The Last Days of Roj Blake
by Una McCormack
I The Presidency
'he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus...'
When even Cally expressed concern, I knew I had to reconsider my approach. Retreat, reformulate, re-pitch. I did this all the time on the Liberator and it always worked. I see no reason why that should not be the case here on Earth, although it is maddening that at this stage I still have to throw everything over to the others for debate. This really is no way to run a government.
I outlined the terms of the petition and told them that I was giving its suggestion serious consideration. Avon laughed in my face -- which I had expected.
'Your capacity for self-delusion continues to stagger me, Blake. So this is what's to become of your Glorious Revolution, is it? You replace an unelected president with -- an unelected president.'
'This petition comes from representatives from domes across the planet--'
'Keep your justifications to yourself,' he shot back. 'They have no possible interest for me.'
I remember this man when we stood side by side after a three-day pitched battle here in the smoking ruins of the Capitol. As the sound of my shot died in our ears, and I looked down at the body of President Curtis, I felt a great stillness envelop me, an overwhelming sense that we stood at a turning point in history. I turned and looked at Avon, his face filthy and exhausted from days of fighting, his gun suddenly slumped to his side. His jaw was hanging open in disbelief and I felt that he knew the same exhilarating, terrifying sense of freedom that I did. The old world had passed, and it was up to us to make the new one. Then he collected himself, twisted his mouth into a smile, and flashed me his customary, mocking look.
'Congratulations, Blake. I never thought I'd get the chance to say it, but it looks like you won after all.'
Then we laughed, threw aside our guns, shook hands, and I knew that all was well and all would be well.
It's amazing the change six months can bring. I looked at his face -- scornful and hostile -- and I was filled again with the disappointment that invariably pervades all my dealings with Avon.
I turned away from him to speak to Jenna. I had not missed the quick inhalation and surprised expression with which she had greeted my statement.
'You're concerned, Jenna,' I said warmly.
She leaned back in her chair. 'Avon does have a point, you know. It took civil war to get Curtis out of power, and now you're suggesting we put another dictator back in--'
'The Presidency is not synonymous with dictatorship, Jenna. This is just a means to get some sort of working government back in place. Earth is collapsing into chaos. Someone needs to be able to make decisions and implement them.'
'Just some one?' she shot back. 'Whatever happened to democracy and consensus? Who's to stop this new President just seizing power again?'
'Come on, Jenna!' I said, with my most disarming smile. 'This is me we're talking about, not some corrupt official with his hands in the coffers and a vested interest in the status quo.'
She shook her head, but gave me a smile.
Avon's precious contempt lanced across the room.
I ignored him, but it had the desired effect on Jenna. Rattled, she fell back on the dogged stubbornness which she always shows when she is uncertain of what decision to make, stuck out her chin, and said, 'I think this is something we need to think very hard about.'
Cally, who had been prowling the room since I first broached the topic, came to a halt at my elbow. 'Jenna is right,' she declared. 'Avalon, at least, needs to be consulted. This is not a decision we alone can make -- if we should make it at all.'
'Tell me why you're worried, Cally.'
I very much wanted to hear what else she had to say. Cally has a substantial amount of credibility with what was the resistance here on Earth. Her achievements and contribution during the civil war have given her a reputation second only to mine, and one which transcends the fact that she is not native to this planet. When Avon and I were shooting our way through to Curtis, it was Cally who led the attack which secured the State News Bureau. Hers was the voice that told Earth that the resistance had won and the Federation was finished. People don't forget that. I have to take her misgivings seriously.
'I'm surprised I need to explain, Blake,' she said with a frown. 'The Presidency is a symbol of the past. It represents everything we fought against, everything we wanted to remove from Earth-'
'Cally,' I said passionately, 'surely you know that I understand that better than anyone.' I glared around this set of individuals, who were meant to be my lieutenants, and who were increasingly nothing more than obstructive. 'Do you think I'm unaware of the irony?'
