The Outlaw God
By Dolores J. Nurss
Volume 2: The Tempest of
Tuesday, March 14, 2705
For the longest time Osca did his best to shut out the morning light, but it shone red through his lids like the color of pain. Somewhere a bird made a dreadful ruckus--why couldn't it just fly north and be done with it, without having to announce its flight-plan to the world? With a tongue so dry it surprised him that he could speak, he said, "If I told you I intended to defect this very minute, would you please shoot me?"
Blackie only laughed as she bustled about the kitchen, pans and dishes clanging like a fire-alarm. He opened his eyes to watch her through the bedroom door. Blearily, he wondered how he'd wound up in her above-ground place, but he feared to ask a thing. He began to grope for his glasses, then decided that the last thing he wanted was a sharper focus.
"You said you wanted Alroy to push you against your nature." Blackie said brightly. She brought him breakfast, but he wrinkled his nose at the very thought. "Go on," she said. "Give it a try. It's menudo--all my friends swear by it."
He poked at it, green at the thought of where menudo comes from, tried a nibble, and nearly gagged on the fatty texture of the tripe, but he found the hominy and broth surprisingly edible. "And yourself?"
She threw her head back and laughed so loudly that she sounded mythic; she frightened him a little, rattled as he felt. "I don't get hangovers," she said. Somehow her immunity unnerved him, too, reminding him of goddesses who could restore their own virginity with a turn of the seasons, after they'd murdered their lovers who'd begotten on them future lovers. She had that horrifying innocence in her smile, in the too-wide eyes that remained as glassy sober as drunk.
Had he...he almost remembered now...yes, he had become the next lover. His very first time. His jaw dropped in awe, and then gradually a smile overtook him despite his pain, despite his embarrassment, despite...everything.
Would she report her coup to Alroy, another disciple initiated deeper into His way? Of course she would. He gave up privacy on that day, last spring, when something crazy that had ticked away inside his head for years suddenly exploded. He had slammed shut the book that he'd been cataloguing, and just ran, ran out of the museum, he didn't know where, something inside just said, "Mother--got to find Mother!" Until, out of breath and disarrayed, he stumbled into an alley and found not any sort of mother that he'd expected, but some scary-looking people waiting for him there, who knew his name. One of them nursed a baby right in front of him and made no effort to cover herself, and that seemed so right—and so very, very inappropriate. But then he found a force rise inside of him that had tired of groveling before the Great Beast Appropriateness, a force to finally turn all of the fear into anger, something that made him want to gnaw off his own foot to get out from under that claw.
Slowly the Great Beast Appropriateness had shrunk and fragmented, eventually reduced to a dissociated swarm of rather large and annoying bugs that scrabbled around disgustingly inside him, drawing attention to themselves, venturing a nibble on his nerves now and then just to keep his spirit itchy and uncomfortable. Yet until last night, no matter what the work he'd done for Alroy, he'd felt a part of himself reserved, not entirely freed. He'd committed crimes, and they'd exhilarated him even as they repulsed him, but only now--without a single legal violation--could he say, deep in his heart, "I am an outlaw, now. I have done this thing; I cannot go back." He felt in awe—awe-full. His headache felt like much more than a headache, like the welcome agony of transformation.
"It is time to tell you," she said. She sauntered up to him, toying with the hem of her shift in a flirtatious way.
"Tell me what?" The way his head throbbed any news looked bad to him. And yet...maybe he wanted it that way.
"About your Gift, of course. Alroy told me you could know when you had given us everything."
"Gift? What Gift? I tested so low on illusionism that my teachers didn't think it worth the trouble to pursue."
"Ah, but you have a subtler talent than the Tilián can recognize: you can plant an illusion directly mind-to-mind, an amalgam with telepathy that can make a victim doubt his sanity." She giggled. "The modern Tilián don't like to drive people crazy--at least not on purpose, nothing they'd have to admit to. But Alroy doesn't shy away from useful talents."
He stared at her. A tiny insect voice inside his soul squeaked, "This is bad, Osca, oh my, very bad!" A mental foot came down, perhaps his own, perhaps not, he didn't care, because it squashed the speaker just like he wanted. And then a strength spread through him, as mean as the hangover, as sour as the taste in his mouth, yet it felt good, so extraordinarily good. One by one he resolved to find all the little bugs in his soul and deal them a similar fate.
"You can teach me how to do this?" How steady his voice sounded to his own ears--how brave!
"Some lessons will come from me, some from others. Isn't it remarkable that in all these generations Til hasn't discovered one tenth of the potentials in paraphysics, while Alroy has no trouble at all?"
