Risa squirmed, kicked, bit--tried to slash with the ax, but there were too many people on top of her.
Augmenting, she bent her knees and drove her feet into one man's solar plexus. He staggered back, but someone wrenched the ax from her hand while another raised a knife--
A giant hand closed over the upraised forearm--closed and squeezed--the knife fell as the man let out a howl of agony at the pressure on his laterals.
Sergi tossed the man aside and picked up a woman by belt and collar, throwing her off the porch into the street. She sprang back, as did the man Risa had kicked, augmenting as they grabbed at Sergi.
From inside the building rose a mad caterwauling. Risa was only half aware of it as she scrabbled for the knife.
She zlinned Sergi's incredible nager charge with fury as he flung off Simes. One of them wrapped tentacles and both hands about his left arm, and hung on tenaciously.
Fighting with a tall man who breathed foulness in her face, Risa had only a fragment of her attention on Sergi when his field flared with a jolt of searing energy. The woman clinging to him screamed and dropped, radiating pain.
A beam of lamplight sprang from the back of the building, and a mass of fur, claws, and teeth leaped screeching onto the man struggling with Risa.
Risa grabbed his knife and sprang to her feet, backing against Sergi. Back to back, they faced a circle of four Simes. The woman Sergi had burned sagged, half-fainting, on the steps. But the others were ignited to madness.
A blur of gray-and-black stripes, and Risa's cat, Guest, was at her feet, arching and spitting at the attackers.
"Get out!" Risa panted. "Leave, and you won't be hurt!"
The man whose arm Sergi had squeezed rasped, "Gimme that Gen! You don't need no kill."
Neither did he, but in his pain he was raising intil--the state in which he would kill, need or no. He circled, trying to face Sergi. Risa could zlin the Gen's efforts to control his emotions, but anger charged his field enticingly.
"Get outa my way, bitch!" the Sime said, trying to come in under Risa's knife.
"You let my sister be!"
A whip slashed out of the doorway, stinging the buttocks of the man facing Risa--only irritating him more.
"Kreg!" It was her brother who had lit the lamp, his child's nager hardly affecting the highly charged scene on the porch.
The man turned in fury, and jerked Kreg onto the porch. He threw him at Risa, who dropped the knife to catch him.
Kreg's weight knocked Risa against Sergi. Risa and Kreg went down, and Sergi whirled to face the angry Sime--who had the knife again. He got in a glancing blow to Kreg's shoulder--at her brother's pain Risa crouched to charge--the Sime raised the knife--
Sergi stepped over Risa, his field pure enticement, his hands outstretched.
Helpless before that nager, the Sime dropped the knife and reached for Sergi in killmode. The Gen let him make contact, allowed one instant of selyn flow--and shenned the Sime to a screech of abused nerves.
The shock ricocheted through all the Simes. Even Risa, full to brimming with selyn, doubled over with the pain of denial.
The agony cut off as abruptly as the selyn flow. The Sime fell dead at Sergi's feet.
The other looters stared, zlinned, their fields wavering with shock and fear to equal any Gen's. Then, as one, they fled into the night.
Sergi knelt beside the fallen Sime, feeling for a pulse. "I only meant to shen him, not kill him!"
There was no excuse under the law for a Gen murdering a Sime. Risa picked up the knife one last time and plunged it into the dead man's heart. "I am responsible," she said.
Kreg was kneeling, staring wide-eyed at Risa and Sergi. "Risa," he said at last. "Risa, you're alive! They found Dad's body in the river, and everyone thought--" He leaped into her arms, hugging her as if he would never let go. How much he looked like their father, especially the gray eyes.
Risa held her brother close, and felt a trickle of blood. "You're hurt, Kreg. Come inside. Where's Jobob?"
"He helped me board up the windows this morning, then went to help his ma clean up her house. They asked me to stay with them, but what if you came home and I wasn't here? And you did come back! Oh, Risa, everybody said you were dead!"
"Well, I'm not." They walked through the store. Sergi picked up the lamp and followed. One corner of the roof was gone--the looters' entry. The windows were boarded up, and the front door showed no sign of being forced. "Jobob may wish he was dead by the time I get through with him," Risa muttered, "leaving you with that open invitation to thieves!"
"We were gonna fix it in the morning," said Kreg. "Besides--I was locked in the back, with Guest to protect me."
