and my children
"I commit my life, my substance, and my children,
Out of Death to be born,
Unto Zeor, Forever"
--- conclusion of Zeor pledge
As the Sime's tentacles wrapped around her arms, her defiant courage began to crack. Although hesitant at first, the attacker's draw increased, lured on by the promise of incipient terror.
The Gen tried to resist, rallying her hatred of Simes, remembering her capture, the death of her husband, her own sale as a Choice Kill. She would not die willingly. She would make this Sime woman fight for her victory. Pride sizzled through her nager, almost quenching the fear. I will not die. No.
But the Sime was too much for her. Her brief show of resistance only spurred the demon on, increasing the burning pain, the hideous sensation of being turned inside out. Was there no way she could stop this?
Still she refused to let the gathering panic overwhelm her. With a wrenching effort, she tried to stop the outflow of selyn, clutching at each small bit as it was pulled from her weakening body. For a brief moment, she thought she had won. The flow faltered. Fresh confidence was born in her mind. She would get away! She would live!
But then the tearing pain renewed itself, worse now. Her nerves were on fire, her heart thudded frantically in her chest. She tried to gather the last shreds of her courage, but they were ripped from her grasp, carried away on brutal waves of agony.
Demon! she thought wildly. Devil! With my dying breath, I curse you! Killer!
Bright terror grew into panic, engulfing her consciousness. In a blaze of agony, the Gen died.
The illusion shattered. Frevven gasped as his patient abruptly broke contact. She curled up into a ball on the transfer couch and started to cry. Wincing, he closed his eyes, trying to damp the ragged dissonances he had created within himself as a result of serving that transfer. Recovery was getting harder and harder lately. It shouldn't be taking him this long.
He had almost lost Astrid a couple of times there, but she was alive, for at least another month. That was something.
No, he corrected himself, that was more than something. At her age and in her condition, it was almost a miracle.
Even as he projected calm and comfort to his patient, the channel took off his eyeglasses and rubbed his eyes. It didn't help, of course. The fierce ache above and behind his eyeballs strengthened.
The fact that he had had to serve this difficult transfer while he was still recovering from his own less-than-satisfactory transfer hadn't helped things any. If only Chaynek had been assigned to him this month instead of the coming month, he might have been in better condition to deal with it.
Stop fooling yourself, Frevven, he thought grimly, Even Chaynek wouldn't have made all that much difference. It's not the Donors, and you know it. It's you. You're getting too old for this.
But if he didn't do it, who would?
"Hajene Frevven, are you all right?" Astrid's voice, still ragged with tears.
Replacing his glasses on his nose, he forced a smile to his lips and adjusted his showfield accordingly. "Sorry. I should be asking you that, not the other way around," he said lightly as he zlinned her. Elderly semi-juncts had been known to die suddenly, even after a successful transfer. Sometimes it was as simple as a heart attack brought on by the stress, and sometimes it was much more complicated. The channel was used to seeing his patients die, since they were all essentially terminal cases anyway, but this particular renSime he very much wanted to keep alive as long as he could.
It had been ten long months since Astrid Harvender had had a true Kill. He knew it was only sheer determination to finish work on her book that kept her hanging onto life.
Lying on her back now, she raised one hand to her short silver hair, trying vainly to smooth it into place with fingers and tentacles. Then she gave it up with a forced laugh. "What good is vanity, at my age?" she remarked shakily.
"Astrid, you'll always be beautiful."
"Tsk, Hajene Frevven. Don't lie to an old woman."
"I'm not lying. Zlin me and see."
As if she could zlin, so soon after transfer. And as if a channel's showfield couldn't fool her anyway. But the feeble joke had become a customary exchange between the two of them.
"I don't know how you do it," she said, shaking her head. "I'd have sworn that was my First Kill. It felt so much like the Gen my parents bought for me." She sighed. "Why does nothing else ever seem to measure up to that first time?"
Frevven didn't answer. What Astrid said was all too true: nothing had ever quite been as good as that time long ago when he had killed his sister. Nothing ever would be. First Kill set the standard for all your future satisfaction, like it or not.
"I've got to go now, Astrid," he said. "My desk is probably buried under a ton of paper already."
"I'll send Landon in to sit with you awhile. Okay?"
Astrid nodded again. This time her smile was almost natural. "Thanks for everything, Hajene Frevven."
As the channel walked through the chilly corridors on the way to his office, his thoughts refused to leave the elderly semi-junct who had had such an impact on Shepherd's Point.
It seemed like only yesterday that Astrid had told him of her decision. She had come to see him just after her last authorized Kill, her blue eyes sparkling. She looked well and healthy for a change. But the moment he had zlinned the strange combination of utter misery and bright determination in her field, he knew he faced something other than the normal post reaction. He wondered what had gone wrong, berating himself for not supervising Astrid's Kill this time. Instead, he had left it up to one of his Seconds.
"I've -- got to tell you something, Hajene," she began.
He nodded, waiting for the explosion of tears and self-hatred he thought sure would come.
"I'm not going to kill again. I've made up my mind."
This wasn't what he had expected at all. Frevven pushed his eyeglasses up against the bridge of his nose with one dorsal tentacle and frowned slightly. "Astrid, you know that's impossible. You can't disjunct at your age. You have no choice."
Her field hardened even further as her eyes narrowed. "There's always a choice, Hajene. Always."
He considered the implications of her remark, wondering if there were something he could say to dissuade her. "But your book --"
"-- is coming along well. Keep me alive for one more year and I'll have it done. After that --" She shrugged. "Don't try to argue me out of it. Just help me live long enough to finish what I began. Okay?"
"Astrid, I can't promise to keep myself alive for the next year," he said gently.
"Oh, stuff and nonsense! You know what I mean."
He knew only too well what she meant. As the last First Order disjunct channel still functioning in the Tecton, he was generally considered the best person available to provide transfers for semi-juncts. Based on his own experience, he could mimic a Kill to a very fine degree of accuracy, and that was often just enough to allow his patients to go for a longer than normal time between true Kills. It was that very talent that had made him the obvious choice to be director of Shepherd's Point, when the decision had been made four years ago to sequester all the surviving semi-juncts in Northeast Coast Territory in one place.
It was that same dubious talent that had once made him extremely successful at disjunctions, even though he didn't handle that sort of thing anymore. Fortunately, with the Distect Revolt long over, peace and cooperation were once again becoming the norm between Sime and Gen Territories, so the number of youngsters requiring disjunction had dropped dramatically. Also fortunately, but far less happily, the number of semi-juncts still surviving had dropped to less than five hundred in all the Sime Territories in this 38th year after Unity. Considering the short lifespan of most semi-juncts, it wouldn't be long before there would be no one still left alive, of all those who had been too old to disjunct at the time of Unity.
And that made Astrid's book all the more important. The working title was "That We May Never Forget", and the phrase expressed quite clearly her reason for writing it. Few people had bothered to document the lives of the semi-juncts. Few people even wanted to acknowledge their existence in this day and age. She had interviewed, or planned to interview, all the semi-juncts at Shepherd's Point who were willing to talk to her, getting their biographies down on paper in detail. Frevven had been reading her manuscript as each section was completed and it was brilliantly done. He had found out things about his patients that had never been part of their official records.
Recalling himself to the problem at hand, he had replied carefully, "I can't say I approve of your decision."
He couldn't meet her eyes. He looked down at his hands, fingers slightly entwined and resting on his desktop. The Zeor crest on his ring caught his eye, but he deliberately looked away from it. "The official Tecton policy --"
"-- is that we don't exist and there are no more Pens," she finished bitterly. "However, the real, but never publicly stated, policy is that we're entitled to as many Kills as we require to stay alive, until we all die a natural death. Sure. But you know as well as I do that the Tecton will breathe a vast sigh of relief when we're gone. We've been an embarrassment to them for a long time now. I think the day has come when it should be ended. My life isn't worth the number of Gens who have died to maintain it. Especially not when I spend much of my time drugged, bed-ridden, out of my head, or crazy with guilt."
Despite her words, Frevven could zlin no hint of bitterness or self-pity in her field. She was only stating the facts.
He made up his mind. "Astrid, I'll do my best. I promise."
"Thanks. I knew I could count on you."
He held up one hand to forestall her gratitude. "Against my better judgement, my friend. You have every right to live."
"Legally, yes. Morally?" She shook her head. "I think not." She closed her eyes briefly. "No more, Hajene Frevven. I will kill no more."
And she hadn't. But news of her decision had spread amongst the other residents at Shepherd's Point. Before many months had passed, fully half of them had made what had come to be called Astrid's Vow, and a lot of the others were considering doing so.
Should he have tried harder to change her mind? Indeed, should he have tried to dissuade her at all? And yet, why should she have to die? It wasn't her fault she had been too old to disjunct. It wasn't the fault of any of the semi-juncts. The Kill had been normal when they had been growing up. Even after Unity, there had been an entire generation of Simes living as semi-juncts, killing only when they absolutely had to and taking transfer from the channels the rest of the time. For many years, that had been a respectable way of life.
Frevven shook his head. She had survived this month, but what about next month? He couldn't keep her alive much longer. Astrid Harvender's only crime had been living too long, until society changed and passed her by.
As it had passed him by as well, he reflected bitterly. The few remaining disjunct channels in the Tecton were anachronisms now, restricted to serving semi-juncts and disjuncts. Although he was some ten years younger than Astrid, they were both on the trailing edge of the same generation, the generation that had seen an end to the Kill as a routine way of life.
As he opened the door to his office, he supposed he should be grateful for that. No, he was grateful. But the new generation of channels were just a little bit too cocky, a little too sure that they could never kill.
The first thing he did when he got into his office was pour himself a glass of fosebine, hoping that would relieve his headache. A fire crackled cheerfully on the hearth, dissipating some of the chill of the late autumn afternoon. The setting sun shone through his window in a brief benediction of light. Soon enough, it would settle behind the pine trees and disappear.
Frevven glanced distastefully at the schedule boards on the wall behind his desk. Even with his new eyeglasses, he still had to squint and zlin to make out the names.
As director of the Shepherd's Point Residential Treatment Facility -- he gave his accustomed mental equivalent of a snort at the euphemism inherent in the name -- he was in charge of assigning transfers, both for the staff and for his patients. The patients weren't really a problem since they were all on channels' transfer, but he wished he could do better for the channels on his staff.
However, he had to make do with the Donors the Tecton sent him, and they weren't exactly the cream of the crop. Oh, a few good-ones came through now and then. (That young woman, the one who had served Kremmer two months ago. What was her name? She had been genuinely interested in what they were doing here and had related well to the patients.) But most of them were glad to get their assignments over with and move on to better things. Too depressing here. Nothing but dying semi-juncts. Nothing that would interest the young professionals of today's Tecton.
Frevven dragged his aching eyes from the staff's schedule board to the pile of folders waiting on his desk. He took off his new glasses and replaced them with his old pair. They seemed to do a better job on close work. Turning the flame of the oil lamp up higher, he sat down and opened one of the charts. His eyes were getting so bad lately that it was a struggle to read. He'd trained himself to zlin the slight indentation in the paper made by a printing press, but zlinning handwriting was more difficult.
After awhile, he took off his glasses again and rubbed his eyes, even though he knew he shouldn't. If only the world he saw would match up with the world he zlinned, he wouldn't feel so disoriented all the time. At the rate his vision was deteriorating, it would soon be easier not to see at all.
He pushed the charts aside and reached for a stack of mail, just as a familiar nager approached his door. "Come in, Val," he called.
A teen-age girl appeared in the doorway. She was tall and slender, with long brown hair and greenish-gold eyes. At fifteen, Valthea Aylmeer was still a child, much to her disgust.
"Hi, Daddy. How's Astrid? Is she okay?"
"She's alive --"
"But it wasn't good, was it?"
Frevven shook his head. When Val didn't say anything else, Frevven's glance fell on the mail on his desk. The top envelope caught his eye. It was stamped "Official -- Top Priority" and bore the Tecton District Headquarters return address. He ripped it open.
Frevven read through the letter and groaned softly. He had been dreading this. He was being summoned to come before the Special Commission meeting in Danversport and he knew full well that they weren't going to like what he'd have to say.
"What's wrong, Daddy?"
"Oh, nothing much. I've got to go to Danversport in a couple of days, that's all."
Val's face lit with sudden interest. "Danversport? Can I go too? There's something there I'd like you to see."
With most of his mind on the Special Commission, Frevven agreed absently with his daughter's request. It didn't occur to him until later to wonder what she could possibly want to show him in the city.
Two days later, he and Val climbed into the horse-drawn buggy and settled down on the padded seat. The sides and top of the buggy offered some protection from the cold drizzle, but it was open in front, where the driver sat waiting, reins in hand. "Ready to go, Hajene?" she asked briskly, as he stowed their travelling bags under the seat.
At his nod, she flicked the reins against the horse's rump. The buggy moved down the road from the channels' quarters toward the main gate. "You're leavin' early this month, no?"
"Special meeting being called," he said, keeping his showfield flatly neutral. "I've got to go to Danversport this time, not Santenkaty Landing."
All seven of the channels at Shepherd's Point spent several days every month working at the Sime Centers in the surrounding towns, since there wasn't quite enough work to keep them from getting entran at the Facility. Most of them went to the small Center in the nearby village of Shepherdton, but some went as far as Danversport. Frevven usually went to the Santenkaty Landing Center for Special Problems, where he had run the disjunction ward for many years. A lot of his erstwhile patients lived in the surrounding area and looked forward to having him serve them. For Frevven, it was a bit of a relief from serving semi-juncts. He didn't have to try as hard, didn't have to re-create a Kill as meticulously.
Shen, how he hated doing that! It seemed to get harder as the years went by. And yet, everyone said he was getting better at it. (But he didn't want to get better at it. All he really wanted was to be like the non-junct channels. That was the one thing that would have made him happy, and it was the one thing he knew he'd never have.)
