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The Last Best Hope

By Melody Clark

Editorial

      The Last Best Hope is a genzine and complete as a novel in itself (provided you don't mind one small dangling loose end). The sequel, The Long Way Back, which I hope to reprint shortly, is a slash zine - that is to say that it features an explicit sexual relationship between Avon and Blake.

      

This zine has had the text revised by myself and Melody with some assistance from Vega. It's been an interesting experience as Melody and I have very different writing styles. Melody is very creative with language; I'm far more literal and worry about things like minor plot inconsistencies. Still, I hope you'll think that we've got rid of any plot problems without spoiling the wonderful flow of Melody's writing.

      

Persuading Val to illustrate this zine was simplicity itself. She read a copy and said, "Yes please!".

      

The cover art is by Caren Parnes who kindly gave permission for her beautiful cover to be reused. Sadly, I've been unable to track down an original print and have had to photocopy from the previous edition. Thanks Ruth for lending me your copy after mine got damaged while I was reading it on holiday. Moral: never take your favourite zines when camping.

      

Proof-reading credits go to Jennifer Moss and Vega. I couldn't have done nearly such a good job without them.

      

Thanks for many things go to my husband Richard, especially for doing some of the boring jobs when my health got bad.

      

      

      {"Sub-Heading" on}Introduction to First Edition by Melody Clark

      {"Sub-Heading" off}The author of this fan novel wishes to thank some important people who helped her loads and loads in the composition of this critter.

      Thanks and love to Kathy Resch, for sainthood above and beyond the call of duty; Caren Parnes, for the wonderful, wonderful artwork on this here cover, and for reading the dreaded beast before she had a plane to catch the following morning; Alta Brewer, for reading the critter in its larval format and not throwing up; Marcy Robin, for frequent contributions of M & Ms and Coca-Cola (adrenalin and Soma, California-style); Gayle Feyrer, for insightful thoughts and comments; and the author's long suffering husband Larry. Thanks also to the Boy (AKA, the man who taught me to dehead Welsh fish), and my old buddy Aiken.

      I'd also like to acknowledge two favourite fan novelists of mine who have been inspiring. One, Susan Mathews, of course. And two, Ermentrude Postelwaithe Smythe, and all her other countless pen names of distinction (come back, Ermintrude... They aren't dead... honest, they aren't!)

      A quick nod of recognition to the writer of that wonderful film, "The Lion in Winter". From it I brazenly pirated a miraculous morsel of an exchange between Richard the Lion-Hearted and Prince John, which was just perfect for Avon and Vila. I could not resist. So shoot me.

The Magic Show

      

The Master of Illusion descended.

      He stepped out of the air, from a three-dimensional castle born of rainbow light. At the sound of calliope music, a hush broke over the audience, followed by immovable silence.

      He brought up his left hand and a team of snow-white unicorns soared past the gates of the rainbow castle, banking low across the Lyceum audience. White fire swirled from the finger of his right hand as he spun the light in circles till a carousel was formed.

      He clapped his hands together until the images merged. Unicorns in place upon the carousel, they started moving up and down.

      Applause exploded.

      All around Academician Sen Leusip, faces were filled with wonder. Small faces, the faces of children who had rarely, if ever, known wonder before. For whatever reason Federation brass approved his Lyceum field study, the whole event was validated by this one moment. If for no other reason, Leusip was made glad by this.

      Leusip moved to the door of the control room as the Numenmaestro and his small blond apprentice made their way through the crowd of young ones, all grasping at his generous sleeves.

      Could these possibly be the same children? Leusip marvelled. The same children who had been dourly shepherded through the Alpha Lyceum Hall doors?

      Granted, Sen had known his friend the Numenmaestro for more than thirty years, since Leusip's defection from Spaceworld. He had seen him perfect his thankless craft to a point where none could touch him. It was a mastery of sleight-of-vision and holomovement, the Magnum Opus of Magic Shows.

      But Leusip was an Alpha Lyceum veteran and he knew well the closed minds of Alpha children. He'd presided over generation after generation of these compromised young, with their intrinsic incredulity and rational minds. He knew too well what skill it took to capture the reins of their beliefs.

      And these children were not merely Alpha. These were the children of Standard Increase, all one hundred and twenty of them.

      With some regret, he returned to the control room, studying the screen that bore electrical witness to his friend's accomplishment. Scalp sensors were transmitting brainwaves in cycles-per-second from all the candidates into the main bank, and the computer graphed those images on the screen. Each child was assigned a number on the screen.

      For the most part, the graphs were all classed Alpha-wave-to-light-Beta, meaning open, receptive, suggestible. These were the children with their faces full of wonder, the ones grasping at the Numenmaestro as he left. They had allowed themselves, for a moment, to believe in the magic.

      As happy as Leusip was for them, they had already failed the test. Only thirty-one of the Standard Increase candidates remained in his Analog Field Study.

      Their brainwaves read full-Beta, the rigid analytical pattern of the objective, dissecting mind. They had already deciphered the mechanisms behind the illusion and were not impressed. For as tightly webbed as the pattern was of the Numenmaestro's chimera, these children's brains were faster. Particularly candidates 21, 104, and 6.

      From them, he would choose one to train at his side in the Biosystems Sector. Or so the Federation would believe.

      

The Achilles Phase

      

The lectern faced a Speaker's Hall designed for seven-hundred. The thirty-one children were seated in every other chair of the first two rows. At least he could see their faces. Leusip hadn't lectured here since his promotion to C.E.C. sovereign. He'd forgotten how wide the gulf was between the podium and those young minds in the far rows. He'd forgotten the supreme malignant silence that could catch a timid voice and swallow it forever. But he did remember the frustration, the sense of guilt, the side-effects of too-long dispensing Federation-issue Truth to young, susceptible minds.

      At least he could see their faces? did he say? Well, perhaps that was a fortunate thing. These eyes aimed at him were icy, lifeless, and unrelenting. These children looked like nothing so much as top-flight computers, waiting to log-on.

      So this was the harvest of Standard Increase, was it? Five years and five-hundred million credits and the crop consisted of thirty-one biological computers removed from their polymeric equivalent solely by the circumstance of their human birth.

      Leusip had reviewed the Standard Increase reports dispassionately, when the first marriage of convenience was proposed between S.I. and Biosystem's research for life-matter transmission.

      He recalled sitting in the Federation Index, reading the clinical reports on the selection process of analytical prodigies at the age of eight. The already-spearhead level analytical intellect was inspired toward heightened specialization. And then the children were to become prefigures for biological computers comprised of DNA-like polymers encoding base materials.

      Leusip was a man of science, a computer expert - the best the Federation had - and a systems theorist. All his life, as an empiricist, he had resisted the insinuation of moral objections into science. But that day in the Federation Index, he'd quietly returned the reports he'd been studying, walked down the stairs to the waste disposal, and vomited till his ears rang.

      

      

He took his place before the children, forcing a casual smile. Then he switched on the network of video display screens.

      "This will comprise the second examination in the Analog Field Study. Those of you who successfully complete Phase Two will continue into Phase Three." He raised his eyes, clearing his voice. "Last week, you each excelled in perceptual systems. Today you will be tested in philosophical systems." He indicated the viewscreen. "On each screen will be displayed texts outlining every major philosophical school, from Anson's Neo-Idealism to Marx's Dialectic Materialism. Read each with the greatest scrutiny for symmetrical integrity, logical consistency, and practical application. Draft individual analyses. And if at all possible, imprint the number code you were assigned on the philosophical school on which you could rationally and ethically base your own life." Leusip stepped behind the lectern to his chair. "Good luck. You have three hours."

      Of the thirty-one number codes assigned, only two were not indexed under any philosophical school: numbers 21 and 104.

      Two children were carried over to the Phase Final.

      

      

#21 and #104 sat before him, in the tiny, squared-off room beside his own office. An Alpha female, an Alpha male. The two most analytical children in the whole Federated world.

      And, doubtless, the two saddest children it had ever been Sen Leusip's grim distinction to meet.

      He refused to look directly on these faces - not these. He doubted he could endure looking at children for whom nothing existed: no gods, no legends, not even their own egos. They could trust nothing. The mathematical abstraction of the Incompleteness Theorem was, for these children, a hideous reality. Any set of true formal statements derived from a system would always exceed the number of true formal statements the rules to the system allowed. Every system would negate itself. Contradiction, death, and hypocrisy were inevitable. All roads led to chaos.

      "Well, now," he said, turning toward them and staring just above their heads. "And then there were two. And only one of you can be my assistant, then the other will be recommended to optimum placement in Alpha High Lyceum. You both have excelled admirably. My congratulations to you. However, only one of you will be able to beat the Hybrid."

      He activated the Hybrid viewscreen. A jumble of light transformed into some semblance of a sand dune, complicating into a complex visual image.

      "The Hybrid was designed by Systems theorists to understand the generation and negation of chaos points. It was hoped it would inspire greater sympathy of mechanized systems for many reasons. One Hybrid function translates chaos into visual images from the random half-life emissions of radio isotopes. Then a second function invades this perfect chaos with a gross-generated ordering vibration fired from a new alloy known as Aquitar, a subtle energy recombinant. From watching how patterns and complexity develop out of chaos, and how it devolves into entropy again, we can learn to protect positive systems integrity, and to provoke negative systems breakdown. Are there any questions concerning the Hybrid's function?"

      None were voiced.

      "As you both know, the Biosystems branch I work with is heavily involved in the perfection of matter transfer, particularly with the teleportation of living creatures. Because the physiological system is based more on sympathetic interaction of subtle patterns, which are precarious at best to induce or protect, the discovery of this alloy Aquitar is vital to the success of teleportation. How we may guard the sustained integrity of these subtle energies called life with Aquitar is what the chosen candidate and I will be working on. Your understanding of systems will be vital not only for the computers which will orchestrate matter transfer, but also for understanding the living system being transferred."

      Leusip reached for the Hybrid control and channelled another function.

      "As you saw, the cross-generator provoked from this perfect chaos one point of order-generation. This is called the nexus, or generation point. This will be the source of strongest order. It will build around it a new system of order, as you saw before. Your assignment is to deduce the area of greatest instability in the system. When you have located this vulnerable region, I want you to lift the impulse key to your left, direct it at the grid sector where the Achilles Region is located and destroy the system." He checked his watch. "You will have precisely one hour and ten-"

      With the soft click of an impulse key, the viewscreen behind Leusip blazed white with chaos. Leusip's eyes fled from his watch to the screen. A violent swirl of undirected electrons appeared where the complex pattern formerly prevailed. He checked the Hybrid for malfunction and found none.

      "Simple enough," said #104, the Alpha male.

      Leusip regarded the boy for the first time. He was slight, small for his apparent age, with mahogany-coloured hair and eyes that were impossibly dark. He maintained his attention on the viewscreen, the overhead lumines focusing light through his long lashes. Had there been a spectre of emotion on the small, still face, the boy would have been quite beautiful.

      Leusip checked the Hybrid function for the location of the disordering impulse. It had come from the key assigned to #104, Alpha male.

      Surely it wasn't possible, was it? He checked and double-checked the apparatus. It doggedly insisted the disordering directive had come from impulse #104, time lapse for deduction being fifty-seven seconds.

      Leusip was no stranger to paradox, but this was of an order higher than he had ever witnessed. It had taken the combined resources of nineteen veteran Systems theorists all of a standard hour to locate it, and this strange boy had found it in under a minute. Could it be? Of course not, it was madness. But it had happened.

      The man stepped closer to the boy, expecting some small spark of pride to manifest, but nothing came. Even the eyes that held him in such fascinated bondage seemed to use their sadness as a shield. His gaze was impervious, yet bottomless. Leusip was beholding genius of a level he had never before witnessed, an analytical brilliance that could surely castrate the entire Federated world.

      How had they allowed this boy to live?

      Thank the gods they had allowed him to live. Leusip thought of the heart stock among his circle, their talk of deliverers, of providence...

      "That was remarkable," Leusip said, knowing his words to be hideously inadequate.

      "Perhaps," said the boy, his voice cold and flat as ice, "For the unremarkable."

      It took Leusip a moment to realize he'd been insulted. But the realization brought a mitigating understanding that made him smile in response. The ego was but another system of inter-supporting irrational supposition and self-lies. He'd had many an Alpha Lyceum student who could locate his ego's Achilles heel and strike at it with well-sharpened words. And this boy was no mere student.

      "Yes, well, congratulations," Leusip said. "Welcome to Biosystems and the Aquitar Project." He placed a hesitant hand on the boy's thin shoulder. "I hope we will be friends."

      The boy looked down at the hand on his shoulder, then panned up the length of his arms till his eyes met Leusip's eyes, then locked on them.

      In those eyes, Academician Sen Leusip saw what he'd been looking for.

      Leusip would remember that moment for the rest of his life. For he was certain even then of what it was he'd seen there. Let the heart stock speak of providence and deliverance. For himself, what he saw there had a far more practical name. The Future.

      

      

Just as there was a world beyond the Terran domes, a real world of anarchy and wild things, there was another man named Sen Leusip. This man was no Academician or dispenser of Federation truth, but he was confined with leg-irons of despair in the prison of his private thoughts, or to secret synods in the shelter of a long-dead forest. But he existed, he survived: whole, alive, and immutably free.

      Leusip was comforted by the hood around his face as he made his way to the outside. Such measures had become vital as he'd grown older. The ones like Buto mocked him for them. But Buto was young and heart stock, the reckless young, some New Calendar propagandist called them, and still they were, as he had been. They had all been reckless then, so many years ago.

      In his youth, the Fifth Column burned within him, leavening his spirit with bold promises and presumptuous dreams. They all gave bold talk. They traded golden promises like alms against a bankrupt future, and they spoke of the inevitability of it all, of an idea "whose time had come", of "someday soon they would all be free". The law of their random universe was change, and reason had it that it was only a matter of time.

      But Leusip had learned well. There were things stronger than the flow of entropy and the weakness of the system. Things like fear in the hearts of timid men.

      Days of Petition would begin, and Petitions would be drawn. They were passed through the Fifth Column for their signatures. "Why should I be the first to sign?" they would ask, and someone else would say, "We shouldn't be expected to burn alone." Others would remind that they had families and friends to consider. "Do you know the penalty for sedition?" someone would always ask. "Do you want that visited on those you love?"

      And then they would dissect the petition's real potential, deciding this "wasn't the right one" for which to put their necks on the line. They would balm themselves with fairy tales of some morsel of insurgence. And they'd finish with the ever-constant chanting of "inevitability" and "someday soon".

      Change would never happen on the inside, of that Leusip was sure now. The force of control was far too extreme near the point of generation. As the Hybrid bore witness, chaos had to begin in the Achilles region, far from the source of order. Then it would sweep the less complex elements in the fury of its wake, and by the time it reached the fortress wall, nothing could resist it. A new source of order would have been created, acting on the weaknesses of the old.

      All the Fifth Column could do was lend a feeble hand from within the old order.

      

      

Buto was waiting for him at the clearing. Heart stock, he quite readily stepped up and claimed Leusip in a greeting embrace.

      Leusip could barely hide his embarrassment, least of all in the flush that raced through his face.

      He always felt awkward as hell when Buto or any of the heart stock did this. Leusip was an apollonian, much as the straight Alpha stock, styled for analysis and the sciences. The heart stock in the Alpha grades was spawned for strategies, engineering, the creation and continuity of systems. Sensitive to interactions within the whole system, rather than the sequential order of them as were his own grade, the heart stock was a quite emotional race. That made him uncomfortable around them.

      But, to be honest, what the apollonians took apart, the heart stock put together. Apollonians became existential sociopaths, and the heart stock deluded visionaries and schizophrenics. Though conflict was inevitable, when two could be put in reasonable harmony, there was no greater driving force in society.

      "Glad you could make it, Sen," Buto said, and led the way into the long-dead forest.

      There were four there: Leusip's friend Change, Noi Tan from psychostrategy, the woman named Morag, and Buto's woman Flinn.

      "We have word you've chosen one of the children from Standard Increase," Change said, bending with Leusip near a small, portable caloric unit for warmth.

      Leusip nodded. "One of the Standard Increase candidates. He will soon be introduced to Biosystems, as soon as you select the heart stock analog. Any progress?"

      "It is difficult," Change said. "We don't have a heart stock spearhead assemblage to select from, as you did with Standard Increase. Since you say the mating of the analogs is so important, we are making the choice with great care."

      "The combination of these two personalities is vital," Leusip said, the sound of his voice buttressing his words. "This boy, the apollonian, is brilliant, and I'm not overstating the facts. He is a systems prodigy. The heart stock analog will have to be an exceptional individual to match him. And now, your choices are limited even more. Your candidate must also be a boy. We cannot allow the possibility of too close a - well, a sympathetic union between the two of them."

      "They can't fall in love with each other," Buto stated concisely, sprawled over a soft ground cover nearby.

      "Precisely," Leusip said, reddening a bit.

      Buto moved his long body around to face the older man, his smirk reforming into a defiant glare full of unhidden wounded pride. "We'll find a heart stock analog who is every inch his match."

      "Of course you will. I didn't mean to say-" Leusip paused, unable to lie, because he had, in fact, meant to say just that. That was yet another apollonian flaw, he had to admit: racial elitism, even in the shadow of a personal inferiority complex common to individual apollonians, they believed their own grade to be the superior one. "It is just that the heart stock will be the apparent leader. We need a passionate, volatile personality, who, at the same time, can balance the Standard Increase boy. It is a tall order."

      "Once the heart stock candidate is chosen," Morag said, "what will follow then?"

      Leusip smiled thoughtfully. "We will carefully insinuate their lives together," he said, carding his fingers together in demonstration. "So subtly as to make it seem the work of chance. Not just to guard our role in this, but because there is nothing more intoxicating to the spirit of rebellion than the illusion of free will. And nothing more destructive to the cause we would have them carry forward than the discovery they have been nothing but pawns in someone else's game."

      Change frowned, a hand reaching unconsciously to touch his chrome-tinged hair. "That will take a long time."

      Leusip reached a reassuring hand across to his old friend's shoulder. "Yes, well, rebellion is a blood sport best left to the young. But it will come within our lifetimes, of that I'm reasonably certain."

      Change deflected the sentiment by nodding at the hard copy read-out in Leusip's hand. "Is that the Hybrid's projection for the Way Back?" The starting point, the new nexus, the source of new order, all these terms had been economized to one code phrase: The Way Back. "Or have you taken to wagering on the Loomen Fringe flesh-eater pit-fights?"

      Leusip laughed, flagging the hard copy out before them. It was a vast, black topograph of space. "Not the Hybrid's projections, but the boy's. And he determined it during Phase Final in precisely fifty-seven seconds."

      "Fifty-seven?" Change said, his voice lifting with his eyebrows.

      "Indeed. Imagine what he will be like in a year, in two years...in five..."

      The other man nodded in agreement, staring down at the map between them. "Well, it certainly is desolate. Is there even any colonized territory in that area?"

      Leusip tapped the coded area of the grid. "Just barely. But it makes great, good sense. If you want to find dissident spirits, you look for the disenfranchised, for the criminal element. And right in the middle of the Way Back is a Justice Department prison planet. A planet called Cygnus Alpha."

      

      

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.

      By contrast, the peaceful face - the face so sweet in sleep...

      Blake's heart exploded as he tore Avon from the bed into his arms, somehow hurling himself and weightlessly carrying Avon across the room to the communication console. He slammed the call button hard enough to shatter the lucite.

      "Councillor Avon?" the synthetic voice said.

      "This is President Blake," he gasped out, his breath hitching as he spoke. "I want Medtechs now. I.C. sector. General Alarm four on my authority." He thought - what? Something else? God, what? "Contact Doctor Lahr on Aristo. Have him evacked on General Alarm Five, my authority." Something else! He gasped out the last of it, "Alert Soolin and Tarrant and have them come to Councillor Avon's room. Immediately."

      "Medtechs dispatched," the voice replied.

      Blake sighed with relief. "Stay on line."

      "Affirmative. General Alarm Four sounded."

      Blake sagged against the floor, Avon shifting as if in protest against him. There was no movement. Only the discernible pulse Blake could feel flexing beneath his hand. He kept contact with it until the blessed sound of the Medtech Response Unit came screaming up their hall.

      The Medtechs collapsed the transport to slide through the door, then pulled it out. They went immediately to Avon, lifting him in concert from Blake's arms, settling him down on the transport.

      "What happened?" Headtech asked, holding the recorder near for Blake to speak.

      "Suicide," he said, eyes closed, as if the ugliest word in the world. He caught himself and quickly added, "Attempted."

      Some alarm went off in his head, railing against the inference, as though it all didn't quite fit, but he didn't give a fuck about it. He mumbled empty replies to Headtech's questions as the Medtechs connected Avon to the life maintenance equipment. Another Medtech was securing Avon's head in place with cranial mounts, swathing stasis-salve high into the hairline.

      A faint heartbeat registered acoustically. A video graph demonstrated a slow, deflecting wave.

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

      "Oh, but we have...")

      "Will he die?" Blake blurted out, his very mouth in revolt against the question.

      The Headtech was obviously about to offer the usual provisional promises. Then he saw the look on Blake's face and chose honesty. "I don't know, Mr. President."

      Blake swallowed hard, shaking his head. "He's my best friend," he said, and he knew it was true, in spite of it all and everything and then some. Somehow, it was quite true.

      "We'll take him now," the Headtech answered, because that was all there was left to say.

      Blake nodded and moved around two techs who tried to intercept him. But his attention remained devoted to Avon. "Don't die on me, you cold-hearted, murdering bastard," he said, as the transport whisked Avon away from him.

      He stood on numb legs as they eased Avon through the door. He felt the weight of a pulling hand on his shoulder. Soolin was beside him. Tarrant was beside her.

      "Come along, Old Man," Tarrant said. "We can't do anything here."

      "His head, Del." Blake shook his head at the thought of it, then looked to Soolin. "His brain."

      Nothing else needed to be said. They all knew how things were. Brain mechanics had grown immeasurably within the old regime. And the Refederated society inherited the growth. But it was also heir to its mistakes, its utter paucity in mind-healing technology. For the Federation had little use for healing the mind, only controlling it.

      The unspoken fear was self-evident: that whatever was left of Avon would be better off dead.

      

      

Blake hadn't known Dayna Mellanby when her father was murdered. He'd not watched her grieve over his lifeless body, weep for her sister Lauren, nor shed the tears she gave to Justin. He had never seen her cry.

      He'd heard the stories, but they were hard to reconcile with the woman on whose ability to kill expertly he had come to rely. For him, Dayna was a warrior, medalled for the Helotrix offensive and for all their battle days after Gauda Prime. Blake trusted her to do what needed to be done, while he looked the other way. Dayna was a lot like Avon in that respect.

      In more than that respect, in fact. She was nearly as hard as Avon, almost as cynical. Blake had often wondered how much of that was natural to her, and how much conscious idolatry. For she'd never made any secret that Avon was her leader. Blake further suspected she only followed him because Avon was going in his direction.

      She'd been the last of Avon's crew to warm to Blake after Gauda Prime - the last to want to. Even now she made Blake explain himself more often than the others, more often than even Avon. And Dayna was hurt the worst, and was last to recover, after Gauda Prime as well.

      Avon had kept his own hospital vigil then, sailing imperiously into her room each day, demanding that she get out of the recovery ward, since she obviously had no intention of recovering. He called her spoiled and stupid, weak and cowardly. He threatened and insulted her in every way. Blake cringed at the memory: even he had never been spoken to like that by Avon.

      But Dayna angrily fought against reluctant muscle and eventually mended in full. Knowing her now, Blake realized she'd never have made it had Avon not bullied her through the process.

      Blake looked through Avon's hospital compartment window, alarmed at how small and vulnerable they both looked. Avon, hooked to an assembly of monitors humming faint promises of continued life, and Dayna at his side, sobbing into her own arms.

      She'd been there through the night.

      He wished he could comfort her, but he knew better than to try. As a member of the Inner Council, as friend to his friends, he'd spent the last few hours drawing out their concern, then giving them all hope. Vila had snuffled into his shoulder for over an hour. Tarrant played continuous games of Solotonic and Soolin kept storming in and out of wherever Blake was, demanding to know "what the hell they'd do if the little shit bought it."

      But the only one who could comfort Dayna, in the language both of them shared, was unconscious on that bed.

      Doctors diagnosed the injury as "percussive trauma to the temporal lobe and major cranial involvement" induced by "a self-inflicted blaster fire." Until swelling subsided, they couldn't be certain of the extent of the brain injury, but at least it was all a secondary effect from the impaction of the plasma discharge. There was no bleeding or scarring on the brain, and its activity seemed normal, except that his brainwave had not begun its ascent into the normal rhythm of awareness. Avon would not gain consciousness, at least for awhile.

      He took the tissue dispenser and carried it in with him. "Hello, Dayna," he said softly, giving her time to scrub the tears off her face.

      Her hands wiped quickly at her face. By the time Blake reached her side to nudge the tissues at her, her face was faintly moist and her eyes pink and puffy, but there were few other signs she had been crying.

      She grabbed the tissues from him, plucking two out and pinching them to her nose. "Thank you," she said curtly.

      He tried a hand to her shoulder, but there was no response. "Why not drop down to the cafeteria and try to eat something? I'll watch him for awhile."

      "Avon and I always watched each other's backs. He told me once he felt safe with me around." She plucked at another tear that escaped her eye, lifting her proud, young chin. "Avon's had too many people betray his trust. I won't be another one."

      Blake tried to smile. "Avon and I used to watch out for each other, too, remember. I swear to you that I will see one of us is with him every moment while you are eating and resting. You will do Avon no good suffering a breakdown. You have my word that he will be fine."

      "Your word?" Dayna snapped, as if throwing his word back at him. She stood, reaching a hand of camaraderie towards Avon. "And you have my word it wasn't suicide."

      After she had left, her anger lingered with him, in the punctuated bootsteps retreating down the hall.

      He was alone with Avon.

      Blake lowered into the chair, pushing it back a bit from the bed. He reached idly down to the thermomonitor, testing for the right comfort level. The response was normal. Avon had lost blood and, with it, temperature. The vigil gauge would have sensed a temperature variation if internal bleeding continued, then would have registered compensation. None had been registered.

      Say it, Avon, Blake thought: You need not act like a mother hen, Blake, I am no longer bound by your suspect peonage. Do not feel responsible. And please stop looking at me like that.

      But Avon just lay there, unmoving except for the thankful rise and fall of respiration. It felt better having him near, the old familiar "antenna" effect again. He'd noticed before how Avon's presence improved his senses, made his mind clearer. Like he was part of his sense systems, a portion of his brain placed in another body. With Avon so still and silent, this to Blake was too much like being trapped in a mute's nightmare.

      That only proves how useless you are without me, Avon's voice spoke in his head.

      Blake smiled sadly at the manufactured retort. They knew each other well enough to make this dramatized conversation seem more like telepathy than make-believe.

      "How useless we are without each other," Blake said. "That is quite a joke Fate played on the two of us. I'm not likely to get much done without you, am I?"

      Nothing but get yourself killed.

      Hesitantly, he touched Avon's shoulder, searching the face for some report. Nothing but stillness there, but that was all there ever really was, except for anger. And flashes of pain. That was why Blake tried to provoke him. He thought if he could pry Avon's anger loose, other emotions - better emotions - would someday follow.

      That was the part of the psychologist's report that was hardest to read: We find the subject, Kerr Avon, to have a limited emotional range. Due to dysfunctional dimensions of the psyche, the subject has projected his parental energy pattern of repressive interaction. Disinhibition appears to be largely sporadic and non-intentional.

      Avon felt deeply, he just submerged it, denied it, rationalized it away. But emotions were there, just beyond reach...

      "Survive this, Kerr Avon," Blake said, "and I'm going to drag them kicking and screaming to the surface."

      The study just confirmed old suspicions. Something should have been done to help him...he should have done something about all this, years ago. But the Federation had used that unbalanced scalpel of an intellect. His Resistance used it, and finally, so did Blake's Refederation. Avon's divorced psyche was an amazingly effective weapon, like Vila's easily manipulated fear, and Dayna's violent soul. Their effectiveness was somehow related to their pain. Healed, whole humans made poor revolutionaries.

      Another of your fortuitous events, Blake?

      "Shut up, Avon," Blake said gently, smiling again.

      He slid his hand from the shoulder, down Avon's arm to clasp their hands together into one fist.

      Holding hands? Vila will wonder, Blake.

      Much to Blake's surprise, he turned slightly to find Vila standing there with a wilted little smile. Vila let the door slip closed behind him.

      "Mind if I sit with him awhile?" Vila asked, tilting his head toward the corridor. "S'getting a bit bunchy out there."

      Blake relinquished the chair. "Everyone wants their five minutes, hm?"

      "You could take a team portrait. We're all lined up in varying states of decay. Surprising, isn't it?"

      Blake gave a loud, dry laugh, shaking his head. "Somehow, no."

      "I know. My theory's that it's in line with our self-abusive personalities. A bunch of sadies, the lot of us." He scratched at his nose. "Speaking of which, that poor sot you made Avon's aide has been haunting your office, looking for you. He appears nervous, but then wouldn't you be with that one looking over your shoulder?" Vila pointed at the door. "You get after him. I'll keep an eye on Sleeping Beauty."

      

      

The sight of Doctor Dev Lahr hovering in a nearby room short-circuited Blake's search for Plinth. Lahr was rumpled, half-asleep, but staring with pinched, incontrovertible interest at the lumine board, studying a graph. He looked away only to acknowledge Blake's presence.

      "General Five alarm, Roj?" Lahr said gruffly, humour haunting the tone enough to disarm it. "On your authority? Getting a bit full of the position, aren't we?"

      "I had good cause, but I'm sorry." He glanced over Lahr's shoulder, looking at Avon's brainwave chart. "Thank you for coming."

      "I suppose it wouldn't do any good to inform you that this graph is only to be seen by hospital staff," Lahr said, shaking his head. "No, I thought not. Flouting authority is in your blood."

      Blake folded his arms, his mouth bending into a smile. "I will need you to interpret."

