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Chapter Twenty-Three

COMING HOME

It took the entire walk to the Varnst tents for Rimon to stop shaking. He had lost control again—control of his temper, this time. Even though he knew his father would never have sold him Nerob, the thought persisted: I lost him his last chance to live.

Kadi, too, was silent, her emotions in turmoil. Only when they reached their destination did she begin to give Rimon any support. Finally she said, "Your father was never like that."

"I think we're the ones who've changed. We're building a little corner of the Territory where people don't do things like that to other people. But I've been contaminated by just two days back in this environment—the way I lashed out at Father was meant to hurt him."

"You just told the truth."

"Maybe. I think so. But what good will it do him to know it? If he believes it, it can only hurt him. Kadi, let's check out the pre-Gens and get out of here."

They found their way to the small tent Varnst had set up to display children. "We got twelve for sale," one of the men told him, "from nine years on up. You buy a young one, you can get several years' work even if it changes over." He had sized Rimon up as a young man shopping for a servant. Amazing—someone who didn't place him as a Farris. Thinking of the way prices would rise if he were recognized, he kept quiet and looked over the children while the salesman was looking over Kadi.

"Now, that's some Gen! Want to sell her?"

"No, thanks," said Rimon. "There're only eleven children here."

The man turned, looked over the group of children in red Varnst smocks, and said, "Trouble again! Hey, Treen, you were supposed to keep an eye on Trouble! He's escaped again."

"Shen!" said a young Sime woman at the end of the tent. "I only turned my back for a minute!" As she went out of the tent, zlinning, Rimon started to laugh.

"You've got one there who's already learned how to hide from Simes," he said.

"Hmmm?"

"He's under the platform."

The salesman zlinned, but obviously could not detect one child's nager separate and beneath the others'. "I don't think so, but I'll check—" He went to the back of the platform, looked under, and said, "Well I'll be shenned! How did you zlin him through the field of that crazy Gen?"

He hauled out a boy of about twelve, earning several ill-aimed blows and kicks in the process. He pulled the boy's hands behind his back and held him as the child regaled him with imaginative invective. But while the boy's Simelan was fluent, as far as it went, it was strongly accented.

While the salesman was distracted, Rimon whispered to Kadi, "Talk to him—I don't want them to know I speak English."

So Kadi asked, "Were you captured out-Territory?"

Hearing his own language, the boy stopped his struggles to study Kadi. "What do you care?"

"Tell me your name," she said. "Hurry, before they stop us from talking."

Perhaps it was the inclination to trust a Gen, or perhaps simply another chance to defy his captors, but the boy drew himself up proudly in spite of the hands and tentacles holding him. "My name is Henry Steers, Jr."

Rimon felt the thrill in Kadi's nager, but she did not betray her recognition of the name. Most Gendealers picked up a few words of the Gen language, and she wasn't going to risk being understood. "Henry, if you'll stop struggling, perhaps Rimon will buy you."

"He's got no right to buy me! I'm a freeborn man!"

"The only way you'll get out "of here is if someone buys you—and you'll be best off with Rimon."

"Quiet that Gen of yours! She's exciting this one!"

"That's enough, Kadi," said Rimon, catching her eye. "We don't want a troublemaker."

She fell immediately into the game. "I'll win his confidence, Tuib. Look, he has good, strong shoulders. I can train him."

Rimon purposefully zlinned the boy. "No telling what he'll be—might be months of work in him if we can get him to do anything. If he turns Sime—well, he could work out his indenture—if he doesn't run away."

Spotting a chance to get rid of the troublesome child, the salesman said, "Oh, no, N'vet—he's spirited—he'll make a prime kill as a Gen, or a good worker as a Sime. It's just the carnival atmosphere made him play tricks today. Why, he didn't even try to escape, just hid. He'll probably become attached to you."

Rimon pretended reluctance long enough to purchase the boy for much less than the sum with which Fort Freedom had entrusted him. But he had purchased Trouble indeed. Twice on the way back to the hotel, the boy squirmed out of his grasp, and had to be plucked up bodily. When they finally reached their room, Rimon tossed him onto the bed and said, "Stay there while we pack, or I'll lock you in that cage!"

"You shendi-flayed, shidoni-be-shenned—Hey, you know English!"

"That's right," said Rimon, "and I also know who you are. In fact, I came here to find you—Hank."

"Who told you my nickname?"

"Your father told us," replied Rimon. "We've been looking for you ever since—since your father died."

"You killed him!"

"No. He died of pneumonia. He wasn't killed by a Sime."

Kadi sat on the bed next to Hank. "We'll take you to a place where Simes and Gens live together—the way Rimon and I do. See?" She held out her arms. "I'm Gen, but Rimon is Sime, and he's my husband. We have a little boy of our own."

Hank stared at Kadi's arms, then at her face. "You're crazy! How do you keep him from killing you?"

"Rimon doesn't kill. Ever."

The boy absorbed that slowly, then looked up at Rimon.

"I don't believe it," he said flatly. Nonetheless, Rimon could read a faint hope in the childish nager.

