A Sime~Gen Novel
by Andrea Alton and Jacqueline Lichtenberg
reprinted from Ambrov Zeor and
Companion In Zeor Special Edition #1
Please Note all material posted on Official Virtual Tecton sites is copyright by Jacqueline Lichtenberg and ALL RIGHTS ARE RESERVED. TO GET YOUR SIME~GEN(tm) MATERIAL SANCTIONED FOR WEB POSTING or TO GET PERMISSION TO REPOST FROM OFFICIAL MATERIALS EMAIL AMBROVZEOR@AOL.COM. Sime~Gen (tm) is the trademark of a fictional universe © copyright by Jacqueline Lichtenberg, 1969,1974, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996
Here is the front matter from the fanzine edition of ICY NAGER - it includes mention of THE ONLY GOOD SIME by Kerry Lindemann-Schaefer because we published these two novels together as a single project, though they ended up being printed in two separate volumes.
ZEOR IN ZEOR
First Printing: November 1992 -- 75 copies
Editor and Publisher: Kerry Lindemann-Schaefer
Route 4, Box 134C, Morehead City NC 28557
Typist: Sheila Wenrich
Copyright © 1992 by Jacqueline Lichtenberg and Andrea Alton. The characters in this novel are reserved for the exclusive use of Andrea Alton. No one may use them without her prior permission and approval.
All original artwork remains the property of its creator.
ART: Donell Meadows: cover, pages 7 and 23
Linda Whitten: pages 13 and 21
Mel White: pages 46 and 48
Publication does not constitute endorsement by the staff of Ambrov Zeor or Companion in Zeor. All fiction and artwork published in this magazine takes place in an alternate Sime/Gen universe.
For more information on the S/G fanzines, back issues, and future issues, send self-addressed, stamped envelope to Kerry Lindemann-Schaefer at the address given above.
Jacqueline invites letters and comments on all aspects of her work. Her current address is 8 Fox Lane, Spring Valley NY 10977.
Special thanks to our typist, Sheila Wenrich, who did such a beautiful job on ICY NAGER and ONLY GOOD SIME. Not only did she type both manuscripts, but she went back and added in numerous revisions and changes, as these became necessary. I could never have gotten these two Special Editions done so quickly or so well without her invaluable assistance. -- Kerry
An icy tingle stole across his nerves as the watcher on the far side of the valley allowed his attention to shift across Evan's hiding place. Evan sharpened his focus, touched the Gen field and gasped, flinching from that inhuman, chill, death-like hardness. It was alien ... unclean. Unconsciously, he wiped his tentacles across his shirt front in disgust. What was that?
Oh, no. It couldn't be! Icy Nager? Here?
In the distant future of this universe, humanity has mutated into Sime and Gen. The Gens, sole producers of life-energy, are preyed upon and killed by the Simes, who must take this energy to live.
When Evan Trandolphic, a Sime who makes his living scavenging for metal along the Gen Territory border, meets the infamous and frightening Gen known as Icy Nager, something is bound to happen. Evan never expected to meet a Gen who wasn't afraid of him. And he certainly never imagined there was a Gen anywhere who was willing to risk taking a Sime as an equal partner.
For those readers who are not already Sime/Gen fans, I hope the above excerpt has motivated you to read on. Of course, there are many of you who need no motivation, who have in fact been waiting literally for years just to read this tale. There are even a number of folks who have paid an exorbitant price just to see this novel in print. (For more about them, see the following page.)
Please note that the version of Icy Nager in this zine is a preliminary draft, and is not necessarily the final draft that Jacqueline Lichtenberg plans to submit to a professional publisher.
We welcome comments on this novel for the next "Ambrov Zeor" lettercolumn, so if you've got something to say, write to me. If I print it, you get a complimentary copy of AZ. We would especially like critical comments, as work on this novel is far from done and there is still time to make changes before professional submission.
Special thanks are due to Andrea Alton, who worked hard on revising and updating this version of Icy Nager. Andrea has had a number of excellent stories printed in "Companion in Zeor" over the years, many of which deal with the same characters featured in this novel. She has gone on to make a professional sale with one of her own novels, Demon of Undoing. (Baen Books, P.O. Box 1403, Riverdale, NY 10471, 1988, paperback edition.)
For any new readers who would like to know more about the Sime/Gen series, see the back of this zine for further information.
OUR SPONSORS ARE THE PEOPLE WHO MADE THIS SPECIAL EDITION POSSIBLE. THEY PROVIDED THE FINANCIAL BASE FOR PRINTING THE ZINE. "AMBROV ZEOR" AND "COMPANION IN ZEOR" SPLIT THE REST OF THE COST BETWEEN THEM, BUT WITHOUT OUR SPONSORS' EXTRA HELP, THERE WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN ENOUGH MONEY AVAILABLE. THESE ARE SOME OF THE FOLKS WITHOUT WHOM SIME/GEN FANDOM WOULD HAVE LONG AGO DIED OF ATTRITION.
Octavene Epps Phyllis Randall
Mark Hows Eva Reimers
Norine Madden Mary A. Sage
Mary Lou Mendum Nova Serafino
Jane Miller Mark Silverstein
Cherri Munoz Allen Dale Stambaugh
Carolyn O'Neal R. Laurraine Tutihasi
Dave O'Neal Sheila Wenrich
You hold in your hands a very strange product.
The two novels, Icy Nager and Only Good Sime, are the work of writers who have written novels I consider so good that they ought to be professionally published as part of the S/G universe canon. And indeed, it is still our intention to see these two novels into professional print. But that may take years, and they may come out under different titles.
Meanwhile Icy Nager is here for you in a foreshortened version, lacking much of the explanation of the Sime/Gen background. It is a perfect example of a "fanovel," a novel written by a fan to be read by other fans. To get the full impact, it is recommended that you have read some of the other Sime/Gen novels.
Those of you who have memorized the other books will enjoy this intriguing novel with its lovable characters even more. The professionally published books must be overburdened with repetitious explanations aimed at the casual or new reader, which often blunts the true fan's enjoyment. Andrea here offers a S/G novel not slowed with explanations.
I'd like to ask anyone who is reading Icy Nager as your first S/G novel, or first in a long time, to let us know what questions you want answered in the expanded, professionally published version.
Only Good Sime is different. It contains most of the background it will contain when professionally published and can be read as a first Sime/Gen novel. But it still leaves many questions open. We'd like to know what intrigues you most, what you want to learn more about, what details should be filled in.
On both these novels, I am listed as joint author, but the characters, the situations, the themes and the overall vision of the Sime/Gen universe in each novel belong to Andrea or Kerry. As with Jean Lorrah, I have worked (and it's been years and many, many drafts) on the technical background, the plot structure, the pacing, the conflicts, and the jigsawing of the stories they wanted to tell into the overall Sime/Gen historical sequence. In both Icy Nager and Only Good Sime, I changed the historical sequence I had planned for the universe in order to accommodate their visions.
Icy Nager introduces the Prophetstowners, invented by Andrea Alton. At first, I didn't think their method of transfer would be possible in the "real" S/G universe, but Andrea convinced me. Now they are considered part of the canon--they really existed. Some day, Sime archeologists will rediscover them and Gen anthropologists will do tv specials on the Prophetstown phenomenon. Of course, the tabloids will get hold of it first. Politicians will have a field day. And God alone knows what the Church of the Purity will say about Soul-Sharing!
Only Good Sime deals with the man who survives to become the last of the disjunct channels allowed to remain as a functioning channel. Frevven's life spans an era from the beginnings of Unity, when they train disjunct channels only with great reluctance, through the time of the Secret Pens, to the deaths of the very last semijuncts who depend on the disjunct channels for life itself.
Kerry has written stories in AMBROV ZEOR detailing the important events of his life, up to and including his death, but here she tells of his first effect on recorded history. His triumphs and tragedies before this were purely personal. Here, now, in Only Good Sime, for the first time in his life, he changes the course of S/G history.
If Reverend Richt had secured the islands as a base of operations, the splinter cult he represented would have had a stronghold from which to topple the fragile Unity. Reverend Richt had the Donor's background and the ruthlessness to discover the Secret Pens and use the scandal to bring down the Tecton. Only one person had the guts to stand against him. Of course, this was only one battle among many, one crisis among many. But it would have taken only one or two losses to have plunged the Tecton back into the dark ages.
With these two authors, as with Jean Lorrah's books, we get to peek through another window into S/G. With the publication of these two novels, we now have four authors involved in Sime/Gen at the professional level, four different points of view, fleshing out the universe.
These two novels are brought to you as special editions of two combined "fanzines." Fanzines are labors of love. Fanzine publishing is not "nonprofit" for in a nonprofit organization workers are paid a salary. Fanzine publishing is an "out-of-pocket" operation. And nobody involved gets paid, not even the authors who have worked years over many drafts of the story. Authors even pay round trip postage on their many repeated manuscript submissions.
All of the labor, including the production typing, the phone-calling, the trips to the printer, the letter writing, the envelope addressing--all of the labor is done in our spare time. The supplies our typists use, the computers they use, and most of the postage is all "out-of-pocket" expense that you, the reader, do not pay for.
You have paid for the printing, the paper, the postage, the envelope it was mailed to you in. You have not paid for the cubic feet of storage space in our houses, or for the trips to the bank to deposit your checks, or the trips to the post office to ship it to you. The product of an ordinary business includes all these expenses. This 'zine is not the product of a business, but the product of love for this fantasy universe.
This 'zine comes to you because of the large number of generous fans of this universe who have donated money--because even with the horribly high price you are paying, and the ridiculously long list of out-of-pocket expenses we've each contributed, we lose money on each 'zine.
We didn't invent the idea of the fanzine. It was invented by science fiction fandom way back in the 1930's and '40's. It was redesigned by Star Trek fans in the '70's. And we have taken it a step farther--for what you hold in your hands is NOT amateur writing. Both Andrea Alton and Kerry Lindemann-Schaefer are professional writers and this product is as good as any you will find on the newstands.
This is, however, an amateur publication--as are the fanzines AMBROV ZEOR, COMPANION IN ZEOR and ZEOR FORUM. The paper is better quality than a paperback, but less than a hardcover book. The binding is another problem. The 'zine contains more typos than some professional books, less than others. It contains more subtle inconsistencies than a professionally published book because it hasn't been copyedited to conform to the published novels. But then they don't conform to each other because they came from different publishing houses. When you order them, fanzines are shipped in the spare time of the person doing the task. This is not a business. It doesn't get top priority over school, work, or family obligations. So it can take a while.
It is a tradition in sf and ST fandom that even when you buy a fanzine, you still owe the author, editor, and publisher more than money--for they put more than money into it. You owe them feedback--a letter-of-comment, a LoC.
Even if your comments are unfavorable, they will be welcome, for in this way you can affect what we write and publish next. Any LoC you send us may be published, unless you state on the letter that you do not want it published. But if your LoC is published, you will get a copy of the 'zine it appears in, for we consider a LoC a labor of love too--even, or especially, when it points out our shortcomings.
In the future, if your response to these novels is favorable, we may bring you some other novel-length works in this 'zine format, works which may never be suitable for professional publication because they'd be of interest only to fans of the universe, not because they aren't as well written. As with the shorter stories in the fanzines, we will present this material only after we are satisfied that the author has hit the highest possible standard he or she can manage.
Anyone is welcome to submit a S/G story to these fanzines, but brace yourself. It is often three to five years of hard work between submission and actual publication, and occasionally, we do turn a story down as unsuitable (though unlike professional publications, we will tell you why). If it is accepted, a submission is likely to be criticized by professionals searching out the flaws--and perfections--and telling you about it in unvarnished language.
Spring Valley, New York
For Jacqueline Lichtenberg,
Whose stories inspired me to write
and whose interest in my first tottering steps
into publication kept me at it.
At the time we published this novel as combined Special Edition #1 of Ambrov Zeor and Companion In Zeor Andrea has already become a respected professional science fiction novelist. As I've mentioned elsewhere on the Web, you should look up her novel Demon of Undoing (Baen books, 1988).
Also, as of January 1997, more of Andrea Alton's work will be available on the Web. Here's a link to that location:
In the early dawn mist, two figures moved across the mountainside. A ground fog lay in cotton drifts among the tree roots and curled in slow wreaths about the ankles of the travelers. The silence was broken occasionally by the sleepy chirp of a bird.
The taller figure bore a heavy pack that extended above his head. He appeared to be in his late twenties, very thin, with a shock of jet black hair and eyes the deep blue of high mountain lakes. His faded blue cotton shirt, ragged around the armholes where the sleeves had been ripped out, revealed tanned arms. Each forearm had an odd pattern of six ridges extending from elbow to wrist.
He moved lightly, with an almost preternatural grace, but with the tense alertness of a man in enemy territory. This was in sharp contrast to the uncoordinated movements of the twelveyearold boy who stumbled along behind him at the end of a rope.
The youngster wove a seemingly mindless path behind the older man, the tug of the rope around his waist the only thing keeping him in motion. The boy's eyes were a pale blue and unfocused. There was a light covering of down on his chin, proof he had recently crossed the threshold of manhood.
Occasionally the boy shivered, for he was dressed in only a dirty white tunic and the spring morning was cold and damp.
The ranks of trees gave way suddenly to a bare thrust of rock, the lip of a cliff. On the edge a gnarled, stunted cedar sent strong roots seemingly into the rock itself. It was the landmark Evanthal Trandolphic had been told to watch for as he crossed the border into Gen Territory.
Stopping at the edge of the trees, he shrugged out of his pack and tied the boy's lead rope to a convenient sapling. Then he walked out onto the overlook, one hand resting on the lone cedar. The ground fell sharply away into a briarfilled ravine, where spring rains had already encouraged the pale green of new growth. He heard the rippling sound of running water somewhere below.
Off to his left he saw the misty blue notch of Five Mile Pass. It was heavily patrolled by both Simes and Gens to discourage its use as a corridor from one territory to the other. This was why he was taking a deer trail over Hatter's Mountain, which didn't even boast a low spot, much less a pass. If his informant was correct, from this place there were two ways down the mountain.
To his right, a steepsided cliff rose above him. Tilting his head, he could just make out the boulders forming the notch that marked the easier route, one down which you could take horses if you were so minded. But that path led straight to the Gen border fortress of Denholm Station.
Directly in front of him was the second route. One hand firmly holding onto the tree, he leaned forward over the edge to look down. It looked like the sort of trail made by a drunken mountain goat. Once at the bottom he would be well and truly in Gen Territory and fair game to any Gen who could catch him. It wasn't the sort of place you went dragging your Kill behind you, even if you could get the Gen down the cliff.
He turned to look over his shoulder at the young Gen standing beside his pack, staring at nothing in his drugged stupor. Evan shifted his mode of consciousness, letting his vision fade, becoming unaware of hearing or touch. In this state, hyperconsciousness, he relied totally on his Sime senses, the senses which allowed him to hunt Gens.
Around him, the nearby landscape changed in the illumination cast by the Gen's nager. The occluding mist vanished; the trees became almost translucent. Only the rocks and dirt of the mountain itself remained solid. He was keenly aware of the boy's pulsing nager, a pale yellow nimbus through which sluggish whirls floated passively. His stomach twisted at the thought of taking that into himself. For years, each Gen he'd taken had given him a less satisfactory Kill than the last, until it had become an effort to Kill at all. I can't go on much longer without a Prime Kill. And Prime Kills cost a fortune. I have got to find the Beran Library this time.
He shifted back to duoconsciousness, letting vision and hearing overlay the ghostly images of nageric awareness, putting off the inevitable as long as possible, for it would have to be done here.
A vague feeling of disquiet caused him to stare narrowly at the opposite mountain flank, graygreen in the shrouding fog. He faded back into the misty shadows at the far end of the barren shelf, where a fall of rock had scattered huge slabs of granite. Masked by the massive shapes, he propped his foot on a convenient boulder and leaned out to study the situation. There was a Gen out there somewhere doing the same thing.
He sought hyperconsciousness again. When he was out, like now, away from the towns and farms, he could let himself go, shifting and shifting again until he opened himself to the life fields-the nagers-of even the animals in the forest.
Not all Simes could do this, and it wasn't something he ever mentioned. It was Evan's edge, his one advantage in his trade. Being able to scan the distances, being able to know when Gens were approaching hours before they arrived, had allowed him to penetrate deeper into Gen Territory than any other archeologist. This gift enabled him to bring back vital clues to the Ancients' civilization and how it had been destroyed by the Sime/Gen mutation that split humanity.
An icy tingle stole across his nerves as the watcher on the far side of the valley allowed his attention to shift across Evan's hiding place. Evan sharpened his focus, touched the Gen field and gasped, flinching from that inhuman, chill, death-like hardness. It was alien...unclean. Unconsciously he wiped his tentacles across his shirt front in disgust. What was that?
Oh, no. It couldn't be! Icy Nager? Here?
He had never before touched the field of the great Gen Monster, but once described it was never to be forgotten. Has he seen me? And then, with a queer little shiver of excitement-Would he come after me? Of course, if Icy Nager did, it would take him at least three hours to get here, and Evan had no intention of waiting for him. Or would I? The man who caught Icy Nager could afford Prime Kills for the rest of his life. It was worth the thought. But was it worth dying for? One man alone could never take Icy Nager, the Gen Monster.
The Gen's attention, as it played back and forth over his position, tantalized Evan's sensitized nerves with a peculiarly unsettling sensation that had nothing to do with the horrible feel of the Gen's nager. Every time that chill ripple went through him, he found his intil rising, the inexorable appetite for the Kill. It was something that hadn't happened to him in far too long.
Daring to anticipate the return of that cold, sweeping attention, he leaned forward and quite deliberately gave himself to intil, riding on the irony of using Icy Nager to sharpen his need to the point where he might actually enjoy taking a Kill.
Lost in his pleasure, he stepped out on a boulder where he was outlined against the light rock behind him and spread his arms wide. His tentacles, until now hidden in the sheaths along his forearms, emerged to stand out as stiff as he could hold them. That distant cold attention suddenly focused firmly. Evan's lips pulled back with a delight that was close to pain. Intil mounted higher, drumming through his muscles.
He had not wanted a Gen so much in years.
Retaining just enough sense not to go seeking Icy Nager, he wrenched himself around and sought the pale but accessible nager of the Gen he'd brought for this very purpose.
The boy stared uninterestedly up at him, white face slack, mind dulled beyond thought as Evan bore down on him. Evan moved closer into the core of the boy's nager and gloried when his whole body responded. Of their own accord, his handling tentacles slid from their sheaths and wrapped themselves securely about the Gen's smooth forearms.
To his Sime senses, the boy now zlinned as a candle flame, pale nimbus surrounded by a core of deeper fire. Though the ice still washed through him, tantalizing his need to an agony, it was the fire he craved, the fire he must have. It's going to work!
His laterals extended and made skin contact with the Gen. They were slick with ronaplin, the secretion that conducted selyn from Gen to Sime. He tightened his handling tentacles, fearing the shock of losing contact. Then, nearly not believing this was happening for him, he bent to make the necessary fifth contact point with his lips just touching the Gen's lips.
Instantly, selyn, the invisible energy of life itself, flowed from the Gen up through Evan's laterals into the starved Sime nervous system. He let it wash into him until the flow slackened, then he drew, sucking the precious energy into the darkest parts of himself. At that point, it seemed the elusive satisfaction was coming. But the flow fell off. Suddenly frantic, Evan drew harder. In that instant the flow cut off abruptly with a paralyzing screech of Gen pain. Evan came out of it staring down into wide, faded blue eyes. The Gen corpse hung limply in his grasp, and the ache of unsatisfied chronic need was an open wound in his chest.
He let the body down gently, noting the angry red burn marks woven around the Gen's arms where his laterals had rested, the bruises where his handling tentacles and fingers had immobilized the Gen. He gave an ironic bow of thanks to the distant watcher. Then, with shaking hands he turned to bury the corpse in a shallow grave not far from the twisted cedar.
As was his custom, he marked the grave in the manner of the Ancients, imitating their stone monuments with two crossed sticks lashed together with a bit of vine. He was never sure why he did it, but it made him feel part of something old and perhaps wise.
Icy Nager was gone by the time he finished. Shouldering his pack, he started down the mountain.
Rafe Merryweather, known in Sime Territory as Icy Nager the Gen Monster, led fifteen liberated Sime prisoners through the mountains. Their horses were tired, so they kept to a walk as they climbed the slope of Hatter's Mountain. Ahead of them, not too far away, was the safety of Denholm Station.
Rafe was a tall, imposing man with wide, muscular shoulders and narrow hips. People said he moved like a big cat, whose grace offset the craggy, weathered face that had never been handsome.
He picked a trail through the unmarked woods, where thin spring sunshine streamed through the dark branches decorated with tiny new-budded leaves. The reflected light danced off roots, branches and dark earth, staying trapped beneath the heavy overhanging evergreens, tinting everything a dusty beige. The leaf mold, stirred up by the horses, smelled of the rich newness of another year. The beauty of it caught in his throat.
Rafe rubbed at his eyes, a weary gesture. I'm getting too old for this, he thought. He pulled his wandering thoughts up short and turned in the saddle, squinting at the straggling line of inexpert riders behind him.
A tree caught his eye. A gnarled old cedar growing out of a barren rock ledge. Wasn't it here that he'd seen that Sime, seemingly making an invocation to the morning? He'd kept his binoculars on the man, intrigued by someone, especially a Sime, taking that much pleasure in the start of a new day.
It was Harry, of course. He had stopped his horse and was looking at something under the overhanging branches of a cedar. The whole line had come to a shuffling halt. Sighing, Rafe rode back to see what it was that Harry had found.
It was a grave. With a small, handmade cross at one end. Interesting.
So the Sime hadn't been worshiping the sun. He'd been raising intil...probably off me. That shenning little opportunist. But he found it rather amusing, all the same, and reached into his shirt pocket for a lemon drop.
"They left this as a sign we can't get away from them, didn't they, SimeSider?" Harry demanded excitedly.
Rafe looked down into the drawn, bewhiskered face and dug down deep into his dwindling store of patience. "This is at least two weeks old, Harry. It was done long before I broke you out of the pens." His calm words sidetracked the beginning of a Church of the Purity tirade. Harry was not only given to sermons on bloody retribution, but he also had a whiney, nasal voice that seemed designed to rub nerves raw. Not for the first time Rafe wondered if it was as irritating on a field level as it was on the auditory level. Perhaps it was a new mutation to keep Simes away, sort of like a skunk's scent?
There were times when he wondered why he continued saving lives when the world was so full of hate. It was like pulling horses out of a burning barn only to have them run back into the flames again. It was a fascination with dying, he thought wearily. Gens lived with too much death.
There were ways Simes and Gens could both live. If they could give up the hate. The Householders had stumbled on one method, but there was another, older way. But you had to be bred up to it.
Leaning one forearm on the saddle horn, he searched the faces of his group, gathered around the pathetic grave. They were all tired. Several were still in shock. Most were full of fury and hate. In a way, that was good. That would give them the strength to get home. But afterwards? They would still have the hate, the anger, the knee jerk response to destroy every and all Simes. He was suddenly profoundly fed up with the violence of Simes and Gens both. He wanted the sanity of his study, the passionless serenity of old, old words and vanished times. With a sense of shock he faced the truth. I don't want to do this anymore. The fun has gone out of it.
But he still had these people to get to safety. They were depending on him for their lives. "Our luck is that we don't have Raiders after us. The Simes chasing us are all townsfolk. They won't know this mountain." Hopefully. If they haven't picked up a tracker. "The crest of the mountain is just over there, between those rocks. As soon as we're through those rocks and start downhill, it's less than a tenminute ride to Denholm Station. But this is the problem. Right now they don't know exactly where we are, but as soon as we go over the top, our fields are going to light up the sky like flares. They'll be straight after us like hound dogs on a hot scent. So what you do is, you don't stop for anything. Whatever happens, keep moving."
He turned his stallion towards the two uplifted and tilted rock slabs that marked the top of the mountain, turned once to look at his brood and was satisfied to see that all fifteen of them were tightly bunched up behind him. The stallion, Blackthorn, scrambled up the steep slope. As they went over the top Rafe had an instant's view of the valley below. Barely discernible in the misty distance, a square had been cut out of the green forest. Squatting in the middle of that stumppocked meadow was the ugly, palisaded fortress of Denholm Station. It was the most beautiful thing they had seen in weeks.
He pushed Blackthorn into a trot and heard the rest of them follow suit. He checked Blackthorn's forward plunge down the slope and let the rest go past him. Their eyes on the station, his former prisoners yelled and screamed their delight, while Rafe slapped at the rumps of the slower mounts and kept an eye to their backtrail.
A chubby, middleaged blond called Irene, never a very good rider, took one look at the angle of their descent and screamed in fear, squeezing her eyes tightly shut. Clutching madly at saddle horn and mane, she lost her reins but managed to stay in the saddle during the worst moments when the horses slid stifflegged, set back on their haunches, and snorting their indignation.
Rafe snatched up the reins before her horse stepped on them and rode beside her down the mountain. Branches whipped at them, undergrowth grabbed and scraped at unprotected legs. Scratched and shaken, they reached a place where it was not quite so steep, among overhanging trees. They wanted to rest. To all of them trees meant safety, but Rafe shoved Irene's reins into her hands, yanked his broad-brimmed hat off, and slapped right and left at equine rumps, keeping them moving.
Gradually, the slope became less steep. They were nearly twothirds of the way to the station and all the horses were still on their feet. Moving slowly, but still up. Rafe looked back and saw the Simes behind them. "Move! Move! Don't stop for anything!"
The Simes were afoot. They could easily outrun the tired horses. Even as he thought it, Rafe saw Tom's horse stumble. It didn't go down, but the end was near.
Ahead, the ancient trees grew so thick the ground beneath them was like a park. But...there had once been some heavy logging in this area. Rafe's trained eyes spotted a change in the undergrowth. "This way! Follow me!"
They burst through a ragged growth of bushes. Here the trees were younger and the ground was covered with bushes, vines, and Lord preserve them!...brambles!
Blackthorn didn't hesitate as Rafe gave him the signal to jump, but gathered his muscles and went over the thickest patch. The other horses, accustomed these last days to following the stallion, came after with more or less mixed results, but Rafe was satisfied that they had not trampled the bushes too badly.
Holding them all to a ruthless pace, Rafe led them through the underbrush and young trees. Low branches slapped and scratched them. Ripped and bloodied, they finally won their way onto the old logging road. It was easier going now, and the horses seemed to take heart.
Behind them were some angry and alarmed shouts and Rafe grinned. The Simes had run into the thorns. Rafe knew it would take the Simes a while to get through or around that thicket. No Sime would risk damaging his forearms, where his tender and vitally important lateral tentacles were sheathed.
He rode behind the rest now, still chivvying their tired mounts. Blackthorn was the only horse with anything still left in him. Ahead of them the logging road opened up into the wide meadow around the station. It was time to yell for help. With his free hand Rafe pulled a heavy, wide-muzzled gun from a holster looped over the saddlebow. Pointing it at the sky, he pulled the trigger. There was a white, smoky flash followed by a pop high above the trees. The flare burst, arcing a bloodred cry for help against the sky.
"It's hopeless, isn't it, SimeSider?" Harry dropped back to ride beside him, twisting in the saddle, staring at the woods behind them. He had their only other gun, the rifle Rafe had given to Joy. The stocky woman was an exPatroller, who could both ride and shoot at the same time and still be counted on to hit something. Rafe looked at the other riders who were still grimly forging on ahead. Joy was in the lead, holding onto Irene's reins. She glanced back at him. Her square-jawed face was not lovely, but there was something indomitable about her. "Take the lead!" he yelled. "Harry and I are rear guard!"
She nodded, kicked her horse a little harder, and somehow, just like that, was in command.
There was a manic glitter in Harry's red-rimmed dark eyes. "I've known all along I wasn't going to make it. It's my Fate. They killed my Nancy and my little Angelina. I have nothing left to live for...except to make sure my babies have the blood of Simes to carry them to Heaven. The Church promises, `They that die, reddened with the blood of retribution, shall be lifted up in the arms of the Lord.'" Harry's voice shook with unshed tears. Suddenly he threw his head back, and shaking the rifle at the sky, shouted, "Hear me, my Lord! Those I kill today will be their blood price into Your everlasting glory!"
For the first time, Rafe found in himself some fellow feeling for Harry. He still didn't like the man, but he, too, had lost people. "Joy give you all the ammunition?"
"Yes," Harry said in a more normal voice.
Rafe nodded. "Don't shoot until I tell you to."
They slowed their horses, watching the woods behind them. All too soon the leader of the Sime pack came running around the curve in the road behind them. Catching sight of the Gens waiting on the trail, they unlimbered their bullwhips, and Rafe saw the flashes of daggers and throwing knives.
Rafe leveled his shotgun. "Fire!"
Harry's gut spat and a Sime went down with a cry. Then he was working the trigger steadily. Rafe's own weapon, a shotgun, was working just as steadily and to devastating effect. He sent Blackthorn toward the Simes and coolly emptied the shotgun into their midst.
The Simes bolted for the cover of the trees to either side of the trail, and Rafe pulled Harry around and headed up the path, holding Blackthorn to the stumbling pace of Harry's gelding.
