A Day of Hope
By Ros Williams
In spite of the condition he was in, Avon had managed to note the days as they went by. Blessedly, his cell was above ground and he experienced daylight and nightlight from the two suns of the prison planet. He wondered sometimes if they had given him the light deliberately so that he might suffer even more over what he had lost and would lose soon - freedom, and life.
Presumably therefore they did not realise that it no longer mattered to him what he had lost, that their goading was pointless. When the Federation guards had surrounded him on Gauda Prime, he had made the decision he had always hoped he would have the chance to make - that he would choose the moment of his death. Once before too he had made that choice, in the cellar under the Presidential palace, next to Servalan's old wall. Curiously, though, each time it had not happened then, each time he had been left still living.
It had been easy to recover from the revelations about Anna. He had never suspected, not for one moment, but when Servalan confirmed it and then Anna admitted it, he had been able to see, oh so clearly, how it had all happened from start to finish. In those few moments while he waited for Servalan to make him that corpse she wanted to send back to Liberator, it was as though he had lived through again all of his time with Anna, but now he saw what she really must have been. How easily he had been duped, how foolishly and naively he had trusted her, how carelessly he had betrayed himself to her and thus to all her masters. They had tortured him then as they were doing now, on and off. It had been useless then just as it was useless now. On Earth he had had no accomplices except Tynus and, distantly, Keiller, and Security had never guessed at them so he had never had to talk of them. Since Gauda Prime, all his companions - of Liberator, of Scorpio - were dead and nothing he said of them, when in extremis from torture, could hurt them now. No-one else had done much for Blake's Rebels - or Rabble as Avon often called them when they tortured him. "The Rabble," he would say, "would never achieve anything much. We knew it. You knew it too. Why waste your time torturing me when I've nothing I can tell?. We had no accomplices, no supporters, no patrons. We had only ourselves and you killed them all but me. How stupid you were!"
He would say it often and then laugh, goading them, and they would hurt him still more. He thought it worth the extra pain to see their anger when they could not break his spirit. And he knew that they would hurt him until he blacked out. Couldn't they see that this was how he saved himself from madness - that when he was unconscious, he could rest? Servalan would have thought of it, but Servalan was not here. He had heard nothing of Servalan since Zukan's death. He had always assumed that when - not if - he was taken, it would be Servalan who seized him. So why had she not come?
The days and half-light nights dragged on, relentless. Weeks and months went by, damp, dreary autumn turned to winter and he shivered in the miserable cell, huddled in a corner against the cold stone, shuddering and the chill air swept in through the glassless, barred window. Then spring, which was bearable, and summer, which was stifling and appalling as the air in the cell became still and stinking heavy, insects plagued him, flies settled on the sores and wounds, and other, loathsome things crawled over and inside his clothing and across his face as he tried to sleep.
They hardly tortured him any more now, just occasionally when, he supposed, they had nothing better to do. He could have sunk into torpor or gone off his head, let the days pass unseen, unknowing, but his fierce intelligence and courage would not allow him to let go. The passing of the days and half-nights did not matter, but the number of them did. How long would it be before they finally killed him? He needed to know so he recorded the passing of time by scratching marks on the rough stone wall. Unoriginal, he would think wryly, but effective. He kept the marks just above the floor, and very faint, so that only he would notice them. He did not think he had missed many days, but there must have been some, when he was unconscious so long that a whole day would pass. He could not worry about it. What mattered was that he had a sense of the passing of time, a sense of how long it had been since Gauda Prime. Every day he counted the marks. It was something to do, something to keep his hurting body moving and his weary mind alive.
Then one day everything changed. A barber came into the cell, cut his hair and shaved him. His clothes, tattered and bloodstained, were torn off him and taken away. He was washed with soap and warm water instead of their usual method of throwing a bucket of foetid water over him, tatters and all, and leaving him to dry out somehow. In winter he had shivered the clothes dry, in summer they had steamed and reeked. This time, he was given dry, decent clothing.
He was taken to a room higher in the prison. He often stumbled as he had little room for exercise in the cell and was never taken out of it except to be questioned. But he did not allow anyone to help him. He would get there, wherever it was, in his own way.
