The Way To Zeor

By Kerry Lindemann-Schaefer

Reprinted from Ambrov Zeor #17

"This one, Daddy. Read me this one. Uncle Chaynek gave me the book, but Mommy won't read it to me much."

Frevven Aylmeer looked at the blue cover, read the title, and winced. Two as One: A Zeor Children's Bedtime Story*. (*See ZEOR FORUM #2 for the complete text of this story.) No wonder V'lissia wouldn't read it. Well, V'lis was away until tomorrow and Valthea was spending the night with him, and if this was the story she wanted to hear, so be it.

He turned the page and began the familiar tale of the two twin sisters, more intent on watching his little daughter than on the words he read. Only yesterday she'd been an infant, and now here she sat on his lap, a regular little girl. And the brief time he'd spent with her in between seemed so short, with her mother always sent here, there, and yon on assignments. But that's how it was in the Tecton these days: even had he and V'lissia been married, they'd have had to deal with long separations in the course of their duties. At least for the past year, they'd both been here at Santenkaty Landing together. But how much longer could that last?

He faltered, losing his place in the story and picking up where he thought he'd left off.

"No," Valthea interrupted, looking up at him in righteous indignation and turning the page. "You read that already. You should be here." She pointed.

Candlelight reflected in her greenish-gold eyes, the same shade as his own, but bigger, softer. Yes, the eyes are mine, he thought, but is anything else? Looking down obediently to the new page, he took up the thread of the story once more and continued reading.

" 'But Grandfather, where is this mountain from which we start the journey at the beginning of every story about Zeor?'

"Grandfather stared into the fire for a long moment and replied, 'The legends only say that when someone both desires and needs its light, the way to Zeor will be found.' "

Frevven reached to turn the page with one tentacle, but Val prevented him by spreading her small hand over the illustration of the old man talking to his grand-daughters.

"Will I be able to find the way to Zeor, Daddy?" Valthea asked.

"I don't know," he replied, taken by surprise. "Goodness knows, I never have, although I've certainly wanted it enough." He glanced over at the crackling fire on the hearth and wondered that such a simple question could make him feel so empty inside.

"Mommy says you're silly to care. She says Householdings are old-fashioned and dumb."

"Oh, really?"

"I think Mommy's wrong. I think it would be fun to be in a Householding." She looked up at her father for approval.

"Well, maybe someday you'll get a chance to find out." This was beginning to hurt. He wanted to go back to the safety of the story, but her hand still covered the words.

"Daddy, when you were little, did you want to be a Sime?" The question was asked lightly, but Frevven sensed more concern than the girl was showing. He hesitated, not sure how much of his experience was beyond the comprehension of a six-year-old, but unwilling to lie about it either.

"No, I didn't. Where I grew up, there were only Gens. It was thought a terrible thing to become Sime. I wished with all my heart to be a Gen."

"Oh." She thought this over for a moment before she went on. "But didn't you ever have a feeling you might be Sime?"

Frevven shook his head. "No. Only in my nightmares."

"But a channel is supposed to know," she persisted.

"Val, if you know something, but never allow your mind to admit that you know, then you don't really know, do you?"

She looked perplexed at that. Then she drew herself up and announced proudly, "Well, I know. I'm going to be a channel, just like you."

Uh-oh, Frevven thought. Her mother's going to be furious if she thinks I've been putting ideas like this in the child's head.

"That's nice, Val, and it's very possibly true. But it'll be a good number of years yet before we'll know for certain."

She shook her head, long brown braids whipping the air. "I know," she repeated. "You'll see."

"There's plenty of time yet before you grow up, my little one. Let's not rush things. Now, how about letting me finish this story? It's way past your bedtime."

They turned back to the book. Outside the open window, a long peal of distant thunder growled over the countryside and dim lightning played on the edge of the sky.

Tamsin Farris glanced up from her work as Chaynek came through her office door, still shaking rain off his soggy coat. He was followed by a young Sime girl. Tam closed the folder she had been reading and placed it in the appropriate stack of papers on her overloaded desk as she smiled warmly at the new arrivals and stood up.

"Chaynek, so nice to see you again. It's been almost a year, hasn't it?" she greeted the Gen.

"Truly, I believe it has," he replied, laying his coat and briefcase on a chair. He stepped aside so that he no longer blocked the girl behind him, turned slightly, and continued, "Tamsin, may I present Nikosha Santoro? Nikki, this is Hajene Tamsin Farris. She's the local Controller and the Director of the Santenkaty Center.

Cold blue eyes stared at Tam, on a level with her own. Nikosha was tall for her age; tall, and perhaps pretty, but for the sullen expression on her face and a seething mess of resentment and anger in her field. Tamsin gritted her teeth and kept smiling. "I'm pleased to meet you, Nikosha. Or do you prefer to be called Nikki?"

"I don't much care what you call me," the girl replied tonelessly. "They sent me here because they couldn't handle me at Willimantic. You won't be able to handle me either, so let's just leave it at that."

Chaynek caught Tam's eye and she could read just the slightest bit of amusement in his nager. This kid obviously thought she was tough. Tamsin was used to resentment and anger in new arrivals. After all, they were mostly out-Territory youngsters sent to the Santenkaty Landing Center for disjunction. The ones that weren't angry were usually depressed and withdrawn, and, of the two alternatives, Tam much preferred anger. At least it meant they still cared what happened. But she usually got them right away, still in shock over having killed, homesick, and barely able to understand what was happening to them. This girl had obviously been around. Her Simelan, although badly accented, was much better than the average new arrival's.

As Chaynek opened his briefcase and dug through it for the papers he wanted, Tamsin appraised her newest charge. There was more than hurt and resentment; there was a genuine cold hatred in this girl's nager. And a controlled intensity that was unusual for one so young.

And something else. She couldn't quite put a tentacle on it. Her forehead creased in a slight frown as she absently took the proffered papers from Chaynek's hand. Yes, that's it, she realized, before looking down at the forms. This kid's a channel. A junct channel.

As she glanced briefly through the official admission papers, Tam found her assessment verified. Not only was the girl a channel, she was the daughter of Benford Santoro, an influential out-Territory politician. This could be a tricky one. The father was keeping close track of his daughter's fate. The whole thing very much resembled the proverbial hot potato, being juggled from hand to hand and finally dumped in her lap.

"Well, you may not want to be here, Nikki," Tam said, determinedly keeping her consternation out of her showfield and projecting only a warm welcome, "but we're glad to have you and we'll do our best to see to your welfare. Chaynek, you know where the Admitting Office is. Will you escort Nikki over there, please? They'll see she's settled in a room and oriented to what goes on around here. And how about you? Will you be staying with us, or are you on your way elsewhere?"

Chaynek's face lit up with his usual deceptively-innocent smile and his wide brown eyes twinkled mischievously, making him look much younger than his 46 years.

"Truly, I think I'll be staying here for a couple of weeks at least, Tam." He pulled a small green transfer assignment form out of his pocket and offered it to her. "I'm your Donor this month."

She laughed, reading her name and his on the paper. "Chaynek, you shendi-flamed tease, you might have told me right off, you know. I've been wondering why I hadn't gotten my official notification yet."

"Well, I told the District Controller I'd let you know, and I have." He turned his attention to Nikki, who lounged impatiently against the wall near the door. "Shall we go?"

Nikki jerked the door open and left without a backward glance or a good-bye. Chaynek shrugged and followed her.

After they had left, Tamsin sat down behind her desk and leafed through Nikki's chart once again. Not good. Not good at all. Totally uncooperative. Two suicide attempts. It only got worse as Tam read on. Nikki was almost at the end of First Year, having already failed the first time she had reached disjunction crisis. This would be her last chance, and she'd probably reach crisis again in another month or two. Tam's heart sank.

This was not the sort of case she wanted just now. Distect protests and agitation had created a tense political situation during the past year. Authorities in the surrounding Gen Territories were not pleased, fearing the Distect's outspoken insistence on the right of direct Sime/Gen transfer. The failure to disjunct, or the death in disjunction, of an out-Territory politician's daughter would be just one more incident to fan the flames of misunderstanding and distrust. This was certainly poor timing, to say the least.

She picked up a pad of inter-office memos and scrawled on the first one.

"Frevven, This one's yours. Good luck!

T. F."

Then she clipped the note to Nikki's file and flipped it into her Out basket.

Several times during the remainder of that night, she went back to the chart, each time wondering if she shouldn't assign Nikki to some other channel. The girl would probably fail, regardless of who handled the case. It might be best to play it safe. Then, if anything went wrong, no one would ask why such an important case had been given to a disjunct channel. A failure wouldn't look good for Frevven either, even if it was pretty hopeless.

Once she even took the memo off the chart, crumpled it, and tossed it into her wastebasket, only to rewrite it again two minutes later.

Shen and shid, Frevven was the best channel on the disjunction ward. He had the best success record. She was even thinking of asking him to take over as head of the ward. Why shouldn't he get this case?

Angry with herself for letting outside factors influence her judgement, she laid Nikki's chart once more in its place and steadfastly refused to consider the matter further.

The following morning dawned bright and clear, with only a few scattered puddles to bear witness to last night's rainstorm. As Frevven threaded his way through the maze of buildings making up the Santenkaty Landing Center for Special Problems, a gust of wind blew along the street, shaking brightly-colored leaves from trees and sending them flying down towards the river. A short stretch of gray-green water was visible between buildings, and the channel watched its surface stirred into brief patches of glimmering light as the breeze passed over the broad expanse of the Passaconway and lost itself in the forest on the far bank. Soon the wind would turn more northerly, and snowflakes would fly over a frozen river. But not yet.

How many years now had he watched this river flow down to the sea? Frevven frowned, calculating. Would it be seven years next spring? Yes, for then his daughter would be seven years old. The time had passed so fast it was almost frightening.

As he turned the corner by the administrative offices and cafeteria, his preoccupied gaze was caught by a hand-printed poster stuck to the brick wall of the building. MAKE LOVE, NOT SCHEDULES! it proclaimed in large red letters.

Frevven readjusted his glasses on his nose with one dorsal tentacle and squinted his myopic eyes at the smaller print under the slogan. Since the letters still refused to form more than a grey fuzz, he crossed the street to see them closer.

He wasn't pleased with what he read. The poster announced a Distect rally to protest the arrest of several persons for illegal transfer.

He pried the poster loose, fresh glue still glistening against the wall. Crumpling the whole thing into a sticky ball of damp paper, Frevven continued along the street, encountering and destroying several more of the offensive posters before he retraced his steps and went in the building's side entrance, climbing the stairs to the offices on the second floor. He dropped the double handful of squashed paper into a wastebasket and stopped in the bathroom to wash the glue off his fingers and tentacles before heading for his office.

Several hours later, Frevven looked up from the paperwork on his desk as his daughter raced through the door. One long braid hung half unraveled, her coat was muddy, and she held a bloody handkerchief against her nose.

"Good heavens, Val, what happened?!" The channel leapt from his chair and went over to the crying girl. Kneeling down on one knee, he surveyed the damage. Val flung her arms around her father's neck and sobbed, heedless now of the blood oozing from her nose. "Whatever is wrong? Calm down and tell me about it." He hugged the fragile little body and rocked her back and forth.

"Jami says you kill people. His mother told him so," she said between sobs. "I called him a liar and punched him in the eye. He hit me in the nose and pulled my hair. I hate Jami! He's not my friend anymore."

"No matter what he said, you shouldn't have hit him."

"But I couldn't let him say that about you. I couldn't!"

Frevven thought ironically of his undersized little daughter fighting to defend his honor. "Valthea, my darling, it's not up to you to defend what I've done in my life."

Her body stiffened and she let go of him. Staring in horror at her father through tear-filled eyes, she demanded, "Jami wasn't lying? You do kill people?"

What do you tell a child? Frevven asked himself.

The truth, a voice in his head answered implacably. "I did kill just after changeover. Twice. But I learned not to kill after that and now I help other people to learn the same thing. So part of what Jami said is true, and you shouldn't have been so quick to attack him."

Conflicting emotions stirred the childish nager into a confused mess. Keeping his expression carefully neutral, Frevven waited while the girl struggled to assimilate this new image of her father. Oh, Val, please understand! he wanted to scream, but he said nothing.

"Daddy," she finally asked in a small voice, "did you want to do it?"

Want to? The image of his dead sister's face floated before his eyes, and the crumpled body of the young TN-3 who had first tried to help him when he'd finally reached a Sime Center. Want to? Oh, God!

