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"Shen," Rital swore. "I'd forgotten all about that."
"You must be the only one in Clear Springs who's had that luxury," Den commented ironically. "Oh, well. It's too late to change the schedule around. I'll just have to alert our supporters that I won't be there. Maybe some of them will agree to plead our case instead."
Rital didn't bother to propose that he handle that task. They both knew that Quess would never allow the channel into such a hostile ambient when he was in need, particularly after the last out-Territory school-related meeting he had attended had ended in a hail of fermenting walnuts. And Rital doesn't talk back to that Donor, Den thought enviously.
"Quess would probably be willing to present our position and answer questions, if you asked him," Rital suggested. "After all, what's the use of having a diplomat on the staff, if we can't use him to handle this sort of thing?"
"I hadn't thought of it that way, but you're right." Den forced a grin. "Although he may be wishing he was back in a nice, peaceful war zone by the time the meeting's over, if I know Reverend Sinth!"
After three days of frantic organizing to cover his untimely absence, Den made the eight-hour train ride to Valzor. After so long out-Territory, it was strange to see Simes moving freely around the city, unencumbered by retainers. It was equally strange to be treated with deference again, as a respected professional. In Clear Springs, even the Sime Center's most loyal supporters thought he was a little crazy for spending so much time with Simes.
Controller Monruss had never been one to let need interfere with his duty. When he joined Den in their heavily insulated transfer suite an hour before the scheduled time, the balding, stocky channel accepted a steaming cup of tea. Then he looked Den in the eye, and observed, "I've noticed that your cousin's monthly reports have tended to be a little vague in places, lately. Suppose you tell me what mischief you two have been getting into?"
The Donor took a nervous gulp of his own tea, glad of his recent practice in the use of euphemisms. While it was nearly impossible to get an outright lie past a First Order channel undetected, a higher-rated Donor could come close by using a combination of verbal misdirection and strict nageric control. The work required to get the channel's intil factor to the proper level would provide a halfway plausible excuse for maintaining that control. It helps that Monruss isn't too familiar with how my nager usually zlins, the Donor thought as he began a highly edited account of recent events in Clear Springs. I'd never be able to convince Rital that I wasn't hiding something important.
Their transfer itself was disappointing, at least for Den. Nine years ago, the channel had been a satisfying, if not particularly challenging, assignment; perfect for a young Donor still trying to sort out the differences between training camp exercises and the real world. However, Monruss was old enough that his speed and capacity had long since stabilized. The transfer was even less satisfying than Den had expected, leaving him with a slightly depressed, not-quite-post feeling.
I was right, he thought gloomily. I've done a lot of growing lately, but with Rital being so stubborn about admitting it, I'll never learn how to use my new capacity.
On the other hand, Tyvi wouldn't have been much better than Monruss, and she didn't have the Valzor Controller's sense of humor. Den figured that he'd come out ahead in the exchange.
However, that didn't prevent him from worrying about the situation back in Clear Springs. By the time Monruss had recovered from his first transfer with a higher-rated Donor in months, the evening train for Clear Springs had already departed. Den would normally have liked nothing better than to be stranded, off duty, in one of Nivet Territory's most interesting cities. However, he couldn't seem to decide what to do.
He was loitering in an alcove outside of the cafeteria, gazing despondently out at the night sky, when his friend Liren Kolpev descended upon him like a miniature tornado.
"Den Milnan, what the blazing shen are you doing wasting your time here?" she demanded, glaring up at him. She was absurdly tiny for a Gen, but that had never prevented her from ruling her friends, her three children, her husband, or her assigned channels with outsized authority.
"I'm waiting for you, love, of course," Den teased.
"Well, if that's the case, you don't have to look as if you were keeping a death vigil," she complained with mock outrage. Then she asked more seriously, "Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Not unless you can get me back to Clear Springs in the next ten minutes," Den said with a sigh. He explained about the havoc his absence might wreak with his hard-fought campaign to make changeover training easily available to Clear Springs children.