      "Very well. I suppose power has its privileges." He tapped an erratic line in the otherwise soft, even wave. "This is what has me stimied. It's very strange and the injury can't account for it. Avon hasn't had any other serious brain injury? Some arterial problem?"

      "No."

      "There is something active in the temporal lobe. Look at the Alpha interference here. At least, that's my guess. It could be an implant, but it doesn't look like anything we've seen with implant patients. No, this is decidedly strange. If I didn't know better, I would swear it's a primitive limiter, but the frequency patterns aren't conducive for aggressive displacement."

      "How is he otherwise?" Blake asked, trying his best to follow.

      "Not anything terribly wrong with him, that I can tell. We've injected anti-coagulants and administered neurotransmitter enhancers with anasomnolents, which in ordinary language means we've given him medicines enough to correct the transmission problems within the brain, subdue the damage, and bring him to full Beta consciousness. And yet, he's still comatose."

      "Any notion why?"

      "The brain is the most complicated biological system in the known universe. It has a tremendous capacity for self-repair, but when one small link is down in a system of this complexity, it can create havoc. That's the irony of it; the brain is probably more complex than even it has the capacity to understand, at least on an analytical level."

      Blake squeezed at his eyes. "I don't mean to be impatient, Dev, but..."

      "But this is your friend I'm talking about and I sound like a High Lyceum lecturer. I'm sorry, Roj. I guess what I'm trying to say is I just don't know. He should be conscious. All we can do is keep going with the prescribed therapy. And I'm going to order imagings of the temporal lobe to see if we can find what's causing this nonsense here." He tapped the chart. "If it's in the temporal lobe, then we can go in and remove it. Maybe that will do the trick."

      "But is he strong enough for surgery?"

      "No."

      "But you'll have to do it anyway."

      "Yes." He switched off the lumine board. "Would you prefer not to have known?"

      Blake took a step back, considering. "No. I guess power has its responsibilities as well. What are the options?"

      "He will absolutely live if we don't operate. But he may remain comatose for the rest of his biological life. His only hope for regaining consciousness may very well be removing this thing, whatever it is, from the temporal lobe. It means insinuating ourselves into the most vulnerable area of the human body. It might cure him. Or it might kill him."

      "Tell me something encouraging, will you?" Blake asked.

      "Listen, Roj, in a way, he's fortunate. Two hundred years ago, surgery in this area was almost always fatal or, at least, the patient emerged a vegetable. Now, if nothing else, there's a chance."

      "A chance. All right." Blake's face softened, conserving concern for later. "Let me know when you've run the tests. I will be in my sector, trying to run my government."

      

      

Avon's aide, Ran Plinth, was standing nervously in the Inner Council wing as Blake came around the corner. The poor boy always had the same expression on his face, wavering between slavering idolatry and anticipated intimidation. He was holding a lucite case in his hands, with all the reverence possibly afforded the Holy Grail.

      Relief leapt over Plinth's face as he saw Blake approaching. "President Blake, I've been looking everywhere for you!" The young man held the small case even more intensely. "I have something Councillor Avon instructed me to give you."

      "So I understand," Blake said. He nodded at the case. "May I ask what it is?"

      "I'm not certain. He wanted me to deliver these to you in the event that - well, in case something like this happened. He didn't tell me what they were and, well, frankly I didn't ask."

      "I understand," Blake said with a weak laugh. He took the case from the boy's hands, lifting the hood. "They appear to be holovisdiscs." Blake's brow furrowed in complete puzzlement.

      "Excuse me, sir. I know it probably isn't my business, but I wonder if you've heard something from the doctors? The viscasts are just saying that he's stable."

      "We have the finest doctors in the universe working on him. He will be up and after you in no time."

      "Happy for it to be so, sir," Plinth said, smiling.

      And the strange part was, Blake knew he meant it. As recalcitrant and ruthless as Avon could be with equals, he often had no equal in compassion for the fragile and harmless. His protective nature had been a large part of what kept him with the Liberator, Blake suspected, at least after Blake first left.

      As Blake watched Plinth retreat, he wondered if young Kerr Avon had been as delicate.

      He went to his quarters, triggering the door open, then sliding it closed behind him. He punched three buttons to lock himself inside.

      The chess board remained where it had been. Watching it, he slouched down across the easy comfort of the commune couch.

      He stretched out, enjoying all the room around him. He'd purchased the commune couch, as its inventor named it, originally for the Inner Council lounge, in the naive belief that 'easy intimacy would be bred from tactile interaction', as the psychologist asserted.

      He'd gathered everyone together in the lounge for its unveiling. He outlined the data and the research. He explained its function: they would have their regular meetings while sitting around the commune couch, and this would lead to open displays of affection. A friendly hug. A gentle, reassuring pat on the back, a comradely hand on a shoulder.

      As Blake finished said explanation, Tarrant and Vila were simultaneously seized by hysterical laughter. Through the unstoppable hysterics, Dayna repeatedly dryly demanded they hush because "Blake was kidding, of course". And Avon just looked on with a glare so to wither the soul of the dead.

      Blake had the damned thing moved into his own quarters.

      It was so large it barely fit among his furniture, but he was determined to endure it. So his people disliked the idea? Perhaps "disliked" was too polite a term. Openly disdained, came closer to the truth. No matter. Blake still thought the concept sound, if a trifle, well, optimistic.

      "I would sooner cuddle with a flesh-eater from the Loomen Fringe," Soolin said, glowering at Avon.

      "Likewise," he responded. "Several of them."

      Blake gave a soft, resigned sigh. He never gave up hope that his group would become the unit they once had been... well, nearly had been. They were a family; a combative, intractable, potentially lethal family, but a family nonetheless.

      He knew they cared, damn it. All one had to do for proof was observe the vigil going on at Hospital Sector. It was just a matter of making them realize - sad that it might take a tragedy. He just hoped Avon would be around to see the changes this would bring forth. If any of them needed it, he did. No doubt he needed it more than all of them combined.

      The door signal sounded.

      Not visitors now, he thought, looking over at the case.

      If that did contain what he suspected - some testimony to Avon's sorrow, and, if he dared hope, some proclamation of loyalty and love - then Blake preferred to break down and cry in private. Not even the Inner Council were close enough to be his companions in that grief.

      When he didn't answer the door, the communication system hummed to save a message. It would then be indexed for his retrieval. He'd long ago perpetrated the myth of his "crashing" viscom system, which could be relied upon to lose any message he didn't want to answer.

      Might be the doctor, that voice suggested.

      "Please relay last message," Blake instructed the com system.

      "Message is from Steavn Change, sir," it said. Then the next sound was the basso profundo voice of High Council Arbiter Steavn Change, "Roj, I just stopped by to check on Kerr's progress. The entire High Council extends their best wishes for his recovery. Let him know that we are at his disposal for whatever he needs." The message ended.

      Just as he suspected, nothing important. Any message from Steav Change could never be considered to be so.

      Blake reached for Avon's lucite case and opened it. He carefully extricated the holovisdiscs, four of them, numbered in order for viewing. With more than a little trepidation, he turned the holoviewer toward him, slipping in disc #1.

      He leaned forward a bit, then was driven back into his chair by the hologram of Kerr Avon forming in three-dimensions before him. Holovision was always more than a little eerie. Now, more than ever.

      Blake's heart stumbled, his eyes stinging.

      "Hello, Blake," the image spoke. "I regret the necessity to appear before you like this. If you have received these holovisdiscs, then I am either dead or near it. I cannot imagine it is easy to look on the moving image of the dead. Particularly someone you've known. So, my regrets in that regard.

      "What I am about to tell you must remain between you and me. No matter how ironic you may find it, I can trust this to no one else." The figure sat down in a chair that materialized out of nowhere. "We both know that my periods of lucidity are becoming few and far between - that is, we both know that if my suspicions are not correct. I do not see how they can be. My rational mind declares they can't.

      "I'm either paranoid and have died by my own hand, or you and I are victims of a conspiracy too vast for us to comprehend. Which is it? I have no idea. That is now your task to decide. Please do not come to your conclusions out of our past associations, either positively or negatively. Don't dismiss these as conspiracy theories, nor give them credence out of guilt. This cannot be true, but I fear it is, and if it is, then you must act now to save the lives we both value, including your own.

      "As with all convoluted tales, we must begin at the beginning." Again the figure rose, moving to the centre of the visual range. "We must begin at my beginning. At a Federation project camp called Standard Increase..."

      

      

Blake let his gaze rest on Avon's frozen image, aware peripherally of the red hold light on the holovisplayer. The galloping of his pulse accelerated as his hands gripped together before him.

      Blake had been tortured and mind-stripped and processed. He'd suffered wounds inflicted by every standard issue Federation sidearm, and by some exotic, freelance weapons as well. He'd once spoken to a woman who for fourteen time units had a three-foot catheter inserted through the wall of the superior vena cava to stimulate massive myocardial infarctions, one every fifteen minutes. He knew the seven year old child of a Freedom Party advocate who was paralysed by succinylcholine and covered with Kairopani hatchlings until psychosis set in from fear. Blake had been attacked by allies, cheated by those he trusted. He'd been shot by his own best friend.

      Blake was certain he'd seen everything.

      Blake had never before heard of Standard Increase.

      Children turned into computers. Well, of course, it was hardly beyond them. And it made sense now. That was why Avon was as he was.

      He reached for the holovisplayer and released the hold sensor. Avon's face settled into an expression of resolve. "The background data I've just given you may only be partially factual. It may be that my memory is as suspect as yours. For reasons I suspect, which I cannot yet disclose for fear of prejudicing you, you will no doubt look back on your life and notice certain similarities to the events I have described. But before you do anything, there is someone you must see. You will find a holo slide in the packet I've provided, the one marked #1. Please remove it now and look at it. Place the holovisplayer on hold until you've done so."

      Blake did so, holding the slide to the light. He released the hold. The slide showed an elderly man with shocking white hair and a leathery complexion.

      "The man you see in the slide is named Sen Leusip. He was my teacher, my computer mentor, like a father to me in more ways than my own had been." 'Avon' smiled his cold, cynical smile. "He was also the man who turned me into the Justice Department, having detected the computer swindle, which was, in part, his idea.

      "At this point, Blake, you must make a decision. You must either proceed with things as they are, accepting that poor Avon attempted or committed suicide, until the entire system you have created falls apart around you. Or you must go to see Leusip, find out what he knows, considering that my conspiracy theories, as you called them, may have some veracity after all. I recommend your seeing Leusip before you view the other holovisdiscs. They contain conjecture, facts, etc. I would not want to prejudice you unduly, as it is your good decision on which we must base the future of their lives.

      "Make no mistake, Blake. If this is in fact as I believe it is, it is not only my life at risk, and not only yours. It is everyone's life. I would not have their deaths weighing on my conscience, should I recover. If you believe you can live with that, then you may act as you see fit."

      The air before him was suddenly just that, air. 'Avon' had vanished.

      Blake sat there another moment, reaching over to trigger the communication console. "This is President Blake. I would like my air car brought around to I.C. sector channel five."

      "Request processed pursuant to query, sir. Will you require a driver?"

      "No," he said quietly. "I believe I will drive myself." He stood up, pacing two steps, moving back. "One more thing, access the Refederation Indices for an address for surname Leusip, given name Sen."

      There was a momentary pause. "Referenced name not indexed, sir. Suggest Orac access to Free Planet Advisory Indices."

      "Implement."

      Another pause. "Address processed. Transmitting hard copy now."

      

      

"Hello, Roj," Steavn Change's voice shot across the sector intersection.

      Blake turned in the voice's direction. Change was striding toward him, his hair grey and glinty beneath the noonday sun. His diplomatic smile was positioned exactingly on his face.

      "Hello, Steav," Blake said politely, coding the unlocking sequence to his air car. "Something I can do for you?"

      "I wanted to inquire after Kerr. I spoke with the doctors, that man Lahr, and they said he was stable. Anything new?"

      "Nothing, I'm afraid."

      Change's face darkened, shaking his head. "Troubled genius. It hardly seems worth the pain and problems. For myself, I would rather be merely bright and happy."

      Blake turned his attention to him for the first time. "Betas are better, Steav?" Blake said, quoting an old Federation propaganda slogan meant to balm the labour grades' diminished egos.

      "That's not what I mean to say at all, Roj. Just that all of Avon's intellect hardly seems worth the problems it entails. You know. Far better to be a heart stock person, such as yourself."

      Heart stock, there was a phrase Blake hadn't heard since the perfunctory reforms meant to quell the Freedom Party. The Federation thought if they pared away some of the neologisms used to mechanize and categorize humans, the sedition would recede. So Alpha, Beta, Delta, Gamma, and the closed-out Epsilons remained, but the sub-divisions like Apollo Grade and heart stock were discarded.

      "Far better that we try to stop thinking of humans in those terms," Blake replied, climbing into the air car.

      "By the way, your pair-bonding reform passed both parliament branches of the Council this morning."

      That made Blake think a moment and smile. Fitting it would happen this morning. "I am glad to hear of it. What was your vote?"

      "Even though I have rather conservative views in that area, I did as you asked and voted to affirm."

      "Thank you, Steav." He checked his watch. Orac had located an address for Academician, Retired, Sen Leusip in Victus Plantation, a retirement complex. It was an hour out and an hour in, if he could reach the facilitator before the galactic rush.

      He could only hope Avon wouldn't die while he was out battling his windmills. But, should Avon live, how would he ever look him in the eye if he didn't at least try? If nothing else, it gave Blake something to do besides sit around his office, unable to work, or around Hospital Sector, unable to help Avon.

      Blake reached for the air car ignition. "Please tell my Inner Council that I will be en route to Victus, should Avon's condition worsen. Tell them to contact me at once if it does."

      Change's face shifted discernibly to an expression that was both difficult to read and rather disturbing. "To Victus, you say?"

      "Yes."

      "Friends there?" he said, trying to sound light and casual.

      "Business." Blake slammed the air car door between them.

      Change moved to the vent. "Shouldn't you really take a driver with you, Roj? Victus is a good drive. A security man at least."

      "I enjoy driving, Steav. Besides, I'd rather be alone just now." With that he fired the massive power boosters and stormed toward the horizon.

      Steavn Change was left behind, staring after it in disbelief, the winds of propulsion buffeting his chrome-coloured hair.

      

      

She could gain access easily, she supposed. There was little left private among the Inner Council. Living in proximity, working as one, they could meddle all they wanted to in each other's lives. But breaking in seemed ever so much better, somehow. And she thought Avon would like the approach.

      "Pull," the synthetic voice said.

      The Hybrid target appeared and Dayna scoped, then fired the stimulus.

      "Bull's eye," the system voice reported.

      She smiled, lifting up a perspiration repellent and running the device across her forehead. Better. She felt much better. Even the tension knot in her neck was unlacing.

      Good old sub-plasma bolts this time, she selected, waving her hand over the sensor and lifting up the stimulus.

      Yes, she would break in. The Justice Department inquiry team would be sweeping up by then. And she could get in there and have a bit of a look.

      "Be careful, Dayna," Avon had said to her two days before. That odd melancholy had overtaken his face, as often it did, and he turned from a discussion with Orac about some ancient play called Julius Caesar and said it. She'd been disassembling one of the security functions and barely heard.

      "What's that, Avon?" she had said.

      But he was turned back to Orac again, in soft discussion about "the spoils of power and timid men".

      "Pull," the system said.

      And Dayna fired, biting blood from her lip as she did.

      "Bull's eye. Last round. Ten rounds, perfect score."

      She glanced at the stimulus in her hand. It was hardly worth the effort anymore. She always scored perfectly. Shrugging, she holstered it back on the Hybrid console.

      

      

      Sucking at her salty, swollen lip, she made her way back to I.C. sector. First she would check on Avon, make sure someone was with him. That neurocrat Steav Change had come sailing into the lounge not long ago with the revelation that Blake was off to settlement Victus "on business". What business Blake could have in that crowded old colony, Dayna could only speculate. Obviously it was more important to him than Avon.

      So much for Blake and his promises, she thought to herself, coming around the corner into Tarrant who was chewing on a glucosefreeze pop.

      "Who is with Avon?" Dayna asked curtly.

      Tarrant removed the pop from his mouth to grin toothily. "And hello to you, Dayna."

      "Hello. Who is with Avon?"

      "Soolin. She's reading to him from Kafka. To cheer him up a bit."

      "Don't be an insensitive prig, Del."

      "Don't be so serious, Dayna. Avon is fine. He isn't even conscious, so he can't be lonely, not that he ever is. Vila and Soolin are taking turns sitting with him, though why I haven't a notion." He extended the confection in his hand. "Here, share my Glofree pop. It's soma-flavoured."

      She pushed it aside. "Has it occurred to you that whoever tried to kill Avon may try again?"

      "Dayna," Tarrant said, at the edge of patience, "the one who tried to kill Avon is unconscious in Avon's bed. Blake found the gun in his hand."

      "And guns have never appeared out of nowhere - in fortuitous circumstances? You can't fake a suicide without leaving a weapon. Even you should be capable of working that one out."

      "Careful, Dayna, you're beginning to sound as paranoid as he is. Role models and goals are all well and good, Dayna, but-"

      "And you sound more like some member of the High Council every day. A goal of yours perhaps?" she snapped, sailing past him.

      "Dayna, where are you going?" She didn't answer, continuing to walk faster and harder. "Dayna! Not getting into trouble are you? Dayna, where are you going?"

      She reversed to look at him, continuing to stride backward. "To hell and back, Tarrant. Care for a one-way ticket?" Then she turned again and continued ahead until she stopped at Avon's room.

      Tarrant shook his head, tossing his Glofree pop into a molecular dispersion receptacle. He jogged ahead, grabbing at her arm as she bent low to force the Kaarn key, borrowed from Vila, into the locking mechanism.

      "Dayna, you are in restricted air space," Tarrant said in a low voice, scanning the area. "You will get us both in more trouble than Blake can bail us out of."

      "Good. I think you need to get into some trouble. You've turned into an officious bore, Tarrant. You aren't one of us anymore."

      "Why? Because I don't act like a spoiled, petulant child around Roj Blake?"

      "Because you act like an expedient lickspittle." The Kaarn key freed the lock with a whine and a click. "There we are."

      "What in Thon's name are you looking for, anyway?"

      "I shall know it when I find it. Now get out of my way or give me a hand in looking for it." She turned a glare up at Tarrant similar to the one Prometheus gave Zeus when that little matter of the stolen fire arose. "Well, Del?"

      "I could report you to Security. I could have Tyce's people down here in droves with a snap of my fingers." He crossed his arms over his chest. "Probably, I should."

      "Then you have sunk further than even I had guessed, Del." She rose to her full height, one long arm swinging the Kaarn key with a gentle threat. "Choose. Be one of them and turn me in, or be one of us and help me find proof that Avon didn't try to kill himself."

      "On one condition."

      "And that is?"

      "If we find nothing, that you will admit he did, in fact, try just that. You'll accept that your hero has deep problems."

      She laced her own thin arms over her chest. "Just as, if we find something, you will accept that your hero Blake ignored and endangered his best friend in order to protect his philosophy." She opened Avon's door. "A familiar pattern, I understand. Well?"

      He breathed in, groaned, shook his head. "Very well. Let us play Galactic Rangers and Rebels, if you must."

      Avon's room was unchanged, which surprised Dayna, though she had not seen it at the time of Avon's injury and did not know it had been untouched.

      "He shot himself in the bedroom," Tarrant said, lowering his voice and closing the door behind them.

      Dayna had only faintly heard him, turning slowly around to survey the room. There was a strange look on her face, as if she was searching for something, but not finding it.

      "Remember what Blake said to us yesterday?" Dayna asked.

      "Verbatim?"

      "No! About surveillance. Remember, he said Avon was under surveillance, because they were afraid he would kill himself. Where would the equipment be set-up?"

      "I'm not in Security, Dayna. I'm one of the President's Personal Puppy Dogs, like you are."

      Dayna ignored him, continuing, intent. "It would have to be covert enough that Avon couldn't find it-"

      "And he probably still would have," Tarrant reminded her.

      "It would have to be centrally located." Realization seized her face, as she vaulted over a small table to the bedroom door. She leaned in for a look. "As I thought, there's a communication console in here, too."

      "You think they inserted it into the com system?"

      "It's possible. Do you have an all-tool?"

      Tarrant patted his pockets. "Silly me, I left it at home with my portable neutron blaster."

      She leaned over to her right boot and extracted a small, silver blade. "This should pry it away from the wall." She checked the sharpness, and turned into Avon's bedroom.

      The communication console was sealed to the wall with diurnite, stable in dry form and readily soluble. "This is easy," Dayna said. "Bring me something wet, will you?"

      Tarrant did so, shaking his head at himself as he handed her a moistener. "Here. I hope you know both of our heads will roll for this."

      "Martyrs are quite popular with women," Dayna said, distractedly, loosening the diurnite just enough to ease the coverplate from the wall.

      "Dayna, do you even have an idea of what you're looking for?"

      She tossed him a petulant glare. "Some sort of scanner, of course! An optic device."

      Tarrant crossed his arms again, leaning against the wall. "There are all sorts of optic devices. For something to escape Avon's notice, it had to be very small and very disguised. If it was obvious enough for you to notice it, Avon would have found and disabled it shortly after it was placed here. Particularly as paranoid as he has been lately."

      Frustration gathered in her face, her fists firmly posted on her hips. She paced two steps over and two steps back. "I hate it when you're right."

      "That could explain why no one else responded when it happened. Perhaps Avon disabled the device and the monitor didn't even detect the suicide attempt," Tarrant said.

      "But wouldn't they have replaced the device with a less obvious one?"

      "Possibly. If they did, it's so camouflaged, you and I could never find it."

      "Are there such things as optic device scanners?"

      "Doubtless. And doubtless all neutron-locked in the Justice Department stores." He raised a quick hand. "Before you suggest it, not even Vila can jimmy a neutron-lock."

      She paced two more steps up and back, then stopped cold in her tracks, the fists on her hips relaxing into open hands. "Then we need to find evidence of what the optic devices recorded. See if there are records somewhere. If we can establish that the device was receiving at the time Avon was shot..."

      "At the time Avon shot himself," Tarrant said.

      Her features soured again. "At the time Avon was shot, we can establish a reluctance or specific instruction to not rescue Avon. And just perhaps, we can document an attempt on his life."

      Tarrant shook his head vigorously, as if dislodging cobwebs. "All right, I know I will be sorry for this, but allowing there is some mutant logic in your line of reasoning-"

      "There is," she said stiffly.

      "Given that, then why would the perpetrators record such a thing? They would want to avoid evidence completely."

      "Maybe the two factions aren't working in that close association. Perhaps the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing."

      "With the kind of conspiracy you're talking about? Come now, Dayna, admit it, you're grasping at straws."

      "It's better than sitting around Hospital Sector and watching Avon die bit by bit." She shook her head hard. "Maybe if I'd been old enough to do this for my mother-"

      Tarrant gave her his sad puppy smile. "Sorry, old girl, I'd quite forgotten. The Feds made her death look like a suicide, didn't they?"

      "Yes," she said, placing the blade back into her boot, then tossing the moistener aside. "And it wasn't. Just like this isn't. This one, I can prove. So I'm going to break into the Justice Department index and see who was monitoring Avon." She faced him, her posture defiant. "Are you with me or against me?"

      "Come on, Dayna, it isn't as simplistic as all that. First of all, where do you even begin looking for such things? I'm a pilot, I don't know governmental espionage. Artillery hardly provides one with that sort of education either."

      "I will go in and snoop about. Labour hours will be over soon. After the people leave, I'll go in. Now are you with me or against me?"

      "Suppose someone catches you."

      "Then you can pretend not to know me in the refectory. I take it that was a negative answer. Very well, but I would appreciate it if you'd not tell anyone yourself. Or at least give me some lead time."

      Tarrant gave her a wounded glare. "I won't tell anyone."

      "At least you haven't sold-out completely," she said. "I will meet you back at Hospital Sector in two hours. Don't get a better offer or forget or find some other excuse, understand?" With that, she whisked to the door and stormed out.

      

      The Justice Department had been resurfaced and reorganized extensively since the days of Alta Morag and Ven Glynd. Trial was no longer by computer; arbitration was by people whose sole profession was the law.

      Verdicts were arrived at by an ancient ritual of twelve people chosen from the citizenry. They debated the issue on the basis of evidence, then determining guilt and ascribing sentence. The more conservative members of the High Council thought it a sorry waste of time and resources, but Blake insisted it be done this way. From what Avon had told her of Blake's past, Dayna understood why.

      She mused on a half-formed hope that whoever tried to kill Avon might someday be brought to justice in this manner.

      She recognized the tall, formally-dressed woman who stepped through the central entrance to Administration Sector. It was Tyce, who administered the security of the Justice office. She was toting a personals bag, looking like a woman thinking of home tasks and the details of the rest of her life, heading toward home.

      Dayna checked the wall timekeeper. About that time, she thought, entering Administration Sector.

      The main corridor was unoccupied, though she caught glimpses of people on the descending halls. No one noticed her, which was precisely as she wanted it to be.

      The double doors stencilled Justice Department were secured with the kind of lock Vila had once called a "dummy fastener". She didn't know if that was their real name or merely Vila's pet name for them. "Knock one off with a Kaarn key in no time," he would say.

      Dayna was going to take him at his word. The little Sarran grogburfer had better not have been bragging.

      She checked in every possible direction, triggering the sensor for entry. LABOUR HOURS TERMINATED. PLEASE RETURN TOMORROW, flashed on the display panel. MESSAGE? She hit the negative sensor, standing back in case they had scanners.

      Then she slipped the Kaarn key into the encoder, and hit four buttons at random. The Kaarn would register the sequence as the correct one, no matter what it was. As good as Vila's word (or better), the lock freed and the door opened.

      "The theory is a simple one really, Dayna," Vila had waxed expansive at one of their weekly "family" dinners, which Vila imbibed in liquid format. She was the only one who listened, and only because she was stuck sitting beside him. "It makes the lock for a dummy. And the beauty of it is it never registers on the sensors as a break-in, just as a true entry. It never even occurs to the poor sots they've been made till they find something gone missing. That's why they call the lock a 'dummy fastener'."

      "Oh, really," Avon had droned across the table, staring dully at his uneaten dinner. "And we thought it was named in honour of you."

      Dayna smiled sadly at the memory, but it just furthered her resolve. She cast checking glances around, girded her insides, and stepped within. She stretched a long stride across the hall, skirting under the beam of the scanner, then sliding along the wall. As she recalled, the Index was two doors this way.

      She heard the click of an overhead optical, and slammed against the wall, the light of the optiscan just grazing her shoulder. She fought for steady breath, her shoulders hunching in time with silent gasps. She tilted her head back.

      The communication console clicked on. "Please identify. Sensory readings verify no visual ID," the synthetic voice said.

      Hell, Dayna thought, her thoughts racing toward a solution, tangling with each other. What would happen if she was caught? She had never seriously considered the possibility.

      Tarrant's chiding voice nibbled at the edge of her resolve: "What are you looking for, Dayna?"

      She had no idea, on either count.

      "Identify, please. Encode employee number or state identity for security confirmation. Please make your way to a communication console. In three minutes, safeguard measures will be implemented unless identity can be cleared."

      Wonderful, she thought. Three minutes. She had best move quickly.

      The Index entry was secured by a dummy fastener also. She inserted the Kaarn key, wondering if she was even knocking at the right door. She hit four buttons: the code was forwarded and the door slipped aside.

      The Index turned out to be one small room with a console accessing the recorded indices of the index, leading onto four other doors, marked 88A, 88B, and 88C. One of them boasted yet another dummy fastener, the second one none at all, and the third was secured by a complicated gadget with sensors and displays. Obviously, as her father used to say, you look for the queen past the guarded door.

      She stared desperately at the immense locking device on the door. It would take longer than she had, no doubt, to break that one. A neutron lock, Tarrant had called it.

      "Won't open that with a Kaarn key," a voice said.

      She swung around, flashing out her weapon. Vila jumped back, the smile fleeing his face in surprise.

      "Vila!" she snarled, steadying her heart. "I could have burned a hole right through you!"

      Vila's hands clapped to his stomach protectively. "Just thought I'd tell you that the Kaarn key won't work on it, is all! Tarrant came over to drop on me for loaning you the Kaarn key and I put two and two together."

      She pointed at the formidable locking system. "Can you get through that?"

      "Of course I can. But I don't need to. I have what you're looking for."

      "What?" Dayna said.

      "The holovisdiscs they recorded. Look, it's a long tale and not one to be repeating in the Justice Department. I jammed the sensory relay to Security, but I only bought us a few more minutes."

      "Then let's get out of here," she said, dragging on his arm.

      They retraced the route Vila had come, which was down the other end of the hall and through a filtration access. They squeezed past the sector system, then climbed a short staircase to a small room that workmen used when the system was being cleaned. In order to clean all residue of neuropacifiers from the filters, the whole system was sanitized regularly. So there was a room created from the inner maze of machines and regulators.

      Vila fell into a chair, breathing heavily. "I really shouldn't tax myself this way. I'm not so young as you may think."

      "Quit complaining. What were you talking about, Vila? How could you have those records?"

      "Avon had me swipe them for him, right after it happened. He made me promise I would, if anything happened to him, and I promised it more out of fear for my neck. I didn't really think anything would happen." Vila's face crumpled up in sorrow and a child's guilt. "When it did, I figured it was a way to, well, you know, do one for Avon." He glanced away a moment. " I didn't think they'd show anything, but I pinched 'em, and I gave 'em to Plinth to give to Blake. I stuck them in with the ones Avon prepared. I figured Blake would know what to do with them."

      "You didn't actually see them, then?"

      "No! I didn't think there was anything to see!"

      She spanked the heel of her hand against his forehead. "Oh, Vila, how could you be such an imbecile? You could have been our witness!"

      "Don't go taking off on me. What are you worried for?" Vila said. "Blake can be our witness. If he's seen them-"

      "If he's seen them, we can't be sure that he won't dump them into an incinerator somewhere."

      Vila's face filled with astonishment and revulsion. "You can't believe that! Blake is one of us. He's on our side."

