation and half-amusement he finds in their verbal clashes.
'A dream', he realizes. 'This is just a dream… a hallucination.'
'Are you certain?' Avon raises an eyebrow.
What else could it be? The Liberator no longer exists. He learned about its destruction about a year ago. And the Avon who appeared on Gauda Prime looked different… very different from this one.
'None of this is real. You are just an image in my dream… a memory,' he reiterates, as if to convince himself. All the same, and against logic, he yearns to put to this dream-Avon the same questions he would ask the real one: What happened to you? Are you alive? Have you been captured? Are you hurt? – and another one, which is difficult even to conceptualize, dealing with the dreadful memory of their last encounter.
'Any particular reason why you should be hallucinating about the Liberator… and me?' the dream-Avon asks analytically.
He shakes his head; it is difficult to think clearly. Then, slowly, he resumes: 'Yes… The Federation. They're tampering with my brain. They want information from me urgently, so they've given me some drug. So it must be the drug… for some reason, perhaps because of my condition… and perhaps also because I'm trying to resist… it seems to have produced this dream about you as a side effect.'
He looks around, trying to find other clues that would support his conclusion. Sooner or later, he thinks, a dream must inevitably display some inconsistency, some failure to conform to logic, or to known facts, or to memory. And so it does, sure enough: there is no Zen. On the place where their ship's computer had its display fascia, there is now just a wall. The wall is, however, divided into numerous doors; all of them are closed, and there is a blue light panel next to each.
'What are these doors? What is behind them?'
'Consistent thinking has never been your strong suit, Blake. If, as you surmise, I am just an image in your dream, then how can I know? Logic suggests that whatever is behind these doors is yours – something composed out of the contents of your own psyche.'
Again, he strains to grasp the dream's strange coherence.
'What you're implying… is that this place here, the Liberator's flight-deck, is just a sort of foyer – an entrance hall – and that dreaming really begins behind these doors?'
'In effect, yes.'
'Well then,' he asks, suddenly aching with some half-forgotten remembrance, 'do you at least know how these door panels work?'
A smug smile flickers on Avon's lips in response. 'It's simple enough. The palm-print of an authorized person is filed in the central system. The blue sensor plate reads the print. If it conforms, the system opens the door.'
'Whose palm-print will it respond to?'
'Yours, Blake. You are the only one who can open these doors.'
For some reason, these words fill him with vague apprehension. Yet the dream seems to possess a will-power of its own; it drives him, compels him to perpetuate the yarn, move towards the doors and uncover the mystery. He casts another doubtful glance towards Avon, who remains quiet and motionless: something tells him the dream image of his friend will still be there when he returns from the oneiric realm awaiting him behind the doors. Then he places his palm on one of the panels.
'Single-function isomorphic response', Avon concluded, in a voice betraying slight disappointment: as though he'd expected a greater mystery.
'What?' Jenna frowned.
'I think he means it'll only let us have one gun each.'
Behind Avon's back, the two of them exchanged smiles. During the period they'd known each other, it had become his habit to translate Avon's cryptic technical phrases into everyday language: demonstrating, as it were, that communication among people needn't be so difficult. In their hands, all three of them held strange handguns they'd just discovered. They were aboard the magnificent alien ship which had so miraculously enabled them to escape from the London and the destiny of spending the rest of their lives on Cygnus Alpha; the ship that now excited Blake's wildest fantasies of how much benefit the rebellion might have from it.
Absent-mindedly, he put his gun back into its receptacle, and noticed that Jenna did the same. Then, behind his back, he heard Avon's voice, sounding even colder than usual:
'Well, it certainly gives one a feeling of independence.'
He turned to find Avon pointing the gun at him.
As always when he was in danger, Blake's mind started working very quickly. There are two rows of flight stations just a few feet away, he calculated, and if I manage to reach them before he fires I can use them as cover, and meanwhile Jenna could try and assault him from the back. Even though the two of us are unarmed, there is a good probability that we might overpower Avon.
Yes. It could be done, if this were what I wanted. But this is not what I want.
He fixed Avon with his gaze and said slowly: 'You are a free man.'
Yes, you are free, Avon, he continued to transmit with his eyes. Free to kill me. Free to leave. Or free to stay and follow me. It all rests with your conscience. Steadily, he started for the flight stations and straight across Avon's line of fire.
