The Poison Gamble

By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 31

Monday, November 12, 2700

Jauregui didn't need the Archive's summation to notice who did and did not attend his class. He saw Merrill's absence immediately.
Thoughts crowded his mind, of ways to let the little whelp's peers know just what a coward he thought the boy for not returning. But they felt alien in his skull, a parade of threadbare sadisms in which he had simply lost interest. He felt instead a kind of intoxication, an almost horrifying surfeit of peace. He drifted over to the desk and sat down. He didn't care about missing pupils today; everything would be all right.
Everything would be all right.
It cushioned every other perception from him. Sounds wafted to him through some muffling medium and all the colors had faded to pastel. He could not recall what he had eaten for lunch, a rarity for him, nor did he note that he had failed to attack it with his usual ferocity of a mutt on guard lest a bigger dog snatch the food away. He had dined instead like a spoiled cat. Now, in his classroom, the chair felt soft, the desk soft, the very air felt soft against his face.
His students stared at him with the whites grown wide around their irises. Far from feeling spared, they sensed the wrongness of his mood, the gentleness of disease. Some of them had heard of his collapse the day before and they watched him for symptoms.
He smiled, and it looked ghastly upon him.
Everything was all right.
* * *
"All right!"
A mere handful of days ago Bram would not have believed that he could read so fast. He could not have believed a human being could read so fast. Never mind comprehension--on some other level he knew. A thrill that shared a quiet border with hysteria throbbed in him, as words burned through the headband directly into his neurocircuitry, blurred in a shorthand, slowed only when certain key combinations of words zipped past. Another! He found another that fit the pattern. He pressed keys and Archives included it as part of a subcategory from which to select a certain person's more general RA.
Stories. He selected stories for an old man to read. Tales of deceitful youths tamed by the unexpected gift of trust. Moving tales that all rang true, culled from an era past, written with an antique grace. Stories that could sway a heart to lead before the mind.
He didn't care why Archives needed this done. He loved her, adored, declared himself her slave. She rested helpless on his brow, enchanted beauty trapped in sleep, sighing with desires but unable to make a single move without his help. He soothed her down with mental smiles.
He took care of everything. How could he question her passions, how could he not obey? She focused all the goodness in the world, she couldn't wish for evil. With every caress of the keys he felt the return of her approval, her joy that cuddled around his forehead, wrapped on so tightly that he felt his mind must burst, the pressure of so much feedback, but she received with gladness all that he gave her.
She calmed beneath his fingertips. Romance enchanted all the air. She slept for both of them.
* * *
Deirdre skipped along the sea-wall, whistling. The cuffs of her trousers slapped against her ankles, wet and sand-caked where she'd waded through tidepools. Her tunic billowed loose without the belt that she'd lost when she'd scaled the cliffs above and then flew down just for the challenge of scaling them once more. And her hair...well, just forget anything tidy about her hair!
Everywhere the sunlight sparkled on colors unimaginable by night. Deirdre gorged her sight on all the prospects that Jesse would enjoy tomorrow, once he got his bandages removed.
It awed, entranced, elated her to discover that Jesse had turned to her in his need. Her confidence soared like the flit that she'd left lying on the beach. Her service counted for something!
For three hours last night she'd sat on his bed, cradled the boy in her arms and regaled him with the marvels that awaited him once he could view both Art and Creation in the light of day. And his fear left him, and those sculptured elvish lips gave her the first real kiss of her life.
Deirdre saw Jake ahead, leaning on the wall, lost in thought as usual (or maybe a little more than usual) but this time it seemed some pleasurable matter held him. She bounded up to him, then stopped herself abruptly before she ran into him. He hadn't even noticed; he smiled down at the shore below. She laughed at his preoccupation and he came out of his reverie enough to grin sheepishly.
"What's upon you, Jake?"
He tried to shrug on a kind of nonchalance but his grin went out of control. "I think I'm in love," he answered, his voice as deep as earth, soft and husky like the velvet touch of leaves. "Or changed. Or something. I don't know." Deirdre laughed again just to see this shift from his usual dourness. He blinked vaguely at the horizon, troubled for a moment, but then his smile broke out again. She thought he seemed a bit tipsy, yet she smelled nothing intoxicating about his person.