The gatekeeper came out of his little watchroom as Frevven's buggy approached. He opened the latch and swung the heavy wooden gate outward. The fence surrounding all of Shepherd's Point was symbolic more than anything else. Everyone knew what lay behind that fence, and everyone stayed away. Besides, they were out in the woods, miles from the nearest town and far from the main roads. No one would come out here.
Much to Frevven's surprise, someone had come out there. Just beyond the gate, three figures stood silently in the chill rain. They said nothing as the buggy approached, just stood there holding a sign. Frevven zlinned and squinted, but he couldn't quite manage to make out the lettering. The three protesters were Simes, dressed in nothing but white yawals.
"Read that for me, Val, would you?"
"'Close the Pen Now'," she said, her voice thin and nervous.
Frevven winced. "How long have they been here?" he asked the gatekeeper.
The man shrugged. "Since dawn. Want me to chase them away?"
"They haven't caused any trouble?"
"Then let them be. They'll get tired of it after awhile and leave."
"I hope so, Hajene. They give me the creeps, in those yawals and all." The Sime pulled aside the gate and waved the buggy through.
Frevven tried to dismiss the sodden protesters from his mind and concentrate on what he intended to tell the Commission, but the image was still with him forty-five miles later as his buggy rattled over the long wooden drawbridge across the Passaconway River and through the outskirts of the bustling city of Danversport. The rain had tapered off into an intermittent sprinkle and there were small patches of blue in the sky. "Here you go, Hajene. Channels' quarters." The driver brought the buggy to a halt before a three story brick building. "I'll just be gettin' over to the stables," she went on.
Frevven hastened out onto the pavement, followed by his daughter. "Thanks, Vinson. I'll let you know when we'll be heading home."
Carrying their bags, he hurried up the few steps and into the entrance, hoping they'd been advised of his arrival and would have a room ready for him and Val without any delay. He had to clean up and change clothes before he went before the Commission early this afternoon. Besides, a hot bath would feel good. He was stiff and achy from sitting in that jolting buggy for so long, and he really didn't like the fluttery sensation in his chest. It came and went these days, but happened mostly when he was tired or anxious.
He shrugged his shoulders and considered asking if there were a Donor available who could spend a little time with him later on. That usually helped. Perhaps it would get rid of his headache also.
It didn't. He still felt far less than perfect when he was summoned into the private meeting room where the Special Commission was holding their fact-finding interviews. The Commission members, one Gen and four channels, sat behind a long table. Frevven took the lone chair on the other side of the table.
He recognized the Chairperson and the Gen, but no one else. The chair was Lieta Dannet ambrov Havildorn. Despite her relative youth, she had served as District Controller three times already. She was rumored to have her eye on the Territory Controller's position, and there was a good chance she'd get it someday. She was an extremely capable administrator, but too much of a politician for Frevven's liking.
The Gen's name was Sandor Beavins. He was a First Order Donor and had been Frevven's transfer partner almost two weeks ago. He hadn't mentioned being on the Commission at the time, but then again, Frevven hadn't asked.
Sandor gave the channel a slight smile when he saw him enter the hearing room, but kept his field strictly neutral.
"Hajene Frevven Aylmeer ambrov Zeor," Lieta began, giving his last name along with his Householding affiliation, as was the custom in Northeast Coast Territory, "as director of Shepherd's Point, you're very much involved in the issues this Commission has been formed to resolve." She glanced down at the neat file of papers on the table before her and frowned before she continued with her introduction.
"As you are no doubt aware, this Special Commission has been formed to determine if there is any reason to change the Tecton's policy regarding the secret Pens, or if we should continue to deny that they are still in existence. Every member of the Commission has studied the problem intensively, but we're in the process of gathering information and advice from the people who work with it directly."
Her steel-gray eyes locked with Frevven's and her tentacles twined around her clasped hands where they rested on the tabletop. "If it were up to you, how should we handle this?"
"With all due respect," Frevven began uneasily, "I'm not sure you should be asking me for advice. I may work with semi-juncts, but I'm not a politician and have little familiarity with the broader issues involved."
She waved away his objection. "The Commission is aware of that, Hajene Aylmeer. Please answer the question."
"Very well, if you insist on asking for my opinion, you'll get it. I believe we were wrong to lie to the out-Territory governments after the Distect Revolt. When that Gen newspaper discovered the Pen in Nivet Territory and made the big stink about it, we should have admitted the truth then and there. We never should have told them that was the last one still operating and then continued to run the others in secret. A secret known by so many people is bound to get out sooner or later. I'm surprised it lasted this long."
"Hajene, what's done is done. Regretting the past doesn't help us now." That was Sandor speaking. Frevven turned slightly in his chair to face the Gen before answering him.
"Ah, but it does, if the past is truly and honestly regretted, rather than simply being covered up! If I've learned anything in all my years as a disjunction specialist, it's this: If you insist on denying what you've done, you'll never be able to deal with it and go beyond it."
"That may be all well and good applied to people, but things are a bit different for governments," one of the channels interjected coldly.
Frevven shrugged. "You wanted my advice. Here it is: tell the Gen government the truth about the Pens."
"You can't mean that!" Lieta's voice, no longer as cool and official as before.
"Why not? Most of them know or very strongly suspect what's going on already. Sooner or later, the truth will get out. Continuing to lie won't lead them to trust us in other matters. Tell them we're closing down the Pens as fast as we can, but it's going to take several years before they're completely out of operation."
"Why should they believe us, after finding out we've lied all along?" Sandor asked softly.
Frevven shrugged. "Let their leaders come and visit a Pen, if they like."
"Oh, come now," Lieta snorted. "Let's be serious."
"I am being serious. They'd be able to tell that we're closing things down. There are no more babies being produced. Haven't been for a couple of years now. We've begun taking some of the younger children out of the Pen and placing them with foster families, when we can find people willing to take them. Most of the remaining adults left are severely retarded, their minds all but destroyed by the drugs they've been getting all their lives. The Pens are obviously not going concerns anymore."
"That doesn't justify letting people be killed," Sandor pointed out.
"I never claimed it did! Shen and staid, my signature appears on the authorization forms for every Kill. Do you think I'm proud of that?! Do you think I won't be glad when the entire thing is over and there truly are no more Pens, secret or otherwise?"
Suddenly aware that his showfield had disintegrated into a mess, Frevven pulled himself together.
"I'm sorry. I -- I shouldn't have gotten so carried away." He wiped the sweat from his upper lip and pushed his glasses up against his nose. "But let the Gen officials talk to some of the semi-juncts at Shepherd's Point also. Do you know what's going on there? Do your records tell you about the vow many of them have taken not to kill?"
"Yes, we know," Sandor replied. "In fact, word has spread to Nivet and Gulf Territories about Astrid's Vow. Shepherd's Point isn't the only place where the semi-juncts are voluntarily ending their lives."
Frevven hadn't realized that, but he wasn't surprised. "Very well then. Tell the Gen government that. Let them come and watch some of my patients die."
"That won't change the fact that the only alternative is for Gens to die." Sandor's voice was gentle now, sad rather than accusing.
"No, it won't change that fact. But it might make the out-Territory leaders understand the situation we're in. After all, there are still places in Gen Territory where kids in changeover are murdered instead of being brought to Sime Centers. We know about that, but we're not going to start the Sime-Gen Wars again because of it, are we?"
"There are some out-Territory factions that are extremely militant," Lieta said. "If news of the Pens got out to the general population --"
"Whether or not the leaders choose to tell their people about it is up to them. Only what we do is up to us," Frevven said stubbornly.
"Thank you for your input, Hajene," Lieta said in obvious dismissal. "We'll take your ideas into consideration when we make our decision."
But he could read their response in the ambient, controlled though it was. They were not convinced. Surprisingly enough, Sandor was a bit less certain than the others, but probably not enough so to defend Frevven's point of view. Well, he hadn't seriously expected them to listen to him anyway. But he'd be damned if he'd tell them he agreed with the Tecton's policy when he didn't.
Frevven stood up. With a polite half-bow to the chair, he left the room. He'd done what he could, but it wouldn't make any difference.
He was still wondering if he could have presented his arguments better when he zlinned a very familiar field in the ambient. At the far end of the hall, Tamsin Farris stood in the corridor near the Commission's waiting room with her son, Rhyce.
The boy waved exuberantly. He must have known Frevven couldn't see him clearly at that distance and couldn't zlin his faint child's nager when he was so close to his mother. For a ten-year-old, he was extremely perceptive. But that was only to be expected. After all, he was a Farris, wasn't he?
"Hi, Uncle Frevven!" Rhyce called, his voice carrying over the hustle and bustle of people coming and going in the busy building.
Frevven hurried over to see his old friends, picking up Val's nager also. His daughter appeared behind Tamsin in the doorway to the waiting room.
"Tam, so good to see you again! What are you doing here?" "What do you think?" she said with a smile. "The Commission wants to talk to me too."
"Well, I hope you have better luck with them than I did."
"Oh, I doubt they'll like what I have to say either, knowing Lieta. Oops, here comes someone looking for me now. Must be my turn."
"Mom," Rhyce said quickly, "may I go with Val and Uncle Frevven, instead of sitting around waiting for you?"
"Sure." She looked from her son to Frevven. "That is, if it's all right with you?"
"Fine. Val wants to take me someplace --"
"We may be gone a while," Val interjected.
"That's all right. I've got some business to take care of afterwards anyway. How about if I meet you for supper?"
Frevven nodded, heading down the corridor behind the two children. Val was a good deal taller than Rhyce, but the boy kept up with her easily. Despite the way he called Frevven "Uncle", they were not related. Although Frevven and Tamsin had been somewhat more than just good friends during the many years they had worked together at Santenkaty Landing, he knew very well that Rhyce was not his son. Oftentimes, he wished he were. Rhyce was a boy to be proud of.
Frevven followed his daughter away from the Sime Center and through the bustling streets of Danversport, wondering where she was taking them. The day had turned clear but cool, with a brisk wind blowing. The damp scent of the nearby ocean awakened fond memories of the short time he'd spent on assignment in the prosperous port city many years ago. He squinted in the midday sun, remembering the days when he had been less of a landsman and more a part of the restless, unbounded sea. How long ago was it that he had been stationed on the out-Territory island of Innsfrey? He recalled the wild rides on the Center's small cutter, answering distress calls from a distant island and hoping he'd arrive in time to save the child in changeover. He had been a young man then. Where had the time gone?
Valthea led them to the waterfront, following the busy main street that ran along the edge of the harbor, past docks and warehouses, tall ships and humble fishing smacks. She turned down one of the piers. At that point. Frevven figured she had to be heading for the clipper ship berthed alongside.
He glanced up at the bowsprit as they walked by, following its graceful sweep aft. He could easily zlin the name elaborately carved on the bow of the ship: FLYING CLOUD.
He frowned. That sounded familiar. Where had he heard --? Ah, yes. The new ship House of Shaeldor had just launched. Shaeldor, a fairly new Householding whose specialty was maritime trade and development, had originally run a prosperous fleet of trading schooners along the east coast of Gulf Territory. After Unity, they had been the first to develop out-Territory trade, stopping in Gen port cities. They had been instrumental in convincing the Danversport officials to set up the restricted Gen enclave, where out-Territory ships could dock and unload their cargoes without having to deal with Simes. Danversport's phenomenal growth and prosperity was due in large part to Shaeldor's influence.
Valthea headed straight up the gangplank, seeming to know exactly what she was doing. It was only when Frevven himself reached the gangplank that he saw the sign proclaiming, "Open House -- Guided tours." This had to be what Val was so intent on showing him.
They were met at the top of the gangway by a smiling sailor, who directed them over to a small group of people listening to a uniformed officer talking about the ship. They were obviously a couple of minutes late for the tour, but that wouldn't matter.
While he listened to the talk, Frevven ran one tentacle along the glossy surface of a pinrail, admiring the smooth texture and the beautiful grain of the wood showing through its many coats of varnish. Householding Turan supplied most of the high-quality wood used in shipbuilding. This was doubtless some of their work.
Not far from his feet, a black and white cat lay curled into a tidy ball in the lee of a hatch, soaking up the dim warmth of the sun. There was a work crew stowing equipment in one of the holds and another further forward working on a coil of rope. There seemed to be approximately equal numbers of Simes and Gens involved in the various details, with only one exception. The group working in the rigging high overhead was composed exclusively of Simes. Frevven couldn't see them well, but he could zlin them.
Although he'd never been on a ship of this size before, he had had some experience with smaller sailboats, so he had a fair idea of the basic principles involved. However, the complex web of rigging and the sheer size of everything fascinated him. He barely heard what the officer was saying. He was too busy staring and zlinning around the ship to pay much attention to her voice.
As they began to walk forward, a man asked about the people up in the rigging. The officer explained that all the work aloft was done by Simes, because they were lighter, more agile, and able to hold on more effectively than any Gen. Even as she spoke, a young Sime climbed down the wide rope ladder formed by the shrouds and ratlines and stood perched on the narrow rail at the side of the ship, watching the group of sightseers. She followed Valthea's fascinated gaze up the rigging, then smiled and jumped lightly onto the deck.
"Wanna go up there?" she inquired knowingly of the child.
"Oh, yes!" Val breathed. "Uh -that is -- could I, really?"
"Sure. Nothing to it. I'll be right behind you. "
Val looked to Frevven for permission as the tour group stopped and watched. For an instant he wanted to refuse, considering it a rather dangerous affair. Then he thought better of it. She had spent a large part of her childhood on boats, after all. Besides, with the Sime crewmember behind her, Val would be safe enough. "Go ahead," he said firmly.
"Anyone else want to go aloft?" the officer inquired.
Faces turned to the sky, eyes following the slender ropes leading to the foretop, as high above the deck as a three-storey building. No one said anything. Rhyce shook his head slightly.
