The Poison Gamble


By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 15
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 human.
 
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 competition.
 
"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 clean."
 
"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 cursing.
 
"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 skin.
 
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.
 

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