The Poison Gamble
By Dolores J. Nurss
The Fruit Bites Back
Tuesday, November 27, 2700
The screams went on and on. Hour after hour Merrill
convulsed and thrashed, each muscle contorted, each curse in every
language that he had ever heard shrieked from his lips till the cords
of his neck bulged and foam flecked his lips. Now his eyes clenched
shut, now they bulged open, staring red.
intelligence! Deirdre couldn't see the intellect of a beast in that
ruin. Sweat poured off of him faster than she could sponge it away,
soaking through his bedding faster than they could launder it.
She held a hand inches away from his face and felt the fever that far
off. He tried to snap at her hand, but fell back, too weak. Yesterday,
when she'd loosed his restraints for only a minute he'd thrown anything
he could lift at her; now he couldn't even lift his own head.
He'd lost weight, too, an alarming lot in a matter of days. Though they
couldn't give him enough water to satisfy his thirst he refused all
food. Still, that hardly explained why he looked like a
starvation-statistic already. The change must burn a horrendous lot of
calories, she decided; she could see his skin vibrate.
In a rare moment of pity (she sometimes had to remind herself that here lay her friend)
she smoothed back the sweat-slicked hair from his beaded forehead. He
followed with worse invective than before. That was the worst of it:
his voice might have hoarsened to the snarlings of a brute, yet she
heard the words in it.
He dredged up all that he knew, all that he guessed, of everything that
had ever shamed her, and then he hurled it at her in that animal-rasp
without love in it anywhere. It became an aural outrage to which she
grew accustomed, like the grinding of rocks that hurts the ears when
one has to work next to it, day after day--if rocks had malice in them.
She long ago stopped noticing the words. Except subliminally.
"Deirdre?" She heard Randy and turned around. "Don's got a fish, a Green Beauty. You're the best at cooking fish."
She put down the sponge and looked up at him. "Jesse's better."
Randy tipped his head to one side. "He's curled up sniffling in the bow
and won't talk to anyone...and stop staring at me! You look at me like
I'm some kind of lunatic."
"You will be. We all will. But you're next."
"Cut that out! It...it can't last forever."
"No, maybe he'll get lucky and die." She turned back to her patient,
who damned her for it, though he sucked desperately at the water that
she held for him.
Randy said, "See to the fish, Deirdre." She looked up again. "Please."
"What about Merrill? I put a little atropine in the water, but it seems to make the delirium worse."
"Let Lisa worry about it for awhile." He helped her to her feet. "And hey, Deirdre?"
He leaned over and whispered, "See what you can do with Jesse."
"He's that bad off?"
"Pretty much. Jake tried to snap him out of it, but he cowered away
from him." Randy squeezed her hand. "You seem to have a touch with the
The fish didn't take long; in any case, Deirdre lacked the condiments
for her special sauce, so she threw it together like anybody else
could. When Jesse didn't answer the meal-call she went out looking for
When she saw the little figure crouched beside the rudder, white hair
tumbled like a veil over the knees that he clutched, she felt almost as
though she approached something inhuman, some exiled sprite huddled
among the things of men and hating them for it. He rose and fell in her
sight by motion of the deck as she made her way to him and nothing held
stable at any point.
She reached out the barest touch of a finger to smooth some hair from his brow. He flinched.
"Honey, it's me, Deirdre. What's the matter?"
"I thought it was Jake."
"Nothing's wrong with Jake, dear." Not yet.
"That's what you think. Oh, I don't know! I don't know anything
anymore!" He sunk his forehead down on his knees. "No, it's my fault,
if anything. I'm a grown man now; I made my own decision--he just went
along with it. Like getting on this stupid boat, going along with
Merrill..." She shook her head, puzzled, but didn't interrupt him.
He shuddered as another railing from Merrill’s cabin rasped the air. "I
thought adulthood would make everything clear, but it's murkier than
ever." The hoarseness of the howls made their own throats ache just to
hear it. "I can't see my way, Deirdre. We're all going crazy."
"We can't be sure of that, Jesse," Deirdre said, answering the only
part she understood. "We don't know whether Merrill's case is typical
"We've got a darned good idea."
She knelt and took his hands. "It won't last, Jesse! It'll be just like your surgery."
"No, that didn't really hurt except at first, and a little bit later.
But you can't tell me this won't--just listen to...wait." He looked up.
"Thank God--oh my precious God he's stopped screaming!" Deirdre husked.
"He's through it." Others turned to the cabin, hearing nothing but the
slap of ocean, the creak of ropes and timber, and they blessed the
stillness. Lisa came out, her face grim.
"Don't get your hopes up all at once, folks; he's too weak to holler.
He just lies there--glaring. I've had enough of it for awhile!"