The sailor hopped back onto the rail and reached down for Val's hand. With much less agility and assurance, Val pulled herself up and took hold of the shrouds.
"Go on up," the Sime woman told her. "I'll be just behind you."
Nodding, Val started to climb the spider web of lines.
As Frevven and the others watched, the officer shook her head and stated, "That girl's a natural. Most kids are scared to try that."
"See how she feels about it when she gets up there and looks down," Rhyce said uncertainly, as Val scrambled out of the rigging and onto the foretop.
But when Val looked down, all she did was wave. Then she began to climb out along the foresail yard, closely followed by the Sime.
The officer continued to shake her head in amazement. "Looks as if she'll be up there for awhile, Hajene," she concluded. "If you'll all follow me, I'll take you belowdecks and show you the living quarters and the cargo holds.. She gestured aloft. "No sense waiting around for them."
Frevven hung back, somewhat nervous about his daughter up in the rigging despite all he could do to talk himself out of it. He couldn't see anything of her except a bright blur of yellow that he knew was her shirt, but he could still zlin the faint childish nager despite the distance. Finally, he turned and followed the others.
When they had completed their tour and once again emerged into the pale sunshine on deck, Frevven found Valthea still aloft. "How do I get her attention to call her down?" he asked the officer.
"Easy." She picked up a speaking trumpet and bellowed, "Sonya! Bring your friend on down here!"
"Aye aye," came the faint acknowledgement.
Frevven's heart nearly stopped beating as the two small figures in the rigging grabbed a convenient line and slid rapidly down to land not far away on deck. Val's face was flushed with excitement and she seemed happier than Frevven had seen her for a long time.
"Oh, it's so beautiful up there! I never wanted to come down!"
Frevven nodded sagely, trying not to show that he had been worried about her. Now that Val was safely on deck, he decided to ask their guide a question that had been bothering him all along. "On a long voyage, how do you manage? For transfers, I mean."
"There are two channels on board. They provide for the renSimes and take donations from the Gens on the Crew. There isn't really enough work for two channels, but it's a back-up system in case anything should happen to one of them. They're switched around fairly often and get a chance to work ashore whenever the ship is in port," she explained at length. "And, of course, there are Donors accompanying the channels.
"Seems kind of risky. What if something happens to both channels and you aren't close to land?"
"Well, on really long voyages, there are usually other channels on board, on their way to new assignments, now that agreements have been arranged with some of the overseas Territories and people can be rotated to other continents. I suppose if anything went terribly wrong on board ship, there could be serious problems." Her nager turned stern. "It can be a dangerous life, make no mistake. There has never been a guarantee that those who go down to the sea in ships will return safely to shore." She glanced hard at Frevven and he had the impression she was studying him as she would a distant squall on the horizon.
Thinking of his own relatively limited experience with the ocean, Frevven nodded his head. "Yes, I suppose that's so."
"Do all your crew members belong to Shaeldor?" Val asked hesitantly. "I mean, can anyone else sail with you or anything?"
"Well, we're almost all Shaeldor," the officer allowed, glancing proudly at her Householding ring with its engraved silhouette of a schooner. "There are one or two people from other Householdings who occasionally go on our ships, when we're short-handed. But that's not the usual way of things."
The officer led them back toward the gangway, thanking them all for taking the time to visit and ending with, "And if anyone is interested in joining Shaeldor, we're one of the fastest-growing Houses in Northeast Coast Territory. We're always looking for talented new people with an interest in the ocean." She looked directly at Val. "The FLYING CLOUD has an excellent cadet training program. Plus, Shaeldor has two new ships up on the ways at the shipyard under construction. They'll both require crew and officers before very long."
Val blushed and turned away. Without a word, she followed her father down the gangway.
They spent the remainder of the afternoon visiting the shops along the waterfront, looking at a variety of exotic goods from around the world. After much deliberation, Rhyce purchased a silk scarf for his mother. But although Frevven tried to interest his daughter in buying something for herself, her thoughts seemed to be on something else.
By the time they returned to the Danversport Center, the sun had set and a cold wind was blowing. The two children huddled around a blazing fire, clutching mugs of hot chocolate, while Frevven poured himself some trin tea.
Tamsin had sent word that she had been called over to the infirmary on an emergency, so Frevven planned to take the youngsters to the cafeteria himself if she wasn't back by dinnertime.
While Val put a fresh log on the fire, Rhyce set down his chocolate and turned to face the channel. "Uncle Frevven, may I go back to Shepherd's Point with you for awhile? My mom says it would be okay."
Strange request for a ten-year-old boy. "Uh -- Rhyce, Shepherd's Point is no place for a child."
"I know what it is," he replied somberly. "That's why I want to go there. I want to meet some of the semi-juncts, before there aren't any left."
"But why?" Val put in. "They're just a lot of sick old people."
"I think it's something I should know about. Mother always says that part of striving for perfection means we must first know and face the imperfections we are struggling out of, or we can't understand or overcome the obstacles before us." He must have known how stilted he sounded quoting Tamsin's words, because he smiled self-consciously before he went on. "I just want to know what life was like for people who had to kill. If I don't understand about that, what sort of a channel will I be?"
"You're still sure you're going to be a channel?" Frevven asked.
Rhyce nodded eagerly.
"Even so, there are a lot of channels around who don't care to know about the semi-juncts, much less meet them in person. I'm not sure you know what you're asking for, my boy. Did Tamsin really say it was okay?"
"Well, at first she wasn't happy about it, but after I told her my reasons, she said I could go." He grinned suddenly. "Besides, I want to see Uncle Chaynek and he'll be there soon, won't he? He's been at that new out-Territory Center for a long time and I miss him."
"Rhyce, if you're sure this is what you want, I'd be glad to have you come home with me for a visit. But what about your schoolwork?"
"My teacher can send me my assignments," he said, smiling winningly. "Mom says I can stay until Year's Turning, if I want."
"Yes, if it's all right with you. I even brought my schoolbooks with me."
"You're pretty sure I'll agree, aren't you?" Frevven asked.
The boy nodded.
"Well, you're right."
By the time Tamsin came to pick up Rhyce, both children were fast asleep in the bed in Frevven's room. She glided silently over to look at them, then joined the other channel in front of the fireplace.
"Since the kids seem to have claimed your bed," she whispered, "why don't we spend the night in mine? I'm right next door."
Frevven was more than happy to accept the invitation.
Tamsin left for Santenkaty Landing the following morning and Frevven reported to the Danversport Center to see what they had lined up for him to do. Four days flew by before he even noticed.
On the night before he was to return to Shepherd's Point, he sat in his room watching the fire. He felt better for having worked so hard. It was always a relief to serve a lot of relatively easy transfers, rather than a few painstakingly difficult ones, and the local disjuncts seemed so glad to see him. It was almost a shame there weren't more disjunct channels available to them.
The channel frowned. The Tecton didn't see it that way, of course. But disjuncts weren't going to be as easy to eliminate as semi-juncts. The semi-juncts would die out in time, but stopping new Simes from killing would take more than time: it would take trust and cooperation between the Sime and Gen governments. Although all the official pronouncements declared that someday there would be no more berserkers, Frevven often doubted that day would ever come.
Well, there was little he could do about that. He had enough problems of his own to deal with. Tomorrow they'd be on their way back to Shepherd's Point. It would be nice to have Rhyce around for a while. He hadn't seen very much of the boy since he'd left Santenkaty Landing and he was very fond of him.
The channel smiled to himself at the thought of Rhyce. Sometimes he had trouble remembering the youngster wasn't truly his son. He doubted he could have cared more for him if he were.
Frevven was almost dozing off in his chair when he zlinned Valthea coming down the hall. He opened the door just as she arrived.
"Hi, Daddy," she said as she flopped down into the chair he had just vacated. "Can I talk to you for a minute?"
Indecision and anxiety clouded her nager in a pattern he'd noticed quite often lately. Something had been bothering her during the past couple of months, but he'd dismissed it as merely the normal tensions of growing up.
"Is something wrong?" he asked.
"No, not really. It's just that I've been thinking a lot about my future --"
Frevven lowered himself to the floor next to her, crossing his legs. "That's perfectly normal for someone your age. You're supposed to be planning for your future." He gave her a reassuring smile. "Now, tell me what's bothering you."
"I'm fifteen years old. Sometime soon, I'll go into changeover."
"Yes. And I'm sure you'll be invited to pledge Zeor --"
She hesitated, then blurted out, "Daddy, maybe I don't want to pledge Zeor. Maybe I want something else."
"Something else?" he repeated dumbly. What else could there possibly be? Wasn't Zeor the best, the most respected, the most influential House of all? How could anyone want anything less than that?
But the look on her face and the resentment smoldering in her nager made it quite clear that she felt otherwise. Picking up a poker, he pretended to be absorbed in coaxing more flames from the almost-consumed logs. How dare she reject the one thing that meant more to him than life itself, the thing he'd fought and struggled for and finally achieved?
"But -- but, Zeor --" he stammered, trying to find the proper words.
"I know Zeor means a lot to you. It's just that I'm not sure I feel that way about it too."
An awful thought occurred to Frevven. Bad enough she wasn't sure about Zeor, but could his daughter be saying she didn't want to join a Householding at all? That was common enough these days, since many young people felt the Householdings were old-fashioned and out-dated, but he'd certainly never expected Val to feel that way.
"What is it you think you want?" he said at last, his voice strained.
"I'd like to see the world. I want to go on the new ships that are being built. I want to travel and learn about other lands," she said tentatively.
Travel? Ships? Faraway places? Dangerous places? His little girl? Frevven closed his eyes and shook his head. What was she talking about?
Then something clicked into place. That's what the tour of the FLYING CLOUD had been all about.
"Ships, eh? You've decided to join the House of Shaeldor. That's what you're trying to tell me, isn't it?"
She twisted the long ends of the bright purple sash she wore around her waist. "No, Daddy, not quite. I told you, I'm not really sure. I haven't made up my mind yet. I like Shaeldor --"
"But you could pledge Zeor. Do you realize what kind of an honor that is? I only want --"
"I know very well what you want," she interrupted, "but what about what I want? Doesn't that count for anything?"
Sparks flew up the chimney from the vicious poke Frevven delivered to the dying log. It disintegrated into glowing embers and gray ash.
"Anyway, Shaeldor is a fine House," she said stubbornly.
It was. He knew that. Shaeldor had an excellent reputation, especially for a Householding that had been established barely twelve years before Unity.
"It's not as if I didn't want to join a Householding," Val went on. "It's just that I'm not sure it should be Zeor."
She was pleading for understanding and approval. But Frevven knew he couldn't give it with any degree of honesty.
"I know what's best for my little girl," he said stiffly. "Can't you just take my word for it?"
"Fa-ther," she said, stressing each separate syllable to show her irritation, "I'm not your little girl anymore. I'll be grown up soon."
"Maybe so, but you aren't yet. And you don't know all there is to know. If you turn down Zeor --"
She stood up abruptly. "Oh, what's the use? You aren't listening to me." She strode over to the door, jerked it open, and left. Frevven heard her footsteps echo in the quiet hallway.
"Shen and staid," he cursed, "my own daughter --"
He tossed the poker angrily down into the remains of the fire. Powdery ashes flew back into his face and he retreated hastily, brushing them off the front of his shirt.
"Val, my darling," he said softly, addressing the closed door and the emptiness of the room as he asked the eternal question of parents everywhere, "what have I done wrong?"
Early the following afternoon, their buggy jogged along the dirt road to Shepherd's Point. Frevven wondered if the protesters would be gone by now. Five days of standing out in the cold should surely have discouraged them.
He couldn't have been more wrong if he'd tried. There were now a dozen Simes sitting and standing silently with their signs. Even a lone Gen, wrapped in a heavy white cloak, stood with them.
As if that weren't bad enough, three more Simes were on the opposite side of the drive, also holding a sign. Frevven wasn't at all certain he wanted to know what that one said, but he struggled to read it anyway as he passed by.
"Semi-juncts have a right to life also," it proclaimed in large block letters.
Rhyce turned questioning eyes to the channel. "Uncle Frevven, what's going on?"
Frevven groaned. Counter-demonstrators. What next?
"I'll explain later, Rhyce. After we've unpacked," he promised.
The channel spent a busy afternoon catching up on what had been happening with his patients during the time he'd been away, noticing uncomfortably that six more people had taken Astrid's Vow. That brought the number to well over three-quarters of the semi-juncts at Shepherd's Point. By the time spring came, there were going to be a lot of dying patients. His present staff wouldn't be able to cope with that. They could barely manage their caseloads as it was. He'd sent in urgent requests for more help, but the Tecton's response had been less than overwhelming. They had even refused to approve his last budget, which would have given him additional funds to hire more renSimes and Gens to handle some of the work.
With an exasperated sigh, Frevven wondered if he'd be granted more money once things really started getting worse, or if they'd just have to get through it short-handed.
On the morning of the day when Astrid reached turnover, Frevven went to her room to check on her. Much to his surprise, he found her sitting in a rocking chair before the fireplace, a cup of trin tea in her hand. Rhyce Farris sat on a footstool in front of her, so engrossed in what she had been saying that he didn't notice when the channel entered the room. Astrid fell silent.
"Is something wrong?" Rhyce asked, abruptly rising to his feet and taking a step toward the elderly renSime. "Can I -- oh, Uncle Frevven. I didn't hear you come in."
"And I didn't expect to find you here. I hope you haven't been bothering Astrid with all your questions."
"Oh no," she replied hastily. "I'm enjoying his company. It makes me feel good to have a youngster to talk to again."
She did appear unusually cheerful for a semi-junct at turnover, but she didn't zlin any better physically. Still, a good attitude was important in and of itself, and she was out of bed and hadn't asked for any drugs. He'd noticed the same sort of thing in the other semi-juncts who had been the objects of Rhyce's attention. They all enjoyed having him around, perhaps because most of them had so few visitors.
