ONLY GOOD SIME
BY KERRY LINDEMANN-SCHAEFER
"Now, Hajene Aylmeer, will you kindly tell me just how you managed to get into such a mess over a simple changeover case?"
Frevven hadn't been expecting any medals for his performance the previous day, but he wasn't prepared for the obvious disgust Shanneh Tibbetts projected.
As he sank down into a chair, he pushed his glasses snugly up against the bridge of his nose with one dorsal tentacle and looked across the polished expanse of desk at the other channel. It had taken Kurt most of the night to get him back to a semblance of normality, but, even so, Frevven felt as if he'd fly off in six different directions at once if anyone so much as said "Boo!" to him. Or worse, he'd lose the tight control he held over his own field, letting any other Sime in zlinning distance notice how tautly his nerves were strung.
"What would you prefer that I had done?" he asked, keeping his voice even. "Everything would have been fine, if all those Gens hadn't come bursting in on us, egged on by Reverend Richt. I could have served Emerett, and kept him safe until your team arrived."
"No, Hajene," Shanneh Tibbetts responded, shaking her head and leaning back in her chair. "Everything would have been fine if you had had the sense to handle the situation properly to begin with. Surely, you're aware of the retainer laws?"
"Of course I am. What does that have to do with it?"
"Did you really expect to get away with removing your retainers and offering Emerett transfer?"
"I would have taken the chance, if I'd had time-"
Shanneh cut him off. "On Innsfrey and the Out-Islands, we don't take chances. This Center has only been here for five years, and the local people fought our coming right up to the last minute. One wrong move, and we'll be thrown out."
She picked up an irregularly shaped chunk of rock that seemed to be acting as a paperweight, holding it in the palm of her hand and absently stroking it with the tips of two ventral tentacles as she spoke.
"If you're going to run this Center, you'd better be very careful not to cause any more disturbing incidents. I've done a pretty good job, if I do say so myself. Since I took over last spring, the number of Gens who come in to donate selyn has doubled. The overall number of deaths in changeover has declined, and no Gen has been killed by a berserker for almost a year." She narrowed her eyes and scowled at Frevven. "Until yesterday, that is."
Frevven clamped his lower lip between his teeth. What good would it do to say he was sorry for spoiling her perfect record? If only he'd been able to prevent Emerett from killing, if only he'd stopped the mob before they'd murdered the boy, if only-
He halted that train of thought before it could gather momentum. There were no "if only's." He of all people should know that.
Shanneh studied the rock in her hand and a smile softened the sternness in her face. "I even have a proposal up before the Town Council that will help us reach changeovers on the other Out-Islands faster. But I'll tell you about that some other time." She tossed the chunk of rock a short way into the air and caught it. Then she flipped it across her desk in a high arc towards Frevven. He plucked it negligently out of the air, looking at Shanneh with one eyebrow raised in dubious inquiry.
"That rock was the first thing to greet me when I arrived on Innsfrey. I kept it as a souvenir. The person who threw it has since apologized." She smiled smugly. "The point I'm trying to make is that whatever success we've had depends entirely on the grudging cooperation of the islanders. If they turn actively against us, we might as well close down the Center. And here you've barely arrived and you put yourself in a situation where you'd have had to break the retainer laws in order to do any good."
"But what else could I have done? Should I have just let the boy die?" Frevven protested, hearing the way his voice rose in frustration but unable to stop it. That was the question he'd been asking himself since yesterday's fiasco, but he hadn't had the courage to put it into words.
He plunked the rock down onto the edge of Shanneh's desk, just a little harder than he'd intended.
"What else could you have done? You shendi-flamed nincompoop! You never should have gotten into such a position. You could have kept Kurt with you until you located Emerett and let him serve the boy, that's what you could have done. That's what I would have done."
"I never meant for it to come to that. I expected to be able to delay Emerett's changeover until the field team arrived. Besides, you don't waste a Donor's services on a changeover case. That's the responsibility of a channel, not-"
Shanneh cut him off again, seething with ill-concealed exasperation. " In-Territory you wouldn't use a Donor for an ordinary changeover under those circumstances. Of course not. Must I remind you, Hajene Aylmeer, that we are not in-Territory? Innsfrey Island is Gen Territory," she said, glancing briefly down at the open folder on her desk that Frevven recognized as his personal file before she continued, "like the place where you grew up, I believe?"
He winced and tried not to let it show in his nager. Much as he hated to admit it, the other channel was correct. He had responded to the emergency in a way that would have been perfectly reasonable-in Sime Territory. He had allowed Richt's harassment to rattle him to the point where he hadn't thought clearly. Worried so much about the possibility that Kurt might do the wrong thing, he had sent the Donor away and, in fact, created the very confrontation he had hoped to avoid.
