"I'm sorry to have to inform you that he is himself all right."
Nobody laughed, but then – I hadn't really expected them to. Blake is the only one who regularly laughs at my jokes, though Cally sometimes favours me with an amused smile. I admit it might be unfair to expect Vila to laugh, given that he is so often the butt of them, but life isn't fair – he should know that by now. Jenna laughs at her own jokes, and at Blake's. I don't hold it against her – much.
Blake had already strode off down the corridor to change our course, but even if he had still been in the teleport area he probably wouldn't have found this one very funny. Come to think of it, neither did I. Blake had reassured us that he was no longer being controlled by Ven Glyn's device, which was good – but he has also reassured us that, as far as he was concerned, we were still on our suicide mission to find Star One. And Blake's concerns are the only ones he seems to take note of on board this ship, unless you count the concerns of the unwashed masses, and I don't. Not much, anyway.
You'd think getting your brain aggressively stepped on by an ex Arbiter General of the Federation would be enough to make anyone think again about tangling with these people, but that's Blake for you. He knows exactly what he wants, and nothing is going to stop him from trying to get it, no matter how dangerous. He probably wouldn't even rest before we reached Del Ten. He doesn't believe in taking care of himself.
I followed him onto the flight deck, just to make sure my worst suspicions were justified. They were, of course.
"How long until we reach Del Ten?" I asked as I entered. No point in asking whether he’d already set the course. He had.
"Too long," Blake said. He swung round from glaring at Zen’s monitor to glare at me. ”Why did we divert, Avon?"
If I had been feeling venomous I would have told him. He probably deserved it, for getting Vila to lock the rest of us in the medbay on the grounds of mutiny and for inviting Travis of all people onto the Liberator. But I felt as tired as he should have done. And it would upset him. And I … didn’t particularly want to upset him while I was too tired to deal with it.
“Thank you for the update, Blake, but I was speaking to Zen,” I said instead. “Zen – time to Del Ten. Be more precise that Blake, if you can.”
“Time to Del Ten is four hours and thirty two minutes,” the computer intoned.
Not as long as I’d have liked, but enough time to shower and perhaps, if I was lucky, to lie down and shut my eyes.
Blake caught my wrist as I turned to go. One thing I’ve had cause to learn about myself over the past two years is that I am not a lucky man. I’ve learned other things too, of course. Many of them related to the grip Blake had on my arm, but I try not to think about those things too often. Being unlucky could happen to anyone.
“I was speaking to you,” Blake said, turning what I’d said against me as usual. “Why aren’t we already at Del Ten? We should have been there hours ago.”
“Nothing. A technical malfunction,” I said, leaving out the rather crucial information that the part of the ship that had malfunctioned had been Blake himself. “ It should be back to normal by now, though perhaps—”
“Avon,” Vila said from the doorway I’d just entered through. I turned, managing to pull my wrist free of Blake’s grasp without too much difficulty. “What do you want to do with the corpse?” Vila said, with the same weary resignation as if he’d been asked to clean up after a rowdy party. I glared at him, but by then it was too late, of course.
“Corpse?” Blake said.
“Governor Le Grande’s aide,” Vila said. “He’s just in the corridor at the moment, which is fine for now but not exactly a long-term solution. Is it insensitive just to put him out the airlock?”
“Probably,” I said, “but do it anyway.”
“What is Governor Le Grande’s dead aide doing on my ship?” Blake said. He’s persistent, I’ll give him that. Irritatingly so.
“Not much. Vila will tell you all about it,” I said, and tried to make for the exit, but Vila was too quick for me.
“Sorry, Avon,” he said, “I’d love to, but I’ve got to see an open vacuum about a stiff,” and then he was gone before I’d so much as taken a step away from Blake. Manhandling the corpse was, for him, a more attractive option than talking to Blake about what had happened. Actually, it would have been my preferred option, too. I waited a moment to see if Jenna or Cally were going to arrive in time to deal with Blake, but they didn’t. Presumably they were now enjoying the shower and perhaps the rest period that I’d denied myself by coming to check on Blake first. I’m aware that I bring these things on myself. At least I don’t delude myself, but actually the self-knowledge rarely makes me feel any better.
I turned, and I told him what had happened, as objectively as I could.
Blake looked as horrified as I have ever known him to look. Half way through the narrative, he sank onto the flight deck couch, as though he couldn’t trust his legs to hold him up, any more than he could trust his mind not to betray him. If I’d been anyone else I might have put my arm around him, but then I’m not just anyone. Blake and I don’t have that kind of relationship. What happened in Central Control was exceptional. A mistake, and not just on Blake’s part.
“And you’re sure it won’t happen again?” Blake said after I’d finished everything I was willing to tell him.
“I smashed the control device,” I said. “That seemed to work.”
“That was just one device, though,” Blake said, rising to his feet again. “There will be more of them. It’s not likely to be an isolated prototype. And even if it was, they’ll make more of them. It’s the perfect way to infiltrate the Liberator. They must try again.”
I had thought of this, too, but the only foolproof way of ensuring we weren’t at risk from our own leader seemed to be throwing Blake out of the airlock after the aide’s corpse. Blake was not likely to approve of that suggestion. I’d therefore chosen to keep my mouth shut and to watch him closely – something I already did, but with less of a defined objective. As I mentioned before, Blake is no less dangerous when he is in his right mind. I’ve had to watch him closely since the day we boarded this ship, and I could keep doing it. Not a foolproof plan, no, but it wasn’t as though we hadn’t realised that something was wrong this time. It had been obvious to everyone apart from Vila almost immediately. For a fanatic, Blake has a surprisingly subtle personality. It seemed unlikely that Travis, or even Servalan, would manage to script his dialogue without it showing.
“At least you’ll have a reason to give yourself whenever we question your decisions,” I said, grinning in an attempt to lighten the mood, and because baiting Blake does amuse me, just as it amuses him to bait me. “Besides the fact that all your decisions are questionable, of course.”
Blake ignored me, and strode over to Orac’s trolley, which was still on the flight deck where I’d left it. He removed Orac’s key from his jacket, although I assume he had no memory of putting it there or removing that key from its slot, claiming he was protecting Orac from the device that was controlling him.
Now, he put the key in place, and braced himself, hands either side of the computer’s case. I followed him, standing close behind him in case he tried to damage Orac or make a run for it, but he only said,
“Orac, the device that Avon destroyed today, the device that Ven Glyn used to control me,” he barely paused as he said it, but from my position behind him I noticed his fingers tightening around Orac’s case, “are there more of them in Federation control?”
“Undoubtedly,” Orac said.
Well, Blake had already hypothesised as much, so that wasn’t much of a surprise. I kept my eyes on Blake’s hands, which were steady but still white around the knuckles with tension.
“Is there a way of resisting the device’s influence?” Blake said. “Preemptively, I mean.”
“There is,” Orac said. “You must complete the dual therapy that you began with the help of Jenna Stannis. The course is exactly the same as the last time I prescribed it.”
As expected, the thing sounded piqued to have had to remind us of something it had already told us. There was, of course, no point reminding Orac that Blake didn’t remember anything that had happened in the last four hours, or that it was a computer and computers were designed for the specific purpose of completing repetitive tasks for humans. One of these days I will get round to wiping Ensor's personality from its databanks and inserting something more congenial. My own perhaps. Until then we just have to endure it.
“You still require a minimum of two hours eradication therapy,” Orac told Blake crossly.
“Right,” Blake said, removing Orac’s key. “Well, we’d better get on with it, then.” He moved over to the wall comm, and activated it, leaning in towards it as he might do a friend or a lover. “Jenna, Cally – could you meet me in the medical bay in ten minutes?”
I thought about pointing out that they were both probably sleeping, or trying to sleep, but decided against it. I wasn’t sleeping, after all. Why should they?
“All right,” Jenna’s voice said wearily.
“Blake, can this wait until tomorrow morning?” Cally’s said. Neither of them sounded overjoyed to hear their beloved leader’s voice, but then they probably knew why he’d called them.
“No, Cally, I’m sorry but I don’t think it can,” Blake said and broke the connection before they could protest any more.
I trailed after Blake as he strode towards the medical unit, pushing Orac in front of him. He didn’t ask me to come with him, and perhaps I could have used the time he was tormenting Jenna and Cally to try and rest myself – but I wasn’t sure they would restrain Blake, as we had agreed after the first disastrous session. Cally was too soft-hearted, and Jenna was probably too exhausted to be reasonable. I wanted to be sure it happened. At least, that is what I would have told anyone if they’d asked.
Cally tried briefly to convince Blake that it would be safe to lock himself in the brig until morning, or to simply restrain him in the medical bay. I had a higher opinion of Blake’s skills than that. If he was suffering from a hypnotic compulsion and we were stupid enough to leave him alone in a locked room for six hours, he would simply find a way to escape and wreak havoc. Blake agreed, though not in exactly the same words. Jenna said she was sick of everyone arguing, and that we might as well just get it over with. I expect Cally despairs of all of us at moments like this, but she agreed to assist. I strapped Blake into the lounger.
This therapy session was almost as bad as the last time we’d tried it, although the fact that Blake was starting off from a position of (relative) sanity probably helped, as did the fact that he was held down by medical-grade restraints rather than thrashing about in my arms. When the five terrible minutes were over, leaving Blake gasping for breath but no longer renouncing everything he’d ever believed in, Cally lead Jenna towards the door for her single hour of rest.
“Can you look after Blake?” Cally asked me.
In all honesty I didn’t know whether I could – or whether I wanted to. But Cally and Jenna had already left, and Vila had been reassigned from waste disposal to night watchman duties, which left little alternative. Orac could hardly take care of Blake, and anyway I didn't trust Vila after he’d fallen for Blake’s last little act earlier in the day. That meant it would have to be me.
I returned to the head of Blake’s bed. His breathing had finally evened out, and he looked up at me with heavy eyes as I approached.
“That … was worse than I thought it would be,” Blake said. There was a slight chuckle in his voice, presumably to let me know that it was all right, and he was still himself. It would take more than incredible pain and professional brainwashing to stop him. That I believed, obviously, but the situation wasn’t exactly all right either.
“Is it over?” he asked.
“For now,” I said, loosening his restraints. “Jenna needs to rest for an hour before the next five minutes of therapy.”
“Five minutes?” Blake said incredulously. “I thought I needed two hours.”
“Five minutes is the maximum Jenna can stand being inside your head,” I said. “I’m sure it felt like longer to you.”
I had meant for the second part of that speech to sound sympathetic, but I expect it came across as sarcastic since it followed on from the first sentence. Perhaps I should have restrained myself and withheld the taunt, but that is how I communicate with Blake. In this case, he seemed not to notice anyway. Freed from the restraints, he curled up towards his knees, his face covered with his hands. The picture of despair. In the end, I did reach out and put a hand on his shoulder. It seemed the least I could do.
“So I’m still susceptible?” he asked, looking up at me. The muscles of his shoulder were tight beneath my hand, only the thin fabric of his shirt separating us. “I’m still dangerous for – what? At this rate, another twenty six hours. A day. More than an day.”
“If you’re worried, I can sit here with a gun trained on you until Jenna gets back,” I offered.
“Thank you, but no,” Blake said. “Ah. But—” He was having an idea. If you watch him carefully you can usually see it happening: a slight raise of his right eyebrow, a flaring of his nostrils, and possibly, if you’re lucky, his tongue pressing against the back of his teeth. “There’s no reason the person monitoring me has to be Jenna, is there? That’s right, isn’t it, Orac?”
I could see where he was going. Nowhere good, but somewhere very close to home.
“That is correct,” Orac said. “It does not have to be Jenna, though the chances of successful rehabilitation are more favourable if the other party has a close affinity with the one undergoing the therapy.”
“Then we can work in shifts," Blake said, shifting back into the lounger. “Four sessions in an hour instead of one. Avon, can you—?”
“No,” I said through my teeth. “Unless your next words are, remind me where my room is. That I could do.”
“I was going to say, can you strap me down again?” I raised an eyebrow. A tempting image, but not one he allowed me to linger on. “You will help, won’t you?” he pressed.
“I can help you to your room,” I said. I was aware, though, that there was no real point in prevaricating. As soon as he’d had the idea I’d only been playing for time. It was the same whenever he had any idea, really. The only effective defence was absence, and I had yet to manage that with any real degree of success.
