Not into Temptation
"Sail ho!" came the lookout's cry from far above the deck of the FAIRWIND.
"Where away?" Captain Travers called.
"Two points off the starboard bow!"
As the captain picked up her telescope and searched in the indicated direction, Frevven Aylmeer stopped pacing back and forth across the deck and scanned the surrounding expanse of ocean. The approaching vessel was beyond zlinning range, even for him.
"What is it?" he inquired.
"Hard to say, Hajene Aylmeer. Looks smaller than we are."
The captain frowned as she adjusted the focus of the telescope with several tentacles. "Strange. It seems to be moving almost to windward. Unusual cut to the sails."
Frevven didn't bother to look for the other ship with his naked eyes. Even with his glasses, his extreme nearsightedness wouldn't allow him to see anything that far off. And his eyes seemed to be getting worse as he got older. "May I borrow your scope for a moment?"
Steadying himself against the roll of the schooner, he squinted through the lens. The oncoming vessel was a sloop, perhaps half the size of their own ship. On its unusually high, single mast was a strangely-shaped sail. It was hard to tell exactly from this angle, but the mainsail appeared to be a simple triangle, without the heavy gaff along the top that inevitably sagged off to leeward and kept most boats from steering too close to the wind. Frevven had occasionally seen that sort of rig on very small sailboats, but never on anything this large.
The approaching vessel looked top-heavy and unstable, but she was moving. Fast.
"Masthead there!" the captain called. "What do you make of her?"
"Dunno, Captain. They aren't flying an ensign."
"I don't like it," Captain Travers muttered. "Where did they come from? And why are they coming towards us?"
"Fishing?" Frevven suggested, still peering through the telescope.
The captain vetoed that idea. "There aren't any good fishing grounds in this area. No, I don't like it at all. Helmsman! Bring us up three points to windward. All hands to the sheets to trim the sails!"
The heavily-laden cargo schooner turned grudgingly. The jib luffed, spilling its wind. Two of the crew raced forward to haul it in tighter.
Frevven returned the captain's telescope and looked out over the rail. Far to the westward, an orange sun sank deeper into the haze obscuring the mainland, its eerie reddish light painting the choppy waves with bronze sparkles. The FAIRWIND was on its way to Gulf Territory, where Frevven had volunteered for a temporary assignment helping to get a new Center started at Lovett's Falls. Already, he regretted having left the Santenkaty Center for Special Problems, even if it would only be for a short time. There was so much to be done.
He blinked at the dazzle of light on the water, looking for the other boat. He could just make out a blurry smear of white against the reddish-gray sky. The other vessel must be quite clear to everyone else if even he could see it.
He closed his watering eyes and turned his attention to what he could zlin. Yes, there was a slight glitch in the ambient now, just at the edge of his range.
"Shen, she's altering course also," Captain Travers swore. "And we can't come much further to windward."
"There aren't many Gens on that boat," Frevven said, almost doubting his own perceptions.
"A mile off the coast of Gen Territory, and you want me to believe that ship is crewed by Simes? Are you sure it isn't simply beyond your range?"
"It's not that far. I'd be able to zlin it clearer if there were Gens aboard, and I can't."
A puff of smoke appeared at the bow of the oncoming sloop, followed by the sharp report of a small cannon. Just ahead of the FAIRWIND, a fountain of water sprayed upward, raining moisture over the foredeck.
Captain Travers muttered a few choice epithets. "All hands!" she ordered. "Arm yourselves!"
The five renSimes on the crew of the FAIRWIND scrambled for anything that could be used as a weapon, but the boat was a cargo schooner, not a vessel of war. Heavy belaying pins, knives, boathooks, and makeshift clubs would be no match for an armed boarding party.
"Heave to!" came a hail from across the water, as the distance between the two ships continued to close rapidly.
"Be damned to you!" the captain shouted back, cupping her hands around her mouth. "I'll not surrender my ship to Distect pirates!"
"Distect?" Frevven queried, shocked. There had been talk of Distect privateers, and occasional ships would be reported missing, but he had dismissed all that as mere rumor.
"Who else would they be?" the captain answered scornfully. "They don't want to sink us, they want to capture us. And if they think they can take us so easily, they're wrong. I only zlin three Simes on the deck of that boat."
Frevven closed his eyes and again forced himself hyperconscious. Since he was only a few days past transfer, it took a bit of effort. He scanned the approaching vessel.
"Ten more are hiding below decks, along with several Gens," he warned.
Captain Travers cursed again. "You'd better go below also," she said, her lips set in a narrow line.
Frevven shook his head.
The captain frowned. "If there's going to be a fight, this will be no place for an ordinary channel, much less a disjunct channel like you."
Bridling at this slur on his ability to control himself, Frevven didn't move. As one of the last functioning disjunct channels in the Tecton, he was constantly plagued by other people's being either overly solicitous or openly scornful of him. Of the two, he wasn't sure which he hated most.
She flared anger. "I haven't time to argue. Go below!"
The enemy cannon spoke again, effectively ending the discussion by sending a burst of grapeshot through the foresail. Bits of rigging clattered down as the torn sail fluttered uselessly in the wind. Bullets splatted into the deck. Everyone ran for cover.
Frevven ducked around behind the deckhouse, but refused to go below. Perhaps he could be of some use on deck. As a channel, he could sustain a higher degree of augmentation, although he'd never tried to use that ability in a fight.
He refused to even consider what else he could do, in a battle. He'd die before he'd kill anyone in transfer, Sime or Gen.
Frevven closed his eyes, concentrating on zlinning the other vessel as it drew closer. Were there any other nasty surprises concealed belowdecks?
His attention focused suddenly on the name on the bow, even as he wondered that he could be intrigued by this one small detail at a time like this. As the carved letters swam into focus, he gasped and shook his head in disbelief. Then he opened his eyes and squinted, trying to verify what he couldn't believe he had zlinned.
Yes, the gilt lettering read V'LISSIA CHALMERS.
Impossible. V'lissia Chalmers was the woman he had almost married, who had chosen Distect over Tecton almost five years ago and deserted, taking their young daughter with her. Frevven had never heard from them again.
Shocked by this turn of events, the channel just stared as grappling hooks flew across from the Distect vessel to bite into the schooner's gunwales, drawing the two boats into a deadly embrace.
One of the crew ran over to cut through the line. A shot rang out and he fell backwards to the deck, head all but blown off. Even as his deathshock reverberated through the ambient nager, several Simes leaped from the other boat onto the FAIRWIND.
Captain Travers led an attack on the boarding party, with the remaining crew members following her. The ambient exploded into hatred, agony, and death. Frevven flinched from the violence of the emotions assailing him, the repeated deaths battering at his mind. He dared not go hypoconscious and depend on his eyesight alone in such a dangerous situation, but the hideous ambient prevented him from thinking rationally. He stood frozen to the spot.
Suddenly, a Sime woman rushed around the deckhouse, blood dripping from the sword in her hand. Hyperconscious and high on the surrounding bloodlust, she swung wildly at him.
Augmenting, Frevven ducked and sidestepped, catching the hilt of the sword with both hands.
The other Sime couldn't summon the same degree of augmentation as could the channel. As her grip loosened and the sword clattered uselessly to the deck, her other hand came up and her laterals sought his. He barely had time to realize she was trying for a Sime-Sime kill before she was on him, her lips pressed fiercely against his own.
His body reacted faster than his mind, instantly shifting into functional mode and serving her need.
With the transfer barely completed, the woman released him and backed away, staring in confusion and disgust.
"Shidoni, he's a channel!" she exclaimed. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she spat on the deck at Frevven's feet.
Frevven looked around. None of the schooner's crew were left alive. With no helmsman at the wheel, the FAIRWIND had turned into the wind, the sails banging and slatting in the sudden silence. He found himself confronting a half dozen Distect Simes, all armed and all angry. He could go down fighting, taking a few of them with him, but what would that prove? It was over.
The woman retrieved her sword and advanced on him once more. Holding the point at chest level, she smiled vengefully. Her arm drew back.
When a man's voice cut through the ominous silence with a curt "No," it was almost more of a shock than the expected blow.
A tall, red-haired Gen strode across the deck. The Sime woman turned on him, blazing fury that ceased abruptly as she recognized who he was.
"No," the redhead repeated calmly. "We'll keep this one. If he's a channel the Tecton will want him back and we can arrange for ransom or an exchange for some of our people who've been captured. No sense wasting what could be a valuable property."
"Aye aye, Blance," the woman complied grudgingly. The newcomer must be the captain, judging by her obedience to him.
Blance came up in front of Frevven, looking him over critically and smirking. "Or maybe you'll decide you like it and want to stay with us. Your side's had more than a few defectors, you know. They say you never go back to the Tecton once you've tried the Distect way of life."
Frevven glowered at him. The other man had to be kidding. He'd die before he'd turn Distect.
The pirate captain laughed at his expression. "You got a name, Tecton?"
"Frevven," he replied, squaring his narrow shoulders and pulling himself up to his slightly less than middle height before adding, "ambrov Zeor."
Registering surprise and grudging respect, both immediately suppressed, Blance looked down at Frevven with a slight frown. "Zeor," he said softly. "Well, well. Looks as if I was right. You'll be worth something to somebody for sure."
Frevven was less than certain of that, but he held his peace.
"Take this -- channel -- below and lock him up," Blance ordered. Then he shrugged and turned away, surveying the captured vessel. "Clean up the deck and put a prize crew over here. Let's get underway."
Frevven was ushered unceremoniously towards the main companionway by the woman who had almost murdered him. He shuddered as he stepped over Captain Travers' body, feeling somehow guilty that he still lived.
That night dragged by slowly, as Frevven lay sleepless on the bunk in the cabin where he had been confined. Now and then he got up to stare out the tiny circle of the open porthole, wishing for a breeze to relieve the stuffy heat. Summer was officially over, but it seemed unwilling to withdraw graciously this year, favoring the coast with a last few muggy, miserable days.
The schooner rocked back and forth on the swells, but other than that it lay motionless in the water. The wind had died shortly after dark, leaving only the swells to remind everyone of its absence. Wherever they were going, they wouldn't get there soon.
Overhead, feet shuffled sporadically across the deck and an occasional voice cursed the stillness.
Morning came, then lengthened into afternoon, and still they sat becalmed. With nothing else to do, Frevven stretched out on the bunk, laid his glasses on a shelf and tried unsuccessfully to sleep. He threw one arm across his aching forehead. Light reflected from the double-crested Zeor/Tecton ring on his finger, catching his attention.
Frevven ambrov Zeor. After more than four years, it astonished him still. That he had been invited to pledge Zeor seemed a sort of minor miracle. That he had grown to accept it as an ordinary part of life was even more of a miracle. The once-shiny ring was battered and worn now, the soft metal dented and scratched. The hopes and ideals were somewhat the worse for wear also, but still they lived. In this crazy world, perhaps that too was a miracle.
He smiled as he recalled the day he had offered Muryin Farris his pledge.
Muryin. The last news he'd heard of her had been that she was leading a successful offensive against Jess Valleroy's followers in Leander Territory, but that was half a continent distant and word travelled slowly by horseback. Perhaps the battle was already over by now, and he simply hadn't heard.
Here in Northeast Coast Territory the Distect wasn't powerful enough to attempt a takeover, but there had been raids, bombings, and other sporadic outbreaks of violence. As the situation worsened, both sides became more desperate and the raids and reprisals grew ever bloodier, the fighting more vicious.
The Santenkaty Center for Special Problems was filled to overflowing, as every remotely salvageable young junct was sent there to attempt disjunction. That was the reason for the new Center in Lovett's Falls, closer to Leander and the worst of the fighting.
Hopelessly junct Distect prisoners were executed immediately. Tecton Simes who had killed in the madness of battle and were too old to disjunct went to die in the Last Year Houses. Even those facilities were now as overcrowded with the dying as Santenkaty Center was overcrowded with younger people whose choice had narrowed down simply to disjunct or die trying.
And still the fighting and killing went on.
