A New Beginning 
Part 1

by
D. DaBinett 

Published as a part of A Companion In Zeor #13 , 14 & 15

WorldCrafters Students: This version has had a first copyediting, December 2000

 

CHAPTER ONE

It was already dark, and raining hard, as Jason parked the flitter and began to make his way towards the main complex, and Conways Bar.

Mike was sure to be there, he always was since he and Christine had finished. Head down he careered into a hard body and muttered an apology as he looked for the neon sign outside his brother's favourite watering hole. The bright lights flashed their welcome, the colours reflected on the wet road surface.

Conways was no different from a hundred others along the main street, and Mike practically lived in the place. He and his brother were totally dissimilar. Hell, the rain was coming down even harder now! Shaking the raindrops from his hair he stepped into the warm interior, and listened as the doors whooshed shut behind him.

His eyes skimmed around the place as he automatically slid his identity disc into the processor. He got an instant clearance and a rating badge to wear - green. Not exactly luxury status, but then again his credit balance was not very high either, not since he had left his highly lucrative post with the Tecton.

Ah, there was the man himself, in his usual position, propping up the long bar. An ironic smile touched Jason's lips as he wove his way between the tables to his brother's side. Luckily it was still early enough in the evening, so there were still seats going begging.

Mike made no effort to acknowledge him, although Jason was well aware that his presence had been duly noted, but then his older brother was like that, a surly devil at the best of times.

'Hi sunshine.' He slid onto the tall stool at his side. Mike's blue eyes flicked towards him in brief salute, before he continued staring into space.

Silence reigned as Jason ordered a drink, this was the game they always played. ' So what's happened?' Mike asked at last, noting the wide grin on his brother's face. 'And when are you going to get those damn curls cut off?'

Jason tossed his chestnut locks and grinned even more. 'The girls love 'em.' He winked knowingly, as his brother snorted in derision. 'I've got another interview.'

'Don't suppose anything will come of it.' Mike stated morosely. 'Never does for us Deveres.'

'You miserable old devil.' His eyes roamed fondly over his sibling's short fair hair and bewhiskered face. They looked nothing alike, but then they only shared the same father, not mother. Jason at 26, was nearly 10 years the younger. He was taller too, 5 foot 10 inches, and far more muscular. His chestnut curls and green eyes had always kept him well supplied with female company. Unlike his brother who was a one-woman man.

' So what are you drinking? I'm buying.'

'Better see if anything comes of it first before you start throwing your credits around.'

'My luck is changing.' He fed the numbers into the bar selector in front of them. 'You still drinking 32?'

The fair head nodded briefly. 'OK Jas, since you're so damn sure of yourself - who's the interview with this time?'

'Helma Vestii of United Spaceways.' He said triumphantly.

His brother's blue eyes opened wide. 'How the hell did you manage that, blackmail?'

'No, just my fatal fascination.'

'Crap.' Mike snorted the expletive into his glass before he emptied it, and the top opened to deposit two drinks in front of them. He tossed his empty into the disposal and began to nurse the fresh one, running a finger idly around the rim.

'So when's the great day?'

'Tomorrow.'

'That quick! They must be keen. Still trying for Engineer?'

The chestnut curls nodded vigorously in assent.

'Aiming high Jas.' Blue eyes met green. 'But you've got the qualifications.' 'I'll get it this time Mike.'

'Hope you're right boy.' He smiled, transforming his face to how he used to look before he met that bitch, Christine. ' You deserve a break. How many times have you tried now?'

'Five. They can't keep turning me down.'

Mike didn't reply as he tossed the fiery liquid to the back of his throat, and waited for his brother to continue.

'By the way, Rosina and I are not going to renew. She's decided she wants kids before it's too late, and I'm sterile now.'

'How long was the contract for?' Mike asked sympathetically.

'Two years, it ends next week, but she's already moved out.'

'Long enough, short contracts are always best, unless there's kids involved.' A thread of bitterness ran through his brother's words.' Christine and I were together for 16 years, but then, we had Josie. I miss her, I miss them both.' Jason touched his arm briefly in commiseration.

'It was good while it lasted, and she kept her side of things, right up to the end.' He sighed softly, then changed the subject. ' I never knew you were a steroid Jas, how long?'

Jason dialed up more drinks before he spoke, and music began to throb in the background. 'Since I was 16, I didn't want to advertise the fact. A medi-scan revealed a weakness in the genes. Glad they found it. I always wanted to go into space, and they prefer steriles, no complications.' He grinned wryly. 'I'd better be off, I need my beauty sleep.'

'Yeah. Let me know how you get on.'

'Will do.' He promised and with a perfunctory wave he left the warm bar. It was still raining.

Jason arrived home soaked to the skin and starving hungry. The door opened to his thumbprint and he squelched his way inside. Tossing his shoes and clothes to one side he entered the shower. Ten minutes later he toweled himself dry, shouldered into a cotton robe, and began to fill his tray from the food dispenser. With a sigh he settled into the large comfortable chair in his living area.

The visi-wall was pre-set to his favourite location. An unnamed island. Jason did not know if it actually existed, somewhere, or if it was simply Computer generated. But it was a glimpse of heaven. A pure white beach with waves racing up the sand, only to be sucked back once more into the restless sea. Small clouds scurried across the azure blue sky.

Whilst on the opposite wall, a newscaster was in full swing.'...after the latest headlines we are taking you to Government House where the World Health Administrator Halmanshi Zimmermann will be answering questions on...' He switched off the news, and leaned back to enjoy the sight and sound of paradise. Moments later he placed his empty tray on the floor before closing his eyes. Just a few minutes rest he promised himself, before he tidied the place up and had an early night.

When Jason left for his interview the next day it was still raining. He also had a stiff neck through sleeping most of the night in the armchair. Entering the tall concrete and glass building he handed over his ID, and was taken straight to the medical department and given a complete physical.

Two hours later Jason stood staring out of the window on the 22nd floor, as he waited to be shown into Helma Vestii's office. The panorama of the City was laid out before him. Even through the greyness of the weather, it was an awesome sight, and never failed to impress him. Earth, many centuries ago had been divided into huge territories, some Sime and some Gen, all, at some time, usually fighting or at War with each other. Now, sprawling Cities like the one laid below, covered most of the civilised parts of the Earth. Whilst wilderness made up the remainder of the land.

The deserts, jungle, and mountains of the wilderness areas were kept that way solely for the benefit of Earth's citizens. The reason for this was simple. For whilst no one knew how Simes and Gens had actually mutated, many theories had nonetheless been expounded over the centuries. Many saying that the ancients had tampered and interfered with nature itself. It was however, a mystery that would probably never be solved. But it had lead to a healthy respect for the environment.

As the decades and centuries had passed, the barriers between Sime and Gen had finally been broken down, and communities similar to the one he now lived in had been set up. Jason's eyes skimmed passed the tall towers of the Sime Centre complex that dominated the horizon. Next to it, the apartment buildings that housed a majority of the Tecton in-territory Simes and Gens, who worked there, nestled close in its shadow. (Although, in-territory and out-territory as such, no longer had any real relevance in the every day life of the citizens). Next to the Sime Centre was the main City Hospital, and only a few hundred yards away was the University and campus. There were no barriers between any parts of the City now, and neither Gen or Sime would have understood if there had been. The tall buildings of the business area dominated the skyline on the West Side. Simes, Gens and off-worlders, including aliens, all rubbed shoulders as they both made and lost fortunes. It was in every respect the throbbing heart of the City.

Clustered around everywhere in the foreground were the apartment blocks and houses of the various neighbourhoods. Nowadays these were no longer divided so much between Sime and Gen, but what divisions there were, were more along ethnic lines, which included small enclaves of Italian, Spanish and French speaking people, plus many others.

Inevitably, in some instances, Simes did prefer to live close to other Simes, as did some Gens. But these areas were in no way segregated. Indeed, even in these neighbourhoods, some Simes did move into Gen areas, and vice versa. Whilst most families, both Gen and Sime, preferred to live in the leafy suburbs with their children. Leaving the urban inner City environs to the mostly single people, or those couples without children, who preferred to live and work there.

The theatre and artists area, as it was known, stretched along each side of the river, and it was here that Jason and Rosina had set up home. For they had both liked, and enjoyed, the cosmopolitan nature of the place.

All his life, Jason had read about the Earth Colonies on the outer planets. A few of which still followed Earth traditions. Whilst others, the vast majority in fact, ran their societies in a totally different manner. Habits and mores were diverse, sometimes in the extreme, especially if the planet was shared with aliens. The customs of both sides would then have to be taken into consideration and compromises made. In others, the Earth way of life was completely submerged in the alien culture.

Jason desperately wanted to visit these planets, to see how they lived, and to compare their way of life with that of Earth. He had accepted long ago that he would never be wealthy enough to visit them on vacation. Although he might well have done so at some time in the future, if he had continued to work for the Tecton, for their donors were paid very well indeed, especially when compared with other occupations. No, he was well aware now, that to achieve his ambition, he would have to get a berth, hopefully as an engineer, on one of the freighters that plied their trade across the vastness of space. And his appointment here today, could well be the first step.

'Sosu Devere will you come this way please?' He turned quickly to follow the receptionist into the plain businesslike office. Ms Vestii was tall, thin, and well into middle age. Her grey hair was pulled back tightly from her gaunt face. The harsh style accentuated her hawk like features. She stared at him for several seconds before indicating a seat.

'Jason Devere.' It was not a question; she was reading from the script in her hand. 'You seem to have had a rather varied work record do you not? I see you started Tecton training but left before you qualified.' She raised her eyebrows. 'You do not say why you left so precipitately Sosu Devere.'

Jason cleared his throat.' I was informed I had potential. It was the reason they took me on for top level training.' He wasn't sure how much she knew or understood of how the Tecton worked, so he went on. 'Most of the donors who serve the 2nd and 3rd class channels are taught on the Hayashi Transfer Machines as you are probably aware.' Everyone Sime and Gen was taught at school about Rindaleo Hayashi who had invented the famous machines well over a century or more ago. 'But the donors who serve the higher order firsts are still taught by the old 'House' method of Channel and Companion. I'm sorry to ramble on like this, but I think its necessary if you're to understand.' She waved a hand at him to continue, and settled back in her chair.

'A few of the Firsts are 4+ channels, which means...well it means they are pretty damn sensitive, and need the special handling of a Companion. Now when Gen gets that far up the ladder, he can become subject to what is known in the trade as 'underdraw'. It might not happen, but they are duty bound to warn everyone. After all, there might come a time when one of the top donors or TN-1s, as they call them decides he wants to leave the Tecton. Well they can resign, but they would probably have to undergo a series of treatments with the Inhibitor, and some of the 4+Donors would probably have to take drugs for the rest of their lives. And those new drugs have some really nasty side effects believe me. I've spoken to people who've taken them.'

Jason paused momentarily, and then went on. 'After I was told about all this, and they were brutally honest with me, they pulled no punches. I was then asked to sign an Affidavit stating that I fully understand what I had been told, and that I agreed to go ahead anyway. You know I really do admire the ones who go right on through the training. I couldn't. I wanted out. I felt trapped as if I was being offered a prison sentence and was losing my freedom. The bottom line was simple, my commitment just wasn't strong enough.' He wiped his sweaty palms on his thighs as he remembered how he had felt the day he had walked out, although there had been no recriminations from anyone.

Helma Vestii took a deep breath before she spoke. 'I can relate to that.' She looked at the script again. 'I see you then did an intensive general farming course.'

'Yes. My father was a farmer. I suppose, I wanted a complete change.' He confessed.

'And finally you studied for your Space Engineering Diploma badge, which you got with honours.'

'Yes Ma'am.'

He watched as she rose and walked across to the panoramic windows. For several moments she stood with her back to him staring at the rain pouring down the outer glass.

Jason tried in vain to read her body language, and not for the first time wished that he had the Simes ability to zlin emotions. Finally she turned abruptly and walked back to her desk sitting on the edge as she stared at him assessingly.

'Sosu Devere, I have a proposition to put to you.' She hesitated as though searching for the right words. 'I actually work for a Government Agency, not United Spaceways. And therefore before I go any further I must inform you that everything I now tell you is in the strictest of confidence, and whether you accept my offer or not, you must never divulge anything outside this room. Is that understood?' She took a deep breath, and then went on. 'The consequences to you Sosu Devere if you should break this trust, would not be very pleasant.' Her cold eyes bored into his.

He nodded his head as his tongue touched his suddenly dry lips.

'Have you ever heard of Regis 9?' She asked suddenly.

'Only that it's an Earth Colony, settled about 30 years ago. 'He admitted dredging the scant information up from his memory.

'Correct.' She nodded her head approvingly. 'We have a problem on Regis 9. Two of our other Colonies in the region have reported a drug problem, which they know, did not start on their own planets. Then 3 months ago this same drug suddenly appeared for sale on Earth. Have you ever heard of Stardust?'

Jason again searched his memory but this time came up blank. He shook his head. 'Rather a fanciful name for a drug that is totally addictive after one dose, and drives its users virtually insane in less than 3 months, should they attempt to discontinue its use.' She murmured, and then went on. 'With the strict enforcement laws we introduced decades ago, the trade in all illegal substances has been virtually wiped out, as you know. Consequently, we no longer have any of the old safeguards in place to fight this menace.'

Jason nodded. He also realised that the introduction by the Government themselves of the safe non-addictive drugs that had virtually no side effects, had also helped matters. Because, like most things that are easily available, people quickly lost interest. And even the youngsters, once the novelty value had worn off, hardly used them. There was not very much excitement in taking drugs that were readily available across the counter.

The Tecton too, he now knew, had various substances including Kerduvon and others that they indulged in on occasion, to help lower their inhibitions. He dragged his attention back to her.

'Our chemists and researchers have traced the source of Stardust, it apparently comes from a plant, possibly a fungus.' She shrugged. 'We are assuming that this plant may perhaps be indigenous to Regis 9, and has been discovered by one or more of the colonists, who has the knowledge to cash in on it. Of course, we could be wrong. And this is all speculation at the moment.' She confessed, and paused for a moment before she went on.

'However, to get right to the point Sosu Devere. As you might have guessed, I am of course speaking on behalf of the Terran Intelligence. 'She leaned forward. 'We need someone to infiltrate the colonists for us and find out exactly what is going on, on Regis 9.'

'You mean me?' Jason asked incredulously, he must be wrong!

She nodded.

'But why me? Surely you must have trained agents who could run rings around me?' Was this some sort of sick joke he wondered, and if so, who did he know with such a warped sense of humour?

'Yes. Indeed we do. However, two of the colonists actually worked for the Department before they retired, and they would spot a plant straight away. Besides which, you fit the profile we need perfectly. You come from a farming background, with the necessary agricultural knowledge. Regis 9 has a totally rural economy. You are also an engineer, which will make you even more useful to the Colony, for they have necessary farm equipment that will doubtless need to be repaired. They are attempting to turn the clock back, and are using none of the accepted farming methods. Stupid I call it, but it is their prerogative.'

Jason frowned. 'Ms Vestii. May I remind you, that I came here for an interview, for the position of engineer? Are you now telling me that that post does not exist?'

'No. I am not saying that. However, let me make the position crystal clear to you. Complete this mission for us Sosu Devere, and whether you are successful or not, I guarantee that a post as Engineer First Class on a fleet vessel will be offered to you.' She stood up and seemed to tower over him. 'However, if you wish to leave now, you may do so with my apologies for wasting your time.'

'And I suppose it also means, that if I don't agree, I wont stand a snowball in hell's chance of ever getting a suitable post, even on a freighter!' Jason retorted softly, staring into her cold eyes.

Helma Vestii's thin lips stretched into the travesty of a smile. 'You are an astute man. I take it then that you agree? Good. I will arrange for you to attend a full training course for the next month. You will at least be as well prepared, as it is possible for us to make you, in the time available.' During the next four weeks Jason was put through one of the most intensive courses he had ever undertaken.

Then one night after dinner he was relaxing with Avon, one of his instructors, when the conversation turned to Simes and Gens and the Tecton in particular. His companion gave him an insight into Terran politics, that he had never even considered. Having worked for the Tecton he had long formed the opinion that they, like the Gens, were working to their own agenda. But Jason had never guessed how deep the schism between the two communities really was. Although both sides would deny it, if they were ever put on the spot.

The days of the Householdings' power had long gone. Members still used the old names and titles, if they were entitled to do so, but it was purely an honorary thing now. The Tecton had changed radically. They still upheld the principals on which it was founded...that no Sime would ever again have to resort to the kill by taking selyn from a vulnerable Gen, but would be provided for by the Channels who could take the Gen's selyn without hurting them. Likewise, the higher order Channels, the Firsts, were no longer expected to be shorted in transfer, by totally inadequate donors. Everyone knew, and history showed, that back in Digen Farris' time many good Channels committed suicide because of bad transfers. It was back then too that the process of pairing Channel and Companion together, just like in the old days had begun to be openly discussed. And once the new drugs began to appear, that made Transfer dependency a thing of the past, new rules and guidelines began to be laid down. Oh, it was not exactly perfect even now, but it was well on the way. Things were improving all the time.

Avon began talking again. 'Now I am not going to say we and the Tecton haven't worked well together on occasion. But you don't need me to tell you how they can get up your nose sometimes. Always pushing it down our throats that they're so much shenning better than we are.' Avon snorted derisively.

'Well, much as I hate to admit it Avon, in some ways they are.' Jason conceded wryly. 'They're fasten, stronger and...'

'Yeah well, maybe. Anyway the Government can deny it all they like, but it still means that rivalry is rife in practically every walk of life, you know that.' Jason nodded, everyone knew it existed, but no one admitted it.

'You know they tried pairing us up together once. Didn't work out, any fool could have told them that. They made us feel like we were only half men, pushing us out of the way when there was any danger.'

'But that's what they do. It's practically bred into them to take care of the Gens.' Jason grinned.

'Huh, they just want the glory if you ask me.' Avon muttered.

'No, you're wrong there.' Jason stated. 'But it's a cultural difference that you'll never understand. I wasn't brought up as one of them, but my time in the Tecton helped me to understand them a little, a very little, but that's all. I guess you'd need a lifetime to really get under the surface. Which is why I got out.' He admitted ruefully.

'I know what you mean. Anyway, some basic facts for you about Regis 9.' Avon suddenly stated, changing the subject. 'The planet itself is very similar to Earth, but has a far more temperate climate with no great extremes of temperature. There are mountains and valleys with rivers running through them. The ground is fertile. There are over 15,000 adult Gen Colonists male and female, some who are married and have children, some who don't. Many do not live in the Settlements, but are scattered around the planet. Oh, and Regis 9 has two satellites by the way.'

Avon paused and then went on. 'The whole population of Regis 9 is anti-technology. Which means even ploughs are horse drawn. The only transportation is by horse and cart. There is no machinery of any kind, and that includes computers, at least as far as the Gens are concerned. Even everyday communication is either face to face, or by letter.'

'By letter? Do you mean with pen and paper?' Avon nodded. Jason was surprised, he had not realised they took the concept of "back to basics" so literally. 'Now you also have to remember that the only communication they have with the outside world is by Interstellar Communications.

There are just two facilities on the planet. The Gens have one, which they only use in emergencies, which apparently covers a planet wide epidemic or a natural disaster, and the Simes have the other one, they probably use theirs all the time to communicate with Earth.'

'Now as far as the Simes are concerned. We think there are approximately 5000 of them, not counting any that might have changed over since they have been on the planet. And of course we don't know how many more, if any, have arrived there since. The Gens are, in the main, distributed between 5 outposts. The Simes are stationed at Outpost Numbers 1, 3 and 5. They monitor the children for changeovers, and they also run schools, have medical centres, and are engaged in various research projects that we know nothing about. All Sime children live with their parents and return to the school for their education, along with the Gen children. That's all we really know about the whole set up.'

'Do you think the Simes on Regis 9 are involved in drug trafficking?' Jason asked bluntly.

'No. We don't believe they are involved in any way at all. But you can assess the situation yourself once you are on the ground. It's always best to go into these things with no preconceived ideas.' Avon informed him. 'The good thing is that you are able to go in as yourself, no cover story, and therefore no lies for you to remember, or to be found out.'

'The Simes have their own intelligence section you know. Have you approached the Tecton Investigation Bureau about any of this?' Jason asked.

'No.' Avon scratched his bald head. 'To be truthful we don't know how much the TIB know. Maybe nothing, we certainly haven't told them anything ourselves.'

Jason was surprised. 'Why not tell them? They might well be able to help, you'd be surprised what Simes, especially Channels are capable of, why they can...' 'Exactly.' Avon interrupted abruptly. 'Isn't that just what I've been saying? They're too damn clever, and don't the bastards just know it too!' He grimaced with distaste. 'We have our own way of gathering information without their help. They'd take over the whole operation if we took our eyes off the ball for one moment.'

'But why don't the TIS ever co-operate or share information?' Jason asked in surprise. After all, it was one thing to feel disgruntled about their general attitude, but this was completely different.

Avon laughed harshly. 'You've got to be joking. We're in direct competition with them, and don't you forget it. The World Government would just love to close one of us down, they are always looking for ways to save money, and they aren't particularly bothered which one of us it is either, our jobs are on the line here. We're just as good as the TIB, no matter what propaganda they put out, just you remember that Jason.'

'Yes N'vet Avon.' Jason knew where Avon was coming from. A lot of the Simes, especially the Channels, did have that smug superior attitude about them, especially towards Gens. Which might be acceptable to Tecton raised Gens. But to Gens like Avon, it smacked of patronisation. Jason also admitted, if only to himself, that there had been occasions when he would have taken great delight in smacking some of them on the nose. The trouble was, he would never have been quick enough to do so. He smiled ruefully.

Avon began to listen to the latest newscast, and Jason leaned back and closed his eyes. While he had been living and working at the Tecton Headquarters many small things had annoyed him. They did seem to treat Gens like children, well that wasn't strictly true perhaps, but they were damn well over protective. Hell, Gens weren't even allowed to drive land speeders or fly flitters! Jason realised that it was that sort of attitude, as much as the warning he had received, that had decided him to get out. He had often wondered what would have happened if he had stayed in, but being brutally honest, it was a decision he had never really regretted making. Especially after he had taken a Tecton flitter out, and had been duly carpeted for it, and the Sime who had disciplined him, had been even younger than he was!

Five weeks to the day from his meeting with Helma Vestii, Jason stepped off the Shuttle on to Luna Base 3. He wore a well fitting one piece black jumpsuit. His chestnut hair had been trimmed, but the curls still nestled against his neck, the way he preferred it. He carried a small duffel bag over one shoulder; his other belongings would be transferred to the freighter that would be ferrying him to Regis 9.

Looking around at the strange surroundings, Jason felt the excitement deep inside him. He was about to make his first trip into real space. Oh, not as an engineer yet, but give it time, he would make it now. And in the meantime life had a new purpose and meaning, a reason to get up in the morning. It was just such an incentive that had been missing before. This was how life was meant to be a challenge! He hitched the bag more securely onto his shoulder, and lengthened his step.

He passed several aliens and tried not to stare, but it was hard, because it was all new to him, and he was seeing so many things for the first time. He grinned at one of the female security guards, and he knew without conceit that she had turned to watch his progress down the wide Mall. He hadn't lost the touch. He might not be the most handsome man on Earth; but then again he wasn't the ugliest either.

Then a Sime was striding towards him accompanied by Gen; they had that curious affinity that immediately spelled Channel and Companion to Jason. Shen, but they exuded arrogance, even if they didn't intend too. Suddenly he found his eyes drawn to the black ones of the Sime, and knew that he was being zlinned, in that curious way that Simes read the interweaving fields around them, that gave them a greater range of clarity than mere eyes ever could. No wonder Gens felt that Simes were superior to them, even though they would fight with their dying breath to deny that they felt any such thing.

It was a strange dichotomy, that two men both human, one Gen, who produced selyn, the essence of life itself for the Sime. One Sime who had tentacles to enable him to take that essence from the Gen. Two halves of one whole, perfectly balanced by nature that both should survive, and only now were they beginning to start to live together with any sort of harmony. Yet, even after centuries, the deep-seated prejudice between them still existed. Might always exist, who knew for sure? It was perhaps the nature of man.

Jason frowned slightly. Yes, even he, who was intelligent enough to know better, still felt resentment. He shrugged the feeling off angrily as he dismissed it from his mind.

He looked around; Luna Base 3 certainly lived up to his wildest expectations and more. The plastic and chrome domes that interconnected with each other were even bigger than he had envisaged, and he marvelled at the engineering feat that had brought it into being. Bases 1 and 2 were built on similar lines he knew, acres and acres spread across the Moon's surface.

