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The first changeover class to meet in the Southside Upper School was scheduled to begin one week later. Reverend Sinth had been very busy in the interval, distributing two new pamphlets. Moral Standards in Education maintained that the entire education community was morally bankrupt, and thus unfit to teach innocent children, because the Teachers' Association had endorsed changeover training. As an example of moral depravity, Sinth cited Principal Buchan's "mismanagement" of an incident the previous spring, when he had allowed Den to try to find a peaceful solution after a young Sime had taken his Gen half-sister hostage. It made no difference to the preacher that the hostage had been his own niece Bethany, nor that Den had succeeded in saving her life, if not her brother's.
Since by Conservative Congregation doctrines, Rital's tentacles automatically disqualified the channel from any claim to humanity, let alone decency, the pamphlet didn't waste time citing additional evidence. However, fully a third of the pamphlet was devoted to proving Den morally unfit to stand before a classroom. His status as a Donor, his lack of out-Territory educational credits, and his simple willingness to speak about changeover in public were decried. When the pamphlet started to gossip about a private investigator hired by Sinth seeing Den dance at a "notorious shiltpron parlor"--and with "a married woman of questionable morals," no less--Den set the pamphlet aside in the folder in which he kept ideas for his weekly newspaper column.
I'll have to consult Tohm and Silva about how out-Territory law approaches slander, he thought. It's not worth a lawsuit, but pointing out that Sinth has passed the legal limits will turn attention away from the contents of that pamphlet, and the implied threat just might persuade Sinth to be more careful in the future.
The other pamphlet was more problematic. Titled How the Tecton plans to STEAL your Child, the cover was adorned with a photo of an adorable urchin. The incident described inside was enough to scare any parent away from entrusting a child to the Tecton, even after the more lurid adjectives were deleted. However, there wasn't quite enough detail in the pamphlet for him to construct a rebuttal, and a brief examination of the back issues of the Clear Springs Clarion and the Valzor Weekly News Review in the Center's library turned up no clues.
In desperation, Den sought out Quess. The senior Donor was in his office, staring sadly at something in his hand. When Den cleared his throat, Quess looked up, then placed the object on his desk. "Come in," he invited, nodding towards a chair.
The younger Donor accepted the offered seat, glancing curiously at the trinket on the desktop. At first glance, there was nothing to absorb the interest of a diplomat. It was a model of a sailing ship, crudely made as if by a very young child. The hull was half a walnut shell, filled with wax to provide stability. A toothpick had been embedded in the wax for a mast, and a tattered scrap of faded cloth had been glued on for a sail.
"My daughter made that for me, many years ago," Quess explained, answering the question Den had been too polite to ask. "Is there some way I can assist you?"
Thus recalled to business, the younger Donor passed over the pamphlet. "This is Sinth's latest," he explained. "It claims that the Sime Center in Sanger kidnapped the mayor's son. I vaguely recall some gossip about it when I was in Valzor, but I can't remember any details, and the pamphlet doesn't mention the name of the channel involved. It's going to be tough to manage a rebuttal, if I can't find out what really happened. I was hoping you'd heard something."
Quess skimmed the pamphlet, raising a well-bred eyebrow at its crude tone. "I know about the incident," he admitted, setting the pamphlet down with distaste. "A friend of mine, Alex ambrov Slader, was rotated through the Sanger Sime Center just after it happened, and he called yesterday and told me all about it. It seems that Hajene Timothy ambrov Tien, the local Controller, is a young hothead. He grew up in Sanger, and tends to forget the rules and try to run around town as freely as he did when he was a child. He was impulsive enough to crash a party at the virulently anti-Sime Mayor Cappa's house last summer, while in hard need, no less."
The older Donor shook his head in disapproval at such foolishness. However, after a year and a half out-Territory, Den thought he could understand some of the exasperation which must have motivated Hajene Timothy to try to force his former neighbors to see him as a person, not just an ambulatory collection of tentacles.
"Anyway--" Quess continued "--during the party, one of the younger guests went into changeover. Mayor Cappa grabbed his gun and tried to shoot the kid, but his son Mark stepped between them, and got a bullet through the shoulder for his trouble. The local medical people couldn't respond in time, so our intrepid colleague offered to treat Mark, and the boy's mother agreed. Unfortunately, the kid had just begun to establish, and with Hajene Timothy in need, that was enough to..."
