Womb of Heaven

by

N. Eileen O'Neill

 

"For those who seek the embrace
of the Daimon, they can only
hope to enter the Womb of Heaven,
where they will die or be reborn."

--ancient Freysean mountain proverb

 

I'm more than halfway up the mountain when I realize I am being followed.

The path here has a lot of trees on both sides, so it's hard to be sure. But I hear a noisy scrape that doesn't sound like any animal, more like a human foot scrambling for purchase on the uneven ground. My own foot has made that sound more than once since I left Amabruto.

So I pause and listen, trying to scan the trail behind me for a flash of movement between the trees. I see nothing, but I hear it again, not very far behind me. It sounds like whoever it is, they're more interested in speed than in stealth.

I begin to run. My heart is pounding hard, partly from the exertion, but a thrill of fear runs through my belly. It probably isn't anyone truly dangerous, and yet it's not completely impossible that I'm being hunted by some human predator. I don't even want to think about why someone would want to stalk me, a child, a girl who is almost—but not quite—an adult.

More likely, it's someone with the best of intentions, who wants to do what they think is right for me. And that's almost as bad. Because I can't let them stop me now.

I wonder if it's my mother. Maybe she found my note and came after me alone. If she'd sent one of the Simes, I'd be caught already. But if they weren't around when she found it, I can easily imagine her coming after me herself without waiting for them to show up.

Luck is with me, and my feet don't slip as I run. For a short time, running seems effortless, the way it sometimes does in dreams. The way I imagine it will after tomorrow. But I start to get short of breath, and I find a leafy shrub to hide behind. I can barely see the trail, an arm's-length away, and I'm sure nobody passing by will be able to spot me. Breathing as quietly as I can, I wait, now feeling more like the predator instead of the prey.

I'm just starting to get bored, and wondering if I imagined the noises behind me. Then he comes around a bend in the trail, clumsy with fatigue but still trying to hurry.

Totharr. I should have known it would be him.

I wait for him to pass, then come out of the bushes. They rustle, but he doesn't hear. He just keeps going. I watch his back for a moment, then call out to him.

"Hey, Tharr! Looking for me?"

He whirls around, his expression almost comical from startlement. Maybe that's putting it too lightly, because for a moment, he looks downright scared. I wonder what it will be like to be able to sense his emotions directly, and then think, well, it won't be long now, will it? In the meantime, I don't need anything like that to be able to read what he is feeling. It's all right there in his face, surprise turning to embarrassment, then anger mixed with relief. And a certain amount of smugness. I see he is clutching the note I left for my family in his hand.

"I knew I'd find you up here, Chrys. Even if you made it sound more like you were headed for Varnirr in your note."

"Why did you take that? I left that so my mother wouldn't worry too much." And also, I admit, in the hope that she'd be misled about my destination, and look for me on the more heavily traveled eastbound road rather than this trail that leads south into the mountains. "Did you tell anyone that you were coming up here?"

"No—I didn't think there was any reason to let the adults know about this. This is between you and me, Chrys. You're coming back down the mountain with me right now, and they never have to know a thing about it, except maybe we took a walk and got a little sweaty."

He stands there blocking my way, arms crossed—not even established yet, but already acting like a very bossy Gen.

Deciding to prove I can be equally arrogant, I take a step toward him, and say, "Here's what you're going to do, Tharr. You are going to start walking back to Amabruto right now. Without me. When you get back there, you can tell them anything you want. Because by then, it will be too late. Take your time so you don't fall and hurt yourself." I continue up the trail toward him as I'm speaking, and then just walk around him.

"Too late for what? Chrys, what do you think you are doing?" Instead of going back, he follows me up the trail, hurrying to catch up until we are walking side by side.

"I told you when we were little—remember? I told everyone, but they didn't believe me, so I stopped talking about it. Except to you. I thought you understood." I'm starting to get angry. "Please go home, Tharr. I'll be glad of your help later, if you still want anything to do with me. But this is something I have to do alone."

We break out of the trees, and the trail grows steeper as it continues across the face of the mountain. I figure this is a good time for Tharr to head back. I'm almost there, now, and he has never liked heights. The trail ahead of us is the kind where a careless step to the right will send you tumbling to your death down a cliff that's almost straight up and down, with jagged teeth sticking out to snag a helplessly falling body. But he just falls in behind me so that he can walk close to the equally steep cliff-face to our left, which I admit I am doing as well.

In the distance up ahead, the sky is a deeper gray than directly above us. I pick up my pace, moving directly into a gusty wind that pushes and shoves at me playfully—not hard enough to pose a serious risk, not yet. But a storm is forming up.

"Chrys, we have to get off this mountain before the weather breaks. This is crazy." Like all children raised in Amabruto, we've been taught respect for the moods of the mountain air. He sounds furious, and scared.