A bullwhip snaked out of the bushes beside Harry, laying a lash across his shoulders as its wielder tried to snag the rifle from the man's grip. But Harry held on and Rafe's shotgun spoke, blasting the clump of vegetation to tatters. A screaming thing pulled itself away to hide behind a fallen log.
Rafe and Harry burst from the trees into the wide meadow around Denholm Station. The others were ahead of them, but not by much. Rafe cursed emotionlessly and levered more shells into his shotgun. The horses were too far gone, the Simes too close. "Get off!" Rafe yelled. "Dismount! Run for it!"
Harry wrenched his mount's head around and started back, reloading the rifle with urgent hands. Rafe let him go, aware suddenly that the Simes were virtually ignoring Harry and the other Gens and converging on him. He smiled thinly. They must have raised the reward on me again.
He turned Blackthorn to the side, away from Denholm. Behind him he heard Harry's rifle speak in deadly accents, but the Simes stayed with Rafe. Well, it's not the first time I've been bait.
A whip cracked, biting into Blackthorn's rump. This was not a wise act. The horse squealed and spun to attack the closing Simes. Rafe fired the shotgun into a man's startled face. The stallion's lungings brought Denholm Station into view for a moment, and Rafe saw that only half of his group had done what he'd told them to do, which was to dismount and run for it. The rest were futilely trying to kick foundering horses into motion and falling behind.
Despairing for them, Rafe jammed the empty shotgun under his thigh and pulled his long bootknife. There was no time to reload. Blackthorn, as he was trained to do, kept whirling, biting and kicking with deadly accuracy. Knowing the rhythm of his horse's moves, Rafe balanced easily, parrying blows, catching whips, and slashing Simes who tried to leap onto him. It was almost a dance.
Another glimpse of the meadow showed uniformed men rising like magic from concealed bunkers in the sere grass, weapons firing at the Simes who were pursuing those on foot. Some of the fleeing prisoners had already reached safety behind the Border Patrollers' lines.
Rafe didn't have time to feel relief. Harry, still working the rifle, was caught in a circle of Simes, and it looked as if he were going to get the death he craved. In that moment of inattention, Rafe felt Sime hands clutch at his shirt, yanking him off balance, nearly pulling him from the saddle.
Blackthorn, his small ears flat to a snake-like skull, whipped around, nearly folding himself double to sink teeth into the Sime at his side. The Sime fell away, blood spurting from his shoulder.
Rafe clutched the saddle as Blackthorn reared to batter another Sime with his forefeet.
Rafe looked for Harry. The man lay asprawl on his back in the trampled grass, his shirt sleeves ripped to shreds, his bare arms crisscrossed with welts-burn marks from the Sime's killing draw. His dead face was set in a grin of triumph.
The last of the prisoners was being pulled to safety behind the Patrollers' lines, who were laying down a withering fire, much of it directed in Rafe's direction. Shen! Rafe swore in Simelan. There was no one left to save but himself, and he'd better get himself out of here before his own side filled him full of holes. He'd rather face the Simes. They were, after all, intent on taking him alive.
Rafe flattened himself against Blackthorn's neck and shouted a plea into the small black ears. Blackthorn responded with a leap, hitting the Simes in front of him with one heavy shoulder, bowling them over before they knew what had happened.
Within three long strides the stallion was in full flight, moving down the logging road that ran just inside the woods. Close behind, the Simes howled exultantly and regrouped for the chase, ignoring the Patrollers and the Gen prisoners. They were on their way into Gen Territory in determined pursuit of the prize of the century.
Time ceased to have any meaning. There was just the rhythmic thud of Blackthorn's hooves against the dirt track, the pistonlike drive of the broad shoulders under his knees. Automatically Rafe ducked the bare, reaching branches stretched across his path, listening to the sounds behind him. The shouting had long since faded, and that in itself gave him a small feeling of encouragement. Simes could run as fast or faster than a horse, but it burned up selyn at a tremendous rate. Over long distances they had to fall back to a more normal pace or risk going into need at a time when there might be no Gens around to feed upon.
All depended on how crazed with pain and greed they were. If they did not do the sensible, the logical thing, he was lost. As if the thought produced it, he heard the light pad of feet behind him. Turning in the saddle, he saw, just out of shotgun range, an easily running female Sime. She grinned at him and raised an arm, all handling tentacles fully extended. It was not a salute. Rafe turned back, attending to where Blackthorn put his feet on the rabbithole-infested trail. He was well satisfied.
If he couldn't get free of one lone Sime, he deserved to be caught. The rest of them were along the trail behind him, running slowly, conserving their strength until he was run to earth.
He was nearly off the mountain now, well into Gen Territory, though little enough his pursuers cared for that when there was no border guard around to force them back. The land stretched flat and slightly downhill in a clean sweep to the plain where the White Water River rippled its way south. He angled Blackthorn to the left and came out of the forest into ground swept by a forest fire the year before.
Charred stumps pointed upwards like accusing skeleton fingers. The ground was covered with a thick layer of ash that dulled the sound of Blackthorn's hooves. With no cover to dissipate his life field, Rafe knew he stood out like a midwinter bonfire. The Sime could hardly miss him. Which was exactly what he wanted.
When Rafe was fairly sure, without actually turning around to look, that his tail was at the edge of the fireburn, he gave the stallion a signal. Obediently Blackthorn slowed, stumbled to a halt, and at Rafe's urging moved forward with a pathetic, wincing hobble. The SimeSider dismounted, throwing a challenging look at the Sime, who had by this time come out into the open to watch with avid, greedy eyes. But she made no move to come closer as Rafe ran a hand down the stallion's leg and shook his head, playing to his audience. He let concern and worry seep into his field as he hunkered down to examine the hoof.
A jeering laugh broke the silence, but when Rafe swung around, his shotgun ready, the female was gone. He listened intently, head cocked a bit to one side. Faintly came the sound of someone crashing unheedingly through underbrush, as if she were in too much of a hurry to take a longer path.
Rafe gathered up the reins and tugged the horse into halting motion, leading him towards the greening forest on his left and the creek that ran down out of the heights. As he walked, Rafe counted under his breath. Two minutes went by. He gave it another minute just to be safe, before leaping once more into the saddle and fleeing out of the burn into the thin cover of the trees. The little rest had helped Blackthorn, but all too soon the stallion's breathing was coming ever more ragged, and his great strides did not have the springing rhythm that told of strength still in reserve.
But by then they were almost to Deer Creek. Thankfully Rafe sent the horse down between the sheltering banks of the creek. Their life fields, his and the horse's, would be shielded by the earth and dissipated by the limbs of the trees overhead. If any Sime were close enough to track him solely by field sense, it might seem as if he had dropped out of the world. He turned the horse upstream, back the way they had come. Because of the treacherous footing, he kept the stallion to a walk despite the desperate need to hurry.
In the distant past, someone had dug out a place on a hillside above Deer Creek for a home. When it was new, the entire front had been exposed, bringing air and light into what was essentially a concrete cave. But over hundreds of years, earthslides and tree roots had managed to bury all of it. At some time Junkers, men who sought out Ancient metal, had removed the front door, leaving a gaping hole. Several years before, Rafe had found it, and thinking it would make a good hiding place, he had replaced the door with a barrier of lashed saplings layered with dirt.
Now, as he dismounted from a weary Blackthorn, he barely recognized the place and thought for a few panicky seconds he'd misjudged the distance, before finding the entrance buried under a layer of vines. Pushing them aside, he set his shoulder to the makeshift door, levering it aside. The air inside was musty and cool, smelling of leaf mold...and something else.
At the smell, Thorn's little ears shot forward and his eyes showed the whites as he neighed, nervously pulling back against the reins Rafe still held in his hands. The SimeSider wrapped them around a convenient branch and stepped over the threshold. A dry rustling spread through the gloomy interior. There was a general ripple of movement across the floor and as Rafe's eyes adjusted to the dim light, he realized the place was ankle deep in sluggish reptiles.
"Eh, gads!" he muttered involuntarily, taking a step backwards. After a moment he realized they were mostly bull, black, garter and grass snakes, all nonpoisonous. That wasn't to say there couldn't be a few timber rattlers mixed in with them, but poisonous and nonpoisonous snakes did not tend to den together. "Great," he muttered. "Just the sort of company I've always wanted to spend time in the dark with."
He stepped inside and the lethargic reptiles coiled slowly out of his path. There really weren't as many as he had first thought. Cautiously he set about clearing the animals from the center of the room, nudging a few particularly heavy sleepers out of the way with a booted foot.
Having cleared a large space, he went back for Blackthorn and firmly led him inside. The horse was inclined to be skittish about his new quarters, rolling his eyes and snorting his displeasure. But he was too tired to make the kind of fuss he'd have liked to make.
"Don't be such a sissy," Rafe said in affectionate exasperation as he soothed the big horse. "It's either this or pulling a plow in Sime Territory." Fairly sure the stallion would hold his ground, even though he was shifting nervously from hoof to hoof, Rafe went back outside for the few minutes it took to erase their tracks and resettle the vines around the makeshift door.
That barrier pulled tightly shut, he felt his way back to the stallion in the musty darkness. Disturbed snakes undulated their way across his feet and wound briefly around his ankles. "There's nothing like affectionate reptiles," he muttered, reaching for Blackthorn's neck and throwing an arm across it. "I wish I had some light in here."
As his eyes adjusted, Rafe realized it wasn't as completely black as it ought to have been. There was just barely enough illumination for him to see the stallion, a blackness against a lighter blackness, but that little was entirely too much. He stared upward in alarm. "Rafe, my boy," he said, "you've got to be more careful what you wish for." The house had been built with a skylight, and though the glass was opaque and covered over with dirt and leaves, Rafe could practically see his life field streaming upwards...a beacon for the hunt.
It was too late now to do anything about it. He stood by the stallion's head, caressing the sweatsoaked neck and speaking soft words. Blackthorn's small ears twitched in acknowledgement of that familiar and beloved voice. He reached around and rested his weary head on Rafe's shoulder. The man staggered a bit under the weight but never took his eyes off the skylight.
When Blackthorn finally moved his head, the SimeSider moved back against the decaying masonry, tucking a booted foot under himself and settling back to wait against the wall with his shotgun across his knee. His free hand went to his shirt pocket and fumbled with the lid of a heavy cardboard box. He reached in with two fingers and extracted a lemon ball, which he popped into his mouth. His eyes remained steady on the skylight.
A little more time went by. Something started scraping at the debris over the glass. Rafe swore softly and thumbed the hammers back on his gun, bringing the muzzle up.
Dimly, through the scratched and sun-discolored glass, he could make out two hands pushing aside the dirt. The oval shape of a head peered down at him for a moment and then vanished.
Rafe's eyes flickered to the entrance of what had now become a trap, absent-mindedly cracking the lemon ball between his teeth. Then the glow from the glass disappeared as leaves were hastily shoved back over the skylight. Rafe lifted an eyebrow in mild puzzlement. In the now complete darkness he heard a small thump overhead as if something had been placed across the skylight. He pulled absently at his lower lip while he considered the meaning of this new development.
Evan Trandolphic was digging, in a rather discouraged way, into the side of a small mound. He'd left small excavations like this up and down the border for ten miles. He would much rather have been searching for the Beran Library, but his most promising lead was currently overrun by Raiders. He was waiting, with what patience he could muster, until they left. He had nothing against Raiders, really. They just weren't the kind of people he cared to associate with, and besides...they didn't much like strangers at their camps.
His shovel bit into something that felt different from leaf mold and clay. He leaned over, brushing at the dirt and smiling a little when he uncovered iron rust. He had another Ancient dump site. It wasn't the Beran Library, but it wasn't totally valueless either.
Given a thousand years, even the Ancients' incredibly durable metals were decaying. It was a pity they hadn't taken better care of this irreplaceable resource. Ceramics and glass could be made to do only so much.
"A fine mess they left us," he groused, not for the first time. "If they were going to destroy civilization, the least they could have done was leave the survivors something besides a metalbased technology when they knew they were running out of ore."
So far he'd gleaned one Ancient glass bottle, small bits of tarnished jewelry from some farmer's hoard, odds and ends of glass and plastic, and a small collection of brass and iron. None of this last was useful for the Bandegog Institute, as it was all modern stuff. He kept it separate to be sold to the smithies, in-Territory. He was only a stringer at the institute, and he didn't earn much from his archeological work. He didn't mind sidelining as a Junker. His pride wasn't that puffed up.
He kicked at a lump of clay and something bright orange caught his eye. Carefully he eased the object out of the surrounding soil with a hand trowel. Almost tenderly he pried the dirt and clay out of the edges and angles of the small thing with the tips of his handling tentacles. It looked like a child's toy, made from that strange material called plastic that was either indestructible or only fell apart into colored dust. This had survived a thousand years.
He held the object to the light, turning it around in his tentacles. It teased him with its familiarity, but he couldn't quite place what it was. Suddenly his head came up, and all thought of the small plastic thing in his hands evaporated.
His mouth went dry, and he felt ill at his stomach as he hit the ground and lay there. He had not noticed the other approach. The field was strong and very close by. How could even the Gen Monster sneak up on a Sime? Then that cold, frightening field disappeared. Completely.
Slowly, Evan gathered himself up and eeled closer to the top of the mound he had been working on. There was just the faintest trace of the Gen's field. His head swiveled as Evan, puzzled and wary, sought the source. Icy Nager was underground, of course. Gens were like moles in that respect.
Shoving the Ancient plastic toy in his shirt, Evan followed that telltale glow to the top of the hill. The ghostly, rich radiation was filtering up from among loosely scattered leaves. He knelt down, pushing aside the debris, and sunlight glinted off a small patch of glass. He leaned over, trying to peer into the darkness below, and then yanked his head back as he realized what a foolish thing he'd just done. But perhaps no harm had been done. The Gen field, for all its coldness, was calm and almost at ease. Obviously, Icy Nager felt safe in his hole.
Evan backed away, zlinning, extending his senses to their farthest. There was a group of Simes coming his way. Angry, vengeful Simes in hunting mode.
Perhaps it was respect. Perhaps it was gratitude and guilt for using the Gen to raise his intil for his last Kill. Perhaps it was just the Sime instinct to keep a Kill for himself. Or perhaps it was all of these or none. Evan, in later years, could never say what it was that made him cover the glass in leaves and dirt and finally drop his pack on top of the skylight for added insulation.
He was quietly brewing tea on top of the hill when the hunters swarmed out of the woods. He had known from the first that these were not Raiders, Licensed or Unlicensed. He opened his dark blue eyes in surprise as he recognized several farmers, a couple of merchants and the Prime Gen dealer from the inTerritory town of Renault. Schooling his emotions to a serene flatness, he waited for them to approach.
The hunters were in a fine temper, their clothing torn and ripped from pushing through brambles, their legs and bodies scratched. Some were bruised, a couple were bleeding slightly from shotgun pellets, a few showed knife cuts. All of them showed signs of selyn depletion caused by a long and hard run. They eyed him with suspicion, openly zlinning him.
Ignoring that breach of good manners, the archeologist sipped his tea tranquilly, knowing his field was just past turnover, too low to have taken a recent Kill. "Ho, Bortolmin, what are you doing around here?" he called cheerfully to one of the merchants.
The short Sime peered at him uncertainly. "We're hunting a Wild Gen. Have you seen one?"
"No," Evan replied truthfully, and let them see his interest. "You mean there's one around here? There's so many of you, what do you mean to do with it, when you catch it?"
"None of your business!" another man snapped.
Evan, looking him over, finally recognized in the battered, grubby figure the usually welldressed owner of the Predent Genfarm. The man flushed under his scrutiny, but his field held challenge. Evan ignored it.
"What are you doing around here?" Predent demanded truculently. He had to look upward at Evan, seated on his little hill, and that exasperated the man more than anything else.
"Working," Evan replied, amused. "What are you doing here, breaking the treaty, hunting Gens on the wrong side of the border? Or have you received your license?"
The man eyed him suspiciously, not answering. A woman, as torn, worn and scratched as the men, came up, glanced at Evan and then pulled on the Genfarmer's sleeve. "That's just Trandolphic. He's all right. He's a Junker. We see him in Renault all the time."
"Well, Mantrada!" Evan called delightedly. "What are you doing woodsrunning, lovely one? Will I see you when I come in with my haul this season?"
She blew him a kiss. "Look me up at the Happy Haze when you come to town, Tan'delm'ga, and bring your money."
"I yearn for the day, beloved," Evanthal murmured, his eyes twinkling. She laughed as she walked away with the others, and he saluted her with his cup. Evan remained where he was for a long time, zlinning the hunt. Once satisfied that they had moved off towards Yetter Station and Five Mile Pass, he got to his feet.
Stretching leisurely, he kicked dirt over the fire, tossing the remainder of the tea over the hot coals, where they hissed and raised a small cloud of steam. He bent over to pick up the pack and as he did so, the entire skylight, frame and all, gave way beneath him.
Desperately he flung his hands out, but there was nothing to grab. He plunged feet first into the hole, lit incredibly bright by the field of the waiting and deadly Gen. Reflexively protecting his forearms and the vulnerable lateral tentacles, he landed awkwardly, his feet slipping on the glass, leaves and dirt, unable to get any kind of purchase. He fell over onto his back, arms safe, but his heavy pack landed on his chest and briefly knocked the wind out of him. He found himself staring up into the twin dark holes of a shotgun aimed unwaveringly at his head. He lay very still.
The Gen's field filled the space under the roof with a metallic bronze glow backed by a powerful will and deadly purpose. That was not what sent chills of fear down Evan's back. He'd met Gens willing to kill before.
All creatures capable of even the most meager thoughts had feelings. He'd lived his life touching other lives and being touched by them. He knew, always, what those around him were feeling. But there was no emotion in this Gen. Evan shuddered away from it. The Gen was obscene! Unclean! A whimper broke from his throat as to his horror the Gen Monster tried fumblingly to mesh fields with him. He wanted to scream and claw away from the icecold trickles violating his very essence of being. Instinctively he switched to hypoconsciousness, cutting off his awareness of that alien emptiness. Without the feel of it against his own nager he found himself able to draw breath.
He lay still, sweating with fear, knowing that to move was to court certain death. After a while it occurred to him that it was taking the Gen a very long time to pull that trigger. He opened his eyes. The silence between them was filled with the harshness of his own gasping. And still the fearsome Gen made no move.
Evan shifted his gaze from the twin holes of the shotgun to the face above. Remote gray eyes watched him unblinkingly. The Gen's face was long, with craggy features as unrevealing as the Gen's nager. He was tall and broad shouldered, bigger by half than Evan himself. The Gen was unshaven and unwashed, long hair lank with sweat and dirt. His long-sleeved brown shirt was in rags and tatters except where a brown leather vest protected it. Even that showed fresh scratches and rough patches where the leather had been rubbed violently against something. Where his skin showed through the rents in his clothing, it was covered with scratches and welts and a few whip marks thrown in for variation. Mingled with the sour odor of a tired, sweaty Gen was the scent of lemon.
He remembered something whispered about Icy Nager. It gave him enough courage to essay a grin. "I know you," Evan said, trying to sound nonchalant around the constriction in his throat. Instead he just sounded hoarse...and scared.
"Figured," said the Gen. In that loathsome field was a flash of humor, which ran along Evan's mind and nerves like a cascade of quicksilver since the Gen's field was so close that it overlapped his own.
It was a clean emotion, pure enjoyment, free of hate. Evan gasped from the surprise of it and blurted out, "The others, those who were hunting you, are gone away up towards Five Mile Pass." Unthinkingly, he'd spoken in Simelan, and the Gen answered him in the same language.
"Good to know."
Silence fell between them again. Evan studied the fabled Icy Nager and realized the Gen was so physically worn out that it was a wonder he was still on his feet, yet he was all the more dangerous for that. He might decide to kill a Sime he was too tired to watch properly.
"Yes?" Icy Nager prompted, with gentle mockery.
"I didn't say anything."
"Forgive me. You looked as if you wanted to."
"They say you don't kill unless you're attacked," Evan said a little desperately, switching to English so he would have no doubts the other understood him.
The Gen shifted something into his cheek, where it made a bulge against the dirty, unshaven jaw. There was a strong scent of lemon. Finally he said, "Some truth to that."
"Because if you aren't going to shoot me," Evan said, taking a chance and getting to his elbows, "I'd like to know what kind of snake is crawling under my shirt."
The Gen grinned and there was another quicksilver run of joy along the Sime's nerves. "Worried about a snake, when you're here, alone with Icy Nager?"
"One must have one's priorities," Evan agreed. And then more hopefully, "Are you going to surrender now?"
That fearsome field shifted, splintered, dissolved away as the big Gen laughed silently, his shoulders shaking. For a second or two he was totally vulnerable, but Evan was too surprised and awed by the change in that field to take advantage of it.
He was bathed in a nager-warm, complex, sensitive, laid over with a wry astringency and powered by such a strength of will and trained concentration that he was profoundly thankful the Gen wasn't angry about anything. He would have curled up like a salted mealworm. "Nice to know I can bring so much joy into the world," Evan commented.
Still chuckling, the Gen eased away from him, out from under the hole in the roof. One step...then two, the shotgun never wavering. When Icy Nager was against the wall, he tucked up one foot behind himself and rested the weapon on his raised knee.
Evan turned his head, following this retreat, if that was what it was. The Gen was entirely in shadow now, while Evan lay in a bright pool of sunshine, which he was sharing with a growing number of serpents. The Gen's field, no longer brassy, filled the entire shelter with a soft golden glow.
A cool, muscular body squirmed on his stomach, and Evan cast an alarmed glance in that direction, but he couldn't see anything because of the pack still resting on his chest.
"It's just a bull snake," Icy Nager volunteered, quietly.
"Thanks," Evan said with real gratitude.
The silence began again. The Gen broke it this time. "Mostly," Icy Nager said meditatively, "Simes I meet either are too scared to say anything, or they curse me. Picked up some interesting tentacle talk over the years. Pity I can't use any of it." He sucked reflectively on the lemon ball.
"Can I move this pack now?" Evan asked hopefully. "It's getting hard to breathe."
"Truce?" Icy Nager asked.
"Truce," Evan agreed, shaky with relief. He retracted all tentacles tightly in their sheaths. "I cry truce to be kept for..." He cocked an eyebrow at the Gen.
"The next five hours."
"All right," Evan agreed. "A truce for five hours. Can I sit up now?"
"You can count on it. I don't want to get bitten." With quick movements of his hands, unable to use his tentacles because of the truce, Evan cleared his immediate vicinity of reptiles. Then he lifted the pack and set it to one side, all without moving his stomach. With a fast, smooth motion, he lifted his shirt, grabbed the bull snake with his other hand and tossed it to one side, away from Icy Nager. He finished and looked up to find himself being closely regarded by both the Gen and the horse.
He hadn't had the leisure to pay much attention to the stallion before this. Folding his legs under himself tailor-fashion beside the pack, he nodded at the horse. "Nice animal. Looks like he might be out of the Seodre stables."
"He's wartrained," Icy Nager commented.
There wasn't much to say to that, but at least it accounted for the attention he was getting from the horse. One wrong move and a ton or so of stallion would batter him into pulp. No wonder Icy Nager could afford to accept the truce of a Sime he didn't know. Evan moved a little and the pebbled glass from the skylight shifted under him with a faint chiming. "Gens spend so much time underground that another name for Gens is `moles.' Except you, of course, you're more like a badger."
"I'm a weasel with an attitude?"
"I was trying to compliment you. But now that you mention it..." Evan said thoughtfully, studying the other man, head to one side. He knew he was pushing the moment, but he was rewarded for his impudence by another ripple of Gennish amusement through the ambient.
The amusement faded away, replaced by deadly seriousness. "What are you doing on the wrong side of the mountains?" the Gen asked.
Evan pushed a stray lock of black hair out of his eyes before answering. "I'm an archeologist."
There was the merest movement of the shotgun towards the pack now sitting in the rubble beside Evan. "You do a little Junking on the side."
"Well..." said Evan a bit sullenly. "Archeology doesn't pay all that much. I have to make a living where I can."
"From Bandegog Institute in Moriathon," he said proudly.
"Heard of it," Icy Nager said surprisingly. "They do good work."
Evan's mouth dropped open. A Gen knew of Bandegog?
"So," said Icy Nager, nodding at the pack. "Let me see what you've collected for this institute of yours."
Moving slowly, so as not to startle the big Gen or the horse, Evanthal undid the pack straps. The pack was an ingenious thing he'd made himself. It was arranged to unfold in sections so he could get out his tools, or his camping gear, or store small items without undoing the whole thing. Concealed in the center, in a special padded compartment, were his real finds-the stuff he saved for the institute.
He undid the section that held the few small items which might be depended upon to take a Gen's interest. He spread a cloth and laid on it some bits of blackened silver jewelry, a gold ring and corroded coins, as well as the small amount of metal he'd collected. Even though they had a truce, he figured the Gen would take the jewelry and metal to sell on his side of the border. Gens were just as short of metal as Simes were.
Icy Nager didn't move from his place against the wall. "No wonder you can't make a living at archeology. None of that would interest the Bandegog."
Evan looked up at him, startled. Then, stung in his professional pride, he swept the jewelry up and recklessly opened the inner, secret compartment, exposing to view the glass bottle, a ceramic tile, the pieces of plastic he'd thought worth saving, and a few really old coins. Unfolding a bit of leather, he laid a colored marble silently among the rest. "This is what I've found in the last week."
The Gen came closer, squatting on his heels just on the edge of the sunshine. The shotgun was held across his knees in the manner of a man who has carried a thing so long that it has become a part of him. "A marble?" he asked, reaching out a grimy forefinger to gently touch it.
"I found it two feet below the soil level, beside an Ancient foundation. It's older by almost a century than the bottle. You can tell from the bit of color inside. It's what the Ancients called a `catseye.'" As Evan spoke, he studied the Gen from under lowered brows.
"I've heard of `catseyes,'" the Gen said, "but I've never seen one before."
Evan laid the plastic bits he'd collected in a careful row in front of the Gen, moving back a bit so the other wouldn't feel crowded, and put his hands on his knees. He waited expectantly. He wasn't to be disappointed.
Laying the marble to one side, the Gen leaned forward, intent on those bits of once-colorful plastic. Sun-browned, squaretipped fingers picked them up one by one and examined them. Icy Nager picked up the last thing Evan had found, the orange child's toy, turned it over and studied the underside, scraping at the bottom with a fingernail.
"What is it?" Evan asked.
"I thought I felt a roughness on the bottom. Sometimes these things have letters stamped on them, like maker's marks."
Evan held out his hand. "Let me see. I've got some cleaner here."
Without a qualm, Icy Nager dropped the bit of plastic into his hand. Evan kept his eyes down, keeping to himself the shock he felt at the Gen's action. Not even Icy Nager should behave with such lunatic trust around a Sime.
He reached into his pack for the bottle of soapy water and a stiff little brush. He worked over the brittle plastic carefully, dried it on a cloth and handed it back to the Gen, who took it as casually from his fingers as he had dropped it into them.
"I looked at it, but I'm not trained in Ancient languages," Evan said honestly. "It doesn't mean a thing to me."
The Gen pulled a small magnifying glass from a pants pocket and peered into it, holding the plastic carefully. "I can't make out the first line. There are some numbers: 1, 9, 7, 8...followed by the word `United' and some words that we don't know yet. The numbers are part of the Ancients' dating system. The last line reads: `Product of Hong Kong.' `Product' means something made. `Hong Kong' is the Ancient name for a great city on the other side of the world."
For the second time since meeting the Gen, Evan's mouth dropped open.
The Gen slipped the magnifying glass back into his pocket, frowning down at the little figure between his fingers. He traced the lines of the "face" with a dirty nail. "It's a cat, I think. A very stylized and fat cat. It could be a fertility symbol..." His words trailed away as he pulled at his lower lip, deep in thought.
"Cats don't require anything to make them fertile," Evan said positively.
The Gen grinned and quicksilver joy ran along Evan's nerves again. He wondered if it could become addictive. He'd never felt Gen joy before. Hadn't even realized they could feel such a light emotion. Evan had a crazy urge to extend his laterals and bask in the glow of Icy Nager's field the way he'd seen captured Wild Gens hold their hands to a fire. "In my experience, such a thing is more likely to be a toy."
The Gen nodded. "Possible. We know so little about the Ancients."
"How come you're so familiar with the Ancient language?" Evan asked.
The Gen was idly turning over another piece of plastic, looking for more maker's marks. "It's a hobby of mine."
"For Icy Nager, you mean?" The big Gen shrugged. "We all have our faults." His hand hovered over a pocket of the backpack, out of which poked the plugged end of a small glass vacuum bottle containing a piece of paper. Evan had, in truth, forgotten about it until then and made a quick protective movement, just as quickly aborted. The Gen picked it up. "It's in fairly good condition, for something six hundred years old. Where did you get it?"
"I bought it on my way out."
"Do you know what it says?"
Evan shrugged. "I've read it, but it doesn't make any sense to me."
"It's a fragment of poetry."
"How can you tell?" Evan asked. "It doesn't rhyme. It doesn't even scan."