The cat walked between Risa's feet as they entered the living quarters. The big main room was kitchen and sitting room in one. Risa sat Kreg at the table and turned on a water tap. "Hot water. Good."
"I stoked it," said Kreg.
"Good boy. Now take your robe and shirt off."
The wound was little more than a scratch--but she shuddered to think what that looter's knife might have been used for. Sergi said, "If he shows any sign of infection, bring him to Carre."
Kreg looked up, studied Sergi's bare forearms, and asked, "Risa, what are you doing with a householding Gen?"
"He saved my life--twice now. I think we owe him a bed for the night, don't you?"
It was of Risa that the boy asked, "Did something happen to Carre? I know that part of town got hit bad."
"I don't know. We came around by Rivergate. Now back to bed. And you," she added, bending to pick up the cat, who had been rubbing her ankles all this time, "You dumb animal! I always thought you were good for nothing but keeping mice out of the storage bins. You sure proved yourself tonight."
She hugged Guest, burying her face in his soft fur. He stood it for a moment, even rewarding her with the rumble of a purr, then squirmed to be let go.
"I'll see to the horses," Sergi offered.
"The stable's gone," Kreg said. "One of our horses was hurt--ol' Brink had to destroy him. But the rest're all right. Me and Jobob fixed 'em up with hay out back."
"Then I'll put our horses behind the building," said Sergi--but as he got up there came a shout out front.
Risa took the lamp from Sergi, and opened the door. There stood the local constable with two other officers. "Well now, what's been going on here?" He gestured with two tentacles toward the corpse on the porch. One of the officers bent over the body, laterals extended, zlinning it.
"And where were you twenty minutes ago?" Risa resorted. "Looters broke into my store--look, their cart's still in the street with my goods on it. I got home just in time to run 'em off. My little brother could've been murdered in his bed. Where were the police my tax money pays for?"
"We been runnin' in circles keepin' order."
"Sergeant, come and zlin this," said the officer examining the body. "This man didn't die of--"
Kreg padded quietly up behind Risa and slipped something into her hand. "I m sorry," she said quickly. "I was caught in the storm, too. It must've been terrible here in Norlea. There's no harm done. I dispatched that lorsh when he attacked my little brother. Here--zlin Kreg's shoulder." She pushed the boy forward.
The three police officers zlinned them, then the body again. "You're Risa Tigue, ain'cha?" the constable asked.
"That's right. We were fortunate. This is for the fund for those left homeless." She proffered the purse Kreg had put in her hand. The weight was just right--not too much, but enough to remind the constable that Tigues had money ... and knew which tentacles to warm with it.
"But Sergeant," the officer protested, "the wound--"
"Shut up, Neski," he said as he took the purse from Risa. "Any fool can see he died from bein' stabbed through the heart--in self-defense." He wrote it down in his report book. "If you'll just put the body in your disposal area, I'll have the pickup crew get it in the morning. Now," zlinning Sergi, "what about this Gen?"
"Salvage," Risa replied, staking her claim.
"It belongs to a householding. I'll take it to Carre in the morning. Likely they'll pay me a nice salvage fee, rather than have to bail it out of custody. They set store by their tame Gens. Can't understand why--no good for the kill."
The constable laughed. "If you think you can hold that one till morning, good luck! I've known 'em to disappear out of a locked holding room. It'll be inside Carre's walls afore you wake up tomorrow. Come on, boys--we got patrolling to do. Miz Tigue, if I uz you I'd get this stuff outa the street."
When they were gone, Sergi said, "Thank you," rather stiffly.
"We're even," said Risa--for if the police had realized that Sergi had killed the looter they would have dispatched him on the spot.
Would he have fought for his life to the extent of murdering a police officer? She didn't want to know--almost hoped that the Gen would indeed be gone in the morning. She understood why he called himself a lethal weapon ... and yet, after they had taken care of the horses and stowed the looted goods back in their proper places, Sergi sat drinking tea at the kitchen table, Guest purring in his lap, looking and zlinning as harmless as Kreg.
"Why do you call your cat Guest?" he asked.
"Because he acts like one, expecting to be waited on. But after tonight, he's family."
"Then you must bring him to Keon," the Gen said with a contented smile.
