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The Long Way Back

By Melody Clark

His name was Ago Taro, but his maquisard called him The Emperor of Dust.

      He had been second-string Federation all his adult life, with alliances in the front office as well as the black market. Yet he was never to have his good name tarnished, never to fall from grace, always able to skip a rank or take another name.

      In the wake of some minor scandal, he was recalled only vaguely by those whose memories had currency to Federation Authority. They recalled him as a cipher, a dour sort who kept his place and always met his quota. Nothing remarkable enough... not even remarkable in his mediocrity... to merit notice. Just one more adequate Federation cog.

      Those on Fate's bad side enough to be placed in his charge, did remember him, but even their dim familiarity spawned only an impotent scorn. He was bland and faceless even in cruelty. If someone had taken a survey from the Refederation powers, of the most likely Taro candidates from among the Space Commanders (and it was known - or half-suspected - that Taro once had been one), this man's name would never have been mentioned. There was nothing in him to inspire greatness, of whatever sort, nothing to augur a leader of men.

      It had happened with Star One.

      When Star One fell, to let the cold insouciance of the galaxy inside, most had fled in mindless terror. The empowered and the small: the pure majesty of this omen fell on them like a super-nova to a blind man's eyes.

      But Taro had known it as a signal, a message from his one true sovereign, that force onto which his computer terminal had stumbled one bland, mid-Equinox morning: that system of insoluble Truth he had known immediately was the one true god. It became his ally, it became his friend. It asked him questions, it gave him answers.

      And when the Star fell, the voice of his ancient god spoke to him, amid the peril of disillusionment, instructing him to take up arms against those who had bequeathed him only their despair, who had built him a whole, pure vision, then disabled it. He had lived among them, eaten bread off their laden tables, laughed at their sad attempts at humour, but he had never let them touch him, because he knew they lived in lies. They had not kept the faith. He had refused to love them.

      God had reached down his mighty hand and destroyed Star One, for his sake.

      And it was up to Ago Taro to take this music of chaos and spin it into the whole, pure vision - the mighty kingdom of God. He would enforce its walls against the divisive mind of Natas. His god would tell him what was Right, indisputably Right, the doctrine that could not be disputed by the masses nor denied by the dark voice of Natas whispering in his mind. Together, he and the True God would spread their bounty across the limitless stars.

      And then would come their true campaign - One worthy of His Greatness. To wait for the one who could awaken Natas, who could stir that once-dark dragon from its dreamless sleep. Then they would follow its coward's flight into the void. And then could Taro's maquisard storm the doors of Natas' star and strike the dragon down once and for all.

      But first his God was in need of soldiers to his Cause.

      His hand was moved in the selections. They would take of the incorrigibles among the old Federation guard, those without education to inspire intellect, those who had murdered and plundered. They would take of the unrepentant crimos, likewise. Through subtle retraining and the stimulation of their half-formed consciences into a usable guilt, hewn of the regret hiding in the reaches of all men's souls, they would marshal it, nurture it. Then give it absolution. Give their guilt oblivion in the blessed surrender of autonomy. To such men haunted with regret, giving up their own minds would be a sacrament. Guilt was the bridge: with it, he could storm their souls.

      And just as the One True God commanded, it was so. Taro had his maquisard. A fighting force unparalleled.

      It started slowly. First a little border world, then another, larger one, usually with a spare population of the very young and the very old, the fighting age having been conscripted to colonial industry. Soon, they had brutalized and ransomed their way into minority status in the Borderworld Quorum.

      Slowly, the indigenous lost ground. The homeworld sovereigns were put to death. Taro took control. Thereupon, he issued his first ultimatum to the Terran-based Refederation. This had been the week of the celebration, marking four years since the opening of the Terran domes, the day before Councillor Avon - the President's closest advisor - tried to take his own life, or so the current verdict would allow.

      With it all, Taro's dispatch was met with silence.

      Two time units later, Taro claimed Artemis, then the neighbouring Arcturus and its outpost moon Arcadia. On the seventh day, they claimed Destiny.

      The loss of Destiny had been enough - an old Refederation (or more to the point, Roj Blake) ally. It transformed the Refederation response from silence into cautious apprehension, and their intelligence had Taro plotting the downfall of Alpha Fatima, the Refederation's first and strongest ally.

      Vendarian was sent there - in the wake of the Avon Problem - to counsel Taro into surrender.

      When Steavn Change took power - a weakened and embattled power, but power regardless - he dispatched a Stellar Intellpost to Vendarian on Alpha Fatima.

      It instructed Ambassador Vendarian to issue their own ultimatum to Taro: that Taro was to immediately surrender the captured homeworld governments to their own leaders. And if he did not tacitly accept all conditions as set forth in the mandate, the Refederation would send the full measure of its armament against him, seize his cretin maquisard, his fleet of bastardized Galaticrafts, and consign him to some borderworld wasteland for the rest of his lamentable life.

      In receipt of the Intellpost, Vendarian summoned Change over the viscom.

      "But don't you think the wording far too inflammatory, Steavn?" Vendarian fought for reason, the image of him on the vis-screen unaccountably old and pale.

      "I am tired of impudent troublemakers making me lose sleep!" Change replied. "Issue that ultimatum, Ven, as it is worded. Make no revisions. Give no ground. Tell that smug, self-deluded little bastard to stop this circus insurgence of his or I will personally mount the offensive."

      "Steavn, listen to reason. That creature is insane. You don't know. You've never seen. Handing him this tract is the same as aiming a neutron blaster at my skull and pulling the trigger!"

      "For once in your politically correct life, Ven, consider something besides your neck, will you? That is all."

      "But if you will only-"

      "I will do nothing!" Change roared back. "That is all, Ven." With that, Change released the signal relay and the face of Vendarian scattered into a blank space of undetected wave.

      The next time unit, Taro relayed a message through the renegade sub-standard frequency. It indicated that Taro's official response to their official ultimatum had been encoded for automatic Terran return at 1200 hours.

      At 1200 hours, a High Council-assigned, L-type cruiser floated mechanically into landing position. It did not respond to clearance transmissions, it simply kept to flight plan and made a mathematically precise landing.

      Change met the cruiser at the portwalk, as an air car towed it in for his inspection. Two Service aides stepped forward to carefully extract the cruiser's only cargo: a body bag. Steavn watched through a veil of fingers as the aides opened it.

      The Medtech's consensus was that Vendarian had been dead for thirty-six hours, not having much survived the issuance of Change's ultimatum. The Intell-text of it had been spiked to the dead man's chest, then drawn over with a series of six parallel lines: lines one, three, four and five, unbroken, lines two and six were broken. Some sort of primitive binary code.

      Change merely stood there for the longest time, staring down at the pattern that the lines formed, as if he might perceive a meaning there. But no matter how his soul sought answers in it, his brain found only a meaningless sequence of parallel lines.

      "What in hell have you done?" Change whispered softly, reaching down to rip the tract from Vendarian's body. He glanced one last time at the pale face staring back at him with the accusation of death. "Fasten it up again," he told one aide, handing the tract over to the other. "Go to the Index and find out what the hell that is and what the bloody hell it means."

      It was called Ko.

      The Forty-Ninth Hexagram, of an ancient tool of divination called the I Ching. It was the trigram earth moving over the trigram fire - a volcano of change seething under the crust. And when the hexagram was formed by the Yarrow, it presaged the coming of revolution.

      The day after, Alpha Fatima's Homeworld Parliament - newly enjoying a native peace after a long civil war - were made prisoners of war by Taro's maquisard. The universe's last civilization of adult Auronar were now slaves.

      Noi Tan of the High Council, himself Auronar and, to make matters all the worse for Change, another damnable friend and ally to Roj Blake, gripped Steavn's hand around the merographic polyscribe and signed Change's name to the Intellpost, this one sent out over general frequency, this one addressed to Sen Leusip. Asking him to make contact - to discuss certain issues of mutual interest.

      

      And then there was war.

      

      No other recourse, no second option. The border young were first conscripted, lifted out of peace-time industry to fill the ranks of the Refederation Trainband. They were bred to battle, for there was always some off-world malcontent, some Terran industrialist, ready to make of them a race of slaves.

      But the Refederation Trainband was few in number and shackled by ethics, doing battle with Taro's newly self-righteous, crimo-laden maquisard. And they had little in the way of artillery to strike at the Emperor's Galacticrafts, for which there always seemed to be more able pilots to replace the dead.

      The Refederation dead climbed as well, high enough that the border worlds cried out at the inequity, that the Terran young had not been first to fight.

      And so, the Terran young were sent.

      But Taro never gave an inch. He never faltered. Somehow. Inexplicably. With all the intellects of their strategists and all the artillery of Earth, Terra stumbled. Taro's maquisard, untrained, with makeshift weapons, and one distorted vision, was holding His own.

      Finally, word came from Leusip - one modest hand of friendship. It told Change where he might leave word where Sen might receive it. It made no promises. It said only he would make contact with conditions, at Change's invitation.

      And Steavn let it remain there, in the thrall of war, the information unused. Bad enough he was forced to do battle with crimos and malcontent Federation Space Commanders. But to do a deal with Blake and Avon would take the eradication of all other options.

      But then the death tally, which had hovered at three hundred and four, became three hundred and five.

      The final death was a young Refederation Section Leader shot down in field battle over Outpost Terminal.

      He had died bravely, to save his men. He had been the finest of the Trainband - and a husband, father, and son.

      Section Leader Jorj Change had been all of twenty-six years old.

      With a glass of lager in one hand, his father sat down with a Stellar Intellpost to Sen Leusip in the other, placing it into the Metafax, sending it through. This one requested Sen come at once - and come vested with the power to discuss Blake's conditions for return. As the signal tone sounded to register its claim, Change sighed audibly.

      The sun was sent down in fire over the horizon, setting on the day his son had died. The dark found Change still sitting there, staring into the glass, refusing to turn in the direction of the image disc of Jorj, then aged 17, smiling in his brand new uniform. He had joined the Trainband to please his father, to barter for that currency with which Steavn Change was most conservative, his love, his admiration, his respect, knowing it would speed Jorj on towards its promise. Make him go on scrambling for the crumbs of acceptance his father had tithed to him.

      "What the hell is the point in going on?" he asked the silence of the room.

      "Going on is the point, Steavn, not the question," Leusip said, his form defining itself, with the hum of an electronic swarm, across from Change's desk.

      Change gave him a broken smile. "You make a fast reply, my friend."

      Sen Leusip did not smile in return. "The matter was urgent, or so your Intellpost said. I have told you I would be here for you, when you needed me, Steav. Not that you seem particularly in need of redemption, Mr. President Pro Tem."

      "Appearances are deceiving," Change said, staring dully into his empty glass. "You have not seen the recent viscasts. I have been compared to everyone from Julius Caesar to Rathji the Infidel, and Blake consistently to every martyred hero and murdered redeemer in planetary civilization."

      "What did you expect, Steavn?" Leusip said, lowering himself into a chair.

      "Not this," he said. "Not..."

      A moment passed between them, Leusip's expression softening. "Words have always failed the two of us at times such as these," he said. "We have that trait in common."

      "What is there to be said? He was my only son."

      "Your younger son," said Leusip, as if it was necessary to remind him.

      "My only son." Change shook his head. "At very least, he died a hero. May that be some, small comfort to his mother, to his wife and son, at the services tomorrow." He paused a long moment, as if trying to make sense of it, but failing. "I am not a soldier, damn it; I am a statesman. I know nothing of waging war."

      "There is another way, Steavn."

      "That is why I brought you here."

      Leusip nodded. "I thought as much."

      Change rose labouredly from the chair, passing his hand across a sensor to darken the window. He then as labouredly returned to his chair, lifting a gaze without compromise to the other man.

      "How are they?" he said.

      "I don't suppose you mean the royal they."

      "How are they?" Change merely said again, with impatient eyes.

      Leusip nodded in concession. "One is in mourning for his life, I rather suspect. The other?" Leusip sighed. "He is difficult to read on his best days, but then second-guessing his moods has always been an arcane science to me. To everyone, I suspect. Everyone but Blake anyway."

      Change took it all in, decoding it, absorbing. He took a deep breath, as if afraid of his own next words.

      "And do they remember?" he asked, looking away.

      "I don't know."

      "There should be signs!"

      "Who knows how it would express itself, Steavn? What would you look for? One is always sullen of late and the other never speaks to me anyway. I am more enemy than confidant, to them. Blake only tolerates me because I aided their escape and Avon simply because I know the infrastructure of Areopagus."

      "But they will remember? Remember everything?"

      "In time? Of course. With the modifiers removed, there is nothing preventing it."

      Change shook his head vigorously, surrendering to the arms of the chair. "Dear Fate take pity on us all. How are we to deal with this?"

      "We can't, Steavn."

      "We must."

      "We both agreed: in the event of the modification failure, we would simply endure the consequences. We both took an oath. We swore."

      "We were young, Sentya. Children. Children nourished on all that idealistic pablum that Foster and Carn and their like fed us." He raised both hands to his face, making of them a mask, his voice distorted, his words unpunctuated and fumbling out into the air. "Free will is an illusion. A false unknown. The spontaneous effect of the convergence of tens of thousands of neurons in the cortex and lower brain. Nothing more."

      Leusip's expression caved in, horror festering in his eyes. "Finish the quotation, Steavn. 'Cure of social deviations must be regarded as one of the priorities of Applied Brain Research'."

      "I no longer consider Professor Taylor the mutant monster we once thought him."

      "'Shadow of the Mind' was the treatise Preston based his Psychotherapeutic Mandate on! The father of mind-wipes and Federation processing, Steavn."

      "The friend of your enemy is not necessarily your enemy as well."

      "Nor proven your friend. This isn't you speaking, Steavn."

      He considered the empty vessel around which his fist was embedded. "My brain is in the trust of a non-nutritive fermented beverage." He moved forward in the chair. "At any rate, what would be Blake's conditions for... handling this madness?"

      "I think you can interpret them yourself. It would mean some accommodation. I wonder if you are motivated to peace enough to risk the disgrace, old friend."

      Change waved all thoughts of that aside. "Tell him he can have whatever he wishes. His blessed government post. His Inner Council. His - Kerr Avon," Change said, as if muttering darkest obscenity. "Whatever. If he will neutralize this situation. This Ago Taro, as he insists upon calling himself now."

      "I will tell him. But I must have permission to tell them the rest of it as well... tell all of them. Give them the common courtesy of their own pasts."

      "I have no problem with the others knowing. Restal may be a problem, but nothing that cannot be handled. However," Change said, regarding Leusip directly, his smoke-coloured eyes foreshadowing his next words, "Avon and Blake must never know about the events of Areopagus. This situation is simply too fragile. That knowledge might lead to greater dangers than even Ago Taro represents."

      Leusip sighed, nodding. "Very well. Agreed."

      Change sent his gaze to the wall. "I will be anxious for your return."

      Leusip reached across the gulf that stood between them, the black plexiglass desk standing in its stead, and placed a hand over Change's. "Be at peace with it. We do what we are capable of doing."

      He tried to smile. "You have never had children, Sentya. You have never known failure. Not really."

      He turned the chair towards the darkened window, passing his hand at the desk sensor. When the glass pane cleared, the sky beyond was darkening, the sun gone down with red fury, like Terra's very heart caught fire and the grey clouds above the horizon were settled piles of ash. "You can go now, if you will."

      "Good-bye, Steavn," Leusip said.

      But when Change turned to say the same, the space where he was, was empty.

      He had gone.

      No doubt to Areopagus, built of the unfathomable genius of his old friend's mind, a place with gates beyond Change's ability to open and beneath Leusip's present disposition to trust.

      It should have been different between them, Change thought, staring out at the red fire fleeing off the side of the very Earth, past clouds now the colour of soot. It could have been. Very different. But all options were long since settled... all doors had long, long, long ago been closed.

      

      

      "Which no weak passions e're mislead,

      Which still with dauntless steps proceed,

      Where Reason points the way,

      Put tempers, passions in the scale,

      Mark what degrees in each prevail,

      And fix the doubtless sway.

      

      The last, best effort of thy skill,

      To form the life and rule the will,

      Propitious Pow'r impart;

      Teach me to cool my passion's fires,

      Make me the judge of my desires,

      The master of my heart..."

      

      

Every morning, It lured him out of sleep with the words and each evening It eased his brain cycles with them, from Beta rigor into Delta sleep. And when It distinguished that peculiar flux in attitudinal stasis It was inlaid to read as nervous stimulation in the boy, It would use the words on him again. Sadness, anger, some fleeting shadow of joy, all the emotional perversions of cool, clear analysis were treated to their own standard dosage of prescribed words, composed to stem the endocrine tide.

      But they all began predictably, all appointed with the same damned preamble.

      "Passion is a form of chaos, 104," It would always say.

      Sometimes the words were a lullaby to him, smoothing over a painful kink of resistance, making it easier to accept, to live on. And yet other times, he battled them. Knowing them for what they were, as filters on his vehicles of perception, tuning out the world beyond Standard Increase, degravitating the pull of that world on him, muting his call to life.

      He knew It wanted to hone him, blind him. And no matter how hard he tried to fight It, It persisted with its careful masonry, going right on building a wall around his heart.

      Even in the sleep of his adulthood, mega-spacials away and thirty years in the future, Avon could feel its coldness. Coldness somehow a part of him and apart from him, reaching out to enfold him into the dark of its metallic peace.

      And even as he felt his body turn methodically on the responsive sleep level, heard the filtration rush of the Prometheus' atmosphere exchange system, even then he stood in the dark of Standard Increase, watching the cold light illuming into the two sensor panels.

      Lucid dream, the adult Avon thought with some interest, reaching a hand out to test for sensory response.

      "Good morning, K.A. 104," It said.

      "Go to hell, Mater," Avon replied, just as he had on that morning in real time 'morning' in as much as any sun ever shone on Standard Increase.

      There was a long and important silence, a pause in the Mater 9's concise and flawless repertoire of human speech technique.

      "Mater registers the necessity to again advise Index criteria for acceptable application of masturbatory functions..."

      Well, now, he remembered that morning.

      "...for constructive and simple release of human sexual tension at conservative levels of nervous system excitation and expenditure..."

      It went on and won Its point, as It always won, as It always, always won.

      "We will cover again the appropriate manner for-"

      "Avon."

      "K.A. 104, do we have your attention?"

      "Avon," the invading voice said again, a voice calling out to him from the edges of his mind.

      "K.A. 104, do we have your-"

      "Don't listen to it, Avon, let me show you... let me show you how..."

      The hatred for the Mater 9... that low-grade fever of reconciled hatred, the hopelessness {kern 0 0}and despair and homesickness for warmth and greenness and softness, all were swept aside. Mater's mental calisthenic was no match for this.

      Something wonderful poured through him, flowing through each artery, branching outward into veins and capillaries into sinews then down into muscle that awoke each nerve with a tease, with a promise. Phantom hands roamed his body, forging a pathway through the wall... the wall... through the safe, damnable wall...

      "Avon," said the voice again, this time in a whisper of seduction.

      "No!" he screamed silently, trying to tear through the surface of sleep.

      Loud laughter enveloped him, his dream lover dragging him back down. "What are you afraid of?" the voice asked, the phantom hands no longer teasing, but yanking arrogantly at the fastenings of his trousers, the hands plunging through cloth to capture flesh.

      "Avon, my love," He moaned, as He mounted a vicious fucking motion on Avon's cock. "Let me show you how," the hot voice rushed through his ear, the wet mouth claiming his throat, while the hand went on and on and on.

      Too much... this was... too much... this was...

      "The master of my heart," Avon whispered, like the commands he often issued through his computer system, as though it would forge a tempering path from his brain to his heart. But it was useless, an empty plea to the gods of reason.

      "Yes, I am. And I will show you how it really feels. Because I want you, Avon. For all time..." said the feverish voice, the hand pumping harder and harder, a warm, fleshy tongue drawing promises along his ear. "Look at me, Avon. Know the face of the one... the one..."

      "No!"

      "Look at me! For once in our lives, know the truth."

      With that, Avon tore himself free, plunging himself through the surface, into the world of filtration noises and a console clock ticking off the minutes of his life. To a world of sweat and muscle, balanced on the very edge of his bed while orgasm jerked through him with a hot, sweet fury.

      When it was over, when there was only the residual music playing over his nerves, he lay there flat against the sleep level. The galloping of his heart was easing into a gentle stride and he remembered where he was, suddenly realized he was staring at the ceiling of his quarters. He searched out every consecutive rational thought he could reach and strung them together.

      (That had been... credibly incredible... it had been...)

      Rational thought struck a nerve and his whole memory folded up against him. Wouldn't let him recall it.

      (A shower, a hot shower... yes, that would be highly acceptable at this point.)

      He rose quickly from the sleep level, standing there a moment. Options fought for dominance in his own intentions. (The ramifications were somewhat disturbing...). The voice of his dream lover had belonged to a man... (It was nothing. A simple stimuli response from being too long without sex...)

      "Avon!" Blake's impatient voice burst over the console, sharp and distinct.

      Avon jerked towards the sound, cold terror rushing to the front of his mind, as if his dream lover had pursued him into the real world. Then he realized it was the comm system. It would seem he had left the channel open by mistake.

      "Avon, respond please!" Blake roared again, as if for the fifteenth time.

      Avon reached across to the signal relay, with a longing glance at the shower access. "What do you want, Blake?" he asked softly, preoccupied.

      "Where were you?" Blake said.

      Several graphic images flared unbidden in his mind. He pinched his nose, closing his eyes. "It would seem I was asleep," he said softly. "From your indignant voice, I must have overslept. I take it we have reached Gondoron."

      "An hour ago," Blake said. "Which is why I have been calling you for twenty minutes."

      Something in Avon darkened. Blake was sounding more recalcitrant than usual, which was a considerable judgement given he had risen to new heights of stridency in days of late. Still in all, he hated this sound in Blake's voice. He was too used to it in his own, but this tone should have no home in Blake's voice.

      Then the implication struck him with bracing clarity. Fear cramped at his chest. "You were calling me over the comm system?"

      "Several times. Your channel was open. I assumed you were awake," he said, apology seeping through his voice, lightening his tone.

      "A reasonable assumption. I will be down shortly. Avon out."

      "Kerr," the voice came back once more.

      Avon bristled slightly, but the tone was gone from Blake's voice. It eased his impatience for a shower, for the absolving implications of water. "Still here," he said.

      "Are you going to be all right with this?" Blake said. "This is not going to be easy on you."

      Well, now, that was all he required at that particular moment: a question of relativity. Leave it to Blake to ask one.

      "If we are ever going to own our own lives, Blake, I don't see I have any choice in the matter. Beyond which fact, since when has life in this farcical mission of yours to Deliver Us From Evil been an easy one?"

      Blake chuckled over the comm system. "This is a different mission all together, Avon. Just promise me you won't be your usual stoic self with this. Promise if it gets too deep, you'll give me a sign."

      Blake and his relentless pushing of the interpersonal envelope, Avon thought wryly as he touched his face, scouting for the measure of his sweat, finding it to be prodigious.

      He hoped the sigh was inaudible. "I'll let you know," he said, and closed the channel.

      The Prometheus bathing system was a fascinating one, with its interactive powerplay of jet mist and absorption. But as Avon stood there, allowing it to act upon his body, his thoughts were still back in bed, inside the dream.

      Nocturnal emissions - what the great unwashed called 'wet dreams' - were not common at his age, but they were hardly what could be termed unlikely. And morning adrenaline surges in adult males characteristically induced erection.

      Physical aspects aside, however, it was still a rather ferocious orgasm... all right, perhaps the strongest he could recall...

      But the fact remained that the voice of his dream lover had belonged to... a man... had been...

      (All right. It had been) Blake's voice. Which lead to the obvious conclusion that the fantasy lover had been...

      He leaned back against the shower wall, bracing himself against the conclusion. He ignored the sensations in his groin, tried to forbid the stiffening, refused the implications. It had to have a simple explanation.

      Blake's voice, had come over the open channel, invading his dream of Standard Increase, doubtless already in progress. Blake's voice, charged as usual with reasonless urgency Blake's voice, decidedly male... In complete contrast to the Mater 9, the mechanical mother of Avon's youth, dispensing words as languidly as a human slowly bled to death. So his mind took the immediate measure to counteract the nightmare by using Blake. And the fact of the matter was, the dream was recalling the morning of his first orgasm, when the Mater computer reproached him for masturbating too - efficiently. The mind had surely taken a different route with symbolic masturbation, to deflect the Mater effect, using the hand of another man - a friend - in a - kind of secondary - transferred - autoeroticism.

      Yes. But the other man had not simply represented a masturbatory function. The other man had said... things... such things...

      He tripped the sensor for a vibrant mist that blasted out cold and bracing. Good, he thought. Fitting counterpoint to the warming trend. It solidified his rationalization... and it washed away the phantom hands.

      

      

Blake stared over the electronic depiction of the planet Gondoron that Zen had sketched on the horizontal screen, frowning at the inhospitable terrain that centuries of vaulting cataclysm, glossed over with first century Terraformatechnics, had wrought. It was only sparsely populated. Which, to Blake's mind, was a fortunate thing.

      The dark side had, within the Old Calendar, been home to a Meta-Biotics Mill that had, one mid-winter's day, gone into catastrophic shutdown. Two hundred thousand units of free radical conversion waste, one hundred thousand units of lethal chemicals, nine hundred and forty hazardous bacteriophages, seventy-one minor viruses, six hundred and forty-three categorically lethal retro-viruses, and two hundred and twenty-one off-world workers had gone up with the curious inferno invoked by alien atmospheric exchange.

      And conditions on the other side were not conducive to survival. Most of the structures were harboured underground - what little industry had been foolish enough to build there did not go outside, but sought sanctuary from the vicious Titan sun.

      "Zen, identify Standard Increase on horizontal screen, in reference to Refederation Index," Blake said.

      "Standard Increase location identified."

      A white blot bloomed out of the beige terrain of the light side topograph.

      Yes, of course. It was the perfect place for such madness, the debris of which they were teleporting down to examine.

      He shook his head at the very thought. "Index the least hazardous area to focus-locate Avon and me in teleport. Then relay Peacekeeper flight plan strategy to the dark-side grid reference already indexed," Blake said.

      "Confirmed."

      Blake heard the reticent pattern of familiar footsteps coming through the passage from the quarters deck to the command deck, just as he saw Tarrant entering the command deck from the stores passage. The area was at critical mass. He would have to act soon to head off their own catastrophic shutdown.

      Then Blake looked to Vila sprawled over an available chair, staring off into his own thoughts, the thief's hands treading absently through Pita's generous fur. The cat rose up, stretched, and spoke to Vila with a significant "raow".

      "I agree. And who do you think will win?" Vila said.

      "Raow."

      "That was bloody predictable, you always side with him."

      "Raow!"

      "Care to make a little wager on it? Put your credits where your meow is, so to speak."

      "More probably, she'd prefer food," Blake said. "Be a good man and take her to the stores and feed her, would you? She's bound to be starving."

      "Me?" Vila said, a flare of protest muddling instantly into resignation. He gave Blake a wise stare, then looked across to Avon's presence filling up the command deck access, and the sight of Tarrant shyly stalking his shadow. "I suppose that means I can't hang about for the fireworks?"

      "I suppose it might be something of a comedown," Blake said, grinning. "If I can manage it."

      Vila stood up, gathering Pita over an arm. "I suppose it would do me no good to remind you that I am a free and adult citizen of the Refederation - access code 7704. With all the civil liberties that entails, even if we are somewhat on the - outs with them just now.

      Blake folded his arms, exploding with a laugh. "I suppose it means that we will both incur the wrath of Dayna if we let Pita go hungry."

      "Sure, sure. Who needs a galactic tyranny when you can have one at home?" Vila said, lifting Pita to eye level. "Come along, Pita. I can regale you with stories of our glory days." Then he toted her towards the stores passage and off the command deck.

      Blake turned to see that Tarrant had walked all the way across the deck, with the trajectory of a heat-seeking missile, with that damned look of conviction that always presaged his getting himself into a payload of trouble. Avon - the heat source - was moving towards the horizontal screen. Avon, regarding Tarrant as he had since their escape from Sovereign, like an embarrassing piece of pumpkin-orange and fire-red furniture that no one wanted to recognize, let alone accept. And Tarrant, as usual, staring at him with insolence and challenge through unpersuaded eyes, mitigated with a half-confessed regret.

      Avon came to a pause beside the horizontal screen, his eyes directed at the illuminated blotch on the screen, some promise of recognition in his eyes. But Tarrant moved around him, wedging himself between Avon and the object of his interest.

      "Well, Avon," Tarrant said, tightly folding his arms before him. "What is it? What can I do to put these infantile, sulking binges of yours to an end? Impale myself? Tear my skin with shards of glass?"

      Avon very slowly lifted his eyes, a vague smile bending his lips. "Well, now. That would be a start."

      Tarrant shook his head, giving him a sad, faint smile. "Really? I doubt anything I could do to myself would engage your pity. Because that supposition is predicated on the idea you have pity to engage. We have never been friends. I have no delusions that that will ever change. All I want to know is what it will take for us to at least be civil to each other for the length of time in which we are forced into each other's company on board this ship."

      "It is a large ship, Tarrant," Avon said, his eyes cold and convinced.

      "Not large enough for this. So, what is it, Avon? Name your price? What's the story?"

      The vague smile curled again at Avon's mouth. Something glinted in his eyes, like an inner light glancing off a reflective wall. "The story? The story, Tarrant, is Androcles and the Lion. Do you know it?"

      "Yes, of course," he snapped. "It's about a slave named Androcles who comes upon a lion. He finds a thorn in the lion's paw and removes it. Then the lion returns the favour by not eating him."

      "That is the plot of the story, yes. But that is not its point. It is incidental whether Androcles is pulling out a thorn or inserting one. The point of the story is the lion's memory is long." He gave Tarrant another smile of measured coldness. "The point of the story is the lion never forgets."

      At that point, Blake, who had been monitoring from the sidelines, stepped between them to break the face-off and rest a hand on Avon's shoulder. It drew Avon's hard gaze towards him, Blake rewarding his attention with a strange and haunted smile.

      "Yes, Kerr," he said softly. "Memory is the problem, isn't it?"

      Avon's face reflexed with a ripple of shock and something very like terror. He backed away from both men, moving around the horizontal screen to the manual controls. He reached, as if for comfort, to the cold geometry of the manual sensors, tripping the lever to redirect the screen.

      "Prepare for teleport to grid reference, Zen," Blake said, smiling after Avon, and at the same time aware of the confused crimp residing in Tarrant's brow.

      "Confirmed."

      "You're certain you don't want me along to hold his leash?" Tarrant asked Blake, flipping Avon a look.

      Blake gave him a warning glance, shaking his head in reply. "We need to scout out a ground base. The contaminated borders on the dark side would make an effective barrier to an attack flotilla wanting to invade. Just be certain you don't leave the immediate vicinity of the Peacekeeper's keyed destination. You will need the on-board equipment to make the determinations we need. And besides, the dark side margins are hazardous."

      "Don't concern yourself, Blake," Avon said, not looking towards the target of the remark, not having to. "Tarrant has always had a penchant for playing the margins." He turned towards the command deck visual reference. "Zen, prepare to teleport."

      "Certain?" Blake asked, handing Avon a conduit disc to place on his arm.

      "Let us get on with this," he replied drily, looking away.

      Blake nodded reluctantly, sealing his own disc to his shoulder. "Zen," Blake said quietly, "focus-locate to indexed reference." He nodded to Tarrant. "Take care down there. Monitor every fifteen minutes and stay in touch."

      "Yes, Section Leader," Tarrant said, with a mock salute, smirking to himself about Blake's excessive den motherism, because he knew he would be speaking to them again in a matter of hours, not knowing that it would be a length of hard-won days and first he would breach the boundaries of his own despair to come back again.

      "Very well," Blake said, with one last uncertain glance at Avon. "Zen, teleport now."

       The white foliage of Gondoron was called Virgin Flora, but it was not the colour of innocence. It was the white of the forsaken, of that left by life, like the widow that has known life's vigor and now mourns its passing. And the mandala of the flora leaves had long ago, no doubt, been burned and blown to tatters. Now they chose to grow that way, as if it had always been their own.

      Blake surveyed the faded landscape, the same ashen shade as the plant-life with which it testified to its existence. He had studied its natural history in the last few weeks, trying to glean some knowledge of the home of Standard Increase, and he knew they had nothing to fear from the Gondoron wildlife. What few species that had forged some means for survival were compromised creatures with heavy armored shells to block the radiation. Surely, the only native predator on this face of this planet was the sun.

      Avon and Blake now found themselves facing what at first seemed like a natural structure. But as Blake stepped forward to examine the outer shell, the sun pulsed off amber-coloured polychrome. The curve of it jutted out of the flat, white ground like a reasonable doubt.

      "That," Avon said softly, "is it."

      Blake turned to look at him, taking a long step closer. Avon's dark eyes remained indentured to that object in the ground, eyes that seemed as far from Blake as all the years that stood between Avon and this place - this world that consisted of nothing but heat and what was burning and that which was long since burned. This place on which Avon had been forced to spend his childhood.

      Avon reached down to trip a sensor panel. With a soft hum, the polychrome hood arose from the ground, revealing a transport booth.

      Blake moved towards it first. As he did, the gate withdrew for their entry. Laced with the thready patterns of Windager spider webs and the moldy stench of abandonment, the vessel itself was small.

      "Kerr?" Blake said gently - both an invitation and a question.

      Without a word, Avon stepped into the booth. Blake followed. The gate closed over them. With a sickening feeling, Blake recalled a moment not long in their past, but a moment that seemed like another lifetime, when they had entered a similar contraption and made their descent into Areopagus, into the past, into the truth.

      Slowly, the bright, equalizing Gondoron sun, and the long, white flats and the strange, thick breeze, all were disappearing, as the booth sank gently into the ground.

      The lift was flooded with Teslan broadcast lumination, the sort employed twenty years before, when there were other forms of energy resources beyond nanothermalism.

      Then the booth stopped and the gate retracted.

      The first room they saw was a long bright hall that stretched on forever before them. Blake, by instinct, moved first. If nothing else, the lumine system was still operative, and the filtration system provided an atmosphere damp and cooling to the skin.

      "This is Foyer Main," Avon recited from memory, his voice flat and methodical. "To the left were the subject rooms each of which contained functional furnishings, three personal objects, and a console conduit to the Mater System. Unit levels were assigned by subject intelligence and functional incentives. My own unit was Mater 9." He finally looked at Blake. "The Sovereign system, the Collosum, was level Ten."

      "You are very certain that you're ready for this?" Blake asked softly, as if to not inform the shadows and phantoms. "We can always turn back and try for a remote harvest from Prometheus."

      "You have already asked that and I have given you my answer. There is only one way to reliably harvest the information we require, and that is to request it directly from the memory drawers. To do that, the memory must be exhumed and patched into the Moksha system. There is only one person who is capable of doing that. I am that person. He glanced Blake. "Ergo, it seems that it is irrelevant whether I am ready or not. The point is, Blake, I must be."

      Avon led the way down Foyer Main, slowly, each step a process of elimination. And suddenly, he stopped, framed within the access of a small, rectangular room, his head slowly swiveling to the left. He looked once across his shoulder, perhaps to make certain Blake was still there.

      "Be it ever so humble," Avon said softly.

      As Blake stepped ahead of Avon into the room, he felt the knot inside him tighten; tighten and split threads. It was hardly a quarters room, but more an elaborate cage made of disciplined corners and statutory walls. Standing here in disbelief, Blake was ambushed by the chill of indifference. The wound that had healed over slightly in the last few weeks opened again.

      Blake shook his head as he surveyed, his eyes widening in horror and disbelief. "What kind of monsters..." he said.

      "Not monsters, Blake. Humans," Avon said, the word heavy in his mouth, his face recoiling at its sound. "Intelligent ones. The Federation's pride of visionary scientists. The wealthy and powerful ones."

      "Did they ever let you out of here?" Blake asked, slowly lowering a hand to Avon's shoulder and Avon did not draw back from the touch. "Were you allowed respite at least? Or holiday?"

      "On special issue," he said. "And once each month we were permitted visitors."

      "Did you ever have visitors?" Blake asked.

      A smile of pain, an Avon smile, surfaced for a moment. "Would you come here for a visit?"

      Blake looked around them, the darkness in his eyes lessening in favour of an incongruous smile playing gently at his lips. "Perhaps I did," he said softly.

      Avon eyed him sharply. Blake responded with a wider smile.

      It was the forbidden topic, that concept that they had consensually damned from conversation during the last few weeks. They knew they shared history. They knew that, somewhere in the past denied them, their paths intersected.

      But Blake was growing weary of the agreement. Though exhuming their history and getting at the truth had become Avon's passion of recent days. Blake wondered when the devil Avon would be ready to confront this... their past.

      Avon, as ever, turned away from further discussion, towards the panel of the Mater 9, the object that had haunted his childhood and filled his dreams of that very morning. The details sketched themselves into the memory, remembering how it had been shining and flawless, even as the console was now streaked with dust and neglect. The light in the dream that had shone so sentiently from the sensor panels was gone; cataracts of dust glazed over the Lucite and now the twin panels stared back at them like dark, dead eyes.

      "Yes," he said abstractedly, reaching out to touch the signal relay. Nothing - not even the static of shutdown - replied.

      "It would seem the system is down," Avon said. He extracted the laser probe from his jacket pocket, opening the probe. He flashed the single-frequency light at the console, loosening the diurnite seal. He removed the shield plate.

      Avon pulled the memory drawer from the centres, taking it gingerly into both hands like the object he held was what it was, the archive of his childhood. "Memory drawers," Avon said flatly. "Primitive, at best. But Orac should be able to translate the microcircuit data with Moksha's processing."

      "We can have Orac harvest the generalized data from the macromemory stores from a distance." Blake reminded Avon of what would be patently obvious to him, but he would take every opportunity to prod Avon through that damnable door and back to the surface. "There is no need to stay here any longer."

      "I will have to activate Collosum," Avon said.

      "Activate it?" Blake roared back in horror.

      "I have to activate it," Avon hissed softly. "It is the only reliable means by which we may harvest significant data. It is the only way we will know it all. It is that simple."

      "Oh, it's very simple, Avon. Perhaps you don't need to know it all," Blake said urgently.

      "Perhaps you are afraid you will find out more about Project Analog than your adolescent illusions can withstand," Avon said.

      The words caught Blake unready. "Such as what?"

      Avon averted his eyes, staring down at the drawer held in his arms. "Such as the reason it failed," he said softly. "Why we failed."

      Blake shook his head in utter disbelief, at Avon and his boundless ability to strike and wound, and at his own infinite capacity to forgive him. "In case you hadn't noticed, we are here, Avon. We didn't fail. For better or worse - for us anyway - Project Analog was a complete success."

      "Then why the need to place neural modifiers in us? In just you and I. And remove our memories about each other."

      "What is your theory?" Blake looked at him staunchly. "I am certain that you have one."

      "Perhaps we couldn't bear the sight of one another," Avon said. "Perhaps we hated each other."

      "That should hardly be an earth-shaking revelation," Blake said, "since the current fiction has it that we do anyway."

      Avon spared him a wry glance, turning away so Blake couldn't see the smile widening his mouth.

      Avon, grasping at straws again, Blake thought, waiting silently to see if Avon was going to pursue this useless line of inquiry. "May we get on with this please?" he said, trying his best to sound piqued.

      "My life is best to serve His Royal Highness," Avon said briskly.

      "Not so High nor Royal anymore, Avon," Blake replied, "or had you quite forgotten?"

      A look of clear regret softened Avon's features. It was an expression Blake treasured - as one of the few rare moments when one saw through the mask. And it reached through Blake's own defences, to the place the truth lay hidden, where it had been hidden from Avon and the rest of the bloody world for six interminable years and doubtless, more years again than that, hidden from himself. It warmed the coldness, gave it hope, more hope than he had ever thought possible.

      "I'm sorry, Blake," Avon said softly.

      "Not necessary," the other man replied. And the strange part of it was, it really wasn't.

      Avon stepped to the doorway. "Why don't we get on with this?" he said.

      

      

The Collosum was a curving console of sensors and gauges, filling the length of a polychrome room. There were no other chairs in the room, but the twin console seats, no tables, and only a narrow passage for the technicians who had once serviced the assembled hardware.

      But something deep and timeless thrived in this space. Blake could feel it. Every nerve in his spine connected to it as they walked into the room.

      "This monitors and regulates all the subordinate Mater systems," Avon explained, carefully placing the Mater 9 memory drawer on the console. "Each Mater unit was a self-contained complex computer styled for the necessary modifications required in the individual subjects. It knew us intimately. Our strong suits, our failings." Avon thought of the dream and forced the chill away. "There was not a thought or intention that traveled through me that that thing did not predict."

      Avon opened the hatch, tripping his laser probe and glancing it off the free circuit. Light responded in sequence through the panels, until the system was illuminated.

      Blake smiled coyly, folding his arms. "Simple enough," he said.

      Avon looked at it oddly, slowly closing the hatch. "Rather too simple."

      "We are due for a change of luck," Blake said.

      "Luck is idealistic delusion. But at very least, we are finished here," Avon said, as he reached across to press the sentient relay.

      Blake would remember for the rest of their lives the look that flooded Avon's face. Something had conquered as his hand met the sensor, like an open question interfacing with the answer's source. Blake was accustomed to fright in Vila, and he'd even seen fear flash a time or two through Dayna's eyes. But the white terror that consumed Avon's face, that so effectively quelled the constancy of Avon's analysis that this horror could appear in Avon's eyes, had to have a source more terrible than Blake's sanity could withstand.

      "Avon!" he cried, crossing the border mutually drawn, reaching an arm across him, drawing him around.

      "Roj," was all Avon said, and that word a struggle.

      "What!" he roared back. "Avon, what is wrong?"

      And a moment later, it was gone, vanished from Avon's eyes as swiftly as it had risen in them.

      Avon stood there silently a moment, his hands capped over his face, then he took them slowly away.

      "That was - interesting," Avon said softly, widening his eyes.

      "What was it?" Blake asked, trying to sound like someone who had not come very close to the edge of panic.

      "That seems to be the point. It wasn't anything. Anything I could comprehend. It was-" Avon shook his head, helpless for the word, "-a paradox. Probably residual. I was terrified of them as a child."

      "Terrified of paradox?" Blake said in a puzzled voice.

      "Yes." Avon reached back to anchor himself to a chair, which he gradually lowered himself into. "Everyone has a personal shape which suggests to them a monster. That was mine."

      Blake cast the console a glance. "Perhaps it knew that," he said. "Perhaps it was a means of warding us off."

      "Perhaps."

      "But you think not."

      Avon gave him a sidelong glance. "I had not thought telepathy among your varied gifts, Blake."

      "It usually isn't," Blake said, spouting a laugh. "I rather think it's a residual effect of knowing you so well."

      "Sometimes I wonder," Avon said. Nodding towards the console, he added, "But I believe that was simply related to something it encountered in my mind. I have the oddest feeling it, in some way, was merely answering some question."

      "Remind me not to ask it anything."

      "Not unless you are prepared to hear the answers," Avon said.

      "Perhaps it does have something in common with you after all." Blake braced an arm over Avon's shoulders. "Are you capable of walking back to-"

      It was a second pulse, only stronger, this time flexing through the room - visual, though not visible. And it not only flashed through Avon, but through Blake as well, burning deep into the brain, calling up an image both blue and silver, yet somehow the same, running down long tunnels of its own invention. Suddenly, the motion became two separate figures, one dashing in frantic pursuit of the other down the corridors of Areopagus.

      ("Tell me!" roared one of the figures, a young, taller man of perhaps twenty.) Blake recognized himself instantly.

      ("No!" said the other boy, smaller but slightly older, throwing off the steelbelt arms that captured him, arms that only recaptured him again.

      The smaller one dropped to his knees and out of the grasp, but the taller one lunged for his ankles, towing him back, dropping to the ground himself to spread his taller body across the other boy, securely pinning him to the ground.

      "What are you afraid of?" the taller one said. "You know what this is - you know, damn you. Why must you be like this? You know you aren't happy with us apart.")

      "My god, Kerr," Blake whispered (desperate to drag the fragments back, to make some sense of them, to grasp those two young men back and beg from them the rest of the story). "That... was... us..."

      "That was nothing," Avon said stiffly, his eyes closed.

      "Avon! I know you saw it. I saw it as well. Don't deny this."

      Avon looked at him firmly. "I saw nothing," he stated categorically.

      "Avon," Blake said, reaching a hand out to touch him.

      Avon flinched as far away as solid objects would allow, staring at Blake, suddenly a stranger, suddenly a threat.

      "Nothing!" Avon seethed.

      "What is it?" Blake asked, shaking his head in confusion. He had never seen Avon react this way - with dread, with total fear - to anyone, least of all to him. "Why are you acting this way?"

      And then he realized.

      There had been nothing in the images themselves to bring this on - moving past their minds like ghost reflections on a mirror. And they were already aware of the facts of this, that they shared a past. It was, in fact, what Avon had come here in search of: a small, rarefied piece of his past.

