The Poison Gamble
By Dolores J. Nurss
The Cave Party
Monday, November 5, 2700, continued
Bram glanced up. His room had gone dark, and had apparently been so
for hours. The only light glowed from his console screen, but till now
he hadn't noticed.
He worked his shoulders. His back hurt
from sitting there for so long. His head ached beneath the psychometric
band. He felt these things as almost welcome; they tied him in to being
A sensation inside his mind caught his attention. Archives had absorbed
his pain, his designation of it as a human thing, had catalogued it all
to influence future programming. Shaken, he turned back to the console
and felt the machine consider every shiver down his spine. The worst of
it was that he felt Archives understood, without one way of
comprehending her own understanding.
"Already I've picked up the psychometrist's habit," he said to himself,
"of thinking of Archives as 'she'." He saw his own words flash across
the screen without his hands touching a key.
He thought about the programming that he had done today, compulsion
riding him like a nightmare. No one in his classes mentioned aberrant
behavior as a side effect of training. No, it seemed as though Archives
had found in him a special conductor, a compatibility with her own
hardware to a slight degree more than others...at least on certain
subjects. All that he did pertained to Fireheart Friendclan.
"I don't understand," he said aloud, and he heard weariness in his own
voice. "Why don't you just program yourself the way you want?" He
sensed an answer, or thought of it, he couldn't tell which. Archives
needed a conscious part to do some things. Archives dreamed and could
never wake up. Acts always came from human components; Archives could
only suggest, invite, seduce.
Bram felt as though he had become a bit of metal, fallen into just the
right gap to bridge a connection. Power arced from one side of
Archives, through him, to the other side. He burned with it.
"Where are we going?" he whispered. "What do you want?"
Immediate imagery flashed across the screen, too fast for his conscious
mind to follow, too chaotic to mean a thing to logic. His retinas
became just another interface as the headband simultaneously fed still
more vivid data straight into his brain. His expression contorted as
the lights whirled over his face. Images raced across the screen. His
eyes grew as wide as a gaping death, his mouth stretched around an
unutterable scream. His fingers clawed like a strychnine victim's.
In a corner of the screen a cardiogram appeared. Just short of
myocardial infarction the images stopped; tranquilizing impulses took
the place of information as Archives gave her overheated component a
rest before she shared any more.
* * *
Merrill dealt out the cards again. At this rate he'd have enough credit
to buy a console by morning. But it didn't seem fair to play against
Jesse under these conditions. At least Don hung in there to give him
"Lowball, this time," he declared. "Perhaps you'll stand a chance, Jesse."
The boy took a swig of beer and put the bottle down extremely
carefully, with challenge in his glare. Now that the muscles around
them had relaxed, the rubies of his eyes looked inordinately large. His
face, meanwhile, had turned completely pink.
"I'm out of money," he said slowly but with a distinction that defied
the world to hear the least slur anywhere. "We're going to have to bet
in dares from now on."
"Agreed?" Merrill looked to Don.
"I've no objection."
"Your bet," Merrill said to Jesse.
The boy glowered at his cards. He made his voice as low as he could,
but he sounded so serious that no one laughed. "The winner gets to
direct the losers in a prank against Jauregui. Keeps his own hands
"I match you!" Don said with surprising force. He had studied navigation under the man for many years.
"As do I," Merrill said with a soft ferocity. "May the best man win."
He picked out the queens to discard from his own hand, determined not
to lose this one. The other two might slightly surpass his intellignce, but neither could match him for cunning; it went against their natures.
Jesse took a long time to decide, then discarded three. Merrill passed
him cards. Jesse’s lip curled when he looked at them and Merrill
sighed. He couldn't teach the kid anything!
Don discarded one, his face impassive. When Merrill's turn came around,
he tossed out the pair of queens and dealt himself, it turned out, a
pair of kings. He again proved his self-control to himself by not
"Further bets, gentlemen?"
"We each offer a service, to be paid to the winner for a week," said Jesse. "I offer my cooking."
Merrill smiled. "You'd better lose." Jesse specialized in desserts. "How about you, Don?"
"I'll install your console when you buy it," he said. Jesse hadn't noticed that Don left him out as a contender.
"And I," said Merrill, "shall sew another backpack for the winner."
"Fair enough,” Don said, accepting the bet.
"Any further bets?" They all said no, which blew Merrill's chance to bluff. "Then I call you both."
