by Eric Jackson
You're not supposed to ask where your Teacher comes from. Or where they live. You shouldn't ask who they are either, and to be honest, I wouldn't have dared ask such things -- if mine didn't ask me first.
'Shock' doesn't really describe it. I thought I read it wrong -- or perhaps the computer was just being stupid. My eyes passed over the words on the monitor at least a dozen times:
January 16th 2097 -- DL Math, Algebra III
Teacher 417: Jessica, can you help me? Please?
Okay, so it didn't ask me about my name; that was already established when I enrolled in Distance Learning as everyone's supposed to. It did happen once before: a Teacher spoke about something off-topic to a student -- so it wasn't completely unexpected -- but the fact that it was happening to me...
There was a whole 'big-to-do' during the first instance and everyone, parents and students, were visited by the representatives of Distance Learning and instructed to contact an advisor immediately should this happen again.
I didn't do that. I replied:
Student 687: What do you need help with?
The response came back wicked fast.
Teacher 417: Getting out of here.
It was unreal and ridiculous. But how could I resist going deeper into this? We're never supposed to ask anyone about the Teachers. Not our friends, not our parents, and certainly not the advisors. They could've been living on Neptune for all that mattered. They could've been aliens, or tooth fairies. It was so easy to forget that they were real people.
I typed back:
Student 687: Get out of where?
A massive stream of numbers and letters painted the screen. Even stranger, the computer mysteriously shut down a few seconds after the data surge. I rebooted the terminal, the machine beeped and hummed back to life. Fortunately (or was it?) the lesson log wasn't lost. I inserted a memory card into the machine and quickly saved it all to chip.
Two weeks had gone by since and it I had all but forgotten the incident. The card with the information dug its way under a mass of papers on my desk. At one point I found the whole thing so unusual that I thought it was just some crazy dream. I tried to put it out of mind -- but there was the card with the saved session, hiding, like a truth I didn't want to admit.
It was yet another Thursday when it happened for the second time. Teacher ID 417 signed on to be my math instructor for the morning. Shortly into the algebra lesson, the Teacher brought it up again. A part of me didn't want to hear it. The first time it happened it had been unusual, but now he, or she, was starting to scare me.
Teacher 417: Did you do it?
Student 687: I don't know what you're talking about.
Teacher 417: I need to get out of here.
Student 687: Where's 'here'?
Again the screen was filled with a torrent of numbers and letters but this time I didn't save it to card -- I deleted it and logged into another lesson, grateful that Teacher 417 wasn't the instructor.
There have been times in my life I wished I never did it -- but then so much would be different. But one night I decided, finally, to look at the strange mass of numbers and letters I had saved from that day with Teacher 417. I spent nearly two hours staring at the endless bulk of data before I realized what the entire thing was: a giant algebraic equation.
I had wondered for almost two years why my math lessons were different. Of course I didn't know exactly what my friends lessons were about -- I wasn't about to get in trouble for sharing that information -- but we did talk about our subjects. Oddly, it always seemed like I knew more than my friends when it came to math. As I worked through the problem I finally understood: it felt as if all my lessons with Teacher 417 had been leading up to this very moment. The final answer was a set of two different numbers. I stared across my room, trying to guess what it could mean, until my eyes came across the massive world map on my wall. Could it be?
I scribbled the numbers down on a slip of paper and ran over to the map. I traced my finger across the map till I came to the longitude number and followed it down till I reached the latitude...
I recalled what I learned of Septor in my history classes. It had been one of the larger cities of the country -- until the oceans rose, turning it into an island. It was now a nature preserve...at least that's what we were always told.
The next morning, while I was brushing my teeth and making my usual strange faces in the mirror, I glanced out the bathroom window to see a row of black cars parked outside. Several men dressed in suits that matched the cars got out and approached my house. Mother fucker. I spat the toothpaste out, rinsed my mouth and ran into my room.
"It's going to be okay" I told myself over and over again, "They wouldn't arrest a 14 year old girl, would they? It wasn't even my fault!"
"Jessica? Who are you talking to?" Dad said from the other room.
I then realized I was talking aloud -- I really need to stop doing that. "Nothing, Dad!" I shouted.
The doorbell rang.
Then a knocking.
Then the phone rang.
God damn it!
I heard Mom open the door, though I have no clue what happened next as within the blink of an eye, I was out the window and climbing down a tree. The card containing the code and the lesson log nestled in the pocket of my favorite jeans -- which were getting torn up on the bark as I slid down the trunk. As soon as I was steady on my feet, I took off down an alleyway and toward the street.
"I am officially a teenager," I told myself. I had all my favorite band and movie posters on the walls of my room, had several pairs of the same jeans -- pre-made with holes -- even had an old Metallica t-shirt that I ordered from America, which I really wished I was wearing at the time. I had even made myself throw up once to try and skip school. Of course Dad had known I was faking.
And now I was running away -- officially a teen, and I didn't even have to hang out at Betty's house and cut myself while reading poetry!
