The Poison Gamble

By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 20

Tuesday, November 6, 2700, continued

Deirdre worked naked when she cleaned up all the spattered grease, tomato sauce and papaya juice. Like many others at Til Institute, she habitually stripped to cook; her expertise did not extend to tidiness. She never quite figured out how Jesse managed both at once. Couldn't she have one thing she could do right?
She heard soprano voices outside and the young soldiers going out to greet them. Suddenly she felt self-conscious, remembering (as she had forgotten) that she now had little rosebud breasts, and a curl of down between her legs. Practicality aside, young women in love sometimes leap to conclusions about naked girls in the kitchen, however acceptable the rest of society found it. And if, like the soldiers, these women came from beyond Til Peninsula, where archaic customs prevailed...! She went for her clothes--and couldn't find them where she'd left them.
She darted about in panic, wiping soapsuds off her hands onto her flanks. "They have to be here somewhere!" Then she stopped short before the paper-recycler. It growled like a dog over a bone, while blue threads, the same hue as her blouse, dangled from its jaws.
"Ohhh no!" She dashed to an adjoining room, one given over to bric-a-brac, and found a closet. She flung the door open--to find a wetsuit, some wader-boots and Bram's oversize coats. She couldn't have moved in any of them.
She heard footsteps and slammed into the closet, pulling it shut behind her. In seconds a hand pulled it open again so she burrowed back into the coats.
"What the..." Julie thrust an arm in after her, the other burdened with rain ponchos. "Well, Deirdre, my dear! What quaint charms you have--but I fear you waste them on me."
"Somebody fed my clothes to the paper recycler," she blurted, wilting. She yearned to be sexless, too, and cause no comment.
"To the paper tiger, huh?" Hir laughter eased her embarassment. "Probably Damon, the prankster!" E took her arm. "Come along; I'll buy you some clothes at the PX--and charge them to him!"
"Dressed like this?"
"Oh, certainly not; it's much too chilly out. Here; I'm sure the ladies won't mind." E draped her in a poncho. She had to walk carefully, but with hir it didn't matter so much. She decided that she'd like to be a hermaphrodite when she grew up--then a motion brushed the poncho irritatingly against a nipple and she knew that it was too late.
* * *
Night fell long before Merrill left the usual. The campus shimmered for a moment under starlight as another illusion evaporated. Some nights Merrill went home so late that the campus took on something like stability.
He threaded the mazes that generations had erected according to their passing needs, seldom ever tearing anything down, till it seemed possible to find whatever you desired, if only you looked hard enough. Still, he smelled sawdust on the damp night air. He turned to find the beams of new construction silhouetted against the stars. People must continue to build, to add on some touch all their own.
He wondered briefly who once wanted a building just like the one he now lived in, so badly e could find no other quite like it, felt compelled to build it, perhaps for a whole friendclan to share. Now custom divided it into apartments full of strangers, students who wanted just a roof over their heads, complaining about the smell that wafted up sometimes from the nearby marsh.
Merrill walked down a line of pillars. Some hand had carved a woman into one--oblique back view. She crouched slyly, smiling over her shoulder as she held a robe to her front. Like most of his peers, nudity didn't impress Merrill--yet she held that robe like she had something worth hiding.
The sculpture had weakened the pillar, but some kind soul had built additional supports later on to leave her unmolested. Not so with others; the touch of generations of adolescent hands had surreptitiously worn a polish onto the derriere.
Merrill stopped to regard her, but his eyes went straight to her face. Who had put that secret in the smile, a record perhaps of one night's gamble, one brief moment of identity and confidence and achievement commemorated here, when no marriage and no child and permanence, had ensued after all?
Who wanted so badly to have his moment remembered that he carved it in stone, carved it so beautifully that it compelled others to take care of it, carved it all in one night so that no one would know--because the confidence had gone, the achievement fell into doubt, and without them the identity no longer mattered?
Nothing too fleeting for the Capitol of Knowledge to preserve. Not even the life of Merrill Ambrey. What legacy would he leave behind? A building, a carving somewhere, a line in his journal that the Archives might invoke at random in connection with the word "inadequate"?
The thought depressed him; somehow these physical ghosts struck him as far more evanescent than an action–a stand taken, perhaps in vain like Doctor Church's, but there in history, for right or wrong, part of everything. At least something people could form an opinion on, with his name attached to it.
And I wouldn't even care, he thought, if they call it good or evil, what I do, so long as I knew I'd done my best. If only I had more capacity to give!
"If I can't serve," he cried to the anonymous night, "if I can't serve..." he muttered to himself, "if I can't stake myself in some bold toss for the sake of others, why would anyone want to remember me?"
He wondered briefly if Dr. Church played cards.

