"You are a coward, Controller Madz," scoffed Hajene Skaggit, the visiting Second Order channel from Cordona. His dark eyes flashed, as he looked down his long arched nose, at his much shorter host. Combined with the occasional streaks of silver in the long black braid, which hung down his back, they gave his most outrageous pronouncements a significance, which they did not, strictly speaking, merit. "You are surrounded by high field Gens, but you'd rather declare a selyn shortage than act like a Sime and take them," he continued. "Bah! In Cordona, my renSimes would have these Gens rounded up so quickly, they wouldn't know what had happened to them."
Rital Madz's own medium height, curly brown hair, and diffident manner might be physically unimposing, but he was also a First Order Tecton channel who had been stationed out-Territory for the past three years. This, he felt, gave him a better grasp of local conditions than his guest. He was glad that the Gen university students rushing past them on their way to classes were unable to understand the Simelan remark. Rital had some idea how the local population would react to the "round up" Skaggit suggested. Clear Springs was not Cordona; a fact that his guest seemed reluctant to understand.
The tiny Sime Territory of Cordona, far away on the Southern continent, had become a provisional Tecton protectorate less than a year ago. At the same time, its neighboring Gen Territories of Amzon and Zillia had agreed to join the Unity Accord. The necessary changes had not been trouble free, and the precarious peace, which the Tecton diplomats had brokered between the three warring Territories, was in danger of being discarded before it had been properly implemented. The Diplomatic Corps had decided that strong measures were necessary, and so the Tecton was sponsoring a conference at which representatives of all three Territories could meet on neutral ground, to discuss the numerous charges and countercharges which had been advanced, and to forge a lasting peace.
Rital's Clear Springs Sime Center had opened just three years before. It was in the heart of New Washington Gen Territory, some eight hours by the selyn powered sliderail train from the Nivet Territory border. By some logic known only to diplomats, this made it sufficiently neutral ground to host the conference. The official press releases were full of hope that exposure to a peaceful and prosperous Gen town, and not incidentally to selyn powered technology, would highlight the benefits of peace and cooperation with the Tecton. This, in turn, might calm fears in Amzon and Zillia that wholehearted acceptance of the treaty terms would lead to a Sime takeover or other undesirable consequences.
Cordona, on the other hand, was to learn how much more stable their selyn supply was likely to be, if they gave up their traditional bandit lifestyle in favor of a Tecton based society. Since the Cordonan delegation had arrived several days earlier than the Tecton diplomatic team, Rital had been instructed to provide Skaggit with as much exposure to Tecton ways as possible, until the experts could take over.
Today's journey across town to refill the selyn batteries in the Clear Springs power plant was an attempt to carry out these orders. Rital had chosen to walk, taking his usual scenic shortcut across the campus of Clear Springs University. If the channel had fully considered Skaggit's barbaric nature, he would have insisted that they take the Center's staff car.
"I realize that, um... 'rounding up' Gens is the custom in Cordona," the Tecton channel ventured, "but here it would not be prudent."
Another scornful toss of Skaggit's head showed his opinion of Rital's position. "What you call prudence, we would call cowardice."
The Cordonan's absolute conviction that his territorial customs were superior to the Tecton's was clear. Once more, Rital silently cursed the circumstances which had made Skaggit his responsibility. For good measure, he included in his imprecation the individuals he suspected were behind the choice of venue for the diplomatic conference: Sosu Quess ambrov Shaeldor and his wife, Hajene Nerina, also ambrov Shaeldor.
Rital had reason to believe that the conference had been placed in his Center for their personal convenience. The two Householders had brokered the original treaty, and would also represent the Tecton's interests during the delicate negotiations to come. No one could dispute that their expertise was required to prevent the outbreak of an all out war between the three southern Territories. However, the two had conflicting family obligations. Their granddaughter, Bethany, had married a boy from Clear Springs the previous spring, not completely in accordance with her grandparents' wishes. She was now six months pregnant with her first child, a channel. Bethany had refused to stay at a Tecton maternity hospital until the birth, or even to start learning the exercises which would allow her to survive a channel's prenatal selyn draw. Quess and Nerina had apparently decided that if their granddaughter would not come to them for help, they would go to her. The diplomatic crisis had provided a welcome excuse to gain a temporary posting to Clear Springs.
