The Poison Gamble

By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 50
Departure from Paradise

Thursday December 20, 2700

Jake's vision swam. Leaves, stars, shade and moonlustre blurred and watered in his eyes. His chest heaved visibly as his suffering mounted; it clawed through every vein in his body, in and out of his brain. His fingernails raked the fig-root ridges between which he had wedged himself; he sprawled panting on the ground.
But the pain this time came from no physical thing. He hadn't attention left for his wrenched ankle, even no memory for now of his agonies at sea. Ghost tortures racked him, psychic upheavals to parallel the mental process that he had undergone before. Other talents didn't enmesh the soul like oraclism.
A sudden face came clear before his sight--a spirit of night and the wilds. A darkness peered at him, skull-hollowed, shadow-cheeked, eyes and teeth luminous in moonlight, black matted hair tangle-crowned with straying twig and leaf--a mad face, hallucination, child-ghost: a countenance of nightmares and shade-mysteries.
"I'm hungry," Deirdre said, and shuddered.
Something came suddenly clear for Jake. It lay at the back of his mind where he could not yet see through its clarity, but its mere presence quiesced his soul-pain. He shivered, himself; his suffering waited, ready to spring back on him at the first wrong move. Yet he could talk.
"I can see that you are," he said with care. Still unhurt? So far so good.
She nodded, miserable, leaning over him, hands on the knees of legs like sketches of shadow. The moonlight silvered the fingers till they looked like bones. "Will you get me something to eat?"
"Come closer," he whispered. Some part of his thoughts could see through the lens in his mind, though not to tell him what it saw. Yet it dictated his actions and he complied, for those moves alone did him no harm.
She stepped forward till a root stopped her.
"Closer." She knelt and leaned forward, hands on the root, eyes huge and voracious. Her hair brushed his shoulder. "Good. I'm hungry, too."
She tried to scream, but he caught her and his touch snapped the scream from her throat as surely as if he'd broken her neck. She struggled, but he latched more controls on her than the mere hands of flesh that gripped her arms. Shredded, his talent could do many things; the frayed edges of Gift ententacled Deirdre to draw her down on top of him.
His mouth clamped over hers, but the feared thing didn't happen. Chastely breast to breast, no stirring troubled either flesh. Instead he drank something of hers, something that bled from her heart where the scream snapped off. It quenched, fed, strengthened him. It flowed into his wounds, filled them and hardened into place. It trickled across each rent and glued it back together. Jake had been strong all his life; to survive he needed the will that keeps the weak alive.
He opened his eyes. Deirdre lay peaceably curled in his arms, her mouth innocent upon his. She had lost nothing. No oracle, she had come through her ordeal whole and could not be divided.  And, once she had understood his need, she had shared with him voluntarily.
Wondering, Jake pushed himself to a sitting position. He stared at the girl now settled onto his lap, who stared back, fey, having no words for him, offering no explanation. A bridge of spirit linked them; she filled the cavity within him and kept it from growing, but she herself remained herself.
"We are one, and two," he said, then shuddered. He suddenly felt pregnant with her and could not be delivered. The sudden return of soul-health still anaesthetized his fear, yet he felt it as a distant, important thing, the way some surgery patients feel the knife. This, however, cut nothing away--what it added he couldn't bear to name, couldn't survive without.
“He didn’t plan on this,” he murmured, and abruptly wondered what'n'earth he was talking about. He? “But he’s too far away. Oraclism takes the hidden path. We escaped.” And sudden horror made him shudder, at some distant malice that he couldn’t name.
Deirdre meanwhile leaned against his stomach, dimly shocked by the contentment that flooded her. She could now ignore what she had feared; why enact in flesh the male/female union already stamped upon her soul? She had grown up to be like Julie after all.
Jake cleared his throat, an awkward sound in the night. "Let's get something to eat," he said.
Deirdre made no reply as they rose to their feet. Instead, she marveled at the dawn sky that blossomed overhead, each cloud swirled in gold and coral-rose.

