"Den, I couldn't believe what I was zlinning," Rital told his cousin a very long two hours later, when he had finally made what few amends were possible for his guest's behavior and regained the sanctuary of the Sime Center. "Skaggit was playing with Mr. Mathison like a junct Raider, frightening him for the fun of zlinning it."
Den Milnan's already pale face blanched, and his fever-bright eyes met Rital's. "Shen!" he swore, reaching up to shove a matted lock of brown hair behind one ear. "I knew the man was a lorsh, the way he's been looking down his oversized nose at every Gen here. Still, it never occurred to me that he'd go out of his way to create an inter-Territorial incident."
"I think I managed to talk Nid Fulson out of gathering a lynch mob and storming the Sime Center, but he's not going to forget about this. He'll go to the police-or the press."
The Donor gasped injudiciously, then doubled over in a paroxysm of coughing as the air tickled his sore throat. Rital's laterals extended without his conscious intent, dripping ronaplin. It was a reflexive response to the alarm projected by his cousin's Donor strength selyn field. Or, perhaps it was something darker, something that wanted to taste the Gen's physical discomfort. He snatched the errant tentacles back into their sheaths before Den noticed his lapse.
The channel had edited his account of the disaster to avoid all mention of his own transgression. After all, he'd managed to regain control of himself very quickly. He had not tried to take selyn from Mathison, although stopping had been more difficult than he cared to admit, even to himself. The strange, predatory pleasure he had felt as his hands and tentacles caught Mathison, and the Gen realized that he was trapped, was not something he wanted to think about. Not while he was in hard need and no Donor was available. Perhaps he would be able to confront the issue when the current crisis was over, and his cousin was well enough to provide support.
It would take two or three more days before the Gen's fever broke, even given a Donor's increased resistance to most infections. Several days of bed rest would be required afterwards before he could work. Worse, when Den did recover, he would be out of phase with Rital.
A normal virulent flu epidemic would have been bad enough. Sick Gens seldom came in to donate, and caring for the critically ill was an extra burden on the Tecton staff who remained well. However, this year's winter flu strain had come up with a particularly dirty trick, even for a virus; the ability to waste selyn. RenSimes who caught the disease burned an extra week's selyn, on average, before they recovered. Gens also burned a week's worth of selyn production. The result was to shorten the Sime's need cycle to three weeks, while extending the Gen victim's donation cycle to five weeks. This was wreaking havoc with the Tecton's ability to collect and distribute selyn.
Channels and their Donors were generally healthier than average, but they, too, were falling victim to the plague. Controllers across the continent were struggling to match channels and Donors as the normal transfer schedules were disrupted. There was never an excess of really talented Donors at any time, and every channel guarded their health zealously. To zlin his cousin struggling for breath was harder for Rital, in some ways, than being sick himself would have been.
"Don't try to talk, Den. Let me work on you for a moment."
Rital supported the Donor's head with his hands and let his need-moistened laterals extend again, voluntarily this time. He focused tightly on the Genís field, working to control the spasms. It was more difficult to concentrate on healing than it should have been. The need driven, selfish Sime predator inside of him was far more concerned about the insufficient selyn in Denís field, and what it meant for the coming month, than by any altruistic concern for the Genís welfare. There were times when Rital wondered if any Gens would volunteer to Qualify as a technical class Donors, if they knew how much of the devotion lavished upon them by the channels was cupboard love.
When the coughing fit finally ended, Den lay still for a long moment, breathing carefully. "Iíve got to call Hank Fredricks," the Donor said. "Heíll at least listen to an explanation before he goes to press with a special edition of the Clear Springs Clarion."
Rital extended a tentacled arm as his cousin started to sit up in the rumpled bed, and pushed the Donor back down against the sheets. "Donít be ridiculous. Your temperature is almost as high as mine, and you havenít eaten anything worth mentioning in four days. Youíre in no condition to handle a delicate situation like this."
Two pairs of brown eyes glared at each other, both determined to have their way. However, despite the trauma of the morning, Rital had not just spent four days sick in bed. He could zlin his cousinís stubborn defiance fade before stark necessity.
"The eminent Sosu Quess ambrov Shaeldor and his equally eminent wife, Hajene Nerina, are arriving on the afternoon train," Rital said firmly. "They were the ones who insisted on holding this shedoni-doomed diplomatic conference in my Sime Center. They can shenned well figure out how to clean up the incidental messes that result. Theyíre the diplomats, after all."
