Sugar by Kaas Baichtal

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Simelan is a difficult language to learn, subtle and detailed and with as many arcane caste-variations as there are larities and age groups to speak them.

Conspicuously missing is a phrase which, when spoken by a Second Order Donor, is the equivalent to the Genlan "I quit."

There's a letter in his pocket when he goes to work today. A letter of resignation, one might call it, except that there is no comfortable, ready-made Simelan phrase to explain what he intends to do. For a Donor to simply resign is unheard of.

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There are two kinds of students in Donor school - the kind who will make it, and the kind who won't. He can tell the ones who won't make it by the way they act, the way they walk. There's a reluctance in their eyes that whispers it isn't fair and this is too hard and you can't make me.

The ones who will make it are ambitious, hungry for it. They claw and scrabble and elbow each other aside for the chance to prove themselves. They scheme, and they fight, and they ache with desire for more responsibility and more challenge. These are the people who would have been doctors and surgeons and psychiatrists in Gen Territory. They are too ambitious, too intelligent, too hard driving, too obsessed to settle for anything less than reaching the top.

He was like that in school, and for most of his career. But now, that kind of eager-beaver energy makes him tired to just look at it. When a young wet-behind-the-ears TN-3 enthuses to him about their new position or their latest channel, he wishes they would just quietly go away.

To discuss quitting with such Donors stuns them as surely as suggesting drowning kittens or strangling an unwanted child. Their eyes widen in a sort of horror, and then the whispers come, behind his back and just out of channels' zlinning. OT sensibilities. Never one of us.

Their words can't cut him. He's already come to his decision.

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His Uncle Mortimer, the man who'd raised him after his parents were killed, once tries to explain to him why - in his opinion - the Tecton will never be able to get inside the heads of Out Territory Gens.

The Tecton, says Uncle Mortimer, are like pet owners. A pet owner dotes on his beasts, and - should one fall to illness - will spend as much pain and labor on its death or recovery as he would on the lives of his own children. The Tecton, he says, treats Gens as pets. It cossets and protects them. The Tecton believes Gens should not have to work, and in fact should not be allowed to come into danger or exert themselves too hard.

But out-Territory Gens, says Uncle Mortimer, are the opposite: like ranchers. A rancher knows when to cut his losses. Out-Territory Gens see themselves as working stock. To work hard, to always pull their own weight, to die in harness. And out-Territory, those who cannot contribute to society - Simes for example - are put out of their misery quickly and permanently.

The two viewpoints, says Uncle Mortimer, are incompatible and always will be.

But the Tecton is more like a stockyard than Uncle Mortimer knows.

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When he is very young, he goes into the woods in late winter with his Uncle Mortimer and watches him gather maple sap. Uncle Mortimer will boil the sap and make syrup and bring it to the border village to sell for the meagre income that covers purchases like nails and metal wire and tiny bottles of whiskey and vodka.

Once he falls and cuts his knee. Uncle Mortimer washes it off and says "Now don't you cry, son. It's just your sap running out. Nothing to be afraid of."

Later he watches as Uncle Mortimer pounds a tap into wood, the hammer blows ringing out through the dusky forest. He touches another tree, feels the scabby stickiness that has soaked the bark in a stain down the trunk.

"Doesn't it hurt them?" he asks.

Uncle Mortimer winks at him. "Of course not, son. They're only trees."

Years later those words come back to haunt him, quiet in the back of his mind when he hears a channel laughingly chide a Donor for claiming to sense a little bit of fields. Of course not, Sosu, you're only a Gen.

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Sugar-seekers, they're called, by those older and more time-mellowed. A sugar-seeker is a Donor who wants to get burned, wants their nerves seared and callused so they cannot tell when they've been overdriven. Burned out and drained to the brink of death by a higher-capacity channel so that next month, in overcompensation, their own body goes wild with production and will forever after produce just a little bit more. All the best Donors are obsessed with sugar. It's what makes them the best.

They go to strip-shacks where renSimes pay out good money for a real live Gen transfer. They serve renSimes until they are gray in the skin and weak in the knees, until even the criminals who run such businesses tell them to go home; they've had enough. Every once in a while there'll be news of a Donor who kills himself that way, overstrips and goes home and dies in bed, or worse yet dies right there and juncts some hapless renSime. But mostly it's just the industry's dirty little secret.

They spend their money on destructive fad diets because someone has managed to sell them on the idea that what holds a Donor back from increased production is lack of some critical nutrient.

They buy production-enhancing drugs, everything from common over-the-counter pills taken entirely out of context, to synthetic cocktails sold in dirty basements and applied with dirty needles.

