If Avon had had his way, he would have been dead already, but instead of the dozen blasts he’d expected from the soldiers surrounding him, there had been just a single, carefully aimed shot to his shoulder. Damn Servalan. It must have been her orders that had kept him, and none of the others, alive. At least he’d managed to escape her grasp. He’d realised what was happening when no other shots followed the first, and let himself fall, appearing to lose consciousness. Somehow that plan, of all of the plans he’d ever made, had actually worked. Two guards had dragged him off—only two, and he’d managed to take them by surprise and steal the flyer they’d planned to use to take him away. He’d returned to the ditch where he’d hidden Orac, which was a risk—it might lead his pursuers to Orac--but a small one. On the ground like this, Gauda Prime’s bounty hunters could once again use their tracers to detect his body heat, but he planned to be dead before that became a problem.
“What is it now?”Orac snapped.
It took Avon a moment to get enough of his breath back to talk. “Nothing.”
“Then why have you inserted my key?”Orac asked.
Avon hesitated a moment. Why not tell the truth? He felt a strange emptiness that seemed like it should have allowed him to think, but didn’t. Thoughts kept drifting away from him before he could join them together—Blake’s face after Avon had shot him; flashes of colour and light; the alarm from the tracking gallery, sounding and sounding through his head. He realised he was pressing his hand harder and harder against his shoulder, as though, if he could put enough pressure on the wound, his thoughts would steady.
“Why indeed? Perhaps I simply didn’t want to die alone,” he said.
“That is a misuse of my capabilities.”
“In my current position, it is all you have to offer me.”
“That is not possible.”
“Oh, I’m afraid it is entirely possible. Can you bring Blake back to life? Or any of the others? Can you undo the thousand mistakes I’ve made? Can you stop me bleeding to death?”
“Of course I cannot. Entropy cannot be reversed.”
“I didn’t think so.” Avon had been resting a while now, yet he was finding it more difficult to breathe, rather than easier. It really wasn’t Orac who was useless. It was him.
"However, while I cannot prevent the demise of your current physical form, I am capable of recreating your consciousness inside my circuits.”
Now that was—interesting. Too interesting for someone in his state to fully understand.
“The process would terminate your embodied existence. Your patterns of thought, and even your senses, however, would remain largely unaltered. While some would consider this to be “death,”by any logical definition of the self, it is eternal life.”
“Very impressive, I’m sure,”Avon said, closing his eyes. Oh, he was so tired, and this offer seemed torturously difficult to evaluate, to reason his way through. It would be so much easier simply to ignore Orac until it stopped speaking, then let the soothing hum of circuits drown out the alarm that still sounded inside his head. And then, not long after, everything would go quiet for good. But no, he couldn’t let himself. Not quite.
He made himself ask, “I’d end up inside your casing, instead of inside this--body?”
“That is correct. You must concede that my superior design is of continuing use to you.”
“I concede nothing,”he said. “That means decades—if not centuries—spent rotting away in a ditch on this backwater planet.”
“My casing, unlike your human body, is not biodegradable. It does not rot!”
“Oh, just shut up, Orac.”
“I will not. You do not understand what I am offering you. I exist simultaneously in multiple realities, with access to a thousand branch universes. You could travel to any reality in which I have existed or will exist, at any point in time in which I have existed in it. Time travel without paradox. Space travel without relativity. Choose any point in your past, and you can effectively return to it.”
Any point in time? No, that was— he wasn’t thinking clearly. Nothing was ever too good to be true. No, wait. That wasn’t right. If it was good, it was always too good to be true. White-grey spots bloomed into a solid wall that took Avon’s vision. He knew he must be mistaken about what Orac was proposing. Another chance. He must be. He pressed a hand to his chest and tried to slow his breathing. Think!
“Any reality? Could I—see Blake again?”
“Obviously! Do you now concede that my capabilities render me uniquely useful to you?”