Although Frevven wondered what Rhyce was making of all this, the boy hadn't said anything much to him. He seemed to be handling things all right.
"Well, I'm glad he's not making a nuisance of himself," Frevven said, giving the youngster a fond smile. "But you know what I told you about being with our patients alone after they'd reached turnover, Rhyce."
Rhyce hung his head. "Yes, Uncle Frevven. But this is only Astrid's turnover day. It's not really 'after' yet. I would have asked one of the staff to come with me, but they were all so busy."
Astrid heaved a sigh, halting the rebuke that rose to Frevven's lips. "I do so enjoy his company," she said. Turning to Rhyce, she lifted his chin so that he met her eyes. "But Hajene Frevven is right. We all love you, boy. But things can happen. Even children can be attacked, if someone's far enough gone and not thinking rationally anymore. I want you to promise you'll be careful."
"Yes, ma'am. I will," Rhyce said unhappily. "But I'll miss being able to talk to you whenever I want. The staff's always so busy that I hate to waste their time just to have someone supervise my visits."
Astrid glanced up at the channel, then her eyes flicked over to the cardboard box on the table that held the manuscript of her book. She looked back at Frevven. He nodded.
"You've heard about the book I'm writing, Rhyce?"
"Yes, ma'am." His voice sounded more lively now.
"Perhaps you'd like to read it?"
Astrid smiled, pointing to the box. "You can take it to your room, if you'd like."
"Do you think that's wise?" Frevven cautioned as Rhyce hurried over to the table and lifted the lid on the box. "After all, that's the only copy. If anything happened to it, all your work would be wasted."
"I'm sure Rhyce will be careful."
"Oh, I will," the boy said positively. He replaced the lid and clutched the box against his chest. "Don't worry, Uncle Frevven. Nothing will happen to this while I have it."
"There, you see?" Astrid replied. She turned her blue eyes to Rhyce's black ones. "It's for you, and your children, and their children, that I wrote this book. If you don't know what the past was like, you won't be able to deal with the future. Do you understand that?"
"Yes, ma'am, I do."
"Good." She brushed a stubborn lock of hair back from his forehead with one tentacle. "Don't forget us, Rhyce. Don't be like us, but don't forget us."
Rhyce touched her cheek lightly with the fingers of one hand and said seriously, "I won't forget. Not ever."
"Good." Her smile broke the somberness of the moment. "Now be off with you and let an old lady rest."
"Yes, ma'am." Clutching the manuscript in his arms, Rhyce headed obediently out the door.
"He's quite a kid," Astrid remarked to Frevven.
"Yes," the channel replied proudly, "he sure is."
Chaynek ambrov Zeor arrived just four days prior to their scheduled transfer. Frevven had been getting a bit worried, but he knew the Donor had a long way to come and many of the roads were doubtless clogged with snow by this time of year. Some of the out-Territory mountain passes to the north and west were already closed, although there was only a slight dusting of snow in lower-lying Northeast Coast Territory.
It was a great relief to zlin Chaynek's familiar nager at last. The two men had been friends for a long time, but it had been years since they'd seen each other, much less been assigned as transfer partners.
Chaynek was almost ten years older than Frevven, but he didn't look it. The large brown eyes that had always given him the appearance of youth had not lost their mischievous sparkle, and his thick brown hair always seemed slightly rumpled and mussed. It still hadn't turned gray, although Frevven had had streak's of gray in his own hair for years now. Valthea's mother had been Chaynek's cousin, and the girl had inherited that same color and texture of hair.
Frevven and Chaynek barely had time to bring each other up to date on what had been happening in their lives when Frevven was apologetically interrupted by his secretary, who handed him a thick envelope that had just come in by special courier.
Frevven waited until the other Sime had left the room before ripping the envelope open. He knew what it would contain, and he thought he knew what it would say. The Special Commission had made its decision.
He only scanned the long document, flipping past the pages of reasons and explanations and turning quickly to the end to read their conclusions. Just as he had expected, they recommended no change in the Tecton's policy of denying the Pens existed. In fact, they asked for tighter security at the few remaining Pens.
Frevven winced, wondering if they were aware of the protesters even now keeping vigil at his front gate. Tossing the papers on his desk with a snort of disdain, he began to crumple the envelope into a ball to toss it over to the fire. Then he noticed another letter still inside. He pulled it out. This one was from the District Controller's office in Danversport. When he had finished reading, he crushed the wrinkled paper in his hand and cursed. He was about to toss it into the fireplace when he remembered Chaynek, who had sat patiently watching him while he'd gone through the envelope. Without another word, Frevven handed the Commission's decision over to the Gen. As Chaynek leafed through it, Frevven smoothed the crumpled paper he held and set it out for the other man to read also.
When he had finished both items, Chaynek glanced up at the channel, his brown eyes full of concern.
"You're being officially ordered to destroy all files regarding the semi-juncts, as each one dies," he said, sounding somewhat surprised.
Frevven nodded. "It isn't enough to be rid of the people?" he muttered angrily. "They have to wipe out their memory also?"
"I guess they don't want any records kept that might one day be used to prove the Tecton had been lying," Chaynek ventured. Frevven couldn't tell by his field how the Gen felt about all this. Chaynek was keeping himself carefully controlled. The Commission's document had contained references to Frevven's position on the matter, so Chaynek had to know how the channel felt. Surely, Chaynek didn't agree with them?
"I won't do it," Frevven said. "It's not right and I refuse."
"Truly, Frevven, if you disobey a direct order, you're likely to find yourself relieved as director of Shepherd's Point," Chaynek said softly. "Have you considered that?"
Frevven hadn't, but he did now. "All right. I can live without that dubious honor."
"Perhaps you can, but can your patients? Besides, if you don't do as you're told, the channel who replaces you will do it anyway."
Frevven thought that over for a bit.
"It's not right, Chaynek," he finally said, even while he knew he'd lost. "Only the guilty cover up their crimes. The Tecton should know better."
Chaynek nodded. "They certainly should," he concluded sadly.
When it came time for their transfer four days later, Frevven was surprised to find that he really had no enthusiasm for it. He stretched out on the transfer couch, setting his eyeglasses on a sidetable, since they always seemed to get in the way, or get fogged up.
Despite the terrifying emptiness of need, he felt an odd unwillingness to make contact with Chaynek. The Gen had tried hard to raise his intil; Frevven wanted him, but --
But. Regardless of Chaynek's wonderful, sparkling nager, the channel had the uncomfortable feeling that something would be missing in their transfer, something that had been missing in all of his transfers, something he'd been well able to do without, until recently.
As his handling tentacles closed around the Gen's arms and his laterals touched Chaynek's cool flesh, Frevven suppressed a shiver of revulsion. He told himself desperately that Chaynek was good, that his rare transfers with him had always been incredible, but --
At a time like this, there should be no "buts".
Exuding bright confidence and cheer, Chaynek leaned forward to meet Frevven's lips. At first, things went well. Frevven was far enough into need that he couldn't resist that glowing field. He drew as fast as he could, knowing full well that he couldn't possibly hurt Chaynek, so there was no necessity for being careful. The Donor easily met his demand. He overmatched Frevven by so much that it wasn't even close.
Selyn poured into Frevven's system in a smooth rush, carried on a wave of caring and love. It should have been glorious. In a way, it was.
But something was missing. The channel should have found satisfaction in the way Chaynek met his flat-out draw with over-abundance. It should have carried him to a peak of ecstasy, but it fell somehow flat, like all his transfers had lately.
Then suddenly it did more than fall flat. His dissatisfaction overbalanced into dissonance, slamming Frevven out of the transfer when he'd barely begun.
He curled up on the couch, gasping for breath. The slight quaver he'd often noticed in his chest became a clutching pain. His heart pounded loudly and his vriamic node felt as if it were being squeezed in a vise. Chaynek skillfully squelched his own reaction to being shenned, his hands immediately reaching for the channel's shoulders, massaging the back of his neck even as he used his nager to ease Frevven's tension.
"What happened?" Chaynek asked softly, when Frevven finally opened his eyes and drew a shaky breath. The pain was beginning to abate.
"Don't know," he replied raggedly. "Too easy somehow."
"Easy?" Gentle puzzlement suffused the thick blanket of calm and caring that was Chaynek's field.
"Like -- like --" Frevven gestured vaguely with one hand, frustrated at his inability to put the feeling into words. "Well, like having whipped cream shoved down your throat, when what you really crave is a nice rare steak."
"Steak? But you haven't eaten meat since before changeover."
Omigod, did I say that?! Frevven asked himself in surprise. He just shook his head, not knowing how to explain to Chaynek.
Then something flickered through the Gen's field, something Frevven wasn't sure he liked but found strangely interesting. "Maybe I know what you mean," Chaynek said, holding out his hands. "Let's try it again. Maybe I'll do better this time."
Frevven wasn't at all sure about that, but he had to have more selyn if he was to survive the coming month.
This time, Chaynek met his draw with a certain amount of resistance. The overbearing joy of giving wasn't there anymore. In its place was reluctance, uncertainty, even opposition.
Frevven found himself automatically rising to the challenge, taking selyn more actively now even as Chaynek ceased to offer it so freely. The harder he drew, the more the Gen seemed to be fighting him. But Frevven was winning, as a Sime would always win against a helpless Gen.
This was much better. This felt good.
As the delicious sensation mounted toward delight, the Gen's field began to show a hint of fear, trembling on the edge of what almost felt like pain. This served only to goad Frevven on. Now he had the Gen where he wanted it. Now he could take the satisfaction he craved. Now he could --
Reality fell onto the fragile illusion, crushing it completely and almost throwing Frevven into another abort.
Now he could do what? Kill Chaynek? Not likely!
He was being fooled, just as he fooled his own patients. But Chaynek couldn't hold the image as well as he could, couldn't duplicate a real Kill. Hadn't truly been trying, come to think of it. All he'd done was spice things up a little.
Pulled up short of real satisfaction, Frevven managed nevertheless to let the transfer run to conclusion. He had selyn, he was alive. That was enough. If even Chaynek couldn't give him what he wanted, no one could.
"Chaynek," he asked after he'd broken contact, "are you sure that was legal?"
"It worked, didn't it?"
"Yes, but --"
The Gen held up one hand, cutting off Frevven's protest. "Don't worry, I didn't do anything much. Just make things a little harder for you." Chaynek studied him a moment with slitted eyes. "It still wasn't all that good, was it?"
Frevven shook his head, reaching for his glasses and replacing them on his nose.
Chaynek frowned. "You've been working with the semi-juncts too long, my friend. It's not good for you."
"Piffle, Chaynek. That's not it." He grinned crookedly. "If you think that was anything like the sort of transfer I provide for my patients, you've got another think coming. If you could zlin, I'd show you how to really imitate a Kill."
"Truly, Frevven, that's exactly what I meant. Perhaps you can imitate it so often and so well because it's what you really want for yourself."
"That's not true! I don't --"
Oh, don't you now? a mocking voice asked in his mind.
Frevven fell silent, thinking terrible thoughts.
"I've worked with disjunct channels before," Chaynek said softly. "I'm ten years older than you are, remember. There were quite a few of them around when I started my career. I've seen some of them grow old and die, and I know what sometimes happens to them."
"I don't want to hurt anybody, Chaynek."
"Of course not. But constant exposure to this sort of thing could weaken any channel's anti-kill conditioning. Imitating a Kill all the time --" Chaynek just shrugged.
Frevven sat up on the transfer couch, his mouth set in a determined line. He felt a bit better now. That hadn't been the greatest transfer of his life, but it would keep him going. "What choice do I have? Who'll serve my patients if I don't?"
"I didn't say you had a choice, my friend. I'm only trying to tell you what's happening."
"Well, now I know," Frevven retorted. "Much good it'll do me."
Chaynek only nodded sadly.
The first clod of dirt hit Astrid's coffin with a hollow thud. Now that the brief funeral service was over, Frevven knew he should go back to his office and get some paperwork done. But somehow he just didn't feel up to it. Only two days after his own transfer, Astrid's death had hit him harder than he liked to admit.
Painful memories of his last attempt to serve her surfaced in his mind. He'd tried everything he knew, but it didn't work. His best efforts had failed, and he'd ended up with Astrid's dead body contorted on the couch next to him.
He wiped a tear from his face with one tentacle.
He should have been able to do better during that fatal last transfer. He should have been able to pull her through. He should have tried harder. He should have --
Chaynek moved closer to him, concern written plainly in his face and in his diminished nager. Rhyce stood next to Chaynek, tears running down his face. Frevven shook his head and waved the Gen away, pulling himself up straighter. He glanced down at the grief-stricken boy. Chaynek put one hand gently on Rhyce's shoulder, drawing him closer.
No, there was no use blaming himself, Frevven reflected resolutely. He'd done his best. No one could keep a semi-junct alive forever on channels' transfer, not even him. Let it rest. It was over, and she was at peace.
"Good-bye, dear friend," he whispered as he turned away from Astrid's grave and headed for the path that would take him back through the pine woods to the Administration Building. A cold wind rustled through the treetops and a flurry of snow swirled down from the gray sky.
He had settled himself behind his desk and was about to read Kremmer's daily report when he noticed the cardboard box on top of his filing cabinet. He got up from his chair and lifted it down. It was the length and width of a sheet of writing paper, but it was a good six inches high. Even before he read the note taped to the top, he knew what it was.
If anything happens to me, I want you to have this. You're the only one who's in a position to complete the last remaining pieces of information missing from the biographies, like date and manner of deaths. I know I can trust you to safeguard my manuscript, and see that it gets into the proper hands.
Thanks for all your help. I never could have done it without you.
Frevven just shook his head in dismay. Now what was he going to do with this? Even if he finished it as she asked, no one would publish such a manuscript. He'd tried to tell her that all along.
