The Poison Gamble


By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 5
On Trial

Monday, October 22, 2700, continued
 

Within the courtroom sat three persons in dark robes, consoles inlaid into the table where they sat. The central one, white of hair and beard, skin as black as the blindness of justice, had to be the Barrister Master. This lawyer's sole interest lay in the Benefit of Til; he would break ties and make final decisions.
 
To his left sat a self-righteous young blond man, the Barrister Prosecutor, whose glance dismissed the two youths even as they entered. Actually, Merrill took hope in this; perhaps he'd consider their crimes beneath his talents?
 
To the Master's right a ruddy woman looked on them with dutiful compassion. The Barrister Defender also encouraged Merrill. Slender in her forties, motherly in her eyes, she could well be one of those whose career never admitted the time for childbearing, one who transferred her instincts to the adoption of her clients. Such women could not defend more passionately if their own mothers stood in the docks.
 
Don looked at Merrill and felt no hope at all. Though the boy's vitality had returned, Don could read as certain as a telepath that Merrill's mind stayed uninhibited by the damper-net’s residual effects. The Til concept of a fair trial did not include a guarantee of the ability to dissemble.
 
"Precinct Captain Daniel Antoine Basque," said the central figure. "You may step forward." Don winced as the older guard behind him did so. The Precinct Captain!
 
"Captain Basque, do you have the crown with you?"
 
"Yes I do, your Honor."
 
"Please place it on the table before us."
 
He did so. It looked barbaric even to Merrill, the raw gold dull in the lamplight, poorly worked, with uncut, unpolished beryls hammered directly into it.
 
"That," said the Master, "is the most prized possession of a very small, very poor nation who has nothing else. They went into debt for generations to obtain the gold from distant lands, because their ritual prescribed that metal and no other. They found the stones themselves and sincerely believe them to be emeralds. They have no smiths accustomed to fine work--the exigencies of their lives come too hard--but they did the best, the very best they could."
 
He paused, fingering it thoughtfully, and then looked up at the defendants. "Any tilan could find a prettier piece of headgear in a prop-shop. Why anyone would want to steal a thing so highly valued by so desperate a people, loaned to our museum on trust, with so little need on the thief's part, escapes my understanding."
 
"Excuse me," Merrill said, "but it was the principle of the thing."
 
"The principle of the thing," the Master repeated. "Before you say any more, I must by law inform you that our staff telepaths review your every statement, legal psychometrists have examined the crown, and any lie you speak shall instantly be recognized as such. If you prefer direct telepathic interrogation, with counsel, we shall arrange it. If you telepathically block our truthsensing, on the other hand, we have the warrant to administer psigenic drugs."
 
"Oh, I've been told that already. But the point..."
 
"The point is that you shall not throw out the legalities of a fair trial by your...exuberance."
 
The woman touched the Master's arm. "Let him make his point."
 
The blond man smirked. "You may regret that, Sophie."
 
The Master said, "Very well, young man."
 
"I mean, okay, so we did take it, the evidence..."
 
"Steal it," corrected the Prosecutor.
 
"Take it," insisted Merrill. "That much your psychometrists can read--hey, Don here's a psychometrist, I know what they can do..."
 
"Stay on the point," the Barrister Master warned.
 
"Right. But it's not steal, it's reclaim, because Don has the right to wear the Crown of Neyth."
 
"The record confirms this," said the Defender. "Mr. Khmi," she asked gently, "are you interested in reclaiming your hereditary position?"
 
"Not on your life!"
 
"But Don!" Merrill protested.
 
"This was all his idea!" Don's hand shook as he gestured at Merrill. "I never wanted any crown."
 
"But that's the idea..."
 
"Ambrey," the Prosecutor cut in, "We will not tolerate any pressure on your accomplice to recant his repentance." He turned to the Barrister Master. "I don't think anyone will question the guilt of the defendants, not even the perpetrators themselves. It's really a question of sentencing." Merrill waited for the Defender to speak, but she only sighed.
 
The Master cleared his throat to say, "For my part I see the root of this crime as simple immaturity, as our telepaths even now describe it to us. In consideration of this, I recommend in sentencing..."
 
"Pardon me, sir," Merrill interrupted, "But I'm a man and I accept the responsibility for a man's sentence." Don would've kicked him if his foot didn't hurt.
 
"Man!" Dan Basque sneered.
 
"That will be all, Captain," the Prosecutor reproved.
 
"Your Honors," the officer pressed, "In my job I bring in more and more so-called adults to trial who would've never gotten into trouble had they had the supervision due a minor."
 
"A minor?" Merrill cried. "If you know so much then how old am I?"
 