He was so taken up with everything, that it was several minutes before he realised he was being paged. As instructed he made his way to Bay XI to find a short and very round human Gen awaiting him.

'Sosu Devere? Follow me please.'

He followed his escort, who set off at a fast pace, leaving Jason to weave in and out of both people and baggage to keep up. Then the man stopped suddenly and Jason nearly ran into him.

'The connection tube to The Juggernaut is straight ahead of you Sosu. Have a safe journey.' And just as quickly, he was gone again.

A Sime smartly dressed in uniform moved passed him, but then turned to give him a double take before walking through the tube to disappear. Jason sighed, of course, no wonder Simes were zlinning him, he had forgotten to have his field taken down. The one who had just gone on board must be the Astrogator, and he knew he was a channel, only a Second as far as he was aware, but he would be able to take Jason's donation. And if he did not get it taken care of soon he would irritate every Sime he came into contact with, and that, if nothing else, simply wasn't good manners.

Jason turned to stare through the clear plastic side of the Dome at the huge cargo ship moored alongside. The Juggernaut was a good name for her.

He also noticed that it was joined to the inside of the Base by a huge expanding tube. Somehow it reminded him of an umbilical cord, and he wondered idly how long it would be before he would be cutting all links with his home world, and everything so familiar to him, to head out into the vastness of space. The thought was rather terrifying.

 

CHAPTER TWO

Vidal Trent stood at the entrance to the Gym and watched his partner Gavin Dar pumping iron. His Gen muscles rippled and his body gleamed with sweat. 'I'd say you've done enough for today,' he called across, and grinned as Gavin acknowledged his words and standing up walked over to accept the towel that the Channel was holding out to him. 'Take a quick shower, we've got a meeting with Sam Betjeman in half an hour.'

Twenty-eight minutes later the two men entered Sam Betjeman's office. The middle-aged man was fat for a Sime, and if one could not see his forearms, he could well have been mistaken for a Gen.

'Take a seat. Trin?' Both men accepted the offer as they waited for their Controller to tell them why they had been called in on one of their off days. The tea poured into the glasses and resting before them, Sam grinned across at them. 'Did you read up on Regis 9 as I asked you Vidal?' The Channel nodded his head, his thick black hair moving slightly, as his equally black eyes narrowed in speculation. He was often mistaken for Farris, but as far as he was aware he did not have one Farris gene in his body and neither did he belong to one of the ancient Houses, unlike Gavin, who most certainly did.

'It's come to a head.' The Sime informed him. 'Did you tell Gavin about it?' 'Just a brief outline. Now it's on the agenda I'll let him have all the files.' Vidal glanced commiseratingly at his partner, knowing the amount of reading that was involved, for the Gen was not an academic by nature, but believed far more in the old adage, that actions speak louder than words.

'Thanks a bunch.' Gavin rubbed a kink out of his neck as he watched Betjeman's tentacles dance between his fingers. As head of the department at the Tecton Investigation Bureau he was responsible for fielding over two dozen tied pair operatives, mainly Channel/Gen. Although Gavin knew of at least one couple who were renSime/Gen. Sam had a heavy responsibility on his shoulders.

'Apparently our "friends" at Terran Intelligence are also sending someone to Regis 9.' He informed them with a touch of irony in his voice.

'Why are the TIS interested?' Vidal asked in surprise.

Sam shrugged. 'We think it's just a coincidence, but we could be wrong. You'll have to keep an eye open in case they're changing their strategy and are trying to get involved in our side of things. Problem is, I can't give you any details about who they are sending, except it's not one of their regulars. He or she might already be there for all I know, and if they are nosing into our affairs, they could cause you one hell of a lot of trouble, so just take care, both of you. '

'Will the Tomar be dropping us off at Regis 9?' Gavin asked as he replaced his empty glass.

'Yes. She's waiting for you at Luna Base 3. Kelvan's your pilot as usual.' The renSime informed them, then turning to Vidal he handed him a Computer Disk. 'Just make sure that is returned to me when you've both seen it, we wouldn't want it to get into the wrong hands. It should tell you all you need to know about this mission, but if you've any queries, you know where I am. Oh, and here's an Official Tecton Order, you might find it useful. Good luck.' As soon as he had dismissed them, he swivelled his chair around and stared out of the window.

It was gone midnight when Gavin finally stood up and stretched his arms above his head. 'I thought I'd never get through all that stuff. Mind you I don't know how much I'll actually remember.' He admitted wryly.

Vidal walked over to the long window and stared out at the black night and the pouring rain the Moon just visible through the clouds. 'Don't worry, I'll remember for you. You know Gavin I can't believe this is really happening on Regis 9. Dammit it's like going back to the Ages of Chaos.'

'Stop it Vid. Can you just hear yourself? Of course it's not as bad as that.' The Gen stated firmly, as he ran a hand through his short brown hair. 'Why are Gens so bloody optimistic all the time? Do you realise, if only half of that report is correct, what it really means?' The Channel demanded moving to stand over his partner.

'Yeah, I know as well as you what it means.' Gavin stated as he looked up. Both men were slim, but Vidal at six foot, although only a couple of inches taller than the Gen, always managed to look so much bigger than he actually was. 'Look, worst case scenario. We'll find a situation on Regis 9 that is totally at odds with present day Earth. But it is a Colony Vid; it's not Earth! And it won't be the first time this sort of thing has happened. Look back in recent history. Twenty years ago. Remember the Mining incident on Ganymede Station? Okay it was hushed up, but we all know what was going on there, don't we?'

The Channel nodded a bleak expression on his face. 'It just doesn't seem possible that we never seem to learn. What makes people act like they do Gavin?' 'Search me.' He answered honestly. 'But that's what we're here for isn't it? Just think how much worse it would be if we weren't here.' He forced a grin onto his face. 'Look, I know what's wrong with you; we should have had transfer hours ago, but we were stuck in Betjeman's office. Things will look totally different afterwards, you know that, they always do.'

'Yeah.' Vidal said grudgingly. 'The trouble is I just don't think it'll be a good transfer while I feel like this. Let's leave it till tomorrow morning just before we leave. We'll both be on top form then.'

Gavin sighed. He often wondered why the Channel insisted on forcing the unnecessary discipline on himself, or if it was some sort of masochistic ritual that made his partner on occasion behave like this. But he had always deferred to Vidal's decision in the past, and would probably do so in the future. After all, as a closed unit, they operated autonomously, and could take transfer when they chose.

If they were true Channel and Companion, like in the old days of the Households, he would have called a Companion's Demand on Vidal, to take transfer tonight, and he would have had to heed the request. However, even though he was Gavin ambrov Dar of the House of Dar, which was now an honorary title only, his partner most assuredly was not a Householder, so with a brief nod he conceded to Vidal's decision. And a short time later surrendered himself into the arms of Morpheus. A million questions regarding their latest assignment still unanswered in his mind.

The day was well advanced when they alighted from the Shuttle on Luna Base 3. The Tomar they already knew was berthed at the end of the Sector they were now on, and Vidal set off at a steady pace with Gavin keeping up with him easily. They had had their transfer early that morning and Vidal felt on top form, except for that small niggle inside that always seemed to say that it could be better. He pushed the thought to one side; he felt he was being disloyal to Gavin who always gave him his all. The trouble was it just wasn't enough. Dammit no one ever got perfection. At least, very few were so privileged. He found himself zlinning a stray Gen who was striding passed him. He was about the same height as Gavin, and possibly the same age. His hair was longer than fashion dictated, but it was none of these things that had drawn his attention. 'You know him?' Gavin demanded suddenly, aware of his inattention, and that Vidal was zlinning.

'No. But his nager!' He grinned down at his friend as he dodged around a pile of boxes and strode on; knowing that Gavin was aware that the nager he spoke of was the halo of light that to Sime senses surrounded a Gen's body when it was replete with Selyn. In some ways it was criminal for Gen's to walk around in such a condition, he should have donated his Selyn before it rose to such a level; even Gen's who wanted nothing to do with Simes, knew it was only courteous to donate regularly.

The problem of course was simple. Gens from Earth had long forgotten that Simes once killed for selyn, the elixir of life itself, and still would if provoked enough. Vidal felt his tentacles move restlessly in their sheaths as he wondered what it must have been like for Simes to wear retainers on their wrists as they had once had to do in public, because Gens had been so frightened of them, and with good cause. Back then the only Gens who were not afraid, were those skilled Gens who became Donors, and in some cases, in the ancient Houses, Companions to the top Channels.

Vidal pondered on what it must have been like to have a Gen as a Companion, a matchmate, one whose selyn production rate precisely matched one's consumption rate. For a moment he thought he really understood what the term "kill bliss" might have meant to those Simes of old. For although the Channels did not kill their Companion's when they had transfer, what they did get from them was as good as any "kill". Vidal had never really experienced that.

Thankfully Channels were no longer pushed to achieve higher and higher levels of capacity. Some of course, with Farris genes were naturally high, often 4+ on their first transfer, without even trying. However, others who were not so endowed, were left to live their lives without having to struggle to find a Gen who matched them. Vidal himself had been rated years ago as 3.96. Gavin was a close enough match. But he often wondered if his rating had crept up, because he was not getting the same satisfaction from his partner that he used to enjoy. He pushed the unwelcome thought to the back of his mind to be thought about later, when he had more time on his hands.

The Tomar was in its usual berth and both men made their way to the Bridge. Kelvan, the Captain, turned from the Star Maps he had been studying and nodded a brief greeting. 'I've allocated you the same cabin as last time. I understand your things have already arrived and have been stowed. I want to leave in the next hour, any problem with that?'

'No. That's fine by us, isn't it Vid?' Gavin glanced at his partner who, with his hands resting on the front bulkhead, was staring at the view screen. Without turning around, two dorsal tentacles emerged elegantly from the orifices near the Channel's wrist, and waved a silent agreement to his friend.

Later that evening they were both settled in their cabin, and The Tomar was on it's way at Regis 9. Gavin was eating his way through a mountain of food, whilst Vidal chewed absently on a piece of plain biscuit. He had not really wanted anything to eat at all. For whilst food fed the Gen body, selyn sustained the Sime. But some vitamins were necessary and Vidal always made the effort, often using the Gen's appetite to stimulate his own.

'Before we approach any of the Sime Centres Gavin I want to have a good look at the Gen Settlements.'

'Do you want to go in initially as Sime or Gen?' He bit into his third slice of nut bread.

'Gen I guess. We'll get more answers that way.'

Gavin nodded. 'It hardly seems fair. I couldn't go in amongst Simes and not be spotted straight away, even if I was inside a box.' He said with a laugh, as he disposed of a large bowl of stewed fruit and yogurt.

Vidal smiled wryly. 'But it's no pleasure wearing spray skin to cover these.' He indicated the orifices near his wrist. Keeping my tentacles sheathed all the time is a hard discipline too, after all, I don't usually even think about them. Imagine Gav, if you had an itchy nose, you'd automatically scratch it with your finger. Right? Now think, if you can't use that finger but had to use say, your wrist, because your fingers are hidden, how would that feel?'

The Gen conceded the point wryly. 'I suppose put that way.' He picked up his tray and carried it to the disposal unit. Yawning he moved to stretch the kinks out of his muscular body. 'I think I'll leave you to it. I'm off to bed. See you in the morning, and don't sit there all night you do need some sleep, you're not superhuman you know, even if you like to think you are!'

During the whole journey the Channel spent the time reading and appeared to be totally relaxed; whilst for Gavin time dragged by. Each day as long as a week. Vidal knew it was no good suggesting he read a visi-novel, or challenge him to a game of Chess, he had no interest in either. He just had to leave him to his own devices. Which usually involved exercising, as well as he was able in their cabin, or jogging around the passages of The Tomar...

Then just as Gavin felt he was going stir crazy staring at the dull metal walls for hours on end, exercising, or trying to sleep. Kelvan informed them that they were entering orbit around Regis 9.

Both men donned brown trousers and work shirts of the type that was worn by the colonists. The Doctor applied the spray skin to Vidal's forearms, it breathed and allowed the natural hairs to grow through it, and the long sleeves of the shirt were buttoned loosely around his wrists. The skin was waterproof, but his tentacles could break out through it quite easily in an emergency. To the Channel it felt like he was wearing a soft warm towel wrapped around his arms, and was quite comfortable, if restrictive. The only real drawback was that his Sime senses were virtually non-existent.

Customs, health checks and all necessary paperwork had to be completed before they were allowed to set foot on the planet. When the small shuttle did finally descend to the surface, the landing strip was almost deserted save for a young woman standing beside a pony and trap.

Carrying their bags the two men approached her, and she smiled as she spoke. 'Hello there, welcome to Regis 9. Toss your things into the back. I'm on my way to Sector 3, Gabriel said you would be needing a lift.'

'Yes, we're grateful. This is Gavin Dar, and I'm Vidal Trent.'

'Stella Robinson. Pleased to meet you both. Are you intending to settle here?' She smiled into Gavin's brown eyes and he found himself blushing furiously. 'Perhaps. We're taking a look at all the settlements, and we might even look at one or two of the other Colonies before we finally decide.' Vidal stated. Which he thought would explain why they did not stay in one place for long, and give them a reason to move around the planet.

'Have you had any experience farming?' She asked, as the trap moved slowly off. 'Or do either of you happen to be a Doctor?'

'Doctor? I understood you have more than one Sime facility on the planet, why do you need a Doctor?' Gavin demanded at once.

Most people prefer using herbs rather than going to them for doctoring.' She informed them bluntly.

'Why's that?' Vidal pressed, catching Gavin's eyes, and raising his own eyebrows in surprise.

'You'll find out soon enough. Ask my Dad or Gabriel, he'll tell you.'

'Yes, I will.' The Channel replied and turned to look at the thick green undergrowth, leaving Gavin to talk to the girl. She was obviously in her early twenties, no older, short and slim with long blonde hair tied back with a blue scarf that matched her blue dress, and she had grey eyes. Her arms and legs were bare and she had no makeup on her lovely face, and needed none. Vidal also perceived that she had recently donated, which meant that the Settlement had some contact at least with their Sime neighbours.

The Settlement soon came into sight. It was surrounded by a high wooden fence, with wide gates at the front, which were standing open.

As Stella manoeuvred the trap inside the gates and stopped, a thick set older man approached them. He was obviously used to hard work.

'Dad, I picked these men up from the landing site.' Stella called out as she jumped down. 'This is my father Dan Robinson.'

Vidal and Gavin introduced themselves. 'Are the Settlements all like this one?' Vidal enquired, looking around with interest.

'No. This was the first one to be settled on Regis 9; even though we call it number 3. To be honest we had no idea what to expect when we arrived, so the fence seemed a wise precaution. We have since discovered thankfully, that it is not necessary, and one day we will remove it, but we have other priorities at the moment. Do you intend to settle here?'

'We have yet to decide. Tell me, is there an Inn or Tavern where we could obtain rooms?' Vidal asked.

'There's a Tavern, but it doesn't rent rooms. But, we do have a hospitality cottage. It's free to anyone who comes with thoughts of staying. Perhaps we can persuade you to settle here.' He chuckled as the two men thanked him.

'You must come and eat with us tonight.' Stella insisted as she smiled up at Gavin, and her father agreed at once.

'Two things Stella. We're both vegetarian.' Gavin informed her before Vidal could speak. 'Say if that's going to give you a problem, and poor old Vidal's been suffering with a mild stomach upset, so you'll have to forgive him, if he doesn't eat much.' He winked at Vidal as he spoke.

'No problems, but I do have some herbs that might help you.' She said sympathetically to Vidal, as her Father lead the pony and trap away down the street.

'I have already taken something.' Vidal assured her at once.

'Good. As far as meat is concerned Gavin. It's a luxury on Regis 9. We have milking cows, goats and chickens, but that's all. So meat is a real delicacy.' She led them to the Cottage. 'That is our house over there, the one with the yellow flowers outside. Please, feel free to come over as soon as you wish.' 'Glad you thought about the food.' Vidal said as he closed the front door behind them. The cottage was small. It had one main room with facilities for cooking and eating combined, and a back door. One bathroom with very basic facilities, and three bedrooms leading off the main room.

'What do you think of Stella?' Gavin asked as he opened one of the bedroom doors and tossed his bags onto the bed.

'Attractive. But please, try and remember why we're here.' The Channel said with a sigh of resignation.

'Of course. But there's nothing wrong with mixing business and pleasure.' Gavin replied. 'You have, on occasion. But not lately, now I think about it, nothing wrong is there?' He asked, suddenly putting his donor's hat on. Sexual deprivation, could be a sign of deeper problems in a Channel.

'No of course not.' He could hardly tell Gavin that their transfers were inadequate, could he? He would discuss it with a therapist when they got back home. 'We must find out from the Robinson's why they don't use the Sime medical facilities. Yet they both make regular donations, as does everyone else here, unless I am mistaken. The ambient nager of the entire Settlement is extremely low.'

Gavin disappeared into the bathroom as Vidal entered the second bedroom. Half an hour later the two men closed the cottage door and crossed the road to their host's house.

Having forced the soup down, Vidal refused the fruit tart that was offered, and turned to Dan Robinson. 'Do we have to go to the Sime Centre to donate?' He asked casually.

'No, they come here.' The older man stated. 'If you take my advice son, you'll stay well away from the Sime Centre.'

'Oh. Why's that Dan? I've always found that the medical services the Simes offer are excellent.' Vidal said, his eyebrows raised.

'When we first got here, they were. Then things started to change. I don't know when we first noticed. It was one of those things that just seemed to creep up on you. Practically everyone who went there got worse and many died, more than you'd expect.' He informed them.

'Mr. Haynes, he's a teacher, but he's good with statistics, reckons three times more people died than you'd expect.' Stella interrupted. 'What about the changeovers?' Gavin asked.

'A lot have died of complications. Some of us went and spoke to the head Channel, he told us that they were doing their best, but in a backwater like this, we couldn't expect miracles. Perhaps he's right.'

'Does this apply to the other Settlements as well, or just this one?' Vidal queried with a quick glance at his partner.

'Well I can't really say. We have upwards of 15,000 Gen settlers on this planet, mostly distributed between the 5 main Settlements. Some have struck out on their own of course. And there are some 5,000 plus Simes. This is the smallest Settlement, and being the first, we've always monitored things quite thoroughly I suppose. The other Settlements just don't have the time, so I can't give you an answer to that, wish I could.' Dan Robinson scratched his head before he went on. 'Could be we're just unlucky with the Simes we've got I guess. Don't let me put you off now. This is a good place to settle. By the way, are either of you married?'

'Not yet, no.' Vidal replied.

'Well.' His voice dropped an octave. 'We have some real pretty women here, pioneer women, most are on the look out for hard working husbands like you fellows.'

'Dad, stop it. You'll give them the wrong idea about us. No man likes to feel he's being chased does he Gavin?' She looked up at him from under her lashes openly flirting with him.

A short time later, Vidal stood up. 'I think we'll call it a night Mr. Robinson, it's been a long day.'

'Yes of course. And please, it's Dan, not Mr. Robinson. Makes me feel ancient.' 'Well what did you make of all that?' Gavin asked as they arrived back at the cottage.

'I don't like it Gavin. I don't like it at all. There's more going on here, than even Sam Betjeman thinks there is.' Vidal stated as he undressed and then peeled off the spray skin. 'You'll have to give me a hand to replace this in the morning. I should keep it on, but it always takes time for me to get used to the damn stuff.'

Gavin nodded as he heated water for a glass of trin before turning in. 'Stella is frightened to even talk about the Sime Centre. I was watching her face while you and her Dad were talking. How do you propose to handle this?'

'There are only the two of us. We'll just have to concentrate on this Settlement first, and the Sime Centre. If we find anything wrong, we'll have to decide about the other Centres on the basis of that. There is no point in spreading ourselves too thin on the ground. We'll find out nothing at all if we do that.' Vidal retorted. 'First we'll take a good look around, speak to a few people, see if they corroborate Dan's story. If they do.' He paused.

'Yes, if they do?' Gavin pressed, as he carried the glasses of trin to the table.

'Thanks I've been looking forward to this. I'm glad we brought some tea leaves with us.'

'We didn't need to bother, there's some in the cupboard, but don't get off the point Vid. Answer the question.'

'Okay. The answer is quite simple. I'll go into the Centre as an Official, tell them I've just arrived from Earth to visit all the Centres. Spot checks or something. Then I'll nose around a bit and try and find out what is going on. If I can't find anything, then you'll have to arrive with a mystery illness. We'll have to think up some symptoms that might defeat them for a while.'

'If their Channels are as incompetent as Dan says they are, I should be able to fool them quite for some time.' Gavin grinned.

Vidal stretched his tentacles with obvious relief, and then picked up the glass of trin and cradled it between them, before he spoke. 'It might be dangerous. I'll have to keep a close eye on you in the Centre.'

'Dangerous? In what way dangerous?' His partner demanded.

'Gav, I don't want to say anything yet. I may be chasing rainbows, and quite honestly I don't want to give you nightmares.' He confessed with a tight smile. 'Now you have got me worried.'

'You trust me?'

'Implicitly.'

'Good. Let's leave it there for now.'

Gavin woke at dawn to the sound of cocks crowing. 'Dammit, someone should strangle them.' He muttered as he rolled out of bed and made his way towards the bathroom. Vidal was already up and dressed.

'Give me a hand with this spray when you come out will you? We don't know if anyone will call on us, they seem to make an early start in this community. I heard people on the move half an hour ago.'

Once they had applied the spray to Vidal's arms, Gavin got breakfast and they sat down to eat bowls of cooked oats with milk and honey. Vidal had less than an ounce at the bottom of his dish. But before they had started, there was knock on the door, and Gavin called for who ever was there to come in.

Dan entered followed by a young muscular and extremely good looking Gen, dressed in a black jumpsuit, whose chestnut curls nestled into the nape of his neck. Green eyes swept the room before coming to rest on the food on the table. 'I hope you don't mind. We have another potential Settler, he arrived by freighter, from Earth, a short while ago. I thought he could have the spare bedroom. Goes by the name of Jason Devere.' Dan informed them as he introduced the men to each other.

'I trust I'm not imposing.' The Gen murmured. 'Say if I am, I can always camp outside somewhere. I'm quite used to fending for myself.'

'Please, you are more than welcome to stay here, we ourselves are only guests after all.' Vidal said. ' Wont you sit down and have some breakfast.' He indicated a chair, as Gavin fetched another bowl of oats and placed it in front of him.

'I've got some maps of the area at home.' Dan informed them. 'Call over at the house later if you want to see them.'

As the door closed behind him, Gavin pointed to the empty bedroom. 'That's your room. But eat first before you unpack.'

'Thanks, and call me Jason.' He poured a liberal amount of honey onto the oats and picked up a spoon. 'Have you been here long?' He had the strange feeling that he had seen both these men before, but he had no idea where. But he could be mistaken for they hadn't shown any recognition of him, by either word or look, and why should prospective settlers need to practice subterfuge? This spying game was starting to get to him. He would be seeing bogey men around every corner if he wasn't careful.

'We arrived yesterday.' Vidal informed him.

'What's your first impression?' Jason asked.

'The people we've met so far are friendly. But we haven't yet had a chance to look around, so we've decided to reserve judgement.' Gavin replied with a grin. 'Now, if you will excuse us. I think we'll make an early start. Perhaps we'll catch up with you this evening.' Vidal smiled as he stood up.

They left the house and began to cross the road to the Robinson's house, when Gavin stopped. 'He was on Luna Base 3.'

'Yes he was. But I'm glad he didn't remember us. After all I was zlinning him at the time! Apart from that, where else would he leave from but Luna Base, if he was coming here?'

'You don't think it's suspicious? Sam did say that the TIS might be involved.' 'He also said that he or she might be on the planet already. We mustn't start jumping at shadows Gavin. Potential settlers must come here all the time. However, we will keep an eye on Jason Devere.'

CHAPTER THREE

Jason, having washed, and changed into Jeans and an open neck shirt, left the house shortly after Vidal and Gavin. Then following the directions given to him by Dan Robinson, he made his way to Gabriel's house. A thin black woman was hanging out a string of washing, and stood up to watch him as he approached.

'Good morning. The Robinsons said I would find Gabriel Standish here.' He smiled openly.

'He's already out in the fields with the boys. I'm Margaret, his wife, can I help?'

'I'm thinking of settling here, and I understand Mr. Standish is head man of the Settlement. I thought I could have a talk with him, get his views about the place.' Jason replied.

'Well, he'll certainly help you there. Talk the hind leg off a donkey given half a chance.' She chuckled. 'Just go out the gate over there, turn left at the big white tree, then follow your nose.'

