A Shift of Means


Mary Lou Mendum

copyright © 1996 by Jacqueline Lichtenberg

All Rights Reserved




Sime~Gen (tm) is the trademark of a fictional universe © copyright by Jacqueline Lichtenberg, 1969, 1974, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1984, 1986

For permission to use any of this (or any other) copyrighted material posted here, email AmbrovZeor@aol.com.

Chapter 2

The next morning's Clarion featured a double-column photo of the riot, under the banner headline WORDS, WALNUTS EXCHANGED AT CURRICULUM MEETING.
"And I just hope you're satisfied, Den," Rital said, pointing to the headline with one handling tentacle as he joined his cousin for a late breakfast at a table in the Sime Center's cafeteria. The tip of that tentacle, and several others as well, were stained brown. There were matching stains on Den's left cheek and fingers.
It serves him right for being in such a hurry to heal that bruise that he wouldn't let me wash the walnut juice off my cheek first, the Donor thought. After all, there's a reason they use the stuff as a dye!
The channel put his tray down with a bit more force than strictly necessary, almost slopping his Sime-sized portion of oatmeal over the rim of its bowl. He pulled out a chair and seated himself.
The Donor didn't respond to his cousin's accusation, preferring to occupy his mouth with chewing a bite of toast.
However, Rital was in no mood to let himself be ignored. "Starting a riot wasn't exactly the best way to convince the school board that our changeover classes won't cause any trouble, you know," the channel lectured. "Besides, someone could have been badly injured, even fatally, if the sound of that police siren hadn't broken up the fight."
Den rolled his eyes with the sort of exasperation only a Donor who had been fussed over too often by an overprotective channel could feel. "Rital, the last time I checked, being hit by a walnut fruit wasn't exactly a leading cause of death. Even if it doesn't do much for one's personal appearance."
The Donor ran a slightly selfconscious hand across his cheek. The coin-sized brown stain almost covered the angry red mark where Rital had healed the bruise the woody nut's impact had left behind.
When the channel continued to look skeptical, Den sighed. "Cousin, last night's scuffle was pretty light-hearted, as such things go. Neither Save Our Kids nor OLD SOKS had any intention of injuring each other, and if the paper's right, I was the worst casualty. Look--" he nodded towards the nearby window "--Reverend Sinth and his folks are on our front sidewalk as usual, none the worse for wear."
The two fell silent a moment and watched the preacher distribute signs and pamphlets to the day's contingent of anti-Sime demonstrators. The lead wire embedded in the glass didn't provide quite enough nageric shielding for a channel of Rital's sensitivity. The channel squirmed at the hatred Save Our Kids was generating, so Den automatically turned part of his attention on his cousin, blocking the leakage. Rital relaxed, and continued to observe Sinth and his followers.
As usual, the Save Our Kids demonstrators were careful to stay on the sidewalk, so as to remain out of Sime Territory jurisdiction. Since New Washington Territory recognized no legal right of access to Sime Centers, and the city police gave riding herd on demonstrators a much lower priority than writing parking tickets, Sinth's group could misbehave with impunity.
It must be almost time for the Collectorium to open, Den thought, as Sinth gave his people a brief inspirational sermon, before sending them out to "persuade" Gens not to donate-by any means necessary, even physical assault. However, a dozen OLD SOKS members had just arrived, and they were equally dedicated to escorting prospective donors through Sinth's group, taunting their opponents all the while with chants and songs, many of them frankly obscene.
"Those two groups hate each other," the channel agonized, stirring his cereal absently with a spoon. "What would have happened if they had started swinging their signs instead of half-rotten fruit?" At Den's admonitory glance, Rital looked down and realized that he was playing with his food. He hastily took a bite of oatmeal and put the spoon down to avoid further temptation.
"Come on, Rital--" the Donor said reasonably "--how was I to know that turmeric-haired fellow would overreact so badly? It's not as if those demonstrators don't yell worse things at each other all the time."
As if to prove his point, Annie Lifton deliberately strutted over to Reverend Sinth and began to argue with him. The angry swishing of her ponytail, which today was decorated with brilliant purple anklets, matched the flapping of the preacher's cassock as his arms windmilled to emphasize his response.
They're probably testing the theoretical limits of the ad hominum style of debate, as usual, Den thought.
However, the distraction was serving its purpose. Sinth was completely focused on the argument, and his followers clustered around to offer support. The turmeric-haired man cheered loudly every time the preacher got out an insult, waving his Only DEAD Simes Can't Kill sign like a club. And indeed, the heavy wooden post which supported the sign would make a formidable weapon.
Rital shuddered. "That odd-haired man zlins psychotic."
"Don't waste too much energy worrying about him," the Donor said, finishing his toast and picking up a fork so that he could start on his eggs. "I haven't seen him with Save Our Kids very often, so I doubt he'll cause us any trouble."
The channel looked at the Gen oddly. "Den, that man is going to blow up, and soon," he explained slowly, as if to a particularly dense child. "When he does, someone's going to get hurt. I zlinned it. He's trouble looking for an excuse to happen."
"I believe you," Den protested through a mouthful of eggs. "But as you may have noticed, Clear Springs is out-Territory. Unless he happens to go crazy on the Sime Center grounds, it's not our responsibility to deal with him. Now forget him and eat your breakfast."
As the channel reluctantly consumed another bite of oatmeal, Den looked out the window again. The shouting match between Annie and Reverend Sinth was still in progress, with no sign that anything was being accomplished by either side.
