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"What??" Den yelped.
Behind Arth's back, the young channel grinned in triumph and made an obscene gesture with three tentacles.
"Why do you want to donate to Sumulo?" the Donor asked in utter astonishment.
The student shrugged diffidently. "It's a little harder to be scared of someone who reminds me so much of my kid brother."
"Hajene Sumulo isn't scheduled for a Collectorium shift tomorrow..." Den began.
"But I'm sure I can find the time to take your donation anyway," Sumulo interrupted smoothly. Arth turned to him with a hopeful expression, and the channel gave a remarkably good imitation of a sincere smile. "I'm always glad to help a friend."
"You do know that Hajene Sumulo is a Second Order channel, not a First like Controller Madz, Hajene Nerina, or Hajene Tyvi," Den warned obliquely. It was the most he could say without revealing the brat's history of mistreating out-Territory donors, and he didn't dare let that story make the rounds of the Clear Springs rumor mill.
Arth shrugged. "I don't mind if he doesn't."
"It's no trouble at all," Sumulo reassured him. "The Tecton's policy is to honor such requests whenever possible, unless there's a good reason not to do so." The young channel glanced smugly at Den, daring the Donor to reveal the "good reason."
Den refused to take the bait. "That's true, but the final decision rests with Controller Madz."
Sumulo stiffened at the reminder, and his reassuring smile almost slipped.
"If you would come with me, Hajene Sumulo--" the Donor continued "--we can consult him now."
It wasn't a request, and the young channel followed Den obediently enough--if one overlooked his confident swagger.
"Don't get your hopes up," Den advised as he led the way through the building. "Rital's not likely to overturn his own injunction and let you mishandle another out-Territory Gen, even if you did con Arth into requesting you."
"Your Houseless lorsh of a cousin doesn't have a choice," Sumulo answered. "The two of you were a little careless when you drew up that injunction. It gives me the absolute right to take donations from any staff member who requests me. You didn't specify that they had to be in-Territory citizens."
"That's understood," Den protested.
"Tell it to the regional oversight committee," the channel mocked. "They're inclined to take an injunction at face value, without reading extra details into it. In the meantime, that long-winded bore in the library is legally mine, and I want him."
"He's right, Den," Rital said reluctantly, skimming the official text of the injunction. "This says staff, and technically, that includes Arth. However--" he flipped open Arth's file, which Den had retrieved from the records room on the way "--so far, Arth's only been handled by Firsts. I'm not sure he's ready to donate to a channel with less control."
"Don't bother trying to intimidate me with that nonsense," Sumulo scoffed. "Your precious Arth Tinkum has about as much sensitivity as your desk there. His nager wouldn't respond to a deathshock right next to him, so he'll never notice the difference donating to a Second rather than a First. Besides, he didn't struggle at all the last time he donated, and you know it, Controller Madz."
At Rital's surprised look, the young channel explained, "I took the precaution of looking at his file last week, after I discovered that he was officially 'volunteer staff.'" His expression hardened. "You can't legally bar me from taking this donation, and if you try to do it illegally, I'll have Fijord's entire complement of attorneys on you so fast it'll make your head spin. The Tecton takes a dim view of Controllers who abuse their authority in pursuit of private vendettas."
Rital's shoulders slumped, and Den didn't require Sumulo's triumphant snicker to tell that his cousin had conceded the issue. However, Den had never really learned to submit gracefully to blackmail--Professor Ildun notwithstanding--and OLD SOKS had taught him the value of communicating with an opponent in a language he understood.
"The Tecton takes an even dimmer view of channels who abuse donors," he pointed out grimly. "If you insist on your legal right to take Arth's donation, we can and will hold you legally accountable for how you do it."
Rital flinched away from his Donor's barely controlled rage, which must have been about as comfortable as an ice water bath in midwinter, even though the channel was less than a week past his own transfer. Which didn't really satisfy either of us--again. Although he did let his draw speed climb a little higher this time, which is progress of a sort, I suppose. Den was sorry for his cousin's discomfort, but at least he appeared to have gained Sumulo's undivided attention.
