Midsummer brought plans for two celebrations. In Zeth's family, it was his eleventh birthday—a Gen tradition, the celebration of birthdays, but Fort Freedom deliberately maintained both Sime and Gen customs just as it maintained both languages.
The other celebration was a community-wide conspiracy: a fiftieth birthday celebration for Abel Veritt. In Gen Territory that might not be a particularly long life, but Zeth's father speculated that Mr. Veritt might be the oldest Sime who ever lived.
Three days before his birthday, Zeth was doing his morning chores when Mr. Veritt rode up to the New Homestead. By the time Zeth went in to breakfast, Mr. Veritt was seated at the table with Zeth's parents, drinking tea. Rimon said, "You don't have to put yourself through this again, Abel."
"No, Rimon. I've told all the others, and I'll tell Zeth. It's my duty until there is nothing left to tell." He smiled. "Perhaps not long now. I managed seven months this time– and then transfer with Hank two days ago. This time—" He broke off, but Zeth understood.
The Simes who had killed for years, before Rimon Farris found a way for them to stop, had to have direct Gen transfer every so often. Hank Steers always provided transfer for Abel Veritt, for he had lived with the Veritts when he first carne to Fort Freedom, and was like another son to them.
Now Mr. Veritt said, "Zeth, I'm going to take you away from your chores today. One more lesson, and your changeover training will be complete."
"Yes, sir," said Zeth. He had known it was coming. Eleven natal years was the youngest changeover his father had ever heard of; therefore every child in Fort Freedom was
thoroughly trained before his eleventh birthday. Whatever he was to learn today was very adult and very sobering. He remembered Owen, and later Jana, returning from the final lesson with solemn, still faces.
They rode through town, and out beyond the Old Homestead. Mr. Veritt reined in atop the hill that overlooked Gen Territory. "It is many years," he said as they got down from their horses, "since we sent one of our children down that trail in a Farewell Ceremony. But you must know, Zeth, that if you are Gen, if you choose, we will send you across with our blessings."
"I won't be Gen," said Zeth. "I'll change over before autumn."
"Zeth!" Mr. Veritt said reprovingly. "You don't know that."
"Yes I do!" the boy protested, for somehow he did know.
"You must not presume. Your father thinks you will be Sime and a channel. Indeed, we pray for it, as we must have more channels. But no one can know God's will before the event."
Zeth had never been more certain of anything, but he decided not to argue further. "If I am Gen, Mr. Veritt, I'll stay and be a Companion like Mama.''
Mr. Veritt nodded. "I'm sure you would. However, you must know that the choice is open. Zeth—you are unique. You're the only child in Fort Freedom of your age. I have always brought three or four children here before. It is a bitter secret I must confess to you, Zeth Farris."
". . . Confess?"
They sat down on a shady rock, the horses wandering away to crop the dry grass. It was a still day, the only sounds the movement of the horses and some insect noises. Zeth stared down the trail, where some distance down the hill was the border between Sime and Gen Territories.
Mr. Veritt seemed to read Zeth's thought. "Do you know what marks the border between the Territories?" he asked.
"Fear," Zeth replied. "If we could remove fear between Simes and Gens, there'd be no borders."
"Yes," said Mr. Veritt, "that's right. However, I meant the question literally. The border crossing on that trail before you is marked by a grave—the grave of a martyr."
"I know," said Zeth. "Jon Forester." He had seen the name on the Monument in the chapel to all who had died to
make it possible for Simes and Gens to live together. The most recent name was Ten Layton's.
Jon Forester had died the same way Teri had: a Gen still learning to be a Companion, not yet able to avoid panicking when touched by a killer Sime. Jon Forester, though, had not been killed by some raiding stranger, but by Abel Veritt's own son, Jord.
"You know the story," said Mr. Veritt, "and you know what we learned from Jon Forester's death."