"Give us a chance to prove it, Hank," said Rimon. "I don't want you to ride for five days tied up and thrown across my saddle, but if that's what it takes to get you to Fort Freedom, I'll do it. If you'll promise not to try to escape, you can ride the horse we brought for you."

"You'd take my word?"

"Your father was an honest man. He wouldn't give his word unless he meant to keep it. I expect you to do the same."

For a long, quiet moment, Hank studied them. "You've got my word. I won't try to escape until after I see this Fort Freedom."

They discarded Hank's red smock, and dressed him in a spare set of Rimon's clothing, sleeves and pant legs rolled up. Clean, with hair combed, he emerged as a good-looking boy, with dark brown hair and wide blue-gray eyes like his father's.

When they finally had everything packed, and were looking around to see if they'd left anything, someone stopped at the door. Wondering who it could be, Rimon opened the door and found himself face to face with Erd Keslic, the father of Yahn, who had become Nerob. When Rimon invited him in, he glanced at Kadi and Hank and shook his head nervously. "I just—I've been looking for you all over, Rimon. It's—"

No—oh no, I can't go back and try to buy Nerob again!

But Keslic, radiating embarrassment, was saying, "When I got back today, N'vet Farris told me to put Nerob back– he isn't selling him. He said, bad year or no, he kept his promises. But then—the others told me what happened, and I—Thank you, Rimon." Having gotten the words out, he spun and hurried away. Rimon stared after him, a weight lifted from his soul.

Kadi put her arm around him. "Oh, Rimon, I'm so glad. You did the right thing—and so did your father!"

The ride home was uneventful. Hank tried to keep Kadi between himself and Rimon, but made no attempt to escape.

They reached Fort Freedom late in the afternoon, Rimon choosing to cross the creek below town and skirt Del's fence rather than take Hank through town. Let him see Fort Freedom first.

The crops were withering for lack of rain; nonetheless it was easy to see the care that had gone into the fields. Three houses by the creek were still lived in, but no one was in sight.

When they rode up to the stockade, though, the woman on guard called out in English, "You found him!"

"We found him," Rimon agreed.

"God be praised! Welcome, son—welcome to Fort Freedom!"

Hank stared at her, then looked at the neat, well-kept houses that made up the community. "It looks like home!"

People came out, sensed Hank's uneasiness, and hung back. When they reached the Veritt home, Abel came out, followed by Margid with Zeth. "Mama! Daddy! Come see. Puppy!" cried Zeth, tugging at Rimon.

"In a moment, Zeth," Rimon told him, picking him up with an agonized vow that there would never be the gulf between him and his son that he knew with his father.

Hank watched from his horse as Kadi embraced Abel and Margid, Jord and Willa converging from next door– another Sime~Gen couple. Then Abel went to Hank, looking up in awe. "Welcome to Fort Freedom, Henry. I'm Abel Veritt. I believe Mr. Farris has told you about our community?"

He held up his hands to help the boy off his horse, but Hank remained rigid until Abel stepped back. Then he slid down cautiously. "Mr. Farris said my father died here, and you were looking for me. I suppose to kill me, too."

"No, Hank!" Jord said urgently. "Your father and I were friends. If only he could have known you were alive and well—"

"Let's not crowd Henry today," Abel said, turning to the boy. "Will you accept our hospitality? I know it's difficult for you to believe we offer you a safe place to rest."

As Abel shook his head warningly, the people who had gathered left in silence. Only Abel, Margid, Rimon, Kadi, and Zeth accompanied Hank into the house.

Hank looked around, eyes wide. Rimon could easily guess that the things he'd always found alien in Fort Freedom spelled "home" to Hank. In the main room, Zeth squirmed down, and hurried to get something from a basket. "Daddy, look! Mama!"

Not very steady on his feet yet, Zeth overturned the basket and sat down hard on his bottom as he tried to lift out a puppy. Another pup tumbled out, and with a happy yapping ran straight at Hank's feet. He automatically picked it up, and got his face washed with a quick pink tongue.

Kadi, meanwhile, was asking, "What's going on here, Abel?"

"The Whelans' dog had pups, remember? Zeth couldn't decide between two of them, so we brought them both home for him to make up his mind. I told him he had to choose just one. As you see, he's made his choice," Abel explained, ignoring the fact that he hadn't consulted Zeth's parents about a puppy at all. Zeth was showing his puppy to Kadi now. As she petted the oversized head with loving strokes, Rimon decided not to object. The puppy would be Kadi's responsibility—but she'd missed having a dog since Wolf. He knelt down to be introduced to his son's new pet.

Hank stood cradling the other puppy as if it were the one real thing in an insane world. It didn't take Abel long to notice. "Would you like that puppy, Henry? The Whelans are looking for good homes for all of them."

"I don't have a home anymore," Hank said stolidly.

"We're offering you a home," replied Abel. "However, if you prefer, we'll escort you safely across the border."

"Why would you do that? I'm a Gen, and Simes kill Gens—the way you killed my mother and father."

Abel glanced at Rimon, who shrugged. No matter how many times they'd told him on the trail, Hank still resisted.

