BUT IF I'M DIFFERENT—WHAT AM I?
Two weeks later, Rimon was feeling elated because it was his turnover day. Normally, when a Sime reached the point at which half the selyn from his last transfer was used up and he began the slow descent toward need, he felt depressed. But when Rimon had wakened this morning with that hollow feeling, recognized it, and counted the days, he was delighted. A full two weeks. This time I'm going to make it!
Moreover, he was returning home with a sense of accomplishment, having taken a shipment of Farris Gens to a dealer in Scobla, and wound up with more money than his father had said was a fair price. He and Del Erick had spent a riotous night in Scobla, and were just slightly hung over today. They didn't talk much during the early morning, as they negotiated the empty wagon through the mountain passes. Around noon, Del, much more a participant in last night's activities than Rimon, adjourned to the bed of the wagon for a nap.
They were now on the Ancient Highway, the eyeway, which would take them straight home. Rimon hardly had to pay attention to his driving, as the broad roadbed scorched deep into the landscape by the mysterious Ancients ran straight as far as the eye could see—yes, eyeways was the right name for them.
The wagon jolted and creaked as the smooth roadway gave way to a wooden bridge across a gully. Del sat up with a groan. "Hey!" he complained. "Warn me when you're gonna run off the road!"
"We're on it," replied Rimon, looking back. "Quit sitting on my package!"
"It's soft," said Del, patting the parcel he was leaning against. "What is it?"
"Cloth," said Rimon. "Beautiful soft material the color of Kadi's eyes. Don't you tell her, though. It's a surprise, for her wedding dress."
Del patted the package. "All that for one girl's dress? There must be enough here to dress every woman on the Farm."
"Well, how should I know how much it takes for a lady's dress? Better too much than too little."
"Shendi, Rimon! You don't have to get so touchy about a little teasing!" Del's nager flashed slight pain and strong annoyance at him.
"Huh? I'm not touchy. What's the matter with you?"
"You're doing it again! Shen and shid—that hurts!"
Aware now of Del's actual pain, Rimon noticed that he had been ignoring a vibration of his own fields that was intensely irritating to the other Sime. As he strained to stop the vibrations, they only grew stronger. Fighting off panic, his body refusing to obey him, he let go of the physical world, sensing only through his Sime perceptions, and at last found control of his oscillating fields—or was it that the attack was waning on its own?
Swinging back to ordinary consciousness, he said, "Sorry, Del. I—"
Del shrugged. "You always fluctuate more than normal on your turnover day, but never like that!"
"I know. Kadi can stop it, though. I'll be okay as soon as I get home to her. Shen! Do you suppose my turnover symptoms would always build up to that if Kadi didn't stop them?"
"I don't know, but let's get you home to her!" Del climbed onto the seat and took the slack reins from Rimon, slapping them across the plodding horses' backs. "What I don't understand is how a kid like that can have any effect on a grown Sime. She's going to be one shendi-flamin' woman!"
"Yeah," said Rimon. "And she's mine."
Late that afternoon, Rimon and Del pulled the wagon up before the big house on the Farris Genfarm. Rimon's eager anticipation faded beneath a strange foreboding. The first thing to meet his eye was Kadi's dog, Wolf, tied to the porch railing. At the sight of Rimon, the animal set up a pitiful whimpering, punctuated with howls as Rimon, led by the muffled sound of angry voices inside the house, hurried past without stopping.
The door to his father's office stood open. Inside were his father and three members of the Morcot family: Ran, Marna, and Serri. In a frozen moment, he took in the black anger on his father's face, along with the confusion of anger, compassion, and guilt in his nager; the grief in the Morcots, along with an almost equal anger in the two adults; the fact that the family was dressed for travel; and that while the two adult faces were stained with dried tears, Serri was crying openly.
Then he became aware of the argument going on.
"I don't understand, Morcot," Farris was saying. "After sixteen years of working together, why did you do this? Why didn't you trust me?"
"It was Kadi's choice," replied Morcot. "I knew you couldn't understand that."
"Kadi had no choice!" Farris said furiously. "She was Gen!"
Gen? Kadi? WAS!! The world around Rimon swirled dizzily into selyn fields. Kadi—dead? Someone's kill? WHO??!
