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Fellow Feeling

By Sally M

     *This entire scheme of Ven Glynd's has been a complete fiasco, as I would have predicted had I been consulted in the proper manner. Initial reports from Atlay indicate that he and Governor Le Grande are dead. Space Command is in full control, and the situation may be said to be without whatever illusory hope it might have had.

     *There is no further time to be wasted.

     *Whatever the reasons for the delay in continuing Blake's eradication therapy might have been, they are now without import. Having begun the treatment, it must be continued as a matter of urgency. Further delay could result in mental trauma and possible damage.

     *My previous instructions stand: five minute sessions interspersed with one hour rest periods.

     *From the previous aborted attempt, it is clear that dual therapy must be continued, but that Jenna is incapable of carrying out the role of monitor for the full period. Vila and Avon will therefore alternate with Jenna to complete the full two hours of therapy. Cally will be needed to oversee. It is suggested that the Zen computer be instructed to avoid all possible contact with other ships, unfriendly or otherwise, for the full twenty-six hours involved.*

 

     I don't want to do this, I don't, I don't, I don't...

     And Blake doesn't want me to.

     I do want it done, I guess. But I'm not well, my head hurts enough from trying to follow Avon's explanation, I'm sure I'd make things worse for Blake, not better. Maybe I could suggest that to Avon. Maybe I don't want to hear his answer. He's sore enough for seven Warg-stranglers with seven strangled and very mad wargs at the minute, and he gets even less loveable when he's sore.

     Five minutes. Five minutes once every three hours doesn't sound much, does it? Perhaps that's how I need to look at it.

     So I'll sit here in the galley for a while, while Avon has his turn, and I'll drink a lot of this revolting hot swampwater tea that Cally is handing out to all of us, and I'll listen to the silence. I'd prefer something stronger - a lot stronger - but Orac says no. Not even Cally's patented soma and adrenalin mixture, made just the way I like it. Adrenalin's a stimulant, soma's a relaxant, we can't have both, or either. Orac says it would be risky to Blake.

     Blake...

     It all ended so fast, that stupid business with Travis and Governor Le What's-her-Name. Blake snarled something about "what are we all standing around for?" and strode off. We all went after him, tried to catch him before he reached the flight deck, but he moves so fast when he wants to, and Cally just caught his sleeve as he turned the corner and almost fell over the body. The Governor's servant.

     Y'know, none of us can even recall the man's name now. It's sort of there in the corner of my mind, a small, sad thought that doesn't come clear. It's pretty awful when you think of it. He's dead, and we have to get rid of him, and not one of us knows his name to send back to wherever he came from. But we had to let it go, let him go, because he was dead and Blake was alive.

     Blake stared down at him as if he'd never seen a body before .

     "Avon?"

     Avon walked straight past me as if I wasn't there, across to Blake, in his close-up-and-really-too-personal move, the one I hate when he does it to me. "You have Orac's key, Blake?"

     "No, I..." Blake fumbled in a pocket, drew the key out.

     "As I said, Blake," and I didn't like his voice at all, it had that horrible soft purr he gets when he's angry but isn't sure who at, "just say thank you, and nicely. Believe me, you won't want to thank us later."

     "Thank you," Blake said, missing normality just enough to scare me. "Now, thank you for... what?"

     Avon slid Orac's key in. "Orac, tell Blake what he has been fortunate enough to forget." Jenna half-stepped forward, with a gasp. Avon looked at her, and she fell back. "Go on, Orac."

     Blake listened in silence, except for a small, caught sound of pain at the mention of that Ven Glynd who'd done this to him, and an even smaller one at the words 'mind control'. By the end his eyes were closed, his face... well, almost blank. But the bit that wasn't 'almost', it hurt.

     It's no good pretending, I can't read him and never could, so I looked over to Cally, then Avon. Cally was watching him, flashes of pain flickering over her face; Avon was staring straight past him, as if looking for something to look at that didn't look the way Blake looked. If you know what I mean.

     "No." So soft we nearly missed it. "No. No..." Then he whirled around and headed straight for the door - which I was in the way of, and pretty sure that he'd sweep me aside like so much absolute nothing. I barely had time to scramble out of his way, and Jenna was one step behind him, her hands reaching out, grabbing his arm but barely able to slow him down.

     "Blake!" Avon's voice was sharp as a knife - I can't stand knives - and it seemed to stop him, just for a fraction of a part of a second. Then Jenna pulled him around, still gripping his arm tightly.

     We could all see him trying not to shake.

     "You do not have to like it, Blake," Avon went on, cold and as composed as if he didn't realize how stupid that sounded. "But you do have to accept it. We do not have time to indulge your disbelief. You heard Orac. You are still vulnerable."

     "I thought I was free of it." There was a silence, then he suddenly shivered, seemed to pull all the pain inside and went on rather too calmly. "Obviously not. I see... and I do thank you."

     "I doubt that you want to," Avon said. "You do realize that you were nearly killed. We were nearly betrayed. And you were used -"

     "And abused," Cally added.

