Gemini RisingSuzan Lovett
He refused to wipe away the blood oozing from the small cut on his forehead and pooling in the folds of his eyelid. His chest hurt. But nothing felt broken, just bruised. He didn't press his hand against the ache. Most especially, he kept himself from sticking his skinned knuckles into his mouth, acutely aware of the childishness of the urge.
He had assumed the lead, wouldn't now show any weakness. Besides, he was angry. Unadulteratedly angry.
He had been scraped and bruised before. Curious and stubborn by nature, he'd had his share of childhood mishaps. Despite the very real affection between them, there had been the inevitable tussles with his brother and sister, all three children quick-tempered, fiercely opinionated, and territorial. Since then, he had discovered the power of words, a power that made physical dominance games obsolete. He had also grown large enough to be intimidating. Truth be known, his growth had outstripped his control, and at seventeen, he was still a bit clumsy with it. But his size had been its own protection, at least among his peers. Not against efficiently trained guards, however.
Never before had anybody hurt him impersonally. That, more than the specific pains and aches, infuriated him.
They were taken to an empty, dark chamber and rounded up into a tightly packed group in the middle of the room, under the only light spilling directly from above. That was when he found the opportunity to take stock of...his charges, as he now thought of them.
One thing a controlled society afforded was a first-glance classification. Nine Delta recruits - a euphemism, that. The rest, students. Among them, he was the only Alpha. Futile hope, that more Alphas would have been concerned enough to join the protest. But there were six other students, all Betas. With some pride, he knew he had been personally responsible for getting them involved. They had listened to him. Listened to him.
Staggering. He had never dreamed himself capable of swaying a crowd - well, all right, a small crowd. He hadn't even started out to sway the Deltas. He simply had been, as was his wont, speaking his mind. Suddenly he had realized some people were listening. And more incredibly, hearing. It had been almost...intoxicating.
He finished taking stock by following the head count with closer attention to see if anybody was injured, suddenly sure it was part of his newly discovered obligation. The young men and women all looked to be in various stages of apprehension, but nobody else seemed to be hurt. To be expected, he supposed. Betas and Deltas tended to give way when pushed, not push back. "It is all right," he told them in, he hoped, confident tones. "This is just a hearing, which is exactly what we want." It was what he wanted, anyway. Surely they all did.
"Shut up!" barked one of the guards.
He had been meaning to step out in front, to the head of his group. If only he were able to figure out where front was. Under the single, glaring light in the vast chamber, he was at a loss to find an orientation point. The guard would serve for the moment. He stepped in front of the man, glared at him challengingly. He got a pointedly bored look in return.
"You will come to order." The voice came from all around, with no discernable location, no way to turn and face it.
He settled for squaring his shoulders and waiting.
"This foolhardy incident will be closed quickly,"came another voice after a moment, this one a woman's, sounding stern. It had the same electronic quality. So they were to be handled through monitors and speakers.
Over and above anger, he decided he loathed this impersonal, sterile handling.
The female voice continued. "You will all be returned to your respective selection boards, which will remain convened until all applicants are processed. There will be no repercussions unless there is any more unpleasantness from you. And now, you are dismi - "
He swallowed hard once, drew in a deep, fortifying breath, and interrupted. "Just a minute. You can't dismiss us ar-" He stopped when a guard's hand gripped his shoulder. When the man didn't take the threat further, he continued,. "...arbitrarily. You can't pretend it didn't happen."
"Who is that?" the woman asked.
He was about to answer, but the guard shoved hard against his chest. He gasped, couldn't catch his breath for a minute, while a mechanical voice droned on with the facts and figures of his record.
"Young man, you're in a precarious position already," the woman's voice resumed. "I would advise you not to make it any worse on yourself. Consider this magistrate generous for not disqualifying you from higher education for your part in today's events, and go back to your selection board."
His parents would be devastated if he were disqualified. The threat tied up his vocal cords.
