The Poison Gamble


By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 46
Mends and Fractures

Wednesday December 12, 2700
 

Merrill woke first the next day. His body ached, but he pulled himself to the cooking area. As long as he could keep himself busy he could evade the thoughts that petrified him.
 
He reached for a teapot, missed, balanced himself and picked it up. He watched how his hand adjusted itself in an arc and smiled wryly.
 
He stumbled frequently, but when he did he considered the way that muscles worked or failed, thought about his neurons, the patterns in his brain--anything to distract himself from what those patterns held.
 
He fell in when he bent to the spring, caught himself on his bad arm and shouted with the pain. But then he fished himself out and filled the kettle.
 
A noise behind him startled him so that he fell once more, having turned too fast on slippery stones. But this time he landed on his rump with a hearty splash.
 
"Need any help?"
 
"Zanne?" Her presence astonished him. Her amusement almost tempered the wound inside her glance. As complex as creature a ever comprised a myth, she pushed through leaves to wobble beside the stream. He noticed how tangled her hair had become; without choosing to, his eye traced every knot as though their complications mimicked the confusion of each thread of his own life...
 
"...and as if, by studying them, I could untangle myself."
 
She only looked puzzled for a second. "You're verbalizing your thoughts," she said. "That's another thing to guard against."
 
"I'm sorry. Zanne...why would you want to help me?"
 
She ignored the question. "You do realize that you're sitting in cold water on a chilly morning?"
 
He stood, embarrassed. "I, I guess the sensation fascinated me." He could feel his own blood withdraw from his skin's surface.
 
She gave him a hand up. "So, it's back to fascination? I thought you'd gotten through that phase."
 
He looked at her hungrily, then down at his feet. "It comes and goes." His eyes went to the ferns, the spring, the trees, anywhere but back to her. "Less than at first, I suppose. Not so enthralling that I let it get to me."
 
"You're splashing the kettle."
 
He glanced at it as they walked. "So I am."
 
"I've an idea: you're right-handed, right? And I'm left-handed. See, we both grasp the handle...like this...and your uncoordination tends to cancel out mine."
 
"Convenient." He still felt it, that charge when their fingers touched. He trembled all over and hoped that she blamed the cold. They walked awhile more before he said, "But how can you..."
 
"We have to survive. Together, for awhile. We can sort it all out later."
 
Consent, he thought. When is it not what it is? Why should accelerated thinking make everything so much harder to understand?
 
When they got to camp Zanne crashed through supplies, waking Jake. The man merely opened his eyes, lay there and watched them. "Is this all the mint you have?" she asked Merrill.
 
"Not to start with."
 
"Well, better than nothing." She tossed him a packet. "Here. You brew it." It flew past his shoulder. She slumped to the ground as he retrieved it. "Don't burn yourself."
 
"Do you really care?" he asked, then thought--no, he did bite his tongue. "Ouch!" She looked at him, then away.
 
As he heated water, he heard the rustle of Jake's approach and schooled himself not to jump. A small victory for self-control--good! Then he thought of all the ways to recognize Jake's movements with his back turned, and how a month ago he'd seldom heard Jake come up behind him at all.
 
"I'll pour it," Jake grunted.
 
"You go rest--oh." He got a mental picture of himself trying to fill Zanne's cup--and scalding her lap instead. He surrendered the teapot and waited beside Zanne.
 
"It's practical," Merrill said needlessly. "Make the poor guy take less steps." She nodded, her eyes on Jake. Merrill bridled, wishing she could doubt that he might want to sit beside her for mere pragmatism.
 
As soon as he'd poured the tea, Jake squatted down with a groan to join them. "I'm not used to this," he complained.
 
"Who is?" Zanne said.
 
"Incidently," said Merrill, "What're you doing up at all?"
 
"Bad night for dreams."
 
"What about?"
 
Jake stared into the steam of his tea. "I don't remember."
 
"Oh, well."
 
Jake raised a hand. "No, I should remember. I'm trained to. Something's wrong."
 
"Don says everybody's gifts are going to..."
 
"Perdition!" cried Zanne. She'd spilled tea down her front. Jake watched Merrill fuss over her. He felt helpless to find words, abandoned to the feelings that just now began to vibrate inside him. He knew something--or felt something...or...
 
"Where's Deirdre?" Zanne asked. They turned and saw the flattened ferns where her sleeping mat had lain.
 
"Not too far, I imagine," said Merrill. It daunted him, the frailty of the girl, the weight of the mat, the resistance of the rainforest.
 
"See the trail she's left?" Zanne waved at a tunnel in the foliage. "We could find her."
 
"No," said Jake. "Leave her her pri...her privacy...her...a...a! Aaaaah!"
 
"Jake!" The oracle curled into a knot, each muscle hardened till it couldn't even tremble. The eyes bulged, the mouth grimaced. Merrill and Zanne grabbed him, held him--helplessly.
 
"Jake!" Merrill repeated. "Can you talk? Search through your nerves--tell us what's wrong."
 
The mouth worked. "M-mind..." he chewed out words. "Tearing...oraclism comes a...apart..."
 
