What Might Have BeenBy Firerose
I scanned the rows of seats. For me these occasions served a dual purpose. Yes, I loved the music, but I also enjoyed the relative freedom to mingle with others. Usually I used that freedom to sit among the lower grades. Sure, few service grades would ever bother to attend such an event, but frequently the lower technician grades, Beta-twos and even Beta-threes would come -- people on the project to whom I would never normally have cause to speak. Even without their dark-blue coveralls with the shoulder flash indicating precise grade and project assignment, somehow I could always tell. Something about the look in their eyes faced with a room largely full of Alphas. Everyone else sat strictly according to invisible grade demarcations, but it was not actually illegal to mix. Even encouraged -- technically that is. Certainly given my existing record I would do my reputation little if any harm by mingling in this context.
This time however I was late, the music about to start. My rapid search revealed few empty seats, fewer still near the ends of rows. One here. I stared pointedly at the seat, and the man blocking my path to it rose silently, vacating his seat and standing aside to allow me to pass without risking brushing against him. He wore dark grey, and I didn't need to look at the quality of the clothes to know that he was a fellow Alpha-one. Consequently I didn't bother even muttering my thanks, just inclined my head a fraction and failed to meet his eye. I didn't need to see his face to feel the smouldering anger at my invasion. In fact his face would probably have shown little. In my half-hidden non-project life I had grown accustomed to reading the hints that weren't there.
The music started. Something choral, ancient I thought. I did not recognise the language, certainly not one of the three or four variations on Standard with which I was familiar. I could only catch snatches of phrases, a repeated refrain that sounded like dee ess ear ay. Probably religious in inspiration? A rather daring choice for a public assembly. Under its cover I stole a glance at my neighbour's face. Fashionably pale skin, neat dark hair, precisely regulation length, eyes shut, hands clenched, as if trying to will me out of existence. Leaning back in his seat just a little further than was strictly Alpha-conventional. Perhaps simply enjoying the music? Maybe there was something to be gained here? Something about the man seemed familiar, but I could not place it. Certainly he had not worked in any of the engineering groups to which I had been assigned.
I turned in the interval, bravely looked the man straight in the face just for a fraction of a second. Then I remembered -- a gift with faces was one of my more useful accomplishments, and I must have stared at this one for over an hour. He'd been sitting on the platform that time, though. Foolishly I allowed enthusiasm to take over my tongue, blurted out something about being glad to meet him, remembering him from the last concert, enjoying the music. He stiffened further and turned away before I managed to add my name. In a way though that was a good sign. In my experience it often meant that the person already knew who I was. Being introduced was dangerous, speaking nothings to a stranger polite, conventional. And if someone pointed out my identity later then he could always claim ignorance. Yet no matter how well I rationalised, every time that it happened it hurt. As we stalked together but separate towards the bar, he asked without looking at me, 'Do you like the harpsichord?' And I was so disorientated by the unexpected attention that I told him the truth. As I tried to cover my faux pas with more babbling about how much I liked the ancient music, I thought he smiled. But he didn't speak again, just handed me a coffee fresh from the dispenser and walked away while I added milk and sugar, hands shaking.
And after the interval he sat somewhere else. Or left early.
It was over a month before I saw him again. Oh, in between I'd looked him up of course. I did that with everyone I met. Had to. Either they were potential recruits, allies, or enemies who might report my activities. I dug out the message with the programme notes for the previous concert from my history file -- at that time I compulsively hoarded information of all kinds, you never knew what might prove useful later. Incidentally the jumble also effectively camouflaged any potentially suspect files from casual inspection. Found the name of the person who had played the harpsichord. Kerr Avon. I didn't need to look him up, everyone knew the names of all the division heads, but I did it anyway. The fact he had even spoken to me was interesting. And that half smile, if I hadn't imagined it.
Our second meeting was in the central Alpha-one canteen, or 'restaurant' as the people who normally lunched there usually chose to call it, mimicking a long-dead language. I didn't normally lunch there, although the food was excellent, but my team's quarterly progress meeting with Dara and Tredein, the head of engineering, happened to end just before lunch. And old Tredein would never have imagined eating anywhere else. But he was a pleasant guy, prepared to be seen in public with a dissenter, as long as I constrained myself to engineering matters and the usual meaningless chatter that passed for conversation in those circles. Presumably he had defended me in private as too good an engineer to lose to foolish politics. Dara too, I imagined. Her tiny frame -- reputedly she came from one of the south-eastern domes, although she never spoke of such personal matters -- was a poor indicator of her strength of mind.