He saw the three figures bobbing up and down in the field long before he got into hailing range. Gabriel Standish was as big as his wife was thin, but what had once been fat, had through hard work, turned to muscle long ago. He stood up and wiped his brow as he heard Jason's call.

'N'vet Standish? Your wife said I would find you here. I'm Jason Devere.'

'Gabe to you, though we use the Genlan Mister around here. I take it you've just arrived from the home planet, thinking of settling are you?' He smiled a welcome.

'Yes. I understand you're the headman. Can you spare a few minutes to answer a few questions?'

'Anytime, let's sit down over there. Get back to work you two. Just because I'm taking a break is no need for you to take advantage.' He yelled across at the two boys, who were standing up to watch them.

'Your sons?' Jason asked.

He nodded proudly as he lead the way to where they could sit down on the hard ground. He grabbed a handful of the rich black loam from beside him. 'You won't find a better place for crops anywhere in the Galaxy.' He boasted. 'Grow anything in this you can, I guarantee.' He crushed the large clod and let it trickle through his fingers.

'I'm sure you're right. But I wanted to ask you about something else. I was brought up on a farm. Later I'll probably want to settle down onto the land again, but I'm also an engineer. I thought I might start a small business repairing farm machinery or anything else that might need fixing. I can always make any parts we haven't already got here, without having to wait for them to be shipped here from off World.'

Gabriel's eyes gleamed brightly. 'You're an answer to prayers. We've been needing someone to do just that for years now. There's several small outfits started up in the other Settlements, but none out here. We have to take anything we need fixing down to them, they don't make house calls.' He observed with a wide grin. 'It's the best news I've heard in a long time. I can show you a few places where you could get started, and arrange for some of the folks around here to give you a hand setting up your workshop.' He enthused.

Jason interrupted him. It was all going far too quickly for his liking. He didn't want to get bogged down in building work; he'd never have a chance to look around if he did. 'Gabe that's fine, but I need to have a look around first. Find my feet, speak to a few people. But I'll take you up on your offer later, okay?'

'Fine, just say the word when you're ready. Now if I'm not mistaken that's my Margaret coming with our midday meal, you'll stay for a bite to eat wont you?' At the end of the day Jason had walked many miles, spoken to quite a few farmers, and studied the crops he could see growing in the fields. He had seen nothing that could be called even vaguely suspicious. He needed to hire a pony and trap, something to enable him to get further afield. If the drug was produced around here, there would need to be buildings where it could be refined and packed for transport. It would take some careful planning to ship large amounts off world, especially to somewhere like Earth. The sort of operation he was envisaging would be big, and not easy to hide.

Making his way back to the cottage, he saw Stella Robinson standing outside her house. She waved to him, and he waved back. Minutes later he stopped beside her. 'Had a good day?' She asked and he nodded.

'Yes, but I'd like to look further afield. You don't know where I might hire a buggy or something?'

'No, I'm afraid not. We don't have a great deal of transport, and what we do have is always needed. I can get you a horse.'

'I don't ride.' Jason confessed sheepishly. It seemed ridiculous in this farming community to admit that coming from a similar background himself, he had only been on a horse once, and having been thrown off, had never tried again. She would no doubt think him a total wimp!

'There's not very much to it.' She informed him with a smile. 'I could show you if you'd like?'

'To be honest horses and I just don't seem to go together. But, if there's no other way of getting around - there isn't anything mechanical I suppose, like a cycle?' He asked eagerly.

'Sorry.' She shook her golden head and shrugged. 'We only have a few tracks and no roads yet. A cycle wouldn't be much use would it?'

'No, I guess not, well I'll have to take you up on your offer then.' Was he crazy?

'Fine. Come over after breakfast tomorrow I'll take you up to the stable. We'll find you something gentle to start with.' She promised.

He took her hand gently and pressed a kiss onto the back of it. 'Thanks Stella, you're an angel.'

'What the hell does he think he's doing?' Gavin demanded angrily as he trotted passed, and saw Stella blushing.

'He's thinks he is kissing her hand I believe.' Vidal retorted as his horse followed Gavin's towards the stables.

'Of course I can see WHAT he's doing! I want to know why?' Gavin muttered as he returned the wave the couple had sent him. Vidal thought it best to ignore him. Gavin tended to get very intense over his relationships.

They tended to the horses, and then returned to the cottage. Gavin immediately stomped into the bathroom, leaving Vidal alone with Jason, who was already back. 'I'm just boiling some water for pasta. Shall I do enough for all of us, or would you prefer something different?' The Gen asked, as he reached down the ingredients for the sauce.

'That's fine by us, thank you. Did you have an interesting day?'

'Extremely. But I want to look a bit further afield. Which unfortunately means I require transport, and apparently in these parts, that means a horse.'

'You have a problem with horses?' Vidal asked as he chopped the large red tomatoes. He had already surreptitiously inspected the mushrooms and decided they would be safe for him, as a Sime, to eat.

'I have a problem with them yes, and they have one with me. To be honest I can't ride, and the last time I tried, I got thrown.' He confessed, fully expecting to be laughed at. 'Stella has offered to introduce me to the most docile member of the stable, and give me a few pointers. If I can just stay on its back, that will be enough.' He gave a brief bark of self-derisory laughter.

'Being thrown from a horse can be extremely dangerous.' Vidal observed quietly. 'Is it really necessary that you ride, can't you hire a pony and trap?'

'No luck. I've already asked. Guess I have to face it, I'm a big boy now, I'll just have to learn. There can't be all that much to it. I just want to be able to amble along, not gallop, I'm not out to win a race.' Jason shrugged.

'Can I help?' Gavin entered the room at last.

'Lay the table will you?' Vidal suggested.

Jason stared at the small amount on Vidal's plate. 'Off your food?' He asked curiously, as he helped himself.

'I usually make lunch my main meal of the day. Never have liked going to bed on too full a stomach, but I made a bit of a pig of myself today.' He stated.

'That amount wouldn't keep a Sime alive.' Jason observed bluntly, and his two companions laughed their agreement. 'How far did you manage to get today?' 'Almost to the perimeter of the Sime Centre.' Vidal answered.

'Did you happen to notice what crops were growing in the fields you passed?' Jason enquired, trying not to appear too curious.

'What you'd expect. Corn, wheat, all types of vegetable. This climate seems to grow anything. We saw quite a few orchards too.' Vidal informed him.

'Much nearer to the Centre we saw herb fields. Dan Robinson told us that some of the farmers, and the Simes at the Centre, are trying out a few of the indigenous herbs too.' Gavin stated.

'They'll have to be careful. Did you see that Report a few months ago? A colony near here mixed some of the indigenous plants with others from home, they produced some sort of poisonous reaction. Quite a few of them died' Jason murmured, his interest suddenly alert. Indigenous herbs, might well be the plants he was looking for, he'd have to take a careful look at them tomorrow. 'I wonder if they have any chemists, who can make sure they don't create the same problem here?'

'I did hear something about it. But they broke one of the cardinal rules didn't they?' Vidal retorted. 'However, I understand there are several very qualified people in the other Settlements here, not counting the Sime scientists at the Centre of course.'

'Yes, but the Colonists don't seem to have much to do with the Sime Medical Centre do they? And as far as I'm aware they'd be the ones who have the best facilities and laboratories. It seems a bit stupid not to make use of them.' Jason mused.

'Agreed.' Vidal moved away from the table. 'Coffee or trin tea?'

'Coffee for me please.'

The tall dark human spooned the tea leaves into the pot as he put the jug on for coffee, watching carefully that it did not boil. The smell, if it did, would make him sick - literally.

'Don't bother with anything for me Vidal. I'm going over to see Stella.' Gavin said standing up. 'We're going for a walk, it's a nice evening.' He glanced at his partner who was trying to keep the smile from his sensitive lips. 'Well, I guess that just leaves you and me.' Jason observed as he accepted the coffee Vidal handed to him. 'I noticed a chess set in the cupboard over there. I don't suppose you happen to play?'

'I would appreciate a game.' Vidal said and removed the debris from the table, clearing a space for the board that Jason fetched across.

An hour later and Vidal knew he was playing against quite an expert. Two hours later and Jason called checkmate.

'I can see I shall need to brush up on my game.'

'I've played a lot against Computers. They keep you on your toes, don't give you any leeway for errors.' Jason replaced the board, and walked to the kitchen area. 'I'll wash, you can wipe.'

'Oh for civilisation and disposal units.' Vidal joked.

'I agree. But it does make a change to return to basics sometimes. Makes you appreciate what you've left behind.' Jason reminded him.

'True.'

'Is this your first time away from Earth?' Jason asked, as he put the dishes Vidal had wiped, away in the cupboards above the washing basin.

'No. We've been to a couple of other places. But we had no intention of settling at the time.'

'You and Gavin related?'

'No. Just friends. It's sometimes more convenient to travel with someone you know, rather than alone. You never know what you might encounter on a strange world.' Vidal stated with absolute honesty.

'Yeah, I can relate to that.' Jason was already wishing he had someone to talk to. It had all seemed so easy from the comfort of an office on Earth, but out here at the back of beyond. That was another story again. 'Well, I'm off to bed. Thanks again for the match. See you tomorrow. ' Jason watched with trepidation as Stella lead his amount out into the stable yard.

'Come and say a nice hello to Rosebud.' She called.

'Rosebud? THAT is Rosebud? You've got to be kidding Stella.'

'Now I realise she's quite big, but she really is a darling, and she hasn't got one nasty bone in her entire body. Come on it's no good standing over there is it? I'll show you how to saddle up tomorrow. Clarence had already got her saddled before we arrived.'

'That's all right. Putting a saddle on a horse was the first and only thing I ever learned.' He assured her, as his gaze traveled over the big old mare. 'You know, I've never seen anything quite so moth eaten as that!' He admitted wryly. 'Shush, she'll hear you. Do you want to hurt her feelings?' Stella demanded in a stage whisper.

'Sorry old girl.' He patted her neck, and then moved back quickly as the mare turned her head to look at him.

'Right, let's get you up on her back. Come round to this side.'

After two attempts Jason finally managed to get up into the saddle, with his feet in the stirrups, that Stella had altered for him.

'Comfortable?'

'Relatively.'

'Good, hold the reins like this, that's it, just relax there's no need to grip them so hard. Now I've got a leading rein on you, you're going to walk around in a circle. No Jason, you have to move with the horse, not against it. That's better, much better. Hello Gavin, Vidal.' She called out.

Jason twisted in the saddle to watch the two men walk into the stable.

'Look to the front not behind you. That's better. See there's nothing to it. Just relax and...what the!'

Jason found himself sailing through the air to land on his back on the hard ground. 'Shit!' He bit off the expletive as the air whooshed out of his lungs. Almost at once Vidal, who was following Gavin into the stable yard, had dismounted and was beside him, helping him to rise, his hands feeling for broken bones.

'I'm all right. It's just my damn pride that's hurt that's all.' Jason stressed as he dusted himself off. 'What happened?'

'Gavin's horse nipped Rosebud on the rump I'm afraid, and being a lady she took umbrage and tossed you off. Are you sure you're not hurt?' Stella asked with a worried frown.

Jason nodded, as Gavin got his horse under control, and trotted over. 'Sorry about that, it happened so quickly.' He said, but Jason thought he didn't look or sound very sorry.

'Get Banjo out of here Gavin.' Stella ordered quickly. 'You too Vidal. Do you want to try again now Jason, or wait till tomorrow?'

'Now. Just hold her still for me will you Stella?'

Two hours later Jason rode the big mare out of the stable yard. He could already feel all the bruises he had sustained from the tumble. He also had a dull ache in his own rump, not counting the sore spots on his thighs where his skin was rubbing against the saddle. He stifled a sigh. He hated horses, he hated riding, and most of all he hated Rosebud. What a damn stupid name for a huge creature like this! The mare snorted and tossed her head, as though she knew what he was thinking.

One thing was certain. He was not going to get very far from the Settlement today. In fact, for two straws he would as soon call it quits now and go and have a long hot bath. After all, only masochists enjoyed horse riding didn't they? He'd always thought that, and now he was damn well sure!

Then there was that idiot Gavin, he'd been laughing at him, the silly oaf. It wouldn't surprise him if he'd told his horse to bite Rosebud. Yes, now that was quite possible.

Three miles from the Settlement, he managed to get Rosebud to stop. It didn't take much effort from him to achieve this, it seemed that Rosebud much preferred to stand and crop the grass, than amble across the field.

Of course the only problem now was how to get Rosebud to start moving again, and then turn around and go back the way they had come. A task that was far easier said than done, he decided half an hour later, when he had kicked her flanks, with no success at all. Well then, logically, the only thing he could do was to dismount and lead the mare back home. But if he got down, and that shouldn't be too much of a problem, after all he could always jump! No, the dilemma then would be...would Rosebud allow him to grab her bridle and lead her, or would she take offence and bite him?

He stared at the distant trees, it wasn't very comfortable stuck out here in the middle of the field. It was well passed midday now, he was starving hungry, and the Sun was beating down on his back, making his shirt stick to him, and apart from all that, he was beginning to feel sick! And being really stupid, he hadn't thought to bring a water bottle with him either. What an imbecile!

Well my lad, it's make your mind up time. He moved uncomfortably in the saddle. 'Shall be go, or shall we stay?' He croaked out loud, and his voice sounded strange to his own ears, and he began to giggle inanely.

'We'll take a look at Sime Centre Number 2 tomorrow, and if that looks the same as Number 1. Then we'll have to think about going for plan B.' Vidal stated, as Gavin brought his horse alongside his.

'Am I mistaken Vidal or is that a man on horseback in that field way over there? Of course it could be some sort of Scarecrow type thing. It hasn't moved for ages.'

Vidal stared in the direction Gavin indicated, swearing under his breath. 'I should have spotted that way back. It's this shidoni-be-flayed spray skin, it's completely suppressing my senses. It's never been this bad before.'

'It could be the intense Sunlight here, it's far more powerful than on Earth. Didn't someone write a paper on it once? I'm sure you said.'

'Someone's always writing papers on something or other.' Vidal snapped back. 'Come on, I can't zlin who it is from here, but I have a feeling he's in trouble.' Even as he spoke he set off at a gallop across the fields with Gavin in hot pursuit.

Long before they reached their quarry, they saw the lone figure topple from the horse. 'I think its Jason.' Vidal yelled over his shoulder.

'What's he doing stuck out here in this heat?' Gavin called back.

Vidal was already on the ground before his horse had come to a halt. He grabbed Jason and pulled him into Rosebud's huge shadow.

'He's fainted. Mild Sunstroke too as far as I can see. Blast this skin, if I could only..it's like trying to diagnose under water.'

Gavin's hand closed over his. 'You mustn't remove it Vidal, not now.' He warned in a whisper. 'It's not serious. Look he's regaining consciousness. Here, get some of this down him.' He handed the Sime his water bottle, and Vidal poured some onto the Gen's face and then held his shoulders as he poured some of the tepid liquid down his parched throat.

'Thanks, that's a lot better.' Jason coughed, and then tried to stand up. 'Stay where you are for a minute.' Vidal ordered as he offered the water again. 'What happened?'

'Why didn't you make for the trees over there when you felt ill?' Gavin demanded as he stood up, no sympathy in his voice at all.

'I couldn't get the damn horse to move that's why.' Jason snarled back. 'You couldn't, WHAT!?' His face broke into a grin.

'Shut up Gavin. We'll talk later. Do you feel well enough to get back up on the mare Jason?' Vidal asked quietly.

'No. I'll walk.' He staggered to his feet, clutching Vidal's shoulder to steady himself, and did not notice how Vidal tensed at the Gen's touch.

'Walk? It's over three miles back to the Settlement. You'll never walk that distance, not in the shape you're in at the moment, you've got a mild case of Sun stroke, and you're dehydrated too if I'm any judge.'

'Vidal. If you and Gavin can take care of Rosebud for me. I'll manage. Look, straight up, I'd rather walk ten miles on my own two feet, than ride three miles on top of her.' He pointed at his nemesis in disgust.

'Gavin fetch Major over here.' Vidal turned back to Jason. 'Look I'll tell you what we're going to do, and no arguments either. Gavin will lead Rosebud back home, and you're coming up with me on Major. He's a big powerful horse and neither of us is fat. Besides which, it's only a few miles back to the stables.' 'Sorry but I can't get up on any horse. Apart from anything else, I haven't got the energy.' Jason said flatly.

'How the shen do you expect to walk back to the Settlement then?' Gavin demanded derisively, as Jason scowled at him.

'Come on, enough talk. Give me a hand to get Jason up. I think it's best if I sit behind him, at least I can make sure he doesn't topple off again.' Vidal informed him. 'Now put your foot in the stirrup, that's it. Gavin get around the other side, hold Major steady, and when I hoist Jason up, you make sure he doesn't fall off the other side.'

'Right you are. Steady boy.' Gavin's voice floated across from the other side of the horse.

Vidal augmented slightly, tossing Jason up onto the horses back, leaving Gavin to make sure he stayed on. Jason was surprised at how quickly and easily he got up onto the horse, he must have had more strength left than he imagined. Within seconds Vidal was seated behind him, one arm around his waist holding him steady.

Gavin stepped up onto Banjo and picked up the lose reins that dangled from Rosebud's neck.

'You both make it look so easy. I feel like a total half-wit.' Jason said honestly.

'There's no need to feel anything of the sort.' Vidal retorted from behind him. 'Can you swim?'

'Yes, of course, why?'

'I cannot.' Vidal replied. 'Do you ever go rock climbing?'

'I often go mountaineering, when I get the opportunity.' Jason admitted.

'Gavin suffers from vertigo. We are all capable of doing some things in this life, but we cannot do everything.' Vidal stated positively. 'We have to learn to live within our limitations. If you persevere you may in time be able to ride a horse. I doubt you will ever become a jockey.'

'No you're right there. But I have no choice, I have to learn to ride that shenning nightmare!' Jason glanced across at Rosebud, who was plodding along without a care in the world. 'If I do decide to stay on Regis 9 and some day become a homesteader. I've got to be able to get around, and apart from walking, there IS no other form of transport available.' He sighed, and if I didn't want that damn engineering post so much, I could have told Helma Vestii to go and get lost! Mike would laugh his socks off if he could see me now.

The next morning Jason woke up to find every part of his body was aching. The previous night he had had a long hot bath, his back had been rubbed with embrocation, and he had applied cream to the sore places at the top of his legs. He had also eaten a huge meal brought to him on a tray. But he could not afford the luxury of lying in bed all day today, even though he might like to do so. When he finally got up, he found that both Vidal and Gavin had long gone. So after eating a substantial breakfast, he stuffed some fruit into his duffel bag and filled a bottle with water, he had no intention of getting caught again without either.

He limped up to the stable, trying to dismiss the pain that still wracked his body. Rosebud was waiting for him, and they eyed each other warily for several seconds before he went to fetch the saddle. After many attempts he managed to get it on her back. Leading her further out into the stable yard, he began to practice getting on and off the mare until he felt there was nothing to gain by continuing any further. At last, moving close to the mare's head, he grasped her bridle and began to lead her around the yard. Thankfully she made no attempt to bite him.

Finally, gaining courage, he mounted once more and turned Rosebud first to the left, and then to the right.

'OK are you going to behave yourself today or not?' He paused. 'Not answering eh? All right, I'll take that to mean you're going to act like a lady for once. Let's go.'

Clapping came from behind him, and he twisted in the saddle to find Stella standing there grinning with pleasure. 'See you later Jason.' She called as he rode the horse sedately through the open gate.

At the end of the week, which on Regis 9 was 8 days long, Jason was able to ride; though not very well. He had also come to the conclusion that he was going to find nothing of interest in the vicinity of this Settlement.

However, the Simes also grew plants and herbs, they had the laboratories, and they had Chemists. Ergo, he must get inside the Centre and have a look around, before he moved further afield. Not that he expected to find anything there. The only question, was how to get inside?

Unbeknown to Jason, Vidal and Gavin had come to the same conclusion, as far as their investigation was concerned, but they at least did have a plan to get them inside.

CHAPTER FOUR

The two men sat in the shade of one of the peculiar white trees, that everyone on Regis 9 used for building purposes; whilst their horses stood with their heads buried in the clear cool water, that meandered along through the lush undergrowth.

'So when shall we make our move on the Centre?' Gavin asked into the growing silence.

'Tomorrow. There is little point in delaying any longer. However, I have been thinking about our original plan. I feel it would be a grave error for us to split up. We will both enter as Tecton Officials here to do spot checks.'

'It'll frighten the tentacles off them, everyone hates spot checks, and I bet they've never had any before in this neck of the woods.' Gavin grinned wickedly. 'The only trouble is, we'll be telling a direct lie, and a good Channel will spot that at once.'

'I'm banking on the fact that on a rustic planet like this, the Channel in charge will be low down on the scale. I should be able to manipulate our show fields well enough to fool anyone except a First who is also 4+.' Vidal stated with conviction. 'And I have enough faith in your ability, to believe that you can control yourself, and not broadcast anything contrary, into the ambient.' 'Yes, I suppose it could just work.' Gavin did not sound fully convinced. Then his usual exuberance bounced back. 'We can give it our best shot. What can they do to us if they find out anyway? It's not like we're committing a crime by pretending we're something more than we really are, is it?'

Vidal did not reply as he lay back and looked up through the canopy of leaves far above his head.

'If you recall, Sam insisted I bring an Official Tecton Order with me. It seemed irrelevant at the time, just another thing we'd have to hide. But now? We can use the Order to get full and unrestricted clearance in the Centre.'

'You have a very devious mind Vidal. You know I've often thought that in the old days, you'd have made an excellent Sectuib of a House.' Gavin confided wryly.

'Head of a House? You've got to be joking. Have you any idea the sort of restrictions they placed on someone like that?' Vidal shuddered. 'They didn't have much of a life you know.'

'Yes I do know.' Gavin replied softly. 'They were expected to give everything, for the greater good.'

'Yes of course you know. I'm sorry. I sometimes forget that your House still means a great deal to you.' He reached out his hand and touched his partner's arm, frustrated because he could not use his tentacles to emphasise how he felt. 'Yes it does.' Gavin said honestly. 'Even if its only honorary membership now. We all get a great deal from belonging. Each Household still sets its own standards. You know Dar has always specialised in Martial Arts and personal combat, so it was natural that I should orientate towards the kind of work we do in the TIB. One of our Sectuib, who was also a philosopher, coined a simple phrase that we still use today. "Out of chaos came order, out of death came life." I feel that says it all. I was born a Householder Vidal, and I shall die one.'

The three men walked up the slight incline that led to the Community Hall. The headman, Gabe Standish, had asked them to attend a social evening, and none of them had seen any reason to decline.

Music escaped into the night as the door opened and closed as more people arrived. Gavin moved closer to Vidal's side as they entered the warm interior. 'It's all right. Practically everyone has donated, it is bearable.' He assured the Gen in an aside. 'And this spray skin is more of an insulation than I ever realised.'

'Good.' Gavin smiled across at Stella as she beckoned them over. She looked lovely in a leaf green full skirted dress, her blonde hair hanging loosely around her shoulders.

The two men walked over and sat down next to the Robinsons, Vidal engaging Dan in conversation, as Gavin asked Stella to dance. Jason went to join Gabe and Margaret Standish. Their sons were playing in the small band. 'I hear you've learned to ride.' Margaret smiled.

'Yes. And I was very grateful for the embrocation you sent.' He said honestly. 'Horses and I just don't seem to mix very well, but I'm learning.' He looked across at the tables down one side of the long room; they were piled high with food, both savoury and sweet.

Gabe saw where he was looking and chuckled. 'The ladies all bring a plate. Why don't you go and help yourself?'

Jason walked across and piled his plate high, helping himself to a glass of home made wine, and watched Gavin circling the room with Stella, as he walked back to his seat, they were engrossed in each other.

Later in the evening he asked a pretty, plump brunette to dance, for some reason she reminded him of Rosina, and he felt suddenly homesick.

Sitting down again later, he noticed Gavin with Stella they were still dancing, but Vidal did not move from the group he was sitting with. Although his eyes appeared to be watching everything that was going on around him. A strange duo, he thought, as different from each other as it was possible for two people to be. Jason, if he had a preference at all, would rather seek Vidal's company, he seemed to be more of a thinker. Gavin on the other hand, came across to him as someone who was all brawn and very little brain. Although he admitted honestly to himself, that he was already prejudiced against the man, because he had made little effort to hide his amusement at Jason's predicament with Rosebud.

'Have you made a decision about your workshop yet?' Gabe asked him.

'No, not yet. To be honest Gabe I'm enjoying lazing around for a while. It's a lovely planet, and once I start work I'll have little chance to look around, or take a vacation.'

'Yes, I know what you mean. I'd love to take Margaret for a bit of a second honeymoon, to the mountains perhaps, but I just don't have the time. One day perhaps.'