      "Is he?" Dayna asked, sinking into a chair, her head in her hand. "Maybe he's so devoted to his blessed cause that we don't matter anymore. Maybe this one scandal over Avon wouldn't be enough for him to threaten his dream. That's how it starts, Vila. One compromise, a little one, and then another, bigger one. You become inured. Maybe Blake has."

      "I don't believe that!" Vila said, aghast.

      "Grow up, Vila. How do you think you get a Servalan? You think she was born that way? She's an idealist, too. So sweet and good she went rotten." Dayna sprawled back in the chair, massaging her arm, where it sometimes still hurt from Gauda Prime. "We have to act on the assumption that Blake has sold out."

      "Maybe you do," he said, pouting.

      "For instance, today Blake just disappeared. Steavn Change shows up to tell us that he's away on business. Business, Vila. While Avon is barely hanging on to life."

      "I admit that's a bit odd, but it doesn't mean that Blake is a turncoat. We've given Avon the benefit of the doubt plenty of times. Why not Blake?"

      "Avon's one of us. Maybe Blake is, too, to you. But he's still on probation, as far as I'm concerned. And right now, until he shows me otherwise, he's in violation of it."

      "What would prove to you that he is one of us?"

      "If he brought the visdiscs forward. If he came clean and faced up to the people who tried to kill Avon."

      "You really think someone did?"

      "Convinced of it."

      Vila scratched at his nose. "S'what do we do to prove it?"

      "You go tell Tarrant what you've told me. Tell Tarrant that the visdiscs do exist. Then track down Soolin and tell her what we know. After that, we'll meet at the Inner Council lounge. Tell Tarrant we're meeting there and not Hospital Sector." She considered a moment, snapping her fingers. "But tell Ran Plinth to sit with Avon while we're all in our sector. And, for heaven's sake, Vila, don't look suspicious."

      "I can't help that, it's in my nature," Vila said, standing. "What will you be doing?"

      "I'm going to bust into Blake's apartment."

      "What?" Vila said, his eyes flaring.

      "If he is one of us, he won't mind. Not in the long run. I'm going to borrow the visdiscs and his player so we can view them, then I'll put it all back."

      "Wonderful. You break into Blake's quarters with my Kaarn key, and then have me go tell the others that Blake might be a double-crosser. And try not to look suspicious. Just wonderful."

      "Stop whining, Vila, and get on your way." She slipped half-way through an old vent access to a second filtration door. "I'll meet you all at the lounge in two hours. Now where do we meet?"

      "At the I.C. lounge in two hours," Vila groaned. "I'll be the one not looking suspicious."

      

      

Victus had been transformed from the minimum security detention camp for which it once was used into a retirement facility for the elderly and the ill. The atmosphere was strictly controlled so as to be most hospitable to fragile constitutions.

      Roj Blake landed the air car, craning up to see a suited official walking toward him.

      "Mr. President," the official said, as Blake climbed from the air car. "How good of you to visit us. I've been assigned to see to your welfare."

      "Thank you, but I'll get along quite well," Blake said, turning in the other direction.

      Change was really becoming an annoyance. Blake sometimes felt everyone else had more civil liberties than he had. He'd rather suspected that there would be someone here to meet him.

      He paused at the directory, scanning it for Leusip's name. It was not there. He glanced at the slip of paper in his hand: Leusip, Sen: Member Resident, Victus Complex, E Sector. And this was the E Sector directory.

      Either he was a new tenant, or this was old information. He would assume the former. From the corner of his eye, he noted four young people playing laser tag. Children were the best of advisers: they saw everything and could report facts without elaboration.

      He asked and was told that old man Leusip did, in fact, live in the complex, had lived here for years. They directed him to apartment J.

      Blake pressed the call trigger and waited several long moments before the door was swept away. It was a tall man of about his own age, staring at him with a blank expression.

      "May I help you?" he said.

      "Yes. My name is Roj Blake," he said, pausing for a reaction. He received none. "I'm here to speak with Academician Sen Leusip. I am told he lives here. May I speak with him?"

      "Doctor Leusip is not to be disturbed," the man said, in a voice that was strange in its flatness, but somehow frighteningly familiar.

      "It's all right, Faroll. Let the young man come in," another, older voice said from the inside.

      "Very well." The one called Faroll stepped out of the way. "Come in, then," he said, moving to a far chair and sitting down.

      Cordial fellow, Blake thought to himself, stepping through the door.

      An old man with shocking white hair looked up at him from a corner desk. His face was filled with something that might have been pleased recognition, but which was quickly masked. He rose with effort, extending a hand.

      "Mr. President, it is my great honour to make your acquaintance," Leusip said, gesturing to the closest chair.

      Blake laughed, lowering into the chair he was offered. "You're alone among the old Federation academicians to think so."

      "Nonsense. At least, none of the ones I knew. I celebrated your victory." He lifted a glass of purple liquid. "I welcomed your constitutional changes. They were speaking of the Pair Bonding Act only this morning, on the viscast. This is the sort of bold, sweeping change that we need to clear out the bad taste of the old Federation."

      Blake smiled, still somewhat sceptical. "Most of even my closest advisers thought the Pair Bonding Act rather too bold and sweeping."

      Leusip shook his head. "Irrational nonsense. It is based on good, sound logic. All people should be able to mate with their life partners, legally and socially. Every race with any race, Terrans with non-Terrans, heterosexuals, homosexuals, the Auronar that remain in their ways, hermaphrodites, megagenderals, esosexuals. To restrict couple bonding based on the ability to bring forth children is to reduce sentient beings to so much breeding stock." He slammed his open palm against the table. "Finally, a logical constitution. I applaud you, Blake."

      "Well, thank you. However, I didn't come all this way to discuss the Pair-Bond Act."

      "Of course. Hideously stupid of me. Please go on."

      "I'm certain you've seen the viscasts about one of my Inner Council."

      "Yes, poor lad. Attempted suicide, they say."

      "I am told that you knew him," Blake said.

      Leusip lifted an eyebrow in surprise. Obviously, he had no idea Blake would have that information. "Kerr Avon? I knew him as a child. Thirteen, fourteen years old at most."

      Blake felt a slight jolt, a gathering pressure at his temple. His hand flew to the tightness, massaging. For a second, it burst into bright pain, then was gone.

      "Are you all right, Mr. President?" Leusip said.

      Blake shook his head vigorously, then nodded to affirm. "I'm sorry. A slight headache. Anyway, as I was saying, my information is that you worked with students of Standard Increase."

      Behind him, the sound of something clattering to the floor caused both of them to turn around. Faroll was leaning over to lift the books he'd dropped. He tossed them both an insolent glare.

      "It's all right, Faroll," Leusip said. "Why don't you go into the parlour and have a relaxant?"

      They both watched the man shuffle disconsolately away. Blake returned his attention to Leusip.

      "In answer to your question," Sen said, "Yes, I worked in a study project with the children of Standard Increase. My secondary post, besides Alpha Sovereign, which is a cyclical position, was in the Biosystems division. I was a Systems theorist for many years."

      "Dr. Leusip, quite frankly, I wonder how any humane individual could work within that project. It is the most monstrous thing I've ever heard of." Blake's face knit up with indignation, defiance. And the pain pooled at his brow again, then vanished as quickly.

      "Admittedly. I stayed with it quite a short time. Biosystems was involved only in determining the prefigures for the biocomputer systems. In that respect, and that only, I worked with them."

      Blake shook his head at his own thoughts. "My Councillor - my friend - Avon is a victim of Standard Increase. What he is going through now may well be a result of what he went through there. His whole life has been marred. I can't think that anyone with any role should be absolved of this. In fact, I intend to conduct an official inquiry into this travesty. I will see to it personally."

      "It is good that you do so. There were over one hundred children within the Standard Increase child-study. That means there are over one hundred adults like our friend Avon, and my friend Faroll."

      "Faroll was Standard Increase?" Blake said, his brow furrowing. "That explains the similarity in mannerisms, speech patterns."

      "Uniformity and predictability were two of the assets of the Standard Increase - product," Leusip said, the last word wilting as he said it. "And Avon more so than any of them. He was the best of their product. As you are no doubt too aware, he was to be a specimen for the construction of a biocomputer."

      Blake's face darkened. "Yes, I am. Too aware."

      "They were going to replicate his brain in a biological form, a computer that could self-repair, add its own improvements...you get the picture."

      "Unfortunately. What happened that they didn't continue?"

      "In Avon's case, he was taken into Biosystems with me. He was a natural systems analyst." He smiled fondly. "A remarkable boy. I grew to like him very much." Then the smile faded and was replaced with deep remorse. "I regretted how things came to pass between us."

      "Yes." Blake's tendency to like this man before him was replaced again by the taint of memory and anger. "Avon tells me you turned him in to the Federation."

      Leusip looked at him levelly. "Avon broke the law."

      "He was your student," Blake said. "How can a man, who claims to oppose the Federation, turn his friend into their security forces? Particularly one for whom he claims to have felt friendship. You know what they do to the people they call criminals."

      Leusip kept his focus steady and sincere. "It was not the best of governments, it never even approached that goal. But there are worse governments, Blake."

      "Not in my experience," Blake said through set teeth.

      "Because you have no other experience. Trust me, I know. For I am not Terran." He leaned forward, staring into his khaki-coloured hands. "I came to Earth because the Federation had opposed the dictatorship under which I lived. They fought it with everything at their disposal. Yet they were never quite able to upset the balance of power."

      "You are from a free planet? Which one?"

      "A free planet?" Leusip gave a short, dry laugh. "Only under the strictest interpretation. You see, the Federation was a symbol of freedom for me. Liberation. Oh, I know you think that is strange, but you know that everything is relative, everything subjective. To an anthromorph from such a grim totalitarian state, it seemed like a miracle, this massive symbol for control. The Federation, the very name suggests nobility. As a child, I heard stories of it, from within the labour classes. So when I found what life I had endangered, and I found the opportunity, I ran to it, like a child to his mother's arms. And I was a faithful citizen. I believed every word. In the beginning..."

      He lifted his crystal paperweight, studying it. "I believed and I was wrong. The Federation was no different than my old government. Oh, slightly varied, different words for their philosophy, but little had changed. They create each other, these systems. It took many years for me to see that perhaps the best belief system is none at all." He set the paperweight down. "Was that all you wanted? To know of Standard Increase? If so, if you will forgive me, Mister President, I'm quite old and very tired..."

      "One last question," Blake said, taking a long time to phrase it carefully. "Can you tell me...has there been evidence of paranoia in the other S.I. candidates? Any signs of psychosis at all?"

      "Paranoia? None that I am aware of. Though they rarely trust anyone. In fact, if anything, I find it a hopeful sign that you call Kerr your friend. They rarely allow them." Leusip nodded toward the other room. "Take that poor wretch. I've known him since he was a child and he has never once confided in me or smiled at me or called me by my given name. He lives like a stray animal on the porch of my life. He's the only company I have in my old age, and he's hardly that. In all these years, he has never once warmed toward me." Leusip glanced toward Blake again. "Of course in Avon's case there are contributing factors late in life. Is that what they suspect brought the suicide attempt on?"

      "If it was an attempted suicide," Blake said.

      Leusip seemed surprised. "You doubt that?"

      "Doctor Leusip, I no longer know what to think." He rose. "I should be returning to the Sovereign Complex. Please, should you think of something... anything... from Avon's childhood that could shed light on this situation, contact me."

      "Yes, of course," the old man said, turning to look at Faroll as he stood with a blank expression in the doorway. "You might see Avon's suicide attempt as a hopeful sign."

      Blake almost roared back a horrified response, but then he saw the distance in Faroll's face and the loneliness on Leusip's and he thought better. "Hopeful?" he asked quietly.

      "At least it's a sign of life."

      The words rang between them like metal dropped into a vast galvanized container, loud by the emptiness around it.

      "By the way," Blake said, "Steavn Change sends his regards."

      "Ah, yes," Leusip said, his voice remote, as if half-thinking. "Send him mine as well."

      

      

      Blake landed the air car at the I.C. access channel and, at the sight of Vila shuffling up and down the walk, thought for a moment about taking off for the sky. Had something happened, this is how they would meet him. The I.C. would give him the news before anyone else could. Have someone waiting, though Vila was an unlikely choice. It would be Tarrant, probably, Blake consoled himself, forcing his legs from the air car to the ground, ordering his feet to take him toward Vila.

      No, Vila only looked distraught. Quite concerned. Not shattered and grief-stricken, as he would have been had...something...happened. Had - someone - died.

      "Roj!" Vila said, spotting him and rushing to his side. He paused for a moment, reconsidering his haste, looking a vision of reluctance. "First, I want you to know, none of it is my fault."

      "Omnipotent gods, Vila," Blake said, "what is it? What has happened?"

      Vila's reluctance faded. "It seems we have a bit of a problem."

      

      

Blake looked up at the circle of familiar faces, the faces of his friends. At least, the faces who were left. He was trying to mentally place it all in order, and that sequence in some sort of context. Yesterday, life had been frenetic and pressured and haunted with worries about personality conflicts among his councils, and his problems with Avon, and Vila's drinking, and Tarrant's ambition, but now that fine discordant harmony had fractionated into resounding chaos. He could make sense of none of it.

      "As I said, Roj," Tarrant spoke, trying to sound impartial and democratic, "Dayna is excitable. It is entirely possible she's taken off on some half-baked detective mission to clear Avon's name."

      "Rubbish and more rubbish," Vila snapped at Tarrant, then looked at Blake. "I saw Dayna. I was the last to see her. She was headed somewhere, then we were to all rendezvous back at our lounge in two hours. We were here, but Dayna never showed up. I'm telling you, she found something, and somebody found her before she could get it back to us."

      "Rendezvous? Really, Vila, you've been watching old vis-shows again," Tarrant said.

      "Go on and laugh," Vila chimed back. "I'm telling you she's come to foul play."

      "I don't like the look of it either," Soolin drawled challengingly over Tarrant's shoulder.

      "You don't like the look of anything," Tarrant replied, stretching his smile to a sardonic glint.

      She segmented the sidearm she'd been cleaning with a crisp clap against his shoulder. "Must be the company I keep," she said, hitching her boots on a nearby table, resting the sidearm on one toe.

      "Children, can we please keep this to the subject at hand!" Blake snapped. Silence replied. "Much better. Now, Vila, you said Dayna was going somewhere. Did she give you any indication as to where she was going?"

      Vila shifted his weight from foot to foot, suddenly uncomfortable. "It won't please you."

      "Very little about anything pleases me anymore," Blake said, sculpting his curls back against his head.

      Vila looked at Tarrant, and Tarrant smirked back.

      "If you don't tell him, Vila, I will," the young pilot said, with a merrily castigating glare.

      "Sure," Vila sniped. "At the reform school, we had names we called people like you-"

      "A pity you never learned to spell them there," Tarrant replied, the merriment fairly glowing.

      "- words like kiss-up, apple-polisher, daddy's best, teacher's pet-"

      "Will someone kindly tell me something!" Blake roared, standing up, slamming a chastening fist against the table.

      It got their attention and their compliant quiet. Soolin shook her head, laughing to herself. "Dayna went to check out your room, Blake. She found out from Vila there were tapes of Avon's surveillance from the time his head was blasted." She made a gun of her hand and pulled the 'trigger' at her head. "They were in with the rest the Plinth kid gave you. The ones Avon made. It seems our five-fingered friend over there ripped them from security after Avon's...incident... Avon told him to. Not a bad idea, really, for a cold-hearted bastard."

      Blake's face folded in self-reproach, slapping his forehead with the back of his hand and standing up. "What an imbecile! I left the vistapes in my quarters."

      "Well, you can be sure they aren't there now," Soolin said.

      "Which creates a problem," Vila said, "Or validates one."

      "It means, if Dayna's gone, if the vistapes are gone, Avon might have been right," Soolin said.

      "Dayna might have taken them herself," Tarrant suggested.

      Vila swung a foot at him. "You know better than that!" Vila snapped.

      "It's not without the bounds of possibility," the pilot said, "I don't think we can dismiss the possibility Dayna might have screened the vistapes, saw it was suicide, and just took off. She couldn't bear for us to know Avon did it. She might have just gone away for a few days."

      "You just can't stand admitting you were wrong," Vila said.

      "You have too much faith in everyone's infallibility," Tarrant said, "Dayna is a young girl. She's not above going off on a tangent."

      Vila shook his head, sneering at Tarrant, then casting a cautious glance at Blake. He thought of Dayna. What she had said. "Everybody accusing everyone of everything. I'm tired of it. It's like the bad old days. I liked the good new days...the new, boring days."

      Blake considered it all a moment, then moved for the door. "I'm going to check my quarters. Then I'm going to meet with Dr. Lahr about Avon's condition. And then I'm going to try to find out where the hell Dayna went."

      

      

Was it possible?

      All right. Given for the moment it was. Who was behind it? And why target Avon? Why not just assassinate the President, for heaven's sake? And why and why and why?

      The questions chased after Blake like so many tumbling schoolchildren, vying for his attention. None of it made sense. As he punched through his access sequence, he was almost frightened to enter his own quarters.

      It was dark and cool, with the stifled air of non-filtration and little occupancy. The chess board was still there, with Avon's victory in place. The holovisplayer was turned sideways and aimed at the same tract of emptiness. Where he'd last seen Avon.

      But the lucite case was gone.

      In light of all the conjecture just passed, that seemed hardly surprising. Still, a surge of anger at himself was hard to suppress.

      "If Dayna is gone...if the vistapes are gone...Avon might have been right..."

      Blake sagged onto the sofa, every agony of this world taking turns leaning against his soul. It was all falling apart, as Avon had said it would. Avon, whose promises were black and cold and ineluctably hopeless, but perpetually reliable. Why in hell did Avon always have to be right? Why not just once - just once - have it turn the other way? Blake could go to Avon, with proof of Blake's trust and faith in some situation having been validated, and say "See, I told you it would all work out..."

      Yet, Blake would give almost anything to hear Avon say "I told you so".

      Perhaps Dayna had taken off with the vistapes. But there was little real reason. Regardless of Tarrant's suspect reasoning, Dayna was not the sort to just take off, particularly with Avon hanging to a fray of life. And why would she have taken Avon's personal messages? Why all of them?

      There were the whys again, and none of them had been reconciled to silence.

      The likely possibility, at this point, as Soolin had noted, was that Avon had been right. There was some conspiracy. Something to do with Standard Increase and still more to do with Academician Sen Leusip.

      Blake had laid a small trap. A modest one. Nothing with great import, really. But a morsel, an atom. A little suggestion.

      ("Steavn Change sends his regards...")

      Leusip had responded to the name with clear recognition. Just as he did to Avon's name.

      Very well. Change and Leusip knew each other. What did it mean? Yes, it was the link to Avon's past that Avon himself had hinted at in the visdisc message. But Change was one of the calmer Council voices, in some ways he had more of the High Council's support than Blake himself. Should he be interested in power, his best route would be to challenge Blake in open election. Killing Avon could have little efficacy to that end.

      Coincidence perhaps? What...out of the millions of people in the Terran domes two people with direct ties to Standard Increase, a comparably small Federation project, just happened to surface in his small circle of friends and allies? And both of them knew Leusip, this third party enigma.

      Well, Avon and he had both worked on the Aquitar Project. "Small world," Avon had said, upon learning of it. "Large project," Blake replied. A third voice, a missed voice, piped in from the side, "I wasn't in it."

      He smiled at the memory, then brushed it gently aside. It was odd that these matters should converge. Jung, a philosopher of the Old Calendar, had called such things synchronicity, evidence of an acausal connecting principle bringing things together that shared similarities.

      Acausal or hidden, Blake remembered. Jung had said that sometimes the cause is not aphysical at all, merely shrouded in misperception and the heedless vision of everyday humans who see not what is there, but what they think is there. The Problem of the Observer, it was called. The mind aiding in forming the illusion. Expectancy and intentionality and all that.

      He wished to hell he had Avon's vistapes.

      The communication console sounded. "Mr. President?" it said.

      "I am listening," he replied, rubbing at a tired eye.

      "Dr. Lahr would see you in Hospital sector regarding Councillor Avon's medical tests."

      Good news, I hope, he thought. Please, god, good news.

      "Tell him, I am on my way."

      

      

Lahr had slept, showered, and dressed again. He looked neat and clear-eyed, sipping something from a container behind a borrowed desk in the Deputy Administrator's office. Blake knocked at the opened door, then proceeded in to an available chair.

      Lahr glanced up casually, then his eyes focused with an abrupt halt at Blake's appearance. He reached into his pocket, removed two capsules and handed them across.

      "I've performed post-mortems on patients who looked healthier than you do!" Lahr said. "Take those capsules."

      "What are they?" Blake asked, gulping them dry.

      "Stabilizers and neutralizers. Have you slept?"

      "No."

      "Have you eaten?"

      "I don't remember," Blake said briskly. "How is Avon?"

      Lahr shook his head, clicking on the lumine board behind him, where an imaging slide was tacked up. It clearly displayed the interior of a brain, with a crab-like mechanism shadowing a very grey area.

      "We found what I believe to be the problem. This object here," Lahr said, pointing to the mechanism. "Crude, obscene nonsense. Has the Federation's perverse sense of logic. It's some kind of secondary impulse detraction unit, sort of a superior stepson to the limiter technology. It's located in the the forebrain."

      "So, what is it for?"

      "I have no idea. It is different than single-form neural receptors, though I'm only vaguely familiar with such things, mind you. There isn't anything structural to suggest what it was to be used for; I imagine it was used in combination with psychopharmacological substances and hypnosis to induce the desired effect. This was just a back-up device to reinforce suggestion. But a damned complex one it is."

      Lahr set-up the second image slide: designed for a close-up of the object. He scrutinized it with a tense face. "This was designed to disguise itself as a tumour. Note the crab-like appearance, which is roughly the shape and size of a malignant mass that often aggregates in the forebrain. With neural imaging techniques available at the time this was implanted, it would have been diagnosed as a neuroblastoma."

      "Perhaps somebody used a more complex technology in Avon's case. Perhaps they wanted to be certain it did whatever it was supposed to do."

      "It is possible, but... it has the feeling to me of an engineered object. Something designed specifically for the patient. There is little uniform in its structure. But we will learn all of that once it is out of there."

      "So you want to operate?"

      Lahr turned the chair toward him. "That would be my recommendation. It can't be up to good, where it is. If the surgery is a success, then he'll only be better off. And it very well may be inducing this coma he's in."

      "Then operate."

      "It will have to be on your authority. I understand he has no family."

      "We're his family," Blake said quietly, staring into his hands. "Avon wouldn't want to remain like that. Of that I'm certain." Blake rose with great effort. "I want to go see him."

      "Fine. Then go get ten hours sleep."

      "Impossible," Blake groaned. "I have a member of my crew missing."

      "Your crew?" Lahr said.

      Blake smiled. A strange, but somehow fitting choice of words. "One of my Inner Council. When I arrived back from-"

      Agony struck through his forehead, grinding like a cog and wheel fitting by chance together and mechanizing pain. It was worse than before, it seemed, though memory was thankfully negligent toward recollections of pain and it was hard to recall.

      "Roj?" Lahr said, hurrying around his desk to the man, whose hands were cradling his head as one wave after another blinded all his senses.

      Again, the pain vanished like a ghost. It was just gone, suddenly, and Blake could breathe deeply and see once more. Lahr was standing over him, his face awash with concern.

      "It's over," Blake said. "Just like before."

      "You've had these episodes before?"

      "Twice before, but just flashes. This one was worse."

      "What did it feel like?"

      Blake tried to recollect, then shook his head. "Painful," he said, tapping at his temple. "Right here at first, then the pain seemed to expand. Almost like it surrounded me."

      Lahr clicked on the optical beam imager and flashed it in Blake's left eye, studying the path brightened by the light on the interior. "Any visual disturbances?"

      "None I've noticed."

      Lahr flashed the light into the right eye. "Dizziness?"

      "No."

      He clicked the light off. "Probably lack of sleep and food. So go eat and get at least five hours. Have your Inner Council look for its lost member. Then come back and see me for some tests."

      Blake's face contorted again, this time in frustration. "I don't have time for tests! When are you going to operate on Avon?"

      "Probably tomorrow morning, his vital signs holding steady."

      "Why not tonight?"

      Lahr laughed, shaking his head. "My old friend, do you know what time it is?"

      "No."

      "In a few hours, it will be dawn." Lahr pointed toward the door. "Go and put yourself back together. Then come and see me for those tests."

      "Call me before you operate on Avon," Blake ordered feebly, as he left the office.

      

      

There should be change, Blake thought darkly, bracing himself in the doorway. Avon had not moved of his own volition: the silent face more silent than Blake could yet remember. The monitors made their promises of continuing life.

      But what sort of life, Blake thought. Not the sort of life Avon would want. There was no room for conjecture on that account - Blake knew what Avon's wishes would be, just as he knew what his own would be, were the circumstances reversed. Were it Avon making this decision, Blake would want him to take the risk.

      If the price for the risk was Avon's death, he would take it. Because Avon would not be able to bear this. Not this. Far better to just let him go...

      Tears swarmed in his eyes, too tired to repress the grief. Exhaustion was the enemy of propriety. And quite frankly, at this point, Blake didn't give a damn if the whole planet saw him like this.

      And that he'd first though Avon's injury to be suicide, only made things worse. As if in a way, it was Blake's own fault.

      Your ego again, Blake.

      Avon's voice rose unbidden, in his mind. It only made the grief sharper, more distinct. The tears started crashing in on him again. At such times, he relied upon Avon to talk him out of sentiment. It was easier to ignore emotion than to deal with it. And there was simply too much of it now.

      "I wish you'd just wake up and say something cold-hearted so I could forget that I miss you," Blake said aloud.

      Given the state of things, that eventuality would not be amiss to me either.

      

      

Soolin was used to being tailed, but if they had to do it, she wished they'd at least do it right.

      Such obvious tactics were an insult to her intelligence, and she felt like going back and giving the idiot a couple of helpful tracking hints just to see the shocked look on his face. Maybe even give him a hot foot with her blaster, so he could do the bunny hop back to the office of whomever he was reporting to. Explain that one, smart guy.

      For her own part, she was pretty sure Dayna was right about Avon. The little shit prized his head too highly to take a blaster to it. It should have been obvious to Blake. Tarrant, of course, couldn't find his way to the waste disposal without a detailed map. And Vila - well, Vila was Vila was Vila.

      Sometimes she didn't know why she stayed with these hopeless cases, she told herself, as if there was even a scintilla of real confusion about that.

      Soolin caught sight of Tyce Sarkoff where she was waiting for her, on a bench in the park area. The Park Artifice had been Blake's first act as President of the People's Federation, "a place for people to gather and talk". Soolin and Tyce quite often met there to discuss things, usually men, often one man in particular, usually different ones, taste in general being relative.

      Tyce was an old ally of Blake's, from when he sprung her father from Federation captivity, and returned them to their planet Lindor. She was good with a gun and didn't take any shit. A bit fond of polemic, but Soolin ignored it, and she, Dayna, and Tyce often went out prowling for men together. Or just meeting for a day of target practice. Or the Park Artifice chats. In other words, Tyce was all right by Soolin.

      She was also head of security. And if anyone could find Dayna, it was Tyce.

      "Gone missing, just like that..." Tyce said, when Soolin had explained the situation. She swizzled her pneumatic extractor through the Somalite. "I just wish there was something I could think of to help. This hardly seems like Dayna. It seems unlikely there's a normal reason."

      "Tell that to our Chief," Soolin said, lifting her boots against a closeby chair.

      "Soolin, don't criticize Blake," Tyce said, with her ornate diction always used when she wanted to drive a point home.

      The blonde woman smirked back. "All right, no treading on your holy ground, I quite forgot. What I wanted to ask you to do is snoop around. Check with your sources. See if you hear anything about Dayna."

      "Why should I hear anything about Dayna?" Horror flashed a moment in her eyes. "Hey, you don't suspect she's been kidnapped or something?"

      "At this point, we have no idea. I wouldn't rule it out."

      "But who would have a motive?" Tyce said, looking innocent as a child.

      Poor, naive babe in the woods, Soolin thought to herself. "Anyone with a grudge against Blake or Avon or any of us. The troublesome thing is we can't file an official missing person's complaint until three days have passed."

      "Who saw her last?"

      "Vila Restal."

      "And what was she doing?" Tyce said, gesturing to drag the story along faster.

      "Tyce, do me a favour and don't ask me that. It's a matter we've handled from within the Inner Council. If the time comes that we have to make an official missing persons report, then we'll tell you everything we know. Do me this favour. On our friendship..."

      "Friends don't impose on friendship."

      "Come on. What genius said that?"

      "Blake - and don't you dare say what you were about to. But, I agree, if it's so grave a matter that you can't tell me, I'll ask around." She reached out and patted Soolin's shoulder. "How is Avon?"

      "Lying there silent. Sometimes I think it's an improvement. Other times I'd bribe the bastard just to sit up and give me an insolent glare."

      "I know." Resolution filled her face. "But he'll be fine. And so will Dayna. Dayna can take care of herself."

      "That's true. Now, if it was Blake out there by himself..."

      "Soo-lin!" Tyce seethed.

      As she watched former President Sarkoff's daughter make her imposing way up the Parl Dro Avenue, Soolin had to chuckle to herself. She strongly suspected Tyce had a schoolgirl crush on their curly-locked leader. The self-possessed, iron-jawed Tyce Sarkoff, wicked with a gun, stammered and stared at her feet in HIS (cue the harps, Soolin added) presence, and wouldn't hear an unkind word uttered about HIM.

      Some women, Soolin thought, with a shake of her blonde mane. And about Blake, yet. Even while he was in constant visual competition with a certain other male individual who was obviously - obviously to Soolin, at least - his pulchritudinous superior. A certain individual of whom Dayna and she had had more than one vocalized muse concerning the potential joys of certain acts of carnal pleasure with.

      The little shit.

      She supposed she had no room to laugh at Tyce. But...Blake? Well, not impossible. No, certainly not. On a lonely night, perhaps. Or even a not-so-lonely night, maybe after some strong wine, just for the hell of it. With his power reflected in that booming laugh, those impious curls, and that contagious Papa Bear grin, hell, she would say it: it might even be fun. But it was pointless to fantasize, anyway, because - poor Tyce - the whole situation was quite impossible for any of them. If Soolin's guess was right, and her guesses usually were, Blake was thoroughly stuck on someone who was lost to him forever.

