The Poison Gamble


By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 34
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 prescription.
 
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 afterwards.
 
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 arms.
 
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 Lovequest.
 
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.
 
"If God 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 indeed!
 
"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 unconcealed delight.
 
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 inconveniences everywhere.
 
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 the outcome.
 
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."
 
"What, why?"
 
"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.
 

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