“But you understand how important this could be,” Blake protested. “This is like IMIPAK hanging over our heads. Yours as well as mine, Avon. We have to do everything we can to ensure the threat is neutralised. The threat I pose.”
He was right, of course. He usually is. But as usual, he was right in the worst possible way.
“You heard Orac,” I said tightly. “If you want this to succeed, you need to find someone to whom you have a close affinity.”
“You are a suitable candidate, Avon,” Orac said. Treacherously. I felt like knocking it off the table. “You are from Earth, and are of a similar age to Blake. In fact, you are better suited to the task than Jenna.” I considered jamming a laser probe into its insides until the diagnosis changed, but fortunately for Orac it hadn’t quite finished. “However, I must advise against rushing into a second session immediately.”
I breathed more easily.
“Why, Orac?” Blake said.
“The consequences are unpredictable. Although it is possible you might cut your recovery time by utilising the full crew to run more frequent deprogramming sessions, you might also lengthen your recovery, unless you allow yourself adequate recovery time between those sessions.”
“I’ll take that risk,” Blake said.
“And what about me?” I snapped back. "Or do I not get a vote?”
I knew then that I should just walk out on him. He could try and find Vila, and persuade him this stupid idea was worth risking his Delta brain on. Since Vila was a confirmed coward that would probably be impossible, and Orac might well reject Cally again. She wouldn’t be a good test case for a dangerous procedure Orac wasn’t sure would work in the best possible circumstances. A human would have to be procured, and if Vila wouldn’t do it and I wouldn’t do it, then Blake would be out of luck. That meant that Blake would have to wait the prescribed one-hour period until Jenna felt well enough to try again. God, I wanted to walk out on him.
“Orac, is there a risk to Avon if we proceed with the shorter schedule?” Blake asked impatiently. As though that was the problem.
“No,” Orac said. “The risk is to you. Avon should suffer no more than Jenna.”
“And no less, either,” I said grimly.
“Avon – I need to know my mind is my own,” Blake said, his expression pleading. His eyes were very wide, and he looked almost vulnerable, which, if you know Blake, you’ll know is something that never happens. He is strength personified. That meant this was a disgusting piece of emotional manipulation. Only an idiot would have fallen for it. He reached out for me, and I stepped back, almost colliding with the couch next to his.
“Please, help me, Avon,” he said desperately, appealing to my better nature. Anyone could have told him I don’t have one. But obviously he didn’t believe that. No, Blake thought he could remake the world as he wanted it to be. The truth is that I don’t know if I do have a better nature, or just a weakness for doing what he wants me to do. I suppose that means he’s right. He has remade me by force of will alone.
In this case I wasn’t all that worried for myself — not directly, anyway. Oh, I didn’t relish the chance to wade around in Blake’s nightmares (I’m not a sadist), but that I could handle. The thought of Blake damaging himself further through his impatience was less palatable. If Blake’s recovery time increased, then Servalan would have more time to find another control device and use it on him. That would make all this, the trauma Jenna was still recovering from and which I would soon be a party to as well, pointless. And I would have blame myself for not stopping him.
But I was already closing the restraint bars over his body. He gave me a fond smile as I did so, and I scowled at him. This was not a success for either of us; it was simply that there was no alternative, and that I knew that if I went back to my room, he would only follow me. I told him as much, and he said he agreed it wasn't a success, and all the while I was hooking myself up to the sensor equipment that Jenna had recently abandoned. I must be mad, I thought to myself as I did it. Sometimes I really think I am. I settled gingerly on the couch next to Blake’s.
“Ready?” he said.
“No,” I replied, which he of course took for permission to proceed. I suppose it was, in a way. If I had genuinely objected I wouldn’t be lying down next to Blake with my forehead covered in sensors.
“All right, Orac. Five minutes,” Blake said firmly.
And it began.
I had known it would be unpleasant from watching Blake, and, to a lesser extent, Jenna. I had known it would be hell. But it was worse.
I don’t know if I have ever been conditioned myself. I hope not, but if I have – well, at least I don’t remember it. In Blake’s mind, I learned that it felt like being trapped in a box only slightly wider than my body. There was a flickering white light in front of my eyes, which had been forced open, and it felt like shafts of metal were pushing through them into the back of my skull. A low crackling sound emanated from somewhere inside my head. I felt like I was going to be sick. I felt like my head was going to explode. My muscles burned. I might have screamed, I don’t know. The tone Blake and Cally had heard was there underneath it all, and someone’s voice, calm and steady, told me that I had been wrong, that everything I had ever thought was wrong, and that the pain would stop if I only realised this and repented. I saw flashes of Blake’s life, people he had presumably known, places he had been, and the sight of them was agony. Renounce, renounce, the calm voice told me and, although I could hear Orac telling Blake not to renounce, I knew in my heart which of them would be able to save me, which one of them I should listen to. The pressure inside my head was building. I could hear Blake’s voice, telling his audience about liberty, and I knew I wanted nothing to do with it. I just wanted this to end, to end, to end—
Blake screamed, and somehow that was enough, when nothing else had been, to remind me of who I was and where I was. I ripped the sensors from my head and almost fell off the couch as I tried to reach him and stop what was happening.
He wasn’t sitting bolt upright as he had done during the first therapy session with Jenna. In fact, he seemed to have passed out. I shook him, but he was out cold. Stupid, idiotic— I continued to curse myself as I tried to wake him. How could I have allowed him to continue against Orac’s advice? What had I been thinking?
He was still alive, but barely. The monitors showed a steady heartbeat, though it was slow. Alarmingly slow, but at least it was there. If I’d allowed him to kill himself I really don’t know what I would have done. I expect Jenna would have killed me in return, though, so perhaps it wasn’t worth worrying about.
“Orac?” I demanded. “What happened? Has he set back his rehabilitation? If so, how much?”
I refused to ask about anything else. If it was worse, Orac would tell me.
“That is not yet clear,” Orac said. “I am monitoring Blake’s brainwaves, but while he is unconscious there is little distinguishing those patterns from his typical unconscious brainwaves. He will need to be conscious again before I can make a full diagnosis.”
“And how do you suggest I bring him back to consciousness? Can I use an adrenaline pad?” No answer. “Orac?” I snapped, feeling even less patient that normal.
“There is too little data!” Orac said. “Though I would hypothesise that since adrenaline is a natural substance, and since his heartrate is not currently above average, it should be safe — within tolerable limits, of course."
That was all I needed to hear. We had tranquilliser pads out already, but the adrenalin was still packed away in drawers. I knew where they were, but I opened two incorrect drawers before I located the right one. Then I almost dropped the pad as I attempted to open the packet. My fingers were trembling. Undoubtedly a residual effect of the abortive therapy session. Jenna had been led away to rest after she'd endured it, whereas I was attempting to administer basic medical care. Not very bright, but there was no alternative.
I pressed the patch against Blake's neck, and swung back towards the heart-rate monitor in time to see the line spike as, behind me, Blake gasped painfully, like he'd just emerged from under the water of a deep lake. That's either fanciful, or very close to the truth, depending on how you look at it.
Obviously I think it's fanciful, but not everyone would.
I opened the restraints for him and helped him to sit up, feeling the breath heaving through him. His hand fisted in my jacket as he tried to get control of himself. It was Central Control all over again. Another series of terrible mistakes.
"I told you that was a bad idea," I said harshly. Not strictly true, but I doubted he was going to pull me up on that one. My dissent had definitely been implicit. "How is he, Orac?"
"I am processing the data," Orac said, unhelpfully. Playing for time, too. "His brainwaves do appear to have been altered, but not as I would have expected. Most interesting."
"What happened?" Blake said as I let him go.
"Your brilliant plan knocked you out and did something Orac thinks is interesting to your head," I said, flexing my fingers. Somehow they'd remained shaped around his shoulders, though I'd already released him. "I didn't enjoy it either, but no need to worry about that more than you ever do."
"My plan?" Blake said.
My heart sank. Not twice in one day. That seemed possible, even perhaps likely under the circumstances, but it was also unfair. More so than usual, I mean. I’d have to explain about Atlay, Travis and Le Grande again. I'd have to endure Blake staring at me with horror and disbelief again. Damn it, I was tired. I did not want to deal with this. It was broadly possible he was just having me on, but I didn't think so. Not about this.
"You don't remember?"
"No," Blake said warily. He looked around the medical unit, eyes lingering on the machinery that was still monitoring him. "But this a treatment facility, isn't it?" he said, without looking at me. "That makes sense. And I'll cooperate, of course, fully, but I swear I had nothing to do with that meeting. I know Ravella from work, we've spoken perhaps a handful of times. And I've never seen the others before in my life. Yes, it was wrong to go outside the Dome, I admit it, but that is my only crime."
By this time, he'd finished looking around the rest of the room and finally returned to looking at the only person in it. Me. I don't know exactly what he'd been expecting to see in my face, but it certainly wasn't ... well, whatever my expression was, because he blinked.
"Are you all right?"
Obviously I'd been staring at him throughout this extraordinary speech, he just hadn't realised it. Strange – I actually felt paralysed with indecision. I’ve always thought that must be another fanciful turn of phrase, or something a coward might say to excuse his lack of action. Perhaps that is was it was. I’ve never claimed to be brave, or wanted to be.
"Orac?" I snapped. Play for time. Acquire more data.
"Most interesting indeed," Orac said. "As I suspected, Blake's memory has responded negatively to the stresses it has been subjected to in a short space of time."
"Tell me something I don't know, Orac," I said.
As I'm sure you've noticed, I still hadn't spoken to him since I'd realised something was wrong. I really didn't want to. For his part he was caught between staring at Orac with interest, and at me as though I was mad. Ironic, under the circumstances.
"I was about to!" Orac said.
"Is this natural, or is it, as Blake feared, the result of external influence? Servalan, in other words."
"Is what natural?" Blake said. "Could someone please explain what's going on?"
I ignored him. So did Orac.
"Of course it isn't natural. But neither is it prompted by an Auronar telepathic prompt. This is merely the last personality imposed on Blake by the Terran Administration. The stress of the most recent treatment session caused him to retreat to this personality, which must be seen by his brain as the most recent stable release, since Blake lived with it for almost four years before his breakdown two years ago. That breakdown was caused by a traumatic event that took place at the meeting Blake has just described. Attending the meeting appears to be the last event this personality can recall, and I would hypothesise that he has no memory of the specific event that caused his breakdown. That breakdown allowed him to access his original personality, but such a personality would be seen as unstable, inconsistent: not what was needed in this circumstance."
I should have said that was exactly how I saw Blake (unstable, inconsistent, not what we needed), but I was rather busy – keeping myself from throwing up. Orac talked of Blake's mind as though it was a computer database, like Orac's own, which I had idly considered reprogramming only minutes ago. Of course, that’s exactly what it is, and I know that. More to the point that's exactly what my brain is too. Human beings are machines, driven by electrical signals, just like Orac is. They're badly performing machines in most cases. They rarely do what they are supposed to. Blake never does. But that didn't mean that I ... That I thought Blake should ... That I condoned ...
I have never asked Blake about the period of time he was conditioned, though presumably it affected his life and the decisions he made aboard the Liberator considerably. I have never wanted to.
What I did now want to ask was whether we could get our Blake back – assuming, of course, that we wanted to. This Blake was presumably easier to deal with, indeed the Federation had reprogrammed him for that specific purpose. Why wouldn’t we at least consider keeping him instead of our version? Why not indeed. Oh, and I am aware that the term 'our' is imprecise – Blake, the original one, I mean, belonged either to everyone or to no one, depending on how you looked at it, but the term would have served its purpose for this question. But Blake (confused, two years out of date, and with half his brain missing) still got there before me.
"Is there a chance of the other personality reasserting itself without prompting from an external influence?"
"No," Orac said. "Ironically, you are also, for the moment, safe from the telepathic devices these therapy sessions were designed to resist. Any such devices will have to be recalibrated for this personality. And until Servalan learns what has happened — something she is unlikely to do, since even I could not predict this turn of events — she will not make such a change."
"Well, that all seems fairly comprehensive," Blake said calmly. "I suppose I should start finding out what’s happened in the last two years." He glanced around the medical bay again, this time with more understanding. "This isn't a Federation facility, is it?"
"No," I said. It was the first thing I'd actually said to him, this version of him, anyway. Not a bad summary of our relationship. I was the man who said no to Blake. This new Blake would do well to learn that, ideally better than the old one had.
