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Chapter 6

Think!

Zeth knelt in the bathroom, panic clutching at his vitals. He had to get to Owen—

No. He thrust the absurd thought aside. He had to get home, to his father. Think, he told himself more calmly, reminding himself that fear was the greatest enemy of the changeover victim.

I'm still hours away from breakout and First Need. Mrs. Carson got Marji to Fort Freedom in a wagon. I can go much faster on a horse.

With that thought firmly in mind, he found the strength to open the window, airing the sour smell out of the little room and clearing his head., If he went out that window now, Sessly Bron would discover in a few minutes that he was gone, and raise the alarm.

He had to pretend nothing was wrong, and go to bed. Then, as soon as he was sure she was asleep, he would sneak out, find Star, and ride for home.

And what if you can't get to your father? the voice of fear demanded.

I'll get there somehow! Get out of Gen Territory first, then worry about reaching Dad.

In the Bron guest room, he was laying his clothes carefully over a chair, ready to get into quickly in the dark, when Sessly Bron came in. Although he knew he could have no sensitivity to fields yet, her presence made him uneasy.

She's not going to guess, he insisted to himself as she set a steaming cup on the table between the two beds, and turned back the covers on one of them.

"Hop in now," she said cheerfully, reminding Zeth of Mrs. Veritt. "Sleep, Zeth. You're a brave boy to have come

all this way. Say your prayers and trust in God to help you. Here—drink your milk," she added, handing him the cup.

Obediently, Zeth pretended to drink the milk, actually taking only a tiny sip. "Thank you," he said. "Good night, Miss Bron." He yawned, and half closed his eyes. To his intense relief, the Gen woman left.

Zeth set down the milk, and pulled the blankets up to his chin for warmth. He could hear Sessly Bron moving about. He hoped she would not stay up to wait for her brother. Then he heard her coming down the hall ... . opening his door. He closed his eyes and tried to breathe deeply and evenly. She came in, turned out the lamp, and took away the cup of milk.

Zeth waited. If she had gone to bed, how long would it take her to fall asleep? He couldn't hear anything. Perhaps if he got up and listened at the door—

Zeth woke with a start, feeling hollow. He was panting, his skin pricking, and he barely had strength to turn over. He realized he had passed out.

His heart pounded and he struggled for breath until the disciplines the channels had taught him took hold. This was stage two. He began the rhythmic breathing exercises, and soon his gasping eased. He didn't know how much time had passed, except that it was too much. He'd have to ride like the wind.

Forcing himself out of bed, Zeth pulled on his clothes, counting breaths hypnotically. His body was leaden. His boots almost defeated him, searing pain shooting through his arms as he hauled on their tops. He had to sit on the edge of the bed to steady his breathing again before he dared try his escape.

He was sure the sound of opening the window rang through all of Mountain Chapel. When no one stirred, he climbed out, stumbled to his knees, and forced himself to stand. Where was Star? Mountain Chapel was much like Fort Freedom– there had to be a stable. He looked around, grateful for the illumination of the waxing moon, even though it might reveal his presence.

The narrow chapel windows glowed with dim light. Maddok Bron, praying for his sign from God. In the morning, when they find I'm gone, will they ride to help Fort Freedom? Zeth wondered sadly. But he had no choice. If I stay, I'll kilt.

In the moonlight he spotted a large, barnlike building just beyond the neat rows of houses. Even though he tried to stay

in the shadows, it should have been a brisk three-minute walk. Instead, k became an endless and familiar nightmare, his legs too heavy to lift. He struggled and plodded, trying to get to Owen, who lay dying—

Gasping again, Zeth pulled himself together. This was not a dream, and Owen had nothing to do with it. But why isn't he here? He'd help me get home. Owen

Forcing one foot in front of the other, Zeth made his way toward the stable, fending off fear. "Don't panic," he remembered Abel Veritt telling the changeover classes. "There is nothing to fear in changeover now. God has given us channels. Changeover is no more than any other natural process in growing up."

And I'm supposed to be one of those channels, Zeth thought. I will be. I'll get home in time.

His father had explained how fear killed many Sime children of Gens. Even if such children escaped being discovered and murdered, their terror at becoming Sime used up their last reserves of selyn. If that happened before breakout, they died of attrition.

That won't happen to me, Zeth told himself firmly. He was creeping up to the door of the stable, smelling the good clean smell of horses, hoping Star had had enough rest to carry him—

He slid the heavy stable door open just enough to slip in, and a sudden fury erupted out of the darkness—a barking, snarling, growling dog snapping at his legs. Zeth danced back in startlement, the rhythm of his breathing broken, a stab of fear shooting straight down through his middle.

The dog kept up a steady racket, horses snorted and stomped, and a voice called, "Who's there?"

Zeth backed against the door, trying to slide it open again, but the dog growled and snapped at him, pinning him effectively until the light of a lantern made him blink and wince. "Who are you?" the voice demanded.