"I'm sorry. I didn't think-" Frevven began carefully.
They stared at each other for several long moments. Then Shanneh looked away, aware of his very real contrition. "I'm sorry. I'm being rude. Perhaps I've been living out here for too long." She tried for a friendly smile. "It gets to you after a while."
"Yes, I suppose it does." Frevven was being as nonchalant as possible, but the sight of his open folder under Shanneh's hand made him nervous. Very gingerly, he rubbed his left inner lateral, where it lay sheathed along the side of his arm nearest his thumb. The angry bruise from the pressure bars inside his retainer had barely begun to fade, the slightest wrong move still causing a twinge of pain.
"You'll see, after you've been here a few months. I'll be more than happy to leave, just as soon as you get the hang of our operation and are ready to take over." She shrugged, then tapped one dorsal tentacle significantly on his folder. "So tell me, what are you doing here?"
Shen, here it comes.
"There was no one else readily available," he replied cautiously. "I have a fairly high tolerance for entran, for a Second Order channel, so the small workload won't bother me too much. Besides, not every channel can speak the Gen's language," he finished in fluent English.
"That's not quite what I mean."
Frevven fidgeted, suppressing the impulse to push his glasses up on his nose again.
"Why would they send a channel who's never been assigned out-Territory before in his life, and a disjunct channel, at that? The district controller might at least have sent someone who could be relied upon."
Frevven stood up stiffly and turned away, trying to control the anger that he knew was all too obvious to the other channel.
How many times must I go through this?
It was common knowledge that a disjunct channel would never be as good or as reliable as a non-junct channel, who had never killed a Gen in transfer. The very process of disjunction, of learning never to kill again, took up such a large part of a young Sime's important First Year after changeover that he or she would never be able to live up to their full potential, even if they survived. Many never lived through disjunction. After First Year, no one could.
Frevven had survived. Just barely.
By the time he turned back to face the older woman, the fire had gone out of his green-gold eyes. All that was left was desolation. "If you look through my record, Hajene Tibbetts, you will find that I have done as good a job as any non-junct channel of my rank," he said formally. "Believe me, it was not my idea to be stationed on Innsfrey. I had requested assignment to the new Center for Special Problems at Santenkaty Landing, but I was sent here instead."
To his surprise, the woman's annoyance faded. "Perhaps that was unfair of me. It's just that you seem awfully young for a disjunct channel." She glanced down at his file. "You're only ten years past changeover. I didn't think the Tecton would allow people like you to be trained anymore."
Determined to remain calm and composed, Frevven said, "They debate it every year. Sooner or later, I expect they'll pass a law against it. They weren't exactly enthusiastic about the idea of training me even back then, but I convinced them." That was an incredible understatement, but it would have to do. He sat down again, aware that he should never have gotten to his feet in the first place.
"I see," Shanneh remarked when Frevven volunteered no further explanation. "Well, maybe you were just born into the wrong generation. There were a fair number of disjunct channels around when I was a child. But in those days, right after Unity, the Tecton would take just about any channel they could get their hands on. Things are different now."
Yes. Now they can afford to be more particular, Frevven reflected bitterly, finishing the unspoken thought. But he said nothing. After all, what was there to say?
Shanneh shrugged, allowing a hint of grudging acceptance to show in her nager. She glanced down again at his folder. "Well, at least you're not one of those fanatical Householders. We've got enough of them here already." She flipped his folder shut with two tentacles before looking him directly in the face. "You've been assigned to take over on the islands, so I guess you'll just have to make the best of it."
Shanneh rose to her feet. The interview was obviously over. Frevven remained seated, nervously twining his tentacles around his clasped hands.
"Hajene Tibbetts, I'd like to conduct the burial service for Emerett this afternoon."
Shanneh's gray eyes widened. "What for? The Gens on the staff will handle it, as they usually do. There's no necessity for a channel to go to the cemetery with them."
"Oh. I just assumed one of us-" Frevven digested this new bit of information, frowning slightly. It hadn't occurred to him that they might not send a channel with a burial party out-Territory. But that didn't change things. "Well, I'd like to do it anyway. As long as we're both here, it would be perfectly safe for one of us to leave the Center for a short time."
"In that case, it would be better if I went."
Since you probably couldn't handle it was the unstated implication Frevven zlinned behind her words. He started to protest, but she beat him to it.
"I don't think we should depart from the usual procedure," suggested Shanneh in a diplomatic tone. "Besides, it might be a good idea if the local Gens don't see your face again so soon. Give them a chance to forget about what's happened first."
