The Poison Gamble
By Dolores J. Nurss
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
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.
* * *
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
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
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...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
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.
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."
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. It...it 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
"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
* * *
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
"Now concentrate, Zanne...a little more...you'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
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
"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
"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!
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