"Zeth Farris. I've come—for my—horse." He could hardly get the words out. "Call off—your—"

His strength gave out, and he collapsed to his knees, the dog moving in with a threatening growl. The man—hardly more than a boy—moved closer to play the lantern over him. Instinctively, Zeth clutched his forearms across his middle, giving himself away.

"Hold him, Brownie!" The note of fear drove the boy's

voice up. "Get away from that door—now, or I'll sic him on you!"

Zeth eyed the dog, which seemed ready to go for his throat. If he tried to protect himself . . . now, of all times, he could not afford to be bitten on the arm.

So he crawled away from the door, pleading, "Just let me—have—a horse!"

"No, you'll steal no horses here. C'mon, Brownie!"

Keeping the dog between him and Zeth, the boy edged out the door, stationing the dog outside. The click of the bolt locking him in was the loudest sound Zeth had ever heard. The stable boy ran out into the night, shouting, "Sime! Sime! I've locked a Sime in the stable!"

Pure terror prickled through Zeth. He was panting and gasping, weak and helpless, on the verge of fainting except that panic kept him alert. The alarm bell, so much like Fort Freedom's, rang into the night.

Soon the stable would be surrounded–he had to get out! But he couldn't even get to his feet. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he made out dim moonlight filtering through a crack high above him. It took shape as he stared at it– outlining a door up in the hay loft.

For all the good it was to Zeth, that door might as well be on the moon! He could hardly crawl along the floor, let alone drag himself up a ladder . . . and the ladder lay beside the stack of hay thrown down from the loft.

Zeth had to set up the ladder, climb to the loft, jump to the ground, and run! Run? He couldn't even walk. He tried to lift the ladder, but the best he could do was slide it a hand's span across the floor—and even that left him sick and trembling as he heard voices outside.

"Get around back—he could break out the back door."

Back door? Oh, no—he might have gotten out by now– with Star!

"Cord—Trent—train your guns on that loft door. They can jump on you like some mountain cat!"

They think I'm a full-grown Sime, Zeth realized. If I were, I'd be out of town by now. Then he heard Lon Carson's voice. "What is it? A Sime? Hey, in there! You from Fort Freedom?"

Angry questions from the gathering men, and Mr. Carson's protest, "One Sime doesn't attack a town! Someone's come after the boy!"

"No," came the stable boy's voice, "it is a kid. Changeover."

"Who is it?" another voice demanded on a note of anxiety.

"I don't know him. Never saw him before."

Then Sessly Bron's voice. "It's Zeth! He's gone from—"

"Dear God!" exclaimed Mr. Carson. "Zeth, is that you?"

"Yes!" he managed to choke out. "Mr. Carson—let me go—please! Got to—get home—"

"You hear that?" Mr. Carson said to the others. "That boy was perfectly all right a couple of hours ago—there's plenty of time for him to get to Fort Freedom, to one of their . . . channels."

"No Sime is all right, and no damn Sime sympathizer!" came another voice.

Someone else responded, "Turn him loose so's we can shoot him! Damn demon monster!"

"My daughter is neither demon nor monster!" Lon Carson said angrily. "She could help this boy. Give him a horse—or I'll take him in my wagon. He came to us for help—are we going to murder him?"

"Lon." Maddok Bron's voice, calm and reasonable. "We must do what is right, Lon. You know that."

"Are you so damn sure you know what's right? You'd have murdered Marji–"

"Stop! Before you say something you may regret forever. I know you feel shamed that your wife took your daughter across the border without your help—but how can you be certain Hope is not being used?"

"She saw—"

"She saw what they chose to show her."

Heart vibrating madly, darkness closing in on him, Zeth lost track of the argument as the transition to stage three struck him. The stable dwindled to a black box, a coffin, the walls closing in. He choked, fighting spasms in his chest, and fainted.

He woke to a dull ache spreading through all the nerves of his body. That he could breathe again was little relief in the presence of indefinable ugliness. But it came from outside himself—he could get away from it if he could move.

Sitting up, he found his head clear again. He saw the dim inside of the stable, smelled the horses, heard the voices outside. The ugly sensation dimmed before the senses he was

familiar with—and then as he focused on the angry voices, it returned in a most peculiar way.

* Through the walls came a glow of darkness—his mind twisted, trying to find words to describe it, but he didn't have them, even in Simelan. "Darkness visible," Mr. Veritt had once said, was the way an Ancient poet had described hell. It seemed to fit the sensation he was getting from several people ... yes, those were people surrounding the stable, hating him, fearing him.

"... get him out of there," someone was saying, "whatever we do with him then!"

"Shoot him!"

"Let's smoke him out!" someone suggested.

"You fool! Burn down the stable with all our horses? Just keep him in there. If he survives, he'll come out looking for someone to kill, and we'll shoot him. If he doesn't come out by tomorrow night, we'll know he's dead."

It wasn't even cruelty, Zeth somehow realized. He was not human to the men talking so casually of his death.

He was going to die. He should have some strength at this stage, but he could not even crawl to the water trough to assuage his thirst. Fear had consumed his selyn reserves.

If by chance he survived breakout, he knew he would not be able to think rationally in. First Need. He would be driven to seek selyn, find his way out of the stable—and be shot on sight.

