The Poison Gamble

By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 17
Black Clams

Tuesday, November 6, 2700, continued

Merrill stared at the library screen as he tried to think of one more angle that he might pursue. He often came here at noon, when most people ate their main meal. He practically had the whole building to himself, for at least an hour. He'd already scanned Dr. Church's journal, to no purpose. It went no further than the day he got his "doctorate"; illegal, but there it stood. Apparently Church never did anything by the book.
Merrill searched lab records from that era for anything with Church's name on it. Unfortunately, the zealots of the Full Moon Rebellion had purged records of as much material suspected of being "antilovequest" as they could before anyone could stop them.
He did an R\A on Acceleration. Each breath went in and out with a sandy texture. It looked like it'd be one of those asthma days (spring never lacked for them) but nothing he couldn't handle, he told himself. Merrill had this one hope left: that Archives held too much for anyone to eradicate all traces of information on any given subject, search how they might. The cross-filing got as complex as a human brain, or even more so. Merrill liked the random association program best of any; he felt like he gambled with Archives for the stake of knowledge.
He coughed, then forced firm, steady exhalations. It only felt like he couldn't inhale; in reality he already had full lungs from not exhaling properly.
"Acceleration" brought up a human-translated interview with the Aliens on how that aquatic race launched what they thought of as a "space bubble". Skip it. Something about a British officer in white robes, laughing about racing camels against ostriches. British--that made it Earth stuff, way too early. Skip it. An Istislanin's condemnation of a local educational practice called "skipping a grade"--pertinent? No. Pass it by. Research into limpets by...
By Doctor Joshua Church. Merrill almost missed it, he'd grown so accustomed to defeat. Limpets? Well, a variety called "Black Clams" colloquially, but not clams at all, of course. Fishermen discovered that seals who ate them died in convulsions, so they didn't mess with them. Limpets and acceleration?
The poison operated on a strychnine principle, but not quite. Okay. It killed a subject killed by speeding up the brain. Good lord, this began it. Accelerated neural action. The poison scaled away some layer of neural resistance to quicken, among other things, the input to the involuntary muscles, alternately signaling the heart to speed or slow, the lungs to gasp, hormones and digestive juices to overproduce, until the victim died in an excess heat of life. Plainly dangerous enough to frighten the faint-hearted.
Ah, but all else it could do...the mere thought of it tightened his chest, so that he barely noticed when he forgot to breathe. Thought processes had to race--increasing creativity. More input from the sensory nerves would advance sensitivity and boost perception and hence knowledge. As for output, this had to race the messages from brain to body--making for heroically fast reaction speed! Heroic on every level...
"Exhale. Let the bronchospasms relax. Think of a cool brook that runs unimpeded, flowing, think of the sound..."
"Don?" he tried to say, but nothing came out. He had become so moved that he'd entered one of those altered states which he normally despaired of achieving. Black dots swam before his eyes.
"No speech," his best friend whispered. "Forget speech, forget words. Listen to the brook, see the brook..." The hissing in his ears did sound like a brook. Don's fingers, cool as water, slipped lightly back and forth across the nape of his neck, rippling, fluid, duplicating the tlomi rhythms that could redirect Merrill's semitrance. Air flowed like water through him, lightened him, refreshed...
"Only you can do this for me, Don," he said at last, with lungs free to say it. "Thank you."
The fingers left the back of his neck. "Remember the first warning of tlomi?" Don asked.
"That students have died from immersing themselves so deeply into a study-trance that they ignored their body's signals. But I've never had to worry about it before." He twisted around to face Don. "Till now I'd never achieved a single trance without your help."
Don laughed. "That's Merrill: once you learn to do something, you do it with a vengeance!" He came around from behind Merrill, brushing his four magentine rings across his chin in a nervous gesture that he had. "Lucky you weren't born among the Dzini," he said. "They eliminate people with chronic problems--eugenics." Merrill frowned. "Well?" Don persisted. "Aren't you going to ask me about them?"
"Why, since you'll tell me about them anyway?" He strangled down his revulsion, out of faith that all societies must have some good points worth sheltering.
"Well, they're sea-nomads. They spend their entire lives on board ships." Don pulled up a chair and sat down beside him.
"Ah!" Merrill nodded. "I see the appeal for you." He listened to Don go on and on about them, loving them faults and all like some dream of Camelot.
The uncrystallized beginnings of hope can endanger the heart more deeply than despair. You set foot on it before it forms, and when you plunge through you feel as though you’ve proven at last that nothing can ever sustain you.
A minute ago the prospect of surpassing the limits of his mind had so elated Merrill that he forgot his body. Now Don's every word forced home the importance of the flesh as he elaborated on strong young mariners who grappled with the winter storms, how they chose their mates for muscularity, how they counted weakling children a disgrace upon the tribe.
Weakling children, unlikely to survive ordeals, for instance involving poison?
Merrill felt the tightness in his breath like a chain about his throat that jerked him back from everything. He looked at the smallness of his hand and knew that all the exercise in the world could never make a big man of him. He felt an amputated place within his mind, where no increase of intellect could fill the psychic vacuum. He suddenly wanted to laugh, but he didn't like the feeling.
He listened to what Don said, and he listened, and for one moment he felt like he himself sailed with the Dzini, and he knew the exhilaration of the salt-wind in his hair, the intoxicating surge beneath his feet, and the imagery made his eyes water with every glowing word. The next moment, somehow, it sounded all so far away, the Dzini, his friend, his own project. Especially his project. The hope became ridiculous. It could only work for mariners or eugenically select children. It could only work for worthy people.