"And it's not exactly a comprehensive analysis of the situation," I continued. "What about with external influence, Orac? Would you be able to reassert Blake's original personality?"
"Not a chance," Blake said hotly. "That box has no idea what it's doing, and it is not going to mess around with my brain again."
"It’s not your brain," I snapped.
"It's not yours either," he retorted. That was true. I have no idea why I responded so aggressively.
Yes, I do. I'd prefer not to dwell on it, though.
"Orac is the most advanced computer ever built," I told him. "It has research capabilities beyond any that you can imagine. It is also able to predict the future with a reasonable degree of accuracy.” So why hadn't Blake listened to it? "So you see, either Orac will be able to find out how to carry out the procedure, or it will be able to hypothesise the path most likely to produce a successful result."
"That is correct," Orac said. "And since you were apparently aware of the answer to your question, Avon, it would have been better if you'd saved your time and mine by not asking it!"
For all the inherent similarities between Orac and the human brain, Orac doesn't understand humans any better than I do. I suspect someone else would have realised that I'd wanted to be reassured. Orac was right, though. It was a pointless request – and, under the circumstances, not very wise.
"Thank you for putting me on my guard," Blake said. He eyed the computer with dislike, and I thought about snatching it into my arms to protect it from him. That would leave me heavily encumbered, though – unable to run, if he took off, or fight back, if he chose to attack. His personality had been created by Federation scientists. I had no idea what he was capable of.
As much as it pained me to admit it, I was out of ideas. I also had reason to believe that I wasn't acting logically right now, so any ideas I did have were suspect. I was unarmed, exhausted, and alone. So I did what any reasonable person would do – I called for back-up.
"Cally, can you come to the medical unit? Bring Jenna, if you can. And a gun. Each.”
“A gun, Avon?”
She confirmed and signed off. I had no idea how long it would take her to get to me. I also suspected she would leave Jenna to sleep, given what had happened. Another thing I've noticed since Central Control – a crew of five isn’t really enough. It has little resiliency. If one of our number is incapacitated for some reason, then we're down to four – one of whom is probably needed to stand watch on the flight deck or at the teleport controls, leaving three. Three can be enough, as long as those three are in good health, but when has that ever happened? Yes, I treasure my privacy, but Blake had made the wrong decision here as well. He should have found someone else with more loyalty than common sense (practically anyone, in other words) and invited them aboard. If he'd ever listened to me, I might have told him to do that – it’s not a mistake I would have made his place. Now he might never listen to me again.
I moved round to block the door to prevent Blake from making a run for it, considering as I did so that I had never been in a physical fight with Blake before. I wasn’t sure that I would win, but it was all I could do. He watched me do it, without moving, a familiar patronising expression on his face –which effectively made me feel like an idiot, but as Vila always says: better to be careful than dead.
“What are you planning to do, Avon?” he asked, clearly testing whether my name on his lips had any power over me. It didn’t. “Wait until the box comes up with an answer?”
“More or less,” I said. I hadn’t flinched, I was sure of it. “One of us will watch you until that happens.”
At this point Cally arrived behind me, and I stepped aside to let her enter. Quickly I explained what had happened. Blake listened too, with what I assumed, though I tried not look at him, was interest. I suppose he’d only heard the end of the story before.
Cally is a very understanding person, and she didn’t condemn me for what had happened. She squeezed my arm, and then she passed me the gun and went to sit on the couch beside Blake.
“This is very frightening for us,” she told him. “I’m sure it must be for you, too.”
I saw his expression soften. Not only is she understanding, Cally is also good at making people like her. For a woman we found angry and half-feral amongst the graves of her friends, a woman whose first action was to try and kill Blake, she’s very good with people. To be fair, it’s not actually that unusual to want to kill Blake. I want to kill him several times a day, but then – no one would ever describe me as a people-person.
“It’s certainly not what I was expecting when I woke up this morning,” Blake said. He shook his head. “Sorry, when I last remember waking up. Perhaps I should have thought harder about accepting Ravella’s invitation. It seems to have changed everything.”
“It changed the lives of everyone aboard this ship,” Cally told him.
“Not always for the better,” I said.
I knew, of course, that if Blake hadn’t persuaded me to participate in his mutiny aboard the London then my life would probably have ended on Cygnus Alpha a few months later. But sometimes I wonder whether that would really have been worse. At least in that scenario, I’d only be dead.
Blake glanced up at me again. He saw that I’d connected Cally’s gun to the power pack and that I was pointing the gun at him now. Much as he had the first time I’d pointed a gun at him, he barely reacted before he looked away again. Obviously the Federation didn’t think to change that part of his personality when they did … whatever it was they did. The stupid part.
“I think Avon would be happier if we restrained you, at least until we’ve run a few tests,” Cally told him, with a quick look back at me. “When we know you’re not going to harm us, we can release you. I will only restrain you, though, if you agree.”
“All right,” Blake said after a moment in which he presumably considered the gun I was pointing at him, and the threat it posed, more seriously. He leant back slightly. “But just to be clear – you’re not going to restrain me, and then wipe my personality? I don’t agree to that.”
That’s exactly what we’re going to do, I thought to myself. But Cally said soothingly,
“That kind of thing is precisely what we are fighting against. And besides, Orac doesn’t know how to reinstate your other personality, so we couldn’t do it if we wanted to. That is right, isn’t it, Orac?”
“I would work faster without these constant interruptions,” Orac said peevishly.
“So you see there is no danger,” Cally told Blake.
He seemed to buy it. I holstered my gun, and helped Cally close the restraints over him. She didn’t need the help, it’s a one-man job, but I felt better once it was done.
“We should tranq him as well,” I said. “To be sure he doesn’t—”
“No,” Blake and Cally said at the same time. Not unexpected. I already had one of the pads in my hand, though. Blake wouldn’t be able to stop me, but Cally was fast. Was she close enough? I wondered, and in that moment lost my advantage as she rounded the couch to my side.
“Avon, I do not believe that will be necessary. I will stay and watch him.” She put a hand on my arm. I hope I didn’t flinch away from that, either. “Get some rest, Avon.”
She must have been as tired as I was, but if she wanted to watch him that was her choice. I couldn’t stop her, and I couldn’t tranquillise Blake while she was here.
“All right,” I said, ungraciously.
I still had the tranquilliser pad in my hand, unused. I do not regularly suffer from insomnia the way that Blake does, but there are times when I lie awake, turning something over in my head until it’s time to get up again and I haven’t rested at all. Generally it’s something to do with Blake. But then it seems most things in my life are to do with Blake – now that is a depressing thought.
The current situation (a known Federation agent barely restrained aboard our ship as we hurtled towards Star One) seemed like something that would almost certainly keep me up. But I wouldn’t let it get the better of me – this time. I folded my fingers around the tranquilliser pad, and turned to the door.
“Avon,” Cally said warningly.
I grimaced, and turned around, my hands open so she could see what I’d taken. She shook her head.
“Somethings you are no better than Vila.”
“Ah, but my need really is medicinal,” I said.
“Yes, he says that too,” Cally said.
I left the medical bay feeling peculiarly like I’d been shown up as a childish idiot in front of someone I barely knew. But this Blake wasn’t even a real person. I barely cared what the real Blake thought of me, let alone this imposter.
No, that isn’t true either.
I drugged myself heavily and, to my relief, slept.
I woke about four hours later, feeling slightly better but still groggy. I dressed and, after a moment’s deliberation, strapped on the gun that Cally had given me the night before. We don’t tend to wear weapons on the ship, but then it tends to be safe here. Or as safe as anything is around Blake. At the moment, I had no idea how safe we were.
The fact that four hours had passed meant that we must have arrived above Del Ten. Hopefully we could find Docholli quickly, and then push on to Star One. Although … with Blake out of action, would the others feel the need to look for Docholli, or indeed to carry on with our insane quest at all? It was an interesting thought. They had been almost ready to leave him after he’d marooned himself following Gan’s death. And Cally had started to question me recently about what Star One actually did for the Federation, what it would not do if it was destroyed, and who this would hurt. It was possible she was having second thoughts. Vila had never had any thoughts to begin with – not any worth listening to anyway, and Gan no longer merited a vote. Jenna was the only unknown factor: typically loyal to Blake, but showing increasing signs of discontent as we got closer to our ultimate destination. What would she do in Blake’s absence? I didn’t know.
Well, whatever happened, it was likely that the scene on the flight deck this morning would be tense. Either someone would argue that we should go … or they wouldn’t. Jenna and Vila would have to be told what had happened to Blake, and whose fault it was. If I was to face them, if I was to succeed in pushing through my own agenda, I would need considerable caffeine in my system.
Fortunately the kitchen was empty when I entered it, coffee already brewing on the side. I poured myself a large mug, allowing myself three sugars as well as the cream. I’m more restrained usually, but sometimes I think – why bother? Why worry about diabetes? Why worry about getting fat? I’ll be dead within a year. This was, unfortunately, one of those times.
I sank into a chair and nursed my coffee moodily. Blake arrived a few moments later, and poured himself a similar cup, dosed with similar quantities of fat and sweetener (Blake has never worried about diabetes in his life).
“Morning Avon,” he said as he turned to leave, and I almost let him go without more than a scowl. That is what I would normally have done – but this wasn’t a normal day, there was a reason I was in such a bad mood, and Blake should not have been walking around the ship unsupervised.
“What do you think you’re you doing?” I demanded of his back.
He turned towards me, a look of innocent confusion on his face that usually signalled he knew exactly what I was talking about but didn’t want to engage. “Getting coffee? I’m sorry, I didn’t realise there was a ban.”
For a moment, I wondered whether it was him. The look was his, the coffee was his, and the way he didn’t back down at all in the face of my displeasure – oh yes, that was definitely his. Perhaps Cally had gone back on her word and reprogrammed him while he’d been unable to resist. Perhaps Blake had just woken up from what was, after all, a temporary affliction. It didn’t seem likely.
“Who let you out?” If it was Vila again, he’d find himself doing something even less pleasant than hauling a corpse out of an airlock. Possibly being a corpse hauled out of an airlock.
“Cally,” Blake said. “She couldn’t find any evidence of implanted triggers, and I promised to be good.”
I pushed past him into the corridor that led the flight deck. Jenna was there at the flight controls, while Cally was examining some sort of map from the central sofa. Vila was presumably asleep somewhere I would later have to step over him.
“You let him wander off?” I hissed at Cally, leaning over the edge of the opposite side of the sofa towards her. “Are you mad?” There were worse things I could have said. I could have reminded her what had happened when she’d let Gan loose from his ‘barbarous’ restraints, but actually ‘are you mad?’ just about covered it.
“There was no danger. There is no danger,” Cally said as I heard Blake himself step onto the flight deck behind me. Yes, I can recognise his footsteps now. That’s self preservation for you.
“This Blake is not political. Not in either side’s favour,” Cally told me.
“That he recalls,” I said.
“He’s been free for the last two hours,” Jenna said. “In that time he hasn’t done anything worse than drink coffee and annoy you. And it’s not as though either of those is difficult or unusual.”
Blake took the seat opposite Cally – in other words, the seat directly in front of me. I stepped back before his shoulders could collide with my hands, turning on Jenna to disguise the instinct.
“I thought I could rely on you not to behave like an idiot.”
“You were mistaken,” Jenna said. “You often are.” She raised an eyebrow and smiled, her chin tilted defiantly. “In fact – why don’t you tell us how this happened, Avon? Blake was fine when I left.”
“I’m fine now,” Blake said pleasantly.
“Shut up,” I said to him and stalked over to my console. “I take it we are above Del Ten?” The readouts confirmed it, but I wanted to deflect the conversation.
“Yes,” Cally said. “Orac has limited the search area to a city on the northern continent – we don’t have Docholli's home address, but he should be arriving for work in another hour. Orac has already made an appointment for me.”
“So, we are going down?” I said.
“We’re here, so we might as well,” Jenna said. “Unless you have a good reason why we shouldn’t.”
Our good reason was sitting on the sofa opposite Cally, drinking someone else’s coffee. I didn’t mention it, though. It wasn’t as if Jenna couldn’t see him too.
“I am willing for Cally to speak to Docholli," I said. "We might as well find out what he knows. And, since we do not know what that is or why he knows it, one of us should go as back-up. Jenna.” I turned to her.
“Why not you?”
My eyes must have flicked back to Blake. I wanted to watch him, to make sure that he didn’t damage the ship in the absence of two of the crew. Jenna must have seen this, because she shrugged, conceding defeat.
