The Poison Gamble
By Dolores J. Nurss
Monday, November 5, 2700, continued
"Randy, it's insane!" Merrill complained on their way to the party. "It's absolutely criminal."
"Well, that's what you're into nowadays. Criminal insanity."
Merrill gave him an irritable smirk. "No, what they did to Doctor Church."
Merrill shook his head. "Not in that sense. They used to call all learned men that."
Randy whistled. "My, that does put it back a ways. Pre-revolt in fact." They crossed a lawn, damp from a summer's rain.
"A long ways indeed. And nobody's opened up his research since." With a
lifetime's habit Merrill walked through a tree that wasn't there. "And
do you know," he continued, "they didn't even say clearly what went
wrong with it? Just something about not fully appraising his volunteers
of the risks involved and some vague mention of unforseen dangers."
"Sounds like reason enough to me."
Merrill slammed a fist into his palm. "Well they can't be unforseen by
now! Couldn't somebody else benefit from his mistakes and do it right?"
"Who can say?" Randy ducked his head to one side.
Irritably, Merrill said, "Why do you shrug like that?"
"You don't shrug. You tip your head like a Vanithuvian."
"So? My mentor worked in Vanithu--must've picked it up from her."
"We're all so clever at adapting to every culture on this planet," he said
with rancor, "but we can't make the simplest changes in our own, not if
our lives depend on it--or for that matter, everyone else's."
"Everyone else's?" Randy looked at Merrill.
"Didn't you hear?" Merrill stuffed fists into pockets. "The Weisselmen
have massacred another tribe--every man, woman and child--in a dispute
over well-rights. Meanwhile we sat around trying to train someone in
their language close enough to teach them how to dig their own water
without violating one of their twenty-five capital taboos." He kicked a
stone into a fishpond. Randy waited for him to continue. "And that's
just today," he burst out. "Yesterday a whole fishing village succumbed
to a poison tide they didn't recognize till too late--and they'd been
waiting for an agent to walk among them against just such a
"These things happen. What's your point?"
"We can't train agents fast enough, Randy. And we just plain don't have
the population to afford wasting entire communities like that."
Randy put a hand on his shoulder. "You're taking this pretty seriously."
serious. All this potential healing power and we ignore it, bind it
about with taboos, afraid to reach for this, this medicine, for fear it
might taste bitter."
"Self prescription?" Randy snorted.
"You know the dangers of that." They turned towards the cliff-edge, the
sea beyond a line of blue and silver.
"Where there's an ill to heal, any means is fair."
"That stinks of fanaticism, Merrill. That's the first sign."
Merrill stared at him. "Thank you, friend! And you're studying for a diplomat?"
"I'm studying for King Lear's Fool, like the rest of us--I may as well
earn my stripes. You're taking a good idea overboard." He put an arm
around Merrill's shoulders. "You're letting all the wicked glamour of
that crime-stuff poison your mind, kidito."
Merrill shrugged him off. "Since when does a tilan consider knowledge a
poison?" They came close enough to hear the waves and smell the seaweed
on the beach below.
"Oh come! Would you teach nuclear fission to warmongers? " They turned
to a path that led to a rope-and-plank staircase to the beach. "If you
think we're not past suppressing knowledge, then you're younger than I
Merrill stopped dead. "Take that back, Randy," he said in a deadly voice.
"Okay," he said as equably as if his words had had no sting in them.
They reached the staircase, went down its sandy, creaking steps to the
beach below. "I'll take back all I know of truth and hoard it to
Coolly, Randy turned and faced down Merrill's fist like the boy did
nothing unusual. "Fact is," he said blandly, "you're an idiot."
For a minute Merrill just stared at him, his face reddening, then
exploded into laughter as sudden as violence. "Okay...okay! I concede
as much! Are you happy?"
"Must be," Randy said as they resumed their walk. "I still keep company with you."
"And you'll concede in your turn that the attempt to cure or lessen one's defects is commendable?"
"Couldn't put it better."
"Excellent!" Merrill said. "I shall embark on a cure for idiocy." The
beach gave way to sea-sanded stone, bejeweled with tidepools and veined
with rushing water. They walked more carefully.