Liren listened sympathetically enough, but when he finished, she shook her head. "You, my friend, have been wallowing in self-pity long enough." She ignored Den's indignant denial and continued, "You won't change the outcome of that meeting by fretting yourself into a nervous wreck. I can see you're not post, but that's no reason you can't enjoy the evening. Go grab your cape while I call Jannun and tell him not to wait up for me. We're going to Nippan's."
Knowing that Liren loved to dance as much as her husband dreaded it, Den let himself be bullied into going out for a night on the town. He began to feel better from the moment the nightclub's cheerful hostess showed them to a table right next to the dance floor.
A uniformed waiter handed them menus, full of delicacies guaranteed to enhance the nightclub's sterling reputation. "We have a few specials in addition to our usual menu tonight," he said, with the enthusiasm only a Gen could bring to fine food. "Our chef has prepared a mixed saffron and spinach pasta, topped with a sauce made from tomatoes, garlic, and pungent fresh basil. That comes with our fresh herb bread and a mixed salad of bitter greens, water cress, and sunflower sprouts with a balsamic vinegar-walnut oil dressing."
"It sounds delicious," Den commented.
After dutifully drooling over the other offerings, both Liren and Den ordered the special. They washed it down with a white wine which tasted like nothing so much as a very fresh fruit salad.
Afterwards, they shared a pot of trin tea while their meals settled, then adjourned to the dance floor to show the others how it was done. It always amazed Den that Liren was such a marvelous dancer, lightly following his subtlest lead. It seemed out of character for such a strong-willed personality. When he mentioned it, though, she just snickered, and remarked, "How else can I keep overgrown oafs like you from trampling on my feet?"
Between the wine and the exercise, Den was too exhausted to think about the changeover classes by the end of the evening. When Liren dropped him off by the Valzor Sime Center's transient quarters, it was all he could do to make his way back to his room and crawl into bed.
He woke a bit later than he had planned, but there was still enough time to shower, dress, and grab a quick breakfast at the cafeteria before he had to leave to catch the morning train for Clear Springs. He finished these vital tasks with five minutes to spare, and so he stopped by the main office to place a call to Rital and discover how the school board had voted.
The switchboard operator, a young Gen who was obviously new to his post and very eager to please such an exalted personage as a First Order Donor, apologized profusely. Almost wringing his hands with distress, he said he would be unable to place the call until that afternoon. Apparently, there were only two lines which could connect with the out-Territory phone system, and they were currently occupied with a conference call between Controller Monruss and some officials from New Washington Territory's Office of Transportation.
Den shrugged, and assured the young man that it wasn't an emergency. After all, sliderail stations were equipped with telephones, so that the station managers could keep track of the traffic. Since the lines had to be installed anyway, almost all stations maintained public telephones as well as their private lines. In some of the smaller, more isolated out-Territory towns, these station phones were the only telephones available, and thus an important contact with the larger world.
Unfortunately, it took the Donor so long to win free of the penitent young switchboard operator that he had to sprint past the two public phones in the Valzor sliderail station to catch his train. He consoled himself with the knowledge that the train would be making three twenty-minute stops at the towns of Miltsharbor, Sheegan, and North Peak, just long enough to take on new selyn batteries and for the passengers to stretch their legs. It would be possible to reach Rital, or at least someone at the Clear Springs Sime Center, soon enough. He settled back to endure the interminable train ride, glad that he wasn't Escorting a channel, and that his fellow passengers were all Gens. There were times when even the most skilled Donors were hard pressed to maintain control.
Much as Den had enjoyed his evening with Liren, his earlier grilling by Monruss had made it clear that his and Rital's continued assignments to Clear Springs depended on their ability to show results. The District Controller was a pretty reasonable man, and he was well aware that changing public opinion took time. However, if he grew impatient, or if he was under pressure from the Office for Interterritorial Affairs, he might not be willing to wait for the out-Territory political process to run its course.
As the train approached Miltsharbor, the conductor came through. "Ladies and gentlemen," he announced in stentorian tones. "I regret to announce that this train is running slightly behind schedule. Therefore, our usual twenty-minute stop in Miltsharbor will be reduced to the absolute minimum time required to refuel. Passengers who are leaving the train at Miltsharbor should gather their belongings and be prepared to disembark promptly; passengers continuing along the Clear Springs route should stay on the train or risk being left behind."