     "- by that creature. While he is dead, fortunately for him," Avon smiled, and I did not like that smile at all, "what he could do, others must not. The eradication therapy must continue."

     Jenna groaned slightly. Blake turned and saw the pain on her face. "Jenna?"

     "Jenna has already sampled your memories, Blake." Avon was again staring past him. "Not pleasant, I gather. But Orac decreed that someone has to share the therapy with you, and its choice fell on her."

     "Would you have refused?" Jenna snapped.

     "Leave it, both of you." Neat, it was, Blake saving Avon the need to answer her. "Please. Orac, there has to be another answer. There has to be -"

     *I fail to see any reason why. Do you have any conclusions that are superior to mine?*

     "Anything! I'd beaten the butchers, I'd beaten..." His voice trailed off. "I thought I'd beaten it all."

     *Obviously not.*

     "I agree." Dry despair. "Obviously not."

     Cally spoke, very gently. "You could hardly defeat something you did not know was still to be fought."

     "We did not know," Avon corrected, with a grating edge to his voice. "Nearly two years, is it not? Blake has been running our lives for nearly two years and neither he, nor any of us, had any idea how easily he could have been -"

     "Avon, please." She almost glared at him - Cally! Never seen it before - and he stopped, took a breath and went on.

     "How easily he could have been destroyed, and all this with him.  Orac," voice sharpening again, "your conclusions. Now."

     *The situation is quite simple, and the necessary actions should be obvious to the meanest intelligence.*

     "Tell us anyway."

     *Oh very well. This entire scheme of Ven Glynd's has of course been a complete fiasco, as I would have certainly predicted had I been consulted in the proper manner. Initial reports indicate...*

     On he droned again. For all the complaining, I'd bet my - I mean Blake's - last credit that Orac loves any chance to lecture us poor dumb humans. I admit, I was beginning to tune out to the actual words.

     But that's when Orac said it. That the therapy had to go on; that Jenna couldn't do it alone; that Avon and I had to take our turns playing host to the nightmares.

     Oh help.

     I don't know if I moaned, but from the look both Jenna and Cally gave me, I probably did.

     "So we will take it in turns," Avon spoke quite calmly, as if his insides weren't churning up at the thought. Mine were, let me tell you, but then maybe he's got an all-herculaneum stomach to go with the all-circuit brain.

     Blake looked up suddenly, straight at him. "Not Vila."

     Hell.

     "Why not?" Jenna spoke sharply.

     "I don't want Vila involved like that."

     I didn't know what to think. It felt like I'd been given a reprieve and a kick in the guts at the same time, and I couldn't decide whether to feel sick with relief or offended. Then I remembered what it was we were talking about and plumped firmly for relief.

     "Well, if that's what Blake wants, surely he knows best..."

     Err. Not the right thing to say. Avon was looking at me like I'd crawled out from under something not nice to know.

     "Even you must have noticed that Blake is not showing his usual immaculate judgement at the moment, Vila. We will do as Orac -"

     "I said no," Blake interrupted.

     Avon's smile got hateful again. "I see. An interesting point. Should Vila be disturbed because you do not trust him with your memories? Or should Jenna and I consider your singular lack of concern for us?"

     "Avon." One word from Jenna, soft, but definitely a warning. This was going to turn nasty any moment, and I really wanted to be somewhere else. Anywhere else.

     "I would prefer not have any of you used this way."

     "But you cannot do this alone." Cally spoke with the sort of careful, sweet reason that never works on Blake. "I would be willing to take Vila's place, Blake."

     *No,* Orac cut in again. *The differences in cerebral configuration are too great, as I have said before, if you had listened. All this arguing is pointless.*

     "Not quite," Avon said coldly. "Orac, could Jenna and I cover the monitoring without Vila?"

     I stared at him with my mouth open. Not like our Avon to volunteer for extra agony, is it? But then I thought about it and closed my mouth again, quickly, before something stupid like a protest got out. Not that I wanted to protest. If Blake didn't want me, that was fine with me. More than fine. I'd forgive him, even thank -

     *Of course not,* the blasted box of tricks fussed. *My instructions were quite explicit. If you cannot be bothered to follow them, then kindly do not bother me with your petty concerns, while -*

     "Enough, Orac!" For a wonder, it was Cally who snapped at him.

     *Either you want Blake to recover with the minimum pain and risk to the rest of the crew or you do not. Please make up your minds.*

     A silence, then I let the something stupid out.

     "I can do it, I guess. If we all have to."

     "No, I don't want you involved."

     *Blake, you are not in any condition to decide this.* Orac is bloody hard to shut up when he thinks he's in charge, and Avon wasn't stopping him. *Since the matter is settled, it is recommended that you rest for an hour, under sedation, then we will begin. Avon will take the first session.*

     "We have no choice, Blake," Avon added, and the edge in his voice seemed to have eased off - it wasn't exactly gone, but it wasn't as bad. Like he'd got what he intended from Blake and could lay off him, a little. "Not Jenna or I, and not Vila. You least of all."

