The Mizipi River flowed smoothly in the late-summer stillness. No breeze stirred its calm surface. The heavily laden raft glided on the current with almost no guidance.
The river swung around a bend and flowed south once more, the broad surface of the water reflecting unbroken blue sky for as far as the man and woman aboard the raft could see. They drifted straight down the middle of the river, and Morgan Tigue set his pole down. "We've got clear sailing now, Risa," he said.
Risa balanced her pole, twice as tall as she was, and laid it beside her father's on the raft. "I'll be glad to get home," she said, seating herself on a canvas-covered chest. "I loved the trading, but getting our goods home is just plain boring."
Tigue laughed, the hearty laugh of a man who enjoys life despite its hardships. "Be glad of boredom, Reesey--you don't really want to fight the Gen Border Patrol!"
Risa didn't protest the childhood nickname, although no one but her father could get away with calling her that. He was training her in the family business, and this had been her first trip out-Territory, their most successful trading venture yet. The raft was loaded with barrels of nails, coils of wire, plowshares, knives and axheads--perhaps raided from Gen Territory, but purchased at the huge East Market in Nivet Sime Territory. The only commodity more profitable than metal goods was Gens ... but Morgan Tigue was no Genrunner, nor did he want his daughter to be one.
Risa knew there was more to her father's antipathy to Genrunning than its danger and quasi-legal status. He--and therefore she--had kin on the Gen side of the border. Lots of people did, of course, but not everyone had the strong family loyalties of the Tigues. Morgan Tigue had guided his own brother to the border when he established as a Gen. Risa would be expected to take her brother Kreg, if--
No. She refused to consider it. Kreg must be Sime, like Risa and their father. Risa had changed over safely despite all their worry. So would Kreg!
As if to reassure herself, Risa stretched her arms, extending her handling tentacles to touch her fingertips. The tentacles, developed at changeover, normally lay sheathed along her forearms. Now they emerged from the openings at her wrists, two over the back of each hand, two under the palm, relieving the growing pressure on the laterals still sheathed on either side of each forearm.
"We'll be home by tomorrow morning," her father said, his selyn field--his life energy--meshing with hers as he used his Sime senses to gauge her state of need. "You're coming up short again," he said, unable to hide his concern. Risa could hear the unspoken words, "Just like your mother."
"I'm all right, Dad," she said firmly, deliberately hiding her discomfort. She was still in her first year after changeover; surely her need cycle would normalize eventually. Besides, this had been an active trip--there was nothing surprising in her needing more selyn than usual.
To take her mind off need, she examined her arms, freckled by the sun. Her bare feet were turning pink again; she pulled on socks and moccasins to protect the fair skin.
A broad-brimmed straw hat shaded her face. She should put on a long-sleeved shirt against the noonday sun, but it was so dreadfully hot--
In the far distance a small, ragged cloud scudded across the horizon, followed by two more. "Look, Dad--there's a breeze blowing on downriver."
"Good," he replied, leaning back against a crate. "I sure will be glad to get home."
"Kreg's taking care of things."
"He's a fine boy," her father agreed. "Growing like a weed."
Again words remained unspoken; Risa knew her father was worried that Kreg might turn Gen--might even have done so while they were away, and had no one to warn him or to guide him to the border--
She shoved the thought aside again, then wondered if it was a premonition. "Both your mother's brothers turned Gen," Tigue said as if in answer to her thought. "So did my brother Jerro. Figure the odds, Risa--Kreg'll change over. There's two Simes to every Gen in Sime families."
On the average, Risa thought. But all sorts of odd things ran in families; what if large numbers of Gens ran in theirs? After all, Gens were needed so Simes could live.
"It wouldn't be so bad if we knew, one way or the other," said Risa. "Then we could prepare--"
"Wait till you have children, Reesey. It's better not to know. Just love your family--that's important. You and Kreg grow up and find people to love, and give me lots of grandchildren. We'll have a whole house full of kids, like the family I grew up in."
