The Day the World Changed
Jonmair felt very mature that day, allowed to come along to mind her younger brother and sister while her mother claimed her monthly Gen. Any day now, Jonmair would become Sime, like her parents – strong and graceful and gifted with Sime senses that made it nearly impossible to slip anything past them. She was eager to get on with her future, to start her life's work, her own family - to be an adult, capable of deciding her own destiny.
Jonmair knew what her mother would do with the Gen assigned to her, something her little brother and sister were too young to understand. Her job was to keep them distracted and entertained, so they would not ask awkward questions, as well as to carry packages while Mama coped with the Gen.
As the parcels piled up, Jonmair wished all the more that she were a full-grown Sime, for her fingers were not designed to hold so many objects at once. She envied her mother the graceful tendrils that emerged from her wrists, easily carrying several small packages.
The Pen was the last stop on a long list, and by that time Jonmair's little brother Wawkeen was cranky. Her sister Faleese scampered ahead while the little boy dragged his feet, pulling Jonmair in two directions. Mama, in no mood to cajole children, piled the last of her packages into Jonmair's arms and pressed a coin into her hand. "Buy them a treat," she instructed, "but stay right in this area."
Usually Jonmair babysat at home on Mama's claim day, but this month there were transport problems because boats and wagons had been sent to aid in the war out west, and Norlea's Gen shipments were delayed. So today's task of fitting the three children with shoes had been combined with the Gen pickup. "Why don't I take the kids on home?" Jonmair suggested.
"Do what I tell you!" Mama replied irritably. "I expect to find you right here when I come out." Then she disappeared into the Pen.
Jonmair understood her mother's abruptness: at this time of month, Simes had trouble concentrating on anything other than the Gen that would provide another month of life. Mama would feel better as soon as she had the reassurance of a Gen to assuage her Need.
All Jonmair's younger siblings understood was the promised treat. Jonmair struggled to hang onto the packages as they hurried her toward the vendors. Wawkeen was quickly satisfied with a caramel fruit treat, but while Jonmair was paying for it Faleese skipped on down the street.
"Faleese - come back!" Jonmair shouted as her annoying younger sister disappeared into the crowd. Faleese knew perfectly well that Wawkeen would be impossible to move until he had consumed his sticky treat.
Sparkly objects caught the sunlight at the stand Faleese headed toward. Dragging a protesting Wawkeen, Jonmair came close enough to see that they were toys, small multicolored windmill-like sails, each pinned to a stick so that it spun in the breeze, creating lovely changing effects. No wonder Faleese wanted one - they almost made Jonmair wish she were not too old for such pretty toys.
"You know you can't have a sweet if you buy one of these," Jonmair warned Faleese.
"This is better than a sweet," her little sister replied. "I'll have it for a long time."
"I want one too." Wawkeen instantly demanded.
"You've already had your treat," Faleese said in exactly the superior tone of voice that would set the little boy off.
"Want one! Want one! Me, too!" Wawkeen wailed, sticky fists rubbing at his face.
Stooping down to try to calm him, Jonmair dropped some of her packages. The little boy grabbed her around the neck, screaming as if he were hurt and rubbing sticky caramel everywhere he touched. Instead of helping, Faleese looked on in satisfaction as Jonmair tried to both calm and clean up Wawkeen, and keep their packages from being trampled by the passing crowds.
And that was how their mother found them when she arrived with a plodding Gen at the end of a white-painted chain. "Jonmair!" she exclaimed, picking parcels out of the dust. "I only asked you to buy your brother and sister a treat. Can't you do even the simplest tasks?"
While Jonmair held her tongue, knowing that her mother would only be more irritated if she responded, Faleese had no such restraint. "Jonmair never bought me my treat!" she complained, stamping her foot.
Jonmair stood, wishing she dared slap her sister, wishing her brother was somebody else's problem as she pushed her hair back and felt caramel goo in it. Wishing above all that she herself would hurry and grow up!
