The Poison Gamble

By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 7
Of Good and Evil

Saturday, November 3, 2700

Merrill's chest hurt and he didn't even notice. Words sped across the screen as he scrolled them upward. Nothing else mattered, till suddenly the pain grew so ragged that he gasped, and found that the gasp did not come easy.
He pulled himself back. Hunching over the console did not facilitate breathing. The horror that transfixed him didn't justify suffocation. He took a few measured breaths before he resumed. Just his luck that Til medicine emphasized meditation techniques--the one skill he could not excel in.
Study. Like all tilanitos--even the restless ones like him--he worked, played, lived for study, the sport of the mind, because it entertained, it taught new games, but more because it won approval. It proved that his mother had made a mistake to throw him away--and this his teachers fostered in him, as they did in all the other children whose problems could flog them to save the world. In study lay salvation, or at least the benefit of the doubt.
Merrill might take his lessons on the run, might insist on hands-on classes and educational hikes, he might chafe at every lecture that he had to sit still for, but he loved to learn as much as he loved the push and pull of his own muscles. Til had spent centuries learning how to harness an orphan's insecurities, whatever his original temperament, and make a scholar of him.
Yet never till now had he read where some of that lore came from. "After the fifth day of study sessions advanced to twenty-hour periods, subject #415 slammed a globe of Novatierre repeatedly against the classroom wall until it broke, then stepped into the center of the shards and said that he was God, he had hatched the world to punish it. Sticking to the itinerary, I told him to return to his seat and finish his paper, but he stood there until led away to the hospital. Now two six year olds remained (#217 and #402); accordingly, I increased the rigors of the curriculum by a factor of 0.5" Like this test to see what children at different ages could handle before they shattered in the teacher's hand. They tested each and every one of them to the breaking point.
The File of Shame recorded the guilt of the Tilián.
He learned how the first colonists had kidnapped brilliant children from all over the Earth before the migration, as the planet began the earliest phase of its long decay, how they smuggled them here before a single government knew of Novatierre, thinking in their pride to protect them, nurture them, help them find the answers that their elders couldn't see.
Then he read the list of suicides.
He read of the Burden of Remorse, the crafting of the Lovequest Vow, the pledge to dedicate Til Institute to lifelong reparation, clear back into the age when it still called itself Technological Laboratories and pretended to pure research.
And he learned of every sin that they’d ever committed since, the great and the small. He drew information from one console even as Ricardo typed into another all that he'd learned of Jake's vision on the beach. The cells of magentine bled energy into energy, in patterns far more complex than Archives herself could unravel. Archives gave, and she received, and dreamed unsettled dreams.
Merrill forgot to breathe again. The letters swam before his eyes. He pulled back into the ache in his chest and concentrated on his lungs till he could focus again. Then he read about a war that should never have taken place. "Again I had that terrible, wonderful feeling that by now I had only to raise the red handkerchief and blood would, again, flow in my honor, my soldiers as unhesitant to die for me as kill for me.  As I walked upon the corpses of the vanquished, lain before me in a victor's carpet according to the customs of the tribe, I felt taller with each step until I could almost believe my head brushed against the thunderclouds that crashed above us, the flashes almost bringing life again to the contorted clay that we had together sundered from their spirits, as the rain flooded down and made them clean. The odor that the tropic steamed up for me no longer troubled me; indeed I began to like it, the gunpowder-laced effulgence of my power over minds and bodies. As for my wound, I hardly felt it that day, a dying twinge like conscience, soon to stretch out lifeless before my feet.
"May God deliver me from this war, this culture, this deliciously seductively addictive poison of the soul!"

