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Chapter 4

Facing the stalking Sime, trying desperately to believe that a Sime could not kill a child, Zeth reached for Marji's forearms. Suddenly, he was plucked up from behind and tossed roughly across the room.

Uel Whelan, Hank Steers on his heels, had thrown Zeth out of the way, then intercepted Marji as she came from the insulated room, intertwined tentacles, and touched lips. When they separated, Marji was a pretty girl again, completely bewildered, but otherwise unharmed.

Hank Steers looked into the insulated room, and Uel Whelan started at his Companion's burst of emotion when the Gen cried, "Abel!" and dashed into the room.

Zeth was dumped unceremoniously to the floor, and realized that it was Jord Veritt who had caught him only when the channel stepped over him. As everyone converged on the other room, Zeth scrambled up to follow.

Marji Carson suddenly said, "Mama! Mamawhat happened?"

Her mother retreated a step as Anni Steers said, "It's all right. She won't hurt you now."

"She killed my father!" Mrs. Carson cried.

"Abel's alive!" came Uel Whelan's voice.

Seth could see Abel Veritt lying still and white. Hank began to tremble with fear and hope at Uel's words. Jord, haggard, knelt beside the others. "What happened!"

"He couldn't let Marji kill her mother," Zeth explained. "He tried to be a channel for her."

"He would," said Uel, his voice choked. "Jord?"

"I'm all right now."

"You and Hank give me a neutral field. God help me." Lips moving in silent prayer, the young channel ran his hands

over Mr. Veritt's chest, .laterals extended. "He's deep into attrition, but it hasn't been long. There's a bad nerve-burn. This is going to hurt like shen."

Zeth watched, fascinated, as Uel put pressure on Mr. Veritt's lateral extensor nodes to make the tentacles emerge. His handling tentacles remained sheathed, hands and arms flaccid in Uel Whelan's grip. Then the channel bent his head to touch lips.

Zeth saw color return to Mr. Veritt's hands and face. Twice there was a jerking motion, almost separating the two Simes, but Uel hung on. Finally he raised his head. Mr. Veritt lay completely still, but his lips were lip-colored again instead of blue, and Zeth could see his chest rise and fall with his breathing.

Uel Whelan leaned heavily on Hank Steers. "It was close. He almost shenned me, twice." His head fell to his Companion's shoulder, his eyes closing over some inner pain.

Jord shook his head wearily. "He's so old, and he's always been frail. You know he lives on faith as much as selyn. But his judgment has always been sounduntil now. Howhow could he have been so mistaken about the stage of changeover?"

"He wasn't mistaken," said Zeth. "It was just like we were taught, except the stages went so fast."

Uel raised his head, shaking off Hank's solicitude. "Because the girl's a channel!"

"She's his granddaughter," Zeth supplied.

"What?!" exclaimed Jord Veritt, his head snapping up. As his attention went beyond his father for the first time, he saw his sister. "Hope! It's your daughter?"

"I didn't know what else to do," said Mrs. Carson.

"You did the right thing," said Jord, moving toward his sister. Margid Veritt took his place beside her husband. Marji Carson cowered against the wall, watching everything with round brown eyesthe same color as Jord's, but wide and bright, not sunken into permanent hollows as his were.

Jord made no attempt to touch Mrs. Carson, but said gently, "Welcome home, Hope. The child you have brought us is a greater blessing than you know."

He turned to the girl. "Marji," he said, holding out his hands to her. "Welcome to Fort Freedom. Thank God for your mother's courage to bring you here."

The girl raised her hands to push him away, caught sight of her tentacles, and moaned, "No! Oh, no! I killed him!"

"No you didn't!" Jord said quickly. "Come and look." With an arm about her shoulders, he led her to look at her grandfather, still on the floor. "Zlin him, Marjilike this"

She glanced at Jord, then back at her grandfather. Her eyes went blank as she zlinned. Then Jord said, "You see? He's alive. You're never going to kill anyone, Marji. You're going to save lives."

Uel said, "Abel's improving. When he finds out you're a channel, Marji, he won't mind a little transfer burn."