“All right. I probably could use time in the beta particles.” This was true. She’d had two sessions in Blake’s mind where I’d only had one, which had been more than enough to ensure my hands were still shaking, even after four hours of sleep. Jenna was probably feeling worse. She needed rest, relaxation, or if those weren’t available (and they weren’t), exposure to Del Ten’s naturally occurring beta particles. I'd researched the particles earlier, before Blake had sent us off-course to Atlay. That research had revealed that Del Ten’s beta particles were scientifically proven to ‘cure stress’ and ‘promote wellbeing’. Hippy nonsense by any other name, but the planet was also warm, beautiful and peaceful, so even if the beta particles turned out to be a scientific con, Jenna would probably derive some benefit from being there.
“Once we find out what Docholli knows, and more importantly who he’s told it to, we might even take our planned rest stop,” I said. Blake would never have allowed it, whatever he’d said to the contrary, and we all knew that. I wanted to see how they’d react.
“An excellent suggestion,” Cally said, which answered that question. She was putting her own priorities over Blake’s – rest for the crew before Star One. “Del Ten should be the ideal place to relax. Orac reports no Federation presence. It should be perfectly safe.” Should being the operative word, there. Cally is optimistic; Orac is not as infallible as it likes us to believe. And that thought reminded me—
I crossed the flight deck, moving to Orac, which sat on top of the force-wall controls.
“Orac, have you managed to make similar progress on your other project? The investigation into what has happened to our glorious leader’s mind –based, naturally, on the perhaps erroneous assumption that he had one to begin with.”
“If I had made any progress, I would have communicated it," Orac said. “Much of my capacity is currently taken up with monitoring Federation signals around Del Ten and on locating Docholli.”
“Are we then to assume that you are about to turn your full attention to the matter of Blake’s memory?”
“No. You have not yet located Docholli. My calculations show he may be on Del Ten, but he may not be. Roj Blake’s instructions were quite clear - the search for Docholli must take top priority. When I receive confirmation that you have located him, then and only then will I be able to effectively dedicate my processing time to your question, Avon.”
“Who is this Docholli anyway?” Blake said. A fairly obvious ruse to change the subject. But, since Orac had nothing else to offer us, and since I didn’t think Jenna or Cally believed that Blake’s mind was more important than his quest, I thought I might as well allow it. If anything, I was surprised Blake had managed to stay silent through most of this conversation. That was something they’d changed. He can usually go fewer than ten seconds without interjecting, generally with something worth paying attention to, if only because it was generally worth objecting to.
“Docholli has been identified by someone who ought to know as the man who can lead us to the Federation's central control computer,” I told Blake now, taking a seat next to Cally on the sofa.
“It’s on Earth, isn’t it?” he said. “Everybody knows that.”
I allowed myself to laugh; Jenna and Cally didn’t. “No, it was on Earth, but it was moved some time ago. Now it’s somewhere else, and we have got to find out where it is.”
“Why?” Blake said. Really, this situation was growing more and more surreal with each moment. Would I have to explain all of Blake’s plans and motivations to him?
“So we can destroy it,” Jenna said. “We’ve tried once already. That’s how we know it’s not on Earth.”
“What?” Blake said. He looked aghast. “Destroy Control? But you can’t do that.”
“Possibly not. We certainly haven’t managed it yet,” I said.
“I mean you mustn’t,” Blake said. “People depend on Control to survive. It holds the Federation together. Without Control, hundreds of worlds will be thrown into chaos, others will become inhabitable, food supply runs will cease to operate, interplanetary travel will be almost impossible—”
“That is exactly the point,” I said. “Not the shipping lanes exactly, but we’re loosening the Federation’s grip, allowing the Federated planets to fight for their own freedom.” I turned my head towards Cally. “Not political, you said. Well, I’d like to know what is this, if not politics. And hostile politics at that.”
“He does have a point,” Cally said, her face worried.
“So does the other one,” I retorted. Often the instinct for dissent works against me – now it looked as though I was supporting Blake. “At least,” I said, recovering myself, “that’s what you’ve said before.”
“Finding Docholli doesn’t commit us to a course of action,” Jenna said firmly. “It just keeps our options open. Blake, I’m sorry, but we can discuss this later. Cally, are you ready? Avon, teleport?”
I nodded and rose to my feet. “You'd better come with me,” I told Blake, who seemed somehow to have accepted what Jenna had said. Millions might die, but we could discuss it later. What was the galaxy coming to?
The four of us left the flight deck together. I set Jenna and Cally down, and then I was left alone with Blake again. Exactly what I didn’t want. I’d known this would happen, of course, but I hadn’t really thought about it. I considered waking Vila, and then rapidly decided against it. Two idiots wouldn’t make the situation any more palatable.
“Extraordinary,” Blake said of the teleport. “How does it work?”
“None of your business,” I said. I indicated that he should return to the flight deck, and he held up his hands peaceably and walked in front of me down the corridor. I didn't take my gun out, but I don’t think my hand strayed very far from it either. He walked like Blake walked – not that it made any difference.
“It’s funny. I used to work on the Federation’s matter transport project,” he told me.
“I know,” I said flatly. It had been one of the first things I’d learned about Blake once we’d taken the Liberator together. I hadn’t realised, though, that when Blake had told me he'd worked on the project, what he’d meant was that he’d worked on it like this. Presumably that was why I didn’t remember him from that time. He hadn’t been extraordinary. He’d followed orders, got the job done on time, taken the money and gone home. I had wondered before how I’d managed to miss Blake in our midst, large project or no. Now I knew.
“I never really thought it would work, though,” he said, unaware of what was passing through my mind. “All the time I was helping design and build it, and I never really believed in it. It just seemed so unlikely.”
Well, it would be unlikely if the rest of the workforce apart from me had all been extensively conditioned, like Blake had been: their potential curbed before they’d been unloosed on the project. Provided Blake was in what passed for his right mind, he and I could probably have managed it together, if we’d really tried. In many ways, the Federation is its own worst enemy – at least, it probably was now that Blake had been taken out of the running.
We emerged onto the flight deck. Zen was thoughtfully displaying an image of Del Ten in all its glory on the main monitor. Blake seemed entranced by that, too.
“I’ve never seen an alien planet before.”
“You haven’t seen one now, either,” I told him. I took a seat again on the sofa, and resolutely did not think of the twenty or thirty worlds he and I had visited over the last year. It was ridiculous, really. I had been talking to this version of Blake for several hours now, and I still wasn’t used to it. An intelligent man can adapt, I’d told Blake once. But I wasn’t adapting, so what did that make me?
Rhetorical question. I know very well what it made me. I only wish I didn't.
“My brother and sister immigrated to one of the outer worlds a few years ago,” Blake told me. A shadow passed over his face. “I was told they had, anyway. Then, yesterday I was told they were killed. No, not yesterday … Two years ago.”
This tallied with what he’d told me, so I said nothing, though it was … interesting to watch him discover it all over again. Like … our Blake, he seemed to be disguising fear and sadness as anger. His frown became more and more pronounced as I watched.
“I never thought to visit them,” Blake said. “My uncle and cousin are on another planet out here too, but I was never told the name of it. I haven’t visited them either.”
We’d been to Exbar only about a month ago, and Blake had mentioned visiting as a child. Presumably the Federation had thought it unwise to leave Blake with real memories of a revolutionary uncle and cousin, banished to a penal colony. I thought about telling him that … and decided against it. He would only want to go back to Exbar immediately. And that was something we should definitely avoid. Who knew whether Travis was still lurking about? And that gung-ho cousin of his wouldn’t be happy that Blake was no longer filled with revolutionary fire, either. I’d prefer not to think about what she might do to try and reignite it.
“I don’t know, perhaps they’re dead too,” Blake said, clearly slipping further and further into despondency with every moment. Since he was the biggest problem anybody aboard this ship currently had, I had little sympathy for him. Not surprising – I don’t have much at the best of times.
“Why don’t we go down there?” I said without really thinking about what I was saying. It did effectively distract him, though. His eyebrows rose with interest. My instincts must be fairly good.
“Where?” he said. “To Del Ten?”
“Where else?” Certainly not Exbar. “Vila can operate the teleport for us. If Cally and Jenna get into trouble they can call in, and Orac is already monitoring the threat level around the planet. We might as well go down.”
Now I was thinking about it, I liked this plan more and more. It would keep Blake off the Liberator, which meant that if he was inclined towards sabotage, he’d be thwarted. And if the beta particles were as effective as the enthusiastic and probably grant-hungry scientists believed (unlikely, but still) then I would probably benefit from exposure to them myself. Perhaps they might even do something for Blake’s faulty memory – not that I allowed myself anything as foolish as hope on that score. Or on any score. I leave that to Blake, and other idiots.
Since Blake hadn’t objected to the Del Ten plan, I called our absent thief.
“Vila, are you awake?”
“No,” he said after a moment. “What is it?”
I grinned at Blake, sharing the joke that was Vila's life. He smiled back. “Blake and I are going down to the planet,” I told Vila. “Be in the teleport area in ten minutes.”
I won’t deny that I had also considered another potential outcome of a trip to Del Ten with a forgetful Blake. It was possible, though unlikely, that we might run into trouble. If we did, Blake would presumably panic, and might even attempt to ally himself with the enemy. That would be problematic if he succeeded, but I didn’t think he would be able to. The fact that he had tried, though, would prove me right about whether or not he was dangerous like this. It would encourage the others to stop Orac from working on anything that wasn’t this.
We arrived in the teleport area, and I handed Blake a bracelet before clipping on my own. I didn’t hand him his own gun for obvious reasons. A few minutes later, Vila arrived looking cross and rumpled. He noticed that we’d brought him a fresh mug of coffee (Blake’s idea, obviously, not mine), and that this was sitting on the edge of the teleport desk. He gave the mug a dark look, but pulled it towards himself anyway as he sat down. Hopefully it would keep him awake until we needed him.
“I’ve already set the coordinates,” I told him.
Vila grunted his understanding and set us down in the area I’d specified: a wild meadow about ten minutes’ walk outside the city. I’d chosen it, as we choose most of our touchdown sights, for no other reason than that it probably wouldn’t be occupied. But Blake … Blake seemed to think it was the most exciting place he’d ever seen. Even the teleport technology seemed insignificant in comparison to what essentially boiled down to flowers, grass, and lots of it.
I wanted to be objective. I usually am. In this case, though, watching him look around himself with childlike amazement (another expression I have never seen on Blake’s face before, incidentally) made me feel curiously uncomfortable.
“This way,” I said at about the same time as Blake sat down in the long grass. He stretched out until he was lying down at my feet. Now I really did feel uncomfortable. Blake doesn’t relax in front of me. Not if he can help it, anyway. If he does, it’s usually a pose – designed to remind all of us how confident he is. This wasn’t that.
“Why move?” he asked.
The grass surrounding him was actually higher than any part of his body now. I could see it enclosing him, blades of grass tickling the side of his face.
“You don’t want to see the city?”
He shrugged. “I’ve been in Domes all my life — as far as I know, anyway. And as far as I know, I’ve only been outside once. On the way to that meeting we talked about last night. It was dark, cold, and thoroughly miserable. This is …”
“Warm and miserable?” I suggested, squinting against the sunlight in the direction of the city.
“Warm,” he said with a chuckle that reminded me of Blake. Of our Blake. I mean, the other Blake. My Blake. I mean, Blake. “Sit down, Avon.”
The command reminded me of him too, and I obeyed without thinking. Instinct. Damn it, I needed to get control of that. But I was down now.
We sat in silence for a while. I don’t know whether it was the beta particles, or whether it is impossible even for me to remain perpetually at the level of tension I’d been maintaining up until this point, but I felt myself gradually relaxing. Some sort of insect was buzzing around, and I could hear Blake breathing. I tried not to look at him.
“Are you really planning on blowing up Control?” he asked eventually.
“Star One,” I told him. “That’s what it’s called now. And yes, I suppose we are. That’s certainly what we tried to do last time.”
“But you don’t seem like a murderer.”
Interesting statement. I don’t think I reacted visibly, though other people probably would have. When it came down to it, though, the word was just a label. I’ve been called worse – though not often.
“Well now, how would you know what a murderer seemed like?” I asked him.