He tossed fitfully on the hard bunk in the overheated cabin. Would it never end? Maybe the Tecton was right. Maybe violence had to be countered by violence, until there was no Distect and it was over at last. But was there no other solution?
Voices and a brief ruffle of activity stirred the ambient. Frevven sat up hastily, grabbing for his glasses. A key grated in the lock and the door swung open to admit a young boy.
Although Frevven couldn't see the youngster's face in detail in the dim light, he could zlin a touch of guarded curiosity in the faint childish nager.
As the cabin boy placed a tray with a pitcher of water and some hard biscuits on the bunk, Frevven caught a glimpse of dirty brown hair hanging in a long braid down his back.
"Captain says I'm to see if there's anything else you want," the boy muttered, stepping back from the channel. His face was streaked with dirt, and he wore an old cap pulled low on his forehead. He looked to be about ten years old. A disreputable urchin, indeed.
Frevven reached for the pitcher, pouring water into a chipped mug and taking a sip. As he nibbled on one of the biscuits, he noticed envious hunger in the boy's murky nager.
The youngster licked his lips, then turned away when he realized the channel was watching him. Frevven got the odd impression he wanted to say something, but he couldn't quite zlin the boy's feelings. Children were so difficult to read, and Frevven didn't have much experience in dealing with them.
Ill at ease, he pushed his glasses up against the bridge of his nose with one dorsal tentacle.
The boy frowned at this gesture, but then his eyes flickered once more to the small pile of biscuits. He regarded the channel through narrowed eyes, a strange expression on his face. "Blance says your name is Frevven ambrov Zeor. Did you used to be Frevven Aylmeer?"
Surprised, Frevven nodded. He tried again to zlin some hint of the youngster's emotions, but all he could get was a sense of hunger.
"Would you care for a biscuit?" he offered.
With a furtive glance over his shoulder toward the closed door, the child nodded eagerly. "I didn't get any breakfast," he confided.
"Help yourself then. I certainly don't want them all."
Slender fingers reached for the food. The motion seemed hesitant, as if he expected to be slapped away. As soon as he had downed one biscuit, he took another, a half-smile brightening his pinched face. "I'm being punished for spilling a plate of food in the captain's lap and then refusing to apologize." He grinned. "I did it on purpose. I don't like Blance."
"Where are we going?" Frevven asked nonchalantly, leaning back against the wall behind the bunk and wiping the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve as he looked away from the slovenly child.
"The Haven," the boy answered, around a mouthful of biscuit. "It's a little island we've been using as a base."
Frevven wanted to ask more, but they were interrupted by an angry voice from outside the cabin.
"Val! Shen, that child is never around when you want her. Val, where are you?"
"Uh-oh, I'd better get out of here."
Val. Valthea. That had been his daughter's name.
No. It couldn't be --
Sitting up straight, Frevven squinted at the child, once again readjusting his glasses. He moved closer to her. Between what he could see and what he could zlin, he could make out the youngster's features clearly now. It had been years since he'd last seen Valthea and she had been only five years old. Children change a lot in that much time.
She didn't look much like Frevven. Except for having the same greenish-gold eyes as he did, Val took after her mother in most ways.
She was staring at him, appraising, distant. She had known all along.
"Valthea --" he reached out a hand. She drew back warily, and Frevven reminded himself this was no longer the same little girl he used to know. Many things had happened since he'd held her on his lap. Who knew what her life had been like since then?
"Val! Damn you, answer me!" came the demanding voice from outside the cabin.
"I've got to go. Dina will be furious." Picking up the empty plate that had held the biscuits, Val turned to the door. "I'm glad I found you," she said uncertainly.
Frevven wanted to hug her, to take her in his arms and never let go. But she stood so rigid and stiff, and he wasn't sure she would welcome such a gesture. He reflected ironically that he didn't quite know what to say to this stranger who was his own child.
"Your mother," he asked carefully. "How is she?"
Valthea looked down at her feet. "She died two years ago in the fighting at Ramseyville. Everybody considers her sort of a heroine. That's why the boat's named after her."
Dead? V'lissia? She who had always been so full of life, so exuberant and caring? The sparkling brown eyes and unruly long hair, the ready smile and responsive nager? Dead?
"But I never heard anything about it," Frevven protested lamely.
"Why should you? The Tecton didn't get her body. All they know is that a Gen rallied some of the fleeing fighters and got them to hold their position long enough for most of the others to escape."
While he was still struggling to absorb this news, Frevven zlinned an irate Sime approaching the cabin. "Can you find some way to see me again?" he asked desperately. "We have to talk."
"I'll arrange something when we get to the island." Val looked hastily toward the door. "I've got to go."
"Don't tell anyone I'm your father," he cautioned. It was an ace in the hole, perhaps the only one they had.
"I won't," Val agreed, with a conspiratorial wink. Then she darted away, as the same voice called again, almost outside the door.
"Ah, there you are, you lazy girl! What were you up to? The dishes in the galley want washing."
"I was just bringing food to the prisoner, the way Blance told me to." Val's voice had turned into an ingratiating whine.
"And it took you all that time, I suppose? I've a good mind to give you a taste of the switch. Perhaps that would speed you up a bit."
Do that, Frevven thought, and it'll be the last thing you ever do! He was standing next to the door before he'd even realized he was going to move.
Horrified, he forced himself away and strode to the opposite end of the cabin, masking his rage before it could be zlinned by anyone.
"Well, never mind that," the voice went on. "Just get down to the galley. Off with you, now!"
Val's footsteps scurried away and her faint nager faded into the ambient.
All that day, Frevven hoped to see her again, but it never happened. Towards evening the wind picked up. He dozed off for a few hours but awoke with a start when he dreamed of a little girl sitting on his lap, pestering him to read from her favorite storybook. "This one, Daddy. I want to hear this one."
After that, he lay on the bunk and watched the sun slowly brighten the cramped little cabin, zlinning the activity on deck and wondering when they'd reach their destination.
"You can come out now, Tecton."
Frevven followed the other man up on deck. He blinked dazedly in the bright noonday sun and shaded his eyes with one hand as he climbed over the side of the schooner and into a small skiff.
The FAIRWIND lay peacefully at anchor in a small harbor. Nearby, the V'LISSIA CHALMERS swung to her own anchor. Barely fifty yards distant, a number of ramshackle houses dotted the shoreline, half hidden amongst low sand dunes, scrubby wind-twisted pine trees, and beach grass. In the center of the island, taller trees formed a dark patch of forest, but most of what Frevven could see was sand, white and painfully bright to his sensitive eyes.
Low-lying sandspits curved around either side of the small bay, providing some shelter for the boats, but in a real storm, there would be little protection from the elements. This was obviously a temporary shelter, not a permanent home.
Relying on his psycho-spatial sense, Frevven ascertained that the mainland was a good six miles distant. As he stepped out of the skiff and onto the beach, he shook his head. He couldn't swim ashore from here. Any escape would depend on his being able to get a boat.
Then he heard his daughter's voice. He looked around and discovered her a short way down the beach, cringing in front of Blance.
"You clumsy lorsh!" the captain raged. "Do you expect me to excuse you because you say it was an accident?!"
"But I was only gathering the dirty clothes out of your cabin, like you told me to. I -- I didn't mean to step on your shiltpron. The boat rolled and I lost my balance."
Blance held a tangled mess of shattered wood and strings under Val's nose. "You didn't mean to step on it, huh? This belonged to my mother! Have you any idea how much it was worth? You little --"
Valthea cowered. "Please, Blance. Don't throw me off the boat. I'll be more careful, I promise. Please."
Blance stopped shouting, now that she'd given him a clue to the punishment she'd like least of all.
"Do you imagine I'd let you remain on board after this?" He tossed what was left of his ruined shiltpron disgustedly onto the sand. "There are plenty of other kids who'd love to work on the V'LISSIA. From now on, you stay ashore."
Val burst into tears, grabbing his hand and begging him not to do this to her.
"Lurana!" Blance shouted in annoyance. "Come get this kid away from me and take her home!"
A Sime woman hurried out from the curious crowd watching the newcomers, with a Gen woman following close behind her. To Frevven's admittedly prejudiced way of thinking, all Gens were overweight and ungraceful, but this one was even fatter than usual.
The Gen appeared to be somewhere in her early thirties, maybe ten years younger than Frevven. While her features were too coarse to have been called pretty, pale blue eyes combined with dark brown hair gave her a peculiarly memorable appearance. And she had a much higher field than Frevven would have expected from a Distect Gen.
The Sime took Val into her arms, smoothing her hair and murmuring words of comfort. In contrast to her overweight Gen friend, Lurana was slim and beautiful, her skin dark almost to the point of being black and her curly hair falling gracefully around her shoulders. A striking woman indeed, Frevven thought.
Still sobbing loudly, Valthea allowed Lurana to lead her away. The overweight Gen remained where she was, her nager suffused with concern and caring directed toward the departing woman and child. It was obvious to the channel that there was some bond between them, but he couldn't quite make out what it was. They were clearly not transfer partners, since the homely Gen's field was extremely high, while Lurana showed only the average nager of a renSime, somewhere near the middle of her cycle. It almost seemed to be the same sort of close attachment he'd often zlinned between couples who'd been happily married for many years.
As Val and Lurana passed in front of him, Frevven got the distinct impression his daughter wasn't really as unhappy as she pretended, despite the tears streaming down her face. He was smugly certain she had staged the entire performance so that Blance would send her ashore, where she could be with him.
Blance stalked over to his prisoner. "Welcome to the Haven," he said sarcastically, gesturing at the cluster of wooden buildings. "Hope you enjoy your stay." Noticing the heavyset Gen standing near Frevven, he added, "Tassi? You want something?"
Her pale blue eyes swept over Frevven, and she nodded her head shortly in his direction. "This is the channel?"
"Yeah." Unease muddied the Distect captain's nager.
Tassi gave an exasperated sigh. "Blance, you can't just kidnap a channel. How do you expect him to survive here?"
"Well, your sister --"
"My sister is dead."
"Yeah, but she was a channel, wasn't she? And she was your transfer mate."
"Lynette wasn't trained by the Tecton."
"You'd rather I'd tossed him overboard?. Blance challenged.
Tassi sighed again. "No, of course not." She turned her attention back to Frevven. It felt nice on his frayed nerves. "You can stay with me, if you wish. I've got an extra room, since my sister --" she faltered, a sharp stab of sorrow touching him briefly. It was quickly suppressed.
Well, what other choice did he have? He could hardly sleep on the beach. Frevven nodded shortly and followed her as she turned and headed towards the ramshackle town.
Pushing open the door of one of the small cabins, she gave Frevven a wide smile and announced "Here we are. Make yourself at home."
She showed him around the rough-hewn shack, pointing out the room that had been her sister's. Then she took an earthenware jug off the counter and held out a couple of glasses. "I'll trade you some reasonably cold trin tea for some information."
"What kind of information?" he inquired warily.
"Oh, nothing much. Mostly names and addresses of people we should contact who might be interested in getting you back. That sort of thing."
"Blance really does intend to release me, then?"
"Sure. If anybody wants you badly enough."
"But I could give the Tecton the location of this island," Frevven pointed out.
"No problem. We'll be moving pretty soon anyway. Autumn's half over, and the weather will soon be too nasty for us to stay here. We'll just make sure you don't leave until we're ready to go also."
Frevven digested this possibility. How long would it be before they were ready to go? he wondered. More than the twenty-three days remaining until he'd be in need?
He pushed that thought out of his mind. "You've got a deal," he said.
The first few days of captivity passed quietly. Frevven found himself with nothing to do, and he didn't like it much. Accustomed to a normal channel's workload, his unused secondary system began to protest. He felt on edge and jumpy, as if the least little thing would throw him out of kilter. His head ached and his entire body seemed brittle and unstable. He knew he could expect to be in real trouble soon. And in a little over a week, he would reach turnover. His mind refused to think much beyond that.
