Veraille

by

N. Eileen O’Neill

 

The boy was sitting in a comfortable chair in the lobby of one of Veraille’s most prestigious hotels, reading a calculus textbook and scribbling on an electronic notepad. Brian Bennett, TN-1, stood looking at him for a long moment, thinking that he had never seen a kid who looked more likely to change over. It wasn’t just his lanky build or delicate features. Plenty of skinny, fine-boned kids established. It was more than that; call it Gen intuition. A strong one.

It was hard to guess his age. Although he was hunched over in the chair, it was clear that he had a full-grown man’s height already, but his face didn’t make him look any older than twelve. It was a face that would have looked better on a girl, really, too pretty for a boy. But maybe he just looked young for his age. If he was over sixteen, chances were that he had already established, and Brian was giving himself the jim-jams for nothing. It was just so weird, being in this place with no Simes at all. Not even a renSime. He was just another tourist, and nobody cared how many dynopters he was carrying in his field or how fast he was generating it. Here, he was just like anybody else. It was a strange feeling.

He wished he’d thought to bring one of those little hand-held field detectors. That would at least settle the matter of whether the boy had established. But he hadn’t packed anything like that. Well, maybe if he got close enough, closed his eyes, and concentrated… he’d have to figure out a way to do this without giving the impression that he was some kind of nut. Casually, as if examining the paintings that hung on the walls of the lobby, he strolled along until he was directly behind the boy. Placing one hand on the back of his chair, Brian glanced down and saw that he was still deeply absorbed in his reading. There was nobody else in the lobby. Raising his hand as if to consult his watch, Brian closed his eyes and reached out with his awareness.

He would never be able to detect the weak nager of a child. Another Gen, he might sense as a resistance, an obstacle to his efforts to expand his own field—though the average general donor would impede him only a little, so he would have to pay close attention or he would miss it if there were anything there. But instead, he could sense—very faintly—something that reminded him more of a Sime. A Sime in need, although it was almost more like an echo of the feeling. Indistinct, as if he were imagining it. Which he probably was.

He opened his eyes, and saw that he and the boy were still the only ones in the room. Glancing around at the furniture, he saw nothing that anyone could have hidden underneath or behind. Ridiculous. The Gen field sense did exist, but it was notoriously wonky, and its range was very limited. Only when he was in full transfer contact with a channel could he be relatively sure of what he was reading. This sense had been compared to a blind man running his fingers over a person’s face to get an idea of their appearance, or a deaf woman picking up the loudest sounds as vibrations in her bones. Moreover, the ability came and went like a distant radio signal, and had been known to give erroneous information.

It was unlikely there would be a Sime nearby, because they were absolutely forbidden in Veraille. Channel or renSime, with or without retainers—absolutely not allowed. Which didn’t necessarily mean everyone here was some kind of Simephobe. He could hardly assume that, when he’d been here for almost three weeks now himself, on a three-and-a-half week honeymoon sandwiched neatly between transfers. It had been his bride’s idea, but he’d thought it would be kind of a fun experience. Just get away from all of them, take a long break from the constant discipline required by his profession, and stroll around in public without giving a moment’s thought to what effect he was having on the ambient. But he hadn’t realized just how much he would miss being around them.

The climate and scenery were beautiful in Veraille, and perhaps for many of the people who vacationed here, these were the main attractions and the absence of Simes was incidental. But he’d heard casual remarks here that had sent his blood pressure soaring and had forced him to clamp shut his lips to avoid getting into a fight. So it worried him to see a kid who seemed like such a likely candidate for changeover in this environment.

Brian wanted to talk to him, to get an idea of how he felt about Simes and how prepared he was for the possibility of becoming one. Walking back around so that he was in front of the boy, he took one of the other chairs for himself. Just as he was wondering how to proceed without seeming too intrusive, the boy looked up, and Brian smiled at him.

"You must be a top student. I barely made it through calc, myself. Hated it. Where do you go to school?"

"Lochmoor Academy. I’ll be starting at Renaud University right after Year’s Turning, though." There was a faintly challenging tone to this statement, as if he were afraid that Brian would not believe him. Renaud was one of the best engineering and scientific schools in the world.

"Renaud! Good for you. I take it you’ve already been accepted, then?"

"Yes. Actually, I could have gone this year, but I had to push it back. My father had other plans for my education. But next year I will be a legal adult and he will have nothing to say about it." Which could mean almost anything, depending on where he lived. Brian wanted to ask his age, but knew it might be a sensitive issue. He’d never heard of any Lochmoor Academy, but acceptance at Renaud suggested he was old enough that Brian’s fears were groundless. On the other hand, the boy’s clear voice was still that of a child.