Rital was of two minds about the arrangement. He had minimal training in obstetrics, and so he was just as glad not to be the channel responsible for Bethany's safe delivery. Not only did her grandparents outrank him in the Tecton, quite apart from their Householding connections, but Bethany had been raised in Gen Territory by her late uncle, the fanatically anti-Sime Reverend Sinth. She had not completely abandoned her childhood attitudes, and Rital didn't want to be held responsible if anything went wrong.
On the other hand, the channel could think of more constructive ways to spend his spring than by hosting three feuding camps of foreign diplomats. Rital had yet to meet any of the Gens from Amzon and Zillia. However, he was not wholly convinced that Cordona, at least, wished to peacefully resolve its disputes with its neighbors. Not if the representative it had sent to the conference was a fair example.
Hajene Skaggit had been a disruptive influence in the Sime Center since his arrival. His channeling skills were crude by Tecton standards, particularly in the area of healing. Six of the seven renSimes who had accompanied him were obvious bodyguards, making Rital wonder what the man had done that made him expect to be attacked. The Cordonan channel treated his Donor, Toljee, with thinly veiled contempt. The young man had not left their quarters in the past two days, and the door was locked and guarded whenever Skaggit was busy elsewhere. To Rital's knowledge, no member of the Center's staff had been permitted an unsupervised word with the Gen. Rital wondered what his Cordonan colleague was trying to hide.
It wasn't his political opinions or prejudices, that was certain. Skaggit flatly refused to socialize with any of the Gens among the Center's staff, preferring to relay orders through his attendants when contact could not be avoided. Rital wasn't sure whether the statements his unwelcome guest had made about Sime superiority, and hunting for Gens being the natural way of life for Simes, reflected his genuine convictions. The man might simply find it entertaining to shock someone he regarded as soft, timid, and ignorant. It didn't help Rital's temper that despite being only a Second, the Cordona channel's height, dark good looks, and aristocratic attitude effortlessly commanded a degree of respect that Rital would never enjoy.
"Hajene Skaggit," he continued his explanation as patiently as he could, "we have very different customs here than you are accustomed to in Cordona. The Clear Springs University officials would be furious if we started rounding up their students for forced donations. So would the city, for that matter, not to mention the students themselves. We would lose the right to have a Sime Center so far from the border, and that would cost us all our donors in the area."
"Nonsense! Look at the way those Gens are dressed, in rags." The Cordonan channel's arms, like Rital's, were encased in legal retainers for the journey across town to the city's power plant. Still, Skaggit's gesture, made in open disregard for the danger of a pinched lateral, was eloquent of his scorn. "They are peasants, and it will be weeks before the weather is warm enough for them to be required for the plowing. No one would care if you borrowed a few, as long as you returned them promptly."
One of the "peasants," a sturdy young man in worn denims who had used a strip of rag to tie back his shoulder length, dark blonde hair, paused as he noticed the two Simes. His nager brightened as he grinned with open pleasure, easy to zlin despite a field that was still a week away from being ready for his next donation. "Hello, Hajene Rital," he greeted them in English with a cheerful wave. "Who's your friend?"
"Good morning, Tohm," Rital replied. "Hajene Skaggit, this is Tohm Seegrin, who has been a particular friend of the Clear Springs Center for several years now. Tohm, Hajene Skaggit is visiting from Cordona Territory, on the Southern continent."
"Pleased to meet you," the young Gen said, looking at the Cordonan channel with frank curiosity. Tohm had made a point of learning the basics of Sime etiquette, and confidently held out his hand in an offer to touch fingertips, the in-Territory Gen equivalent of the tentacle touch used to greet equals among Simes.
Skaggit's face froze with offended dignity, and he pointedly moved his hands behind his back in a clear refusal to reciprocate the greeting. In Cordona, as he had haughtily explained to the Center's cook the previous evening, when Ref had offered a similar greeting, channels knew their worth, and Gens knew their place. To greet a Gen as an equal was Not Done.
When the Cordonan channel failed to respond to his greeting, Tohm raised a skeptical eyebrow, shrugged, and turned back to Rital. "Where's Sosu Den?" he asked. "I haven't seen him at the Sudworks Brewery lately."
