The Poison Gamble


By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 36
Beyond the Law

Thursday, November 15, 2700, continued
 

Bram had lived outside the law too long now to protest the order that surfaced on his console. He recognized the seal of his general; Archives did not originate it. Yet she must've played a part, when his commanding officer ordered a search through military files for the soldier most fit for the post.
 
With shaking hands he slipped the band from his forehead. He forced enough co-ordination to punch the keys for a printout, but once he held it in his hand, the paper vibrated so much that he couldn't read it anymore. He tried to stand, fell back down into his chair, tried again, decided to try later.
 
The floods had ended in Tsariosh. They needed him back. The truce met some resistance; its supporters cried out for him. The general knew what material she called upon in "Larry" Valdez.
 
He stared at his own forearm. He had short fingers, but he circled it easily with room left over. He came out of his vacation in worse shape than when he'd begun.
 
And Archives knew all this, of course, in the sense that you might say she knew anything. She held the state of his health as a matter of record. Something had blocked those records from going into his file. Ghosts in the circuitry.
 
He knew even more than Jade had. As a soldier he recognized the necessity. But it felt so lonely, to face this alone...
 
Not completely. He leaned forward till his head sank against the keys. yyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy spread across the screen, row by row, but he didn't ask why anymore, he knew he'd follow orders. He encircled the console with his arms, as delicately as if his trembling could shatter the equipment. He felt the ghosts inside, each hollow-eyed child warrior, side by side with the legends of Til.
 
Had Jade joined them yet? No matter, it was only time, they'd come together, in the memory of a machine, the cells would bleed a nuance of each into each like she had never allowed in life, he'd take for him a wife, it would all come out all right. And his ghosts wouldn't haunt him anymore, with him on their side for a change.
 
It hadn't been an order after all. It had been an invitation, a date with Jade. And twenty-five years after his death, when their journals became public property, the Archives would add a new chapter to the File of Shame, but that was all right, too, better than nothing at all. Somebody would read it and understand. Maybe somebody by then would figure out how a soldier could escape breaking laws. Or maybe people would need no more law, or no more soldiers. It was all the same to him.
 
For the first time in a week Bram slept.
 
* * *
 
The pace wore down. Merrill broke into Don's stores and fixed them tea. He offered Zanne a choice of mint or cinnamon-apple; she chose the latter because she'd never heard of cinnamon. He spent a good deal of time minding the sails, but during much of that he looked over his shoulder at Zanne.
 
She hobbled back and forth across the tossing deck, determined to master this new skill beyond reproach. I've found me a treasure beyond price, he smiled to himself, and nothing will ever stop the two of us. Suzie! What a misnomer!
 
"There!" Zanne called out in triumph. "What's that?" She guessed the answer already.
 
He followed her gesture. "Tom's island." Afternoon--so fast?
 
He climbed down to stand beside her, to watch the island rise like an emerald over the horizon, veiled by the spray of their prow and its overlapping rainbows. Zanne pointed towards it with all her fingertips, then, laughing, leaned her head back onto Merrill's chest. She drew her arms back till they held him behind her. "I have never laughed so much nor cried so much in a single day," she sighed.
 
"This is happening," he breathed. "This is really happening."
 
They docked. Merrill saw Tom a ways ahead, striding towards his villa, a duck slung over one shoulder, the other hand resting easily on the pistol that he always wore. Merrill wondered if Tom actually hunted with that thing; if anyone could, he'd do it.
 
The man turned to them; even in the distance Merrill recognized the saunter, the blazon of red hair. But the perpetual grin that had etched so many lines around Tom's chin shone nearly as far. Merrill leaped off the dock into a bearhug.
 
"You little seapuppy! I knew you'd show up here sooner or later. Come on--I want to show you around the place."
 
"All things in good time, my friend. I want you to meet someone." He helped Zanne out of the boat. She lurched a bit, then almost immediately found her land-legs. She stood as proudly as if she'd done this every day of her life.
 