"No. Emerett's death was my fault. I should do it."
"No one saves every life, Hajene Aylmeer," Shanneh replied, her field quavering around the edges. "Out here, you can't afford to blame yourself too much, or you'll go crazy."
Frevven looked down at his hands. Of course, objectively speaking, Shanneh was probably right. He'd lost patients before; every channel did. But he was finding it uncommonly hard to maintain the necessary professional detachment in Emerett's case. It bothered him much more than it should have.
"I don't believe it would be wise for you to conduct the funeral, but since you'll soon be dealing with these people as controller, I won't pull rank on you and forbid it," Shanneh concluded. "Think it over a bit first. Emerett's body was delivered to the Center this morning, and all the arrangements have been made. You've got a couple of hours before the burial. You don't have to commit yourself now."
Frevven nodded and rose to his feet, following Shanneh across the room to the door. Maybe she was right. Besides, he didn't relish the idea of having to don his retainers again, and go out amongst hostile Gens. He'd be more than happy never to leave the well-insulated walls of the Center for the entire time he'd have to spend on this horrible little island. However, it was not very likely he'd be able to do that.
The main function of a Sime Center this far out-Territory was as an emergency receiving station for children going through changeover, and the Innsfrey Center was responsible not only for Innsfrey itself, but for the other four Out-Islands as well. He'd have to get used to leaving the security of the Center, if he were going to do any good.
But he didn't have to do it today, with his laterals still bruised and his nerves raw from yesterday's events.
"Oh, by the way," Shanneh added, turning with one hand already on the doorknob and an ironic smile on her face, "Welcome to Innsfrey Island."
Frevven took refuge in his room, closing the door behind him and savoring the feeling of being alone with his thoughts at last. A fire burned cheerfully in the small fireplace, and his trunk sat neatly at the foot of the bed. He hadn't been in any condition to unpack last night.
Going to the washstand, he poured a pitcher of water into the basin and plunged his arms into the welcome coolness. At least it eased the throbbing ache in his laterals a little. Taking off his glasses, he splashed water on his face as well, smoothing back his light brown hair with his damp hands. If only it were possible to wash away the events of these past couple of days as easily as he could wash off the dirt. If he had been more careful, Emerett might still be alive.
But no. He wouldn't think about that. Done is done, and you can't go back and do it over.
Shanneh was right about the funeral. His offer to officiate had been a dramatic gesture, nothing more. It wouldn't bring Emerett back to life.
He opened his trunk, unfolding and shaking out his clothes. Everything seemed damp, and a few shirts were downright wet. He draped the worst things over a chair in front of the fireplace to dry, trying to think of nothing but the physical task he was doing.
He pulled on a heavy wool vest that felt fairly dry. Despite the fire, the Center's high-ceilinged rooms were drafty and cold, even though winter hadn't yet begun.
Contemplating the chaos of damp clothing and personal items he had created by unpacking, Frevven was tempted to laugh. Such a mess was totally uncharacteristic of him. Well, it would all be sorted out and put away before too long.
This was a nice room, larger than the usual channel's quarters at in-Territory Centers. A small panel of stained glass above the window sent a sudden blaze of color across the floor, as the sun came out from behind a cloud.
Attracted by the decorative glass, Frevven walked over to the window underneath and pulled aside the curtain. Bright sunlight assaulted his eyes, reflected off an expanse of ocean and the white sand of the beach.
He squinted, adding what he could zlin to the blurry images from his eyes. From his second floor room, he could make out the sides and roofs of several buildings beyond the high stone wall enclosing the Center's grounds, in addition to a slice of ocean. Boats of all sizes moved to and fro on the sparkling water, sails a blaze of white in the sun. Along the shoreline, dazzling in the midday light and the combined nagers of the Gens living there, the small town snuggled in the protection of Innsfrey Harbor, following the curve of the beach.
It was an appealing panorama. Frevven reached to open the window, intending to lean out and get a better view despite the cold. The Center's walls were sure to contain a certain amount of selyn-insulating material, so he'd also be able to zlin more clearly if he weren't behind them.
Suddenly, he saw Chilton Lake, vividly etched in his mind's eye. His hand froze on the window latch.
Damn, why had Shanneh had to mention his out-Territory childhood? But then, they all did, sooner or later.
He shivered, although he wasn't particularly cold. The vista of a cozy little village by the sea no longer inspired a feeling of security in the channel's heart. He was out-Territory again. And Innsfrey Harbor was too much like the place where he had been raised. Although Chilton Lake had been isolated by mountains rather than an ocean, the overall impression was much the same.