Tredein saw Avon before I did, hailing him cheerfully as he sat alone at an oval table which would comfortably seat four. Avon looked as if he would rather avoid company but he had eaten too little of the food on his tray to pretend that he'd finished. Anyway engineering outranked computing, with more than three times the personnel. Tredein introduced section leader Dara Kesinay and made to introduce me, but Avon said abruptly 'We've met,' again with that tantalising hint of an almost smile. He'd addressed himself to Tredein, but stupidly I was flattered that he had remembered, and even more flattered that knowing who I was he did not insist on my immediate eviction. Neither of them included me, or Dara, in the conversation that raged over the meal. Interdivisional politics was far from my interest and the two were clearly what passed for friends among their sort. Excluded I studied them, feeling dowdy even in my silver-touched black coveralls. Luckily Dara's habitual taciturnity made it unlikely that she would expect more than an occasional word from me.
At the end I decided to take a tiny risk. I hailed the serving Gamma grade to pay for the meal, and in getting out my credit chit fumbled my id card so that it fell on the floor by Avon's feet. A routine that I'd used many times before. He retrieved it wordlessly, face impassive, but I guessed he had held it for five or six seconds. Long enough to swipe it -- at least if he had fixed his reader so that it worked through a layer of cloth.
And then I waited. I wasn't sure why I was so certain that Avon would contact me. Five words and a couple of almost smiles.
Nor was I sure why I cared. Or if I cared?
When the anonymous message came I knew it was from Avon. No great deduction, it would take someone with computer expertise to send a message lacking any id trace, at least to my inexpert probings. I knew no-one else in that division, no-one with need to contact me like this, anyway.
Remembering the dowdy feeling, I deliberately turned up at the central meeting area still in my engineering coveralls. It was a suitably anonymous place to meet, and one I used frequently for this purpose myself. I turned the corner and there he was sitting alone at a table in the alcove by pillar X17 that the message had described, nursing a very small coffee. In view yet inconspicuous. Amusingly, while still in his habitual sleek grey, Avon had managed to dredge something out of his wardrobe that did not proclaim his status quite so self-consciously. Something that any Alpha might wear. Slumming it, are we? I had wondered whether his motives for contacting me were sexual. Of course I had investigated the man, listened to the interdivisional gossip -- of which there was plenty -- and unearthed no evidence of women. Certainly no wife and devoted family. Was this telling for someone of Avon's age and status? Homosexuality, like intercaste mixing, was not exactly illegal but it was certainly not a matter on which polite people wasted much thought.
I swiped my credit chit into the nearest refreshment station and picked up a coffee and something large and sweet to pick at, then paused, looked around ostentatiously. Luckily all the other tables approximated to full. Even in his slumming-it outfit, Avon radiated sufficient Alpha exclusiveness that it would be a brave man who sat at his table. I took a deep breath and seated myself, avoiding his eyes and over-stirring my coffee.
'Understand, Blake,' he said, in that voice of his, so penetrating yet barely above a whisper, 'if you so much as mention your little organisation I will report you immediately.'
The venom he could invest in the word 'organisation' was frightening. I didn't reply, and he went on, 'This is a dead spot in the surveillance network.'
Actually, our experience suggested that the surveillance receivers must be rather inefficient at recording quiet conversations over the piped music that pervaded all public areas of the Dome, although it was generally considered wise to face away from them. There were examples of people who had been successfully convicted based on conversations reconstructed from lip movements.
'If you're not interested...then why?'
'Curiosity. When one is accustomed to promotion-seeking sycophants, it is occasionally refreshing to hear someone speaking an unrehearsed truth.' He favoured me with another of those half smiles. 'I assume that you have a life aside from...?'
I was not so sure myself, but apparently I convinced Avon in the ten minutes it took him to dispose of his miniscule coffee, sip by tiny fastidious sip. All I could remember afterwards was that we had discussed music. Avon liked the austere and abstract sounds of the Early Tonals, Jayess Bach and his imitators, unsurprising for someone who chose to express himself on an ancient instrument as obscure as the harpsichord. I preferred the richer, earthier passions of the Mid-tonal period, rooted in the natural world and aimed at the common man. Bate Hoven's 'Ode to Joy' had been adopted as an anthem by the Freedom Party -- but of course that was something I could not tell Avon. We uncovered a shared love of the rather unfashionable fusion of ancient and modern traditions that critics called New Tonalism.