'That's right,' Avon replied. 'So I am.'
The gun fired. Again and again.
'No. No. It didn't happen.'
At the same time that his mind denies the horrible experience, his body confirms it, going through it once more, re-living the shock and the pain of each individual blast. He starts and opens his eyes.
No, he hasn't really opened them; he's still dreaming. He is in some long, dimly lit corridor. There is a door in front of him and a blue-light panel next to it. He places his palm on the panel and the door opens.
He finds himself aboard the Liberator again, and there is Avon sitting on the flight-deck couch, in the same position as before he went through that door. The whole event has been like going through a labyrinth, eventually bringing him back to the place he started from.
But what was it all about? He looks straight into Avon's eyes, which now seem expressionless, like the eyes of a statue. He wonders if he should deduce something from the hallucination; he fights turbulent emotions, trying to think.
Avon pointed his gun at me then, long ago, aboard the Liberator. And then again, on Gauda Prime. And both times I walked towards him, trusting he wouldn't fire.
The two situations are dissimilar, yet also similar. It seems to him they touch upon something central that evades him, something at the very core of their relationship. Avon talking about independence, freedom… freedom from me. Did I make him feel like a captive? Are these two scenes really paradigmatic? Was he on the verge of killing me more often than I suspect? Yet he came to Gauda, he came looking for me.
There is no reaction. The simple, straightforward question he wants to ask his friend is just, how could you? How could you shoot me? He opens his mouth but the words don't form; perhaps they cannot be spoken in the realm of this dream.
Date: 8/11/259 NC
Med. record h2092, entry 1-4
E. Danyloff, M.D.
Unprecedented in its previous usage, the drug produced a secondary effect, sending the prisoner temporarily into an altered, possibly psychotic state characterized by intense cerebral activity and REM sleep patterns. Following the intervention of the medical team, the prisoner was resuscitated and the interrogation resumed.
It is very likely that the lapses into unconsciousness will recur.
Finally, a message from Kasabi. His heart was pounding with wild, almost childlike excitement. Although he had gathered practically all the existing information on Central Control, he'd been aware all along that it was essential for the local resistance fighters to give him backup cover. Now that the message was there, he knew he could set his plan in motion.
It was the Liberator's 'night', routine rest period in ship-time, and he was alone on the flight deck. He inserted the key into Orac, planning to go through data one more time before outlining the final attack scheme.
He hadn't noticed Gan entering the flight deck, and started a little, spotting the powerful figure suddenly just a few feet away. A little puzzled, he cast a glance at his watch, already knowing what it would confirm: it was too early. Gan wasn't due to take over the watch for another two hours or so.
'Is something wrong?'
Gan shook his head.
'No, I just… can't sleep.'
'You should take lessons from Vila.'
Gan smiled faintly and sat at one of the consoles.
'Do you need a hand here?'
'Not really, I'm just going through… some Space Command relays that Orac has decoded for me.'
He'd decided not to share his plans about going back to Earth with his crew, at least not for a while longer. A good deal of energy needed to be invested in planning this operation, and this time he couldn't afford to waste any of it on dealing with Avon's acid remarks, Gan's moral qualms, Cally's mystical apprehensions, Jenna's commonsense reservations or Vila's sheer panic.
Anyway, Gan didn't seem to be interested in revolutionary matters, at least not at the moment. He was staring ahead, avoiding eye contact. There was an awkward silence for a while. Blake was growing impatient. He wanted Gan to leave. He had important matters to attend to, and couldn't afford to postpone them just because one of his crew was suffering from insomnia.
Finally, as if he'd read Blake's thoughts, Gan stood up.
'Well, sorry to have bothered you… See you in two hours, Blake.'
The phrases spoken were common enough, but the shakiness of Gan's voice startled him.
'Gan – something
wrong, isn't it?'
For the first time that evening, Blake observed his friend more closely. Suddenly he saw that Gan was very pale, that his eyes were bloodshot and his whole bearing unsteady, so incongruous with his bulk. Blake realized how insensitive he had been: preoccupied with his grand scheme for taking Control, he'd failed to notice that something was deeply troubling Gan.