      Soolin stood, deciding to retrace Dayna's last steps. She'd done it three times already, but she had a gnawing notion that there was something she wasn't seeing. And that if she kept at it enough times, the something would tap her gently on the shoulder.

      

      "Let's go over it."

      "We've gone over it," Vila whined.

      "Then go over it again," Blake roared back, reclining against a gathering of cushions on the commune couch. "That's all she told you?"

      "All of it, I swear!" Vila said. "She was suspicious of you. She thought you might have trashed the vistapes to keep us from finding out Avon didn't try to kill himself. I told her that was ridiculous, but you know Dayna. Please, Blake, you've been grilling me for over an hour. I haven't slept all night." He dropped his head back. "Let me die in peace."

      So he and Dayna had progressed that little, had they? Blake had hoped she was beginning to trust him, if only a little. But it was just another symptom. Cabin fever. When a group of people live on the edge as long as his had, they grow addicted to it. In simplest terms, his people didn't even know how to live as normal human beings. They had fought so long, won all this, and Soolin still cleaned her weapon daily, Vila drank more than ever, Avon was Avon, and Dayna stalked the halls as if looking for an enemy. Any enemy would do, even one of her own people.

      Only Tarrant had supposedly adapted well to everyday life, according to the psychological evaluations. And he'd just become an officious pain.

      Maybe Avon was right on that count, too. It could be that people needed an enemy, something...anything...to fight. Make up a cause and fight for it. But if the point of rebellion was simply to alleviate boredom, where was the victory in that? What the hell was worth fighting for under those terms?

      "Roj, can I have a Soma?"

      "Have a Somalite, it's in the chilled dispenser."

      "Somalite?" Vila moaned groggily. "That's a girl's drink."

      "Say that to Dayna's face," Blake said, his own voice full of sleep.

      "Wish I could," Vila muttered before snoring off to sleep.

      Blake leaned his own head against a crooked elbow, his eyelids falling. He wanted to stay awake, to keep at it, go over the mental territory again and again, just as Tarrant and Soolin were out asking questions, and covering Dayna's footprints again and again.

      And somewhere, Avon was sleeping a horrible, unwanted sleep.

      But sleep. Yes. He needed it. Wanted to close his eyes as much as he wanted Avon to open his. Tragic irony in that - Avon had always been insomniac. Lots of nights Blake had forced himself to stay awake to keep Avon company. One night the subject had come up of dreams.

      "You dream?" Avon had said softly, sadly. "I rarely do..."

      Blake dreamt often. Of better times, of days that teased him with proximity and haunted him with promise. Of his people, whole and human - the young ones coupled with a lover or settled in. Vila not drinking, and Avon...what? Whole? Happy?

      Not like this, was the best description Blake could come up with.

      Vila's soft snores covered up the sound of the clock claiming the hour. Light was stealing fully through the morning now. His young ones had gone through the night without sleep. And here were Vila and he...

      I should not sleep, Blake thought to himself, right before he fell into a comfortable darkness.

      

      

      

A laser slicing so close to the centres of higher consciousness was not an image to inspire a doctor's confidence.

      Dev Lahr had always feared burning through the conduits that tethered the soul to the body. Brain death was certainly a possibility. However, in this case, it was unlikely.

      "Monitor closely for tissue degeneration," Lahr said, sighing with heavy relief. He pointed over at the neutralization tray, which contained the object he had just extracted from Kerr Avon's brain. He thought back on his musings to Blake on the irregular nature of the device, as inferred from the imagings. It was not only a stranger thing than he had conceived - it was a stranger thing than he'd thought possible to consider. Definitely a higher neural implant, intended to codify and adjust the nervous impulses. And it was of considerable vintage - perhaps had been there for the main of Avon's life. The fruit of some mad genius. Clearly Federation progeny. But impossible to tell what purpose it had for being there.

      Lahr stepped to his patient's side as he was retrieved from the stasis modulator. Avon's face was pale: a thin metallic band tracing the path of the insinuating instruments. Five hundred years ago, brain surgery required actual intrusion through the skull. Now it was a more conservative procedure, with fewer dangers and less damage to ancillary flesh, but oddly, no greater results. The brain was largely still nebulous territory.

      "Councillor Avon?" Lahr said, checking the monitors to find his patient's vital signs holding nicely. The brainwave was already showing a gradient incline. "Councillor Avon, can you hear me?"

      No response.

      Lahr nodded to the Medtechs. "You can take him into Recovery C now."

      

      "No sign at all?" Blake said, massaging his temple, casting a glance sideways to Soolin.

      "As if she'd vanished into thin air," Soolin answered. "She hasn't used her credit code. She hasn't gone to the refectory, and she hasn't taken a meal anywhere else. Tyce checked around and asked."

      "Nothing on my search, either," Tarrant said. "For my part, I plan to go get eight hours sleep. At least."

      Blake glanced him with a vague reproach. "You aren't going to wait and see about Avon?"

      Tarrant smirked. "I'm sure you will all keep me advised."

      "Very well," Blake said, shaking his head in reply, as Tarrant made a sharp turn into the foyer main.

      When Tarrant had gone, Soolin took physical possession of the sofa she and Tarrant had shared, stretching herself across it and pulling a cushion down under her head. "Where is Vila?"

      Blake rose to check the time monitor. "Asleep in my quarters. I thought one of us should rest."

      "I'm too tired to move," the blonde woman groaned, turning toward the back of the sofa. "Wake me if the little shit dies."

      Lahr stepped from his borrowed office to the corridor, seeing Blake and meeting him with a smile. Relief sprang to the President's face. He moved from Soolin's side to meet him half-way through the hall.

      "The implant is out. The interior scans showed little apparent damage. In other words, he'll live. In what capacity, we will have to wait until he's conscious to assess. To that end, his Beta scans are promising."

      "Can I see him?"

      "He's in Recovery C."

      "Fine." Blake took two steps, then turned quickly back. "Dev, about the implant you removed from his brain."

      "Yes?"

      "Be careful that it's secured somewhere. Don't let anyone else handle it."

      His brow furrowed. "Any particular reason why?"

      Blake shrugged. "None that I can be specific about. Just do it, on my account."

      Lahr laughed. "Goes along with General Five alarms on your authority. You've gone power-mad, my friend."

      

      

Recovery C was the post-surgical vestibule used for moderate severity patients. That Avon was here, was a hopeful sign. Beyond personal affection and the bonds forged from their years of forced collaboration, Blake needed Avon now. Required his insight, the steady and always-sharp blade of his mind to carve away the accumulation of confusion and nonsense.

      Avon would be able to tell him his conspiracy theory. Far from simple willingness to listen to it, Blake was inclined to believe it now.

      So who could Blake trust and who couldn't he? Who was on the side of this dark, nebulous presence that threatened his Inner Circle and who was on his? Even Tarrant was suspect.

      And only one person could be trusted entirely. The one he knew completely, even the man's grey and misanthropic underbelly that sometimes scared Blake beyond words.

      He stepped through the small cordoned recovery sector. His friend the misanthrope was still unconscious.

      Avon was reclining at an angle, for the monitors and modulators to perform at optimum. He looked much the same, except - what? - a difference to his face, a return of the intensity. The peace that had permeated his expression for the day and a half since the accident - the incident - was gone.

      Blake reached for the hand he had clutched yesterday. It had been limp and almost lifeless then. There was a difference to it now.

      "Avon?"

      The head turned; his dark eyes opened.

      For a moment, Blake considered that it might have been a daydream, an aberration of sight creating a whim of the heart. But no, Avon's eyes were open, looking back, if blankly.

      They focused, awareness surfacing and centering the old humour in them, as if sardonically smiling back. He said something, but it was a whisper of sound, too low to be heard. So Blake lowered his ear toward Avon's mouth.

      "I told you so, Your Worship."

      "Told me what?" Blake said, smiling back with the full force of his heart, his body warm with miracles and gratitude.

      "You're quite aware what."

      Blake laughed, shaking his head. "Yes, I suppose I am." He lowered and levelled his voice. "So who did this?"

      "It could be any of the High Council," Avon said, coughing at a presence in his throat. He gestured toward the liquid solution placed for ready access.

      Blake brought it to him, holding the cup to Avon's lips. Avon sipped heavily, then nodding for Blake to place it back.

      "Thank you," Avon said, touching at his throat to try his voice. "Anyway, there may be several in league with Steavn Change."

      "Just trying to overthrow me?" Blake said, shaking his head. "All of this for something that can be done through governmental procedures?"

      Avon went without speaking several moments. "Does Tarrant still have that abortion of a space vehicle that he won in the claims race?"

      "I suppose."

      "I wonder if it is space-worthy or an approximation of same."

      "Again, I suppose. Why do you ask?"

      Avon's brows flexed. "Preparation is the precursor of good luck. How long have I been unconscious?"

      "Nearly forty-eight hours. Avon..." Blake sat back in the chair, thoughts forming with words and embattling the terror in his soul. How the hell to tell Avon something like this? But then there were many things he had never told Avon, for the greater good, he convinced himself. But these were things more to do with Blake than the man himself, and this fact - this was his own property, espionage within his own brain. Surely Avon had right of ownership to this fact.

      "Simply say it, Blake," Avon said. "Whatever it is."

      He nodded. "Avon, there is something I want to discuss with you," he said directly. If some threat was forming over them, there was no time for polite reticence. "It's concerning an object the surgeon found when he operated. That he found within your temporal lobe. An implant of some kind."

      "A neural implant," Avon said.

      "Yes."

      The eyes opened wide with an explosion of fear and horror in them, masked as quickly as revealed. "Why?"

      "He doesn't know. You don't remember any surgery? Some time when the Federation might have-"

      "No."

      Blake drew a chair to Avon's bedside. "What do you recall from your childhood? Standard Increase aside."

      "You spoke with Sen Leusip."

      "How did you know?"

      An odd look crept over Avon's face. "You told me."

      "No. You've been unconscious this entire time."

      Avon leaned forward, as if pleading. "But you did see him?"

      "Yes. An odd old man. But he was concerned about you."

      A sardonic smile lit Avon's mouth. "Guilt tends to chasten one."

      "But what do you remember?" Blake asked. "After Standard Increase."

      "That - is - just - it," Avon said softly. He settled his head fully into the pillow. "I remember nothing."

      "Nothing at all. Not of your adolescence or your Lyceum years."

      "Not up until-" An unwelcome thought surfaced a moment in Avon's reaction, he flinched and shook it away. "Age twenty-five, perhaps."

      "Interesting. That never seemed significant before now?"

      Avon shook his head. "Not distinctly. My long-term memory has always been somewhat uncooperative. Many people do not have chapter-and-verse recollections of childhood events. Can you tell me anything about your nineteenth year?"

      Blake considered, raking back through the morgue of his thoughts, seeking some distilled memory, some trace. But finding nothing, he shrugged. "Nothing really. But I'm sure I could come up with something. Yet you have no recall."

      "Well, now that isn't entirely the case. Not entirely. I have one recollection. An infinitesimal one. But one. And that exception may disprove the rule."

      "What memory?"

      "I just recalled something. A fragment. A white room. A book and a flower. I was - nineteen." The strangeness of it circled in his eyes for a long moment, then gradually subsided, as he turned the thought away with his eyes. "But that is all I remember. And even that makes little sense." He touched a fleeting hand to his head. "My brain is feeling like the Galactic shipping lanes."

      "I'll let you rest." Blake stood, considering touching Avon's arm, then thinking better of it. "I will stop by later, after I talk to Steavn Change."

      Avon's eyes were still turned away, hostage to the shadows beyond his bed. "Be careful," he said, disquiet touching his voice a moment, then going away.

      Blake was surprised, and unexpectedly touched. "I will be."

      "I'm quite serious. And Roj, discuss the space vehicle with Tarrant. We should have it ready just in case."

      And what did that mean? Blake thought. He called him Roj. Two miracles in succession. First Avon wakes from a coma, and now this? He smiled. "You called me 'Roj'."

      "That is your name," Avon said matter-of-factly, looking at him as if Blake had gone muddle-headed. Then his hand reached over and his fingers enfolded warmly over Blake's arm a moment.

      Avon's eyes followed, as if his mind was a second behind the volition of his own hand. Seeing the gesture with a shock, he flinched the hand away and coiled it back tightly to his side.

      "How is Dayna?" Avon asked suddenly, as if as stunned at his own question as the independent action of his hand.

      "Why do you ask?"

      "I'm not - certain." Confusion and logic were clearly at war in his mind. "I remember. Something about Dayna and a problem. Where is she?"

      "She's fine," Blake lied.

      "Very well," Avon said, accepting it logically if not in truth. "Now, if I may have my rest..."

      

      "Roj," a voice reached out and caught him as he stepped back into the access hall.

      It was Lahr. The doctor gave him a covert nod and a gesture to follow, so he did. They walked into an outfitted examination cubicle.

      "Get on the table there," Lahr said, pointing at the exam table.

      "I have no time," Blake snapped, affronted.

      "Yes, you have time. And if you do not submit, I will not only enforce Presidential Health Mandate Act #24-B, which gives me the authority to hospitalize any necessary legislative member and perform whatever medical procedures required, by an act of house arrest, but I will also place you in the same hospital room as Councillor Avon, which I understand is an eventuality both of you would as soon avoid."

      "Can we come to a compromise?"

      "That would be acceptable. Provided, of course, the compromise is acceptable."

      Blake braced one foot against the leg-up, hoisting himself onto the exam level. "I will submit to an examination. If and when whatever remedy revealed to be required by the exam can be effected after I put this bloody horror called my life back in order."

      "I suppose that is the best compromise I can expect."

      "Yes. I suppose it is."

      "Then stare straight ahead at the wall. I'm going to image the interior of your head."

      "My head?" Blake said, his brows darting together. "What is it you're looking for?"

      Lahr posed Blake's chin forward, lowering the signal probe lightly against his scalp. He patched the sonic response units one each on Blake's temples, and pressed the sensors for imaging depth.

      "We will know that when we find it. Now I want you to remember something. Go back to your boyhood and recreate a memory bit by bit. Colours, sounds, even scents or tastes, if possible."

      "Why?"

      "Helps the imaging process," Lahr said, distractedly, checking the monitors on the imager. "All right. Begin."

      Boyhood, Blake thought. Exbar. A minimal security prison planet: his uncle's home. Ushton had been one of the earliest proponents of sedition. An engineer, he was expurgated from the system, stripped of rank and privilege, reviled and exiled to the denuded wasteland of cold and decay.

      A colour? Stratified brown, the colour of apathy. Sounds? He rebuilt them in his mind: the funereal pibroch of the sleety wind playing the flues of houses; a sad, warbling call. And scents, the acrid, sweaty stench of burning wood in the wind. Lastly, he called up a taste: his cousin's forbidden mouth under his, the one time, in his boyhood, when he wanted to experiment.

      As though linked to the former memory, another image fired in his mind: like lightning white-blasting a black and star-forsaken sky. He felt the book cradling his dark curls. Felt the thorn of a grief-white rose nibbling the flesh of his finger, the rest of him awash in joy. And the blinding, mind-consuming whiteness formed a room.

      He was struck dumb by the memory. It came without context - he couldn't remember having remembered it ever before, and he had no idea if the memory was even his.

      What was it Avon had said? About the white room and the flower and the book?

      "Roj?"

      Blake followed Lahr's solid voice back to reality. "I'm here."

      "You can go now. I'll be back to you in an hour or two with the results."

      Blake gave a feeble nod, sliding off until the ground formed beneath him. Then he thought to ask an important question. "Dev, is it common for people to forget whole periods of their lives?"

      "There is no such thing as common memory loss." He was removing the imaging slides from the unit. "Memory is highly individual. Trauma can be a significant factor. Also emotional context into which to place the memory. Environmental factors. And technological ones, of course, such as the ones the Federation employed. The ones they used on you."

      "What is the likelihood, on a level of chance, for two people forgetting the same period of time?"

      "The other factors are too plentiful to even conjecture that. Why do you ask?"

      Blake considered: why the hell was he asking? No doubt Avon's terse remark about remembering his own youth had delayed Blake's access to those memories. It was a frequent-enough event. Like forgetting a common word and not being able to place it, or struggling to remember what task one forgot to do. Like being told not to think of a purple Sarran grogburfer. Once commanded, it was impossible not to.

      "No reason." He shook his head forcefully. Surely there was none. "I'll be in the I.C. lounge. Signal me when you have the results of my tests."

      "Fine. And by the way, you'll want to make arrangements to move Councillor Avon into his own quarters. He will be strong enough to go home in a day or two."

      

      

The din of shuffling voices quickened Blake's stride through the I.C. sector. The lounge door was ajar, spilling light and an amalgam of voices in rapid conversation.

      All faces looked toward him as he stepped into the lounge. One of the faces belonged to Dayna Mellanby, a pastiche of confusion and relief and anger seizing her usual confident expression.

      "Dayna!" Blake said, circling around to take the empty chair by her side.

      "She was found wandering Justice section," Tarrant said, crouched beside her, one of her hands clutched apologetically in his own. "She doesn't seem to remember anything."

      "Do you know where the vistapes are, Dayna?" Blake said gently, taking her other hand.

      Slowly, a frustration took over her face. "I tell you, I can't remember any vistapes." A hand flashed to her neck, rubbing after a pain. She clenched her eyes closed in anger. "I can't remember a thing after I visited with Avon. It's like... it seems... I should remember... something about vistapes. But a whole piece of - everything - the last two bloody days... it's just gone. It's been slashed out. Like I just woke up and I know I've dreamed...but I cannot for the life of me remember what I dreamed."

      "I know how you feel," Blake said. And he did. He really did.

      She lowered her head, a hand climbing through an inventory of her short, black curls. Her fingers paused, carding back as if to recapture a wayward lock. Panic shot across her face. "How is Avon?" she asked quickly.

      "As a matter of fact, quite well," Blake said. The familiar faces all turned toward him with a similar look of tentative hope, all soon swept behind insouciant fašades of varying degrees. Only Vila allowed himself a crooked grin. "Yes," Blake said, chuckling to himself at their expressions. He only wished they could see themselves just now. "Avon has regained consciousness. He's awake and alert and entirely himself. He may even be able to return home in a day or two."

      "Why didn't you tell us?" Soolin said, piping up from the corner for the first time.

      "It only happened a few minutes ago."

      Tarrant rose, patting Dayna's shoulder. "Well, at last, things have returned to normal. Avon will recover. Dayna is back. Perhaps we can put the nonsense of the last two days behind us." He turned to Blake with an officious grin. "What say, Roj? Will you officially call this inclement paranoia to a close?"

      Blake's light smile folded in. He regarded Tarrant with what might have been an expression of distaste. "Can we, Del?"

      "Of course, Roj. What remains to be seen?"

      "Perhaps nothing." He stood himself. "And perhaps everything. Stay with Dayna, see that she's all right."

      "I'm perfectly fine," Dayna snapped.

      Tarrant was focused on Blake now, a new concern forming behind the carefully circumspect eyes. "What is it? Where are you going?"

      "To the High Council chambers. I'm going to speak with Steavn Change."

      

      

      Dev Lahr was not unaccustomed to the vagaries of high command and the intricacies of governmental espionage. But when Blake suggested Lahr watch after the disabled neural implant removed from Avon's brain, the doctor had chalked that remark off to stress-related paranoia. Secondary psychosis was as endemic to those in power as silicosis once had been to coal-miners.

      To their eye, conspiracy abounded. Lahr also considered it related to whatever was going on in Blake's brain, triggering the sporadic migraines.

      He didn't take it seriously until he slid out the neutralization chamber to prepare the implant for the particulation survey.

      The neutralization chamber was empty.

      So he slipped the image sensors onto Avon's scalp, just as he had to Blake's. "I want you to watch the viewscreen, Councillor Avon," Lahr said. "We will be-"

      "Inducing audio-visual and olfactory stimuli to monitor the response level of my brain," Avon said, his voice distracted and frightfully bored. "Shall we get on with this? Please."

      "Of course." He triggered the viewscreen; the displays flickered on. It was an ever-receding space-scape with synthesized music behind it. The scent of mimosa took flight all around him.

      Lahr monitored the image sensor. The brain was responding accordingly. The neural interaction was optimum, normal. This completed the official part of the survey, so he reached over and extinguished the viewscreen's visual display.

      Lahr redressed the image receptor for a different function. What might be a more important function, in his opinion. "Now I want you to try to remember something for me. I want you to recreate this memory in every way. Taste, smell, sound, colour. Something from your youth. Your boyhood. Can you do that?"

      "My memory is not as it should be," Avon said.

      "Surely there must be something."

      "I suppose." He swung him an icy, indifferent glare. "Did Blake ask you to do this?"

      This question surprised him completely. "No. Why do you ask?"

      Avon looked away, as if harbouring a half-admitted confidence. "He was in here asking similar questions. About what I remembered from my childhood. Either everyone has developed a penchant for prying into my personal affairs, or else there is some purpose to this nonsensical line of inquisition."

      "I want to gauge your neural interactions within the context of memory. The information might be helpful for your recovery."

      "Very well. Let us get on with it."

      Lahr checked the gauge again. "Do you have a memory?"

      He selected something at random. "Yes."

      "All right. Begin."

      He chose his only clear memory of his childhood. The Magic Show at Alpha Lyceum, the Standard Increase field study. He had suspected even then this was little more than a surreptitious maze through which to rat-run S.I. children to observe their atypical reactions. But it was nice, all the same. The other S.I. children spoke about it during their interaction period. And though he'd reserved judgement until viewing the genuine article, Kerr had been helplessly infected with their guileless enthusiasm.

      On a weekend holiday home to his parents, Kerr outlined the event in the offing, trying to shield his words from the zeal that was beginning to build within him whenever mention was made of the Magic Show. He carefully explained what the event entailed, what the structural components were, the suspected thesis to be proven, and what the probable outcome would be, based deterministically on the observers and the observed.

      His father listened dully, his mother nodded dutifully. His father was a legal trader with the outer aligned worlds, always chasing after any stray, malutilized resource with which he might turn a sweeter profit. The Federation smiled upon his successes, but the inside opinion was that his father's sterling intellect could have been put to better uses. His mother, for instance, was an engineer. A brilliant woman. She'd been determined her son would make use of his superior brain. And so, she had submitted his resume to Standard Increase, which had already taken notice of the boy's primary intellect surveys with great interest.

      Father would listen to Mikl with interest. Mikl, Kerr's older brother, had as a young boy demonstrated propensities and obsessions similar to their father's. But Father ignored Kerr, as he had his own mind. So Mother listened carefully to anything her youngest son issued from his mouth. And often, the two conflicting tendencies collided.

      "Fascinating, dear," Mother said.

      "Waste of good credits," the father intertwined. "If I can have an opinion, I'd say that if I wanted my son subjected to irrational nonsense, I would let him watch vis-shows."

      Kerr refused to listen, pondering over the taste of synthevegetation - a peppery flavour. The scent was a permutation of cinnamon, one he liked.

      Avon remembered the flavour, the aroma clearly. It was one of those few, clear recollections.

      And he did recall the Magic Show, of course. The tall, imposing Numenmaestro, teasing at the limits of his doubt. Dare to believe, he seemed to beckon, with a seductive blend of magic and a knowledge of the human eye's willingness to misperceive. He remembered the small, blond boy-apprentice: how fortunate he'd seemed. To spend his boyhood as heir apparent to such a splendid kingdom.

      A small jolt of familiarity struck Avon. Familiarity out of context. But why? Why did this somehow seem familiar?

      And that recall triggered a secondary one. The weight of a head in his lap, leaning against the book braced over his knees. Staring up at him. Smiling. Familiarity assailed him again, but was founded on a different source.

      He remembered holding a white rose. Handing it over to someone: a symbol, a confession. And the room around him was white as well.

      The onslaught of memory jogged him forward in the chair. Consciousness rising in his eyes, confusion ambled across its surface. He wanted to go on with the memory. Damn how he wanted to go on, but he'd had the just-touched culmination snatched out of his fingers like a dangerous, wonderful toy.

      "Councillor Avon..." Lahr's voice intervened. "I wanted to ask you about Standard Increase."

      Avon batted his eyelids several times, looking up at Lahr. The surgeon was removing the image slides. Such procedures took several minutes, but these pictures had flooded through his head in a matter of moments.

      "You are finished?" Avon said, frowning at the slides already removed and waiting.

      "Yes. I would like to know something about this S.I. project you were involved with. Roj Blake has given me a few details, but nothing much to base an analysis on." Lahr took a chair across from Avon. "There is the possibility that this - neural implant we discovered in your brain may be related to it."

      "It is possible. However, I'm afraid I shan't be of use to you in that respect. I remember very little about Standard Increase, as I've said to Blake. I have a highly selective memory, Doctor. I choose not to recall matters that would only cause distress."

      "I understand there is another S.I. subject living in Victus, a settlement beyond the Terran domes. I would like to contact him, perhaps convince him to let me examine him. It would help us to understand the pathology involved in your condition, if we can do this. It would also confirm that the implant is S.I.-related."

      Avon looked away. "Do whatever you like."

      "Councillor, are you undergoing psychiatric therapy at this point in time?"

      He looked back, with eyes of steel and ice. "No. Are you prescribing it?"

      "It would not be a bad idea."

      Avon's mouth contorted into a mutant smile. "Well, now, that is a highly subjective interpretation. Not a bad idea for whom? You don't pretend to suppose that I attempted suicide."

      "I find it to be one hypothesis, but there are mitigating circumstances arguing against it. At least, in my mind."

      "For instance..."

      "Well, for one, Blake's high opinion of you."

      "Blake's high opinion of me?" Avon said, in dark humour. "Yes. That is a well-known defence in my life." Then the humour half-dissolved from his eyes, blending with a mild rebuke. "But suicide is a Federation offence. And all good soldiers must agree with the battle plan of their militia. Ergo, you will refer me to Hospital Psychiatric, where they might pretend me to be quite insane. Psychotic enough to explain away my suicide."

      "Councillor Avon-" Lahr said, glancing at his patient's read-out. "Kerr, it can't be easy for you, being this way. Cynics always insist they are happy in their disbelief, but I've seen what disillusionment can do to good men's souls. The way you are is not how you have to be."

      "What I am, Doctor, I am. As I have always been. As I will always be." Avon's attention drifted toward the floor, as if debating an attempt to stand. "I neither believe in your 'good men' nor their souls. I am quite sane, if not within the behavioural margins of those whose ludicrous and insatiable optimism are made disconsolate by who I am." Avon gave him a last, stiff glare. "I did not try to kill myself, Lahr. I must say that my neck is the only thing I value that does not have an exchange rate on the intra-commodities register."

      Lahr's eyes filled with anger, his face aghast. "What about your friends? You have several good ones. They practically held a vigil for you while you were unconscious."

      "Their privilege, if they wish. I did not ask them to stay there. If they are servile and delusional enough to waste their time in such a meaningless pursuit, then there is little I can do to dissuade them."

      The doctor did not have a reply - he doubted one even existed for such a reprehensible statement. Could anyone believe such a remark and live with themselves? Either Kerr Avon was perfectly suicidal, sociopathological, self-deluding, or using his words as a front. There was the missing implant as contraindicative proof, but anyone this disturbed might have stolen the implant himself to bolster his story.

      The trajectory of the blaster-fire contusions had been inconclusive. It could have been self-inflicted. Or it might have been secondary fire. If the old-style weapons were hazardous and ineffective, at least the powder burns would have demonstrated the origin source of such an attack. Blaster fire at this intensity might have come from anywhere.

      Lahr knew the rules. Attempted suicides and resuscitated suicides were remanded to Hospital Psychiatric for institutionalization until considered sane. Prize life above all, was the new government's motto - Blake's idea, in fact. Lahr would have to recommend Avon to the ward.

      No other choice. None. Even if such an action aided some shadow of his old nemesis. To do otherwise would just mean another psychiatrist would be named to his case, and they would consign him to mandated therapy.

      "You will have to enter Hospital Psychiatric for a period of not more but no less than thirty days."

      Avon did everything but trade a bitter smile. "I am somehow not surprised." He looked at Lahr and waited until the doctor met his eyes. "It is the most logical choice, given that this attempt on my life was unsuccessful. The next will transpire under more controllable circumstances. The next will not fail."

      "You intend to kill yourself," Lahr said, disgust thickening his voice.

      "I expect to be killed," he stated categorically. "There is a difference."

      As the silence between them tautened, the exam communication console signalled Lahr. Still watching Avon, he pressed the sensor, speaking his name.

      "Doctor, there is no response at President Blake's quarters," the synthetic voice of the communication system sounded. "The I.C. lounge informs that the President is with Administrative Councillor Change."

      "Are his image slides ready for survey?"

      "Affirmative. They are lumined for survey in exam 22."

      "Then keep trying to get hold of him."

      Avon was standing when Lahr glanced back, a look of concern wrenching his features away from reproach and tired indecision. "Councillor Avon, have a seat. You aren't well enough to stand."

      "I walked Foyer Main last evening," Avon said stiffly. "I have insomnia. And now, I plan to take a small journey around the sector. That being-" he smiled briskly, "if it is within the bounds of martial law."

      "That should be fine, if you feel up to it. Remember that you are encoded, though. Any movement you make is monitored, so don't leave Hospital Sector and don't attempt anything rash. Should you do that, you'll have security immediately taking you to Hospital Psychiatric."

      "I am not ignorant, Doctor," Avon snapped.

      "Fine. Just don't overtax yourself, Kerr."

      Avon moved haltingly toward the door, touching the doorframe to sustain balance and temper as Doctor Lahr said his first name. Letting it pass, Avon stepped out into the Foyer Main, beyond Lahr's borrowed office and, unknown to Lahr, beyond the scouting signal of the hospital security system. He would make his way to his room for whatever negligible clothing he could find, beyond the miserable jungle pajamas they forced him to wear to clothe his dignity. There should be something. Once dressed, he would make his way toward Blake and find out what the hell was going on. Really going on.