Unwillingly, Frevven recalled the quiet little town and the crystal-clear lake from which it took its name, remote and hidden in its valley between blue-green mountains. Chilton Lake would have been a nice place to grow up if he hadn't, even then, felt somehow out of place and isolated from the other children by the guilty foreknowledge that he was not going to be Gen. Unlike Gens and renSimes, channels knew ahead of time what they were going to be. No one understood how or why, but it was so.
Frevven leaned his forehead against the cold surface of the windowpane. His breath fogged a patch of glass.
Oh, yes, he had known. But he hadn't wanted to know.
In the white glare of the sun on the foggy glass, he fancied he saw reflected his father's face. Thomas Aylmeer had been a kind man, but a man who seldom spoke, and never of the past.
Behind him floated the sad, delicate face of Jozanna.
Jozanna, with her timid, frightened blue eyes, always just a little taller and a little older than Frevven himself. When he'd gotten old enough to ask about their mother, Jozanna could only stare at him strangely and say she couldn't remember.
He'd never asked his father. He'd known better than that.
Another image formed unbidden against the damp glass. Jozanna, her eyes bright with faith, as she led him away from the fresh grave in the desolate, weed-grown section of the town cemetery where changeovers were buried. Jozanna, hugging him as his tears soaked into the front of her coat. "It's all right, little brother. It's all right. Jeremy Joe is dead. He can't hurt you now."
Oh, Jozanna, beloved sister-mother! You didn't understand why I was crying, did you?
Jeremy Joe, his closest friend. The slender little body wrapped in a blood-soaked sheet. The hollow-eyed parents who had shot their only child in self-defense. They had insisted on accompanying him to his grave, in defiance of custom. They had recited prayers of their own, when the minister refused to pray for the dead boy.
Jozanna had been shocked and ashamed to find Frevven at the graveside, the only mourner save for Jeremy Joe's bereaved parents.
Frevven squeezed his eyes closed, trying to shut out Jozanna's face, the look that had been in her eyes that day. No! I will not remember this! he told himself sternly.
When he opened his eyes again, there was only sunlight glinting on the windowpane. And the blurred images of houses. And the town.
And a feeling of determined certainty that he must accompany Emerett to his lonely grave that afternoon, even if it were nothing but an inadequate and senseless penance he was imposing upon himself. He turned away from the window and went back to sorting clothes, wondering why he felt so sure that's what he was going to do.
He had gotten the room squared away to his satisfaction and was sitting by the fire scanning a copy of Innsfrey's weekly newspaper when he became aware of a rather unusual nager approaching along the hallway. Definitely Gen, quite high field, and almost familiar.
Familiar? But it wasn't Kurt. He'd already looked over the names of the rest of the staff, and he was sure he didn't know any of the other Gens currently stationed on Innsfrey.
The owner of the interesting nager stopped just outside his room.
"Come in," Frevven called.
A young woman poked her head around the edge of the door, then smiled and stepped inside. In one swift glance, Frevven took in the long, unruly hair, big brown eyes, heavy sweater and floor-length wool skirt, but his eyes were drawn immediately back to her face. The woman looked somehow familiar, as if he had known her somewhere before. And disliked her.
Shaking his head slightly, he dismissed the ridiculous notion. This had to be-he ransacked his memory-V'lissia Chalmers, Shanneh's assigned transfer partner for this month. She was the only Second Order Donor besides Kurt presently assigned to Innsfrey, and Frevven was quite sure he had never met her before in his life.
"Hi! You're our new channel, aren't you? My name's V'lissia, but you can call me V'lis for short. Shanneh said I should ask you what you decided to do about the funeral. I'm to be your Escort if you go."
Up close, her enthusiasm was somewhat overwhelming.
"I-er-I had assumed it would be Kurt."
"Oh, Kurt's been called to a meeting at the Town Hall. Something to do with one of Shanneh's latest proposals, I gather. Won't I do?"
Judging by her nager, she didn't seem as if she were still almost a week away from transfer. Frevven found himself almost envying Shanneh her assignment. The Gen absolutely sparkled, even though her field hadn't yet hit its peak. And yet, something about her disturbed him.
"Uh-yes. I suppose you'll do just fine."
Maybe it wasn't her. Maybe he was just dreading the funeral. It wasn't too late to back out.
He reminded himself sternly of his decision to go.
V'lis wandered aimlessly around his room. Picking up a small framed portrait from the mantelpiece over the fireplace, she asked curiously, "Who's this? One of your relatives?"
Retrieving the picture from V'lis, Frevven pointed with a tentacle at the small Zeor crest that adorned one corner of the portrait. "That's Klyd Farris. A friend of mine painted it for me a long time ago."