What was it? Was it his wife? Had it come back to him, the memory of how she'd been killed? Or the memory of how he'd аvenged her, and what the Federation had done to him afterwards? Or something more vague than that, a dark premonition, or just a feeling that he could no longer find motivation to keep going? He wanted to ask, but Gan was already leaving, far down the corridor leading from the bridge towards the cabins.
'Gan,' Blake called quietly after him. 'You wanted to talk.'
Gan stopped, turned, and shook his head, speaking without a trace of bitterness.
'No. Go back to your work, Blake. I'm not worth wasting your time.'
Then suddenly, the images overlapped, the corridor changed its shape and the lights in it became dim, and he heard an ominous rumbling sound and saw heavy blocks of masonry crumbling down and covering Gan's body underneath…
The memory of Gan was another corridor: he places his hand on the blue panel and the door opens. He sees the Liberator's bridge again and Avon sitting on the couch with his arms crossed.
Shaken, he walks over and sits next to him. This time Avon's quiet presence feels almost comforting, and he is grateful for it.
It seems to him that he is gradually adjusting to the realm of this continuous dream: now he is able to think more consistently than the first time he visited it. He is vaguely aware of reality in which the Federation interrogators have drugged him to make him admit the truth about his revolutionary plans. Resisting it, he's somehow slipped into this inner realm where, instead, he is compelled to admit the truth about himself.
This memory was of the night before Gan was killed: the dream has now recovered it as the last, missed chance of intimacy between the two of them, as a possibility forever lost.
He knows it isn't likely that one conversation would've changed anything. Wouldn't Travis have thrown that hand grenade anyway, and wouldn't those concrete blocks still have been there waiting to crush Gan's body under their weight? Wouldn't the course of events still have been the same, regardless of how Gan felt and what he thought about on the eve of that day? Or does one's disposition act like a magnet, attracting things and events alike into its force field until they forge what we call our destiny? If we crave eagerly for death and self-sacrifice, will not our prayers eventually be answered?
He lowers his head tiredly, overwhelmed by the weight of these thoughts. He begins to get a vague idea of what lies behind those other doors. Each of them seems to hide a memory, and with it an insight into the past. Perhaps altogether they form the sum total of his life, a conclusion or judgment about everything he has done.
'Avon. I think I understand the logic of this dream. It deals with the past. But what bothers me is whether it may also have some relevance to what is happening to me now.'
'Define "relevance". Surely you're not expecting that anything you do in a dream may alter reality. That would be quite irrational, even by your standards.'
'No, I'm not expecting a causal relationship. But something bothers me about these doors. Namely, the fact that wherever they take me I always end up back here. This doesn't make sense. Something is missing. There should be a way out.'
Date: 8/11/259 NC
Med. record h2092, entry 1-5
E. Danyloff, M.D.
The second session of interrogation lasted approx. 20 minutes, yielding no results, before it was interrupted again by one more loss of consciousness. The administered drug has so far proved ineffective. The Interrogation Division therefore request that I revise my report and propose new measures.
Having reassessed the prisoner's medical condition my conclusion is
My conclusion is
My conclusion is the same as it was before: if you attempt anything more drastic – even as little as doubling the drug dose – you will kill him.
Of course, you wouldn't mind doing that. The only thing that matters to you is that he should talk first. Haven't I been told quite explicitly: work out the optimal method given the risk of killing the prisoner prematurely and the risk of failing to retrieve the essential information in time.
You have also been kind enough to acquaint me with the urgency of the matter. Apparently, Blake was planning a major attack on one of the military targets in this sector, and since that attack was to be carried out by allied rebel troops coming from several different locations, it is very likely it will be realized regardless of his capture. It may come very soon; it may be in progress even now and Blake is the only one who can tell you how to stop it. This is why you need him to talk quickly. This is why you need my help. You need me to assist you with the interrogation.
You have never demanded this of me before. Normally you'd just bring me someone wounded, presumably a captured rebel, to patch up and then dispatch back to you, and I'd do it, never making it my business to find out what happened to him or her afterwards. But this time I am being promoted. This time I am unambiguously to become an accomplice.
I know. I know. This is a terrorist. Our usual considerations do not apply when we are dealing with terrorists. Haven't I learnt these phrases by heart through continual repetitions at the Central Educational Complex? Cruelty to a terrorist is justified because by forcing him to reveal his murderous schemes we will save hundreds of innocent lives. In such instances the end absolutely justifies the means.