"Take them away," the woman ordered.
Suddenly he found his voice. His parents would be disappointed, he decided, if he took the tests and failed. A punitive banishment wouldn't be his failure. Surely they'd see that. Wouldn't they? "You can't push people around like this!" he shouted. "The selection process is unjust. It's shameful to anyone with a conscience!"
"Fine," the woman snapped. "We'll release you from taking part in such a shameful process. Does that suit you?"
Too carried away by anger, he couldn't consider the consequences of what he had just done to his life and future. "At least I can hold my head up," he snapped back.
"This magistrate is happy to oblige you, then," he was told sarcastically. "You will be taken to the work center and get registered. We'll see how you feel after some manual labor alongside Delta grades, or did you think your Alpha status made you immune?"
"I didn't earn my Alpha status. You gave it to me. Take it back; I don't care." His voice, only lately settled into a deep timbre that promised to be with him for life, broke on the last sentence. He detested the way his defiance came out sounding childishly plaintive. Furious, he continued. "The Deltas don't have a choice; why should I? I'd rather do manual labor than live a privileged life just because of an accident of birth. What kind of status symbol is that? Only a typical one for a corrupt, uncaring, power-mad adminis-"
"That is enough! You will hold your tongue, or you will find yourself - "
"Let. Him. Talk."
The new voice, a man's, was just as disembodied as the woman's, silky smooth, but unmistakably authoritative. Only three syllables, each clearly, singularly articulated, they created a long, frozen moment.
Had he found an ally? Or at least a willing ear?
"It was just getting interesting," the voice added into the silence, now in a mocking tone.
He heard the woman clear her throat nervously. When she spoke, she sounded too eager to please. "Why, yes, certainly, Counselor, of course, if you so wish."
"I. So. Wish." Again that peculiar articulation, as if the speaker thought his every word carried equal import.
He suddenly realized everybody must be waiting for him to speak. He knew that more eyes than he could see were riveted to him. It unsettled him. Now that he was allowed to speak, he couldn't seem to get his mouth to work, or think of the first thing to say. Then there was a vague rustling, shuffling, the young men and women he had led to this chamber moving closer to him. He couldn't tell if they were lending support or seeking protection, but it was enough to liberate his faculties.
He didn't have time to collect his thoughts. Somehow, he had an ability to find the words already there when he needed them. He never questioned how it happened, just used the words. "The word selection implies a choice. I object to a selection board that reserves the right of choice only for the administration."
"That is not true," the woman said.
"For Alphas, you mean. Yes, I had a choice - of sorts. What if I don't want to be, say, an engineer or an administrator; what if I prefer to be a mechanic or clerk? Betas don't even have that much of a choice. They can only accept what they've been assigned. And Deltas, they're torn from their families to get drafted into the military or packed off to new colonies. I protest the classification of human beings as if they were service robots rolling off conveyors, and the different levels of education granted to different classifications. Beyond conscience, it's stagnation."
"None of which concerns you," the woman's voice came again.
"Yes it does," he answered hotly. "If I took what you designate my 'due,' without a thought for my peers - and they are my peers, classifications be damned - I can't...well, I can't. It's as simple as that. Once I saw what was happening on the Delta side today, do you think I could have gone back to my own line and carried on as if I'd seen nothing? You're tearing people from their families as if they were no more than fodder stock."
"You had no business on the Delta side to start with. The barricades are not erected for decoration. Did somebody tell you to cross them?"
"No!" he said, offended at the suggestion that he had been directed. He could make his own decisions and follow up on them himself, thank you.
The woman continued the cross-examination. "You are too young to be inciting dissension. Somebody must have put you up to this. Who was it?"
"I told you, nobody. I crossed the barricade on my own."
He shrugged. He didn't know why he had crossed it. He just had.
"Because it was there," that impossible-to-ignore voice answered for him.
Accurately, he suddenly realized. Who was this stranger who seemed to know his motivations better than he did?