One street away from the hubbub in Norlea's square, Baird Axton bolstered his courage by reading the last letter he had received from his sister, and then put it away once more under the blotter on his desk. I only have to make it through today, he reminded himself. This could be the day.
But probably not. It was too early - today would be only his fourth transfer ... as opposed to Kill. He would receive selyn - the life force that Gens produced and Simes had to have to live - without having to kill a Gen to get it. In the Householdings, Simes called channels had learned to take selyn from Gens without hurting them, and transfer it to other Simes to provide the life force they needed.
Unfortunately, any Sime who had ever killed was addicted to the sensation of forcefully stripping a Gen's system and reveling in the creature's death agony. No channel in Baird’s experience had even come close to reproducing that feeling.
Baird was determined to break his addiction to Killbliss. He tried to tell himself that the reason each transfer from a channel was less satisfactory than the last was that he was about to break that addiction. Next month his crisis might come - if not, most assuredly the following month. Only then he would be free of this constant state of depression, anxiety, and chronically unsatisfied Need.
He had been trying to disjunct - to separate himself from the Need to Kill - ever since his changeover into an adult Sime. He reread his sister's encouraging letters each time he was tempted to succumb to his father's disapproval. At Householding Carre, where Simes lived peacefully with Gens who had no fear of being killed, he had made friends with Zhag Paget.
Zhag was undergoing the same process of learning to live without killing. He had been at it longer than Baird - in fact, this would be his sixth month without a Kill - so Zhag now faced what the channels called "disjunction crisis." Zhag's cycle put him a few days behind Baird for transfer, but at this critical time the channels wanted him at Carre well before his Need peaked.
Zhag was a shiltpron player - a brilliant musician who could not command the audience he deserved because he was ill so much of the time. It was a hardship for him to walk across town to Carre, so Baird planned to pick Zhag up in his buggy.
Baird went quietly down the back stairs, but his father was waiting in the hall. "Where are you going, Baird?" Treavor Axton demanded.
"You know where I'm going, Dad. You have no right to stop me." It's your fault I'm addicted to the Kill and have to go through this, he wanted to add, but he could not face arguing anymore. Baird's father sincerely believed that a healthy Sime lifestyle included killing Gens "as nature intended." It was hard to argue with a man who honestly grieved that his son had chosen what he perceived as a perverted lifestyle.
"Baird - look at the condition you're in," his father pleaded.
"I'm in Need!" Baird snapped. "I'll be fine as soon as I take transfer."
"Son, you won't be fine. You're getting sicker and sicker—"
"Once I disjunct I won't be sick anymore. Please don't make me force my way past you, Dad."
Sadly shaking his head, Treavor Axton stood aside, and Baird went out to the buggy their groom had waiting for him.
Now running late, Baird set his spirited mare trotting. He preferred to ride her, and would have gladly let Zhag borrow a horse, but his friend was too weak to handle a mount even for the half-hour or so ride across town to Carre.
Although Zhag's house was not far away in distance, it was worlds away from the affluence that the Axtons lived in. Near the docks, Baird drove past Milily's Shiltpron Parlor, a shabby dive where Zhag played for the couple of hours he could manage each evening.
The street leading to Zhag's place was a rutted dirt track lined with homes that had never been built well in the first place, and now were run down rental property. Zhag's house - shack, rather - had an untended front yard sporting a woodpile, a front gate that hung by a single hinge, and an excellent crop of weeds. The back of the house was so overgrown with kudzu that Baird suspected the stuff was actually holding the structure up.
Zhag himself sat on the rickety front steps, shiltpron on his lap. Sweet, sad music greeted Baird, not only touching him through his sense of hearing, but echoing on the nageric level, affecting the fields of life energy in the whole area - but especially within Simes themselves.
It was Zhag's special talent to transform the world through music. But as soon as Baird drew his buggy to a halt at the gate, the music stopped. "Hi, Baird." Zhag called, pushing himself up with one hand as if he were an old man instead of only five years older than Baird. "Thanks for the ride," he added as he placed his instrument carefully in the buggy first, and then climbed up onto the seat beside Baird.