I don't know. I'm not sure. I've never been able to think in abstract terms. I only feel safe with the concrete. Haemorrhage. Respiratory disorder. Damage to intestinal tissue. Sticking to the limited certainties of my profession has been my coping strategy, the only way to preserve my sanity. Once you abandon this safe haven, you find yourself on the slippery ground of abstractions and macrosocial theories where it is so easy to go wrong.
Still, what does it matter? The point is not whether I believe you or not; the point is that I feel incapable of changing anything. I feel trapped, just as Blake is, secured to this gurney here in front of me.
If I prescribe another dose it will kill him
I am grateful that this datapad isn't linked to any network. This enables me, from time to time, to write down my thoughts, to indulge in the criminal activity of articulating the contents of my mind. And it is mine. I find a certain comfort in expressing that. Still, the satisfaction of not succumbing to you mentally doesn't amount to much. These are just vain outlets, fits of temporary relief to an entrapped mind. Because in the end, I always erase these writings and I produce what you expect me to.
I'm afraid I'll do it this time, too. I know I will. Because there is no way out.
There is no way out. It is a thought which haunts me. My mind is like a closed, circular hall. My musings constitute a labyrinth from which there is no escape. All these writings, and any insights I might reach through them, are just intricate corridors which, eventually, always lead me back to the place I've started from. To here and now, the unalterable reality.
It's not even that I wish to change reality. I just wish you'd leave me alone. Let me go back to my job and my certainties. Haemorrhage. Respiratory disorder. Damage to intestinal tissue. And maybe I could even save his bloody life.
I wish Blake would talk.
New torrents of rain covered the windscreen of his flyer within seconds. The automatic wiper worked spasmodically, often leaving the glass stained for prolonged periods before reactivating. It was desperately in need of repair, as well as many other functions of the vessel, but there was no time for that.
He was heading towards a small provincial settlement placed in a river valley between mild undulations and hills, from which countless streams now poured, adding to the gigantic swollen body of the flood running underneath. Blue-coloured rooftops, characteristic for the villages of Epheron, protruded from the muddied flow like tiny islands, shining with wet under constant showers of rain.
It had been raining for fifty days incessantly on Epheron. The back part of Blake's flyer was crammed full of people he and his co-pilot had rescued from the flood. There was endless muffled talk going on concerning missing family members, the uncertain future and lost property. A few minutes ago a woman's voice behind his back had given in to despair and risen to screaming and howling. Then it quieted down again and now she was just sobbing gently. He felt almost grateful he was in such a rush to save as many lives as possible that he didn't have time to turn around, face those people and try to comfort them.
They knew nothing, of course, of who their rescuer was. To them he was just another offworlder, another castaway stranded there in the aftermath of the Intergalactic War. The Epheroninan government didn't ask many questions these days about one's background and identity: they welcomed anyone who could pilot a flyer and was willing to volunteer for the rescue missions.
Epheron's climate had been controlled by the computer complex on Star One. Its destruction by the Andromedans during the Intergalactic War caught them completely unprepared. The floods which had hit almost one third of the planet had already claimed hundreds of lives. Many more were bound to be lost in the months to come through general devastation and poverty.
Behind the railing of a balcony, hardly above the water level, Blake spotted two boys. They must have come out just a moment ago, upon hearing the flyer approaching, but rain had already soaked them through. The likeness suggested they must be kin: he estimated them to be about four and six years of age. Heartrendingly, the elder had his arm around his younger brother's shoulders, comforting and protecting him. They weren't crying, just shivering from cold and rain.
Blake carefully landed the flyer on a nearby patch of dry land and, with the help of his co-pilot, entered a rescue boat.
It was when he approached the boys that the younger one suddenly began to cry. At first Blake thought this was an outburst of relief, but as he reached out to hold the child, the crying turned into an articulate, repeated lament: 'Daddy will come. Daddy will come, will come, will come.' The boy didn't want to be rescued by a stranger. He was waiting for his father to come back and put things right.
Sulkily, the elder boy followed Blake's instructions, but kept quiet and wouldn't even tell his name when Blake asked. As he was helping the children to put on life vests, Blake mumbled some reassuring words, trying to convince them that yes, rescue teams were going to find their mum and dad and bring them back. He knew it was most probably a lie. It wasn't very likely that the parents would have deserted the children like this: they must have drowned in the flood.
