Ercy heard the train whistle just as she was leaving her trigonometry class. She cut through a shaded glade and around the senior students housing, intent on being the first in line for the mail. She had some special fertilizer on order which she had to get into the ground the moment it arrived. With luck, it might make the new trinrose buds come out mahogany.
The three graduating classes, Channels, renSimes, and Gens, were drawn up in crisp rows on the train platform, neatly intermingled with one another to give the arriving students a concrete impression of the goals of their education. The brand new Tecton crest rings shone brightly on the hands of the channels and Donors who were going to work for the Tecton.
As she drew near, she heard her father addressing them, talking about how they'd all worked together to avert real disaster in last night's flood here. He made the whole annoying mess into a kind of glowing symbol of their new lives, and she admired him for his art in this, knowing that his transfer had been delayed because of the flood, so he was still in need.
Need was the periodic nightmare of every adult Sime, especially channels. What could it possibly be like to live with it? Some people said it was like starving to death. Some people said it was more like suffocating or drowning. If Halimer Grant stays, I'm going to find out what need is like after all.
As the train coasted into the station, her father ended his speech and turned to Grant. From where she stood, Ercy couldn't hear their words, but she knew from his gestures that he was explaining how they would get the arriving students sorted out. Suddenly, she felt acutely uncomfortable watching them—her father's tentacles gesturing; Grant's untentacled arms bare to the shoulder, smooth and deeply tanned. She turned to walk around the station house to the post window to wait for her mail.
Leaning against the wall, soaking in the late afternoon sun, she closed her eyes, wondering how it would feel to be grown up and able to zlin, to see by selyn refraction, not by light.
She came to with a start. "Oh, Im'ran!"
The slender, gaunt faced Gen coming toward her was as much her father as Digen was. He was married to her mother and served her father as a permanent Donor because of the locked transfer dependency, the orhuen, that they shared.
"Where's Digen?" asked the Gen.
"Showing our new Co-Dean how to get a class of channels started. He just finished his speech." Seeing how worried Im'ran looked, she added, "Dad doesn't seem under much strain yet."
"He shouldn't be yet—but—" He broke off, his attention going to the scene on the platform. The ceremony broke up and Digen came toward them, Grant at his side.
Im'ran moved to take his place at her father's shoulder, and Ercy knew that he was now bringing her father's selyn fields into his own steady bodily rhythms, alleviating a great part of the strain of need for her father. But she wondered what it would be like to be able to zlin the fields meshing between them.
Pulling her thoughts together, she turned toward the window, where the mail clerk already had the mailbag open. They were exceptionally efficient today, she thought, probably because her father was nearby.
"Ercy," said the clerk, "here's your Gardener's Tips copy for the month. That what you're waiting for?"
She took the magazine. "Yes, thank you," she said, concealing her disappointment.
She did all her chores, spent two hours on classwork, showered, read her magazine, presided over supper in the absence of her parents, who were still sorting things out after the flood, and then she went to the lab to wait for her father's last check of the day. She felt she could run all of Rialite by herself if she had to. After all, she was turning sixteen.
She was sitting on the examining table, swinging her legs and contemplating her accomplishments, when Halimer Grant came in.
"Ercy! What are you doing here?"
"Waiting for my father."
Grant came all the way into the room, setting aside some papers he was carrying. "I have to find the supply room and put through these requisitions," he said, "but I'm glad to see you."
"This is my father's personal lab," she offered, wishing violently that there wasn't such a lump in her chest where her heart should be. "The supply clerk works way at the other end of the building and around the corner."
"Oh," he said, looking over his shoulder at the papers. "They said the east corner of the building."
"Right. This is the west corner." And then before she could stop the words, she said, "That's fairly typical of a lost Gen." Before the words were out, her hand started to fly to her mouth to stop them, but she aborted the gesture, feeling impossibly childish.
Grant chuckled merrily. "It seems I got lost in that storm and haven't found myself yet. Can you tell me something?"
She nodded, her larynx frozen.
"What were you doing with the trin bushes this morning? Those grafts interest me. Do you grow your own trin tea here? In this sandy soil?"