Mr. Veritt stirred, and moaned softly. His wife bent over him, but Uel said, "It's all right, Margid. Don't zlin his painyou'll just reflect it. Do you have any fosebine? Abel and I could both use some. It wouldn't hurt Marji, either."

By the time Mrs. Veritt returned with the medicine, her husband's breathing was quickening. Uel knelt beside the old man as he stirred slightly, winced, and opened his eyes.

Mrs. Veritt was right there with the fosebine. He drank the bitter stuff down without even a grimace, but remained very still as Uel zlinned him again.

Then the channel said, "Abel, don't try to talk. Save your strength, and listen. Your daughter and granddaughter are fine. You're the only one who got hurt, and you'll be over it soon."

Uel Whelan was entirely the channel now, his voice strangely unlike his usual speaking voice. Zeth listened carefully, thinking, One day I may have such news to break to a patient.

Weakness and pain prevented Mr. Veritt from more than a hint of a smile in response, but Uel went on in that same quiet way, "Your granddaughter is the new channel everyone's been praying for. You kept her from killing."

The impact of even those quiet words brought animation back into the old man's body. "Thank God," he said in a hoarse whisper, and struggled to focus on Marji. "Bless you, child."

Jord said, his voice not at all like a channel's, "Father, what made you do such a thing?" And then, with an impatient gesture, "No, don't try to answer. I know you thought you had no choice. I don't see how you survived!"

Mrs. Veritt answered for her husband. "God has more work for him. It was another miracle, Jord."

"We're all used to that," Uel added with a grin. "Abel,

we'll lift you onto the couch now, and then I want you to sleep."

"One thing," the old man whispered. "The bell."

"Don't worrywe'll let everyone know. Go to sleep, Abel. Fort Freedom will get along without you till tomorrow."

Mrs. Veritt helped install her husband on the couch, and left him asleep, Hank Steers in a big armchair beside the bed. "I'll get you something to eat, Hank."

"Thanks, Margid. Uel, I'll stay here tonight, unless you think a channel should stay by Abel."

"Nohe's stable, Hank. Get some sleep yourselfthis has been some day!"

Now Uel Whelan turned to Zeth. At the frown on the young channel's face, Zeth suddenly wished he had sneaked away earlier. "Now, young man, what were you doing when I arrived?"

"I was trying to keep Marji from killing her mother."

"By letting her kill you?" . "She couldn't. I'm still a child," Zeth pointed out.

At Zeth's words, Uel went white with fury. "You could have been killed! You would have been!"

"But I'm not a Gen"

"Marji very nearly killed a Sime! She'd have stripped you and never known the difference! Zeth, you are the hope of this community. How could you be so foolish!"

Zeth gasped as Uel's fingers bit into his shoulders with Sime strength. The young channel flinched and suddenly his anger faded so that Zeth saw the fear beneath. "Where did we go wrong that you would think a child couldn't be killed?"

Meanwhile, with the ringing of the bell on the green, excitement stirred through Fort Freedom. Tragedy averted, rejoicing filled the air.

Mrs. Veritt and lord put Marji to bed, and her mother managed to say good night to her. Jord told his sister, "Hope, you could stay at my house, but I'm afraid you're in no mood to let Uel or me-take your field down."

"Zeth explained that you two are channelsbut"

"As you are now," said Jord, "you're a temptation and an irritant to every Sime past turnover. You can't stay here in that condition"

"Stay?" she interrupted. "I can't stay at all! I've got to go home. My husband doesn't know where I am!"

"It's almost sunset," said Jord. "There's no moon tonight.

You can't find your way in the dark, but Simes can find you. You have three choices. We can take you out to the Farris place, where all our new, untrained Gens stay. Or you can let us take your field down, and stay here or at my place next door. Then you can leave in the morning, or stay for Marji's feast. It would do her good to know you love her enough to stay."

"Lon will be so worried," said Mrs. Carson, "but Marji"

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You've risked so much to bring her. Won't you stay and help her through her first day? I'm sure her father will understand."

She looked from Jord to Uel, then at her mother and the door behind which her daughter slept. Zeth saw her throat work. When she turned back to them, the worry lines between her brows were smoothed. "All right. But if I'm going to stay, it's going to be here, with Marji. So tell me what to do."

