Marquette stood on the threshold of the assembly hall with a fan
in his teeth, knotting a cloth band around his forehead absent-mindedly.
It was hot, and the sweat stung his eyes. He carried the traditional
palm-leaf fan, true, enough; everybody did. But what did a boy from
Temperate know about palm-frond fans? It just annoyed him. He didn't
remember it often enough to use it to any particular benefit; it
was just one more thing to carry around.
he had other things on his mind, much more pressing issues than
the transitory physical discomfort of heat and sweat and stickiness.
There were more than seventy others here in Assembly, waiting for
the dean's address; which of them would it be?
one of these people was his enemy.
didn't know more than half of them, and hoped his enemy would be
someone he'd never met. But there was no other way out of the situation
for him or for anybody else. They were to be paired for the Comparisons,
counted off by twos, and each of them would prepare their case analysis
and then evaluate the case analysis that their antagonist had written.
knew perfectly well what tradition demanded, but he could not afford
the luxury of tradition. He had to be sure. He had to win this.
The alternative was unthinkable.
particular movement to his left caught his eye and Raleigh grinned
despite his somber mood to recognize its source and its effect on
him. Hillbrane. Hillbrane, tossing her beautiful patrician head,
her glorious halo of tightly kinked blond hair tied up in a heavy
braid down the back of her neck and decorated with flowers.
didn't take much consideration on his part to decide him; he was
already moving toward Hillbrane as he thought about it. There was
space beside her. He should be there. She was one of the reasons
he had made up his mind to the daring betrayal that he had planned,
after all. He had to be sure of his position before he proposed
a repro contract to any woman, and Hillbrane had admirers enough.
He couldn't afford to let a rival get an edge.TOP
his place in a seat in the row behind her, just to her left, Raleigh
tweaked her braid with a swift practiced gesture, studying the filigree
work on the long high ventilation ducts as he did so. She started
up with a nervous twitch, and he grinned, but frowned at the far
wall immediately. It didn't have to fool her. It was just part of
Marquette." Her tone was superior and icy; he knew she was playing.
She wouldn't keep it up. She never could, with him. "Ever seen the
moon rise over Stiknals from a flower-boat?"
But it sounded like fun. Raleigh smoothed the pretended frown from
his brow and widened his eyes, blinking.
no, Aitch Harkover, ma'am. Whyever do you ask?" If he was lucky
he knew. If he was lucky -- but he wasn't leaving anything to luck.
The stakes were too high.
got a flower-boat on reserve, with your name on it. For after. If
you don't think it might be too much of a waste of your time?"
a bit of it, Harkover. I'll look forward to it." He kept his voice
light and informal, of course, keeping his delight to himself for
the time being. They were public, after all. And even though she
had just invited him for sex he wasn't supposed to notice it until
the time came, when he would be naturally delighted -- pleasantly
surprised -- at the treat being offered him.
only emphasized how much there was to lose.
had the future to think of, and the future was on Waystation One.
Everybody knew how important the colony was, whether or not everybody
knew how slim the chances were of ever reaching Waystation Two.
He had no intention of taking any chances. He would be there in
the colonization party; and Hillbrane would be there with him.
was a stir of some sort at the front of the room. Pulling his thoughts
back together Raleigh put on his best "respectful attention" face;
the dean was arriving to deliver the remarks that marked the official
opening of Comparisons.
stood on signal, and recited the Creed.
am an engineer. It is my duty to ensure that this Fleet stays on
course, that resources are conserved, that science goes forward.
The best my mind can offer belongs to the Colony Fleet for the mutual
benefit of all. I am an engineer. It's my job.
they were seated again the dean -- a slim black woman of middle
height and middle age, her hair crowned with creamy trumpet-shaped
flowers tinged with a delicate rosiness -- stepped to the fore of
the raised teaching platform.TOP
to the Sub-Tropical Canals Engineering Academy, young people. It's
my pleasure to serve as your preceptor for this crucial rite of
she understand how crucial it really was? Could she guess? It was
unfair, really. When the dean had done her Comparisons, it had been
just as it had been for years and years and years again before --
a rite of passage, but scarcely one with life or death as its ultimate
goal. Did she understand what was at stake for this class?
by a sudden sense of unease, Raleigh fought to calm his nerves.
It didn't matter. Hillbrane was in no danger, Hillbrane was brilliant
-- one of the sharpest minds Raleigh had yet encountered amongst
this class. Hillbrane didn't need to know how important this actually
was. She would be safe whatever happened. Hillbrane was Strategy-caliber,
and Raleigh faced a future in Ponics -- an ugly job for a Jneer,
travelling out to the rest of Fleet to trouble-shoot the food production
process amongst the Mechs, far away from the home comforts of the
all agree on the following assumptions. I've made a speech about
the role of Comparisons in ensuring each of us finds a job that
best matches our abilities and aptitudes. You've listened in polite
silence, all the while wondering what the case you'll get will be
like. I've spent some minutes trying to communicate what I wish
I'd known when I was in your place, and you've promised yourselves
that you'll never inflict such platitudes on the next generation
when it's your turn on the speaker's platform. I've made a humorous
remark, and you've laughed because it's polite, not because you
thought it was funny. Yes or no?"
was right, a response was expected. So Raleigh joined the sheepish
laugh that murmured through the audience, and the dean nodded with
that that's out of the way, down to business. Your cases will be
released at fourteen to individual rooms. You have two days. In
two days and twelve hours you will transmit your completed case
for review and receive your evaluation case. You have one day to
prepare your evaluation. In three days and twelve hours you will
transmit your evaluation."
of this had already been covered in agenda; some of it was just
understood, from reports of other Jneers who had already completed
their comparisons. The dean was required to rehearse it anyway.
Raleigh stifled a yawn that was equal parts boredom and nervousness:
he wanted to be started, and he couldn't start. Not till fourteen.
will assemble on day four and stand ready to be called to defend
your case before a panel of senior Jneers. That is, in the event
that any unresolved issues remain after evaluation of your case."
put a dry flourish to the tail of her speech that evoked a genuine
laugh, this time. Everybody knew there would be unresolved issues.
Ever since there had been Comparisons there had been "unresolved
issues," ever since the first Jneers had realized that so long as
nobody won, nobody lost. So everybody knew that defending their
case before the panel was an academic exercise. TOP
course there would be unresolved issues.
was all part of the game; but there was just enough uncertainty,
just enough uneasiness in Raleigh's mind to edge his laugh with
the sharp shrill hint of nerves. What if. What if. He couldn't be
the only person who had seen the future.
if he tried, and failed?
if it didn't work?
refocused his attention on the speaker with an almost physical effort.
He was not going to waste energy on unproductive anxiety-looping.
He couldn't afford to.
be serving brunch in the banquet hall shortly, get a good meal into
your furnace before you tackle your case. Good luck, young people,
and may you all find your perfect place in Fleet."
if he wasn't an engineer after all?
if he was an Oway? What if he was a Mech?
knew there was no margin for error. He wasn't going to take any
chances. He'd run the game analysis, and he knew what he had to
hundred years of tradition was as nothing compared to the analysis
of a true Jneer.
Avon Eos Science Fiction