Or maybe not, the Donor thought. As a result of the distraction, the Save Our Kids members had momentarily forgotten their primary reason for staking out the Center's sidewalk. Even as Den watched, a group of five college students was able to walk unopposed around the shouting match, trampling the zinnia bed which bordered the sidewalk in the process. One young man looked back, caught the infuriated preacher's eye, and made an obscene gesture before he followed his friends through the side door which led to the Collectorium.
Like the Sime Center's staff, the Clear Springs donors had enjoyed six months of peace while Sinth had been in jail. They had become accustomed to simply walking in to donate, without fear of being harassed by people determined to force their anti-Sime doctrines on everyone. Not surprisingly, many of them were not hesitant to express their resentment of Save Our Kids' return. While Den shared their sentiments, the donors' anger was a constant strain on the channels, and unlike fear of donating, the anger only got worse with time and repeated exposure.
"Den--" Rital said, pushing his half-finished bowl of cereal aside "--your ability to judge out-Territory culture has been slipping lately. That turmeric-haired Gen might have thrown the first walnut even if you hadn't insulted him, but you did the same thing to Reverend Sinth earlier. An all-out, very personal attack on a respected community leader with a fanatically devoted following is not exactly a recommended strategy for avoiding trouble."
"It worked, didn't it?" the Donor argued. "When Sinth lost control of himself, he also lost control of his followers. I'd rather cope with a dozen furious individuals than a mob, any day. There's much less potential for violence."
Rital waved this objection away. "That may be true in most situations, but there are always exceptions, and you can't zlin them. I'm the channel; you should have waited for me to call it."
Den held back a groan of frustration. "Rital, I hate to disillusion you, but your ability to zlin doesn't give you infallible judgment in tight situations. For instance, look at that." He turned the Clarion's front page around and pointed at the photo underneath the riot, which showed Rital shaking hands with Principal Buchan.
"That picture is a clear illustration of the friendship and cooperation we, as representatives of the Tecton, are supposed to be building with the Clear Springs community," the channel said stubbornly.
"Really?" the Donor asked skeptically. "Buchan's expression doesn't look very friendly or cooperative to me."
The channel examined the picture more closely. The photographer had managed to capture the out-Territory Gen's alarm quite clearly. "Well..." he said, squirming a bit. To buy himself time, he stared out the window as if fascinated with the crowd on the sidewalk. Den automatically followed his cousin's gaze, but saw nothing unusual enough to warrant such close attention.
The escape of five potential victims had been enough to bring Reverend Sinth's attention back to the business at hand. He had broken off his shouting match with Annie Lifton and directed his followers to spread out, increasing the likelihood that one or more of them would be able to intercept any Gen seeking to enter the Center. The OLD SOKS members had also gotten down to business under Tohm Seegrin's able direction. A pair of footwear-adorned scouts had been sent down the street in either direction to meet prospective donors. The rest of the counterdemonstrators had scattered in clumps of four or five, trusting the greater speed of youth to let them surround any Gen escorted by their scouts before Sinth's group could converge.
Since no would-be donors were currently in sight, Sinth started his followers on a hymn. Veterans of many church services, they managed the four-part harmony with practiced authority:
"To make the world be as it should,
Lord Father, help us to be good.
When you declare that it is time,
We'll overcome the demon Sime!"
Not to be undone, OLD SOKS chimed in with a reply:
"Reverend Sinth does as he should:
Murders kids to keep them good.
He stabs them when he's got the time
Even when they're not a Sime!"
Den winced at the cacophony. It was obvious that most of OLD SOKS' members came from less-than-devout backgrounds: only a few even vaguely knew the melody. Unfortunately, this didn't prevent them from bellowing out their best guesses at full volume, with predictably disastrous results. The Donor was almost glad when his cousin turned back with a rebuttal.
"Den, I know you've put a lot of effort into studying out-Territory culture and political systems," the channel argued. "But what good does your knowledge do, if you forget who you are and what you're supposed to be doing out here? It's part of our job to educate Clear Springs about the services we offer, but you avoided giving any concrete information to those people last night. You even tried to mislead them with half-truths about what changeover training covers, instead of taking the opportunity to educate them."
"Rital, there are times and places for education, but last night wasn't one of them. I just hope your indiscreet admissions don't backfire on us. Did you have to go on like that about how much money Gens can make by donating?"
"There were more than a few young Gens out there who wanted to know," the channel insisted self-righteously.
"But their parents would rather they didn't know." Den pointed an accusing finger at his cousin, but managed to keep his voice reasonably calm. The Center's Gen chef, Ref, was clearing the breakfast condiments off of the tables before he started lunch, and the Tecton frowned on Firsts who argued in public. "Remember the parents, Rital? The ones who will be holding the school board accountable for whatever they decide to do about our changeover classes? We can't afford to offend them too badly, or we'll never get anywhere."
Rital shook his head. "In the long run, being caught in a lie would do us more harm than any number of unpalatable truths. There's nothing that infuriates people more than learning they've been tricked, no matter which side of the border they come from."
"I'm not asking you to lie--" the Donor assured his cousin "--but could we at least stick to the truths that won't lose us the battle before it begins?"
"If winning battles is more important to you than the basic honesty demanded by your oath to the Tecton--" the channel snapped "--perhaps you should go join the New Washington Army!"
Den stared at his cousin in shock, unable to believe that any channel would say such a thing to his own Donor. Rital looked equally appalled, but also defiant.
"Are you going into turnover a day early?" Den asked in a venomous tone too soft to reach Ref's ears. "Because if not..."
