Blood Taint


Katherine X. Rylien

Garrett Brunson sat on his narrow bed staring out the window, though there was not much to see. Just a stretch of pale, dusty grass and the corner of one of the other buildings. At least there were no bars on the windows, like there had been at the last place. Nothing to prevent him from walking away. But of course he had nowhere to go.

He heard his room-mate turn a page of the textbook he'd been reading for the past hour. Without looking up, Garrett knew that Jamal's attention was no longer on the book. "Garrett, unless my sense of time has suddenly become defective, it is five minutes past the hour and you are late for your appointment."

"I told you already, I'm not going."

Amusement rippled through Jamal's nager. Several days short of turnover, his field dominated the room, though Garrett would have been stronger if both were at the same point in their cycles. "My dear fellow, it's your transfer appointment. You can't just decide to give it a miss. Do you think you'll get a more favorable assignment that way? That isn't going to work. The Tecton has its charms, but flexibility is not among them. Better run along now, and perhaps they will overlook your tardiness."

Garrett didn't answer. He wished Jamal would mind his own business. His room-mate was six months younger than Garrett, but had changed over earlier, and was near the end of his first year as a Sime. Here in Sime territory, they were regarded as coming from similar backgrounds—both were from out-Territory, both disjunct, and both were channels. But from Garrett's point of view, the other boy came from a different world. Jamal was the son of a wealthy banking family, while Garrett's parents were farmers, struggling year to year with the possibility of starvation.

When they were alone in their room, they tended to lapse into English, and Jamal's upper-class manner of speaking became particularly evident then. Usually it didn't bother Garrett, but today, he found everything about Jamal irritating. Jamal had done very well here at the Institute of Alternative Arts, where channels who were considered unfit for actual channeling work were sent for training, and would probably graduate soon. Whereas Garrett, who had arrived a little less than three months ago, was in trouble.

Through the unshielded door, Garrett could zlin a powerful and familiar Sime nager, which flared in a preemptory demand for admittance. Jamal replied by projecting an invitation, followed by an unconvincing effort to seem absorbed in his studies. Garrett's supervising channel, Martya Dunne, opened the door and stood there radiating disapproval. "You are expected to remember your appointments, Garrett. You have inconvenienced me, and also Sosu Thorne, who, as you may recall, was scheduled to give you transfer ."

From Jamal, a momentary outburst of jealousy and indignation, quickly stifled with a wary glance at Hajene Dunne. Garrett hadn't told Jamal that he had been assigned to a Gen Donor this month. Jamal felt it was beneath his dignity to accept transfer from other channels. He treated all Gens with a solemn courtesy that he did not always extend to other Simes, but toward the technical-class Donors, his attitude came close to reverence. Garrett respected the professional Donors, but also thought that they had to be at least a little crazy. If he'd been lucky enough to be Gen, the last thing he would have been interested in doing was letting some Sime put its tentacles on him. Particularly one that had already killed somebody.

Garrett didn't answer out loud. He projected need at Hajene Dunne, not caring that Jamal would find this behavior amusing. Surely she would like to give him transfer herself, instead. She knew from his records what he needed, and the other students had told him she was one of the ones who could make it work.

"Garrett, come with me, please."

He followed her meekly through the halls to her office. Branden Thorne was nowhere in evidence. Martya Dunne closed the door of the heavily insulated room, leaving them in a bubble of privacy. She took one chair, and Garrett flopped into the other one. "Garrett, I know you don't want this assignment, but simply failing to show up is not the answer. You had a miserable time of it last month, and we have to do better for you. But we have to reduce your dependence on the therapeutic technique. Every other month is simply not an acceptable prescription. You've been doing very well in your classwork, especially considering the problems with your last transfer. But no matter how well you do with your studies, you cannot be certified as a med-tech unless we can get your DJS symptoms under better control."

Disjunction Syndrome. It was a phrase Garrett had heard many times before, and it filled him with despair, because he didn't think it was likely to improve. "Maybe I should just switch to the other classes."

"You've already put three months into the medical program. Now you want to just give up and try the industrial curriculum instead? I want to encourage you to stick with it. Your counselor at the disjunction clinic recommended you for the medical track, and I concur with his assessment. You can make better use of your natural abilities in that field, and you would be offering a valuable service by reducing the burden on working channels, freeing them for other responsibilities. While it's true that a channel's sensitivity can be very valuable for a variety of industrial applications, those classes are offered primarily for those who are not capable of functioning in the medical work."

Garrett did not think it was any disgrace to be enrolled in the industrial classes. Some of the students there hadn't even killed anybody. He'd sometimes peered through the door of the industrial labs, and it looked interesting. He knew the students were an odd mixture of the more unstable disjuncts, and a number of nonjunct students at the Institute, who were there because various physical infirmities prevented them from being trained as working channels, or as medical technicians for that matter. Many of them came from inbred channeling families that could trace their ancestors back to well before Unity. They had a reputation for dying suddenly for no apparent reason, and they had as little as possible to do with their classmates from out-Territory.

"If I switch to those classes, can I get the other kind of transfer?" The kind I need, damn you.