"I'm not going to Keon, and neither is Kreg. Tomorrow you go to Carre, and that's the last I will ever see of you."
Kreg stared from Risa to Sergi and back. "What really happened, Sis? You had a kill a month ago, and you're not in need now. There's something funny between you and this Gen."
Sergi took a breath as if to speak, then let it out and waited. Finally he said, "You must tell your brother, Risa."
"Later," she said. "Kreg, you're a growing boy. Back to bed--and I mean it this time!"
She got up, took her brother's hand, and pulled him to his feet. Suddenly she realized she was looking up into his gray eyes. He had grown again in the month she'd been away--almost as tall as their father. What if he did turn Gen? He was all she had left! Did she have to lose Kreg, too?
When Risa returned Sergi to Carre the next morning--and did not ask for a reward--he walked into so much work that he had no more time to think of the young junct channel. The householding had opened its gates to the hurricane victims.
Carre was in the oldest section of Norlea. Its stone buildings had suffered only superficial damage. The renSimes--Simes who were not channels--had roofs replaced and windows glazed in three days' time. The grounds were quickly cleared of debris, and except for the sick and injured, everything appeared normal.
As First Companion in Keon, Sergi was qualified to work with Yorn, Sectuib in Carre. Often after an eight-hour shift with Yorn Sergi would work with one of the other channels until he was so exhausted he fell asleep at his work.
Left homeless by the storm, many children ate and drank whatever they could find. When they became ill, they had not yet the pride of adult Simes to keep them from Carre's gates--but often there was little the channels could do for them. Cholera claimed dozens--and the householders ached with the double knowledge of young lives lost and the rumors that would surely follow that the householders had murdered them.
But Carre turned away no one. They were able to save some children with medication. They were close to one hundred percent successful in saving adult Simes ... except for those with lateral injuries.
Whirling winds through a thriving city had turned windowpanes, shingles--any sharp object--into instant death. Reaching out hands to secure a rope, rescue a child, stuff wadding under a door where water poured in, meant exposing a Sime's vulnerable forearms--and hundreds were critically injured. Some died quickly, like Erland. Some sustained only bruising, and would recover after days or weeks of pain.
But many were injured just badly enough to use up selyn in healing the delicate laterals, to descend then into need--and die of attrition because the healing was not advanced enough to allow them to draw selyn.
Sometimes it seemed punishment for allowing Erland to die that Sergi was assigned to sit for hours with dying Simes, his field easing their death agony. On one level his instinct to ease pain made him glad to accept the task--but as nights passed with too little sleep, and days with no answer to the message he had sent to Keon and no word from Risa Tigue, he felt trapped in a nightmare of endless death.
Eventually the Simes in the lateral-injury ward either recovered or died--all but one.
Verla was her name, her story the same as all the others. Her arms had been around her eight-year-old son, her infant daughter protected between them. She never even knew what hit her, badly bruising both her inner laterals.
Her right inner lateral was so badly crushed that the channels had no hope--yet day by day she had healed, soon alert enough to ask about her children.
Disorientation and healing plunged her into need by her seventh day at Carre. Both Yorn and Sergi expected a repetition of previous deaths.
She had never had channel's transfer before; her body rebelled. Sergi saw the injured lateral--an ugly purple instead of the normal pinkish gray--spasm and retract despite the promise of life Yorn offered.
Sergi put his hands over Verla's right hand, adding true Gen enticement to Yorn's projection. When the recalcitrant tentacle licked toward him, Yorn captured it with his.
Verla screamed with the pain of contact. Sergi's stomach knotted in empathy, but he controlled at once, then relaxed his own system to allow Yorn control of the fields.
The hardest lesson Sergi had had to learn as a Companion was to let go totally, to give up his will and become for a moment a channel's instrument rather than fellow physician. Situations requiring it were rare--but always critical.
Using Sergi's field to control Verla's pain, Yorn completed the contact by touching his lips to Verla's. Selyn burning through her injured nerves made her shen out twice before Yorn managed to hold on and drive enough life force into her to support her for a few more days--precious days in which that lateral would heal.
When Yorn lifted his lips from Verla's, his face was strained but triumphant. "You'll be all right now," he told her, and sagged against Sergi.
The woman's face was contorted with pain--for a moment it resembled the face of a Gen killed for selyn, the rictus of agony from having one's nervous system burnt out.