The crisis that preoccupied the channel during the ensuing hours, however, was not the impending public relations disaster caused by Skaggit's rash actions. It was rather the more personal problem of his cousin's illness; specifically, the Donor's inability to serve him in transfer.
Likewise, he wasn't awaiting the arrival of the Tecton diplomatic party so eagerly because they were better able to placate the out-Territory Gens. District Controller Monruss had promised the previous day that, somehow, some way, he would ensure that among their number was a Donor for Rital. The channel clung to that assurance as the one source of hope in a world that was otherwise devoid of any reason for optimism.
As his scheduled transfer time came and passed, Rital tried his best to give a convincing imitation of his usual behavior. He dropped by the cafeteria at lunch time, but was unable to stomach more than a single cup of trin tea. The nagers of the other diners, most of whom were Gens, were more irritating than soothing. None of them carried enough selyn to do more than blunt his personal need, even if he killed them. The prospect of doing so was not nearly as unthinkable as it should have been, he discovered.
That last thought was not at all reassuring, after what had happened in the power plant's basement. He abandoned his half empty cup and fled the cafeteria. An alcove at the end of the hall, next to the laundry room, provided a refuge of sorts. He sat in the window seat for a while, staring morosely through the glass at the bare trees and yellowed grass in the Center's back garden. The only thing that was green and alive was the ivy which grew thickly up the Center's back wall. The week before, a storm had pulled some of the long strands loose, and they dangled over the window. The Center's groundskeeper, Alyce, had not had time to trim them away before she had fallen sick.
This reminder of the epidemic turned his attention once more to his own problems. There wasn't anything he could do about Den's inability to serve him transfer, but his disturbing desire to attack a non-donor Gen might prove more amenable to research. He headed down the stairs to the Center's small library, in hopes of locating a case history or two which might prove enlightening.
The library was a spacious, sunny room at the back of the building, with a pleasant view of the grounds. Because Clear Springs was so isolated, it was larger than the libraries of most in-Territory Centers. The shelves that took up the back half of the room contained the usual assortment of basic medical texts, Tecton law books, and other reference materials that the staff might wish to consult regularly. In addition, there were teaching materials for changeover classes, and a small collection of novels in both Simelan and English.
The front half of the room was taken up by three large tables, surrounded by chairs. These served variously as reading tables, conference tables, or even desks, when there were changeover classes to be taught. Most of the time, however, the room was a haven for those seeking peace and quiet.
Today the library was already occupied, however. Curled up in Rital's favorite chair, one of a matched pair with particularly plush, comfortable upholstery, was the despondent form of the Center's latest success story. Calvin Nermann had grown up in Oak Ridge, a small town some miles from Clear Springs. He was fortunate enough to have parents who were open minded on the subject of Simes, and who had decided to provide their child with changeover training. Unlike its counterpart in Clear Springs, the Oak Ridge school did not allow the Tecton onto its grounds. Calvin's parents had made an evening trip into Clear Springs every week, so that their boy could attend the classes Den and Rital taught in the Sime Center itself.
To the amazement of his classmates, Calvin had showed up for class four days before, displaying the classic symptoms of impending Simehood. The curriculum had suffered, since Den's illness had left Rital as the only teacher that evening. However, it was far better for Calvin than being shot or beaten to death, as still happened to far too many of Oak Ridge's Sime children.
The boy wasn't appreciating his good fortune, however. He was staring blankly at an introductory Simelan textbook, his eyes unfocused and his nager dark with gloom. It was obvious that his attention was not on mastering the Simelan terms for "shirt" and "raincoat."
Rital might be overdue for transfer, with no Donor in zlinning range, but he was also a channel, and his sense of duty was well ingrained. He adjusted his showfield to display concern and sympathy, and addressed the young Sime. "Hello, Calvin. You seem a bit out of sorts. Are you feeling homesick?"
"No," Calvin said. "Well, yes, I am, but that's not what's bothering me. Not really." He looked up at the channel in appeal. "Hajene, when my tentacles...broke free, it was as if they had a life of their own. One that could take me over and control my actions, even against my will. They turned me into a ravening monster, intent on satisfaction at any price. There was nothing I could do about it. I used to wonder how changeover victims could attack, and kill, their friends and family without a second thought. I was sure that I would be different, if I became a Sime. But I wasn't, was I?"