"No," he said, despite the choking feeling in his throat, "I didn't want to."

Her green-gold eyes narrowed and something strangely unchildish congealed in her nager.

"Did you enjoy it?"

He nodded wretchedly. The tears in his eyes ran down his face unheeded.

Valthea stood stiff as a statue and watched her father cry. "I love you anyway," she declared at last, wiping her bloody nose on her sleeve and offering her handkerchief to Frevven. Looking down at her feet, she asked, "When I become Sime, will I kill someone, too?"

"Is that what you're afraid of?"

She nodded.

Strange, the conclusions a child can draw from half-understood facts and adult silences. Surely, she knew better than that.

"No, my little one, when and if you do go through changeover, you won't have to kill. But you will be better able to understand what I did." Seeing Val's face brighten, he added, "Come on. Let's go get you cleaned up. You look a mess."

She laughed. "You don't look much better."

"No, I don't guess I do. And I have a meeting with some of our new patients in about six minutes. I'll help you wash your face, and then you run home to your mother for some clean clothes. Chaynek got into town last night and you wouldn't want him to see you looking like this, would you?"

"Uncle Chaynek's here? Oh, goodie! Is he going to stay?"

"I don't know. I haven't had a chance to talk to him yet." Together, they walked down the hall to the washroom.

Tamsin Farris set down her pen and picked up the letter she had just completed. She re-read it slowly, considering each phrase.

Dear Muryin,
I hope this letter finds you in better health and higher spirits than the previous one. I know what a responsibility it is simply to run the Santenkaty Landing Center; I cannot even imagine the strain you must be under as Sectuib in Zeor in these troubled times.
Everything continues to go well here. As you've noticed, the mortality rate amongst our disjunction cases has fallen markedly over the last couple of years. This is due in part to the increasing cooperation between Sime and Gen Territory authorities, resulting in our getting patients sooner and in better condition than in the past.
However, a large part of the credit is also due to a channel by the name of Frevven Aylmeer. Hajene Aylmeer, as you may know, is one of a dwindling number of functioning disjunct channels left in the Tecton. He has a positive genius for this sort of work. The youngsters respond to him very well, which is strange, as he himself is usually rather reserved and withdrawn. He seems able to offer a more satisfying transfer than most of the non-junct channels on my staff, at least according to his patients. Even the semi-juncts from the surrounding towns request him for transfer, so he must be doing something right. It's enough to make me wonder if the Tecton isn't wrong to refuse to train disjunct channels anymore, at least as long as there are so many older Simes left who have no choice but to kill every so often. And there will always be out-Territory youngsters to be disjuncted. Perhaps we're depriving ourselves of a valuable resource.
Be that as it may, my purpose in writing this letter is to add my voice to that of Chaynek's in urging you to consider Hajene Aylmeer as a candidate for Zeor. I know Chaynek has been recommending him for years, but possibly you've turned a deaf ear to his suggestion because he's been personally involved with Frevven since as far back as Frevven's own disjunction, and also because Chaynek's cousin, V'lissia Chalmers, has a daughter by Frevven. However, Chaynek is not one to let personal considerations interfere with his professional judgement, and I know he would not propose anyone for Zeor unless that person were truly worthy of membership.
Hajene Aylmeer has doubtless come to your attention more than once during the time you have been Sectuib. You would surely have heard of how he uncovered the ritual murder of children in changeover by the infamous Salvation Church while he was assigned out-Territory on Innsfrey Island. For all I know, you may even have met Frevven yourself, as he was at Zeor for his disjunction close to twenty years ago.
I would strongly urge you to review his record, especially his achievements since he's been at the Santenkaty Center. His dedication to excellence and his tenacity of purpose cannot he questioned. I know it is his fondest wish to he ambrov Zeor. If you knew him, I believe you would agree that he belongs with us. With all due respect, Sectuib, give him a chance.
Unto Zeor, Forever!
Tamsin Farris ambrov Zeor

Tam folded the letter and sealed it into an envelope. "Well, my friend," she mused, "I've stuck my neck out for you. Now prove you're worth it. Let my next letter to Muryin contain a glowing description of how you succeeded in the hopeless case of Nikki Santoro. And if Muryin still turns you down, I'll be surprised."

"All set, Miyoku? Shall we go find out what our latest group of new arrivals are like?"

The Sime woman looked up from the journal she was reading and her almond-shaped eyes regarded Frevven shrewdly. "You're upset. What's the matter?"

Frevven dismissed her questions with a negligent wave of one hand. "Oh, my daughter got in a fight with one of her friends. It's nothing."

"Okay, if you say so. Let's go."

They walked together down the hall to the designated meeting room. Just outside the door, Miyoku turned to Frevven. "Standard procedure?" she inquired. The channel nodded. Miyoku unfastened the clip which held her long hair back from her face and let it fall on her shoulders. Framed by the shiny black hair, Miyoku's face took on an even more obviously foreign appearance. She followed Frevven into the room.

All but one of the youngsters rose to their feet as the two older Simes entered. Only one remained seated, her chair balanced precariously on its back legs and tipped against the wall. As if to demonstrate her complete disdain for the proceedings, the girl propped her feet on the rung of the chair and simply glared.

Studying the defiant young Sime out of the corner of his eye, Frevven matched her with the description he'd read of Nikosha Santoro and decided he'd located his junct channel without even having to zlin. Everyone sat down as he introduced himself and Miyoku.

"As you've probably all figured," he continued, "the purpose of this meeting is for us to get acquainted. The best way to do that is by talking. How about if each person tells us a little about themselves? It doesn't have to be anything in particular, just whatever you feel like letting us know. Who wants to go first?" Nervous laughter, eyes looking everywhere except at him, and an abrupt rise in the anxiety level of the ambient nager. The usual reaction. "What, not a single volunteer? Miyoku, why don't you get us started, since it seems no one else has anything to say?"

He could easily have told them about his childhood and changeover, but he'd learned from experience that Miyoku's exotic appearance drew their attention, so he let her talk while he observed their reactions and tried to form an initial impression of who each youngster was.

They all sat listening avidly to Miyoku's stories of the strange land where she grew up, not only out-Territory, but halfway around the world as well. She told of her changeover and First Kill on board her father's whaling ship, far from land and in foreign waters, and the weeks she spent locked belowdecks in a dark and stinking hold, while her father tried to reach an in-Territory port in time to allow his daughter a chance at life.

When Miyoku finished, there were a few timid questions. Then a tall, plain-looking girl spoke up.

"My name is Bethiah," she began, hardly raising her eyes from the carpet between her feet, "and I -- I'd like to tell you how it was where I grew up."

Someone else offered to speak when Bethiah had finished, then another. Then there were no more volunteers. Frevven glanced briefly over the remainder of the group and his green-gold eyes came to rest on Nikki, still perched against the wall.

"How about you? Anything to tell us?"

The aloof young channel just glared at him and shook her head.

"Nothing to say?"

"No. Nothing," she replied, smoldering contempt at everyone within zlinning distance. "I have nothing to say to any of you. And especially to you, you -- you -- shendi-flamed busybody!" She let her chair crash to the floor behind her and stomped out of the room, slamming the door as she left.

Looks like I miscalculated that one, Frevven reflected. Aloud, he only said, "You take over here, Miyoku. I'll go after her." Then he followed Nikki out of the room, down the corridor, and out onto the back porch, where she turned to confront him.

"Well, what do you want now? You gonna yell at me and tell me how rude I am?

Frevven shook his head. "Why should I do that? I think you know already."

Nikki turned her back and leaned sideways against the wall, looking out over the far end of the porch toward the autumn colored trees behind the building. Even slouching like that, she was still a good bit taller than Frevven. She hooked a thumb and two tentacles over the top of her belt and continued to stare arrogantly off into the distance. Frevven shrugged and perched on the porch railing, just at the edge of Nikki's line of sight.

"All right, maybe I was wrong to try to get you to talk when you obviously didn't want to. But I had hoped you might be able to help some of the others. After all, you're older and --"

"No, I'm not," Nikki interrupted. "I'm barely fourteen, and some of them are older than that. Bethiah said she was fifteen already when she went through changeover a week ago. Don't you think I was listening?" She scowled, nager congealed in angry triumph over the channel who was trying to deceive her with words.

"What I meant by 'older'," he continued, entirely unruffled by Nikki's outburst, "was that you've been Sime longer and know more about what it's like. That's all. And I thought I could expect you to set a better example for the others, since you're a channel. I guess I was wrong."

Nikki straightened up from her indifferent slouch and stood looking down at her adversary, eyes narrowed. "Don't ever appeal to me on that basis," she hissed. "Much good it does me to be a channel. All the disadvantages and none of the advantages. They've already let me know they'll never train me as a channel. I'm not good enough for them. I killed somebody."

"So did I. So did everyone else in your group. You're not unique in that."

"But they're just renSimes! I'm a channel. I want to be treated like a channel. I want my own Donor every month, and I want to be trained to be a proper channel."

"And the Tecton won't allow that. You're right. Very, very few disjunct channels are allowed to be trained anymore. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if there's a law passed very soon forbidding it entirely. It was hard enough when I was young, and it's darn near impossible now. But they also don't train selfish spoiled brats who can't see past the tips of their own tentacles."

Nikki's eyes went wide and her nager contorted with rage. Her hands clenched into fists, handling tentacles tightly retracted, and for a moment Frevven thought she was going to take a swing at him. He remained exactly as he was, still sitting on the porch railing, fingers and tentacles casually wrapped around the hard wooden rail at either side of his body. Then Nikki relaxed and turned away, breathing raggedly.

"I'm sorry," she said after a minute had passed. "I wanted to hit you." She laughed slightly. "Isn't that stupid? You'd think I was a child, or a Gen, to want to fight like that."

"Don't worry about it," he replied, standing up. "I can remember someone calling me a spoiled brat like that once. As I recall, I called him every nasty name I could think of, in Simelan and English both, and then refused to talk to anyone for two days. Come on. Let's go inside and see if we can find the others."

Nikki let herself be guided back into the building. They found Miyoku and the rest of the group drinking tea and popping popcorn in the game room. Although Nikki kept to herself, steadfastly refusing to join in the conversation, she accepted a cup of trin tea from Bethiah with a slight smile and a grudging, "Thank you."

Frevven thought it might be a start.

"V'lissia, may I see you for a moment?" Tamsin asked. V'lis laid the infant she had been cuddling back in its cradle. "Just a second, Tam. I've got to check if anyone can use a clean diaper." She went from one baby to the next, checking each one quickly and efficiently, but never without a hug or caress. Tam watched, not feeling altogether pleased with herself for what she was about to do. V'lissia was obviously happy amongst the infants. It was a shame to have to spoil that.

Reaching the end of the neat line of cradles, V'lis approached the channel, smiling and beaming contentment. "What can I do for you, Tam?"

"I'm afraid you're not going to like this, but I felt I should at least tell you in person instead of simply sending you an official form."

The Gen's brown eyes narrowed and she closed in on herself with suspicion. "What is it? What's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong. You're being re-assigned, that's all. To Lovett's Falls."

"Lovett's Falls? But -- but that's so far away. Why? Why can't I just stay here? I like it here," she protested.

"Yes, I know. But you've been at Santenkaty Center for close to a year now. We haven't a large enough number of channels in this area to justify my keeping a First Order Donor like you for that long. Most of my channels have been assigned to you at least once for transfer already. The Lovett's Falls Center is requesting a Donor, and I'm afraid you're it."

"Tam, I don't like to be shifted around all the time."

"No one likes it. But that's the usual state of affairs in the Tecton. You know that."

"But Valthea is so happy here. She has lots of friends, and she can be with her father. You can't send us away. It would break her heart."

"V'lis why do you think most channels and Donors choose not to raise their children themselves anymore? You knew what you could expect from the Tecton. You've been unusually fortunate to have been in one place for so long now, and to be with Frevven. After all, the two of you aren't even married. I know husbands and wives who don't see each other for months at a time.

"But it's not fair!"

"On the contrary, it is fair. As fair as we can make it, at any rate. What isn't fair is how long you've been here."

"Have I done something wrong? Don't you want me here anymore?"

Tamsin sighed, wishing the other woman wouldn't take everything so personally. If only V'lissia could be more objective, think things through before she reacted. But that wasn't V'lissia's style. And, from her point of view, she did have reason to be upset.