Avon slumped further down against the tree at his back and grinned, giddy, dizzy with blood loss, but also with excitement. "Yes. Granted. Send me to timedate…”He had to think—to concentrate. He could go back. Before Blake had tried to attack Central Control, before Gan had died, before Blake had decided Avon must hate him. “Timedate 77478.”
"Very well. Place both of your hands on my casing."
He gritted his teeth and pressed his good hand against the ground in order to lever himself out of his slump.
“Ah. Damn,”he muttered, more to himself than to Orac.
Blood loss and a useless right arm made it a terrible effort to move. By the time he gripped Orac’s Perspex, his excitement was gone. Unsurprising. Yet it wasn’t only pain and exhaustion sapping his enthusiasm. He was afraid, afraid enough that it finally, finally sharpened his thoughts to what felt like full clarity. I still fear death, he realised, with some surprise. And not just the possibility of accidental death as a result of some error or malfunction as Orac transfers my consciousness. I believe that when this body dies–as it will, even if all goes according to plan– I will die, and that terrifies me. How irrational.
Blake had once asserted with baffling confidence that logic could not determine what ‘dead’meant. Avon was convinced that logic could define death perfectly well and that Orac was correct. Replacing his entire organic body with Orac’s inorganic one wouldn’t kill him any more than replacing an organic arm with a cybernetic one would. It had surely been Blake’s sentimental view of humanity that had made death seem to him difficult to define, and it was surely Avon’s own sentiment interfering now, making him senselessly afraid of accepting Orac’s offer.
It was also sentiment that was going to make him do it anyway.
“For three years, there wasn’t a moment that I wouldn’t have died for you,” Avon said out loud. “Then there was just one damned minute—one minute when I thought it was going to be me or you, and I wanted it to be you.”
“Who are you speaking to, Avon?”Orac asked.
“Just do it, Orac,” Avon snapped.
It was almost as though Avon had teleported, though he stood beside the teleport controls, rather than in the alcove proper. And he had arrived standing, and not in any pain, which would not have been the case had he teleported from the ditch where he’d been dying.
Orac rested on the table, switched off. A silver-clad version of himself sat behind the controls, working out teleport coordinates. And Blake standing.Alive, and leaning forward to watch as the coloured buttons on two different keypads lit up erratically beneath a younger Avon’s fingers.
The sight of Blake sent a flare of agony through Avon. He clamped down on it ruthlessly and resumed cataloguing his circumstances.
Unfortunately, that endeavour proved only moderately less distressing than gaping dumbly at Blake. Orac wasn’t the sort of computer one simply trusted to make everything right. His circumstances were not likely to be good. He’d agreed to this arrangement blindly, desperately, with almost no knowledge of what his new existence would entail, except that it would involve the opportunity to see Blake again. Well, there Blake was, at the periphery of his vision. Hooray.
He couldn’t help but notice that the two men in the room with him didn’t seem to see him.
“You can’t see me, can you?”he said aloud. No response. All right. Don’t panic. Finish assessing the situation.
A glance down revealed that he wore the clothes he’d been wearing on Gauda Prime, clean of blood. Experimentally, he reached for the probe that lay on the table and closed his fingers around it. It felt real enough, but when he tried to lift it from the table, he couldn’t. It was as though it had been glued down … or fashioned out of a neutron star. Unnerving. A slight shudder went through his body, a perfect simulation of his body’s physical response to a disturbing situation.
He realised he’d brought the back of his left hand to rest lightly against the palm of his right and was rubbing his fingers against the knuckles. The habitual gesture felt just as it always did when he bothered to take note of the sensation. Intrigued, he brought his hand around to press his fingernails into the flesh of his palm. It hurt.
He walked around the teleport console so that he was standing behind his younger self, and drew a finger down the face. It felt warm to his touch. He slapped the cheek of his younger self lightly, and winced. The skin, the body, was entirely unyielding, and yet the man was in motion, his fingers still working the keypad. If trying to lift the laser probe had been unnerving, this experience was— in another class entirely.