"Tom," said Merrill, "I'd like to introduce you to Suzanne Charlotte--my intended." Zanne's eyes widened, then she smiled; she gave no other sign.
 
"Intended?" Tom marveled. Merrill nodded and put an arm around her. "Then I'm honored to meet you, Sue."
 
"Call me Zanne." She smiled graciously.
 
"Listen, Tom," Merrill said, "I'm pretty busy. I'd appreciate it if you take good care of her till I can get back, in a few days with luck. Maybe a bit longer."
 
Zanne stared at him. She whispered, "In a few...where are you going?"
 
"Show a united front, dear," he whispered back. "I have to get the others. Believe me, you're better off here than with us. I may be a bit incapacitated soon, so 'twere best done quickly." Louder he said, "Tom, I'm going. When she gets sick, treat her with atropine." He jumped back onto the boat.
 
"Merrill, wait!" Tom ran after him, but he'd shoved off too soon.
 
"Remember, Zanne, a united front!" he shouted. "I love you! I lovvvvvve you!" He shattered the cove's peace with a motor-roar.
 
"Young lady," Tom observed, "you have some explaining to do,"
 
"Explain what?" Her smile became all sweetness.
 
* * *
 
Poetic justice. It had to be. Don had never heard of anyone having a boat stolen, not around here. He stormed into the dockyard office to report the theft--and halted, stunned.
 
Jauregui sat at the desk. He stared at Don with eyes larger than he'd ever shown, the look that a prisoner shows his torturer, or a delirious patient his doctor. Stubble roughened his once-smooth jowls and recent weight-loss had loosened his skin.
 
"I know you," the man rasped.
 
"Sir? Are you all right?" Shouldn't he have recovered by now?
 
"Are you?"
 
"I don't understand." Just then Don noticed the regular clerk, stretched out on the floor and snoring comfortably. The spilled cup staining the floor beside him gave off a scent that explained everything to Don’s medical training.
 
Jauregui fingered a model of a ship on the desk, but he never took his eyes off Don. "I knew you'd come here." For one wild moment Don thought that the man must've stolen his Valkyrie. "So I came to meet you. I wanted to give you my blessing on what you are about to do."
 
"What I'm about to do?"
 
"And my blessing takes the form..." Jauregui broke off to groan as he rose to his feet. "Of a curse." He raised a wavering hand towards Don. "A blessingcurse." His fingers brushed Don's forehead across where the band would go. Suddenly the captain chortled, a horrible sound, as mirthful as a dead fish. "I know you. I know all about the bet you won."
 
Oh no, Don thought. He's too old to break his Gift for telepathy.
 
"And you've won, dear boy. Your mere existence has destroyed me. My Gift required that I See...my Gift destroyed itself on you." Jauregui sat down again and his eyes no longer focussed on the youth; he toyed with the model ship till he ground it into the desk. "Go with my blessing, young lad. Carry my blessing to Hell with you!"
 
* * *
 
It all came together, what Merrill had to do. One sick kid was too bad, but far from rare; a few centuries gave no one a catalogue of this world's diseases, while allergens and unsuspected poisons took more still. A lack of diagnosis meant nothing.
 
Eight kids, on the other hand, all clustered in one Friendclan, made an epidemic. The Surgeon General of Carmina Island herself would investigate if they all fell to the same mysterious malady at once. Colonies perished that took such things lightly.
 
The others couldn't meet Zanne till the danger passed. Merrill had done his best by her, left her in the best hands that he could find on short notice. The rest of them must see to themselves.
 
They couldn't risk setting up on an island, not till they'd recovered somewhat. Passing partiers might leave an occupied island alone, even if those ahead of them looked a bit under the weather (those others might just be hung-over) but if they saw everyone seriously debilitated, they'd summon authorities, doctors masked against contagion to haul them back to a hospital while too weak to protest.
 
No, the open sea, far enough out to make chance encounters unlikely, held far less risk. That is, if he persuaded his friends to go in on this with him, to share the shape of mind which soon must overtake him. If he failed, then he'd just consigned Zanne and himself to a life of unbearable loneliness.
 

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