HUGH VALLEROY PACED BACK AND FORTH, HEEDLESS OF the muddy water he was splashing onto the boots of the District Director of Federal Police.
The director, Stacy Hawkins, huddled under a meager ledge watching his best field operative quietly going to pieces. The two men had been waiting in the icy October night's rain for more than half an hour. Hawkins was well aware that New Washington would have his head if this mission didn't succeed. That success depended on Hugh Valleroy's unflinching nerve.
Beyond the distant riverbank, a horse nickered. The flooding waters tore savagely at the tiny island on which they waited. Another horse raised an answering cry. Valleroy stopped in his tracks, head whipping toward the sound... on the Sime Territory side of the river.
"Don't worry," said Hawkins. "The only way onto this island is through the Ancient tunnel. Only Klyd knows the entrance point on their side."
Valleroy resumed pacing. Tonight he'd travel the other branch of that tunnel... into Sime Territory... to search for Aisha. No, he corrected the thought, to find her.
"Hugh, will you stop that infernal splashing!"
Valleroy brought his boots together and ceased walking. "Yes, sir."
Thirty seconds of watching Valleroy's spare frame poised as if straining for release made Hawkins snap, "Oh, go run around if it makes you feel better! But don't splash me!"
Valleroy sloshed restlessly about the small clearing, craning his neck as if he could penetrate the midnight darkness and spot the approaching Sime. "Stacy, he's not coming."
"He'll come. He's dependable as sunrise."
"He'd have to be crazy to come out in weather like this!"
"Weather doesn't bother Simes. You, of all people, should know that."
Valleroy rounded on his boss, voice dangerously low. "What do you mean by a crack like that?"
"Shove it, Mr. Valleroy. You don't talk to me in that tone."
Valleroy backed off. Hawkins had been his friend for years. But the man was still his superior officer, and Valleroy was only a field operative on assignment. "Sir. Would you mind explaining your remark?"
Realizing that Valleroy was under an inhuman strain, Hawkins spoke gently. "I was only referring to the fact that you've been our best interrogator ever since you came to work for us. You can't know a language without knowing the people who use it."
Valleroy found his sudden anger dissipated. Hawkins had avoided mentioning it as if he hadn't even thought it--what everybody else on the post called him--Sime-lover. His voice hardly more than a husky whisper, Valleroy said, "Thank you."
"Don't thank me. Who else is there to send? But just think what my post will be without you!"
"I'll be back. And with Aisha."
"I know that. But either way, I lose. I don't intend to take that reward money and come back to work for a living, do you?"
Valleroy didn't answer. Full retirement pension and twelve acres of land was a big enough reward... it was all he'd ever dreamed of having. And now he'd have it while he was young enough to enjoy it. It didn't really matter if he didn't come back... because if he didn't succeed, he wouldn't want the reward. There would be no reason to live... without Aisha.
"Look," said Hawkins, "I know how frightened you must be. But Simes are only human mutants. If you don't look at their arms, you can't tell the difference, can you?"
Absently, Valleroy answered the rhetorical question, "No."
"If Simes didn't have this instinct that drives them to the kill, there would be no reason at all to fear them, would there?"
"Of course not. But all Simes are subject to the need-cycle. And when they take selyn from a Gen, the Gen dies. I've never heard of anybody choosing to commit suicide that way."
"Neither have I. But the channels are different. When they take from a Gen, he doesn't die."
"So you've been telling me."
"Klyd is a channel. His people don't kill. So there's no reason to fear them."
"What makes you think I'm afraid?"
"I know how it was when I first met Klyd. He doesn't look any different from an ordinary Sime."
Valleroy snapped, "I'm not scared, I tell you!"
"You don't have to shout. Your fear is like a blazing beacon. It'll bring him right to us."
"You can't fool a Sime, you know. Your emotions are an open book to them."
"You think I don't know that!"
"I know very well you know it."
Valleroy stalked toward the other man. "Go ahead. Say it. Say it! Sime-lover! Why are you so afraid to say it to my face? Everybody says it behind my back. You think I don't know?"
"Hugh, what is the matter with you? You know perfectly well you'd have to be convicted of sedition if there were any truth to what people say. If it were true, you wouldn't be so frightened that you have to charge around in the mud."