Rital could zlin how desperately Calvin wanted reassurance, but the young Sime's misgivings were too similar to his own for him to provide it. Besides, he dared not leave the lad with a false impression of his own invulnerability. "No, Calvin, you weren't any different," he agreed. "All Simes are subject to need, even channels. One learns to live with it, but it can never truly be escaped, except perhaps for a few hours after transfer."
Calvin was horrified. "I might kill someone?" he asked.
"If you are careless, and unlucky, there is always that possibility," the channel admitted. "Your control will improve a great deal with practice, of course. You won't be quite as vulnerable the next time you go into need. At the First Year camp you will be attending, you'll learn how to recognize dangerous situations, and avoid them before you're stressed beyond your limits. There are also things that your friends and colleagues can do to help you, if you get into trouble. Actual kills are very rare, in Sime Territory, but that is only because our Simes work hard to prevent them. The temptation is always there."
"It sounds like a very grim way to live."
"It's no worse than the way your parents and their neighbors live, constantly wondering if they'll have the nerve to murder a child in changeover, rather than let him kill," Rital pointed out. "Coming to terms with the baser aspects of one's larity is part of growing up. It doesn't mean life is not worth living; only that..."
He broke off as Gati Forsin, one of the Center's two receptionists, entered the room. She stopped as she zlinned the intensity of the ambient.
"I'm sorry," she apologized. "I didn't mean to interrupt anything. I was just going to start clearing away the clutter here, to make ready for the Diplomatic Corps people." She used a graceful tentacle gesture to indicate the tables in the center of the room. The detritus from the interrupted changeover training class of four days before was still strewn over their surfaces. In addition, there were unshelved books, overflowing trash cans, and other evidence that the Center's depleted staff had neglected basic maintenance for the less essential parts of the building.
"Please, don't let us interfere with your work, Gati," Rital said. "In fact, Calvin here might be willing to give you a hand." He looked at the boy inquiringly.
Whatever other drawbacks out-Territory child raising methods might have, they did instill a firm foundation of obedience. Calvin set aside his linguistic textbook and stood immediately. "Of course I'll help, Hajene Madz. What would you like me to do, Miz Forsin?"
"Let's start by collecting the changeover class supplies and putting them back in the closet, there," Gati said. "It looks like no one took care of that, what with all the excitement of your changeover. Then we can push the tables together to make one large one, suitable for a conference."
Calvin blushed with adolescent embarrassment at this reference to his very public entry into adulthood. However, he went dutifully over to the closest table and started collecting handouts and textbooks. The channel decided that the youngster was well occupied, and the prospect of doing something useful even seemed to be lifting his depression.
Since Rital didn't want to perform research into his own failings in front of witnesses, he took his leave, wandering restlessly through the halls. He didn't dare go near an out-Territory Gen until he was certain that his control would not fail him again, so he stayed strictly away from the Collectorium and other public access areas. He thought he was safe, until he met the Center's head receptionist, Seena ambrov Carre, near the infirmary.
Seena was a tall woman, with shoulder length, light brown hair and a nager which usually bubbled with laughter. As a Gen, she was unable to truly understand Rital's increasing desperation, although of course she knew he was overdue for transfer. Her sympathy caught the channel's attention.
If something went wrong, and his Donor didn't arrive on the afternoon train, could he persuade Seena to let him attempt a transfer with her? She was no match for his need, of course, but she couldn't zlin that. She might well take his word that it was safe. One lateral on his right arm, the closest to the Gen, peeked out of its sheath in anticipation. And when he had her, if he singed her just a little, there would be a burst of pain, and that bubbling laughter would turn to fear as her selyn filled the void within him.
Rital jerked himself away from that thought before it reached its inevitable conclusion; Seena dead, himself junct, and the Tecton reeling from the betrayal. Tecton channels didn't kill, no matter what. It was unthinkable.
Then why the shen am I thinking about it?
Rital couldn't let Seena know that he had been daydreaming about taking her. He couldn't bear to zlin her sympathy turn to disgust. However, it was obvious that even in-Territory Gens were no longer safe in his presence. He gave Seena strict orders to fetch him at once when Quess and his party arrived, and barricaded himself in his office.
Even as he huddled in his desk chair, pretending to work on the revised selyn collection figures requested by the District Controller's office, Rital knew that he was behaving irrationally. In his condition, he belonged in a deferment suite, where no Gen would enter uninvited. At the very least, he should have the protection of a Donor, just in case some hapless out-Territory Gen chose to wander down the wrong hall.