Did I say all I could remember? I lied. Avon's hands, their blunt fingers dwarfing his coffee cup. Occasional snatched glimpses of his face. The intensity he lent to every sentence. Avon was like no-one else I had ever encountered.
When the next communication arrived, couched in an invitation to a private viewing of a new art exhibition which would never before have dropped my way, why did I attend? No recruit for the cause here.
Perhaps it was simply that the invitation was perfectly chosen. A rich selection of Dutch masters, usually housed in one of the north-western domes. A chance to look at them with the tranquillity denied at a public exhibition. And a venue so above reproach, so full of ambassadors, of politicians, of the higher echelons of Space Command, that Avon could openly approach me bearing all the considerable arrogance of his grade and position. We stood side by side, casually discussing matters as trivial as the thickness of the paint in a portrait of an astronomer by an artist I had never heard of before, while sipping a 25-year-old port that caressed the nose and slipped down the throat with an aching smoothness. Avon smilingly introduced me to anyone who dared to greet him. And, yes, it felt good. Who cares if I wondered whether for Avon, I was almost the 'dissident as fashion accessory'? Or even whether Avon got some kind of kick out of the danger of it all? Just for once, the danger wasn't to me.
Afterwards, I told myself -- and all my Freedom Party associates who asked -- that talking to the great and the good, or rather the cynical and the corrupt, of Federation society rated as potentially useful research. And I told them -- but not myself -- that Avon might eventually prove a useful contact.
Next came a lunch invitation.
A dingy underground tunnel, uncompromisingly lit by fluorescent tubes that gave a greenish cast to the all-too-meagre circle of faces gathered in front of me. The tunnels were our favourite meeting place, deep under the Dome. Safe. They formed part of the maintenance network for the ventilation system. One of our number was a Beta-grade technician in the maintenance corps; persistent solvent leaks from ageing pipework -- most of them genuine -- gave him continuous access to the tunnel system. Relatively safe. Nowhere was truly safe now that the Freedom Party had been outlawed. Meetings -- defined as the planned attendance of more than six people -- had been declared illegal unless registered at least five days in advance.
A recruitment meeting. Too few people; my rapid assessment suggested no Alpha grades. Nothing new there. Of all our supporters, only two apart from Bran Foster and myself were Alpha grade. We mainly recruited Beta-ones who thought they should have been Alphas, and Beta-twos and -threes who coveted Beta-one status. So few joined because they saw the system as a whole as unjust, without regard to their place in it. Idealism was not selected for by Federation society. Of the service grades, we had a few Gammas but virtually no Deltas. It was frequently hard to persuade Deltas that there was a system at all, let alone that there might be meaning in a revolution against it. In my experience, two or three Deltas would agree with anything I said, while I was there -- and then you never saw them again. The very anonymity that would make them so useful to the cause also made it impossible to track them down in the ants' nest that was the Delta levels. Addressing a large group of service grades they would simply ignore the intrusion, and carry on their lives as if you were absent. In the long term, improved education for the lower grades was essential, and of course that was one of the core objectives that we campaigned over. But in the short term; well, it was one problem we had never managed to solve. Just one of many, I suppose.
The theme of my address that particular evening: inequalities in the distribution of wealth. I had to shout over the ever-present whirr of the ventilation fans and the random shufflings of an audience unused to sitting on unheated concrete. As usual, I started out with the raw facts: 10% Alphas absorbed almost 40% of Dome resources. An Alpha-one team leader earned more in a month than a Gamma-three cleaner earned in a year. No use even mentioning Deltas, at least not in a recruitment talk: most Dome inhabitants, I'd found, chose to simply ignore their subterranean existence. Almost on auto-pilot now, I knew exactly when to make the hand gestures, when to look out at the audience in direct appeal. When to observe which of those gathered in front of me seemed interested, which to consider cautiously approaching afterwards. Also as usual, the idea of a redistribution of credits and ration allocations to better reflect the individual's worth to society went down well. I hated appealing to people's avaricious instincts, but Bran always argued with his rather ruthless pragmatism that it was the only strategy that worked reliably. We can work on their altruism once we've got their attention, as he often put it.