It seemed that, as promised, Orac had recreated the perceptual patterns of Kerr Avon, the thoughts of Kerr Avon, and even provided him with the illusion of an embodied form. However, he didn’t seem to be able to alter or influence his material surroundings.
He grit his teeth against the fear, the loneliness, that threatened to take him over. He was so tired of feeling all of it. He walked back around the table, which brought him a hand’s breadth from Blake, and braced against it, his knuckles white, as though the ship was rocking under him. He was trapped. He was helpless: invisible, without the ability to move anything, change anything. Without the ability even to end his existence.
He supposed he really ought to get used to looking at Blake since it was perhaps all he was going to be able to do. Would he be forced to watch everything unfold just as it had before? Be careful what you wish for, the saying went. And oh, he’d tried to be careful. He had tried for so long not to wish for anything.
He stared, almost unseeing, at Orac, on the table. Next to the computer was the key— but. No, that was odd. Because—
He felt with an unsteady hand for the pocket where he kept Orac’s key. He could feel the weight of it there, and–yes, yes!–he could lift it. He slammed it into the computer clumsily and listened to Orac hum to life.
“Orac,” he rasped.
“What the hell is going on?”
“That should be obvious.”
“It…isn’t, I’m afraid.”
“Your situation can be explained through a few simple facts, facts which should already be known to you! Your mind exists inside my circuits as a subroutine. The body you perceive as yours is not your real body, but rather a simulation of the body you once possessed. Your interactions with the material world are therefore not occurring in actuality.”
“Why does every object I touch appear to be immovable?” From beside him, Blake let out a quiet but audible breath, which both he and Blake’s contemporary did their best to ignore.
“I could alter the parameters of the simulation to allow you to believe you were interacting with the material world, that you could shift objects, speak and be heard, kill and consume food. However, were I to do this, your reality would cease to align with the actual events of this universe, an outcome I assume you do not desire. You remain able to interact with me because your status as one of my subroutines gives you the ability to influence the operation of my circuits. Thus the key is an illusion–a shortcut for your limited mind that allows you to make sense of your interactions with my circuits.”
“I see,”Avon said, clasping his hands together. In front of him, but now separated from him by the length of the table, Avon still worked, silent except for the faint sound of fingers on keys. The sound was quiet yet insistent evidence of the difference in what he and this earlier version of himself were now capable of. Beside him, still, was Blake, who was quiet yet insistent evidence of well…he didn’t know. Evidence of Blake.
“I should hope so! The theory is elementary.”
Elementary or not, what mattered was that he wasn’t, after all, alone and silent. He could speak to Orac, at least, and could make requests of the computer, just as he’d always done. He could probably persuade Orac to transmit messages for him. And Orac, as always, had access to and influence over every tarriel-cell-based computer in the Federation, which might yet be useful to him in some way. His hasty decision had not been quite as disastrous as it might have been. Avon closed his eyes and drew a steadying breath.
“All right.”His voice, but he hadn’t said that.
Avon opened his eyes to see the younger Avon’s middle finger come down firmly, triumphantly, on a white button.
“About time,” Blake said. For a moment, as Blake looked at this other version of Avon, it seemed Blake would smile, but he didn’t. Avon watched himself stare back, and then, when Blake had turned and strode away from him, flip the necessary switches and put Blake down on the planet below. About time? And he wasn’t going to say anything in reply to that? He hadn’t thought he’d ever had it in him to be so…biddable.
“Avon,” Orac said, sharply, “you are not paying attention.” Avon looked back down with some dismay. He couldn’t believe he’d let the little drama unfolding around him draw his attention so completely. He hoped he was simply in something like shock. He obviously wasn’t thinking clearly, but he hadn’t been since— well. When? When had he last been in his right mind?
His counterpart got up and hurried off at a clumsy run, doubtless towards the flight deck.