“I do watch the newscasts occasionally,” he said. Then he seemed to realise just how naive that statement was, and scowled as Blake would have done. Too late, though. I already felt more comfortable in this conversation. “I suppose you and Orac would probably tell me that was just propaganda to strengthen my conditioning.”
“Some of it probably was,” I said. “Some of it might have been true. It doesn’t really matter. Not all murderers are alike. Try and remember that. I've killed more people than most Federation troopers. I don't even know how many, now. Enough, anyway, for me to qualify as a murderer in most people’s eyes."
You would qualify too.
I thought about saying it, but it wouldn't achieve very much. Already he thought his real personality was unstable, immoral, and foolhardy, so much so that he didn't want to go back to it. It wasn't going to do much good to point out that he was exactly right. Except, perhaps, about the morality.
Blake is as willing to deal out death as any of us, but I do wonder, sometimes. Perhaps Blake, unlike me, would know exactly how many people he'd killed, if I asked. Or he would have done, before ... well, all this. For some ridiculous reason, he has a strong streak of self-disgust, particularly around the things he's done for the cause of freedom. I don’t understand it myself – in most cases Blake has only killed people who directly work for the institution that, as he reminds us, oppresses, brainwashes and, yes, murders millions of people on a daily basis. And generally the people we kill are people who want to kill us first. It’s difficult to empathise with that mentality. Gan – well, I can understand that a bit more, but it’s not as it wasn’t depressingly inevitable. To tell the truth, I’m more surprised that the rest of us got out of Central Control, than that Gan didn’t. It was a dreadful plan from the beginning, but I think we all knew that. The others even had a little vote on whether they would go down with Blake or not – if that doesn’t absolve him of responsibility for what happened I don’t know what would. Nevertheless, I’ve played on his guilt about it more times that I can remember. I'm not proud of it, obviously, but sometimes it's the only thing that can get him to change his mind. Most of the time it still isn't enough.
“For a while now I’ve been thinking about an alternate plan for Star One," I said.
Now where did that come from? Well, I know where the plan came from, but I hadn't told Blake yet, so I had no idea why I was now telling ... this Blake.
"Star One is a computer complex," I heard myself say. "I am, amongst other things, a computer technician – a very competent one. I could take control of it, of the Federation's primary control computer. And when we had that, we would have the Federation. They would have to accede to our demands." Control the computer and you control the ship, I remembered telling Blake a lifetime ago. It had been a good plan then, too, and it had worked. Or it would have done, if Blake hadn't surrendered at the first sign of trouble.
"Nobody would be able to stop us, because nobody except Docholli has any idea where Star One is. Not even the Supreme Commander herself."
"And?" Blake said. He'd leant up on one of his elbows to look at me. I noticed that he had dry grass caught in the curls of his hair. He looked utterly ridiculous.
"That's it," I said. "The Federation would be ours. What more do you want?"
"No, I mean, why don't you do that?" Blake asked. "It sounds like a reasonable plan. Certainly better than blowing the whole thing up. So why not, Avon?"
"Blake would never agree to it," I said without thinking about who I was talking to. I realised my mistake too late. Sure enough, he smiled as though this solved everything.
"I thought I just did."
"No, I mean—”
"Oh, I see, you mean your Blake,” he said.
He was being humorously sarcastic – he hadn't really forgotten. And he wasn't offended, either. Blake would have been raging by now. Or perhaps he wouldn't. What he calls his sense of humour is unpredictable.
"I mean the Blake who has more than an elementary grasp of strategy and the current political landscape, yes," I said. I wanted to dispute the possessive pronoun, too (plural presumably), but that would only distract him. It probably wouldn't make me look very good either.
"But you do," he said, still smiling.
"I do what?"
"Have more than an elementary grasp of strategy."
"And I trust you," he said. "So, why wouldn't I follow your advice?"
It was a rhetorical question, but not in the way Blake would have meant it. Blake would have been implying all the many reasons there were not to trust me. This Blake ... meant the opposite. My throat felt curiously as though it was closing up. Probably too much pollen exposure. I don't go outside very often, not in non-urban landscapes anyway. I wasn’t used to it.
And if you believe that, you'll believe anything.
"You don't know me at all," I told him. "I've done nothing to deserve that trust. If anything, you've just proved why the decision isn't yours to make. I don't trust Blake either, of course, but at least he makes a somewhat credible leader. When he gets back, I'll have to apologise for—”
"Avon," he said, and I stopped mid-sentence. Instinct again. Somehow he always manages to do that to me, without even raising his voice. He leant towards me, eyes holding mine. "I am Blake,” he told me. “And I am not going anywhere."
I really didn't know what to say to that. I didn't look away either – because I was convinced there was something that could dispute it, if I could only work out what it was. 'You're wrong' would probably have covered it. But he looked so certain. He looked ... well, he looked like Blake.
It was a relief to hear the chime of the bracelet on my wrist. It broke the tension. I jerked it up towards my face, too fast to seem in control of the situation, but then I wasn’t, at all. Blake relaxed back into the grass again.
"Avon," I said, activating the two-way speaker.
"It's Cally," Cally's voice said. "We've found the man we thought was Docholli, but he's a decoy. The real Docholli was never here."
I grimaced. This was perhaps the worst news Cally could have delivered. It meant we were no closer to our goal, we had no leads, but neither were we able to call it a day. If Docholli had been dead at the hands of the Federation, at least we could have told Blake that we'd tried: the secret of Star One had been lost. But I can’t even manage that sort of luck.
"The man Orac found was paid to live and work here under a false name, and to conduct himself in roughly the same way Docholli might have," Cally continued, although I wasn't really that interested anymore. The information might help us form a better psychological picture of the man we were hunting, and perhaps that would lead us to him more quickly, but it was all background detail. What Cally was telling me with every word she spoke was that Orac would need to dedicate its valuable processing time to finding another lead.
"Does your man have any idea where the real Docholli is?" I asked, somewhat redundantly. If he had then Cally would have said. Sure enough -
"No, he's never met him."
”But Orac has already traced the regular bank transfers that the Del Ten decoy receives,” Cally continued. “They originate from a Federation-owned bank on Proxima Nine. The information about who deposited the money seems to be kept in a non-tarrial system, though Orac suggests there may be other records that he has yet to access. We should discuss our next move from the Liberator. Can you bring us up?"
“No. Blake and I are down on the planet," I told her. "Vila - did you copy that? Bring us up."
"All right, all right," Vila's voice said, through what was obviously a yawn. "But I'm going down next."
"Don't bet on it," I told him.
I got to my feet. Blake did not. I nudged him with my foot, but by then it was too late, and the teleport had already taken hold of us. We materialised back on the Liberator, with Blake stretched out on the floor in front of me, Jenna and Cally. He held out a hand to be hauled to his feet - and I stepped over him. Cally or Jenna must have helped him up. He was standing by the time I’d deposited my bracelet and turned back to the others, and he gave me an amused smile that suggested he’d found my refusal to help him funny, rather than insulting. I scowled at him.
“Proxima Nine is in the next quadrant,” I said as Blake and the others also stacked their bracelets away. “It will take about two days to reach it, even at Standard by Seven. It’s Federation occupied space so we’ll have to be on full alert for the entire journey.”
“Agreed,” Jenna said wearily. “But I suppose there’s no other option.”
“The Federation are unlikely to be able to trace the bank transfers as easily as Orac has,” I reminded her as we started back towards the flight deck. “Even if they find our false Docholli, they will have to spend time digging through the records. We should use that time, as planned, to remain on Del Ten. We all need a rest.”
Whether that was true or not (and it was) didn’t really matter. I didn’t want Orac to spend the next few days tracing bank accounts. It had to abandon the quest for Docholli (for now, or for good - it didn’t really matter to me, either way), and focus on Blake. Two days would also barely be long enough to complete even the original course of therapy Orac had prescribed. I expected that was now a best-case scenario. If we left this minute, there was no possible way Blake would be back to normal by the time we reached Proxima Nine. The bank in question was high-security Federation building where a Federation sympathiser could easily find a dozen ways of bringing disaster down onto us. Even in the best possible situation, I would have had little to no interest in physically breaking into a Federation-controlled bank. Surprising, I know, given my history, but like all criminals I have my preferred vices. Security in the Proxima Nine bank was likely to be tighter even than at Control - Federation officials care a lot about repressing their citizens and keeping the weather balmy, but even those sorts of people generally care more about money than they do about anything else. What’s power for, if not to make the acquisition of money easier for the powerful? (Obviously I know Blake wouldn’t agree.) The place would be crawling with trigger-happy guards. There are easier ways to make millions of credits, if we so chose. It wasn’t even as if we needed the money.
“Hear hear,” Vila said in response to my suggestion about staying on Del Ten. He tried to put a hand on my shoulder as we walked. “You know, Avon, I’ve always said that you were a sensible chap. Avon? I said to everyone. Sensible. Knows what he’s about. And I think we all know who should take the first shift on planet …”
“We cannot assume the Federation even traced Docholli to this planet,” Cally said, without responding to Vila. “They may have realised he was a dupe from the beginning—”
“How?” I said as we emerged onto the flight deck. “Even Orac didn’t know.”
“They own the bank,” Cally said. She took a seat on the couch. Jenna went to her position to check on the Liberator’s orbit, and the rest of us joined Cally. “They may have records of Docholli’s initial deposit. It will be easy for them to consult their own systems. They could be two steps ahead of us already.”
“The question is, have they already caught him?” Jenna said grimly.
“The question is, do we care?” I said. “If the Federation find Docholli, then they’ll find out where their own computer complex is. We’ll be no worse off than before.”
“I don’t think I could feel worse than I do now,” Vila said, unhelpfully. “I’m so tired I think I’m dying. Just a few hours in the betas—”
“We’ll be no better off, either,” Cally said, again ignoring Vila. Really - the only sensible thing to do. “Whereas if we find Docholli, we could get there before the Federation. We have to try, Avon.”
“Why?” I said. “The only one of us who really believed in this course of action is missing, with no current plans to return.” I nodded towards Blake, who was watching us all again steadily, without saying anything. “Cally, you, more than anyone, have repeatedly stressed the need for a rest stop. You agreed with my earlier suggestion that we should take that rest stop on Del Ten. Even assuming we do find Star One, what good are we going to be there, if we find it and we’re all half asleep? Suffering from migraines, stomach ache, and back pain as a result of stress?”
No, these weren’t my primary reasons for wanting to stay, but I had half-convinced myself with this rationale. Cally, unfortunately, was less tractable.
“This morning, we thought we might find Docholli here. If we’d stayed on Del Ten after that, we would have been protecting him from the Federation.” A horrible thought. I was glad she hadn’t told me that - it would have been difficult to argue for that course of action. “This is different. We know he’s still out there, and we do have a lead. We should follow it. Then we can make a decision about what we do next, when we have all the information.”
“Well, this is a democracy,” I said. “Why don’t we vote on it? If it’s a tie we stay where we are. Obviously, we know your opinion, Cally. And I vote – for Del Ten.”
“I vote for Del Ten too,” Vila said. No surprises there, though the bank should have been just his sort of crime. It must be even harder to get into than I imagined. I turned to our pilot – not that her vote counted any more, but it was worth maintaining appearances.
“I think we should go after Docholli,” she said. “Finish what we started.”
“Admirable sentiments,” I said, “but the people have spoken. Two all, I think, which means—”
“Wait a minute, Avon. It’s actually three-two,” Blake said.
I shrugged, but allowed it. We’d already won, but if he wanted to feel as though he was participating, he was more than welcome to side with me for a change.
“Three-two,” I said. “Which means—”
“Three-two, in favour of going to the bank,” Blake said.
I turned to look at him. He looked back steadily.
“What?” I said, slowly and clearly.
“I think we should go after Docholli,” Blake said as Cally got to her feet, Vila made whimpering sounds and sloped off to his position, and Jenna said,
“Right, that’s settled then. Zen, compute a course to Proxima Nine.”
I glared at Blake across the otherwise empty sofa ring. “You realise that by going after Docholli we are effectively committing ourselves to the destruction of Star One, and the probable deaths of millions of people?”
“No, I didn’t realise that,” Blake said. “But then I have no grasp of strategy and little idea of the current political landscape. What I do know is that we have at least one other plan, and that going after Docholli doesn’t commit us to anything, yet. It just keeps our options open.”
I felt my teeth clench. Damned by my own wretched idea. My own turn of phrase, too. In some ways he was too much like Blake. That is exactly what he would have done.