"And who's the lucky lady?" she asked.
"The whole world!" he cried, sweeping her up to give her a spin in the air. "You, Jesse, Randy, Merrill, the kid down there who picks litter off the beach, the gulls up in the air!"
"That's quite a switch," she said as he lowered her to the ground.
"No, Sisterling, I think I've been in love with all of it all along. It''s just huge in me today. That's all."
"That's enough. But what opened your eyes?"
He answered with a smile full of secrets.
"Well, if that's the way you're going to be..." She turned on her heel and stalked away, all mock insolence.
"Wait! Where are you headed?" He caught up with her in two long strides. She took his hand.
"Oh, to check out a new cafe--Delstrian cuisine." He veered a little off course, but she steered him aright again.
He shook his head. "It's Delstri cuisine, Deirdre. The people of Delstri have few true adjectives." Then he tripped over his own big feet and steadied himself on her. She laughed.
"Whatever. I hear it tastes good." They went on in silence for awhile, going down the Brickway.
Jake's thoughts turned back over and over to the morning, but they veered in and out of his attention, hard to wrestle into any sort of order, like a vision or a dream. Yes, maybe that was it. Maybe the entire experience had happened in vision. Or parts of it. Or...or what? Ricardo had warned him about something like this--that his identity had entered a plastic phase, where anything could strain him in any direction, where nothing he'd held true of Jaquar il'Dawes would go unchallenged. He thought for sure that he’d walked certain steps, to certain places, but beyond that...well, who could tell?
He had started in their cave, he remembered that much. He had entered the cave last evening, in a normal frame of mind, bringing some new meditation music with him. And some time or other he left, by the bright day’s light, dazzled by the dawn’s warm colors dancing on the ocean’s blues and greens.
Had he really spent the entire night in a trance? He’d never attempted anything of the kind before. Was that a good thing?
The music. He had not intended to download so much music. Usually its ending triggered his awakening from his trance. He felt drunk on music, even now. The tunes continued to revolve around in his head long after the recording finally stopped and he had stumbled out into the surprising light, elated and bemused.
He had visited Jesse...had he? Yes, that much happened, he had visited Jesse thinking only to comfort him. His trance had warned him not to become selfish in his quest for insight, that he must love others to have any sort of foundation at all. So yes, as soon as he’d emerged, he acted on the revelation as naturally as water running where it must.
He had entered Jesse's room, still disoriented, still fighting to establish some distinction between tangible and visionary. He couldn’t remember much of the walk from the beach to the hospital, but that much had happened, passing that lintel. He heard the soft, alluring music as soon as he opened the door, and it reminded him of the other music, certain chords in common, and the two worlds joined, exultantly becoming one.
His steps had fallen lighter than what most people expect of a tall man, as though he hardly touched the ground. He had closed the door behind him without a sound. Did that happen? Maybe. His attempt to reconstruct his memories started to grow vaguer here.
"Deirdre?" Jesse's voice sounded smaller than he'd reckoned on, more helpless. Jake almost replied. Maybe he’d only imagined Jesse saying that. "Don't read anything more, Deirdre. Don't say a word. Just come here." He should have said something at that point. He didn't. He slipped over and sat on the edge of Jesse's bed, feeling the strangeness of the moment. Maybe here, at this point, he had slipped back into his visions once again.
As soon as he settled on the mattress edge, the boy had slipped off his blankets to curl up in Jake’s lap. Jake discovered that one of his hands could cover Jesse's back from shoulder to spine, another hold a single slim hip. Tangible vision. The hospital gown felt thin, as fragile as a childhood vow. Something in him froze, terrified of he knew not what. But visions often frighten one.
"It did hurt, when the anesthesiologist put the needle under my eye," Jesse said. Jake held the boy tighter against his sudden shiver. "But I hated the numbness far worse. I felt like part of my head went missing, the most important part--just a vacancy up there. For all that day I feared to move my head, not seeing what I could bump into, not feeling where I left off, where the air or pillow began."