Unfortunately, there was no Donor available. The same train that had deposited Hajene Skaggit on his doorstep had taken Tyvi ambrov Frihill, the Clear Springs Center's other First Order channel, and her Donor Siv Alson back to Sime Territory, for emergency reassignment. Of the Center's two Third Order Donors, one was ill, and the other just recovering. Neither could have helped him much, even if they had been healthy.
And he had never required help more. It should have been impossible for Rital to even think about harming a Gen. Like all Tecton channels, he had undergone anti-kill conditioning during his First Year after changeover. Properly implantedóand he had never before doubted that his was-the conditioning should have set up an involuntary reflex that would shen him out of any transfer situation that endangered a Gen. He might not survive the experience; the reflex was brutal. However, he had always believed that it was better to die than to kill.
His response to Mathison's terror had demonstrated that a part of him didn't share that belief. For the first time in his life, he had been truly tempted to harm a vulnerable Gen, and his anti-kill conditioning hadn't engaged. He could think of two explanations, neither of which was at all reassuring.
Anti-kill conditioning was designed to engage only when a channel's voluntary control failed. Without that safeguard, too many valuable channels would die. Despite the illicit pleasure he had taken in Mathison's fear, he hadn't actually drawn selyn from the man. If it happened again, however, he didn't quite trust himself not to give into temptation. If he did, he could find himself dying in convulsions when the conditioning engaged and threw him out of the transfer.
On the other hand, his attraction to Mathison might be a sign that his anti-kill conditioning had been eroded, and was no longer functional. If so, then it might not shen him out of a transfer before the Gen he had attacked was killed. He would survive the incident, only to die a lingering death in a Last Year House, locked up lest he kill again. That assumed, of course, that the Tecton could survive once the Gens learned that a channel had killed. Without the Tecton, civilization itself might collapse.
Rital didn't normally seek the insulated refuge of the deferment suite until just before his transfer, but he knew that he ought to do so. There was too much at stake, for himself and others, to take any unnecessary chances.
If he broke his normal pattern, however, it would be noticed. He had no desire to explain to the District Controller exactly why he was suddenly so concerned about his control. He could have sat by Den's bedside, on the pretext of using his need to help the Donor fight off his illness. Unfortunately, Den had a habit of seeing right through his cousin. Once he suspected that something was wrong, he wouldn't give up until he had pried the entire story out of Rital.
The channel consoled himself with a secret hope. Sosu Quess ambrov Shaeldor was as accomplished a Donor as he was a diplomat. Surely District Controller Monruss would not send two valuable First Order Donors out to Clear Springs, given the massive rescheduling caused by the epidemic? Quess's speed and capacity were measurably greater than Rital's own. A really good transfer, with a Donor whom he couldn't possibly harm, would surely restore his control to acceptable levels. When need no longer drove him, there would be ample time to discover what had gone wrong, and to consider whether additional measures were necessary for the protection of the untrained Gens around him.
Of course, Quess's wife Nerina was also a First Order channel, and she was a much closer match for her husband than Rital would ever be. However, the two had been working together for some time, preparing for the upcoming negotiations. They'd probably had transfer together during that time, perhaps more than once. To avoid dependencies among its channels and Donors, Tecton policy frowned on leaving a channel and Donor paired during three successive months.
By the time Ref's kitchen staff began clearing the lunch buffet in the cafeteria, Rital had convinced himself that Quess would be his. Secure in this conclusion, he gave up the pretense of working on his report. Instead, he got up and paced back and forth, firmly curbing the instinct which urged him to hunt for a Gen; any Gen, regardless of whether his quarry was able to survive his draw.
Quess was coming. Rital measured the minutes in increments of selyn, imagining the train hurrying along the tracks, bringing his Donor to serve him. Now it would be pulling into the station, assuming it was on time, and then Quess would have to claim his baggage.
The channel began pausing at the window during each circuit, zlinning through the insulated glass as best he could for the first hint of Quess's distinctive nager. A growing paranoia began to preoccupy him. What if something had gone wrong? What if the train was late, or the baggage mislaid? What would he do if Quess had missed the train altogether? The next one wouldn't arrive until the following morning. How could he possibly survive another fifteen hours?