Avon's voice cut through like a knife. 'And so we go back to this discussion once again. We rode this moral merry-go-round after we destroyed Star One. Was your agonising then over the justice of bringing civil war to the domes simply another of your more dramatic set-pieces? Frankly, it's a little late now to be opening your eyes to the reality of the situation.'
It took a supreme effort of will to remain calm. Anger has always been counter-productive. 'I have never closed my eyes to reality. Good God, Avon, what do you think I fight for?' I said with as much quiet conviction as I could manage. 'All I have ever done is work for the benefit of the people of Earth. Do you think I would lose sight of that now?'
Jenna, I was pleased to see, looked mollified. Avon was still sneering.
Cally, I saw out of the corner of my eye, was impassive.
'It's late,' she said abruptly, 'and this is something we need to think about -- not argue about.'
'I quite agree,' I said quickly. 'Let's call it a night.' She would come round. She always did.
At the far end of the table, ignored by all of us until now, Vila raised his head, propped it on one hand, and poured himself another drink with the other. 'I've got a really bad feeling about all this,' he slurred to no-one in particular.
II The Plan
'a lean and hungry look'
I caught up with Cally as she made her way out of Blake's bunker and into the street.
'Where the hell are you going?'
I stepped around her before she could stride off into the darkness. Night had set in -- real night, not the artificial darkness that had been the norm under the domes. A single lamp on a level above cast a harsh white light on us; the bulb in another at street level sizzled with an electrical scent.
'I'm going home, to bed.'
She shook me off, walked on. In the half-light, the way ahead was unclear. Not even here in the centre, where Blake held court, was there a guarantee that power could be maintained all the time.
'You can't just leave it like that!'
I grabbed her arm.
She twisted her head and tried to fix me with her stare.
'Cally,' I sounded savage, 'don't tell me you fell for Blake's touching homily about how he's only got everyone's best interests at heart?'
She frowned. 'I trust Blake's judgement,' she said carefully.
'Well I don't.'
'It's a temporary measure, Avon,' she fired back, 'nothing more. We restore order, and then Blake stands down.'
'You don't really believe he'll do that!'
She walked away from me slowly, and looked up at the sky -- and I knew I'd struck a nerve. Eventually she turned back. 'I often wonder how it must feel to people who have been brought up in the domes to be able to see the sky.'
It wasn't something I'd given much thought to, if I were being brutally honest. 'How is this relevant?'
'Look up, Avon.'
I shook my head in irritation, but did as she asked. The moon was full but the sky was clouded. The domes had been badly damaged during the fighting. As an emblem of Federation control, they had quickly become a focus for the sort of mindless violence that appears to grip crowds as soon as they're given the chance. Blake hadn't seen any problem in it, arguing that the domes were a better target for people's anger than each other -- and I rather suspected that he liked the symbolism. Of course, it was sheer stupidity. It was senseless to open up the population to the elements. Winter was coming on, and the weather was getting colder in corridors and levels that had once had their climates completely controlled. No wonder the natives were getting restless.
'Yes, Cally, the sky is still there. Now can we get back to the matter at hand?'
She smiled at me and I had to work hard to hide my irritation.
'I was brought up on a planet without domes. On Saurian Major I lived most of the time outdoors. I can't imagine what it must be like to feel rain for the first time, or hear a thunderstorm and watch lightning. These events must seem extraordinary, almost out of control. Rather like everyday life.'
'They are not completely inexplicable phenomena,' I said dryly.
She gave me an indulgent look. 'Poor Avon,' she murmured. 'Unable to imagine what it must be like to be ordinary.'
'Are you coming to your point?' I ground out. Cally's tendency to pontificate on the mysteries of the universe had always been trying.
'Freedom always brings uncertainties. When we let go of the strictures of the past, we find ourselves facing choices -- and choice is always frightening. I always thought these first few months would prove a challenge, perhaps even more than winning the war.'
'Exactly -- a moral challenge. And Blake's showing he isn't up to it--'
She gave a scornful laugh. 'Don't try to manipulate me, Avon. You're not very good at it.' She stepped closer to me again, suddenly serious. 'What's really worrying you?'