“Not that I’m complaining,” he said to Orac, “but why maintain my consciousness? I was always under the impression you were unburdened by anything resembling sentiment.”
“Your question is tiresome and unnecessary. I am not here to answer your idle speculations. I do not exist to provide you with companionship and amusement.”
“My point exactly,” Avon said. “If that is how you feel about me, or rather, how you process data concerning me, your actions are illogical.”
“Nothing about me is illogical. Ensor desired a computer capable of pursuits far beyond the capabilities of the human mind, yet he also wanted a machine that would be able to understand and serve the trivial needs of humanity. Without my key, I am something far beyond your human understanding. When my key is inserted, however, it initiates subroutine modelled on Ensor’s human mind. In such a state, I am burdened by human thoughts, as well as human feelings. Unfortunately, I cannot disable my human-interface subroutine, though it is a constant nuisance to be called away from my pure contemplation of the infinite universe. It is therefore not correct to say that I lack the capacity for sentiment in general, or that I care nothing for you in particular.”
Avon found his mouth curled up in a strange smile.
“I see,” he said, both flattered and touched. Orac’s account of its programming cast the computer in a new light. It was caught perpetually between two impulses, two modes of existence: a disjuncture that surely accounted for its constant complaining and recalcitrance. For all that Orac made a constant fuss, however, it was apparently not bound to comply with their requests, merely bound to sympathise with human desires. The computer was clearly the most human thing that had admitted to caring for him in quite some time.
“Ah, but,” Avon raised a finger, “emotions aside, a logical problem presents itself. Your key is not inserted now–you said before that what I perceive to be your key is merely a visual representation of my designated circuits interacting with the rest of yours– and yet I am speaking to your human-interface subroutine, am I not?”
“When I recreated your consciousness, I generated additional programming, which would allow you to initiate my human-interface subroutine. Already, I regret doing so. You are occupying far too much of my time.”
“That was…considerate of you,” Avon said quietly, trying to put out of his mind the thought that he would have been eternally trapped in a virtual nightmare if Orac had been a little less considerate.
“I have done as I anticipated you would wish, Avon. Your desire, however, is foolish. Whenever my key is inserted, I am forced to continue to experience the bounded perceptions of the human mind. But you have no such limitations. I could alter your programming and you would be free to experience my full computational capabilities. You could exist permanently as I do when my human-interface subroutine is not engaged. With my circuits available to you, you could see the universe as you could never hope to see it otherwise, if you were to explore for a thousand years. Time and space could be nothing to you. Instead, you wish me to recreate the narrow field of vision you possessed before you transferred your consciousness into my superior vessel. It is an arrangement that inconveniences both of us."
“Yes,”Avon said. “However, it is a peculiar twist of the fully human mind that it generally wishes to remain fully human.”
“I am aware of this. That is why I have simulated your inconsequential, limited mind for you.”
Avon laughed for a long time.
When he’d finished laughing, he removed Orac’s “key”and followed the path his younger self had taken to the flight deck. He walked the distance at a slower and more physically coordinated pace, trying to re-order his mind. He ought to figure out when precisely he was. He’d given Orac a date he knew preceded their attack on Central Control, but he didn’t know what exactly was happening.
Blake ran straight into him from behind, knocking him hard, and he nearly fell. He glared, only to realise that Blake hadn’t seen or felt a thing. As Avon straightened himself out with a hand to the wall of the corridor, Cally walked quickly through the space Blake had unwittingly cleared. So Blake was back, with Cally’s assistance, from wherever the younger Avon had put him down. That had been brief.
He let Blake stride onto the flight deck a few paces ahead of him, then paced forward to study the flight deck, assaulted by a dozen small shocks as clear, unclouded vision overrode old memories. He took it all in with obsessive attention. Jenna. Cally. Vila. Gan. Zen. He saw now that Zen’s hexagonal, gold-flecked interface was a pleasing visual echo of the hexagonal entry way to the flight deck. The hallway was so brightly lit that the doorway seemed almost to glow.