"Your course of study is partly your own decision, though I will not approve a change based on an impulsive decision, particularly in your current condition. Your transfer assignment is another matter. You have no say over that, but must accept the controller's decision. All of us are in the same position, as far as that is concerned. And there are good reasons for that. Now, I have told Sosu Thorne to meet us one hour from your original appointment. Should I dismiss you now, with the understanding that you will, of course, show up this time? Or would it be better for you to wait in one of the secure areas? We have already extended your cycle in the hope of alleviating some of your problems. Another hour will not put you into hard need, but it will be the closest you have come to that since disjuncting. Give me your self-evaluation, please." She sat back and looked at him, waiting to judge him by his answer.

Distantly, Garrett could feel a storm of emotion trying to build up inside him. If not for the seawall of need, he might have been in danger of bursting into tears of frustration. "This is not a good idea. Why can't you give me transfer?"

"We discussed this before. I understand, you're afraid you will hurt him. Your concern for his safely is commendable, but misplaced. Listen to me, Garrett. You will never be put in the position of being assigned to any Gen that you could possibly injure in transfer. Never. Sosu Thorne is highly trained and experienced at this type of work, and has capacity and draw speed tolerance beyond anything you will ever require. He has no fear of you whatsoever. And that confidence is not misplaced. Also, I will be in the room with you, right on hand in case anything should go wrong."

"But what if…" How could she possibly move fast enough to stop him if he acted without forethought, without conscious intent? "I mean, look, what if someone grabbed him hard enough to break the skin on his arms? Under augmentation, you could drive your fingers right to the bone. That would hurt really bad. Do you really think he'd be able to remember his training if something like that happened? Wouldn't he just try to get away?"

Hajene Dunne went very still. "Is that what you think you might like to do?" Her inflection and nager were neutral, opaque, and Garrett had a sense that he was a few ill-chosen words away from getting himself locked up in some secure facility for the rest of his life.

"No! No, I…" Surely she could zlin that he was telling the truth, and that thought caused his panic to recede a little. But what if she could read something in his soul that he had hidden even from himself?

Perhaps he deserved to be locked up. Perhaps it was the only way to keep him from hurting anyone else.

"What you just described, is that what you are planning to do?"

"No. It was just, you said I could never hurt him. I just don't think that's true."

She twined her fingers and tentacles in an intricate pattern. "In answer to your question, my best guess as to what might happen in a case like that, is that the Gen would let loose a nageric shock that would kill any Sime in close proximity—certainly, anyone who had made lateral contact. Trained Gens such as Sosu Thorne do have certain defenses. It's not a question I ever want to learn the answer to, really. Since I'm sure you don't, either, we will drop the matter. Now, what are we to do with you until your transfer appointment? Give me your self-evaluation, and I will tell you whether or not I concur."

The storm burst through the seawall, not tears but dry rage. "You can go to hell! You can take your Gen with you!" He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself, and settled back into the chair from which he had half-risen. "I told you last week, I am not doing this. I won't feel any different about it in an hour. I guess you can probably make me do it. That's what you'll have to do, because that way, whatever happens will be your fault."

She took one of his arms and briefly touched one of his partially extended laterals with her own. "I would estimate two to three hours before you are truly in hard need. Perhaps you don't remember what that's like. You say you will feel no differently about this in one hour; what about in another six?"

She looked at him, and he thought that she expected him to break then, to panic and beg her to reconsider. He made no reply. She was projecting the certainty that in another six hours he would do whatever she wanted, anything at all. And he was not at all sure that she was wrong.

"No comment?" Garrett shook his head, not trusting himself to speak.

"All right. Let me get something for you to occupy your mind, and I shall inform your instructors that you will have to miss your classes for the rest of the evening." She grabbed a half-dozen books from her shelves, so rapidly that the selection seemed random, though he doubted that it was. She thrust these into his arms, then led him once more through the halls. As they walked they passed a variety of people. Unlike the disjunction clinic, there were a fair number of general donors wandering the halls, unescorted by renSime guards. Garrett and his fellow-students were supposed to be no threat, now that they had disjuncted. No threat, most of the time, and for when it was judged otherwise…

Past the infirmary, there were a row of isolation rooms. Garrett had never seen the inside of one, but was familiar with them by reputation. This was where you got locked up if they decided you couldn't be trusted. Hajene Dunne unlocked one of them, and Garrett went obediently inside. It was smaller than the room he shared with Jamal, and the only furniture was a padded bench that was bolted to the floor.

She stood in the doorway looking at him, her nager revealing little of what she might be thinking. "Six hours should not be outside your capabilities, as long as you don't augment too much. Simes do have a tendency to do that if they allow themselves to panic. We don't intend to let you die of attrition, Garrett, even if you handle this very badly. I will alert the staff on this end of the building, and they will help me keep an eye on you. If you feel you can't handle it, push the distress signal beside the door and I will come and evaluate your situation. Sosu Thorne will remain your transfer assignment, regardless. In six hours, in twelve… this time tomorrow, if you feel you can hold out that long. You seem to feel transfer is an optional activity for Simes. You will learn otherwise before you leave this room." She gave him one last, considering look, and closed the door. He heard the key turn in the lock.

He flipped through the book on top of the stack, a text on Gen anatomy. It was interesting, but what was the point? He would not be able to meet the standards for the medical certification anyway. Particularly not to practice on Gens. She'd made it clear in their last meeting that his control would have to improve a great deal for that, and that she would require some improvement before he could even be certified to work with other Simes.

Pointless or not, he became absorbed in the book. Precisely one hour had passed when he sensed Hajene Dunne standing outside the door. Had she decided to let him out early? He doubted it. He waited until he was sure she was not going to unlock the door, and sensed that she was about to walk away. Then he projected a cheerful defiance at her. She could read through his show-field, of course, but in his mind the gesture still counted for something. And in truth, he did not really feel that bad.