Tamsin felt her resolve weakening as her mind reverberated to the Gen's unhappiness and frustration. Almost, she wished she could change her mind. But the reasons she had already set forth were still true: V'lis was the proper person to be reassigned, and, as local Controller for this area, Tam could not allow herself to show favoritism.

"V'lis, it has nothing to do with whether or not I want you here anymore. My decision stands. You'll be expected in Lovett's Falls three weeks from tomorrow. The official assignment forms will be in your mailslot."

V'lissia's nager exploded into a vicious chaos of anger and hurt, taking Tam completely by surprise. It was brought under control almost instantly, and V'lis turned away with no more apology than a curt, "Sorry." The channel stood staring at her retreating back, shocked at such a breach of etiquette from a professional Donor.

Frevven glanced up from the report he was writing and watched Valthea where she sat off in the corner of his office, totally absorbed in playing with a guttering candle. With the tip of a long hatpin, she'd guide little runners of molten wax down first one side of the candle and then another, fascinated by the dripping stalactites she could form. Once a finger came too close to the flame and she jerked it back and stuck it in her mouth, looking over to her father to see if he had noticed. Frevven pretended to ignore her, so she shrugged and went back to her wax sculpture.

As the best part of an hour passed and V'lissia still hadn't appeared to pick up their daughter, Frevven began to get restless. He had a class to teach in intermediate Simelan in another half hour and he really didn't want to have to drop Val off at the staff nursery. V'lis had promised to be back long before this. Maybe that rally she'd gone to had run late.

He frowned, not liking the idea of V'lissia at a Distect rally.

Frevven twisted around in his chair so he could see out his second-story window, looking along the street V'lis would likely take returning from town. There were people on the sidewalk, several of whom might be V'lis, but his near-sighted eyes just wouldn't bring in a clear enough image to allow him to be certain. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes, then replaced the glasses on his nose and tried again. Nope, that didn't help at all. Still blurry, and it was just too far away to zlin. One bright blur did look somewhat like the orange skirt V'lis had been wearing.

"Val, please come look and tell me if that's your mother."

Obligingly, the little girl strolled over and looked where her father was pointing. "Yep, that's her," she confirmed. "Rats, now I can't have the candle anymore, can I?"

"I think you'd better put it back on my desk. You know it makes your mother nervous to see you playing with it like that."

"Okay. But can I do it again next time?"

Frevven nodded, his eyes still trying in vain to focus on the orange blur. He could almost pick V'lissia's nager out of the ambient now. "Hurry up. She'll be at the front door soon."

And in the time it took V'lis to climb the stairs and come down the hall to Frevven's office, Val replaced the candle, settled into a chair, and began industriously studying the illustrations in her picture book. When V'lis came through the door, Frevven had to stifle a grin at Val's expression of surprise and wide-eyed innocence. V'lissia, however, did not seem particularly amused.

"Sorry, Frevven. I know I'm late. Get your coat on, dear, and let's get going."

As Valthea hurried to obey, Frevven stood up from behind his desk and picked up his cape. "I'll walk with you a ways. I've got to go to my class, and it's in the same direction." There was something strange about V'lis this afternoon. She was closed, guarded. Frevven was curious and wanted to find out why.

"Val, put your coat on properly, don't just drape it over your shoulders. You know better than that." V'lissia's voice was cross, her mouth pinched.

"But Mommy, I don't want a coat. When will you get me a cape like Daddy wears?"

Frevven winced, willing his daughter not to annoy V'lis right now.

"If you were a Sime like Daddy, you'd wear a cape like Daddy's. Now I don't want to hear anymore about it. Put your arms in the sleeves."

Val pouted but complied. "When I'm a channel, I'll have all the capes I want," she muttered as they went out the door.

They crossed the courtyard in silence, with Val kicking sullenly at the drifts of bright autumn leaves on the lawn.

"Mommy, can I go to the playground for a while? Please? Jami and Lillen are there. I can see them. Just for a while?"

"Run on over, then. I'll be along directly. And behave yourself. No fighting," V'lis admonished.

"V'lis, if something's bothering you, why don't you tell me?" Frevven asked, after Val had run ahead.

"It's nothing."

"For nothing you walk along smoldering like a banked fire?"

The banked fire flared. "All right, if you really want to know. I don't like the way you're putting ideas in the child's head. It's way too soon for her to be worrying what she'll be when she grows up. All I hear about lately is how she's going to be a channel like her father. I'm sick and tired of it."

"But I haven't been encouraging her," Frevven protested. "Besides, there's every indication that she will be."

"Well, and maybe she won't! I'd rather see her grow up to lead a normal, ordinary life. Maybe get married and have a home and family. Certainly not get involved with the Tecton and be sent here and there and all over creation, with no time to care and no one to love. Why should I wish that on my daughter?"

"Since when are you so down on the Tecton? After all, you're part of it yourself."

"Yes. And at times I wish I weren't!"

"I suppose after going to one rally and listening to a few speeches you're all ready to run off and join the Distect?" He laughed bitterly. "They haven't exactly got all the answers either."

"At least they're asking the questions."

"Yes. With guns and bombs. I fail to see why you find that particularly admirable. More and more they're resorting to terrorism. They murder people in order to prove their point."

"And how many people have you killed?"

No, she couldn't have meant that question exactly as it sounded. "What are you talking about?"

"How many of your patients die attempting to disjunct? And how many Gens are still killed by those who can't disjunct, all under the auspices of your precious Tecton?"

"You're contradicting yourself," he retorted. "First you fault me for helping Simes disjunct, and next you blame me because some of them can't. Make up your mind."

"I'm not blaming you, I'm blaming the system you support."

She hesitated then and he could feel the sorrow underlying her anger. "Frevven, there has to be a better way," she said at last.

"Well, whenever you find out what it is, let me know. I don't agree with everything the Tecton does, but I don't believe destroying it will result in anything better. And it could easily result in something worse. I know what the Distect stands for, and I don't believe it can work in the world as it is today."

"No?" There was something beyond irony in her smile, but he couldn't read anything in her nager. "Would you seriously like to tell me that dreams and ideals mean nothing and should be cast aside in the face of real life?"

"Certainly not," he snapped. "Only that they should be more carefully chosen."

"It doesn't seem to me that it's anyone else's business if a few Simes and Gens want to try direct transfers instead of going to channels. As long as no one's being forced."

"I might agree with you if that's all that were involved," Frevven objected, "but it isn't. The Distect advocates Sime-Gen transfer for everyone and expects the average Gen to be responsible for the results. That's ridiculous."

"Not really. Most Gens are quite capable of managing transfer with a renSime, except that they're too afraid to try."

"V'lis, for once in your life, try looking at the world as it is and not as you want it to be. With the exception of trained Donors, Gens who can survive being attacked by Simes are few and far between. Most of them die."

"But it doesn't have to be that way," she replied heatedly, "if they could only learn --"

This was too much for Frevven. "If, if, if! If all Gens were Companions, there wouldn't have to be a Tecton. But they aren't. And they are afraid. And they do die!"

"But they don't have to!"

Frevven's eyes narrowed and his voice dropped. "Would you like to give me a lecture on the nature of the kill, V'lis? I work with disjuncts and those who are too old to disjunct. It's my signature that appears on the authorization form entitling the semi-juncts to a Gen from the Pens when I judge it to be necessary. I've seen the kill, and I've seen Simes die rather than resort to it. God help me, from my own experience I can mimic a kill to a very fine degree of accuracy. That's what makes me so good at this work." His voice was shaking, but something inside drove him to keep talking. "How many kills have you witnessed, V'lissia Chalmers? How many graves have you helped dig, just to work off the frustration and pain? How dare you tell me about the kill, and how easily Gens should learn not to fear it? Shen, maybe ignorance is bliss!"

She was very angry now, Frevven could zlin it, but that only served to aggravate his own feelings.

"Hmph," she retorted. "You just don't like the idea that the world might be able to get along very well without your precious Tecton and all its rules and regulations and schedules. Heaven forbid that should ever happen, because then you'd be out of a job, wouldn't you?"

"You don't know what you're talking about."

"Neither do you. Gens can learn. Someday they will."

They had reached a stalemate. The air between them fairly crackled with resentment.

"Oh, you're impossible!" she fumed. "How could I expect a channel to understand?"

"V'lis, I --"

But it was too late. She'd already turned her back and stomped away towards the playground, leaving Frevven alone on the path. As he continued on his way, he wondered just how serious she was about these radical ideas. The Distect was barely this side of legal these days, since they were resorting more and more often to violence and terrorism. He was sure it was just a matter of time before there would be an open confrontation. Judging by the number of supporters the Distect had been attracting, it might well assume the proportions of a civil war.

He shivered, and it wasn't from the chill wind blowing off the river. He assured himself that V'lissia would get over this nonsense. Her anger would cool and she'd listen to reason once again. Surely she would. She was no political terrorist, not his V'lis. She'd just been blowing off steam, trying to shock him. That was all.

Next morning, Tamsin hurried out the side entrance to the staff nursery, balancing her son Rhyce on one hip. She cut through the playground and intercepted Frevven halfway across the courtyard.

"Hey, Frevven! Hold it a minute. There's something I want you to see," she called.

He squinted his sensitive eyes against the glare of the sun and waved.

Tamsin stopped a short distance away from the other channel and knelt down on the grass, beaming proudly. She set Rhyce on his feet, helping the little boy balance on unsteady legs and bracing him with several tentacles.

"Go to Uncle Frevven, honey. Show him how you can walk," she encouraged. Rhyce wavered on the verge of graduating from baby to toddler. "Go on now. You can do it."

He took a tentative step forward, wobbling a bit, then another. As he realized his mother wasn't holding him any longer, his black eyes lit up with pride and he plunged on recklessly. Almost in reach of his goal, he overbalanced and stumbled, but Frevven caught him up before he hit the ground and swung him high in the air. Rhyce shrieked with delight before he was reclaimed by his proud mother.

"Shuven, Frevven, it seems just yesterday he was lying in a cradle. Now he's walking around. Is the time going faster, or are we just getting older?"

"I think we're getting older, Tam," he replied, making an unsuccessful effort to hide the unhappiness in his nager. "And I wish you wouldn't teach him to call me 'Uncle'. I'm not, you know."

"Nonsense! You let your daughter call Chaynek 'Uncle', and Chaynek's really only V'lissia's cousin."

"At least they're related."

"My, aren't we picky today?" Tam chided playfully. "And what happened to put you in such a funk? I know you passed turnover several days ago, but I've seen more cheerful Simes in hard need."

Frevven didn't answer immediately, so they continued across the courtyard together. Tam wondered if V'lissia's reassignment was the cause of her friend's present mood. She waited, hoping Frevven wasn't getting up the nerve to deliver an impassioned plea that V'lis and Val remain here. She wasn't anxious to face that prospect, and she was afraid it might turn Frevven against her when she turned him down. Although during the years they had both spent together at Santenkaty Landing, he and Tam had on occasion been more than just good friends, the black-haired little boy in her arms was most assuredly not Frevven's child. At times she regretted that fact, and sometimes she wondered if he did also.

Frevven finally broke the silence, looking straight ahead so all Tam could see was his profile. "I can't get through to her. I can't reach her. I don't know what to do, and it's driving me crazy."

Tam was puzzled. "Who? V'lissia?" she ventured.

"V'lissia?" He glanced over at Tam with a puzzled frown. "No, I mean Nikki. Why should V'lis be driving me crazy?"

But there was concern, different variety, as he said the Gen's name, so Tam concluded something was wrong between them, even as Frevven obliquely denied it.

"Oh, Nikki. Still playing spoiled brat, eh? What's she done now?"

"Well, this morning she decided she wouldn't get out of bed. Never showed for her first class, and when Chaynek went to her room looking for her and offered to help if she felt bad, she told him if he really wanted to help, he should come back next week when she'd be in need. When he pointed out that that was impossible, she got angry and threatened to throw him out of the room if he wouldn't leave by himself."

"How charming. Then what?"

"I went to talk to her and she hassled me until I almost lost my temper. I think she enjoys goading people." He was showing enough residual anger to make Tam wonder just what the girl had said to annoy him so. "Anyway, I finally dragged her out of bed and told her to get dressed or I'd bloody-shen-well dress her myself," he finished, shamefaced.

"You didn't --?"

"No. But I would have, and she knew it." He turned to Tam with a short laugh. "I guess that prospect scared her, since she got up without any further argument. I'm very worried about her. I just can't get through the wall she's built around herself."

