The Poison Gamble

By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 38
Biting the Fruit

Friday, November 16, 2700

"Are you all right in there?" Lisa called into the cabin.
"Me? Sure." Merrill answered, startled out of sleep. "What time is it?"
"Nearly eight," she said with some reproach.
He yawned. "When are you going to learn respectable hours, Lisa?"
"In a different time-zone it's quite late."
"Fine. Go there."
"I just wanted to make sure. I thought you might be...sick."
"Not yet, my dear ghoul. Merely exhausted." Last night he'd barely stayed awake long enough to see Randy clap a limpet right smack in the middle of his forehead, look up cross-eyed at it, and crack cyclops jokes far inferior to his usual repertoire. They all snickered anyway, out of sheer nerves. Then Jake, who'd disappeared for a moment into the night, rejoined them and they launched.
"Now that you're awake, come on out," Lisa said. "You might as well share our first meal on board together; you can nap later."
He found the others seated cross-legged on the deck, eating fried lumps of ration-flour dough. He helped himself to his share; the stuff didn't taste half bad, for something designed to meet all nutritional needs.
Don held a Black Clam in his hand. He waited till he knew he had Merrill's eyes on him, then he fastened the thing to his biceps and smiled grimly. "You're a fool," he greeted, "and I'm another."

Saturday, November 17 - Sunday, November 25, 2700

Jesse held the next one a few days later, let it attach itself right in the palm of his hand as he watched, his rose eyes wide. Still nothing happened beyond the initial sting that they all felt. Merrill began to feel like a fraud.
Daily they diced a few fish-scraps from their catches into the bag that held the black clams. They didn’t actually need so much; the creatures could live a week on nothing, two if well-fed before. Merrill had researched it all in his study binging days. He owed Juliar Charlotte that much, to take good care of the old man’s gods.
On the eighth day out, Lisa planted one square in the hollow of her hip. She sauntered around naked, wearing it like an ornament till it fell off, flaunting a bravado that hid her fear from no one.
The day after that Deirdre brought one to Jake. With perfect instinct he clasped it over his heart (though none had told him this part of the shaman-rite) with eyes half-veiled and his lips half smiling. He bore a sacrificial air in his calm that could also have been the resignation of a felon who makes his peace with the noose. His acquiescence unnerved Merrill more than any protest could've.

Monday, November 26, 2700

"Am I the last, then?" Deirdre asked as she placed the Black Clam on top of her foot, then held it out before her and wiggled her toes.
"More's the pity," Lisa said. "Well, there's no turning back now...what the...!"
Screams tore the air. They leaped to their feet to see the boys pile together in some sort of conflict.
"Throw me that rope! Quick!" they heard Don call. "There! See if that holds him." When the boys melted back they revealed Merrill writhing in their midst, howling as if every demon of every faith possessed him at once, snapping at his friends like a rabid animal, arching against his restraints. Pain and madness stretched the skin of his face against the bones as if to burst through. For some reason all Deirdre could think of was how she'd once described that face as angelic.
"Come here, Jake," Don said in his take-command voice. "Let's see how much damage he's done. Randy, throw out the sea-anchor; I think we're out far enough. Jesse, get the desalinator running; we're almost out of water." Try as he might to project the sanity of chores, Don could hardly make himself heard over Merrill's shrieks.
Lisa turned back to Deirdre to see all the blood drained from behind that dark skin till the girl turned almost grey-green. They both looked down at her foot; the mollusk had just fallen off to leave behind an irritated spot where the poison had soaked in. It waited in all of them now.
* * *
"You all right?" Tom asked his wife.
"I think so." He helped the middle-aged woman back to her feet. With typical bravado she rearranged her hair before checking herself for other damage, though she shook all over. "What happened to her?"
"I haven't any idea, Ava. She just went berserk. From what I can decipher from her cries, though, she's in terrible pain."
Ava straightened her collar, took a breath, and said, "I want to see her."

"After what she...okay." She'd never seen him so grim. "But stay near the door; I'm not sure the knots will hold her."
"Knots?" Ava swung to face him in surprise.
"She's way out of control. I don't know what's going on with her. Merrill said she'd get sick, but I never imagined anything like this."
"You didn't tie her up, did you?"
"Honey, I had no choice. You saw!"
"But she's such a sweet child, always polite..."
Tom grimaced, exasperated. He pointed to the door. "Your sweet child's in there. You wanted to see."
Ava opened the door. An animal lunged at her, twisted against the bonds, snarled out obscenities from spittle-roped teeth. Blond hair flung over crazy blue eyes poisoned with rage.
Ava slammed the door shut, then leaned against it as she pressed a hand to her breast. Her heart beat so fast it hurt. It took her a long minute to catch her breath enough to move away.

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