Valleroy's hand went to the starred-cross that he'd hung around his neck under his shirt. He hadn't worn it since he'd been promoted to a desk job. If Hawkins knew he had it--if Hawkins knew what it was--no court in Gen Territory would acquit him. His hand was trembling. He forced it behind his back and splashed away.
He could admit it to himself. He was frightened. But not the way most people would be. He honestly didn't know if he could allow a Sime to touch him. He only knew that all the events of his life had been leading up to this test. And now he wasn't sure he could pass it. But he had to find out.
"This is a volunteer mission," said Hawkins. "If you want to back out, there'll be no black mark on your service record."
"I'm no coward, if that's what you mean."
Over the roaring of the flooding river, a soft voice spoke disconcertingly near. "Your man is correct, Stacy. A coward is one who cannot face that which he fears. This man fears prodigiously, but stands firm in spite of it."
"Klyd?" called Hawkins stepping away from the overhang.
"Were it not indeed I, it is doubtful if either of you would still live. You trespass on Sime Territory."
"That's debatable," answered Hawkins. "But when you hear why I set up this meeting, you'll forgive us."
"It is not my place to blame or forgive," said the voice. "Tell your tale, but do it swiftly. I pause in haste."
"What's the matter with you? Why so touchy?"
"Swiftly, I said."
"Well, yesterday, a band of Sime raiders attacked a tourist group at Hanrahan Pass. They left five dead and made off with the other twenty-three."
"It is to the prevention of this that my existence is dedicated. I regret there is nothing I can do to save your people. Many of us still depend on such raids."
"One of the kidnapped passengers was Aisha Rauf... our Treasury's chief engraver. This might have been an ordinary raid... or it might have been aimed at Aisha. If she can be forced to make the plates, your people could flood our market with bad currency... destroy our economy within months. With no organized resistance we'd all be in the pens within a year."
"I begin to see the problem. You wish me to find this woman and return her to you?"
"Well, that or determine what actually did happen to her."
"There must be a way!"
"To trace one particular Gen captive? No... unless... was she of courageous character?"
"Very!" said Valleroy.
"You know her, Mr ...?"
"Valleroy, Hugh Valleroy. Yes, I know her."
"I can do better than that. I have sketches, and I can make more. She used to model for me."
Valleroy proffered a waterproofed case filled with his sketches. To avoid the other's accidental touch, he held the case gingerly by one corner.
Klyd took the case, apparently just as leery of any brief contact. "You are an artist?"
"He's my best composite man. That's why I want you to take him with you. He knows a bit of your language--"
"Take! Stacy, I've executed many dangerous assignments for you, but here I must--"
"Now, just wait a minute. Don't go getting that Sime temper all lathered up. Hugh's as good an operative as you are. You ought to make the best team I've ever fielded."
"You don't trust me alone with her?"
"It's not that. Any minute somebody may discover who she is and what she can do. We've got to get her out before--"
"Contrary to popular belief, Simes can't make Gens do anything against their will. If your Miss Rauf is not a traitor, nobody will turn her into one."
"She may not be a traitor, but she's only human."
"All right. I will try to find her. By myself."
"No," said Hawkins. "I insist Hugh may make the difference between success and failure. She'd be as frightened of you as of any other Sime."
"You are not in a position to insist on anything."
"Now, don't get upset! I only meant you ought to trust my judgment."
"Uh... " hazarded Valleroy. "I don't relish this any more than you do, but I did volunteer. You'll never find one girl among thousands with nothing more to go on than a few sketches. By the time you find her, she may have lost weight... changed."
"It would be too dangerous," said Klyd.
"You can protect him," said Hawkins. "You could adopt him into your Householding."
"Under what cover story? It would be more dangerous for me than for him. There may be spies even within Zeor."
"You know your people better than I do. You devise the cover."
The rain finally slackened, letting the moon through a crack in the clouds. Valleroy could make out the Sime's figure, like a gaunt-winged vampire. He dismissed the impression. Simes were only human mutants who wore riding capes for comfort.
At length, the Sime bit out an oath in Simelan and rounded on the Gens. "There is only one way. I'll have to take you in as a victim of transfer shock... and it will have to be genuine!"
"Don't try to scare him off! There's got to be another way."
Valleroy shuddered. This he hadn't bargained for!
"There is no other way. If I'd rescued him, and he was uninjured, I'd simply turn him loose as an advertisement that all Simes don't kill. The only reason I'd bring a Gen home would be to have his life. I can't imagine what excuse I could use to keep him more than a week."
