It was afternoon before Zeth was allowed to see Owen. His friend lay in the middle of the big bed, looking very pale. The blanket was pulled up over his left shoulder, hiding the stump of his missing arm. He didn't look at Zeth.
Zeth approached, his mind a confusion of guilt, curiosity, and desire to do something—anything—to help. Suddenly they were strangers. His mind fixed on the pattern of the blanket woven from Fort Freedom's wool in bright colors, an endlessly intertwining pattern he could follow until his eye muscles jumped, and he realized the silence was dragging out as endlessly as the pattern.
Finally, Zeth blurted out the formula greeting to someone who had just become adult, Sime or Gen: "Congratulations, Owen."
Owen's eyes flashed, and fixed on Zeth's. "For what?" he demanded. "For staying alive to be a useless cripple?"
"I'm sorry!" Zeth cried, hit right upon his guilt. "It's my fault, Owen. I'm so sorry!"
Owen rolled his head away, and said through gritted teeth, "It wasn't your fault."
"I tried to stop them," said Zeth. "I couldn't move."
Owen looked at him now. "You were hurt?"
"I'm just stiff and sore, but you and Jana—"
"Jana?" Suddenly Owen was interested. "They did the same thing—?" He tried to sit up, but pain dropped him on the pillow.
"No! She'll be fine! They broke her arm. It'll heal—really! I saw her this morning."
Owen's eyes closed. "Good. Pa will have someone to help him." He put his right hand over the stump of his left arm, and grimaced.
"Owen, does it hurt? Should I get a channel?"
"It hurts all the way down to my fingers, and I know they're not there. No," he added as Zeth moved, "don't get a channel. They'd put me to sleep again. I'm going to sleep enough of my life away… as a Gen."
There was bitter self-loathing in the word "Gen." "You had to be Gen to live," Zeth pleaded. "Now you can be like Mama—
like Hank Steers—"
"Don't lie to me! How can a one-armed Gen be a Companion?"
Zeth choked back his words. How could a one-armed Gen offer transfer with the crucial contact points gone?
"That's enough!" Both boys jumped at Abel Veritt's stern tones. Veritt flinched at Owen's pain, and then came steadfastly to his side, zlinning him critically. "The fosebine is wearing off. I'll get Rimon to check you over and give you more."
"What for?" Owen asked dully. "Maybe I should just die."
Veritt said, "Zeth, you're tiring Owen. Find your father, and ask him to come up here."
"He's with Mama," said Zeth. "They're having transfer."
"By now he should be—oh. Well, find Uel or Jord, then."
"No—don't, Zeth," said Owen. "I don't want to sleep."
"What do you want, son?" Veritt asked gently.
"I want to die."
"No," said the old man. "God made you Gen to preserve your life. Do not question His wisdom."
"I don't think God cares," Owen said flatly.
In the same reasonable tone he used to teach the older children, Veritt said, "You are not thinking, Owen. You have grown up in a community blessed with constant proof of God's caring. I, too, questioned His wisdom many times when I first became Sime. Yet I've lived to see His plan unfold. We are building a world where such brutality as you've suffered can never happen again."
The grim set of Owen's features relaxed under Veritt's care, and tears began to slide down the boy's cheeks. "That's right," Veritt said, pushing Owen's bright blond hair back off his forehead. "Tears are good. Let them cleanse your grief away so you can find God's plan for you. Pray for guidance, son. There's a reason for what happened to you. I don't know what it is, but I have faith it is a part of God's plan."
Owen drifted to sleep under the spell of Mr. Veritt's words. Then the old Sime guided Zeth from the room. "How did you put him to sleep?" Zeth asked. "You're not a channel."
"Did you think I'd never noticed you boys nodding off during my sermons?"
Not believing he had heard right, Zeth looked up to find the old man's eyes twinkling. Abel Veritt joking with him? He felt suddenly grown up, admitted to the adult world… but he didn't deserve it.
"Zeth," Mr. Veritt said seriously, "Owen's injury is not your fault. You were hurt yourself, son."
The aching guilt exploded. "We shouldn't have been there! Mr. Whelan told us to go up to Mr. Erick's place, but I couldn't. I made Owen and Jana come with me."
"Let's talk about it," said Mr. Veritt, leading Zeth to the bench in the hall. "Tell me, how did you make them come with you?"
"I told them their pa would be there."
"But was your purpose wrong, Zeth? Did you intend to harm your friends, or profit at their expense?"
"…No. I was just scared to come alone," Zeth admitted.
"So," said Mr. Veritt, "you disobeyed Mr. Whelan, and you enticed your friends into disobedience."
