The Last Best Hope - Chapter One

It was Refederation Day and the gates of the Terran domes had been ceremonially thrown open. The actual event the ritual commemorated was four years in the past: the symbolic opening of the old Federation to the new, to the democratic government of President Roj Blake.

From far above, the Watcher observed the great unwashed, coralled within the expanse of what had come to be called the Common. Every smiling face was turned toward the platform in anticipation of this world's only sun. Like a reflex, every pair of hands began clapping together, harder and harder ™ a soft roll of thunder ™ as President Blake rose up to the speaker stand.

Blake was flanked by five members of his Inner Council. The man in the window thought with an ironic smile that The High Council, already seated behind them, dressed in their black robes, looked like several non-committal crows,

He couldn't hear the applause, but he knew it was deafening. As the one member of the Inner Council not in attendance on the stage, the only inharmonious element was his absence. But that would go largely unnoticed. The masses had their hero, their Blake, and they welcomed him with naked jubilation.

Blake made some humble gesture, a mere movement of his hand, and the crowd hushed.

Charade, the man at the window thought darkly. Theatre for the masses. The internal conflict was rife and uncompromising: the tug of war between the liberals like Avalon and the hold-over moderates like Alta Morag; the resentment of the Inner Council at their strictly advisory capacity; the jealousy of the High Council toward the Inner Council, whom the H.C. took unhidden pleasure in dubbing "The President's Personal Puppy-Dogs". Rumours and machination and double-dealing. The Refederated House of Cards was about to topple down upon Blake's head.

And Blake was standing there, on the stage, smiling like an oblivious child.

No, the man at the window thought: an oblivious, idiotic child.

He was doubtless down there preaching to the masses his promises of peace, prosperity, and abundance for all: a limitless future. What was the Mao quote Blake had used? Ah yes. We are a blank slate across which anything may be written.

"Right now the slate says failure, Blake," Avon said softly, turning away from the window.

His office was cold and too quiet, but preferable to the nonsense on-going on the common. He realized his absence would mean nothing. He was only an adviser. But he could not help hoping that Blake might pay some heed to his threats now. Hope against hope, Avon thought.

The high, inoffensive chime of the communication system sounded. "Councillor Avon, please," the synthetic voice said.

He rubbed at his tired brow. "Avon here."

"I have a message for you, sir."

Avon gave the console a rough glance. "I left instruction for my messages to be held until tomorrow."

"Message from the President, sir. President countermanded your instruction."

He gave a resigned sigh. "That is not surprising. Very well, transmit message."

"President wishes to remind Councillor Avon that their weekly chess match is set for this evening. Response?"

Yes, the chess match, he'd quite forgotten. And it did present an opportunity.

"Tell President Blake I will be there at the usual time. That is all."

Avon had mentioned his opinions over their chess games before. Blake rather tidily ignored them, or pretended to. Perhaps this would present an opportunity to be heard, to make his point clear, that coupled with his own absence at this morning's Blakean High Mass.

Avon's fingers brushed the top of the small lucite case. Timidly, he drew back the hood. There they were: prepared and ready. Ten holovistapes, ready for viewing. Loathe as he was that ever they needed to be. Pandora's box, Avon thought to himself. Well, now. Perhaps for certain individuals.

He wondered how long he had. And how much time it would take to convince His Royal Highness of how critical this matter was. Of the former, he thought it to be days. About the latter, he was miserably certain, there might not be enough time in the whole history of man.

Tarrant spread his arms over the back of the davenport, in a gesture of expansiveness. Dayna stood stately behind him, watching as Blake arranged the chess board with absurd precision. If he didn't, Avon would undoubtedly tear it all down and reconstruct it.

"I don't know why you continue to play him, Roj," Tarrant said, crossing his boots on the footrest. "He only humiliates you in defeat."

"Good for his ego," Blake said, placing the black king. "And I'm the only one who will." Considering the board a short moment, he nodded, then swung around to face his people. "Now, then, why the reason for this visit?"

Tarrant feigned a good-humoured pique. "Do we need a reason? Rationing your time on a basis of necessity, are you?"

"Of course not, but from the glowering expression on Dayna's face, I know you have a reason. A good one."

Dayna straightened indignantly, glancing to Tarrant for assurance. He nodded for her to continue what he'd started.

"Very well," she said. "We heard that you spoke with Avon's psychiatrist. We want to know what she said."