He set the book down. It was beginning to make him edgy, looking at all these pictures of Gens. He didn't want to think about that. The next book was a general text on Sime physiology, but he didn't feel like reading about that either. The third one was a study of the physical manifestations of Disjunction Syndrome. Drawn by the same grisly fascination that might have caused him to nudge a dead animal with his foot, he opened that one and began glancing at the illustrations, not uncovering any new information on a topic with which he was already intimately familiar.

Artist's renderings, which he had previously encountered, attempted to depict the subtle changes in nerve bundles that were thickened irrevocably by killing. In truth, these changes could only be detected by a sensitive channel who knew what to look for.

It was these nerves that the therapeutic transfer was designed to stimulate. Informally, the technique was sometimes called a simulated kill. This book, like others he had seen on the subject, took care to point out that it was actually nothing of the kind. Because anything that resembled an actual kill too closely could weaken or destroy the disjunction conditioning. And the channels performing the treatment only had a theoretical knowledge of the kill, even if they had wanted to recreate the experience in its totality. The technique had been developed with the goal of simulating the effect of Gen pain and fear on those nerves, without recreating those sensations too closely. It was an experience with a strange feel to it, an artificial taste that was as different from the real thing the way Garrett's memory of the taste of meat differed from the bean-curd steaks that the cafeteria tried to foist off on out-Territory kids who missed foods that they would no longer be capable of digesting properly anyway.

This artificial feel of the therapeutic transfer mingled oddly with the undercurrent of Gen contentment that the channels could not help projecting, because it was so deeply associated with their own experience of transfer. A strange combination, and yet it worked. Garrett had never had any problem accepting these transfers. They were wonderful. But it was the policy to use such techniques as infrequently as possible, because it was feared that using them too frequently would cause excessive dependence on them.

Statistics were not ordinarily a source of fascination for Garrett, but he became absorbed in table after table of information about the effectiveness of this treatment on both channels and renSimes. Two to four times a year was typical for those Simes who required the technique, which not all disjuncts did. This was new information, and dismayed Garrett. That was not nearly often enough.

The students had another name for the technique: the blood taint. When he'd first heard the term, Garret had found it curiously apt, even though no blood was spilled when a Gen was killed for selyn. Still, it fit.

Absorbed in the book, he barely noticed when Hajene Dunne came to stand once more on the other side of the door, marking the end of his second hour of confinement. But once she had left, his concentration faltered. He resented both her assumption that he would find this subject of interest, and the fact that she had proved correct.

He didn't feel like reading. He felt like pacing. Instead, he closed his eyes and practiced one of the relaxation drills he had learned at the clinic. When he felt able, he began trying to review some of his classwork. Why hadn't she taken the time to let him get his own textbooks? The pace at the Institute was merciless, and he could not afford to fall behind.

What little concentration he could summon was shattered when she appeared once again, marking the halfway point. He was annoyed, and strove to ignore her. Maybe when she came back in another three hours with the Gen in tow, he would tell her he still wasn't interested. That might wipe some of the smugness from her nager.

He picked up the Disjunction Syndrome book again, not bothering to open it, just bouncing in his hand. When he realized what he was doing he made himself stop and set it down. Severe and atypical DJS, that had been one of the phrases he'd seen in his file, which he'd sneaked a look at one time when Hajene Dunne had turned her head to speak to someone at the door, the day she'd started all this by assigning him the Gen—let her blame the Controller if she liked, Garrett was her patient and he knew she had a great deal of say in the matter.

She'd told him that he would not only have to reduce his dependency on these treatments, but also show more control when they were administered. Because once the channel giving him transfer began to stimulate those nerves, he attacked in something not far short of killmode. What did they expect? But apparently other channels who received this treatment responded differently. The attack reflex was not triggered until after commitment to transfer, so at least it did not cause him to be viewed as a threat to the public safety. At least, not until he had started talking about ways to provoke a panic reflex in a trained Donor through the use of physical trauma. He'd felt sure that when he said that, she would at least stop this transfer, whatever the other consequences.

Severe and atypical. Nobody's fault but his own, because he'd had plenty of warning. He'd known for months that he was going to change over, or would have known if he'd allowed himself to.

But he'd shut out the premonitions of his impending changeover, fought them with all he'd been taught, through prayer and hard work and more prayer. For surely thoughts as disturbing as the ones that haunted his dreams were the whisperings of a demon. That was what he had been taught; that such awful ideas came from outside his own mind, and that sufficient faith would purify him of them.

He had never been told that some Simes knew they would change over… or what such knowledge meant. The Church of Man Descended had a great deal to say about Simes, much of it tinged with more pity than condemnation. They paid scant attention, however, to the distinction between channels and renSimes. Thinking back, he could recall only one passage, committed to memory like so much of the church's teachings:

"A Sime is a Sime. The distinction between so-called channel and any other Sime is nothing but Tecton propaganda. They would have us believe these 'channels' are Simes that do not kill, and can prevent other Simes from killing. But it is obvious to any but the Deceived that all Simes kill, for that is their nature."

In a way, he had proved the church right, at least in his case. He was a channel, and yet he had killed—matricide, which the Church held to be one of the worst crimes anyone could commit.

He had refused to admit what was happening to him until the first, faint striations appeared on his arms. It looked as though he'd scratched at them with his fingernails, but he knew he had not. By then he had been weak and feverish, finding it difficult to think, but he knew what had to be done.

