Chapter I

Every man starts off as an idiot. All he has at the very beginning of his existence is his self-consciousness and his ability to learn. That's what the Nature provides, and it's up to every individual to make use of what he has in the best possible way.

Errors are possible, most of the time correctable, sometimes even desirable because one's best chance of learning is by his own mistakes. Naturally, not everyone uses this chance, and those that do maybe don't succeed at first, but even if it takes them more shots, if they make it in the end it was still worthwhile.

So, there was still hope for me.

Of course, what did I know, being a young rebellious idiot? The Universe as I saw it was simple, logical and obvious: I was right and it was wrong. The fact that the Universe somewhat outnumbered me didn't prove anything.

But that was about to change.

I knew that petty souls at the University were observing my moves with great interest, waiting to see what was going to happen next. Everybody was familiar with my inability to be quiet when being quiet was necessary and a tendency to shut up when expected to suck up.

When it started to become obvious that people more stupid than me were moving ahead, crossing the line was just a matter of time. So when the University commissar called me to have a little chat, all I felt was some distant anxiety, even pleasure because someone important finally acknowledged my existence. Hell, I'm going to talk to the single man responsible for the social well being of ten thousand people! I must be an important person!

When I entered his office, he was smiling so a feeling of calm passed through me.

The term young idiot should be put into an encyclopaedia.

His office was a smallish, cosy room, a few flowers and green plants, a regular office desk, a few armchairs and stools and a couch placed by the wall, a huge window to the left and a single, comfortable chair placed in the centre.

"Please, sit down, Saša," he said kindly, so I sat.

"How is it going for you, the course an all?" he asked.

I shrugged. "You have my record, comrade commisar, the grades are inside."

"I'm not asking you about the grades," he replied. "I'm asking about you. How do you feel, is University all you expected and hoped for?"

I thought for a moment. The commissar seemed very kind, smiling and all, but I knew there was a trapdoor somewhere. We were enemies, I thought, me and him, he was the system and I was me, and the only way we can have a normal conversation was as a prelude to hostilities. "Nothing in life is everything one expects and hopes for," I said wisely. "There are things I like and things I dislike, just as everybody else, I suppose."

"I've seen your grades." He looked down at the sheet in front of him. "You are excellent in science subjects, I can tell you really love astronomy."

"That's why I applied for it," I said. "If I was interested in something else, I'd have applied for something else."

The commissar looked at me and I thought his smile broadened. "This is good, and logical. One should always aim for what he loves, and if what he loves coincides with what he's good at, that is always a plus. However, you also have two minuses."

He paused and I suppressed a grin. So far he didn't say anything I hadn't expected, and it gave me a slight feeling of superiority.

"One minus, of course, are your grades in social subjects. And maybe it wouldn't be such a minus if it weren't obvious that you're such a bright young man, capable of learning anything that needs to be learned. Yes, we have some low-capacity students here and they also have bad grades, but at least we know they try. They have bad grades because they can't. You have bad grades because you won't. Why don't you want to learn, Saša?"

"Maybe because I'd have to unlearn things that are logical to me and that I believe in in order to learn what you want me to learn?" I said and felt a small ironic grin escaping.

A glimpse of sorrow passed across the commissar's face. "And you believe that a century and a half of experience is less valuable than your beliefs?"

"No, I believe a century and a half of experience works for most people. However, people are not robots, they are different. You can't fit everybody into the same frame."

The commissar looked down at the files on his desk and nodded. "Of course, you can't. You're right. And this is why this would not be such a big problem if it wasn't an indicator of the second, more important minus. Your attitude towards your fellow students, professors and the whole society."

"Are you saying that you expect me to get along with everybody?" I asked. "That I should be kind and polite and not criticize? I thought that criticism and permanent analysis are the foundations of a thinking human being. At least, that's what you teach at Social Dynamics."

The commissar smiled again. "So, you've been paying attention after all."

"Of course I've been paying attention. I've learned and implemented everything I learned, but obviously not the way you wanted me to!"

"Obviously," the commissar repeated, still smiling. "But I see you have strong beliefs which is good. The bad thing is, your beliefs constantly lead you into clashes with everyone around you."

"Is that so much of a problem?"

