ONLY GOOD SIME
BY KERRY LINDEMAN-SCHAEFER
Over the next couple of days, very few people came in to donate, but that wasn't surprising in light of the continuing heavy rain. Frevven and Shanneh took turns working in the collectorium, but with the uncommonly light workload shared between them, both channels felt the strain of incipient entran.
Frevven tried to take his mind off his growing discomfort by throwing himself into the paperwork necessary to keep even such a small Center as this running smoothly. He read over the tally sheets for the past several months. He studied the individual case histories of the Gens who regularly came in to donate, the requirements of the renSimes on his staff, and anything else he could get his hands on. He went over the transfer schedules that Shanneh had prepared for the next few months, noting down minor changes he might make once she had left.
And each time it was his shift and a Gen came through the front door, he waited eagerly to be called to take the donation.
Running out of things to do, he requested copies of the Center's annual reports, from the time it had opened until the present. He put another log on the fire burning in the small fireplace next to his desk and lit the oil lamp, turning the flame as high as it would go. Then he settled down to read.
The logs on the hearth had turned to embers before he sat back, rubbing his aching eyes and massaging his forehead with his tentacles.
Nothing really unusual, except for a steady decrease in the number of changeovers during the last year. Of course, in a population as small as this, you couldn't expect that the changeover rate would always equal the statistically expected amount. On the whole, one out of three children of two Gens would become Sime when they grew up, just as a third of the children of two Simes would become Gen. But that was statistics, based on large numbers of people. There were bound to be local fluctuations and deviations from the average.
If only we knew which children would be which, he thought, not for the first time, we could prevent a lot of unnecessary suffering and death.
Might as well wish to fly to the moon.
But why had the number of changeovers decreased by almost twenty percent this year?
He picked up Emerett's medallion, watching the metal glint faintly in the palm of his hand. Maybe the foolish things worked?
Then he laughed at his own ridiculous thought. If he was willing to take that as an explanation, the lack of work must be getting to him, try as he might to deny it. He should have been handling--oh, at least twenty times the number of donations he'd taken over the past few days. Not to mention an equal number of transfers to renSimes.
There aren't that many Simes on the staff, he told himself ruefully, much less in need at any one time.
How had Shanneh stood it here for so long, anyway?
Dropping the medallion into a desk drawer, Frevven held out his hands, handling tentacles stretched full length so they touched the ends of his fingers. He was disgusted to notice that he couldn't keep them steady.
He turned his chair to face the fireplace, taking off his glasses and laying them on the desk. Staring at the blur made by the flickering embers, Frevven made no attempt to clear the image by zlinning. Instead, he let his mind go blank, turning his attention inwards to try to smooth the dissonances in his secondary system.
A channel, once trained, couldn't stop working. His own body would rebel against not being used. Despite Frevven's relatively low selyn storage capacity compared to other Second Order channels, he couldn't adjust this quickly to the lack of work.
Frevven stared into the dim firelight, trying to right the imbalances, relax tensed muscles, dissolve the ache in the middle of his chest. It would be easier if he had a Gen field to work against. He could get Kurt--
No, it was the middle of the night. The Donor would be asleep now. Only Simes were awake at this hour, since they required much less sleep. In the morning, perhaps. He could wait until then.
Frevven went back to staring at the fire. When the alarm bell rang, he almost didn't hear it.
He jumped out of the chair, reaching for his glasses and gathering his scattered wits as he ran for the door.
The downstairs hall was crowded with people, some only half-dressed. Anieva and Shanneh were already at the foot of the spiral stairway, talking to the man who had just stopped ringing the alarm bell. Several Simes stood by the back door, watching Anieva and awaiting her orders. Kurt came around the corner and into the room, hurriedly fastening his trousers over his pajamas, his heavy coat under one arm.
Shanneh turned toward the group by the door. "Arendell Island," she said grimly. "Get the boat ready. I'll be right there."
The Simes took off through the door and out onto the pier. Anieva whispered something to Shanneh and then followed after them. V'lissia appeared from the hallway and hurried to Shanneh's side.
Frevven strode through the crowd to stand directly in front of the other channel. "I'll go. I should learn what it's like."
