The Poison Gamble

By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 22

Wednesday, November 7, 2700, continued

"What," Merrill asked, "is that?"
"The Valkyrie," Don said proudly. He hurried Merrill down the pier, ignoring its illusory shortening and lengthening as easily as the vagaries of a wave-tossed deck.
"It looks more like a rag," Merrill remarked. The "boat" looked so shallow and broad-beamed as to appear almost a raft. The gunwales rippled visibly with each wavelet--and not from illusion.
Don leaped down onto the deck and held the gunwale with love sparkling in his eyes. "I lashed planks more often than not--there's hardly a screw or bolt in her body." His fingers clamped his rings together; he sensed his own past labors in the wood and took pride in them. His pride surged new impressions back.
"What are those, uh, lumps at either end?" Merrill gestured towards two low edifices, barely clearing walkspace on either side.
"Cabins, of course." Don beamed like a new father.
"Are you sure they're not doghouses?"
"Ah, but they're the soul of comfort within."
"Within? A man may fit inside?" Merrill now noted an entrance on each--of sorts--and even portholes about the size of largish facemasks.
"Assuredly--if he sleeps."
Merrill smiled. "I take it that even belowdecks the headroom goes a bit low?"
"Oh, not for you."
Merrill burst out laughing. "Fair enough! I'm being a bit harsh, old friend. It's beautiful. I can see it'd be a devil to sink."
"In this boat," Don said grandly, "were there an edge of the world, I could bring you to its brink--and back again--alive." He helped Merrill down. "Come on; each of us gets a quarter of a cabin in blessed privacy. Except me, naturally."
"Naturally. You get half."
"Well, I am the Captain."
"And a deserving one."
"You'll sail with me soon?"
"You bet."
Don watched his friend explore the boat. Despite his sarcasm, Merrill quivered with a puppy's enthusiasm as he investigated all the nooks. Merrill always had that shimmery quality, never still, which attracted friends to him the way that fish prefer those lures which stay in motion. Mercurial. The word came to mind. Then he laughed, remembering that Mercury was the god of thieves.
Merrill popped out of the last cabin, winked and gave him a thumbs-up.
"So you approve after all?"
"Don, it's terrific!"
Don leaned back on his gunwale and enjoyed the sun, the feel of the salty wind. "What'd you think of the lab in my cabin? With the gyroscope-table I can do all my med-homework out here."
"Super job, every bit of it."
Don accepted this with a grin. They sat down on the deck, chatted a bit, then gave up and sprawled in the sun, so much cleaner and warmer for the passing of the rain. Neither talked for a long while.
Then Merrill said, "About that Jauregui business..."
"Oh please, not now."
"Don't tell me. You haven't thought of anything at all."
Don stared up at the cloud-striped blue and said, "Why should I?"
"You won the bet. You seemed eager enough at the time."
"Oh, sure. We all dream of vengeance. Putting it into practice is another matter." Don propped up on an elbow and looked at Merrill. "Tell me, friend, what is the purpose of punishment?"
Merrill thought a minute. "To make sure someone doesn't get away with something. To get across the message that I will never allow this violation again."
"To teach, in other words."
Merrill ran a finger moodily along a plank. "You could say that."
"And you've heard the proverb, 'Teaching is Loving'?"
"Many times."
"In Lovequest we destroy our enemies by making them no longer our enemies. We kill that which is 'enemy' in them."
Merrill sighed. "Good luck with Jauregui."
"You know this is true, Merrill. Agents don't go around attacking everyone who hits them first. They sabotage the evil that inspires attack."
"I don't even know where to begin with Jauregui, though. I don't know what makes him such a bastard."
"Then we certainly don't need to punish him--heaven knows what we might teach him by mistake!"
Merrill frowned thoughtfully. "Yet we can't just let him run loose."
"Leave him to me--it's my prize, after all."
The sunlight poured over them, drowning them in drowsiness. Soft sounds and motions beneath the boat rocked them halfway down to sleep. Merrill turned over onto his side and murmured, "Maybe I'll figure it all out when I'm a genius," and closed his eyes.
"When?" Don asked, but already his friend breathed deep and evenly.
* * *
"...reincarnated into a ghost that's walked longer than anybody can remember? That's weird, Deirdre, even for you." Lisa swept out the apartment she'd found herself sharing with Deirdre since a month ago when the other girl came of age. Lisa felt more like a mother than a roommate, though. If the adulthood standards keep lowering, she thought to herself, we'll have toddlers running the place.
Deirdre cleaned ash from the wood-burning stove that someone in the past had chosen for this home's kitchen, sending up clouds of cinder-smell. "Well, I've often wondered," she said. "If you can reincarnate forward, why not backwards as well?"
"If you can. But as long as you're speculating, why not say you once were the girl that became the Shandow? Then we could hypnotize you or something, maybe find out her name and history."