The talk had largely been scripted by Bran, and several phrases in his first draft led me to guess that my oldest remaining friend disapproved of my newest. Bran wasn't here this evening, of course. As a routine precaution, we rarely attended the same meetings, and recruitment meetings were a particularly high risk. And even if he were here, Bran would never say anything directly. But then he hardly needed to.
In the morning, I messaged Avon with apologies, explaining not untruthfully that I was stuck with some engineering problem and a deadline. He sent back simply, 'Bring it with you.'
And I did. So that, in between spoonfuls of bitter chocolate ice-cream, I was explaining the six-dimensional vector equations that I was trying to minimise -- or was it maximise? Avon asked what the equations represented, and I rather half-heartedly explained that I was tasked with deriving the optimal array of sensor devices for the chamber itself. He brought out a liquid-filled writing device of a type that I had never seen before and started sketching on his paper napkin. Approximately three minutes later, he had derived the set of field equations that I had slaved over for weeks, and then said casually, 'The chambers you are working with, they are open at the front? And the sensors are fragile?' I nodded. 'Well then, the floor and one wall will be empty, so we can substitute two dummy variables.' And then, still scrawling on the napkin, he showed me how to use symmetry properties to solve the simplified vector equations.
Avon ordered a second serving of blackcurrant sorbet -- a reward perhaps? -- and leant back in his chair, relaxed, almost glowing. He was clearly at home in this retro-style eating place, the dim cramped space dominated by a gigantic and noisy machine that reminded me of 'images of an ancient steam locomotive and appeared to dispense his favourite coffee. But it was not just that: I realised suddenly that he loved to teach. I tried to apologise for my dullness but he waved me silent, 'I may as well solve one trivial problem as another. The whole matter-transmission project is futile. The fundamental problem of transmission of living organisms will not be solved using current mathematical techniques.'
'Why do you stay, then?'
'I have yet to find a more interesting challenge.'
'What do you want from life?'
'To be so wealthy that no-one can touch me.'
'That's not an aim. You want freedom to enjoy the good things of life.'
He did not answer, nor did he comment on my use of one of the forbidden words. Eventually he countered, 'And what do you want from life?' He caught my instinctive glance at the ceiling, and added with an edge of sarcasm, 'I believe there are no surveillance devices here.'
'Freedom for everyone to enjoy those good things.' A succinct summary of last night's address.
'Your masses would not appreciate them.'
'At least they'd have a choice.'
'You would place choice for people without the intellect to comprehend what you were offering them above order, progress, culture, education?' Avon sounded more amused than angry. Apparently revolutionary politics in the abstract was allowable, as long as I failed to mention any practical measures. Waving at the two small gold-rimmed cups of dark coffee that had materialised at our table, he added, 'And if the supply of coffee beans were restricted such that either we could enjoy real coffee or everyone could enjoy slops I suppose that you would prefer to drink slops.'
I imitated Avon in stirring in the froth and took a cautious sip of the stuff. The caution was warranted -- the sensation was explosive. Dark, somewhat bitter and wholly addictive, the taste bore absolutely no relation to the coffee that came out of the canteen dispensers. Even in the Alpha canteens, which usually boasted that their coffee was not synthesised.
'Slops definitely,' I replied, and Avon just smiled.
Over those months, Avon introduced me to smoked salmon, non-synthesised steak and old-french-style wines, all as different from even the Alpha ration issue as expresso was from the canteen coffee. Apparently non-engineered food, imported from farming planets, was still available, at a price. More ammunition for my Inequalities in the Distribution of Wealth talk. I introduced him to china tea -- I traded most of my cigarette ration for a number of black-market luxuries -- the names evocative of a long-dead civilisation, gunpowder, lapsang souchong, rose pouchong... These days it was said that one Dome was much like any other, although I had only ever experienced two. He must have taken me to all the exclusive restaurants on the topmost levels of the Dome. Some of them even had windows. We played a lot of chess -- he won around nine times out of ten -- and he tried to teach me some variants, shogi, which I enjoyed and even occasionally beat him at, and go, which I found incomprehensible.