As if he knew just what I was thinking, Blake raised his eyebrows, daring me to disagree. He probably did know exactly what I was thinking, too. I rose to my feet without favouring him with any expression whatsoever, and returned to my position.
By taking on some of the computer analysis work myself and directing some of the grunt work of sifting through files to the safe, neutral computers of the Vandor Confederacy, I managed to convince Orac to dedicate ten per cent of its capacity to the problem of Blake’s memory. This obviously left me with little time of my own. Whenever I wasn’t on watch, I was trying (unsuccessfully, I might add) to break into the bank’s remote records. It would be easy on-site, of course, but getting in there wouldn’t be easy at all. Vila had started to examine a set of maps for possible entrances and access routes. He hadn’t put the maps down for almost two days. That meant he hadn’t found anything - not anything he wanted to consider seriously, anyway. It’s always strange to see Vila working, as strange as it is to see Blake asleep. He’s surprisingly good at it when he sets his mind to it. Vila, that is, not Blake. Blake is good at a great many things, but staying put for several hours, staying quiet and emptying his mind was never one of them. Unfortunately.
The others seemed relatively relaxed, except for the entertaining hour or so after Blake discovered Vila had stolen his watch again. The explanation for this event (that Vila was a compulsive thief, who liked to keep his hand in) led to the further explanation that the rest of us were also criminals of various stripes. Blake, it seemed, was happier with the idea that I had killed people than with the idea that I was a convicted embezzler who had planned to steal extensively from the common man as well as the state. I told him I wasn’t very happy with it either - being convicted had never been high on my to-do list. I walked out on him in the middle of a diatribe about responsibility and carelessness. Interestingly, when I returned a few hours later he apologised, more sincerely than I have ever heard Blake apologise for anything. Jenna must have spoken to him - I doubt her smuggling was any more appealing than my larceny, and she would have had to defend herself, too. Vila also gave him the watch back. Peace was restored. In some measure, anyway.
In fact, the others were so relaxed that I even caught them playing board games with Blake on a few occasions. That's something else that never happens, by the way. The rest of us play - generally very well, and competitively I might add. Gan was a tolerant observer. Blake, however, had always dismissed games as a waste of his time. Oh, more politely than that, in most cases — after all, he could hardly insult the common man's pastimes too vehemently when he also needed us to like him. But I have never once seen him partake of anything so obviously trivial. He'd always been focused on the bigger picture, locked in his room or pacing on the flight deck, turning over our next target or brooding over things he couldn't change. No wonder he was stressed, in other words. Obviously I'd suggested, fairly blatantly, that Blake didn't play because he was afraid to lose. He hadn't favoured that one with an answer.
As I could have guessed, even this Blake was a fairly competent player, once he'd had the rules explained to him. I heard the sounds of laughter and applause occasionally as I passed through the flight deck. At one point I caught Jenna on the way out. She was smiling, happy.
“One might even think you wouldn't welcome the return of our true leader,” I said snidely to her. I dislike seeing other people happy when I’m exhausted and angry — perhaps you’ve noticed. To my relief, her smile dropped into a hard line of lips, and she raised her eyebrows.
“That’s your outlook, not mine,” she told me. “Don’t project your feelings onto me, Avon. I’m doing what Blake wants – probably more than I should. I know he’ll understand that when he gets back.”
“When?” I said, and Jenna said,
“When.” It was a firm denial of the other possibility - if. I had no idea whether she really saw it like that, or whether she just wanted to show me up, but I let her go without contradicting her. She went one way, and I went the other – onto the flight deck.
Blake and Cally had just finished a game of Billet. It’s a game that involves a circular board, across which two players move a single set of silver and white pieces over smaller counters. Simple enough to understand. The complexity comes from your opponent using the same pieces as you are. Every move they make is one to your detriment, unless you play better than most people do. Cally had apparently just lost, but then it’s not her game. It’s mine.
As I crossed the room, Cally said, “You should play against Avon,” to Blake. “He is the real master.” Her voice was light and teasing. Even as she was legitimately praising my skill, she was mocking me for something. I wasn’t sure exactly what.
Meanwhile, after the confrontation with Jenna in the corridor, I had forgotten exactly what it was that had brought me into this room. A laser probe, possibly. There was one lying on the raised shelf around Zen’s monitor, and I picked it up. It might as well be that. I could always come back when I worked out what I had really come in for.
“Perhaps some other time,” I said as I moved back across the room. If Orac would just get on with its diagnosis, that time might never actually come, but I thought I could live with that.
"Scared, Avon?” Blake asked just as I was about to step into the corridor. Interesting. I turned on my heel towards him again.
“That’s what I used to say to you,” I told him with some amusement.
“Then I must be right,” Blake said. He’d chosen his own clothes today, as he had done the day before. They were all Blake’s clothes, but worn in ways Blake hadn’t thought to wear them yet - the effect was, like the rest of him, eerily familiar even as it wasn’t quite right. Today it was a white shirt underneath the brown tunic, the shirt’s zip open right down to the vee of the tunic. He must have seen me examining him, because he raised an eyebrow. Clearly a challenge, as well.
“Well … when you put it like that ...” I said, and let Cally vacate her seat in my favour.
Blake watched me carefully throughout the game, trying to catch my tells and push his advantage. I know because I was watching him closely for exactly the same reason. Some of the same general tells (the physical manifestation of him having an idea, for example) were there, but others were strangely absent. He didn’t bite his lip at all, or his fingers - presumably the Federation thought that was as distracting a habit as I did, but his eyebrow did flicker from time to time. I barely glanced down at the game board at all throughout the game – but then, I didn’t need to. Blake was good for someone who'd just learned how to play, but he made a few obvious mistakes. I won’t deny that it was satisfying to beat him. Of course it was. And he took it well, even though I must have been grinning ear to ear. I like to win.
It didn’t take long for me to ruin it for myself, though. As I left the flight deck I caught myself thinking that Blake, the other Blake, wouldn’t have lost. I'd beaten a man who barely remembered what his own name was. Not exactly the stuff legends are made of.
And of course - I meant, distracting. Disgusting. I meant disgusting.
I also realised that I'd left the laser probe on the sofa next to the Blake. I thought about going back to get it, but I still didn’t know what it was for. So I just … went back to my work. That seemed easier by far.
“The bank’s underground, so we can’t teleport directly inside without having an exact lock on a depth and location. Getting out shouldn’t be a problem, we can use the teleport bracelet signal, but we have to walk in,” Vila explained to us as we hung above Proxima Nine."
Fortunately, before he’d left us, Blake had finally agreed a detour to collect the parts I needed to repair the defence shield. Even more fortunately, he’d given me some time to actually effect the repairs, rather than just assuming I would be able to do them in between suicide missions. The bank would be unable to detect us unless we moved ten spacials closer, and we weren’t going to do that.
“There’s only one entrance,” Vila continued. “All the wastage tunnels come out in another Federation complex, so they’re all dead ends for us. The main door has a fairly simple locking mechanism - iris recognition. Now usually, I’d take pride in opening an iris recognition lock in under five seconds, but here it’s a bit more difficult. There a set of three guards outside the entrance at all times. They’ll see us if we try anything unusual.”
“So what do we do?” Jenna said. “Kill them before they can raise the alarm?”
Blake gave her a disturbed look, but fortunately Vila had a different answer. “People pass the door all the time, so unless we could substitute our own men for the guards on the outside we can’t take them out permanently. And we don’t have the people for that. Anyway, there’s an easier way—”
“Which is?” Blake said.
“Orac can speak to the computer that controls the lock, and convince it that our details are valid,” I said.
“Thanks,” Vila said irritably. “That was supposed to be my reveal.”
“Don’t mention it,” I said. “They’ve made the rather elementary mistake of keeping their central databanks isolated from the network, so that we can’t just hack in, but then leaving the systems that protect that databank relatively exposed. Presumably they think the guards at the door will stop all but the most idiotic thieves.”
I suspect Servalan has never told most of the other Federation officials about Orac. It gives us too much of an advantage, and she wouldn’t want her troops to be discouraged, just misled. At the moment, we have the capability to target literally any Federation computer (aside from the obvious, anyway). It’s a massive security leak, ultimately more damaging than any number of burnt-out communication stations. If the high council knew about it, well, naturally they’d insist on everything being replaced. Every single computer in every single Federation site of importance. Not a small operation. Billions would have to be spent, and at the end of it they’d only end up with a lot of computers significantly less efficient than their tarriel-cell models. Ensor was a pain, but he was also a genius. There’s only one other person I know of in the universe who might be able to develop anything half as good, and I don’t think I’d take the job. Not even for billions.
They’d replace the most important systems first, too – well, you would, wouldn’t you? But unfortunately that would also make it clear to us what exactly was worth attacking. Servalan is cleverer than that, but we have no proof her superiors are. Neither has she.
Besides, I know she still wants Orac for herself, possibly more than she wants the Liberator (although I could be wrong about that). When she finally manages to capture us and take Orac for herself, she will not want anyone else to know how she gets her wonderfully detailed information about absolutely everything. It would be too easy from someone else to steal Orac from her, for one thing, and then she’d be right back where she started. The point is – concealing Orac's existence is a sensible strategy in many ways, but our current situation shows that it has obvious downfalls, too.
“There are also guards patrolling the corridors at all times,” Vila said, picking the briefing back up off me again, as though we’d worked on it together, which we hadn’t. “That’s who we’ll be,” Vila told us all. “A new set of guards is pushed into the system every thirty minutes. They patrol one of four potential routes, and emerge at the entrance again after a two-hour shift. We’ll have to take out the set that’s about to go in, sorry, Blake—”
“We can incapacitate them without killing them,” Cally said to Blake soothingly, an unnecessary hand on his arm. “That should be easy. We do it all the time.”
“As long as they don’t get up again,” Vila said. “Not for a while anyway. Always three guards in a set, and they’re always men. So that means it’s me, Avon, and—”
“Jenna,” I said before he could finish explaining that particular disaster. “Jenna, wearing a false beard, if necessary.”
“I can do it,” Blake said firmly. Obviously, I ignored him.
“They’ll be looking really closely,” Vila said awkwardly. “And Jenna’s really beautiful - she doesn’t look like a man. And she’s not exactly—” he gestured, describing a masculine shape with his hands over the air in front of Jenna.
Jenna’s eyes narrowed. “Be very careful, Vila.”
“I didn’t say anything,” Vila said. “But if I had, I’d say that neither you nor Cally are going to fool anyone with eyes, even if you’re dressed in troopers’ uniforms. So that means—”
“We call in Del Grant,” I said. “He owes us.” Everyone in the room, except Blake, knew how little I wanted to call Del Grant for help. If I could manage to get through the rest of my life never seeing him again, it would probably be too soon. But it was better than the alternative.
“All Blake needs to do is show up, wear a uniform and look like a man,” Vila said. “He can do it.”
“No,” I said.
“Relax, Avon,” Vila said, barely flinching as I glared at him. I must be losing my touch. “You and I will be doing all the hard work, and there’s enough of that to go around, I can tell you. Another three locks before we reach the computer core, two manual and one computer controlled. The details we’re after will be in the central database—”
“No,” I said again. Vila looked up at me, worried that I was disputing the location of the Docholli files, which I wasn’t. Orac had managed to read everything else, and we’d searched the rest of Orac’s tarrial-cell network, too. The details were there, if they were anywhere. But that wasn’t what I was objecting to. I stabbed my finger towards Blake. “If he goes, I won’t.”
“You’re overreacting,” Blake said reasonably.
“No, I am reacting like someone with a brain,” I retorted as Cally crossed to her position and picked up the headset. “At this rate, I’d be surprised if the others have more than a few cells between them.” I turned back to Jenna and Vila. I could feel myself breathing hard, though I tried to keep my voice steady, my argument reasonable. “We still don’t know what has happened to his mind. Until we do, we shouldn’t let him off the ship, let alone put him into a situation where we have to rely on him.”
“It was your idea to go down to Del Ten,” Blake said. “And I’m an engineer with complete access to this ship, so you’ve been relying on me not to bring this whole place down around you from day one.”
“That wasn’t my idea.”
“Del is involved in a riot over on Ephellion,” Cally told us all as she returned from her position. “He doesn’t know when he’ll be available, but it might not be for some time.”