"We don't kill people like you," said Abel. "We're in the process, of learning not to kill at all. Both Rimon Farris and my son Jord have learned to take selyn without killing the Gen."

"But you kill—don't you?"

"Yes. We won't lie to you. Not all of us have learned yet. We ask you to wait until you know enough about us to decide if you want to stay—if you are Gen."

"No if about that," muttered Hank.

"I told you," said Rimon, "you haven't established selyn production. You're a child, not a Gen."

"How do I know that? You say Gens start producing this—selyn—in their teens. But if I were doing it, how would I know?"

"You'll know," said Kadi. "Somebody will tell you."

"Kill me, you mean."

"Not here," said Abel. He moved so that the boy had to turn to follow him with his eyes. "But you might go into changeover. There's only one chance in three you'll be Sime, but there's still that one chance, Henry, and even Rimon can't tell yet which way you'll go."

"No! My parents taught me to pray, and all through this, I've prayed every day. God will not desert me."

"You were taught," replied Abel, "as I was taught as a child. But I failed to learn the dangers of presumption, and found myself Sime, convinced I was cursed. It took me years to find that it was I who had deserted God, and to return to His service."

"You can't preach at me! You're a cursed Sime!"

Abel inspected his tentacled arms with an air of objectivity. "It would seem so. All of us here wakened one day to find ourselves Sime, unable to refrain from killing for selyn, though all our lives we'd been so sure it couldn't happen to us. Henry, you're welcome here; if you should be Sime, we'll pray for you, as for all our own, that you'll never have to kill. And if you're Gen, you may remain or leave with our blessing. Come now, you're tired. Accept our hospitality—at least to the extent of a meal and a bed."

"Supper will be ready soon," said Margid.

"In the meantime," said Abel, "would you like to visit your father's grave, and perhaps pray for him in our chapel?"

"You have a chapel? How can you—"

Abel smiled faintly. "Do you doubt that God can see and hear either side of the border with equal clarity?"

Hank regarded Abel over the puppy he still held. Then Kadi took it, putting it back in the basket. Hesitantly, Hank left with the older man. Rimon, Kadi, and Zeth joined, Margid in the kitchen as she prepared a meal for Hank.

"I hope he'll stay," she said. "It's been so nice to have a child in the house—we're going to miss Zeth. Kadi, will you eat something?"

With Zeth falling asleep on her lap, Kadi said, "As long as you're making it, I'd like some."

"Rimon?" asked Margid. "No, forgive me—a cup of tea?"

And he remembered for the first time that day that he was in need. And tonight… a faint chill ran up his back. Tonight he and Kadi would have transfer. What was the matter with him? It would be like every other time—the most blissful experience he ever knew. Yet prying at the corner of his mind was that strange and terrible fact: Kadi can kill.

His thoughts were interrupted when Abel returned with Hank. The boy was grim-faced, but dry-eyed. He sat down beside Kadi at the table, lost in thought.

"Abel, you'll want Hank's papers," said Rimon, fishing them out and looking for his pen. Automatically, he spread his tentacles to search his pockets, and Hank started slightly. But then he just looked away without saying anything.

"I'm signing him over to you, Abel, and here's your change. I owe you some more—can the explanations wait till tomorrow?"

"Of course." Abel held the papers out to Hank. The boy stared at them, then up at Abel. "We don't believe in ownership of people," Abel explained. "But I wouldn't advise you to destroy them. We must abide by the laws of this Territory until one day we have the power to change them. If you change over, you become a free citizen of this Territory if you have no debts to indenture you. If you establish, a Sime must technically hold you as his property– or you're fair prey for any Sime."

"So you own me, either way," Hank said resentfully. "I don't understand Sime money, and I don't have any to give you."

"No. Fort Freedom had to pay to release you, but you owe us nothing. You're free to seek your own way to salvation, Hank."

Cautiously, Hank took the very edge of the paper Abel held out, and plucked it away, as if afraid Abel would grab him.

"Go wash your hands and face before you eat, Henry," said Margid, as casually as if she spoke to her own son. Hank stared at her, almost said something, but went to wash up in silence.

At the table, when Margid came near him, Hank held himself carefully out of her way, so that she wouldn't touch him accidentally as she served his food. He seemed hesitant to eat at first, but as Kadi dug in, he followed suit. Then he looked up, surprised. "It's real food! Like we had at home!"

Everyone laughed, and some of the tension eased. "Margid is a wonderful cook," said Kadi. "You'll be happy here, Hank."

The boy put down his spoon to finger the papers Abel had given him. "I can't read these."

"You'll have to learn Simelan," said Abel. "Then you'll see they are exactly what we told you."

Hank said in heavily accented Simelan, "I've already learned to speak a lot of it. I knew I needed it to escape."

Rimon choked on his tea, both Kadi and Abel blushed, and Margid looked totally blank. This time it was not a deliberate use of foul language; but in all innocence, Hank used the verb for "learned" with connotations of sizing up a sexual partner, the word for "knew" that implied a Sime discerning a choice kill, and the word "needed" where the proper term was "required." Thus it came out the foulest of gutter language.