"You have to read it as the person who wrote it would. We're still using the same alphabet and the same words, but there was a great change in the English language about five hundred years ago. Vowels have a different value now than they did back then. Spelling has changed, too." Slowly the Gen read the words on the paper, inflecting them strangely, but the rhythm of poetry was there all right. Then the Gen explained what the more obscure words meant. Evan listened to the Gen's deep, quiet voice with keen appreciation mixed with amusement that he, a Sime, was getting a lecture from Icy Nager.
Currents within the Gen's field were trying to match with his own again, and Evan had been automatically shifting his field gradient ever so slightly to hold the other off. The Gen couldn't realize what he was doing, of course. While Evan would have been greatly insulted if another Sime had attempted such an intimacy only permitted among family and longtime close friends, Evan shrugged this off. Icy Nager was, after all, only a Gen.
Gens didn't mesh with Simes. Gens were for fear and pain and dying. It didn't matter that Evan, personally, had never been able to take the kind of pleasure most Simes took in a Kill. That was the way it was. The way it would always be.
Could Gens mesh with Simes? Suddenly Evan was curious to see what effect a mesh would have on a Gen. And for that matter, what effect it would have on him. Curiosity was always his most besetting sin. He stopped shifting the field gradient and waited.
Surprisingly, it didn't take Icy Nager very long to find the right resonance. There was a tiny instant of hesitation, and then their fields meshed with the feeling of a cog slipping into a longawaited gear. Instantly Evan was keenly aware of the Gen's selyn production and under that the other's emotional state and beneath that his physical state of health and under that...the selyn flows. Suddenly the Gen was nothing but patterns of selyn, coruscating, flashing, vibrant. Along both arms the patterns were threaded with thin gray lines, the marks of an old nerve burn. The patterns flowed around and through them, not greatly impeded or distorted, except in one place, low on the left wrist.
Evan pulled back with a gasp, afraid of losing himself within that flaming core of life force. He flashed a look at the Gen, who was still lecturing, turning the vacuum capsule over in his hands, unaware of what had just happened between them. Shaken, Evan broke off contact completely, going hypoconscious. But the last impression he took with him was that the Gen's selyn production, rather sluggish up till then, had picked up speed.
The whole episode lasted perhaps three seconds, and Evan had recovered his balance by the time the Gen finished his little lecture and looked up at him. "It's rare to find someone who knows anything at all about the Ancients, or cares," the archeologist said.
But Icy Nager wasn't listening. He was reaching for the field notebook in which Evan kept track of his findings. The Gen slowly thumbed through it, as if, Evan thought, he could read it.
"Meticulous notes," the Gen said, looking up. "You're a credit to your profession. And I don't say that about many people."
In an effort to hide his astonishment Evan said, "Do you have many people you can discuss your work with?"
Icy Nager eyed him warily. "Not many. But I make up for it by writing papers for The Etymological Review."
"I've never heard of it."
"I'm not surprised. It's a scientific journal devoted to deciphering the Ancient language. I doubt if very many copies get into Sime hands," Icy Nager said dryly. "Written language is not something Simes are good at."
"Icy Nager, have you ever heard of the Beran Library?" Evan asked, to his own astonishment.
"Are you interested in finding it?"
"What!?" Evan was indignant. "How can you say that, of all people? You love words! The Beran Library held more books than any library since before the time of Chaos. And it is around here, somewhere! How can you know that and not go looking?"
"My time is rather taken up by...other matters," the Gen said coolly.
"What could be more important than..." Evan started impetuously and stopped himself, flushing with embarrassment.
The chill ebbed out of the Gen's field, replaced by gentle amusement. "Well, staying alive is rather high on my agenda."
"Sorry," said Evan, not quite sure what he was apologizing for. "It's just that the greatest of all treasures is knowledge, and somewhere along this part of the border was one of the finest Ancient libraries in existence. If we found those books we would have access to all of the Ancients' knowledge. We could rebuild the whole world!"
"A nice dream, Sime, but not too likely. A library that size couldn't just disappear. It was probably burned or something. All I know is that I've never come across word of it." Tiredly the Gen got to his feet. "I think it is time I left here before we get into a discussion of Ancient knowledge. It could take all night."
Evan watched from where he still sat in the sunlight, as the Gen led his horse to the door. Icy Nager paused on the threshold and looked back at him over one shoulder. "You want to look for junk, Ancient treasure, or even the Beran Library, you can do it with my good will. But if you ever Kill on this side of the border, and I find out about it...I'll come hunting you."
Their eyes met. Soberly Evan said, "I give you my word, Icy Nager, I will not Kill on this side of the border."
The other nodded. "Good enough. They call Simes a lot of things, but `liar' isn't one of them." He put his shoulder to the wooden door and shoved. Sunlight flooded into the room, high-lighting, for a moment, the Gen's craggy profile.
"Icy Nager, wait!" Evan called impulsively, leaping to his feet.
The Gen turned once more, waiting politely, the stallion nudging impatiently to get out the door. The warmth and complexity were emptying out of the Gen's nager, turning him cold and remote.
Evan hurried into speech before he lost his courage. "Be careful..." and then stopped because he simply did not know what else to say.
The Gen was mildly astonished. Probably no Sime had ever said that to him before. "I'm always careful," Icy Nager replied.
The mesh between them had disappeared without a trace. The Gen under the ice shell might be worn down both physically and emotionally, but the Icy Nager of legend was standing before him again, radiating only absolute strength and will power. "Icy Nager, perhaps we'll meet again, under better circumstances," he said with careful courtesy.
Icy Nager stared at him for a moment and then, his words accompanied by the merest trace of amusement, said blandly, "Better for whom?" Then he was out the door. The terrifying field was cut off by the insulating walls of the house as the horse moved away. Evan heard the stallion's hooves drumming through the woods, and then there was silence.
The Sime was left standing in the shaft of sunlight with snakes curling unnoticed across his booted feet, feeling curiously bereft.
As he rode away, Rafe slipped back into that state of intense awareness that was his shield when he was in dangerous country. Alert to the littlest things out of harmony with the world, he was usually forewarned to the presence of Simes early enough to escape detection. Arrogant in their strength and their ability to sense life fields, most Simes never gave any thought to learning woodskills. As SimeSiders said among themselves, "A deaf man could hear them coming." It was those Simes who did know their woodskills that a SimeSider had to watch out for.
The ability to put themselves into a state of preternatural awareness was the one characteristic all SimeSiders shared. It was not spoken of among them, being something for which most of them had no words, but it was there, and they recognized it when they saw it in each other. Rafe did have words for it. It was part of the training of a SoulSharer, something every Prophetstown Gen received on coming of age.
He used that awareness now, focusing on his backtrail, sure the Sime would follow him. Others had done so, although even the worst would never attack until the truce was up. The one sure thing you could say about Simes was that they did not lie. They couldn't, given the fact they could read each other's fields. There wouldn't be any point in it. But the miles slipped by under Thorn's hooves and the Sime did not follow.
He was out of the forest and following a dim track through scrubby meadows before he allowed himself to relax a bit. He was glad the blueeyed Sime hadn't followed him. He liked the archeologist.
Rafe's lips twitched into a ghost of a smile as he remembered the Sime crashing so precipitously through the roof. Rafe hadn't been nearly as surprised as the Sime, but then he'd been listening to the roof creak for an hour before the glass gave way.
BlueEyes was crazy, of course. No other Sime, or Gen for that matter, would have lain there quietly bandying words with Icy Nager while a large snake crawled under his shirt. BlueEyes made him laugh. He hadn't laughed in...how long? Months?
A rare feeling of kinship had existed between them for a time, born out of loneliness and a shared passion for the past. He hadn't had that with another person in a very long time. He sighed a little. Perhaps, in another place or another time, they could have been friends.
His road took him past one deserted farmstead after another. Once, all the land between the border stations and the White Water River had been thickly settled. The fertile croplands easily supported hundreds of thriving Gen communities. The Simes, twenty years before, had not been as numerous, the raiding not as frequent. But then had come the Vodorovic War, named after the Sime leader whose troops swept down on the border towns like the hot breath of hell, destroying everything in their wake.
A young lieutenant colonel, Ariel Cohen, had come with his army and achieved the impossible. If it had not been for Cohen's berserk defense of the White Water Plain, the Simes would have overrun the border and taken everything clear up to Cedar River. Cohen was General of the Western Army now, a national hero whose word was law along the border country. The Simes had been held at bay for twenty years, but people could not forget, and the fields and the towns devastated by Vodorovic remained deserted.
The sun was sinking, and for the first time Rafe really became aware of how torn his clothing was as the chill fingers of an evening breeze slipped through the rents. It was time to seek cover. There were several safe places along here that he had used before.
He and Blackthorn spent the night in what amounted to another overgrown root cellar, this one, happily, without snakes. He slept soundly and in the morning knew he was to pay for all those stress-filled weeks in Sime Territory. He woke mind-weary. He had no other name for this condition, where it seemed too much of an effort to think. Usually it waited until he was home. Outside of Three Oaks was not a good time for it to happen to him. Grinding weariness hung on him like a cloak as he saddled Blackthorn.
There came a place on his journey where the road divided. One way led north to Three Oaks, where he lived. The other led south, to home. He hesitated at the crossroads. Perhaps it was the thought of BlueEyes lingering in his memory that made him turn Blackthorn down the south road. The horse balked a little, knowing down which road his stable lay. Thorn was as tired as his rider and not particularly happy at this breaking of their routine.
By late morning Rafe was riding over a series of familiar rolling hills. Now gone back to prairie, they once had been covered with the wheat fields that had fed Prophetstown.
Picking up the old road, he followed it past the ruins of the mill, past the dried-up fish ponds, past J. D. Singer's farmhouse, where four generations of Singers had lived in vociferous harmony. He drew rein on the outskirts of town. Here the destruction was not as obvious as it was further in. Unwilling to view the ruined town, he turned down an overgrown track. It brought him past tumbled fences halfburied under masses of blooming raspberry bushes. The remains of an apple orchard flanked a deserted farmhouse. In a sunny, sheltered corner a lone apple tree was already in full blossom. The sweet scent filled the air and he inhaled deeply.
Then, out of nowhere, a sharp twist of grief wrenched his heart, shocking him with the sudden violence of the emotion that bent him over the saddle horn. The pain was as fresh now as it had been twenty years ago when Vodorovic destroyed his world. Slowly, like a mortally wounded man, he lifted the reins and sent Blackthorn down a road that led behind the huddle of ruins which was all that was left of the once-thriving village of Prophetstown.
Little remained of the white picket fence that had surrounded the place. He dismounted beside a wellremembered maple and just stood blindly staring, pulling Blackthorn's reins through his hands.
There was movement behind him. A Sime was around. Exhausted and grieving, he simply didn't care. Let there be one. Let there be a hundred. He was supremely indifferent.
An orange catseye marble hit the stone grave marker in front of him and bounced to his feet. BlueEyes, here? How would BlueEyes know I would be here? Slowly he bent to pick it up. The attack that he was half-expecting did not come.
* * * * *
After Icy Nager left, Evan gathered up his belongings, and taking a slightly different direction from the Gen's, headed further into Gen Territory to see if the Raiders had moved away from his archeological dig site. To his chagrin he discovered they had not been in the ruined town for nearly a week. By all the signs, they had come and gone within a day or two, which was very strange. Usually when they took over a place they stayed a while.
All that time wasted, he grumbled to himself, augmenting slightly as he worked his way through the various buildings. He was a week from need, and the promise he made to Icy Nager not to hunt in Gen Territory weighed on him. He ignored the chronic low wanting that was becoming normal for him and concentrated on looking for hidden caches or safes where Gens might have hidden papers or books. There was not, in truth, much which had been overlooked by mice or by men hunting fire fuel during the last twenty years.
He was on the second floor of a stone building near the center of town, checking the heavy oak flooring for trap doors or loose floorboards under which a Gen might have hidden a cache, when he became aware of an extremely high-field, enticing Gen approaching. Mindful of his promise to Icy Nager-and the other's promise to him-he kept at work. But the closer the Gen came, the more enticing the field became.
Finally, he slammed his hand down on a board in sheer exasperation. He had to get a look at that Gen. Sneaking among the old buildings, he remembered what it had felt like as a child to press his nose against the glass window of a bakery, drooling over the delights so close and yet so far.
To his exasperation the Gen didn't come into the town but pulled off to one side as if to ride around. The trees interfered with his zlinning, and, in an effort to get a clearer touch of that nager, he found himself edging much closer than he had originally planned.
The Gen had reined to a halt in front of an old farmhouse. His nager was unalarmed and faintly nostalgic. Evan, peeking at him from around a tree, found himself increasingly confused. He seldom remembered what Gens looked like, but that big-shouldered frame and especially the black stallion were hard to forget. Yet...it did not zlin like Icy Nager. Elements in that nager were familiar, such as the strength, the hint of astringency...the chronic weariness.
The Gen turned his head, and Evan got a good look at the craggy profile. His eyes said it was Icy Nager. His Sime senses said...no...a different Gen altogether.
While he was mentally floundering, trying to make a decision, a bolt of pure grief hit him with all the force of a field slam and left him huddled on the ground behind the tree, gasping. Instinctively going hypoconscious to get away from the crushing emotion, he pulled himself to his knees, shaken, to peer around the smooth trunk to see what the Gen was doing. Icy Nager was hunched motionless over his saddle horn as if he'd been stabbed. Gods! How could anyone bear to carry with them that kind of emotion?!
He pulled out of sight behind the tree, putting his back to the rough trunk, shocked to the core. The Gen's grief was stirring painful things in his own mind he did not want disturbed.
After a long time the stallion moved in response to a lifted rein. Evan followed, keeping himself well hidden. He did not know why he followed, except perhaps that he had known that kind of grief, too. Any being who felt like that should not be left alone. In any event the Gen didn't lead him far. Icy Nager stopped beside a tree in the old graveyard and dismounted to stand over a stone marker.
Bracing himself against the Gen's pain, Evan let himself slip out of hypoconsciousness into duoconsciousness. Icy Nager's pain had diminished, but it overlaid a conflicting core of emotions Evan felt were too private to zlin. Even a Gen Monster should be permitted his dignity. He was about to retreat from this spying when he became aware of something odd about the Gen's field.
It had a tenuous, almost invisible aura. Perhaps if the light hadn't been just right, he would never have noticed it at all. But he did notice it. It ballooned suddenly outward, and the edge brushed against his own field with a slight tingle, no more, perhaps, than that caused by a bird flying through it.
There was a slight change in the Gen's field, and in that moment Evan knew that Icy Nager knew he was there. There was no leaving now. Approaching the Gen, he stuck his hands morosely in his pockets. There was a smooth lump under one finger, and he realized he'd rather carelessly slipped the catseye marble in his pocket instead of putting it back in the pack. He took it out, turned it over in his long fingers and finally tossed it in front of the Gen Monster to announce his presence.
A ripple of recognition spread through the ambient. But it was still a long time before the Gen turned around. When he did, the pain, the anguish, and the aching loneliness crashing in endless waves through his field were decently hidden behind barriers. Tossing the marble up and down in one hand, he stood contemplating Evan a long time, and his nager was now smooth and cool, holding only a curious gentleness mingled with regret.
The gentleness mortally confused Evan after the emotional storm the Gen had just experienced. There was no reason for it. His confusion kept him standing there when he knew he should be augmenting like crazy back to the town. The regret kept him silent, unable to think of some wry or amusing comment. And so it was that the Gen spoke first.
"So. You followed me after all."
"No!" Evan hastily denied. "I was here first."
"What are you doing here, in this place?"
Evan shrugged. "Following my profession. I'm looking through the place for old books and stuff."
"Most of it is gone," the Gen said. "I took them myself. And what is left is too mouse-eaten to be useful."
"Will you allow me to continue looking?" The words caught a little in Evan's throat. He'd never asked a Gen's permission for anything, but this was Icy Nager's place. His nager screamed possessiveness.
Icy Nager's field stilled. He had not turned cold and alien, he was simply just...not feeling anything. Finally, rather to Evan's surprise, the Gen shrugged. "Very well."
Mounting the war stallion, the Gen turned to ride away.
"Before you go?"
Icy Nager looked down at him, his face in shadow under the wide brim of his hat.
"May I be permitted an observation?"
The Gen shrugged.
"Icy Nager...you melted."
The Gen gave the Sime a cold, unyielding stare. "Not hardly," he said, and rode away without looking back. There was more than a tinge of the old ice in his field.
Behind him, Evan let out a breath. He had just said a very foolhardy thing. He had let Icy Nager know that a Sime knew his secret. The Gen ought to have killed him...or tried to, anyway. Yet, he had simply ridden off. Indifferent.
Was it the indifference of supreme self-confidence, or the result of weariness in a Gen pushed beyond his limits with no energy left to fight? A Sime could take even the best-trained Gen when he was too tired to fight. A Sime could even take Icy Nager. And what Sime was going to be stupid enough to try it?
"Not I," murmured Evan to himself. But he's tired, said a sly, invidious thought winding through his mind. Perhaps no one has ever tried to take him when he's been this tired.
"Shut up!" he growled to himself. "There are faster and easier ways of committing suicide."
Icy Nager disappeared over a rise, and the archeologist walked forward to look at the grave over which Icy Nager had been standing. Anything, any movement to get his mind off the touch of that complex, rich nager that tugged at him even now.
"Quit thinking about him. You're starting to drool," Evan scolded himself.
Squatting, he pushed the dead weeds away from the granite marker. "`John Merryweather,'" he read aloud, and noted the date of death. Looking around at the other gravestones nearby, he saw a lot more Merryweathers. At least five had died at the same time as John Merryweather. The date was exactly twenty years ago to the month.
"That was the time of the Vodorovic Victory," he muttered to himself, looking around at the fallen monuments and weed-covered graves.
There was one with a more elaborate head marker. He ran his fingers over the mossy engraving. "`Evaline MerryweatherJohnson, Soul-Sharer. Beloved of her bondkin. She shall be missed,'" he read, and wondered at the strange phrases.
Rafe expected the blue-eyed Sime to ambush him on the road and was distantly grateful when he was left in peace. The bone-crushing exhaustion that rode with him north robbed all things of urgency, including the knowledge that a Wild Sime knew his true nager. He supposed he ought to have killed the Sime. Leaving him alive was very, very dangerous. But the simple truth was that he didn't want to. He was a SimeSider, not a murderer, despite what people thought. Besides that, he liked the archeologist who kept his promises and had done nothing to Rafe to warrant killing him.
Having come to that decision, he put the matter aside, and sure that the Sime wasn't following him, he headed for home. It was dusk when the town of Three Oaks came into sight. Blackthorn increased his stride, as eager as Rafe to reach the comfort found inside those walls tonight.
They passed under the guard towers above the heavy main gate. Within the walls, trees grew everywhere, looming starkly against the darkening sky. In summer they made an important protective canopy over the rows of turfcovered houses dug into the soil. He glanced down the side streets as he came to them. Lights were being lit in the windows of the lowhumped dwellings, giving each the appearance of some heavybrowed animal peering from a burrow.
Gate Street, like all Gate Streets, separated the army station compound from the town. One side was the station's palisaded wall. On the other, jammed tightly side by side, were shops, hotels, restaurants and saloons, all brightly lit and crowded with men and women. The wide street was still bustling with wagons and riders, and the hitching poles were crowded with tethered animals.
Blackthorn plodded past all the noise and commotion without twitching an ear, intent on gaining his familiar stall in the station's barn. Man and horse passed unnoticed until they came abreast of the station gatehouse. Sandy Macfearson, standing guard there, hailed the SimeSider with a glad shout. "Man, it's good to see you here in one piece! Captain Baker's been as surly as a Sime in need, ever since Denholm Station wired you hadn't come in with the rest of the escapees!"
Rafe nodded, not wanting to talk. "Baker in his office?"
"He is for sure, but you might not want to go wandering over there just yet. He's got himself some hotunderthecollar visitors."
Rafe waited patiently, knowing Sandy couldn't keep any information to himself for long.
"They had a breakout last night at the Safe House."
This was serious indeed. "How many dead?"
"That's the problem. No bodies. Everybody disappeared. Even the guards. They're saying it was a Sime raid."
"How many missing?" Rafe asked quietly, his heart sinking.
"Upward to ten." Sandy shifted position, leaning closer to the SimeSider. "The town is scared. If Simes can break into a Safe House, what else could they do? All us Patrollers are taking a lot of heat for letting them in. I was on duty and I didn't see anything." Sandy's usually cheerful face was troubled.
"What did Major Winhaus do?"
"That's another thing, Rafe. Winhaus is dead these three weeks. The new commander up at the fort is somebody called Ashe. He sent out some men, but they didn't find anything. Word is this Ashe isn't too keen on catching Simes." Sandy spat in the dust to show what he thought of a Patroller afraid of Simes.
Rafe raked a hand through his dirty hair as he thanked Sandy for the news and nudged Blackthorn towards the stable. A few minutes later, blanket roll over his shoulder and shotgun in hand, he walked slowly towards the station H.Q. In the stable behind him Blackthorn was standing hip shot, his nose in a pail of hot bran mash while the stableman, with whom he was a favorite, rubbed him down.
Rafe heard raised voices inside Baker's office even before he stepped up onto the wooden porch that ran across the front of the building. Baker's voice was roaring over the others, and nobody seemed to be paying much attention to anyone else. Thus warned, Rafe carefully eased open the door and slipped inside. The small room seemed packed, but there were probably no more than seven or eight people, all standing around Baker's desk where they had the station commander cornered.
Settling down in a bentwood chair beside the filing cabinets, Rafe listened. The mayor was there, so were the town's two aldermen, a couple of prosperous merchants, and several people he took to be parents of the missing children.
Captain Baker, a middleaged, stocky man running slightly to gut, was pounding on the desk top with the butt end of his pistol, demanding quiet. It didn't seem to be having much effect.
"Commander Winhaus would have found something!" someone was shouting. "This one found nothing!"
"He needs to be reported!"
"Failure doesn't mean-" Baker tried to defend the Patrol, only to be outshouted.
"We can't have Simes walking in here and taking our children every time they feel like it!"
"I'm doing my best!" Baker shouted.
"It's not good enough!"
"Well, what do you suggest I do?!"
"Send SimeSider Rafe after them. He'll find them." This last was said in a quieter tone by a composed woman in a gray sweater and slacks.
This comment had the effect of bringing the confrontation pretty much to an end, as all the civilians added their agreement that what they really wanted was SimeSider Rafe to go find their kids. Baker promised to get Rafe on the matter as soon as he returned. The group filed out, apparently without noticing the tall, lean, travel-worn man sitting quietly in the shadowy corner between the filing cabinets and the door.
Baker watched the last of the townsfolk leave and then sat at his desk, scrubbing at his face with the heels of his hands. "Ah, Rafe. God grant you a safe journey home."
This seemed like too good an opening to pass up. "He did. It just took a little longer than usual."
Baker's head came up with a jerk. A grin almost split his broad face as he came around the desk to wrap Rafe in a bear hug. "Gad, I'm glad to see you back, boy. Have you been sitting here all this time?"
Rafe nodded, and Baker hit him, hard, on the shoulder. "That's for letting me think you were dead longer than you had to!" Then he was pulling Rafe forward to the potbellied stove and the coffee pot that sat perennially on the back of it.
Captain Baker handed him a mug full of black liquid. Rafe reached for it gratefully. He never lit a fire while he was in Sime Territory, and after two weeks of eating and sleeping cold, a cup of hot coffee was a luxury indeed. He sipped the hot stuff, watching Baker from under his brows. "Ed, you're the only man I know who can make coffee this strong and survive drinking it."
Resettling himself in a comfortable rocker between Baker's desk and the stove, Rafe stretched his legs, sighing a little. "What happened to Commander Winhaus?"
"You heard about that already?" Baker frowned at him from under graying brows. "You weren't gone a week when he was shot by a sniper. The General sent this new man, Jeffrey Ashe, but...I don't know. He can't seem to handle what's been going on. Ours is the fourth Safe House broken into and emptied... Travelers are going missing. A whole boatload of people disappeared after they passed the Hamton locks." He stared into his cup. "If it's Simes doing this...they're a lot trickier and a lot neater than they usually are."
"If?" Rafe caught him up on the word.
"It could be Simes," Baker said grimly. "But it reeks of Genrunners."
Rafe's gray eyes went black with cold fury. Gens who would sell their own kind to the Simes were...there was no name for them that wouldn't insult some animal somewhere. "Offal of an unnamed amoeba," he muttered.
"Nothing. It's not strong enough."
"We've learned to live with Raiders," Baker said. "It's a fact of life. But if you really want to see people get crazy, let them know there are Genrunners in the area." He scrubbed tiredly at his face. "No stranger is safe."
After a long silence Baker said, "We need to find them and find them fast. And keep it quiet while we're looking." He glanced over at the Sime-Sider. "I hate to ask you to take this on when you've just come back. And frankly, you look like death-not just warmed over, but stomped on, left out in the rain and slapped back into life. But I need you."
"I'll take a look at the Safe House in the morning," Rafe said.
Baker sighed. "I also have a message for you from Commander Ashe at Fort Smith. He wants to see you as soon as you get back. It's just about the only common sense he's shown," Baker added. "He probably wants to formally enlist you in the hunt for the Genrunners. Make him put you on the payroll at officer's pay. Don't settle for less."
Baker's voice was fading in and out. With an effort, Rafe raised heavy eyelids and tried to focus on his old friend. "I'll meet you at the Safe House first thing in the morning," he said, yawning hugely.
The next day, an hour after first light, Rafe was wandering through the Three Oaks Safe House checking the painfully neat bedrooms, the main room, the room where the house parents lived. Noticing the steel-reinforced doors, the locks and bars everywhere, he was profoundly glad he hadn't had to wait for proof of his adulthood in such a place.
Baker found him in the kitchen surveying the slight clutter left on the sideboard. "Find anything?"
"After your horde of heavy-footed minions tramped all over the place, there isn't much to find. All you can say is that there was no fighting. They went quietly..." Rafe stopped suddenly, eyeing Baker.
The captain sighed. "Whoever took them had to be dressed like Patrollers. I came to that conclusion yesterday. There would be no other way they could have convinced Sarah and Bill to open the door that late at night."
Together they made another tour of the house, but there was nothing more to be found. They were coming down the staircase from the upper floor when Baker said over his shoulder to the tall SimeSider coming down behind him, "Ashe sent another urgent message for you today. Somehow he seems to have found out you're back in town."
"I'll wire him to expect me in the morning," Rafe said. "It can't be so important that it can't wait another day. I need some time to rest. I'll be no good to him or anyone else until I do."
* * * * *
Evan was trotting through the Sime town of Moriathon, augmenting in his hurry to reach the Bandegog Institute. It was safe to expend the energy since what he carried would more than pay for a Prime Kill.
Shortly, out of breath and full of pride, he was laying his precious burdens reverently on the desk before Desmee, curator of the Bandegog Institute. They didn't look like much, wrapped as they were in their original oiled cloth. Although he had opened them, he had not damaged the original wax seal. He pointed out the mark to the older man with a trembling finger.
"It's the sign of the Beran Library," he said. "The intertwined B and L. You can't miss it."
Desmee waved one hand at him irritably as he carefully examined both the marks and then carefully unwrapped each book. "They are very fine," the curator breathed, happily. "We will get someone on them right away."
With a generous finder's fee in his pocket, Evan went straight from the Bandegog Institute to the Gen Market. He was very close to need, and for the first time in months he was actually looking forward to the Kill.
Among the other buyers was a group of Householders, wearing the dark brown and rust red colors of Seodre. Resentment stabbed through him. They were examining the Prime Kills, as usual. It wasn't fair. Under Law they had the same rights to the Kill as anyone else, but since they didn't use their Kills they could save up pen points until they could afford to take any Kill in the market.
He chose his own Kill, a young female Gen with short, glossy black curls. He was leading her away when his field touched that of one of the Householders, and all his rising Kill-lust turned into ashes. Icy Nager! He stopped, frozen in his tracks. A Sime Icy Nager?
"Yoicks...another one," an amused, deep voice said.
Shaken, Evan looked up into a younger version of Icy Nager's rawboned features.
"I feel like Icy Nager, the Gen Monster? Yes? The comparison is even closer when I am angry or in need. I find being known as a Gen Monster, nagerlike, a dubious distinction at best." The Sime nodded to him and turned away.
Evan walked blindly in the other direction, forgetting the Gen on the end of the rope in his hand. The Householder's field and Icy Nager's were not "similar." They were almost identical. The Householder Sime had Icy Nager's "melted" nager. "Gods, he even talks like him," he muttered to himself.
He could sell that information. He could sell it to Raiders. He could sell it to the government. He could sell it to the Genfarms. He could make a great deal of money. What he could not get after selling the information would be Icy Nager.
And he very badly wanted Icy Nager. He stumbled as the shocked realization hit him. Icy Nager was the only Gen he wanted. He was fixed on the Gen Monster.
He took a deep, shaken breath as he entered one of the public Kill salons, towing his Kill behind him. It was now a totally unwanted Gen, whose presence, vital as it was to his survival, shriveled his need into dust. But if he could go through with it... If he could Kill, he could break this growing fixation on Icy Nager. He prayed to whatever god there was as he had never prayed before.
