The Poison Gamble
By Dolores J. Nurss
Rites of the Black Clam
Thursday, November 15, 2700
Merrill woke up, startled to find that he'd slept at
all after the tension that had tossed him most of the night. Yet for an
instant he couldn't remember the cause of this. He glanced about him at
the walls, the ancient plaster faintly browned and mottled by years
without paint–an unpretentious place, pleasant in its way, yet also a
little sad. Glad to dispense with the tedium of appearances, yet
sometimes missing the amenities of unnecessary materials that the
village couldn’t manufacture without the outside world, the illusory
purification that paint could convey...
"Wait...of course!" On this day Juliar would purify him for his presence before the Gates of Knowledge--the Black Clams.
He began to shake where he lay. "Zanne leaves me no choice," he told himself. No, he lied. He left himself no choice.
Merrill did have options, actually, for what they were worth. He
counted them as he stared up at the ceiling. One, he could behave
himself, give it all up and go back to his studies, hoping against hope
to become an agent.
But not really. He had too many marks against him. He hugged his pillow
like it could cushion the blows of the facts. Without some
extraordinary talent, Merrill would fall so far down on the list of
applicants that he'd just keep sinking and sinking and...crime? His
energies would have to go somewhere.
Fingers dug into the pillow as he fully faced himself, his personal
realities, for the first awful time. He wouldn't mean to do anything
wrong, at first, but he knew himself...at this moment he knew himself
excruciatingly. He had to take risks. It would start as some lark, he
almost certainly would blank from his mind the deepening grey areas
that he penetrated, till one day they became so black that he could
never find his way back. He didn't have to know which crime, he just knew that something waited out there for him if he didn't put his restlessness to some honorable use.
Or, he could rehabilitate himself. Carefully he placed the pillow back
behind his head and clasped his hands upon his breast like a posture
could purify him. He could exert some master-stroke of will, slay
anything potentially destructive in himself--snuff that which burned
inside, the thing that first proposed to Jake to name his friendclan
"Fireheart" so many years ago. Quench it down to ash. Maybe Jauregui
had a point and a change of diet would help. Or drugs; he could get a
And then his personality profile would show him too timid for the
Field, but he wouldn't desire it anymore, anyway. He could have some
small post suitable for a small person; maybe he could take up clerking
like Tom Czenko did and tell great tales of what he might have done if
it weren't for the asthma and his lack of Gift and...everything.
That'd do it--go back to his own people. Without Zanne. Best to sneak
out, before she knew. She would wither him with those uncompromisingly
childlike eyes. In disgust she would sneer at the imposter who only
looked like a shorter-than-life Lord Byron. He lay so still, so still,
he hardly even breathed.
Or maybe he could take her along anyway, just as she wanted. Right. A
woman educated on a handful of poems. She'd never catch up. Her proud
nature, accustomed to respect and the intellectual limelight of her
backwards village, would shrivel in the glare of Til's real knowledge.
She wouldn't consider that a rescue.
Or...he could take the gamble. Slowly he sat up in bed. He could lay
his money down, invest everything he had, see what cards came up, and
play them for all their worth. Lose it all (what all he had!) or gain
wealth indescribable: achievement--the one coin that mattered.
He opened his hand and peeled back the bandage, to stare at the closing
gash upon his palm. He had to consider the stakes, as all good gamblers
do. What did these people do to blasphemers? Not sophisticated enough
for torture, they probably satisfied the honor of their gods with
simple execution. That'd be something, anyway, a quick close, all debts
paid in a stroke.
Or, if his own people caught him, well, if rehabilitation constituted
the reconstruction of personality, like everybody said, what would that
leave to have regrets? Scary, but he supposed he'd have no fears left
Yet if he won...if he won! Ah. A whole planet unfurled before the feet
of his imagination. He and Zanne ran hand in hand over that terrain as
the colors, the customs, the very clothes on their backs shivered into
new forms with every leap; they ran through a life of dangers and
privations, excitement, fulfillment, service to something huger than
either of them. He pulled the pillow up into his lap and hugged it
again, but this time like a lover, like Zanne, like the whole, big,
beautiful world out there, tender against his breast, protected in his
No sluggishness of study would confine them to two or three cultures
per lifetime. No, life after life of laughter and terror and souls
healed with their own hands, a praiseworthy existence, awaited. And
Zanne, every mental picture showed him Zanne, loving him, being rescued
by him, rescuing him, knowing that purest joy, the consummation of
How could he deny her that! He threw the pillow across the room. Wicked of him, inexcusable,
if he abandoned her, with all her spirit and her mystery, to wait out
her life tending household chores and fostering little patches of farm
in a village bordered by ruins and the limitations of her neighbor's
imaginations. Left her to remain Suzie all her life, her one acclaim in
being a shaman's daughter, till he died and some new man took his
place--then nothing, never a chance to accomplish one thing for
herself. Yet it would do little good to bring her to the Institute
unless something greatly advanced her potential.
gives a duty, He also gives the means to fulfill that duty." He
treasured that old saying. He fell back against the bed. Success alone
could justify his presence there now. He knew that the means would soon
lie within his reach, and Zanne had made the duty plain enough. He
opened his hand to study the pink line across it. Within his reach
"Am I evil?" he asked the roof. "Do I have a place in the File of
Shame? But I...I could heal the world! If that makes me evil, then so
be it! I'll do anything for that. Do or endure anything."