"I'm afraid," said Abel, "that you. had best speak English, until we teach you proper Simelan in school."

"I'd have to go to school?"

"Of course. Didn't you go to school before—at home?"

"Sure, but… You sure do act like real people."

As Hank began to eat again, a young voice called from the front of the house, "Mr. Veritt? Mrs. Veritt?"

"We're in the kitchen, Uel," called Margid.

It was Uel Whelan, Dan Whelan's son. Like all the children of Fort Freedom, he was meticulously polite before the Veritts, but curiosity was strong in his nager. He was twelve or thirteen, now, and, like Hank, showed no indication of becoming Sime-or Gen. "Mr. and Mrs. Veritt. Mr. and Mrs. Farris. Hi, Zeth." Then he waited.

"Uel," said Margid, "this is Henry Steers, Jr. Uel Whelan is the son of our blacksmith, Henry."

"I wish everybody would call me Hank," the boy said. "My father was always Henry."

"Hi, Hank," said Uel. "You gonna stay with Mr. and Mrs. Veritt?"

"Maybe."

Snubbed, Uel turned to Kadi. "Did Zeth pick out which puppy he wants?"

"Yes," she said, "the one with the white patch over his eye."

"Well, I'll just take the other one home, then—"

"Uel," said Abel, "I think the other puppy has chosen Hank—if Hank wants him."

Hank stared at his plate, then looked up at Abel. "Can I really have him?"

"If you'll take care of him."

Uel, apparently sensing that Hank's rudeness had come from strain, tried again. "Want me to show you how to take care of him, Hank? I raised his mother from a pup."

"I know how to train a dog," said Hank, but the rudeness was gone from his voice. "This one looks like my dog, Bigfoot—his feet are too big for the rest of him, just like Biggie's were." He started to get up from the table.

"Hank," Margid said warningly.

The boy turned. "Uh, may I be excused?"

"Have you had enough to eat?"

"Yes, thank you. I think we ought to take the puppies outside, y'know?"

"Very well," said Abel. "Don't be too long, though. You should get to bed early tonight."

"Yes, sir," over his shoulder as he and Uel headed eagerly to play with the puppies.

As the door closed behind them, Rimon said, "I think he's decided to stay."

Abel nodded, smiling contentedly. "Yes. Margid, I think you've acquired another boy to raise."

It was very late by the time Rimon and Kadi had collected the other members of their household, packed up Zeth and the puppy, and gotten home. The pup, now separated from the last of its littermates, cried and cried when they tried to leave it in its basket. In order to ensure tranquillity, Kadi finally let Zeth take the puppy to bed with him. Rimon wondered if the other puppy were providing something warm for Hank to cling to, when he was afraid to let the people around him touch him.

Finally, Rimon and Kadi were alone. Rimon realized that any other month he would have chafed at the events that delayed satisfaction of his need. With Kadi at his side he was barely uncomfortable; nonetheless, it would have been more typical of him to carry Kadi off and leave Anni to put Zeth to bed.

At last he admitted it to himself: he was afraid. Since their last transfer, both he and Kadi had learned that Rimon was not the only one of them capable of killing in transfer. He had shied away from the disconcerting thoughts No, he must face it. Kadi could kill him.

She faced it for me, he thought. Then: She loves me. But the nagging thought intruded. What if she is afraid of hurting me? It doesn't matter what the fear is. If her fear makes me hurt her—

He remembered the fear in Kadi's nager as she faced What she had done to the Freeband Raiders, as she said, "I'm dangerous!" Yes, dangerous was the word—but what could they do? A healing-mode transfer, in which Rimon could control even if Kadi felt fear? That would only put off facing the problem to next month, making it worse. No, they had to get through a normal transfer now, or risk upsetting their relationship—maybe forever.

As Kadi came to him, however, he discovered that there was no fear in her nager. Was she acting again? He zlinned her deeply, finding no trace of anxiety. What had happened?

"Rimon, you're disturbed. I don't blame you for being afraid I might hurt you, but I won't," said Kadi softly, her nager at an emotional level that kept real fright at bay. "I think I know what Simes must face when they can't keep from killing."

He reached out to put his arms around her, remembering all the time he had fought the kill reflexes—and lost.

"Not yet," she said, eluding his grasp smoothly. "It still gives me chills to remember it—that creature's touch. But I've made myself remember what I felt when it happened. I can almost convince myself that I felt my own nager, Rimon. I sometimes have to look at my arms to see I'm not turning Sime. Don't laugh at me—"

"I don't think I could, right now," answered Rimon, aware of the acute buildup of need as he tried to focus on her words.

"I have to say this. I know I won't hurt you because you don't feel to me like that Raider did. You don't trigger any reflex in me except love and pleasure. And if I ever did have to shen you, it wouldn't be like that."

Some flash of scientific curiosity broke through the pall of need, and Rimon had to ask, "Like what, particularly?"

She glanced up at him, gauging his humor. "It—felt a little like when Zeth was born and you had to get selyn to flow backwards through my system, to him. That's what I think I felt. And this unbearable—itch—I just couldn't stand it. You've never done anything like that to me, Rimon—and you never will. So you'll never make me shen you out like that."