"Induce a Donor's instinctive response to Simes in him," Den finished, shaking his head. "Shen, what a mess. How long did it take the youngster to decide that he wanted to run away and join the Tecton?"
"About three months," Quess replied dryly. "Of course, he spent most of the first month in bed, recovering from his injury."
"Maybe I'd better just forget about answering this particular pamphlet," Den said, after giving the matter some thought. "If I say enough about the other one, people might not notice. If there's anything that's likely to scare out-Territory parents silly, it's finding out that they don't have absolute control over their offspring. There was enough bad publicity two years ago, when the good citizens of Clear Springs found out that Gen 'children' are allowed to donate without their parents' knowledge. If they learn that there are some circumstances under which the Tecton will take their kids away, and legally, too... Can you imagine how they would react?"
Quess shuddered. "After watching the mob outside, I'd rather not."
"Maybe the immigration laws should be changed," Den suggested after a moment. "It might make life a bit easier for those of us in out-Territory Sime Centers."
"Would it really?" the older Donor asked. "You're a First, Den, and a pretty talented one. Mark Cappa has the potential to be just as good. Could you really have looked him in the eye and told him that he had to wait a year or two before he could begin training? Could you have let that kind of talent be crippled because of the delay?"
Den thought back to his own establishment, and the obsessive need it had brought to be with channels, to soothe their distress, to share the joy of transfer. "No--" he answered softly "--I don't think I could."
Quite a few parents must have found Sinth's new pamphlets unconvincing, because Den and Rital discovered a full classroom when they arrived at the Southside Upper School to teach their first changeover class. Principal Buchan told them that the parents of ten additional children had placed their names on the waiting list. Den and Rital had worked hard to prepare the day's lesson, and the Donor was satisfied that his cousin would exercise due discretion about the more controversial aspects of the material, or at least pay attention to his Donor's "shut up quick" signal if he strayed into forbidden territory. So, determined to get off to a good start, Den had invited Hank Fredricks to send a reporter to the first class. He was very pleased when the Clarion's owner showed up in person, openly admitting his curiosity.
The first order of business was to get the students seated and take roll. This took a bit longer than it should have, because the students were distracted by the sight of Rital's tentacles. However, their initial apprehension began to fade when the channel handed establishment certificates to the four Gens in the group. Den made a note to have Principal Buchan notify the first four children on the waiting list, and began to distribute the textbook.
Since Reverend Sinth and his followers had been circulating a rumor that Den and Rital never intended to cover establishment at all, they had decided to start with this less controversial topic. Taking turns, they spent half an hour describing the Gen selyn storage levels, how selyn production began, and some of the normal physical and psychological changes which could accompany it. Mindful of the newsman's presence, they left out some of the more exotic complications, such as underdraw and induction. It wouldn't do to risk scaring some parents off by letting them know that there were circumstances in which a Gen's own body would force him or her not only to donate, but to become a technical-class Donor.
They completed the material they had planned for the first lecture with ten minutes to spare. That wasn't really enough time to start the next lesson, so Den asked the class if they had any questions about the general topic of being Gen.
He was greeted with dead silence for almost a minute, then one girl tentatively raised her hand. When Den nodded at her encouragingly, she asked, "How do Gens who live in-Territory keep Simes from killing them?"
"That's a very good question, Kora," Den congratulated her. "We'll be covering some general safety rules more thoroughly later this week. Right now, I'll just say that in-Territory Gens aren't in danger most of the time, because they donate regularly. For several weeks after donating, a Gen doesn't have the field strength to accidentally trigger a Sime attack, and even a berserker will avoid a lowfield Gen if there's any alternative."
Another hand shot up. Without waiting to be called on, a tall boy named Hoy asked, "What is it like to donate?"
Rital gave a condensed version of his pre-donation spiel, carefully omitting his usual warning about how a lateral contact felt to a Gen. Den let his nager reflect his approval, and then blinked as he was confronted with three new hands. The questions came quickly after that:
"How much of a Gen's selyn does a channel take during a donation?"
"How long does it take?"
