Zeth became slowly aware of Sime tentacles twining about his arms, pulling ... a ripe, insistent Gen nager throbbed expectantly before him, and suddenly the tentacles forced his laterals out and into contact with the Gen—Owen!
At first, selyn came through no volition of his own, trickling deep into his systems, dispelling the numbness of attrition and wakening him to a savage draw as he sought the shrieking delight of killbliss.
The speed slacked off short of pain, Owen's way of saying, No, I won't let you kill. Momentarily, he succumbed to his instinct to draw against that imposed discipline, and felt Owen's pain blossom. No! I won't kill! He surrendered control, and the flow came to an indrawn pause that relieved the screeching ache. When selyn came again, it was at his normal speed, flowing without effort. It ceased without his stopping, though he was relieved of every trace of need.
Hypoconscious, he stared up into Owen's worried blue eyes. Uel knelt behind Owen, holding Zeth's hands so his laterals could make contact at the back of Owen's neck. When he found Zeth conscious, he let go—and Zeth's hands fell limply. Owen caught his left arm, but his right hit the floor, nerve-burn surging through him.
Uel said, "Someone get the fosebine."
It was Jord who brought it, by which time Zeth was beginning to remember—and despair. He didn't have to ask about his father; if Uel and Jord were with him, Rimon was dead; they wouldn't leave a critical channel in Marji's care.
He's better off dead, Zeth thought. Maybe we all would be. Thank God Abel didn't live to see Rimon kill.
No one said anything to Zeth except "You're all right" and "Here, drink this." Maybe they thought he didn't know
what had happened, and would be better off sleeping before he faced it. I've been making such judgments for other people for weeks now. What right did I have? The dream Fort Freedom had stood for was shattered. The numbness was wearing off the other people in the room. They must have worked-as a team to save his life without giving a thought to the implications of what Rimon had done . . . but now they had pulled Zeth through, and they were beginning to think.
Sorrow built like a slow tide. Hank let tears slide down his cheeks—less painful than trying to hold them back. Owen held his field steady, braced, not allowing grief to penetrate as he worked on Zeth, but it was a duty, not his usual spontaneous outpouring of help.
As the fosebine drew him toward sleep, Zeth realized that things could never be the same between him and Owen, either. My father killed his father.
Zeth woke in the room he shared with Owen in the Veritt house. As he wasn't disoriented, they had moved him sleeping, not unconscious. What woke him was Sessly Bron replacing the covers he had tossed off. She smiled at him. "Hello, Zeth. Feeling better?"
Jord Veritt, who had been sitting on Owen's neatly made bed, came over to zlin him, and Zeth automatically zlinned back.
lord's fields were in a healthy configuration for the first time in Zeth's experience. He looked years younger, too, his eyes beginning to emerge from their perpetual hollows, glowing with serenity. Zeth had completely forgotten Sessly's intercepting Jord. I'd never have allowed it–never! And look what she's done for him.
Jord said, ,"Yes, you are better, Zeth. Another dose of fosebine should stave off that headache." As soon as the soothing effects of the medicine were flowing through Zeth's system he asked, "Do you want to talk, Zeth? Should I get Owen?"
"It doesn't matter," Zeth said flatly, and Jord frowned.
"Zeth . . . you do remember what happened?"
"Dad killed Del. There's no such thing as a Sime who won't kill, given enough provocation. Dad was never any different from you, Jord—Mama kept him from killing."
Sessly said, "That's no reason to despair, Zeth. God has
showed us the way. No one will be allowed to kill anymore. With Owen's help, you'll use your blessed gift of healing."
"I can't!" he protested.
"Zeth," Jord said firmly, "you could not have saved your father's life. You risked your own, trying, but that injury was fatal. Grieve, Zeth—but don't blame yourself."
lord understands, Zeth realized. Simes can't be blamed for being Sime. Tears of weakness slid down his face.
Uel arrived a while later, to spell Jord—or rather to rest there while Jord went back to work. The pattern formed quickly—Zeth really required only fosebine and sleep, but just in case, one of the channels remained with him.
Until Owen came. Then they were left alone. It was after midnight, and Owen was groggy, his eyes red with weeping, his field hollow with emotional exhaustion. He sat on the edge of Zeth's bed, saying, "I should have been here earlier, but I couldn't leave Jana to make all the arrangements . . . and I had to pray—"
"Owen, I'm so sorry!" Zeth blurted "It's my fault everyone was in the chapel that way, and—"
"And it's my fault you almost died!" Owen said bitterly. "When I saw Pa lying there, and you trying to revive Rimon– Oh, God, Zeth, I had to try to help Pa, though I knew he was dead. Uel dragged me away—I would have let you die, Zeth!"
"If you had, it wouldn't matter much."
"Maddok Bron is right. Simes must be protected. Not from demons—just from the fact of being Sime. It's up to you, Owen. If my father could kill, I can—unless you stop me."
"No! Zeth, I've never tried to control you, and I'm not going to start now. Your father was right. I'm not fit to be a Companion. Even if I'd had my wits together, I couldn't have helped you. With only one arm, I couldn't force your laterals to extend. I couldn't lift your arms into position—Uel had to do it. If we'd been alone, Zeth, you'd have died."
Zeth sighed. "That won't happen again. You can handle anything I'll ever need, Owen."
Margid brought soup for Zeth and a full meal for Owen. "Eat, and then I want you both asleep," she told them firmly. "There'll be plenty of time to talk in the morning." And because it was too painful for either of them to continue, they obeyed her.
The next day Zeth progressed on shaky legs as far as the main room. A stream of visitors began with Dan Whelan, who tried delicately to find out if Zeth had any special wishes for the memorial service for his father. Zeth didn't want to think about how Rimon had died—so he just said dully, "Whatever you think is appropriate."
Maddok Bron came—and the sincere sympathy in the man's field was almost more than Zeth could bear. Bron said gently, "Your father was not responsible for his last act, Zeth. For all the good he did over many years, he is certainly now reunited with your mother in heaven. I'll pray for his soul, and for that of Del Erick. They were good men."
