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 8

The triumph of getting the changeover classes approved carried Den through his disappointment two days later, when Buchan's case against Reverend Sinth was heard. After questioning all parties closely, Judge Banklin ruled that while Sinth's followers had unquestionably been acting under his orders when they had attacked the truck, the preacher had been motivated solely by a desire to destroy a Sime not wearing retainers. This was a legal activity, and it could be argued that Buchan had had no right to interfere. "Though I won't find you guilty of infringing on the Reverend's prerogatives, under the circumstances," she added. However, since Sinth claimed that neither Buchan nor his truck would have been harmed if the principal had simply allowed them to put an end to his daughter, she also refused to award damages for either injury.

Sinth was chortling with glee as he left the courtroom surrounded by a dozen or so of his followers. "The law is on our side," he proclaimed triumphantly. "It's not a crime to dispose of Simes, or any Simelover who tries to protect them, either!"

"You said it, Reverend," the turmeric-haired man called. "Let's teach those traitors a lesson they won't forget!"

The others gave this suggestion a rousing cheer, and the Donor turned away in disgust.

The following day, Quess asked Den to cover Rital's shift in the Collectorium, so that he could take care of some personal business in town. Den jumped at the chance to work with his cousin, although the channel wouldn't require much help, only a day after his transfer with Quess. It must have been an excellent one, judging by the smug satisfaction on Gati's face as she and Rital ate a private breakfast together.

Seeing his cousin so post when Den himself was unlikely to have a decent transfer any time soon didn't exactly endear Quess to the younger Donor. If the interfering old lorsh hadn't gotten himself assigned here, my life would be a lot simpler right now. However, Den was tired of inactivity. Obis had been taking care of his mother since his arrival, and Den didn't have the heart to deprive Tyvi of that, even if responsibility for a channel did technically pass to the next month's Donor after transfer. And it won't hurt to remind Rital that he can't avoid working with me forever.

It was the first time they had worked together since Quess's arrival. The long separation would have made them a bit awkward with each other even without their confrontation the night before. Rital seemed reluctant to take full advantage of the support Den was offering. Is he afraid I'm going to leave him, or is he still afraid of hurting me? the Donor wondered.

Shen Quess, anyway. You'd think the Wonder Donor would know better than to let a channel run away from that sort of problem. If the higher rated Donor hadn't come along and taken Rital away from Den, the channel would have been forced to deal with his fears long before. As it was, the longer Quess let him avoid working with Den, the harder it would be to rebuild the trust which had formerly allowed the cousins to function as an effective team.

It took a patient hour of subtle coaxing, but eventually Den was able to seduce Rital into accepting his support, through force of habit, more than anything else. It helped that the shift was uneventful, with just a handful of scared "virgins," and only the usual number of donors who had some experience but were still too skittish to be inflicted upon a Third Order channel. After his conversation with Arth, Den was very aware that most of this second group were donating for the second or third time.

Late in the afternoon, Rital picked up the top file in their assignment stack and skimmed it, then handed the folder to Den for safekeeping. Den was pleasantly surprised to see that their next client was Rob Lifton, Annie Lifton's older brother. The Donor counted Rob among his personal successes.

When Den had first been assigned to Clear Springs, the young Gen had been one of Reverend Sinth's devoted followers--so much so that he and some friends had staged a late-night raid on the Sime Center, armed with cans of spraypaint. However, their attempt at vandalism had ended when Den and Rital intercepted the group, and Rob had injured himself trying to escape. The channel and Donor had treated the young man's concussion, and hadn't pressed charges. This consideration must have made a favorable impression, because a week later Rob had come in to donate. He'd been donating regularly ever since, except for a few months the previous winter when he'd first started dating Reverend Sinth's niece Bethany, and was afraid that she would reject him for being a "Simelover."

It was nice of Gati to assign Rob to Rital instead of Zir, who was sharing their shift, Den reflected as he followed Rital and the young Gen back to the collecting room. In a Collectorium which had such a high percentage of new donors, the Thirds tended to be assigned any Gen who could be trusted not to cause problems. It was an efficient way to use the channels, but it made it too easy for the Firsts to lose touch with the Center's strongest supporters.