      Kerr Avon's encode had been invalidated within ten minutes of his waking.

      That act was self-inflicted.

      

      Lahr switched on the lumines in the imaging translator, studying the contours of Roj Blake's brain. This complexity of grey matter was as singular as a fingerprint, as different from Kerr Avon's brain as it was from any other.

      But there was one similarity with Avon's brain.

      And it was a common link that bathed everything Dev Lahr knew about these two men in an entirely different light. These were two very different men, from vastly dissimilar backgrounds, whose only shared experience was an accident in working on the Aquitar project, and the draw of fate in having been stowed on the same prison ship for exodus to Cygnus Alpha.

      Whatever had come to pass beyond that, was the handiwork of Blake's single-mindedness and Avon's thirst to survive.

      Or so Dev Lahr had thought.

      But for the second time in three days, Lahr encountered an anomaly, an Inexplicable resembling the pedantic mechanics of Federation mind control in essence, if not in complexity. For this was more than he had ever seen before.

      Well, almost more than he had seen before.

      For he had seen it before. Or a similar mechanism. This morning. When he removed a device very like it from Kerr Avon's brain.

      And this one was lodged well within the temporal lobe of President Roj Blake.

      

      

      

      

My door is always open.

      Was a day gone by when that sign on Steavn's door signified the best of times to Blake, when good days lay before them and the long, up-hill nightmare at last seemed at an end.

      Perhaps Steavn meant it. If only then.

      If Steavn Change was his enemy, there had always been less likely ones. From the day Alta Morag introduced him to her "old friend Steav Change", the man struck him as a bit too ambitious and self-serving. Change had neither fought beside Blake nor was he a political ally. He was the sort who ran a different flag up the pole, depending upon the dictates of the situation. There was just something about him which Blake's instinct argued as problematic, though Avon told him that there were far more rational reasons to dislike Steav Change than purely instinctive ones. Odd, Blake thought: Avon and he actually agreed on something.

      "He's far too careful about displaying his disagreements. He is expediently dishonest," Avon had said once, in a rare, expansive humour. "He doesn't like me, yet he refuses to show it."

      Blake wondered whether a showdown with Change was even the best idea, but he knew of nothing else to do. If the conspiracy was as far-ranging as Avon believed, then it would mean a complete rebuilding of the government, from legislative branches up.

      He thought of Zapata, Bly, and Encaste. Of their turn against their own counsellors in other, distant times. Paranoia had always been a dissident's favourite consort. Oddly enough, Avon had always been his wrap against this particular political winter chill: the voice of reason within the soul of doubt.

      But in this, Avon was agreeing with Blake's own concerns. It was an easy thing to simply tear everything apart and build it again. Decimate the ranks of his High Council, collar Tarrant, try to restore his Inner Council's always-negligible esprit de corps, particularly Dayna's. She would be more likely to believe Blake a Judas now than ever.

      The only way for Blake to prove he placed his friends before his cause was to rip the foundation of the latter apart.

      To tear apart the foundation was largely to dysfunction it. Destroy it all.

      He could have both, he was certain.

      He could assure his friends of his love and loyalty and, at the same time, salvage what was good from the Refederation and dispense with the rest.

      This would not be a simple matter. But what worth doing ever was?

      

      

      

      

Blake turned the doorknob, like the fulcrum on his heart's doubt, and slowly opened the door.

      The outside lobby was empty. On the days before Petitions, Change's office was over-flowing, as was Blake's own. During this time of the year, there was no one here to see Steav Change. The empty chairs formed a conspiracy in the centre of the room: the vistapes were stacked neatly beside the viewing consoles, waiting for the next idle lobby-waiter to take of their bounty. Office hours were clearly at a pause.

      A brittle edge of irony nicked Blake's soul. What a sad thing to think of his government in terms of organic seasons and their individual tendencies. Time had passed. Things had changed. Somewhere, his dreams had derailed.

      But this was his world. He controlled it. And he could do something about it.

      The strings were in his hands, and he could make of it what he wanted. Blake was the puppetmaster - not the old Federation, not Servalan, not Ven Glynd, but Blake. If he wanted it all reorganized to protect his people, it would be done. There would be no attempt at taking this away from him, to place the strings in untutored and inconsiderate hands.

      The door to Steavn Change's inner office swung wide. A ready smile plunged Steavn's face into official friendliness.

      "Roj!" he said, grasping Blake's hand and pumping it three or four times. "Good to see you. Come in, please."

      Blake, without response, followed him into the orphaned luxury of Change's office. It was opulence without feature or distinction: functional plush, admitting no intrinsic characters beyond a comfortable purpose. Blake chose to sit in the only uncomfortable chair, a homely one, unique for this otherwise uniform sameness. What he had to say would be best said on an uneasy edge.

      "I understand Kerr is well on the road to recovery," Change said, his voice in shining armour. As Steavn sank into the sofa, he grimaced vaguely at the chair Blake had selected. "Are you certain you wouldn't rather sit in the easy chair? That isn't a very comfortable thing you're in."

      "I won't be here long," Blake said. His face was as blank as Avon's usual expression.

      "Very well," Change said, his voice abstracting. "Was there something you wanted to discuss?"

      Blake looked at him dead-on. He did not blink nor flinch between his words. "I believe Avon," he said.

      "Come again?"

      "I believe Avon," he repeated. "I don't believe he is paranoid in his conspiracy theories. And I do not any longer think he attempted suicide."

      Steavn's face reacted with horror. "You think someone shot Kerr?"

      "Yes."

      "Do you have any idea who? My god, Roj, bring me your proof and I'll issue a warrant this moment for his arrest."

      "I have none." Blake smiled a sad, pensive smile. "And you are aware of that. It does not matter the who of Avon's attack. That individual is merely an agent of someone else, someone close in, someone able to abduct important members of my staff, able to seemingly dematerialize important evidence. Someone with more authority within my own government, it seems, than even I have."

      "Roj," Change said, making his name a subtle warning, "you are sounding as paranoid as poor Kerr."

      "That has always been the tactic of the power-hungry, Steavn." Blake smiled to himself. "To enshrine one school of madness as logic condemns all other schools as heresy. But it doesn't qualify the logic. It merely makes it doctrine. And you are sounding increasingly doctrinaire."

      "Very well. Who do you see to be this inner conspirator?"

      Blake directed his gaze to Change. "I'll give you one guess."

      Again Steavn was aghast. "Why? Because I challenge you in the Council? Avon does so at least as often as I."

      Change stood up from the chair, facing Blake. "It is obvious to me that Avon has been talking to you, using your guilt over his self-inflicted injury to convince you of his insane thesis. Can't you see that your friend is a very ill man? How can you possibly listen to him? I am convinced more now than ever that I am justified in instituting the steps that I have."

      "Steps?" Blake snapped. "What steps?"

      "It is the lawful course of action. I am recommending that Kerr be transferred to Moraine Planet for psychiatric observation for a period of two years."

      "You are what?" Blake roared.

      "Further," Change said, riding over the crash of his President's words, "I am placing a proposal before the High Council that Kerr Avon be stripped of any status - administrative, legislative, or honorary - in the Council until such time as it can be demonstrated to the High Council that he is fit for such a position." Change's officious warmth was gone, and in its place a somewhat haughty indignation. "It is my opinion that he is a dangerous and excessive influence over you. He causes you to heed his voice before the counsel of the rest of us. And now you are even believing these pathetic paranoid fantasies of his."

      "I have always been able to count on Avon's honesty. You and I have often been on opposite sides of issues, but I thought I could rely at least on your sincerity. But now..." Blake shook his head. "There will be no transferring of Avon to any psychiatric facility. And any similar proposal you present to the High Council will receive an addendum stating my most virulent opposition to it."

      "Do not fight me on this, Blake."

      Blake's eyebrows stood together, his expression rippling with a bitter understanding. "Or else, Steavn?"

      Change lowered his eyes, but kept the measure of his words even and constant. "All of us on the High Council have had to endure your possessive, partisan, fraternal attitude toward the Inner Council. In the past, it has only been a minor irritation. But now it is harming not only the whole balance and structure of your government, but the well-being of your friends as well."

      "That is none of your business," Blake said slowly, and definitely.

      "Kerr Avon is a suicidal paranoid psychotic. The man has had repeated psychic injury. Dayna Mellanby is hardly the picture of mental stability. The woman Soolin is hardly weaving into our society. And as for that poor, drunken reprobate Vila Restal-"

      "Excuse me," Blake said, his eyes firing as he stood.

      "All right. Stay. Please. I only mean to say that your proprietary, conservative attitude toward them is harming them. Only Del Tarrant has shown some promise of being a benefit to your government. This group of thieves and miscreants you shield yourself with might well have been an effective fighting force when we were at war, but the war is over, Roj. It is time for each of them to go their own way. Make their own lives."

      "What in hell are you trying to say?" Blake said.

      "Disband your Inner Council. Send poor Kerr to get the mental help he has needed since he was a child. Do this as an act of faith not only for your friends' futures, but also for the constitutional government you founded. To do otherwise might well be interpreted as a form of treason."

      "Never," Blake said. "My people may leave the Inner Council when they so choose. And since you speak of treason, Steavn, there are many forms of that. Visible and invisible." His dislike for Steavn Change was no longer hidden: it was now clearly displayed in his eyes.

      Change shook his head. "I might have known you wouldn't be reasonable."

      "Unreasonable? I will block you every step of the way. Don't do this to me, Steavn. For god's sake, not this." His blood was now chill and running backward through him. His own breath felt like ice invading his lungs. His brain scrambled roughly after a sensible thought, taunting him and dodging from him. "This will come down to a showdown, Steavn. I have many allies, old allies, on the High Council. Men who fought beside me."

      "And many who opposed the Pair-Bonding Act," Change said.

      Blake's face flexed with anger and irritation. "What has that to do with this?"

      "It could be seen as indicative," Change said carefully, averting his eyes. "That this very controversial legislation - this particular legislation - should pass in concert with this growing...insistence upon believing Kerr Avon above and beyond the advice of your High Council. It could be...a problem."

      Anger vanished from Blake's face. So did irritation, amazement, and bitter understanding. There was only blank and vacuous shock in his eyes now. And the consummation of a reluctant expectation.

      "You ruthless bastard," Blake hissed softly, like the warning of a cobra armed to strike. "You are everything Avon has always said you were. And more." Blake slapped the exit trigger and the door swept aside.

      "Wait! Listen to me, Roj!" He grasped Blake by the shoulders, seeking to swing him around to his direction, but managing only a misdirected stance. "Kerr Avon is dangerous. To us both. Many people have put in countless years to bring all this about. Don't spoil this all now because of some imagined friendship with someone who could destroy everything we've worked so hard to bring about."

      "Avon has worked as hard as any. As long as any." Blake met Change's eyes with disdain. "In ways, he has done more for this new government than either of us, than both of us combined. Don't talk to me of sacrifice. Or countless years. You came in when the dying and the fighting were all over."

      "Nevertheless-"

      "Nevertheless, you will not speak, move, or act against any member of my Inner Council for any reason. Avon stays where he is. This is my government. I am its President. My decision stands. For any other decision, you will have to make your presentation casting doubts upon my manhood before the High Council. I think you will find I have more friends than enemies there."

      "Very well," Change sighed, squeezing his brow. "Is there anything else?"

      "Yes. A moment ago you spoke of Avon's childhood. Well, I happen to know that you are acquainted with Sen Leusip. I happen to know that for fact."

      He nodded. "I know a man named Sen Leusip. What of it?"

      "Are you aware that he participated in the Standard Increase child-study in which Avon was an unwilling participant?"

      "I was aware of Standard Increase," Change answered, mechanically again, as if by rote.

      "Are you aware that Dayna Mellanby has been missing for the last day and a half? And that she rather mysteriously reappeared just hours ago? Reappeared, incidentally, with very little idea of where and what she'd been doing for the last two days."

      Again Change sighed, his other hand joining in the massage of his forehead. "What are you trying to say, Blake?"

      "Just that I want this stopped. If these attacks against my people cease, then you and I can exist in mutual mistrust for the rest of our lives."

      "Roj," Steavn said, as Blake stepped through the door.

      "Yes?"

      "Don't do this. Don't obstruct the very laws so many sacrificed so much to enact."

      "No one sacrificed more than my people." Blake gave him one last explicit glance. "Don't pervert the law to molest them. Avon has done nothing to harm you. Listen to this warning - do nothing to endanger Avon." Blake's eyes skirted over the luxury of the office. "Besides, what would you know about sacrifice?" With that, Blake left.

      In the moment between Blake's departure and Change's decision, Steavn lit one hand against a wall, to claim his balance. It was not an easy thing to act once more, to do this thing. Hadn't these poor souls suffered enough? his conscience argued. But what would their suffering be for if he did not act?

      And then he reached over to press the call button on the communication console.

      

      

"Avon, what in hell are you doing here?"

      The black, deafening thunder and the interior of Avon's head parted company, and the curtain was pulled from before his eyes. He at last saw Blake, standing over him, his face full of misery and concern.

      An arm was looped on his arm, and he was pulled steadily to his feet. The arm swept under to brace his back, and tilt the bulk weight of the body toward it.

      "Avon? Why aren't you in hospital?"

      "Heard - you - were - here," Avon muttered out in a spectral voice. "With Steavn Change."

      "Doctor Lahr couldn't have allowed you a pass this soon," Blake said, leading Avon in the general direction of I.C. sector.

      Avon strained back at the arms around him, fighting for his own balance. The dizziness departed. He was able to stand unaided.

      He regarded Blake fully. "I left of my own volition. That is my prerogative, I assume. Provided this is still a free planet."

      "Still," Blake said vaguely. "Very well, I won't argue the point. You should still be in hospital or at least in bed. You should be under the doctor's care, in fact. Only yesterday, you had major surgery."

      "I am fine," Avon answered tersely. "The statistical computers say I should make a full recovery."

      Blake laughed, in spite of himself. "Now, why doesn't that surprise me?"

      "Besides, Blake," Avon said, lowering his voice, "if we don't move soon, my health will be a moot point. As will your health."

      "Let's get back to the lounge before we discuss that," Blake said quickly.

      Avon's eyes reflected a pleased recognition of progress. "You believe we have enemies here?"

      "No need for belief, old friend. I have empirical proof."

      

      

Pita made the long climb up Dayna's bare leg with a grudging and strictly mandatory bit of exercise. She pooled imperiously on the lap of Dayna's lounging gown. The girl's fingers went obligingly to Pita's neck, rubbing distractedly, the cat raising her head to direct the probing fingers under a favoured ear, then a bit under her neck. Dayna's fingers worked without direction of her mind, which was out somewhere beyond the determinate time-frame, in the fuzzy abstractions called the past and future. Petting Pita was like a digital mind-focus, a hypnotic interlude between her fingers and her brain.

      "I don't know, Vila," she said at last, gathering the benevolent cloud of fur into her arms, and under her chin. "Blake might have gotten rid of the vistapes himself. Did anyone go with him to inspect the room?"

      "Oh, don't go starting all that again!" Vila whined. "I'm weary of being your pitch-board for all this nonsense. Then I have to go about Blake with a smile on my face, feeling like about as loyal as a Loomen-Fringe flesh-eater."

      "Perhaps he's the one who should feel like a traitor," Dayna released Pita to the floor, the cat making a furtive journey around Vila's feet.

      Vila leaned over and scratched a homage at Pita's head, running the back of a finger up and down her nose, another of the feline's favourite spots. Vila stooped to pet her back. "Take Pain-in-the-ass here," he said, using Avon's favoured epithet from whence came Pita's name, "she knows her friendlies by instinct. No second thoughts. She knows them by the company they keep."

      Dayna smiled down at her companionable ball of fluff. Pita had come to her half-frozen, evicted from her litter and certain to die. Given this group, it seemed destined she be their mascot. With two years of nurturing and loving and feeding, she preened and prowled the I.C. sector with imperious insouciance, simply accepting the frequent coos and caresses paid her as her due.

      Even Avon would gather Pita to his lap when he was going over data on some new computer addition, enjoying her undemanding and uncomplicated love. He would do this, of course, only when he was certain no one was watching. Which, of course, they all knew, and so, taking advantage of Avon's ignorance, they watched him through a crack in the door, chuckling in conspiracy.

      Blake was the main instigator in these Avon-Pita encounter spying missions. It warmed Dayna to see that Blake saw through Avon - saw the real one Dayna once thought only she and Vila believed existed. At times like that, she believed in Blake, too.

      But belief was a dangerous asset - she had learned that lesson well. It had to be tempered with equal parts of scrutiny and scepticism, at least where men in power were concerned. Avon did not want power; for that and other things, Dayna trusted him completely. Blake was usually another matter, but still...

      "Perhaps you're right," Dayna said at last.

      Vila's eyes flashed in surprise. "Glad to hear you finally think so."

      Dayna tossed him a merry scowl. "Don't let it go to your head, Vila. I only mean that - perhaps - I've been unfair. I will consider that possibility."

      "Don't be so sentimental, Dayna," Vila sniped with a quirk of his mouth. "You'll bring a tear to my eye."

      There was a gentle rap at Dayna's door.

      "Who is it, please?" she said, genuinely wondering. Soolin and Tarrant would have barged right in, and Avon always called her on the console to request her to come to him. Blake rarely paid visits to her quarters.

      "It's Roj," the voice returned, in an almost hesitant suggestion.

      Dayna stood up. "Come in," she said, reaching down to trip the door trigger.

      The door withdrew and Blake walked in, looking from Vila to Dayna. "Avon is in the I.C. lounge," he said simply.

      "Avon was released?" Dayna said, surprise raising her voice a full octave.

      "He released himself."

      The black woman smiled proudly. "Of course he did. That's our Avon."

      "Your Avon," Vila said. "I'll not take any blame for owning him."

      Blake split his smile between them. "He isn't mended yet, by any means. But he steadfastly refuses to return to hospital. I can't force him, I don't have the authority to drug him, and I won't carry him. So we'll just have to keep an eye on him. Vila, would you go up and see to him now? He's bound to try to do more than he ought to, if we don't."

      "Sure. Give me the first shift. What are you going to do?"

      "Actually, Avon wants a group meeting," Blake said. "I've sent for Soolin and I can't find Tarrant. Any ideas where he is?"

      Dayna and Vila traded a loaded glance. "Probably in Steavn Change's lap," Dayna said, sighing.

      "Then we'll just have to tug him off," Blake said. "To that end, Vila, if you will make sure Avon doesn't kill himself, I want to have a chat with Dayna." He looked to Dayna. "That is, if she'll chat with me."

      "She will," Vila said, scooping up Pita and heading for the door. "Me and Pita will be keeping our Avon at bay."

      When they were by themselves, Blake looked awkwardly about the young woman's sitting room. There was a small figure of the ancient goddess Diana with her traditional bow and arrow. She sat atop an obelisk on Dayna's spare, practically-arranged desk. He recognized the figure as a present he had given her two birthdays previously. It was an earlier, awkward attempt to heal the breach between them, when he knew her not so well, and did not have the right words to give her.

      That year, Avon had bestowed upon her a valuable prototype of a tri-function laser-stan, with a subtle firing system, and Dayna's smile had blotted out the sun. Her reaction to Blake's present to her had been polite, reservedly friendly, the reaction of a courteous person to an unimportant gift. Yet she kept it. She even displayed the figure with prominence in her home.

      "What is it, Blake?"

      He laughed, setting Diana the Huntress back upon her pedestal obelisk. "I want to make certain that you understand something."

      "What is that?"

      "That I am one of us. Completely. Just as you are. That you can rely on that fact and know I will do everything in my power to preserve it. To make certain I am always one of us."

      "One of us?" she said, with a smirking laugh. "The President's Personal Puppy Dogs, you mean?"

      "Not long ago, Steavn Change defied me with the suggestion that my hold over all of you is not a healthy one." Blake turned to a chair, considering it. "But I like to think that I sense something that Change could never understand - because he isn't part of it. Perhaps it's an aberration of my mind, but I think not."

      Blake drew the chair across to Dayna, turning it toward her then sitting down. He regarded her a long moment before going on. "I believe we are a unit," he said finally. "Somehow the order of an intelligent universe, we are not as yet capable of understanding, drew us together," he said, folding his fingers into his palm as a rose closes for the night, "to form not only the people we are, but the crew that we are."

      "Whatever you say, Blake," she said, lifting her chin to tilt her head against the wall. She found herself folding her arms against her chest. Then she straightened her head to look at him directly, the knotted arms confirming the effect. "Do you believe Avon? And are you ready to take steps to protect him? Whoever tried to kill him will not stop until he is dead. I, for one, do not intend to sit back and watch that happen. If it means fighting my way through all those pretty plutocrats you call your High Council, then it does."

      "I, for another, Dayna. Yes, I believe Avon. And when I walked into Change's office, I had hopes of persuading him to compromise. I'm not even certain what their agenda is in eliminating Avon, but it basically comes down to, from what I can ascertain, the elimination of the entire Inner Council. There has always been a rivalry and a mistrust about you, but they have gone past petty political in-fighting to trying to wrest the Refederation from Avon's influence."

      "They've always hated him. Hated us. Because we're a thief, an assassin, an embezzler, and a black rebel's daughter. Tarrant's the only one they tolerate, because he's too much like them. Well, I tell you, I'd rather keep our company than theirs, in all their Alpha indignation." Resolution lit her eyes and she nodded in confirmation. "They have even more cause to hate Avon," she said proudly. "He makes you listen. He won't back down and he sees through them." She dipped her head back again. "I hate this place. As much as I loathed Sarran - may my father forgive me - I hate this more. It's vile and stagnant and purposeless and hypocritical. I want to be fighting for something again. Anything."

      "Fighting for its own sake, Dayna? What's the point in that?"

      "I don't know! But surely, it's better for all of us than this. Better than living like housepets, like Pita, ready at your beck and call. I've had it, Blake. I want out. If Avon has to leave, I'm going with him."

      "That is one of the things I'm going to tell all of you, when we get to the lounge. That you may go, without my resistance and with my blessing, and my funding, if you wish."

      She lifted an eyebrow. "And what is the other thing?" she asked.

      He gestured for the door. "Why don't we keep that for the rest to hear in the lounge?"

      

      

Avon did not interrupt, nor pepper Blake's remarks with perfunctory cynical remarks of his own. He merely listened, staring into his hands as if into his own mind for ramifications and reactions, just as Soolin did, just as Dayna and Vila volleyed reserved expressions back and forth between them.

      Tarrant had not been found.

      The meeting proceeded without him.

      Blake outlined to them all what he had said to Dayna, stressing, with a barely pervious thickness in his throat, that they were all inordinately free to either leave or remain. There was obviously a challenge setting up for him in the House of Council, he explained, pursuant to what had happened to Avon, and Blake's own encounter with Steavn Change. There would be much wrecking and revising to be done. They might do well to avoid the fall-out that would inevitably be directed toward them all, he suggested.

      "Who can we trust and who can't we?" Vila asked, scratching at an eyebrow.

      "Probably the people in this room and that is all," Blake said.

      "Including Tarrant," Vila said, as if stating a forgotten fact.

      "Possibly," Avon answered in a distant voice.

      "Well, I still trust him," Vila said. "So long as I have as much dirt on him as I do."

      "You would trust the man with the knife that slits your throat," Avon bantered back. He leaned forward, a flash of pain surfacing on his face. It immediately vanished - or was effectively banished. "There is still the issue of how deep this all is. We should make an economical observation of exactly how much festering has gone on. For instance, there is the matter of what and who was served by knowing the personal details about me that they uncovered. It is possible they made a purposive study of my past to find out how they could present my death as suicide and have it accepted as such. They may have discovered information on the rest of you that they could use."

      "Purposive study?" Blake considered. "I think not. No, in fact, I think Change and Leusip have known each other for some time. Sen Leusip did not seem at all alarmed that I knew of their acquaintance - Change did not seem truly ruffled either. As if their acquaintance is not directly incumbent upon this plan-"

      "Leusip, you say?" Vila said. "Not Sen Leusip?"

      Blake turned to the unexpected voice. "Yes." A subtle apprehension, an intimation furrowed his brow. "You don't know him, do you?"

      "Yes," he said. "From when I was a kid. Before I was packed off to the Reform. Leusip was a friend of my boss, the old sot my parents sold me to."

      "The man your parents sold you to?" Blake said, horrified.

      "Oh, go on, he gave 'em a good price. He was a magic man, the sort with high tech gadgets, lasers and holo-whatzits. They called him the Numenmaestro and I was his assistant."

      

      

      

"Del, you must try to see it our way," Steavn Change said, making a sweeping gesture over the top of his desk. "The three of us - and the rest of us on the High Council - all know that Blake is under stress now. But he must be made to come to his senses. And Kerr Avon is an impediment to that goal."

      Alta Morag sat forward from her chair. "You see, we hold no brief with Councillor Avon. It really isn't his fault. He is a troubled man. He needs psychiatric help from a trained staff, full-time, on a regular basis. If we send him to Hospital Psychiatric on Moraine, he will be helped there. As a trained psychologist myself-"

      "As a puppeteer," Tarrant cut in briskly, smiling without humour or goodwill.

      "An ugly word from the past, Councillor Tarrant," Morag said stiffly. "I am not such a monster as you would believe. We all did what we had to do to survive under extraordinary circumstances. Happily, we now have a far more equitable system. And we must act to safeguard it." She reached across and tapped his hand. "As an agent for fomenting rebellion, Kerr Avon was invaluable. However, that fine, destructive mind which was so helpful in eviscerating the old system may now be turned against us. Us, Del."

      "If there is no problem in the system to attack, why be concerned?" Tarrant asked.

      "That's just it," Change said. "Paranoids find monsters where none exist. They invent them out of the meanderings of their sick minds."

      Alta nodded. "Avon is an unfortunate fellow. He had a difficult life that left him with many scars. Adding to that the post-traumatic stress syndrome developed during your years in rebellion, and...well, you've seen for yourself Avon's attitude toward authority at any level. He resists control - he seeks to destroy the very rudimentary elements of design and function necessary for a safe, hospitable society."

      Tarrant bared all his teeth in a smile. "Perhaps Avon is not the only paranoid among us."

      Morag's face recoiled, then settled into chilly indignation. "All right, perhaps Avon is not so destructive as he would seem. You will forgive, I hope, my apprehension where he is concerned." She learned forward as if bestowing a confidence. "This attitude that Avon has is not what he himself wants. He would like to be whole. He would like to feel trust and confidence and hope again. In this, I am reminded of the childlike need he has for Blake's approval, yet he continually pushes it away."

      "He needs help," Change said. "Be a friend to Avon. And a friend to Roj. Intervene in this for us. We can never have the influence over Blake that those in your circle have."

      Tarrant stared into his hands for a moment, considering. He slowly lifted his gaze to lock on Steavn Change, leavening the sinister impact with another grin. "You must first answer a question, before I tell you my response."

      "Of course," Morag said.

      "Did Avon attempt suicide?" Tarrant turned his attention to Alta. "Or did you try to - what is that clever Atomic Age colloquialism? - rub him out?"

      Morag sank back in her chair. "It is better you know none of that."

      Tarrant leaned back in concert. "Then you will not have my assistance."

      The two High Council members looked at each other for a few moments, communicating without words. Finally, Morag nodded. Change turned back to Tarrant.

      With a sigh, the older man rose out of his chair to slowly cross to the window. "We among the High Council have had many conversations regarding the Avon problem."

      "The Avon Problem," Tarrant repeated. "You make him sound like a particularly pernicious genus of fungi."

      "Pernicious is the word, so far as the High Council is concerned. We are not ignorant labour-grades, Del. We know the fallacious conspiracy theories he's been carrying to all of you." Change shook his head. "If you had been here when Blake confronted me with them, only hours ago, you would know precisely how serious this matter has become. Blake is actually listening to these theories."

      "You are not answering my question," Tarrant pointed out.

      "Some of the High Council members have lost perspective. They remember how it was before. They are aware that there are Federation officials in exile who would be only too happy to take advantage of political dissension within President Blake's Council to stage a coup. Ago Taro, for one. Our intelligence informs us he has the might and the backing to do it. He's just waiting for the right opportunity. Hell, Vendarian has been meeting with a neutral adviser concerning this mess for fifteen time units now." Change rubbed a finger down his chin. "Anyway, the High Council is comprised of human beings. One of those very human beings unwisely decided to take matters into their own hands. He hired a reform-crimmo to try to kill Avon."

      All the blood emptied from Tarrant's face, but he masked it with a cold grin. "A reform-crimmo? To try to kill Avon? Do I know this assassin with good intentions?"

      "We are handling it. From within. We will make a complete investigation and we will see that justice is done."

      Tarrant looked from one officious face to the other. "If Avon did not attempt suicide, then how will you exile and commit him under the Life Primacy Act?" He held up a hand, staying their reply. "No, never mind, that was a very naive question. The paperwork is the same. You merely lie about the reason for exile. Officially, paranoid psychosis. Unofficially, political expedience. A time-honoured tradition. I believe they call it Gulag Diplomacy."

      "That isn't fair," Change snapped in response.

      "No, it isn't fair, but something tells me we aren't referring to the same 'it'. All right. You banish Avon. Then what?"

      "We gradually rebuild Blake's trust," Change said. "We do that by reminding him of his reasons for his work. And you can help us, by building on that rapport which you already enjoy with him. He knows you, Del. He likes you."

      "Please, Steavn," Tarrant said. "Spare me the fawning compliments. You want me to prostitute my friendship with Blake in order to become the official unofficial High Council toady." He folded his arms. "So. What is in this for me?"

      "Eventually, at a propitious and appropriate time, a seat on the High Council, with all the salary and benefits that entails. You will also have the special attention of Councillor Morag and myself, should you ever have a situation you would like us to address."

      "Your special attention?" Tarrant said, smiling yet again. "In other words, should I, for instance, rape the High Council Arbiter's daughter, it will be overlooked?"

      "You will have our special attention," Change said, nodding.

      "Well, you certainly are not being parsimonious," Tarrant said. "All right. You have your toady, but there are two conditions."

      "Name them."