"Uh. Yes, I...I see," the woman stammered. "Sir, this young man needs medical attention. Shouldn't he be taken to the Infirmary?" she continued, sounding more anxious to end the interrogation for her benefit rather than for any other concern. "Surely this can -"
The man's voice interrupted sharply. "No. If he envisions himself a rebel, he should learn to cope with the consequences of being one."
This stranger was no ally after all. He decided that, for however long he was allowed to, he'd continue down his list of grievances: things he hadn't really thought of himself but had overheard. "I object to government conscriptions and mandatory service in the production centers. I protest the enforced rationing. I protest the administration electorate that doesn't give us the right to free nominations, only the selection from an appointed group."
"Is there anything you don't protest?" the woman asked. "These matters are not only beyond your concern, but way beyond your understanding."
"Don't treat me like a fool!" he snapped. He was about to continue, but the man spoke up again.
"It's inherent in the role you have chosen for yourself, I'm afraid." The mocking tone was back. "However, this is sufficient."
The guards bracketed him. The grace period had run out, obviously. Now what? he wondered.
A door at the far end of the chamber opened. A man stood there, a dark shadow backlit by the glow panels of the corridor. "Bring me the tape of this session." No longer amplified by the speakers, his voice still retained its authority. In fact, it sounded more personally compelling.
"Yes, Counselor," the woman said. "I'll have it brought down right -"
"I said bring it."
"Yes, sir, right away."
The man approached the group of young people. His footsteps echoed hollowly, unevenly, through the chamber. He had a limp. Then his form separated from the rest of the darkness.
He wasn't the tall, imposing figure his voice and demeanor had implied. For a brief moment he was simply an aged, lame man - then he came closer.
Aristocratic was the first description that sprang to mind. His hair was almost totally silver, but a stark black streak still remained. His eyes looked shockingly dark against his pale complexion. He wore a long black cloak that gave him the appearance of a bird of prey.
As the man's unsettling gaze came to rest on him, the young student had to fight an urge to shrink away. He found himself running his fingers through his unruly hair, tugging at his tunic, instinctively trying to make himself more presentable. He realized what he was doing when he saw a flicker of amusement in the dark, hooded eyes, and forced himself to stop. Silence stretched out. He couldn't imagine what he could say to this man, and the man didn't seem in any hurry to speak.
Finally, the tape the man had asked for arrived and ended the silent, unnerving scrutiny. "Send this," a brief but elegant gesture of the hand indicated the young people, "rabble home," he ordered the woman who had delivered the tape.
"But, sir, the selection boards - "
" - will close until otherwise notified," he interrupted. "And he stays with me."
"As you wish. I'll leave a guard with you as well."
"That is not necessary."
"Counselor, the boy is rather intractable."
"Yes, he is, isn't he?" For some reason, the Counselor seemed to consider intractability downright desirable. "No guards. Get on with it."
In record time the chamber was cleared.
The man extended a pristine white handkerchief. "Wipe that blood off your face, and keep this pressed to the cut." He added as he was obeyed, "Pride is all very well, but if it ever comes to that or survival, learn to swallow it." He started for the door, seemingly taking for granted that he would be followed, then paused. "Are you hurt otherwise?"
"I am fine," he lied, daring the stranger to challenge his veracity.
"Typical." Amusement flickered in the man's eyes again. "No, you are not fine. But you will do just fine."
For what, the young man had no idea.
To the student's utter surprise, they left the dome and headed toward a small, automated floater. He found himself panicking. He had never before seen the Outside, nor had he felt air moving about him. So much space! The smells were strange, too. He felt he would get hopelessly lost and would never find his way back to the safe predictability of the city. Only his stubborn pride, which insisted he'd sooner die than reveal his fear to the stranger, kept him following silently. Much to his relief, they were soon in the vehicle. The Counselor cast him a glance, then touched a button that made port coverings slide over the windows. Enclosed in the cocoon of the floater, the young man finally breathed easily. However, he was curious by nature, and as the vehicle reached its destination in a short while, he was regretting the new experience he had missed. When the floater stopped and they got out, he found himself in a small landing bay, the large doors that must have opened to admit them already closing out the night.
