The Poison Gamble

By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 24
Memories of Mothers

Wednesday, November 7, 2700, continued

Jade dreamed of her mother's last hour and all the blood. Nobody ever died of slashed wrists; maybe her mother never intended to, either, but her daughter turned out too stupid, too little to know what to do.
"Oh, my mother was a gypsy lass, tura lura lee..." Her mother had sung the old folk song as she had so many times before. It used to be Jade's favorite. "And whate'er she said would come home to me, Why that's what I call my destiny, turalee, it shall be, turalee." It had always soothed her. It distracted her from all the blood, made her overlook the way her mother's voice grew weak. In her dream she smiled, just as she had so many years before.
"She said I'll be pretty, just right for the man, Who'll send me a-travelin' over this land." Later, she could never abide even the tune without her skin crawling. "Turalee, it shall be, turalee!"
She awoke with a shriek, then noticed that she'd fallen asleep on somebody's floor, her body stiff and cold. She identified the office that Bram had rented, the one his barrack-sibs didn't know about. And the music played on...
Bram, as usual silhouetted by the glow of the screen, slumped before the console as though it had beaten him. But his eyes reflected the light in a gleam of one far from defeat, one, indeed, who had awakened to a higher purpose. The speakers of the console kept playing the tune from Jade's childhood, over and over and...
"Turn it off," she pleaded.
"I can't." His voice sounded like the wind blew it down to her from the edge of a cliff. "I traced it to the music-files, but that's the best I can do."
"So you didn't..." Then she saw the other gleam, the metallic one. "Bram, what do you intend to do with that knife?"
"It doesn't matter. I changed my mind. I'm invincible, anyway."
She drew herself up. "You're going crazy," she said. "Not neurotic, not a little wacky like the rest of us. Truly insane."
"The music stopped." She barely heard his voice. He turned to face her. "It played for you--it stopped when you woke up." He rose, the band around his forehead stretching the connections between him and Archives. "What did you dream, Jade?"
For some reason fear made her defiant. "Why? What's it to you?"
"She sings to you in your sleep. She can't speak directly, not unless she's spoken to. She doesn't know how. She can only shape your dreams and hope you understand."
"I dreamed you were a fool," she improvised. "Archives wants me to tell you not to be foolish. She...we need you, Bram."
"Are you speaking as an oracle?"
She laughed, then stopped. "How did you even find out about that? I flunked out." With a chin-thrust and a smile that parodied a boast she said, "I am bright enough to test children, but not quite enough to handle visions without getting lost." She concealed her pain in a lighthearted tone. "It was your own great-uncle who broke the news to me. Ricardo. I've always kept it secret."
A sudden thought chilled her. No one could read her journal till twenty-five years after her death--a civil war had secured that right. Had Archives worked around its own programming?
Bram said earnestly, "I dreamed you were my oracle, Jade. The last time that I slept."
"Oh? And when was that?"
He didn't seem to hear the question. He looked down at his knife and said, "I wanted to face the children. I wanted to confront them, man to man, tell them to get off my back--I'm doing all I can." Then his voice broke. "They don't fight fair, Jade, they slink around in the corners of my mind; they never come right out and say anything. I have to guess! I have to feel their eyes on me all the time and guess!"
"Which children?" she asked him softly. "What are you talking about?"
"I have to become a ghost to speak to them--but I can't!"
"No, Bram, you can't." She took her courage into her firmest grip, she rose to her feet, walked towards him and slipped the knife from loosening fingers. "You need to sleep, my love. Come to bed. To my apartment, if you will--I'll let you sleep beside me if you want."
His eyes fogged over. He sat back down to the console.
"I'll let you do more than that! Anything!"
"It's okay," he mumbled, his back to her. "I don't need sleep anymore."