The ache behind his forehead was getting worse and his eyes were still swollen and itchy from crying. He had lots of work to do, and he really should get something to eat soon. He had two transfers to serve this afternoon, neither of which was likely to be easy.
The quivery sensation in his chest was back. He felt his heart miss a beat. Sliding the manuscript under one corner of his desk, he promised himself to think about it later.
Chaynek stayed on for several weeks, much to everyone's pleasure. His next assignment was at Santenkaty Landing, but he didn't have to be there until Year's Turning, since it was going to be six weeks before the transfer was scheduled. Frevven was glad to have him around. He'd gotten word that Nim Carver, the Donor who had been assigned to him for the coming month, had been diverted out to the western mountains, where an avalanche had claimed a number of lives and rescuework was frantically in progress.
Frevven didn't know who they'd find to replace Nim, but he was sure someone would be sent in time. The only other First Order Donor on his staff was totally out of synch with him, so she wouldn't be much use as a transfer partner. Meanwhile, it was an unexpected bonus to have Chaynek around for so long.
When he reached turnover, Frevven was still feeling guilty about acquiescing so easily to the demand to destroy his patients' records, despite all his rationalizations. Then another letter arrived from the District Controller's office in Danversport.
The channel frowned at it grimly before opening it. What did they want this time? Maybe it was just the notification of his next transfer assignment?
He slit the envelope and pulled out the sheet of paper, reading through it quickly. Taking off his glasses, he buried his head in his hands and shook his head.
They had heard of Astrid's manuscript and requested that he send it to the main office to be properly evaluated.
Now, why did he have the awful feeling that "properly evaluated" really meant destroyed? That would fit in all too well with the order to get rid of his patients' records once they were dead.
It didn't take Frevven long to decide that he wasn't going to go along with this. Replacing his glasses on his nose, he dipped his pen into the inkwell and wrote a respectful but firm refusal to part with the only copy of THAT WE MAY NEVER FORGET unless he was assured that no harm would come to the manuscript and that it would be returned to him afterward. He pointed out that he had a letter from the author giving it over into his care, so he was legally within his rights.
Satisfied, Frevven sealed the letter and sent it off.
A week and a half later, he got the response. Send the manuscript and quit complaining or they'd find another director for Shepherd's Point. And incidentally, get rid of those demonstrators outside the front gate. They might attract unpleasant publicity.
Oh, it was worded much more politely than that, but that was what the fancy language actually meant.
This time, Frevven made no quick response. He'd have to think this over a bit first.
The following morning, Rhyce sat down at the table where Frevven and Chaynek were eating, unloading his breakfast from his tray. He took a couple of bites of toast, eyeing the two grown-ups as if he had something he wanted to say but wasn't sure how to begin.
"Uncle Frevven, it's almost time for me to go home, but there's one thing I haven't seen yet," he finally said.
"Can I go to the Pen?"
Chaynek's startlement was sufficient to disrupt the ambient. "Sorry," the Gen murmured, abruptly drawing everything back to normal.
"Rhyce, you don't want to go there, believe me," Frevven said.
"Yes, I do." There was something in the child's nager that reminded the channel of Rhyce's mother when she had made up her mind. It was a distinctly un-childlike characteristic.
"All right. I'll take you there myself. But not today. I've got too much else to do."
"Thanks, Uncle Frevven." But the boy didn't touch his food and he was definitely still upset.
"Is there something else on your mind, Rhyce?"
"You're going to have to give them Astrid's manuscript, aren't you?"
That rumor had travelled fast, hadn't it? Perhaps he shouldn't have discussed it with Chaynek at dinner last night.
Not that it really mattered anyway. People would find out sooner or later.
"I don't know. I haven't decided yet. But if I don't, they'll take me away from Shepherd's Point. I think you understand what that means, don't you?"
"Yes. I've heard some of the semi-juncts talking about it. They don't want you to go. But they don't want you to give up Astrid's book either. Everyone knows it will be destroyed, and they don't want that."
"I don't want that to happen either, Rhyce. But I don't know how to stop it."
Rhyce thought that over for a minute, chewing on his toast. Chaynek glanced up at the clock on the wall. "Oops, I'd better get going. I promised to drop in on Carney Dewit, and I'm late already. See you later."
Rhyce watched the Gen leave, then looked up at Frevven. "Uncle Frevven, may I ask another favor?"
"What is it?"
"May I borrow Astrid's book and read it again? I want to copy some things and make notes. Just in case."
"I guess that would be okay. Eat your breakfast, then we'll go up to my office and get it."
Rhyce flashed him a relieved smile and began spooning up his cereal. "Thanks, Uncle Frevven. I'll take good care of it, don't worry."
Somehow, the channel wasn't worried. Not about that, at any rate.
Frevven liked working the late-night shifts best. With the coming of darkness, the day's frantic activity gradually slowed, most of the Gens on the staff went to their quarters to sleep, and a certain amount of peace and quiet descended on Shepherd's Point. Harsh outlines faded in the glow of firelight, or wavered in the flickering of candles and lamps.
A heavy swirl of snow fell past his office window. Frevven got up from his desk and went over to look out. He opened the window, breathing in the fresh air despite the cold. The road from the front gate was empty of traffic at this hour, but it was covered with a thick blanket of white that would make travelling difficult. Perhaps that would deter the protesters, for one day at least. He knew they stayed overnight at some of the farms not too far away when the weather was bad, so they didn't have to make the hour's ride out from Shepherdton.
He could zlin the lone nager of the gatekeeper in the little booth. The Sime was somewhat anxious, probably due to the snow. It had been coming down since dark and if it didn't stop soon, they'd be isolated here. That could get difficult.
Frevven wondered uneasily if his Donor was going to get here in time, considering the weather. He was due for transfer in two days and this storm showed all the signs of becoming a blizzard. At least Chaynek was here. If worst came to worst --
Speaking of Chaynek, here he was coming down the hall, his high field making him distinctly recognizable. Taking one last deep breath, Frevven closed the window and wiped the melting snowflakes off his glasses. Just before the Gen reached his office, Frevven noticed Valthea with him. What was she doing up at this hour of the night? She should be asleep in their apartment in the channels' quarters.
He met them at the door, wondering what they wanted.
Val smiled. "Congratulate me, Daddy. I'm in changeover." Without waiting for him to respond, she held out her hands.
He took them, extending his laterals and lightly touching his lips to hers. It took barely a moment to confirm her diagnosis. His daughter was indeed in an early stage of changeover.
"I'm right, aren't I?"
"There, you see, Uncle Chaynek? I told you. I felt crummy all day, but I thought I was just getting a cold. Then, when I woke up sick to my stomach, I was sure it wasn't just another false alarm." She smiled sheepishly. Several times during the past year Val had gotten sick and each time she'd hoped it might be the start of changeover. Each time she'd been disappointed.
Chaynek gave her an affectionate hug, being careful not to touch her arms as he did so. No tentacle sheaths were visible as yet, but Frevven had been able to zlin the tentacles beginning to develop.
"Congratulations," he said, kissing his daughter's forehead as Chaynek released her. "It's early yet, but we should take you over to the infirmary and find you a comfortable room."
"Can I go tell Rhyce first?"
Frevven shook his head. "It's past midnight. Let him sleep. Nothing's going to happen for a while yet."
He squinted quickly at the schedule board on his wall, but it only confirmed what he already knew too well. The best Donor he had available was Gini Durraly. She was a First, but had just served transfer two weeks ago. Katrin West was high-field, but only a Second.
"Chaynek, I don't have any other high-field Firsts here now, and there's an excellent chance a Second wouldn't be able to handle Val's First Transfer. We're pretty well snowed in, and the storm shows no sign of letting up, so even if there were someone available in Shepherdton, they couldn't get here in time. I know it's only been twenty-five days since our transfer and you have an assignment at Santenkaty, but --"
Chaynek smiled. "I thought you'd never ask. Don't worry, it's not early enough to make much difference, especially since you certainly didn't come close to draining me. I have no doubt Tam will be able to find someone else to replace me next month."
"But Daddy, your transfer is only a few days off. What if your Donor can't get here before then?"
"Oh, there's time yet. This snow can't last much longer. Once it stops, we'll be able to get the roads clear, so I'm sure my Donor will have no trouble getting through by then." He wished he were as sure as he was trying to sound. He didn't want Val to worry, since they had little choice anyway. Odds were good that someone would be able to get here for him. There was no possibility they'd make it in time for Val.
"Here, put on my cape," he said. "We've got to go outside to get to the infirmary building and it's snowing hard."
As he guided his daughter out of the office, Frevven turned to Chaynek. "There's a yawal in the bottom left-hand drawer of the dresser in my bedroom. Would you go get it, please?"
"Daddy, I don't want to wear one of those things. They're ugly."
"It's the custom in Zeor to wear a yawal for changeover."
"But I'm not Zeor."
"You're the child of a Zeor parent. That's enough."
She didn't argue with him.
When they reached the infirmary building and told the staff what was happening, there was a sudden burst of enthusiastic activity. Most of the treatment rooms were set up to handle critically ill semi-juncts, so a bit of rearranging and restocking was necessary to prepare for a changeover instead.
They set up a spacious corner room for Val, who endured the hustle and bustle with a mixture of pride and embarrassment as she sat perched on the edge of the transfer couch. Hajene Kremmer even began making plans for a party, wondering aloud whether he remembered how to play his shiltpron after all these years. At this stage of changeover, Val would probably have preferred to be left alone in a corner somewhere, but she just smiled politely and let the elderly channel fuss over her while her father supervised the arrangement of the room and double-checked the supplies of medications in the cabinets.
Frevven was worried, but tried not to let it show. At fifteen, Val was overage for changeover. So many things could go wrong.
Chaynek came in, the white yawal draped over one arm. His field brightened the ambient into a cheerful glow. Frevven allowed himself a sigh of relief. With Chaynek to serve First Transfer, it would be all right.
What if he hadn't still been here? What would you have done then? Frevven pushed that thought out of his head. Chaynek was here. That's all that mattered.
Chaynek laid the yawal on the couch next to Val. She frowned, but said nothing.
When everything was set up, Frevven chased everyone out of the room except for himself and Chaynek.
"I'm glad they're gone," Valthea said, lying back on the couch. "I think I'm going to be sick."
Chaynek held a basin for her while she threw up. As soon as the nausea had abated, Frevven examined her again, pleased to find nothing out of the ordinary.
"I think you'd better get out of those clothes, Val," Chaynek remarked. "You're likely to get them messed up if you don't."
She ran one hand over the yawal, a grimace of distaste on her face. Frevven could tell easily enough what she was thinking. He gave an exasperated sigh. "Honey, you're my daughter. Everyone will expect you to follow Zeor custom."
"But I already told you I may not pledge Zeor, even if I'm invited."
"Please, Val. I don't want to argue with you now. We can discuss this later."
She looked at him, angry creases forming between her eyebrows. "Maybe I want to talk about it now. Daddy, can't you understand that I don't particularly want to follow in your footsteps?"
Frevven cocked his head sideways in puzzlement. "But Val, I never expected you to be like me. Heaven forbid!"
She sat up cross-legged on the transfer couch, looking at him intently. "That's not what I mean. Listen, all my life I've lived with the idea that my father wasn't like the other channels. People look at me funny when I tell them my name. I'm the daughter of Frevven Aylmeer, the disjunct channel. Don't you think I'm tired of hearing about it? Just once, I'd like to be seen as myself, not just a reflection of you."
"But Val, you specifically asked me to have your name changed to Aylmeer after we got off that Distect island. You said you didn't want to be recognized as V'lissia Chalmers' daughter, so you didn't want her name anymore."
"Daddy, it's not really your name I object to. It's your reputation. Everyone in Zeor knows you. I'd never be able to get away from that."
Frevven thought he knew what she was driving at. "What makes you think things would be any different in Shaeldor?"
"For one thing, not as many people know you there. For another, I'd be on their ships, travelling to faraway places. I might even be able to outrun your reputation, on the other side of the world."
"Truly, Val, is it only your father's reputation that you're attempting to outrun?" Chaynek asked gently. Frevven had almost forgotten he was there, so unobtrusive had he made his nager.
"Well, no. It's also me. You know those years I spent with the Distect rebels when I was young?"
Frevven nodded. "That wasn't your fault. Your mother took you with her when she joined them."
"Sure. Tell that to the Tecton."
"What do you mean?"
"I feel as if people are watching me, just expecting me to start spouting Distect slogans or something. I've heard comments behind my back --"
"Oh, Val, that's silly. You shouldn't let that sort of thing bother you."
"But it does! I'm tired of being different from everyone else. Why can't I just be like the others?"
Frevven winced inside. He understood Val's question only too well. Hadn't it dogged him all his life? And now it was rising up to bedevil his daughter too. Shen!
"Val," Chaynek interjected, "everyone is different, when you get right down to it."
"I know, I know! But I want to find someplace that's mine, someplace where my past won't follow me as closely as it would if I joined Zeor. I want to show the world what I am. That would be easier among relative strangers than among people who've known me all my life."
"She has a point there, Frevven."
"Shenshid, Chaynek! Whose side are you on?"
"Truly, Frevven, this isn't a case of taking sides." He turned to Valthea. "But if you just want to travel, you could be Zeor and still go on Shaeldor's ships. Shaeldor is sometimes short of channels and takes people from other Houses whenever they can get them."
"Yeah, but it wouldn't be the same. I wouldn't really belong." She twisted the hem of the yawal between her fingers, her eyes downcast.
"There's more to it than that, isn't there?" Chaynek probed.
Val nodded, still not looking at them. "I don't think I'm exactly Zeor material. I'm just not good enough."
"There's no such thing as 'good enough' for Zeor. I'm surprised you don't know that by now."
"Yeah, Uncle Chaynek, that's what they all say. But you know what Zeor channels are like. I don't think I could manage that."
"What are Zeor channels like, Val?"
"Well, look at Rhyce, for instance."
