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Isaac Asimov


  Isaac Asimov

  Isaac Asimov


  George Platen could not conceal the longing in his voice. It was too much to suppress. He said, “Tomorrow’s the first of May. Olympics!”

  He rolled over on his stomach and peered over the foot of his bed at his roommate. Didn’t he feel it, too? Didn’t this make some impression on him?

  George’s face was thin and had grown a trifle thinner in the nearly year and a half that he had been at the House. His figure was slight but the look in his blue eyes was as intense as it had ever been, and right now there was a trapped look in the way his fingers curled against the bedspread.

  George’s roommate looked up briefly from his book and took the opportunity to adjust the light-level of the stretch of wall near his chair. His name was Hali Omani and he was a Nigerian by birth. His dark brown skin and massive features seemed made for calmness, and mention of the Olympics did not move him.

  He said, “I know, George.”

  George owed much to Hali’s patience and kindness when it was needed, but even patience and kindness could be overdone. Was this a time to sit there like a statue built of some dark, warm wood?

  George wondered if he himself would grow like that after ten years here and rejected the thought violently. No!

  He said defiantly, “I think you’ve forgotten what May means.”

  The other said, “I remember very well what it means. It means nothing! You’re the one who’s forgotten that. May means nothing to you, George Platen, and,” he added softly, “it means nothing to me, Hali Omani.”

  George said, “The ships are coming in for recruits. By June, thousands and thousands will leave with millions of men and women heading for any world you can name, and all that means nothing?”

  “Less than nothing. What do you want me to do about it, anyway?” Omani ran his finger along a difficult passage in the book he was reading and his lips moved soundlessly.

  George watched him. Damn it, he thought, yell, scream; you can do that much. Kick at me, do anything.

  It was only that he wanted not to be so alone in his anger. He wanted not to be the only one so filled with resentment, not to be the only one dying a slow death.

  It was better those first weeks when the Universe was a small shell of vague light and sound pressing down upon him. It was better before Omani had wavered into view and dragged him back to a life that wasn’t worth living.

  Omani! He was old! He was at least thirty. George thought: Will I be like that at thirty? Will I be like that in twelve years?

  And because he was afraid he might be, he yelled at Omani, “Will you stop reading that fool book?”

  Omani turned a page and read on a few words, then lifted his head with its skullcap of crisply curled hair and said, “What?”

  “What good does it do you to read the book?” He stepped forward, snorted “More electronics,” and slapped it out of Omani’s hands.

  Omani got up slowly and picked up the book. He smoothed a crumpled page without visible rancor. “Call it the satisfaction of curiosity,” he said. “I understand a little of it today, perhaps a little more tomorrow. That’s a victory in a way.”

  “A victory. What kind of a victory? Is that what satisfies you in life? To get to know enough to be a quarter of a Registered Electronician by the time you’re sixty-five?”

  “Perhaps by the time I’m thirty-five.”

  “And then who’ll want you? Who’ll use you? Where will you go?”

  “No one. No one. Nowhere. I’ll stay here and read other books.”

  “And that satisfies you? Tell me! You’ve dragged me to class. You’ve got me to reading and memorizing, too. For what? There’s nothing in it that satisfies me.”

  “What good will it do you to deny yourself satisfaction?”

  “It means I’ll quit the whole farce. I’ll do as I planned to do in the beginning before you dovey-lovied me out of it. I’m going to force them to—to—”

  Omani put down his book. He let the other run down and then said, “To what, George?”

  “To correct a miscarriage of justice. A frame-up. I’ll get that Antonelli and force him to admit he—he—”

  Omani shook his head. “Everyone who comes here insists it’s a mistake. I thought you’d passed that stage.”

  “Don’t call it a stage,” said George violently. “In my case, it’s a fact. I’ve told you—”

  “You’ve told me, but in your heart you know no one made any mistake as far as you were concerned.”

  “Because no one will admit it? You think any of them would admit a mistake unless they were forced to?—Well, I’ll force them.”

  It was May that was doing this to George; it was Olympics month. He felt it bring the old wildness back and he couldn’t stop it. He didn’t want to stop it. He had been in danger of forgetting.

  He said, “I was going to be a Computer Programmer and I can be one. I could be one today, regardless of what they say analysis shows.” He pounded his mattress. “They’re wrong. They must be.”

  “The analysts are never wrong.”

  “They must be. Do you doubt my intelligence?”

  “Intelligence hasn’t one thing to do with it. Haven’t you been told that often enough? Can’t you understand that?”

  George rolled away, lay on his back, and stared somberly at the ceiling.

  “What did you want to be, Hali?”

  “I had no fixed plans. Hydroponicist would have suited me, I suppose.”

  “Did you think you could make it?”

  “I wasn’t sure.”

  George had never asked personal questions of Omani before. It struck him as queer, almost unnatural, that other people had had ambitions and ended here. Hydroponicist!

  He said, “Did you think you’d make this?”

  “No, but here I am just the same.”

  “And you’re satisfied. Really, really satisfied. You’re happy. You love it. You wouldn’t be anywhere else.”

