The sun was low when Zeth and Owen topped the hill that gave them their first view of home. The air was very cold. A pall of smoke hung over the valley. Only large landmarks could be distinguished. The Old Fort stood amid columns of black smoke. Where the town had been, there was nothing– even the wooden bridge across the creek was gone, along with Slina's pens.
They had found the Old Homestead deserted but unharmed. Mrs. Veritt and the children must have gone home. That was the only hopeful sign. Well beyond the Fort Zeth could see other columns of dense smoke, and concluded that his own home was also a casualty.
He urged Star forward, insisting to himself, if the children are home. Fort Freedom drove the Raiders off. Immediately, though, he wondered: At what price?
Zeth reached forward, his laterals extending themselves to zlin, and was bombarded with excruciating pain, anguish, fear, grief.
It was not until Owen stopped both their horses and reached out to shake Zeth that he was able to stop zlinning. "Zeth– what's wrong? What happened?"
Forcing calm, Zeth said, "Down there. It's awful!"
Owen looked from Zeth to the scene below, and back again. "You can't zlin that far!"
"Are you going to tell me what I can and can't zlin?" Zeth snapped, rubbing his hands over his aching lateral sheaths.
"No, of course not," said Owen. "Here–stop that! You want to injure yourself?"
"I'm all right," Zeth said. "Come on—let's get home."
"What did you zlin?" Owen asked as they started down.
"Pain. Probably a lot of people hurt. I'm scared, Owen."
The path to the Fort led through heaps of dead bodies. Zeth saw Simes going through piles of corpses, separating the dead from the living. Scarecrow forms of Freehand Raiders were flung limply on the blood-churned stubble. Among the piles of enemy dead were other bodies, Simes and Gens, some he knew and some he recognized as out-Territory Gens: they had died defending people they had always considered enemies.
And I'm responsible, Zeth thought, as he turned his eyes from an upturned face bearing the hideous rictus of fear that marked death by the kill. But the Fort stood. One wall was partly burned and partly smashed in; several houses had been burned; but the chapel stood unharmed, and the people he saw were not Freehand Raiders. I'm responsible for that, too, he consoled himself. The bullet-ridden Raider corpses made it plain that the out-Territory Gens had saved the day.
Zeth and Owen headed toward a large group of active people—and naturally, they found Rimon Farris and Abel Veritt at its center. There was a whip slash across Abel's forehead, blood congealed in his white hair. He limped heavily, but he was the same unstoppable Abel.
Rimon, though, was almost unrecognizable. His clothing was in ashy tatters, his hair singed, his eyebrows gone. From his thighs to his boots, his trousers had been burned away, his legs a mass of burns and blisters. He was too busy healing others to think of himself. Rimon looked up with a start. "Who's—? Zeth!"
Until the past few minutes, Zeth had never before zlinned any Sime, but zlinning his father, he felt that he'd have known that field anywhere. He could feel worry and annoyance vying with the pride of winning, and the easy meshing of their fields as his father zlinned him in return. Zeth slid down off his horse, but dared not embrace Rimon because he zlinned another painful burn across his back. Rimon held out his hands, and they entwined handling tentacles in the gesture of deep friendship Zeth had so often seen his father exchange with Del Erick.
Some overlying anxiety rang incomprehensibly through Rimon's field. Then he was called to help by Hank and Uel, working nearby. Zeth flicked back to duoconsciousness as Abel moved in to hug him, tears in his eyes, saying, "Fools and children! Somehow God takes special care of them. Bless you, Zeth Farris. For all I could turn you over my knee like a
child too young to be reasoned with, what you did saved Fort Freedom."
In the background, Owen called, "Pa!" and ran off toward Del Erick, who was carrying a limp form. Del did not seem harmed at all, though his clothes were dirty and smeared with other people's blood.
.He carried a boy no bigger than Zeth, Sime, emaciated, dressed in the rags of the Freehand Raiders.
"I left this one for dead a few hours ago," said Del as he joined them. "I suppose I should have just broken his neck and had done with it."
"No, Del," Abel said gently. "You're a fine fighter, but you don't murder the helpless. What's wrong with him?"
Zeth zlinned the boy, finding pain, swelling, and pressure on his lateral sheaths. His eyes told him the cause. "Whip burns," he said, fighting off nausea as his own laterals buzzed in sympathy. "A hard blow to his right outer lateral. The swelling is keeping him unconscious." When Abel and Del stared at him, he added, "I'm sorry—that's all I can tell. I don't know what to do for it."
Del gave a grim laugh. "What are you—two days old?"
