Craig has stopped his horse a hundred yards short of the border crossing station. He really doesn't want to be here, but has run out of other options if he's to salvage the mess that was the last family meeting.
Craig knows how badly he blew it that day at the meeting. If he'd kept his head, he might have done something effective to curb the increasingly liberal attitudes in the family and in GMM's policies; instead he managed to turn Ruthven against him.
Craig is now stuck with two options: follow up on investigating Fennik and Tsibola's recent actions, especially Fennik's cross-border trip, or shrug and let the whole family (and GMM) go to the Simes without a fight.
Craig doesn't really think of himself as a hero, but he's always considered himself good at doing whatever has to be done. Since without Ruthven's influence he couldn't get a donation waiver, and since none of his employees are willing to cross the border without one, it's now up to him.
Craig slowly, reluctantly, sets his horse in motion and approaches the border station.
Zilfred zlins a horse approaching, with a highfield Gen who seems a bit reluctant to be there. He sets his "Army Adventures" magazine aside, and exits his kiosk to flag the guy down.
Zilfred is, of course, not wearing retainers, since the Gen Territory border is a full ten feet away.
Craig slows his horse until it's just barely moving forward, then stops about twenty feet away from the kiosk.
Zilfred imagines that he's a heroic pre-Unity Sime soldier, turning back a Gen invasion. He does have an advantage over such a soldier: he speaks Genlan.
Zilfred: Hold up, there.
Craig isn't close enough yet to see the tentacles, especially since he has an exaggerated idea of how big they'll be.
Zilfred: Are you planning to cross the border here?
Craig decides to see if he can brazen it through.
Craig: Did my paperwork come through?
Zilfred: Nope, not unless you're the guy who's supposed to be delivering three crates of peaches and some cucumbers.
Zilfred zlins Craig ~~ thoughtfully ~~
Craig manages a choked laugh.
Zilfred: Doesn't look like you've got any peaches with you.
Craig: No, I'm talking about the donation waiver.
Zilfred: Nice try, buddy. If you had a donation waiver, they'd have given it to you, in the first place, and you'd have an Escort with you, in the second place.
Craig: ~~ still trying to bluff ~~ Senator Tsibola said it would be all set up, and waiting for me here.
Zilfred puts his hands on his hips, tentacles spread.
Craig sees the tentacles for the first time and spikes ~~ panic~~ . His horse reacts to the sudden movement by lunging forward.
Zilfred augments to catch the horse's reins, stopping it just across the border.
Zilfred: No, you don't. You're lying about the waiver; I can zlin that without half trying. If you want to cross the border, you can donate here. If not, you can turn around and go back where you came from.
Craig hesitates. At the moment, a strategic retreat seems tempting. He realizes, though, that if he doesn't do his part in the war against the Simes, pretty soon there'll be no place on either side of the border that's safe from them.
Craig: All right, I'll donate. ~~ resignation mixed with terror ~~
Zilfred: All right.
Zilfred leads Craig's horse towards the small border crossing station, which has a hitching post in front of it.
Zilfred: You can tie your horse up there. I'll tell Hajene Pansy you're coming.
Zilfred waits until Craig gets off the horse, and the horse is tied, before stepping to the door and poking his head through the door.
Pansy is sitting in the channel's room, knitting socks for Year's Turning presents for her grandchildren and their cousins. Her wildly-patterned, multicolored socks are famous in the Householding, and this job gives her plenty of time to work on them.
Zilfred: Hajene, you've got a customer.
Pansy: Thank you, my dear. Send him right in.
Zilfred: I hope you're ready for a challenge; he seems a bit upset.
Zilfred turns to Craig.
Zilfred: Go on in.
Pansy is a tiny white-haired woman with a sweet grandmotherly face.
Craig stops in the doorway.
Pansy: Good afternoon, young man.
Craig: Excuse me, is there a washroom around here?
Craig isn't just stalling; his usual physical weakness really is making itself felt right now.
Zilfred waits until the door closes behind Craig, then goes back to his kiosk, and his magazine.
Pansy: There's a privy out back. Zilfred will show you. Zilfred!
Pansy waits for a reply, fruitlessly.
Pansy: Oh, dear. I'll show you myself.
Pansy gets up and moves a bit stiffly to the door.
Craig: (in a small voice) Thanks.
Craig tries to tell himself that anyone who looks so frail and grandmotherly can't possibly be dangerous. The effort doesn't work.
Pansy: I'm Hajene Pansy ambrov Peebl. Right this way.
Craig backs up abruptly to avoid brushing against the Sime.
Pansy: And you are?
Craig: Andrew Craig.
Pansy: Pleased to meet you, Mister Craig.
Craig really has got to go.
Pansy leads the way to the back door and opens it.
Pansy: Now just follow the path to that clump of lilac bushes. The privy is on the other side.