He pulled the small metal token from beneath his pillow, the one his oldest brother had shown him on his eleventh birthday, a little over two years earlier. Much like a coin in appearance, these tokens were distributed by the Tecton. The familiar, reviled Tecton Seal was on one side, and engraved on it was the phone number of the nearest Sime Center. This token, along with a battered pamphlet that some of the children had kept hidden in a dead tree until it was ruined by the moisture there, was all the changeover training Garrett had ever received. Even that much was strictly forbidden by the Church. Children who turned Sime were to be humanely destroyed, not given the chance to earn a more final damnation by killing and then going on to create others of their own kind.

He held the token in one sweaty hand and realized he did not have the strength to make it into the next room and use the telephone there. He was not even sure he could remember how to operate it. The high fever was making simple things seem complex. So he called to his mother. She often worked with her husband and sons in the fields during the early part of the day, before going back to the house to begin preparing supper. But on that day, Garrett had been too ill to work, so she had stayed home with him. It was understood that she would do whatever needed to be done for him.

When she came into the room, he took his arms from beneath the covers and showed her, pressing the coin into her hand and asking her to call the number engraved on one side. He heard her walk into the front room. That was where the telephone was… and also the short-barreled shotgun she was expected to use on him now. He turned his back to the door, hiding his arms once more beneath the blankets. If she came back with the gun, he did not intend to make her look him in the face when she did it. A great sense of peace came over him then, because it was out of his hands. An interminable moment later, he heard her dialing, then speaking softly. He began to cry. Then he heard her come back and slide shut the heavy bolt on the outside of his bedroom.

"They said they can be here within a couple hours," she told him through the thick wooden door. "They said you should be all right until then. God help us, Garrett." As far as he could recall, those were the last words she had ever spoken to him, or to anyone. His memories of what had happened next were distorted by fever and by new perceptions he hardly knew how to interpret.

The bolt on the door was sturdy enough, as was the door itself. It was the frame which had given way. Later, he saw the door lying intact and useless on the hall floor, hinges twisted and still fastened to part of the splintered frame. The dish that had been in his mother's hands when he'd caught her had not fared as well, but lay shattered near her feet. She had begun preparing the evening meal, and a neat row of vegetables lay on the counter next to the metal token Garrett had given her. The expression on her face was unbearable.

He went into the front room, where a shawl her own mother had knitted lay over the back of the sofa, concealing a rip that had been imperfectly mended. Behind the couch, of course, was the gun. It had been kept there ever since Garrett, the youngest child, had been old enough to understand that it was not a toy.

He could not understand why she had not kept it near her, brought it into the kitchen so that she would have a chance. Surely she had not given such absolute credence to what some faceless stranger had told her over the telephone. That would not be like her. He stood looking at the gun for several minutes, thinking that it might be simplest if he were to use it, now, on himself.

Instead, he took the shawl into the living room and covered her body. Then he sat down to wait, taking a place on the floor beside her. Had it been two hours? He didn't think so. Not unless that strange, surrealistic sequence of events had taken much longer than it had seemed. He didn't think so. It had all gone so much faster than it was supposed to. Not that it mattered, now.

If the Tecton came to get him before his father and brothers returned, let them do what they liked with him. And if they did not—well, he had little doubt as to how his father would see fit to handle a situation like this. Garrett could only hope that he would have the courage to stand his ground and take what was coming to him, as if it were nothing more than a switching. He thought briefly of running away; he knew the woods well enough to avoid capture for quite awhile. But to what end? If he stayed free long enough, he would only end up killing again.

So he sat there until a sharp rap came at the front door, and then he went to answer it. Pulling open the door, he saw two men. The one in front held a clip-board, and was just in the process of lowering it, as if he'd used one corner of it to knock. "You're too late," Garrett told them, but before he could even complete his sentence he felt a sharp stab of dismay. It took him a moment to realize that it was not his own emotion, but came from the smaller of the two men, who stood behind and slightly to one side of the one with the clip-board. He didn't fully understand the reasons behind this reaction until much later. Out-Territory response teams hated scenes like this, of course, arriving as quickly as they could only to find a dead Gen and a junct Sime and little they could do to remedy the situation. But it was worse when the Sime was a channel, one of their own. Channels had a significantly lower chance of successful disjunction, in comparison with renSimes. And even for those who made it, the damage was greater. Disjunct renSimes could usually do just about anything they'd be able to do if they were nonjunct. Whereas a channel with the same history was forever barred by Tecton policy from doing most of the things nature had designed channels to do.

Garrett knew what Jamal thought of this policy, because he'd been subjected to an embittered tirade on his room-mate's last turnover day. Jamal thought there was nothing wrong with him that could not be cured by the Gen-transfer privileges enjoyed by working channels, who would not be expected to take transfer from another channel except under unusual circumstances.

As far as Garrett knew, Jamal might well be right in his insistence that there was no good reason he should not be licensed as a working channel, as would have been permitted routinely in the days before Unity. But Garrett did not need some phrase like severe and atypical symptoms to tell him there was still something inside him that could harm, if it were allowed to get free. Call it DJS, or call it a demon. A demon that had been bound with chains and confined in some deep cavern, but could never be slain, like some immortal monster out of a dark fairy tale. He agreed with the Tecton's position that an innocent, nonjunct renSime ought not to be exposed to such a thing in transfer, and did not see why they would want to run the risk of letting him touch one of their Gens.