But Rimon was momentarily lost in thought. Had Kadi made the Raider's system work backwards? Was that what had killed him? He didn't remember much of the incident except his terror and the paralyzing nageric clap that had ended it.

"Now, Rimon," said Kadi, quietly inserting herself into his grasp, fingers working their way tenderly up his tentacle sheaths until her palms closed gently around his arms. "Take your transfer; don't be afraid of me—not ever."

He whispered, "You control."

"Oh no, you've got to face it, or everything we've built will come crumbling down. You do it to me, and see how much I—still—enjoy—it."

Her nager had warmed about him, bringing need singing through his whole body. He wondered vaguely how he could do anything to her when she could turn him on and off like that. But at the same time, he found himself enjoying need itself, too caught up to appreciate the contradiction. Nature took charge, his awareness soaring into hyperconsciousness, enveloped by the purity of Kadi's distinctive nager, as her selyn became his own.

The drought persisted. Both Rimon's trin and the flax grown at Fort Freedom as a cash crop were nearly a total loss. The problem of taxes multiplied—even with their parents paying the head tax on the three young people in Rimon's household, he was hard put to pay just for Kadi. Next year's property tax loomed as a distant threat, although they talked with Jord again about moving out to their property to reduce their taxes. But Jord didn't want to move out of Fort Freedom, and he was becoming even edgier than when he had approached the crisis before. He was fighting with Willa again, and she didn't help by reminding him of what had happened the last time he had left her side when he was in need.

Early in the fall, Rimon and Abel were discussing financial plans with Del Erick, the only one of them who had come through with less than a devastating loss. Del said ruefully, "If you and I had taken adjoining land, Rimon, Carlana and I could move just across the property line and increase your ratio of Simes to Gens."

Abel shook his head. "I don't understand all the legalities, but we must do something to have Rimon's property reclassified."

"Wait a minute!" said Del. "Rimon, your father used to say it was worth the taxes on the Genfarm for the protection that part of the Territory got from the government."

"But the government gives us no protection," said Abel.

"Since our area now has a Genfarm, we just might be able to raise our own militia, or at least mostly our own people, paid for by the government. I, for one, would be willing to pay part of Rimon's tax bill if it means I won't have to put out a fortune to keep my fences from being stolen, and carried away on my own horses!"

"Pay somebody else's taxes—that sounds faintly illegal," said Abel dubiously. "After all, Rimon isn't really running a Genfarm, and to dupe the government into thinking he is…"

Rimon wondered what kind of government Abel had grown up with. What was the government but a settled-in band of Raiders? "Well, Abel, I didn't call it a Genfarm, the tax office did; so by their own laws, they have to protect me."

"Besides," said Del, "if we have a Genfarm and get a local patrol, we can kick some of the worst of the rabble out of town—so they won't be raiding from here and bringing retaliations. Fort Freedom and the permanent residents of town make a pretty fair population. Rimon's taxes plus mine will show an influx from this end of the Territory–"

"Del, what are you suggesting?" asked Abel. "We can form a county!" said Rimon. "Fort Freedom and our two places have enough people to outvote the town—and then we can form a local government and make our own laws!"

"Abel," said Del, "if we make the laws, we can declare Gens to be people. Rimon's marriage would be recognized, and Jord's—it will take years—but isn't it worth the effort?" Abel looked at the two young men and smiled. "We had to work hard to get the Territory government to accept Fort Freedom. I'm willing to work just as hard to carve out a part of the Territory where we can build our new life."

Abel's personal plans for a new life, Rimon knew, rested more each day on Hank Steers. Finally convinced that he was not yet Gen, Hank had announced that he would remain in Fort Freedom—at least until he established or changed over. He and Uel had become fast friends, spending most of their leisure time out with their dogs. There was a friendly rivalry, as Hank tried to make his puppy behave as well as the mother dog Uel had trained. Biggie, as Hank named him, served another function, as well. Although Hank no longer shied away from Simes, his attitude made it clear he'd rather not be touched—but he would hug Biggie and tumble with him, and as the winter progressed and the dog grew, he'd lie by the fire in the evenings, studying, his head pillowed on Biggie's shaggy flank.

Rimon worried that Abel was too attached to the boy. The way Hank avoided anything warmer than courtesy with the Veritts suggested that if he established, he planned to go straight over the border. And what would happen to Abel's hopes if he changed over?

He decided to ask Abel. "What if Hank turns out Sime?"

"Do you mean, will I stop loving him, the way I did with Jord? Rimon, I've no intention of repeating the gravest mistake of my life. If Hank changes over, I'll have to help him accept that fact, and go on from there—as all the rest of us have done. It will be difficult for him, and—it will virtually force him to join our ranks. I'd prefer that he had a free choice in the matter, but if it's God's will– have you noticed some sign of changeover in him, Rimon?"