"How much money does a person make for each donation?" (This question was posed by the proud holder of one of the brand new establishment certificates.)
"If fear makes a Sime attack, how can channels keep from hurting donors?"
"What's the difference between a donor and a Donor?"
"What does transfer feel like?"
"Why did you decide to become a Donor?"
There was actually a groan or two of disappointment when the bell rang. Den promised the children that they would set aside the last ten minutes or so of each session to answer questions, and dismissed the class.
The room emptied quickly as the students ran for their next classes. Hank Fredricks stood more slowly, stretching his cramped muscles. "That was a very interesting and informative hour," he remarked to Den, casting a nervous glance in Rital's direction. When the out-Territory Gen saw that the channel was well occupied with packing up the pamphlets and handouts on the "propaganda table" in the back of the classroom, he relaxed and closed his notebook, putting his pencil in his shirt pocket. "It's good to know that there is someplace kids can get honest answers to questions like that."
"That's one of the reasons the Sime Center exists," Den pointed out.
"I know. It's too bad the parents aren't taking the class, along with their children." A thoughtful frown crossed the newsman's face. "Would it be possible for me to audit the entire course? I don't think I can do justice to the material in one article. Perhaps a series..."
It took all the self-discipline that had been pounded into Den during Donor's training to keep him from jumping up and down and cheering. As it was, the sudden glee in his nager earned him a curious glance from Rital.
"Come as often as you'd like," the Donor invited. "We have nothing to hide."
Den could hardly wait to see the next morning's Clarion. When it didn't arrive before breakfast, he found a cafeteria seat with a good view of the street in front of the Center, and started picking at his food. When the delivery girl turned the corner, bicycle wobbling under the unevenly distributed weight of three large sacks of newspapers, the Donor left his eggs and fried potatoes to cool and ran for the main entrance.
The bicycle slowly made its way down the sidewalk, wheels squeaking loudly. The delivery girl reached into one of the bags, pulled out a rolled-up paper secured with string, and was about to hurl it at the door when she noticed Den. The hand holding the paper clumsily grabbed the handlebar as she stepped on the brakes, fighting to halt almost her own mass in metal and paper before she crashed into the Donor.
"Good morning," Den greeted her politely as he dodged. When she simply stared at him he reached over and deftly relieved her of the paper she still held. "Have a nice day," he called over his shoulder as he ducked back into the Center with his prize.
NEW CLASSES PROVIDE ANSWERS FOR FUTURE GENSthe headline read. Underneath, the text began, From how selyn production begins to how a Gen can keep Simes from attacking, Clear Springs students found answers to their questions yesterday at the first session of the newly approved Adolescent Maturity classes. The article went on to summarize some of the information Den and Rital had presented, with reasonable accuracy. As a token gesture towards reporting both sides of the issue, Fredricks had inserted several quotes from Sinth's pamphlets and press releases. Unfortunately for the preacher, the newsman had selected the portions in which Sinth had insisted that establishment would never be covered at all. Den was chortling over his cold eggs by the time he reached the last paragraph: And how can a Gen keep Simes from attacking? According to Sosu Milnan, Simes won't try to take selyn from a Gen who doesn't have much. The best protection, it seems, is to donate regularly every month.
Den could have wished for a less dramatic ending to the article, but he understood that a certain amount of controversy was required to sell papers. Fredricks had refrained from making an issue of Rital's openly displayed tentacles, or the information the students had been given on what donating was like. Overall, the Donor was fairly pleased with the newsman's coverage.
Over the next week, the community's reaction to Fredricks' continuing coverage of the class was mixed. Three children were summarily withdrawn by their parents, including the curious Kora. They, and the four students who had established, were promptly replaced from the waiting list, which according to Principal Buchan had now reached nearly thirty names.
The Clarion's editorial pages ran two or three letters on the subject each day. At first, most opposed the classes. However, as the accusations advanced by Save Our Kids and their supporters changed from attacks on the changeover classes to attacks on the school itself, public opinion began to shift. The real turning point came when the Clarion printed a letter from "a loyal Save Our Kids member, name withheld on request" which described Buchan's Southside Upper School as filled with public nudity, disrespect for authority, drug abuse, and every other parental nightmare. Their existence, of course, was attributed to the presence of the changeover classes.