"I have a full scholarship, and I’ll be studying to be a research physicist." A beautiful smile crept over his face.

"Wonderful. You look old enough to make up your own mind. It’s your life; the decision should be yours." The boy’s smile widened. How to turn the conversation from education to larity? It looked like he was developing a bit of rapport with the boy, at least. He wished he’d worn his Donor’s ring, but he hadn’t wanted to draw attention to himself. "My own family has been in the canning business for generations, and it was sort of expected that I would follow in the tradition. My mother had some real mixed feelings about it when I enrolled at Rialite. But you have to…" The smile had vanished abruptly, and the boy was glaring at him with open hostility. "You have to follow your own path, regardless of what other people might want you to do," he finished weakly. It seemed the boy had heard of Rialite, and he obviously did not approve. Brian strove to keep from matching his defensiveness. He was just reflecting what he’d been taught, after all.

"I couldn’t agree more. The path I have selected happens to be physics. What do you think of that?"

"Well, I think that’s fine." Brian felt a little lost. He’d expected the next step to be some slur on his profession, which would at least have kept the conversation on the subject of Simes.

"Oh, I’m so glad you approve." A sneer twisting his almost feminine features rather unpleasantly, he turned back to his book.

"Look, have I said something to offend you?"

"Can you do me a favor?"

"Ah… within reason, sure. I might have one to ask you in return. What is it?"

"Give my father a message for me. Tell him I expected him to keep his end of our bargain a little better than this."

"Your father?" Brian was starting to feel like he’d walked onstage without his script. The boy didn’t reply, but just narrowed his eyes at his book and wrote something with his stylus, though Brian would be willing to bet that he was faking it at this point.

"Ricky?" The boy looked up at the woman’s voice. "Ready to go and get some dinner yet?" She was looking at him with something that might have been maternal affection, but Brian didn’t think she could possibly be his mother. She was as dark as he was fair, and even aside from that they looked nothing alike. A step-mother? Brian’s scalp prickled. If the boy’s mother was dead… if she had died in childbirth… he had to find out. These people were going to get sick of his meddling in a hurry, but that wasn’t important. Because the certainty he felt was stronger than ever. The boy was going to turn Sime, and not only that--he was going to be a channel. And what kind of background did he come from, that the mention of Rialite would cause him to look at Brian as if he were something that had crawled from beneath the rotting corpse of a dead animal?

"I’m going up to the room and change. I’ll be down in a little while." Gathering up his study materials, the boy stalked off, pointedly not looking at Brian.

He smiled hopefully at the woman. He could almost swear he knew her from somewhere. It wasn’t every day you saw skin like that, dark as strong tea with just a hint of honey. But where could he have seen her before? Perhaps all of this was in his mind, and he was simply unraveling from the strain of this all-Gen environment. He’d never heard of a thing like that happening. Perhaps he could write a paper about it.

She was looking at him quizzically, not having missed the stiffness in the boy’s manner.

"I’m afraid I said something to upset him. I’m not quite sure what. We were discussing his career plans, and he seemed to think I was part of some conspiracy to keep him from studying physics at Renaud."

"Oh, that’s kind of a sore point with him." She took a step toward him, which brought her no closer than people normally stood in polite conversation with strangers, but suddenly he felt crowded. He had the urge to step back… or possibly do something that would force her to do so.

He contracted his field and shoved out at her with it, almost but not quite a Genslam, reveling in the freedom to do such a thing without provoking yelps of outrage, reprimands and the like. She’d been gazing at the chair where the boy had been sitting, but now she turned and gave him a sharp look. And suddenly it all came together and he knew why she looked familiar. He glanced at her hand, seeing a stripe of paler skin on the finger where she would normally have worn her Tecton ring. A feeling of relief washed over him, as far as the boy was concerned, and a wide grin crept over his face. "Do you know, I believe we are in the same profession."

"You don’t say." The look she was giving him was not exactly friendly. He didn’t care. Mari was probably wondering where he was, and he was about ready to wrap this up and get back to her. But he was still a little curious as to what exactly was going on here.

"That boy you’re with, Ricky, he had me a little worried. I just had this feeling… I’m glad to see you’re keeping an eye on him. That’s a weight off my mind. I was imagining—well, it’s not important."