"The test," said Zeth. "If a Sime has killed, even once, like the ones who come to us from Gen Territory, they can go a few months without killing, but then they reach a crisis. They want to kill. It seems they need to kill, that transfer from a channel or Companion isn't enough."
Mr. Veritt nodded. "You've learned your lessons well."
"That one? I've heard it every day of my life. Dad's really scared I'll kill. He thinks I'll be like him, but there won't be a Gen like Mama to give me transfer. He's making me watch Bekka Trent." Bekka had changed over in Gen Territory, and killed in First Need, but her desperate flight had brought her across the border at Ardo Pass, where Del Erick had found her and brought her to Fort Freedom less than a month ago. Such Simes were welcomed at Fort Freedom, as they were willing to go through almost anything never to kill again.
"The young ones," said Abel. "Yes, they go through agonies and come out purified, the kill burned forever from their souls."
"Well, I'm not going through that," said Zeth with a shudder. "I'll do whatever Dad tells me." He studied Mr. Veritt. "Is that what this is about? I know I've disobeyed sometimes, but I'm sure not gonna take the chance I might kill someone!"
Sadly, Mr. Veritt said, "No, Zeth. What I must tell you concerns those of us who had been killing every month for years, before your father learned to be the channel of life force between Sime and Gen. I was the first, Zeth. To save my life, Rimon Farris first transferred selyn to a Sime."
"I know," Zeth whispered. He remembered being brought in afterward—the crowded room, the atmosphere of rejoicing, his vow to be a channel. The first time he had vowed it, a very small boy caught up in a moment that changed history. "I was there," he said. "I remember the way you looked—I guess I'll never forget. When I was a little kid, and used to
picture God like a person ... I pictured you, except sort of mixed up with my dad."
Heeling pain played over Mr. Veritt's features. "We set ourselves up for that, we who take on the spiritual leadership of a community. I felt the same way about my father. He was the minister of our church, many years ago."
Zeth knew that Mr. Veritt had come from Gen Territory, fleeing across the border just as Bekka Trent had—but back then there was no Fort Freedom to welcome him, and in his despair he had fallen in with Freehand Raiders. But instead of launching into the familiar tale, Mr. Veritt said softly, "I killed my father, Zeth."
The boy jumped, shocked.
Veritt drew his gaze from the horizon. "To him I had become an abomination, for the Church of the Purity teaches that all Simes are evil demons. I believed that, even more when I realized what I had done. It took me years to find my way back to God, and many years more to stop distorting His truth with my own prideful theories. Your parents taught me that, Zeth. I no longer pretend to interpret God's will.
"Yet some things I know. My entire life is evidence of God's mercy. He has a way of bringing together the right people to implement His plans. While I was building Fort Freedom, your father was undergoing his own changeover and suffering terrible guilt because in First Need he, too, killed someone dear to him. You bear the name of the man he killed."
"I know," said Zeth, for that was another familiar story.
"Throughout your father's sufferings, there was your mother, a woman of courage and devotion.-"
That story was Zeth's favorite: how Rimon Farris and Kadi Morcot had grown up together. How Kadi, still a child, had helped Rimon survive the tragedy of his First Kill—not a Gen, but a Sime, his cousin and best friend. How Kadi had established and been taken by Gen traders to be sold at the Reloc Bazaar as a Choice Kill, and how Rimon had rescued her.
Rimon, in need, had meant to escort Kadi to the border and send her safely into Gen Territory, controlling his own desires in the face of Kadi's soaring field. Then they had encountered a Gen raiding party, torturing to death a Sime they had captured.
Rimon intended to release the prisoner, and send Kadi
safely across the border with the Gens. Neither Rimon nor Kadi spoke the Gen language nor understood that a party of bounty hunters was no safe escort. When Kadi ran to them, pretending to flee for her life, they took her in all right—and began fighting over who would have her.
