Sparring Partner

by Ron Merrill

Defeat had become routine. He'd begun aggressively with a kicking combination, but Clintock had blocked it and counterattacked. Immediately he was retreating; he tried to break to the side, but Clintock cut him off, kept crowding him, till his back was against the wall and he could do nothing but try to shield his head and body simultaneously, his two hands inadequate to the task. A kick caught him in the side of the head and a moment later a solid punch thudded into his solar plexus. He couldn't breath through the pain and he collapsed, doubled up, on the floor.

"Break!" called the instructor. Gerald Millet managed to rise and fall into line with the other boys. He touched gloves with Clintock.

"Shift!" The lines stepped to the right, the boys on the end crossing over. He faced his next opponent and touched gloves.

The ordeal lasted half an hour. In that time he was pummeled by eight sparring partners. Finally the instructor dismissed them to the showers.

"Not you, Millet. Come here a minute."

He stood, still panting, as the instructor looked at him for a long time with silent contempt. "Millet, why do you keep coming to this class? Yes, I know, you have a right to attend and I have an obligation to teach you. But you're totally hopeless, and you're obviously not enjoying this. Why don't you just drop out?"

He was too tired to lie, too sick at heart to attempt to keep up appearances. "I would if I could, Sir. My father won't let me."

"Um. That often happens. Maybe I'd better speak to him."

"No! Please, don't, Sir. It wouldn't do any good."

The instructor sighed. "I know. When he finds out, you'll be for it. But he has to know sooner or later. Better now than watch you get pushed out of the Circle in five or ten seconds. Better for him, and better for you. Look, I'll give him a call this afternoon, and I'll ask him to go easy on you. The Pin isn't for everyone, and sometimes that just has to be faced. Now run along to the showers, lad, and try not to worry about it too much."


He had only one more class before the end of the school day. Somehow he got through Physics 2 without any major blunders. He was more or less calm as he waited by the school exit for his girlfriend.

Sarah Smythe was a large-boned girl with a face that would have been rather plain if not softened by the frame of her thick brown hair. They'd met in the library two years before and now, as Seniors, were "going together" — a status just short of engagement in Santiago Culture.

Today she was unusually quiet as they walked toward her home. All his conversational gambits fell flat, until he gave up and they continued in silence. Finally, as they came to her house, she spoke.

"Gerry . . . I have to tell you that my folks have been hinting that I should . . . start seeing other boys."

He felt as if he'd been hit in the stomach again. "They're saying we can't go together?"

"No, they haven't quite said so, but I think . . . I asked them why, but they wouldn't tell me."

"Is that what you want? To break up?"

"No! I don't want that. But I had to tell you. I . . . anyway, see you tomorrow." She whirled and ran up the steps.

He trudged on home. So rumors were floating already. His father could have known — would have known already, even before the instructor called him.

"Hello, Gerry," his mother greeted him. "Bad day?"

"Uh . . . not good."

"Well, cheer up. Your uncle's coming for dinner. Helen, put that back, it will be dinner time soon."

Gerald went to his room and sat down to his homework. He pushed the day's events, and the coming confrontation with his father, out of his mind. He turned to his calculus problems as to a drug.

When he came out, his father and Uncle Harry had arrived. His father nodded to him more coldly than usual, and even Uncle Harry seemed reserved. Conversation at the dinner table concerned mainly his sisters' activities. After dessert, his father cleared his throat. "Gerald, I had a call from your school today."

The girls fell silent and his mother said respectfully, "May we be excused? Helen, Brenda, come with me." She and her daughters went out and the door closed behind them.

"Well?" said his father with an icy calm.

Gerald took a deep breath. "I guess there's nothing much to say, Father. I just don't seem to have any aptitude for combatives."

"When the whole course of your life is at stake, you do not depend on 'aptitude.' You understand what is necessary and you will that it shall be so! Now you listen to me, young man. Every male in this family has worn the Pin since Santiago Culture was founded. The family name is not going to die out just because you haven't got the 'aptitude' to pass your Test. You're going to pass if I have to—"

"If I may ask a question," put in Uncle Harry with a well-timed interruption, "just how serious is the situation?"

Gerald's father glared at him. "I'm told that he has been making no progress at all in class and hasn't a chance of passing. His instructor recommended that he withdraw. And he'll be eighteen in less than three months."

"How about the other criteria?"

