At the Trough
Adam Knight © 2019
All Rights Reserved
One: Learning if Fun
“The brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine in response to certain stimuli. Eating candy, having sex, consuming drugs, even petting a dog can trigger a pleasure response. Video games, especially ones with bright lights, upbeat music, and facile accomplishments are especially potent, flooding the brain with a sense of reward. As such, they were the bane of teachers for many years. That is, until EduForce began to use these games in their products. The scourge of learning was being disguised as learning itself.”
—Charles Winston, The Trough, p. 114
Jennifer Calderón stared into the screen, slack-jawed and passive as the bright colors and shapes burst before her eyes. Her pupils traced letters and blocks as they bounced from one end of the sixty-inch screen to the next. She reached out and touched a word before it hit the bottom–GAMBOLED. The white letters lit up, neon-green, and the word whooshed across the screen to smash into another word—GAMBLED—and shatter into a shower of sparkles.
“Same-sounder found!” a chirpy electronic voice declared.
Dopamine squirted into Jennifer’s brain in happy little jets. A smile traced the corners of her lips. Learning was fun.
Jennifer flicked her eyes to the upper right-hand corner of the screen. The figure 23/25 quickened her pulse. Two more. Two more word pairs and she would earn the Same-Sounder Achievement.
A new word appeared at the bottom of her screen. ASCENT, it read. The friendly female voice read the word and definition. Bubbles with other vocabulary terms floated around the screen. Colors whirled before her eyes and electronic dance beats filled her ears as she searched for Same-Sounders. Then she saw it. The word, in white letters on a floating bubble, drifted toward the bottom. Jennifer’s finger jabbed at the screen. Pop! The word ASSENT exploded in fireworks. More music and chirpy voices.
“Same-sounder found,” the voice said. More dopamine gushed into Jennifer’s brain. Her eyes flicked up to the corner. 24/25.
Once more, Jennifer scanned the bubbles and blobs and cubes and tetrahedrons swirling in her vision. Her breath was shallow. More and more words poured onto the screen. In one moment after another, tiny subdivided fractions of seconds, Jennifer saw and rejected words she did not think made the same sound as “cymbal.” Her eyes, her brain, and her hands all had to work in unison. Each level of Same-Sounder Finder was faster, more complex, and more stimulating than the last.
Then she saw it. SYMBOL.
She thrust her finger out to the screen. The little magenta gem in which the word sat was zigzagging down the screen, and she almost missed it and pressed the word TUMBLE crossing its path. But the SYMBOL illuminated, exploded, and a fireworks finale showed on the screen. 25/25.
“Same-sounder found,” the voice declared, then louder and triumphantly, “Same-sounder achievement unlocked!”
Jennifer leaped and thrust her fists in the air as a fanfare of electronic tones rang through her bedroom. Not many students earned perfect scores on Same-Sounder Finder, but Jennifer did. She earned perfect scores on everything. She was twenty-three years old and finishing her last year of schooling, a year ahead of the usual schedule. Because of all the hours she put into learning, and because she never had to redo any of her modules, she had raced ahead of her peers, many of whom were still on Achievement Level 13 or 14. She was working on 15.
After the music died down, the screen went still. Jennifer’s head was still pounding. A headache was setting in, as was a twinge of crankiness. She left her bedroom and went to the kitchen where she poured herself a cup of coffee. Her mother always had a pot brewing, anything to keep her beloved daughter focused on school. Jennifer clogged the coffee with sugar and milk, stirred it, and took a gulp. Better. She freed a couple of aspirins from their foil pouches and swallowed them with the next mouthful of coffee. She returned to her room.
Jennifer slid her finger along the screen and opened it to a new frame, one summarizing her academic progress. Current Achievement Level: 14. 12 percent of the way to 15. 106 of 880 modules completed. Achievement Level Grade Point Average: 5.0/5.0.
Total Progress to Completion of all Achievement Levels: 97 percent. 12,845 of 13,215 modules completed.
And then there was the final number. The prized number, the number she had worked for since age three.