"Don't be afraid." The Counselor broke the silence. "You won't come to any harm."
He bristled. "I'm not afraid."
"No, of course not." Amused tolerance.
"I'm not," he stressed, and immediately regretted it when he realized he was sounding childishly assertive. I
The stranger actually smiled. Not a pleasant smile. "Come on, then. "
They were in a sprawling building. They went through long, plush corridors, this time without any identifying sign anywhere. Not a residence, not an office building. Where was he?
They passed through a foyer and entered a room. Finally, a place that was identifiable as a reception area, and a person, a middle-aged, stocky woman. She jumped to her feet when they entered.
The Counselor didn't spare her a glance, just pushed the young man past her.
She attempted to block the way. "Wait, sir, no, he doesn't want to be disturbed."
"That is not news."
The woman reached for a button on her desk. Before she could touch it, the stranger grabbed her wrist. "I wouldn't if I were you." Now his smile was unmistakably chilling.
She squirmed. "But, uh, I must at least announce you."
"I expect he knows me by now - too well to blame this on you. So sit down and be quiet."
After a dim passageway, they entered a room, as dark and quiet as a tomb. "Good evening," said the Counselor, so there had to be someone to address in there. "But how would you know?" he continued, and turned on the lights.
The illumination revealed an understatedly elegant chamber, a combination of office and living quarters, and its single occupant. Another aging man, in a mobility chair, who blinked and squinted against the sudden glare of lights, then looked outraged.
"How dare you bring anyone in here without my permission?" There was nothing of the invalid in the impressive thunder of his voice.
He wasn't totally an invalid in body either. Sizable, capable-looking hands gripped the armrests; his knuckles turned white and his jaw clenched as he lifted himself out of the chair, an obviously awkward process, probably even painful. But he rose and stood firm. He was large, with a trace of pale scarring on his face that made the dangerously sparking eyes look uneven. The student suspected he hated to be caught in the mobility chair. He also suspected that the stranger who had brought him abruptly into the room had done so on purpose.
"Get out!" the man roared, once he was solidly on his feet.
The Counselor looked unimpressed. He motioned the student further into the room and closed the door. "There's something you should see."
"I don't want to see anything or anyone."
"Yes, ostriches felt the same way - and went the way of the dinosaurs." He dropped the tape he had brought into a slot on the terminal at the desk. "Watch this anyway."
"I said get out!" A finger pointed firmly at the door.
"All right, I will leave." Instead, however, he approached with a move that would have been stalking if it weren't for the leg that dragged slightly, until the two men were nearly in body contact. "But if I do, I will not come back this time. You can rot in your coffin. I'm through prying at the nails."
They glared at each other, looking locked in some invisible combat. The student felt a titanic clash threaten, but it didn't materialize after all. The larger man was the one who broke the eye contact.
"Spare your breath," the Counselor said, his lips curling disparagingly. "I already take being damned for granted."
"Don't we all? Who's the boy?"
"Oh, you don't recognize him then? Funny, I'm afraid I've known him for a quarter of a century." The severe mouth drooped further. "Give or take the last few years, of course."
"Get on with it," came the growl, "less cryptically, if you can."
"Watch the tape."
After a few minutes, the tape that ran on the monitor seemed to capture the large man's attention. He approached the desk as if drawn there. He moved strangely. When he lowered himself into the high-backed, carved chair - so obviously a chair of office - by transferring his weight to his hands, again with that awkward, stiff-spined movement, the student realized he was wearing a body brace under the voluminous folds of the brown velvet tunic.