His hand hovered over the telephone on his desk. It would only take a moment to call the station and ask if the train had arrived on time. He could confirm that much, although the stationmaster would probably not remember whether Quess had been a passenger. He was only a Gen, after all. He wouldn't care about the Donor's powerful nager, even if he could zlin it.
An even worse thought struck him. What if Quess was on the train, but unable to serve him? If there had been a changeover victim on the train, Nerina would not have been able to provide transfer because of the retainer laws. Quess would have had to give selyn to the new Sime, insteadóthe selyn Rital had decided belonged to him. If the changeover victim had been a renSime, that wouldn't be a complete disaster. A renSime didn't need much selyn, and Quess produced more than Rital could use. However, if the changeover victim had been a channel, there might not be enough selyn left over for Quess to give Rital an adequate transfer.
He picked up the receiver, intending to ask the stationmaster if there was a report of a changeover victim on the train. Then he put it back down, telling himself he was being paranoid. Instead, he paced over to look out the window once more. This time, he saw two taxicabs pull up to the curb. The doors opened, disgorging a number of people. Two of them started unloading luggage, while another paid the drivers. Four more, two channels and two Donors, started up the sidewalk to the main entrance. The moved with the stiff walk of people who have been sitting on a train far too long.
The Donor in the lead was Quess, and he was abundantly, deliciously high field.
Rital closed his eyes as a feeling of profound relief swept over him. He clutched at the windowsill with hands and handling tentacles for a long moment, too weak kneed to move, then hurried back to his desk. He quickly straightened his uniform and smoothed down his hair, zlinning to make sure that he was presentable. Quess always seemed to be dressed in an immaculate and unwrinkled uniform, and the channel didn't want to look shabby in comparison.
He picked up a pen and bent over the neglected report, ears straining for the sound of footsteps in the hall. He was careful to wait until Seena signaled before he called, "Enter."
"Sosu Quess's party has arrived, Controller Madz," she said cheerfully. "They're a bit tired from the journey, but they seem eager to start preparing for the conference."
"Thank you, Seena," Rital responded. He was unable to muster any interest whatsoever in diplomacy. He carefully replaced the pen in its holder, so that it wouldn't spatter ink all over his desk, then got to his feet. "I should go and welcome them to Clear Springs." The channel pulled together what was left of his dignity, and went to greet his Donor.
He ignored the amused, knowing smile on Seena's face as he passed her. She was Gen, after all, and a general class donor at that. She had no first hand experience with how devastating need could be for a Sime. She would not be smiling, if she knew what he had wanted to do to her only a few hours ago.
The Clear Springs Sime Center was too isolated to attract many visitors, so all of the off duty staff who were healthy enough to do so had turned out to greet the newcomers. They made way for Rital, however. As he approached Quess, the Donor's beautifully high field made the channel feel safe at last.
"Sosu Quess, it is good to see you again," he greeted the Gen, perhaps a bit more warmly than strictly required by Tecton etiquette. He extended the handling tentacles of his right arm to lightly brush the Gen's offered fingertips. It was not-quite-a caress. His laterals peeked out of their sheaths, tips quivering with pleasure at being so close to such an abundant source of selyn.
Quess ambrov Shaeldor was a balding, dignified older man. His air of quiet command impressed even Gens, who couldn't zlin his disciplined nager. He returned Rital's smile, but his nager remained neutral, instead of blending with the channel's in support.
"Controller Madz, I have been looking forward to visiting Clear Springs again," he said politely. He waved forward a trim, competent looking Gen woman of about forty. "This is Esparra Daybee, who is managing my diplomatic staff. If you would direct her to the appropriate person, she can see that everyone is settled into their quarters."
"Of course," the channel agreed. "Gati has been making the arrangements." He quickly introduced the two, and shooed them off to take care of what he couldn't help viewing, just then, as unimportant details.
Unfortunately, Quess was a stickler for propriety. Although that was no doubt a useful trait in a diplomat, there were times when it resulted in unnecessary delays. Rital curbed the impulse to fidget as the Donor was joined by a silver haired channel.
"You remember my wife, Nerina?"
"Of course. Welcome to Clear Springs, Hajene." Rital nodded a impatient greeting at the silver haired channel, his attention still focused on Quess's reassuring field.
Nerina was also in need, and she appeared somewhat nauseated from the journey. Her arms were marked with angry red marks from the hours she had spent in retainers. She moved closer to her husband, and rested a hand on his bare forearm with unmistakable Sime possessiveness.
It was the act of a Sime in need warning another Sime away from her Gen. Rital felt an awful foreboding.