"You will treat Arth with respect and courtesy," he continued relentlessly. "Before you lay so much as a tentacle tip on him, you will chat until he feels comfortable with you. And I don't want to see a suggestion of a bruise on his arms when you're done!"
"But what if he just gets scared and starts struggling?" Sumulo whined. "You've seen his record. Do you expect me to let myself get shenned?"
"It's your job to make sure that he doesn't 'just get scared,'" the Donor pointed out bluntly. "If you can't do that, let someone else take the donation. Because I promise you, if you insist on doing this, I will be watching you very closely. If I'm not completely satisfied with your behavior, you'll be relieved of all duties and confined to your quarters until District Controller Monruss can act on our recommendation that you be involuntarily retired."
The young channel blanched at the threat. Despite ongoing medical research, retirement for a channel often amounted to a death sentence--and not a very pleasant one, either. "That's blackmail!" he objected.
"You would know," Den pointed out.
"Is just another Second Order channel, as far as the Tecton is concerned," the Donor interrupted. "Monruss isn't a Householder, and he's too honest to bribe. He won't let you accept House discipline this time, not after your precious uncle claimed that you were trustworthy once before. No, you'll be tried--and convicted--in the full glare of public scrutiny." Den gave a feral grin and asked, "Are you sure you really want to take Arth's donation?"
Sumulo wavered for a moment, then snarled, "Yes! I won't let you deprive me of my rights. And if you think you're going to use this as an excuse for a little judicial murder, think again!"
Without waiting to be dismissed, the young channel stormed out of the office, slamming the door behind him. Rital flinched at the noise, then gradually relaxed as Den let go of his anger and began to offer support.
"I'm sorry," Den apologized. "You shouldn't have had to zlin that, but I didn't think anything less than the full treatment would get the brat's attention."
"Den, I said I'd leave Sumulo for you to handle, and I will," the channel said, rubbing his eyes wearily with all eight handling tentacles. "I'll even back you on this involuntary retirement bit, if I have to. Who knows, we might win despite everything the young hooligan's uncle can do. But either way, if it comes to an official action, we'll be on trial every bit as much as Sumulo."
"I don't think it will come to that," Den said thoughtfully. He stepped behind his cousin's chair and began absentmindedly massaging the last of the tension out of his channel's shoulders as he continued. "Sumulo's a spoiled, arrogant brat, and I just dared him to prove me wrong and do a good job with Arth. He's got the technical ability if he decides to use it, and Arth trusts him even if we don't. I'll bet you two mugs of Yon's best porstan that nothing happens."
"Done," Rital said, shaking off the Donor's hands as he reached for the next folder in his "in" basket. As Den left the channel to his paperwork, he thought he heard his cousin mutter, "If I lose, it'll be cheap at the price."
That evening, the negotiators returned from Berrysville before the dinner hour for the first time. Ref had to scramble to produce their meals several hours earlier than he had anticipated. The diplomatic team ate in a group, as usual, so that they could discuss the current day's work and plan the next one's. However, Den noticed an unusual number of shrugs and shaking heads during the conference.
Afterwards, a very frustrated Quess brought his tea over to the table Den and his cousin shared. After offering his usual polite greeting, the diplomat inquired, "I was wondering if it would be possible to enlist your aid and the Sime Center's facilities to demonstrate a point to the Berrysville City Council?"
Rital raised a cautious eyebrow. "I don't see why not. Do you want Den to give them a tour, so they'll know we're not hiding a secret Pen?"
Den carefully controlled his reaction. Any mention of that particular urban legend made him very nervous since he'd learned that Rob Lifton's first, involuntary donation had taken place during an unsuccessful attempt to prove it true. If Rital ever learns that...
The channel looked at his Donor strangely, but was distracted as Quess explained, "Not exactly. I want to convince them that they really don't want to be forced to associate with channels too closely."
"What?" Den asked, unsure if he had heard correctly. "Isn't our whole purpose here to win the acceptance of the out-Territory community?"