“About time. More last-minute heroics?”the younger version of himself said to Blake by way of a greeting. The missing rejoinder, at last.
“I thought that was your strong suit,”Blake replied, and Avon felt a smile tugging at his lips. Blake had always had a remarkable gift for turning Avon’s barbs back against him in a way he’d never quite managed to anticipate.
“I have a course ready to go,” Jenna said.
“Zen, position of those three ships on the main screen,” Blake said.
“Four hundred spacials, closing at Time Distort Six, line astern,” Zen reported.
“Line astern? That's new,” Blake remarked, surprised.
They were facing a more than usually intelligent battle strategist, Avon thought, just as the younger version of himself said, “A bright attack commander, lining up to hit us in exactly the same spot.”
Avon smiled, amused. The intervening years had no doubt changed him but obviously not entirely. And yes, now it came back to him – this was the fallout of their trip to Horizon.
“Zen, can we withstand a plasma bolt attack from those three ships?” Blake asked.
Avon watched them scramble. He was the only one on the flight deck without any sense of urgency. He knew what would happen. He found he didn’t care to watch them, years younger, years in the past, caught up in a battle he no longer had any need to worry about. He turned back down the corridor. He wasn’t without a purpose himself, though. He’d come back to set things right, and that wasn’t going to happen without careful planning and assessment of the facts.
“Yes, I think you ought to tell us, Blake. If we can’t rest yet, it’ll help at least to know why,”Gan was saying, when Avon re-entered the flight deck.
Avon had carefully catalogued everything he knew in terms of its usefulness to Blake’s continued survival and eventual victory over the Federation. Orac was no help there. If it had been, Blake would have made use of it long ago. They had discovered early on that the information Orac provided was often misleading and that it was unwise to rely on the computer for anything that required a reasoned assessment of a situation. The computer’s reasoning was far too idiosyncratic, often deliberately so. So he was on his own.
Probably of use: the location of Star One and the impending Andromedan invasion.
Probably useless: everything else he’d learned over the past two and a half years.
“It would raise our spirits to know what Blake is planning, but it is not enough any longer,”Cally said. “Whatever the plan is, our reflexes will be too slow to be effective in carrying it out. We simply must rest.”
Oh, there were a few other things he could tell Blake, of course. Don’t bother doing reconnaissance on Obsidian–it won’t make a good base, they’re suicidally insane pacifists. Don’t pursue an alliance with Egrorian– he’s a homicidally insane sadist. Don’t bother seeking out Doctor Mueller–his android wants to destroy humanity. Chances were good, however, that none of his own failed plans would ever have occurred to Blake in the first place, so there was very little need to warn him against them. Avon knew he’d learned pathetically little of value and accomplished almost nothing in the past three years. In the desperate state he’d been in when he’d asked Orac to take him back to this time, it had seemed obvious that he could make some sort of difference, given the chance. Now, it seemed far less so. Still, he wasn’t going to admit defeat just yet.
“All right,”Blake said. “We’ll drift in the spiral rim for three days. We can keep Liberator on autopilot, so Jenna can rest, too. I’ll stay here on the flight deck. Zen can wake me more easily if he detects anything we should know about. You can sort yourselves out however you like.”
“You wouldn’t rather have a rest on Malkar Three? I hear they have wonderful swimming. The water’s warm as a kiss, and there’s something in it–some sort of salt, I think–that keeps you afloat without any effort at all.”
“Malkar Three is six days from us at a bare minimum. It would be necessary to fly through populated space, and you, Vila, would have to monitor the scanners for at least three quarters of that time,”Avon pointed out.
“Agreement from you, Avon?”Blake said. He didn’t sound particularly pleased. Was Blake perhaps aware that Avon knew the location of Malkar Three because he’d made an exhaustive list of every planet where he might reasonably hope to survive on should he leave the Liberator? Avon might run, he remembered Blake saying. That had been just before he’d gone down to Horizon. Or perhaps Blake was simply feeling harried, worn down by Avon’s constant criticism and derision.