It wasn't as if they didn't know what he required. Hajene Dunne knew. Not anything a Gen could give him, not without paying the ultimate price and completing Garrett's damnation in the process.

Severe and atypical. Garrett wasn't surprised that his symptoms were considered unusual, after comparing his changeover experience with the other disjunct channels at the Academy. He had told them things that he did not think he could ever tell his Supervising Channel, or any other nonjunct Sime.

His memories of killing were clearer than he would have wished, and Hajene Dunne encouraged him to explore these memories and analyze them—even though she must have known he was not sharing all of his conclusions on the topic with her. If his disjunction was sound, she assured her, thinking about it would not reawaken anything more than a ghost of the desire to kill. Hanging unspoken between them was the other half of that thought; that if he turned out to be one of the unfortunate few who were technically disjunct but too unstable to be permitted to walk free among vulnerable Gens, it was better to find that out early, while he was still in a supervised environment where his condition could be detected before got out of control. Despite the looser security at the Academy, Garrett knew they were there for more than just vocational training.

Four hours had passed, and if he hadn't been so acutely aware of the time already, he'd have been reminded by Hajene Dunne's silent and momentary presence on the other side of the door. All the mercy she could show him, he decided, but still worth a great deal. It was a promise, an assurance that she had not forgotten about him. That she would not leave him to die here. He no longer entertained any thought of telling her to go away. As his father would have said, all the fight had been beat out of him, though nobody had raised a hand to him. All they'd done, in effect, was to send him to bed without his supper. It was more than enough.

Comparing his experiences to those of the other disjunct channels, Garrett had begun to realize how unusual his own changeover—and subsequent kill—had been. Atypical, to use the phrase from his records. No wonder his symptoms were, because…

None of the others he'd talked to about it had found their kills truly satisfying. Some had gone on to kill more than once, and for those who had not, either great self-restraint or else lack or opportunity had played some role. Garrett had come out of the berserker mode in a state of shock, filled with guilt and despair—but he'd felt no urge to go looking for another Gen.

He'd learned part of the reason during his studies in the disjunction ward, in the process of learning basic facts that any in-Territory child knew long before the age where changeover became a danger. His mother must have been an unusually high-field Gen, the kind that would have been encouraged to train as a professional Donor if she had been born in Sime Territory. The very fact that she had been able to bring him to term, and survive giving birth to him, attested to that. But he didn't think that was the whole explanation.

Because she hadn't died right away. It was not only the most satisfying kill that he'd heard any of the others describe, it had been the most prolonged experience. He believed now that she had tried to cooperate—had tried, without really even understanding what the word meant, to give him transfer. But of course she hadn't really overcome her fear, just pushed it aside. He had been able to taste it, telling him there was something more, and he had gone after it. It was a moment of greed he had been paying for ever since, and would continue to pay for until the day of his own death.

He wasn't quite sure what he had done that caused her to nerve to break. But as good as it had been up until that point, it became immeasurably better. By far the most intense pleasure he had ever known, before or since.

"Nothing so evil should feel like that," he whispered aloud in the isolation room. He hadn't meant to speak out loud, and was embarrassed. It would not surprise him to learn that the room was wired for sound, and the little he'd said was enough for them to figure out what he'd been thinking about. He was surprised to find his lips dry and cracked, though his mouth was watering to the point where he had to keep swallowing. His arms were seeping ronaplin, and there was nothing he could do about that besides wipe them occasionally on the tail of his shirt. He wasn't as embarrassed about that as he was about the verbal slip. No-one was likely to see him in this condition but other Simes—and Sosu Thorne, who was presumably used to this kind of thing.

As he approached his sixth hour of confinement, his resolve began to falter. He'd been so confident that, knowing when this torture was going to end, he could endure it. But it was too much. He tried to keep still on the padded bench, knowing it was foolish to waste selyn by pacing, but the urge to move around was strong. A couple of times he found himself on his feet and moving without having made any conscious decision to get up. Once on his feet, it was almost impossible to keep from augmenting. He made himself sit down, although the bench was starting to seem to him like some kind of trap, a grave above the ground that would spell his death if he remained there.

The fifth time he sensed Hajene Dunne outside the door, it no longer seemed like a reassurance. Nothing but mockery, and it was only her superior nageric strength that kept him from zlinning the pleasure she was doubtlessly taking from his suffering. He projected his rage and his hatred at her, hoping to hurt her at least a little. She left after a pause of exactly the same duration as the other times, and he began to shake.

It had been stupid to make such a futile attack on her. What if she decided to extend his punishment? What if she came back at the end of the next hour and just zlinned him through the door again, instead of letting him out? He wouldn't be able to stand that. He wasn't sure he could even hold out until then. But he would not press the signal. He would sit here until he lost control altogether, and began battering at the door in a mindless attempt to get out. Unlike the door to his childhood bedroom, this one had been knowledgeably designed to withstand a Sime operating under high augmentation. He probably could not break through. But he had no doubt that he would reach the point where he would not know any better than to try, burning up the last reserves of his strength.

Far more efficient, and sensible, to exert a small pressure on the metal plate marked emergency signal with his hand. But he would not. For one thing, he was fairly certain that she would just examine him and conclude that he was not as bad off as he thought he was.

