The Poison Gamble


By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 3
Reunion with the Oracle

Monday, October 22, 2700, continued
 

The tall young soldier closed the door, a smile of wonder on his face. "No locks," he said, and laughed. "God, Ricardo! You don't know how it feels to be back among the idealistic again." Another time would have called him Latino: dark of skin and eye and hair, with cheeks like planes of bone and a skeleton broad enough to bear the weight of nations. But Latin died on another planet, and Bram Valdez had nearly died on this one. The bones held together by little more than scars.
 
His great-uncle's smile became one more crease in a face as ridged with lines as Cracked Mesa with canyons. "The people you walked among had no locks either." The old man settled onto a couch and folded around himself the pale robe that Bram had sent him from his desert mission. It suited him beautifully.
 
"Only because you can't lock tents. They had thieves galore." Bram sat on the floor, still unused to houses with furniture.
 
"We had a theft just today, actually, right here in the Institute."
 
"Really?" Bram's face became guarded: still more betrayals, more refuges that proved no refuge?
 
"Relax, Nephew. The culprits have been caught, and so far it appears no more than a prank gone wrong. Til remains...incorrupt."
 
"You hesitated."
 
Ricardo half-glared, half-smiled. ""You've grown too sharp, dealing with politicians. I just felt a vision brush my mind, that's all."
 
Bram fidgeted. "Isn't that important? Should I leave?" He started to get up, but Ricardo rose and pushed him down instead.
 
"I have some say on these matters. And right now I say I don't want anything to disturb my reaquaintance with a nephew who hasn't visited in years." He went to the adjacent kitchen and put a kettle on the fire.
 
"One year. And a war got in the way," Bram said wryly.
 
Smiling, the old man rummaged through his cupboard for a tea-egg. "Excuses, excuses." Finding it after a time, he loaded it up with tea--the good Alonzo Valley kind, laced with cinnamon. The fragrance spiced the air. "My nephew, whom I didn't even know existed until just a few years back." The kettle whistled him over to pour its steaming water. "I thought no one survived of my family except for me."
 
"My grandfather thought you'd died in the fire. The adults who took him in found bones."
 
"Not, fortunately, mine." He brought in the service and laid it out upon the couch-side table. "Poor old Harry--an ape from Taryschi that your grandfather had trained to do chores around the farm. Best hand we ever had around the place--never got drunk on a Saturday night, never asked for more pay than room, board, and an occasional tickle."
 
"Funny, that the Tilián didn't investigate your origins better when they found you."
 
"Funny?" Ricardo asked as he blew dust from a cup. "When they'd found a child traumatized badly enough to raise as an oracle? You think their generosity to all the world's orphans is entirely based on charity?"
 
"I guess not," Bram said with a grin, then frowned. "How do you know so much so soon about those thieves?" he asked as he poured himself tea. "Is it..."
 
"Oraclism bears little resemblance to omniscience, Bram," Ricardo said drily. "Surely you know that by now." He coughed, a bit embarrassed. "No, I'm following the case quite closely because the rapscallions come from the same friendclan as my latest protégé--the one who introduced me to you, in fact. I have to monitor the stresses on him."
 
"Not Jake?" Bram asked with some horror as he squatted with his cup in hand at the foot of the couch.
 
"I said from the same friendclan, not he himself."
 
"Who, then? Randy? Jesse? Surely not little Deirdre!"
 
"None of those who stayed with your mother so many years ago. Two of the other three."
 
"Merrill!" he said with conviction.
 
Ricardo nodded. "And Don." He patted the cushion beside him with some exasperation. "And come up here where I can see more than the top of your head! All that black hair makes me jealous."
 
"Sorry," Bram said as he joined him. "I'm still not used to couches."
 
"Well, I won't take my old bones down to the carpet with you. I'm no agent, and I don't have to adapt to any culture but my own."
 
Bram said softly, "I'm not really an agent, either." He sipped his tea and stared into it. "I wanted to be."
 
"Well, now that you've proven that those raised in homes can serve Til just as well, I'm sure they'll let you in. You did more diplomacy than soldiery in Tsariosh. That's agent's work."
 
"If anybody notices," Bram murmured.
 
"You've restructured a society to end a war. They'll notice."
 
"You look good in robes--makes you really look like a teacher of oracles."
 
"You're dodging. Don't change the subject."
 
"All right!" Bram threw up his hands. "I know what you're going to say next: 'You don't like soldiery, Bram. Why don't you quit it? Why'n'erth does Til need soldiers anyway?'"
 
"Settle down or you'll spill your tea."
 
Bram sighed and picked the cup off his knees. "Okay. I'm sorry. That last engagement frazzled me to nothing."
 