Blake glanced sideways at the chessboard, to avoid their eyes. "That is confidential information. She only spoke with me in lieu of a family conference."

"Come now, Roj," Tarrant said, holding up a hand to stop Dayna's more terse response. "We're all the family any of us has. We're concerned about him. And should you tell him I said so, I will make your life a living hell."

Blake erupted in a hearty laugh, thinking on the prospect a moment. Darkness slowly took possession of his face again. "I only wanted to protect you. The news is not good."

Dayna frowned thoughtfully, moving from behind the sofa with which she'd shielded herself. She stepped over to Blake, reaching a hand for his shoulder as if considering contact, but letting it hover just above, not yet ready. "The paranoia again?"

Blake nodded, his eyes trailing over toward Dayna and an amorphic, pink blaster-fire scar on her brown hand. "Legacy of Gauda Prime," Blake said bleakly, looking down into his own hands again. "Thanks to microsurgery, all my scars are gone. I just wish Avon's were the kind mendable by a laser."

Dayna shook her head. "Thinking he'd killed you did even more harm than when he thought you'd betrayed him. And he was under horrific stress before that."

"Small wonder," Blake said. "Avon never wanted any of this in the first place. He always said I couldn't win, yet he played the game anyway, prepared to lose a competition he thought was pointless." He cast a rueful glance over at the chess board. "Perhaps that is why I let him win. If I had let him go in the first place, he wouldn't have gone through what he did."

Tarrant and Dayna looked at each other, the conflict mirrored in their faces. They'd all been under strain during those years, but ultimately they'd depended on Avon. His had been the greatest load.

The psychiatrists were surprised that he hadn't snapped completely. The closest he had come was that incident Vila still refused to discuss, though occasionally would refer to when drunk and ticked enough at Avon. And even though his bullets had fired into Blake, they did more damage to Avon's mind than Blake's body.

It fairly destroyed him for over a year. And there were still those hidden scars, as Blake had called them...

"Roj, if Avon had left the Liberator when he said he wanted to, we would all probably be dead now." Tarrant smiled up at Dayna, sharing the smile with Blake. "At very least, we wouldn't have each other."

That sentiment caused a moment of awkward silence. Avon would have whisked it away with a caustic remark, but in his friend's absence, Blake simply let the silence pass.

"That is always what it amounts to, isn't it? Where we would be without Avon."

"And where Avon would be without us," Tarrant offered diplomatically.

Dayna nodded. "We all owe each other for a lot of old debts. We've saved his life, he's saved ours. If you hadn't been on board the London, Avon would have died on Cygnus Alpha. He admits that much himself."

"Does he?" Blake smiled to himself, at a memory that was his alone. "I don't know. An intelligent man can adapt."

After another silence, Dayna asked, "The psychiatrist says his condition is grim?"

Blake lifted the black king from the board, studying it in the hollow of his hand. "He comes to me weekly with veiled conspiracy theories. He thinks one or another or all of my staff is out for his head. At first I just discounted them to envy, some feeling that he wasn't as close to me as I'd like to think he would prefer. But the psychiatrist feels the diagnosis is conclusive. Paranoid psychosis." Blake swallowed something invisible, replacing the black king. "We may have to institutionalize him."

Dayna's eyes flashed in horror and swift rage. "No!"

"Do you think I enjoy the idea?" Blake snapped back, confronted with the wrath of Dayna.

"I wonder!"

"I hate the very thought of it!" he said. "We all know what that will do to him. But he may harm someone, including and most especially himself. It is the consensus of the clinicians that Avon, at this point, is susceptible to suicide. I had to have his room placed under surveillance."

Rather than soothe Dayna's ire, this revelation fulminated it. "He would not try to kill himself!" Dayna snarled close to Blake's face. "Not Avon."

Blake met her eyes with his own. "He is not himself, Dayna," he said, modulating his tone. "He very well may try just that. Now if it comes to a choice between Avon's life and Avon's freedom, I know which I will choose every time."

"They are the same thing!" she called over her shoulder, on her way to the door.

"Not to me," Blake replied.

"To me they are," Dayna said, triggering the door to open. "And to Avon." With one glance at Tarrant, she left.

The two men looked at each other, helpless to say anything. Another uncomfortable silence passed.