At least I won't kill. He considered that, then thought, I haven't asked God for anything since I prayed for Owen to live. Now I have one last request, because I won't be able to control it myself. If I don't die in changeover . . . don't let me kill anyone before they shoot me.

Abel Veritt called it "putting one's trust in God." Somehow, Zeth felt better, even though he was terrified of what was yet to come.

He was a channel, all right—his changeover was progressing even more rapidly than Marji's had. If they let him go right now, and he galloped for the border, breakout would come long before he got home. A berserker, he would attack the first Gen he found. Or the first Sime. My father killed a Sime in First Need.

With sudden clarity, he knew why he was here: to die without killing, the shock that would rouse the community of Mountain Chapel to go to Fort Freedom's rescue.

It was all part of God's plan that Abel Veritt spoke of, that Rimon Farris said it was man's only duty to seek to perceive. If Zeth had obediently stayed with the other children, he'd have gone into changeover just the same. With Freehand Raiders surrounding the fort, there'd have been no way for Mrs. Veritt to get him to his father.

Wik would have tried to give him First Transfer—Wik, who could easily serve any other changeover victim, would have thus ended his brief life, so full of potential. And Zeth would be junct—joined to the kill. With the voracious need of a Farris, he might have gone on to kill Mrs. Veritt or one of the children.

Instead, he would be a martyr. His death would unite Fort Freedom and Mountain Chapel. His name would be carved on the Monument, and his grandchildren would tell his story to their grandchildren.

It did not occur to Zeth just then that if he died in changeover he would have no grandchildren. He lay on the stable floor, shivering as the night cold crept into his bones, while the men outside futilely argued his fate.

What roused Zeth from his torpor was a new sensation ... no, a change in the same sensation of feeling the people outside. Beyond the muddy, unpleasant miasma, he sensed a brightness like sunrise. But it wasn't the sun, wasn't light at all, although it gave promise of warmth to ease his chill.

Galloping hoofbeats, the bright presence swamping all the others, suffusing him with hope. Outside, a familiar voice asked, "What's going on?" Owen.

"Changeover," someone replied. "We got 'im trapped."

"Thank God I decided to ride on over here. Whose child is it?"

Another presence, nothing to Owen's, but without the ugliness of the men who waited to murder Zeth, joined those gathered at the door. Owen identified it. "Mr. Bron! I can save that child from killing. Tell your men to let me through."

"Are you a witch, then, Owen? A sorcerer who can consort with demons and emerge unscathed?"

The annoyance in Owen's field penetrated Zeth's numbness. "Let me save a life tonight, and we'll argue theology in the morning. Where are the child's parents? Surely they will want their child to live . . . and not to kill."

"None of ourn," said the man who wanted to shoot Zeth. "Some kid from across the border."

"But who would—?" Then Owen was at the door, the bolt creaking as he withdrew it. "Zeth! Zeth, is that you?"

The numb chill had taken Zeth over completely. Though his lips moved in an attempt to answer, no sound came.

Meanwhile, he heard a scuffle outside the door, Owen demanding, "Let me go! He needs me! He's a channel, and he could die, you lorshes!" He was apparently dragged away from the door, and Zeth's spirits sank. Then he remembered that Owen, despite the magic of his field, could not be a Companion. They were right to keep him from Zeth.

The ugly fields were at the door again, Owen's somewhere beyond them, maybe with Bron's. The cold within Zeth's body was no longer unpleasant. Perhaps all feeling would disappear, and he would just quietly die.

Then Owen and Bron were back at the door, Bron saying, "Open it—but keep your guns ready." Bron, too, was armed with a shotgun.

Owen dashed to Zeth's side without a false step, and dropped to his knees, taking Zeth's right hand in his. Zeth felt his presence, but could not feel their hands touching.

"He's freezing!" Owen exclaimed.

Bron peered down at them. "Is he dead?"

"No, he's not dead, no thanks to you!" Owen snapped. "Can't you feel his need?" He pinned Zeth's hand under one knee so he could roll up the boy's sleeve. A stab of fear and pity went through his field. "Look what you've done to him!"

Bron frowned. "I don't see anything."

"His tentacles aren't developing to match his state of need Owen's fingers gently probed Zeth's forearm. "They're there, but stunted. You terrified him, locking him in here, and now the temperature's dropped. I wish we had a channel!"

As he spoke, Owen was rolling Zeth's sleeve down again, and pulling his unresponsive body against his own warmth. "You'll be fine now, Zeth," he said reassuringly. "I'm going to take care of you."

Within the aura of Owen's field, Zeth could not help but believe it. The moment he accepted that he would live, it seemed, his body began to tremble with the cold again, the hollow weakness returned, and an indefinable sensation sprang from his chest out to his shoulders and down his arms. Even when it passed, his shivering continued convulsively.

Owen looked up at Bron. "That was stage four transition.

