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