"Less," Owen contributed with proprietary pride.
"And already you can zlin that accurately? You'll be a better channel than your dad, Zeth. Congratulations.!'
"You shouldn't have moved this boy, Del," said Abel.
"I know—but I couldn't bring him around. Better disorientation than freezing to death."
Abel said to the Simes waiting to help, "Take that boy inside and have fosebine ready if he comes to. He'll send every Sime in the Fort into screaming fits, and we can't have that with all these untrained Gens around."
Rimon, hearing the last part, said, "Put him in the back room of the chapel, away from the Gens." The stone chapel, the best-insulated building in the Fort, would be used as an infirmary for Gens. Zeth walked over to his father and Uel. They had a Gen male face down on a blanket, blood pouring from the lower left side of his back. Blood stained all down his left trouser leg, indicating that he had remained on his feet or his horse despite the wound.
Uel was saying, "I don't know how you can heal him, Rimon. His field is melting away. While you're working with him, others may die who might have recovered."
Again Zeth automatically zlinned—and instantly recognized the man's field, weak as it was. "Mr. Bron!"
Abel said, "Their leader. Rimon, can't you save him?"
"Dad," Zeth pleaded, "he took me in in changeover. He persuaded the Gens to come help us. Uel—can't I do something? So Dad can—?"
"Your father ought to be in bed himself!" Uel snapped. Hank put a hand on his arm, and he calmed. "I'm sorry. We've been through so much here, I forget what you've been through." His expression brightened. "Hey—you are a channel, aren't you? Congratulations." The smile faded. "Oh-oh. Trouble."
Several Gens from Mountain Chapel were approaching, guns ready, suspicion in their collective nager. Both Hank and Owen immediately moved between them and the Simes.
"Let us through!" one of the men demanded. "We can take care of our own."
"No," said Hank. "Our channels are his only chance."
Hank, having come from Gen Territory, spoke the Gen language without even the faint trace of accent of the bilingual children of Fort Freedom. Zeth observed the consternation in the Gen fields as they tried to place him. Owen spoke up. "I've told you about Fort Freedom. Now see for yourselves. The Simes here don't kill—they save lives. Please—if Mr. Bron is to have any chance at all, don't interfere."
"What're they gonna do to him?" another man asked.
Zeth began to zlin what his father was doing. He was, to all appearances, simply standing beside the fallen Gen, but nagerically he was projecting need. The cells of Bron's body responded by producing selyn, and, Zeth discovered with absolute fascination, producing more blood. He zlinned his father avidly, wanting to know how a channel–
A gently impinging field brought him duoconscious. Owen was circling Zeth's left wrist with his hand, not touching, but interfering with Zeth's perception. When his eyes focused, Owen said, "Wake up, Zeth. We're going inside."
Hank Steers was standing beside Owen. "There, you see, Owen? It worked. But keep an eye on Zeth. A new channel can drift off for hours, and you'll find out he was zlinning the bumblebees working in a field of clover!" Hank added, "Hey, Zeth, congratulations. And, Owen—you certainly showed 'em! The Companions have been on your side all
along, you know, but we couldn't argue the channels down. Any problems—just ask!" And he hurried after Uel.
In the chapel, rows of beds and pallets held the wounded Gens, many already treated and resting. Whip cuts, knife wounds, broken bones—all would respond to simple treatment. Fort Freedom's Gens moved among them, lest Simes inspire fear. Zeth followed the party carrying Maddok Bron toward the far end, where heavy hangings shielded the part of the chapel where the channels were treating the most seriously wounded.
Owen's sister Jana was plumping pillows and carrying water. She dropped everything, though, when she saw her brother. "Owen! Oh, you're back!" She took his hand, oblivious to Zeth, and pulled him toward one of the beds. "Look who's here!"
The man in the bed was big and blond, like Owen—Zeth knew even before Owen exclaimed, "Uncle Glian!" that they had to be related. Only the eyes were different—this man's were hazel, not the startling blue of Owen's and Jana's.
Glian Lodge pushed himself up on the pillows, wincing at the pain from broken ribs. "Well, hi there, son. You're a hero, I'm told!"
"Not really," said Owen, and Zeth could zlin that the • thought surprised him. "Zeth saved Fort Freedom—and you, and all the others who came to help."
"Hell, a chance to shoot them slimy sons of—" He broke off. "Yeah—I know. All Simes aren't alike." He called to the man in the next bed. "Hey—Eph! Wake up and see who's here!"