A student group immediately circulated a petition demanding that Save Our Kids and its members, individually and collectively, apologize for this affront to the honor of the Cougars. In two days, over five hundred students, teachers, and parents signed the document. Hank Fredricks willingly published the full text a few days later, complete with two pages of signatories in small print. Den recognized the names of several children of Save Our Kids members among them.
Faced with such strong evidence that they no longer enjoyed community respect, much less community support, Sinth and his followers grew desperate. As the second week of the classes began, fliers appeared around town. WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE FOR GENRUNNING, Den "Simelover" Milnan, the headline shrieked. A photograph of Den's face was directly underneath. An artist had cleverly altered the visible portion of his Tecton uniform to resemble prison garb, and added a set of "mug shot" identifying numbers in the margin. Below the picture, the text continued: This man is personally responsible for the gruesome delivery of several hundred Gens from the Clear Springs area into the tentacles of Simes! Raised to believe Simes are human, Milnan chose the "profession" of recruiting Gens to supply the snakes with selyn. Since his arrival in Clear Springs, he has delivered hundreds of victims to his Sime masters, disrupting families and causing his victims untold physical and spiritual harm. If you see this man, call the police and report his whereabouts!
Rital was a bit upset about the belligerent tone of the fliers, and warned his cousin to be careful whenever he left the protection of the Sime Center. Den brushed off the unsolicited advice as typical Sime overprotectiveness. Obis's departure the day before had left him with a channel again, and it felt so good to be working regularly at last that the Donor was finding it difficult to take Save Our Kids seriously. Still, he prudently neglected to mention to Rital the interesting mail he had been receiving. His cousin would only get more paranoid if he knew about the two death threats Den had been sent, or the bill for a bogus insurance policy covering "Simelover Milnan" from "death and dismemberment"--the specifics of the latter being described in rather gruesome and explicit detail.
The Clarion denounced the "wanted" posters in a scathing editorial. A few new faces joined Save Our Kids in their daily demonstrations in front of the Sime Center, along with nearly a dozen new counterdemonstrators. In spite of the increased uproar on the sidewalk, the number of donations rose to almost Faith Day levels.
One of the new donors was Thaddus Webber. When Tyvi released him after taking his field down, the white-haired theologian sank back on the lounge with a heartfelt sigh of relief. When he had regained his composure, he turned to Den and said, "I was especially hoping to see you during this visit, Sosu Milnan. The members of my congregation and I have been following the recent controversy surrounding the Clear Springs Sime Center with interest. There has been so much confusion, and downright distortion of the issues, that it is hard to know what to believe. I was wondering if I could persuade you or one of your colleagues to come and speak to us about the goals of your Center, and some of the programs and services you offer?"
"I don't see why not," Den agreed cautiously. Over the past two years, he had been faced with so much blind opposition from out-Territory religious institutions that it was difficult to trust the leader of one. However, Webber had been very supportive of the changeover classes. If his congregation was similarly openminded, they could be valuable allies.
Webber grinned. "Marvelous. How about next Sunday? We have a regular lecture series in the morning..."
The two arranged the details, and the clergyman departed to collect his payment from the accounting window. Over the next few days, the Donor worked on the presentation whenever he could find a free moment. Unfortunately, he was unable to find any information on the specific doctrines of Webber's Rational Deist denomination in the Center's two books on out-Territory religions, and there wasn't time to pay a visit to Miz Dilson at the public library. The best Den could do was to assume that their beliefs weren't too different from those of the larger sects, and design his talk accordingly. The result was a lecture full of bland generalities, guaranteed to avoid offending anyone's sensibilities, if only because it had no recognizable content at all.
Of course, that assumes Webber's congregation doesn't boycott my lecture entirely, when they find out who's speaking, he thought, as he added the finishing touches to his notes.
However, when Den arrived at the Rational Deist Meeting Hall, he was pleasantly surprised. There seemed to be a great many people about. They must be here for the regular Sunday service, he thought, as he followed the flow of traffic towards the main entrance. This was an imposing set of double doors with an inscription carved into the lintel above: "The World is my Territory, and to do Good is my Religion"---T. Paine.