Some time later he staggered out of the Kill room, shaken and sick, to lean against the wall, his black hair plastered to his forehead with sweat. Behind him the Gen lay on the floor, curled around her pain and sobbing, but alive. He had taken only half of what he needed before growing nausea forced him to shen himself.
Shakily he walked through the building, ignoring the looks of the other customers and the girl behind the desk. Stepping out into the bright sun of the Gen Market, he zlinned the customers, a grossly bad-mannered act. But he didn't want to waste time searching for him. He hurt too much.
Evan was not quite sane at that time. He wanted Icy Nager; the Householder was a wrong Icy Nager, but the closest thing available. He had to buy Icy Nager, and all he had to barter for him was the Kill he had not completed.
The Householder was deep in negotiations with the Gen Dealer when Evan walked up to him. His condition was clearly apparent to everyone, and they stopped what they were doing to turn and stare at him. Blearily he looked up at the Householder who could be Icy Nager's twin. "There's a Gen in the Kill room. Paid for. Still alive. Take her."
Then he walked away from them as steadily as he could. What was keeping him on his feet was the conviction that he had made a trade, the female Gen for Icy Nager. The absolute certainty that Icy Nager was his, bought and paid for, sunk deep into his mind and was thenceforth to have a profound influence on all his future actions.
Slowly he found his way back to his room in the basement of the Bandegog Institute. He stretched out on his bed, trying to find some relief for his abused nerves. Putting his hands behind his head, he lay staring up at the stains and cracks on the ceiling and knew, with certainty, that he had at most two weeks to live. The only question in his mind was whether he was going to die by Icy Nager's hand or his own.
Several hours later, Evan was called back into Desmee's office. He came, feeling only marginally better after a restless sleep, nerves still ajangle from the shenning and the lack of selyn. He felt old, ill and bruised, inside and out. But he put on a grin, tried to keep the worst of it out of his field, and went.
The old curator was feeling grim. His field was swirling with dark currents; the ambient was uncomfortable, and his tentacles plucked unhappily at the sheets of papers lying on the blotter in front of him. "The thing is," he started without preamble and without looking up as Evan walked into the small, overcrowded office, "that while those books are definitely from the Beran Library, no one here, and no one we know of in other territories, can read them."
Evan sat down rather heavily, and without permission, into the only available chair. "`Written language is not something Simes are good at.'" He quoted Icy Nager's words in a hollow voice.
Evan waved a limp tentacle at him.
Giving him a glare of disapproval, Desmee continued. "The books themselves are only eighty years old, but they are copies of much, much older books, stemming from the time of the Ancients, and one, at least, has to do with the beginning of the Sime/Gen mutation. The information in them could be priceless. But there is no way we can get to it!" His handling tentacles were standing out stiff with his frustration.
Evan lay in the chair, staring at the ceiling. Until now he had steadfastly refused to entertain the thought of going outTerritory to find Icy Nager. Now, suddenly, it seemed the most plausible idea in the universe. He mistrusted these sudden mood switches. They tended to get him into trouble.
"But then, how much worse can it get?" he muttered aloud.
"What?" demanded Desmee.
"Can the books be photographed?" he asked finally, when the curator was starting to tap his tentacles on the desk in annoyance.
"I suppose so. The process should not harm them."
"Then, sir, if you could have them copied, I know someone who might be able to translate them for you."
"Is this going to be costly?" frowned the curator.
"Cost is a relative term, isn't it?" Evan gave the curator a faint smile, far removed from his usual ebullient grin.
"Are you well?" Desmee leaned across the desk, zlinning him. "What have you gotten yourself into, boy?"
"Nothing that can't be cured with time," Evan said with his usual careless humor, pulling himself upright in the chair.
The curator dismissed the problem of his archeologist's health and went back to the more important business of the books. "I don't like to see the information leave Bandegog. Could you bring this person here, to us?"
"He...you might not like that, sir," said Evan, a grin welling up at the thought of Icy Nager within these walls. "I will take the photos to him."
"A Gen, is he?" Evan's boss guessed, one eyebrow raised.
"Yes," Evan said unwillingly.
"Hmmmm...I didn't realize Householders were becoming so erudite. Very well, but there's no reason for you to kick your heels in a Householding for months. We can send one of the students." He reached for a pen. "What's his name and Householding?"
"Ah..." said Evan, his mind having gone alarmingly blank.
The curator slowly put the pen back. "I don't think I want to know where this Gen is or how you know of him. Take the copies and bring back the results."
"Payment?" Evan asked.
The curator pulled a sheet of paper toward him, picking up the pen again. "This is your authorization from the institute to pay gold to the amount of..." He named a very generous sum. "While you are on institute business you will draw full salary. However, we do not offer hazard pay, so keep your tentacles flexible." He pushed the paper across the applewood desk to the Junker. "I do hope to see you back in my office again."
"So do I," murmured Evan as he let himself into the hall. "But I'm not optimistic about it."
* * * * *
The next morning, well after sunrise, Rafe was riding along the well-traveled road to Fort Birney on his way to meet Commander Ashe. His mount was an undistinguished bay gelding. Blackthorn had been left at home in his stall, getting some well-deserved rest. It was only five miles from Three Oaks to the fort, and, despite the urgency of Ashe's cryptic notes, he didn't see any point in arriving before breakfast.
The fort road paralleled the river, and he entertained himself by watching the boats plying the water. Barges were always the first to brave the spring river ice, taking much-needed supplies upriver or bringing cargos down. But now, with the spring thaw fully underway, the river was thick with steamboats, skips, canoes and sailboats.
There was more traffic around Fort Birney than around Three Oaks because forts were more secure than stations. Fort Birney was twice the size of Three Oaks and with three times the amount of water traffic. The old wooden walls facing the river were being replaced with stone. The new walls leaned outward and were coated with melted glass to make them unclimbable.
Opposite the new, impregnable walls, the docks were crowded with packet boats, steamships and barges. Chaos reigned as stevedores shifted supplies on and off boats, carters cried aloud their willingness to carry passengers and baggage into the town, and passengers milled around trying to find relatives. And over it all were the cries of food sellers, fruit sellers, and peddlers of all sorts. Everybody seemed to be yelling at the tops of their voices.
Rafe, wincing at the unaccustomed din, threaded the placid gelding among saddle horses, carts, carriages and wagons. Winning through into the town, he turned with relief to pass through the fort gate and into the comparative peace of the parade ground.
In the exact center of the fort, facing the main gate, was the headquarters building. As with all Patrol H.Q.'s it was built entirely aboveground, painted white with a flagpole in front of it. From the pole hung an enormous flag in the red, white and blue stripes of Minnowa Territory. General Cohen said that when Simes came looking for trouble, he didn't want them to waste any time finding it.
Not far away, a dark man in the khaki uniform of a Patroller was training a group of recruits. The SimeSider leaned on his saddle horn and watched his old friend, Sergeant Fern, shouting curses and encouragement at a group of ten young men as they slashed and parried at each other with the eighteeninch boot-knife that was standard military issue.
The sergeant had his shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and on the dark skin the glossy white scars of an old nerve burn showed clearly. Fern pulled off his cap to wipe his face on his sleeve, and Rafe was startled to see the gray in the tightly curled black hair. When did that happen? Rafe thought with surprise.
Calling the line of young men to a halt, and after favoring them with his opinion of their chances of survival in a real fight (slim to none), Fern set them at some exercises before walking over to Rafe. He clapped a hand on the SimeSider's knee by way of greeting. "I heard you led those Raiders a fine chase."
"Any run where you get away from Raiders is a good run," Rafe quoted, smiling.
"What are you doing out and around so soon after getting back?"
"The new commander has his rump in a reaper about seeing me over something."
"I'm busy today, but when you get rested, come by and we'll get up a poker game." He was watching his men and suddenly yelled, "Hey! Not like that. You trying to take off your fingers?" He went back to his training, and Rafe sent the bay towards H.Q.
Wrapping the gelding's reins around the hitching rail in front of the offices, Rafe strolled across the wooden porch and in through the open door. The company clerk, Wells, sat as usual behind his desk. As Rafe walked into the room, every sense came alert.
The last time Rafe had been here, when Commander Winhaus was still alive, the office bustled with people coming in and out. The commander's door always stood open, and there had been a cheerful, informal, yet businesslike atmosphere around the place. All of that was now noticeably lacking. Corporal Wells, always energetic and fussy, was now a bundle of tension. His dark eyes, as he looked up at Rafe, were sullen.
"I'm here to see the commander," Rafe said.
Wordlessly, Wells got up and knocked on the inner office door. A low, cultured voice told him to enter. Wells opened the door and went in, closing it behind him. Moments later he reopened the door and motioned Rafe inside.
Colonel Ashe was of medium height, rather slender but well muscled. His hair was blond, thick and springing. He had one of those delicateboned, highbred aristocratic faces of the old rich families. Above the narrow nose his eyes were a dark brown, cool and remote.
His uniform was clean, sharp and crisp and obviously tailored for him. Every button gleamed, and from his person came a faintly perfumed scent. He rose and held out a wellmanicured hand. "How do you do," he said tonelessly, and motioned Rafe to take a chair.
Rafe sat down, resting the shotgun across his lap, patiently waiting for the other to start the conversation.
Ashe relaxed in his chair, frankly studying Rafe. It was a private summing up that Rafe felt was vaguely obscene. Or perhaps it was the smug, cold smile that ever so slightly curved the other's chiseled lips that felt wrong.
"I understand you had a tricky run this time. You almost didn't make it out."
Rafe slowly reached into his shirt pocket, his eyes on Ashe. Fumbling two-fingered in a heavy cardboard box, he pulled out a lemon drop. He put it in his mouth. "It wasn't so bad," he said around the sweet.
"You didn't ride that stallion of yours today. I hope nothing happened to him?"
"No. He's fine."
"That's good." Ashe shifted in his chair. "I want to buy him."
This was the cause of all those imperative notes demanding Rafe's earliest attendance? "He's not for sale."
"I'm willing to offer you five gold."
"Still not for sale."
"Eight gold, and you're a hard bargainer." Ashe sat up, putting his hand across the table as if to seal a bargain.
"You weren't listening. Thorn's not for sale."
Ashe was annoyed. "I won't go higher than ten."
"I couldn't sell him if I wanted to. He doesn't belong to me. He belongs to...the man who bred him. If I die, or the horse gets too old, he goes back to his owner."
The commander's lips tightened in anger. An unbecoming spot of bright pink appeared on each pale cheek.
"Now," Rafe continued calmly, "if that's the only reason you called me here, I'll be going-" He made as if to rise.
"Not so quickly!" Ashe held up one hand, leaning forward, all business now, over the desk. "You are to deliver a message to Fisher Station, today." Pulling an ornately sealed letter from a drawer, he pushed it across the desk toward Rafe.
Rafe let it lie on the polished wood for a long moment before reaching for it. "Fisher Station, you say. It's rather close to the border."
"Losing your nerve?" Ashe sneered.
The Sime-Sider gave him a level look as he tucked the elaborately sealed letter into his inside coat pocket, but didn't answer. "Is that everything?"
"Yes." Ashe sat back in his chair and negligently saluted. "You may leave."
Rafe rode out by the small north gate, it being the closest to his destination. Two hundred yards down the road he looked over his shoulder and saw a dapper figure standing on the palisade watching him. "You know," Rafe said, speaking to the bay gelding, "it's a little strange that this letter can only be delivered by me. Especially since he had no idea when I might be back, or even if I'd be back. I don't like it. It smells like a setup. And a clumsy setup, at that. After all, I could have turned him down. It's not as if I'm army."
The horse flicked his ears.
"All right. I admit it, I'm getting paranoid. But so would you if there was a price on your head, Genrunners in the area and a fort commander acting decidedly weird. Now, I'm not saying that this is all connected, but on the other hand, I don't believe in coincidences." As he talked he took the letter from his coat, opened it and read it, all in plain view of anyone standing on the fort walls with binoculars.
There was nothing contained in the short paragraphs on horse procurement that could not have been just as easily wired to Fisher Station. It was not damning evidence. But, if Ashe were indeed setting him up, and if he could panic Ashe into doing something stupid, it could be turned into damning evidence.
He had reached the crossroads by this time, and, making an elaborate pantomime of folding the letter and stowing it back in his coat pocket, he suddenly kicked the bay into a gallop. They went flying down the north road-the road to Fort Smith, headquarters of General Mad Dog Cohen. He hoped he was giving a good imitation of a man who had important business to attend to. Or a Genrunner to report.
He looked back once before reaching the woods that would cut off his view. The dapper figure was gone from the walls.
Slowing the bay to a canter once they were within the woods, he laughed to himself. "Let's see what rats this little show brings out of the woodpile." Weariness was forgotten.
Half an hour later, he knew he was being followed.
Grinning, he pushed the bay's pace a little. There was a very good place for an ambush not far ahead. He found himself whistling softly and happily. Being in danger here was entirely different from skulking around Sime Territory. Much more relaxing, if a bit more deadly. After all, his own kind wouldn't hesitate to shoot him if they thought they had to, but on the other hand, he had more practice at the game than they did. And the nice thing was that he could hide, right out in the open, and wouldn't have to worry about his field being spotted. Sheer pleasure.
However...he turned in the saddle, scanning the new-planted fields on his left. For the last few minutes he'd been aware of a familiar warning prickle crawling up his back, roughening his scalp. There was definitely a Sime out there among the hedgerows and wood lots. How deep it was into need, Rafe couldn't tell. But, he would really prefer not to have to deal with one right now.
Still, there you were. Life was full of surprises. Humming to himself, he hid the gelding behind the trees in a creek bed, while he found a comfortably hidden position against the crumbling side of a runoff gully. He checked his rifle, taking off the safety.
The Sime was very close now. Hmmm...good. If the kid attacked before the riders got here, he could take care of that problem in time for him to still handle Ashe's men. He waited. The Sime didn't move any nearer. Rafe frowned in mild annoyance. It was encouraging that the Sime was not berserk with need, but Rafe wanted no low-field Sime around if he had to shoot someone. The shock would send the Sime into Killmode. It would make things unnecessarily difficult if, while he was ambushing Ashe's men, he also had to deal with a manic Sime trying to leech onto his arm at the same time.
An orange catseye marble landed in the greening grass in front of him. From behind a nearby clump of scrubby saplings a penetrating whisper cut across the strident singing of red-winged blackbirds. "Icy Nager!"
"Not you again."
"But of course."
"You're making me regret not shooting you out of hand."
"The five following you have the feel of Gens willing to kill."
"Kill?" He hadn't bargained on them wanting him dead. What good would a dead Icy Nager do them? They couldn't sell him to the Simes dead. "You wouldn't happen to know why?"
There was a hiss of exasperation. "I'm a Sime! Not a mind reader!"
"I know what you are. Get out of here! You don't want to be around if there's going to be shooting!"
"Does this happen to you a lot, Icy Nager?"
A good question. "No. Just often enough to make life interesting."
"I didn't realize being a SimeSider was dangerous on both sides of the border."
"It's a wasted day when you haven't learned something new. Now, kindly get lost. I don't want to have to deal with a berserking Sime as well as Genrunners."
"I came to help you."
"You have. Now go away!" Rafe heard the clop of approaching hooves and went silent. BlueEyes slipped farther back into the trees, but he didn't leave.
Rafe let the soldiers nearly pass before standing and demanding their business. At that point all five went for their weapons. Rafe had time to pull the trigger of his rifle once before diving for cover. As he scuttled through the dried weeds, he had to admit that without the Sime's warning he would have been taken by surprise.
A horse trampled the winter-killed grasses to one side of him. Rafe picked the rider off as bullets thudded into the dirt around him. Lifting his head, Rafe saw that there were three soldiers still on the road. One was holding a bloody arm to his chest as he tried to stay on his nervously sidling mount. Another had a shotgun out and was trying to get a good shot at the Sime who was fighting with the third Patroller. The two of them were rolling over and over on the ground. The riderless horse kept turning, spoiling the aim of the man trying to shoot BlueEyes.
The fourth soldier, not distracted by what was going on in the road, had circled and was coming up on Rafe's other side. They shot so close together that their guns sounded as one. But Rafe was on steady ground and the soldier was on a moving horse. It was no contest. Rafe killed him.
Getting to his feet, Rafe ran for the road. The wounded man had his gun pointed at the Sime as Rafe came up beside him. The SimeSider grabbed the Patroller's booted foot and dumped him out of the saddle onto his injured arm as he went by. The one remaining mounted man jerked his horse around and aimed his shotgun at Rafe. Rafe dove to one side as the shotgun blasted. He came up on one knee ready to shoot, but the Patroller was toppling lifelessly off his horse, his head bloody where a rock, thrown by the Sime, had struck him in the temple.
The Sime had to take a hand off the Patroller he was fighting with when he threw the rock. A mistake. The Gen got his gun out. The weapon fired. Once. Twice. There was a gurgling scream as the bullet buried itself in the wounded Patroller who had finally struggled to his feet. The next sound was the sharp crack of a breaking neck as the man the Sime was holding went limp.
Rafe looked down at the dead Patrollers with a sharp twist of disappointment. He had wanted at least one Genrunner alive to take to General Cohen.
The Sime raised his eyes to Rafe's face, a struggle clear on that handsome, lean face. Interested to see what BlueEyes would do, Rafe refrained from doing anything to calm the other and simply waited. The blue eyes were on his own in mute appeal before suddenly going unfocused and wild. With a scream the Sime came at him, a maddened whirlwind of denim and sun-browned flesh.
Dropping the rifle, Rafe let the Sime grab him. Tentacles wrapped viciously around his forearms, tearing at the fabric of his sleeves. There was the merest kiss of hot laterals on bare skin as the Sime thrust his face into Rafe's to make the fifth contact point. The blind fury on the Sime's handsome face changed to shock and then pain. The Sime thrust Rafe away, a scream starting in his throat as the shenning lanced up his nerve endings.
Rafe grabbed him, spun him around and matter-of-factly wrapped his arms around the smaller man, holding him tightly to his chest, murmuring soothing nonsense until the convulsions stopped.
"You should know better than to get involved in something like this when you're low field," Rafe said, when he thought the Sime could pay attention.
"What did you do?" the Junker asked hoarsely.
"Reversed the field flows."
"Can Gens do that?"
"That was a rhetorical question," the archeologist said with as much dignity as he could muster. "I didn't really want it answered." He made a weak move to get loose from Rafe's hold and Rafe let him go. Shakily the Sime thrust a lock of coal black hair off his forehead as he turned to face him. "You buffered the shen shock. Why? If you had let it go, it would have killed me."
"I don't want you dead."
"Strange words from a Gen. Stranger coming from a Sime-Sider."
Rafe picked up his rifle. "Why didn't you Kill that Gen Patroller you were fighting with?"
"I promised you not to Kill on this side of the border. It seemed like a good promise to keep."
"And why are you here at all? Shouldn't you be south, scouring ruins?"
"I have work for you."
"Work," Rafe repeated.
"What sort of work?"
"This isn't the right time to speak of it," the Sime said, shakily.
"Probably not. But you might as well tell me now, while you have the chance. You're not following me to Fort Smith."
"I...Bandegog Institute wants you to do a translation for them."
Rafe was so thunderstruck he just stood and stared at the blue-eyed Junker. There had been some ingenious plots to get him over the border, but this was absolutely the best one he'd ever heard. Entice him with his passion for Ancient books and watch to see how long it took him to show up, licking his pencil, notepad in hand. "A translation."
"Of books I found. We can't do it. They're too old for us to read. We can pay you," he said anxiously.
"I have to admit it's an interesting offer. If I wasn't sure I'd end up on a Genfarm somewhere I might take you up on it. But I really think the Bandegog is going to have to do without my services...payment or not."
"Icy Nager! You can't refuse!" There was desperation on the Sime's face. "We'll talk about it again. When you come back. I will wait for you." He started away. "I'll wait for you," the Sime repeated, over his shoulder. "Near Three Oaks. I'll wait until you return." The Sime fled.
"You could at least stay and help me with these bodies," Rafe called futilely after him. "If that isn't just like a Sime. Kill 'em and leave 'em lay."
Fort Smith was even larger than Fort Birney, but without the commercial river traffic. This was the regional military headquarters for the White Water Plain, and the few civilians that were here were, for the most part, dependents of the soldiers.
Rafe's arrival with a string of five horses and five dead Patrollers was widely observed, and rumors flew. But no one approached him as he brought the dead men to headquarters, wrapped the horse's reins around the hitching rail and went inside.
Several clerks looked up from their work as he walked in, his boots thumping heavily on the varnished wooden planks. Sergeant Maria Matheson, fiftyish and thin, was in charge of the outer office. She stopped working as Rafe approached her desk, looked past Rafe out the front door to where the horses and their burdens stood in plain sight, and unperturbed, she told him the General was out checking stations and wouldn't be back for several days. Then, rising from her chair, she ushered him into the office of the General's aide, Major Jordan Greene.
Rafe was slightly acquainted with Greene, who had been with the General for two years already. Jordan was a tall, slender man of middle years, blond, with a noticeably receding hairline. A quiet man, he had a knack for getting things done with little fuss.
Most people called him a colorless penpusher. Rafe knew of his enormous competence and respected him for it. Jordan Greene would have made a very good SimeSider had he not joined the service first.
Jordan came around the desk, hand outstretched. "Merryweather." It was a measure of the man that he asked no questions, made no exclamations, merely waited for Rafe to tell him why he was there.
Letting go of the other man's hand, Rafe said, "I had some trouble on the road." It was a highly condensed version of things. He did not tell Greene about Ashe or the message he was to take to Fisher Station, or even about BlueEyes, but merely started his tale with being followed and how the men had fired on him.
Jordan heard him out in silence, his face growing ever harder and his eyes steely. When Rafe finished, Jordan went out to look at the bodies, still without saying anything. One by one he lifted their heads to stare into dead faces and read aloud to Sergeant Matheson the dog tags still around their necks. By the time a medic got there to take the bodies to the morgue, Sergeant Matheson had the files on the dead men pulled and Jordan and Rafe were comparing the records with the bodies.
None of them matched.
"They killed five Patrollers for their tags," Rafe said, any lingering regret he may have had for shooting his own kind evaporating.
The major turned to Maria Matheson. "Wire Sanlou a description of these bodies and then send for the General."
Some time later, leaving the outer office in charge of one of the clerks, the three gathered inside the major's office, where Sergeant Matheson poured them all a cup of coffee liberally laced with imported moonshine, of which the fumes alone were guaranteed to take the varnish off anything. The three sipped their drinks in glum silence.
"I'll have to notify their families," Sergeant Matheson said drearily.
"No need to tell anyone Patrollers were killed by Genrunners." Major Greene sounded wearily depressed. "So now we have the proof. Your Captain Baker has been yelling for weeks about Genrunners."
There was a knock on the door and the clerk, a private, announced, "The General's wife to see Mr. Merryweather."
Rafe barely had time to get to his feet as the General's wife walked in. Her face was lit up with a wide, welcoming smile, and as Rafe rose to his feet she threw herself into his arms and hugged him fiercely. Rafe's answering hug lifted her feet off the floor.
"Oh, Rafe! It's been too long! And when Ariel said you hadn't made it through to Denholm Station..." She hugged him again. Kathryn Merryweather Cohen was a tall, slender woman with Rafe's own light brown hair and gray eyes. She was wearing tan pants and a black-and-brown-checked shirt. "I was never so relieved as when I saw you come riding in." She stepped away, staring up at him, her face still shining with happiness. Then it was time for business. "Who were those men you brought in?"
"We don't know yet," Rafe said quietly. "We suspect they're Genrunners."
"Oh," she said faintly, and her round chin hardened. Her glowing, gentle eyes turned fierce as a hawk's. "They were after you, weren't they? I'm glad you shot them."
Kathryn, who was in most respects the best of sisters, had a tendency to be overprotective of her brother. Usually the mildest and gentlest of creatures, whenever she thought someone was trying to harm her brother she would erupt in a primal fury. Since she usually learned of the fact after it happened, there was no culprit to vent her spleen on. It would take her hours to calm down, and her comments during that period invariably embarrassed him.
"Rafe, this is happening more and more often. You really should-"
Gently Rafe pushed her out of the office and steered her for the door. She was getting up a good head of steam, and if she was going to start in on him as usual, he preferred it to be in private. "Have you come to take me home?" he asked her as they reached the sidewalk.
"No, of course not!" she snapped. "I'm going to make you sleep in the barracks. Of course you're coming home. I've made up the spare bed for you, and I baked a batch of your favorite cookies, just yesterday. Patti and Ariel even left enough for you to have some." She wrapped her arm around his and hugged him. "Ariel won't be home for at least two days. We can have a nice long talk."
That sounded rather ominous to Rafe, who had already experienced several of Kathryn's "nice long talks," but he didn't say anything.
In Kathryn's bright, sunny kitchen, sitting down over a cup of her excellent herb tea and honey, he found himself unconsciously bracing himself as she sat down opposite him.
Pushing a plate of cookies across the table towards him, she said, "Grandfather is not getting any younger."
"Oh, Kathryn...not now. I'm tired-"
"And neither are you getting any younger. You are getting near the time when you're going to have to start Soul-Sharing. You can't do that and be a SimeSider, too. And there are other reasons it's time you stopped roaming around the border being a hero." She pointed a cookie at him. "The Simes have raised their price for you again. I received the word from Seodre Householding just the other day, when Caleb visited Grandfather. You remember Caleb? Your brother?"
"Simes are getting up groups to find you. There are bets on how long it will be before they capture you. If Gens start thinking the same way... What happens when even our own people are trying to sell you to the Simes for that reward? How long do you think you're going to be able to survive out there, if you aren't even safe in your own territory?"
He had nothing to say to that.
"Caleb wants you to come to Seodre Householding, where you'll be surrounded by your own. Protected."
"Jailed. Fenced. Hindered. Penned!" he finished, bringing his fist down on the table, surprising himself with his own anger. "A prize stud for their breeding program! Just like Blackthorn."
Kathryn sipped her tea and stared out the window. "You do not have to go to Seodre. Grandad would prefer if you to come to him."
Rafe sighed. "I can't go to Grandad. I've told you both that, hundreds of times. What would happen if Raiders found out I was there?"
"The same thing Raiders would do if they found you in Three Oaks," Kathryn replied tartly. "At least in Northslope the Gens can take care of themselves."
Rafe sighed. He wanted to rest in a place where there was no fear. He wanted to go home. But the home he dreamed of was Prophetstown and Prophetstown was dead. Forever. "I will not bring any more grief to the last of my people."
"Grandad says you're a SoulSharer and you will start doing it whether you have the training or not. He says it's only fair to the partners you choose that you have the training."
"There is no place for SoulSharers in this world," Rafe said bitterly. "There are only Companions, and it isn't the same thing at all. And besides..." He held out his left hand with its thin white scar running half around his wrist. "This will keep me from being either. I have it on the word of the Sectuib of Seodre."
Kathryn dismissed the Sectuib of Seodre with a toss of her head. "Grandad says a little nerve burn shouldn't be a problem. Besides, Soul-Sharing isn't what you do. It is what you are."
"What I am is a SimeSider," Rafe said, with finality. "Let it be, Kathryn!"
Kathryn sighed a little and got up to check the stew simmering on the stove. Rafe sat and stared out the window at the climbing roses putting out their leaves, feeling obscurely guilty.
* * * * *
Major Greene found it unusually difficult to track down the whereabouts of the General and as a result never did send him the message about the dead Genrunners. But the General and his troop came thundering in through the main gates well after sundown, and two days early. Ominously, the General did not stop at headquarters but cantered his weary mount straight to his own front door.
* * * * *
Kathryn and Rafe, in the front room, were talking quietly about Kathryn's only child, Patti, who was now ten years old. Kathryn put down her mending, took a framed photograph off the table beside her and handed it to Rafe. "This is our newest picture of her. You haven't seen her in a while. She's growing up."
Rafe took the picture. Patti had a heart-shaped face, with Kathryn's straight, light brown hair hanging past her shoulders. It had been painfully curled for the photograph. Patti's was the delicate, laughing face of a mischievous elf. There was a stubborn tilt to the small pointed chin, but the mouth curved sweetly. The eyes, though full of mischief, were Cohen's eyes. Eyes that could darken suddenly with implacable anger.
Rafe knew her well, having carefully trained her in ways to protect herself from Sime attack. She had a temper and a long memory for hurt done to her. It couldn't be easy for Kathryn living in a house with Ariel Cohen and a daughter so much like him.
"She needs the Prophetstown training." Kathryn sighed heavily, letting her mending fall in her lap. "I do not want her to spend a year or two locked up in a Safe House. I want her to go to Grandad, but Ariel won't hear of it, even though..."
"Even though...?" Rafe prompted.
She smiled a little. "Patti adores Grandad and wants to be a Soul-Sharer when she grows up. She's also spent much time in Seodre with Caleb and his family. She is very outspoken in her belief that Gens and Simes can live together in peace. Three months ago there was a traveling preacher of the Church of the Purity who came through. He held a meeting and Patti, unknown to us, went." Kathryn shrugged. "The preacher brought her home in a rage. He recommended exorcism. Ariel threw him out of the house, of course, but you see what is going to happen to her?"