Then she relaxed as her body adjusted to the new life flowing through it--and she managed a weary smile. "Thank you," she whispered. "Now my babies .... " She was asleep before she could finish her sentence.
Yorn, his strength returning, grinned at Sergi. "That's what we do it for."
"You think I don't know that?"
The channel laughed. "Of course you do." Then he sobered. "You know, Sergi, you were not my choice of Companion tonight, but Lorina and Quis are both completely exhausted. You've always had that incredible strength--but I was afraid you wouldn't be able to give it over to me."
"It's not easy," Sergi admitted.
"Nedd would be proud of you. Which reminds me, if you want to leave tomorrow I'll arrange an escort. I'm sorry I can't spare another channel for Keon, but--"
"No, I'm not leaving," said Sergi. "I will take a channel to Keon, but I must wait for her to come to me."
"Her? What are you talking about?"
Sergi had told Yorn about Erland's death, but they had had no time to talk further about anything but work.
"I met a girl in the storm," said Sergi. "A woman, technically, since she's Sime, but obviously just past changeover. She was disoriented, into attrition ... and the transfer she gave me--"
The channel studied him, zlinning. "You didn't overmatch me a month ago," he said. "Now I suspect you do. You met a channel all right, Sergi--but if she didn't come from Keon or Carre, where--?"
"She's junct," Sergi said flatly.
"A junct channel? You can't think--"
"She'll have to disjunct, Yorn. Once a channel has had one good transfer--"
"Oh, she'll crave it again," Yorn assured him, "but she'll deny it. Juncts don't disjunct because we think they ought to. And junct channels--" He shook his head. "You're Gen. You'll never truly understand need--the devastation in every nerve, the emptiness yawning to claim you. Be glad you'll never know it, Sergi--but try to understand that in a junct need is not just for selyn--it is for the kill."
"I know. She tried to kill me, but ... the pain turned to pleasure."
"No, you don't know," Yorn insisted. "Even I don't know. I've never killed."
"I have," Sergi said softly.
". . . what?"
"I killed a Sime who tried to kill me. I shenned him, and he dropped dead." He managed a grim smile. "I don't think it's addictive for Gens--it was disgusting."
"You're back in last century, up there at Keon," said Yorn, assuming Sergi was speaking of an incident long past. "Killmode attacks." He grimaced. "We're harassed aplenty, but never with juncts trying to kill our Gens. I suppose we've been here so long, they know better."
Sergi really didn't want to talk about the incident--it was the first time he had thought about it since it had happened, and he realized that he felt no guilt at all. Was this the way a junct felt about the Gens he killed?
Yorn continued, "You have no idea what you're getting involved with, Sergi. But never mind--you won't be involved because you'll never see that girl again."
That was after midnight. Sergi slept until just before noon the next day. He showered, ate lunch, checked the schedule board, and found that his name no longer appeared. He was now a guest in Carre. A polite way to drive a working Companion home was to give him nothing to do.
Sergi, however, had his own plans. He strode across the square lawn that formed the center of the householding grounds, but as he passed the central statue of a man on horseback--supposed to be Rimon Farris, the very first channel, although no one knew what he had looked like or how much that was told of him was legend--he came upon a sight he could not resist stopping to watch.
Verla was sitting in a lawn chair, her baby on her lap, while her eight-year-old son demonstrated cartwheels. He tumbled to the side as often as he completed one, but his enthusiastic audience cheered just the same.
Sergi waited until Verla noticed his field and smiled an invitation. Then he went to her, and examined her arms. The left appeared completely healed; the swelling was gone from the right, and only a slight discoloration of the inner lateral showed through the sheath.
"You're going to be just fine," he told her.
"Oh, I know I am. I can raise my babies, thanks to you and all the others who cared for me." Her little boy started chasing a butterfly, and she called, "Dinny!"
"Let him run," said Sergi. "He can't get off the grounds, and he's safe anywhere on them."
"Safe," she pondered. Then, "Sergi, do you have to work, or can you spare me a few minutes?"
He sat down on the warm grass. "What can I do for you?"
"I ... don't have anything left but my children. I never saved much money--"
"Verla, you are not expected to pay for the help Carre gave you," he assured her.
"But I want to!" she protested. "I'll save it up, and then ... Sergi, what does it cost to join a householding?"