"Why does Til need a military? No one can find our borders if we don't want them to."
 
"Because it's a technology like anything else. Because people can die who lack its skills. Because all the lore we've preserved will eat us alive if we don't distribute it to the right people at the right time."
 
"So who will you teach nuclear fission to, Bram?"
 
The young man tightened his grip on his cup. "I don't need platitudes, Uncle. Not right now."
 
Ricardo put a hand on his shoulder. "You only call me Uncle when I anger you. Did you ever notice? I'm sorry; I didn't mean to touch a nerve."
 
Bram stared in his cup like he read the tea-leaves there. "Because of me, the Tsarioshin have guns that reload automatically–against the rules. But because of me, those guns will also see less use."
 
"You're shaking."
 
Bram laughed, abruptly. "And that's why I turned to diplomacy! I got to shaking so badly that I couldn't shoot straight--I had to make guns obsolete." His tea sloshed in his cup, but he smiled. "It's funny, the people they make heroes, and the reasons. I've been reading..."
 
"I know what you've been reading, Bram. Or should I say 'Larry'?"
 
"So you've heard the barrack nickname."
 
Ricardo smiled wryly. "Oraclism needs raw materials. I listen to everything."
 
"Right down to kids getting in trouble. How many of Fireheart Friendclan still are kids, by the way?"
 
"Technically speaking?" Ricardo asked with a raised brow. "Just Jesse. All the rest have passed their adulthood exams."
 
"Even Deirdre?" For a moment the harshened face looked almost boyish. "She always was my favorite, you know." Bram shrugged. "We had the same hair, the same color eyes--I used to pretend she really was my sister." He sipped tea and frowned. "Now this Merrill guy I only met a couple times; I just can't feel the same towards him."
 
"Nevertheless you..." Ricardo stopped. He pushed the vision away again. It felt like he shoved aside a squirming handful of worms.
 
"Nevertheless what?"
 
"Don't mind me, I...oh no. Cocoon them away, they'll burst forth with wings! I'm sorry. Fix me some tea will you...in fact, why don't I fix us both some..." He got up abruptly and hurried to the kitchen, but his eyes didn't see his way, he walked into a wall.
 
"Ricardo, wait!"
 
"The worms insist on growing into butterflies," he said to the wall, with all the fond exasperation of a father with inconvenient offspring.
 
"You're having a vision, aren't you."
 
"You will know Merrill better, of course you will, even if you never meet him again. Ask Archives. She knows. You and Archives must get to know each other better, too."
 
"Are you saying I should become a programmer?" Bram asked. "I do have a talent for psychometry."
 
"Ask Archives. I read it on a butterfly's wing...red on blue, like blood in water."
 
"Or red and blue magentine? I can't guarantee anything, but I can tune into Archives, if it pleases you."
 
Ricardo said nothing. The butterfly's wings had grown to overshadow everything. At this size the scales of color did indeed look like the red and blue crystals of magentine, close-packed into the memory-cells of Archives. He could no longer read the message written in them. But Bram seemed to respond correctly; his words fit the vision.
 
"Ricardo?" The old man didn't hear him. "Ricardo, I think I'd better leave. All this goes over my head." Ricardo Valdez wept at the sight of so much beauty. "Goodbye." Bram hesitated at the door. But no oracle needed less protection than this master among sages. "He'll want his privacy," Bram muttered, and left unregarded. He had a girlfriend to visit, anyway. And Deirdre, too. He missed little Deirdre.
 
Evening came, filled the corners with shadows, and the shadows grew. The oracle stood transfixed, man on a board with a spike of beauty through his center, regarded by the butterfly whose wings overshadowed the world.
 
Suddenly he screamed, fell to the floor and found himself in his own house, sprawled on his own rug. "It had talons," he gasped, "The butterfly had talons--covered with blood." When his apparition had flipped over and shown him that...!
 
But Ricardo had not become senior among oracles by letting visions panic him. He worked to pull himself back. He gripped fingers into the fibers of the rug, trying to remember the woman who had woven it for him when the yarn had gleamed bright, when he had been handsome and she intrigued. The sweat that he hadn't known broke out now turned cold while he struggled with a psychic pain that the body could only guess at, but eventually the mundaneity of time, the fibers softened by traffic and as faded as his own hair, anchored him to the present. In this reality even floors with rugs in summer felt cold to old men's bones.
 
Ricardo pulled himself up to his feet by couch and table, protests in his joints and soul. He forced himself to his console, and wrote down the details of his vision, everything that he could remember. Archives would need the input. In this reality butterflies never showed talons.
 

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