"She'll get over it, Roj," Tarrant finally said. "It's just a bit hard to take, imagining Avon in restraints."

"More than a bit difficult," Blake said, rubbing at his neck. "Unthinkable. But sometimes you have to do what is right for a friend, regardless of what he or she wants. Out of affection and concern for him, I have to protect him from himself."

"Careful. Just then you sounded every bit like a benevolent tyrant. For all of Avon's unpleasant characteristics, I'm still more inclined to trust his capacity to get through this himself. We should act cautiously, taking everything into consideration."

Blake laughed in spite of himself. "Since when are you the Inner Council staff conservative?"

Tarrant rose to his feet. "Since having been assigned by the cruel hand of Fate as arbiter between two madmen named Blake and Avon." Smiling toothily, he braced his arms behind himself in the old Federation militia review stance. "Will that be all, Old Man?"

"That is all, Old Son," Blake laughed, in a mock gesture of dismissal.

Tarrant triggered the front door, then found Avon standing there, about to press the call button himself. Both exchanged their usual cynical smiles, with Tarrant casting a look of moral support back to Blake before leaving.

Avon hesitated on the other side of the door. "Is this meeting solely for your trusted sycophants, Your Lordship, or may I come in?"

Blake laughed. "What the devil do you think? And by the way, you're late. I'd rather thought my favourite chess victim was in hiding."

Avon stepped in, the door closing behind him. "Chess victim? Need I remind you, Your Worship, that you have yet to fairly win a single one of our matches."

"I won once!" Blake said, his face flaring amiably in protest.

"As I was rather propitiously inebriated at the time, that was an unfair tactical manoeuvre on your part." He smiled. "Which negates the outcome of the match."

Joy burst through Blake at this return of a much-missed past-time: verbally sparring with Avon, which they hadn't done in weeks.

"Are you implying that I, leader of the entire Federated universe and Commander-in-Chief of the Galactic Fleet, set you up?"

Avon smiled again. "I am not implying anything. I am stating it as fact," he said, his tone, as usual, cold and flat as ice, but the humour sparkling in his eyes betraying his voice. "Face facts, Your Grace, my forte is systems. I can sense a vulnerability in a tactical offence at any time. Which is why I will always win at chess."

"Which is why you forgot Dayna's birthday last week and hurt her feelings."

An ember of regret flew up in Avon's eyes, then retreated. "I made amends."

"After the fact," Blake said, smiling in rejoinder.

"Sentiment is your province, Blake. In any event, she liked the weapons system I gave her, I trust."

"It made her smile."

"Then I am absolved," Avon said, lowering to his customary place beside the chess board. "White or black?"

"Black this time, I think," Blake said, sinking into an opposite chair.

"As you wish." Avon's face stilled as his mind focused on the potentials before him. With a tentative hand, he lifted the white queen's pawn and moved it two forward. "You wanted to discuss something."

"I did?"

"Yes. You reminded me of our chess appointment, which meant you wanted to be certain I was present. Unless you simply wanted to wonder at my beauty, which is unlikely, you had some conversational purpose. Ergo, you wanted to speak to me about something."

Blake smiled. "Very well," he said, his voice forcibly casual, searching for a way to say this without saying it outright. "I am preparing for the Lyceum commencement next week. I am to make a speech and I wanted to go over with you the consistency of my theme."

"I am listening."

He took a deep, silent breath, moving his queen's bishop's pawn forward two spaces. "My theme is...the Sacredness of Life."

Avon scrutinized Blake's move and then Blake with equal wariness. He captured the black pawn, standing it at the side. "Define sacred."

"An essential worth, a transcendent purpose. Inviolability. The meaning inherent in all life." Blake moved his queen's knight's pawn forward two.

Avon echoed the move with his own pawn. "Illogical. Life has no essential worth and there are no transcendent meanings. Meaning is a qualitative distinction drawn from physical context. The only meaning of life is a causal, limited effect confined to a field of direct influence. For example, the meaning of life is the epiphenomenon of carbon. Its worth is in its utilitarian dimensions." He lowered his eyes to the board. "Your move."

Blake's eyes softened as he took the opportunity of Avon's distraction to study his face. What on earth, or anywhere else, had happened to Avon that he was now convinced life had no meaning? What had people done to him to cause this? Tynus, the woman called Anna, the others? Blake felt rage at faceless people he had never met. People who stood between him and Avon.

