Thanks go to the Sime~Gen Roleplaying gang: John Cowan, Beverly Erlebacher, and Mary Lou Mendum, who gave me feedback on an early draft of this story, and are already filling my head with inspiration for the sequel. Thanks also to Karen MacLeod, by whom it's a pleasure to be edited. [There, Karen, untangle that passive sentence structure if you dare!] And, as always, thanks to Jacqueline Lichtenberg, who gave all of us such a wonderful universe to play in.
A FORK IN THE PATH
by M. Alexis Pakulak
Artwork by Kip Grimes
But, Sectuib! Virlana hated the sound of her own voice even as she spoke. It was a whiny, frustrated little-girl voice that, of course, no one would listen to. Sectuib, why not?
It doesn't matter why not, Virli. Sectuib said no, and that's final. Mom, who although only a Second, was subbing for Sectuib Drogan's Companion this afternoon, spoke in a harsh tone even though Virlana knew her field must be staying smooth and calm.
Ignoring the childish nickname, Virlana struggled to maintain some semblance of adult dignity while she marshalled her arguments once more.
Don't be stubborn, Virli. It's nearly dinner time. Go help Kara set the tables.
Wait, Sosu. The aging channel silenced Mom with a flick of one tentacle. This is your daughter's entire future we're talking about. We shouldn't just hush her and send her away. We should talk this through until everyone's satisfied with the outcome.
But she's just a child, Mom began, then bowed her head meekly. Yes, Sectuib.
By the time she's an adult, the matter will be settled irrevocably, said Drogan. Now is the time to talk. He studied Virlana's mother thoughtfully. On second thought, Sosu Hrabel, maybe you could give Kara a hand with supper while Virlana and I talk.
But -- Yes, Sectuib. If you're sure you'll be all right.
Sectuib's manner turned reassuring. A child's nager can't harm me, Sosu. And Virlana is still a child, no matter how close to establishment she may be.
Without further protest, Mom left.
Now, Virlana. Sectuib settled back onto the cushioned wickerwork sofa, and gestured for Virlana to sit next to him. Tell me again, without the crying this time, why you want to do this.
Virlana sat. The cushions were still warm from her mother's body. My family is so predictable. For the last five generations, we've all been Second Order channels and Donors, all within a few rating points of each other. We all establish or change over two or three months before our fifteenth birthday; live to a ripe old age then die in our sleep. We know I'm not going to be a channel, so I'll be a Donor. A Second Order Donor, about 2.1 or 2.2. And it'll happen some time between now and Year's Turning.
Sectuib's eyebrows, still more pale auburn than gray, rose slightly. And what's wrong with being a Second Order Donor? It's a worthy vocation.
But there's no shortage of Second Order Donors. It's Firsts that the Tecton so desperately needs. And yes, I mean needs. Induction is such a simple solution. Just send me to a big city Sime Centre, so that as soon as I start to establish I can be put in direct contact with a First Order channel in need. Nature does the rest, I come out of it a high First, and the Tecton is one Donor closer to having enough Firsts to go around.
There. She'd said it clearly, calmly, and rationally. Maybe Sectuib would see the logic in it now.
His gray-green eyes focused mildly on her. You've told me why the Tecton might want you to be an Induced Donor. You haven't told me why you want it.
Virlana hesitated. She didn't want to sound like a hysterical little girl again. She'd tried to speak rationally, as an adult would, thinking of the good of her House.
Nightmares, she said at last in a small voice.
What? The old man mimed cleaning out an ear with one dorsal.