“Right, so that’s settled then,” Blake said. He got to his feet as though nothing anyone else said could possibly stop him. Probably it couldn’t. “Vila, Avon and I will go. If there are any problems, Cally can bring me up and Jenna can take my place. Let’s get on with it, shall we?”
He didn’t even take a gun. How he thought we were going to safely and non-violently intercept and silence the next set of guards without any sort of weapon at all, I really have no idea. I don’t think I want to know. Not everyone can be cowed by the force of Blake’s personality alone, especially in this diluted state.
As it happened, the whole thing went quite well - to a point.
We’ve been collecting troopers’ uniforms for as long as I can remember, and by now we had a fairly substantial collection, designed to fit rebels of all shapes and sizes. We had a variety of Federation-issue blasters as well, though I still prefer to use the Liberator issue where possible. Blake, Vila and I got changed and kitted up. Then Jenna, Cally and I teleported down to ensure that the three guards we would be replacing were effectively subdued, rather than alerted to the fact something was going on and allowed to escape, which is probably what would have happened if Vila and Blake had been there. We didn’t kill any of them, but since Blake was effectively trapped back on the ship and wouldn’t know about it, I’m not sure why we bothered. Leaving those guards alive was an unnecessary complication in an already complex plan, but Blake gets what he wants. Even now, apparently.
Cally locked the guards in a cupboard with tranquilliser patches stuck to their necks. Assuming we got out in under four hours and nobody checked the cupboard in question (something they wouldn’t do unless they needed their fire-extinguishing equipment), we would be fine.
Then Jenna and Cally teleported back up, and moments later Vila and Blake appeared next to me. I can’t tell you how my heart dropped at this substitution. But I am, above all things, a professional. We would get in, get the data we needed, and get out. Then Orac could start dedicating its time to Blake’s memory.
I must admit, I also had another little idea of my own that made this ridiculous adventure slightly more palatable. We would, after all, be inside the Federation’s banking system. It would be almost too easy to inject another program into the system at the same time, particularly when it was a program I’d already written and had just had to download from my private repo, tweak to get it past the Federation safeguards that had caught me the first time, and upload into a laser probe. The program would distribute five hundred million credits into various dummy accounts held in non-Federated banks. Since I’d been forced to take part in this heist, I’d decided I might as well get something out it - something more than just the address of a man who might know the location of a computer we were going to blow up. Blake can get excited about that sort of thing, but not everyone can.
Vila joked with the guards on sentry duty; I told him to shut up and keep his mind on the job; and Blake very wisely said nothing. The iris-scanner accepted us as security-cleared personnel, and we walked into the system. All these Federation buildings look the same, and I’m sure Vila felt the shadow of Control hanging over him too, but this time we had teleport bracelets. Even if it did go wrong, we could still get out.
Vila took the first lock out in five seconds, which is impressive even for him. I didn’t say so, but he didn’t compliment me when I got the second door to open for us with a single laser-probe touch either.
At this point things started to go less well. The doors opened onto another set of three guards, who looked at us with bemusement. They must have been dawdling on their round, as Vila had assured me that we would open the door in between two sets of patrols, one of which would have already turned the corner and the other of which wasn’t due to reach this point for another ten minutes. Either that, or the reports about the timings of the patrols had been deliberately falsified, to prevent just this sort of break-in - that was certainly possible, but there was little way we could have predicted it.
One of the guards approached the three of us, his gun held loosely in his hands. He addressed me, for which I can only be grateful. Vila or Blake would certainly have ruined everything.
“Is something wrong, trooper? This isn’t your route.”
“Captain’s orders,” I said, thinking quickly. “There are rumours that rebels are attempting to break into the facility. They have knowledge of our usual routes, so we’ve been patrolling a fifth route to keep them on their toes.”
Not at bad piece of improvisation, but not good enough unfortunately.
“I’m the captain here,” he said. “And I never gave you those orders.”
“Ah. Well, in that case,” I said, and shot him before he could ask any more questions.
In the milliseconds that followed, I calculated which of my companions would be less likely to successfully incapacitate one of our other opponents and who it was more important to protect. I must have decided Vila was less useless than Blake was at present, because I fired at the guard opposite Blake before he was able to cut our erstwhile leader off in his non-violent tracks. Sure enough, Blake had yet to raise his gun, though he did manage to find the time to berate me, and with my actual name.
Useless. Dangerous, too - now they knew who we were.
Otherwise, my gamble had paid off. I heard Vila’s gun discharge only slightly behind my second shot. He hadn’t killed the guard (I don’t think I have ever seen Vila kill someone, come to think of it), but he had managed to hit the man’s gun. That was almost as good, in that it saved us from being immediately massacred, but obviously not ideal in that the remaining guard promptly dropped his damaged gun and ran for the alarm. He managed to reach and activate it. Sure enough, I caught the words “Blake’s people” before the third trooper in the set also laid down his life for the Federation. That would be another three to add to my total, if I had been keeping count.
“How could you do that?” Blake demanded as I stepped over the bodies. I could hear the anger in his voice despite the Federation helmet.
“Easily,” I told him. “It was them or us; them or me.” I raised my teleport bracelet to my mouth. “Cally, we’re in trouble. Stand by for further instructions.”
“All right, standing by.”
“We’re not going back?” Blake demanded. “Are you mad? Avon, we must go back. This place will be swarming with troopers any moment.”
“Agreed,” I said. I didn’t stop walking. “That’s why we’re moving quickly. If we leave now, we will not be able to come back. They will tighten the security on this place even further, and this time they will know who they are protecting their data from. If we want Docholli, we have to go on.” By then we’d arrived at our final destination. “Door, Vila.”
I turned to guard the corridor behind us while Vila was working, but of course they were all waiting for us on the other side of the door, and of course nobody was guarding that direction. A stupid mistake. I should have remembered that although I was talking to someone who looked like Blake and sounded like Blake, I was essentially alone. I should have sent him back as soon as we’d been identified. I still hadn't adapted.
I heard the gunfire almost too late to do anything about it. They weren’t aiming for me, of course, because I was standing behind the others. They weren’t even aiming at Vila. They were aiming at Blake.
He should have dodged, but that was never going to happen. To all intents and purposes, this was his first firefight. He was probably still hoping we could talk this out. I reacted on instinct, as ever. There was just enough time to push him out the way, behind the half-open door, but not quite enough time to get myself clear as well. The blast grazed my upper arm as I collided with Blake against the wall.
Even through the trooper’s uniform, which is designed to repel this sort of damage, it hurt like fury. I’d only recently been hit with Travis’s hand-blaster through a similar sort of suit, but that was a small gun, less powerful. It had to be, to fit inside his robotic arm – but more than that, I suspect Travis likes to keep his victims alive, so that he can torture them to death later. Meanwhile, the standard Federation assault rifle is not meant to keep people alive; it’s meant to kill them. I’d lost half an inch of flesh in a circular burn about four inches wide. It was my right arm, too - the arm I needed if I wanted to use my gun or my laser probe. I probably swore at Blake a great deal. In fact, I know I did – I’m just not sure exactly what I said. Fortunately while all this was going on, Vila was proving he wasn’t quite as useless as he looked. He was firing back on the troopers behind the door, keeping them inside. That probably saved us.
Blake held me up as I struggled to stay conscious, the fingers of my good arm hooked around the top-flap of his uniform. I think he was trying to get a better look at the wound to begin with. Then he remembered his teleport bracelet. “Cally, it’s Blake—”
But whatever he wanted to ask would be wrong. We needed to stay. We needed Docholli, and I needed my five hundred million credits. I pulled his wrist towards my mouth.
“Cally, send Blake up, and Jenna down. Now.”
“Avon, wait—” he protested, but it was too late. His edges were already glowing, and in a moment he vanished. I breathed out in relief – he’d been a danger to himself, and to us. Seconds later, Jenna appeared, gun at the ready. Even better, in her other hand, she had what looked like percussion grenade.
“You seemed to be having some trouble,” she told me as the two of us sheltered together away from the explosion.
“I have always admired your gift for understatement,” I told her.
We rounded the door. Jenna was moving considerably faster than I was at that point, and she took out the only trooper who’d been standing far enough away survive the grenade. Two other troopers lay dead on the floor. That was six deaths I wouldn’t be adding to my list. I suppose technically Jenna had killed these three – it’s just difficult to think technically in these situations.
Jenna and Vila forced the doors shut behind us. I pulled off the troopers' helmet so I could breathe more easily and approached the computer console as Jenna destroyed the lock. The alarms were still shrieking, but that probably helped me stay conscious, so I suppose I should be grateful. As I had anticipated, the console was a relatively familiar design. The men who had installed it here had counted on the fact that almost nobody would reach this point. To be fair, we almost hadn’t.
I heard Vila call back up to the ship. He was swiftly picked up and replaced, in a few moments, by Cally, also holding a gun. By this time, the doors had begun to shake. Back-up had apparently arrived on both sides. The troopers outside in the corridor were trying to force their way into the room. We had to work quickly; I had to work quickly.
That wasn’t easy, though. I’d managed to get the laser probe out of my jacket with my left hand, then I’d dropped it when I tried to move it to my right. When I tried to bend and retrieve the probe, the change in altitude was almost enough to knock me from my feet. Cally saw this, and moved to assist me. That effectively put an end to any ideas I might have been having about using this mission for my own personal financial advantage. Cally would be appalled to discover what I'd been planning. She wasn’t likely to assist me with anything other than what we’d claimed we were here for. I should have insisted on Vila staying, if I could have managed that without that looking suspicious (unlikely, in my current state as I could barely stand, let alone lie to one of the Auronar.)
I talked Cally through what we needed to do to get to Docholli’s account. I could see spots in front of my eyes by the end of it, but I managed to stay upright. And, fortunately, this is the sort of work I could do in my sleep.
“I’ve got the payment details,” Cally said after a few more moments with the laser probe. “It seems the signal was sent from a bank on Callisto. But I’ve found something else interesting, as well. Docholli’s account was recently used to purchase a travel visa, and transport from Callisto to Freedom City.”
“It could be a false trail,” I reminded them, though I could barely stand at this point. It seemed almost trivial whether or not we got the right information. “We don’t even know he bought the visa for himself. It could be – another decoy. Another accomplice.”
“Possibly, but we can’t stay here much longer,” Jenna said. She shot a look at the door, which was definitely shaking on its hinges. “I think Cally’s right - it’s a good lead.” She raised her bracelet to her wrist. “Vila, are you ready?”
I made one final effort to justify my other idea. “You don’t think - we should try and disguise what we were here for?” A massive theft would be a good mask - in fact, I should have thought about it earlier. It’s not just the Federation who are their own worst enemy. If we could pull it off, though, the authorities would be so busy scrambling after their five hundred million credits that they’d probably spare little time checking up on the specific account details we’d accessed.
“Servalan and Travis already know we’re looking for Star One,” Jenna said. “I’d rather take that risk than risk staying here any longer.” I think I felt relieved. All I wanted to do was sleep, and even running the program I’d already written would take more energy than I had left.
“Vila, bring us up,” Jenna said into her bracelet.
Generally, I don’t mind travelling by teleport. It’s better than other short-range transport options, but it can be highly disorientating if you’re already confused and dizzy, when you’ve lost a lot of blood. Cally was still supporting me when we reappeared in the teleport bay, so I didn’t actually fall over, but was a close thing. And when Blake lifted me up and began to carry me towards the medical bay, I was too groggy to resist. I think I passed out before we got there. At least, I hope I did.
The medical equipment on board the Liberator is advanced enough that an injury that might have permanently limited my ability to use my dominant arm back Earth had healed completely in a few hours. Someone must have tranquillised me too, though, because I was asleep significantly longer than that. I assume they didn’t want me around to object to any other completely insane ideas. It’s so nice to be wanted.
As I’d been drifting in and out of consciousness, I thought I saw Blake sitting by my bed, but when I finally woke up properly the medical bay was empty. Obviously, there was nothing I wanted to do less than talk to him, so that was a relief. I felt peculiarly like I’d lost five hundred million credits in one spectacular bout of foolishness. But that’s just the human instinct for self-recrimination. Really, I was no worse off than I had been this morning.
I reached over to the monitor attached to my arm (completely healed) and turned it off - then I pulled the sensors off my skin and stood up. What had happened while I was asleep? Presumably it hadn’t been long enough for anything truly disastrous to have occurred, but as Servalan would tell you - this crew is capable of anything. I would have to find someone and ask.