When the boat returned and the boys were pulled into the flyer, Blake heard some of the people at the back applauding. The sight of two young lives rescued from the flood gladdened their hearts and there was a momentary upsurge of optimism and faith. Many of the survivors suddenly rushed forward to shake Blake's hand, clap him on the shoulder and thank him.
His insides got cramped up and he felt his chest succumb to some invisible dark pressure. His features contorted in anguish and all he wanted was to hide away from them. The absurdity, the bitter irony of this scene overwhelmed him as he felt an irresistible urge to shout to them at the top of his voice that he shouldn't be applauded but stoned to death. It could have been me, he wanted to yell at them. Don't you understand! I could have been the one to destroy Star One. If the Andromedans hadn't done it, I would have been the one to cause you all this suffering.
was a part of my plan.
is what I wanted to do to you.
A hand touched his shoulder, like a dam momentarily blocking the flood of tormenting thoughts.
'Please, what is your name?' a woman's voice asked. 'They say you're an offworlder. We don't know anything about you, and you've done so much for us. At least tell us your name – so that we know whom to thank.'
He met her eyes with a bitter, self-mocking grin, reading on her face sudden confusion and even fear in reaction to it.
'Travis,' he replied quietly. 'My name is Travis.'
'I did take part in rescue missions on Epheron. And I did use an alias. But it wasn't Travis… it was Oleg.'
Once more, the labyrinth of his dreams and memories has led him back to the Liberator's bridge. This time he's ventured to discuss the passage with Avon.
'The dream insinuates… That I am Travis. That I am – like Travis.'
'Well now, does this surprise you?' Avon asks calmly. 'You were going to destroy Star One. Travis was going to enable the Andromedans to do the same. There must be a subtle distinction that escapes me for the moment. Oh yes, of course, the question of motivation. Travis wanted to do it out of hate. You wanted to do it out of altruism. I'm certain the victims would have appreciated the difference.'
He smiles ruefully at Avon's reply, knowing it is really an amalgam forged by his own mind. True, the cynicism sounds like Avon, but the accusations are his own. He has heard them in his own thoughts a thousand times. He has never been certain about destroying Star One.
It's no use, and it's never been, quoting the counterargument, convincing himself that it would have been different had he been the one to destroy it. True, he had prepared hundreds of urgent messages to be dispatched by Orac momentarily after the deed was done – not only to the rebel forces, but also to civil administrations of all the Federated planets, warning them, instructing them to evacuate the most endangered areas or to resort to alternative control systems wherever it was feasible. He was planning to coordinate humanitarian missions with the Liberator's resources and also put the ship itself at the service of civilians, wherever urgency required it and others were unavailable or too slow to arrive.
But after all, if he, rather than the aliens, had blown up Star One, the death toll still would have been terrible. He still would have caused the death and suffering of completely innocent people, in numbers too horrible to imagine.
'So what know?' he asks wearily. 'Another door? How many more are there? And is there any one of them which doesn't lead back here? And then from here, back to reality?'
'You sound like you are anticipating something.'
'Perhaps I am. These doors remind me of something. I've studied some history of Terran architecture. Some ancient cultures constructed labyrinths based on this same principle. There is a room, a hall, and a number of doors leading from it. All of them – all but one – really lead nowhere. Behind each of them there is a corridor linking it to the common labyrinth, which eventually takes you back to the room you started from. But there is also one door, only one, which is real. Behind this door is the only way out of the room.'
'So, what if it's the same with these doors? Perhaps they do offer a way out, after all. Perhaps behind one of them is a dream – which isn't a dream.'
'Spare me the amateur poetry, Blake. What is it you're trying to find? This door – the only real door, as you call it. Where does it lead to?'
Date: 8/11/259 NC
Med. record h2092, entry 1-6
E. Danyloff, M.D.
At 16:12 the prisoner was resuscitated one more time and another round of interrogation commenced.
Based on my conclusion in the previous entry, he was given the second dose of the drug.
Reporting to Roj Blake.
The delivery of the shipment of weapons to the rebels on Zetaphar went perfectly well. I thought you'd be pleased to know. New armament has been issued to the rebel troops so that they can go on killing and getting killed. The revolution has been refuelled so that it can continue with its bloody business.
