The Poison Gamble

By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 13

Monday, November 5, 2700, continued

As they left behind the class on the History of the Migration, Randy couldn’t resist casting one last glance back at Merrill scrambling after his spools of thread. Meanwhile, coming around a corner, Jake ran into Jesse. Literally.
"Hey! Watch where you're going!"
Before Jake could apologize, Randy commented, "He's hard put to do that, when you come to his beltbuckle."
Jesse laughed; by all signs he'd stand taller than most once he got his growth-spurt. "Remind me to run up a flag or something next time."
Randy chuckled. "I can picture that! What'll you do, top off a hat with it?"
"For Jesse," Jake said, "Make it a black tricorner." It relieved Randy to see him smile. "And fly the Jolly Roger."
"A pirate!" the child cried. "I'll be a pirate! Avast, ye hearties!" He leaped upon Jake, shinnied up his height like he climbed a mast. "Surrender! You're boarded!"
Jake threw back his head into that belly-laugh that only Jesse ever roused from him. "You stole all our hearts many years ago, little thief," he said as he held the boy in his arms.
Randy watched as gladly as if he'd seen his friend take up a healing draught. "What brings you around here, Jesse?" he asked.
"Looking for Merrill. He hangs out in a library nearby these days, doesn't he?"
"He's right behind us, tangling up half the campus. Why?"
"Deirdre and I have a party cooking..."
"Cooking?" Randy's eyes lit. "If you and Deirdre take charge of refreshments..."
"Have a care!" Jake grinned. "It's only now you've got the weight you wanted, Randy, and you're not Merrill to burn it off by climbing the walls. Will you throw it all away for a handful of pastries?"
"If it's theirs...some things are worth a little sacrifice." He licked his lips. "And why not? We can't all look dashing."
"Speaking of which," Jesse said, "Could you dash back to Merrill? Tell him we'll have it in Our Cave, at twilight. I have details to work out with Jake."
"You want him to buy the beer."
"I always feel self-conscious about it. I mean, when you buy enough for a whole party, and you're just a kid..."
"Okay, I'll get Merrill. You talk to Jake." Randy knew he could do no better by Jake than to leave him in Jesse's hands (or, at the present, vice versa.) "By the way--you did report in to your commoran, didn't you?"
Jesse shrugged. "I called my housemother. She knows you all by now."
"I still can't get used to being 'adult supervision'," Randy snorted, and left. By now Merrill would've certainly tied himself into worse knots even than usual.
The two watched Randy skip off to fetch Merrill, till Jake grew aware that he still held the boy. Embarrassed, he put Jesse down. He accidentally jostled off the sunglasses that Jesse wore.
"Ow!" Jesse snatched them back on, but not before he revealed eyes as pink as sores.
"They're not getting any better, Jesse."
"That's my business."
"Is it?"
"Law says you can't make me take surgery, not unless my condition'll worsen past repair if I don't." And not even if it does, Jake thought, once he becomes a legal adult--not too far in the future.
"But they're not getting any better," he repeated.
"We've been through this."
"I know," Jake said with a hand on Jesse's shoulder. "But I care about you."
"Thanks. I'm glad." Jesse looked up at him. "Really, I am." He patted Jake's hand and, by boyhood habit, wound up holding it.
"Whether you heed me or not?"
"Whether or not."
"Moron," Jake said affectionately. They began to walk down the boulevard, a mosaic in shell-colors beneath them. An illusion-shift dropped the park to their right, making it appear as a sunken courtyard rimmed with vines full of butterflies and flowers.
"Jake?" Jesse said.
"When I'm grown up you won't pick me up anymore, will you?"
Jake chuckled nervously. "It'd look pretty silly."
An illusion-butterfly flew straight through Jesse as though he had become a ghost. "But it's okay when I'm a child?"
Jake brooded over the courtyard's edge. "Society says so."
Jesse tugged at him. "What if just a day divides child from man? When I go through my Coming of Age, will it make so much difference?"
"That's a while away yet; you'll be amazed at how your feelings change in the next few years."
"Maybe not so long. There's the Carmina Island project."
"Aye. There's that."
Suddenly Jesse hugged him. "I'm not going to stop loving you, Jake, just because I turn into a man."
Jake stroked his back and ruffled his hair. "Men find ways of showing love, without climbing each other like trees! Come on, sheer size changes everything--but change isn't dying--of course you'll still love me." Jake wouldn't look at him, keeping his eyes on the "courtyard"--ordinary people in an ordinary park, made magical by a sense of distance. Would the distance of maturity change so much? I'm like a father to this boy, he thought, then recoiled from it, blanking out even the answering thought: No! Anything but that!
* * *
"Hey, fat man..." The woman's voice came down from the tree so seductively that the sarcasm thickened it like poisoned honey. "Sailor man..."
Jauregui craned his neck to see Jade grip the branch above him, straddling it with legs bare to the hips. Where she’d hitched up so long a skirt, the turquoise folds brushed the strands of hair that she'd let down, still ripply from her braid. Jauregui stared in helpless anger; Jade only flirted with the men that she despised.
"Want some grapes?" She dangled them down, just out of reach. He grasped towards them, but she snatched them away and laughed. "No you don't, sailor-man--they're probably sour, right? Everything you can't have is never good enough for you."
