The Poison Gamble

By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 44
Blame the Pirates

Monday December 10, 2700

Don gathered, one by one, each silver plate that hung in Tom's collection on the wall. Lisa meanwhile rummaged through Ava's drawers, meticulously scattering lingerie and overturning vases, till she'd found a sizeable collection of jewelry. She looked back one last time in distaste at the shambles that she'd left behind; would she see no end to destructiveness?
Shaky on her feet, she piled the spoils on the plates that Don held. In a fit of gallows whimsy she draped a rope of pearls and a golden chain across his arms. Neither one smiled. Don carried the valuables off to the boat.
"Is that all?" Randy asked as he bore some silver out of the kitchen with a couple vintage bottles of wine.
"Not quite," said Jake. He stirred from where he'd sat crosslegged all morning, staring at Tom's body, unmoved, in blackening blood. (The flies moved so, so, slowly, their whine a high-pitched funeral keen.) He crouched forward and, with a look of almost morbid detachment, picked up the gun where Merrill had dropped it. "Pirates wouldn't leave this." His fingers left marks in the old blood, on the gun but not on the ground.
A smash came behind them. No one turned. Zanne entered, after she'd rammed open the weak-locked door. Tom had often boasted that his marksmanship provided security enough against the pirates that plagued some other islands.
"You're stronger than I'd expect," Lisa remarked, as she leaned against a wall, exhausted from picking up necklaces and pins. "As ill as you've been."
"There's a trick to it," Zanne said in her archaic lilt. "Before he died, the village oracle made Father tie in to martial lore forbidden to others, to train me with."
"Village oracle?" Some life came into Jake's face.
"Surely. The shaman can only plan for the main chance, after all."
Jake stared at her like the mere hope of discussing some topic other than their mutual damnation could save them from it. "I should like to know more about this. Tell me, do you know if he ever left your village?"
"Excuse me, guys," said Randy, "but has anyone seen Deirdre?"
"Taking a rest," said Lisa. "She's still pretty weak."
Deirdre heard them from where she sat on the courtyard bench outside the door. Through its gate she watched Merrill, for now physically the strongest, yet also resting, sitting on the pier. She needed no crystal nor especial talent to divine his thoughts, for she shared them: Why are we still living? How can we engage in small talk about Zanne's customs with a corpse on the floor? Why didn't the world just end?
"Let's go," Don said. As he and Randy bore the booty out the door Zanne and Lisa, resting along the way, carried chain-fashion the jugs of water that Jake filled with one hand, the other still holding Tom's gun.
Don staggered under his load. It seemed that all the sand on the beach piled in front of his feet just to trip him up. He laid his burden down and marveled at how Lisa struggled with her water-jug.
I should admire her, Don thought and knew as he thought it that he didn't. He feared her. She could do anything she set her mind to, get anything she insisted upon. Men had the muscle, but the women always survived.
Had I been an acquisition?
No one gave Deirdre anything to do. She stared in fascination at the woodsplinters that Zanne had left behind, each to her eyes the spars of a shipwreck, fresh and ominous. Without effort she deduced the nature and focus of Zanne's surviving hysterical strength called upon to do the deed.
"In a few days," she whispered to herself, "I, too, can become just as dangerous." She memorized the placement of Zanne's foot on the door, just where it would have to go, for she felt her life about to become one long fight.
"Deirdre?" Randy came to her. "Let's get you on the boat; Don needs us out of the way for the next step."
"Fortunate, that we took a psychometrist along," she said, then the words troubled her. Good fortune seemed only to show up to pick through the rubble that bad fortune left behind. Deirdre took Randy's arm and left. She noticed that no one made a move to stir Merrill from the dock.
Don re-entered the house. He took a deep breath. He had always suspected that such a thing might be possible but till now he'd never seen the way. And no one, of course, would ever teach such a thing. Maybe nobody could find it possible, except for the mind-changed. He closed his eyes and willed himself into a trance. The ocean-song behind him helped.
Pirate...pirate...marauders and smugglers who stole the sensitive technologies of Til to sell and women not averse to murder for gain. Don made a pocket in his trance, a sort of cockpit from which he could direct his actions. He insulated it from all contact with his psychometry, with a concentration that brought him to the brink of unconsciousness. Then, regaining himself, he placed himself firmly within. All the rest of his mind became Pirate.
The pirate raised his beringed left hand and clenched it in a fist. A surge went through him like he'd never felt before; the magentine power raced into the image he'd created as though through a finer conductor.