I've got to get him someplace warm, or he'll use up his last selyn reserve just trying to raise his body temperature. You wanted a sign? Zeth is that sign, and you were too blind to see it. If you'll give us a warm place, lock us in together, in the morning you will witness a miracle. We'll both be alive and well. Could you ask better proof of what Mrs. Carson and I have told you?"

"And what if you're not both alive?"

Still shivering uncontrollably, Zeth looked at the gun Mr. Bron had pointed at him, and somehow found his voice. "If I killed Owen," he got out through chattering teeth, "then I'd want you to shoot me."

"Maddok—please!" Sessly Bron appeared from behind the armed men. "If they're right—Maddok, don't you want to believe?"

"This town is my responsibility. If I were wrong—"

"What if we've been wrong all along, shooting down helpless children? Since Mrs. Carson took Marji across the border, two children have been shot down like mad dogs. You paced the floor for nights afterward. If you don't give these boys a chance . . . will you ever sleep again?"

The man looked from his sister to the two boys. "I place it in God's hands. What do you need?"

The word sent a shudder up Zeth's spine, but Owen replied, "A warm place. Blankets. Hot bricks."

Sessly Bron took a horse blanket from one of the stalls, and wrapped it around Zeth. He hadn't even thought to look for one!

The scratchy wool didn't bother him, nor did Miss Bron's proximity, with Owen's field shielding him. "Let's get you home and back to bed," she said. "You men get out of the way! You can come surround our house, or you can go home and get warm."

Owen managed to get to his feet, supporting Zeth. "Can you walk if you lean on me? The only way I can carry you is over my shoulder.''

"I'll take him," said Maddok Bron, handing his gun to his sister.

Terrified of being handled by an untrained Gen, Zeth clung to Owen—but he couldn't walk. He couldn't even feel his feet. "Owen—please!"

"I'm here, right beside you, Zeth. Let Mr. Bron carry you." Owen held Zeth's hand, the only thing that kept him

from becoming hysterical as he was carried back to the Bron house, into the room he had escaped from a few hours ago, and deposited back in the same bed.

Owen pulled off Zeth's boots and his jacket, but left the rest of his clothing on, piling the blankets from both beds over him. But there was too little warmth in Zeth's own body for it to do him much good, even with towel-wrapped hot bricks at his feet. Finally Owen closed the door against all the other fields, saying, "Don't come in again, and keep those men away from the house: Zeth will be zlinning right through the walls soon, if he's not already. When it's all over, we'll come out."

Zeth's shivering shook the bed, and a sudden wave of dizziness made him clutch at the pillows in irrational fear of falling off. The numbness was gone; he was aware of every twinge of penetrating cold. Despite the blankets, he felt as if icy blasts of air were blowing across him. "C-cold!" was all he could force out.

Owen studied him for a moment, then gently probed at the back of Zeth's neck. Zeth groaned as he touched the tender swelling there. "Stage five," said Owen. "Just relax now. You're going to be fine." But Zeth could sense his worry at the rapid transitions without proper tentacle development.

"Can't get warm!" Zeth was too miserable to be embarrassed at the whimper in his voice.

There were no more blankets, so Owen climbed under the covers beside Zeth. As Owen's warmth gradually transfused from the Gen's body to his, Zeth stopped shivering and fell into exhausted sleep, no longer caring that he would probably die despite Owen's best efforts.

He woke at dawn, feeling too warm, and stretched out full length, shoving at the heap of blankets over him. Owen sat up and helped him turn them back neatly. His arm had' been under the covers, yet when he felt Zeth's forehead now, Zeth perceived his hand as cool. He reached to take Owen's hand in his, puzzled at the difference in sensation.

Owen smiled reassuringly. "When you touch me, you feel like a Sime now, Zeth. Let's get your shirt off, all right? You're going to make a grand mess at breakout."

Even with Owen's help, the sliding of the flannel shirt irritated Zeth's arms. "Look!" said Owen when they had completed the task. There they were: tentacles, small but definite, lying quietly in their sheaths.

"Beautiful," whispered Owen, relief suffusing his field. "Now don't get overanxious. You're safe now; I'm here. We have all the time in the world."

"How did you talk Mr. Bron into letting you help me?"

"He's not an unreasonable man . . . and his sister has a kind heart. It seems their younger brother, Frid, changed over a few years back . . . and Mr. Bron had to shoot his own brother to save Sessly." He shuddered. "That's what it's like out here, Zeth. People harden to it, the way junct Simes harden to killing. But there are those who can't help knowing that there ought to be a better way. Your dad, my pa, Abel Veritt. Everyone at Fort Freedom now, but you're too young to remember when your folks first came."

"What if I kill you, Owen?"

"You won't. I won't let you."

"Suppose I hurt you? I'm a Farris. I have a need like my father's."

"And I have a field to match. It's over a month since I donated—I can feel how high-field I am, and still climbing."

Zeth, too, could feel the warm glow of promise, increasing as cold emptiness sucked him down and down into a bottomless chasm—need. Despite Owen's hypnotic nager, fear remained. "Dad says—"

"Your dad says—and I've heard him—'Poor Owen. What a great Companion he'd make, if only he had both arms."'

