Carried away with Abel Veritt's joyous dedication, Zeth was amazed to feel utter horror from Owen. Incredulously, he realized that Owen didn't think Abel could keep his vow. If only he could zlin! Bekka Trent's feeling that morning was nothing toward Abel's. He whispered to his Companion, "He's really going to do it, Owen. You can't feel—"
"Yes I can!" Owen returned in an agonized hiss. "He'll die, Zeth!"
But the despair that had gripped Zeth since his second transfer was gone now—the sorrow he sensed in all the Companions merely made him pity their inability to share what all the Simes in the chapel knew that day—all except Jord, whose field also showed worry and sadness, probably because he didn't trust himself to join in his father's vow.
But Zeth could join in. He might not feel the personal presence of God the way Abel Veritt apparently did, but his vow was no less heartfelt: I will never kill. Never!
As they left the chapel, Zeth caught traces of community feeling even from the town Simes. As he and Owen stepped outside, Slina came over to them, her little girl at her side.
"I seen what you done this morning, Zeth," she said. "For a minute I thought it was your father out there, pushin' my men around. Born leader."
Before Zeth could assimilate that, Slina was off on another topic. "Zeth, your dad don't kill—you don't kill—the old man there, he'd do anything not to kill—an' you're all good people. You folks are the only reason there's still a town here. You bailed me out more times than I can think—"
"And you've always helped us, too, Slina," said Zeth.
"Yeah, well, you don't return favors, you don't get none. Shidoni. I'm too old to change now. But change is comin'.
An' my kid—" She pulled the little girl forward. "My Mona, she—oh, shen it, Zeth, I want her to be better off than me!"
The child studied Zeth solemnly with piercing black eyes, disturbingly familiar. Slina squatted down to talk to the girl, pushing a lock of black hair back off her forehead. "This here's Zeth Farris—you remember him? Well, he's a channel now. Mona, you know what changeover is?"
"Yeah," said the girl. "You grow up—turn Sime."
"That's right. Well, when that happens, you come to Zeth, so you don't kill."
"You're not goin' away, Ma!"
"No, honey—just my usual trips. Now quit that!" as tears ran down the girl's cheeks. "You promise me!"
Mona looked up at Zeth, and then back at her mother. "I promise, Ma," she said, throwing her arms about Slina's neck. "I'm gonna be just like Zeth!" Slina stood, picking her up, and with an embarrassed shrug headed back to the temporary quarters of her pen, saying, "Well, maybe so, but no matter what, Zeth will take care of you."
The afternoon was spent trying to straighten out the transfer schedule, which had started late because of the problems with Rimon. Bekka's disjunction, Jord's problems, and the ceremony in the chapel had thrown them even later, but at least Jord was at work again now, hours early—and Zeth, his gloom dispelled, also rejoined the schedule. He found it slightly annoying though, that three Simes scheduled for him told him with varying degrees of diplomacy that as long as Jord was unexpectedly available they'd "really rather ..."
It was not a new story. Everybody used to clamor for Rimon, but now that he was not functioning, the choice of all the older Simes was Jord. Zeth could see the pattern: the younger Simes, those who had never killed, had little preference among Uel, Marji, or Zeth. But those who killed occasionally, and even those who had disjuncted, preferred something Jord could give them that the others could not.
Still, Zeth was busy. When he was done he stopped to see his father again. Rimon had fallen into a coma-like sleep, completely unnatural for a Sime. Abel said, "He used to get like this before he disjuncted," the gloom in his nager contrasting with the guarded hope of the channels.
Zeth and Owen had begun work before dawn that morning, and it was hours after dark when they got back to the Veritt house. Owen barely managed to eat supper without falling
asleep. Zeth put him to bed, and slept for a few hours, waking after midnight, wanting a cup of tea.
Zeth went down the hall, and was about to enter the main room when he suddenly realized there were two people in it: Sessly Bron and Jord Veritt. She was seated in Abel's big armchair; he was sitting on the rug at her feet, his head resting against her knees. Her hand was on his shoulder, and he had placed his hand over it. They were sitting very, very still, completely absorbed in one another. And Sessly was low-field.