     Blake closed his eyes for a minute, seeming almost to shrink into himself, and nodded slowly. "All right." He turned away, and this time Jenna let him go, watching as Cally took her place. Then he stopped and spoke again without looking at any of us. "You are wrong, Avon. I will want to thank you later. But you may not want to hear it then."

     "Why not?" Avon said with a pretty good stab at his usual dryness. "Go and sleep, Blake. I will see you - more's the pity - in one hour. Try not to be late."

     I suppose I should be glad he could joke about it. I'm not.

     I'm too scared.

*** *** ***

     So here I am waiting for my turn at Blake's nightmares. As if I don't have enough of my own, thank you. As if none of them remember that I've been there, I've been through something like this on my own, I don't want to be made to remember what it was like.

     I don't want to do this.

     And he doesn't want me to.

     That hurts, a bit. Maybe it's because he's an Alpha, they're all three Alphas, and he doesn't want lowly Deltas crawling around his mind, but I didn't think he was like that.

     In fact I know he isn't, because he let me help him before. I've seen his nightmares. Hell, I always knew first when they were coming. Like he saw mine. Because we've both been there, haven't we? The place where they come from.

     I could always see them, y'know, even when he couldn't feel them yet. When he was going to have one of those nights. White nights. That's what he called them the first time he saw me through, and it fits.

     Funny really. Well, funny without being funny. None of the rest of them had a clue, even though I could see it clear as day, starting behind his eyes, that awful, dull, emptiness that the bastards left when they mucked around with his brain. They all watch him so much, Avon, Jenna, Cally... everyone we meet really, they all circle around him like a star. And maybe they understand him better than I do, but they never knew what to look for, so they never saw it when the mindwipe got even with him.

     So it was always me, the fifth grade ignorant, who went and dug out the strongest drink I'd liberated from our last planetfall and took it down to his cabin and left it there. And later I went back and checked if he'd drunk enough to drown the emptiness, and the pain that was just as bad whether he'd remembered a whole lot of important stuff, like all the names and faces of his followers from before, or a whole lot of nothing, like the colour of his mother's eyes.

     When it was my turn, when none of the jokes drowned out the nothingness, Blake would bring one of those bottles he pretended to believe I didn't know about to my cabin. After a while, he didn't seem to get the nightmares so much, or so bad. We didn't talk about it much, it was just one of those things, parting gift from the Federation's best.

     No wonder he hates the bastards.

     Then... well, I thought they'd stopped for him, some time after my last one. Now I'm not so sure. Maybe I just stopped looking.

     From somewhere down the corridor, I hear someone cry out. I think it's Avon. It's a long, shuddering cry of pain, choking away like a child in tears. Cally's voice murmurs over the top, and Orac is going on and on even more than usual. Then Avon cries out again. Not a sound from Blake. Yet.

     I think I'm going to be sick. I think I'm going to need a drink. I drink the swampwater.

     Then I really am sick.

*** *** ***

     Avon comes in - damn, he looks awful.

     "How'd it go?" I'm not sure why I'm even asking, I am sure I don't want to know.

     He flicks a glance at me, his eyes nearly black in a dead-white face. "Blake's under sedation again," he says flatly. "I've orders from Cally to drink some of that," with a gesture to the now-tepid swampwater, "then try and rest."

     "And?"

     "I agreed to try."

     "So what was it like?"

     "Don't tell me you are that eager to find out, Vila?"

     "No, but..." Avon, I want to ask, why'd you volunteer anyway? But I don't.

     "It has to be done," he says, almost as if he'd heard the question, "whether we want to do it or not. He is not safe until it is done."

     "You think he's still dangerous, do you?'

     "That - is not what I said."

     "Do you?"

     "Not to us. Well," with a faint, almost fragile flicker of his usual spite, "no more than we are accustomed to."

     "So what happens after this?"

     "After..?" He stares down at me, dark, bruised eyes almost puzzled for a moment, then they clear as he manages to think past the therapy. "Ah... Del 10 again, I imagine. I also imagine we will be able to force Blake to agree to rest there, if briefly."

     "Yeah? When was the last time we managed to make him do anything he didn't want to?"

     "At least some of us are prepared to try," he snarls, and I remember just how Blake talked me into locking them all in the rest room. That hurts, because I'd been trying to forget that he lied to me and I swallowed it.

     "I said I'm sorry," I mumble. "But you and Jenna didn't do much better - he said 'give the mummy a bracelet', you gave the mummy a bracelet. And you knew he wasn't thinking straight."

     Avon doesn't like to be reminded that he always does what Blake wants, even when it's stupid. He gives me one of his lesser glares, probably because it's hard to sneer when you feel like death barely warmed over then left to cool again, and walks out. I'm left to wish I hadn't thought about him looking like death. Don't want to think about death at the moment. Not when I'm already thinking about the mindwipe.

     Of course, now I'm thinking I don't want to think about them, I think about them even more. Think about one of those white nights, and sitting with Blake and telling him I wouldn't die for him.

     "I never thought you would, Vila." I can almost hear him, though it was over a year ago. "But why tell me this now?"

     "Because I'm scared."

     "You hide it well." Almost - almost amusement. It was one of my white nights actually, not his. After he told us about Travis and his first session with the butchers.