      "One, you do not apprehend, molest, or otherwise disturb any member of the Inner Council for any reason, and that includes Dayna. I will try to calm her down about all this, as I will Blake, but regardless of her past or future actions, she will be left alone. There will be no more fortuitous disappearances or memory lapses either. Is that understood?"

      Change nodded. "Understood."

      "Second, Avon will be transferred to an authentic psychiatric facility. Trust that I have ways of determining that. Neither will there be a convenient shuttle mishap or air car crash on the way. If there is one, I will act on the assumption you two are responsible, without any doubt."

      Horror surfaced in Morag's eyes. "How could you even think us capable of such a thing?"

      Tarrant's laugh was hard and brittle. "You cover-up for the attempted killing of the President's best friend, you falsify medical evidence to send that friend off to some godforsaken wasteland of a planet, you mindwipe an innocent young girl to cover your tracks, and then you come to me to play Judas Officious in exchange for a supposedly duly-elected political post. And you ask me in that innocent voice how I could think you capable of murder?" Tarrant leaned across and forced a vicious kiss against Morag's cheek, then stood. "Come now, Alta, what you are is bad enough. Don't be a hypocrite, too."

      "Those are your only conditions?" Change asked, standing with him.

      "Yes. But if either one of them are broken, I will go to Roj Blake and I will sing loud and long, to him and to anyone else who will listen. Co-operate with me, and I will see that you have your precious order restored within our sector."

      "Excellent!" Change said, extending his hand. "I'm very glad we could have this talk, Del. You aren't a dissident. You are like I am, like Alta. Roj, bless him, has always been a rabble-rouser, but he isn't a misanthrope, like Avon is. Together, people like us can make him see what needs to be done."

      "People like us?" Tarrant said, with another smile of glittering faux pearl.

      Change nodded. "Yes. People who know that the answer is not anarchy, but benevolent rule. The basic design of the Federation is correct. It simply had individuals with self-motivated intentions in control. The Tarrant family has always worked within the system, as did mine. I think especially of your second cousin Dev Tarrant. Now there was a fine public servant."

      Tarrant crooked his head back in a loud, bashing laugh. "My Cousin Dev, Councillor Change, was a well-known double-agent, quite often used against the Freedom Party and other minority parties against the Federation. And before you ally my people, as you call them, too strongly with the Federation, I should tell you that my brother Deeta died playing one of Servalan's little games. Deeta was an honourable man who assumed other people were the same. It killed him. I, on the other hand, have spent several years on my own, combined with several more years in the company of your misanthrope, Kerr Avon." He pressed the door trigger. "Benefit of the doubt, old man, will not kill me."

      In his absence, Alta Morag sank back into the chair, slowly shaking her head. "Steavn, can we trust him?"

      Change let out a long sigh, then looked down at her. "It seems we damn well have to, don't we?"

      

      

Blake kept pacing in cadence with the linking sounds arising from the computer. Avon was seeking a back door into the Refederation Indices, with Orac's assistance, and was discovering more than a few detours and relays.

      "Pilfering from my own government's files," Blake said, disgustedly. "I should be able to walk in there and request any information I want."

      "Don't be petulant and do keep quiet," Avon said. A loud hum emitted from the monitor. "There. We finally have something. Orac, intercept this tonal pattern and identify."

      "It should be obvious that that tonal pattern is a sonic relay."

      "A clever roadblock," Avon answered Blake's unasked question. "Clever, but not clever enough. If there is no drawbridge here, why fill the moat with crocodiles?"

      "Excuse me?" Blake said, with an amused glance.

      "A rhetorical remark. Orac, decode source of sonic relay."

      "File Sentinel W, Justice Department Authority."

      Avon's brow furrowed. "Trace sonic relay to the end of the signal. Then retrace path, institute tonal override to gather obfuscated data. Context with special interest for mention of Project Standard Increase; Leusip, Sen, Academician; Avon, Kerr; Change, Steavn; Morag, Alta; Blake, Roj; and Restal, Vila, as well as any other member of the twin Councils. Then transmit when ready."

      "If you insist!" Orac said.

      Blake paced across the room to Vila, who was spilled over a chair and watching the proceedings.

      "Vila, go across and check on Dayna. I think we ought start keeping tabs on each other."

      "Me?" he whined, his face wrinkling. "Vila, go check on Avon, Vila, go talk to Blake. Why doesn't anybody ever check about me? Why doesn't anyone ever wonder how I'm getting on?"

      "Because," Avon said, still watching the monitor, "you are always hovering about ready to broadcast that information to anyone mentally deficient enough to listen."

      Blake and Vila swapped crooked smiles, at the returned sound of a much-missed voice in the process of bitching.

      "Be a good man, and go across. Avon and I have all we can attend to here."

      "Sure, sure," Vila sniped in Avon's direction. "I'll go. I always go, I'm the I.C. spear-carrier, after all. I still say no one gives a hang about me. Were I to spontaneously combust, no one would piss on me to put the fire out."

      Avon grinned in his direction. "Why not let's strike a match and see?"

      Vila gave him a sour glance and punched his way out. Blake chuckled after him, shaking his head at the closing door. Then he moved a chair closer to Avon and lowered into it.

      "Where were we now?" Blake said, reaching for his container of Somalite.

      "Where 'we' are can be answered in the same vein as the question of what 'Avon and I' are doing," Avon said, shifting him a cold glance. "'We' are nowhere, doing nothing. I am attempting to recover well-camouflaged data from your government's files. I might add, with no more assistance from you than from the Artful Malingerer out there."

      Blake gave him a tolerant grimace. "I was only trying to help."

      "Then don't!"

      "Are you two quite finished with your verbal persiflage?" Orac interrupted. "I am ready to relay the requested information."

      "Yes," Avon groaned. "Have you overridden the sonic relay?"

      "Kindly read the visual monitor!"

      JUSTICE DEPARTMENT FILE W,

flashed over the screen. Followed by:

      PROJECT STANDARD INCREASE,

      FEDERATION AUTHORITY, CLASSIFIED:

      EXTREME CONFIDENCE.

      "Who has access to such a classification?" Avon asked Blake.

      "That would be me."

      "Orac, apply the following access codes to all classification limitations encountered." He looked at Blake, who said nothing. "Well?"

      Blake blinked, pointing at himself. "Oh. You want my help?"

      Avon looked at the ceiling with a groan. "Spare me, Blake. Do you have the access code or don't you?"

      Blake gave a coy smile to Avon, leaning toward Orac to whisper conspiratorily, "Institute Primal Tonal Authority Alpha 3, Zero, Zed, Alpha 23, Presidential Override."

      Avon's eyes flamed. "Why didn't you tell me before?"

      "Well, all you had to do was ask," he said, with a challenging grin.

      Interrupting them, the monitor read out:

PROJECT: STANDARD INCREASE.

      DATA SELECTIONS:

      A) STAFF AND STATUS,

      B) OBJECTIVE, PROCEDURES,

      STATISTICAL EVALUATION OF

      PREPARATORY DATA AND

      EXPERIMENTATION,

      C) SUBJECTS AND STATUS,

      D) PROJECT OUTCOME.

      "Let us learn a bit about Sen Leusip," Blake said.

      Avon nodded. "Orac, access file A. Forward scan for data on Leusip, Sen, Academician."

      "Very well!"

      Arising in the lines of the monitor, a face formed that Avon had not seen in more than ten years. He brooked the gasp that forced at his trachea, but had to look away, pretending to look at Orac.

      "Biographical data, Orac!"

      "Have patience! I must work within primitive circuitry. Transmitting!"

      BIOGRAPHY AND BACKGROUND

      NAME: LEUSIP, SEN

      DOB: UNKNOWN

      FEDERATION POST:

      BIOSYSTEMS ANALYST,

      CYCLICAL POST AS

      ACADEMICIAN ATTACHED TO

      ALPHA HIGH LYCEUM.

      RACIAL CASTE: CLASSED-ALPHA,

      NON-TERRAN HOMINID.

      "He is not from Earth," Avon observed.

      "Yes, he mentioned that to me during our little discussion," Blake said.

      Avon pressed to forward. "I never knew."

      PLANET OF ORIGIN: LIFEWORLD OF THE

      SPACEWORLD PLANETARY TRIPLEX, THE

      SYSTEM.

LOCATION: SECTOR TWELVE (SPIRAL ARM B)

DIPLOMATIC STANDING: NON-ALIGNED,

      CONSIDERED HOSTILE.

SUBJECT REQUESTED ASYLUM BASED ON

      NON-CLEARED ARRIVAL: GRANTED.

      SUBJECT REQUESTED PERMANENT

      CITIZEN STATUS: GRANTED.

      "Spaceworld!" Blake said, turning his amazement to Avon.

      Visions of the System and the civilization it ordained were in both men's minds, separately, but identically. The only difference being Blake's exclusive memory of the cowed little man who saved him from force level seven extermination. He remembered the man's few, but tragic words and the story they told of his people's fight for dignity and any life beyond slavery and early extinction.

      If nothing else, it explained Leusip's views on free planets and the relativity of tyranny.

      "Well, now," Avon drawled. "That is a most uncomfortable coincidence."

      "We seem to be hip-deep in them."

      Avon swung him a stifling glance. "If you must describe it that way."

      "Then again, it could be just that. Coincidence."

      "Yes," he said. "Like Steavn Change. And Vila, the Numenmaestro's Assistant."

      "Simply because something appears to be connected, does not mean that it is. You're the one who was always lecturing me on making false pattern inferences. My engineer mentality, you used to call it." Blake studied the screen, nibbling at a knuckle. "It could mean something, or it could be a small world."

      "Not small enough to account for this," Avon said. "Orac, scan for the name Change, Steavn in connection with Standard Increase."

      "Please have patience! That data is forthcoming!"

      ADJUNCT STAFF

      NAME: CHANGE, STEAVN.

      FEDERATION POST IN RELATION TO THIS PROJECT: ADVISER TO RELATED PROJECT: ANALOG. DEVELOPMENT OF MATER 9 COMPUTER OPERATIONS.

      "What is Project Analog?" Avon asked.

      "I have no idea."

      "I thought you had been briefed on all Federation Projects."

      "So did I," Blake said. "But then I'd never heard of Standard Increase either."

      "Additional material on Standard Increase now on monitor," Orac announced.

      The image of a boy's face materialized like a phantom on the screen. Blake's eyes fled to it immediately, in an amazement which he did not disclose. The child was beautiful, with grief-dark eyes and a smile struggling valiantly at his lips. The age note gave him as fourteen, but the cunning and misery shining in those eyes supposed him double that. Still, from his features, he might have been a child of ten.

      "You?" Blake asked, not daring to look over at him.

      "Biographical data, Orac," Avon said.

      BIOGRAPHY AND BACKGROUND

      NAME: AVON, KERR AGE: 14, 2 MONTHS

      PROJECT POST: SELECTED SUBJECT

      FURTHER NOTE: SUBJECT WAS ALLIED TO MATER 9 COMPUTER COMPANION PROGRAM, 1 FEDERATION QUADRANT INTO PROJECT, BY PERMISSION OF (BOTH) PARENT(S).

      SUBJECT INTELLIGENCE QUOTIENT: 180 (STANFORD-BINET-PROCTOR REFORM SCALE). APOLLONIAN GRADE ALPHA.

      RACIAL CASTE: DESCENT ALPHA, TERRAN HOMINID.

      FATHER: PAYTER CARN (DECEASED: CAUSE UNKNOWN).

      MOTHER: ZOA AVON (DECEASED: REDUX SYNDROME - NON-EUGENIC).

      SIBLINGS: 1 BROTHER - MIKL. STATUS NOT GIVEN OR UNKNOWN.

      "May I ask a very intrusive question?" Blake said.

      "You usually do."

      He lowered his voice to a soft octave. "Why are your parents' surnames not the same?"

      "The Avon surname is always passed matrilineally."

      "And they were both dead at such a young age? Both your parents?"

      "Yes. My mother when I was thirteen. My father a year later in a shuttle accident."

      "I'm sorry," Blake said, sitting back. "This is really very personal. You don't have to-"

      "No," Avon said, his voice definite. "There is no reason you should not know. The cause of death is not listed on my biography because my father was a free trader with the open planets, free-marketing resources. He died on a business expedition. Though not explicitly illegal, it was nevertheless frowned upon."

      "I'm sorry," Blake said, daring to place a supportive hand on Avon's shoulder.

      "So am I." Avon looked away. "It was far too quick and painless a death for him. He should have gone in protracted agony, as my mother did."

      Blake removed the placed hand, sensing he had just ventured onto the thin ice of Avon's past. He knew it was not a safe place to stand in only one area. "What about your brother?" he asked softly.

      "Dead now also."

      "Shall I say I'm sorry about his death?"

      Avon finally looked at him. "Say what you wish." He waited a moment, clearing a further remark through inward channels. "I've never told you about him. In point of fact, I have never told anyone about him. He died in a Freedom Party purge, in Quantraine sector. His name was Mikl Avon, but he used my father's last name, for rather sadistic and thoroughly admirable reasons. He was called Mikl Carn."

      Surprise sprung on Blake's face like a splash of ice water. "Mikl Carn was your brother?"

      "Yes."

      The shock faded into Blake's mind, absorbed as truth. "Mikl Carn was the greatest rebel leader of the Freedom Party's beginnings. A great man. I seem to remember having met him once."

      "Twice," Avon said. "He was ten years older than I, so he was part of the rebel contingent while your star was rising, I suppose. I assure you, the worship was mutual."

      "But you've never told me..." Blake said.

      Avon seemed reluctant in reply. "My feelings about Mikl are rather subjective. I wouldn't want to mar your graven image."

      "No, please," Blake said. It was giving him the pieces of Avon he needed to understand. No matter the cost, that source couldn't abate now. "Tell me about him. About the two of you. I need to know."

      Avon tried to smile. "There was a time when Mikl, being ten years older, could have withdrawn me from Standard Increase, following my mother's death. When Mikl came for a visit one morning just after, I remember gathering all the courage I could - and it took great courage to speak with Mikl or ask him anything, at least for me - and I asked him to remove me from Standard Increase. To take me away from the Mater 9, which was my only companion and let me reside with humans again."

      A sad sweetness passed over Avon's face. "I suppose he wanted to, at some level. At least, he claimed to."

      "But he didn't?" Blake said.

      He gave a broken laugh. "There was a universe to save, you see. The great and noble battle for freedom. So what it reduced to essentially was that freedom for all men was of greater value to him than the release of one boy from purgatory. My life was of little value, in the great scheme of things. Anyway, he apologized. I remember that he kissed my forehead and walked away." He looked away again. "I shall never forget the sound of his footsteps walking away."

      "Your brother was wrong, Avon," Blake said. "He should have taken you away from there."

      "No. There is no such thing as 'right' and 'wrong', except to idealistic fools." His voice weighed down with disgust. "I don't know why I am telling you any of this. The only thing to be done is that which is best for yourself. And everyone else has the same chance."

      Blake could not bear another moment like this. He squeezed at his eyes, burning with the drive to cry, fighting against his nature. He wanted to murder them all himself, those who had hurt his friend.

      But they were dead, the lot of them. Everyone Avon loved, everyone who gave him pain; both the same people. As in his quandary over Dayna, Blake wanted to reach out to Avon. He could not merely turn this away, though. This was too important. There would be no prospect for the easing of this pain, as there had been for Dayna. Blake couldn't just let him sit there, aching in the memory, not even permitted the admission of his own pain. Just as Mikl, this long-dead brother, once turned and walked away from him.

      "Avon, turn your chair around, face me."

      "Why?" he snapped.

      "Just, please, once, do as I ask," Blake asked, sighing.

      After a moment of consideration, Avon swivelled the chair around to face Blake. "As you bid, Your Worship," he said dryly, his eyes brimming with questions.

      "If Vila, Tarrant, or one of our girls had told me what you just confided in me, I would want to comfort them."

      "Comfort them?" Avon said, hiking a sceptical brow.

      "I would...embrace them." He took a deep, vast breath. "I would like to embrace you now."

      Avon's eyes flared. "You aren't serious," he seethed.

      "Shut up," Blake said. "It is a warm and human expression of comfort and affection."

      "My very point."

      "You will make this infinitely easier if you just cooperate." Blake studied their positions. "Ideally, we should both be standing, I suppose."

      "Implying I don't have a say in what you do to my body?" Avon snarled.

      Blake gave him a humorous shake of his head. "I do not plan to rape you, Avon. I just intend to hug you." He rose from the chair, gesturing upwards with his palm. "Stand please."

      "Like every well-trained member of the President's personal puppy dogs," Avon muttered, rising to his feet. "May we get this over with quickly?"

      With that, Blake scooped Avon into his arms. At first, it was like embracing a warside fortress, with all the doors and windows shuttered fast, no relenting, no returning warmth. Avon's arms stayed nailed to his sides, but moment to moment, he leaned his head against Blake's shoulder.

      One arm drew up and moved around Blake's back. It felt like a miracle.

      To himself, the President smiled, leaning his chin against Avon's hair. It was good to be close to him like this, as he'd often wanted. And a small hope budded within him that this was the beginning of greater openness between them.

      That moment, the door flew open. "Dayna is feeling dandy, now can I-" Vila's next words tumbled onto the floor and bounced away, his eyes dilating as wide as the room, his mouth gaping open. "Excuse me," he stammered, grinning.

      The two men came to attention, Avon tearing himself out of Blake's embrace. "Get that insipid expression off your face, you moronic sloth! This wasn't what it looked like - that is to say - " Avon stammered, his face flushed bright pink and tilting into red.

      Vila shrugged, further playing on Avon's mortification with a tolerant smile. "Hey, Avon, none of my business. What people like you do in the privacy of your own rooms is your business, your affair, so to speak." With that, he careered back through the doorway, chuckling as he travelled.

      "Vila, you mongrel parasite!" Avon yelled after him. "You useless appendage, come back here!"

      But Vila had already turned the corridor bend. All that remained was his voice calling back, "Three's a crowd, Avon!"

      Blake was laughing so hard, he was forced to brace himself against the computer chair to capture a breath.

      Avon turned to him, his gaze filled with hydrochloric acid. "What are you laughing about? Don't you know what he thinks?"

      "He thinks no such thing. He just enjoys thinking that you do," Blake said, chuckling lightly while rubbing at the stitch in his side and taking a deep breath. "I will tell you what I think, though."

      "The free galaxy awaits this revelation," Avon snapped, the discomfort abating.

      Blake grinned. "I think you're beautiful when you're angry." With that, he dissolved once more into hysterical laughter.

      Blake might have lost an important portion of his anatomy at this point, had Orac not made a discourteous noise.

      "If I may interrupt this raucous and completely unnecessary incident of human conversation, I am awaiting further instruction on the additional data."

      "Any other contextual references to report?" Avon demanded.

      "No."

      "Then store data and transmit hard copy." Possessed by reality again, he turned to Blake. "I am going across to discuss the status of our arms stores, in case."

      Blake's face discernibly darkened. "It's getting to that point, in your opinion?"

      "It cannot be ruled out."

      "I spoke with Tarrant about his old L-type cruiser. He says it's still serviceable."

      "Yes, well, we might do well to consider broadening our options. I dispatched a Stellar Intell post to Del Grant on Morphenniel. He has his Mark II Star cruiser. If we paid him enough, he would mount a rescue."

      "You hold we can't completely trust Tarrant at this point?"

      "Yes, and so do you, so please don't feign innocence."

      "What are your reasons?" Blake asked. "You've known him longer than I."

      "Tarrant is a pilot, a lone wolf. He's used to commanding his ship, and that includes his own life. He will preserve himself before anyone. He is far too intelligent to do otherwise."

      "You think he'll side against us?"

      "He is probably torn," Avon said. "Were this any other government, I would be. No doubt they've offered him everything for my head and your trust."

      The suggestion had been made. Blake could not resist the challenge to follow after it. "Why are you not torn with this particular government?"

      Avon turned toward the door. "Within a system, it is all very impersonal. It is a normal thing to seek out a back door and take advantage of its weaknesses, for personal gain. With the old Federation, it was a nameless system. This one, happens... to... have... a... face. An offence against it would be personal."

      "Thank you," Blake said. "Apparently Tarrant does not feel that way. Or perhaps we are mistaken. Perhaps he is more trustworthy than we believe."

      In the long, awkward moment, Avon reached to the computer for a forgotten laser probe to replace it in its case. "Perhaps. But, at this point, the only person I reliably trust is-" He pressed the door trigger and, without another word, left his quarters.

      "Careful, Avon," Blake said wistfully. "That time, you almost said it out loud."

      

      

"Know what we need?" Tyce asked, stretching languidly out across her sofa. "A private, government funded masseur. Tall, with dark, curly hair, and wonderful hands."

      "Something tells me Blake would take a dim view of the demotion," Soolin said, laughing and dropping into a big, swallowing chair.

      Tyce crimsoned. "That isn't what I meant!"

      "Forgive me, but your description bore a certain resemblance. Anyway, when my back gets impudent, I have Vila walk across it."

      Tyce pouted. "Not the same thing."

      "You'd be surprised. It can be fun." Soolin leaned across to select a Glofree Bliss from the sweets holder. She munched it cautiously at first, then committed it to her mouth. "All right. Give me the run down on your results."

      Tyce's face soured again, as she slid a throw pillow under the small of her back. "I walked up and down that bloody corridor in Sovereign, going to the office of every member and assistant of the High Council. I even had Father phone them from Lindor. And my conclusion - no, strike that - my indictment is that the Refederation High Council is composed of a herd of dotty, cowardly old women who are too afraid of losing their pensions and their comfortable positions to do the right thing. At least Father never turned his back on a friend."

      "Everyone wants to go by the book?" Soolin said, her face a knot of distaste.

      "They won't rule against Steavn Change's writ of exile," Tyce said, bending back her first finger in the count. "They won't rule against the High Council staff psychologist in the matter. And they won't move to grant exception under the Life Primacy Act. No exceptions, they said. I'll show them no exceptions. I ought to burn the whole bloody Sovereign to the ground in a great pyre of purifying flame."

      Soolin's eyebrows fairly twisted together. "Pardon me? I think perhaps we might try more moderate avenues first. For one thing, between you and me, if the going gets tough, well, you know what the tough do."

      Suddenly, all evidence of pain vanished, Tyce was sitting up. "We're getting out of here?"

      "It depends. On how things go with the little shit. All of which is going to make things tough on you, since you're our friend, and Vendarian's appointment."

      "I don't give a hang about Vendarian. He's off somewhere playing diplomat with some malcontent old Fed space major. When do we start tearing down the house of cards?"

      "It may not come to that."

      "For instance?"

      "For instance, if the little shit is cleared."

      "All right, say the little shit is cleared. What then?"

      "Then we'll stay. If we knocked down buildings and gutted the systems centre, it could make socializing a little awkward in the future, if you catch what I'm saying."

      "Sure. Raise a girl's hopes, then dash them all to the ground."

      "Relax. We may have some altercation, though, if we take off from here too quickly. If Steavn Change tries to stop us from leaving."

      "He won't like losing Blake," Tyce said, with a thoughtful expression. "He may not have pull within the High Council, but the whole Refederation loves him. To them, he's a god."

      "Oh really," Soolin said, smirking. "To any 'them' in particular?"

      "Shut up, you," Tyce retorted, tossing a throw pillow in Soolin's direction and missing by a wide margin. "And before I forget, there is one weak link in the H.C. Maybe I should say one strong link. Either way, his name is Noi Tan. He was wavering when I was talking to him, and with Blake there, it just might be enough to push him our way. Be sure to mention it to him."

      "I will. Right after I tell him you called him a god."

      This time, Tyce scored a direct hit.

      

      

Blake balanced himself between waking vigilance and sleeping paranoia. Despite his exhaustion, and regardless of the solid state headache active in his head, he could not quite keep his mind off of Avon's words, off the pain he felt in them.

      It had provided a moment Blake had waited for for years. But at the same time, there was Mikl Carn to reconcile, just as there had been Steavn Change. When did the contradictions stop, he wondered.

      And if he knew so little of Change and Carn, could he really rely so heavily on his High Council to do the right thing?

      Blake knew the sentiments of the H.C. toward Avon. He'd risen before them to eviscerate the founding logic of a very popular piece of legislation. He often christened the Councillors with complex and unwieldy names they were forced to find in dictionaries before they knew enough to be insulted.

      Blake relied upon Avon's incisive mind to point out inconsistencies, impracticalities, impossibilities in all drafts of proposed legislation. Whatever the corrections and amendments he required before their passage, or the wholesale refutation of same, Avon was the father of, and everyone knew it.

      In short, the H.C., with few exceptions, detested Avon, no matter their grudging admission of his value.

      Avon's coarse and unmelodic call signal hummed out. Blake grimaced at the sound, then rose quickly to catch the door before the signal chimed again.

      "Well, at least I can find one of you," Dev Lahr said, pushing past Blake and into Avon's room. "Where is your accomplice in doctor-evasion?"

      "If you mean Avon, he's out. But I assure you, he's well. I have Vila Restal tailing him to make certain he remains that way."

      "Your friend just had major surgery. Granted, his prognosis is good, but there are still possible complications. He is still a very ill man."

      "He is also a very stubborn man, Doctor Lahr. I promise, he is unlike any man you have ever met before. If you think you can persuade Avon to return to hospital, then you have my blessing to try. However, right now, at this time, I feel he is safer with us."

      "Which brings me to my second concern," Lahr said, studying a hologramatic bas-relief on the wall. "You will need to check yourself into Hospital Sector. The sooner, the better."

      "Me?" Blake roared in surprise. "Why on earth-"

      "Because, Roj, you require surgery. I've discovered the cause of your headaches and disequilibrium."

      "You said yourself, it's just stress. With everything that has happened-"

      "No, Roj. I found something on your brain imaging slides."

      "Not a tumour," Blake said.

      "Not a tumour," Lahr replied. " A neural implant."

      "A neural implant?" Blake said. "You mean as Avon had?"

      "Exactly like it. And unless it is removed, and very soon, it may very well kill you."

      

      

He waited until Lahr vacated his room, as the doctor walked with a slower, more reluctant pace up the I.C. corridor, toward the central hall. Avon waited there till all sign of Lahr was gone, and then he emerged from the shadows, turning toward his room.

      The light from the computer monitor tinted the room mint green. There was no other light. And neither was there Blake.

      "Blake?" he said softly.

      "Here," a voice replied. But it was a little voice, a broken voice.

      Avon followed it into his own bedroom.

      Blake was seated on the side of his bed, his eyes tracing the pattern of blood-stain in the carpet. "How is it you manage to stay here?" he asked. "The memories must be hellish."

      "One must learn to embrace what one fears," Avon said. "What?" he added, referring to the darkness, and the hopelessness abloom on Blake's face.

      "I was just thinking of the night I found you lying here. In your own blood. The night I came here because something woke me, and I just had the ludicrous idea to check on you. If I had not checked..."

      "The point is that you did," Avon said.

      "But if I hadn't. And I was so angry at you. For trying to kill yourself." Blake shook his head, nursing a hand at his temple. "Just the day before was Refederation Day. I gave that speech out on the Common. And I believed-" He clamped his eyes closed, gripping a hand into a fist. "I believed, like an idiot child, that everything was fine. That it was all over, all the politics, all the manipulation. And when that happened to you, forgive me, but I thought 'Here goes Avon, mucking it up again.'"

      "Thank you for sharing that with me," Avon said, in an arid, morbid tone. Then his voice took on logical, fatalistic tones. "I suppose this is all basically my fault."

      "No," Blake said, his eyes focusing on the dead space before him, just beyond Avon. "It isn't just you, Avon. It's me as well. It's all of us somehow." He lifted his gaze to Avon. "Doctor Lahr was just here. With the results of my brain imaging. I have been having headaches, slight spells actually. And what he found - was most alarming."

      "And that was?"

      "A neural implant in my brain. Just as you had. Probably identical. They won't know until it's removed."

      Avon hesitated before asking the obvious. "Have you ever-"

      "No, I have never had brain surgery. Of which I am aware, although this might have been implanted when my memory was tampered with. Still, how does that explain yours and the similarities between them?"

      "I don't like this," Avon said, his face more grim than usual.

      "Neither do I. It makes me feel entirely like a stranger in my own life."

      "Then whatever this scheme of Steavn Change's, it has to do with both of us."

      Blake stretched his long legs out before him. "So it seems. Which doubles the danger. And I want answers, damn it. I want them now. If not from Change, then from Sen Leusip."

      

      

"I'm sorry, Roj, it's out of my hands," said the Auronar, Noi Tan. "There are fifteen members of the Inner Council. I am only one."

      "Only one?" Blake said. "One is supposed to count equally with one-hundred. Why have we done all this if not?"

      "Nevertheless, Morag, Change, and Vendarian hold the high cards with most of them. They comprise a formidable block of opposition." Councillor Noi Tan shuffled through a stack of dated hard copy. "I am attempting to manage my workload and Vendarian's as well. With Ago Taro going on, we have very worried interplanetary officials to deal with. I get communiques daily. Our network of friendly planets is in disarray because everyone, mark that everyone, is frightened. Even if I were able to help you, the other members of the Council would tie my hands with paperwork."

      Blake leaned across the massive desk, his belling sleeves exaggerating the span of his shoulders. He rarely used his size for intimidation, especially with decent people, but this time, there was far too much to lose to waste time with such negligible scruples.

      "What is this? Are all of you afraid of your own shadows?" Blake roared. "I'm beginning to think Tyce Sarkoff's description of you is quite accurate."

      Tan's eyes crouched together. "What has Ms. Sarkoff said about me?"

      Blake's conviction burst apart like shattering coloured glass. "Never mind that! If we are to act as effective leaders for our people, we must take the moment in hand. I come to you because there is a conspiracy to deprive me of one of my people. One of my most important people - no, my most important person. You and I have been friends from the start, Tan. And were positions reversed - were this a friend of yours, I would stand with you before them. Why will you not do this for me?"

      "It isn't a question of friendship, Blake."

      "The hell it isn't!" Blake said, pacing over to a wall, then back again, as though stalking down his anger.

