The Poison Gamble

By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 16
A Time of Tests

Tuesday, November 6, 2700, continued

"...but it scares me to even try for agent-status. I don't think I'm bright enough, frankly," Deirdre said.
"It's the confidence you lack, girl," Jesse countered. "You kept your head well enough in that Alonzo Valley fiasco when we were kids." Some of the squint had returned to his eyes.
"Yeah! I got us into it!" She clawed up handfuls of sand in her frustration.
Jake said, "'The same intelligence that can, uh, can avoid trouble...' um, how does that go, Merrill?"
"'...can be equally employed to create trouble.'" Merrill recited, proud of himself. "Quote from Oanh Thuy in Talent-Trap: an Evaluation of Human Potentials, Negative and Positive."
"Yeah. That one. Anyway...pardon me; I forgot what I was saying."
Randy filled in, "I think Jake means that your talent for mischief shows ability in itself, which you could channel into agency."
"Still, Deirdre mused, "if something could increase my intellect, well, it's a pleasant daydream, anyway. I wouldn't sweat things out quite so badly. I mean, you know how awful it gets, waiting out these evaluations that can decide the rest of your life. I wouldn't mind an edge."
"I doubt if anyone here would disagree with you," Randy said. "Anyone awake, that is," he said with a nudge to Don, who'd fallen asleep with Lisa pillowed on his thigh.
"What? Hello? If it's sensible, why of course I agree! Otherwise count me out."
Merrill smiled. "Those swimming classes have done you good."
Deirdre laughed. "Is it politics you're studying for, Don? Come on folks, it's late and I've got Mass in the morning." Then she blinked. “Oh wait..It is morning, isn’t it?”
Jesse got up and stretched. He appeared in better shape than he had been, just very tired but not yet aware of it. He picked his tray up, shook out the crumbs and walked out the door without further ado.
"Notice the curve?" Deirdre said. "It's the one thing that people passing for sober can't hide. They correct their motions along the way: they walk without staggering, pick things up without missing, but they do everything in arcs, not straight lines."
Merrill nodded. "Pretty observant."
"If it's still dark out, he'll probably try to go to a class, before he turns in–he thinks–for his daily sleep."
Merrill kept thinking of that last glimpse of the younger boy's eyes when the long hair flipped away, once more puckered like a worn old man. "He worries me, Deirdre."
"Who, Jesse? He'll do fine today, no matter what the conditions. He's ready."
"No, not that! I mean how long is he going to let his R.N. go untreated?"
"When he gets over his fear of surgery. That's why this Carmina Island project excites him so." She picked up a butterknife from the evening's mess and toyed with it. "No knives to worry about, no lasers, just the gentleness of mind touch. They might just do it, too, in our lifetime." She looked up at him. "Anyway, it can't get worse, the disease, I mean. And as long as he's adapted to it, who's got the right to pressure him about it?"
Merrill shook his head. "He misses so much, staying in the dark," he murmured, then wondered what he himself missed, not knowing the sensation of moving molecules with his mind.
"So when are you going to start your allergy shots, Merrill?"
"When I can find the time!" he snapped.
Lisa gathered up a shawl-full of bottles for the glass reclaimers, remarking, "I'll look like a lush bringing all these in by myself."
"Drunk on juegarroz!" Randy laughed, as she and Don picked up their will-o-watts. "Wonderful what imagination can do for you!"
Lisa smiled wryly. "I must get it from living with Deirdre."
Deirdre gathered the dishes and utensils into a basket, then pinned on her will-o-watt. "Come on, Merrill." She held out her hand to him. "You can walk with me." He tried not to care about needing to be led, tried to appreciate instead how Deirdre's dark hair made its own reddish halo from the light behind it.
That left Jake and Randy. Jake remained on the ground, overwhelmed by feelings he couldn't even try to express, watching where Deirdre had left. He loved all his friends, naturally...but his very first friends, Deirdre, Jesse and Randy...they complicated him so that his head spun with it. He wanted to protect them, to surround them with himself or himself with them, to...he didn't know what. He stared at Randy till the boy blushed, glanced away, and then glanced back, concerned.
"Weed? Something up?"
"I won't let anything happen to Jesse," he blurted. "I promise." He blinked at his own words, confused.
Randy hunkered down beside him. "You all right?"
"I'm...I'm not sure. I guess it's the beer."
"In a behemoth like you?" Randy scoffed, but not as heartily as he intended. "Jesse's one thing, but, but, aw come on! We couldn't bring enough for that!"