As it was not disobedience that bothered Zeth's conscience, he brushed that aside with "Yeah, I guess so."
"However, Owen and Jana were under no constraint to follow your example. They also chose to disobey. Zeth, you are blaming yourself for the wrong thing."
"But I'm responsible!" Zeth insisted, looking up to find Mr. Veritt half smiling at him.
"Yes, Zeth, you are responsible. Not guilty, but responsible. Like your father, you accept the consequences of your actions, whether you intended them or not. That's a very grown-up attitude for such a young boy."
The words warmed Zeth, but they couldn't remove the hollow feeling when he thought of Owen. Mr. Veritt studied him. "I wish I could assign you a penance, Zeth, to atone for your disobedience. But your parents have never fully accepted my beliefs, and I will not impose them on their son."
"Assign it, Abel."
Zeth looked up to see his father at the head of the stairs. "Don't call it a penance," said Rimon Farris, "call it a punishment. I trust you to know what's right for Zeth."
"Don't you want to know—?" Veritt began.
"It wasn't me he confessed to. Want to tell me what you did, Zeth?" Farris was calm and relaxed now, glowing with repletion of selyn.
"I didn't go up to Mr. Erick's yesterday," said Zeth, "so neither did Owen and Jana. That's how they got hurt."
"I see," said Farris. "You feel responsible." He turned to Abel. "What would you have him do about it?"
Mr. Veritt said, "I think two problems can be solved at once. Owen will require a great deal of help in the next weeks and months. He'll be awkward, and others will feel embarrassed around him. Some will avoid him, while others will find it easier to do for him than to teach him to do for himself. Zeth, I'm assigning you the job of making Owen independent."
"…What?" Zeth asked in puzzlement.
"He doesn't have to be helpless. Take care of him until he can care for himself. Figure out how he can feed himself, dress himself, bathe himself. As soon as he's strong enough, get him on a horse. If you require apparatus, get Dan Whelan or Tom Carson to help you make it. Ask the women to design clothes Owen can get in and out of by himself. You see, Zeth—your penance is over when Owen can get along perfectly well without you."
Zeth was stunned. It was the worst punishment he could imagine. It was impossible. He won't even talk to me!
Rimon Farris smiled warmly. "Perfect!" he said. "Abel, I wish I'd thought of it."
Soon Zeth decided his punishment would destroy his friendship with Owen forever. The more he tried to be gentle, the more sullen and stubborn Owen became. The first day he wouldn't eat at all. The second, as his pain receded, his growing Gen appetite caught up with him.
Owen's sister, her arm in a sling, was temporarily suffering the inconvenience Owen would face for the rest of his life, but she wasn't much help to her brother. When Zeth brought the lunch trays up, Jana told Owen, "Trina made us soup in mugs, see? That way we can drink it."
"I'm not hungry," said Owen.
"You didn't have any breakfast," Zeth said softly. "You've got to eat something." Owen had been defeated by the bowl of cereal that slid around on the tray when he tried to spoon it up. By the time Zeth thought to brace the bowl with a rolled napkin, Owen was too frustrated to eat.
Firmly now, Jana said, "To produce selyn, Gens have to eat even more than children."
"And what am I producing it for?" Owen flashed.
"To stay alive, dummy," said Jana. "I didn't know they cut off your brains with your arm!"
Owen was infuriated. "If you had the brains you were born with, you'd know I'd be better off dead!"
"Nobody's better off dead!" Jana snapped. "You know how Pa feels when—" She broke off with a glance at Zeth. "Only cowards give up. I never thought my brother was a coward!"
Owen leaned back against the pillows, fighting tears of frustration. Zeth said, "Jana, that's not fair. If you can't keep a civil tongue, you'd better leave."
"He's my brother—and I'm not going to have a helpless coward in the family!"
"Owen's no coward! You're the one that can't take it, Jana! Get out and don't come back until you can be nice."
Zeth took a threatening step toward her, a little surprised at himself. All at once, Jana turned and stalked out of the room, pausing only to close the door with exaggerated care.
Zeth turned to Owen, who was staring at him wide-eyed, tears brimming his eyes, but awe in his expression. "Zeth, that was Jana you just threw out of here."
"Yea-ah," Zeth said slowly. It was the first time he'd ever faced her down. The two boys stared silently at one another until Owen said, "That soup does smell kinda good. Be a shame to let it get cold." Once started, Owen ate more than Zeth.
The next day, they moved Owen into Zeth's room. Still weak, leaning heavily on Zeth, he insisted on walking. "If I can't be useful, at least I won't be a burden."
But by the time they got him settled he was almost as pale as when they had brought him in unconscious. Rimon Farris said, "No harm done. You're still healing, Owen."