As I said, there has been no damage to either guns or the freighter while running the blockade in the direction to Zetaphar. It is on the way back from the planet that your blockade runner has met with certain difficulties. Blockade has to be run in two directions, you know. Just thought I'd remind you. Not that it matters much if something happens in return, though. The mission has been successfully accomplished, and as it is, all the rebellion will lose are one old freighter and one smuggler pilot – and they are both expendable.
The expendable smuggler pilot reporting her present position.
Following an attack by a squadron of Federation gunships, my ship is currently drifting in the far planetary orbit of Zetaphar at about 50,000 spatials. The primary and auxiliary drive units are all dysfunctional and the outer hull has been severely damaged. Life-support systems are rapidly failing – lights are blinking, gravity diminishing, and oxygen reserves are almost exhausted.
They will last long enough for me to carry out my plan though.
The rebel army freighter is now surrounded by the gunships. Voice contact has been established and your pilot's unconditional surrender demanded. I am to allow their transfer tube to lock on and offer no resistance to the Federation troopers who will embark to arrest me.
No need to worry. Like a loyal follower of your cause, I know what I have to do. On such an outdated vessel the combination of buttons that I have to press in the correct sequence is fairly simple.
Before I do it, however, I wonder if my report should include some recommendations in the appendix. You know, I might refer you to some other free-trading pilots who would be foolish enough to stick out their necks running blockades for the rebels. Not that the list would be very long, considering the wages you offer. Anyway, I just thought I'd make myself useful one more time with this final gesture.
No. I'm sorry.
I'm sorry. You don't deserve this kind of talk from me. You've risked your life for me so many times. You've shown me you cared for me in so many ways. You've showered me with affection and trust. Sometimes even making me feel embarrassed, making me wonder if you're giving me more than I deserve. You've made me feel so special by your side. I don't want to feel or sound cold and resentful. You really don't deserve that from me.
Like hell you don't.
You always said I had a choice. That I was free to leave at any time. And then, at other times, you'd come to me, speechless, and give me that look of a wounded, helpless boy, a look that would say: Please don't leave me. Please stay, because I really need you badly, you and your pilot skills, and though there is nothing I can offer you in return, please help me because I can't make it without you. This is what the look would say, even if your voice said the opposite.
Nor did you ask anything for yourself. It was always for the rebellion. And I'd fall for it every time, and stay. Not because of the rebellion. Because of you. Damn you.
Listen to me, losing myself in these thoughts of you and running away from reality when there's so little time left for what I have to do. Yet what I have to do will take only a few seconds.
I think I'll let them install the transfer tube. In that way they won't be able to pull out when it starts happening and I'll take at least one of their ships with me. If this starts a chain reaction, it may even be two or three. Welcome companions, as Cally would say.
You and I faced death together so many times, but there was always some hope left, a faint glimmer of hope that I could cling to. Or perhaps it was just easier to handle the thought of dying by your side than the thought of dying alone.
Something's just occurred to me –
Remember our first days aboard the Liberator, when we were going through its controls and you urged me to try this and that to see what would happen? I asked, what if I press self-destruct? And you gave me one of those irresistible smiles of yours and said, 'Doubtful if I'll ever speak to you again.'
We were so hopeful in those days – it's funny, isn't it, how much one can age in just five years –
Goodbye, Blake –
He is sitting on the Liberator's deck once more, his face buried in his hands. He is aware that Avon is watching him.
There was no such report, of course. It would have been quite unlike Jenna to write anything like that. She'd never speak that openly about her feelings. Not even to him. No – the only message she sent him was that tremendous blaze in Zetaphar's orbit, which took half of the Federation squadron along with her freighter. Still, he knows what she went through because he was with her. Dozens of times, in his nightmares. The nightmares he's had about her final moments have always been so uncannily vivid. He would see every detail on her flight deck, know what she's thinking about, hear her heart thumping.
'It was all my fault,' he says quietly. 'I never should have sent her on that mission. The vessels we had at our disposal were all too old and too slow, even a first-class pilot like her stood little chance of making it. And Jenna was a practical person. Normally she would have avoided danger and unnecessary risks. No, the only reason she did it was because of me. And I knew it. And still let her go. Told her she had a choice, of course –'
'That being a commonplace in all your manipulations –'
He ignores Avon's cynicism, as he's done so many times in reality.