It was a surprisingly secular quotation for a church to put on its door. Shrugging it off, the Donor entered the building. He was half an hour early, since he'd had a much easier time finding the place than he had feared. He wandered down the hall, seeking Webber or someone else who could tell him where to go. Wondering what sort of sermon had drawn the crowds, he stopped to read the announcement board posted in the front lobby, and discovered to his horror that his lecture was supposed to be a "special guest sermon," in conjunction with the regular Sunday service.
"There you are," Webber's cheerful voice rang out as he hastened down the hall towards Den. The theologian was dressed somewhat more formally than usual, but not in the flowing robes which Reverend Sinth favored at official functions. "We are all looking forward to learning more about your Sime Center."
Den pointed an accusing finger at the announcement board. "You didn't say anything about my giving a guest sermon," he protested.
Webber shrugged. "We had a great many people who wanted to attend, both from our own membership and from our sister congregations in neighboring communities. It seemed practical to have you speak at our formal service, rather than trying to find another time when everyone could come."
"But I don't even believe in your god," the Donor protested.
"You'll fit right in, then," Webber reassured him. "Our denomination is about evenly divided between those who believe in a god, those who don't, and those who feel that it's a waste of time to speculate either way, given the absence of solid evidence."
Den blinked in puzzlement. "If you can't agree on something as fundamental as whether or not a god exists, how can you call yourselves a religion?"
"Actually, most of our atheist members don't define Rational Deism as a true religion, and quite a few other denominations agree with them." Webber shrugged off the criticism. "However, that's just semantics. Whether or not there is a god, the world and its various peoples certainly do exist, and if we are to avoid destroying ourselves as the Ancients did, we must learn to live together. That's enough of a challenge for anyone."
The theologian invited the Donor to follow him deeper into the building with a wave. "There are far too many denominations which don't teach respect for people who have different beliefs; such outsiders are seen principally as objects of pity or proselytization. A few sects, like Reverend Sinth's Conservative Congregation, even specifically deny, as an official church doctrine, that members of other faiths have a right to exist, much less practice their faith or participate in the greater community. As proponents of reason, we feel our task is to distill the various perspectives into a solid ethical code, independent of any religious creed, so that people of all faiths can accept it."
"So you're trying to convince everyone to reject their own religion's ethics for yours, in the name of religious diversity?" Den asked. "Isn't that a little inconsistent?"
"Human beings have never been known for their consistency--" Webber pointed out good-naturedly "--and we've never claimed to be more than human!"
More confused than ever, Den trailed after the theologian, trying to figure out whether the Rational Deists were a religious congregation or a philosophical debating society. Or was there a difference?
His bewilderment didn't lessen as they headed down a short flight of stairs to the basement. "Since you're a bit early, let me give you the grand tour," Webber suggested. "Our Sunday school is still in session. We have a truly outstanding volunteer staff, and I'm afraid I'm rather proud of their efforts."
Den agreed with alacrity. It was becoming obvious that the Deists' philosophy was quite different from the sects mentioned in his texts. Seeing what they taught their children might help him get a better idea of what this group believed, so that he could avoid accidentally offending them during his talk.
The basement was carpeted in a cheery yellow, with rainbows painted on the walls. Crayon drawings were taped below them, apparently the result of a field trip to a nearby wildlife refuge. Or at least, most of the pictures showed birds and flowers. The remaining ones featured a young, bearded man sitting up to his neck in a muddy pond. From this, Den deduced that the expedition had had some unanticipated excitement.
In the first classroom, a group of four- and five-year-olds were listening to a story. The young heroine was investigating her friend's claim that a ghost had been haunting his house, and had just discovered that the clanking and banging noises had been caused by a family of opossums trapped in the garage.
"We start by teaching the kids not to believe everything they're told," Webber explained. "They learn why critical thinking is necessary, and how to look for alternative explanations for why things happen. We also teach them that extraordinary claims, such as those involving supernatural entities, magic, or miracles, require a higher standard of proof than claims which are consistent with known natural laws."
The white-haired theologian nodded approval to the teacher and led the Donor to the next room, where the seven- to nine-year-olds were earnestly discussing a recently proposed flood control project on the upper half of the Tinusa River. The debate centered around the proper balance to strike between cost, habitat destruction, frequency of flooding and expected failure rates, the effect on current sport and commercial use of the land, and alternatives. It was obvious that the young debaters had done their homework.