Shanneh stared at him with undisguised hostility, her sense of responsibility for the Center in eloquent conflict with her knowledge that Frevven would soon be left in sole charge. All the Simes standing nearby pulled away from the two channels, embarrassed at witnessing Shanneh's discomfort. V'lis enveloped them both in the security of her field as she moved to stand behind Shanneh.
Shanneh's eyes locked with Frevven's. He might be the incoming controller, but he hadn't officially taken over yet. He couldn't flatly overrule her, and yet he was right, and she knew it.
"You're almost in need, Shanneh," Frevven said, barely audibly. "I'll be on my own here as soon as you leave anyway. I won't do anything wrong this time, believe me."
The last sentence slipped out before he could stop it, and it was only then that he realized he wanted to go on the rescue mission so desperately simply in order to prove to himself that he could.
Shanneh's hand flickered toward the door, tentacles arranged in the gesture that meant "Go." She turned away and moved closer to V'lissia.
Frevven ran for the door, almost literally dragging Kurt with him. By the time he reached the Morning Star, the jib was already set and the boat was straining to move forward in the stiff breeze.
From her place at the wheel, Anieva looked up at Frevven and registered surprise. He and Kurt leaped onto the boat. The dock lines were cast off the moment their feet hit the deck.
When he could breathe again, he moved over beside Anieva, trying to find a place where he wouldn't be in anyone's way. The incomprehensible orders and the resulting scurry of the crew as they raised the sails served only to confuse him. They were evidently well accustomed to working together, forming a closed unit with its own particular vocabulary and in-group understanding. Even their nagers meshed smoothly into one common mass of duty and determination, aimed at getting to Arendell Island as quickly as possible.
Watching their organized cooperation, Frevven realized they must all be ambrov Shaeldor, like their captain. He'd never seen that sort of common understanding outside of the Householdings. Even Kurt wasn't quite a part of it, as a member of a different House.
Kurt perched next to the channel, pulling a somewhat damp and moldy-smelling cape from a compartment under one of the cockpit seats. "Figured you might have forgotten yours," he said softly.
Simes might be able to withstand the cold better than Gens, but Frevven realized he was sitting in his shirt-sleeves, with a sharp-edged wind moaning through the rigging around him. The rest of the crew wore bright woolen shirts and sweaters, three-quarter-sleeved so as not to interfere with their tentacles. Frevven took the cape.
When all the sails were set and adjusted to Anieva's satisfaction and the little cutter danced nimbly along toward the beacon on Sandy Point, Kurt remarked softly, "The wind is with us now, but once we get around Innsfrey Island it's going to be coming from dead ahead. Arendell is the furthest of all the islands. We might make it in time, but only if the signal was sent early enough."
Frevven barely had a chance to digest this information when a sudden gust of wind heeled the Morning Star far over to starboard. Feeling his feet slipping on the wet deck, the channel grabbed for the lifelines running around the boat. Hanging on for dear life with fingers and tentacles, Frevven stared at Anieva, who stood holding the wheel, not the least bit discomfited by the boat's motion and the dark water rushing by. She glanced up at the flag on the masthead which indicated the angle of the wind, turning the wheel slightly to adjust their course.
Rounding Sandy Point and leaving the harbor, they encountered real ocean waves for the first time. The Morning Star rolled from side to side until Frevven was certain it would capsize. He braced one foot against the wheel housing and held on even tighter. Just as he was getting used to this state of affairs, Anieva yelled, "Stand by to come about!"
Amidst more scurrying and shouted orders, the boat slewed rapidly around and headed off on the other tack. Feeling the deck tilt suddenly in a new direction, Frevven grabbed hold of the boom crutch, glancing up just in time to see Anieva and Kurt duck their heads. He barely had a chance to wonder what was going on when he got hit full in the face with a heavy burst of spray that had just come over the bow.
Grabbing hastily for his half-dislodged glasses, he let go his hold on the boom crutch and went sliding across the deck, fetching up abruptly against the leeward rail.
Acutely embarrassed, Frevven picked himself up from the scuppers. The ambient on the boat flickered with the smug amusement of professionals regarding the efforts of a rank amateur, despite the crew's effort to be polite.
It would have to be in front of Householders that he'd make a fool of himself.
"So much for Sime grace and agility," he remarked, trying to turn it into a joke as he hauled himself back to his place next to Anieva.
"Always keep a firm grip on something solid with at least one hand," Anieva advised softly. "And you'll find you can zlin a wave coming over the bow, once you know what it feels like."