Wednesday, November 7, 2700

In the morning Deirdre wore home the leotard and cami-pants that Julie gave her. She and Bram had talked till dawn and by then even she called him Larry--he spoke with the intensity of a man out of legend. She couldn't remember half of what he said, just that it sank deep inside her, fit into place like he had tailored the message for her alone, filled her up till she had room for nothing else.
The early morning sparkled in a delicious haze of sleep privation, dazzling with summer sun reflected off the the sheen of monsoon puddles; one step and an inverse sky of blue and white shattered in a splash. Raindrop jewels dripped from every branch and leaf, surfaces gleamed like legends polished in the telling, or had the saturated depth of velvet in the deep-drenched stone and wood. Anything could happen in this scintillating world, any deed be washed clean, honored with treasures of glory as evanescently, brilliantly beautiful as a drop of rain.
In a world like this she could feel her purpose as clear as water, as reflective as the heaven-filled pools all around her. The drive to go forward and never, ever stop. The beauty of the sacrifice, the siren of necessity. She carried it like a virus or a prophecy, something to share.
She found she couldn't just go straight home. Words made her dizzy--they had to come out. She veered off towards Jesse's commoran.
She tiptoed in. The housemother still slept, there in the nursery with a new arrival come in just this week. As Deirdre passed the room the little girl stared at her from the housemother's cot, nestled into the woman's arms, sucking the thumbtip that stuck out from the cast on her arm. Til had rescued another one.
She climbed stairs, past the floors full of curtained bunkbeds to the individual rooms higher up for the oldest children. The graffiti in the stairwells layered generations of scrawls atop each other, from the childish sketches in crayon near the floorboards to the adolescent philosophies in ink, written as high as the hand could reach.
She found Jesse's room and knocked. "Jesse? Are you up yet?" She hoped she'd caught him right before he bedded down for the day.
"No, I'm down, down, down, down..."
Something in his voice made her open the door. He stood on the edge of his windowsill, staring outward--straight into the morning sunlight, though the tears streamed down like blood.
"I'm just looking."
"You don't see that well." Carefully she closed the door behind her, as though too loud a click could trigger something.
"I can almost make out the ground from here, through all the glare. Is it pink? Pink cement?"
"Let me see." She edged towards him.
"I can't tell. It's quite a ways d..." She grabbed him from behind, swung him off the sill as soon as she got within reach. For a minute she could do nothing more than hug him, say, "Jesse, oh Jesse!" and he hugged her back with all his might. At last she said, "It's okay, believe me, lots of people don't pass their maturity tests the first time around, they honored you just to ask you so young, they..."
"I passed."
"What?" Deirdre held him out and stared at him.
"Or almost. All but the final ordeal, the personal...Deirdre, I can't do it! I can't go in for surgery!" This time his tears had nothing to do with glare. "I'm gonna be a child for the rest of my life!"
"So you didn't want to live so long?"
Jesse only wept in reply. Deirdre held him so close she almost hoped to sink inside his skin, get to his soul itself and cradle it against her.
"What're you afraid of?" she asked him. "That it'll hurt? Not so much, maybe not at all. For some eye surgery they don't even put you to sleep."
"You mean I'll have to watch the knife come at me?"
"Laser, Jesse. This is the Institute." Yet memories struck her, tales that visiting agents told when they led commorans out on camping trips, tales of surgery performed in the Field under all manner of gruesome conditions.
"Remember that time when Jonathan took us all out, when he told us about removing an old man's cataracts with a fishing-knife?"
"That's not going to happen," Deirdre said firmly. Suddenly the story lost the humor of a campfire tale to horrify children before bedtime.
"It's not the pain, Deirdre. It's...sometimes I think that my eyes are me. I look out of them. I open my lids, and nothing stands between me and the world, just pure me, out there. I'm going to change, my eyes...they'll stab my eyes and I'll die and I won't know what I'll be reborn as."
"You almost jumped out a window because you're afraid to die?"
He actually laughed at that. "I think maybe, in some part of my mind, I pictured myself surviving, maybe breaking a leg or something, but no real harm. And I pictured people saying, poor thing, we asked too much of him. We'll give him some easier ordeal."
She rubbed his back tenderly. "So you do want to live."
"Very much." His voice came out quiet and hoarse with emotion.
"Don't you see, little one? That's just what we're offering you. More life. We aren't going to kill your eyes, just strengthen them. You'll see more than you ever could before. We want to make you more alive."
For a moment he said nothing, just leaned his head against her. Then he whispered, "There's still the pain. It does matter after all. Even a little, because it's so personal to let them cut there."
"Darling, you can face it, because of all the beauty on the other side. You can win through. It'll be worth it--you'll see. And it may not even hurt at all."
Jesse only shuddered. And right then all of Bram's great words turned sour in her mouth. A sudden anger filled her. Carmina Laboratories couldn't wait a few bloody years! Just a few years of grace in a project likely to take generations. Jesse was no more an adult now than he'd been "of an age of consent" when they'd ramrodded him through Initiation. She recalled the leading questions fed her at her own Coming of Age. No more an adult than Deirdre herself.
She pulled up the edge of his sheet and cleaned his nose just like she had when they'd first met, when he'd toddled up still in diapers, and then shocked her by talking to her in full sentences like a little bitty grown-up.
Her anger gave way to apprehension. Every project around her had accelerated, year by year, now that she thought of it. Yet nobody discussed it. Surely gossip would have trickled down had there been some concerted plan, at least guesswork over something so pervasive.
She pulled Jesse as close as bones would allow, a hot and tear-soaked little bundle. For a minute she felt herself part of a whole organism, drawing together by instinct for some guessed-at ordeal, the cells of its mind flooded with a societal adrenaline, preparing the Institute for fight or flight. She knew that in this century they had to gather as much knowledge as fast as they could, and use it as quickly as possible, to prepare the world for...she didn't know what. It might not even happen in her lifetime.

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