The Counselor, although standing within easy reach, didn't offer the slightest hint of help. It was puzzling. The unceremonious way he had barged into what was plainly an inner sanctum spoke of a familiarity. His brusque demeanor since then indicated...no, nothing so mundane as unconcern. Hostility? That didn't seem to quite cover it either.
Desperation, thought the young man, and then he wondered why on Earth something so unsupportable had sprung to mind.
The end of the tape plunged the room into silence. The man at the desk kept staring at the monitor, at nothing but static. Then he raised his eyes and looked directly at the student, a terrible, haunted, haunting look. "I may never forgive you for this," he said.
Only when the Counselor answered did the young man realize that the comment wasn't aimed at him. "I dare say my long list of unforgivable offenses can bear yet another entry. I'm used to it, but how long do you intend to let the child stand there while you indulge in one more brooding sulk?"
The seated man shook his head as if to clear it, and waved to a chair in front of his desk. "Sit down and call your parents."
"What do you want from my parents?"
"I don't want anything from them. But they must be worried - mine always were."
He still hesitated.
"Don't be stupid," said the Counselor. "You wanted a hearing and you've got it, at as high a level as you can get, so do as you're told."
It was impossible to convince his family not to worry when he couldn't really tell them where he was and what he was supposed to be doing. Finally he gave up, told them he would be home soon - he hoped - cut the connection, and waited.
"Daneel Evan," the large man started, then asked, "May I call you Daneel?"
It was the first this day that any official had bothered to take note of his name. He nodded.
"Do you realize, Daneel, there was a time when it would have been more than your life's worth to voice even a fraction of what you've said to the magistrate? Not so long ago, people had forgotten that the word election existed?"
He had heard that argument before, from his elders. "Yes, that's what they always say. It's better than it was. Controlled existence is preferable to drugged docility, which is better than slave pits that's better than death squads that's better than wholesale annihilation, so on and so on. Does that mean I have to settle for better than worse? Don't I get to reach for the best? As for elections, what's so great about them when the nominees are appointed by the government? It's a sham. I get to vote next year, but what's the point in it?" He hesitated, then decided to barge on; if anyone looked as if he laid some claim to pride, this man did. He waved at the rich furnishings. "You obviously hold a high office. Wouldn't you have preferred being elected rather than appointed?"
"As a matter of fact, I was elected."
"Without a single dissenting vote by Terra and the Consortium of Sol and its colonies," the Counselor put in, with that trace of mockery he seemed to favor, "and by the Quadrant Electorates of Inner and Outer Worlds in a landslide, by the clear majority of the Annexed Nations of the Rim, with a Vote of Confidence from the Allied Governments," he grinned wickedly at the seated man glaring at him, "but who's counting?"
Daneel felt stunned. "But only one man...but that means...you're...you're..." he stammered, then lost his voice, unable to believe whom he was facing.
"Right," the Counselor said. "The President of Terran Federation, Supreme Chief of the Consortium, High Advisor of People's Council, Chancellor of the Inner and Outer Worlds, Consul of the Annexed Nations, Lord Admiral of the Galactic Fleet, Marshal General of the Eight Armies, and the Protector of New Freedom - but like I said, who's counting?"
Daneel's vocal cords started to function again. "You're Roj Blake! But I thought...the rumors said you were..."
"Dead?" the Counselor asked. "Close, but not quite. He hasn't made up his mind yet."
The President threw the Counselor - his Counselor? Could this be, then, Kerr Avon, Roj Blake's oft-mentioned, rarely glimpsed shadow? - a withering look, then asked of Daneel, "Why should I be assumed dead? There were no such announcements, new elections, or major administrative changes. How could anybody believe it?"
The young man still felt dazed. "All I know is, that's what they say, you're dead and it's being kept a secret." He shrugged. "The administration does everything arbitrarily, as it sees fit, without the leave of the population, so what's not to believe? And, I don't know about major administrative changes, but there have been a lot of changes."
