The Poison Gamble
By Dolores J. Nurss
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
"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.
"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...