When the train pulled into the outskirts of Westfield, it slowed for the urban traffic. Before long, a Gen came swinging along the car and stopped beside Digen.
"Respect, Sectuib," said the Gen. "I am Imrahan, Companion, House of Imil. Sorelton wired ahead that your escort had been diverted. May I help?"
Digen, exhausted from the long ride, yet feeling a bit better now that the train had slowed, said, "Please sit down."
The man folded himself into the seat beside Digen. He was no taller than Digen, but had the typical Gen build, well developed musculature padded out by a healthy layer of body fat. He spoke the Sime language with an in-Territory accent, music to Digen's ears. "Thank you, Sectuib Farris. The Controller sent me to meet you and give you a message."
Digen could feel the swirl of tension in the Gen. In an effort to put him at ease, Digen said, "House of Zeor offers respect to House of Imil, but these are modern times. I don't think the titles are necessary, Im'ran."
Im'ran smiled, a bit more at ease.
Digen noticed then how the Gen had already begun to lock into Digen's nager with a casual precision. It was like a solid, steady hand offered in support of a precarious balance. Instantly Digen relaxed into the familiar hold, luxuriating in it. In seconds, the almost palpable emotions of the Gens at the other end of the car receded from his consciousness, the sickening blur of the outside world steadied, and, best of all, the insistent do something, do something, do something of Need that had been building relentlessly for hours suddenly turned to ah, at last!
This caused Digen to turn his head and focus his eyes on the man in startlement. The Gen was low field, very low field. He'd obviously donated selyn very recently, possibly even within the last twelve hours. Very few Donors, even First Order Donors, could alleviate the rising tide of Need in a channel while they themselves were in such a low field condition.
The Gen sat inspecting his fingertips, searching for words to say something that was obviously very difficult. The silence stretched until Digen said, "You have some sort of bad news for me, Im'ran?"
The Donor sighed heavily. "I was to be your assigned Donor. But, as you can see, that's impossible. I've already had transfer."
Digen froze, stunned into unblinking silence. Though the deeper, more primitive part of his mind no longer screamed the panic of rising Need, suddenly his conscious intellect knew he would get no decent transfer this month. There can't be two like Im'ran in Westfield. There can't be.
Digen became aware of the cool, Gen hands covering his own, intensifying the contact between them. The Gen's slow, steady pulse of selyn production pulled Digen into a soothing relaxation.
"Sectuib Farris, I'm sorry. I know it's been a long time for you—too long."
Struggling to come to terms with the blow, Digen absently rubbed at his left arm retainer, just over the outer lateral tentacle.
Im'ran's hand covered his, and the Gen asked, "The scar pains you?"
"The famous lateral scar," said Digen wryly. He was the only Sime who had ever survived such a deep cut through the vital selyn transport nerves of a lateral tentacle. "It takes a very special Donor to get a transfer into me through that scar without a series of transfer aborts."
"Controller Mickland—he's controller for the city as well as for the district of Westfield—he sent me to prepare you to make a choice."
Digen sat up straight and looked at Im'ran with his eyes as well as his other senses. "A choice of Donors?"
Im'ran shrugged. "Mickland is a very strange individual."
"Mmmm," said Digen. "Tell me about this choice."
"Mickland has been on the hotwire all night scouring the coast for available Donor matches. It took a nine-way Controllers' conference to free someone for you."
"Well then, who?"
"Seloyan?" Digen had worked with Seloyan several times. The man was good, but not as good as Imrahan, and nowhere near what Digen was due. "Is he in phase with me?"
"Not quite. It will be two and a half days early for him."
"He'll be low field then." Seloyan at his highest selyn field wasn't really adequate for Digen. "What's the rest of the bad news?"
"It will take him a little more than two days to get here."
"I don't want to hear about the second choice if it's any worse than the first."
"Maybe," said Im'ran, "you should come and meet your second choice. I really don't know how to describe her."
