In honour of Faith Hannah Nuttall, my new niece, I post a snippet of the latest stand-alone set in the universe of The Empire’s Corps. As always, comments and thoughts welcome.
It may seem absurd or unnecessary to point out that the core purpose of education is education, teaching children what they need to know. Indeed, there are people who would argue with that definition, or point out that education rarely ends when a child becomes an adult. But it is largely true.
– Professor Leo Caesius. Education and the Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire.
“Settle down,” Miss Simpson said. “Please, settle down.”
Darrin Pearson rolled his eyes as he moved towards his seat, neither fast enough to mark him as one of the nerds who actually liked learning nor slow enough to pose as one of the thugs who preferred being rough and violent to actually being in school. Coming to think of it, he was definitely closer to the latter than the former, but he actually enjoyed playing sports and the schoolyard was the only place they were allowed to play without being harassed by the Civil Guard.
He took his seat and pretended to study the blank screen. Miss Simpson was younger than the last teacher Form 11B had had, a man who had left three months after he had arrived. Rumour had it that he’d been caught in the closet with a schoolgirl, but Darrin suspected that he’d actually been defeated by the teenage boys and girls he’d been supposed to teach. Few teachers actually lasted longer than a year, if they were lucky. He’d seen pranks where teachers and students had been badly injured, even killed.
Miss Simpson was young, too young. With her long brown hair, tight top and pale face she looked barely older than the kids she was meant to teach, which made it impossible for her to maintain discipline. Not that age or even physical bulk mattered, Darrin knew; a teacher who laid a hand on a student, or even raised his or her voice too high, would be off to the nearest penal world as soon as an official complaint could be filed. It hadn’t taken him – or most of the other children – long to realise that there was little the teachers could actually do to them. The only children they could threaten with meaningful consequences were the ones least likely to cause trouble.
He caught Judy’s eye as she sat at the next desk and winked at her. She smiled back at him, rather nervously. The last time they’d gone to a party together, they’d wound up having sex in a private room … and, since then, they’d barely talked. Darrin had merely noted her as another conquest and suspected that she felt the same way too. It wasn’t as if there was room for real love in his life, no matter how the girls might swoon at bad romantic flicks. No one in the Cityblocks had time for real romance.
“Please, sit down,” Miss Simpson pleaded. “The test will begin shortly.”
Darrin snorted to himself. There were one hundred and fifty children in the classroom – few of them were allowed to skive off, not when their parents were paid by the government for sending their children to school – and there was no way that even the most effective teacher could pay attention to all of them. He glanced around and saw a dozen conversations taking place, even when the teacher stared at them desperately.
Judy leaned across to whisper to him. Darrin stared in admiration as he saw her breasts pressed against her tight shirt. She hadn’t bothered with a bra, he saw, and the memory of touching those breasts in a loveless night of passion sent heat surging through his groin. He could reach out and touch them, he knew …
“This test,” Judy hissed. “Do you think it is actually important?”
Darrin shrugged. They were tested every three days, as far as he could tell; the tests ranged from important to completely pointless. If the test was important, the teachers would have worked over the previous two days to teach them how to pass the test; Miss Simpson hadn’t, so logically the test was unimportant. It was just another wasted day in a whole series of wasted days. He couldn’t wait for his next birthday.
One more year and I will be out of here, he thought. The nerds and geeks might stay in the system until they were twenty-one, but Darrin had no intention of remaining in school one second longer than he had to. At seventeen, he could leave school and have all that time to himself. One more year …
“I don’t think so,” he said, out loud. Behind him, a sudden fracas broke out between two boys, neither of which seemed to care about Miss Simpson’s tearful pleas. “They didn’t tell us much about it in advance.”
Judy let out a sigh of relief. “Glad to hear it,” she said. “I don’t want to be grounded again.”
Darrin smiled as she sat back and stretched, a movement that automatically drew his attention to her breasts. Judy’s parents were odd; they believed that their daughter should actually try her hardest in school and grounded her if she didn’t perform to their standards. In her place, Darrin would have filed a motion for emancipation from his parents; he didn’t need that sort of pressure in his life, not when he was trying to drift through life with as little effort as possible. But Judy seemed to actually like her parents. Darrin couldn’t have said that about his stepfather. The bastard had made it clear that he would be kicked out of the family apartment when he turned seventeen.