He laid down on the bench. Again, the image of a coffin came to his mind, accompanied by a feeling of claustrophobia. He imagined, instead, that it was one of the narrow cots in the bedroom he'd shared with his two brothers. He remembered lying there during the winter nights that had started so early in the day, and when they had all gone to bed early not from fatigue but for lack of anything better to do—and to conserve energy. There was never quite enough food in the wintertime, not if they wanted to be sure and keep an adequate reserve against the possibility of a late spring. Often, he had lain there in the darkness, drowsing but unable to sleep, and thought about summer.

Summer was always better. There was no shortage of food then, and also no shortage of things to do, hard work that taxed his young muscles and left him exhausted from trying to keep up with his father and brothers. But even in summer, there had been times of leisure. After church, he and his brothers had been free to spend the rest of the day as they pleased, for work was forbidden on that day. And it was the pond that he recalled the most clearly. Muddy and bug-infested, the cool water had been such a welcome balm on the hottest days. The time he and his brothers had spent there had a timeless quality, and it was the pond that had comforted him during those long winters. The same image came to him now, and it was as if he were there once again, beneath the shade of the willow tree, splashing in the shallow water.

That last hour passed as if in a dream. He felt feverish, as he had in changeover, but the water from the pond cooled him. He could feel it, smell it, and taste the hot sun on his skin. The isolation room became a thing of shadows, rising in his consciousness like the memory of a bad dream that he recalled only vaguely. The pond was far more real, and through his closed eyes he could see it, could perceive it with all five of the senses he'd possessed as a child. Only his newest sense told him he was still locked up in this other place, so very far from home.

When he sensed Hajene Dunne outside the door once again, he was almost reluctant to leave the safety of these memories behind. But she had the Gen with her, and was in the process of unlocking the door, so he sat up and wiped the excess ronaplin off his forearms, then tucked his shirt back in. It was the closest he could come to making himself look presentable.

Hajene Dunne came in first. She'd done something to make her nager dull and uninteresting. Branden Thorne followed, a blazing beacon of life and promise. It was something like a reenactment of his disjunction trial, only they had changed all the rules on him. He clung to the edge of the bench to keep himself from rushing at the Gen. For one thing, Hajene Dunne was standing in his way. He didn't think he would be able to get past her unless she let him. And he could tell from the vibrations in her field that she was speaking, but could not tell what she was saying. Doubtlessly there were more formalities to be gone through before he could have what he needed. With an effort, he pulled himself duoconscious.

"…up until now, but—ah, there he is. Hello, Garrett. How are you feeling?"

Surely she could zlin for herself how he felt—at the very edge of death. He did not doubt that the Gen could see that as well, with his eyes, and perhaps sense with that shadowy awareness of nager that he'd read the higher-order Gens often developed. He thought of making some breezy remark to the effect that he felt fine, but they'd both know he was lying, and he was terrified that she might leave again if he did. So he said nothing.

"Garrett? Talk to me, are you ready for your transfer appointment now?"

"Don't be absurd, Martya, obviously he is." Slowly, the Gen moved closer and laid a cool hand on Garrett's arm, soothing the agonizing fire that ran the length of his lateral tentacles. Handling tentacles whipped around the Gen's hand of their own accord, and Garrett was trembling with the effort it cost him not to reach out with the other hand as well. Instead, he continued to cling to the side of the bench. Abruptly, his mind flashed back to the pond, and it seemed that the water was over his head and he was choking on it, and one of his brothers reached out with a dead branch for him to hold onto, and used it to pull him from the water. A very early memory, if it was real at all, because the deepest part of the pond barely came up to the level of a man's waist.

"Careful, Branden, he's not entirely with us yet. He may attack. Be ready."

He had the feeling she was speaking more for his benefit than for the Gen's, and again he had the impulse to say something, but could not. It was all he could do not to attack, and he wondered if Hajene Dunne was at all impressed by the self-control that allowed him to hold short of actually doing so. More likely, she thought it was pathetic the way he was sitting there shaking, barely able to keep from springing at his assigned Donor like a berserker. He could read nothing in her field. It was almost impossible to tear his attention away from the Gen anyway.

He still held one of the Gen's hands trapped against his arm, where one pair of laterals were in blissful but frustratingly incomplete contact. Thorne ran the other hand gently down Garrett's forearm, bringing his intil down to a reasonable level and making it possible for him to remain duoconscious without a constant struggle. He projected gratitude, then remembered that the Gen could not read the nageric thank-you in his field. But maybe he could pick up a little of it, or read the emotion in Garrett's face.

Thorne sat beside him on the bench, and Garrett realized that he would not be expected to move into one of the transfer suites. Relief made his muscles turn weak as he zlinned that the Gen was as committed to this transfer as he was. He managed to relax his grip on the Gen's hand so that a more suitable transfer position could be established.

"Good, now give me your other hand." Garrett did, more than willingly. The Gen knew what he was doing, and was in firm control of the situation. This was not his mother; nobody was going to get hurt.

The first, life-giving flow of selyn was better than any clean transfer Garrett had ever gotten from a channel. He drew greedily, the last vestiges of his self-control slipping away in the pure pleasure of the onslaught. But with this loss of control came terror, and he drew back, desperate to escape. The Gen tried to hold him, but Garrett came back to duoconsciousness curled into a fetal ball, face averted from his Donor but with his arms still trapped in a full transfer grip. He felt Hajene Dunne touch the base of his skull with one lateral, then she withdrew.

"Try again, Branden."

