The Poison Gamble

By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 23
At the Gym

Wednesday, November 7, 2700, continued

Don stood behind Merrill in the gym, ready to catch the weights should his friend falter. Behind his back Don smiled at the outrageous groans that Merrill burst forth; he wondered how much of his affection for his soulbrother stemmed from a delight in the smaller fellow's melodramatics.
"This is excellent!" Don exclaimed. "First I get you down to the docks, then to the gym, with only the briefest detour to the library. If this goes on, I might pry you from your studies long enough to join me snorkeling as well." Merrill grunted in reply.
As Merrill's arms trembled down to set the weights back in their brackets, Don caught them and held them for a moment. "One more time," he counseled.
Merrill nodded like he'd topple forward. He took up the barbell and forced it up once more above his head. It swayed there for a minute, so that Don almost grabbed for it, but Merrill got control of it, then lowered it down at last.
"Slooowly..." Don advised.
"Captain Bligh," Merrill gasped, but obeyed.
Don grinned all the more. "I do this for your own good, you know."
"Captain Jauregui!"
"It's the repetitions you need, more than the weight. Build up the capillaries for the muscles you have."
"I want more." Merrill would've elaborated, but lack of air made him terse.
Don toweled off shoulders that rippled like cobblestones. "You don't need more. You've got ideal proportions for your size."
"My size!" He scowled as he rubbed the juncture of neck and shoulder. "I hate being a small man."
"Any more muscle would make you stocky and clumsy. A lady's man like you should know that the girls like 'em slim as you are."
"What difference does it make? I can't gain weight, nomatter how I try."
Don laughed. "Is that your latest excuse for your sweet tooth? Merrill, if you ever slowed down, you'd balloon up like a bloatfish." As Merrill finished toweling off, Don said, "As a matter of fact I remember that you did, once."
"I know. It absolutely shocked me." He handed Merrill a skin of water. "Shortly after Initiation, wasn't it?"
Merrill drank deep and wiped off his mouth. "Immediately after. The experience threw me into kind of a shock, I think." He poured water into his palm and slapped it around his face and neck.
"I remember," Don said smiling. "You wandered around almost in a trance--the only time you ever seemed to have a handle on that sort of thing. And as usual, you went overboard."
Merrill shrugged. "I took it seriously, that's all. The Lovequest vow, all that."
"To most people it's just a ritual."
"Anyway, I have no intention of ever slowing down again."
"I don't doubt it." He laid the towel down on the bench. "I've never seen anyone twitch in front of a console the way you do--you even exercise sitting still." Don picked up a couple lead disks to add to the barbell. "Move over. My turn."
As he locked the disks into place, Merrill took up the position behind him. "It's not fair, your being stronger than me," Merrill said with a smile. "We didn't start that way."
Don smiled back before he took up the barbell. "And whose fault is that, little gadfly?"
Merrill watched him lift and let down, over and over, with far more ease than he could emulate, more leverage in the bones. Don had a point, though--he got his exercise at sea; he only came here as something to share.
"It doesn't...make a...difference..." Don gasped between lifts. "My...strength."
"Talk or lift, don't do both."
" doesn'"
Another point, Merrill conceded. Between his long limbs and narrow ribcage, Don could pile on enough muscles to burst a barrel and still, with his shirt on, look like the bookworm he was. More remarkable to Merrill, he didn't care.
Merrill tapped his foot as he waited for Don to finish the set, till he saw Don grin in the mirror. "So what's the big sin about fidgeting?" he growled.
"Hey, guys!"
They both looked up. Deirdre dangled above them, from gymnastic equipment raised up to the roof and out of the way.
"Merrill!" Don moaned.
"Oh, right!" Merrill grabbed the barbell just in time. "Deirdre," he hollered, "Don't ever distract anyone lifting weights!"
"Especially not to look up," Don groaned.
Merrill asked him, "Is it bad?"
"I think I threw my neck out a little," he replied.
"See..." Merrill stopped.
"I almost said 'see Don about it'." They laughed. As Don's medical studies advanced, his friends relied on him more and more.
"I've got a chiropractic class tonight," Don said. "I'll get it popped back then."
Merrill looked upwards once more. Deirdre had been carrying on all sorts of acrobatics over their heads, as graceful as a windblown leaf. "One of these days, little girl," he said, "you're gonna fall, levitation or no. Where's your focus?"
"Oh, I don't need a focus for everything." He saw the muscles in her arms bunch as she pulled herself around from dangling, up into a handstand.
"You're still using trace levitation for adjustments."
"So what if I am?" She let go and drifted down to land quite gently by his side. "Fall! Big deal."
"So what, you say?" Merrill climbed a curtain-rope up to where Deirdre had played. "And what if I can do everything you can--without your abilities?"
"Merrill," Don called. "Don't be an idiot."
Merrill laughed, suspended by one hand from a bar. "Why not? Idiots don't get into trouble. They perform nice, safe experiments that make no one the wiser." He grabbed with the other hand, chinned himself, then swung his feet way above himself. His toes hooked onto a higher bar. "Safe experiments on gyroscopic tables that don't make waves. No one gets offended."
He thought his heartbeat must dislodge him, but carefully he let go with his hands, swung by his feet as slowly as a hanged man. His hands sweat too much to rely on, anyway.
"Make you nervous, Don?" He tasted his own sweat on his lip, but he smiled. "Never take risks on dry land? How about in the air?" He forced himself to laugh, though the laughter made him sway and the swaying made him sick.
He hung a minute to stabilize, carefully wiped his hands off on his shorts, then bent upwards from the waist, till he hung from the same bar with both hands and feet.