I stop, despite the urgency of my journey, despite the coming storm that makes my timing all the more crucial. Because I am guided in this only by my instincts, which tell me I have a few moments to try one last time to make him understand.

"Tharr, I thought you had more faith in me. You always acted like you believed the things I told you. Tell me this—you don't doubt it when I tell you I was going to change over soon and become a channel, right?"

"Everybody knows you are—if nothing else, they'd have guessed that by how hard they had to work to keep your mother alive when you were born." We have never minced words with one another, growing up together as we did and only a few months apart in age, as close as siblings but with no blood relationship to bar the idea of an eventual marriage between us.

"And you'd believe me if I told you I know when I'm going to change over, right?" A lot sooner than I've let any of them realize, actually. The Daimon-folk have shown me how to hide it from the keen senses of Hajene Presten and the others. "So why won't you believe me when I tell you I've been called by the Daimon to receive first transfer from them on this mountain?" I can never tell just how seriously Totharr takes my claim of a bond with the planet's insubstantial native life-form. He's always acted like he thought it was real, but that was when nothing important was at stake.

He doesn't answer right away, but watches the approaching storm as if he thinks it is a physical manifestation of the Daimon-folk. In truth, they cannot be seen, but if they could they might look something like the lights dancing in the clouds ahead of us. A symphony in blue and green and purple so deep it faded almost to black, broken here and there with flashes of yellow-white. So beautiful. I wonder if I will still be able to see colors, after changeover. The majority of Simes in my mother's line are color-blind. I stare at the sky with hungry eyes, trying to memorize it, grief for what may soon be lost mixing with my sense of anticipation.

"Even if they did call you," Tharr finally says, "that doesn't mean you have to go."

I turn away without answering and continue down the trail. I just don't seen any point in arguing about it any more, having said what I have to say on the subject on more than one occasion. I can hear that he's still following me, which does not surprise me, although I had hoped he would turn back. The darkness in the sky is spreading, and the flashes of color growing closer, almost directly overhead now. Soon the wind will be strong enough to make it an act of great foolishness to be on this narrow trail winding across the face of the mountain.

I've never been this far up the trail, which leads nowhere but through a string of tiny, crumbling villages that used to be home to juncts and other criminals but now lie empty. And yet, I recognize this place from having seen it twelve dozen times and more, seen it with my eyes closed in the darkness of my sleeping-alcove. I stop so abruptly that Totharr runs into me.

"Behold the womb of heaven," I tell him, gesturing at a faint depression in the cliff-face. As the rock fades away like mist to form the mouth of a cave, the sky darkens and lets out an angry breath of wind, accompanied by the low growling that warns of more serious gusts. A burst of eye-searing purple illuminates the clouds off to our left. I couldn't have asked for a more dramatic moment.

The hole that has appeared in the mountain-side looks just as it did in my visions and dreams. Having assisted Hajene Presten and my mother with three births, I can judge that it does indeed resemble the opening through which each of us comes into the world.

Tharr grips my shoulder, and I can feel his fear as if it were my own. I must be even closer to changeover than I'd realized. I'm happy to note that his emotion does not fill me with any dark excitement or aggression. Perhaps my link with the Daimon will protect me from that. Or perhaps not. Much has been written about the handful of Simes and Gens who have shared nageric intimacies with the Daimon-folk, the planet's natives who are composed of a bio-energy very similar to that produced by Gens. My parents have made a life's work of studying records of these rare occurrences, but found no known instance of Daimon interaction with a child—or of a Sime whose very first transfer was obtained in such a manner. And first transfer will burn a pattern into my brain, a template that my most vital Sime instincts will follow for the rest of my life.

The events that were shown to me by the Daimon-folk have almost run their course. They were unable (or perhaps unwilling) to reveal what will happen to me after I leave the cave. Nevertheless, I am convinced that all of the fear I feel belongs to Tharr.

I shrug off his hand, and step into the cave. And still he follows. Already this is different from the visions shared with me by the Daimon, because in those, I am alone. Now I do feel fear of my own, though only for Tharr's safety. The opening will close soon, and it is imperative that he be on the other side

"Get out of here, now! You weren't invited, and I don't know what will happen to you." My concern for him makes me speak harshly. "You believe me now, I presume. Now go. You have time, just barely, to make it to the trees before the storm breaks."

"Come with me, Chrys. Get your first transfer from my Dad like you're supposed to. You know I'm hoping to qualify as your permanent partner once I establish, so I'd rather if you weren't going to get locked up and studied, like a freak, which is probably what will happen to you if you do this."

His face is pale in the dim light coming from the storm-clouds outside the cave, and then it vanishes, swallowed by a sudden darkness. It's as if I've gone blind. I feel Tharr grab my arm, offering comfort as well as seeking it.