In return, I introduced him to the seedier bars of the basement levels, non-grade restricted and habituated by Betas and Gammas. Few Alphas penetrated the sublevels, but, again, it was not actually illegal. Nor was it as dangerous as standard Alpha-aimed propaganda suggested, although taking the precaution of trading in cigarettes, or even the brown alcohol tokens that Deltas were paid in, seemed wise: producing an Alpha credit chit would not only announce our grade to the bar tender, but also ensure that our visit was recorded in the central security files. In fact, on previous visits I'd found the noise level -- generally fuelled by wall-sized vis-screens playing and replaying either the latest SuperStad match highlights or some PornoVid or other, the poor picture quality occasionally made it hard to discriminate -- to be a good cover for conversation.
I even introduced him to a few of my Beta-grade acquaintances. Not Freedom Party members, of course, but people from the project. Avon -- or rather Chevron as he called himself, which soon shortened to Chev -- could be surprisingly charming on occasion and, less surprisingly, he played a mean game of backgammon. Poker too. I wondered -- rather too often -- whether he'd ever visited these levels before. And why. Certainly he coughed a lot less on drinking his first pint of kif, the rough but effective drink that all these bars served, than I remembered having done. I also wondered sometimes why he accompanied me so readily. I never found a satisfactory answer for that one either.
After one evening spent in company with Gievor, a Beta-two engineering technician, Avon astonished me by saying, 'He's misclassified, of course.'
'Just because he won money from you.'
'You said that Gievor works under your direction? Why don't you approach An Tredein and get him reclassified? Tredein's quite enlightened about such matters.'
As usual Avon was right, Tredein immediately agreed to my suggestion to recommend Gievor for psychometric testing. It occurred to me that Avon might have supported the application but neither of them mentioned it.
Later I ran through central records to find out how many people were re-tested as adults and what proportion of those who underwent the extensive battery of tests were actually re-graded as a result. Not just curiosity, I wanted to be sure of my facts before mentioning anything to Gievor. As I had expected adult re-grading turned out to be rare, an average of hundred or so instances per year among the Dome population of around 1.5 million. But there were five cases in the past two years among people assigned to the matter-transmission project; moreover, when I accessed their personnel records, four of these had worked in the computing division at the time of the application.
I mentioned Gievor a few days later at one of my all-too-rare snatched lunches with Bran. After the party had been outlawed, it had become difficult to justify the risk of being observed together. As usual in recent months we had been arguing, Bran's grey head bobbing up and down as it always did when he was agitated. This time it was over his plans for direct action against one of the Dome's research hospitals, which intelligence reports suggested was developing a sideline in mutoid modification. Gievor suddenly seemed like a welcome distraction.
'Actually Avon suggested the idea,' I added, in an unsubtle attempt at convincing my friend that Avon might eventually prove a useful contact. 'In fact it looks as if he's helped to get four people working for him re-graded.'
From Bran's look I knew I'd somehow said the wrong thing. 'Look, Bran, I know you don't approve of my meeting him. You don't need to say anything. But he really is safe, I'm sure of it.'
'It's not that,' Bran said, with the air of someone instructing a child. 'Those four people. All men. All mid-twenties. And three of them transferred out of computing afterwards.'
I recalled that Bran had worked in computing a few years ago, and still had a lot of contacts there. 'You don't mean...?'
'Roj, I know you can be a bit naive sometimes, but in your position you need to be careful about what other people think.' He looked up at me, then said more gently, 'Even when it isn't true. Especially after...'
He never mentioned her name these days, no-one did, but I knew who he meant and my eyes filled briefly. Self-pity, really. I'd long since recovered. Ulla had been my fiancée before I joined the Freedom Party. She was only the first in the long line of friends that I'd lost when I started addressing dissident meetings. The first loss but still the bitterest. Now she was married to some idiot with the right connections who worked in Space Command administration.
I had come to understand her choice. I never contacted my family these days either. Minimising the risk. To them, of course, but also to us. The fewer people holding any information the better. They lived in a different dome, anyway, and recreational travel permits were strictly regulated, the necessary bribes well beyond my income.
These days I had so few real friends left.
I had decided to say nothing to Avon. What, after all, was there to say? We met that Friday evening, as had become our habit, at some upper-level bar that was a favourite of his. He had offered me a pre-dinner game of lightning shogi, and I listlessly started to arrange my pieces and consider which opening sequence to play.
'What's wrong, Blake?' He'd put down the crossword, unfinished.
'Nothing.' I looked down at the board and realised that I'd swapped gold and silver on one side. 'Tired, that's all.'