The bitterness in his friend's tone and nager was agony to Zeth. "Owen—"

Instantly, the bitterness was gone. "It's all right. You made me realize I can still do anything I really want—and what I really want is to give transfer. That's why I stayed away from Fort Freedom. To be around Simes in need, wanting to help and not being allowed to—"

Zeth squirmed under that painful frustration. It was more than knowing how Owen felt—it was feeling it.

Owen fixed Zeth with a piercing stare, all tension resolved. "They say Gens can't feel what Simes do. Well, Simes can't feel what Gens do, either, or your father would never have forbidden me transfer. This is what I was born for. I've found myself. This is what I need, Zeth."

Zeth, giving himself up to Owen's certainty, realized that his friend's awkwardness was gone. He was Gen-graceful now, precise slowness in his every move, evoking in Zeth a

trust he had never known before. For the first time, he really believed Owen could serve any need, even Zeth's.

"Rest now," said Owen. "Sleep some more if you can. Save your strength for breakout."

"I'm too excited to sleep. Did anyone tell you why I came?"

"Mr. Bron told me. You were very brave to come for help, Zeth . . . and when they see us after our transfer, you'll get it. I wish I'd been here when you arrived! You really gave me a scare, going into stage four without the slightest visible sign of tentacles—but you've come back to a normal pattern now."

Normal for another Sime, maybe, Zeth thought, but normal for me? His need was deepening, but his tentacles showed no sign of being ready to emerge.

"Where were you so late?" he asked to change the subject.

"I left the Nortons in plenty of time to get here by dark, but I ran into some soldiers from the garrison. Bunch of fools!"

"Why would Gen soldiers stop you? You're Gen."

"They knew that, and they knew I wasn't running guns or Gens. They just thought they'd have some fun tormenting a one-armed kid—and I had to put up with their questions 'cause if they'd searched me and found my tags I'd be in real trouble."

"But what did they want? Do they know you go back and forth across the border? Owen, what if they'd arrested you?"

"Will you relax?" Owen's field soothed Zeth. "They didn't arrest me. They were drunk. When I told them I'd been visiting a girl, they wanted to know all about Sue."

Zeth remembered Mr. Bron mentioning a girl Owen was interested in. "Are ... are you gonna marry her?"

"Not unless I can persuade her to move to Fort Freedom," Owen replied. "Especially now that I'm going to be your Companion! But my Uncle Glian and Ed Norton would like us to get married. Ed lost his son to changeover, and Uncle Glian has no kids, so I'm his closest kin. Their ranches border on each other, and they've got it all planned that Sue and I should get married and unite the two ranches!"

"But ... do you really want to get married?"

"I'm not ready. It's not even a year since I established . . . but ... I really like Sue. Zeth, an awful lot of girls pity me, because of my arm. Sue's different. Reminds me of Jana, the

way she speaks her mind. We're comfortable together. Friends."

"How did you get away from the soldiers?" Zeth asked.

"Oh, they let me go after they'd had their laugh. It was late by then—I thought about going back to the ranch, or I might have camped out if it hadn't gotten so cold. Something told me to come on to Mountain Chapel." He turned to Zeth. "I'm the one feeling cold now. There's a warm robe hanging on the door—see? I'm not leaving you, Zeth. I'm just going to take off my shirt and put that robe on. Otherwise I'll have to put on a sweater, and we'll have a real tangle when it's time for your transfer."

As his need deepened, Zeth was terrified to have his Companion move the slightest distance from him, but Owen's field was so reassuring that he gave a grim nod to the common-sense suggestion. Besides, Owen's shivers were renewing his own.

Despite his handicap, Owen quickly skinned out of shirt and undershirt, and shrugged into the robe, wrapping it properly and tying the sash with the aid of his teeth. It was not in Owen to be sloppy—even when they were kids, Zeth and Jana might have run around with their shirttails out, but never Owen.

Owen sat on the edge of the bed, facing Zeth, glowing. Zeth blinked, but it was still there, not just the morning sunlight glinting off his friend's blond hair, but a golden glow suffusing his whole body. He realized it was the same sensation he had been—zlinning?—all along, but this was the first time Owen had sat still, completely in his field of vision. In his dreams, Zeth had seen his mother glow like that.

Owen examined Zeth's forearms again, and the newly formed tentacles squirmed slightly, sending new sensations through Zeth's nerves. "Good," said Owen, "they're forming nicely now that we've got you warm. Here—take my arm between both of yours. See if my field can encourage faster development."

Zeth did as he was told, pushing back the sleeve of Owen's robe, and felt conflicting sensations: the proximity of his developing laterals to the source of life-promise was keenly sweet, while the touch of Owen's skin was somehow rough against his swollen, oversensitive forearms. The swelling increased, and soon it felt as if the fluids in which the tentacles writhed were boiling, burning him alive.

He sucked in his breath through gritted teeth, and convulsively pulled his arms against his chest, clenching his fists in helpless spasms.

"No, Zeth!" Owen said warningly. "Not yet!" He pried one hand open, but the moment he let go to reach for the other, Zeth's fist clenched uncontrollably. "Shen!" muttered Owen. "I thought I was over wishing for two hands!"