Aggregate Grade Point Average: 5.0/5.0
Every assignment Jennifer had ever done, from toddlerhood into now her mid-twenties, had been flawless. Missing just one question on one task would eradicate her record—The Perfect Five. There had been students with 5.0 GPAs before, but their scores came with asterisks. Usually the student had missed a smattering of questions throughout their education, resulting in a score that would round up to 5.0 in the ten-thousandths place. But Jennifer Calderón began each module on a knife’s edge, knowing one slip up would end her lunge at history. Each completed question nudged her progress toward earning Achievement Level 15, the equivalent of what was once her high school diploma. Thus far, however, all she had was poor digestion, headaches, sleep deprivation, and occasional interviews for the NewsFeed as her accomplishment became more improbable.
Jennifer left the score screen and opened a new frame to continue with a new module. She had done three Grammar Modules in a row and wished for a change, so she opened a Chemistry Module. It made no difference to her. She never understood students who had favorite subjects, who would put off Math or Writing as long as possible. She never understood procrastination. She simply worked until she was exhausted, every day, with no heed to the subject area. It was all the same to her.
To unlock the next series of edugames, she needed to watch the Chemistry vidlesson. At the opening screen, she was given a choice of several hundred different teachers to choose from. Each teacher had his or her own style. Some were brusque and businesslike, while others joked and kept the lesson light. Some had an air of wisdom and experience, while others were young and attractive. Some explained topics deliberately, but Jennifer returned to the same half-dozen teachers who explained briskly. Unlike many students, Jennifer always watched the vidlesson before the edugame. It was true “Learning Was Fun” but it was also true that “Hard Work Pays Off.” It’s so easy, she thought. They give you all of the answers right in the lesson.
Too easy. But the thought was fleeting, and she brushed it away.
Jennifer selected Mr. 85. She was not sure why the teachers did not have real names, but she did not dwell on it long. Mr. 85 was a favorite of hers because he spoke a little faster than other teachers. The content of what he said was the same—it had to be; the teachers were scripted—but he lingered a few seconds less on the examples and generally made his points and moved on. She wondered how many minutes of her educational life had been saved by Mr. 85’s expediency.
Her stomach rumbled. I should eat, she thought, but instead she touched the icon for the Chemistry video and sat on the edge of her bed. The video opened. It was six minutes. Damn. A long one.
The introduction music came up, a familiar, infectious jingle followed by a voiceover. “Chemistry—All You Need to Know. A lesson by the EduForce Corporation.” Then the camera fixed on Mr. 85. Mr. 85 was a middle-aged black man with graying hair. He never smiled. Jennifer kind of liked that. He stood in front of a display showing an elaborate chart with boxes. Each box had one or two letters inside.
“Good day, I am Mr. 85. Today we are going to learn all about Chemistry. As you remember from the Introduction to Chemistry lesson, Chemistry is the part of science that is chemicals. The chemicals have names and symbols. Today I will teach them to you.”
He stepped to the right and indicated the chart. Jennifer already knew she would have to rewatch this segment of the video. Maybe the whole thing. All those boxes and letters would be difficult to remember.
“This is called the Chemical Chart. It used to be called the ‘Periodic Table of the Elements,’ but let’s keep it simple. The Chemical Chart shows you a list of all the chemicals, called ‘elements,’ in the world. Little ones are on the top and big ones are on the bottom.
“Let’s look at some of them. The very top one is called ‘hydrogen.’ Its symbol is H. The next one is Helium. Its symbol is He.”
Mr. 85 pointed out about a dozen of the most common elements and their symbols. Aluminum. Carbon. Oxygen. Phosphorous. Jennifer repeated to herself everything Mr. 85 said.
“Next, we are going to look at what the elements do together,” he went on. “But first, you may be getting tired. Do you find your energy dragging after all this learning? If so, why not order a box of Perk-Eez? It’s the little yellow pill that keeps you shining bright!”
The video of Mr. 85 paused and was replaced with a new screen offering Jennifer the opportunity to order a box of Perk-Eez. She touched the “Yes, please!” button on the screen, and a message immediately appeared. “Thank you! Your delivery will arrive at your unit shortly. Your household account will be debited.” Perk-Eez were another reason Jennifer was on track to graduate two years early.
Mr. 85 returned.
“Now that you know some of the chemicals’ names, let’s look at what chemicals do. They like to be together. Sometimes the same kinds of chemicals get together. One oxygen and another oxygen will get together, and they make up the oxygen we breathe. If you have taken the Human Biology module, you know we breathe oxygen.”
