The Poison Gamble

By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 25

Thursday, November 8, 2700, continued

Bram stumbled into the bathroom because Archives still couldn't bypass every function. Then he turned to the sink, splashed his face, realizing that layers of grime had built there along with the stubble.
When his head rose he looked into the mirror at bloodshot eyes, as sunken as a murderer's. The sight almost made him decide something...until he saw a flicker in the corner of the reflection.
He whipped around, but saw nobody there. "How dare you!" he shouted. "Always hiding behind my back, just out of sight--show yourselves!" He turned back to the mirror. "Is that where you hide? In reflections? Dreams? Half-glimpsed ripples?" His fist smashed into the glass. "I can destroy your hiding places!" He raged around the little suite, smashing anything with a reflective surface. "You're not dealing with some misty-eyed visionary here, you recruited a warrior, and I don't take this hide-and-seek crap!"
He nearly smashed in the console screen before he recognized it. "Oh yes," he said more quietly, as he sat back down and wiped the blood off his knuckles. "Here's where you hide, yes indeed." He picked up the psychometric band, red spreading on it from his lacerated hands, and bound it on like the headband of a kamikaze. "Here's where I can hunt you down and deal with you."
* * *
So clear, the water in this bay, so perfectly clear. Not at all like Cauldron Bay up south. Don leaned over the gunwale to watch Merrill's foreshortened body rise towards him, wavering and green-tinged. And far, so far below, corals and anemones and marierva swirled with the current as the stones and sand reflected back a golden light, casting liquid shadows in an otherworldly way that made the mind re-evaluate what it labeled "light" and "shadow" and all else it perceived.
Sea-change. Some sights, some experiences, Don felt, sank so deep into you that they became you, helped add up to the person you wound up being. It could be a moment just like this, as easily as some triumph or trauma. It all had an equal reality.
Merrill burst into the air in a fountain of white. For an instant Don saw the droplets that flew from him not as water, but as sparks of liquid light.
"I said give me a hand, here!"
"Oh. Sorry." Don grabbed Merrill's wet wrist and hauled him aboard. "I guess I was daydreaming."
Merrill laughed. "It figures. The way this ocean mesmerizes you, I'm not sure if it's become a vice. You spend every free hour you can out here in your own altered state." Merrill pulled off his mask and snorkel.
"Me? You're the one who's been hypnotizing yourself on study, neglecting your classes, your friends, even food and bed if we didn't dig you out sometimes for exercise."
Toweling off, Merrill said, "I'm sorry, Don. You deserve better."
"Hey, am I complaining?" He threw out his arms in an expansive gesture. "For the first time in my life I've got a love-life!"
"Really?" Merrill stopped drying off. "Anybody I know?"
"Some you do, some you don't."
"No kidding! Several? You rascal!" Grinning, Merrill socked him in the arm, which threw them into a few seconds of roughhousing that rocked the boat.
"What did you expect?" Don grinned like a wine-blooded fool. "Without your pretty face beside me all the time, I've got a chance to show off a bit of personality."
Merrill strutted on the deck. "Is it my fault that God, the Fates and Holy Mother Nature in their wisdom made me gorgeous?"
"And short," Don smirked.
"Along with Napoleon, Lawrence, Chou Tzi and Alexander the Great. Should I complain?"
"No. You're a lucky man and heredity has blessed you...did I say something wrong?"
"No, Don." Merrill stared out over the sea. "I've never heard an unkind word from you. Angry, sometimes, never unkind."
"Somebody else, then? Somebody said something vicious to you--about heredity or something?" He thought immediately of Jauregui.
"No. Or if they did, it was so long ago that I can't remember." Some young mother must've, on the brink of Ambrey Canyon.
"I don't see where they'd get away with it if they did," Don groused, hauling up the anchor. "Imagine! We can't even know who your parents are."
"No Black Clams here, either."