"He qualified without any problem on general health and genetics. His intelligence — well, he's not a genius, but he made the top half without any difficulty. But all that means nothing if he doesn't pass his Test."

"I see. Perhaps a different instructor—"

"The one at the school is perfectly competent. The problem is in the total inadequacy and lack of will of this — oh, nuke it! Look at the tears dribbling down his face. Let me out of here before I really lose my temper. You try to talk some sense into him. Anything I can do, I will do. I've tried, Harry, honestly, I've tried." He slammed the door behind him.

Uncle Harry leaned back, not looking at Gerald, and said as if to himself, "I warned Peggy about that man's temper, but she would have him. And I must admit she seems devoted to him. Anyway . . ."

He turned to Gerald. "Well, my lad, what do you propose to do? Are you going to withdraw?"

"What good would that do?" asked Gerald bitterly. "I'd never be able to look Father in the face again. No. There's only one thing to do. I'll emigrate."

"Indeed. Where to?"

"I don't know. But I can't live here. You've travelled all over the C.F.C., Uncle Harry. Will you advise me?"

"I'll advise you not to emigrate. You're too old to adapt yourself to another Culture and its customs. And it won't solve your problem."

"There are plenty of Cultures that don't Test."

"Sure there are. But every Culture has customs that limit population, in one way or another. Nobody's going to just let you move in and breed as you like."

"Well, I won't have children then."

Uncle Harry raised an eyebrow. "Really? How will that go over with this girl of yours — Sarah, isn't it? And by the way, have you asked her if she's willing to emigrate with you?"

"Well . . . I think she would. What if we went to Constitucion?"

Uncle Harry shook his head. "If Sarah would go there with you — and I don't think she would, from Peggy's description — she'd have to be adopted into a local family. Not easy. And then you'd have to come up with the bride-price. And have you got any idea of how competitive business is in that Culture? They play for blood there. A boy with only a high-school education and no family to give him a boost — you'd be lucky to get any job at all.

You'd be an old man before you could afford to get married."

"There must be someplace," Gerry said stubbornly. "There are over a thousand Cultures in the C.F.C., and I can move to any one I choose, by right."

"That's true. But every one of our Cultures has customs to ensure that the next generation is born of the most assertive and self-confident members of this one. Some do it one way, some do it another; but wherever you go, you can't get away from it. If you can't make the grade here in your own home Culture, I don't imagine you'll make it anywhere else."

"It just isn't fair! Why does it have to be that way?"

Uncle Harry sighed. "You're talking like a child. I know they taught you history in school. Do you remember how the Confederacy of Free Cultures was founded? How the Unification Wars were ended?"

"Of course."

"But it's just words in a book to you, isn't it? Gerry, did it never occur to you that the Five were real people, just like you and me? Did you ever try to imagine what it was like, sitting on a doomsday machine for eight days, taking turns on the dead-man switch? Haven't you ever wondered how you would have handled it if you'd been in their position?"

"That was 200 years ago. And I don't aspire to be a hero."

"The World Government hasn't gone away. They're still waiting there, on the other side of the Line, just a hundred kilometers away. And they'd nuke us to cinders tomorrow if they thought we'd softened."

"So you teach your children that might makes right."

"Not at all. That's the philosophy we fought against to create the C.F.C. But we do try to teach you that if you haven't got the might, you can whistle for your rights. That's the lesson of history, and we'll remain free only as long as we can pass it on to succeeding generations."

"Well, what am I supposed to do, anyway? I tell you, I've tried, I've honestly tried—"

"Now you sound just like your father. Now listen. I'm going to arrange for you to have private lessons with a chap I know. He's pretty good, and I think he can do something with you even with just a couple of months. His name is Lawrence Engstrom."


Engstrom was a tall, very thin man with graying hair. He looked Gerry over coldly.

"We have just 72 days until your birthday. That means we cannot afford to waste any time. I have arranged for you to come here every day instead of to your regular combatives class. Fortunately we are close to the school, but still you will have to run to make it here in time, and run to get back to school. That will be good for your conditioning. You will also show up here every evening at 1800 hours, and you will be here from 1300 to 1500 on weekends. Have you got that schedule clear?"

"My homework—"

"You will of course continue to do your full load of homework, and if it makes inroads into your leisure time that is unfortunate. Any questions?"

"Uh, Sir. Are you going to teach me some special techniques?"