Somehow, that struck Zeth as immensely funny. He broke into giggles, watching Owen try to capture both his hands in his one. "What's so shenned funny?" Owen demanded.

"If you had two hands, we wouldn't be here. You'd be a Companion, but my father'd be giving me First Transfer, if I'd stayed in Fort Freedom."

Owen s anger evaporated. "Yeah. And I have the feeling . . . it's almost going to be worth it!"

Yesterday, that idea would have been incomprehensible. Today, hovering on the brink of Simehood, experiencing the growing void of need as unbearable pleasure because Owen was there to fill it, Zeth understood. The experience was all—and it had to be with Owen. If his father walked through that door right now, he would fight him off, tooth and nail.

His spasms had relaxed. He placed both hands on Owen's forearm and looked into his friend's eyes. "When this is over," he promised, "you won't say 'almost.' "

With Owen coaching him, Zeth saved his strength until the actual breakout contractions began. Then he worked with the spasms, feeling his newly formed tentacles writhe and press against the wrist openings, where the membranes swelled but did not break. That pain was good pain, negligible beside the agony/bliss of his growing need.

For seconds at a time, the world blotted out before his emptiness and Owen's undefined but potent presence.

Owen shoved a corner of the blanket into Zeth's hands. The rough texture of the wool triggered even stronger contractions.. The membranes covering the wrist orifices bulged, and Zeth grunted and strained to break them, ran out of breath, and fell back panting.

"Zeth!" said Owen. "Come on now! I can't do it for you!"

A Sime could have wrapped tentacles about Zeth's arms to force the fluids against the membranes. A Gen could have done almost as well with fingers—but it had to be done to both arms at once.

"Here—hang on to me," said Owen, thrusting his arm against Zeth's palms. Zeth's fingers dug into the hard Gen muscle for the final contraction. It had to be the last one, or he'd surely die of attrition before breakout.

"Owen—" he cried, helpless before the pain, but the cry cut off as he strained once more, tentacles burning in the searing fluids, pressure too much to bear.

Owen bent over him, reaching for the fifth transfer contact point. As the Gen lips touched his, Zeth was seized with yet another spasm, peaking before the last one abated. Unable to breathe, blackness closing in, Zeth strained toward the promise of life.

In the moment when he had given up, the tension burst, membranes parting before eager tentacles, spraying both him and Owen with hot blood and fluids. In the shock of cold air, his new tentacles locked themselves around Owen's arm, and Zeth fell forward against his friend in blessed relief.

As Zeth relaxed, Owen gently untangled himself and pushed Zeth back onto the pillow, grinning at him as he said, "Congratulations, Zeth."

Need surged back over Zeth, washing out hearing, smell, touch, and vision. Despite his training, he panicked, clutching at the single bright warmth in his darkening universe. It was there, real and solid before him, stable, dependable. He perceived the long-denied, chronic yearning in his friend easily matching his own sudden, acute need. Owen's selyn– his life force—etched out the Gen nervous system in magnificent patterns.

He was held in that beauty, wavering on the brink of death yet braced by infinite strength. He reached out, his laterals in startling negative contrast to Owen's brimming nerves. His left hand seated itself, but his right hand groped, perceiving through the ultra-sensitive lateral tentacles the field pattern of Owen's left arm—yet there was nothing there for him to close upon.

Owen moved the arm that Zeth held, and in panic Zeth gripped tighter, the flash of pain through Owen's nager jolting him into savage need. A strong flood of reassurance overtook him, and his head cleared. Owen's arm is gone– can't use this grip. Even with that knowledge, though, he couldn't release Owen's arm. But he let himself move with Owen—and then Zeth's hand rested on Owen's left shoulder, near the bright pattern of selyn flow at the back of Owen's

neck. His left hand released Owen's right aim and sought a symmetrical grip, laterals seating themselves automatically. Owen's arm came up against his back, enclosing him in the vibrant circle of Genness . . . and then, without volition, he felt Owen's lips make the last, vital contact, opening the flow of selyn.

All his life Zeth had imagined transfer—but nothing had prepared him for the combination of relief, release, and joy. His sensations and Owen's were so bound up together that he seemed to be giving and receiving at once—sharing. This is what I was born for! There was no surprise, only the fulfillment of highest expectation, rising to a thrilling crescendo, peaking—and abruptly starting all over again at a lesser intensity. Two selyn systems. I am a channel!

When it was over, Zeth and Owen clung to one another, Zeth tumbling back to normal perceptions as he felt his hands against Owen's cool skin, smelled the salty odor of his flesh. Then he sat back, seeing that Owen had pushed his robe down off his shoulders so Zeth could find his transfer grip unhampered.

He fumbled for Owen's wrist, and saw the red marks of his fingers and tentacles. They would be nasty bruises soon. But when he, looked at Owen's face, all thought of apology disappeared. Never before had he seen such satisfaction—a perfect reflection of his own feelings—wiping away the deadening ordeal Owen had undergone since the loss of his arm.