But despite his cautious words to Zeth, Bron apparently used Rimon's death as proof of, his demon theory, for Dan returned later that day to reassure Zeth that Bron would not conduct the service. Zeth nodded, not really caring—what if a Sime's instincts were personified as demons? They were just as deadly either way.
A while later, Owen came in with his sister. Owen seemed angry, and Jana was trying to calm him down. "Go splash cold water on your face," she told him, "and then come back. You can't help Zeth if you're all upset."
Zeth didn't ask, but Jana pulled up a chair and started in just as if he had, "It's that Sue Norton. I knew no good would come of Owen getting involved with an out-Territory girl! If there's anything Owen shouldn't have to worry about, it's that woman trying to take him away from you!"
That pulled Zeth out of his lethargy. "What happened?" he asked, thinking, There's no other Gen who can handle my need–without Owen I'd kill someone!
Owen came back in, answering his question. "It's over between us, that's all," he said. "Sue's never understood what it means to be a Companion. She thinks it's some sort of obligation—she had the nerve to tell me I was being disrespectful to the m-memory of my father''—he paused to brush angry tears away—"if I k-kept on as your Companion, Zeth." Tears coursed down his cheeks.
Jana took her brother's hand, wrapping handling tentacles about it, her own tears flowing. The two, Zeth's best friends ever since he could remember, were cut off from him by one fact. My father killed their father. Neither of them made the accusation, but it hung in the air until Zeth felt compelled to
say it aloud. "My father killed your father. I'd give my life to change that—but I don't know how."
Startled, they both looked up at him. He felt the tensions release in them—and then Jana reached for his hand. "Oh, God, Zeth—it's as awful for you to live with as it is for us! They were both like fathers to all of us. Maybe if we can think, they came here together . . . and they died together—"
Jana's words were echoed by Dan Whelan two days later, at the service for Rimon Farris and Del Erick. He spoke of the loss not only of the first channel, but also of his closest friend—and the support Del had given Fort Freedom over many years. Zeth only half listened. He didn't really want to be here, listening to Dan try to avoid the real meaning of Rimon's death. He had grieved with Owen and Jana over Del, but something seemed to stop him from grieving for his father, as if Rimon had betrayed him and he could not mourn.
As the choir began to sing, Dan lit the lamps surrounding the monument to the martyrs. Zeth hadn't realized lord had found time to carve a new name. There had been space for only one more. Del's would be the last name on the original monument.
And then Zeth saw what lord had put on that last line. There were two names, side by side:
DEL ERICK—RIMON FARRIS
Suddenly grief poured through Zeth. His loss was real. Rimon was no longer wasting 'away in the back room of the chapel. He was dead, and with him the hopes of the community to which he had brought such change. If only I'd mastered junct transfer sooner . . . ! Zeth sobbed. He was not alone. Owen and Jana put their arms around him, and the choir struggled through their hymn with choking voices.
When the emotion began to wane, Dan Whelan stepped back to the podium. "All who founded our new way of life are gone now: Kadi Farris, Abel Veritt, and now Rimon Farris and Del Erick. But Fort Freedom continues. They left us a legacy—their beliefs, their teachings, their practices. Even more, they left us their children. Abel's son Jord, his granddaughter Marji—both channels. Del's son Owen, a Companion. His daughter Jana—one of the new generation of Simes who have never killed.
"But more than any of the others, the fate of our commu-
nity depends on one young channel who has been called upon to endure more and work harder than anyone might reasonably—or unreasonably—expect, and who has never failed us. He is Rimon and Kadi's son—"
Zeth listened with growing horror. But I have failed. He waited for the rejection of the congregation. Surely they could see he was the most dangerous ~of all the channels, the one with the highest capacity. He could be controlled by only one person in the community—and if something happened to Owen—But the ambient nager did not deny as Dan said, "God has taken our leaders into His peace. They worked and suffered and died to start us on the right path. Now as we continue, let us thank God for our new leader, Zeth Farris!"
The wave of gratitude nearly drowned Zeth. He cried out in dismay, "No! No—you're wrong. I can't do it!" And he bolted from the chapel, Owen dashing after him, while everyone else sat in stunned bewilderment.
There was no place to run. Ice crunched under his feet in the dry cold. He half thought of the Old Homestead, but there were people staying there.
Patches came bounding up to Zeth, tail wagging. He yipped, pacing Zeth for a few strides, and then drew ahead, making for the Veritt home. Zeth followed him into the room he shared with Owen, where he sank to the floor and buried his face in the dog's shaggy fur.
All he could think about was the day when Owen lost his arm. Owen should have been the channel. Then he could be their leader! Oh, Patches!
There was no accusation in Owen's field when he opened the door. Zeth looked up, and Patches licked his face. Owen held out his hand, his field pure kindness. It wasn't right that Owen should be so good to him!
"Owen," he said wretchedly, "I killed my father."
"No you didn't, Zeth," said Owen, pulling Zeth up onto the bed. "He died of a lateral injury, which my father inflicted. Certainly Jord and Uel told you—''
"They didn't feel it! He was actively drawing for the first time since Mama died. I knew the only way to save him was to get enough selyn into him to support him till we could stop the leakage ... so when my secondary system was empty, I let him draw from my primary. There was enough there to
keep him going the few minutes it'd have taken . . . but I couldn't control, Owen! When it got low—"
"Low! Zeth, you almost died!"
"Oh, no," Zeth said bitterly. "I saved my own life—and let Dad die. I wanted to refuse to kill. I wanted to give Dad the selyn he needed to live . . . and I aborted out! Just because it hurt, I couldn't save my own father's life!"
"Zeth, how could anyone voluntarily give away all their selyn? A reflex—perfectly natural and unavoidable ..."
"Reflex? Natural and unavoidable? Isn't that why Simes kill Gens, Owen? Simes are killers unless Gens stop them."
"What about Abel?" Owen asked.
"Yes . . . Abel," Zeth said in despair. "He showed us, didn't he? There's one way not to kill—and that's to die. That's what I didn't have the strength for. He'd really be proud of me, wouldn't he, Owen?"
"Not right now, he wouldn't. You've forgotten the difference between responsibility and blame."