      Unless this particular piece had personal implications. Unless this fragment of memory had somehow fitted into a larger context.

      And that, to Blake, could only mean one thing.

      Avon knew.

      

      

Sen Leusip expected to see Dayna Mellanby where he found her.

      She was seated beside the Moksha console, in the chair usually reserved for Kerr Avon. She was staring at the forward view screen of Areopagus' master room, her eyes regarding the distant points of lights the poets of Terra called stars.

      They were surrounded by an impregnable fortress, an artificial satellite allied to a computer system configured for hostile defence, yet her sidearm rested like a hand in her lap, her fingers wrapped around the deployment relay, almost a part of her flesh.

      "A beautiful sight, that," Leusip said.

      "I suppose," she replied distantly.

      "Would you like to talk? I can't stand the silence."

      "Really?" she said, smiling to herself. "I rather like it."

      "So you wouldn't like to talk?"

      "No."

      "May I ask why?"

      "Certainly," she said, turning towards him with a beaming smile. "Because I don't like you."

      It caught him off-guard a moment, then he chuckled darkly, lowering himself into the chair beside her. "That is a shame. I'm a man in need of friends. I have lost all of mine. And you are a good friend to have. A loyal one."

      "Save your fawning for Tarrant. He is susceptible to it. I'm not."

      Leusip sat back in the chair. "For whatever it's worth, I knew your father."

      "That's hardly a surprise. You seem to have known everyone else."

      Leusip continued, "I knew your mother as well. They were people of principles. Intelligent people. Malutilized madly due to savage pack nonsense. The amount of melanin in the skin, for heaven's sake. And we think ourselves living in an age of reason."

      "Reason?" she said, clear incredulity lighting her voice, like the tone of the Village Atheist speaking to the Village Idiot about the Town Drunk. "We still live in packs. We just call them different names. We call our tribe the Alphas."

      "There, now," he said, sitting back. "We're talking."

      She gave him a quick and cutting glare, as if deciding the silence had been chipped, so it might as well be broken. "Did my father know about - this?" she asked at last.

      "Yes. He was one of the Fifth Column."

      She nodded, a suspicion finally confirmed. "And he volunteered me to - it?"

      "Yes. Does that alarm you?"

      She waited another moment to reply. Finally, she hiked her shoulder in a shrug. "I suppose it makes sense he was involved in this somehow."

      "But still it hurts."

      "Nothing hurts unless you let it."

      Leusip smiled fondly. "Oh, you're that hard, are you?"

      "I try to be."

      "I don't know. You have chosen to care for others. That does not seem so very hard to me."

      She smirked at him again. "Soft people do not necessarily care for each other. They are just infinitely polite to each other. They nod in passing in the halls. They ask each other 'How are you?' when no one really cares. And then they feed on their own inertia, give themselves excuses for never taking action, never trying to reach one another." She spared him a passing glance. "And you. Live too long in the system and that is what it makes you. Soft, malleable. So it can form you into a cog for its machinery."

      He nodded towards the stars. "And you prefer all that cold hardness?"

      "Here nothing gives a damn. No one has anything to gain or lose by your choices, by your ideas. Here, I don't have to be anything or anyone that I don't choose to be."

      "You really think so? What, in a vacuum, is worth living for? The moment we love someone, we give up a part of our self-determination. It is the part that makes us reach out to others when it would be in our own self-interest to pull away. Everything acts on us. If it didn't act upon us, we wouldn't be alive."

      She gave him a wry glance. "You have been very quiet, Professor, since your return. I find it suspicious that you've suddenly found your tongue so informatively. And incidentally, where did you take off to on the hire shuttle?"

      "That would be of no interest to you."

      Dayna smirked. "Why is it I just don't quite believe you?"

      A light forwarded through the circuit panels, taking Dayna's attention, pausing in the centre panel, blinking out.

      "There it is again," Soolin said, stepping up from behind them, shaking her head.

      Dayna shot a look in her direction. "You saw it, too?"

      Soolin nodded. "I saw it before, several minutes ago. According to Moksha, it was in some non-translatable AI dialect."

      Dayna looked towards the visual reference. "Moksha, it's not the Prometheus frequency?"

      "Negative, Sister. The tonal pattern suggests a tertiary wave, sub-standard frequency. Non-Refederation standard."

      "They call them Funny Freaks on Gauda Prime," Soolin said. "Somebody whispering in pidgin standard. Which means it's either hiding from the Refederation or from us."

      "Don't like it," Dayna said.

      "Don't either," Soolin replied. "Moksha, is any portion of the communication even conceptually intelligible? Do you know the nature of the transmission?"

      "The Moksha Indice Response is available, my sister. The response was in answer to an inquiry of some type. The Moksha system reply was negative."

      Soolin raked a hand at her hair, trying to sort through her thoughts. "It asked you a question and you told it no," she said.

      "Affirmative, my beloved sister."

      "Moksha," Leusip said, from where he had been watching, moving forward to the command console. "Was it 'no' as in a refusal or was it an analytical response to the existence or present condition of something?"

      "It was negative in response to a state of being, Father."

      "And it was not a distress call?" Soolin asked.

      "Negative."

      "All the same," Soolin said to Dayna, "it might be Pompous Pilot. He might have got himself in a fix."

      "Peacekeeper communicates on the Prometheus frequency," Leusip said.

      "Perhaps we ought try to contact Tarrant," Dayna said, overriding Leusip's presence.

      Leusip stepped into the women's covenant. "I don't think that is wise."

      Soolin and Dayna registered their amusement to each other, then both turned a mocking glare towards him. Soolin stepped up to him, making it clear she was a couple of inches his superior and was in no mood for debate.

      "You really think we give a damn what you think, Professor?" Soolin said, with a corrosive smile, pushing past him for the command console.

      "Nevertheless," he said, "whatever occurs on board Areopagus impacts on me as well. Whatever decisions you make, I have to deal with the consequences of."

      "Yes. We all know about suffering the consequences of someone else's decision," Soolin said sharply, reaching for the communication sensor. "Moksha, relay status query to Peacekeeper base on Planet Gondoron, ninth sector. Report response."

      The pause was over in an instant. "Report follows, Sister. Response was on identical sub-standard frequency as previously reported. Non-linguistic generic AI. Non-translatable."

      "Damn," Soolin said. "Was it a question again?"

      "Affirmative."

      "And what did you tell it?"

      "Source was informed 'Indeterminate'."

      "Same question, but this time the response was 'Indeterminate'?" Soolin said to clarify.

      "Affirmative."

      "Moksha," Dayna said. "Was the source of the message Planet Gondoron?"

      "Insufficient data to assess. Unidentified coordinates."

      "Was the source of the message Del Tarrant?"

      "Transmission source was not Del Tarrant, my beloved ones. No response from the Peacekeeper inquiry was received."

      "He's in trouble," Dayna said to Soolin. "I feel it in my gut."

      Soolin shook her head in reply. "He's just being impudent. He's been that way since we fled I.C. sector and left his toys behind."

      "He was supposed to keep in touch."

      "He's supposed to do a thousand things, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he does them. Moksha, transmit the sub-standard messages to Orac for decoding," Soolin said, moving away.

      Leusip blocked her passage. "I would prefer that the Orac computer not be given that information," Leusip said.

      Soolin met his eyes at equal level, folding her arms. "Professor, you have heard of the immovable object, I trust?" she said, moving around him and out of the room.

      Dayna returned to the console chair, her fingers cursorily resting on the communication relay, as if there was something more that needed to be said, something she could not quite remember.

      "When is Prometheus slated for return by their current mission status?" Leusip said, chiefly to avoid the silence, because he already had that information.

      "They will be here at 0200 Areopagus Standard. What is your hurry?"

      A thousand reasons suggested themselves, none of them a profitable excuse for Dayna. "Perhaps I was only curious," Sen Leusip said.

      "It seems to me you are never only curious, Professor," she said.

      To that, he only smiled.

      

      

Dear god... Avon knew.

      Blake watched in astonishment, in wonder, as Avon walked the length of the room to the Collosum.

      "It is on line," Avon said softly. "Let us return to the surface before I can effectively humiliate myself in front of you again."

      "Kerr," Blake said, unmoving, making clear to Avon he had no intentions of walking away. "We have to talk about... this," he said softly.

      Avon kept his face away. "There is plenty of time for discussion later."

      "I want it now," Blake said. He reached out for Avon's shoulder; the other man tried to pull away again, but Blake's hand clamped down and pulled, narrowing the margin between them. "There is so much I have to say to you... I scarcely know what to say first."

      "Blake," Avon said, his uneven voice a subtle hiss, "we stand in the midst of a long-abandoned, subterranean complex of suspect capacity to sustain significant levels of life. This is hardly the place for one of your heart-to-heart chats."

      "Damn you, don't trivialize this!" Blake roared, his fingers digging deeper, causing pain to flash through Avon's face.

      Avon returned his gaze without surrender. "Trivialize what, Blake?" he asked. "One more of your pathetic fantasies? Another of your impossible causes? Oh, please!"

      "I won't allow you to do this, Avon," Blake said, reaching out the other hand to stay him, both hands anchoring his shoulders - unable to resist the challenge of touch, seeing pain and panic replaced by distinct fear in Avon's eyes.

      "Not yet," Avon said softly, quickly, pushing away the hands, turning back to the console. Blake was taken aback.

      Not... yet?

      He had done no more than touch Avon and the wall came up: Avon had reacted with fear. More fear than the moment before, when he had been in rapport with paradox.

      But Blake was very certain, in a way he did not fully understand, of what Avon had been afraid of this time.

      "Did you think-" Blake said, staring down at his hand in suspicion, afraid to voice the very possibility.

      "I thought nothing," Avon said, turning his back, gathering the memory drawer into his arms.

      He thought nothing, just as he had seen nothing. But he had indeed thought just that: had thought Blake about to take this non-subject they were dancing around from the abstract into the real world. And, in fact, it would have been so simple, to lean across and lift a tender hand to Avon's face, brushing the terror aside.

      Blake had never done this for thoroughly sensible reasons. It was unthinkable, Avon being Avon and Blake being Blake, their world being the way that it was. Blake had always been certain - beyond a tiny, precious ration of doubt - that such an overture would have only purchased him pain - physical as well as emotional. Doubtless, he'd have lost Avon forever, in the way that he did have him, into the bargain.

      But unless he was very mistaken, Avon's one reaction to this possibility had been "not yet".

      Blake grasped the chair beside him, unable to believe what knowledge he had just been given. It was as if he'd been terminal, dying, and had just been given the most unlikely reprieve. He had long ago accepted the hopelessness of this situation, but now...

      Not yet, Avon had said. But eventually. In the future. Perhaps even soon.

      Blake masked the intensity of his smile and gave it casually to Avon. "Fine, Kerr," he said, fighting to keep his voice in control. "Not yet. Not here," he said, stepping back.

      Avon's expression calmed, returned to the usual static state, his mind evaluating the situation, as if they had just been conferring on the weather. "We really should be leaving here."

      Blake aimed his smile. "You know there really isn't anything to be afraid of, Kerr."

      Avon smiled. "Well, now, perhaps not for some of us," he quietly replied.

      Blake nodded, as they moved in concert towards the doorway. He let a hand stray to Avon's shoulder for a moment. "Later, Avon," was all he said, and released the touch to move first down the hall from which they had come, Avon following, the memory drawer in his arms, his eyes given to the ground.

      The transporter booth lifted them back to the surface - away from the dark and the cold and the memories, to the suspect grace of the blistering, huge, white sun. Blake could tell from Avon's silence that now was the time for facts and data, for simple processes to finish what needed to be done.

      But Blake was resolved that there would be time for talking later.

      "Hopefully Tarrant has put his suspect abilities to some good use with Peacekeeper on the dark side," Avon said, breaking their common silence, obviously grasping at nonflammable subject matter. "A Gondoron base would be an asset." He swung Blake a pointed glance. "And seeing as how you complied by awarding him all of heaven and earth to achieve this..."

      "But I gave you the pleasure of my company," Blake said, smiling.

      "Yes, well, small pleasure in that," Avon said, stepping from the lift into the generous sunlight.

      Blake's smile widened in retort, his eyes scanning out towards the grey landscape and the violet-wash of radiogenic haze that outlined the sky. "Small pleasures are all we really have," he said softly, the smile slowly losing ground, phantoms waking in his warm brown eyes.

      "What happened to Roj Blake, intrepid defender of life and meaning?" Avon said, trying to flatten the disturbance in his voice.

      Blake shook his head. "He died on board Areopagus," he said, lifting a hand to stop the acceptance of that truth, "no... I think perhaps he never really existed at all."

      "You don't mean that," Avon said.

      "Don't I?"

      "No."

      Blake laughed softly, so softly as to not be heard. "Perhaps not," he said.

      There was a long silence that passed between them.

      Avon sent his gaze away. "I once told Cally that regret is a part of life, but that she should keep it a small one. You would do well to take the same advice. Life is a possibility, Blake. It is what we would have it be. And it evolves only from the chance summary of its parts." Avon nodded to where the long land before them met the lavender sky. "That is life, Blake. Converging and reacting and replicating from a miasmic horde of chemistry and information, of strategy and design. Going on as the process has since infinity collapsed. There is no magic to it. No mystery or secret. It is as simple as X meeting Y and the resultant transformation. It is that way for covalent bonding in lithium fluoride. It is the same for human life."

      "That is not enough," Blake said, closing his eyes at the thought.

      "Perhaps not. But nevertheless, it is all that we have. And in a cold, equation of a universe, we are, if nothing else, demonstrably free."

      "Who would want to be that free?" Blake said.

      Avon watched him another moment, wishing that he and Blake spoke a common language, wishing that he could call up the right words to say this. Yet he knew better than to even try. Where they had come here, come to Gondoron, with Blake worrying incessantly about Avon's reaction, they were about to leave with the trend reversed.

      He reached a hand up to open the communicator channel, holding the memory drawer from Mater and all the answers it promised to yield close to his chest, above the unsteady cadence of his heart.

      

      

In the distance of his mind, he could hear the tone on his wrist communication device, the sound that meant one of the central systems registers requested his response. Yet as his mind focused enough to consider the possibility of reply, his sense systems enlivened to feel it being unclipped from the inside of his collar.

      Tarrant slowly opened his eyes.

      A damp, fibrous mass clamped down against his forehead, moisture streaming into his ginger-coloured curls. Something caught his eye and moved his gaze towards it. The slender hand that held a mositener was extended to him, its arm disappearing at the elbow through a hazy barrier that formed a silver ring of electrons around the circumference of her arm. Through the white fog, a face was visible.

      "Are you with us?" a woman's voice asked - a voice that was somehow reminiscent of Avon's.

      "I'm conscious, if that's what you mean," he said, slowly sitting up. A twinge at the base of his skull summoned his hand there. "At least for the time being."

      She extracted her arm through the force chamber wall. "Do you recall anything of your capture?"

      His thoughts skittered back, turning one way onto recalling the Peacekeeper, its ascent from Prometheus, its landing on the surface of Gondoron, but then memory turned the other way and slammed against a force wall.

      "Nothing at all," he said stiffly, the pain confusing his scattered attempts to make sense. "Since you so kindly inform me I have been taken prisoner, perhaps you might do me the courtesy of disclosing the identity and motivation of my captors."

      "That is a complex explanation," the woman said. "It would require a lengthy extrapolation of interdependent variables."

      Again the voice tripped a backlog on his memory. It did not quite fit, but seemed as if he had to have known it somewhere before. He squinted through the force chamber haze at the suggestion of her face.

      "Could you clear the chamber so I can at least see the face of the enemy?"

      She reached to something and did so, but the face that clarified as the haze dissolved was that of a stranger, a stranger staring at him with the cold, clinical discourtesy of an optiscan. "I am not the enemy," she stated simply, as if cataloging some distinctive genus of weed.

      He produced his toothy smile. "You have me cordoned within a force chamber, which is where I would rather not be. What term would you choose for yourself, were you in my position?"

      She considered a moment, then shook her head. "I am not the enemy. It is rational to contain an alien intelligence, to shield the known from unknown and potentially hazardous qualities. In point of fact, you are detained by those who give me food and shelter. Myself, I have no conviction for you or against you. Certainly, I wish you no harm."

      "How very pragmatic of you. You remind me of a - friend of mine," he said darkly. "At very least, you have to have a name. You can tell me that, can't you?"

      She wrung the moistener over the dish balanced on her knees. "I am called Twenty-Wun."

      "That isn't a name," he said. "That's a number."

      She looked down, committing the moistener to the vessel. "it is all that I have," she said.

      "Very well, we will have to make use of it. And my name is-"

      "Del Tarrant," came another voice, a man's voice, like thunder from the heart of a storm.

      Tarrant turned towards the dark voice - the very dark voice that flashed a chill through his mind. And this time, while the voice had belonged to a stranger, the face seemed somehow familiar - a face now obscured by a smooth, crescent-shaped scar descending the length of it, from left brow to right mandible, only sparing his full, cupidic mouth.

      "Del Tarrant," he spoke again. "One of the lesser lights at the Federation Space Academy. Just barely holding the line between expulsion and graduation."

      "And who might you be?" Tarrant said, not giving this one the courtesy of an attempt to recall.

      "A classmate of yours," the man said simply, his dark eyes shining back at him with a secret game. "No one you would remember."

      He produced his smile at full staff. "If you remember me and I don't remember you, then that must have made your light less bright than mine."

      "Perhaps."

      "Then as a fellow alumnus, perhaps you would do me the kindness of telling me where the hell I am and why you've brought me here?"

      The other man passed his hand across the force wall and it vanished. Tarrant was immediately assailed by an icy cold dark, and the stench of something dreadful and barely distinguishable, as if his nose was charitably evading the question. And Tarrant had the strangest sensation he was seeing something his mind would likewise not admit. This was clearly the dark side of whatever planet - presumably Gondoron.

      "You stand in the presence of the future," the man said. He also smiled, but it was small reassurance. "The planet your pundits call Gondoron. It was your destination, was it not?"

      "How would you know that?"

      The other man kept his smile. "You are here, therefore it is where you were going."

      "That is a false assumption," Tarrant said, his eyes casually scouting for a window or door, some promissory bolt-hole. "The discoverer of the country from where my people came thought he was heading for another country altogether. He called its indigenous people Indians by virtue of his ignorance, for he thought he had come where he was going, to India, a rather different place altogether." Tarrant tossed his smile across like a challenge. "Therefore, assumptions can be dangerous. I never make them. So, I say again, how is it you knew that? And why is it you detain me?"

      "Simple enough. You have something of which I have need. Give me what I need and I will give you safe passage out of the dark side."

      "What," Tarrant said sharply, "might I have that you would possibly want?"

      The other man shook his head. "All things in their time. Come-" he extended a hand to take Tarrant's shoulder, pulling him into a stride at his side. "I have something wonderful to show you."

      Tarrant said nothing, but followed him, across a large, barren room that might have been an assembly hall in its day. There were rows of doors long ago closed and never again opened. It was possible he could dash through one, hide there, then devise escape, but it was also possible that a door reached might not be a door opened, and there was no predicting the resulting consequences. The woman did not seem threatening - the woman didn't seem to care one way or the other - but the man, whether it was the scar or the menacing smile or the old, metal-coloured garb of a Federation Space Commander - gave Prometheus' pilot a decided chill down the very centre of his spine.

      He led Tarrant to a hallway that opened out into a screened patio, late Old Calendar, perhaps even late twenty-first century. It was something like encountering a ghost. The chill in his spine might have spread to encompass him had he not heard the gentle hum - coming from the dim, vast, ancient room - expanding as if to welcome them.

      His captor passed a hand over a sensor and the overhead lumines fired into muted light. Ahead of them, the murmur intensified - it was rising from a globe with a surface coat of golden fur that, on closer inspection, was seen to be moving.

      They were some kind of Hymenoptera insect, thousands of them, the sort Tarrant had made a cursory study of - as all his studies were at that time cursory - in Alpha Lyceum natural history courses. The closer the men moved towards the globe, the greater the choral hum grew, until it unfolded itself around them.

      "Witness the miracle of the Apis Apidae. The uncommon bee. A master of colonization, of hive consciousness. "The most effective system in the natural world." The man dipped his hand into the swarm, gathering a host of them over his fist. "So trusting when they are as one. It is individuality that is the culprit when they attack. Stranded, left alone, without context, without tradition, and they are dangerous creatures. But, acting as one, they are a force unmatched in the natural world."

      Tarrant grinned. "And a force readily controlled by an enterprising external agency."

      The man laughed sharply. "Yes, well, you are a lone wolf, aren't you, Terran Child? Always the skeptic."

      "I find it the safest avenue of existence."

      "Not recently, it would seem. You have found your own hive, have you not? Or would you call doing Roj Blake's bidding an act of autonomy?"

      Tarrant felt cold again, and it was not simply the chill of age and the room. "Perhaps I ought ask just how much you know about me. And how much you don't know."

      "I know almost everything about you. It has been the need of the One I serve to learn everything it can about that group entity once called Blake's 7. And you are a part of that, although, like another of you, you seem to serve your inner Master before all others."

      At this moment, this most strange man moved aside to join a shaft of light streaming by accident from one of the hazed lumined globes. The scar, the distant and secretive eyes, the dingy suit that had once signified rank and privilege, but that now told a story of struggle, came together to tell Tarrant who he was. Perhaps it was the character sketches on the viscasts that tipped him - perhaps he had seen a computer visual interpretation. But, he suddenly realized.

      "You are Ago Taro," Tarrant stated categorically, although that realization did not satisfy this feeling of familiarity he had when he looked at the other man. There was some other piece missing.

      Taro nodded, obviously pleased, extending the hand made a colony to bees. He brushed them against Tarrant's face and Tarrant took a long step back. Taro moved after, pinning him to a wall, forcing the hand of bees against Tarrant's face, as the pilot turned his head aside.

      Taro gave a hard laugh, shaking his head. "I have not forgotten our nature studies class. You were terrified of the bee in the case and I see that has not really changed. Such a striking lad, so full of life, yet you know nothing of it. There are many thing you know nothing of, Terran Child."

      "There are things that should not be known," Tarrant replied sharply, feeling suddenly that he had just stepped out onto very unstable ground.

      Taro moved his face near Tarrant's, smiling into the other man's revulsion at the gathering of bees that squirmed between them.

      "You're afraid of life, Tarrant. Machinery you understand. Some craft to methodically fly. But life is a puzzle. That is why you have always lived apart from it."

      Their faces the space of a hand away, recognition hit Tarrant like first propulsion. It eased the last hint of lost familiarity - seeing past the scar, through the years and gathered ravages, to the face of the spectacled young man who had been his pity-friend. The boy to whom he had done unspeakable things at the behest of the pack Tarrant roamed with, as all packs ripped the weakest ones to shreds just to see the colour of the flesh. It was always the cowed phantom of that hurt face that made him do favours for the young man's father; even when he detested the man, he felt he owed it to the boy.

      "Change," Tarrant said, the word lost in his sigh. "You are Donyl Max Change." Then the two halves fused together and Tarrant understood. "And Ago Taro."

      Taro's smile pronounced guilt for the crimes for which Tarrant had just silently indicted himself. Hunger glittered in his hazel eyes. "So pleased to see you again," he said, stepping back to return the bees to their globe. "As you can see, I am at last my father's son. You should know by now you would do well to heed my requests. Or I will see you become most intimate with all the other things you fear, Terran Child. And believe in your heart that I do know what scares you."

      "Steavn Change is behind all this?" Tarrant said, his eyes mocking, as if looking on the Spirit of Death telling a terrible joke. "We might have known."

      "No!" Taro said, his voice cutting the silence cleanly in half. "You and I have in him a common enemy. I work for a higher purpose now, and it is not my father's." The condescending gleam returned to his eyes.

      "In autonomy, Terran Child, is man's confusion... the sons of free choice are hopelessness and despair..."

      Tarrant smiled, to make the point. "But Free Choice had a daughter she named Liberty."

      "I might expect that sort of blasphemy from you," Taro said, flipping him a coy glance, before turning towards a rack of unfriendly-looking scimitars shackled to a wall. He lifted a hand to touch one of them, his hand gliding up the fine shaft of chrome-steel to the tip of it, slipping his thumb to the slope of the blade, then racing it down the edge.

      Tarrant winced. Taro brought the thumb to his mouth and sucked.

      Fast on your feet now, old boy, Tarrant thought to himself. As Soolin had said, the night Blake had treated them all to a night at the bistro estab on Morphaniel, and the beautiful Gorostova heiress had made an open and utterly unsuccessful play for Avon, "We find ourselves in the company of a serious headcase."

      Tarrant felt a sharp pang of homesickness at the memory, one that surprised even him. The homeless spaniel longing for the pound, he thought, but he knew as soon as he thought it, that it was a dodge.

      "You can hardly make me out to be Steav Change's emissary," he said quickly. "I'm about as popular with him, at this point, as you are."

      "Perhaps. But unknown to you, you are the guardian of his greater weapon. And you can give me information on how to reach it." Taro withdrew from his belt a square, harmless-looking device. He lifted it to Tarrant's eye level. "Your Blake and Avon have returned to your deep space vehicle, the one my father's agent called Prometheus. They have taken with them the memory drawer salvaged from that place called Standard Increase. But they have taken with them something about which they have no idea. A link. A portal. A way back for the One whom I serve. But to implement it fully, I need your voice. Saying the words to fully open the gate."

      "You would have to kill me. And you would not find the experience pleasant, I assure you," Tarrant said in full smarm, but feeling the tide of panic rising steadily inside him.

      "Such a model of fealty, yes, but in a moment, you would forsake everyone you love for your own hide, wouldn't you, Terran Child? Your birthright is weakness, greed, self-interest. You are Dev Tarrant, after all is said and done."

      The remark came out of nowhere, ripping the sky apart, pointing to the little man behind the curtain. No one knew that: no one. "Del Tarrant!" he said firmly in reply.

      "Ah, yes, the old family embarrassment, the black sheep necessitates a covert change of name namesake. A switch of letter and baby Dev becomes baby Del, but that does not change the nature of the thing named. Tarrant genes still produce Tarrant flesh. No matter how far you have run, how many different names you take, a traitor is still a traitor."

      To admit to so mortal a wound with anger at this point would have been a greater hazard than even Taro represented. "Rather a tidy denouncement from you, Space Commander Change," Tarrant said, forcing a smile.

      With that, Taro stepped forward, into a vagrant shaft of illumination. He was young for a monster - a study in contrast - and despite the scar, as beautiful as death. The light gleamed off his golden hair, drawing the colour out of the dust, as he placed the small, square, harmless-looking device to Tarrant's carotid artery, pressing the stimulus.

      The pain was black, luscent water pouring into his mind, drowning, filling, until every reserve in him had to go towards its battle. Every muscle in his body surrendered, but Taro kept him pinned against the wall, to keep from falling. And then the agony deferred to something terribly beyond pain, moving against that complexity of walls known as personality - as if dissolving, one by one, all the segregates that set Del Tarrant apart from the rest of humanity, lusting to absorb him, to gather him to what it was.

      And there was something wonderful to it. And something far, far beyond simple terror. He welcomed it completely, with the joy of a child. And would have murdered his own mother to send it away.

      Taro softly brushed his lips against Tarrant's exposed cheek. "Don't resist, Tarrant. It is pointless to try. It can make you far greater than what you are. You will find peace in its heart. And I will give you pleasure of which you have never even dreamed."

      "No!" he screamed, his own voice echoing far beyond the moment he stopped screaming.

      "Ah, yes, Terran Child. Yes. Because you must know I saw your weakness long ago. I chose you. Because I knew you wanted to be a hero, Tarrant, you want to be a great and wonderful warrior, but you will always place your own sorry neck before your noble cause. While you were out there saving the universe, you were never anything more than the weak link I would one day use to bind my father to his necessary end."

      "No!"

      "Yes," Taro hissed, conquering Tarrant's mouth with his own in a hard, searching kiss. He came up for air, catching Tarrant's limp head by a handful of curls, breathing heavily into his face. "You were always meant to betray your friends. The very act of your loving someone is a threat against their life. But I will be your savior, Tarrant. I will show you things that terrify you... I will teach you to love them... I will tell you secrets you never could have guessed... even about people you know as well as you know your own mind... now speak to me that effigy of a name you bear, my Terran Child..."

      He was almost a part of it, feeling it cold arms slipping stealthily around him. He fought to remember his name, then, remembering, called it out like a benediction, "Del Tarrant."

      "Very good, my lovely friend. Now, for me to stop this terror you feel, you must tell Moksha to link with the Collosum, to finalize the bridge."

      "I can't!" Tarrant screamed.

      Taro triggered the stimulus again and the dark, enfolding mother became an angry father-god, casting agony through to the atomic dance of his body. Pain hammered at his sanity. A vertigo of sensation impelled first to blind him, then sabotage the dark. In the end, in the final pageant of pain and infirmity, something inside told Tarrant, Death became the hero.

      "Tell me, Del, say those words and I will stop the terrible pain."

      And so he said them, finally, confessing, surrendering, hating himself for his weakness, and knowing he had just condemned the people he loved to the hell of his own impotence. The glass beneath him shattered into a thousand muted shards and he fell through to the arms of the solid ground.

      "Very good," Taro moaned, clicking off the audio microtrace archive, kneeling at Tarrant's side. He clipped the small, square, harmless-looking device - both weapon and recorder - back to his hide and synthetic belt.

      Then his finger slithered through his shirt's row of closures, his luscent eyes suggesting something. "I might relish the challenge of soothing you, Tarrant," he said.

      Tarrant ignored the last vestiges of pain fleeing his nervous system to pull himself up on an arm, depositing himself with a loud report against the wall. "No soothing in that," Tarrant gasped out with repulsion, his face turned away.

      "No? Your option surely. Though I don't think you realize how much," Taro said.

      "You don't know anything about me," Tarrant snarled, wishing he had a weapon armed for a slow and painful murder.

      Taro laughed again, in that same, explosive way that promised to split the atoms of the air, his voice rumbling in its aftermath. "Oh, no, you are the ignorant one. But I will be your teacher." Taro turned his head aside, calling into the darkness, "Twenty-Wun!", like one would call a dog or a servant.

      In a moment, the woman was standing there, her face as static as it had been when first Tarrant saw her. Taro pitched his shed garment to her and Tarrant could see now how tall she was, how dark was the hair that fell straight and fine to her shoulders. But there was scarcely love in her eyes when she looked on Taro... no emotion at all.

      He wondered how the hell she fitted into all of this.

      Taro grasped her head, sinking his fingers through her hair, as he had moments before done to Tarrant.

      "See to him. Give him what he needs. Mend him." He looked towards Tarrant, running a hand across his bare chest. "And I should warn you, my sweet man, should you entertain the very foolish possibility of escape, not to venture into the outside. Radical atoms do adventuresome things to flesh. And all this was once the province of the Numenmaestro children. Magic has a most creative edge." He nodded to a distant door. "There are things out there so alien they would seem to you to be monsters. That is not your world out there. Not even your own paradigm. It lives by its own law. Avoid it."

      With that, Taro turned, moving towards the greater darkness at the end of the narrow hall.

      Tarrant turned to look at Twenty-Wun, whose eyes were trained to observe Taro's retreat, as if watching a horsefly crawl slowly up the shadowed side of a wall, without a real concern whether he made his way or not.

      Wonderful. Taro. Here. And sending something... something unknown... on board Areopagus. With Blake and Avon.

      And Tarrant doubtless had just helped him. With not a way to warn them. No bloody way at all.

       In the great unfolding hierarchy of cats, Vila was fairly certain, Pita had to hold some considerable position of authority. In fact, probably aristocracy, he decided, pulling Pita's brush through her coat, as the feline stretched contentedly out over Pita's pillow, which Dayna reserved for Pita's exclusive use. Only a hairy little bugger born to her Pharaonic throne could order grown people about without so much as a word. All Pita need spare was a glance, a mere movement of nose or tail or paw, and she had the lot of them at her utter mercy - even Soolin, even, if the truth be known, though Vila wasn't about to be the one stupid enough to tell it - Avon.

      And among the hierarchy of their own lowly species, when Avon and Blake in Prometheus docked on Areopagus in its Mars orbit and it was time for Pita to be toted back to Dayna's assigned room, the position of feline sherpa was, naturally enough, given to him.

      "It's a cat's life," Vila muttered, dragging the brush one last time through Pita's plush pelt.

      She purred in her sleep, lolling onto her back. He tapped her between the ears. "Nobility, all right. All the way up to your ratty little head."

      Just then, Dayna walked wordlessly into her quarters, and lifted up a microcircuit encasement from her personals desk, flipping through the file.

      "Dayna, have I served my Pita sentence?" Vila said. "Any time off for good behaviour?"

      Then just as wordlessly, extracting a microcircuit disc, without even flipping Vila a moderate glance, she left the room.

      Odd enough, and more to the point, downright wounding, he thought to himself. Not that he'd own that - not even to Pita. "That's gratitude for you," he simply said, and looked to Pita for validation, but she bundled herself into a bagel-shaped twist, continuing to snore.

      So he decided to pursue the matter. Time to stand up for himself, here and now, seize the moment, all of that, as it were. He moved into the corridor where Dayna was still standing. She was studying the disc in her hand, the crease of thought riding high on her brow. Then she saw Avon appear at the crook that annexed Corridor Major to Corridor A and handed the microcircuit disc over to him.

      "How is the bridging coming?" Dayna asked.

      "With Leusip's irrational morass of seditious functions and suspicious mechanical inferences, the prognosis, at this point, can only be guarded," Avon said, directing the last remark behind him.

      Vila walked up, daring to rest a hand on Avon's shoulder. "Avon, old chum, since Dayna here isn't speaking to me, maybe you'll ask her what grievous sin I've done to offend her?"

      Avon did not so much as glance at him, merely returning his eyes to the article now held in his hand. Then Leusip gathered like an afternoon shadow beside them.

      "Cutting edge technology is always irrational within the context of the current paradigm," Leusip said, stepping between them. "What you mean, Kerr, is you can't understand its logic, and therefore deem it does not exist."

      Avon smiled coldly. "Yes, I had rather a feeling you would say something like that," he said, and reversed down Corridor Major towards Centre Main.

      "Do I have the right to ask what that is for?" Leusip said to Dayna, who remained there.

      Dayna looked up, her wide smile already loaded and aimed. "Certainly, Professor. Every right to ask," she replied, brushing past him.

      Leusip remained a moment in the corridor, something that might have been sadness waiting patiently on his face. For a moment, Vila almost felt sorry for him.

      "Pay no heed to her, she's not talking to me either," Vila said.

      But Leusip did not respond, staring one way up the long passageway, right through Vila. Then Avon walked back through the main centre access.

      Strange, strange, strange, too strange. Vila had heard of shunning, but he couldn't imagine anything he'd done to deserve it... at least in the past quarter of an hour. A practical joke, perhaps? No, too impractical. And hardly in character.

      Having me on, are we?

      Very funny now: chuckle-chuckle. The whole gang having a laugh at poor old Vila's expense. All right, admittedly, he was an easy mark. And his birthday was not long away.

      "Olly-olly-oxen-free already!" Vila moaned aloud.

      Right, Restal. And then old Avon'll come out smiling, brandishing a flaming glucosedisc, and they'll gather you around with roses, singing "Many Happy Returns".

      Does this sound remarkably plausible as a scenario, old boy? We ask you now.

      The voice of Moksha, the Areopagus overmind, came flooding over the comm system, interrupting Vila's dialogue with himself. "Prometheus is in immediate sympathetic refunctioning. Our beloved family is once again within the loving countenance of Areopagus."

      "You can be really be repulsive when you put your mind to it, you know that, Moksha?" Soolin's voice replied, from the distance of the records lounge.

      "Those are not my directives, my beloved sister. I seek only to serve, to establish harmony and counsel concern. I grieve if I have offended you in anyway. It will call for an immediate re-examination of my infrastructure to ascertain-"

      "Give it a rest, Moksha," Soolin said, weariness fraying her voice, "Just deliver your fucking transmission."

      "I must inform my beloved family that the first priority status signal, directed for coded interval transmission, from our most revered Brother Del, is ten minutes delayed."

      "You have heard nothing?"

      "Affirmative, Sister. Nothing. Shall I scan for possible explanations for contact failure."

      "Don't bother. It's due to the fact he's a prize-winning dickhead," Soolin muttered, punching out the comm trigger.

      "Excuse me, my beloved sister. I require a further extrapolation of the term: prize-winning dickhead, which is not to be found in the criteria of the Moksha indice thesaurus. Should you require a valid analysis of the situation potential: 'it's due to the fact he's a prize-winning dickhead-"

      Vila moved to the door of the brain records lounge, to see Soolin hoist her boots defiantly onto Avon's empty chair. "Certainly. Qualifying adjective, descriptive noun: 'prize-winning dickhead', a Terran Yuropan colloquialism meant to suggest that Brother Del Tarrant thinks with his procreative member. A prize-winning one. Add it to your indices. It will come in handy in understanding Del Tarrant."

      Soolin shook her long gold hair back, at the futility of keeping a leash on these hopeless cases. She supposed that any sane woman of a sufficient drive towards self-preservation would have ducked out of this madhouse and flagged down a contraband freighter a long, long time ago. She would have herself, a thousand years ago - she'd have dropped Dorian in his tracks, had it ever come to a question of him or her. But that was in the sane, old days, when she'd been a free agent, before she'd made the remarkably stupid mistake of becoming a game player... of willingly playing by these people's rules, simply for the courtesy of survival.

      She dragged back a wealth of her hair, hooding a hand across her eyes to focus on the page of text. Vila stepped into the room and around her, lowering his face to meet hers, their faces divided solely by the breadth of her hand.

      "Hello!" he said loudly, ornately, distinctly, desperately, as if calling across an abyss a fathom wide.

      Her head reflexed sharply back at the sound - she removed her hand, blinking directly into Vila's eyes. "For your sake, I do hope there was some extenuating circumstance for that effect," she said.

      "Well, now," Vila said, straightening up again with a decisive nod. "I'm not invisible."

      "Not yet," she said sharply, "but keep practising, it's a worthwhile endeavour."

      "Quite honestly, Soolin, I was beginning to think I was. Dayna walked right past me without saying a word. Avon, too."

      "So what is the new development, Vila? They have been doing that for years." Soolin sat back, opening the bound text again, returning to the words. "Don't be so sensitive. You bring out the sadist in all of us. It's simply a factor of human psychology."

      "But this is different-"

      "It always is, with you."

      "No, honest. Sen Leusip looked right through me. I tell you I'm invisible."

      She slammed the book closed, taking a considerable breath. "All right, slowly this time. Dayna might not have seen you. Leusip may not have seen you. The little shit never sees anybody. But I am looking right at you and speaking directly to you, ergo, you are not invisible."

      "That's hardly a majority, is it?" Vila said, growing more manic by the moment.

      "This time you've really gone and lost it, Vila." She grasped him by the earlobe, dragging him close, inhaling. "Well, you don't smell like you're Somatoxic and this must be a whole tankard full. I thought you agreed we were going to handle this little problem."

      "Soolin, I haven't had a drop. Not so much as Soma vapour, I swear it."

      "Don't start swearing, Vila, you know I don't believe a word you say when you swear it."

      "But I do swear it. I double-swear it. No one can see me."

      She released her hold on his ear. "Remember when you thought the plaster sheep were going to eat you? And I had to prove to you they weren't? And you insisted you saw one move and they had to be robot plaster sheep? Remember that, Vila? You double-swore it then, too. That had a perfectly rational explanation. This does also."

      "Says you," Vila replied.

      "Once more struck dumb by your rapier wit," Soolin said, reaching for the Moksha summons sensor. "Moksha, your beloved Brother Vila is having an existential crisis. Would you kindly tell him that he does still exist?"

      She flipped a wry look at Vila, until her casual expectancy was met only by silence. It became obvious that Moksha was not going to reply.

      "Moksha, respond please."

      And still, it didn't.

      "There - something is going on, I tell you!"

      "The only thing going on is your mouth, Vila," she snapped, glaring at the console display. "It's obvious. The console has packed up. Either that or the little shit is up to something."

      "What are we going to do?"

      "We're going to find intelligent units with more predictable sense systems," Soolin said, checking the infrared locator, which reported with an image display where the human cargo of Areopagus were at all times. The depiction demonstrated four unique human patterns - one pattern proceeding from Centre Main towards the quarters sector, one pattern on the periphery of Centre Main Corridor A, two more in close proximity in Centre Main command console - the last two, rather predictably of late, being Blake and Avon.

      "There is Blake. We will go to him. He will tell you you aren't invisible," she said, rising from the chair to shackle Vila by the sleeve of his garment. "I'll hand you this, Vila, when you go barmy, it's in a novel way."

      With that, she towed him out of the records lounge and down Corridor A towards Centre Main.

      

      

She remembered a favourite Gauda Lyceum Professor of hers, before she signed herself out of their Lyceum Satellite in order to seek fame and fortune as an interstellar bounty hunter and mercenary to the stars. The professor's name had been Shan Brinse and she was one of them, a genetic mutt and a scrapper, as opposed to the pristine fallen angels of Terra, consigned to teach the borderworld children out of lack of skill or licentious predilections or, for a very few, some lofty mission to minister to the great unwashed.

      But Shan had gone to the Terran Alpha Lyceum on the Lord Mayor's special dispensation for the Gauda young. And what was of greater surprise, the light she had conjured and nurtured through the hard years at Lyceum, she did not take into some comfortable position of surfeit and strength in the Federation echelon - as the other Gaudas, who managed escape, had done - but rather she brought it back, to give to them, to lead a few more of the miserable gosling Gaudas out of a similar darkness.

      And she'd given it to Soolin. Made her smart. Then gave her cunning enough to know that she should hide the light, because it could be very dangerous if others discovered, if others tried to chain her to make use of it. But, they had found out - they being the venerable Lord Mayor Rutting Pig, who had long before fallen for the fiction that he was a god, to be bowed to, to be scraped to and served. He had seen Soolin's beauty, he had noticed her brains. He was a man given to using anything at his disposal.

      And Soolin had no intentions of being disposed of.

      Though Shan had wept the day Soolin told her where she was headed, the temporary life she was bound for, she had given her sufficient credits for passage, arranged for the contraband hop to get her the hell off the face of that ugly planet.

      And, of course, Soolin had asked her what she could ever do to repay her.

      "Just stay true," Shan Brinse had said. "And make something of yourself. Do what you have to do to survive for the present, but build on that. Promise me you will."

      And of course, like all windswept children of the blind, she had made that promise. And of course, she had never been able to say - when she was alone on the small, cold planet named The Soolin That Was, staring across the ever-receding galaxy called Might-Have-Been - that she had really made good on it.

      Even when she believed she was making some headway towards it, Reality woke her up in the morning and found her wanting. She had actually sometimes thought she'd finally made the grade, being with Avon and later, with Blake.

      And where was she now? Leading a half-frantic Delta down a corridor to prove to him that he wasn't invisible.

      Wasn't that just somehow altogether fitting?

      But then she remembered one of Shan's favourite philosophical exercises, one that she used as a drill before the Gauda Lyceum board - it was an old one: the attempt to prove to someone, through logical irrefutable argument, that they did - in fact - exist.

      How pointless, she had thought at the time.

      She had never imagined it would come in handy.

      They entered the Centre Main, where Avon was kneeling before the Moksha command console, the cabinetry opened like the gates to all knowledge, a laserprobe flashing with the deft rhythm of his hand.

      Blake was seated nearby on a command chair, watching Avon, the constant soft-eyed, Observing Avon look on his face. It was explicit enough these days that Dayna had recently commented on it. Of course, it was old news to Soolin, but dear old Blake's case was obviously metastasized and in current treacherous growth. Even Avon had to be aware. But for all Soolin knew, they had gone past the awareness stage and already had their first kiss. Perhaps even the legendary Full Carnal Knowledge which euphemism had itself become an expletive.

      Full Carnal Knowledge. Avon and Blake. What a perfectly lovely idea, she thought, with a secret smile.

      "What are you grinning about?" Vila whined. "I'm still invisible!"

      "Oh, shut up, Vila," Soolin said, taking possession of Vila's ear once again, towing him across to Blake.

      "Blake," Soolin said, in the throes of complete exasperation.

      Their leader remained with his eyes devoted to Avon. His expression did not even change.

      Vila clapped her across the shoulder. "See!"

      "Blake!" Soolin said, walking up on him, leaning down in his face, waving her hand before his eyes.

      Blake shifted slightly in his chair, chin bolstered against the knuckles of his fist, but he did not register Soolin's presence at all - his attention devoutly Avon's.

      Love was one thing, but this was ridiculous.

      "Progress?" Blake said softly, but it was clear the question was to Avon.

      "That remains to be seen," Avon replied.

      "Avon!" Soolin said, moving to him. She knelt to his level - for the first time ever, she thought to herself - and pulled a face right into his. He did not even slightly respond. "You little shit, say something!" she snarled.