"Den is sick," the channel answered, trying hard to keep his voice level. "He came down with the flu, four days ago." Den had taken ill just hours before their transfer had been scheduled. Rital was unable to view any misfortune to his Donor lightly. His cousin Den Milnan wasn't the only Donor to fall victim to what was being called the worst influenza epidemic in decades, either. A sick Gen could not give transfer, and District Controller Monruss would be hard pressed to arrange for a substitute on such short notice. Whoever was sent was unlikely to be a good match for a channel of Rital's ability.
It didn't help that Skaggit kept using the current crisis to justify his own philosophy of selyn collection, for of course non-Donors were even more susceptible to illness. General class donations were down all across the Northern continent. Appeals for emergency donations from Gens who did not normally give selyn had not brought in enough volunteers to make up the difference. So far, the Tecton had met its primary obligation to provide regularly scheduled transfers for all renSimes in need, but only at the cost of cutting back on the selyn available for other uses, such as running the trains or generating power.
"I'm sorry to hear that," Tohm responded, with genuine sympathy. "Father's been sick for a week, now. My Sylva's caught it, too. It's a good thing Reverend Sinth has gone to his just reward, and that his followers have pretty much disbanded Save Our Kids. At the moment, we couldn't put enough counter-demonstrators on the sidewalk to protect your donors from the Girls Club annual cookie sale."
Rital preferred not to discuss Reverend Sinth's two year battle to close his Sime Center in front of his visitor. He was more than happy to forget the days when his Sime Center's sidewalks had been packed with dozens of screaming demonstrators. Tohm and his loyal friends in the Organization for Legal Disruption of Save Our Kid's Strategy, familiarly known as OLD SOKS, had kept the Collectorium open throughout the crisis. Rital was genuinely grateful for the help they had provided, escorting donors through the lines. However, none of the staff at the Clear Springs Center was sad to see that such services were no longer required.
"I don't think I've noticed that jacket before," Rital commented, hoping to divert the conversation. "Is it new?"
The jacket in question was certainly worthy of comment. It was the deep blue of the ocean, and on the left pocket was a cartoonlike embroidered patch showing a raggedly dressed sailor on a rubber life raft. He was staring apprehensively at several ominous fins circling in the water. A much larger patch, occupying half of the right side, depicted a nasty looking shark, teeth gaping in a wide grin, wearing a formal Gen-style business suit and carrying a briefcase in one flipper.
"Do you like it?" Tohm asked with unfeigned delight. He turned to show the back, which had "Starving Lawyer: Will Work for an Arm and a Leg" written across it in large, blood red letters, and in smaller print, "Clear Springs University Law School, Class of 122."
"The law student association wanted to sell the same boring jackets they've had for the past ten years, but Sylva and I talked them into trying something different this year. For some strange reason, sales are way up." He winked at them cheerfully, then began edging away. "I've got to run, or I'll be late for class. See you around!" With another cheerful wave, Tohm accelerated into the ground-eating walk of someone who is accustomed to covering long distances by foot.
"That was a future lawyer?" Skaggit demanded incredulously, staring after Tohm. "I suppose he's on a charity scholarship?"
"I doubt it," Rital said, not trying very hard to hide his amusement. "Karl Seegrin's law firm is one of the best in New Washington Territory, for both corporate and government matters. I believe they also handle legal affairs for Clear Springs University. Tohm's tuition would amount to little more than spare change, for his father."
He continued on his way at a much more sedate and dignified pace than Tohm had used. Out-Territory Gens were more accepting of Simes in their midst, if those Simes did not emphasize the greater speed, strength and dexterity which made them the world's most dangerous predators.
"But the Gen wasn't high field," Skaggit protested. "From the zlin of his field, he's been stripped of selyn more than once, too. You are bolder than I thought, if you 'convinced' a Gen from such an influential family to submit to regular harvest. Was his indiscretion a matter of the heart, or business? Perhaps a gambling debt?"
Rital was disconcerted by the new note of respect in the Second Order channel's nager, combined as it was with the assumption that he had used blackmail to compel a donation. "Tohm freely volunteers to donate, just like all the Gens who come to our Collectorium," he said firmly. "For that matter, Karl Seegrin also comes in from time to time, although not as regularly as his son."