The train was inching to a stop at its platform at Westfield Terminal. The Gen passengers were crowding into the aisles and a conductor came to open the door nearest Digen.
It wasn't far from the train terminal to Westfield's Sime Center, a towering building in the middle of town, situated right on the Territory border which bisected the city.
The moment they stepped across that border into Sime Territory, Digen stripped off the cumbersome retainers, freeing his tentacles and clearing his head. He felt much better by the time they took the elevator straight up to the controller's ninth floor offices.
The inner office was spacious, carpeted in thick, luxurious green, with gold upholstery and drapes. A large, polished oak desk at the focal point of the room had the ornate look of modern Gen carving—a gift from out-Territory, Digen surmised. In one corner, a trophy case was lighted softly from within, displaying a number of statues and awards, while one black velvet wall was covered with plaques and certificates. The room had an unused, formal appearance, save for the rows of chart boards standing beside the desk.
Digen gained only a quick, flash impression of all this: Typical controller's front office, a well-run Sime Center. The moment the door opened before him, the nager within the room washed over him stunningly. Im'ran stepped in front of Digen, attempting to shield him, but the Gen was far too low field.
With his eyes Digen saw Controller Mickland, a channel of medium height, standing behind his desk. He was broad shouldered enough to look shorter than he really was, and though, like all Simes, he scarcely carried eight per cent body fat, his large boned frame gave him an imposing, Gen look.
Pacing Mickland, shouting her outraged indignation in a clear soprano, was the Gen woman who was the source of the overwhelming nager. She was petite but had a full figure. Her dark auburn hair was long, caught up high and then allowed to spill freely over her shoulders.
"Qualify?" the woman was shrieking at Mickland. "Qualify? What makes you think I want to become one of your—your—blensheyla eyeofi! You think it's some kind of privilege that I have to earn by proving I can do it? You think it takes some kind of special skill to go up to a strange Sime and just let him—just passively let him take selyn? You think it would do the poor Sime any good? Look, I—I have to have transfer. You just find me a channel in Need and I'll take care of him."
Im'ran said quietly to Digen, "There's your second choice. Ilyana Dumas. She's Distect."
"Shenshid!" said Digen involuntarily.
The woman turned to look at Digen, hope in her eyes.
The Distect. A myth. The shattered remnants of the House of Rior—the only real opposition the Tecton had ever faced. A hundred years ago, the Tecton was just a loose confederacy of householdings. At that time, any channel, discovering that he did not have to kill Gens for selyn, could found a Householding, gathering about himself a number of Gens to provide selyn and a number of renSimes who swore to take selyn only from a channel, thus never again killing a Gen.
Then, Klyd Farris, Sectuib in Zeor, had engineered a coup in which the Tecton had taken over the Sime government and signed a treaty with the Gen government, accepting for the channels the responsibility of preventing renSimes from killing in transfer. Klyd Farris thus founded the modern Tecton. All the sovereign houses had signed the agreement, except the House of Rior, which held that the Tecton's avowed ideal—the reuniting of the human race, the eradicating of the mutual fear and distrust between Sime and Gen—could not be served by a society in which the only direct Sime~Gen transfers, the transfers between channel and Donor, were depersonalized and regulated by the rigid and sterile Tecton code.
The House of Rior, under its Gen leader Hugh Valleroy, had broken away from the new Tecton and founded the Distect, dedicated to giving every renSime his own Gen Donor, doing away with the channel intermediary.
Mickland said, "Ilyana, either you will qualify, taking oath as a Tecton Donor, or no channel will touch you."
She looked from Mickland to Digen, pleading. Digen, steeling himself inwardly, advanced into the room. Before he'd gone two paces past Im'ran, Ilyana's nageric fluctuations had locked in step with his own; but where Im'ran had brought Digen into one of the precisely quantized Tecton standard rhythms, this woman had locked on to Digen and let him drift into whatever natural, nonstandard rhythm his metabolism chose, following him effortlessly.
