"I'll never understand Gens," Rital complained to Den that evening, over an early dinner in the cafeteria. Most of the other tables were empty, since the diplomats were still at work. Apart from a few tatters of decoration missed by the cleaning crew, there was no visible sign of the previous night's memorable events.
The Donor grinned in that annoying way which meant he intended to have some fun at his cousin's expense. "You always were slow," he agreed. "What particular larity-wide mystery is bothering you tonight?"
Thus confronted, the channel groped for specifics. "Well, take Defender Foley. After all I did to get everyone cooperating, he almost destroyed the peace agreement he claims to want by insulting Skaggit." Rital briefly described the incident, ending, "You know how the Cordonans feel about their honor."
"I do," Den agreed. "I also know how flexible Cordonan honor is, when it comes to promises made to Gens. Even if the Council of Channels makes a sincere effort, there'll be incidents. Defender Foley's concern was justified. Its fortunate Toljee was willing to teach the Cordonan Donors how to prevent incidents, whether their channels want to or not."
"That's another thing," Rital said. His voice had a distinct note of frustrated petulance. "Skaggit beat Toljee, treated him like property, and kept him a virtual prisoner for three years. Why the blazing shen is the boy so eager to go back to his abuser, now he's got a chance to escape?" Frustration had robbed him of appetite, and he started to push away his barely sampled bowl of stew.
Den shook an admonitory finger, and the channel reluctantly moved the bowl back in front of him. He picked up his spoon and resumed eating as his Donor replied.
"Toljee doesn't want to escape," the Gen said calmly. "I think he planned to go back to Cordona, all along. He just wants a more equitable balance of power with his channel when he does. Skaggit could've had his Donor back weeks ago, if he'd thought to address the boy directly, instead of arguing with you about it."
"But why, when he had the freedom of a Tecton Donor, his for the asking? Wasn't his whole rebellion against Skaggit keeping him a prisoner?"
Den shrugged. "Oh, I'm sure he wants more freedom than Cordonan custom allows. What boy that age isn't a bit rebellious? Still, he'd be quite happy to let Skaggit take care of him, in the way a Tecton channel never would. He's also not really interested in learning all the technical skills the Tecton demands of its Donors."
Rital shook his head in bewilderment. "But he seemed so eager to learn, when he worked with me on Mathison's donation."
"Oh, he wanted to know how Tecton channels treat Gens from the start. He also asked me a lot of questions about ways a Donor can influence what goes on." The Donor winked. "I think he sees himself as a heroic figure, spreading a new era of peace and justice among his fellow Gens. He and Skaggit are well matched; they both enjoy turning the world on its ear. I can see why they want to stay together."
"All I see is Toljee throwing away the chance to live in a society where his reforms have already taken place," the channel grumbled. "Why trade that for a remote chance that at some time in the future things may be different in Cordona?"
"Why should he trade the chance to be the hero who redesigns his society, for the chance to be a second rate Tecton Donor?" Den countered. "He's long past First Year, and he's not a Natural Donor. It'd take him years of hard work to meet minimal Tecton standards. In Cordona, he's one of the best; a highly desirable Donor with skills no one else can match."
"Well, I suppose Toljee's decision does make sense, when you put it that way," Rital admitted. "But what about Prince Dinsmuir? He told me today that he knew I was in hard need last night. And yet, he practically begged me to take his field down. He knows what need does to a Sime's control; I told him myself. In detail. So why the shen didn't he choose Nerina, who'd just had transfer and was at her most stable?"
The Donor burst into laughter at the channel's indignant tone, shaking an admonitory finger at his cousin. Rital glared, but that only produced another paroxysm of mirth.
"Trust a channel to find that confusing," Den gasped, when he managed to get his breath back. "You spend so much time dwelling on need that you start believing it's the most important thing about you. I've got news for you, cousin. You're more than an ambulatory selyn void, even when you're in hard need. There's a person inhabiting that double nervous system of yours, and he happens to be extremely trustworthy. That is why Prince Dinsmuir wanted you instead of Nerina, who's been more aloof with him."
"He shouldn't have trusted me," Rital said. "I had no right to agree to such a thing, when my control was uncertain."
The Gen rolled his eyes. "I told you your control was fine, you idiot, and I was right. If you could handle a donation like that, while in hard need after a very bad transfer the month before, you can handle just about anything without breaking. If you were worried, it's your own fault for not believing me."
"I didn't believe you, though," the channel pointed out. "And I took the donation anyway. What does that say about my dedication to Tecton principles? I think that at some level, I did it because I've been wanting to zlin that kind of uncontained Gen terror, ever since I zlinned it in Gillum Mathison."
"What if you did?" Den's nager betrayed none of the accusation Rital had expected, no matter how hard the channel zlinned for it. "Why should that bother Prince Dinsmuir? It's not as if he could zlin how you feel."
It was such a very alien, Gen way of looking at things that Rital felt his jaw drop. "You don't think it should have caused him a bit of concern, that I wanted to know how burning him would set off my intil?"