"If she's still walking, she obviously hasn't reincarnated into anybody--which, come to think of it, destroys my argument for the transmigration of souls."
"That one, anyway. Nothing says all souls follow the same path."
"You are argumentative."
"Wrong time of the month--I'm giving fair warning."
"Thank goodness I don't have to bother with all that yet." Lisa glared at her, jealous. "Grown woman"--without womanhood's price. Must be nice.
Before Lisa could think of an appropriately nasty retort, she heard a knock. "Who's there!" Lisa snarled as Deirdre called, "Come on in!" Lisa never wore her pendant in moods like this--she'd blast everyone in range!
Randy strolled in as Deirdre got up off her knees. As she pushed the hair from her eyes she smeared ash across her face.
"Lent already?" Randy said. "Or are you going for a Fakir? Come girl, what'll it be, Catholic or Hindu?"
"Heaven knows with her," Lisa commented. "She's trying to tell me she's the pre-incarnation of the Shandow. Can you figure it?"
"It was just a theory." Deirdre shrugged. "But Randy, I've seen her! On the way back from the Valley, coming over Shandow Ridge."
"Is that a fact, now? Tell me what the old girl's like."
"Well, I didn't get a clear view."
"Nobody ever does. Go on."
"I saw this young girl, oh, about my age, running along the ridge in a red dress. She was brown like me and had black hair..."
"Like you, so with typical Deirdre logic..."
"More than that, Randy Kramer! I felt something, oh, an affinity..."
"You'd feel an affinity for a mastodon about to gore you." Randy kissed her lightly on the forehead. "Bleah! Ashes!" He mock-recoiled. "Honey, you're so sensitive sometimes I wonder where you keep your skin. Whad'ja think got you into all those fights as a kid?"
"Defending you more often than me," she retorted. "Anyway, Randy, I thought she was a real girl till she started to fade into the sunset. She grew more and more transparent, till she just wasn't there anymore." She glanced away, a little embarrassed. "It felt quite natural at the time."
"For you it would," Lisa remarked.
"I wonder who she was," Deirdre said.
"The people of Shandow Village know nothing for sure, of course," Randy shared, "but they claim she has some connection with the oracles. There's a place up on Mount Seascarp, near her ridge, where the oracles go, for their own purposes. I don't know why; I'll see what I can squeeze out of Jake. But when they do, the villagers say, is when she appears most often."
"If the ghost doesn't have a history," Lisa said, "Invent one. It figures."
* * *
tl:// Merrill typed in “black clams” on the library console and hit the “RA” option. A dissertation on Novatierran variants from earthian life forms came onto the screen. Might as well read it. Instead of using a radulla, for instance, the so-called Black Clam limpet etches itself a niche into stone by exuding an organic acid, the components of which have not yet been synthesized in the laboratory. Ho hum. What next? Our Friend The Gastropod. A children's text. Skip it. Quite a few articles followed on animals dying after eating the creatures. Merrill read these through to steel himself to share their symptoms, should his experiment fail. Still more articles came up on the same subject. He read every one to try and bore himself on the threat.
Something different surfaced, an article from Rotley's Incredible Lot, Novatierran edition #40. "Giusepp Spiers, a fisherman known for sloth, HAD A BLACK CLAM ATTACH ITSELF TO HIS BARE LEG, after dangling it in the water for 12 hours straight!" Good for Giusepp--if it really happened. On an impulse--but impulse is the best way to use the Archives--he punched an RA on Giusepp Spiers. Do him good to break his concentration for awhile.
A conviction record popped up first--quite an extensive one. This "lazy" man had masterminded a brilliant organized crime network; maybe fishing didn't pay that well. Prosecutors gave him grudging respect, Merrill read, for a smuggling ring that had plugged every possible security leak--except the man's own wife. Sentiment triumphed over brains once again.
Merrill asked for more. A childhood report on Giusepp's schoolwork surfaced. Unpromising, earnest, the report said, but incapable of much intellectual achievement. Tests for dyslexia, deafness, vision problems, all came up negative. The boy simply didn't have what it took. This teacher recommended that Til channel him into simpler work before frustration broke his spirit.
Evidently someone else had more faith in him and pushed him anyway, for the next document showed that he had given up, in this application for a transfer to apprenticeship.
Something funny, there. Laziness, naturally, could distort an achievement record, yet in the carefully regulated Til environment it always had a cause--like sincere despair. But his later accomplishments (if one could call them that) displayed neither sloth nor dullness.
What else? He found a hospital record. The man spent days on end fighting off the effects of a toxic substance that induced convulsions and delirium, racing metabolism--all the symptoms that Merrill had read of killing seals and gulls. And here, it said that the toxin responsible came from skin-contact with an acid exuded by a limpet...Black Clam, as a matter of fact.