Frevven thought he could detect a certain amount of understanding in the captain's nager, but he wasn't too sure. The seat of his pants was soggy and wet from his slide across the deck, and one trouser leg flapped damply at his ankle, but everyone else looked spray-soaked too. He wiped at his wet glasses, but succeeded only in smearing the saltwater around. He gave that up as a lost cause.
At least he didn't feel sick, despite the rocking and pitching. This was nothing like the Cormorant, with seasick Gens and Richt's hatred to torment him. In fact, he was beginning to enjoy the excitement of plunging through the darkness. The others on the crew felt the same sort of exhilaration. Perhaps their combined fields added to his own sense of confidence in the fragile little boat's ability to overcome the wild ocean.
Frevven flashed Kurt a quick grin, and the Donor grinned back, seeming to understand.
Maybe he could get to like sailboats after all.
Then the channel reminded himself of the purpose of this wild ride, and his enthusiasm dimmed.
They rounded the north shore of Innsfrey Island in a little over an hour, but then they had to swing around the outside of Montello Island, due to shallow water between Innsfrey and Montello. After that, the wind was dead on the bow, just as Kurt had predicted. As the Morning Star zigzagged back and forth, trying to close the distance to Arendell, Frevven began to fret. There was no telling how long ago that poor child had gone into changeover. There might not be a lot of time left.
Anieva cursed and wished for the wind to shift. The ambient on the boat burned with fierce frustration.
Frevven stared into the darkness in the direction of Arendell. He could zlin the island reasonably well, by the collective nager of the Gens living there. Somewhere in that cheerful glow, there was a child's faint nager, dimming and turning to the empty darkness of a Sime in First Need. He couldn't zlin it at this distance, but he tormented himself by imagining he could. He could save the child. If he could get there.
His handling tentacles wrapped around the lifeline he was holding as he stared hungrily in the direction of Arendell. He literally ached to be there, to serve the need of that otherwise doomed child. It was only by force of will that he could keep from allowing his laterals to extend. Already, they were wet with ronaplin. He couldn't stop that. It was an automatic response for his glands to secrete the selyn-conducting substance, in anticipation of serving transfer.
It seemed forever that he stood there, staring across the water in helpless frustration. Kurt stood silently alongside him, but even his bright field could offer Frevven little comfort.
The horizon was just beginning to show a hint of dawn when Kurt laid a hand gently on Frevven's shoulder. "Come below and I'll help you get into your retainers. We'll reach the island before too much longer, and it will be easier if you have a little time to adjust to them."
Retainers? He'd forgotten about that, but, of course, he couldn't just go trotting blithely down the streets of Arendell Island without them. With a brief shudder, Frevven let Kurt lead him belowdecks to the little cabin.
As the Morning Star came alongside the high, slime-slick walls of the dock, Frevven restrained himself from jumping for one of the wooden ladders secured against its face. Without his retainers and augmenting, he would have been able to make the jump. However, with the loathsome devices imprisoning his tentacles, it would be painful enough simply to rotate his wrists far enough to climb the ladder.
With the tide out, the top of the dock was a good six feet above their heads. A uniformed Gen stood watching the Morning Star approach, ready to catch their dock lines when they were tossed. His eyes swept the crew, stopping on the only person wearing retainers.
"Take your time," he called down casually, as he caught the bow line and dropped it over a bollard. "I don't think there's much you can do for this one. Seems her father attacked her with a kitchen knife when he realized she was in changeover," he added, walking aft to get the stern line. "She's probably dead already."
Frevven muttered a curse under his breath. As the crew made the cutter fast to the dock, he scrambled up the slippery wooden ladder, with Kurt close behind him carrying a small medical case of emergency supplies.
They ran the short distance to the police station, and Frevven waited impatiently for the policeman to unlock the door leading to the basement. As they hurried down the steps, the man tossed Kurt the keys to the cell and then closed and locked the upstairs door behind them.
Frevven stripped off his retainers as quickly as he could while Kurt unlocked the heavily barred door and then stood aside. Before the door had even swung fully open, the channel knew he was too late.
The girl's body lay sprawled just inside the doorway, face down on the cold dirt floor. Frevven knelt alongside her and turned her over, dreading what he would find. Blood had soaked through her flannel nightdress in ugly dark splotches, but Frevven's eyes went immediately to her bare arms, clutched across her chest.