"... and if he dies trying to disjunct," Jord was saying, "who will hold Fort Freedom together? I can't. I never could, and now as a channel, I'm too busy. I'm not even a very good channel," he added bitterly.
"Of course you are!" said Sessly. "I couldn't have donated to anyone else, Jord. Not after what you did today—to save my life."
"You should never have been in danger from me! I'm a channel—I'm supposed to give life, not take it."
"Jord, you refused to—"
"You don't understand, Sessly. I didn't kill today—but I'll come into crisis again, and then I'll—"
"No!" she said, leaning down, her arm across his chest, holding him tightly. "Never again, Jord. We'll keep the demon off."
"It feels like a demon," Jord said. "I used to believe in demons—but—oh, it would be so easy . . . !"
"Believe it!" she whispered fiercely. "Let me help you!"
"No," he said flatly, but Sessly obviously felt what Zeth could zlin: there was no conviction whatsoever in the word.
Grasping control of his show-field, hoping that Jord was too involved in his own thoughts to notice him, Zeth retreated silently to the room he shared with Owen. There he wrapped himself in a blanket and sat down, getting madder by the minute. If Jord were tempted to abdicate responsibility for his actions, how could other juncts resist Maddok Bron's claims? No one would ever disjunct again. His frustration grew until Owen turned restlessly, mumbling in his sleep. Then Zeth turned his mind to ways to disprove the theory. But who will listen to me?
One eager listener was Jimmy Norton. In fact, the next day Jimmy sought Zeth out, promising to break the habits he had learned among the Freehand Raiders. He had been wasting
selyn augmenting, making a nuisance of himself. Ever since Fort Freedom had been built there had been a firm rule: no augmenting within the gates. Bowling over Gens or children in a fit of high spirits was not to be tolerated.
But after Bekka's disjunction, Jimmy was a different person. "Zeth, I want transfer from you from now on."
"Jimmy, we've got you scheduled for Jord, because–"
"I know why, and I don't want that! Please, Zeth, help make it safe for me to be around my father or my sister without three other people to grab me if I try to kill one of them!" He blinked back tears. "I'm never going to kill again. I swore that with Mr. Veritt. I want to be like you, Zeth. Oh, God, how I wish—" He broke off, setting his jaw firmly. "It's my responsibility. Bekka decided not to kill—I zlinned it all. If she can do it, I can do it."
"I'll do everything I can to help you, Jimmy," said Zeth, thinking, If a Freehand Raider can disjunct by his own will, that should prove there Is no demon.
Even with Jimmy Norton on his schedule, Zeth's simulation of killbliss did not improve, creating great difficulties in juggling the schedule. He could handle the sheer numbers of transfers his father had, but he could not satisfy all his father's clients.
"You're afraid of the kill," said Owen after another session in which the complaint had been raised against Zeth. "Why are you so frightened? You won't be tempted to kill. Even if you were, you don't think I'd let you?"
"I don't require you to keep the demons away," Zeth snapped.
"Come on, Zeth—you know that's superstition. It's like Abel said: you take care of other Simes, and I take care of you. It all works out equally between Simes and Gens."
"No, Owen. It leaves Gens running things because they control the channels. I don't want you controlling me!"
"Oh, yeah? Don't tell me you don't know what you're doing right now, trying to calm me down when I don't want to calm down! I want to think. Why don't you just run along and see Sue Norton? I'm going to visit my father."
The Nortons were back again, along with Glian Lodge, all staying with Del Erick. Del, however, was in Rimon's sickroom, high-field—the visit of his Gen guests was timed for that—and therefore no irritation to Rimon. Zeth had noticed
how carefully Del timed his visits, and how faithfully he came, despite Rimon's indifference.
"You should have zlinned Glian when Jana cut those horses out for him!" he was telling Rimon proudly. "He said he's never seen a girl ride like that. Of course she explained to him just how she selected the best stock." He chuckled. "He said he'd like to replace his wrangler with Jana." He looked up. "Hi, Zeth. Where's Owen?"
"Over at your house. I don't have to have a watchdog every minute!"
"Hey," said Del, "nobody said you did. I was just asking about my son. What's wrong, Zeth?"