His words reflect some of my own worries, but I choose not to dwell on them. I focus instead on more immediate concerns. I know the cave will not re-open until my changeover is complete, and I never meant for Tharr to be trapped in here with me. I tell myself to speak more gently to him, now that he no longer has the option of escape. And I recall the old proverb that says that the womb of heaven is a place of death or rebirth. I am very afraid that for Totharr, it will be the former, because he has not come here prepared to be reborn. I blame myself, though it was partly his own choice, because surely there was some way I could have protected him from this if I had been quicker-witted.

"Stay close to me, Tharr." Later, when the Daimon come, it might be safer for him to keep his distance. But it's not time for that yet, and I can't bring myself to move away from him. Instead, I take his hand and awkwardly settle to the ground, my back against the cave's wall. I can feel him doing likewise. "I wish you had gone back. You're stuck here now, until it's over. Try not to be afraid."

"Well, I wish you had agreed to go back with me." He sounds more frustrated than scared. "You know what I really wish, Chrys, is that I could be the one to give you first transfer."

I smile in the darkness. "You'd have to establish, first." Not to mention the years of training a Gen has to have before being selected for such a serious responsibility. He knows that, of course.

"I could have established already, for all you know. Maybe it happened while we were going up the mountain."

A feeling of real terror takes me into its grasp, icy-hot and nauseating. My parents and Hajene Presten began warning me over a year ago that Totharr and I could prove dangerous to one another. The pre-natal tests showed he was almost certain to be Gen, but although both his parents were high-order Gens, he showed few of the markers that would indicated he would inherit this potential. Which doesn't mean that he won't, by any means. They can forecast such things quite accurately for Simes, but Gens are more flexible and less predictable in their development.

But whatever his eventual potential, he can't possibly have established long enough ago to serve my need in changeover. And even if he hasn't established, I could still end up killing him. I tell myself that surely the Daimon would not allow that. Surely they would not call me here as some cruel joke, to trick me into going junct at the expense of my best friend's life. What purpose would that serve? But then, no-one has ever had any clear notion of why they do the things they do—not even me, guided as I am by their visions.

I find myself shivering, yet I feel like I'm burning up. The first real symptoms of changeover, and it seems to me as if it's going faster than normal, even for a channel. I tell Tharr what's happening, and warn him to keep away from me. For once he doesn't argue.

I grope my way along the rough wall, wanting only privacy, and I'm pleased to find an outcropping of rock to hide behind. I'm vaguely aware of Tharr's position, like a dim and vaguely human-shaped lamp of some kind. I have no experience of zlinning, of course, and wonder if that's what this is. To my intense relief, I feel no attraction to his field, if that's what I am sensing. I snuggle deeper into my little alcove, and I can no longer tell that he's there at all.

I'm not very comfortable, shaken by chills and fever and arms aching as if from a multitude of bruises, and yet I fall into a half-doze in which I am not sure if I am dreaming or sharing information with the Daimon-folk. It's not the first time I've experienced this uncertainty.

I am sitting in this same cave, but the mouth is open to the trail, and it's a bright sun-lit day. A Gen woman, oddly dressed in a loose red tunic of some sort, is kneeling before a pool of water on the opposite side of the cave from where Tharr and I are waiting in the darkness. The pool is fed by a spring, and the water vanishes into the ground as fast as it trickles down the cave wall. This wall, and the pool below it, are decorated with an intricate mosaic of tiles. These are mostly blue, a hundred shades of blue that depict an underwater scene, with fish and plants here and there in brighter colors.

The woman is holding a baby in the water, and at first I am afraid that she means to drown it, but then I see that she is supporting the infant's head as she scoops water over its tiny body. It appears to be more of a ritual than a prosaic act of cleansing, and it seems more real to me than the darkness and discomfort in which I am confined.

As my fever burns hotter, I am shown other visions, jumbled and harder to make sense of. I have the feeling that these are of the greatest importance, if only I could understand and remember them, but only the woman bathing her child stays with me.

At one point, I can hear Tharr speaking to me, but not make sense of what he is saying. I warn him to keep away, and it is as if my own voice is coming from a great distance. My throat feels parched, and I think of getting water from the fountain, which am sure is real. But my thirst seems unimportant. Soon I will begin to feel another kind of thirst that will be far more pressing, and even in the delirium of visions, this knowledge does not move far from the forefront of my consciousness for long.

I can see nothing, and yet I am aware of lights farther back in the cave. Not lights at all, of course, any more than they are sounds or smells, but they seem more like lights than anything else. I close my eyes and the lights are still there, unchanged, and I am unsurprised.

It is the Daimon, come to me as they have promised in their wordless way, and I am zlinning them. The wonder of it overwhelms me, and I stand frozen in place for just a moment before moving toward them. Drawn to them by an hunger keener than any I have ever known, I make my way across the lightless cave without stumbling, and they are all around me. I feel myself cry out in delight, but cannot hear my own voice.