"But I can't be blamed! I'm Sime—and you've got the responsibility for me."
Nothing else Owen might say would budge Zeth. Having worn himself out emotionally, he fell asleep. An hour later Owen woke him. "Come on, Zeth, there's a council meeting."
"Tell Uel," Zeth said dully, "I'm not channeling anymore."
"Don't be ridiculous," said Owen, flicking Zeth wide awake with his indignation. "Get up and wash your face, and come on out to the kitchen!"
"Whatever you' say, Owen," Zeth replied. Owen's field flickered with annoyance, but he quelled it for the moment.
Zeth joined the group at the table: Dan Whelan, Slina, Eph Norton, Maddok Bron, and Owen. Dan started with an apology. "Zeth—I forget how young you are. It's the worst time of your life, and I loaded all of us onto you."
"You're not alone, Zeth," said Maddok. "You'll have help and counsel—but until the channels can be relieved of—"
"No you don't!" Slina inserted. "Ain't none of my people nor me gonna kill them poor folk you're preachin' at. Flamin' superstitious, vicious teachings! Rimon would—!" She choked off, swallowing back her grief.
"No, Slina," Zeth said. "Maddok is right."
"Thank God!" Bron murmured, but Zeth continued.
"I don't believe in demons—but need is as much of a
demon as anyone would care to face, and the fact is my father was wrong. It's not possible for a Sime not to kill. The Gens have to do it for us."
Eph Norton said, "I couldn't do it for my son—but you did, Zeth. You saved my life, and you kept Jimmy on the path—"
"On the path toward an empty promise!" Zeth flashed. "Over ten years my father didn't kill—but only because my mother kept him from it. Jord—who knows? Maybe Sessly can do it for him now. Willa did—his wife, years back," he added for those who didn't know. "But when she died, he had to kill again. Dan, do you think your son could prevent himself from killing? Uel's never been tested, has he?"
"Zeth, you're upset," said Owen. "I should never have let you come out here—"
"Let me? You made me!"
"I'm sorry," Owen apologized to everyone.
Slina said, "Zeth, you got every right to grieve. It's no time for us to be worry in' you with our problems. Owen, take him and get him to rest till tomorrow."
"No more!" said Zeth. "No more channeling—I can't hold people's lives in my hands like that ever again!" He gasped as a spasm rang sharply through his whole body, followed by another. "Oh, no!" he groaned, doubling over, clutching his middle. It's only been a couple of days since I worked! Another cramp hit, and he gritted his teeth—but Owen had already recognized what was happening.
"That's what happens to any channel when he stops working—God's way of telling you that you're responsible for using His gifts."
"Shen you—don't preach at me!" Zeth grated. He turned to Maddok. "Help me—please?"
Bron held out his hands willingly, his field instantly assuming the soothing attitude of prayer. Zeth balanced his fields, leaning back finally with a sigh of relief. "Thank you."
Owen's field rang with shock and rejection—and Zeth remembered that Bron could not possibly match him if he tried to draw. Suppose he had lost control? "I shouldn't have done that," he apologized to Bron.
"My sister provided transfer for a channel," Bron reminded him. "Zeth, if you ever need me—"
"You don't understand," Zeth said sadly. The energy of his momentary anger had drained away. "I'm sorry, Owen.
I'll do whatever you want me to. You're my only match here'.''
So Zeth went back to work. As the days passed, he found it easier and easier to leave decisions up to Owen as his old– dangerous, he thought—habits died. His job was easier now, for Jord's health had improved, Marji's capacity was increasing, and Zeth's new skill at junct transfers meant less juggling of Bekka's slate. Sessly was quickly learning to be a Companion, and she and her brother encouraged other Gens who had been donating for some time to try transfer.
The Brons were not stupid—they saw the channels as having the function of matching Simes and Gens for transfer, as well as healing. Though the channels would not cooperate, they figured out a pretty fair rule-of-thumb matching system, and soon there were transfers going on all over Fort Freedom. Zeth shook his head in dismay at some of the matches, wondering how they avoided disaster.
Changeovers were left up to the channels, but out-Territory there were three that grueling winter. In Mountain Chapel, one child was successfully given First Transfer by Maddok Bron—but when the second one occurred, neither he nor Sessly was there, and the girl killed her mother before being shot dead by her father. He then left town, weather notwithstanding. Word reached the ranches, and the next victim was shot before breakout.
The result was that one day five children from the ranches turned up at Fort Freedom, having crossed the frozen river. The channels treated them for frostbite and listened to their story. All of establishment or changeover age, they were determined that they wouldn't chance killing—but neither were they willing to be murdered when they knew about Fort Freedom. Therefore they had come to stay until nature declared which they would be. Two of them turned out to be already Gen; the other three showed no sign one way or the other, and Fort Freedom willingly found room for them.
Most Simes who succumbed to the Brons' matchmaking service were the older semi-juncts who had been heavily dependent on Abel Veritt's strength of character to keep them from despair. When no new spiritual leader rose from among their own, they turned to Bron—and believed that the Gens who served them were, indeed, warding off demons.
Not surprisingly, Dan Whelan, Margid Veritt, and the others who had been closest to Zeth all his life rejected anything
but channel's transfer. At least over the years these Simes had moved apart in their cycle of crisis, and would not all face the overpowering need to kill in the same month or two. But Slina and the other Simes from town also refused to have anything to do with Bron's program. Zeth knew they were offended by his religious tenets as they had never been by Abel's, but he didn't understand how they could resist real Gen transfer. He almost wished they would succumb—it might avoid another cascade.
Maddok Bron kept trying to persuade Zeth to see his religious point of view. AH Zeth could say was "It doesn't matter—demons or need, it's all the same thing." Even though he now felt that Abel Veritt had died futilely, he was certain that Abel had been right about that. "It is in us," he had always said.
Owen insisted, "Abel died to prove that every man is responsible for his own salvation. I can't be responsible for yours, Zeth."
"I don't believe in that kind of salvation."
"That doesn't matter—the point is the very lesson Abel made you teach me! You weren't to blame for my losing my arm, but you were responsible, remember? And so Abel made you responsible for me until I rebelled. Come on now– it's time for you to rebel against me!"