A branch crashed down nearby and began to smoulder. Nearby grass began to writhe like demons of fire.
 
"Oh my God," Merrill whispered. "Oracles..."
 
"Weld all gifts into one," Zanne finished, fear in her voice. "I know."
 
Randy sat up sleepily, roused by the commotion. An evil-looking woman began to manifest a phantom-face over Jake, the illusion warping like a paranoiac's truth. As Randy stumbled forward she sang a banshee song, but he could still see through her.
 
"Whazzat?" he mumbled.
 
"I can't stop it!" Jake shrilled.
 
Randy tried to shake the buzzing from his ears. "O'course you can," he murmured. He brushed the others aside to rub Jake's shoulders. "'Salright, Weed. Just relax...relax...relax..."
 
One by one he loosened Jake's muscles till the man could straighten this limb, then that, then he had Jake stretched belly-down on the ferns, fragrance rising from each bruised frond like a healer's vapor. He massaged till Jake's fear subsided and with it the psychic chaos. The last of the woman faded into mist, but not before they read in her eyes self-pity soured into viciousness and they saw the family resemblance--just a memory of the mother who had failed to protect Jake.
 
Jake sounded half asleep, now. "I am my Gift," he mumbled. "I am oracle. What happens to me...it...me..."
 
"Shhh." Zanne stroked his head. "You'll master it. We're all having problems."
 
"First fracture," Jake barely breathed the words. "Next'll rip me worse...unless I find a solution." But Randy didn't hear him; he'd fallen asleep on Jake's back.
 

* * *
 

Deirdre abandoned the mat when she heard behind her the outcries and the banshee wails. She had thought to herself just to get away, sleep apart from the oppressive presence of the others.
 
For a moment she flashed back to the time, many years ago as a skinny little kid who could barely see over the great oaken desk before her, when they gave her the news about her telepathy: "Well, you have something along that line..." the pretty lady had said with a frown. "But I'm afraid it's dyslectic--that happens when physical Gifts like levitation overlap the more communicative kinds. You cannot adequately read or interpret what you pick up. So," she had said, firmly closing the binder with "Deirdre E. Keller" written on the spine, "We have decided that you'd do best not even trying to develop it. Trust me; this will save you a lot of trouble down the line." Deirdre had never told another soul about it.
 
Crippled telepathy had always prowled like some limping and untamed animal in the back of her brain, growling out frustrating glimpses, confused intuitions, an ever-present menacing whine. Things like that can't be helped; they bite when you try. They hurt when you don't, but what can you do?
 
Now the wounded thing inside her roared, immense, hungry--yet no less crippled than the day before she'd pressed the mollusk to her skin. The presence of others confused her all the worse, even under the best conditions; she felt the boundaries fade between them, yet felt no more in communion with anyone than she ever had. Shouts and commotion made a pounding terror in her pulse--unbearable!
 
For awhile she shoved through the underbrush at a speed amazing for one in her condition. Her heart hammered clear to her ears, fatigue licked in flames through her muscles, her breath snagged in her throat till she gagged on her own coughing, but she pushed on anyway. She had more willpower than anyone ever gave her credit for. She drove herself till the world hissed out of her grasp.
 
She could barely move when she woke from her faint. She pushed away a branch that had bruised her cheek when she fell. She levered herself up to a sitting position, took a deep breath, brushed hair from her eyes and tried to figure out where she was, or how she'd gotten there.
 
Memory limped back. "Mortanda," she whispered to the tree that towered over her. "I had to flee."
 
She picked herself up and dusted herself off. She feared to guess what violence rioted behind her. She went forward. She didn't need the sleeping mat; she could improvise all kinds of things. She thanked God that she had started off in the night, even if she had fallen asleep a little ways into the rainforest. Who knew what she'd escaped?
 
Her ears rang and her weariness nauseated her. She moved slowly this time. She pushed through ginger and its perfume burned like medicine. She leaned on a tree with a shaggy bark that cushioned her sore shoulder.  Then she gathered up her strength and continued on her way.
 
Trunks and branches supported her as she went, and sometimes the high-ridged roots of figs. When her path began to rise she veered to the left; she had no need to climb the central peak to find herself shelter on the other side. She remembered caves in those cliffs.
 

* * *
 

Jake stared out over the sea. "Jesse." He dared to feel the name upon his tongue. "So, that's how it had to be. Poor child never truly a man--forgive me. I believed them. I wanted to believe--that didn't make it true, I just wanted you to know a man's freedoms, claim a man's understanding, oh, choose me with judgment full grown--what's the use of regrets now? As it stands I at least...at least I haven't ruined your life.
 
He kicked sand. The boy hadn't even had a funeral. Jake couldn't even have attended it if he had. Jake's eyes stung with dryness and his throat thickened around a knot of pain. "Would you have rather survived, traumatized or not? Would you have come to hate me for what we did–I did, whatever. Did you hate me in the end--or was that delirium?"
 
He unclenched fists and jaws. It made no more difference; the dead heard no questions. "I really did love you, Jesse," he said at last. "Right or wrong, I did love you."
 