     Funny that. It should have been him, but even when he was telling us, I could feel the prickles of remembered awfulness and knew I was going to have a bad one. He saw it, and sent me off straight after we got Cally back. And he came in later, sat down and talked a little - not too much, just enough.

     "Yeah, I try to. It's just..." I remember looking up at him, seeing the memory-of-no-memory still there at the back of his eyes. "It's the nothingness, isn't it, Blake? That's what scares me. It's not dark, it's not light. It's not even empty. It's just nothing."

     "I remember," Blake said quietly. "I remember nothing, Vila. Very well."

     "Yeah." They only did him over once, they did me three times, but they did him far worse. We both knew that. "Each time it's worse than the last. And I'm sorry, I'm sorry, but - but a friend of mine told me that he'd heard someone say that they'd heard that that nothing is what being dead is like."

     "Vila -"

     "Probably not. Probably nothing like it, but I don't know, and neither does anyone else, do they?"

     "Vila -"

     "But if it is, if it is, that's what scares me, Blake. If that's what being dead is like, and it felt like what being dead might be like, if you can say it felt like anything at all, and I suppose you have to say it felt like something, otherwise we wouldn't remember what it felt like, but if that's being dead, I've been there and I never never never want to go back. Not for anything, not for anyone, I'd rather..."

     I stopped, trying to think of something awful enough that I'd rather...

     "Vila," he leaned forward, and poured me another drink, "I'd rather... as well. But you do have a choice."

     "And you don't?"

     "It never feels like I have one."

     "That's what Avon says, you know. Give the entire galaxy freedom of choice, he says, mainly by giving away your own. Doesn't make sense to me, but as long as you know what you're doing."

     The memory fades in a drift of words that sting.

     I remember nothing, Vila...

     It never feels like I have one...

     You know what you're doing...

     Avon and Jenna and Cally had known that he didn't know what he was doing when he went down to Asteroid PK One Something Something instead of taking us to Del 10. And I guess I did too.

     So yes, I suppose this whole mess is sort of, a little bit, possibly my fault as well. Maybe.

     I was lucky there. When Cally asked me - back at the asteroid, with Blake running off like a zombie with a death wish, and Avon and Jenna charging down like the cavalry wishing death on anyone else who got in their way... anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, Cally asked me why I'd let him go, and I got out of answering her. Lucky that, because I don't really want to tell the others what he said. I know Avon thinks I can't keep a thing to myself - and maybe I can't, usually - but I don't really think it'd do any of us any good for them to hear what he said about them. After all, s'clear now that he didn't mean it, isn't it?

     I can keep a secret. If Cally asks again, I can lie, too.

     Stupid story, really. I wish I hadn't believed it.

     I wish he hadn't lied to me.

     I wish I could have that drink. There's more of Cally's was-hot-is-now-cold stuff, but when it's cold it tastes like something died in the swamp the water comes from.

*** *** ***

     It's... time. My turn. Pity that there's so few places to hide on a spaceship, even one as big as this one.

     No.

     No. I don't want to do this, but Orac says it's got to be done.

     So I walk back to the medical unit. We're doing it there now because Blake needs to be under restraint. Well, according to Avon and Orac, he needs to be, and he agreed, "now that I'm in my right mind," very gently, "even if it's still not my own."

     Everyone winced at that, even Avon.

     I can hear Cally talking to him before I get there. She's being soft and soothing, trying to be calm and failing completely. She's upset because they won't let her do this, and I'd be perfectly happy if she took my turn. But Orac says no.

     Orac talks too much these days.

     Blake's lying on the gurney with the forcefield restraints already in place over him. He half-turns his head as I come in, and stares at me with that deep, intense, totally unnerving stare he normally keeps for Avon, or sometimes Cally. Somewhere in the back of my mind, behind the little voice still screaming that I don't want to do this, I note that it's far more fun watching Avon being seen right through than it is being seen through like that myself.

     "Vila," he says, his voice rasping as if he's been coughing or crying, "I'm sorry. I really didn't -"

     "Yeah, so you said. But Orac says otherwise, and what Orac says goes today, doesn't it?" I hoist myself up on the table at his side, glaring at the plastic box of lights and ego. "So let's get it over with."

     He draws back, and I'm sorry, a little.

     But this is his fault. It's unfair, I know, but I can't help thinking it. If he'd just minded his own business all those years ago... if he hadn't needed to save the whole galaxy, and just saved himself... if he'd just been someone else...

     I'd be stuck on Cygnus Alpha. I know. And maybe I don't know which would be worse.

     From somewhere, the old phrase lie back and think of Earth comes to mind, and I push it back down again as I lie back and think of it all being over tomorrow instead.

     Cally's putting the sensors on and, to add insult to injury, they're icy cold. I concentrate on feeling aggrieved about it - yeah, petty, I know, but did I ever claim to be above that? No. So I'll feel aggrieved if I want to. I'll sulk and moan if I want to. It may be Blake's nightmare, but I'll even scream if I want to.

     I want to, but it's too late now.