"Oh," she replied, looking closer. "Of course it is. How foolish of me. I've seen pictures of Sectuib Farris in the history books. Did you know him?"
Becoming exasperated with her ignorance, Frevven replied acidly, "No, how could I have known him? He disappeared when I was still a child."
V'lissia only laughed. "Well, you don't have to bite my head off over some old-time leader of a Householding. You're as touchy on the subject as my cousin, but then, he's ambrov Zeor." Glancing down at the ring on Frevven's hand which showed only the Tecton crest, she continued, "And you're certainly not."
Frevven wanted nothing more at that moment than to pick the woman up bodily and throw her out of his room. Then he calmed himself, knowing there was no way for her to realize how very much he wished his channel's ring also bore the crest of the prestigious House of Zeor, identifying him as one of their members.
He returned Klyd's portrait to its place on the mantel. Not one whit discouraged, V'lissia picked up the framed photo next to it. "This is Muryin Farris, Klyd's daughter and the present Sectuib in Zeor. Right?"
"If you've got her picture, I'll bet you've met her."
V'lissia favored him with a broad and ingratiating grin. That infectious grin even seemed to spread throughout her nager, permeating the room with confident cheerfulness.
Frevven nodded, thinking that he might be able to like the young woman after all. Perhaps he was being silly. "I haven't seen her in years, but I once knew Muryin rather well," he admitted.
"I thought so." V'lis replaced the photo, looking satisfied. "My family's been Zeor for years, you know," she remarked offhandedly. "I was invited to pledge, but I turned them down."
"I said, I turned them down. I think the Householdings are old-fashioned and silly. I don't want any part of them. I catch enough flak from non-Householders as it is, simply because of my family's affiliation." She made a face.
Frevven walked over to the window, putting his back to her. Turned down an invitation to pledge Zeor? How could she? He would give ten years of his life for such an invitation. From the Householdings had come the entire Tecton system of channels, which had made it possible to safely collect selyn from Gens and supply it as required to each Sime once a month. No Sime had to kill in order to live anymore. And no Gen had to face the prospect of being killed for his selyn, except under extreme circumstances.
All that was good in the modern Tecton had come from the base established by the Householdings, and Zeor, with its well-known devotion to excellence, was the most prestigious, most respected, and in Frevven's mind, the best, of them all.
Never in a million years would he be asked to join. He wasn't anywhere near good enough for Zeor, and he never would be.
Frevven sighed, looking out the window at the town. Then he turned back to V'lis, who now sat on the edge of his bed, swinging one foot and fiddling with a bit of fuzz on her sweater.
"We'd better get going," he remarked coldly, "if we're to be on time for the funeral."
"You've made up your mind, then?"
"It's not a very good idea. I don't suppose you'd like to reconsider?"
Frevven shook his head.
"Oh, very well. You're the new controller, not me."
V'lis got to her feet, her dark eyes almost level with Frevven's greenish-gold ones, much to his annoyance. She barely managed to hide her disapproval behind a haze of compliance.
Frevven thought that if he were just a little bit taller it would be awfully pleasant to look disdainfully down his nose at her. Again he noticed that feeling of deja-vu, as if he'd looked into those same eyes often before. And not liked it very much.
This is ridiculous, he chided himself as they left his room and walked along the hall. No more of these idiotic fancies, Aylmeer.
Frevven tried to shrug off his uneasiness in the young Gen's presence as he followed her down the stairway, but he couldn't quite manage it. Her field was higher than Kurt's; he should have welcomed her assistance as an Escort. Somehow, he didn't.
The streets of Innsfrey were mercifully deserted as the funeral procession made its way through town towards the graveyard. Much to Frevven's relief, they didn't have far to go. A cold wind swept down from the north, pushing before it a herd of small billowy clouds. He pulled his heavy cape closer around his shoulders, frowning.
As they entered the cemetery and walked past the old gravestones near the main entrance, Frevven's eyes swept over the cracked and moss-covered stones. He tried to take an interest in his surroundings: names, dates, verses, statues, bunches of wilted flowers, anything to keep from thinking about how badly his laterals hurt and how horrible it was to be wearing retainers again.
Huddled into a heavy coat, V'lis walked sedately beside him, making a reasonably successful effort to control her emotions and shield him from the feelings of the rest of the small burial party, all Gens but for the one channel. A sudden gust of wind whipped strands of her long hair out from under her scarf, and she tucked them back with a faint trace of annoyance.
Frevven caught himself thinking once again that he'd have been happier with Kurt as his Escort, then dismissed that idea as mere foolishness. One Donor was as good as another. That was one of the basic operating principles of the modern Tecton.
