Strangers in Strange Lands: Episode 6

Cristal is taking a few friends (and perhaps a few of their friends) to dinner at Hobbes's Restaurant.

Cristal's back pay has been piling up for a while; after all, there hasn't been much at the Ford to spend money on, and the cost of tavern food is low by urban in-T standards.

Cristal is wearing his Tecton uniform -- the dress one, not the working one. He's sitting all alone at the table, being the first to show up. He finds it a great relief not to have to smell meat cooking for a change.

Sartan enters the restaurant, wearing the comfortable, elegant clothing of a prosperous in-T businessman.

Cristal stands up.

Cristal: Sartan! Good to see you again. It's been a while.

Cristal extends his fingertips.

Sartan: It has, it has.

Sartan brushes Cristal's fingertips with a casual handling tentacle. He zlins Cristal curiously.

Cristal makes the "Have a seat" gesture.

Sartan can't zlin through a Donor's field, but that doesn't stop him from enjoying the effort anyway. He sits across from Cristal.

Cristal sits down as well and signals for the waiter.

Sartan: The Donor's life seems to suit you, I zlin.

Cristal nods soberly.

Cristal: It is my life, no doubt about it. How have you been doing?

Sartan: I used to think that it would be boring to just cart hardware between the same three towns, but it's a lot more interesting than I ever thought it could be.

Cristal: You certainly look healthy enough.

Sartan: I don't regret any more, that I didn't get that job with the Tecton. I wouldn't want to move around, the way you have to. I like having a home. And you can't even make them keep you in civilization.

Cristal: Well, no. But my last placement was a very interesting experience.

Waiter: What'll you have to drink, Sosu, Tuib?

Slina enters the restaurant and looks around ~~ uncertainly ~~. She's a young Donor who was invited to the party by her current assignment, one of Cristal's old friends.

Cristal looks expectantly at Sartan.

Sartan: The white wine, I think.

Slina doesn't see Laddu anywhere, and feels ~~ embarrassed ~~. She decides to sit and have some trin while she's waiting for him.

Cristal: I'll have porstan -- and make it nasty, brutish, and short.

Waiter makes the "one point to you" gesture.

Waiter: On the house, Sosu.

Sartan is a touch ~~ envious ~~ at the privileges Cristal enjoys as a Donor.

Slina tells the waitress that she's joining a group and asks if a channel has shown up yet. When told that a male Donor has taken a large table, she decides a bit hesitantly to see if it's her group.

Cristal smiles at the waiter, who goes off to fill the order and bring some menus.

Cristal: [to Sartan] That's why the restaurant is called "Hobbes's".

Slina approaches the table.

Slina: Uh, excuse me, are you Sosu Cristal?

Cristal: That's me, Sosu.

Slina: Uh, I'm Hajene Laddu's Donor, Slina. Uh, he invited me? I guess I'm early...

Cristal: Welcome, welcome. Glad to have you here.

Cristal motions for the waiter again.

Cristal: What'll you have? It's on me -- I'm celebrating my return from what my friend Sartan here calls Barbarian Territory.

Slina: Uh, just trin, please. With honey?

Slina is really impressed that Cristal has been working out-T. ~~ admiration ~~

Waiter returns with the white wine and the n.b.&s. porstan, and goes off to get Slina's trin-with-honey.

Sartan: How is life among the barbarians, Cristal?

Cristal: Far more complicated, and interesting, than I ever expected. Except for a few anthropologists who were in and out, and a pair of diplomats who were stranded by a snowstorm, I was the only person in the whole region who was born in-T. It really is another country there.

Waiter brings the trin, two Gen menus, and a Sime menu.

Sartan: I'd have thought they'd at least have some staff who speak Simelan.

Cristal: Well, of course my channel did! But for most purposes, English is the working language of Hannard's Ford Sime Center.

Slina thinks she should work on her English in case she ever gets a chance to heroically work out-T.

Sartan: But, you can't discuss most of what a Sime Center does, in that language. Or so I hear.

Sartan doesn't speak English, himself.

Cristal: Well, as far as selyn work, no. But after all, most of what goes on is rooming-house and refectory talk: the channel and Donor have to live there, after all. And most of the staff is local, naturally.

Sartan: So you're at the mercy of meat-eating natives?

Sartan shudders at the thought.

Cristal: [quietly] Meat-eating barbarians ... that help keep you and my other Sime friends alive.

Sartan: Well... I suppose so.

Sartan concedes the point graciously.

Sartan: Although I'm told most of them would rather shoot a Sime than support him.