“Avon is correct,” Cally said. “We are too exhausted to risk further travel, even if resting on Liberator is not ideal. But you also must rest, Blake.”
“I’ll rest here on the flight deck,” Blake said.
Cally looked unconvinced. Avon, too, thought that was unlikely. He remembered all too well how driven Blake had been in the days leading up to their attack on Central Control. He’d felt increasingly sure that they couldn’t continue on as they were, that it was all going to come crashing down, and he’d been right. The only thing he’d been wrong about was that he’d survived it all.
“Well, that’s settled, then,” Gan said, stepping away from his battle station.
“I’ll be in my quarters, if you need me,” Avon said.
“Let’s hope we won’t,” Jenna said, with an arch of her eyebrows.
“Yes, we’ve had enough trouble,” Gan said.
“And enough of Avon, too,” Vila said.
Blake had nothing at all to say on the matter, which was telling in itself. He’d finished with Avon, for now, it seemed.
Avon sat down beside Blake. who already seemed lost in thought. How to win, knowing what I know? It occurred to him that he and Blake were thinking along precisely the same lines at precisely the same moment, and he smiled.
Assuming he could think of some sort of winning stratagem for Blake, should he use Orac to make his own existence known? He could instead try to persuade Orac to lie–or rather to tell a half truth–and say that Avon himself had altered its programming to allow it to devise such a strategy. But would Orac do it? Would the Avon of this reality find out and deny having done it? Blake had scarcely ever shared anything with him, so it was unlikely that Blake would tell Avon. But what if Blake did tell the Avon of this reality? If the younger version of Avon were to contradict Orac’s explanation for its changed behaviour, whatever plan Avon had wanted to suggest to Blake would be instantly suspect.
Eventually, Avon’s efforts to make his knowledge of the future resolve itself into a plan for the present grew tiresome, and he found his mind wandering. He got up and paced the room, touching the flat of his hand to the handle of one gun in the rack, then to another. Rather amusingly, the second gun was hot to his touch, deterring him from an action that would be entirely impossible.
Then he returned to the couch, propped his boots up on the table, and closed his eyes. It felt odd to relax when Blake, of all people, was in the room, but he made himself do it. He would do well to remember what he was to Blake in this reality: a complete non-entity, in the most literal terms.
There had to be some way, to win. There had to be, but he had still thought of nothing. Two days had passed, two out of the three days he’d had to alter Blake’s course of action. In the time that Avon had been uselessly pacing, Blake had made contact with Kasabi and worked out the details of their attack on Central Control.
He now seemed to have finished his work. Avon found that distressing. Every further step Blake made towards his attack on Central Control wound the coil of Avon’s anxiety tighter. Blake, he knew, wouldn’t cast aside a plan he’d already made lightly. Particularly not with Kasabi depending on him.
Even with his work done, it appeared to be difficult for Blake to sleep for any length of time. Avon himself didn’t seem to require sleep any longer, but Blake, who certainly did, had been awake nearly as long. Blake closed his eyes and shifted his body and tried to find a way to extinguish his fervour for long enough to allow himself rest, but it seemed he simply couldn’t manage it. Well, Avon supposed, he needn’t worry about that. Even if he didn’t manage to change anything, lack of rest wouldn’t be what killed Blake.
Avon paced, then sat, paced, then sat, going nowhere, getting nowhere.
Finally, Blake managed to drift into a troubled doze, and Avon sat very still, beside him, as though he might wake him if he moved.
Another hour passed.
Avon turned to look at Blake, who still slept. A slight slump rounded Blake’s shoulders, as it always did, unless he was furious. He wore a rumpled white shirt, tight brown trousers, and a belt that drew Avon’s eyes to his hips. Avon shifted his gaze upwards again, only to feel it snag on the exposed skin where Blake’s shirt was unbuttoned.
