The Poison Gamble

By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 8
Of Good and Evil

Saturday, November 3, 2700, continued

By the time Jake and Merrill had reached the Mulberry, two of their friendclan had already arrived.  The youngest, the nyctophile Jesse Vrede, wore his dark glasses even in the restaurant's dimness.  They perched in his white cascade of hair without evidence of ears.  What glimpses of face showed through that veil glimmered with the dull white lustre of ivory.  On him the delicate features of childhood looked almost menacing, like some fairy creature who had actually lived for centuries without ever growing up.
And there beside him lounged their long-time buddy Randy Kramer.  Not quite as short as Merrill but close, round-faced and freckled, he had a nose like a parakeet's beak and innocent blue eyes that belied the wickedest grin in Altraus. His red hair would curl if he didn't keep it cropped so short.
It surprised Merrill when Don came in still limping, through the other door.  He hadn't expected the ankle to twist so badly (and where the devil did he get those scratches on his face?)  But when he saw that the pleasantly homely young man leaned on the shoulders of both of the female members of their group, he wondered how much Don feigned.
Deirdre supported him on his right, looking as delicate as a flower's shadow, but upright under a burden that Merrill knew weighed heavier than it looked. Deirdre never asked for concessions.  She might look feminine now, but he could remember a time before they'd ever thought of her as a girl, when she'd built a reputation as the best child-brawler in Novo Durango, Alonzo Valley, and Til Institute.  All in the defense of her dear ones, naturally, and never on her own behalf, protecting everyone you'd expect to protect her.  But no one could deny that those slender limbs held muscle.
The other, less lovely perhaps, had a subtler appeal, this newcomer to their friendclan, Lisa Katchuri.  Tall, slim and straight, her short hair (colored nondescript) framed an unremarkable face with thin lips and nose--but within that face...Merrill felt glad he couldn't quite describe what he read in her personality, the strength in that glance.  To describe it might break the spell.
Deirdre laughed as often as the others, took her share in idiot risks, kept up with the best of them.  But something in her awoke an instinct to shield her. She tried too hard; she seemed to have no armor but her daring.  On the other hand, Merrill perceived Lisa as a woman one could, if necessary, lean on.  Oh, Deirdre'd let you till it broke her, but that made Merrill hesitate to try, and some necessary confidence weakened as a result.
"Ho, jailbird!" Randy called out.  He pushed a chair out to Merrill with his foot. "How does it feel to break out?  Ah, and here comes your partner in crime, with...can it be?  Gun molls!"
"Nice to see you, too, Randy."  Merrill took the seat even as Lisa said, "Gun molls is it, Firebug?  I think I'm the only one of the whole lot of you who's never been in trouble."
"Poor thing."  Randy grinned.  "Maybe we can amend that."
She eyed him up and down with half-closed lids.  "Give me credit for some taste."
Color flooded pink between Randy's freckles.  "I didn't mean it that way," he protested.
Lisa looked at him with as straight a face as Merrill ever saw across a poker table.  "Why, Randy Kramer, whatever are you talking about?"
Don tried to stifle back his chuckles, and choked on them, while Deirdre looked at them all with wide eyes, everything completely over her head.  Every friendclan needed at least one innocent, but despite her perfect record, it wasn't Lisa.
Randy turned to Jake and said, "Can you believe the abuse I have to put up with, Weed?  They don't appreciate my wit around here."
Jake socked him lovingly in the arm.  "Or they appreciate it all too well."  He wouldn't let anyone but Randy call him "Weed"--Randy, who'd named him that since childhood for how fast and tall and tough he grew, how much he could survive.
None of them noticed the man who watched them.  Most of Fireheart would've recognized Bram, even changed as war had left him, but he'd made a study of remaining unnoticed, on battlefields where the wounded got shot twice, and in meetings where the overtly attentive met assassins on the street outside.  He had gone to his console as his kinsman advised, but all random associations, on whatever subject, came back to these children from his past, now young men and women.  He hadn't a clue as to why.
Jesse had the floor.  Researchers had discovered him possessed of a rare form of telekinetic ability that could pare down to the cellular level.  Surgeons hoped one day to harness it for surgery.
"And they've enrolled me at Carmina Island for study, both as a subject and as a research-fellow.  They say I'm young enough to learn some really innovative applications of Gift."  Gift again, always Gift.  How Merrill hated the word!  "Of course, they'll get problems with me being a minor, 'informed consent' and all that red tape, but maybe if they need me they'll push my maturity tests up a bit in schedule.  I hope!"
He's barely pubescent! Merrill thought, squirming under the reminder of his most blatant defect.  The permeance of magentine in this world gave a boost to those mental talents that on Earth had operated too weakly and unconsciously for much in the way of practical value.  But it couldn't boost a cipher.
Deirdre could levitate, when strengthened by a crystal focus.  Merrill begrudged her that, staring critically at the clay caking her boots, since she loved hiking more than any other sport, and rarely flew.