Thursday, November 8, 2700

"Thanks, Randy. I need all the help I can get," said Merrill. Randy grunted agreeably in reply, putting shoulder-muscle into use to try and polish months of abuse out of Merrill's desk-top. "I'm hopeless when it comes to room-cleanings. How can I repay you?"
"I could think of something," Randy said. Meanwhile he tried to dream up his own ways to trade off to Lisa for all the cleaning-gear he'd borrowed.
Merrill blew dust out of his snorkel, then packed it with the rest of his gear. "Name it."
"That black jacket you just made..."
"I fit it to me." Merrill took some cleanser from him.
"We're nearly of a size, Merrill." Merrill raised an eyebrow, but Randy went on, "And it's the only black coat cool enough for a summer night. Uh, don't spray that in your mask," he said as he took the spritzer back. "The fumes'll choke you up under water. Here; use this for glass."
Merrill cleaned the face-mask. "Why so formal all of a sudden? A jacket in summer?"
Randy got busier. "Goin' to my Mom's funeral," he said curtly. "What's this? Raspberry syrup on your desk?"
Merrill put the mask down. "I'm so sorry!" He laid a hand on Randy's shoulder. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"It's no big deal. I hardly knew the woman."
"Still...she was an agent, wasn't she?"
"Sure," Randy lied. "Both my parents were. Why d'you think she left me in commoran?"
Merrill regarded the stocky boy with respect. "You don't suppose...well, it'd be an advantage...don't touch those!" He grabbed papers from Randy.
"Just straightening them. What'd be an advantage?"
Merrill's face heated. "Uh, heredity. Your folks being agents and all. Do you ever feel you've got an edge?"
Randy laughed. "Me? Not hardly! I inherited freckles from my mother and my less-than-dashing build from Dad. The rest is all my own--unfortunately." He wished fervently that they'd had something to pass on to him.
"You're lucky, Randy Kramer, all the same." Merrill studied him oddly as he rolled his diving gear into a towel. "I don't know whether I look like my parents or not."
Randy tilted his head in a "shrug", having nothing to say to that. He watched Merrill leave and tried to picture the last time he'd seen his mother, what she'd looked like. It took effort; years had passed. Come to think of it...wasn't it for his father's own funeral that she'd returned the last time? Yes, that had been it...
* * *
...He hadn't known how to deal with her; he never did. His parents breezed in and out of his life as if they'd had some claim on him, as though no time at all had intervened between this visit and the last. The strangers expected him to put on a performance of dutiful sonship every time; now, on the verge of adolescence, it galled him more than ever. Yet how could he refuse his mother anything at all, this time, when she mourned his father?
"It's a good place, Til Institute," she said, trying to stick to small-talk that wouldn't trigger a crying-jag. "I wasn't sure, when Dale wanted to have you brought up here, but I am now, Randy. You're a fine young man and you'll make a terrific missionary."
"Sure, Mother. Have a shrimp." He passed her the hors d'oeuvres left over from the funeral to cover his embarrassment. All these years he'd told his friends he intended to follow in his parent's footsteps, but he'd said that they were agents.
"Not 'Mother', dear, not anymore. You're almost a grown man--yes, so tall, now--too old for such things. Call me Magara."
"Uh, Magara. Okay."
She patted his knee. "I'm so proud of you, Randy--your teachers have given me good words about you. With the training you've gained you'll be able to reach the hearts of anyone, anywhere, and give them the Truth without destroying those portions that they already have."
Boy, he thought, if she ever finds out I've been lying, she'll...what? Revoke my birth?
"I know it's been of inestimable value to your father and me...your father..." She started to cry again. "Randy, if only you could grow up just like your father! He was such a sweet man!"
He put his arms around her. "I'm here, Mom--Magara. I'm right here."
"Thank God I have such a nice son!" She wept just a little before she composed herself. "Randy, you have no idea how often cultural ignorance has poisoned mortal efforts to spread the Word of God!"
"Some idea," he said. "I've read a little Earth history." He plotted stratagems to keep her from crossing paths with his friends. He'd always managed before--barely--but she'd never stayed so long. Besides, Dad used to occupy her attention almost as much as classes on her next mission-country. Randy felt his own lies breathing down his neck.
"Randy, darling, you will come to prayer-meeting with me tonight, won't you?"
"Sure, M-Magara." He did have a class, but he could catch it later. He'd been attending all her religious things with her. She seemed lost without an arm to hold onto. Which struck him as strange, for her.
"Randy...I've been a terrible mother! I know I have!" Childlike little voice, dainty little sobs--she never did anything coarsely. "But can you forgive me? Can you understand how hard it is sometimes to discern the will of God?"
"Mother--no need for that!" He held her close, frightened by the new flood of tears, raised now not on his father's behalf, but worse, his own. "You did the best you knew how. You did well by me. I love it here at the Institute."
She looked too pretty to cry, even at her age, bouncy red hair, upturned nose with a sprinkle of freckles. Even the weather-lines that her travels had graven on her looked good to him.
"But Randy..."
"Remember the Bible, Magara. You've got to be prepared to leave kinfolk behind to follow Christ. Just like you did all those times you said Dad lagged behind. You had to. You did the right thing."
"Oh Randy, you have been reading your scriptures!" She hugged him dearly. "You'll make a better missionary than your poor father ever could--you're growing up to be such a man of virtue!" And the "man of virtue" wilted at the prospect of her learning how he'd been lying his tongue off...
* * *
Randy shook himself, escaped his memories. One less thing to worry about, unless...but no. A Universal Baptist like herself would call a ghost a superstition, would rather be damned than come back to haunt him. He could say what he pleased about her now.
Only...why'd it have to hurt so? Why did he ever care what she thought of him in the first place? A hollowness ached inside him where there should've been a relationship. It passed for grief; it made his eyes water. He resented having to feel even that much.
He got back to work, grabbing a trashbox to dump. On the way to the recycler he glanced inside and saw older copies of the very papers Merrill had forbidden him to touch. One kept honor with friends, of course one did. And, faithfully, he had not lain one finger on the printouts on the desk. These, however...

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