"Once the children have learned to ask questions, we start teaching them how to find out the answers, using more complicated problems as examples. In many controversies, the same facts can lead to opposite conclusions, depending on one's point of view and personal values. We discuss some of the ways to make decisions when there isn't enough data to find a right answer, or when both options are right or both wrong, but a choice has to be made anyway. We also teach our students to respect other people's right to make different choices."
The ten- to twelve-year-olds were bent over glossy fliers, featuring prominent, smiling photos of well-known faces. "This is our rhetoric class," the teacher told Den, when Webber waved her over and introduced him. "Last week, I covered various ways that selective shading of the truth can be used to deceive. Today, we're trying to find examples in my collection of campaign pamphlets." One of her students waved a hand, bouncing up and down in the wooden seat with excitement. "Did you find one, Jasmine?"
"Yes!" The girl held up a lavishly illustrated pamphlet. "In his latest constituent newsletter, Senator Norris takes credit for the improvement in Clear Springs' economy due to the sliderail station and the cheaper selyn power. But in this fundraising letter from two years ago--" she waved a three page, mass-produced letter "--he says that he personally visited the head of the Department of Transportation, to try to talk her into putting the Sime Center somewhere else."
"Very good, Jasmine," the teacher said, and the little girl beamed at the praise.
When Den and his guide reached the teenagers, they discovered a lecture on a particularly interesting topic.
"All right, who remembers the First Cause Argument?" the elderly pedagogue asked. His beard was white and very bushy, as if to make up for the lack of hair on the rest of his head.
An awkward young man, just beginning his adolescent growth spurt, volunteered an answer. "Isn't that the one which says that everything must have a cause, except for the First, Uncaused Cause, which is defined as god?"
"Very good, Paul. Last week, I asked you to look for logical fallacies in this argument. Who would like to tell us what they found?"
The boy sitting next to Paul spoke up. He looked familiar, and after a moment, Den recognized him as Jerree Bolin, the young Gen who had said he wanted to take changeover classes at the curriculum committee's open hearing. "The argument doesn't offer any support for its initial premise, that everything must have a cause," he offered. "If that's wrong, the whole argument is nonsense."
"True," the balding teacher agreed. "There's another, even more basic error, though. Can you help us out, Sandie?"
A blond, precociously developed girl stopped trying to flirt with Paul and blinked at the teacher for a moment, then answered. "It's self-contradictory, of course. If everything must have a cause, than god requires one, too, and you have to assume an infinite series of gods, each the Cause of the one before. If god doesn't require a Cause, then the initial premise is false, and the whole argument fails, like Jerree just said. Also, the principle of parsimony requires us to prefer an uncaused universe to a universe caused by an uncaused god, because the first assumes one less thing than the second."
"Very good, Sandie," the teacher said. "You'll have an endowed chair in my philosophy department before you know it. Now, Sandie just cited the principle of parsimony, also known as Occam's Razor. Can anyone tell me why we have to be cautious in using it? Paul?"
The young man started guiltily, jolted out of his contemplation of Sandie's budding curves. "Uh..." His friends giggled, and Paul pulled himself together enough to reply, "Isn't that the probability thing?"
"Exactly," the elderly teacher agreed. "Parsimony says that the simplest explanation is only most likely to be true. Chaos theory ensures that there will be plenty of times when the true explanation is not the simplest one. Occam's Razor lets you make a tentative decision when you don't have any evidence, but it's no substitute for hard data."
Webber beckoned Den back out into the hall. "We're very lucky to have Professor Perrinstein to teach our philosophy section," the theologian said as they started back to the stairs. "By the time students leave his class, they know exactly what they believe, and why. That ensures they can get through their confirmation ceremony with confidence."
"Confirmation ceremony?" the Donor asked curiously. After what he had just seen, he was pretty sure that the ceremony in question would bear no resemblance to the professions of faith required of the sects described in his texts.