The cheerful exchange of musical taunts outside suddenly took on the darker snarl of a mob ready to pounce, and Reverend Sinth's deep voice boomed, "Stop that truck!"
The blare of a horn and a shrill scream brought channel and Donor to full alert. A pickup truck was attempting to reach the turn into the Center's small parking lot. The anti-Sime demonstrators had surrounded it and were beating at it with their signs, trying to force open the doors to the cab and the enclosed bed, yelling all the while with murderous rage. As Den watched in horror, the turmeric-haired man smashed the windshield with his fence post, and two other demonstrators tried to pull the driver out through the hole.
"Ease off, Den," Rital commanded, extending his laterals to zlin the situation more closely.
The Donor obediently withdrew his support.
Rital flinched as the hatred being spewed out by the two groups of demonstrators hit him with only the inadequate shielding of the window to attenuate it. Den almost blocked it again, but quelled the urge as the channel steadied and began to asses the situation more closely.
Within seconds, the OLD SOKS counterdemonstrators managed to drag five of Sinth's people away, clearing the front of the vehicle. The driver didn't hesitate. Horn blaring, the truck slipped deftly through the gap, leaving at least two of the attackers sprawled in the dust. Unable to reach the parking lot entrance, the driver settled on an alternative approach, steering the machine over the curb. Zinnias went flying as it left the sidewalk and headed erratically towards the Center's main entrance.
As soon as the truck cleared the nageric interference of the massed Gen demonstrators, Rital muttered, "Is that a changeover? I don't-yes, it's got to be a changeover." He leaped from his chair with a curse. "Den, move!" he ordered, and ran for the stairs with augmented speed.
"Ref, get a team out front with a stretcher!" Den ordered, and followed his cousin as quickly as Gen feet could manage. The Donor plunged through the front door just as the battered pickup weaved to a halt at the Center's front door, narrowly missing Rital.
The channel shot an anxious look towards the sidewalk as he gracefully dodged the vehicle, but the truck's erstwhile assailants had stayed carefully off the Sime Center's grounds. No doubt they remembered what had happened the last time Save Our Kids had tried to make mischief in Sime Territory. Sinth waved an angry fist at the channel and Donor as the truck's engine sputtered and died, then got his people back on the job, waving their signs and chanting, "Simes will kill and Simes will lie, Scripture says all Simes must die!"
"Bloodthirsty lorshes, aren't they?" Den commented.
Rital ignored this gratuitous remark. Once assured that both truck and demonstrators intended to stay put, he headed briskly for the enclosed rear of the vehicle with Den at his heels, in a show of calm competence guaranteed to convince the observers on the sidewalk that the situation was under control. The channel tried one of the handles, then shook his head in frustration.
"Locked," he said shortly. He extended his laterals to zlin the bed's occupant more closely, then grunted in satisfaction. "I don't think the changeover is very far along." He started around the truck for the cab, where the driver had slumped over the steering wheel. However, as Rital's attention focused fully on the unfortunate motorist, he reconsidered and waved Den forward to deal with the out-Territory Gen.
Curious but obedient, the Donor removed a gaudy purple flower from the door handle. Like the tailgate, the door was locked, but the driver roused himself at Den's urging and slowly turned to face the Donor. A shard of glass from the broken windshield had opened a wide gash on the man's forehead, and a steady stream of blood was trickling down his face. Which probably accounts for the erratic driving. Aside from that, the man was ghostly pale. It took a moment for Den to identify the battered visage, but he understood why his cousin had stayed back when he finally recognized Principal Ed Buchan.
Still dazed by the violent assault, Buchan seemed unable to do anything but mutter, "They were trying to murder me. They actually tried to murder me!"
"They did," Den agreed. "But you're safe now; they won't come onto Sime Center property. Do you think you can unlock the door for me?"
Buchan blinked uncomprehendingly at the Donor, then slowly reached out to fumble with the door latch. As soon as it popped, Den pulled the door open. "Can you give me your keys, so that we can unlock the tailgate and get your passenger out?" he requested, holding out a hand.
The Principal inspected the appendage a moment, as if he'd never seen such a thing before, then nodded. One unsteady hand worked its way down the steering column. It took two tries before he was able to get the key free of the ignition, but he managed it at last and held out the key chain. The dozen keys on it jingled as his hand shook.
"Jainy made me lock her in the back, just in case," Buchan explained weakly. "It's a good thing I did; they would have dragged her out and beaten her to death, if they could."
"You're both safe now," Den soothed again. Deftly removing the keys from the out-Territory Gen's loosening grasp, the Donor handed them to Rital.
By this time, Ref and the emergency team had arrived with a gurney. Hot on their heels came Zir Asthan, one of the Center's two Third Order channels, and his Donor, Hammil ambrov Keon. The two were nominally off duty until their afternoon Collectorium shift, and the Donor's still dripping hair and nonregulation outfit proclaimed that he, at least, had had other plans for the morning.
To Den's surprise, his cousin tossed the keys to Zir, and signaled the young channel to take care of the changeover victim. At his Donor's raised eyebrow, Rital explained briefly, "The changeover's not far advanced, and the kid's had training. Zir gave part of the Sime Center tour for our class, so Jain's at least met him. He can handle her long enough for us to look after her father. That Gen's pretty badly shaken, and his nager's strong enough to give a Third trouble."
Nodding, Den moved aside so that his cousin could reach his patient. It was a measure of Buchan's state of shock that the Simephobe didn't seem to notice Rital's tentacles as the channel conducted a brief but thorough examination.