Nightmares. Or rather, one nightmare, the same one, over and over. It always starts with me walking along a path. And then the path forks. One branch is narrow, rocky and difficult, and leads steeply uphill. So I turn and take the other path, level and wide, with the grass well trampled to either side. Then everything goes foggy for a bit, and I'm older. And always there's been some kind of accident, though that part is different every time. Sometimes there's the remains of a vehicle, smashed up against some trees. Sometimes we're trapped in some tiny shelter, with a blizzard outside. Sometimes we're stuck on a mountaintop, or in a cave. And sometimes we're in a city, but the channel's been injured and has only minutes to live if she doesn't get a transfer. I know I'm not a match for her, but I have to try anyway, or she'll die. Her tentacles wrap around my forearms, harder than usual. Desperate, almost bruising. And she stops, and loosens up a little, and looks me in the eye. That's the first time I see her face clearly. There's this funny birthmark on her left cheek, like four-fifths of a five-pointed star. And she looks at me, and promises she'll be careful and gentle. Her voice is down to a harsh whisper. I don't just see how desperate she is, I feel it. In my bones and kind of running along here and here. Virlana gestured along her forearm, and then a vertical line down the centre of her torso. And down my back. So I lean forward and make the fifth contact, and for a moment it's all warm and tingly like always. Then, for a split second she draws harder, and I can't keep up and it burns. And she shens herself and I'm left kneeling there dizzy, with a dead channel in my arms. That's when I scream and wake up.
Sectuib had followed her breathless narrative with increasing interest. That birthmark, he murmured. You're sure about the birthmark?
Virlana nodded firmly. That part's always the same. She drew the shape of it in midair with a fingertip, then held two fingers half an inch apart to indicate the size. The steady rhythm of the channel's breathing paused for a moment, with a little catch, then resumed as if nothing had happened.
You know her? Virlana ventured.
I do, Sectuib said. I know her parents well, and I assisted at her birth. She'd be eight or nine years old by now.
Virlana felt a rippling shiver go through her body, starting at the base of her skull. Until now she'd been hoping it was just a dream, just an ordinary imaginary dream. She'd hoped Sectuib really would be able to laugh, reassure her, and send her away.
They named her Cruz, which means 'cross' in one of the Ancient languages, he added. That way, with her birthmark, they said they would always have a living starred cross to remind them of Unity.
Cruz, thought Virlana. Cross. My crossroads. My forked path.
In another House, that honours another Virtue, a dream like that might be dismissed, Sectuib said heavily. But we are Ishran, the House of the Great Tapestry. Our Virtue is Congruence: to find our proper place within the pattern as we help to weave it. We are aware of the invisible threads that join all living things, past, present, and future. And we know that dreams such as yours are the voice by which we hear the information that travels along those threads. Another Sectuib might shrug off your dream; I cannot.
A heavy silence fell between them, broken only by the distant sounds of children playing outside in the courtyard.
Have you ever taken the other fork of the path, in your dream? the old channel asked at last.
Until a few weeks ago, I never dared, Virlana admitted. It looked too steep, too hard. I thought it had to be even worse than the branch I'd tried. But a month ago, I decided to try it. She pulled out her private journal, a slim volume with gold sparkles glued to the cover. It's all in here, starting at the second bookmark.
Sectuib made no move to touch the proffered treasure. Just tell me. There was adult respect in his eyes, appreciation for the value of the trust she'd offered.
Induction, she whispered.
Sectuib took her into his private study before resuming the discussion. I understand now, Sosu, why you want to do this.
Virlana blinked in surprise. He'd just addressed her by the title reserved for an adult Donor. Not 'want to,' Sectuib, she said. 'Have to.' And it's not 'Sosu,' not yet.
Since you must make an adult decision, I'll address you as the adult you'll soon be.
Virlana swallowed hard. She knew she was on the brink of adulthood, but this was too sudden, too soon. She bowed her head in the gesture she'd seen adult Companions use a thousand times. Yes, Sectuib.
There are reasons, he said, why Induction is something that we normally avoid at all costs.
I've read the history of our House, Virlana countered. Back before Unity, it was done quite a bit, whenever raiders had broken in and butchered too many of our Companions.
He nodded. As an act of purest desperation. And far too many of the Induced volunteers ended as names on the floorstones of our Memorial, for reasons having nothing to do with raids. Understand this, Sosu: Induction carries serious risks. Risks to health, risks to sanity. If you're Induced, the odds are high that you won't die at a ripe old age in bed, like the rest of your family.
She nodded. I'd figured that, from some of my reading. But it's my old age, versus the death of a young and otherwise healthy and desperately required channel. Not to mention all the other Firsts who might not actually die, but are living in misery because of the Donor shortage. I've heard my parents talk.
Brave words, he said, and I'm sure that when you're fourteen, old age seems like it's centuries away. You don't know how much you'd be giving up. You can't know. I should be thrown into an attrition cage for even thinking of allowing this!
