The Poison Gamble
By Dolores J. Nurss
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
"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
"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..."
"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
"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."
"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.