She shook her head, swallowing hard until she could speak. "I've worked the garden into a good loam, mostly using kitchen scraps and manure, but the climate is wrong for good tea—at least that's what the Simes said about my efforts and I suspect they were being charitable."
"Then why cultivate the bushes? Your garden is spectacular enough without them."
"For the flowers I want—" She broke off. What if he laughs at me? She met his eyes again, and a brilliant white calm wakened within her body. The words came tumbling out. "My parents think I gave up long ago, and I let them think that because—well, because the daily fights about it just wore me out. I know how absurd it sounds to them—my trying to grow a mahogany trinrose."
She looked at him defiantly, but oddly enough, he was regarding her without a trace of the usual ridicule. "Have you—have you succeeded yet?"
"No," Ercy admitted. "But this spring, I've made up some new genetic charts and I'm going to start cross-pollinating again. I've got a theory the real key is both chemical and—and—" I can't tell him that!
"Ah, well, it's all very complicated, researching a legend, but Dad always says science is an inherently slow procedure."
She thought she detected an air of relief in him, and wished forlornly that she could zlin his nager. On a sudden leap of intuition, she said, "You know something about the mahogany trinrose, don't you?"
"Oh," he answered in his slow manner, "no, I once had a friend who tried growing them."
She wondered if he spoke slowly to give himself time to choose his words, or if he chose his words because he spoke slowly. "Did your friend ever succeed? Maybe we could compare notes? I keep a thorough scientific journal even though I'm just researching a superstition…"
"No—no, I don't think that's possible. I've lost touch with him. But what would you do with such a bush if you got one?"
"Take pictures. Publish an article. Try to get some pharmaceutical house to test it. Wouldn't it be something if the legends turn out to be true?"
Slowly, as always, he said, "What—which legend?"
"That even a Sime addicted to the kill—a real junct Sime who's killed for years—the kind you only read about in history books—can survive disjunction and never have to kill again, by using an extract made from the mahogany trinrose."
"There might," said Grant thoughtfully, "be some truth to that legend--but I wouldn't—" He broke off as she met his eyes, hoping he wouldn't scoff as all the others did. "Ercy—have you already chosen to specialize in disjunction?"
"Well—I hadn't really thought about it, but I suppose so. With my father—it seems only natural."
"He's only technically junct, you know. He could never actually kill any Gen because the scar on his lateral would kill him first. But every so often he does have to take junct style transfers from Im'ran. They both hate it. Dad wants to disjunct so bad he's willing to risk his life. The only thing preventing him is that he has no heir until I change over. He's Sectuib—he can't risk his life unless Zeor is safe. But he wants to."
Words failed at that strange question. "I'm only a child and even I can imagine what it must be like for him being legally barred from functioning as a channel! I'd expect any Donor to understand. Why, the only thing keeping him from dying of entran is his orhuen with Im'."
"I have," said Grant even more slowly than usual, "seen what happens to a Tecton channel who cannot work. Entran is such a sterile word for that—agony." He seemed to pull himself away from a vision and focused on her. "Even though his transfer dependency on Im'ran controls the entran symptoms, he must suffer simply because he's a talented healer barred from healing. But, Ercy—why is it up to you to disrupt the situation? And why in this particular fashion?"
"You remember how he became junct in the first place. It's in all the history books—only half the time they quote the superstition that his junctedness happened simply from transfer with a Distect Gen. Really, it happened because that particular Gen, Distect or not, was his matchmate and was suffering from underdraw. Why not fight superstition with superstition? The mahogany trinrose is just a legend, a fairy story, but if science can find a way to grow one and extract a drug which will ease transfers—then science triumphs over stupidity. People will realize that there's no such thing as 'magic,' only natural laws we don't yet understand. Then they'll stop burning people and rioting against so-called magicians."
"You feel very strongly about that, don't you?"
"Was I shouting? I'm sorry, I get carried away."
"I didn't intend criticism of your behavior."