      "Soolin!" Vila said, clean terror now hiking his voice's register. He pounded on her shoulder. "Soolin, it's contagious!"

      "Vila, you nit, get hold of yourself!" she snapped, trapping the arm once again, as if getting hold of herself as well. "I tell you, this all has a perfectly rational explanation."

      "Of course it does, we've gone invisible!"

      "A real explanation," she snapped back, letting him go, moving slowly towards the console, surveying the display of all the internal life of Areopagus. Whatever went on within its heart, was recorded there.

      Then she saw the reading on Aegis Sector, just off Corridor A, adjacent to the records lounge, where Vila had disturbed her study with his ludicrous angst of invisibility.

      It had gone into catastrophic shutdown: a systems failure which was just about to spread.

      "Sovereign Lord," she whispered darkly.

      "What?" Vila said.

      What was it Avon had once said about the reliable perceptions of Vila's fear?

      Rather than remembering that, she recalled another stray fact she had missed altogether. Something back there. When she had first queried Moksha.

      She had looked at the infrared locator, to scout for those electromagnetic patterns broadcast by all living beings specifically for those peculiar to Avon and Blake. The display had imaged four signals registering on the sensor band of the Moksha electromagnetic spectrum, in all of Areopagus.

      Four: Avon, Blake, Dayna, Leusip, she had formerly thought, discarding the usual components always overlooked in the thrall of a faulty analysis: the presence of the Observers. It had only recorded four living beings within the hull of Areopagus.

      There had been, however, two energy readings missing, the two that should have been standing speaking in ludicrous circles in the Areopagus records lounge.

      The same two that were still omitted from the Centre Main locator sensors, sketching out the same four presences - nothing more.

      Catastrophic shutdown (there had been), a systems failure (centred off Corridor A) - where the Tarriel reductive unit was located. And where the records lounge was, also.

      "We are," Vila said softly, in total disbelief, "invisible."

      Invisible... or (as unlikely as her own dead-is-dead perspective on the matter made the idea) quite possibly, dead, Soolin thought darkly, though she was sure as hell not about to voice the second possibility to Vila.

      "I tell you, there has to be a logical explanation!" Soolin said firmly, through knit teeth.

      "Tell that to the robot plaster sheep," Vila said, shaking his head.

      

      

Blake knew it was once believed that the past was simply the graveyard of time, a receptacle for entropy and all dead ideas. But such beliefs were the byproducts of blindness. Yesterday was as much an expression of this moment as the Present was, as was the promised Future. The universe, said one school of science, was wrapped around the spoke of a Grandmother Black Hole. That grandmother, Midwife of Wormholes, crone conjurer of all the symbiotic anomalies of earth and sky - barm mama to all the strange and lovely universe of impossible things that could not possibly live as brother to the rational world, but lived there all the same.

      It had been paradox that had terrified Avon. Complete contradiction of something... and, by that same token, everything. One black raven refuted the law of all white birds.

      Somewhere, everything still existed - every landscape loved and left behind to the blue water or to black space. Somewhere where Time took no privilege... in the place where Time became so relative it no longer could exist.

      "Progress?" Blake asked softly, simply to make contact with his friend, the fortress, in rapport with a tracery of microcircuits, grafting ancient technology onto the wild flesh of Leusip's latest invention, the Moksha computer.

      "That remains to be seen," Avon said, putting a point at the end of the sentence, as always.

      Blake smiled to himself, settling back into the chair, happy to be watching Avon at his work. He could recall a time when he would have avoided this activity at all cost - watching him so openly - because it called up things he had fought for too many years to ignore.

      But having held Avon in his arms, having seen the wound and the blood and the empty look of death touch his face, even if for only a moment, had been enough. To have come so close to losing him was enough.

      What was, was. Despite Blake's reluctance and Avon's fear and all the apprehension they could muster up between them. If that black bird existed, it simply did. And nothing could be done to stem its flight.

      Blake had loved men before, in the way that men were supposed to love other men - all the circumscription, all the boundaries. He had had a father, a brother, an uncle as well. He had had friends, he supposed: he remembered the love, if not the statistics. And of course, he loved Vila, like a favourite nephew and even Tarrant, like a somewhat embarrassing prodigal son. And he had loved Gan as the brother who had not only honoured him in dying for him, but in living for him as well.

      Damn. There always had to be categories in loving men.

      Yet, he had loved Jenna in much the same way he had loved Cally - in much the same way he loved Dayna and Soolin. It was grey and warm and a woollen comfort, without walls and limits. There was the physical pull of the senses, of course, their bodies there as a reference for the soul. It felt good to touch them, to be near them. It was always there, that feeling, and he was comfortable with it. He could just love them, without always giving it a name.

      And then there was what he felt for Avon.

      He remembered with a smile the old days, when he tried to force it into friendship, when he tried to confine it in a fraternal hull and make it normal, make it safe again. And there were times he had almost convinced himself of its brotherliness. The very beginning, that hell year after Gauda Prime, other times of disquiet enough to muffle its thunder.

      But then there would come moments, as when they had fought from Invenda de Endor across to Destiny, and he and Avon stood alone, staring out across another war-stripped alien sunrise, one more gun-metal morning over one more plundered and pockmarked Borderworld, and Blake turned to Avon to say something stupid and pointless

      And Avon was just standing there, beautiful as silence; just the two of them on that battlefield, that vision of complete destruction like the very first act of creation... no one else in all of existence at that moment, so it seemed, and the terrifying part of it was, it didn't matter. With all the love Blake had ever felt and how vital it had always been to his life, to his sanity, he realized at that moment, had it only been he and Avon for the rest of time, it would have been enough.

      Blake had looked away from Avon, towards the smouldering cairns that had once been shanty cities, and Avon had looked towards him.

      "What price freedom," Blake had said softly, in the voice of the wind.

      "What price indeed," Avon replied. "At least we didn't have to pay it."

      And Blake had been about to deliver his sixtieth terse-reply-to-Avon of the day, when he saw the smile bending Avon's soft lips, the fire in his eyes. Avon was looking at him with what have might been softness, wonder, extending a hand to light on Blake's shoulder.

      And to that very day, Blake often wondered if the moment might have meant something similar to Avon as it had meant to Blake. What might have happened, that charmed moment, had Avalon's Stega Brigade not descended in cluster formation from the sky.

      The movement of Avon placing his laserprobe aside brought Blake back to the real world. Avon sat back for perspective, his eyes gliding restively over the surface of the Moksha conduit, into which he had just wedded the memory stores of the Mater 9. His thoughts, as always, were deep inside the caverns of the machinery, enough that Avon allowed his hand to move up the crest of his shoulder, the shoulder that Blake knew always gave him grief, grief enough to pierce the ever-present mask of ice with infrequent confessions of pain.

      Blake leaned forward in the chair, extending a comforting hand to the shoulder.

      "Let me," he said softly.

      Oddly enough, Avon removed his own hand to allow Blake's. And Blake decided to take it to the limit. He moved his other hand to Avon's shoulders, both his large and gentle hands engaged in conversation with Avon's sinew and nerve. As always, the conversation went only so far, leaving so many things unsaid.

      Avon's eyes slowly closed... unaccountably...

      Blake's fingers found tightness in Avon and worked to free it, just as he fought the rising feelings inside himself, to steady his own breath, watching Avon's soft mouth part gently in a sigh.

      "Good, hm?" Blake said softly.

      "Mmmmm," Avon replied.

      What was that nonsense Avon had said down on Gondoron? Face it, Blake, you're afraid. Afraid that we hated each other.

      Like he was denied the names of the friends he could remember loving, Blake knew nothing of the facts of this. But he did know these feelings. And like those vanished epochs people mistook for dead time, this all still existed, somewhere. He had to believe it was alive in them, just as the first unsturdy dreams of that stranger known as himself had survived the loss of memory. What Time deprived the intellect of, the soul kept track of, he had to believe in that, if nothing else.

      If nothing seemed familiar, nor promised to ever be again, he knew that hate was sure as hell not how it had been.

      "Blake," Leusip's voice intruded on the moment, like an arctic breeze through a hearth-warmed room.

      Blake lifted his eyes to Leusip, the old man looking at him with what was probably surprise. It didn't take Avon's inferential genius to connect the shock on Leusip's face to Blake's hands on Avon's shoulders. Blake's curiosity was not easily provoked these days; he no longer strove to make some sense, simply taking things for what they were and trusting the pieces to later fall into place.

      He gave the older man a challenging smile. Leusip's eyes connected to his. The bridge remained for a long moment. It was clear that he knew something, understood something.

      "We need to speak," Leusip said.

      Avon rose quickly to his feet, breaking the contract with Blake's hands, pulled out of his reverie.

      "Mater 9 should be functional," Avon said curtly, walking past both of them to the console. He tapped a secondary screen. "I have directed the Mater function to Moksha's elementary channels. It is complex enough to override the primitive circuitry. Orac will compensate."

      "There is something urgent we must discuss first," Leusip said. "Something which affects us all."

      "This," Avon said distinctly, "is first."

      "Please, Avon, I understand how vital this is to you, but this-"

      "You understand nothing," Avon hissed.

      Blake moved up and placed a regulating hand on Avon's arm, turning with a hard glare for Leusip. "You did agree, Professor, that the Mater harvest would be the first priority."

      He nodded his assent. "I did agree."

      "Then we may proceed?" Blake said, the courtesy of the question merely a circumstance.

      The old man said nothing, but moved to the console chair. Blake removed his hand from Avon's shoulder and turned towards the visual reference of the secondary screen.

      "Moksha," he said, "explicate the Mater 9 systems integration in the AI aesthetic standard."

      On the view screen, a maze of interacting neutrons spun a silver pattern.

      Avon turned to Blake. "It appears that we have full systems integration with topical-"

      "K-A. 104."

      It hit him hard; the impact fairly bursting through the fortress wall onto the surface. It was, in an instant, like the last thirty years had been a dream, and there had been no escape and he was still back there in his metal hell.

      "Avon," a human voice said.

      "K.A. 104, respond please. Require data as to inconsistent optical readings."

      Someone was standing too near him. "Avon," a man's voice said... his tone too soft, too concerned.

      It was the dream... the voice from the dream...

      Avon turned to the left to find that the voice belonged to Blake. Blake was staring at him, too much fear in his eyes, too much - too much -

      Something in his brain twisted. It was like it had been - like it had been - linking to the Collosum summary was like it had been...

      "K.A. 104, respond please."

      Facts were needed... something solid... something real and not insane to follow back to the real world, the world without paradox...

      "Respond?" Avon said, the one word born breach, his voice a whisper.

      "Require data as to inconsistent optical readings."

      Good... good...

      Avon's hand went to the sweat on his brow. "You are aboard an unclassified satellite, in Mars orbit, called Areopagus. You have been installed through a broad-spectrum systemic mind named Moksha. You have been removed from the deputy conduit in Standard Increase."

      "Recorded. Additional data required. Optical inconsistency was in reference to indice specifications for Standard Increase Subject KERR AVON 104."

      The room beneath him settled into solid earth. He could think clearly once again. "The reason for your inconsistency is that the subject is no longer a boy."

      "No longer?" Mater said.

      "It has been twenty-eight Terran years since you last collected optical data on subject K.A. 104," Avon said softly. "The subject has reached full maturation. He is now a man."

      "We're getting systems failure readings off the main bank," Dayna said, striding in from Corridor Major. "We're down twenty-six sectors to reserves."

      "Systems failure?" Leusip said, indignantly. "That simply isn't possible."

      "Forgive me, Professor, but it simply is or why the hell are we shut off from Corridor A? Soolin and Vila are trapped in there," Dayna said sharply, slapping a procession of command console summons and triggers. "Our defence systems are crucified. We're sitting blind and deaf. We have only moderate intrasystems control."

      "Moksha," Avon said, "redirect the Mater memory to adjunct banks and give me an integrated systems analysis. Survival potential in life supports, first priority."

      "Processing request, my brother, please stand by," it said.

      "What is this, Leusip?" Blake said pointedly, sending a hard glance at the Academician.

      "You have to believe me, Blake," Leusip lied, outright, "I have no idea."

      But he did know precisely. It was what he had dreaded from the moment Steavn had told him where Taro was headed. Every system had an Achilles heel, which was most easily predicted by knowing well the mind of its creator. And if Taro did not know him well, he had access to something that did.

      Every nerve in Sen Leusip's body went cold. And then, every light within Areopagus died.

      Avon could see nothing, nothing but the points of light framed within the forward viewport. After the lumines, the next to go would be filtration: they had only minutes left to breathe - they would die of asphyxiation in this utter, lonely darkness. He knew what this would be. The small, asthmatic friend he had had at Standard Increase, had died in writhing agony of asphyxiation on the dark side of Gondoron, when Avon had run away and taken him along. He had watched his death, helpless to stop it. He was glad that Blake had not.

      He sensed Blake behind him. Felt the presence of his hands on his shoulder and was happy for it. The dark and he had never been amiable companions. And he thought to die alone with it would be terrible.

      That was how it would end. He and Blake. With nothing more accomplished. With so much left to do. And yet, everything accomplished in all of creation would amount to little more than silence in all the infinite thunder of space. Making their small, human futility seem meagre in contrast.

      But the next second passed, and another, and they weren't dead. "We do not have complete systems failure," he said, sighing silently. "We still have life support." His laserprobe fired light enough to find the command console cabinet, directing the light to slice through the Moksha conduit registers. "This will free the critical systems from broad-spectrum integration."

      "We won't have access to the full indice!" Leusip said, moving up between them.

      The lumines flared vaguely, then strengthened. "Perhaps not," Avon snapped in his direction, rising, "but we will at least be capable of inhaling and exhaling."

      The old man sagged back against the command console chair, his expression pleading clemency from Blake who was glowering over him in silence. "Moksha," Leusip spoke, "it is entirely impossible for that extensive a power reduction to have been internal to your broad-spectra and still missed the life support, is that correct?"

      "Correct, my father."

      He nodded, solemnly. "Then determine the first cause of the systems failure."

      "My beloved family, the system analysis shows an immoderate level systems failure, with design-induced avoidance of life support systems. Cause prospectus as follows: registries of all known weapon systems show negative evaluation: non-malicious attack. Limited indice evaluation evidences non-mechanical failure."

      "Probability: external agency through destructive signal integration. Recommend evaluation of Moksha systems for infiltration."

      "As I feared," Leusip said.

      Avon stepped up to the edge of his chair, beside the glowering Blake, adding full measure of their attention to Leusip.

      "What?" Avon said, the consequences clear in his voice for any failure to respond.

      "We are being disabled," he explained, "piece by piece, like an inconsistent theory. Like an irrational supposition. It went for the vulnerable point, the tarriel reduction unit, and is now spreading its assault. And it knows all the vulnerable sectors implicit in my designs."

      Realization striking, Avon surged towards the master console. "Moksha! Disengage all bridging systems from the Mater 9 memory board-"

      "It's no use, Avon," Leusip said quietly.

      "We have to try!" Avon said, firing his laserprobe again, ready to do battle.

      The Academician, who had known failure in as many colours as the evening sky, shook his head, moving across to stand beside the man. "We're trapped. Trapped as a pelt animal in a bounty snare. And it isn't simply the Mater 9 memory that has us."

      "My beloved family," began the voice of the Moksha computer, "we have received a holographic communication over the sub-standard frequency."

      Doubtless, Sen thought, the message to come was the ransom note for their lives. Knowing that once Areopagus fell, there would be no sanctuary. For any of them.

      "Transmit the message, Moksha," Leusip said softly, solemnly.

      "Propose caution."

      "Duly noted."

      "It is an old presence, my father. Indexed under catastrophic factors for immediate refusal under security-"

      "I know that, Moksha. I am aware of his identity," Leusip said, to comfort the computer, surrendering fully to the arms of the chair. "Begin transmission," he concluded, glancing up to watch the lumines dim on the console of his Moksha, knowing that it was merely the systemic quota of now-limited energy being budgeted to critical circuits, but making it seem to be dying.

      Just then, in the centre of Areopagus, as if an invisible window had been opened, the hazy image of a young man coalesced. It might have been the Spirit of Death and the Root of All Evil for the effect it had on Academician Sen Leusip, draining every vestige of colour from his face.

      "Freeze the image, Moksha," Blake said quickly.

      The image was frozen.

      "Record it in still form, then let it go," Blake added.

      The holographic image smiled, but the impact was not pleasant. "I bring you greetings from the dark side of Gondoron. And as this message is encoded to arrive in tandem with certain events my - modifications - to the Mater system are designed to set forth, you no doubt are all quite familiar with the darkness by now. I have been called Ago Taro and I am comfortable enough with that moniker for my friends to make use of it. Though you doubtless do not consider yourself my friends. Not yet anyway."

      "The first thing I should elucidate for you are my conditions for the restoration of your pitiful little Areopagus vessel to good health and for the return of one of your own, though admittedly not one of your more important own, Might-Have-Been Space Commander Del Tarrant-"

      "He has Tarrant!" Dayna said, from her position of understated silence.

      "Oh, yes, I suppose I hadn't mentioned that, had I?" the hologram said. "Yes, I have Tarrant. And will have him until Blake and Avon consent to that which they were groomed to do from the very beginning - to wed the Matrix to that genius which Leusip's cretin mind dubbed the System. In order to temper one and rule with the other. But the System was born through him, not from him. The System would not be mocked. The System will, in two time units, be bridged permanently to the Matrix, and through all the universal sentient systems, and the Collosum will perform the function for which it was uniquely designed. It will subjugate one to the other, but not the one you had envisioned, Sen Leusip."

      Again, the figure smiled. "I am certain Sen Leusip will now be able to provide the background for you. I will hear from you in the affirmative in one time unit's duration, or Tarrant will be first to die, then the rest of you, one by one, in far less pleasant deaths, as Kerr Avon can elucidate for you."

      Taro bent at the waist. "So pleased to have made your acquaintance," he said, and disappeared.

      Blake slowly unfolded his arms, leaning over the older man, using the span of his shoulders for a less-than-subtle incentive for him to tell the whole truth and nothing but. "Perhaps, Professor, you would be good enough to explain?"

      "I shall tell you all that I can."

      "See that you do," he said, his voice a soft and supple threat.

      Leusip looked at him uncertainly. He had never been frightened of Blake - of Avon, yes, myriad times, but never of Blake. But this towering passionate man who had killed to save a friend now stood on the brink of losing all of them at once, including the man that he loved... and his eyes did not suggest a man disposed towards forgiveness.

      "The truth as I know it," Leusip said, in a tempering preamble. "As I understand it," he said, standing from the chair, facing the three people who had now gathered around him. "I had hoped to relate this to Vila and Soolin as well. And to Tarrant."

      "According to our readings, Vila and Soolin are trapped in Corridor A sector, near the quarters quadrant," Dayna explained to Avon. "That barrier has neutronic support and is virtually impenetrable. But the life supports still function beyond it."

      "Then they are better off than we are," Blake said, keeping his cautioning glare on Leusip. "Presumably we can rely on your friend Taro to observe the war articles in his treatment of Tarrant?"

      "Hardly a friend of mine, Roj. However, to be honest, I must say no, we cannot." Leusip shook his head, fearing his next disclosure. "Taro killed Vendarian."

      "Wonderful," Blake's voice rumbled back. "You lead us into this and now all our lives are threatened. We can't even escape on Prometheus with the docking systems dead. Which doubtless was part of the plan." He gave him one last explicit glare. "I should never have allowed you to talk me into coming back here. We should have gone straight on from Gondoron, as Avon, wanted, and gotten the hell away from here."

      "Nevertheless, we are here, Blake," Avon said, the voice of reason. "I think it the optimum time to be told why. That is if the Good Professor Troubadour deems us worthy of a storytelling hour. And regardless, we can relate the Parables of Leusip to the others later."

      "No fairy tales, Avon. Not this time."

      "Speak your piece, Professor," Avon said, lowering into a command chair, turning in profile away. "Then kindly tell us the way back."

      Leusip took a long, dramatic breath, looking from face to solemn face - so different, and yet, somewhat incongruously, so similar. It was the face of Yuropa, that strange, sorceress continent of old Terra; mother to such a sad and honourable people, manifest in these, her two very different sons. Yet no one had been much surprised when the truth was known. When Change had walked in and found them both coiled up in Blake's bed, his long arms knotted in victory around Avon, only Steavn had been shocked. When Leusip informed Buto, the other man had given him a look of distinct non-surprise. "Well, of course," was all he had said.

      He looked on the two of them, the pity for them nearly taking his breath. He knew everything, all their secrets, and they knew nothing of their own pasts, of the vital link to each other. For years, Leusip had tried to convince himself that what he had done, he had done for the best. That the truth of this would not mean much to them one way or the other.

      But other times, when the spectre of the System came back to haunt him, he understood from whence its madness had come, like a dark magic from the invisible echoes of his thoughts, the strings one never sees. Slavery was slavery, and to hold a person chattel by hostaging his past was as evil as keeping his body in chains.

      It was time, at last, for the truth. At least time to point them to the road on which they might find it.

      "Avon, you once said this road begins at Standard Increase," he started softly. "But that is only the start, only the very beginning..."

      

      

The darkness was a monster, growing wild around him. Then he felt the fibrous mass again, mopping at his forehead. And saw the expressionless face of a straight-haired woman he barely remembered from a terrible dream.

      "I am sorry," she said flatly, swabbing at the red swelling over his carotid that the stimulus had left. "He is not sane. But he will not kill you. He wants to make you one of us."

      "One of you?" Tarrant coughed out, catching and drawing in a breath. "Unless I am a shockingly bad judge of character, you are not one of his."

      "No. I am not. But he must believe that I am." She touched a very sore patch and Tarrant winced. "Sorry. You will want to watch that when he does you."

      Tarrant's face crumpled for a moment, then resolved itself, steeling himself. "He's coming back for that, then."

      "Yes. And you are best served to lie still and take it. He will see that you are pleasured. But if you struggle or if you seek it, he will hurt you. He must be in control."

      "I shouldn't want to seek anything from him."

      "Then he will take it from you. As he does from me."

      Tarrant pulled himself up from his own self-pity, to look a moment on the other face. "He - does - you as well, then?"

      Something sharp sprang from her face, like a report on a bite of a bitter lemon. Her fist convulsed about the moistener, liquid leaking like its blood through her fingers. "He does anything that moves upon the earth," she said. "Or doesn't move."

      "Then you don't love him?" Tarrant asked.

      Her eyes struck at him hard, as if she might kill him for the suggestion. "No," was all she said.

      "Why is it you don't stand up for yourself? Fight him? You have a weapon," he said, nodding at the projectile weapon tethered to her belt.

      "Because he has many who follow him blindly. Who think him the prophet of their god. I would die, if I sought to leave. If I remain, he feeds, clothes and protects me. He asks only that I protect him when necessary, cook his food, suture his garments, and let him do what he will to me when the mood suits him. If nothing else, it is better than my origination port."

      "So, where are you from?" he asked, settling back, trying to seem casual. "Where in this cold, cruel universe do they give little girls numbers instead of names?"

      "I was given the number in the Federation project of which I was a part. I was abandoned at birth and never given a name as others have. And such a label is merely a means for identification. The number has always seemed suitable enough." She tossed the moistener back to the vessel and set it aside. "And where are you from? You have a Terran name."

      He laughed, a fake one, but effective. "Yes, well, my people were Returns, who came to Earth from a colony when my grandfather was an infant."

      "Where is your Planet Home?"

      "I have no idea."

      "Then how do you know your origin? Your source?"

      He shrugged, careful of the neck. "I don't."

      "But didn't your people tell you?" she said, aghast.

      "They didn't know. They came through Exodus Station, you see. That was the immigration centre for people resettling Earth. We were stripped of our names, of our homelands. And the records were burned."

      "But why?"

      "To inspire - unity," Tarrant said, laughing at the very idea.

      "Did it?"

      "The jury is still out, I'm afraid."

      "But surely your name can tell you something," Twenty-Wun said, her voice demonstrating her turmoil at the very idea of something unable to be categorized. "It is Terran Yuropan. Your people came from there, originally. They may have colonized the stars, but you are still of Terra."

      He smiled sadly, up at her, at the simple, undistinguished humanity of her attempt. "The name was given at Exodus also. There are countless Tarrants walking Earth whose origins are from a thousand separate stars. The name simply means 'Child of Terra', which, rather ironically, I am not."

      A visual tremor passed through her. She firmly shook her head. "I think I prefer my number," she said.

      "It's more honest, at any rate," he said, hearing - with a steady, growing dread - the rising chant of footsteps in some long and unseen hallway leading, he had no hope of doubt, here.

      "It will be over with quickly," Twenty-Wun said.

      "It will never begin."

      "He may kill you if you don't obey him."

      "There are some things worse than death," Tarrant said, with a laugh that was crippled before it was even given sound.

      The woman called Twenty-Wun gave him a sharp glare, as if clearly in the presence of an imbecile. "What could be worse than death?" she asked.

      He looked at her openly a moment, understanding the chasm of common experience he would have to leap to explain, choosing instead to turn back.

      She rose up and shot away somewhere, out of Taro's sight.

      And he decided that, if he was forced to meet this, it would be on his feet.

      Taro entered the room, this time garbed in something grey and lustrous - laser-cloth, the sort used among the residents on borderworlds. Wonderfully comfortable, both warm and cool when the weather required, durable in extremis, and incredibly cheap, so the sub-standard Alphas, Betas and Deltas wore it, but the prime stock Alphas didn't, simply because the rest of humanity did. Which called for - to Tarrant's mind - a re-examination of what was meant by 'intellect'.

      He envied Taro his garments. His own were beginning to feel squalid and heavy on his body, but he wondered if that wasn't some psychological premise... some symbolic ploy to get at his unconscious.

      "Come now, we must get shot of these," Taro said softly, reaching out to touch Tarrant's collar, as if reading his thoughts. He handed him a goblet brim-full of some lavender-coloured beverage, filling Tarrant's hands, while Taro's went to the closures on the other man's vestments.

      Tarrant pushed at the hands, shoving them away, splashing liquid.

      "Not while I'm living," Tarrant said.

      "You don't mean that," Taro said, gazing into his eyes, gripping his hands over Tarrant's, moving them with the goblet to his lips, forcing the man to drink.

      The flavour washed across his tongue, with the slickness of wine, and a burst of cinnamon-sweetness. It closed his eyes. It opened them again. And then he found he could not look away from Taro's eyes - gold-edged hazel, as complex as prisms, shining like glass. There was an otherness about them. A madness. The madness accomplice to peace.

      "Give way. Let it happen," Taro whispered, his mouth moving up the length of Tarrant's throat. "You don't want to be alone anymore. You and I will go to them and make them pay, as I always wanted it to be, Tarrant."

      (Close your eyes. Turn away. This is bullshit. You know it's all bullshit. Everything is bullshit, in the end.)

      "As my God commands it be," he said wryly.

      Taro took a step back, dividing the margin. At first, he had seemed dark, but now his eyes were as light as his hair, golden, soft, and the sallow skin of his face, fair beyond the rose-coloured scar that broke its solid symmetry. It did not surprise Tarrant he had followers. They had to be legion.

      A hand lifted to Tarrant's face, the index finger following the line of his jaw. "Your choice, of course, I don't force my people. Not in matters such as these. But you will change your mind eventually, once you love me. When the idea no longer seems repugnant to you."

      Keep him off-balance, Tarrant thought to himself. He had to push his powerplay. Show him he wasn't afraid, because that was how Taro played his game, using guilt, using terror; Tarrant had seen enough of his earlier tactics to understand the game.

      "The sun will first go super-nova," Tarrant said, flashing a smile.

      "Many have said as much." Taro gave him an equalizing smile. "Of course you know about Blake and Avon."

      "Never heard of them. Are they from our neighbourhood?"

      "Only clever men have quick wits," Taro's voice rumbled, drawing his laser-cloth smock back over his head. "And clever men die quickly as well. Don't mock me, Tarrant." Taro took the goblet back, throwing down the remainder of the wine. "It isn't wise. It isn't healthy." Then he moved to what seemed to be a bare, block wall. With a pass of his hand across a patch sensor, electrons swarmed towards the centre, awaiting direction.

      "It seems I hadn't given you the credit you deserve. But wilfulness will not be your ally in this, Tarrant. Far better that you take my way. There will be less fear for you, less pain. You could be my own flesh, my nearest ally."

      "Save your mind games for mutants and crimos. They may believe you. I do not."

      "But you will believe me when I speak the truth," Taro said, his voice thrown against the hovering walls. "You will hear it and you will know it is the truth. Because, in some catacomb of your miserable human heart, Del Tarrant, you know it already."

      "And that is?"

      Taro smiled. "In time. In time. First, we have to make preparations for our honoured guests. I have already sent out the invitation. Of course, they will have little choice but to accept."

      "What have you done, Taro?" Tarrant said, steeling his voice against fear.

      "I insinuated a virus into their system. Nothing of my own devising, mind you, but merely allowing the demon Mater to follow her own nature and devour her young. And I used your voice to open the door... sending forth my message. Now your people will have no other choice but to construct the bridge for which they were designed, the only purpose to their pitiful lives... carrying out Steavn Change's grand design."

      "I thought you wanted to blind your father's vision, not enhance it," Tarrant said, deciding that if they would speak only by analogy, he would have to follow suit.

      "A bridge is simply a means to convey. And this time, rather than the Matrix storming the gates of my God with her sword of division, my God will stay her hand."

      The electrons on the wall swarmed into shape and form, became colour - a vast, black topograph of space, pulses of light that were nearby planets; distant, vascular twists of silver, which were galaxies discovering themselves.

      Tarrant vaguely recognized the star map. It was the twelth sector, upon the very edge, Spiral Arm A. Nowhere he had ever been. Nowhere he would want to be.

      "Watch there," Taro said, drawing a circle on the screen, silver electrons following his finger like a vapour trail.

      "Watch what?"

      "Very soon, you will see it. My God shall send forth a plague of angels to gather the universe to His own, as he should have done in the beginning. And no one - no one - will be able to stop Him."

       The Analog Project was a long road," Leusip said, "fraught with many obstacles and failures. Happily, or unhappily, it culminated in the choice of the Analogs. In the selection of you and Blake.

      "We are miserably aware of all of that," Avon said.

      Leusip lent him a tempering glance, going on. "The project was slowly nurtured, but it only truly began when the time came for the two of you to meet, when you and Blake were nineteen and seventeen respectively. It was at this time that the two of you started trial runs with the aquitar-based system we called Collosum."

      "The Collosum is simply the surrogate term for the Mater 10," Avon snapped.

      "That was what we wanted the Federation to believe. Carrying on that charade was the only means by which we drew funding. By allowing them to think that the Collosum was somehow connected to the Mater 10 project, the systemic underpinnings of Standard Increase and one aspect of the higher Matrix."

      Blake nodded. "The higher Matrix being the major computer system of the Federation."

      "Yes," Leusip said. "They of course would never have approved if they had known its true purpose."

      "Which was..." Blake said.

      "The purpose of Collosum was, in one instance, to test the potential of aquitar, and secondly to test the two of you. In the test trials, we were attempting to instruct you to work in synch with one another, even though you were such vastly different boys. There was a series of four trials, each one with a goal of its own. Then after the four trials, there was the last bridging. And the Collosum, beyond any of its superficial broad-spectra functions for the Mater system, was a vital bridge. Between the two of you."

      "Now, there is a frightening possibility," Avon said sharply.

      Blake reacted with wonder, sitting purposively back in the command chair. He was remembering something - actually remembering something. "What do you mean? There was something to do with the Matrix computer. Something very important."

      Leusip nodded, with grim resignation. "You are remembering the last bridging. The primary application of what we were attempting to do." He waited a moment, selecting each word carefully, Avon's eyes burning into his face. "You see, we understood the implications of this. If two such divergent human minds could be placed in full rapport, then so could two very different synthetic minds. We knew it could help right an immeasurable wrong I made during my youth and, by the same token, place the control of the Federation into the hands of the people."

      A vague memory surfaced. Blake was not certain how he knew all these answers, but he did know. "You wanted to wed the Matrix to The System," he said.

      Leusip's countenance greyed. "Yes," he said softly, seeming to have aged ten years in as many minutes. "The System was perfect consistency. The Matrix, my problem child with roots of which I am much ashamed, Avon, was just the opposite."

      "How so?" Blake said, his eyes full of suspicion.

      "The System was founded on a few inexorable tenets, concepts that it accepts as god, and it strives to make everything consistent with that reasoning. The most logical mind understands that, even as it strives for consistency, its quest is impossible."

      "Godel's Theorem," Avon said.

      "Precisely. Every single theory will contradict itself. Everything is relative. That is, if you accept the relativity of truth."

      "Which the System does not," Blake said.

      Leusip nodded. "And the Matrix does. It accepts no givens. I styled it after the humanoid immune system, to make it the greatest reductive computer in known technology, the most flawlessly logical system. It decodes everything. Reduces everything down to the basic quantity. It was perfect for the aims of Standard Increase. And perfect for our own aims as well."

      "Fine for Standard Increase," Blake said. "But death to any sympathetic system, such as little boys."

      "Yes. I see that now. But for all the bad that it is, it was worth one good. If the System and the Matrix could be bridged, then the Matrix could control the System. Point out the inconsistencies in its logic. Disable it. Keep it in check. And we would have a handsome base from which to launch our assault on the Federation galactic fleet."

      "What the System might assemble, the Matrix could tear apart. And the System would lend context to the Matrix logic."

      "Then you see my point."

      "Yes, I see your theory, but I still don't understand how Avon and I figure into it."

      Leusip sighed softly, waiting a moment before speaking, looking for the right words. "The human mind is far beyond even the tarriel-positronic brain in terms of inferential speed, in terms of intuitive judgement. The two of you, through working with the Collosum trials, became quite accustomed to working within Collosum. We needed the two of you to form the harmonic bridge between the three constituents: the Matrix, the Collosum and the System. The early trials proved that it was possible."

      "But the experiments broke down," Blake said, unsure himself whether the idea had been memory, intuition, inference, or a mixture of all.

      Leusip nodded. "Yes. The breakdown was augured by the failure of the last trial run prior to the main bridging, after a series of successful ones. We were experimenting with a naturally-occurring vegetable called a rose, placed in an aquitar-energized in situ matter reduction and replication device, similar to a teleportation chamber, except it would merely disassemble matter to its component atoms as symmetrical patterns, though stop at transmission of the signal through space."

      Leusip's face darkened with the memory. "We were trying to ascertain just exactly what Collosum force level was necessary for the Matrix to hold sway over the System. We instructed you, Blake, to focus your mental energy on keeping the atoms of the rose static. Avon's assignment was to scatter the atoms of the rose to the solar winds."

      "And what was the result?" Blake said, simply to go through the motions.

      Leusip noticeably reddened. "As I said, the rose experiment was a statistical failure-"

      Blake smiled. "Under your hypothesis."

      "-We still aren't entirely certain what went wrong."

      "You promised the whole truth this time, Professor," Blake said, knowingly.

      "And I am giving it to you," Leusip bristled. "I can tell you only what I know."

      Blake sighed, resigned, nodding. "Very well. Yet you proceeded with the bridging anyway?"

      "We did."

      "Why?"

      Leusip reddened. "We had to rush things forward. The situation was getting out of hand."

      "And the final result?"

      Leusip pinched at the trestle between his eyes. "A failure as well. Probably related to the same presumptive error that initiated the rose trial failure. There was just something integrally wrong with the whole process at the Collosum end." Leusip shook his head. "In any event, the rose failure should have prepared us for what occurred."

      "My collapse," Avon said unexpectedly.

      The three men's eyes met in surprise at the space between them.

      "Collapse?" Blake roared across at Leusip.

      But the next words were Avon's, flat and aimless words, his eyes shifted towards Moksha's contingent screen, but catching a glimmer of something far beyond it. "Something about paradox," he said.

      "That was your only impression then, as well. You very nearly died. For a while, we thought we had lost you. Our best guess was that the Collosum had failed. As our eventual findings indicated in the case of the rose, you had both been acting, undeterred, on its atoms. You had somehow been capable of overarching the Collosum, patching directly into each other's mental energy, rather than safely bridging into each other through the agency of the Collosum. Which was, for our purposes, as controllable a circumstance as having you swim through fire."

      "And if we could conquer the Collosum, so could the System," Avon said.

      Leusip nodded. "Precisely. The Collosum, by necessity subordinate, could nevertheless control the System from linking directly to the Matrix. But, if the Collosum failed, so would everything. Rather than the Matrix conquering, we saw that the System could, in this instance, take over the Matrix. Take over the computer systems of all the Federation. There was simply something conceptually wrong with the Collosum."

      "That was when," he continued, "we realized we had to adopt another way. A way in which the System could play no part. That was when we returned to the concept of directly fomenting rebellion through the group of you. To form Blake's 7. And the rest of this is already known to you."

      "None of which enlightens us remotely about our current state of siege," Avon snapped.

      "I was getting to that," Leusip said.

      "Then please do."

      "It seems that Ago Taro has somehow deduced this all. He must want to use the recombinant power of the Collosum to conquer the Refederation matrice, the main Matrix system."

      "Using Avon and me," Blake said.

      "In a word, yes." Leusip paused for a moment, "Yet I think there is a way to stop him, stop him without tipping him off until the moment of his death. I think I could probably teach the two of you the bridging technique again, teach you how to avoid linking to Collosum, but appearing as if you are. That might provide Dayna and I enough time to bypass the Mater virus in Moksha. We could then teleport you up to Prometheus and, since you would know the coordinates of Taro's encampment, we could blast it out of recognizable form. But the risk, of course, would be greatest for the two of you..."

      Blake glanced towards Avon, but addressed his response to Leusip. "Presumably you remember enough of this bridging process to refresh our memories."

      "He gave us two time units, so you have time enough to learn again." Leusip looked towards Avon. "Provided you are both willing to learn."

      Blake looked towards Avon whose face was static, determined, resigned. "It may be our only means for survival," Blake said softly.

      "There may be another." Avon looked at the Academician. "No thanks to Sen Leusip. Perhaps Orac can detect a means for washing out the virus, long enough, at least, to free Prometheus and get us the hell out of here. We can deal with getting Tarrant out later. That, to me, seems a far more reliable method of escape."

      "But what will happen, Kerr?" Leusip said. "Taro will be free to try again, to conquer everything. He will eventually figure out a way. Then all that you and your group have worked so long to bring about will be gone. It will be the Federation in extremis, far worse than it ever was before."

      "It was never my fight, Academician," Avon said. "And that is not my concern."

      "Those don't sound like the words of the boy who took the entire blame for Tynus's Project, refusing to implicate his friends in his embezzlement before the tribunal."

      "This," Avon hissed, "is no longer the idiot child you sold out to protect your own position. What we have done, Leusip, we have done. Without your help. In fact, unless I am very much mistaken, you nearly engineered our deaths when our lives no longer suited you. Well, those glory days are over. We are finished with your quest tale. From now on, our lives come first."

      Leusip tried next by looking deeply into Blake. "Taro has to have significant backing behind him, to do the things he has done. The only thing that stands between himself and victory, at this point, is your group. As bad as you may deem Steavn Change, as terrible as you view me to be, Taro is worse. We meant well. He does not."

      "Your problem, Leusip," Avon said, "not ours." And he looked towards Blake for commission.

      "We can't be hasty with this, Avon," Blake said softly.

      Avon moved his eyes slowly towards Blake. Avon supposed he should not have been surprised, but still it had landed inside him, with all the genial courtesy of a projectile.

      Blake had almost heard the door slam against him, the fragile channel that had risen so gradually between them in the last few weeks, withdrawn, locked inside Avon, held away. A blank stare came up between them.

      "I don't think we ought to dismiss the possibility out of hand, Avon," Blake said sharply, not yielding his own gaze. "Do you think this is a simple thing for me?"

      "I wonder."

      "Well, it's not," Blake said, his eyes shining their own reply. "And if you think it is, perhaps we don't know each other as well as I thought."

      "Perhaps we don't know each other at all," Avon said hotly, buffering the coldness in his stare, "or else why would we go on playing this tedious and insipid game?"

      At the distant look in Avon's eyes, Blake felt sick to his soul. "What game is that, Avon?" he asked softly, resigned to the end.

      "My always thinking you've come to your senses. And your always proving me wrong," he said.

      Blake kept their gazes locked a long moment; those eyes so familiar, how could Avon not feel the link? He shook his head, feeling his age, feeling the sins of man getting a footing on his shoulders yet again. He was angry at Taro, but incensed at himself, at the perfect internal system which mechanized indignation, that caged up outrage without fail inside him. He wished he could be as Avon, well-practised at the art of telling the whole bloody world to fuck off and go away. But then, Avon's nature was to be Avon, and his fate to be himself.

      "When you feel like discussing this substantively, I'll be in my quarters." Blake cast a sharp stare at Leusip. "Deciding if I can bear playing the stock company hero once again."

      Blake turned and sailed past Dayna, to the primary Corridor access, and out of the room. Tossing a querying look at Avon, Dayna took a step after Blake, but aborted her pursuit at the access door, just staring in his wake.

      "He will be all right, Avon," Leusip said.

      Avon did not respond.

      "We will have to begin preparations shortly," Leusip ventured on, "you and I can go to the system conduit and go over the initial procedures."

      "He needs time," Avon said.

      "There is no time."

      "There will have to be!" he snapped.

      Leusip staggered back at the force with which the words had come.

      Whether it was out of rage or pain or accident, or some hybrid of all three, Avon had let the mask slip further than Leusip had seen it fall in years. And it finally hit the Academician, at last broke the brain barrier with uncut truth.

      It wasn't just Blake now.

      It was both of them.

      This was a spiral, a chaotic helix, and it was out of control.

      With that, Avon moved past Dayna, and walked out of the room, heading in the direction Blake had gone.

      "They will understand," Leusip said, saying the words to Dayna, but assuring himself.

      "Avon already understands," Dayna said. "And so does Blake."

      

      

"Shut up, Vila!"

      "But I didn't say anything!" Vila said, giving Pita an ear-rub.

      "Oh. Well, I guess I could hear you thinking," Soolin replied, pacing the length of Vila's room for the thirty-seventh time. "So, lets go over this again. Dayna, Leusip, and Avon - all three of them - couldn't see you, but you walked into the room and I could. So can Pita. And you were holding Pita at the time that all this nonsense started. That seems important, though damned if I can figure out why."

      She paused at the viewport, which some ignoramus had decorated with cloth curtains. For some amorphous reason she would be at a loss later to explain, she pulled the valance aside to admire the metal-coloured sky that met the black, rolling sea, and the crescent of land with all manner of small, tidy, archaic buildings, covered over with a dome.

      Excuse us, Soolin, roll that back for another look-see, will you, please? her logical mind requested.

      "There is something extremely strange going on here," she concluded, feeling Vila's fear growing inside her own gut.

      "Righto, Soolin, and they call me swift," Vila said, depositing Pita to the ground.

      "Come here, Vila," she said distantly, eyes not leaving the seascape outside the viewport.

      "What is it now? It can't be any-"

      Then his eyes struck the object of Soolin's attention.

      "Uh, Soolin, that isn't possible. Is it?"

      "No."

      "Then how can it be?"

      "It can't."

      "Then what is it?"

      "It looks like an English seaport," Soolin said. "One of the ones Blake had preserved. Blackpool, if memory serves me correctly."

      "We're on board a Mars-orbiting artificial satellite and we have a view of the bay? Does that about say it?' Vila said.

      "That does seem to be the case."

      Vila paused. "Soolin, are we crazy or are we just dead?"

      "I don't believe in life after death, Vila," Soolin said. "It just doesn't make any sense."

      "Pardon me for saying so, Soolin, but I don't think that makes a fat lot of difference," Vila said, his voice going thin and shaky and unsettled. "That's the answer, then. We're dead. We're dead and the afterlife looks like Blackpool. Wonderful."

      "Will you shut up, Vila? I'm trying to think."

      "Well, it's a bit of a let down, isn't it?"

      Soolin gave him a bristly glare, moving over to where Pita was pooled on the rug. Life after death for humans, perhaps; even the idea of that pissed her off. There had always been comfort for her in a nice, solid end. A non-state, without pain and struggle and the purposeless deaths of people she cared about. All that heaven gab only made her dread death even more.

      She knelt down, dragging a hand at Pita's fur. No, cats deserved a rest. All animals. What had they ever done to deserve living on?

      And then she sneezed: a good, hard solid sneeze.

      "Well, that does it, Vila," Soolin said, conclusively. "We aren't dead."

      "And just on what do you base your diagnosis?"

      "I will accept the possibility that a cat may live on, but I reject out of hand an afterlife for an allergen."

      He glanced at the ever-oblivious cat. "I didn't know you were allergic to Pita."

      "I'm not. Anymore. But when I was on Gauda I was allergic to everything that moved upon the face of the planet, before the Medtechs gave me the immuno-fortification enzymes. But, still, every time I go near a cat, I expect to sneeze."

      "And so?"