'Blake?' He abruptly swept the pieces from the board. 'So someone has relayed some gossip. Foster, I suppose.'
I started to retrieve the little ivory-coloured arrowheads with their strange markings from the floor, wondering whether I would ever play the game again.
'How did you guess?'
'You accessed some of the personnel records from my division.' I must have nodded. 'I suppose it never occurred to you to question?'
I looked up at him for the first time. His expression, as always, so hard to read. Not angry, I thought. Weary. Sad. 'Foster told me that three of the four transferred after they were re-graded. That's all.'
'There were better opportunities for Beta-ones in other divisions. Most of the research lines in which we are engaged require a sound theoretical basis in algebraic supergroup theory. I persuaded Tredein to offer two of them positions where it would be easier for them to acquire the necessary knowledge in situ. The third was offered some dull but worthy position in administration.'
'I was appointed straight from a university position with no direct experience in matter transmission. There were people who believed that the appointment should have been internal, that I was far too young, too inexperienced. They may well have been correct, but their tactics for eradicating me have been ... unpleasant.'
'Thank you for your explanation. I apologise for my ... misapprehension.' I was relieved that he seemed somewhat mollified by my apology. Avon did not seem like someone who readily gave explanations for his actions. 'How did you know about ...'
'Foster?' Now it was Avon's turn to look disconcerted, and he murmured simply, 'My university appointment was in systems security.'
Later, after several glasses of wine, I asked, 'So what was the real reason for your interventions?'
'The grading system is only fair to the extent that it reflects a meritocracy where everyone is tested at birth and any anomalies are rectified.'
'Deltas aren't tested at birth.'
'Few Deltas actually register their children. And even Deltas benefit under the current system.'
'They have access to very basic healthcare. It's hard to see how else they benefit. Have you ever seen any Delta living accommodation?'
'Of course not, but I am sure that you are about to tell me about it.'
'Oh, I won't bother.' Mostly I remembered the stifling heat -- the blankets that families hung up to segregate themselves within the communal dormitories must have impeded the air flow. And of course that distinctive odour, as dingy grey in tone as the blankets, which told more about the number of people per shower stall than any of the official statistics. But what would this fastidious man understand? 'I don't suppose that anything will ever make you appreciate the injustice of the current system.'
'And I don't suppose that anything will ever make you appreciate the futility of the ways in which you and other equally misguided souls are attempting to change the system.'
'At least we care.'
'Cling to that comforting maxim if you wish, Blake, but ultimately it is not caring that counts.'
And afterwards? Sometimes I was unsure whether or not I really did care. If I was honest I had few, if any, real friends among the service grades. And the company of the lower grades lacked the spark of my discussions with Bran -- or Avon.
Sometimes I wondered just what I had gained in exchange for my privacy, my promotion prospects, my friends, my fiancée. Once it had seemed so simple. Federation society was corrupt and oppressive. Opposition the moral obligation of any human being with a conscience. The Freedom Party the only thing that mattered.
But I seemed to have lost that easy black and white demarcation. My life fractured, split too many ways. Could a few hundred people working outside the law ever change the system? I wasn't sure anymore.
But I had gone too far to give up. Too much lost. Perhaps Bran was right, passive resistance was no longer enough. We had to really hurt the administration.
And I activated the little secure transmitter that I'd hacked up to contact Bran and Dev. We needed a planning meeting. And soon.
In all those months we had never met in private.
Now, with the raid on the rehabilitation centre planned for tomorrow, I needed someone to talk to. If I'm honest, I was simply afraid. Afraid of dying. Even more afraid of arrest, interrogation. Today a dissident. Tomorrow a terrorist. Or a corpse. Suddenly being a revolutionary hero in the abstract seemed to be the easy part.
Couldn't just sit and wait, pacing up and down my two rooms, drinking tea till my month's stash ran out. I was out of the door, pulling on my jacket and walking briskly to the nearest shuttle stop before I'd worked out where I was going. If I'm honest, though, was there ever any doubt? I knew where he lived of course. And then there I was, not sure whether I most needed to vomit or piss, breathing as if the oxygen might somehow be thinner in this upper residential section. Flashing my silver-striped id card at a bored black-clad guard.
Sector 3A, level 10, x425-21. The dull beige carpet damped my footsteps. I could hear the hum of the air conditioning, the thump of my heartbeat as I palmed the door panel and said 'Roj Blake' into the voice port. Closed my eyes. Hiss of the door opening.