Rafe pulled at his nose, worrying. If Patti were ever taken by Raiders, she could be in grave danger if she tried to "live in peace." Wild Simes were not interested in peace. They were interested in the Kill. He'd hate to see her idealism nerve burned out of her.
On the other hand, she was her father's child. If she were hurt, she'd be out for revenge and there would be no stopping her. What form that revenge could take was anyone's guess. She was more subtle than Ariel, a thinker, a planner. Almost, Rafe could feel sorry for any Sime who wanted to Kill her. But it was what Gens could do to her that worried him most.
There was a commotion at the main gate, and Kathryn got up to look out the window. "Ariel is home!" she said in surprise, dropping the curtain to look around at Rafe. Together they watched as Cohen, instead of stopping at his headquarters, brought his horse straight to the front door.
Cohen was calling for Kathryn before he was clear of the saddle. He was a barrel-chested man, not quite as tall as his wife, covered with gray dust from the road. There was a desperate, panicked note in his deep voice that Rafe had never heard before.
Alarmed by his headlong arrival, Kathryn was already opening the door. He pulled her into his arms, holding her with desperate strength, saying something pleadingly into her hair in such a choked voice neither Rafe nor Kathryn could understand him.
After a moment, he let her go. Kathryn took him by the shoulders, getting more of the coat than her husband, and demanded gently, "Repeat that, Ariel. You aren't making any sense."
He pulled her into the house, saw his brotherinlaw standing near the entry, and gave him a brief, dazed nod of greeting. He pulled off the broad-rimmed Patroller hat and dropped it on the entry table. There was a clear line across his forehead where the dust ended. His coarse black hair was flattened and wet with sweat. He ran a stubby hand through it and left it all standing on end.
He suddenly collapsed into an easy chair, hiding his face in his hands, rocking back and forth. "I lost her, Kathryn! I lost her!"
"Who, Ariel?" Kathryn asked, standing beside him with one hand lying comfortingly on his shoulder.
"Patti! Raiders took her." He raised a broad face, blue with beard stubble, wet with seldom-shed tears. "I left her visiting her cousins, and they attacked the farm-"
Kathryn turned white and fainted.
Ariel caught her in his arms before she hit the floor. What color was left in his face faded clean away as he looked down at his wife. "I searched. I searched all over." He looked blindly up at Rafe. "It was like they disappeared. I couldn't find them."
"How long ago?" Rafe said. "What direction did they come from?" He was shrugging into his coat.
Ariel laid Kathryn tenderly down on the couch. "I'm glad you're here. Saves me having to look for you. I'm ready to go, but we can't just leave her like this."
Kathryn opened her eyes. "I'm all right, Ariel," she said weakly. "You go find Patti."
Tenderly and a little clumsily, Ariel leaned over and kissed her forehead. "I love you. Send word to Grandfather as fast as you can. We have to get Seodre looking for her in case they get her over the border before I catch up with them."
Rafe was already at the door, rifle tucked under his arm. Cohen pulled the reins from the hitching post, and, leading the horse, he walked with the Sime-Sider towards the stables. He was once again the invincible Implacable Cohen, whom the Simes feared. He stabbed an unlit cigar into a trap-like mouth, bit down on the end and spat the piece out.
The quiet spring night was shattered by a focal point of light and noisy activity centered around the stables, where hastily roused men were saddling horses.
"How many were taken?" Rafe asked, as he strode beside the square juggernaut that was the General.
"Three," Cohen said, biting the word off. Hailing a lieutenant, he yelled, "Rogers, make sure the SimeSider has a good horse!"
"How many children were in the house?"
Cohen stopped dead in his tracks. "Teens," he said. "There were four of them, all established. Plus the parents."
"And those who were taken?"
"Kids. Out playing. Easy targets."
"Raiders don't waste time taking kids."
"Think I'm a fool?!" Cohen snapped at him.
"I think you haven't given yourself time to think about it."
There was a long silence from the General that grew more dangerous by the moment. "Genrunners," Cohen said softly.
A chill went up Rafe's back at the menace in that quiet voice.
"They wouldn't dare. Not down here," Cohen growled. "Not in my territory. My Patrollers would sniff them out in hours."
"Not if they were passing as Patrollers."
Cohen gave him a sharp glance over the cigar. "They wouldn't have the nerve."
"Five men I suspect were Genrunners jumped me today on my way here."
"They dead now?" Cohen asked.
"Pity. You could have saved me at least one."
Rafe ignored this. "The point is that they were dressed as Patrollers. They'd killed five of your men to take their tags and probably their places as well."
Cohen chewed on the end of his cigar as he watched the men getting ready. After a while he said, "What fort?"
Slowly the General struck a match and lit his cigar. He puffed on it for a moment then took it out of his mouth, regarding the burning tip. "Patrollers stand for something in this country. They stand for something good. I won't have that taken away from them by scum-sucking pigs."
"You do an injustice to pigs, sir," said Rafe gravely.
A stablehand jogged towards them leading two fresh horses. He left with the General's tired animal. Rafe climbed into the saddle of a rangy sorrel gelding, while the General mounted a gray.
Leaning both hands on the saddle, Cohen leaned forward, staring into space. "I lost my only child today. If my famous brotherinlaw thinks we should start the hunt over at Fort Birney-" His eyes were black pits as they rested briefly on Rafe, who felt Cohen's look like the raw thrust of a knife. "-Then we start the hunt at Fort Birney. He had better not be wrong."
Rafe refused to be intimidated. "And if the SimeSider should prove to be wrong, what will the great Implacable General do? Shoot his wife's brother?"
"It's a thought."
The full moon was rising when the troop pounded through the main gate in the General's wake, heading south along the river road to Fort Birney.
Riding beside the General, Rafe had time to study that square face and the heavy jaw set like granite. Cohen had the look of a man who was not going to let anything stop him from getting his child back. It would be well for the Simes if he got her back alive.
Years ago, raging over an attack on his wife's family in Northslope, Cohen had crossed the border and succeeded in wiping out three Raider bands and two Genfarms-not because he and his men were better fighters than the Simes, but because in his berserker rage he simply could not be stopped. Sime Territory was still reverberating from that clash.
What Cohen would do if Patti were taken over the border would pale in comparison.
The full moon was riding above the trees, turning the dirt road into a shining white highway, when they saw movement on the road ahead of them. It resolved itself into other riders, coming their way. Some instinct made Rafe drop back behind Cohen so he was riding among the men. Sergeant Anderson moved up beside the General, which was his rightful place anyway.
The oncoming men carried a pennant, which announced them as a troop of Patrollers. As they came closer they slowed down a little, dipping their flag in greeting. The General slowed to a walk, indicating a desire to talk. The other troop slowed as well, and the officer in the lead saluted as he came abreast the General.
"General," said the younger officer. "We are well met. I am Commander Williamson, from St. Ansgar."
The General returned the salute and studied the Patroller a moment, switching his cigar from one side of his mouth to the other. Finally he took it out and studied the tip as he asked, "What is your business, Commander Williamson? I was not aware of troop movements on this road tonight."
Hearing Commander Williamson's voice, Rafe kept his head down, hiding his face in the shadow cast by his hat. He did not need to look at the commander to know that he was a straight-backed aristocrat wearing an immaculately tailored uniform.
"We are on our way to Blackbottom Creek, sir, to escort civilians to Sanlou. Folk are worried about all the Raider activity lately."
"Carry on, then," said the General, lifting his reins.
"Er...General. I was wondering if you've seen the SimeSider Rafe Merryweather? We were told he was last seen heading up this way. We have an important message for him from Three Oaks."
"Nope," said the General promptly. "Haven't seen him. Don't know where he is."
They saluted again as they parted, and the two troops rode past each other. As Cohen cleared the last man in the other troop, he leaned over, said something in Sgt. Anderson's ear and pulled over to the side of the road.
Sergeant Anderson spoke to several of his men, who passed the word down the line. The word, when it came to Rafe, consisted of three words. As the two groups cleared each other the General lifted one hand, and his entire troop pulled out their rifles, wheeling about to face the other troop of Patrollers. Cohen fired his sidearm above the heads of the men from St. Ansgar, demanding they halt.
The St. Ansgar men promptly split into those who tried to run and those who pulled weapons and tried to fight. All in all, those who tried to run had the best of it.
The sound of rifle fire rolled across the countryside, the flash from the muzzles flickering against the moon's light like fitful, deadly fireflies. It was over quickly. Half the men from St. Ansgar were lying dead. The others were under arrest, their hands cuffed behind them whether wounded or not, sullenly grouped together and surrounded by angry Patrollers.
Rafe put his rifle a bit unsteadily into the scabbard at his saddle. He couldn't figure out why his hand shook so, until he looked down and saw the blood on his shirt under his coat. At the same time the General turned to him. "Rafe, I... Rafe? What's that spot on your shirt? You've been hit! Medic! Medic!"
"I don't need a medic. It's my left arm," Rafe said a bit woozily.
"When I want your opinion I'll ask for it. Medic!" By this time Cohen was helping Rafe off his horse, despite the fact that the Sime-Sider kept trying to shove him out of the way.
"I'm not hurt that bad!" Rafe said in exasperation, once his feet were on firm ground, which for some reason had a strange tendency to pitch up and down.
A thin young man wearing the red cross arm band of an army medic, by sheer force of will, got enough of Rafe's clothes off him to check the wound. Concern kept Cohen close by, leaning over the both of them.
"You're getting ashes in the wound, General," the young medic said irritably.
Cohen stood back, exchanging a look with Rafe. "They're all alike, these medics. They get you in their hands, and the next thing you know you're being bullied left and right."
The bullet had gone through Rafe's shoulder, miraculously missing both bones and arteries, but leaving a large exit wound. Satisfied that Rafe wasn't in any danger, Cohen went to interrogate prisoners.
Finally, after both holes in his shoulder were packed and bandaged, his body loaded with antibiotics and his arm put in a sling, Rafe ambled over to where Cohen was holding an impromptu court. He recognized the man standing chained in front of the General.
"This one is proving to be somewhat difficult," the General said to Rafe. "He won't tell us who he is."
Rafe looked into a fine-boned aristocratic face where a dark bruise bloomed on one cheek.
Dark eyes glared up at him. "You! I should have known. Never send an underling if you want something done right. If I had ridden with those men, you would be doing stud service on a Genfarm by now!"
"If you had ridden with those men, you would be in a morgue by now," Rafe replied, unperturbed. He turned to the impatiently waiting general. "His name is Ashe. He's the commander at Fort Birney."
"And a self-confessed Genrunner." He motioned to his sergeant. "Hang him."
Ashe struggled as hands closed on his arms. "Wait!"
Cohen nodded to his men, who stopped trying to pull the Genrunner away.
"What gave me away? We had the perfect cover!"
If it was not the question Cohen had expected, his hard-set features didn't show it. From around the cigar in his mouth he said, "The commander of St. Ansgar is my mess Sergeant's daughter. I watched her grow up. You're not her. Neither are you Jeffrey Ashe. Where is he?"
"Dead," the man said arrogantly.
"Who are you?"
"Somebody who's not going to live long." Ashe barked a half laugh.
"Tell you what," said Cohen, removing his cigar and studying the glowing tip. "I won't hang you for a Genrunner if you tell me where you take the people you're stealing."
Ashe looked steadily down at Cohen, with no change in his expression. After a moment he shrugged. "We're taking them to that old ghost town, south of here."
Ashe nodded. "Raiders pick them up there."
"And what do you get in return for this?" the General asked almost gently.
"The Raiders leave me and my family alone. Gold." Ashe shrugged. "Whatever."
Cohen nodded at the men still holding Ashe. "Have him shot for the murder of Jeffrey Ashe."
A queer smile twisted the Genrunner's thin lips. "Well, I didn't expect The Implacable to keep his word."
"I am keeping it. I promised not to hang you as a Genrunner. You're being shot as a murderer." The soldiers hauled Ashe away. He went with his back straight and an indifferent smile on his lips.
Cohen looked at Rafe, and one thick eyebrow rose. "The Implacable?"
"They call you that in Sime Territory. He wouldn't know that unless he was raised there."
"Well, that answers one question, at least," Cohen said as they mounted their horses. Rafe was a bit awkward because of his arm. They were heading down the road to Fort Birney at a walk when Cohen said around his cigar, "Jeffrey Ashe was a fine young man. He would have been a superb officer and a credit to the Patrol."
Behind them a ragged volley of shots echoed through the trees.
As he came abreast of Sergeant Anderson, who was standing beside the road talking to several Patrollers, he said, "Sergeant Anderson, take half the men and return to the fort with your prisoners. Sergeant Wheeler and the others will come with me. We're taking our wounded to Fort Smith-it's closer. After you have taken care of the prisoners, bring the men and join me in Prophetstown. Bring extra food and water, several wagons and blankets and another medic. I'll meet you there."
Evan came back to consciousness face down on a bunk, his torn, bruised face against a rough blanket. He concentrated on breathing slowly and evenly through his mouth because there was something wrong with his nose. His whole body hurt, but the worst of the pain centered in his arms. Bound behind his back, his shoulders were sheets of flame, but the most exquisite agony was centered along his forearms where eight-inch-wide manacles had been clamped over his tentacle sheaths. The interior of those metal sleeves were cunningly formed in such a way as to force the lateral tentacles out of their sheaths and along impossibly curved pathways. All movement was torture.
The ride in with the Patrollers with those things buckled over his arms had been the worst experience of a hard life. At least he could lie quietly, and for that he was grateful. Just to lie here-even if it was behind the steel bars in a Gen Patrol station-was luxury indeed.
He tried to zlin, but the metal around his tentacles distorted his field sense in a gut-wrenching way. Vertigo and nausea added to his misery.
There were gaps in his time sense that told him he'd been unconscious for shorter or longer periods. He no longer knew how long he'd been here, or even what day it was. As the vertigo wore off he could dimly sense a Gen somewhere, on the other side of a wall. He couldn't tell if it was the same Gen who had been there when he was brought in.
He had pleaded with that Gen, who was a Patrol officer, as they dragged him into the cell. Pleaded with him to send for Merryweather. Had the Gen done it? Or...oh gods! Suppose Merryweather wasn't Icy Nager's Gennish name? Suppose it was Jones or something? Or maybe the Patroller wouldn't send the message.
Galvanized by overwhelming fear, he forced his head up against the agonizing pain of shoulders and arms. "Patroller," he called. It came out a hoarse whisper. Taking a deep breath, slowly so he wouldn't hurt so much, he tried again. His voice was louder this time. But he paid for it when shooting pains awoke in his face and sent fiery darts through his cheekbones. He drew breath for another call and let it out with a sigh. Wonder of wonders, the Gen was opening the door between them and coming over to the cells.
"What do you want?" the Gen was asking.
The metal bars cut black lines across the manacle-distorted reality of the Gen field. Taking a deep breath, he did his best to articulate around cut and puffy lips. "Merryweather."
"I've sent for him."
Oh gods! Thankyouthankyouthankyou. "When-"
"I don't know. He'll be here when he comes."
"Thank you," Evan whispered. It was more than he'd ever expected to get from the Gen. Now all he had to do was wait. Clutching the hope of Icy Nager's coming as his antidote to hell, he let the encroaching blackness creep in around his sight. It was better not to be here, and he went away into the painless dark of unconsciousness.
The only thing to disturb him was the faraway voice of someone calling for Icy Nager. He wanted to protest. Icy Nager was his. But somehow he couldn't summon the energy and so lay there while the voice went on and on, fretting at him and keeping him from relaxing completely in the cool dark.
* * * * *
"What do you mean, I'm not going with you?!" Rafe demanded. He was in the Fort Birney hospital, in a private room. His wound had been cleaned and re-bandaged, and he had been in the process of arguing with the duty nurse into giving him back his shirt so he could leave, when his brotherinlaw had stumped in and ordered him to bed.
"You're not coming with me," Cohen repeated.
"And what gives you the right to give me orders?" Rafe shot back.
"I'm the General, that's why. And besides," he continued mildly, "what will I tell Kathryn if she finds out I let you bleed to death?"
"I'm not going to bleed to death. They've got enough bandages on me to plug up a fire hydrant."
"And you need every one," said the duty nurse, tartly.
"You're going to need me when you get to Prophetstown," Rafe said, grabbing his shirt out of the nurse's hands.
"No," said Cohen with all the considerable authority at his command. "You're staying here. I have enough men to take care of any Raiders we find in Prophetstown and to bring back the prisoners they have."
"Ariel! You're going to need me!"
"No. You'll just slow me down." The General looked past him and nodded.
A sudden sharp jab in his shoulder made Rafe turn indignantly, just in time to see the duty nurse push the plunger on the hypodermic in his arm. He struggled against both the nurse and the drug as he tried to tell Ariel why it was so important that he go with him. But Ariel refused to listen to his shouts, and the last Rafe saw of him was his back going out the door. Then it became hard to say anything at all, and the nurse was holding him down one-handed.
He opened his eyes to a moon-brightened room, the moon itself riding low in the sky. By its position he figured it was about two a.m. Urgency pushed the drug-induced fog from his mind. After a struggle he managed to get to his elbow, and then to swing his legs over the side of the bed. As he was sitting there, trying to will himself to his feet, he saw the paper sitting on the table beside his bed. It was on the flimsy paper the Patrol used for their wire messages, and it was addressed to him.
After a couple of abortive attempts, he managed to pick it up, and squinting his eyes against the tendency for them to wander in opposite directions, read it.
It was from Captain Ed Baker at Three Oaks. "HAVE SIME PRISONER ASKING FOR YOU BY NAME. NOT SURE HOW LONG HE'LL LIVE."
Under that, in the company clerk's neat hand, was a note: "This is the third time he's sent this message tonight."
Caleb! His greatest fear had always been that his brother, needing desperately to see him, would get caught. His hand trembled slightly as he folded the paper and tried to stick it in his shirt pocket, only to discover he was wearing one of those tieinthebackleaveyourbuttexposed hospital gowns. Adrenaline pushed the drug from his mind and gave him the strength to get to his feet. Holding onto the bed and the wall, Rafe managed to get to the closet and find his clothes. Pants and boots went on with difficulty, hampered as he was with only one arm. But his shirt would not go on over the bandages, so he was forced to wad it up and stuff it in the pocket of his coat. He was able to get both arms in the sleeves of his coat, it being cut fuller, and put the sling around his neck to hold his wounded arm. Boot and sleeve-knives came next, and then he picked up his rifle.
Shaky and sweating a little from the exertion, he leaned for a moment against the wall beside the door, listening for sounds in the corridor. The hospital was quiet.
Pulling his hat down so the broad rim shielded his face, he opened the door. The corridor outside was empty and the outer door loomed invitingly close.
Unable to remember what animal he'd rode in on, he took the best behaved animal in Fort Birney's stables, a pinto mare. The five-mile ride to Three Oaks was slow, since the mare was rather elderly. Rafe arrived in Three Oaks nearly two hours later, in the coldest part of the morning just before the false sunrise, when the world is at its quietest.
Fortunately the guard at the gate knew Rafe by sight and let him in after a cursory inspection by lantern light. "Never expected to see you here tonight. They said you were hurt," the guard said conversationally as he pushed the gate shut behind the SimeSider.
"A Patroller with the General. They stopped here to pick up reinforcements a couple of hours before midnight. They were on a Sime hunt, heading south." The guard slipped the bar in place.
Rafe gave the man a two-fingered salute, which was returned, and headed up the street to the station gate. That guard, too, was surprised to see him.
"Merryweather! Didn't expect you to be on your feet for a couple of days, from what the corporal was saying earlier tonight."
Word of his injuries was certainly getting around fast. "Just winged me. It's nothing serious. Where's Baker?"
The guard jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the station yard behind him, where a light still shone in the main building. "He's working late tonight. He's still in his office."
Rafe thanked the man and aimed the mare across the compound. Feeling a trickle of warmth under his bandages, he put a cautiously exploring hand under his coat. It came away wet. He looked at it a moment, wiped it on his pants and buttoned his coat over the telltale stain.
The mare stopped of her own accord in front of HQ, and as Rafe slowly dismounted, the door opened and Baker stood in the light, sending a thrust of shadow across the porch to Rafe's feet. Taking his rifle out of habit, Rafe slowly stepped onto the porch and into Baker's welcome.
"Glad you got here, boy. The Sime's in a bad way. I've been keeping an eye on him, although there's nothing I can do." The captain led the way into the office, picked up his keys and opened the steel door set in the back wall. "My men brought him in this afternoon. The boys were a little rough on him. You know how they get when they think they've found a Raider."
Baker was obliquely warning and apologizing to the SimeSider for what Rafe was going to find in that cell. Rafe's stomach turned over. Caleb. Oh, Caleb!
* * * * *
Something brought Evan out of the darkness. The voice calling for his Gen had ceased. That was not what woke him back into the world of pain again. It was the touch of a Gen field, familiar, astringent with gentle tones, soothing him like a hand laid across his brow. He forced open the eye that wasn't swollen closed and made out a blurred, shimmering field of purest gold with the cold black bars in stripes across it. He forced back tears. "Icy Nager?"
"It's you again," a deep, familiar voice said with a touch of exasperation.
"But of course," Evan replied as lightly as he could. "Did I not say I would wait for you?"
"You couldn't have picked somewhere else?" There were keys in the Gen's hands. They rattled as he put one into the lock and swung the door wide.
"Alas, the hotel was full," Evan replied. Every word hurt to get out. His Gen was here. His Gen, marked by him for the Kill. Bought and paid for. Now their roles were reversed. His Gen would kill him now, giving Evan a quick death. It was the only kindness a Sime could expect from a Gen. The only kind a Gen was ever willing to give. It was enough.
As Icy Nager entered the cell, Evan rolled over a little, trying to stretch his neck out to make it easier for the Gen to give him the mercy of the knife.
Icy Nager bent over him. "I'm taking the manacles off your arms. This is going to hurt."
Evan's one good eye flew open in shock as the meaning of the words penetrated his pain-fogged mind. The Gen's cool hands were on his skin. Agony laced up his arms. Pressure came down on the latches as the Gen opened the manacle on his right arm. Pain escalated to unimaginable heights, and he passed out.
When he came back, the world was blessedly once more in focus, untainted by iron. His hands were still shackled behind his back and his shoulders hurt, but the pain was nothing against what had already been borne.
A soothing gentleness lapped him around, erasing the memory of pain. He felt almost content. His Gen was here, Icy Nager's field overlapping his own. He leaned gratefully into the Gen's nager for the strength so freely offered.
"We have to leave here."
The deep voice was very close. Evan opened his good eye and suddenly realized just how close. Amazingly, Icy Nager was sitting beside him on the cot, one cool, calloused hand on the back of Evan's neck. Strength flowed from that touch. Could a Gen do that? He couldn't think through the minor energy swirl that was teasing the flows where Icy Nager's hand rested.
Another Gen came close, his field intermingling with the golden glow and changing the texture of it. Evan growled, low in his throat. Icy Nager shifted position, and the overlapping strange field diminished as Icy Nager's field blocked it.
"What are you going to do with him, Rafe? I can't keep him here without him being cuffed. You know that. It's against regs."
"I'm taking him home with me."
The words were clear enough, but the idea was so absurd that they slid off Evan's mind like butter off a hot knife.
"Rafe, he's not a stray puppy. I can't allow a Sime to run loose in the town." Worry, conflict, in that grayish field. Fear was the dominant emotion. It tinted the Gen's field with a reddish mist that allowed Evan to pick him him out against the golden brilliance that was Icy Nager.
"He won't be running loose. He'll be with me. I won't let him do any harm." Self-confidence. Icy Nager's field pulsed in a quiet, hypnotic rhythm. Evan, resting within Icy Nager's field, focused only on that nageric pulse and just let the Gens' conversation flow over him without taking any of it in.
"I can't take that chance. If you could take him outside the gates-"
"Ed, I'm on my last legs. I can't go any farther. Give me until tonight. I promise I'll have him out of here as soon as it gets dark."
"Rafe, I just can't-"
"The alternative would be to let him die. If we do that the Householders wouldn't trust us anymore. We can't survive on the border without them, Ed. You know that."
"He isn't dressed like a Householder," the Patroller said, doubtfully.
"I recognize him," Merryweather replied.
The two Gens looked at each other, and something passed between them. Evan could feel it, but could not put a name to it.
"All right," Baker capitulated suddenly. "If we're going to get him to your place, we're going to have to move fast. The sun will be up in another hour. If anyone finds out-"
"They won't," Merryweather said confidently.
Baker stood there rubbing at his chin. "Too many people know he was brought in. What are we going to say to them when they find him missing?"
"Why, the truth," Icy Nager said in some surprise. "The SimeSider came and took him away."
Baker grunted. "You're going to need help with him, and I'm not going near him, Householder or not, as long as those tentacles are out like that. Make him pull them in."
Evan heard that all too clearly. A hot tear slid down one cheek. He couldn't do as they asked. He couldn't. His tentacles wouldn't respond. Didn't they know he'd tried to pull them in?
Icy Nager sat down on the cot beside him again. The hand rested gently on the back of his neck. "I know it hurts, BlueEyes, but you can do it," Icy Nager encouraged. "You have to. They'll just get damaged more if you leave them dangling."
It was the nageric overtones of that vast, impersonal love Icy Nager had comforted him with once before that made Evan do it. Digging deep for the last of his courage, he shut his teeth on the screams that tore at his throat. When he finished he lay sweating and trembling with the shock, sick with pain, but his tentacles were safely in their sheaths.
Icy Nager's hand rubbed gently at the back of his neck, a weirdly comforting touch, his nager a soothing balm. It didn't last long enough. After three minutes the Patroller's gray field was yammering with impatience like some particularly obnoxious little dog.
"Come on, then. Let's get him on his feet," the older Gen was saying. As Icy Nager took his hand away, Evan decided he was going to hate that Patroller for the rest of his life.
They reached for him. Evan couldn't bear the thought of more pain if they grabbed his abused shoulders. "No! Wait. I...I can get up myself." Painfully he rolled to a sitting position, leaning forward because of the chain holding his hands behind him.
Evan was trying to get to his feet and not succeeding. Icy Nager moved in close, wrapped an arm around his waist, lifted him up bodily and set him on his feet. But it was no use. He swayed and would have fallen if Icy Nager had not grabbed the back of his shirt.
With his shirt in Icy Nager's fist, the two Gens half-supported, half-pushed him down the short corridor into the main room. There, the Patroller flung a heavy coat over Evan's shoulders and slapped a floppy, wide-brimmed hat on Evan's head. The brim was so limp that it hung over his face and all he could see were his feet.
Baker turned down the oil lamp and opened the door. Cool air blew around them as they stepped out onto the porch. Evan, pushed and supported by Icy Nager, stood with him in the deepest shadow under the porch roof. The sky was lightening enough to make out the silhouettes of the guards walking the wall. Evan could hear the first sleepy twitters of birds heralding the coming dawn.
Baker handed Rafe a key and then walked away from them, going up the steps onto the guard walk. When Icy Nager heard the Patroller in conversation with the guards, he pulled Evan quickly across the grounds until they were in the safety of the shadows under the guard walk itself. Icy Nager used the key to open an inconspicuous door set into the wooden palisade. Pushing Evan through, he quietly pulled the door shut behind them, locking it again.
Evan found himself in the Gen town on a quiet residential street, just off the business district. No lights disturbed the darkness under the trees, nor glowed through windows in any of the small humped houses. The many trees lining the streets served further to mask their movements as Icy Nager half-carried him through the town.
Evan zlinned, surrounded by more high-field Prime Kills than he had ever been around before, with only his own Sime field to dilute them. A Sime could get drunk on an ambient like this.
He hoped Icy Nager's house was not far. There were many Gens beginning to waken, and the sky was already noticeably lighter. There was that early morning sense of things starting to stir as the birds grew louder and the wind picked up, sighing through the newly leafed trees.
The walk to Icy Nager's place took forever. By the time they finally turned in at one of the beehive-shaped houses, built half-underground, the Gen was more or less holding Evan on his feet, and they were giving an inadvertent but extremely good impression of two drunks coming home from a late night out.
Icy Nager had to let go of him to open the front door, leaving Evan momentarily unsupported. He started to fall, and in an effort to save himself, pushed past the Gen where he stood just inside the door, lighting an oil lamp. Caroming off the Gen's bulk, Evan came up hard against a railing and found himself looking down into a large room. The two of them were standing on the upper landing of a short flight of steps.
In many ways it was a typical Gen house. The room was about five feet below the street level outside and divided into two main sections by a tiled stove. One side of the stove was the kitchen area and the other, the living area. The kitchen had a sink, a larder, shelves for dishes and canned fruit and one enormous trestle table that spanned the front of the entire area. That was where Icy Nager's house stopped being typical.
The table was mounded a foot deep in magazines, papers, newspapers, rope, horse gear, clothes and what looked like second century clay pottery from the Upper Mizzou. On the other side of the stove, in the living area, the walls were covered with bookshelves, packed to overflowing with tomes of all sizes. A freestanding, waist-high bookshelf further divided the room from the kitchen. On a brightly colored braided rug were placed two comfortable-looking armchairs with a small table between them.