For once in his life, Frevven was grateful for the rather limited capacity of his secondary system, as compared to other First Order channels. Since he'd spent most of his First Year attempting to disjunct, his secondary system had never been developed to the extent it might have been. In any Proficiency Rating formula that had ever been applied to him, that was always the figure that pulled down his score. He'd always thought of it as a disadvantage, but it did leave him with a relatively high tolerance for entran. Under the present circumstances, that was a definite plus.
Although his captors left him free to come and go as he pleased, Frevven found it hard to arrange to be alone with Valthea. Lurana's cabin was only a few doors away and Tassi spent a lot of time over there, but for Frevven to do so also would have made people suspicious. Just to make matters worse, Lurana turned out to be Blance's transfer mate, so the red-haired Gen was often to be found at her place. Frevven preferred to avoid him as much as he could.
On the afternoon of his third day on the island, Frevven sat watching Tassi gather the woven-rag rugs from the shack. She carried them outside, evidently intending to shake out the accumulated sand and dirt.
Annoyed at feeling useless, Frevven took the broom from the corner and attacked the sand that had been tracked across the floor.
All too soon, he'd be at turnover, he reflected. If he simply sat around and hoped to be exchanged, it might easily be too late. Besides, it was entirely possible no one would be willing to trade him for a Distect prisoner, once he'd been so closely exposed to the Distect practices. Perhaps he'd just be written off. With the Tecton overburdened and strained by the fighting and disruption, any number of things could go wrong, even assuming Blance was sincere in his intent to negotiate for his release. In the light of what was going on in the larger world, he'd just have to face the fact that he was expendable.
He grimaced. He might well be more than just expendable. He was one of the last functioning disjunct channels in the Tecton, and the only First Order disjunct left. That made a lot of people nervous. There were those who'd be glad to be rid of him.
But even assuming he were to be released, that still left unsolved the problem of Valthea. He couldn't possibly leave her here. Maybe if he acknowledged her as his daughter they would send her back with him? Blance surely didn't like her much. He'd be glad to be rid of the girl.
But would Valthea want to go? In fact, would she go with him if he tried to escape? It had been five long years and she hardly knew him now. From the little he'd seen, Val appeared quite attached to her foster mother. Maybe she'd prefer to stay with Lurana?
But if she stayed, she'd be likely to face changeover sometime in the next couple of years. And the odds were that she'd be a channel.
No, he couldn't leave her with this band of Distect pirates. That was an intolerable thought.
He had to find a way to talk to her. He could hardly kidnap his own daughter. It would be difficult enough to get off the island by himself, much less with an unwilling captive.
Even as Frevven swept the last of the sand out the door and helped Tassi spread the rugs on the floor once again, Val solved part of the problem by appearing in the doorway, a freshly-baked pie held before her, covered by a checkered cloth. She gave Tassi a bright smile and placed the pie on the table, lifting a corner of the cloth.
"This is for you. I made it myself."
Wearing clean clothes and far less dirt than when he'd last seen her, Val looked far more like the little girl Frevven remembered.
"Well, that's very nice of you," Tassi said with a smile. "What kind is it?"
"Apple. That schooner we captured had several barrels of apples in the hold." She grinned at Frevven. "You want a piece while it's still hot?" When Frevven shook his head, she looked longingly at the pie and added, "Just a little piece?"
Tassi laughed. "I guess I know somebody who would like a piece, don't I?"
Val nodded eagerly.
"Well, let's have some then," Tassi decided, turning to get plates and forks.
Frevven consented to having a small slice also, wondering how he could make an opportunity to speak with his daughter alone. His eye fell on the skimpy pile of firewood next to the stove. There wouldn't be enough to cook dinner. Excellent.
As Val finished her snack, he rose to his feet. "I think I'll go collect some more wood. Valthea, would you be kind enough to show me the best place to look?"
"Sure. If we walk around to the other side of the island, there should be some driftwood on the beach. Let's go."
As soon as they were out of sight of the town, she took Frevven's hand, smiling shyly.
"Val, let's get out of here--tonight, just you and I," he blurted out.
She tensed, and Frevven cursed himself for being too abrupt. He should have led up to it more slowly.
"I don't know," she said. "I hate to leave Lurana. She's been so good to me since Momma died. I thought maybe you would want to stay, and we could all be together."
Frevven's heart sank.
"Honey, I'm a channel. I can't stay here."
Her greenish-gold eyes darted sideways and her bottom lip trembled. "I think I'm going to be a channel someday," she confessed.
"Well, I certainly hope so!"
"You do?" She brightened. ·I mean, everyone here seems to think it's a nasty thing to want to be."
"I don't. And neither do a lot of people outside the Distect."
She pulled herself up to her full height and squared her shoulders. Then she wilted, glancing back in the direction of the town. She shook her head.
Frevven laid one hand on her shoulder. "You don't want to stay here, you know you don't. You want to come with me."
"How?" she asked faintly.
"We'll steal a skiff. I can row as far as the mainland. If we're careful, no one will miss us until we're long gone. We could be ashore by morning." It sounded simple now that he'd put it into words.
Valthea looked dubious. "That's an awful long way to row."
"Not for a Sime," he assured her.
"Val, I can't stay here, and I don't want to leave you behind. Besides, the Distect's no place for someone --" he hated himself for using her confidence like this, but he couldn't stop the words -- "who's going to be a channel. You're too valuable to live like this. Under the Tecton, you could learn so many things. You could heal the sick and serve transfer to renSimes in need. You could be one of the people who keeps Simes from killing Gens."
"You'd have a decent place to live, and no one would treat you the way Blance does. You'd have food and warm clothes --"
She interrupted him tentatively. "Would it -- would it be the way it was a long time ago, before Mommy took me away?"
"Yes, darling. Oh, yes! Even better," he promised. And he wasn't lying. Not entirely. Life under the Tecton wasn't perfect, but it was certainly better than this.
"Okay," she agreed, but her grin was lopsided and uncertain.
Frevven breathed a sigh of relief. "I'll meet you down at the beach, around midnight. Can you sneak out of your house without Lurana knowing?"
Val nodded. "Yeah. I do it sometimes when I can't sleep. I'm pretty tricky, for a kid."
"So I've noticed." He put a hand on her shoulder, squeezing it fondly. "Now let's find some wood and get back to the town, before anyone wonders what's taking us so long."
"I wish I could say goodbye to Lurana. She and Tassi will miss me a lot."
"I know, Daddy. I know. I'll be there tonight, just like you said." She flashed him a bright smile, but her nager didn't back it up.
As the time slipped slowly past midnight, Frevven crouched in the shadow of one of the boats drawn up on the beach. What if Val didn't show up? He still wasn't sure she really wanted to leave. Should he go without her and hope he could return to rescue her later, or cancel his hastily-made escape plan?
His worrying was cut short when a small figure darted out from amongst the houses and moved uncertainly in his direction.
"Daddy?" Val whispered into the darkness, not seeing him immediately.
"Over here." He half-stood and waved. She ran over. "Any problems?" He couldn't zlin anyone following her, but they could be watching from somewhere out of range.
She shook her head. A breeze off the water ruffled the curls that had escaped from her pigtail. In the semi-darkness of the moonlit beach, she looked heartbreakingly like her dead mother. Frevven tried not to think about that.
"Come on, let's haul this skiff into the water and get going."
The wooden boat was heavier than it looked, and it had been pulled up on the sand at high water, so they had to drag it quite a way now that the tide was low. Frevven augmented recklessly, begrudging every bit of wasted selyn but not wanting to be discovered while they struggled with the skiff.
At last it was afloat and bobbing in the small waves. Standing knee-deep in the water, Frevven held it steady while Val scrambled over the side, then he shoved the boat into deeper water and hopped in also. Val already had one of the oars overboard and was pushing off from the bottom, keeping them from drifting back ashore in the light breeze that had begun to blow.
Frevven fitted the other oar into its oarlock and started rowing. The oars creaked slightly, and every so often he'd splash a bit when one of the blades caught wrong. It had been a long time since he had rowed a boat, but he got back into the rhythm after a bit of practice, remembering the many hours he'd spent as a child in his own little boat on Chilton Lake.
As they moved across the bay, they passed fairly close to the V'LISSIA. It had swung around at its mooring in the freshening breeze. The bow now pointed toward the narrow harbor entrance. Val looked at the sleek sailboat and sighed with longing. She must have enjoyed her time on board.
Frevven directed the skiff unerringly towards the harbor entrance he knew lay directly behind him. He grinned. This was almost too easy. The pirates were obviously overconfident and careless, since they hadn't even kept a watch on the boats. Of course, it was a long way to shore and he supposed he'd get tired of rowing soon enough, but just now it was pleasant exercise. And once he knew they were on their way to the mainland, it would be safe to augment as much as might be necessary. If they headed directly northwest from here, they should be able to reach the Sime Territory border before morning.
The wind picked up as they neared the harbor entrance. No matter; he'd simply have to row harder until they were clear of the island, that's all.
Val glanced at the land as it closed in around them. Waves slapped the bow of the skiff, seeming to protest their passage. Frevven rowed quickly, cursing the breeze that had come up so unexpectedly. They were already partly into the narrow passage when he zlinned someone on shore further along the sandspit.
"Val," he whispered in sudden apprehension, "do they keep a lookout on the harbor mouth?"
"I don't know. I spent most of my time on the V'LISSIA, not on the island."
"There's someone on the right-hand shore. If they --"
"Ahoy on the rowboat!" a voice shouted angrily. "Who's out there? Identify yourselves!"
Val looked at Frevven and he looked back, too chagrined to speak. That's why there had been no guard on the boats. He should have realized.
"Whoever you are, come ashore!" The voice sounded definitely suspicious now.
Frevven bent to his oars, hoping they might still get through before any serious pursuit could be organized.
"Stop or I'll shoot!"
Frevven continued to row. A shot rang out over the water, terribly loud against the background murmur of the sea.
"We're not going to make it, Daddy," Val whispered. "We'd better surrender."
"No," Frevven gasped between oarstrokes. "They won't really shoot at us. That was just a warning."
The next shot splatted into the water directly in front of the bow, and the following one chunked into the side of the boat, sending wood splinters flying and gouging out a good-sized hole. The skiff began to fill with water.
They were almost on the left-hand shore now, and drifting closer. The bottom of the boat scraped sand and grated to a stop.
Defeated, Frevven and Val jumped out of the sinking boat. To add insult to injury, they landed unexpectedly in a deep spot and both pitched headlong into the chilly sea. By the time they reached shore, they were soaking wet.
Frevven resisted the urge to run. On this wretched little island, where could he go? He stood amongst the scrubby trees, one hand on Val's shoulder. Water dripped dismally out of their clothes and into the sand. He wiped the excess moisture off the lenses of his glasses with one tentacle, leaving streaks instead of droplets.
The moment Val saw people running towards them, she twisted out from under Frevven's hand and took off in their direction, shouting, "Help! Help! Blance, Lurana, here I am! Help!"
Frevven shrank back into the shadows, staring at his daughter with total incomprehension. Val merged with the search party, pointing and gesturing.
Shocked by his daughter's betrayal, Frevven summoned what little dignity he had left and walked out into the cold moonlight to confront the searchers.
Blance seemed more annoyed than angry, while Valthea jabbered insistently as she tagged along by his side.
"-- and when I saw him push the boat into the water," she went on, "I ran over to stop him and he grabbed me and shoved me in and threatened to hurt me if I didn't keep quiet." She hung back behind Blance, as if in fear of Frevven. "I told him he couldn't get away, but he just said to shut up and lie down in the bottom of the boat. And then he started rowing. I couldn't see where we were going, and I was so scared, but I thought if I pretended to do what I was told, I could maybe stop him."
Blance tried to shush her, but she kept on going, one word tumbling over another in her haste. "I never said a thing about the sentry," she bragged, "because if he knew someone was there, he might have figured a way to get past."
She was so obviously lying now that Frevven was certain the other Simes would be able to zlin it. What could she possibly hope to gain by all this?
"I--I tried to call out when I thought we were close, but he stopped me. When I heard the shots, I was scared." That was the first thing she'd said that was true, but she contrived to appear shamefaced as she admitted, "He helped me ashore."
