The Poison Gamble

By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 18
Challenges to Meet

Tuesday, November 6, 2700, continued

"Who are the TiliÓn?"
"Servants of the world," Jesse answered, squinting against all the lights. He'd thought he'd gotten off the hook once the social maturity questions came to an end.
"And how do we serve the world?"
"We become one with all peoples and heal from within." Don once said that his own orals for his Coming of Age occurred in a cavern so black you could feel the darkness, but then Don used to sleep with a night-light. It figured they'd hold Jesse’s in the Room of Crystals, with rainbow lamps refracting off of everywhere.
"What do we heal?" The woman's voice cut through his thoughts as stern as ice-blue light, as urgent as the ruddy glare of flame.
"Societal disease." He didn't want to hear the word disease, nor head, nor stomach, nor anything related.
"Can you define societal health?"
"You mean recite the Eight Conditions?"
"If that's how you best remember them." The woman kept moving behind the lights, now in front of him, now at his back, overilluminated, never quite in focus.
"Do I have to know them in order?"
"No, Jesse." A very human sigh put him more at ease.
"Well, it, the people in it, the society, I mean, must have a full capacity to love. I-I mean on the average. Most of them." Even his words hurt, like they came out full of bare nerves. They hurt almost as much as his eyes.
"That's a good place to begin."
"The death-rate must not exceed the birth-rate."
"No, I mean allowing for normal population adjustments to the environment, passing disasters...well, you know!"
"Assume henceforth that I don't know."
"And they have to hold their own offspring as something worth preserving, though if everybody did, I don't know where we'd recruit..."
"Unhealthy individuals don't constitute the whole."
"Uh, yes ma'am."
"Please continue."
"The arts, too. They have to have some sort of self-expression."
"Only of self?"
"Well, also of not-self--as they perceive it, I mean. 'General enhancement of the human environment beyond physical survival.'" Jesse quoted. "And this sort of thing has to be considered a worthwhile occupation of time.
"So, if a people starve and spend all their time searching for food, and none 'enhancing their environment', you can heal them by starting up art classes?"
"No, no--that's just a symptom!” Jesse pulled his feet up onto the chair and hugged his knees, certain of failure by now. “It may have nothing to do with the solution."
"I wanted to make sure you understood that. Continue."
"There has to be some legal, religious or philosophical position in support of human dignity."
"That would be a comfort in a dungeon."
"And, and it has to have some active support. Human dignity, I mean. Well, actually, any kind of dignity. For living things. You know. At least some degree of respect." He sat there for a whole minute, rubbing his eyes, wondering when they'd dim the lights.
"Is that all?"
Like a bolt he remembered the other three. "No, it's not. Positive emotions--joy, contentment, even triumph over adversity, that sort of thing--must be the presumed norm, even if not quite prevalent. The needs of the individual must be met, as defined by the individual--assuming he's not crazy or a professional malcontent or something. You have to use your judgment there."
"Assuredly. And the last definition?"
"'The above circumstances must prevail not merely for the majority, but also not be withheld from a designated minority.'" he quoted in a final rush of breath. In the silence that followed he could hear rain falling. Out there clouds had veiled the sun away again. His eyes would not burn out there; perhaps his headache would let up.
"And the codilla?"
He'd almost forgotten! "'The acid test of a society is in how it deals with deviation.'"
"What is the preferred political system?"
"Any that meets these standards, as practiced by its own members." He thought they'd finished, but no such luck.
"If it doesn't, do we replace it with another system?"
Jesse squirmed. "Not unless some major revolution stands in the wings with something better. After all, people choose their own systems to fit their own needs. Let 'em have whatever they want."
"What do we do, then?"
"Uh...wait a minute...” he racked his brains, trying to recall his classes. “Uh...wait...”
“Jesse, if you don’t know...”
“No, I do! I do! It’s...I got it! ‘Find out whatever lay in the original ideas of the system-makers and develop it.’ Nobody sets out to create an unbearable lifestyle."
"What about economic systems?"
"The same."
"And customs?"
"The same."
"The same. Um...I'd never be sent, though, to work with a culture too incompatible with my own spiritual decisions. The Archives has my personality profile--what else is it for, if not to make sure that no one assigns me to anything I can't handle?"
"Well answered. What point is there in rescuing cultural integrity, if one sacrifices personal integrity?"
To his relief the lights went off around him. Colors danced in front of his eyes, hiding from him the face of the woman who tested him as she came forward.
The afterimage-veiled blur paused a moment to study a file, squinting in the dimness. Jesse couldn't guess her thought: Twelve years old. Just twelve! And I have orders to make a man of him this year.
Aloud, Jade said, "I find no fault with your maturity or your professional ethics, Jesse, and your ability to deal with crises should develop well once you experience your first major victory over fear. You lack nothing more than confidence. Naturally you underwent Initiation in childhood, so that's all in, precociously, if I read this right."
That made him jump inside; Institute kids always wanted clues to their age. "I reveal no secrets to you," Jade continued. "You can't help but compare your body to those of your friends, and it has not grown up." Jesse nodded, trying to see her through the afterimages. "It stands to reason, then, that your mind would mature faster than your body once again. There remains one test." This much Jesse knew from his friends; they always chose some personally-tailored final ordeal.
"An adult, Jesse, must face many a painful and repugnant task. Needs will arise and you'll find no elder at hand to take care of them for you." She paused. "You have long neglected something essential, Jesse. Can you tell me what it is?"