It ended in much the same way. Just like all the times a channel had tried to give him a normal transfer, when what he needed was the other kind.

Branden Thorne was radiating frustration—and physical pain. He had a headache to match the one Garrett could feel pounding at his own temples. Just as Garrett had always feared would happen if he tried to take transfer from a Gen. He'd hurt the Donor. Thorne was so focused on Garrett that he didn't even seem to be aware of his own discomfort, but it magnified Garrett's own pain. And it horrified him when he realized the significance of what he was zlinning. If he did succeed in taking transfer from Thorne now, when he was in pain—and if he enjoyed it…

"These don't feel like spontaneous aborts, Martya. I'd almost swear he was doing it on purpose. Garrett, did you go through all the trouble of disjuncting just to die of attrition?"

Garrett tried to pull away from the Gen's grasp, and finding it too much trouble, just buried his face in the crook of his elbow. He could feel Thorne trying to stimulate his intil. "Come on, Garrett, you've got to stop fighting me."

"No, let him go. It won't work. Let me get you both some fosbine."

Thorne didn't argue, but released Garrett's arms and began to stroke his back as Hajene Dunne went to a locked supply cabinet built into one wall. It helped, and Garrett wished there were something he could do in return to ease the Gen's discomfort. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to hurt you."

"I know."

"Here, drink this." As Garrett swallowed the foul-tasting mixture, he was aware of Hajene Dunne taking the Gen into position for a lateral contact probe.

He felt a faint sense of outrage, because on one level he still thought of Thorne as his. But the feeling was blunted by pain. Garrett set down the empty glass and massaged his temples. Need still chewed at his nerves, need unaccompanied by any trace of intil. He wished he were dead.

"You'll be all right, Branden. Get some dinner, and then come to my office in a couple of hours. I'll take another look, and give you a little therapy for any remaining discomfort… and in the meantime, I'll talk to Dhar about getting you another assignment. If we can't find one without messing up the schedule too badly, I'll have to take your field down, as well."

Once the Gen had left, she turned to Garrett, and her field was no longer dull or unappealing. He knew from the faint air of resignation in her nager that she was going to give him what he had wanted all along. The feel of the other Sime's laterals twined with his spelled safety, because he did not believe that any buried part of him wanted to hurt her. He thought it likely that he could do so, if he tried, but he would gain no satisfaction from it. She would drop the Gen show-field in a hurry, and quite possibly hurt him back. Knowing this, he had no fear that the demon would break free of its place of confinement and strike out. He gave himself fully to the transfer, control slipping from him once again, but this time there was no panic.

Relief and satiation singing through his nerves, he dropped his head to rest on his channel's shoulder, maintaining all four lateral contacts because it felt so good. He breathed in deeply. Even without reference to his other senses, he could have told from the faint smell of her skin that she was Sime, and female.

He could feel her gently trying to disengage her laterals. "Garrett. Let go of me, now." He did, and she took his shoulders and held him at arm's length. "Look at you. After two aborts, no power in this world could get me as post as you are right now. The resilience of youth."

Abruptly, his mood plummeted. "I'm sorry. I tried, I really did."

"You did very well."

Why would she say such a thing? Two goals had been set for him; to reduce his dependence on these therapeutic transfers, and to maintain control. He'd accomplished neither of these. His inability to accept the Gen had left her with no choice but to provide him with the blood taint, despite all her efforts to substitute something more wholesome. And once she'd offered it to him, he had retained no control whatsoever.

"You understand why you aborted, don't you? You were still afraid that you would hurt him. That speaks well of you, that you would be concerned for a Gen's wellbeing on such a deep level, even in hard need. It proves to me that the assessment was correct, when you were recommended for the medical program. Because for you to do that kind of work, we have to be very sure you have a significant degree of ability to resist the temptation to attack a defenseless Gen, even under circumstances that test your control."

"I would die first," Garrett muttered, as much to himself as to his supervising channel.

She gave a barely perceptible nod, as if to signify that she understood completely. But she didn't. How could she? She was nonjunct. Oh, he'd heard the argument that it was not that much different for Simes who had never killed—that they had to face the same instincts that existed in him. But it wasn't the same. It couldn't be.

"At any rate, you withstood the delay as well as I had hoped you would. Very encouraging. What if I suggested pushing it a little further next time, not as a punishment, but as part of your training? Do you think you could do that?"

"I don't know. I kept thinking I would never make it… I don't know if I could have gone on much longer. I'm not even sure I could do that again. What would you have done, if I had pushed the signal?"

"Come in and evaluated you. Talked to you. There is a point beyond which it is nothing but torture to demand self-control, when it is impossible. That point varies widely, and depends as much on mental attitude as remaining selyn supply. At a regular channeling school, you know, students are routinely pushed well into clinical attrition as a testing procedure. To their breaking point. We rarely go that far with disjuncts, because we have found that the procedure can shatter their self-confidence. But there is perhaps no group more diverse than this handful of disjunct channels here at this school. I have had a few students here who benefited greatly from pushing it to that point." She looked at him appraisingly.

His mouth was dry. Attrition. The word itself had the power to terrify him. Not because it meant death, but because of the loss of control that would inevitably come first.

"Well, we can discuss all of this later, after I have a chance to discuss your case with the controller. There is no reason you ever have to suffer hard need again if you don't want to—it's largely up to you. But you are far from the first of our students to elect transfer delay as a method of honing the will" She spoke without irony, as if he has filled out some form requesting such a course of training. Perhaps, from her point of view, what he had done was not too much different than that.