The front of the living area, where most Gen homes had at most three small windows, Icy Nager had a row of windows from ground level to ceiling. Under those windows was the biggest, and messiest, desk he'd ever seen. On both sides of it were files and shelves overflowing with papers, magazines, books and the glassy glint of vacuum tubes, storage for old, fragile documents.
All this he took in with avid curiosity as behind him Icy Nager closed and barred the door. Evan started down the stairs ahead of the Gen, knowing no Gen, not even Icy Nager, would feel comfortable with a Sime behind him. Awkward because of his bound hands, Evan stumbled as he reached the last step and would have gone sprawling face forward had not a large Gen hand grabbed a fistful of his shirt and held him until he regained his feet.
Icy Nager walked away without a word. Momentarily ignored, Evan took two stumbling steps to the table, hoisted a hip onto a corner and rested there, head hanging, waiting for what would happen next.
There was a sense of growing pain, a dull ache that flashed into life. Evan's head snapped up. "I thought all that pain was my hurt, but it's you." He shifted so he could see the other side of the room, where the Gen was wincing as he removed his coat. Icy Nager wore nothing under the garment but a bandage wound around one shoulder. The back of the bandage was stained red. When the Gen turned around, Evan saw the front of it had a red blotch, also.
Without answering Evan, the Gen slipped a sling around his wounded arm, and the sharp, stabbing pain flashes eased. He went to the long line of windows and pulled the curtains across them, making sure the edges overlapped. Then, coming to stand in front of Evan, Icy Nager took Evan's chin in his good hand, tilting his face up.
Evan, past defiance, let him. He was still zlinning and saw the Gen as a golden light of swirling selyn flows. A blackness was high on one shoulder. The flows eddied sluggishly around it, qualifying more stress than just that of a gunshot. Some selyn was leaking out, a golden fog around the wound. The Gen was almost as weary as Evan, and so full of some tranquilizer that it was a miracle he was still on his feet.
Pain flared again as Icy Nager removed his left arm from its sling. More selyn leaked from the wound. Evan was so busy agonizing over that loss he didn't pay any attention as hands like two golden paddles reached toward his face. There was a sharp thrust of pain that went right through his sinuses and slowly blossomed into agony. His shoulders jerked as he tried to grab the source of that pain, and a sheet of fire tore through his muscles. "What did you do that for?!"
"You should be able to breathe better, now that your nose isn't flat." They were the first words Icy Nager had spoken since leaving the Patrol station. He concentrated on putting his arm back into the sling.
Evan experimentally inhaled. "You could have warned me," he said sullenly.
"I could have," the Gen agreed tiredly, removing Evan's poor excuse for a hat and tossing it on top of the piled debris on the table. One-handed, he unbuttoned the coat around Evan's shoulders and tossed it after the hat. He was standing behind Evan, fumbling at something in a pocket. Finally he drew it out. Once again a warm Gen hand touched Evan's skin. There was the smallest click, and the handcuffs were drawn off.
Evan gasped with new hurt. His arms fell forward, as unresponsive as his tentacles.
The Gen moved into the kitchen area, working a pump at the sink. Shortly he held a cup of water out to Evan, but the Sime could not reach up to grasp it. Once more Icy Nager surprised him by holding it for him as he drank. He hadn't realized up to then how thirsty he was. It had just been another part of the torment.
He slopped a little water down his chin and wiped his face off on the shoulder of his shirt as Icy Nager, with lagging steps, carried the cup back to the sink. The Gen put a bucket under the spout and started working the pump again, one-handed, his back to the Sime.
"That was good," Evan said. "Cold."
No reply from the Gen.
"How did you get hurt?"
"Shen! I knew it."
"It's nothing serious. I'll heal." Indifference colored the words and field.
Evan, who had a rather clearer idea of just how badly Icy Nager was hurt than Icy Nager, didn't say anything. His arms were starting to tingle back to life, and he sat massaging his shoulders and watching the Gen pump water into the bucket.
The Gen lifted it out of the sink, a weight that pulled at his wound and made Evan hiss with the Gen's pain. Icy Nager himself didn't make a sound, but brought the bucket into the living area and parked it in the middle of the large braided rug. Evan watched from where he leaned against the table until Icy Nager motioned for him to approach.
He came over, steadier on his feet than he had been, and stood perplexed, gazing down at the bucket. Icy Nager, who had finally run out of will power and energy at the same time and was about to fall asleep on his feet, made a patting motion with one hand. "Sit."
Puzzled, Evan folded up in front of the bucket.
"Stick your arms in it," the Sime Sider said with a trace of irritation as he fell into a comfortable-looking leather armchair across from Evan. With infinite weariness he lifted booted feet onto the footstool.
Evan gave the Gen a sidelong glance and then, rather gingerly, immersed his arms in the water. After many flinchings, for the water felt icy cold, he managed it. After a while it felt good against his swollen tentacle sheaths and cautiously, little by little, he forced the abused tentacles to emerge.
Icy Nager sat watching him, barely awake, his craggy face all lines and hollows in the pale light filtering in through the curtained windows.
"Icy Nager, why didn't you kill me?"
"I didn't want to."
"You showed me a catseye marble." Perhaps feeling that wasn't an adequate explanation, the Gen forced himself awake, hiking himself a little higher in the chair. "You never tried to attack me. You kept your word." And added after a short pause, "You warned me about those Genrunners, and you tried to help when they attacked. You didn't have to do that."
It suddenly occurred to Evan, to his acute misery, that he could not lie to Icy Nager. Ever. Not after what had happened between them. Evan was going to have to tell the big Gen what had ultimately brought him back over the border. Icy Nager had a right to know. What would happen when Icy Nager learned that Evan was fixed on him?
"Now I have a question for you."
Uhoh, here it comes.
"Do you think what I do as a SimeSider matters?"
If he hadn't been so battered already by what had happened to him, Evan would have been shocked to the core by such a question. As it was, he just shrugged, but carefully. "Don't you think that's a rather strange question for a SimeSider to be asking a Sime?"
"It's been on my mind a lot these days."
There was a long silence before Evan spoke again, and when he did his voice was low and very serious. "Once a man was walking along a river after a terrible cold spell that had frozen the water, trapping thousands of migrating ducks. After he'd walked a long time, he met a young man coming towards him. The young man had an axe and was chopping at the ice, breaking the birds free of their imprisonment.
"`Why do you bother?' the first man asked. `You can only save a few, and I have walked past thousands of them this morning. You can't save them all before they start to die. What you are doing is useless. It doesn't mean anything.'
"And the young man looked down at the duck in his hands, and as he set it free he said, `It means something to this one.'"
He looked up into Icy Nager's face as he finished speaking and saw the Gen's gray eyes glinting with unshed tears.
Icy Nager cleared his throat before he spoke. "Thank you."
Embarrassed, Evan swirled the water around in the bucket and tried not to infringe on the Gen's field. Sleep was rising fast, and Icy Nager could not hold out much longer. "Are you really going to fall asleep in the same room with an unchained, unmanacled Sime?"
"It's not safe," warned Evan, a bit insulted that even Icy Nager would take him so lightly.
"Can't stay awake." Which, for the Gen, seemed to be a perfectly good reason for doing something so suicidal.
"I could Kill you," Evan said softly in Simelan, not sure if he wanted the Gen to hear that or not.
The Gen did.
"Truce?" Icy Nager pulled the word out with his last strength, too far gone to open his eyes.
Evan had the feeling Icy Nager had cried truce only for form's sake. He didn't really care if there was a truce or not. "Truce," Evan agreed, but Icy Nager was already asleep. He cared if there was one, and he meant to stick by the pledge.
Fighting the pull of Icy Nager's headlong plunge into sleep, he got to his knees and pulled off the Gen's boots for him so that he might sleep better. Folded on the footstool under the Gen's feet was a yellow and red afghan. He spread it over the sleeping Gen. Everybody knew how easily Gens got cold.
Reseating himself beside the wooden bucket, he looked around the room. So. Here he was. Sitting in the UnKillable Gen's living room, more or less a prisoner, more or less crippled, with need creeping inexorably up on him. When it did, he was going to have to attack Icy Nager or die.
He thrust his arms deeper into the water, a vengeful, angry movement. Something hard in his shirt pocket knocked against the bucket, and, lifting a dripping hand, he fished the object out. It was an orange catseye marble. He sat rolling the marble between his fingers, remembering. Remembering the first time Icy Nager's blunt Gen fingers had touched it, and the scholarly lecture that had followed.
Remembered also the way that freezing, alien nager had tried to mesh with his. How, when Icy Nager had shown that glimpse of pure humor, he had let their fields blend, curious to see what would happen. Had Icy Nager known what he was doing? Probably not. He didn't have that much control over his field.
Odd, how he'd never been close enough to anyone to want to mesh with them. Certainly he'd never would have considered doing it with a Gen. It was something you did with another Sime close enough to be more than a friend. But he'd never even had it with his own family.
His parents had been poor, with too many children, too little food, too many blows. An older sister, taken, screaming her fear, to a Gen Dealer. A coarse man's voice saying, "With luck a few more will turn Gen, and then we can buy that farm." It wasn't his father saying that. His father had been gone by then. It had been Boros Findlic, who was living with his mother at the time.
Evan took to the streets that year. He had been eight. As he grew older he came home at increasingly wider intervals, until one day, in an alley behind the Bandegog Institute, he'd changed over. He cringed away from the memory of attrition. One of the archeologists had found him and taken him to a pen. Later, safely adult, he'd gone back to the apartment, but there were strangers living there. He'd been alone since then.
He turned his head to watch Icy Nager, his nager softly luminous in sleep, fading a bit as the brightening sunlight robbed it of its nighttime glory. The Gen's field was placid, relaxed and deep as a well. Nothing was going to wake him. He had probably never been as vulnerable in his life as he was right now. He was safe, though. Evan would not harm him...ever, that is...until need became too much to withstand.
A shiver ran through Evan. Unbidden, the memory swept over him of an unwanted Gen Patroller under his hands. How the deathshocks of four others went through him like blows, robbing him of a fragile control. The weird nageric interplay through his senses as the Patroller's disgusting, slimy field and Icy Nager's brilliant sunonflower field mingled within his. The combination overloaded something in him until, unable to stand it any longer, he had murdered to rid himself of that offensive dissonance. That had been a mistake. The Genrunner's deathshock destroyed what was left of his control, throwing him completely into Killmode.
That first instant of draw had been so shenningly marvelous. He closed his eyes, savoring the memory.
Then the moment was blasted by unbelievable pain, like nothing he'd ever felt before...( until those manacles had been clamped around his arms)...as the Gen shenned him.
He ought to have died then as he had almost died when he shenned himself back in Moriathon. But the Gen's heavily muscled arms had wrapped around him, holding him tight to that broad chest, close to the center of life, holding him within a circle of safety. Icy Nager's field and muscles buffering the spine-arcing convulsions that without the Gen would surely have broken his back. But it was more than the Gen's strength holding him; there was an incredible gentleness along with it, perhaps even a trickle of selyn (but that surely was just imagination) stroking his abused nerves, wrapping him in promise. Along with the promise, there had been a vast uncritical love like nothing he had ever experienced before. Certainly nothing he had ever expected to receive from a Gen. For long minutes while his body fought with death, his soul had been bound around in a cocoon of safety, as it had never been in his life, not even as a child-especially not as a child growing up on the streets of Moriathon.
Afterwards, he had not known what to do. Or think. And had fled. Later, lost in thought over the incredible thing that had happened between him and Icy Nager, he had carelessly allowed Gen Patrollers to get much too close to him. If he had not stopped to hide the all-important books, they would not have caught him. For a time, lost in fear and sheeting pain, he vilified himself for a fool in taking precious moments to hide the papers when he could have been running. But not now. Now they were his passport to Icy Nager's favor. The lever by which he would make Icy Nager keep him around.
After his capture, from out of the depths of his despair, he had cried aloud Icy Nager's name and The Gen Monster, the UnKillable, the Cunning One, had come to save him. The only creature on the earth who had ever been willing to help him. Soundlessly he mouthed Icy Nager's Gennish name, his talisman against pain and hurt.
Unbidden, a picture rose in his mind's eye. An orange catseye marble bouncing off a white tombstone to land at Icy Nager's feet. And the name on the tombstone was Merryweather.
He shuddered and buried his face in his hands.
Evan awoke slowly out of the deep, healing sleep of his kind. He was lying on his stomach on the rug near Icy Nager. The Gen was still sound asleep, his good arm dangling over the side of the chair, stockinged feet sticking out from under the afghan.
A thin bar of sunlight escaping from under the drawn curtains lay across the braided rug not far from Evan's hand. In deepest contentment, he reached out to let the light fall over his fingers, thinking he'd never seen anything so brilliant as the bronzy browns, reds and golds in the rug.
Languidly he turned over, stretching slowly against remembered pain, feeling deliciously alive, wrapped in a sense of safety he had never known before. Which, considering he was hiding in the heart of a Gen town with need rapidly looming ahead of him, was very strange indeed.
Most of his aches and pains were healed. His face no longer hurt, although his nose was still tender. The healing sleep had done its job, but the price of using it had brought his selyn reserves dangerously low. Yet, despite that, for the first time in years he didn't have that unassuagable chronic wanting eating at his control.
So thinking, he zlinned Icy Nager. The Gen's emotions were level, although there was a current of worry nagging at him. That unknown trouble would not let him rest and was contributing to the bone-aching weariness still quivering through the Gen's body. The Gen's selyn production was still sluggish but better than the night before. His wounds were healing, but Icy Nager would be in pain when he awoke. Somehow, the knowledge didn't hold any fears for Evan, but then he had never been one to raise Kill-lust through pain.
He moved, one arm scraping against the rug, awakening a dull ache. He looked at his arms, something he had been avoiding, and studied the sheaths. They were still swollen and mottled with yellowing bruises. Concerned, he sat up, putting his back against the solid front of the second armchair, stretching his arms over his raised knees. There was a peculiar numbness as he experimentally stroked the swollen sheaths with a finger, and when he tried to extend a handling tentacle, nothing happened.
A cold chill went through him. He felt suddenly crippled, diminished. No better than a Gen, he thought to himself. Glancing at the sleeping Icy Nager, he smiled wryly. Well, no better than most Gens.
Thirsty, he went to the kitchen and worked the pump, drinking straight from the spout. The noise seemed to bother Icy Nager. At least, he stirred in his sleep and muttered something. Evan finished quickly, and as he was wiping his mouth on his shirt, he happened to glance up at the shelf above the sink and saw several tins. The one that caught his attention was the one labeled in Simelan. It said, "trin tea."
With a delighted grin Evan pulled it down and opened it, deeply inhaling the scent of the contents. Filling the kettle with water, he turned to put it on the stove, only to discover there was no fire. In the process of searching for firewood, he discovered a walkin pantry and beyond that, a back door. He couldn't resist a look outside, and, peeking warily around the door frame, he discovered that Icy Nager's house shared yard space with at least four other houses, several of which had children playing outside. He shut the door hastily, bolting it from the inside.
Fortunately, there was a pile of firewood and charcoal in a bin beside the door. The fire started, he searched through the larder. It was rather empty except for a bin of flour, a couple of fresh eggs, and a half pound of butter. The pantry held even less interest, devoted as it was to canned meats, fruits and vegetables.
The tea made and laced with a teaspoon of clover honey from a jar on the sideboard, Evan wandered over to Icy Nager's desk, sipping at his mug. Idly he turned over papers, scanning the strong, even handwriting. Icy Nager's handwriting. The Gen was apparently answering a colleague's letter on some esoteric point of vowel shifts, and he couldn't understand one word in four.
Turning from that, he ran his fingers over the books on the nearest shelf. They were mostly texts on language. That particular bookcase ended at a curtained doorway. He pushed the curtain aside and looked into a tiny room containing a bed with built-in drawers under it and very little else. From hooks on the wall hung the Gen's coat and hat.
Dropping the curtain, he went on to the next bookcase. These were all Gen novels. Among them was an entire shelf of novels written in Simelan. The difference between Gen writing and Sime writing was the inclusion of the curved lines representing tentacle sign, without which the written word could be almost mind-bogglingly difficult. Gens, who didn't have tentacles, couldn't even attempt to read Simelan with any kind of accuracy.
Pulling out a volume with a promising title, he sat down in the second armchair and opened it. He was not hampered by the lack of light. Icy Nager's field provided quite enough illumination for him to read by.
Hours later Icy Nager shifted in his chair. There was a change in the ambient, a sense of a mind aware. Evan looked up. Icy Nager was awake, watching him.
"You look better, Blue-Eyes," said Icy Nager.
"Call me Evan, Icy Nager." He sounded, even to his own ears, much too arrogant.
Icy Nager only grinned. "You can call me Rafe." He stretched a little, favoring the bad shoulder. He was full of aches and stiffness. "What time is it?"
"Just around four in the afternoon."
Pushing the footstool aside, Icy Nager leaned forward. "Let me see your arms."
Evan stared at him a moment, not sure if he should be affronted or scared. Hesitantly he stretched out his arms, ready to flinch away if the Gen reached for him. But Icy Nager merely looked, keeping his good hand on his knee as if he knew how afraid his disability made Evan.
"Can you extend your handling tentacles?"
"Let's see 'em."
Over the last few hours Evan had regained some control over them, and when he extended them, they came out nearly the whole way. But they dangled lifelessly, purple and swollen.
Icy Nager reached out then, but slowly. Evan let him make contact, feeling a curious sort of intimacy between them that added to Evan's profound unease. As the Gen's finger touched his skin, Evan braced himself for pain, but Icy Nager's touch was gentle as he ran his hand down the dangling appendages. Never before had a Gen touched Evan's tentacles. Evan sucked in his breath sharply, astonished at what those selyn-rich fingers were doing to his flow patterns. This, he decided as he drew his arm away from the Gen, could get addictive. He pulled his tentacles in again, where they were safe.
"They ought to have healed up better than that," Rafe said.
And the odd thing, Evan thought, was that the Gen sounded as if he cared. "Am I going to live long enough to have to worry about it?"
"Probably," Rafe said, sitting back in his chair. "It depends on whether you let yourself get caught again. It'll be dark soon. I promised Ed I'd have you out of town by tonight."
"You're not fit to ride," Evan said instantly, his heart sinking at the thought of going out into the cold world again, away from this golden warmth.
"But ride I must," the Gen returned mildly enough. "Unless, of course, you'd prefer to have Baker accompany you to the border?"
Evan shot him an uneasy glance. "No." Had he guessed about Evan's fix on him? "Are you really going to go all the way to the border with me?"
"That's my intention."
Evan abruptly got to his feet, re-shelving the book he'd been reading, heading back to Rafe, keeping his grin hidden from the Gen's eyes. A Sime soon lost the ability to lie, when his every emotion was naked for others to see and touch. But a Sime could lie to Gens, who could not read the ambient or fields. But you had to be careful not to let them see your face when you did it. Once he had Icy Nager as far as his camp, he could get him to look at the papers. Once he did that, Icy Nager would be hooked. He'd figure out a way later to stay around the big Gen. "You're exhausted. You shouldn't be going anywhere for a couple of days."
"True. But you can't stay here. You're too close to need."
"I promised you not to Kill in Gen Territory," Evan said sullenly, settling back onto the armchair.
"There are some things you can trust a Sime to do even past death. Keeping his hands off the nearest Gen when he's going into attrition isn't one of them."
Evan looked down at his hands locked around an updrawn knee. "I found some painkillers." He nodded at the table between them, where a small bottle sat beside a cup of water. "I knew you'd be hurting when you woke up."
The Gen gulped several and sat back in his chair again, unwilling to move. He needed food, and badly. Evan could see that clearly from the way his field was distorting. He got up and fixed the Gen a cup of trin tea, heavily laced with honey.
Rafe took it with a grunt of thanks.
"Your bandage needs to be replaced," Evan said.
"Botheration." He moved a finger in an oddly familiar gesture.
It took Evan a moment to realize the Gen was copying a tentacle move. What he had said wasn't at all polite. The Gen had not been raised in Sime Territory, and he was not a Householder. Where then, had he learned tentacle talk? "I found your first aid kit. There wasn't a whole lot in it."
"There's several rolls of bandages in the bottom drawer under my bed," Icy Nager replied, leaning his head back against the chair.
Changing Rafe's bandage called for cutting the old one off him and soaking what was left free of the blood holding it to the wounds. All this Evan did with a hard jaw and steely eyes, on guard against any rise in Kill-lust. Rafe, on the other hand, sipped his tea and let him work in weary, detached amusement.
At last Evan finished. Picking up the old bandages and the bucket, the water in which was now pink, he carried them into the kitchen, where he dumped the water down the drain. After adding more coal to the stove, he speculatively eyed the eggs in the larder. Rafe was very hungry. His body was crying out for nourishment with the intensity of Sime need. "Where's your frying pan?"
Rafe looked around the high back of his armchair. "You cook, too?"
"Well...I'm going to try." That brought the Gen to his feet. But Evan wouldn't let him take over the cooking. The Gen needed his rest. So Icy Nager sat on the bench beside the trestle table and told Evan where to find everything and even how to make biscuits.
Evan was just cracking the third and final egg into the hot oil in the frying pan when there was a knock on the door. "It's that Patroller. Baker," Evan said absently, opening the oven door to check the biscuits.
"I'll get it." Icy Nager moved with less than his usual grace towards the steps. "I wouldn't want to disturb a budding chef in his moment of creativity."
"Or scare the selyn out of your friend," Evan added, shutting the oven. The biscuits weren't quite brown enough. He prodded an egg. Was it cooked the way Rafe said he liked it? Soggy in the middle?
Baker stepped onto the landing as Rafe opened the door. He was carrying a rifle in one hand and a wicker basket in the other. His nager, hard with suspicion and protectiveness, resonated with surprise when he saw Evan in the kitchen hovering over a frying pan with a pancake turner in his hand. "I heard they healed fast."
Evan turned and waved the pancake turner at him.
Baker visibly recoiled. "Why isn't he handcuffed?" he demanded of Rafe.
"Because he doesn't need to be," Rafe said mildly. "Is that my rifle?"
Baker thrust it at him. "You left it in my office last night." Following Icy Nager down the steps, he was careful to keep Evan in sight as he put the basket down on the end of the table, where Icy Nager usually sat to eat. It was the only area that was clear. "Mary sent over something for you to eat. Roast beef, creamed corn, baked potatoes, stewed tomatoes, dandelion salad, and a fresh-baked loaf of caraway bread." He scowled at Evan. "There's enough for two."
Evan hadn't seen so much food in one place in months. "Talk about the proverbial appetite of a Gen!"
Rafe ignored him. Baker's lips skinned back and a growl rumbled through his grayish field, although he made no audible sound. Evan decided he'd best not provoke this one too far.
Rafe was putting the rifle in the gun rack beside the stairs. Evan noticed that his hunger, already high, was peaking as he sniffed deeply at the smells coming from the covered dishes Baker was laying out on the table. "The eggs are done," he said jealously, slipping them on to a warmed plate. "Sit down and I'll bring them to you."
To Evan's intense gratification Rafe didn't reach for any of the food Baker had put out, but waited for him to lay the plate of eggs down in front of him. Evan went back for the biscuits, feeling unaccountably happy.
"Done to perfection," Rafe said as he buttered one of the biscuits.
Evan pulled out the bench and sat on Rafe's left. His injured side. Protecting his Kill and also protecting himself from Baker's uninteresting gray field by putting Rafe between them.
Baker defiantly pulled out the other bench, sitting opposite Evan. They glared at each other over the width of the table while Icy Nager ignored them. Already finished with the eggs and three of the biscuits, he started making inroads on the meat, potatoes and corn. "Evan, would you be so kind as to pour Captain Baker a cup of trin tea? And go easy on the honey-he doesn't like things too sweet."
Reluctantly, Evan did as he was requested, not sure if he should be outraged at being asked to wait on a Gen, or not. He was still debating the point with himself as he pushed the cup across the table to the Patroller. Even one-handed Rafe had managed to put away an astonishingly large amount of food in an incredibly short time and looked to be still going strong. Evan zlinned him briefly to make sure his stomach wasn't going to burst under the load. The Gen's selyn flows were stable, some of the exhaustion had left him and his selyn production had picked up slightly. He seemed to be all right.
"You should eat more," Rafe said, pushing the biscuits towards Evan. "You're too thin. It's not healthy."
"I'll stick with the tea, thanks." But sitting next to a famished Gen was doing things to him. When he found himself devouring his third biscuit loaded with butter and honey, he decided enough was enough and pushed his plate away. Icy Nager continued to eat.
"Tell me about those Gens Ariel was searching for," Rafe said, reaching for the stewed tomatoes.
Baker sipped his tea, staring suspiciously at Evan. "Is it okay to talk in front of him?"
"Well...a couple of my men returned today with Gens from the Prophetstown raid. There were Raiders there, like you said. But very few Gens. The ones they did have were all adults. I talked to a few of them. There were children brought into the camp that day, but they don't know what happened to them.
"When Ariel showed up with his men, they took the Raiders by surprise. All they had time for was to grab their prisoners and run. They left their fires burning, food cooking, blankets behind. Everything.
"The Raiders jettisoned their prisoners when they hit the foothills and saw they weren't going to outrun the Patrol. Ariel," he shot a glance at Evan as he said the name, "kept going after them. You know him. He's not going to stop."
Evan said, "A Patrol troop going over the border will mean war."
"We're aware of that!" snarled Baker.
Evan refused to take offense. He was more interested in clearing up a confusing point. "Why were there children in a Raider camp? They don't take children. It's counter-productive to bring them across the border when at least a third are going to become Sime. We can hardly feed the population we have now. We certainly wouldn't take the chance of adding to it."
Rafe drank deeply from his cup. "Genrunners," he said succinctly as he put it down on the table. "They take anyone. Being Gen, they can't tell those who have established from those who have not. Usually Raiders pay for the children anyway, and leave them somewhere to find their own way home."
"They didn't find any children," Baker repeated, frowning into his tea.
The unease and worry that had been in Icy Nager's field since he awoke suddenly came alive, flooding the ambient. "They're still in the town, Ed."
"They couldn't be. They searched."
"There's old tunnels-"
"Everybody knows that. They searched them, too."
"Nobody knows all the tunnels of Prophetstown," said Rafe fiercely. "Not even me, and I was raised there. I tell you those kids are still there. We have to go back and find them!"
"What's this `we'? I heard from the doctors at Fort Birney. They were upset that you walked out on them last night, to put it mildly. They don't know how you got on a horse, much less made it all the way back here. You're not going anywhere."
"You can't find those kids without me. I'm going to Prophetstown, with you or without you." And Rafe's nager turned icy. There would be no arguing with him. Baker must have realized it too, because he didn't pursue it any further.
"And what about him?" Baker pointed a stubby finger at Evan.
Expressionlessly, Rafe studied Evan for a moment, then turned back to Baker. "It's an easy problem to solve. He'll come with us to Prophetstown."
Baker choked and spilled his tea. Absently, just as stunned by Icy Nager's calm announcement, Evan picked up a clean undershirt from a pile on the table and blotted the tea off Rafe's notes before it dissolved the ink on them. At the same time, he removed a priceless clay pot menaced by the wide, inarticulate sweeps Baker was making with his arms. As Evan sat down, he caught Rafe watching him. The Gen winked.
It was a small gesture, but it changed everything. Suddenly it was Rafe and Evan, allied against the world. In that moment, if Rafe had asked him to, Evan would have willingly run stark naked through a Church of the Purity meeting.
Meanwhile, Baker had been sputtering incoherently. "What?!" he managed to get out. "Are you mad?"
Icy Nager calmly stirred his tea. "Why not? It solves the problem of getting him out of Three Oaks without anyone being the wiser. After we're finished at Prophetstown I'll take him to the border."
"If you can still ride a horse!" Baker slammed a fist down on the trestle table, the jolt starting a slide of magazines cascading onto the floor. He ignored it. "And what if the men find out?!"
"They'll kill me," Evan said quietly.
"We could do it now and get it over with," Baker offered, with a feral grin.
"We need Evan," Rafe said.
"Why?" demanded Baker.
Evan, too, was interested in the answer to this question.
"Because if I can't find those kids, maybe a Sime could."
Evan, about to blurt out something about a child's practically nonexistent nager, caught Rafe's warning glance and shut his mouth. His chances of staying alive were better if Baker thought he had something to offer.
"As for the men finding out Evan is Sime... I don't think they will," Rafe said, toying with his fork.
"How can they help it?" muttered Baker.
"Think a moment," urged Rafe. "The only real physical difference between Sime and Gen is the tentacles. Cover them up and tell everyone he's my partner. Who would believe a SimeSider would voluntarily keep a Sime around him? Besides, the trip won't be long, and if we keep him away from your men, and if he keeps his mouth shut-" Here Rafe paused and looked meaningfully at Evan, "no one will suspect a thing."
Baker put his elbows on the table, massaging his face in his hands. "You have talked me into some strange things over the years, but this is the worst."
"But you'll do it?" Rafe asked.