  Slowly, Omani got to his feet. Carefully, he began to unmake his bed. He said, “George, you’re a hard case. You’re knocking yourself out because you won’t accept the facts about yourself. George, you’re here in what you call the House, but I’ve never heard you give it its full title. Say it, George, say it. Then go to bed and sleep this off.”

  George gritted his teeth and showed them. He chocked out, “No!”

  “Then I will,” said Omani, and he did. He shaped each syllable carefully.

  George was bitterly ashamed at the sound of it. He turned his head away.

  For most of the first eighteen years of his life, George Platen had headed firmly in one direction, that of Registered Computer Programmer. There were those in his crowd who spoke wisely of Spationautics, Refrigeration Technology, Transportation Control, and even Administration. But George held firm.

  He argued relative merits as vigorously as any of them, and why not? Education Day loomed ahead of them and was the great fact of their existence. It approached steadily, as fixed and certain as the calendar—the first day of November of the year following one’s eighteenth birthday.

  After that day, there were other topics of conversation. One could discuss with others some detail of the profession, or the virtues of one’s wife and children, or the fate of one’s space-polo team, or one’s experiences in the Education Day, however, there was only one topic that unfailingly and unwearyingly held everyone’s interest, and that was Education Day.

  “What are you going for? Think you’ll make it? Heck, that’s no good. Look at the records; quota’s been cut. Logistics now—”

  Or Hypermechanics now—Or Communications now—Or Gravities now—

  Especially Gravities at the
moment. Everyone had been talking about Gravities in the few years just before George’s Education Day because of the development of the Gravitic power engine.

  Any world within ten light-years of a dwarf star, everyone said, would give its eyeteeth for any kind of Registered Gravities Engineer.

  The thought of that never bothered George. Sure it would; all the eyeteeth it could scare up. But George had also heard what had happened before in a newly developed technique. Rationalization and simplification followed in a flood. New models each year; new types of gravitic engines; new principles. Then all those eyeteeth gentlemen would find themselves out of date and superseded by later models with later educations. The first group would then have to settle down to unskilled labor or ship out to some backwoods world that wasn’t quite caught up yet.

  Now Computer Programmers were in steady demand year after year, century after century. The demand never reached wild peaks; there was never a howling bull market for Programmers; but the demand climbed steadily as new worlds opened up and as older words grew more complex.

  He had argued with Stubby Trevelyan about that constantly. As best friends, their arguments had to be constant and vitriolic and, of course, neither ever persuaded or was persuaded.

  But then Trevelyan had had a father who was a Registered Metallurgist and had actually served on one of the Outworlds, and a grandfather who had also been a Registered Metallurgist. He himself was intent on becoming a Registered Metallurgist almost as a matter of family right and was firmly convinced that any other profession was a shade less than respectable.

  “There’ll always be metal,” he said, “and there’s an accomplishment in molding alloys to specification and watching structures grow. Now what’s a Programmer going to be doing. Sitting at a coder all day long, feeding some fool mile-long machine.”

  Even at sixteen, George had learned to be practical. He said simply, “There’ll be a million Metallurgists put out along with you.”

  “Because it’s good. A good profession. The best.”

  “But you get crowded out, Stubby. You can be way back in line. Any world can tape out its own Metallurgists, and the market for advanced Earth models isn’t so big. And it’s mostly the small worlds that want them. You know what per cent of the turn-out of Registered Metallurgists get tabbed for worlds with a Grade A rating. I looked it up. It’s just 13.3 per cent. That means you’ll have seven chances in eight of being stuck in some world that just about has running water. You may even be stuck on Earth; 2.3 per cent are.”

  Trevelyan said belligerently, “There’s no disgrace in staying on Earth. Earth needs technicians, too. Good ones.” His grandfather had been an Earth-bound Metallurgist, and Trevelyan lifted his finger to his upper lip and dabbed at an as yet nonexistent mustache.

  George knew about Trevelyan’s grandfather and, considering the Earth-bound position of his own ancestry, was in no mood to sneer. He said diplomatically, “No intellectual disgrace. Of course not. But it’s nice to get into a Grade A world, isn’t it?

  “Now you take Programmers. Only the Grade A worlds have the kind of computers that really need first-class Programmers so they’re the only ones in the market. And Programmer tapes are complicated and hardly any one fits. They need more Programmers than their own population can supply. It’s just a matter of statistics. There’s one first-class Programmer per million, say. A world needs twenty and has a population of ten million, they have to come to Earth for five to fifteen Programmers. Right?

  “And you know how many Registered Computer Programmers went to Grade A planets last year? I’ll tell you. Every last one. If you’re a Programmer, you’re a picked man. Yes, sir.”

  Trevelyan frowned. “If only one in a million makes it, what makes you think you’ll make it?”

  George said guardedly, “I’ll make it.”

  He never dared tell anyone; not Trevelyan; not his parents; of exactly what he was doing that made him so confident. But he wasn’t worried. He was simply confident (that was the worst of the memories he had in the hopeless days afterward). He was as blandly confident as the average eight-year-old kid approaching Reading Day—that childhood preview of Education Day.