"The way he's shooting up and filling out, I think he'll establish before the. winter's over. But I'm not infallible. Nobody can call it before it actually happens, you know." Abel sighed. "Yes, we can only wait and pray." Waiting and praying were the order of business at Fort Freedom that winter. The carefully tended kitchen gardens provided enough food for the tables, and there was wood to chop for fuel, but there was little beyond necessities. As the flax crop had been so poor, there was not even the steady whir of spinning wheels that ordinarily vibrated through the winter evenings—and in the spring, there wouldn't be cloth to sell.

There was some wool from a small herd of sheep, and Abel decided to add to the flock as soon as finances permitted. When Kadi saw Margid knitting, with hands only and just two needles, she said, "But that way is so hard and slow! Mama always used four or six needles."

Margid extended her tentacles and flexed them curiously around the needles. "Can you teach me, Kadi?"

"I wish I could! But Mama couldn't teach me until I got tentacles—and I didn't. Doesn't anybody here know how?" But none of Fort Freedom's women had had Sime mothers; they knew only the Gen method, which Kadi promptly set out to learn. She also asked Slina to teach Margid the Sime method—without consulting Margid first. Slina and Kadi just turned up one afternoon, and Rimon realized only then where Kadi had gone.

Margid was properly embarrassed, but Slina would brook no denial. "Shen—almost a year since you folks bailed me out, and what have you let me do for you?"

Put that way, the lessons could not be refused, and soon every woman in Fort Freedom was even busier making warm clothes for her family. Rimon recalled his own plans to run some sheep on the rocky ground he couldn't till– but so far he hadn't been able to afford any, so his two goats had the land to themselves.

It was another snowy winter, but no one complained– it would mean a good runoff in the spring, and water in the streams all year. However, aside from Fort Freedom's Year's Turning ceremony, there was another date that everyone hoped would be free of hazardous weather. Del Erick was throwing a birthday party for his children.

"A what party?" Rimon asked him.

"It's a Gen custom. Carlana told me about it. They don't have changeover parties, of course. They celebrate the day a child is born—I guess because Gens can't tell when they establish." It was actually Jana's third birthday, but since neither child had had a birthday party before, they decided to include Owen in it, too. "Maybe we'll make it an annual affair," said Del.

As the plans grew, they couldn't decide where to draw the line on the guest list. Soon no one in Fort Freedom could be excluded, so the party was moved to the Fort's chapel, cleared and set up with tables for food, games for the children, and plenty of room for parents to come and watch.

A few days before the big event, Rimon was at Abel's when Hank arrived home from school. "Brrr! It's cold out there!" he announced as he shucked his coat and headed for the fire. Biggie, loping in behind him, paused politely to shake the snow off his coat at the door before he proceeded to track wet pawprints across the clean floor.

"Hank," said Abel, "you've been told before about tracking in snow. There's a broom on the porch."

"Yes, sir," replied Hank. "But it's cold! I'll clean it up." He pulled off his boots and set them by the fire to dry, padding toward the kitchen with Biggie behind making more tracks.

Rimon didn't laugh out loud, but Abel looked over to him with an apologetic shrug. Hank returned, shivering, and began wiping up the melting snow. Slowly it dawned on Rimon that Hank shouldn't be shivering as he worked before the fire. Concerned, he zlinned the boy—and discerned the first faint trace of selyn production. Yes, he had seen that symptom before—in a Gen establishing in cold weather, there were sometimes chills as the body adjusted. "Hank," he said, "you look chilled through. Why don't you go have a cup of tea?"

"That sounds good. Would you like some?"

Both Abel and Rimon agreed, but the moment Hank was out of the room Abel asked, "Is something wrong?"

"Not at all. He's establishing, Abel."

"Thank God!" Abel closed his eyes, holding himself rigid, and Rimon knew the conflicting emotions his beliefs caused the older man. With a shudder, Abel said, "Thank you for not telling me in front of him, Rimon. He must make his own choice—not be influenced by my desires."

Hank returned with the tea, carefully proffering the cups so that neither Abel nor Rimon would have to touch him. Then he sat down before the fire and sipped gratefully at the hot tea. "I can't seem to get warm today!"

"Do you know why you're cold, Hank?" asked Rimon.

"Maybe I'm catching cold. Things smell funny. The tea sure tastes good though—guess I'm learning to like it."

"Hank," Abel said very softly, "you've begun to establish."

A wild stab of joy, fear and disbelief went through the boy. "Then—I'm a Gen!"

"Definitely," said Rimon. "Congratulations, Hank." It was what one said to a changeover victim. It was the first time Rimon had congratulated a Gen upon establishment.

"But—?" Hank stared from Rimon to Abel. "What should I do?"

As Abel regarded the boy, Rimon noted with relief the older man was pre-turnover and as stable as he ever was.

"Hank," said Abel, "you must decide what to do with your life. Pray for God's guidance."

"You don't think I should give thanks for not being Sime?"

"You might give thanks for reaching adulthood healthy and free."

Hank frowned. "You really will let me go, won't you? Even though you were hoping I could somehow teach you not to kill?"

"If it's what you want, Hank, I'll arrange a Farewell."

"I—I don't know! I've never been so confused in my life."