For the first time Osca really, truly believed that Alroy had the better way.
* * *
"Good morning, everybody!"
"Will somebody please smother her with a pillow?" Randy's voice moaned from a pile of blankets on the floor. In fact, now that she thought of it, Deirdre found it odd that she'd awakened in Merrill and Zanne's place, with all her friends around her and no clear idea of how she'd gotten there. But she felt splendid this morning, after the most delightful of dreams, which assured her that whatever blanked her memory could not have been debauchery; not that she inclined that way, anyway. Still, she decided to keep this touch of amnesia a secret.
She found a calendar inside the bathroom and satisfied herself about the date. She had a field-trip today, she recalled, to Misty Island, where a brief colony had arisen in the early days of the Migration, ignorant of the Tilián nearby; gradually they had died out within generations, of nutritional deficiencies. They therefore offered an unbeatable opportunity to study the ways and artifacts of Earth, unpolluted by time or culture-meld.
When she came out she noticed a grimness in the others, and decided that her cheer did not suit the occasion, whatever that might be. Lisa came up, mixing a bowl of breakfast-biscuit cradled in one arm. "How are you this morning?" Lisa asked, in a tone that suggested that she feared bad news.
"Uh, quite well...and you?" Deirdre resolved that she had to find out what happened last night. Lisa just appraised her with a look and turned away.
Deirdre scanned her friends for clues. Zanne looked chipper enough, going from person to person with herbal teas...but Deirdre noted by smell that Zanne served a different formula for each, and the scents suggested something of a medicinal nature. Jake looked just about as bad off as the other day, when he'd fixed her lunch--had he caught a bug? Randy, too, looked drawn--in fact he looked thinner. She debated whether to congratulate him, then decided that she'd better find out if he'd wrought the change voluntarily. A closer look revealed that the ruddy hue of his face came of burns, not health, and the white turtleneck that he wore turned out to be a bandage. Wounded there? She concluded that he'd seen battle, and a pretty scary one at that.
Meanwhile Merrill looked haggard but not physically unwell, as he paced in and out of the kitchen, alternating between checking the fire beneath Zanne's potions and cutting Don odd looks yet not touching him at all. At last Merrill lit on the edge of the table beside the man and spoke softly to him.
Don looked worse than some people she'd seen exhumed on digs. She remembered with a chill the one time that she'd witnessed him that bad before. She slipped over to eavesdrop, and noticed that he had even more bandages on his chest and arms than before.
"It's not your fault," Merrill said. "You were completely out of your head."
"And the next time?" Don's voice shuddered like a bomb about to blow. "How did Alroy get a hook in me? How can I keep him out?"
"That night--you wouldn't remember. You took the pendant, held it close to your lips and whispered 'Remember me'. But it's gone now--I destroyed it. You won't have a 'next time'."
"You think you can guarantee that? And why would I whisper such a fool thing in the first place?"
Merrill shook his head. "Just stay sober, Don, and Alroy can't get at you. Not anymore." Deirdre watched Merrill's hand hover over Don's shoulder, then retreat.
Don just looked at him, eyes bleared, his face a ghastly color. "I'll bet that really makes you feel superior," he said slowly.
"Huh? No! Come on--I'm the guy who can't get a mission 'cause I turned thief on the last one for the good of the cause, remember? I'm not lecturing you."
"But you have no real vices."
"That doesn't keep me out of trouble."
"Sugar," Deirdre said. They both jumped, unaware that she stood behind them. "You can't handle sugar, Merrill, but you eat it anyway--it makes you a nervous wreck. That's your vice." But Don, not Merrill, reacted, still shuddering at the surprise, till the shudders grew and overlapped and he fell to the floor while Merrill quickly moved the furniture away.
Lisa grabbed Deirdre by the shoulders. "Don't startle him!" she hissed in her ear. "He could relapse again, very easily."
Relapse? Deirdre thought. Oh, sweet heavens! A vivid memory struck her, of her own relapse during her rookie mission–it had nearly killed her. She hadn't wanted to think of it that way, but what the Tribe healer told her (once she came to consciousness) and the overload of all her senses for long days after, brooked no other explanation.
Zanne came out of the kitchen with a new tea, and waited till Don looked aware of his surroundings. "Here, drink this," she said. "And I'll want you to have a cup of it every four waking hours for the next day or two. Don't use heavy machinery, or anything that..."
"I know the routine," he growled, as he sat up on the floor. He looked bewildered for a moment. "I take it, by the looks of you, that I convulsed or something?" Merrill nodded. Don took the cup, drank down half of it, then stopped. "Wait a minute..."