  Of course, Reading Day had been different. Partly, there was the simple fact of childhood. A boy of eight takes many extraordinary things in stride. One day you can’t read and the next day you can. That’s just the way things are. Like the sun shining.

  And then not so much depended upon it. There were no recruiters just ahead, waiting and jostling for the lists and scores on the coming Olympics. A boy or girl who goes through the Reading Day is just someone who has ten more years of undifferentiated living upon Earth’s crawling surface; just someone who returns to his family with one new ability.

  By the time Education Day came, ten years later, George wasn’t even sure of most of the details of his own Reading Day.

  Most clearly of all, he remembered it to be a dismal September day with a mild rain falling. (September for Reading Day; November for Education Day; May for Olympics. They made nursery rhymes out of it.) George had dressed by the wall lights, with his parents far more excited than he himself was. His father was a Registered Pipe Fitter and had found his occupation on Earth. This fact had always been a humiliation to him, although, of course, as anyone could see plainly, most of each generation must stay on Earth in the nature of things.

  There had to be farmers and miners and even technicians on Earth. It was only the late-model, high-specialty professions that were in demand on the Outworlds, and only a few millions a year out of Earth’s eight billion population could be exported. Every man and woman on Earth couldn’t be among that group.

  But every man and woman could hope that at least one of his children could be one, and Platen, Senior, was certainly no exception. It was obvious to him (and, to be sure, to others as well) that George was notably intelligent and quick-minded. He would be bound to do well and he would have to, as he was an only child. If George didn’t end on an Outworld, they would have to wait for grandchildren before a next chance would come along, and that was too far in the future to be much consolation.

  Reading Day would not prove much, of course, but it would be the only indication they would have before the big day itself. Every parent on Earth would be listening to the quality of reading when his child came home with it; listening for any particularly easy flow of words and building that into certain omens of the future. There were few families that didn’t have at least one hopeful who, from Reading Day on, was the great hope because of the way he handled his trisyllabics.

  Dimly, George was aware of the cause of his parents’ tension, and if there was any anxiety in his young heart that drizzly morning, it was only the fear that his father’s hopeful expression might fade out when he returned home with his reading.

  The children met in the large assembly room of the town’s Education hall. All over Earth, in millions of local halls, throughout that month, similar groups of children would be meeting. George felt depressed by the grayness of the room and by the other children, strained and stiff in unaccustomed finery.

  Automatically, George did as all the rest of the children did. He found the small clique that represented the children on his floor of the apartment house and joined them.

  Trevelyan, who lived immediately next door, still wore his hair childishly long and was years removed from the sideburns and thin, reddish mustache that he was to grow as soon as he was physiologically capable of it.

  Trevelyan (to whom George was then known as Jaw-jee) said, “Bet you’re scared.”

  “I am not,” said George. Then, confidentially, “My folks got a hunk of printing up on the dresser in my room, and when I come home, I’m going to read it for them.” (George’s main suffering at the moment lay in the fact that he didn’t quite know where to put his hands. He had been warned not to scratch his head or rub his ears or pick his nose or put his hands into his pockets. This eliminated almost every possibility.)
/>   Trevelyan put his hands in his pockets and said, “My father isn’t worried.”

  Trevelyan, Senior, had been a Metallurgist on Diporia for nearly seven years, which gave him a superior social status in his neighborhood even though he had retired and returned to Earth.

  Earth discouraged these re-immigrants because of population problems, but a small trickle did return. For one thing the cost of living was lower on Earth, and what was a trifling annuity on Diporia, say, was a comfortable income on Earth. Besides, there were always men who found more satisfaction in displaying their success before the friends and scenes of their childhood than before all the rest of the Universe besides.

  Trevelyan, Senior, further explained that if he stayed on Diporia, so would his children, and Diporia was a one-spaceship world. Back on Earth, his kids could end anywhere, even Novia.

  Stubby Trevelyan had picked up that item early. Even before Reading Day, his conversation was based on the carelessly assumed fact that his ultimate home would be in Novia.

  George, oppressed by thoughts of the other’s future greatness and his own small-time contrast, was driven to belligerent defense at once.

  “My father isn’t worried either. He just wants to hear me read because he knows I’ll be good. I suppose your father would just as soon not hear you because he knows you’ll be all wrong.”

  “I will not be all wrong. Reading is nothing. On Novia, I’ll hire people to read to me.”

  “Because you won’t be able to read yourself, on account of you’re dumb!”

  “Then how come I’ll be on Novia?”

  And George, driven, made the great denial, “Who says you’ll be on Novia? Bet you don’t go anywhere.”

  Stubby Trevelyan reddened. “I won’t be a Pipe Fitter like your old man.”

  “Take that back, you dumbhead.”

  “You take that back.”

  They stood nose to nose, not wanting to fight but relieved at having something familiar to do in this strange place. Furthermore, now that George had curled his hands into fists and lifted them before his face, the problem of what to do with his hands was, at least temporarily, solved. Other children gathered round excitedly.