"You'll live," Rital pronounced when he finished. "Still, that's a nasty cut. Why don't you come inside now, and we'll take care of it? Den, you take his other arm."
The cousins helped their patient out of the truck. He swayed a bit, but seemed in no immediate danger of falling, so they started to lead him slowly towards the door. After three steps, Buchan shuddered, then stopped and looked around, once more aware of his surroundings. "I'm fine," he insisted, shrugging off their hands. His eyes widened as he caught a clear glimpse of the channel's tentacles, and he shied away, bumping into Den. As the Donor steadied the man-and the fields-Rital let go of him and stepped back.
Zir, who was accompanying the occupied gurney towards the door, stopped and looked around at the nageric commotion, and the stretcher crew obediently halted as well. The abrupt cessation of movement caught his patient's attention. A thin hand emerged from the blanket. After a moment's fumbling, it found a purchase on the gurney, and an equally thin face framed by long, pale hair peered towards the disturbance.
"Daddy!" Jain wailed as she spotted the blood trickling down her father's face. She struggled to sit up, fighting off Zir's belated attempt to restrain her.
"Your daddy's going to be all right, Jain," Rital said quickly, moving to the side of the gurney. "Hold still now, or you'll hurt yourself."
Jain stopped struggling and inspected her father skeptically. Then she glared at Rital. "He's bleeding," she accused.
"That's true, he is bleeding," Rital agreed, capturing the thin hand in his own and giving it a reassuring squeeze. "Some glass from the truck's windshield cut him, but it's a shallow wound, and your daddy isn't in any danger."
From where he stood, Den could see the swollen, red streaks on Jain's arm. However, the incipient tentacle sheathes had not yet formed visible lumps, so it would be hours yet before the new tentacles were ready to emerge.
It's been a long time since we've had a changeover brought in this early, Den thought with understandable satisfaction. If we can just get more kids trained, though, it might even become routine!
Jain looked at Rital searchingly for a moment, then decided to accept his word that her father was in no immediate danger. Freed of that concern, she began to inspect her surroundings. As her gaze lighted on Rital's tentacles, her face twisted in sudden disgust. She hurriedly reclaimed her hand, then whimpered when she got her first clear sight of her own forearms.
Not for the first time, Den regretted that he had been unable to arrange for the library to have the room in which he and Rital had been teaching their changeover classes temporarily declared Sime Territory. Jain would have been spared some of her current trauma if she had had a chance to get used to Rital's tentacles before she began growing her own. However, even though Miz Dilson had been sympathetic, the librarian had insisted, very apologetically, that the retainer laws be observed. She had explained that the bathrooms located in the conference room they had been using as a classroom were the only ones on the library's second floor, so the Donor couldn't blame her too much.
Rital sheathed his tentacles and continued to talk soothingly to Jain. When she had calmed down a bit, he smiled and told her, "It's going to be hours yet before anything exciting happens, so you might as well just relax and get settled in. I'm going to let Hajene Asthan here look after you for a bit, so that I can take care of your father, but Sosu Milnan and I will come by later to see how you're doing. In the meantime, don't forget your breathing exercises. All right?"
Jain considered for a moment, then nodded shortly. As Zir and Hammil accompanied the gurney and its attendants into the building, Rital turned and walked briskly towards the girl's father, who took an alarmed step backwards when he found himself the focus of a Sime's attention. Den warned his cousin off with a gesture, then beckoned to the portly chef.
"Would you give me a hand here, Ref?" he requested, as he put one of Buchan's arms over his shoulder for greater support. With the other Gen's assistance, he was finally able to get Buchan moving in the right direction. Rital trailed anxiously a few paces behind, out of the out-Territory Gen's immediate line of sight, but close enough to help if his unsteady legs failed him.
"Watch your feet," the Donor warned, as the slow procession reached the door.
The principal stepped over the doorjamb with exaggerated care, and let them lead him toward the infirmary. Since the Gens of Clear Springs didn't normally come to the Sime Center for medical assistance, this was only one small room intended mostly for treating whatever minor injuries occurred among the in-Territory staff. It was a pleasant room not far from the changeover ward, with a few comfortable chairs and a treatment alcove with a well-stocked supply closet.
When the principal saw to what sort of place they had brought him, he balked in the middle of the waiting room. "I'm fine," he insisted, shrugging off their hands. As Rital disappeared into the treatment room for supplies and Ref bustled over to the hot plate and began heating water for tea, the out-Territory Gen relaxed enough to confide, "It's Jainy who's sick. Woke up this morning feeling queasy. I expect it's just nerves, but she said she wanted you folks to make sure it wasn't changeover."
Mindful of the man's precarious condition, the Donor decided not to enlighten him just yet.
"I didn't see what harm it could do to indulge her," Buchan continued. "She was pretty upset about what Reverend Sinth said last night. But when I asked those people to let me through so my kid could find out if she was turning Sime..."
Buchan swayed. Den moved closer, ready to catch the out-Territory Gen if he began to fall, but the injured man was able to make it over to one of the padded armchairs before his knees gave out. He closed his eyes for a moment, leaning back in exhaustion. "Sorry to be such a bother," he apologized. "But after I insisted that Jainy drop the gymnastics team to attend your changeover class, I couldn't refuse to bring her here when she thought she might be in changeover, could I?"
With one trembling hand, the principal caught a drop of blood before it could drip off his chin and land on his shirt. He opened his eyes, saw the stain on his hand, and waved it vaguely as he looked around for something on which to wipe it. After a moment, he settled on his shirt.