"But why does my arm hurt?" Owen asked. "I mean the whole arm, Mr. Farris. It hurts all the way down."
"The shock was to your nerves, as well as flesh and bone. When they heal, the pain will stop. You're doing fine, Owen. Your field is climbing normally in spite of your injury."
Owen's soaring field soon proved the greatest nuisance on the New Homestead. When he met frustration, the emotional intensity of his nager irritated every Sime past turnover—the point in the monthly cycle at which the Sime had used up half the selyn from his last transfer, and began to move toward need.
His clumsiness infuriated Owen. All Gens were clumsy compared to Simes, but Owen could not even walk right at first, the loss of his arm having changed his balance. He went at everything bullishly, forcing his way to victory over inanimate objects, careless of how often he fell, or cut or bruised himself—or the shock of each such event to nearby Simes. Zeth was reminded of the two dogs, Patches and Biggie, who had never quite grown up to the size of their feet.
Owen's normal sunny good nature had disappeared. Grim determination was now his most positive mood. After a while, only Zeth, Del Erick, and Jana spent much time with him; Zeth because he was determined not to fail, Erick because he wanted desperately to help his son, and Jana… Zeth decided she really loved her brother underneath the bickering. Things went better when Zeth finally gave up trying not to lose Owen's friendship. Owen was not able to be friends with anyone at the moment.
One day, after Owen had upset every Sime in the house, Zeth found him in the barn currying his horse, which was now stabled at the Farris Homestead because, as a Gen, Owen could not go back home to live.
Zeth started to call out, then paused. As he stroked the horse's flank one-handedly, Owen was crying. A shaft of sun caught his good right arm, and Zeth could see the bulge of Gen muscle that had developed over the last few weeks of savagely forced exercise. He backed up and called from outside the barn doors, "Owen?"
"Go away!" Owen called back.
But Zeth went in. "Hey, that's a good idea. The horses could use a good grooming. I'll help you."
"What's gotten into you?"
"I don't like being your punishment!"
"Who told you that!"
"Jana." He paused. "It's true, isn't it?"
Picking up a pair of brushes, Zeth went to work on the other side of the horse. "Owen, honest, it used to be I did it 'cause Mr. Veritt said I had to. But not anymore. You can be as nasty to me as you want because it's made you learn. When you can ride again, it will all be over."
"Ha! I'll never be able to ride again!"
Owen had attempted, prematurely, to mount his horse, fallen off, and reopened his wound. The pain disrupted a transfer that Zeth's father had been giving at the moment. Owen had been strictly forbidden to attempt it again until Rimon gave permission. The reopening of the wound had been followed by infection, the delay only worsening Owen's temper.
"Jana can already ride again," said Zeth.
"Jana still has her arm."
From the doorway, Del Erick called, "Oh! There you are, Owen!" As Zeth leaned out to say hello he couldn't help noticing that Erick was in need.
"Hello there, Zeth. Dan Whelan sent these over for you." He held out a handful of buckles.
"Did he find a way to make them work?" asked Zeth, who had asked Whelan to design a one-handed buckle.
"I think so, with a little practice." He held them out to Owen, who glanced over his shoulder and then turned back to currying his horse. Zeth reached for the bundle of straps.
"I'll see if I can figure it out," he said.
"I don't know why you keep pretending—" Owen's voice cracked perversely at just the wrong moment.
Del stepped back, and Zeth could see him taking a deep breath, striving for control. Owen, wrapped up in his own miseries, hadn't noticed. But in a moment, Erick seemed calm again, as he said, "I figured out a way for you to mount that horse, Owen, but if you're not interested—"
Owen turned, and Zeth could sense the hope that was more pain than anything else.
"Saddle up, then, and come outside. I'll show you."
Before Owen could turn sullen again, Zeth quickly helped him saddle Flash, letting Owen do most of the work.
Outside, Del took the reins in his right hand, tentacles retracted. "I've been working to get Flash to accept my weight from the right. It may take some practice, but watch. You take the saddle horn in your right hand, step with your right leg, and—"
In one leap he was mounted. "I didn't augment to do that. You're tall enough, there's no reason you can't learn it."
With a pained expression of defeat Owen turned away. Zeth picked up the reins he dropped, and said, "I wonder if I can do it."
But when Zeth tried the right-hand mount, the horse shied. Desperate now, he said, "Well, it will take some practice."
That wakened Owen's spirit. "I've trained Flash since he was a colt. He'll let me do it."
"Well, let's start with a slower mount," said Del. "Come over here by the fence and go on from the railing."