He briefly considered asking her out again, but he’d already had her one way and he didn’t want her as a girlfriend. It wasn’t something people did, not at his age. The folk in the Cityblock might not care about casual sex, but they would talk if they formed a proper relationship. Not that they wouldn’t talk anyway – if there was one lesson Darrin had learned, it was that everyone lied about sex – yet it would bother him. Having a girlfriend was the first step towards having a wife … and the dreary mundane life endured by the older residents of the CityBlock.
“The test will now begin,” Miss Simpson said. “This test is crucial to your future, so please answer each question carefully. Very carefully.”
Darrin smiled to himself as the screen in front of him lit up, showing the name of the school – Rowdy Yates Centre of Educational Excellence Forty-Two – and the logo of the company that had designed the test. He’d heard that schoolchildren stalked the halls of the Cityblocks looking for the test companies, intending to vandalise their premises, but none had actually found them. Rumour suggested that the teachers themselves actually came up with the tests, a rumour Darrin personally doubted. Very few teachers he’d met actually wanted to make their lives harder.
“There will be an important announcement at the end of the class,” Miss Simpson said, desperately. “Please, take your seats and prepare for the test.”
The class settled down, just long enough for the first question to appear on the screen. Miss Simpson flinched at the groan that ran through the room, then sat down at her desk. Darrin smirked to himself at her defeated expression, then looked at the question. It looked impossibly difficult, as always.
Person A gets into his aircar and travels at a speed of 30mph. Person B gets into his aircar and travels at a speed of 60mph. They pass each other after 10 minutes. How far apart were they when they started?
Darrin gritted his teeth. Below the question itself, there were a set of possible answers. He skimmed them quickly, then took a guess, stabbing his finger at the first solution. The screen changed, revealing the second question, which demanded to know why the solution was the correct one. Darrin rubbed his forehead as he examined the handful of possible answers, feeling his head starting to pound. Why did they expect him to answer such questions?
Desperately, he picked another answer at random and then moved on to the third question.
Gary Seaman felt sweat trickling down his back as he kept his eyes on the screen, carefully not glancing either left or right. To the right, there was Moe; to the left, there was Barry … both of them obnoxious bastards who delighted in tormenting the weak and powerless. Gary knew himself to be smarter than both of the assholes put together, but somehow that wasn’t enough to keep them from picking on him. And he already knew from bitter experience that complaining about it to the teachers didn’t help. Barry and Moe were so strong and fearsome that even the teachers were scared of them.
The coldly logical part of his mind suggested that the teachers were right to be scared. He knew that teachers had been injured or killed by their pupils before. And yet it still gnawed at him that they would permit some of their charges to harm or even kill their other charges.
One more year, he told himself, as the first question appeared on the screen. He’d worked hard to build up his grades, working towards the moment when he could get into Imperial University and leave the CityBlock far behind. One more year and I can get out of this death trap.
His family had been CityBlock residents for centuries, according to his father. They’d moved in somewhere in the dim mists of prehistory, then stayed there … but Gary intended to be the first to leave. He had the brains, he had the grades; all he had to do was stay alive long enough to make his escape. Besides, it wasn’t as if there was anything tying him to the block that might induce him to stay. He had no friends, not when anyone who talked to him might be picked on by the bastards. And he certainly had no girlfriend. He was a virgin and, in a class where almost everyone had lost their virginity already, it rankled.
He looked down at the question. It was surprisingly simple for their age, which confirmed his suspicion that the test wasn’t actually important. God alone knew what the tests were actually intended to measure, but the students were barely allowed any time for self-improvement.
Person A travels three miles in ten minutes, he thought. It was logical; Person A would travel thirty miles in one hour, so he would travel …
No, that was wrong. Person A would travel five miles in ten minutes; Person B would travel ten miles in the same space of time. Logically, therefore, they were fifteen miles apart. But that assumed that they were travelling directly towards one another, or that there was nothing in the way. He knew better than to assume that the simple answer, no matter how logical, was the correct one. There were times when he’d seen the marking sheets give the wrong answer to questions, as if no one bothered to check them before they were sent to the schools.
He reread the question, looking for hidden surprises, then skimmed through the list of possible answers. There was one marked fifteen. He pushed down on it and jumped to the next question, which demanded to know why that was the correct answer. Again, there were five possible answers, so he picked the one closest to his line of thought and then moved on to the next question. It was something completely different, nothing to do with maths at all.
Snorting inwardly, he answered the question as best as he could. It was important, desperately so, for him to keep his grades up. The person who graduated with the highest ranking would win a scholarship to Imperial University, he knew, and that person had to be him. His family wouldn’t make any investment in his future, certainly when they didn’t think he had a future. But then … he looked over at Barry and shuddered. The over-muscled buffoon – the nasty part of Gary’s mind wondered if his ugly appearance was due to incest – was perfectly suited to live in the Undercity. Gary had other ambitions.