'Your boys play well.' Jason said and joined in the clapping as the band took a well-earned break.

'Yes, Michael there, my oldest, would have made music his career if we'd stayed on Earth.'

'Are you sure he'll stay here?' Jason asked.

'Yes. I am now. He's very keen on the young Harris girl, and she wont leave her family, so he'll stay.' Gabe was obviously pleased.

'You know something about music, do you play perhaps?' Margaret interrupted. 'I used to play the guitar, I rarely get an opportunity to practice much nowadays though.'

'Well fancy that. Michael can Jason borrow your guitar? Come on give us a tune.' She said encouragingly.

No, really I don't think I should.' He wished he had never opened his mouth. He did still play, quite well as it happened, but he didn't want to draw too much attention to himself. He felt that everyone knew about his trouble with Rosebud and would be laughing at him. It must be very funny to the colonists to know that he had sat on the back of the old mare in the middle of a field unable to move, till he finally fell off! He'd never live it down. Then again, perhaps it was best to give them something else to think about than his horse riding. In any event it seemed it was too late to argue now, as the eldest Standish boy handed him his guitar, with a cheeky grin.

Jason got up and strolled up to the small dais carrying the instrument. He didn't notice that a large number of the women, young and old alike were looking at him as he passed. He caught Stella's eye and winked at her, then grinned as he saw Gavin's scowl. If he had more time, he would give Gavin a run for his money as far as Stella was concerned!

Silence fell as Jason began to sing an old ballad. His voice a rich baritone, Rosina had often likened to warm molasses. He sang about the head of a Sime family in the old days, whose oldest son established as a Gen. The Sime could not see his son killed, and so saw him to the border. He did not expect to see the boy again. Then nearly a decade and a half later, there was a knock at his door. A Sime boy stood there, the same age that his son had been when he had last seen him. This however, was not his son, but his grandson. His son had sent him back home. And now he, in his turn, would never see his son again.

As the familiar ballad drew to a close, there was hardly a dry eye in the place, and the clapping thundered out.

Jason then sang a love song, and for devilment, dedicated it to Stella.

Finally, he sang a medley of songs requested by the young people in the audience.

As the evening eventually drew to a close, Gavin walked Stella home and Jason found himself beside Vidal as they strolled back to the cottage.

'I'm sure you'll fit into life here on Regis 9 very well.' Vidal observed wryly, and when Jason asked why? Vidal smiled. 'You play and sing extremely well. Such talent is always welcome in any community.'

Later Jason lay on his bed staring at a damp patch on the ceiling. Wondering just how he could get himself into the Sime Centre? He knew enough about Simes to know that if he tried to break in, his nager would give him away at once. He wasn't even low field now; the last time he had donated was to the Astrogator/Channel on The Juggernaut. There was no doubt about it, at the moment, to Sime senses, he would already stand out like a bright star in the dark night sky.

Of course he could pretend to be unwell and ask for treatment. But patients did not wander around poking and prying into things, and besides, he would be zlinned before he'd even left his sick bed.

Neither could he go asking for work. The Simes knew there was plenty of work in the Settlements and on the farms, not counting huge tracts of free land available for the asking. To offer his services as an engineer would be no good either. Simes were notoriously self-sufficient, and they had their own Gens, many of whom were fully trained tradesmen.

Shen, it was like trying to solve a puzzle that had no solution. Jumping up from his reclining position, he stretched his cramped muscles. Perhaps a glass of trin tea would help him to get a good night's sleep. Then in the morning, clear headed, he might find the answer that had eluded him tonight. He opened the door quietly, and then stopped still. Vidal was sitting at the table; a book propped up in front of him, reading.

'Still up?' He asked, realising it was a stupid question even as the words left his lips.

'Couldn't you sleep?' Vidal countered, tugging down his sleeves as he hid his hands under the table; he had removed the spray skin from his arms, as he expected to be gone before Jason was up in the morning. That would teach him not to take chances. Shendi, the power of Jason's nager suddenly hit him. He had felt the Gen's field rising each day, how could he not? But now that he did not have his tentacles covered, the shock was like a blow to his solar plexus. He forced them deep into their sheaths, in an effort to shield himself from the powerful nager that was filling the room. The white wood the cottage was built from was an excellent insulation, for he had not felt the Gen's field tonight until he had opened the door.

'No. I thought I'd make myself a glass of trin. Fancy one?'

'Good idea.' Vidal forced himself hypoconscious; this was not the time to lose himself in the golden nimbus that surrounded the man in front of him.

Jason placed the two steaming glasses on the table, and took a seat opposite Vidal.

'I thought I might take a trip up to the Sime Collectorium in the next day or so. It's some time since I donated, and the Duty Channel isn't due at the Settlement for several days, so Gabe told me.' Jason stated.

Is he a mind reader? Was it a coincidence, or did he know that I was thinking about his field gradient? Fool. Vidal chastised himself. Of course it was coincidence, what else could it be? The trouble was, he had never come into contact with anyone who, having such a field, appeared to have no control over it.

Vidal stifled a gasp as a strange feeling began to permeate his being. What was it? What was the matter with him? Then he knew. Shenshi! Jason's field had actually locked on to his own. He quickly pulled his own field away, realising that the Gen had no idea of what was happening. It was frightening.

Vidal forced himself back to full awareness. Thank heavens he was not in need. But even so, the magnetic pull of the Gen was overwhelming. And, thank the Gods, he was also unaware that he had the power to turn an ordinary and fairly normal Sime like himself, into a crazed killer. Such was the power of some Gens over a Sime. But Vidal had never experienced it before. He was at once repelled, yet fascinated by the feeling. Shenoni what a Companion he would make!

'Are you all right? You look dreadful.'

Vidal forced himself to laugh. Always before, when he had come into contact with such powerful Gens, they had all been fully trained. And they would never have dreamed of disturbing an unsuspecting Sime in this manner. But then, Jason was not trained, and he did not even know that he was talking to a Channel. 'I'm fine. Now, you were saying something about going up to the Sime Collectorium at the Centre?'

'Yes.' Jason relaxed back into his chair again and nursed the hot glass in the palms of his hands.

Vidal grinned. 'Most of the Gens here don't seem to like the idea of going to the Centre, I've heard it likened to going to the Dentist. Doesn't it bother you?' He was purposely mocking. He had to learn more about this Gen, and his views.

'As a matter of fact I was actually employed by the Tecton once. I began training to be a TN-1 donor, but I left. So donating doesn't bother me.'

Shen that accounts for it! Has he any idea what his nager is like? He shouldn't be allowed to walk about like this. 'Why did you decide to leave?'

'I faltered at commitment. I suddenly felt I would be signing away my freedom.' Jason admitted. 'I've never regretted my decision.'

'How far along did you get?' Vidal could sense something else in the Gen. There was more to it than simply commitment, he had had a stronger reason for quitting than that.

'I was just about half way towards qualification, but I hadn't starting working, or anything like that. I certainly didn't need the inhibitor, but they did put me on a course of a new drug they've developed, just to be on the safe side. I can't even pronounce its name. But it's not as bad as some of the drugs I've heard about. I guess I've been lucky. I'll always be fairly high field, I'm a natural, or so they said. But I can live with that. I'll just have to stay clear of Simes in need.'

'And that was your only reason for quitting?' Vidal pressed.

'Oh, there were a lot of other small things, you know, niggling irritations. But that was all.'

He is lying! However, if what I think is happening at the Sime Centre proves to be even partly true, it could be extremely dangerous for him to go there. But there is nothing I can do to stop him.

Jason woke up the next morning at dawn. For a moment he lay there, as all the questions that had been churning around in his mind last night, reasserted themselves. Then it came to him. A possible answer to his dilemma. The special preparation that Avon had given to him! He had forgotten it; he obviously wasn't cut out for all this subterfuge.

Sitting on the side of the bed he reached for his duffel bag and searched in the side pocket, bringing out the plastic phial he knew was there. Avon had informed him, when he gave it to him, that it contained a preparation that consisted mainly of nanites. He had made one proviso, that they were only to be used should he find himself unable to donate. Yet still have need to move around in Sime society, without drawing attention to himself.

Avon had explained that the nanites would suppress not just his showfield, but also his body's production of selyn. Which meant that he would be virtually invisible to Sime senses. The nanite suspension by its very nature was dangerous, and was only to be used in an emergency. Likewise, it could only be used for a limited period of time.

Avon had then explained that the nanites had been developed by Tecton scientists, but had been abandoned by them, because of unreliability. Apparently Gen scientists had taken the idea up, and had sorted out the problems. Somehow Jason doubted that. Simes were nothing if not thorough, and if they said there were too many problems to iron out, he tended to believe them. He had also wondered how the Gens had got hold of the nanites in the first place? One fairly logical explanation had jumped to mind straight away, industrial espionage. However, they need only work for a day, and he could be in and out of the place. And one other thing clinched matters for him. It was the only option open to him. He simply hoped that they did not make him ill!

Morning was well advanced as Vidal and Gavin tethered their horses beside a stream. Then on foot they approached the fortress like Sime Centre that was built out of white wood. As were the heavy double doors that guarded the main entrance. They had scouted the whole perimeter of the Centre during the last few days and both men knew the layout of the land around and about very well.

All the Sime Centres on Regis 9, as all others elsewhere, had been built along similar lines. Vidal and Gavin were therefore already well acquainted with the general layout inside.

The middle part of the building should house the Controllers office and general administrative offices, and possibly some storage space. The East Wing should include the Hospital area with the changeover ward, the collectorium and the pharmacy. Whilst the living quarters, kitchens, dining room, recreation rooms and library, should all be in the West Wing.

Vidal flexed his tentacles. 'I only fully realised last night what excellent selyn insulation properties this white wood has. I thought they would have zlinned us long before we got in sight of the place, but now I'm not so sure. Ring the bell, there is nothing to be gained by standing outside.' Gavin grasped the old-fashioned bell pull and a loud clanging noise assaulted their eardrums.

The old renSime who opened the door stared at them in surprise, but made no attempt to invite them inside.

'Vidal Trent and Gavin Dar, we wish to see your Controller.' Vidal waved the Tecton Order of Authority under the man's nose.

'Wait there.' The door slammed shut in their faces, and Vidal turned to look at Gavin, his eyes wide with surprise, and eyebrows raised.

'Quite a welcome. What do you make of it?' The Gen asked.

'Search me. I've never had this sort of reception before. But I did zlin fear, although that doesn't make sense.' Vidal replied.

'What do we do if they refuse us entry?' Gavin whispered.

'They can't do that. This is a Sime Centre, and as far as they know we are regular officers of the Tecton. They dare not refuse us.' Gavin snorted derisively. 'Tell him that.'

Even as he spoke the huge door swung open again and they were beckoned inside. 'This way.'

Shoulder to shoulder the two men followed the Sime's shuffling gait down the long dim corridor. Other rooms and corridors lead off it to either side, and it had no windows and therefore no natural light of its own. Raised voices could be heard before they reached the door at the far end, which stood wide open. 'In there.' The renSime made no attempt to announce them, before he disappeared down another corridor.

Vidal looked at his partner and shrugged before they both walked purposely into the large cluttered room. It was obviously a working office, and he guessed the Channel sitting behind the huge desk was the Controller. The man was a Second, and he was the archetype of all Simes, tall and painfully slim. But most Simes, although not having robust appetites, did at least eat the amount of food necessary to keep them healthy. This Sime, unless he had a wasting illness, certainly did not. His dark eyes looked like two bruises in the white skeletal face, over which the transparent skin stretched. Vidal could tell the Channel was attempting to keep something from him, and there was also a strange anomaly in his field, a darkness that he had never encountered before. Perhaps he did not wish to broadcast how ill he was? Understandable in its way, and he was entitled to his personal privacy, for Vidal was not a Householder, and did not hold to the belief that Channels had no right to privacy at all.

Gavin, although he did not have Sime senses, had still come to the same conclusion as Vidal. But he stood still, knowing both men were zlinning each other.

Vidal also Zlinned the renSime and Third who were standing beside the desk, they were both agitated, but that was understandable for they had all been the arguing before Gavin and he had entered the room.

Returning duoconscious Vidal stepped forward to hand his credentials to the Channel. Handling tentacles appeared from the fleshless arm to take the Order from him. The Controller scanned it in silence and almost threw it back at him.

'So what have they sent you here for?' He demanded in a harsh almost brittle voice. 'To spy on us?'

'No, of course not. It was simply felt that a visit was long overdue. I just wish to look around so that I can make out my report, you know what the bureaucrats on Earth are like.' Vidal smiled placatingly, but got no response from their host. 'Is there anything that you require? Have you requested anything that has not yet arrived?'

'I want nothing. Except for you both to leave.'

'I'm afraid we can't do that. Not till we've had a look around. It's what we get paid for after all.'

'Look I know the real reason for this visit you know. I'm not stupid.'

'No, I'm sure you're not.' Vidal agreed calmly. 'But I have no idea what you are talking about.'

'No, of course not.' He sneered back. 'Rogan, you and Isaac leave us now, and make sure you do what I said.' The two Simes left the room.

Seeing that they were not going to be made welcome, Vidal indicated to Gavin that he should sit down, and then pulled up another chair to the front of the desk and sat down himself. 'Now please Controller. What exactly is wrong? I can assure you that if there is anything we can do to help.'

'Shen it!' He was interrupted rudely. 'I'm sick of all these weasel words. Why don't you just come out and say why you've really come here.'

Vidal bit back an angry retort. 'Because I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about.' He fought to retain his patience with the man.

'I bet it was one of those Shenoni bastards at the other Centres wasn't it? What did they say? That I'm not fit to be in charge, is that it?'

'Controller I assure you that I am not here at the behest of anyone on Regis 9. Surely you can see that? He held his field open to the Second's scrutiny. No Sime could get away with such a direct lie in such circumstances.'

The Second sat back, relaxing for the first time since they had entered the room. Gavin noticed that the skeletal frame hardly seemed to make an indent in the chair he was sitting on. Vidal felt himself relaxing too, and realised that Gavin was broadcasting calmness into the various fields, it was an ability that the Householders still taught to their Gens.

He glanced approvingly across at his partner before he turned back again. 'Controller. What are you worried about?'

'I'm not worried! Just angry.' He snapped. 'As you can no doubt tell, I'm a Second.'

Vidal nodded briefly.

'I took over when Darley Plasus died, a month after I arrived. He was a First of course.' He could not hide his bitterness. 'He was a musician and poet. No shenning good at all as an administrator. I did all the work, not him. He was no loss when he died. But if I'd informed those lorshes in the Tecton, they'd have sent someone just like him to take over.'

'I'm sorry.' Vidal had heard similar stories before. For some reason the hierarchy still seemed to feel that any First was better than a Second as head of a Centre, no matter how useless, or uninterested the First might be in administration. He glanced at the Controller. 'So your name is?'

'Parv Clifford.' He pressed a button at the side of his desk, and the renSime who had opened the door to them appeared in the doorway. 'Fetch a tray of trin for us Robin.'

Well, it was hospitality of a sort, Vidal thought, even though they had not been asked if they wanted a glass of tea. The man's obvious bad humour seemed out of all proportion to their visit. Perhaps he's worried that because I'm a First, I might try to usurp him, and take over straight away. Ridiculous of course, but the man certainly seemed to be more than a little paranoid about the whole affair. He would have to handle things as diplomatically as possible. After all, he was only interested in what was going on here, not their internal affairs. He would have to tell the appropriate authority when he got back, that Darley Plasus was dead, and that Parv Clifford had taken over from him. He had no other option. But then thankfully it would be out of his hands.

A sudden jolt in the fields made Vidal turn to Gavin who was now looking up at the ceiling, whilst trying to hide a look of distaste. Vidal tried to hide a smile at his friend's fastidiousness, for Clifford was picking his nose with a tentacle. Strangely the Channel did not seem to notice Gavin's reaction, and he really should have done. He must be very ill indeed, or surprisingly for a Channel, have no sensitivity at all.

Robin stomped into the room and placed a heavy tray onto the cluttered wooden top, not bothering to move the various papers and files that covered the desk. 'I'll pour.' Gavin stated as the renSime left the room, and Vidal guessed he wanted to avoid having to look at the Controller.

'The sooner I start my inspection, the sooner we'll be out of your hair Controller.' Vidal said and then nodded his thanks to Gavin as the Gen placed a glass in front of him.

'I'll get Robin to show you round.' The Channel grunted ungraciously.

'No need Hajene, I'm well acquainted with the layout of a Centre.' Vidal said casually.

'Maybe so. But I don't want you poking and prying into things that are no concern of yours.'

'Controller. EVERYTHING in this Centre, is my concern.' He emphasised firmly.

'Interfering lorshes!' The door slammed as the Controller exited the office like a whirlwind, obviously augmenting.

'Phew. Who rattled his cage?' Gavin demanded. 'And did you see what he was doing just now?'

Vidal laughed briefly. 'It always seems worse when it's a tentacle instead of a finger doesn't it? Took me back to my school days, there was a boy in my class - no, you don't want to know what he did.'

'So what are we going to do about friend Robin? If he is assigned to act as our guide, we'll have to find some way of giving him the slip.' Gavin stated as Vidal sat back with the glass in his tentacles, a thoughtful expression on his face.

'There are two of us Gav. He can't split himself in half can he? We shouldn't have all that much trouble. If push comes to shove we'll just have to try some of the tricks we used on Mars Base.' He grinned at his friend.

'Yeah, but all we found there was gross incompetence, I have a strange feeling that we might find more than that here.'

Vidal sighed softly. 'I hate to admit it, but I think you may be right.'

The door suddenly opened and Robin shuffled in. Vidal found it very disconcerting to be unable to zlin through the white wood doors and walls, and to be as surprised as any Gen when someone entered the room unexpectedly. 'Parv wants me to show you around. Come on then, I've got more to do than stand around waiting for you all day.' He said rudely.

'I'm sure you have. As I just told your Controller, there's no necessity at all for you to accompany us. Please feel free to go about your business.' Vidal stood up, authority in every line of his body.

The renSime cackled mirthlessly. 'Fat chance of that. He'll get his own back if I don't do as I'm told. Come on.'

Vidal shrugged at Gavin before they followed Robin out of the office. He turned left and set off, his voice drifting back over his shoulder as he gave a running commentary on the rooms they were passing. Vidal did not try to stop him, as these were just administrative offices in the main, and not the rooms he was really interested in.

As they passed what were obviously toilet and washroom facilities; Vidal nodded to Gavin, and then followed closely behind Robin as the Gen disappeared inside. Gavin knew that the Channel would be manipulating the fields, so that the Sime would not be immediately aware that he now had only one man behind him, and not two.

Once the two Simes had disappeared around the next corner, Gavin slipped out of the washroom and made his way to the corridor that Robin had dismissed with the words. 'Only a storage room down there. It's locked so you'll have to ask Parv if you want to see in there.' Gavin listened outside the door for a moment, but could hear no sound from within.

Turning the handle he found it opened easily, and he stepped inside. Far from being a storage room, it was completely empty. In fact it looked as though it had recently been thoroughly washed including floor, walls and the small narrow window. He stared around faintly surprised, he had not expected it to be totally bare. On the wall opposite the door, about seven feet off the floor, there appeared to be two large hooks that were approximately six feet apart, but there was nothing attached to them. Perhaps Vidal would know what the room had been used for; he had no idea himself.

Leaving the room and closing the door carefully behind him, he hurried down the corridor in pursuit of the two Simes, catching up with them as Robin was opening the door to the Collectorium, which was also deserted. 'Where is everyone?' Gavin asked as he joined them.

'It's a rest day, most of the staff are off today, they've probably gone out.

They're entitled.' He was informed bluntly.

'Indeed. However, I've never known a Centre to be quite this deserted.' Vidal murmured to Gavin, in an aside.

'The Channels go out to the Settlements for donations, saves them coming here.' Robin informed them.

In less than an hour they had been given a whistle stop tour of the whole facility.

'Well that's the lot. The Controller said there's no reason for him to see you again, so I'll see you both out.' The renSime turned to retrace his footsteps towards the front door.

'No. We shall not be leaving yet.' Vidal stated firmly. 'I must ask you to show us to a guest suite for the night. We shall also require an evening meal, and you can tell your Controller that I shall expect to see him again in the morning.'

'Now look, I've been told to show you both out. You can't stay here over night, and that's that!' His tone was now openly belligerent.

'Why not?' Vidal demanded.

'Well... just because.' The old Sime spluttered. 'Orders, and that's all there is to it.'

'Robin. I appreciate this may be putting you in an awkward position, but I assure you, Gavin and I WILL be staying tonight. You can tell Parv Clifford that if he wants us out of here, and refuses us hospitality, he can come and tell us himself, and he had better have a damn good reason if he does. Understood?'

'I'll give him the message.' The old Sime muttered, then moved away from the door and lead them towards the living quarters once more.

Vidal stood in the open doorway of their guest suite, and zlinned the corridor. 'Good, he's gone. Now tell me what was in that room?'

'Nothing. The cupboard was bare.' Gavin replied, and then paused. 'Well there was something strange about it. Two things actually. One, the room had been thoroughly washed and cleaned recently, today I'd reckon. The Second was something I haven't seen before.' And he explained about the hooks on the wall. 'Have you ever seen anything like that before?'

'No, I can't say that I have.' Vidal retorted, with a frown. 'Are you hungry?'

'Famished.'

'Let's go and find you some food. We can decide on our next move while you eat.'

Several Simes were seated in the dining room, none were eating, but some had glasses of trin in front of them. All were uncommunicative. Although Gavin knew he was being zlinned by all of them as he crossed the room. Vidal zlinned them in turn, and noticed the same darkness as he had observed in the Controllers field. He filed the anomaly away for consideration later, when he had more time to think about it.

In the Cafeteria the cook piled Gavin's tray with food. Fried mushroom and nut patties, salad, and thick slices of warm crusty bread, covered in butter. The desert consisted of a huge baked apple covered in a golden pastry with a liberal helping of fresh cream.

Vidal helped himself to a small high protein nut biscuit of a type he had eaten many times before, a small apple and a glass of trin.

'At least there's nothing wrong with their food. This looks delicious.'

'Your appetite always manages to make me feel hungry.' Vidal admitted wryly, as they settled on a table that was as far away from the other occupants of the room as possible.

'Friendly bunch aren't they?' Gavin muttered, as he began to eat.

'We must go outside after you have finished eating, there is something I need to check. There's a door, which leads to the outside, at the end of this corridor. We'll go and walk the perimeter of the Centre before we retire for the night.'

'Sounds fine to me. By the way do you think they'd call me a glutton if I asked for another couple of slices of that bread? It's delicious.'

'To Simes, all Gens are Gannets, you know that.' Vidal grinned. 'Go and ask for your bread. I have no doubt the cook already has it cut, buttered, and sitting on a plate waiting for you.'

When they set off on their walk, it was a warm evening. Vidal kept the building to his left, zlinning the outside. But the only thing Gavin noticed was that the building was on a slight incline.

'I am right!' Vidal stated suddenly. 'Come Gavin we'd better hurry and get inside. If I am not mistaken we are in for a storm quite soon.'

Vidal's forecast was correct, and shortly after they reached the sanctuary of their rooms, Gavin heard the rain begin to beat down. With a sigh, he sat on one of the chairs and pulled off his boots. 'So what did you discover out there?' He demanded.

'I discovered my friend, that this building is not all it seems.'

'Not all it seems? What is that supposed to mean? As far as I can see this is a plain and simple Sime Centre, just like hundreds of others we've seen before.' 'No, it is far more than that. On the surface there appears to be very little here for us to find. However, they did not expect visitors, especially Tecton visitors, which is why I think there was something in that empty but clean room, that should not have been there. I believe whatever it was, was moved, and the room sanitised while the delightful Parv Clifford was entertaining us.' Vidal sat down and stared into space for a moment, before he continued. 'Did you notice that this structure is built on a hill?'

'Yes, I did notice that.' Gavin admitted. 'What's so unusual about that?' 'Nothing, at first glance, but it is diabolically clever. How many times have we scouted around this entire area? And yet we both missed it.'

'Missed what? Come on Vidal you've had your fun. If you want me to admit I'm dense, all right I'll admit it. Now spit it out!'

'Gavin I've no reason to think that. In fact we both missed the obvious. The rooms inside here are all equally proportioned as to size, are they not? Yet there is at least fifteen feet of wall space in the middle of the building where there are no windows on the outside, and on the inside no rooms apparently exist. Don't you find that strange?'

'Yes I suppose so, I never noticed. What do you think they have in there?'