'He's going to get us all killed.'
'You've been saying that for years,' she pointed out. 'It hasn't happened yet.'
'Cally, Blake's taking the easy option. He's flattered by the offer of the Presidency, and he sees it as a short cut to his political ends. But it'll be a disaster.'
'Why should it be? Maybe he's right -- maybe we're facing unique problems and we need to do something drastic to deal with them. Look about you, Avon.' She gestured down the dismal street. 'We're falling apart. What are we meant to do? Wring our hands and hope it all works out?'
'I don't see how bypassing the rule of law and installing Blake as President will solve those problems.'
A flicker of delight crossed her face. 'Are you actually arguing in favour of democracy, Avon?'
'That's hardly likely.'
'Then why this sudden interest in who should govern?'
'Because if Blake fails -- which, by the way, I think is very likely -- we'll be in a much worse situation than we are now.'
'You mean you'll be in a worse situation,' she shot back. 'How could I have been so stupid? For a moment I really believed you had something else at heart than your own self-interest.' She started to stride off again.
'Listen to me!' I caught up with her again. 'I won't pretend to you that I give a damn what happens to the huddled masses. But for once their concerns coincide with mine. You must know what will happen -- Blake will become President, nothing will change, and there'll be another revolution: bloodier and more bitter than the one we've already had. Disenchanted people make bloodthirsty mobs. Blake's setting himself up to fail, and when he goes down he'll take us and most of Earth with him.'
She didn't answer.
'Is that really how you want this brutal mess to end, Cally?'
She shook her head.
'Blake has to understand that what he's doing isn't going to lead to anything other than disaster.' I gave her a sideways glance. 'And really it would be the ultimate irony if I found myself in front of a firing squad with him.'
She laughed wryly, patted my arm. 'You've handled Blake very badly, you know,' she said.
It was raining, I realised. I shivered a little, since the jacket I was wearing wasn't really made for this sort of weather. Maybe I hadn't acclimatised to life outside the domes as well as I thought.
'So will you deal with him?'
'If you don't, then I will.'
She raised an eyebrow. 'And what precisely would you do?'
I looked away from her and down the dark street. 'I'll do whatever it takes.'
III The Execution
'the evil that men do'
It had been a while since I'd received one, but the note was left in the usual place. What does Blake want? -- that he couldn't have mentioned in front of the others.
I'm a thief, I'm a scapegoat... Oh! and I can pour another drink.
The bottle made a companionable gurgle of agreement.
I stared through the corner of the glass at the piece of paper. No matter how much I drank, it remained on the table, disconcertingly there. I've lost count of the number of these little summonses over the years:
'Come to the flight deck, Vila.'
'Put down that drink, Vila.'
'Get your bag of tricks, Vila.'
My bag of tricks. Now reduced to one. Cheers.
I miss my old drinking pals -- Orac, Zen. The teleport console.
I had a lot in common with Orac.
Did you, Vila?
Of course I did. We both saw things with an uncanny clarity.
(Paper's still there.)
And what did you both see, Vila?
Our future. But I bet he was still surprised when he went before me.
To absent friends?
You know, I'd almost got used to being ignored. My quiet retirement. Just the occasional trip out for supplies. In the rain. As always. I miss those heated suits, even if silver wasn't my colour. No matter what Zen said. Ha ha. Oops! Bit of spillage. Waste not. Almost blotted Blake's note. That'll be an heirloom, that.
Ooh! All of a sudden, 'Let there be light,' said Blake. And there is light. Very bright light. Unnecessarily bright, in my opinion. But no-one ever asks my opinion. Why would they? I don't ask for my opinion. I might be right. Ah, dark again. Cheaper and more convenient. Time to go then.
One for the road, did you say? Don't mind if I do. Of course, it's not the same since the alcohol ran out. We're back to that uncanny clarity again. Which is why I appear to be putting off going outside. Come on then, best foot forward. But which is my best foot?
