The Poison Gamble


By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 40
On the Anvil of Ordeal

Wednesday, November 28, 2700
 

"Here, dear, it's a chowder. That's it, hey, you're doing it! That's right, open your mouth...swallow, such a dear!" Merrill's vision swam a moment, then focussed on Lisa.
 
Of course. Good ol' Lisa, the dependable one. He blinked at her and the image came clearer still.
 
"Thank you," he husked as he reached for the bowl to feed himself. He wondered why the soup splashed so as he tried to hold it.
 
"Thank you? Didja hear that, ye gods? He thanked me, like a civilized being!" Lisa's eyes shone with tears of gratitude. "You're going to be all right, lad, you really are!" She pressed hands to his cheeks, his arms, his shoulders and kept smiling and smiling.
 
A sudden high shriek destroyed the peace, answered by a ruckus and the pounding of feet across the deck.
 
"It's Randy!" she heard Don shout. "Grab him, somebody!"
 
"Oh God," she said, very quietly, as she rested her face in her hands.
 
* * *
 
Zanne opened her eyes, but she didn't really know the difference between waking and dreaming. She saw shapes. Many fine, golden fibers, twisted into a series of curves, made a whole series of identical swirls into a new long shape and then these greater curves intertwined around each other, wound up, dipped down, forming landscapes like rolling mountain ranges. And these intertwinings came in a series of rows so fascinating that she stared for the longest time before she saw the skin beneath. It looked raw where the ropes had rubbed; in places it bled a little.
 
She stared some more. Finally she connected herself to the skin, the blood. "Now I remember."
 
* * *
 
Lisa watched Don a long time, silhouetted against the ocean's swirls of phosphorescence, leaned against the gunwale as if it could help him support all the weight upon him.
 
"Don?" She called him softly.
 
"It's the desalinator," he said to the waves. "It's showing the strain."
 
"It looked fine to me."
 
"I see it inside. I know its workings like the paths of my own mind. I keep them both running by sheer will, Lisa, but the stress...I don't...I don't know how long I can keep either functioning!"
 
"Darling..." Lisa found herself at Don's side, her arms around him as the sea rocked them both.
 
"All I'm doing is keeping up appearances. For a little while I can make it run as if nothing were wrong--but what happens when I..."
 
"Shhh." She kissed him. He pulled her towards him as though he could draw life from her lips. Howls scraped across the evening air, as monotonous as the splash of the sea. She wrapped her arms around him tightly.
 
Don's hands ran over her, as though to seek some point of refuge, some safe, warm harborage where he could hide, could sleep, tune out the agony that wrenched at Randy, that soon would seize them all. Lisa welcomed him with hands and lips and pressure of her body, permitting him everywhere; she had no other shelter that she could give.
 
"Now?" he husked in her ear.
 
"Tonight. Yes. I want it." She wanted tenderness in defiance of a screaming world, of the fears of pain and death. She wanted anything between her and the brutality of Truth, something she could hold up, to cry, "This also is true! This happened!"
 
In a cramped little cabin, under the cover of the moans of the tormented, in the secrecy of hope and night, she gave and she received. It hurt at first, a stabbing pain like passion had impaled her, but she knew to expect that; Randy's agony drowned out her own muffled cry so that Don didn't even know. She welcomed it, a tearing away of the barrier to love, a pain that made sense, had a sort of primal goodness behind it--injury soon dissolved in bliss and relief like all of heaven had opened up inside her, like she had become a flower, blooming, the petals pulling apart to release perfume and color and life. She treasured the contrast to that other, wailing just the other side of the bulkhead.
 
Then at last Don laid down his burden and slept, deeper than he'd been able to for days, protected by the solace of her arms. Lisa took comfort in the soothing of his face, the rise and fall of his breathing.
 
She lay awake, listening to Randy. "Of all the ways I imagined the first time," she whispered to herself, "I never dreamed of anything like this."
 

Friday, November 30, 2700
 

Deirdre woke at first light, lying on her back and staring at the boards above her. Randy sounded hoarser now; he lacked Merrill's staying-power and would soon give them respite. "You bore me, Randy," she muttered. "You can't even wake me from my nightmares anymore. You have no more power than a shandow."
 
She got up to wash her face and heard a clatter out on deck. It sounded like Don and Lisa rose early even for them.
 
"Out of my way, woman!" she heard Don snap. "Gad! Everywhere I turn you're underfoot!"
 
"Not under yours, Don. I'm not taking any more of this."
 
"Will you stand back? You keep smothering me."
 
"What's the matter, can't you handle something nice in your life?"
 
"Just shut up!" Something clattered and rolled across the deck like Don had dropped it.
 
"Touchy, aren't we?"
 
Deirdre came out the same time as Jesse, while Jake emerged from Randy's room where he'd kept the night watch.
 
"Who set this chock?" Don grumbled. "It'll chafe straight through the rope."
 
"You did," Lisa said.
 
"So why'd you let me, huh?"
 
Lisa gaped at him, then threw her hands in the air and stormed off. "Who could get you to do anything?" she called over her shoulder. "Heaven knows I tried often enough."
 
"Oh, getting personal?"
 
Deirdre glanced at Jesse. This didn't sound like Don at all!
 
Lisa swiveled around, fist on her hip. "And why not?" She stared him down, all sauce and defiance. "If you had any objections, you should've voiced them last night."
 
Jesse burst into laughter, his pale skin betraying his blush without mercy.
 
Suddenly Don shouted, "I don't have to take this! I'm leaving!"
 