'Nothing. I do all the workor Uel, if you prefer. You should know he's a better channel than I am."

"But you're my brother."

Despite her brave front, Mrs. Carson's hands shook. Uel moved to shield Mrs. Veritt as Jord said, "It's all right to be afraid. Everyone is, the first time. Don't try to control your fear, Hopethen you won't give me any surprises."

Zeth watched Jord's handling tentacles wrap about his sister's forearms. She looked down, trembling, as the small, moist laterals slid into place. "It's all right," Jord murmured. Then his lips grazed hers, and he began dismantling his grip.

Mrs. Carson stared at him. "That's all?"

He smiled at her. "That's all there is to it, Sis. You're low-field now."

Mrs. Carson was blushing as the blood returned to her skin with the end of her fear. "Oh, Jord!" Suddenly she hugged her brother, and the look of happiness on Jord Veritt's face took years off his age.

Watching Jord hug his sister, Zeth found for the first time that he believed what Abel Veritt had told him today. He was flooded with compassion for Jord, for Abel, for all the people struggling so desperately against what nature had done to them.

Uel Whelan gave Zeth a strange look, and came to the boy's side as Hope Carson turned from her brother to her mother, holding out her arms. Zeth watched, knowing what

Mrs. Carson did not knowwhat he had been part of the conspiracy to keep her from knowing.

This morning I was so proud, wanting to be all grown up. And this is what it means, knowing things that hurt

"Zeth," Uel Whelan said gently, "I'm sorry I scolded youI forgot completely what day this was for you. I'll take you home now. Rimon would never forgive me if I didn't relieve him so he can come check on Abel and Marji for himself. I wonder if anyone rode over to Farris to tell them?"

Someone had, and Zeth's father was chafing at his own rule that there would always be at least one channel at Farris.

Thus Zeth received no more than a perfunctory examination from his father, and a hug from his mother, before they both galloped off into the twilight.

No light showed under the door of the room he now shared with Owen. It-was too early to be sleeping, so Owen must not be there. But when he opened the door, he saw Owen at the window, silhouetted against the darkening sky. The older boy didn't move, and that in itself told Zeth there was something wrong.

Zeth came to his side, saying, "Owenwhat's the matter? Haven't you heard the good news? There's another channel, Owen!"

Owen sniffed, and rubbed his hand against his eyes. In a voice thick with forced-back tears, he said, "Oh, fine! Another channel for me to hurt! They're gonna send me away, Zeth. They're gonna make me cross the border, and I didn't do anything!"

"What happened?"

"My donation. Jord was in need, andZeth, I didn't mean it!"

'You gave him transfer?" Zeth asked in an awed whisper.

"No! I didn't even trybut they'll never believe me!"

"OwenJord didn't attack you?!"

"Of course not. He's a channel. But hehe wanted me. How can I help feeling sympathy?" Owen stood and paced away. "I was holding back. lord's not... flexible, like Uel. I was trying not to feel anything, but then he"

"What?"

Even in the dim light Zeth could see the tears on Owen's cheeks. "For a moment I felt somethingit was so great and I thought, maybe I'm the one who can help Jordand then he pushed me away and collapsed! Shenned himself.

Zeth, your dad thinks I tried to seduce Jord to transfer. But I didn't!"

"I know you didn't," said Zeth. "Anyway, you didn't hurt Jord. He was just fine this evening."

"Sure, once they got transfer into him. He had one of his attacksvoiding selyn. He almost died, Zeth."

"So that's what was going on here! But Jord's all right, Owen. You'd have sworn it was Dad, the way he handled Mrs. Carson."

"Mrs. Carson? What was the matter with her?"

Realizing Owen was thinking of Tom Carson's wife, Zeth said, 'No, Hope CarsonAbel Venn's daughter!" And he told Owen the whole story. "Didn't you hear?"

"I've been up here all day. I just didn't want to face your dad. He's going to send me away, Zeth."

"It wasn't your fault," Zeth repeated helplessly.

"Maybe it was. Maybe I can't help it any more than a Sime can. You don't know what it's like not to be able to help a Sime in need! The 'need to give,' your mother calls it. The Simes say that's gibberish, that Gens don't feel anything but sympathy, but they're wrong. You'll seeif you're Gen."