"If you can't do it, no one can. You're not going to save them all, you know. That would be impossible."

"I know, I know. But there must be some way, something I can do. I've just got to be able to help her."

"Why? Because you identify with Nikki's resentment and hurt?" Tamsin shook her head. "No, all you have to do is try the best you can. It's up to her after that. When you've given all you have to give, there's nothing more you can do."

"But how can you ever be sure you've done all you can?"

"Ah, now there's the hard part. And I'm afraid I have no answer."

"And what do you do when your best isn't good enough?"

"Accept that fact and learn to live with it. But never stop trying. I've always thought that the most important thing is not where you stand on the road, but rather the direction you choose to travel." She smiled. "Sorry. I'm preaching. But do keep in mind that no one on earth is ever really 'good enough', not even Farrises."

"It's easier for you. Everything's easier for you."

"Are you so sure of that, my friend? From Nikki's point of view, it seems pretty easy for you to be what you are, too."

He considered this. "You really think so?"

She just nodded. By now they had reached the entrance to the channels' residence and Tam turned toward the door. Still wondering why he had said nothing about V'lissia's leaving, she decided to take the bull by the horns and ask him directly. Shifting Rhyce to her other hip, she hesitated with one hand on the door.

"To be perfectly honest, I thought you were upset over V'lis' assignment to Lovett's Falls."

Shock, surprise, sorrow, and an abrupt forced calm as Frevven stared at her, puzzlement etched clearly on his face.

She hasn't told him yet Tam realized in dismay.

"V'lis? Going to Lovett's Falls? When?"

"In about two weeks," she replied, wishing she could bite her tongue.

"Oh." The silence spread between them. Each second seemed to hesitate as if reluctant to cross the barrier separating future from past.

"I'm sure you had adequate reason for re-assigning her, Tam," Frevven said at last. "Now, if you'll excuse me --"

He turned and walked swiftly down the street, leaving Tamsin standing in the doorway, all her reasons unvoiced and unrequired.

"Frevven, damn you," she murmured, "it would have been easier if you'd gotten mad and demanded an explanation. Or at least cried a little.

She hoisted Rhyce higher in her arms, wiping a tear off her cheek and onto his soft hair as she gave her little son a kiss and watched Frevven disappear around the corner of the building.

That night, V'lissia finally got around to telling Frevven she was leaving. She was very hurt when he failed to react with the shock and indignation she'd expected. In the course of the ensuing confrontation, Frevven consistently refused to blame either Tamsin or the heartless policies of the Tecton for their imminent separation. In fact, he didn't even look as if he cared, which sent V'lis into gales of tears and loud recriminations. When Frevven belatedly noticed Valthea was no longer asleep and was standing wide-eyed at her bedroom door watching them, he broke off the argument, turned abruptly away, and left V'lissia's apartment. He never did tell her that he spent the next several hours walking the streets of Santenkaty Landing, finally ending up down by the river sitting disconsolately on a deserted little dock and reflecting on how lonely it would be without his daughter around.

As the days passed, Frevven became more and more depressed. He spent as much time with Val as he could, but it was difficult. V'lis seemed determined to stay politely friendly, but he could zlin that it was mostly show. He was glad she wasn't scheduled to leave until after his upcoming transfer. Maybe then they could iron out their problems and at least part on friendly terms. After all, it wasn't as if V'lis would be on the other side of the world. They would certainly be able to visit now and again.

But now, almost in need, Frevven could barely tolerate V'lissia's company. Her attitude raked across his nerves like fingernails on a blackboard.

A few snowflakes drifted down from a fading sunset as he approached the Center's dining hall. V'lis and Val should be just about finished with their dinner by now, and the little girl was to spend the night with him, while her mother helped out in the nursery. Many of the infants were ill with some sort of respiratory infection, so the entire staff was overloaded with cranky, fretful babies and V'lis' volunteer efforts were greatly appreciated.

He had no sooner entered the hall and gone over to where V'lis and Val stood talking to some friends when the ambient suddenly went wild with fear.

He reached out automatically to his daughter and thrust her back between himself and the wall, at the same time pinpointing the source of the disturbance as just outside the double doors leading out of the hail.

The doors burst open and several people backed into the large room, radiating surprised horror. The reason soon became apparent, as they were followed by a tight group of grim-faced men and women, all of whom carried handguns or shotguns. At a word from the Sime who appeared to be the leader, they spread out, covering everyone in the hall. Dishes and silverware clattered to the floor as most of the diners sprang to their feet in alarm. Frevven stayed where he was, only reaching back with one hand to be sure Val remained sheltered behind him.

After the initial shock, no one moved. The leader of the armed party spoke into a tense silence.

"You all cooperate and nobody will get hurt," he announced brusquely: "We're from the Distect and we've taken over this building. You'll all be released unharmed when the Tecton agrees to our demands. Everybody over against the far wall and sit down. You, behind the serving line. Out!" He gestured with his gun and an apron-clad Gen quickly stood up from behind the steaming trays of food and joined the rest of the captives.

Frevven picked up Valthea's slight body in his arms and carried her across the room, with V'lis following close behind. Several of the other Simes now standing by the wall looked at the channel and he could read their unspoken question. Shaking his head slightly, he shrugged and sank to the floor, holding his daughter on his lap. What could a dozen or so unarmed people hope to do against a nearly equal number with guns? Resistance now would be suicide.

He zlinned the terrorists, trying to sort out each individual nager and form an impression of the kind of people they were dealing with. The results were not encouraging.

Every so often, another small group of captives would come through the door, led by still more armed terrorists, and it became apparent that they were working their way through the upper floors of the building, bringing everyone else they could find down to the dining hall and consolidating them there.

Fortunately, many of the offices on the next two floors would be empty by this hour of the evening. But above that was the infirmary, and the isolated and well-insulated rooms where the worst off of his youngsters would spend their last few days before each transfer. The only one up there right now, as far as he recalled, was Nikki. She hadn't been in very good shape when he'd examined her that afternoon, but her transfer wasn't scheduled until late the next day.

Hoping that through some minor miracle Nikki would be left undisturbed, Frevven readjusted his glasses on his nose and shifted Val's weight on his lap. This could turn into a long wait, unless someone in authority decided to accede to the terrorists' demands immediately. And so far, he reflected in frustration, we don't even know what those demands are.

He decided he liked this situation less all the time.

The minutes trailed past for the hostages, slowed by the sight of implacable faces and the muzzles of gun barrels pointed their way. Miyoku was herded into the room with the latest group of captives and she immediately came over to sit beside Frevven.

"What's going on?" she whispered. "I was in Tam's office filing papers when these people ordered me to come with them."

"They didn't capture Tam, did they?"

"No. She was in town on some sort of business."

"Good. We don't know what this is all about either, but from the looks of things, we'll find out soon enough." Frevven pointed to a group of people gathered around the terrorist leader, talking together. "Shh. See if we can hear what they're saying."

The voices carried easily across the tension filling the room.

"That clears out the first two floors, Damar. There's some more people on the top floors, but I don't think we should worry about them just yet. They're not going anywhere."

The leader nodded. "There's people outside," a Sime woman reported from the window. "Looks official. I see Tecton police uniforms all over the place. I'd say we've been noticed."

Damar strode to the window and glanced out. "I'd say you're right. Okay, here goes." He smashed the windowpane with the butt of his gun and waited while the glass fell to the ground with a dramatic crash. Then he stood in the empty window frame and bellowed, "You out there! Stay back! The Distect's occupying this building. We're holding it and everyone in it until you agree to release the prisoners being held in Danversport for illegal transfer. We've tried every lawful way we could to get them freed, and no one's listened. Now we're not asking, we're demanding. Do as we ask and no one will be hurt!"

A voice came faintly back from outside, a voice Frevven recognized as Tamsin's. "You'll get nowhere like this! Put down your weapons and come out and there'll be no charges against you!"

"No! Get us someone in authority to make a deal. We have --" he glanced over his captives, counting quickly -- "twenty-six hostages here. None of them are going anywhere until you release our people."

"We've already sent word to the District Controller, but you'll have to wait for him to arrive."

"We can wait. We're in no hurry to go anywhere. But just remember, our hostages are waiting too."

"If you harm anyone --"

"Do as we say and they'll be fine," Damar interrupted. "Now leave us alone." He turned to the room, wiping his forehead with his sleeve, and addressed his captives. "You heard all that. Do as you're told and keep quiet and won't be harmed. We're you not looking to hurt anyone --" he raised his shotgun significantly -- "but we won't hesitate to shoot if anyone decides to play hero."

After one last scowl at the unhappy group of people huddled against the wall, Damar posted guards at all the windows and withdrew to a corner, setting up a table and chairs and conferring with his lieutenants.

"Well, now we know the score," V'lissia remarked quietly to Frevven. "As soon as the Tecton frees the prisoners, we'll be safe."

"You think they will?" Miyoku whispered back, over Valthea's head.

"Sure. What else can they do?"

Frevven was not so certain he agreed with V'lis' appraisal of the outcome, but he held his tongue. Dinnertime came and went, and a few of the terrorists went into the kitchen and served up food to those who wanted to eat. Blankets were brought in from supply closets and laid out as makeshift beds. The night wore on and nothing happened. V'lis finally convinced Val to go to sleep, and a few of the less nervous Gens in the room also managed to doze off for a while. Frevven sat and listened to the wind blow around the building and watched his daughter sleep. V'lis stretched out on the floor also, one arm draped protectively over the little girl.

"Frevven?" Miyoku whispered in the pale grey of approaching dawn. "What if the Tecton won't cooperate? What happens to us then?"

"I don't know."

Sunlight oozed slowly through the windows. Here and there, people stirred in their sleep.

Miyoku broke the silence once again. "Nikki's upstairs in the isolation rooms, isn't she?"

Frevven nodded.

"I'm worried about her. She must be in hard need by now."

"She should be," Frevven affirmed. "And I'm just as worried as you are, believe me."

Shortly before noon, District Controller Lassiter arrived, accompanied by a large contingent of Tecton troops. Tamsin watched in disapproval as they surrounded the occupied building, setting up barricades and taking their places with grim determination. In short order, the Santenkaty Center resembled an armed camp.

"Sir, is all this really necessary?" Tamsin inquired when she finally caught Controller Lassiter alone. "They're only a bunch of frustrated idealists, probably more scared by now than their own hostages. I'm sure we could work out some sort of compromise, if we didn't have all these guns pointed at them."

"Hajene Farris, these 'frustrated idealists', as you choose to call them, are outlaws and criminals, a threat to the basic structure of the Tecton. It we deal leniently with them, they'll just do this same sort of thing again the next time they want something. No, we've got to show them it won't work, right here and now."

"But --"

The Controller turned away, summoning his troop leader with a peremptory gesture. "Everything ready? Good. I'll talk to them now."

He moved to a more exposed position behind an overturned wagon commanding a good view of the main entrance to the dining hall, Tamsin at his heels.

"You, inside the building!" he bellowed. "This is District Controller Lassiter speaking! Toss out your weapons and surrender, or we're coming in after you! Do as I say, and we'll let you off as leniently as possible!"

A short pause, then a loud voice replied, "That isn't what we had in mind, Controller! If you try to take us, we'll shoot the hostages first, you have my word on that. Release our prisoners the way we said, and we'll leave in peace."

"The Tecton does not deal with terrorists!"

Visions of death and destruction filled Tam's mind. She felt herself trembling in response to the distant, but, to her, easily discernible jump in fear and anger inside the building. "No," she whispered to herself, "no, this won't work."

"If you don't agree to our terms, we'll shoot the hostages!" came the answer from across the street.

"Do that, and I'll see to it that you all wish you had died with them!" was Lassiter's instant reply.

Consternation and doubt. Caught up in the conflict of violent feelings, Tam wanted to moan.

"We'll give you until nightfall to reconsider," the Distect spokesman shouted back, for the first time sounding uncertain.

"And we'll give you exactly that long to decide to surrender," came the Controller's implacable response. He turned calmly to his aide. "Tell everyone to rest easy. This may take a while. The longer they wait, the more time they'll have to think this over, and the more scared they'll get. In the end, they'll back down."

Tamsin pulled herself together and was about to open her mouth to argue when Lassiter turned to her, frowning. "Hajene Farris," he snapped, "you're much too emotionally involved with the people being held hostage. And besides, you're in need. Go find your Donor, why don't you? Leave me to handle this mess."