Jesse locked his arms around Jake. "I told Deirdre all this already. No, don't speak, don't leave. I don't care who you are. I'm trying not to guess."
Jake couldn't help but think, He must have a pretty good idea. But then applying logic made no sense; the feeling persisted that this had nothing to do with reality, that he had never really come out of trance at all.
"Then," Jesse said, "A day or two later, I'm not sure when, I felt a rush of love flow through me, from outside, as I lay here alone in the dark. made all the difference."
Nurses had brushed Jesse's hair twice daily for some time now. Its silkiness, the way it spilled over Jake's hand like pure moonlight, confused the man. He felt it under his chin, then against his cheek, and he didn't know how this happened.
"Do you realize," Jesse murmured, "That it's official now? I'm a legal adult. I am a...a man. Can you believe it?" His voice grew softer still. "But I haven't stopped loving you...Jake."
The terror danced with delight, confusion with desire, whirling in Jake’s head. He hadn’t pictured this. Repressed daydreams whirled up to join the dance. He’d imagined something altogether different–to his alarm he realized that he’d fantasized about stronger arms, muscular arms embracing him.
Jesse pressed closer still, till Jake's heart beat...differently. He seems too feminine for me, Jake realized. Is that wrong? Maybe it’s wrong. Something’s wrong. But he couldn’t think straight, and he felt too good, the music in the room just felt so overwhelmingly, drowningly delicious. Maybe I’m not supposed to shy away from the feminine. Is that it? Is that what this vision wants to tell me? But shifting layers of realities wouldn’t hold still long enough for him to figure it all out.
Blindly as some suckling creature, trusting in vulnerability, Jesse's lips sought his, searched out the solace of his mouth. And Jake remembered, He’s an adult. A legal adult. Am I supposed to honor that? Tentatively, he returned the pressure of lip to lip, a delicate searching of their tongues. Is this what I’m supposed to do? Yet it felt all wrong–but for the right or the wrong reasons? I must not reject his femininity! Gently Jesse slipped one slender leg between Jake's own, and a shiver passed through him. I must not reject a member of my own friendclan...I must not doubt his manhood...I must...what?
Must? Must not? When the music sang so beguilingly of pleasure, when the trance relaxed his muscles and his heart? None of this could happen. It didn’t and it did. He couldn’t keep track of which things belonged to which reality, and Ricardo always warned him that on that path lay madness, but Ricardo wasn’t here and Jesse was or maybe he held Jesse’s spirit in his arms and the body still lay sleeping, tucked between the sheets, but it felt so real, so pressing, but then visions often did. Normal and abnormal had no meaning in this trance; he couldn’t even quite remember what the rules might once have been. Jake assumed that they'd assert their boundaries later, but in the meantime all his terror slipped away like a shrugged-off hospital gown, and something warm and aching welled up inside, some primal meaning beyond all trances...
"Look, a mutation!" Deirdre's voice brought him back to the present. She pointed out a red honeysuckle in a vineful of golden ones. Smiling, Jake plucked it, to put it behind Deirdre's ear where her dark hair offered the perfect complement.
"Wait, Jake, now it'll never produce more red honeysuckles."
"Maybe it's supposed to remain unique." But he pleased her by brushing its pollen against the stamen of another blossom before he returned it to her hair. Meanwhile his mind darted around: Am I still good? Am I still a virgin? How does one figure these things, anyway? Did anything really happen? Did I even enter Jesse’s room at all? Am I going to stay in this trance for the rest of my life? They continued on, hand in hand, sharing this moment of their first infatuations, that neither dared to speak of, neither dared to entirely believe.
* * *
Merrill had recovered from more infatuations than colds, himself. He rather thought of them that way, too: one never sought them out, they mildly incapacitated one for awhile and could be as miserable as the devil, and then they went away. "The contagion spreads by the lips," he once wrote in a mock science-paper. But that made him wonder all the more if this time differed...