Randy said, "That sounded like a resolve, Merrill."
"So?" Merrill said as he gave his friend a hand over a channel full of crabs and ocean.
"So words have power." He just dodged resting a hand on a sea anemone.
Merrill wearied of Randy's truisms. "Tell me about it. I need all the power on my side I can get."
Randy skipped across several stepping-stones in a row, hopped lightly
up to the higher rock on the other side like he danced, knowing the
steps by heart. "You sound like you're planning to repeat the
experiment," he said almost too casually.
"Don't be ridiculous," Merrill said as he followed up. "I could never
get the clearance." He hastened till once more he walked ahead of
Randy, down the other side. "I just want to read whatever it was he
actually did, find out why it got banned, what it's about. That's all."
They crossed a sandy space between boulders and scaled the next one.
"In the name of fairness, Randy, what else can I do?"
"Forget about it?"
"Look who's talking!" They crossed a high plain of stone, the tidepools
few up here. "But we've already reached the pinnacle of increasing
intelligence by environment." They stopped as if by agreement on an
out-thrust of basalt over the water, and watched the waves come in and
dash the rocks below. "Who needs this biological stuff?"
"You argue against yourself, there."
Randy gazed out, watched the water come and go. "Yeah. I know." Jake's
words, the strangeness of them, rang afresh in his mind.
They resumed, down to a maze of sea-carved arches and tunnels, shadow and light,
slippery stones above pools of rainbow creatures, awash in crystal
swirls. Merrill said, "We aren't even breaking even anymore, Randy. We
spend our whole lives studying to keep our kind alive and we're losing
ground." He paused, planned out a path to keep himself dryshod, and
picked his way from stone to stone. "Five or six centuries don't
suffice to make us natives here; I don't think five millennia would."
"We're guests," Randy agreed. "We walk on eggs." He balanced across the
slippery basalt as if to demonstrate. "One little bit of rudeness and
whoops, the hostess shows us the door."
Merrill didn't fully see the corals or anemone. He brooded on images
from that class, the ruins of Earth, the craters, dust, the naked rock
in howling winds with legendary names like Paris and Jerusalem and the
Hidden City of Bejing. "And if she does, Randy, where will we go?"
They found the cave they wanted. Low tide let them enter more or less
dryshod, though high tides never fully filled these caverns anymore.
Randy began to will a light to form around them, but then he glanced at
Merrill, took a will-o-watt from his pocket, lit it instead and pinned
it to his sleeve. It made a bubble of radiance around their heads,
rippling with his movements.
As usual Merrill tried to pretend that it made a difference, Randy's
care not to flaunt his Gift in Merrill's face. He could never quite
tell Randy not to bother carrying those lights, it all came down to the
same thing: an exotic ability or a common one that he couldn't share, either
way. In fact, the common stuff hurt worse.
The glow caught in all the specks of crystal in the walls around them,
golden in the smoky quartz. It twined the light and dark upon the
sea-polished surfaces of russet and rose, black, grey and tawny brown.
The walls got rougher and more complex as they went farther away from
all but the highest tide-levels. They both knew their way. Finally
Randy took a turn to the right.
"Here we go," Randy said. They came to a door that Don had built for
Jake onto a side-cave, to protect the young oracle from the dark when
he came here to practice trances. Light shone through the cracks and
they heard laughter, equally warm, shining out as well.
"I know you're out there, boys." Lisa's voice welcomed them. "Come on
in!" They opened the door and stepped into the light. She grinned at
them with a mouthful of mirth. "Put your will-o over there, by that
wall...there. That was the darkest." Four other glows burned on the
erosion-burnished rock, bringing out the colors in a dancing shine.
All the friends had come, warmly clad against the cavern chill,
sitting, standing or reclining on the clean-swept sand. The walls
cupped 'round them in a small appendix off the main cave. Don rippled
knuckly fingers across the strings of a balalaika that he'd made in a
class recently, while Jake dusted wet sand off some bottles that he'd
left in a tidepool to cool. The scratches on Don’s face hardly showed
Jesse had brought no light, but he did bring the puff-pastries that
he'd made. Tonight he wore no glasses to conceal his glances towards
them, half regretting his impulse to share. The wrinkles around his
crimson eyes made him look so much older that it would've shocked
anyone who'd met him for the first time.