"The candidates for confirmation prepare a ten minute talk on a subject of interest to them," the theologian explained. "It can be a philosophical argument, a discussion of an ethical dilemma, or a position statement on some topic of current interest. At the Sunday service on or immediately following their sixteenth birthday, the candidates present their talks to the congregation, and defend them against questions and counterarguments. That's why our students spend so much time poking holes in each other's conclusions; it's good practice. At the end of the ceremony, the youngsters register to vote, to symbolize their willingness to work actively to improve their community, the Territory, and the world."
"Oh." It sounds more like the thesis defense Arth was describing than a religious ceremony. Still, Den rather liked the idea. It was certainly consistent with the Rational Deists' way of educating their children to think independently.
Once they were back on the ground floor, Webber led the way to the west wing of the building, and ushered the Donor into a crowded meeting room. Several hundred Gens and a scattering of children of all ages had gathered there. All but the eldest of them ignored the neat rows of chairs in favor of milling around, talking enthusiastically. Den caught scraps of conversation of a variety of topics: the prognosis for an arthritic knee, the probable impact of a new clothing factory on Clear Springs' economy, a recipe for pasta topped with tomatoes, artichoke hearts, chopped walnuts, and fresh basil which sounded quite tasty, a comparison of two historians' accounts of the Battle of Shen, and the qualifications of the various candidates competing for positions on the school board in the forthcoming election.
To his surprise, Den spotted familiar faces in the crowd: four students from his changeover classes, Professor Ildun, and more than a few of the Sime Center's regular donors. These included the feisty Mr. Duncan, Annie and Rob Lifton's grandfather, who waved a cordial greeting from across the room.
Webber showed the Donor to a seat in the front row, then hurried off to consult with several members of the congregation. A few minutes later, the Sunday School classes filed in, and the children scattered to find their families. Webber gave them a few minutes to tell their parents what they had learned in class, then took his place at the front of the room. He placed a sheaf of notes on the podium, a simple but sturdy oak box finished with a dark walnut stain. Reaching into his pocket, the theologian withdrew a small bell and rang it vigorously. The hum of conversation quieted a bit. "People, if you would please take your seats, we can get started," he announced.
With some good-natured grumbling, the audience slowly wandered towards the chairs and settled down. Sandie and Paul sought out a pair of seats at the very back, where no one could see them holding hands.
When everyone was seated, Webber continued. "We have a few quick announcements before we get to today's speaker. Next week, the program committee has invited a legislative assistant from District Superintendent of Schools Zeeta Bartin's office to address us on her educational reform proposals. The following week, our own Jess Pratus will tell us of his experiences last summer as a member of the Disaster Relief Project, helping to clean up after the hurricane that destroyed the area around Shrimp Cove."
In quick succession, Webber proceeded to call on various members of the congregation to report on the progress of an eclectic variety of charitable and educational projects, including a poetry reading, a charity dinner, a carpooling service to lectures and concerts on campus, an adult literacy class, a literary discussion group for its graduates, a treatment program for drug and alcohol addiction, and a forthcoming "retreat" to the mountains, to be jointly guided by an ornithologist and a botanist. None of these activities seemed to have anything to do with religion, as far as Den could determine.
When the project leaders had finished their reports, Webber shuffled through his papers. "As some of you may know--" he said "--I am currently doing the research for a book I plan to write on Ancient moral and ethical codes. As a result, I have been reading quite a lot of Ancient philosophy lately. Like most of Ancient culture, much of it seems bizarre to modern eyes, but there are always a few interesting tidbits. For today's reading, I would like to share some short quotes from a man whose ideas struck me as particularly apt." He found the proper sheet, held it at arm's length for a moment, then gave up and put on his reading glasses.
"These quotes are from the published lectures of an Ancient named Robert Ingersoll, who traveled all over this continent speaking on a variety of topics. However, his best work criticized some of the religions of his day, or more accurately, how they were practiced." He looked down at the paper. "Here we are. This is from a lecture on blasphemy. 'If god is infinite, you cannot injure him. You cannot commit a crime against any being that you cannot injure.' Later he elaborates, 'It is far more important that we should love our wives than that we should love god, and I will tell you why: you cannot help him, you can help her.' Ingersoll goes on to recommend that his listeners concentrate their efforts on caring for their children and building a strong, supportive community, rather than on decorating and expanding their churches."
Heads nodded in approval.