Rimon seemed not to have noticed either Del's conversation or Zeth's entrance. Anni Steers was sitting on the other side of the bed, her attention focused on her knitting so as to be ,as unobtrusive as possible. Zeth recalled that she was pregnant again—and Uel teasing Hank about how he had found time to accomplish that feat. It never seemed to bother Uel to rely on Hank—in fact, now that he thought about it, even the way people referred to them was different. Rimon and Kadi. Zeth and Owen. Marji and Trina. Always the channel first—except Hank and Uel.
The silence stretched until Zeth blurted, "I'm tired of Owen pushing me around."
"Does he?" asked Del. "Just to exercise power?"
"No," Zeth admitted. "He thinks it's for my own good."
"Maybe he's a little tactless? Should I talk to him, Zeth? I can't fully understand the relationship between a channel and his Companion, but often an outsider can help when someone too closely involved can't."
But Zeth couldn't explain. Owen wasn't tactless. He was just supremely confident . . . and Zeth wasn't. He found himself saying exactly that to Del.
"And why do you think that is?" Del asked.
"Because Owen has faced death," Zeth realized, "and I haven't. I thought I had when I was trapped in the stable at Mountain Chapel but I didn't really come close to dying, because of Owen."
Del smiled. "And so you resent Owen's ability to take care of you. I can remember Rimon and Kadi arguing over the same problem." He looked hopefully toward Rimon, his field ringing with expectancy, but Zeth's father did not respond.
"Dad's getting worse," said Zeth.
"It's chronic need. Get one good transfer into him—"
"Who's going to do it?" Zeth demanded. "Owen's his only match!"
After a pause, Del said, "If you can face that, Zeth—if you can give up Owen, just once, you'll conquer the feeling that he's controlling you."
Zeth considered, automatically blending his nager into the room to ease his father's aching fields while at the same time choking down the panic Del's suggestion brought. Then, in desperation, he said, "I could match him now!"
In a very sad, quiet tone, Del said, "Rimon—needs– killbliss. Kadi could let him have that."
"Well, Owen doesn't have it to give. But I could learn. I've got to learn!" He hoped he hid from Del the irrational panic that accompanied that resolve.
That evening, Zeth tackled Jord, convincing him to let Zeth watch him giving transfer to a junct. Dan Whelan, Uel's father, volunteered since he was .lord's last client of the day. "I guess," he said nervously, "this is the only way you can learn. And if it saves Rimon—"
"Come on, Dan," prompted Jord. Zeth went hyperconscious, watching as Jord's show-field rose to entice Dan into transfer contact. Zeth concentrated, letting the fields soak through his system. Dan's draw was a savage ripping away of selyn, shallow and slow compared to the channels, but Jord put up a mock resistance laced with pain and fear. Dan reveled in pain which became its own pleasure, mocking the pleasure Zeth knew with Owen.
No! Without conscious intent, Zeth was duoconscious, his showfield dominating the room, damping down every shred of that mounting bliss he could not face. Dan Whelan wrenched away from Jord in a thudding agony of shen.
"Out!" Jord shouted at Zeth, and moved to grasp the older man's tentacles. When Zeth didn't move, Jord growled, "Out before I shen you!"
"I'm sorry," he whispered as he groped for the door. Afterwards, Uel found him on the steps of the chapel.
"Zeth, you'll freeze to death out here. Come on inside. I have an idea."
Reluctantly, Zeth went with him, knowing that Owen had put him up to this. And sure enough, Hank and Owen were waiting with Jord in the chapel. Both Jord and Zeth apologized,
and Uel said, "None of us is qualified to teach Zeth. But we've got to improvise until Rimon gets better."
He went on to suggest how Zeth could participate in a junct's transfer without over-controlling Jord, by emptying his secondary system into Uel's so that he couldn't grab the fields. It took all day to set it up, Zeth and Uel giving transfers without accepting donations, in order to empty their systems. Even so, Zeth's "small" amount of selyn nearly staggered Uel.
Margid Veritt was the next volunteer, over lord's objection. "You're too deep into need, Mother. Dan was early—"
"There's no point in delaying then, is there?" she asked, and Zeth found his own throat tightening at the shrill tremor in her usually low-pitched voice. He could not seem to grow used to the trembling anxiety of need in the people who had been strong adults to him all his life.
