Even in the last moments before dawn, the flow of mourners did not slacken. The colonnaded rotunda echoed with the soft rustle of formal Householding capes, their bright colors picked out by the newscamera lights. The public filed by the open coffin to bid goodbye to an era in Sime~Gen history and to rededicate themselves to an idealistic dream.
Now, Laneff dared to hope she was about to make her own dream a part of the new era. At the private, guarded entrance to the rotunda, she presented her pass to the armed honor guard. "Laneff Farris ambrov Sat'htine," she said crisply. "Mairis Farris wishes to see me."
"He is standing vigil. He is not to be disturbed," claimed the Sime woman.
"The pass says immediately," argued Laneff, trying to keep the edge out of her voice. She was too close to need to allow herself the luxury of a temper. Nevertheless, she felt her tentacles knotting with the tension.
The guard couldn't help noticing Laneff's state, even as she examined the pass. Then she nodded. "I'll take this to him, but you'd better wait out here. The emotional nager in there is enough to take your breath away."
She turned smartly and marched between the columns, disappearing behind the inner ranks of columns. She was not in need, as Laneff was.
Laneff threw back the Sat'htine cloak she wore and fished a pair of attenuator rings from the pocket of her jacket. She slipped them on the ring finger of each hand, tuning them up to maximum intensity and bracing herself against the sickening surge as the tiny instruments cut the shimmering waves of emotion radiating from the building before her. It was worse than stuffing cotton in ears and nose. The attenuators damped her Sime senses, leaving her feeling drugged and disoriented but protecting her need sensitized nerves. She was glad she'd had no breakfast. I'll never get used to these things.
Swallowing hard, she made her way up the steps and through the screen of columns to a vantage from which she could see the dais where Digen Farris ambrov Zeor lay in state. The bier was draped in the blue of the House of Zeor, the white of the head of the House, and the black of the Farris mutation. Mairis Farris ambrov Zeor, Digen's heir and thus Sectuib-Apparent in the House of Zeor, stood vigil, also arrayed in full archaic heraldic splendor.
The honor guard was approaching the dais from the side where Shanlun ambrov Zeor stood next to Mairis, also decked in Zeor colors. He'd stationed himself close to Mairis, half turned to face him, rather than the crowd filing by the open coffin, as if he were already assuming the office of Mairis' Companion in Zeor. He seemed comfortable, as if he'd functioned at full dress state occasions all his life, and not just since he'd pledged to Zeor to become Digen's Companion. This uncanny knack of blending into any background, such as Laneff's laboratory, Digen's sickroom, or the midst of bizarre emergencies, had originally attracted Laneff to him.
The guard delivered the pass to Mairis, and the flow of mourners, four abreast in a line that snaked back across the polished stone floor of the Unity Gate rotunda, paused. They had all entered on the Gen Territory side of the Gate building. The line looped around the document display case in the center of the rotunda, housing the first Unity Proposal, purportedly written by Klyd Farris ambrov Zeor, Mairis' five times great grandfather, more than two centuries ago. Each mourner was graphically reminded that the first effort to stop the Sime~Gen wars had been made by the Householdings, led by Zeor.
As the line halted, Laneff could make out a small knot of blond haired, pale skinned gypsies in their ethnic bluff-and-beige costumes, reverently examining the Unity Proposal. Blond—like Shanlun.
Shanlun, tall as Mairis, with broad, Gen shoulders and well sculpted muscles such as only a Gen could have, nevertheless moved with all the grace of a Sime. Against the vivid Zeor blue, Shanlun's pale blond hair seemed even more bizarre—perhaps even akin to that of the gypsies. Ridiculous.
Mairis waved the waiting line into motion again and let the honor guard escort him out of the spotlights. Laneff could imagine the excited whispers of the reporters speculating on the cause of this interruption. Shanlun moved at Mairis' side as if they'd rehearsed that march hundreds of times.
"Laneff," said Mairis, waving the guards away from them. "I didn't expect you to get here until dawn."
"I couldn't sleep. I was watching the whole thing from my hotel room when your message came. I was hoping you'd made a decision."
"I have." He glanced at Shanlun. "You're right, Laneff. The time has come to make Digen's dream, the reunification of humanity, a reality. The wave of sentiment caused by his death—" He half turned toward the crowd behind him. "Zlin that nager!" He gestured expansively.
Since he had approached, he had very smoothly taken control of the ambient nager in their vicinity. This was the channel's talent, and Mairis was known as one of the best channels in the world. As he dropped his blanketing of the crowd's emotions, Laneff felt the weight of collective grief wash over her anew, despite the attenuators.