The clock on the monitor told me it was the middle of the night - a typical Blake shift, but given everything that had happened I thought he might well not be on the flight deck. I hadn’t been watching him as closely as I should have been. I didn’t know whether he sat his regular shifts or not. Well, I would find out soon enough.
I made my way through the darkened corridors without meeting anyone. I reached the flight deck and saw Blake sitting there, as though nothing was wrong or unusual. For some reason, I felt myself relaxing slightly, even though there was no logical explanation for it.
He looked up at me and smiled. “Feeling better?”
I ignored the question. Since I was standing upright under my own power rather than slumped in a corner, I was demonstrably feeling better. I crossed to my own console and brought up our flight plan.
“What’s happened? What’s going on?”
“We’re on our way to Freedom City,” Blake said. The readout I was looking at confirmed this. “And,” he said, “I’ve asked Orac to divert all of his resources to the problem of my memory. He’s taken that as a priority command, overriding the original command to trace Docholli.”
I felt my chest tightening, my fingers tightening around the edge of the console. I hadn’t expected it. I'd thought I’d have to fight him to make it happened. The command was effectively a death sentence for this Blake. I wasn't even sure ... I mean, it was possible that ... Perhaps, I don’t know, perhaps the memory block would fade gradually over time, as it had with our Blake – bits and pieces of his past coming back to him, prompted by various triggers, like the name of the man who’d killed twenty of his friends in front of him. I should have let him go to Exbar.
“You didn’t have to do that,” I told him. “There’s still time to rescind the command.”
“Why? It’s what you’ve wanted from the beginning,” he said, rising from the sofa and coming round to where I was standing. “And today I realised you were right. You do need me back the way I was, if you’re going to achieve anything.”
I blinked at him. “I … never said that.”
“You didn’t have to,” he said. His voice was kind, which meant I must look like I needed him to be kind. He was also very close to me, as though I might need his support at any moment. I tried to recover, without looking as though I needed to.
“What about keeping our options open?” I asked him, my tone clearly implying he was an idiot who had forgotten this obvious fact. “I thought that’s what you wanted. Bringing Blake back closes down all options except the one he has already chosen - the complete destruction of Star One.”
“You don’t want me to recover my memories?”
Clearly I was on dangerous ground. “I didn’t say that either.”
“No, you didn’t,” he said. “And that, Avon, is why I’m convinced this must be the right course, even though I can’t possibly see it that way. You know far more about the situation than I do. We’ve already agreed that, and we’ve agreed that I trust you. You think I need my memories back. Therefore, you must in some way agree with the destruction of Star One, or you wouldn’t have been trying so hard to enable it. And if you don’t agree – well, you can always try to persuade me that controlling Star One makes more sense. Is that a fair summary of events?”
“Yes. No. I’m not exactly objective in this, Blake.”
“No. You’re in love with me, but still.”
“I’m not in love with you,” I said before I could stop myself. I could hear the emphasis even as I tried to reign it back in. A small slip that turned what should have been an effective sneering dismissal into what was practically a confession. I hoped to god he hadn’t heard it, and knew he had.
“Exactly my point,” he said, and the damn kindness was back. I could hear it, and I could see it in his face before he turned away and walked over towards Orac. “I must have been doing something right.”
“You never do anything right,” I said, following him down the flight deck. Why, I don’t know. It must have looked desperate. Probably, it was. “And I’m not—” I said, stumbling over what I was saying because I was so anxious to say it. “I am not—”
He turned, and I realised what he was going to do moments before he did it. I stepped back, my eyes wide. I heard myself say, “No, wait. Please. Please don’t. Blake. Please—” and then he kissed me.
If I had been telling the truth earlier, I would have pushed him away. If I had any sense, I would have done it anyway. But I suppose I have never been very sensible. I felt myself shuddering against him, my hands somehow gripped tightly in the fabric of his shirt as though I was going to fall over if I didn’t hold onto him.
I have never imagined what it would be like to kiss Blake. No, that isn’t true. I have never wanted— No. I have never been able to imagine what it would be like to kiss Blake. That is the truth. And in the end, it was just a kiss. I’ve kissed people before, no matter what Vila might regularly imply about my social life. And this was— It wasn’t any different. At all. It wasn’t different at all, except that it was Blake: Blake’s lips, Blake’s tongue, Blake’s hands around my face, pushing into my hair, cradling me against him. That was— Well, it was.
Wonderful. Different. I mean, different. Because it was Blake. Because it was Blake, it was - different.
God, I’m such a fool. It wasn’t even Blake. It shouldn’t have meant anything.
I was breathing heavily when he let me go. He held my gaze for a moment, his lips (still wet, I noted, from where I had kissed them) quirked in an amused smile that clearly said Are you sure you aren’t? That may have been the only reason he'd done it: to show me up, and prove that I was— But I don't think so. Not after he'd argued that he was regaining his memories because I wanted it. Maybe I am deluding myself, but I trusted him - after all, in this state he didn't have the skill or the motivation to lie convincingly. He looked so— Not that it matters.
I should have said something at this point, I am aware of that, but I had no idea … how language worked. Or what I would use it for, if I had been able to muster it.
He turned back to Orac, picked up its key and slotted it into place. There was no reason to think Orac had already solved the problem, but as I said earlier, I’m not a lucky man. This was what I wanted, in more ways than one, and now it had had happened, was happening, I still didn’t want it.
“Orac, have you managed to work out how to reinstate the personality and memories of the version of Roj Blake who until recently commanded the Liberator?”
“I have,” Orac said. “It was quite simple really. I simply needed to dedicate my full processing units to the problem. You must induce a second malfunction of the mental circuitry.”
“Another breakdown,” Blake said.
“Correct,” Orac said. “Such a breakdown will allow you to again pass the barriers erected in your mind by the Federation, and access your original, true personality and your past.”
As a prescription, it was fairly dreadful. Blake’s former breakdown had, as we both knew, been brought about by his witnessing the massacre of his former friends and colleagues. There was no way, no matter how any of us felt about him, that anyone on the Liberator was going to volunteer to be shot in front of Blake, just to jog his memory. If this was the best that Orac could do, then perhaps yet again we would all be saved from having to make a decision. But of course inaction wasn't an option, and never had been.
“And how do you propose to induce this second breakdown?” Blake pressed. He’s persistent, I’ll give him that. Irritatingly so.
I suppose someone else might have called it stupidity. Or bravery.
“You should be subjected to the same de-programming exercise that you began three days ago, first with Jenna Stannis, then with Kerr Avon. However, this time no external monitoring from another human is required. Indeed it would be most unwise, since the object of the exercise will be to push you past the threshold at which you could reasonably be expected to stay sane. The period of two hours originally recommended should suffice if taken in one session. Such a course of action will further benefit the crew, in that it will remove any risk of you succumbing to any additional telepathic signals beamed from the Federation.”
It still sounded dreadful. Five minutes had been almost unbearable - I’d almost lost myself. I had lost Blake. Two hours under the same stresses - well, it was essentially torturing him. And that was what we had to do, was it? Something none of us would have ever consented to under normal circumstances.
Blake turned back to me. I have some idea what my expression must have been - self-indulgent, given that it was him who would have to endure it. I made another attempt to school my face into something neutral, but that must have made it worse because Blake took a step towards me. He put a hand over mine on the sofa. He was actually comforting me. I pulled my hand away.
“Tell me not to do it,” he said gently, “if you really think it’s a bad idea.”
“It is a bad idea,” I snapped.
“That isn’t telling me not to do it,” he said. And it wasn’t. I – couldn’t. Even after everything. We needed Blake. I —
Anyway. Enough of that. It really isn't important.
He pushed Orac’s trolley down the corridor, and I followed him, though he hadn’t asked me to witness it. The whole thing felt horribly familiar. At least this time, I had the sense to call Cally before we started. I learn from my mistakes, which is the only excuse for making any.
She asked Blake whether he understood what he was doing, as though she thought I might have tricked him into it. That’s exactly the sort of thing I might do, so I didn’t hold it against her. He said he fully understood, thank you, and that he thought it was for the best. Cally asked me whether I wanted to leave. Surprisingly, I didn’t even consider it, though l expect I should have done. I closed the restraints over him.
“By the way - I never said. Thank you for saving my life,” he told me as I tried not to watch Cally attach sensors to his forehead.
“I demonstrably haven’t done,” I said. I forced myself to stop staring at the wall, and look at him. He smiled; I didn't. This time I let him take my hand.
He didn’t start muttering immediately, but once it started it seemed like it would never end. Renounce, renounce— His voice became hoarser and hoarser as the minutes passed, and underneath the chant Orac’s equally relentless instructions about not giving in droned on and on. Cally left after half an hour. I don’t blame her for that, either. That vigil was one of the worst things I have ever endured. After a while, I stopped hearing the sound of Blake’s voice. Then I would have to shake myself, and make myself hear it.
Then, suddenly, it was over. Blake had passed out. Sweat beaded on his brow above his flickering eyelids. In what I now realised was silence, I heard Orac tell me that adrenalin would be safe, and that I should use it to bring Blake round.
“You’re not sure that it’s worked,” I said accusingly as I hunted for the pads amongst the drawers. Why couldn’t I find them? It must be too little sleep. My vision was foggy with lack of sleep.
“Of course I’m sure,” Orac retorted, but I wasn’t. Not until I’d stuck the adrenalin pad to Blake’s neck and waited for it to kick into his system. His eyes flared open and the look in them— Well, it was definitely him. Strength, irritation, and behind all that, well-hidden uncertainty. Blake.
"Are you yourself?" I asked, because you can never be too careful. And because - obviously - I wanted him to say it. I wanted – to be sure.
He nodded. “Get Vila in here.” His voice was still papery from overuse. “We should start the next session as soon as possible.”
You see, he didn’t remember. To him it was still three days ago, we were on our way to Del Ten, and he’d just talked me into helping him break open his mind for him. I had wondered – whether he would remember. Any of it. I’m not sure whether I had hoped he would, or he wouldn’t. It was easier this way, I suppose. Ironically, there seemed to be less to explain.
“No need,” I told him as I unlocked the restraints. He began to protest (no surprises there), but I held up a hand, swinging it round to indicate our irritating, but irritatingly useful computer. “Orac has pronounced you completely cured. Incidentally Docholli is not on Del Ten, he is almost certainly on Freedom City, and it is not Tuesday any more, it’s Friday.”
Blake’s expression closed down. He’s a lot better at that than I am. “Tell me what happened.”
So, of course, I told him – as objectively as I could, which wasn’t very objectively. I downplayed several events and missed out others completely. I didn’t tell him what he had guessed about me, though if he’d been watching me as closely I watch him he would have noticed … well, he would have noticed me watching him, and heard the way my voice shook slightly as I spoke to him. I’ve never thought about it before, but it was probably easy to see it – if you were looking for it. Even the less observant Federation-programmed Blake had—
Ah. Now, here’s something else I’ve never thought of before: perhaps he has noticed. Perhaps he has even guessed. Perhaps he knows … and just hasn’t said anything about it. That … that would be very like Blake. And if he does know—
Well, I’d prefer not to think about that right now. I … can’t think about that right now.
Blake looked horrified as I unfolded the story of the last few days. He definitely did not remember anything that had happened, though he might remember it later— which is something I will deal with if it happens. And if he chooses to tell me about it. And if he— No. Enough.
If possible, he actually looked more horrified this time than he had done during the last round of exposition. I expect that was because it had happened again, and because he’d brought it on himself. He’d also just had his mental barriers hammered at repeatedly for a period of two hours - that probably didn't help.
When he spoke, though, his voice was calm. Blake has such control over himself sometimes. Even I find it impressive.
“I see. But at least we know where Docholli is. That’s the only thing that really matters.”
“Indeed,” I said wryly. He gave me a strange look, as though he was trying to work out whether I was mocking him for having such limited interests, or whether I’d meant something else, whether I was mocking something else – or someone else. But as he’d said himself – Docholli’s information was the only thing that mattered. Docholli and then Star One. He didn't stay to find out what I’d meant. Or to thank me for anything I’d done. He just left, turning on his heel and striding out – taking the flight deck exit, of course. Going to check that what I'd said was true, that we were still on course for Star One.
In many ways, it was a relief. Or if not a relief, it was—No, it was a relief. My chest felt tight with relief.
"I'm sorry to have to inform you that he is himself, all right,” I told the empty room that remained in Blake’s absence. Nobody laughed.