Selyn flowed, and Margid's field erupted with pleasure as Jord provided resistance. Desire peaked into pain, reveling in pain, sadistic pleasure, pain as pleasure—
The point where Zeth had shenned out was reached and passed, as he hung on, determined not to hurt Margid. He shared the pain/pleasure killbliss growing in her and kindling something horrifying in himself; the knowledge of what it meant to be Sime. He wanted pain—he craved the ultimate agony of seared Gen nerves dying under his tentacles!
Roaring to a peak of satisfaction, Margid exulted. Then a new agony closed round like a black cloud—–guilt. Zeth flinched away from it, ripped down into hypoconsciousness, the fields disappearing and the candle-lit killroom emerging. His hands were clamped about the joined arms of Jord and Margid, his tentacles lashing them all together. His convulsive grip flashed real pain through them all.
The next thing he knew he was on the floor, Owen flinging himself across the room and Uel dashing to Margid's side, while Jord bent over his own bruised arms.
Jord said, "You weren't supposed to touch us."
"I didn't know I had." He put his hand around Owen's neck and let the Gen help him up, then moved to Jord's side. He found where Jord's fields were disturbed and, using what little selyn there was in his secondary system, projected a soothing effect. Wik, acting as Jord's Companion today, did the same on the other side as Zeth instructed him, and soon Jord was feeling better.
"lord," said Uel, finishing with Margid, "this just proves what I was saying. None of us can teach Zeth anymore. He's got to teach himself, now."
Zeth went to Margid, apologizing. "But I think I did learn something," he offered. If I ever have the courage to use it! And if it doesn't destroy me—as it has you.
For as he watched the woman who had been a second mother to him leave the transfer room, he was trying desperately to recapture the feeling he had always had for her. He felt again that hideous compulsion to derive pleasure from Gen pain. Her satisfied expression woke revulsion in him. And he couldn't make himself zlin Owen at all.
Each time Zeth tried to produce killbliss his own fear drove him out of rapport. Although Jord actually respected Zeth for the inability, Zeth faced the fact that his efforts to learn were destroying what channeling ability he did have. Furthermore, he had hurt Margid. He could feel her shame whenever she looked at him.
One morning, Zeth was trying to get several people acutely in need of a junct-satisfying transfer off his schedule and onto lord's. The schedule was kept on a chalkboard in the back hall of the chapel, and Zeth stood with chalk in his fingers and an eraser in his tentacles, raising a cloud of white dust and creating more problems than he was solving.
Bekka Trent came in, watched him for a few minutes, and said, "Zeth, why. are you wasting a channel's time on that? There are three people waiting for you."
"I'm coming," he muttered, continuing to scribble.
After a moment, Bekka said sharply, "Zeth! Here, let me take care of the schedule. You go do your work."
"You don't know how to match people—"
"Well, tell me." She stretched on tiptoe to lift the board down from its hook. "Why did you change Risko?"
"He's used to choice kills from Slina's pen and he's voluntarily not killing now, to help us through the winter. He deserves better than I can give him, Bekka.''
"Better!" She shuddered. "No—I understand. But if you move him to the afternoon—" To Zeth's amazement, Bekka soon created order from the chaos on the board.
By the time Zeth had finished the morning's work, Bekka had arranged a schedule that used the four channels more efficiently than Zeth had seen since he had begun working. Marji, who still tired easily, said to Zeth, "Thank you for
putting Bekka in charge. I thought I was going to drop!" The schedule didn't last long, however. Just as Zeth and Owen were headed to their next appointment, Trina Morgan came running up. "Zeth—your father's calling for you!"
Zeth had to force himself not to augment as he dashed to the chapel, Owen right behind him. Rimon was thrashing on his bed, calling out, "Zeth! No, Zeth—NO!" His field was chaotic agony, and all Marji's efforts to restrain him served at most to keep him from flinging himself off the bed.
Zeth tried to mesh fields, knowing that Rimon was not hearing anything.