Shut up, Vila. The chair can't be that comfortable now, and might be a lot less comfortable if you keep Blake waiting. Into the rain with you.
Unfortunately, the architect of the dacha I'm living in is no longer with us. Nor is the former owner with whom I had a brief but frightening conversation. The chief attraction of the building is that it is located conveniently far from anywhere that needs guarding. Normally, this gives me a reassuring, if slight, reduction in anxiety. Tonight, it gives me a long walk. In the rain. I did mention it was raining? Still, at least I have an excuse for shivering when I arrive. You need an excuse? Always have an excuse ready, even if no-one's going to listen.
On the horizon I can just make out the city lights across the fields. It's remarkable just how long consumer goods can go on burning. One of the major drawbacks of living in a post-apocalyptic society is the unreliability of the public transport service. People just don't leave vehicles unattended any more. Still, why shouldn't my feet ache along with the rest of me. Taxi!?
I now wish that the walk had been just a little longer. Drier, perhaps, but... I need a drink. Okay. That changes things. For the better? (It's stopped raining, at least.) I knew it. Didn't I say? (Didn't I?) But, her? Calm down. Pour yourself a little drink.
For some reason, it took me twice as long to walk there as it did to get back. I went in through the tradesman's entrance as befits my elevated status as one of the heroes of the Liberator, and he had had the decency to leave me a towel. But not a drink. That was worrying. It meant he needed me alert. Now. Or at least eventually, when someone (anyone) might have come to tell me what was going on. In the meantime, I waited in that familiar, cell-like anteroom. The only crumb of comfort being that no-one but Blake knew that I was there. Comfort!? Well, anonymity. The next best thing.
Some people hate waiting. But not me. Waiting is just fine. It's the doing at the end of it that gets me. Every time. Well, almost every time. This time, it got him.
Okay. I got bored. I'll admit it. There were two other doors into this room. And I knew Blake would take me through one of them. So I'd never find out what was behind the other. I was only going to have a little look. Keep my hand in. When everything is being torn apart and incinerated, there is little demand for my more subtle approach. A skilled professional needs to maintain certain standards. What I was not expecting was... Another drink. Don't rattle the bottle, Vila.
They were arguing. After their set-to in the street, I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised to find them there with him. I recognised the voices of course, even at the other end of the corridor, and through the upholstered door. Why do all governments seem to go in for upholstered doors? It certainly doesn't help the sound-proofing, I can assure you.
'You've written an acceptance speech? And when precisely were you intending to consult us about this?'
'Consult you? Why do I need to consult you?'
'Because we put you here, Blake. You seem to have forgotten that-'
'I hadn't realised you saw yourself as a kingmaker--'
'Then perhaps you should start listening to me.'
'You stopped listening years ago.'
'You never said anything worth hearing.'
'I knew when I set eyes on you that you couldn't be trusted with victory, Avon.'
'Of course, I'd forgotten we're expected to leave our lives in your trustworthy hands.'
'No; I'm building a life for every one of these people we've been fighting for all these years. Don't you see?'
'I've always seen, right from the very beginning. And for all its reassuring words, that speech is an acceptance of absolute power -- although I doubt it could corrupt you any more.'
The unmistakable metallic tang of a sidearm being drawn.
'Killing has been your solution to everything, hasn't it, Blake?'
'Killing you will be hardest of all, Avon. Cally, come here. You don't want to be caught between us.'
'I'm not. Not now. I'm sorry, Blake.'
From the sound of the gasp, I'd say she stabbed him. Now, there wasn't much coughing and gurgling, so she'd missed his lung and probably punctured the heart. He'd gone in moments. As had I.
I still have a really bad feeling about all this.
IV The Aftermath
'the glories of this happy day'
I'd been asleep for maybe a couple of hours, when I was woken by a persistent tapping on the door.
'Oh for fuck's sake...'
I scrabbled around in the darkness for my torch and banged my head against the wall.