"I'll be Sime," said Zeth, more positive than ever. The certainty was always strongest when he was around Owen, as if his friend's quintessential Gen-ness called to some opposing polarity in Zeth.

"Yes," said Owen glumly. "You'll be a channel, and you'll drive me crazy, too." He put his hand on Zeth's shoulder. "Zethpromise me, when you're a channellet me give you transfer!"

"I can't promise that, Owen. You know what my dad saysI might kill you!"

Zeth felt Owen's hand tighten, then very deliberately release him. Forcing calm, Owen said, "If not you, somebody. You found out today, didn't you? All the older Simes need direct Gen transfer every so often ... so they can go longer between kills. Let me do that. Zeth! Promise me! I can stand to wait if I know I'm going to have a chance atsomething real."

A strange feeling stirred in the pit of Zeth's stomach at the idea of Owen giving transfer to someone whoHe shoved the thought aside, and said, "Owen, we can't see what the channels see." As Owen pulled sullenly away, Zeth said, "Waitthis I will promise: when I'm a channel, I'll study

you. If there's any way you can give transfer, safely, I'll find it."

Owen sighed. "Thanks, Zeth. I know you would. . . but I'll be on the other side of the border before you change over.''

"No you won't! Nobody can force you to leave."

"If I hurt people by staying here Do you know what I've been thinking? Wild ideas. I could go into town and . . . and seduce someone into transfer. Prove I could do it!"

"Are you crazy? If you didn't panic and get killed, you'd end up with a dagger between your ribs."

"Not from Slina, I wouldn't," Owen said thoughtfully.

"No, Owen!"

"Why not? She respects us. She sends her little girl to school here. Next time she's in need"

"Do you want her to be like Mr. Veritt? Or Jord? Or your own pa? Do you deliberately want to hurt Slina?"

"Huh? What do you mean?"

"She raises Gens 'cause someone has to. I used to wonder how Slina could know us, and send Mona here, and still go on raising Gens for the kill. And kill every month herself. It has to be a choice she's made never to know, never to experience transfer without killing. Maybe you think that's a coward's choice, but maybe you just can't understand it. Maybe Gens can never"

"Stop it!" cried Owen, sinking onto his bunk. "Zeth what's happened to you? You sound like your dad. Yes, I understand! I won't seduce Slina, or anyone else . . . not to have them go through what Pa does. But that means ... if your dad tells me to leave, I've got to go."

"He won't. What's it beenfour months? It takes some Gens a year to learn everything a Companion can do. And you've been busy just getting well. Dad will understand." It was full dark by now. Zeth lit the lamp, saying, "I guess we better get to bed. But I'm hungry."

"Me, too," said Owen. "I haven't eaten since breakfast."

They went downstairs, past the room where Uel Whelan sat with his feet propped up, reading a book from the small collection kept at Farris. The community's real library, Abel Veritt's pride, was at the Fort. "What are you boys up to?" Uel asked.

"We're just gonna get something to eat," said Zeth.

Uel looked up. "I'm sorry, Zeth. You missed supper at the

Veritts'. Hank puts his foot down when I forget he has to eat."

"Did you eat today?" Owen asked suspiciously.

The young channel laughed. "Aye, sir, that I did. Hank and I had breakfast. And before you assert your Gen authority to remind me that Simes should eat twice a day, I'll let you bring me an apple, Owen."

Zeth and Owen were eating sandwiches in the kitchen when Zeth's parents arrived home. Kadi Farris went straight to her son and put her arms around him. "They told us what you did today. Oh, Zeth, you could have been killed!"

"It's my fault, Kadi," said Zeth's father. "Shen and shid! How could I have let my own son think a child couldn't be killed? We're too casual, Simes and Gens togetherthe children think there's no danger . . . and then we have a day like today." He shook his head. "Sometimes I think Abel's right that God is personally looking out for us. We certainly put Him to the test today." He ran fingers and tentacles through his wiry black hair. "Owen. I meant to talk with you this afternoon, but we got behind, and then this thing with Abel's granddaughter"

Owen had put down his half-eaten sandwich and was staring at Rimon as if waiting for a blow to fall. "I didn't mean to hurt Jord," he blurted out. "I was trying not to tempt him!"