A grin spread across Owen's face. "You were right, Zeth: there was no 'almost' about it!"

They hugged each other, laughing, then drew apart in distaste at the sticky mess Zeth's breakout had made. "Come on," said Owen. "Get dressed. They're waiting for us." He stood, reaching for their shirts. Then he turned and looked back at Zeth with a grin, stretching like a lazy cat. "I feel so good! As if I'm completely healthy for the first time in my life, only I never knew I was sick."

Gingerly, Zeth climbed out of bed. He felt normal—like Owen, the best he'd ever felt. A new Sime had to be able to flee if necessary—he should have no problems.

Except for his total contentment, Zeth felt so ordinary that he had to look at the tentacles now neatly sheathed along his forearms to believe he was truly Sime. He had returned completely to the senses he'd been born with—hypoconscious-

ness, Simes called it. The normal state after transfer. He'd have to make an effort to zlin.

"What are you making such faces about?" Owen asked.

"I was zlinning. Now I can't."

"Sure you can," Owen said confidently. "Focus on me. My field will be low, but it's there, 'cause I'm alive."

And sure enough, when Zeth concentrated, he suddenly saw his friend surrounded by a hazy luminescence that pulsed brighter with each passing second. He was both seeing and zlinning: duoconsciousness. "I can zlin!"

"Of course you can," Owen said casually. "Shen—half the time I think I can do it myself!"

Shivering, the boys washed with cold water from the pitcher on the washstand, then dressed and straightened the room. Owen glanced at Zeth, and Zeth gave him a nod, ready now to face anything.

Owen opened the door, calling, "It's me, Owen. It's all over. We're both fine."

In the hall, Mr. Bron was waiting with his shotgun. Zeth stared uncomfortably at the gun, zlinning the tension in the man holding it. At this distance, a Sime ought to be able to sense the decision to shoot, and wrest the gun from a Gen's hands before he could fire. But Zeth was so newly Sime that he had little control of his reflexes, and only a vague idea of what he zlinned. Furthermore, if he made the wrong move he was too far outnumbered to get out of Mountain Chapel alive. He couldn't even protect Owen.

Mr. Bron backed away into the main room. "Come out here where we can see you." Mr. and Mrs. Carson and Sessly Bron were there, the women seated on the couch, Lon Carson also with his gun ready—but Zeth was unsure exactly where he might aim it.

When Zeth stepped out into full daylight, Mr. Bron studied him with a puzzled frown. "You don't look at all like a Sime. What happened?"

Zeth was wearing the long-sleeved flannel shirt he'd had under his heavy jacket. Slowly, trying not to frighten anyone, he rolled up one sleeve to show the neatly sheathed tentacles.

The start that went through Mr. Bron caused Zeth to tense, but he was replete with selyn, and Owen was at his side. "You have nothing to fear from me," he said honestly.

"You asked for a sign," said Owen.

Zeth recalled, "Mr. Veritt always says to think carefully about what you pray for—because it's what you'll get."

Mr. Bron stared at him for a moment, as if trying to decide whether to take offense—and then his face lifted into a smile. Zeth had the feeling that the expression was new to those grave features.

"I am convinced," said Mr. Bron. "Seeing you together—" He shook his head in wonder.

Mrs. Carson came over to them. "Zeth . . . congratulations." She held out her arms, letting him make the decision-just as he had been taught always to let a Sime decide to accept or reject contact even with a child. He didn't hesitate, but hugged her. She kissed his cheek, then Owen's.

Lon Carson offered Zeth his hand, stumbling over the idea, but managing to say, "Congratulations, Zeth." When they touched, Zeth felt the urge of his tentacles to seal the grip, but quelled it. He dared not frighten or offend.

"Lon—call the men together," said Mr. Bron. He and his sister were both watching avidly, tense but unafraid. Zeth remained duoconscious without effort now.

Sessly Bron approached Zeth, wonder in her nager, but no fear. "It is your custom ... to congratulate—?"

"Yes, ma'am," said Owen. "Zeth's grown up now."

She looked into Zeth's face, and he perceived in her field a mingled joy and sorrow. Her eyes* were misted as she said, "Congratulations, Zeth." Then she turned to Owen. "You must teach me to do what you did for him."

"Sessly!" gasped her brother.

She turned fiercely. "I shall learn it! We will shoot no more children down in the streets of Mountain Chapel!"

"We can take them to Fort Freedom," said Mrs. Carson.

"If there still is a Fort Freedom," Zeth said, suddenly terribly aware that a whole day had passed since the attack of the Raiders had begun.

"There will be," said Maddok Bron. "Zeth—Owen—you must show my people. We will drive off the Raiders, to preserve a place where—God be praised—it is no curse to be Sime!"

They went out onto the porch of the Bron house. Pale morning sunlight was melting the light frost across the grass, but although Zeth wanted to savor the crisp morning air, his attention focused on the gathering crowd of armed men. To one side were Lon Carson and the others Bron had called

"children of Simes," but far outnumbering them were other men, shotguns and rifles held ready. There was the same ugly sensation he had felt outside last night—a mingling of hate and fear.

