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Chapter III

            Alice Harding was late. She gulped down a hurried breakfast and made a dash for the bus---just in time. As she settled down in her seat, she saw an intense glitter far, far above her. She thought that it was strange---she knew that it would take her a long time to get used to the idea of a transparent dome above her head everywhere she went. She thought that she would never get used to life on Venus; it was too strange, too new, too different, too exciting to get used to. She had been justifiably elated when the superintendent of schools of her district named her as a candidate for a teaching position on Venus. She had been comfortably situated in an apartment on Earth, she had a friendly dog and two angelfish; but when she got her eligibility papers to sign, she did so joyfully. She had heard that the children that were allowed to come to Venus were mostly the sons and daughters of the spacemen who were posted here. She also knew that only the ones that were healthy and mentally alert were allowed to come on the fabulous trip across space to a neighboring planet. She was commissioned to teach first grade in the only school in the North City; she was sure it was the place for her. Then that horrible mutation business came up, she thought, and she was transferred to a smaller school set up exclusively for the young mutants.
            It was very strange, that first day of school, she mused. She was shown to her room on the very day school opened "for business" and was surprised to see a group of adults sitting, looking at her. The men were, for the most part, unshaven; the women had no makeup and their hair hung down over their shoulders in a tangled matting. Some of them wore no shoes. They were dirty, and the room stank from some of the "pupils." She was horrified. She picked up the headphones on her desk and, not taking her eyes off her charges, asked to speak to the principal. The principal seemed shocked when she questioned him about the people in her room.
            "Why, Miss Harding, didn't you know?" asked the voice over the phones. "I thought that you were supposed to be instructed about your pupils and your studies."
            Miss Harding assured him of her teaching capacity, but she was sort of taken off balance by a group of seemingly adult pupils. The Principal kindly explained to her that the mutants were physical ones. Their bodies grew just as their powers grew. They were normal in everything except mentality---their IQs were on the par of a five- or six-year-old.
            She never got over that either, she thought, as the subway to which she transferred dove under the ground. She would ask a question and a man would stand up and answer in a deep, gruff voice that "two and two are four." In the first grade!
            The subway emerged from the earth and deposited Alice Harding in front of the iron gate that was the sole entrance and exit to and from the settlement of mutants. Looking back over the years, she knew the gate and wall to be useless. Why should they keep it up? Hundreds had climbed over that wall and other walls like it scattered over Venus, but more were brought in and her classes were always filled to capacity.
            "May I carry your books, teacher?" asked someone behind her. She twisted around, startled, and saw one of her pupils, a six-foot-three, bewhiskered boy of four standing expectantly.
            "Certainly, Charlie," she said, recovering her composure after the ludicrousness of the figure struck her. "Here they are. Thank you." She led the way, Charlie padding quietly behind her. As they walked up the hallway, Alice noticed how really hot it was in the school. It is hot enough outside with the Sun glaring down, she thought, without having the cooling system in the school on the blink most of the time. She never had had any recurrence of varicose veins. She appreciated the planet's lighter gravitational pull for that, but it certainly was hot. Then she noticed the silence that pervaded the room as she entered. There was always some conversation going back and forth among the students, but now they were listless; one girl had her head down in her arms. The quiet frayed Alice's thin nerves. The quiet before the storm, she thought.
            School began; roll was called; the clock spun around; lunch passed; it happened.
            At one second there were whispers across the aisles and shuffling of feet; at another there was deathly silence, and another noise predominated. A dull rumbling sounded, vibrating and reverberating down the halls and over the transom into the rooms, filled the minds of students and teacher alike. The room shook, shivered, and settled at one corner. An unoccupied desk toppled into the corner. Chalk rolled down the chalk-tray. Ever so slightly, you could see that one of the ceiling lamps was off-center. Rumblings grew louder; not thunder---it never penetrated the shell of plastic thrown up around the towns. A crack opened in the ceiling; plaster rained down onto their heads. Alice Harding threw her eyes upward; she fell backward, put her hand on the desk to steady herself. Tiny splinters of glass rained down on them; the glass panes in the windows were cracking to bits. One of the tiles on the floor shivered. The blackboard crashed to the floor. Dust from the moldings filled the air. The volume of noise spiraled upward. Four of the tiles on the floor shot up to the asbestos ceiling. A geyser of foaming fluid shot upward, through the roof. Droplets of acidity touched, burned the skin. Then, only then, did the students rise from their seats. From the very beginning they had sat there. Their knuckles were white from the pressure they applied to keep themselves seated. Alice could see the tiny read veins of the boy in the front seat stand out in the whites of his staring yes. His eyebrows came together agonizingly. His mouth sagged open. Saliva curled, unchecked, over his full, quivering lips. He was her favorite. She loved him, she ashamedly admitted to herself. He was five; she was twenty-eight. His crisp, brown, curly hair fell jauntily over one uplifted eyebrow. She liked to think that he liked her too---a little. As the floor trembled he rose to his feet, slowly. He was magnificent. His Adam's apple ever so slightly constricted; she could see his heart beating under his thin shirt. He was frightened; she, terrified, limp. When the geyser shot upward, the room quivered. Inadvertently, she was thrown into his arms. He was five; she was twenty-eight. The class found its feet. One of the girls was crying. She was knocked down, trampled. The lamp on the ceiling swayed a bit farther to the side. The door swung, then was pushed open. The four-year-olds ran wildly out of the room, crying, screaming. She was content. He was five. She was twenty-eight. His feet were spread wide apart to brace him, and her. She could feel his chest heaving with fear. He was five. He bent over to her face; his blue eyes were sparkling, tender. The color came back to his cheeks, his heavenly dimples, manly. She was twenty-eight. Their position was perilous. His voice was husky. Fear? Or emotion, she wondered?
            "We had better get out of here," he paused, uncertain, "Alice." He swept her up, tenderly. She could feel the ease in his bronzed arms, delightful. She leaned her head over his shoulder, wide, firm shoulders. He was five; she was twenty-eight. He playfully dug his chin into her soft, flowing hair. She prided herself on her long hair. She was glad he liked it. She lifted her head to his; their eyes met. His were laughing, playful, youthful, inviting. Hers, she knew, were glistening with expectations of things to come. He was five; she was twenty-eight. She twisted, ever so slightly; he released her. She swung to the ground. A long, lingering kiss. He was five; she was four.