The respect turned into a muddled confusion. "I've known Gens that resign themselves to harvest once they are caught, and don't bother to fight very hard. There are even some Gens living near the borders who enter into an agreement with one channel's band, in exchange for protection from other bands. Still, they would avoid us if they could. Why would even a Gen volunteer for the indignity of harvest?"
"Perhaps because he doesn't consider it an indignity?" Rital suggested. "Tohm believes very strongly that the Tecton's presence here is a good thing for his community, and wishes to support our efforts in a concrete fashion. Not every Gen who donates is so idealistic, it's true. Many volunteer primarily for the money. Even so, it is their free choice. We do not take selyn from Gens unless they consent to give it, of their own accord."
Skaggit inspected the passing Gens thoughtfully. "I don't believe you realize how wealthy your Tecton is," he said softly, after a moment. "It isn't just your railroads and industries. You have arable land, so you can keep your children, even the Gens, knowing that they won't starve. With a reliable domestic selyn supply, you can afford to lure out-Territory Gens with bribes and idealistic pleas about helping others."
His voice and nager took on a darker tone. "In Cordona, things are different. Our sheer mountainsides will grow no crops. We can keep no Gens except the few who serve our channels. We must get our selyn from the Gens of Amzon and Zillia, and we cannot wait upon their pleasure for it, either. If we did, our renSimes would die of attrition, or be forced to kill. So we go hunting across the Border, to bring back Gens for harvest. If our raids do not inconvenience those who have power, the Gen governments of Amzon and Zillia make only a token protest. They know that the alternative is much worse."
Rital shook his head. "Amzon and Zillia are not making a token protest this time. They want the terms of last year's treaty enforced, including the cessation of all raids and the payment of donors. That treaty was signed by Cordona, and your people must abide by it."
Skaggit tossed his head defiantly. "We will consider abiding by the treaty when they build the Sime Centers they have promised us, and fill them with donors sufficient to our needs. Until then, we will take the selyn we need. We are Simes, in Cordona! No protesting Gens will stop us. We do not haggle like merchants, or grovel before Gen peasants begging for charity. That is why we, who are otherwise poor, have all the selyn we wish to use, while your Tecton issues appeals for emergency donations—and comes up short, in spite of them!"
Rital winced at the reminder, hard put to counter such basic Sime logic. Still, it was his duty to try. "Hajene Skaggit, in the long run, it is much more efficient to have Gens who volunteer to donate. If only because you don't have to chase them down and capture them, first."
The Second order channel gave a cruel chuckle. "Your luxurious Tecton life has made you soft. You have forgotten that Simes are predators, and Gens are our natural prey. Oh, we of Cordona have left the kill behind us. It is wasteful, and not healthy, besides. Still, what's the fun of taking Gens that just stand there passively and let you do what you please with them? Be honest with me. Don't you enjoy the challenge when one of them shows some proper spirit, and gives you a good fight while you strip her? Doesn't it make you feel like a Sime your own distant Raider ancestors could admire?"
Deep inside Rital, in a place he would never willingly examine, something dark responded to Skaggit's words. It liked the idea of a Gen panicking under his tentacles, struggling vainly to escape the inescapable.
"I hardly think that winning the admiration of ancestral bandits and killers is a worthwhile goal," he objected quickly, forgetting diplomacy for the moment . He swallowed, fighting an almost visceral disgust at the images evoked by Cordonan's taunt—or perhaps, his own response to them.
Deliberately provoking a donor to resist was foreign to every Tecton ideal. As the Controller of the Clear Springs Sime Center, Rital was sometimes called in to handle donors who were unusually apprehensive, or who seemed uncomfortable with the concept of giving selyn. For most, careful handling and a reassuring demeanor could overcome their nervousness and allow an almost normal donation. There had been a few exceptions: Gens who had strong personal reasons for donating in spite of true Simephobia. Rital respected the courage it took such Gens to volunteer, but he dreaded taking their donations, not least because of the seductive image of himself as an overwhelming, all-powerful predator, which was reflected back to him in their nagers.