"Hello, Mr. Norton," Owen said politely when the other man opened his eyes. His head was swathed in bandages, covering an array of painful cuts. Owen pulled Zeth forward to be introduced.
They had already exchanged the normal pleasantries when Lodge said suddenly, "Hey, wait!" His field jarred with startlement, and Zeth clenched his teeth and backed a step toward Owen. "You're the kid went into changeover—?"
"Yes, sir," he replied. "Don't worry—I won't hurt you. No Sime here would."
The Gen shook his head. "I'll be damned. You seem like any normal, healthy kid."
"I am," said Zeth, although he wasn't really a kid anymore.
Eph Norton stared at him. "Dear God," he whispered, and
turned his head away. Zeth felt the tears stinging the Gen's eyelids as he pretended to fall back to sleep. He remembered that the man had lost his son to changeover.
When Zeth and Owen continued toward the insulated hangings' Owen said, "Let me go first, and don't zlin until you look first. This is one shidoni-be-flayed experience to throw a new channel into. Let me shield you. No heroics.
Zeth nodded and followed Owen through the curtain. Each of the severely injured Gens was surrounded by heavy hangings cutting the fields to a shattered haze so the channels could work without interference. One of the compartments, though, throbbed with a ruddy glow that drew him helplessly, and when he pushed the hangings aside, he saw what he already knew: his mother, lying in the bed unconscious. Her field was so strong that he was surprised to see three other people there: Marji Carson in the channel's position beside the bed, Trina Morgan assisting her, and Marji's father, Lon Carson, watching his daughter work.
Owen started to pull Zeth back, but when he saw Kadi Farris he followed Zeth, his field marbled with concern and sympathy.
Marji looked up. "Your father said, you were home, Zeth. He was just in—Kadi came conscious for him."
"They were caught in the fire. Both of them have bad burns on their legs. Rimon threw himself over Kadi when the roof fell in—he has even worse burns. Kadi has lung damage from smoke—and your father says there are scars from another time."
"Gen raiders burned their first house down around them when they started to homestead here. Marji," said Zeth, "will she live?"
"Oh, yes! I'm sure. Rimon will be back later—she responds best to his field, but I can maintain her."
Zeth began to zlin his mother. She could hardly breathe. The burns on her legs were painful, but the dark anomaly of failing cells was in her lungs. Marji was projecting need, encouraging Kadi's cells to produce selyn—to live and work and sustain her—but his mother's field resisted full cooperation with the young channel's. As Zeth pored over what he zlinned, the fields became abstract designs, fascinating in their complexity. He allowed his own field to impinge on the
linked fields before him. Kadi's field responded—and then she became aware of her pain, crying out, "Rimon!"
"No, Mama, it's me—Zeth."
She turned to look at him. Her eyes were normally deep blue, but now pain had drained the color from them until they seemed almost gray. Her hair was dull with smoke and soot—she was faded, not the flaming-haired angel he remembered. Then she smiled, and was his mother again.
"Zeth. My baby. They told me—"
"Don't try to talk, Mama. Yes, I'm all right, and I'm a channel, like Dad."
"You feel like your father," she murmured. Zeth didn't know what to make of that, but didn't ask because he could see how it hurt her to talk. "... so proud of you," she whispered, and then could not stay awake any longer.
"She must be getting stronger," said Marji. "She could hardly talk to Rimon." Zeth let himself become duoconscious again, but could comprehend nothing more from Kadi's field. As he turned to go, he passed Lon Carson, who was projecting a savage pride as he watched Marji. His nager didn't interfere with her work. Probably Rimon had decided making Lon go would create a greater disturbance.
Owen held the hangings aside. "Zeth, can you hear me?"
"Well, listen! Stay with me and let me shield you—you can't go drifting off in a hospital!"
"All right, Owen," said Zeth with absolute intent as he followed along in Owen's wake . . . until the flow-pattern of the ambient nager became an irresistible lure. He turned around, caught in the intensity of ebbing and flowing energy.
This time Owen shook him impatiently. "Come on, Zeth, the channels will throw us out of here!" He led Zeth on to where, heavily shielded with many layers of drapery, the channels were treating the critically wounded patients. Zeth jolted back to hypoconsciousness when he zlinned that the body being carried out by Dan Whelan and Del Erick was dead. The bodies out in the field had not bothered him—but this one meant the channels had failed to save someone. Bron?
No, Maddok Bron had been laid on a table, still unconscious. Duoconscious again, Zeth perceived the fighting strength that denied Bron's state of depletion.