But Owen's arguments did no good—at least for Zeth. Dan Whelan, though, asked Owen to speak at the services in the chapel—and Zeth was surprised at the way people listened, and seemed to be comforted. Soon there was a rivalry going when Maddok Bron was in town. Then there would be two services, and Zeth noticed people beginning to count the attendance at Bron's versus Owen's. Some people attended both, but there was a growing schism between the two factions.
There was also a growing rivalry between Bron and Owen for Zeth. Bron had learned a great deal about the work of channels and Companions, mostly from Jord, who now planned to marry Sessly in the spring. Soon Bron was working his own cycle into phase with Zeth's, and hanging around Simes in need to encourage his capacity to grow. Owen wasn't blind to Bron's intentions and Zeth found the only amusement in his life in watching the two Gens compete for his attention. Zeth wasn't worried—Bron could not possibly realize how great the difference was between him and Owen, and Owen
could always handle Zeth. So Zeth relaxed and enjoyed—and maybe encouraged a little.
Finally the harsh winter ended. Slina's shipment of Gens arrived just as the roof was going onto her new pens. The town Simes who had gritted their way through the winter allowed themselves kills, and the worst tension went out of the community.
The thaws dissolved the route across the frozen river and turned the other trails to mud. Travel time across the border began to approach the day's journey of last summer, although it was a long, hard, muddy ride. Visitors from out-Territory voiced concern about the government investigation. "Oh, we'll handle it," said Eph Norton on one of his frequent visits. "They'll probably have Commander Whitby, from the local garrison, conduct it. He has no patience for paperwork—he just wants to go out and shoot Simes, and then go back to the garrison and get drunk."
"Since there won't be any Simes on your side of the border, it shouldn't be much of an investigation," said Dan.
"A hearing, probably, and it'll be dropped. Glian figures he'll never get his horses back, but if we don't make a fuss, and if we slip enough money under the table, it'll all blow over. I never thought I'd be grateful for that bunch of slobs in the garrison! We've been protesting for years that they were no protection against the Simes—who'd ever have thought one day we wouldn't want protection!"
It was tax time again, on both sides of the border. The out-Territory Gens went home, to avoid the fiasco of the previous quarter, and Norton also wanted the three ranchers' children to return. "They take a family census. A kid that age ain't accounted for, they assume he's dead or turned Sime and escaped—and he better not be there the next year!"
Maddok Bron said, "There are now enough of us who can give transfer to handle any changeover that might occur."
"Unless it's a channel," said Zeth
"The solution is obvious," said Bron. "Zeth, you must let me give you transfer this month—then I'll be qualified to serve at any changeover, channel's or no."
Zeth saw Owen tense, but he would not give Zeth the satisfaction of zlinning his jealousy. When he deliberately removed his attention from Zeth, he also removed his shield against the annoyance of turnover. The onslaught of that sinking feeling prodded Zeth to say, "Well, I don't know,
Maddok. I can't promise today—but if you stick close to me for the next two weeks, if your field becomes high enough—" " "You just do that, Maddok," said Owen. "That way I'm free to go out-Territory again. Eph, I'll help you take those kids home—and do some teaching about changeover, too. Now that the weather's broken, it's possible to get a changeover victim to Fort Freedom in plenty of time—if the poor kid hasn't tried to hide his first symptoms out of fear."
Zeth fought down panic. Bron's field enveloped him in triumphant promise—but the man could never reach his capacity by the end of the month. Still he refused to ask Owen to stay.
As Zeth didn't apologize, neither did Owen. He simply packed and traded rooms with Maddok. It was strange to have a different Gen nager in Zeth's room. Awake, Bron was adequate protection against encroaching need, and when he knelt to pray, the calm, meditative state soothed Zeth almost to the point of considering Owen's absence with equanimity. But the moment Bron fell asleep, his field would have kept any of the other channels comfortable, but not Zeth. What likelihood was there that an out-Territory child would change over into a channel of Zeth's power? Virtually none. If Owen makes any move to apologize in the morning, Zeth promised himself, I'll ask him to stay, and tell Bron he can handle any channel he's likely to encounter.
But Owen didn't apologize. Zeth stood back, waiting on the chapel steps, refusing the urgings of his waning field to run to his friend and beg him to stay.
Owen came over to him, leading Flash. When Zeth remained silent, Owen said, "I'll be back in ten days, Zeth."
"Fine," Zeth forced himself to say casually. "See you then. Have a good time."
Zeth felt Owen bite back a retort—then he mounted up, kicked Flash in the ribs, and was gone.
Zeth's need nightmares inevitably took the form of searching madly for Owen, never being able to find him. It was a week before Maddok even started to wake up in response to Zeth's discomfort, unless he woke up shouting. Still, Bron never tried, as Owen did, to provoke Zeth to make his own decisions. He was content to order Zeth around, and Zeth was content to obey.
The tenth day, though, relief flooded Zeth every time he remembered, Owen will be back today! But he wasn't. The
day passed, and the night as well, with no sign of Owen. Zeth fought down panic. I can survive one month without Owen. I can take a healing-mode transfer from Bron and balance my fields and then I'll be in good enough shape to go out-Territory and bring Owen home. Never did he let himself fear that Owen was not to be brought home. He's not dead. I'd know.
That afternoon, a mud-covered figure rode through the gates of Fort Freedom, radiating alarm. Eph Norton—announcing as he slid down from his horse, ".It's not an investigation—it's a takeover! Owen's been arrested!"
Zeth's panic spiked so high that Bron put his arms about him, as if to hold him from attack—but there was nothing to attack. Where is he? Who's got him?
Only when Norton had collapsed into a chair in the Veritt kitchen, a cup of tea in his hands and Margid busy making him a meal, did the story come out.