He stalked away. As soon as the Controller was gone, Chaynek appeared in the doorway of the building behind her and waved her over. As she darted across the exposed space between the wagon and the door, she realized he'd been there all the time, but she'd been so intent on what was happening with the terrorists that she had been only marginally aware of his presence.

"Sorry, Tam. I'd have been with you before, but I figured Controller Lassiter would have a fit if a Gen dashed across that open space and risked getting himself shot."

"That's okay. I'm all right."

Chaynek raised an eyebrow, projecting mild skepticism. She smiled, truly feeling better now that his field shielded her from the intolerable pressure of the ambient.

"It's past time for our transfer," he reminded.

"I know. Believe me, I know. But I can't just walk away while all this is going on. He's wrong, Chaynek. I know he is. They won't just meekly surrender. There's going to be trouble, and I've got to be here, not off somewhere having hysterics in postsyndrome."

"Tam, what good can you do here, like this?"

"I don't know. Maybe none. But I've got to be here. Santenkaty is my Center, my responsibility."

"All right, all right. But if nothing happens by nightfall, promise you'll let me take care of you then."

"It's a date," she said, trying for a ragged smile but not quite achieving the desired effect.

Inside the beleaguered dining hall, both hostages and terrorists were trying to reconcile themselves to Controller Lassiter's hard-nosed attitude. The man had a reputation for being ruthless and conservative, but not even Frevven had expected him to be so willing to risk their lives over a few political prisoners. V'lissia was totally shocked. Since she was the only Donor and easily the highest field Gen in the room, her attitude was making all the Simes uneasy.

Frevven reached over and took her had. "Calm down. You've got everyone on edge, and this is not the time for that."

"We might all die," she whispered back faintly.

"And you're increasing the chances that we will by making all the Simes within zlinning distance more uptight than they already are. Now stop it. You're the single greatest influence on the ambient, and you've got to keep your fear from infecting everyone else or there's sure to be trouble."

She nodded and closed her eyes, leaning her head back against the wall. The turmoil slowly became bearable again, much to Frevven's relief.

Damar returned to his table in the corner and sat down. "This could be a long wait," he advised his colleagues. "I think we'd better secure this entire building while we're at it. Take a party and check out the basement and the top floors. We can't afford to be taken by surprise if it comes to a showdown."

Frevven readjusted his glasses on his nose as Valthea crept onto his lap. "Daddy, I'm scared," she confided.

"We all are, honey." He hugged her reassuringly. Then he remembered Nikki, in one of the insulated rooms on the top floor. With Damar's people searching the rest of the building, she was sure to be found and added to the group of captives. Giving Val a last comforting squeeze, he shifted her over to her mother's lap and rose to his feet.

"I've got to talk to you," he called over to Damar. "It's important."

The other Sime eyed him doubtfully, but gestured for him to approach. Frevven did so. He explained about Nikki, suggesting that he be allowed to accompany the searchers to the top floor and offer her transfer before any harm could be done.

Neither Damar nor any of his people were particularly impressed with the channel's concern. "Don't worry. If she's in need, we'll find someone to take care of her," the Distect leader replied nonchalantly.

"But you don't understand. She's a channel. She could hurt someone."

Damar only shrugged. "She's a Sime. I have plenty of competent Gens."

"But --"

Frevven's protest was cut off by Nikki's entrance, flanked by two nervous Simes holding shotguns and almost literally prodding her along with the muzzles. As soon as she entered the crowded, tension-filled room, she shrank back against the wall, crouching and trying to sort out the hideous discord into some kind of order.

Damar picked out a young Gen amongst the terrorists and waved her over. "This one's in need, Merrilee. Think you can handle her?"

"Sure. No problem," said the young woman, handing her gun to someone else and starting across the room toward Nikki.

Frevven saw Nikki begin to track her oncoming victim. He zlinned them both, sorting out the two fields from the ambient with difficulty. He compared them. No. Merrilee was very high field for someone who wasn't a professional Donor, but not enough so to serve Nikki. It wouldn't work. And he'd be shenned if he'd stand by and watch it happen.

Ignoring the guns aimed at his back the moment he moved, Frevven intercepted Merrilee before Nikki could attack. He edged into a position permitting himself to attract the hyperconscious young channel's attention, automatically raising his showfield in order to tempt Nikki. "Leave her alone, Merrilee. She's a channel; she'll kill you. Just stand still where you are and keep calm," he warned the surprised Gen quietly.

Nikki recognized him. "Get away from me, Aylmeer," she growled. "I want the other one."

"Yes, I'm sure you do. But try to think. You don't really want to hurt her, do you? Let me take care of you instead. I can do it," he coaxed as he settled into the mindset he used only to offer transfer under the most crucial circumstances. He hadn't expected Nikki to reach disjunction crisis this month, but the extraordinary circumstances and the added stress of being put into a situation where she had to make a choice could well do it. If only she made the right choice --

The overall routine responses were easy. Any channel could simulate a Gen field, mimic a kill accurately enough. The average non-junct renSime would never notice the difference. But the semi-juncts knew, the disjuncts knew, and Nikki Santoro knew, what the real thing was like. Even when he wasn't trying very hard, Frevven's transfers were just a shade closer, an increment nearer, based on his own experience. But when he had to achieve a very fine degree of accuracy, he turned over the entire transfer to the image he held in his mind of his dead sister, Jozanna, reliving his own First Kill through her eyes. He "became" his sister, reacting exactly as she had done so many years ago. He often wondered if Jozanna's spirit actually possessed him when he did it, because sometimes he'd swear he could even hear her voice, talking to him and reassuring him that it was all right. The whole thing terrified him; but more than once it had enabled him to save a life or succeed with a difficult disjunction.

Now he concentrated the effect of this unique ability on the desperate girl who stood before him, determined to dissuade her from attacking the Gen. Nikki's attention flicked back and forth between the two of them. If she sprang at Merrilee, he could probably not move fast enough to intercept her. Then he felt her focus on him, and he knew he had won. Consumed with his imagined terror and on the verge of dropping his own consciousness into that of his sister's for the transfer, he was totally unprepared for what happened next.

"No, stop it! Don't torture her like this! It isn't necessary!" a voice announced. A new field overwhelmed the ambient, brilliantly alive and irresistible. This one offered no choice. It simply took over, swamping Nikki's will with its own desire to give.

Frevven froze in dismay, as Nikki sprang at V'lissia, seizing her outstretched arms and making lip contact in one blinding move.

"No!" he shouted, leaping toward them. If Nikki completed the transfer, she'd have failed at disjuncting for the second time. To make matters worse, the transfer would put off her next disjunction crisis until she was out of First Year. It would be too late for her to succeed by then.

He wrenched V'lis away from Nikki, grabbing her with his handling tentacles and forcing lateral contact. The girl had barely time enough to react to being shenned before Frevven was pouring selyn into her system, knowing he was doing violence to her but well aware there was no other choice.

When it was over and he released her, Nikki slumped to the ground, unconscious. Frevven broke her fall and knelt beside her, desperately trying to stabilize her wildly-fluctuating field.

She groaned, then opened her eyes. "I failed again, didn't I?" she gasped. Bleak despair edged her nager as she pulled herself to a sitting position leaning against the wall.

Frevven shook his head. "Not quite. You weren't given the chance to succeed, that's all. Perhaps next month --"

"No," she replied bitterly, "it's hopeless. I can't do it." She slammed her head backwards against the wall with a sickening thud, and would have done so again if Frevven hadn't stopped her and hugged her against his chest. She began to cry.

Frevven looked up at V'lissia over Nikki's bent head. "Just what did you think you were doing, interfering in a disjunction situation like that? Don't you realize what you could've done?" He kept this voice low with an effort and tried not to broadcast his rage.

V'lis was momentarily shocked. "I -- I meant no harm. She might have hurt that other girl. I only wanted to help make it easier for her."

Frevven shook his head in disgust. "Someday, V'lis, perhaps you'll realize there isn't always an easy way out."

"Well, maybe there isn't. But everything doesn't always have to be done the hardest way either." She was by now utterly furious. "I've had enough of the Tecton," she blazed, "and I've had enough of you too, Frevven Aylmeer! You've got a rulebook instead of a heart, and you don't care what happens to other people as long as you can live by your own precious standards!"

Holding a still-junct, hysterically-sobbing Nikki in his arms and trying as best he could to shield her from V'lissia's flaming nager, Frevven saw his daughter being held by one of the Distect Simes as the child squirmed and fought to get loose, adding her outraged screams to the noise and confusion in the room. The ambient nager was so thick with fear and anger that he could barely hang onto his own sanity. He wanted to run to his daughter; wanted to reason with V'lis; wanted to help Nikki through post-syndrome; wanted all these people to just go away and take their uncomfortable emotions with them; wanted to know what he should do next, wanted a chance to think. And could do nothing. V'lissia's outrage battered his frayed nerves and eroded his tenuous control. Despite losing some of her selyn to Nikki's draw, her field was still high enough to have an overwhelming influence on the ambient, considering the state of her emotions.

"V'lis, please," he said through clenched teeth, "you've done enough damage already and you're only making things worse. Control yourself."

"Control myself?! Is that all you can say? Why, you -- you --" Unable to find a suitable epithet, she turned her back on Frevven and marched across the room, right up to Damar. "You want to get out of here with your lives, don't you?" she demanded. "Well, if you'd each grab a Gen and make a break for the stables, I'm sure you could make it. They'd never shoot at us. Once you're clear of town, you can easily let the others go. As for me --" she glared over at Frevven -- "I think I'll take my chances with the Distect from now on. It has to be better than the life I've been living here."

Frevven stared in dumb surprise at the woman he thought he knew so well: "Oh, V'lis, no," was all he could say, but she was too far away to hear his choked whisper. Even Nikki had realized what was happening and looked up in shock.

V'lissia took Val from the Sime who held her and picked the little girl up in her arms. Then she went back to the Distect leader. "Yes or no? Do we try it? Or sit here until they come in after us?"

"We try it," he replied brusquely. Grabbing his volunteer hostage, he gestured for the rest of his followers to do likewise.

Frozen into immobility by the sheer preposterousness of the situation, Frevven watched his erstwhile captors rush towards the door, each pushing an unwilling Tecton Gen in front of him as a shield.

It was only when Valthea screamed, "No! Daddy! Help me!" that it all became terribly real. They couldn't do this. Not to his daughter. Not Valthea. He came to his feet in a rush, red rage in his heart and murder in his eyes.

Moving at the highest level of augmentation he could manage, he was almost on top of the last of the departing terrorists before they realized he was coming. One woman noticed him, turned. The barrel of her shotgun tracked him and her finger tightened on the trigger.

Frevven threw himself to one side, not quite quickly enough. Some of the pellets that had started out aimed for his heart collided instead with his right shoulder and side.

The channel hardly noticed the pain. He staggered backwards with the impact, and then continued on, reaching the woman even as she brought the gun around for another shot. He grabbed the barrel in his left hand and jerked her forward, lashing out with his foot to her stomach as he wrenched the gun out of her hands and hit her over the head with it.

He stumbled a few steps forward as the world turned black around the edges and began to tilt. The last thing he remembered hearing was his daughter's voice, still screaming.

From her vantage point in the building across the street, Tamsin watched in helpless frustration as the terrorists made a run for it. In the resulting confusion, a few shots were fired, people screamed or cursed, horses reared and tried to bolt, but no real violence ensued. Not even Controller Lassiter dared give the order that would result in the wholesale slaughter of the Gens being used as shields, as they were dragged across the courtyard and forced to mount horses and gallop off with the fugitives. However, no sooner had the last rider disappeared down the street than the Controller had his troops rounding up the remaining horses and starting off after them.

Tamsin turned her attention instead to the building across the way, where the hostages who had been left behind formed a little knot of people in the doorway, some staring around vaguely as if they couldn't believe it was actually over. With Chaynek at her side, the channel hastened across the open courtyard.

Suddenly, a Sime woman pushed her way through the crowd blocking the door and looked around wildly, her distress overriding the shocked relief diffusing through the ambient. She located Tam and raced toward her, long black hair flying.

"Hajene Farris, come quick!" she gasped. "Frevven's been shot! He's dying! Nikki's trying to help, but she doesn't know what she's doing."

Tam was moving before Miyoku had finished her explanation, augmenting recklessly despite her need. The crowd at the door leapt out of her way, the Simes pulling the few remaining Gens clear of her path as she approached.