Quess gestured for the other channel and Donor team to approach. "This is Hajene Bikella," he said, indicating the middle aged QN-2. "She is to return to Valzor tomorrow, with whatever selyn you can spare."
"You are welcome, Hajene," Rital greeted the woman, forcing himself to be courteous despite his impatience. "In addition to the selyn, we have a young renSime for you to escort back across the border."
"Of course, Controller," Bikella murmured.
Quess next indicated the TN-2 who had accompanied Bikella on the train. "I would also like to introduce one of my House's rising young talents. Young Vasthan has been studying hard to Qualify as a First Order Donor, and has shown quite a bit of promise. So much, in fact, that District Controller Monruss has decided to move up his Qualification a few months. Vasthan has been assigned to you for the attempt."
Rital looked at the young Gen in shocked disbelief. Vasthan was at most five years past establishment, if the channel was any judge. His head was covered with bright gold ringlets, somewhat tangled by the long train ride. Rital expected that young girls found him irresistible.
Vasthan gave the channel a wide smile, revealing a perfect set of teeth. His nager displayed a very adolescent mixture of eager anticipation and confidence. It was a confidence based on the inability to imagine that anything bad could happen to him, rather than on actual ability or experience. Underneath it was a touch of nervousness.
The Gen's field was strong for a Second, but nowhere close to what Rital required, given his current unstable condition. Qualifying a Donor was a risky duty. Accidents were always possible when a Gen was pushed beyond previous limits. There was no way to predict with complete certainty how a Second Order Donor such as Vasthan would respond to the faster draw speed and greater selyn demand of a First. There were ways to minimize the risks, of course. However, most of them depended on the Qualifying channel working extensively with the Donor candidate, building mutual knowledge and trust.
Rital had never heard of Vasthan ambrov Shaeldor, before the young Gen had walked through the door.
"It's customary to have such Qualifications handled by a channel who is a bit early for transfer," he pointed out as calmly as he could, carefully not looking at Nerina. "I was due two hours ago."
Quess shrugged. "I know it's not an optimum situation, but Monruss didn't have a choice. There simply weren't any high field First Order Donors available in less than a week. I'm sure you'll do well enough."
"I will monitor the transfer, just in case," Nerina said quietly.
Rital bit back his instinctive protest. No channel liked having another channel zlin his personal transfer. Furthermore, Nerina was more sensitive than he was. If she zlinned him with the focused concentration necessary to monitor his transfer, she was quite likely to notice any small mistakes he might make, in the area of maintaining control.
Of course, that same problem was an excellent argument in favor of having a monitor. As a Second Order Donor, Vasthan had never given transfer to a channel who could take the selyn locked behind his TN-1 barrier. If the Gen couldn't release the barrier on cue, or if there was a dangerous amount of resistance, it would be Rital's responsibility to abort the transfer. The channel didn't know if he could stop before he reached satisfaction. What if the predatory part of him that had enjoyed Mathison's terror gained the upper tentacle?
Theoretically, a Donor should be able to shen a channel who was in danger of killing him. However, during a Qualification attempt a Donor was supposed to allow the channel to set the limits, rather than trust his own instincts on how far he could be pushed. If Rital lost control and went for a kill, Vasthan might not realize that anything was wrong until it was too late.
As a Tecton channel, Rital should have refused outright to try the Qualification, under the circumstances. Donors were too valuable to risk injuring. Unfortunately, if Rital did that, he would have no choice but to accept a transfer from Nerina, and he couldn't quite make himself do that. Vasthan wasn't much of a Gen, measured against Rital's need, but he was better than channel's transfer. The risk that Nerina would zlin something dangerous to him was real, but he was very sure what sort of questions would be asked, if he refused to let Nerina monitor.
"Very well," he agreed. Nerina and Vasthan obviously knew each other. Perhaps that would give the young Gen confidence, and the Qualification would be uneventful. He turned back to Vasthan's more accomplished fellow Householder. "Sosu Quess, there was an unfortunate incident this morning between your Hajene Skaggit and five of the local citizens. Den can give you the details. You're the professional diplomat. I would greatly value your opinion on how best to handle the press...and the law."
There was a certain grim satisfaction in zlinning the sudden worry in Quess's nager; a petty revenge against the Gen who had refused him. It was just as well that he was too far into need to remember how shame felt. With a frown, he gestured abruptly for Nerina and Vasthan to follow, and headed for the safety of the Center's transfer suite. There were times when a strategic retreat saved on apologies.