It's an odd sensation, this deafness, and I find myself thinking that if the room were suddenly lit up as bright at day I would not know it. But I am aware of the exact size and shape of the cavern, which extends back farther than I had initially realized. And I know that Totharr has not moved from where I left him.

Surrounded by Daimon-fire, I feel no desperation, no danger of need-induced madness such as I'd been warned all my life I would succumb to in changeover. My new tentacles are throbbing in their sheaths, impatient to escape. But the Daimon can move through solid rock, and they have no difficulty reaching my laterals in spite of the fluid-stretched membranes that would prevent a Gen or another channel from helping me. The transfer begins with a seductive slowness, building up to a violent ecstasy that stopped just short of pain. In the midst of this, I feel my tentacles break free into the open air, a physical sensation that has little significance to me compared to the fire that floods my entire nervous system with such utter fulfillment.

It ended abruptly, and the sound of my own harsh breathing tells me that I am able to hear again. I can feel the chill of drying fluids on my skin, and I think that if there were other Simes in the room, they would find me fascinating to zlin—a symphony of raw sensation, exquisitely attuned to myself and to my surroundings. I wish that my father could be here. His Sime senses are so much less acute than those of Hajene Presten, and yet I think he has a greater appreciation and understanding of what he perceives.

I can still see nothing, but I can zlin the Daimon-folk, dancing in the air at a distance now, darting in and out of bare rock. Duoconscious, I conclude, proud of my ability to think analytically only moments after such a fundamental transformation. I can zlin Totharr as well, a faint but steady glow. And I can hear his breathing, irregular and congested as if he has been crying.

"It's all right, Tharr. It's over now, everything is fine." My own voice sounds hoarse to me.

"Are you hurt? You were screaming."

My throat does feel a bit sore, but I'm filled with such a sense of well-being that I laugh out loud for the sheer joy of it. "I'm not surprised if I did scream, though I don't remember it."

"If it's over, can we go home now?"

I walk over and sit beside him. "The cave is still sealed." He jumps a bit at hearing my voice so close by. I realize then that I should have made some sound to let him know I was approaching.

His hand gropes through the air, seeking me, and I catch it in a loose clasp of fingers and tentacles. I can zlin his smile as his fingers explore my new appendages, still sticky with a mix of blood and fluid. Embarrassed, I pull him to his feet. "I should wash up. Come on, there's some water on the other side of the cave."

He lets me guide him over to the pool, where we both drink from the trickle that pours from a crack in the wall. Then I use it to rinse my arms and hands and handling tentacles. The cold water is a shock to my sheathed laterals. I gasp, but hold my arms beneath the flow until they feel clean.

As my arms dry, I zlin the wall that opened to admit us. The rock reveals nothing, though I know the path cannot lie very far away. I suspect it must be dark out by now. A Sime's inherent time-sense must be calibrated with natural and human-made rhythms through work and observation, so I can't be sure. But I think enough time has gone by for the storm to pass. Mountain storms are fierce, but usually brief in duration.

The giddiness of post-syndrome does not seem to be dampening my new senses—indeed, I feel half-drunk with a dozen new sensations. I don't doubt that I could find my way safely down the mountain, even in darkness, as long as the storm was past. And if Tharr would accept my guidance, I could see him safely down the mountain as well. I don't know what kind of welcome will await me in Amabruto, but I want to at least help Tharr get safely home.

But the path remains blocked. Death or rebirth.

"I'm hungry," Tharr complains. "Did you bring any food?"

More sharply than I mean to, I tell him, "Drink some water. There's nothing to eat here." I am afraid for him, but I also resent him, because I'm fairly sure he is the reason I am still trapped here. My business with the Daimon is done, for the moment. If I'd come here alone as I'd intended, they would have let me go by now. I am convinced of it.

Not speaking, he takes my advice, groping his way blindly to the pool rather than asking my help. I can zlin that he is in no danger of injuring himself, and so I don't interfere, not out of spite but because I know that Gens sometimes resent it when a Sime offers to help with something that they can do for themselves, even when the Sime can do it faster and easier. I wonder if I should apologize for the way I spoke to him. I conclude that I should probably say something to restore the peace. We are in this together now, and it's my own fault more than his.

Before I can decide what to say, my attention is riveted by return of the Daimon-swarm. Tharr lifts his head from his cupped hands, almost as if he can see them. And this time they converge on him rather than me.

I call them to me as strongly as I can, but they act as if they are no longer aware of me at all. Tharr does not scream, but he lifts his arms as if to protect his face, so I know he can sense them in some way. They converge there, between his elbows and his wrists, making his forearms light up from within like a pair of paper lanterns. It is beautiful and horrifying to observe. I stand frozen, unable to think of anything to do to help him.

My senses still insist on reporting what I perceive as light, and it flickers brighter within Tharr's flesh. His emotions are opaque to me now, and I try again to call the Daimon to me, without result. Time passes. Tharr stands motionless, but I can hear him gasping for breath as if he were still running up the face of the mountain.