"Well, yes," the older Donor admitted. "But there are limits which must be observed, if only for safety's sake." He took a sip of his tea, then reached into the bowl of unshelled nuts on the table and pulled out an almond and the nutcracker. He positioned the nut between the metal jaws as he explained, "The talks have stalled over the location for the part-time Sime Center. They want to put us in a wing of the Berrysville Community Clinic, and since that's the only medical facility in town, they won't even agree to close it for regular business while we're around!"
"Didn't you explain that the nageric noise would drive the channel crazy, particularly if a serious injury came in?" Rital asked.
"Of course I did." Quess squeezed on the nutcracker, knuckles white with frustration, and the almond's shell gave with a loud snap. "They said the clinic doesn't handle serious injuries--those are taken directly to the university hospital here in Clear Springs. However, they've offered to install all of the shielding we want, at their own expense."
"What does the doctor have to say about all this?" Rital asked.
"The idiot who suggested it claimed that he was the doctor!" the diplomat said indignantly. He popped the almond kernel into his mouth and bit down savagely.
"Was he young, enthusiastic, and addicted to strong coffee?" Den asked.
"Doctor Lennard!" Den and Rital chorused.
"He's been donating each month at our mobile Sime Centers--" Den explained "--and he always manages to spend at least half an hour grilling me or Rital on in-Territory approaches to healing. He's been referring some of his patients to us, too, for diagnostic things, mainly. I think he's got some grand idea about developing a hybrid medical science, pulling techniques from both sides of the border."
"Shen, I didn't think it was that serious!" Quess said with obvious alarm. "If you're right, the man's as daft as the Sectuib in Zeor!"
"Well, I wouldn't count on getting him to see the potential problems of mixing Simes and out-Territory Gens, if I were you," Rital warned.
"Can you imagine how those out-Territory Gens are going to react, when they come in for emergency medical treatment and their doctor's office is full of channels?" Den asked rhetorically.
"Fortunately, Doctor Lennard's not on the City Council, so he doesn't have a vote." Quess picked a walnut out of the nut bowl, cracked it, and began to separate out the broken chunks of kernel. "However, Mayor Jon Mills and Councilor Jules Tansky are almost as bad. They've also been donating at your mobile Sime Centers, and they don't see any reason why we can't share space with a medical clinic as easily as we share it with a church. In fact, Tansky claims that putting the Sime Center at the Community Clinic will actually cut down on potential trouble!"
"Well, in a way, he's right," Den said. "At least if you limit your definition of 'trouble' to political backlash. It's a pretty clever solution, actually." When his observation was met with blank stares, the Donor elaborated. "Most of the trouble this Sime Center's had has been caused by Save Our Kids' attacks on people trying to use our services. The out-Territory community--and their courts, too--accept this as normal behavior for anti-Sime activists, because anyone trying to get into a Sime Center is by definition actively engaged in pro-Sime activity, and thus fair game. But Quess, do you remember how angry people got last fall, when the demonstrators were screaming at all students going into the Southside Upper School, not just the ones taking our changeover class?"
The diplomat nodded slowly. "Now that you mention it, I do."
"No one enjoys being the target of a violent protest, especially if they're not guilty of doing whatever it is the demonstration was trying to stop. It would be a public relations nightmare for Reverend Sinth if he tried to shut down the only doctor's office in Berrysville--not to mention the legal difficulties."
"I think I'm beginning to understand," Rital said. "Putting the Sime Center in with the clinic would get us the same protection from demonstrations that we enjoy in-Territory, wouldn't it?"
"Exactly," Den agreed. "Sinth's people can't possibly distinguish our donors from Doctor Lennard's patients--particularly since all of our Berrysville donors are his patients--and the right of access to medical care is just as firmly upheld by out-Territory law as on our side of the border."
The channel looked thoughtful. "It might almost be worth putting up with the nageric static from a working out-Territory medical clinic, if it meant we didn't have to constantly deal with donors who are furious, or terrified, by the way they've been attacked on their way in the door."
"I can see that putting the part-time Sime Center in the Community Clinic might prevent problems outside the facility--" Quess conceded, reaching for another walnut "--but I don't think the City Council understands the potential for disaster inside, if they insist on this madness. Right now, any Gens who aren't comfortable around Simes can avoid the mobile Sime Center. They won't have that luxury if we're put in the Community Clinic. And if someone dies or is permanently injured because they refused to enter a building with Simes in it to seek medical help...well, that wouldn't do our public image any good, to borrow a phrase from our local expert on public relations." He indicated Den with a nod.