"Yes, it is, Saša. You know what they say: no man is an island. You are a part of the society, you can't ignore that. You were indebted by society, if it wasn't for the society, you'd be living in a cave and eating raw meat, and you need to repay that debt by at least not pulling the wrong way. That is, unless you believe that the whole society is heading in the wrong direction. Do you, Saša? Do you think that we are all making a tragic mistake leading our lives the way we do?"

I shook my head. "I don't know and I don't care. I only know that I don't like that particular way and that I want to be left alone to do my work. Is that too much to ask?"

"Yes it is. Don't you think that, since the society provides you with food, shelter, education and everything else, that it is your duty to give this society something back? And that, if you believe that we're heading the wrong way, it is your duty to try to save us from the peril, to warn us of the dangers we are unable to see ourselves? Isn't that what a responsible man would do? For example, start a discussion? Invoke arguments? Cross pens with your ideological foes, so to speak?"

"Sorry, never been inclined to playing Don Quixote," I replied. And that was the truth. I knew the system was too solid to be changed, that I'd end up in a mental hospital or prison before I managed to push through any of my ideas. Screw them. All I cared about were the stars and the deep black space, not the people who don't want to know. I had a few friends and that was enough. The rest of society could go to hell as far as I was concerned.

As I had already said, every man starts off as an idiot.

The commissar leaned back in his chair and looked at me seriously. Then he looked down at the files again. "I'm sorry to hear that. Maybe we'd rather have you as a Don Quixote than someone who simply doesn't care. You should think about that in the years to come. All in all, it's a pity. With your skill in math and physics I'm sure you could have become one of our best astronomers or astrophysicists," he said and stared into my eyes.

The room changed colour.

"Could have been?" I asked. "Are you expelling me? Throwing me out? Just like that?" Now, this was unexpected. I have always thought that dealing with the unsuitables was a process; first you get a warning, then a second warning. Then, maybe, the system engages in some symbolic arm-twisting. All that time the subject's behaviour is monitored because maybe an unsuitable isn't really a criminal, maybe he only needs a few nudges in the right direction; maybe it's just some detail in his environment that needs to be adjusted for him to function perfectly. I thought that this process would take time and give me a fair warning of the dangers ahead, so that I can avoid them and survive. Like I said, I wasn't a Don Quixote.

"Oh, no!" he replied. "It would be a crime and a waste to separate anyone from the field he loves. We are just redirecting you."

The first words that came to my mind were "you can't do that", but the fact was they could. They sure could.

There are times in your life when your view makes an about-face in a second, or when you get that feeling that somebody suddenly tore down the walls surrounding you and preventing you to get a better perspective, and all of a sudden you feel like you start to float above your previous position and get a pretty good picture what was happening and what your position actually was. The enlightenment. The slap-your-forehead effect. The oops-now-I've-done-it syndrome. The oh-shit situation.

I never gave much thought to the process of people changing, but I'm pretty sure that at that moment I was a person pretty different from the one who entered the commissar's room fifteen minutes earlier. How do I know that? Simple: the previous me would laugh cynically, shout, "I ask for no mercy nor would show you any" and die charging. The new and reformed me simply and meekly asked: "To a different course?"

"No, we are transferring you off the university, to a different... training facility. The things you failed at are obligatory for anyone who wishes to be a part of academic community, or the society for that matter. What we have in mind for you is a completely different career."

I didn't like a particular word in what he said. "Military? You are transferring me to the military?" I felt panic starting to arise.

"Of course not," the commissar replied. "Your lack of discipline will, no doubt, be a theme of one of your observers' thesis. No, you'd probably die in the military, and if we wanted that, we'd just take you out and shoot you. Cheaper, simpler, more efficient, more dignifying, more merciful. We're not beasts. Or idiots. No, we will transfer you to a career we have reason to believe you'll be successful in. No need for touchy social interaction, no need to practice efficient social behaviour. We'll put you in a place that suits you best, don't you worry. We're making you a interstellar pilot."

It is interesting how many thoughts can pass through a man's head simultaneously. One: shit, they're getting rid of me in the impossibly elegant way. Two: they probably just want me dead without bloodying their hands. Three: maybe they aren't such bastards after all, I really wouldn't mind roaming the universe, flying star system to star system. Four: But what about my life here, my family, my friends? Five: Isn't exile a too rough punishment for just being an idiot?