They leave him gradually. His arms still glow with an afterimage of their energy, but it's a steady glow now, and they are gone. I approach him, wondering if it was cowardice that prevented me from doing so earlier.

"Are you all right, Tharr?"

"It was so hot." He holds his arms beneath the trickle of water, as I did just a few moments ago. The flow of water makes the selyn-glow seem to flicker again, and I can zlin droplets of sweat on his face.

I am wearing a long overshirt that hangs almost to my knees, and I pull at one of the tails in the hope of tearing off something to use as a rag. The cloth parts like paper. I dip it in the pool and wring it damp, then use it to wipe Tharr's brow. "I think they were trying to do for you as they did for me… I told you, Tharr, I told you this was no place for you to follow me." This time, though, I said it gently. And I resolved to stop saying it at all, for what good could it do? What would it matter if he agreed with me at this point, or was still too stubborn to admit that I'd been right all along?

He took the rag and used it to scrub at his arms. "We're still trapped in here, aren't we. I feel like I've gone blind."

"It's just dark."

He holds out his arms as if to look at them. "They say that Gens in the high reaches can actually feel it when they establish, if they've been trained in the old ways. I wonder if that's what it feels like?"

"I don't think you've established, Tharr." I can't be positive, never having zlinned an actual Gen for comparison purposes. But his field seems the same to me as it has ever since I started to be able to perceive it, dull and steady except for the fading glow centered in his arms, with no trace of the pulse of selyn production Simes are supposed to be able to sense a in a Gen. If anything, his field looks dimmer to me, after the much-brighter radiance of the Daimon.

"Well. I don't know how much longer they're going to keep us trapped here, but I think I'll try to get some rest." His voice is flat with disappointment, or possibly despair. Or maybe just exhaustion. We've been trapped here for hours, now, and it was late in the day when I started up the mountain.

"Are you cold?"

"No."

"Because if you get cold, I could lie down next to you. My mom always says a Sime is better than a heated rock wrapped in a cloth, for cold nights." I wish, with an ache that was like a physical hunger, that there was something I could do for him.

"The bare rock is kind of chilly, actually." I suspect that it's comfort he's seeking as much as physical warmth, and it gladdens me that he still feels like turning to me for that even after I got him into this mess. I slide in between him and the wall, which is cold but not unpleasantly so. I don't feel the least bit tired, but I may as well lie down as stand or pace. I put my arm around Tharr, expecting his skin to be cool to my touch, but he feels warm. I can smell the sweat on him, but it's not an unpleasant smell. I begin to feel, not sleepy, but restful. I don't mind lying still for a bit. I begin exploring the cave with my new senses, seeking the Daimon-folk, but can find no sign of them.

I call out to them with my mind. Let us out now, it's time. It's time. I focus on a picture of the cave's open mouth in the sunlight, and find myself thinking of the woman I saw, wondering at the purpose of the ritual bathing of her child. This in turn reminds me that there are things I am supposed to do once I come down from the mountain, and although it terrifies me to think of facing the unknown next part of my journey, I am also anxious to get started.

I have work to do, work that you set me. I cannot begin until I am freed. If we are to be kept here much longer, can we at least have some food? There is no reply and no trace of the Daimon.

Tharr falls into a light doze, and I begin to brood about what will happen when we return to Amabruto. Locked up and studied like a freak, that's what Tharr predicted for me not long ago—in another lifetime—and I 'm not at all sure he was wrong. That, or banishment, seem like the best guesses about what lies in store for me when I go back home. I doubt I can expect to be enrolled in the College of Channels, as my parents and Presten always planned for me. I'm sure that there is some purpose to this transformation, and I have a vague sense that it relates to the studies my parents have pursued since before my birth. And yet I don't want to be treated like some kind of specimen. Those who embrace the Daimon are said to loose part or all of their humanity, but I find I still care very deeply what my mother and father will think and feel when they learn what I have done. Will they turn away from me? It hurts even to imagine it, for I fear that it's a very real possibility.

I know that by coming here as the Daimon bid me, I will have a better line of communication with them than any other living human being. Surely that will help with the research on the topic, which consists mostly of poring through old books and studying written records of interviews with those who've shared energy with the elusive energy-forms. Though my present situation brings it home to me that I cannot summon them at will, much less get them to do what I want them to. And then there is the question of whether someone with my tainted beginnings will even be permitted to walk the streets of my native city.

The laws are strict in Amabruto. Those who don't approve sometimes compare us to the Tecton of Old Earth, which only shows that they haven't studied their history. The Tecton would never have permitted my mother, paired with a channel who falls somewhat short of her considerable capacity, to use what's left over to give transfer to my renSime father every month. It is true that some things permitted in the other Free Cities are illegal in Amabruto. The laws place more constraints on Simes than Gens, and yet enough Simes chose to live there that they outnumber the Gens and maintain a brisk market in secondary transfers and a selyn-poor economy that is saved from poverty only by the city's technological exports. There is something in the Sime psychology, it would seem, that makes us less resentful of strictures than Gens are.