"Zeth, I didn't mean it! I didn't know it was you!" The words made no sense, but Zeth continued calming Rimon with his field, hoping recognition would bring his father out of the nightmare. Eventually his hysteria subsided, but Rimon sank from sharp anguish into bleak despair . . . and from there into the coma-like sleep that had claimed him lately.
Marji's round brown eyes were worried. "When he started calling for you, I thought maybe it was a good sign, but—"
"He's worried about you, Zeth," said Owen. "I think it is a good sign." But Owen couldn't know that Rimon had not shown the slightest recognition of Zeth's presence.
When they emerged from the sickroom, Bekka had rearranged the schedule, and they were able to go right on to another appointment without a conference. By the end of the day, the channels were wondering what they had ever done without Bekka, and she had found a full-time occupation.
The winter became a constant sequence of storms, and Fort Freedom battled snow and temperatures far below freezing. Maddok and Sessly Bron finally managed to go home between storms. Like his sister, Bron insisted on donating selyn before he left. It was clearly a part of his new belief that Gens had the obligation to give transfer, though it didn't go over well with his congregation.
Zeth heard the news about three weeks before year's turning. By now Zeth and Owen were automatically included in the council sessions around the kitchen table. This one was called when Glian Lodge, Eph Norton, and Lon Carson appeared one day, blown in on a storm swooping out of the west. The other channels were busy; Zeth, to his deep chagrin, was the one who could most easily be spared from the schedule.
Abel managed to be there, pale and drawn. Zeth wondered if with his more powerful field, had he only been able to use
what he'd learned with Margid, he might have given Abel a normal transfer. Seeing his gaze, Abel whispered, "I'm all right, Zeth. Soon you will do for me what you did for Bekka."
The out-Territory Gens had brought coins to cover the tax money Fort Freedom had had to pay—but otherwise what they brought was bad news. "The ranches are in trouble," said Glian Lodge. "I lost three top hands in the battle, and others lost more. Two of the ranchers killed got no kids old enough to take over. Their wives are thinking of selling out . . . and this is no time to bring new people into our area. I don't even want to hire men on when we don't know how they'll accept these, uh, trips across the border."
"You mean they might set spies on us," Eph said angrily. "Tell them about the horses, Glian."
Lodge grimaced. "Remember those prime horses I bought from your pa, Owen? Damn government agent confiscated 'em!"
"What?" asked Zeth. "But why?"
"The ownership marks showed they're from Sime Territory– but so what? Lots of people raid across the border for horses. I bought a couple a few years back that probably came from the same herd. But now the Border Patrol's roused, and they came along and took the horses as 'evidence' for an 'investigation.' I dunno what's gonna happen in the spring."
"I'm afraid I know how the government was alerted," said Lon Carson. "Maddok Bron caused a rift in the church when he started preaching that everybody had to give transfer to prove they're in a state of grace. Those of us from Fort Freedom are willing to learn—but you can imagine how most people feel. The elders didn't have quite enough votes to kick Bron out—but only because removing the minister takes a two-thirds majority. Half the town has either packed up and left, or will as soon as the weather permits."
Abel sighed. "Why didn't I think to discuss practical aspects of his theory with Maddok? I was so angry at his foolishness . . . and wrath is a sin."
"Listen," said Carson, "he's coming back here the end of the month—says he's got to give a real transfer. So you can talk with him then, Abel—"
"No!" Abel's vehemence startled Zeth, but the old Sime calmed at once. "No, not until spring. He's not fully recov-
ered from his wound, and should not attempt such a difficult journey in the middle of winter.
Zeth zlinned the apprehension under the old man's surface calm and felt a fierce protectiveness. If Bron so much as lays a finger on Abel, I'll–:
Carson was saying, "I don't think there's any more stopping him than there is stopping you when you feel God's will, Abel. So we got real trouble. We thought we were going to be able to help Fort Freedom out. Now half our workers are planning to leave at spring thaw, and I wouldn't be surprised if it was someone from Mountain Chapel alerted the Border Patrol."
So the Freehand Raiders' strike had decimated all three communities. The fragments left, Zeth saw clearly, could not survive independently. "Simes could work your fields much more efficiently than Gens," he suggested.