Virlana stared at a deep gouge marring the polished oak surface of the desk. Would she regret this, years from now? How could she be certain what her older self would want?
She couldn't. She could only choose, and act, in the present.
There's another thing, Sectuib said, as if following the direction of her thoughts. Underdraw. It's almost guaranteed for the Induced. And aside from the pain of the affliction itself, it means that there's no turning back. You're a Donor for life, with no chance of a career change.
Here, Virlana was on more solid ground. My entire family have been channels and Donors for at least two hundred years. And not one of us has ever wanted out.
Drogan raised one bushy eyebrow. No? How about your aunt Maybelle? Your great-grandfather, Helge? Your cousin, Thrann?
These were names Virlana had never even heard. How much more didn't she know about her own family? About the entire adult world? Did she have any idea of what she was trying to get herself into?
No. But she knew her dreams, both forks of the path. That was all she had to go by, but it was enough. It had to be enough.
My father, she said firmly, my sister Mella, my brother Rohn. The Simes in my family are all channels. None of them have ever had the option of quitting. She looked the old man in the eye. You, yourself, Sectuib. Has anybody ever said to you, 'Do you want to keep doing what you're doing, or would you rather be a plumber or an architect instead?' So what right do I have to that kind of luxury?
He sighed, and his dorsals briefly writhed up off the desk before he wrapped them firmly around his fingertips. It's precisely because I've never had such a choice that I know how precious it is. And would never wish to deny it to anyone.
Virlana closed her eyes. It was tempting. So tempting to just give in, be a little girl a bit longer, and grow up comfortably to be a Second Order Donor. She'd glimpsed the pain and struggle that lay along the other path.
Even as she thought this, she felt the intangible weight of a dead body settling into her arms, saw the invisible eyes staring up at her in death, and the little part-star birthmark.
All right, she said. The weight in her arms dissolved away, leaving her free and light as she made her decision. So you gave me that chance. I choose to give it up, between I've had a look down both forks of the path and I know what I'm choosing between. I choose the path that begins with Induction.
Drogan got up. He shivered a little, as if he'd felt a cool breeze in the windowless office, and reached for the white-lined, powder blue and tawny gold cape which hung from a peg on the wall. He wrapped it around himself, then crossed the small room to the tall bookcase that filled one entire wall. He searched briefly, pulled out a volume Virlana recognized, and held it out towards her. I want you to read this, he said. It's the most comprehensive book ever written on Induction, covering everything from the history of its use, to medical case studies, and tables of statistics on life expectancy, health problems, and selyn yield profiles. Read it, ask questions if there are parts you don't understand, then, if you still want to do this, we'll talk again.
She made no move to take the book. There's another copy of that downstairs in the library. I've already read it, three times through. I couldn't follow all the math, and I didn't have the pharmacology to make much sense of chapter ten, but I understood the rest of it. All the important parts.
He put the book back in its slot, froze for a moment with laterals extended as if trying to zlin something at the edge of perception, then went to the door and flipped the doorsign indicator to 'Do Not Disturb.' He stood there a moment with his back to Virlana, four handling tentacles clenched whitely around the doorknob. I should be horsewhipped into attrition for even considering such a thing.
Isn't it really something that should be my choice? She could hear the quaver in her own voice, and wished she could sound more adult.
Is there anything I might possibly say or do to make you change your mind? he countered. The cape swirled, showing its white lining as he turned towards her. I've kept you talking so long you've completely missed dinner. He went to the tiny hotplate in the corner and put on some water for tea.
That's okay, she said, though at the mention of food her stomach had rumbled embarrassingly.
It's not, the channel said. At your age, especially, you have to eat. But don't worry; I've got some snacks stashed away here to feed hungry Companions with. He rummaged in a drawer and pulled out some candy bars, a waxed block of cheese, a box of crackers, and a sack of mixed nuts and raisins. He set them all on a tray and added two mugs for the tea that would soon be ready. Go sit on the couch, and pull over that little table for me to put this on.
She went behind the desk to the battered couch. A lot of Donors must have napped on it over the years; it seemed strange to think that someday, in that same role, she might do so as well.
Sectuib poured boiling water into the teapot and stood over it, watching the trin leaves steep. Is there anything I might say to change your mind about Induction? he asked again.