"I have students no higher than your hips that are more mature than you."
"However do you see them? They'd stand below your belt-line." She nibbled grapes, exaggerating her relish, and spit the seeds down at him.
"You have no right to judge me," he said with a dignity different from the airs he saved for schoolboys. "You have never starved on a derelict ship. You have no idea what food becomes for you after that."
"I can judge all sailor-men," she said with a crazy flash of eyes above her grinning teeth. "I'm the daughter of a sailor-man--probably." She swung upside down, her skirt a brief shroud for her upper body. In that instant he saw that she wore no underwear. Then she spun back up on the branch, her hair in her face. "Maybe you're my daddy."
"And you wonder why I hold the Tiliásn in contempt. You're all insane."
"Ah, but what a magnificent madness--it saves the world." She changed branches; in the transition he almost caught a second glimpse, but her skirt cast too deep a shadow. "Til agents evacuated your island, Jauregui, because we alone knew when the mountain would blow up. Sane people would've let you die, called you none of our business." She leaned back against the trunk and ate grapes, one leg dangled just above Jauregui's head. "The well-adjusted, you see, never change a thing--they adjust. Then, when things deteriorate past the survival-point, they've forgotten how to alter their path, so they die." She reached down with the grapes again. "Go ahead--this time I promise I won't snatch them back."
Hesitantly he plucked a couple. They looked inviting, sweet and sea-green grapes, luminous with the light behind them. He bit in, puckered and spit them out.
"They are sour!"
"Wrong season for grapes, fat man." She nibbled them as though she found them delicious.
"You went all the way to Alonzo Valley for sour grapes?" He stared up in astonishment. "They wouldn't market them unripe--how perverse of you!"
"Nope," she said with a full mouth. "I grew them here at Til." He began to protest, but she interrupted him. "Don't lecture me about climates, my darling sailor-man. I grew them in a shaded place, where a patch of frost would tingle them in winter. Then in summer the angle changed and they got the fullness of the sun." She rolled a grape around in her mouth before biting it in a fierce grin, holding it in her teeth for a moment before licking it in and swallowing it. "Sane people don't seek out a place where the rules of climate don't apply. That's why the world needs us."
"Very philosophical," he conceded. "Yet you throw all your principles to the wind by mocking me." He planted his hands upon his hips. "I thought the Tilián preached love for all the world."
"Oh, I would never take a mission to your island, Jauregui." She laughed and pelted him with the skeleton of the grape-bunch. "Only someone who could understand you would. None of your students would ever work for your people--their personality-profiles wouldn't permit it."
She lay down on her branch, her arms crossed in front of her like a lion; her eyes revealed a predatory heat. "You've made every one of them hate you, Jauregui, in a school designed to promote the love of teachers--in children who look to teachers for their mothers and fathers. We would never have allowed you here if you weren't the best."
"Why did you seek me out, Jade?" He shook his head. "Why'd you pick your grapes for me?"
She laughed. "To tell you that I will soon graduate your better to an equal status with you. Make a man of one no higher than my hip." She rolled her bottom suggestively.
For an instant he thought she spoke of the rites of an island that he'd visited once, a savage and a terrifying thing. If Jade could ever actually seduce someone, it could only happen in such a ritual. Then he put her words in the context of Til Institute.
"You?" he cried. "You choose who becomes adult and who remains a child?"
"In some cases. We have a whole staff, actually." She tossed her head and peered at him seductively from beneath her brows. "I know," she said in a throaty voice, "who's more mature than me."
"This is an outrage! You!"
She giggled and sat up. "Someone in your classes, Jauregui. The medical one. Cadaver dissection."
He searched his memory for a student younger than the rest in a class that grown men found hard to handle. Then it dawned on him.
"No! You'd commit a crime to graduate that one! He should never have entered the class in the first place."
"He's your better, Jauregui."
"That child," he sputtered, "has thrown up or wept in every single session!" An unaccustomed sense of pity shook the man.
"But he keeps coming back. He knows what he needs."
"But not yet!" Jauregui pleaded. "He should not take courses simply because he has the brains for them. He has neither the heart nor the stomach."
"Oh, expert on stomachs!" she sneered. "I wonder how you learned so much about dissection, Jauregui. Hmmmm..." She pressed a finger to her chin in mock contemplation. "The derelict ship, perhaps? Have you done what sailors did before you?"
"Shut up!" Jauregui shouted, his fists tight, his face purple. "Shut up! Shut up!"
"I know all about sailors, Jauregui. Didn't I watch them, one by one, night by night, year by year, eat my mother alive before the Tilián rescued me?" With that she swung from the tree to a nearby roof and sped away at a run, her legs flashing white in the sun.
In her pocket rustled the printout of her orders, the place and time for a Coming of Age examination. Her boyfriend had been so good as to deliver it to her--and to repair her console when the instructions didn't come to her directly.

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