      "And so, expecting to, I did. Do you follow?" She gestured to the viewport. "The term viewport was taken from the portholes of the vessels that sailed the Terran oceans, in the time before space dwelling, before even space exploration. And I've actually been to Blackpool once, with Blake and Avon when they convinced the locals to peel back the coast to uncover the ruins. Your quarters' curtains drew my eye to the viewport, and doubtless my unconscious to the portholes we saw on the preserved aquatic ships in the region."

      "Sounds awfully labyrinthine to me," Vila said, "but I think I prefer it to the death theory."

      "Also, I had just communicated with Moksha prior to your walking into the room. So, at the same moment you were invisible to Dayna, Moksha could recognize my presence."

      "I hate to be the one to bring up this possibility. But maybe we didn't die at the same time. Maybe we did it in shifts."

      "Time lapse death after a reductive Tarriel explosion? I think not. When that thing goes, it's the whole enchilada."

      "So, what else could it be?"

      Soolin nibbled at her lip. "We're orbiting over Mars-"

      "Or just off the English coast, depending upon the sense system you want to believe."

      She looked at him. "You studied with the Numenmaestro on Gondoron. Do you suppose Blake, Avon or Tarrant triggered anything there? Something came in after you..."

      "After me?"

      "Yes. And you walked in and dragged me along with you." She shook her head. "I sit about worrying my head about you hopeless cases, so I get sucked down the drain, too. Where's the justice?"

      "So what are we supposed to do?"

      "We have to go over everything you know about Gondoron. And the Numenmaestro. What it was you did there. Maybe that will give us some answers. And then-"

      Pita rose up, spotting something in the access, then bolted out of the room.

      "Pita!" Vila said, lunging after her.

      "Vila, the cat can wait."

      "If I don't find Pita," Vila said. "Dayna will dispatch me to my eternal rest in Blackpool."

      Soolin followed Vila down the hall, losing sight of him only as he made a sharp left to the tunnel pass that accessed the food stores, where Pita was headed.

      Soolin hastened her clip, going into that turn at full speed ahead, when she found herself eye to eye with fifty full-grown rats, which had ostensibly decided to stay and take over the sinking ship.

      And, of course, she turned and found herself surrounded. All manner of the snouty little things, twitching their whiskers at her like a hundred unknown relatives at a Gauda public function.

      Oh, good, this was right. Just right.

      "Vila!" (I am not afraid of rats. They are harmless creatures.) She took a step forward, feeling the softening ground beneath her mush at her weight, a rancid odour rising around her. (They are creatures. Harmless, ugly, filthy, vile little creatures. And doubtless, another hundred or so of the grisly little darlings have taken over the food stores, transforming it into an ugly, filthy, vile haven for their ugly, filthy, vile little bodies.) "Vila, you black-sheep barnacle, where are you?"

      She felt one of the ugly, filthy, vile little creatures nuzzle her boot affectionately with its ugly, filthy, vile little snout.

      "Right, we'll get to know each other later," she said, girding her pitching stomach, as she slapped the call trigger to open the door to the food stores.

      And there, of course, they were, all two hundred of them, twitching a welcome with their ugly, filthy, vile little whiskers.

      "Vila!" she called out once, loud and long, in a futile, last attempt.

      And of course, he was nowhere to be seen - except, she was miserably certain, through that other door, on the far side of this room, to get to which she would have to make passage through this room. Simple enough. Right up her alley. She would walk through a rat-infested, thoroughly unpleasant room to save Vila's arse.

      Remember the old days, Soolin? When the only arse you had to take stock of was your own? Summertime, when the living was easy? Why don't you do the sensible thing? Back out now and cut your own losses.

      "Shut up," she told herself, because she knew precisely what she was going to do, because that was the past talking and this was the future.

      So, she was going to walk through this perfectly ordinary room - this fully-functioning, well-protected room - (this Motherland to Maggots), one brave foot taking her first step forward. And then another. Then another. The army of rats skittered charmingly about her. (Cute little scamps, she forced up, mother's little darlings.)

      And, of course, this was a nice, hungry crop of them - nourished on masticated human flesh through the milk-teeth era, now quite ripe for their maiden kill. And here was Soolin, good enough to show up on time for the banquet.

      Wasn't that just altogether fitting somehow?

      Relax, Soolin, they shall write paeans to you, of how you died so nobly (a debutante supper for rats). They shall all be at your funeral: Blake, Avon, Dayna, Tarrant, and Vila - of course, Vila, who shall doubtless emerge entirely unscathed from this - with Pita, bedecked in black satin bows, sleeping on his lap. Uncle Frid and Cousin Share would come out from Gauda, because - word had it - they always gave a good spread at Inner Council functions and she'd never known her uncle to pass up a free meal.

      Blake would give the eulogy...

      (and the murmur would arise from the audience: "A good girl, Sooly, but a bit o' that on her mother's side, if you catch my meaning." "Bit o' what?" a voice would come back),

      ...speak of her courage, of her fearless loyalty

      ("Y'know, the lift don't go all the way to the top on her mum's side of the family. Hear how she died? Dancing with a lot o' rats, she was. Never did find out why. Restal said the last time he saw her, she'd gone thinkin' Heaven was in Blackpool."),

      ...concluding with an official statement concerning their love for her, while Dayna sat punching Tarrant in the side while he covertly chuckled and guffawed...

      "Vila, you waste of human genetics, where are you?"

      The rats were crawling over her boots. One was staging a brave climb to the summit of her knee.

      "...over here..." a whispery voice intoned.

      Soolin followed it, to a small chamber on the side of the food stores. And there was Vila, holding Pita, cowering in the farthest corner of the room.

      "How did you make it through?" Vila asked.

      "What?" Soolin said, standing at bay in the door. "You don't think I'm frightened of a few rats?"

      "What rats?" he said, amazed. "Spiders! Millions of them! Not that I would be frightened of a bunch of bugs, of course. But they were going after Pita."

      "No spiders, Vila. No rats either. Think of it. They can't exist here. We're under constant observation against pests. It's all in our imagination. Forget about them. If they don't bother you, they will cease to exist."

      "But Soolin, I saw them..." Vila replied.

      "Vila, think," Soolin said, taking Pita into her own arms. "Remember the ocean outside the viewport? Remember how the others couldn't see us? It's all in our heads. All we have to do to get back is to find out which road we created to get here."

      He thought, his rapid breathing slowing, the sweat released from his forehead, beading it in relief. Finally, he nodded. "Like when I was a kid, before the reform school. But those things weren't real, they were just illusions. Like the Numenmaestro used to have us do..."

      "Probably exactly like them. I think we had better talk. I think you'd better tell me everything you can remember about the Numenmaestro."

      Vila released Pita to the ground, where she stretched once then conspired into a contented mass. "It's been a long time, even for a person of my superior intellect."

      "I advise that you try. You say you created illusions. What sort of illusions?"

      "Well, like if I were to think of a Flesh-Eater from the Loomen Fringe, one would just appear out of thin air."

      "Do," Soolin said disgustedly, "and you will be its breakfast."

      "I'm not speaking of now, I'm talking then. We could have then, if the mood struck us. Some of us were good. Very good." Vila shined his fingernails against his shirt. "They hand-picked us, in fact, because we could - do - certain things. Do them well." He further gesticulated with a wave of his hand. "Ever since I was knee-high to a caterpillar I've been able to do them. Sometimes just skipping stones off a wall. Sometimes lifting credit discs."

      "Lifting credit discs with your thoughts, you mean?"

      Vila nodded. "Sounds a bit crazy, even to me. I remember when I first found out that everyone couldn't do it... couldn't move your mother's chair across the room, for instance. I thought I was right strange at first. I mean, what's the good of a few laughs with it, if it makes everybody twitch when you walk down the block? But the second thing I thought was, Restal, this could be put to profitable use." He shrugged. "I know this sounds a bit fantastic."

      "Listen, I'm in no position to judge fantastic. I've got beachside property in outer space, and I never had psychic abilities of any kind before." She pushed herself forward in the chair. "So, why is it you can't do this stuff now?"

      He shrugged. "I got older, I guess. They say this sort of thing peaks in adolescence. I peaked, so to speak, and its been downhill ever since."

      "Until now."

      He nodded. "You have a point there, things being as they are. Maybe it didn't go, maybe it was just sleeping."

      "Sleeping or knocked out," she said thoughtfully, plunking down onto a pantry lift-step, beside Pita.

      "Vila, when did the adrenaline and soma romance come along?"

      "Oh, you know, when I was a kid. Around the time of my unfortunate incarceration."

      "Or possibly just before it?" Soolin said.

      Vila's face scrunched up in thought. "I see your point. I guess it's possible. Although, I personally would find it tragic. I've always thought of adrenaline and soma as an old friend. That would be like finding out he'd been sleeping with my pair-bond partner behind my back."

      "Vila, stop chattering, I'm trying to think." Soolin leaned back against her propped elbows. "Soma, by itself, is hallucinogenic, soporific. Adrenaline is epinephrine - a heart stimulant - which could pump it through and even it out. Gradually counterbalance the portions of each, giving the body time to send forth the right messages to the brain, and - ta-dah - you have an effective antidote to soma by itself. And hence, any soma-like effect that goes on in the brain. Which could slow down, even stall out your - abilities, as you call them."

      "Soolin, I'm impressed," Vila said, his eyes widening.

      Soolin nodded. "Strangely enough, so am I. My one regret is the little shit wasn't around to hear it." She sat back up, turning towards Vila. "Now all I have to do is to explain why I'm involved in your hallucination."

      "Maybe my subconscious just picked on the prettiest face around?" He smiled engagingly.

      Soolin ignored that. "All right, so how many of you were there in this Numenmaestro thing?"

      "Five. Including me. Three girls, two boys. I liked the ratio, if you catch my meaning. Strange it was on Gondoron at the same time as Standard Increase. I mean I didn't even know it was the same place until I saw the old purple haze on the viewscreen."

      "It fits with the general dissymmetry of things," Soolin said. "All right, then, they taught you how to do these things. Did they, by any chance, teach you how to 'undo' them?"

      "They had a computer to do that for us."

      She shook her head. "Of course they did," she said, standing to her feet. She began to pace again. "Did they teach you any of the physics of the medium you were working with. Does it have a systemic breach somewhere, a weak point?"

      Vila shrugged. "No. Like I said, we had a computer to do that rot. All we had to do was play. But it makes sense there would be one. All we have to do is find the way we came in and just follow it out." Hope lasted only a moment on his face. "Of course, Vila. And all we have to do is reach into the next galaxy, grab a planet and hurl it at the first Grimlocken that comes along."

      "One way or another," Soolin said, sitting forward again, "we're going to have to go to Gondoron."

      "Go there? Why? How?" Vila said, his eyes fairly lurching from his forehead.

      "Because the source of all this nonsense is there. And, if we can hope against hope, the computer that used to clean up your messes will be down there, too. Right now, I feel it and I should chat. We have a lot in common."

      "So, how do we go about it? Steal Prometheus? Saddle up a Destinian Aquaequine and go by sea?"

      Soolin stood, unclipping her blaster sidearm from her utility belt. She enabled it, thinking how utterly futile the gesture was. Were her fear to aid this - thing - Vila used in drawing up an enemy, it would magnetize it to her ability to fight it off, which meant a sidearm would have as much effect as a toothpick at a javelin throw.

      "We go there the same way you saw spiders and I saw rats." Soolin nodded towards the food stores door, through which they both had walked from the corridor. "In fact, the very surface of Gondoron is outside that door, Vila. All the places you went as a boy."

      "No," he said - one word, short and shallow.

      "C'mon, Vila, don't wimp on me, will you? I have had just about-"

      And then she looked at him - really looked. Saw the wall of fear in his eyes, against which was reflected every terrible thing that had ever taken a small boy up in its arms. The imagination of childhood was endless: it could imagine the most incredible things - love and beauty and wisdom, of course, and monsters huge enough to blot out the largest sun.

      She remembered it well. Remembered her own young imaginings, casting a lovely future that only tortured her in the drab, brood-labour planet on which she lived, and - in the days when the Technocrats came - spinning the leathery voices and faceless figures of Extermination Agents out of the night - hearing their footsteps, seeing their shadows at the door, holding a decree to state her family were squatting on company land and "would they please accompany them somewhere".

      The former had never come to pass. There was no bright future. But the latter had. She had lived that future, had suffered that death a thousand times, in the landscape of her thoughts.

      Imagine, she thought, looking into those eyes, just imagine what it would have been like for him. She no longer asked why she was here. Vila needed her. Whatever it was that he had to do, he needed her help to do it. Her strength, her logic and her compassion.

      "Vila," she said, softly this time. "It's the only way to get back." No time for flippant shields now, she thought - no coy and evasive banter - there was only time for the truth. "You want to go home. To be with your people. Our people. Well, that's the way back. No other option."

      "I can't do it," Vila said, his voice empty and windy and lost.

      Soolin knew it at once to be his own voice, his real voice. "You did it once," she said, not knowing what the hell they were discussing, but taking the lead.

      "But not again," he said.

      She reached for his hand, grasping it, as if to infuse all her will for life up through his arm. "Again, Vila. And as many times as necessary until we get back. Nothing will happen." She lifted her sidearm and reached a slow hand for the door trigger, the trigger to that seemingly harmless door, apparently going nowhere. "I won't let it happen."

      "Swear it," Vila said sharply, eyes growing huge, sweat running down his face.

      "I double-swear it, Vila," she said, then slowly opened the door. "I swear it on my life."

      The first thing both of them saw was the silver light that danced from the centre of what once had been a room. Then it settled into darkness - a tomb-like dark - locked in Vila's memory like the voice of his mother.

      

      

This tedious and insipid game, Avon had called it, as always getting it right through the heart.

      And Blake had not called him on it, because he knew he deserved the cut - not for the present situation so much as the scores he owed Avon from the past. All the times he was pulled, by the gravity of his ego, to take them all down to hell and back again. All the lives he had lost, following icons he deemed holy because he had believed them.

      Avon had cause to doubt him. Avon before any. Because when, swept along by his stores of hubris, he had craftily spun a web of illusion, to convince the others he was right, Avon knew what Blake was doing - using an old ploy, a time-proven tactic to engage their honour. Using him, as always. Because, in the end, pragmatism gained on ethics: games were the only things that really worked. Truth was too unstable a medium at room temperature.

      

      

Avon glanced at him once, saw the posture, diagnosed it, and prescribed the approach.

      He surveyed the quarters room that Blake had taken to his own since their arrival. Or more to the point, the room that Leusip had assigned him. Already, it had taken on the shape of its occupant; roomy and bright with functional, methodless clutter, but not without ample warmth to enchant the chaos. And Blake had filled it with those few objects they had been able to harvest from the I.C. sector. Where the others had chosen pragmatic objects, Blake had, of course, selected to take the hopelessly maudlin and impractical.

      There was his desk with the totally obsolete merograph that Vila had given him, long since having outlived its purpose, and along the back shelf, beside bound monograph volumes with such ponderous titles as 'Theoretical Systemic Interpretations' by Academician Clev Frah and 'Practical Applications of Sheldrake's Morpho-genetic Field Theorem', was a lucite paper-weight with a hologram portrait of Cally.

      There was a container of rock dust (the gods save him), from Destiny, where he and Blake had gone after G.P., where all the exorcising of demons had taken place, where they had finally made their peace. And, somewhat appropriately beside it was a sliver of ghofaklite, chiselled from the grounds of the very last battle against the Federation.

      There was a crude amalgam of utterly useless and purely maudlin articles of idolatry cluttering his desk so to make any work impossible. But rather than disturb the holy symmetry, Blake usually worked on the floor.

      Avon shook his head at the sight, giving Blake but a fleeting second glance to again acknowledge his continuing existence. And then he lifted the Destinian detritus, pinching some pebble dust between his fingers, and gently rubbed it like a balm across the back of his hand.

      "Has it occurred to you that I came here to think," Blake's rich voice shot out from the opposite corner.

      "A feat, for you, best done in silence," Avon replied, sprinkling the pebble dust into its vessel, brushing off the back of his hand. Avon crossed to the bedside, without looking over at Blake. "And please don't be petulant and insist you did not mean for me to follow you here."

      Blake's face betrayed his voice with a smile. "Certain of that, are you?"

      "To a one hundred percent certainty, Blake," Avon said, removing the chess board from Blake's low table.

      Blake shook his head, studying him unflinchingly. All conversations with Avon were like walking on ice on the path to the equator, every step was a risk, every movement a potential sacrifice.

      "Shall I stay?" Avon asked, glancing at Blake as if by accident, brandishing the chess board.

      "Stay," Blake said, his eyes lightening, withdrawing his rambling legs from across the bed, to permit Avon space.

      Avon tossed the chess board like a gauntlet down between them, beginning to place the figures with his usual precision. "You are going to go up against Taro," Avon stated categorically. "You have chosen to help Sen Leusip."

      "It was not so much a choice, Avon, as a lack of one. There simply isn't any other way."

      "Well, now," Avon said darkly, pointedly, finally giving the other man a purposeful look, "I thought there was always a choice."

      Blake considered it a moment, a smile pushing at the set of his mouth. "Not in some things, Avon. Not any longer. "There is a thin semantic line between fate and determinism, but by whatever name it goes, I have learned of things for which there is never a choice."

      Avon looked into his friend's warm, intense gaze, feeling somewhat disabled beneath its force. "Even if the consequence is death?" he asked softly.

      "The potential rewards mitigate the possible penalty, Avon," Blake said, giving the smile completely.

      Avon looked away. "It's your move," he said.

      "No," Blake said, moving his queen's pawn forward, his standard opening move. "I think this one will be yours, Avon."

      Avon's eyes flashed between the board and the man. "You're being cryptic again."

      "It's very simple. You suggested there is another way out of this situation. Fine. Explain."

      "It seems to me there are two different options. One is to override the Mater virus, whatever it has insinuated into the Moksha system to begin the disorientation. In human terms, Blake, Moksha has gone insane. It is attacking itself, all our systems, via the directions coming from Mater. If we can hunt the virus down, if we can neutralize its encoding of information, then perhaps we can save ourselves."

      "But in that, you have the paradoxical problem of any antidote... can you neutralize it before it does extensive, irreparable damage? And if you can, how long will it take? How long do we have? Certainly, Taro has taken that into account with his stipend of time. And that still leaves the matter of rescuing Tarrant."

      "Tarrant didn't give a damn what became of me," Avon said sharply.

      "Granted. But, regardless of your opinion, Avon, I do think he regrets what happened. And even if he doesn't, I'm still not leaving him there."

      "Yes, the half-lame, mutant sewer rat comes before my interests."

      "No reason for you to be jealous, Avon," Blake said, smiling, cutting off Avon's terse reply with, "and you said you had another option."

      Avon took a deep breath, as if preparing for oratory or simply steeling himself. More probably, Blake thought, the latter.

      "The second option is one that Leusip may oppose us on. Oppose us most vigorously. That is the possibility of freeing Prometheus from the supremacy of Areopagus, placing the ship under its own jurisdiction."

      "What was the survival incentive of that supremacy?"

      "The only purpose of which Moksha is aware is prevention of the ship's theft. Probably by the System." Avon let his eyes wander across the scope of Blake's quarters. "This entire defence system seems designed for that one goal. In another time, I would have accused Academician Sen Leusip of paranoid obsession. The manner in which he has fortified the potential Achilles' heels of the System, the scenarios for which he has built-in immunities are impressive."

      "These being..."

      "The primary point, the one which we are now dealing with, is Mutually Assured Destruction. Should Prometheus stray beyond the agency of Areopagus or should Areopagus cease to be, so would Prometheus, to prevent the technology from landing in hostile hands. Right now, Prometheus is as weak as Areopagus. And Leusip, with somewhat characteristic single-vision, permitted himself only one escape hatch."

      Hope surfaced a moment in Blake's eyes. "That being?"

      "The Peacekeeper," Avon said, sending the words home with a glance.

      "Oh," Blake said, folding his arms, leaning back on the bed, thoughts forced back to Tarrant.

      "Verily," Avon replied.

      Blake nibbled his finger, speculation filling his eyes. "But you think you can override this interactive destruction, summarily stage a coup."

      "To continue your inane metaphor, with enough bullets."

      "But that will take time as well."

      "Considerable."

      "Time we haven't got."

      "Admittedly."

      "Which leaves us back at Leusip's option."

      Avon moved his king's pawn forward. "Not necessarily."

      Blake scrutinized Avon's move, suspicions replacing the thoughts in his eyes. With a tentative hand, he captured Avon's pawn and said, "Go on."

      "Leusip's option is merely the prototypical last ditch effort. To go in there, pretend to wed the System to the Matrix and hope for an opportunity to take control of the situation. Jump them, as it were. But suppose there was another way."

      "There usually is."

      "There is the possibility that, granting you and I have this bridging process buried somewhere in our joint psyches, we might possess capacities of which Leusip is not aware, or, more to the point, which Leusip is not disclosing."

      "You think he's not been totally honest."

      "Yes, and so do you."

      A smile played with the edges of Blake's mouth. "Convinced of it. And I agree, something inside me suggests that this process is far more elaborate than he is letting on."

      "Reason suggests it," Avon volleyed back. "There are great tracts of the landscape missing. And it would seem that whatever device we could influence in the manner that Leusip suggests, interfering with the rose at a molecular level, we can also manipulate to a great degree. Influence directly. It might theoretically be possible to do as they had originally intended, form a predominant interface of the Matrix over the System, thread them both through the broadcast circuits of the Collosum, long enough at least to disable the System completely."

      "Essentially to do as they originally intended. Wed the Matrix to the System, just as the Mater and the Moksha computers were combined. Disable one with the other."

      "Or die trying."

      Blake nodded. "That's the operative question. Would we be able to do this before Taro discerned what was happening?"

      "It would depend on Taro's technological prowess, and the System's level of self-awareness. If it could intuit its predicament and issue a distress call before the end, we would hardly be in a position to defend ourselves. We might, in point of fact, experience something worse than death. Far worse."

      "Do we have a choice?"

      "Not that I can see. Unless My Liege, in his infinite wisdom, can see that which I cannot."

      Blake broke a smile. "He cannot. But that still leaves the problem that we can't remember our time here, let alone recall how the hell we conquered the Collosum in the first place. How are we to reliably achieve that now?"

      "This bridging, as Leusip calls it, is simply the dispatching of certain transphysical properties of mind into a postulated, etheric carrier medium. Sending thoughts through space would seem less reliable than sending them into the past, especially when that past is given terrain, already impressed upon the subjects' memory banks. In telepathy, it seems that the operative facet of mind is the unconscious, the non-verbal sectors." He gave Blake a distinctly important glance. "An unconscious for which all memory is accessible..."

      Blake's eyes opened wide at the impact. "You mean we could take a journey into our past, with the bridging process."

      "In a word, yes."

      "And learn the process. And everything else as well."

      "At that point the imposed precepts of the ego, the blinders that the neural implants induced, would be gone. We would be able to remember everything."

      Blake nibbled gently at his lower lip, then smiled. "And would you be willing to take that risk? To remember. Everything."

      "How else will we regain control of our own lives?"

      Blake kept the smile a moment longer. "How else indeed? And yet," he paused, remembering, "there is still the problem of your reaction to the paradox we encountered."

      "I was barely more than a boy then."

      "You didn't seem to confront it too kindly as a man either."

      "I survived."

      Blake shook his head. "It is still a considerable risk."

      "But a calculated one. And our own. If you are willing to take it."

      Blake thought for a long, silent moment. "No, Avon, this is going to be your risk. You will make the decision."

      "Why?" Avon said softly, sharply. "Weary of the weight of the crown?"

      He shook his head. "Tired of the jeers from the consul," he said softly. "Particularly when there is usually no one else willing to make the decision. In the past, when it has fallen to me to decide, I have had to learn to live with the guilt. With the loss. But I will not live with the guilt of your death." Blake's voice wavered, but he did not attempt to obscure it, merely to wait a moment to save Avon an awkward wealth of emotion. "Not yours. The loss would be enough."

      Avon's face was turned away. "The point is that it needn't fall to you to decide," he said sharply, softly, quickly.

      "No, Avon, the point is that it does." He lifted his eyes to dare Avon directly, then rose off the bed, sinking a hand through his dark, insistent curls. "Let it lay on your shoulders for a while, Avon, mine are tired."

      Avon's hand went up and grasped Blake's sleeve, sinking through the wealth of fabric to the arm itself. The intent had been in anger, in a wordless wish to fight this out, but the effect was fire in Blake's eyes - a distinctly different fire.

      A slow smile rose to Blake's mouth, an understanding. "However," he said, his voice a ragged whisper, "I don't want you to start what you aren't willing to finish." He broke Avon's grasp with a flex of his arm, then reached around to clasp Avon's arm, immobilizing it.

      Their eyes locked: the challenge opened up between them. Neither blinked, neither looked away. Blake did not let up and Avon stayed frozen, refusing to struggle.

      With the other hand, slowly, Blake touched Avon's throat, insinuating the gesture under the collar of the black laser-cloth shirt.

      Avon swallowed thickly, noticeably. "You only say that," he said, his voice a whisper, "because you know what I will decide. You know it will go your way."

      "Precisely," Blake said, his voice factual, as if they were discussing a micrometric downward trend on Prometheus' defence systems. The hand plunged boldly beneath the black shirt to Avon's chest, skirting with a hungry commission, a long-fought need, across the soft skin, through the short, thick hair that prickled up against his touch. Blake lowered his face to Avon's, closer than could have meant anything else, their noses brushing. "I'm going to enjoy exploring your mind, Avon. I think I left a lot of things behind there many years ago, and I want them back. For both of us."

      Utter confusion merged with total knowledge in Avon's eyes. Strange, Blake thought, what diversity these eyes were capable of - cold detachment, like the gaze of the most analytical computer, to be replaced by more emotion than could be witnessed without pain, challenge that seemed to have never known fear, then taken up by a terror Blake had never witnessed in another's eyes.

      In order to clench the decision, to once and for all remove all doubt, Blake's hand moved down the wall of Avon's chest, to his left nipple, delicately teasing, then pinching hard, then teasing again... and again.

      The touch sent sweet, white chills through Avon's body. His gaze shattered at its charge, his head thrown back, a silent moan forcing open his mouth.

      "We both know where this is going to lead," Blake said breathlessly, physically forcing himself to turn away. He grasped the shoulders of a nearby chair, reining the hunger back by sheer force of will.

      "Damn you," Avon seethed, fighting for the threads of composure, his breath keening hard inside him, the last moment still charging his face, the last moment that had changed everything... everything...

      "You already have," Blake said, turning back. He let his eyes train boldly down to Avon's thigh, travelling up to the swelling fighting at leather. He forced his eyes to Avon's shoulder, letting his hand touch there, gently squeezing. "I'm going to the conduit. Cool off a bit before you follow me down. You'll have to learn the art as I have, at least while we're living in such close quarters."

      Blake settled his own breathing, moving across to the door, remembering the sweet agony on Avon's face, the reaction to his touch. It made Blake love the world again, even though he knew they were trapped on the inside of a very fragile egg, conspiring to break apart all around them.

      Blake turned one last time to Avon. He touched the door trigger, waiting as it withdrew. "You will follow me down?" he asked, wanting more than anything he had ever wanted to walk back to that bed.

      He thought Avon wasn't going to reply, but then just as Blake crossed the threshold, a soft sentence followed after him.

      "Oh, Blake, don't I always," it said, as the door slipped closed between them.

       The Analog Project was a long road," Leusip said, "fraught with many obstacles and failures. Happily, or unhappily, it culminated in the choice of the Analogs. In the selection of you and Blake.

      "We are miserably aware of all of that," Avon said.

      Leusip lent him a tempering glance, going on. "The project was slowly nurtured, but it only truly began when the time came for the two of you to meet, when you and Blake were nineteen and seventeen respectively. It was at this time that the two of you started trial runs with the aquitar-based system we called Collosum."

      "The Collosum is simply the surrogate term for the Mater 10," Avon snapped.

      "That was what we wanted the Federation to believe. Carrying on that charade was the only means by which we drew funding. By allowing them to think that the Collosum was somehow connected to the Mater 10 project, the systemic underpinnings of Standard Increase and one aspect of the higher Matrix."

      Blake nodded. "The higher Matrix being the major computer system of the Federation."

      "Yes," Leusip said. "They of course would never have approved if they had known its true purpose."

      "Which was..." Blake said.

      "The purpose of Collosum was, in one instance, to test the potential of aquitar, and secondly to test the two of you. In the test trials, we were attempting to instruct you to work in synch with one another, even though you were such vastly different boys. There was a series of four trials, each one with a goal of its own. Then after the four trials, there was the last bridging. And the Collosum, beyond any of its superficial broad-spectra functions for the Mater system, was a vital bridge. Between the two of you."

      "Now, there is a frightening possibility," Avon said sharply.

      Blake reacted with wonder, sitting purposively back in the command chair. He was remembering something - actually remembering something. "What do you mean? There was something to do with the Matrix computer. Something very important."

      Leusip nodded, with grim resignation. "You are remembering the last bridging. The primary application of what we were attempting to do." He waited a moment, selecting each word carefully, Avon's eyes burning into his face. "You see, we understood the implications of this. If two such divergent human minds could be placed in full rapport, then so could two very different synthetic minds. We knew it could help right an immeasurable wrong I made during my youth and, by the same token, place the control of the Federation into the hands of the people."

      A vague memory surfaced. Blake was not certain how he knew all these answers, but he did know. "You wanted to wed the Matrix to The System," he said.

      Leusip's countenance greyed. "Yes," he said softly, seeming to have aged ten years in as many minutes. "The System was perfect consistency. The Matrix, my problem child with roots of which I am much ashamed, Avon, was just the opposite."

      "How so?" Blake said, his eyes full of suspicion.

      "The System was founded on a few inexorable tenets, concepts that it accepts as god, and it strives to make everything consistent with that reasoning. The most logical mind understands that, even as it strives for consistency, its quest is impossible."

      "Godel's Theorem," Avon said.

      "Precisely. Every single theory will contradict itself. Everything is relative. That is, if you accept the relativity of truth."

      "Which the System does not," Blake said.

      Leusip nodded. "And the Matrix does. It accepts no givens. I styled it after the humanoid immune system, to make it the greatest reductive computer in known technology, the most flawlessly logical system. It decodes everything. Reduces everything down to the basic quantity. It was perfect for the aims of Standard Increase. And perfect for our own aims as well."

      "Fine for Standard Increase," Blake said. "But death to any sympathetic system, such as little boys."

      "Yes. I see that now. But for all the bad that it is, it was worth one good. If the System and the Matrix could be bridged, then the Matrix could control the System. Point out the inconsistencies in its logic. Disable it. Keep it in check. And we would have a handsome base from which to launch our assault on the Federation galactic fleet."

      "What the System might assemble, the Matrix could tear apart. And the System would lend context to the Matrix logic."

      "Then you see my point."

      "Yes, I see your theory, but I still don't understand how Avon and I figure into it."

      Leusip sighed softly, waiting a moment before speaking, looking for the right words. "The human mind is far beyond even the tarriel-positronic brain in terms of inferential speed, in terms of intuitive judgement. The two of you, through working with the Collosum trials, became quite accustomed to working within Collosum. We needed the two of you to form the harmonic bridge between the three constituents: the Matrix, the Collosum and the System. The early trials proved that it was possible."

      "But the experiments broke down," Blake said, unsure himself whether the idea had been memory, intuition, inference, or a mixture of all.

      Leusip nodded. "Yes. The breakdown was augured by the failure of the last trial run prior to the main bridging, after a series of successful ones. We were experimenting with a naturally-occurring vegetable called a rose, placed in an aquitar-energized in situ matter reduction and replication device, similar to a teleportation chamber, except it would merely disassemble matter to its component atoms as symmetrical patterns, though stop at transmission of the signal through space."

      Leusip's face darkened with the memory. "We were trying to ascertain just exactly what Collosum force level was necessary for the Matrix to hold sway over the System. We instructed you, Blake, to focus your mental energy on keeping the atoms of the rose static. Avon's assignment was to scatter the atoms of the rose to the solar winds."

      "And what was the result?" Blake said, simply to go through the motions.

      Leusip noticeably reddened. "As I said, the rose experiment was a statistical failure-"

      Blake smiled. "Under your hypothesis."

      "-We still aren't entirely certain what went wrong."

      "You promised the whole truth this time, Professor," Blake said, knowingly.

      "And I am giving it to you," Leusip bristled. "I can tell you only what I know."

      Blake sighed, resigned, nodding. "Very well. Yet you proceeded with the bridging anyway?"

      "We did."

      "Why?"

      Leusip reddened. "We had to rush things forward. The situation was getting out of hand."

      "And the final result?"

      Leusip pinched at the trestle between his eyes. "A failure as well. Probably related to the same presumptive error that initiated the rose trial failure. There was just something integrally wrong with the whole process at the Collosum end." Leusip shook his head. "In any event, the rose failure should have prepared us for what occurred."

      "My collapse," Avon said unexpectedly.

      The three men's eyes met in surprise at the space between them.

      "Collapse?" Blake roared across at Leusip.

      But the next words were Avon's, flat and aimless words, his eyes shifted towards Moksha's contingent screen, but catching a glimmer of something far beyond it. "Something about paradox," he said.

      "That was your only impression then, as well. You very nearly died. For a while, we thought we had lost you. Our best guess was that the Collosum had failed. As our eventual findings indicated in the case of the rose, you had both been acting, undeterred, on its atoms. You had somehow been capable of overarching the Collosum, patching directly into each other's mental energy, rather than safely bridging into each other through the agency of the Collosum. Which was, for our purposes, as controllable a circumstance as having you swim through fire."

      "And if we could conquer the Collosum, so could the System," Avon said.

      Leusip nodded. "Precisely. The Collosum, by necessity subordinate, could nevertheless control the System from linking directly to the Matrix. But, if the Collosum failed, so would everything. Rather than the Matrix conquering, we saw that the System could, in this instance, take over the Matrix. Take over the computer systems of all the Federation. There was simply something conceptually wrong with the Collosum."

      "That was when," he continued, "we realized we had to adopt another way. A way in which the System could play no part. That was when we returned to the concept of directly fomenting rebellion through the group of you. To form Blake's 7. And the rest of this is already known to you."

      "None of which enlightens us remotely about our current state of siege," Avon snapped.

      "I was getting to that," Leusip said.

      "Then please do."

      "It seems that Ago Taro has somehow deduced this all. He must want to use the recombinant power of the Collosum to conquer the Refederation matrice, the main Matrix system."

      "Using Avon and me," Blake said.

      "In a word, yes." Leusip paused for a moment, "Yet I think there is a way to stop him, stop him without tipping him off until the moment of his death. I think I could probably teach the two of you the bridging technique again, teach you how to avoid linking to Collosum, but appearing as if you are. That might provide Dayna and I enough time to bypass the Mater virus in Moksha. We could then teleport you up to Prometheus and, since you would know the coordinates of Taro's encampment, we could blast it out of recognizable form. But the risk, of course, would be greatest for the two of you..."

      Blake glanced towards Avon, but addressed his response to Leusip. "Presumably you remember enough of this bridging process to refresh our memories."

      "He gave us two time units, so you have time enough to learn again." Leusip looked towards Avon. "Provided you are both willing to learn."

      Blake looked towards Avon whose face was static, determined, resigned. "It may be our only means for survival," Blake said softly.

      "There may be another." Avon looked at the Academician. "No thanks to Sen Leusip. Perhaps Orac can detect a means for washing out the virus, long enough, at least, to free Prometheus and get us the hell out of here. We can deal with getting Tarrant out later. That, to me, seems a far more reliable method of escape."

      "But what will happen, Kerr?" Leusip said. "Taro will be free to try again, to conquer everything. He will eventually figure out a way. Then all that you and your group have worked so long to bring about will be gone. It will be the Federation in extremis, far worse than it ever was before."

      "It was never my fight, Academician," Avon said. "And that is not my concern."

      "Those don't sound like the words of the boy who took the entire blame for Tynus's Project, refusing to implicate his friends in his embezzlement before the tribunal."

      "This," Avon hissed, "is no longer the idiot child you sold out to protect your own position. What we have done, Leusip, we have done. Without your help. In fact, unless I am very much mistaken, you nearly engineered our deaths when our lives no longer suited you. Well, those glory days are over. We are finished with your quest tale. From now on, our lives come first."

      Leusip tried next by looking deeply into Blake. "Taro has to have significant backing behind him, to do the things he has done. The only thing that stands between himself and victory, at this point, is your group. As bad as you may deem Steavn Change, as terrible as you view me to be, Taro is worse. We meant well. He does not."

      "Your problem, Leusip," Avon said, "not ours." And he looked towards Blake for commission.

      "We can't be hasty with this, Avon," Blake said softly.

      Avon moved his eyes slowly towards Blake. Avon supposed he should not have been surprised, but still it had landed inside him, with all the genial courtesy of a projectile.

      Blake had almost heard the door slam against him, the fragile channel that had risen so gradually between them in the last few weeks, withdrawn, locked inside Avon, held away. A blank stare came up between them.

      "I don't think we ought to dismiss the possibility out of hand, Avon," Blake said sharply, not yielding his own gaze. "Do you think this is a simple thing for me?"

      "I wonder."

      "Well, it's not," Blake said, his eyes shining their own reply. "And if you think it is, perhaps we don't know each other as well as I thought."

      "Perhaps we don't know each other at all," Avon said hotly, buffering the coldness in his stare, "or else why would we go on playing this tedious and insipid game?"

      At the distant look in Avon's eyes, Blake felt sick to his soul. "What game is that, Avon?" he asked softly, resigned to the end.

      "My always thinking you've come to your senses. And your always proving me wrong," he said.

      Blake kept their gazes locked a long moment; those eyes so familiar, how could Avon not feel the link? He shook his head, feeling his age, feeling the sins of man getting a footing on his shoulders yet again. He was angry at Taro, but incensed at himself, at the perfect internal system which mechanized indignation, that caged up outrage without fail inside him. He wished he could be as Avon, well-practised at the art of telling the whole bloody world to fuck off and go away. But then, Avon's nature was to be Avon, and his fate to be himself.

      "When you feel like discussing this substantively, I'll be in my quarters." Blake cast a sharp stare at Leusip. "Deciding if I can bear playing the stock company hero once again."

      Blake turned and sailed past Dayna, to the primary Corridor access, and out of the room. Tossing a querying look at Avon, Dayna took a step after Blake, but aborted her pursuit at the access door, just staring in his wake.

      "He will be all right, Avon," Leusip said.

      Avon did not respond.

      "We will have to begin preparations shortly," Leusip ventured on, "you and I can go to the system conduit and go over the initial procedures."

      "He needs time," Avon said.

      "There is no time."

      "There will have to be!" he snapped.

      Leusip staggered back at the force with which the words had come.

      Whether it was out of rage or pain or accident, or some hybrid of all three, Avon had let the mask slip further than Leusip had seen it fall in years. And it finally hit the Academician, at last broke the brain barrier with uncut truth.

      It wasn't just Blake now.

      It was both of them.

      This was a spiral, a chaotic helix, and it was out of control.

      With that, Avon moved past Dayna, and walked out of the room, heading in the direction Blake had gone.

      "They will understand," Leusip said, saying the words to Dayna, but assuring himself.

      "Avon already understands," Dayna said. "And so does Blake."

      

      

"Shut up, Vila!"

      "But I didn't say anything!" Vila said, giving Pita an ear-rub.

      "Oh. Well, I guess I could hear you thinking," Soolin replied, pacing the length of Vila's room for the thirty-seventh time. "So, lets go over this again. Dayna, Leusip, and Avon - all three of them - couldn't see you, but you walked into the room and I could. So can Pita. And you were holding Pita at the time that all this nonsense started. That seems important, though damned if I can figure out why."

      She paused at the viewport, which some ignoramus had decorated with cloth curtains. For some amorphous reason she would be at a loss later to explain, she pulled the valance aside to admire the metal-coloured sky that met the black, rolling sea, and the crescent of land with all manner of small, tidy, archaic buildings, covered over with a dome.

      Excuse us, Soolin, roll that back for another look-see, will you, please? her logical mind requested.

      "There is something extremely strange going on here," she concluded, feeling Vila's fear growing inside her own gut.

      "Righto, Soolin, and they call me swift," Vila said, depositing Pita to the ground.

      "Come here, Vila," she said distantly, eyes not leaving the seascape outside the viewport.

      "What is it now? It can't be any-"

      Then his eyes struck the object of Soolin's attention.

      "Uh, Soolin, that isn't possible. Is it?"

      "No."

      "Then how can it be?"

      "It can't."

      "Then what is it?"

      "It looks like an English seaport," Soolin said. "One of the ones Blake had preserved. Blackpool, if memory serves me correctly."

      "We're on board a Mars-orbiting artificial satellite and we have a view of the bay? Does that about say it?' Vila said.

      "That does seem to be the case."

      Vila paused. "Soolin, are we crazy or are we just dead?"

      "I don't believe in life after death, Vila," Soolin said. "It just doesn't make any sense."

      "Pardon me for saying so, Soolin, but I don't think that makes a fat lot of difference," Vila said, his voice going thin and shaky and unsettled. "That's the answer, then. We're dead. We're dead and the afterlife looks like Blackpool. Wonderful."

      "Will you shut up, Vila? I'm trying to think."

      "Well, it's a bit of a let down, isn't it?"

      Soolin gave him a bristly glare, moving over to where Pita was pooled on the rug. Life after death for humans, perhaps; even the idea of that pissed her off. There had always been comfort for her in a nice, solid end. A non-state, without pain and struggle and the purposeless deaths of people she cared about. All that heaven gab only made her dread death even more.

      She knelt down, dragging a hand at Pita's fur. No, cats deserved a rest. All animals. What had they ever done to deserve living on?

      And then she sneezed: a good, hard solid sneeze.

      "Well, that does it, Vila," Soolin said, conclusively. "We aren't dead."

      "And just on what do you base your diagnosis?"

      "I will accept the possibility that a cat may live on, but I reject out of hand an afterlife for an allergen."

      He glanced at the ever-oblivious cat. "I didn't know you were allergic to Pita."

      "I'm not. Anymore. But when I was on Gauda I was allergic to everything that moved upon the face of the planet, before the Medtechs gave me the immuno-fortification enzymes. But, still, every time I go near a cat, I expect to sneeze."

      "And so?"

      "And so, expecting to, I did. Do you follow?" She gestured to the viewport. "The term viewport was taken from the portholes of the vessels that sailed the Terran oceans, in the time before space dwelling, before even space exploration. And I've actually been to Blackpool once, with Blake and Avon when they convinced the locals to peel back the coast to uncover the ruins. Your quarters' curtains drew my eye to the viewport, and doubtless my unconscious to the portholes we saw on the preserved aquatic ships in the region."

      "Sounds awfully labyrinthine to me," Vila said, "but I think I prefer it to the death theory."

      "Also, I had just communicated with Moksha prior to your walking into the room. So, at the same moment you were invisible to Dayna, Moksha could recognize my presence."

      "I hate to be the one to bring up this possibility. But maybe we didn't die at the same time. Maybe we did it in shifts."

      "Time lapse death after a reductive Tarriel explosion? I think not. When that thing goes, it's the whole enchilada."

      "So, what else could it be?"

      Soolin nibbled at her lip. "We're orbiting over Mars-"

      "Or just off the English coast, depending upon the sense system you want to believe."

      She looked at him. "You studied with the Numenmaestro on Gondoron. Do you suppose Blake, Avon or Tarrant triggered anything there? Something came in after you..."

      "After me?"

      "Yes. And you walked in and dragged me along with you." She shook her head. "I sit about worrying my head about you hopeless cases, so I get sucked down the drain, too. Where's the justice?"

      "So what are we supposed to do?"

      "We have to go over everything you know about Gondoron. And the Numenmaestro. What it was you did there. Maybe that will give us some answers. And then-"

      Pita rose up, spotting something in the access, then bolted out of the room.

      "Pita!" Vila said, lunging after her.

      "Vila, the cat can wait."

      "If I don't find Pita," Vila said. "Dayna will dispatch me to my eternal rest in Blackpool."

      Soolin followed Vila down the hall, losing sight of him only as he made a sharp left to the tunnel pass that accessed the food stores, where Pita was headed.

      Soolin hastened her clip, going into that turn at full speed ahead, when she found herself eye to eye with fifty full-grown rats, which had ostensibly decided to stay and take over the sinking ship.

      And, of course, she turned and found herself surrounded. All manner of the snouty little things, twitching their whiskers at her like a hundred unknown relatives at a Gauda public function.

      Oh, good, this was right. Just right.

      "Vila!" (I am not afraid of rats. They are harmless creatures.) She took a step forward, feeling the softening ground beneath her mush at her weight, a rancid odour rising around her. (They are creatures. Harmless, ugly, filthy, vile little creatures. And doubtless, another hundred or so of the grisly little darlings have taken over the food stores, transforming it into an ugly, filthy, vile haven for their ugly, filthy, vile little bodies.) "Vila, you black-sheep barnacle, where are you?"