"That is classified information, Merrill Ambrey," said the Defender in a stern voice. "You know that."
 
"Barrister Master," said the Prosecutor, "Even the Barrister Defender loses patience with her client."
 
"Not so," she retorted. "I merely recommend restraint in his own best interest."
 
"But this youngster's got no restraint in him," the Captain protested. "Take my witness on it: he's no man."
 
"Your Honors," Merrill said, "You can examine my records for yourselves. I passed my adulthood tests on every point."
 
"Then they were lax," said the Captain.
 
Merrill stared at him. "You have got to be kidding. I very nearly died on the last part. I spent three days in the hospital."
 
"Then you barely passed," Dan Basque retorted. In an undertone he added, "I wish you'd flunked."
 
"Captain!" The Defender rebuked. "You are out of line."
 
"Apologies to the court," the officer grumbled. "But if I have to bring in any more 'men' like him..."
 
"You have the option," said the Master, "Of forming a lobby to promote whatever reforms you desire."
 
"Fine," said the Captain with some heat. "I'll do just that."
 
After a moment's awkwardness the Defender spoke. "We should dispense justice on Don Khmi first, as his case is simpler. Mr. Khmi, you have comported yourself with comparative courtesy and restraint, and expressed regret for your part in this unfortunate escapade."
 
"Thank you, your honor. I don't want anything to do with that crown. Honestly."
 
"I believe you."
 
"However," the Prosecutor put in, "This raises grave questions about Mr Khmi's character, if he is so easily led as to commit a crime for a prize that he doesn't desire."
 
The Defender said, "Mr. Khmi's record shows him to be a fine scholar, above average in intelligence and well-disposed in personality."
 
"Yet that file is not without blemish." The Prosecutor looked at his colleagues. "He has gotten in trouble before."
 
"As I read this," said the Master, "Every single case involved excessive influence from this other young man. We have a pattern here."
 
"Do you think we should separate them?" the Prosecutor asked. Silence froze the very air of the room.
 
"To break a Friendclan," the Defender finally said, "should wait in reserve for worse crimes than this. Far worse." She took a deep breath. "After all, our telepaths find no serious belief that they would keep the crown."
 
"What then?" the blonde pressed.
 
"I recommend that we should bolster Don Khmi's own sense of self-guidance and his leadership capabilities."
 
"But that's just what I had in mind," Merrill protested. "Get Don in touch with his heritage, his pride."
 
"Method is everything," said the Master. "I have something better in mind."
 
"What, to reward him?" asked the Prosecutor.
 
"Not necessarily," the Master replied. "Mr. Khmi, I read here that you have quite a knack for sailing."
 
"Thank you, your Honor."
 
"I presume that includes some skill at swimming."
 
"Why, he's a dolphin, your Honor," Merrill burst out. Don elbowed him in the ribs.
 
"Hmmm. So it seems. Well then, I think as a penalty you should teach a class on swimming."
 
"Barrister Master!" the Prosecutor exclaimed, as Don just about grinned his face off.
 
"Hear me out, Samuel," said the Master to his peer. "You, Mr. Khmi, shall take on a class of juvenile delinquents." He smiled. "I'm certain your recent experiences should help you to identify with their plight."
 
Don's heart thudded down into his stomach, where it began to burn. The Master went on. "You must understand that these cases are somewhat more hardened than your own--they do not take orders readily. Nevertheless, you must lead them with absolute confidence, or else they will die. For of course we cannot throw a damper-net over Cauldron Bay."
 
"Cauldron Bay!" Don gasped. "You want me to train beginners there?"
 
"I'm certain that the prospect of danger will encourage most of them to receptivity--as well as bolster their self-image enough to let them seek legitimate avenues of satisfaction. As for any remainder, well, think of it as a weeding-out process. Free will in action and all that."
 
"But your Honor!"
 
"If you want no deaths on your conscience," the Master said genially, "then lead them well. That's all you have to do.  Details will follow on your console as to the place and time to meet your students."
 
Don still gaped. The Prosecutor said, "Must I remind you that you, and every person raised in Til, owes your life to Til Institute? That you would have died if not for us, and that therefore we may require that life as we see fit?"
 
"No, your Honor."
 
"Very well, then. Now, let's consider this other young...man."
 
The Barrister Master shifted in his place. "As far as the offending character flaw goes, I'd call it an open and shut case. Merrill Ambrey lacks self control. The question is degree."
 
The Defender spoke up. "His personality profile shows a phenomenal degree of goodwill, no trace of sinalismo whatsoever. In fact, I have never seen such idealism in my career. That's worth salvaging."
 