Behind the men stood women, some holding babes in arms, others with older children by their sides. Zeth was sure the whole town had turned out to judge him.

Mr. Bron stepped forward, his voice carrying clearly in the morning air. "My people—since last summer, when Hope Carson took her Sime daughter across the border, to return with tales of Simes who do not kill—since that day, we have lived in doubt and dissension. If before we were concerned about the children of Simes living among us, now suspicion divided us, dread fear lest we misinterpret God's will. The Holy Book said Simes are demons. Killers. Yet if what Mrs. Carson told us was true, it was possible that any child of ours who turned Sime . . . might . . . not . . . kill."

He waited for the ensuing murmur to die down before he continued, "We prayed for a sign. Last night a child came to us from Fort Freedom, claiming not to be the child of Simes"—he glanced sidelong at Zeth with a faint smile– "but of a Sime father and a human—normal—mother."

'Now there were open exclamations. Bron nodded. "You have heard of this boy, Zeth Farris, from Mrs. Carson. We have wondered at the stories she and Owen Lodge have told us and, if they are true, what we are being asked to do.

"Last night Zeth came for help against killer Simes attacking his home. No adult of Fort Freedom dared—but the faith of a child led him here, to beg aid of strangers."

"Why should we help Simes fight Simes?" shouted a portly man in the back row, whose nager was a sullen umber. "Let 'em kill each other, and good riddance!"

"As you would have killed last night, as we have killed our own children for generations!" Bron replied. "You all heard the alarm last night. Those of you on schedule came with your guns. The rest . . . you looked into your children's rooms, did you not? And before you went back to sleep, you thanked God it was not your child . . . this time."

At the whisper of assent, Bron continued. "When Zeth told me about the Raiders, I went to pray. God forgive me—He had sent the sign we sought, and I would not see it. I went off to pray without recognizing that the child who had come to beg our help . . . was in changeover!"

Starts of fear ran through the crowd, followed by puzzlement as Zeth stood quietly on the porch. Owen edged nearer as the questions rose, "How could he be?" "Look at him– that's no Sime!" "But I saw him in the stable last night." "But look—he's just a little boy!"

When the crowd had settled, Mr. Bron said "Zeth? Show them?"

Zeth stepped forward, Owen at his side. "There's nothing to be scared of," he said. "Owen's Gen, like you, but he knew what to do for me. I'm Sime—but I'll never kill."

With his right hand, he once again unbuttoned his left cuff and rolled the sleeve up to expose his sheathed tentacles. Owen, standing to his left, took Zeth's hand, lifted it—and at last Zeth allowed his handling tentacles their way, sliding over Sime and Gen flesh, binding their hands for all to see.

There were gasps from the crowd, and instinctive movements of guns. At once Maddok Bron stepped in front of Zeth. "There is nothing to fear. Rather rejoice in God's sign to us. Think of your own children, brothers, sisters. Will you chance their becoming demonic killer Simes? Or would you have them like this boy—lucid, controlled . . . harmless?" He moved to Zeth's right side and added, "Innocent."

Firmly, Bron held out his hand to Zeth. Sensing that the man knew, as Abel Veritt always did, the gestures that would convince people only partially swayed by words, he took his hand, letting his tentacles wrap about it. There was a collective sigh from the watching crowd.

Then Lon Carson raised his gun over his head, shouting, "For your brothers, your sisters, your children—ride with us to save Fort Freedom!"

With a shout of assent, people scattered to their homes. Zeth was left standing between the two Gens, retracting his tentacles. Mr. Bron -examined his hand, front and back. "They're not—"

"No, they're not slimy!" Owen supplied with a laugh. "I don't think I've convinced Uncle Glian of that. Oh!" he added. "I've got to ride to Uncle Glian's ranch! He'll bring his men to help."

"I've got to get across the border," said Zeth. "I'll be safe enough. You go for your uncle, and I'll ride with Mr. Bron."

"You're not going anywhere but back to bed!" Owen said firmly. "Zeth, you're a brand-new Sime and a channel at that. If you don't rest, in a few hours you'll collapse."

"And so will you, Owen," said Sessly Bron from just inside the door. "You had no rest last night, either. Maddok, send riders to the ranches. And you boys come inside and have breakfast. I'll heat some water so you can have a bath, and then—"

There was no use protesting that both Zeth and Owen were grown men by Fort Freedom's standards. Besides, as his tension relaxed, Zeth found his mind refusing to obey his will, fixing with utter fascination on trivial things such as the rippling pattern through the walls of a house as men rode by behind it. "Well, maybe you're right," he conceded, glad to have Owen beside him to shield him from the chaotic nager.

Still, he fidgeted nervously as they watched the men of Mountain Chapel ride out to defend Fort Freedom. Would there be anything there to defend? Was he the last channel left—untrained and nearly helpless?

Owen put his hand over Zeth's restless tentacles and said, "We'll ride home tomorrow."


Chapter 5 | Channel's Destiny | Chapter 7