Owen became wrapped up in the project, until he tried to scale the horse's side, right foot in the right stirrup. The horse sidestepped, and he went up one side and down the other to land with a thump.
Erick stiffened against the pain while Zeth rushed to his friend's side. But Owen was on his feet, his expression savage. He rammed his boot into the stirrup, and in a moment was seated atop his horse for the first time in weeks. A grin split his face and with a yell and a whoop he let out the reins. Before anyone could stop him, he was galloping down the road toward town.
Erick leaped for his own horse and raced after his son, gaining gradually. As he caught up, Owen pulled the horse into a sharp turn, seemed almost to lose his balance for a moment as Zeth held his breath, and then was racing back to the yard gate.
When the two horses pulled up, blowing hard, Erick said harshly, "What made you pull that fool stunt? Where did you think you were going?"
Owen slid to the ground and met his father's eyes on a level. "There's nothing for me to be afraid of in town. If I can't donate, I can't be killed!"
Erick was trembling, his tentacles restless with need. "But you can certainly make a Sime want to kill!"
Ready to snap back at his father, Owen stopped. It was as if he saw beyond his own anguish for the first time since the raid. "Oh, Pa, I'm sorry!" His arm went about his father's waist, and Zeth noticed that although they were the same height, Owen was already a larger man than Erick, who was thin even for a Sime. He seemed suddenly frail, leaning on his son, and Zeth, knowing that he was about the same age as his own parents, wanted to deny the sight. He looks almost as old as Mr. Veritt.
Erick's face smoothed, his tension relaxing under his son's touch. It took long months of Companion's training to learn that. Owen had no training.
Del Erick spoke slowly, carefully. "Owen, now don't be afraid, son—but you've got to stop that."
"What am I doing?" Owen asked blankly.
"Offering me selyn. I mustn't fix on you. Think about something else. Zeth, go get your father."
But Rimon Farris was already running from the house, Kadi Farris behind him. Immediately, Rimon fell into his channel's stance, voice soothing as he said, "Easy, now. Nobody's going to be hurt. Del, I'm here. Zlin me."
"Kadi," said Rimon, pointing. As she moved into position, Erick pulled his eyes from his son to look at Rimon. Rimon held out his arms. "Owen, let him go now, gently—you're not denying. It's just the wrong time. Come, Del, you don't need Owen, not now. That's it. Excellent."
Rimon put his arm around the man's shoulders and sheltered him from Owen's nager. "Rimon," Erick said with infinite sadness, "I don't dare touch my own son."
"It's all right, Del. Nobody got hurt," said Rimon.
Erick raised his head. "Owen never did that before!"
"I know—" said Rimon, looking toward Owen. "Shen! What a Companion you'd make!"
"Well, why can't I be?"
Zeth saw his father flinch at Owen's frustration, even with his mother standing between Owen and the Simes.
"Dad, you've got to find a way! You've said yourself our community can't afford to waste selyn."
"Rimon," said his mother. "You could take his field down using a shoulder contact, for example."
"What?" said Erick.
"It's something Kadi and I worked out," said Rimon. "I saw it done by Freeband Raiders once. Any symmetrical contact for the laterals will work, you know."
Erick's gaze went again to his son. "Yes—of course."
"Then I can do it—I can become a Companion!"
"No," said Rimon gently. "Using secondary positions, you can never have that kind of control. But at least I can take your field down, and perhaps with a little training and discipline, you'll stop disrupting every Sime you come near."
"Then I could still help you, Pa! I can ride! I can help herd the horses." But Owen was more subdued now, desperately clinging to the day's gains.
"Del, come on inside, and I'll give you your transfer now. Then—Owen, I've got two more people waiting, and then you and I have some work to do together."
Owen and Zeth were left alone. Owen turned away from Zeth, crying with renewed frustration.
"Owen, nobody got hurt." Zeth tried to reassure his friend. "You can learn—"
Owen turned on him furiously. "You couldn't feel it. It was beautiful. I was doing something not just useful, but… there aren't any words!" He took a deep breath and tried again. "Pa was in need. I wanted to help—and I could! Zeth—I could have given him transfer, I know I could."
Over the next few days, Zeth's father worked with Owen until finally one afternoon he did take Owen's field down. When Owen came back to their room, Zeth said, "How did it feel?"
"I didn't feel a thing," said Owen disgustedly. "Now he wants me to work with Uel Whelan, learning not to affect Simes. But you know what? I'm going to prove I can give a real transfer!"
"But why? You're donating now—"
"Zeth, when I'm near someone in need, I want to ease that need so bad my whole body goes weak inside! And all they want me to do is turn myself off!"