He had to come back to ordinary consciousness to find out. No one had yet noticed him, and the argument was continuing.
"—would have kept her as a breeder," his father was saying. "You know I can always use healthy females. She would have been perfectly safe."
Marna spoke up. "You promised her to Nerob. You would have made her the property of another Gen! When she told me that, do you think I could hand my daughter over to you? I raised your son, Syrus Farris—I loved him as my own. If he had established, I would not have let him go to you—no, not your own flesh would you take pity on!"
Pain sang in Farris' nager, overshadowed by the greater pain emanating from Kadi's parents. "A Gen is a Gen," he said harshly. "And the law is the law. She left my property. Ran, Marna—don't you know I loved your daughter, too? That I wanted her to be my daughter—my son's wife? Every family must face the possibility of a child's establishing—and being their child no longer. We must accept it just as we would have to accept it if she had died."
"Then she's not dead!" gasped Rimon. The others turned to him in surprise as he demanded, "Where is she?"
"There's nothing you can do for her, Rimon," said Farris.
"Where is she?" he repeated.
"The traders took her this morning," replied Morcot. "I think they're taking her to the Reloc Bazaar."
The Reloc Bazaar! The place that catered to all extremes of exotic—and perverted—Sime taste. If Kadi were sold there, she might be tortured first. She might be—Rimon didn't even know the possibilities, having heard the Reloc Bazaar spoken of all his life only in hushed whispers.
"Why?" he demanded. "Father, if you knew who had her, why didn't you go after her and buy her back?"
"Rimon, you know the law. She has family living here on my Farm; therefore, it would have been illegal for the traders who captured her to sell her to me. I tried, but they knew who she was."
"She has no family here any longer!" said Ran Morcot. "We are leaving. When Kadi told us about your promise to Nerob—"
Fury rose in Rimon. "You would have! Right in front of me, you would have handed her over to Nerob!"
Farris visibly struggled to keep from lashing out as angrily as his son. "Yes," he admitted. "Rimon, she is Gen. It is far better that she has been taken away. When you've calmed down, you'll see that things have worked out for the best."
"The best! I know what's best: I'm going to Reloc and buy her!"
"Rimon, you can't," said Farris. "What would you do with her?"
"Take her to the border! I'll buy her, all nice and legal with my own money—and then I'll escort her to the border myself, and see that she has a chance at life!"
Rimon swept from the room and down the hall to his own room. Behind him, the raised voices faded to silence. Then, out the window, he saw the Morcot family leave, their meager belongings piled into a small wagon. Serri brought Wolf, dragging his feet and whimpering. She was trying to fasten him to the wagon when the rope came loose about his neck. He immediately took off at a dead run—in the direction the traders would take toward Reloc.
"Wolf!" Serri shouted after the dog. "Wolf, come back!"
"It's no use," her father told her. "He won't come back. He's Kadi's dog, honey. If he ever does come back to us—we'll know that Kadi's dead." He choked over the last words. Sobbing, Serri flung herself into her mother's arms. Ran climbed into the wagon seat, and the only family Rimon had ever known besides his father moved slowly but definitely out of his life.
It took him only a moment to pack a few things, including the leather bag containing all his ready cash, wishing he had the money Del owed him, too. He saddled two horses and mounted up, taking the road in the opposite direction from the way the Morcots had turned—took the road to Reloc.
It was a long journey to Reloc, Rimon reminded himself—a three-day ride. He wanted to gallop madly after the traders, but that would only tire his horses. Besides, leading the second horse made it difficult to gallop easily.
As he rode, the haze of anger and despair cleared from his mind and he began to plan. At first he had thought only of the bazaar, and had packed up all his savings. Now he realized that a single rider could easily catch up to the traders with their wagonload of Gens.
But the traders who visited the Farris Genfarm regularly all knew him. If they had refused to sell Kadi to his father, they would refuse to sell her to him. If he waited until she was on sale at the bazaar, he could buy her legally. No one there would know him. When she was tagged as his property, they could travel together—as long as no one caught him releasing her at the border, there would be no problems.
Except saying good-bye.