"So Manuel didn’t send you to check up on us?" Her gaze went a little vague, almost the look of a Sime going hyperconscious.

"I don’t know any Manuel. Unless you mean Manuel Quesillard?" He began to laugh, because it was such a wild guess, but that was the only person he could think of right offhand with the name Manuel.

The life came back into her eyes, and she smiled and held out her fingertips for an in-Territory style greeting. "If you really don’t know what this is all about, you probably find our behavior rude and puzzling. Just out of curiosity, how did Ricky introduce himself to you?"

"We didn’t get that far. I mentioned that I went to Rialite, and he looked at me like I was a dead bug he’d found in his dinner."

She covered her eyes momentarily. "Oh, lord. I can just picture it. We’re registered here under a false name, but he’s Ricardo Quesillard—Manuel’s son. I’m Antonya Jesseon."

"Brian Bennett. I’ve met Manuel—been assigned to him a few times, quite delightful—but I didn’t realize he had a son. I must have subconsciously recognized the Quesillard look about him. I was getting the strongest premonition that he was a pre-changeover channel. But I guess not, since he told me he intends to devote his life to the study of physics…? I take it Manuel doesn’t care for that idea. I can’t imagine why not. Does the boy have strong Donor potential?"

"But your premonition was quite correct. Ricky will be a channel, probably First Order judging from his birth characteristics, and he has given us a changeover date toward the end of this year. In the meantime, he goes nowhere without a Donor who could handle him in First Need—but I won’t be surprised if it turns out he’s right on the mark with that date. He’s been consistent about it, and also about his insistence that he does not intend to go to a channeling school, nor practice professionally as a channel. There’s precedent for that, as I’m sure you’re aware."

"Oh, for—a few Thirds who’ve decided not to be trained, sure. I recall reading something about that. Has anyone discussed the tax picture with him?" Working channels, those who had retired and those deemed medically unfit to practice were not taxed proportionately to their selyn requirements. The Tecton elected not to extend the same courtesy to those who quit voluntarily or elected not to be trained. For a First, the expense would be ruinous, and Brian certainly did not see how it could be managed on a student’s income.

"Extensively, I assure you. He’s convinced that he can get grants to help him with that expense, on the basis of medical necessity—and he also has been doing some legal research. He believed there are grounds to challenge that policy. Bear in mind, he does have an intelligence level that is simply astronomical—doubtlessly from his mother’s side of the family. Now, don’t you dare tell anyone I said that!"

Brian chuckled. "Never. But, for him to deny himself the channel’s training that can never be given as effectively after first year—oh, shen, I hope they intend to give him the anti-kill conditioning, regardless."

"Of course. He has no argument with that. But he says he does not intend to waste his first year learning channeling—he calls it monkey work. He thinks he can complete the eight-year curriculum at Renaud with a triple major in physics, math and cybertech during his first year. I know that sounds like a lot, but bear in mind, this is someone who learns at several times the normal rate as a child. We can only guess what he’ll be like in first year. The Dean at Renaud says he can’t wait to find out. He’s in full support of Ricky’s ambitions."

"Does Ricky have any idea of the health problems he’d be inviting with all of this?"

"Come on, Brian, you know there are techniques to deal with that. Actually, he’ll be avoiding some of them by not being trained in the first place. But I’m sure he will need Therapy Services, and while the Tecton could decide to penalize him further by charging him some outrageous fee for that, it might be better for the public relations picture to provide him with all of that for free—as we would do, for example, for an indigent, disjunct renSime. It’s not as though he’s opting out to pursue a life of leisure and self-gratification, after all."

"Surely you’re not taking all of this seriously. I know Manuel Quesillard well enough to have noticed that he’s not in the habit of taking no for an answer. I’m sure Ricky will get the chance to do some physics on the side, but I’d be willing to bet you that he’ll end up being trained as a channel—and working as one."

"You’re on. You’ve worked with Manuel, but I’ve spent quite a bit of time with Ricky, as well. He’s a lot like his father. And the law states clearly he’s his own master once those tentacles break out."

Brian shook his head. He couldn’t wait to tell Mari about this. His new wife had tested out as having a fair degree of Donor potential, but had elected to go into business rather than being trained in the profession. Brian had no quarrel with that. She made more money that he did, and he’d taught her enough field control that she didn’t annoy his clients when she encountered them socially. Normally, she quickly grew tired of hearing him talk about Tecton business, but he thought she might be interested in hearing about the channel who didn’t want to be.

~~~~

To be continued...

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