Rimon had to rescue Kadi again. The Sime captive of the bounty hunters, he saw, was a member of the Lorder Patrol. It didn't take him long to find the rest of the Patrol and lead them to attack the Gens. In the melee of battle, he was releasing the Sime captive when she died in his arms, driving him from need to intil—the helpless urge to kill. Instinctively, he turned on the nearest Gen: Kadi.
Somehow through hard need, Rimon Farris recognized her, and when he should have killed to renew his own life—he stopped. Shenned, ripped from the source of satisfaction through an act of pure will, he fell unconscious. Now Kadi faced a life-or-death decision—and decided to give her life for Rimon's. Taking him hi kill position, she gave selyn, expecting to die. But because she did not fear, she did not die.
Zeth shivered as Abel Veritt retold the story. It was a perfect legend, each lover willing to die to save the other. Mr. Veritt continued, "When your mother and father could find no acceptance in their own home, God led them to us. Here they learned all that Sime and Gen can do together—and here your father found his destiny. Your heritage, Zeth. You may be the channel we so desperately need. We have not found another since Uel Whelan, nine years ago. You are our hope, along with Uel's children. In your father's family, changeover comes early, usually by twelve. Soon you may face a great responsibility."
"It's what I want," said Zeth. "I vowed I'd be a channel before I even understood what a channel was!"
Mr. Veritt looked down at his arms, extending his tentacles in an uncharacteristic gesture. "It is not always easy to keep a vow, no matter how heartfelt."
The hollow despair behind the softly spoken words made Zeth put his hands over Mr. Veritt's. The old man twined his tentacles over the boy's hands, squeezing gently. "You have a channel's instincts, Zeth—or a Companion's. But you may not wish to touch me when you know that I have not yet kept the most important vow of my life."
Zeth had heard that vow repeated at every year's turning ceremony. Slowly, the tone had changed from triumph to
determination to something close to desperation, and the older Simes wept when Abel Veritt declared, "As God is my witness, I shall not die a killer!"
Horror-struck, Zeth whispered, "No! Oh, no, you can't mean—"
"Zeth . . . my last kill was not. nine years ago. It was seven months ago."
Veritt had retracted his tentacles, but Zeth still clung while he fought conflicting emotions. "But. . . why?" he whispered. "We've got channels, and I know Mr. Steers gives you transfer. Why!" he cried, backing off with a sudden angry urge to throw the frail old man who had betrayed his trust down the rocky hillside.
"I pray constantly for an answer to that question," Mr. Veritt replied softly. "Thus far, there is no answer . . . that I can accept. Perhaps I must pay for the presumption of my vow . . . and yet I cannot comprehend a judgment against me paid with the lives of others."
"What . . . what does Dad say?" asked Zeth. Rimon Farris surely knew everything about Simes.
"There is a change in the nager of a Sime who has killed, when once he passes the crisis and is separated from the kill. That change takes place only in the young—those Simes still in First Year, when they have the great flexibility required to adjust to being Sime. If they don't stop killing in First Year . . . your father thinks they never can."
"No," said Zeth. "Dad killed for four years before—" Total panic overtook him. "No! No, he doesn't! He can't!"
"No, Zeth," Mr. Veritt said firmly. "Your father does not kill, ever."
"I don't know. Your father passed his crisis the first time the test came upon him—for others, it may simply take longer." Mr. Veritt looked over into Gen Territory again. "I'm a very old man, Zeth. I never expected to live so long. But it is my fervent hope that God is allowing me time to fulfill my vow. As the years pass, the crisis comes on me less frequently—but with greater power."
"When you were so sick last winter—?" Zeth realized.
"It was not illness," Mr. Veritt confirmed. "I was determined to pass– the crisis. The first month, your father forced transfer on me, but I remained debilitated. The second month—I
can't even remember. I've been told I shenned Uel, Hank, and then your father. I would have died of attrition."
"What happened?" Zeth asked.
"Slina." He sighed. "She doesn't understand us, but she is a good woman in her own way. She brought one of her Gens right into the house. I ... responded—demanded it, your father tells me. I was not in my right mind—but your father is a healer. I suppose he could not help weighing my life against the life of that poor drugged creature who had never had the chance to become a person. All I remember is coming to with that dead Gen a burden in my arms."