"Something wrong?" Zanne asked him. Don looked at Merrill, then Zanne. "Isn't this precisely what I'm supposed to avoid? 'Don't use heavy machinery' because it makes you..." he threw the cup across the room; tea dripped down Merrill's once-spotless wall, above the shards in his blue rug.
"Don't lose your temper," Merrill warned in a low voice.
Zanne said in soothing tones, "There's more where that came from, Don. It's just to lower your muscle-tension, dampen your dendrites a bit and prevent more seizures."
"Don't try to fool me with medical mumbo-jumbo. I'm a doctor, remember?" He took a couple deep breaths, trying to calm himself. "Those are fancy words for intoxication. I know."
Merrill knelt down by Don, the longing obvious in his face to comfort his friend with touch. "Best friend, if I guard you, day and night, will you take the medicine? It's dangerous, this relapse business. Jesse died just going through this once." (Deirdre startled at that, hoping...but then would Merrill even know for sure?)
"The danger to my body is the least of my worries. Die? As myself? Or live, as someone else's zombie? How would you decide?"
Merrill stiffened. "That sounds very close to suicidal talk and I won't tolerate it in my home. Die for a reason, or don't die at all!"
Earnestly Don leaned towards him. "But if Alroy steals my will from me, what reasons can I choose? Merrill, I nearly killed you!"
The chill that spread through Deirdre killed something right there, inside her.
"And if you had," Merrill said gently, "you wouldn't be to blame. Alroy overpowered you."
"I wish I knew." Don's voice quieted, but he began to shake again. "The anger, it felt like my own. That's the worst of it. It's not all him, nor is it all me, but I can't draw a line between the two. No matter what happens, I've got the question: him or me?"
"You've got entirely too many questions," Zanne said firmly. "It's time you went back to bed and slept some more. I'd hate to put you under again--too much of that can harm you--but if you refuse your medicine, I will."
"I'll stay right beside you," Merrill assured him in a tense voice. "I'll watch over you." For a moment the tight muscles of his face looked like he expected to guard Don with a battle-axe or something. Then suddenly he chuckled. "Look at you--weak as a jellyfish right now. If I let you do me mischief in your present state, I'd be the laughingstock of agency!"
"Besides," Zanne put in, "you've already had half a cup. Hung for the lamb..."
"...hung for the ram," Don finished. "Very well," he said reluctantly, "but don't underestimate the risks." He gave Merrill a haggard look of love. "You know what hysterical strength can do."
Deirdre could tell by the way that Merrill and Zanne leaned towards him that they yearned to help Don to his feet, but he managed by himself, a little shakily, and Merrill escorted him to the guest-room. Zanne went to get a half-cup of the tea.
Jake motioned Deirdre over to the couch where he reclined. He folded her hand in his enormous ones. "Sisterling," he said, "I am truly sorry."
She concealed her surprise as best she could. "Oh, don't worry about me. How are you doing?"
"If you had died on my account, I'd..." His brow furrowed suddenly. "You haven't the foggiest notion what I'm talking about, do you? How much do you remember?"
She hesitated, then said, "I remember that you'd never really hurt me--in your right mind."
He eyed her sideways, then patted her shoulder. "I guess that's all you need to know." He looked a little too relieved.
* * *
Alroy woke in the dark, still sick, still whirling in his head, just with an added layer of pain that threatened to soon grow worse. He pushed up from the cushions; he did not want to sleep there.
Where, then? His gameroom? He had a lounge in there. It lay not far away, and that mattered, or he would have gone to Sadie and Maydee. He nodded, holding onto the wall for a moment. Archives would understand him. Hate him, fear him, maybe, but understand—oh yes. She knew the burden of his immortality, better than anyone.
He could still hear lingering revelry in the main hall as he staggered away. Some of his creatures had surprising stamina when it came to debauchery. The sound grew more and more distant as he groped through lightless halls, to the little room that few knew even existed.
A light glowed in there. Had he left on a lamp? Yes, he did, right on the gameboard still sprinkled with his toys. He must not have put things away properly, preoccupied as he was by the wake. He smelled molten beeswax and it seemed too sweet to him, almost with a hint of licorice and cinnamon, strangely enough.
Ai, what a mess! The heat of the lamp, left too long in one spot, had crumpled the dolls of Jake and Deirdre, melting parts of them together. He'd sort it all out later. In the meantime he needed a bit more rest, an hour or two at least, before he had to undertake the most difficult endeavor of his life. He switched off the lamp and stumbled into bed.
Generations of telekinetic ghosts effervesced within Archives, like bubbles in too much champagne.