The Poison Gamble

By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 37

Thursday, November 15, 2700, continued

"And I saw clear to the top of Al Fatima minaret and could see all the gold and blue traceries..." Jesse continued, showing no sign of wearing down. Indeed, he seemed almost manically fixated on every single detail that he could see, and see, and see. “And prisms–you know, I never noticed before all the prisms in Lisa and Deirdre’s window–I just never came around by daylight, you know, so all these dancing, rainbows, real pretty, you know, well hey, I never even saw a rainbow before! I couldn’t raise my eyes to the sky with the sun bright enough to show one.” He laughed, excitedly, almost nervously. “And you know what? I’m looking forward to it, I mean seeing my first real sky rainbow, up there linking heaven and earth and all, I mean how great would that be! I mean it’s got to be huge! And, oh yeah, sunlight on the water, I always had to avert my eyes before, but now...
Lisa interrupted him. "It's getting late, Jake. Where's the emergency?" They sat in their cave with backpacks stuffed full of anything they might need for--anything.
"Where's the Valkyrie?" he countered.
Don answered, "Somebody stole it this morning, after you had me abandon it. I can only hope that whoever took it brings it back intact."
"Events move. That's the best I can say."
"But where do they move?" Lisa grew more exasperated by the minute. "I'm missing a really good play, I hope you realize."
"We all realize it, many times over," Randy grumbled. "How often do you need to remind us?"
"Listen!" Deirdre hissed. They all stiffened except for Jake, who became curiously relaxed.
"Footsteps," Lisa whispered. She rummaged through her purse for her pendant.
"It's Merrill!" Don cried seconds before the door burst open and his friend half hugged, half toppled into his arms. "Faith, you look dead on your feet! Where've you been these days?"
"Hither and yon. Boy, am I glad I found your note, Deirdre! And doubly glad you herded them all together, Jake. How're you feeling, man?"
"Perfectly well. Had a little difficulty convincing the hospital of that, though."
"And no wonder!" Deirdre began, but Jake put a hand on her shoulder.
"Not now, Sisterling.” Jake didn’t take his eyes off the newcomer. “I want to hear Merrill's tale before my own."
Yet Merrill turned to his best friend. "Don, I found it. It's in my body right this minute."
"What?" Don asked, though he knew the answer.
Merrill sat down. "The key to accelerated intelligence." And with his tongue fumbling over his weariness he told them everything. “I’m committed,” he concluded, “past recall. Anyone here want in on this? Because I’ve got the clams to do it.”
Randy whistled. "You've got to be kidding, Merrill. Really? This isn't just some fantasy?"
"No fantasy," Don said. "I've done some research on it, myself."
"Dear God," Randy said softly. "Have mercy on us all." He sort of fell backwards where he sat, then suddenly threw sand into the air with a whoop of pure excitement. Lisa cursed the grit in her eyes, but no one heard her for his laughter. "Do I want in on this, you ask? Do I want in? Hell yes, Merrill! You can't keep it all to yourself."
"And me, too," Deirdre said with the quiet eagerness of one too moved for displays. "It's everything I've always wanted. How could I be afraid--of worthiness?"
"But Jesse," Merrill said. "I wouldn't want to risk...I mean, you've been through one ordeal already. You don't have to join us so long as you're behind us, don't betray..."
"Behind you?" Jesse exclaimed. "How could I not be behind you? I'm not some child, to let a little fear hold me back." He stepped forward and his eyes caught the light like twin red stars. Wide, wide open. Jake wondered why his dream, vision, forbidden fantasy, whatever it was, had showed the lad all too realistically before with bandaged eyes, when he would have wanted more than anything for Jesse to have gazed on him so openly, without a trace of squint?
Jesse turned to where the oldest three hung back. "Listen to what he promises, Don, Lisa...Jake.” Did Jake imagine that the eyes barely met his before averting, as if the glance stung? “A way to see more, and still more of the beauty of life. Any pain, any fear, it dwindles to nothing beside that. Oh, you people haven't any idea!"
The rapture in his face made him shine like moonlight; the old lines around his eyes seemed to come now of staring straight into the secret heart of God. "Listen, all of you. I've been there. I know. You won't have any regrets, not on the other side."
No regrets. Why did Jake feel, so very much, that he had something to regret, if only he could think it through clearly?