Then I heard Vila's whine from outside. 'Jenna, hurry up! Come on, it's not safe out here--'
I couldn't believe it. 'What the hell are you doing here, Vila?' I said through gritted teeth as I opened the door and saw him hopping around.
He pushed past me. 'You've not got anything to drink, have you?'
'If that's what you woke me up for, I'm going to throttle the life out of you.'
Well, it wasn't what he'd woken me up for. Fumbling with the cap of my last bottle of black-market gin, he finally got the story out. This being Vila, it was fairly garbled and self-involved, but eventually I understood what he was trying to say. That Blake was dead.
I sat down slowly on the bed, feeling the life ebb out of me. 'Blake...' I whispered into a hand which had come up involuntarily to cover my mouth. I'm not a sentimental woman and I've seen a lot of death -- caused a lot of it -- and I didn't think anything could hit me hard, not any more.
I suppose it would become tedious if we could no longer surprise ourselves. It was the worst shock of my life.
The first time I see him -- unconscious. An easy target, I think. The first time he speaks to me -- naive. He won't last long, I tell myself.
'Jenna? You okay?'
Vila's face came into focus. And so did I.
Shoving him aside, I rushed across the room, and started pulling out equipment from a locker.
'What're you doing?'
'That bastard,' I hissed. 'He's not going to get away with this, Vila. I'm going to make sure he's dead before the morning.' And I carried on dragging out the pieces of a transmitter.
I turned on him. 'Either help me or get out!'
He swallowed. 'I'll stay, if that's okay.'
I shoved some cabling at him. 'Then get that fixed up.'
He bent over his job -- for about two minutes. 'Look, I don't mean to be stupid, Jenna, but a radio's not much of a weapon, is it?'
'It is if you want to make sure Avon won't be able to walk round the streets safely. As soon as this is fixed I'll have news of what he's done blasted across the whole damned city.'
He stopped work. 'Er, do you think that's such a good idea? I mean, won't that make people a bit, well, jumpy?'
I ignored him.
Passionate, vigorous, charismatic. 'Maybe some dreams are worth having,' I say, and as I hear myself I can't believe I'm talking like this again.
'I think you should stop for a bit, Jenna; think it through. Maybe we should talk to someone -- Avalon, find out what she thinks--'
'If you want to go and look for Avalon, Vila, I'm not stopping you.' My voice sounded muffled. I concentrated on the cables, which seemed to be increasingly blurred before my eyes. I was only vaguely aware of Vila getting up and the door snapping shut after him.
Curtis' body is sprawled on the floor. I look over at Blake, and he comes across and scoops me into an embrace. 'We did it, Jenna!'
My hands were shaking and I told myself it was because the heating had gone off three weeks ago and the flat was freezing. With trembling fingers I put in the final connector, and started turning dials to get ready for transmitting the news to the people that Blake was gone and Avon had killed him.
The battery was dead. I started to weep.
I was still sitting there on the floor when Avalon came in, Vila behind her. She didn't bother with niceties.
'I hope you've not done anything stupid.'
I wiped a weary hand across my eyes. 'I've not done anything.'
'Thank Christ for that. There's enough trouble on the streets as it is. The last thing we need is for people to think it's gone out of control at the top.' She looked round. 'Where's Cally?'
'She's with Avon--' Vila started.
'Then we need to move quickly -- but carefully. People listen to Cally -- she's a serious threat.'
'A threat?' I mumbled.
She bent down in front of me, something close to compassion flickering across her face, and gripped my shoulders. Her voice came through the fog surrounding me, controlled but forceful. 'Jenna, I know you're in shock right now, but you have to pull yourself together. Avon's already got Cally on side -- God knows how -- and he isn't going to hold back on account of your feelings. We need to broadcast something, yes -- but we've got to pitch it right.'
I nodded my head, numbed to anything but my desperate grief and the need for revenge.
Vila piped up into the silence. 'Look, there's something you'd both better know. Avon didn't kill Blake -- Cally did.'