"They send out soldiers from the garrison to collect the taxes in the spring—but two or three together, not twenty or thirty! They come onto my place demanding tax money. I had it, but then they wanted a head count—and Owen happened to be there. Yesterday—no, day before. He was headed back here. Damn—if he'd've left just an hour earlier—I couldn't pass him off as a hired hand, him with only one arm, so I said he was my nephew—but seems they'd met Owen before and he claimed to live in Mountain Chapel. They decided to search the house, sayin' they heard we was harboring Simes, sellin' 'em Gens! I been hangin' these damn tags over my gun by the door, so's I'll remember to put 'em on before I ride over here. They found 'em, and then they ransacked the house, found my papers in Simelan—searched Owen and found his tags and papers, and that was enough to arrest him."
Norton's eyes met Zeth's. "Nothin' I could do, unless I wanted to be arrested along with him. They told me to stay put, they were gonna send out more troops to put us under martial law. We all knew what that meant! My men took out the guard they left on my place easy enough, and I rode right out here. By now, I figure they got reinforcements headin' for my place, and all the others, too."
"And maybe in Mountain Chapel," said Bron. "The law says they can execute Sime collaborators or Genrunners, and
Whitby would love some action to show he's doing his job! Zeth– "
"I came to you for help, and you gave it. You don't think we'll refuse to help in return?"
"I'm goin'," said Slina. "None of my people're gonna miss this."
"We can be ready to ride by sundown," said Dan.
Zeth was ready to go right that minute—but preparations had to be made to cover his absence, and the absence of Uel and Marji and their Companions. Most of the Simes would go, so most of the channels had to go as well. Marji, raised in Mountain Chapel's traditions, was astonished that she should be expected to go on a military campaign while Jord, a man, was to be left behind—but Jord was the least stable channel and therefore best not exposed to battle.
Zeth felt Sessly's resentment that Jord should be called unstable while he was in her care, but he also felt her relief that he would not have to risk his life in battle—and that kept her silent. Not that the channels were supposed to fight; they were the medical team. Zeth chafed as Dan deployed the people of Fort Freedom, the channels and Companions at the rear of the line of march. Zeth's inclination was to lead the charge—but of course he knew intellectually that Fort Freedom could not allow him to take such a risk.
Slina left one of her old faithful hands, Flieg, in charge of the new pens. The town Simes formed a separate line. There was no time to practice together, so it seemed best to leave each to its own tactic and leadership in battle.
They decided to head straight for Mountain Chapel, where they could pick up additional manpower to liberate the ranches. Slogging their way across the highest pass, they met another messenger on his way to Fort Freedom: Lon Carson. He was on foot and exhausted.
"I had to sneak out," he explained. "They sent a whole troop of men in, confiscated our weapons and set up martial law. Now there's only about twenty men guarding the town– but they have guns and we don't. The troops from the garrison are trying to keep everyone put while they round up reinforcements. Then they plan prejudged trials, and mass executions for Genrunning."
"Twenty men," said Slina. "Dan, Zeth, you let me and my men go in there and clean 'em out for you."
"We want to avoid killing—" began Bron.
Slina gave him a look that said her opinion of him had just dropped several notches below its previous rock-bottom position. "That's the idea," she said with exaggerated patience. "My people are professionals. They can handle Wild Gens without hurtin' 'em, so's no one's provoked to a kill. Put 'em up for sale later."
"Slina's right," said Dan Whelan. "All right—you bring your people around us—''
Zeth chafed at not being in on the action. It's just the first step in rescuing Owen, he reminded himself. He's not in Mountain Chapel.
The Gens took the easier but longer wagon trail toward Mountain' Chapel, Simes and the Companions riding with channels the shorter but narrower way that Zeth had first come to the town. As the sun rose, both troops approached the bridge. Glinting flashes told them spyglasses were turned on them—Simes and Gens, meeting and joining to progress inexorably in the direction of the town.
The Gen troops headed out to defend the bridge. Slina and her party rode forward, whips at the ready. Shots rang out– but none reached its mark. In the second volley, when the Simes were upon them, one townswoman went down, dead, caught full in the face. Otherwise, flesh wounds, but nothing serious—and the Simes were riding straight over the soldiers. On the other side of the bridge they turned, cracked their whips, and began herding the terrified Gen soldiers back across the bridge.
In the town, people came running out, cheering. Half the soldiers dropped their guns in panic, and the others' were quickly wrenched out of their hands.
Slina dismounted, coiling her whip, and strode briskly toward the captives. "Prime Wild Gens," she said in English. "Keb, Bree, Taris—you take 'em on back to my pen—tell Flieg to tag 'em and make out papers. And tell him to sell the two that give you the most trouble on the way back as Choice Kills, to pay the taxes on the rest!"
The tensed alarm in the captives put an edge on Zeth's need, and he almost objected until he recalled that Slina's pen was the only structure that could possibly contain the prisoners—and her threat would assure they went docilely with their escort. None must get away to warn the others!
Beside him, Bron called, "Take those uniforms, and let
them travel in their underwear, Slina. They won't give you any trouble."
Slina squinted back at him, zlinning him oddly, and then issued the orders.
Soon the soldiers were on their way back to Fort Freedom. In the town, the people were liberating their guns from where the soldiers had put them, inside the chapel—but no one seemed certain of their next move. "Now what do we do? There'll be more troops on the way here, tomorrow at the latest, with orders to hold executions!" said Lon Carson in the Brons' main room.
"Not if this were Sime Territory," said Zeth. It seemed so obvious he couldn't imagine why Bron was staring at him. "I saw it months ago—before Abel died. There aren't enough people in any of our communities to survive alone now. We've got to unify."
Maddok said, "Zeth, I'm calling everyone into the chapel. Your idea will have to be considered."
After everyone had been calmed by prayer, Bron announced, "We're not safe here anymore. We have to help the ranchers oust the military from their property—but that isn't enough. Once word gets out, we'll be the target of the whole territorial army. Fortunately, Zeth Farris has a suggestion."
Zeth made his way to the lectern and faced the overcrowded chapel, noting the way the Simes had arranged themselves to protect those in need. It was the first time he had faced them thus, but he knew this was the only way he'd get to Owen in time, and so he found his voice.