They take pain-killing, unzlinnable drugs before transfer to dull the pain-reaction and fool channels into taking more than they ought.

They use self-hypnosis to temporarily accelerate their production so that an evaluating channel would think they'd grown and assign them to someone who doesn't quite match.

They bribe lesser channels who have access to the schedules to change a line here or there and give them a better channel.

Anything to get ahead.

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It is a sad fact that in the Tecton, a Donor's rank and power come not from his intelligence, his ambition, or his education, but from his production capacity. Those who are truly ambitious do not mourn the facts. They simply try harder.

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Donors are often divorced. They're often orphans or wards of the state or come alone from out-Territory. Their relationships to their channels are brief, intense, and by necessity shallow. And yet, Donors are prized for their ability to project love and security, satisfaction and trust. They have learned it as one learns a science, and practice it as one practices an art. With passion. With all their souls. They act; they are brilliant.

And in time, the working Donor comes to feel a deep and abiding sense of responsibility. Not to one channel or one patient, but to the system as a whole. It is an almost religious devotion, ardent but inexplicable. It answers any questions or doubts that might creep up in the back of a Donor's mind. It erases them.

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It is because of the channels that he hasn't left long before. His friends, his coworkers, the people who expect him to come to work every day and whose lives and work he makes run smoothly with his efficiency and his friendly support. The ones who depend on him, in varying degrees of desperation. They cannot quit. They must work, or die.

But eventually he has figured out there is no use in waiting for them all to slip away. There will always be more channels. Even as one disappears, another comes - green and eager and not yet honed by a harsher world.

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In January of his 48th natal year, he goes back to the cabin in the woods to pay final respects to his Uncle Mortimer. It is difficult to take time off, and by the time he finally manages to make the long trip home, his uncle is already buried. Cousins Jake and Rob talk eagerly about the the tapping, the hanging of the pots, the boiling of the sap to come. There have been problems with the beet harvest the previous summer, and they plan to make a killing on sugar this spring.

They assume that he will hand the tree-farm over to them. He has been absent for decades, off in Sime Territory living the life he had vowed to live in honor of his parents' memory. His uncle's bequeathing the land to him was only a formality, because he is the oldest and Uncle Mortimer had thought of him as a son. He has no interest in sugar. They even say that, in those words. He laughs, because the idea of a Donor being "not interested" in "sugar" is absurd. They have no idea what he is laughing about.

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As he sits down at the daily staff meeting, he can feel the letter crumple stiffly in his pocket. The others' eyes are all on him, because of the rumors of his wanting to quit. The channels' glances are furtive, paranoid, concerned, the Seconds because anybody would be concerned about losing their selyn source, and the Thirds because they have made a habit of desiring him and now they might not even be able to do that.

The Donors' looks are acquisitive, greedy. Young wolves waiting for their chance to steal the pack from a faltering elder. Any of them would give up a leg, or even both legs, to have his position. Their speculative secretive stares make him itch with instinctual warnings.

All around the boardroom table the other Donors lick their teeth, tasting his leaving like honey thick in their mouths.

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After visiting with cousins Jake and Rob he goes for a walk in the forest and when he is all alone in the center of it he stops and just listens.

A hundred trees wait mute and black, snow falling silently between their reaching branches, sap weeping silently from a hundred wounds. In a moment of acute clarity he realizes that these trees are bleeding, and that no one believes they suffer because they cannot move, they cannot scream.

That's when he knows his life can't go on the way it has been.

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After the meeting Hajene Shera hangs back, waiting for him to join her. He does so slowly, the weight of decades dragging down his forearms until his shoulders slump wearily. She looks at him questioningly, but when he says nothing, she does not pry.

As they walk back toward her office, her nager rests on his easily, trustingly. His own molds to hers effortlessly with the skill of decades of practice. Skill lesser Donors covet and scheme and die for.

When he came to work today, he had a letter in his pocket. And now his hand slides in and pulls it out.

"I'm sorry," he says, as he hands her the wrinkled paper.

She looks at him in surprise and then moves to open it. He should be spending these moments staring at her, he who has spent the past thirty-five years taking in every minute detail of channels' lives.

But instead his mind is on Rob and Jack and how disappointed they will also be.

And how long it will take for the trees to heal.

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Sugar was partially inspired by this poem:

THE BUSINESS OF BEES

When prices are normal
And weather cold, bees clump
In a knot, suck sugar
And hum to stay warm.

But when sugar is high
It's cheaper to dump them
Out of their drawers and buy
A new queen come the spring.

This year the bees are
Tumbling, hear: sugar
Is dear, the snow lies
Buzzing on the ground.

--Michael Finley