The Poison Gamble

By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 45
The Farther Island

Tuesday December 11, 2700

The island that rose over the horizon had one lopsided peak, verdant on the north slope but raw to the south, where it became all steep red stone and the inhospitable aeries of birds, knifing into the water in a cliff high enough to kill. Don brought them around to a lagoon on the luxuriant side, so that the jungle soon hid the peak from their eyes as they sailed in.
Water shimmers hurt their eyes, and the green of leaves, and the red of stone. The beauty razored through their hearts. Each cry of a bird became a nail, each waft of tropic flower a violence upon their senses, the balm of every breeze a lash across the face.
Don buried himself in bringing the boat around, but once Merrill cast the anchor (the splash stung his ears like drops of lye upon the drums) he had to look out over the bow and see the waves, the rhythms of the waves--he laughed hysterically.
"Don?" Lisa asked, caution in her voice.
"The waves. They're in slow motion. Everything is. Look at those gulls! They hardly move in the air at all."
"I guess it'll seem like that for awhile." Her words sounded small, scared.
Don trembled; she almost angered him. He forced his hands to grip the wood so tight he wouldn't fear their getting into mischief. "What makes you so reasonable?" he asked her.
"Oh, I dunno. Too mean to knuckle under, I suppose." Then her hand stole to her mouth and her eyes widened.
"You'd better be very nice," Don said. "For the rest of your life. Very, very nice." He left, shaking. Lisa sank to her knees; she kept forgetting the weakness of her body.
He found Merrill clutching his own arm, bewildered. "What's up, old friend?" he asked
"When I threw the anchor out--I think I tore a muscle." His eyes pleaded, to no one, for nothing. "I meant to just, just throw it out like normal. Instead I hurled it like a shot-put or something. I'm not that strong, Don."
"Let's have a look." Don made a deliberate effort to reach half as far as Merrill's shoulder in order to barely probe at all. Even so he contacted roughly. Merrill took it as his due.
"What's wrong with me?" he asked Don. "I feel so out of control--in everything!"
"Next phase of toxin-recovery, I think. Our muscles respond too well to our thoughts. Until now exhaustion had dampened the effect."
"One more thing to learn," Merrill sighed.
"It's okay. I'm suffering the same reaction. It won't take long, though. Remember the study with the backwards glasses?"
"The subject's vision soon reversed to match. Yes."
Randy came up. "What about me? I haven't..."
"You," Don growled, "never stuck with a fitness program in your life. Of course you're behind schedule in recovery!" He passed a hand over his face--an inadvertent slap. "Ow! Sorry, Randy. It's just...I shouldn't be getting irritable all over, should I?"
"It's the uncertainty," Randy said, patting his arm. "We're all scared."
"How about my arm?" Merrill asked.
Randy came closer. "Let's try something. Merrill, think, how shall I say, inside your arm. What kind of damage do you find?"
"Let's see..." His eyes grew distant. "...broken capillaries everywhere--should turn into a beauty of a bruise...badly sprained, yes, but not much actually torn...I'll just have to treat my arm easy for awhile, that's all."
"You and Deirdre." Randy smiled and said, "This ability might not be so bad after all."
"That was the original idea," Merrill muttered and sat down, cradling his sore arm.
"Randy," said Don, "Sorry I snapped at you earlier." He leaned on the gunwale, trying to look jocular. "You're in an interesting position, actually."
"Interesting?" Randy stepped back a pace.
"A balance-point, so to speak." He looked out over the water. "I've pulled the boat in as close to the shore as I dare. Who do you think could swim in?"
Randy studied the lagoon. "Jake could just about wade in."
Don shook his head. "With the waves pulling at him, weak as he is?"
"You're right."
"You've recovered enough to make the trip without drowning..."
"...but not so much as to tangle up on the uncoordination effects. I get it."
"Then go for it. Here's the line." Randy accepted the loops of nylon cord which Don had coiled nearly properly. Uneven circles comprised it, Don’s hand always misgauging distances, but Randy found it serviceable.