It was unsettling. Digen stood poised on the brink of dire Need, controlling his natural reflex to seize and strip one or the other of these two powerful Donors, as only a lawless, killer Sime would. Fighting this predatory instinct so deep in every Sime, Digen looked from one to the other, forcing his mind to analyze their fields' effects on him.
Im'ran moved to Digen's side, trying, despite his depleted field, to fight Ilyana for control of Digen. And, strangely, though the man couldn't win, he could hold Ilyana at bay.
Im'ran is a fanir, Ilyana is a drifter—High Order drifter but still a drifter. Given his choice, Digen would have preferred the precisely quantized, dead-true fanir to a drifter. But Im'ran had already served in transfer, and Ilyana was high field. At any rate, she'd be better than Ben Seloyan—and she was here, now. But she's Distect!
Legend had it that any Tecton channel who accepted transfer from a Distect Donor would end up junct—unsatisfied with anything except a kill-mode transfer.
Digen could see Mickland's dilemma. As controller Mickland simply couldn't turn the Sectuib in Zeor over to a Distect Gen—it would be political suicide.
She was watching him carefully as he took in the situation. Digen said, "The controller is right—no channel would surrender control of a transfer to an unqualified Gen. We work too many years, sacrifice too much, to gain control of our vriamic functions to risk letting an untrained Gen cripple that function for life. But—Ilyana—if you will give me your word that you won't contest control, that you'll submit to a qualifying transfer with me, then I will let Controller Mickland assign you to me—right now."
As he spoke, Digen moved closer to her. He perceived immediately that this woman was something special. Her nager had a texture and power he hadn't felt except with his sister, Bett. But her name was Ilyana Dumas, not Farris. She didn't even look Farris. And then he realized what it was about her that seemed so familiar—underdraw.
As he approached, she stood fascinated, unable to move or speak. But, the moment Digen saw the nature of her illness, he stopped in his tracks, realizing that with every step closer he was aggravating her disorder.
The moment he stopped, she whipped around to confront Mickland, her voice rising in hysteria. "I came here begging for help, throwing myself on the much vaunted mercy of the Tecton. And what do I get? A lousy ultimatum!"
Digen strode to the corner of Mickland's desk, trying to put the other Sime's field between him and the woman while motioning urgently to Im'ran to step between them to protect Ilyana from Digen's aching Need, which was sending her selyn production rate soaring, causing her the physical and mental stress which—if not relieved by transfer—would ultimately kill her, either by simply burning up her body physically, Or by driving her to commit suicide. Her hysteria was just another symptom of the disease.
This put an entirely different complexion on the situation. But before Digen could speak. Mickland said, "I'm sorry, Hajene Farris, she's Distect. And she's getting more desperate by the minute. I wouldn't trust her now if she did promise to qualify."
Ilyana strode to the desk and slapped her hand down on it so hard that both Digen and Mickland flinched as they felt her pain, amplified by her wildcatting selyn nager. "If I made any promise," she said, "I'd keep it, though I wouldn't expect any—channel—to understand that." The way she said "channel," it became a filthy epithet. "Tecton! You think you know so much about transfer, but you don't seem to know anything about life. It's just not possible for any Sime to have a satisfactory transfer where he has to control the selyn flows. I wouldn't give that kind of transfer to the most evil person in the world. I'm no—prostitute."
Digen summoned all his much vaunted Farris control and approached her. He was at once both deathly afraid of this woman and irresistibly attracted to her. Concentrating to shift into the channel's functional mode, protecting his personal, primary selyn transport system from the effect of her nager, he eased a little closer to her, engaging the edges of her field, reaching to control her selyn production rate by using his own system as a governor.
As Mickland perceived what Digen was doing, his eyes went wide. He was frozen for a moment in sheer disbelief. No channel in the entire world other than Digen Farris, Sectuib in Zeor, could have thought of trying what Digen was doing right before his eyes. Digen felt Mickland's incredulity on the periphery of his mind. Am I just showing off? thought Digen. No. This has to be done. For her.