Barry looked up and leered at him. Gary shuddered at the expression, knowing that he would have to run when class ended or face yet another beating. At first, they’d demanded money, but after Gary’s father had stopped giving him pocket money they’d just settled for beating him up at every opportunity. And there was nowhere he could be safe, after all. They were forbidden to leave the schoolyard during the day – the electronic wristband he wore would alert the teachers if he left – and there was nowhere he could hide.
Just one more year, he told himself. And then I can be gone.
Kailee Singh didn’t bother to try to answer any of the questions on the screen. She could barely read, let alone write; for her, sounding out a single question would take more time than she had to complete the entire test. Instead, she studied her appearance in the screen and smiled to herself. She looked perfect. Long black hair framed a pert face and fell down to her shirt, which exposed just enough cleavage to make the boys stare. Good enough, she told herself, to pass through the early auditions to become an actress. Good enough, she prayed, to get her out of the CityBlock once and for all.
She knew that staying in the Cityblocks was effectively a death sentence. If she were lucky, she might marry and start pumping out children, just like many of her peers. God knew that a third of the girls in the class had had kids of their own – and that there were girls in the CityBlock who were grandmothers at thirty. And if she wasn’t lucky, she would wind up raped and murdered, her corpse abandoned in a dumpster and left to rot. Or married to someone who beat her on a regular basis. Her father wasn’t a bad guy, as fathers went, but she knew that he had hit her stepmother more than once. She didn’t want to wind up in the same boat.
Miss Simpson might have been admirable, under other circumstances. But Kailee could see the predatory glances from some of the boys and knew just what they were thinking. A young teacher – a young sexy teacher – who knew just how far they could go? And, if the poor bitch dared to complain, Kailee knew that her attackers could simply claim that she led them on. A teacher was always presumed guilty, particularly when challenged by her students.
Kailee allowed herself to slip into a daydream of life as an actress. She knew it would be hard, but it would also be something worthwhile. The very best actresses earned millions of credits in a year; by the time she retired, she would have enough money to ensure that she never had to go back to the CityBlock. A home in an upmarket part of Earth, maybe even one of the luxury orbital apartments she’d seen so often on the entertainment flicks … who knew how far she could go?
“Wake up,” Dawn muttered to her. “The test’s over.”
Kailee made a face, but sat upright. Dawn was the closest thing she had to a friend, although she kept trying to convince Kailee to come out with her and Judy. Kailee, who had no intention of allowing anything to damage her looks, generally refused to go anywhere unless it was in a large group. But she didn’t really trust her friend’s boyfriend and his friends either …
“There is a competition coming up,” Miss Simpson said. “It has been decided that a handful of students from Earth will be sent to a colony world to see how the colonials live their lives. You are all invited to submit an essay of five hundred words explaining why you would like to go to the colony world; the best-written pieces of work will be rewarded with a free trip.”
There was a brief buzz of excitement as the news sank in. Kailee rolled her eyes at Miss Simpson’s expression. For the first time in her life, she had the undivided attention of almost the entire class. But Kailee found it hard to care. Everyone knew that the colonies were poor worlds, populated by criminals and those who couldn’t get a job on Earth; she certainly had no intention of submitting an essay. And besides, given that there were over ten thousand pupils in the school, who was going to read them all?
“Class dismissed,” Miss Simpson said. “I …”
Her next words were drowned out as half of the class fled. Kailee saw Gary running for his life, with his two tormentors walking after him in a calculated manner they’d learned from countless bad entertainment flicks. Gary wasn’t bad-looking, she knew – his short brown hair gave him a kind look – and he was nicer than most of the boys in the class, but he couldn’t have hoped to protect her. Pity, really.
But given the way he stared when she was near him, perhaps it was for the best.
The girls waited until they were all ready, then left the room and towards the canteen as a body. Kailee glanced back, just in time to see Miss Simpson slump into the chair and cover her eyes with her hands. She felt a moment of sympathy, which was washed away in a flood of cynicism. Miss Simpson would have been through the same school system as Kailee and the others, hadn’t she? What had she been thinking when she’d applied to become a teacher?
Maybe she thought it could be better if she was in charge, Kailee thought. And she was wrong.
She scowled, bitterly. As always, she felt hopelessly vulnerable while at school …
Because she knew that, whoever was in charge, it wasn’t the teachers.