He didn't really know. He had only heard the adults complain. But he wasn't given to meekly admitting ignorance. "Don't you know?" he asked in return. "I mean, aren't you supposed to be in charge?" As soon as the defiant words left his mouth he felt like a presumptuous boy daring to annoy the Goliath. Therefore, he was totally unprepared for it when they seemed to strike home and that haunted look resurfaced in the asymmetrical eyes.
"Ah, therein lies the tale," the Counselor interjected, drawing the attention to himself.
"What changes?" Blake repeated, this time asking the other man.
"Just the usual: political intrigue, sycophancy, graft, nepotism, bribery, fraud, racketeering in the guise of officialdom - everything that's expected to happen while the proverbial cat is away."
Anger seemed to war with despondency across the scarred features; "How can it happen again? I was sure all the corrupt officials were purged."
"You can't purge human nature, Blake. If there's an easy, profitable way, they'll take it. The way opened up when you stopped giving a damn."
"And where were you all this time?" Blake snapped.
The Counselor shrugged. "What makes you think I ever gave a damn for your downtrodden multitudes, however many titles you've seen fit to impose on me?"
Blake's face darkened, but he seemed to be drawing in, closing himself off. Long, uncomfortable silence fell. The young man fidgeted, looking uneasily from one man to the other.
"You'll have to excuse your President," the Counselor said. "He has to brood for a while. He just realized that even death cannot be one of his options. You see, his obsession with having choices and options is matched only by his uncanny ability to maneuver himself into spots where he has no choices. I do realize it is a paradox, not to mention an unreasonable way to conduct one's life, but reason and idealism are not mutually compatible concep - "
The young man jumped at the roar. The recipient of it didn't so much as give a start. If anything, he seemed satisfied that he got a reaction.
"Do me the courtesy of not talking about me as if I weren't even here," Blake continued in a slightly better moderated tone.
"Certainly, as soon as I see enough proof that you are indeed here and present."
Daneel found his attention riveted to the black-clad man, now that his identity was established. From all he'd heard, a mystique surrounded Kerr Avon - hero or blackguard, genius or fraud, Roj Blake's most valuable asset or his worst folly; nobody seemed sure.
The President spoke and cut short Daneel's contemplation of the enigma. "So you think the recruitment program applied to Deltas is unconscionable. I initiated that program."
Oh. Daneel stifled the trepidation and asserted, "I do."
"You're quite right, of course," the President said instead of chastising him as he had half expected, "it is. At least from where you're standing. In my position, one must do a number of unconscionable things to right the bigger wrongs."
Daneel thought that drivel, but didn't quite dare to say so.
Roj Blake seemed able to read his thoughts. "It's all right," he said with a ghost of a smile, "I didn't buy such facile justifications either - until the realities dropped into my lap and I had to deal with them." Again with a lot of effort, and without any hint of help from the man who supposedly was his right hand, he rose out of his chair of office, took a brief moment as if he were giving orders to his muscles, then started to pace with a slow, heavy tread.
"I knew it wouldn't be easy to abolish a caste system that has existed for four hundred years. I expected opposition, but I expected it from the privileged classes. I was ready for that. I wasn't ready for the disinterest and the sullen resistance from the ones I sought to liberate. Oh, they would've accepted the privileges, but they weren't willing to work for them. You can arbitrarily make high-class citizens of the whole population, but then who keeps the work centers going? I even tried to mechanize all labor, then realized I would only be creating a society of lotus-eaters that would stagnate and die. There have to be goals worth striving for; there have to be."
Daneel opened his mouth to ask what kind of solution it was to take people from theirhomes to scatter to the winds, but saw Avon make a forbidding motion at him. He kept quiet and listened.