"Well," answered Ercy without thinking, "I'm supposed to be Sectuib-Apparent in Zeor." And then it hit her. "I mean, I'm going to be Sectuib in Zeor." After a moment or two she realized she was staring wide eyed at Grant. Sectuib-Apparent in Zeor trying to grow an impossible flower. And if he knew about the moon, what would he think?
But all he said was: "Yes—the future—changed."
"You changed it."
"Why? Why did you come here?" The words seemed to come out of their own volition, though her voice was choked to a whisper by a fear she couldn't name.
"I—had to. I had to come—here."
She found his hands resting on her wrists, her eyes almost level with his as he leaned closer to say very quietly, "We can deal with a changing future. We can and will deal with the future we have chosen."
If he took his hands away, she thought she'd faint.
There was a sound at the door. Without startlement, Grant turned. He disentangled his hands slowly, placing hers in her lap.
At the door, Im'ran had moved in beside Digen, watching them. Ercy wondered how long they'd been there. Digen came into the room, his overly quick, jerky stride betraying his need.
"No," said Digen as he advanced, "don't move apart. I want to get a good reading on this. Hal, give her a full transfer position, would you?" As he moved, Digen picked up Ercy's chart and began observing them from every angle, as Halimer slid his hands almost up to her elbows. "That's right," said Digen, jotting down some notations. "Lip contact, too."
Grant leaned in to make the lip-lip contact. Ercy shied back. No Gen had ever done that with her before.
Vexed, Digen said. "Ercy, you'll have to get used to it sometime."
"But not yet," she objected. She was sweating in sudden embarrassment. Grant watched Digen.
"That's very interesting," muttered Digen. "Im'ran, you try it. Hal's only mid-field. You're much higher now…"
Businesslike, unruffled, Grant relinquished his place to Im'ran.
Im'ran said, "You know I wouldn't hurt you, Ercy. Come on, cooperate. It's for your own good." He slid his smooth, untentacled Gen arms up along hers and held her loosely as he bent to make lip contact.
He was thin and hard, built almost like a Sime. His smooth arms had never seemed Gen to her. Or, they hadn't before today. Now, for the first time, she had to force herself to permit Im'ran to touch her, to make the hard, impersonal lip contact, like a channel's examination, very, very far from a kiss. Im'ran held it for just a second longer than a channel would, then broke, sliding his hands down her arms. The skin of his hands felt rough after Grant's, and she wondered what they would feel like after her changeover.
Im'ran asked, "What are you getting, Digen?"
"Not sure. Hal, let's see you again. Ercy, let him make contact."
Again, as he touched her, she broke out in a cold sweat, embarrassed by the tremendous inner response she couldn't name. But it was no stronger when he made lip contact, and she managed to hold still this time, pleased with her self-control.
Digen finished his notation, smiling. "Thank you, Hal. There's a response factor that wasn't there a couple days ago. What I can't figure out is why it's the lower field that's getting through to her. Ercy, what are you feeling?"
"Embarrassed, that's what."
"I apologize if I've discomfited you, Ercy. But don't you realize what I've just said? This is it. The inflection point I've been searching for these last six years; the very first sign of changeover, before any nerve cell accretions have even built up. There's a subliminal awareness, a sensitivity you didn't have before. Isn't there?"
She shook her head. "I don't think so." But she had to force herself not to squirm under his gaze.
Digen put the chart aside and came to her. "Ercy, you're entering a new world now, the world of the Tecton where the channel has no private parts. If I'm hard on you, it's because I want you to adjust to it quickly."
"I'll try, Dad." She gave herself full credit for sitting still when she wanted to run screaming from the room. She'd been taught that in changeover people always sought solitude, as a cat would go off to give birth. She could understand why now. If this is really it. "I don't feel anything, though, just embarrassment."
Her father gave a tight little smile. "I know. We'll keep testing you until we can pin down a date. It will be at least six, months, maybe more. I think this is the earliest detection of changeover on record, and we have it only because of the careful observations we've kept on you—and because of Hal here."
Putting away his record books, Digen watched as Ercy left, followed closely by Hal. "Im', if I didn't know it was impossible, I'd almost say that Hal has somehow triggered Ercy's changeover."
Im'ran looked at him sharply, then laughed.
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