Engstrom smiled. Suddenly his foot came up in a kick, so fast that it seemed to flicker. It hit the loose fold of Gerry's uniform and slapped it back against his bare chest; the impact of the cloth stung like being snapped with a wet towel.

"I could teach you to kick like that — in a couple of years. Fortunately, I don't have to. Technique, Gerry, is merely a means to an end, not an end in itself. What you are going to learn is centeredness. Don't worry, you'll find out what I mean later. OK, we already know you're hopeless at sparring, so we won't waste time on that right now. What about breaking?"


"Come here." Engstrom slid a pine board into the frame. "Break it. Use a reverse punch."

Gerry assumed his stance in front of the frame, took a deep breath, hesitated, took another breath, and forced himself to punch. A moment later he was grasping his bloody knuckles and trying not to groan.

Engstrom looked at the intact board impassively, then said, "All right. Let's try patterns. You're working on Pascal Number Five, I assume?"

"Yes, Sir, but we hardly ever practice patterns. Mostly we spar for the whole session."

"I know. All right, do you remember Pascal Number Four? Good. Let's see it. Start at the cross on the floor."

A bit to his surprise, Gerry got through the pattern without missing any movements. Engstrom said, "Look at your feet."

He was half a meter forward and to the right of the cross on the floor where he'd started.

"All right. Let's get to work. Again. And this time watch your balance on the third turn. Take it a bit slower."

They spent the entire session working on the one pattern, and the next day, and the next. Engstrom would not be satisfied until he could come back exactly to the mark where he'd begun.

"No. Don't look at the floor; don't think about the floor. Think about your self. Make every movement right, and you'll know where you are."

Even when he finally could return to within an inch of his starting point, Engstrom was not satisfied.

"You're adjusting your movements, making up on one the distance you were off on another. That's not the idea. Make each movement right, then you'll come back automatically. We'll try it a different way."

He made Gerry practice wearing a blindfold. "Come on. Take your time and do each movement right. No, you're way off. Again."

He practiced day after day until the feeling of isolation in the blackness, aware of nothing but his own body and its movements, became familiar to him. Step to the left, sitting stance, diagonal block, punch twice . . . the rhythm was automatic now, kicks and blocks and punches and steps . . . side kick, turn, front stance, reverse punch — he heard a clatter, became aware his fist had brushed through something. He froze.

"All right, Gerry. Take your blindfold off."

The breaking frame stood in front of him. Engstrom had silently moved it into the path of his pattern. It held the fragments of two boards.

He looked at the broken wood, then at his knuckles. He could see no mark.

"Believe it, Gerry," said Engstrom. "You just broke two boards."

"But I hardly felt it! And before—"

"Before, you hurt yourself trying to break one board. But this time, you were centered. You weren't thinking about the board and how tough it was. You weren't thinking about me and whether I'd be contemptuous if you failed, or impressed if you succeeded. This time, you were only thinking about your self and your punch. And that released your strength. Do you understand?"

"I don't know, Sir."

"Well, think about it. Run on home now. Tomorrow we'll start some sparring."


With his newly tightened schedule he had little time to spend with Sarah. She had become increasingly tense and uncommunicative; he was afraid to ask why, and of course he could say nothing to her about his problem. One day she didn't show up at school. With a start he realized that he had forgotten it was her birthday.

The next day she was waiting for him as usual. His eyes immediately were drawn to the circular blue pin on the collar of her blouse.

"Hello, Sar — Freelady Sarah. Uh, congratulations."

"Thank you, Gerry," she said quietly. Her face was gaunt, her eyes red-rimmed. He noticed that her hand was trembling slightly.

Like any other male, he wondered what the Women's Test was. It certainly wasn't easy. He knew for sure of three girls who had disappeared permanently on their eighteenth birthdays. Had they died during the Test? Committed suicide out of shame when they failed? Secretly emigrated? The younger and less disciplined boys sometimes whispered speculations among themselves. He couldn't, of course, ask her, or even mention it. Formally, he was not even to be aware that there was such a thing as the Women's Test. They walked in silence through the crisp autumn afternoon.

"I haven't seen you much lately, Gerry," she said after a while. "Your birthday comes soon, doesn't it?"

"Just over a month now," he said.

She started to speak, stopped herself. She could not ask; he could not tell her. The taboo worked both ways.

"I'm sorry I've been so busy," he said at length. "After my birthday maybe we can spend more time together."

"Maybe," she said tonelessly.