He recoiled, trying not to be sick.
Kurt leaned over his shoulder, shock ringing through his nager. "Oh, my God," the Donor whispered softly.
The child's slender arms had been slashed with a knife, her half-developed tentacles still in their sheaths but gruesomely mutilated. She must have tried to defend herself by grabbing at the knife as her father stabbed her.
Congealed blood crusted the hideous wounds, but Frevven could make out easily enough that the cuts ran across her lateral tentacles on both arms. His flesh crawled at the sight of such an injury. Judging by the amount of blood on the front of her nightdress, she had sustained several other wounds, but the ones on her arms were quite enough to have proven fatal. If her father had also stabbed her in the chest, he had done nothing but hasten an inevitable death.
Her face was frozen into an expression of horror, sightless eyes staring into eternity, mouth half open in what might have been a scream or a plea for mercy.
Kurt pulled himself together first. "I've--I've seen kids beaten or stabbed to death before, but usually not until after breakout, when they've tried to attack someone. This poor kid hadn't even gotten through changeover, much less attacked anybody."
Frevven nodded, unable to look away from the child's arms. Even if he'd gotten here sooner, there would have been nothing he could have done. Why? Oh, why? All they'd had to do was lock her in this cell, and she couldn't have hurt anyone. She might have survived until he'd arrived. At least there would have been a chance.
Frevven took off his cloak, preparing to cover the girl's mutilated body.
"Hajene," Kurt said softly, "you're supposed to examine her, for the official record."
Frevven started to protest that he couldn't bear to, but he realized such an excuse simply wouldn't hold water. He had told Shanneh he would handle this case, and handle it he would, like it or not.
He nodded, feeling Kurt's nager draw together and focus on him, offering support. Placing a hand on each of the girl's slashed arms, he extended his laterals to lie along the partially developed lateral sheaths.
Forcing his mind into clinical detachment, Frevven closed his eyes and leaned to touch her lips with his own. Her mouth was partly open, but he could manage a contact. Expecting to find a total lack of residual selyn, Frevven was shocked to discover a faint trace of dissipating selyn still in the girl's body, outlining the deep wounds in her chest where the selyn transport nerves had begun to develop and been severed by the knife.
Strange. Hadn't the policeman said her father had attacked her when he'd realized she was in changeover? That had to have been several hours ago, even before the signal had been sent to the Sime Center. Assuming she had been thrown into the cell already wounded, she would have died shortly thereafter. By now, there should be no trace of selyn remaining in her body.
Much as he hated to, Frevven allowed his contact to deepen. The readings were faint, hard to measure. Concentrating only on what he could zlin, he allowed his laterals to probe the slashes on the child's arms, seeking contact with the damaged and only partially developed nerve tissue of her laterals.
The grisly reading came clearer. It took a considerable effort, but Frevven was able to get a precise measurement of the amount of selyn remaining. Considering the average rate of dissipation after death and calculating it against the increased drain probably caused by the knife wounds, he came to a startling conclusion.
He withdrew from the contact and sat back on his heels with a shudder. Kurt's hands came down on his shoulders, and he rested against the bright bulwark of the Donor's field, wiping his hands on the clean cloth Kurt had laid out for him and trying not to see the mess of congealed blood and fluid he left behind.
"Kurt, she's only been dead for an hour," he finally forced himself to say.
"That's impossible. No one in changeover could survive that long, with those injuries. We got the signal close to three hours ago."
"She's been dead for one hour. Maximum."
"I may not be a First, but I can tell that much," Frevven insisted, resenting Kurt's obvious doubt.
"Well, what happened to her then?"
"I don't know. Let's go upstairs and get the official story."
As Kurt went to get Frevven's retainers, the channel noticed a glint of silver in one of the dead girl's clenched hands. When he gently pried open her fingers, a small medallion on a broken chain fell to the floor.
It was the same sort of thing Emerett DeSanctis had been wearing. Frevven slipped it into one of his pockets.
After covering the girl with his cape, he rose shakily to his feet to get back into his retainers. Retracting his handling tentacles, he fit his arms into the metal devices and then clamped them closed, wincing as the pressure bars forced his laterals to extend and fit themselves into the cramped confines of the metal sheaths inside the retainers. He leaned against the wall for a moment as he adjusted to the sickening distortion that produced.