"We are four communities united in a mutual struggle for survival—ranchers, Mountain Chapel, Fort Freedom, and Freedom Township. A law which decrees a parent must be executed for saving a child's life is an abomination of the human spirit. If we are to continue as human beings, we must remove the border that divides us. If we move it so that your communities lie in-Territory, it will not be illegal for you to love your parents—or your children."
"I'm for that!" cried a Gen. Another spoke up, "But how can we?" A Sime called, "If we can do it, we'll have autonomous control of the new land for a decade. We can write our own laws!" And a portly man from the back added the clincher, "We won't have to pay taxes on both sides of the border anymore!"
Enthusiasm for Zeth's idea was growing. Eph Norton ex-
pressed it for them all. "Hell—we got nothin' to lose. If we don't move the border, our government's gonna execute every last one of us." He pointed to Jimmy, sitting across the aisle with other Simes. "I got a boy there can't be my son under Gen law. He hasn't killed five months. There's nothing wrong with him now. No reason he shouldn't inherit the ranch I built!"
Soon a plan was formulated: they'd ride out and take the Gen garrison. Zeth breathed a sigh of relief. That's where Owen is!
Had it been up to Zeth, everyone would have gone straight out to their horses. However, there was an immense amount of preparation first. Horses had to be shod and shells loaded, and men discussed how best to deploy the new, fast-loading guns with the older type. Women packed food and medical supplies.. Meanwhile, arguments erupted as to exactly where they meant to move the border.
The arguments, the preparations—all seemed to Zeth a deliberate waste of time. "The reinforcements will reach the garrison while we're fooling around here!" he protested. "They'll have a full force."
"And if we're unprepared," said Cord Ashley, one of the secular leaders of Mountain Chapel, "they'll put us to rout. I've served in the army, son. It'll take them time to gather their men—and we have to decide exactly what we're going to do. What we can do."
Bron agreed. "We have no right to try to take other communities into Sime Territory—perhaps one day we'll encourage others, but we must not force them."
"Look at it practically," said Ashley. "What we take we gotta hold. Chances are, if we attempt to hold only land that's ours anyway, they'll think twice about trying to move the border back—'specially if the Sime government will help us hold it?"
He looked questioningly at Zeth, but it was Slina who answered. "Rimon an' Abel an' me—we been playin' games with the government the past ten years—an' I ain't forgot how it's done. You worry 'bout takin' the land, and we'll worry 'bout holdin' it."
Bron assured Cord, "You can trust Slina to know the ins and outs of Sime Government. And you just saw the way the people she commands handle themselves in battle."
Finally they got to what interested Zeth; the garrison. It lay
in a plateau beneath a cliff that made a natural barrier across that section of Gen Territory. "If we can take the garrison," said Ashley, "that cliff makes a natural border. There are only two passes through it, three days' ride apart. It won't take many people to guard those passes. We put the border there, we can defend it! Now—how do we take the fort?"
Bron had an answer obvious to the Gens—a solution no Sime would think of. Find twenty men, Sime and Gen, who fit the uniforms they had taken from the captured soldiers. Send them in as returning troops. By the time they were close enough for Gens to realize that they didn't recognize them, they'd be close enough to charge the gate while the force from Fort Freedom and Mountain Chapel swept down out of the hills. Those who entered the fort would also be armed with a Gen innovation, powder kegs with fuses.
Maddok Bron had further plans. "As a safety measure, and to be certain the Simes fighting with us can tell which Gens are which in the heat of battle, the channels ought to take down the fields of all our Gens—even those staying behind. You'll have to have that selyn for healing, Zeth."
Much as he itched to be off, Zeth had to agree. As a large number of Mountain Chapel Gens had never donated before, the three channels had to work slowly the next few hours. By the time they were finished, it was finally time to ride for the garrison.
They rode through the night, reaching the hills overlooking the garrison at midmorning. Scouts moved forward—Zeth was called up front, as he was the most sensitive of them all. Eagerly, he ran to the top of the rocks and peered over. Small bands of soldiers were leaving the fort on horseback, scattering in all directions. "What the bloodyshen hell is going on?" demanded Slina, now dressed in a Gen officer's uniform that hung shapelessly on her spare frame.
"I can't tell," Zeth whispered back, and extended his laterals. All he could read was a bustle of Gen activity spiked with anger, dismay, annoyance, and apprehension. What he did not read kept him frozen in icy horror until Slina shook him.
"Owen's not there!" he gasped. "Slina—he's dead!"
"He ain't there don't mean he's dead. I'd stake Owen against them lorshes any day." Zeth remembered his mother saying the same thing, and took heart. Maybe he'd escaped.
Quickly, before the Gen soldiers stumbled on the massed
attack force, their little troop of counterfeit soldiers broke up into small groups and infiltrated the others. Without appearing to be bucking the tide, they worked their way toward the fort—and when they were close enough, the charge began.
Gen fear and astonishment permeated the plateau as the force of Simes and Gens appeared. Shots rang out, horns sounded, and the troops wheeled their horses and galloped back toward the gates, which were moving ponderously shut. Zeth could zlin Gens manning the walls, and saw puffs of smoke as they began firing. But some of their planted soldiers were inside by the time the gates closed.
Knowing Owen was not in the garrison made it easier for Zeth to do what he was supposed to: set up a field hospital outside range of those firing from the fort walls. Jimmy Norton, assigned to help Zeth, led up a pack horse and began unloading medical supplies as Hank and Uel set up the standard to mark the location of the channels for the Gens. Ironically, the flag they flew was one of the brand-new vivid green pennants from Slina's pens.
Already wounded were being brought in—mostly Gen soldiers who hadn't made it back inside the fort.
Then, even through the raging battle, Zeth caught the pain of the inevitable—the first kill. It came from inside the fort—one of the town Simes, then. Within seconds there was another—and then a roar of shock as the garrison exploded, shards of wood flying high into the air on a roiling black cloud. They'd blown the powder depot! With it went one side of the wall. Zeth could barely zlin through the shrieking Gen pain as men were torn to pieces or burned. Instantly, every Sime past turnover was shocked to intil, and the high-field Gen soldiers were plucked up and killed on every side.
