The Poison Gamble

By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 43
The Reason for the Ban

Tuesday, December 4 - Friday December 7, 2700

Deirdre's turn came in her sleep. She woke to fever and pain everywhere that a muscle could contract. Ropes rankled around her, exacerbating nerves wherever they touched her. She howled with the outrage of it, the excess of the world, attacking her through every pore to hurt her, press her down, crowd her senses as inside her body went crazy and outside the world went crazy and they left her nowhere to hide, nowhere! She thrashed, tried to fight, defend herself, but it wouldn't relent. Shudders raced up and down her, every vibration an agony.
Deirdre screamed at her friends for abandoning her to this. A distant part of her felt surprise that it no longer disturbed her to shriek obscenities at them. It felt so easy, so satisfying to shout--free, like she had no limit on any impulse, like the pain exonerated her from all responsibility, erased it all in one great hellish blaze--surely the damned had license to shriek!
Louder...louder! She became one long fibrillating wail, muscle and sound and mind all vibrating together, stretched out, naked nerves that cried out individual skreeks like nails on a slate, all wound together into one raw rope of sound, drawn tauter and tauter till it thrummed with infernal tunes. Her rage and fear strummed out a ghastly thrill of song, a ballad of exacerbation that cracked the sky apart and tore to shreds all that she believed in.
Her lips, her throat, her tongue burned raw with thirst. She thought that she could feel the skin peel back, as minutes groaned on for aeons while simultaneous days flashed past like convulsions. The screaming only made it worse, the worsening demanded screams.
Eating became unthinkable. Her guts felt like rawhide that someone had knotted and left to harden. She had no place for food to go, nothing untangled enough to even hunger with. But soon hunger became distant too, along with her friends, the boat, the sea and sky. In fact even the pain began to grow distant after awhile, something that happened to someone in a history book who must've committed crimes to deserve so much of it.
She floated away from pain into an inverse sunset in her mind, a sort of afterimage. No fiery colors here, no, only cool blues and, green's too bright...just blue...that's still too bright, just grey that deepens into black...and mercy, please no stars, not one star, just black and silent and floating without feeling...and no Deirdre...let there be no Deirdre...shh, that's good; that's much, much better.

Saturday, December 8, 2700

"Deirdre's out of it; she's the last," Don husked. He grimaced at the feel of bristles on his jaw. He'd been fastidious about shaving...once.
"Please," Jake's voice faltered. "Don't tell her, not yet." Don had not once seen this great skeleton of a man let go of Randy's hand or arm since he'd emerged from his own crisis and learned of Jesse.
"How long..." Merrill began.
"Just not yet," Randy begged. "You have to understand, Merrill, Fireheart Friendclan began with us, just us four. She'll be too weak for awhile to investigate anything you say. Lie to her! Anything! Don't do to her what you did to Jake."
"I didn't know...” Merrill didn’t precisely know what he didn’t know, or chose not to interpret of the boy’s cryptic raging at Jake. It frustrated him that his accelerated emotions could make his hard-won accelerated intelligence so moot a point. “Dammit, man, you're so freakin' secretive, not even your own friendclan knows you!"
"Just leave me alone," Jake moaned. He had to try. He might never be weak enough for this solace again. He sank his face onto Randy's chest; he hid its contortions in the folds of the shirt, dug his fingers into the other man's ribs till the sobs came out at last long last, blessed relief, hot and loud. Randy answered with his hands and his grief and his sympathy.
"Well, is everybody going to blame everything on me?" Merrill demanded, then felt Don's hand on his shoulder.
"No, Merrill. We went into this with open eyes--or at least as open as your own. And it's not all loss."
"Oh no! No loss at all!" Lisa's voice cackled from her bed. Merrill heard a scrabbling as she pulled herself, crawling, to the broken door. "We're all going to be heroes, aren't we?" Her face poked out from the hole that Jake had punched, grinning, grey-skinned, looking a thousand years old. "We're all going to be great bloody heroes, big enough to save the world all by ourselves, cure everybody else's problems, practically gods and goddesses!"
Her hag-leer made Merrill stumble back before he knew it. She went on, she wouldn't shut up. "We can't even save one little boy who thought he was a man because some bureaucrat told him so.” Jake gasped like a death-rattle, like someone had twisted a pitchfork in his vitals, but Lisa kept right on. “His housemother should've locked him in, told him not to play with his friends after dark."
She struggled to draw herself to her feet, pulling herself up by the rent in the wood. She fumbled and fell. "Look at me, Merrill," Lisa rasped. "I can't even stand up."
"As soon as Deirdre can walk we'll head for Tom's Island." Merrill hadn't planned to say that; just somehow making a decision gave him an illusion of being in control of something. "I've got to introduce you to Zanne."
Jake regarded him with bleared eyes. "Will she replace Jesse?" he asked.
"Don't ask me that! She's just herself. No, nobody can replace Jesse. Just take her on her own merits, will you?"
"She's going to have to try," Jake mumbled. "Poor woman; if I had another choice, I wouldn't cast my lot in with this bunch for anything."
"We won't hurt her, Merrill." Lisa hid her head in her arms. "How can we? She's one of the few people who'll ever understand."