It was working, too. Her selyn production rate was dropping slowly, and that kept Mickland silent as Digen said, his voice an octave lower as he went deeper into the delicate channel's work, balancing on the fine edge of disaster, "It is the nature of the channel to control the Gen, Ilyana. The Donor must be trained never to fear—because only if he fears can harm come to him."
Still leaning on the desk, Ilyana twisted to look at Digen, apparently confused by the relief washing through her body as well as by Digen's words. "Trained never to fear?" she said. "Never to fear what?"
He was close to her now, towering over her slight form, standing on the very margin of her inner core field and controlling it utterly. But it was an effort to spare attention from that to say, "Simes, of course—what else?"
Totally bewildered, she said, "What do you mean, trained? You can't train a Gen not to fear transfer as if you were toilet training a baby. Some do, some don't, that's all. Look, if you people are not going to talk sense…"
"Wait—wait," said Digen. "Hold it." He suddenly understood the magnitude of the cultural gap between them. She really is from the Distect. It's real. It still exists someplace.
Outside of Sime Territory, the Gens who lived together without Simes around, who lived in fear of Simes, like those people at the train station in Sorelton, had been convinced that the last remnants of the Distect way of life had long since been stamped out. But apparently, somewhere in some isolated spot, it still existed. And Ilyana was a defector from that way of life—because, with her disease, she had to have channel's transfer, nothing less would do, and in the Distect there were no functioning channels—and thus no trained Donors. Yet Ilyana seemed perfectly competent and easily matched to the depth of his Need. Don't think about that, not yet.
"Ilyana," started Digen, "I—" He broke off, turning to Mickland. "You gave me a choice between Ilyana and Ben Seloyan. I choose Ilyana. Seloyan doesn't have the capacity to supply my Need, Ilyana does. Seloyan doesn't have the speed I require. In my judgment, Ilyana does. There really is no choice between them. And, in all humanity, you must admit, she—needs this as much as I do."
Looking wearily askance at Digen, Mickland said, "When you first came in here, it surely seemed you were in Need. But now…"
A surge of anger tightened in Digen, and momentarily his control slipped. He recovered, though, before a flutter became perceptible in her field strength, and said to Mickland, his voice relaxed, "I'm in Need all right. And if you'll check your records, you'll see I've been shorted in transfer now for twenty-two consecutive months, assigned—because nobody else was available—to people like Seloyan. I was promised Im'ran and I don't know or care how you botched it, but you're controller here, you're responsible for getting me a Donor comparable to Im'ran. Seloyan is not comparable. Ilyana—is."
"So what? Or do you believe every silly myth and legend and fairy tale in kids' books or horror stories? Isn't it obvious that I control her?"
Mickland looked—with all his Sime senses—at Ilyana, who darted a thoughtful glance at Digen. "You're doing that?"
Absently, Digen nodded, watching Mickland. "So you see, Controller, it's perfectly safe. But it's not just the convenience of a good transfer. In a few hours I have to show up over at the Gen hospital, prepared to go to work as an intern there. I don't expect it to be easy. I doubt I can do it at all—without a good transfer. I really am on the ragged edge."
"You certainly don't sound like it, and you don't behave like it."
Im'ran said, "You didn't see him on the train. You can't penalize him just because he's a good channel. He can control, sure—he had to learn it to survive that lateral injury. And—he's Sectuib in Zeor. Haven't you ever worked with a Zeor channel? Don't you know the kind of control the Zeor training builds into them? And the Sectuib—the best of them all?"
Mickland shook his head in disgust. "Householder evasions. I should have known you'd side with him."
Uh-oh, thought Digen. Mickland is antihouseholder. That was just the wrong kind of controller for him to have to work under. The Householdings still dominated the Tecton, and Digen, as head of the most prestigious of the Householdings, was the acknowledged leader of all the Householding channels. Lately, though, the non-Householding channels had begun to accuse the householders of forming a hereditary aristocracy within the Tecton. The loudest spokesmen of this group were those whose parents had not been householders. Mickland, Digen concluded, must be one of those.
