Scroll slowly. You have decisions to make.
You feel pretty good. The next day, you come down with a pretty bad flu. Your stomach hurts. The pain spreads, constricting your chest and making your joints ache. Over the next few days, your hair falls out and the general joint pain gets excruciating. Your skin hurts, too.
While you’re struggling, the poison that was in your drink is masquerading as potassium. Potassium works with sodium to help cellular transportation, control fluid volume in cells, and regulate certain neurons responsible for motor function. By replacing functional potassium with its rather useless self, this poison known as thallium sulfate essentially causes cells to stop functioning, a little at a time, until your nervous and respiratory system can’t handle all the failures and shut down.
It can take up to fifteen days for you to die, so you do have time to eat some Prussian Blue, which will absorb the thallium in your system. So congratulations! You don’t die if you’re aware that you’ve been poisoned (and if you’re playing this game, you have kept the possibility in mind – otherwise we’re looking at a case of natural selection).
Some jerk spiked this drink with snake venom. Jerk move, jerk.
On the bright side, there is a fine difference between “poison” and “venom.” Venom has to be introduced directly into the bloodstream to have any effect. You can actually walk away from the empty glass unfazed.
However, if you happen to have a small cut in your mouth (and for the sake of Halloween, you do), then you’re in trouble – especially since this particular venom is from Australia’s inland taipan. It is the most toxic snake venom in the world, and you will be dead within 30 to 45 minutes.
Venoms tend to be a swirly cocktail of chemicals with different effects. The inland taipan’s bite contains a mess of toxins targeting the nervous system, blood, and muscles. Essentially, you die of multiple organ failures, with your muscles falling apart at a cellular level that strains your kidneys blood-filtering prowess, and probably brain hemorrhages caused by blood that refuses to clot.
This is an extremely painful way to go. The only bright side is that the likelihood of actually getting exposed to this venom is very low, unless you’re playing a choose-your-own-adventure game with a sadist.
You’re out within mere minutes! Good job, you drank hydrogen cyanide, the fastest acting poison in the giant’s arsenal.
Hydrogen cyanide attaches to the iron contained in an important enzyme called cytochrome c oxidase. This fellow helps wrap up cellular respiration, the process by which our cells make energy to live. Cyanide specifically prevents the enzyme from passing electrons to oxygen, which would have split it into two molecules of water. For your heart and nervous system, this essentially unplugs them from the power grid.
Since it acts so quickly, dying by cyanide is actually pretty popular. You’re in the company of spies, politicians, and a whole slew of Nazis (hey, I didn’t say good company).
Well. This sucks. You have ingested hemlock, a poison rich in an alkaloid called coniine. Coniine blocks signals between your nervous system and muscular system. This leaves your muscular system in a communication black hole. Unfortunately, without directions from the brain, your muscles just shut down.
Within thirty minutes, your legs go numb. The paralysis moves upwards until your entire body has boycotted movement – but your mind is completely fine. You know you can’t move. Worse, you can feel the numbness spread to your internal organs. When it hits your lungs, you can no longer breathe. You suffocate to death, fully aware of every missing breath.
If it’s any consolation, it’s a very classic way to go out. You and Socrates can fistbump about it later.
It takes hours for you to notice that anything is seriously wrong. Foreign molecules have bonded onto the surface of cells in your intestines. They get welcomed into the fold (cells fold their outer membranes inward to absorb nutrients) like the Prodigal Son, and they travel to the endoplasmic reticulum, where proteins are neatly folded and transported to their jobs. Here, a protein going about its regular business cleaves each molecule into two chains, one an enzyme and the other a protein.
And then the problems begin. The enzyme chain embeds itself into the walls of the endoplasmic reticulum, masquerading as a deformed structural membrane protein. Normally, patrolling proteins charged with quality control will identify and carry flawed structural proteins away to be destroyed, but this faker avoids detection. Different cellular enzymes welcome the foreign chemical into a crucial workforce, where it knocks out the adenines in ribosomal DNA. Ribosomes do the actual protein construction, so when they get disabled, all protein production stops.
You’ve died by ricin – which is totally vogue now, thanks to Breaking Bad! But this also means you die excreting blood during every bodily function – including the now involuntary vomiting – and probably having seizures all the while.
But thanks for playing if you did, and I hope you enjoyed it. Drink safely this Halloween weekend!
Hannah Cheng is currently exploring ways to highlight science in fiction at The Fiction Division.