'First, I don't think we'll find any rooms. If I'm correct, there'll be an entrance somewhere along that wall that will actually lead to a staircase. There must be another complex, the exact same size as the one we are now in, directly underneath here, and we have to get down there my friend.'

Vidal had been right too many times in the past for Gavin to doubt what he said now.

'If the Controller has gone to this much trouble to hide it, then going down there could be very dangerous indeed.' He warned. 'But what to you think IS down there?'

'Gavin, I must do this alone. I think I'll be at less risk than you.' Vidal stated.

'Crap! If you were a Householder like me I could understand that attitude. Wrap the little Gen up in cotton wool he might stub his toe! But you're not a Householder, and I'm Dar trained. Much as you might deny it Vidal I can probably look after myself, a damn sight better than you can look after yourself. So if you are going down underneath this place, then so am I. Discussion over. When do we go?'

Vidal gave a harsh laugh. 'All right we go together, partners as always. But let me make one thing very clear. I have never tried to patronize you, not ever, and I never will. This time I am really worried at what we might find, and there are only two of us, and we don't have any back up to call on. So this time Gavin I don't want any heroics. If I say retreat, that is exactly what we do, and if I say run, we run. And that applies no matter what we might see or find, or indeed, what we may have to leave behind! Agreed?'

Gavin had never seen the Channel look so grave. 'Agreed.' He said quietly. Two hours before dawn Vidal woke his partner from a deep sleep. 'Sorry Gavin, it's time we were on the move.' He waited while the Gen pulled on his socks and boots, as they had not bothered to undress the night before. Then within minutes they were able to slip through the door into the dark corridor.

'I hope we can find this mysterious door.' Gavin whispered. Vidal did not reply, but took the lead, zlinning their way by using his partner's selyn field. Moments later Vidal stopped at the section of corridor where he was sure he would find an entrance. Carefully he began to zlin the walls till he found what he had been looking for, and began to touch the panel with both his fingers and tentacles. 'Very clever.' He murmured suddenly, as a section of the wall slid open. Catching hold of Gavin's arm he drew him inside the dark opening. The wall moved back into place, and almost immediately an automatic light came on. The Channel silently pointed to a staircase, then putting a finger to his lips for silence; he led the way down.

 

CHAPTER FIVE

Jason fastened Rosebud to a bush where she could crop the lush grass, and yet was close enough to the meandering stream so that she could reach the water for a drink. He did not expect to be gone more than a couple of hours at the most. Then he sighed, it was already dark, and was now raining steadily. In fact it had started to rain shortly after he left the Settlement, what was it about him that attracted the Rain God?

He had decided to try and get into the Sime Centre by using one of the two side entrances he had spotted when he had reconnoitered the place. As it was a dark night he had dressed in his black jump suit. Even so, he had little doubt that to Sime senses he would stand out like a beacon, but he had seen no sign of guards or night watchmen on patrol. Which was a good sign, for if they had nothing to hide, why should they need either? Therefore, he would inject the nanites just before he entered the building, and trust to luck that they did what they were supposed to do, and lasted long enough for him to complete his task. According to what he had been told, they should work within a few minutes of their entering his system.

However, all his preparations did not alter the fact that he still felt very uncomfortable, too much like a burglar or thief in the night, and he was neither. Yet perversely he had to admit to himself, that this sort of excitement, could quite easily become addictive. He had never felt so alive before; every part of him tingled.

But he was unsure as to what he expected to find in the Centre tonight. More importantly what should he look for, and if he found it, would he even know he had found it? He could hardly expect to find a sign saying, "Illegal drugs manufactured here", could he? What was it his Grandfather used to say? "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." Those simple words might well be a prophecy, or perhaps even become his epitaph. It was a warm night, but the rain running down his broad back still felt cold.

Approaching the nearest door, he pressure injected the preparation into the side of his neck. Then forced saliva into his dry mouth, swallowing apprehensively, as he wondered if it would work.

Damn. The door would not open. For some insane reason he had expected to be able to open it easily, but it was locked. He'd have to go and try the other one, but he expected little luck there either. After all, logic dictated that the outer doors would all be locked, so why had he thought otherwise? Only a half-wit would assume anything different. He stumbled over something and nearly measured his length on the ground, but he could not see what it was, and cursed himself for not bringing a torch. One more thing to castigate himself with, he thought grimly. Would nothing go right for him tonight? Perhaps he should call it off and come back another night? But what would that achieve? He was, after all, already here.

The twin satellites that orbited Regis 9 gave out little light, and when a small bank of clouds drifted in front of them an even more stygian darkness descended. A small sound ahead drew his attention. With one hand on the wall for guidance he moved slowly forwards. Then the two Satellites appeared again, and he could see the second door directly in front of him standing open. In the distance he could see a figure moving away from the building. Someone had just left, and had not closed the door behind them. Therefore, whoever it was, did not intend to be away very long. Had the nanites actually worked, or had it been a Gen, and not a Sime?

Taking a deep breath he entered the building and was plunged into darkness once more, as the meagre light of the Moons was suddenly cut off.

Now what? He had a rough idea of the layout, as most Sime Centres were built along similar lines. And Avon had shown him a plan. But if his luck, or lack thereof, was anything to go by lately, this one would be the exception to the rule!

Turning a corner in the corridor he saw a light streaming out from an open office door at the far end. Fear of detection lent wings to his feet, and he was outside the room in seconds. Peeping through the crack in the door, he found that it was empty. His second piece of luck tonight.

The words "Controllers Office" were written in both Simelan and English on the door. Slipping inside he shuffled through the piles of loose papers, and correspondence on the desktop. Most were written in Simelan, which seemed fairly logical considering this was a Sime Centre, but why hadn't he thought of that before?

When he had first entered the Tecton for training, he had of course been taught the Sime alphabet, and a few basic words and phrases, but that had been when he was in his teens, and he had long forgotten most of the language, never expecting to need it again.

Indeed, even if he had remembered all of it, (and had the time to sit here and try to decipher it), most of what he was looking at, was of course, in technical jargon, and therefore consisted of unfamiliar Simelan terminology. Which, whilst he might well have made some sense of if they had been in English, in Simelan, meant nothing to him at all.

He remembered some time ago when he had first met Rosina he had taken her to see a Holographic Play, she had been keen to see. As far as he could remember it was a farce about a couple of alien spies who had managed to do everything wrong. But compared to yours truly, he thought wryly, they had obviously been geniuses! He began to rummage through the filing cabinet, but here again everything was written only in Simelan.

His last and only hope in the office was the bank of Computers. Now here was something he did know quite a bit about. He hacked into the system with little compunction, asking for the machine to use basic English and not Simelan. "Working. Please state the nature of the information you require, and." 'Shen!' Jason fumbled to switch it off, as the Computer's voice seemed to boom out, and shattered the silence of the office.

Sweating with shock he tiptoed to the door and glanced outside. All was still in darkness, and as far as he could tell no one appeared to be about. With a sigh, he returned to the Computer, instructing it to print out everything in its memory bank that related to plants, herbs or any chemical compounds that could be used in pharmaceutical preparations. Including any reference to drugs of any description, no matter how remote or tenuous such reference might appear to be. That should cover it. He could go through it back at the cottage at his leisure. No, he could not! Shenshid! He closed his eyes as he removed the disc from the machine and placed it in the breast pocket of his jump suit. How could he go through it back at the cottage? He had forgotten to bring the miniature computer Avon had given him. Perhaps someone should enter him for the Moron of the Year Award? No one would stand a chance against him, he decided bitterly; he would win, hands down!

Angrily he pushed the recriminations to one side to concentrate on the job in hand. He knew this was the Controllers Office, so if the layout was the same as normal, the Pharmacy should be along that way, next to the Collectorium he decided. Then set off in what he hoped was the right direction.

Unfortunately, as he admitted honestly, he knew nothing about the branch of chemistry that related to the refining of drugs from plants. Except what he had covered when obtaining his degree in agriculture, and what the TIS had thought it necessary for him to know, to complete this mission.

Thankfully however, there was one thing that did help him. Obviously the Simes did not take "back to basics" to the same lengths as their Gen neighbours, at least as far as their research in the Centre was concerned. Which meant, as far as he could see, that they were quite happy to use whatever technical equipment they felt was necessary. This being the case, Computers would probably be used in all the various departments. So he should be able to download all the relevant information he needed from the Pharmacy too.

He might also be lucky and find some of the indigenous plants they were using lying around. If so, he could take some of them and identify the species later. It was worth a try, even if they had no relevance at all. His spirits began to rise. Maybe it wouldn't be a total loss after all.

As Vidal and Gavin descended the staircase, Vidal tried to zlin their way ahead, but at the bottom of the steps the corridor turned to the left and he could not zlin any further. 'Shen this blasted white wood.' He muttered under his breath as they crept down.

'Lost your way Gentlemen? Perhaps we can help?' Rogan, the Third, who had been in the Controller's office when they arrived, was standing in front of them, a sneer on his face.

Vidal felt his partner tense, ready to spring. He reached out a tentacle to touch his hand. 'He's not alone.' He warned.

'Sensible, very sensible. Fetch them!' Rogan strode off, as four Simes grabbed their arms and hustled them along. The underground complex, as Vidal had assumed, was laid out exactly as the one on the ground floor above them. They stopped outside the Controller's duplicate office and Rogan ordered them to take Gavin to one of the holding rooms, whilst he opened the door to the office, and Vidal was propelled inside and pushed down into a chair.

'What's all this about?' Vidal demanded at once.

The Controller sat behind the desk and scowled across at him. 'I had hoped you'd both be sensible enough to leave. I see I was wrong. A pity. Now it's too late.' He retorted, ignoring the question.

'Too late for what? What the shen is going on here Clifford?' Vidal asked again. 'I think I have a fair idea, but I'm hoping you're going to tell me I'm wrong.'

A hoarse laugh that turned into a rasping cough escaped from the skinny chest. 'I suppose there's no reason not to tell you.' He finally gasped. 'After all, you're not going anywhere.'

Vidal zlinned him as he exploded into another bout of coughing. He again wondered if the darkness he had noticed before was linked to an illness. And then suddenly he knew! 'Shidoni, you're junct.' He whispered the fateful words, for he had never come into contact with one before; which explained why he had not spotted it when they had first met and he had zlinned him.

What was a junct Channel doing in charge of a Sime Centre? Vidal knew that on Earth there were a number of unfortunates who were disjunct. The Tecton managed to keep the fact from the populace at large, for most Gens never even considered the possibility that a Sime might still go berserk and kill in first need. The slightest hint therefore that it might happen, or indeed had happened, and in recent times too, would be enough to cause a panic, possibly Worldwide. But the Sime hierarchy knew, and colluded in keeping it quiet.

At times, the nightmare scenario could not be avoided. Not amongst a population of millions! There would always be Simes who went into changeover when least expected. Perhaps whilst on holiday in a remote area, the mountains, or an island, or at sea on a boat. Some did so whilst caught in a blizzard, flood or even earthquake. And on occasion a parent would make an error and assume that a child had a feverish cold and by not calling the Sime Centre would suffer the consequences themselves. Sometimes the Sime would be so terrified at what he or she had done, that they would run away, and kill for a second or third time, before they were finally caught.

These Simes, even after they had disjuncted, would have to be monitored, and if they lived in society at all, would be kept on a tight regime, sometimes with the help of drugs, for the rest of their lives. Whilst others, some of whom could not disjunct, and others who it was felt could never be fully trusted, were kept at remote Sime Centres set up to care for such sad cases.

Vidal knew that there were also documented cases of Simes, who could not bare to be incarcerated for the rest of their lives, who had left Earth and tried to set up Colonies of their own, some along the lines of the distect of old. The Tecton ruthlessly hunted these Simes down. They could not be left to their own devices in case the Gens on Earth got to hear of them, and began to fear that they might try to come back to Earth, and bring their frightening practices with them. Such a thing was not likely to happen. But it would not take much to make a whole population believe the worst. In which case, hundreds of years of hard work and sacrifice to bring humanity to where it was today, would be gone forever, perhaps never to return.

It was also the reason why the Tecton made spot checks on all its Sime Centres, and when a doubt had been cast, no matter how unlikely or remote, teams like he and Gavin, were sent to investigate.

As they were also sent to investigate when the Church of Purity started causing trouble between Sime and Gen. As they did quite often.

They had uncovered many things in the past, but this was the first time he had ever encountered a junct in charge of a Centre. The first big question he had to answer was, whether Parv Clifford and the Simes he had so far seen were the only ones involved, which seemed unlikely, or if there were others? And secondly, if there were others, how many? And finally, how many at the Centre if they were not junct, knew what was going on, and why were they keeping quiet?

'I'm sorry Controller. You can get help you know, you aren't alone.' Vidal said earnestly. It still seemed inconceivable to him, that anyone would actually want to live as a junct, from choice, and he was still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The emaciated frame shook with mirth. 'You've no cause to be sorry for me. I'm the normal one, not you!' He cackled. 'Now you're going to die. I can't let you live can I? Of course I'll have to inform the Tecton about the terrible tragic accident that befell you both. However, before you die, you're going to find out what it is that you've been missing all your life, and why the way we live, is the way it was always supposed to be.'

'Are all the Simes here junct like you?' Vidal asked quietly, dismissing his threats, as the ravings of a madman.

'Of course.' His tentacles writhed in and out of their orifices, as though completely out of his control, which they probably were.

'But we're talking about a lot of Simes, they can't possibly take a kill every month. Where would you get enough Gens?' A note of skepticism crept into Vidal's voice, as he wondered if the Controller was lying. Yet how could he be? A Second could never hide the fact that he was prevaricating, when he was zlinned by a First.

'Clever aren't you? It was all right at first, there were only a few of us to start off with, then when Darley Plasus died, and I took over, a lot left to go to the other Centres and Colonies. They decided they didn't like the way I was running things.' He sneered, and then went on. We told the Settlers that more of the Gens had gone through changeover and died, than actually had. Then again, when they came to us for treatment, most of them got worse and died. We nearly got caught out over that! The Gens started to get suspicious. So when others came to join us, we had to find a fresh supply. That's when we found Stardust.'

'Stardust? What's that?' Vidal queried. It was obvious that the Controller was getting a perverted kick out of boasting, and telling him what he believed to be his achievements. Strangely, the only emotion Vidal felt, was pity, but he kept that masked, from the pathetic skeleton sitting opposite him.

'A drug, a powerful one, that the Gens like. They're hooked after one dose, and the beauty of it is that they can't come of it again. 'Cause if the supply is cut off, they go insane. ' He snorted with derision. 'It's derived from fungi that grow in the caves that go deep into the side of the mountains over there. Our horticulturists got it to grow in tunnels, that we've dug into the ground at the end of this complex. And our chemists refined it into a commercial drug. Quite simple really. We supply the drug to the Organisation and they trade us Gens in return. Everyone's happy.'

'Genrunners.' Vidal breathed. Centuries ago on Earth such men had sold their own kind to Sime Gendealers, for the Kill.

'A much maligned period in our history, distorted by historians and annalists for political reasons only.' He was beginning to sound even more fanatical.

Vidal ignored him. 'What do you intend to do with Gavin?' He knew as well as Parv Clifford, that his partner would be no use for the kill. For he would not panic in transfer, and thus would not give a Sime the satisfaction of killbliss.

'We will discuss you first. I would judge that you are perhaps 1 maybe 2 days from transfer?' He spat the word transfer as though it was a curse. 'I'm sorry to tell you that even as we speak, your friend has had the selyn taken from him. We have various drugs we can use to ensure that he can't shen anyone. So I'm afraid he won't be able to serve you this time. Such a pity. We'll have to see what we can do to assist you; I'm a merciful man after all. And we have several experimental drugs here that our scientists want to try out. They'll help you to overcome your aversion to taking a kill in the normal way. Afterwards, I may let you die...very slowly.'

'You shenning lorsh.' Vidal whispered, as he thought of his partner.

The Controller smiled. 'Now, as you're worried about the ultimate fate of your friend. I'll explain. There are, as I am sure you are aware, many drugs we can administer, that will make your friend scream with fear.' He grinned mirthlessly, showing the blackened stumps of teeth. 'We will let him watch as you take your kill. Then he himself will make a prime kill for someone. Of course if you prefer, I may even let you do the job yourself. However, I digress, it is yourself you should worry about now, not him.'

The Controller pressed a button on his desk and looked across at the door. 'Good, come in. I believe you've met Isaac and Rogan haven't you?' He asked Vidal.

Vidal zlinned the two Simes, without replying.

'All is in order?' Parv Clifford asked, and Rogan nodded. 'Good. Take our visitor to his friend.' He looked across at Vidal. 'I will let you have a little time together. Unfortunately, I have some business to transact, but it should not take too long. I should hate for you to feel you were being neglected.' 'Take your time.' Vidal retorted, equally as sarcastic.

The holding room was little more than a cell with two wooden pallets, one against each wall. There was no window. On one pallet lay a very shadowy Gavin, his selyn having been stripped from him. Vidal hurried to his side, as the door slammed shut behind him. He soon ascertained that his partner was in a drug-induced sleep. He could do nothing to help him, so sat down to await his recovery. While he waited he zlinned every inch of the cell, but could see no way out.

A short while later the Gen began to moan and move around on the narrow pallet. Vidal grabbed his shoulders. 'Gavin.' He said softly. 'Wake up, come on, it's me.'

'Vidal?' His friend raised himself up on his elbows and looked around him, his pupils dilated. 'Where are we?' He croaked his mouth obviously dry.

'Lie down you've been drugged, and they've put us in a cell.'

'Yes, I remember, they split us up. Are you okay?'

'I am, but you are not.' Vidal stated softly. 'They have taken your selyn.'

'Shen, I remember now. The bastards. What is it, almost 2 days to your transfer?' The Gen was professional enough to realise that it was no good bemoaning what had happened, so he cut straight to the main question. 'What are we going to do about it?'

'I can go to one of the other Centres, and something can be arranged. But at the moment that course of action is not open to me.' He said bluntly.

'What did you find out?' Gavin asked rubbing his eyes, then looked around. 'Is there any water in here?'

Vidal shook his head. 'No. As to your other question. I found out more than I ever wanted to know.' He sighed. 'Our worst nightmare. The entire Centre is junct.'

Gavin sat up swinging his legs to the floor. 'Shenshid.'

'Exactly.' He filled his partner in quickly as to what he had learned.

'We could try jumping them when they come to fetch one of us.' Gavin suggested, and Vidal could tell he was eager for action.

'I have little doubt there'll be enough of them to overpower us, should we attempt to do so.'

'Well, what then? We can't just sit here! I'd rather die fighting, than be some junct's choice kill.' Gavin said with clear disgust.

Vidal knew that his partner had a fiery temper, and sighed. 'I agree. I don't want to be drugged into taking a life either. But I'm still hoping that we can find some way out of here, we're not finished yet. And we mustn't act precipitately, not whilst there's still a chance.' He warned.

'What chance!?' Gavin almost snarled.

'I don't know, not yet. But if we die too quickly, we'll never know will we?' Gavin grudgingly agreed with him, as Vidal went on. 'As Parv Clifford wants to make some sort of perverted point out of our deaths. I think it's safe to assume that we have quite a long wait ahead of us. He will want me to be crawling up the walls before he starts on us.'

They sat in silence for several minutes. 'So let me get this straight. When they do eventually come to fetch one of us. We don't do anything?'

'My friend, there is nothing we can do.'

The food the Simes brought to their captives was always the same, bread, cheese, fruit and water, and was obviously only meant for Gavin. Vidal had no interest in eating, and sat for hours meditating, and thus, without any real hope of success, try to hold back "need". Time moved inexorably on, and the moment when he should have taken transfer from his partner, came and went.

For once Vidal was grateful for the exercises in self-discipline he had learned over the years. Thankfully the internal shunt that he had accomplished with Gavin had helped, and would hopefully put off hard need for perhaps a day longer. For unlike the ordinary renSime who only has one organ in his body where he can store selyn for his personal use. A channel has two such reserves. One for his personal use, and the second to store the selyn, that can be transferred to a renSime to keep him from the kill. With the help of a Gen a Channel can transfer selyn from one store to the other, and thereby make the selyn accessible to his own body.

The problem for Vidal however, was that he was not a working Channel in the accepted sense of the word, and therefore the capacity held by his body in reserve, was of necessity, the absolute minimum. He also knew that when, or if, he ever got out of this situation he would undoubtedly pay for what he had been forced to do. Indeed he would suffer the painful effects of entran, until his therapist could take him down into dormancy once more. He simply hoped that this time drugs would not be needed, and shuddered as he thought of some of the more unpleasant side effects. Anything was worth avoiding that.

Vidal came alert as the door of the room they were in opened, and Rogan, together with several others entered. Vidal still found it very disconcerting not to be able to zlin their approach through the white wood walls and door, and to be just as surprised as Gavin by their sudden appearance.

'We're taking your Gen away for a short while.' Rogan stated as he assessed Vidal's condition. 'No need to get uptight. He's only going to have a shower.' He soothed. Then keeping Vidal under close observation, he indicated to a couple of his companions to take Gavin away.

As they had agreed, Gavin put up only a token resistance as he was lead out into the corridor and the door swung closed once more.

To Gavin's surprise he was actually allowed to shower. He had assumed that Rogan had only said that he would be allowed to cleanse himself to pacify Vidal, and thereby avoid the Channel becoming uncontrollably violent, and causing injury not only to himself, but to them also. For as Gavin was well aware, the Controller wished to be the one who inflicted damage, and not his prisoners.

Stepping out from the shower, he found that his dirty clothes had been removed, and Rogan handed him a large towel. Once he had dried himself, he was given a change of clothes to put on, and was again manhandled down the corridor to what looked like a gymnasium. At one end Vidal was shackled. It seemed that he too had been allowed to shower, and he was wearing clean clothes. He was also surrounded by several of their captors.

'Ah here he is.' Parv Clifford stated as he turned away from Vidal and walked towards him. 'I have been pondering whether your name, "Dar" is it not? Is significant, and perhaps means that you are connected to the House of Dar, or if it is just coincidence?'

'No, it's not a coincidence. I am Gavin ambrov Dar.' He stated proudly, for there was no reason to prevaricate.

'Ah, I thought there might be a connection. The name rang a bell, so I looked it up on our records. It says that Dar is an ancient House, whose members specialise in the martial arts and personal combat.' A nasty smile made his evil face look even more sinister than before.

'Yes. That's correct.' Gavin said.

The Controller nodded with pleasure. 'Good, there is someone I should like you to meet.'

Clifford glanced over his shoulder, and Gavin saw a surprisingly well built Sime approaching from the other end of the room. 'I mentioned your house affiliation to Rual here. He has no love for Householders, and therefore wishes to challenge you, and...'

'Controller! Gavin wouldn't stand much of a chance against a Sime, unless he agrees not to augment.' Vidal called across anxiously.

Parv Clifford laughed and then coughed in turn. 'You're in no position to dictate terms to me!' He finally managed to spit across at Vidal.

'Vidal. It's all right, I can take him.' Gavin stated as he sized up his opponent, and then realised that no rules had been laid down.

Without a word Rual stepped in front of him and removed his shoes and shirt, Gavin did likewise, but no sooner had he straightened up again than the Sime almost flew at him, augmenting and using selyn recklessly.

Gavin sidestepped, grabbed Rual's wrist, and tossed him over his shoulder. However, he hardly appeared to touch the floor before he was diving through Gavin's splayed legs, and was wrestling him to the floor. Gavin moved up a gear mentally, as he realised the Sime was augmenting continually.

To try and match Rual's speed would be useless, but he could, with a little luck, think himself one step ahead of his adversary. It was one of the disciplines that Dar drilled endlessly into their Gens in particular, for it was really their only defence, when they faced a Sime in sustained unarmed combat. It worked on the principle that the augmenting Sime would be thinking only of the move he was actually making. Whereas the Gen, who had practised move and counter move again and again, so that every manoeuvre he made was instinctive, could think the second or even the third move along, from the one he was actually at that moment in time, fending off.

For a while it worked, and under the normal rules laid down for this type of contest, Gavin would have stood a better than even chance of either drawing with his opponent, or maybe winning. However, this was not a normal contest, and it soon became clear to him that he was fighting quite literally for his life. Peripherally, he was aware of some sort of a commotion at the far end of the room, and realised that Vidal was being restrained. Of course, he had forgotten the Channel's heightened condition, which meant that every blow that fell on Gavin, would be felt by his partner, as it would by every other Sime in the room. Although it appeared from the cheers and grunts of pleasure that, unlike his partner, they were gaining satisfaction from each blow or kick that he sustained.