Don thought that Merrill had changed the subject, and couldn't blame him.  "Honestly, Merrill, what did you expect? Every marine biologist for a generation tried to find the extinct ones."
"Remember tales of the African Lungfish, on Earth? It's not impossible."
"No, impractical." He tugged some lines on the sail to catch a change of wind. "And when you've found it, what of that? There'd be a footnote in some file nobody'd ever read, that one Merrill A. Ambrey discovered the last Black Clam. You need a better monument than that."
"Monument?" Merrill smiled in spite of himself as he helped secure the new tack. Now they skipped along at a breezy speed.
Don sat down with a sigh on a coil of rope while Merrill took the rudder. "Do you think I know you so poorly, best friend? You want fame. You want one act, at the very least, that has Merrill Ambrey written all over it. Something to set you apart."
"Not quite." Merrill gazed out at the sea as if it could almost quench him. "Not fame. Glory. There's a difference."
"And what is that?" Don asked, chin on fist, intrigued.
"I want to achieve something," Merrill said intently, "but I don't care who knows. Everyone in the world could turn on you, but you could still hold onto glory in secret, close to the heart like a winning hand, and it'll keep your chest warm." He pictured a straight flush, every diamond a flame, sheltered in the fold of his old--yes, even his shabbiest--battered cloak. Glory could make a beggar a surreptitious king.
Don listened gravely, but then smiled wryly. "And you think extinct mollusks can obtain this for you?"
Merrill laughed. "You're right; I'm on the wrong track." He almost spilled everything to Don; the words stopped in his throat just short of his tongue.
"First crime, then fish," Don chuckled. "What'll it be next, kidito?" He swung himself up to his feet, undid the chock that he'd just tied and set the sails for home, then took over the rudder.
Merrill watched him, here in his element, supple and confident. He wondered how Don could possibly imagine Merrill's own insecurities. He might stumble like a lobster on dry land, but out here, the Lost Prince of Neyth became...
...became what? Heredity had nothing to do with it, when Neyth had no ocean access.
* * *
That evening Don, looking about as princely as any beach-bum, strode along briskly as he whistled chanteys in the twilight. A day at sea made his whole body tingle; he thanked Merrill mentally for providing the excuse. Yet something had eaten at Merrill the entire time, something more than he'd tell. Don felt he'd had him jested out of it by day's end, though; that added to his happiness--good done for a friend.
Ahead his favorite seaside cafe spilled light out in a golden ripple, across the “ocean” that tossed around it. Don strode confidently across the hallucinatory waves to the restaurant, which the proprietor had paid greatly to make into an "island". He rather enjoyed the illusion of walking on water; most people did, and bought meals as an excuse to experience it.
Besides, he liked the booths with low tables and floor-cushions, a cozy way to dine. Most of his friends agreed, so it didn't surprise him to find Randy curled up in a corner by a plate full of pie-crumbs, engrossed in wads of unbound printouts. The boy paid him no heed as Don came up to him and read over his shoulder:
"By the end of the experiment not one of the subjects remained a virgin..."
Randy exploded from his pillows, scattering papers, his face red enough to burn.
"What'n'earth," (Don couldn't help but grin) "were you reading, Randy Kramer?"
Randy gulped. "Well, I just, you know, got curious...well, you know! Merrill hardly talks about anything else, so I thought I'd take a peek, and, um..."
"I see. The File of Shame?"
Randy nodded.
"What's the matter, Randy? You swallow your tongue?"
Randy shook his head, then said, "Actually, I found it quite, ah, stimulating--intellectually! I mean intellectually."
"Oh, I'm certain of that."
"Take, take for instance this case." Randy rattled through the papers till he found the start of the article. "The big fuss was over using minors for experimentation--except their average age, it says, was sixteen. Isn't that the norm for coming of age?"
"I guess so." Don stroked his chin. "Even younger now, often as not. I don't think Deirdre's sixteen, and I know Jesse isn't."
"Yet here they're throwing people into rehabilitation for using 'child' volunteers. I don't get it."
"Mores change. Haven't you heard there's a move now to toughen the maturity-tests back up again?"
Randy chewed his lip and thought about it. "Sounds lousy to me," he concluded.
"Maybe, maybe not. I'm glad to be a man, I know that much." Don shrugged and sat down by Randy. "Anyway, the conservatives haven't much support in this, so I wouldn't worry if I were you."
"Why should I worry? I passed free and clear." He grinned. "Unless you think they might revoke it?"
Don smiled. "If you gave enough cause..."
Randy glanced back down at his papers. "Whatever, I'm glad I didn't live in those days; they must've all been crazy."
Don leaned over towards the printouts. "Here; let me see those. There could be more to it than age." He reached to pick the papers up, but froze as they brushed his rings.
"Don?" For a minute Randy thought Don looked like Jake in some oracular throe.
"I'm alright," he said, and straightened. He looked puzzled, though. "You didn't print these out yourself, did you?"
"No, they're just an old wad I stumbled on in Merrill's apartment, stuff he forgot to recycle."
Don grinned for a second. "Did he draft you to clean his place again?"
Randy "shrugged". "He let me borrow that black jacket of his."
Don shook his head with a smile. Randy couldn't sew a stitch. But his smile faded as the other thing nagged him. "Excuse me, Randy; I have a reservation to make." He went to the nearest public console and scheduled himself in for a psychometrist's booth.
Something charged those papers, something of Merrill. Yet a thought nagged at the back of his mind that it involved another identity as well. He didn't feel the reflex that buried that notion, as he had never felt the influences that conditioned the reflex.

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