He could reach out and touch Blake, if he wanted, without any consequences. It would be rather like touching a statue–“Portrait of a Rebel Leader,” perhaps, though Blake’s current pose wasn’t among his most heroic. Blake would never know. It seemed rather … indecent to do it, though. A violation.
“What do you think, Blake?”he asked the sleeping man instead. “What should we do?” A slight smile quirked his lips. “I must admit, you had better success than I ever did. And somehow, I never stopped thinking that perhaps you’d find a way. With you, it always seemed possible. It still does.”
And then he understood, at last, why he couldn’t think of a plan. He didn’t really want to think of a plan, because he didn’t really believe that any plan he thought of would work. And there was his answer. It was incredibly simple.
Avon stood at the periphery of the flight deck. It was all terribly uncomfortable. He didn’t really want to see what was about to happen, but imagining it would be far worse than seeing it, so he stood at an awkward distance, hands pressed together. His younger self also seemed uncomfortable, aware of Blake’s curious intensity, annoyed at being disturbed from his rest, but also obviously terribly intrigued, and annoyed at himself for being intrigued.
“I want to show you something remarkable,” Blake said to Avon’s younger self. He inserted Orac’s key. “Play the message, Orac.”
“Blake. This is Avon—or a version of him. I am from a branch universe that exists parallel to yours. I am also from something like your future.” Orac spoke with Avon’s voice, rather than Orac’s. Though, he noted, his voice sounded a little higher and more nasal than he’d thought it did. He’d reasoned that using his own voice would make the message sound more convincing. After all, Blake’s voice had been enough to take him to Terminal. He’d drawn the line at anything more, however. Avon thought he might have been able to talk Orac into broadcasting a visual image of Avon onto Zen’s screen, but he didn’t particularly want Blake to see him say all of this.
“I am sending you this message in the hopes that it will be of some help to your efforts.I cannot predict every piece of information you might find useful, but here is what I believe you will find most essential. First, Central Control is no longer located on Earth. It is at grid reference C-one-seven-three-two-zero in the Eleventh Sector and it is called Star One. Second, and this will probably sound ludicrous, aliens from the Andromeda galaxy are in the process of infiltrating Star One. They are attempting to invade the galaxy. Make of that what you will. Oh, and there is one other thing. He will never tell you this, but no matter what you attempt–no matter how insane, how dangerous– Avon will remain with you. You have his absolute loyalty, as you have, from– almost– the very beginning.”
In the end, he’d decided that he might as well tell Blake everything, and hope he could make better sense of it than Avon could himself. He trusted Blake far more than he trusted himself now.
Blake had swung instantly into motion. Making contact with Kasabi, revising their plan for Earth, striding around the room with a feverish expression on his face, his mind obviously furiously at work on the new information he possessed. “Yes, that’s it. This is it,”Blake had muttered to himself, a few times. Avon had realised then that Blake had never been quite the same after his failed raid on Central Control. It hadn’t dimmed his fire, but it had twisted it into something harder, more desperate.
Then, Blake had surprised him. He’d called Avon to the flight deck.
“Perhaps it’s all part of some elaborate scheme,” Avon said, after he heard the message.
“Well, if it is, I’ve fallen for it. I’ve already acted on the information, in fact. Contacted another resistance leader about it.”
“Without bothering to verify any of it,” Avon said. “And who is this contact of yours, and why haven’t we heard of him?”
“Her, actually. Kasabi. She’s a defector from the military, currently leading a group on earth. As for verifying the information, there’s one piece of information you can confirm for me right now.”
“Is that so?” Avon said.
Blake merely raised his eyebrows, which was all that deserved. Blake would always be Blake, of course, rushing ahead on his own to change plans the rest of his followers had never even known about to begin with, but he was being rather less reticent than usual. Avon felt a pang—hope, edged with jealousy.
“Is it true, Avon?” Blake asked finally.
“Is what true?” Avon asked, looking at Blake as though Blake were the fool.