Frevven thought he began to understand the reason for this extravagant performance.
Val clutched at Blance's coat with a semblance of pathetic gratitude. "I knew somebody would save me," she declared. "Can I go home now? I'm cold."
Lurana threw her own jacket around Val's shoulders, while the others gestured with their rifles for Frevven to start back to town. He stepped forward, raking over the dying coals of resentment in his mind in order to make sure not the slightest hint of his feelings for his daughter would creep into his showfield. Anything to muddy the already confused ambient even further and cover up Val's pretenses.
"Valthea Chalmers," Lurana said severely, "that story didn't zlin exactly true to me."
The girl burst into tears. "So maybe I lied a little," she confessed. "I never tried to warn the sentry. I was too scared. The rest of it is true," she protested, casually moving so that Blance was between her and the suspicious Sime woman. She pointed an accusing finger at Frevven. "Ask him if I wanted to go with him. Just ask him, if you don't believe me."
Blance turned to Frevven, who continued to walk in stony silence. "Well?"
"The girl wasn't exactly enthusiastic about the idea," Frevven said, with an effort at biting sarcasm. That was true enough, as far as it went. "I had to -- er -- persuade her a bit."
"Hmph. Well, I trust that now you'll know better than to try such a stunt again. Did you really think we'd be stupid enough not to keep a lookout?"
Frevven was tempted to say yes, but he wasn't sure if he'd gain anything by wising off at glance. "I assure you, I will not try that again," he said stiffly. Indeed I won't. Next time I'll plan more carefully.
As they reached the outskirts of the settlement, Tassi appeared, running clumsily and gasping for breath.
Blance turned to Lurana and the girl. "Val, you're a troublesome, lying brat, and you don't deserve the care you've gotten from us since your mother died."
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Val wailed pitifully, throwing herself into Lurana's arms. "It wasn't my fault. I don't want everybody to hate me!"
Lurana looked at Blance in mute accusation as she murmured soothing words to Val, trying to get her to stop crying. The Sime woman was upset, close to being in need, but Blance was too angry to offer her any nageric support. Instead, it was Tassi who projected concerned love for Lurana, as she drew closer.
Frevven stifled a slight twinge of envy. The two women were obviously close friends. Maybe more than friends, he speculated, zlinning the peculiar way their fields meshed and twined.
Blance gave a disgusted snort and turned his attention back to Frevven. "I'll let this pass, channel. This time. But try it again and you'll be sorry. Understand?"
Frevven nodded. Tassi was alongside him now, and focussing on him. He relaxed against the warm glow of her nager, the tight knot of tension in his chest beginning to loosen and unwind. Now that the excitement was over, he felt light-headed and weak in the knees.
"Tassi, in future I suggest that you keep a closer eye on your transfer mate," Blance said.
"I'm not her transfer mate," Frevven objected icily.
"Oh? According to Lurana, you two zlin like a pretty good match."
"Dammit, I'm not anyone's transfer mate!"
"Now, listen, channel, you don't seem to have a whole lot of choice in the matter do you?"
"I thought one of the Distect ideals was just exactly that the individual should have a choice in the matter," Frevven retorted. "You've 'assigned' me to Tassi about as callously as any Tecton controller I've ever encountered. What gives you the right to do that?"
Blance was insulted now, and Frevven had time to regret his rash words. But instead of the verbal attack he expected, the other man wilted into a morass of regret and frustration. His shoulders slumped and his anger dissipated. "What would you suggest I do? Have you zlinned any other Gen on this island who could serve you as well as Tassi? I'm doing the best I can. Go with her. Please."
Recognizing the logic of Blance's words, Frevven relented.
"Very well," he said coldly, turning to walk back to the settlement next to Tassi. He calculated how much selyn he'd wasted augmenting. The answer was not at all reassuring. Now he'd hit turnover almost two days sooner than he'd expected.
Cursing himself for being ten kinds of a stupid lorsh, Frevven was grateful that the Gen woman had the good sense not to say anything to him. At least Val had thought fast enough to keep herself out of trouble. If Blance had suspected the real reason she'd been with him, they'd keep a closer watch on her in future, making it just that much harder for the two of them to get away.
For the next couple of days, Frevven brooded over their unsuccessful escape attempt. Although he went over in his mind everything they'd done wrong, he couldn't come up with any other good ideas. After all, there were only so many ways you could get off an island, and they all involved boats.
One morning, catching sight of Val heading for the woods with a basket in her hand, Frevven followed her carefully until they were clear of the town. She seemed unwilling to talk, responding to his every attempt to turn the conversation towards escape with nothing but disinterested monosyllables as she plucked blackberries from a bush.
On the way back, they topped the crest of a small hill, high enough to have a good view of the town and the little harbor. The sun glistened off the water and both the V'LISSIA and the FAIRWIND sat unmoving on the calm blue surface of the bay.
Suddenly, Frevven came to a dead stop, staring down at the sparkling water.
"Daddy? What is it?" Val asked as she almost trod on his heels.
"That's it," he muttered. "Of course! The V'LISSIA!"
"If we take the sloop, we could escape!" He dropped down on one knee, placing an arm around her shoulder and pointing. "If the wind were strong enough from the right direction, we could be past the lookout on the point before he could do more than fire a few shots. And we'd have the fastest boat on the island, so no one could come after us. We could do it, Val!"
She nodded uncertainly. "Well, I suppose we could sail her by ourselves, if we had to."
"Does anyone stay on board at night?"
"Not that I've ever noticed."
"It would take a good breeze. And we'd have to get underway fast, before anyone noticed, but we could do it," Frevven said positively, wondering why he hadn't thought of it sooner.
Frevven turned to her.
"Isn't there some way -- I mean, couldn't Lurana maybe come with us? And Tassi? I know Lurana would never leave without her. They've been lovers for years."
And that casual remark confirmed in Frevven's mind the relationship between the two women. Interesting. He'd known very few lesbians before. Not surprising, since most of his friends were channels.
Val's nager ached with the agony of having to choose amongst those she loved.
Frevven shook his head. "I wish they could, but I don't think they'd want to come with us," he said gently. "Do you?"
She heaved a great sigh. "No, I suppose not."
"And if we asked them, they'd warn Blance, wouldn't they?"
"I guess so."
He tightened his arm around her shoulders. "I'm sorry, honey. I know you'll miss them. But there's no other way."
Val didn't answer. She stood stiffly in his arms, looking down at the town.
For three anxious days, Frevven waited. The wind died, or blew dead foul, so they'd have had to tack back and forth before even reaching the harbor entrance and perhaps not be able to get out at all. With each passing day, the channel grew more nervous. And closer to need.
At last, the wind shifted and strengthened. The tide would be on the way out in the middle of that night, giving them just that much more of an advantage. Frevven got word to Val to meet him on the beach shortly before midnight, then waited impatiently for evening.
Late that afternoon, he noticed a flurry of busy-ness stirring the ambient. Concerned, the channel went for a walk around the weatherbeaten cluster of shacks, trying to discover what was going on. All he could see was a lot of coming and going to the two boats anchored in the harbor. No one had the time to stop and talk to him.
As the sun sank towards the horizon, a definite chill crept into the air but the wind kept up a steady whisper in the pine trees. It would be good sailing. By tomorrow morning, he and Val would be safe and sound in Danversport.
Tassi was out when Frevven returned to their cottage, but he put another log on the fire and swung the kettle in over the flames. With darkness coming on, she would certainly be along soon.
Sure enough, the water hadn't even come to a boil when Tassi stuck her head in the door. "Got a surprise for you," she announced, somewhat hesitantly. "I hope you don't mind."
She pushed the door open to reveal Valthea standing next to her clutching a bundle of clothes and personal belongings. "Lurana's going on the V'LISSIA with Blance, since she's too close to need to stay behind. Val had to have a place to stay, so I --" Her voice trailed off, but her meaning was clear enough.
Realizing his astonishment must be showing on his face, Frevven pulled himself together.
"Yes, yes. Come in," he said, hoping he didn't sound too shocked at this unexpected turn of events. "Would you like a hot cup of tea, Valthea?"
The girl nodded, acting as if she were still wary of him.
"We can set up a cot near the fireplace," Tassi suggested. "Here, Val. Let me have your things. Then we'll see about some supper. I don't know about you, but I'm starving."
The Gen was so intent on making Val feel welcome that she entirely missed the long look that passed between father and daughter.
"Where's the V'LISSIA going?" Frevven asked, trying to sound casual. He took the kettle from the fireplace and poured the bubbling water into a cracked ceramic teapot.
"Well, first they're going to scuttle the FAIRWIND, then Blance is heading for the mainland, to sell some of the cargo we captured. He'll also let the Tecton know about you and see what he can arrange, if he has a chance."
Frevven almost dropped the kettle. Covering his dismay with outrage, he exclaimed, "What?! The out-Territory government lets them get away with selling stolen cargo?"
"No, of course not." Tassi took off her sweater and hung it over a chair. "It's all done on the black market. We have contacts in various ports who aren't averse to trading with Simes, no questions asked."
"Oh?" Frevven put several trin teabags into the hot water to steep and replaced the cover on the teapot, willing his hands to stop shaking. This wasn't total disaster. There would be another chance to escape, when the sloop returned. Or perhaps he'd even be ransomed? There was time yet.
"You'd be surprised what goes on in these waters. They're not too keen on law and order around here," Tassi went on.
Valthea came over to the fireplace, holding out her hands to the warmth. "I've heard stories about bands of thieves who set up false beacons in stormy weather and lure passing ships up on the rocks, just so they can plunder them."
"Never work against Sime ships," Frevven retorted.
Tassi laughed. "No, I don't suppose it would."
"If the out-Territory Gens were smart, they'd hire a Sime or two as navigators," Val put in, looking at her father out of the corners of her eyes. "It would save a lot of problems with shipwrecks."
"True," Frevven agreed. "But it would cause other problems as a result. And out-Territory Gens are so terrified of Simes that they'd never agree to such an arrangement."
"Too bad. It would be an advantage for both sides." Tassi took several mugs from the table and brought them over to the steaming teapot.
"Maybe someday--" Frevven speculated.
"Yeah, maybe someday," Tassi said bitterly. "Like everything else. But it'll never happen under the Tecton. Not as long as out-Territory Gens are protected and insulated from Simes."
Frevven bristled. "Well, the Distect could never carry it off either. The Gen government is at least willing to cooperate with the Tecton to an extent. They're scared to death of the Distect."
Frevven let the subject drop. He really didn't feel like having a political argument.
With Val living at Tassi's, it was a lot easier for Frevven to spend time with her without arousing suspicion. No one thought it unusual to see them together anymore.
The next few days passed much too quickly. On the morning when he reached turnover, the fog came in so thick Frevven could almost zlin the individual droplets of water suspended in the air. It blew in ghostly streaks through the spaces between cottages and crept through chinks and gaps in the shingled walls. Everything was damp. Even the sheets on the bed felt chilly and moist.
As the day wore on and the sun failed to burn off the clinging curtain of almost-drizzle, he tired of staring at the same four walls and zlinning Tassi's rising field. Val had gone to a friend's house to play, so he went out for a walk, despite the inclement weather.
As he paced across the sand dunes and watched the visibility shrink to next to nothing, Frevven remembered how the foghorn used to sound on Innsfrey Island, during the time he had spent out-Territory so many years ago. And the distinctive triple blast of the Danversport Lighthouse, warning off the growing number of ships travelling along the coast.
In the clammy silence surrounding him now, Frevven would have given anything to be back in either of those two places. The pounding headache that seemed to be just behind his eyeballs showed no sign of improving and he felt irritated and on edge.
Something gnawed at the corner of his mind, something disturbing and in distress.
No. It wasn't in his mind, it was out at sea, somewhere in the fog. He turned, zlinning with painstaking care. A slight glitch off in the distance, far beyond the steady glow of the town.
Perhaps a Tecton ship, come in search of Distect pirates? He broke into a run, following the curve of the beach around the small island.