And there she was. The relief at seeing her was almost overwhelming.
He had always loathed her, loathed her still now, but her magnetism had always held him too. She was beautiful and upright as ever. Unlike him, half dead and broken outwardly if not entirely in spirit. She was such a woman as he'd never know before. He sighed. He had thought he was almost free of the Federation, near to death. Was it to start all over again?
He stood, trembling slightly as he was so weak and unable to stop the shaking completely, and waited for her to speak. She gestured to the guards who had brought him, to leave. When they were alone, she spoke.
"So," she said, studying him, "you've survived. Fascinating - you are so very strong. Quite unique indeed. They could not understand it but I told them. You want to die now, as you wanted to die in that cellar under my palace. But you won't do it yourself. Someone has to do it for you. One way or another you'll make someone do it. So you keep yourself alive - to see who can be goaded into it" He did not speak often, except when he was tortured and agony made him speak. He had nothing to say now, for she was right of course, so he went on waiting.
"They thought it cowardice," she continued, in a casual, friendly way. "I had to explain. For you, cowardice would be to kill yourself . You wanted to make them do it. And they haven't managed it."
This time he decided to speak. When he spoke under torture, the words were dragged out of him, screamed or exclaimed or gasped under his straining breath. To speak normally was strange and the words seemed reluctant to come. He felt he had almost forgotten how to speak except when they made him. "I suppose that was your instruction," he suggested, his voice rough and awkward.
"As it happens, no. I didn't know you were here until quite recently. And when I did find out, it - wasn't convenient to come straight away. There was something else I had to do first.."
"I would have thought you'd come rushing, that nothing would keep you away. I couldn't understand it that you stayed away." The words were coming a little easier now. He hadn't forgotten how to speak after all. But speaking normally felt so strange.
She was silent for a moment, and then she said, "For a long time I heard nothing about you at all. I was recognised and captured - apparently just about the time you were seized." . He was surprised even though, incognito but with her driving ambition, she must have taken risks. "I'm amazed you were captured," he said. "I felt you would always evade your enemies just as you evaded me and my companions."
"I was recognised - not for the first time. I thought I could deal with it as I had in the past, but I was unlucky. I didn't get the chance to - kill the officer who knew me. So I was imprisoned, just like you."
She had always seemed to have a charmed life. Blake had not been able to kill her, nor had he, nor had anyone. He felt no wish to kill her now, which he supposed was rather strange.
"Imprisoned," she repeated, "and...." She hesitated, which was not like her. No, she was not as she'd always been. Something had changed.
"Tortured," she said quietly. "Like you. And yet differently, because I am a woman, a fantasy object. You were something of that, but not to the same degree. I understand they didn't set women on you."
Suddenly he felt deep pity for her. He had seen her afraid, once or twice. Underneath that dangerous, often wicked personality, there was still just a woman, and he was just a man. It was hard to seem fearless all the time. "I am sorry," he said. "I wouldn't have wished it on you." Which was true. He had never wanted her to suffer as she made others suffer. He had wanted her to stop doing it and get out of his life.
"So we've become alike, you and I," she said. "We always were to some extent. We could understand one another - enough. I think you'll understand now when I tell you that I am going to kill you. No - not by torture. I never ordered your torture. When I heard about it, I stopped it."
It was true that he had not been tortured for - how many days? Quite a long time now. Perhaps forty days. He would know from the marks in the cell. Torture days were marked longer.
"Too recently," she said. "I am afraid it was a long time they had their fun with you. I told them it served no purpose because there was nothing you could say that they did not know already."
He smiled faintly. He had not smiled for a very long time. It made his mouth and cheeks ache so he stopped the smile quickly. "Yes, it was obvious really. But they were - not very bright." He had said something like that before, a long time ago, to someone or about someone. He couldn't remember who or when or why. "You are going to kill me," he continued. "You know I'll welcome it. I've nothing to live for."