Soldiers came billowing out of the fort, on horseback and on foot, their only chance now to attack swiftly and powerfully. At close range, their shots connected, and the hospital was suddenly busier than Zeth had yet seen. He worked, not allowing himself to think or he would sink into total despair. The kill raged around and through him, his heritage, his destiny. There was no way out. Owen was gone.
He worked numbly, glad now for the selyn the Mountain Chapel Gens had donated. He could heal a few more before he killed. Maddok, praying as he worked, was a rock Zeth could lean on—provided he didn't lean too hard.
Simultaneously, Zeth became aware of two facts. The first
was the fighting arrowing steadily toward the hospital. Bron said, "Dear God! They think the banner marks the command post!"
At the same time, a familiar nager approached from another direction, flickering as it moved between the rocky outcroppings. Owen!
Maddok started for the banner—obviously to tear it down. Zeth grabbed him. "No! Owen has to see it to find me!"
Bron stared at him as if Zeth had gone out of his head. "Owen's not here, Zeth—but I am—"
"No—he's coming. There!" He pointed to where Owen's bright hair could be seen shining in the sun as he dashed between two rocks, making his way down to the plateau. "And," added Zeth, "all the Gens have to be able to see where the channels are!
A few soldiers were driving directly toward the pennant. Zeth grabbed the ambient fields and sent up a shattering call for help. Nearby Simes fought loose and converged on the station to protect the channels. Mrs. Young, Hapen's mother, grasped one of the Gen soldiers who had made it almost to Zeth's feet, and killed. Zeth knew that he himself was poised to kill right now—that he would kill, without compunction, to save himself, or Owen, or anyone he loved.
As Owen's nager continued to work toward him, zigzagging to avoid the fighting, Zeth pulled his concentration down to healing one of the Mountain Chapel Gens. He had to let his own need pour through his nerves to get the Gen cells to produce more selyn, to heal themselves. He tried not to be aware of the long time Owen was taking, not to notice when the distant Gen's attention flicked to some battle scene before him. Slowly, the bleeding under his hands stopped. He gave Jimmy Norton a grim smile. "Bandage it," he instructed, and started to turn to the next patient when he saw and zlinned Owen, not a hundred paces away, caught on the opposite side of a mass of fighting.
Owen was watching Eph Norton and two burly soldiers. The soldiers closed on Norton, bayonets jabbing. Owen threw himself into the fight, knocking one of the Gens down while Norton rammed the butt of his gun into the other's jaw.
Zeth hardly felt the pain amid the scrambled ambient nager, and only realized he himself was in motion when Jimmy zipped past him at the highest level of augmentation.
The first soldier was on his feet again, slashing with his
sword while Norton parried with the clumsier gun. Jimmy leaped to his father's defense, flinging the sword from the soldier's hand with one blow to his wrist, and then even as the man was screaming in pain, grasped him in killmode. On a wave of augmentation, Zeth leaped on Jimmy, hauling him back with all his strength, shenning him out of the attack in pain that put Zeth helplessly into killmode himself.
Jimmy fell unconscious, and Zeth groped toward Owen– just as another soldier charged Zeth with his bayonet. Augmenting again, Zeth grasped the gun barrel, intending to fling it away—but he had forgotten the relative weights of Sime and Gen. The man stood rock solid until Zeth got his grip, and then he flung Zeth's lighter body right up into the air– and toward another man waiting with a sword to spit him!
Zeth twisted in midair to land on his feet—but as the soldier slashed at him he automatically grasped the man's right wrist with his left hand, twisting until he dropped the weapon. The soldier sought to throw a punch with his left hand, and Zeth grabbed that as well—and was holding the soldier in kill position while he flared horror.
Owen ran toward Zeth, trying to leap between them, but another soldier caught him in the stomach with his gun butt. It reached Zeth as the most exquisite flash of pain he had ever experienced. He was in killmode, the face before him already forming the rictus of fear as he reached for lip contact.
Owen, unable to move or even breathe, snatched his hunting knife from his boot and flung it straight into the back of the man
Zeth held. The Gen died in Zeth's arms before he could kill—the nager going flat and tasteless though still
replete with selyn.,
In a rage of denied killbliss, Zeth turned as another Gen field, high, warm, welcoming, closed on him. Pure predator, Zeth grasped and drew. He sought to slake his wakened yearning in true killbliss. But this Gen was giving—giving– He speeded his draw, already close to depleting the Gen field. He could still kill—drain—burn– Fierce joy spread through him as the Gen felt pain, then fear, and began to struggle.
Something in Zeth shifted. The searing need for Gen pain was gone. Though need was still there, he was filled with the joy of release.
Something slammed him duoconscious. The Gen fell away from his loosened grasp. In agonized protest, his dual system went into spasm. And then blackness closed over him.
Zeth came to, struggling to breathe, Owen's full weight crushing him. He was on his back on the battlefield, his hands pinned between their two bodies, against Owen's bare chest—this time Owen hadn't waited for help to give transfer when Zeth was unconscious. He'd torn open his shirt to let Zeth's laterals find contact. Somehow, it had worked; after the last trickle of termination, Owen lifted his head, smiling in relief to find Zeth looking at him. He climbed to his knees, his field ringing with triumph at overcoming his handicap. Zeth breathed deeply and managed, "Thanks."
The battle was skirling away from them now. Zeth knew he had tried to kill, but couldn't remember clearly why he hadn't. He sat up, ignoring the bruised feeling through his system. Del was bending over Maddok, who was unconscious and very pale. The other channel looked up at once. "He'll live, Zeth. It's just a burn. I zlinned the whole thing, but I couldn't reach you. You shenned yourself, thank God."
"It wasn't me. You dropped Maddok before I could touch you. Then you started convulsing like Rimon used to—just about scared me to– Anyway, you're both all right."
"Zeth?" The voice was querulous, plaintive. Jimmy Norton. Zeth shoved himself to his feet. Jimmy was clinging to his father for support—but there was no nageric link between them. It was Zeth Jimmy was reaching toward—and Zeth held out his arms to him, feeling in his nager the sweet, clean ease of tension that meant disjunction. The transfer wiped out Zeth's pain as totally as it did Jimmy's need—and afterward he hugged the boy, saying, "It's over, Jimmy. You made it. No more need to kill."