Ifs bombarded him. All the circumstances that each alone could have prevented a terrible mistake. If Jake hadn’t entered that room still dazed from trance, if drugs hadn’t uninhibited Jesse, if nobody had declared him legally adult, if only the boy had gotten his surgery before passing his adulthood tests. If Jake hadn’t felt so guilty about wanting to pull back from Jesse’s...femininity? “Not femininity,” he growled at himself. “Youth–he was too damned young!”
 
Betrayal–he hated the entire government of Til Territories! How dare they declare people adults who came nowhere near! How dare they lay traps for the innocent, make a decent man a...something unnameable. A word he couldn’t force himself to even think.
 
“I don’t even know for sure if I’m an adult, myself,” Jake mumbled, stuffing his fists into his pockets. I don’t...I don’t know anything. And his new level of intelligence overwhelmed him with the enormous scope of his own ignorance, and the ignorance of everyone who made the rules and all the decisions, and so he realized that he couldn’t condemn anything so ambiguous as a government, comprised entirely of people like him, who couldn’t possibly see their way straight.
 
Jesse...he never expected things to turn out like that. Jake thought back to their childhood escapades together. It didn't make sense, the label that he bore, or thought he bore, or feared to bear. He brushed, flinching, the memory of his father as a brute force. He could recall no trace of that camaraderie which he’d shared with Jesse, the equality of their friendship. It hadn't been like that. And now he couldn't even take the time to find out whether he had harmed their relationship or advanced it. The one with the answer had gone beyond his reach.
 
No--he didn't need to ask. "I did wrong," Jake said to the sand, to himself, for the very first time. Men didn't need to ask--they knew, and they faced it. "I...I wronged you, Jesse." All the shrilling accusations on the boat came back to haunt him, the horrible, fateful ordeal that Jesse had so looked forward to for all its promises.
 
Suddenly Jake made a sound almost a laugh, a snort of derision as Adam must've made when he’d realized that he didn't even like the taste of apples. "Why did you bother, Jesse? You didn't even want to become an agent." Nothing had fevered his own delirium like that last memory of Jesse convulsing in his arms. "You had your future all planned out in medical research. You were the only one of us who didn't care."
 
Jake turned around to push through the undergrowth, head back to camp. Abruptly he stopped in his tracks. "Why?" he cried, and birds took flight. "You already were a damned genius, for God's sake!"
 

* * *
 

The going got steeper. Deirdre clambered from rock to rock, reaching for vines, twisting around trunks that leaned way over from the sparse patches of soil between boulders. Her weariness had become a thrumming inside her that threw off every move she made. She lost count of the times that a vine had jerked her skidding to a halt.
 
Only this time the vine broke. She tried to compensate with her Gift but it wouldn't focus, it unbalanced her further; she tumbled off the rock and crashed into a screen of leaves, broke through, rolled further down the slope and slammed against another boulder.
 
It knocked the wind out of her. When she first came to she only felt the throb in her shoulder. Then she heard the chatter of birds in bewildering tropical variety. At last she felt all the rocks and twigs and soil beneath her. She opened her eyes, at first to do no more than stare at all the greenery. She felt suspended in a bubble of jungle. Only her ache made it real.
 
She sat up. A scan of herself confirmed her scrapes and bruises, but only the redislocation of her shoulder really mattered. If she kept this up, all these reinjuries, she would never heal completely.
 
She thought of how the others had fixed it, then she braced herself against the rock. She brought her elbow close to her side, turned her hand outward and then, with teeth clenched so hard she could almost taste the grit of the enamel, she brought her elbow up. Tears started from her eyes. But she got it done, she felt the pop, and when she had she felt a little better about herself. She could get by.
 
Yet her talent had become useless without a focus. She couldn't rely on anything anymore.
 

* * *
 

Lisa looked up from her needlework when Jake came back, saw that he wanted left alone, and went back to the needlework. Jake looked powerless, not quite as tall. He couldn't even come and go unnoticed anymore.
 
Lisa hated to sew in that other life. She used to slapdash clothes together when she must, thumb-wide stitches hastily tacking fabric together till a friend could finish the job for barter. Now she drew fine stitches with the hair of her own head for thread, concentrating against the disruption of her nerves as though each pull drew a sin out of her soul. But she made no clothing here.
 
Feathers piled around her. Green feathers of the parrot, blue from lorikeets, rose and grey from the galah's wing like wisps of twilight sky. Gullfeathers, stark in white and black and green.
 
She wound them tight to hooks from the Valkyrie's stores to make fishing flies. More and more of the art and science of it unfolded to her with each flick of the fingers. The others, the professionally-made lures stocked with the hooks, looked clumsy next to them She didn't know what bothered her more--that the manufacturer hadn't seen such obvious improvements in design, or that she had.
 
She caught Jake watching her out of the corner of her eye. She asked, not looking up, "Did you find Deirdre?"
 
"No."
 
She looked up and his face told her, Mind your own business, not only for himself, but for Deirdre as well. She shrugged, and put all her attention on the flies.
 

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