"Where?" Jake asked. He tried not to laugh, but his lips kept smirking upward the more he resisted. Don stared at him like Jake had personally designed the universe to discomfit Don Khmi.
 
"Aren't you taking embarrassment to a bit of an extreme?" Lisa asked him. "It's not like you did anything original."
 
He whirled towards her, but before he could reply a swell knocked him sprawling. A second swell tipped over the desalinator’s sludge-bucket, spilling it straight into his face.
 
Everyone laughed; they couldn't help it. We shouldn't, Deirdre scolded herself, even as the mirth choked out of her. It's not even funny! It's not! But he looked so ridiculous, there on the deck in a soup of salts and dirt and bits of whatever the desalinator had cleaned out of their water.
 
He pulled himself to his feet with exaggerated dignity, despite the seaweed that trailed off one side of his face, dripping glop like his hair did. It just sent further hysterics through them.
 
Jesse snickered, "I never saw Don fall on his face at sea before."
 
"Mark it in the log!" Lisa shouted. "Don lost his, uh, sea-legs, on November twenty-nine, twenty-seven hundred."
 
"At what longitude?" Jake chortled. "We must be precise." Then he looked startled. "What's come over us?" He pressed his hands over his mouth, but laughter bubbled out against his will.
 
"It's like a laugh-attack in class," Jesse gasped. "When we were kids--the more you fight it, the worse it..." He couldn't find the breath to finish. Lisa sank to the deck, giggling wildly.
 
"Look at Don!" Deirdre pointed to the stern. "What's he doing?"
 
Don clutched the tiller like the fiercest storm in history would wrench it from him. "None of you layabouts give a damn about responsibility!" he yelled, tears in his eyes beneath a calm sky of blue. "Well, you can all capsize, for all I care!" Yet Don gripped the tiller till his arms trembled with the strain, tears streaming down his face.
 
"Don..." Jesse walked towards him. "We have sea-anchor out."
 
Don screeched curses at him.
 
"Why, dear Mister Khmi!" Lisa jeered. "I never knew you had it in you!"
 
"Stop it, Lisa, stop it!" Deirdre husked. She wanted to stop laughing, hated herself for it. She doubled over, holding her stomach that hurt with hilarity.
 
As if in response, they all heard Randy's invective take on a coherent twist, rasping out the funniest sarcasm that ever amused even as it wounded, brilliant, horrible, excruciating insults that paralyzed its victims with rue and mirth all over again.
 
"Jesse, no!" Jake shouted, as he saw the obvious too late. The boy had come within Don's reach. Don swung at him, missed and fell overboard with his own momentum. The whole boat reeled; they grabbed whatever they could to keep their own footing.
 
"Jake!" Deirdre cried. "Look! He cracked the tiller." Jesse stared at where Don's fist had landed and felt at his own face in shock, where the blow could've hit.
 
"Never mind that," Jake called out. "Get the lifesaver over here." Lisa ran up with it. Jake took it and hurled it out towards Don.
 
"He's okay," Lisa said. "He's together enough to grab it." Jake and Jesse hauled him aboard.
 
"I guess we can always tape the tiller," said Deirdre.
 
As they pulled Don over the edge, water sheeting off of him, Don threw a shivering arm around Jake's neck; nose to nose, he said deadpan, "I think I just might want to lie down."
 
"I think you're right,” Jake said, equally straight-faced, then they cracked up at each other. Not much of a joke, no joke at all, yet it started everyone up again.
 
Don tottered away from Jake and bowed. "After all, what's a little hysteria between friends?" Everyone roared. He tried to laugh in return, but it came out weird.
 
"This way," said Jake. He led Don to a pallet where Jesse already waited with rope. Deirdre watched the veins on Don's forehead bulge as he lay down without resistance, to let Jake and Jesse lash him down. All hilarity washed out of her.
 
Jesse toweled Don off, but the sweat beaded back on him instantly. Don bit his lips till they bled, his muscles tautening, holding it back, shudders wracked faster and faster through him while he whined and groaned with the sudden pain and effort, holding it back, holding it back, holding, holding...
 
...till with a howl and a heave he arched clear of Jake's grip and lashed his head about, trying to bite, damage, avenge the fire that whipped through him, anything, growled and cursed and keened with the pain, the awful pain!
 
Everyone became instantly silent, except for Randy and Don, who made the sea-wind howl with hell.
 
* * *
 
"I'm next, Deirdre." Jesse leaned his head against her as they sat side by side. They ignored the cacophony and tried to pour all of themselves into watching the sunset. So much gold and violet, rose and coral, lavished onto a world like this...wails and blasphemies blistered the back of their brains the more they turned their faces away.
 
"Did you hear me?"
 
"Yes." Deirdre said. "Look over there, at that one cloud!"
 
"Does it make any difference?"
 
"It looks rather like a valkyrie, does it not? Her winged helm streaming back, like the horse's mane..."
 
"Deirdre..."
 
"And look, she holds a bouquet. Flowers of red and gold, with petals like tongues of fire--fire from heaven."
 
"Deirdre, please."
 
"That cloud out there matters, darling. See every line of it? Of course I know your turn is next. I won't let you waste a minute of this."
 
"Your turn won't come for awhile." He squirmed on the hard, wooden deck.
 
"I know, Jesse. That means I'll have to watch each one of you go through it all first. Hear every scream till I know all the ways that a scream can sound."
 
"Oh, look, Deirdre! A few stars above it all, silver to match the sun's gold!"
 

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