The central plaza was nearly empty. It was near midday already and everyone was inside working; no reason to be wandering about the city. I had been running for nearly thirty minutes. Then it sank in. What the hell was I doing?
I started to cry, I wanted to go home. I wondered if the men in black suits were still there, talking to Mom and Dad. What were they saying? Perhaps I shouldn't have run away. It was stupid. I should have just told them everything. But Teacher 417 must've known the consequences. He trusted me...and perhaps it was this trust that made me realize I had to go to Septor Island. There must have been something there he wanted me to see.
Septor Island was about two miles from home. There were only three ways to get there: One was to swim -- no thank you! The second was to cross the bridge that was strictly patrolled, and the third was to follow an old and enfeebled railway line with its own bridge. With little choice, I followed the remnants of the ancient train tracks that ran throughout the city.
Walking for a whole hour, I was sick of seeing the rusted parallel lines. I finally crossed the rail bridge that connected to the island. I traveled down an old and crumbling stairway until I stood on the recreated grass of Septor Island. There were bus trips to see Septor Island, so people could see what the world used to look like but I had the feeling that I was in an area not meant for such things. The island felt empty; the grass even looked fake, as did the trees. I walked through the reconstructed forest without the sense of stepping back in time as I had anticipated. In the maze of faux greenery something red caught my eye: just a little bit further was a large structure and as I got closer a large brick building revealed itself. Was this what Teacher 417 wanted me to see?
It took me forever to find an entrance. The only door that I could find was locked -- duh ?? and so I searched everywhere else to find a way in. Finally, after walking around the building a few times, I caught sight of a chute just above my head. I jumped up, grabbed the lip and struggled to pull myself in. I could just fit inside, the metal clanged and warped under my weight. I started to realize this might have been a bad idea when I noticed a slope to the damn thing. As I tried to back out my hands slipped forward as I smacked my chin on the metal. My teeth chomped down on my tongue and the taste of blood filled my mouth. Through the pain I didn't even realize I was falling down towards darkness.
Sliding out of the chute onto a smooth floor, a hard wall was kind enough to stop me. I spit out a bit of blood and struggled to my feet. A dim set of parallel lights ran above my head for what seemed like forever. As my eyes adjusted to the low light, I could see that I was standing in a long hallway.
I walked down the hall until I arrived at a circular shaped intersection. To the left and right were yet more halls, but this time there were doors lining the walls. I took the left, for no particular reason, and approached one of the doors.
It was a tattered shade of clashing paint that had been chipped, worn down, and repainted countless times. There was a circular shape on the left side of the door which was covered by a smooth plate of metal that glowed with a soft red light. Another, square, metal plate was nailed into the middle of the door. The number '232' was etched into its surface. I looked at the other doors and noticed the same on each of them. Further down, I could see the numbers on the metal plates were descending. I looked the other way and wondered if the hall was long enough to get to number 417. I ran down the hall, my eyes scanned each of the doors as the numbers counted higher and higher.
Panting, and my face still in pain, I finally reached room number 417. Just as all the others, it had the same washed out paint, red light, and metal plate. I touched the wooden surface, wondering what could possibly be on the other side. I closed my hand into a fist and was about to knock.
"You found him after all." A voice trailed down the corridor. A man in a dark gray suit approached me, his footsteps silent on the worn tile floor. It was hard to make out his features in the low light, but he sounded old.
"I am impressed," he said as he stopped right before me.
"What is this place?" I asked.
The man laughed. "You really want to know?" he said.
"Heck yeah, I want to know."
"I have no quarrels about telling you. They'll think you're crazy no matter what." The man seemed unusually arrogant.
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"I'll tell you what this place used to be, then you can decide whether or not you really want to know what it is now."
He wasn't making any sense and I had the sudden urge to run -- but of course, as the saying goes, 'curiosity killed the --'
"It wasn't too long ago that boys and girls your age walked these halls," the man said, gesturing as if a group of children ran past him, "books in hand, on their way to class. Just like in the West, it was the older system of education that your grandparents, or perhaps great grandparents were familiar with. But there were so many problems with the old system..."
He shook his head and wagged his finger as he listed each fault. "We couldn't monitor what was being taught. Every time we passed a new law on curriculum, what could be taught, what couldn't be, some rebel instructor found a way to teach these children to disobey orders. Trying to play out some sick foreign, American, fantasy," he sighed. "They would instill in our youth a tendency to not trust in greater powers, and to question authority. We had to eliminate this -- this heresy!" He brought his fist into his hand with a loud smack. "We had to purge the old and outdated concepts of instructing our youth and replace it with a better, more enlightened, system. The problem was not with the kids, as everyone in the West thought. We tested that hypothesis a long time ago; had nearly every student under the age of 18 on our carefully designed medications to monitor and control their progress -- but the system remained hapless. We took a bolder step, one too frightening for the Americans. We eliminated the instructors, or rather the way the instructors were being utilized. We had to find people who would listen, who would obey. But it seems --" he squinted at the door -- "it seems that we have arrived back where we started." His eyes returned back to mine, a hateful stare of a man constantly proven wrong. He said "You came here for Teacher 417, correct?"