     Blake's voice again. "Vila, I'm sorry, I..."

     "Hush," Cally says. "It will be over soon. Orac, we're ready."

     *Second session commencing. Blake, think back. You must think of that time, when you were told what to believe.* There's a soft, buzzing tone. From somewhere a long way off, Orac's voice fades into babble...

     ...And he's still talking as I surface, through a thick, empty nothingness full of horror. Someone's screaming, and I think it's me - no, no, this time it's Blake. I'm only bawling my eyes out.

     "Not... true, not... no. False. Don't!" It's high and horrible, doesn't sound like him at all. I just want him to shut up, to shut up long enough for me to start. "I won't... won't..."

     *Second session completed successfully. Avon, tranquillizer pad.*

     A moment, then Blake's voice dies away in tangled murmurs of pain.

     Avon is here?

     I open one eye, just enough to see Cally hovering over me. Moving my head - a little, just a little - turns out to be a big mistake, it's bludgeoned by something big and sharp and made of bolts of lightning by the feel of it. Cally seems to know - probably because I shrieked just a little - and lifts my head to help me drink something. For all I know it might be even worse than the swampwater, but I can't taste it at all. Cally's still holding my head, and I can't even enjoy it because it all hurts too much, the pain, the misery and the fragments of Blake's nightmares, hanging around in my brain just out of my mind's eye.

     I thought I'd known what it was like. I hadn't.

     I suppose I can't actually say it's worse than being lowered head first into a helium core drive, only because I've never been lowered head first into a helium core drive. But if it's even half as bad as what those people did to the man who's running my life at the moment, I never want to be lowered head first into a helium core drive.

     I can't recall just what those voices I couldn't quite hear said in the memories, what Blake remembered being told and told and told until he'd believe to order. I know I've found somewhere else I never want to go again. And I have to go back - I don't want to think about how many times - before today's over.

     I manage to turn my head a little, and look across. Avon's with Blake, he's tranquillized the poor bastard again - I can't help thinking that Blake is going to end up the most rested mental wreck in the Federation when this is over - and he's holding him carefully like... I dunno, like something fragile or damaged. Blake is lying still, face even whiter than Avon's and glistening with sweat; from here, I can see black shadows under his eyes and blood on his mouth.

     Just for a minute, I hate him.

     "What are you doing here, Avon?"

     He's settling Blake and doesn't even look up. "Sleep proved more elusive than I expected, and Zen informs me I'm not needed on the flight deck."

     I don't like the idea that he watched me. I didn't watch him, so why did he have to watch me? Then I realize that he probably didn't even look at me, just at Blake. Right now he's totally focused on Blake, wiping away the sweat, and the blood from the bitten lips.

     *Vila's session has been most satisfactory,* Orac pipes up. Startled at praise from that source, I stare at him blankly. *It appears Blake's reservations were unfounded, and Vila is perfectly acceptable in this role.*

     "Thanks, I needed that," I mutter. "Nice to know I'm good at something new, though sharing nightmares is not what I'd have chosen." Funny, the pain in my head's nearly gone - that dead-thing-in-swampwater tea does work.

     Cally helps me to sit up and gives me a handful of pills. "Go and rest, Vila," she says. "You are free for another three hours."

     Some freedom.

*** *** ***

     The rest of the day's a blur, and a nasty sick-grey-and-green colored one, of sleep that won't come, dreams that aren't mine, and voices from Blake's past saying things I don't want to hear.

     Odd, I could swear I tottered up to the flight deck at one stage and found Jenna collapsed in a flood of tears after one of her sessions.  They don't suit her, you know - she's not the type to weep, more to throw things around, but who can we throw things at over this? So I left her to it.

     I think I heard Avon tell Zen to take us to the seventh level of Hell by the shortest available sea route and not to spare the horses. I have no idea what he meant by that, but luckily neither did Zen.

     I think I heard Blake denouncing the President and that old friend of his - Foster - with equal savagery, crying for his dead sister, pleading with people I've never heard of.

     I'm sure I told Cally I didn't want to die for Blake, but three more sessions and I'd think about it.

     "No one is going to die, Vila," she said wearily. She'd been watching over us all for fifteen straight hours by that time and still wouldn't leave Blake's side for more than a few minutes. I think that was just after I'd learned more than I ever wanted to about the official version of Travis's massacre - the version they made Blake believe for so long.

     "Renounce... guilty... must renounce..." I can still hear him crying it, over and over till I'm ready to renounce just about anything anyone wants, if I never hear that word again. Never, never, never...

*** *** ***

     I can't sleep or eat, I don't want to think, and I'm not allowed to drink, so I wander back to the flight deck. Maybe I'll be able to sleep there, I usually can.

     S'wonderful, really. Zen and Orac are pretty well running the ship at the moment, the humans aren't any use whatsoever. Zen's blinking away to himself and making sure we don't run into anyone nasty - yeah, like there's so few of them in the galaxy, aren't there?

     I sit and feel sorry for everyone, especially myself. I just want things to go back some way, to what they were before this whole Control thing and Gan's death and most of all what's happened to Blake.