"I know," she said, "and that's why it is to happen. In the past I've failed to kill you, time and again, just as you and others failed to kill me. But I'm not doing it now because I have you at my mercy, nor from revenge or anger or spite. You see - just as you must have done, I've learned a great deal from imprisonment and torture and abuse, and I know now when a life is over. Mine isn't yet. I still have things to do and I am going to do them if I can. I'm free, I'm regaining power. One day perhaps I shall be President again. Or perhaps I'll fail. But you - there's nothing left for you. If you'd had some passion for Blake's Cause, you'd never give up. But you didn't really care about his Cause. You stayed with Blake out of some kind of frustrating understanding that he needed you, isn't that so?"
"Yes," he said."
"You've lost everyone who mattered to you," she continued. "I wasn't on Gauda Prime when you were captured, but Blake had put a security camera into the room where they took you. I watched you face them all. I saw your face. You knew there was nothing else for you to achieve. You decided then it was time to die. You thought they would kill you and they didn't. Since then it's just been - waiting. So I've come to - rescue you from the waiting. Not with anger, Avon, but with compassion. Can you believe that?"
"Yes," he said again. He did believe her.
"You are sentenced to death," she said. "The trial has already taken place, on Earth. It was one of the first things I arranged when I was able to do so."
"I see," he said. He wondered vaguely how they had managed the trial without him and how they would execute him. Blake would have been furious at such treatment. But Blake and Servalan had never understood one another. "It will be quick and as merciful as any execution can be. You'll hardly notice - I shall make sure of that. Yes, I know you don't care, but I do. The sentence was for mercy. I pleaded for you. That you had been a criminal, yes, but not a convinced rebel. You had killed some people but then there is a great deal of wanton killing in our Federation that's never punished or even is admired. You had caused a good deal of trouble, but so have many others. The court accepted my plea."
"Perhaps they had little choice?" Avon suggested cynically.
"Perhaps that's true." She smiled now, that enticing, clever smile that had always amused yet infuriated him in the past. It didn't infuriate him now.
"You will be taken to the place of execution tomorrow, she said. "At eight hours in the morning as has always been customary on Earth. I shall wait here until it has been done. You will be allowed a last meal and a few pleasures - think what you would like."
"One thing only," he said. "Your company through the waiting hours. Wasn't it the custom that there was always someone with the condemned man?"
She clearly had not expected the request. She seemed confused and almost - could it be she was pleased? "Of course," she said.
"And we will talk," he said. "Of anything and everything."
She inclined her head, accepting again. Then she called for the guards and the Prison Governor. "You know what to do," she said. "I shall wait through the night with him. Make suitable arrangements."
She came to him after he had eaten - the first decent meal he had had in.... yes, five hundred and fifteen days, that is, the days he was sure of. And they talked, easily as though they had always been friends. Which he supposed they had, in a way. Just as she had been able to be a friend to Tarrant - briefly. Poor Tarrant, broken and gone so long ago now, like all the others. In his cell he had thought of them often. They had all been friends, even if he had never said it.
As the dawn came, that change from the half light to the full light, she said, "Do you know what day this is?"
"No," he answered. "I can tell you the days I remember. But I think that's not what you mean."
"Long ago," she said, "this day was a day of hope. A very special day. I don't know why, but it's recorded in the Annals of Earth as a date always to remember. I thought it appropriate that you would find peace on such a day."
"Once before, you were about to kill me," Avon said, "and I was willing to let it happen as I think you know. But my companions took me away from you and I found that I had something left to live for after all because they wanted me to live - needed me even, just as I needed them. Now they are all dead, yet I have fought to stay alive. You said it was because I would see suicide as cowardice. But there was something more. Do you know what it is?"
"You were waiting for me," she said.
"I thought you would come," he said. "Through all the long months, I held on to life somehow and waited. I do not love you. I do not even like you - you know that. But I need you."
She flushed. A second time she was confused by what he said. But then she regained her composure and said, "So I am here, to set you free."
"Yes," he said, and smiled. Not bitterly, but almost with pleasure.
Outside somewhere a clock proclaimed the time. It was near to eight o'clock. The door opened and the guards entered.
"It is time. Take him to his peace," Servalan said.
As he was led away, she murmured under her breath, "But who will take me to mine?"