As Rob chatted animatedly with Rital about the fancy new bicycle he planned to buy as soon as he could save enough money, Den dutifully opened the Gen's file and skimmed it. He was already familiar with Rob's history, as was Rital, but the habit of preparing for potential trouble was too deeply ingrained to discard lightly.

The anomaly caught his eye immediately. He checked to make sure that he'd read the page correctly, but there was no mistake. After donating fairly regularly for over a year, Rob was still a GN-3, and had not yet been cleared to donate to the Thirds. The column in which selyn flow resistance was recorded did not show the usual decrease with experience. It was clear that Rob remained skittish about donating long after it should have become routine.

So much for Arth's conclusions.

Tyvi, who had taken the young man's field down the previous month, had scribbled a note speculating that Rob might be a borderline Simephobe, barely able to donate due to some unknown trauma. However, Den knew Rob and his sister pretty well. They had absorbed a full dose of anti-Sime propaganda as children, but Rob had accepted Rital's friendship far too easily for a Gen who was psychologically incapable of associating with Simes.

Still, Rob braced himself visibly as Rital's handling tentacles gripped his arms. In a Gen with so many donations to his history, it was a good clinical sign of Simephobia.

On the other hand, perhaps Arth's conclusions are right, Den thought in sudden rebellion. I just don't believe Tyvi's diagnosis. Quickly, he put his hand on his cousin's neck and signaled the channel to stop. Puzzled but obedient, Rital paused, not completing the transfer contact.

"You know, Rob--" Den remarked casually "--you've been through this quite a few times now. You already know exactly what's going to happen, and how it'll feel. Don't you think it's time to stop being so nervous?"

Den could feel Rital's neck tense with shock under his hand. However, Rob just looked down at the tentacles wrapped around his arms for a long moment. "You're right," he admitted ruefully. "I have been making life difficult for myself, haven't I?" He chuckled and the tension seemed to flow out of him. "Go ahead," he told Rital. "I'm fine now."

Rital let his laterals emerge from their sheathes and slide into place, and when Rob didn't blink at the tingling sensation, the channel bent forward and completed the contact. He straightened a moment later with a broad smile and said, "Congratulations, Rob! You've just qualified as a GN-2."

"What does that mean?" Rob asked blankly.

"Well, among other things, it means that you'll be able to buy that bicycle a little sooner than you thought," Den said. Quickly, he explained the Gen energy levels, and how a channel could safely draw selyn from the deeper levels only if Gen was relaxed. "General class donors are paid by the dynopter, so as a GN-2, you'll be earning quite a bit more every month."

Like any cash-strapped youngster, Rob's eyes lit up at the prospect of a substantial increase in his disposable income. He was already describing his plans for a dinner date with his girlfriend Bethany as they left the collecting room. Den wondered what Reverend Sinth would think about his niece being courted with money earned by donating.

Rob paused as they entered the waiting room. "Darn," he said, as he saw that Arth had packed up his table and left. He fumbled in his shirt pocket and withdrew a much-folded questionaire. "Could you give this to Arth next time you see him?" he asked Den, holding it out. "I'm going to miss the OLD SOKS meeting tonight."

"Sure," the Donor said absently, putting the papers in his own shirt pocket. He waved farewell, then turned back to Rital, who had just finished placing Rob's file in the Accounting Services basket. To his surprise, his cousin didn't pick up the next folder. Instead, Rital waved him into the file storage room.

What's the matter? He wouldn't interrupt our shift just to compliment me on how well I handled Rob. Or would he? Has he finally accepted that I've improved as a Donor?

With sudden optimism, Den obeyed the summons. However, his hope of a true reconciliation was dashed almost immediately. As soon as the door closed behind them, offering a modicum of privacy, the channel turned on him and snarled, "How dare you take such a chance with a donor!"