Slina is careful not to let Sartan zlin her revulsion at both carnivory and murder.

Sartan has enough revulsion of his own to cope with.

Cristal: That is most unfortunately still true. But it's beginning to change.

Sartan: They don't seem in a huge hurry to change, it seems. It's over thirty years since Unity, and they're still arguing over whether Sime Centers should be allowed.

Cristal: Cultural patterns are molded from battery selyn. Apply pressure slowly, and it'll move in any way you like. Force it, and it flashes back in your face.

Cristal: In any case, it was the townspeople of the Ford who lobbied the Tecton into staffing a Sime Center, not vice versa. If it were up to the Tecton, Hannard's Ford probably wouldn't have its own Center for another half a century.

Sartan waves that truth away with a tentacle gesture.

Waiter returns.

Waiter: Are you ready?

Sartan nods his readiness, and looks questioningly at the Gens, who might require more time to decide on their usual quantities of food.

Cristal: I'll have the budding delight, please.

Slina: What are the specials of the day today?

Waiter: Pitapat squash with red peppers, goat cheese salad with poached pears, and refried beans with spanya sauce.

Slina thinks about it.

Slina: I'd like the buckwheat and apple casserole, please.

Waiter: An excellent choice ~~ approval ~~.

Sartan: I'll take the mixed appetizer platter.

Sartan figures that whatever he doesn't care to eat, will be consumed by the Gens.

Waiter: By all means, by all means. ~~ tasteful suggestion of hunger ~~

Sartan turns back to Cristal.

Sartan: So, give. What are the barbarians like?

Cristal: Well, they have no manners by our standards, but it seems we have none by theirs. And they have such complex families, too -- you see really old people there, seventy or eighty years natal, sometimes.

Sartan: I thought only the occasional Householder lived that long!

Cristal: They think of seventy years natal as the maximum life span, although some people do live longer, especially nowadays. They have all sorts of taboos about sex, too -- I never could figure out all the details.

Sartan: Really? It seems an odd thing to get so worked up about, to me.

Slina blushes. She established only a few years ago and sex is still pretty new and exciting for her. But so is transfer.

Cristal: There are all these rules about who is supposed to know about what and what can be talked about with whom. Even their long-term relationships are supposed to be based on it, although I suspect that affection and child-raising is really what matters, just like here.

Sartan tries to be cosmopolitan.

Sartan: Well, I suppose since they don't have transfer to talk about, they have to choose something to take its place.

Cristal makes the "Fair enough" gesture.

Sartan: You said that they thought your manners were peculiar. What did they object to?

Cristal: They thought -- with some justice -- that I was a stuck-up Sime Territory snob.

Sartan: But why?

Sartan is ~~ genuinely confused ~~

Slina listens intently.

Sartan: Because you didn't share their views about sex?

Cristal: No, no. The ideology of Gen Territory is that as long as you're not a criminal or a miser, as they call it, one person -- one Gen, that is -- is as good as another.

Cristal: They don't understand hierarchy. They are even more likely to look down on members of their ruling class than to look up to them.

Sartan: But how can they have a stable government if they look down on their leaders?

Sartan, being a renSime, is quite susceptible to Sec.

Cristal: I don't understand that part. But the island Gens have a saying: which is stronger, the mountains or the sea?

Sartan: Depends on where you live, if the Ancient geologists were right.

Cristal: I think the idea is that dynamic stability is supposed to be better than, er, static stability. Not that I saw so much of it at Hannard's Ford.

Sartan: They were a bit radical? Well, I suppose they must be, if they actually asked for a Sime Center. Not many Gen towns do, I'm told.

Cristal: One of those matriarchs bullied both her numerous descendants and the Tecton into it. My channel told me she'd never taken a donation, never mind a first donation, from anyone so old before.

Slina: It's strange to think about all those Gens who have never donated, doing it for the first time when they're old.

Slina grew up looking forward to donating as a sign of maturity, like buying whatever clothes she liked. And "old" for her is "over thirty".

Cristal: Bibi's very skilled at it now. Being out-T herself really helps, I think -- after a while they see her as one of their own people who happens to have tentacles. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it.

Sartan: I didn't think out-Territory Gens bothered to adapt to Simes that well.

Sartan's tone is a bit smug, with the false sophistication of a person whose experience with other cultures is largely theoretical.

Cristal: Well, some are live and let live, some incorporate it into their supernaturalism, some don't give a fleck, and some are enthusiastic supporters.

Slina: Supernaturalism?