Tears rushed to her eyes again, and she said, "I don't require them to remind me what a good man he was."
"No, that's not what I mean. Here, take those attenuators off, and really zlin them." As he spoke, he stepped closer, enveloping her in the deep silence of a channel's controlling nager.
She divested herself of the tiny machines and slipped them into a pocket. Then, gradually, Mairis let up on his grip of the fields, and she was zlinning the ambient with her own senses.
"Focus on those nearest the casket," said Mairis. "Zlin how the sense of bereavement and even fear for the future gives way to a vision of hope as they look at him. I've been watching this all night. They're ready, Laneff, as they've never been before. Look." He brought something from a pocket.
She followed his gesture and was gazing upon a small jewelry box which opened to expose a gleaming steel coin. "It's Digen!"
The coin bore the unmistakable profile of the age ravaged face within the coffin: the elegant Farris forehead no longer graced by the characteristic cowlick, the aquiline nose, the sensitive lips so typically Farris, yet the whole imprinted by the dynamic personality of this unique individual. He was unmistakably Farris, yet no longer typically Farris.
This was what the public saw as they paused beside the coffin, and what they felt was reverberating through Laneff. Her breath caught in her throat, as Sime and Gen alike shared one powerful moment of true emotional unity, naked to each other without the cloaking of their fears.
It was too potent. This was what she had always imagined a channel and Donor shared during selyn transfer. For a renSime, a Sime who wasn't a channel, it was altogether too dangerous.
But Mairis gave her only a momentary glimpse and then gently blurred and damped the fields until the three of them were standing in a bubble of privacy amid the emotional torrents. Laneff, still duoconscious, aware at one and the same time of her ordinary five senses and of the nageric fields produced by living selyn fields, living Gens and Simes, perceived Shanlun as a dizzying whirl of particolored fluorescent confetti, while Mairis blurred and shimmered as all channels did when working to control the nageric fields. Shanlun, too, was working as a Donor, his full concentration focused on Mairis, his awareness of her so dim that she hardly knew he was there.
When they were all breathing easily again, Mairis said, "Now do you understand? You knew how people would feel when Digen's death was announced, and I didn't. You were right. Now is the time to make Unity a reality. And your research is the key that makes it feasible."
"But it's so far from complete!" Laneff's research in Sime neurochemistry had led her to synthesize a compound which should provide the key to distinguishing Sime from Gen before birth.
He nodded. "You can't go any further without a fifteen to twenty year study, and that means government funding. At the funeral this morning, I'm going to go up on that podium and challenge the world: elect me World Controller, and I will see that this research—and other projects like it—gets the funding necessary to make Digen's dream a reality. When children no longer have to grow up wondering or fearing which they'll be, Sime or Gen; when no child unexpectedly goes through changeover becoming Sime and killing the nearest Gen in the berserk raging of First Need—as you did—then it will be possible to abolish the borders between Sime and Gen Territory, and to stop tearing families apart at the very roots. Humans cannot have peace in this world until we accomplish this. Digen knew that. He understood the importance of what you were doing. And I now know that the time is right. Laneff, will you help me?"
"What if they don't elect you?"
"Then the time isn't right. But I'll keep working all my life—as Digen did. And I'll keep asking for your help."
His dark Farris eyes bored into hers, but the nageric atmosphere was cool. She said, "I had thought I was asking for your help to find funding for my project."
He held out a hand to her, extending his handling tentacles, the two dorsals from the sheaths that lay along the tops of his forearms, and the two ventrals from the bottoms of each forearm, so that as their fingers met, his four tentacles reached for hers in a grip of mutual trust. The contact sent a pulse of slow, calm power through her, as if it came from Shanlun.
But with that skin contact, she realized that Mairis was himself on the edge of hard need. She could perceive the two separate selyn transport nerve systems in the channel, where the renSimes such as herself had only one system. The primary system, which supplied energy to the channel's own body, was dim to Laneff's perceptions, though the secondary system, which the channel used to collect selyn from Gens and transmit it to renSimes in need, glowed brightly. Mairis was in need, but he carried a vast store of selyn which circulated throughout his body, allowing him to control the nager in his vicinity. The intense, solid power she felt at his touch was really being transmitted to her directly from Shanlun. And Shanlun, a Gen whose body was hyperdeveloped in the ability to produce selyn, seemed engorged with selyn.
Entranced with the immanence of such Gen essence, Laneff barely heard Mairis say, "It is best when partners help each other." He withdrew his touch, insulating her once again from the compelling field. "We'll announce our partnership on the podium later this morning. Digen's funeral shouldn't be an ending but a new beginning. You'll stand with Shanlun and me and explain your discovery to the world."
