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Director had given the general picture. It was expected that most of those listening would want to talk more with their coaches before reaching a decision. That was why the announcement had been made a week before the time at Seville Trace was up. To Linc, the appeal of what had been described was such that he had difficulty visualizing how anyone could turn it down. But once again, the end of the phase marked a moment of high attrition. Some, it appeared, weren't swayed by the same kinds of images as he, and preferred to take the chances that came with the familiar patterns of life. Others just had an unallayable suspicion that they hadn't been told everything and there had to be a down side. And there were those who shrunk from the thought of being immersed in newness, farther away than they were capable of comprehending from everything they knew. They would stay with the known, even if not entirely trusted, whatever the consequences. But all who chose to go at this stage were accepted. Nobody was dropped by a decision of the authorities. As Mr. Summer explained when Linc finally got to see him late in the afternoon of the day following Director's announcement:

"We're not recruiting for some elite unit of the Army or anything like that. We have the beginnings of a whole society taking shape. New people are going to be born there--in fact, they are already--and that means as varied as people come. A society that couldn't absorb all kinds wouldn't be much use. Is it supposed to eliminate the ones who don't fit? Society should be shaped to fit people the way they are. It's trying to do it the other way that causes the problems."

"What about the ones who were RPO'd?" Linc asked. "How come you couldn't absorb them? Or don't they count for some reason?"

They were using one of the admin offices, Summer at the desk, Linc in a chair pulled up opposite. The next two of Summer's charges scheduled for sessions that afternoon were waiting outside. With six rooms to take care of, and four occupants to a room--less the dropouts--he had been busy like this all day.

"That wasn't the same thing," Summer replied. "They were elements that would have disrupted the course. It wasn't a reflection of whether or not we could have accommodated them eventually. Even a tree sometimes needs help getting started. We don't have unlimited time--as I'm sure you're only too aware by now."

Linc stared at the desktop. It was almost bare, with just a thickish file folder that Linc assumed pertained to him but which hadn't been referred to, and a notepad on which Summer had jotted a few lines. There was only one other thing Linc could think of. "Who pays?" he asked, looking up. "I mean, all this here. . . ." He swept a hand, indicating the surroundings. "The other place I was at. Director said you don't have much to do with Earth economically. So who owns it all?"

"You care?" Summer sounded surprised.

Linc shrugged. "Just kinda curious, I guess."

"You could think of it as leasing of a kind. We have certain arrangements with state and federal authorities. As Director indicated yesterday, they view it as unloading unwanted merchandise." Summer's face twitched in a quick, humorless smile. "You're probably aware that most of the world thinks of us as wildly unrealistic--simpleminded, even. If that's the image they choose to create--because it let's them off the hook of having to think too hard about the way they're heading, maybe--that's okay by us. As Director also said, we'll continue to take whatever they send, for as long as they want to carry on believing that they're pulling one over on us."

The logic appealed to Linc, and he smiled faintly. That in itself was an indicator of the effects of the past three months; that time ago, he had never smiled at anything. Summer took it as a good moment to wrap up the interview. "So," he said, resting his chin on his interlaced fingers and staring over them, "do I take it that you're in? You're signing up for the ride?"

Linc nodded. "Oh, sure. I thought that was already understood." He expected that his tone of finality would be the end of it. But the way Summer continued staring at him told him there was more. "What? . . ." he asked.

Summer looked down and opened the file, and then sat looking at it for a few seconds, as if composing something in his mind that was not easy to say. Linc waited. "Of course there's no question that you'll go . . ." Summer began. "But I'm afraid the news I have isn't all good."

The utterance caught Linc unprepared. The past three months had, to a degree, mellowed his former cynicism. Things seemed to have gone well, and inwardly he had felt pride in the unsuspected parts of his personality that he was beginning to uncover. He had hoped to hear positive things--encouragement, maybe a little praise, even. . . .

"The results of your machining tests weren't great," Summer continued. "They're not up to the proficiency level that the engineering people need to see. I know that the subject has an appeal for you, Linc. But . . ." Summer made a resigned gesture, "wanting something isn't always enough. What we have here doesn't point to a future in that particular direction. I'm sorry."

Linc was too dazed to think coherently. That was the last area in which he had expected to hear criticism. "I thought I did okay," was all he could manage. His voice came out flat and feeble. It sounded lame.

"The dimensional calculations were all out. . . ." Summer searched for a way to soften the blow. "Look, it doesn't necessarily mean the end of the line. You won't be denied access to further opportunity to develop that kind of talent--if it's what you really want to do. But for now . . ." Summer waved a hand and left the rest unsaid.

Linc's first impulse as the initial numbness passed was anger--the conditioning of a life that had conspired to thwart him at the last moment whenever anything started looking as if it was going well. He had tried as hard as anyone could in an environment that was new and strange to him. What more did they want? The injustice made him want to smash something, throw something, upend the desk into Summer's sick-making, pretending- that-he-gave-a-damn face. . . . But something else had happened, also, in those three months that let him see the futility of giving way to such feelings, and he fought them down with a power of restraint that he hadn't possessed previously. There was no way now that he could go back to where he had come from. He couldn't afford to leave himself with nowhere to go forward to either.

"What, then?" he asked woodenly.

Summer sat forward, mustering an expression intended to be positive and optimistic. "Let's look at the strengths you do have," he suggested. "You're physically tough and superbly coordinated. You think fast, and you're hardly a wimp, as our friend Arvin will testify. And experience here and at Coulie shows you have a natural leadership quality that others will respond to and follow. I'd like you to consider, instead, the thought of becoming a professional in the military or security services. We think you're cut out for it. Your earlier background might even constitute something of an asset that you could put to use. It gives you a good slant on assessing certain personalities and situations."

Linc's first reaction was to scoff. "Military? Out past Mars? Who are you thinking of taking on out there? Have people been seeing little green guys or something?"

Summer remained serious. "Don't go running away with any wrong ideas, Linc. As Director said yesterday, if Earth wants to treat the Outzone culture as some kind of joke, that's fine by us for as long as it lasts, because it gives us more time. But we are bringing together some exceptionally capable people out there--scientists, engineers, builders and creators of all kinds, who have been quietly disappearing. People who are sick of the greed and the exploitation, and a society that pays lip service to truth and honesty while heaping its rewards on the most accomplished forms of lying and robbery. When people like that are free, they can achieve astounding results. Whole new areas of science are being opened up out there--discoveries that Earth has lost the will and the ability to make anymore. When Earth wakes up to what's going on, there's a good chance that it will try to get a share in the only way it knows how: by claims of 'rights' and enforcing them through violence. The Outzone may have to defend itself. If it does, it will need people like you. And that's why we're happy to take all the time we can get."

Suddenly, Linc felt very weary--the debilitating, exhausting weariness that comes with the realization that one's best isn't enough. His weight seemed to compress him down into the chair. "So what was all that stuff Grober told me up front?" he said, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice. "He said we were supposed to have a choice in all this. What happened to that?"

"The choice was to come with us or go back," Summer replied. "And it still stands. But one of the things implied in choosing us is agreeing to accept orders from those judged qualified to give them. As you'll find out for yourself--at least, I hope you'll stick around to find out--it's the only way things can function out there. For a long time yet, at least."

 
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