The Poison Gamble

By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 39
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.
Accelerated 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! 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 boy."
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 him.
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 or not."
"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'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, her mind.
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 to shore.
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..."
"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.

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