Den gritted his teeth and remained in his seat, reminding himself that he would have another chance to call Rital at Sheegan.
It seemed utterly unfair of the Tecton to demand that he pull off a public relations miracle for the Clear Springs Sime Center on pain of ruining his career, and then post him hundreds of miles away on two days notice, preventing him from doing his job at the critical moment. Had Quess's testimony been sufficient? Or had the school board, under Reverend Sinth's urging, decided to take the easy way out, and refuse to let the classes be held?
Den kept an apprehensive eye out for the conductor as they approached Sheegan, two hours later. However, the engineer must have milked the batteries for every dynopter he could get, because they pulled into the town on schedule to the minute. The Donor leaped from the train as soon as it came to a halt, and ran for the ticket window. He tapped his foot impatiently as he waited for the motherly clerk to finish selling a ticket to an excited young woman wearing a brand-new Clear Springs University T-shirt. The transaction seemed to require a great deal of advice from the clerk on the less endearing aspects of college men, and how to avoid getting into trouble with them.
"Where's the public phone?" Den demanded, when the aspiring student and her copious luggage had finally been entrusted to a porter for delivery to the train.
The clerk sniffed with disapproval. "Young man, there's no reason to be rude," she lectured. She glared at him, waiting.
The Donor mumbled an apology, and added, "Please, I have an extremely important call to make, before the train leaves."
After a moment's consideration, she deigned to accept the apology. "Our public phone is in the station restaurant, but the Kennys are attending a funeral this afternoon, so it's locked up tight."
"Is there someone who could let me in, long enough to make my call?"
"Oh, the station manager has a spare key, but that won't do you any good. He's at the funeral, too. Old Miz Tilden taught our school for nearly fifty years. There's hardly anyone in town between the ages of twenty and sixty-seven who didn't learn their reading and figuring from her. And they learned proper, too, you can be sure. She wouldn't tolerate laziness or disrespect from her students. Why, I remember one time..."
Only the conductor's stentorian "All aboard!" rescued the Donor from the woman's seemingly endless supply of educational anecdotes. Although I have to admit, if this Miz Tilden kept teaching after her students pulled some of those pranks, she would have had to be worthy of the canonization she's getting!
However, much as he approved seeing such posthumous recognition of a teacher, this tribute didn't supply the Donor with any information on whether he and Rital had been invited to join that select profession. He was too nervous to eat the lunch he had brought. Instead, he agonized over the possible consequences if his absence had led the school board to vote the changeover classes down.
There would be another investigation, at the very least. Rital had been emphasizing the classes in his reports all summer, as the most visible sign of their progress in winning the trust of Clear Springs' population. However, as Monruss had deduced, Den's cousin had left some unfortunate details-like a certain heated exchange of walnuts and how it got started-out of the official reports. If the classes had been voted in, that wouldn't matter too much. Nobody would question the judgments which led to such a spectacular success too closely. But if Rital's next report describes a failure...
The station manager at North Peak was busy supervising the loading of two freight cars when Den managed to track her down. She shook her head mournfully at the Donor's question.
"Our public phone's been out of order for two months now." At Den's appalled expression, she shrugged apologetically, then explained. "The phone company keeps promising that they'll come and fix it, but they haven't showed up yet. It seems that we're not the only town with a breakdown, and they give first priority to towns which don't have another public phone. Which means everyone has to tramp down to Jerri's Market to make their calls. It's only a ten minute walk down Main Street, if you'd like to go there to make your call."
The Donor's shoulder's slumped. "Thank you, but that would make me miss my train," he said. He returned to his seat for another agonizing wait.
If Rital's selective editing of the monthly reports was officially confirmed, the Tecton might well launch a full-fledged investigation into all aspects of the Clear Springs Sime Center. There was all too much which couldn't stand such close scrutiny, starting with his own mishandling of Rital, and their subsequent argument. And Rital won't come out of it any better than me. If the committee decided that Den was right, his cousin would be punished for trying to impose a bad decision on the Donor. If they took Rital's side instead, they would still discipline the channel for failing to convince his Donor to go along with a proper decision. We'll both lose our out-Territory licenses at the very least.