" eyes?" Circumstances made it hard to avoid. He pulled in his shoulders as close as he could, hugging his legs until they cramped.
"When you come out of surgery, you'll have your adult card and may then seek or build lodging of your own choosing."
He sat there, stunned between pride and terror, as the woman left the room, as anonymous as when she came.
* * *
Deirdre's pace quickened through the sassafras trees, delighted to discover that Bram's leave-camp nestled into her favorite hiking-terrain. She sniffed the moist air like a hound, luxuriating in the perfumes of bark and herb and river-flooded root. No wonder they named the nearby stream the Sarsaparilla!
"Ho, Deirdre!" She saw a tall Mestizo in khaki wave in the distance. She ran to him, recognizing his voice, if not his stature; after years of mail, she'd still last seen him as a youth.
"Bram!" she cried. "You've gotten so big!"
He laughed and hoisted her in the air, just like the old Bram would've. "Really? I nearly starved to death!" He set her down, but not before she felt how little flesh cloaked the dinosaur-sized bones of his arms. She looked up into a face all made up of planes, crisscrossed with scars like stone with ore-bearing veins; it fascinated her.
"Your skeleton'd weigh more than me," she speculated, taking his hand as they went to his encampment.
"No doubt," he chuckled. He maintained the easygoing grin she'd remember, surprising himself that he could still do it. "But I still miss your cooking." Surprise at his own knack for acting almost gave him pleasure; she didn't suspect anything!
She turned her face away so he wouldn't catch her smile. "And Jesse's cooking?"
"Jesse's good enough for a pastry-chef. But you make meals to give a man substance." He turned and shouted behind him, "Joline! Vicente! Come on out and see my little foster-sister! Where's Julie?" He grinned like a skull, but he looked brave to her.
"Right at your elbow, Larry." A kid who looked about fourteen dropped from a tree beside them with a wise grin and skinny-limber limbs, almond eyes and brazen skin. He flipped jet hair from his face with glossy insolence.
"Larry?" Deirdre asked.
"Deirdre," Bram hedged, "meet Julie Quorentin, the chief guerilla of Taryschi's support forces." The youth bowed and his shirt flopped forward. Deirdre saw the little breasts and realized that he wasn't a youth at all, not even a "he", but an hermaphrodite. Probably wasn't fourteen, either.
"Do the wars end at winter in Taryschi, too?" she asked.
"Winter? It's summer there, same as here." E grinned as she mentally kicked herself for forgetting her geography.
"Go easy on the kid," said Bram. "She's not as stupid as she looks."
"Sure, Larry. No, sweetheart, the war's over. We trounced the Dharminabad theocrats and they're signing the treaty right now."
"That's good!" she tried to say with enthusiasm. She couldn't keep track of all the brush-wars that Til Institute intervened in to keep them from blazing into globe-wars. The history books of Taryschi, of course, would make no mention of Til "advisors"; none of them ever did.
"Here's Vicente, Deirdre." Bram waved at a blonde young man with a scar across his nose, "Damon," a dark, curly-haired fellow with legs as skinny and agile as a goat's, "And Joline." A big young Black woman waved at them, stepping with the moves and muscles of a dancer. Bram turned to Deirdre, saying, "She's of the Fighting Marie family--they've raised soldiers for generations."
"That's a respectable name," Deirdre said,
Joline beamed unexpectedly. "So, you've heard of the Fighting Maries?"
Deirdre nodded as though she had. Actually, only among the earliest settlers did certain women pass on their own first names, in scorn for patronyms--many of which evolved later into patronyms, themselves, ironically. "Your family's history covers quite a bit of ground," she said--a safe bet to say.
"Over the whole damn planet," Joline boasted.
"So, you're all here resting and recreating?" Deirdre said as they entered the barrack. The prefab stuff crumbled even as she brushed the lintel. "Who threw this up, anyway?" she asked, fingering the stuff. "You didn't mix the sprays right."
"Your own dear Larry, love," said Julie. "He got used to goat tents and forgot the marvels of technology."
"As well he should," said Bram, blushing at the lapse; he'd had too many of late.
Deirdre looked up at Bram. "Why do they call you Larry?" she asked him. He looked sheepish, teeth grinning brightly in his desert-burnt face.
"Larry for Lawrence of Arabia," Julie laughed. "His hero."
Damon tweaked Bram's sleeve. "You ought to see him in his robes," he laughed. "The spittin' image."
Bram laughed too, hands raised like he surrendered. "They're practical desert-wear," he insisted. "You'd expect people to keep the same design."
"Yeah, but you loved it," Joline teased.

"And I'm not the spitting image--Lawrence was a tiny, long-jawed Englishman."

Vicente leaned forward from the cot he sat on. "This guy carried, throughout his entire mission, a copy of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom in his gear--just like his hero carried Le Morte D'Arthur."
Bram lounged onto his own cot and stretched. He staved off sleep by will and thought of Archives. "Look, it wasn't all hero worship; I learned from his mistakes. Lawrence knew nothing about medicine or nutrition, for instance--that sapped his strength."
"Whereas you starved in style?" joshed Damon.
"I knew what to eat when I could get it," said Bram. Deirdre admired the gaunt giant. What mattered privation in the face of Lovequest? "Besides," Bram said, "that's what determines success: a little self-sacrifice." He caught Deirdre's eye--it gleamed like a lamb's, tugging against the leash, yearning for the altar. Good.
The rain came down hard of a sudden and made dramatic his words. "You concentrate on the beautiful things around you--like sunsets on the desert--and all the rest, the hunger, thirst, all that, they become trivial by comparison." Just so would Archives have him speak to her. He almost believed it himself.
Deirdre leaned forward from where she sat on the floor, her eyes on fire. Oh she was ripe all right, just like Archives said....said? "Tell me what sunset on the desert looks like."

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