Kurt came to stand next to him, nager carefully adjusted to relieve the channel's discomfort.
Frevven pushed himself away from the wall. "Come on. Let's see what they have to say upstairs."
A gray-haired Gen woman stood weeping, held tightly in the arms of a grim-faced man who was most likely her husband. Her grief swamped the entire room, outside of Kurt's bright field. That had to be the mother. Other Gens gathered around the pair, trying to shush the wailing woman. A man fervently exhorted her to be thankful her daughter's soul had been saved. He fell silent as he caught sight of Frevven, glaring at the channel through narrowed eyes.
Saved? But she was in changeover. Church of the Purity doctrine says you're damned from the moment you turn Sime. Strange thing to be saying, under the circumstances.
Frevven had no chance to pursue the thought, as the policeman in charge of the station bustled over officiously to stand between him and the bereaved parents.
"Yolinda was alive when she was brought in, Hajene," the policeman said. "Jared had stabbed her a couple of times, but his wife stopped him, insisting we lock her up and send for you folks. I tried to discourage her, since I didn't figure the kid would live long, but she wouldn't listen." He grinned shamefacedly and waved one hand toward the gray-haired woman. "She sent up the flares herself, before we could even do it."
Struggling to zlin through the insulated retainers and the confused ambient, Frevven thought he could pick up the telltale quaver in the official's nager that would indicate he wasn't telling the exact truth. But he couldn't be sure. The man might simply be feeling guilty, trying to justify himself for not having summoned the rescue boat sooner.
"You murdered her!" the woman shrieked suddenly at her husband, trying to pull away from him. "It's your fault! You wouldn't let me call them; you turned her over to--"
She's accusing him of murder, yet she doesn't say that he stabbed the girl?
Jared pulled his wife's head against his coat, muffling her voice in the heavy fabric. "Nandi's hysterical," he said, eying the channel defiantly. "She don't know what she's saying."
"Ma'am, could you tell me when it was you first noticed--" Frevven began.
"We don't have to answer questions from the likes of you," Jared replied coldly.
The woman fought free, almost pulling loose from his arms.
"I want to see my little girl; I want--"
Jared shook her roughly by the shoulders. "Stop it, now, Nan. Stop it, you hear? No more of this. I won't stand for it."
She covered her face with her hands, moaning.
"I'm gonna take my wife home," Jared went on. "It's not good for her to be here."
The policeman nodded. He addressed the man who had continued to stand beside the couple, glaring hatred at Frevven. "Deacon Lassiter, why don't you go with them and see if you can offer some comfort? I'll see that all the necessary forms are signed, as usual."
The whole situation just wasn't quite right, and yet it wasn't quite wrong enough for Frevven to say anything. Maybe he had been wrong, and the child had been dead longer than it seemed. A post mortem lateral examination could be tricky, the results easily misinterpreted. And he couldn't accuse these people of lying, when he couldn't get a clear reading on them.
Yolinda was dead, regardless of the circumstances. Nothing he could do now would change that.
"We'll take the body back with us," Frevven said.
Jared turned, almost at the door. "No! My daughter died before turning Sime. Her soul is safe with her Creator. We'll bury her here, with her family."
Deacon Lassiter nodded in staunch agreement.
Frevven glanced at Kurt, but the Gen just shrugged his shoulders. These folks must be among the minority who believed a child was not Sime until the tentacles had actually broken out. It wasn't standard Church of the Purity doctrine, but there had been a number of people in Frevven's home town who had felt that way. His own father--
"Very well," the channel agreed, cutting off that particular train of thought. Perhaps it would provide some consolation for the bereaved mother, if she could believe her daughter was not damned after all.
It was a sad and desolate voyage back to Innsfrey, despite the crisp, bright morning. They had a fair wind most of the way, although it wasn't very strong.
Frevven sat staring aft over the water, unable to banish the pathetic memory of the dead girl from his mind, even as he tried to convince himself there was nothing he could have done for her.
Too close to need to be able to cry, he just felt empty and drained. He would grieve for her death the moment his upcoming transfer had been completed, he knew that.
He doubted he'd ever get used to this sort of thing, no matter how often it happened.
And it must happen often, out here.
Proceed to chapter five