Such a disciplinary action couldn't possibly be kept secret from the Clear Springs authorities-and what they knew, Hank Fredricks would publish. All of the fragile trust that Den and Rital had nurtured for the past two years would disappear overnight. And whoever they send out to replace us will have a much harder job trying to convince them to trust again.
Of course, it would be Den and Rital who would be blamed for the debacle in Clear Springs, and the bureaucrats would do their best to make sure that they caused no more trouble. We might never be allowed a transfer together again...
Den found himself chewing a third fingernail down to the quick. It was a bad habit he hadn't indulged in since he was a child. Embarrassed, he sat on his hands and ran through a simple relaxation exercise he had learned in training. After all, he told himself firmly, the world had better things to do than conspire to drive one relatively unimportant Donor crazy, no matter how it appeared.
This didn't prevent Den from grabbing his bag and jumping off the train before it had fully come to a halt at the Clear Springs station. The habits ingrained in him by nearly ten years of life as an in-Territory Gen prevented him from actually running inside the building, but he wove through the crowd briskly, making a beeline for the corner of the waiting room reserved for freight shipping, which also held the station's public phone. He dodged around the last obstacle, a stack of boxes labeled TRIANGLE WALNUT GROWERS--Perishable, hoping that the telephone was working. It was.
In fact, the booth was occupied by a young stevedore, who was apparently in the middle of a complex argument with his girlfriend. Den paced back and forth for a moment, hoping that the hapless swain would give up. During his third lap, his eyes lighted on a newspaper vending machine.
HUNDREDS TURN OUT FOR SCHOOL BOARD MEETING,the Clarion's headline screamed. Underneath was a photo of the Upper School's revered gymnasium, packed with people. A good percentage of them appeared to be holding signs with slogans. Den was able to make out Stop the Tecton Takeover, Cancel the Classes, half a dozen of the familiar Save Our Kids placards, and one that appeared to read Education is MY Family Tradition.
Underneath the picture, the text began:
An estimated three hundred
and fifty people turned out for
the school board meeting last
night, to debate whether
changeover training should be
offered as an elective in the
Clear Springs schools. After a
vigorous, three-hour debate,
the school board voted three to
two that the classes
The rest of the text was out of sight. Den fumbled some coins out of his pocket, then realized that none of them were out-Territory currency. Groping in his bag, he finally found the proper change. The first coin went in easily; the second fell through into the coin return three times before it was finally accepted. Den pulled the handle, then nearly screamed in outrage as the box failed to open.
He jiggled the handle again, banged on the side, and pulled the coin return lever in vain. The machine would neither give him a paper nor return his money. Longingly, the Donor regarded the fire ax in its glass cabinet on a nearby wall. For a brief moment, he let himself fantasize about the ease with which it would demolish the offending vending machine, allowing him to pull his rightful copy of the Clarion from the wreckage.
However, delightful as the daydream was, it didn't tell him how the vote had gone. Den returned his attention to the phone, just in time to hear the stevedore plead, "But honey..."
The laborer broke off suddenly, pulling the receiver away from his ear to look at it in astonishment. With a muttered curse, he slammed it back on its hook and stalked away.
She must have hung up on him, Den inferred, as he hastily claimed the phone. He fumbled in his bag for the proper coin.
He didn't have one.
The Donor let out a short, hysterical giggle as he realized that he had used his last two coins of the proper denomination in his attempt to purchase the newspaper.
Rital's going to love this story, Den thought, as he regained control of himself with an effort. He picked up his bag and walked briskly for the exit.
The sun had just set, and the night air was cold. Halfway to the Sime Center, he passed the Sudworks Brewery. The parking lot was full of cars and bicycles, many of them the ancient, battered wrecks which were all that students could afford. The O.L.D. S.O.K.S. bumper stickers on some of them showed that the counterdemonstrators' weekly meeting was running late, as usual. Unable to wait a moment more to find out whether the classes had been approved, Den went inside the pub.