"Too much of a good thing," said the Prosecutor. "I believe the definition of a fanatic is One so caught up in the pursuit that he tramples his goal. Mr. Ambrey cannot live up to his own standards under present circumstances, so he blows off steam in all directions and Til Institute gets scalded."
 
"In that case," the Defender pressed, "We must find him his proper outlet. When we waste him everyone suffers."
 
"First, we must determine if he can still learn self-control, enough to make use of an outlet." The Prosecutor shook his head. "It wouldn't be the first time we came too late." He punched some buttons on the console. "It says here that we may have biochemical or neurological factors to deal with--possible cyclothymic syndrome, possible attention deficit, possible hypoglycemia..."
 
Icily the Defender said, "You are not going to hospitalize my client for a series of minor offenses."
 
"Only for testing, Sophie--in his own best interest."
 
"Indefinitely?" she asked with arched brow. For the first time Merrill felt real fear crawl up his spine.
 
The Master said, "I have in mind a simpler penalty, to both test and teach him. Voluntary house arrest." He leaned towards Merrill. "Hear my terms, Mr. Ambrey. You must not leave your apartment, under any condition short of a disaster that would endanger your life to stay. In such a case we would commence an inquiry to make certain that you didn't generate the calamity yourself." His dark eyes wouldn't let Merrill look away. "You will have no locks, no guard, no enforcement but your own certainty that if you leave, and you are caught, we will have no further faith in you whatsoever."
 
"Sounds fair enough to me," Merrill said, his face carefully neutral while his mind ran wild with all the possibilities.
 
The Master looked stern. "You could gamble on leaving. You would almost certainly get caught, but you think the slim chance worth the risk." He glanced down at the screen on his desk. "I see on your financial records a number of transactions related to cards. You're pretty good." He looked up again. "But you don't win every time, Mr. Ambrey. More than half your 'luck' comes of knowing that. This perspective has protected you from developing a 'gambling problem'. The higher the stakes, the better the odds you want. So, in fairness, I should tell you the stakes in this game: Formal Rehabilitation."
 
Don saw Merrill's face go dead white, and felt suddenly cold himself. Even the Barristers looked shocked, though the Prosecutor's eyes narrowed as at an ugly duty that he must see through to the end.
 
Only the Barrister Master seemed unmoved. "Then we could answer all of these pestering little medical points at leisure, as well as conduct extensive testing designed to crack open all of the psyche's most hard-shelled secrets. That accomplished, we could completely unravel the mystery of what makes Merrill Ambrey such a problem to society, and reknit the strands of his life into whatever shape better pleases us. You would thank us in the end, of course, years from now--whoever you happened to be by then." The white moustache twitched in a smirk.
 
"And," the Master continued, "to oppose this risk we put at stake the satisfaction of a prank. A mere prank. If you have the strength to resist this temptation, then we may consider you a man indeed, worthy of employment as such."
 
"You mean as an agent?" Merrill blurted.
 
"Silence!" The Prosecutor's fist hit the table. "First let's determine whether we may safely leave you with your personality intact, before we reward your impudence! In the meantime, I shall personally investigate whoever certified your adulthood."
 
"Let's discuss details," said the Barrister Master, leaning genially forward on his arms. "You shall continue your studies on your console, as well as ordering groceries delivered the same way..."
 
"Your Honor..."
 
"We've had enough of your interruptions," the Prosecutor growled.
 
"But I don't have a console!"
 
They stared at him, all three of them. "How do you manage?" the Defender finally asked.
 
"I use the public console down the hall, when I have to. I keep my journal through friend's sets--it gives me a reason to visit. As for studies, I always pay extra for books, 'cause I can read them while I run along the beach."
 
The Prosecutor looked sourly on him. "You really do indulge this restlessness of yours, every chance you get."
 
"Not so harsh, Sam," said the Defender. "Educational policy recommends peripatetic classes and study on the move for hyperactive children."
 
"Mr. Ambrey keeps reminding us that he's no longer a child. You can't have it both ways, Sophie."
 
With a sigh the Barrister Master said, "We will make a court loan to the defendant of one console system, to be returned upon completion of his sentence."
 
"And how long will that sentence be?" Merrill asked.
 
"You will know when the release flashes in the upper right corner of the screen. In the Field, Mr. Ambrey, that Field which you so yearn to occupy as an agent, we never know the comfort of a predictable end in sight. If you have any ambition of coming even close to agency, you must first learn to cope, not merely with the physical dangers, but the psychological ones as well." He paused. "Any further questions, either of you?"
 
They both said no, one after the other.
 
"Then, unless my colleagues disagree, court adjourned."
 

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