"You can't strike their shackles. You can educate them, train them, so perhaps one day they will strike those shackles themselves. When I get them in the military early enough, they can be educated, and they can rise through the ranks. It will also have a side benefit. The military had dealt terror for so long. I thought if it was made up of all castes up and down the ranks, people would see it is now there to serve them, protect them; it is not a menace, to any of them. As for shipping Deltas to the new colonies, I'm sending them to new worlds where there are no inbred prejudices, where they can make their own rules, create their own order - and, yes, work for it, suffer along the way, maybe even die for it. I know..." He paused, turned to Daneel. "No, I don't have a magic wand that creates perfect solutions. Do you condemn me for that?"
The young man didn't know what to say. He had just started to realize there could be more than one side to an issue. He was trying to assimilate that; judging the merits of each was beyond him at the moment.
The Counselor spoke in his stead. "Why should anybody bother to condemn you? You've been doing an enviable job of it yourself all along until you've let it incapacitate you."
Slowly, Roj Blake turned to face the other man, let silence stretch for a minute, then said in an incongruously teasing tone, "I didn't know you cared, Avon."
The Counselor looked annoyed at the comment. "I probably don't but you've been usurping my purpose, and I don't like becoming superfluous."
That made the President smile briefly before he addressed Daneel again. "Come here." As the young man rose to join him, he touched a button and the heavy drapes behind his desk swung open, revealing more glass than the boy had seen in all his life.
The entire wall was a convex window, curving before it merged with the adjoining walls and the ceiling, instantly expanding the room into the unfettered night. The sudden feeling of exposure to that much open space made Daneel falter; then he gathered his courage and approached. But he found himself sidling close to the large man, because at first he felt poised at the edge of a huge maw, the moonlit landscape looking insubstantial, blurry and darkly mysterious, so very unlike the brightly lit, clearly defined and contained dome city. The definition between land and sky was invisible, and his gaze was slowly drawn up, to the infinity dusted by stars.
"Where does it end?" he whispered, although he knew perfectly well it was an idiotic thing to say. He had taken all the requisite courses in science. But that was in abstract. While he could memorize the theories as well as anybody else, lifelong habits were making him expect limits within the reach of his sight.
"It doesn't," Blake said softly. "What do you think? Is it scary? Exciting?"
"I...I don't know. Both, I think."
"Look at it, Daneel," the quietly intense voice continued at his ear. "This is your natural habitat. Even at the very beginning, life crawled out of the water, not dirt. We aren't meant to live buried in mounds of rock and metal. But when I tried to tear down the domes and bring people out into the open, all I managed to do was to precipitate wholesale agoraphobia and no small measure of hypochondria."
"But, it is dangerous, isn't it...the contamination and diseases...?"
"Old terrors never really die, do they? That was a long time ago, Daneel. We raped the land and entombed ourselves to escape the price. Nature has healed itself since then, but it was easier to keep control inside the domes, so the fear was encouraged to flourish. That left more room up here for the few very privileged and their lackeys and caterers."
The President chuckled softly and continued, "And the dissidents, the outcasts. But this is where we all should live, not blocked in metal walls at every turn. They stifle the spirit. You have to see the far reaches to be tempted to reach."
Daneel felt dizzy suddenly. As if he sensed it, Blake's arm came around his shoulder, steadied him. "Come away from the window. It can be rather overwhelming at first." They stepped back. The President removed his arm from Daneel's shoulder and closed the drapes, giving manageable proportions to the room once more. "If you want to see it again, all you have to do is walk out of any one of the exits from the city."
"Hardly," Avon spoke up, startling Daneel, who had all but forgotten his presence. "They're locked again."
"What! Since when?"
"Since whenever each section custodian has so decided. He'll need a cypher key to get in or out."
"No, he won't! The locks will not only be opened by morning, but they'll be removed, every last one of them. See to it."
Avon raised an eyebrow. "By that imperious order, do I take it that you're thinking of again tackling the exhausting, exasperating, thankless job of reforming the ungrateful rabble?"
Blake held the armrests of his chair to lower himself into it. "Isn't that what you wanted me to do?" He indicated Daneel. "Wasn't that the whole purpose of this exercise?"