      She felt one of the ugly, filthy, vile little creatures nuzzle her boot affectionately with its ugly, filthy, vile little snout.

      "Right, we'll get to know each other later," she said, girding her pitching stomach, as she slapped the call trigger to open the door to the food stores.

      And there, of course, they were, all two hundred of them, twitching a welcome with their ugly, filthy, vile little whiskers.

      "Vila!" she called out once, loud and long, in a futile, last attempt.

      And of course, he was nowhere to be seen - except, she was miserably certain, through that other door, on the far side of this room, to get to which she would have to make passage through this room. Simple enough. Right up her alley. She would walk through a rat-infested, thoroughly unpleasant room to save Vila's arse.

      Remember the old days, Soolin? When the only arse you had to take stock of was your own? Summertime, when the living was easy? Why don't you do the sensible thing? Back out now and cut your own losses.

      "Shut up," she told herself, because she knew precisely what she was going to do, because that was the past talking and this was the future.

      So, she was going to walk through this perfectly ordinary room - this fully-functioning, well-protected room - (this Motherland to Maggots), one brave foot taking her first step forward. And then another. Then another. The army of rats skittered charmingly about her. (Cute little scamps, she forced up, mother's little darlings.)

      And, of course, this was a nice, hungry crop of them - nourished on masticated human flesh through the milk-teeth era, now quite ripe for their maiden kill. And here was Soolin, good enough to show up on time for the banquet.

      Wasn't that just altogether fitting somehow?

      Relax, Soolin, they shall write paeans to you, of how you died so nobly (a debutante supper for rats). They shall all be at your funeral: Blake, Avon, Dayna, Tarrant, and Vila - of course, Vila, who shall doubtless emerge entirely unscathed from this - with Pita, bedecked in black satin bows, sleeping on his lap. Uncle Frid and Cousin Share would come out from Gauda, because - word had it - they always gave a good spread at Inner Council functions and she'd never known her uncle to pass up a free meal.

      Blake would give the eulogy...

      (and the murmur would arise from the audience: "A good girl, Sooly, but a bit o' that on her mother's side, if you catch my meaning." "Bit o' what?" a voice would come back),

      ...speak of her courage, of her fearless loyalty

      ("Y'know, the lift don't go all the way to the top on her mum's side of the family. Hear how she died? Dancing with a lot o' rats, she was. Never did find out why. Restal said the last time he saw her, she'd gone thinkin' Heaven was in Blackpool."),

      ...concluding with an official statement concerning their love for her, while Dayna sat punching Tarrant in the side while he covertly chuckled and guffawed...

      "Vila, you waste of human genetics, where are you?"

      The rats were crawling over her boots. One was staging a brave climb to the summit of her knee.

      "...over here..." a whispery voice intoned.

      Soolin followed it, to a small chamber on the side of the food stores. And there was Vila, holding Pita, cowering in the farthest corner of the room.

      "How did you make it through?" Vila asked.

      "What?" Soolin said, standing at bay in the door. "You don't think I'm frightened of a few rats?"

      "What rats?" he said, amazed. "Spiders! Millions of them! Not that I would be frightened of a bunch of bugs, of course. But they were going after Pita."

      "No spiders, Vila. No rats either. Think of it. They can't exist here. We're under constant observation against pests. It's all in our imagination. Forget about them. If they don't bother you, they will cease to exist."

      "But Soolin, I saw them..." Vila replied.

      "Vila, think," Soolin said, taking Pita into her own arms. "Remember the ocean outside the viewport? Remember how the others couldn't see us? It's all in our heads. All we have to do to get back is to find out which road we created to get here."

      He thought, his rapid breathing slowing, the sweat released from his forehead, beading it in relief. Finally, he nodded. "Like when I was a kid, before the reform school. But those things weren't real, they were just illusions. Like the Numenmaestro used to have us do..."

      "Probably exactly like them. I think we had better talk. I think you'd better tell me everything you can remember about the Numenmaestro."

      Vila released Pita to the ground, where she stretched once then conspired into a contented mass. "It's been a long time, even for a person of my superior intellect."

      "I advise that you try. You say you created illusions. What sort of illusions?"

      "Well, like if I were to think of a Flesh-Eater from the Loomen Fringe, one would just appear out of thin air."

      "Do," Soolin said disgustedly, "and you will be its breakfast."

      "I'm not speaking of now, I'm talking then. We could have then, if the mood struck us. Some of us were good. Very good." Vila shined his fingernails against his shirt. "They hand-picked us, in fact, because we could - do - certain things. Do them well." He further gesticulated with a wave of his hand. "Ever since I was knee-high to a caterpillar I've been able to do them. Sometimes just skipping stones off a wall. Sometimes lifting credit discs."

      "Lifting credit discs with your thoughts, you mean?"

      Vila nodded. "Sounds a bit crazy, even to me. I remember when I first found out that everyone couldn't do it... couldn't move your mother's chair across the room, for instance. I thought I was right strange at first. I mean, what's the good of a few laughs with it, if it makes everybody twitch when you walk down the block? But the second thing I thought was, Restal, this could be put to profitable use." He shrugged. "I know this sounds a bit fantastic."

      "Listen, I'm in no position to judge fantastic. I've got beachside property in outer space, and I never had psychic abilities of any kind before." She pushed herself forward in the chair. "So, why is it you can't do this stuff now?"

      He shrugged. "I got older, I guess. They say this sort of thing peaks in adolescence. I peaked, so to speak, and its been downhill ever since."

      "Until now."

      He nodded. "You have a point there, things being as they are. Maybe it didn't go, maybe it was just sleeping."

      "Sleeping or knocked out," she said thoughtfully, plunking down onto a pantry lift-step, beside Pita.

      "Vila, when did the adrenaline and soma romance come along?"

      "Oh, you know, when I was a kid. Around the time of my unfortunate incarceration."

      "Or possibly just before it?" Soolin said.

      Vila's face scrunched up in thought. "I see your point. I guess it's possible. Although, I personally would find it tragic. I've always thought of adrenaline and soma as an old friend. That would be like finding out he'd been sleeping with my pair-bond partner behind my back."

      "Vila, stop chattering, I'm trying to think." Soolin leaned back against her propped elbows. "Soma, by itself, is hallucinogenic, soporific. Adrenaline is epinephrine - a heart stimulant - which could pump it through and even it out. Gradually counterbalance the portions of each, giving the body time to send forth the right messages to the brain, and - ta-dah - you have an effective antidote to soma by itself. And hence, any soma-like effect that goes on in the brain. Which could slow down, even stall out your - abilities, as you call them."

      "Soolin, I'm impressed," Vila said, his eyes widening.

      Soolin nodded. "Strangely enough, so am I. My one regret is the little shit wasn't around to hear it." She sat back up, turning towards Vila. "Now all I have to do is to explain why I'm involved in your hallucination."

      "Maybe my subconscious just picked on the prettiest face around?" He smiled engagingly.

      Soolin ignored that. "All right, so how many of you were there in this Numenmaestro thing?"

      "Five. Including me. Three girls, two boys. I liked the ratio, if you catch my meaning. Strange it was on Gondoron at the same time as Standard Increase. I mean I didn't even know it was the same place until I saw the old purple haze on the viewscreen."

      "It fits with the general dissymmetry of things," Soolin said. "All right, then, they taught you how to do these things. Did they, by any chance, teach you how to 'undo' them?"

      "They had a computer to do that for us."

      She shook her head. "Of course they did," she said, standing to her feet. She began to pace again. "Did they teach you any of the physics of the medium you were working with. Does it have a systemic breach somewhere, a weak point?"

      Vila shrugged. "No. Like I said, we had a computer to do that rot. All we had to do was play. But it makes sense there would be one. All we have to do is find the way we came in and just follow it out." Hope lasted only a moment on his face. "Of course, Vila. And all we have to do is reach into the next galaxy, grab a planet and hurl it at the first Grimlocken that comes along."

      "One way or another," Soolin said, sitting forward again, "we're going to have to go to Gondoron."

      "Go there? Why? How?" Vila said, his eyes fairly lurching from his forehead.

      "Because the source of all this nonsense is there. And, if we can hope against hope, the computer that used to clean up your messes will be down there, too. Right now, I feel it and I should chat. We have a lot in common."

      "So, how do we go about it? Steal Prometheus? Saddle up a Destinian Aquaequine and go by sea?"

      Soolin stood, unclipping her blaster sidearm from her utility belt. She enabled it, thinking how utterly futile the gesture was. Were her fear to aid this - thing - Vila used in drawing up an enemy, it would magnetize it to her ability to fight it off, which meant a sidearm would have as much effect as a toothpick at a javelin throw.

      "We go there the same way you saw spiders and I saw rats." Soolin nodded towards the food stores door, through which they both had walked from the corridor. "In fact, the very surface of Gondoron is outside that door, Vila. All the places you went as a boy."

      "No," he said - one word, short and shallow.

      "C'mon, Vila, don't wimp on me, will you? I have had just about-"

      And then she looked at him - really looked. Saw the wall of fear in his eyes, against which was reflected every terrible thing that had ever taken a small boy up in its arms. The imagination of childhood was endless: it could imagine the most incredible things - love and beauty and wisdom, of course, and monsters huge enough to blot out the largest sun.

      She remembered it well. Remembered her own young imaginings, casting a lovely future that only tortured her in the drab, brood-labour planet on which she lived, and - in the days when the Technocrats came - spinning the leathery voices and faceless figures of Extermination Agents out of the night - hearing their footsteps, seeing their shadows at the door, holding a decree to state her family were squatting on company land and "would they please accompany them somewhere".

      The former had never come to pass. There was no bright future. But the latter had. She had lived that future, had suffered that death a thousand times, in the landscape of her thoughts.

      Imagine, she thought, looking into those eyes, just imagine what it would have been like for him. She no longer asked why she was here. Vila needed her. Whatever it was that he had to do, he needed her help to do it. Her strength, her logic and her compassion.

      "Vila," she said, softly this time. "It's the only way to get back." No time for flippant shields now, she thought - no coy and evasive banter - there was only time for the truth. "You want to go home. To be with your people. Our people. Well, that's the way back. No other option."

      "I can't do it," Vila said, his voice empty and windy and lost.

      Soolin knew it at once to be his own voice, his real voice. "You did it once," she said, not knowing what the hell they were discussing, but taking the lead.

      "But not again," he said.

      She reached for his hand, grasping it, as if to infuse all her will for life up through his arm. "Again, Vila. And as many times as necessary until we get back. Nothing will happen." She lifted her sidearm and reached a slow hand for the door trigger, the trigger to that seemingly harmless door, apparently going nowhere. "I won't let it happen."

      "Swear it," Vila said sharply, eyes growing huge, sweat running down his face.

      "I double-swear it, Vila," she said, then slowly opened the door. "I swear it on my life."

      The first thing both of them saw was the silver light that danced from the centre of what once had been a room. Then it settled into darkness - a tomb-like dark - locked in Vila's memory like the voice of his mother.

      

      

This tedious and insipid game, Avon had called it, as always getting it right through the heart.

      And Blake had not called him on it, because he knew he deserved the cut - not for the present situation so much as the scores he owed Avon from the past. All the times he was pulled, by the gravity of his ego, to take them all down to hell and back again. All the lives he had lost, following icons he deemed holy because he had believed them.

      Avon had cause to doubt him. Avon before any. Because when, swept along by his stores of hubris, he had craftily spun a web of illusion, to convince the others he was right, Avon knew what Blake was doing - using an old ploy, a time-proven tactic to engage their honour. Using him, as always. Because, in the end, pragmatism gained on ethics: games were the only things that really worked. Truth was too unstable a medium at room temperature.

      

      

Avon glanced at him once, saw the posture, diagnosed it, and prescribed the approach.

      He surveyed the quarters room that Blake had taken to his own since their arrival. Or more to the point, the room that Leusip had assigned him. Already, it had taken on the shape of its occupant; roomy and bright with functional, methodless clutter, but not without ample warmth to enchant the chaos. And Blake had filled it with those few objects they had been able to harvest from the I.C. sector. Where the others had chosen pragmatic objects, Blake had, of course, selected to take the hopelessly maudlin and impractical.

      There was his desk with the totally obsolete merograph that Vila had given him, long since having outlived its purpose, and along the back shelf, beside bound monograph volumes with such ponderous titles as 'Theoretical Systemic Interpretations' by Academician Clev Frah and 'Practical Applications of Sheldrake's Morpho-genetic Field Theorem', was a lucite paper-weight with a hologram portrait of Cally.

      There was a container of rock dust (the gods save him), from Destiny, where he and Blake had gone after G.P., where all the exorcising of demons had taken place, where they had finally made their peace. And, somewhat appropriately beside it was a sliver of ghofaklite, chiselled from the grounds of the very last battle against the Federation.

      There was a crude amalgam of utterly useless and purely maudlin articles of idolatry cluttering his desk so to make any work impossible. But rather than disturb the holy symmetry, Blake usually worked on the floor.

      Avon shook his head at the sight, giving Blake but a fleeting second glance to again acknowledge his continuing existence. And then he lifted the Destinian detritus, pinching some pebble dust between his fingers, and gently rubbed it like a balm across the back of his hand.

      "Has it occurred to you that I came here to think," Blake's rich voice shot out from the opposite corner.

      "A feat, for you, best done in silence," Avon replied, sprinkling the pebble dust into its vessel, brushing off the back of his hand. Avon crossed to the bedside, without looking over at Blake. "And please don't be petulant and insist you did not mean for me to follow you here."

      Blake's face betrayed his voice with a smile. "Certain of that, are you?"

      "To a one hundred percent certainty, Blake," Avon said, removing the chess board from Blake's low table.

      Blake shook his head, studying him unflinchingly. All conversations with Avon were like walking on ice on the path to the equator, every step was a risk, every movement a potential sacrifice.

      "Shall I stay?" Avon asked, glancing at Blake as if by accident, brandishing the chess board.

      "Stay," Blake said, his eyes lightening, withdrawing his rambling legs from across the bed, to permit Avon space.

      Avon tossed the chess board like a gauntlet down between them, beginning to place the figures with his usual precision. "You are going to go up against Taro," Avon stated categorically. "You have chosen to help Sen Leusip."

      "It was not so much a choice, Avon, as a lack of one. There simply isn't any other way."

      "Well, now," Avon said darkly, pointedly, finally giving the other man a purposeful look, "I thought there was always a choice."

      Blake considered it a moment, a smile pushing at the set of his mouth. "Not in some things, Avon. Not any longer. "There is a thin semantic line between fate and determinism, but by whatever name it goes, I have learned of things for which there is never a choice."

      Avon looked into his friend's warm, intense gaze, feeling somewhat disabled beneath its force. "Even if the consequence is death?" he asked softly.

      "The potential rewards mitigate the possible penalty, Avon," Blake said, giving the smile completely.

      Avon looked away. "It's your move," he said.

      "No," Blake said, moving his queen's pawn forward, his standard opening move. "I think this one will be yours, Avon."

      Avon's eyes flashed between the board and the man. "You're being cryptic again."

      "It's very simple. You suggested there is another way out of this situation. Fine. Explain."

      "It seems to me there are two different options. One is to override the Mater virus, whatever it has insinuated into the Moksha system to begin the disorientation. In human terms, Blake, Moksha has gone insane. It is attacking itself, all our systems, via the directions coming from Mater. If we can hunt the virus down, if we can neutralize its encoding of information, then perhaps we can save ourselves."

      "But in that, you have the paradoxical problem of any antidote... can you neutralize it before it does extensive, irreparable damage? And if you can, how long will it take? How long do we have? Certainly, Taro has taken that into account with his stipend of time. And that still leaves the matter of rescuing Tarrant."

      "Tarrant didn't give a damn what became of me," Avon said sharply.

      "Granted. But, regardless of your opinion, Avon, I do think he regrets what happened. And even if he doesn't, I'm still not leaving him there."

      "Yes, the half-lame, mutant sewer rat comes before my interests."

      "No reason for you to be jealous, Avon," Blake said, smiling, cutting off Avon's terse reply with, "and you said you had another option."

      Avon took a deep breath, as if preparing for oratory or simply steeling himself. More probably, Blake thought, the latter.

      "The second option is one that Leusip may oppose us on. Oppose us most vigorously. That is the possibility of freeing Prometheus from the supremacy of Areopagus, placing the ship under its own jurisdiction."

      "What was the survival incentive of that supremacy?"

      "The only purpose of which Moksha is aware is prevention of the ship's theft. Probably by the System." Avon let his eyes wander across the scope of Blake's quarters. "This entire defence system seems designed for that one goal. In another time, I would have accused Academician Sen Leusip of paranoid obsession. The manner in which he has fortified the potential Achilles' heels of the System, the scenarios for which he has built-in immunities are impressive."

      "These being..."

      "The primary point, the one which we are now dealing with, is Mutually Assured Destruction. Should Prometheus stray beyond the agency of Areopagus or should Areopagus cease to be, so would Prometheus, to prevent the technology from landing in hostile hands. Right now, Prometheus is as weak as Areopagus. And Leusip, with somewhat characteristic single-vision, permitted himself only one escape hatch."

      Hope surfaced a moment in Blake's eyes. "That being?"

      "The Peacekeeper," Avon said, sending the words home with a glance.

      "Oh," Blake said, folding his arms, leaning back on the bed, thoughts forced back to Tarrant.

      "Verily," Avon replied.

      Blake nibbled his finger, speculation filling his eyes. "But you think you can override this interactive destruction, summarily stage a coup."

      "To continue your inane metaphor, with enough bullets."

      "But that will take time as well."

      "Considerable."

      "Time we haven't got."

      "Admittedly."

      "Which leaves us back at Leusip's option."

      Avon moved his king's pawn forward. "Not necessarily."

      Blake scrutinized Avon's move, suspicions replacing the thoughts in his eyes. With a tentative hand, he captured Avon's pawn and said, "Go on."

      "Leusip's option is merely the prototypical last ditch effort. To go in there, pretend to wed the System to the Matrix and hope for an opportunity to take control of the situation. Jump them, as it were. But suppose there was another way."

      "There usually is."

      "There is the possibility that, granting you and I have this bridging process buried somewhere in our joint psyches, we might possess capacities of which Leusip is not aware, or, more to the point, which Leusip is not disclosing."

      "You think he's not been totally honest."

      "Yes, and so do you."

      A smile played with the edges of Blake's mouth. "Convinced of it. And I agree, something inside me suggests that this process is far more elaborate than he is letting on."

      "Reason suggests it," Avon volleyed back. "There are great tracts of the landscape missing. And it would seem that whatever device we could influence in the manner that Leusip suggests, interfering with the rose at a molecular level, we can also manipulate to a great degree. Influence directly. It might theoretically be possible to do as they had originally intended, form a predominant interface of the Matrix over the System, thread them both through the broadcast circuits of the Collosum, long enough at least to disable the System completely."

      "Essentially to do as they originally intended. Wed the Matrix to the System, just as the Mater and the Moksha computers were combined. Disable one with the other."

      "Or die trying."

      Blake nodded. "That's the operative question. Would we be able to do this before Taro discerned what was happening?"

      "It would depend on Taro's technological prowess, and the System's level of self-awareness. If it could intuit its predicament and issue a distress call before the end, we would hardly be in a position to defend ourselves. We might, in point of fact, experience something worse than death. Far worse."

      "Do we have a choice?"

      "Not that I can see. Unless My Liege, in his infinite wisdom, can see that which I cannot."

      Blake broke a smile. "He cannot. But that still leaves the problem that we can't remember our time here, let alone recall how the hell we conquered the Collosum in the first place. How are we to reliably achieve that now?"

      "This bridging, as Leusip calls it, is simply the dispatching of certain transphysical properties of mind into a postulated, etheric carrier medium. Sending thoughts through space would seem less reliable than sending them into the past, especially when that past is given terrain, already impressed upon the subjects' memory banks. In telepathy, it seems that the operative facet of mind is the unconscious, the non-verbal sectors." He gave Blake a distinctly important glance. "An unconscious for which all memory is accessible..."

      Blake's eyes opened wide at the impact. "You mean we could take a journey into our past, with the bridging process."

      "In a word, yes."

      "And learn the process. And everything else as well."

      "At that point the imposed precepts of the ego, the blinders that the neural implants induced, would be gone. We would be able to remember everything."

      Blake nibbled gently at his lower lip, then smiled. "And would you be willing to take that risk? To remember. Everything."

      "How else will we regain control of our own lives?"

      Blake kept the smile a moment longer. "How else indeed? And yet," he paused, remembering, "there is still the problem of your reaction to the paradox we encountered."

      "I was barely more than a boy then."

      "You didn't seem to confront it too kindly as a man either."

      "I survived."

      Blake shook his head. "It is still a considerable risk."

      "But a calculated one. And our own. If you are willing to take it."

      Blake thought for a long, silent moment. "No, Avon, this is going to be your risk. You will make the decision."

      "Why?" Avon said softly, sharply. "Weary of the weight of the crown?"

      He shook his head. "Tired of the jeers from the consul," he said softly. "Particularly when there is usually no one else willing to make the decision. In the past, when it has fallen to me to decide, I have had to learn to live with the guilt. With the loss. But I will not live with the guilt of your death." Blake's voice wavered, but he did not attempt to obscure it, merely to wait a moment to save Avon an awkward wealth of emotion. "Not yours. The loss would be enough."

      Avon's face was turned away. "The point is that it needn't fall to you to decide," he said sharply, softly, quickly.

      "No, Avon, the point is that it does." He lifted his eyes to dare Avon directly, then rose off the bed, sinking a hand through his dark, insistent curls. "Let it lay on your shoulders for a while, Avon, mine are tired."

      Avon's hand went up and grasped Blake's sleeve, sinking through the wealth of fabric to the arm itself. The intent had been in anger, in a wordless wish to fight this out, but the effect was fire in Blake's eyes - a distinctly different fire.

      A slow smile rose to Blake's mouth, an understanding. "However," he said, his voice a ragged whisper, "I don't want you to start what you aren't willing to finish." He broke Avon's grasp with a flex of his arm, then reached around to clasp Avon's arm, immobilizing it.

      Their eyes locked: the challenge opened up between them. Neither blinked, neither looked away. Blake did not let up and Avon stayed frozen, refusing to struggle.

      With the other hand, slowly, Blake touched Avon's throat, insinuating the gesture under the collar of the black laser-cloth shirt.

      Avon swallowed thickly, noticeably. "You only say that," he said, his voice a whisper, "because you know what I will decide. You know it will go your way."

      "Precisely," Blake said, his voice factual, as if they were discussing a micrometric downward trend on Prometheus' defence systems. The hand plunged boldly beneath the black shirt to Avon's chest, skirting with a hungry commission, a long-fought need, across the soft skin, through the short, thick hair that prickled up against his touch. Blake lowered his face to Avon's, closer than could have meant anything else, their noses brushing. "I'm going to enjoy exploring your mind, Avon. I think I left a lot of things behind there many years ago, and I want them back. For both of us."

      Utter confusion merged with total knowledge in Avon's eyes. Strange, Blake thought, what diversity these eyes were capable of - cold detachment, like the gaze of the most analytical computer, to be replaced by more emotion than could be witnessed without pain, challenge that seemed to have never known fear, then taken up by a terror Blake had never witnessed in another's eyes.

      In order to clench the decision, to once and for all remove all doubt, Blake's hand moved down the wall of Avon's chest, to his left nipple, delicately teasing, then pinching hard, then teasing again... and again.

      The touch sent sweet, white chills through Avon's body. His gaze shattered at its charge, his head thrown back, a silent moan forcing open his mouth.

      "We both know where this is going to lead," Blake said breathlessly, physically forcing himself to turn away. He grasped the shoulders of a nearby chair, reining the hunger back by sheer force of will.

      "Damn you," Avon seethed, fighting for the threads of composure, his breath keening hard inside him, the last moment still charging his face, the last moment that had changed everything... everything...

      "You already have," Blake said, turning back. He let his eyes train boldly down to Avon's thigh, travelling up to the swelling fighting at leather. He forced his eyes to Avon's shoulder, letting his hand touch there, gently squeezing. "I'm going to the conduit. Cool off a bit before you follow me down. You'll have to learn the art as I have, at least while we're living in such close quarters."

      Blake settled his own breathing, moving across to the door, remembering the sweet agony on Avon's face, the reaction to his touch. It made Blake love the world again, even though he knew they were trapped on the inside of a very fragile egg, conspiring to break apart all around them.

      Blake turned one last time to Avon. He touched the door trigger, waiting as it withdrew. "You will follow me down?" he asked, wanting more than anything he had ever wanted to walk back to that bed.

      He thought Avon wasn't going to reply, but then just as Blake crossed the threshold, a soft sentence followed after him.

      "Oh, Blake, don't I always," it said, as the door slipped closed between them.

       It was called the conduit room - it had been introduced to Blake when they had come here to stay, pointed out like an associate who would never be a friend, but whose name was considered useful to know. Leusip had simply indicated the room to them, named it in passing with a casual gesture, as if it was the least important room on Areopagus.

      Blake realized now the informality had been on purpose, a sleight of hand, a diversion to draw the eye away from the focus of action, to allow the delusion of illusion.

      It would be well to remember, Blake knew, that Sen Leusip had been friend to the Numenmaestro.

      It was yet another white room, hardly uncommon in Areopagus, but smaller than the rest. It was in the brain centre, off Corridor Main, beyond the phalanx of consoles representing various capacities of the Moksha systems, where any faction could be isolated and conducted independently. And it was populated by a dual contingent of irregular furniture: a soft silken fabrican coloured bright sun yellow, and another, neutral beige with nubby, woollen texture, as if styled by the polarizing dictates of two very different people, at some symbolic war.

      Blake studied the woollen, fabrican chair a long moment, then lowered himself into it, with the sole company of a stranger from his past.

      The details of memory were preserved in a solution of feelings. It remained in the mind because of context, accessed most readily by virtue of emotion and meaning. Always, Blake had recalled the feelings... they remained, even when the details had eroded or been removed. Immediate memory was transitory and short-term. It was relied upon to purchase certain data for a brief duration, holding it back to be divulged at certain periods of time. Without emotion, the details would not write to the disk. There had to be a meaning to the facts to form them into understanding, to give them a home and make them stay.

      The memory of Avon's face, in that brief instant of sweet agony when Blake had touched him, had touched him that way, was etched forever in his mind now. In the future, which Blake hoped would be there, all the memories of Avon would be given new meaning by that one moment - the expression that told him, beyond any doubt...

      It had been the hardest thing Blake had ever done, to stand up and walk away from him. He had wanted to forget the rest of the world - ignore death - deny danger - then wrestle Avon to that bed and strip away the rest of his reserves. Have them love away, fuck away all the stupid pretence, all the walls, for whatever time they had left.

      But, as Avon had said, this was a gamble. A calculated risk. And Blake had bet the certainty of making love to Avon, on a chance at building a whole life with him.

      So, they would visit the past - at least their memories of it, and finally know it all. There, it was all waiting for them, Blake was certain. To pick up the pieces and finally go on.

      The access hatch slid away. There Avon was standing. He had changed into a loose white shirt and slacks, his fine hair still glistening from the jet mist. The implications of which, Blake thought thoroughly wonderful.

      "I was about to start without you," Blake said, bursting with a grin.

      "I took a moment longer than I had intended," Avon replied, his eyes completely averted, lowering himself into the silken fabrican opposite Blake.

      "You showered," Blake said softly, his eyes sparkling at the thought, feeling wonderful to at last be gazing honestly at him. "Feeling somewhat cooler now, I trust."

      "Somewhat," Avon said, finally looking at him directly, then turning uneasily in the fabrican. "Will you kindly stop staring at me that way?"

      "Difficult not to."

      "Oh, really," Avon said sharply.

      Blake smiled softly, nibbling at a finger, a frankly admiring look in his eyes. "You have no idea."

      "Yes, well, any effort would be appreciated."

      Blake laughed, a short, resigned laugh. "I suggest you just become inured to it. I have no intentions of holding back any longer."

      At that moment, the access door swept aside again. Sen Leusip, with a look somewhat like shock, regarded them both. He gathered the small lucite case under an arm to his chest, then with sharp, staccato steps crossed the floor to the Moksha console - larger than the ones in the other cabins, and only just smaller than the command room console.

      "This room," he said briskly, in the same voice with which he once addressed his Lyceum students as he stepped behind the lectern, "was used expressly for the purpose of the Collosum itself. Although we do not have access to the Collosum now, we do have some memory circuits that present its structure, to help you understand its symmetrical analysis."

      "Why is it you left the Collosum on Gondoron?" Blake asked.

      "To do otherwise would have drawn suspicion. And, because of the fact the Collosum is an open system, the vital energy levels of Gondoron were stabilizing to it."

      "The Collosum is an open system?" Blake said incredulously. "How can a machine absorb and transmute energy from the outside?"

      "While it is the key part of the Mater 10, which the two of you encountered inside Standard Increase, the Collosum itself is not a machine."

      "Not a machine?" Avon said, as if volleying back the very idea. "The Collosum is a computer. All computers are machines. Ergo, The Collosum is a machine."

      "No, Avon. Syllogistical inferences will not fit here. A machine is an apparatus consisting of interrelated mechanical parts with separate causal functions. This is more organism than that. The Collosum is more an arbiter for computers, both an extension and a context for them. An Oversoul, if you will. That is why it is essential that you learn how to deal with it consciously, laterally."

      Blake looked to Avon, broadcasting disbelief. Avon nodded.

      Leusip returned to the conduit room console, opening a memory crib, sliding in the holodisc. He pressed two sensors.

      In the centre of the room, a soft swarm of electrons darted like phantom fireflies through the lumine glow, spinning into a solid, pulsing field.

      "This is called the Summary. It is the bridge through which you will know the Collosum, and through which the Collosum will know you. Its sense systems, if you will."

      Leusip considered their places, checking the gauges and sensors on the console. "Now you will need to join hands and I will begin the bridging process. At the slightest sign of systemic overload - in either of you - I want you to end the bridge." He stepped forward, one hand on Avon's shoulder, the other on Blake's. "You must understand you are the only ones able to end the bridge."

      Avon looked towards Blake whose eyes were shining in reply, his hands presented, open, waiting.

      "Thought you would enjoy that," Avon said softly enough for only Blake to hear, reaching out and seizing the other man's outstretched hands.

      "Then let us begin," Leusip said.

      He reached for the sensor, directing the summary to move towards them, to engulf them. As it did so, the low-pitch drone elevated into a wavering hum. "You would find, were you to attempt to speak, that your vocal chords are paralysed. Don't be alarmed, that is a temporary effect. Some vibrational result. It will pass. You should be feeling the hum pervade you. Soon you will lose a sense of place and time."

      Leusip exhaled softly. "At this point, you might attempt some form of telepathic communication."

      //Avon,// the one voice surged through Avon's mind, a floodgate thrown open where a trickle had worn away the seals, a force viably Not-Self, but one that felt warm, accepting, loving. Cally's telepathic voice had always been a shadow in his head - more the sensation of having heard, than of hearing itself.

      This was different. Very different.

      He supposed it had been simple enough for Blake. Everything was. But reaching out in this way was too much like the day he had "learned" to swim, thrown headlong into an oxygenated pond by the good denizens of Standard Increase. Oxygenated, which meant he could breathe it as readily as the Terran wind. The rational mind knew that. It also understood that all mammals breathe water in the womb. It was a mechanical certainty. An established fact, explicable by sound, scientific reasoning.

      But some other part of mind, the one that mistook a symbol for the thing itself, and could not divide simile from reality, saw water and thought drown. He had been thrown into the oxygenated water, his heart dead weight inside him, terrified for his life.

      "Just breathe!" his instructor had called out to him, like it was the easiest imaginable thing. So, rather than drown, his whole body at critical flight, he had breathed in water. To live, he had taken that paradigmatic leap of faith.

      That was the trick - to push past conditioning. To speak in silence just as he had learned to breathe in water.

      //Blake,// he forced the word across.

      And after a moment, the distinct word //Avon// sailed back through his mind.

      Avon scouted Blake's face for a hint of recognition, some sign to tell miracle from random convergence of meaningless patterns. To determine if he was talking to Blake or to himself.

      //Well, old son, I do believe I've found a way to strike you speechless,// the voice said again.

      Avon's eyes narrowed. Blake smiled. Avon relaxed.

      //You?//

      //Whom were you expecting? Your muse perhaps?//

      //Aptly put. Well then, how the hell do we begin?//

      //Like any new vehicle, I suggest we find the pedals.//

      //I reason the point to be, Blake, that we are the pedals.//

      //Then where shall we go - the past? If we can find our way back, that is.//

      //And me without my ruby slippers,// Avon's voice charged back through the link, his mouth smiling.

      A wave perturbation that could have only been Blake's laugh roared back at him, then as quickly as it had erupted, snapped off. A look of shock hit Blake's face, taking some of his colour with it.

      //What?// Avon called back quickly.

      The recovery was slow but dramatic. Avon was seriously considering grasping Sen Leusip's throat and breaking the link, when Blake shook his head, then nodded. The hue of his face was returning; a look of wonder in his eyes.

      //What?// Avon said, understanding at an integral level that he had only to open a door to make communications of abstractions, all questions and answers, a moot point. He had only to ask to encounter the truth head-on, a collision which Blake, for whom all doors were always open, had obviously just experienced.

      //All - right?// Avon asked.

      //Far more than that,// Blake said. //But we will talk about it. Later. Let's get on with this.//

      //Then I suggest we start trying to remember something.// Avon cast a glance around.

      //What this room looked like,// Blake said. //What it felt like. The people we were when we came here for the bridging attempt. For one thing, I remember something about a white rose.//

      //The white rose. The one from the memory reflex I had when Lahr examined me,// Avon said.

      //And that I had also,// Blake said, as if it were the most wonderful memory possible. //I remember a rose. A white rose and...//

      Just as Avon's mind combined with Blake's, the present was absorbed into the past, like two parallel fields merging into one - surrendering definition that set them apart, to a continuum summary of information that blended in similarity, then rooted off in novelty. Blake was conscious of himself as Blake and Avon as Avon, yet each could access the other directly. It was a matter of focus - their own minds growing opaque as they gazed into the other.

      When they looked towards the past, it gathered density, taking form all around them. And it was all there, like a well of entropy that could now be reclaimed - sights, smells, burgeoning feelings. And while they would later remember consciousness, for the moment - while it lasted - it was most like a dream.

      It was Areopagus - warmer, lighter, younger - much younger - and the promise burned as brightly as the lumine system.

      They were looking into the conduit room, as it had been then.

      "You've been hiding again, Kerr," spoke a tall young man, leaning against the open access. "I wanted to tell you my discovery. Remember last night's quandary over the M{\246}bius strip? The one you kept me awake with? Well, I have deduced the answer."

      "The gods await the bounty of your wisdom," said another voice, a younger, softer voice, but unmistakably his.

      The tall one strode across the room and dropped into the more lustrous of the two fabricans, tossing a personals pouch aside. The other young man pulled back, as if the taller one might bite.

      "Here is your answer," Roj said, sprinkling the paper confetti he held over the book on Kerr Avon's knee. "The Mobius paradox solved."

      Kerr studied the pieces, scattered on his lap. "How very clever of you, Alexander," he said dryly, flatly. "All of Asia is yours."

      "So long as you are there, Hephaistion," Roj said, grinning broadly, barely cloistering a laugh. He reached across to brush the pieces of the Mobius strip away, squeezing Avon's knee. "What is wrong, Kerr?"

      The smaller man felt his face burn, fending off the conquering hand. "That should be obvious."

      Roj nodded carefully, the taunting good humour going away. "You are concerned over the rose experiment. You're afraid they will end the project."

      "Yes," he said hollowly, his eyes empty. "Particularly if fail to subdue the System today."

      "You must know I will never let them send you back."

      Kerr's eyes soured again. "You are not omnipotent, Roj. You may not have a choice."

      "I will be certain that I have one. And it will be worth the risk," Blake said solidly, as if trying to convince himself. "I promise you. If we hadn't tried, we might never have known for sure if we could do it."

      The boy's gaze leapt towards Blake. "If it had worked, we most certainly would have known by now..." the dark boy said, closing the book.

      Roj's response was to lean across his friend, lifting a hand to his face, crowning his moist, ponderous mouth over Kerr's.

      Avon's mouth sprang to life against his. It was such a thin wall, Blake thought, sending his heart across to Avon. It fell down with just the slightest provocation.

      Kerr's fingers raked into Blake's curls, bracing their mouths together, anchoring their bodies together. He knew only Roj's moist lips, the hot tongue insisting itself through teeth into Avon's mouth, against his tongue, drawing fire up every nerve in his body. Like the first time. Two months prior. When Roj Blake, this loud and thoroughly irrational megalomaniac with whom he was forced into cohabitation on this contemptible satellite had seduced him, had demanded that he fall in love.

      Roj tore his mouth away, lifting up, the laboured breaths dragged straight from his lungs, frantic and heavy. "Leusip will be here soon," he gasped out.

      "To hell with him," Kerr moaned out, trying to drag his lover across to his own fabrican, thoroughly large enough for the purpose he had in mind. "What will he do? Drag us off each other?"

      "He might try," Blake said, rolling away, to the very edge of his seat, out of Kerr's reach. "Besides which fact, I have to show you something-"

      Avon sighed, his breathing quieted. "It can wait."

      "No. It can't. It's too important."

      "But-"

      "Kerr," Blake said softly, in conciliation, leaning across to smile into Avon's untempered gaze. "Where is the young man who boasted to me - in rather imperious tones - that he had conquered passion?"

      Avon turned abruptly away, facing the Moksha console. "Go away."

      "You're hiding again," Blake said, in exasperation. He shook his head, drawing up to bend over Avon, his gaze boring deep into him. "Kerr, when the hell do I earn your trust?"

      "I thought I told you to go away!" Avon hissed back.

      For a moment, Roj almost told him to go to hell. He nearly rose up, as he had nearly risen up a hundred times, said 'see you sometime' and left. But as always, the moment passed, his anger calmed, his heart rode over the impulse. "Tell me all you want, Avon, but I'm not going anywhere."

      "You may not have a choice."

      Blake reached for the shunning shoulder, drawing him back, so their eyes might meet. With a look of challenge, Blake ran a large, gentle hand ran down Avon's thigh, smiling at the ripples that shuddered through Avon's muscles. "Is that what this is all about?" he asked softly, moving his hand up to the hot swelling between Avon's legs, tenderly massaging. "You want to make love now, because you think we might never have another chance. That is nonsense, Avon. I won't let them send you back and I'm not going anywhere."

      "Everyone goes," the other boy said softly.

      "Not me. I swear it, Avon. I promise."

      "Swear to every god in the usual pantheon," Kerr said, as if he hadn't heard, his voice as lost and dreamless as Roj had ever known it. "Everyone dies or goes away. It is the one immutable law of the universe."

      He massaged deeply, his touch less for affection now than ambition, then setting him free to move to the side. "Not when the universe is ours," Blake said, reaching for his personals pouch. He unfastened it with his free hand, opening it up. "Your sub-directory through the Collosum worked, Kerr. We were patching into each other directly."

      "How do you know?" Avon asked, his breathing shallow, his eyes still smoky and soft from the ministrations of Blake's hand.

      Blake removed something from the personals pouch, cupping his hand around it like a flame. Avon's gaze was drawn towards it.

      Blake removed his hand.

      It was a rose, as big as the large young man's fist, and white as winter frost.

      "This is what materialised in the matter replication device," Blake said, smiling at his secret. "This is what happened to the rose. I removed it before they could find it."

      "It worked," Avon simply said, reaching out a tentative hand to caress it.

      "Yes, Kerr. It worked. We did it. You and I. We can make them let us live on our terms. Make this rebellion our own."

      "We can be free," Avon said, naming his own best hope, still focused on the albino rose.

      "Free," Roj said, nodding. He lifted the rose between them. "Together, we can do anything, Kerr. The power of our joined minds is infinite. And here is proof. That is why we terrify them."

      "Nothing is infinite, Blake," Avon said. "The nature of space is that it ends."

      Blake smiled, stroking the rose like Avon's face. "There are things stronger than physics, Kerr. This rose for instance. It has been entire for four time units, since the experiment. It hasn't wilted. It hasn't even begun to fail. The law of biology says this is impossible, and yet it happens. Something higher than the crude mathematic of its existence has preserved it. Your Mister G{\246}del would be amused, I think."

      "Staved it off perhaps," Avon said, "but not preserved it for all time."

      Blake shook his head, roaring out a young and imperturbable laugh. "What will it take to convince you, Kerr?" He reached forward and grasped both of Avon's hands in his own. "I know, I will have to fly my impossible kite. Prove to you that it will fly."

      "Spare me, Blake. Not that pitiful, half-baked apparatus again. It will never boost one decimetre off the ground."

      "Ah, but it will. I'll prove it to you." Blake folded his arms. "Just as soon as I can drag you out of your machines into the open sky, we shall fly it."

      Avon did not respond at first. There was something brewing in his eyes, a struggle, as always, between nature and reserve. The words that had come to mind had been too deep, too vast to say aloud.

      "Just try not to leave," he said softly, as if he had not heard a word Blake had said. "If you can. Life is so much - kinder - with you around." Avon reached towards Blake's throat, lifting the Lyceum medal there into his hand. "And, if for some reason that is not possible, you have this to remember me by."

      "Kerr, how is it you can turn a cause for celebration into such a grim occasion? Now, then, we were speaking of my kite-"

      "Just promise," Avon said. "Promise you will look at it upon occasion and think of me."

      "I should prefer to look at you."

      "But in case, if it so happens that we are forced apart, promise that you will look after the Lyceum medal. Remember what is on it." Avon considered him directly. "Promise me."

      "How could I forget? It's the key to everything we want to do. With this, we control our own destiny." Blake sprouted his usual, all-consuming grin, which always sparked a smile in Avon, but nothing returned except a deadly serious gaze.

      "Destiny is a crutch for those who wish to believe in their own invincibility."

      "And you think us vulnerable?"

      "I think that we have grown closer and stronger than they ever envisioned. If they find out, which will prove greater, their need or their fear?"

      Just then, the door to the conduit room swept aside to reveal Sen Leusip. He regarded both boys amiably, moving across the room with a determined stride. Blake settled back into his fabrican, beaming confidence at Avon, who gathered his book to his lap again and pretended to read.

      "There were numerous preparations to make before we could begin," Leusip said casually, as if speaking of some Federation dinner. "I am sorry if I took so long."

      "We were talking," Blake said.

      Leusip looked aside, at the book in Avon's lap, the book he had given to Blake. But the boys had little that was not shared with each other. "About the Little Prince?"

      "About freedom," Blake said, looking at Avon and then to Leusip. He let his eyes sit on Leusip for a very long time, thinking darkly of what he had deduced last night, about the secret Leusip had kept from Avon... the thing that could have set him free. But that disclosure would have to come in time.

      "Something of an abstract concept for our Avon. Well, what decisions have you come to regarding freedom?"

      "That its essence is autonomy," Blake said. "Self-rule. Above all preferences of the masses, of philosophy or state."

      Leusip turned to look at him, knowing better than to trust anything issuing from Blake's mouth to the tenets of casual conversation. "Rather an anarchic paradigm for you, Roj. What about the problem of personal responsibility?"

      "Under whose determination of responsibility?" Blake quipped back, nudging Avon so he would get the joke.

      Leusip smiled thinly and, touching a sensor on the console, released the Collosum summary to enfold its wings around them, engulf them in its vibrant warmth.

      "Well said."

      "Must that begin so soon?" Avon said briskly.

      "No, in fact we must not hurry this," Leusip said flatly, his voice with a strange inflection. "We have time. All the time in the world, in fact. And even if it takes thirty times, we can always try again."

      "May as well have done with it. Ready, Kerr?" Blake asked. //This had better work,// his voice transferred through the link, //or you are not the greatest computer genius in the universe, after all. Despite your claims.//

      Avon smiled, a soft smile. //Have I ever lied to you?//

      //Let me count the ways,// Roj replied, grasping up Kerr's young hands, soft like child's hands, sending him an image of what they would do as soon as this was all over with. Of what exactly he would suck and just exactly how hard and what it would feel like when he did.

      And the Collosum, like a mirror, reflected it back in infinite progression.

      Kerr's head lurched back, and Roj thought it merely the pleasure he invoked, but then the summary began to accelerate, singing a high, terrible song.

      Kerr went pale, and the artery in his throat strained against the membranous skin.

      "Kerr!" Blake's twin voices, from two different times, said, grasping out for him. "Avon!"

      But both voices were lost from the parallel sandbanks of duration, from past and future, moving outward, moving to the centre, towards the all-encompassing sea of self.

      

      It swarmed like a funnel cloud, like a whirlpool, and the frictional gravity pulled him near it. He felt the drain of it, seeking to take him under, split him apart and absorb him, just as the mutoids lived on serum proteins, this fed on facts, on logic, on darkness. And the darkness was welcome - cool and peaceful and without the cutting edge of mind.