"True enough," Rital admitted. "You said you wanted our help with something?"
"Yes." The diplomat shifted uneasily in his chair. "All five of the council members like Doctor Lennard's proposal, but only two of them, Jules Tansky and Mayor Mills himself, have ever donated. I doubt Mont Viller, Silique Dramlin, and Eda Seebourgin have ever seen a tentacle, particularly up close. They're fairly practical individuals, and I'm hoping that experience might change their minds and convince them to find us a more--isolated location."
"Just what do you want to do?" the channel asked dubiously.
Quess started to stack the broken nutshells on top of each other, creating a carefully balanced pile. "In situations like this, when negotiations stall over some stubborn detail, it's customary to indulge in various informal entertainments. The informal negotiations which take place at these events are often quite productive, since officially they don't exist."
"You want to throw a party?" Den asked. "Here at the Sime Center?"
The older Donor nodded. "Bethany reaches sixteen natal years next week. She'll be a legal adult then, even by out-Territory standards. It wouldn't appear strange if I threw a party for my granddaughter to celebrate the occasion, nor if I invited the Berrysville City Councilors as a courtesy."
"A courtesy which they won't really be free to refuse," Rital observed. "When they arrive, I assume you'll want to surround them with Simes?"
"Yes. The experience just might give them a new perspective on the whole issue."
"If it doesn't change their minds about having a Sime Center in their town at all," Den muttered.
"With your diplomatic team added to our permanent staff, we do have enough channels and Donors to keep things from getting out of hand," Rital calculated. "If you think a party would help, you have my permission to use the Center facilities. Actually, I expect Ref would welcome the challenge of trying to please a crowd from both sides of the border!"
Arth reported promptly, if nervously, to the Collectorium the following morning, and was visibly relieved when he was personally greeted by a smiling Sumulo. Goaded by the blatant skepticism which Den was carefully projecting, the channel put on an inspired "little brother" act. Arth's apprehension faded a bit as they talked, and he was less reluctant than usual when Sumulo suggested--politely--that he lie down on the padded transfer lounge.
Despite Sumulo's nonthreatening attitude, the student shrank back when the channel's handling tentacles emerged from their sheathes to wrap around his forearms. Oh, shen, Den swore silently. He quickly conjured a mental image of Judge Banklin imposing such stiff disturbing-the-peace fines on Save Our Kids for their Clearston riot that Reverend Sinth couldn't embezzle enough funds from the group's account to buy his next melic fix. The resulting combination of alarm and malicious glee in his nager stopped the young channel in his tracks.
Instead of augmenting to immobilize Arth, Sumulo moved with him, maintaining only enough of a grip to prevent the Gen from freeing himself. It didn't take much effort, since the student's flinching was more reflex than a serious attempt to escape. A few murmured reassurances were enough to calm him, and he gave no more trouble as Sumulo went for the full transfer contact--much more gently than he had with Mr. Duncan.
Den hid his relief under a convincingly simulated disappointment. Along with the physical relief of taking his first donation in weeks, that kept the young channel on his best behavior until Arth was safely on his way to the accounting window to pick up his donation payment.
"I told you he wouldn't give me any trouble," Sumulo gloated as the Donor escorted him out of the Collectorium. "You and your precious cousin can't bar me for incompetence now. Why, that long-winded fool of a would-be scholar actually thinks I like him! As if I'd make a friend of an out-Territory lorsh."
Den shrugged, dropping the control which had prevented the Second from zlinning his true emotions. "It really doesn't matter whether you like out-Territory donors or not--" he pointed out "--as long as you fake it well enough to convince them to like you. I'm glad you decided to behave yourself. If you'd spooked Arth, it would have caused a lot of trouble for Rital and me."
Some of Sumulo's glee faded as he began to realize how easily he had been manipulated.