As he circled past the town, his hopes were dashed. As soon as he was able to zlin it clearer, he was immediately able to recognize the far-distant glitch as the returning V'LISSIA CHALMERS. Cursing briefly, he slowed to a walk.
The sloop shouldn't have been back this soon, if they had gone ashore to trade. The faint glow from the sailboat was laced with pain and anxiety. All had not gone well.
Good, Frevven thought vindictively, turning back towards the settlement. The V'LISSIA was still a half-mile distant. She would take awhile to get here, with the breeze blowing in its present direction. The renSimes on the island probably wouldn't zlin her approach for half an hour yet.
Frevven headed back to the cabin. He said nothing about the incoming boat as he changed into dry clothes and sat down before the fireplace. When Val came running into the room with news of the V'LISSIA'S return, he remained sitting while Tassi and the girl raced out into the damp night to await its coming into the harbor. He didn't have to budge from the comfort of the dry shack to read the concern and dank fear spreading through the ambient.
Then Valthea came running back, tears streaking down her cheeks. "Daddy, you've got to help Lurana! She's dying! Tassi says you can do something!"
"What happened?" Frevven threw his cape around his daughter's shoulders and followed her out into the night.
"They were attacked by a Tecton ship on the way to shore. They barely managed to get away without being sunk, and the boat was badly damaged. Dina and Merrit are dead, and Lurana's wounded."
They reached the beach just as Lurana was being lifted out of the skiff and onto a stretcher, with both Blance and Tassi hovering over her in concern. Even before he got close to the injured woman, Frevven could tell she was in bad shape. Selyn leaked in a slow but steady stream from her bandaged abdomen. If this had happened over a day ago, she should have been dead already. Since she wasn't, she must have taken transfer from Blance and probably one or two of the other Gens on board also, judging by the apparent rate of selyn loss.
The injured woman moaned as she was placed on the stretcher. Frevven pushed his way through the crowd. Lurana had to have another transfer soon. She was already in hard need, and would soon be in attrition. Healing the wound would have to come later. A man stepped in front of him, blocking his way. "Where do you think you're going?" he challenged.
"You've got to let me help Lurana, or she'll die!"
"We don't require any of your channel's tricks around here." Lurana's field twitched with pain. It was dim and dark around the edges. She didn't have much longer.
Frantic, Frevven shoved the man out of his way, all his attention focussed on the injured Sime. He was already reaching for her arms, laterals extended, ready to feed her selyn to make up for what the injury was rapidly draining away, when he was grabbed from behind and roughly hauled backwards.
He struggled to get loose, but several sets of hands and tentacles had him by the upper arms and shoulders and he was half carried and half dragged away from the stretcher.
Primed to serve Lurana, Frevven's secondary system reacted violently to the sudden interruption. The imbalance between the relatively large amount of selyn he carried in his secondary system and the rapidly decreasing amount in his primary system brought him to the edge of chaos. He was unable to damp the dissonance that was now building to dangerous and deadly proportions. His muscles locked in spasm and his body stiffened.
By the time he was aware of anything other than his own agony, he found himself lying on the damp sand, miraculously engulfed in a soothing Gen nager.
Desperate now to restore balance to his out-of-kilter secondary system, he grabbed for the Gen pulling it into contact and working against the steady field. Frevven didn't even ask himself who it was: all he knew was that it was a willing, calm buffer he could use to pull himself together again, before another convulsion could tear him apart.
It was only when he was out of danger that he identified his rescuer as Tassi.
He broke contact with her and let her go, scrambling to his knees and trying to stand up. Her nager was tight, controlled. Her concern for her lover was easy to read, but she had tucked it away in a corner where it wouldn't interfere.
He caught a brief glimpse of Valthea's face, as she knelt next to the stretcher regarding her foster-mother with stricken eyes. He tried once more to plow through the crowd and reach Lurana.
Then Blance strode over to confront him.
"And just what do you think you're going to do?" the Gen demanded.
"I'm trying to save your transfer mate's life!" Frevven retorted. "She'll die if I can't get some selyn into her."
"We don't want any help from the likes of you."
"But you don't understand! You can't just let --"
"Now listen, channel. We don't allow that sort of Tecton perversion here."
"All right! Then find a Gen to serve her instead. But do it quickly."
No one volunteered. Every Gen on the island already had a transfer mate. In fact, there were likely to be several Simes in real trouble, if any of the Gen crew who had already served Lurana had transfer mates on shore. No, Frevven decided, on second thought, it was more likely that those Gens had been some of the few un-mated ones available. They would be the first ones pressed into service in an emergency like this.
"There isn't anyone to do it, is there?" Frevven challenged. "All your Gens are spoken for. You'll have to let me serve her."
"No," Lurana gasped. "Never. I'll die first."
Frevven hadn't counted on that. But he was sure he could overcome her resistance, if necessary. Smugly enjoying the discomfiture of his Distect captors, he almost didn't notice the sharp pang of grief Tassi was trying so hard to keep out of her nager. She ached to serve Lurana herself, he realized.
No! She was his Donor, his only hope. He couldn't let--
Wait. Lurana was only a renSime, not a channel. How much selyn did she need, after all? It would be a risk, but it might work.
He turned to Tassi, not seeing her but zlinning her with fierce concentration. Yes, she could do it. He took her wrist, tentacles twining gently around the soft Gen flesh. "Go to her," he said softly.
Frevven bit his lower lip and nodded. He couldn't let Lurana die. She had loved and cared for his daughter, after all. He owed her for that. He'd made do with inadequate Donors often enough. He could do it again. Besides, he had every intention of escaping before that became necessary.
Still Tassi hesitated, torn between love and duty. Lurana turned hungry eyes on her lover, but refused to plead.
"Go on," he urged. "Once she's out of danger, I can help heal her wounds. Your field will be high enough for me by the time of our transfer, don't worry."
Frevven was almost overwhelmed by Tassi's nageric burst of gratitude. She knelt by the stretcher, offering her hands to the dying woman.
The channel turned away and went determinedly hypoconscious. It wasn't easy to witness your Donor serving someone else.
Once it was over, he followed as Lurana was carried to her shack. He was about to step inside when Blance blocked the way, one arm propped against the doorpost. "We'll take care of her now."
Frevven glared at the Gen. "Oh? Have you got someone who can do healing functionals, then?"
"Let him by, Blance." Tassi's voice, hard, determined. "He's not going to hurt her and he's not going to give her transfer."
"How do you know?"
"Damn it, I know! Now let him in."
Blance stepped back with a black look. Despite his low field, he flared hatred at the channel.
As Frevven headed for his patient, Tassi ordered everyone else out of the shack.
The wound was bad. A wood splinter had ripped into Lurana's abdomen, leaving a ragged tear. Although someone had removed the splinter itself, the wound had continued to fester and leak selyn, while the infection spread rapidly through her abdominal cavity. It was one of the nastiest cases of peritonitis Frevven had ever encountered.
With Tassi's nager to support him, he worked patiently to manipulate the fields, staunching the flow of selyn from the wound and then encouraging Lurana's body to begin fighting the infection, using the fresh reserves of selyn she now had available. By the time she had lapsed into a deep sleep, Frevven was at the edge of exhaustion himself from the painstaking concentration he'd been holding for close to seven hours.
"There," he gasped, leaving Lurana's bedside to collapse into a chair. "She has a chance now, but it's still touch and go. I don't know if she has enough strength to overcome that infection."
Tassi gently tucked the covers around her lover. "I owe you one," she said, back still turned.
"Don't be silly. This is part of my job." He stretched his arms above his head. "Besides, it's a relief to actually function again. Once I rest a bit, I'll be in much better condition than I was before."
"That has nothing to do with it. You're our prisoner. You could have refused to help."
"Sorry, but I wasn't thinking of it that way. Next time I'll mind my own business," he said sourly.
"Hey, I was trying to thank you."
"Then get me off this damn island!" he retorted. He pulled off his glasses and rubbed his aching eyes. Then, realizing he was being unreasonable, he added, "I'm just tired. I know you can't do that. I apologize."
"Accepted. Now let's go let Val in to see Lurana, okay?"
For the rest of his life, Frevven would treasure the look on his daughter's face when she heard that Lurana was still alive. Even before she ran in to see her foster mother, Val flung her arms around his waist and hugged him. "Oh, I knew you could do it, Da -- Frevven," she corrected hastily.
Blance was not so pleased, although he couldn't conceal his grudging joy that his transfer mate still lived. "In future, I suggest you keep out of situations that are none of your business. You're becoming more trouble than you're worth."
Frevven glared at the other man. "I saved Lurana's life. That's more than any of you would do," he said with barely controlled rage.
"Channel, you're--" Blance began menacingly. Then, relenting, he mumbled "Thank you," before going inside to see Lurana.
Frevven sat outside Tassi's cabin, trying to keep his mind on the book in his hand but not succeeding entirely.
A crisp wind blew from the north, and the faint scent of woodsmoke floated in the air, carried from the fireplaces of the houses. Autumn was the season of dying, despite the brave show of green put on by the scrubby pine trees on the island.
Flickering sparkles of sun danced across the water, scattered and rearranged by the passing breeze. The V'LISSIA lay at anchor, looking strangely bereft without her mainmast, which had been taken down for repairs. Lacy clouds floated high in the air, trailing graceful streamers of mist. Overhead, the sky was a brilliant, clear blue.
Almost Zeor blue, Frevven noted sadly. There had to be a way out of here. There had to be.
Val appeared at the door of Lurana's cabin. She had moved back in with the injured woman, tending her with loving care. The girl dumped a basin of washwater into the sand, waved at Frevven, then ducked inside the house, only to reappear immediately without the basin. She headed towards him purposefully.
With a lump in his throat, Frevven watched his daughter approach. If only he could run to her and take her in his arms, as he had done so often when she was younger. But someone might see them.
"How's Lurana?" the channel asked, although he had just been in to check on her that morning.
"Pretty good." Val squatted on the doorstep. "They would have let her die, wouldn't they? If you hadn't been there?"
"They wouldn't have had a lot of choice, Val," he pointed out, trying to be fair. "It was just lucky Tassi was able to serve her --"
"That's not what I mean. They wouldn't let you give her transfer, even if she died. I saw them drag you away."
"Then you also heard Lurana refuse me, honey. They don't believe channels should come between Simes and Gens."
"Well, they're wrong." Val's voice dropped. "Daddy, I've seen a Gen die in transfer. I wasn't supposed to, but --" She pulled away when Frevven reached out to touch her. "I've also known Simes who committed suicide, when something happened to their transfer mates and there weren't any other Gens available." She looked at him, eyes narrowed. "It just doesn't work. Not like this. The Distect is wrong."
"The Tecton has its problems too, Val," Frevven was compelled to admit.
"Maybe." Something in the childish nager hardened and turned to determination. "Daddy, Lurana's been awfully good to me. But I'm going to be a channel someday. There's no place for me here." She got to her feet. "Next time we try, we'll get away," Valthea stated positively as she turned and walked off.
Frevven watched as she disappeared into Lurana's shack, surprised at the bitter vehemence in her voice. She thought he'd be able to get them out of this. He wished he had that much confidence himself.
For the next week, repair crews worked night and day on the V'LISSIA. As soon as the sloop was seaworthy once more, Blance sailed off with a fresh crew.
Frevven and Valthea stood on the beach looking out after the departing sailboat.
"Oh, so here you are," Tassi remarked as she strolled over to pin them. "I was wondering where you'd gotten off to."
"When do you suppose the V'LISSIA will be back?" Frevven asked nonchalantly.
She shrugged. "Might be awhile. Blance will probably want to get in touch with some of our contacts on shore, see what's going on in the rest of the world. Make arrangements to exchange you. And I wouldn't be surprised if he tried to capture another merchant vessel, if he finds one, since that last expedition was such a disaster."
Frevven didn't say anything. He just put his arm around Val's bony shoulders and stared out across the deserted harbor. This was just about his last chance. If arrangements were made quickly enough, he might yet be released. There was still almost a week before he'd be in need. There was time.