Cristal: Yes, you know, belief in a Big Tuib in the sky, or somewhere.

Sartan: They believe that? ~~ incredulous ~~

Cristal: It's a common out-Territory belief, yes. They tend to think the purpose of life has to do with doing what he wants, though they don't all agree about what that is.

Slina: Is it true that they think the god is a male Gen?

Cristal: Well, most of them think only Gens are human, don't forget, so it's natural enough. As for the male business, males tend to be dominant in Gen Territories.

Sartan: I'm surprised the women allow it.

Cristal: It's all in how you're raised, I guess.

Cristal laughs.

Cristal: Our ancestors wouldn't have thought Simes would "allow" Gens to have rights.

Sartan: Well, but our junct ancestors kept their Gens drugged and unable to argue with them. The Gens don't drug their women, do they?

Slina thinks it must be strange to have live ancestors to talk to, like grandparents and even grandparents' parents.

Cristal: No. But when everyone believes that women are inferior, including the women, it's hard to break out. On the other hand, Gen women live longer than men if they don't die in childbirth, ...

Sartan: So eventually they learn better?

Cristal: ... so the few that survive past sixty years natal get a lot of influence.

Sartan: ....sixty natal years? Nobody gets that old, surely?

Cristal: Oh yes. Not many, of course, but it's not unheard-of. Miz Brown, who lobbied the Tecton into setting up the Sime Center, is well over eighty natal.

Slina saw an old woman once. She was a Householder. Her hair was almost white. Weird.

Cristal: I think, with no Simes around, people can live deceptions that last decades. Some women escape the brainwashing, so their natural talents get hidden instead of repressed. If they can outlive their peers, they wind up running things.

Slina: So there's all these old people who remember the times before Unity, and the raids and the Unity War and everything....

Cristal: Yes, there are. And there are these strong bonds of extended families -- parent's siblings and their children, and even remoter relatives. One of the things they keep track of is who's related to whom. It matters a lot.

Sartan: They don't want inbreeding?

Cristal: Much more than that. They support each other in times of trouble, emotional, financial, you name it. On the other hand, they also wind up taking orders from older relatives.

Cristal is not an anthropologist, and he does tend to see things hierarchically.

Cristal: I think that's why they tend to look down on their leaders, because they aren't relatives.

Slina: So it would be different if your channel was a man?

Cristal: It would probably be harder. When the diplomat from the WCO dropped in, the locals saw him as much more intimidating. Simes are scary, but women aren't, so the two prejudices tend to balance out.

Sartan: As if Sime women don't live on selyn, too!

Cristal shrugs.

Cristal: I'm sure we have our unreasonable points, too.

Sartan: Do you have to spend a lot of time protecting your channel from untrained Gen nagers?

Cristal laughs again.

Cristal: I -- I never do anything else.

Sartan: I don't suppose that even the ones who donate get training?

Cristal: ~~ confusion ~~ Training? You mean Donor training? No, for that, you still have to go in-T.

Sartan: Not Donor training. Just good manners around Simes, like all in-Territory Gens learn.

Cristal: Well, the Sime Center staff do. But I do overmatch Hajene Bibi, and I can pretty much insulate her from anything short of a lynch mob.

Sartan: Have you ever had to worry about that? A lynch mob, I mean?

Sartan is convinced that Gen Territory is full of Wild Gens attacking any Sime they see.

Cristal: No. There was the time a bunch of pre-Gens practically burst into the Center, all terrified and wanting to know what was going to happen to them, but the main problem there was getting them to calm down so Hajene could process them one at a time. Results: one Gen, one pre-changeover, and the rest just kids. And a possible pre-channel, but he wasn't part of that group.

Slina thinks through what it must be like.

Slina: So your channel can't go anywhere without you? Does she have to wear retainers everywhere, too? It must be hard on her. She's like a prisoner.

Cristal: She's basically unwilling to leave the Sime Center anyway unless there's another channel visiting, because of the possibility of an unexpected changeover at any moment.

Slina: You mean people would wait to the last minute to bring their kids in? Don't they realize how dangerous that is?

Cristal: It's part of that culture of denial, I think. Sometimes they don't decide till the last minute whether to let their kids be rescued -- or not.

Sartan: Whether to murder them in cold blood, you mean.

Cristal makes the "That's the way it is" gesture.

Slina: You mean they still shoot them even though there's a channel available?

Slina is ~~ horrified ~~ and doesn't manage to cover it all.

Cristal: Some do. Remember what I said about cultural patterns? Until a few years ago, shooting their changeover cases was the most humane thing they could possibly do.