Rimon remembered Kadi's fear and depression, as she had contended with the effects of establishment. The other Gens had shown some signs, too—but none of them had faced such turmoil as either Kadi or Hank. "Don't try to decide at once," said Rimon. "You're undergoing changes that influence your emotions. For now, you're perfectly safe—your field is so low that most people won't even notice it for a day or two. Stay here until the birthday party. Then, I think you should come out to stay with me until you make up your mind."

"I like your place, but—if I stay, I want to live here in Fort Freedom," Hank said. "Willa does."

"Hank," said Abel, "let's not talk yet about your learning to give transfer as Willa does. First, decide if you want to stay on this side of the border at all. Remember, Willa learned from Rimon before she tried working with Jord."

The boy looked from Abel to Rimon and back again, his growing field a study in conflict. Then he turned to Biggie, put an arm around the dog, and leaned on him. The aching loneliness in that gesture pierced Rimon to the quick. There were tears in Abel's eyes, as he held back from reaching out. He'd give Hank up, let all his hopes go with him, rather than frighten him, let alone hurt him. Does Hank know that? Surely he couldn't turn away like that if he knew—if he only knew.

The birthday party was a huge success. The children played games while Del and Carlana and Rimon and Kadi saw to it that every child won some bauble from the collection the adults had pitched in to make.

Hank, suddenly elevated to adult status, didn't compete. Uel laughingly accused him of establishing just so he wouldn't have to be in the boys' obstacle race—which Uel won easily without Hank's competition. Rimon would have bet on Hank, who had gained strength as well as size this winter in the physical regimen of Fort Freedom's children—preparation for a hard pioneer life on the other side of the border. The hopes might have changed, but the training hadn't. However, Uel's teasing was tinged with envy; he'd grown up being told it was better to be Gen.

As everyone sat down to watch Owen and Jana cut the huge cake decorated with their names spelled out in small candies, Uel said to Hank, "It's not fair for you to establish before me. I'm older than you are."

"Only two months," Hank replied. "Maybe you'll establish soon. We could cross the border together." Rimon glanced around to be sure Abel couldn't hear. "Haven't I told you often enough? I really mean it, Hank. I'm going to stay here and learn to give transfer."

"You wait till everybody starts looking at you—and then not looking at you—that way! You could get killed."

"It's up to the Gen," said Uel. "Mrs. Farris has told you that the Gen keeps the Sime from killing. It's true, you know."

"Probably is," agreed Hank.

"Well, I'm going to learn. All the established kids are staying, Hank—if everyone leaves, how will our parents or our brothers and sisters learn not to kill? If your mom and dad had been Sime, wouldn't you want to be able to stop them from killing?"

"Len and Sordal and Anni—they haven't stopped anyone."

"Not yet. It's not easy—but look at Mrs. Farris and Willa Veritt I figure if Willa can learn it, so can I. My mom and dad—they're not my mom and dad, you know."

"Huh?"

"My real father was my dad's brother. He and my mother were killed in a Gen raid when I was a baby—I don't remember them at all. But Mom and Dad took me in and raised me as their own son. Do you think I'd repay them by crossing the border when I establish? I saw Willa give transfer to Jord on their wedding day. That's what I want to do."

Rimon saw Hank look down the table to Abel and Margid. Perhaps he was realizing at last how much love they had to give a homeless boy who gave them nothing in return but hope.

They were seated at a distance because they had both passed turnover. Rimon had reduced the fields of the other three Gens, so they could mingle freely at the party, but Hank's field had climbed to a bright beacon, rivaling Willa's and even apparent against Kadi's nager. Thus the Simes of Fort Freedom had assumed their Farewell Ceremony configuration, with only those most recently satisfied coming anywhere near Hank.

Except for Rimon, of course. He was just below mid-field, but had to think twice to recall where he was in his cycle. Recently, noticing that need didn't clamor at him even when Kadi wasn't nearby, he'd decided that the secret was security: he knew she'd be there, and so his fears were slowly receding. If only Jord would hurry up and reach this stage…

But Jord was on the ragged edge of need today, carefully avoiding Hank and the other Gens, but spoiling Willa's fun by refusing to stay with her as she helped the smallest children. Each time she'd get involved, Jord would wander off, and Willa would have to leave the children she loved to go after him.

Jord is paying for another of my bright ideas, thought Rimon. The month before, when Jord became edgy and started avoiding Willa, Rimon had suggested that they have their transfer a day early. The result was not a disaster, but Jord had come from the transfer high-field, yet with a sense of being shorted. So this month they were letting his full cycle run out.

Rimon knew he ought to send them home for transfer now, but he wondered if he could persuade Jord. Abel probably could, so Rimon got up and headed toward the low-field Simes at the end of the table. The children, having eaten their cake, were starting to move away from the tables, but Hank and Uel remained talking together, Hank's field a flare Rimon could keep pinpointed without trying.

He glanced over to the table where Kadi and Willa were cleaning up the smallest children before turning them loose to fingerprint the chapel. Jord stood back, watching impatiently, but at least he wasn't leaving Willa's sphere of influence. With grim humor, Rimon noted how Willa carefully kept herself between Jord and Kadi. Jord was not going to be allowed to slip up again, if Willa had anything to do with it.