Two Mountain Chapel Gens with guns had accompanied
the party into the chapel. Their fields thrummed with suspicion as Rimon bent over the still form of their leader. "You gotta take the bullet out," one of the Gens insisted.
Zeth's surprise and revulsion were reflected in his father's field, and Rimon fought irritation, fatigue, and pain before he answered calmly, "Then he would surely die. Prying about inside the wound would start the bleeding again, just when I've managed to stop it."
"Whad'ya mean, you stopped it? You didn't do nothin'. We watched you the whole time."
Again Rimon gathered patience before replying, "I'm sure you're aware that Simes can sense a Gen's life force. Those of us who are channels can sense such things as the bullet inside Mr. Bron—and just as a Gen's field affects a Sime, a channel's field can affect a Gen. I'm afraid I can't explain further in terms you can understand." He paused. "How did this man get shot? There were no Simes with guns."
One of the men explained, "When most of the ranchers went down, we were ready to retreat. Mr. Bron wouldn't let us. He rode through the ranks to lead us—I think he must have gotten in the way of someone's shot. I don't think he knew he was hurt till the battle was over."
Rimon nodded. "A brave man. Now will you allow me—?"
Maddok Bron suddenly surfaced to semi-consciousness, flaring pain. Both Rimon and Zeth turned at once, and the Gens raised their guns by reflex. Owen moved to shield Zeth, who suddenly realized Rimon was working without a Gen. "Go help Dad," he urged.
Rimon motioned Owen back, saying, "No—he's so weak I shouldn't have any field interfering. I worked alone when I healed you, Owen. Stay with Zeth—he has no experience."
Bron was lying on his side. Rimon carefully placed his hands over his back and abdomen, the wound between them. One of the Gens gasped, "What are you doing?"
"If he moves, he could start bleeding again," Rimon replied. "He could go into shock. How can I make you understand that the best thing is to leave him here?"
Astonishingly, Bron fought his way up to full awareness. His eyes opened. "Don't move!" Rimon said sharply.
Bron's dizziness and nausea came sharply to Zeth, even through Owen's field. How did his father stand it? Fear, pain, anxiousness—"Who are you?" Bron whispered. Rimon, still bearing the effects of the fire, looked like an apparition
straight from the hell preached about in the Church of the Purity.
"You're in Foil Freedom," Zeth said quickly. "My father is treating your wound."
Confused, Bron struggled to peer at Zeth. It was several moments before he whispered his name.
"That's right," Zeth said, trying to project encouragement. "You're safe. Because you came to help, the Raiders are gone."
Bron had no strength, and was both chilled and sweating. Shock. They could lose him right now. Bron knew it. "I'm dying," he murmured. "Tell my sister—"
The two men with guns immediately started toward him. "No!" said Rimon. "Mr. Bron, you won't die if you can tell these men to stop interfering with your treatment."
Bron was shivering steadily now. Owen tried, "Please, Mr. Bron. Rimon can't work with Gen fields interfering. I know you can't understand, but—"
"Not understanding," Bron whispered with a beatific smile. "Faith. You said it, Owen. I asked for a sign." He drew a long, shuddering breath. "Go, Cord, Vern. I don't need your protection here—I have God's." He managed to remain conscious until the two men left the room. The instant relief in the ambient made Zeth's senses reel.
Forcing himself back to duoconsciousness, he heard his father saying, ". . . blankets and a warming pan. Wik should be out there somewhere. Send him."
Owen said, "I'll be right back, Zeth. Rimon, should I take him—?"
"No—just hurry back." When Owen had gone, Rimon said, "Zeth, I can't take Hank and Uel or Jord and Anni away from the wounded Simes. Marji—"
"I know. I saw Mama. She talked to me."
Rimon breathed a sigh of relief. "She's getting stronger, then. I hate to leave her with Marji, but she can hold Kadi's field and she can't do what I'm doing. When Owen gets back, we'll see if you two can help me."
Owen returned with blankets. "They're warming bricks on the chapel stove to warm the beds. I sent Wik—Rimon, the way that kid has changed while I've been away!"
"You forget he came out of the pens," Rimon agreed. "He'll be a fine Companion when we have time to train him—but meanwhile we've got to make do with what we
have. Owen, support Zeth—if you don't let his attention wander, we can put his condition to good use."
Zeth was about to protest their talking about him as if he weren't there, but then he realized that his father was according Owen the status of Companion, and felt a warm glow of pride for his friend.
"All right, Zeth," said Rimon. "First healing mode. Zlin me, and then try to mesh your field with mine."