      "It is not! I would say the same thing to anyone, were the situations equal. If our mutual friend Cally came to me, it would be no different. In fact, I have been contacted by the Auronar colony on Alpha Fatima. They have asked me to come and help in their civil war." He shook his head. "This is my people's last hope for continuing survival and I can't help. I cannot interfere, because the High Council has ruled against interference in their border problems. It is the way of participatory government, Blake. This High Council is not a crew you can order and lead. This is a council of intelligent citizens with equal power. Resign yourself. And believe that it is not personal."

      "Everything is personal, Tan!" Blake said, thumping the desk with his fist. "Everything. Especially to me."

      "Beyond that," Tan said, bracing the stylus between his palms. "You would require a fifty percent rule of the house to stay a procedure under the Life Primacy Act. You will not get it. And need I remind you, the Life Primacy Act was your piece of legislation."

      "Very well," Blake said, raking both hands back through his dark curls. "Then I have no choice."

      Tan nodded in sympathy. "I can give you this much assistance. I will give you a warning. When the High Council emerges from the conclave, they will be seeking Avon. And they will apprehend him for transfer to Moraine, Hospital Psychiatric."

      

      

High Council conclaves rarely endured two hours. This had convened at 0700 hours. It was now approaching 0900.

      Blake had to move and move quickly. He realized that. But he needed a few moments to himself to think.

      The verandah off Blake's quarters bowed out over a small flower garden. Most of the garden plants had been harvested from from the commons, so many of the flowers were actually bud-sprouted plants evolved principally as flora shivas, to choke off the life of all others. Old Calendar references called them "weeds", but they bore lovely blossoms and they persisted where the gentler, kinder species had long since died away.

      He loved it here, where he could stare out over what five years of peace and progress had accomplished.

      But why did there seem to be something missing? Always, there was that whispering in his mind, telling him that an essential piece of his soul was still not found. Lost somewhere, far in the past. But somehow, it lived on in his future.

      Love. Devotion. A vision. His dreams had grown lazy here. Within the day-to-day meanderings of these polite smiling people, the concerns over fiscal budgets, the realities of class conflict and personality collisions, too little for the many and too much for the few...

      He was bored. To death. And lonely as the living image of hell.

      What had it all been for... this?

      After all he had given, and the others. After those who made the ultimate sacrifice: Gan, Cally, Jenna. Had their deaths truly been for nothing? They based their strivings on his word, his sacred promise, that there would be a better day.

      He had two choices remaining. And the fulcrum was Avon, the deciding point. Wasn't that somehow just terribly fitting?

      To protect Avon would be placing the entire Inner Council at risk. Himself as well. And the entire Refederation. Ago Taro waited like a scavenger on the precipice of doom, hungering to scoop up Earth and, soon, the universe.

      But not to protect Avon? When all along, he'd wanted to gain the man's trust, if not his friendship. He finally had both. And now that he had it, he was throwing it away? He thought of something Cally had said, so very long ago. "To win one heart is better than to claim a thousand minds."

      (Avon

      Or your cause

      that is the choice, Roj...)

      His hands gripped the lanai bannister, lowering his head into the warm crook of his own elbow. The tears were there, pressing behind his eyes. Finally, he freed them.

      The grief stormed warmly down his cheeks; the soft breezes over the lanai cooled them. He knew the time was short. He understood the need to act.

      But this would not abate.

      The tears flowed for ambiguous purpose; for sad things, for happy things. For the people he loved and the people he missed and the enemies who had won. He wanted so to believe in a benevolent, intelligent universe. Some essence, ultimately, where justice lived. Regardless of Avon's arguments to the contrary, there had to be a symmetry that would balance out the sacrifice and make it all worthwhile.

      He had outlived so many campaigns, so many harvests of dead rebels who had been friends, and he'd survived them. Surely that was a sign that something benign watching from the shadows was on his side.

      Yet he did not know if that was a blessing or a curse. To outlive one's friends was not a happy survival.

      The door signal chimed.

      Blake rose and answered it.

      The sight of Blake's red eyes did not escape Avon's attention. With a moment of uncertainty, the two men simply looked at one another through the doorway.

      "I have just received word," Avon said, distractedly, walking in and closing the door. "They have asked for my unconditional surrender to the custody of Alta Morag. I have precisely two hours to reply, or they will send their armaments down to take me with them."

      "I am so sorry, Avon," Blake said softly, helplessly.

      As always Avon's face did not betray the content of his mind. But there was a bleached tenseness there all the same. The idea of controlled custody in a psychiatric hospital was bad enough to Blake. To Avon, it had to be all possible nightmares incarnate.

      His eyes were dark and mocking. "You could not move your High Council friend, I take it?"

      Blake shook his head. "No. I am surrounded by cowards and politicians."

      Avon let the remark pass without comment. "I will leave rather than be taken," he said.

      "I quite expected you might."

      Avon walked past Blake into the President's room, moving on until he reached the small low table, where the chess board was always arranged between them on their regular evenings for games.

      "You are fully within your rights to remain and fight this," Avon said, looking casually in Blake's direction.

      Blake shook his head. "That would make me Commander in Chief of a government to which you are a fugitive."

      "We have often been on conflicting sides."

      "But never opposite sides."

      "I wonder," Avon said. He raised his line of vision to meet with the President's; dark brown eyes on warm brown eyes. Both men locked gazes for well over a minute.

      Avon spoke first. "I told someone once my death would be linked to yours. If one follows the inferential logic implicate in that, it means our lives are linked as well."

      "I said as much to you once," Blake said. "After my... small sojourn away, after Gan died."

      "Your recalcitrant temper tantrum, you mean," Avon said. "Beyond which, you said all life is linked." He rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. "There we are on that topic again."

      "I said all life, but I meant our lives." Blake grinned with sadness around the edges. "I speak in universals, or don't you recall?"

      "I recall." Avon proceeded over toward the commune couch, staring into its centre. "If anything, this High Council insanity has taught me one thing."

      "And that is?"

      "That you mean no harm with your megalomania. I know that the High Council does." Avon turned around to face him. "Dayna is coming with me. Vila is rather afraid of remaining. I assume he's concerned they might accept him as a suitable sacrificial goat in my absence. Soolin says she is undecided."

      "She will go with you."

      "Tarrant, I am certain, is quite decided." Avon regarded him fully. "That leaves you. And you must do what you can live with."

      Blake burst forth in thunderous laughter, but anyone who knew him and listened could hear the faint tremor of old pain. "My government is in shambles and my friends are endangered or at each other's throats. I have a device in my head that I cannot account for and that may kill me. And you advise me to do what I can live with?"

      "Then you will want to remain, near Dr. Lahr," Avon said. "That is - predictable."

      "Will I? How are you so certain what I will do?"

      The second jarring of the signal chime made both men flinch toward the door. Avon checked the wall timepiece. It was 0930.

      "They are eager," Avon said, nodding toward Blake as Avon stepped beyond the vantage of the door.

      Blake opened it. But it was no representative of his government. It was a most unexpected face, that of Leusip's companion. Another child of Standard Increase.

      "You are the one called Roj Blake?" the young man asked.

      "I am."

      "My name is Faroll," said the voice that was still impossibly uninflected and flat. "We have met previously."

      "I remember."

      "I have been sent by Sen Leusip," he went on. "He is waiting on board our shuttle Peacekeeper for your arrival. He promises to bring you to a place with the answers you seek. He also offers sanctuary to your Councillor Avon."

      "We can't just leave now," Blake said. "Our people are in danger of attack."

      "It will not take long," Faroll said. "What Leusip will speak of is of great interest and vast importance to both you and Councillor Avon. And until your safe return," he said, reaching under his jacket and withdrawing a cannon of a gun, "I will attend to your friends' safekeeping."

      

      Years melted like the fallacies they were, and Time took a deep breath and regained itself.

      It might have been the Magic Show. Or some other day that followed through so many years. It might have been Alpha Lyceum on any other day.

      For here were those dark eyes, both impervious and bottomless, that held his gaze in such fascinated bondage. There was no point in looking away, for they would only draw you to them again. And in them, if you wished to, you would see the future.

      The eyes were older, darker, wiser. The face had matured and widened to balance his fine, long nose. He had been a beautiful child. But now he was far more than simply beautiful; this face contrasted that concept and made beauty a poor cousin to the truth.

      "Hello, Kerr," Leusip said. He nodded to his dome-headed pilot, an alien, then returned to smile at Blake. "President Blake, so good to see you again. Won't you please both be comfortable?"

      "That would depend," Blake said. "On where we are going and how you intend to answer our questions."

      "I apologize for the histrionics. However, I waited until I was certain this situation of yours could not be controlled by itself. For that reason, and because I feel I owe the two of you an immense and insurmountable debt, I have brought you here."

      Avon stepped from the teleportation grid with Blake.

      Indeed it occurred to Avon to wonder where "here" was. But the process was nearly instantaneous, as if closing one's eyes and opening them again. Now, he and Blake found themselves on board a Mark III type shuttle cruiser, which was obviously the accomplice of a mother ship. This was too small for long excursions, but would take deep space with minimum cargo.

      The starscape outside the shuttle portal was rich and black with a spill of shattered silver. They had teleported up from Earth, but the star systems out there did not seem familiar.

      "What gives you the impression I have any desire to see you again, Academician Leusip?" Avon said.

      Leusip smiled, though it was a sad smile. "Our last meeting was under very difficult circumstances, I realize."

      "If one might call a Justice Department indictment survey 'difficult circumstances'."

      "Yes, I know. I regret what has come to pass between us. But, through it all, it is important to me that you know, I have never forgotten the affection we once shared for each other."

      "That makes one of us," he said, making a studying circuit of the control area of the shuttle. "You said you had something to show us. Some answers to give."

      "I have," Leusip said, rising from his journey chair. He took a deep breath, looking first to Avon, then aside to Blake. "I have no idea how to tell you this. How or where to begin. So I will have to take you somewhere where you may see the answers for yourself."

      "See the answers?" Blake asked.

      Leusip circled his index finger above the star map addressed on the wall behind him. "Here," he said. "This is a Mars-orbiting satellite called Areopagus."

      "There is no satellite orbiting Mars by that name," Avon snapped.

      "It is an artificial satellite. It has never been officially registered, but it is generally assumed to be used by Biosystems Sector, which it was. But not for the reasons the Federation assumed."

      "Why are we going there and what in hell could we learn there that would be of any use to us?" Avon said.

      "Do you remember, Avon, when Tynus and you were investigated?"

      "Vividly."

      Leusip turned toward Blake. "You must understand that Avon was not alone in the embezzlement. It was engineered by Avon, myself and Brad Tynus. We thought it an excellent idea, a way to bankrupt the Federation banking cartel and funnel funds to Avon's brother Mikl and his group."

      Blake had been no stranger to surprise during the last four time units, but this admission went far beyond the anomalous constraints of all previous surprises combined.

      Avon's face rippled with confined shock - and a mixture of emotion: embarrassment, anger, fear. He realized he had just been unveiled. Not looking at Blake, he lowered himself into a chair.

      "I see," Blake said distantly. It changed everything, but it would have to wait to be absorbed. He looked again at Sen. "But you turned him over to Federation authority."

      "Yes. Avon assumed that I was suspected of the crime, so I simply turned my young colleague into the authorities. However, Avon has often wondered, no doubt, why I handed him over and not Brad Tynus."

      "You claimed to dislike Tynus," Avon said, distractedly.

      "And I did. He was self-serving and self-aggrandizing. He was a rebel because it was unusual and he could then see himself as a rogue. He had no ideals, no ethics, as Avon always had, despite what he supposes. He later came to great no-good, it is my understanding, when on Fosforon."

      "Yes," Blake said.

      "So, why would I turn my prized pupil into the authorities? Why not Tynus? Why not divulge the location of Mikl Carn? It makes little sense that I would sacrifice you and no other. I'm sure this has haunted you for years, Avon. And I'm certain that that scalpel of a mind of yours turned against yourself as the answer. Something lacking in you. Or something that you should have seen in me. You trusted me, liked me, I think. And I betrayed you."

      Avon lifted his eyes to Leusip. They were deep with chilled venom and a dark disdain. "Yes," he said, his voice a gentle hiss.

      "I let you go through several days of Federation torture, at the hands of people whose art it is to induce and orchestrate agony in the human body. And before that, I inflicted Standard Increase upon you."

      "I remember," Avon said. "I never forget."

      Leusip stepped over to Avon, looking down upon the man who then rose from his chair to match his height.

      "Have you not wondered why I did those things? Not to protect my job or myself. I was an active member of the Fifth Column and took greater risks than those."

      "The Fifth Column?" Blake asked.

      "Yes. We were a group of dissidents working from within the Federation government structure, to aid the Freedom Party and the other rebel factions. We fed the outsiders when they were derationed. We did what we could. And finally, we did something that necessitated Avon being where he was, when he was. It made necessary his conviction for embezzling, his torture, and his placement upon the London where he met you, Blake."

      Avon's eyes settled into an even glare. The promised fury had subsided. He moved closer to Leusip, with a half-knowing look in his eyes.

      "Made necessary? Are you saying that you placed me on board the London?" Avon asked.

      "I am saying that fate is kind and draws many things to us, as human life is nothing if not the challenge of design in favour of entropy, the up-hill struggle toward it. But when we see convergence, we tend to dismiss it as coincidence, as our brain's hunger for patterns from which to make sense and sanity. When we should ask ourselves, what is it that guides me? That lures me toward some goal?"

      "Why distinctive clothes for bipedal hominids, when the ship hailed from a hive culture?" Avon said, in a lost, faraway voice. "Why a storeroom of objects humanity would consider valuable? Why food and water and arms?"

      "Precisely," Leusip said proudly. "You have made progress. Ten years ago, you would have chided me for paranoia."

      Avon's mind surfaced enough to give Leusip a communicative look. "Yes, well, I have recently learned that paranoia can have its uses."

      "These years with Blake have taught you well."

      "Blake has not the slightest idea what either of you are talking about!" the President roared from the sidelines, his hands clenched to his hips.

      Avon remembered, and regarded Blake for a long moment. Hesitancy danced in Avon's eyes. Already, he felt the dampening of his own spirits. If what Leusip suggested was the truth, what would it do to Blake and his indefatigable innocence? Like a child dispossessed of the Far Star Fairy.

      The voice of Sen Leusip saved his former pupil from further consideration. "Perhaps we had best wait for a full explanation until we reach Areopagus."

      

      

The artificial satellite was of a type Avon had never seen. Certainly the technology was as advanced as any other he had visited. He thought of Terminal, the artiplanetoid. He thought of Spaceworld of the System complex. He wondered if Leusip had designed Areopagus. If so, his capacities were far beyond those he'd ever evidenced before Avon.

      The three men teleported in silence from the deck of the Peacekeeper to a lift shaft platform.

      "This will bring us down into the working depths of the planet," Leusip explained, closing the shield around them, as they stood inside the capsule.

      Blake gave both men a stiff glance, his look at Avon being suspicious and entreating. But Avon's expression was impervious. "Doctor Leusip, you told us we would have answers..."

      "And you shall have them, Mr. President," Leusip said. "Please have patience. It is best that you are given this a bit at a time."

      "Best for whom?" Blake snapped.

      "Best for all of us," Leusip replied.

      

      

The lift capsule descended into the heart of the artificial planet, plummetting furiously through a strobing continuum of multi-coloured lights. The plunge was so rapid, there was no real feeling of movement, beyond the blurring in Blake's ears and the intensifying of his headache. It had localized to the back of his head from the moment they teleported aboard the Peacekeeper.

      Then they stopped, with no sensation of stopping.

      The capsule doors swept aside.

      The gates to Areopagus were open.

      

      Leusip stepped through, into the glaring white room that surrounded them with intensity and clarity.

      (It was white.

      The room. From their dreams.

      The white room, and both Avon and Blake recognized it separately and silently, if only in the distant regions of their minds.)

      

      Avon's favourite stories from childhood had been tales of Middle Earth. Though restricted by the Mater 9 and his parents, when on holiday away from S.I., to a reading diet of serious science and a few, carefully-screened books of philosophy and a very occasional work of history or fiction. All matters of fancy were forbidden to him.

      But he was smuggled such tales by Mikl and he carried them away to distant corners. There, alone, he found sanctuary in Gondor and Oz, in Olympus and Valhalla, all impossible places for above or far below or far beyond the solid, dismal Earth of Standard Increase.

      Reason had it that he could not believe in them. Reality dictated they could not be.

      But here it was.

      It was all there, lined up in effigy of their lives, like a nightmare, like a pre-Atomic pharaoh's tomb. Encapsulated here with the cold, clinical discourtesy of an ambivalent bad dream, were the fragments of their lives. All that was missing was the sarcophagus.

      A hologram of the Liberator in 100:1 scale hung, frozen, in the air, turning as if in perpetual motion.

      "The working sub-model of DSV2," Leusip explained.

      Avon turned on him savagely. "Where in hell did you get that?"

      "It was mine before it was yours," Leusip said proudly, gesturing to the other artifacts that surrounded them accusingly. "All of this was."

      There, to the right of Avon, was a prototype-Zen function console, obvious from the casing and circuitry and its family resemblance.

      To the left, a rude approximation of an early matter-transmission device. But it was not one of the pre-Aquitar inventions he had worked with in Biosystems, with Leusip.

      "Everything here, I designed," Leusip explained. "On some, I invented the very technology it was based on. And every single one of these inventions' final stages was stolen from me by the denizens of Space-world and the monster called the System which I helped to design. That machine so conscious it usurped the role of hominids on the planets which were our own." His face darkened: he closed his eyes. "No matter what the Federation was, at least the machine had a human face. The System knew only the machination of self-preservation, and it needed my inventions to survive."

      "But you worked in Biosystems Sector, on the Aquitar Project, as well as Standard Increase," Avon said, in an interrogating tone. "If you knew the secret of matter-transmission, why on Earth didn't you reveal that? The Federation would have made you richer than you can imagine!"

      "Because, Avon, there are more valuable things than money," Leusip said. "Beyond that, I was suspicious and determined to be careful. I would not hand over my inventions again. And it so happens that the Aquitar Project was only concerning matter transmission on paper, for the Federation's benefit. The entire Biosystems Sector was a Fifth Column front. And we had far more important aims and goals. Which the exclusive use of teleportation would advance."

      Avon finally understood. All the pieces which had fallen into coherence on board the Peacekeeper now took symmetry and form. Everything at last made sense.

      "You are the discoverer of teleportation," Avon stated factually. "Teleportation as used on board Liberator."

      Leusip nodded. "I am. I am also the father of Zen, the ship's recombinant mind. And everything else on board. In short, I designed and constructed DSV 1. And DSV 2, the ship you once called Liberator."

      "You..." Avon gasped, his eyes growing dark, threatening.

      "Yes. I fled the System in it, with nothing more than the rudiments of my inventions, which you see here. DSV 2 saved my life. I had made it far faster than any ship the galaxy had ever known. It brought me to Earth, and when the Fifth Column decided it was time to strike through the mass of the totalitarian galaxy we lived within, we brought the two of you to Areopagus. Then we trained you, taught you, selected others to work with you, then removed your memories. Then we insinuated your lives together as if by accident, by chance, counting on the analytical mind's repugnance to ideas of conspiracy to shirk off all signs of design as coincidence. Then we did the same with the others we selected to work with you."

      Leusip smiled toward the Liberator model. "It was determined there would be seven of you. Seven is a mystical number, you know, beloved by all ancient and honourable people. It has a force of its own. It is even said that nothing can stand before the power of Seven. So we placed Blake's Seven in the heart of chaos, on the far edge of the civilized galaxy. And we watched you thrive."

      One word tore through Avon's mind with the ferocious path the blaster fire had taken: NO!

      In all Avon's own quandary, he had forgotten about Blake. And he knew this terror he felt to be Blake.

      Blake was frozen within the vision of the model Liberator, his eyes entranced in horror, unable to divorce themselves.

      "No, it is not possible!" he said, shaking his head at the image of the Liberator that would not dissolve into wakefulness or sanity. "Not possible!"

      "Blake..." Avon said, immediately stepping toward him, forgoing all self-protective instincts and his autonomic need to hide, because he had to go to Blake. He had to.

      "No, Avon!" Blake yelled. "This was your idea! What do you want? Me to finally admit you were right all along? You bastard!" He made a threatening stride toward him. "I hate you! I have hated you from the beginning...you always resented me, always thwarted me, blocked me, ridiculed and mocked every good and decent intention I had, even toward you. And you do this to me? You aren't human, Avon! You're a machine, a calculating, clinical machine! Well, I don't believe this!"

      "You have to believe it, Blake," Leusip said. "If you don't, you will not survive."

      Blake's eyes were wild and black now. "What? That there is some conspiracy? That we are puppets? If there is a conspiracy here, it is between the two of you against me!"

      "Blake, listen to me," Avon said. "Listen to reason. I understand what you are feeling..."

      "You don't feel anything, Avon! Machines don't have emotion, and that is what you are. You despise humans, you hate our capacity to care, to love. So you mock it with that damnable mind of yours." Blake's eyes full of hate and tears, turned in total on Avon. "You always wanted to make me hate you, well, you've done it at last. I hate you, as I should have all along."

      Avon could never remember having cried, but twice: once when his mother died, and once when they'd lost Cally. But now the tears were there, a felt presence, exposing the pain Blake's words were aiming at. Avon was at a loss to mask it, Blake's words cutting through to his core of least defence.

      "Don't say these things, please..." Avon whispered. "Roj, I always thought you understood."

      "I understand!" Blake said, fury livening his eyes.

      His first steps toward Avon were a threatening lunge, but his knees crippled beneath him and he fell. Avon caught him, arms clutching arms, in effigy of Gauda Prime, but this time, Blake buckled against him and took them both to the ground.

      "Avon," Blake wept, his face hungering for the comfort of his friend's shoulder, burrowing into it.

      If ever in his life he felt torn open, it was this moment. Blake, at last, knew everything. Had seen Avon exposed as never before. Even the truth about Tynus and the embezzlement.

      And the reality of all these years, the truth that even Avon had not suspected. In the brisk, white horror of that truth, Avon felt his own spirit shallow. A part of him had so wanted to believe that something had been with them - something kind and beyond the pall of Earth. He did not want to prove Blake wrong. Rather, he craved for the reverse.

      "From the very beginning?" Avon said, in the voice of a child, staring up in unspoken plea to Leusip, standing over the two men. "All our lives?"

      Leusip began slowly, "You must both hear me. Everything you did, every victory you won, from the day we placed you aboard the Liberator, was your own victory, your own passion and commitment. We merely took your own spirits and moulded them." Leusip crouched low, as if to examine a different species in its own habitat. He reached forth a tentative hand to the broken man's shoulder. "Blake?"

      Avon pulled Blake from his reach, glaring at him. "Get away from him!" he seethed, clutching Blake tightly to him. "Never touch him again. He isn't your property. Not any longer!"

      "Blake was never my property, Avon," Leusip said.

      The sound of weeping that had come from Blake exploded into a harsh gasp of pain. He drew his head out of the comfort of Avon's shoulder, now damp with shed tears.

      Pain locked hard on Blake's face, his hand clutching the back of his head. Then his pupils retreated in favour of white, and he slumped against Avon again, this time with the heaviness of dead weight.

      "Roj!" Avon screamed in his face, shaking him. His hand swept to his throat, prodding feverishly under his jaw at the carotid artery, finding a thready pulse.

      "The modifier," Leusip said simply, matter-of-factly. He shanked one arm of each man and drew both to their feet. "We have to get him back to Earth, back to that brain surgeon Lahr."

      "If it's the implant, there isn't a ship in the galaxy fast enough!" Avon said, panic rampant in his voice as he clutched his friend to him.

      "There is here, old friend," Leusip said. "Give me his other arm, I'll help you get him to the docking area."

      Avon drew his weapon, aiming at the centre of all consciousness in Leusip's head. "I will manage. Get us there. But if Blake dies, so do you... old friend."

      

      

It was another immense, white room - four times the room of space vehicle repair hangars on Earth. Avon had never seen an enclosure this massive. It seemed all the more vast for its emptiness. There was no ship here, not even a small one.

      Avon pressed the pre-deployment fuse on his weapon, still resting on Leusip's hairline. "Where the hell is your fast ship?"

      "Have patience," Leusip said, reaching to press the sensor on a communication console, speaking into it, "Zen, return to Areopagus."

      "Confirmed," returned a very familiar voice.

      "I know that voice," Avon said, resisting the temptation to smile fondly.

      "You should. And not just for the reasons you mean," Leusip said.

      Suddenly, the vastness that was so immense for its emptiness, was no longer empty. The air rippled like an infusing gas, the skeleton of a ship forming in a white opalescence the very shade of solid ice. The armature became an ambiguous shape, and then clarified into density, design and colour.

      It was the Liberator, and yet it was not. It was far larger, far better designed, and shimmered before him - in its almost mind-numbing immensity - with majesty, but with the smiling welcome of a trusted friend.

      Avon could not help but smile, hugging Blake more closely to him than ever.

      "A cloaking device?" Avon's analytical voice forced through, though his eyes were filled with wonder.

      Leusip recognized that expression. He'd seen it once on the faces of S.I. children at the Magic Show. But he'd never seen it - had never hoped to see it - in Avon's eyes. Yet something told Leusip this expression meant more than simple appreciation of a tidy act of scientific magic.

      "Not really," Leusip said, smiling. "Something far more splendid than that."

      "Awaiting instruction for boarding," Zen's voice spoke from the console.

      "Three to teleport, Zen. Focus-locate us in Medical. Prepare Medical for stasis of a neural injury to a human male."

      "Confirmed."

      "Then bring us aboard," Leusip said, smiling at Avon.

      

      

      

      

      

      

      

      

      

Dayna, Tyce, and Faroll waited in the shadows of the Inner Council corridor. Their task was to keep the apprehending arm of the Justice Department busy until Avon and Blake completed their sojourn. The sojourn which Faroll assured them would be "brief and fruitful".

      "It had better be," Tyce said, gesturing her sidearm in Faroll's direction.

      "And don't be too free with that rocket-launcher," Dayna said, glancing at Faroll's weapon. "We have to pick up the pieces when Blake and - when Blake gets back." She leaned against the wall a moment, finally with the understanding that Avon would not be returning. That she might not see him for a while. Eventually, though, their paths would meet again. She felt certain of that.

      "If there are any pieces," Tyce said, turning her aiming eye for the access to I.C. sector. "How many charges to bring the main beams down, Dayna?"

      "Two. Suitably applied."

      "How?"

      "High impact explosives," Dayna said, patting her shoulder strap. "One by the corner-joins, the other at the intersect. And we'll have Jericho."

      "We will have what?" Faroll asked, his voice uninflected.

      "Jericho," Tyce said. "Where the walls came tumbling down - you know."

      "I see," Faroll droned.

      Tyce gave him a bent smile. "You are quite sure you aren't related to Avon?"

      "Quite," he said.

      "I won't believe it until I see a gene scan," Tyce said, shaking her head. "Anyway, the whole access will be blocked, so that no one will be able to get in. Not unless they blast their way through."

      "What then?" Faroll asked.

      "Then," Dayna said, "you can use your rocket-launcher."

      

      

"It is essential you accompany us, Del," Change said, as they stepped into the Sovereign corridor. "If for no one's interest but your friends'."

      "You don't understand how this is for me," Tarrant answered, lagging two steps behind the group. "We are discussing a betrayal of people I lived with and fought beside. People who saved my life."

      "We are discussing a dangerous man who will endanger everyone, including himself. You will do your other friends a favour, if you front for us. Go in there and convince them not to go to ridiculous and extreme lengths to protect what cannot be protected."

      "Or we will have no other choice than to meet force with force. Our intelligence indicates the girl Dayna, and the other, Soolin, plan to mount an offence to shelter Avon. Only harm can come from this: harm and death and destruction."

      "All right," Tarrant said, doubt rising in him higher than ever before.

      "You will go in there first?" Morag asked.

      Tarrant nodded. "I will go in there first."

      

      

"We have ignition!" Soolin called up to Dayna, who was anchoring charges to archway cross-joins.

      "How many?" Dayna asked, attaching the secondary charge to the disabling point.

      Soolin stole another glance through the double-glass doors that initiated the Inner Council sector. Change, Morag, Tarrant, and their companions were half-way down the hall, coming toward them.

      "Six of them," Soolin said. "Two Security, one with a weapon drawn. Tarrant Iscariot is in front." The blonde woman leaned out and around the bend of the hallway to see Tyce and Faroll at the minor I.C. access. "Can you make the armed one, Tyce?"

      Tyce Sarkoff enabled her firearm with a punch of the relay. She aimed toward the moving assembly. "I have him."

      "So have I," Faroll said, aiming his cannon in concert.

      "No one fires unless fired upon," Soolin said. "And don't for any reason blast the ugly one in front. He's still a friendly."

      "You say," Dayna snapped, vaulting to the ground. She crouched low and peered through the doorway. "They are getting close, Soolin. Withdraw and get back here."

      She swept quickly across the I.C. foyer and through the quarters' hall door where Dayna was standing. "Tarrant isn't exactly a hostile," Soolin said. "I say we give him the option of jumping over to our side before we cave the walls in."

      "He has chosen his side," Dayna said, her face austere and decisive. As she trained her eyes toward the glass double-doors, she saw Tarrant stepping through them. "Battle stations everyone!" she called back. "Here we go."

      Tarrant stepped through the twin doors and stopped, his eyes finding Dayna who was straddling the doorway that led to their rooms, to the place he had long called 'home'. She was aiming the snout of her weapon at the ceiling, but her posture was hardly one of welcome.

      Tarrant gestured to Morag that they should remain where they were, and he walked ahead. While all around him was silence, his boots made the lone intrusion of soft, even sound.

      He stopped. And for a long moment, both stood there, lines of vision tangled, words incapable. Neither spoke nor moved. But Tarrant very slowly lifted his hands up, and turned his palms toward Dayna.

      "All I want to do is talk with you, Dayna. That is all. Maybe we can try and correct this situation before it becomes completely insane."

      "This is me, Tarrant," Dayna answered, her features chiselled in stoic ice. "I am not a virtuous diplomat's daughter you've met at one of Alta Morag's parties. So don't tell me all you want to be is friends."