Zeth's head was whirling. If Mr. Veritt could not stop killing, what about the other people he loved? Mrs. Veritt was another mother to him, Del Erick had taught him to ride—and all the others who had raised him—killers all? Hypocrites?
"Everybody . . . ?" He couldn't even ask.
"Everybody beyond First Year when your father gave me transfer that day, when you were two years old. We have found that one of our Companions can meet the crisis sometimes, and prevent a kill. With Hank's help, I have gone eleven months. Now it has been seven months—and this time I shall pass the crisis. I cannot go on taking a life every year—and someone must prove it is possible to stop killing even at my age."
"Everybody," Zeth repeated. "I thought we were different!"
"You are different, Zeth. In nine years, no Sime who has changed over in Fort Freedom has killed. We have set our children free of the kill. Now you must carry on—you must do what we could not."
As Zeth tried to absorb the enormity of what he had learned, he no longer felt anger toward Mr. Veritt. He wasn't sure what he felt.
Zeth had never seen a kill. Transfer, yes; both Sime~Gen transfer and channel's transfer were demonstrated in the chapel, and every once in a while a channel gave public transfer to someone so desperate that he could not wait for privacy.
But the kill ... that was the enemy kept at bay on the other side of the creek. Or, he realized with a shock, imprisoned within the walls of the Old Fort. Except for Del Erick, all those Simes Mr. Veritt said could not put the kill behind lived in the Old Fort. Only a few young Simes, who had never killed, lived at the New Farris Homestead, where all
the newly established Gens came to live while they learned to be Companions who could walk safely among all Simes.
All their customs were designed to protect the new Gens. Zeth found it impossible to imagine anyone requiring protection from Abel Veritt, or any of the older Simes. He remembered Del Erick, in hard need, holding Owen steady that day when his son accidentally provoked him. He had resisted what everyone said was the most tempting field since Kadi Farris. But Owen was his son, and Rimon Farris had come to extricate him—
Zeth could not imagine Mr. Erick killing, or Abel Veritt taking a human life merely for some strange satisfaction. Any channel or Companion could provide the life force to satisfy his need. I don't believe it.
When he looked toward Abel Veritt again, seeking to be told it was all some test that he had yet to find the answer to, the old man was no longer waiting patiently for Zeth's next question. He had tensed, leaning forward, his eyes ceasing to focus as he zlinned with Sime senses, which could perceive far beyond the range of vision.
Mr. Veritt rose, saying, "Someone is coming. One person. One Gen—alone?" He extended his sensitive laterals, the small, vulnerable, pinkish-gray tentacles lying smoothly against either side of the gnarled, weather-beaten hands.
"Two people," said Mr. Veritt. "No one else that I can zlin. Not a raiding party—one's a child. No ... I think . . . Zeth, someone's bringing a changeover victim to the border! I've never heard of such a thing! That Gen is in danger—I can't tell how far the changeover has progressed." But as he mounted his horse he changed his mind. "I can't go down there. The Gen might turn and run—and be killed if the Sime reaches breakout. You go, Zeth. You're still a child. You won't frighten them."
Riding down the trail, Zeth soon saw a Gen woman driving a wagon, a blanket-covered form lying in the back. As he rode up, the woman halted the wagon. Her eyes swept over his untentacled arms. Then she said in uncertain! Simelan, "Fort Freedom. Is it still there?"
"Yes, ma'am," Zeth answered in English. "I live there."
"Oh, thank God!" She turned to the still form in the wagon. 'Marji! Marji, wake up! I'm going to have to leave you."
Zeth saw on the wagon bed a pretty young girl with
delicate features framed by curly light brown hair. She was either asleep or unconscious. The girl moaned, and tossed fitfully, exposing her forearms. The woman looked to Zeth. "She's always been such a good girl. Will you . . . will you take her for me? I can't come into Sime Territory again."