He drove that thought from his mind. It was replaced by bleak emptiness. There was no future now. Kadi—oh, Kadi— If any Gen was able to be a person, a human being, it was Kadi. Gens had a culture out there—towns, it was said, roads, schools. She could live. He would see to it that she lived!
Meanwhile, he rode at a steady pace. The traders had eight or nine hours' start on him; he'd probably catch up with them tomorrow. He knew the way to Reloc, even though he'd never been there. About two hours out of town, he turned onto the less traveled trail that connected the ancient highway with a modern main road a day's journey distant.
The sun was just setting when he emerged from a narrow pass between rocky ledges into a scene of destruction.
Two bodies lay in the widened roadway, flies already buzzing around them. By the side of the road a trader's wagon was turned on its side, an axle broken. One of the bodies was Gen. A lump in his throat, Rimon peered closely at the face. It wasn't Kadi. The Sime was a trader Rimon had seen before; the dead man's throat was slit. Was this the trader who had taken Kadi?
As he left the scene of destruction behind, Rimon realized that this far from the border, it could only have been Freeband Raiders who'd attacked the wagon. They were notorious bands of outlaw Simes who roamed the countryside, taking Gens or whatever else they wanted by force.
All senses keen, Rimon followed the road, watching for evidence that somewhere a group of people had left it. Another Gen body tossed casually aside told him he was going in the right direction, just as he was beginning to fear he had missed their turnoff.
He hadn't. Fresh hoofprints diverged from the road. They weren't even trying to cover their trail. Why should they? Out here, other travelers would just go on their way, thankful they were not the ones ambushed.
As Rimon followed the Raiders' trail, occasionally he began to sense selyn nager. As the sun set and twilight deepened, he relied more and more on his Sime senses.
Finally he found them. He could zlin the powerful combination of Sime and Gen nager, the Gens peaking a titillating fear, just a short distance ahead. They had stopped.
He left the trail, tethered his horses, and proceeded on foot. By the time he had crept up to where he could see them, they had made camp. He counted nine Simes and five Gens. Was one of the Gens Kadi?
On a wave of desperation, he realized that he would not recognize her. She had a Gen's nager now, not the child's nager he had known. He would have to get close enough to see the Gens to discover if Kadi were among them.
One of the Simes was circling the camp, well away from the cluster of lives in the center, zlinning the countryside to see if they'd been followed. Rimon ducked behind a large rock that would shield him to some extent, and deliberately damped his fields—the old scouting trick his father had taught him. The Raider passed by without a sign that he'd sensed Rimon.
Keeping a safe distance between them, Rimon followed him. When the Raider reached the camp, he called, "All clear. We'll be safe till morning, at least."
Rimon crept closer, knowing that his field would not be noticed amid the nageric clutter. He could see the Simes around the fire they had built, but they had pitched a tent and put the Gens inside it. It would be hot and stuffy in there. Apparently, they wanted to make their captives as uncomfortable as possible.
The Raiders were the sickliest people Rimon had ever seen; scrawny, skeletal, their skin loose over their bones their faces wrinkled into masks of old age, although he had heard they seldom lived more than five years after changeover. They lived under constant augmentation, existing entirely on the kill, burning themselves out in one continuous flare of energy. And as fast as they died, new recruits seemed to filter across the border from Gen Territory—poor unfortunates turned true predator.
Beside one of the Raiders, Rimon would look like a Gen. His father insisted that all the Simes who worked for him eat two meals a day, with the result that they looked and felt better than average, and lived longer with fewer health problems. Most Simes ate at least a few meals each week, to provide the raw material for body growth and repair. The Raiders were the extreme, and looked it.
There were both men and women in the group, but one had to look closely to distinguish sexes. All were dressed in rags, with a few newer, recently stolen garments. No curves distinguished the women. And even from where he watched, Rimon could smell the foul stench of unwashed bodies.
They flitted about the camp, augmenting merely to move from place to place, wasting selyn profligately. Clearly they were addicted to augmentation and hyperconsciousness, not seeing beyond Sime senses, not caring what they did to themselves—or others.
Two of the Raiders pulled one of the Gens out of the tent—a young boy with unruly black hair and frightened blue eyes. His nager, and that of the other Gens, peaked from steady anxiety to desperate fear, and the Raiders cackled with scarecrow laughter.