Secure that Jord and Willa were safely placed, Rimon turned to Abel, leaning close so that his words wouldn't alarm anyone nearby. "Abel, can you help me get Jord and Willa to go home?"

"They shouldn't be here at all," said Abel, "but there was no way to keep Willa away from a party for the children."

"What's wrong?" Margid wanted to know.

"Nothing," Rimon replied. "We just think—"

"Rimon!" Margid interrupted him. "Jord!"

Rimon zlinned Jord headed out of the chapel. Well, at least he was going away from any Gen here. Before Rimon could move, Willa called, "Jord!" and started after her husband.

Jord stopped when Willa called his name. Then, to avoid her, he began weaving back through the scattered tables and chairs in the center of the chapel, moving with Sime agility that Willa couldn't match. She plowed through, shoving tables and chairs out of her way, and at the clatter both Uel and Hank rose, easing out of the path of the chase.

Rimon couldn't allow a disaster this time; he shot down an aisle of tables, vaulted over one, and came up behind Jord just as he approached the two boys. He zlinned curiosity more than fear from Hank—until Uel grabbed Hank's arm, saying, "Get behind me!"

A lot of good that will do! The thought had hardly formed in Rimon's mind when Uel's good intentions erupted in startlement from Hank, followed by real fear as Jord turned toward him.

Rimon lunged for Jord and spun him into Willa's arms as she panted up to them. From the opposite side, at the same instant, Abel came seemingly out of nowhere to grasp Hank by the shoulders and pull him back out of harm's way.

Willa grasped Jord's arms, and with a flick of her field threw him into helpless need—shocking every Sime in the chapel but immediately damping any effect as she attacked Jord with her own need to give, assuaging his pain, filling the bleak void in him, easing away all his tensions in one outpouring.

Rimon was so close, so involved, that the sudden strong surge in the fields made his head spin. He felt the effect on Abel, equally close, still tensed against Hank's momentary fear. Now Abel, nearly blacking out with the effects of the rapid nageric shift, sagged, leaning his whole weight on Hank.

The boy turned, gasped, "Abel!" and caught him before he could fall, then eased him onto the bench where he and Uel had been sitting, supporting him physically and nagerically.

"I'm all right!" insisted Abel although clearly he was not. "Jord?"

"I'm all right, Father—thanks to Willa again. God forgive me—I don't know why I want to run from her when I get like that. But—Hank?"

"You never touched me," the boy said. "What did you do to your father?"

Rimon, steady once more, said, "It was the selyn flow between Willa and Jord—Abel was too close."

Hank asked Abel, "Can I help?"

"You are helping, Hank. Thank God you weren't hurt."

"But you were—protecting me. I—I don't want you to be hurt—not because of me, or because of anything."

Abel turned to meet the young eyes. Rimon could almost hear the words the older man was holding back. Then stay.

All at once, Hank blurted out, "You want what Willa did for Jord just now—instead of killing. Now I know—I want to do that for you!"

Astonished, Abel raised his head sharply, paying for the move with a stab of pain, but Rimon saw that it was well worth it as he looked into Hank's eyes. "Y-you've decided to stay?"

The boy nodded. "You said God sent me. I believe it. He must want me to teach you—why else was my father sent here? I'm sorry I was rude to you—" He broke into the tears he'd been holding back all these months. "They killed my mother—I never saw my father again—and I was afraid—Now I'm home. Don't make me leave—don't take it all away. Not again." He ran out of breath, sobbing on Abel's shoulder as the older man held him, Rimon seeing the same helpless despair in the boy that he expected only in Sime refugees from out-Territory.

Finally Hank raised tear-drenched eyes once more to Abel's. "Next month I'll do it for you, Abel."

"No, son—not next month. But you will do it, I have confidence—we'll pray together. I've vowed not to die a killer, and every day I see some progress toward keeping that vow."

Uel Whelan came to kneel before Abel. "If Hank can't do it, I will, Mr. Veritt. Someone will. It has to happen."

The three Gens who lived with Rimon were scattered through the chapel, with their families. Eyes shifted to them, but they were silent, motionless—at the first opportunity, Rimon would have to remind people of the lesson of Jon's death—it was no use to pressure someone who wasn't ready. His attention, and everyone else's, was caught by the movement of the other children, gathering around Abel and Hank, slipping between the adults. So few children—the hope for the future. Even Zeth followed the crowd, stopping before Rimon, watching the solemn moment. Zlinning his son, Rimon found that the child understood something—small as he was. And he'd grow up with the repeated dedication to end the kill.

Kadi came up beside Rimon and picked Zeth up. Rimon put his arm around her, feeling a strange new lift—Jord had just passed a crisis.

Looking at Hank and Abel, surrounded by the children, Rimon began to feel that this was indeed what he was born to do—to found a way of life in which people didn't have to fear to love one another. And Zeth would grow up with it—he'd be Sime, Rimon was sure, but he'd never kill. Not once. To guarantee that, Rimon would give his life– anything—anything at all. 


Chapter Twenty-Two COMPARISONS | First Channel | Chapter Twenty-Four FIRST CHANNEL