"It's no bother at all," Den reassured him absently, as he bent over to inspect the wound. It wasn't all that deep, but like any scalp wound, it was bleeding copiously, all out of proportion to its size.
It'll do Rital good to have a real injury to deal with for a change, the Donor reflected with satisfaction, remembering the fuss the channel had made the previous evening over the minor bruise the walnut had left on his cheek. He rummaged in a drawer for a sterile pad, tore off the paper cover, then pressed the gauze against the still bleeding cut on Buchan's forehead.
"Here," he said, reaching down with his other hand for the injured man's right hand and guiding it to the pad. "Hold this in place for a minute until Hajene Madz gets back, then I'll get him over here to apply a backfield."
"To do what?" the principal asked apprehensively. He forced his eyes to remain open long enough to look at the Donor suspiciously, then let them sag closed once again.
Den thought back over his last sentence, which had seemed clear enough to him, and realized that he had lapsed into Simelan for the last few words. He groped through his English vocabulary for a moment, vainly seeking a translation, then noticed Buchan's growing apprehension.
"To stop the bleeding," the Donor equivocated, leaving out the details. What the out-Territory Simephobe didn't know wouldn't scare him...yet.
Buchan opened his eyes and staggered to his feet again as Rital emerged from the treatment alcove with a washbasin of warm water, liberally supplemented with disinfectant, and a stack of sterile swabs. "Thank you for your assistance, Controller Madz," the out-Territory Gen said, with a courtesy which didn't quite mask his nervousness. He kept his eyes focused firmly on the channel's face as he spoke. Apparently, he felt that his one close look at Sime tentacles had been one too many.
"If my daughter and I could impose on your hospitality briefly--" he continued, edging towards the door "--we'll be on our way as soon as that mob outside calms down. Jainy belongs back in her bed."
"I'm afraid that won't be possible," Rital said gently, with an admonitory glance at his Donor. "She really is in changeover."
Den barely managed to catch Buchan as the man collapsed in a dead faint. "Shen you, Rital!" the Donor swore, staggering under the sudden weight. The principal's solid build and middle-aged paunch made him weigh easily half again as much as Den. With a dexterity born of desperation, the Donor managed to guide Buchan's fall so that he landed back in the armchair.
"Did you have to tell him that just then?" Den demanded, picking up one limp wrist to check for a pulse. It was strong, if rapid, and Rital looked offended, not alarmed. The Donor decided with relief that Buchan probably wasn't going into shock. Although the out-Territory Gen's face was pale enough to alarm the uneducated, the only real danger from a simple faint was that the victim might suffer an injury while falling. That threat had been averted by the Donor's prompt action in redirecting his trajectory, No thanks to you, cousin, Den added silently.
Fortunately, Rital had at least had the sense not to drop everything and try to catch Buchan himself. "The man has the right to know his daughter's in changeover," the channel argued indignantly, as he hastily kicked a side table over beside the unconscious principal's chair and deposited his armload of supplies on it. "Besides, it's hardly the kind of thing we could keep secret for very long. Why didn't you tell him earlier?"
"Because I thought the shock might be too much for him just now," Den said. "And it was," he added, letting a bit of his own indignation show. "Like I said earlier, providing full information is fine, but it helps if you pick an appropriate time and place for it."
"We can discuss our differences in philosophy later," the channel said shortly. "In private. When we don't have a patient who requires our help."
Thus rebuked, Den dropped the subject, casting a surreptitious glance in Ref's direction. However, the chef was humming happily as he busily cleaned three tea glasses in the waiting room's small sink, and there was no sign that he had paid any attention to their unseemly quarrel. With a sigh of relief, Den calmed his nager enough to offer his cousin at least an approximation of his usual support.
Rital acknowledged the assistance with a curt nod, then took advantage of their patient's temporary inability to object to inspect the man's injuries more closely. The channel let his laterals extend to touch the skin near the wound, and his eyes went blank as he zlinned.
"There's no glass in there," he reported when his eyes focused again. "It's a simple cut, too, with no tearing or bruising. It'll be easy enough to close up as soon as it's clean."
The channel moved his laterals to the back of Buchan's neck, probing for the nerves which controlled the autonomic nervous system. When he found them, a moment's concentration was sufficient to restore normal tension to the muscles surrounding the larger abdominal arteries, and Buchan's blood pressure began to return to normal.
When the out-Territory Gen started to stir with returning consciousness, Rital prudently relinquished the contact. However, although the channel sheathed his laterals, he failed to take any further precautions with regard to his patient's precarious psychological state.
As a result, the first things Buchan saw when he opened his eyes were Rital's still-unsheathed handling tentacles, barely a foot in front of his nose. He screamed and lunged backwards in the chair with more energy than the Donor would have thought possible.
Unfortunately, precisely because he had not thought Buchan capable of such a strong reaction, Den was a fraction of a second late in compensating for the sudden surge in the ambient nager. Rital yelped as the out-Territory Gen's unshielded panic slammed through him.
"Den!" the channel complained sharply.
The Donor put an arm around his cousin, blocking the other Gen's comparatively weak nager. He concentrated on soothing thoughts, and the channel's pain began to ease almost immediately.
Buchan's chair was solidly built, and the principal's sudden movement had only pushed it back a few inches, until it hit the wall. The bump from behind had jolted him out of his blind panic, and he paused, beginning to realize that Rital had not been attacking him after all. Once assured of his own safety, he looked curiously at the channel, who was still trembling in his Donor's arms.