At last Gavin knew he was slowing down in every way, both mentally and physically. Then suddenly he was slammed to the floor once more and the Sime stamped on his chest. He bit his lip to stop himself from crying out loud as he felt a rib crack under the impact. But Vidal's scream of agony at his injury seared itself into his brain. His wrist was grasped and he was propelled against the far wall, then as he ricocheted off the hard wood he felt a chop to his throat, and darkness descended as he slid thankfully into blessed oblivion. Gavin forced his eyes open at last to find himself back in what he had come to think of as their prison cell. He had difficulty in taking a deep breath, and his throat was so sore that he could hardly swallow his own saliva.

'Gavin. Gavin!'

'What?' He croaked.

Turning his head slightly, he fought off the wave of nausea that swept over him as he squinted a narrow look towards the sound of the voice, and saw his friend fastened by chains to the floor.

'Gavin. Don't try and move. You've taken a bad beating. You have at least one broken rib, possibly two.'

'Are you all right?' Gavin whispered hoarsely.

'Yes. Unlike you, they've not injured me yet. However, I can be of little assistance to you, they have fastened my tentacles into these retainers, which means I can do nothing to help you heal. I'm sorry.'

'Don't be. You can't afford to use selyn unnecessarily at the moment anyway.' Gavin retorted quietly. Gasping for breath.

'They have at least left you some water on the floor next to you. Rest for a moment, gather your strength, and then try to pick it up.'

'My throat feels raw and bruised, I don't know if I could swallow any water at the moment.' Gavin confessed, still whispering.

'Hardly surprising, he chopped you across the throat with the side of his hand. For a moment I thought he had killed you.' Vidal informed him softly.

'Pity he didn't, at least it would have done that lorsh of a Controller out of his fun.' Gavin reached the mug of water from the floor and sitting up placed his feet onto the floor, looking at the clear liquid with a slight frown. 'No one is better off dead. We're both still alive, there's still a chance that we may escape.' Vidal stated with utter conviction.

Gavin tried to laugh with derision then grabbed his throat with his free hand. 'Stop it Vidal! If you make me laugh like that again, you'll slay me, I swear!' Lifting the mug he took a tentative sip and held it on his tongue for several seconds before he found the courage to swallow. Surprisingly it slid down his parched and painful throat quite easily, and he sipped carefully again and again till the mug was empty.

'Feeling better?'

He nodded and replaced the mug onto the floor.

Moments later he stood up swaying precariously as he used the wall to support himself, and staggered over to where his partner was fastened securely. 'You should not attempt to walk.' Vidal stated as he stared up at Gavin's pale but bruised face and body.

The Gen stared down at the ungainly metal retainers. They were not the modern ones that were still sometimes used in hospitals, to prevent a Sime with certain types of illness, from inadvertently injuring himself.

'Is it very bad?' He asked sympathetically.

'Bearable, as long as I don't try to move.' Vidal replied. 'Please, there is nothing you can do for me. Go and lie down, you need the rest.'

Gavin touched his friend's taught shoulder and squeezed gently before he returned to his pallet. 'What do you think they will do to us next?'

'It's best if we don't try to speculate.' The channel murmured.

'That bad eh?' He forced a brief laugh through his abused throat. 'I just wish I had enough courage to take my own life. At least I'd cheat that bastard out of a kill. The thought of being drugged and screaming my head off from sheer terror.' He shook his head helplessly.

'Please, my friend. I know how you feel, but try to be less despondent and morose.' Vidal pleaded.

'Sorry.' Gavin had momentarily forgotten that his own emotions affected Vidal too. 'Hell, I can't even wallow in self pity now.' He laughed quietly, as he endeavoured to force his thoughts away from black despair for his friend's sake. Picking up the shirt that had been tossed onto the pallet beside him Gavin began to try and put it on. Easier said than done. His ribs felt as though a red hot knife had been inserted between them as he moved carefully to put his arm into the sleeve. It took him ten minutes to finally achieve the desired result, and his boots were just as difficult.

'Is there nothing on the pallet that you can use to bind your ribs?'

'No. Just this wool blanket, and to be truthful I'd need a knife, because I haven't got the strength to tear it into strips.'

'Fetch it to me, I'll see if I can do it for you.' Vidal offered.

'With those retainers on? You'd rip your tentacles to pieces if you even tried. Don't worry about it. If you can stand those instruments of torture, I can stand a couple of broken ribs.' He moved to the back of the pallet and rested his back against the hard wall. 'Ah that's better. Vidal, do you think Stella would marry me if I asked her?'

The Channel's eyes opened wide. 'You surprise me. I knew you were interested in her, she is a lovely young woman, but I didn't realise she meant any more to you than all the others. You kept your feelings well hidden my friend. You've always been passionate over your affairs in the past, but the flame has always burned brightly for a short while, and was as quickly quenched.' He stated.

Gavin closed his eyes. 'To be honest I didn't realise she did mean so much to me till all this happened, and then I began to wonder if I would ever see her again, and what we'd never have together. You know, a real home of my own, a family.' He looked across at the Channel. 'How would you feel if she agreed to marry me, and I decided to stay here?'

'I would miss you of course. We've worked well together for the last five years. But you have to settle down sooner or later. I'm pleased you've found someone you really care for. We must all follow our own destiny. I myself have no wish to marry, as you know.' He smiled whimsically for a moment, and then went on. 'I much prefer to pick a pretty bloom here and there, I have no wish to cultivate just one.'

'Do you think she feels the same way I do Vidal?'

'Her emotions are always warm when you are around. I have little doubt that your feelings are reciprocated by her. I wish you luck.' He said honestly, wishing that he could truly feel his friend's happiness, but need, for the moment, would not allow him to share the emotion with him. For a short while they were both lost in their own thoughts.

'Shen, what am I talking about? We're never going to get out of this place, not alive anyway.' Gavin closed his eyes again and tried to bring his churning emotions under control, for Vidal's sake, if not his own. Then they both sat in silence for the best part of another hour. 'I wonder if they'll think to bring us some food?' Gavin asked suddenly. 'Food? Shidoni! Is that all you Gens ever think about!?' The Channel paused. 'My apologies. I'm allowing need to get to me.' 'Of course you are, and you've every right to as well. It's my fault, whining on about my stomach all the time.' Gavin said quickly, angry with himself for his insensitivity. A Channel in need could not control his emotions, and should not be expected too either. He, after all, was the Gen here; it was his job to keep the ambient bearable, and to support his partner in every way. He was falling down on the job, badly, and not for the first time. Taking a deep breath he concentrated on Vidal and was rewarded when the frown disappeared from his brow, and the sensitive lips that looked so very Farris, yet were not, lifted in a slight smile. 'Thank you. I hope I find a partner, with at least half your expertise.' He whispered honestly.

Food arrived shortly afterwards, and the routine began once more. Vidal, like all Simes, normally enjoyed two unique abilities. The first enabled him to know his exact location in relation to whatever planet he was on. Although, until Simes had actually gone into space, it was not known if this ability would leave them when they left their home planet of Earth. Luckily however, it did not desert them. They also had what scientists in the past had termed a built in clock, which was more accurate than any that the Gens would normally use. Unless of course it was an atomic clock, in which case the honours were about equal.

At the moment, because of the Channel's need, which was making him decidedly edgy and short-tempered. Gavin refrained from asking him for the time every few hours, having had his head almost bitten off twice already. So he began to mark off the days in the dust on the floor, and noted the time, by the arrival of his food. Which at least gave him something to do.

At last their wait was over, and Gavin could not decide what his true feelings really were. For on the one hand they would now discover their fate, whilst on the other, did he really want to find out, what that fate would be, in reality? His worst nightmare was the thought that his friend, through the use of drugs, might be forced by these lorshes to attack him in the kill mode. It would be the worst degradation for any Channel to face, and Gavin decided that, as they would both ultimately die anyway, he would do his utmost to take his own life, if he was given any opportunity at all.

Rogan was accompanied by Isaac, along with a troop of other Simes. It seemed they still intended to take no chances, even though he was injured and Vidal was immobilised.

Grinning broadly at a joke that he obviously had no intention of sharing with his captives, Rogan ordered Isaac to unchain the Channel.

'Can't you take off those damn retainers?' Gavin demanded. 'He's hardly in any position to hurt you is he?' He asked sarcastically.

Rogan who was a third, zlinned Gavin and looked him up and down insolently, before he finally grinned, and then gestured to Isaac to remove the retainers. Grabbing hold of Gavin's arm Rogan pushed him towards the door. 'Bring him along too.' He ordered as he glanced across at Vidal who was trying to straighten up from the floor where he had been chained, and was biting his lip to stop crying out, as the circulation began to flow once more through his numb legs.

Gavin tried to move across to help him, but was punched in the back by one of the other Simes, and crashed to his knees. Yet another grabbed his hair to yank him to his feet again. Gavin lost his temper, and lashing out, he began to fight in earnest, as they dragged him along the corridor, towards the steps they had descended, in what now seemed a life time ago. Vidal responded to the Gen's pain and began to fight his captors too, as he was hustled unceremoniously along. Gavin was pleased that he managed to land some telling blows, as did Vidal. They were both finally hauled and kicked up the stairs and then along the corridor. The Simes were shouting and cursing as Vidal went even more wild, as he fought frantically to reach Gavin. Most of their escort were engaged in trying to subdue the Channel, which left only one holding him.

Gavin took full advantage of the situation, ignoring the pain from his ribs. After all, the worst they could now do to him was to kill him, and at this juncture he would welcome death, no matter where it came from. For their situation was increasingly more hopeless.

At last they reached the empty room that Gavin had looked in before, and had described so accurately to Vidal. Augmenting, two Simes wrestled him through the door and across the room, and he discovered what the hooks in the wall were for, as he was lifted and chained to them, and then left to hang as his feet did not reach the floor. Through eyes full of pain he watched as the other Simes literally threw Vidal across the room to bounce off the hard wall. Then they slammed the door closed, turning the key in the lock, and sliding bolts along, with finality.

For a few minutes Vidal lay were he had been thrown before he finally scrambled to his feet, and began to rub his forearms, cursing softly as his hands were covered in Ronaplin, and he had to wipe them on his shirt. Moving to where his partner was fastened, he grasped Gavin's legs to support his body weight.

'How do you feel?' He asked, as his tentacles prodded and poked the Gen's body, and he assessed the thickness of the chain.

'Don't ask.' He caught Vidal's eyes. 'Hopeless isn't?'

'Yes, it would seem so. There is no way that I can force these links apart. It would appear that both Simes and Gens have been chained here. Which would explain why they have used this particular metal.'

'No chance you can pull it from the wall is there?' Gavin pulled hard on the chain as he spoke, and then grunted with pain.

'No! It goes right through, and is anchored on the outside. Look, do you think you can support your own weight for a few minutes? I want to examine the walls, there may be another hidden opening.' He explained, as Gavin nodded mutely. They both knew there was little real hope of him finding anything. Moving quickly he began to feel along the length of each wall, using fingers and tentacles.

Gavin bit his lip till it bled, as he endeavoured not to cry out, as his eyes followed the Channel's progress.

Jason heaved a sigh of relief as he saw Rosebud still standing where he had left her. He had had visions of her getting loose somehow and returning back to the Settlement without him.

He was glad to leave the Sime Centre behind him. There was a strange atmosphere in the place, which had made the proverbial hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. But at least he had managed to both enter and leave the place without being detected. Which was he knew, down to pure luck, and not any ability on his part. He had after all, made enough noise blundering around the place to wake every Sime in the building, assuming they had even been asleep. As far as he was aware, Simes in general seemed to never need more than two hours sleep maximum. Whilst Gens like him happily snored at least a third of their lives away. It really wasn't fair.

It was not quite dawn when he arrived back at the cottage, having first made Rosebud comfortable in her stall. He let himself inside as quietly as he could, not wishing to disturb the other occupants. As he closed the door, the rain stopped.

Undressing quickly he collapsed onto the bed, pulled the covers over his ears, and for once was not bothered by the dawn chorus outside.

The morning was well advanced when he finally got up. The place was deserted so he guessed that Gavin and Vidal had already left for the day.

Having eaten a large meal that combined his breakfast with his lunch. He proceeded to assemble his small collection of leaves and stems, including what looked very much like small pink mushrooms. Wrapping each individually he placed them flat inside a small bag he had obtained for the purpose. Finally adding the two discs, he had acquired by even more nefarious means.

It was the following morning when he realised that neither of the other residents of the cottage had returned. Glancing into their rooms he could see that neither bed had been slept in. It was strange that they had not left some indication that they intended to be away for any length of time. Which while they were not bound to keep him informed, would have been a courtesy, and Vidal at least, was courteous. If they were not back in the next day or so he would have a word with Stella.

He would not like to think that either man was lying somewhere injured. Although he thought they had probably just gone to visit another Settlement, and Gavin at least would think he was a fool to worry.

It was three days later before Stella called on him. She hadn't heard from Gavin, and wondered if he knew where he was? Her father had said they were grown men and quite capable to taking care of themselves, and Jason agreed with him. Having made her sit down at the table, and accept a glass of fruit juice. Jason smiled reassuringly at her. 'Did Gavin give you any indication of what direction they intended to take?' He asked, straddling a chair, his arms folded along the back.

'No, not really. He did say that they intended to call at the Sime Centre first. I guess they needed to donate, but they've been away so long now and I'm getting really worried.'

Jason smiled. 'Well stop worrying. I do tend to agree with Dan you know they aren't children.'

He continued listening politely to Stella, even though his mind was full of other things. So they too had called at the Sime Centre? For some unfathomable reason he did not like the sound of that. Could it be that they had seen or stumbled inadvertently onto something concerning Stardust that they had no right to see? If so, they could well be in quite a lot of trouble. Was he letting his imagination get the better of him?

'Look Stella, as I said I'm sure there's nothing to be worried about. I expect it has just taken them longer than they thought it would, that's all. No need to panic. I tell you what. I meant to go over in the direction of the Sime Centre tomorrow, to speak to some of the farmers out that way. I'll make a slight detour and call in there, see if they did arrive, and what time they left. OK?'

'Oh, I would be so grateful. Thank you.' A smile touched her face; she really was a beauty Jason thought. If he had not been so busy with this other business, he would definitely have given that blockhead Gavin a run for his money!

'I'll keep you informed.' He promised, as he closed the door behind her. Now why had he offered to go to the Sime Centre again? Why was he always so stupid? Show him a half way pretty face, and he was lost. Maybe he had delusions of being heroic, or had been a knight in shining armour in a previous existence? Either way, his chivalrous tendency had got him into trouble yet again. Would he never learn?

He was still castigating himself the next morning as he headed Rosebud towards The Centre. As he rode along he realised that his own selyn field must by now be sky rocketing, so he pressure injected the second dose of nanites into his neck. It would of course, be better if he donated, but for some reason he could not explain, whilst he knew he would not object going to one of the other Centres to donate. He did not want to go to this one. Now why should that be?

He reached the building much quicker in daylight than he had the other night. Tethering Rosebud in the same clearing he had used before, near the water, this time he approached the front door of the building.

Soon he was standing outside listening to the clanging of the bell. Minutes late he was trying to decide whether to pull the rope again, when the heavy door swung open, to reveal the scowling face of an old Sime.

'We're not taking donations today.' He began to close the door.

Jason's hand shot out to prevent him from doing so. 'I have no wish to donate. I am looking for two friends who I have reason to believe may have called here the other day. Vidal Trent and Gavin Dar are their names, one is tall and dark, the other is more my build.' He began to explain.

'There've been no visitors here for the last week.' The door swung towards him again, and once more he stopped it from closing.

'Well, if they do call here. Will you tell them that Stella is worried about them?' The Sime grunted, and Jason hoped he could take that as acquiescence to his request. Then the door finally slammed shut, and left him standing there. 'Thanks for nothing.' He said to the stout wooden door.

Shrugging his broad shoulders, Jason walked back to Rosebud, deciding to follow the stream for a mile or so before he headed back towards the Settlement. Grasping the bridle he urged the mare along, walking beside her. The low growing branches on the trees, and bushes made riding too hazardous for a novice rider like him to attempt. The last thing he needed was to be knocked off his horse. He would not get very much medical help from the Simes at The Centre, he was sure of that, not if the one who had answered the door to him, was anything to go by.

Now, if Vidal and Gavin had not called at the Centre after all. Where the shen were they? The big mare suddenly tossed her huge head and whinnied loudly. To Jason's surprise he heard an answering whinny somewhere ahead and wondering who it could be, he tried to encourage Rosebud to hurry along, but without much success.

At last he pushed aside a small bush and entered another much larger clearing. Two horses looked across at him, tossing their heads in welcome. And it did not take an expert on horses to know that they were Banjo and Major. But where were Gavin and Vidal?

He approached the two horses who were tethered within easy reach of the water, but who had obviously been here for some time, for the grass in their part of the clearing was cropped short, and the ground was covered in their droppings. But the saddles had been removed from both horses. A sure sign that the riders had intended to be away for some length of time at least. What did it mean?

Glad that the clearing was so large, Jason immediately lead Rosebud as far as he could from the other horses, not wanting any trouble. Then tethered her, whilst he went to move the other horses to where they could easily eat more of the lush grass. He knew they must be hungry, but until he had had a look around for the two men, he could not take the horses back home, so there was little more he could do for them at the moment. For all he knew their riders, might well be somewhere close.

Looking around he found one boot print in the soft mud, for the ground around here was very wet and soft. It was leading away from the clearing towards the Sime Centre. But if they had not arrived there, where were they?

He had once read a book on tracking, as he had on most things at some time in the past, for he was a keen reader. But he had never had any practical experience of the art. However, he recalled that he was supposed to look for crushed grass and broken twigs. Walking forward slowly he kept his eyes on the ground but saw neither, indeed there was no evidence that they had come this way at all. All he managed to do was nearly bob his eye out on a low growing branch that he hadn't even noticed, because his attention was on the ground. So much for tracking! It was not as easy as he had assumed. However, the one boot print he had found earlier, had been pointing this way, so unless they had suddenly descended up into the sky, there was no other way for them to go. Which also meant that the only place they could have been heading for, on foot, was The Centre. Now what was he to do?

There seemed little point in ringing the bell, and speaking again to the unhelpful Sime. He would only get the same response. They hadn't been there. Well, he felt quite certain that they had!

Then again, he could of course try to enter the premises by the same door he had used the other night. But would he be as lucky this time, or was he tempting fate once too often? Jason sighed. As if his own assignment wasn't difficult enough, without him traipsing around trying to find two lost men, one of whom would not even thank him, if and when he did find them.

What did seem rather strange however, was why he suddenly had this conviction that he would find both of them inside The Centre. Of course, if they were indeed inside, were they there willingly, or not? Had they perhaps stumbled on something concerning the drugs, as he had thought before? If not?

Shen, this was starting to get ridiculous, what was he thinking now? That they had been kidnapped, or something equally far fetched? There must be a simple explanation. They could be inside The Centre, but the Sime who had answered the door, had not been aware of their presence. Yes, that had to be the explanation. Not some crazy half-baked notion that would be better off between the pages of a mystery novel!

Satisfied with the explanation he had decided upon, he was still left with making a decision about entering the Centre uninvited. If he did not, then he would not find out about Vidal and Gavin, possibly for days. Which might not matter under normal circumstances, but these circumstances were not normal, they had left Banjo and Major unattended. He could not leave the horses there much longer, yet he did not want to leave the men stranded here either. No, he must go in. What could they do to him if he was caught anyway? After all, they didn't know that he had been there before, nor did they know that he was investigating a drug connection. He would just explain that he was looking for Vidal and Gavin, and offer his apologies. End of story. Simple.

Both side doors were locked this time. For an hour he stood waiting, hoping that someone would leave the building. When they did, he almost missed the opportunity. He was looking the other way towards the mountains, when the door swung open, and a Sime came out carrying a sack, and made his way towards the end of the building, leaving the door behind him ajar. It appeared that the nanites were working, or he was just plain lucky, he had no way of knowing for certain.

Jason sprinted towards the opening, and gave no thought to the fact that someone else might also be going out, until he was actually inside the building. Luckily there was no one around. It did occur to him that a Sime Centre should be a lot busier than this one appeared to be. But he dismissed the thought, as he considered his next move.

He stood at one end of a long corridor and listened, he could hear nothing, no sound of movement or voices.

Moving stealthily along the middle corridor he suddenly saw an opening in the panel work. He did not recall seeing it before. Glancing inside he saw it opened into an empty space with no windows, and a staircase leading down. Now where did that go? He tiptoed closer and looked down into the stairwell, some thirty feet below. It could well be exactly the sort of place where the drugs were refined or stored, if indeed some of the Simes who lived here, were guilty of supplying drugs to the outside world. He must remember that he had no definite proof yet. However, once he had had an opportunity to see what was on the discs he had obtained the other night, then it might be a different story.

Creeping down the bare steps he froze as he reached the bottom, and heard the sound of voices close by, and the bang of a door closing much further away. The place was far bigger than he had first assumed. Why had he not noticed this lower floor when he was outside the building?

Crouching down on his haunches he peered furtively into the hallway that led away from the stairs. Half way along a bald headed Sime was fastening a paper to what looked like a Notice Board, before he walked off in the other direction. Suddenly, the quiet was shattered by shouting, and the sounds of a noisy scuffle. Curiosity making him brave, he ventured another look along the corridor in the direction of the melee. His breath caught in his throat as he recognised both Vidal and Gavin fighting futilely in the grasp of what seemed to him, to be at least half a dozen Simes, who were endeavouring to drag them both along the corridor towards him.

He galvanised himself into action, as he realised he stood a good chance of being seen if he remained there any longer. He took the stairs two at a time, and at the top looked around for a suitable hiding place. Which he found behind a large empty packing case that had been pushed into one corner. Not very substantial, but hopefully, if the nanites were not working, they would all be too engrossed in their scuffle to either notice or zlin his presence.

Not daring to move, or look out from his refuge, he listened intently as they pulled and tugged the two men up the stairs. Both Vidal and Gavin were giving a good account of themselves he thought, as he heard the curses and expletives the Simes were shouting in Simelan. It was strange, he thought, that however little one knew of a language, one always learned the swear words first, and remembered them too.

Jason began to wonder if getting caught in the Centre, was such a good idea after all, especially with such a weak excuse for being there in the first place. He was now certain that there was far more going on here than even he had suspected. Something that they had no wish for outsiders to see or know about. Which seemed to corroborate his theories even more. The sounds eventually disappeared as they dragged their captives along the corridor.

Well, staying here any longer was not an option. Another Sime coming through here would either zlin or see him for sure. After all, he had not really been in a situation yet, where he could say for certain that the nanites were working. Equally, he did not want to find himself in such a situation; if he could help it, because they just might not be working. What a crazy mess he had got himself into!

Quickly he took stock. He was inside The Centre. He had also inadvertently it was true, found Vidal and Gavin. But then, he didn't know why they were here; neither did he know why they were presumably being held prisoner. It was all such a recipe for disaster!

Trying to get his chaotic thoughts into some sort of order. He began to mentally list his main priorities.

First he had to find out where they had taken the two men. Second he had to try and free them, and get them out of here, and hopefully back to the Settlement. Put like that, it didn't sound very formidable. A mere bagatelle! He grinned humourlessly to himself. Who was he kidding?

Of course, he also needed to find out exactly what was down below this floor, but that would have to wait for another day. A gurgle of laughter rose up inside him. He quickly pushed it back down, realising that it was caused by nervousness, and nothing else.

Cautiously, he left his hiding place and moved to the opening. Taking a deep breath he stepped out and walked purposely in the direction he knew, from the sounds he had heard that the Simes had taken their prisoners. He was now assuming that Vidal and Gavin had been locked in somewhere. And as the Simes had not come back this way, it was a safe bet that they were either still with Vidal and Gavin, or had gone off in another direction. He hoped it was the latter. Hurrying along the corridor he looked into each room as he passed. Then came to where a small dark passage, lead to another room. Moving silently to the door, he tried the handle but it was locked. Kneeling down he peered through the keyhole, undignified, but necessary. The breath caught in his throat as he looked inside. He could just make out a bare room. Gavin was suspended from two hooks high up on one wall. He could not see Vidal. Then he heard a shuffling noise, and moments later Vidal came into view. He was facing the wall opposite and was moving along it. Jason was not sure whether he was actually trying to force his way through the hard wood, or was trying to climb up it. His arms were outstretched. Shen! Jason drew back, and then placed his eye to the small hole once more. Yes, they were tentacles he could see. Vidal was not only a Sime, but he was a Sime in need! He knew the signs. What the shen was going on here?

CHAPTER SIX

Jason could not believe what he was looking at. It appeared to be a normal room. But why was Gavin suspended from those hooks? Well, whatever was going on, he was clear about one thing. He had to get them out of there before their captors returned. But how? There was a lock, and a number of bolts.

'I can neither feel, nor see any way out of here Gavin.' He heard Vidal state.

