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The Ballad of Reading Gaol

By Vanessa Mullen
Page 1 of 3

It seems a long time ago now that I first saw the book. I found it in a cupboard on Xenon base, a real bound book, the sort that you almost never see. I suppose I was curious. After all, it might have been valuable, but anyway, I took it down and read it.

      Vila with a book. I suppose you think that's amusing too? Dayna certainly did, she told me so, after first of all expressing surprise that I could read at all. After that, I was determined to finish it, just to spite her. It must have belonged to Dorian, I realised that before I was half way through. I guess it had amused him to borrow the name of Dorian Gray from a story.

      The rest of the book was mostly poems. They didn't all make sense at the time, but there was one that stuck in my mind. You could say that the wretched thing haunts me. You see, I know what it means now.

      The poem is Avon, and Avon is the poem.

      

Every day they let us out of our cells for an hour to get some exercise. The yard is small, and we aren't allowed to talk to one another, but I can see through the mesh fence to another yard. Where he is.

      

      

I only knew what haunted thought

      Quickened his step and why

      He looked upon the garish day

      With such a wistful eye;

      The man had killed the thing he loved,

      And so he had to die.

      

It was inevitable really that they'd try Avon for Blake's death. They could have executed him a dozen times over for every crime in the book, but none would have had the same public impact, none would have dealt such a body blow to the credibility of the revolution as this.

      

      

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,

      By each let this be heard,

      Some do it with a bitter look,

      Some with a flattering word.

      The coward does it with a kiss,

      The brave man with a sword!

      

      Some kill their love when they are young,

      And some when they are old;

      Some strangle with the hands of Lust,

      Some with the hands of gold:

      The kindest use a knife, because

      The dead so soon grow cold.

      

Avon killed Blake, but I killed Avon. Oh, I can see him as he walks, but he's already dead. I saw that in the courtroom, when I testified against him. He hadn't expected that. Even after Malodaar, Avon hadn't expected that I would bargain for my life by giving evidence to hang him. He never showed any reaction at all: neither by word nor look did he acknowledge me. That was how I knew I'd hurt him. He never looks at me now - I'm sure he knows I'm here on the other side of the fence, but he never allows himself to see me.

      

      

Some love too little, some too long,

      Some sell and others buy;

      Some do the deed with many tears,

      And some without a sigh:

      For each man kills the thing he loves,

      Yet each man does not die.

      

      He does not die a death of shame

      On a day of dark disgrace,

      Nor have a noose about his neck,

      Nor a cloth upon his face,

      Nor drop feet foremost through the floor

      Into an empty space.

      

The flight deck was quiet as Blake walked silently down the steps to relieve Avon of the late night watch. In the dim light it seemed almost a sacrilege to make any sound. He could see Avon at his console, concentrating on the display before him, his back towards Blake, dark head bent over his work. Avon seemed intent yet relaxed, as though he found it easier to work alone with Zen than with the other human members of the crew.

      "Peaceful watch?" Blake asked quietly, almost reluctant to break the spell.

      "The occasional asteroid." Avon's fingers danced across the console's surface for a moment. "I've instructed Zen to raise the force wall automatically if the detectors register anything closer than one hundred spacials."

      "Thanks." That would simplify life for tonight at least. The force wall controls were one of life's minor aggravations. Having the main switch down by the couch was a liability in a combat situation. Some day, when he had the time, Blake was going to do some serious rewiring on the flight deck.

      "I'm going to get a bite to eat," Avon said. "Can I get you anything?"

      "Coffee - white with three sugar. Might help me wake up a bit." Blake turned to check the controls, noting that the course heading and speed were unchanged from the previous watch. They would reach their destination in four and a half days at their current velocity. He called up a map of the planetary system on the main viewer and involved himself in a close study of it.

      "Blake." Avon reappeared with a beaker of hot coffee in one hand and a snack in the other.

      Liberator chose that moment to lurch violently. Blake clutched at the console to avoid falling over. Avon's arms flew out as he tried to keep his balance. Blake's face and hair were abruptly deluged with hot coffee.

      "What the hell was that!" Blake snarled.

      "Asteroid impact," Avon replied succinctly.

      Coffee dripped down Blake's face onto his shirt. He wiped a sleeve across his face to remove the worst. "You might have programmed an audible warning," he said crossly.

      Avon glared at him. "So might you," he said pointedly.

      Abruptly Blake saw the ridiculous side of the situation. He could blame Avon for a lot of things, but even Avon couldn't produce an asteroid on demand just to annoy him. "All right," he apologised with moderate grace. "I over-reacted." He looked down ruefully at his shirt. "I must look a right mess."

      Avon smiled suddenly. "Oh, you do," he agreed cheerfully. He walked round and viewed Blake from the side. "Your hair's a bit less bouncy than usual, but I'm sure it will recover fast enough. Your shirt will need washing though, unless of course you happen to like coffee colour. Serves you right for dressing like a buccaneer."

      Blake laughed. "Have you looked at yourself recently? Not exactly the respectable alpha grade." He paused to study Avon, and found himself really looking at the other man for the first time. Avon had changed a lot over the last year and Blake hadn't consciously noticed. Changing from the plain drab clothes he had worn when he first came on board Liberator, Avon had developed an impeccable sense of style. What he wore now suited him well, very well indeed. The clothes drew the eye, but Avon himself was well worth looking at. The easy stance, the relaxed smile with its hint of mockery, the dark eyes casually watching him. Blake realized with a sudden sense of shock that his reaction to Avon was on more than one level.

      Avon was looking at him, waiting for Blake to continue.

      "Do you realize what those clothes do for you?" It wasn't what Blake had intended to say, the words came out of their own accord.

      "No, but you're obviously going to tell me."

      The words Blake wanted to say dried in his throat. Avon was still watching him with that same easy look that could be saying anything. If he knew what Blake was thinking, he gave no sign of it. If Blake wanted anything more, he would have to make the opening move.

      "Avon have you ever..." That was as far as he got before Zen interrupted.

      +Information. Four pursuit ships registering on forward detectors.+

      "Damn!" Blake smashed his hand down on the console.

      Avon observed him quietly for a moment, and then left to rouse the others for the forthcoming fight.

      

      

In Debtor's Yard the stones are hard,

      And the dripping wall is high,

      So it was there he took the air

      Beneath the leaden sky,

      And by each side a warder walked

      For fear the man might die.

      

      Or else he sat with those who watched

      His anguish night and day;

      Who watched him when he rose to weep,

      And when he crouched to pray;

      Who watched him less himself should rob

      Their scaffold of its prey.

      


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Vanessa Mullen

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