The Poison Gamble
By Dolores J. Nurss
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
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
greens...no, 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
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
"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
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
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
"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."
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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,
"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.