"And how do we explain that to the Border Patrol?" Glian asked, his voice heavy with sarcasm.
"Now wait a minute," said Eph. "I sure would like to bring Jimmy home, once he's ... all right again. But, Zeth, just for being here talking to you, we're all liable to be executed and our property confiscated. I just don't know—"
"What we've done here," said Zeth, "is change the law. A little bit, anyway. We still haven't managed to get Gens recognized as people, but eventually, we'll do that, too."
Abel put a hand over Zeth's. "It's good to plan for the future, Zeth–but right now we have to help one another survive this winter. I'm afraid," he added to the Gens, "you'll have to curtail your visits. The worst of the winter is yet to come. No one will travel much until spring—and then we'll have a single courier again. If you are too badly harassed, you are welcome here. Is there anything we can give you to help you through the winter?"
There was a flurry of letter writing. Eph insisted on donating before he left, "To help support my son," and Lon Carson donated as well. Glian shrugged, said, "Don't look as if it hurts none," and also gave selyn. Then he went with Zeth and Owen over to the house Del Erick was using for the duration. There they found Jana struggling with a recalcitrant flue in the kitchen stove.
"I hate cooking!" she declared when they had the stovepipe drawing properly and the smoke cleared away.
Glian Lodge laughed. "You keep on handling horses the
way you do, and you'll never have to cook. Maybe in the spring you can come visit me, Jana."
"Sure—I'd like to go out-Territory before I change over. Zeth and Owen have. Boys always get to do the good things."
Jana's cooking certainly wasn't good enough to tempt a Sime, and even Owen's hearty appetite rebelled after half a plate of her stew. Del arrived home from checking his stock while they were still at the table.
Zeth noticed how normal the family gathering seemed: two Simes, two Gens, and a child, all talking and laughing together comfortably. What he had been used to all his life– until the world had turned inside out. It wasn't right that families should be illegal—on either side of the border. At least it wasn't wholly forbidden here—
What if we moved the border?
At Zeth's surge of excitement, Del smiled at him, but Glian Lodge was at that moment holding forth on some of the technicalities of ranching. Zeth subsided into shivers—and had time to wonder why he should feel cold and locate the source: Jana. She had moved her chair close to the stove, and was huddled up in a big sweater. He zlinned her—then got up and went over to her, Owen following.
He bent down, taking her freezing hands in his, and said softly, "I'm afraid you're not going out-Territory, after all, Jana."
She looked up at him out of the blue eyes that were her only claim to beauty. "But I don't feel bad," she said. "I'm just cold."
Although he had never zlinned a changeover victim before, Zeth said confidently, "Owen can tell you how cold I got."
Del came over. ' 'Changeover? Zeth, I can't zlin the slightest sign—but then, your father can always tell hours before the first symptoms."
Lodge's first response was "Oh, the poor kid." When that drew odd looks, he grinned sheepishly. "I guess you don't really mind, huh?" Luckily, his field was too low to bother any of them.
"I'll see her through it, Del," said Zeth. "Would you please let Bekka know where Owen and I are? There goes the schedule again!"
Bringing Owen's sister through changeover was the most pleasant duty Zeth had yet performed as a channel. Her breakout came late the next afternoon, and as he gave her
transfer he felt as he had not felt in weeks—competent, fulfilled.
When it was over, Jana kissed both Zeth and her brother, then sat back and examined her new tentacles dispassionately. "But I'm not a channel," she said.
"We can't all be," Owen reminded her. "Congratulations. Now you can really help Pa with the horses!"
She thought a moment. "Yeah, I guess that's what I wanted all along," she said with a smile.
In the excitement of Jana's changeover party—a much appreciated excuse for a happy celebration—Zeth forgot all about moving the border.
From the emotional high of his first First Transfer, Zeth sank into worry about his father's strange hallucinations. Over and over he would call for Zeth—but never recognize his son when he came. Del solved the mystery when Zeth described one of the attacks to him. "It's not you, Zeth—it's the Zeth you were named for. Rimon's cousin—the Sime he killed in first Need. He's in chronic need just like before Kadi established, and he's reliving his First Kill." He sighed. "I wish I knew if it helps to visit him. He doesn't even look at me anymore."