Deirdre froze in the shock of hope shattered, till a weeping at her elbow jerked her out of it.
"Stop sniveling, you!" Before she knew it she hauled Jesse up, slapping
and slapping him. "Curse you, anyway! If you've got days left to enjoy
life, what right do you have to spend it cowering in a corner?"
"Stop it, Deirdre!" Randy pinned her in a hold. "What's got into you?"
"Get up, Jesse!" she shouted. "Use your damned eyes while you still have the chance! Will you let go of me, Randy!"
"Let her go, Randy." She barely heard Jesse's voice, but she saw him
pull up to his feet and balance on the deck. "She's right."
Randy released her as Jesse continued, "That ocean...it's beautiful out there. I should see all the beauty I can."
"And eat while you can." Lisa came up behind them with some fresh,
steaming fish. "Might as well stack away as many calories as you can
hold...wish I had more to offer."
"Who's with Merrill?" Deirdre asked her.
"Jake. Then Don'll take a turn. Nobody appointed you nursemaid, Hon."
"I don't mind."
Lisa raised an eyebrow.
* * *
In the mythlands, the hell of poets buried in unconsecrated ground, there walked Zanne, where all nightmares come true.
"Tom, won't she lie still, even in sleep?"
"No, Ava, I guess she won't." Zanne arched in her sheets like something
unholy struggling from the grave. Air hissed from a throat too raw for
screams. "I've done all I can for her, all a man can do."
Bruises mottled her flesh, scratches raked across herself wherever she
could reach, as though she had to have some victim, anyone she could
get at. Tom had bound her hands tighter, only to find marks on her
knuckles the next day where she'd gnawed them ragged. He doubted if she
felt it through the deluge of torments that surged through her body,
He stared at her a few minutes more, listened to the hissing that
replaced her voice by now, then crossed himself and closed the door,
vowing to go to confession and mass the very first weekend he could get
With the heroes and heroines of crime Zanne dwelt, damnably ever after.
* * *
Jake sponged off the scabrous lips with no fear of the teeth behind
them. Merrill's eyes followed his, trying, it seemed, to peer through
bewilderment enough to kill. Streaks of blood made thorn-patterns in
his eyes and the pupils swallowed up the irises.
Jake gave his friend more water, then tried to find something dry
enough to towel off this skeleton that shivered in its own sweat. He
felt very far away, he moved through a dream, a story, somebody else's
vision. Even now, the trance hadn’t completely let up. Jake's mind
wandered back to their embarking...
The night had felt cool around Jake; his feet made the planks of the
dock creak. He'd felt a sudden imperative to turn back, at least for a
moment...then he saw the movement by the old shed.
There, that last fluke tugged him, the vestigial telepathy that oracles
share between themselves. Or not quite, more of an ability to interpose
an impulse onto another's vision-field. No one else had seen the old
man step out and beckon Jake back while the rest loaded supplies.
The hands that reached up to his shoulders trembled, dry as old leaves.
"Son of my soul, do you have any idea what you're getting into?"
Ricardo asked him, that night.
"No. Neither do you."
"It doesn't matter! Not that part of it. I mean you're in a state of
transition; any shock beyond those which your discipline demands
"Could what, soul-father?" How gaunt the oracle looked!
"Hurt you. I can't say! I've never had a pupil like you before. Distort
or damage you, traumatize you in a way that could make you suffer for
the rest of your life. The stress, bearing on any weakness, would crack
it open--but you could be the best, Jake. Don't shatter all my dreams
for you!" The distant lamplight made the shadows of his wrinkles seem
deeper than his face when he winced like that. "And it's wrong,
whatever you're involved in, fundamentally wrong. The consequences
reach farther than you think."
In an uncharacteristic, dreamlike voice Jake had asked, "Do you know all that I think?"
"I can guess."
"Why don't you look?" With that Jake had returned the favor,
interposing his own vision onto the vision of his teacher. The man
backed away, but Jake reached out to hold him, firmly though without
malice. Ricardo struggled. Jake found it the easiest thing in the world
not to let go.
Now Ricardo would catch a glimpse of what Jake had to bear. The old
man's lips drew back, bared ancient brown teeth, as his face twitched
in rhythm. His eyes glistened with the starlight and his tears, and his
breath hissed in and out of those teeth, ragged, like some animal in
pain that lacked the capacity to screech. Jake felt the hands on his
arm clutch, claw, twitch, then go limp. Unreal, all of it.
"Do you understand now, soul-father?" Jake asked in his gentlest voice.
A high moan answered him. "You do understand. I have to."
He had released him, then. The sage toppled back, catching himself
against the shed wall. At last Ricardo found voice. "Be quick about
what you must do..." he gasped,"...Judas!"
Gently Jake sponged the taut face before him as the sunlight played upon the waves.