"I haven't ever Qualified a Donor before," Rital confessed to Nerina, as they waited for Vasthan to emerge from the transfer suite's small bathroom. The channel was pacing nervously back and forth, despite the calm, confident field Nerina was working so hard to project. "I admit, I'm having trouble zlinning him as a Donor who could serve me."
"You won't, until you actually get past his TN-1 barrier," Nerina explained. She frowned thoughtfully. "He's managed to lower it in practice sessions, although it's a bit different during an actual transfer. Or so I'm told." She shrugged, admitting the impossibility of a channel ever knowing how transfer was experienced by Donors. "Just exercise normal care, and everything will go fine," she advised.
The previous year, Rital had managed to scorch his cousin Den in transfer while "exercising normal care." Den hadn't held it against him, but the two cousins had grown up together. Would this strange Donor be as forgiving, if Rital discovered that he didn't have the ability to hold back his draw? Would his anti-kill conditioning be equal to the task of aborting the transfer before Vasthan was seriously injured? He was in much worse shape now than he had been then. If he did burn Vasthan, and the Gen panicked, would he feel once more the strange Sime pleasure that he had felt that afternoon, when his hands closed around Mathison's arms? And if he did, would he even want to stop? The anti-kill conditioning which was a channel's last defense against the kill depended at least partly on the channel's active cooperation to work.
He paced a bit faster.
"Hajene Rital, would you please stop running around and come over here?" Nerina was being careful not to let her showfield display her own need, but it had clearly shortened her temper. "Young Vasthan is under enough pressure, having his Qualification assignment two months early and with a strange channel. Do you want to make him more uncertain about it than he already is?"
"Shen, no!" Rital scurried over to the transfer lounge, sat down, and tried to look as if he'd been calmly waiting there all along. "You said this Qualification assignment is early for him. Is he really ready to make the attempt?"
Nerina looked at Rital closely, obviously debating how much to tell him.
"The truth, Hajene," he insisted. "If there's going to be trouble, it's best if I'm prepared."
"One of his instructors did feel that it would be better to wait," she admitted. "Controller Monruss disagreed, as do I. We believe that Vasthan will rise to the occasion, if he is handled properly."
Any possibility of finding out precisely what Nerina considered "proper handling" was cut off as Vasthan emerged from the bathroom. His blonde curls had been hastily smoothed down with the help of fingers and a liberal sprinkling of water. It made him look even younger than he was. He had obviously used his time in the bathroom for more than primping, because his nager was noticeably calmer.
"I'm ready, Hajene Rital," he said, standing straight with what was, no doubt, intended to be taken as confident, mature pride.
Rital let himself drift hyperconscious, leaning tentatively on the Gen's field. The potential to serve him was there, according to the experts. Whether a Donor of such limited experience could handle a channel in his condition-and vice versa-remained to be zlinned.
It was, of course, essential that nothing occur to shake Vasthan's confidence. Rital met the young Donor's announcement with a confident smile of his own. It was more than half bravado, but fortunately the Gen couldn't zlin that. After three years of handling out-Territory general class donors, Rital was much better than the young Donor at appearing calmly confident when he was experiencing apprehension. It wasn't all that different, just because this time the apprehension was his own. He just hoped that Nerina would attribute his nervousness to his being almost three hours late for transfer.
"Come here, then, Vasthan," he invited, patting the lounge. He knew he should say something clever and reassuring, but speech was becoming more of an effort as the end of the interminable wait drew near. Fortunately, Nerina was ready to take over that task.
"Lie down on the lounge, Vasthan," she said, in the comforting tones of a practiced grandmother. "It's too bad your family won't be able to attend your Qualification party, but the cook here, Ref, enjoys a challenge. I'm sure he'll rise to the occasion. Let's start with those relaxation exercises you've been practicing."
Rital lost track of Nerina's voice as he drifted hyperconscious again, observing the effect her murmured instructions were having on the Gen's nager. It really did seem as if there was a little more selyn available than it had appeared at first zlin. Regardless of how much or little selyn was present, though, it all belonged to him, and that couldn't help but be reassuring.
Nerina was now weaving herself into their meshed fields, a part of them and yet apart, barely noticeable beside Vasthan's much more interesting Gen nager. Under normal circumstances, Rital would have admired the precision of her field work. At the moment, all he cared about was that she was no threat to his selyn supply, despite the need he could vaguely zlin in her.