I nodded, feeling like an insect under his gaze. I tried to keep track of everything he had just said -- I felt dizzy, sick.
"Here is your teacher." The man removed a silvery card from the breast pocket of his suit and held it under the red light of the door. A few moments later, after several strange beeping patterns, the man placed the card back into his pocket. The door then flickered and in an instant I could see right through it: there was a room on the other side, painted a tame shade of blue with two barred windows that let but a small amount of light. In a chair bolted to the floor sat a being that looked human -- but I would never have thought it to be so. Hundreds of thousands of wires connected the human to the chair -- the head, spine, arms, legs, everywhere. I couldn't see the hands as they were seemingly fastened inside two shiny domes and I couldn't see the face as a giant monitor suspended from the ceiling blocked the way.
"Don't worry, he can't see you," the man said. "He has very little concept of where he is anyway."
"Who is he?" I asked.
"Your math teacher. But it's what he was that is more interesting. A convicted criminal -- a thief."
It was too much to believe, in that moment in the hallway. I barely managed to ask the man a few questions, my mind was too chaotic, too in shock, to allow my thoughts to stay still. Just how long had this gone on? This whole thing with the teachers, the old schools. I wondered, do mom and dad know about this? Is this something I'd learn as I got older?
"Are there more like him?" I struggled to ask.
"Behind every one of these doors," the man said, his hand sweeping from left to right along the hall, "on all six floors, you would find someone 'like him'. Our staff is approximately seven thousand teachers strong."
"And they're all criminals?"
"All?" He shook his head, "No, some are savants. Socially crippled, no benefit to society, they do better here, teaching our youth. Doing what they're told. Unable to teach anything besides the curriculum. They're kept under control via the introduction of a suspended animation and a powerful drug cocktail: preventing them from conceptualizing the real world around them. Teacher 417, however, somehow figured out where he is. He was the first."
I said, "There was a report not too long ago about a teacher who tried to communicate ith their student --"
The man laughed, "So you did see that broadcast," he said, "we thought you missed it. We were trying to warn you, or anyone else who might experience this, not to come here. Though some suggested it might be more beneficial to allow you to anyway. Perhaps you'd come to understand it the way we do. If you hadn't run away from us earlier, we would've brought you here. I agree that it is beneficial. We can perhaps learn more about how Teacher 417 figured out what was going on. And of course more about our students."
The man pulled a corner of his shirt collar to his mouth. "Wake him," he said.
Inside the room that held Teacher 417, the walls opened to reveal several hidden doors. Five people dressed in pale green hazmat suits came through and began disconnecting the wires from the man seated in the chair. Once he was free, they laid him on the floor.
He was naked and I could finally see his face. He was bald and had a scar traveling down the side of his face.
One of the people in the green suits walked over and injected a long needle into Teacher 417's temple. The Teacher shook violently, and let out a scream that I'll never forget. His eyes shot open, a brilliant blue, and his body convulsed; they fought to restrain him. Finally he relaxed, and stared at the wall, as if he was acknowledging something dreadful.
"Is there anything you'd like to say to him?" the man asked me.
I could have said anything, or nothing at all. I've always wondered what might have been more appropriate. I thought of a thousand different things in that moment and finally settled on:
"Tell him...tell him I finished my homework."
He spoke into his shirt again and the people inside relayed the message, or so it seemed.
Teacher 417 looked straight at the door, straight at me, and screamed. "No!" he shouted and slammed his fists on the floor, "You weren't supposed to come here, damn it!" He screamed several more obscenities and repetitions of the same phrase.
"How did he know?" the man in the dark gray suit said. "How the hell did he know where we were? How did he know where the door was?" The man sharply looked at me. "What did you tell him?" He looked back at the room, "Save his damn brain, I want to know what the hell he was thinking there."
"What are you going to do to him?" I asked.
The man collected himself, "He broke protocol," he said with a twist of his head. "He will be terminated."
I wanted to cry, but at the moment I couldn't find it in me. I couldn't keep my mind off Teacher 417, whose real name was one thing he could never teach me. Perhaps I didn't cry because I didn't truly know him, or I knew that if I cried now, I'd have to cry for every other Teacher they had in that 'school'. Every Teacher they might have 'Terminated'. They took me home, told my parents that Teacher 417 broke protocol and instructed me to run away. They assured my parents that everything was all right and that there was nothing to worry about.
The man in the hall was right about one thing though: everyone I told thought I was crazy. It was too easy for my parents to believe the advisors of Distance Learning and not the word of their own daughter and as a result I was forced to enroll in Distance Therapy.
My psychologist was Doctor 417.
© 2011 Eric Jackson
Bio: Eric Jackson is a Science Fiction and Fantasy writer in New York City. When he's not busy writing words and plots, he's writing and recording music that stretches into new territories. Visit him at eric jackson.
E-mail: Eric Jackson
Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum
Return to Aphelion's Index page.