"To join--? Verla, you can't."
"Yes I can. I can work hard. I've got good reason--I want my children to grow up here, where it's clean and safe and people care about each other. I don't want them dragged up in the streets, like I was. Look--I know it means I've got to stop killing, and let the channels ... like last night." She shuddered. "But I'll do it! It's for my kids."
Sergi fought back tears. How little juncts understood!
"Verla, it's not that Carre would not want to have you--and I assure you money has nothing to do with it. But ... you're too old to disjunct."
"Stop killing. You're what--ten, twelve years past changeover?"
"Nine. I got pregnant with Dinny practically right away. But I'm not old. I'm strong. I can work hard."
"But your body cannot adjust," Sergi explained, trying to hide his disquiet at the thought of Verla pregnant during First Year. Even juncts should know better than that.
"Disjunction can only happen in First Year," he continued, "when a Sime's system is very flexible. Disjunction crisis comes six or seven months after the last kill. A Sime must start disjunction in the first half of First Year, or the crisis comes after flexibility has ended. The body cannot adjust. It's not the Sime's fault--it is a physical condition. You cannot disjunct now, Verla. You could only die trying."
Sergi left Verla pondering, and went to the stable. Soon one of Carre's renSimes, a young woman named Etta, came to saddle a horse. "Are you going into town?" Sergi asked her. "I'd appreciate an escort if you don't have to come right back. I want to go down to the docks."
"Sure, Sergi. You're a pleasure to be around any time."
They stopped at a pharmacy, where Etta paid twice the going rate for a supply of fosebine--Carre had used up huge amounts of the analgesic since the storm. Sergi was accustomed to householders being cheated ... but he wondered how Risa might handle the situation. He didn't know how much she had given the constable as a bribe. When he had tried to pay her back, she insisted that she had done it only to avoid an incident on her property.
Sergi and Etta rode on through town. Stares of annoyance and anger followed the householders.
The resentment rode on a wave of need--unnatural need, it seemed to Sergi. Many Simes would have taken kills since the storm, thrown off schedule by injury or augmentation. There should be fewer Simes in need than on an average day.
Near the center of town they came upon a queue--Simes in need lined up almost two blocks from the entrance to the city's central pen. Sergi looked ahead to where the green pennants flew--and saw only one, atop a makeshift pole. The pen, source of life force to the Simes of Norlea, had been a casualty of the storm!
"Come on!" said Etta, turning into a side street. "Shen! I'm sorry, Sergi--we heard that the storm wiped out more than half the pen Gens, but it never crossed my mind that they wouldn't be restocked yet. It's over a week!"
Sergi noticed posters--new ones, not faded from the weather. Headed "EMERGENCY," they listed priorities for receiving Gens: changeover victims, the injured, pregnant women, and those within twenty hours of critical need. Even as they were reading, a police officer came along, protecting a boy pasting "twelve" over the "twenty."
"This means trouble," said Etta. "Come on, Sergi--your errand can wait until the pen is resupplied!"
"It's only a few more blocks," he protested.
Another boy came down the street in the opposite direction, also putting up posters. Sergi recognized Kreg Tigue. His posters read, "STORM SALE. BEST BARGAINS EVER AT TIGUE'S. DON'T MISS IT!"
She's liquidating her property! Sergi thought with a surge of hope.
The police officer and his charge were well up the street, out of hearing, when Kreg stopped to post a notice nearby. Sergi said, "Hello, Kreg. How is your sister?"
The boy looked around furtively before replying, "She's fine, but don't you go near her!" He came closer. "The Gen shipment didn't come. They're talkin' 'bout raiding Carre!"
"Kreg," said Sergi, "if they didn't threaten--if they would just come and ask--the channels could satisfy everyone in desperate need until the shipment arrives."
The boy turned astonished gray eyes on Sergi. "You're crazy!" he whispered fiercely, and ran on down the street.
"You are crazy," Etta agreed, turning her horse.
"Because I suggest preventing a need crisis? You know I'm right, Etta--it's those juncts who are crazy. I know; they'd never consider approaching the channels, even to save their lives."
"That's not what I mean," she said as she led the way through back streets. "All Companions are soft in the head over Simes in need. What I mean is what your field did when you asked that boy about his sister--your little castaway? You really have lost your mind, Sergi. The First Companion in Keon is in love with a junct!"