It was not very encouraging to see the condition Zhag was in because of his refusal to kill. All Simes were slender, but Zhag was practically skin and bone. He was so pale, even his eyes seemed drained of color - not that you could see them with his perpetual squint. His hair hung lusterless in a way no barber could correct, even if Zhag could afford a good cut.
Zhag insisted that his condition was temporary: that he was nearing the point at which he would reject the Kill once and for all, and thereafter live without the temptation that tortured both young men each month.
Zhag must have zlinned Baird's Need depression, for although Baird was healthier, he was closer to using up his month's supply of selyn. As they drove, Zhag tried to cheer him up with tales of goings on at the shiltpron parlor. Baird barely listened, trying to bolster his determination by taking the most direct route to the Householding. That was a mistake: it took them through the center of Norlea at midday. The steady stream of wagons, buggies, riders, and pedestrians slowed progress more than taking a longer route would have.
The occasional pedestrian led a monthly Kill home: a vapid Pen Gen, unaware of its fate, following at the end of the white-painted chain attached to its collar. It was an ordinary enough sight, for the city's main Pen was just off the square. Baird paid no heed to such creatures, for their fields of life energy were too dull to impact the busy ambient nager - the total impression of all life energy in the vicinity.
From the direction of the river, a wagon loaded with Gens fresh off the boat plodded its way toward the Pen. It was too far behind Baird's vehicle to make much impression, but he was aware of those brimming lives, and the free-floating anxiety the creatures felt at being moved through strange surroundings.
Traffic slowed even more, vehicles coming to a dead stop while pedestrians and those on horseback filtered between them. Word came back along the street that a wagon had overturned.
Vendors added to the congestion, hawking their wares from wagons at the sides of the street. When a police officer on horseback told them to move, a fruit seller argued, "I got the right to this spot for the whole day."
"Come back after the congestion clears," the officer told her. "Right now we have to move traffic through this lane."
"I'll follow those wagons off the square," Baird told Zhag. "It'll be faster to go around the accident."
The light buggy was more maneuverable than the lumbering wagons, and Baird knew his spirited mare, so he was able to get into the curbside lane when the vendors began reluctantly to vacate. In the lane he had left, traffic filled in the gaps, bringing the wagonload of fresh Gens close enough to be an irritant to both Baird and Zhag. The fruit seller shouted at the vendor in front of her, who was securing breakable ceramic utensils before trying to move. The tinker yelled back, and traffic once more came to a halt.
Zhag picked up his shiltpron, and strummed a soothing tune. Baird tried to let its nageric resonations wash away his jangled nervousness. He knew he had plenty of time, that he would not run out of selyn before he got to Carre - but his Sime instincts insisted his life was draining away pulse by pulse, and if he did not renew it soon, he would die in agony.
In the crowded street, Zhag's playing could not affect the ambient as strongly as it did within the confines of a shiltpron parlor. The instrument also picked up and amplified Baird's Need, the anger of the shouting vendors, and the anxiety of the wagonload of Pen Gens now drawn up close behind them. Baird was about to suggest that his friend was only making things worse when they began to get better - the music was, indeed, soothing the vendors, the Gens, and Baird.
Able to think again, Baird realized that their buggy was going nowhere until the way was cleared. He dropped the reins on the seat and went to help the tinker secure the last crate of tea glasses. "Thanks." the man told him, and flipped a rude signal at the impatient fruit seller behind him before he jumped up into the seat.
Jonmair, in disgrace through no fault of her own, paced ahead of her mother and siblings through the stalled traffic. At least she was relieved of trying to take care of Wawkeen and Faleese. Along with the slow-footed Gen, they would keep Mama from catching up to her and scolding her some more. At least until they got home.
But Mama would kill her Gen tomorrow, and be her normal, rational self again. Then Jonmair could explain what had happened with the kids - there was no use trying to talk to her until then.
This area of Norlea, around the Pens, was especially crowded today because of the delay in Gen shipments. They had passed two wagonloads of the creatures, and down the street she could see another caught in the traffic, green pennant flapping limply in what breeze penetrated from the waterfront to the center of the city.