No, Virlana said firmly around a mouthful of nuts and raisins.
You're absolutely sure?
He sighed heavily. You really want this?
Want it? That was a different matter.
Of course I don't want it. I'd have to be crazy to want it. But having weighed the alternatives, I choose it.
He nodded, as if she had passed some kind of test, then turned his attention to the tea.
At last, the aging channel settled himself alongside Virlana on the couch, his tentacles wrapped around a mug of trin. She could feel his Sime body heat at her side, pressed against her from shoulder to knee. He sliced the cheese onto a plate and slid the plate in front of her.
You should eat something, too, said Virlana. She put some cheese onto a cracker and held it out towards him. If I'm going to be a Companion, I have to learn how to make channels eat.
He gave her a tight smile, then took the cracker and held it to Virlana's mouth until she ate it. I'm afraid that today, even the best Companion couldn't make me swallow more than a bit of trin.
It was only then that Virlana looked closely at the channel's forearms. His ronaplin glands bulged conspicuously; a little fluid seeped from the lateral sheaths. He must be only hours away from transfer.
Then, let's make that tea count, she said. She spooned up a big dollop of dark honey and stirred it into his mug. Even in need, your body still has to have amino acids and proteins and stuff. She had only a child's ineffective nager to work with, but nevertheless did her best to project both hunger and thirst.
Obediently, Drogan took a mouthful of the sweetened tea.
Curious, Virlana stared at the tentacled forearm as it moved. She'd never been this close to a Sime this far into need before. It was interesting to watch how the skin slid across the bulge of the ronaplin glands as the muscles flexed. Unaccountably, she found her hand in midair, reaching out, wanting to touch.
Better than a picture in some dusty anatomy textbook?
Now that she knew what to listen for, she could hear the need tension in the channel's voice, and the effort it was costing him to make a joke right now.
Much better, she agreed. I did study the anatomy books. I know what's okay to touch and what isn't. She left the unspoken request hanging in the air.
Show me, he said, offering his forearm.
Well, the handling tentacles are okay to touch, and all the way up their sheathes, she said, thinking back to her lessons. They're probably a bit more sensitive than usual, so I should be gentle, but it's okay to touch them like this. She ran her fingers carefully along one dorsal sheath until she came to the extensor reflex node, then pressed down very lightly. The tentacle emerged and she offered her fingers for it to curl around, enjoying the velvet-over-steel combination of softness and strength. She knew what she was doing; her father and both her older siblings had often let her play with their handling tentacles. The laterals, on the other hand, are much more vulnerable, especially now. There's a spot right here, she kept her fingertip a full inch away from the minutely trembling skin, in case she'd gotten it right, that I must never press down on. The rest of the lateral sheath can be touched, but only very, very lightly. Slowly, giving him plenty of time to stop her, she brought her finger down until it barely brushed the skin, then stroked lightly down towards the wrist. Her fingertip paused as it passed the extensor node for the lateral, but didn't press down.
She glanced up. Yes, the channel had noticed the pause. He blinked in relief and relaxed a little as she lifted her finger away.
That's about as much as even a skilled Companion would dare do, Virlana said, a bit awed that she'd been permitted so much. I wouldn't touch the ronaplin glands or the lateral orifices at all, unless I was your assigned Donor this month and we were just a few minutes before transfer. Even then, I wouldn't touch the laterals themselves. I'd wait, and let them touch me instead. Reluctantly, she withdrew her hand and reached for her tea. The surface of the liquid shimmered slightly as the mug trembled in her hand.
Two ventrals plucked the mug from her fingers and set it down on the table.
Has a channel ever touched you in transfer grip? His voice, though soft, thrummed much lower than usual.
I don't think so. Slowly, hardly believing he was willing to demonstrate this as well, she offered both hands, palms up.
His fingers closed gently around her forearms first, then his handling tentacles. Velvet over steel, but more steel than velvet now. Then, the laterals, moist with ronaplin, glided out and settled onto her skin with a little tingle.
She could smell the ronaplin. It smelled almost like any other ronaplin, like Dad's, or Mella's. But slightly different, a bit darker. Muskier. Individual and unique.