     Odd thing is, I still like him.

     I remember one of the last white nights... hell, not that there was much to it. He'd had a few bad moments after a rougher-than-normal battle with our unfavourite Space Commander, so I'd sacrificed one of my second-best bottles of ersatz gin, and we'd sat in one of the rec rooms and drank it all while watching the stars on one of the secondary screens. Not exactly as exciting as the latest Federation viscasts, but at that stage I think we'd had enough excitement for a while, even Blake.

     By that stage, I knew he was pretty well over the mindwipe, had most if not all of his memories back in some sort of order. Well, I thought so anyway.

     "So why do you keep going back for more, then?" I asked, not really expecting to get an answer, certain not to get one I'd ever really understand.

     "You did, didn't you?"

     "Yeah, but there's a difference. I'm crooked right to the bone, aren't I? A few creative touches with a mindprobe isn't going to change what's in the blood, and they never bothered to really take purely criminal brains apart. Not like the politicals."

     "Not like me, you mean."

     I waved my glass in some sort of salute. "So ..?"

     He stood and walked over to the viscreen, staring out for a minute without speaking, shoulders slightly bent, rubbing his lip with a finger.

     "Ever seen a screening of Servalan's investiture as Supreme Commander, Vila?" he said finally.

     "No, actually, and I can't say I'm desperate to see it either. How boring was it?"

     He smiled slightly. "You wouldn't like it. No drinking, no floor show and no pretty girls." He sipped at his drink, and his eyes seemed to darken. "If you do get to see an older copy of the tape, you can see several people in the background who are simply - mysteriously - not in later versions. Edited out completely. Bran pointed them out to me one time, it was almost a challenge to see who could find the most. All high-ranking officers or councillors who later became undesirables in the eyes of the President or the Supreme Commander and disappeared, both from real life and from any and all records."

     I nodded gravely. I didn't have the faintest idea what this had to do with us here on the Liberator, but then I don't usually have any idea what drives Blake, so I never argue. Well, not much.

     "They took the records and wiped out whole lives, Vila." His voice turned even colder than Avon's worst, but cold with something that wasn't anger or pain. Sort of in-between, and sort of something I hope I never have to feel. "Like they wiped out whole lives in my mind, even my own. They changed you - they erased me - and left us with the memory of that nothing. Are you so surprised I want to save others from that?"

     "Well, no, but haven't you done your share? For that matter, haven't we all done your share?"

     "Perhaps you have, at that, but I haven't. Vila, you and I are now free of them, more or less." His lips twisted. "Given time, it will be more. Given enough time, we'll be completely free. Other people are not."

     "And that has to be your problem?" Hell, I almost sounded like Avon then.

     Blake shrugged. "It has to be someone's."

     All very good and noble of him, I know, but I still didn't understand. And I couldn't help thinking at the time how much easier life would have been if it had had to be someone else's. For all of us, and especially for Blake.

     I remembered him saying we'd be free. Well, we'd all thought he was free of it. We'd all bet our lives on it, over and over and over. Till now.

     I think back over everything we've done while thinking that Blake was free and whole and in his right mind. I think back over the last two days and what he did while I shut my eyes and pretended he was still in his right mind. I think forward to what we're going to do, once Blake's back in what Orac says is his right mind. At least, we hope it will be his right mind.

     I feel sick again. And I haven't touched the swampwater for hours.

*** *** ***

     *The eradication therapy is proceeding according to schedule. Only three sessions remain, but these may be extremely traumatic.*

     Oh great. Orac now says we're approaching the bad ones. I ask Orac what could possibly be worse than what we've already been through. Then when he answers, I wish I hadn't asked.

     *We are approaching the deepest levels of conditioning. The last three sessions will involve the point in time when Blake's resistance was overcome. This will necessarily mean a greater level of stress.*

     Avon is there - like Cally, he seems to be there nearly all the time now, even though he looks even sicker than I feel, and I feel sicker than I would after six days in Space City. He looks up with narrowed eyes. "You mean, where they broke him."

     *That is correct.*

     "Is it absolutely necessary that someone monitor? Blake is not going to like having spectators to that."

     *There is no shame attached.*

     "I agree. Blake may not."

     *Surely he will see that it is even more imperative now. The next session is critical, and you, Avon, will be monitor.*

     Jenna comes in just in time to hear that. "How nice." She manages a weary flash of spite. "I hope Blake appreciates it."

     Avon glances at her. "If you have any desire to take my place -" he says, just as tired.

     "Or mine," I add as quickly as possible. I may be tired, but not too tired to pass up an offer like that.

     Orac fizzes and does a neat imitation of artificial explosion. *Will you all stop attempting to subvert my instructions!* he snaps. *Either you wish me to complete this process, or you wish to do it in your own totally inadequate way. Kindly cease wasting my time and Blake's and decide!*

     "Enough, Orac." Avon checks the time, then sighs and takes his place on the second table. "Vila, you're not needed now."

     "Surprised you needed me at all," I mumble, and Avon looks up, eyes narrowing a little. "Never do, unless there's a lock to pick."