'Give me a moment, and I will have another look at those chains.'

'Don't attempt to augment Vidal, you'll use up precious selyn.' Gavin gasped. Jason was just turning away, to see if he could find something that he could use as a crowbar to force the lock open, when he saw two keys hanging on a hook beside the door. Grabbing them, they slipped through his fingers and dropped to the floor. Precious seconds ticked away as he searched in the dark for them. He found them at last, and pushed the largest key into the lock. Sighing with relief as he heard the grating sound as it opened, and then he slid back the bolts, and pushed the door open. Vidal immediately turned, crouched, and ready to spring.

'Careful. It's only me.' He said quickly, moving into the room. 'What's going on here? No, don't answer that, explanations later, let's get you both out of here first.' He tossed the keys to Vidal, and nodded up at Gavin. 'Think you can unfasten those manacles on his wrists if I give you a bump up?' Jason moved close to the wall and cupped his hands. 'Try the smaller of the two keys.' He advised.

'I won't even ask how you managed to get in here, or what you are doing here.' Vidal stated, as he stepped into Jason's hands and reached up to undo the chains that held his partner to the wall. 'I'm just thankful that you are here at all. I agree explanations all around can wait.' He dropped back down to the floor and both men caught Gavin as he collapsed.

'Let's go.' Vidal stated as he heaved his partner onto his shoulder and exited the room.

Jason followed close on his heels, stopping only to lock the door and pocket the keys to throw away outside. It might delay the guards for a few precious seconds whilst they looked for the keys, if they came back to the room, he thought. For with any luck, until they had actually opened the door, they might not realise that their prisoners had gone.

'Make for the side door at the end of the building.' He whispered. 'I came in that way, and the place was deserted.'

Vidal did not argue but set off at a run.

Luck was still with them as they burst through the door and into the warm fresh air outside.

'Your horses are where you left them.' Jason called, beginning to pant, as he tried to keep up with the Sime. For even carrying the heavy burden, he could make faster time than a Gen.

They burst into the clearing and Vidal tossed Gavin up on Banjo's back as he mounted his own horse. Rosebud decided to play up, and shied away as Jason tried several times to put his foot into the stirrup. Vidal turned around, saw he was having difficulty, and dismounted quickly. In seconds Jason was up on Rosebud's broad back and Banjo and Major were racing ahead with Rosebud making a fairly gallant effort to keep up.

'This isn't the way back to the Settlement.' Jason called as loudly as he could. Vidal turned and yelled back. 'They will see our tracks, so if we go back there they could very well attack the Settlement. It is best if we try to get to one of the other Sime Centres.'

Jason decided to save his breath and not argue; it was obvious that Vidal had no intention of listening to him. So he clung on tightly, and prayed that Rosebud would not collapse from the shock of moving so fast.

They had been riding steadily for almost an hour, when the two horses in front of him began to slow. Jason realised that they were now in the foothills of the mountain range he had been looking at this afternoon, whilst he waited to enter the Sime Centre.

Jason brought Rosebud alongside Major, studying the level of Vidal's need. His tentacles were an obvious give away, for they were oozing Ronaplin, the lubricant that helped to conduct selyn in transfer, onto the skin of his forearms. He had seen enough pictures of the condition, and had been told about it by his instructors. Although Simes never usually allowed themselves to get this far into need before they took transfer.

'We'll have to stop soon and let the horses have a rest.' Gavin called.

'Maybe you two should have transfer too.' Jason suggested helpfully. He guessed that they must also be transfer partners. It would explain a lot.

Vidal laughed harshly. 'If only we could! Unfortunately the Simes back there stripped Gavin of his selyn.'

'Shenshay!' Jason stared at him wide eyed.

'Quite. My thoughts exactly.' Vidal said softly.

'So what do you intend to do?' Jason demanded. 'I'm no expert, but I do know enough to be able to tell that you'll never make it to the nearest Sime Centre. Even if we rode right through the night, it'll still take a good day or more to get there.'

The three men stopped at last and Vidal helped Gavin to dismount.

'The horses aren't in good shape either. We daren't push them too much or we'll be left with nothing at all.' Jason stated.

Vidal turned and zlinned him. 'What happened to you? You're in no better condition than Gavin. Did you manage to donate to someone?'

'It's a long story.' He muttered. Surprised that the nanites were obviously working so well. He could only hope that they continued working, if they didn't he could see Vidal attacking him, and who could blame him? Yet, could he bring himself to just sit by and watch this man die? Now that was the whole crux of the matter, wasn't it?

'I take it you're working for the TIS.' Vidal stated.

'Yes.' There was little point in lying now. 'How did you guess?'

'It's the only feasible explanation that explains your presence at the Centre.' Vidal replied.

'So what does that make you two?'

'Tecton Investigation Bureau.' Gavin replied, then sighed. 'How much simpler it would have been if there had been a little co-operation instead of all this damn secrecy. I hate to think how much time we've all wasted going over the same ground twice.'

'Mm but just remember co-operation works both ways, you know. Anyway let's leave that for the moment. I take it you must have found evidence about the drugs? Is that why they took you prisoner?'

'Drugs?' For a moment Vidal looked mystified, and then nodded quickly. 'Yes, that's why.' He agreed, and caught his partner's eye, and knew that Gavin would keep his mouth shut. The Gen appeared to be unaware of the junct situation at the Centre, and if they could keep it that way, all the better.

'I managed to get a lot of information downloaded from their Computers. I don't suppose either of you thought to bring any form of computer with you by any chance?' He asked hopefully.

'Yes we did.' Gavin informed him. 'Didn't you?'

'No, I forgot.' He admitted sheepishly. 'Anyway, I'd like to use it, just to see if I've got enough evidence, or if I need to try and get more.'

'Get more? You can't go back there!' Vidal interrupted looking horrified.

Jason ignored the warning. He didn't want to go back either, but neither would he take orders from Vidal. No matter how well intentioned the order might be. 'Look lets forget all this for the moment. We seem to have two real problems here. The first is putting distance between us and the Simes back there, and the second, which is far more pressing at the moment. Where the hell is Vidal going to get a transfer?' Jason looked from the Sime to the Gen and back again, waiting for an answer.

'I'm sorry. I can't even think at the moment.' The Sime conceded honestly.

'I don't think a renSime could be anywhere near as rational as you are at the moment, nor last this long without going berserk. I take that to mean you're a Channel?' He noted Vidal's brief nod. 'Second or third?' Vidal was silent.

'You're never a First? Oh shen, we're in real trouble.' Jason knew that unlike the other types of Channel, a First had to have a Gen who could meet his demand, not only on capacity, but also on speed.

'Even at another Sime Centre he'll be lucky if they have anyone on the staff who can satisfy him.' Gavin said frankly.

'Probably not, but they should be able to organise a partial and shunt-splice. The very thought of it makes me feel ill, but it's better than nothing. At least it will keep me alive, till next month.' Vidal retorted, with a shudder. Then he went on. 'Look I've been thinking Gavin. One of us should return to the Settlement and warn them, just in case the Simes do attack. Although I doubt they will be so foolish. It's us they want, not the settlers. Because if they can silence us, then their secret about the er drugs, will remain a secret. You can also speak to Gabe Standish, as headman, he can authorise you to use the interstellar transmitter once you explain the emergency. What we've found out about - the er drugs - must be reported to both our organisations as quickly as possible.' He pointed out.

'Well I'm not leaving you.' Gavin stated unequivocally.

'My friend, you can do nothing for me now, and you have at least one broken rib. You should not be riding at all, let alone undertaking the journey that is envisaged.'

Jason glanced across at the Gen. Broken ribs? He must have been badly hurt in that fight, yet he had not complained once.

'I'll stay with him Gavin.' Jason said, before he could change his mind.

'Actually I think you should accompany Gavin, just to make sure that he gets back in one piece.' Vidal stated quietly.

'No!' Both Gens were adamant.

'Please, both of you. THINK! I doubt very much if I shall reach the Sime Centre in time. And if either or both of you go with me, I could not guarantee that I will not attack you in kill mode. If I did, then I would certainly kill you Gavin, and Jason too, for neither of you have anything to give me.'

'If you attack me, I can defend myself.' Jason stated unequivocally.

'Yes of course. I'm not thinking straight; you would have been taught self defence by the Tecton, as part of your training. Very well, in that case I would welcome your company. Gavin I suggest you leave as soon possible.'

Jason knew they would want to say their good-byes, and moved across to where the horses were eating the grass, to afford them a little privacy. For all three men knew that it was extremely unlikely that Vidal would reach help in time, and they had been partners for a number of years.

As he stood stroking the nose of Vidal's horse, various questions churned through his confused mind, to which he could find no simple answers. Could he stand by and watch the Channel die, or if he was attacked in kill mode, could he really defend himself? The selyn was still in his body; it simply was not showing up to Sime senses. Yet, sooner or later the effect of the nanites would wear off. Should he protect himself, and take the third and last injection now? Vidal climbed up a large rock and zlinned behind them, and then called down. 'Your way back is clear Gavin. If they are attempting to follow us, it would appear that they have gone in another direction.'

Gavin nodded. 'I'm off then Jason. I'm taking Rosebud and leaving you Banjo. This old nag would probably never make the journey. And thanks for getting us out of there. One request, take care of him if you can won't you? He's a good man, and an even better friend.' He lowered his voice and looked into Jason's green eyes for a moment before he went on. 'And if you have to defend yourself. Make a good job of it.'

Jason nodded; he knew what Gavin meant. 'By the way Stella was really worried about you. In fact it was because of her that I came looking for you both.'

Gavin smiled. 'And it's because of her I'm willing to leave you and go back there. Mind you, they do need to be warned of what might happen, no matter how unlikely.'

'I agree. Just do one thing for me will you? You'll find a bag with plant specimens and 2 discs under the cupboard in my room. See that it gets to the TIS.'

'You'll give it to them yourself.'

'Yeah maybe, but just in case OK?' Gavin nodded, and raising a hand waved to both men, as he rode away, without looking back.

'I have the feeling that I shall have to look for a new partner.' Vidal said softly, as he watched Gavin disappear from view.

'That's the least of your worries.' Jason muttered. 'Shall we go?'

'Yes. But lets get out of these foothills and up into the mountains as quickly as possible. I am worried that I can zlin no sign of pursuit. It makes me wonder if the Simes know where we are, and are taking a parallel route that will cut us off. The mountains are riddled with caves, and they will give us refuge during the hours of darkness while we rest the horses. If we can be underway before dawn, then a full day's ride, and we may make the nearest Sime Centre by tomorrow evening.'

'I thought it was only Gens who are that optimistic.' Jason retorted, and Vidal gave a bark of laughter as he clapped his heels into Major's flanks and took off.

They found a suitable cave just before darkness fell. They made the horses as comfortable as they could. And then sat down to rest. Jason could see how agitated the Channel was becoming, although he was doing his best to hide it. 'Can I help at all?' He felt compelled to at least offer.

'If you were high field now, I would say either serve me, or go away while you still can. However, at the moment I find your presence as calm and peaceful as Gavin's, perhaps even more so.' He beckoned him across, and Jason scooted over and settled down beside him. Trying his best to ignore the Sime's tentacles that were now flicking in and out of their orifices.

'You know. I never expected to be this close to a Sime in need. I guess there is a first time for everything.' He felt physically and mentally exhausted, which was hardly surprising considering what had happened in the last day. Sighing he lay down and closed his eyes. He was not sure what finally woke him up, the hard rock floor or the extreme cold. It never entered his head that it might be the need of the Channel that had effected him, albeit perhaps, only on a subliminal level.

Sitting up, he looked around for Vidal and saw him standing at the entrance to the cave. He was staring out into the predawn sky. 'You are awake, good.' He spoke without turning around. 'I have watered and saddled the horses. I suggest we go now.'

'I've been thinking. The Simes may not be following us at all. They must realise that we will inform the authorities about the drugs, and they could be utilising the time they have left to them to destroy or hide all the evidence.' 'Possibly.' The Channel's voice was non-committal.

Jason stood up and stretched. 'I'm starving.' He stated before he could stop himself. How insensitive to even think about food at a time like this. The appetite Vidal needed to feed could quite literally, end the Channel's life. 'Sorry.' He mumbled, as he crossed to where the horses stood.

Vidal waved two dorsal tentacles his way, as he got onto Major. 'We may see some berries, keep your eyes open.' He lead the way outside and then took off as quickly as the terrain would allow. It was obvious to Jason that his patience was quickly running out.

'Have you noticed any signs of pursuit, since we left the cave?' He asked drawing alongside him.

'No.' Vidal snapped in reply. Then sighed. 'I think we have been lucky.' Banjo was far more lively than Rosebud, and as they left the foothills on the other side of the mountains, the horse kept trying to break into a gallop, and Jason had to fight to keep him under control.

If the situation had not been so dire, Jason would have enjoyed the scenic beauty that surrounded them. Vidal in front was keeping Major to a fast trot. He was looking straight ahead, and appeared to be totally unaware of Jason's presence.

Jason kept going for as long as he could, then called a halt. 'Vidal I have to stop.' He suited action to words and slid down off Banjo's back, not waiting to see if the Channel had also stopped. He lead the horse to where he had spotted a fast flowing steam, and left him to drink, while he went to answer the call of nature behind a convenient rock. Hurrying back, he knelt down to splash the cool water onto his face, and then drank his fill. It was no substitute for food, but at least it helped to fill his stomach, and stop him feeling quite so nauseous.

Vidal had watered Major, and was already mounted, staring ahead. He only waited till Jason stepped up into the saddle, and then took off at a reckless pace. 'Vidal! Slow down, you damn fool.' Jason galloped after him, finally catching up with him and grabbing his bridle. 'I said slow down! If you injure that horse we'll never make it in time.' His eyes fell to the Channel's tentacles. They were now dripping with even more Ronaplin than before.

Vidal turned his head to look at him, his eyes bleak. When he spoke, it was as though he had to force each word, passed his dry lips. 'I suggest you stay well behind me from now on. I am beginning to see you as my saviour. I can even sense selyn in you, when I know there is none.' He laughed harshly. 'If I'm not careful, I may soon not even care whether I am right or wrong.'

Jason opened his mouth to speak, and then realising he only had platitudes to offer, closed it again with a sigh.

Vidal ran fingers and tentacles through his thick black hair, before he spoke again. 'Rather than hurt you, or any Gen, I would.' He paused.

'I know. You would take a suicide abort.' Jason murmured.

'And there lies the problem. I am not a working Channel. In fact it's over 5 years since I've been tested. I cannot be certain that my conditioning will not let me down. If it should, I trust you will make a clean job of it, and that you learned your self defence well.' An almost wry smile touched his sensitive lips. 'You may have to put those lessons into practice sooner than expected.'

'Come on Vidal. It's not far now, only a few hours, surely you can hang on for just a little while longer.' He encouraged.

'You stupid shedoni be flayed lorsh! What do you think you know about.' Vidal stopped and bit his lip in mortification. 'I'm sorry.' He had always prided himself on his self-control, but now it was draining away, fast. He could not go on like this. He could not!

'No, it was my fault. It was a stupid thing to say, and you're right I am a lorsh.'

'My friend. If...if I do attack you, you MUST defend yourself. I do not want to die, with your death on my conscience. Your promise.'

'Vidal.' He sucked air into his lungs, but could not go on.

'Jason! Your word, now!'

'You have it.' Vidal nodded, and then rode off at a more steady pace.

It was well passed midday when the Channel called a halt and dismounted again. 'I believe there are some berries over there.' He pointed, and watched as Jason stepped down out of the saddle, and hurried in the direction he had indicated. Jason picked handfuls of the yellow berries. He had seen them being eaten at the Settlement so knew that they were safe, although he could not remember their name. The bushes were heavy with the fruit, and he picked many handfuls savouring the sweet flavour, which tasted almost like a cross between a plum and an apricot. He knew he would probably get stomach cramps, from eating so many of the delicious fruits, when he was so empty. But at the moment, he just didn't care.

Hurrying back to Banjo he felt guilty that he had been able to eat, when apart from the grass, the horses had not. Neither had Vidal, but then that was to be expected. All other appetities, be it food or sex disappeared when the drive for Selyn was in control, a need that ruled a good part of the Simes life.

Jason had often read, and been told, of all the advantages that the Sime had over the Gen. He was well aware that from the time when a Sime first changed over, for the first year at least, he could learn at a phenomenal rate. Leaving a Gen of the same age well behind. He was so much stronger, and he had the ability to augment, by using up his store of selyn, which increased his speed and strength even more. On top of all that, Simes could see vast distances and read emotions by having the ability to zlin. Oh yes, there were so very many advantages to being Sime.

Then on the reverse side of the coin, look what happened in a situation like this. There was no one here to give Vidal transfer. Without selyn he was finished, literally. The Sime nature was a weakness, not strength, no matter what propaganda they put out to the contrary. For who would really want to live with such a handicap?

Then there was he, a Gen, who could live on this planet or indeed anywhere else in the Universe that he chose. Entirely on his own, if he so wished. He did not need to rely on anyone. There was a Poem he remembered reading once, it had been called, "I want to be Sime/I want to be Gen", and it had summed up everything rather well. As far as he could recall it had ended with the words - so which would you rather be?

Jason had always been ambivalent about Simes. In fact when he had been growing up all he had ever felt for Simes, if he had considered them at all, was compassion, certainly not envy. Because he knew they were tied by their nature. What a way for anyone to live. When Mother Nature had decided to mutate humanity, what a dreadful joke she had played on the Sime.

In fact, the only people that Jason felt more sorry for, were those Gens who spent their entire lives regretting that they were not Sime. Instead of being grateful for what they had, and making the most of the short life that nature gave to all humans, no matter whether they were Sime or Gen.

Jason remembered when he had been told that he had established as a Gen. His one and only over-riding emotion had been relief. He was free to live his life entirely as he wished, and within the parameters laid down by Society, he was answerable to no one. He was free.

He recalled also his short time at the Tecton, which if he was brutally honest with himself, he had joined purely for the money.

Of course, there were some Simes who were resentful. Who felt trapped in the body that they had, and wished that they could get away from it, perhaps even be Gen? They could never physically do so of course, but they could leave the environs of the Tecton, and try to make a life for themselves outside their influence. And in a way wasn't that exactly what Vidal had done? As a tied pair with Gavin, he had been able to get away from Earth, and the Tecton, for long periods of time. He might not realise that that was one of the things that motivated him, but Jason had little doubt that it was. Yet even he had to rely on someone else for his very life.

He laughed suddenly. What the hell did he think he was doing? Here he was, in the middle of a life and death struggle in the most literal sense, and he was using up precious time trying to answer philosophical questions that had perplexed humanity since the age of chaos! Thinkers still argued the eternal questions about Sime and Gen, and would probably always do so, right up to the end of life itself.

Turning he hurried back the way he had come. Banjo was standing under the shade of a white wood tree, cropping all the grass that he could reach. Of Major and Vidal there was no sign.

For a moment Jason was undecided what to do. Perhaps Vidal was checking out the way ahead? But what for? Could he have gone to relieve himself, if so, why take Major with him? Oh shen! Face it, you fool, stop prevaricating! You're only lying to yourself. You know where he's gone, and why. Say it damn you, you know you're thinking it. 'He's gone to die.' The words spoken out loud sounded empty, and so dreadfully final.

Here he was, standing amongst the lush beauty of this planet. The light and warmth from Regis 9's Star only made him realise how cold he felt inside. Cold to his very heart, where the heat could not penetrate. 'He's gone to die.'

Perhaps if he said it often enough, he would be able to accept it.

Looking around he spotted a huge rock, probably thrown there by some ancient volcanic eruption. Running towards it he scrambled up its side, until he stood at the very top. From his vantage point he saw the movement far away, as horse and rider moved steadily away from him. 'He's gone to die.' The words seared themselves into his brain. Didn't he care that a good man was giving his life for him? How could he just stand here and watch?

Vidal must have decided that no, he could not rely on his conditioning to make him take a suicide abort, and equally, did not trust that he Jason, would be able to defend himself either.

On the horizon Jason suddenly saw a silver ribbon glinting in the brilliant light. He remembered looking at it on one of the maps of the area that Stella's father had shown him. Dan had called it the River Titan, and he said it had been called that because it was one of the biggest and most treacherous rivers the settlers had ever seen. And Vidal could not swim!

There was only one bridge over The Titan, a bridge that had been built by Sime engineers when they had first arrived on the planet. It was so deep and fast flowing, with so many falls dotted along its length, that to attempt to cross it by anything other than the bridge, was certain death. Surely Vidal would not do anything so foolish? But why shouldn't he? What alternative was there for him? Death by drowning, or death by attrition, as far as he was aware, they were his only alternatives, and both had similar endings. Perhaps one type of death was slightly better than the other, but who could say?

Staring out across the vastness, he realised that his vision was blurred, tears were streaming unheeded down his face. Perhaps he was already too late? He looked up into the cloudless sky, and raising his voice beseeched whatever Gods were up there to let Vidal live. 'Please! No! Not like this, please.'

He almost flung himself off the rock, and stumbled his way across to Banjo stepping blindly into the saddle, and wiping his eyes on the back of his hand. He had never been a religious man, but now he prayed silently, to any deity that had the time to listen to him. He gave the horse its head, and raced blindly through the undergrowth.

And Vidal could not swim! As he rode, his heart pounded in time with Banjo's hooves. His mind willing Vidal not to go into the river, but to wait for him. Later he would remember little of the breakneck ride that he took that afternoon.

When he arrived beside the Channel's horse, he threw himself to the ground even before Banjo had stopped. 'Vidal, where are you?' His words were whipped away by the spray and noise from the mighty river, the sound of the roaring water louder than anything he had ever heard before.

Running forward, he saw Vidal standing on a rock beside the falls. His arms were outstretched, as though he intended to dive into the maelstrom before him. And Vidal could not swim!

With a burst of speed that he had never realised he was capable of, Jason raced towards the lonely figure. 'Vidal no! For pity's sake turn around.' Reaching him at last, he threw his arms around his waist and pulled him backwards. Both men overbalanced and fell to the floor. 'Vidal listen to me. It's me. I'm here, I CAN serve you. Zlin me, please.' Jason staggered to his feet as the Sime turned; his face was twisted with anguish and pain.

The time for words was over. Silently Jason held out his arms, hoping that the Channel could indeed sense the selyn in his body. He knew that Vidal had intended to give his life, to save Jason's. Could he do less, even if he died in the attempt? Tentacles lashed around his strong arms, as hot dry lips touched his own, and he knew he had taken that final step, and had kept his rendezvous with destiny. For the first time he understood the tie and the commitment that bound Sime and Gen together for all time. Forget all the questions and arguments. In this simple act was the true unity of mankind.

Later, much later, both men sat before a small campfire. Jason was busy roasting some roots that they had found. The horses were tethered close by chomping on the rich grass that grew in the fertile ground near the river.

'Are you absolutely certain these things aren't poisonous?' He demanded, for the third time.

'Absolutely. I made a brief study of the nutritional value of the flora on the way to Regis 9, and I also read up on what is poisonous to the Gen and the Sime, and what is not.' Vidal stated, with what looked suspiciously like a complacent smile.

'A pity you didn't study what the taste was like while you were about it.' Jason retorted. Smug bastard.

Jason prodded the unappetising fare further into the heart of the fire, and then began answering the Channel's question, as he explained to Vidal how he came to be on Regis 9, and what had lead up to his accepting the mission in the first place.

'So you were promised the post of engineer if you completed this assignment?' Jason nodded, as he turned the roots over. 'It's always been my ambition. Although I have to admit, I haven't been bored carrying out this assignment, but wild horses wouldn't make me admit that to Helma Vestii.' He grinned wryly.

'She is a very formidable lady.' The Channel agreed.

'You've met her?'

'Yes. Twice as a matter of fact, although I doubt she would remember.' He smiled. 'As you my friend, do not remember the occasion when you first saw me.' 'I had a feeling I'd seen you somewhere before, but I dismissed it as nonsense.

'When was it?'

Vidal told him.

'Of course, but that was probably why I didn't make the connection. I knew I was being zlinned by a Sime on Luna Base 3, but when I met you at the Settlement, you were, as far as I was aware, a Gen.' He again prodded one of the roots with a stick. 'I wonder if these things are cooked yet?'

'I can hear your stomach rumbling from here, why don't you try one and see?'

'Yuck! It taste's dreadful.' He screwed up his face, as he wondered whether to spit it out or actually swallow it.

'Nevertheless I believe it is packed with protein, and your body needs the nourishment.' The Channel advised.

'It's all right for you to lecture about protein and stuff, you don't need to eat it.' He sniffed at it delicately. 'It smells even worse than it tastes, can you imagine that?'