"He hasn't even gone through changeover. He's not a channel."
"He will be, soon enough. But you know what I mean. Rhyce is a Farris. He's smart, talented, likeable. He's everybody's favorite kid." She fiddled with the yawal some more, then suddenly looked up at Frevven, green-gold eyes blazing. "He's your favorite kid."
"Val, that's not true!" Frevven objected.
"No? You sure act as if it is. Why, for all anybody knows, he could be your son. You and Tamsin were friends --"
"Tamsin and I were, and are, more than friends. But Rhyce isn't my son."
Val didn't appear convinced.
"Rhyce's father died before he was born," Frevven said. "I worked with Tamsin at Santenkaty Landing and we spent a lot of time together in those days. You and your mother were gone --"
"-- and Rhyce was there. Even if he wasn't your son, I'll bet you wished he were."
Frevven had to admit the truth of that. "I doubt I could love him more if he were mine. But that makes no difference in how I feel about you, Val."
"Humph! Listen, Daddy, I've got nothing against Rhyce. We've always been best friends, even though he's a lot younger than I am. But he's been around most of my life and he's always been the 'perfect Farris channel'. He's Zeor material, not me."
"Val, being invited to join Zeor would be a great honor."
"Maybe I don't want that honor, Daddy. Maybe I'm looking for an honor I can earn myself."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"If I get an invitation to pledge it's because I'm your daughter. They probably wouldn't ask me if I were someone else."
"Zeor doesn't do things that way," Chaynek said sternly.
Val raised an eyebrow. "No? Well then, why are you two so sure I'll be invited? Looks like favoritism to me."
Chaynek shook his head. "There are reasons."
"If there are, I'm not sure I want to know them. Uncle Chaynek, please. I just want to make my own choices from now on. Is that too much to ask?"
"But Zeor --" Frevven started to say.
"Shen Zeor!" She turned away, nager blazing angry impatience. Then she pulled herself together and turned back to them. "Sorry, Daddy, Chaynek," she apologized. "Look, I know how much Zeor means to you, to both of you. I have yet to decide if it means that much to me. When I make up my mind, I'll let you know. Okay?"
Chaynek approached the youngster. "Yes, of course. Please understand something, Val. You may feel very grown up now, but your father and I still remember the little girl you used to be, and we always will. It's never easy to let go. But we'll do our best. Won't we, Frevven?"
Frevven tried to nod, but he did a less than enthusiastic job of it.
Val smiled. "Thanks, Uncle Chaynek. I knew you'd understand."
"Now, why don't you go into the bathroom and change into this yawal?" He held up one hand as she started to protest. "Wearing it doesn't mean you've agreed to anything, much less to pledge Zeor. It only means you're doing it to please your father and I." He picked up the cotton garment, smoothing out the folds. "And maybe because you'll think about what it stands for, and the reasons why it has remained traditional in some of the Householdings to dress in such a fashion at such a critical moment in your life. In fact, I'm fairly certain Shaeldor abides by this custom also."
"Well, since you put it that way --" She took the yawal and slipped off the couch.
Once she'd left the room, Frevven turned to the Gen and said softly, "Chaynek, there must be something we can say to convince her. If she gives up an invitation to pledge Zeor --"
Chaynek held up one hand. "Truly, Frevven, you must not attempt to give someone that which they do not want."
"Life doesn't work that way. You know that."
"I know. But I only want the best for her."
"As do I. However, it's up to Val to decide whets best for her, not us."
"She's too young to know what she wants."
Chaynek raised an eyebrow. "I remember another youngster who knew very clearly that he wanted to be a working channel, even though the Tecton wasn't training disjunct channels any more. In fact, he was so sure of what he wanted that he even managed to convince the Sectuib in Chanel to help him get it."
"That was different. I had gotten through disjunction and was hardly a kid anymore. We're talking about Valthea now, not me."
"Do you really think your daughter will be any less determined than you were, my friend, once she makes up her mind?"
Frevven glanced toward the bathroom door, thinking about Valthea. He shook his head and smiled fondly at the Gen. "Chaynek, just once couldn't you manage to be wrong about something?"
Chaynek made a show of considering this. "Perhaps," he finally said. "After all, I was wrong about you once, wasn't I? Sectuib Aran was right." He smiled brightly. "I suppose I could do it again, if I try very hard."
Both men laughed, just as Valthea came back into the room.
"What is it?" she asked. "Do I look so funny in this thing?"
At that, they laughed even harder. Then they hastened to assure her that she looked fine.
It was long past dawn when Val came up on breakout. Everything had been strictly routine, if a little slow. Rhyce had been there for almost an hour and was to be allowed to stay for her First Transfer, at Val's request. The boy had spent a lot of time earlier just talking to her, taking her mind off her discomfort, but now he sat quietly near the fireplace on the far side of the room, just watching.
Frevven coached her through breakout, proud of his daughter's calm cooperation. It was almost as if she knew everything would be okay, even if he didn't. When her tentacles broke free, he moved away, allowing Chaynek to take his place on the couch. With tears of joy running down his cheeks, Frevven closed his eyes and zlinned Valthea's transfer, glorying in the sheer ecstasy of her experience. He'd felt it before with other changeovers, but this was his daughter, his own little girl. She would never kill, as he had. She would be a non-junct channel, like all the rest.
Then he pulled himself back a bit, so he could observe more impartially what was going on. From the characteristics of that transfer, Frevven calculated Val to be a First Order channel, probably somewhere in the mid range. Better than he had hoped, considering that he himself had started out Second Order. Of course, her mother had been a talented Donor. That no doubt accounted for it.
Val released Chaynek and sagged back on the contoured lounge, her face still showing the afterimage of her pleasure. "Wow! Is it like that all the time?"
Chaynek shook his head. "Sometimes, but not always," he admitted, smiling. "Now, this is the Oath of Firsts. Listen and repeat after me --"
"I made First already?"
Chaynek nodded and began reciting the Oath.
When they had finished, Rhyce came to stand hesitantly next to Val, holding out a glittering object hanging from a gold chain. "This is for you," he said shyly, "for a changeover present."
Val took it from him clumsily, one tentacle getting tangled in the thin chain. It was a delicately-filigreed starred cross, set with a single small emerald in the center. Val gasped. "Rhyce, it's lovely! But where did you get it? It looks old."
"It is old. My mother says it's been in our family for years."
"But -- but you shouldn't give something like this to me."
The boy blushed and looked at the floor. "Who better to give it to?" he said quietly.
Val turned to Frevven. "Daddy --?"
He studied the boy for a moment. There was something strange about Rhyce today, but he couldn't quite tell what it was. He debated asking if Tamsin had approved of his gift to Val, then thought better of it. Rhyce wouldn't have given away a family heirloom if his mother hadn't okayed it already.
Frevven smiled. "You don't have to ask my permission anymore, Val. You're grown up now, remember? But I think you ought to keep Rhyce's present, if you want my opinion."
She nodded, then reached out a hand to touch Rhyce's shoulder. "It's lovely, Rhyce. Thanks so much."
He blushed redder.
"I hate to interrupt you two," Chaynek said, his eyes twinkling, "but there's a mob of people outside just waiting to have a party. Want me to let them in?"
"Oh! I forgot!" Val exclaimed. "Yes, let them in. But first, Uncle Chaynek, would you fasten this chain around my neck? I want everyone to see my very first present."
If possible, Rhyce blushed even more.
The party was in full swing when Hajene Kremmer sidled over to Frevven and said quietly, "We've got a problem. Can you come to the cafeteria for a minute?"
Telling his daughter he'd be back in a bit, Frevven left with the other channel, wondering what was wrong.
"It's those shendi-flamed protesters,. Kremmer said as they fought their way through the blowing snow to the other building. In several places, the drifts were almost up to their thighs. Until the wind subsided, shovelling would be impossible.
"Don't tell me they showed up in this weather?!" Frevven said, holding his cape tightly so it didn't billow out behind him in the gale.
Kremmer nodded. "Yep. Stood out there in the snow and all, as usual. Just Simes, though. No Gens with them today."
"Well, at least they have some sense," Frevven conceded.
"You were busy with your daughter, so I didn't want to bother you. But when the wind began to pick up and the temperature dropped even further, I invited both groups in to the cafeteria to warm up and have something hot to drink."
Kremmer sounded worried, evidently not sure if he'd done the right thing. The two channels had reached the other building by now. They brushed off the snow and hung up their cloaks.
"So what went wrong?" Frevven prompted. "Sounds harmless enough so far."
Kremmer gestured toward the hallway to the cafeteria. "Just go down there and zlin that ambient and you'll see. The insulation's hiding it pretty well out here."
As soon as Frevven came through the cafeteria doors, he could zlin the hostility coming from the two groups of protesters. They had obviously been sitting at the tables near the fireplace, their signs lying propped against the wall. A noisy argument was in progress now, liberally sprinkled with epithets of various kinds. Neither side paid the least attention to the other's words. It seemed to have become a contest in who could out-shout everybody else.
As the channel approached, he tried to calm the inflamed ambient as much as he could. The shouting abated as Frevven drew near. Then they recognized him as the director and the argument resumed, this time aimed at him, each side wanting to convince him of the justice of their claims. People thronged around him waving arms and tentacles.
"How can you allow the killing to continue, Hajene?!"
"The Tecton has got to honor the commitment it made to the semi-juncts!"
"We can't keep killing Gens!"
"The Tecton can't go back on its word!"
Righteous indignation flared brightly from both groups, but they weren't saying anything new. He'd heard both arguments so often that he could probably have repeated them himself, making an equally good case for either side. The issue simply wasn't as clear-cut as either group made out. Frevven listened to the storm of angry words, wondering how they could all be so sure they were right. Why, they'd probably never seen a real live semi-junct in their lives, much less a penGen --- Wait a minute! Perhaps that was the solution to this mess.
"Sit down and be quiet!" he said loudly, reinforcing his command with his field. Surprised, they obeyed. He turned to the supporters of the semi-juncts, addressing them first. "Now, you believe the semi-juncts have a right to live out their lives, as the Tecton promised when it took over at Unity. Right?"
"Right!" several of the Simes assented firmly.
"Perhaps you're aware of the number of patients here at Shepherd's Point who have taken Astrid's Vow?"
Nodding of heads and mumbled agreement.
"Well, the practical effect is that we are soon going to have a lot of dying people on our hands, people who'll require more care than we can easily provide. Oh, we'll do the best we can, but my staff isn't large and I'm not likely to get a lot of support from the Tecton. The people who've taken that vow will be dying an agonizing and often long drawn out death, as they struggle to survive only on channels' transfer. Not to mention the rest of our patients, who will continue to die of old age or of various complications of their condition."
At Frevven's words, unease seeped into the ambient from the penGen supporters, but the other group remained staunchly self-righteous.
"Would you be willing to do something to help these dying patients, if you could?"
"We are doing something," a woman objected. "We're making sure that the Tecton doesn't cut off their supply of Gens."
Frevven waved a hand in a negligent gesture. "Don't worry, the Tecton has no intention of doing that. I'm talking about something more important. What my patients truly need --" and he stressed his unconventional usage of the word -- "isn't people marching around carrying signs. What they need is people to care about them. Someone to sit with them and hear what they have to say. Someone to listen to their anger and sorrow, to understand And admire, console and comfort. Someone to be there when they die, caring for each one as an individual. Try as we might, our staff can't provide that sort of support for every patient. We simply haven't enough people." He fixed his eyes on each person in turn before continuing. "Have any of you the courage to do that? Will anyone come into the wards and work with us? Or do you care only for the cause of the semi-juncts, but not for the semi-juncts themselves?"
He forestalled any response by raising one hand. "Think about it."
Then he turned to the other group. "You want the killing stopped immediately, right?"
Their chorus of assent was a bit ragged now.
"Well, that's not going to happen." He raised his voice enough to override the objections. "Hear me out! What is going to happen is that the Pen here is going to be phased out of existence as the semi-juncts die. Every one of my patients who has taken Astrid's Vow will be dead by this time next year. Of the rest, a third will be likely to die also, even assuming no one else takes the Vow. That will leave maybe 25 survivors. It's doubtful that any of them will live for as much as five more years."
He stopped for a moment, letting that sink in. Then he went on. "Already I have a surplus of penGens. There are no more children being bred, but there are youngsters whose lives will no longer be forfeit to society's honor and unhappy necessity. It's time to start placing them in foster homes. But these are not your ordinary cute kids we're talking about here. These are children who will present behavior problems due to their early lives. Some of them are retarded because of the drugs their parents were given years ago or because of the inbreeding that's been done. Some are hostile and withdrawn. So far, the Tecton hasn't had a lot of luck placing these troubled children in homes. Perhaps a private association could do something to help the situation."
People stared at each other in confusion, obviously unsure of how to react to Frevven's suggestion.
"But it's not only the children that concern me," the channel continued. "There are adult Gens in the Pen who still have the ability to be integrated into normal life, with the proper help and attention. But they've got to be taught about the outside world and be given the skills to get by before they can be released. If there were a supervised group home where the most promising ones could be sent, I could have half a dozen candidates ready to move in within a month."
"Why can't the Tecton do all this?" someone asked. "After all, they caused the problem in the first place, didn't they?"
"The Tecton can and probably will -- after long delays to study the situation and convince itself of the necessity for action. But I'm talking about programs that could be started immediately, by truly motivated individual citizens. This is the sort of practical help that could start changing things now, not on some future date. Every year, every month, that passes is just one more little bit of these folks' lives wasted. You could make a difference in that. No matter what you might like to think, you can't save them all. But you can save some of them, and set them on the path to a useful life. Isn't that just as important as standing out in the cold waving signs?"
He raked his eyes over both groups, then concluded, "Do you have the courage to work with the real people involved? Or do you just want to deal with theories?"