     Avon gives one of his just-short-of-melodramatic sighs and sits up again. "Think of this as a rather more complicated lock than usual, Vila, and stop feeling sorry for yourself."

     "He didn't want me to help, did he?" I'm surprised by how much that still hurts, even after Blake apologized. "You heard him."

     "Yes, I heard. More than you did, apparently."

     "Look," and it spills out all of a sudden. "I may only be a Delta, and not as brave and noble and all that as he is, but I'm as good as you and Jenna. I'm the only one who's been - well, maybe not where he has, but closer than you or Jenna ever were. I didn't deserve that from him."

     Avon looks at me for a moment, then smiles suddenly, brilliantly, as if I've said something stupid. "Quite right," he says. "You didn't."

     I have a feeling I've either been insulted... or I missed something.

     "I do not see the need for an audience," he says sharply.

     "Who says we'll be watching you?" I snap at him, oddly cheered by the fact that I can. This really does scare me, maybe even more than when I had to... no, let's be honest. Not more than when I had to. I feel for us all, and god knows I feel for Blake, but I still feel for me most of all.

     Orac begins another of his speeches about what Blake must and must not know and believe, and Blake begins to shiver and strain against the forcefield. Avon, his hands closing on the sensors, tenses up, his breath catching as if he's the one in pain... which is fair enough, I mean when it was me it was me in pain as well as Blake, not that I'm claiming that it was at all the same, but pain is pain, if you know what I -

     Then it all goes wrong.

     "Renou... no. Not that..." Blake's voice sounds thin and cracked, even sicker than I feel, like everything that makes him - well, Blake - is draining away. Guess that's what they did when they...

     "Avon!" Hell, I hadn't even felt Jenna push past me - she's at Avon's side, trying to hold him down, but he shoves her away so hard she almost falls, twisting away from whatever it is that's going on in Blake's head. "Vila, help me!"

     "No. I can't... den- no! No - can't - can't..."

     Cally's trying to soothe Blake, even though she must know he can't hear or see her.

     "Denounce..."

     "NO!" Avon lurches up, pulling away from Jenna, the sensors ripping from his head. "Orac - Orac, no!"

     *Do not interfere!*

     "Orac, stop it, stop now! He's too close!"

     Blake shudders and his head falls back, eyes wide open and blanker than the void I remember. "Denounce..." Softer still, choking in his throat. "I denounce..."

     "ORAC!" Avon half-falls from the table, only Jenna's grip holding him up.

     *It is too late. Leave him!* The tinny voice sounds almost savage.

     Avon is leaning on the edge of the table, gasping for breath as if he'd half-drowned in a vat of unsweetened treacle. He's dead-white, his eyes huge and black and as savage as a land-shark in a rage, and if I didn't know better than to see them, I'd swear there are tears on his face.

     After a minute, he straightens and swings himself back on it. "Hook it up again."

     "What? Avon -"

     "Hook. It. Up." He's shaking even worse than Blake, and I hope to god he doesn't realize it. "Orac, prognosis!"

     *The therapy is continuing as expected and is nearly complete. Your reintegration would serve no purpose at this point, and I must insist you do not keep interrupting. Blake, listen to me -*

     "No. No... yes." And that's when Blake's voice breaks. "Yes. I denounce... Carl Idrian..." he whispers. "Mat Janyn... Jennet Dean... Babeth Foster... Davien Janyn... Alva..."

     "Who are they?" I ask, then wish I hadn't from the looks the others all give me.

     *Surely it is obvious. They were members of the Freedom Party at the time -*

     "- of his arrest." Jenna looks nearly as sick as Blake.

     *You did not betray them, Blake.* Orac speaks as pedantically as ever, and Blake - still muttering that awful list of names of people we'll never know - doesn't even seem to hear him. *You must understand that.*

     "I denounce..." The whisper is fading. "Renounce... myself..."  He shivers again, cries out once and goes limp.

     "Enough!" Avon snaps. "Orac, abort the session. That is an order!"

     *It is in any case finished,* Orac spits right back. *For the moment. And, I might add, with reasonable success despite the lack of rational assistance from all of you. You may sedate him, Cally.* Stupid smug brain-in-a-box. Even scared witless for Blake, I can't help thinking it's lucky Orac doesn't have eyes and so can't see the glare Avon's scorching him with.

     Slowly, Cally picks up the tranquillizer pad and places it on Blake's forehead; slowly her fingers trail down his face as she watches his eyes close.

     "Vila, you can give Avon some of that drink - there."

     It's not swampwater - or not just swampwater, I'm sure there's soma in it. When I open my mouth to protest, Cally simply looks at me, and I remember that Avon's finished his term and can get as drunk as he wants, if he wants. I've still got... oh no. Not like that. Not like that, I can't, I'm sorry, I know Avon will kill me, but I can't...

     *It is my opinion that the final sessions will not be as traumatic now,* Orac says suddenly, and I suddenly want to kiss his little plastic hide. *The deepest level of memory erasure appears to have been concerned with this enforced denunciation of his followers. Certainly the sessions will be unpleasant for the humans involved -*

     "So what's new?" Jenna mutters. "Blake had better appreciate this, beloved leader or no, or..." Her voice trails away.