He held her, just like that, in transfer grip, for what seemed like a very long time, while strange sensations and odd longings shivered through her body. Was this the same as what adults felt, getting ready for donation or transfer? She wanted to reach out, to soothe, to ease, to reassure. To promise to the desperate hunger she imagined she could sense, that it would be satisfied. To get closer, and closer, until she could pour herself into it.
Which she couldn't, of course. Not yet. Not until she was an adult, and had selyn to give.
Want to try the fifth contact point, too? His voice was still quiet and deep, but now it seemed the quiet of careful control, not of relaxation.
By way of answer, she leaned forward.
Mom was right. It felt nothing like a kiss. Hard-set lips, almost as firm as if they were made of wood, tasting slightly of the honey in the tea.
Again, he held her in that position for what seemed like a very long time. Maybe a full minute, maybe more.
Then he was dismantling all the contacts, sheathing his tentacles, and sitting back.
Virlana's wrists felt cold. Cold and lonely, where the rapidly cooling streaks of ronaplin spiralled across her flesh. Shakily, she picked up her lukewarm tea and gulped down half of it.
Sectuib reached for his own tea. His hand was shaking, too. In fact, she could feel his whole body quivering alongside hers.
Thank you, she said, as soon as she thought her voice might be steady again.
Think, now, that you're going to enjoy adulthood? His tone was light, bantering, as if nothing momentous had happened. Maybe, to him, it hadn't.
I'm sure I will. Suddenly, surprising herself, she yawned. Sorry, Sectuib.
You're entitled to be tired. This is a good comfortable couch; why don't you just stretch out and take a bit of a nap? Use my leg for a pillow; it's bony but it's better than nothing.
It was indeed bony, as bony and thin as any Sime's. It was warm, and just about thick enough to support her neck.
Don't you have other stuff to do? Virlana asked drowsily as she stretched out.
What if you're due for transfer before I wake up?
A warm Sime hand came to rest on her head, slipped down to her shoulder. Sleep.
As she drifted off into dreamlessness, Virlana imagined she felt a single lateral brush the back of her neck.
She woke to find Corlan, Ishran's First Companion, hovering above her, and a thin Sime leg pillowing her head.
I'm sorry, little one, to wake you. I have to go now, Sectuib said.
Hastily, Virlana gathered her wits and stood.
Virlana, did you truly mean all of what you said earlier about Induction?
She nodded firmly. I'm not going to change my mind about that. What was Sectuib thinking, behind that expressionless face? Was he going to agree?
That's good, he said with a brisk nod, because it's done now, and there's no turning back.
What?! Shock flooded through her. So soon? She'd thought she had days yet, maybe months, of childhood left.
Sectuib winced and staggered. Corlan stepped forward to steady him.
Virlana struggled to calm herself. If her emotions were affecting Sectuib like that, then she had to be calm.
You began to establish, just before I put the water on for tea. Congratulations, Virlana, you're an adult now. And, his expression turned sombre, Induced.
Thank you, Sectuib, Virlana said formally, for doing as I asked. Had it been the right decision? Strangely, that didn't seem to matter any more. It was done, and second-guessing herself seemed pointless.
Gradually, she realized something else. Uh, Sectuib. When you had me in transfer grip a while ago, was that I mean did you
The channel managed a faint smile as he shook his head and held up one forearm to display still-bulging ronaplin glands. No, that wasn't transfer. Not even a simple donation. Not even an Induced field ripens that fast. In a few days, you'll have a field that would match my need except that I can't wait that long for transfer. How high your capacity will eventually grow, I don't know. But we're going to have to send you outside the House to find channels who'll match you.
With the way the Tecton is, I'd mostly be working outside the House anyway.
True. We'll work out the details later, Sosu. Right now, I have to go for transfer. I'll see you in a few hours at your establishment party.
With Sime swiftness, Sectuib was gone, taking Corlan with him.
Virlana looked around the empty office, amazed at how much had changed in the short time since she'd walked in here. She glanced down at the couch, where for the first time in months she had slept without the faintest trace of nightmare.
She smiled as she left the small room, closing the door gently behind her. She had passed the crossroads, and had chosen her path.
Other dreams might wait in her future, some good and some bad. But she knew that the old nightmare, at least, wouldn't be back.