"You handled Arth well enough," the Donor admitted. "That proves you have the ability to get along with out-Territory Gens--and that you didn't bother to use it when you took Mr. Duncan's field down. The injunction stands for as long as you remain in Clear Springs." Den opened the library door and waved the young channel inside with a flourish.
Sumulo gave a mutinous snarl as he saw the latest stack of donation records awaiting his attention, then flounced over to his chair and settled in to wait for Arth.
"Have fun translating," Den said. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a bet to collect."
Den's daydream that Sinth had been held personally responsible for the damage his followers had done in Clearston didn't quite come true. Unfortunately, the preacher had witnesses that he had been eating a late lunch in Oak Ridge, ten miles away, when the riot had started. The local law had not arrived in time to catch the vandals in the act. Clearston was too poor to have more than one police officer, and she had been investigating the casualties of a drive-by shooting at the time. (A pickup truck had driven by a curve in the road too quickly and shot off the road into a pasture instead. Several of the young men inside had had their toes trampled by overly playful yearling steers before they could escape.)
Reverend Sinth refused to reveal the names of those who had participated in the Caravan of Decency, claiming that the information came under professional privilege. "When those good people committed themselves to take action against Sime tyranny, they made a vow to God. As a man of the cloth, I'm not required to reveal the confessions or professions of my congregation."
When Judge Lindsay brought up the injuries suffered by the unfortunates who happened to be in the Clearston City Hall when the mob struck, the preacher just shrugged. "It's unfortunate that a few people were driven to actions which were perhaps a bit ill-advised, but I can certainly understand the outrage at Sime atrocities which forced them to take concrete action against what they sincerely, if mistakenly, believed was a cesspool of anti-Sime sentiment."
Because the real culprits couldn't be identified, the judge settled on fining Save Our Kids for inciting a mob to riot. Since Shaeldor had cleaned out his personal bank accounts, and had an outstanding judgment for any funds which might be deposited into them in the future, Reverend Sinth had stopped paying himself an actual salary from the Save Our Kids account. Instead, since he had total control over the group's funds, he simply had the Save Our Kids account pay his bills directly, thus keeping the money sheltered from the attempts of Shaeldor's lawyers to attach the funds.
Judge Lindsay's fine must not have emptied the Save Our Kids account completely, since the bank didn't foreclose on Sinth's mortgage and repossess his Clearston farm. However, Den noticed that the preacher seemed much more irritable than usual, as he led the chants on the Sime Center's front sidewalk. The Donor couldn't be sure, but he suspected that Sinth was skirting the edges of melic withdrawal. Certainly, the tone of the preacher's latest fundraising letter had an unusually shrill tone, as it urged the reader to send a special, emergency donation to "allow our Cause to remain Strong in spite of the Devil's efforts to Thwart us with this Unjust Fine." While waiting for his followers to send contributions, the preacher started trying to win back his niece.
"He knows she gets control of her money in another week," Quess remarked sourly after Den told him that Sinth had had quite a long conversation with Bethany that morning. "And she can't be held legally accountable for the behavior of her uncle or his followers."
Rital was so relieved that Den had managed to trick Sumulo into behaving properly during Arth's donation that he threw in an order of onion rings to go with the beer, when Den collected his winnings at the next OLD SOKS meeting. The channels seldom left the Sime Center except for official business, so it caused quite a stir when the pub's patrons saw his retainers. However, they quieted down promptly when Yon Keysvetter, who was tending bar, nodded a curt greeting and calmly went back to polishing glasses.
Den wasn't surprised that the brewmaster was so accommodating. Through selective boycotting, Reverend Sinth had bullied quite a few local merchants into refusing to do business with the Sime Center. However, the conservative religious denominations from which the preacher drew most of his support also tended to preach total abstinence from alcoholic beverages. Conversely, OLD SOKS accounted for a significant portion of the pub's weekly profit margin, and at Den's suggestion, Ref was purchasing several kegs of the brewmaster's porstan for the Sime Center each month. It was very much in Keysvetter's self-interest to accept an occasional Sime customer.