"The only thing worse than dealing with a frightened donor--" the channel explained through clenched teeth, as if lecturing to an unqualified Donor trainee "--is dealing with a frightened donor who feels guilty and tries to suppress it. Were you trying to turn Rob's borderline Simephobia into the real thing?"

"Rob isn't a Simephobe, borderline or otherwise, and you know it, Rital," Den retorted. "A real Simephobe wouldn't have gotten curious enough to donate after only one brief meeting with a channel, and even if he did, he sure wouldn't have fought a mother like Carla Lifton to a standstill for the right to come back and donate again. And again, and again."

"And when did you become such an expert on Simephobia in out-Territory donors?" Rital asked sarcastically. "You were, of course, careful to zlin Rob thoroughly before you decided that he wasn't really afraid of donating?"

Den understood his cousin's concern, but he was more than tired of having his professional judgment questioned. Particularly not by a member of his family, whose own professional judgment with regards to his Donor was so far from the mark.

"Rital--" the Donor said angrily, "--sometimes I wonder how Simes were ever able to organize a Territory, the way you ignore anything you can't zlin, and never think critically about what you can. Did it never occur to you that Rob was making himself be afraid, simply because he thought that's how a Gen should feel when donating? He had to work pretty hard at it, too. Didn't you notice how he forgot to be afraid of your tentacles, even though you got careless and practically waved them in his face when you two were comparing the merits of various bicycle manufacturers?"

"What's that got to do with anything?" Rital dismissed the observation with a wave of the tentacles in question. "Transfer-shy Gens aren't necessarily afflicted with tentacle-phobia as well."

"Maybe not in-Territory--" Den argued "--but Rob's never seen an unsheathed tentacle except when he's donating."

"But surely..." The channel thought for a moment, then conceded the point. "You're right. He was unconscious when I was treating his concussion. But to risk making things so much worse, on the basis of such a thin chain of reasoning..."

"It worked, didn't it?"

"You sound like a Householder."

"Don't be insulting," Den retorted. "I just know Rob a lot better than you do, that's all. He attends the OLD SOKS meetings at the Sudworks Brewery pretty regularly."

"That the young Gen's a drinking buddy of yours is still not a good enough reason for taking that kind of chance with him," the channel snapped.

Den glared right back.

Rital made a visible effort to control his temper. "Den, this isn't the first time you've done this kind of thing," he said more calmly. "Consider how much trouble it would have caused if you'd misjudged Principal Buchan, and he'd opened his eyes at the wrong moment. The Tecton's policies on how to handle out-Territory Gens aren't just bureaucratic whims. They're derived from the experiences of thousands of channels and Donors, since the first Householdings were founded. How can I trust you if you ignore that accumulated wisdom and keep pulling such crazy stunts? Most of the time, you never even bother to tell me what you're doing, much less ask me whether I want to go along with it. You're good at dealing with out-Territory publicity, I admit. I'd never have thought your information pamphlet would get by the school board, but we've had over a dozen calls since it went out yesterday, half of them from kids with formerly hostile parents. However, you don't have the slightest idea how to handle out-Territory citizens as individuals."

Den shook his head. "The fact is, my 'crazy stunt' worked for Rob, while your standard, time-worn approach was only making things worse. Can you look me in the eye and tell me that what I did wasn't the right thing for Rob, and for every channel and Donor who has to work with him?"

Rital sighed. "I seem to recall a certain Donor asking me to remind him of his fallibility on matters of out-Territory psychology. However, your meddling worked--this time. Since it did work, I don't have to report you for making a bad situation worse. But next time you get a fancy new idea on how to handle a donor, talk it over with me first. You could be wrong."

He doesn't want my help, or trust my judgment, Den thought with the beginnings of despair. Maybe he's accusing me of wanting to leave the Tecton because he wishes I'd do just that. The easy partnership they'd once shared was gone as if it had never existed. "Yes, Hajene," he apologized dully. Technically, donors were the channel's responsibility, not the Donor's. Interfering without invitation, and in the absence of an emergency, was a breach of professional etiquette. But it worked!