I realised the commissar was looking at me. I looked back, so he continued: "You will go through the training which will take as long as necessary, at least six months, at most... who knows? We've had trainees take twenty years of piloting school. After they graduated and went into space, most of them made it to retirement."

"Piloting school?" I asked.

"You will be transferred to a camp near Fort Hammer. During the first three months you will be given freedom of movement, it will be your learning period. After that, the testing period starts. During that time, you will be given three days of freedom for every test attempt. That part may last indefinitely. You will be considered a graduated pilot after you've made fifty consecutive passes."

"And the tests are…?"

The commissar shrugged. "You enter a flight simulator, you move from point A to point B, you survive."

"Did you say I get three days off for every test attempt?" I asked.

The commissar nodded. "Yes," he replied. "However, there are more details to the whole procedure so I suggest you be patient and wait until you reach that stage. Any more questions?"

"Yes, please. How…" I started, and then hesitated, not wanting to reveal my thoughts. Then realised it was stupid to believe they haven't thought of this themselves. "How are you going to make sure I don't run away the first time I'm alone in space?"

The commissar smiled and shrugged. "I thought it would be obvious by now. We don't do this normally; we believe every individual is responsible for his own actions and that his family and friends should not suffer for his misdeeds. However, this is a special situation, we don't get many pilots and are ready to make that many exceptions. After you graduate, we will be turning some expensive equipment to you and feel we have the right to make insurances. This means that if you escape, we will hold your family responsible. Your whole family. I understand you are very fond of your little sister, aren't you? Well, no reason for us to abuse them in any way. As long as, of course, everybody does his job and keeps repaying his debt to society. You may call it immoral or inefficient or even unjustified. But think of it this way: if you turn out to be a crook, who's to blame? Sure, you are responsible for your actions, but not exclusively. There are people who raised you, brought you up. If you screw up, it's their responsibility, too."

"And my sister's too?"

The commissar waved his hand. "Oh, no, she wouldn't be harmed in any way. I'm sure we'd be able to pick especially suitable foster parents for her, the ones who will make sure she doesn't follow her brother's path." He paused. "Of course, all this only in case it turns out that her brother is an unadjustable unsocial element. If you turn out to be a responsible citizen, your family may even benefit from bringing you up in such a good way."

As simple as that, I thought and looked at the commissar's face. Yes, of course they would resort to that. Now, this was professional! This was all very professional! For the last fifteen minutes the conversation seemed like a relaxed talk with a professional orientation officer. It even became comfortable. But now the beast showed its ugly face.

I looked out the window, than turned back to the commissar and shrugged. "I don't want to work under these circumstances. I want to quit," I said and a part of me started to laugh inside at the other part that actually said it. But I had to try.

The commissar's smile slightly changed in tone. "I'm afraid that won't be possible, at least for now," he said. "There is a limited number of careers available to every person. You've just abandoned your first choice. It took you two years. We expect you to give at least as much time to your second one before quitting. At least."

There was a silence, and then the commissar continued: "If it happens that you fail the test ten times in a row we may consider letting you go. If we decide to do so, what would happen to you next would be most uncertain. But trust me, failing each test has… consequences. But enough for now, you will learn about it when the time comes. There is a vehicle waiting for you in front of your dorm, they've probably picked up most of your stuff from the room. You are to go there, report to the officer and pick up the rest of your things. As for your things not in your room at the moment, you will make a list and the piloting school auxiliary service officers will collect them during the following week or two."

"I thought you said I had a complete freedom of movement!" I protested.

"That excludes the following ten days. When you get to the camp you will be given one hour to contact your family and friends and inform them of your… change of career. After that, it's lockdown. When the ten days have passed, you will get the status similar to the one a typical student has at the university. You will be allowed to move freely as long as you attend the lectures and practices."

The whole time he was talking the commissar was looking at me, and I wasn't sure if it was a look of a hunter observing its prey or of a shepherd leading its lamb to the slaughter. I didn't like it, but there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

That was the order of things.

So I went to my dorm that already had a hover parked in front. Two men were waiting for me so I went into my room, realised it's been cleaned up and went outside again. Without a word I entered the back of the van, one of the men closed the back door and off we went.

As I looked the university buildings slowly getting smaller and smaller I had the time to contemplate my idiocy. Sure, a rebellious youngster, ready to confront the system, why not? And now my old life was gone, disappearing below the horizon just like the image of the university, buried beneath the layers of solid reality.

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