"Oh, yes. I'll do it. And if we're found out I'll be drummed out of the service. I'll have to move Deep Territory and change my name. My wife will divorce me; my family will disown me-"
"No, they won't," said Rafe, bracingly. "The worst that will happen is that people will say, `Merryweather talked Baker into doing something stupid, again.'"
"Oh, that makes me feel much better," said Baker sarcastically, lifting his head. "I suppose we'd better get moving. I'll send a man around with Blackthorn and another horse for your...partner." It sounded to Evan as if the Patroller gagged on the word.
As the door closed behind the Gen, Evan observed, "He's very disturbed by the idea."
"What about you?"
"I'm disturbed by the idea, too." But that wasn't quite the truth. Under the fear there was a singing joy. He wasn't going to be parted from Icy Nager. After finding the children, Rafe was going to ride with him to the border. If he couldn't get him sidetracked to the books before they reached Sime Territory, he wasn't the man he thought he was. After they got the books, they would find a safe place to hide... Get Rafe started on the translation. They could be together for weeks. Yeah. It could be done.
Rafe was looking at him, suspicion uppermost in a field still cold with resolve. But not even Rafe's icy field could dim his excitement. "I suppose my disguise is going to consist of that shenningly heavy and awkward coat and that godawful hat?" He motioned towards the two discarded items still lying on the table.
Rafe swallowed a last mouthful of salad. "No. You'll need a shirt, too."
"I'm wearing a shirt."
"A longsleeved shirt. With buttoned cuffs."
Evan gulped. The thought of something over his arms had always given him the willies. It was unpleasant to every Sime. "I don't see why I have to wear a shirt if I'm going to be wearing a coat," he objected.
"A Gen would wear both and you're going to be a Gen."
"You're not wearing a shirt."
Icy Nager gave him an irritated look from under lowered brows and pushed away from the table. He went into his sleeping room, and Evan heard the sounds of a drawer being pulled out. When Rafe emerged again he had a green flannel shirt in his hand. "I can't get into it by myself," he said a little sullenly, holding it out to Evan.
It had wide sleeves and the shoulder seams were cut low on the arms, fitting on easily over the bandages. Settling the Gen's wounded arm back in its sling, Evan stood back to eye the effect of white sling against dark green shirt. "Very sartorial, just what the best-dressed walking wounded should wear."
"Now for you," Icy Nager said.
"In case you haven't noticed, you're twice my size. Anything of yours would fall off me in under ten seconds."
Icy Nager smiled, and shrugged. "So I'll buy you one."
"Right. The stores are so close, you can get there and back before the soldiers arrive."
Rafe's field shimmered with humor as he grinned an odd, crooked grin. He went out the back door and in about thirty seconds returned with a tan wool shirt, still warm from someone's body. "Neward's oldest boy is about your size," he said, handing it to Evan.
"What did you do, rip it right off him?"
"He wants to buy a steel crossbow. Now he can afford it."
"He's running around naked. He'll die of pneumonia before he reaches the store," Evan grumbled as he thrust his arms through the sleeves. With a sigh he buttoned the cuffs. They were wide cuffs and fortuitously ended just under his tentacle sheaths. The sleeves were cut big, not nearly as confining as he was worried they'd be, and nicely camouflaged the raised sheaths along his arms.
As he finished tucking the shirttails into his pants, Icy Nager handed him a boot-knife. "I don't use these things," Evan said.
"You do now," the Gen said, handing him a second one, eighteen inches long, to clip onto his belt.
Rafe stepped back from him, a frown on his craggy features as he studied him. "Walk," he commanded.
Obligingly Evan paced the length of the room. He turned around to find the Gen shaking his head. "Try to act more like a Gen. Do you think you can manage that?"
"Well, I suppose I could always fall off a horse," the Sime muttered.
"That won't be required. Just slow down a little." Rafe dug out a small bag of lemon drops from the pile of stuff on the table and stuffed them into his vest pocket, finishing as a Patroller arrived with their horses. On the way out the door, Rafe handed Evan the shotgun and a box of shells. Then he followed with his rifle tucked under his arm and locked the door behind him.
Baker led a troop of eighteen men. Rafe rode at Baker's side and Evan rode behind Rafe, with a Patroller beside him. As it turned out, Rafe was right about the Patrollers accepting Evan as Rafe's partner. There was a lot of curiosity, but none of them tried to approach him. They couldn't, anyway, while they rode. When they stopped, Evan was careful to keep Rafe between himself and them, his head down and his mouth shut. A hunched shoulder was usually enough to discourage casual conversation.
They'd started out an hour before sundown, riding into a gradually fading dusk, and when the last of the light went, they stopped to wait for moonrise. Rafe and Evan dismounted at a little distance from the Patrollers. Not far away, Baker was talking to one of his officers, and his presence alone was enough of a deterrent to keep the brasher of his men from coming closer to the two of them.
Evan hunkered beside Rafe, who was sitting on the ground, his back to a tree. "You're in pain."
"Tell me something I don't know."
"I brought your pills. You walked out without them." Evan was rewarded with a flash of laughter and a surge of relief as for a moment the cold field dissolved. He dumped a couple of the pills into the Gen's waiting hand, watching anxiously as Rafe swallowed them down with drafts of water from his canteen. He heard one of the men behind him laugh and say that SimeSider Rafe's new partner was fussing over him like a girl.
Evan ignored the Gens. He was terribly worried about Rafe's selyn production, which was picking up, which it shouldn't be doing as the Gen was already high field. Rafe's selyn flows weren't right. They were going all wonky, to put it mildly. Only part of their fluctuations was caused by exhaustion, the wound and loss of blood. He could think of only one thing to account for it, and that was all the food Rafe had eaten back at the house. And to top it all off, the Gen was getting feverish.
But there was no point in telling the Gen this. Icy Nager was set on getting to Prophetstown, and that was where he was going to go, wonky selyn flows and all. Afterwards, maybe, Evan could get him to rest.
Rafe handed back the canteen. "Best get our coats, Evan. It's getting cold."
Evan didn't feel cold, but he shrugged and fetched the coats, helping Rafe on with his, buttoning the Gen's coat on over the sling. His own he put on, but nothing would make him button it.
When the moon was high enough above the horizon to see their road, they set out once more, reaching Prophetstown around midnight. "It's an ill time," Evan whispered to Rafe, as they walked their horses down the deserted main street. He was not superstitious, but there was something uncanny about this place in the dark.
They found carts and wagons, their supplies mostly intact, abandoned around a broken fountain in the center of town. They were the supplies the Gens had brought with them and left behind when they chased the Raiders from the town, harrying them to the border. The Raiders had their camp in a small park near the fountain. Perhaps they had been expecting Genrunners, not Patrollers, for they had left most, if not all, their equipment behind.
The ruined buildings loomed against the sky, their broken shadows sharp in the moonlight. From a window in the brick building opposite, an owl took sudden flight. A horse whickered nervously. Everywhere he looked there were broken windows, broken railings, leaning walls. Trees grew inside roofless homes, thrusting their branches through windows and crowding around crumbling foundations. It was desolation of a kind known only in a place where once man had lived, and lived no more.
Odd. It had not bothered him when he had been here before. In the daylight.
The line of riders slowed and stopped. Rafe reined Blackthorn nearer Captain Baker. "Ed, would you please stay here with the men while Evan and I search?"
"You can't go in there alone and with...Evan...in the dark, Rafe," Baker hissed.
"I must," Rafe said. "There are still things here that I don't want anyone to know about."
"But you'll trust him with those secrets?" Baker demanded angrily.
"No. But if you don't believe me, you can come along and wait with Evan outside the buildings. In the dark."
There was a long moment of silence. "I think maybe I'll just stay here and wait for your hail."
The big Gen was smiling to himself, or at least Evan was picking up a feeling of laughter from his nager, as Rafe dismounted. Rafe dug in his saddlebag for a moment and brought out an extremely rare battery-operated flashlight. It was a clumsy-looking thing, over a foot long.
Rafe, with Evan following, walked across the plaza with its ruined fountain, past the discarded wagons and around the side of a badly damaged two-story brick building. "Can you pick up anything of the children, Evan?" Rafe asked.
Evan shook his head and grabbed Rafe as he was about to step onto the rotten wooden cover over a well, steering him safely around it. The cone of light from the flashlight bobbed and danced over the brick wall until it centered on a weather-beaten door. Evan shouldered it open. The room inside was a shambles of peeling wallpaper, fallen plaster, buckled floorboards and broken glass. There was some kind of carved stone or plaster decoration beside the fireplace.
Rafe said, "Evan, wait for me outside." He was all Icy Nager in that moment, a man you did not want to argue with.
Evan went, to hover anxiously around the door as Rafe blundered around inside, going from room to room and getting farther and farther away. There was a low rumble as of some unused machinery working and Rafe's voice calling indistinctly. It sounded as if he were shouting down a well.
He came back out looking a little dusty. They went to another building. The same scenario repeated itself, over and over. The longer they continued, the more tired Icy Nager became, and the more determined. Evan paced, a thing he did rarely, as he waited for the Gen in alleys and side streets, nerves keyed to the breaking point waiting for Rafe to fall through rotten floorboards and skewer himself on the jagged edges.
At the end of two and a half hours Rafe came out of a house, looking wan and sick even in the moon's deceptive light. His shoulder was hurting him badly. There was a tear in the seam of his shirt, and his boots showed fresh scratches. I knew it, Evan fumed to himself. He went through the floor.
The Gen leaned tiredly against the door frame, turning off the flashlight. "I need your help," he said in a thin voice. The admission gave Evan no pleasure. He pulled the Gen's good arm over his shoulder, supporting him on their way to their next destination.
Icy Nager laughed softly. "That's not quite what I meant."
"You're bullheaded," Evan growled, and the Gen laughed again. "You need more help than you are willing to admit to."
"Don't we all?" murmured the Gen.
The next house they entered was a gray stone building, two stories tall, in somewhat better condition than the others. As Evan helped Rafe up the cracked concrete steps, he realized Rafe was making a systematic search of the buildings bordering the park where the Raiders had been camped. He and Rafe were about three quarters of the way around. If they didn't find the kids in this area, he supposed Rafe would start another, wider circle. It was what he would do.
At one time the gray stone house had been magnificent. As Evan tailed Rafe through the main room, he looked around himself in admiration at the carved ceiling moldings and decorative plaster half-walls. The rooms were beautifully proportioned with high ceilings and decorated with pressed plaster designs. The occasional fireplaces had carved mantels of wood or stone. Bright, intricate tiles were set into the front of the fireplaces and into the floor in front of them to make a spark guard.
The inside of the house was still fairly sound, and their steps echoed hollowly through the rooms. Rafe directed them to what might have been a sitting room. The many tall windows let in the moonlight so that Rafe's flashlight wasn't needed. Letting go of Evan, he sank down on a window sill and nodded toward the fireplace. "You'll find carvings of bulls' heads in each corner. Press each head until one moves under your fingers. Turn it left."
Evan did as he was told. It was the carving on the bottom left that moved under his fingers. Raised a bit higher than the others, it was easy to grab hold of the horns and twist it. A click answered his efforts. "It clicked, Rafe. Now what?"
"Pull. You'll see a small panel."
Evan pulled on the horns. A section of panel perhaps a foot high and eight inches wide popped out. Prying it open, all he discovered inside was a chain with a handle. He pulled. There was a rumble in the wall, and a four-foot section of the decorated plaster half-wall pivoted open. It stuck, and Evan, excited as a kid, put his arm and shoulder into the crack and thrust it open farther. It moved with the sound of rock grating on rock.
A puff of air blew up at him from the dark, steep tunnel that angled down into the earth.
Instantly, voices were shouting, pleading, screaming from the pitch-black hole. Only the faintest of nageric light illuminated the darkness. "We found them, Rafe!" he yelled in excitement.
Moving faster than he had in hours, Rafe was at his side, shining his flashlight down the hole. "We're Gens! We've come to get you out!"
The cheer that came up to them was loud, followed by pounding feet as one child after another came racing up the stone steps.
Rafe shoved at Evan, thrusting him towards the door. "Go call the men!"
Evan tore out of the room, went whooping out the door, cleared the broken stone steps in a single bound and raced down the street, yelling for Baker. His joy was a reflection of the relief and buoyancy shining through Rafe's nager. The Gen was happy, ergo, so was Evan.
* * * * *
Behind Evan, Rafe was helping one child after another out of the tunnel. As each one emerged he gave him or her a brief, one-armed hug and asked their name. A solemn-faced, tall boy, seeming older than his twelve years, was the last one out. Anxiously Rafe peered into the hole behind him. "Is this all of you?"
"Yes, sir," said the boy, whose name was Bill. "I came last to make sure. There's fourteen of us."
"Listen," said Rafe earnestly. "This is very important. Was there a girl with you called Patti?" He looked around at all of them, their faces hidden in shadow with the moonlight behind them. They were all solemnly shaking their heads. "Are you sure?" he insisted. "She'd be about so high, wearing blue coveralls, with short, curly brown hair and a narrow chin."
"Oh, you mean Snake-Lover?" an older girl asked scornfully. "The one who said we should be friends with the Raiders?"
"Yes," Rafe said wryly. "That sounds like her."
"She was all sweetness and light," the girl said mockingly, "until one of them snakearms hit her. Then you should have heard her change her tune. She told us we could kill them just by squeezing their arms."
"Uh..." said Rafe. "Did any of you try it?"
"We didn't get a chance," said Bill. He sounded disappointed.
"She's just a liar," the girl huffed petulantly.
Rafe took a deep breath. "But what happened to her?" Rafe asked gently, holding his anxiety down with an effort.
"She disappeared," Bill said.
He shrugged, but there was a worried frown on his square face. "The snake-arms were holding us in a room upstairs. When they came in to take us away, she was sitting next to the closet. That's the last I saw of her. She wasn't with us when the Simes pushed us into the tunnel. I counted everybody."
The boy paused, frowning. "The thing is," he said slowly, "the snake-arms checked that closet and didn't find her. They were talking about it when they shoved us into the hole. But...I don't know where else she could have been." He shrugged helplessly.
The soldiers were arriving then, with lanterns and blankets. In a moment the room was confusion as the adults asked questions and the kids talked and cried. There were hugs, and soothings and more tears. But Rafe didn't see any of it. He was down the tunnel, flashlight in hand, to make sure Patti wasn't there.
Evan was the only one who noticed that Rafe had ducked down into the tunnel. He waited a moment and followed, not needing any lantern or flashlight.
The tunnel went on for a hundred feet or so and ended in a large room dug out of bedrock. Here he found Rafe, sitting on a bench cut out of the rock. Evan wordlessly sat down beside him, feeling the fever rising in the other man, the pain that the pills didn't quite dull, the soul-aching weariness, as well as the tearing anxiety that was the only thing keeping him moving.
"Baker said there was one missing. A girl. She is important to you, this child," Evan said.
"She is Patti Cohen, The Implacable's only child."
Evan leaned his head against the cool stone wall, feeling as if someone had just let him have it between the eyes with a sock full of sand. "Oh, gods. He is the Gen Patroller going after the Raiders?"
"He won't stop."
"No," Rafe agreed.
"There will be war."
"Between Sime Territory and Cohen. He'll win."
"We must find her!" Evan said, jumping to his feet.
"I know," Rafe said wearily, taking Evan's prooffered hand and letting the Sime pull him to his feet.
Evan stopped at the steps, one foot on a riser. "But where do we start our search?"
Chastened, Evan climbed the steps ahead of the Gen. When he helped Icy Nager out of the tunnel, they were the only two people around. Everyone else was back in the camp. With Rafe leaning on him he steered a course towards the front door, but as they passed the stairs leading to the second floor Rafe put out his hand, grabbed the bannister and brought them to a stop. "Upstairs," he repeated.
Puzzled but willing, Evan helped him up the curving stairway. The floor on the second story was not in as good repair as was the first level, and they had to go carefully. The room where the Simes had kept their young prisoners was easily found. Like all the rooms in the gray stone house, it was big and bright with a high ceiling and molded plaster panels on the bottom half of the walls. The wallpaper was faded and much of it was missing. The windows still held a few panes of glass. A pile of blankets was in one corner.
Rafe pointed across the room where a door was standing ajar. "Over there." Rafe was breathing hard after the climb and leaning heavily on Evan as they moved across the floor. The door proved to be the entrance to a walkin closet. Rafe let Evan go and stood leaning against the door frame, sweeping the beam from his flashlight across the narrow interior. A row of ceramic hooks was set about eye level. One by one Rafe pulled on them. It was the fourth one, the only one that was broken, that opened the door in the back wall.
"Evan," he said wearily, for it was a low doorway, perhaps only three feet high, and the steps behind it went steeply down a very narrow passageway between the walls of the house.
"You know," said Evan, as he took the flashlight from the Gen and ducked into the hole, "this is getting to be fun!" He popped his head back out. "Stay here and rest."
"I'm not going anywhere," the Gen said.
The light clearly showed Evan that someone had been ahead of him. The layer of dust on the floor was scuffed, and there were marks of hands on the dusty walls. The stairway took him down and down, and finally leveled out in a rock-vaulted tunnel that went about two hundred feet and ended in a flight of stone steps. He climbed them, cautiously pushed the door open, and found himself in a rock-walled, two-room cottage in which the roof had come down. Patti had been here before him. There was a shred of green material caught on a broken board where she had slid through the debris.
Moonlight poured through the hole where the roof had been. Evan clicked off the flashlight and shoved it in the front of his shirt before climbing over the rotting shingles and shattered roof timbers to the door. It was wedged partially open, and by the marks in the dust, this had been done very recently. Like in the past day or two.
A few minutes later he was supporting Rafe down the steps in the house, telling him what he'd found. Rafe must have felt the news was good, for his field lost some of its anxious intensity. But telling him wasn't good enough. Naturally Rafe had to see for himself.
At the door of the ruined cottage, Rafe let go of Evan and worked his way carefully around the rotting boards and shingles until he was standing in a little cleared space in front of the sizeable fireplace. He played the flashlight beam over the tiles across the front, looking for something. Evan stood back, not willing to intrude on the Gen's hunt. Besides, there really wasn't room for more than one person.
Around the door were some of those pressed plaster panels Evan was becoming so familiar with from the other buildings. There was something familiar about one of the raised figures in a corner lozenge. He squinted at it in the moonlight, finally making out a battered bull's head. On an impulse he pushed it. It gave under his fingers. Excitedly he turned it. "Rafe, I found-" he was exclaiming at the same time, when a startled yell made him whirl around in time to see Rafe dropping out of sight through the floor.
"Rafe!" Recklessly Evan flung himself over the rotting roof, trying to reach the Gen. The Gen's nager was streaming up through the rectangular hole, a great golden spout. A tremendous flash/blow of pain impacted on Evan's field, and the sharp edge of the field that told of a Gen aware and alert dulled instantly. "Rafe!" he screamed, sliding under the fallen roof, clutching with terrified hands at the edge of the spark guard, half of which was dangling on ancient hinges.
Twenty feet below him, Rafe was sprawled motionlessly on his back on the rock floor of another room. Selyn bloomed into the ambient, escaping from the wound in his shoulder. Evan hitched himself farther over the hole, straining to read those selyn flows that would tell him of the Gen's condition. After a moment or two he breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed. Rafe was unconscious more from the pain than from any new hurt.
There was a slight movement under his chest. He looked down and realized he was lying on the other half of the hinged spark guard. With a loud SNAP! the hinges gave way. Headfirst he plunged downward. All he could think of was that he was going to land on Rafe and kill him.
Augmenting, he twisted in midair, like a cat, desperately trying to flip himself to one side. He came down on his feet, landing a few inches beside Rafe's prone body, lost his balance and fell back against floor-to-ceiling shelves. A book hit him on the head. He picked it up. On the spine was a gold-embossed B and L. The Beran Library! Gently, reverently, he put the book back on the shelf and looked around.
Rafe's nageric light limned the shelf after shelf of massed books stretching back into the darkness. Every set of shelves went from floor to ceiling. He wished he'd learned how to whistle. The moment seemed to call for it.
Above him dirt and wood dust trickled down through the hole from the settling roof, along with bits of slate and wood shingles from the roof. They pattered on the floor, dusting Gen and Sime both. Evan looked up as the debris above them settled a little more firmly in place. They were sealed in.
Pulling Rafe away from the hole, he left him stretched out on the floor against a bookcase some distance away, with Evan's much-hated coat wadded up under his head for a pillow.
Back at the hole, he stood under it, crouched and sprang, augmenting. He easily reached the ceiling, but finding something to hold onto was a different story altogether. He fell back, landing on something that made him lose his footing. Looking down, he saw the flashlight, still burning, and kicked it out of the way. It spun around on the stone floor until it came to rest pointing down the aisle between the towering bookshelves.
Again Evan crouched and leaped. This time his fingers grasped the edge of the hole, but the tiles were slick and he fell back. His next leap was a little more successful. He was able to hold on with one hand while pushing at the debris with the other. But nothing shifted. He simply did not have the leverage.
"If my tentacles were working, I could do it!" he raged at the opening above him. "I could hang there forever until something gave!" But his tentacles were not usable, and he could not hang there, and time and time again he fell to the floor until he was bruised and exhausted, recklessly expending his meager selyn reserves in a hopeless attempt to free them.
Finally, he went to sit beside the still-unconscious Rafe and rested his arms on upraised knees. He had a choice at this point. He could continue trying to get out, or he could conserve what little selyn he had left. It wouldn't make much difference, because very shortly he was going to go into attrition. But he didn't want to do that while Rafe was still unconscious. In order to survive a berserk Sime attack on him, the Gen had to be awake. He wondered how long it was going to take and whether he had the will power to wait that long.
He hugged himself tightly to keep from reaching out towards the pull of that quietly pulsing nager. He ought to move away from Rafe, but he couldn't make himself do it. So he sat in quiet misery waiting for the Gen to regain consciousness. "Maybe I should read a book, eh, Rafe? After all, I spent my life trying to find this place. I might as well enjoy it while I can."
There was a tome lying on the desk beside him. He reached up and pulled it into his lap, blowing the dust off it. Read the title:
THE SIME/GEN MUTATION:
Can We Live With It?
Chicago Chapter of the
Church of the Encircling Spirit
He didn't get much out of the little print, but the title itself was clear enough. He felt numb. Here in his hands was something written right at the very beginning of his kind. About his kind.
In the dark behind him, there was a step. He whirled, on his knees. Stepping out from behind a towering bastion of shelves that had concealed her immature nager, a girl confronted him. She was about eleven, with short, curly brown hair and a sharp, determined chin. "Is Uncle Rafe going to die?"
Things were coming a bit fast for Evan in his debilitated state. He blinked. "Uncle Rafe?" He glared down at the unconscious Gen. "You couldn't even tell me she was your niece? That's how much you trusted me?"
"Family Rule," said Patti, coming closer and squatting down so that she was eye level with Evan where he still knelt on the floor. "Nobody is supposed to know. They were afraid I'd be kidnapped."
"So why are you telling me?"
"Well, you're Uncle Rafe's bondkin, aren't you? That makes you family."
Bondkin. Where had he heard that word before? Never mind, there were more important things. "How did you get in here?"
"Through the other tunnel."
Evan was instantly on his feet, book tossed aside and forgotten. "Show me!"
She regarded him dispassionately with Rafe's gray eyes as she slowly stood up. "It's fallen in. There's only a little hole. You're too big. I barely made it through."
"Oh," said Evan flatly, sitting down again.
"Is Uncle Rafe going to die?" she asked again, a little more forcefully than the first time.
"Huh?" Evan realized he'd been staring into space, rubbing at his arms and their useless tentacles. He looked down, realizing that at some point over the course of the last hour he'd ripped his sleeves off.
There was a change in the ambient as Rafe's field began sharpening into awareness. He wanted no witnesses to what was going to happen between him and Icy Nager when the Gen woke. "No. He isn't going to die-I'm pretty sure of that." His mind started working again, sluggishly to be sure, but working. "Can you go for help?"
Patti tilted her curly head to one side, considering the question. "You want me to bring back Raiders?" She sounded flatly disbelieving.
Evan sighed. It had been too long since he'd had to deal with children. He managed to dredge up some patience. "The Raiders are gone. Your uncle and I came here with Patrollers, looking for you. They are camped in the park. Find them. Tell them who you are and that we're trapped in here." And get out of here, kid, before it gets ugly.
Picking up the flashlight, which was still sending a bright beam of light down the aisle where Evan had kicked it earlier, she obediently trotted into the darkness, turned a corner between the stacks and was lost to view. There was only the faint gleam of the light's reflected beam and then that too was gone.
Evan put his head in his arms and sighed heavily. He was definitely not ready for this.
* * * * *
Rafe slowly came awake. His shoulder throbbed. His feet hurt. The last thing he remembered was falling. He opened his eyes and momentarily panicked when he couldn't see anything. His good hand went out and another one caught it. Dry and hot, a Sime hand. "Evan?"
"Where are we?"
"In the Beran Library."
"The Prophetstown Library," Rafe corrected. "So, when do we leave?"
A bitter laugh in the dark, very unlike Evan. "Rafe, I've got some good news and some bad news."
"Let me guess." Rafe hitched himself up so he was sitting with his back to the plaster wall. "The bad news is you're coming into need."
"No," said Evan quietly. "The bad news is that I'm going into attrition, and I don't know how much longer I can hold out."
Attrition? "What in heaven's name have you been doing for the last-" Rafe paused, not knowing how long he'd been out.
"Hour and some," Evan supplied with an edge to his voice.
"-For the last hour to use up your reserves?"
"I was trying to get us out!" Evan yelled. "You're going to kill me in the next half hour, and all you can do is sit there and scold me like I was a child!"
"There's no reason for you to die," Rafe said reasonably. "All we have to do is-"
"No!" screamed Evan, jumping to his feet. "No! No! No! I'm not going to let you martyr yourself for me! I'm not going to Kill you. I vowed not to Kill you. There's no reason for you to die. Patti's gone for help. Just leave me alone!" He dashed for the farthest end of the stacks.
Rafe blinked in the darkness. Patti? Here? Well, why not. She must have come in through the other tunnel. Her mother probably told her about it. But Evan was the most important matter right now.
Evan seemed bound and determined to commit suicide by attrition. There wasn't any nastier way for a Sime to die. Evan was quite capable of holing up somewhere and dying rather than attack Rafe. The SimeSider had seen other Simes do it when they were faced with having to Kill someone they loved in order to survive. Well, it was not going to happen to Evan. There was no reason for it to.
Muttering mild curses on all stubborn archeologists to ever come his way, Rafe struggled to his feet, hearing the Sime's footsteps disappearing into the inky dark. Groping blindly forward, he started searching for Evan, knowing he would find him sooner or later, and hoped it would be sooner. His outstretched hand touched a shelf of books. He turned, feeling his way along the shelf until he came to the main aisle. He had one advantage over the Sime. Once he'd known this library very well.
Evan kept shifting his position, his footsteps echoing softly in the dark, muffled by the thousands of bound volumes. Rafe doggedly followed, unhurried, calling to him. Finally the Sime could go no further. Rafe, tracking him by the sound of his frantic breathing, found him between two of the towering stacks, huddled against the wall at the far end with no way out.
Slowly Rafe hunkered down, his good hand outstretched until he touched the other's hair and then his shoulder. The archeologist was tucked up into a ball in the corner formed between the shelves and the wall, straining desperately to escape Rafe's hand.
"No," Evan cried softly. "No. Go away."
"I am not going away."
"Then kill me. Now!"
"You are in need. Let me help."
"Rafe!" screamed the Sime. "Don't tempt me, for your life's sake!"
"It is my life," Rafe said, settling down on the floor beside the other. His shoulder ached. He was thirsty. He was tired. Ignoring his personal discomforts, Rafe pulled Evan within the circle of his arm and held him there. The Sime couldn't last much longer. Whatever had to be done, had to be done now. Ah, well. He supposed things could be worse.
* * * * *
Evan, curled tight against his suffering, heard the Gen approach. Willed him to go, to no avail. Rafe sat down beside him, and the hardest thing Evan had ever done was to keep his hands locked tightly around his knees. He fought to maintain hypoconsciousness, the only safety either of them had against Rafe's madness.
Then there was the wonder of that cool muscular arm coming around his shoulders, comforting him, holding him tightly against Rafe's body. He could not resist the temptation to feel that penetrating warmth that was Rafe, just once more. Almost without thinking, he slipped into duoconsciousness and into life and color. From there it was less than a heartbeat to go all the way and zlin.
The room was no longer a blind, pressing nothingness. It flamed and glimmered in the golden light Rafe gave off. Pressed so close to the source of that light, he could feel the ebb and tide of the Gen's energy flows deep in his inner being, singing to him of surcease. Need was an insatiable, ravening beast eating at his life, but still he clung to consciousness, to control, not giving way.
Suddenly, the Gen's field went still. Everything about him was still. Not the unemotional, frightening nothingness of Icy Nager-just quiet. The ultimate in quiet. Rafe was a selyn column in which only the ebb and flow of the selyn itself moved in mesmeric patterns. Evan watched and let his mind drift with them.
"I could sit like this forever," he said dreamily.
"Oh, shen," muttered the Gen in exasperation. "I didn't mean to do that."
