The stark corridors where so often sand greeted the soles with a gritty kiss, marking a spot where blood had been shed. The blood on the floor was his only once; he was clever, to the point of being considered odd because he kept trying to learn when everybody else knew the right thing to do was sit tight and wait to be eighteen. He contrived to avoid all the shivs, clubs and guns bar one, and his wound was shallow and left no scar.
The one thing he was not clever enough to do was escape. Authoritatively the State Board of Education had laid it down that there must be one major element of stability in the life of a rent-a-child; therefore he must continue at this same school regardless of where he currently happened to reside, and none of his temporary parents remained in the vicinity long enough to fight that ruling to the bitter end.
When he was twelve a teacher arrived named Adele Brixham, who kept on trying same as he did. She noticed him. Before she was ambushed and gang-raped and overloaded, she must have filed some sort of report. At any rate, a week or so later the classroom and the approach corridor were invaded by a government platoon, men and women in uniform carrying guns, webbers and fetters, and for a change the roll was called complete bar one girl who was in the hospital.
And there were tests which for a change could not be ignored, because someone with hard eyes and a holster stood by you to make sure. Nickie Haflinger sank all his frustrated lust for achievement into the six hours they lasted: three before, three after a supervised lunch eaten in the classroom. Even to visit the can you were escorted. It was a new thing for those of the kids who hadn’t been arrested yet.
After IQ and EQ—empathic quotient—and perceptual and social tests, like the regular kind only more so, came the kickers: laterality tests, double-take tests, open-dilemma tests, value-judgment tests, wisdom tests… and those were fun! For the final thirty minutes of the session he was purely drunk on the notion that when something happened which had never happened before one human being could make a right decision about the outcome, and that person might be Nickie Haflinger!
The government people had brought a portable computer with them. Little by little he grew aware that each time it printed out, more and more of the gray-garbed strangers looked at him rather than the other children. The rest realized what was going on, too, and that expression came to their faces which he had long ago learned to recognize: Today, after class, he’s the one we’ll carve the ass off!
He was shaking as much from terror as excitement when the six hours ended, but he hadn’t been able to stop himself from applying all he knew and all he could guess to the tests.
But there was no attack, no sanding along the streets between here and his current home. The woman in overall charge switched off the computer and jerked her head his way, and three men with guns drawn closed on him and one said in a kindly tone, “Stay right there, sonny, and don’t worry.” His classmates drifted away, giving puzzled backward glances and kicking the doorposts with fury as they left. Later someone else was sanded—the term came from “S-and-D,” search and destroy—and lost an eye. But by then he had arrived home in a government limo.
It was carefully explained, to him and his “parents,” that he was being requisitioned in the service of his country under special regulation number such-and-such issued by the Secretary of Defense as authorized by clause number whatever of some or other Act of Congress… He didn’t take in the details.
He was giddy. He’d been promised that for the first time in his life he could stay where he was going as long as he liked.
Next morning he woke at Tarnover, and thought he had been transported halfway to heaven.
“Now I realize I was in hell. Why are you alone? I had the vague impression that when you woke up I’d find there were two of you, even though you were doing all the talking. Is there usually someone else in here?”