"I think I drank Merrill's share." He could taste it on his tongue, smell it in the air, a permeating bitterness, as rank as sweat. "Lisa's, too." He turned to Randy. "She had juegarroz, didn't she?"
"That's not like you," Randy said slowly.
"No. It's not." Jake gripped the bridge of his nose, squinting, trying to squeeze some clarity into his brain. "All this's getting to me, Randy. Gotta either bend or break me." He started to shake his head, then thought better of it.
"Let's get moving, then." Randy stood up, dusting off the sand. "You'll feel better in the fresh air, Weed." And he gave Jake a hand up.
Jake mumbled, "I'm not growin' like a weed anymore."
"Oh yes you are," Randy said. "Your way."
Jake reached for the door, then stopped. He swallowed, took a breath as if prepared to lift a weight, but again his hand paused at the latch.
Quietly Randy said, "I'm not going to open it for you, Jake, not this time. You'll have to do that for yourself."
Jake nodded and tried again, only to close his eyes instead.
"Jake?" Randy laid a hand on his arm. "Weed?"
"We need the fruit," he whispered. "Need the poisoned apple more than any drug...but they're picking him too green, Randy! No seed can grow of him if they pick him so young. Yet we must have seven..." Jake felt a sudden, insatiable need to cry, and a fury that he couldn't, not ever--and he didn't even know why he needed to! He punched the door open so hard that the latch snapped, then glared defiance into the blackness beyond, where he could half make out the shapes of visions moving in the dark.
Randy gripped his arm. "Come on; let's go to Ricardo. This is happening too often."
"Leave me alone!" Jake flung off Randy's hand as if consolation could seduce him to ruin. But a minute later he hugged the boy close, a lifesaver seized just in time. "It's all right, Randy, it's just the beer. I'm a little out of it, but I'll be fine in the morning."
Randy considered Jake's size and capacity and the mildness of the drink, and couldn't think of a more ridiculous explanation. But he shrugged and went along with it.
* * *
Jesse strolled in a pearly, overcast dawn. He didn't feel at all sleepy, and the day looked like it wouldn't degenerate to brightness for hours yet. Smiling, he went to a public console to see what class he might slip into this morning. He punched in his letter-code and waited for a list to flash across the screen.
Nothing. The Archives listed not one class that he could attend today. He stared, dumfounded. He'd never heard of that happening before.
He considered. Maybe it was the beer. Maybe his head only felt clear in comparison to how he'd done a few hours ago. Okay, he'd try for jobs. Not all required concentration or dexterity. He might as well pick up some credit, maybe gain back what he'd lost this night.
Nothing? Impossible! Not even janitor work in the public restrooms? They never found enough laborers for that!
He gripped the console with both hands. How could Archives know? How could it smell his breath or test his gait? His friends had always supervised him closely till tonight; he had no pattern to guess at.
Something weird here. He punched the home number for his commoran. Uneasy, guilty, wondering what his housemother would do to him if he came home even a little drunk, but he had a duty to report in.
With a prickling scalp he saw the "Rude Program" flash across the screen: "Calls from this party are not appreciated at this time. Further attempts at harassment will result in..."
He stared in shock. She knew already! Could a housemother legally throw him out?
Could she do that? For one offence?
He jabbed Deirdre's apartment number. The same. Jake's. Don's. Everybody he could think of. He'd just partied with these people--they couldn't all be mad at him! Some of them probably hadn't even gotten home yet, so how could they set the Rude Program in motion?
They didn't. Every scrap of logic said so. He began to feel a headache coming on. "This console is broken," Jesse said aloud. He had to say it aloud because he couldn't shake the feeling that he lied. He backed away from the keyboard.
Another--he had to find another console. The Institute had them scattered at regular intervals. There--across the square! He ran to it. He jumped over a row of flowers and plowed through a hedge that clawed at him.
He reached the keyboard. The instant he typed out his code the screen flashed, "Calls from this party are not appreciated..."
"I didn't say anything!" Jesse cried. He dropped his tray with a clatter. "I didn't even punch an address!" Over there, way across--that cafeteria. He'd been there before, he knew it had a console. He ran. He sprinted down a brick walk, cut across lawns, and dodged staring old people out for their morning strolls.
Out of breath, he arrived just in time to see the automatic doors of the twenty-four hour cafeteria close against him. Early risers inside, eating their first meals, stared at him as he pounded on the glass. Some rose, but he took off before anybody could help him.