The assembled OLD SOKS activists greeted Rital enthusiastically, blithely ignoring the shocked expressions they were receiving from some of the other tables. They're enjoying themselves, Den thought with carefully concealed amusement. They like showing everyone else that they're not afraid of the Sime. Even, or maybe especially, the few who've never gotten around to actually donating themselves.
The meeting was as lively and unstructured as any group of college students with anarchistic leanings could wish. There were many digressions to items which wouldn't have been on the agenda, if anyone had been imperialistic enough to write such a document. Tohm did manage to impose order long enough to request that the most obscene of the chants and songs with which the group taunted Save Our Kids not be used on Wednesdays and Fridays. "Those are the days the Rational Deists come by to help," he explained. "A lot of them are old, with kids even, and they get a bit upset at our fun."
"Let 'em stay home, if they haven't got a sense of humor," someone grumbled.
"We can't afford to offend the Rational Deists," Tohm pointed out crisply. "Not when they can put twenty people on the sidewalk to help us out twice a week, with more any time we expect trouble." He fixed the heckler with a glare. "You know how thinly we were stretched, trying to protect only two targets from Sinth's 'Caravan of Depravity.' If Sosu Milnan hadn't detoured them to Clearston--" Den was very glad that the law student picked a phrasing which made that destination seem deliberate "--they would've been tearing up the Sime Center, or throwing file cabinets out of the Clear Springs City Hall--or desks out of the classrooms, for that matter, if Sinth had decided to go for the school. I'm willing to take just about any help I can get, to stop the Holy Hypocrite. The Deists are decent people, even if their theology is a little strange. There's nothing to be gained by offending them. It won't hurt us to use our less...objectionable...songs and chants some of the time."
Tohm's statement surprised Den. The Donor knew that the aspiring law student had personally scoured the formidable journals in the vast Clear Springs University Law School Library to discover the songs most often cited in obscenity cases. Then he had braved the Music Department's notoriously ill-managed Special Collection at the main campus library. After plowing through hundreds of misfiled librettos, songbooks, and musical scores, he had managed to locate a learned thesis with the grandiose title, Bawdy Ballads, Lewd Lays, and Dirty Ditties: An Historical Commentary on Erotic Songs Throughout the Ages.
Despite their inability to master library cataloging, the Music Department's faculty held their students to a relatively high standard of scholarship. The thesis had an appendix longer than the text, in which the score and lyrics of every song mentioned in the body of the work were reproduced. With the enthusiastic cooperation of two OLD SOKS members who were majoring in music, Tohm had devoted several weekly meetings to teaching the worst of them to the rest of the group.
The results had been gratifying. At least two women had stopped active participation in Save Our Kids' demonstrations after being subjected to a full-volume rendition of the anatomically questionable "We All Had Fun at the Orgy." Den could understand why. Despite the learned historical commentary and the best efforts of the music students, only about half of the OLD SOKS choir had been able to master the syncopated melody, and their diction was so sloppy that it was difficult to understand the words. Although, after reading the lyrics on the song sheets Tohm had passed around, Den wasn't entirely sure that proper enunciation would be an improvement.
Still, Tohm was proud of his ballads, and he'd never before expressed concern that they might offend anybody. Quite the opposite. Den was puzzled by the abrupt change in policy, until he caught sight of Arth across the table, next to Rob and Annie Lifton. The budding sociologist was frantically scribbling notes, and the Donor was reminded of his lecture on public opinion, and why Sinth's people were growing more radical.
It works both ways, he realized with sudden conviction. OLD SOKS used to be the radical liberal fringe, and so many people accused them of being crazy troublemakers that they misbehaved just to prove their critics right. Now public opinion is moving their way, and suddenly they're practically mainstream. And Tohm was shifting OLD SOKS' tactics to take advantage of their new almost-respectability.
While the Donor pondered, the conversation had moved on to a discussion of the proposed part-time Sime Center in Berrysville. After Rital pleaded ignorance on the grounds that he wasn't involved in the delicate negotiations, Rob Lifton was urged to disclose any hints Bethany might have let slip as to her grandfather's progress. He couldn't tell them very much; Quess hadn't become a senior diplomat without learning not to disclose sensitive information to anyone, even a long-lost relative. However, the group listened avidly to the few details he could provide which hadn't made it into the Clear Springs Clarion or the Berrysville Weekly News.