Risa had the storm-damaged goods priced and set up at the front of the store by the time Kreg got back. Most would be perfectly usable after a good washing--but it was cheaper to sell at reduced prices than hire people to clean them up.
Back in the storeroom was her secret treasure: nearly half the cargo she and her father had brought from Nivet Territory had been carried on the violent currents of the river to the mud flats near Norlea ... along with Morgan Tigue's body. Kreg, despite grief and fear, had laid claim to the property in Risa's name--and she had arrived home before the authorities could declare her dead, confiscate the goods, and hand Kreg over to a foster home.
Her little brother was growing more like their father daily; she was so proud of him she could have burst.
Jobob and his younger sister Alis--Kreg's age and also still a child--finished the last display. By morning most of Norlea should have seen Kreg's signs. Maybe she shouldn't have lowered prices quite so much ... no--it was good business to provide bargains this week. Next week, when she unveiled the rare metal goods at high prices, those same people would flock in and fill her coffers.
Kreg looked around. "Hey--it looks really good, Sis."
"Did you put all the signs?"
"Every one. I stopped by the newspaper office. They expect to have an issue out by the end of the week, so I placed an ad."
"Kreg, you're a wonder. Are you tired?"
"Naw--just hungry. Risa--come on in back with me, okay?"
"Jobob--Alis--call us if you get busy," Risa instructed, and followed Kreg back into the living quarters. As he made himself a sandwich, he told her what he had seen in town.
"People are really bad off. No one can have a Gen till they're twelve hours to critical need. The Gendealer's tryin' to get people to keep 'em in the pen and come kill 'em there, but people don't trust that they'll be there in twelve hours."
Risa knew the paranoia that came with need. Zlinning the nager of a Gen in his holding room enabled a Sime to think of something other than his slow descent toward death.
What would it be like to live side by side with a Gen like Sergi ambrov Keon, knowing he would always be there--?
She shook off the thought. That shidoni-be-shenned arrogant Gen wanted to run her life. His way was unnatural.
Kreg, not noticing her lapse of attention, continued, "The storm flooded the big Genfarm near Lanta. Over a thousand Gens drowned. The government says not to panic, there'll be a Gen for everyone--they're just having problems transporting them. They're s'posed to bring Norlea's shipment over to the river to ship 'em down."
Kreg fell silent as he ate. Then he added, the ring of curiosity in his childish nager belying the casual tone he attempted, "It's a good thing you don't need another kill soon. You're not coming up short this month, are you, Risa?"
"No, I'm not," she replied before she realized that his sharp mind was calculating even as those innocent gray eyes studied her. She had been home six days and had sidestepped Kreg's questions about when and where she had killed. By now she thought he had forgotten.
"You're not at turnover yet," he observed, "and you must've augmented a lot with the storm and all."
His attitude invited comment, but Risa remained silent, calculating to herself. Eight days since Sergi had given her his selyn--and she had augmented since. Yet she had not reached turnover, the point at which she would use up half the selyn in her system and begin the slow descent into need.
In most Simes that point came two weeks after a kill. In women it generally coincided with menstruation. Risa, though, might feel the first tentative tickle of need anywhere from ten to twelve days after a kill--and once it had been only eight. Considering the way she had used extra selyn in the past few days, no wonder Kreg was already watching for the crankiness that marked her turnover day.
But she was definitely pre-turnover ... and feeling more relaxed and confident than any month since her changeover. Maybe my cycle is stabilizing at last. Dad hoped it would before the end of First Year.
Then she realized that Kreg had something else to tell her. "I saw that Gen in town," he said tightly. "You know--from the householding."
"Yeah. He had the nerve to ask about you."
"What did you tell him?" she asked, hiding her amusement at her little brother's protectiveness.
"I told him to stay away from here!" Then, toying with the remains of his sandwich, "Risa ... I also told him what I heard in town. Some of the people who can't get Gens are talkin' 'bout attacking Carre." The gray eyes suddenly looked up defiantly. "Well, you said he saved your life!"
"You did the right thing, Kreg."
"Yeah, but--People're sayin' Carre rounded up kids left orphans--and murdered the ones that refused to take a blood oath to join 'em!"