As Frevven followed the coffin containing Emerett's body, he caught a flicker of gathered Gens off to one side of the cemetery. He glanced over to where they stood on the slope of a gentle rise, to his myopic eyes a blur of silhouettes against the bright afternoon sky. Between V'lissia's shielding and his retainers, they weren't much clearer to his Sime senses. But Frevven glimpsed a smear of gray, even as he zlinned a faint trace of familiar hostility.
Oh, great. That must be Clarendon Richt burying the man Emerett killed, he thought briefly.
The knot of Gens seemed to have been there for a while. Perhaps they were almost finished and would be gone before Frevven and his burial party came back this way.
A little further on, they came to the gateway that marked the boundary of the section set aside for Simes. The small procession halted briefly as they unbarred the heavy wooden gate. On the far side of the rock wall, the headstones were nothing but rough-hewn chunks of granite, serving no purpose other than to indicate where a body had already been buried. There were no names, no pious verses of consolation.
Like the stone above Jeremy Joe's grave. Like all the stones on the unidentified graves of berserkers.
This was the oldest part of the Sime section of the cemetery. It lay beyond the walls of the Gen cemetery proper, no longer on hallowed ground. Bushes, weeds, and even trees overran the unregarded graves. Frevven made a mental note to see if he couldn't organize a party from the Center to come out and clean things up, but he knew they were understaffed and there might well be higher priorities.
In unspoken agreement, the burial party quickened their steps, hurrying through to the newer section. All the stones here had been placed by the Sime Center, but, while the grounds showed signs of being better tended, no flowers adorned these lonely graves and no loving words had been carved into the markers, just names and dates. Some of the stones had been toppled over, and a few appeared to be smeared with paint.
Well, it wasn't unusual to find a certain amount of deliberate desecration out-Territory. That was to be expected.
Frevven looked around. Not so terribly many graves, considering these stones covered the five years that the Center had been in operation. He tried to tell himself it could have been worse.
He shivered. It could also have been better.
In the shade of a clump of wind-whipped trees, a fresh grave gaped open before them, waiting to receive its occupant. Frevven went to stand next to the mound of piled earth, opening his book of standard Tecton ceremonies. The service was thankfully brief. All he really wanted was to get this entire thing over with as quickly as possible. Already, he was sorry he had insisted on handling the burial himself. He resisted the memory of Emerett's face, forcing himself into a state of clinical detachment. This was simply a task to be accomplished, like any other. Think about it too much, and you could go crazy. Therefore, he would not think about it.
The icy wind whipped his woolen cape out behind him as he waited for Emerett's coffin to be lowered into position. He held the open book gingerly, unable to rotate his hands far enough to hold it properly without twisting his retainers and wrenching his abused laterals. Frevven squinted and lifted the book closer to his eyes. Although he was sometimes able to read by zlinning the slight indentation in the paper made by the printing press, he couldn't very well manage that trick through the insulation of the retainers.
He wasn't used to reading the burial service, so he stumbled over a couple of words, and even lost his place when the wind flipped the page unexpectedly. Each time he had to say Emerett's name, he was overcome with a fresh wave of guilt. The boy should have been alive, not lying cold and dead at the bottom of a hole in the ground, mourned only by strangers.
Frevven had gotten through the first page of the ceremony when he zlinned someone approaching their small group. No, several someones.
His voice faltering slightly, Frevven edged away from V'lis, trying to make out the strangers. Then he edged rapidly back. Richt, for sure. His skewed nager was easy to recognize. But there were also a half dozen others, all projecting self-righteous hatred with an intensity no untrained Gen should be able to command. Their fields weren't as powerful as Richt's, nor did they have the same intensity of focus, but they were highly disturbing just the same.
They spread out, forming a loose circle around the burial party, but keeping their distance and saying nothing. The Gens in Frevven's party glanced at each other, uncertain and puzzled. They formed their fields into a weak barrier of comfort around the channel, in an attempt to add to V'lis' shielding. V'lissia flared indignation at the strangers' intrusion, her distraction weakening her concentration.
Was Richt planning to stage another incident? No, surely not. The preacher was only trying to rattle him again. Well, it wouldn't work this time.
Frevven cleared his throat, turned the page, and continued reading, his voice clear and defiant. The funeral service was in Simelan, so Richt's people couldn't even understand what he was saying. Let them stand there and glare as long as they wanted to. He would ignore them, even if their hatred was bludgeoning him unmercifully.
Then something walked through the wall of hostility, even as that wall flared higher in response.
Frevven strained to zlin the strangers approaching through the confused ambient, his voice faltering as he tried to pay attention to two things at once.
An adult Gen? With a child?