OLD SOKS' table was easily identifiable, due to the creative costumes of its occupants. In addition to the trademark used footwear, Silva had found herself a new button for the occasion, white with large red letters spelling Hatred isn't holy. Tohm had contented himself with worn denim pants and the official OLD SOKS T-shirt, which had a picture of a tattered orange sock with O.L.D. S.O.K.S. silkscreened below.
The law student spotted Den coming in the door, and raised his stein in salute. "Hail the conquering hero!" he intoned, and sealed the toast by taking a huge gulp of beer.
Always ready for a good excuse, the rest of the group responded with an enthusiastic "Hail!" then settled down to the serious business of emptying their steins.
"Come join us for a while," Tohm invited, wiping the foam off of his lips with one hand. "Hey, Knut--" he flagged down the server "--bring Sosu Milnan here a sample of the brewmaster's latest experiment!"
People moved over to make room, and another chair was forced into the narrow gap between Annie Lifton's older brother Rob and Arth Tinkum. The sociology student had apparently decided to conduct an in-depth study on the Sime Center's supporters. Den wondered whether he'd managed to convince Professor Ildun that the resulting beer tab was a legitimate research expense.
The Donor put his overnight bag on the haphazard collection of bookbags, knapsacks, and battered briefcases which the students had deposited in a nearby corner. He had hardly managed to wedge himself into the offered chair before Knut reappeared, followed closely by Yon Keysvetter, the pub's master brewer. He looked on as Knut set a stained coaster in front of Den and ceremoniously placed a mug on it. Den looked around at the circle of expectant faces and asked, "What's the matter?"
"Just taste it," Silva urged.
Bewildered, the Donor raised the frosted glass and took a careful sip. "It's porstan!" he said in surprise.
"Did I get it right?" the brewmaster asked anxiously.
"Well, almost," Den said, taking another taste. "You should take it out of the oak barrels a little sooner, though, especially if you want to sell it to Simes. This stuff is strong enough that half a glass would get a Sime drunk, even without a shiltpron to help."
"I'll keep that in mind when I brew the next batch," Yon said. "And this one is on the house."
"Thanks." Den waited until he and Knut had returned to the bar, then asked Tohm, "What happened at the school board meeting last night?"
"You mean you haven't heard?" Silva asked in surprise.
Den shook his head, and briefly summarized the day's misadventures.
"Well, we won," she consoled him with a grin. "The school board voted to adopt the classes, as modified by the curriculum committee's majority report."
"That's fantastic!" The Donor felt almost giddy with relief at the news. Now Rital and I won't be facing a major investigation. We won't be separated.
Silva leaned forward eagerly to supply the details. "Ephriam Lornstadt voted against it, of course, but he was only able to get old Purson to go along with him. Reverend Sinth wouldn't even have had that much success, but Purson is such a back-to-basics type that he thinks the curriculum should be limited to sports, English and mathematics. By his reasoning, 'extras' like science, music, or your changeover classes are a waste of time, and shouldn't be offered by the schools."
Den was suddenly hungry for the first time that day, as the release of nervous tension dissolved the knot in his stomach. He reached for the nearest basket of appetizers on the table. Picking up a batter-fried zucchini stick, he dipped it absently into the dish of salad dressing and popped it into his mouth.
"And it all happened courtesy of Reverend Sinth," Tohm gloated. "If he hadn't campaigned so hard against the classes, his people probably could have stopped them. But he kept insisting that he represented the majority of parents, so most of his supporters stayed home, while everyone who disagreed with him came to the meeting. I guess they figured that if they didn't speak up, nobody else would."
"There were so many people that the school board would only allow two minutes of comments each, and then only from people who could prove that they lived in Clear Springs," Silva chimed in. "Sinth was furious; he'd bussed in over a hundred anti-Sime fanatics from Clearston, Berrysville, Oak Ridge, and just about every other town within fifty miles. There were even a few who came all the way from Sanger! And all they could do was sit there for three hours, while half of Clear Springs was telling the school board that they wanted the classes available!"
"Sinth spent his two minutes complaining that the PTA, the Teachers' Association, and everyone else he doesn't like had conspired to pack the meeting," Tohm went on. "Under the circumstances, it didn't go over too well."