      But that was only the surface, something was emerging through it. He thought of Nietzsche... what Nietzsche had said about looking into the abyss. And it looking into you.

      Suddenly, the thing splayed out in all directions - no longer a central focus, unfolding, as if it had compacted to fool him, to lure him out. One thing, still, but multiplicitous also - living in one place and countless others - having one life, one brain, one being, and a billion more.

      It was fractional, but he could not divide it. It contradicted itself at every point, but contradiction was contradicted, the whole remained intact.

      It refused simple unity, but would not be divided. It was comprised of too many parts - discordant constituents - enemies of spirit - it should have flown apart by force alone, but it was One and it was not One.

      It did not breakdown; it did not stagnate; it would never die.

      His brain screamed out at its approach. His heart shuddered seismically in his chest. His nervous system, in rapid flight, refused cognition.

      //Kerr!// Blake called out from both sides - Blake the boy and Blake the man - but Blake the man kept repeating his name fifty times before the cold chill of mental expanse on the other side of the bridge was gone. Before the pattern of warmth and vibration known as Kerr Avon answered once again on the opposite side.

      Avon reached out towards the voice and Blake pulled him back, with the same force of personality as they had felt in the other Roj, but warmer, stronger, more wise. Avon, the man, was Avon again, part of the world, part of his own time. Blake's hands were warm and solid around his.

      //We have to go back,// were Avon's first words.

      //Too much of a risk!// Blake fired back, every emotion inside him in turmoil, having seen what they had seen, knowing what they both now knew.

      //There is more,// Avon answered, //We have to know this. This is everything.//

      //You can't go near that again!//

      //Not near it,// Avon spoke back. //Near them. Let us focus on their future. A day ahead. What we need to know is there, I think.//

      //You're certain?//

      //It seems I have to be.//

      This time the progression was rapid - going from uniformity to transformity in a matter of moments. Again, the strata of time dissolved into their component structures, molten liquid glass enfolding one into the other, then spinning into a bi-singularity, particle and wave.

      Sen Leusip, his hair less white, formed out of the wave. Then Roj Blake appeared, sitting in a chair, his young eyes filled with suspicion, sipping carefully of a warm beverage.

      "We know, Roj, we know everything. We have tracked your little project down and stopped it in its track. It was a most ingenious invention. Very clever of you both. But it's over now and it cannot happen again. You must understand it is the reason why we failed."

      Roj gave him an openly contemptuous stare." If you knew everything, you would not be talking to me.

      Leusip's eyes regarded him sadly. He lowered a hand to the broad young shoulder. "You think so? What is this, then? Why have you and Avon chosen to turn on me this way? I thought we were friends. Good friends."

      Roj hesitated a moment, sipping from a mug of lager. "I know," he said.

      "There. You admit yourself you know we are friends."

      The young man shook his head. "Not that we are friends, Professor. I know something else," he said simply, with words pointed like daggers. "What you kept from Avon. What you did, simply because it served your purpose to keep him friendless and isolated."

      Leusip studied him a long time. Finally, he nodded in conclusion. "No, you are not bluffing. I see that. You have never had what Steavn would call a poker face." He laced a leg across a posture-bench, lowering himself onto it. "If I had to pressure Avon's brother in to leaving him in Standard Increase, believe me it was necessary. You know, Roj, we have all worked a very long time to bring this about. Since Steav and I were as young as the two of you are. Younger, in point of fact. We have all made sacrifices. Ones that you cannot even imagine. But, in the long run, it will be worth it. You and Avon will have your own lives to live, If you simply give us time."

      "We have given you nothing, Professor, it seems that you have taken everything."

      "This has not happened, perhaps, in the most equitable of circumstances."

      "Equitable is the last word I would use to describe what you have done."

      "But surely you, before all, Roj, must understand that the end in this instance does justify the-"

      "Oh, yes," Roj cut him off, "the rallying cry of the tyrant. We must destroy the village to save the city. I'm sorry, Professor. I once admired you. I even thought of you as an uncle. But Kerr is much more to me than that. And I should hate you for the part you played in Standard Increase to begin with-"

      "Do not associate me that with that monstrous perversity!" Leusip flared back.

      "Have I another choice, Professor? You knew and yet you did nothing."

      "I did what I could. We all did what we could. What was necessary. Just as I must do now."

      "What must you do, Professor?" Roj asked, as the first wave of lightness hit him. It felt as if the room was made of helium, as if his mind was swelling past the confines of his body.

      "I am sorry, Roj," he heard Leusip's voice says, the words taking shelter in a distant wind. "My dear boy. May you forgive me someday. May the gods forgive me."

      Roj's hand struck out for Leusip, grasping at air. "What - is this - ?" he gasped out, every word hurting deep inside him, "poison?" he choked out.

      "NO!" Leusip said, horrified, seeing that Blake's eyes were fogging quickly. "I would never hurt you! You have to understand, Roj. We are just taking you somewhere. Somewhere for you to think things through. Away from here. Away from Avon."

      "No!" Roj called out, from the bottom of his soul, his hands lurching out again for the flesh of Leusip's shirt, and this time seizing it by handfuls. "Somewhere - to - mind-wipe me." he groaned, every word an effort.

      Leusip grasped the hands that seized him, squeezing them in return. "Please understand, Roj," he said. "It's not forever. Someday you'll remember again. It's just until both of you understand what is important. What is moral-"

      His consciousness growing sketchy, struggling to keep his white fingers embedded in Sen Leusip's shirt, Roj slumped back against the chair. Leusip caught for him, cradling his head as Blake fought to push him away.

      One hand released, slumping to his side. Blake's eyelids fluttered, hungering to stay open, to always - remember, to sear this world - this life - deep into his memory, so he would never forget.

      His terrified mind grasped out for an image of Avon. Of his sweet, fragile Avon. And how desperately Kerr clung to him in the darkest night, of how vast and cold the void called his life had been before they found each other. Of his promises that he would never leave. And Avon's voice softly pleading, "Just try not to leave... life is so much kinder with you around..."

      How could they make him forget? And, if he did, how could he find his way back to Avon?

      "Murderer!" Blake sobbed out, his tears flowing into the well of Leusip's arm.

      Despair and guilt, horror and rage all fell upon Leusip, asking for his soul. Wishing that he had not done this, wishing to every god he had opposed Steavn and demanded this be done some other way. But he had done it, because he loved Steavn. In the same way that Roj loved Kerr. Which made him not only a monster, but a hypocrite as well.

      "I tell you, it wasn't poison!" Leusip begged, himself on the verge of tears.

      Blake's mouth moved after a word. Leusip strained to listen.

      "I wish - it had been." Roj said, his head lolling aside, consciousness wafting finally away.

      

      

The bridge was lightening, the united Mind withdrawing, one side moving hungrily for the surface, the other knowing there was one last scene to witness. One last pain to be resolved.

      

      

The bridging followed Leusip from the room. The older man seeming older than he had ever seemed, stepping into the corridor to nod to two dome-headed aliens, hired labour from the Tangential Drone Alliance.

      The Academician walked back down the other way, not wanting to witness this last act of the drama, not wanting to view Roj being carried away to somewhere that no one deserved, for a processing that Leusip would not visit upon the crudest Hun of Gauda Prime. Particularly not on such a good and decent young man as Roj Blake.

      For a moment, he almost turned back. Almost changed everything. Certainly their personalities alone would hammer a wedge between them, would drive them apart. They were so different. Every day they had another argument about something else, something new. Surely time alone would take care of this.

      But he thought of Steavn, and he went on.

      There was one more horrid task to accomplish. And its victim was not as open - as gullible - he forced out the truth - as the last one had been.

      Avon was obviously waiting for him - the door to his room left open. Leusip was glad the boy was looking down, and not at him, not yet at least. He didn't know if his soul could withstand that stare. In Blake's eyes, Leusip had always seen the belief of which he longed to be worthy. In Avon's, he looked upon the censure he knew should be his real reward.

      And now even Blake would end up hating him in the end.

      "He is gone," Avon said flatly, nothing in his voice, his eyes staring, unblinking, towards a wall.

      "Yes, I'm afraid he has," Leusip said, trying not to think, not to feel. "The telepathy?"

      Kerr nodded. "I felt his sadness."

      Leusip paused a moment, taking a seat beside the boy. "You knew it was coming."

      The boy looked away, but nodded. "All good comes to an end," he said softly.

      Leusip placed a hand on Kerr's shoulder. "We have been friends for a long time, Kerr. So you have to trust me on this one. It is for the best. Roj understood that, you must also. That's why he went away."

      Kerr's large, haunted eyes shifted towards him. As ever, Leusip was chilled by the assault.

      "Roj - went - away -" Kerr said, as if testing the words for truth.

      Leusip nodded. "He understood that what we are fighting for is bigger than all of us. And far more important than what the two of you believe you have together. There will be time for all of that later, should you choose to pursue it. But for now, let us think of the struggle, shall we?"

      Kerr looked at him, with cold, staring eyes: dead eyes. "Go away," he said simply.

      "Kerr, you have to come with me. There is somewhere we have to go-"

      "Not yet."

      "I'm afraid it must be now."

      "Go. Away." His voice was soft, almost delicate, but his eyes were hollow and cold, far beyond human compassion, beyond rage, far past any silly qualms about killing him. He was merely giving Leusip a warning, to save himself the trouble.

      Sen realized fully, that moment, aside from all earlier intimations, what a force this boy could be - what an invaluable ally - how incalculably dangerous. To anyone in particular. To all of them at once.

      "There will be a time for your own wishes," Leusip said, rising, moving without deviation for the door. He glanced back once, at the dark, staring boy - his countenance more a void now than ever. He had to say something for comfort, though Leusip supposed him far beyond it.

      "Nothing is forever, Avon," Leusip said, and left.

      "I know," Kerr Avon answered, making his reply to an empty door.

      

      

Processing was state-of-the-art for non-contextual memory. It was a fine synthesis of psycho-pharmaceutical elements, deep-state suggestion, and the deflection wave, neural implant, invented originally to modulate behaviour patterns in non-criminal aberrant personalities, customized for the specific needs of Roj Blake and Kerr Avon.

      And they had never remembered each other, except at the edges, inside the nerve - in the dreams of very deepest sleep that were never remembered on waking. They remembered in solitude and regrets, in feeling that a part of the world was missing. There had only been substitutes, in the mean time.

      And then their paths were intersected again, at the prescribed time.

      The years beyond that moment were lived in the way that all real-life nightmares must be lived: day by day, surrender by surrender, compromise by compromise.

      But now, it only seemed like a very bad dream, as Blake slowly surfaced from the bridging process, to find himself staring into Avon's opened eyes.

      There had been nothing to prepare him, in the whole of his life, for this moment. Every fragment fell into place - all the pieces he had become resigned to juggling forever - the past and the present merged, together, at that moment, at that point in time and Blake understood everything. Everything.

      "Kerr," he said softly, as if finally giving it all a name.

      Avon looked at him, at the wealth of emotion pouring from Blake's eyes, at the prodigal echoes in his own heart. What had happened was circling between them, budding and swelling until it could nearly be felt in the room.

      A small noise was all it took to make Avon remember. A sound to call up the memory of another presence in the room. A presence that blew a cold wind through the warmth he was feeling, the deep and infinite gratitude.

      Sen Leusip was staring at him, the fallen angel whose sins had just been tithed to the public domain. His eyes were lucid with regret. "I'm sorry."

      "Sorry?" Avon seethed, groping for a chair, dragging himself to stand. "Now, that makes all the difference, doesn't it?"

      "Of course not." Leusip shook his head, forbidding the consideration of it. "How can I ask you to forgive such a thing? Perhaps if I had been an enemy. But I loved you. Both."

      Avon took a step, his very movement a threat.

      Blake moved to catch his arm. "Avon," he said weakly, failing the attempt, his voice both delicate and grave. "Damn it. None of that matters now. None of it."

      As Avon moved towards Leusip, it was not with the posture of attack. But Leusip had known the moment he saw the night moving through Avon's eyes, that killing was his moment's ambition.

      Avon's hands seized Leusip's throat, thrusting him back against the wall, thumbs digging at the trachea. Drawing him forward once to slam him back again. The professor's face darkened, every muscle constricting, fugitive breaths sucked in with strangled gasps. But his only means to fight was to seize Avon's wrists like a reflex, squeezing them tightly.

      "Damn you!" Avon seethed, his voice mad and shapeless. "Damn your whole life..."

      "Kerr!" Blake said, his heart about to burst, from what they now knew, from not being able to share this with Avon.

      Avon, oblivious, whitened his knuckles, his thumbs gouging deep into Leusip's throat.

      From behind, Blake hooked his arms over Avon's. "Leusip!" he snapped, catching the professor's eye with his own, coldly conveying the message.

      Blake used leverage, lifting Avon up to break his grip.

      Leusip dropped to the ground.

      The old man's hands fled to his throat, his head cast back against the door, breathing sharply and deeply.

      But Blake knew Avon, knew the fight was far from gone, and when it amassed to this it would splinter before it waned.

      Blake dragged Avon with him, pitching both of them back against the ground, twisting to take the impact himself. Avon's arms flew out, his hands grasping blindly.

      Blake blocked the hands. "Avon!" he said, urgently, other feelings in his body demanding notice, Avon's struggling body pressed so hard against his own. Blake thrust him against the floor. "Avon!" he said again, his voice full of tears.

      Leusip was scraping himself together again, on his feet near the door. "Shall I get an injectable relaxant?" he asked, in a thread of a voice.

      Blake slung Leusip a look of rage, countering another fit coursing through Avon's body. "Get the hell out or I'll give him a second chance!"

      At the sound of the access door sliding shut, something in the wall of anger caved through. Blake saw the change: the surfacing of something beyond the terrified animal that Avon became when threatened this way. It was confused beyond words, but it was there in Avon's expression as he turned towards Blake. The arms collapsed, the body stilled, his fragmented gaze poured out from profoundly wounded eyes. Moment to moment, his breathing eased pace and his thrashing heartbeat calmed.

      "Roj..." Avon said, then gave Blake a small, fragile smile a smile that promised to shatter at any given moment.

      "Yes," Blake whispered, nodding.

      "How can this be?"

      "I don't know." After a moment, completely decided, Blake bent close, pressing his open mouth against Avon's brow, very slowly drawing his lips closed in a kiss. The confession finally made, he leant his head, eyes shut, against Avon's chest. "But all I give a bloody damn about now is that it is."

      "I think we had best stand up from here," Avon said softly, a hand moving up unconsciously to stroke at Blake's hair. And then he drew away, sitting up. "It could be... awkward... should we be... interrupted."

      Blake pulled himself to his feet, smiling first at a secret joke, then offering Avon a hand. "Interrupted from what, Avon?"

      Avon glared at the hand, rising on his own.

      Blake's face erupted in a grin, moving across to the door's sensor trigger. "Where, when?"

      Avon replied by moving to the door, pausing once to look back at Blake. "Your quarters," Avon said softly, averting his eyes. "The... sleep level... is larger."

      Blake closed the distance between them quickly, tracing his fingers around Avon's hand. "No turning back," he said, stepping close enough for Avon to hear his breathing had quickened. "Understand this. If it's once, it's forever, Kerr. I won't let you retreat."

      "It seems," Avon said, his eyes still directed to the door, "that retreat is no longer an option."

      "If it ever was," Blake replied, caressing the sensor for the door to finally open.

      "I suppose we really ought not... take the time," Avon said. "There are many things to be done."

      "Nothing to do but wait, Avon. If anyone deserves some time for themselves, it's you and me. Beyond which fact, I'm sick to death of waiting."

      The door slid aside. Both men stood there for only a moment. Then Blake claimed Avon's hand inside his larger, all-encompassing fist and turned right down Corridor A, towards Areopagus' quarters sector.

      The door to the conduit room closed quietly behind them.

       The door to Blake's quarters opened. Avon would have doubtless hesitated in the open door, had not Blake been steering him by his captured hand.

      Both men moved in quickly and the door swept shut behind them. Before Avon - his heart building to a manic cadence could consider escape, Blake clicked through the digital code that spoke to the mainstem, locking the world outside - and the two of them in.

      "It is altogether too hot in here." Blake said, his long fingers compelled through the fastenings of his leather jerkin, removing it slowly, tossing it aside.

      "I had been thinking it inordinately cold," Avon said, his left hand balled into a fist, burrowing into his side, as he moved cautiously along the display of relics he had earlier considered. He paused beside the detritus from Destiny again, a tentative hand striking out towards it, touching it with subtle fingers, as if seeking equilibrium.

      "Avon," Blake said softly.

      "It would seem."

      Blake gestured to draw him in. "Come here," he said.

      Avon remained still. "You're quite certain of this?"

      "I'm not certain about anything when it comes to you," Blake said, moving forward to Avon, his fingers continuing to free the fastenings on his shirt. "Which makes me utterly convinced there is no other option for you and me."

      "Convinced, but not certain?" Avon said, fighting to keep his voice level and calm, peripheral vision considering the door again.

      "Our old friend paradox," Blake replied, reaching for him, gathering Avon completely into his arms, against him fully for the first time in his life.

      And this time, there was no resistance in his body, as there had been the first time, back in Sovereign, when Avon had told Blake about Avon's brother.

      "Trying to comfort me again?" Avon said into Blake's shoulder.

      Blake took possession of Avon's head, moving him back, to gaze steadily into the other man's eyes. "Oh, no, Avon. Trying to make you distinctly uncomfortable."

      "Succeeding," Avon said, as Blake's face came nearer to his.

      "Good." Blake held Avon's eyes hostage for another moment. Such soft eyes... how was it that they had ever seemed forbidding? There was no coldness there at all - but a thousand emotions all battling for dominance. They had always been there, of course. Avon wore masks, Blake had always known that - even in the very beginning, but knowledge was one thing - this was like staring into an open heart. Blake was fairly certain not even Avon could be aware that this went on inside him.

      My poor love, Blake thought, but he would never say that aloud. At least, not yet.

      After all these long, horrible years, it was finally going to happen. His miracle. His one request of the gods, which - on every dreamless night of his life, usually after imbibing plentiful fermenteds - he had bargained for with everything he possessed in this world and beyond it. It was going to happen. And tomorrow, thanks to Ago Taro, he might very well lose it forever. Might lose Avon. Might die himself.

      But Blake refused the very idea that what was just beginning would so quickly come to an end.

      Avon smiled, lifting his hands to fuse with Blake's curls. "A somewhat morbidly kinetic portion of my intellect has always wanted to do this," Avon said, smiling against the weight of his words, remembering as he explored them how dark these curls had been so long ago, admiring the traces of winter that now made them seem lighter, softer.

      "Avon with a tactile desire? How very unlike him," Blake whispered warmly, lowering his mouth to Avon's neck, nipping tenderly, each nerve in Avon's neck responding as Blake went on licking, then kissing again, enticing all the way up the slope of Avon's throat.

      At the touch of Blake's tongue to Avon's ear, reality set upon Avon, his skin burning at the touch. The tongue swabbed behind his ear, across the soft skin and back up his lobe, teeth and tongue and lips nibbling madly. Blake's breath was hot and fresh and moist against his face, filling Avon's nostrils, stinging his eyes, as he rapidly caught fire. And Blake's hands began to roam, at first tenderly, then seductively, hungrily, until Avon grasped for Blake's bare chest and pushed them apart.

      Blake's passion was subdued by eyes filled with questions for only a moment, until Avon's hand slid menacingly down his own white shirt, and with one, sharp movement, ripped the fastenings free.

      Blake's eyes fired at the sight, as the white shirt coasted with aching slowness down Avon's arms, falling like a shadow to the floor.

      "Oh, Avon," Blake whispered, his breath jerking hard and fast in his broad chest.

      "I will not be fucked, My Lord," Avon said, seizing Blake's head once more. "Now, let's start that again," he whispered, merging their mouths together.

      Blake moved against Avon, then Avon over Blake, Blake capturing Avon's head between his large hands, as Avon wound his expressive fingers through Blake's curls. The moist, sucking sounds of their mouths hushed as Blake pried through Avon's teeth with his tongue, filling his mouth with the force of a cock, meshing against Avon's tongue. And the rebel's hand massaged along the face of Avon's stomach, the muscles rippling under its touch, going down till it reached Avon's white slacks, to the split of his thighs, Blake's fingers sliding gently over the forming bulge.

      "Roj," Avon gasped out at the touch.

      "Getting hot, Kerr?" Blake whispered, sucking tenderly at an ear as Blake's fingers stroked indelicately across the growing contour between Avon's legs, enticing it to thicken and throb.

      "What the hell do you think?" Avon moaned out.

      His arm hooked around Avon's shoulders, slamming their chests together, their mouths around each other, Avon's moan muffled inside Blake's mouth.

      Avon's heart was pounding with pneumatic fury. The room was hot and the room was cold. The Earth was spinning madly about its companion moon, it was standing still as silence. His forehead was beading cold sweat; it was drizzling hot.

      It was Blake. He and Blake. Engaged in foreplay, becoming sex.

      And he wanted it. Wanted it.

      He moved beneath it, moved towards it, falling into a pattern that felt familiar as his skin, but still unknown. Blake's breath was ragged and tortured, Avon's hands screamed across Blake's skin, and yet it was normal, it was the dance with them. Their arousals had swollen together; he could feel Blake's cock pound against his thigh. Avon knew, with a sickening, wonderful, terrifying joy who it wanted to touch, to fuck. He knew because he felt his own cock respond in sequence, lengthen and throb against Blake, wanting Blake's touch more than anything, more than ever.

      "Kerr!" Blake moaned, and both men knew they were beyond flirtation... seduction... foreplay.

      One of them moved first - neither would ever remember which - but suddenly they found themselves falling back into Blake's sleep level. Both surged forward, but Avon was first, grasping Blake's long legs to turn him back, flat against the bed.

      Avon smiled, wide and hungrily, his whole body gripped by fever. A trickle of sweat spilled down his face as he forced Blake's legs apart, moving his hands circuitously upward, caressing, teasing every inch of the way, as Blake had done with him. "This is what you want, Blake?" Avon asked, his voice a soft blur.

      "God, yes," Blake moaned, his whole face reacting as Avon's hands climbed towards his crotch.

      The hands moved easily along the polarity clasps that sealed Blake's slacks in a seamless line, caressing the bias, the swelling beneath. Avon collapsed into the valley between Blake's splayed legs, his hands continuing to knead the swelling which hardened against the language of his fingers. The hardness was throbbing again, in time with Blake's raspy breathing, as Avon's left hand moved further down, feeling the gathering of his scrotum, the tightness there, knowing intensely what desire there had to have been in Blake. And he knew - somehow - whether from the gnosis of his own body - or the past - what to do.

      He slid his tongue over the warm bulge of fabric, licking deeper where the swelling responded, where it pounded against his lips. The more the arousal throbbed, the more he licked. Finally, he gathered his mouth around it, and sucked through the cloth, sucking over Blake's balls, up the form of his engorged cock to the glans, burning through the barrier. The fabric crackled with a moist fervour, between Avon's eagerly watering mouth and Blake's responding wetness.

      Blake's body surged upward for Avon's mouth, his voice whispering Avon's name, his hands digging deeply into Avon's shoulders. "Avon, please," he called out.

      Avon's heart rammed heavily within him. There was no other place to go now. As much as his whole body craved to go on with this, Avon knew the name of the place he was about to enter.

      And its was not a name given welcome. But he realized now, after all these years, that it was more his home than any other.

      He looked up into Blake's closed eyes, his agonized face, the tall man's expressive body surging towards him - hot and hard and yearning for him - and, suddenly, the choice was clear. There was no other choice. There had never been.

      "Blake?" he whispered, to call his lover's attention, so that he might see Avon's hands as they gripped the two edges of the seam. Blake's eyes flashed; Avon wrenched the edges apart, burrowing his hands through to capture Blake's cock and draw it out, draw it fully into his hands, move it tenderly to his lips, brush it across them. It throbbed hard in Avon's hand, the glans glistening with the first spill of cum.

"Solotonic?" Leusip said, orbiting Dayna for the seventeenth time with the same vigorous pacing he had taken to during the last quarter of an hour.

      "Mm-hm," Dayna replied, laying down a glowing holodisc that chimed out once.

      "Ace of Cups," Orac reported, "this suggests that the Quest, as the game is currently defined by your previous draws, is destined to succeed. Stay and build by the lower arcana or draw and go forward by either?"

      Dayna munched on her lower lip. "Always live dangerously," she said, pulling another disc, palming it down.

      It chimed out flatly, ten full times.

      "Damn!" Dayna said, thumping the table with her fist.

      "Ten of swords. Calamity and downfall. Recommend face card draw for a stronger champion than the Page of Wands."

      "I don't have enough credits!" Dayna snapped back.

      "Then I recommend the Emperor as New Champion."

      "He's no warrior!" she snapped again. "I don't have enough Fate discs. I will have to stay and build."

      "You cannot stay and build, you must draw and go forward. To stay and build would mean death, where the game would start again."

      "Says who!" Dayna roared back.

      "Says the rules of the Quest! Will you please state your Quest direction!"

      She groaned, shuffling the discs. "Well, how am I to fend off the Ten of Swords with the Emperor as New Champion? What if I draw the Devil or the Hanged Man?"

      "Is that an actual question? Or are you merely stealing my valuable time with verbal perambulations?" Orac sniped in return. "If you will not accept my expertise, kindly allow me to return to pursuits more worthy of my analytical prowess!"

      "For once," Leusip said, "I agree with Orac. There certainly are more worthwhile pursuits you could be engaging in."

      "Like what, Professor?" she said, sparing him a petulant look. "Sitting about watching your satellite disorient and decay? Waiting for my friends to die? Things like that? You've been downright fitful ever since you came back from working with Avon and Blake. Not that I care to hear about your problems in the least, but if it will stop your pacing and griping for a couple of moments, do chatter on."

      Leusip sighed, grasping the arm of a chair and lowering himself into it. "It's nothing you can know about. I am sorry. It's just that I am dealing with TM things TM difficult things and I see you sitting there playing a game."

      "Simply because it seems to be a game, doesn't necessarily mean it has no purpose. We all have our means of dealing with things, as you call them. This is mine."

      He reached for a secondary deck of discs, one she was not using, lifting the many-coloured discs with their holographic images, into his hands, studying them. "Pretty things, aren't they?"

      Dayna snorted out a laugh. "As the excavator said to the crystal skull."

      "Perhaps I ought learn to play."

      "It's Solotonic, Professor. I'm afraid that it's meant to be played alone." She sighed, placing her hand of discs across the table. She glanced over at the visual reference. "Moksha, any response yet from Soolin or Vila?"

      "Negative, beloved one."

      She bunched up her nose, shaking her head. "And no sound from Tarrant?"

      "NegativeTM"

      "TMBeloved one. I know, I know," Dayna said, sliding the glowing discs on the table back together again, stacking them together, giving a shake of her head. "Avon and Blake have been a while."

      "A long while," he muttered to himself, looking towards the empty corridor access.

      She slid the discs into their container, looking on Leusip fully for the first time since he had come in to annoy her. "I notice that bruise on your throat has appeared since you went to the conduit room to work with them. Wouldn't care to expand on that story, would you? Don't tell me, you ran into a door. You accidentally slugged yourself in the neck. Come close?"

      "I had a small mishap," he said.

      "Evasion in preference to outright lying. How noble of you, Professor." She reached to her belt, to extract and enable her blaster, rising from her chair. "You wouldn't mind then, if I went looking for them?"

      Leusip stood at the same time. "I don't think that is a wise idea, my girl."

      "Oh, really?"

      "I don't think you would like what you would find."

      "Whenever someone tells me not to go somewhere, because I wouldn't like what I found there, it's automatically the first place on my agenda."

      He reached out and clamped a hand to her shoulder, firmly keeping her in place. "For your own good, Dayna. Please. And you must believe that I've done nothing to harm either of them. I've known them both, since they were children."

      "Nothing to harm them?" she spat back at him. "You have a most interesting definition of that phrase, Professor. But very well." She stowed the blaster away at her belt, looking him dead in the eye. "They are together. They are well when they are together."

      He scrutinized her carefully a moment, looking for a knowing gleam in her eye, a certain expression, but he could tell nothing of whether she knew or did not know. If she knew, it was an old knowledge, one that felt comfortable in her soul.

      "Yes," was all he replied, falling silent as he heard a set of footsteps, walking in cadence down Corridor Main.

      

      

      Areopagus had just begun to lose its strangeness for both of them, had only recently started to absorb them TM to allow them to absorb it TM to let them tame each other. It was no longer an alien place to be, Areopagus, as they recognized the contours of their own memory in its shapes and textures.

      That was the bridge of familiarity that befriended strangers, that made an impersonal dwelling a home. But now everything about this place seemed intensely personal, a part of their common past. And at the same time, on another front, everything was completely different.

      "Ready for this?" Blake said, his eyes probing Avon more warmly than his words.

      "You keep asking me that question and I repeatedly tell you it seems as if that doesn't really matter."

      "I wish that it did," Blake said softly, his hand touching Avon's shoulder. "I wish that you did have a choice. That you didn't have to go down there with me."

      "I wish you had your wish," Avon said drily, glancing sideways towards Blake. "But, I suppose... Had I a choice, Blake TM neither of us would be going down there."

      Blake took his hand in reply, locking his fingers together with Avon's, then staring down at the hands, linked together, as if not quite believing the fact.

      Avon had never seen two other grown men hold hands before, but he would have certainly thought the end effect effete and child-like, making the men seem weak, effeminate TM but then he thought of Dayna and Soolin and changed the adjective to emasculated, impotent.

      But somehow, Blake's hand linked to his strengthened him, just spanning the gulf between them to remind him that they were one person, somehow, even though they walked in separate flesh.

      "Why did this have to happen now?" Avon said sadly, his soft tone revealing far more than the words. "Why couldn't we have been this way before?"

      "The point is that we are," Blake said. "Nothing can change that fact. And the reality is that we have always been."

      "Have always been what?" Leusip's voice said, forcing cheer, slicing their conversation cleanly through the centre as quickly as his presence separated their hands.

      "Suspicious of you," Avon said, brushing past Leusip, moving into Areopagus' major room where Dayna was standing.

      Leusip glanced back at Dayna, whose eyes were quizzing Avon, though Avon's eyes were making no reply. "We are happy you're back. And not before time. Dayna and I were concerned about you. We were just discussing the possibility of launching a search party."

      "Wrong as usual, Leusip," Dayna said, looking towards Avon, then Blake. "I was concerned. He was just discouraging. You're both all right?"

      "We're both fine," Blake said, touching Dayna's arm, then turning to regard Leusip directly. "Avon and I just went about making up for lost time. We stole an hour for ourselves."

      Sen Leusip face turned a bit pale, but hardly surprised. "And did you?"

      "Yes," Blake said carefully. "We did."

      Leusip swallowed noticeably, shaking his head. "Well, it is almost time to get this under way. Almost past time. Our response to Taro requested the Prometheus back to travel capacity very shortly."

      "We had best get kitted up then," Blake said, folding his arms in a mode of defiance, sending Dayna a smile.

      "Surely you shouldn't go there with just your fists," Dayna said.

      "Covert arms, I should think," Avon replied. "Something quarktronic, a deep charge pellet perhaps. We can strap those in good and tidy and Taro will never know what hit him."

      "I knew you would think of something," Blake said, smiling warmly, knowing they were possibly marching into death, but no longer caring. There was so much to live for, but then he felt he already had everything anyway.

      A discomfort surfaced on Dayna's face a moment, but she turned it away, towards the corridor. "I'll check the stores," she said, walking away.

      "You know she has probably guessed," Leusip said, looking after her, when she was gone. "She is a smart young woman. The others will also have to know. This won't be as simple as your romantic notions are doubtless portraying it."

      "Oh, it's very simple, Sen," Blake said, his voice a soft, rolling threat to Leusip's face. "This is between us. Us. Vila. Soolin. Dayna. Tarrant, god help him. And Avon and I. You are not a part of that. In any way. This has nothing whatsoever to do with you."

      "Regardless, as your friend, and I am, whether either of you choose to believe that or not, I must tell you this. Your friends are going to have a difficult time with this. Please don't think I am issuing some sort of puritanical, moralistic, aphoristic nonsense. I speak to you from experience."

      "Oh?" Blake said, lifting an eyebrow, with a bemused grin. "You and Steavn Change?"

      Leusip crimsoned beneath the khaki skin. "A very long time ago."

      "And Buto," Blake said, memory taking his expression, his eyes growing huge at the impact. "Yes. My gods, I remember. You told me. Told me without telling me."

      Leusip nodded. "Then you see. I know of what I speak. People, even the people we love, find it difficult to understand. Restal will understand. Having dealt with my friend, the Numenmaestro, I would imagine he has seen almost everything. Soolin is also a child of experience. But Dayna? She was raised beneath the ground, sheltered away from the real world, with shadows for playmates and storybooks for company. And Tarrant, with all his youthful manly pride? What of them?"

      "We will explain it to them," Blake snapped impatiently.

      "Explain to them how?"

      Blake reached across, draping an arm over Avon's shoulder. "We will find a way."

      Avon manoeuvred under the arm. "We can concern ourselves with the future when we are roughly assured we will have one."

      Dayna was striding in from the corridor, carrying a set of compacts inside the palm of one hand. "Cuffs up, gentlemen," she said.

      Blake hiked his sleeves, extending bare wrists. "How do we use them?"

      "Weapon systems at this level of miniaturization are fairly simple," she explained, attaching the compact to the trunk of Blake's wrist, the chemicals on the underside expanding the natural capacity for adhesion in the skin. "It's either high or low force-level, no middle ground. If it's high, it's a suicide mission, the operation will be a success, but the patient will die. So, you have low force-level, because I don't want to be the one to shovel up your ugly, charred bits of flesh and see they get a proper molecular dispersion."

      A laugh escaped from Blake's grin. "Yes, well, we appreciate the concern."

      She moved on to Avon, adhering the compact to his wrist. "The way this works is very simple. They will doubtless scan you for weapons, but their scanning systems won't detect these, I stake my reputation as a statesman and scholar on it. You will give Taro a heavy pulse, but you have to be close in. That close, he can get the full impact and he won't be able to aim his own weapon. Don't worry about hitting life centres, the heat detectors will find them for you. Just get in close and get him before he gets you."

      She slapped Avon's clenched fist to open his fingers. They responded. "Here's a third one, just in case we have a friendly alive down there. Like a tall, ugly, curly-brown-haired one with a sabertoothed smile".

      "My beloved family, I am pleased to inform you of the return of the Prometheus vessel to partial operating capacity. It is now at minimal travel function."

      Blake looked towards the small double-doors, at the far end of the immense room, through which, he dimly remembered, Avon had once dragged him TM on a day that was only, in real time, weeks ago, but now seemed further and further away. "No one can accuse Taro of not being prompt," he said softly. "The three of you go on to the port grid and alert Zen. I'll follow you shortly."

      Avon remembered the day more clearly than Blake had, as the three of them stepped onto the port grid, looking at Prometheus, now with lights in her eyes, as Vila might say. And as they stood there now, survival seemed as impossible as it had then.

      "Where has Blake gone to?" Dayna asked, at the moment that Blake entered the port himself, carrying Orac.

      "I thought perhaps Orac might be useful. During the linking. A sort of grid reference apparatus, to help us keep one foot in the real world."

      "It might work at that," Avon said, nodding.

      "Careful, Avon," Blake said, meeting Avon's eyes with an important smile, "that came treacherously close to a compliment."

      "In any event," Leusip cut in, walking between them, "you both are adequately versed on the linking procedures?"

      Blake glanced at him curtly, stepping closer to Avon. "We won't be able to determine adequacy until it's over, but I think we both remember enough to know how it is done.

      Leusip looked relieved. "Good. As long as Taro doesn't realise that you're faking it, you should be safe."

      "You obviously have a new definition of safe," Avon said.

      Leusip shook his head. "There is no reason for either of you to be hurt. As soon as I have freed Moksha from the virus, Aeropagus will be safe from outside interference. Dayna has designed a strategy by which Zen may teleport the three of you out of there, and then you can get the hell back to here via Prometheus. After that, we will be free to fight Taro on equal ground."

      "We may be forced to do precisely what he demands that we do," Blake said. "If it means Avon's life, we will do that."

      "If it means either of our lives," Avon inserted. "What have you to say to that, Professor Leusip?"

      Leusip's face drew in, his eyes grave and fearful. "If you are forced to complete the bridging to save yourselves, then we will prepare to run to the end of the galaxy and hide. And hope to the gods that the System can't catch us."

      "Having been asked to inform you as to the necessary exact time of departure to reach Gondoron by the specified rendezvous time, you may consider yourself advised!" Orac snapped.

      "Time," Blake said quietly. "Zen, two to come across."

      "Confirmed," the familiar voice thundered back, and it made Blake feel a little more confident, as if another old ally had just pledged his support.

      Dayna stepped up to slap Avon on the shoulder. "Watch yourself. Use the compact if you have to. As Soolin would say, fob off down there and your arse is mine."

      "How sentimental of you," Avon said flatly.

      She gave a wide smile. "No sentiment, Avon. I just don't want to have to get everybody out of this alive by myself."

      Dayna turned to Blake, giving him a level gaze, lowering her voice. "Take care of him. Like I told you when they tried to kill him before, whatever happens, you're responsible."

      "I know."

      "If he dies thereTM"

      "If he dies," Blake cut in, "I will too. I'll see to it."

      Dayna studied him a long moment, giving him a sharp nod, then turned for the port grid exit. But her hand grasped the door frame, as if to stay her leave.

      She looked back once before leaving, giving them both a parting look. "Don't die. Either one of you. Together or separately. Or, as a friend of mine once said, I shall follow you both down into Hell and drag you out again."

      When she was gone, Avon turned his back to Leusip, his eyes towards Blake. Sen came around each of them from the side, securing the teleport discs on their collars.

      He then stood there, looking on both of them, his expression vacillating, without suitable reply.

      "Please... succeed..." he said, his voice fading.

      Avon glanced at him sharply. "We have done quite well in fighting your battles for you thus far, Professor."

      He shook his head. "You don't understand. But I expect you have no reason to. I told you before I am your friend. And I am. But whether you choose to believe it or not, I love you both. I always have."

      With that, Sen Leusip, the man who had been a stranger a month ago, the man whom they had known for the main of their lives, left them alone.

      Their eyes met in the centre, in quiet disbelief, but their common gaze brought their minds to other subjects.

      "Ready?" Blake asked Avon TM for what had to have been the sixtieth time in the last three time units.

      And finally, Avon said, "Yes."

      Blake checked the energy disc on his own collar, then reached across to Avon, making certain of his.

      "What is it they say about an idea whose time has come?" he said, taking Avon's hand.

      Avon regarded him sardonically, a smile resting on his full mouth. "They say, Blake, that it is a specious structurist premise. And poor grammar at that."

      "Perhaps," the tall man said quietly, gripping the hand he held more tightly than ever, "but I think its time has come."

      The warmth was pervasive: the power in Blake's gaze, the radiance infusing Avon's hand with strength, with possibility. Odd that when he stood with Blake, no matter how close to the edge of the Abyss they were, there were no limits TM the idea of an end was almost too ridiculous to consider.

      Avon just shook his head, giving Blake an expression full of amazement and irony. "Zen," Avon said, changing his voice markedly, "bring us up before he starts reciting poetry."

      

      

      Soolin bent low to inspect the succession of minute fuse-like detonation devices that created a barrier between small prying hands and the Numenmaestro's computer. They had been installed with a masterful hand. They doubtless had to have been, with a squadron of genius children who loved nothing more than a good magic trick. A child-proof computer cap, Soolin thought to herself, standing back up.

      "That one will give you a nasty if you've got clumsy fingers." She looked back at Vila. "Think you can handle it?"

      Vila looked at her with grave affront. "Say, Soolin, know how to shoot a gun?"

      She rolled her eyes, folding her arms. "Temperamental artists," she groaned, sitting back on a rock to watch Vila work.

      Vila flourished his laserknife, squatting beside the armed gate, then with a sensor-whine, a white flash, and the odour of an electrical charge, the computer access popped open.

      "Restal, have you no limits?" he said, spanking his hands together, standing back up. As he parted the computer access doors, he studied the façade a moment, feeling the very first pangs of dread.

      Soolin parked her hands on her hips, moving forward to survey the panel herself. There was no recognizable form or concept in any of the features of the computer façade. She likened it to a book written in one of the ancient non-Indo-European languages that Shan had force-marched her through. With French, German, Russian, Latin, Italian, even American English, you could detect a word here and there, sometimes a phrase, because of the common alphabet, because of the incestuous nature of language. But with Oriental tongues, Hebrew and Cherokee, and with some of the others, the alphabet was conceptually alien, without a common form to the eye or ear.

      That was what this was like: having to take a different perspective TM grasp alien goals to embrace their structure TM interpret forms made of different atoms.

      Even the surface of the façade seemed very strange to the eye. And when Soolin reached a tentative hand out to touch it, her skin nearly crawled back up her arm in revolt.

      "What the hell is that?" Soolin demanded, her face souring, taking a full stride back. "Is that something your hollow head came up with or something mine did?"

      "Neither. It's black fur-metal," Vila said. "An early attempt at an organic computer."

      "An organic computer. A biological brain," Soolin said, rubbing the back of her head with a silent laugh.

      "Why didn't they just reinvent the wheel?"

      "Yes, well, this one is a bit more pliable than the first one," Vila said, tapping his forehead. "So, what do we do with it? Want me to ask it what's going on?"

      "Vila," Soolin groaned, squeezing at her tired eyes. "We had this little chat about Leusip, remember? And why weren't we going to drum up Sen and query him?"

      "Oh."

      "Yes."

      "Right. Quite forgot. Again."

      "But you're right to a point," Soolin said. "Providing you remember how it functions, we can use it. Apparently our thoughts form a template for what this thing TM whatever it is that dragged us into this TM creates. It has to follow certain specific dogma, certain beliefs we all have, or our minds would interpret it all as chaos, and if my guess is right TM and my guesses usually are TM we'd fall back into our own world again. So, it has to follow a certain format, I guess you'd call it."

      "Expectancy," Vila said.

      "Yes. For us to accept the reality of this, we must walk upright. There has to be gravity. There must be oxygen to breathe. Everything, down to the distinctive atomic elements, has to conform to our expectations. Even something as gruesome as your fur-metal friend there. Novelty seems to have limited scope," she said, thumbing towards the purple river, winding all the way through the caverns. "Limited to your tragic sense of colour, that is."

      Vila smirked. "In other words, I expect the computer to look a certain way, so it does. Likewise, I remember it doing certain things, so it'll do them."

      "That's the theory anyway."

      "Soolin," Vila said, unease growing once again in his eyes. "I just remembered something else it's supposed to do. Something you aren't going to like. And I have one of my sinking, awful notions I know what attacked us on our way in."

      "I was afraid of that. That's the bad part of this expectancy gambit. If you believe hard enough that something will kill you, you can lay odds that it will."

      "They used to call it a curse, but we figured out early on that that was just gab. It's a part of the security system. A way of keeping our hands out of the cookie jar. Oh, well, don't feel badly, Soolin, it was a nice idea while it lasted."

      She reached back and cuffed him. "Vila."

      He sighed, nodded, and swallowed thickly. "I didn't think that would persuade you."

      "We have to see this through."

      "Tell that to the Fifth Earl of Caernarvon," he said.

      Soolin gave him a hopeless stare. "I won't even bother to ask." She gave the contraption another glance, pacing left to right again, then stopping in front of Vila. "I would hazard a guess that what welcomed us in the mouth of the cave is just one of the hired help."

      "That's a fairly hazardous guess."

      She studied him levely. "You're up to this?"

      "Does it matter?"

      "No."

      "Then, yes, of course, Soolin, jolly fine. Over the top and all that."

      She placed a hand on his shoulder, offered him a smile. "Remember how you tossed the last one off?"

      "Vaguely," he said.

      "And remember, too, it's using your thoughts to build the thing to scare you. Whatever it is, it's a part of you. And besides, I have a plan. Something that might work."

      Vila sighed, knotting his hands together, stepping forward again to the computer's façade. "Watch me tick it off by turning this on wrong. Wish Avon was here to block the kick."

      "I'll be sure to tell him you said so."

      "I'm not concerned. I've enough dirt on you to hold your tongue, I think."

      "Call it stalemate," she said, pointing at the computer.

      Vila reached for the likeliest sensor, the one that fired some portion of memory, and touched it.

      A plasmic white charge flashed out at them, circling around them in an electronic haze. It sailed around them, spinning madly until it formed a bridge of rainbow light. A thousand gradations of colour spanned the arch, then it twisted into itself, weaving a castle, hovering in the air.

      Then distant music, as if travelling out of history, gathered around them: a triphonic brass sound TM like the groan of many pipes seesawing in the air.

      "Calliope music," Vila said quickly, answering her unasked question.

      A team of snow-white unicorns soared down from the darkness, banking low across their heads. Then from the biocomputer, another surge of white fire streamed and swirled around their heads, spinning till a carousel was formed.