"Again?" "I was born there. I grew up in Fort Freedom."
"Then you know we'll bring her through changeover just fine. What's your name?"
"Hope Carson." ~ "We've got a Tom Carson. A relative?"
"Tommy Carson? My husband's little brother! I wish—"
Zeth said, "You can come along. It's safe. Simes in Fort Freedom don't kill anymore.",
"They don't kill real people. I know."
"No—they don't kill at all!" said Zeth, and then remembered what Mr. Veritt had just told him. "Your daughter will never kill," he amended. "One of the channels will give her transfer. If you grew up in Fort Freedom, you're not afraid to come back, are you?"
The woman studied him. "No," she said finally, "I'm not afraid. No one in Fort Freedom would hurt me."
"Then bring the wagon," said Zeth, and called, "Mr. Veritt! Mr. Veritt, this lady is from Fort Freedom!"
Mrs. Carson froze. "Veritt?" she murmured. "Is it Jord, or . . . ?"
Abel Veritt came slowly down the trail, getting off his horse a good distance from the wagon. "I won't hurt you, child!" he called. "Do you remember—?"
The woman jumped down from the wagon and stood in the trail. Veritt stopped, and the two just looked at one another, until finally he said, awestruck, "Hope!"
"Father!" Suddenly she was running toward him, only to stop a few paces away, hesitating.
"It's all right," he said. "I'm not in need."
She flung herself into his arms and they hugged each other, laughing and crying at once. Then Mr. Veritt held his daughter at arm's length, saying, "Oh, Hope, it's so good to see you again!"
"Mother?" she asked in a small voice.
'Your mother is fine. And Jord—well, he's had his problems since his wife died, but he's alive, too."
She nodded, fighting back tears as she led him toward the wagon. "I've tried to live a good life. I married Lon Carson."
"He was always a good boy," said Mr. Veritt.
"He's a good man, Father, but still—" She gestured toward the wagon. "Our daughter. Margid, but we call her Marji."
Veritt climbed up on the wagon, looking at the girl, then zlinning her. "My granddaughter," he said with a smile. "Lord, I thank you for allowing me to see this day."
"But, Father," Mrs. Carson said in anguish, "she's in changeover! In spite of all our efforts to do God's will—"
"Hope," said Mr. Veritt, "God gave you the courage to bring her here, that you might indeed see His will in action. Marji is not going to kill."
"Is she dying?" the Gen woman gasped.
"No! You will witness a miracle this day—a miracle we have seen so often it has become commonplace!"
She looked to Zeth as if just now absorbing what he had said.
"We've found the true answer," said Veritt. "Gens live safely with Simes in Fort Freedom now, freely giving of their life force without being hurt. We are putting an end to the kill forever." He tucked the blankets more securely around his granddaughter, then moved to the wagon seat and took the reins. "Zeth, take the horses back to the Fort. Tell Uel Whelan to meet us at my house. It's stage three. There's plenty of time."
Uel Whelan. For his own granddaughter, Zeth noticed, Mr. Veritt specified the only channel who had never killed.
At Fort Freedom, Zeth verified that Uel Whelan was still at the Farris Homestead. Then he galloped for home. Patches, tied to the porch earlier so he wouldn't follow Zeth, was now loose, jumping on the boy when he dismounted.
"Can't play now, Patches," he told the dog, and hurried inside. In the parlor were two Simes, obviously in need. Something was wrong. Normally Simes went directly to a transfer room for their appointments; occasionally someone might have to wait a few minutes in a shielded room, but if all the rooms were full, with a spillover into the parlor, something must be tying up all three channels.
Zeth headed toward the back of the house, but met Trina Morgan in the hall. She carried two cups of steaming tea. "Zeth! No, you can't go back there now. Everybody's busy." She set the tea glasses down on the edge of the staircase, and
put her hands on Zeth's shoulders. "I know why Mr. Veritt took you out this morning, Zeth. You want to talk to your parents, but you're going to have to be strong until they finish their work."