"What's the matter with the Sime?" he asked Den.
"Because you're high field, your fear felt to him--" the Donor paused for a moment, searching for a suitable comparison "--well, as if you'd punched him unexpectedly in the stomach."
"Oh." Buchan forced his eyes back to Rital, who by this time had largely regained his composure. "I do apologize for hurting you, Hajene." He said the last word slowly, struggling to remember the proper pronunciation.
"That's quite all right," the channel said graciously. "It was an accident--" he glanced at Den "--and I'm not seriously injured."
"I'm glad to hear that." The principal sounded a bit surprised by his own sincerity. The proprieties satisfied, his attention returned to a more important subject. "You were joking, weren't you, when you said my Jainy's in changeover?"
Rital shook his head. "I'm afraid not," he apologized.
"But--" Buchan shook his head in stunned disbelief "--but you said last night that Reverend Sinth was wrong; that your classes didn't affect a child's chances of becoming Sime. Now you tell me my Jainy's in changeover, less than a day after Reverend Sinth predicted it!" It wasn't quite an accusation.
There was an undertone of superstitious dread in the out-Territory Gen's voice; the fear of being manipulated by unfriendly forces beyond one's understanding. Den would have found it more amusing if he hadn't known that the New Washington legal system still recognized witchcraft as a crime-and although convictions were rare, they were not unknown, either.
"Reverend Sinth didn't foresee anything," the Donor said hastily. "This is just one of those nasty little coincidences that the universe likes to throw at us, to make our lives a bit more interesting."
Buchan thought about it for a moment, his innate good sense warring with the traditions in which he had been raised. Den sighed with relief when the man nodded reluctant acceptance of his explanation.
"I suppose you're right," the principal admitted. "But why did the universe have to pick on my little girl? She's the only family I have left, since my wife died, and now she'll have to leave me for Sime Territory. Not that I'm ungrateful," he assured them hastily. "It's better than the alternative. But when I think of my baby as an exile in a foreign land..."
A tear escaped from one eye. He tried to wipe it away, but only succeeded in smearing blood across his cheek. A second tear followed the first, and then a third. With a muffled sob, the principal buried his face in his hands and cried.
There was nothing either Den or Rital could do to soften his loss, so they simply offered quiet support and gave Buchan the time he required to come to terms with the changes in his life. Ref paused in measuring trin tea into the mugs, and shook his head in sympathy. The portly chef set down the tea canister, and scrounged around for a clean dishtowel. He moistened it at the sink and brought it over to Den, who accepted it with a silent nod of thanks.
Eventually, the principal's shoulders stopped shaking and he straightened. "I'm sorry," he apologized dully. "I shouldn't have..."
Den remembered that out-Territory, it was considered bad manners for a man to cry, no matter what the circumstances. As far as the Donor was concerned, that part of out-Territory culture made even less sense than their educational priorities.
"You don't have to apologize for loving your daughter," Rital assured Buchan.
The principal looked down, embarrassed, then noticed the blood smeared on his hands. Den handed him the dishtowel, and he cleaned them, scrubbing each finger as if he could wash away the morning's revelations.
Ref glanced at the even worse condition of the man's face and compared it with the small stack of sterile swabs Rital had brought out of the treatment room. Shaking his head at the mess, the chef returned to the sink and began to assemble a larger basin of water, this time without disinfectant, and a stack of dishtowels suitable for a major cleansing job.
When Buchan's hands were clean, he looked at Rital and asked, "If Jainy's in changeover, shouldn't you be looking after her?"
"She's in the care of one of our best," the channel reassured him. "Everything's proceeding normally. However, changeover takes time. We've got a few minutes to take care of you before we can do anything for her."
Buchan didn't appear to find this last statement reassuring, and his apprehension increased when Rital explained briefly exactly how he intended to treat the still-bleeding cut. The out-Territory Gen immediately set out to convince the channel that it wasn't necessary.
"Look--" he said, casting a nervous glance at Rital's sheathed tentacles "--I wouldn't want to bother a busy man like you with a simple cut like this. Just let me say..." his voice broke, and he swallowed hard, then continued, "...say good-bye to Jainy, then I'll be on my way. I promise, I'll drive directly to my own doctor, and have him take a look at it."
"Oh, it's no trouble at all," Rital said with obvious sincerity. "It will only take a moment, and then you won't have to worry about it getting infected, or leaving a scar."
The channel hid it well, but Den could see his cousin's sheathed laterals quiver almost imperceptibly with desire. Any injury to an adult Sime or Gen worried nearby Simes, as damage to selyn-rich tissues evoked subconscious fears of attrition. It was a tremendously satisfying affirmation of life for a channel to zlin such a selyn-leaking injury heal under his tentacles. That fulfillment was even greater if the patient was Gen, since it gratified the basic Sime instinct to protect a potential source of selyn.
Outside of the occasional accidental injury among the staff members, of which Den's encounter with the walnut was among the worst, there had been all too few opportunities for Rital to practice this aspect of the channel's craft in the two years he had been assigned to Clear Springs. The situation had only gotten worse in the past year or so, since there were now four underworked channels competing for the privilege of treating each patient. Like the rest of the Gen staff, Den had gotten a little tired of having every stubbed toe and skinned knee turned into a major medical emergency. And if a real medical emergency escapes untreated, Rital's going to be impossible to live with for weeks.
"You can't drive across town as you are, Principal Buchan," the Donor pointed out as persuasively as he could. "It wouldn't be safe, with the blood dripping in your eyes like that."