As a child, Risa had always loved her father's stories of his four sisters and a brother--but now the stories took on new meaning. One of his sisters had died in changeover, another in childbirth. One had turned Gen and been caught and killed running for the border. His last sister, the only one of her aunts Risa could remember, had been murdered in a Gen raid ... and his brother--even if he still lived--might as well be dead. Risa had known these facts for years, but since her changeover they weighed heavily on her heart.
"What's the good of family if you lose them all?" she asked--then was sorry she'd said it as through her Sime senses she zlinned the pain the question brought her father.
"Not all," he replied after a moment. "I've got you and Kreg--and I had ten good years with your mother. Loss is part of life, Risa ... and you can't refuse to love people because someday you might lose them."
The breeze reached them. The raft lifted and dropped over little wavelets. Risa stood, easily balancing, letting the air cool her sunburnt skin. Now that she was Sime, her body healed such minor damage while she slept; she would have a deeper tan--and more freckles--in the morning.
She was grateful even for such minor advantages, for when she was a child exposure to the summer sun had meant pain, blistered skin, and peeling. At fifteen, still not changed over, she had sneaked away with others her age to swim in the river. Keeping up with her Sime friends, she had gotten such a severe sunburn that she suffered for days with raging fever. She could have died, she now knew--a stupid way to end a life. If she ever had children--
She supposed she would someday, and yet she couldn't imagine a man she could love the way her mother had loved her father, nor see herself with children of her own. So she changed the subject. "Maybe we'll make enough profit this year to buy that house you want, Dad."
"We won't live behind the store forever," he replied. "But investments first--we'll expand the business again now that you're grown up. You and Kreg will be rich someday."
When they were growing up, Risa and Kreg had hardly realized they were not rich. Most parents taught their children to read, write, and do simple arithmetic--and that was that until a child changed over and might seek special training or an apprenticeship. But Risa and Kreg had been sent half-days to a small private school in Norlea, where they were taught history, geography, music, and etiquette.
Morgan Tigue believed that acting rich was as important as being rich. Their store might stock trinkets and flashy wares for the general run of customers, but the apartment behind the store was sparsely furnished, in the finest of quiet taste. The family wore clothes of the best material, in conservative cut that would remain in style for years. Before her death, Risa's mother had made all their clothes; now they were outfitted by a tailor who would trade services for first choice of Tigue imported goods at wholesale prices.
The wealthy bought at Tigue's, even though the store was on the waterfront, not in the fashionable high-rent district. Morgan Tigue carried the best of everything, from buttons to wagons--and boasted that if he didn't have it, he could get it in a month. Risa had never known him to fail.
He always talked about building a house, but always plunged his money back into the business. I guess I'll have to buy that house for Dad someday, Risa thought.
The river grew rougher. The scattered clouds thickened, and ragged-edged thunderheads followed from the south. "Storm brewing," said Risa, glad now to put on her loose-sleeved shirt as the air cooled swiftly.
"Let's tie up till it's over," said her father.
Risa agreed, for the raft, although sturdily built and adequate to its burden, was not very maneuverable.
Along here the river had no distinct shoreline. Winding channels on either side of the main current were separated by marshes or hummocks. No islands--nothing to secure the raft to. If that storm blew as wickedly as it was threatening, they should unload their heavy cargo onto solid ground and drag the raft ashore. But where?
Morgan Tigue scanned the east bank, part of their home Gulf Territory. The west shore was held by Gens.
The wind whipped at the water, veering the raft off-course to the west.
Risa and her father stood on the starboard side, their poles ready to push off from hummocks or sandbars. Balancing on the leading edge of the raft, they zlinned, Sime senses separating water from the obstructions they could not see.
The river was wide and shallow here. The two Simes vectored the raft into a clumsy southward course, heaving in unison to keep it from veering farther west.
They were augmenting, using selyn from their stored reserves for strength to fight the wind, but neither could go on that way for long. Southward progress slowed. Risa tried to peer ahead through the spray, longing to see an island, a bit of tree-lined shore--any shelter at all.
The misting spray churned up by the wind was joined by fat drops of rain, thunking onto the raft like stones.
The rain increased in force, driven sideways on the wind. Blinded, the Simes maneuvered by their special senses, toes gripping the raft through their moccasins.