"I know," said Rimon. "Jord told us. It wasn't your fault, but from now on I'll take your donations."

The tension drained out of Owen. "You're not going to send me away."

"No, of course not," said Kadi.

"But we must be more careful. I could throttle Jord," said Rimon. "After all that, daring to touch an out-Territory Gen"

"His sister," Kadi reminded him. "Tonight, with his family home, he was closer to normal than I've seen him in years."

"Dad, he did suggest that Uel Whelan take her donation," Zeth said, "but Mrs. Carson wanted her brother to do it."

Kadi took her husband's hand. "You know what a difference "love and trust make, Rimon."

Zeth's father's sensitive lips curved in a reluctant smile. "I also know how dangerous it can be to rely on emotion rather than knowledge. But this time it worked. What a day!"

"How's Mr. Veritt?" asked Zeth.

"If I know Abel, he'll be up tomorrow, though my prescription would be a week in bed. Speaking of bed, why are you boys still up?"

"We were hungry," Zeth explained.

"Well, finish up and get to bed," said Rimon. He started to leave, turned back, and looked puzzledly at his son. "Zeth before Mrs. Carson came, did Abel have a chance to tell you . . . ?"

"He told me."

"Rimon," said Kadi, "Zeth's tired. Don't make him think about that now. Zeth, you get some rest, and we'll talk when you're ready."

"I don't have to talk about it," said Zeth. "I understand."

"He really does," said Owen. "I said . . . some awfully dumb things a while ago. I don't think a channel could have made me see more clearly than Zeth did how wrong I was."

Kadi Farris' blue eyes swam with tears. "You mean on top of everything else, you had to counsel Owen, Zeth?"

"I'm sorry," said Owen. "I was so scared you were going to send me away that I didn't even think about Zeth's problems."

"Our son is growing up," Kadi said proudly.

Zeth felt himself blushing. "Maybe I am," he said, "but I'm not sure if I like it!"

The next day the one-channel-always-at-Farris rule was suspended, as the entire community of Fort Freedom poured into the Old Fort. There was a thanksgiving service, led by Jord Veritt, as Abel was still recuperating. Zeth heard more than one person speculate that Mrs. Veritt must have locked him in.

Mrs. Carson and Marji were the center of attention, as everyone had questions about friends and relatives across the border. .As people found out who had married, who had childrenand who had died or disappearedMrs. Carson's wagon piled up with presents, and messages.

Marji Carson, congratulated on every side for what she had always thought of as being cursed, answered politely but vaguely, one eye on her mother as if asking permission to speak to Simes. Mrs. Carson was surrounded by Companions, unobtrusively shielding her. Zeth wondered if she had any notion why his mother, or Anni Steers, or Trina Morgan, was constantly by her side.

Children Zeth's age and younger came to stare at the strangers, but soon ran off to play games. Like Zeth, they were too young to remember anyone who had crossed the border to Gen Territory. The younger Simes and Gens went to set up the tables for the feast. Jana, Owen's sister, went along to help, but neither Owen nor Zeth wanted to join them.

Owen hung around Mrs. Carson, listening. Zeth wondered if he was trying to act like a Companion, until there was a lull in the conversation. Then Owen asked hesitantly, "Mrs. Carson ... do you know a Gen family named Lodge?"

"Lodge? Not in our villagebut there's a big ranch run by a Glian Lodge."

Owen's blue eyes widened. "That's my uncle!"

"I've never met him," said Mrs. Carson,' "though I've seen him at market day. He's a big blond, like you. And rich."

Owen laughed. "I'm rich, tooor my pa is. Del Erick. We raise the best horses in the Territory."

"Erick? But you said Lodge?"

"I can hardly remember my father," Owen explained, "but his name was Owen Lodge. That's my name, too Owen Lodge Erick. Ma married Del Erick when I was just a little boy. He's been my father all my life, it seems."

"Perhaps Mr. Erick has relatives across the border, but I don't know anyone by that name."

"NoPa came from in-Territory. And Ma always said she was the last of her family. Bresson. Carlana Bresson."