Jonmair's eye was caught, though, by a buggy moving toward her from the center of the street into the lane the police were clearing. It was the kind of vehicle she dreamed of having someday, shiny and smart and drawn by a beautiful prancing gray horse.
There were two men in the buggy - master and servant, Jonmair guessed, for one was nondescript and dressed rather shabbily, while the other -
Jonmair's heart gave a lurch as she looked closely at the driver of the buggy. He was young, with thick black hair cut collar length in the latest fashion, and his skin had a shining copper tone. Despite the whipcord slenderness typical of Simes, his shoulders were broad, making him look as if he could take on the world. His clothes were exquisitely tailored - everything about him signaled "wealth" and "power."
But as she drew closer, it was the man's eyes that held Jonmair's attention. They were very large, gray, and fringed with thick black lashes. Somehow she knew those eyes were capable of dancing with merriment or flashing with anger ... but what she saw in them now was Need.
He was in the same state as Jonmair's mother, yet he was not irritable and annoyed at every little thing. When the other man in the buggy began to play music, the handsome man Jonmair was watching got down from his seat and went to help one of the vendors move his wagon.
Jonmair was amazed to see a man who was not only self-controlled in Need, but able to think about other people. She watched admiringly as he started back toward his buggy, but then she caught sight of her mother approaching, and slipped between the vehicles to get out of her sight.
Once on the other side of the street, though, she could not help but turn to look again at the handsome, wealthy man - just in time to see her foolish little sister, running ahead of their mother, skip right out into the traffic that was ready to start moving again.
Baird turned away from the tinker’s wagon and began making his way back toward his buggy.
A woman with two small children and a Pen Gen in tow looked for a path through the stalled traffic. She kept her little boy close by one handling tentacle. The girl had a pinwheel on a stick, waving it in the air to make it spin. She darted between wagons, her mother calling to her to wait.
The child danced to Zhag's music, oblivious of her mother's concerns. She moved toward Zhag, laughing and waving her pinwheel –
Right under the nose of Baird's skittish mare.
No one was holding the reins.
The sparkling object spooked the horse, who reared, backing against the traces and nearly upsetting the buggy.
The music stopped abruptly as Zhag held the seat with one hand, his shiltpron with the other - until he saw the child under the flailing hoofs of the horse. Her mother tried to run to the little girl's rescue, but she was hampered by her frightened son and the shuffling Gen she dragged.
Jonmair screamed and tried to run, but she had no Sime strength or agility. It felt as if her feet were moored in molasses - she could never reach the scene in time.
Shoving his instrument aside, the musician grabbed up the reins, pulling the horse into a rear.
With speed only adult Simes could muster, the man Jonmair had been watching leaped in to scoop the child out from under the horse before the hoofs came down. Fighting the unfamiliar driver, the mare began to buck and kick, but Jonmair's eyes were only for the safety of her little sister, and the heroism of the man who had just saved her life.
Baird deposited the little girl in her mother's arms and turned to rescue his friend and his horse. When he jumped up on the buggy Zhag yielded him the reins, but the mare seemed intent on kicking her way out of the traces.
A heave sent Zhag's precious instrument flying off the buggy to certain destruction. Occupied with the horse, Baird could only zlin the effort it took his frail friend to rescue the shiltpron with a diving catch - but he made it. Baird sighed with relief. That shiltpron was not merely Zhag's means of earning a living - his music gave meaning to his life.
But Zhag was too ill to get away with the agile moves that healthy Simes took for granted. Clutching his instrument to his chest, he stumbled in a most unSimelike way, and sank to the ground. He radiated Need - he had expended extra selyn both to hold the bucking horse and to rescue his shiltpron - and with his precarious health he had no control left.
Zhag's Need grated on everyone's nerves, Baird's most of all - he, too, had expended extra energy, bringing him deeper into Need and closer to the moment when he would have to receive selyn or die. Looking down into his friend's emaciated features, he felt as if he looked into the face of death.