For five days they watched for the V'LISSIA to return, and every day they were disappointed. Frevven became increasingly oblivious to everything except Tassi, staring at her through slitted eyes that didn't see the Gen at all but merely the blazing radiance of her field.
He tried to tell himself that Tassi wasn't a trained Donor, that he shouldn't even be considering such a thing, that it could be dangerous, especially after the way she'd served Lurana. But against all his arguments, there was only Tassi, high field and getting higher. Even the small amount of selyn she'd given to her lover hadn't brought her field down by enough to matter.
Shen it all, if only Tassi hadn't been anywhere near a match for him, Frevven thought, he wouldn't be so torn. If it had been a clear case of either killing a Gen or dying in attrition, there would have been no possible choice. Whether or not his anti-kill conditioning functioned properly, he knew he'd die before he'd kill again.
But there were other things to worry about besides simply killing Tassi. Distect Simes were all technically junct, whether or not the Gens actually died. It appeared to be the result of the way they took transfer, with the Gen controlling. If he once had a Distect-style transfer, he'd be considered junct. When and if he got back to the Tecton, he was under no illusions as to what would happen to him there. He'd be condemned to die in one of the Last Year Houses, just like any other Sime who'd been juncted during the Distect Revolt and was too old to disjunct.
There were no two ways about it: he had to get away before his next transfer. The alternative was staying with the Distect for the rest of his life, and he refused to accept that.
After yet another endless day of waiting for a boat that didn't come, Frevven paced back and forth in his room. The house was dark, but everything was etched in painful detail in the lightless glow of Tassi's field. The Gen was sound asleep in her own room, happily oblivious to Frevven's tense frustration. Her sleeping nager should have had a calming effect on the restless channel, but Frevven only wished himself somewhere -- anywhere -- else, so he wouldn't be constantly exposed to the tempting field.
The thought of living always with Tassi available to him was sounding better all the time. It would be so easy. No more inadequate Donors. No more strangers every month.
And never functioning as a channel again. Denying everything he'd worked for and fought for so long and so hard.
He held out his hand, touching the Zeor/Tecton ring tenderly with the tip of one dorsal tentacle.
No. This was his life; what good was living, without everything that made life meaningful?
He curled his fingers into a fist and retracted his handling tentacles, raising both hands as if to pound on the wall behind which Tassi lay sleeping.
"No!" he whispered hoarsely. "No, no, no, no! Shen you all, I will not!"
A split second before his fists hit the wall, he realized how the impact would feel to his cringing laterals. And he certainly didn't want to waken Tassi and have her come running in to see what was wrong. He aborted the gesture abruptly, spreading fingers and tentacles to just touch the surface instead.
Then he rested his forehead gently on the rough wood between his hands. His laterals flicked out, seeking the nager on the other side of the wall. Frevven groaned and slowly slid down until he huddled on the floor.
What am I going to do?
Above his head, candlelight reflected off the streaks of ronaplin that had smeared along the wall. As the sky turned gray with the inexorable approach of another day, the desperate channel still sat in the same place, asking himself the same question.
When the morning sun shone through the window, Frevven pulled off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. The inside of his eyelids felt as if they had been rubbed with sandpaper. During the last couple of days, his eyes had refused to focus properly, especially if he were trying to read.
He dipped a washcloth into the pitcher of water on the nightstand and wrung it out. Then he stretched out on the bed and laid the damp cloth over his eyes. When he was in need, it was often easier not to see at all. At least then his brain wouldn't have to try to reconcile the blurred world of his eyes with the excruciatingly clear world he could zlin. Not for the first time, he wondered what he'd do when his eyes got so bad he never felt like opening them at all.
He willed himself to relax.
It didn't work. An hour later, he felt even worse.
Impatient with lying in bed, Frevven went into the main room of the house, moving quietly so as not to awaken Tassi. Asleep, she wasn't quite as tempting.
Wood was already neatly arranged in the crude stone fireplace, so he struck a match to the dry kindling and started it burning. It was only when he felt the warmth of the fire begin to heat up the small room that Frevven noticed how cold he was. He glanced out the window.
The morning sun was now obscured by low-flying clouds, and a cutting chill rode the wind. It promised to be a rainy day. Back at Santenkaty Landing, the leaves would be turning colors and falling from the trees.
Frevven went back to tending the fire.
It wasn't long until Tassi awoke, but before the Gen had finished dressing and come out of her room, heavy raindrops were already pelting the roof of the cottage. A leaky spot overhead began dripping water, so Frevven grabbed a large pot and positioned it under the drip, which was rapidly becoming a steady stream.
Tassi appeared, radiating amusement.
"I see you discovered our leak," she remarked.
"It's rather hard to miss." He clasped his hands behind his back, in order to shield his laterals from her field as much as possible.
Tassi bent over the fire. "Brr. Guess indian summer's about over."
Frevven shrugged. Despite his unwillingness, her nager drew him like iron to a magnet. If he let himself, he could easily drown in the Gen's lovely field.
Tassi stood up, toasting her back before the fire and leaning casually against the rough stone. The wind hesitated a second and then renewed its strength, sending several fat raindrops down the chimney to dissolve hissing in the flames.
"Frevven, why don't you quit being stubborn and let me serve you? You can't hold out much longer anyway, I can tell that. I'm perfectly willing. Have been all along."
The channel shook his head and turned away, going to stand by the rain-splattered window.
Tassi's field pulsed golden-bright around him, and he wished fervently that he could just let her serve him, without worrying about the consequences.
Incongruously, the image of his father flashed across his mind, standing tall beside him in the little wooden church at Chilton Lake as they prayed together. "-- and lead us not into temptation, but save us from the wiles of the Evil Ones, for the sake of Thy Power and Glory. Amen."
It had been many years since he'd thought of his father and his own childhood in the Church of the Purity. He'd thought he'd laid that ghost to rest many years ago.
Frevven almost laughed. This hadn't been exactly the kind of temptation Thomas Aylmeer had had in mind when he'd recited that prayer.
Without warning, Tassi's field rang to a sudden decision and then blazed fierce invitation, the air between them becoming charged with sheer intensity.
"No. Tassi, don't--" he choked out through clenched teeth, backing away.
-- and lead us not --
She focused in on him, smiling, stepping closer.
-- into temptation --
Frevven's back encountered the wall.
"Don't. Please, you don't know what --"
"Oh, yes, I do. I know exactly what I'm doing."
-- but save us from the Evil Ones --
But she didn't look evil, she didn't even zlin evil. She wanted only to help, to offer what he so desperately needed. And what choice did he have? He was out of time. Oh, he might hold out for another day, but to what end? There could be no help forthcoming from the Tecton soon enough to save him now, even assuming they wanted him back at all.
He couldn't even suicide, for that would mean leaving Val here alone. He was determined to survive long enough to get his daughter away from the Distect, one way or another.
He had just made up his mind to go through with the transfer, when Tassi's blazing invitation fragmented and fell apart. She turned away, leaving Frevven with his fingers half-curled and about to reach for her.
"Dammit, no!" she said, pacing angrily back and forth before the fireplace. "This isn't what you want at all, is it? Why try to fool myself? If I gave you transfer right now, it would be no better than -- than nageric rape. What's the matter with me, anyway? I don't want an unwilling Sime any more than you want to attack an unwilling Gen."
Frevven sat down on the edge of a hard-backed wooden chair and quietly had a fit. Here he'd finally decided he had no other choice and was willing to compromise his ideals and throw away his future, and now Tassi didn't want to cooperate. Barely able to think straight amidst the morass of her distress, frustration, and self-loathing, Frevven considered confiding in her about Valthea, and explaining his reasons for giving in at last.
And yet, it seemed foolish to give away their hard-kept secret to someone who was, in the final analysis, one of the enemy.
"Of course I don't want this," Frevven heard himself reply harshly. "But I don't want to die either."
Tassi stopped pacing and squatted down in front of him. The channel squeezed his eyes closed, but that did nothing whatsoever to lessen his intense awareness of the nearby selyn source. His laterals were already partially extended, and seemed to have ideas of their own as to what he should do next. He clamped his fingers onto his own thighs just to keep from reaching for Tassi.
Forcing his eyelids apart, he met the Gen's pale blue gaze as honestly as he could, hiding his inner turmoil behind an expression of disdain.
"There's some reason for your sudden change of heart, Frevven, but you're not going to tell me what it is, are you?"
"No reason. I just can't stand it any longer, that's all."
Tassi bit her lip and looked hurt. Frevven was overwhelmed with the desire to confide in her, to beg her help and friendship. But he didn't dare.
"Well, no matter what your reasons, I really don't want it to be like this. I know I could have you right now, even without trying very hard to entice you. But you'd only hate me afterwards, and all I stand for. What would that prove? Does it always have to be a case of who controls? Couldn't transfer just be something we do together? I don't want it to be like this."
"Tassi, will you stop all this soul-searching and let's just get this over, please? You are driving me up the wall." Frevven was surprised at how calm his voice sounded, when he actually felt like screaming and tearing his hair.
The Gen stood abruptly.
"No. I won't do it like this. There's something you're not telling me, some reason you're so anxious now, when you've been resisting all along. You're not in hard need yet. You're not all that desperate."
She turned her back and took a few steps away. This was too much for Frevven. He was on his feet and in front of the Gen before she had a chance to cross the room. But he didn't lay a hand on her, stopping her only by virtue of the fact that he was standing directly in front of her. Frevven was well aware he couldn't touch Tassi now, and expect to be able to let go of her again.
"You can't do this to me!"
"Oh yes I can. Unless you'd like to level with me?" Tassi smiled slowly. "No? Then kindly get out of my way."
Frevven glared at the frustrating, hateful, enticing creature in front of him, and his mind refused to function. Tassi watched the conflict in his greenish-gold eyes. Her nager wilted.
"Listen, I'll make you a deal. I know channels can do something to buy time for themselves. Some kind of a shunt or something, to shift selyn from one system to another? Is that a possibility for you?"
Frevven nodded, once more taken by surprise by this unpredictable Gen. A fundamental internal shunt was indeed a possibility, but he hadn't expected anyone here to even know what it was, much less be willing to do it. He had enough selyn in his secondary system to keep himself in pretty good shape for another two or three days.
"Good. Do that then, and think about what I said for a while. I don't like this situation much better than you do." She held out her hands. "Now, what do I have to do?"
"Nothing. Just hold steady, the same way you did when I was prevented from serving Lurana."
Tassi nodded. Her nager pulled into a tight golden glow, a solid bulwark of gently pulsing energy.
Crossing his wrists so his right hand grasped her right wrist and his left her left, Frevven made a cautious lateral contact. The Gen didn't so much as flicker. So far, so good.
Frevven made lip contact, turning his attention inward and using the resistance Tassi provided to shift as much selyn as he could from his cramped secondary system into his primary system.
He hadn't done a shunt all that often during the course of his professional career, but it wasn't particularly difficult. The hardest part turned out to be releasing Tassi when he was finished. Even if they weren't in proper transfer position, the contact felt so good that Frevven hated to give it up.
By late afternoon, the storm had cleared, leaving a bright, crisp fall day in its wake. Frevven zlinned something approaching, hoping against hope it might be the V'LISSIA returning to the island.
It wasn't long before Val came running in the door to confirm his hopes, her face flushed with excitement. "The V'LISSIA'S back, and they've brought another prize! Come and see!" She ran down to the beach, where a crowd had begun to gather.
With barely concealed eagerness, Frevven stood in the doorway looking out over the harbor. The prize was a small brig, doubtless part of the out-Territory shipping fleet. She was old and weathered, not very impressive in appearance, but she was still a good-sized ship to have been captured by something as small as the V'LISSIA. Blance had made up for his previous defeat in spades.
No sooner had both vessels been anchored and the first crew members rowed ashore than consternation swept through the assembled crowd like wildfire.
Frevven was on the verge of going down to see what was wrong when he was met by his daughter running in the opposite direction.
"I wouldn't go out there," she cautioned, standing in front of him. "We just got the news that Jess Valleroy was defeated almost three weeks ago at Leander Field, and you're not likely to be the most popular person on the island right now.