Den had seen and heard enough to know that he was in trouble. He couldn't possibly use the material he had prepared. The Rational Deists' main ethic seemed to be that one should learn as much as one could about as many things as possible, by questioning everything. The superficial treatment he had planned, to avoid offending against some unknown dogma, might itself be offensive to a congregation whose Sunday School classes focused on critical thinking and logic, and whose religious services featured educational lectures.
With a sigh for the wasted effort, Den abandoned all his carefully crafted euphemisms. Unfortunately, there wasn't any time to find a replacement for them. Webber had put his glasses back into his pocket and was now smiling at the Donor.
"Well then--" the theologian announced "--without further ado, I'd like to introduce today's speaker. Sosu Den Milnan has been working as a Donor at the Clear Springs Sime Center for over a year now. In addition to his duties as a Donor, he was instrumental in getting the new changeover classes approved, and now he helps to teach them. The subject of his presentation today is 'The Sime Center as a Community Resource.'"
Den took his time approaching the podium, hoping that inspiration would strike. He was very glad that Rital wasn't around to zlin his nervousness; the channel might have decided that his original diagnosis had been correct, and that the Donor really was spending so much time with out-Territory Gens that his control was slipping. The thought of his cousin gave Den an idea.
If my euphemisms won't work for this group, perhaps Rital's tell-them-everything approach might be more appropriate.
It wasn't much, as ideas went, but he hadn't thought of anything better by the time he had placed his useless notes on the podium and arranged them carefully. And with several hundred pairs of eyes focused on me, I doubt I will.
Cautiously at first, he began to improvise. Since the Rational Deists seemed so enamored of philosophy, he briefly summarized some of the basic principles guiding the Tecton, and how they were translated into practice. Buoyed by the respectful interest of his listeners, he went on to discuss the various services the Center offered: rescuing changeover victims, maintaining the selyn batteries which supplied the city's power, issuing establishment certificates, teaching changeover classes, and providing emergency medical care as requested. He even touched on Arth's research project.
With ten minutes to go, he was down to the Sime Center function most likely to upset even openminded out-Territory Gens: selyn collection from donors. He didn't dare ignore it, and there were too many donors in the congregation for him to get away with soft-pedaling it. However, even his frank description of the process didn't seem to cause quite the degree of upset he had expected from the nondonors in the audience.
When he had finished his presentation, the congregation spent almost an hour grilling him for even more details. To Den's surprise, no one took him to task for being a Simelover, or for promoting the presence of "dangerous" Simes in Clear Springs. However, Flora Mills, the grey-haired woman from Berrysville who had publicly rebuked the parents of Clear Springs for being ungrateful for the Sime Center's offer to teach changeover classes in their schools, proved her lack of prejudice by giving Den an equally harsh scold. Loudly, she denounced the Tecton's policy of placing Sime Centers only in large communities, which could be expected to contain enough donors to make the effort profitable.
A bit startled by her vehemence, the Donor explained that a certain minimum amount of work was required for the channels to stay healthy. That didn't seem to convince her that the smaller villages weren't the victims of egregious discrimination. Similarly, a man demanded to know why the channels weren't offering their services as physicians to the community, if they were such good healers. He wasn't satisfied when Den cited the lack of willing patients.
After Webber had concluded the general portion of the meeting and dismissed the congregation to the coffee and snacks at the back of the room, a man calling himself Doctor Lennard, who apparently ran some sort of clinic in Berrysville, managed to corner the Donor near the refreshments table. The young physician absentmindedly consumed three large cups of double-strength coffee as he interrogated Den on exactly how the in-Territory medical profession handled various problems. The Donor hadn't suffered such an inquisition since he'd passed his oral proficiency exams, just before he'd graduated.
Still, it was a much better reception than he'd received during his campaign to get changeover classes into the schools. The Rational Deists might be a bit confused in their approach to theology, but they seemed to be judging the Sime Center by the real-world consequences of its actions. It was refreshing not to be asked to prove that the Sime Center wouldn't harm the spiritual welfare of those who used its services.
Besides, the Donor thought as he made his way home afterwards, Rital will be glad to know that there's one group of out-Territory Gens who would appreciate his inability to keep his big mouth shut.
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