The soothing quiet of the selyn flow jarred into action abruptly, snapping Evan out of his mood. He came to life like a swimmer surfacing. Need was still there, but it was far away, buffered by the Gen's presence.
"How do you feel now?" Rafe asked in concern.
"Not as good as before," Evan answered sullenly.
"If you had stayed like that, you would have slipped into attrition without even noticing. And died. Without noticing. That's not the point of this exercise."
After a long while he decided he could trust his control. Slowly he unwound from his cramped position, settling himself against the wall beside the Gen, their shoulders touching in the narrow space. "Now what?" he asked, exhausted.
"Give me your hands. Take my selyn. It's very simple."
"I don't know why you're so shenningly calm about dying."
The Gen moved, about to say something. "No! Wait!" Evan ordered. "I have something I must say to you, and this is the last time I can do it. I've known for weeks that this day would come. You're my friend. I don't want to Kill you. You saved me from dying in those manacles. Did I ever thank you for that? I tried not to Kill you. You have to give me that. I fought hard to keep my promise."
Rafe put his good arm around him again, hugging him. "You fought hard," he agreed. "But there was no reason for it."
"There is," Evan said, leaning his head back against the wall. "I'm fixed on you. I've been fixed on you since the day we met." There. It was out.
A small shock went through Icy Nager's field. "Oh, Lord," the Gen said quite precisely. "I think I'm in for it now."
"You're in for it?" Evan felt almost normal. He could even make a joke.
"I think you're going to be my first Soul-Sharing. I hadn't planned on being a SoulSharer. Actually, I'd rather expected to die in Sime Territory. Still, there you have it. It looks like I'm going to have to retire."
This made no sense to Evan at all. "Why," he asked slowly, "are you going to have to retire?" He was intensely aware of every fluctuation in Icy Nager's field. The Gen was struggling to cope with something, and the outward sign was the determined cheerfulness he put into his voice. Lying, Evan thought, as Gens do habitually, to keep from hurting someone else's feelings.
"I'm retiring because of you," Rafe said so quietly Evan almost missed it. "A SoulSharer has responsibilities to his bondkin, one of which is to not put one's self into deliberate danger."
Evan jerked around to stare at the other. A gleam of amusement shot through the ambient, as Icy Nager smiled. "It's true," the Gen said, "you can tell all your friends that you captured the UnKillable Gen."
Rafe sighed, removed his arm from around Evan's shoulder and stared blindly up into the darkness. "Well, it's like this-"
"No long lectures, Rafe," Evan pleaded.
"Ordinarily, if you were a chance-met Sime, I'd just give you transfer and we'd each go on our way"
"Have you given...whatdoyoucallit...transfer, a lot?" Evan asked a bit weakly.
"It depends on what you mean by `a lot.' The Seodre Sectuib certainly thinks I should cut back. I'm responsible for more Simes joining Householdings than...the Sectuib really wanted." A sliver of guilt ran in a bright orange thread through the ambient for a few moments.
"The day we killed the Genrunners, you called to me...were...would-"
"If you had been a young Sime in First Need, as I thought you were, I would have given you selyn. And afterward sent you to Seodre."
Evan murmured, "You didn't make any of the others bond-kin. What makes me different?"
"You were willing to die rather than harm me, even though you were fixed on me. SoulSharers like to know they can trust their bondkin, even unto death." He paused a moment, gathering his thoughts. "There is danger to a Sime in taking from one who is a Soul-Sharer. They are afterwards seldom satisfied with any other Gen. Which is why the Sectuib of Seodre is irritated with me. He's had to learn to feel like a Soul-Sharer, and he's had to let more Gens give selyn than he would like." Satisfaction colored Rafe's field as he contemplated this outcome.
"The thing is, that the quality of the selyn...of the act itself...changes when there is liking between Soul-Sharer and Sime. While the Gen can give selyn to other Simes, the Sime...seldom wants to take selyn from another Gen."
"You mean," asked Evan with relative calm, considering what he'd just heard, "you mean I'm fixed on you for life?"
"Not at all. People change. If SoulSharing becomes mutually unsatisfactory, there is a divorce and you find yourself another Soul-Sharer."
"It sounds so...civilized."
"We had a long time to perfect it. A thousand years."
Evan sighed deeply, leaning against Rafe's comforting bulk. "This is what Vodorovic destroyed."
"May his soul rot in eternal attrition," Rafe said. Fury twisted the ambient for a moment, before Icy Nager controlled his feelings.
"Rafe, tell me again, in simple words, what you're going to do. I'm having trouble taking all of this in."
"You've heard of the Companions, who give selyn to Householders?"
"I'm offering to be your own personal Companion."
"Oh," said Evan blankly. Somehow this aspect of it had escaped him.
"And we've talked too long as it is." Rafe sat still for a few seconds, gathering his resources. "There is a ceremony the new SoulSharer goes through which prepares him or her for the act itself. However, it's rather long, and we don't have the time for it, so we'll dispense with that and get right to the important stuff."
Rafe took a deep breath. "I, Rafaelle John Merryweather, affirm in the presence of all those who have taken this sacred trust before me, that from this day forth, I will SoulShare in all love and harmony with Evan, who has Need of me. Giving freely of that essence which dwells within me and which is life to him. Until or if we decide by mutual consent to part, we will protect, and care for each other, helping each other in all ways, closer than brothers. Do you, Evan, affirm this vow?"
Evan sighed deeply, still leaning his shoulder against Rafe's comforting bulk. "I, Evanthal Trandolphic, in the presence of all the Simes of Prophetstown who have gone before me, vow to cherish this Gen-" His throat closed with emotion, and he could not say any more.
Rafe moved, shifting his position until he sat cross-legged in front of Evan. Carefully he took his arm out of the sling, trying not to jar his shoulder any more than he had to, and rolled up both shirt sleeves. "Lay your hands on my arms, and zlin."
Evan did so, feeling the cool, firm Gen flesh under his hands, seeing only the shimmering, coruscating nager that was life. Rafe was now only a tower of golden life force.
Evan's arms ached as his tentacles tried to move to curl around those tanned, muscular forearms. In real fear, Evan whispered, "I can't hold you!"
A voice spoke out of the shimmering gold flame. "You don't have to. I'm not going anywhere."
Under Evan's clutching fingers, the Gen was steady as a rock. Evan took a deep breath, loosening his hold slightly so he wouldn't hurt Rafe, and let the laterals lick out from the sides of his arms, where their small pink shapes were hidden among the bases of the heavier gray tentacle sheaths. They seated themselves in the right spots. Evan leaned forward to make the fifth contact point.
How long had he dreamed of this? It seemed like a lifetime. He drew slowly, without the awful, frantic desire that had always accompanied his Kills, savoring these first moments. Molten gold life entered him full of complex flavors and textures of a life well lived, products of a sharp mind and a sound body.
He drew harder. Selyn was a pool, a lake, an ocean. There was no end to it. He drew deeper, faster. There was resistance that fell away just on the edge of pain. It was as if Icy Nager was watching the flow and was playing with him, making the draw last longer.
He could feel the selyn flowing into himself in a bright, swift-flowing flood, racing through his systems, opening long shut-down barriers, spilling through, crashing along empty conduits, flooding every corner of his body that had been starved for so long. This was what life could be!
He slackened his draw, prepared to let go. But something odd happened. Icy Nager's hands held him, as a new level of selyn opened, more and of a different texture, glowing with Rafe's feelings and Rafe's emotions. Rafe's joy in fulfilling his own abilities, his own needs. The Gen pushed selyn into Evan's system.
A strange intoxication filled them both. Evan opened himself up to this selyn that spread like the essence of spring along his nerves, entering every dark nook and cranny, tingling along every minute nerve ending, unfolding places in him that he had never known he possessed and filled and filled and filled until he thought it could not go on and then found new places to fill. This was ecstasy! And just as the pleasure was turning to pain, the flow eased off, slackened, and slowly trickled to nothing.
Evan opened his eyes. His hands, his arms, his entire body was glowing with an intense white light. His hand, when he held it up in front of his face, was almost translucent. Rafe, in front of him, was...dull by comparison, his usually brilliant golden nager dimmed to an orangey yellow. Evan zlinned instantly, frantically checking the Gen's selyn levels.
They were very low, but the Gen's selyn production was up, humming happily along like a little dynamo. Which meant that the Gen was going to have to eat soon. Another worry. They'd probably have to shoot the sorrel to feed him.
Rafe, blind in the dark, lifted his head and smiled. There was a flash of bright gold through his field. "I lived some of that with you, you know," he said contentedly. "No wonder my parents would, or could, never tell me what it was like."
The Gen's nageric light faded into complete darkness. It didn't worry Evan. After a good Kill your body was pushed into hypoconsciousness, or Gen sight. This hadn't happened to him in years. Replete, and feeling a bit giddy, Evan sighed and stretched. Smoothly, eight handling tentacles slipped from their sheaths, curling and uncurling. "Rafe! My tentacles are healed!"
Not far away, there was the muffled creak of a secret door opening. Then the distinctive thud as it swung shut, followed by the light patter of footsteps in the next aisle over from the one where Rafe and Evan waited. From where they sat with their backs to the plaster, Rafe and Evan could see a light bobbing up and down, illuminating the end of the bookcases opposite them on the other side of the main aisle.
"Patti?" Rafe called. "We're over here."
"Uncle Rafe?" She sounded almost hysterically relieved. The light got brighter and then a slender figure dressed in green corduroy turned the corner. The light pierced the darkness in their narrow enclave, blinding the two men.
Rafe got to his feet, holding up one hand to fend off the light. "Patti, are you all right?"
"Uncle Rafe!" She ran towards them, light beam angled at the floor. "Uncle Rafe!" She threw her arms around him. "You're all right! I'm so glad!" The canteens she was carrying over one shoulder slipped around and hit Rafe solidly in the thigh.
He hugged her to him with his good arm then turned with his arm still around her, facing Evan, who rose smoothly to his feet. "Patti, I'd like you to meet Evanthal Trandolphic, first bondkin of the last Prophetstown SoulSharer."
She pinned the Sime with the flashlight's beam. "I like him," she said after a moment's hard scrutiny. "We met before but not formally." Hitching the canteen straps higher on her shoulder, she held out her hand in quite the grand manner. "How do you do, Mr. Trandolphic? Welcome to our family."
Evan managed to keep a straight face as he took her hand in his. "It's a pleasure, madam."
She handed each of them a canteen. "I brought you some water."
"I told you to bring the Patrollers," Evan said sharply.
Patti's head whipped up, her expressive eyes narrowed. Something in that undeveloped field sharpened into dangerousness. Too late Evan remembered her parentage, Icy Nager's line and The Implacable Cohen. "I would have," she said coolly, "but there was no one there." She fairly spat out the last word. "I had to search the entire Raider camp to find the canteens, because I knew you would be thirsty. And on top of that there's no food, and I haven't eaten in two days!"
"Did they leave our horses?" Rafe asked, hoping to turn her anger away from Evan.
"No," she said decisively. "I looked. I called. I even said a few swear words that if Daddy were here, he'd smack me for. Speaking of Daddy, Uncle Rafe. Why didn't he come looking for me?"
"He did. But he doesn't know about the tunnels, and when he didn't find you or the other youngsters he went after the Raiders, thinking you were still with them."
"Where is he now?"
"Somewhere on the border, probably pillaging Sime towns, looking for you."
"Oh." She sounded pleased and doubtful at the same time.
"Which means," said Rafe, "we need to be on our way. We have to let someone know you're still alive so they can stop the General before he starts another war."
"I already told Evan. You can't get out through the old tunnel. It's all fallen in."
Rafe looked silently at Evan. Waiting.
"Uh," said Evan, shuffling his feet a bit. "That was the other bad news I wanted to tell you, before-" His voice trailed off.
Evan was lying on his stomach in the collapsed tunnel, with hard-edged rocks digging into his stomach and his back pressing against the cool dirt above him. Every so often, a trickle of sand or dry clay would cascade over his head. Ten feet behind him, Rafe was crouched in front of the entrance to the library, peering intently into the darkness, even though the Gen couldn't see anything because Evan had Rafe's flashlight.
Evan couldn't use the Gen's nageric light to see by because his own body was blocking it. He squirmed another few inches and jammed tight, his arms stretched out in front of him. He swept the flashlight back and forth, searching, by the light of the failing batteries, for a way out. Tentacles and fingers probed the dirt and rocks around him, but it was all packed tight. He wondered how Patti had gotten through here, not once but three times.
Finally he backed out, using his newly healed tentacles to give him some much-needed leverage. "There's no way, Rafe," he reported, sliding off the rocks and clicking off the flashlight as he did so. "We'll have to send the child for help."
"She's sleeping," Rafe said in a low voice. Putting his hand on Evan's shoulder, he let his new bondkin lead him back into the library stacks. The two of them sat down on the floor, their backs against the shelves. Patti lay next to Rafe, wrapped in their coats. Rafe, reaching blindly out in the darkness, put a possessive, protective hand on her back and settled himself to wait.
Evan could feel the Gen's field shift and saw changes in the selyn flows. In a few months or a year at most, he figured he would be able to read Icy Nager's field as easily as a book. He could read Sime fields, of course. Anybody could do that, but Gen fields were subtly different. More interesting.
"Books, books, everywhere and nary a light to read by," said Icy Nager, idly.
"Light, light everywhere and nary a book I can read," Evan countered, smiling. Suddenly Evan remembered the book he had found on the desk, which he had tossed aside when Patti mentioned the tunnel. The title of it still haunted him. "Rafe? What's the Church of the Encircling Spirit?"
There was a silence that lasted several minutes. "We were," Rafe said at last. "Prophetstown was. We were the only sect we ever knew of who tried to live with our Simes. Gens and Simes hated us. Hundreds of years ago my people fled Deep Territory and settled out here away from both Simes and Gens. But time in the form of rising population caught up with us, and we found ourselves more or less caught between them both."
There was another long silence, while Rafe's selyn flows shifted and whirled in time to his thoughts and feelings. "It wasn't easy living in a border town. I was nine the first time Vodorovic attacked. Fourteen the year Vodorovic came back. I remember how confused everyone was. All we knew was that between one day and the next the entire border was in a fight to the death. We thought we were safe, because of the tunnels. Too late, we learned that Vodorovic knew about our tunnels. There was no time, then, to build walls.
"We took our guns and set ourselves behind our fences and hedgerows... I remember, it was in early spring, the apple trees were just coming into blossom. There were more of them then, than there are now. I leaned against a rock wall between my father and my uncle, excited and ready, so I thought, for anything.
"It's odd," Rafe said. "We fought for hours, but mostly what I remember of that day is the scent of apple blossoms mingled with the smell of death, and the pink petals falling on my father's face, above the blood on his shirt."
"They shot a Gen?!" Evan was completely shocked.
Rafe looked blankly towards him. "Father was Sime."
"Oh," said the Sime rather faintly. "And then they overran you... Is that when you got the nerve burn?"
Rafe didn't answer for a moment or two. When he spoke again there was an underlying anxiousness in the deep voice. "Did you feel the nerve burn when we SoulShared? Did it mess up the selyn flows?"
"Huh? No. There is just a slight buzzing as the flow breaks up and flows around the old injury. And I didn't notice it until just before the end."
Rafe nodded and relaxed.
"But how did you get it?" Evan coaxed.
"I was claimed by an older Sime when the fighting was over. He took me away from the rest of the Raiders. We went into the mountains, just he and I, so he could be alone with his Kill when need came upon him. He was older, faster, stronger, but he had never played the games I had, and I was full of hate."
"What did you do?" Evan prompted softly, when it seemed as if Rafe would not continue.
Rafe shrugged. "He tried to draw against my refusal. He would draw a little. I would pull it back. He would draw. I would pull."
"You can do that?" Evan asked, awed. His tentacles were trying to braid themselves.
"It was a game I played with my brothers." Pride resonated through the ambient. "We are taught very young that selyn is always a gift. It cannot be taken. It must not be taken by force." This last was said very fiercely.
"And he was trying to take you in the Kill."
Rafe took a deep breath, steadying his field under the onslaught of old emotions. "Yes. In the end my captor died of attrition. And I was left with a nerve burn. I was not as skilled at the game as I had thought." He leaned his head against the shelf behind him. "Everything has a price."
Evan pulled up his knees and sat hugging them, watching in silence as Rafe lightly rubbed at his wrist where the scars of the old nerve burn were thin and pale, nearly invisible. Time to redirect his Gen's thoughts before he worked both of them into a melancholy. "What was it about your sect that allowed Sime and Gen to live together?"
Rafe looked up, towards Evan, but his glance missed him in the dark. After a moment his mood lightened and he smiled a little.
Lazily Rafe pulled a book out of the bottom shelf beside him, turning the flashlight on so he could see what he was doing, and found an empty page in the back. With his boot-knife he trimmed a half-inch strip off the edge. He put the book back and picked up the piece of paper.
Putting the edges together, he held the circle up to Evan. "What meanings are held by a circle?"
"No beginning. No end. It is traditionally a symbol for the totality of God and the universe."
"Very good," Rafe said gently. "Now consider the circle as the lives of Sime and Gen. The outside is the Sime side. The inside is the Gen side. Simes and Gens are as distinct from each other as each side of this paper, yet there is no meaning, no existence for them apart from each other. Each is necessary for the paper to be a whole. As this paper strip is bent into a circle, so are Simes and Gens bound into the Encircling Spirit. All things flow in cycles as each curve flows into the other, forming the curves of life."
He held out the circle to Evan. "Trace the outside of it."
Puzzled but dutiful, Evan did so, setting a tentacle tip on the surface, letting it follow the entire circumference. When the Sime was finished, Rafe gave the strip of paper a half twist and set the ends together again. "Trace the Sime side now."
Again, Evan set a tentacle tip to the surface of the strip. Across the top, out again, and then he was on the inside of the paper loop, which was the Gen side, and he had not once lifted his tentacle. He looked up at Rafe, intensely questioning, feeling he had just made an important discovery, but just not sure what it was, exactly.
"The mobius is the symbol of the Encircling Spirit," Rafe said, turning off the waning flashlight. "Sime and Gen follow the cycle of the soul's learning. Not separate. As one. As I am the SoulSharer in this life, when next we are born you may be the SoulSharer and I the Sime. It is best we live in harmony and carry no bad karma over into our next existence. If you knowingly harm someone...well, things have a way of evening out, and you will either pay the price in this life or in the next, but you will pay it."
"That is why a Sime must not take selyn," Evan said thoughtfully. "But must ask for it as a gift."
"And why a Gen must be willing to learn how to give that gift," Rafe added.
"I want to learn how to give the gift." Patti's serious voice startled the two men. "So far, all I know is how to not give selyn. Will you teach me, Uncle Rafe?"
Very seriously Rafe replied, "When the time comes, it would be an honor to do so."
"Of course," she said, sitting up and throwing off the coat that was covering her, "first we have to get you out of here. Is it dawn yet?" She looked towards Evan.
Evan, who possessed the usual exquisite Sime sense of time, said, "An hour past."
"Then," she said with a cheerfulness that reminded Evan forcibly of Rafe, "I'd better get moving. I have a long way to go today."
"Take the flashlight," Rafe said, holding it out. "It should last until you get through the tunnel."
But it was Evan, who could see by nagerlight, who took the device. He reached for Patti's hand to guide her to the tunnel entrance.
She stopped, looking down at where she thought Rafe was. "Is Daddy really going to start another war? And over me?"
"Well, if he doesn't get you back, it strikes me as a real good possibility."
"It strikes me," she said, without missing a beat, "as perennially stupid."
Evan, whose primary emotion when he thought of The Implacable Cohen was uneasy fear, snapped his head up in shock at this forthright announcement from the General's daughter.
Rafe broke into laughter, and Evan, wondering at this family he'd just bound himself to, led her into the tunnel and went with her as far as he could, staying to watch her faint field as she squirmed past the last obstruction and trotted down through the rock-lined tunnel.
When he got back, Rafe was asleep.
Rafe was stiff when he woke, and when he started to turn over in the darkness, he discovered he was packed around with solid, angular objects that jabbed into him with uncompromising corners. He fumbled at them. "Evan, what in heaven's name are all these books doing around me?"
"You were getting cold." The Sime's voice was close at hand and slightly abstracted as if his mind were elsewhere.
"So you packed me in books." Rafe shoved the piles aside until he could sit up.
"I didn't use any of the really old ones," the Sime said. There was the rustle of a turned page.
"What are you reading?"
"A Sime translation of an Ancient novel, called Passion On the Wind. It's about a woman named Elanora who falls in love with a man named Heathcliff. Elanora is pretending to be a teacher to the family's children, but she's actually the heiress to the house and lands, which Heathcliff thinks are his. Heathcliff has just told her he is marrying some other woman named Cassandra. Elanora is heartbroken and thinking of running away."
"Is she going to take the children with her?" Rafe asked sarcastically.
"Ummm, no," replied Evan, turning a page. "She's decided to stick it out and expose Cassandra as the evil woman she is."
"Good Lord, you actually enjoy slushy love stories," Rafe groaned.
"I'm doing research," Evan said earnestly. "It gives a real insight into how Gens think and feel. No Sime would have gotten away with half the stuff she has, and neither would there be all these misunderstandings. Emotionally, it's a towering achievement."
Rafe made gagging noises.
"Why don't you go back to sleep? Your nager is flickering something awful."
"I knew it! Once you're out of need you only want me as a night light."
"If you'll quiet up, I'll read you some of this."
"Now you're threatening me!"
"I suppose you'd prefer Quadratic Equations of a Slopsist?"
"Hmmm, that sounds promising. I've read it before. Start on page fifty-three; that's where it gets interesting." A book was tossed on his stomach. "Ma! Evan's beating up on me!" called Rafe.
"Oh, stop that!" Evan sounded embarrassed. "I'm reading Passion on the Wind; you can either listen or go back to sleep. Those are your choices."
Actually, once he got into it, Passion on the Wind wasn't nearly as awful as Rafe thought it would be.
They were just getting to the climax where Elanora is lost on the windswept moor and Heathcliff has taken out a half-wild stallion to go looking for her-a scenario oozing with disaster, when Rafe heard noises. "What's that?"
Evan stopped reading immediately. "There's someone at the trap door!" He grabbed Rafe's good shoulder. "Come on!"
Hurrying to the front of the stacks, they stood looking up at the hole in the ceiling. A thin gray light palely illuminated a ceaseless trickle of dust and plaster, falling to the floor. "Before we start yelling for help, who is up there?" Rafe asked Evan quietly.
"I can't tell," Evan said, suddenly nervous. "There's so much wood and dirt in the way, it's blocking the fields."
The faint sound of several voices coincided with a shift in the debris over the hole. Light filled the library. Rafe flung up an arm to protect his eyes, and at the same time there was a thud above them that shook the ceiling. Almost immediately a face appeared in the hole.
"Simes!" Evan shouted, trying to push Rafe back.
"Rafe!" the face shouted.
"Caleb!" yelled Rafe in glad surprise. Beside him Rafe heard Evan say softly, "Oh, my God."
Caleb called to somebody behind him. "They're both here. In good shape! Except that Rafe is starving."
"So what else is new?" another voice called back.
Rafe, suddenly aware of Evan's silence, turned to look at him. The Sime was standing there with his mouth hanging open. "You look like all twelve volumes of the Principles of Mathematics just hit you between the eyes."
"You know that Householder?"
"Sure. He's my brother."
Evan pulled himself together with an obvious effort. "Your relatives are all over the place," he grumbled. "I met this one in Moriathon. He felt so much like you, I thought I was going crazy."
"Yeah," said Rafe's younger brother, hanging head-down over them. "It works to our advantage though. You weren't the first one to give us your Kill, though you were the first in such bad shape when you did it. I wondered what was going to happen to you. Didn't quite expect this, though. Patti told us all about it. Welcome to the family."
"Caleb!" cried another voice in exasperation. "Will you get out of the way so we can let down the rope?"
"From what you told me, I didn't think a Prophetstown Sime would become a Householder, Rafe," Evan said, as Caleb disappeared from view.
"Think a moment, Evan. Where else were they going to get their selyn, once Vodorovic had taken all their Soul-Sharers?"
Some time later Evan was seated cross-legged under a tree in the town park, holding a mug of hot tea in his hand, part of a circle containing Rafe, Patti, and Caleb.
As soon as they were clear of the ruined cottage, Caleb had wrapped his arms around Rafe in a bone-crushing hug, which the Gen had returned.
Rafe's first question was, "Have you sent someone to inform the General that Patti is safe?"
"Of course he did, Uncle Rafe," Patti said scornfully. "It was the first thing I told him to do. And besides, Uncle Caleb is at least as smart as you. He would have thought of it eventually."
This remark set the brothers off in a gale of laughter. Evan stood on the sidelines and frowned at Patti. She frowned ferociously back at him.
"We sent Simon to make the report," said Caleb when he could speak again. "We weren't far from Green's Pond when Patti found us. They have a wire to Whiteplain, which has a wire to Three Oaks. Don't worry, the General will get the message in time. He's been stopped anyway at Three Mile Pass, where the Raiders made a stand. They're trying to negotiate some kind of settlement with him."
Meanwhile, Patti tugged on Evan's shirt. "May I call you Uncle Evan since you're a part of the family now, and all?"
For a moment Evan thought he felt the earth shifting under his feet. Uncle. To Implacable Cohen's daughter. Who, when she grew up, was going to be every bit as much a force to be reckoned with as her father. He gulped. "Sure, kid."
As they were talking, they'd been drifting toward the center of town to the park, where there was a fire and food.
Rafe was putting down his third meatloaf sandwich, while between bites of her own sandwich, Patti regaled them with the tale of how she found the Householders on the road. She was quite proud of herself, and Rafe and Caleb were proud of her too. A little distance away, the five Householding Gens were sitting around the fire, eating and drinking and unashamedly listening in on their conversation.
Caleb was telling some childhood story about Rafe. Evan was letting his attention wander, zlinning the various fields around him, feeling a little threatened by Caleb's closeness to his Gen.
"Yes, Rafe has always been one to bend the rules and get away with it," Caleb was saying, and a little dart from his nager nudged at Evan to make sure he paid attention. "For instance, you, Evan, are the first nonProphetstown Sime in nearly four hundred years to be taken as bondkin."
"All that inbreeding couldn't have been good for you," Evan snapped back. He was having a thoroughly unsettling day.
"I was trying," said Caleb, pained, "to make the point that there are things you are going to have to learn. And further that the entire family will be glad to help you." He smiled, a sunny smile, unclouded with fears. "We are glad to have you."
Rafe chewed and swallowed the last of his sandwich. "What were you and the troops," he nodded at the Householders, "doing out here anyway? You never have said."
"Well, it seems that your friend, Captain Baker, has been telling everyone that a Wild Sime finally got you. He brought your horse back as proof. We've got Blackthorn at Seodre, by the way. Anyway, Grandad refused to believe it and ordered us out to find you. We were already on our way, because we didn't believe it either. So, you are more or less officially dead. What are you going to do about it?"
"Well, as long as I'm dead anyway, this seems like a good time to get out of the hero business. I can bow out gracefully, as it were."
"So, if you aren't going to SimeSide anymore, what will you do?" Caleb asked, with suspicious nonchalance.
"I haven't had a chance to give it a whole lot of thought," Rafe drawled. Mischievousness latticed his field. "I had in mind that maybe Evan and I would run a shiltpron parlor out of the Bandegog Institute in Moriathon. We could take our pay in old manuscripts. Think what we would do for museum attendance-" He couldn't finish because he was laughing too hard to get the words out. Caleb had grabbed up a loaf of bread, and using all tentacles, was firing chunks of it at him with the speed of a machine gun.
"Tell me the truth!" Caleb ordered.
"Okay, okay." Rafe put up his hand in surrender. "Evan has some work lined up for me at the Bandegog, translating books. And we have an entire library here we can work with. We'll make a living. But first," Rafe looked over at Evan, "you and I have to go to Grandad and get you some training. As Caleb says, you have a lot to learn. And so do I."
"Me, too!" Patti said. She looked at her uncles, including Evan in the sweep of her eyes. "I want to start my training. I want to be a Soul-Sharer," she smiled brilliantly and teasingly up at Rafe, "like my uncle the hero."
"Exhero," Rafe corrected her.
"Your father has been completely against you learning the Prophetstown ways," Caleb said. "Your father-"
"Will just have to-"
"Patti!" Rafe said warningly.
"-accept it," Patti finished. "Because this is right. And Daddy has been behaving like a pig-headed-"
"Patti!" yelled Rafe.
"Uh...Grandad. Is he Sime?" Evan asked, uneasily.
"No," answered Caleb. "He's Gen. The last of the great Prophetstown SoulSharers. I'll bet even Rafe won't be better than him."
"You'll like Grandad," Patti told him blithely. "And while you're there, in Northslope, you'll get to meet my parents. They're sure to come visit me. Mom is Uncle Rafe's sister. She's Prophetstowner but she can't SoulShare. Daddy, of course, is General Ariel Cohen, the most feared Gen on the border."
Evan whimpered a little and put his head in his hands.
"Finding us a little overpowering?" Caleb asked gaily. He slapped Evan on the shoulder encouragingly. "You'll get used to it." Caleb wandered away to look at the horses. He was humming under his breath.