Frevven walked away, going to sit at a table at the far side of the room while the two groups of protesters huddled and argued over what he had said. Kremmer sat down next to him, handing him a mug of trin tea. "Neat," the older man said. "Now let's see if they go for it."
Frevven sipped his tea and waited, wishing he could get back to Valthea's party. But if this worked, he might well have enough extra help to get through the next year without all the problems he had anticipated. It would mean a new beginning for a lot of his penGens and a kinder death for his semi-juncts.
It took a while, but each group decided they liked his suggestion. It was well past noon when he'd finished discussing concrete plans with the erstwhile demonstrators. He finally left them setting around several tables working out details. Someone had tossed the signs into the fireplace and the fire crackled loudly as they burned.
By the time Frevven got back to Val's party, it was pretty much over. He had stopped to check on a number of his patients and gotten tied up with one of them for over an hour. As a result, it was already getting dark when he returned to his daughter's room.
She had changed into her regular clothes and people were cleaning up and setting the room to rights. Val stood by one of the windows, apparently zlinning the pattern of frost on the glass. Outside, the wind still howled and the snow blew into ever-higher drifts.
Frevven took a moment to try to see his daughter as an adult, a grown woman, not the child he had known. It seemed strange to zlin her as a Sime, rather than a little girl.
He walked up behind her. "Good afternoon, Hajene Aylmeer," he said as she turned around.
"Oh! Daddy, that sounds so strange, but it's me, isn't it?" She held out her hands, twining her tentacles into graceful designs. "This is so -- so lovely somehow. Everything is new and marvellous. There's so much for me to learn." She spoke rapidly, her words running into each other in her haste to get them out. "I'll be able to go to the new channels' school at Santenkaty Landing, won't I? Rhyce says there are some terrific teachers there. Oh, I can't wait! I just want to do everything at once!"
"Whoa, now. Take it easy. You've got the rest of your life. You don't have to do everything today, do you?"
Embarrassment suffused her field. "I'm being silly, aren't I, Daddy?"
"No. You're just being a new Sime, that's all. I'm so proud of you, honey. I hardly know how to tell you."
A shadow seemed to flit across her bright enthusiasm. "I hope you'll always be proud of me, Daddy. I really do."
Even if I don't pledge Zeor. Frevven filled in the unspoken conclusion to himself. But this was no time to talk about that. Later on, after she'd adjusted to her new life, Frevven might be able to convince her to see reason. He changed the subject.
"I'm sure you'll get into the Santenkaty Landing school with no trouble. Last time I saw Tamsin, she said they hadn't reached full enrollment yet." He'd much rather she wanted to go to Rialite, but Santenkaty had a lot of Zeor personnel also and it would be nice to have her nearby. He wasn't going to push it.
Frevven's attention had been so totally focussed on his daughter that he hadn't noticed Chaynek squatting down and talking earnestly with Rhyce over by the fireplace. But now he felt a chill quiver of muted anxiety in the ambient. He turned, trying to track it down. Chaynek caught the channel's eye, indicating that he should come over with a slight gesture of one hand.
"I'll be right back, Val. Chaynek wants to talk to me about something," he told his daughter.
The Gen was not extremely low field, since Val had been nowhere near a match for him. Rhyce's faint nager was effectively blanketed by Chaynek, so Frevven barely zlinned the boy standing next to him. Then Chaynek stood up and stepped back, deftly positioning himself to block out most of the ambient and leaving Frevven with Rhyce.
"Omigod," the channel exclaimed softly as Rhyce turned frightened eyes up to his. Unless his first impression was way off, they had a big problem. Frevven squatted down in front of him. Without having to be asked, the boy held out his hands for Frevven to do a lateral examination.
When the channel released him, Rhyce asked fearfully, "I'm going into changeover, aren't I?"
"And there aren't any Donors here who can serve me, right? If there were, you wouldn't have used Uncle Chaynek for Val."
Rhyce put into words exactly what Frevven had been thinking. Disconcerted to find the boy getting ahead of him like that, Frevven tried to come up with something reassuring to say. "It'll be all right, Rhyce. Don't worry. I won't let anything happen to you."
Rhyce looked at him, an awful maturity in his black eyes. "I know, Uncle Frevven. That's what I'm afraid of."
Now, what was that supposed to mean? Frevven stood up. "You stay right here with Chaynek. I'll get everyone to leave so you can have some peace and quiet."
After a few quick words from the channel, the room was cleaned up and vacated almost immediately. Frevven took Valthea out into the hall, leaving Chaynek to make Rhyce comfortable.
"Daddy, what is it? What's wrong?"
"Rhyce is in changeover."
"But that's wonderful!" Then her sudden joy faded. "Why is everyone so upset? That is what I'm zlinning, isn't it?"
"I don't have another Donor here capable of serving him First Transfer."
Her showfield went cold with shock. "How about Gini -- no, she'd only be mid-field by now, wouldn't she? Couldn't we get someone from Shepherdton?"
"In the middle of a blizzard? They'd never make it here in time. Besides, I'm pretty sure they don't have a high-field First at Shepherdton just now."
He held up one hand to forestall her objections. "I sent a messenger anyway. I just don't think it will do any good."
"What can we do?"
"I'm going to serve him myself."
"Is that safe, Daddy? He's a Farris --"
"I think I can do it. If I fill my secondary system completely, I might have just enough selyn."
"But if you don't --"
He held up one hand. "Remember when we went on the tour of the ship? That officer said there were no guarantees that those who go to sea would return safely to shore?" Val nodded. "Well, that applies to life also. There are never any guarantees. All we can do is go for the best possibilities." He tried to smile. "Unfortunately, I'm Rhyce's best possibility. I wish I didn't have to do this to him, though."
He could zlin Val's puzzlement, so he went on to explain, "A channel should have a Gen for First Transfer, not another channel. First Transfer sets the standard for all future satisfaction." Frevven carefully kept his showfield from accurately reflecting his emotions, since he didn't want Val to know just how badly he felt about this. "If I serve him, it won't be as good as with a proper Donor, but he'll wind up craving that same sort of not-so-good transfer for the rest of his life. That's going to mess him up but good."
"You mean the 'perfect Farris channel' isn't going to be so perfect after all?" she asked.
"That's exactly what I mean." Frevven wondered at Val's choice of words, considering she had been jealous of Rhyce.
She twined one dorsal tentacle around the chain of the starred-cross at her neck. "I wish it had been me instead," she said at last. "I'm not a Farris. It probably wouldn't have been so bad."
That wasn't what he had feared she would say. He was about to tell her so when Gini Durraly came bustling down the corridor, radiating worried determination. "I've got to see to Rhyce now, honey. Will you be okay, or shall I find a Donor to stay with you?"
"I'm fine, Daddy I'll be just down the hall in the waiting room." She started to turn away, then turned back and wrapped her arms around him, ignoring what that did to the surrounding fields. "I love you, Daddy," she said softly.
"I love you too," he replied.
With no further ado, she let him go and walked away.
Dismissing his daughter from his mind, Frevven headed back into Rhyce's room, motioning for Gini to follow him.
The developing tentacle sheaths were just visible on the boy's forearms now. It wouldn't be much longer before he'd be sensitive to fields.
Leaving Gini to sit with the boy, Frevven motioned for Chaynek to come outside with him for a moment. Frowning, the Gen obeyed.
"What is it?" he asked as soon as they were out in the hall. "I should stay with Rhyce."
"Just one thing, Chaynek. I'm going to have to serve him myself."
"I want you to swear that you won't interfere, no matter what happens."
"Truly, Frevven --"
"I mean it, Chaynek. Stay out of it, no matter what."
Something rippled through the Donor's field, but Frevven couldn't quite make it out. Then it was suppressed and Chaynek nodded shortly.
"Very well. I promise," he said at last.
"Thanks. Now let's get back to Rhyce."
After they re-entered the room, Frevven instructed Gini to stay behind Chaynek, so her nager would provide a more sturdy backdrop to his depleted field even as it left Chaynek the more prominent focus. Frevven stayed in a rather neutral functional mode for now.
As soon as he'd confirmed that Rhyce was doing okay, he hurried over to an adjoining room. Every Gen on his staff who was able to do so had lined up to donate, so it took no time at all for Frevven to fill his secondary system to capacity.
Things moved fast after that, but not as fast as Frevven would have liked. Although he had never before attended a Farris channel at changeover, everything he'd read led him to the conclusion that it shouldn't be taking this long. Rhyce seemed to be cooperating as well as he could, responding calmly to Chaynek's coaching, but it was as if some part of him was resisting, fighting what was happening to his body. His scarce selyn reserves were dwindling too fast, but breakout contractions hadn't even begun.
Frevven took Chaynek's place on the transfer couch next to Rhyce, smoothly insinuating himself into the fields. He imitated Chaynek's characteristic golden sparkle, making his showfield as much like the Gen's as he could. But he had all the selyn in his secondary system to work with, not merely Chaynek's glimmer of leftovers. Holding his imitation of Chaynek, he raised the field intensity behind it until it reached a tempting pre-transfer level.
Rhyce gasped and blinked his eyes, as if he were not sure who he was seeing. To Frevven's great relief, the first breakout contraction started. Without having to be told, Rhyce relaxed into it, exhaling at the proper time and letting his arms go limp.
Frevven knew full well that the usual Zeor practice was to have a channel in changeover delay breakout for as long as possible, but Rhyce's field was rapidly draining down to darkness and they didn't have time for endurance exercises. He was just hoping he wouldn't have to break the membranes himself, simply to save the boy's life.
On the third contraction, Frevven judged he might be ready.
"Now," he said softly.
"Now, Rhyce," he repeated. "I know what I'm doing."
Obediently, the boy clenched his hands and then threw them open, straining. Then he fell back, gasping for breath, membranes still intact.
"I'm scared, Uncle Frevven. I can't do it. Everything's all cold and dark and I feel like I can't breathe. I want Uncle Chaynek, not you. But I know I can't --" His voice broke into a strangled moan and he pulled his clenched hands against his chest as another contraction began.
Frevven took the boy's hands, gently pulling them away from his chest. "This time, Rhyce. You can do it. Try," he urged, even as he strained to make his showfield more like Chaynek's. He couldn't really expect to fool Rhyce, but he had to tempt him into the transfer, make him stop thinking and just react. Behind him, he zlinned Chaynek's nager shift slightly, as he always did when he committed himself irrevocably to a transfer. Taking the hint, Frevven picked up the shift and amplified it into his own field.
Rhyce threw his hands open again, his face contorted with effort. This time his tentacles broke free. But his relief was quickly replaced by stark terror as the full extent of his need hit him.
Frevven took Rhyce's hands, twining his tentacles around the boy's wrists, pulling him into the Sime/Sime transfer grip. He captured Rhyce's dripping laterals with his own as he leaned forward to make lip contact. This had to work, it just had to.
It wasn't hard to begin feeding selyn to the desperate boy. Projecting a calm assurance he wasn't sure he felt, Frevven soothed away the youngster's initial resistance. Instinct took over and Rhyce began to draw in earnest, an incandescent glimmer of hope flickering briefly in his dark field.
Frevven was so used to mimicking a Kill that he had to stop himself from resisting, squelch the projected image of pain and terror that he would normally have used. He faltered for a moment as he blocked his by now automatic reaction to serving transfer. Then he picked it up again, drawing on his memory of Val's First Transfer and offering only the love and concern and caring, but not all the rest of it. He fancied he might even be imitating Chaynek's style, so well did he know it.
It felt so good to serve a transfer without the fear and pain! Instead, he was free to feed the boy with satisfaction and blossoming joy. It was a great relief to meet only normal craving for selyn, without that terrible futile grasping for the killbliss that he could almost, but not quite, deliver.
Things unbent and stretched inside Frevven, things he had never truly noticed before. For the briefest of moments, he and Rhyce reached together toward an ecstasy that was almost within their grasp.
But that marvelous sensation couldn't last. Rhyce was still drawing, straining toward fulfillment, while Frevven was caught up short by a sudden realization: his secondary system was almost empty, and Rhyce wasn't satisfied yet. A tiny twinge of terror clutched at the channel's heart as the familiar flutter quivered in his vriamic node. This wasn't going to work! He didn't have enough selyn to properly serve Rhyce, but if he aborted the transfer, Rhyce might well be severely injured or even die of shock. After the difficulty he'd had in changeover, Frevven dared not take the chance.
But he couldn't go on. There wasn't enough selyn remaining in his secondary system. And perhaps he couldn't even abort. Rhyce held him firmly, his draw becoming stronger even as he began to sense Frevven's alarm. Against a Farris channel, what could Frevven do? If he tried to break free, it would only provoke Rhyce to draw harder. And if he succeeded, it would harm the boy he was trying so hard to help.
But there wasn't much time now. No time to think this through. No time to weigh the consequences. As he felt the last remnants of selyn being pulled from his secondary system, Frevven made the choice that had never really been a choice, but rather a foregone conclusion.
Shifting raggedly from secondary system to primary system, Frevven fought down his instinctive resistance and allowed Rhyce to continue his draw. The boy was nearing repletion, he had to stop soon. Frevven could manage it. It would be like the draining done as part of his anti-Kill conditioning many years ago. He'd survived that. (But he had been young then, young and resilient.)
Telling himself it would be all right, Frevven ignored the searing, wrenching agony spreading through his body. Rhyce would stop soon. He had to. (Oh, please!) He resolutely refused to raise his barriers, gave not the slightest hint of resistance. It would not have succeeded anyway, he could tell that now. It would only have goaded the boy on to draw harder, made him enjoy his victim's agony. Rhyce mustn't learn that, mustn't feel that! Life would be hard enough for him anyway, after taking First Transfer from a channel. Frevven wouldn't warp him any further than he absolutely had to.
But this was getting worse than he remembered from his anti-Kill conditioning. A flaming vise clutched his chest, tightening on his vriamic. His nerves sang with pain, but he pushed that out of his awareness. Still, he would not resist. He would hold out as long as he had to, and if he died, well, he had done his best. As his soul turned inside out and his mind fell through raging scarlet flames towards eternity, Frevven was satisfied to die if it meant Rhyce Farris might have a chance to live.