"Oh, Kreg, don't you remember what Dad always said about rumors? Nobody saying those things ever set foot in Carre."
"Well, who'd want to?" he demanded self-righteously, and began clearing the table.
Risa knew her brother was worried about her association with Sergi. There was no reason, for she would never see the big Gen again--at the end of the month he would go back to Keon, out of her life forever.
Yet ... she somehow couldn't bring herself to tell Kreg that Sergi had given her transfer.
The next day, business at Tigue's General Store was brisk--yet not as brisk as Risa would have liked. The Gen shipment was still delayed, and edgy Simes were concentrating on need, not yard goods, wagon wheels, or tea glasses.
Alis and Jobob's mother, Treesh, was clerking, along with her two children. Her husband worked on a riverboat--Risa sensed her worry, for she had heard nothing from him since the storm. The boat had been due back two days ago.
Risa had known Treesh for years; hers was a hardworking family exactly like the Tigues, and Morgan Tigue had been happy to hire any of them. Jobob and Risa had a strange relationship; she was nearly four natal years older than he was, and she had classed him with the "kids," Alis and Kreg, until he changed over two years ago and was suddenly an adult while she was still a child. Since her changeover their positions had reversed again; as her father's partner, she was Jobob's employer. The final adjustment seemed to be working smoothly; Jobob did his job without resentment.
Kreg and Alis were the same age; they had gone to the same school--Treesh as determined as the Tigues that her children should have a good education--and had the happy rivalry/friendship that often happened when a boy and a girl grew up together. Risa and her father had always expected that the two would change over at about the same time, and eventually marry.
Alis had put her blond hair up like her mother's, and both children tried to act like adults in the tense atmosphere. Both Treesh, a few days past turnover, and Risa, who was still feeling satisfied, seemed to provoke Simes close to need, either by reminding them of their condition or by causing envy. Risa tried to let the children, with their unprovoking nager, wait on as many customers as possible.
Risa was renewing supplies from the stockroom when Treesh came back to her. "Risa--word is spreading that the pen will be completely out of Gens by midnight! What will we do?" Her laterals licked out of their sheaths, a sheen of ronaplin bathing them despite the fact that she had at least a week's supply of selyn still in her system.
"Shush," said Risa. "You'll be all right. The shipment left Mefis two days ago. And Jobob's still pre-turnover." She put her arm around the woman, and Treesh buried her head against Risa's shoulder. Risa wanted to ease her need--and found that somehow she could.
Treesh looked up. "How did you do that?"
"Feel so ... I don't know. I've stopped feeling need. Thank you. I'm sorry I got upset. I've been so worried about Rang, and Alis was crying all last night with nightmares--it's not at all like her. I'm so afraid it's a premonition--all she could say was 'Dead!' over and over--and I was so afraid it was her father--"
"Now Treesh, don't get upset all over again. Rang will be home any time now--why, maybe his boat will bring the Gen shipment. Come on--help me bring out this cotton."
The two women restocked the yard goods. Alis was bending over a tablet, chewing on a pencil as she tried to add a column of figures. "Oh, dear!" she said in frustration, "that's the third different answer I've gotten!"
"Children shouldn't be waiting on customers," said the woman waiting impatiently to pay for her order. Risa started over to help, but Kreg got there first.
"I'll have it for you in a moment, Miz Carder," he said, plucking the pencil from Alis's hands. Risa watched him run the point down one column, then another, and jot down the answer. "There you are--quite a bargain today."
Risa approached, trying to exude good will. "I'm so pleased that we had all these things you were looking for, Miz Carder. Jobob, come carry these packages--"
Risa's voice faltered, and she fought every instinct to suppress the dagger of fear stabbing her in the chest.
The Sime woman gave her an odd glance, but Jobob was picking up the packages, and she had to follow, saying, "Now you be careful with that!"
Selyn production! Faint, but sure, Gen cells were beginning their task of producing life force--selyn to be torn from them by a Sime in need--Kreg!
No, not Kreg, Risa realized in painful relief as she let her laterals creep out of their sheaths so that she could zlin more accurately. Alis.
"Alis," she said as gently as she could, "you've worked very hard today. Come into the back and rest. Kreg, you and Jobob can handle things. Treesh, please come with me."
The girl and her mother followed, Treesh saying, "I told you she didn't sleep last night. I'm sorry, Risa."