Craig rushes into the privy and slams the door. He takes care of business quickly, even explosively, then sits and shakes at the thought of the Sime waiting for him outside.
Pansy waits patiently and sympathetically for her client to return. She wonders whether he has an ailment common to men of his age, or just a nervous bladder. She's a low-rated Third, and wasn't able to zlin much.
Craig considers all over again whether he's really able to go through with this. He tries to picture the channel's grandmotherly face and her knitting, but somehow all he can see are the tentacles that held the knitting needles.
Craig goes through all the reasons for doing this -- twice -- then sighs and reassembles his clothing. Slowly and reluctantly, he re-emerges from the privy and moves back towards the main building with dragging feet.
Pansy smiles from the doorway.
Craig: All right, let's get on with it.
Pansy leads the way back to her office, and offers a seat.
Pansy: This is your first donation, is it?
Pansy: You'll find it's much less difficult than you may imagine. Here's a booklet explaining the process.
Craig inches his chair back a bit.
Pansy places the booklet on the desk in front of Craig.
Craig takes the booklet and opens it. Somehow his eyes, or maybe his attention, seem reluctant to focus on the print.
Pansy wishes she had her Donor with her, but the poor young man is down with food poisoning after visiting a filthy restaurant on the Gen side of the border last night. At least Pansy assumes it was filthy. All that carrion lying around has to be insanitary.
Craig glances up after what seems an appropriate length of time.
Craig: Okay, now what?
Pansy suspects Craig didn't read the booklet thoroughly.
Pansy: Do you have any questions?
Craig feels not at all like a soldier against the forces of evil, and very much like a victim in the Pens, waiting for the kill.
Craig: Not really.
Pansy: Okay. If you'll just sit at that end of the sofa there...
Pansy believes that calling it a sofa instead of the Simelan term for the piece of furniture is more reassuring.
Craig moves to the spot indicated. It is, after all, twice as far from the channel as his previous seat. He tries to distract himself with thoughts of the weirdness of Sime furniture design.
Pansy takes the channel's position.
Craig feels his heart begin to pump wildly. ~~ terror ~~
Pansy: Now, now, there's nothing to be afraid of.
Craig struggles to ~~ calm ~~ himself, with minimal success.
Pansy wonders whether she should just sit here until Craig uses up his entire adrenaline supply before proceeding, but she's hoping to get the current pair of socks finished today. They are, by request, bright orange with turquoise stars, and hurt her eyes to work on.
Craig stares at the Sime's forearms, trying to override ~~ panic ~~ with mere ~~ disgust ~~. It isn't working; now he simply feels both at once.
Pansy: Now, is that a nice way to think about an old lady like me?
Craig: (automatically) I'm sorry, ma'am.
Pansy: When you look at my arms you should think about all the lives I've saved, by being a channel.
Craig can only think of how many Simes channels have kept alive, to continue to infest the world.
Pansy began work at a rather advanced age, immediately after Thirds were discovered, and has indeed saved the lives of thousands of Pen Gens and the Simes who would have killed them.
Craig: Can we just get this over with?
Craig isn't sure how much longer he can make himself hold still.
Pansy: If you prefer, but your feelings are very unpleasant to zlin.
Pansy knows that there's no point in giving Craig a lecture on manners. She offers her arms.
Craig stares at them. ~~ revulsion ~~
Pansy swallows her reaction to Craig's rudeness.
Craig regrets having eaten breakfast.
Pansy: Give me your hands, Mr. Craig. Or if you think you're going to vomit, you know where the privy is.
Craig watches his hands rise and move towards the Sime's grasp, almost as if they had a mind of their own. His head is spinning. He gasps and takes a lungful of air. The dizziness recedes, to be replaced again by ~~ terror ~~.
Pansy is often glad she's only a Third. It stood her in good stead during the Unity War and in the earliest days of Unity, when she took donations from Gens who would have been Choice Kills, had they established only a little earlier or a little further away.
Pansy braces herself and takes Craig's hands, sliding her hands into position.
Craig's ~~ terror ~~ peaks, and he crosses some invisible emotional threshold into unnatural ~~ calm ~~.
Pansy: Good. Now doesn't that feel better? There's nothing to be afraid of.
Craig is beyond fear now. What will happen, will happen. He has lived a long and full life; if this is the end, so be it.
Pansy steels herself for Craig's reaction and wraps her tentacles around his arms.
Craig shivers a little, but otherwise doesn't react.
Pansy: Good. Now my laterals...
Pansy secures her grip more tightly than usual, since she can't trust this lout not to move, and extends her laterals onto his arms.
Craig watches, dreamlike, as the tiny slimy tentacles slide hotly across his skin.
Pansy: Now the lip contact. You'll have to bend forward, Mr. Craig, I'm not tall enough to reach.
Craig sits immobile, utterly detached, as if he hadn't heard her.