Nothing else could shock me, and Avalon didn't bat an eyelid. 'That doesn't change anything.'
V Over Again
'the noblest of them all'
I look out of the window into the night. This house is well into the countryside, but I can easily pick out the city. It is restless, its yellow light splintering the darkness, an ominous haze around it. Between it and here lie miles of empty, unlit fields, silently reproachful. I think, as I do nearly every day, just how unlike Auron this place is. Behind me I can still hear the sound of Jenna's voice, but I have long since stopped listening to the words. They are finely judged; they ache of love and loss and betrayal, and as I feel her grief I realise I share it.
'I can't believe I'm getting the blame for this.'
I turn around in time to see Avon kill the comm with a savage jab.
'You should probably leave that switched on.'
'I thought we were going for a little chat but, oh no, you have to stab him.'
'He was going to kill you at the time,' I point out mildly.
Avon doesn't answer and I look back outside. The stars are out; unfamiliar constellations. I fought in many places across Curtis' empire, looked up at a myriad of nights from countless landscapes, checking my weapon and marking time as I waited for another raid or mission to begin. Perhaps I have spent too long looking at alien skies. Perhaps it is time to go home. After all, I left Auron to bring revolution to Earth. And I have succeeded.
Beside me, Avon is getting anxious.
'Cally, we've got to get moving.'
I ignore him.
Curtis was a gangster, a criminal who ruled Earth through fear and suppressants, and his empire through bloodshed and shadow. I did not fight four years of guerrilla warfare to replace him with more of the same. I believed in Blake; I wanted him to succeed. Even these last few days, I told myself that he would not just seize power, that it would only be for a short time, just long enough to secure the victory we had won.
Oh, Blake, we were so close to success. In all my worst nightmares, I never dreamt that you would become the enemy.
'Cally, will you snap out of this?'
Earth is not safe yet. There are still people out there who see the space Blake's death has left as nothing more than an opportunity. I will not let them profit from this. His death will mean more than that. It must.
'Look,' I say, and point out of the window. Across the black fields, six points of light are shifting towards us. 'They're coming. It's time to make our move.'
We arm ourselves with silent and quick precision. Avon is very good at this now. I watch as he checks the power level on his gun. We will leave the building from the back and make our way through the grounds to see just how many have come before we attack.
Suddenly, the window next to us shatters, showering the room with glass. The wall behind us explodes, and we are plunged into darkness.
I'm thrown against the wall and I bang my head. It's a few minutes before I can speak again.
'Avon!' I hiss.
There's no answer. All I can do is hope he'll be at the back of the house when I get there.
I stagger through the house, brushing my hand against the wall to guide myself. At the back door I dispatch the waiting sentry with a knife to the throat. There's no sign of Avon. I step into the garden. Outside the night air is sharp and biting. It is pitch black. I press myself against the wall and start to inch my way round to the front. Peering round the side of the building, I can see three trucks. Black shapes are moving round, and I can't quite tell how many. Eight? Ten?
A crack of a branch makes me look to my right, and I see Avon making a run for it past the furthest truck. A figure rises out of the darkness and a shot is fired, and I see Avon's arms flail as he crashes backwards onto the ground. I stand up and shoot, and the figure falls down dead.
Then another shot is fired. It's a moment before I connect it with the sudden pain in my chest. I try to push forward, away from the house into the darkness. Again, a shot -- and my left leg buckles beneath me.
The grounds are suddenly bathed in harsh white light. I hear Avalon shouting orders, then Jenna yelling, 'He's dead!'
Behind me, I hear Vila's voice: 'Home...' Home. Above me I see a set of strange stars and I am sad I shall die so far away. But what grieves me the most is ahead, into the future -- where I shall not be -- where I see a succession of butchers and criminals and murderers each replacing the other, over and over again. I brush my fingers across my chest, and there is blood on my hands.
I came to Earth to bring revolution -- and I have succeeded.
All quotations are from 'Julius Caesar', by William Shakespeare.
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