"Playing with Gen fear is dangerous," he continued, as they turned a corner. Ahead of them, the squat, ugly building which housed the Clear Springs power plant came into view. On the hill behind it, windmill sails turned lazily in the breeze, supplementing the power provided by the town's selyn powered generator. "It's too easy to make a habit of it, and then you can lose control and burn someone."
"Nonsense," Skaggit scoffed, but the Second Order channel's nager revealed less certainty than he had probably intended. "I have been enjoying it for years. I don't use residents of the Gen villages with which my band has regular harvest arrangements, naturally. However, there are travelers, and we don't always have the luxury of remaining in our own hunting grounds. My fellow Cordonan channels do the same. Sometimes accidents happen, of course, but almost always it's an apprentice channel involved. I myself haven't come close to killing a Gen." For a moment, Rital could zlin an almost junct mixture of remembered pain, pleasure, and guilt, even through the muddle that his retainers made of the ambient. "Well, not very close. And that was years ago, when I was a First Year apprentice, myself."
"You burned someone." It was a statement, not a question. "You carried your game too far, and hurt a donor who was trusting you to work safely." Rital didn't try to conceal his shock and revulsion as he led the way down the power plant's neatly swept sidewalk, and around the building to a heavy door. Attached to its surface at eye level was a Diplomatic Corps plaque which warned in both Simelan and English that the area on the other side was legally Sime Territory. Reaching into his pocket carefully, to avoid pinching a lateral as he twisted his wrist, Rital withdrew a key and inserted it into the door's padlock.
"He didn't trust me in the least," Skaggit corrected, as if it were the expected thing for a donor to expect harm from a channel. Perhaps in Cordona, it was. The Cordonan at least had the grace to look ashamed of his lapse in channel's skills, although there was no true repentance in his nager. "It was hardly the crisis you imply, though. It was only a disobedient horseboy."
The Second Order channel flicked a bit of leaf off of his cloak in a dismissive fashion, then continued. "My teacher's band usually hunted in Zillia, but that day Rahaul decided to try our luck in Amzon, instead. We were fortunate enough to run across a caravan that was just assembling for the trip across the border. It was a rich one, too; not only selyn, and food for the Donors, but fine horses, cloth, and ten casks of wine. The caravan master protested when we took the best of the goods, of course. However, his employers from Clan Tapponero had negotiated their safe passage with Heelabo's band, not ours, and their guards had not yet arrived to dispute the issue with us. We opened a cask of the wine, and Jaycol played his shiltpron. Rahaul had several mugs of wine and passed out entirely, leaving the harvest to me. We were all a bit wild when the horseboy's turn came up. The young idiot put up a ridiculous fuss, and what with me being a bit drunk myself, I miscalculated with him."
"What exactly went wrong?" Rital asked.
"I never found out, exactly," Skaggit admitted. "I was going to ask Rahaul for his opinion. However, before I got around to it, he ran afoul of a troop of Zillian cavalry during a routine harvesting expedition. They threw his body in the Tylom river, and after that I was far too busy keeping the band together to worry about the horseboy any further."
"I can't believe that any channel could be so callous, about a Gen that he himself had injured."
The Cordonan raised an eyebrow at Rital's scornful tone. "The Gen wasn't hurt that badly," he insisted. "Just...scorched a bit around the edges. I treated some of the worst spots, and gave his employer some fosebine to feed him when he woke up. Then I told the renSimes to put him back in his nice, comfortable bed in the punishment shed. I'm sure he was back on his feet and causing trouble again within a week."
"You didn't bother to find out?" Rital decided, then and there, that the Cordonan channel would never touch a Gen in his Sime Center, except under his personal and direct supervision. "You burned a Gen and then abandoned him?" He relocked the door to ensure privacy and led the way down a narrow flight of yellowed concrete stairs to a large basement room.
"I doubt the Gen would have appreciated any help a Sime might provide, after being burned," Skaggit pointed out, logically enough. "Besides, it really wasn't practical to camp out in Amzon until he recovered. The caravan guards were already overdue." The Cordonan looked around the power plant's basement with open interest.
The front part of the room looked like the employee lounge it had once been. A dingy, olive green couch slumped along one wall, as if ashamed of the stains and tears that marred its upholstery. Across from it, a battered table with one short leg was propped against the wall. A standard Tecton medkit rested on its scarred surface, along with several neatly folded, clean towels.