That clinched it. Right there. One could survive it--the body could adapt itself with enough sensitivity left over to increase intelligence. And the chemical came from the radulline acid.
Merrill let out a yell of joy, scattering printouts all over his cubicle, as other patrons of the library glared at him.
* * *
Jake il'Dawes picked his way on horseback along the ridge, away from the Cave of Changes, known only to oracles or oracle-novices. He wished he didn't know about it. He swayed on his horse's back, lightheaded with more than exhaustion, trying to unshatter his thoughts.
He looked out over Shandow Village in first twilight and the Silver Slopes beyond; the rolling, pale-green sameness soothed him after his ordeal. Already details poured away from him like his mind sweat them out, evaporated from his memory. He felt gratitude down to his bones not to have to take the Gulf Road back, because Don awaited him at the coast with a boat to see him home by evening.
His tan jaws faded to parchment color; his tallness slumped almost in half where he sat. Sinewy hands trembled on the reins, discipline-hardened leanness twitched against a weight of weariness that none of his muscles had the access to bear. He sighed, glanced back along the ridge--and straightened with a jerk.
He knew her, even before he saw the transparency of her red dress and of her brown legs running towards him. Towards him! The Shandow of Shandow Ridge always fled living folk.
His horse slowed, then stopped as one spell-thralled, though its eyes rolled white in its head. Far away the dead girl approached, running lighter than a thought dismissed.
Jake feared. He shouldn't have feared, not a shandow of all things! Yet he felt a dread so exquisite that it drove out all thought of the ordeal past. His skin became that dread which engulfed him, held him so rigid, then icy cold as the perspiration came. Every ounce of energy he had charged through him, but all to keep him still.
He could make out more detail now. The hair flew about as she ran, like the wisps of blackness behind everything that slipped through the cracks in creation. The face--he saw her face! No one ever saw the face. Dark, small-chinned, inflamed with urgency, it reminded him of someone, someone close to him...
The face of Deirdre Keller!
No, she had blue eyes, not Deirdre's black ones. Randy Kramer's blue eyes. And he'd misjudged her face--it had a slightly different sculpt of features, like the most delicately beautiful of boys--Jesse Vrede's fine brow and cheekbones. He could see the hands reach out to clutch at air as she ran: longfingered, large-knuckled, just like Merrill's. She ran with Don's long stride, flicked her hair away with Lisa's gesture...wait! No! He couldn't possibly make out all this detail, not from where he sat.
Jake forced logic to put her distance in perspective. She blurred before him. In that blurring he saw her as a blond woman running, wavier hair tossed on the wind, a fuller figure gliding over the ridge. Impossible! The Shandow had always been dark and slender. As he thought this she transformed, she had never changed in the first place, he had never seen what he'd glimpsed.
She neared. Oh sweet heavens she neared, enough to make out every detail of her, but the details flickered, transmuted to the forms of friends. Jake felt his horse vibrate with terror underneath him, still unmoving, whinnying softly as a dog might whine. She walked now, first with Deirdre's hiking-stride, then Merrill's bounce, finally stealing up with Jesse's woodland stealth.
She touched his bridle. Jake saw the bridle through her hand. His vision swam, everything but her face, which implored him, demanded his attention. Her lips moved, but her words came out of sync, faint, echoing as though with distance, struggling through who knew what medium to reach him seconds after the lips formed the words.
"Help them. Please help them! Oh, Jake, it cannot be helped!" The last words came in a language he'd almost forgotten, a language he hadn't heard since earliest childhood. In horror he saw at last that she bore his mother's face, the mother he'd done everything to forget. And through it he saw his own face implied in feminine form.
"Leave me beee!" he howled, till the valley below rang with the echoes. The figure vanished the instant his horse reared and threw him.
When he came to, he felt certain that he had fainted before he hit the ground, but the villagers who had come at his scream felt at his scalp for bumps anyway. It disoriented him at first, to find all these people instantly around him. He clutched at their arms and hands to reassure himself of their solidity, while they reiterated, yes, they'd had time to run up the slope to him, no, they didn't just materialize.
Accustomed to such things in this neighborhood, the good people hoisted Jake up onto a different horse, an old beast who knew her own way to the harbor without guidance from the dazed young man astride her. They promised to catch and calm the gelding he had before and send it back to the stable he had rented it from.
* * *
"Read me my fortune, Oracle."
"Bram, you know it doesn't work that way."
"You should never have gone for a soldier. I never saw such violence in your eyes."
"I never used to feel so strong."
"Call it strength, then, this desire to crush everything down to physical solutions."
"Ah, but now I am a philosopher. Archives has taught me many things."
"Except the future."
"I know that the past is haunted by the ghosts of children and that the present is for the strong. So I program to make children strong. That seems to be more than you know."
"Wrong. I know that in the future all bets are off."

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