Laneff could feel the grinding effort Shanlun was making to keep his attention on Mairis. She tore her eyes from the Gen and said, "I'd be afraid to even try that without a prepared speech to read. All night, I've been listening to the reporters insisting I already have a safe chemical test for pregnant women to determine whether the child will be Sime or Gen. And they even interviewed two police chiefs in different cities claiming Distect terrorists threatened to bomb any lab where such tests were done."
Shanlun's nager flared, and his full attention came to focus on her. "Of course it's Diet terrorists."
"True. Bombings are more the Diet's style, not the Distect's," said Mairis, turning curiously toward the Gen.
But Laneff scarcely heard him. Need thrilled across her nerves in answer to the fabulously rich Gen nager that now tantalized with promise.
Mairis stepped between them and did something with the fields that blunted the effect. She drew a shaky breath. It's only natural it should feel good to be the focus of a high field Gen's attention, she told herself. Her hard won conditioning to be attracted only to the channel's field when in need couldn't be failing. It was just that Shanlun had been due to give Digen transfer, but the death had intervened, so he was exceptionally high field.
As Shanlun steadied back to his job, narrowing his attention onto Mairis alone, Mairis said, "These threats of violence make it all the more important to get you up there to convince them you don't yet have all the answers. I'm pledging only to fund your research if I'm elected World Controller—not to institute massive prenatal screening tomorrow! The majority of the people on both sides of the borders are ready for this, but it's got to be done slowly, to build trust."
Laneff nodded. The out-Territory Gens feared that with real Unity, the Simes would take over all Gen governments, and there would be nothing to prevent them from beginning again to keep Gens in pens and breed them for the kill. Most Gens had more sense than that, but even out-Territory had its own terrorist groups—such as the Diet.
Mairis asked, "You're not afraid of the terrorists?"
"No," she said, glancing about at the far-flung ring of guards. "But I can't say I'd care to live like this."
"It won't be very long. When the reporters find something more exciting, we can relax the precautions. And research, face it, is always dull."
She had to smile at that, despite the thrumming anxiety of prematurely roused need. Her awareness of Shanlun was heightened now, despite all Mairis could do. The ronaplin hormones and selyn conducting fluids were seeping into the sheaths of her lateral tentacles, that normally lay quiescent and all but invisible along the sides of each arm. Mairis, she was sure, was acutely aware of her condition. I've got to think of a way out of this. I can't stand next to Shanlun for hours, in public.
"I'm sorry, Laneff," whispered Shanlun forlornly.
Their eyes met and locked. His shame flooded hotly through her, shame that he had failed to protect her from his nager. His yearning to touch her, to ease her need, was as sharp as her own. For a split instant, she felt englobed by the shell of scintillating nageric fragments that seemed to fluoresce in every color. It cut off awareness of Mairis and the whole world. They were alone in featureless space, and though they never touched, Laneff could feel Shanlun's expressive fingers resting on her sensitive lateral sheaths, turning her whole forearm to golden fire.
Shanlun's nager sank deeply into her body, making her feel as if her own cells produced selyn as a Gen's did, instead of merely using it to stay alive. Her laterals strained to emerge, to seek Gen skin and take the selyn her body now craved, though she knew it was too early in her cycle. It would only leave her discontent now.
Mairis, showing a bright and powerful field, intervened, denying her urge, shattering the bubble of privacy with his intrusion. Laneff's heart thundered in her ears.
Long ago she'd given up the kill—given up all hope of ever taking selyn directly from a Gen again. To be tempted, even mildly, was to risk losing control during need and killing the nearest Gen. Only channels were allowed to assuage need directly from Gens—specially trained Donors such as Shanlun who could not be killed—because channels couldn't function otherwise.
"Are you all right, Shanlun?" asked Mairis, and simultaneously, Laneff was aware of Mairis' attention focused on her, soothing the jangle of her nerves.
In the space of two breaths, Shanlun had steadied down to a particolored fluorescent shell, neutral in its effect on her. "My apologies, Sectuib," said Shanlun, his voice schooled to a colorless, emotionless distance.
Mairis waved that aside. "My fault. I hadn't realized just how much of a strain you were under." He glanced at Laneff. "Your personal relationship doesn't make it any easier."