The back third of the room was fenced off with a shiny metal safety grating. Its only gate was fastened with a Gen proof lock, which required tentacles to open. Behind it, four medium sized selyn batteries crouched malevolently, or so it always seemed to Rital. From the terminals on their top surfaces, heavy orgonics cables wound their way up the wall, disappearing through an access port which had been chipped through the concrete wall. From behind the wall came the steady hum of the selyn powered generator which supplied electricity to the homes of Clear Springs.
In-Territory, there would not have been a foot of concrete separating the selyn batteries from the generator, and both would have been in the basement of the Sime Center, not half a mile away on the other side of town. However, Clear Springs had opted to install their selyn powered generator next to its coal burning predecessor, and the Tecton had agreed. The separate room was a compromise to allow channels access to the selyn batteries without first evacuating the untrained out-Territory Gens who tended the generator.
With a sigh of relief, Rital popped the catches on his retainers, and began working his tentacles free of the devices. "What did the horseboy's employers have to say about your...'accident?'" he asked. Some strange, masochistic urge made him unwilling to simply drop the subject.
Skaggit did not take offense. He simply gave another of those almost predatory, liquid shrugs, and began to remove his own retainers. He was slower at the task than Rital, as he had much less experience with the partially modified torture devices. "His fellow horse handlers protested, of course, but not very loudly. It turned out that one of them had asked Rahoul to teach the lad his place, before my master passed out. That's why the renSimes had worked him up so thoroughly. Although I don't think either Rahoul or the horseboy's masters intended the lessen to be quite so....severe. Well, neither had I."
The Cordona channel placed his retainers on the table beside Rital's. "Truth to tell, I believe the caravan owner was are more concerned with the fate of his merchandise, than his horseboy. Since his workers were already low field, he was faced with using part of his goods to buy off Heelabo's band, and get through the pass. The caravan workers still waiting for harvest didn't give us any trouble after the Gen was burned, so you see, there was little harm done."
Rital doubted that the Gen Skaggit had burned would agree. With his tentacles free of the distorting retainers, the Tecton channel could zlin that Skaggit's easy assurance was at least partly bravado, and that the episode had affected him much than he was admitting.
In an obvious change of subject, the Second Order channel peered through the metal safety grating at the batteries. "So these are the famous selyn batteries that run your trains and power your cities. We do not have such in Cordona. How do you recharge them?"
It was not Rital's task to pass judgment on the Cordonan channel's activities in his homeland, however horrific they might be. He bit back the temptation to launch into a diatribe and reached for one of the clean towels. Carefully, he wiped the need induced excess of ronaplin from his arms and the insides of his retainers, using the simple task to regain his composure. He was much calmer when he joined Skaggit before the grating. The Tecton channel gripped the lock with one hand, manipulating the Genproof catch with his handling tentacles. "Let me show you the procedure," he offered, with far less sympathy than was, strictly speaking, appropriate.
Battery work was always unpleasant, and Rital was not accustomed to training channels in the recharging procedure. By the time Skaggit had forced himself to grip the cold, dead terminals of one of the batteries and void enough selyn to fill it, Rital had filled two more. The fourth and last would have to remain empty until the epidemic ran its course, or the donation shortfall was corrected in some other way.
"This technology of yours is overrated," the Cordonan channel muttered as Rital guided him back through the safety grating and over to the battered sofa. "If that is what is required to run lights and trains, I think I prefer our torches and llamas."
"It won't be quite so bad, when you master the technique," Rital encouraged. "The trick is to just grab the terminals and void selyn, without letting yourself think too much about it. Here, lean on me a moment, until you get stabilized." He adjusted his nager to a firm support, much as a Donor would offer, and held out his hands. A channel's imitation of support wasn't as effective as a real Gen's field for such purposes, but as a First, Rital could come close enough to help to a Second Order channel. Skaggit took the offered hands and leaned on his field gratefully. The unhealthy pallor gradually faded from his reddish toned skin as his fields stabilized.