"No," said Zeth. "It's a changeover! Mr. Veritt sent me for Uel Whelan."
"Then there's time." She nodded calmly.
"But the girl," Zeth began. "She's—"
Unhurried, Trina picked up the tea glasses and went toward the parlor. "Let me deliver this tea, Zeth, and then I'll go tell Uel for you."
Companions were supposed to remain unruffled in a crisis, but as Zeth fidgeted in the hall, itching to get back to the Fort, he thought that Trina was carrying things too far.
Finally Trina left the parlor. Zeth followed her to one of the insulated rooms, where she opened the door a crack and slid carefully inside, closing it behind her.
Zeth shifted back and forth from one foot to the other, until at last Uel Whelan came out. The young channel was clearly preoccupied. "Stage three, you said? Who told you?"
"Mr. Veritt. He—"
"How long ago?"
"Half hour, forty-five minutes. But—"
"Tell Abel I'll be there by stage five, maybe sooner." With that, Uel ducked back inside the room. Zeth wanted to shout after him that the victim was from out-Territory, Mr. Veritt's granddaughter—but he didn't dare interrupt.
So he rode back to the Old Fort, Patches loping along beside him. At the Veritt house, Marji had already been taken into the insulated room, where Mrs. Veritt made up the couch into a bed. Zeth noticed how Abel Veritt kept himself between his wife and his daughter like a channel or Companion. Mrs. Veritt was not in need, but she was past turnover. The wetness on her cheeks testified to her frustration that she dared not come near her daughter.
She took out her mothering instinct on her granddaughter, saying, "Hope, she's as beautiful as you were as a little girl."
Mr. Veritt turned when Zeth entered. "Did you find Uel?"
"Yes. He said he'd be here by stage five, maybe sooner."
"That's fine. I'll coach her till he gets here. Hope, you shouldn't stay. Marji will start responding to your field."
"Oh, Daddy, I can't leave her when she's in pain!"
Marji was struggling for every breath, the sound a strong counterpoint to their conversation.
"No," said Mr. Veritt, "she's not in pain, although she's uncomfortable because she has no training. She's not getting enough oxygen. If she knew controlled breathing, she'd be alert now, if weak."
Just then Marji cried out sharply, gasped, and fell silent. Mr. Veritt zlinned her, and smiled reassuringly. "There—• stage four, and she's asleep, not unconscious. She'll gain strength for the last two stages. I'll stay with her. Zeth, please take care of my daughter.
So Zeth was to be chased away again. Well, maybe when Del came he could sneak back in.
By this time, other Simes were on the porch. Mrs. Young came in to ask, "Who's in changeover, Margid?" Then she stared at Hope. "Is that—? Oh, it can't be!"
"My daughter," Mrs. Veritt said. "She brought us her daughter. Hope, do you remember Mrs. Young?"
"It's good to see you again," Mrs. Carson said, although even Zeth could see that only the formal good manners drilled into every child of Fort Freedom allowed her to speak politely to a roomful of Simes.
The Simes were equally polite. "You don't want a crowd, with your child in changeover," said Mrs. Young. "When it's over you'll feel like company. Margid, come help prepare the feast. You're our best cook, and it will keep your mind off—"
Quickly, Mrs. Young guided Mrs. Veritt out. The word would spread now, and no one would come near until the channel and his Companion were here to shield Mrs. Carson.
The Gen woman watched them go, muttering blankly, "What feast?"
"The changeover celebration for Marji," Zeth explained with the awkwardness of a child who knew more than an adult about a situation. "Every time a new Sime starts right off on channel's transfer, the family celebrates."
"I don't believe it," Mrs. Carson whispered. "I brought Marji here because at home she'd have been murdered or would have killed one of us. Here . . . can it have changed so much?" She looked around. "It all, looks the same."
"Uh . . . you want some tea?" Zeth offered.