As Risa heaved the raft off a sandbar, the wind shifted. The raft swung in an arc around the pole, almost pulling her overboard.
She lurched, staggered, let go of the pole and grabbed for it again. They dared not lose the ability to steer.
The rain was no longer drops, but sheets--a waterfall roaring over them. It can't go on like this for long, Risa thought. Such intensity had to blow itself out quickly.
It was dark as night now. The water rose in waves, river mingling with rain on the howling wind.
The river turned to mud as debris churned up from the bottom. The wind shifted again, now driving north, as if to push the mighty Mizipi backward!
The river fought back. The raft tossed and shook, the two people on board clinging to the ropes. Their poles washed overboard. They were helpless.
Risa could zlin her father's selyn field. He was on the raft, not five paces away, and yet they dared not let go their precarious hold to reach for one another.
The wind howled and shrieked about them. Risa knew now what the storm was: hurricane.
Just the edge of a hurricane had hit Norlea when Risa was nine, tumbling trees and buildings, killing four people. Now she was being carried straight into the heart of such a storm. The only time she had ever felt so helpless before was at her changeover--but her father had been there to see her through. Now he was as helpless as she was.
The raft spun on the surging river--rebounded off a hummock--heaved over a white-capped wave. There was a sickening lurch. Risa felt the sturdy timbers twist beneath her, straining the lashings.
"Dad!" she shouted, the wind tearing the sound from her mouth.
She could zlin her father's steady field. Tigues were survivors!
The ropes holding their cargo snapped. The heavy tarpaulin whirled off into the wind as crates and barrels of metal implements fell overboard.
Another wave tossed them skyward. The remaining cargo flew up, landed with a slam--timbers split!
Risa's section of the raft dissolved beneath her hands and tentacles.
The raft swung away from her and back--her father was clinging to remaining timbers with one hand, reaching for her with the other.
Kicking madly, Risa reached toward him. His end of the timber broke free, pitching him into the water head-first.
More items poured off the raft. Heavy iron implements whirled like corks on the current. A crate of plowshares spilled into the water--one struck Morgan Tigue in the side, and Risa zlinned the sickening pain of breaking ribs.
The air was suddenly full of flying nails. Risa's father was maddeningly close, swimming despite his pain. But selyn flowed from a wound in his leg. Any wound losing selyn like that would be pumping life's blood into the river--
With all her augmented strength, Risa fought the waves. "Daddy!" she screamed, her mouth filling with muddy water. His field was fading!
She came close enough to touch him with finger- and tentacle-tips. He was unconscious.
The wind howled mockingly. The last of her father's life force faded away. It was an empty body she clutched at. Then it was torn from her grip and swept away in the current. Dead, it provided no field for her to follow.
Waves washed over Risa's head. Survival instinct overcame her shocked grief, and she began to swim. A piece of raft bore down on her. Perhaps she could grab hold--
The wind was playing games. Risa reached for the raft. It swung away from her as she sank in the trough of a wave. Behind her, the crest carried crates of nails and axheads--the wave broke, raining down iron. Risa was aware only of screeching pain in head and left shoulder--and then nothing.
Risa woke to pain and terror. She didn't know where she was. When she opened her eyes she saw that she lay on solid ground, while her Sime senses told her she was being tossed violently, with waves of heat and cold beating over her.
The conflict between her senses made her want to scream, but only a whimper emerged from between her chattering teeth.
Some rational part of her mind recognized her symptoms: psychospatial disorientation. Unconscious, she had been flung ashore far from where the raft had disintegrated. The Sime orientation she had developed at changeover--the sense that told her where in the world she was--had been disrupted.
Closing her eyes plunged her back into the river, as if she must now experience at an accelerated rate everything that had happened while she was unconscious. When she forced her eyes open, she seemed to be suspended over an abyss, looking down into treetops and blue sky. Helplessly, she clutched at the muddy grass as the world changed colors and began to spin. Nausea shook her.
It went on and on. Darkness brought the storm back--or was it another sensory distortion? Rain pelted her. She tried to curl up to escape as it burned her with boiling drops, stung her with ice. The world spun again.