Merrill looked up beyond his bed and saw, not the brownish local garb
that he'd worn the day before, but all his own things folded by his
bedside, wrinkled but freshly laundered. Zanne must've awakened before
him to give him this gift--if she had slept at all. His window lay to
the east; the sun slanted in like new-coined gold, so he knew he
couldn't have overslept. He dressed quickly.
And thought. Thought of the poet that Zanne adored. The poet that no
cemetery would take in the end, buried in unsanctified ground.
Juliar and Zanne awaited Merrill outside, dressed in peculiar bright
and bulky garments, fastened with many little ties, their fabric stiff
and poorly woven--not at all up to the standards of the stuff that this
people normally wore. The second he emerged Zanne tugged a garish blue
tunic-thing over his head. Merrill could see the dye come off on her
hands. She wrestled his arms into sleeves that extended clear to his
knuckles as she whispered in his ear, "I get to go, too!" with
She then pulled a red thing onto him. It held in its bulk with ties
around the chest and hips, elbows and shoulders--all the wrong places.
Juliar inspected Zanne's knots, then tied them tighter. Next came a
white garment--chalky, powder-shedding white--with too-tight armpits
and a choke-grip on the chest. Finally they put on him a loose, flappy
black thing with little ornamental bows and fastenings that dangled
Merrill amazed himself that he managed to move at all, yet when they
called him he discovered that at least they had not hobbled his legs.
But he despaired of raising his hands much higher than his waist.
The shaman led them to a screen of vines on trellises, then behind it
where it had concealed a long, brick tunnel. The bricks wore a green
mantling of moss and a moist smell; he could feel the rise of humidity
in the skin of his face. The ocean-scent became unmistakable as they
entered the sunlight on the other side: that fishy, weedy, tidepool
aroma. And he heard the surf-pump's surging like a planetary heart. But
he saw no water where the tunnel led him, only a small, swept space,
walled in, with a wrought iron gate on the other side.
Something came over Juliar here. He turned and straightened up taller
than Merrill had ever seen him, his face transported by some emotion
transcending both the ecstacy of worship and the nightmare of cruel
memories. The sun reflected off the planes of his face and tangled in
his mane, sparkled in his eyes, cut blacker the lines and hollows that
his age had eroded.
He stood perfectly still, staring at Zanne and Merrill side by side
before him, till suddenly Merrill feared that this man must read minds
after all, and know their thoughts. Combustor-telepaths did occur
sometimes, though weak. He felt Zanne's hand in his and realized that he'd already
played his cards just by contemplating the gamble. He could only await
A knife slipped out of the shaman's sleeve, into his hand.
* * *
Deirdre scrambled up the outside stair to Don's apartment, pounded on the door, then kicked it when that got no response.
"Deirdre...what the hey?" She saw she'd caught him just in time. He
wore the floppy hat and kilt that saw no use from him except at sea.
"Cancel your voyage!" she gasped between lungfuls of air. "Cancel all
your classes for tonight, too. Meet us at our cave, by sundown."
"Jake says it's the most important thing we can ever do."
"Where is he? Why didn't he come himself?"
"He's trying to finagle release from the hospital. The vision nearly killed him."
"What? Wait!" But she'd already dived from Don's landing and hit the
ground as light as haste, to run and find the next of her friends.
Stupid to leave her flit on the beach; a wave took it, or playful
children too young to understand about property. It did look like a
belly-board--it probably got sunk somewhere when someone tried to surf.
Deirdre clenched her fists in anger at herself and kept on running;
Jake had counted on her, her of all people, called her the fastest. Sure.
Jesse knew; she'd told him first. Then Lisa. She had to find Randy.
Merrill remained missing, but she'd left a message on his pillow.
She ran into a sports-park, darted in and out of cement cubicles open
to the sky, then scanned over netted places and chalk-marked lawns.
"Where's Randy?" she asked the guy she knew at the ball check-out
counter. "I thought he'd reserved a racquetball court this morning."
"He left here a half hour ago, chica. Try Triu Hoa's Pizzas, down that way; he said something about hunger."
Jake had glimpsed the full vision at last, something so dangerous that
it threw him into a seizure, and when he'd come out of it enough to
talk he'd sent for Deirdre, wouldn't speak to anybody else. Not Lisa,
Randy, not anybody she thought of as better. She could go the fastest,
in flight or on foot, and she could speak with urgency; people listened
to her, nor did they ask for explanations--for Jake had none to give.
He saw only that the most important thing in the world lay in their
gathering together, ready to decide...decide...
She could get no other word from him past that.