"Well, after such a vote of confidence, Controller Madz and I had better make sure that we teach a good class!" Den observed.
The conversation shifted to the perennial student concerns of the availability of required classes, the difficulty of tracking down professors, and the latest movies to reach the Clear Springs Cinema. After a few minutes, Den turned to Arth and asked, "How's your research coming?"
The sociology student's face brightened. "I just finished running the statistics on the rest of the questionnaires, and comparing them with the data from your records. The results look great!" He retrieved a battered backpack from underneath his chair and pulled out some much-smudged tables. "Look here. These are the demographic indicators. Compared with Clear Springs as a whole, donors are more liberal, both politically and religiously. I also got statistical significance with age between eighteen and twenty-seven, low income, and at least some college education. That may be an artifact, though, because Clear Springs is a college town. However, this is the most interesting finding from the first batch of questionnaires." He pointed at a line with three stars after it, instead of the one or two in the other columns he had indicated. "About half of the regular donors-I've defined that as someone who has donated at least four times-have a close friend or relative who also donates."
"Well, a person's close friends and family tend to have similar attitudes," Den pointed out.
"This stays significant even after I adjusted for that," Arth said. "It's more likely to be a matter of people following the example of someone they like and trust. Besides, what a person knows or has experienced determines how they feel about new things. Hottios and Milner did a lot of work on that forty years ago, with their studies comparing farmers who switched to selyn-powered tractors with those who stayed with horses. Where's that quote, anyway?" He flipped through his stack of papers and finally extracted a dog-eared page of notes. "Here it is. 'There is good evidence to show that beliefs have intellectual sources and psychological consequences. Thus, a person opposes modernity because of his lack of exposure to such ideas.'"
The student looked at Den expectantly. As far as the Donor was concerned, the first sentence of the quote was unintelligible, but he thought he understood the gist of the second. "So people are more likely to donate if they see other people doing it?"
"Well, context is important, too," Arth admitted. "After all, the members of Save Our Kids have seen more people going in to donate than anyone else in town, present company excepted. It's more a matter of deciding that donating is 'something people like me do.'"
Den nodded. The zucchini sticks were long gone, but there were still some fried potato slices, and plenty of spiced tomato paste in which to dip them. He methodically munched his way through the basket as Arth pulled out another set of tables.
"These are my other interesting results. I wanted to find out if I could predict which first-time donors would return to donate again, and how often. About 30% of the Gens who donated once came back the next month. When I compared the return rate with emotional state, deduced from resistance to selyn flow, I discovered that how frightened a donor is the first time correlates strongly with whether he or she returns to try again."
"That isn't too surprising," Den said. "A lot of the more frightened donors aren't donating because they want to, but because they are temporarily short of money, or for some reason they have to be low-field. Such people have no real commitment to donating." The Donor tried one of the batter-fried cheese sticks for variety. It went pretty well with the strange "porstan."
"True, but here's the interesting part," Arth said. "Overall, each successive donation tends to be less frightening, with the largest drop between the first and second time." He shuddered briefly. "That last finding was kind of reassuring, under the circumstances."
A quick calculation confirmed that the young student was due for his own second donation within the week, at least if he wanted to maintain his access to the restricted regions of the Sime Center. And so far, he hasn't given us an excuse to kick him out. After witnessing the student's previous donation, Den wasn't looking forward to the event any more than Arth. Particularly now that Quess is Rital's Donor. If he starts asking questions, he might find out that I talked Rital into giving in to Professor Ildun's blackmail...
"Anyway, the drop in fear correlated quite strongly with a switch in reasons for donating reported on the questionaire. First-time donors felt a lot of peer pressure, and didn't feel that donating was important in itself. This was reversed in experienced donors. The most frightened first-time donors were less likely to return, but those who did return reported a similar change in motivation. So, anyone who donates on four consecutive months is likely to keep doing so, no matter why they donated the first time, or how frightened they were."
Den had a hard time believing that the very personal decisions of individual Gens to donate, and their equally personal reactions to the experience, could be so neatly summed up in a table. Arth's conclusions also ran counter to the Tecton's theory of donation, which held that some Gens were inherently transfer-shy, and others could become so if mistreated.