Giddy, he bent to the spot that Zanne had kicked, pressed it with his four united rings and changed the memories of the wood. A taller woman struck the blow, muscled for the job, excited by rapine. He stepped back.
The room spun...he'd had no such thing ever trouble him in psychometry till now. It threatened to spin his concentration away--and he used to be one of the best.
Don pulled his own hair so that by that small sting he could recenter into his body. Its clean texture, so different from these past days, reminded him to also overlay their impressions left upon the bathroom, the kitchen, all the commonplace things. Don held onto himself, cocooned in the cockpit of his mind, but he let the fantasy carry him into the kitchen.
The pirate leaned on the table. The gorging of famished teenagers became the gluttony of ruffians. He touched things in the pantry and they became defiled. He broke the dishes that they had handled, then filled the shards with blood-visions and outlaw hilarity. Every glass in the house he filled with the cheaper liquor left behind, then poured it down the sink and smashed the bottles and glasses alike in the fireplace. He sagged against the hearthstones and tainted them.
Excitement nauseated him. His fingers twitched in the right hand, his left fist trembled. Power surged in his throat, careened through his stomach. He staggered to the bathroom and threw up.
Gripping the toilet bowl, the pirate reeled out into it "memories" of debauchery's result. He crawled to the shower and lay in it. He visualized drunken marauders washing off their vomit, where once starveling young people had scrubbed off the grime of their ordeal.
The towels which he grabbed soaked up black fantasies like bloodstains as he balled them up and threw them into a corner. He pulled himself up by a lintel, surfeited it, too, with evil things, then somehow he walked out. He shrugged at the smudges he'd left, grateful to live in one of the few cultures where psychometry had made fingerprinting obsolete.
Beds. Sheets tangled around limbs too exhausted by violence to resort to normal lusts: he made their fibers so recall it. Don paused over Zanne's stained sheets and wept, half from physical weakness at least, but then the pirate changed the appearance of her assailant, and erased all trace of Zanne’s animal desire, leaving behind the horror of her higher mind; he need do no more than that. He swayed a moment, eyes closed, then moved on.
Back in the main room he saw Tom in his pool of blood. Don stood a long moment before the pirate leaned forward, laid hands on the man and did what he must. When he finished he scrambled out of the house to the clean white sand, to retch a second time where the waves would wash his bile away.
Lisa stumbled to his side to hold his hair back. "What's wrong with you?" she asked him.
"Just...dizzy." Don's mouth burned with bitterness. "It, uh, it seems the mindchange doesn't agree with magentine effect."
"Too strong?"
He nodded, wiped his face, tried to steady himself. "Maybe it burns itself out or something. Doesn't behave normally. Whatever we learned about controlling it probably won't work anymore."
"Did you do the job?"
He stared up at her. The women always survive. "Uh huh. The police psychometrists will find only false clues to tell them what they expected all along."
"Could you do it again if you had to?"
Don shook his head, unevenly. "No. I don't think so."
"Here; let me help you up." Lisa could barely help herself up.
"I'll be fine in a minute, Lis." He drew back a bit.
"I'm here till then." She felt so unbearably intimate and he so raw!
"No, really, that's okay." Don brushed her off harder than he'd intended.
"S-sorry." He stared at where Lisa sprawled in the sand. He wavered where he stood. "It's still so...even my hands. I don't even have full command of my hands."
"I heard something like that before," she said dryly.
"Yeah..." He turned back to the pier. Merrill still sat on it. Don plodded through the sand to him, climbed painfully up the wood, and hunkered down beside the youth. Don took a moment to clear all trace of pirate from his mind. Then, careful to use the right, less psychosensitive hand, he clasped Merrill's shoulder. It still felt like sandpaper on an inner wound. Merrill didn't move.
"Best friend, I know you can hear me. You want to stop all sights and sounds, but you can't." Can't. Can't. Never again to perceive in the common, comfortable haze. "It's all right." Not really, but Don had to say something. "Sooner or later, Merrill, you'll just get tired of inaction and want to live again. I know you. When you do, you'll want to know our alibi."
Lisa came up behind him. "Do you want me to get my pendant?"
"It's gone--never mind for now. It's plain enough what he's thinking. Merrill, listen. Pirates attacked Tom's island, killed him, plundered his goods. And ravished Zanne."
At that Merrill groaned. Without him moving they saw the pain in his eyes flame higher.
"No, listen. She came to him on her way to Til Institute to seek refugee status. Political imperatives absolutely forbid her the revelation of her origins.”
Lisa said, "No one will question this too closely, once they see how useful she is--what a quick study."