"You contend life is meaningless?" Blake asked, trying to force the tragedy from his voice. "Has no worth at all?"

"Of course. Life, as you call it, is a result of a random prebiotic process. And doubtless you disagree with me."

"Yes, I do," Blake said, his voice raised. He chose the next words very carefully. "Every life has meaning. And all life has meaning. Each life fits into a larger context which, in turn, gives each life worth and purpose. It needs each life within it, just as oxygen requires all its constituents, though it is more than merely the sum of its parts."

"Nice words, Blake, but without empirical grounding." Avon tapped the chess board. "Your move."

Blake made a move at random, moving a knight. "You have studied natural history. You know of the similarities in form among original animal species on Earth." He held up his hand for example. "We have one form seen in widely divergent species ™ the bat wing, the bird wing, the human hand and foot. Very similar structures that make mobility possible, which is necessary for our very survival. Morphologists hold that the chances of this happening at random are™"

"Incidental," Avon said. He moved a bishop into the centre of the board. "Apparently I must supplement your negligible education. Elementary transformism demonstrates that similar mutations will occur through environmental influence on a gross gene pool. Fortuitous occurrences are predictable. Without them, what you call life would still be star dust. It does happen because it must happen. There is no need to formulate some insipid anthropomorphic teleology around it. We are living in an age of reason. We are not primitives seeing the northern star and deciding it must be the watching eye of a god."

Blake smiled, reaching out for yet another random move. "Strange how these elements just happen to converge, though. Occam's Razor can't diminish the odds of all this happening without some higher meaning dictating form. That is, given we do live in a random universe, as you say. These elements brought forth of a three-dimensional universe bring forth conscious creatures capable of perceiving in three-dimensions. Conscious creatures without whom the universe could not be said to exist. Existence requires consciousness."

"Put consciousness under a microscope, let me take a look at it, and perhaps I'll grant you your argument. Show me its half-life." Avon made his move with an angry hand. "And your clinicians accuse me of paranoia. This is all a mistake of your stilted perception!"

"Calm down, Avon, I was merely making conversation."

"It is your subject matter." Something flexed momentarily through Avon's face and then fled, as if forced away. Resolution evened-out his voice. "There is no transcendent puppeteer, Blake. We are as free as a blind, deaf, and ignorant universe would have us be." His eyes shrouded, turned inward as much as outward to Blake. "The events of life are accidents created solely by convergent circumstance and the law of probability. To think otherwise is madness."

"Very well, Avon! Enough!" Blake said, alarmed at the force of the words. "It was merely a rhetorical argument."

"Oh, please," Avon hissed. "Don't insult my intelligence. You could recite from Clane's Tome on Cybernetic Ontogeny at that Lyceum commencement and have the rabble cheer you."

Blake sighed audibly. He'd been hoping to merge these abstractions into serious tangibles, but, as always, Avon's will prevailed. He'd been only baiting him along, waiting for the moment to confront him.

"All right," Blake said, squeezing at the bridge of his nose. "I spoke with your psychiatrists."

"Ah, yes." Avon's eyes glittered, bright with the pain of confirmed suspicion. "What is it they say now? Still incurable psychosis? Paranoid delusion? Yes, I have been privy to their indictments."

"They are not indictments!" Blake roared, reaching out to claim Avon's hand. "We want to help you."

Avon stared down at the invading hand as if the touch itself were an act of treason. "Help me how? By believing I'm paranoid? Perhaps if you surrendered your great love of humanity, you wouldn't be so blinded by your cause. Maybe then you would see what is happening among that cast of characters you call your High Council. Perhaps you'd care what I had to say then, too."

"Avon, I do care. I am here. Talk to me."

"I have talked to you."

"Talk to me again. You tell me about a conspiracy. Well, show me proof."

"The only kind of proof you can collect on something like this is the kind of proof which could be discounted by doubting my sanity. Well, now, what am I to do? Prove to you I'm sane? I can no more do that than you can convince me with all this talk of life and meaning."

"Just promise me something, Avon."

A look of utter frustration raced through his face, then beyond it. "What?" he asked.

Blake looked at him steady on. "That you won't try to kill yourself."