"Defeated? Are you sure?" Frevven hardly dared let himself hope. Could it be over, at last?
Behind them, Tassi stifled a moan and slumped down in the nearest chair.
"Is there any news of Muryin Farris?" he asked, suddenly fearing the worst.
"She disappeared in the battle. No one knows what happened to her."
Frevven closed his eyes and bit his lip, picturing Muryin on the day he had pledged to Zeor. Somehow, he couldn't convince himself that winning a battle, however important, mattered as much as losing his Sectuib. She had been a very special person. But perhaps she was still alive, he reminded himself.
Tassi covered her face with both hands and began to cry, her nager shivering in misery. Frevven felt her flicker through sorrow to hopeless despair, and he didn't know what to say. What if it had been the other way around, and the Tecton had been defeated?
"Tassi, I -- I'm sorry," was all he could think of.
"It's over," she replied tonelessly, staring into the fire. "All the dreams, the hopes we had of a bright new future. Everything that might have been possible --"
Irrationally, Frevven felt the impulse to comfort her, tell her it wasn't over yet, that there was more to the Distect than just Valleroy's group. But that wouldn't be much consolation. The defeat at Leander would have broken the back of the Distect's resistance, and while it might not happen overnight, it was sure to spell the eventual end of the ill-fated revolt.
He pulled himself together, placing a hand on his daughter's shoulder and leading her towards the door. "Why don't you go find out whatever else you can about the battle? And about the captured brig?" he added in a lower voice.
Val nodded, then ran into the street.
Frevven shaded his eyes with his hand and squinted through the doorway at the two ships at anchor in the harbor. With a little cooperation from the weather, he and Val might make it out of here yet. There were still two days before he'd be in hard need, thanks to the shunt he'd done. And he might be able to stretch it a day or so beyond that. Surely, they'd have a fair wind some night before then.
Val came back shortly before suppertime. Frevven met her at the door, as Tassi set about heating up leftovers for their meal, making up a small plate of food to take to Lurana also. The Sime was still weak, but seemed to be improving.
Across the harbor, the sky blazed with the bright colors of an autumn sunset.
"Rifles," Valthea whispered incongruously, outlined against a pink and orange band of clouds. "Gunpowder, lots of it, and even a few cannons. The brig was carrying munitions and military supplies for the Tecton." As Tassi moved closer to the door, Val raised her voice and pointed. "Oh, look! The first star! Make a wish."
Tassi handed Val a covered dish to take to Lurana, then went back to the fireplace. Val's voice dropped again. "I'll make a wish," she said fiercely. "May some clumsy Gen accidentally drop a match somewhere on that brig and blow this island sky high."
Then she ducked out the door, leaving behind only a lingering sense of bitterness.
A half-formed idea teased the edges of Frevven's mind.
Once again, he anxiously watched the weather, waiting for the wind to blow hard from the right direction.
A high pressure area settled over the island, bringing with it a cold and starlit night followed by a sunny, windless day. Frevven cursed to himself as he glared at the bright blue sky and the bay. The water lay unruffled by any hint of a breeze, whether fair or foul. He bent and picked up a handful of coarse sand from the beach, letting it sift through his fingers. Just as inexorably as that sand, his time was running out.
Angered, he tossed the sand at the lapping waves. Some of it stuck in the wetness of the ronaplin seeping from his lateral orifices. He wiped it off on the front of his jacket and turned back toward the town, wanting to check on how Lurana was doing. She'd taken a turn for the worse the night before, but he had worked over her carefully and thought he'd conquered the last of the lingering infection.
When he reached the cottage, Lurana was sitting outside the door in the sunshine. She waved cheerfully when she saw him coming.
Yes, he could zlin that she was much better. She'd doubtless require transfer a bit early this month, but Blance could handle that. His field was rising nicely, Frevven noted, as the Gen came to the door with a cup of tea for his transfer mate.
Seeing Frevven, he scowled and turned away.
"Blance, how about that message you were going to send to the Tecton, arranging for my ransom?" Frevven asked before the other man could leave. "Any luck?"
"It'll get through, don't worry," the Gen said gruffly. Then he disappeared into the house, flaring resentment that might have covered guilt, or might not. His answer had been rather ambiguous. Frevven cursed himself for not wording the question in such a way as to require a definite yes or no. At best then he'd have been able to zlin if Blance had lied about it.
Frevven bid Lurana good day and headed back to Tassi's shack. Just outside the door, he stopped short. The ambient showed a heavy strain of sadness, carried by her blazing field.
Frevven leaned against the doorpost, unwilling to enter the cabin and expose himself further to her unhappiness. She'd been obviously miserable ever since they'd heard the news of Leander Field. He could hear her strumming chords on some sort of stringed instrument, singing a few words, repeating, trying different chords.
Then she began the song, her strong contralto coming clearly to Frevven's ears despite the wooden door separating them. He listened in silence, not wanting to barge in on her at that moment.
The long night is coming, the bright day is past, And I feel the sunset upon me at last. My body is broken, so here I must lie, And sing one last song to Leander's dark sky. - All of my life, I've known only one hate, The sickly gray shadows that call themselves Fate. They bid us to crawl when we know we could run, And they cut us down when we reach for the sun. - When Leander went Distect, the shadows said, "No! There's risk in such freedom; pull back and go slow." But we laughed and we called all the world in our pride To put down the shadows and learn not to hide. - We played them our music, we sang them our song, We thought they would join us -- it seems we were wrong. The fear was too deep and the hate was too strong, Now there's silence and shadows for God knows how long. - But whoever can hear me, you must wait and hold on, For the night that has fallen must die with the dawn. The end of all shadows is as certain as need, And the dawn of that day will be morning indeed. * -
* "Leander Field" copyright 1985 by Cathy Klessig. Reprinted by permission of the author.
Tassi's voice trembled on the last line, but the bleak desolation in her nager gathered into one last determined bit of newborn hope. Frevven shivered from the sheer intensity of feeling. He pushed his glasses back up on his nose, wiping a tear from his cheek as he did so. Scraping his feet noisily on the doorstep, he turned the knob and entered the room.
"That was a beautiful song.
"You think so? A friend of mine from the House of Alro wrote it. It reached me the same day we heard the news about Leander. Great timing, huh?" Her nager twisted with grim irony.
House of Alro? He'd never heard of them. Must be some Distect Householding.
"Yes. It -- almost made me understand how you feel."
"You mean that?"
He nodded. She turned her eyes away, a twinge of guilt muddying her nager.
"Frevven, there's something I have to tell you."
He just looked at her and raised one eyebrow. Tassi hesitated a moment, then plunged ahead.
"I don't suppose Blance will be happy about my telling you this but I will anyway. You know how he intended to send a message about you, about maybe the Tecton getting you back? Well, he couldn't. The people we usually trade with refused to take it. They almost wouldn't do business with Blance's messengers at all, knowing about Leander and everything. They claimed that now the Distect's losing, they're afraid of being caught."
Frevven's heart sank, but he didn't want Tassi to see the extent of his dismay. That had been his last chance, but the news wasn't entirely unexpected, considering Blance's evasive attitude a short time ago. "I thought something like that might happen. It was good of you to let me know. I might have gone on hoping."
"That's not all. We're leaving the Haven next week. It's too dangerous here now. We're going to take the V'LISSIA and the brig and try to make it to a Distect hideout in Gulf Territory. They'll be able to put the munitions to good use."
"Yeah. More fighting, more dying. Aren't you ready to give up yet?"
"Would you give up?" she challenged.
"No. Probably not."
"Frevven, stay with us. Stay with me. It could be good."
He stared at her in surprise. Did she really think it was that simple? And yet, it could be good.
She held out her hands, projecting cautious invitation.
Frevven turned on his heel and hastened from the room. But part of him wanted desperately to accept that kind invitation.
Just before sunset, clouds drifted in to cover the sky. A rain squall came through after dark and a light breeze began to blow.
As the evening wore on, the wind strengthened. Frevven watched the weather with increasing excitement. This was it. If he and Val didn't get off the island tonight, it would be too late. He was about to think of an excuse to go to Lurana's cabin and alert his daughter when he zlinned her approaching the door.
She knocked softly, then let herself in. She was bundled up in several sweaters and a tattered, oversized jacket. "Brr. Cold outside tonight," she said, pulling off her mittens and tucking them into a pocket.
But it wasn't nearly cold enough to warrant what she was wearing. She had come prepared to escape.
"Hello, Valthea. What can we do for you?" Tassi inquired, adding quickly, "Is Lurana all right?"
"Well, she says she is, but I think she looks a little uncomfortable. Maybe if you went and sat with her for a while, just until she falls asleep--?"
"Where's Blance? Why isn't he with her?"
Val averted her eyes. "He's spending the night at Suzi's house. I didn't think I should go there to get him."
Tassi gave a short laugh. "No, I guess you shouldn't. They might not like being disturbed."
"I could go look at Lurana, if you wish," Frevven said, hoping to get out of the house with Valthea and leave Tassi behind.
Val gave a little start of surprise. That was evidently not the way she had planned it.
Then Frevven noticed Tassi staring at them both. Uncertainty flickered briefly through her field, then a shimmer that told of definite suspicion. Uh-oh.
"Come here, Val," Tassi said. She placed a hand on the girl's shoulder. "Wasn't your father named Frevven Aylmeer?"
Caught off balance, Val gulped and nodded. "How did you know?"
"A long time ago, I overheard V'lissia telling you never to mention it." She turned her pale eyes on the channel. "I've heard a few rumors about you. Aylmeer was your last name, before you pledged Zeor, wasn't it? You're Val's father."
Val and Frevven looked at each other, but neither said a word.
Tassi continued to stare at them. "Okay, so don't admit it. But I've suspected it for some time now. I was pretty friendly with V'lis before she died. She didn't say much about Val's father, but the few things she did say fit you pretty well."
Tassi let go of Val and rested her chin on her hand, studying them. "You're going to steal another skiff and try to escape again," she said matter of factly, holding up the other hand to forestall Frevven's protest. "No, I won't try to stop you. In fact, I wish you luck."
Frevven let her believe that was the full extent of his plan. She might not be so cooperative if she knew the rest of it.
"Frevven, think about it. It's not likely to be easy to row to the mainland. You'll probably have to augment, right? And you're in active need already. Even if you get away, do you really want to find yourself alone with Val on your way to the shore? What kind of shape will you be in by then? Simes have been known to attack children. I've heard of it happening."
Not my own daughter!
"I'd never do that. I'd die first," he said flatly.
"Will you be in any condition to make that choice? Are you sure?"
Seeing the frightened look in Val's eyes, Frevven knew what he wanted to be able to answer. He also knew the truth. "No, dammit, I'm not sure!"
Tassi held out her hands. She didn't have to speak: the invitation was written in her nager.
Frevven shuddered. Shen it all, she was right. He'd never make it to the mainland without a transfer, might not even be able to carry off their escape, with insufficient selyn to allow him to augment. And if he should lose control, turn on Val --
There was no choice anymore, unless he was willing to risk his daughter's life.
Mistaking the anguish on his face for unwillingness, Tassi winced. She dropped her hands to her sides, trembling on the verge of tears. Then she crumbled.
"I--I could try to let you control the transfer," she offered plaintively. "Everyone would be terribly angry, I'm sure, but it's really none of their business. I don't know if I could do it that way, but I could try. Then it would be like the transfers you're used to, and not so terrible at all, right?"
Frevven hadn't reckoned on this. He'd never in his wildest dreams thought Tassi would be willing to relinquish control of the transfer. But could she, after all? Years of experience with Distect-style transfers would be hard to reverse all at once. And Tassi might well prove capable of overcontrolling him, if it came to a contest.
It probably wouldn't work, but Frevven was more touched than he wanted to admit by the fact that Tassi would put herself in a position that must surely compromise all her own beliefs and ideals, just to offer her Tecton prisoner a way out of the impasse.
"Shenshid, I feel like an idiot arguing against myself like this," Tassi went on when Frevven failed to reply, "but I owe you for Lurana's life." She grinned bleakly and offered her hands once again. "I won't do a shendi-flamed thing. Honest."