Avon made a face. "Not necessarily. I simply wanted you to make a decision and act on it. As far as I'm concerned, you can wash your hands of the entire damnable mess, let them all go to hell in their own way, and go find an amusement somewhere. Or you can steal another ship and become your own government's dissident. I don't care what you do. Do the right thing, do the wrong thing, do any damn thing, but do something except sit there and will yourself into miserable obscurity. It's not a pretty sight to watch." He gave a resigned shrug. "Of course, I should have known you'd opt to do the hardest thing every time. All right, try the impossible again if you want, but what makes you think it's going to be different this time? How many Daneels can I find to drag in here?"
"I think one was quite sufficient." Blake looked up at the young man. "Anything else you want to ask me?"
"Lots," Daneel answered truthfully.
"I...I can't think of any one thing. I mean, it's all been...well, I never expected..." He realized he was babbling and clamped his mouth shut.
"It's just as well. On second thought, I don't have any answers to give you. I have only my own excuses, and the last thing I should do is convert you to my point of view."
"Why?" Daneel couldn't help asking.
"Yes, why?" Avon added. "That is one answer I'd also be interested in hearing. It's too inconceivable an attitude for you."
"I wanted to do everything and I wanted it done now. You're right, Avon, it is impossible. At least the way I wanted to do it. But it wasn't wrong. Perhaps all I can do is to start it and see it through as far as I can, even fail along the way." His eyes rested on Daneel again. "And then some young man or woman who thinks, with or without just cause, that I've been a bumbling incompetent will step in, take over, and accomplish some more. Maybe it should be an ongoing process. And disapproval might be even more desirable than applause."
"The latter," Avon said. "I thought you knew already." Blake looked at him questioningly, and he answered the silent inquiry with, "Else, why keep me around?"
Blake smiled, a wide smile and an attractive sight. "Avon underestimates himself," he said to Daneel.
The young man thought that a compliment, but Avon seemed less than thrilled with it, looked daggers at Blake. In response, the President's smile turned smug, as if he enjoyed irritating his companion.
"Maybe it's time for the child to go home," Avon grumbled. The President nodded.
They were never going to believe where he'd been, Daneel thought ruefully. His ride and escort were arranged before he could think of anything else. He felt a little resentful. He had been brought here for a purpose he could only speculate about. Now it seemed he had served his purpose and was being dismissed without another thought. "What am I supposed to do now?" he asked, trying not to sound as sullen as he felt.
"Take your tests, select a field, and go on with your studies, what else?" Kerr Avon answered as if he couldn't see any point to the question.
Roj Blake seemed to understand the young man better. "You would like to return here; is that it?"
Daneel wondered how presumptuous he was being. This was, after all, the highest ranking man in all of the known worlds. "Well, yes."
"You may - but only if you can find your way here on your own. It isn't far, well within the capabilities of a healthy young man. You will have to brave the Outside, though."
It was a challenge. Daneel reacted as he reacted to all challenges. "I'll be seeing you," he said, and not terribly politely.
"Yes, I believe you will." The intercom announced that Daneel's escort was waiting in the reception area. Blake waved him on and he turned to go.
The two men seemed to forget him even before he left the room. "Should I call your valet?" Avon was asking. "Do you want to retire?"
"Cut out the sarcasm, Avon. You know very well I don't want to retire, in any sense. I have work to do."
"I suppose sleep for me, too, is about to become a fond memory again."
Daneel stepped out of the room, turned to close the door, saw the President start to get up. This time Avon reached for him. He heard Blake say, as he took the offered hand, "I should've known you'd be the one to bring my worst nightmare to life: that one day I'd look into the face of a young, earnest dissident and recognize myself."
Daneel couldn't delay closing the door any longer, but he managed to hear Avon's reply before he did. "It could have been worse. The tragedy would have been if you had not recognized him."
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