Finally the worst was over. It was dark and pouring down rain, but the wind had lessened to ordinary force. If she could trust her time sense, it was just after midnight.
She knew where she was now: in Gulf Territory. At least the river had not flung her up among her enemies. If she walked east, she would come to the Old River Road--and along the road she would find people. Where was the nearest pen? Vizber? Mefis? As she tried to determine where she was in relation to the towns, distortions returned. She was not recovered; could not recover completely until she replenished her selyn reserves.
The moment she admitted her need, it became all-consuming. The battle with the river, followed by disorientation, had reduced her life energy to a degree she had not experienced since First Need at changeover.
By the time she found a Gen she would be in deeper need than she had ever known in her short life as a Sime. If she did not get a Gen soon ... she could die!
The longer she lay there, the deeper her need grew. Despite dizziness and a stabbing pain behind her eyes, Risa struggled to her feet. Turning her back to the river, she forced one foot in front of the other, stumbling eastward, fighting her way through soggy underbrush and storm debris.
Need tore at her vitals. Cramps spread from the middle of her chest down her arms to convulse the small lateral tentacles, organs designed to draw selyn from a Gen's system into hers. At their roots, ronaplin glands swelled painfully with selyn-conducting fluid--the delicate organs pushed out of their sheaths, seeking, finding nothing, the rain washing away the ronaplin as fast as it bathed them.
Need was always unpleasant. If a Gen were not immediately available it could be frightening--but Risa had never known it to be so painful.
The rain-soaked sleeves of her loose shirt sogged against the sensitive organs, making her shudder, yet she was too cold to take the shirt off. She longed for her winter fur-lined cape. Her handling tentacles began to ache from holding the sleeves away from her laterals.
Everything ached. Her feet hurt. Her head throbbed. Need loomed, pulling at her. She yearned to stop fighting and let it claim her. If only it didn't hurt so much!
She couldn't give up. People were depending on her. She could feel them waiting for her, leaning on her strength. She saw them watching her with total trust--
The strange faces looming out of the rain dissolved into Kreg's face. Yes. Her brother was waiting for her. With Dad gone, he had no one else. She had to get home to him. She had to live. Where was that road?
By this time she was promising herself, One more step and you can rest. Get to the next tree. Now another step--
Out of the bleak night, the nager of a high-field Gen impinged on her consciousness.
Risa halted her stumbling progress, her laterals stretching in the direction of life promise. A vibrating throb of need, she moved with Sime-swift deliberateness toward the source of fulfillment.
It grew stronger as she drew closer. She operated with only her Sime senses now--hyperconscious--and as she broke out into a rutted wagon track she suddenly knew precisely where she was. Her father had brought her to this back road years ago, before they knew whether she would be Sime or Gen. Last year he had taken Kreg on this same journey.
No--she could not identify the fleeing Gen ahead with Kreg. She must have that Gen's life force to live!
Suddenly the selyn source blinked out, as if it had never been. Risa stopped in her tracks. Had she imagined--?
The shrine! That was why they had come here, years ago. Just off this little-used road was a Shrine of the Starred-cross, a shelter for newly established Gens fleeing to the safety of Gen Territory.
The shrine was carved into living rock, insulating selyn fields. The occupant would not attract passing Simes, and could rest in as much safety as was possible for a Gen until he reached the other side of the border.
The selyn field Risa had been following was suddenly there again, beckoning her with rich promise. Thought was impossible. She was a predator with her prey in reach.
Swiftly and silently, she moved toward the shrine--and she did not panic when the field disappeared again.
Sergi ambrov Keon was tired--not the healthy tiredness of a long day's effort, but the bone-deep fatigue of despair. He had failed in the worst possible way a Companion could. A channel in his care had died.
Mechanically, he lit the fire laid ready inside the shrine, and put water on for tea. He didn't unpack the food in his saddlebag; hunger was the furthest thing from his mind. He was cold, not just from the chill winds still chasing the storm, but from his own depression.