Sartan: Yes, but it's different, with a Sime Center in town.

Slina: But don't the kids try to escape and go to the Sime Center if their parents are like that?

Cristal: Some do, yes. That was what the gang of kids I mentioned were doing. But that possible pre-channel was worried that if he ran away from home, his parents would bring a real lynch mob down on us.

Cristal smiles wryly.

Cristal: Teenagers.

Sartan: Was he just being paranoid, or were his parents that fanatical?

Cristal: Paranoia.

Slina: Did he change over as a channel?

Cristal: Not the last I've heard. He has the sense of changeover, but no sense of when it's going to happen.

Slina: So you've got a spare Donor out there, just in case?

Cristal: Nope, none to spare. I think the plan is to use Hajene Bibi's Donor -- me or whomever -- and then put her on channel's transfer for a month.

Sartan: I thought your Hajene Bibi was the only channel around?

Slina: And what if you're low field when it happens?

Cristal puts his hands over his head in mock surrender.

Cristal: The Tecton in its infinite wisdom will have to work that out. I'm no Controller.

Sartan: So what's the oddest situation you've had to deal with?

Cristal shrugs.

Cristal: In one way, it's all the same, in another, it's all different.

Sartan doesn't think that sort of answer is going to impress his other friends. He had been hoping for a good story or two about "my good friend, the TN-2" to amuse at parties.

Cristal: I could tell you some stories, but it would be hard to disguise the people involved enough.

Sartan: Do you think we're ever going to meet them? Come on, we won't insist on names.

Slina is too polite and shy to press, but she'd like to hear some stories too.

Cristal: Well, there was a new Sime that fainted at turnover, and her mother got paralyzed when she was giving a donation for her daughter. But it's not much of a story: we never figured out what was going on.

Sartan: She got paralyzed?

Cristal: All her muscles went limp when Hajene Bibi was taking her donation. It was odd. Off there out-T, there are a lot of strange Gen variants we don't see hereabouts.

Sartan: There must be.

Cristal: The daughter had an extraordinary rough changeover according to the report -- it wasn't served in our Sime Center -- so it's not all that surprising that the first turnover was rough too.

Slina: Even normal changeovers must be hard for the kids out there. They must be really scared and not want to be Simes at all.

Cristal: Absolutely. A lot of them have been brainwashed with this idea that only bad kids become Simes, to make it even worse.

Cristal is relieved that the focus is off individual stories now.

Slina: That's awful, scaring your kids into good behavior that way!

Cristal: Unfortunately, I think that's only part of it. It's also a way of convincing themselves that the children they lose deserve it.

Sartan: Deserve it? How? It's not like random genetics rewards virtue or punishes evildoers.

Cristal: Supernaturalism again. They don't seem to believe that anything is actually random: it's all part of the plans of the Big Tuib. The mother I mentioned became convinced that the presence of a channel in town was part of the plan, and that it meant there was something special about her daughter as a consequence.

Sartan: She didn't accept that the Sime Center was there because the town asked for it?

Cristal: No, this was in a neighboring town. And I really can't go into details about that.

Cristal doesn't want to talk about Seruffin. ~~ determination ~~

Slina figures the young Sime can sort all that superstition out now that she's in civilization. At least she wasn't shot!

Slina: But it's changing now, isn't it? Most kids in the town are surviving changeover?

Cristal: At Hannard's Ford, yes, I think so. In the surrounding towns, no. The roads are still too bad for Gens to reliably get their kids to the Ford between fever and breakout. With no one around to give warning, they would need a Center in practically every town, and that's just not practical.

Slina: That's really sad. It must be terrible for the parents.

Cristal: It is. It's the mirror image of what junct society was, really. The parents have to accept that a third of their children are just lost to them, and figure out a way to live with it.

Slina: You'd think that any decent parent would try to make sure that their children had access to a channel. Even before Unity, Sime parents often took their Gen children to the border if they could.

Cristal: Well, it's one thing to risk killing your children on the way, which is bad enough. But it's quite another to risk being killed yourself. And then what? Your kid is across the border, just starting a lifetime of killing people just like you.

Cristal: You couldn't expect them to understand the difference between Pen Gens and themselves, after all. And even nowadays, not all of them really, really believe that Simes don't kill any more. Those Secret Pens left a huge amount of distrust after the Unity Spring.

Slina: And their children suffer for it. That's really sad.

Cristal: Yes.

Sartan: Surely that's changing?

Cristal: It's all changing. But for too many, not quickly enough.

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