'Stop allowing your imagination to rule your common sense.' Vidal advised. 'Simply chew and swallow, but think about something else.'

'No, I think I'll pass.' Jason tossed the root into the undergrowth, and began rescuing the others from the fire, only to toss them away also. 'That's better.'

'You are a very stubborn man.' Vidal murmured.

'Yeah, I won't argue with your diagnosis. You can see why I didn't fit in with the Tecton can't you?' He lay back on the hard ground; his head cradled in his arms, and stared up at the hundreds of different constellations visible in the dark night sky. 'Apropos of nothing Vidal. How do you cope with entran, because you're not a working Channel are you?'

'Mild medication on occasion. But in the beginning I had to take something a little stronger, but on the whole it seems to have settled down. I rarely get any problems now.'

'You're lucky. I've seen some bad cases.'

'Yes, but I think you would find that they were mainly Channels who are ill or are coming to the end of their working lives. It's always difficult to slow down, or to stop using a system entirely. The cramps can be crippling. Hopefully it is something I will never have to experience too much in my own twilight years, because of my life style.'

Jason allowed a yawn to escape, and rubbed his eyes tiredly.

The Channel glanced across at the supine figure. Jason was totally unaware that his Gen body was now producing selyn beat for beat in synchronisation with Vidal. 'Sleep, I will stand guard.' He said. 'Although I do not think it is necessary, I can zlin nothing hostile anywhere near here.'

He waited till he could hear the Gen's breathing deepen, and knew that he was asleep, before he lay down himself, and stared up at the twin satellites above him. What should he do about the dilemma that now faced him? Jason's basal selyn production rate was exactly equal to his own selyn consumption rate. Ergo, they were matchmates. To him, as a Sime, living the type of life he did, it was like being offered a touch of heaven. To Jason, a man who treasured his independence and freedom, it would be nearer to a living hell.

Thankfully they were not locked into a dependency yet, but if they shared another transfer, they could well be. The only alternative then, unless Jason agreed to become his Companion and to take Gavin's place as his partner, would be to break the dependency with Hosaniline. A powerful new drug that sometimes had extremely unpleasant side effects for both Sime and Gen. No, he could not repay Jason's generosity, now that he knew how deep the commitment between them would, over time, undoubtedly become, by endangering the very liberty the Gen held so dear. He was a free spirit, and he must remain that way.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

'Sosu Devere.'

'Call me Jason, please.'

The Channel nodded his grey head in acquiescence. 'Very well, Jason. I have the results of your physical here, and I am pleased to tell you that I can find no after effects from your ordeal. However, I believe you said that you still pay periodic visits to your therapist at the Tecton Centre on Earth?'

'Yes I do. As I explained to your assistant, when I first went to the Tecton for training they said I was a "natural". Then when I decided to opt out, they felt it was necessary to call me back for check ups now and then. I think they felt it was essential to keep an eye on the situation, because in certain circumstances, I could develop problems. They didn't specify exactly what sort of problems.' He confessed.

'I'm sending a complete report to your therapist.' He glanced down at the computer screen. A Channel by the name of Dagmar Doyen I understand. A truly excellent doctor. I expect she will wish to see you once she has seen this report.'

'Why's that?' Jason demanded at once, trying to catch a glimpse of the information on the computer screen, and failing. He had been correct, for unlike the Gens; it appeared that the Simes on Regis 9 did not share their aversion to using technology, when they felt it necessary.

'Well I don't have your records, nor am I familiar with your medical background. It is quite possible that my diagnosis is in error. More than possible.' He switched off the screen. 'You leave Regis 9 later today I understand?'

'Yes. Captain Kelvan of the Tomar has offered to give me a lift back to Luna Base 3, along with Vidal Trent.'

'Ah, of course, yes. Vidal is attending the Wedding of his partner, to a local girl, am I right?

'Yes. He's best man.' Jason smiled. He himself had been invited, but as they were both leaving the planet later today, and he had had to come and see the head Channel of this Centre, he had declined. But he did wonder what Gavin and Vidal would make of the service in the Church of Unity. Very few Simes bothered with a formal Wedding ceremony, unless they married a Gen from outside the Tecton. The simple act of living and sleeping together was considered commitment enough, even for Tecton raised Gens.

On Earth most Gens, if they had no religious beliefs, took up State Marriage Contracts that lasted for a specified time and had to be renewed. The only exception being when children were involved. Then the Contract would automatically be renewed, until the child or children reached the age of 16, when it was considered they could fend for themselves. It was the type of Contract he himself had entered into with Rosina, and his brother Mike had taken up with Christine.

However, if the participants did belong to a religious institution, then a ceremony would be performed according to their faith. And it seemed that the Gens on Regis 9 were as traditional in their own beliefs, as they were in the back to basics tenor of their everyday lives. Thank goodness they belonged to the Church of Unity, and not the Church of Purity, now that would have caused some problems! He grinned broadly.

Jason looked around the quarters he would be sharing with Vidal on the Tomar. Compared to what he had been given on The Juggernaut, these were first class. But then the Simes always seemed to take more of an interest in their own creature comforts, than Gens did.

'I trust everything is all right? Let me know if there is anything you can't find.'

He turned at the sound of Vidal's voice. 'It's all fine, thanks. How did the Wedding go?'

'I've seen one such ceremony before, and have read a lot about the customs of various religious sects. However, I think it was a bit of a surprise to Gavin.' He chuckled wryly. 'My ex-partner could never be called an academic, he is more a man of action. But then, being Gavin Ambrov Dar of the House of Dar, a House dedicated to the martial arts, it is hardly surprising.' He explained.

'I suppose the Tecton will assign you a new partner when you get back?' It was a rhetorical question, so Jason went on. 'Do you get any say in the matter yourself, or do you just have to take what they give you?'

I do get some input, yes. After all it would not be very sensible if I was assigned someone I couldn't stand, or who could not stand me.'

Jason grinned. 'Even worse if they've got bad breath or smelly feet.'

'Quite. However, equally important, is that we are fairly evenly matched as far as transfer is concerned. It can never be perfect of course, but with the help of medication on occasion, one does learn to adapt, as long as the difference falls within certain parameters that are acceptable.'

Jason fell silent as he digested what he had been told. Then he moved to look out through the small porthole at the black vastness of space outside. 'Do you fancy a game of chess later? If not, I can always play against the computer, if you'd rather read or something.' He spoke quickly, not wanting the Channel to feel he was obliged to entertain him.

'I should be delighted to play. Gavin never did.' He replied simply.

'Good. After dinner then. By the way, when do we eat?'

'Whenever you wish. Come, if you are ready I will take you to the mess deck, and introduce everyone.'

The journey back to Luna Base 3 passed quickly, as they spent much of their time, reading, playing chess, or discussing a hundred and one different subjects that they found interested them both. Including, inevitably, the history of the human race as far as they knew it to be. The difference between the Gen, and the Tecton way of life, and Terran politics. Some of the discussions got quite heated, and would often spill over into the dining room, when other crewmembers would join in the discourse.

If nothing else, the friendly arguments and banter tended to highlight their similarities, as much as their differences. Indeed they both found their conversations stimulating, no matter what the subject, or how at variance were their views.

In fact, both men were astonished when they arrived on the Moon.

Jason was also surprised to find that he was sorry to leave Vidal, when they docked at Luna Base 3. But his own shuttle was waiting for him, and the Channel had to see about his own transportation.

As Jason exited the Shuttle Station on Earth, he found that, inevitably it seemed, it was raining. Surely it had stopped at some time during his absence? Then again, perhaps not.

He had called Mike from Luna Base 3, and had arranged to stay with him for a few days, as he had disposed of his own apartment before he left Earth. On the basis that a new life deserved a fresh start in every way. He would stay with Mike until he had had time to visit the Tecton, and also see Helma Vestii for his debriefing.

It was Vidal who had informed him that although both the TIB and the TIS had sent detachments to Regis 9 to sort out the drug problem. The two outfits were already arguing about who was responsible for what, and the Tecton were now sending replacement Channels and other personnel to take over the Sime Centre from Parv Clifford and his cohorts who had already been arrested. On drug charges, he presumed.

Jason found he had been scheduled to call at the TIS Head Quarters for his debriefing at the end of the week. Although as they already had all the information, and evidence, that they needed, plus his Report. It would just be a matter of him dotting the I's, and crossing the T's. However, he would also hopefully find out about the post of engineer that he had been promised. Although, strangely, the thought of achieving his ambition, did not engender the same amount of excitement for him, as it once did.

He arrived at Mike's apartment to find that his brother was not at home. He had however remembered to programme his door lock to accept his brother's thumbprint.

Entering the apartment he made his way to the room he had used before on various occasions, and tossed his things onto the bed. Now what? Mike would of course be at Conways Bar. So he might as well go there himself, he could do with a little rest and relaxation.

Strangely since leaving Earth and meeting Vidal Trent, he had become accustomed to more stimulating company, and did not relish the thought of spending the evening ahead, on his own. He knew he would soon have to get back into a more mundane routine soon, but not just yet.

Mike as usual, was sitting in his favourite seat. 'Get into the apartment all right?'

'Yes, no problem thanks.'

'Where've you been? I was starting to get worried. Did you get the job you went after or not?'

'Yes, I got it, more or less anyway. They wanted to put me through my paces, on the spot, so to speak. That's where I've been, on a freighter.'

He was surprised to find that the untruths, slipped easily from his tongue. 'I'll know if I did okay in a few days time, I'll keep you posted.'

'You do that.' His brother drained his glass, then looked at him, before he spoke. 'I think I've met someone else Jas.'

'What? How the hell did you manage that? I mean, you're working during the day, sitting here drinking every evening. It doesn't leave you much time for socialising does it?' Jason observed with a grin.

'I registered myself with Matchmakers Inc.' Mike stated, his expression daring his younger brother to laugh at him.

'So who is she, what's she like?'

'Her name's Helen and she's the same age as me. A redhead, but very homely. She's widowed, and has 3 kids. She wants more.'

'Widowed with three offspring? Do you want to take on a commitment like that?' Jason asked in genuine surprise.

'Yeah. I'm looking forward to it Jas. I told you I miss my own kid even though she's over 16, far more than I miss Christine. You were right, she was a bitch. Helen and I have talked a lot, and we get along well. We're meeting for the first time face to face this weekend.'

'I'm pleased for you Mike. I really am. I hope it works out.'

'Yeah, so do I.' He sighed heavily. 'I can't go on living like this forever. Know what I mean?'

Jason nodded.

'Look, I'm a bit out of touch with all this sort of thing, you know, romancing a woman, taking her out and all that. Where do you suggest I take her?' His elder brother asked earnestly.

'You're picking her up at her place I take it?' And as his brother nodded, he went on. 'Fine, so you take her some flowers, women like that. I'll book you a table at the China House, they cater to all tastes, she'll love it there, and it won't cost you an arm and a leg either. And there's a night club right next door, where you can go and do a bit of dancing, or just listen to the music. Stop worrying, you'll be OK.' He promised, and gave a broad grin as he thought of his staid and gloomy brother, strutting his stuff on the dance floor.

The next morning Jason received a notification to call for an appointment to see Dagmar Doyen his therapist, at the Tecton Centre.

A call to the Channel's secretary furnished him with an appointment that very morning; someone had apparently just cancelled. He cursed under his breath; he had been looking forward to a lazy morning today. Still, perhaps it was better to get it over and done with now, rather than have things drag on for days. Finishing his breakfast quickly, Jason went to shower and dress, and at 10.45 a.m. exactly, he presented himself to the Channel's receptionist, a young Sime with a sweet smile.

He sat on a soft sofa and glanced through the huge windows at the city far below, as he waited to be summoned into the inner sanctum.

At 11.00 a.m. precisely, he was shown into Dagmar Doyen's office.

She was a typical Sime woman, tall and slim. She wore her golden blonde hair twined into a mass of curls, high on her head. Her blue eyes with their impossibly long lashes surveyed him as he entered the room. She had not altered at all, except she had perhaps grown even more beautiful.

He had once almost plucked up the courage to ask her out, and had then found out that she was involved with a Gen, a senior administrator in the Controllers Office, who also happened to be her transfer partner, and her Companion.

'Ah, yes, Sosu Devere.' She smiled, and indicated a chair in front of her desk. She had always as a matter of courtesy, addressed him in the Gen manner, and he returned the compliment, by always calling her by her title of Channel.

'Good morning Hajene Doyen. I gather you wanted to see me as quickly as possible.' He replied.

'Yes. I gather from the various reports I have here, that you have been indulging in quite a few unexpected activities since we last spoke.'

Her voice was soft and melodious. Down boy! She's spoken for. He reminded himself silently. 'I suppose you could say that.' He grinned across at her.

'I realise you had little option but to give transfer on Regis 9 Sosu Devere. But it is unfortunate that it was a Channel, and a first too.' She looked up from the reports she had on the portable scribes in front of her. 'Can you tell me where you got hold of XGA 42, and why you used it?'

'XGA 42? What's that? I've never heard of it.' He knew she was zlinning him.

'It appears you are telling the truth Sosu Devere.' Her lovely face broke into a worried frown. 'It's very strange, because traces of the nanites were found in your body by the Channel who carried out the tests on Regis 9.'

Shen! She was talking about the nanites Avon had given him.

'It seems you do know about them after all. I began to wonder if they had been administered to you without your knowledge, however unlikely that might be. The nanites I am referring to Sosu Devere were abandoned by our scientists, many years ago, primarily because of the very side affects that appear to be afflicting you now. So I ask you once again, where did you get them, and why did you take them?'

'I'm sorry. I er I'm not at liberty to say.' What the hell did he do now?

'I would urge you to consider your position carefully. As your therapist I must tell you that you have done yourself harm through injecting XGA 42. If you do not answer my questions truthfully, then there is little I can do to help you.' She leaned forward with her elbows on the desk her tentacles dancing between her slim fingers; her eyes steady on his face.

'Look Vidal Trent will have told you what happened on Regis 9. I er I work for the Government. I suggest you talk to Helma Vestii. That's all I'm at liberty to tell you.'

'How many did you take?'

Jason pulled the phial out of his pocket, he had intended giving it back to the TIS at his debriefing. 'Here, I took two injections, that's all, there's one left.' He placed it in front of her.

'We abandoned the research into these nanites for very good reasons.' She picked up the phial and placed it into the drawer of the desk. 'I trust you are not busy for the rest of the day?'

'No. This is a free day for me. Why?'

'I want you to undergo a full range of tests. I need to see how much damage you have managed to do to yourself.' She stated softly.

'I feel fine. In fact I've never felt better.' He assured her at once.

'Unfortunately, at the moment, that is nothing to go by. I merely ask you to be patient, when I have the results in front of me, we can then discuss what should be done, if anything at all. All right?' She pressed a button on her desk, and one of her assistants came in.

'Ah Norris. This is Sosu Devere. Please ensure that he has all the tests I have listed on here. Especially this and this.' She pointed to the list with two graceful tentacles. 'They are most important. Bring him back here as soon as they have all been completed, and bring the results back with you.'

It was after 4.00 p.m. when he finally found himself sitting outside Dagmar Doyen's office once more. He had had to skip lunch, so he was hungry, as well as tired, and quite irritable too, for some of the tests he felt were totally unnecessary.

Thankfully she did not keep him waiting very long, and he soon found himself sitting in front of her again.

She looked up as he sat down, and smiled gently across at him, before she resumed reading the result of his tests. She looked delightful sitting there nibbling on a tentacle. His irritation left him.

'It is, as I feared. You know of course that you are a natural.' She paused and then went on. 'You will remember that we managed, with the help of medication, to slow your selyn production down, to a manageable level? It now appears that XGA 42 aggravated by the transfer you gave to Vidal Trent, have totally over ridden your body's governors. Your selyn production at this moment is climbing; in fact I would say it is almost spiraling out of control. We shall have to start you on a course of Tekheemaelong. It is very much stronger than anything you have taken before.'

'Are you sure that's really necessary?' Jason interrupted.

'Yes, I am afraid so. Also you will have to pay a visit to the Collectorium, we must take your field down first. I feel too that a course on the inhibitor is called for. But I will consult with a colleague before we take such drastic action. He may be able to suggest an alternative. As you are aware, the inhibitor would be a last ditch attempt to bring you under control. If it fails? Well we will not go into that now. We must be positive. Please try not to worry.'

Jason laughed harshly. 'Try not to worry? It's my life we're talking about here.'

'Oh no! You have it all wrong Sosu Devere. There's no question of you dying.' She stated quickly.

'Hajene Doyen, YOU have it all wrong, not I. We both know, that if you can't bring my selyn production under control, I shall have no choice but to return to the Tecton, finish my training, and become a TN-1. To me, that would be tantamount to dying.' He said dryly, knowing that as Sime, she would not understand his reasoning.

Now she was staring at him, not trying to hide her shock at his words. 'I see. Well, it seems I owe Vidal Trent an apology. He said that he could not ask you to be his partner. That such a proposition would be abhorrent to you. He also said that notwithstanding the fact that you are matchmates, your freedom means everything to you, and he could not allow you to give that up and...'

'What was that you just said? HE COULD NOT ALLOW!?' Jason jumped to his feet. 'Do you mean to say he wanted me to be his partner, but didn't even bother to ask me? He decided for me? And the answer was no!? Who the shen does he think he is? By what right does he make decisions for me? I want to see him now, where is he?' His hands came down on her desk as he looked across at her, every cell in his body vibrating with anger.

'Please Sosu Devere, calm yourself. I did not mean to upset you.' The Channel begged, with obvious dismay, rising to her feet.

Jason took a deep breath and brought his temper under control. 'My apologies Hajene Doyen. I never meant to shout at you. It's Vidal I'm angry with, not you. Please, where he is?' He made himself sit down.

'I will endeavour to trace him for you. But I really wonder whether you should see him today, perhaps tomorrow when you are more composed, would be a more sensible course of action.'

'Hajene Doyen. I MUST see him today. If you will not find him for me, I will find him myself.' He stated firmly, emphasising his words through his nager, and knowing she could read the emotion he was projecting.

She pressed another button on her desk and began to speak in fast ideomatic Simelan to someone in another part of the building. Jason could not hear the reply, but guessed it was also in Simelan. He raised his eyebrows in query as she looked across at him.

'He is in the residential section, and is being informed of your wish to speak with him. If you will go down to the main reception they will tell you whether he can see you today or not, and if he can see you, they will escort you to him.'

'Thank you Hajene Doyen.' He stood up.

'I suggest you make an appointment with my receptionist outside for tomorrow, and we will get your treatment under way. By then I should also have had an opportunity to speak to my colleague about the inhibitor, and will have an answer for you. However, feeling the way you do, you should never have injected those nanites Mr. Devere.'

Jason nodded, and exited the room as quickly as he could. Ten minutes later he was on his way down to the main reception area in the elevator. He had little doubt that Dagmar Doyen would have spoken to Vidal the second he left the room, and he would be fully aware of all that had transpired in her office. He took a couple of deep breaths, he was still angry. He had thought better of Vidal. Hadn't he told him, on more than one occasion, that it was just this ludicrous attitude that Simes had towards Gens, that had precipitated his leaving the Tecton in the first place? Would they never learn? Unfortunately, it seemed not. He reluctantly answered his own question.

As he approached the reception desk, one of the younger Simes came towards him.

'Sosu Devere?'

'Yes. I want to see Hajene Vidal Trent. I believe you are to escort me?'

'Yes. If you will come this way.'

During his own stay in the Centre he had been housed in the students block. This was the first time he had been in the residential section. As he had expected it was the last word in luxury. His feet sank into thick turkey red carpet, and the silence that met him was almost total. The insulation, he realised, was excellent.

His guide stopped before a door that had something written on it in Simelan, but had no English translation underneath. The Sime pressed a button indicated he should wait, and hurried away.

Before he had disappeared around the corner the door opened, and Vidal stood in the doorway. 'Jason, come in please.' He stepped aside to allow him to enter. 'To what do I owe this visit?' He asked quietly.

'Don't pussyfoot around Vidal, you know damn well why I'm here.' Jason stomped passed him. Not even noticing the opulent surroundings.

'Yes, of course I do. Forgive me, I did not mean to prevaricate. Please sit down, can I get you something to drink?' The Channel asked.

'No, I didn't come here to socialise. I want some answers Vidal.'

'Ask away. I'll do my best to answer you.'

'I've just been consulting Dagmar Doyen. As you know?'

The Sime nodded his head, and moved to pick up the glass he had been drinking from before Jason had arrived.

'Then you must know what I want to ask you? Why Vidal? Why did you make a decision for me? Who gave you the right to do that? Who put you in control of my life, come on damn you, tell me, who?'

'Jason, I can see how upset you are. But please, remember all the discussions we had about this. Didn't you say on numerous occasions how much you valued your freedom, that nothing was more important than your independence? Well, didn't you?' He pressed.

Yes, all right, I did. But that doesn't mean that I want you or anyone else, making a judgment on my behalf.' Jason moved to the picture window, the long drapes were pulled back, and he stared blindly at the twinkling lights of the City far below. 'When will you and all the other Simes realise that being a Gen, is not tantamount to being a child or a half-wit? I'm an adult, and as such I'm totally responsible for my own actions, and I don't need anyone to wipe my nose for me. I have the right to decide everything for myself, even if the decision I make is completely wrong. That's my shenning prerogative!'

'Yes, I realise that. And I can't make reparation for the hurt you obviously feel Jason. All I can do is offer my sincere apologies, which I do.' Vidal set down the now empty glass.

For a few moments he was silent, obviously thinking very hard. Having made up his mind, he turned to face Jason, and then moved to grasp the Gen's muscular biceps, and stared into his face, his expression intense.

'Since you insist that you have the right to decide your own future, I will ask you now. Will you abandon your ambition to become an engineer? Will you instead become my partner, and work with me for the TIB? And more than that, will you also become not just my transfer partner, but my companion?' He looked challengingly into the green eyes for several moments and then stepped away, as he waited for his reply.

'Yes, damn you, of course I will.' Jason snapped back. Then looked around the large room for the first time, from the warm apricot on the walls to the pure white carpet and the royal blue sofas and drapes. 'They certainly do you proud don't they?' He walked over to examine a large landscape oil painting dominating one long wall. 'How much do you have to pay for all this?' He waved his arm around.

Vidal was speechless, and for a moment could not answer. Then he shook his head, and finally found his voice.

'Nothing. It's free. I work for the Tecton after all.' He muttered, as he stared at Jason. 'Did I hear you right? You are prepared for us to become partners?' He sounded shocked.

'I just said so didn't I? Not going deaf are you?' He grinned wryly. 'Now, if you want to get back into my good books. Get me something to eat will you? I've had nothing since breakfast this morning, and that wasn't very filling.'

'We have a great deal to discuss.' Vidal began.

'Agreed. But for the moment I'm starving.' He looked around hopefully.

'Of course. What would you like? I could have something sent up here or, if you prefer, we could go to one of the Restaurants near here?'

'Have something sent up. A double portion of scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, pancakes with honey, toast and preserves. That'll do to be going on with. And ask them to hurry.' He instructed, with a grin.

Vidal laughed aloud, like a man who has suddenly had a huge burden lifted from his shoulders. Then he moved across to place the order.

Hours later Jason left Vidal's apartment, to make his way back to Mike's place. He stepped out into the dark night, realising that it had again started to rain. So what was new? Vidal and he had talked non-stop, and had resolved only some of their differences.

There were still a lot of things for them both to come to terms with, but they had made a start, and that at least, was a beginning.

 

NOT THE END --Comment to the Author using this convenient form and then  READ PART II NOW.  Part III is in CZ14.  Part IV is to be found there as well.  Let the author know if you want to see a Part V.  

 

 


Companion in Zeor is Copyright © 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000  by Sime~Gen Inc.   

A New Beginning is copyright 2000 by Sime~Gen Inc.  

The Sime~Gen universe was created by Jacqueline Lichtenberg and is owned by Sime~Gen Inc. This story and its setting may not be reused without explicit permission of the Corporation.  Email: simegen@simegen.com 

 

 

 

This Page Was Last Updated by JL  12/24/00 01:38 PM EST (USA)


 





Search amazon.com for your favorite author or book title.  

Search:
Keywords:
In Association with Amazon.com

Sign up for PayPals and do business online safely and securely  Use PayPal at amazon.com auctions.

Make payments with PayPal - it's fast, free and secure!


 

 Sime~Gen Copyright by Sime~Gen Inc.

 

Feedback about this page. 

Feedback about Sime~Gen Inc. 

Feedback about technical problems with this site.

Concerned about your privacy? Simegen Inc. respects your rights, and the protection of children. Please read our Privacy Statement.

 

 

.