Zeor doesn't marry out of Zeor. The words echoed in Laneff's mind as Shanlun stood with balanced poise under the scrutiny of his Sectuib. Here was the only man who'd understood what she was doing and who, from the first moment they'd met, had truly believed she could do it. Taking her moments of despair in stride, he had grown to cherish her as she loved him. Yet now, he didn't dare even look at her. If I had any sense, I'd cut him out of my life. But I can't. She didn't think she could walk away from Shanlun now, even if she didn't have to work with his Sectuib. How, can I tell Mairis I dare not stand with him and Shanlun today?
Catching Mairis's attention, Shanlun said, "There is another consideration. All the other Householding cloaks on that podium this morning will be Zeor. The other Householdings might be jealous if you favor Sat'htine with the entire world watching."
"I hadn't thought of that!" said Mairis.
"You're going to offer to lead the world into a step as big as Klyd's Unity Proposal or the signing of the First Contract between Sime and Gen governments. Either Zeor leads—alone—or all Householdings lead together," said Shanlun.
Mairis nodded. "And even Klyd could never get them all to agree. He was zlinning Laneff carefully.
"I wouldn't want to create jealousy among the Householdings," said Laneff. "Certainly not now, when we are trying to create a Unity." It really would be best if I weren't there.
As if echoing her very thought, Shanlun said, "It really would be best if Laneff could speak from some other location."
"It might be more dramatically effective—more visually interesting if Laneff is in the guest box. There will be all kinds of Householding colors among the guests, and there is a low field zone established there for the renSimes in need. I'll have them rig a microphone. Get Kadi to let the camera crews know they'll have a reason to cover that area closely—but don't tell them what it is."
Mairis was off making plans, mentally rewriting his speech and shaping his campaign. Laneff felt a weight lift from her spirit. She could accomplish everything she had to in order to get the funding for her project—and not suffer.
As Mairis talked, Laneff noticed that out on the rotunda floor the small knot of gypsies had reached the bier, directly in the beam of the brightest lights, and at a point closest to where she was standing. Four gypsy Gens and a gypsy channel created a hole in the ambient nager, a pale hole of ghostly stillness that shimmered. Despite the lack of similarity to Shanlun's fluorescent effect, there seemed some indefinable kinship there.
As she watched, the gypsy channel paused over Digen's casket and gazed fixedly at Shanlun. Shanlun had his back turned to the bier, but he raised one eyebrow as if he'd heard a curious noise, and then he turned.
The gypsy channel was an old man with startlingly dark blond hair, abundant and cut short and stiff. A thin weatherbeaten face, bushy eyebrows, long vertical laugh lines, and no frown lines bespoke an innate good humor.
Mairis followed Shanlun's gaze. "Someone you know? Come greet them. We must get back there now, anyway."
The gypsy channel's attention seemed to be calling to Shanlun, and he wavered. Laneff felt that call, while at the same time a wash of cold needles raised the hairs all over her body. Despite that warning, though, she knew she'd fight to get assigned to that channel for a transfer. But gypsies aren't on the rotation rolls.
Shanlun turned back to Mairis, wrapping himself again in the impenetrable cloak of his nager. "I—have no business with them."
As he said that, the gypsies turned and left, but Laneff sensed a throbbing of regret in them—and in Shanlun.
Mairis assigned Laneff a security guard and told them where to wait as he and Shanlun were escorted back to the bier. Laneff had to put the attenuator rings back on when the powerful channel and Donor left her. Before long, there was a booming clang as temporary barricades cut off the flow of mourners. The end of the line snaked toward the bier.
She had seen Digen die and knew in her heart that he was gone. But she was impelled to grab this last chance—before it was too late.
She drew her hood up around her face, trying to become just another Householder, and, trailed by the guard, she joined the end of the line beside the glass case of the Unity Proposal. Only if we know which children will be Sime can we bring Klyd's—and Digen's—dream into reality.
She had known that in her very bones ever since she'd visited the prematurely erected Monument to the Last Berserker during her first year after changeover. She'd cried during the ceremony when her name had been added to the end of the list carved there and a prayer had been said that she should indeed be the Last Berserker—the last child to go through changeover unexpectedly and kill in First Need. Silently, she'd vowed to be the one to put an end to berserkers. But Digen Farris had to die under her care to make it possible for her to succeed.
Yet as she gazed into Digen's face, young in repose, she recalled all he'd suffered to bring the world this far. As she drank in the last moments of the sight of his face, they lowered the coffin lid.
In some odd way, under the hushed shadows and echoing vaults of the Unity Gate, it really seemed to her that he'd sacrificed his life to give her the chance to keep her vow. The weight of that responsibility came over her, and her heart cried, I can do it, Digen. I can give up anything I have to, even Shanlun. We're going to make your dream come true.
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