     "Exactly." I can hear Avon trying for detached and sarcastic, as usual. He rubs his sleeve across his eyes, takes one more deep breath and glances at me. "You're obviously thinking of something else, Vila," he says. "Do we want to hear it?"

     "Just occurred to me." I wave a hand at Blake, now deep in a sleep that's got to be better for being dreamless. "Those people. Us. One day, we could be nothing more than names on another list he's forgotten to order. You thought of that?"

     "Actually, no."

     "I wish I hadn't, I don't like the idea."

     "Nor do I." Jenna shivers. "But Vila is right, you know. If the Federation gets to him again, that is just where we might end up."

     "True. But just think, it might be worse."

     "Oh thank you, Avon. How?"

     He looks back at Blake, and speaks almost normally, as if we're discussing the weather we don't have here on board.      "He could be the name on the list - and you could be the one to be made to forget."

*** *** ***

     It's dark and quiet, and my last session's in ten minutes. As soon as it's over, Cally's promised me enough soma and adrenalin to help me forget for at least seven hours. She's now gone to get something to eat before we start - now that I think of it, she probably hasn't eaten since we started. Maybe none of us have.

     Orac says Blake will be all right now.

     We can't go back to where we were. I'm having trouble remembering where we were three days ago, apart from on course for Del 10 and our dose of the vitas, but I know wherever it was, we're a long way away now. Especially Blake. But I think I've really, truly overdosed on being scared for once, and even the thought of this last session doesn't raise more than a few thousand cold shivers.

     I cross to look down at him, my mind a muddle, all sorts of nasty, misery-and-swampwater-flavoured thoughts getting snarled up and stinging. He looks like he'd died inside and someone had forgotten to tell him - and it wasn't just the therapy, though that would've been enough.

     I've seen him as mad as hell, I've seen him grim, happy (well, happy-ish), obsessed, mocking, triumphant, warm and caring, sour and brooding. I've seen him turn colder and scarier than deep space. I've even seen him one step from despair after that empty room on Earth and Gan's death. But I've never seen him hurt this badly.

     Cally isn't here, however, and while she's not here, I need to tell him something. Need to deal with one last thing before I get too drunk and it gets too stale to bother with.

     "You lied to me, Blake."

     He looks up, and his eyes are so haunted that I nearly turn and run. Nearly... nearly. Not quite. I want to say this now, before my nerve fails, or Cally comes back, or Avon comes in and kills me for hurting Blake.

     "You don't remember, do you? You still don't. You lied to me, told me Avon and Cally had turned on us. Mutual affinities or some such thing."

     "No." Still soft and dull, so unlike him it hurts, it really does. "I don't remember... that. I have to believe it."

     "So why lie like that?"

     "Vila, if I don't know what I said, I can hardly know why. Why did you believe me?"

     "Sorry, maybe I won't any more. You're just the leader here, you're supposed to being doing the right thing by the rest of us. I know that Glynd character made you do all this, but you didn't have to say that. You didn't have to lie to me."

     "I must have thought I had to," he answers, and it isn't what I want to hear, but it looks as if it's all I'm going to get.

     Damn.

     Still, be fair, Restal. If what Blake did was wrong - and I gave up trying to work out what's right and wrong round about the time I lifted my first hundred credits - he's paid for it. Oh yes, he's paid for it. And it's not as if I've been as honest as a Federated penny ever since I landed on this ship.

     He's more honest than most, and far more honest than me. Not that that's saying a lot, but it's enough, I guess.

     "How do you feel now?" I find myself asking. "Want a drink?"

     He looks up again, startled by the change of subject, but shakes his head slightly.

     "Then we'd better get ready. Orac says the last few rides will be rough ones." I sit on the table beside him. "But then we'll go to Del 10, yes? For a rest. For scenery and vita particles and lots and lots of sleep."

     "I suppose, if Orac says so..."

     "Orac says so. So do Avon and Cally and Jenna. So do I."

     A faint smile, and suddenly I feel a hell of a lot better. "All right, we'll go to Del 10, then, for a few days at least."

     I make a note to persuade Orac to make it a couple of weeks at least. Then a rest stop at Space City when the mountain scenery gets a little too much. Bars and casinos, fancy gaming shops and fun. Just the ticket to get us all back to normal.

     But there's still something else. I look at Blake again. "So why didn't you want me to do it?"

     "Do - what?"

     "The monitoring. You wanted me left out of it. Not that I would have complained, Blake, but I wasn't any worse than the others. After all, I'd been through all that when I was..." I can hear my voice run down as it hits me.

     Avon was right, Avon did insult me... and I missed something.

     "I'm an idiot," I say blankly.

     He seems amused. "Any particular reason this time, Vila?"

     "Not really. Here I've been thinking..." I shake my head. "Thanks, Blake - for not wanting me back there with you."

     He looks at me. There's a trace of light in his eyes - and none of the nothing - and just for a while, that's enough to make it all right.

     "And thank you, Vila, for going there."


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