With a grin Jesse displayed a full house. "Best hand I've had all night."
"Jesse, you dunce! This was Lowball, remember?"
The albino fell back on his hands and cursed like a cat.
Don laid down his cards. Two, three, seven, four, nine--in all four suits. "You just try and beat that one, Merrill."
He smiled and showed his pair of kings. "I won't bother. I only kept in
because if I folded I couldn't help in the war on Jauregui. If you
can't lead in a good cause, better follow than sit idle."
"I'm through with cards for awhile," said Jesse. He got to his feet,
swayed slightly and went over to Jake. When he stumbled he cursed the
sand. Without a word Jake held out an arm and the boy snuggled under
it. Jesse looked like a rose-flushed marble carving next to Jake's tan
Jake hardly heard a word Jesse said: in any case it didn't follow any
sort of coherency. Yet he couldn't tear his eyes away; the boy looked
so different without his eternal squint. What country did you come from, Jesse? he thought to himself. And
why did they send to us their treasure? Did your village think you
demon-got, from the moonlight in your skin? Is white the color of death
for your people? Did your eyes remind them of blood?
He had half hoped that the beer would loosen Jesse's tongue, that the
boy would reveal the story of his origins. But then Jake remembered
that Jesse'd arrived in infancy; he probably didn't know, himself. In
any case, Jake had never told his closest friends his own tale, not
even Randy. They knew him foreign-born; he let the rest lie hidden.
Perhaps even an infant has secrets too dark to broach.
With the end of the game Don had returned to Lisa's side and they
talked out of Merrill's hearing. Merrill laid cards down on the sand,
just for something to do. It didn't matter anyway; gambling made a poor
substitute for adventure. Wagering your income couldn't measure up to
wagering your life for the stakes of life on Novatierre. That judge
didn't really know as much as he claimed; Merrill's lack of addiction
to cards didn't come of knowing when to quit, but because the games
just couldn't go far enough for him.
He spread the cards out, wondering what patterns escaped his notice. He thought of the people who tell
fortunes by them, but all he could see of his own future was excitement
flattened down to little pieces of paper.
Tuesday, November 6, 2700
Jade came in when Bram didn't answer the
door. She saw him standing as a silhouette against a window full of
predawn violet glow. He stared at a shut-down console, the psychometric
band still folded in his hand.
"It's over," he said. "For now, for tonight. All I can do."
She went to him and laid a hand on his shoulder. He swayed at her
touch. She looked him over, then pressed her cheek against his,
standing on tiptoe.
"Darling, you're feverish." She scanned the place and saw a pile of
blankets on the floor; apparently he'd been staying here more often
than his barracks.
"I know a soldier's duty, Jade. It doesn't always have to make sense." She tugged him towards the blankets.
"Easy now..." She pulled his tunic over his head. "That's good; now the
belt...there." The buckle clanked where it fell; she flinched, but the
noise didn't register on him. As she slipped his pants down he stared
into space. She pulled him down to the pile and tugged his pants off
the rest of the way. "There you go, very good."
"A soldier can't follow every law, Jade, it gets too chaotic. A soldier can't be moral all the time."
"I understand, dear. Now...there." She maneuvered off his underwear and
stared a moment. She had not seen a naked man since childhood. He
looked different from what she remembered.
"It's hard, but you do what you must."
"I'm sure you do." She laid him back. She pulled a cover over him as
soon as he began to shiver. "Do you have any analgesics?"
"The first time I saw children bearing guns I thought I couldn't stand
it. Then I couldn't stand to see them fight...or so I thought. When I
saw them wounded, saw them die, I learned that I could stand anything."
She stared at him a moment, then shook herself and searched the bathroom. She found some aspirin and brought it back.
"When I touched their guns I picked up all their memories. Sometimes I
had to pry their fingers loose." For the first time his voice choked.
"Take this, dear, you'll feel better...and here's the water."
"Touching the corpses was worst of all."
"I'm sure they shouldn't make psychometrists fight, darling. Now you just close your eyes and sleep, okay?"
"We have to, because we know..."
"Sleep, my dear."
"Duty..." he said with closing eyes, then spun away to the dreaming-place, the place that only Archives shared.
She wished she didn't have such a busy day ahead. The thought of
leaving him alone like this frightened her. She wondered how he'd
called her in such a state.