Frevven lay where he had fallen, face down in the middle of a spreading stain of red on the floor and surrounded by a thinning mist of selyn, which leaked from his wounded side and shoulder despite Nikki's frantic but untrained effort to stop it. Her clothes were spattered with blood and her fingers and laterals probed the raw-edged gunshot wounds, simultaneously holding pressure on a severed artery and trying to keep up an effective resistance against the escaping selyn. Her eyes were closed, her face screwed up in concentration, beads of sweat drawing furrows down her dirt-streaked cheeks.

Tamsin knelt across from the straining girl, sensing her effort and the searing ache in her chest. She wouldn't be able to keep this up much longer. Tam took a deep breath, calmed herself, pushed aside the knowledge that this was Frevven, one of her dearest friends, maybe too far gone to be saved. She reached out, covering Nikki's hands and tentacles with her own, saying quietly, "All night, Nikki. Yield control to me. I've got him now."

Nikki gasped, opened her eyes, and glanced around in surprise. Then she collapsed backwards in a dead faint, almost falling on Chaynek, who had finally caught up with Tam. Holding Nikki against him, he looked over at Tam, but did not voice the question in his eyes.

Drawing strength from Chaynek's steady field, Tamsin let herself relax. She easily cut the fading plume of escaping selyn down to nothing. Zlinning for the source of the damage, she found one of the major transport nerves in Frevven's shoulder had been nicked by the shotgun pellet. He'd been close to need when he'd been shot, so if Nikki hadn't acted as quickly as she had, he'd have been dead long before Tam could have gotten to him. She was suddenly surprised that Nikki had even been able to keep him alive as long as she had.

Absorbed in what she was doing, Tam was only peripherally aware of Nikki stirring in Chaynek's arms and returning to consciousness.

"Will he be okay?" she asked the Gen in a ragged whisper.

"Don't know yet," Chaynek replied tersely, his attention focused on the other channel.

"I should have run away with the Distect people like V'lissia did," Nikki muttered savagely. "I could have. They'd have let me come. I would have been free. I missed my chance, thanks to him being stupid enough to get himself shot. Oh shen and shid, I blew it! I wish I'd let him die!"

Tamsin was too involved at the time to react to the girl's words. Only later on did she remember, and despair of ever being able to save Nikki after that.

Frevven dragged himself back to consciousness like someone struggling to wake up from a bad dream but simply too weary to break the clinging tendrils of sleep with a clean snap. Voices came and went, snatches of words that didn't have any real meaning. Sometimes a shift in the surrounding fields was drastic enough to intrude on his awareness, but then that too would fade. Sometimes he would come close, almost pulling his scattered thoughts into a familiar pattern, driven by a desperate urgency and a cold, burning emptiness.

Somewhere along that uphill road back to himself, he realized that he hurt very badly, but the pain was disconnected, as if it belonged to someone else. The sickening shock of disorientation was mercifully brief, since he hadn't been moved very far from where he had collapsed, but he did seem to be much further up from the ground than he recalled. (Up? Same building, several stories higher? That made sense.)

One by one, the tenuous veils of oblivion drew away as he drifted lethargically back to consciousness, wondering at the sense of peace and comfort surrounding him now. He became aware of Chaynek's voice calling his name and recognized the Gen's familiar nager. And noticed it as the source of his own wellbeing, and knew there was something wrong about that, although he couldn't quite remember what it was.

With an alarm bell ringing somewhere in his mind, Frevven opened his eyes gingerly. That was a mistake, as he wasn't wearing his glasses. The blurred, multi-colored shadows conflicting with the sharp images he could now zlin so clearly caused a blinding ache behind his eyeballs. He closed his eyes again and kept them closed.

Something had happened; something dreadful. He couldn't concentrate, couldn't recall what it was, but suddenly he felt a terrible dread, overriding the unexplained sense of peace he had been feeling. Then he remembered, and wished he hadn't. But it was distant, the sorrow curtained off and insulated, unable to be felt. He tried to sit up, only to find Chaynek standing above him and pressing his shoulders back down to the bed.

"Frevven, lie still or you'll hurt yourself," the Gen's voice admonished.

"What happened? Valthea --"

"As far as we know, she and V'lis are well. No one was hurt during the escape, and they weren't among the hostages we found outside of town. Some of the others said V'lis had chosen to go with the Distect of her own free will."

Frevven knew Chaynek had to be extremely unhappy about his cousin's defection, but it wasn't showing. There was only the steady, carefully-controlled nager of a professional Donor.

No, wait a minute, not quite right. This Donor was already linked to him, committed to transfer, and had been for some time. Frevven frowned, puzzled at the entire situation.

"Relax," Chaynek said. "Tamsin will be here any minute. I'm not doing anything wrong."

Peace and security, and the promise of fulfillment. Frevven sighed, wishing he could rest like this forever. Even the torment of his by-now-desperate need seemed unimportant, held at bay by the Gen's solid reassurance. It was almost tangible.

Half-dreaming, Frevven reflected that it would be easy to die like this, held and comforted from all terror and pain. He wondered if he were in fact dying -- and didn't really care, as long as Chaynek didn't go away. Having so seldom experienced it before in his life, Frevven took an unconscionably long time to recognize trautholo when he felt it, but when he did, it was with a shock of horror. Chaynek was Tam's Donor this month, not his! Black waves of hatred and loathing for the other Sime who would dare come between him and his chosen Gen flooded out of control through his mind.

With knowledge born of years of experience, Chaynek reacted instinctively to the tension in the channel's body and the horrified expression on his face. "No," he said softly, sitting on the edge of the bed. "No, don't even think it. I'm not deceiving you. We found someone else for Tamsin."

Relief. And shame. No longer fighting against the euphoria of knowing Chaynek was his, Frevven let down the long-held defenses against his own conscious awareness of how very much he did indeed want this particular Gen, and always had. He could feel a stinging ache in his arms as more ronaplin bathed his already wet laterals. He licked his lips and smiled faintly in anticipation. But he couldn't help wondering about something.

"Why?" he asked, his voice coming cracked and uncertain to his own ears. "Why are you doing this?"

Chaynek shifted his weight on the bed, at the same time shifting the quality of the nageric interlock between them. It was not that he pulled away exactly, but he stopped some of the excessive blanketing effect he had been holding over the channel's perception of his own body. Suddenly Frevven understood. He could dismiss and ignore the throbbing pain in his right shoulder easily enough, but he couldn't dismiss the torn and only partially healed selyn transport nerves where the shot from the terrorist's gun had ripped through his body.

"Shidoni," he swore weakly, "I should be dead."

"If Nikki hadn't kept you alive until Tam could get to you, you would have been. But Tam's done a remarkable job of putting you together again, as you can no doubt tell. She thinks you should be all right if you can bypass the worst of the damage and manage a decent transfer."

Despite his knowledge of the many reasons he could soon be very dead, Frevven felt like laughing. However, all he could get out under the circumstances was a sort of half-strangled choking sound. He was sharply aware of Chaynek's frown of puzzlement even through his closed eyelids.

"My old friend," he attempted to explain, "why is it that I always have to just about kill myself in order to get you assigned as my Donor?"

Chaynek snorted. "It does seem that way, doesn't it?"

Frevven reached out with his uninjured left arm and took the Gen's hand, intertwining his own slender fingers between Chaynek's broader ones for just a moment. I'm going to regret this next month, he couldn't help thinking, when Chaynek is gone, to serve someone else, and I'm left alone. But just let me survive now and I'll deal with that when it happens.

Tamsin came into the room very gently, not wishing to disturb the ambient. Despite himself, Frevven resented the presence of another Sime. But she was high-field, not long past her own transfer and certainly not a threat. She pulled over a chair and sat down next to the bed. "Frevven, I'm sorry, but I have to monitor. There's no way Chaynek can tell what your injured nerves can handle and it's just too risky otherwise."

"No, I can --"

She shook her head. "Frevven Aylmeer, do you dare question the professional judgement of a Farris? That's not at all like you."

She was joking and he knew it, but he shut up nevertheless. Chaynek was a beautiful blaze of warmth and life and energy and there really wasn't much else the channel cared to argue about just now. He felt himself on the near edge of panic, safe only due to Chaynek's nearness and support.

Tamsin touched him gently, reaching with her other hand for Chaynek. Frevven slid his hands up Chaynek's arms, holding him securely and letting his eager laterals find the proper contact points. Tam found her way unobtrusively into their linkage and Frevven's tentacles tightened on the Gen's arms in unconscious resistance to the intrusion. She nodded and Chaynek leaned down to make lip contact.

It was a frustrating, maddening transfer, but Frevven survived. The flow kept unbalancing, with the right side falling behind as selyn seared through his incompletely healed shoulder.

Chaynek compensated as best he could, but he was inevitably a split second behind, having to rely on Tam's instructions. Try as he might to slow down, Frevven was too desperate, too far into attrition to hold back now. Tamsin intervened and forced him back, several times at the brink of abort. Finally, he knew he would make it, his panic lessening, his mind turning rational instead of ravenous.

No longer fighting for his very life, Frevven relaxed and let the transfer run to its end, never really reaching a high point of satisfaction but knowing he'd survive. When Chaynek broke lip contact and sat back, Frevven was surprised to see perspiration running in streams down the Gen's face. He relinquished lateral contact, almost guilty over being the cause of such strain.

"Whew!" Tamsin breathed as she let them go. "You can thank your lucky stars you're not a Farris, my friend. I'd have been dead several times over by now."

Frevven laughed, then couldn't stop laughing, and then realized he was crying and couldn't stop that either. Memories of V'lissia and Valthea crowded in on him and he wanted to scream in sheer frustration and dismay. His little girl was gone and he might never see her again. It had been better before, when he couldn't feel the sorrow. Now he couldn't help but feel it.

And later, when he thought about Chaynek leaving, the world seemed very bleak indeed.

Several days later, Tamsin sprinted down the street, oblivious to the gusts of icy wind blowing a spatter of snowflakes along with her. She waved as she approached the busy station. The upriver stagecoach was loading already, horses stamping restlessly and snorting damp white puffs of breath into the crisp morning air.

"Shen, Chaynek," she greeted the Gen, who had turned and now stood on the platform waiting for her, "you're not getting out of here without saying good-bye to me first."

"Sorry. I tried, but you were too busy with Landry Brevent and her newborn baby. How is she, by the way?"

Tam beamed and stepped up onto the platform, shaking snowflakes from her hair. "Mother and daughter are both doing fine."

"Good. And how's Frevven?" Chaynek's attempt to appear casual didn't quite come off.

"Oh, I think he'll survive. He's in no very great shape just now, but before the week's out, I expect he'll be pestering me to let him go back to work."

The Gen didn't answer. He didn't have to.

"We'll keep searching for V'lis and Val, don't worry. Their description is out to the police in all the surrounding districts. They have to turn up somewhere."

Chaynek shook his head. "Truly, I have my doubts. The Distect's getting pretty good at hiding these days. If my cousin doesn't want to be found, I don't think she will be."

"You think she's voluntarily joined the Distect, then?"

"Judging by what Frevven and the other hostages say happened, yes. Besides, I doubt they could keep her if she didn't want to be there. V'lis can be awfully difficult to handle when she wants to be. It runs in the family," he concluded, grinning the mischievous grin that always made Tam think of an overgrown schoolboy about to put a tack on her chair.

Glancing at the other passengers climbing into the coach, he turned serious again. "Tam, you know Muryin better than I do. Do you think she'll consider Frevven for Zeor?"

Tamsin shrugged. They both turned to watch the snow swirling down along the street.

"It's going to be a long, cold winter, isn't it, Chaynek?"

"Truly, my friend, I do think so." Fingers and tentacles touched briefly, then Chaynek stepped away and boarded the waiting stagecoach. Tam lifted one hand in farewell as the coach pulled away, watching as it turned the corner and headed out for the river road.

Snowflakes continued to drift down silently, melting on the damp ground, as she walked back alone towards the Center.

As Tamsin had predicted, it wasn't long before Frevven was well on the way to recovery and was up and about. He hoped she would pronounce him fit to go back to work soon, because he didn't really want to have to cope with entran on top of everything else. Already he had a constant headache and a sense of impending instability. At least the dependency he'd been caught up in with Chaynek was proving to be less severe than he'd feared. Still, it was an eerie, uncomfortable feeling. Somehow, there was a blank spot beside him where it seemed Chaynek ought to be. He'd turn, half expecting to see the Gen next to him, wishing desperately for the comfort of his reliable nager. But he wasn't there. And he wasn't going to be there. When it came time for his next transfer, it wouldn't be with Chaynek.