"For now, go clean up, and you can meet Sosu Thorne and myself in my office a couple of hours from now. I will show you how to look for, and treat, any residual damage from those aborts. Don't worry, he's in no danger—if he required serious intervention, I would not have let him leave this room, nor would I be making this into a training exercise. Between the fosbine and the little head-start I gave the healing process, there might not be much left to treat. But follow-up care is always a good idea for any kind of transfer trauma, and a little hands-on experience will be good for you. And I'd like to take another look at you as well."

Garrett had mixed feelings. He didn't really want to have to face the Gen again, but was glad of the chance to make up for what he had done. Not that his feelings mattered much, in any event. She had not phrased it as a suggestion. "Yes, Hajene."

After he'd showered, changed and endured a certain amount of disbelieving raillery from Jamal about the lengthy transfer delay, he realized he was famished. He headed for the cafeteria, where he decided to sample several dishes he had not tried before, mostly from the black serving bowls that warned they were for Simes only.

The cafeteria never closed, but it was between regular mealtimes, and the dining area was almost deserted. At one of the few occupied tables, he saw Branden Thorne, who was eating alone. Before he could decide whether to retreat back into the serving area, the Gen saw him and beckoned to him, and at that point there was no polite way to refuse.

"Come on over and sit down. Are you really going to eat all that? I have got to see this with my own eyes."

"Is your head feeling any better?" As he took his seat, Garrett forced himself duoconscious so that he could zlin the answer for himself, and so that he would know if the Gen was being candid with him.

"It's fine, really. I'm sorry things didn't work out better. It's not your fault. Martya told me that you weren't too wild about the assignment to begin with. Sometimes I think they should give a little more weight to individual preference when they make these decisions." Still duoconscious, Garrett could not help knowing that the Donor felt as though he had failed. His head wasn't giving him much pain, but his pride was bruised, something neither fosbine nor channel's healing functionals could treat.

"It's not you." Garrett lowered his voice, glad there was nobody at any of the surrounding tables. "If I were going to get transfer from any Gen, I can't think of one I'd rather have than you. Really. But… look, it just reminds me too much of, of my changeover. The Gen I attacked—and killed—you were projecting some of the same feelings as she did. It just scares me too much." He could hardly believe he was discussing a thing like this with a Gen. But it was suddenly important to him that Thorne understand that the problem with their transfer had been Garrett, and not himself.

But Thorne was radiating indignation, as if Garrett had accused him of some ghastly faux pas. "I find that difficult to—look, I enjoy transfer. I find it hard to believe that your—the Gen that you attacked in changeover felt anything like that."

"My mother," Garrett acknowledged. "You read that in my file, I guess. Yes. She did, at first."

Thorne paused for a long moment before saying anything more. Garrett, lost in his own thoughts, did not bother to stay duoconscious to read the Gen's reaction.

"Have you told Martya that part of it?"


"Maybe you should."

"Maybe." He reached out and touched Thorne's hand with the tip of one handling tentacle. Thorne seemed to find this completely unremarkable, and just went on eating with his other hand. He was probably used to Simes wanting to touch him.

Garrett resumed picking out choice bits of fruit from his own plate with a two-tined fork, leaving the tentacle in place. There was something inherently comforting about all that selyn.

He didn't know if he would be assigned a Gen Donor again in an effort to control his problems; he wasn't even sure if he wanted that, and didn't plan to worry a great deal about that question, because he knew that his wishes meant nothing one way or the other as far as that was concerned. But if they did give him that kind of assignment again, he did not plan to make such a big deal about it. Because his worst fear, that he would lose control and try to hurt his Donor, had not come true. Not even after the six-hour delay. The experience had given him that much, at least.

The demon still lived somewhere deep inside him, he did not doubt that, still dreaming its dreams of pain and fear and death, somewhere beneath the waterline of conscious thought. But its chains were not so easy to break as he had imagined.

The realization came over him that this was the first time since his changeover that he had touched a Gen without feeling uncomfortable about it. Not that he'd had many occasions to touch one at all, but in some of his classes, doing examinations and practice functionals on Gens as well as Simes was part of the lab work, and he had never cared for that. Now, he felt as though would be able to face doing that, under any reasonable circumstances. Unreasonable conditions, such as a Gen that was terrified or in severe physical pain—well, his instructors had already made it clear that he would never be required to face anything like that. And he believed it. The Tecton could be harsh, but he thought they could be trusted to keep their promises.

He drifted back into duoconsciousness, still basking in the radiance of Thorne's nager. He was reminded again of the farm, where there had been a hill, a gentle slope of cultivated land behind the barn. The land his family farmed was mostly flat, but from that one spot with its gentle elevation, it had seemed like he could see for miles. Pausing there and looking out over the fields, he'd sometimes felt a great sense of peace and freedom. Sitting in the Institute's lunch room with his tentacle still resting on the back of Branden Thorne's hand, he felt the same way.

With the demon drugged into sleep for awhile by the medicine Hajene Dunne had so reluctantly prescribed, he savored this fragile contentment. Just short of his fourteenth birthday in natal years, eight months past changeover, Garrett was old enough to know such feelings were always temporary. All the more reason to appreciate it, and enjoy it for as long as it lasted.

Note: This is something of a work-in-progress, as it has been suggested to me by two different people that it could form the basis for a longer work, rather than being a complete short story as I had believed. All comments are welcome!

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