"Just don't do such a thing again," Rital ordered, leading the way out of the file room. "Now we've got work to do, unless you have another bright idea?"

Prudently, Den didn't answer.


He got through the last hour of the shift without addressing more than a dozen words to his cousin. Afterwards, he ate a quick dinner alone in the cafeteria, watching Rital and Quess chat over their meal at another table. It's bad enough to lose my channel to another Donor, he reflected as his cousin laughed at something the older Donor had said, but does Rital have to be so shenned happy about it?

Unable to stand the sight any longer, he bussed his dishes and defiantly left for the Sudworks Brewery, where he could drown his sorrows in a stein or two of Yon's porstan. The latest batch had shown remarkable improvement. At least the OLD SOKS crowd appreciate my efforts to help them, he thought with more than a little self pity.

He stayed much later than he ever had before, enjoying the youthful optimism of the demonstrators. After all, he told himself, what does it matter if some emergency comes up? Quess could handle it better than I could ever hope to.

It wasn't until he heard his shirt pocket crinkle as he was getting undressed that night that Den remembered the questionaire Rob had handed him. Pulling the folded papers out, he set the packet on his nightstand, so that he would see it in the morning. He looked at it as he unbuttoned his shirt, fighting a losing battle with his conscience.

For all of his angry words to Rital earlier that day, Den had been more than a little surprised at the effectiveness of his intervention during Rob's donation. He had simply been struck by the younger Gen's obvious use of courage to contain his apprehension. His comments had been an attempt to make Rob acknowledge the suppressed fear, so that he could start working on the problem. The Donor had certainly never expected his suggestions to dispose of Rob's fears entirely, and allow the out-Territory Gen to qualify GN-2.

It was obvious to Den that he had missed something important in his evaluation of the situation, although, given the happy outcome, he had no intention of admitting that to Rital. Still, if he could really understand what had happened, it might allow him to develop new, more effective ways to handle chronically nervous out-Territory donors. That would make life easier for everyone: channels, Donors, and the out-Territory Gens besides.

Technically, the questionaire could be regarded as a confidential communication between Rob and Arth, and no business of Den's. Certainly, the information requested was personal enough that most in-Territory citizens would prefer that it be kept private.

On the other hand, the Donor had noticed that out-Territory Gens seemed to have a different concept of privacy. Although the questionnaires clearly stated that identifying information such as names and addresses was optional, the vast majority of the donors filling them out freely provided this information, and then went on to happily answer a long page of intrusive questions about their income, occupation, marital status, education, political party, and religion. Most of them also checked the box at the bottom of the first page which authorized Arth to quote their answers to the more detailed questions about donating on the second page.

After a moment's careful thought, Den reached for the questionaire. I'll just look at the first page, he decided. Most of that information is in Rob's chart, which I'm already cleared to read. The rest of it-well, I already know his political leanings, and that he hasn't been to church since Bethany Sinth found out he'd donated and decided that she liked him anyway. If Rob asked Arth to keep his answers confidential, I'll respect his wishes and stop there. But if he didn't...

With growing excitement, the Donor unfolded the crumpled papers. He nearly cheered when he saw Rob's full name and address boldly inscribed at the top, and a firm checkmark in the authorization box. Ignoring the demographic information, he flipped to the second page, and froze in shock as he skimmed the first paragraph.

Under Arth's neatly typed Question 1. Why did you donate the first time? Rob had scribbled, It was a mistake. Reverend Sinth said that the Sime Center had a secret Pen in the basement. I was trying to trick Hajene Madz into putting me there, so I could expose it. When he didn't, I had to donate so that he wouldn't tell my mother I'd been to the Sime Center.

Dazed, Den went on to Question 2. If you have donated more than once, why have you continued to donate? Rob had answered, I had a big fight with my mother, when she found out I'd been donating. If I stop, she'll think she can plan my life for me. Besides, most of my friends these days are in OLD SOKS. I can stand doing something unpleasant once a month, and the money sure comes in handy.