"Well, I don't suppose it would do any harm to get the bleeding stopped, but..." Buchan shifted uncertainly.
Den figured that this was the closest thing to consent that he and Rital were likely to get, and they might even lose that much if they gave their patient any more time to consider it. Besides, although Rital hid it well, it was obvious to the Donor that his cousin wasn't willing to let Buchan's cut go untreated much longer.
"There's nothing to it, really," Den promised, as he hastily moistened a swab in the smaller basin. "This is going to hurt a bit. You'd better close your eyes; this disinfectant will make them sting worse than onions if it gets in them."
The organs in question cast a last nervous glance in Rital's direction, bulging with alarm as they rested on the channel's tentacle sheathes. For a moment, Den thought Buchan would protest again, but the principal was a fundamentally reasonable individual. He was also too exhausted from the morning's traumas to put up much of a fight if he'd wanted to. With a brief nod, he obediently closed his eyes and slumped back in the padded chair.
Den sighed in relief and focused his attention on Rital to block the Sime's perception of Buchan's pain. Then the Donor began washing the clotted blood away from the cut, scrubbing the exposed tissues hard to make sure that all the dirt was removed. As he worked, he continued to murmur reassurance in a soothing monotone.
Like many people in such a situation, Buchan seemed to be coping with the unavoidable pain of having the cut cleaned by doing his best to ignore the whole process. He didn't appear to notice when the hovering channel cautiously extended two handling tentacles and used them to hold several sticky locks of hair out of Den's workspace. The Donor let some disinfectant dribble across the out-Territory Gen's closed eyelids, just to encourage the man not to open them, but the lack of reaction didn't really come as a surprise. It took practice to tell the touch of a finger tip from that of a tentacle tip without looking. With the pain to act as a distraction, it was unlikely that Buchan would bother to count the number of "fingers" touching him, and realize that there were a few extra, which couldn't possible belong to the Donor.
Although the principal was submitting to Den's care without protest, he was much less sanguine about letting the channel touch him. When Rital handed the Donor a fresh swab, Buchan tensed at the soft rustle of fabric, then relaxed again as nothing more happened. It didn't take an expert in out-Territory psychology to guess that the out-Territory Gen was likely to refuse the channel's offer to heal his injury, if given a choice.
So we won't give him one.
When the cut was clean, Den exchanged his swab for one of Ref's damp washcloths. Without missing a beat of his reassuring monologue, the Donor began to clean the mess off Buchan's forehead. He made sure that the washcloth was draped over both of the man's eyes, in an improvised but effective blindfold, and then signaled Rital to start healing the cut.
The channel's eyes widened as he realized the deception his cousin planned. He drew breath to protest the questionable ethics involved, then swallowed his objections at Den's savage nageric "Shut up!" signal.
The Donor understood Rital's position. To treat a conscious, adult patient without that patient's knowledge and consent was legally a form of assault, if the victim chose to object. Even if no charges were brought, the Tecton would view such unprofessional behavior as grounds for disciplinary action at the very least.
Under most circumstances, Den had no problem with the Tecton's informed consent requirement. However, the Donor suspected that in this instance, their current patient would rather not know what was being done to him until it was all over. Since Buchan seemed to have no moral objections to being treated by a channel, however much the idea scared him, there was a good chance that he wouldn't protest afterward. Besides, it was unlikely that the out-Territory Gen was acquainted with the relevant Tecton regulations, much less how and where to lodge a protest if a breach of them occurred.
As if to conquer his nervousness about Simes by talking around it, the principal interrupted the Donor's monologue to ask, "How long will it be before Jain..." He swallowed, unable to complete the sentence.
"She should reach breakout by dinnertime," Den said, once more signaling Rital to start working. "We'll be having a party then, to welcome her to adulthood."
"A party?"
Distracted by the novel idea, the out-Territory Gen didn't notice when Rital surreptitiously extended his laterals along the cut. Den scrubbed at a bloodstain in front of Buchan's right ear, to provide a tactile distraction, and increased his nageric support, just in case the out-Territory Gen caught on to the deception. The channel's eyes unfocused as he concentrated, using precise selyn currents to seal the edges of the gash together, and encouraging the healthy cells nearby to divide and replace their damaged neighbors.
"Yes, a party," the Donor confirmed, smoothly dividing his attention between his cousin and Buchan. "It's traditional in Sime Territories, when a child changes over or establishes."
"Oh." After a moment, Buchan said slowly, "I don't suppose you can have any idea how strange it sounds to me, to be happy no matter what your child becomes. I don't see anything to celebrate, myself. I'm glad that I didn't have to shoot Jainy, but I've lost her just as thoroughly as if she'd died. I'm far too old to start another family even if I remarried, so I'll never have grandchildren, now."
"Why not?" Den asked, with genuine surprise. "People get married and have kids on our side of the border too, you know."
"Well..." the principal began, then fell silent as he began to see the possibilities.
Under Rital's laterals, the cut had closed to a thin red line, which would disappear entirely in a few days. Satisfied with his handiwork, the channel began to dismantle the lateral contact. Den prudently gave Buchan's forehead a few more swipes with the washcloth as he did so, to draw away their patient's attention.
By this time, the washcloth looked almost as bad as the principal's shirt. Den exchanged it for a fresh one and wiped off the last few bloodstains, giving his cousin time to retreat to the other end of the room and pour the tea. The Donor's nostrils quivered with delight as the delectable aroma filled the room.
It's the good stuff, not that trash we got sent last time!