Well, he'd face that when it happened. Enough for now just to get through each day. It was hard not to be crushed by the constant feeling that he'd failed, all the way around. V'lissia was gone. His daughter was gone. Nikki was still junct. All he'd succeeded in doing was getting himself shot. It was hopeless: no matter how hard he tried, things just kept going wrong.

He picked up the little portrait of Klyd Farris that always sat on his desk and stared at it for a while.

"I'm such a total loss, you shouldn't even have to look at me," he muttered, opening a drawer and placing the portrait face down in the back. "No, nor you either," he added, taking his photo of Muryin from its accustomed place and preparing to hide it away also.

He leaned back in his chair, studying the face in its carved wooden frame. She must be nearly middle-aged now. But when he thought of Muryin Farris, he didn't see the mature, confident, but somewhat hassled and weary-looking woman in the picture. Instead, his mind recalled the young Sectuib he had last seen in person close to twenty years ago. She had been pale, fragile-seeming, not fully recovered from her second miscarriage. And he had been nothing but a wretched, half-insane young Sime, without any real hope of surviving disjunction and not even sure he wanted to try. He never forgot the way her black eyes seemed to see through his soul nor her initial assessment of his chances: "We can help you, if you'll let us. You can do it, you know."

She had been right.

With a bitter sigh, Frevven laid her picture on top of Klyd's and closed the drawer. "I'm not good enough for the likes of you. I'll never be good enough for Zeor. I'm nothing but a stupid, bungling lorsh and I might as well get used to that fact."

He stood up and walked over to the window, where melting snow ran down the glass like the tracks of tears. "I've failed before. I'll fail again. I'll just have to accept that. But why couldn't I at least have saved my daughter?"

He refrained from smashing both fists through his miserable reflection in the wet glass only with an effort.

"All right, you can get up now," Tamsin said, turning around and reaching for her clipboard.

"Well, what's the verdict?" Frevven, asked, perched on the edge of the examining table.

"You can go back to work."

"Good!" He hopped down off the table, stretching both arms out straight and then up towards the ceiling, tentacles extended. From there he bent over and tried to touch the floor. Tam winced at the sudden twinge of pain in his shoulder as he did so, but she noticed that Frevven's expression never changed.

"Hey, I didn't say you should take up gymnastics," she remonstrated. "Just take it easy for a while, or you'll be back in the infirmary sooner than you think."

"Okay, okay."

"And I don't want you doing any fancy functionals yet, just simple stuff. That injured nerve is still trying to put itself together properly. Give it a chance to heal, or you could end up with a chronic problem."

She finished making notations on Frevven's chart and set it aside. "Which reminds me, I'm assigning Nikki to Hajene Amalfi."

He didn't say anything for a minute, just registered surprise and hurt.


"Because he's the best channel I've got on the disjunction ward, next to you. I don't want you ruining your health on a hopeless case." She turned her back, fussing with some papers on the counter.

"No," he said very quietly. "You can't do this to me, Tam. You mustn't. For Nikki's sake."

All right, if he was determined to force her to be cruel, so be it. "For Nikki's sake?" she replied, back still turned, "Or for the sake of your hurt pride?"

She could tell that didn't please Frevven, not one bit. His answer, when it came, was harsh. "Or perhaps because you'll have trouble explaining why I'm the attending channel if Nikki doesn't make it? Especially after that fiasco with the Distect?"

Caught off guard, she whirled around, anger flaring. "Dammit, Frevven, I'm only trying to protect you!"

"Well, don't!" he retorted. "I can take care of myself."

"You call running into a loaded shotgun taking care of yourself? I sure don't."

They glared at each other across the width of the small room. Tam found time to be grateful the examining rooms were so well insulated, or they'd have had the entire staff running in to find out what was wrong.

Frevven relented first. "Look, Tam, I'm sorry. You're the director of this Center and I have no right to question your motives. If you insist on taking me off Nikki's case, I'll abide by that. I have no other choice." He came over to stand next to her, leaning back against the counter. "But I'm asking you not to, because I think she still has a chance. If V'lis hadn't interfered, Nikki would have come to me. I know it."

"Her father's an important out-Territory politician," Tam pointed out unwillingly, her voice toneless and unhappy. "If anything happens to her, there'll be a lot of questions asked. I don't want you caught in the middle of something like that."

"Oh -- I see," he answered slowly.

"Still want the case?"

Pushing his glasses up on the bridge of his nose with one tentacle, Frevven nodded.

"Okay, then she's still yours," Tamsin conceded unhappily, shaking her head. "But don't say I didn't warn you."

One by one, the days fell and blew away, along with the last dying leaves of autumn. Frevven stared out his window at the intermittent flurries and wondered how long it would be until thick white drifts covered the ground. This year he would welcome the snow. It would suit the empty, frozen feeling in his heart each time he thought of his missing daughter. He avoided the children's playground now, even though it meant going out of his way. He couldn't listen to the laughter and happy voices without tears coming to his eyes.

As the month passed and he felt himself slipping towards need, the blank place beside him where it seemed that Chaynek ought to be got bigger and darker and harder to ignore. A dozen times a day, he would resolve not to think about the Gen anymore. And as many times he'd catch himself idly wondering where Chaynek was at that particular moment and what he was doing. It got harder to concentrate, more difficult to keep his mind on his work. And he couldn't afford to have that happen. Too many young lives depended on him.

Nikki was withdrawing again as she too approached need, repairing the slight dent he had made in her armor. He couldn't summon the effort or the will to care. When he realized that he had already written her off as dead in his own mind, he was shocked. But it was true. Unless her attitude changed, she'd never be able to disjunct. And if she couldn't, sooner or later she'd be dead.

Hopeless. It was all so damn hopeless.

Tamsin closed the door to her room and headed down the short hall to the steps and the outside door. It was past dinnertime, but she thought she really ought to stop by the cafeteria and have a bite to eat. As she stood debating, Frevven came up behind her, pushed open the door, and glanced around with a smile that was intended to be cheerful but wasn't. "Care to join me for dinner?" he suggested. "Doesn't look as if either of us is very enthused over the prospect, so perhaps company will make it more pleasant?"

She nodded, preceding him out into the night. As they crossed the courtyard, the full moon heaved its ponderous bulk clear of the horizon and began the long trek across the starspecked sky. Bare branches waved frantically from side to side in the cold wind, as if seeking to grasp the orange globe and impede its progress. Now and then a ragged scrap of cloud blew across the face of the moon. The bright windows of the dining hall beckoned invitingly to the two channels, as their cloaks whipped fitfully behind them in the gusty, damp wind.

Tamsin was still mulling over the complex scheduling problem she had been attempting to resolve all afternoon when Frevven stopped dead in his tracks. She turned, seeing him frowning up at the top floor of the building before them.

"Tam, we don't have anyone in the isolation rooms right now, do we?"

"No. Why?"

He readjusted his glasses on his nose and squinted. "I'd swear there's a light in one of the windows." He pointed with a tentacle. "Second from the right. Or is it just my bad eyes playing tricks on me?"

She looked up. Yes, there was a very faint light. And there shouldn't have been. They exchanged glances, and with one accord ran for the side entrance of the building and up the stairway.

The hall was dark, with only a thin shaft of moonlight coming through a window at the far end. Tam couldn't zlin through the heavy insulation of the walls around the isolation rooms, so she still had no idea of what they would confront. Perhaps nothing more than a guttering candle, left behind by a careless staff member.

She and Frevven went directly to the room where they had seen the light. Tamsin pushed open the door, then she stopped and stared.

Nikki Santoro stood in front of the row of medicine cabinets along the wall, amidst an assortment of boxes and bottles. She turned, eyes widening in surprise and guilt, an open bottle clenched in two tentacles. As she recognized the intruders, her other hand moved upwards, toward her mouth. But Tam, comprehending her intention, was already beside her, one hand lashing out to knock Nikki's arm sideways, sending a handful of pills flying across the small room.

Nikki backed away, retreating towards the still-open door. So totally was she concentrating on the other channel that she almost back into Frevven. He reached around and plucked the bottle from her hand, closing the door behind him at the same time.

Tamsin picked up a barely-lit lantern from the shelf where the girl had been standing and turned up the wick. "Nikki, what are you doing here? You know this part of the infirmary is off-limits," she inquired.

"I -- I didn't feel good. I thought I might find something here that would help." Frevven held the bottle up to the light, read the label, and shook his head. "You'll have to do better than that. We can tell you're lying. Besides, no one in their right mind would try to take that many of these pills."

"All right!" Nikki retorted, retreating into defiance. "I wanted to die. What have I got to live for, anyway? I couldn't disjunct, and now I have to try again. I'll probably die this time. Why shouldn't I want to kill myself? Isn't it enough I've failed once? I can't face that again, I just can't. It's too awful."

She turned a stricken face to Frevven, blinking hard so the tears in her eyes would overflow and run down her cheeks. She wasn't really lying now, just exaggerating her perfectly honest emotions.

Tam wavered, anger beginning to dissolve into pity. Then she noticed Frevven. He wasn't buying it; she read sorrow all right, but no pity. And he was angry.

Tam started toward the girl, wanting to comfort and reassure her. And came to a sudden stop, cut short in mid-stride, when Frevven raised his left hand, fingers spread and ventral tentacles crossed in front of his palm.

Shocked, Tamsin recognized the gesture as an archaic warding-off signal, once employed to warn another Sime away from the Gen one had fixed upon to kill. In no uncertain terms, it meant, "Stand clear. This one is mine."

She took a step backwards, surprised that Frevven even knew the gesture, much less used it. And then it occurred to her that Nikki would be unlikely to recognize it at all. He must have something in mind and wanted Tam to keep out of the way. Moving back to stand by the litter of disarranged medications, she wondered what he intended to do.

Relieved to see that Tam had understood and would not interfere, Frevven glared up at the young woman before him and shook the bottle of pills in her face.

"Shen and double shen, Nikki! Do you think you're the only Sime who's ever tried to disjunct? Or maybe the only person who has to learn to live with their own failures and shortcomings? Maybe you can make everyone else feel sorry for you by snivelling about how wretched you are, but I know exactly what you're going through and I tell you it can be survived."

"Save your fancy speeches for someone else, Aylmeer. I don't want to survive. There's nothing out there for me. Nothing."

"Nothing?" he asked, cruel mockery in his voice. "Nothing at all? No one who'll ever understand? No one who'll care? No one who'll love? No pride, no joy, no hope? Not one blessed thing worth living for?"

She shook her head.

Frevven crossed the small room to the fireplace in the corner. With a vicious jerk of his hand, he smashed the bottom of the bottle against the edge of the brick mantlepiece, ignoring the remainder of the pills as they bounced across the floor. He turned to confront the surprised young channel.

"If there's truly nothing to live for, then die, goddammit!" he hissed, placing the broken bottle in Nikki's unresisting hand and curling her limp tentacles around it. Then he stepped back, leaving the jagged glass clutched in her hand.

"Go on," he invited. "Die."

"It's a trick. You'll stop me."

He shook his head deliberately from side to side.

"She'll stop me," Nikki amended hopefully, looking over to where Tamsin stood on the other side of the room by the cabinet, motionless. A cold wave of fear crept through the girl's nager.

"Tamsin couldn't reach you in time. Slash so much as one of your laterals and there's not a thing either one of us could do to save you." His voice was harsh and cruel, but he spoke the truth and Nikki could see it plainly. Frevven watched as she thought it over. She could do it. She really could. It would be horrible, but there would be an end at last to torment and frustration, and the never-ending guilt. It would be over. And whatever came after, if anything, would be better than this. It had to be.

Didn't it?

Frevven's face twisted into a painful grin as he zlinned the grim determination in her nager. "Are you so sure of that, Nikki? Sure enough to give up all your possibilities so soon, without even trying?"

Suddenly she wasn't so sure at all, but she was angry at him for recognizing her hesitation.

"You don't really want to die, do you?" His words fell into the bitter silence, mocking and sardonic. "You're angry. At life, at the world, but most of all at yourself. You hate me, you hate us, but above all you hate what you've had to become. Hatred is useless, Nikki, like the useless piece of broken glass you're holding in your hand. Destroy yourself with it if you must." She was wavering, he could zlin it. Now, how could he tip the balance the rest of the way?