Zhag was a channel, although he did not work as one, his field stronger than that of an ordinary Sime like Baird. With his musician's training, most of the time he was able to keep from broadcasting his personal feelings to all and sundry. But now his fields were in chaos, setting all Simes in the vicinity on edge.
Baird knew what he had to do - lift Zhag back up into the buggy, and get both of them to Carre as fast as possible.
But his Need screamed for satisfaction. The world dissolved into selyn fields as he went into Sime hunting mode, fixing on the bright Gen fields in the wagon now close behind the buggy.
There was no thought now - only instinct. Pure predator, he shoved aside people who would have hindered him as he stalked that source of satisfaction. Some lives there understood enough of what was happening to flare fear.
It was all Baird needed. He leaped --
Raging with both pain and Need, he landed on his feet next to the woman with the two children ... and the Gen she was leading home.
The dull Gen field erupted with startlement, its nearness overwhelming the more tempting fields now at a distance. Baird whirled, he grasped, he connected with the nerve points - and sweet fear laved his anguished nerves as he tore life from his prey as Simes were meant to do - as he was meant to do! Pure energy filled him, soothed his jangled nerves, gave him strength, warmth, joy –
Jonmair stood wide-eyed, heart pounding with unfamiliar emotion. She had never actually seen a Sime kill a Gen before. It was what Simes were meant to do. They were designed as perfect predators ... but she could see that the heroic man she had just watched fulfill his destiny was upset at what he had done.
As the creature's corpse dropped from the man's hands and tentacles, his look of feral satisfaction changed to one of mortification.
Of course it was highly improper to kill in a public street, even worse to steal someone else's Gen -
Jonmair ran to her mother's side and took charge of Wawkeen and Faleese, both sobbing in shock and horror. She turned the children to her, letting them bury their faces in her skirt to shut out the sight of the dead Gen; they were too young to understand.
Mama was too angry to think - her lateral tentacles, the small organs which actually drew selyn from a Gen, licked out of their sheaths as she clenched her teeth in fury at being deprived of her rightful property. For a moment Jonmair thought she would leap for the man's throat.
The man immediately pulled out his wallet, and said soothingly, "Ma'am, I am so sorry. It was all my fault. Please, please - here. Take this." He pressed coins into her hand. "I never meant to deprive you," he pleaded. "Buy a Choice Kill. I'm so sorry," he repeated.
And Jonmair, despite not having the Sime ability to zlin emotions, knew that he truly was. Apparently her mother did, too, for she gained control of herself, although she was still shaking. She counted the astonishing amount of money the man had given her, and managed to say, "Yes. I'll do that."
Released, the man turned to help the obviously ill musician into the buggy, and drove away through the passage that had finally cleared.
Jonmair stared after him, aware that he had committed a social gaffe that he might never live down - but after all, he had driven himself to the limit saving her undeserving little sister. Jonmair could not help but admire him.
She heard her mother draw a sharp breath through her teeth, and wondered if, especially sensitive right now, she had read her daughter's sympathy for someone who had stolen her Gen. Jonmair braced herself for another scolding, but, "Take the children home," was all her mother told her, before turning back toward the Pen.
All that evening, Jonmair's thoughts turned toward the handsome, brave young man in the square. The more she thought about it, the more certain she became that he could not be blamed for stealing her mother's Gen. The other man, the musician, was obviously very sick to collapse like that over nothing. Her hero must have been taking him for help - perhaps to the Pen for a good Kill. Maybe a Choice Kill that the shabby musician clearly could not afford.
So he was a good, kind man, trying to help a friend or servant when he himself was deep into Need. He had saved Faleese's life when the girl's own willfulness had put her in danger, and to do so had used up the last of his selyn reserves. That was what she told her little brother and sister as the task fell to her to explain the Kill they had seen. Wawkeen didn't really understand, and was soon distracted with his toys. Faleese, though, was pale, fighting down sickness.
"It's what Mariah told me happened to the Gens our parents bring home," she explained. Mariah was Faleese's best friend. "I didn't believe it."