Don continued. "The pirates, uh, did what they did and then stole her away along with the loot."
Lisa took over, squatting down, her arms crossed on her knees. "We were going to visit Tom, and ran into the escaping pirates at sea. They fired on us but weren't really interested in anything but their getaway, which is why we survived. Zanne escaped in the confusion. Jesse, uh, Jesse..."
"Jesse didn't," Don said grimly. "We buried him at sea."
Merrill's lips parted in a ragged gasp. They both watched tears slide down his cheeks.
"Progress," Lisa muttered.
Don lifted Merrill to his feet. "You must come with us. You know that." He put an arm around Merrill and made him walk. "This isn't penance enough. Only one thing can suffice: to use the gift you stole at the price of lives. To serve as no agent has ever served before. You can't help but become one now; Til must overlook your faults the way they did Jauregui's--you're too brilliant." He tripped on the wood, stopped, began again. "You must justify what you've done--or at least make up for it." He got Merrill onto the boat.
* * *
Deirdre stared at the bloody gun that lay atop the jewelry. "Mortanda," she whispered. Mortanda ballasted the boat that bore her. Mortanda weighted her stomach when otherwise her new mind would've floated her away on wonders.
She didn't see Jesse anywhere.
Before the change came on him, she'd seen much mischeif in Merrill, but never the capacity to kill.
Jesse had obviously died. Tom had said so.
Jake, who loved her, had flung her like a bit of sea-wrack when the rage came on him. He had dislocated her shoulder.
Everyone tried to keep Jesse's death a secret from her. Even now no one spoke of it.
Guilt unmistakable twisted Jake's face every time he stepped past Jesse's quarters or touched something of his.
Mortanda. No one wanted her to know about this, so she kept as silent as the gun upon the jewelry.
When they got far enough out to sea, all of them save Merrill took handfuls of valuables and threw them overboard. Silver plates and cutlery. Rare wines weighed down with chains of gold. Pearls returning to the sea. All of Ava's brightest jewelry.
Merrill sat amid the tangles of the ropes. He stared but showed no sign of seeing.
Deirdre dropped an emerald brooch over the edge. It shared its color with the ocean's deepest part. Would fish even see the stone? She discovered that her mind had a capacity for trivia like never before.
"Burial at sea," she said. Not loud, but everyone turned to her as though she'd shouted. She looked back at all their eyes. "Isn't it fitting? We send him off with treasures--like a viking." Their stares quelled her. She dared not say his name. Presently they turned to other business.
Lisa asked Don, "Picked out an island yet?"
"One a lot further out. Hardly anyone goes there."
Randy scratched his ear. "It'd be sheer paranoia to think they'd bother us now. We look healthy enough." He said it aloud only because the fear did occur to him. He fidgeted some more, then gazed out across the water.
Don went over and knelt beside Merrill. "Do you understand? We're going someplace to relearn control."
"He's hardly an idiot," Lisa muttered.
Don ignored her. "Nice and isolated, Merrill. Safe. And it won't take long; we have all the conditioning we need already. You wouldn't feel guilty if we didn't. We simply have to speed it up a bit, let it catch up. We'll learn fast--you'll see."
Merrill stared off into space.
Randy turned and tapped Don on the shoulder. "I hate to have to say this, but..."
Don's face sagged with premature age. "I know," he sighed. He began to untangle rope.
Lisa cried, "Wait! What are you doing?" She knew, but she didn't want to.
Don growled, "Haven't you studied any psychology?" He bent down to tie Merrill's hands together and Merrill let him. "Catatonia can sometimes flip into sudden violence. And Merrill's in much more risk for that than most, now. He could go off any time." He continued to bind his best friend up, too tired to cry. Merrill's wrists hadn't fully healed from the last time.
Deirdre, to her own surprise, tottered to her feet. "No. Not really." She moved over to Merrill, took his cheek in her palm, and turned him to face her. "You're not like that, Merrill. You won't let it happen again." She couldn't bear the thought of seeing any one of them bound and violent once more--no more mortanda! "Merrill, honey, do you hear me? Say yes if you do."
He said nothing.
"I insist," she said gently. "If you're not like they say, then speak to me."
"It hurts to speak," he choked, then burst into tears. Crying, he tried to hug Deirdre, but the ropes held his hands, but he tried anyway till he sort of nestled into her shoulder, weeping violently the whole time. It felt like blood forcing its way into a strangled member, but he could move again.
Deirdre tugged at the knots with weakened fingers. "Untie him, somebody."


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