"Do you think I'll ever make an agent, Merrill?" Don asked suddenly. "Become one with a people like the Dzini and heal them from within?"
"I don't know, Don." He threw up his hands and swiveled away from the screen. "It beats me how anybody does it."
"You sound depressed again. Are you?"
"Maybe. I dunno. Yeah. I guess I am." He laughed shakily at himself and pushed his hair out of his eyes.
Don touched him on the arm. "You worry me sometimes, Merrill; you're as moody as Lord Byron."
"At least I don't have his gambling debts." They both laughed at that, but it brought it all back, the one-in-a-million gamble of agency. "How do they do it, Don? Learn all the different ways to heal, and all the different customs of a people--any people--so well that they actually belong?" He switched the screen off, not looking at it. "That's quite a lot."
"But people do it all the time, Merrill, sometimes four or five cultures."
"That's rare when you see the statistics. They need most of us as support-personnel." That's it, Merrill thought, convince yourself that you can still be useful, that hardly anybody gets what they want, anyway. Not even Don.
"But we're trying so hard, Merrill!" Earnestness clenched Don's features so intensely that it almost made the homely features handsome. "All of us. Is it so much to ask, the reward of that?"
Merrill spoke the words that would've exasperated him from another. "It's our very trying that makes us capable of understanding the needs of those that do go out."
"That's very true and you don't buy it for a minute."
"That's okay, Don," Merrill said as he rubbed his eyes, suddenly aware of his own weariness. "Whoever does make it out will need a good psychometrist at home to keep his information up to date. You can always serve, one way or another."
Don gripped his shoulders, hard enough to hurt. "Is this the Merrill Ambrey who never let me quit? Who dragged me into every venture he could dream up just so I wouldn't fade into a line of print, a lapsed memo?"
"I don't know who I am!" He felt his eyes sting. He pushed Don away violently, wrenching around so Don wouldn't see his face.
"I've seen you cry before, Merrill."
"I cry too much, too easily! What kind of man am I?"
"One who feels. One who bears pain and can understand the pain of others. One never so invulnerable that he couldn't be broached by the people he walked among. A good potential agent."
Merrill rubbed his eyes like he could scour the tears away. “It’s the allergies. My eyes always feel irritated anyway–it doesn’t take much to set them off.” He found that he gasped for air, that he could never get enough of anything he needed. "I'm so defective, Don, in so many ways!"
Don shoved the keyboard back to place his elbow on the desk-top. "Want to arm-wrestle, Merrill?"
Merrill stared at him. "What's the point? I know you're stronger than me."
"That's right, Merrill. I am." His eyes burned with uncharacteristic fervor. "Because you dragged me out of the little world that I'd created for myself in childhood. I'm still a scholar, I still prefer the world of the mind, but now I'm strong enough to carry what I learn out there to the rest of the world. Because you made me exert myself."
He drew back his arm, but not his gaze. "Merrill, you know how to reach people. You know how to make them try things they didn't dare before, stir them out of the path of least resistance. If that isn't an agent, I don't know what is."
"All I ever did was get you in trouble."
"Good! Trouble is good for the soul."
He started to reply and then stopped. I could get us all into trouble you can't even imagine, he thought, and knew as he thought it that he had to become an agent, by any edge he could seize--because his defects would make him doubt himself in any vocation not already so riddled with risk that all abilities became moot.
Accelerated Intelligence! If I could excel in just one clear thing...!
"But I'm just as much a dreamer as I ever was," said Don with a sigh. "The Dzini already have agents among them. Even if I did make agency, they wouldn't send me there."
Merrill wanted to change the subject. "So how's your class of delinquents going?"
"I finished with them days ago. No casualties, all swimmers now. You are out of touch."
"Well then, what have you kept so busy with? I hardly ever see a trace of you anymore."
"As if you'd notice, these days." But then the excitement caught up with Don. "But that's what I really came here to tell you about. My Dream Boat. I've perfected her. Jauregui, of all people, showed me the final clue on how to get what I wanted, some forgotten Viking techniques. Sarcastically, of course, on my case for ignorance, but he did."
Merrill sneered. "Everything he offers comes gift-wrapped in rotten seaweed."
"Yet I've found some surprising flotsam in it."
"Naturally. You share his favorite topic."
Don smiled. "Other than himself?"
Merrill leaned back and crossed his legs. "So what've you named her?"
"The Valkyrie. It seemed to fit."
"I'm gonna miss the old Pirate's Paradise, though. We had some good times on her."
"Ah, but there's cabin-space for everyone on board Valkyrie." Don got up and paced happily, waving his lanky arms around. "Sure, that makes her broad-beamed, but she's speedier than she looks...well, somewhat. Flat-keeled, she skims the water like a fish-hungry bird..."
"Wait a minute," Merrill interrupted. "Wouldn't that make her prone to capsize?"
"Nothing can capsize her, that's the point, I don't care what she looks like--because she ripples, Merrill, she follows the surface like gauze. Did you know that Viking ships had supple hulls? That's where I got the idea."
"Sounds like bad news for a landlubber."
Don rested a hand on Merrill's chair. "Which you are not." He gave the chair a spin. "When are you gonna try her out with me?"
Merrill laughed and said, "I'm busy these days."
Don sat back down and stared at him, chin on fist. "You know, I'm starting to worry about you. I've never seen you have a thought that didn't soon become an action. So much thinking frightens me with what the action might be."
Merrill shrugged. "Why not take Deirdre? It's been too long since she last scheduled herself a vacation."
"She just did. Remember that farmer family that took in her and the others when they ran away as kids?"
"The eldest son's in town."
Merrill nodded. "All covered in glory. I heard something of that. So she's visiting him, huh?"
Don shook his head admiringly. "Can you believe the luck? A home-raised guy like him enlists, only to spin off from the army and do agent-work all on his own--they had to initiate him.
"But what a gamble! One mistake and they'd've cashiered him."
"Sounds like something you would do."

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