Mrs. Carson smiled through her tears. "Trin tea," she said. "The universal remedy. Now I know I've really come home again."
The Gen woman looked around the kitchen-. "My mother's kitchen. But now she doesn't dare come near me."
"You'll learn to control your field," said Zeth. "Then you can be around Simes anytime." He put water on, and reached for the container marked "Tea," only to find it empty.
Mrs. Carson said, "Mother was always afraid we kids would break it. The tea is in the wooden box.
Not wanting to be the child who broke the delicate china tea container, Zeth set it carefully back on the shelf and finished making tea. Mrs. Carson sipped hers, studying him. "Zeth Farris. I don't remember any Farrises."
"My dad's a channel. He's the one who first discovered how to channel."
"What exactly is a channel?" she asked.
"A Sime who can take selyn from Gens without hurting them, and then give it to other Simes so they can live without killing. Your brother Jord is a channel." And Zeth found himself drawn into giving a detailed explanation of life at Fort Freedom, fumbling for definitions of new Simelan words like Companions, those special Gens capable of giving transfer to channels.
At length, Mrs. Carson put down her empty tea glass to go to the window. "It's all the same," she said, "and yet it's so different." She paced to the table and back to the window, plucking nervously at the curtain. "What's taking so long? Shouldn't that . . . channel ... be here by now?"
"Changeover takes a long time," said Zeth. "When Marji went into stage four, that's about halfway."
She whirled from the window, wide-eyed. "But it's been—"
Just then the quiet was shattered by a piercing scream.
"Marji!" gasped Mrs. Carson, and ran for the insulated room.
Abel Veritt met them at the door, the terrified screams continuing behind him, "Hope—Marji doesn't know me," he said. "She came fully awake for the first time to find herself alone with a Sime."
"You must not touch her.-Stay by the door and talk to her."
Motherhood clearly had the best of fear in Mrs. Carson as she said impatiently, "All right—let me see her!"
Zeth followed them. Marji was sitting up, plastered against the wall as if to go through it. Her pretty face was distorted with panic—but the moment she saw her mother she stopped screaming.
"Marji, it's all right," said Mrs. Carson. "This is your grandfather. We're in Fort Freedom, Marji."
The girl began to sob. "Mama, I hurt! I'm so scared!"
"You'll be all right," said her mother, starting toward her.
Mr. Veritt stopped her. "No, Hope. Stay behind me."
"Mama!" cried Marji again, reaching out. She caught sight of her own forearms, the tentacle sheaths showing as blistered lines from the wrists almost to the elbows. She shook her arms disgustedly, as if the sheaths could be cast off, then grasped her left arm with her right hand, scraping viciously. She screamed again in pain, and Veritt gasped, taking a step back before regaining control.
"No, Marji!" he said sharply. "You mustn't hurt yourself."
"No! No! No!" cried the girl, lost in her own panic.
Mr. Veritt grasped his daughter's hand and placed it in Zeth's. "Keep her here!" he told the boy, and strode across the room to sit on the edge of the bed, saying, "There's nothing to be afraid of."
"I'm cursed," Marji sobbed.
"No you're not cursed, child. You are blessed with a mother who had the strength to bring you here."
"I don't want to be Sime. I won't kill!"
"No, Marji. You won't kill."
The girl stared wide-eyed from Veritt to her mother. "I—I'm scared, Mama. I don't want to die."
"You won't die, Marji," said Mrs. Carson, "but you won't kill, either. Have faith, and do what your grandfather tells you."
She looked at Mr. Veritt. "You're my grandfather? Mama always said—if I changed over—'find you. But I don't want to change over!"
"It's not bad to be Sime, when you don't have to kill." Mr. Veritt sounded like one of the channels. "That's right—lie still now. Come, let us pray for the strength to accept God's will."
As Mr. Veritt's voice dropped to a murmur, Mrs. Carson
lowered her head, too. There was a short period of calm, and then suddenly the girl on the bed cried out in pain.