It remains to be seen what Amabruto's convoluted system of laws will make of someone like me. There is no precedent, of that I am quite sure. I strongly suspect that the Chamber of Judges will have to convene, and deliberate at length, to decide if it will be safe to permit me through the city gates. Fortunately there are cottages where those awaiting such decisions may stay. I begin to worry again of what my parents will say, and begin to feel almost weary enough to sleep. I want nothing more than to end the tension by going down the mountain to begin the long process of resolving these issues, but I can't do that until the Daimon see fit to release us, and I have no idea when that might be except for the vague fear that they will never open the mountainside while Tharr still lives. That does not feel like a thought planted in my mind by the Daimon-folk, though. More like a personal fear born of my efforts to make sense of a situation that defies all human logic.

Tharr wakes from a light and troubled sleep and begins groping over the bare rock in an effort to find the rag I ripped from my shirt-tail. I get it for him and put it in his hand.

He sits up and dips it in the pool, not bothering to squeeze the excess from it, and uses it to wipe his face and arms. "I feel like I'm burning up." He finds the edge of the pool and bends down to drink from it. "And my arms still hurt from whatever they did to me."

I can zlin something odd there, but before I can take a closer look, he plunges them into the shallow water and my senses are confused by the rippling distortion of the water. It's curiously beautiful, but I am too worried to have much appreciation for that. I am still half-convinced that the Daimon have done something that will mean Tharr's death. I rage at them silently.

Tharr scoops up more water as if to drink, but merely rinses out his mouth and spits into the pool. "I think I'm going to throw up." He curls on his side, facing away from me, and I sense that he wishes I would just go away.

I feel cold with terror for him. Instead of leaving him alone, I touch the back of his neck with one lateral. He still feels warm and sweaty, and through the contact I can feel the uncomfortable churning in his belly. I wonder if there's something wrong with the water. I feel fine, but of course there are minerals that Simes can tolerate—and even require in our diets—that are fatal to Gens and to children. I wonder why I didn't pick up his discomfort earlier, and realize how much fainter his child's field has grown. Only his arms, where the Daimon danced inside his skin, seem to have much life-energy. There, it seems to have grown stronger rather than fading. And even from behind his back I can sense a strange pattern to the radiance there.

I roll him over to get a closer look. He resists, but of course I am much stronger. And it's only when I get an unobstructed chance to zlin his arms that I figure it out.

Nausea; fever; tenderness of the lower arms, even the classic dip in the faint selyn glow typical of a pre-adult field. Despite having been enrolled in the Future Channel Curriculum since I was old enough to talk in complete sentences, I didn't figure it out until I zlinned the distinctive lines of tentacle development in Tharr's arms. We were all so sure he'd be Gen, that's the thing. Everyone knows the tests aren't infallible, but they were right so often that even the professionals tend to forget. And in addition to the test results, Tharr and I have what Hajene Presten calls 'an incipient larity bond'. Of course, not all larity bonds exist between a Gen and a transfer-compatible Sime. These bonds can form between channel and renSime as well. Strange how obvious these things are, in retrospect.

All the classical signs of changeover, and all I could think was that he'd been poisoned by bad water, and it was all my fault, all my fault. I hadn't realized that I was making my first diagnosis as a working channel—and doing just about the worst job imaginable at it.

"I'm sorry, Tharr. What you are feeling has nothing to do with establishing as a Gen. I should have seen it much earlier. You're about to change over."

I expect disbelief, ridicule, possibly hysterics. Instead, it's as if he already knew but was just waiting for me to say it. "They did this to me."

"I think they precipitated it."

"If not for what they did, I would have been a Gen. You were right, I should have stayed away."

"Tharr, I don't think they can change your larity. It's in the genes. They just sped things up a bit, is all—like they did for me."

"How do you know that?" His voice is poisonous with loathing for the Daimon. I open my mouth to argue further, then close it without speaking. It seems intuitively impossible that he's right, and yet he does have a point. I would argue anyway, out of habit, but it suddenly seems cruel and pointless. I also feel it's not the time to point out all the advantages of being Sime. Besides, there's a more urgent issue to address.

"You remember your training, though, right? You remember what to do." In case he does not, I go over it with him. It's certainly fresh within my own mind. Children predicted to be Gen sometimes give only the minimum effort to their changeover training. "And when the time comes, you have to be ready to call them to you, as I did. They've come to you once." I can only pray that they will do so again—but perhaps this is their purpose in holding us here, and pushing Tharr into changeover. I had come to them in the ancient way, to offer myself to them. Perhaps they simply assume Tharr had come for the same purpose.