That difference might be important, but if so, Den was too tired to understand how. "Arth, I'd love to discuss this with you again, when I've had some time to think it over," he said, finishing his porstan. "Right now, though, I've been traveling all day, and I'm exhausted." He fished a few bills out of his pocket and inspected them. After determining that they were out-Territory currency, he dropped them on the table to cover the cost of the food he'd eaten. With some effort, he managed to extract his chair from the tangle of legs, and locate his travel bag on the bottom of the haphazard pile of backpacks and briefcases. Apparently, the collection had been rearranged half an hour before by a trio of students who had departed early to study for a midterm. Waving good-bye to the rest of the OLD SOKS crowd, the Donor left the noisy pub and started for the Sime Center, feeling tired but at peace with the world.
Rital pounced on him as he walked through the door. "Where have you been?" the channel demanded. "The train got in half an hour ago!"
"I stopped off at Sudworks on the way, to find out how last night's meeting went," the Donor explained. Still feeling at peace with the world, he put down his baggage and looked around the familiar lobby with a sense of homecoming.
Rital's face hardened into a stony mask. With an abrupt gesture of two tentacles, he ordered Den to follow. The channel led the way to the insulated privacy of the infirmary, then flipped on the "in use" light to ensure that they wouldn't be interrupted. Turning to Den, he snarled, "So, you've been out drinking with OLD SOKS again. Couldn't you wait for them to occupy our sidewalk tomorrow morning?"
The Donor shook his head in bewilderment. "What's gotten into you, Rital? I thought you liked Tohm, Silva and the others."
"Not when they're stealing my Donor. Ever since this changeover class thing started, you've been finding more and more excuses to leave the Sime Center. You've been neglecting your duties, and your control has gotten so erratic..." The channel's face twisted with abject misery, and his voice cracked as he asked, "How long is it going to be before you quit the Tecton entirely, so you can hang out with your out-Territory friends?"
Den felt his jaw drop in utter astonishment. "You think I'm going native?" Suddenly, Rital's irrational accusations of dishonesty every time he had used his knowledge of out-Territory politics began to make sense. So did the channel's unreasonable criticism of the way he had written his information pamphlet, and his absolute refusal to consider Den's possible growth in capacity.
There's nothing less reasonable than a channel who thinks he's going to lose his Donor-or more obsessively convinced that the worst will happen. Rital must have been hoarding these secret doubts for months, terrified that voicing such an accusation would drive Den away for good. It was a channel's ultimate nightmare, to be stranded among hostile out-Territory Gens with no Donor in zlinning range. I expect it's only having Quess available as a backup that's given him the courage to tell me about this at all.
It was such a simple misunderstanding to have caused so much trouble. Den found himself chuckling with relief. "You idiot--" he scolded affectionately "--I have no intention of leaving you, or the Tecton. Particularly not to hang out with a bunch of badly dressed lunatics whose hobby is singing dirty ballads-off key. Whatever gave you such a ridiculous idea, anyway?"
"Well, what was I supposed to think?" the channel complained, slightly hurt by his cousin's mirth. "You've spent so much time studying how out-Territory politics work, and you've been ignoring everything but your publicity campaign for months, now."
Den sobered. "I'd be the first to admit that I've lost my sense of perspective, lately, but I've been worried sick ever since Interterritorial Affairs put us through that investigation last spring. The Tecton doesn't like mavericks, and we've been ignoring all the rules. If we can't show that we've succeeded anyway, they'll pull us out of here so fast, we'll never know what happened. That's why I've been working so hard on mastering out-Territory politics. It's the only way I know to make them leave us in Clear Springs, together."
The channel had been zlinning Den carefully as he spoke. When the Donor finished, Rital slowly shook his head. "I wish I could believe that--" he said sadly "--but cousin, I think you're kidding yourself."
An icy chill crept over Den as his cousin slipped out the door, closing it silently behind him.
How much time will it take to win back his confidence? the Donor wondered forlornly. Although at least we have time now...
Go To Chapter 8