"It can't be!" gasped Mr. Veritt. "So soon! Zeth, go—" He turned, and saw Zeth holding Mrs. Carson back. "No. Stay with my daughter and keep her safe till this is over." He rose, saying to Marji, "I'll be right back."
Herding Zeth and Mrs. Carson out of the room, he said, "There's no time to wait for Uel. Where's Jord?"
"Out at our house, too," said Zeth.
The old man strode to the porch and called, "Ed! I've got an accelerated changeover, sixth stage. All the channels are at Farris. Get one here—fast!"
"Right you are!" Zeth heard, followed by the sound of galloping hoofs.
Mr. Veritt turned back toward the insulated room, saying, "Stay out here, Hope. I'll take care of Marji."
Mrs. Carson stared blankly at her father, her chin trembling. "What's happening? What's gone wrong?"
"Stage six is just starting," Zeth explained. "There's time for Mr. Whelan to get here."
The Gen woman began to pace. "Dear God, let her be all right!"
Zeth was more annoyed at being shut out than worried, although Mrs. Carson's pacing soon got on his nerves. If I were a channel now, there'd be no problem.
Suddenly a new sound came from the insulated room—not a child's scream of terror, but an animal cry of agony. Mrs. Carson went white, and dashed for the room.
"Don't!" Zeth cried, scrambling after her. "You can't go in there!"
She flung the door open before Zeth could catch her. Marji was straining to force her new tentacles from their sheaths. Zeth saw the membranes covering the wrist openings swell, then subside as Marji let her breath out in another feral grunt.
"My baby!" cried Mrs. Carson, as Zeth grabbed her arm.
"Hope, get out of here!" Veritt commanded, but she ignored him. "I'm not a channel! I can't shield you! Run!"
At that moment, with another intense effort, Marji's tentacles broke free. She collapsed on the bed as Mr. Veritt said, "Good . . . good. Lie still now; conserve your strength till the channel gets here—"
But the girl did not hear him. She sat up, eyes unfocused,
zlinning for selyn to satisfy her need—First Need, the most intense and terrible need most Simes ever knew.
Mrs. Carson's concern turned to terror as her daughter was transformed into nature's most perfect predator—stalking her. The Gen woman backed toward the door as the new Sime moved with astonishing speed. Mr. Veritt caught the girl's upper arms, but even though both were Sime, the strength of an old man was not equal to that of a youngster berserk with need. Marji flung him off, and went in pursuit of her prey.
Zeth could smell Mrs. Carson's fear—it prickled through his own body. There was nothing human about Marji now but her form. Like a stalking animal, her prey in easy reach, she approached Mrs. Carson, fixing her with empty eyes as she prepared to strike and kill. I'll be like that! thought Zeth.
Then Abel Veritt moved like a flash between his granddaughter and her prey, reaching for Marji's arms like a channel, laterals extended to twine with hers.
The moment lateral touched lateral, Marji jerked upright and in one fluid movement drew her grandfather into lip contact. It's all right, thought Zeth, weak with relief, but instantly he remembered, No–he's not a channel!
For a long moment the two figures remained thus intertwined and then Mr. Veritt collapsed. Marji let him fall.
He's dead, Zeth realized in horror, as Mrs. Carson screamed, "Father!"
But Marji was unsatisfied. Still in need, her restless laterals licking in and out of their sheaths, she began stalking her mother again. Mr. Veritt had entrusted the Gen to Zeth's care—Keep her safe till this is over. He had failed.
Marji took another deliberate step toward her mother. Zeth darted in front of Mrs. Carson. "Run! She can't hurt me."
He could hear Patches barking wildly. Time seemed suspended as he wished desperately that none of this was true, Abel Veritt dead, his granddaughter a berserker, his daughter a terrified Gen with only Zeth to protect her.
Then Mrs. Carson broke and ran. Marji moved to follow, but Zeth blocked the doorway.