A small man dressed slightly better than the others stood a few paces away, shouting, "Come here, boy!" as if accustomed to being obeyed.
The wide eyes stared at him, but the boy didn't move, paralyzed by fear. One of the women kicked him and he stumbled forward, only to be tripped by one of the other Raiders and land on his face at the leader's feet.
Yards away, Rimon was desperately fighting down the intil aroused by the boy's terror, but the Raiders around him roared with laughter. Jaded! None of them were in need—the kills along the trail attested to that—but the proximity of such fear would cause a normal Sime to react with a sharp sense of need—intil—
unless he were satiated from a very recent kill.
One of the women picked up a stick and drew a circle in the dirt, within the edge of the circle of firelight. The boy watched her, his head turning, stupefied.
"Boy, you want to live?" the leader asked.
The boy looked up at him, climbing to his knees. The Sime's words kindled no hope in him.
"We'll let you go," the Raider said in a wheedling tone. "If we let you go, maybe you can escape across the border."
"You're not going to let me go," the boy said hopelessly, standing to face his tormentor.
"Yes, we will. I promise. All you have to do is get out of the circle."
Again the boy's eyes traced the circle, so small that he could run out of it in a second. But not faster than a Sime could augment. He knew that—but it was his only hope of life. He ran—and came up against one of the Raiders blocking his way, holding his arms up with tentacles extended but making no attempt to touch the boy. He ducked in another direction. Like magic, a Sime appeared between him and Freedom each time he approached the edge of the circle. He threw himself one way, then another, unable to stop until he wore himself out and collapsed in exhaustion, sobbing hysterically.
When one of the Simes bent to pick the boy up, Rimon hid his face in his hands and forced himself down beneath his Sime senses, down to hypoconsciousness, so he could not zlin the kill.
When he dared to lift his head, though, the boy was not dead. He was sitting up, drinking in great gulps from a cup someone had given him, his emotions so worn out that his field had gone flat. He sat, paying no attention to what went on around him as the Raiders brought another Gen out of the tent.
This time it was a girl, tall, awkward, heavy-set. She was twice the size of any Sime there, but her fear did not peak as the boy's had; she radiated only hopeless resignation.
"Hey!" said one of the Raider women, "we have to feed our Gens or they won't keep. Here, girl—make some soup!"
She picked up a heavy iron kettle and heaved it at the girl, who barely caught it against her stomach, falling backward with the impact. Blankly, she climbed to her feet and carried the kettle to the fire, then turned and said, "Where are the ingredients?"
The Raiders howled with laughter. "You think we carry fodder for Gens? Only for our horses. Horses we keep!"
Even that only caused a slight ripple through the girl's nager. She had clearly resigned herself to her fate long ago.
"Oh, you're no fun!" spat the woman who had thrown the kettle. "Let's have some music!"
One of the Raiders sat down with a shiltpron and began to play on the aural level. Rimon was glad of that. He'd been slightly drunk on shiltpron in Scobla—was it only last night?—
and didn't want a hangover to impede his rescue attempts.
The Sime instrument required both fingers and tentacles and could produce music at both sound and nageric-field levels. The nageric level could become so intense in skilled hands that it produced actual intoxication.
"Dance!" cried the Raiders, dragging the Gen boy to his feet and throwing him into the arms of the Gen girl. Clumsily, they stumbled about, then were grabbed by two Simes who whirled them helplessly into a wild tarantella.
The shiltpron player began striking an occasional nageric chord. Rimon drew himself down to hypoconsciousness again, listening on the physical level only, so that the music would affect him less. Yet it kept intruding on the edges of his consciousness as he wished the Raiders would bring the other three Gens out of the tent so he could see if Kadi was there.
The music grew faster, and the Raiders zipped crazily through the figures, gone mad with the rapture of the shiltpron. Rimon realized he had a chance. If the Raiders were drunk, he might be able to dash in and snatch Kadi away from them. His fear that she was in that tent turned slowly to hope.
Despite his attempts to block it, the music was seeping through to him, affecting his field in a most curious fashion. Was his hope real, or was he hitting an emotional high because of the music? Why couldn't he block it?