Sunday, December 9, 2700

When they landed, Deirdre still drifted in that surrealistic state where every mote had meaning, before her brain had a chance to grow some calluses on it. She never did very well with calluses. She wavered between Merrill and Don, feeling incredibly remote from her feet, yet tiny, a speck, an inconsiderable flaw in a vast expanse.
Lisa clung to Don's other arm while Randy helped Jake stagger onto land. They made quite a spectacle: shaky, filthy scarecrows, each staring bone of them tottering like it could hardly keep balance on the next bone, eyes inset within shadows--bright, bloodshot eyes, haunted with seeing and seeing...
Don husked to Merrill, "The desalinator won't stand any more wear, period. We'll have to stock up on a full water-supply while we're here."
"That thing was new when we started out," Merrill said, then stuttered out a cracked little laugh. "But then so was I."
Don peered at the dense growth of fern-trees like a ghost who saw all things differently. "Where's Tom's villa, anyway?"
"Over there, across the beach." A matter of meters. They hadn't walked so far in about a month.
Tom came out, headed for his orchard. When he saw them, though, he turned and came running.
"What the...good Lord Almighty--Merrill, that can't be you!" Tom looked alien without his grin. Merrill forced one to split across his own face.
"'Fraid so, Tom. I told you I'd be back." He didn't even sound like Merrill to himself. "Could you see your way to finding us some baths? And a bit of help with our laundry. I guess you can tell we could use it."
"How about some food?
Frodo forced a smile. “You’re a blessed gentleman.” Tom eyed them up and down, then led the way as they shambled after him. At the gateway to the courtyard he said, "Ava's left me." He caught Merrill's eye, then looked away. "Your girl's still alive, Merrill, though I'd like to know what you put her through." But Merrill only stared at the flagstones of the courtyard as they crossed. "And you've been sick, too, I can see that. You'd better tell me what's going on."
"You can't catch it," Merrill said. Then, too tired to dissemble, he sketched out the basics of what they'd done.
Tom paused at the door of his home, staring down with his thumbs hooked in his belt. At last he sighed and said, "Merrill, I'm sorry. I'm going to have to turn you in."
"WHAT?" Merrill rocked back on his heels. He stared at Tom as though the mere sight of him doomed him. "Wait...wait! After all we've been can't.."
Tom glared back at him. "You bet I can." He said it like Merrill had betrayed him, not the other way around. "Yeah, after all you've been through--just look at yourselves!" He seemed to glower forever, then suddenly he struck the door with his fist. "Damn you, Merrill! You said no more mess-ups!"
"It isn't like that! I did it for Lovequest, for service, for...I wanted to be better--isn't that what we're all supposed to want? To be better people?"
"Jesse's dead, Merrill."
"I am not a murderer!" His hands clenched and unclenched like the spasms had come back.
"Yeah. We'll let the barristers decide that."
"No. Wait a minute, no. You don't have to, Tom. It's in your charter, we're not in Til Territory, they'll honor that..."
"Oh, I'll extradite you, of course." He looked almost sympathetic, but the weariness in his face had hard edges. "I'm sorry it had to come to this, Merrill." The hand turned the knob, but Merrill grabbed him.
"Tom, you can't...tell me you won't..." All the intelligence he'd gained, and he could only babble.
"You think I wouldn't? You've played games with your own brain's chemistry, lad; you don't know your own good." He shoved open his door. "You're, you're, well, just look! There! There in the mirror on the wall."
They went in. Merrill took the necessary steps towards a mirror over a mantlepiece, fascinated by the face that grew in it: a skin-clad skull with living eyes and greasy locks of black tangled over it, a sculpture of suffering and sin...unholy wisdom there, too, and guilt...but of course Tom could only see the madness...and yes, he had to admit he saw that there, too.
Shaken, he turned to face Tom. He'd turned faster than he'd realized, at a change in air-pressure that told him Tom had moved. He could move faster still, he suddenly knew. "Heroic reaction-speed", he'd once called it.
Tom came up from behind him. "I have no choice but to see you safe in a rehabilitation-hospital." Tom had him trapped. "I just hope to God you've left yourself enough brain to rehabilitate." Tom closed in, but to Merrill's eyes he walked in slow motion. Merrill's mind made calculations so fast that he didn't have time to consider them. "Only because I care about you, you sorry fool." Tom came within reach.
In an instant Merrill had Tom's gun drawn from his holster, faster than the marksman could've drawn it himself and the gun went off and he'd killed him...
murdered him...
The gun dropped from Merrill's hand. Unaccustomed to the speed of his own thoughts, he saw it spin, slowly, as it fell, counted the microseconds before it hit the floor.
"I had to do that!" he cried to everyone, no one, himself. "I had to! He was gonna turn us in, turn us all in, spoil everything!" Tears twisted his face. "My hand did it," he moaned. "I didn't do it, my hand did." He clutched that hand as if it hurt him. "Somebody had to do it, and my, my hand did."
"Murderer!" He whirled around. He saw a gaunt woman-girl, a too-fine sculpture of ascetic extreme which glowered at him from the shadows of a bedroom, wrapped in a long white nightgown. And yet still beautiful; the platinum curls and the luminous eyes made a mockery of all that the toxin had ravaged, nightmare beauty and violated innocence. "You murdered your benefactor--and I thought you honorable." Illness had shrilled Zanne's voice, splintered it down to a fury's rant to hunt him down. Avenging angel. "You're despicable," she sneered.
"Am I?" He barely breathed the words. Another lightning-idea crackled through him in revenge for the hateful words. "And what, my dear, are you?" The superego develops more slowly than the instinctive mind. He walked towards her. Children would kill each other if they had the skill.
"Do you see her, friends? She looks like an angel, doesn't she?" No normal person could've snatched Tom's gun like that; his reactions ran faster than his consent. They ran away with him even now.
"But I tell you, she is all devil!" He had the same conscience as always; that caused the problem--it remained geared to his old speed. By the time he recognized a thought deserving censure, the thought had already become an act.
"All devil," he whispered, his hand now upon her breast. Too late. Against his own will he pressed his advantage to kiss the snarling, hungry lips.
"Too late," he husked aloud, as she drew him in, aroused in the nerves but not the heart, her conscious mind wanting to do anything at all but this, and her hand closed the door, and the anger and fear and lust that they'd unleashed violated them both. Against their wills.

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