As the congenial evening continued, the consumption of his winnings had the predictable effect on Den, and the Donor shifted uncomfortably on his sturdy wooden chair. Rital stood it for nearly five minutes, then broke off his conversation with Tohm's girlfriend Silva and turned to his cousin. "Go ahead," he advised softly, nodding towards the men's room. "Silva's high field; I'll be safe enough."
Den hesitated, not liking the idea of leaving his channel unattended out-Territory. However, Rital was pre-turnover, and most of the OLD SOKS crowd were longstanding donors. Their regular exposure to unconfined tentacles made them unlikely to panic at the gleam of a retainer. He scanned the room carefully, trying to spot potential troublemakers. No one was talking loudly or looking in Rital's direction. In fact, the other patrons were carefully ignoring the lone Sime.
Strictly speaking, Tecton regulations required that Den make his cousin accompany him to the bathroom. But if Rital can trust my judgment on a potentially explosive problem like Sumulo, I can trust him to be smart enough to zlin a crowd for signs of trouble before sending me away.
As unobtrusively as he could, the Donor slipped out of his chair and wended his way past the bar to the men's room. A quick stop at the urinal took care of his most urgent problem, but the greasy onion rings (not to mention the equally greasy fried potato sticks, and the dozen gooey batter-fried cheese sticks) were also making their presence known. With a sigh, the Donor headed for a stall and settled on the pot.
He was working his way through the graffiti on the stall's door, some of which was actually quite amusing, when the bathroom door opened and two sets of footsteps entered.
"I'm sorry, Rob," Arth's uncertain voice echoed off the tile. "I should have watched where I was putting my elbow. Take off your shirt, and I'll see if I can rinse that out."
"It's only beer," Rob Lifton reassured him. "It shouldn't stain the fabric. It's not like it was the tomato paste, or something."
"I know, but your mother might not understand if you came home smelling like you'd been swimming in your stein."
Cloth rustled. "Oh, mom's mellowed a lot since Reverend Sinth tricked her into attacking Annie. I think she'd listen to my side of things before she got too angry. Here, you get the shirt, and I'll wash me."
Water splashed into the sink.
"Tohm is awfully concerned with keeping the Rational Deists happy, isn't he?" Arth asked.
"Well, there have been rumors that Save Our Kids is planning something pretty spectacular, if Berrysville gets its part-time Sime Center." Rob chuckled. "Much as I'd like to see that happen, I hope the negotiations don't end when it's my day to donate. I'd rather not be caught in the middle of whatever Sinth's planned."
The soap dispenser squeaked, and there was the muffled scratching of fabric being scrubbed. "I envy you," Arth admitted. "I wish I could be that casual about donating, but every time I think about letting a Sime take selyn from me, my knees turn to jelly."
"I know what you mean," Rob agreed. "I'm glad that the selyn the channels take is put to good use; it'd be awful to go through something like that for no purpose at all. And I really like most of the Simes I've met, in spite of their...diet. However, I'd rather not think about my friend Alyce, the head groundskeeper, having me for lunch, even indirectly!"
"So how come donating itself doesn't bother you?"
Den froze on his seat, eavesdropping shamelessly.
"Well, it's all in how you think about it," Rob explained, after a moment's consideration. "It used to bother me a lot, but something Sosu Milnan told me when I donated a couple of months ago gave me an idea. He said, 'You know exactly what's going to happen, and how it's going to feel.' Or something like that; I can't remember his exact words."
"I don't understand," Arth said. Wet cloth slapped against the porcelain basin as he rinsed soap out of Rob's shirt.
I don't understand, either. Den had always assumed that Rob had continued to donate for so long, in spite of his fear, because he wanted to support his renSime friends. That was certainly the reason most in-Territory Gens donated. However, now it appeared that the very idea filled the young Gen with disgust.
"It's simple enough," Rob explained. "When you donate, you can't actually feel the channel taking your selyn. Right?"
"I guess so," Arth agreed.