He held out this hands toward her, handling tentacles retracted and laterals unprotected. "Or destroy someone else. That's absolutely all you can do with it."

Her horror and confusion raked over his raw-edged nerves and he hated what he was doing to her. But he'd failed to get through any other way. This was a last resort. Maybe his own last resort.

His hands shook visibly despite all his efforts to hold them still. He was imagining what it would feel like if he lost the gamble and she struck out at his vulnerable laterals. Well, she'd saved his life once, hadn't she? Didn't he owe her that risk?

Frevven stared steadily into Nikki's eyes and wondered if he was going to live or die. For an agonizingly long time, she stared back, tense with hatred and with need. "I couldn't," she whispered at long last. Then, more loudly, "I won't. Junct I may be, but a murderer I'm not."

He breathed a sigh of relief before he could trust himself to speak. "That person who takes life when there is a viable alternative, however unpleasant, is still named a murderer. Junct is only an excuse."

With an inarticulate snarl, she hurled the broken bottle across the room and against the fireplace, where it shattered into glittering splinters across the cold hearth. Then she darted around Frevven and was out the door before he could react, leaving the two older channels staring at each other.

"How did you know she wouldn't kill herself?" Tam inquired, still shaken.

Frevven shrugged. "Have you ever known a Sime who could slash her own laterals? Come on, we'd better find her before she gets in more trouble."

At the far end of the hallway, someone screamed. Fearing the worst, both channels raced out to see what was wrong.

On the first landing of the stairway, Nikki stood in the wavering shadows, holding an elderly Gen by one arm despite his energetic struggles to get loose. Frevven thought he recognized the man as part of the maintenance staff, and a broom lying halfway down the flight of steps confirmed his assumption that he had been surprised while doing the nightly cleaning.

"Nikki, you don't want Winzell," Tamsin coaxed, reaching the edge of the landing. "He's not even high field. Let him go."


Frevven inched closer, coming down off the bottom step. The Gen apparently recognized the two channels because he stopped struggling and stood still, watching them hopefully and trying to damp the fear in his nager.

"Nikki, come on now. Stop playing games with us. You're not even in hard need. You've got no call to scare an old man," Frevven scolded mildly, keeping his anxiety out of his showfield. Despite his words, Nikki was close enough to need to be dangerous. Ever since that aborted transfer with V'lis last month, she'd been very unstable.

"Stay away from me!" She looked from Frevven to Tamsin, then back again. Her eyes were unfocused. She was hyperconscious and seemed to be deliberately raising intil. "I've got this one, right? You couldn't stop me if I chose to take him?" Yanking Winzell closer to her, she demanded, "Answer me, one of you!"

"You've got him. We couldn't stop you. Is that what you wanted to hear?" Frevven replied tightly. She zlinned like someone in disjunction crisis, but she shouldn't be. Or should she? After what he'd done to her last month, who could be sure?

Nikki laughed, her smile the maniac grimace of someone who has been pushed too far and no longer cares anymore whether she falls over the edge. As she moved to capture the old Gen's free wrist, Frevven finally gave up. It was useless. She'd kill just to spite them, it she could.

Wanting nothing so much as to run away, Frevven stood miserably against the bannister and steeled himself to witness the inevitable conclusion of this little drama.

Nikki laughed again, with triumphant malice. "All right, Frevven Aylmeer. Watch me closely now. You too, Hajene High-and-Mighty Farris. You don't believe I can do it, but I can." Her eyes lost that unfocused look and locked with Frevven's as she spoke. He could feel the effort it was costing her to be rational. She spun the Gen around and released him sending him staggering into Tamsin's arms.

"I made my choice," she rasped, "now show me it was worth it, damn you!" Nikki threw herself at Frevven, grabbing his arms, laterals seeking viciously for his. Her momentum knocked them both down to the floor, with the girl sprawled on top of him.

Taken by surprise, he barely had time to realize what she had done and prepare himself to offer transfer before her lips were on his and she had begun to draw. He matched his resistance carefully against that draw and fought for enough time to conjure up the image of his dead sister, expecting to fall into her projected self as always and allow her to do the rest. But this time it didn't work. She was there, but she wouldn't do it.

Confused and beginning to be frightened, Frevven cried out to the silent image in his mind. "Jozanna! Jozanna, help me!"

The answer, when it came, was not what he wanted to hear. "No, little brother. If you want this one, you'll have to do it yourself. It isn't really me, you know. It never was. I'm only the part of yourself that you'd rather not see, rather not face. I'm dead, Frevven, dead these many years. All you're seeing is your own reflection. It's time you realized that."

"But I can't do this without your"

Gentle laughter. "Of course you can."

Shame. "No. It hurts too much."

"Then let the girl die. You cannot pull someone else back from the edge unless you do not fear to stand there yourself."

And the comforting sense of her presence was gone. There was only darkness, and a junct Sime teetering on the knife's edge, with no one but himself to tip the balance. Devoid of his sister's protecting persona, Frevven looked inside and knew the truth. More than just his sister had been destroyed when he had killed Jozanna Aylmeer. A gentle, loving, vulnerable part of himself had died with her, driven into inner darkness by the shock of what he'd done. Now it was struggling back, after years of exile, fighting to live again in the conscious part of Frevven's mind. And it hurt -- Oh, how it hurt! -- to admit he wasn't as strong as he'd always thought he was.

Desperately afraid that his own turmoil would affect Nikki, he concentrated as he'd never had to before, controlling with his own mind what he was accustomed to turning over to the shade of his sister. To his great surprise, he discovered that some pan of his mind had been paying very close attention over the years. It really was not as difficult as he'd feared. In fact, it was easy! Very easy, although he probably wouldn't be able to tell another channel just how he did it. The responses were engraved on his nervous system. Things came clear, exquisitely clear, where before he'd worked by what now seemed rough approximations. He was astonished.

He faked the Gen barriers one by one, automatically, just as Nikki would have hit them. And reverberated to her guilt and sorrow as she hit the TN-3 barrier, tried to stop and couldn't. Her battle with herself set up turbulences, built, unbalanced threatened an abort. Concluding this must be where her First Kill had broken and panicked, Frevven dropped even his token resistance, literally forcing her to continue past that point, accept the fact that there was more selyn available than she could need. No problem, Nikki. Let the dead past bury its dead. This is now. Stay with me.

She recovered with a shudder, taking the initiative again, daring to draw her fill. Frevven felt the warmth and joy coursing through the other channel as the darkness of her nager brightened and glowed with renewed life. And felt her thrill to the nearest thing she would ever again know to the egobliss of the kill.

When it was over and she released him, Frevven took her in his arms and hugged her. Tamsin knelt beside them, and Frevven grinned foolishly at her over Nikki's head. The old Gen maintenance man sat on the steps wiping his forehead with a bright red bandanna and smiling broadly. The ambient nager overflowed with relief and happiness. Suddenly they were all talking at once, congratulating Nikki lavishly.

Frevven got to his feet, slightly dizzy but happy. I did it, he reflected. Me, Not Jozanna. Me. As Tam reached to help Nikki up, he leaned back against the wall, feeling a sharp twinge of pain in his shoulder. He couldn't decide whether to laugh or cry.

Tamsin smiled at the young Sime woman standing in front of her desk. Nikki had come to say good-bye. "So tell me, what are you planning to do with the rest of your life?" she asked.

"I'm not really sure yet. I think I'll travel a bit and get my head together before I decide. My father left a generous amount of money in trust for me, so I guess I'm pretty rich, right?"

Tam nodded.

"I think I'll see what life is like in-Territory before I settle down," she went on. "All I've seen so far has been the inside of Sime Centers and disjunction wards." She grimaced. "There has to be more than that."

"There is. Much more. And I hope you find a place that pleases you. You may have some problems fitting in, you know."

The girl's nager clouded. "I know. I'll never be a functioning channel, I know that." She shrugged. "Well, I might not have made much of a channel anyway. I know, sour grapes. But I'll just have to find something else, won't I?" She turned to leave, hesitating in the doorway. "Uh -- Tamsin? Thanks for everything, okay? I know I wasn't exactly a prize."

"It's not me you ought to thank, Nikki. It's Frevven. You might go by his office before you leave."

"Oh, I will. In fact, that was my next stop."

As Nikki left, Tam's secretary walked in with the morning's huge stack of mail. The channel sighed and began opening letters. When she noticed one envelope in a familiar shade of blue near the bottom of the pile, she pushed all the rest aside and dug it out. Hesitating for only a second while her heart skipped a beat, she slit open the envelope and read over the brief text.

Grinning from ear to ear, she jumped up from behind her desk and headed down the hall.

Nikki had just left Frevven's office, her awkward but sincere parting words of thanks almost penetrating his need-induced apathy and depression. He'd tried to seem cheerful, but it wasn't easy.

And I'd almost given up on that girl, he reflected. Strange. I can save other people's children, but I lost my own.

He went over and put a fresh log on the fire, seeing Valthea's face in the dancing flames. She was at least alive and well, as far as anyone knew. And with her mother. Frevven couldn't summon up enough emotion to be angry at the thought of V'lissia. She'd only taken the path she'd judged right. Why be angry? A useless emotion, under the best of circumstances and surely of no help to his daughter.

He was still staring into the flames when Tamsin opened the door and came up behind him, exuding enough smug satisfaction to remind him of the old saying about the cat who'd swallowed the canary. "Got something you might like to see, Frevven," she announced.

Curious, he turned to face the other channel. She held out a pale blue sheet of paper, offering no further explanation. He took it, adjusted his glasses with a tentacle, and tilted the sheet toward the light from the fire, squinting at the elaborate script. About halfway through the page, it dawned on him that this was a written invitation to meet with Muryin Farris, signed by no less a person than the Sectuib herself.

Thunderstruck, he stopped reading and looked up at Tam, wondering if this were someone's idea of a joke. Before he could open his mouth to ask, she laughed and said, "No, silly. It's for real."

"But -- but what for? What could she possibly want with me?"

"Finish reading the letter. She'll be in Danversport next month, conferring with the Sectuib of Householding Shaeldor. You've been proposed for membership in Zeor and she wants to talk to you to see how you feel about that possibility."

"Oh -- my -- God," he replied slowly, glancing back down to the letter. "But who would propose me?" He stopped as he registered the smugness in the other channel's showfield. "You. Right?"

"Yep. And Chaynek's been trying to get you in for years."

"Chaynek? I never imagined --"

"And we never would have told you, either, if Muryin had refused to consider you this time also."

He simply couldn't take it all in. To want something so much for so many years that you had given up, and then to have it dumped in your lap unexpectedly like this --

"Are you all right?" The mischief changed to concern and Tamsin already had her hands out, laterals extended and searching for a reason why his blood pressure had dropped and his face turned so pale.

Noting her concern, Frevven concentrated on restoring everything to its proper level and leaned back against the stone edge of the fireplace.

"Yes, for heaven's sake, I'm fine. I just don't quite understand why this is happening now, that's all."

"Frevven, did you really think we hadn't noticed?" Her smile was half-tender, half-ironic, like the smile that had been on her face so many years ago when he had asked to work for her here, at Santenkaty Landing, on the disjunction ward, doing what he could do best even though it tore apart his heart to admit it.

"Besides," she went on, "this isn't 100% certain, you know. If Muryin doesn't approve you, or if the rest of the membership won't accept you, you may not be invited to pledge. This is just the first step."

Shaking his head, he looked down again at the blue paper in his hand. It was real; it was all for real. His eye was caught by the embossed Zeor crest on the top of the paper and he stared, bemused, at the jagged little symbol with its many points. For most of his adult life, it had been the shape of all his hopes and dreams, the one thing he'd wanted above all else, and sometimes he couldn't even explain why. Was it at last within his reach? Could it really be that easy?

He thought back over the years of wanting, of trying, of struggling with his own inadequacies and failings, of hoping, and of giving up hope. Easy? No. Only in retrospect could that be called easy.

Frevven looked beyond the paper into the dancing flames. They blurred and swam sideways in the tears that came to his eyes despite the emotion-dampening effects of need. On the screen of his memory, a child sat in his lap, firelight flickering in those eyes so like his own as she listened to him read. Once again he heard his own voice, and the phrase he had recited so lightly not very long ago: "When someone both desires and needs its light, the way to Zeor will be found."

He thought in mingled sadness and joy that the way to Zeor had perhaps been found. But the child had been lost.

End of story

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