"This way," he muttered to himself. "There's a disabled-access console nearby." By this time his headache raged like an avalanche and each step he ran thudded a spike up his skull.
He ducked into a dark series of corridors, changing levels by ramps. Here. Down at wheelchair level with a rubber mouth control, but it had keys, too, and he punched them. "Calls from this party..."
Jesse swore and stumbled back. A hand clasped his shoulder. "Ohhh nooo," he moaned, recoiling and speeding off as fast as his legs could carry him. He didn't know who, he didn't want to know! A pure, distilled spirit of superstition possessed him. The Archives controlled every facet of his life. If it turned against him--if it could turn against him--then his world had no foundation.
He raced between buildings, he didn't know where. No one knew every corner of Til Institute, large as some nations. He fell down a flight of stairs and cringed, panting, his back to the wall of the stairwell. He felt the wall become a hidden door that slid away behind him. He stumbled back up the stairs as fast as fear could fly.
Jesse ran till running nauseated him, and still he ran. He had no resting-place, no harbor of safety. His home had become an alien place.
He veered across a field that rattled with dry weeds. Stickers worked into his clothing, dust choked his gasping mouth. He burst in upon a reproduction of a Cha'Choyan nomadic settlement and the students there who studied in it.
A girl glanced up at him, cooking something spicy on an open fire. She looked reassuring to him, primitively charged with the comforts of the hearth. He hesitated before her.
"Are you Jesse? Jesse Vrede?" He stepped back. "There's an all-telepath bulletin out on you. I'm to tell you..."
"No!" he wailed and escaped. Why would anyone put a bulletin out on him?
Something happening. Something happening. Not his imagination run away with him; he couldn't imagine what went on; that made it worse. He had no idea where he went, now. Buildings and gardens blurred past him in the increasing light, in the crazy-quilt architecture that five centuries of wanderers had added to at whim. No pattern. He'd taken this for granted; now he desperately wanted one orderly thing to cling to. He didn't even have a place to go! Calls from this party are not appreciated...
A wall loomed in front of him, dissolving even as he veered from it. Jesse moaned and kept on, going nowhere. Illusionist practice, starting up already? His side cramped him and he clutched it, pounding on, afraid to slow.
"Jesse! Over here!" A voice he didn't know hollered at his heels. He ducked into an alley, came out into a district made entirely in the Istislan-style, all steel-strength glass, every room a jutting facet. It caught the rising sun and shot out rays that stabbed his eyes. New pain rampaged inside his skull. He whipped his hair around into his face and hurled himself ahead.
"This way, Jesse. You're headed in the right direction." He sobbed and spun in his tracks to run back the way he came. Light shattered off all surfaces. He clutched his long hair close across his eyes, but it didn't shield him enough, not near enough.
"Very well, Jesse." Another voice called out. "Take the alternate route, if you must." He veered again--slamming straight into a glass wall. Nothing shatters Crystal of Istislan; little boys are another matter. He fell and just stayed down, his hair wrapped around his face, gulping air and weeping.
"Jesse Vrede?" A woman's voice came up behind him, a voice that carried command. He couldn't answer. "Jesse. The time has come for your tests of adulthood. This has been the first."
"T-test?" he stammered.
"Yes. Your adaptability to unprecedented changes." He heard a sigh, but he didn't look up. "I'm afraid you flunked this one. But it is only one of many. If you pass the rest, we'll consider you on the verge of adaptability and may yet approve you. Then there's the oral examination on social maturity and ethics. A high enough score on that can let us overlook many defects."
He shivered against the wall, trying to shield his face from the sun. "I've been up all night," he said. "I can't take any test now."
"Boy who may be a man, did you think that adults deal with crises only when prepared?" A hand somewhere in all the glare helped him to his feet. "We knew you'd been up all night. Your friends called you over the same network that watches to see when to test you. We never summon people when they feel ready."
He thought of men with aching heads, women with churning stomachs, who pushed on anyway, did what had to be done because nobody else could do it. He thought of work that necessitated days on end without sleep, of agents he had read of who'd died of exhaustion.
He braced himself to become a man. He took the unidentifiable woman's hand as the sun shot past the last of its cloud-cover to become completely blinding. He went where she led him.

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