Confusion replaced frustration, then something else dawned in his eyes. And he tossed his head back in a loud, ice-water laugh. "Suicide?" he said, "Well, isn't that perfect. Utter genius. I should be proud to have them for my enemies. Forebode my death by suicide, pursuant to poor sick Avon's paranoia. Then park an air car on top of me and no one would be the wiser and no one would give a damn enough to consider differently. Yes, I agree, Blake, all these events just happen to converge to bring forth fortuitous events. Transformism disproved." He laughed again, the laugh growing harder and colder and louder.

Blake rose up and finally broke through the invisible wall between them, grasping him and shaking him three times hard. "I give a damn. I want you to go back to your psychiatrist."

"Why? So she can turn me into one of your inoffensive yes-men who politely decline comment when the Emperor is naked?" Avon leaned down and easily moved the game into checkmate. He straightened up, staring down at the evidence of his victory with open misery and contempt.

"Must you always have an impossible cause, Blake?" he asked softly, moving to the door.

"Wait. We haven't finished our discussion."

"Oh, but we have. Why sully your schedule with the ramblings of a psychopath, Your Worship?" He slammed the trigger to the door. "You have far more important matters to which to attend."

"Avon..." Blake said, and the one word lay unbidden in the space between them.

"Good-bye, Roj," he said, the door sliding closed between them.

Blake waited there a long, silent moment.

Avon had never called him Roj before.

What had it been? An invitation? An apology? A promise? A distress beacon from within the walls of that formidable fortress? Blake doubted he had the strength to scale them. And if he did try, if he followed him, providing that he reached him before his door clicked locked behind him, what the devil could he say?

For days to come, Blake would regret, with every moment of each day, not having tried to say something... something...

Blake had been sleeping. He turned slightly on the sleep level, mildly noticing the blink of the temperature control adjusting the temperature of the room around him to his body heat, wondering dimly what time it was. There was very little light through the window. As such, there were new shadows hovering around him, shadows that were strangers to him. It was much earlier than he usually woke to this state of alertness. It didn't happen often that he woke before his alarm; more often than not, he slept the sleep of the dead until it sounded.

A sense of warning climbed inside him.

It was like catching whiff of smoke from possible fire, but there was no smoke. Yet he sensed it. Danger. Death coming. Pain. The air wrenched off inside him, He felt as if he'd been dragged back from a ledge before a fatal fall.

Blake threw his legs over the side of the sleep level, the vague warning building to a tocsin in his head. Something was horribly wrong.

He groped for a robe and punched his hands into the sleeves. He didn't know where he was going, just that he was going somewhere.

The Inner Council sector was kept at full light at all times, as Avon was up at any conceivable hour, and Vila said he liked "a bit o' light for sleeping", which Soolin said meant he was scared of the dark. Therefore, the lumines were at high intensity, all hours.

Blake was thankful for it as he wobbled out into the hallway, looking one way and then the other. Which way was he going? (Where was he going?) This way, Blake, a voice said and, strangely, it was Avon's voice. Inside his head.

Dreaming? he considered.

This way, the voice responded.

He was walking toward Avon's room.

The door was open, which of itself was strange. Avon jealously guarded his privacy and never left his door standing open. Even when the filtration system was shut down during the prime dome's refurbishing, while all others slept with open hatches and wore only what was abstractly decent to wear, Avon buttoned every button and secured every casement and door.

Blake turned into the room. All that greeted him, Avon's few personal belongings. Nothing disturbed.

But the bedroom door was also open. Blake felt like a veritable voyeur even standing close to it.

This way! the voice insisted.

Something gave way. Probably his analytical process, because as soon as the voice intruded on it, the sense of warning dropped on him like prairie fire.

He rushed through the door. Panic was biting at his heart, sweat running rivulets through his skin.

Avon was just lying on his bed asleep, he told himself, trying to force away the terror and replace it with relief. Avon did not sleep well. It was good that he was. It was as rare for Avon to be asleep at this time as it was for Blake to be awake.

The terror won and he tore the light sheet from Avon's body.

The first thing amiss was what he thought was a bruise on Avon's cheek. But he pulled the head toward him, saw the blood (too much blood), the hideous wound that was contusion, bruise, and burn all at once. It started above the temple and spread upward, part of it hidden by hair that was singed.

The gun, cold and metallic, lay silent in Avon's still hand.

Is Avon dead?

Did he try to kill himself? (and if so, why?)

The answers to these questions, as well as fascinating discoveries about Avon and Blake's earlier lives, are in The Last Best Hope.