In My Hands

Warning for mild slash

I was lying on my bed, feeling miserable, when Deva came in and made me feel worse.
       "Have you done it, then? Executed him?"
       "No." His face showed no feeling, as usual, just a puzzled little frown, like there was some logistical problem. "He wants you to be there."
       I sat up. "What?"
       "When the sentence is carried out. He wants you there. We're ready any time; he just needs to take the drug." He stood at the door, waiting. I thought, oh shit, I don't fancy this... but what could I do? I couldn't leave a man hanging around under a death sentence while I debated it. Could have said I wouldn't go, I suppose. It wasn't like I owed him anything.
       But I went. He was the last of them, the people I'd been with so long. That counted for something. All the rest were dead (and if you ask why I wasn't, it was because, as my old granny used to say, I cry before I'm hurt. I also fall before I'm hurt.)
       Deva had a doctor with him, who I knew (I fell fast, but not quite fast enough) and two others I didn't. It took an age to get to the cell, because Deva and I were still the walking wounded, but it still came in sight sooner than I wanted.
       It was small, clean and spartan, not unlike the places he'd slept in on Liberator or Xenon. There were guards; Deva motioned them out and we all went in.
       He was sitting on the bed. They'd given him clean clothes: a white shirt and grey trousers. I don't know if I can explain how that turned my heart over. All I'd seen him in for ages was that funeral clobber with all the studs, and without it he looked - I was going to say, like he used to in the old days, but that's just it, he didn't. He was dressed like the old days, but the face above the shirt was so grey and haggard. I'd never realised before how much he'd aged. I suppose you don't, when you're ageing along with someone.
       Deva was speaking to him. "You know why we are here?" He nodded silently. "This is the doctor who is going to oversee the death sentence and these will be witnesses that it is carried out properly and humanely. And you asked for Vila." He stepped aside and I said "Hello," feeling a bit awkward. It's bloody hard to think what to say to someone who's about to be executed. But he was looking at Deva, not me.
       "How long do I have?" His voice startled me; it was as grey as his face and I'd have sworn there was fear in it, which wasn't like him.
       "As long as you need to sort out your affairs, within reason. But once you take the drug, you will die within two minutes."
       "I would like to speak to Vila first."
       Deva and the others withdrew to the far side of the room, not that it made much odds in that small space, and I sat down beside him. He looked at me, and clenched his hands together. "What is it?" I asked. He took a long time to answer, and then he said, very quietly, "I'm afraid."
       "Of dying?" I thought for a second; well, now he knows how I felt on that bloody shuttle. But I think that was when the last of my anger died: after all, I was the one who was going to walk out of the cell alive. He shivered slightly.
       "Not exactly." He paused again, and then said in a rush, "Because my soul will go to hell."
       Well if I hadn't heard it with my own ears... I'd met believers before, in penal colonies, mostly, but I never had him down for one. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw it had surprised Deva and the others too. "Come on," I said, "someone as logical as you, believe all those old tales?"
       "I believe we have some sort of essence. A soul, if you will. And that it goes somewhere, when we die."
       "Well, maybe... But into hell? A pit of fire? Little devils with pitchforks?"
       "Of course not!" he snapped, and for a moment he was almost his old self, but his next words were desolate. "Because... wherever my soul goes, it won't be where he is. We have deserved too differently."
       Well, I didn't have to ask who "he" was. There was a strangled gasp of shock from the other side of the room, but it was no news to me that he felt that way about Blake, though I think it may have been to him. I'm not sure he knew how much the man meant to him until he fired that damn gun. He looked up at me, and his eyes were desperate.
       "I want you to take my soul, Vila. Take it where he is." I must have looked baffled; I certainly felt it. He turned to Deva and said, "Give me it now."
       The doctor stepped forward with a little cloth pouch, the kind with drawstrings, and took a bottle out of it. He unscrewed it and shook a capsule out. Deva read from notes: "Kerr Avon, you have pleaded guilty to murder and have been sentenced to death. When you take the drug, you will die in two minutes. You may experience some constriction around the heart, but you will feel no pain." He took the capsule from the doctor and handed it to Avon.
       Avon swallowed it without hesitating and grabbed my arms. "Take my soul, Vila!" And suddenly a memory rose in me, and I knew what he meant. Hell of a time to remind me of that.

It was years ago, we'd been left on duty while Blake and the others went looking for someone or other, but we skived off and went to a casino. No kidding, and we won a heap of money, though I had to lay my life on the line for it. And we got back before Blake, though only just, so he didn't find out. Nice result all round.
       As soon as we were off-watch, Avon muttered "My cabin," and I followed him there. He wanted to discuss safe places to stash the dosh, and maybe celebrate getting one over on the revolution. I wanted that too, but as soon as I had a chance to relax and realise what had happened, all I could think of was me bound in that chair, waiting to go up in smoke, and I went to pieces. I was shivering and crying and even the drink he tried to get down me didn't help - it was good stuff, too.
       "Come on," he said, more gently than I'd have expected. He was on a high, because he'd just been so bloody clever, and he didn't want me spoiling the party. He pulled me close; his eyes were sparkling too much, and I remember thinking it didn't take much drink to get to him. I thought it even more when he kissed me.
       But he kissed lovely, all sweet and deep and slow, like he really wanted me to enjoy it. Which surprised me at the time, being as he was basically such a self-centred bastard. But it did make sense, when I thought about it. That was his pride; when he was doing something he was really good at - like fixing machines or taking revenge or just getting the last word - he had to do it as well as he possibly could. I just got the benefit, that time. I like women best, always have. But that was the best kiss I ever had from anyone, and when I could breathe again I told him so.
       He laughed, and breathed softly into my mouth. "Now you have my soul, until you give it back to me." He lay back, with that dreamy look people get when they're quoting something fancy.
"His lips suck forth my soul; see where it flies!
Come, Vila, come, give me my soul again."