Digen shot Im'ran a glance, nodding his gratitude. The Gen had chosen an oblique but effective way of warning Digen. A quick change of tactics was in order. Technically, Digen outranked Mickland—if not by householder status, then by the law of the Tecton, simply because his proficiency rating was higher than Mickland's. Yet, Mickland was controller, and it could only undermine the already precarious structure of the Tecton if he pulled rank on his controller. So he had to win Mickland's support—and he had to have Ilyana. That was becoming increasingly clear with every moment.
Digen's eye fell on the black file with the Zeor blue stripe blazoned across it and the channel's crest embossed in the corner. He pointed with one handling tentacle. "If you'll check my file, you'll find the World Controller's special dispensation to study medicine in the Gen schools—and, now to continue that study as an intern at Westfield Memorial Hospital."
In response, Mickland flipped open the file to that beribboned and embossed page. "I never have understood how you got this—unless…"
"No," said Digen, "it wasn't some under the table, Householding tradeoff deal. Simple logic. When I recovered from the lateral injury, they discovered that the scar would keep me from working again as a channel—at least for most ordinary functionals. I wouldn't last an hour in the collectorium—not five minutes in the dispensary. Collecting and dispensing selyn is simply beyond my abilities—forever. Sure, I can do some fancy and exotic specialty functionals—like this one—the kind of thing you might encounter once a month if that often. But that won't pay for my transfers. Yet it does give me the ability to work in that hospital—where any other channel would simply collapse from the shrieking nager of Gen suffering.
"So the World Controller," said Digen, emphasizing the title to appeal to Mickland's reverence for authority, "decided to use me to try to bring a new skill—a new healing technique—in-Territory."
"Surgery!" said Mickland. "You can't tell me the World Controller is in favor of this!"
Digen pointed mutely to the certificate and shrugged. No, of course I can't tell you that. But you can assume it. "Oh," said Digen, "you will note that I will be working here in the Sime Center eight hours a day. Administrative, not functional, work."
"And I intend to take full advantage of that. You will be in charge of the changeover ward and the in-Territory collectorium. Mora Dyen is overworked managing three departments."
"All the more reason that it makes no sense to deny me a full transfer. There's work to be done. But I can't do it like this!"
Mickland eyed Digen silently. Digen knew that the man wanted him to go into that hospital in Need and be brought home on a stretcher in disgrace. It would be a quick and satisfying end to the threat of having to face surgery—the idea of cutting flesh, the ripping, tearing, flashing destruction of selyn replete cells grating through the empathic nerve of a Sime roused a primitive lust for the kill transfer, the kind of lust that modern Tecton culture was designed to repress totally.
For a long, suspended moment, Digen and Mickland faced each other across that huge, polished desk.
Ilyana said, "I don't pretend to understand your crazy laws, but—you are choosing me, aren't you?"
Eyes on Mickland, Digen nodded. "I want to."
It was only then that he began to notice what she had been doing. She was much closer to him now, engulfing him in the inner fire of her nager. In a flash, his firm control over her vanished, and he became subject to her will, control of the fields wrested from his grasp so smoothly that he barely felt it.
Her hands slid up his arms, stroking the bulging tentacle sheaths that lay along the arm from elbow to wrist. As her cool fingers came to the hard, swollen ronaplin glands, halfway up along the side of each forearm, under the lateral tentacle sheaths, Digen sucked breath through his teeth. The ache of Need spread through his whole body, and the ronaplin glands responded, pouring their selyn conducting hormone into the lateral sheaths as the small, delicate transfer organs flicked in and out of the orifices on the side of each wrist.
Expertly then, she seized him, using gentle pressure on the reflex ganglions to bring his tentacles into transfer position along her arms. Dazed and giddy with it, he found himself bending to make the fifth point contact with his lips against hers.