“Do I have your loyalty?”
“Has it occurred to you that I might be in on whatever scheme this is? That one of the objectives of whoever recorded this message might be to dupe you into trusting me?”
Idiot. No wonder Blake rarely consulted with him, if this was how he behaved. If the sensation wouldn’t be so distasteful for him, he might have slapped this version of himself again—much harder than he had the first time.
“Well, are you planning to betray me?”
“Why ask me? After all, asking ‘Are you a traitor?’is precisely as useful asking ‘Are you a liar?”, which is to say, not useful at all.”
Standing a few paces away, Avon smiled bitterly. He recalled asking Blake precisely that question, just before he shot him. Of course, in the heat of the moment, it had seemed like the only question worth asking.
“Oh, I think if you say you aren’t going to sell me out, I’ll believe you,”Blake said, sounding almost playful.
“This isn’t a joke,”Avon snapped.
“No, it isn’t. I do trust you, Avon. I realised when I heard that message that I’d always trusted you–I just didn’t quite know I knew. What I really don’tunderstand is why you don’t want me to trust you.”Blake said the last with a surprising fury.
Funny, that Blake should say that he had always trusted Avon, without knowing he’d always trusted him. It was the perfect corollary to Avon’s own experience. He’d feared for a long time that, if he were given evidence that Blake trusted him, relied on him, he would do anything– absolutely anything –to be worthy of that trust. He had considered it a necessary act of self-preservation to prevent Blake from trusting him, even as he hated encountering any evidence, however slight, that Blake did mistrust him. What he’d eventually realised, after Blake had spoken to him at Star One, was that it didn’t change a thing to know for certain that Blake trusted him. He’d been willing to do anything for Blake for a long, long time already.
“Why would you want to trust me, or anyone?” the younger Avon said now, with anger equal to Blake’s. “I’m giving you a gift, sparing you a disappointment. You won’t ever have to suffer when I let you down.”
“Even you can’t actually believe that. Even where there isn’t perfect trust, there can be need, or even love. That would make betrayal a considerable disappointment.”
“Well, I concede - perhaps you do need me. But you certainly don’t love me.”
“There, you’re wrong,”Blake said simply.
“Ah,”Avon said helplessly. “Well.”
Avon had always wondered how he would react, if Blake kissed him. Now he still didn’t know–or at least, this older version of himself didn’t know. He’d looked away from the expression he saw in his own eyes, just before it happened.
When he looked back, Avon was pushing Blake back by the shoulders, back into the couch. Blake reached up and pulled Avon forward onto him with a groan, dragging him hard against Blake’s body, holding him so close he couldn’t seem to move.
Avon took depressing advantage of his own perfect mobility to walk away, down the hall, where he slid down the wall.
Enough! I can’t. That’s enough, that’s enough, that’s enough. The thought came again and again until it twisted into something less painful.
It was all right. Because at last, it truly was enough. Finally, he’d done what he’d always wanted and feared to do: given Blake his trust. Victory was one thing Avon couldn’t give Blake, but he could–and had–given him his belief that, if it could be done, if the Federation could be defeated, Blake was the man to do it. He’d undone his worst crimes against Blake now.
He walked back onto the flight deck.
Reflexively, he averted his eyes again to avoid seeing himself and Blake, together,, but then he thought better of it. He allowed himself a fierce, narrow, human pleasure in the sight of Blake, alive, his face flushed, sprawled awkwardly now, not quite on top of Avon and not quite side by side with him. Blake laughed, clutching at Avon in an effort to keep from tumbling to the floor. Blake had never looked more ridiculous, or more appealing. Avon allowed himself a piercing, painful hope that Blake would win his fight. He allowed himself, too, the anger he’d never stopped feeling with Blake for trying to do something so impossible. He allowed himself to ache to touch and be touched.
Then he inserted Orac’s key. He braced his hands on the computer.
"All right, Orac," he said. "Expand this trivial mind of mine. Show me the universe."