       "You really don't have a head for drink, do you? Never heard such tosh..."
       "No, honestly. The soul flies up to the lips when you kiss, so that it can cross over to the beloved. You have to give it me back now."
       So I did, and maybe there was a bit more of that, until I felt better and he fell asleep. And that was it. He never got that drunk again, and after he damn near killed me, I wouldn't have wanted him to. But that was how I knew at once what he meant. "Take my soul, Vila!" I'd have staked long odds against ever kissing him again. But he was dying, and his eyes were so desperate, and what could I do? I held him close and kissed him, and he breathed out into my mouth with a little sigh. And he relaxed in my arms, and I thought for a moment he was enjoying it, and then I realised he'd died.
       I laid him down on the bed and held my mouth closed to stop myself sobbing. I looked around, and the doctor's little pouch thing was lying on the table. I picked it up and breathed into it, and pulled the strings tight. They were all staring at me as if they thought my ladder didn't quite reach to the top floor. I wouldn't have sworn to it, myself. I looked back at him. His face was empty, not peaceful but empty, like whatever had made him alive, made him Avon, wasn't there any more. I showed him the bag.
       "It's here, mate. I'll take it where you wanted me to. I promise." I turned to Deva, who was looking as if he wanted to call the men in white coats. "Don't ask. I don't know how. But I'm going to."
       I walked out of the room, and off the base, and no-one came near me. I didn't know where the hell I was going. I just walked, with the bag in my hand, and it was odd, because there should have been no weight in it but there was, a bit. I walked into one of those dismal forests, looking at the ground, so it was the shoes I saw first.
       I looked up, and saw... well, it was shaped like a man. But its eyes were emptier than the ones I'd just left on that bed. You could see they'd never lit up, nor creased at the corners. I've never believed in folk tales. But it sent shivers through me, because I thought: if there really is pure evil, this is what it'd look like. He - it - pointed at the bag, and I clutched it tighter.
       "Mine, I think." There was a hunger in the voice, and the fingers with their long nails twitched.
       I tried to keep the shaking out of my voice. "No. I'm taking it to where Blake is."
       It laughed, without any kind of humour. "What makes you think he is not with me? He caused the deaths of many; he said himself, once, that he would probably end in hell."
       That shook me, because it was true. I didn't know what to think, until I saw how it looked at the bag. The way a vicious kid looks at an insect, itching to tear it apart. It was total spite, nothing but a need to hurt, not for any reason, just because it could. I said, without thinking, "You remind me of someone" - and then stopped, because the face seemed to change and I could see it was him, Egrorian, with his sickening pasty face and that awful giggle.
       "Oh, I can speak through all who let me in to their hearts," it said in a different voice, and the face developed a huge black eye-patch. And again, and I saw that mad bastard Dorian and heard his crazed laugh. And again, and it was her, with her cruel eyes and that tormenting voice, to the life.
       "You see, Vila?" it said, "you cannot keep from me what is mine," and it was nearly Avon's voice. Nearly, but not quite, and my heart did a little jump.
       "Lousy impression, pal. You can't speak through him, because he isn't yours. And neither's Blake. They had their faults, God knows, but they were nothing like that scum you've got there. They deserve better than you. You haven't got either one of them, and you aren't getting him."
       I turned and walked away, and he was in front of me. I tried another way, and he was there again.
       "Where am I not?" the voice mocked me. But I'm good at riddles.
       "You're not in me, if I don't let you be." And I walked forward, straight through it, as if it wasn't there, and it wasn't.
       I walked such a long way, and I felt faint and my feet hurt. And the bag was so heavy, heavier with every step, and more than once I put it down and turned away. But then I'd think of that thing getting it, and I'd pick it up and slog on again. Once or twice I looked up, and the forest wasn't there any more. Nothing was, just the road and nothing either side of it. It crossed my mind that I'd walked out of the world, but I didn't know what else to do, so I went on, head bowed, looking at the road because I was scared to look at the nothingness.
       That was how I came to walk into the wall. In fairness, I couldn't have seen it. It was made of plexiglass or something; it wasn't there until you bumped into it. I stood back and looked. It was very high, smooth, unbroken, and the top was hard to see because there was a hell of a lot of light around it. I could see straight through it, and on the other side there was even more light. I think there were trees and streets and buildings and what not, but it was like the light rushed through them, as if they were made of light.
       The people were like that, too. I saw Gan, with a woman I'd never seen before. I guessed it must be the one the Feds shot. He looked happy, anyway, and I called out to him. But though I could see in, I'm pretty sure the people inside couldn't see or hear past the wall; it was like there was nothing beyond it for them. I couldn't make him hear me, anyway.