Eph Norton, his field glowing with joy and gratitude, took his son from Zeth's arms. "He insisted it had to be you, Zeth. You did it—you made Jimmy my son again!"
But Jimmy Norton was not the only Sime who needed a transfer. As the battle wound down, the channels were faced with lines of people determined not to succumb to the kill in the weakness of relief. Owen tugged at Zeth. "Jana needs you—hurry!"
Owen's sister was trembling with need, brought on partly by selyn loss from a sword wound in her thigh, and partly by the same augmentation every Sime in the battle had indulged in—to win. The Gen soldiers were all dead or captured and a
strange hush had fallen. Zeth told Jana, "You came through just fine. You resisted, Jana."
In response, she flung herself on him, and when it was over, she clung to Zeth, sobbing, "I wanted to kill. I only murdered a few of them. Sissy Brandon, though—Zeth, she never killed before! Never! And I saw her—"
"We'll have to help her, Jana," Zeth began.
"No, no—she's dead! I think she let them cut her down after—''
"No, Jana—it was war." Even so, their casualties were light. No one close to Zeth had died, and he chose to take that as an omen of better times.
The evening passed in a blur—transfers, post-reactions, and caring for the wounded. Just before sundown, they carried the last of the wounded into the fort, where the men's living quarters, on the side opposite the hole in the wall, were turned into an infirmary. Zeth had no time to think until well after midnight, when he was making a final check through the barracks before trying to find a place for himself—and particularly Owen—to get some rest. Finally it occurred to him to ask his Companion, "How did you escape? We came to rescue you, you know."
Owen had tied the torn ends of his shirt together, but his Gen tags with Slina's dagger-like emblem flashed in the candlelight. He had repossessed the tags along with his knife. "I wasn't going to let those fools make me miss my transfer," he explained. "I just pretended to be helpless. None of those soldiers were very bright, especially Commander Whitby. He came to question me this morning. By then I had them convinced I couldn't even button my shirt without help—so when I paced around behind him, pretending I might tell him something, he never thought I'd pick up the washstand and bash him over the head. Then I took his keys, and off I went! The so-called guards never even saw me sneak out the gate. I was halfway up the mountain before they started sending out search parties."
"They never saw you leave? You are trying to earn the title 'wer-Gen,' aren't you?"
By this time they had reached a knot of people, Simes and Gens, clustered around the bunk where Maddok Bron was recovering from transfer burn. As they had plenty of fosebine, his headache was only a dull throb. Dan Whelan, Eph Norton, Hank and Uel, Slina, and Cord Ashley were all deep in plans.
"... as a decoy," Slina was saying as Zeth and Owen came up. "Not one trooper escaped today. When the others come back, the Simes here'll zlin 'em. We get some folks in uniform up on the walls, and those Gens'll just ride right into the trap, nice as you please!"
"But half the wall is down!" Cord Ashley protested. "It'll take days—"
"Shen," Slina laughed, "bunch of my Simes are out hauling logs now. We'll have that wall back by sunrise—just has to look the same from the outside." Replete with selyn from a guiltless kill that day, Slina was hypoconscious and in a jolly mood. Now she looked up and saw Zeth. "Well," she said heartily, "your plan sure worked!"
My plan? But just then Jana came up from the other side. "Please, Slina, speak more softly. The wounded Gens must sleep."
"Sure thing, kid," said Slina in a whisper far more penetrating than her speaking voice. "Well, Zeth, what next?"
Jana remained behind Slina, looking expectantly at Zeth, as did everyone else. "Slina, you'll handle the legal problems. Maddok, I'm afraid the Simes who killed today will be coming to you for comfort."
"I think I can manage that," Bron said evenly. "I will tell them what we are fighting is no demon—but you overcame killust today, Zeth. I was wrong. My pride could have gotten me killed—and made you a killer. I couldn't stop you. You did it yourself. I've been thanking God for your strength since I woke up."
He felt inside his shirt, searching for something.
"I just wish I understood what happened," said Zeth. "I didn't kill, but others, even those who had never killed—"
"Zeth," said Uel, "you zlinned just like Abel Veritt before he died."
Zeth remembered the feeling Abel had given them all. He had gone beyond the kill. "But Abel died. He couldn't accept selyn."
"You're a channel, Zeth," said Owen.
"But Abel wasn't. Why should—?" Suddenly it all fell into place. "Owen—I remember now what Abel and I had in common. We were both almost killed! Marji almost killed Abel at her changeover. And Dad almost killed me. You have to die to be free of the kill!"
A weight lifted from his spirit. He barely heard Uel say, "Then I'll do it, too," as Hank's nager flared real fear.
Jana said, "Do it to me, Zeth. I don't ever want to be tempted again."
"No," said Owen. "You're not a channel, Jana. I'm not allowing any experiments on my sister!"
"That's right, Jana," said Bron. "Let the channels decide what's best." He was holding his papers and tags. Putting the tags around his neck, like Owen's, he said, "Zeth, only someone who is beyond the kill has the right to make such decisions." He held out his papers to Zeth. "You're my channel now. I choose you."
Dan Whelan and the others all looked at Zeth, echoing Bron's trust. It was the same excruciating feeling he had known in the chapel at his father's eulogy. But now it was bearable.
Abel had chosen him to hold the papers of the Gens of Fort Freedom, and he had not been able to accept. Now, his hand closed firmly over Bron's papers. "Abel once told me the truth of our predicament in Fort Freedom. Fear is our real enemy, not the people it possesses.
"So many of our—family—have died fighting that fear. But so long as we can live together, they didn't die in vain." He looked up at Owen, then around the circle of familiar faces and back to Bron. "I'll do my part to see that Fort Freedom continues, if you'll all do yours."
The wave of affirmation drove him duoconscious, and there were tears behind his eyes as he added, "I can do it because I know now that Abel Veritt did not die forsworn, nor was his faith in the future unjustified-" Zeth held the papers aloft, accepting without reservation the triumphant knowledge: "Fort Freedom lives—forever!"