At her signal, he took his Gen's arms. He couldn't tell whether the nervous anticipation he felt as his laterals made contact was his own or Vasthan's. The young Gen was already leaning forward to make lip contact. Their nagers blended, as if they were two halves of the same thing, object and reflected image, Sime and Gen together making one human whole.
Rital had always found something almost sacred in that nageric blending just before a transfer began. It spoke to the heart of what it meant to be a Tecton channel; a Gen, freely offering him selyn, in total confidence that the trust being offered would not be abused. It was the closest any Sime could come to experiencing the essential innocence of a Gen, the effortless and guiltless renewal of life. He had never truly doubted that he was worthy of that priceless gift, before.
This time, however, as he started his draw, he could not help noticing that his own nager was an imperfect, distorted reflection of Vasthan's Gen one. The selyn being offered so trustingly was not enough to match the hungry void inside Rital, and the sleeping predator within him awoke for the third time that day. It wanted to sate itself, and it didn't care whether Vasthan was fatally stripped in the process. In fact, it was curious about how it would feel, to win such an ultimate victory over a Gen who was so confident that he could not be harmed.
Rital increased his draw speed as much as he dared, feeding the beast with what selyn he could reach easily. He was hoping to placate it before he reached the risky part of the transfer. Vasthan was coping reasonably well with what must seem to him a violently fast draw, although to Rital it was almost unbearably slow. Despite his best efforts, however, the channel's beast was still dangerously hungry when he finished draining all the selyn from Vasthan's TN-2 level, and approached the barrier separating it from the TN-1 level.
He found disaster waiting. The barrier was only partly released. The Gen was working blind, of necessity, and could not perceive that he was not properly performing an exercise which he had learned by rote. An experienced First Order Donor would have felt Rital's draw reach that point and understood it as a signal to relax, lowing the resistance caused by the barrier and releasing the selyn behind it. To Vasthan, however, that same sensation had always signaled the termination of a transfer to a Second Order channel. Instead of attempting to provide more selyn, the young Donor was letting the flow dwindle to a halt, his nager ringing with satiated satisfaction.
Rital could zlin the selyn stored behind the TN-1 barrier, a haze of life obscured by resistance. It wasn't being consciously withheld from him. Vasthan simply had never felt selyn movement in his TN-1 level, and had no conception that the extra selyn existed. Perhaps, if he could be shown, he would be willing to surrender it.
Tentatively, the channel signaled the Donor for an increase in speed and reached past the barrier. He was rewarded when the barrier relaxed enough to release a trickle of selyn; lovely, but much, much too slow. Deep within him, the beast snarled, demanding more. He signaled Vasthan again, with increasing urgency, as the Gen hesitated, his nager muddled with confusion.
Rital increased the speed of his draw as much as he dared, coming dangerously close to scorching the Donor as he tried to find at least part of the satisfaction he craved. To Vasthan, it must have felt as if the channel was trying to strip him entirely-and the Gen had to be aware that as a First Order channel, Rital had the capacity to do just that. The partially released TN-1 barrier wavered, the degree of resistance fluctuating as it threatened to slam shut entirely.
The beast within Rital roared to life, just as it had in the power plant's basement. It demanded that he snatch his selyn immediately, at his highest possible draw speed, before it was too late and his prey escaped or died. Without conscious intent, the channel's tentacles clamped down on the Donor's arms with bruising force, securing the untrustworthy Gen, and his draw speed jumped to something approaching his usual one. Vasthan felt the first hint of pain, mixed with a growing apprehension. For a long instant, Rital reveled in anticipation. It would feel good, when the Gen who had dared to refuse him the selyn he needed faced the ultimate penalty for that transgression: the Kill. Vaguely, he wondered what had happened to his anti-kill conditioning. It was supposed to prevent such an occurrence, but its failure somehow didn't seem important.
Then what was left of the channel's conscience shook free of its frozen horror. The need-beast was much too strong to subdue; he could not slow his draw. However, there was one other solution. Without letting himself think about how much it was going to hurt, Rital wrenched his laterals free of the Gen's arms.
Pain consumed him as he doubled over, taking the full shock of shen himself to spare his Donor. He heard an agonized scream, and vaguely realized that it was his own. Then the merciful darkness closed in, and he knew nothing more.
Read Chapter 3
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