"There's juegaroz for you, if you want it," Deirdre said behind
Merrill. He turned to her as she continued, "I know you don't like
beer." He thanked her gladly for the rice-based soft-drink. Had Deirdre
been a real telepath, she'd never have been able to switch it off at will.
He settled cross-legged onto the sand, relishing the freshness of the drink, while
Jake distributed beers to the others. Something to be said for grain,
in whatever form.
Randy gave Jake a "hello" hug as he snatched a bottle from him. Deirdre
smiled at them; anybody who'd seen Jake's aloofness from most of the
human race wouldn't believe how soft he could become towards his
She sat down to chat with Merrill about some classes on the Charadoc
that they'd taken together. A circle of people sort of spontaneously
evolved. Jesse pushed the pastries to its center after he'd grabbed a
crumbly handful for himself. Don put aside his instrument and joined
them, tripping over Lisa's legs where she sat curled up.
"Hey, I've been out all day," he said as he pushed his face up from the sand. "I haven't got my land-legs yet."
"Millions of years of evolution," Lisa drawled, "and this queer fish has to crawl back to the sea."
"That reminds me," Randy threw in. "Merrill and I were discussing
increasing intelligence on the way up here." Merrill flinched. "Care to
volunteer for the guinea-pig, Don?"
"You think there's any hope?" Second only to Jesse in intelligence, Don could afford the joke.
"Oh, sure. We mean biological stuff, not something so basic in your upbringing that you don't remember it happening."
"Not commoran conditioning, then?" Jesse asked with his mouth full.
"Nope; there's still a chance for all of us to overcome, ah, certain
bad company in our upbringing." Randy leered at Merrill as the others
"What would it feel like," Deirdre mused, "to have your intelligence
take a sudden upswing, after it's all formed and everything?"
"I'd hope it'd be half as fun at least as having it take a sudden
downswing," said Randy, following up with a theatrical swig of beer.
Merrill watched him with admiration. Randy was in his element now. The
boy's occasional immaturities might grate on Merrill now and then, but
he had to admit that Randy could wield comedy like a gun. In ten
minute's time Randy had the subject of augmented intelligence safely
seeming his own, a fun thing to discuss on a night of merriment. No one
remembered Merrill's connection to it or associated it with the
questionable studies he’d pursued in his arrest. You could do a lot
worse than have Randy on your side.
Lisa saw Jesse return from the tidepools with a bottle. She started to say something, but Don pulled her back.
"Minors shouldn't have seconds, Don. What will his housemother say?"
He whispered in her ear. Her eyes widened and she nodded. Just then
Merrill came up to the other side and put an arm around her. "Uh, Lisa,
you're better at it than I am." He nodded towards Jesse. "But we are adult supervision, after all."
She laughed. "You didn't read your console, either!"
"I don't have a console!"
"Not even after your arrest?" Then she touched the jewel around her
neck and told him privately. Next she scanned around the cave to make
sure everyone else knew except Jesse.
Jake reclined on one elbow, saying nothing, smiling at his friends with
half-closed eyes. He savored their company from that private place
within him that always seemed miles away yet closer than your own
heart. But suddenly he jerked to a sitting position and glared at the
"Jake, what's wrong?" Deirdre exclaimed.
"The door..." he husked. "I thought it moved, like it would open." Lisa
got up and went to the end of the cave opposite the door.
"It was the light," she reported. "Randy set his will-o-watt crooked in
the sand and it fell over, causing a flicker." Jake shuddered and eased
back down, opening another bottle. "I spend too much time meditating in
here," he muttered. "It's getting so every time I walk in, I wind up
like a clam without a shell." He took a long swallow, his face
troubled. "It's starting to trigger the trances automatically." For the
rest of the evening Jake kept his eyes averted from the door.