Den shrugged. "If you could be trusted not to act on those feelings—and you can—why should he care? It's your actions that mattered to him, not how you felt about them."
"Then what about Vasthan?" the channel objected. "He's inexplicably decided that he wants me to try Qualifying him again, after I bungled it so badly the first time."
"He has?" The Donor lifted an interested eyebrow. "Good for him."
"But, Den..." Rital was so agitated that he failed to keep his voice down, or take note of the influx of tired diplomats coming through the doors.
"Is something wrong, Controller?" Defender Foley asked, pausing by their table.
"No, nothing's wrong," the channel assured him hastily.
"My cousin's overactive conscience is bothering him again," Den explained with amusement. He ignored Rital's frantic, under-the-table signal for silence. "He seems to think that as a channel, he has no right to wild imaginings, improper urges, and other human failings."
Rital could zlin the Zillian's pastoral instincts being aroused. "I see." Foley assumed a thoughtful expression. "Have you acted on these urges, to the detriment of others?"
"I thought so," Rital admitted.
"His victims don't have the courtesy to agree with his analysis," the ever helpful Den added. "Hence his current distress."
"I think I understand," Foley said. "Hajene, isn't your Tecton's entire philosophy based on the conviction that Simes and Gens are equally human, and ought to be treated as such?"
"Well, of course," the channel agreed, wondering why the Defender was belaboring the obvious.
"Every Gen I know has occasional lapses; feelings or fantasies that would do great harm if they were acted upon. If we didn't, it wouldn't require any effort to be virtuous. Why should Simes be any different?"
Rital zlinned the Gen deeply, but the man meant exactly what he said. The Zillian priest had assumed the beast's existence from the start, but truly believed that Rital could control it. So had Prince Dinsmuir. Their trust could be attributed to ignorance, but Den's and Vasthan's could not.
Faced with such unanimous opposition, the channel was forced to reexamine his assumptions. He wanted very much to believe that his beast was just part of being human, but he mistrusted such an easy, self-serving answer. The evidence against it was hard to ignore. It was all very well for Defender Foley to compare Sime selyn-lust to a Gen's relatively harmless fantasy about telling off his boss. The Zillian priest hadn't felt the bottomless hunger of need, or the eagerness with which Sime instinct responded to the stricken horror of trapped Gen prey.
On the other hand, what if Prince Dinsmuir wasn't an unusually perceptive Gen, after all? What if the fear he'd zlinned in Mathison and other new donors wasn't just the result of blind Gen instinct, after all? If their fear was triggered by conscious knowledge of the beast, then such donors were not the innocent, blindly trusting potential victims he'd spent his career protecting. Instead, he had to assume that by giving— volunteering to donate, the Gens had considered the risks and trusted the human in him to cage the beast.
It was an awesome trust, but it wasn't the one he'd thought he'd accepted with his Tecton crest ring. If even out-Territory Gens knew about the beast, it was a waste of effort to pretend it didn't exist. Instead, as a channel, he should concentrate on convincing his Gen clients that he wouldn't act on its urgings. For that, courage would work as effectively as fearlessness.
Was it possible that the reason he'd found no case histories describing the beast wasn't because it was rare, but because it was so common that other channels didn't consider it noteworthy? If all channels experienced the occasional desire for Gen fear and pain, then the Tecton's hundred year safety record was proof that he could keep the beast reined in, if he wanted to. It might take more effort than he liked, when he was under extreme stress, but there was basically nothing wrong with him.
He looked down at his tentacles. Many out-Territory Gens viewed them as instruments of death. The renSimes he served, on the other hand, zlinned only the life they offered. Could it be that the truth encompassed both, and all possibilities in between, according to his own will?
"Defender Foley, you've eased my mind," Rital said, as he looked back up at the Zillian Gen. He felt a silly smile spreading across his face, but he was too relieved to worry about dignity. "Please excuse me. I have some unfinished business to discuss with young Vasthan." He started to rise, then plopped abruptly back into his chair as a wave of negation engulfed him from across the table.
"Finish your dinner, first," Den ordered, pointing a firm finger at the half finished bowl of stew.
Rital had meekly accepted such orders from Donors since his changeover. It was the Tecton way, thoroughly ingrained in every channel during First Year training. This time, though, a spark of rebellion ignited inside him. For all of Toljee's grand ambitions, the Cordonan Donor would never dream of subjecting Skaggit to such petty harassment. Why should Rital put up with such behavior from a Gen, then?
The channel zlinned his cousin closely, testing the Donor's determination. The resolution was there, to be sure, but along with it was a sparkle of humor, trust, and genuine affection. That was something Skaggit, for all his Sime-centered independence, would never have from Toljee. Not unless he was willing to form an equal partnership, based on friendship, with his Gen. On balance, Rital decided he preferred the friendship of an equal to the ministrations of a servant, despite the occasional inconveniences.
Meekly, the channel picked up his spoon and settled down to eat.
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