He thought he recognized the nager of the adult, but he was still too far away to be certain and his eyes didn't help much. Frevven paused in his reading and whispered softly to V'lis, "Who's that coming?"
"Lem Cabrell and his daughter Janni," she replied, tension spreading anew through her nager and further interfering with her concentration.
Frevven tried to pick up where he had left off as the two newcomers drew nearer to the open grave. The Gens from the Center made room for them, moving aside uncertainly. It was extremely rare for any out-Territory Gen to come to the funeral of a relative who had turned Sime. The channel knew that only too well. What could Lem Cabrell possibly want here? Could he be seeking revenge? But would he bring his daughter along, if that were the case?
Keeping his eyes glued to the blurry print on the page, Frevven went on with the service. Lem and Janni came up to the far side of the grave and stood silently, heads bowed. Janni clutched a bunch of wildflowers in her hand. Now and then, she sniffled softly, but her face was set in a frown. Her child's nager was too faint to be read clearly, but it was obvious that she was both angry and afraid.
The man just stared down at the wooden coffin. Since Frevven was reading the service in Simelan, it was most unlikely that Lem could even understand what he was saying.
Why are you here? Frevven wanted to demand of him. Did Richt put you up to this?
But the Gen continued to stand there. He wore the same sort of short coat and knitted hat Frevven had noticed on many of the deckhands on the Cormorant, but his heavy rubber boots and the way he had handled a harpoon made it more likely he made his living by fishing, as so many of the islanders did.
The service was almost over now. Frevven bent to pick up the ceremonial handful of dirt to drop onto the coffin, moving stiffly and keeping his wrists steady. Emerett's closest relative should be doing this, not me. But Emerett's parents weren't here, would probably never even visit their son's grave.
Frevven straightened up, holding the damp, cold dirt in one hand. And he knew Lem was staring at him, even as he zlinned the Gen focus his attention on him.
Lem wanted- What did he want?
Frevven frowned, trying to make sense of the man's confused feelings.
"Ease off, V'lis," he whispered in Simelan. "I want to know why he's here."
"Are you sure-?" she protested.
Obediently, V'lissia let her attention drift. The ambient flooded in on Frevven, its intensity no longer damped. He gritted his teeth, feeling his laterals twitch spasmodically inside his retainers with the ruthless assault of the hatred from Richt's group. The channel picked out the nager of the man standing opposite him, ignoring everything else.
Forgiveness. Comfort. Understanding that he hadn't wanted to murder his nephew, hadn't even realized it was Emerett until it was too late.
That was all Lem Cabrell wanted. Not revenge. Not to blame. He already blamed himself enough.
Frevven nodded shortly at V'lis, and her nager once more formed a tenuous barrier of support against the invading hatred. His eyes met Lem's. There must be something he could say or do to offer comfort to the man, some gesture he could make to show that he understood.
But if he acknowledged Lem's presence, would Richt use it as an excuse to start something? Better to ignore the man, finish the service, beat a hasty retreat.
What would Klyd Farris have done? What would Muryin do? he asked himself, suddenly ashamed of his fear. In such a situation, would either of them have run away? Or would they have acted?
You aren't Klyd, and you certainly aren't Muryin. You're nothing but a Second Order channel, and you've already messed things up once.
Maybe so, but what if I-?
Frevven held the handful of dirt out across the open grave. He wasn't supposed to do this. If anything went wrong, he'd be in trouble again.
At first, Lem looked puzzled. Then he understood. His eyes darted sideways, to the gray silhouette of the preacher standing barely thirty paces away. Lem's head came up, his back straightened, and his suntanned face creased into a grim sort of smile.
He reached out across the open grave, hands cupped.
Frevven dropped the dirt into the Gen's hands, being careful not to touch him. His fingers shook visibly as Richt somehow gathered the hatred of his group of silent watchers into an ugly mass and flung it at the channel. Frevven caught his breath and resisted the impulse to stagger backwards, standing with his arms held stiffly at his sides.
Lem hesitated for a moment, looking down into the grave, unaware of the nageric interplay. "From the earth we come, and to the earth we return," he said in English, dropping the dirt onto the coffin. "Rest in peace, Emerett, my sister's son."
Putting an arm around Janni's shoulder, he urged her forward to toss her flowers after the dirt. Then he hugged her against him, at the same time wiping his face and leaving a streak of brown earth smeared across his cheek.
Frevven finished the service in English, pitching his voice so that Richt and his friends couldn't help but hear him. "Today is the first day in the Death Count of Emerett DeSanctis." He glanced over at Lem and Janni, adding gently, "We shall remember him."
"So shall we," Lem whispered.