This was a side of Owen Zeth had never seen before. It seemed to be a healthy side, and as Owen took hold of his life again, Zeth thought his punishment was over.
One bright early-summer day, Owen was working beside Zeth, the other children, and several of the community's Gens, picking strawberries. He tucked a basket into a sling Jana had rigged for him, and picked berries almost as fast as Zeth and Jana. It was a glorious day, with fluffy white clouds high in the brilliant blue sky. The smell of berries was intoxicating, and the children ate almost as many as they put into their baskets.
Zeth moved along in pursuit of the biggest, reddest berries, and suddenly looked up to find that he had drifted away from Owen and Jana, to where Kadi Farris and Trina Morgan were sorting through the berries, choosing the largest, sweetest ones to be eaten fresh, and putting the others aside for jam-making.
Strawberry season was a time for Gens and children. The luscious berries were poisonous to Simes, who stayed away from the kitchen these few days.
As Zeth emptied his overflowing basket into his mother's tray, Trina was saying, "They're guarding us again. Look—Tom Carson's up on top of the hill."
"Well, we do have all these Gens running around free and acting like people."
"We are people!" Trina said.
"Not by law," said Kadi. "Our petition to count Gens as citizens scares people. Slina says that's why we were raided."
"You think we should stop petitioning?"
"If it were only myself, I'd be tempted to stop," Zeth's mother replied. "It's never made any difference between Rimon and me that by law I'm his property. But what about Zeth?" She reached out and gave him a little squeeze. "My son will probably be Sime, but suppose he's Gen? I want him to have full legal protection."
Zeth worked his way back to where the children were picking strawberries and singing while Owen, whose voice was changing, whistled a merry accompaniment. He sounded so happy that Zeth joined in the song, off key as usual. Owen was soon laughing so he couldn't whistle, and told Zeth, "Hush! You'll sour the strawberries!"
"You're in a good mood," Zeth observed.
"Why shouldn't I be?" Owen glanced around, making sure no one else could hear over the singing. "You know what, Zeth? It's a whole lot better to be Gen than to be Sime."
"Owen, it doesn't matter—"
"But it does! Oh, Simes can zlin, but Gens can use it against them. I can make a Sime laugh or cry, make him feel wonderful or terrible. Channels are only a little harder. I almost got Uel Whelan into a transfer this morning."
"Owen! Even if you can, you shouldn't. Mama wouldn't do anything like that, or any of the other Companions."
"Well, I've got to prove I can be a Companion. They're not going to let me—" He looked past Zeth and said, "Uh-oh."
Zeth turned and saw Abel Veritt coming across the strawberry field, headed straight for Owen.
When he arrived, he asked conversationally, "Are the berries good this year?"
"Very good, sir," replied Zeth.
"I remember picking strawberries when I was a boy. Owen, you're getting along well, I see."
"I've come to talk to you about something very serious, Owen. Are you happy here?"
"You want to stay?"
"Yes, sir." Owen was getting nervous.
"Mr. Farris and Mr. Whelan have asked me to talk to you. Every Sime in Fort Freedom knows the mischief new Gens cause when they discover their effect on Simes. We also expect this to be a phase that passes quickly."
"I didn't mean any harm, sir—I'm sorry for the headache I gave Jord, and the time I made Mrs. Veritt laugh so hard."
"It seems you don't know your own strength. Only Mrs. Farris has a higher field than yours, but her field is always carefully controlled. Uel Whelan tells me he had to work with his Companion for almost an hour this morning before he could go on with his duties—after you raised his intil. You did that on purpose?"
Owen hung his head. "Yes, sir. I would have followed through if he'd asked me to serve him. I wanted him to—you don't know what it's like—"
Veritt smiled grimly. "I have a fair idea, Owen. But if you're not—satisfied—here, if you can't adhere to our standards of good manners, I'll arrange a Farewell Ceremony and send you into Gen Territory. You know the language. You can make a good life for yourself."
"No!" Owen cried, and Mr. Veritt moved back a step, wincing. Owen immediately calmed. "This is home," he said. "Pa—Jana everyone I care about is here. I'll behave—honest. Don't send me away, Mr. Veritt!"
In the past, Fort Freedom's Gens had been sent to a town built by other Gens from Fort Freedom, across the border in Gen Territory. But for years now, most of the Gens had stayed to donate selyn.
"Very well, Owen—but my offer remains open. If life here doesn't suit you—we'll see you safely across the border."
As he left, both boys knew he meant that life was hard enough for Simes without a Gen who made a child's game of enticing them.
"It's not fair," said Owen.
Zeth ached for his friend—cut off from the experience they had all dreamed about. How would I feel in his place? And he knew his job was not over.
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