"What would happen if I refused to leave?"
The Sime stopped splashing mud and stared toward Valleroy as if he could see him through the darkness. "I don't know. I suppose Grandfather would have to decide."
"How long would that take?" asked Hawkins.
"Hmmm. Maybe long enough."
"Hey, wait a minute!" said Valleroy. "I thought you were head of your Householding."
"Mr. Valleroy. I feel your fear of me... and fear brings out the beast in a Sime. There are ordinary Simes in Zeor. You'd have to learn not to fear them or be constantly in danger of attack... unless you were rendered low-field by transfer."
"You are trying to scare me off!"
"Frankly, yes. If it's ever discovered that I'm working with you, I would be executed... unpleasantly."
"I've never blown a cover yet, and I don't intend to start now! You may need me to identify--" Valleroy had to swallow convulsively before he could get it out--"her body."
Suddenly, the Sime stepped close to Valleroy and peered down at him, revelation in his tone. "You love her!"
"No. She's just a friend. That's all."
"Don't lie to me."
"Don't read my mind!"
"I can't read your mind, only your emotions! But never lie to me again. It's no foundation for a partnership."
"Then you'll take him?"
"It appears I have no choice since he loves her."
Unseen in the darkness, Hawkins smirked. He'd known all along that Klyd would accept only someone who had a personal reason to find her, and he'd long suspected Valleroy's interest in her to be more than casual.
Valleroy moved to lean against the rock face. To him, Sime ethics were sometimes more confusing than Sime temperament.
Approaching swiftly through the dark. Klyd spoke rapid words, "Mr. Valleroy, you were attacked by a Sime berserk with need. You drove him off with this." He snatched Hawkins' knife from its sheath and presented it, hilt first. "But you did not succeed before he drew selyn and burned you deeply. Here, take it."
Valleroy plucked the weapon from the Sime's grip and forced himself to breathe.
"Now." Klyd splashed restively back and forth as he spoke, his voice tense but coldly deliberate. "The fluctuating fields attracted my attention as I rode by on my way home. I found you unconscious and brought you in for treatment. When you are fully recovered, I will offer you freedom. If I don't have a good lead on the girl by then, you'll have to refuse to leave. Give me a good reason you wouldn't want to return!"
"Uh... I'm wanted by the law for... say, a murder I didn't commit?"
"Very well, then." The Sime came toward Valleroy with that disturbing swiftness so characteristic of his race. "This is going to hurt. But worse than that, it is going to frighten you senseless. Are you certain you still want to go?"
"Are you certain there's no other way to get there?"
"What are you going to do to him?" asked Hawkins.
"Kill him... almost. It is unfortunate you force this task on me tonight of all nights, but that can't be helped. I shall do my best, and you, Mr. Valleroy, must aid me by restraining your fear. You may expect to be unconscious for about three hours, and when you awaken you will not feel well."
Valleroy tried to subdue the wild pounding of his heart. His hand found the starred-cross, the talisman that had protected his mother as she fled Sime Territory. Valleroy was empiricist enough not to doubt its power to protect him against Sime attack. While he had faith in the starred-cross, he couldn't be hurt.
Klyd held out one steady hand in a matter-of-fact gesture that lulled Valleroy's distrust. An attacking Sime, hungry for a Gen's selyn--the very biologic energy of life itself--didn't ask consent before moving in for the kill.
For a moment, Valleroy felt a strange confidence in the channel. Before that feeling could fade, the Sime's rain-slicked hands gripped Valleroy's wrists. Then hot tentacles twined around his forearms, pulled him forward until his lips met the hard-set Sime mouth.
Valleroy felt himself being pulled inside out. His every nerve was afire with rushing sparks of pain that left blackness in their wake... as if his soul was being sucked from his body into a vast black void!
He struggled to pull away, to bring up his knife. But any Sime can call up the strength of ten Gens. Valleroy was immobilized. Only his will could resist the forceful stripping of his vitality... surely to death.
He did resist. With all that he could summon, he strove to master that frightful outpouring. For an instant, he thought he did breast that current and seize control of it. But then it burst loose once more, sweeping him on a rising tide of sparkling terror.
The last thing he remembered was Klyd's voice anxiously calling his name... over... and over... and over....
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