Somewhere, unseen by human eyes, Archives logged in Merrill’s minutes of study on a subject that no one ever taught and few ever read. It existed to bleed through, to temper actions with remorse, the way fatigue poisons keep muscles from tearing themselves apart.
Even so, Merrill got credits in his personality-profile for any self-education. All future classes or jobs would consider his qualifications in light of the knowledge that he garnered today--even if no one specifically knew that he had learned it.
Repelled and fascinated, as a teenage boy will often find a particular fascination in repulsion, he drew in the confessions and defiances of learned folk, idealistic folk, judged criminals. All of that archaic wisdom, passion and evil, preserved as fresh as tomorrow, the Archives delivered into his hands.
"Long I toyed with the little flask of poison today, not quite the size of my thumb. So easy...a few drops, a little thrashing, and the inconvenience of a brief quarantine before the authorities decided that none of us carried whatever had slain my dear Zolmón. And am I not justified? By questioning my motives in front of everybody he could have tainted my credibility enough to jeopardize the mission, if I hadn't acted quickly. I must not allow him to do this to me again."
Merrill presented no picture of evil, himself. Angelic, his face retained the downiness of a chin almost innocent of the razor. The Precinct Captain would never have believed that he could appear so mild, like a young poet who mused on his own sonnets--not a boy who perused the hysterics of a scientist in court, accused of experiments on "volunteers"–developmentally disabled citizens too simple to consent to anything.
"But I loved them! Each and every one of them, I sat by their bedsides, sometimes all hours, held their hands when the painkillers failed, put my arms around them and held them as they sobbed. Where else could people like these have found the love that I offered, even if they’d lived three times as long?"
Yet this man had fallen into the clutches of justice when the highly intelligent wife of one of his "volunteers" had tracked down her missing husband. Merle Cheneh--who later earned her own chapter in the File of Shame with her grief-fueled excesses in the Full Moon Rebellion.
"This, too, is a part of us," Merrill thought, and read on. "It is well to know." He felt a brief pang of guilt, himself, at his own morbidity, when he could spend time on something relevant to agency-training (but so few made it, so heartbreakingly few!) He stifled this with Randy's quote against relevancy: Once you see the need to know a subject, it's generally too late to learn.
He read of an experiment in sociology where an agent drove a village mad. "For a moment I myself almost joined them; my skin burned beneath the furs to run naked into the snows after visions, sacrifice my extremities to the gods of frostbite, refuse all treatment until gangrene finally drove me permanently into that better world glimpsed only in delirium. But somebody has to keep a record of the delicate checks and balances in religion and what might disturb them." The knowledge that the man had gained to this day saved whole nations; that made it no less evil.
Details leaped at him with the vividness that only Archives could achieves--the very feel of soft and slippery corpses underfoot, the pungent whiff of poison that needed concealment in oil of cloves, the grip of the "volunteer" so hard that it broke the doctor's hand, the burning arctic wind across his face! Through Archives' aid psychometrists revised its vocabulary to catch each change of nuance. Not just for each generation but, through the filter of personality profiles, it rewrote itself--to the utmost accuracy--for every individual whose journal rested within itself. Merrill could not misunderstand.
This intimacy of human being to Archives brought Merrill no comfort. These crimes still lived. Everything still lived. Even now he felt the thrill and the guilt and the arrogance and pain thunder through him like a stampede of something wild and primitive, unstoppable! Nobody remained apart, no more than one organ could exclude from itself a drug in the common blood. If a single tilan joined into the stampede of barbarity that they all had pledged to curb, then every one of them did, abandoned sometime, somewhere, in an unremembered dream.
Merrill used Archives for the details of his life, to find the part-time work that fed him as he studied (it listed all that he qualified for, in lessons, work or play), to keep his medical records, to plan his parties, to log his journals. It kept a list of everything that he read and all that he left half-finished with disgust for the tale. Instead of coin it marked his finances, his gains, expenses, gambles. On consoles he made doodles and wrote his half-baked poetry and every flavor of himself he fed back in, in inseparable cycle. And the chance-thought of each long-dead malefactor or unsung hero could send as much of a subtlety back.
He read of an agent who decided that the very best way to serve a community was to depose the old government and set himself up as dictator. "But only for a little while, only until I establish a better order, a saner society. Still, it hurt to watch that woman screaming, struggling, as they dragged her off for execution. Yet if I had let her sing her subversive songs on the road, from town square to town square, how would I ever get anywhere with this people? The melody nags me even now--I can't get the tune out of my head." Things kept happening in contradiction to the vow that each tilan took after hir Initiation in childhood:

Creation. That meant Old Creation, of course, humanity, but also New Creation, the planet that hosted them. And now he read of men who defoliated Assassin's Weed, causing the extinction of the entire species, just because some used it evilly. Never mind the medicine that its poison could also become, let alone the mere fact that it lived, spread glad leaves to the sun, and had no malice of itself.
"We found the last patch of it, I think, today--so soft and feathery, silver-green, you'd think it harmless. It gives off a faint anise scent when our boots bruise it. We donned our masks and employed the spray, then put the warning signs around. The ground should be clear in a couple of days, but I wouldn't recommend farming it for five years at least."
Could Til ever raise up a son who did not believe in Lovequest, or daughter cold to the vow? Who from this Institute, however delinquent, could imagine another justification for life, once given a second chance to survive? Not Merrill, of Ambrey Canyon.
Lovequest: to serve love not as an emotion but as a quest, a lifelong occupation. Teachers served it, and farmers, and plumbers--all of the support personnel. Not only here, but in Novo Durango, Alonzo Valley and the entire network of communities that sustained the Tilián.
The janitors made Lovequest possible and were content. The brain-damaged people in sheltered workshops, who spent their days assembling consoles or backpacks or multitooled folding knives, they took pride in contributing to Lovequest and proved hard-hearted the mothers who didn't want them. The doctors who treated agents when they came home with wounds, the morticians who raised up their cenotaphs when they did not, the politicians and publicans who gave them homes to return to, all served Lovequest, each in their way. Many urged Merrill and his friends to forsake their dreams, face reality and serve the Quest in ways like these.
But to be an agent! All the rest formed a wedge, a broad base to strengthen the cutting edge that it narrowed to, till it honed down to the razor precision of individuals. The names, the memorable names!
Yet now he read a name that he'd heard before, mentioned in shame: a once-great who ended by urging her followers to mass-suicide rather than surrender. "After all I've done, after all we've suffered together, how can I leave a single one to walk through the rubble of my failure? I look at Ción, my youngest soldier, so flexible and beardless--they could brainwash him if he lived, they could make something terrible of him, combining their malevolent politics with the training that I've given him in arms. No, better this way, the bitter drops in the still more bitter quinona-whiskey. Ción has a girlfriend, I've noticed, precocious by the daily proximity of death. Good--she can hold him as they die together, and the cramps won't be so bad that way. I wish I had somebody."
She graduated from the same conditioning that Merrill did, the hothouse upbringing in a commoran from infancy, the ethics classes, even the math courses that asked questions like, "How many bales of wheat will save this village from starvation?" She rose from that environment which controlled every facet to create people like them, who had to answer their most desperate needs by serving the needs of others. Merrill read and said, "This is a part of me, too."
How much of a part? Could Til have produced a sinalma, soulless one, sociopath? It happened. Even now Don worked with deviant children, some of whom had no trace of love in them that he could discover. In the worst cases they had to break the personality down completely and start from scratch. Despite all conditioning, with so many traumatized childhoods in this community of expendables that Til had gathered up, it happened more often than people would admit.
I know that I'm capable of love, Merrill thought. He loved all the world, the entire human race, to a degree of passion that most philosophers only speculated on. Merrill didn't philosophize; this went against his nature. He loved, practically lusted. He embodied that rarest and most dangerous of all the psychological types: the extroverted mystic, doomed to cause turmoil wherever he went. "I know that I can love," said Merrill to his reflection on the surface of the screen. "I just don't know what to do about it."
He read on. He got so enrapt that he didn't hear the door open behind him, nor notice the lanky young man who stood over him a long while, nor the perfectly silent way that the intruder slid out a chair beside the much shorter boy. Merrill didn't even hear the rustle when Jake picked up the printouts that he'd finished with.
But he did hear Jake hiss, "This is ghastly!"
"Jake, you nearly gave me a heart-attack!"
"You should be jumpy. What is this, controlling informants by drug addiction? Who needs this?"
"Haven't you ever heard of the File of Shame?" Merrill asked with just a hint of superiority.
"A record of wrong turns, yeah, I've heard. Fanaticism."
Merrill tried to conceal his chagrin, but Jake knew him too well and let slip a half-smile. Merrill asked, "Aren't you at all curious about it?"
"Well, they must keep a record for some reason."
"We keep records on anything. This is morbid, Merrill."
Merrill balled up fists of paper. "So, Saint Jaquar has come to preach to the Felon Ambrey--and here I thought you'd come to comfort me in exile!"
"No, to invite you to dinner."
"If you weren't so enthralled, my friend, you'd have seen the release-order blinking on the corner of your screen, there."
Merrill stared at it. "Sonuvagun."
"I've never seen you like this. I didn't think you could concentrate on anything."
"My arrest is over..."
"Good for you. Dinner will start in..."
"Ohhh no..."
"They'll take the console away now!" Merrill grabbed up the papers that he'd just crumpled and tried to smooth them out. "Listen, Jake, I'll see you later. Right now I've got to make printouts, all the printouts I can..."
"You've got to be kidding." Jake saw Merrill's hands shake as they flew over the keyboard. "How long since you've slept?" he asked.
"I'm not sure. Oh, Jake! You're not my housemother!"
"Which one? The one you gave a nervous breakdown? Or her successor, who retired early with her hair turned white?" But Merrill had begun to read again. "I can't believe this!" Jake spread one huge hand across the screen's middle. Merrill glared at him. "Fireheart Friendclan's getting together at the Mulberry for dinner in about an hour. You just have time for a good nap."
"I'm not..."
"You did eat today? Something besides a jelly-roll?"
"A couple jelly-rolls."
"Come on." Jake rose. "I'm going to find you some protein."
"Wait. I'll be with you in a minute. I just don't want to spoil my train of thought."
"I already spoiled it. Where's your fridge?"
"Under the sink. Now leave me alone." Merrill tried to ignore the sounds of puttering in his kitchen, as Jake first explored the refrigerator, then all the cupboards.
"Good lord, Merrill; haven't you got one nutritious thing in this house?"
"What difference does it make? I never get fat."
"Only because you're on a perpetual sugar-rush." Jake headed for the door. "I'll be back in half an hour. Rest or not, that's your business. But I'm personally escorting you to the Mulberry if I have to carry you. You need real food."
Merrill had already resumed reading before the door closed.

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