With such incentive, Den didn't linger over the last of the cleanup. "There, that will do," he said as he finished, tossing the second washrag on top of its dirtier predecessor with a flourish.
Buchan's eyes flickered open. His eyes scanned the room rapidly, searching for Rital, then he relaxed when he discovered that the channel was a safe distance away. With that fear allayed, the practical side of his nature was able to reassert itself.
"I'm a mess," he observed, looking down at his stained and tattered shirt.
"That shirt isn't even fit for rags anymore," Ref agreed. "Why don't you put this on?" The chef held up one of the padded, sleeveless transfer jackets which the Collectorium kept on hand. They were being used with ever-greater frequency in Sime Centers which handled out-Territory Gens, since New Washington Territory's latest fashion trend in long-sleeved shirts had solid cuffs which were barely wide enough to pull on over the hands, making it difficult for stylish donors to bare their forearms.
"You're a treasure, Ref," Den praised with a laugh, taking the jacket from the chef and passing it to Buchan. "Thanks."
The principal gladly shrugged out of his ruined shirt. He used a clean dishrag from Ref's supply to wipe off the areas where the blood had soaked through his shirt, then shrugged into the loose-fitting jacket.
Ref started cleaning up, throwing the stained washrags into the laundry, and taking the basins to the sink.
Rital placed the tea glasses in shiny metal holders and brought them over, offering two glasses in the fingers and tentacles of his left hand for Den and Buchan, while his right hand held his own glass. The principal eyed the tentacles dubiously, but when Den took both glasses, he accepted one from the Donor's hands. He sniffed at the greenish liquid inside, then sipped tentatively. His face twisted into a grimace of distaste.
Ref finished washing the basins, set them on the drainboard to dry, then cleared his throat apologetically. "Hajene, I don't mind helping out in an emergency--" he said quietly, edging towards the door "--but it's past time to start lunch, and my kitchen's a shambles."
The channel waved a gracious dismissal with one handling tentacle. "I think Den and I can handle it from here," he agreed.
"Thanks," the chef murmured, and slipped out.
At about that time, Buchan finally realized that his forehead didn't hurt any more. He lifted a cautious hand to feel the injury, and his still-pale face twisted in confusion when his fingers found only smooth, albeit tender, skin.
"What...?" he asked.
"It's healed," Den said, with what he hoped was the right combination of reassurance and matter-of-fact acceptance. Beside him, Rital tensed, zlinning the out-Territory Gen's response as deeply as he could without being too obvious about it.
"But..." The principal stared at the Donor in disbelief, unable to decide whether to be afraid, indignant, or relieved. He held up his tea glass, squinting at his distorted reflection in the shiny metal holder, and stared at the thin red line on his forehead. "That's amazing!"
The Donor gave a carefully casual shrug. "It's one of the many reasons that channels are handy to have around."
"I suppose so," Buchan agreed, and swallowed another sip of his tea. Rital relaxed as it became clear that the out-Territory Gen wasn't going to object to the high-handed way in which he had been treated.
A moment later, it became apparent that Buchan had more important matters on his mind than a disappearing cut. "If my Jainy's going to have to live in Sime Territory--" he announced "--I suppose I ought to start honoring the customs of her new home. I'd like to go to this...changeover party...you were telling me about."
"You're welcome to attend, of course," Rital agreed. "I'm sure Jain would appreciate having your support. However, for your safety and hers, you really should donate first."
"Donate!" The out-Territory Gen's eyes flew open in alarm. This time, Den was fast enough to block most of the surge in the ambient, but the channel flinched even so. He must have taken some real damage when I failed to block Buchan's first panic attack, the Donor realized. He moved to place a protective hand on his cousin's arm.
When he saw the channel's reaction, the principal calmed down and apologized sheepishly. "Still--" he finished with a touch of belligerence "--I won't pretend that I approve of being blackmailed like this. It's not right to place conditions on letting a man say good-bye to his own daughter."
"Principal Buchan--" the Donor said, hastening to clarify Rital's position "--if you don't want to donate, you are still welcome to communicate with Jain by letter or telephone. However, you could injure your daughter seriously if you lost control like that around her when you're carrying so much selyn. That's why we can't let you see her in person unless you donate first. A channel has defenses against that sort of thing that a renSime like Jain doesn't."
"I think I understand," Buchan said thoughtfully, taking a closer look at Rital's pale face.
The channel gulped down the last of his now-cold tea, handling tentacles wrapped around the metal holder for comfort. The principal picked up his own half-empty glass and drained it in two swallows.
"This stuff really does settle your nerves," the out-Territory Gen commented as he set the empty glass down. "But then my mother always used to say, 'the better it works, the worse it tastes.'"
Den nearly choked on the last of his own tea at hearing the premium trin described in such terms. Buchan gave him a puzzled look, then forced his eyes back to Rital. "If I'm going to have to donate before I can see Jainy, I might as well do it now," he decided. His voice quavered as he added, "I doubt it will get any easier if I put it off."
"True," the Donor agreed as Rital collected the tea glasses and set them in the sink. "Why don't you come with us, then? The Collectorium is right down the hall. Hajene Tyvi can take care of you while we check on your daughter."
"All right." With visible reluctance, Buchan levered himself to his feet. He started for the door, then turned back to face Rital. "Take good care of my daughter for me, Hajene," he begged. "She's all the family I've got."
"I will see her through until she's out of danger, on my honor as a First," Rital pledged, in the full, formal channel's commitment to see a patient through a crisis.

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