The answer to Question 3. What advice would you give a friend who was donating for the first time? was even worse: Don't let yourself think about what the channel's doing. Listen to the music, recite the multiplication tables--whatever it takes.

But it was Question 4. If you donate regularly, how have your perceptions of donation changed over time? that dispelled the Donor's remaining illusions. They haven't changed that much, Rob had written. It's still pretty scary, if I let myself think about it. I mean, there's this Sime and he's going to take selyn from me, and if he makes a mistake, I'm history. Nobody likes to be that helpless.

Shaking with reaction, Den sat down on his bed. How could I have so completely misjudged Rob? he wondered. Rital and Tyvi had been right all along. Rob had stayed a GN-3 for over a year because he was fundamentally disturbed at the idea of letting a Sime take selyn from him. In fact, it now appeared that he'd never really been willing to donate. His answers to Arth's questions certainly offered no hint of compassion for the renSimes who depended on his selyn to survive.

Den knew of several Gens in Valzor who'd struggled to complete their monthly donations for years--but those Gens had Sime friends and family to support. Also, in Sime Territory, a Gen who could donate, however poorly, and refused to do so, was regarded with contempt by Sime and Gen alike. The social ostracism in-Territory nondonors encountered, and the legal penalties meted out to nondonors whose high fields caused accidents, convinced most incurable Simephobes to immigrate out-Territory within a few years of establishment.

For genuinely transfer-shy donors, the worst possible mistake was to scold them for being afraid. It did nothing to reduce their fear, but as Rital had pointed out, only added to it the guilt and embarrassment of being certified irrational. Instead, careful work and a large dose of uncritical understanding could sometimes overcome the phobia, at least well enough that such donors stopped posing a problem to the channels trying to lower their fields.

As Den thought about what the consequences of his ill-timed experiment into out-Territory Gen psychology might have been, he began to shake. I owe Rital another apology, he realized. And this time, with chocolate!

On the other hand, Den thought, regaining his composure with an effort, and very glad of the excellent insulation surrounding his quarters, my little experiment did work, Tecton wisdom notwithstanding. I wonder why?

His eyes rested on the questionaire for a moment, rereading the answer to the first question, and he shuddered. One thing's for sure. I'm not curious enough about it to let this get published. If it became public knowledge that Rob had been coerced into his first donation, however unwittingly, Reverend Sinth would have a field day. Even worse, Rital would blame himself for "attacking" an unwilling Gen, with devastating consequences for his self confidence. And my idiot cousin doesn't deserve that, even if he can be an insufferable prig on occasion.

Den picked up the incriminating papers and carefully shredded them into confetti.


The next morning, the Donor walked into town early. He was waiting impatiently at the door when Clear Springs' best confectioner opened for business. After careful consideration of the delectable offerings, he purchased a half dozen assorted truffles, carefully avoiding the strawberry creams. The daily demonstration was in full swing when he returned to the Sime Center, with conflicting chants of "Simelovers don't know God's grace, they betray the human race!" and "Save Our Kids, you're a disgrace, should be ashamed to show your face!" assaulting the ears of anyone within a quarter mile.

Den was in no mood to fight his way through the mob, so he used the unofficial entrance, scaling the back fence with the ease of long practice. On the other side he found Alyce, the Center's head groundskeeper, busily directing a pair of her crew as they raked leaves out of the vegetable garden. Two more were covering the bared ground with pine needles hauled from the front of the building.

The Donor watched for a moment, then his curiosity got the better of him. "Why don't you just leave the stuff that's already on the ground, if you want mulch on the garden?" he asked. "Wouldn't that be easier?"

Alyce shook her head, and pointed at two of the larger trees bordering the garden. "Those are walnuts," she explained. "Their leaves have a chemical that stunts the growth of a lot of vegetables."

"But they're putting the leaves on the same pile as the rest of this year's," Den protested. "Won't you be using that pile as mulch next year?"

Alyce laughed and shook her head. "After a winter of proper composting, the chemical will have decomposed. Your tomatoes and corn are safe enough."