"In fact, you really only have the channel's word that anything is happening at all."
"Well, I doubt they'd be handing me that much money every month for nothing!"
"They've been guilty of worse giveaways," Rob pointed out. "Providing the school system with free teachers, textbooks, and supplementary materials for the changeover classes, for instance. Not to mention the inflated prices they let local merchants charge them for everyday goods and services. No, the Tecton has money to burn. Not even the New Washington military is such a soft touch."
The steady tinkle of the water faucet stopped, to be replaced with periodic squirts as the excess water was squeezed out of Rob's shirt.
"Anyway--" Rob continued "--since I know I won't feel anything, I just tell myself that the channel might well be faking it. It's much less scary that way."
"Well, I don't know," Arth said dubiously. "It sounds pretty strange to me."
That's an understatement, Den agreed silently. Rob's solution to his transfer-phobia would be the worst possible for an in-Territory Gen, because it allowed him to avoid the problem, instead of facing and overcoming it. The fear could return any time he thought about what was done with his selyn, with potentially fatal consequences for himself and any renSime in zlinning distance. On the other hand, as long as he stays out-Territory, it'll probably work well enough. Channels could handle an occasional flare of fear if Rob's deliberate effort at self-deception failed him, and the only unEscorted renSimes Rob was likely to encounter were berserk changeover victims. Those were desperate enough to attack any Gen, frightened or not, so Rob's lingering phobia probably wouldn't make much difference.
There was a sharp snap of wet fabric as Arth shook the worst of the wrinkles out of Rob's shirt. "Here, I think most of the beer came out."
"Thanks," Rob said. Fabric rustled again, somewhat damply this time. "Yeow, that's cold," he complained as he put on the shirt. A moment later he spoke again. "If pretending the channel is faking it doesn't work for you, why not look at it like this?" he suggested. "Channels are just as strong as any other Simes, aren't they?"
"So if the channel decides to kill you when you're donating, there's not a thing you can do to stop it, right?"
"Too true." Arth's voice quivered a little at the thought.
"Well then, if there's absolutely nothing you can do to change what's going to happen, why waste time and energy getting upset about it? You either trust the channel or you don't donate."
"If I want to keep my stipend, I have to work at the Sime Center," Arth objected. "That means I have to donate, or I can't eat."
"Nonsense," Rob scoffed. "If you really believed that you were in danger from the channels, you could switch to a new research project. Lots of graduate students do that; you wouldn't even lose much time. By continuing with your current research project, you've made a decision that donating is less of a hassle than finding a new major professor."
"You're right," Arth admitted after a little thought. "And it wasn't as frightening last time, when I donated to Hajene Sumulo."
"Hajene Sumulo? My grandfather didn't like him at all."
Shedoni! Den stifled a groan of despair. The thought of these two out-Territory Gens comparing notes on this particular topic had been a recurring nightmare for the past week. However, instead of telling Arth how Mr. Duncan had been mistreated, Rob just laughed.
"Grandfather said Hajene Sumulo was an impudent brat, who ought to be taught some manners." An affectionate note crept into the young Gen's voice. "But then, he says that about almost everyone he meets who's under the age of forty. You should have heard him go on about the clerk who tried to serve him at the hardware store last week. You'd think that recommending a different style of screen door was a felony! But Grandfather's over seventy, and he figures he's earned the right to be a crotchety old man if he wants."
"True enough," Arth allowed. Shoes scuffled towards the door. "Thanks for the advice, and for being such a good sport about your shirt. Now why don't you let me buy you a replacement for your beer?"
As the door banged closed behind the two Gens, Den sagged in utter relief. I'll never let anyone use Tecton law to blackmail me into going against my professional judgment again, he vowed. He didn't want to have to explain to Arth how Tecton politics had been allowed to come before the student's safety. He doesn't really trust the Tecton, that's clear, the Donor thought. Neither does Rob. And they both have good reasons for their mistrust, even if they don't know it. The two could have done a lot of damage to the Sime Center's rather precarious position in Clear Springs, if Rob had taken his grandfather's complaint seriously.
I'll never object to cantankerous old grumblers again.
Proceed to Chapter 15