Risa shooed them into the living quarters, closed the door, and leaned against it. "Treesh--zlin Alis."
"What?" But the woman did so. No reaction. "Is she sick? I can't zlin anything--"
"Do a lateral contact."
The girl knew, then. Risa could feel her fear--it charged even the faint field she had, illuminating the growing promise of life--
Treesh took her daughter's arms, extending her laterals. In her shock, she squeezed, and Alis cried out in pain.
"Stop!" said Risa. "Treesh--you've got to get her out of here!"
"Yes," said Treesh, gathering Alis against her. "Alis, it's going to be all right, baby. I'm going to get you away."
"Where?" Alis asked, eyes wide with fear.
"The border. I'll take you, darling. Don't be afraid--oh, Alis, don't be afraid or they'll catch us--"
How could Alis help being afraid, Risa wondered. Fear was the Gen nature.
Sergi's fearless nager warmed her memory. "Treesh--you can take her to Carre!"
"You know I can't! I've got to sneak her out of town. Risa, please--oh, please--"
"I won't report it," Risa assured her. "Better take her out the back way. I'll check that it's clear."
No, Treesh could not take Alis across town to Carre--the law prohibited taking a Gen child to a householding to save its life. Only before the child established or changed over could a parent give it to the householders--and who would ever do that?
She zlinned through the back door without opening it. Shen! A wagon was pulled up to the loading dock, three Simes sitting around waiting, all in varying states of need. She opened the door a crack and peeked out--oh, yes, Dran Muller's crew, come to pick up his order. They were taking a break, drinking porstan--but any minute they'd be at the back door, wanting the order.
"You'll have to go out through the front," Risa said. "Hurry. Alis, your field is hardly noticeable yet. Just pretend nothing is wrong, and you can walk right out. Your mother will take care of you. Trust her."
Treesh was holding her daughter, stroking her hair. It was a good thing she was past turnover, Risa thought; she would not burst into tears and give everything away.
"Jobob--" Treesh began.
"No," Risa said firmly. "Just go. When I know you're safely away, I'll tell him what happened."
Risa led the way into the storefront. Kreg and Jobob were each waiting on a customer, and two women and a man were waiting. Risa asked, "Who's next, please?" and turned toward the woman who raised a tentacle. Treesh and Alis walked through the middle aisle, as far from the customers as possible--and froze facing the front door.
Two Simes entered, a man and a woman, both in hard need. These were ordinary people, neatly dressed, regular customers who occasionally asked for credit and always paid their bills. Good people, just exactly like Risa's family, like Treesh and Alis and Jobob.
"It's only a two-hour wait," the woman, Sairi, was saying. "Our Gens will be ready when we go back, Brovan. Come on--it's better to do something than sit around worrying--"
"Shuven!" Brovan gasped, his hands reaching out toward Alis. "Gen!"
Jobob turned, saw, understood--and leaped!
"She's mine!" Brovan growled, throwing the boy aside and lunging for Treesh's throat as she tried to thrust her daughter behind her. The girl's field shrieked with terror as the Sime choked her mother.
Sairi came after her husband. "She's mine!" she shouted. "I'm on the roll half an hour ahead of you!" She tried to pull him off the pile. Alis cringed between her mother and the attacking Simes. The woman grasped one of Alis's arms, Brovan the other. The girl screamed with pain as they almost tore her apart. Treesh grabbed her about the waist, trying hopelessly to drag her free.
Risa shouted, "Stop!" but the Simes could not hear her.
Jobob flung himself on the nearest attacker, Sairi, pulling her off Alis--allowing Brovan to swing the screaming girl into kill position. His tentacles wrapped around her arms, laterals settling hotly into place, splashing ronaplin as he thrust his face against hers. He missed her mouth, took the fifth transfer point off her cheek--and the ambient nager shrieked with the kill.
Treesh stared, immobile. Alis dropped from Brovan's tentacles, limp, empty, dead. Brovan's field rang with momentary satisfaction, then settled into a weak pattern--Alis had not yet produced enough selyn to satisfy him. Kreg buried his face against Risa's shoulder. Jobob began to sob.
And the Sime woman knelt and began to beat on her husband, gasping, "It's not fair! It's not fair! She was mine, I tell you--mine!"
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