"That's a relief," the Donor said, wiping an imaginary nervous sweat from his brow. The blue ribbon around the gay, pink-striped box which contained his purchases rustled at the movement. Recalled to business, he took his leave and continued towards the Sime Center.

After a brief consultation with Seena, whose reputation for being able to locate anyone on the staff, on or off duty, was well deserved, Den found his cousin hunched over his desk, preparing his monthly progress report for the District offices. Unlike Den, Quess obviously didn't view this chore as an excuse to hang out in Rital's office, drink trin tea, and make "helpful" suggestions.

The channel looked up as Den sidled through the half-open door, peace offering in hand. As he zlinned his cousin's true contrition, an incredulous smile lit Rital's face, and he suddenly looked five years younger.

"You were right," Den admitted, setting the decorative box on the desk. "I shouldn't have interfered with how you were handling Rob without discussing it with you first."

The channel opened the box and raised an appreciative eye at the contents. "What changed your mind?" he asked curiously.

"Something I saw last night convinced me that I totally misjudged the situation," the Donor explained, careful not to mention any specifics. "I still don't know why it didn't end in disaster."

"Dumb luck?" Rital suggested with a crooked smile. He reached absently for the Good to the last dynopter mug he had given Den for Faith Day the year before, and filled it from the steaming pot of trin tea on the edge of his desk. He shoved the mug in Den's direction, topped off his own mug, then fumbled in a drawer for some napkins.

"You know--" the channel observed as he carefully selected two truffles and placed them on the napkins "--you aren't the only one who's been suffering from lapses in judgment lately. I left you to do most of the work on getting our changeover classes approved, when in the final analysis, it's my responsibility as Controller to handle relations with the out-Territory authorities." He held up a tentacle to silence Den's immediate objection. "I know you didn't mind, and you were probably better at it than I would have been. However, I've not only been asking you to do my job, I've been adding insult to injury by complaining about how you do it."

Rital ceremoniously handed one truffle to Den, who equally ceremoniously accepted it and took a large bite. It's the cherry cordial filling, not the vanilla cream. He really means it, the Donor concluded with delight.

Rital took a small nibble from his own confection. After rolling his eyes in pleasure at the taste, he continued his apology. "I don't have your luck, either. The classes were approved despite my mistakes, but during our transfer--Den, I knew how close to your limits I was pushing you, and it never occurred to me that I should be careful!"

"You had other things on your mind at the time," Den said quickly. He winked suggestively. "So did I, for that matter. Besides, cousin, the one thing you aren't is careless with other people's lives. The very fact that it didn't occur to you that you should hold back should tell you something."

Den almost held his breath, but instead of rejecting the suggestion out of hand, Rital actually considered it objectively for the first time.

"Perhaps you're right about your capacity growing," he admitted. "If it really isn't just that you're getting careless and losing your reflexes because you're spending too much time with out-Territory Gens..."

"I'm not, I'm not!" the Donor reassured him hastily.

"...then I'm willing to help you learn to handle it."

"I'll hold you to that," Den warned, with a most unprofessional grin of sheer delight.

Rital enjoyed the Gen's happiness for a moment, then sobered. "I think perhaps we've been working together too closely, for too long," the channel said after a moment's reflection. "We're not in anything the Tecton would recognize as a dependency, but we have gotten so comfortable with each other that we work together by habit, without consciously thinking about what we're doing. I hadn't realized how far from Tecton standard we've gotten until I started working with Quess."

"I know what you mean," Den agreed. "I feel the same way working with Tyvi. I keep expecting her to deviate from the rule book when you would, and she doesn't."

"Our ability to follow each other's improvisations--it's part of what makes us a good team, but it can get very dangerous if we don't get our signals straight." Rital grimaced in remembered pain. "For instance, I shouldn't have waited for you to signal that I was drawing too fast, when it was my responsibility to make sure you were safe. I'd never have been so careless with a strange Donor. And since you'd been dealing with the curriculum committee, I should have let you call how to handle them at that meeting."