      "But we are friends, Dayna," he said, taking another step forward. "I'm Avon's friend as well. I want to talk with both of you, and with Blake. Perhaps we can come to an understanding."

      "Right after you clamp the neutron-lock cuffs on Avon?" Dayna said. "No, Tarrant, not that easily. Save your words."

      "Then let me talk with them. Where is Avon? Where is Blake?"

      "Gone fishing."

      Tarrant laughed, gently shaking his head. "All right then, what of you and I? May we at least discuss this at closer ranks? I feel as if I'm shouting across a canyon."

      "Come forward," she said. "But stay two paces back."

      "Is that all the ground I've lost in our friendship?" he asked, smiling as he closed the distance between them. "I can trust you not to shoot me then?"

      "I do not shoot friends without great provocation," Dayna said, smirking. She lowered her sidearm. "That will be close enough there."

      He stopped, slowly lowering his hands. For a moment, he gave her a wistful, wide-eyed gaze, then smiled sadly. "Is this what it has come to, old girl? I thought our battle days were over. I thought the point of all this was that we could trust each other and live in peace."

      "We were not the ones to compromise trust, Tarrant. We will not surrender one of our own, under any circumstances. The charges against Avon are false. Therefore, we refuse to serve a government which would try and convict an innocent man. If you know nothing else about me, Tarrant, you should at least know that."

      "What will you do, then? Fight them? You can't. Those people over there are part of the system - any system. The faces change, but they are a constant. Bureaucracy is part of life, like sex and death and eating."

      Dayna gave him a wry smile. "Really, Del. Blake never took that as a reason to submit."

      Tarrant folded his arms in a challenge. "So, now you're an apologist for Blake?"

      "At least Blake stood by Avon."

      "Forget Avon!" Tarrant snapped. "Have you forgotten what he can be like? How cold and ruthless and self-serving? Can't you forget this damnable hero worship for one moment to see clearly? You do not have the artillery to fight them!" His words failed, his eyes moistening as new words were found. "You will all be killed, Dayna. Every last one of you. What the devil will you have then?"

      "We will have nothing perhaps, but a noble death," Dayna said. "Can you say as much?"

      "You keep saying "we". Are you consigning the others to death, or have they made their own decisions? Is Soolin ready to die? And Blake and Avon?"

      "They are ready to die if they must," she said, lifting her chin.

      "And Vila?" Tarrant said, softening his voice. "Has Vila made his own choice? He is no noble warrior. He's nothing but a frightened little man. He will not die sated with the taste of battle like you will, old girl. Vila will die in frantic agony. Would you wish for him a death like that?"

      With a moment of hesitation, she dodged a glance toward the backward shadows of the hall. "Vila, come here please."

      A moment later, a head poked around the corner, one eye still hidden behind the wall. "Fancy meeting you here, Tarrant," he said in a small voice.

      Dayna glanced him. "Tarrant thinks you might want to go with him rather than remain with us. You know if you stay here, you might be killed. You have thirty seconds to make your decision."

      "That is hardly sufficient!" Tarrant snapped.

      "It will have to be."

      "Where is Blake?" Tarrant said, panic and consternation and desperation painting his voice. "Let me talk to Blake about this."

      "Blake doesn't want to talk to you, Tarrant," Vila cut in. He moved out from under the wall a moment to give the other man a chastening glance. "It's a right shame about you, old chum. Who'd have thought I'd be the one lousy with virtue in this situation?" With that, he vanished back behind the corner.

      Dayna lifted the detonating device for exhibition. "You have fifteen seconds to finish what you have to say. And then we enact the Alamo Option."

      "The Alamo Option?"

      "A design feature Avon inserted into the original plans for I.C. sector. just in case. The entrances can be effectively cut-off from all access to Sovereign. It will go into effect in-" She pressed the detonating timer trigger. "In exactly sixty seconds. Here's your last chance, Tarrant. Can you be as much of a man as Vila, I wonder? Can you take the risk of dying for your friends?"

      "What is the use of dying for your friends if no purpose is served?" Tarrant yelled, grasping for Dayna's arm, but missing it. "The Alamo Option? That is most appropriate! And what will this stand-off be for? Honour? Friendship? That is nothing!"

      "Oh, Tarrant," Dayna said softly. "That is all there is. And now there are ten seconds."

      "Good-bye, you idiot," Soolin said, her face surfacing over Dayna's shoulder, her eyes misted for the first time that he could remember.

      Dayna smiled sadly. "Last chance, Del. Run for your life or come this way. Five seconds. Four - three - two-"

      Tarrant let out a loud sigh, grasped Dayna by the shoulders, and pushed her through the doorway with him. The corridor arch exploded in a blinding thunder of shattering glass.

      

      

It was the Liberator, and yet it was not.

      That thought occurred to Avon again, as he double-checked Blake's weak vital signs. His condition was registering on the Medical sector monitor on the control deck console.

      "He won't survive more than a few minutes, at this rate," Avon said.

      The Medical facility itself was beyond even the hearty resources of Sovereign's Hospital Sector. Everything in the ship was an advance past the boundaries of any of Avon's conjectures. This technology bore only a vague, symmetrical resemblance of concept and design to what he knew, just as primitive Australopithecus only suggested an early rendering of Homo Sapien Sapien.

      "We'll have him there shortly," Leusip said. "This is as far beyond Liberator as the Liberator is beyond all other ships."

      Avon let his attention drift over the controls, and across the flight deck. In some ways, it was like seeing a phantom from his past. But then there was a variation in detail here and there, and the area was far larger than the Liberator's had been. No, it was more like looking on the son of a long-dead friend.

      "How does this function?" Avon asked sharply.

      Leusip smiled, with the merry pride of a fond grandfather. "Like this. Zen, direct us to Earth, Sovereign Station. Maximize all time potentials. Then key for immediate teleport of three in current positions to central location in I.C. sector. Adjust for equal transmission of life-sustaining transport for Roj Blake to teleport."

      "Confirmed?"

      "Confirmed. Speed?"

      "Maximum space-time distort," Leusip said.

      "Space-time distort?" Avon said roughly, seeming altogether pale and hopeless. "That isn't possible!"

      Leusip continued to smile. "Zen? Standard by infinity."

      

      

The moment Dayna extracted herself from the buckled cornice and the maze of debris, she saw him walk toward her through the dusty haze. Indisputably, it was Avon. He was reaching a hand down for her, aiding her to her feet.

      "Avon!" Dayna cried out like a benediction, her face fairly bursting with a smile.

      Tarrant was still whisking away the dust from his choice, staring with mild rebuke at Soolin who had come to stand beside them. "He is greeted like a conquering hero. And I am dragged to the ground."

      "Water seeks its own level," Soolin said.

      "How did you get back here?" Dayna asked, panic in her eyes. "We were supposed to rendezvous at the ground tunnel exit."

      "It is a long story," Avon said. "We teleported."

      "Teleported?" Dayna said incredulously. "Where is Blake?"

      "In the lounge. Sen Leusip is with him. He brought us here on his rather - reliable ship. But before we can do anything, we have to contact Lahr."

      "What for?" Tarrant said, rubbing at a swelling on his brow. "At this point, that's nearly impossible."

      Avon's face remain unchanged, but his voice wavered. "It has to be possible. The implant in Blake's brain has malfunctioned. He's stable now, but if we don't get him to Lahr, his chances for survival are negligible."

      "The implant in Blake's brain?" Tarrant said.

      Before Avon could reply, Tyce's voice, loud and shrill, shot up the lounge corridor, from her post at the second access. "Someone, help us! It's the Avon clone! He's hurt!"

      

      

Faroll was trapped by a toppled joint, the weight of it crushing his chest, the ridge of it cutting through vena cava, skin and sinew. He was pale, gasping for air. And blood ran in a sinister rivulet out of his mouth.

      Vila reached them from the other end, as Dayna and Soolin knelt at Faroll's side.

      "Who the hell is that?" Tarrant said, looking over Dayna's shoulder.

      "His name is Faroll," Avon said blankly. "An associate of Sen Leusip's."

      Tyce covered her face with a hand, a hitching breath escaping past its barrier. "I - I must have set the charges wrong. The counter-joints were supposed to blast the other way."

      Dayna pressed a hand beneath Faroll's ear. "He's still alive. Now we need a damned doctor for both of them."

      "Faroll?" a light voice rose from behind them all.

      Sen Leusip was closing in on the circle, horror washing with a light brush over his face, then deepening. He shook his head, refusing the picture, certain that his mind was merely playing tricks on him. But every time he focused, there the vision was again.

      "Why aren't you with Blake?" Avon said, grasping for Leusip's arm.

      "He's stable," Leusip said weakly, his knees failing at Faroll's side, as he dropped to them, beside him. "What happened - he can't be-"

      Faroll's eyelids lifted with effort, his eyes falling on Leusip. "It is all right, Doctor Leusip," Faroll gasped out. "Death is inevitable to all biological creatures. The damage done is extensive." He looked down at his own body as if an object of scrutiny, remote and unconnected. "I am leaving, I am afraid."

      "You are not dying, Faroll," Leusip said, fighting to steady his voice.

      "Do not be illogical," Faroll said sharply. "It is another function of a physiological system. What begins in biochemistry, must end with its succession. But I am sorry to be leaving you, Doctor Leusip. You have always been fair and equitable."

      Faroll turned his head aside, the lids lowering. Something trembled with a jerking cadence through the body, then went out. One arm fell with an empty thud to the side.

      Leusip's hand sought the other one, grasping the broken, bloodied fingers with his own. "My name is Sen, damn you. Why the hell would you never call me that? All these years and..." It finally caught in his throat, caving his voice into a laboured whisper. "All these years, and you died with us still strangers to each other."

      Leusip smiled sadly, a tear dripping from his cheek to the silent face. He studied it a moment, then leaned forward and pressed a kiss to the dead man's brow.

      Avon kept the look of shock from his features, turning his face to Tarrant. "Check on Blake," he said, making it sound like a condition for survival. Then he stepped forward to Leusip's side. "He is dead, Leusip."

      Leusip shook his head. "He wasn't ever alive," he said. "And what in hell is the use of freedom when he was never alive?"

      Avon turned toward Soolin, to give Leusip another moment of privacy and himself an escape. "Contact Change. Tell him I will surrender to his authority under the condition that Lahr is sent immediately to Hospital, and that an emergency Medtech crew is dispatched for Blake. And that you are all given clemency for your actions."

      "No," Leusip said, placing Faroll's broken hand over his silent heart. The old man rose with greater-than-ever effort to his feet. "Get Steavn Change on the com system. I want to talk to him. I want to talk to him now."

      

      

The face of Steavn Change formed on the vidmonitor in such aged detail, Leusip nearly looked away.

      Steavn gave a crippled smile. "Hello, old friend," he said.

      "Is that what we are, Steav? Still?"

      "Always," he answered. "Nothing changes that. But I suppose you're on their side as well now."

      "There are no sides in this, Steavn!" Leusip said, anger surging the words forward. He drew the fury back. "What the devil can I say to make some sense to you?"

      "Tell me this is all over," he said. "Surrender Avon to us."

      Leusip shook his head. "Haven't these people suffered enough? I am sickened by the past, and I will no longer allow you to lie about the future."

      "I don't want to lie about it. But neither do I want to tear it apart. We've built on this, we've created a foundation for-"

      "For nothing. We have created a foundation for nothing. Because this order you have established has already begun eroding. Entropy has set in, and nothing can stand in its way."

      He slammed a hand against the communication console. "Don't blame this on Blake or Avon or any of their people. You have only to look into yourself, because, if we were honest, we'd have seen the first vestiges of decay in the very nature of our dreams. The system is doomed by the first misstep, you know the theory. And we made ours long ago."

      "You are saying it's all dead?" Change said, shaking his head. "I refuse to believe that."

      "Don't talk to me about the death of dreams, old friend. I just lost someone I love. He died, because of all of this. And he was an innocent, as are these good and decent people we lured into fronting for our cowardly intentions. It is enough, Steavn. Stop this. And you can start by sending Doctor Dev Lahr to I.C. sector."

      "Why?" Change said.

      "Blake is dying. The modifier has malfunctioned."

      "God," he replied, lowering his face into his hand.

      "Yes. And there he is. A shadow of my old, compassionate friend. Surely he will light the way with forgiveness, with repaying Blake by giving him the simple courtesy of his continuing life."

      "If you can only wait a few hours. Vendarian is on the edge of signing a treaty with Ago Taro's opposition. If you can wait, quite soon-"

      Leusip's face recoiled with anger. "Someday soon?" he roared back. "Or perhaps on the Day of Petition? This is me, Steavn. You and I both know that day never arrives."

      Once again, Leusip softened his voice, carefully choosing his words. "I ask you, as your friend, your brother, to stop this madness. Once you were my hero. You helped to build my faith in your people and your planet. I love you now, as I have always loved you."

      "And I love you," Change replied, his eyes tilted down.

      "Then prove to me I was right. Show me you are worthy of my trust in you."

      "I am worthy!" Change said. "I am trying to do what is right."

      "Then remember all that these people meant to us, Steavn. They were our last hope. Our best hope. And now we are theirs. Remember the timid men we mocked. Well, look upon us wisely, old friend. This time, we are the timid men."

      "You would merely ask that I let Lahr into I.C. sector?" Change said. "That is all."

      "No, that is not all. Stand up against your High Council and demonstrate as much courage as Blake's people have, as we should have, long ago. Let us prove that human life is more important to us than ideology, than ideas and dreams and nonsense such as that. For if we can't do that, we cannot do anything."

      "I can't work miracles, Sen," Change said. "I will not be able to convince Alta Morag or anyone else on the High Council, with the possible exception of Avalon and Tan, that Kerr Avon should not be institutionalised. It's a bloody wonder they've let him live as long as they have. There is no way out of this."

      A slow and bright smile built across the expanse of Sen Leusip's face. "There is one way. Let Lahr in, and then let Blake and his people escape. I know you, Steavn. You can distract their attention long enough for that."

      "Let them escape?" Change said grimly. "Why don't you ask me to sign my soul away to the devil? It would be the same result."

      "If it's any comfort, I'll sign, too. I'll take equal blame. And I'll stand with you, as I always have. But, once and for all, allow these people the simple luxury of their own lives. It's time to let the reins go, Steavn."

      Change let out a long, mournful, audible sigh. His eyes closed in concert. "Very well. I will send Lahr down. And I will distract the monitoring system long enough for them to clear airspace."

      Leusip laughed. "Thirty seconds will be sufficient. And, Steavn?"

      "What now?"

      "I have never been as proud of you as I am this moment."

      Change just chuckled darkly. "If Ago Taro gets wind of this, you can be proud of me at my summary execution as well."

      

      

The lounge was converted into a makeshift surgery. They had exactly forty minutes to proceed. As all the others guarded entrances, Avon and Leusip watched Dev Lahr perform his procedure.

      Lahr extracted the modifier with careful precision, under Leusip's direction for the order of neural relay. With that assistance, the procedure took half the time of Avon's implant extraction. In seventeen minutes, the entire modifier was lowered to a neutralization tray. It was a small device, Avon thought. No more than the size of a thumb, but still large given the apparently simple nature of its function.

      "You had no minimalist specialists to reduce it in size?" Avon said, with the voice of undaunted empiricism, as Lahr applied the stasis patch over the forehead incision, and Leusip watched.

      "Yes, but its functions were quite complex. And we were working with limited resources."

      "It had a function in addition to suppressing our memory?" Avon said stiffly, no longer objective, raising his glare to land on Leusip.

      "Don't ask," Leusip said. "It is nothing you need to know now."

      "The hell we don't. It was important enough to place inside our brains."

      "Please trust me that the two of you are better off not knowing. Not now anyway. Someday, perhaps. When the time is right and you are both in a calmer frame of mind."

      "Someday soon?" Avon said, with a challenging grin.

      "I hate to interrupt this sparkling conversation," Tarrant said from the doorway. "But we just got the warning signal from Steavn Change."

      "Then call everyone in."

      

      

As Tarrant went in search of the various members of their reformed crew, Avon watched silently at Blake's side. The transport that had teleported down with him from DSV 3 demonstrated the stability of his life readings. As his own brain rhythm had done several days prior, Blake's showed a steady upward gradient rise. He would soon gain consciousness.

      "Blake?" Avon said gently, not wanting to jar him.

      The eyelashes blinked open, and Blake turned toward him, as though waking from a nightmare. "What happened?"

      "You became ill while we were on Areopagus," he stated categorically. "Lahr removed the implant. We are now in Sovereign."

      "Sovereign?" Blake's voice flared. "Earth? Avon, you can't be here."

      "That has been taken care of. We have transportation out of here. We will be leaving soon. How are you feeling?"

      "I - have - a - whale of a headache," he moaned.

      Avon smiled. "Of that I have no doubt."

      Blake chuckled, then winced. "I suppose you got me back here. Saved my life and all of that. Which obligates me to be grateful to you."

      "Well, there is one small method of repayment," Avon said.

      "Should I be stupid enough to ask what it is?"

      Avon averted his gaze. "You may call me by my given name. It is a perfectly wretched name and I hate it. I never let anyone call me that, but I would like to make an exception to that. One exception."

      Blake's eyes, which had alternated between blurry pain and feckless humour, settled into a look of tender surprise. "You truly mean that?"

      "Yes. For some reason, it seems appropriate."

      "Then Kerr it is. And it isn't a wretched name, not at all. And somehow, it suits you."

      "Don't strain the limits of friendship, Blake."

      "Oh, now. I thought it was Roj. Roj and Kerr. Or Kerr and Roj, as you would have it, I'm sure." Blake chuckled for a moment, then some image, a thought, one memory returned, and his face reacted to it. He closed his eyes in horror. "My god, Avon ... Kerr ... those things I said to you-"

      "Are forgotten."

      "They aren't true!" he promised. "Not a word."

      "If you say so."

      "I swear to you!" Blake said, his eyes horrified. "Kerr Avon, I insist you tell me this moment that you know that they aren't true."

      "I cannot know something to which I have no access," Avon said, considering a moment. "But, no, I believe that you don't hate me. As I don't hate you."

      Blake laughed again, wincing at another rhythm of pain. "Why is it that statement from you is almost touching?"

      Hearing the sound of rumination, Avon looked up to see a line of faces acting as their audience.

      "All present and accounted for," Tarrant said.

      "Then let's go," Avon replied.

      Tyce stepped aside, moving toward Blake. "I will be staying."

      Avon looked at her. "You think that wise?"

      "Perhaps Doctor Lahr and I can make people listen. If nothing else, we can tell the truth about what happened here." Tyce reached a hand to touch Blake's shoulder. "Until the day you can all return here. And I will promise to help bring that day about."

      Avon looked to Leusip.

      Leusip retrieved the chromoindice from his pocket, then scanned each of them - Avon to Tarrant - for their genetic code. "This will enable the ship to teleport you, no matter where you are. It transports according to certain specific genetic patterns." Once finished, he handed the device to Avon. "I'll let you do the honours. Depress the sensor and state your command."

      Avon glanced about the circle. The time was at hand. He let his scan drift last to Blake, who was staring toward the now-blockaded access door. And Avon knew, that at some level, they were all thinking of that blocked door.

      "Zen," Avon said, "bring us up."

      

      

Standard by Infinity took them to the edge of the galaxy, to where time and space were entirely subjective. For days, they pressed on, out of habit, sorrow, out of a sense of purposelessness. No one knew where they were going. No one really cared.

      Blake spent most of his recovery days in his cabin, staring out at the portal toward the dark and endless kilometers. He didn't speak to anyone but Avon. And Vila once, when he barked at him to kindly leave his room and let him be.

      He was not recovering. He was not learning to cope. He was living with his failure, his wounds, his lost dreams. There was not only the loss of the present to deal with, but the abdication of his past as well, the past as he knew it, and no true memories to balm the empty wound ahead which was their future.

      "It was not so bad, then, dealing with tranquillized dreams," Blake had said to Avon once, breaking the silence during one of their frequent joint-brooding sessions. Then his voice softened with a tragic cast, as he turned his eyes away, adding, "At least they were my dreams..."

      

      

Finally, as the second week took hold, Avon decided to take drastic action. He busied Tarrant and Leusip with some flight plan nonsense on the psychovisualizer. He asked Dayna and Soolin to monitor and adjust the weaponry systems. He ordered Vila out of his sight.

      And he invited Blake to the flight deck for a game of chess.

      Just as he placed the black king in his space, Avon looked up to see Blake hovering near one of the breezeway tunnel entrances to the deck. He was just watching him, a look of scrutiny on his face.

      "When I saw your invitation for a game of chess, I accused Vila of planting it on my door," Blake said.

      "We often play chess."

      Blake walked forward to the chair opposite Avon, sliding into it. "But I'm usually the instigator."

      "Variety is the spice of life, isn't that one of those inane, old Terran sayings? Incidentally, I was just going over the scheme for Prometheus' first mission."

      "Prometheus?" Blake said, his gaze narrowing.

      "Yes. Sen Leusip's name for all of this," Avon said, glancing toward Zen.

      Blake leaned back in his chair, staring at the chess pieces. "Prometheus. He who stole fire from the hand of Zeus. The first defender of humanity." He struggled for a smile. "Yes, it is fitting."

      "Yes, well, I thought you would like that." Avon gave him a broad grin. "Although the Sisyphus seems more appropriate."

      Blake gave a sour smile, reaching forward to move his white pawn. "So what is Prometheus' first mission?"

      "Well, now, it seems our future is rather ambiguous at this point." Avon moved his corresponding pawn. "So, it is the rational thing that we should try to put together the pieces of our past, seeing as how we have not been provided them. We shall simply have to seek them out ourselves."

      "Sen Leusip still won't tell you what the implants were for?"

      "He called them 'modifiers'. What behaviour they were trying to modify in us, he would not divulge. So, when there is no future, one must seek out the past. To do that, we should begin at the beginning. Which, for me, is Gondoron."

      "The home of Standard Increase," Blake said, moving his knight forward.

      "Yes. What would be your opinion?"

      Blake shrugged. "I suppose it's the sensible starting point. And I guess it's the only way we're ever going to understand any of this. It's very simple, isn't it?"

      Avon moved his chess piece. "Nothing is very simple."

      From one of the tunnels, Dayna came strolling, attaching purple and orange paper petals to a plastic stem. She cruised across to Avon and Blake, glancing down at the chess board.

      "Who is winning?" she asked.

      "Distraction," Avon said, glowering, looking down to the 'flower' forming in her hand. "What - is - that?"

      Dayna gave him a petulant look. "A paper Sarran petry-polite. I thought since we wouldn't have real flowers, I would make some. When Lauren and I were young girls, whenever we would have arguments, we would pick a petry-polite and leave it somewhere for the other of us to find. Being the sort of people we were, we couldn't say we were sorry or say anything sentimental, so we'd leave one of these to say the same thing."

      "How charming," Avon said blankly. "Now go away."

      "I understand," she snapped in return. "You two want to be alone." With that, she turned and strode off the flight deck.

      Blake laughed, balancing his chin in a hand. He made another move at random. "Yes, things are back to normal. It was rather alarming watching you and Dayna be so civil to each other."

      "Nothing ever really changes," Avon said, moving the game into checkmate.

      Blake rose from his chair. "And this from the rationalist who believes in the doctrine of chaos. I'm going to my sleep cycle. Wake me if the world ends."

      Avon leaned back in his chair, studying his victory through his steepled hands. "I can chart a course to Gondoron?"

      "It's your ship, Kerr," Blake said. "I'm out of this. I am simply one of the elder crew-members. I intend to make my occupation that of caring for my friends and that is all."

      "Care to make a wager?" Avon said, smiling broadly.

      "You would not win, old friend."

      "Don't be certain." He rose slowly from the chair. "Within a matter of months, you will be tilting at windmills."

      Blake laughed, an ironic smile lingering afterward. "And here I would have thought you pleased I had finally come to the conclusion you always wanted me to. That this is all a useless charade. There is no use in rebellion. From now on, my only fight is for survival. At least, in that, there are rewards."

      "What did you expect, Blake?" Avon asked. "Applause?"

      He considered the question a moment. "No. I no longer know what I expected. Except for the next eight hours, I expect to be asleep. Good-night, Kerr."

      "Good-night, Roj," Avon said, watching Blake as he walked away.

      He remained in the silence of the flight deck, with his empty victory before him. It was a bland, but bitter success.

      "Zen, chart course to the planet Gondoron, ninth sector." The space map showed it as several weeks away by a calm and standard speed. There was no need to hurry certainly. In fact, there would have to be time for healing.

      "State speed."

      "Standard by seven," Avon said.

      Orac's voice broke the quiet: "Message intercepted from Sovereign Authority Refederation Interfrequencies follows: Former President Roj Blake, Impeached by authority of emergency session of the High Council, is wanted by Refederation Authorities for aiding and abetting in the escape of convicted felon Kerr Avon. Blake, Avon, and-"

      "That will be enough, Orac," Avon said, yanking the key.

      Avon gazed through the flight deck portal, at the distant stars that surrounded them. For years, man had climbed toward spaceflight, and had come only this far. And for years, Blake had fought and campaigned for a better life for his people.

      As Avon's brother had. As so many of them had.

      And here they were, back where they started.

      Or were they?

      In himself, Avon knew the truth. Though Tarrant would grumble and Dayna would pout and Soolin would toss malignant glances in every direction, though Vila's drinking had increased, and Blake thought his whole life was in chaos and this was the beginning of the end, Avon knew quite differently. For the change had occurred within.

      

      

Blake opened the door to his cabin, as if he might sneak up on a ghost from their past.

      It felt good to be here, to be home in a ship in which he had never been, yet this was a dark reminder of another time, of the reality of that time. It made Blake realize that everything they had ever done on board its sister ship, the Liberator, had been a lie.

      But home was not this place, it was these people. They were a unit again, and removed from those who meant them harm. He wondered about Tarrant, Dayna, and Soolin - how much their lives had been crafted to take their place in this pageant. And Vila. And, most especially, Avon - Avon whose life seemed as corrupted to this purpose as his own had been.

      How far back did it go? To the very beginning of their lives? Was there ever a time when Avon and Blake had lived lives all their own, unblemished by the hidden shadows of Sen Leusip and Steavn Change?

      That was why they needed to go to Standard Increase. If nothing more than to salvage what was theirs, dividing the chaff of other men's dreams from the wheat of their own. For if living with a missing past and distorted memories had been a trauma, enduring the burden of this would be more than sanity could withstand. And while he was accustomed to the insult of a stranger's input to his past, he did not know if Avon could suffer its consequences.

      Blake drifted across to his bed.

      There, on the pillow, lay one of Dayna's petry-polites, carefully placed where his head made an indentation. He lifted it, stroking a finger around the petals. The implication was clear.

      "...we couldn't say we were sorry, or say anything sentimental...so instead we left a petry-polite..."

      He smiled.

      Yes, his people comprised his home. Through them, he would continue. He would aid Avon in his search to discover their past. He would shepherd Vila off the bottle. And Dayna's flower was a purple and orange hope - perhaps he could finally reach her. Even Soolin. And Tarrant might even become tolerable.

      Together, they would carve some future out of what remained, no matter how little that was. And though the days ahead seemed nothing more than the ruin of the past, if life had given him nothing else, it had give him these people. These friends.

      Lying back on the pillow, he studied the flower, until sleep took him with it for the night.

      

      

Avon waited until he was certain Blake was sleeping.

      He lowered into the chair beside his bed.

      He had often thought back to the conversation he and Blake had shared, all those many weeks ago. The debates on life and meaning. And regardless of the fact that Avon had come to reexamine his whole view of things, he still did not believe in universal meanings. Life was an aggregate of chance, an accidental spill of prebiosis from whence life could then evolve. It had no purposes, no essential meanings, for there was only this assemblage of frightened creatures, set adrift upon the palate of a blindly devouring universe.

      One day, suns would implode. And further still, the forces of nature - be they gravity, nuclear, space-time, everything - would collapse into a unified field, a singularity, a void. Inevitably, there would be nothing.

      Logic dictated: all patterns were but an interference of intercausal agencies. And all patterns were soon reduced to that same singularity which would someday swallow the physical world. The only truth, the one great victory, was annihilation.

      Therefore, patterns did not apply. Life was not sacred. Of this he was certain. Well - relatively certain.

      Just as your conspiracy theories were just symptoms of paranoia?

      It was Blake's voice, echoing in his head again. It came with comments on nearly everything these days.

      That time, Avon nearly snapped in his direction. But he saw that the man was still asleep.

      However, his face was gripped with a disturbance: a nightmare. Blake suffered with them often these days. This was Avon's secret alone, for he came to this man's side whenever the long sleep cycles and his insomnia made the loneliness unbearable.

      Avon leaned across and took Blake's hand. Like a magnetizing field focusing a stronger signal of peace, the touch of Avon's hand vanquished the disturbance and quieted his features into a dreamless sleep.

      And though he still could not hold to the vast, sweeping generalizations of Blake's old visions, Avon would concede this much. Once, he had believed he stayed with Blake for no other reason than to survive. But just as his clinical mind saw through the illusions of the magic show and Blake's illogic, it finally sliced past the subterfuge of his rationalizations.

      He realized why he stayed now. He understood why he had pressed on with the Liberator, against all reason, to find Blake.

      Odd how possible that immense and dangerous galaxy had seemed when there was one friend lost among its stars. Was it possible? Had he done all that, solely for the life of a friend?

      There was no other possible solution. The labyrinthine pattern of his old rationalizations was gone. And this time, when the structure collapsed into a singularity, it was no void. It was himself. And he knew himself for the man he was - Roj Blake's best friend.

      All right, he saw the implication. In his solitude, Avon smiled. Yes, perhaps. In the love of friends, it was easy to believe in magic.

      But still, he was convinced, life as some deistic tremendum, as the evidence of divine intervention, was not sacred. But no matter if only a random convergence of human genetics caused such a man as Roj Blake to be, and no matter the cruel machinations that had bound their lives together for all time, Avon was grateful, to them - to it - to - him.

      For this life before him - this man - was sacred.

      And to Kerr Avon, that was the most joyous discovery of them all.

      


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Melody Clark

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