Digen's Need rose to transfer pitch. Glands poured secretions into his mouth, his blood, his brain, heightened all his senses in a way he hadn't experienced in far too long to remain aloof from it now. The room blackened around him, illuminated to his Sime sense only by Ilyana's field.
On the edge of hearing, a voice said, "What do you think you're doing?"
It was just enough to make Digen hesitate before the contact would be complete. He came to normal awareness, knowing now it was Mickland speaking. "I haven't given you any assignment!"
Digen was unable to move. It was all he could do to hold himself away from that unsanctioned transfer contact—and he knew that if he completed the circuit, he would draw his fill from her, despite his famed control.
In a ragged hiss, he said, "Then make the shendi-fleckin' assignment!"
Suddenly the doors burst inward, and Simes and Gens came running into the room. The shock was, to Digen, pure, paralyzing shen, transfer interruption, and it was then he realized how close he had been to an illegal transfer.
He yanked his hands away from her, sheathing his tentacles, then massaging his arms with his hands. "It's all right!" he called to the guards, stopping them halfway into the office. "The Sectuib in Zeor does not have to be physically restrained to obey a lawful controller's directive."
Digen knew Mickland had summoned the guards.
"Why?" said Ilyana. "I don't understand why you did that."
"It's the law," said Digen.
Mickland, coming around the desk with Im'ran at his side, said, "Am I seeing things, or—" He looked, both with eyes and with Sime senses, from Ilyana to Digen and back, beckoning to one of the Simes by the door, a large man with a limp. "Rin, do you see it, too?"
The Sime a First Order channel, compared the two of them and said, "They're matchmates!"
"I thought so—not just close, but actually matched!"
Matchmates? thought Digen, looking at Ilyana. Yes, that would explain it, the terrible grip she had on him. Her basal selyn production rate was equal to his basal selyn consumption rate.
Mickland looked at the new channel. "We can't expose him to a possible lortuen with her!"
The man's head moved faintly in negation. He was still studying Digen. Digen thought the man looked familiar but couldn't place him.
"All right," said Mickland. "Then this is official. Ilyana Dumas will be off Digen's transfer rotation list, and she is to be kept away from him. Rin, you have charge of her. Keep her in your lab."
The big Sime seized Ilyana and drew her away from Digen. Digen held himself hard against the pull of that parting. He would not betray how difficult it was. Matchmates! Locked for a lifetime in transfer dependency with a Distect woman? He shook himself, turned, and walked to the door, intent only on maintaining his control.
Behind him, Mickland shoved Im'ran after Digen. "Digen is your responsibility now. You'll have him on your therapy list—exclusive—for the next two months at least. He'll pick up slack with Ben Seloyan this month, and next month you will have him on assignment—twice in a row, Im'ran. Keep him away from her!"
That registered only dimly with Digen. All eyes in the room followed him as he went out, closing the door softly behind him. He was eight paces into the strange room before he realized he had gone the wrong way. It was the controller's inner office, the workroom/library, where the real job of running Westfield was done.
Row after row of shelving, file cases of charts, and stacks of books jammed the long, narrow room. In a crowded corner near the office door was an old, scarred desk overflowing with stacks of papers, card files, well thumbed reference books, and an assortment of calculating instruments.
As Digen stood, astonished, the office door opened and Im'ran came in, closing it behind him. Digen began to shake all over and then sank to the floor. His control failed him all at once, sending his selyn consumption rate soaring. Need ruled.
Im'ran knelt beside Digen, ignoring the danger to himself. With little selyn in his body to give, he could not face a kill-mode attack and live. "You're wasting yourself," he said to Digen. "We've got to get you stabilized. Relax. I can do it if you let me."
And, miraculously, he did. Careful, cool, precise, Im'ran's antidote to the Distect was the Tecton's impersonal standard applied with a tender competence. It took the therapist three hours, but at last Digen dropped into a deep, natural sleep. However much the workroom was required, no one disturbed them.
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