After a long moment, the Cordonan straightened, releasing Rital. "My thanks for..." He broke off as the basement door was flung open. Multiple feet clattered down the concrete steps, accompanied by a chaotic mass of Gen nagers. In the lead was Nid Fulson, the fussy and officious plant manager, his nager throbbing with fury as he brandished a letter written on Sime Center stationery. Behind Fulson was the shift supervisor, Gillum Mathison, whose shaggy, light brown hair and stocky build gave him something of the appearance of a grizzly bear. He was normally an easygoing man, but he was not smiling at the moment, and neither were the three even more burly subordinates who followed him. None of the Gens were donors, and Rital hastily retracted his handling tentacles so as not to frighten them.
"What do you mean, you're cutting our battery power by twenty-five percent?" Fulson demanded, in a tone that made his employees flinch reflexively. He stalked to the center of the room, the better to glare at Rital. "We have an agreement with you snakes, and we expect it to be honored!"
Rital took a deep breath to steady himself, bracing himself against the impact of the agitated and uncontrolled Gen nagers. He had hoped that the excitable Fulson would not get around to reading his morning mail until after the channels were safely back in the Sime Center. Unfortunately, the lesson in battery filling had taken longer than anticipated. Rital got to his feet, moving slowly so as not to alarm the Gens, and held his voice steady as he answered. "Mr. Fulson, the Tecton's contract with the City of Clear Springs allows the City's allotment of selyn to be reduced during a Level Two selyn shortage. Because of the flu epidemic, and the continent-wide drop in donations that has resulted, the World Controller has declared such a Level Two shortage. He has also asked all healthy Gens to donate, so that the shortfall can be made up. Until a sufficient number of Gens respond to that appeal, however, your power plant will have to make do with only three batteries per week."
At the mention of donations, Mathison's attention shifted uneasily towards the two sets of retainers resting on the table, then returned to rest on Rital's bare forearms. A frission of alarm rippled through his nager.
Rital had managed to set need aside while he worked on the batteries, but he felt it reawaken. Sime instinct insisted that he secure the selyn source before it could run away. He wished that he had been able to bring a Donor with him, as he usually did when leaving the Sime Center. However, Den's illness had made that impossible. He struggled to keep his battle with the predatory reflex from his face.
He couldn't prevent himself from shifting uneasily from foot to foot. This caught the attention of the three workmen, who also realized that the channels' tentacles were unconfined. Behind Rital, Skaggit stood, then strolled casually along the wall towards the door, where ambient was less unsettled. After their earlier conversation, Rital was glad to see the Second Order channel distance himself from the untrained Gens. The Cordonan was still a full week away from his next transfer, unlike Rital. However, the Tecton channel didn't trust his foreign colleague's inadequate and haphazard training, in such a stressful situation, especially after the man had admitted to losing control and injuring a client.
Of all the Gens, only Fulson was too caught up in his tirade to feel apprehension. Unfortunately, his fury was almost equally provocative. "I don't care what fine print got inserted into the final agreement," the plant manager ranted. "The deans and professors over at the university don't care about fine print when their experiments are at stake and their classrooms are dark. Residents of the better neighborhoods depend on this power plant to keep their food cold and their bath water hot—and they're not people who are good at taking 'No' for an answer. I'm not going to spend my life on the telephone, explaining to their lawyers that the Tecton won't fulfill its obligations. You had better come up with a solution that doesn't mean blackouts or rationing, and you'd better come up with it now!"
Fulson's rage grated across Rital's need sensitized nerves like fingernails on a blackboard, arousing premature intil. He took a step backwards, trying to gain enough distance to escape the worst of the effect.
Skaggit, in contrast, had deliberately extended his laterals to sample the violently charged ambient. The broad grin on his face showed true enjoyment, although it was difficult to tell whether it was sparked by the Gens’ uncontrolled emotions or by Rital's predicament.
"Why, the solution is very simple," the Cordonan channel said slyly, speaking in heavily accented English. Rital hadn't known that Skaggit spoke the language; most Gens on the southern continent were said to use one of several other tongues.
The Gens turned to look at him. "Who are you?" Fulson demanded suspiciously. "I haven't seen you around before."
Skaggit's face reshaped itself into an expression of patently false innocence. "Why, I am Skaggit, head channel of the second largest Sime band in Cordona. I am here in your beautiful city to observe how the Tecton collects and distributes selyn. I admit, some of the differences have been quite... educational, shall we say?" He gave a taunting chuckle, then continued.