The interior was almost dark, a pool of light picking out the desk with its info-terminal in one corner. For a brief moment the only other light diffused from a holoimage in the facing corner. A woman, a cascade of black hair, very thick and straight, huge eyes the shape and colour of toasted almonds. Then the wall lights flicked on and the 'image disappeared. I wondered if I'd imagined it.
Avon took one look at my face and gestured me towards another door. I made it to the bathroom before I threw up. Wiped my face afterwards on one of his thick black towels. A real bath as well as the shower stall: unusual, in fact I was not sure I'd ever seen one before.
'Sorry,' I said, not sure whether I meant for throwing up or for coming at all. Then for want of anything better to do made a questioning gesture in the direction of the remembered 'image.
'A former student,' Avon said, his voice free from expression. 'She joined Space Command after graduation. I believe she's a Space Major now.'
I wanted to say, she's very beautiful.
I opted instead for the slightly lesser intrusion of looking around me. The living area was only about 30% larger than its equivalent in my own quarters, but with three internal doors I guessed the whole apartment must be substantially larger. Probably larger even than the Kesinay family quarters which I'd visited once or twice. Everything unnaturally tidy. A low table bearing an ornamental chess set, its pieces carved in polished stone, black and green. Laid out so precisely that I guessed the pieces were rarely moved. One wall completely taken up with a sheet of what looked like coloured glass, glowing now as if lit from behind. A subtle progression of shades, from the dark blue of thunder clouds to the mix of grey and green and blue that I imagined sea water might take in a storm. I'd never seen the sea.
'Don't touch,' he said, as I stretched my hand towards it.
'Fascinating. It reminds me of 'images of the windows in ancient places of worship.'
'Stained glass, I believe it was called. A drink?'
I nodded. 'Have you ever been Outside?'
'Of course not. Why do you ask?'
'The colours: clouds, water...'
'The computer chooses them,' he said dismissively. He deactivated an opaque force wall, removed a nearly full bottle and tumblers from the concealed cupboard, poured two generous measures. No wonder everything seemed tidy.
I swirled the liquid round in the glass. Whisky I guessed. I was sure that the pungent smell that rose was meant to evoke memories, but it was like nothing I knew. And I don't know whether it was the alcohol on top of the tension, or just some desire for Avon to know, to understand, to approve even, but then and there I told him everything about the raids. I didn't take my eyes off the glass.
He heard me in silence. Then coolly told me to get out and never contact him again.
And two weeks later, just before the third raid, I was arrested.
Perhaps I should never have asked Orac. Should have let the unremembered past remain just that. Once Orac had told me that central records on Earth listed a certain Kerr Avon among my known associates over the ten months before my first arrest, I had to know everything. Orac uncovered a few recorded details of meetings. Eventually also a grainy surveillance vistape of two men walking away side by side. One turns back towards the camera, and for a moment I could see, sidelong, a face that might once have belonged to Avon. He pulls the other man, the one who could have been me, into a side corridor.
Less than twenty seconds. But suddenly I remembered walking with Avon in those dimly illuminated basement level passageways: probably not that time, nor exactly that place, although one Dome corridor looked much like any other. And now, unlike so often before with the unindexed mess that was all that remained of my memories, once that tiny fragment floated free the rest followed. As clear and vivid as seeing Avon only a few hours earlier in the Liberator galley. Still drinking coffee, some things never changed.
But ... the tape that had triggered the memories. However many times I watched and rewatched those twenty seconds, they could have been anyone. Why did Avon not remember? He had never mentioned any rehabilitation treatments. Could my memories have been planted? Once I had thought I could tell the difference, but I was no longer so sure. But why?
Or was it just that Avon did not choose to remember? Had Avon betrayed the Freedom party? Now I remembered fighting that particular bitter thought in some anonymous transit cell. Almost, though, he knew both too little and too much. Too little, in that I was almost certain that I hadn't told him the time or place of the meeting at which I was arrested. Or had I? Too much, in that he clearly knew of my association with Bran Foster, and Bran was one of the few who had escaped arrest. But I could never be sure. And now, how could I live with Avon, rely on him, without being sure?
My thoughts tumbled round and round and round in ever tighter circles. Had he betrayed us? Tantalising, agonising to see him every day yet not to know.
Have you betrayed us, Avon? Have you betrayed me?
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