It seems to take him a moment to understand what I am saying. He responds with a spike of panic, sharp and strong in spite of a field that zlins like it is sinking toward death.

"No! I don't want that. You do it, Chrys. You're a channel. I wanted to give you transfer, but you always used to say I'd be Sime and you'd be the one giving it to me, instead—remember?"

I did used to say that, in an attempt to vex him when he acted too smug about the power he'd have over me when he was my Gen. But I never really believed it, and neither did he, so it didn't bother him much. He would just reply that if he was Sime, he'd be more interested in a Gen of his own than any channel.

No Gens here. Just the Daimon, and me—untrained, for the true channel's training could not begin until after changeover. I'm terrified at the idea of attempting a secondary transfer based on cold academic knowledge, especially after the fiasco of misdiagnosing his condition. I am predicted to be a nagerically powerful channel, but that is not the same thing as having much natural aptitude for the art.

I argue the point with Tharr, but he just grows more upset, and at length I give in. One thing I do recall from my classes is that it's considered wise to listen when a Sime in the throes of changeover expresses a strong preference in transfer assignments. So I lie beside him as he moves closer to breakout, trying desperately to recall all else I've learned on the topic of secondary transfers.

It's not long before it occurs to me that I have a serious problem. I get up. Tharr seems barely conscious, and does not question or react to my leaving his side. I stand in the center of the cave and once more call the Daimon to me. My desperation is greater, in a way, than it was at the onset of my own need. Then, I had no doubt they would come to me. Now I am not so sure. They have ignored me for hours, now. Perhaps they are finished with me and mean to let us both die in this cave.

But they appear, darting around me as if in greeting. I grope inside myself for something that might make a reality of the things I have studied. An image of a door comes to my mind, an illustration from a child's text—a door that can open on one set of rooms or another, but never both. The vriamic node. I know that it is located in my chest, but when I feel something like a switch flipping from on to off, the sensation seems to exist in my head and in my arms—my laterals in particular. I have only one set to perform these dual functions, and suddenly it feels like they are not quite my own anymore, but something I am borrowing.

The Daimon seem to sense the moment I am ready for them, and they come to me once more, giving freely of their essence. Unlike a Gen, they do not generate this energy—they are made up of it, so it seems as if they are giving up their very flesh, or the closest thing they have to it. They do so with no hint of pain or sacrifice. The emotion I can zlin from the Daimon-swarm comes closest to a kind of playfulness. Already I am burning that portion of their essence that's stored in my primary system to fuel my own life-processes. The Daimon-folk are so very different from humankind, and one of the things they lack is the instinct to survive.

I drink deeply, without passion this time, but not without joy. It's like a symphony, full of deep bass tones that are felt as much as they are heard. In the process I gain a clear and visceral knowledge of my own systems, intertwined but separate, connected near my heart. And at the same time, it's as if I am carrying on a conversation with them. Not in words, for they do not think that way. But I try to ask them what they did to Tharr, and why. In reply, I get only a wordless chorus: You are ours. He is yours. We are yours. You are ours. Joyous and repetitive, but without much practical use. After awhile they fade away and are gone, except for what they have left with me.

In my communion I have lost track of time, which is not supposed to be possible for Simes. But when I turn my attention back to Tharr, I am shocked at how far he has progressed. It is almost time. Had I remained with the Daimon much longer, I might have been jolted from my reverie by a killmode attack.

I kneel, saying the things people always say at such a time. I'm not sure he can hear me, but I hope that the rhythm of my voice will calm him as I repeat the much-heard mantras of the training. I can feel the link between us, yet he seeks beyond me, frustrated by his search for something he cannot find.

I know what to do. This time I'm not sure if the knowing comes from the Daimon or from what I learned in class. My imagination does its best to make up for my lack of experience or any actual training whatsoever. I do not allow myself to dwell on the enormity of what I'm about to attempt, but push such concerns as far into the back of my mind as I can.

It does not feel to me as if I am engaged in any artful deception, but rather as if I have become Gen. Specifically, my mother. Not too surprising, as the two main Simes in my life both look at her as an ideal, possessing all the qualities a Gen should have. I'm hampered by never having actually zlinned her, or any other Gen for that matter—but then, neither has Totharr.

My mother says that when she sits still and listens, she can actually feel the pulse of selyn production within herself. I can feel it too. I can feel myself glowing gold as a sunrise, and revel in the borrowed glory. I sense that I have Tharr's undivided attention now.

I can feel his frustration. Unlike me, he must wait until he is able to free his tentacles from their captivity. As he strains to accomplish this, I move into position. My laterals are ready to link with his, eager, and neither this nor the accurate field-sense they give me detracts from my fantasy of being my Gen mother. Not as Mother, wife to Vathan and transfer partner to Presten, not as Tassandra, a woman who claimed men's attention whether or not they could zlin—but as pure Gen. I've heard, from too many Simes to doubt it, that she is capable of being the very avatar of her larity.