With the sweet knowledge that Tassi was his, the need he'd been denying overwhelmed him in an almost palpable flood. His laterals extended hungrily and he could feel ronaplin running down between his clenched fingers. He wanted to believe her, trust her not to try any Distect tricks.
He had to believe her. There was nothing else to do.
For a frozen instant of time, Frevven watched Val's eyes grow wide in astonishment as she saw the look on his face. Then he had hold of Tassi and was pulling her to him, his laterals making contact even as their lips met.
Tassi did as she'd promised, going totally passive and letting Frevven control. As Frevven found that the Gen was having no problem keeping up with him, he let himself draw faster and faster in an ecstasy of relief he'd experienced in few transfers lately. Sensing there was something more Tassi could give, but wasn't, Frevven was almost tempted to demand it of her, forgetful of the consequences.
Instead, he ended the transfer abruptly and released her, not giving himself a chance to weaken. He backed away and sat down hard on a chair by the dying fire.
He replayed the transfer in his mind, simultaneously assessing his present condition. Had Tassi done anything to him that he hadn't noticed, anything even vaguely Distect? Frevven shuddered. If she had, he couldn't notice it. Other than that restrained promise of unfulfilled potential, it had been just like an ordinary Tecton transfer. Well, better than ordinary, perhaps. But still Tecton.
He felt terrific and terrible both at once and couldn't seem to decide if he wanted to laugh or cry. He pulled off his glasses with one hand and covered his face with the other, sucking his bottom lip in between his teeth to trap the hysteria rising in his throat.
"Daddy?" Val's voice was strangled and small, and her hand rested gingerly on his knee, like a frightened animal.
There was no time for this, no time at all. Post-syndrome, he told himself firmly, would just have to wait. They had to get going.
Frevven replaced his glasses on his nose and tried to think clearly. The world was blurry and ordinary again, the intensity and acute selyn-awareness of need gone for now. He got to his feet, surprised to find that his knees were fairly steady.
"Tassi, come with us," he pleaded. "You know the Distect is finished. It's just a matter of time. You don't have to stay and go down with it."
"Yes, come," Val put in. "If you'll come, I know Lurana would too. Oh, please!"
"No. By your standards, Lurana is junct. She couldn't live under the Tecton, and neither could I." But there was a flicker of uncertainty in her now-dim nager.
"Of course, you could! If you can handle a transfer like that, you'd have no trouble Qualifying as a Donor."
"That's exactly the problem, Frevven. I couldn't do it like that, not for the rest of my life." She grimaced. "It's -- it's unnatural and vile. How long do you think I could go on, against my own conscience? How many times could I give only part of what I'm capable of? How long could I live with myself, like that?"
"But there are First Order Donors who'd love to be able to do what you just did!"
Tassi shook her head in silent denial. "No. You only think it was good because you don't dare allow yourself anything more."
Frevven wanted to answer that, but couldn't. It sounded all too true. Safely out of temptation, he let himself wonder what it might have been like Tassi's way. Could it really be so terrible? Were all the Tecton's rules and controls so necessary, after all? The Distect Gens were unharmed by their transfers; he had seen that for himself. Couldn't all Gens learn to be the same? Wasn't it possible?
Then he remembered his out-Territory childhood, the looks on all those faces as they fervently prayed for the destruction of all Simes.
No, those Gens would not learn. Not in one lifetime, in one generation. Maybe, given enough time? The Tecton, restrictive rules and all, had shown that it could work, could perhaps buy the time it would take until the world was ready for what the Distect could maintain now only in small protected communities. He shook his head sadly. How long would it be?
And, of course, Lurana couldn't live under the Tecton. She'd be in the same position he'd have been in had he taken the sort of transfer Tassi wanted to give. She was technically junct.
"Daddy, come on. We've got to get out of here." Val's impatient voice recalled him to reality. He looked at Tassi, unwilling to leave her and yet unable to make her come with them.
Tassi smiled, her expression belying what showed all too clearly in her dim nager. "Good-bye, Frevven, and good luck. Maybe someday your world will be ready to accept what my world has to offer."
"I hope so, Tassi. I truly do." There was more he wanted to say, a lot more, but there was no time now to say it. And no way he could.
Tassi held out her arms to Val, and the girl ran into them. For a long moment, they hugged each other. "Tell Lurana I love her," Val said, in a voice full of tears.
"I will, honey. I will."
Tassi released Valthea and stood back. "You take care of her now," she said sternly to Frevven. "You hear?"
Tassi turned away abruptly and went into her room, closing the door quietly behind her. Val was already peeking around the corner of the outside door, anxious to be on their way.
"I don't see anyone, Daddy. Can you zlin anything?" she whispered.
Frevven pushed all thought of Tassi out of his mind and concentrated on the business at hand. It wasn't easy to zlin so soon after transfer, but years of poor eyesight had forced him to learn to depend primarily on his Sime senses, and so it wasn't as difficult for him as it might have been for another channel.
"No one's around," he confirmed. "Or at least, no one who's not asleep. Come on. Let's go."
Together, they headed out into the windy night, making their way towards the beach.
The captured brig showed up clearly in the light of the full moon as it rode to its anchor in the deepest end of the harbor. Upwind of her but not too far away, the V'LISSIA sat safely at her mooring. The wind stirred up small waves in the bay, casting them against the beach with a steady mutter of unquiet water and disturbed sand.
Val looked questioningly at her father, wondering exactly what he had in mind. He headed for a very small dory near the water's edge.
"I'll row you out to the V'LISSIA and you get her ready to sail. Can you do that?"
She nodded, following as he pushed the little boat into the waves.
"Good. Have everything ready. I want to be able to slip the anchor and get under way as soon as I'm back on board."
"What are you going to do?" They jumped aboard and Frevven began rowing.
"Set fire to the brig and set it adrift. When it goes ashore on the beach, it should create enough of a diversion to let us get away unnoticed."
Val stifled a squeal of excitement and stopped herself before she could clap her hands in delight. "Let me go with you, Daddy. I want to do it too," she begged.
"No. We have to move fast, while everyone's still confused over what's happening. You just get the sloop ready. I'll handle the brig."
She looked at the night and the wind, considering. "If it goes up on the beach there --" she pointed to a spot downwind of the brig -- "It will be far enough from the settlement so that no one will be hurt if it blows up."
"Right," Frevven said, grinning at how quickly his daughter understood. "And there are plenty of small boats left that can be used to get off the island later on, if everyone has to leave." He'd debated tying the rudder over and sending the fireship into the cluster of skiffs and dories hauled up on the beach nearer the houses, but he honestly didn't want to leave the little community trapped and at the mercy of the Tecton forces who would surely come to investigate, once he'd made his report.
They were alongside the V'LISSIA now. Val seized hold of the rail and pulled herself over the side.
"Be careful, Daddy." Her voice drifted down from the deck and her face was a pale smudge in the darkness above him. Frevven waved and left her there.
He rowed around the brig until he came to the boarding ladder, then climbed swiftly up to the deck. Wind whistled through the rigging with a restless keening sound, and the ship creaked as it rocked on the small waves. Frevven zlinned no one on board, as he had suspected. Without a second thought, he ducked down the forward companionway and searched until he found an axe, several lanterns, some matches, and a container full of lamp oil. He carried his supplies back up on deck, ready for the next step in his plan.
Setting down the axe at the bow, near the heavy anchor line, he lit the lanterns and turned their flames up high. He dropped one down a hatch, smashed another on the deck, watching the flames spread greedily across the dry wood.
He dumped the oil over a good-sized coil of line and set it afire. It ignited with a loud poof and flames leapt up into the rigging. As soon as he was satisfied that the brig was well afire, Frevven raced forward to where he'd left the axe and brought it down on the anchor line with all the strength he could muster. The line parted, each side whipping violently away. The axe buried itself in the deck.
Frevven took one last look at the holocaust he'd created. Then he raced aft and jumped into the little skiff, entirely satisfied.
Released from its anchor, the brig swung around and began to drift toward shore.
Frevven turned his back on the fireship, heading for the dark silhouette of the V'LISSIA. He heard shots from the sentry post on the point, an effort to alert the town to the emergency.
Good. With all attention focussed on the flaming brig, no one would pay much heed to further shots, if the sentry later fired on the V'LISSIA.
He reached the sloop and climbed up onto the deck. Val stood waiting. All the stops were off the sails, the halyards free and ready to run. For a moment, she stared at the blazing ship, almost aground now in the shallow water near the beach. Then she shook herself free of her fascination and glanced at Frevven, a wild grin frozen on her face.
"Take the wheel," he said. "I'll hoist the sails."
As Val scampered aft, Frevven went to the main halyard and had the sail up almost before Val reached the wheel. It flapped and slatted uselessly, since the boat was still moored and facing directly into the wind.
Running forward, Frevven took the jib halyard in his hand. The triangle of sail lengthened ahead and above him as he hauled on the line, then hurried to make the starboard sheet fast.
He cast off the anchorline and let it run overboard, as Val put the helm over. The sails hardened and began to fill. The sloop heeled over to starboard.
Father and daughter laughed aloud as the V'LISSIA continued to turn and then steadied on a heading toward the narrow harbor entrance.
They were moving faster now, gathering speed as the mainsail caught the wind. The night smelled of smoke and the flames from the burning ship reflected off the water and lit up the beach. So far it seemed no one had noticed them.
Realizing he had been augmenting almost constantly since he'd set foot on the brig, Frevven dropped back to normal. How would he ever have managed without that transfer with Tassi?
They'd barely steadied up on their heading when the land closed in around them, the narrow fairway ahead clearly visible in the bright moonlight. Heeled over at a steep angle in the stiff breeze, the sloop plowed through the sparkling strip of water like a silent ghost, leaving a white-flecked wake behind her. Frevven held tight to the rail in order not to lose his footing and struggled to go hyperconscious as he watched the dark shadow of the land move swiftly by. Not far ahead, the moon shone on open water.
Then he became aware of a burst of sudden surprise from the near shore, fuming rapidly into astonishment and anger.
"Val, take cover!" he shouted aft. "We've been spotted!"
His warning was followed by the crack of a rifle, as he ducked down in the shelter of the wooden side of the boat. Val remained stubbornly at the wheel, hunched over but still exposed. Frevven realized abruptly that if she let go of the wheel, the V'LISSIA would round up into the wind and go aground. Another shot rang out and splinters flew from the main boom above her head, but Val stood firm.
Frevven gathered his feet beneath him and risked an augmented dash aft, but even as he ran, light flashed across the sky as the burning brig exploded. The sound washed over them, gaining momentum and rumbling louder as more of the munitions went up. There were no more shots from the sentry.
The channel stopped and stared. They were already out of the harbor entrance and leaving the land behind by the time he got back to his daughter at the wheel.
Her eyes sparkled with pride. "We did it! We're free!" she announced in amazement.
As the Distect island shrank behind the V'LISSIA, Val cast a practiced eye over the sloop.
"Where do we go?" she asked.
"Danversport. Northeast Coast Territory, at the mouth of the Passaconway River."
Val gave him an exasperated look. "That's not on the compass," she explained patiently. "I've got to have a course, a direction I can steer."
Frevven consulted the built-in map in his head and then looked at the magnetic compass. It must have been installed for the convenience of the Gens on the crew, since such things weren't used in Sime Territory. He wasn't familiar enough with the device to read it properly, so he just pointed. "There, that little mark not far from the 'N'."
Val glanced knowledgeably at the compass card. "Uh-huh. North by West, three-quarters West. Got it. We won't even have to tack." She turned the wheel a few spokes, bringing the V'LISSIA onto its new course. "Danversport, here we come."
She grinned up at him.
Home, he thought. And my daughter is with me.
He couldn't resist giving her a big hug.
"Aw, Daddy, cut it out," Val protested. "You're making me go off course."
"Aye, aye, captain," he replied, as he let her go.
They both laughed. Behind them, the Distect Island faded into the distance, a tiny blazing speck in the vast expanse of ocean surrounding them.
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