Zeth zlinned how his father's field shifted, and found he could shift to match. He felt his father's surprise and pride, followed by a tug which drew him back to duoconsciousness.
"Very good, Zeth. Now, maintaining healing mode, put your field and Owen's, and all the leakage through the drapes, into balance, so it's as if Mr. Bron and I were alone together. Here—zlin me doing it."
Suddenly Zeth stood in a bubble of clarity centered on his father. Duoconscious, he could hear the steady hushed din from the chapel, but his whole body felt silence.
"Now, you try it," said Rimon, slipping back into healing mode, his attention going wholly to Bron.
Owen moved automatically to where his field balanced the most intense external fields. But when Zeth tried to compensate for the fields flowing through the hangings, the patterns distracted him again. Twice Owen pulled him back, once with a tug of his hand, then with a flick of his field.
Zeth bit back frustration at his inability to concentrate, and flung himself into the task again. The bubble of quietude formed around them all, and Rimon looked around with a smile. Then Zeth was holding the incredibly beautiful and complex pattern of shifting energy fields.
A Gen approached. At first Zeth felt annoyance at the distortion, but he found he could weave the approaching field into the bubble, a bright tang of curiosity almost as ravenous as his own, contriving as naturally as Owen did not to interfere.
Zeth tried duoconsciousness, and found that he could still hold the fields. It was Wik who had entered, to place the towel-wrapped hot brick at Bron's feet. Rimon dared not move, but he smiled at his son and said, "Good work, Zeth."
Zeth envied his father's ability to divide his attention—but the instant his mind wandered, the field pattern collapsed. As he groped for it again, both Gens stepped automatically to positions which negated the worst effects. How do they do
that? Zeth wondered, but was too busy to think about it further.
He rebuilt the bubble of silence. As soon as he had it again, Wik left. Zeth caught up the pattern, proud of his control. He spared a portion of his attention to watch what his father was doing, lost the pattern, gained it, and again peeked at his father. He couldn't count how many such cycles he went through, but by the time the people outside the curtains were falling asleep, leaving for the night, or settling into vigils, Zeth was able to watch his father and still hold the bubble steady.
Once, he sought to pick his mother's field out, but Owen brought him back to attention. Another time, a Sime poked his head through the hangings, radiating anxiety—and left, disappointed. Some time after that, another Sime approached. This time Zeth recognized Abel Veritt, also rife with anxiety– but as the old man hesitated at the entrance, Rimon's field suddenly flared relief, and Zeth was brought all the way down to hypoconsciousness, seeing his father leaning heavily on the table where Bron lay, looking unutterably tired, but also satisfied.
On that note, Abel entered. "Rimon—"
Rimon smiled at him. "He's all right, Abel. He's out of shock and sleeping."
"Yes, I'm very glad, but... Rimon, you must—"
Zeth sought duoconsciousness to ferret out the terrible worry he had sensed in Abel Veritt. His overstrained, unpracticed system rebelled. He started to black out. The two Simes turned, but Owen was at his side, easing him to the floor. He was as exhausted as when fear had drained him in the last stages of changeover.
If Owen hadn't been there to lean on, he would have fallen right off the world. At least that was his impression. Both Abel and Rimon bent over him. Rimon said, "I'm sorry, Zeth—you weren't ready for that. Relax. You'll be all right in a few minutes. Abel, I put him straight to work doing field balances and he held steady until just now!" Rimon's pride warmed Zeth despite the exhaustion.
"Owen," Rimon added, "let Zeth take a transfer grip. Zeth, relax against Owen's field. Let anything happen that happens—you won't hurt him. You're high-field."
Owen knelt in front of Zeth, who found it nearly impossible to lift his leaden hands to Owen's shoulders. But then his
tentacles spread naturally, and he rose to duoconsciousness, at rest once more in the safety of Owen's nager.
They were in that state, Owen's back to the sudden flare of nageric horror, Zeth shielded, Owen unaffected except that his field somehow strengthened for a moment as– Abel gasped, staggering, turning toward the agonized tumult in the ambient as Rimon emitted a harsh, hideous sound like nothing human and dropped with a lifeless thud. But his body moved, muscles contracting unnaturally, his field a torment of uncontrolled spasms, driving his body into convulsions as Zeth struggled helplessly to focus—
Abel pulled himself together, dropping to his knees beside Rimon's thrashing body, yanking off his belt to thrust the leather between Rimon's clenched teeth a? footsteps pounded up outside the enclosure and Trina Morgan flung open the hangings, crying, "Rimon—come quickly! I think Kadi's dead!"