      Like a reflex called up out of his brain, Vila brought his hands together and the images merged TM the snow white unicorns took their place upon the carousel, moving up and down, keeping time with the music.

      Vila knew quite well how the game was played, for he had played it often enough, though he had not much liked it, nor considered it as much a game as a battle for his life.

      First, he would need a champion. Someone not physical, but a part of the illusion. This would be level ten, the top rung of the ladder, so he would need someone extremely smart. Someone faultless in logic, not to mention invincible.

      "What is it?" Soolin said, breathlessly, the white fire reflected in her turquoise eyes.

      Vila shifted his eyes aside to her. "It's the Master of Illusion," he said, "and I've a bloody awful feeling it's examination time."

      

      

      It had taken Zen operating at virtually full capacity to effect transmission and reassembly of their molecules at the grid reference that Taro had set for them.

      The familiar shape of Prometheus dissolved before Blake and Avon's eyes, and another familiarity assailed them: the long, severe hall; the regimented ceilings, the dark metal contours.

      "Welcome," a voice said, striking out at the silence, as if one of the countless shadows had finally found its voice.

      Blake turned towards it, in the indistinct direction of the main hall of Standard Increase. "Taro?" he said.

      There was the noise of a lever, and a shaft of light stabbed down through the muted dimness.

      A tall man in the general dress of an pre-Refederation Space Commander appeared, his gold hair glowing in the halo of a lumine. "At your service, as it were. But then where are my manners? I should say 'welcome back'. For you have been here before, haven't you?"

      The Space Commander smiled, which was a most unpleasant expression. "My name is Ago Taro, or at least that is what they choose to call me. And so I'll answer to it. After all, it's just a name, isn't it? And you, of course, are the illustrious Blake and Avon, of textbook legend and recent infamy. Happy to make your acquaintance, but first, I must make a small display for you, lest you harbour the obscene notion of taking my life or otherwise rendering me disabled."

      He waved his hand and a holographic beam formed. After a moment, it defined the image of Tarrant, looking ragged, pale and thin, but alive, kneeling on some floor in a pool of light flanked on each side by a violent darkness. There was a woman beside him, clinically pointing a blaster at his head.

      "We have this to remind you that you are hardly in a position to resist me. If I do not return, your mutant minion there will meet an early and uncelebrated demise, flat on his belly in the dark." Taro studied the image. "Is this truly yours? He claims to be, but he hardly seems the noble henchman of such an illustrious leader as yourself, General Blake. If it's all the same to you, I shall keep him. We might be able to process the wretched refuse and make something acceptable of him."

      "It is not all the same to me," Blake said evenly.

      "No? Very well." Taro stepped closer, waving the image away. He stepped near enough to have features and the identifying scar. "You have a soft spot for useless waifs, it seems, as do I. But then your war is over, one way or the other, is it not? Even when you were the young and angry apostate Blake, you could never have won against the One who sends me."

      Taro smiled seductively, ambling slowly forward. "But now you are old, with white in your hair, and your body is tired. Quite nice, but weaker still. Time is unkind to wayward flesh, it seems. And the fire is gone from your eyes. And what is a Heart Stock Alpha without his fire?"

      His mocking glare went to Avon. "This must be the Illustrious Kerr Avon, of the infamously sharp tongue." He looked to Blake. "And is it, Roj? Sharp, I mean? Well, not for you perhaps. No, of course not. Probably quite soft and warm and willing for you."

      "Taro," Blake seethed, looking to Tarrant, still cowered to the floor.

      "Worried about Tarrant? Oh, you needn't; you see, he can't hear us. But I'm afraid he knows already. Sorry, but I told him. Heart Stock are rarely good at keeping secrets, but then you know that, don't you? And anyway," Taro said, eyes turning to Avon again, "he should have guessed. We're almost notoriously bisexual, we Heart Stock. Of course they didn't know that when we were cultured. It's all that love, I suppose, all that lust for life. And I would certainly understand lust towards this life here." His hand went towards Avon's face, to touch the curve of his jaw, just missing contact. Avon's eyes flared in reply. "He's beautiful. But most wild things are. And I hear this one bites."

      "You hear correctly," Avon said.

      Taro laughed. "How is it Blake has tamed you, I wonder?" His gaze flipped towards Blake, his hand reaching towards the taller man's face, touching a moment and, before Blake himself could move, dropping the hand. "But then that isn't a difficult guess. You're quite lovely yourself. And you obviously enchant your followers to obsession." He patted at Blake's arm, supporting the weight of Orac. "May I ask, Blake? Have we brought a curio for Show and Tell?"

      "A tool to assist us with the bridging process," Blake said. "Since that is the price you have asked to save our friends."

      "Is that what you call them? This band of miscreants and misanthropes you've gathered round you? Avon here, for all his epic proclivity for the casting of aspersion, I can understand, if on nothing more than aesthetic grounds. But the likes of that one, Blake?" Taro said, pointing towards the vacant space that Tarrant's image had filled. "This is truly the finest pilot you can muster? I ought to provide one gratis out of human compassion."

      "A subject concerning which you have all-encompassing knowledge," Avon said evenly. "Now, you claimed to have a purpose for our coming here. Or is your sole source of company those you coerce into trading pointless banter with you for indefinite periods of time?"

      "More's the pity there is not indefinite time." Taro's smile grew wider, pouring into Avon's face as Taro moved towards Blake, a hand hovering over the man's broad shoulder. "How I should enjoy teaching you both some humility." The hand made contact, rubbing down the muscled wall of Blake's chest. "You would learn it exactly the way that Tarrant learnt his."

      "Taro," Avon hissed, sliding a malignant gaze in the direction of his voice.

      Taro's laugh struck out at the silence. "No? Trespassing, am I? Very well, it is said to be unwise to infringe upon a cobra's hallowed ground. So, I shall tell you a story first. A story to explain things. And I do so love a good story, don't you, Blake?"

      "It entirely depends," Blake said.

      "On what?"

      "The storyteller."

      And again Taro laughed, circling around them from the back, as if tying off the end of his web. "Well, you see, as was once written, in the beginning was the word. And the word was Analog, my father's bloody Holy Grail, the chalice of panacea, out of which we might pour the synthetic milk of human kindness. It would cure everything. Poor blind fool, he didn't see that there is no cure of human conception, for so long as there is room to wander there will always be lost souls."

      "And so long as the long-winded survive, there shall forever be boredom," Avon said.

      "Oh, wicked. You do have a tongue, delicious one. Yes, yes, cut to the chase, as they say. Very well. I'll tell you. The Analog project was the bane of my life: my father neglected everything to follow that particular obsession, myself included."

      "Really?" Avon said, his voice flat again.

      "Yes." Taro's eyes moved towards Blake. "You took what should have been mine. But I saw through my father. I saw him for what he was TM fathomed the full darkness of his sordid vision."

      "In other words, he treated you as you deserved," Avon said.

      Taro's smile dissipated: his eyes faded into murky anger. "I saw through him." The rage retreated; his expression loosened into something short of sanity. "I took refuge in the Federation at first, to absolve myself of my father's sin. But I soon saw that even there, there were apostates, agnostics, cynics. Those who doggedly refused to believe. And I saw the problem was the system itself TM it was itself contradictory TM it wed one creed and slept with another." The smile burst from him again, clearing out the doubt that had gathered in his eyes, returning him to his informal posture. "Then my God revealed Himself to me. But perhaps God is too rigid a concept for you, dear Kerr. You don't believe in absolutes, after all."

      "You are Change's son?" Blake asked softly.

      Taro hiked his boot atop an lump of broken cornice, leaning over his knee. "I disown that name. And now, I'm afraid it is time to get busy. I have guests coming. "The sort of guests one should not keep waiting." Taro brandished a hand towards the central passage. "This way, please... I'm certain that you know the way..."

      So they followed TM allowed themselves to be led TM down the long, narrow passageway through which the two of them had walked such a short time before. The further they proceeded, the darker was the coldness that unfolded inside of Avon. He recognized the Mater 10 suite, the triad of rooms that buckled onto the end of the complex.

      Blake's skin awakened again as they entered the room, feeling the charge lingering in the air, the sense of something reaching out towards them. Again, he was assailed by a sense of presence, something that was a part of life, yet shuttered away from it.

      "Now we know why we so easily activated the Mater 10," Avon said.

      "I had it waiting for you, Avon. I am a most thoughtful host. You had only to access your Mater's primitive memory deposits, placing them into the Moksha computer, and I had complete control over Areopagus, and over you. Odd, this. And fitting. Those who were meant to be the husbands TM if you should excuse that rather ironic turn of phrase TM of Steavn Change's plan for liberation, become my conduits for the reverse."

      Avon moved towards the Mater 10 console, his hands reaching towards it again, called, though repelled; something deep inside him moved and maddened. Not even his logic found a way to quell this.

      "This is Collosum," Avon said softly, his hands going forward to make contact, his fingers prickling back at every nerve. "The thing itself. I remember now."

      Taro moved between them, smoothing a hand liberally over the console's surface, climbing up towards a hinged crown-plate. "You see here merely the exterior, the surface artifice. This is Collosum," he said, moving the crownplate up, uncovering the heart of the computer.

      It was white fur-metal, as it was once called, forming an interactive whole with sensors, gauges, and digital monitors. But this was not a machine, in any way but the most basally semantic, even Avon had to allow that.

      Avon recognized it from his Lyceum days: a biological computer of limited capacity, a kind of primal, vigilant intellect. It was an early attempt at computer self-replication, at auto-expansion.

      Avon had examined several of them, but always in an inviable state, always when their functions had long ago been terminated.

      "Is that what I think it is?" Blake said, looking to Avon for reply.

      Avon nodded. "An organic, elementary computer system, information processing polymers, and all that that entails," he diagnosed in his most clinical tone. "Synthesized from Ursine, I believe."

      "Ursine?" Blake said. "My gods, do you meanTM"

      "Yes," Avon said sharply, cutting Blake off to spare him the impact of speaking it aloud. "One small step towards Standard Increase."

      "Gentlemen," Taro said, rolling the word over his tongue with derision.

      Blake lifted his eyes to Avon, lining up the pieces of memory he had retrieved: the methods for doing this. It was simply a matter of innocence, of focused susceptibility. He just left a door open to Avon, an access autonomically closed down from human habit in all other spheres. It had not, for Blake, been a difficult thing to relearn. He could not imagine the same was true for Avon, though the influence of the Colossum had doubtless helped.

      Blake supposed that this timeTM

      "TMis as good as any," Avon said aloud, glancing about in surprise at the sound of his own voice.

      There were the two bench chairs slid up to the Collosum, one facing the other, the ones they had seen there before. Blake took one, Avon, the other.

      "I don't think there is the necessity for an ignition system with this," Avon said. "It is always on line. We have only to request its assistance."

      "I remember," Blake said softly.

      "As do I."

      The energy that clustered around them was far beyond the mild static pulse that Leusip had termed the Summary. There was no orderly intellect to this field TM this was no shadow cast from a cognitive generator. There was vibrance to this and sadness and joy and all the confused and vivid images of life and memory. There was all the symmetrical chaos that could only be the presence of another mind TM and this mind had once loved to slide over silver ice planes, lichen beneath its feet, to feel chill water rush over it, to sleep and eat and feel the pull of life in its belly.

      The Summary expanded around them shyly, then encompassed them fully, rushing through them with a desperate welcome.

      "Ready to begin," Blake said softly, the sadness striking through him to the marrow.

      "Very well," Taro said. "What you must do is simple enough. You were both groomed to the task, with one minor variation. And should you want to survive, should you wish your friends to survive, you will succeed. Rather than conquer the System using the Matrix, you see, we shall seek to achieve the reverse. You shall thread both sentient signals through the Collosum and it will ensure that the strongest will prevail. The One I serve will make certain that It is the strongest."

      "I suppose it would be pointless for me to tell you that that is madness," Blake said softly.

      "Madness?" Taro said, touching Blake's hair. "Now that depends entirely on your definition of sanity."

      "You will be handing over the entire free universe to the System." Blake aimed his gaze at Taro. "It isn't a god, Taro. It isn't conscious at all. It is nothing but a mechanism. An imperfect one at that."

      "So is the universe, an imperfect mechanism," Taro said, removing a square, harmless-looking object from his belt and brushing at Blake's throat. "Now, do what you have come to do, or I shall instruct my able assistant to begin by making Tarrant a paraplegic, then going from there."

      Blake looked to Avon, his eyes filled with doubt. Avon nodded, sending forth the message 'no other choice', not knowing if Blake had received it. But Blake slowly nodded in return.

      Avon reached across to Orac, clicking the key in with an audible snap, echoing across the distilled silence.

      "Orac?" Blake said softly, in a whisper of conspiracy. "Are you with us?"

      "Yes, of course! Where else would I be?"

      The two men traded a fragment of a smile.

      Then Blake probed his gaze into Avon's. There was not the lengthy adjustment that had attended the last inception. In a moment, there ceased to be separate vision or two different bodies. Like old, fettering garments, the ground was left behind them like the past.

      But this time, rather than the condensation of time, the structure remained. There was the small stem-room, the man with his malignant eyes aimed at them both, and the vibrancy from the Collosum that swaddled them with warm arms, gathering them together. The diversity about them only magnified their unity.

      Avon sought a visual reference for Orac TM or the Orac encasement, as he now felt incongruously moved to call it TM while calling out through the common channels of their mind. There was no reply. Blake's warmth challenged back through the link, but there was no suggestion of Orac.

      Instead, as if in reply, a sequential grid pattern formed around them, cutting through the unity within them.

      On the one side, there was a white, raw power, an engulfing tidal wave that split everything apart just to keep the pattern going. Avon knew the energy well: the dull, constant malaise of thought that circled around and around, never missing target.

      And on the other side, something immense and amorphic, both dark and filled with light coiled into itself, ready to strike. It would input, but it would not accept. It was entirely consistent, it was completely contradictory. It was the perfect system, yet it sped into the darkness at its centre at an ever-growing rate. And it was juggling a thousand separate elements, not expanding to accept their variations, but crippling the insurgent ones, quieting the rest.

      To merge at the centre, said the old mind, the mind of Aristotelian doubt and loss and limit, was to neutralize one and enshrine the other. Surely one would have to die.

      The memory was there now, as if all the walls of time had been cleared, and there was only this place, this moment.

      They knew what had to be done.

      They knew how to accomplish it.

      They had brought both these ends together, almost tied them at the centre, in a time before. It was merely a matter of luring them through the Collosum. Coaxing both ends through and merging them together. Then it would be all right (the tape played over, repeating, like a cold suggestion made in the deepest levels of the brain chemistry), it would be all right.

      And so, Avon and Blake focused the two ends together, feeling the one grasp and the other accept, sensing the vortex of thought processes bantered back and forth TM contradiction, understanding, confusion, compromise, the Collosum of its own nature counselling the collision.

      The System was expanding, invigorated TM no joy, just a surfeit of power, and it was sending forth everything it had towards the small blue circle far off in that insurgent mass of vertical firmament.

      As Blake felt it completely, his mind drew a picture to explain. It reminded him not so much of an image, but of a phrase he had read somewhere, something his mother had once read to him... of a dark, satanic mill. This was a machine of incredible power, blind but aware, a machine that had long ago forgotten its origins and now chugged on to the future without reference to the past. It would do anything to fortify its gates TM to defend its borders TM to guard its central hull.

      Upon the dark gates, a presence was knocking. But not all gates could be guarded at once and the presence was calling at all of them.

      And the question it was asking was: Why? That had always been the dangerous one. The System was having to explain itself, which necessitated logic, which required the Matrix. And the moment the System's mind reached out to embrace the Matrix, autonomy was gone.

      The Matrix was shooting through with viral power, replicating itself within the very structure of the System, creating to destroy, and as it did so, the System was spinning into it, trying to confine it, to understand it, to hone it to one mind, one flesh.

      And against the onslaught of the Matrix, the more the System sought to fortify itself, the more the Matrix sought to break it down.

      And the shifting volume of the Matrix's raw white power circled in a downturn-deference, cooling and solidifying, forming symmetry, freezing into rigid pattern. It was a lovely pattern TM a pattern of energy, from whence the AI dialect, the universal language of atoms and onward, had been derived. It was chaos meeting form TM potential and symmetry.

      But for all its beauty, it made Blake sad, because he looked into it and thought of Avon. Something deep within him revolted. It reminded him of the long past, when the gulf between their hearts had been unfathomable, impossible. It was like being the one mind floating in the void, with nothing to dream of.

      The sorrow encircled him, separated him, as he stared into the condensing patterns and he felt another sorrow, akin to his own but different. It mourned for the loss of spring, for scents borne on fresh winds, for the silver flick of a fish scooped by the hunter's paw. And the fight raged over it and through it, overwhelming it, until the ice and the boundless horizon became a faint and distant tracery, and the pack ice thawed and the seagrave threatened.

      He reached out desperately for Avon, for some vestige of his mind.

      And then he remembered.

      (Leusip's voice came forth: "...the result of the albino rose suggested...")

      Recognized the patterns.

      ("...you had both been acting directly on the atoms of the rose...") The image of either/or surfaced to challenge Leusip, but Blake saw it for the fallacy it was. ("...you had both been acting directly..." "Your engineer mentality, Blake," Avon would have said.)

      Seeing patterns where none existed. Drawing false inferences. The Cosmos in a grain of sand, the future from spilled tea leaves.

      But Blake was perceiving as Blake perceived. And now he understood... everything.

      The System was going to save its hull... its heart... at all costs. Like an invading virus, the Matrix was going to be neutralized.

      The System was using Blake's patterning mind.

      And the Matrix was allied with Avon.

      Their opposite minds had been acting jointly on the rose, but the Collosum was forcing them to fight and was not strong enough to grant victory to the Matrix.

      The Matrix was losing the battle, being consumed. Reformed. Destroyed.

      As was Avon.

      "Avon!" he screamed through the link, tearing through the System and the Collosum and the Matrix, striking through the midst of it all, his mind sinking at last into the distant borders of Avon's mind and pulling him up with him.

      The bastards, he thought, all of them... every one of them... bastards.

      He felt he was swimming from the depths of a river, the current against them, and little air left. He was dragging them both with the power of one mind.

      Blake felt himself reform within his own body, building strength enough to open his eyes, to find himself staring at Avon slumped, lifeless, across his chair. He grasped Avon's shoulders, shaking him sharply as if to call him back to life. The image of the night and the blood and the wound to Avon's head seared hot through his mind, echoed again in Avon's colourless face.

      "Kerr!" he whispered, reaching for him, gathering him into his arms. Then screaming, "Kerr Avon!" with all the force his soul could generate into Avon's silent face.

      "Probably dead, Blake," some voice TM Taro's voice TM ate through his thoughts from the sidelines.

      "Kerr Avon, damn it, don't do this. That's an order," Blake said, with a muffled gasp, tears coming as he enfolded Avon completely, grasping him tightly, as if trying to bind their two bodies into one. "I love you," Blake whispered, like his last confession, into Avon's shoulder.

      What was it Avon had said? That they might die? Had he even considered that one would go and not the other? Was there even a point in considering, because if there was no Avon on this Earth, no future with Avon, then his next move would be to arm his blaster and aim it at the centre of all consciousness in his head. To pull the trigger. Take his own life.

      No, he would live long enough to make them pay.

      And then. Because there would be nothing else without Avon. Just a conscious death, a death without a companion. At least, in this, they would be together.

      He buried his face into Avon's shoulder, remembering what it had been like to hold him, to finally love him, to watch him smile. And there was not only that loss, but the years ahead that these bastards had stolen TM the laughter he would summon from Avon, the smiles he would force from his lips. He had imagined a life for them, the wind in Avon's hair, their roots twining together deep into a common sod, becoming strong, becoming one.

      As ever, he kept his tears silent, not giving them sound, as if to voice them might make them real and, made real, might draw death near enough to take him.

      Blake, the voice said.

      It had not been Taro's voice.

      It had been a voice inside him, stealing up the corridors of thought as all their others had, and the minute it struck the wall of Blake's mind, he realized its source.

      But before he could respond, it said: medallion.

      Of course.

      Of course.

      They had made provisions, so long ago.

      The medallion.

      He relinquished Avon to the floor and threw himself across the room faster than thought. The Collosum was strobing fully with the convergence of two polar forces one which had to be obliterated. And the only way to do it in fact, was to do it in symbol.

      And once the System was complete, one of the mechanisms that helped form it... the mode of logic had to be expelled, because it threatened its growth.

      The Matrix was dying. As so was Avon, in the arms of Standard Increase.

      Blake tore the medal from his throat, snapping the chain in two, and pressed that alien, lowly design, he and Avon had pondered, against the sensor screen.

      "I am most terribly afraid I can't let you do that," Taro said, suddenly for Blake, an actual figure in the room.

      Blake turned towards him, seeing the weapon in Taro's hand, feeling the panic and terror seizing his own mind, knowing how useless it was to avoid death if he could not save Avon, knowing there was no profit in pleading with Taro.

      "Taro," Blake said, the cold air around them chilling the tears against his face, "have you never loved anyone in your life?"

      "Of course I have loved. I am indisputably human."

      "Then let me do this. In the name of the one you loved, let me do this. Then you may do whatever you wish to me, I won't fight you. I don't really care. Just let me save Avon's life."

      Taro was about to speak when the presence of a second weapon entered the room, a blaster aimed precisely at Ago Taro's head.

      "I advise you to relinquish your zap gun, Space Commander," a man said softly from the hallway, "or face the considerable consequences of your actions, all of which it would be my pleasure to elucidate for you."

      It was Tarrant. Standing beside Twenty-Wun, aiming the blaster at Taro. He then wrested the small, harmless-looking object from Taro's hand. Taro did not think to object, his hand weak when the weapon was taken, his eyes indicting the woman for treason.

      "Go on, Blake," Tarrant said, tossing the stimulus against the far wall.

      Blake turned quickly, forwarding the response through the Collosum, signalling it to adapt the information inscribed in the AI dialect on the medallion into its main programming.

      The sensation of power in the room gradually lessened, draining away, like sand through their fingers. It was a final death for the Collosum, Blake was certain, but he could only feel joy at that for the pitiful thing itself and for them.

      "You infidel!" Taro said, lunging forward for Blake, his eyes growing huge and terrified. "Do you know what you have done? You've murdered the future! You have killed a god!"

      "We have killed nothing but your delusions, Taro. Now move or I'll kill you myself, just to get you the bloody hell out of my way."

      But Blake turned to see a movement that, seconds before, would have seemed a miracle. Avon was standing, going across to the Collosum, using the console chair for support. He surveyed the downward course of the gauges.

      "It seems our little calculation worked, Blake. Albeit, some twenty years after time. The Collusum sub-directory is in full operation."

      Blake came up behind him, resting a hand on each shoulder, feeling the weight of other eyes on their backs.

      "I thought you were dead," Blake said, letting the tender weight of his hands convey what his words could not.

      "Not quite," Avon said, switching off the long line of gauges and sensors. "But the Collosum will soon be."

      Avon turned around to survey the situation, but his eyes fell into Blake's gaze and remained there.

      With the silence, Taro, his posture that of a defeated man, looked towards Twenty-Wun. "Why?" he said. "Why when I've given you everything."

      "It is not what you have given," she said, her voice an even line, "it is what you have threatened to take away."

      "You forgot, Taro," Tarrant said, spitting the man's name out like something unsavoury. "The Matrix played a most important part in her life."

      "The only part," she said, her eyes training towards Tarrant, then back to Taro. "And I intend to hold a blaster on you myself until the authorities come."

      "What about his maquisard?" Blake said.

      "Ah, yes Taro's legendary, faithful maquisard," Tarrant said briskly, revealing his toothy smile for the first time in many hours, using it on the blond man. "They are either invisible or nowhere in sight. Their fidelity was so profound, they must have run at the first stench of failure."

      A wounded smile jerked at the corners of Taro's mouth. "I am not altogether finished. Not yet. For my Lord has already sent down allies on a trip of vengeance. You are not free. Not yet. After the conjunction is the asteroid belt."

      "What are you talking about?" Avon snapped.

      But Orac's voice sparked out at them, giving them their answer. "I have received a signal of extreme warning from the on-board sentience in Areopagus," Orac said. "Prometheus is under attack."

             "Saying that I contacted Steavn. The Galactic Fleet has been mortally wounded in the fight against Taro. There simply aren't enough battle cruisers left to fight what we are looking at there. There must be five thousand of them."

      "As I said," Avon replied softly, having verified the number, the true enormity of which he would spare the others, "we are dead. Unless..."

      "Unless what?" Blake said.

      "We get the hell out of here!" Avon said. "Dayna, Leusip, prepare to come across. We will teleport you aboard the instant we are within range."

      "What are you talking about, Avon?" Tarrant said, looking towards Avon, where Blake was already staring.

      "We've all forgotten. This is a step up from the Liberator. We can take it to Standard by infinity and get out of here."

      "That places great stress on the structure, Avon," Leusip countered over the broadcast systems. "Infinity is only for extreme crises."

      "I would say this qualifies, Professor!"

      "Granted, Avon. But even then it can only be utilized safely for very short periods of time. Infinity in this instance is not infinity itself. Max it long enough to take you far enough to avoid that and you will almost certainly go into a vortical spin. Beyond which fact, we will leave countless innocent humans on Earth to the mercies of those ships. Do you want their deaths? Tyce Sarkoff. Ran Plinth. Dr. Lahr. Noi Tan. Friends. People who have stood beside you."

      Avon did not answer, but walked away, to face a far, blank wall.

      Tarrant was staring down at the horizontal screen, as the silence gathered around them. There was no way to count the number of DSVs, but they banded into tracts of five. Like the colony of bees clustered over Taro's fist. Tarrant remembered how he had touched one, and the lot of them had moved aside.

      "Are there five thousand?" Tarrant said, looking to Blake the leader of men, Blake the engineer.

      Realization brightened Blake's eyes. "No! No more than we are a billion atoms."

      "The Altas are not autonomous," Avon added. "They act as one within the System. Which does not, however, limit the cumulative effect of their fire power."

      "No, but it does narrow the range of their strategy," Blake said, pacing away from the horizontal screen a moment. "Tarrant is right, we are not dealing with five thousand individuals, we are dealing with five nerve nets. Five. Five we can handle. Particularly since the System is now under the co-creation of the Matrix."

      "Fine, Blake, we have new-baptized the cobra," Avon said. "What are we to do with it?"

      Again Blake's face focused inward, in desperate, frantic thought.

      But Avon answered his own question. "Prometheus is, to them, a DSV. We are larger, faster, but our structure is identical. To follow the standard line of inference, the flagship would have to be the larger one. If we approach, turn as if in coordination, given that their central guidance is probably impaired, they might follow. Follow our flight pattern, adopt our speed. All the way up to Standard by infinity."

      "Which we would tolerate, but which would crush them into so much debris," Blake said.

      "Precisely."

      "Any other suggestions?" Blake asked everyone who could hear.

      The only answer was silence.

      "Very well. Then that is what we will do. What I will do. Zen, prepare to teleport two across to coordinate Areopagus."

      "Oh, yes, My Prince, self-destruction is the surest road to martyrdom," Avon said, staring sharply at Blake.

      "This only needs one person to pilot, Avon," Blake said, facing Avon straight on. "To risk three lives when one will suffice is irrational. Surely you, before any, should concede that."

      "Two minds can arrive at the correct conclusions faster than one," Avon said.

      "Particularly when one of them is yours?" Blake asked.

      "In a word, yes."

      Blake exhaled, shaking his head slowly. "I've almost lost you twice in a month. I won't give Death a third attempt."

      Avon's gaze shot across to Tarrant, who was returning the look, unsurprised. "Become accustomed to it, Blake. It is a part of life. It takes a minimum of two to do most things adequately. For as a wise man I once knew said, all life is linked."

      Blake smiled softly, with a look of wonder. "Then two it is. Two is best, I think."

      "Then surely three is perfection," Tarrant said. He looked towards the visual reference, bracing his arms behind him. "Zen, countermand teleport instruction. Move towards formation B on the horizontal reference. Prepare to change course and fly forward. Speed Standard by seven, accelerating as they follow us, towards Standard by infinity."

      "You aren't staying," Avon said.

      "I am," Tarrant replied. "I am the pilot. If anyone knows how to navigate our way through this, it's me. So spare me your useless protestations, Avon, I haven't the patience just now."

      Avon drew across to him, challenging him fully. "It is a straight, undeflected trajectory we need. We can fly this ship."

      "Yes," Tarrant said, "but I can fly it better."

      "Flight pattern implemented," Zen interrupted. "Speed standard by seven."

      "A follower is a follower, no matter its path," Avon said, looking from Tarrant across to the colony, growing larger with proximity and graphically more bright on the viewscreen. "Have you no sense at all?"

      "No, I haven't," Tarrant said, glancing at Blake, then over at Avon, the implication clear. "What's your excuse?"

      Avon nodded in concession. "Touché. Morituri," he said.

      "And besides."

      "Besides what?"

      Tarrant gave him a moderate smile. "I owe you one."

      "Speed standard by nine," Zen interjected.

      "Understood, Zen," Tarrant said. "Scan visuals for location of pursuing ships. Are they still with us?"

      "Confirmed. The squadrons are in generalized flight formation within our flight path. Speed now Standard by ten and in molecular acceleration mode... by twelve... by fourteen..."

      "I would suggest we strap ourselves in, but I don't think at this rate it would do great good," Blake said, moving up to Avon, reaching an arm about his shoulders.

      "Avon," Dayna's voice came over the comm system. Then adding, "Blake. Tarrant."

      "All still here," Avon replied.

      "Let me know when it is over," she said.

      "If I can."

      "Speed Standard by sixteen... by eighteen... by twenty-five... by fifty... by five-hundred..."

      Tarrant's fingers gripped around the horizontal screen lean-rail. "Steady as she goes," he said.

      "...by five-thousand... five-hundred-thousand..."

      The command deck was charged with a white haze, seeping in through the structure of Prometheus itself.

      "Hold her steady now, hover at five-hundred-thousand," Tarrant said. "Augment remax feature. Load time-dilation capacitors. Do we still have formation, Zen?"

      "Confirmed."

      "They are following us," Blake said, his fist thumping the lean-rail.

      "Allowing themselves to be led," Avon said, giving Blake a smile.

      Off to the left, in the far formation, the horizontal screen replicated a burst of green and silver combustion light, representing, for the human eye, what would never have been seen in space.

      "Sensors and visuals register destruction of Deep Space Vehicle Formation A."

      "One down," Tarrant said. "And four to go. Increase speed to sub-infinity by degaussing capacitor A."

      A second burst of green and silver graphically flared on the horizontal screen, followed by a third.

      "Two for the price of one," Tarrant said, his voice now a high squeal wave, colliding with molecules of air.

      "And two to go," said Blake, his voice even higher.

      "Recommend valuation to Standard by infinity to lessen stress-load," Zen said, the synthetic voice conversely slower and deeper.

      "On my command only," Tarrant forced out.

      "Confirmed."

      The horizontal screen displayed the twin formations fraying - constituents straying, like lightning bugs provoked into separate flight.

      "Implement," Tarrant coughed out, "Standard by infinity. Full up."

      The whole world became a grammatical pattern of pulse and repulsion. Avon had only ridden this once, when Blake had been dying and Leusip and he brought him back to Earth. But as a Systems theorist, he knew just how long it could hold this and not blast their uncommon flesh to the most common cinders.

      A moment was forever here.

      They were riding the bias of eternity, straight through the eye of the atom, and it was not an hospitable place.

      "Warning," Zen's voice flared out, now a muddy and nearly indistinct groan. "Standard by infinity now at maximum capacity. Advise counter measure against vortical turbulence. Advise countermeasure... advise countermeasure... advise counter-measure..."

      And those were the last words any of them heard before the greyness knocked them sideways and all the world went dark.

      

      Orac the man moved forward, touching the computer console with a long and graceful hand. After a moment, he turned his visual sense receptors towards the floating image. "I am creating a grid pattern, then feeding the information into this primitive gadget. It is giving the ship instructions as to where to fly."

      "Will it work, do you think?"

      "Well, of course it will work! Provided your negligible survival skills are still intact. It will fly Prometheus through the vortex, but that is only half of it. Concentrate, both of you, but particularly you, Restal. Instruct the summary field exactly what your decision is in this matter. What you want. Demand that it keep Prometheus together. Tell it precisely how much you want this."

      "Soolin," Vila said, something pervading his mind.

      "Listening," she replied.

      "This is actually happening. Somehow. this is real."

      "Why do you think we are here?" Orac said. "Keep concentrating! And Restal."

      "Orac?"

      "You know what is necessary."

      "I always have, Orac."

      "Then do what must be done."

      In a moment, he relinquished the shields - threw them away, like the old camouflage they were. He had built them up, out of fear and reticence, but the cost of retaining them was far more than he would pay.

      A rock on the floor of the cave shot away from him. And he remembered sadness. It made him think of the children, the ones who had feared him, who'd run away.

      With a sharp cracking, the cave wall behind him clefted. The surface of the purple river began to murmur to itself. And another wall split diagonally, as if the surface crust itself had moved.

      The pressure inside him eased a bit.

      "Dear god, Vila," Soolin said, understanding. "Is this what you meant?"

      "That's just for starters," Vila said, tossing a smile back. "I've got my work cut out for me... for a change."

      With the shields gone, It was easy to feel for the centre. He had done it often in his childhood. Found a rock and changed it to suit him. Made something broken new again. He had only to open himself to it fully, take it inside him. It was a frightening thing, to say the least, but it was the only way.

      Just as then, he sought the centre of the vortex, where things were splitting apart, to where the Prometheus was now being ground like wheat within the millwheel.

      He found the three souls captured inside of it - Blake, Avon, Tarrant.

      He felt the hard, circling hunger of the vortex, and he slipped himself inside.

      The cave ceiling branched spider cracks along a splintering path. Then cracks appeared like branches, one right after the other, rungs to a ladder climbing itself.

      Soolin slung herself forward, covering Vila's head. Illusion, she promised herself, but at last it seemed less like Occam's Razor and more a petty fantasy to comfort, like god is love and the truth will out and all those other bits of nonsense. 'This was an illusion' was also a lie - her rational mind's escape from a complex truth it could not comprehend.

      She had challenged him to confront this. To at last grow up. When all the time, she hadn't a clue what the hell it was all about.

      "What's happening, Vila?" she said, shaking him sharply. "Vila, what the hell is going on?"

      "I hasten to point out he can't possibly hear you," Orac said. "He's concentrating on the oral portion of the examination, as it were."

      "That is what this really is, then?" Soolin said. "An examination?"

      Orac nodded, shifting insouciantly against the wall. "It would seem. Relax, he does appear miraculously to be passing. The first part of the exam is knowing when it must be taken."

      "What happens if he doesn't pass?"

      "Isn't it a bit late to be asking that question now, Soolin? Right now, they are there," Orac the man said, pointing towards the grey, whirling madness hanging in mid-air, so chaotic it was forced into form. "In the eye of the Vortex."

      "And will they survive?"

      "Do I seem to you a prognosticator?" he sniped, lifting his chin. "My carbon-based progenitor may well have called me Orac, but let us not carry comparisons too far."

      "You access variables!" Soolin snapped back, reaching unconsciously for her weapon. "You can predict based on givens. So predict, damn it! Will they survive?"

      "You are here, aren't you?" Orac said, as he began to fade away. "You saw. You should ask yourself why, and the rest will be painfully clear."

      "Where are you going? You're talking in riddles. Riddles tell me nothing. I saw what? Ask myself what? Damn it don't leave without telling me-"

      "Tempus fugit, as they say in the old country," Orac said, fading a bit more. "You may ask your question of the Numenmaestro."

      "Wait! I don't even know who the bloody Numenmaestro is!"

      "Soolin!" Orac said, turning his eyes to Vila, "I think the only point of this madness is that he is." With that, Orac gave a flip of a hand in salute and faded into the wall.

      "Damn!" she said, leaning down towards Vila, her heart stammering, her thoughts colliding.

      She wished to hell she'd never dared him into this, had never brought him down here in the first place. She was responsible. Vila had been given the ultimate exam... to sacrifice himself for others. And she had helped them - it - himself - whatever the hell was doing this - set him up.

      The mirage - the illusion - whatever it was - before her expanded, the centre standing still as the circle spun wildly at the edges. And with two green and silver charges bursting from the middle, the grey nexus expanded once again, then contracted and vanished, as if spilling through a leak in its own universe

      

      There was growing light, and a glowing haze, and the cold, biting chill was gradually subsiding. Now it was warmer, saner, and Blake could focus his eyes.

      First, he sought out Avon. He found him balanced precariously on the screen's horizontal lean-rail, with a vacuous stare far beyond mere surprise. And then Blake discovered Tarrant clinically surmising the situation through the command console. It occurred to Blake that these roles had been somehow switched.

      "Where the hell are we, Zen?" Tarrant asked, yanking a hand through his brown-washed curls.

      "The Prometheus is now in grid reference 29, nominal sector."

      "Do the detectors find any DSV-class pursuit ships in evidence anywhere beyond Spiral Arm B."

      "The detectors find no such evidence."

      "What happened?" Blake said, coming up beside him.

      Tarrant paused a moment before speaking, then displaying his most diplomatic smile. "It would seem, we went into vortical spin. And survived. But our companions in flight happily were not so-" he lengthened his smile, "fortunate."

      "That is not possible," Avon said softly, his back still turned.

      Tarrant shook his head in Avon's direction. "Yes, I know that, but I'm afraid that doesn't seem to have mattered. Don't ask me how, because I can't begin to tell you, but for some reason, we made it through that friction vortex not only alive, not only with Prometheus still of a piece, but with all our systems at full- function and on-line."

      "That is not possible!" Avon said, turning towards them this time, his eyes full of panic and fury. "It is physically impossible for dense matter to survive a vortical spin."

      Tarrant gave him a severe grin. "Sorry to have disappointed you, Avon, by helping us to survive."

      "Avon," Blake said, reaching out to simply touch his shoulder, but finding his hand taken hostage, gripped with all his strength on Avon's hand. "Avon, it's all right. We're alive. We came through it."

      "Impossible!" he hissed in reply.

      Blake reaching across to touch Avon's face, despite Tarrant's presence. "It's very simple," he said, speaking softly. "It is impossible, of course, but it also happened. It's just our old friend paradox, Avon."

      Avon's face calmed. But something more conscious, a deeper understanding that gripped him even more strongly took its toll. "This is not philosophy, Blake," he said. "This is not some mindless piece of purposeless conjecture..."

      "Avon, you cold-hearted, vivisecting, dismembering beast, respond please, goddamn it!" Dayna's voice forced itself across the comm system.

      That cut through Avon's quandary like a laserprobe, releasing the confusion and letting in some light. He turned an ironic look towards Blake. "Avon the Impaler here, Dayna," he said. "What might be your pleasure?"

      There was a healthy pause.

      "Sorry," she said. "It's just that... well..." She cleared her throat. "We have a message. From Steavn Change. It should be on your visual now."

      "Spare us," Blake said. "I've had enough of cheerless, would-be potentates for one day."

      But the image of Change appeared on the adjunct visual reference: the forward screen. And from the call sound of the optiscans swinging towards them, it was clear the broadcast system was accessing Zen's visualizers, which meant Change was using the Prime Channel to contact them.

      "Roj," Change said, his voice already waning. "All I ask is that you hear me out."

      "Then you ask too much, Steavn," Blake said stiffly. "There are no words you could possibly muster that would make me want to hear them."

      "What about the word compromise? In point of fact, we are on the edge of a coup. I will doubtless be either exiled or executed, the nature of the ex determined by whether Avalon or Luce takes power. And I may go, but so will all your reforms. Everything you have done will be for naught."

      "A coup?" he said quietly.

      "Yes. And this situation presents a way out for us all. You have saved our lives. And I sit before you, a humbled man, for more reasons than you know. If you return and take back the post of President, then the situation will be quieted. Everyone will be satisfied with you in this chair."

      Blake looked to Avon, whose eyes were open, guiding, supportive. Had his mind not been full, he would have realized that this was the first such look Avon had ever given to him.

      "Go home?" Blake said, his voice breaking, the weight of the last thousand miles settling squarely on his shoulders.

      "Yes, Blake," Change replied. "On your terms."

      "They would be simple, but far-reaching," Blake said, staring into his hands, thinking of the first time he had gathered all of his people together - Avon of course, Vila, Dayna, Soolin, Tarrant, Avalon, Sarkoff and his daughter, all the others and he had created their government, writing it across thin air with simple words.

      "Name them."

      "First and above all, there is Avon," Blake said, forgetting completely how many were listening. "All charges of any kind dropped. A full admission made in writing and over the media of all events as they happened leading to the attempt on his life. I want his name cleared in every possible way."

      "Understood."

      "And he will not be harmed. He will be in my company. Our relationship will never be slighted or questioned. And, with Avon's permission..." Blake looked towards him. "It will be made legal."

      "Understood," Change said, his voice ringing out across space.

      "And my other people will be similarly cleared and left the hell alone. In addition, there will be certain governmental structural changes made which we will discuss at a later time, to prevent this from happening again."

      Change waited only a moment, nodding shortly, "Understood. Contact me when you arrive." His hand reached for a switch beyond the range of sight. "Steavn Change out."

      "You will have to watch him closely," Tarrant said. "I know that better than anyone."

      "Not better than I," Blake replied.

      "Blake," Dayna said, her voice lighter than before. "Guess who Pita just dragged in?"

      "Perhaps a couple of blonde-haired friends of ours?" Blake said, smiling, feeling it come from deep within.

      "Yes. And one of them has a supremely odd request."

      "Vila, of course."

      "Of course. He wants you to insert Orac's key and ask him something."

      "And that is?" Blake asked, ready to permit almost any request.

      Dayna inhaled audibly. "Vila wants to know if Orac is in there."

      "I can't imagine Orac will like that," Blake said, looking towards Avon, who then moved - without comment - across to Orac. He clicked the key into place.

      "Orac," Avon said softly. "Vila wishes to inquire as to whether or not you are, his words, 'in there'."

      "Well, of course! And tell him I might ask the same of him!" Orac snapped back.

      "You might indeed," Blake said, stepping up beside Avon. He reached across, brushing the tips of his fingers across the back of Avon's hand. "Shall we, Avon?"

      "Shall we what?" Avon asked, trying to sound rapier, but the effect coming soft and inquiring.

      "Shall we go back?"

      "In this instance, to go back is to forward. To do otherwise would be to stand still," Avon said. "Simple systems theory should tell you that, Blake."

      Blake laughed softly. "I thought you held that we were always standing still."

      Avon looked at him, not conveying his response to that, not having to. "It will be on our terms this time?"

      "I will have it no other way."

      "And you will be happy no other way," Avon said, lowering his voice so that it would only pass between them. "You must, after all, have your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. And I must have you. Ergo, to have you I must have them. Which leads us both to common ground, does it not?"

      "Avon," Blake seethed softly, keeping their covenant, wishing to hell they were alone. "If it means not having what we have, I would leave it all now. You have to know that. Tell me you know that or I shall turn this ship around and head for the bloody rim-worlds."

      "I cannot know what I do not have access to," Avon said, not believing the words any more, but repeating them like a helpful mantra. "But yes, I think I am important to you. As important at least." He turned his eyes towards Blake. "Perhaps more."

      "I intend to prove to you how much," Blake said softly. "You know that piece of legislation I had to cajole and connive for four long years to have adapted into law? The pair-bonding reform? Do you know why I did it? Do you know what faint, struggling hope I hung that whole campaign on?"

      Avon turned towards him again, seeing the light had returned to his lover's eyes. "To make it legal?" Avon said softly, an ironic smile twisting at his mouth.

      Blake returned the twisted smile. "Yes."

      "The mind boggles wildly as to what it is."

      "I shall elucidate that for you in unabridged detail when we return to our quarters room."

      Avon smiled in reply. "You will not have to press the subject."

      "Hasten the moment then," Blake said, laughing softly, his eye then stolen a moment by something coming into focus on the forward viewscreen.

      It was a small planet, a most familiar one, glowing with blue and green variation against all the black indifference of space. And it filled Blake's heart like nothing else beyond Avon's smile.

      "We're back," Blake said, beaming a smile across to Avon.

      Avon gave him a dry glance. "A firm grasp of the obvious, as always Blake."

      Tarrant had not heard them, turned towards the planet centred in the viewscreen.

      He was thinking of his conversations with Twenty-Wun, of what she had said about the children of Terra. That despite the fact his people had once left, then returned, she held that he would always be Terran. No matter the spacials tallied, the divergent pathways taken, that fact would not be changed. Home was here - this place - despite the information stamped on his papers. When all the planets through the wealth of space were silent to him - on one of which his people had doubtless thrived for hundreds of years - this one still called out to him like a mother.

      It was the place from whence all humans had come, or so said the Romantics, the poor, benighted fools.

      And the further into the depths of space they travelled, the less any place else became important, and the more he had to agree with the fools.