Friday, December 21, 2700

Lisa found the last tree with figs still on it, so she took advantage of her brief interval between exhaustion and uncoordination to gather as many as she could reach. She ached every time she pulled herself up another branch, but her capacity to do so satisfied her soul. She felt almost lithe.
She rested a moment on a bough's broad back, to suck the sweetness from a fruit plucked straight from the trunk. She knew of no breed of tree so friendly to the climber as this; she sensed it in the life that flowed beneath her, in the bark's pale depth.
A rustle startled her; she saved herself from toppling barely in time. Closer to recovery phase than she thought? She hoped not.
She recognized all the minutiae of Don's movements before she turned to look down, even distorted by his adaptations. She admired the control that he'd already mastered, till she saw in his rigid steps something unnatural, unrelated to physical command. He stopped below her and glared up. Sun glinted off of the glasses that he seldom wore, always trying to exercise his eyes out of any need for them.
"Lisa." The quiet of his voice seethed with tension. "I would like you to come own."
She suddenly wanted nothing less. She longed for her pendant. "Why the glasses?" she asked.
"The better to see you with, my dear." His voice betrayed no humor whatsoever.
She concentrated. Without a focus she got only a faint, empathic brush, but self-control saturated it--to a degree, she realized, closer to madness than hysterics would've been.
"Lisa, I'm standing here till you come down, or fall down in your sleep."
"If you put it that way..." Reluctantly, she climbed to the ground. She dropped into the leaves the last yard, then approached with caution.
"Stand within reach," he commanded.
"I don't see why I should," she said, but she complied.
"Because I want to see you." His face had become hard and dirty these days. The bristles on his chin verged on a beard. "I want to see what the Black Clams have done to you. Each ugly line, each clenched face-muscle."
Lisa resented her own gasp. Silly, for a woman who'd always considered herself homely anyway.
Don didn't relent. "I want to remember that I hate you."
"Why?" she cried. "What harm did I ever do to you?"
"You guessed aright--I was a virgin. And thrust your love on me right when the rage overtook me! You confused them together. I have all these knots inside me," his fingers clawed the air, "And I tear myself untangling them. Don't you understand?"
"I...I wish I did. I'll try to." Her changed mind could generate emotions as fast as thought; they clouded each other.
"Do me a favor, Lisa."
"What?" She feared what he might request, feared it worse than violence.
"Hit me. As hard as you can. I'm guilty, too."
"Don, I'm not into this..."
"Do it! I need you to."
She struck him on the chest. The thud staggered him, but his stance wouldn't unstiffen.
She wept as she socked him in the jaw. That threw him back several steps, bursting spittle from his mouth, but he caught his balance, wiped his chin, and straightened his glasses.
"Once more," he insisted.
"Don, I don't want to!"
"No? After I've insulted you? After I've been unfair?"
She wept bitterly--then the implications sunk in.
He nodded, smiling. His smile looked crazy in that angry face, beneath smudged glasses, above the spreading bruise among his bristles. "I meant only to challenge myself, to endure anger and assault without violence. But I see I've challenged you as well. Congratulations--you've passed the test."
In her tears joy rushed on her from out of nowhere. "Oh, Don, you mean...yes! We're through it! We can govern ourselves again--we can go home!" She reached out to hug him, but he dodged back, shoulders pulled in, arms crossed.
"Don't touch me," he said coolly.

Saturday, December 22, 2700

"You got it? Good." With his sound arm Merrill passed the jug of water up to Zanne, then pulled the next one sloshing from the floats. That made up the last of the supplies. He threw her the rope that kept the floats together and she hauled them up, too. Lastly Zanne helped him climb in, towel ready to rub him off as the seabreeze set his gooseflesh standing.
"We make a pretty good team," he remarked. She neither confirmed nor denied it.
On board Lisa scanned navigational charts, following instructions that Don had taught her, it seemed, ages ago. Don himself fussed over engines down below in case the winds should fail. Even the nontelepaths could feel the wall of energy crackling between them.
Jake re-bound his foot to allow his toes to breathe. He grimaced. Just when he'd been regaining his strength!
Lisa looked up from the charts to him. "You and I, Jake, have the flu--that's the official story. We just won't circulate in the public view, we'll exercise in our rooms till we get our coordination up to par, that sort of thing. The others will bring us our food and stuff."
Jake nodded, wishing all the words would stop and let him think. "God, I'm homesick," was all that he could say.
"And you, studying for an agent!" Randy chuckled, as he drew the anchor up. "Unless you're so good you plan to finish each mission in a month." Randy found that if he grinned, happiness followed like a habit, at least for a little while. He'd just have to take time, work things out between him, Jake and God. "All I need," he muttered so low that no one heard. "What a love triangle!"
Randy occupied half of Jake's thoughts. The other half curled around Deirdre as she set the sails one-armed (the other in a sling) brown limbs skinny but muscled like a boy's. He felt stretched between two poles.
Don came back on deck, rubbing a face recently shaved. "Ready to go?" he called.
"Ready!" several replied.
"Then let's do it." He took the rudder. The boat wore about to take them home.
Randy stood on the deck and saw no further work for himself. He let his gaze skip from face to familiar face. Merrill. Zanne, slipping into the cabin that had belonged to Jesse. Deirdre in the rigging, legs woven into it so that one arm would suffice, having given them not one word about her absence. Don and Lisa. Jake.
Randy turned and ducked into his own cabin-space. Out of sight, he tipped his head to one side a moment, then knelt in the dark and prayed.



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