"He knows you're there," Zeth half lied. Rimon's field responded to the ambient . . . but Zeth doubted that Rimon recognized anyone these days.
Nor could Zeth go to Abel with his troubles. The old man was declining toward crisis, and when he was capable of a few hours of alertness, he was most likely to spend them with Jimmy Norton, telling him how he had broken his ties with the Freeband Raiders, encouraging the boy to disjunct, As Abel fully intended to do.
Zeth reached turnover and began the grueling slide into need himself. Owen began dogging Zeth's steps, even going to the ridiculous length of dragging himself out of bed when Zeth had had enough sleep. Soon Owen's temper frayed from lack of sleep, making Zeth even more edgy.
The last straw was the arrival, in the brief interval between storms three days before Zeth's third transfer, of Maddok and Sessly Bron. When Abel forbid Bron his house, the Gen waylaid him in the chapel, the one place Abel made the effort to go these days. Abel's shouting brought Zeth, Owen, Marji, Trina, and Bekka running in from the back of the chapel.
"... agent of the Devil, tempting me to kill!" Abel was raging when Zeth flung the door open.
Bron's field was pure temptation, ringing with the "need to give" of a Companion—but way too low from his last donation. He had spent the interval away from Simes, and was in no manner ready to face a disjunction draw such as Zeth had experienced with Bekka. He only thought he was.
"Owen—Trina—" directed Zeth softly. "Shield Abel. Marji—"
"Abel, God has sent me to dispossess you of the murderous spirit holding you in thrall," Bron insisted, holding his ground.
"Well, you can just do it for someone else!" Zeth said, grasping Bron's arm as firmly as he grasped the fields. "Shen you, you shidoni-doomed fool-, I'd like to toss you—"
"Zeth!" protested Owen. Zeth's anger was grating harshly on Abel's ragged nerves. Where had he found the strength to move at all?
Marji took Bron's other arm, their fields, too, sheltering Abel. The Companions were working on him—but the reason his anger melted so quickly was that he had no strength to sustain it.
"Marji, you and Trina take Abel home. I'll be right there," said Zeth, worried by a discordant thread in the old man's mood, a steely determination stronger than the frail body.
Zeth half dragged Bron into the back hall of the chapel. He slammed the connecting door to the chapel and tugged Bron toward Bekka's schedule board. "Bekka, who's on the schedule? Find me one of the town Simes—someone badly in need of a choice kill."
"Zeth!" Owen gasped in utter horror.
It was Bron Zeth had intended to frighten—but he simply said, "You see? Your demon, Zeth. Even you are susceptible, when your Companion is not protecting you."
Demons aside, the man's words were too close to the truth. What was a channel doing trying to provoke real fear in an untrained Gen? In sick disgust at his own feelings, he snapped, "I'll be with Abel," and plunged back into and through the chapel, the quickest way to Abel's house. Behind him, Bron also returned to the chapel—but he knelt down and remained there.
Zeth, Owen on his heels, caught up to Abel and the two women on the front porch of his house. The old Sime was
protesting that he could walk—but it was obvious he could not.
Margid Veritt opened the door. Zeth felt cold fear grip her—she knew Abel too well to hope that he would accept a kill this time. They put him on the couch. Taking a deep breath to steady himself into healing mode, Zeth remembered when his father had given Abel the first Sime-Sime transfer ever—right in this very room. Then he had no more time to think. He moved in to zlin Abel closely. He wasn't even on the transfer schedule yet, and Zeth was hoping that he was not yet near hard need, that they could keep him resting for a day or two with a Companion at his side, to put him in the best possible condition to attempt transfer—but as soon as Zeth zlinned him, that hope died. He was not only deep into need, but his system was in turmoil, fragmenting much the way lord's did during a voiding fit. But he wasn't exactly voiding. He seemed to be consuming selyn, as if he were augmenting, although he lay still, at peace physically and emotionally. Zeth had never seen anything like it before. In all my vast experience, he thought helplessly. "Get Jord and Uel," he ordered, and never noticed who went.
Zeth extended his show-field to support Abel, drawing his field back to normal consumption rate. The moment he let go, Abel's field went back to augmentation mode, consuming and consuming from his pitifully small store of selyn.