       My eyes were getting used to the light now, and I saw there was a gate in the wall, made of the same clear stuff. And just inside it was a man. He was big and burly, with a beard, and he carried a bunch of keys. I glanced at the gate, but there was no lock that I could see. I looked up at him, and he said, "Why do you come?"
       His voice was stern and my heart sank a bit, but I swallowed and said, "My... my name's Vila Restal and I want you to take this soul into..... in there."
       He stared at the bag, as if he was analysing it. "I see many ruthless deeds and few generous ones. More coldness than kindness."
       "He was no angel, granted. But he did have his good points. He was brave, and he kept his word."
       But the man's face shut like a door. He said coldly, "I am not the one who can admit him," and then he turned and went away.
       I felt the gate all over, looking for hidden locks, springs, catches, but there was nothing. I slumped against it for a moment. Inside, I thought I saw Jenna with some old lady, but I couldn't be sure. But I saw Cally for certain, with a man I knew I'd seen before. And what do you know, it was that young doctor who helped fix Gan up once, the nice one, what was his name, Renor? Well, well. It made me feel better for a moment; I looked up and someone else was at the gate.
       He was younger than the first, with a kinder face, and he carried a book. I held the bag out to him and did my little speech again. He looked long and hard at it, and shook his head. "A man who would kill his friends?"
       "Oh hell..." I was nearly crying. "He's human. So am I, and I can forgive him. Can't you, whatever you are?"
       He looked at me with pity, but he said, "I am not the one who can let him in", and went away.
       I leaned against the wall, trying to breathe without choking up. I felt desperate. I looked through, as if there was anything in there that could help, and I saw Blake. But not the one-eyed apparition from Gauda. He was young, eager, bright-eyed; it could have been him as he was when I first met him, and I nearly checked to see if he still had his watch. He wasn't with anyone, and he didn't look quite as remote as the others somehow. I thought perhaps I could make him hear, and I called out.
       But he didn't, and I laid my head against the wall and cried. I didn't even notice someone else had come to the gate, until I heard the voice.
       When I raised my head, I nearly died with fright. If I'd seen pure evil in the forest, this was pure good, and it was ten times scarier. It was uncompromising; you couldn't bargain with it and you couldn't con it. It didn't pretend to have to ask what I wanted.
       "The one for whom you ask admittance could not claim to deserve it."
       "No," I said. "He could ask for mercy, or I could ask it for him."
       "I am not the one who can let him in."
       "What? Oh, I don't believe this! If not you, then who, for f-"
       He shook his head ever so slightly and said, "But Vila, it is not in my hands."
       "Not in your hands? In whose bloody hands? In -"
       And I stared down at my hands, still holding the bag.
       I hefted it, and it needed both hands, it was so heavy now. I swung it around my head and hurled it, as high and far as I could, over the clear wall. And I tried to follow its path, but I was staring straight into the light and it blinded me for a moment.
       When I could, I looked through the wall, and there he was on the other side, a bit bemused, as if he wasn't sure where he was. Not the grey haggard man in the cell, but the one from years back. The one who could seem so young sometimes, who could still laugh with you, not at you, whose smile always reached his eyes.
       He let his eyes sweep in a wide circle, and though I know I said they couldn't see past the wall, I could swear he did, just for a second, see me or sense that I was there, because his eyes paused and he raised his hand a bit. But then the moment passed, and when he looked away, he didn't remember there was any such person as me in existence, because he saw Blake, transfixed, staring at him like you might at the sun rising. I had wondered what on earth they'd say to each other, but then I saw they weren't going to have to say anything.
       All sweet and deep and slow, and they've got all eternity to enjoy it. When it became clear they'd be locked together for some ages yet, I turned and walked away, back into the world.
       And if you ask do I believe in all that, I'm still not sure. I was dizzy with grief and tiredness; I don't know what I saw. There's only one thing I feel sure of. If there are any gods, it'll be a cold day in hell before they come down and sort things out for you. There are people who spend years waiting for that to happen, for some god or government or whatever to come and put things right. Like that daft article Meegat, waiting half her life for a god to come from the sky and show her how to turn the lights on.
       Well, it was people who did that. And in the end it's only people who can sort anything out, for themselves or each other. Blake understood that. I suppose that's why he was such a nag sometimes. He got sick of trying to convince people to get up and do something about it, instead of sitting on their backsides waiting for the bloody leprechauns.
       Avon, now, he made himself unhappy because he didn't trust people, himself or anyone else, to sort things out for him. He thought machines could do it - there was always some new weapon or gadget that would solve everything. But it wasn't a machine he turned to at the end, was it?
       It was me, of all people. I got him where he wanted to be. And now I don't know where I want to be, or what I'm going to do with the rest of my life. Only that it's in my hands.

***


Also published in the zine Tales from Space City 10, see here for details