Then there were no more words for Frevven to say. He picked up another handful of dirt himself and tossed it onto the coffin, waiting while everyone else did the same.
That concluded the brief ceremony. Frevven turned away, as the Gens from the Center picked up shovels and went to work filling in the grave.
Richt's group of watchers gathered together and marched away, still keeping silent. Frevven breathed a sigh of relief and wiped the beaded sweat from his forehead. He had been afraid they'd follow all the way back to the Center.
"Thank you, Mr. Aylmeer."
It took a moment for Frevven to realize the fisherman was talking to him, so unused was he to being called "Mister." But an out-Territory Gen could hardly be expected to know the proper Simelan term of address for a channel was "Hajene."
"You're welcome, Mr. Cabrell," Frevven responded automatically in his artificially accented English, turning to face the other man. "I'm-I'm truly sorry about Emerett."
Lem waved away the channel's words, his face bleak. "It weren't you that killed him. And it's not you that's to blame."
The fisherman had said "kill," a word reserved by Simes specifically to refer to death in transfer. But the Gens' language had no such distinction.
It took a moment for the channel to realize what Lem meant, and by the time he did, Lem and his daughter had walked off quickly in the same direction from which they had come, leaving Frevven staring after them.
Frevven collected his scattered thoughts and moved a few steps away from the grave, which was still being filled in, the men and women wielding their shovels as if they welcomed the exercise as a release from the tension Richt's presence had generated.
He leaned against a nearby gravestone to hide the way his knees seemed determined to tremble. It was all right. Nothing had happened. And he might have gained a friend in Lem Cabrell.
Thinking once more of the preacher, he reflected that he could use all the friends he could find, out here.
"You okay?" V'lis asked. "You look awfully pale."
"I'm fine. How about you? You look awfully cold."
His remark had the proper effect. It diverted her attention long enough for him to push himself up straight and banish the weakness from his knees.
"I'm freezing," she concurred, hugging herself against the cold wind. "They're just about finished with the grave. I can't wait to get back to the Center and have some hot trin tea."
"Sounds like a good idea to me."
The funeral party retraced their steps back across the cemetery, talking with a kind of forced gaiety of everything except the ominous appearance of Richt and his followers.
They had just reached the gate to the main section of the cemetery when V'lissia froze in her tracks with a small gasp that might have been a strangled scream. Her field disintegrated into a jarring revulsion, just a fraction of a second before the combined nager of the rest of the Gens registered what she had seen and reacted also.
Reeling with the distraught ambient, Frevven searched wildly for what had upset everyone.
Nailed to the wooden gate in front of them, several pinkish-white tentacles hung limply, dripping fluid from their severed ends. They were short and far too slender to be Sime handling tentacles, but they could be laterals.
Frevven sucked in his breath and choked down the bile rising in his throat. No! It couldn't be!
He drew back in shock from the gruesome sight, images of his own delicate laterals being slashed and chopped off. A Sime without his laterals could not take transfer, was doomed to a hideous and agonizing death. Such things had been done as torture during the Sime/Gen Wars, but not now, not in these days.
He was still staring in disbelief and horror when one of the Gens in his party choked out a harsh laugh. Frevven turned to the woman, who was now coughing hysterically as she tried to speak. Was she so insensitive, or had she gone totally insane?
"Squid," she finally managed to say. "That's all it is. Tentacles from a squid."
One of the men went over for a closer look. "Yeah," he confirmed, gingerly inspecting one of the noxious objects pinned to the gate. "Squid. You know, those things the fishermen sometimes use for bait?" he went on, as several of the Gens frowned in puzzlement. "Funny-looking whitish things that swim backwards through the water? I understand some of the locals even make a kind of a stew out of them."
"Ugh! Fancy eating tentacles," another woman remarked, trying to turn the whole incident into a joke.
The man pulled a tentacle loose, holding it between thumb and forefinger and glancing at Frevven to see how he was taking all this. V'lis drew her nager together and settled it into a normal pattern, sheepishly embarrassed over falling for the deception.
"Let me see," Frevven said in a pinched voice. The Gen diffidently brought the bit of pale flesh over to the channel. Yes, on closer inspection, there was no doubt that this was not a Sime tentacle. There were tiny suckers running along one side of the thing, but they had been carefully turned toward the gate when they had been nailed up. Someone had meant Frevven's party to react exactly as they had.
Frevven had a pretty good idea who that someone was.
He strode over to the gate, grabbed the rest of the tentacles in one hand and yanked them loose, tossing them contemptuously into the dirt, even as the Gens laughed self-consciously over the way they had been fooled.
"Come on," Frevven said, careful not to show how much the prank had upset him, "let's get back to the Center."
Proceed to chapter three