"Controller Madz truly can't fill your last battery, Mr. Fulson, because he's running short of selyn. It appears that your fellow citizens weren't inspired to civic virtue by the Tecton's appeal. And after the World Controller begged so nicely for volunteers, too. One might even say, 'groveled.'" His eyes darted to Rital, as his nager flared open contempt for any Sime who would beg a Gen for selyn.
Rital adjusted his own nager until it showed nothing but a Tecton channel's disciplined control. Skaggit's lips pouted in disappointment at this refusal to respond to his taunt, then he turned back to the Gens. The sly smile became more predatory, and his eyes glittered with enjoyment as he approached them obliquely, with Sime graceful steps.
"The Tecton doesn't make advertise the fact, but as we of Cordona know well, it isn't necessary that a Gen cooperate in order for a channel to harvest a useful amount of selyn. If you think about it, you will see that it must be so. After all, the only real difference between a donation and a kill is the speed of draw, not the amount of selyn taken." Skaggit's handling tentacles waved sinuously to illustrate his words.
Mathison gave an audible gasp, and started inching backwards, towards the stairs. The Second Order channel's gaze lingered on the sift supervisor, then flicked over the three workmen. His laterals extended partially as he ostentatiously zlinned them. Rital tensed in response to the Gens' growing alarm.
Skaggit began to pace, apparently at random. It might have been a coincidence that he was ten feet closer to the door, in position to block the stairs, when he paused to address Fulson again. "So as you see, Mr. Fulson, it is only a bureaucratic technicality—the Tecton's silly insistence on waiting for volunteers—that is preventing you from fulfilling your obligation to provide power to your fellow citizens. There is no deficit of selyn in Clear Springs; it is only that the selyn has not been harvested. Your four lackeys there, for instance, are carrying enough accessible selyn to fill your fourth battery all by themselves. Shall we strip them for you, and recharge it?"
"Skaggit, stop that!" Rital ordered, gesturing sharply for the Cordonan channel to join him. He doubled over as alarm swept over him, carried on the nagers of all five Gens. The dark, bestial part of him that he had never allowed himself to examine responded. It knew that this month, Den's selyn would not be there for him; that there was currently no Donor in Clear Springs able to serve him. Facing attrition, it didn't care that none of the five out-Territory Gens could possibly serve his need and survive.
Skaggit was only a week past turnover, and he was far less sensitive than Rital as well. He ignored Rital's order, basking in the emotions his suggestion had evoked. There was an almost junct glee suffusing his nager as he taunted, "Oh, my, our refined Tecton Controller doesn't approve of my suggestion. I suppose it's up to my less delicate sensibilities, then." He again zlinned Fulson and his employees, taking the time to absorb every nuance of their shocked disbelief, then asked, "Who wants to be first?"
Mathison gave a panicked whimper as the Cordonan channel's eyes came to rest on him, then bolted for the stairs. With a flicker of augmentation, Skaggit grabbed the fleeing Gen by the back of the shirt. Voice and nager shrieked in unison, but the wildly flailing fists couldn't reach their target.
"Not so fast," the Cordonan channel ordered, giving Mathison a shake. "You can go when we're done stripping you; not before."
"That is quite enough!" Rital abandoned his struggle to regain self control and strode forward, intending to tear the Second Order channel from his prey before it was too late.
Skaggit chucked. "So there's a bit of Sime backbone to you, after all," he said. "Here, take this one, then. He's lively enough for sport." With an augmented shove, he sent the terrified Mathison reeling towards Rital.
Rital's intil surged as he reflexively reached out to catch the Gen. Mathison screamed again as he saw Rital's outstretched tentacles, but he couldn't stop himself in time. The Gen's nager rang with the stricken horror of a prey species trapped by a predator. One small corner of Rital's mind diagnosed hysteria, and ran through a list of treatment options. The rest of him was far too close to hard need to avoid responding like a Sime, instead of a channel.
For one awful moment, as his hands and tentacles grasped the shift supervisor's upper arms, he honestly didn't know whether he intended to steady the staggering Gen—or to kill him.
Read Chapter 2
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