Pansy sighs in annoyance and half stands to make the lip contact. This is uncomfortable for her lower back, but she's been through far worse for the Tecton.
Craig knows he has been touched by ultimate evil. Nothing else matters now.
Pansy zlins her client carefully. Nothing wrong with him that a plainer diet, less alcohol and more exercise wouldn't improve, except for what could only be fixed by being twenty years younger.
Craig feels hot Satanic lips brush against his. He tries to pull into himself, making himself too small for evil to notice.
Pansy carefully draws off most of Craig's GN-3 level, breaks the lip contact, withdraws her laterals and releases his arms.
Pansy: There you go. That wasn't so bad now, was it?
Pansy shows a friendly grandmotherly smile.
Craig's ~~ numbness ~~ vanishes suddenly, to be replaced by ~~ panic ~~. He leaps to his feet, and blindly tries to run from the room. In his confusion, he runs straight at the channel.
Pansy leaps back over the transfer lounge in low augmentation. She'll pay for it in sore muscles tomorrow.
Craig crashes into the wall. Blood begins pouring from his nose. ~~ pain ~~
Pansy sighs in exasperation. She seen more rational behavior from five year olds.
Craig fumbles in his pocket for a handkerchief.
Pansy: Sit down, Mr. Craig.
Pansy takes a handkerchief from the desk and hands it to him.
Craig obediently sits. It seems he's forgotten the person in the room with him is Sime.
Pansy: Pinch your nose and put your head back.
Craig, with his eyes closed, obeys this voice which sounds so much like his grandmother's.
Pansy is glad his eyes are closed, and hopes he doesn't open them for a few minutes. She extends her laterals over his face, not touching, and tries to stop the bleeding. She can't do much without lateral contact, but the bleeding will probably stop soon anyway.
Craig hesitantly pulls the cloth away from his nose. The bleeding seems to have stopped. He opens his eyes to see a slimy pink tentacle only a hair's breadth from his face. ~~ panic ~~
Pansy withdraws her laterals and backs up.
Craig's blood pressure spikes with his panic, and the nosebleed resumes.
Pansy: Will you please calm down? You're being very silly and making things worse.
Craig struggles to control his breathing, and slow his racing pulse.
Pansy goes to the desk, takes out a voucher pad and fills out a voucher for the donation. She carefully records the donation in her ledger.
Craig presses the handkerchief to his nose again, and tries to think ~~ calming ~~ thoughts. After a minute, he resorts to one of his favorite tricks: counting imaginary coins as a farmer might count sheep.
Pansy: Now here's your voucher. You can cash it at any Sime Center in Nivet. And if you can manage to calm down you can get a channel to work on your prostate a little so you don't have to run to the privy twice in an hour.
Craig: ~~ dazed ~~ My prostate?
Pansy: Yes. A channel can improve things a bit for you, especially with repeated treatments.
Pansy: Yes. Channels do most of the medical work here in Nivet. They're our doctors.
Craig: What kind of treatments?
Pansy: Nageric treatments, of course.
Craig struggles with the unfamiliar word.
Pansy rummages in her desk.
Pansy: Here's a booklet on medical care in Nivet. And here's your voucher.
Pansy: You're welcome.
Pansy rummages again.
Craig pockets the booklet and glances at the voucher. The amount of money it represents is trivial to him, but his mind is beginning to work again.
Pansy: And here's another booklet you ought to read.
Pansy hands Craig a copy of "Simeland Manners for Genlanders".
Craig: I'll tell you what.
Craig hands the voucher back to the channel, taking the new pamphlet with an automatic, "Thank you."
Craig: ~~ cunning ~~ Assign the payment from this to Fridda Fennik. Tell her it's from her Uncle Andrew, and I'd appreciate it if she'd write to me. I'd like to know how she's doing.
Pansy doesn't take back the voucher.
Pansy: You can take that up with the cashier at a Sime Center. This is just a border station. We don't do any of that.
Craig: Oh. Okay.
Craig still thinks he's hit on a good idea here. He knows it's a long shot, but if Fridda is still alive, it would explain a lot.
Craig: So is there any other paperwork?
Pansy: Zilfred will take care of that. He's out at the kiosk.
Craig: ~~ false heartiness ~~ Thank you, ma'am.
Pansy doesn't like the way the man is zlinning and wonders what he's up to. But it's none of her business.
Pansy: You're welcome. Read that booklet and do what it says or you're going to offend a lot of people.
Craig frowns and glances at the pamphlet in his hand.
Craig: Yes, ma'am.
Craig pockets the pamphlet and smiles weakly.
Craig: Anything else, ma'am?
Pansy: No. Zilfred will look after you for the rest.
Craig: Okay, thanks.
Craig strides from the building whistling. Having now survived the worst, he thinks ~~ optimistically ~~ , he's now ready to get on with his mission.
Pansy takes up her eye-searing knitting, the orange and blue socks requested by her five year old grandniece.