Randy, a combustor, could play tricks with lights and fire and generate a primitive energy.  Practically every industry in pollution-free Til Territories had a demand for people like him.  But a childhood act of vandalism had forced on him such a dose of this work (till he'd earned--and repaid--the worth of all that he'd destroyed) that it cured him of ever wanting a career in firemaking.  Even as Merrill watched, Randy lit the candle on their table before the waitress could.
Jake--well, just forget everything that Jake could do.  Though, to be fair, he'd pretty much lost it all by now, as he submerged it into oraclism--that eerie synthesis talent.  But at least he'd put it to good use, which was more than Merrill could say of the rest.
Lisa had the gift of telepathy--when she wanted it.  She never seemed to pay attention when you really hoped she'd understand you, but against every convention of propriety, if you wanted it kept secret, she knew.  Again, he had to be fair.  Her Gift came upon her late, her training even later.  Maybe she couldn't yet read the brain-signals for forbidden territory.
And then came Don.  His psychometry gave him an insight into the history of any inanimate object that he touched.  Especially Archives--he could commune with Archives directly, given the right equipment, without the barriers of words and symbols.  Not only that, but Don also had a trace of telekinesis.  Between the two talents he could run any machine that he confronted, broken or not and without instructions.  So naturally he yearned to become an agent-doctor, not a mechanic, preferably in some low-tech island republic.
And I? Merrill thought to himself.  What shall we leave for a mind-cripple? Naturally, in the same instant that he recognized his own self pity, he saw Lisa narrow her eyes at him across the table, fingering the pendant that disguised her focus as a purply-roseate jewel.  And to think he'd thought so well of her only minutes before!
"I think I need a breath of fresh air," she said to him.
"Funny, so do I."
Outside he turned on her, shouting, "You prying little hypocrite!  No wonder you don't have any friends but us."
"Little?  I'm taller than you, Merrill."
"That's beside the point!  Listen, Miss Never-In-Trouble, didn't anyone ever tell you that it's against the law to read nonconsenting minds without a warrant?"
She looked pained.  "Have I ever hurt you?  Any one of you?  Don't I love you all, no matter what I learn?"
"No, you're all sweetness and light and even now you'll give me some Official Enlightened Opinion on the Usefulness of All the Handicapped.  And why not? I've been getting a lot of lectures lately."  He gasped for air and mentally kicked himself for shouting.
"I just wonder why you consider yourself handicapped at all.  Most of the world lacks the training or the focuses for Gift, yet they do all right.  Some nations, whole peoples, don't even admit it exists."
Merrill paced around her, a tight little circle.  "I'm not one of them," he said.
"Are you sure?  What do you know about your origins?"
"Don't give me something else to get bitter about. I was..."
"Abandoned, like most of us.  Big deal."
"Thirty miles from Til Institute?  How many people get dumped in the wilderness outside the world's biggest kid disposal?"  Outside a place more than happy to provide the smoothest adoption possible, prenatal care, even an alibi if needed.
"Well, for that matter..."
"Lisa, somebody wanted me dead and hadn't the guts to do it directly."  Fists in pockets, he stalked away from the café across the dew-slick cobblestones, and she walked with him.  "Somebody believed that the finest upbringing in existence couldn't make of me anything worth living."
"It could've been some poor girl from the Disciples of the Hermit.  They call us devils and would rather..."
"Wrong side of the Gulf.  Besides, the Disciples dispose of excess children in human sacrifice.  They don't just dump them somewhere."  He swiped at a flowering bush as if to expose the thorns beneath the scent.
"Okay!  So some woman you don't even remember didn't like you!  She has nothing to do with you.  Or have you fallen prey to the myth of eugenics?"
"Somebody sure believed in it."  He turned away, he didn't want to watch indignation twist her face.
"It doesn't have to sour your life.  If it touches you at all, it's in insuring you a place here, where..."
"...'The stone that was rejected by builders will become the cornerstone.'  Yeah, yeah, I heard all that in a sermon awhile back."
"A sermon?  Do you go to church?"
"Yeah, sure, now and then.  Why?  Does it surprise you?"
He never saw her blush before, so it must've.  "No," she said, "it's just that I haven't decided on my religion yet.  But Christian sounds pretty good to me, you know, God-is-love and all that..." and she dropped the other subject like an avoidable chore.  Merrill hoped she'd pick up on his boredom with her adolescent theology, but she'd tuned out again.  Nice to know that telepaths could get as insensitive as anybody else.
But then, just when he thought himself off the hook, he felt a pressure in his mind and realized that she attempted to shove some fragment of her yearning for religion into his head.  The violation scratched inside, a dead bouquet of thoughts that didn't translate.  But among the mess, unavoidably attached to it, he caught something...something...he burst out laughing, harsh and loud.
"Oh, Saint Lisa!" he mocked.  "So that's how you came to Til Institute--brought to the attention of the authorities when they caught you stealing!"
"Shut up!  Shut up!  You don't know anything about it--you don't know what it feels like, hunger, and knowing your family can't or won't provide for you!  You don't know how clean you want to be, how you want to scrub whole years of your life out of your skin, be a whole other person..."  but by then she realized that she couldn't find him anywhere, he had left her there shivering in the night air.
Bram melted away into other shadows.

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