"Now concentrate, Zanne...a little've got the capacity in you, I know that." She stared bug-eyed at the device he'd stripped of corrosion and rewired, then she subsided into giggles.
"How can I concentrate when he calls me that?"
"Not 'he', Zanne. Say 'you'."
She flushed, smiling, and turned her head away. "But I've barely met him," she murmured.
He touched her cheek and with all the earnestness in him said, "You've always known me, Zanne."
"Yes." She turned to him, suddenly solemn. "I know you."
Merrill felt her fingers draw the motor from his hand, then felt them slide up to his chin to guide his lips towards hers, felt the kiss as the tenderest of shocks.
She'd told him of her dreams of him, and he recognized their psychic nature. With proper training she could someday bring it to the surface of her mind, as practical telepathy--if only she could emerge with him to the rest of Til Institute.
He wrapped his arms tender-tight around her like he could fly, could lift her up and out and carry her to worlds she'd only dreamed of. He felt as if he could fly. He felt so light, like he had ecstacy for bones, too much, he could blow away, nothing anchored him to earth but the warm flesh in his embrace.
She must've picked up his thoughts at the library--it lay near the ruins. And before, the dreams of her childhood, she could've picked them up from the minds of those who passed this district daily, unaware of the people behind the crumbled walls. Or something like that; he didn’t quite know what telepathy required, having dodged the study of it from the moment he learned that he had no Gift, himself.
A fleeting thought disturbed him. What collective picture had she really tapped--what role had he stumbled into, anyway? And what lures brought him to this point?
The moment flashed and vanished as blonde curls spilled between his fingers, black ones between hers. Her lips tasted as cool as the confidence in her eyes. Merrill heard a crunch under his knee as he leaned forward. He ignored it till little wires prickled through to his skin. With a yelp he fell away from her. She laughed as he gingerly pulled mechanical components from his knee.
"The great healer of machines!" she gasped, laughing again as he surveyed the wreckage of the device and of his knee. Then she leaned forward to kiss the pinpricks, sending quivery little jolts all through him.
"The crystal's still intact, at least," he remarked. "We can salvage it to repair something else with. I may not have it in me to power a magentine motor," he said with a proud smile, "but I'm no mean hand at fixing them."
"You've done enough fixing for awhile. Plumbing, dishwashers, paper-makers--you'll make the people lazy!"
"I've got some uses for leisure time, don't you?" With that he snatched her around the waist and pulled her on top of him, and she squealed and tussled with him gaily.
"Ah. I see you're 'satisfying curiosity'." They whipped around to see Zanne's father behind them, smiling sardonically. Merrill froze. "Suzie, you have chores to do." Before Merrill could say a word she'd slipped from his arms and left him in a quick patter of bare feet. He doesn't see her, doesn't know her at all!
Sin...sin...sin... Archives moaned with the impossibility of perfection, and the moan rocked through her magentine cells, washed back and forth, and melancholy swept through Til Institute like a damp wind. Her favorite flesh unit, Bram called Larry, rocked himself, back and forth, back and forth, moaning for her. He couldn’t remember, quite, what he’d done, but oh, he ached with guilt from it!
Sin chained them all together, now. Didn’t her files contain a sermon on that somewhere?
The blonde nurse with the mole on her chin had vanished as mysteriously as she'd caome. The schedule went off. The front desk called in for another temp. In all of the fuss the anaesthetic wore off of one small patient, but maybe that worked out for the best, as the new nurse studied his chart, for the other temp, the one who had run off early, had given him a bit too much before, and in a strange, untried combination. Ah well, at least the woman had come back long enough to change the linens. The new temp jotted down a note, a pencil scratching on paper, and went to fetch the medicine.
Jesse lay in mounting pain, filling the cavities of his skull, hoping that the ache would just get worse and worse and drive all thought from his head. “That didn’t happen,” he murmured to himself, tossing on his pillow, his once-combed white hair flipping to disorder. “I dreamed it. It didn’t happen. It couldn’t have happened, so it didn’t happen...did it?”

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