He couldn't keep silent. "We are still going together, aren't we? Or have your parents—"

"They haven't insisted. But we'll have to discuss what we're going to do — next month."

"I see."


In his classes with Engstrom he still continued working on patterns, but now they did some sparring also. Unsurprisingly, he was unable even to touch the older man.

"This is hopeless," he said between gasps, climbing up wearily from the floor. "You might as well have me doing this blindfold too."

"I would if I could," said Engstrom. "But I can't. You have to learn to see me without caring about me. You must accept pain and exhaustion without hating your opponent. Don't fear him, don't hate him; he's just like a board to be broken. You have to learn to be centered in yourself without the blindfold."

"Don't hate him?"

"When you hate your opponent, it weakens you, because you're thinking about him, and not about yourself. OK, you've caught your breath, no more stalling. Come on."


Entering his home he saw Uncle Harry in the living room. "Hello," said Gerry. "You're early today."

"So I am. Brenda, why don't you give your mother a hand?" The girl obediently jumped off his knee and ran out of the room. "Sit down, Gerry. You can do your homework later, can't you?"

"Sure." He had no objection at all; it would give him an excuse for keeping out of his father's way all evening.

"So. How is it going?"

"Better, I guess. But I don't know if it will do any good."

"It had better do some good."

"I'm sorry. I really do appreciate that you're concerned, coming here almost every night like this."

"I'm not actually doing it for you, Gerry. I'm doing it for your father."


"I know you and he haven't been getting along well, especially since this problem came up. But try to put yourself in his shoes for a minute. He cares about you, lad, in a way that you don't understand, and won't till you have a child of your own. His mind is full of this problem, and he can't do anything. Only you can do something; he's helpless. And what's worse, who can he even talk to? How long has it been since he spent an evening at the Club?"

Gerald thought back. "Weeks . . . a couple of months, maybe."

"And why? Because of your troubles. Word gets around, you know. He can't stand to go to the Club and be pitied by his friends. Then he comes home and he still can't talk about what's in his heart. Anything else, Peggy would be his comfort; but of course he can't say a word to her. So I come here as often as I can."

"Gee," said Gerry wryly, "don't I feel guilty enough?"

"Too guilty, I'd say. I know you're doing your best; and, believe it or not, so does your father, even if he can't bring himself to say it. No, I don't ask for guilt. But give him your sympathy. He's not as cold as you think he is."

"I didn't know you cared about him that much."

"Well, I can't say I really like the guy. But he's Peggy's choice, and he's been a good husband to her."

"Just not such a good father."

"Try it yourself, lad, before you criticize others. And first, you have to earn the privilege."


The Circle was a platform ten meters in diameter, raised a little off the ground. The referee, a very old man, beckoned to the two boys at opposite sides. Gerry stepped onto the ring with his opponent.

"This is the fourth Test of the day June 15, 2217. Mark Lanyon, eighteen years and four days, 55.4 kilograms. Gerald Castillo, eighteen years and one day, 56.1 kilograms. I have inspected these boys and their equipment and found all in order. Is there any question or objection?"

The small audience of men sitting around the room remained silent. Gerry, looking out from the brightly lit ring, could just make out the faces of his father, Uncle Harry, and Engstrom.

"I will go over the rules. The criterion of the Test is to stay in the Circle. As soon as one of you is entirely out of the Circle, not touching it with any part of your body, the Test is over. If either of you loses consciousness or is seriously injured, the Test is over. If any of your equipment comes loose or falls off, the Test is over. My decision on these matters is final and cannot be appealed. Is that clear?"

"Yes, Sir," the boys replied.

"Very well. Take positions at opposite sides of the Circle."

Gerry stared into the grim face of the boy across from him. He wished he'd been allowed to watch the previous Tests; he would have known better what to expect. He reminded himself that the other boy must be as nervous and uncertain as he was.


He jumped for the center of the platform. Stay away from the edge, that was obvious. The other boy lunged to meet him, throwing a feint, then a roundhouse kick. Gerry blocked it, though the impact shook him, and counterattacked. For a moment they traded blows. Then, as they both tried to kick at once, their legs met shin-to-shin. The pain was like an electric shock and he staggered back. The other boy also stood gasping for a moment, then rallied and moved into the attack again.