      "For better or worse," Tarrant said softly, smiling to himself. "It would seem that we are home..."

      

      

      

       His flesh felt like heavy weights upon his soul, keeping him pinned against the earth. There was nothing here - neither solitude nor company, dirt nor sterility, light nor darkness. It was as though he had slipped into some inconsequential crack in the universe and no one could hear him scream.

      "How does the cage feel, Taro?" a voice intruded upon his despair.

      He lifted his eyes, followed the direction of the voice, and found Del Tarrant, suited like an elevated Refederation citizen, staring down at him, through the haze of a force wall barrier.

      "Rather an interesting situational juxtaposition, wouldn't you say, Space Commander Change?" Tarrant said, extending a blinding smile.

      Taro tilted his head back, barking his head against the force wall. "If you have come to gloat, Inner Councillor Tarrant, do so and have done with it."

      "Not to gloat," he said. "Simply to see you in a less formidable context. I have gone to the trouble of researching you a bit since we've been back. I was rather surprised to discover a bright and capable logician in all those despotic pretensions."

      Taro forced up a wizened smile. "I would have thought you too busy with the celebrations of Roj Blake's canonization to crack a book on so inconsequential a subject."

      "Canonization?" Tarrant said doubtfully, his mocking grin in place. "Oh, beatification, perhaps. Sainthood is still pending - at least officially." Tarrant stared past the force barrier partition, up the long hall out of Security Sector. "They say you show little remorse or re-examination of your actions."

      "They say correctly."

      "If you admitted to some, small niggling doubt, they could arrange for controlled external residence for you. Little more liberty than this, but surely it would be preferable to cowering in a cage."

      Taro's expression curdled further. "Stone walls do not a prison make, isn't that how that quaint old verse had it? The conclusion of which one of us is caged is based entirely on your perspective of the bars."

      Tarrant laughed sharply, darkly, shaking his head. "They also tell me you have not entirely waved your right to summary execution. I should warn you that Blake plans to oppose the move, should you elect it. Don't ask me why he cares, perhaps he had a pet grogburfer as a child you put him in mind of."

      Taro lifted him a softened stare. "I might ask you the same question."

      "You might ask. And I might tell you I have no idea. I should want your death and be present to cheer it on. I should want to kill you myself. But I don't. Perhaps Blake is rubbing off on me. I think of you and I feel only pity. Pity and compassion."

      "More than that," Taro said, his eyes glowing with a secret light. "Far more than that." He rose slowly to his feet, turning to face Tarrant, the force wall all that was keeping them apart. "And you know it."

      "Not only do you lack remorse, you are also still deluded," Tarrant said, taking a step back. "And now if you will excuse me, I have a most important Inner Council function to attend."

      "I love you, Tarrant."

      "You are mad," Tarrant said, disquietly, stepping back to the far wall.

      "No, Terran Child. You can't deny it. You can't pretend it didn't happen."

      "There was nothing of love in what you did to me, Taro," Tarrant said, moving back as the hand came forward through the wall.

      He had seen the feat in Spectacle Theatre on viscast. It was a common enough trick: the passing of flesh through an electron shield. But the actor was always sedated, given medicants to defend the nerve endings. Tarrant had never seen it like this before, with naked flesh, and never just before his eyes.

      Taro's hand moved through the barrier, pain seizing his face as the silver sparks shot out at the intrusion. The light scent of searing skin rose up, but Taro did not retreat. Instead, he reached further, for one touch of Tarrant's face.

      "I love you," Taro groaned, before his knees collapsed, sprawling him back against the floor.

      Tarrant felt ill, felt cold, wanted to run, wanted not to give a bloody damn. Reeling back, he considered the methods for simple escape, but instead he pressed the call button on the comm system.

      "State identity and request please," the synthetic voice responded.

      "This is Inner Councillor Del Tarrant. We need Medtechs in Extreme Detention, Security Sector."

      "... Tarrant," Taro groaned out.

      "Help will be here shortly," Tarrant said, moving for the access, the outer hallway appearing like a promise of escape.

      "Don't - leave - me, Del, don't leave me alone - I did this -"

      Tarrant slapped the door trigger, pressing his hand against the scan sensor, his stomach turning wildly inside him. The force door dissolved for him to pass.

      "-I did this for-"

      "You did this for yourself!" Tarrant said.

      At that moment, the hallway access cleared for the presence of Steavn Change. He looked from Tarrant, to the image of the terrorist Ago Taro cowered back across the cold, force chamber floor.

      "What has happened here?" Change said, almost inaudibly.

      Tarrant gave them both the same, terse stare. "Poor histrionics," he said, glancing once more towards Taro. "The histrionics of a deluded madman. And now, I have a function to attend."

      With that, his heart counting the moments in sickening thuds, Tarrant surged out of there, his pace quickening with every step he took towards their temporary quarters sector.

      Change watched until the man disappeared around the bending corridor. Then he stepped within, coding a security lock through Extreme Detention access. The remainder of his steps towards the force chamber were small and methodical, as if - as ever - taking into account the meaning of every one.

      "Hello, Deposed Dictator Steavn Change," Taro called out with menacing humour, having martialled all his considerable resources towards hiding his agony. Even as a child, he had never shown this man pain.

      Change's eyes regarded him quietly, with what might have been described as distant sadness, a love long ago locked like a guilty secret in an iron box.

      "What is it I have done?" he muttered to himself, placing a hand against the ache above his brow. He braced the solid wall, remembering each of his sixty-two years.

      "Nothing you have done, Father, surely," Taro said, the dark humour still glowing through the spaces between his words. "The sins of the sons are their own."

      "You are not my son."

      "I was once."

      There was a momentary pause. "I would tear from my body every seditious gene and chromosome that forged you," Steavn said.

      Taro's pause was twice as long, his pursuant laughter harsh and dry like August wind. "That is the great, cosmic joke, Father," he said. "I would sooner have died at birth than be born of you."

      "You murdered your brother."

      "Not I, Father."

      "You crippled his ship and left him to die in empty space. And to the end, he counselled me to forgive you, to understand your ways. Understand him, Father, he always said. Max does not mean to do the things he does." He let silence pass between them. "Well, I understand you. In a way that good and decent Jorj never could. You are a monster. A devourer of life."

      "I am my father's son," Taro said, finally, his voice soft and lost.

      "Indeed. Well, at least, I have acted wisely enough that I have a place in defeat. A sanctuary to which to retreat. But you have nothing. Even your maquisard betrayed you at the end."

      Change could not see it, but the last remark evoked a beaming grin that stretched across the length of Taro's scarred face. "We shall see, Father," was all he said.

      Change backed away, considering another moment, before he moved silently towards the detention room access. He hesitated, his hand hovering over the door trigger.

      "I should have named you Absalom," he said.

      "Who tried to kill his father? But you are alive," Taro said, the mocking sound returned to his voice.

      "Am I?" Steavn Change replied, and slowly and silently left down the ever-receding hall.

      

      

"Perfect synchrony," Blake said, studying the bounty of hardcopy before them. "An impressive exhibition."

      Soolin frowned in doubt, hunching a sceptical brow. "The System and the Matrix have bridged completely? And are working, in harmony?"

      Blake folded his arms, sitting back. "So it seems. I'm dispatching a reconnaissance team to the Star-world complex to investigate further. I'm instructing them to assist the citizens in setting up a representative government of some kind."

      "Which our government, of course, will only be too pleased to sponsor," Avon said, shifting him a knowing look.

      "That almost seems impossible somehow," Soolin said, leaning her chin into her hand. "But then, so do the last five years."

      "You know the old saying," Blake said, smiling. "The impossible just takes a little longer."

      Avon cast him a look. "More Roj Blake exegesis," he said. "And me without a pen to write it down."

      "I've always rather liked that saying, the one about the impossible, I mean," Vila said, from across the table, shifting his eyes towards Soolin. "I've always liked a challenge."

      Avon sneered over at him. "You've always liked everything crass, vulgar, and obvious."

      Vila leaned over to Blake to whisper in conspiracy. "Why's he so cross? More monstrous than usual, I mean."

      "It's all right," Blake said, flipping them both a smile, but keeping it aimed at Avon, "he just has cold feet. He only has quarter of an hour left of freedom and he knows it."

      The door swept open and Tyce Sarkoff, sporting an armful of petitions and an exuberant smile, swept into the room. "I have an announcement to make," she said.

      "They are carving his graven image into the white cliffs of Dover," Avon said, smiling pristinely.

      Tyce smirked back. "No, Avon, they are still holding out for you." She cleared her throat, brandishing the top petition. "First of all, the High Council - by a majority vote - has voted immediate funds to rebuild I. C. Sector, with whatever structural modifications you require. Secondly, you are to be reconfirmed for office tomorrow. My own opinion polls indicate you will win by a decided landslide."

      "Of course," Vila said, grunting a laugh, "no one doubted him for a moment. It was all a silly, little mistake."

      Tyce nodded, sneering. "The High Council, to a one, are so pleased you have been vindicated, which is what they personally - to a one - wanted all the while." She tossed the papers down. "Plutocratic clowns. Father sends his love and says to take them for everything they will give while you still have them over a barrel."

      Blake smiled, nibbling at a knuckle. "The new quarters sector idea sounds to be a good one. The visiting dignitary suites are getting a bit cramped. At least for some of us."

      Avon tossed him a wide-eyed glare. Blake countered it with a wider smile.

      "The elections should be viscast," Avon said. "And monitored by Orac, just in case."

      "Change is not about to cross us," Blake said, "if he is smart."

      "I have seen no verifiable signs that he has ever been thus," Avon said.

      "Let him try." Blake observed the presence of eyes turned towards him, all asking the same question. "The election will be protected by the System, held in check by the Matrix, and the only override code is known only to Avon and me."

      "Something to do with a white rose, per chance?" Soolin said, smiling.

      Blake smiled. "Now, how would you know that?"

      "Let's just say that Vila has had a venturesome couple of time units. He had access to finding out a lot of things. And he talks in his sleep."

      "Soolin!" Vila flared back.

      The blonde woman rolled her eyes. "Vila..." she said, shaking her head at the silliness of his reaction. "So, explain all this. You gave the encode on the back of your medallion to the Collosum. And the encode, if, the gods help me, I am following correctly, is the sub-directory code Avon set up when the two of you were young pups."

      "Yes. And into it Avon was filtering every piece of information he could glean from the Moksha computer. It was holding the past for us, safe all the while. And it had been programmed to seek a path around the Collosum. A path that was provided by the white rose experiments, which Leusip deemed a failure."

      "And Leusip never fully understood why the experiments failed." Soolin said, smirking.

      Blake nodded. "They said they had discovered the sub-directory, but obviously they hadn't. All too clever for them." He smiled towards Avon, but the other man was staring fixedly into his hands. "We were working directly on the rose, not through the Collosum, as they had thought. The powers of our mind combined, not to preserve or obliterate the rose, as they had challenged us to do respectively, but to adapt it, make it stronger and more durable."

      "We have no confirmation of that," Avon inserted sharply. "That is your sentimental inference."

      Blake folded his arms, stretching him a smile. "All the data suggests it. The rose did not wilt for the entire period of observation, namely 43 time units."

      "There must have been genetic impairment," Avon said darkly. "Regardless of what the data indicated, that mutation had to have been infertile."

      "Yes, Avon, by all means, if the facts do not conform to the theory, the facts must be disposed of." Blake returned his smile to Soolin and Vila. "All this indicated that rather than one of the computer systems controlling the other, as was the aim of both Change and Taro, the two could work in synch. That is what we effected in programming the encode into the Matrix. And the System and the Matrix will respond only to commands from us."

      Soolin leaned forward, fist turned to support her chin. "All right, so what if they do find a way to override? Or worse," she said, making a pistol of her fingers and aiming it at her head, "take the diplomatic approach?"

      "If I am killed and that part of the encode is destroyed, then the line of power goes on in succession in an order known only to Orac, Avon and me. I should warn you that those names include the two of you."

      Vila's face recoiled, lifting his Somalite for a sniff, then shook his head. "Wonderful. I've always seen myself as a hero of the people. Who's the lucky stiff who gets the hot seat second?"

      Blake shifted his eyes towards Avon, whose face became positively disconsolate. "Care to divulge his identity, Your Royal Highness?" Blake said, his face fairly bursting with a smile.

      "Save your fledgling humour for the budding proletariat, Blake," Avon said. "It seems we have to keep what might be termed an appointment with Destiny."

      "Actually, she's from the Teal Vandor Alliance," Blake grinned, rising quickly to his feet.

      Soolin cleared her throat, reluctantly rising to join them, then lowered her voice in conspiracy with Blake. "Have you spoken with Dayna yet?"

      Blake shook his head, then nodded. "Someone should."

      "Most definitely."

      "She isn't taking it well?"

      "Oh, she's taking it inordinately well. Which is how I know it's eating her alive. She keeps smiling stiffly and saying things like 'I hope they'll be very happy'. When is the last time you heard Dayna say anything remotely like 'I hope they'll be very happy'?"

      "You have a point. I'll speak with her."

      "No, you two have enough on your minds. Besides, this nanny stuff must be addictive. I take to it. Later on, you might have a word with dear brother Del, though," Soolin said. "He has been extremely nice, which concerns me. But if I were to try to be pleasant and speak with him in turn, he might think he has a terminal illness or something."

      Blake laughed. "He's been distant since we returned."

      Soolin smirked. "Yes, hasn't it been very heaven? And he said he was going to try to get here before the two of you went to your appointment. Something must have come up. Probably someone named Jil."

      Avon lifted a brow in question. Soolin smiled. The group of them stood staring at one another, or the ground, in Avon's case, for several silent moments.

      "Nothing else to say," Blake said softly. "Except that we'll see the both of you later."

      "Oh," Vila replied, glancing back at the console clock. "Guess we have to skip the sex talk. And I had the whole bloody thing figured out, too."

      "More's the pity. But it will have to wait, I'm afraid," Blake said, smiling broadly. "Avon?"

      He nodded, the image of sobriety, moving for the door. His hand touched the door frame a moment, his black zelk sobrun impressed for a moment in striking contrast against the exterior light. Avon, his face impassive, glanced once back at the others, as if seeking to store something in his memory for all time. Then quietly, he walked on.

      Blake's grin took over his face, turning it once towards the others for a moment, then he followed after Avon.

      "Imagine," Vila said, shaking his head with an elfin smile. "If someone had told us a year ago we'd be standing here seeing Blake and Avon off to their wedding, we'd have accused them of having taken a great quantity of relaxants on an empty stomach."

      Tyce sighed audibly, ignoring Vila, looking across to Soolin, appearing as washed-out as she felt. "The Wake still on?"

      "As of now," Soolin said, shaking her head. "I have the Soma dispenser on chill."

      "Good," Tyce replied. "Because we shall need them."

      "Several of them," Soolin sighed.

      "I'll meet you at your room." Tyce's mouth bent into something that was half-smirk and half-frown, considering. "Where is the justice?" she said, shaking her head and leaving the room.

      "Poor child," Vila said, smirking. "Tis better to have loved and lost..."

      "Give it a rest. She'll get over it. Knowing Tyce Sarkoff, she'll be out herding several young bison come the spring."

      "And are you over it?" he said, cocking a brow in her direction.

      "The little shit, you mean? I never caught it in the first place. I don't set myself on fire for a chuckle, either. No, Blake was the only one who could ever come close to handling him anyway."

      "And who could ever handle you?" Vila asked, smiling.

      She smiled back. "The Numenmaestro might have a shot. But then, the current gossip has him dead, doesn't it? Which reminds me," she said, removing a banded device from her wrist. "It has come to my attention that my wrist unit got busted. The northeast inner coil is bent several billion millos southwest. Care to make amends?"

      "Sorry," he said, taking it into his hand. "One of the occupational hazards, I guess. I'll take it apart and see what miracles my skilful hands can perform. "

      "I had another miracle in mind." She pointed at the centre of his forehead. "And another tool."

      His face grew doubtful, staring at the object in his hand. "That sort of thing can be risky."

      "Only if you let it stay wild. Only if you don't learn to use it. If you can control it yourself, no one else will be able to. Just believe me that I know what I'm talking about."

      Vila nodded, with a coy smile. "All right, but if I agree to that, I will need an assistant. Someone to fetch and carry. To monitor the experiments, to..." He saw Soolin's serious gaze and his smile faded. He looked across at her, a little uncertain, more than a little afraid. "I won't want to do it alone, Soolin," he said.

      She shook her head, and smiled. "Never alone, Vila. Not anymore."

      "Swear it?" he said, grinning again.

      "I double-swear it," she said, reaching across to spank his forehead with a loud kiss.

      

      There was no ceremony older nor more precious in all the ages of men, but it had always been shackled with superstition, restriction.

      There had always been heterosexual bondings to formalize sociosexual hostage-taking: legal marriage to assure one woman mated only with one man, to confirm to him that her children were his own. In that time, same-gender marriages were verboten, at least as far as the vigilant archives of paper and silicon would ever know.

      That the original reason for the practice of marriage had been ritualized uncertainty was clear, Avon had said, when he and Blake had debated on whether or not to do this. It did not, to him, seem reasonable for two same-gender lovers, whose sex would not bear off-spring, to submit themselves to 'petty ritual and sentimental superstition', as Avon further called it.

      "I do not see why it is so important to you, Roj," Avon had said, as they had sat, after love, on the edge of the bed in their temporary quarters, the night they had returned.

      Blake had bowed his head, weary of invective and tired of bargaining, indigent for other arguments. Tears had gathered in his eyes, fighting their way through his words.

      "It is important, Avon, because it's what my heart says is right," was all he could say.

      And Avon paused only a moment, before placing a hand on Blake's shoulder. "Then we will follow its wisdom," he said.

      The ritual was now a matter of combining genetic encodes: enmeshing the visual abstractions of their individual genetic make-up into one form, one abstraction. It was done in confidence, and processed with greatest efficiency and optimum speed.

      "The room on the right, Mr. President," the smiling woman behind the polychrome desk said.

      The room on the right was in darkness, except for the glow of the encode facilitator. There was a light floral scent to the air and the design had chosen silence as its only witness. The facilitator was standing in the centre of the room, beside a laity of various chairs, from the bounty of which the pair-bond partner - and their guests might choose.

      Blake made his selection, turning the chair towards the facilitator. "I suppose we might have asked the others to join us," he said. "But it occurred to me that you might be awkward enough with just me present. And I'm the victim."

      Avon turned an uncharitable stare at his lover. "Should you decide to recant, please be my guest."

      "Too late, Avon. Your only way out of this pairing room unbonded is feet first," Blake said, reaching for the relay sensor. "Now sit down and shut up."

      "As my Lord and Master bids," Avon said, lowering himself onto the edge of a distant chair.

      Blake looked at him immoderately. "Avon, bring the chair here now or I will set about tethering you to it."

      "The truth comes out," Avon said, lifting the chair and doing as he was asked. "All that pretty idealism hides the soul of a deviant after all." He moved to the edge of the chair again. "A life with you just might be interesting."

      "Welcome," came a voice across the facilitator, the visual screen augmenting to produce the face of a dark-haired woman. "I am the Auronar named Alana of Teal Vandor. My function is to provide counsel to citizens of the Refederation, in times of both sorrow and joy. I have studied psychology, philosophy and science and, therefore, have a basic gnosis of many ideas with which I might bring you to greater understanding."

      She smiled. "Happily, it is an occasion of joy that brings you together in this time and place, as countless before you have come here as well. On other cities, perhaps, on other worlds, but it is the very same place that here you stand together. A place within, where we are desolate and removed, and where we have reached out to another for them to join us."

      "Please state names, so I might come to know you," she said.

      "Roj Blake," he said firmly, looking across to the other.

      Then a softer voice, "Kerr Avon."

      "Welcome to you both," she went on. "Doubtless, through your joy, your minds are filled with doubts. This is not an age of humanity friendly to promises of eternal or perfect love. But through the darkness of your indecision, into your life has come, as there must always come, someone to be a candle for you, someone to be your questions, to give you answers. Whatever it may be called that chose form out of the void, whatever form that Mind may take, it is my belief that it is love. And that it reaches out to us through other people."

      "In all your dealings, one with the other, remember this before all else. And now please take a moment to reveal to each other anything you may need to reveal. For in the next step, your bond will be forged."

      The screen fell to black and they were once more alone.

      "Well," Blake said softly, smoothing over tears in his voice with a casual resolve. "I suppose we ought divulge all our terrible secrets now and get them over with."

      Avon cast him a sidelong glance. "One for one?"

      "Fair enough," Blake said, sighing. "Very well. You begin."

      Avon's eyes fired back. "Your idea."

      Blake nodded, taking a deep breath. "Jenna," he said.

      "Cally," Avon replied.

      "A few other women you've never met," Blake said. "Want their names and serial numbers?"

      "An inventory list at some future date shall suffice," Avon said, dread flexing through his face.

      "And you?" Blake said.

      Avon glanced him. "Me?"

      Blake folded his arms. "Come on, out with it. One for one, we agreed."

      He nodded. "Anna, for one," Avon replied.

      "Yes, about her I know. And?" Blake said.

      "A couple of hundred others," Avon said. "I don't have a memory for names."

      Blake's eyes grew huge. "A couple of hundred, Avon?"

      Avon thought a second, as if recounting, then nodded in confirmation. "Yes," he said. "If you count the mass orgies."

      "Orgies?" Blake said, with unabashedly admiring eyes, until he noticed the smile glinting in Avon's. "All right, Avon. Straight up.. Come on. Confess."

      Avon gave him a curt stare. "Well, Dayna did kiss me once."

      "That's more like it. Now I want details. All of them."

      "We didn't know each other at the time. It was right after your great escape, when my life-capsule landed on her planet. She just came upon me in a cave and kissed me. She said she was curious. She told me I was beautiful, as well."

      Blake's mouth was fairly bursting with a grin. "Do curious young women often come upon you in caves and kiss you?"

      Avon stretched his smile to the limit. "As a matter of course, Blake."

      "All right, then," Blake said, beckoning with his hand, as if demanding a forbidden plaything from a petulant child. "All of it. Your whole sordid past."

      Avon thought for a moment, nodding. "Well, Orac did once tell me that he loved me."

      "Orac?"

      "It's a lengthy story, Blake."

      "I would surmise." Blake considered the revelation, chewing at the end of a finger. "Should I be concerned?" he finally asked.

      "Well, to be brutally frank, there would be certain advantages."

      Blake sat further back in the chair, ruminating. "Orac would make a most intricate tea kettle," he said.

      "For one," Avon expanded, "he is faultlessly logical. He is more often than not a benefit to have in times of crisis."

      "Or perhaps a rather elaborate Glo-Free Pop dispenser," Blake went on.

      "And while he has certain unfounded delusions of grandeur, he has few aspirations towards godhood."

      But Blake nodded, in decision. "Or more likely, an amplified, portable, sexual stimulator."

      "And, best of all," Avon summed up, looking at him sternly, "he has a key to yank in order to shut him up."

      Blake looked back sharply. "It seems you will soon be in need of a portable, sexual stimulator."

      Avon smiled. "But you're ever so much more fun in bed."

      Blake reached across for his hand, as the screen came on again. "Glad you see it my way."

      "Roj and Kerr," said the image of Alana on the viewscreen, "we shall now commence with the formalization of your pair-bonding agreement. Please state individually if you wish to proceed to finalization."

      "I wish to proceed," Blake said definitely, moving an arm around Avon, looking across to him. His face was now utterly serious. "Your choice, Kerr. Let it be your choice."

      Avon smiled, in a way that he had not since the trip they took to Destiny, to settle old scores and heal old wounds. "My choice," he said, softly, without a hint of contradiction. Then he turned to the viewscreen. And then more loudly and firmly than even Blake had spoken the words, he said, "I wish to proceed."

      "Very well. Please enter your identifying encodes now, so we may go forward."

      Blake leaned forward and placed his issue disc against the sensor screen. The blue consideration light was followed by the green acceptance light.

      Then Avon reached across, entering his own encode.

      In the moments the facilitator took to absorb the encode, Blake remembered a time when this moment would not have come to pass. A time when it was not possible to register Category Two Pair Bonds, as the official data termed them. Even that term deemed them less-than-worthy - Category Two - for all forms of bonding beyond strict heterosexuality. It had been a concession he'd had to make to force through the Pair Bonding Reform: a way to pacify the moderates.

      Even at that, it had taken five years to achieve; his first act of office had been the last to see fruition.

      It might have been a small wall his morass of paper and political germination had scaled for him and Avon, but it had been a wall nonetheless.

      And even if this had all happened - if the two of them had come to be - and there had been no such law, it would have happened for them all the same. They simply would have lived as others before them had survived for centuries winding through the ages, in silence and the dark.

      So, for all the victories Roj had led - all those noble triumphs of flesh and spirit - it would be that moment which would linger forever in his memory

      The moment, after Kerr Avon entered his encode to be wedded to Roj Blake, that the blue acceptance light became the green light of concession:

      If not acceptance, then tolerance. Sanction. The license to go on.

      It was that moment that Roj Blake felt truly free.

      

      "What a horrendous waste," Tyce moaned, her gaze balanced perilously on the rim of her third glass of Soma. "Odious. Ghastly. Dreadful."

      "You make it sound as if they met some wretched death," Vila said, smirking, shaking his head at the lot of them.

      Soolin crossed her boots, her mouth scrunching up thoughtfully. "They might as well have, so far as we're concerned."

      "Abhorrent. Revolting. Despicable..." Tyce moaned on, with explicit diction. "Those two wasted on each other."

      Dayna's stoic face gathered in offence. "You all sound positively petulant. I, for one, hope-"

      "-they'll be very happy," the rest of them injected.

      "Give it a rest, Dayna," Vila said. "We've heard it all before."

      "Well, I do!" Dayna replied, coiling her arms around each other. "I hope they'll be very happy. Very, very happy."

      "So do we, Dayna," Tyce said, sampling her glass again. "But we are first mourning the loss of such a considerable resource for womankind."

      "Yes," Soolin said, drinking from her own lager. "But somehow I think we are speaking of two different resources."

      "Neither one of them me, I suppose," Vila said, shaking his head at the circle of women. "A bunch of lushes, the lot of you. Drowning your sorrows in Soma. I expected better of you all, really I did. Wouldn't you agree, Orac?"

      "Do you actually expect an answer to that question?"

      "You're as cross as Avon," Vila said, squinting into Orac's case. "I'd have thought we were old friends now. Given all that we've been through."

      "You would have thought wrong. As usual!"

      Vila shook his head, yanking Orac's key, then lifting it up. "I'm taking my toys and going home. Off to my quarters to talk to myself. The conversation will at least be somewhat stimulating." With that, Vila cast his smile across the room and slapped the door trigger, bracing Orac against the door to toss something across to Soolin.

      Soolin caught it, knowing, without looking, what it was. "Works?" she said.

      "Like a charm," he replied. "I'll explain the procedure to you. Later," he said, winking at her, then whistling out of the room and down the hall.

      With Vila gone, as if suddenly given license, Tyce asked, "What do you suppose they do to each other?", her words distant and slurred.

      "The usual," Soolin said.

      "They can't do that."

      "The usual - with variations."

      "Oh." Tyce smiled. "I wish we had details."

      "I wish we had pictures," Dayna said from the sidelines.

      "Dayna!" the other women said, their eyes leaping towards her at the same time.

      "Sorry," she said, masking a burp as she placed down her glass of liquid like a likely villain on the centre table. "Must be the Somalite. S'gone to my head."

      Tyce smirked back. "It is Somalite, Dayna. There is nothing in it to go to your head." She leaned back into Soolin's sofa. "But I concur with the general sentiments. Holovisdiscs at very least."

      "Holovisdiscs with sound," Dayna said, with an expansive gesture of relish, a small smile creeping across her mouth.

      Soolin reached a hand across to Pita, pooled conditionally at her side, knocking gently at her head, as for occupancy. "Pita says it's a good time for a toast."

      Tyce nodded, moving again to the edge of the couch. She lifted her glass towards the two other women. "To our beloved President Roj Blake."

      "To Kerr Avon," Dayna said.

      Soolin lifted her own glass. "To our Fearless Leader and the Little Shit. May their union make them as joyfully miserable as it has made the three of us. And may poor, dear Blake remember how to put his pants on in the morning."

      Dayna reached down for her glass, skilfully avoiding the throw pillow propelled across the room towards Soolin.

      "And one more toast," the youngest woman said, staring at the light captured in the liquid surrounded by her dark hand, as if into the centre of herself. "To dreams," she said, her voice fragile and soft and far-away. "The ones that we make happen. And the ones we never can."

      Soolin had wanted to say something, but the only words that were appropriate were not ones that came readily to her tongue. At that moment, the door opened, and Tarrant, looking lost and bewildered, entered from the softly-lumined hall.

      "Vila tells me that you are holding something of a wake," he said. "Is this for females only, or may men take part in it as well?"

      "Providing us a revelation, Tarrant?" Dayna said, her smile returning.

      He gave her a stiff glance, stiffer than usual. "Is the mourning exclusive to one topic, or may we grieve for anything?" he said.

      "Sit down," Soolin said, handing him a vessel of Soma. "Drink away whatever it is that haunts you."

      "This really is no solution, you know," he said, looking at the glass.

      Tyce sneered. "Yes, yes, we shall all be painfully appropriate in the morning. Now," she said, "where was I?"

      "Despicable," Soolin answered.

      "Yes, thanks. Despicable. Ludicrous. Loathsome. Repulsive..." she went on, like a mantra, her voice wandering away into distant recitations of shapeless words.

      "You all right?" Soolin asked, shifting her attention to Tarrant with a querying stare.

      "I suppose I shall be." He checked the wall timekeeper. "In time."

      "So, brother in arms, what is that odd saying about a penny for your thoughts? Not to say that the rate would not be pricey," Soolin said, looking doubtfully into her glass.

      Tarrant considered the truth. But that was still too dark, and too fragile. Then some noise of memory surfaced on his face a moment. An alternative distraction. Another way.

      "Yes," he said, brightening, "I was just thinking on a discussion I recently had with the Moksha computer concerning the general tenets of a new phrase it has absorbed from some unspecified source."

      "New phrase?" Soolin said distantly, swirling her finger through the Soma, making the bubbles dance.

      "Yes. I believe the phrase in question was Prize-winning Dickhead." He bared his teeth in a stunning smile. "You wouldn't have any idea where it could have gotten something like that. Would you?"

      

      His arms encompassed him, so completely that the darkness itself seemed possessed by his mind. Avon did believe in all honesty he had never felt this at peace in his entire meagre existence. He had expected fear, he had quite anticipated second-thoughts... there was nothing of that. They had not even made love, yet.

      They had come here directly from the pair-bonding room, without any words. They had undressed each other in silence and fallen together, naked, watching the distant points of light appear across the darkening sky. Night fell as it had always fallen, as if it had always known that everything would be all right.

      And the warm, assuring darkness, as ever, had Roj Blake's name.

      He felt the other man ease his mouth against his throat. Place a kiss there and then another; the soft lips parting to tenderly suck, his hot, moist tongue entreating along the path of nerve. His mouth moved on to Avon's ear. And Avon's flesh opened for him completely.

      Avon felt his body stirring. The long, dark, nurturing quiet was coming to an end. He had been happy with it, but happier for it to go.

      "Roj," he moaned softly, so that only the dark would know. And Blake's mind probed against his in reply, caressing the borders, the effect as erotic as the mouth playing at his ear.

      //Ready to try this?//

      //...yessss...// Avon's voice flowed across Blake's mind.

      The borders between them, the structures of self, were dropped completely. There was one body, one set of senses surrounding them, one mind, one man. Avon saw through Blake's eyes, through Blake's field of perception. Blake felt his own curls between Avon's curious fingers, heard the distant call of a night bird through Avon's careful ears.

      Their mouths, dry and moist, merged together, writhing together, their tongues sinuous and engulfing twined between. Blake's mind poured into Avon's, with a tide of thoughts and promises too deep for even Blake to speak aloud, words that would not be quieted by Avon's retorts.

      His hand - Avon's hand - plunged downward to grasp his engorged cock. Blake's hand - and Avon's - replied in kind, but Blake caught at his wrist.

      "No, love. Something else," Blake replied, pulling away from Avon's mind for the moment.

      There was a sharp and searing loneliness the moment Blake pulled away. Avon nearly grasped back for him, until he saw the container in Blake's hand. Blake smiled. Avon replied in kind. Blake tossed the vial to Avon.

      "Know what that is?" Blake said aloud, his voice filled with mischief.

      Avon lifted a brow, reading the label. "Shall I feign innocence and save my reputation?"

      "No," Blake said, leaning down to lick the length of Avon's stomach. "I never want you feigning innocence," he said roughly. "You're much more interesting defiled."

      Avon laughed softly, reaching the vial across and tilting it over Blake's groin. Avon's hand combed through the lubricant, stroking it upward to the tip of Blake's cock, taking great care with the procedure. The light glistened off the glans, Avon's hand inspiring the shine. The slicker it became, the harder he stroked, the harder he stroked, the harder Blake became.

      "Stop," Blake seethed out, grasping for Avon's wrist. "You are far too good at that."

      Avon smiled broadly. "Well, now, I thought that was the whole point."

      Blake gestured a circle with his finger. "Turn over, on your stomach. Now."

      "The great experiment has ended?" Avon said, his voice noticeably thickening, as he did as Blake asked.

      "No," Blake whispered, "it has only begun."

      Blake poured the remainder of the scented oils across his large hand, stroking it across Avon's firm arse, the oils glistening across the skin. "Too bad you're such a homely specimen," Blake purred gently, stroking the cleft with a slick finger, going deeper and deeper.

      "I always suspected you were attracted by my charm," Avon said, his breathing catching at Blake's intrusion.

      "Feel good?" Blake whispered, laying aside to watch the response on Avon's face to the supple invasion of his hand.

      "Unreasonably so," Avon gasped out, and then he added, his voice fighting for evenness, "and... odd." He glanced back, to see an glare of mock indignation dawning in his lover's eyes. "Odd, all of this," he explained. "For instance, what the devil are we to call each other?"

      Blake groaned, his finger turning against the sensitive skin. "Kerr, this is hardly the time..."

      "For instance," Avon went on, against the breathless tightness in his voice, "when we are at one of those inane public functions you adore and I despise. How are you to introduce me to some visiting dignitary from Beta Saluti, to set me apart from the others? All the words that come to mind are either too distant or too frank."

      "That is important to you?" Blake said, his eyes shining. "To be set apart from the others?"

      Avon looked at him again, realizing he had just as much as confessed that it was. "So it seems."

      "Then what about husband?" Blake said. "Pair-bonding is an old agricultural term, so is husbanding. A husband simply means a married man. Therefore, you are my husband and I am yours. Satisfied?"

      "Odd, still."

      "What now, Kerr?" Blake said, withdrawing his hand, dropping back in sudden defeat. "Out with it, so we can get on with this. What is it you are trying to tell me?"

      Avon turned over to face him, draping across the other man. "I had never thought to be a husband," he said, reaching across for something, "let alone have one."

      With that, Avon dropped the flower on Blake's chest.

      As Blake's hand reached up to claim it, the moonlight drifting through the room caught the pearl white and Blake realized what it was. A rose. A white one.

      His eyes filled with questions and Avon's smile answered them all.

      "I used the encode with a molecular dispersion device, with Orac reversing the trend." Avon looked at the object doubtfully. "Most probably a crude facsimile, but I rather thought it would suffice. Consider it a piece of the past."

      Blake's eyes cleared of the questions, clouding with tears, staring at the white rose in his hand. "It's a miracle," he said simply, stating it as fact. "There is no reason in the world why it should be, and yet it is."

      Avon's face squirmed at Blake's naked emotion. "Merely a paradox. A curiosity, Blake."

      Blake looked at him knowingly. "If a paradox is mere, why does it frighten you so?"

      "Point taken."

      "And remember what happened aboard the Prometheus," Blake said softly.

      The struggle surfaced in Avon's eyes for a moment. It had appeared with growing frequency in days of late.

      "Yes," he said drily. "I have recently learned the power of metaphor."

      Blake lifted the white rose to brush against his own face, reaching it across to stroke Avon's as well. He traced the rose down the curve of Avon's shoulder, down the flat of his belly, brushing it tenderly against Avon's erection.

      Blake followed its path, nibbling in the wake of the rose, over shoulder and chest and belly, down the path of hair that thickened as he moved further along. Finally, Blake paused above Avon's groin as his lover's breathing mounted. Blake kissed the rose, his tongue licking at Avon's cock, repeating the process, the white rose caressing from the other side.

      "Roj," Avon choked out, throttled back against the bed.

      "Nice, hm?"

      "An extreme understatement."

      Blake laughed, his voice growing soft and thick again. "I'm going to enjoy discovering all your erogenous zones. And I intend to take unfair advantage of them." His tongue slid up the length of Avon's penis, feeling the heat budding. He heard Avon gasp softly, and he intensified the assault, feeling Avon's body contort beneath him.

      "Roj..."

      "Yes, Kerr... Come..."

      "Not... like... this..." Avon said, pulling up in the bed, away from Blake's mouth. His face was crimson, as though he'd been standing near a fire, and his whole, bare body was shining with sweat. "Not now, at least."

      Blake understood, grinning. "I thought you were trying to avoid that."

      "Not in the least," Avon said softly. "I've always been - rather curious. I assume you're still interested?"

      "As interested as I am in taking another breath," he said, one hand depositing the white rose on the bedstand for safe-keeping. "Then, on your belly, man, so I can satisfy your curiosity."

      "Despot," Avon whispered, with a smile, admiring the naked, reclining male body beside him, the glistening erection that throbbed sharply for his hand as he reached towards it.

      Blake reached a hand towards Avon's engorged cock, touching the head, stroking it tenderly. He slid the hand up Avon's groin to his hip, gently guiding him into position.

      This time, Blake lay across him, and the effect of being blanketed by his presence was far beyond the simple union of lying together in the dark. It was a profound intimacy - the physical effect of what they felt when their minds were fused together.

      "If this is at all uncomfortable-"

      "This is paradise," Avon whispered, his head half-turned and pressed against their pillow, probably not aware of what he'd just spoken aloud.

      Blake smiled down, with more emotion than even now he would allow Avon to witness.

      He remembered all of it now - most of it at least - and the long divergent years now formed a single road. He had loved this man without equal for decades, perhaps even long before that. He had reconciled the old memories of Avon with the recent ones, and they were now one man, one love.

      The pulsing in Blake's groin was building again, the slick warmth of Avon's buttocks beneath him. He could feel ripples course through Avon's muscles, throbbing against his own.

      "You adored this when we were boys," Blake whispered, and without hesitation drove his throbbing cock up Avon's arse.

      And at the same time, Blake forced through mental walls to form the bridge between their minds. They screamed out in unison at the impact: at feeling the entering and the entry at once. And Avon's pleasure burst through him in a tide, and his own returned through Avon.

      Blake tenderly pressed his mouth once against Avon's silent, parted lips.

      "Roj..." he gasped out.

      "Remember, Kerr," Blake said, his eyes filling at the onslaught, the pleasure and the love that centred in them sweeping through him again.

      He had already tenderly crafted the image, every nuance of colour, every distant hill.

      And he gave it all to Avon.

      It was the image of Gondoron, as it might have been. The land green again by the wisdom of the clear water running through the land, healing the soil back to memory, summoning life out of its unwilling sleep within the stone. And against the water, the sun gave way, and took from it the counsel of the dark, to let the land grow wild and green again.

      The sun gave the rest of itself to the dark side, casting light around the boundaries of fearful things, making them explicable.

      Symmetry had returned to the planet, to let it go forward, to seek its own balance. There would be no machines of men, no great ideology, no artifice of the living. There would only be life, and in such a place of magic, there could be no Standard Increase.

      Blake centred the two of them in the image, and the image of himself looked to the image of Avon and pointed at the sky.

      There, a huge and unbalanced kite bobbed above them in the sky.

      "You actually made it fly," Avon said, his eyes huge and incredulous.

      "Well," Blake said, passing across the reins, "I'm surprised you ever doubted it."

      "I had cause."

      "Admittedly."

      Avon looked up at it thoughtfully, the blue sky and white clouds reflected in his eyes. The effect seemed to lighten them completely, chase away the shadows that always lingered in his gaze.

      "It will eventually fall," Avon said, letting the line out, to let the kite flutter at the sky.

      The image of Blake fell back against the cool grass, the image of Avon embossed against the limitless sky.

      "Then we will send it up again." Blake grinned. "Run with it, Avon. Test me to the limit. I love to watch you run."

      Blake the man thrust harder into Avon, the pleasure and the memory playing out across their entwined nerves. Avon's muscles contracted around Blake's cock, making the sensation keen and encompassing. Avon's body arched back, his face no longer silent, now gripped by a wonderful agony.

      "Run, Avon," the voice in their heads sprung back. "Go free."

      Sweat was extorted from the smaller man's body. The orgasm was drawing around them both, building to an impossible peak that was the both of them together and that measure tripled beyond. Avon was feeling Blake's coming and Blake, Avon's and both of them their own,

      "...too much..." Avon whispered feverishly.

      "Never too much," Blake replied, tenderly sinking his teeth into Avon's shoulder.

      Blake felt himself spurt into Avon, felt the contortion of Avon's cock spilling warmth across the bed beneath them. The whole world was spinning around him. He thought for sure he would faint at the impact.

      Blake in complete abandon, fell against Avon's shoulder, feeling the surging abating, the pleasure now teasing their bodies. Realizing his weight was settled against Avon, he rolled to the side.

      He reached towards his lover, letting his fingers play at Avon's hair. Then Avon turned his head slowly towards Blake, a few strands of hair spilling into his eyes as he did so.

      Then he shook his head and laughed, lightly, like a child, like a music box sounding out by accident.

      "What was that?" Blake said, his eyes widening in mock surprise.

      Avon moved to the small of his side, his head sinking against Blake's chest. "It is called a laugh," he said.

      "I identified it as such. I am just surprised by the source." Blake chewed at his lip in consideration, a smile tugging at his mouth. "May I ask what it was in regard to?"

      "I simply can't believe it," Avon said, admitting a tired smile.

      "Can't believe what?" Blake said, thinking that at this point - for his part - he could believe anything.

      "You actually made it fly, Blake. In my mind, to my unconscious."

      "What is so preposterous about that?"

      "The point is not so much that it flew. It was a mental mirage. But, to project that image required the suspension of my disbelief. I simply find that difficult to believe."

      "There is a paradox for you. You find it hard to believe that you believed what you know you cannot believe. Which, in essence, means you believe. In me."

      "So it would seem," Avon said, his voice growing hazy.

      "Everything is relative," Blake said coyly, pecking at his brow.

      "Not everything, Blake," Avon said, his voice very far away.

      Blake looked down at him, knowing precisely how immense a miracle that last remark had been, but deciding that Avon was too close to sleep to celebrate it with him. "Good-night, Kerr," Blake said instead, planting a kiss deep in Avon's hair.

      "Roj." A little voice.

      "Yes."

      "If you have a nightmare, draw me into it."

      "I will."

      "Promise."

      "I promise," Blake said, smiling down at him.

      "No need to take them alone anymore," Avon said.

      "Yes, Kerr," Blake said, watching the smile tug at Avon's lips as the man fell completely asleep.

      So, it was only Blake, alone with the dark. But better this, he thought, than to have Avon struggling with sleeplessness beside him. The rhythmic sounds of Avon's breathing were a most peaceful noise amid the tumultuous silence outside.

      Because Sovereign beyond the window was quiet once more - perhaps too quiet.

      Tomorrow he would doubtless have to make a speech. There would be a public mending of fences with Change, and all the pomp and pageantry that attended Refederation functions. He recalled the last such function he'd attended: the anniversary of the opening of the Terran domes, which Avon had watched from the distance of his office window.

      Blake didn't fool himself for one noble moment that their problems were behind them. Their only points for survival at this state were the fact that they both recognized the dangers inherent and that they finally had each other.

      There were no real heroes, no humans with perfect intentions; Avon had opened his eyes to this. All the greatest efforts of humanity had been, in part, woven on the loom of personal convenience, by flawed, feeling humans with the best of intentions.

      But then, if there were no heroes, neither were there villains in the world. That was the upside of relativity, that if everything was relative, including life and truth and happily ever after, then there also ceased to be pain without purpose... and Life with an end.

      Avon and he had sailed through the eye of the infinite and come out the other side, whole and safe. As they doubtless had done a thousand times before, whether they remembered it or not. And if they had come through it once, they would do so again. And again. Life and Death were just the two poles that created the narrow margin of everything in the physical world.

      If Life was relative, then Death was too, and in that case, what did any other darkness - in the great scheme of things really matter?

      He tilted his head against the much loved one beside him, the past running circuits through his memory: all the miles they had travelled from Project Analog through the London, from Horizon to Gauda Prime and all the way up to this night, lying beside one another, naked, in the dark.

      If Yesterday was strange, Tomorrow promised to be stranger still.

      For Blake's part, he could deal with the past; he hoped his husband was dreaming of the future.

      


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