Duoconscious, Zeth saw that Abel's eyes were half closed, his lips moving in prayer, but otherwise he showed no indication of being conscious.
Zeth became aware of Jord and Uel, and looked up. "What should I do?"
Uel fought down his emotions, forcing himself into the channel's professional stance, and said, "What you're doing. I don't know of anything else."
Hank and Jord were little help. They were too close to Abel. No matter what Zeth did, the augmentation would not stop. Abel was far past ordinary hard need and into attrition. Now there was only one thing to do: get selyn into him, even if he suffered nerve-burn. The room was full of people, but not one suggested going for a Gen.
Zeth took Abel in transfer position. Astonishingly, he was conscious and cooperating—but his field was not. When Zeth tried driving selyn into Abel's system, he met the old reflexive rebellion. By exerting all his power, he could just hold the
fields balanced, but Abel was locked against the selyn flow, and his heart wavered under the strain. Zeth had to let himself take the shen backflow as the fields collapsed.
Leaning back against Owen, he gathered strength and tried again—and again—but each time the result was the same. Though he could feel Abel's will accepting the transfer, his body would not.
Clammy with sweat, he let Owen's field soothe him while he racked his brains for an idea. He had been using his very best imitation of Genfear, enticing Abel with the promise of killbliss. Perhaps Jord . . . ?
But when Jord moved forward, Abel twisted away, curling himself into fetal position, rejecting them all.
"Wait!" said Zeth, motioning Jord back and gripping the fields around Abel again so that all the old man would sense would be Zeth's Gen field. He said, "Owen, pretend you're going to give me transfer!"
Owen nodded, closed his eyes, and instantly the strong bond between them activated. Zeth resisted the temptation, to melt into Owen's control and remained in healing mode, taking his texture from Owen now, instead of doing his rotten imitation of fear. He offered that field to Abel, and the Sime responded, coming willingly back into transfer grip.
And then something shifted, leaving Zeth gasping in duoconsciousness. The searing tension of need was gone. Abel had not taken transfer, but he was not dead. He was euphoric. "Get Maddok Bron."
"No!" Zeth cried as if wounded.
Abel found the strength to move his head in a negative. "He must be shown the truth. God has granted my prayers." He closed his .eyes, resting for a moment. Then he opened them, saying, "God bless you, son." His blissful peace indeed felt like a blessing.
When Bron entered, Abel let go of Zeth's left arm and held his hand out to the Gen. "Come, Maddok," he said. "See that there is no demon."
Bron knelt, taking Abel's hand in both of his, looking at the bulging ronaplin glands and dripping wrist orifices with understanding. Then he met Abel's eyes and saw what Zeth and everyone else perceived—peace beyond need. Zeth had never seen death by attrition, but he knew it was never like this. And so did Bron.
Abel smiled; his eyes crinkled with joy. "You see? God
would not let me die forsworn, my friend. Forgive my angry words."
"I forgive you. But, now you must let me—"
Zeth, holding his show-field in Owen's pattern, felt the moment when Bron also began to entice Abel. Suddenly, he was at war with the Gen for Abel's attention. It lasted only a moment. Abel released Bron's arm and pulled away from his grip, seeking Zeth's tentacles.
"I choose my channel."
Zeth bent to make lip contact, expecting now that Abel would draw smoothly to completion. But no sooner had selyn begun to flow than the old reflex clamped down, catching Zeth wholly unprepared. He was shenned out of the contact again, reeling back into Owen's grip.
When his senses cleared, lord was holding Bron back and Abel was saying, "No, Maddok. I will not risk losing what I have gained. Your prayers must guide you now. Help the channels, Maddok, and let them help you. But most of all, help those who have killed to find out what it is to have no need to kill. It is in ourselves—but it is not in me any longer. Witness, Maddok."
His laterals, dripping selyn-conducting fluids and trembling of their own eager accord, caressed the minister's fingers as purest joy engulfed Abel's field. The room rang with triumph, echoed and reechoed in every Sime field, and penetrating the Gen nager.
And then it was gone. Abel was dead. And somehow, Fort Freedom must continue.