Abruptly, he realized it was because of the Gens. His father would not allow a shiltpron on the Genfarm because its playing caused a resonance in Gen fields that gave an overpowering feedback to a Sime. That's what the Raiders were doing—deliberately. So jaded by Gen fear that it was not enough for them, they were multiplying the effects of Gen emotions with the shiltpron.
He had to get away. But Kadi was in that tent. He could run right in and grab her—right under their noses. He knew he could.
As the music sang through him, he gave himself up to it, soaring on a cloud of ecstasy. The fear of the Gens was a balm to his soul—ahhh, he felt as a Sime was supposed to feel, at last…. Somewhere, some tiny part of Rimon was horrified. It succeeded in keeping him where he was instead of running out to join the Raiders—but only because he was in a kind of lassitude. Why make any effort? Pure bliss was coming straight to him without his having so much as to think about it.
In the camp, the Simes finally opened the tent and pulled the other three Gens out into the firelight. Flames gleamed on shining red hair. Kadi!
No. Not Kadi. Another girl, short, freckled, snub-nosed. Not Kadi. Kadi wasn't there.
The tiny, isolated, reasoning part of Rimon felt intense relief—and then tried to goad him to leave. She wasn't there. He had wasted over an hour—two hours since he'd left the road. He had to get back to the horses, and head toward Reloc.
But the music held him, dominating the selyn currents in his body, leaving him deliciously activated yet utterly relaxed. The dancers in the camp were whirling flares of selyn, the Gens brilliant beacons of fear. He was bathed in the glow, the beauty of it all.
Then one of the Simes grabbed the boy they had first brought from the tent and tied his hands behind his back. Rimon could feel the boy's bewilderment—he wouldn't be killed for selyn with his arms in that position.
The other Gens were similarly bound. Then the leader of the Raiders chose the tall, awkward Gen girl. He pulled her to the center of the circle of dancers, and the music stopped. The dancers stopped to watch.
Rimon, like the other Simes, remained high, in ecstatic surrender, unjudging. The Sime reached out and ripped away the girl's bodice, exposing her breasts. She cringed away from him as he caressed her, but he hooked a leg behind her knees and sent her crashing to the ground.
The girl's horror of the Raider's touch soared out to every Sime there. He pounced on her, his hands on her breasts, not fondling, but grasping her tightly. When his laterals grazed her skin, she realized what was happening and drew breath for a scream.
It was never voiced. Before the first sound, the Sime had closed her mouth with his and stripped her of life.
Even at a distance, Rimon shared the killbliss of the Simes and the delicious fear of the other Gens when they realized what had happened.
The Gen boy bolted. Hysteria was rekindled in him as he came up against augmenting Simes each way he turned. Finally, he stopped, panting, backing away from the Sime before him—straight into the arms of one who had come up from behind.
He struggled helplessly when the steely arms came around his shoulders, hands on his collarbones—tentacles snaking out to his neck. The moist laterals sought the soft skin of his throat, near the jugular. His attacker took the fifth contact point at the nape of he boy's neck. It was the first time Rimon had ever seen a Gen killed in such a way that he could scream. The sound of his death agony resonated with the fear and killbliss and went on and on and—
Rimon came crashing down from his shiltpron-induced high into a spasm of nausea. The agony those Gens were suffering was prolonged—much worse than an ordinary kill. When the proper transfer points were not used, they felt more pain, took longer to die—and he had been reveling in it, letting it control him utterly. He, Rimon Farris, who dreaded his monthly kill. Was this what he would be without Kadi?
They were pulling the red-haired girl to the center of the circle now. It could have been Kadi there. He couldn't watch, couldn't feel her die.
He ran, unnoticed by the drunken Raiders, back to the horses, where he leaped astride and galloped away, back toward the road, toward Kadi, toward himself. He had to leave behind the image of himself watching—participating in—those perverted kills, enjoying it just as any Sime would have.
But the image rose again, and waves of nausea swept him. He had to stop to vomit, retching uncontrollably as chills swept through him with the old question become new reverberating in his head. Rimon is different. Rimon is different.
But if I'm different, what am I? What am I?
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