My arms are drenched with bloody fluids for the second time tonight, and we begin. I find myself remembering some of what I studied in the Future Channel classes, in a wordless way that reminds me of the way the Daimon think, but most of it is instinct and the memory of my own recent experience. I share as much of it as I can with Tharr, letting him draw to repletion, feeling his satisfaction mingle with my own. I've heard Presten describe this—it's more than the pleasure of helping another person, or of seeing a job well done. There is a personal aspect to it as well. I've heard Presten echo the sentiments of other working channels, that to give up performing secondary transfers would be a kind of living death. Now I understand something of what they mean by that.

I wasn't aware of closing my eyes, but when I open them I can see the bright light of morning. The trail across the mountain looks like a paintbrush, and it has colored the floor of the cave near the entrance a lighter gray than the stone further back in the shadows. And I am being promised by the Daimon that the cave will stay open, now, for as long as I need it to.

How long? They have broken no specific promise to me, and yet I find I trust them less than I did when all they had given me was dreams and visions. There was much they neglected to tell me, many unanswered questions, and my parents taught me that this can be a form of lying.

Long and long. I wonder if they have any concept of time. But I feel no urge to leave the cave, no fear that we'll be trapped here again. Tharr examines his tentacles moodily, taking none of the enjoyment in them that he felt when he examined mine in the darkness. For the moment, I can think of nothing to say to him. It's not just me, now, that can expect a dubious welcome back in Amabruto. His first transfer is almost as suspect, almost as scandalous, as mine.

And Tharr never wanted to be anything but a Field Catalyst, a profession that can only be practiced by Gens. If he'd established at a lower level than he'd always expected, that would only have meant than he would practice on renSimes instead of channels. I think he could have dealt with that. For so many of the professions, being Sime would be an advantage—practically a requirement, in some cases. But Tharr had planned his entire future around a job that his larity now made it impossible for him to do.

As if following my thought, he said, "I'm not going to be your bonded assistant, so if you even thought of that, put it right out of your mind. I'm not sure what I'm going to do now, but it won't be that."

Most channels in Amabruto have at least one renSime caught in a one-way transfer dependency. It's completely unethical to do that to a Sime without their permission, and a questionable act even if they ask for that. Most times it happens by accident, anyway. And it's quite common for these Simes to work for the channel, and to be considered part of his or her family. Presten, for example, has Denarra. She is quick-witted and frequently hilarious, small even for a Sime, and very energetic. She's the mother of two of Presten's children and would die for him without hesitation. Occasionally, I have suspected that she harbors a bit of jealousy toward my mother, but of course she treats her with all the deference that a high-order Gen learns to expect from Simes.

The ideal in Amabruto, as elsewhere, is for a Sime and Gen of compatible transfer characteristics—and more often than not, opposite genders—to pair off into a closed system. Because of the demographics, that's not possible for everyone. Simes who bond to channels are sometimes regarded with veiled amusement. A channel's bonded assistant holds a responsible position, yet one with little status. My father is sometimes subjected to some of this same attitude, and has been referred to derisively as 'Tassie's emergency back-up Sime'. He responds with an amused smile, and says that he considers himself very lucky. He is one of the planet's foremost experts on literature related to the Daimon, treats Hajene Presten with the respect due a fellow professional, and receives the same in return. In fact, their liking for one another seems to constantly surprise people who meet them for the first time, expecting to sense a simmering competitive tension in the air.

Tharr has been around my dad since he and I were babies, and maybe he's learned something from their association. I hope so. I don't care about having a clerical assistant for my probably non-existent channeling practice, but as far as being bonded to me is concerned, I have a strong intuition that Tharr doesn't have any choice about that. Not anymore. He made his decision when he followed me up here, though I know he didn't understand what would happen.

I examine the fountain. When I watched the woman and her child there, the tiles looked new and bright. Now some of them have fallen into the shallow pool beneath the spring. I recall fish that were bright orange and red. I can see fish-shapes, but the colors are restricted to blues and yellows, along with shades of gray. Perhaps the pigments have faded.

"Tharr. Those fish pictures on the wall. How many colors can you see there?"

"Green, and gold, and red." He shows no curiosity about my odd question. Perhaps he remembers the stories about my grandfather and his sisters. Or perhaps he's just too sunk in apathy to wonder.

I walk to the mouth of the cave and gaze out. The sky looks as it always has, like polished metal, but the trees further down the mountain have turned an ugly yellow-gray as if they're dying. The steep cliff no longer bothers me, because I can feel how perfect my balance has become, and can no longer imagine myself stumbling and falling over the edge in a careless step.

I turn back to Tharr, who is still gazing at the tile mosaic. I draw breath to tell him that there is no point to any further delay, that it is time for us to begin the journey down the mountain.

~~~~

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