Strangely, as the threatening blackness closed in around him, he was conscious only of a feeling of triumphant joy. He had given all he could. If that wasn't enough, there was nothing further he could do.
Even as Frevven teetered on the brink of unconsciousness, Rhyce's draw slowed, faltered, tapered off. The boy broke contact raggedly, and Frevven collapsed on the floor next to the transfer couch, his hands clutched desperately over the burning pain in his chest.
He was dimly aware of Rhyce's voice calling his name but he didn't dare respond. Every nerve seemed on fire, but worse than that pain was the ravening hunger for selyn.
He pulled himself onto his hands and knees, dizzy and sick and all too conscious of the young channel's high field only a short distance behind him. He began to crawl forward, wanting to get as far as possible from the temptation to turn and attack the boy, knowing it wouldn't do him any good even if he did. But it was so tempting to turn back, to at least attempt to reclaim the life that was, after all, his.
Just the thought sent a fresh flow of ronaplin to his burning laterals. He bit through his bottom lip and shook his head, trying to drive away the urge. Rhyce would have enough problems. Let him not have to face a killmode attack now. Then something came between him and the other channel's field and Frevven heard Chaynek's voice over the ringing in his ears. "Gini, get Rhyce out of here! Fast!"
The Gen's arms were around him, his dim field attempting to cushion Frevven's agony. The room swirled. Frevven clutched at the front of Chaynek's shirt, but it didn't stop him from falling into the darkness.
He was sure he was dying, but the darkness suddenly gave way to a harsh light and he found himself standing in a small room. The brightness came from overhead fixtures of some sort. He squinted against its intensity, trying to see what was going on. For some reason, he couldn't zlin a thing.
In the center of the room, a group of people clustered around some hidden object, obviously deep in concentration on a demanding task. They wore loose pajama-like garments. Their faces were hidden behind gauze masks covering nose and mouth; on their heads were tight caps. Even their feet were encased in fabric.
Extremely curious, Frevven wondered why he couldn't zlin them. He felt insulated from them somehow, although he could see no barriers. He moved closer, reduced to depending on eyesight alone, like a Gen. Fortunately, he seemed to be wearing his glasses so he could see reasonably well.
When he had gotten close enough to peer over someone's shoulder and find out what it was that so engrossed them, he was abruptly glad he couldn't zlin. They were calmly slicing apart a living human body!
Frevven recoiled in horror, wanting to run but fascinated by the scene before him. Gloved hands manipulated shiny instruments, cutting, clamping, tying, all routine, ordinary, matter-of-fact. All the while, they held the gaping wound they had created open with a metal instrument, pulling back muscle and skin so they would have room to work.
And the hand holding that vicious instrument was Sime! Frevven could see the bottom edge of the retainers he was wearing.
Retainers? This was out-Territory?
What kind of Sime could do this? he wondered sickly.
The Sime faltered slightly, his grip on the instrument loosening so that it slipped out of place. He looked up, his black eyes focused beyond Frevven as if he weren't there. For just an instant, Frevven was sure the man was about to burst into tears.
One of the other strangely-garbed people noticed the Sime's inattention and said in a language Frevven recognized as English, although the accent was one he'd never heard before, "Doctor Farris! If you please!"
Farris? Doctor Farris? No, never. Impossible. Not even a Farris would do such a thing as this. It was crazy.
The Sime turned back to the gruesomely mutilated body and readjusted the instrument he held.
The strange sense of insulation Frevven had felt started to weaken and he could begin to sense the hideous fields surrounding him. He backed away, terrified and revolted. Then he turned and ran into the comforting darkness.
He was still running when he felt pavement beneath his feet, saw buildings at either side of him. He was in the middle of a roadway. Strange mechanical contraptions lined the sides of the street.
Totally confused, he kept running. The street ended abruptly in an open grassy area filled with people. In the center of the field there stood a huge stone monument in the shape of a starred cross.
Frevven walked through the crowd like a wraith, noting the mixture of Simes and Gens but still unable to zlin anything.
The monument itself stood on the two splayed points of the five-pointed star, the fifth point shooting straight upward. The equal-armed cross, carved out of the same solid piece of pink granite as the star, was suspended in the air just high enough for people to walk erect under its bottom flange.
As he reached the front of the crowd, Frevven saw several people standing under the bottom point, apparently engaged in a ceremony of some sort. Since no one seemed at all aware of his presence, he moved closer, wanting to know what on earth was going on.
A Sime woman stood before a stone marker, saying something he found hard to follow due to her accent. Something about her being the last berserker.
Frevven shook his head. Now he was dreaming. There was no last berserker. He wasn't sure there ever would be.
Who was this woman, anyway? He thought he had caught a phrase about her name being inscribed on the stone, so he moved forward to have a look.
Laneff Farris ambrov Sat'htine.
Humph, he thought. A Farris berserker. What's the world coming to?
But the woman swore a solemn oath, the people cheered. Householding capes fluttered in the wind, and the buildings around the field were like nothing Frevven had ever seen before in his life. Indeed, he reflected, awe replacing his disdain, what is the world coming to?
He looked up at the starred cross towering over him, proportions distorted by his nearness. His eyes followed the top point up into the sky. Startled, he saw something flying high up amongst the clouds, far too large to be a bird. As he leaned back to follow its progress, he felt himself falling backwards.
He didn't recall hitting the pavement, but he must have, since there was something underneath him now. The world had gone dark, but he realized that was because his eyes were closed. He tried to move but noticed that his arms were tied down.
But he could zlin again. In fact, he could zlin with a clarity he'd never known before. Chaynek was next to him, etched around by a dim nimbus that had to be Katrin West's nager. As a result of their combined efforts and, most likely, some drugs, the pain and terror he should be feeling were packed away in cotton somewhere, held at the far edge of his awareness. He wasn't where he had been when he'd lost consciousness, but he wasn't far away either. He seemed to be just a little higher up, barely enough to cause disorientation. They must have moved the couch over. His chest hurt and his heart didn't seem to be beating too steadily, but he could ignore that.
He opened his eyes but immediately screwed them closed again. Despite the glasses he could feel on his nose, the world was a dissonant blur compared to what he could zlin. The contrast had always been uncomfortable, but now it was intolerable.
No matter. If he could zlin like this, he didn't have to see.
"Frevven, can you hear me?" Chaynek's voice cut through the sharp-edged beauty the channel was enjoying.
Of course I can hear you, he thought. But it came out as a ragged, "Yes."
"Katrin's here. Can you go into functional mode and take her selyn into your secondary system? Then we can try a shunt."
Reality seeped back into Frevven's mind like cold ice water. He assessed the quivering mess Rhyce's transfer had made of his vriamic node, the raw pain of his burned nerves. He was beyond need and into attrition. If Chaynek lost hold of the ambient for a moment, Frevven wasn't even sure he'd still be sane.
"No," he said, getting his voice under better control but keeping his eyes closed. "If anything, I'd kill her. Forget it, Chaynek. It won't work."
"I'll get Hajene Kremmer. He can --"
"Kremmer's a Second. There's nothing he can do. Besides, I could kill him too."
Chaynek was unusually upset. He'd lost the calm professionalism Frevven was so used to zlinning in his nager. Considering his low field, he was doing a marvelous job of keeping the channel comfortable, but there was a pervading undertone of frantic grief.
"Maybe I could --" the Gen began, even as his field shimmered into dim invitation.
Frevven grimaced and shook his head. "Chaynek, stop it, please. I doubt I could take transfer from you, even if you were high field. I'm too badly burned. Besides," he added, feeling the labored struggle of his heart and the slight but steady seepage of selyn from his primary into his secondary system through his vriamic, despite his attempt to stop it, "it's not worth it."
He was about to tell Chaynek about the weird vision he'd just had, then decided against it. A Farris channel performing surgery? A huge monument in a strange land? The Gen would never believe that. He'd just say Frevven had been hallucinating. And yet --
"Rhyce wants to talk to you," Chaynek said, his voice sounding shaky.
Frevven automatically moved to adjust his glasses on his nose, then realized his arms were secured to the sides of the couch. Probably just as well. If something went wrong, at least he couldn't hurt anyone.
Frevven nodded, opening his eyes before realizing what he was doing. The bleary world smashed at his brain. He closed them again. "Chaynek, take off my glasses, please. The world looks so horrible that I'd rather just keep my eyes shut. Then let Rhyce come in."
There was a brief stir in the room as the two Gens did as the channel asked. Then the door opened and Rhyce walked in.
The youngster zlinned pretty good, considering. He was unhappy, but was doing a good job of keeping his feelings from permeating his showfield.
"Uncle Frevven, can I talk to you -- alone?" he asked hesitantly.
With only a slight quaver of uncertainty, Chaynek retreated to the far side of the room, taking Katrin with him. That felt distinctly uncomfortable. He'd have to get this over with fast.
"Rhyce, I don't want you to think --" he began, figuring Rhyce wanted to do something stupid, like apologize for hurting him.
"That's not why I'm here," the young channel said. Leaning close to Frevven's ear, he whispered, "I still have Astrid's manuscript. Does anyone else know you gave it to me?"
Frevven tried hard to focus his mind on the question Rhyce was asking. Astrid's manuscript. He thought back to the day just prior to Val's changeover when he'd given it to Rhyce. Had he told anyone? No, he thought not.
He shook his head.
"Good," Rhyce went on, barely loud enough for Frevven to hear. "It's in my room, with my schoolbooks. If I have your permission, I'll take it back to Santenkaty with me when I leave. I'll keep it safe, Uncle Frevven. Someday, when no one kills anymore, people will read it and understand what things were like. Is that okay?"
When no one kills anymore. Like in his vision.
"Do it," Frevven whispered raggedly. "And may that day come soon."
Rhyce raised his voice. "Val wants to see you too."
Frevven nodded. The young channel went over to the door as Chaynek and Katrin came back to resume their post by Frevven's side, much to his relief.
Val stood hesitantly in the doorway. As Rhyce tried to go around her to leave, she said, "No. Stay. I want you to hear this."
She came over to stand next to him. "Daddy, I've got to --"
Grim determination darkened her field. Frevven was so sure of what she was about to say that he interrupted her before she got any further.
"Wait, Val. There's something I have to tell you first." He took a deep breath and tried to keep his voice steady. "I don't mind if you've decided not to pledge Zeor. I love you, darling, but your life is yours, not mine. Whatever you do with it, I will always be proud of you."
There. He'd said it. Now all he had to do was convince himself that he truly meant it.
Val's surprise and consternation was so sharp it almost tickled. "But, Daddy, I -- What I wanted to say was that I do want to pledge Zeor, if they'll have me."
Did she just say what he thought she did, or was he hallucinating again? "Why, honey?" he forced himself to ask. If she was only doing this to please him --
"I guess it was something that Rhyce said while we were waiting out in the hall that made up my mind. You know how you told me he's going to have problems after taking First Transfer from another channel? Well, I expected him to be resentful about being messed up like that. Maybe he'd even feel like I did. You know, about not being good enough for Zeor? But he didn't. All he did was quote one of his mother's favorite remarks."
Despite the youngster's attempt to hide it, Frevven could zlin that Rhyce was extremely embarrassed. He could easily imagine the expression that must be on the young channel's face right now, the way his lips would be pressed together.
He thought he understood what Val meant, though. "You mean, 'The most important thing is not where you stand on the road, but the direction you choose to travel'?"
How many times had he heard Tamsin say that to people? How many times had she said it to him, before he'd truly heard it?
"Yeah. That one. Well, it made me think maybe that's the direction I ought to be travelling also, even if sometimes I end up on one of Shaeldor's ships going around the world. It's my way too, Daddy. I know that now." Her field flashed briefly with mischief and Frevven felt her field clumsily mesh with Rhyce's. "Besides, someone's got to look out for Rhyce, don't they?"
If showfields could blush, Rhyce's was surely doing so.
Val's glowed in return as she concluded archly, "Zeor doesn't marry outside of Zeor, you know."
"Does that mean what I think it does?" Chaynek asked.
The two youngsters nodded.
There was nothing they could have said that would have made Frevven happier. But death doesn't wait on joy and he knew too well how little time he had left.
"Val, Rhyce," he said, "you have my blessing. Now do me one last favor."
"Daddy --" Her voice trembled.
"Please, honey. Go."
As her nager began to fragment, Rhyce put an arm around her waist, silently leading her towards the door.
Much to Frevven's surprise, Chaynek sent Katrin out of the room with the youngsters. It didn't make a lot of difference in the ambient, just darkened things somewhat.
The Gen sat on the edge of the couch and unfastened the restraints on Frevven's arms.
"Don't do that. What if I --" the channel remonstrated.
"Truly, Frevven, you won't."
There was such dead-sure certainty in the other man's nager that Frevven almost believed it himself. With the extreme clarity of his new-found perception, he zlinned something he'd never noticed before. Or rather, had noticed on rare occasion but never been able to interpret. Chaynek loved him. They'd been friends for years, but this was more than friendship.
Or it might have been more than friendship, if such a thing had been possible. But it wasn't, and Chaynek knew that. And Chaynek never said a word.
Frevven reached up to touch Chaynek's face, his hand trembling as he did so. His lateral trailed slowly along the edge of the Gen's jaw. Then Frevven shuddered. He clutched at the front of Chaynek's shirt with both hands and pulled himself closer to the Gen.
"Hold me, Chaynek. Just hold me," he gasped, burying his face against Chaynek's chest and waiting for death to claim him.
He didn't have long to wait. To his own surprise, Frevven's last conscious thought was that it had all been worth while after all. And dying --- was only one more thing to be done.
Go to Rimon's library top page , Alphabetical Fiction list , Author's List , featured Authors Page