'I loved her. I hope she knew that. I tried – I really tried not to take advantage…'
Avon snorts to this.
'You took advantage of all of us, Blake. One way or another. From the very moment you met us, all you thought of was how best to use our individual talents for your precious Cause – and how best to hold us under your sway.'
He opens his mouth to deny this, then gives up. Instead he breaks into mirthless laughter.
'It's a bit ironic, isn't it, that if I'm standing some kind of trial for my life's deeds, you of all people should be chosen to impersonate my conscience. I can only hope that, in the same circumstances, I will be chosen to impersonate yours.' He looks at Avon, whose facial muscles seem to be made of stone. 'All right,' he sighs. 'I accept these charges. I plead guilty. I dedicated my life to fighting the Federation. I don't think that was wrong. I did make some mistakes along the way. Some of them were rather grave.'
Avon bares his teeth in a familiar cynical grin.
'I'm half expecting you to say you'll try and do better next time.'
'Oh, I won't say that.'
He closes his eyes, suddenly overwhelmed by the deep contentment of having won this final battle.
'Because,' he says with a quiet smile, 'there won't be a next time.'
Date: 8/11/259 NC
Med. record h2092, entry 1-7
E. Danyloff, M.D.
From approx. 17:00 the prisoner no longer responds to stimuli and in spite of repeated attempts cannot be brought round. Given his condition (profuse haemorrhage, damage to inner organs as described in detail in the entry 1-2) the most probable cause of his comatose state is extreme physical exhaustion, i.e., his efforts to resist the effects of the drug injected twice in the course of interrogation.
At this point, general condition continues to deteriorate. In spite of the standard procedures applied by the medical team, vital signs are failing and cannot be normalized. Nonetheless, the monitors continue to register intense cerebral activity, characterized by rapidly recurring REM sleep patterns.
In other words, he was dreaming. And we'll never know what about.
I wonder if he felt about his dreams the way I sometimes feel about my thoughts. Perhaps it occurred to him that each dream was like a labyrinth, taking him down a complex and fascinating network of corridors, but in the end inevitably bringing him back here, in the interrogation room of the Federation space station, where he knew he was lying badly wounded and helpless.
Yet the difference is that his labyrinth, unlike mine, had a way out. Blake knew it, and he sought it, stubbornly and fearlessly, and he found it. Whereas I remain trapped in mine. No matter how many excursions I make to the passages of my free and independent thoughts, no matter how many cynical and acid remarks about the administration I write down in this datapad, in the end I know I will erase them and I will do as I'm told. I will remain an obedient minion. My labyrinth has no way out.
No. I'm lying. Of course it does. It's not that I cannot conceive of how to commit an act of disobedience. It is in fact quite simple, and may be done just by saying no. It's just that I'm afraid. It's sights like these, ultimately, that make me a coward and a weakling. Observing Blake hour after hour I realized, more clearly than ever before, that I could never follow in his footsteps. I could never choose the terrifying journey he has chosen. It's the visceral dread of imagining myself across that gurney, strapped and drugged and bloodied, that – ultimately – makes my back bent and my head bowed. It is my fear that traps me. And then all that remains is to roam the maze within my mind, and praise the firm ground of my professional certainties.
Although, given the central role I've had in this event, something tells me that from now on I will have a new certainty, one that will in no way be reassuring: the certainty of who, or what, I have become.
I keep looking at that serene smile on his lips. I will probably be criticized if I don't do something about it. Very soon now, rigor mortis will affect the entire body, including the facial muscles, and it will become extremely difficult to change this expression. And I do want to reach out my hand and change it – not only because it accentuates his victory and our defeat, but also because it terrifies me. I am frightened of that smile more than I'm frightened of the punishment inflicted on dissidents. Yet at the same time it holds an uncanny fascination for me. It mesmerizes me and I cannot bring myself to undo it. I just want to leave it, and keep looking.
It's time to erase all this and write a standard, detached, professional medical report. Bearing witness, as always, to my unwavering loyalty to the Federation. But one way or another, with one or another turn of phrase, the discourse I am about to produce will still have to include this one item, this bit of unpleasant news that it has fallen to me to bring: that we have failed, completely, to obtain any information from him. And that, this time beyond any doubt, Roj Blake is dead.