The once-chubby redhead looked out one more time over the water. Each wave intimidated him with its strength; he longed to curl up on the deck and let the sun soak cramps out of overwrought muscles. Randy sighed, shrugged the line over one shoulder and dived in.
The shock of cold spasmed him, but he snapped out of it and burst to the surface with the groaning inhalation of a demon in torment, bucking to fight loose of the tightened muscles. Shaking water out of his eyes, he saw Don poised with the lifesaver. He faked a grin, waved it back and swam.
A child would've made nothing of the distance to the shore. To Randy it might have been the Hellespont. Every time his lips broke water he exhaled with the words, "I'm not a hero!" and inhaled with a gasp as ragged as his nerves. He played out the line as he went, till, washing up on shore with sand in his pants, he staggered to the nearest palm and knotted the free end to it. Then he toppled over, muttering a slightly insolent prayer of thanks to have survived. The others pulled themselves in by the line and found him snoring in the sun.
Zanne, Merrill and Don, the strongest ones at this point, tugged in supplies on floats and dragged them onto the shore to the jungle's edge. They left weary ruts in the sand.
Lisa, Jake and Deirdre had all they could do to pull themselves ashore. Jake's face had gone pale, knit with a trouble that verged on panic. Randy almost asked the young oracle about it, then realized that Jake hadn't felt this helpless since early childhood.
The bag of limpets weighed a ton more than it had when they first gathered them, it seemed to Zanne. But she made herself walk down the beach, far, far it seemed, till she found coral-block outcroppings and gentle waters in between, where she could release the last of the Black Clams. She owed that much, at least, to her father. Then she sunned herself a long time on top of the stone till she could get her strength back for the return trip–a mere quarter mile, she later discovered.
They rested till dusk. Then the first three unpacked ground mats and such things into a semblance of a camp. Merrill and Zanne worked without looking at each other. Don tried to whistle a chantey but petered out; he couldn't quite modulate the noise anyway. After awhile Randy helped them. Lisa tried to get up, but Jake grabbed her ankle and pulled her down.
"Rest," he said.
"It's so frustrating, though!"
He gave her a "Tell me about it," look, rolled over and fell asleep. Deirdre lay on her back and watched the clouds.
"But I hate inaction!" Lisa wailed. Her eyes wouldn't focus, she felt so tired, but her hands tossed with impatience. She had bread to steal, or Elspeth would go hungry...
"Your turn's coming," Deirdre told her.
Merrill approached them with cakes of ration flour, not stolen crusts of bread. Lisa recollected herself and grumbled, "Don didn't cook this, I hope."
"Nope, Zanne." Merrill looked at his feet.
"I can't wait till Deirdre's up to it," Lisa said. She's the best. Even with ration flour she can..."
"...No," Deirdre interrupted.
"Jesse's the b...I'm sorry." She shut up when the sudden silence threatened to eat her alive.
After a moment Lisa said, "It doesn't matter; rations are rations."
Deirdre sat up against a rock and stared at the cake that she couldn't eat. She looked away from it towards the sunset. She noticed how it had all the colors and mottlings of a bruise.

* * *

The night promised a surcease of sensation, but it lied. The stars dazzled them, the shift in the breeze from land to sea beguiled their minds away from rest, the scents intensified till they seemed too strong to push against. The coals of their cookfire pulsed in their sight, its smoke and its heat an act of aggression against them. Yet at last they closed their eyes, to dream of relief.
Merrill lay on his back and despaired of sleep, though his muscles twitched in need of respite. He recited everything that he'd ever memorized of his ethics classes, told them off like beads of a rosary, praying for his soul. "The first of the eight conditions of societal health is Love. A sound society espouses some stand in favor of Love..."
He glanced over and saw Zanne curled up on her side, open-eyed, listening to him. No intelligence in the world could have interpreted her gaze.

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