Over and over, the last few moments of the life of Erland ambrov Carre played in his mind. Sergi had been escorting Erland from Carre to Keon--the new channel Keon was so desperate for. When the storm had struck, they'd taken shelter in a cotton barn, hunching down in the center aisle between the bales--surely the safest place they could have found.
When the wind had whipped boards off the building and flung icy rain in on them, Sergi had pushed the Sime to the floor and crouched beside him, sheltering his arms from flying debris. They both knew by then that they were caught in a hurricane; there was nothing to do but hope the barn would hold through the storm.
It didn't. With a wrenching crack, the roof gave, some shakes flying, others tumbling in on them. The horses screamed and reared. Erland leaped to grasp the reins. Sergi was trying to stop the foolish Sime from exposing his vulnerable forearms when something caught him on the back of the head, dropping him to his knees.
He didn't quite black out, but his senses swam. He was aware of Erland easing him to the floor, the feel of hot, moist lateral tentacles over the throbbing point of impact, and the pain subsiding. But the channel was kneeling over him, when he should be protecting the channel.
In the wind and thunder, the mightiest shout could not be heard. He struggled to his knees, grasping Erland's flying cape to wrap the channel in it. The wind tore it from his hands as more debris fell--sticks and pebbles that cut and stung, and grit that made their eyes smart.
Sergi groped for Erland's arms, hoping the Sime had retracted his tentacles before that cloud of dust hit them--grit up the tentacle sheaths could put a channel out of commission for days.
But the Sime had moved beyond his reach. Shielding his eyes with his hands, Sergi peered through the blur, finding Erland hunched over, arms tight against his chest.
It was far worse than grit. Erland was bleeding--bleeding from a slashed lateral.
It was only then that Sergi felt his own cuts--there was glass from a shattered barn window in that flying debris. Both men were bleeding--but only Erland fatally.
Sergi tried to force away the memory of the channel's death. He had eased the pain, and the boy had died in minutes. That was the single blessing: the wound was so severe that he died quickly, instead of lingering for days in the agony of attrition.
Sergi had known Erland only for a few days. Now he had the task of returning to Carre to give the news of the boy's death to those who had loved him all his life. If that was not enough, he must then go home to Keon without a channel, their hope of surviving for another year.
He sat staring morosely into the fire, seeing everything Keon had struggled for go up in smoke--through his failure.
Need hit him.
As powerful as Erland's death agony, the sensation aroused Sergi instantly into his Companion's mode. Perhaps it was guilt that made him think he had never responded to such depth of need before, but he knew at once that it was a physical reaction, not a psychological one.
A Sime had entered the shrine--another weary traveler taking shelter from the storm, but this one seeking more than a warm, dry place to spend the night. Sergi's overwhelming response meant that the newcomer was beyond thought, beyond stopping--a killer Sime stalking its prey, needing Sergi's life force to live!
The high field of the Gen in the shrine washed over Risa, easing her need with promise. There was no fear in it--he must not know that she was there.
Basking in his field, she became duoconscious--both her Sime senses and her other senses operating at once. She could see him silhouetted against the fire. Too large for a recently established adolescent. A full-grown Gen.
What was he doing here? Blown into Sime Territory by the storm? It didn't matter; he was life to her. The moment he knew she was there, that tempting field would erupt with the fear she needed as much as his selyn. She would drain him, charging her aching nerves--surely that incredible field promised that for once she would be fully satisfied--
She took a step forward, just as the Gen said, "Why don't you come over to the fire and get warm?"
It was Risa who flared fear. Then she wondered what kind of fool believed only a Gen could enter the shrine.
The Gen leaned forward to poke up the fire, then stood--and she saw that he was huge. Gens were usually bigger than Simes, but this was the biggest one she'd ever seen--the absurd thought crossed her mind that his size meant he stored more selyn, although she knew the two things were unrelated.
He was turning toward her now. She moved forward, waiting for him to recognize a Sime in need, yearning for the fear that would charge his field for her kill. Her laterals dripped ronaplin in expectation. She moved forward step by step, savoring his field, waiting for the moment of recognition, of terror--the peak bliss of the kill!
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