Jesse reached a hand to Deirdre's arm, his touch as soft as a promise. "She asked me just this morning If I'd do it all over again, and I said yes. I said yes!" He didn't giggle like a child, but like an elf, a being whose ancient wisdom came full circle to a merriment that the fabric of the world could not contain. "It looks as though I'll get my chance, my friends. Oh, won't you join me?"
Randy said, "Jake, you're not saying much."
"I'm in."
"But your reasons?"
"Curiosity, let's say. Maybe even a bit of Jonah in me." Now that everything swung into motion, Jake felt so limp that he could've slept right there; he'd made his decision--and whatever happened, would. With everyone's response to his summons the thing became inevitable, beyond oraclism. In fulfilling his geas Jake had stepped off the path of normalcy for good, into a world where he saw meaning everywhere and understood none of it--the world of vision. He'd made it--nothing felt real anymore. The trance went on and on and on...
"It's illegal," Lisa said slowly.
Randy laughed. "And have you never wished to commit a crime, my dear?"
"I'm...I'm not sure. Don, come here a minute, outside the door. I want to talk to you."
"Be right there."
Out in the darkness she gripped both of Don's hands. "Are you in on this foolishness?"
"Lisa, you're not going to..."
"No, I won't betray you! And never mind, you're in. You all are. I didn't want to tune in enough to see it."
"It's too late, Lisa. I can't bear to be left behind." She felt cold in the damp cave air, cold and very alone. "Merrill's mind will change--he's going to see a whole different world. It's just that, Lisa, we grew up in the same commoran, I've never been without him, but unless my mind keeps pace..."
"You lose the best friend you ever had." Only his hands felt warm in hers.
"Merrill's never understood, but I've always had my work cut out to keep up with him as is, never mind passing him in classes. In everything that counts, he's always a skip ahead."
"What counts? What do you mean?"
"Please try and understand! Telepathically, if nothing else will serve."
"I think I do already. And unless I go along I lose you."
"No, Lisa..."
"Don't 'no' me! I'm smarter than that already. Friendship needs something in common to feed it." She sighed, clasping his hand but looking away, out into the cave's black heart. "We've done all right together so far," she said at last. "Okay, then! As far as I'm concerned, it's all the way. And not just on your account, mister; for all the gang. I'm not one to throw away friendlove any more than you are."
"He's my brother," Don said simply, and knew she couldn't really understand, no one could, but the entire Friendclan might abandon Merrill and he'd still go along. He'd come to life in a different continent altogether and it didn't matter one bit.
They returned to the others. "We're in," Lisa announced.
"That makes all of us, then," said Randy.
"Wait," Don said. "Before we go, I'd better gather some belladonna first."
"You carry a distillery in your bag?" Randy asked.
"No, in my boat." And he told them about his on-board lab.
"I see possibilities in this," said Randy, but no one paid attention.
"One other thing," Don continued. "If Merrill has it right, then we're all going to get pretty sick. Let's space out the applications of the Black Clams--at least a day apart--so that we'll always have some well ones to take care of the sick."
"Good thinking!" Randy said. "But I'll go first, as soon as we launch."
* * *
Ricardo Valdez pulled himself from the bed he'd lain in these past several days. Naked, on hands and knees, the old man made himself crawl to the commode-room. He braced himself on the sink, levered himself to a stance, and drank his fill of water.
But this time he stayed longer on his feet, made himself clean, though his legs spasmed like a fish on dry land. He straightened his hair with a hand that could barely hold the comb. Then, upright, he made his way to the kitchen and ate the first meal he'd had in too long.
He didn't organize it. He found some lettuce, broke off handfuls of that, uncovered a bit of cheese and ate that, too, rind and all. A wizened plum. A handful of raw oats. A stale soy biscuit found in the back a ways.
He became methodical, thought about nutrition, and searched out what he needed most. His strength increased.
When Ricardo felt his stomach full he helped himself into a chair. There he let himself doze, but sitting up, so that he wouldn't have as much trouble standing again later. He needed all the energy he could regain. He had something to do.
Everything was all wrong.

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