"It's what Gens are for," Jonmair told her. "They don't understand what's happening anyway. We'll all have to kill when we grow up and change over, Faleese - the Kill is a natural part of life. You'll see how much better Mama feels after she has her Kill tomorrow. Nature designed it that way - Gens are just creatures who produce the selyn Simes Need. They don't have any other function."
The words came straight from the changeover classes Jonmair had just completed. And until somebody - probably Mariah - told Faleese that there were perverted Simes who actually refused to kill Gens, and somehow got their selyn from other Simes, she was certainly not going to confuse the little girl with such unnecessary information. There had never been any perverts in her family, and it was best not to put such notions into a susceptible child's head.
Mama was certainly pleased with the Choice Kill she had bought, which she placed in the family Killroom as soon as she got home. She even had some money left over, which pleased Dad. "Still," he commented, "it's not enough for me to have a Choice Kill too."
Mama put a hand over his. "Wait and see," she said. "There might be a surprise for you."
In all the excitement, Jonmair was glad to be forgotten. She made supper for the children, knowing her mother hated to cook just before a Kill, and then heated water in the big kettle so she could wash out the caramel Wawkeen had smeared into her hair. Afterward, though, her mother took the comb from her and gently worked the tangles out.
At times like these, Jonmair was not so eager to grow up. It felt good to have her mother comb her hair, and braid it so that when she brushed it out in the morning it would have waves in it. She leaned into the massage of her mother's tentacles, glad to be back in her good graces. But she could feel her mother's Need and nervous tension in the way her moist lateral tentacles grazed the back of Jonmair's neck.
"Go to bed," her mother said. "It's been a hard day." There was something odd, ragged, about her voice, but Jonmair put it down to Need, and anticipation of an exceptional Kill.
In the morning, she got up and dressed, then got Faleese and Wawkeen up and gave them breakfast. Her mother came in just as Jonmair was telling her younger siblings to go get their clothes on.
"Yes," said Mama, "run along and get dressed, and go over to Miz Hetson's."
Usually Jonmair was assigned to take the kids somewhere while her parents took their monthly Kills. But this morning Mama said, "Come here," and when the girl did, she closed her eyes and nodded. "Go put on your work clothes."
Work clothes? What work would Mama want her to do this morning? Surely she didn't want her daughter around when -
"Go on!" Mama said irritably, her laterals fluttering in and out of the orifices on either side of her wrists.
It must be the anticipation of a Choice Kill that was making her especially nervous. Best to humor her now. After a good Kill, Simes were affable and in excellent humor.
Jonmair went upstairs and changed into an old shirt with paint on it and a pair of ragged denims that she had nearly outgrown. She didn't bother to unbraid her hair, but went back downstairs just as she heard the sound of a heavy wagon pulling up outside.
Mama opened the door before anyone knocked. Two men were coming up the walk, Jonmair's father and a man wearing the green-and-white uniform of a Gendealer.
Jonmair's father would not meet her eyes.
She looked past him at the wagon parked at the curb - the wagon with a cage big enough to carry twenty or thirty Gens, although at the moment it was empty.
Jonmair's mother moved behind the girl, blocking her way to the kitchen and the back door.
The Gendealer moved toward Jonmair, eyes unfocused, laterals extended, zlinning her. "Caught 'er early," he said, "but yer right. Not much selyn production yet, but a few days and it'll be ripe and soaring. Choice Kill fer sure."
"Mama!" Jonmair gasped, as the Gendealer brought out a collar and reached for her. "Dad-dy!"
"Shut up, Gen." said the dealer, clasping the collar about her neck. "You got no family no more. Don't make no trouble, you don't git hurt. Make trouble - " he laughed, " - well, the spirited uns jes bring a higher price."
[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Search amazon.com for Jean Lorrah or Jacqueline Lichtenberg.
Find out why we so vigorously support amazon.com
Feedback about this page.
Feedback about Sime~Gen Inc.
Feedback about technical problems with this site.
Concerned about your privacy? Simegen Inc. respects your rights, and the protection of children. Please read our Privacy Statement.