"Dr. Church didn't play it safe," he said, while he dropped his feet and kicked them behind him. "But then, he wasn't an idiot." His feet encountered something. He remained, stretched between two things, he didn't know what. "He didn't like the company of idiots." He kicked off so that his legs whipped towards the original bar that he'd hung from. "So he decided to do something about it."
He settled his feet onto the bar, one ahead of the other. When he felt them certain beneath him he let go to spread balancing arms like wings out from himself. "But we mustn't follow his example, you know." He tottered a moment, then stepped forward. "He's in the File of Shame, after all." He took another step. "We must content ourselves with what we are."
The third step hit the sweaty spot that his hands had left before. His foot flew into the air and he careened down. Something walloped into him before he hit, sent him tumbling to one side. In confusion he found himself entangled with someone else's limbs.
"Deirdre!" Don shouted with fury. "You could've killed yourself!"
It took Merrill a second to comprehend what happened. "You tackled me," he said to her, astonished.
"You almost hit the weights," she said in a small voice. Her skinned elbow left a little trail of blood where she'd skidded on the floor. Inanely he said, "Lisa's gonna cuss you out when she sees that."
"And then she'll patch me up. She thinks she's my mother."
"Hold it," Don said as they began to rise. "Neither of you move till I check you both for injuries." Merrill sighed and laid back down. His friend ran fingers over them and asked professional questions.
"Speaking of mothers," Merrill muttered.
"I've got the med-kit right here," Don said. "And the next words that don't answer my questions, you get a bandaged mouth."
"Do mothers talk like that?" Deirdre asked with genuine interest. Don stuffed a whole bandage, rolled up and packaged, into her mouth. She spat it out and laughed.
"Well, both you ingrates are only as scraped and bruised as you deserve," Don pronounced. "Deirdre, that was a brave thing you did, but you should never have egged Merrill on in the first place. You know what he's like."
Merrill thrummed fingers on the floor. "I suppose having a bad reputation's better than no reputation at all," he sighed. He hoped they couldn't see how shaken he felt.
It just now sank in that Deirdre had to've used all the levitation power she could muster without magentine to collide with him mid-air, even just a meter off the ground. He couldn't even remember seeing her or anything except the maze of gym equipment above his feet, getting smaller and smaller.
"I should've done something," he said to himself. Everything happened so quickly it hadn't occurred to him to curl mid-air for tumbling.
He sat up and stared at the weight equipment that he had nearly landed on. The barbells rested in brackets with harsh-edged y-shaped prongs jutting upwards. Deirdre had thought faster than him; she just possibly saved his life.
* * *
Merrill left the gymnasium a little after dusk; it felt strange to go out while people still milled around, leaving and entering classes. A month or more had passed since he'd signed up for any, or even looked up a program to check out what he qualified for–at this rate he could lose his student stipend . Walking past the line of pillars (at an apparent tangent today from where they'd stood the other night) he stopped in his tracks.
The sculpture winked at him.
He backtracked a couple steps. She did it again. Some illusionist set this up on purpose for any passer-by. Good. Then no one outside his friends knew that he studied dark matters--and even they suspected little of how he'd specialized. None of his bunch had any skill for illusionism.
He walked between rosebushes that briefly writhed into thorny dragons blowing petaled puffs of flame. Oh, Jake could've gone that route, creating illusions, but his oraclism absorbed that talent first of anything, twisted it inside out, wrenching a suppleness into it that made it the raw medium for visions--a thing he could no longer hurl out from himself for others, no matter how badly he might need to.
The dragons subsided back to roses, but the attar kept a lingering, sulfurous scent. Poor Jake. All that suffering he went through! The Field needed oracles more than any other talent--if they had the wits to match their visions. Otherwise they'd lack the capacity to harness their power--it would tear them to shreds. And they never found out till the end whether they had intelligence to the same degree as Gift.
Merrill admired the roses, sweet as all temptation in their damnable perfume; he bent to the largest, hellish-red bloom and caught his jacket in the thorns. "Got your claws in me already," he laughed. The weird blend of odors intrigued him, the sheer gamble of daring an unlikely combination like that.
Some gamble--for Jake to put all his eggs in a basket that might have a hole in it--and it just wasn't fair! Somebody'd have to fix Jake's dice, that's all. "It's my throw now, my bet, for all the stakes, for all of us."
The wink lingered on his mind, acrid/sweet, encouraging or taunting him, a goad like Deirdre's acrobatics. He needed all the encouragement he could find. Just before Don coaxed him to the gym, he'd read of a blight that swept the coast fifty years ago, causing extinction of a whole species of shellfish--Black Clam included. He hadn't felt like reading much after that.
He threaded through a labyrinth of arches that hadn't been there the night before. Good work, this; even a hint of flickering candlelight seemed to outline bas-reliefs in gold and shadow--a masterpiece. Sufficient at least to distract him from his problems, like the dragon-roses.
Funny, he didn't yet feel the full impact of defeat; he found it unthinkable. He'd synthesize the acid somehow, or discover an old store of it in some cobwebbed freezer, or maybe he'd find some other way to accelerate intelligence, simply inspired by knowing it possible. He'd have to. What could he offer, all by himself?
The arches popped like a soap-bubble; they left the sky overhead, deepening with the first stars of evening tossing on a sea of violet ether and seafoam clouds. He'd have to give something more permanent than that.

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