"Well, as I recall, I didn't exactly have perfect judgment that evening, either," Den said wryly, putting a hand to his cheek. The stain where the walnut had hit was long gone; he hoped that the lesson it had taught him would linger. "As far as waiting for signals goes--it doesn't work any better when I jump in when you're not expecting it. When I think what could have happened with Rob..." He shuddered, glad that the incriminating questionaire was by now well on its way to its final resting place in the Clear Springs Municipal Landfill.

"It's like dancing," he said thoughtfully, after a moment's consideration. "If both partners are trying to lead, or neither, for that matter, you end up tripping over each others' feet. But things go very smoothly if one partner leads and the other follows, and it doesn't matter which one's in charge."

"Is that how it works?" Rital asked wistfully.

"Well, for most people," Den said, smothering a snicker. His cousin was that rare commodity on the dance floor, a Sime with two left feet. Not even Liren could follow the channel's eccentric version of the waltz, and his two-step might more accurately be termed a one-to-five step. "I'll tell you what," the Donor suggested when he regained his composure. "I won't interfere with your handling of patients or donors without consulting you first, as long as you don't take stupid and unnecessary chances. All right?"

Rital nodded. "Fine. And I'll let you make the calls when it comes to out-Territory politics, unless I zlin something really important that you don't know about. And I promise, if I'm stumped by a tricky problem and you get any inspirations, I'll be happy to let you take the lead. Just warn me before you start jumping into one of your crazy schemes, all right?"

Den laughed, feeling better than he had in weeks, and popped the rest of his cherry truffle into his mouth. "You've got a deal!"

"Good. But Den?"

Rital shifted uncomfortably, and the Donor raised an encouraging eyebrow.

"Why didn't you just call me from Valzor, if you wanted to know whether the school board had approved our classes?"

Den rolled his eyes in remembered frustration. "It wasn't for lack of trying," he answered. "Let me tell you about my quest for a modern communications device..."

He had to stop halfway through the story to pound the choking channel on the back.

He stayed when the tale was done, sipping his tea and offering a few creative suggestions for Rital's report. The channel ignored them as usual. ("No, Den, I don't think that the Tecton would agree to pick up OLD SOKS' beer tab as a security expense, even if that would double the number of counterdemonstrators overnight.")

By the time the Donor finally took his leave and returned to his own office to prepare his next weekly column for the Clarion, he was almost dancing down the hall in delight. I've finally got my cousin back! The Tecton's policy of rotating Donors almost assured that he would get his channel back in a few weeks as well, and with it, the promise of using his new capacity. I can wait. Now that I know it's not forever, I can wait.

That evening at dinner, Den and Rital shared a table for the first time since Quess had arrived. They were both in such a mellow mood that they easily ignored the whispers and indulgent smiles coming from the dining room's other occupants. Den didn't even mind when Quess, arriving uncharacteristically late for the meal, carried his tray over to their table and asked, "May I join you?"

"Certainly," Rital agreed, waving the diplomat to a seat on his other side. Den obediently scooted his own chair a little farther away from his cousin, letting the older Gen assume responsibility for the channel. After all, Quess was Rital's assigned Donor--for this month, anyway. Besides, Den thought as he watched the diplomat dig into his stew with single-minded enthusiasm, I've nearly finished my own meal. He controlled a smile as Rital absently picked up his fork and took another bite of his half-finished casserole. And there's nothing like a starving Gen to get a channel to eat properly!

When Quess had taken the edge off of his hunger, he paused to take a sip of his tea. "I'm glad that the two of you have finally decided to settle your differences," he remarked. "I've been a bit concerned about the situation, I'll admit. Your private lives are your own business, of course, but only as long as they remain private. If you'd kept on fighting, eventually your lack of communication would have halted the progress you've made in this town, or even endangered your clients."

"Umm, yes," Den agreed hastily, cursing the man's too-acute perception as he tried to distract the other Donor's attention away from his squirming cousin. "Isn't the bread delicious? Ref has been experimenting with some out-Territory recipes lately, and I think the results are outstanding."

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