Gerry fended him off with a side kick that connected only weakly but brought his opponent's hands down and some instinct made him follow up with a roundhouse kick with perfect timing. The other boy reeled under the impact. Cursing the pads on his hands and feet — that kick would have broken the boy's jaw if he'd delivered it barefooted, and the fight would have been over — Gerry moved in.

But he was too close now and somehow his opponent had recovered and was throwing punches shrewdly. Blows landed on his ribs, then on his face, and pain shot up through his nose. He backpedalled, trying to open the range so he could kick. But the other boy kept close, and suddenly he felt the edge of the platform under his heel.

Frantically he dropped and rolled, trying to trip up his opponent. That failed, but at least he was crawling toward the center. The other boy kicked him viciously again and again. Each impact drove the breath out of his ribs. He could see nothing but the mat in front of his face, with the blood from his nose dripping onto it. Some part of his brain wondered at the silent audience; there were no cheers or shouts of encouragement, and all he could hear was his breathing and the other boy's. Another part asked, "Why doesn't he kick me in the head instead of the ribs? That would finish it." He thought, as if he were a spectator himself, that he was wandering, he would soon lose consciousness.

Heavily he fell on his side. The other boy's foot swished past in an all-out effort which, with the target missed, caused him to lose his balance. Gerry heard the thud and somehow forced himself to use the reprieve to roll and stagger upright. He was close to the edge of the platform again, he knew he had to move forward, but the other boy was climbing to his feet and coming at him again.

He could no longer think, he could only block and punch and kick through instinct and training. He was aware of nothing but the blows coming at him and the flickering face of his opponent and the endless pain. All thought of strategy was gone, but he knew that he was still in the Circle, and that if he didn't move he would stay in the Circle. He imagined a cross on the floor under his feet. He had to stay on that cross.

But suddenly his opponent was too far away, he couldn't reach him, so he stepped forward and kicked again. He almost connected, but somehow he was still out of range so he took another step. This time the kick landed, with an impact that almost made him lose his balance, but he caught himself and limped forward and his opponent was backing up so he advanced further. And suddenly he was standing on the edge of the Circle and the other boy was kneeling on the ground outside, his face buried in his gloved hands.

The meaning eluded him, and he could only think stupidly that he couldn't leave the Circle, he had to keep fighting but he couldn't leave the Circle, what was he supposed to do? The referee was saying something, but he couldn't understand it. A hand was on his shoulder and he started to jerk away, but it was drawing him toward the center of the platform, and that was OK, he must stay in the Circle. The referee was speaking again, but it still made no impression on his brain, though his mind was coming back now.

The referee fell silent, looking at him; he groped for words and finally stammered out, "Thank you, Sir," hoping it was appropriate. The thought came to him that he'd just experienced the most important moment of his life, and not even been aware of it; he felt like giggling, but of course he couldn't do that. There at the edge of the ring were his father and Uncle Harry and Engstrom, and he limped over to them. To one side there was another small knot of men bent over his sobbing opponent; he looked away.

He let them lead him to the locker room and remove his pads and help him clean up. Then he tried to get dressed. He could not button his shirt; his hands were trembling too violently. His father pushed his hands away. "I'll do it."

They returned to the Circle, empty now except for the four of them and the referee. The referee took an envelope from his pocket. "Who will do the honors?" he asked.

Gerry's father took the envelope and handed it to Engstrom. "Please," he said. "And with my fervent thanks."

Engstrom shook the small blue rectangle from the envelope and pinned it to Gerry's collar. "Well done."

Gerry's father grasped him by the shoulders, then pulled him into an embrace. "Forgive me, Gerry," he choked. "I didn't believe you could do it."

"Oh, Father."

They walked down the street together to the Club. The night was cold and clear. Gerry looked up at the stars over the snow- capped Andes and felt the astringent chill of the wind on his bruised face. Tomorrow he would see Sarah.

As they started up the steps to the Club, Engstrom stopped. He shook Gerry's hand and said, "I'll be heading home now."

"Aren't you going to join us?" asked Gerry.

Engstrom shook his head. "I'm not a member."

Gerry gasped and stared at Engstrom's collar. "But it's impossible! How could you—"

"Very simple, Gerry. When it was my time, I was afraid. Skill is not the same as courage, you see."

"But you — After the way you helped me — It's not fair!"

"On the contrary, it's perfectly fair." He smiled. "Gerry, today you formally became a man. Don't you think it's time you grew up?" He turned and walked off into the night. Freeman Gerald Castillo slowly ascended the steps to celebrate his triumph.