"Oh!" exclaimed Mrs. Carson. "That's why you look so familiar. Those eyes. Just like your mother's."

"That's what everyone says. Did you know her?"

"Not very well. She had just come to Fort Freedom when I left. But I remember how beautiful she was. Your father must have come here after I left."

Other people wanted to talk with Mrs. Carson, so Owen drifted away, Zeth following, Patches at his heels. Zeth wondered if Owen was remembering his real parents.

But Owen sat down on the steps of the Veritt house, saying, "There's something funny, Zeth. All those years, Fort Freedom sent Gens to that community across the border. And a lot of them got there, according to Mrs. Carson. But no Simes have come back."

"Well . . . Mrs. Carson was one of the first to be sent,

wasn't she? And her daughter's just old enough for changeover now. The others' children must still be too young.

"What about other people's children? There's a whole village of Gensnot just people from Fort Freedom. Why didn't they tell people about us?"

Patches butted his head against Zeth's knee for attention. He bent and hugged the dog as support against what he had to say. "Mrs. Carson said they'd have beaten Marji to death. They don't have channels or Companions, Owen. A new Sime always kills. Even Mrs. Carson thought Marji was possessed by a demon."

"But still she brought her here," said Owen. "If people over there know, how can they not tell their children?"

The door opened, and Hank Steers cane out onto the porch. Both boys immediately demanded, "How's Mr. Veritt?"

"Margid's helping him dress. He insists he's going to the feast."

"Dad said he would," Zeth commented.

"Yeahthat's Abel," Hank agreed, sitting down on the top step. "I heard you boys. You've never lived in Gen Territory. You don't know the fear the very idea of a Sime evokesor the hatred. If your child turns Sime, he's not your child."

"In-Territory people think Gens are animals," said Zeth. "Still, folks show their kids the way to the border."

"Sure," said Hank. "If you're Sime, and your child is Gen, he's turned into something fragile and helpless."

Both boys laughed, for everyone knew Gens were tougher than Simes.

"No, no," said Hank, "not the Companions. Think of the new Gens at Farris, before they learn not to fear, in danger from people who love them. And outside Fort Freedom, Gens are fair game, so if parents feel anything but disappointment, it's that their child is in danger unless he can cross the border.

"But in Gen TerritoryZeth, you .saw it yesterday. Marji would have killed her own mother. Few people who see a Sime in Gen Territory live to tell about it. The only Simes they ever see are berserkers or Freehand Raiders. Or hunting parties."

Hank did not elaborate, but Zeth knew that he had been brought in-Territory by a Sime hunting party. "I was taught," the young Companion continued, "that the only way to deal with a Sime was to murder him before he killed you. I don't

think you kids born here have any idea of Mrs. Carson's courage in loading her child on that wagon and heading for the border."

"No," said Owen, "I guess we can't imagine how they feel. But what will happen when they hear what's happened in Fort Freedom? Especially the ones who came from here?''

Zeth saw the faraway look in Owen's eyes. But before he could say anything, Abel Veritt came out onto the porch, leaning heavily on his wife. Hank jumped up and went to take his other arm. "Abel, you're really in no condition to go out."

Mr. Veritt gave him a weak smile. "Nonsense. I've just had another dose of fosebine. The worst I can do is fall asleep in the middle of the festivities." He looked toward the two boys now standing on the steps. "Zeth . . .son, I have you to thank that my daughter is alive, and my granddaughter did not kill. May God bless you for your courage ... and protect you from ever being so foolhardy again."

"Thank you," Zeth said uncertainly, but was rescued from further embarrassment by other people surrounding the Veritts.

The two boys hung back to let the crowd pass. Then Owen said, "I've got to find Pa."

"Why?" asked Zeth.

"Look at that wagon. Did you see the stack of messages? I want to go with Mrs. Carson. Living proof, Zeth! I want to see Gen Territoryand then I'll bring back messages. And I'll tell all the young people there how to get here if they have to.'' And he hurried off to find his father.

As Zeth watched him go, a strange, numb feeling spread through his body. It's just one trip, he told himself. He doesn't want to go over there to live.

But the sense of celebration had gone out of the day.


Chapter 3 | Channel's Destiny | Chapter 5