The Chemical Chart was replaced with a graphic of two blue blobs with the letter “O” on them smooshing together.
“Sometimes different chemicals get together. A carbon and two oxygens get together and make up something called carbon dioxide. Yes, that’s right, carbon dioxide, the bad thing your grandparents put into the air that almost killed Earth!”
A new graphic with two blue blobs and a red blob with a “C” all clinging together replaced the old one.
“All kinds of chemicals get together. Let’s look at some combinations.”
The screen showed a series of different colored balls, all with different letters, making different combinations. Jennifer shook her head, trying to maintain focus. It was a lot of new information.
As the video neared completion, Mr. 85 folded his hands and stepped to the center of the screen again. Jennifer thought she almost detected a smile.
“I hope you have enjoyed this lesson on Chemistry. Please rewatch this video as many times as you like before going onto the edugames. My name is Mr. 85 and it has been a pleasure teaching you today. This has been an EduForce vidlesson. EduForce, making learning easy and fun since 2034.”
The video closed. Jennifer watched it again three times. After the second time, the doorbell rang. She accepted the delivery from SentiAid, the pharmacy delivery service. She tore open a foil packet and gobbled a couple of Perk-Eez. Almost instantly, even faster than after a cup of coffee, her brain and body were buzzy and alive.
All right, she thought. Let’s play some more edugames.
The Chemistry edugame was called “Elementastic!!!” She read the instruction screen, then the game began. After a countdown, two words appeared on the screen:
Jennifer typed in FEAR. The letters Fe and Ar zoomed in from the left and right of the screen, collided in a burst of color, and formed the word “fear,” which dissolved into sparkles that floated up to the top of the screen.
Carbon Oxygen Oxygen Phosphorous
Easy, Jennifer thought. She typed COOP.
More collisions and explosions.
Tin Iodine Phosphorous
Helium Aluminum Sulfur
Jennifer fell into a rhythm, working faster and faster on each round. Her breathing became shallow. Her pulse quickened and her pupils dilated as the words came faster, exploded bigger and more colorfully, until finally a computerized voice—male this time—announced, “Activity Complete. Chemistry Achievement Unlocked!” and Jennifer lowered her hands, panting.
The voice continued, “To celebrate your achievement, how about downloading the new song from Tuliphead? The infectious single ‘Plex Lovin’’ is already breaking new—”
“Sure,” Jennifer said, and the advertisement stopped. Buying was the easiest way to make the ads go away.
Even as a small child, edugames had come easily to her. She watched the vidlessons, played the edugames, and thought little of it. She learned with carefree abandon. But when she reached the age of twelve or thirteen, she became aware she was doing something unusual. Of course, she did not have classmates to compare herself to, and she had few friends to ask, but she understood she was different. Other children made mistakes, even had to redo modules they had not mastered. She had wondered what mistakes were, to have the certainty of rightness yanked out from under you.
As she grew older, she became acutely aware of her achievement. At age fifteen, she received a request for a vid interview with a reporter. She had sheepishly declined, unsure of what to say and certain her mother would not have allowed it. But over the subsequent years, several more interview requests came to her, and she began to accept them. Each time she said the same things, that she was proud and studied a lot to do the best she could. That answer was only half true. She was proud of her grade but never had to study. She watched a vidlesson, played the edugame, then moved on to the next.
A female voice emitted from Jennifer’s speakers.
“Good morning, Jennifer. How are you this morning?”
“Fine,” Jennifer replied. The voice was her A.I. personal assistant, or AIPA. The AIPA’s user could have their assistant speak through mounted speakers, portable speakers, or earpieces. AIPAs who blurted out sensitive information was a frequent source of comedy. Jennifer’s AIPA was named Carlita, one of ten thousand personalities available. Jennifer liked that the Carlita personality was efficient and organized, but sometimes she clung to the pleasantries too long.
“You have received a message. Shall I read it to you?”
“You are quite welcome. The message is from Melody Park. It says, ‘Hey bot, are you busy?’ Do you wish to respond?”
Melody, Jennifer thought. Always when I’m in the middle of schoolwork. Then again, I am always in the middle of schoolwork.
“Sure. Tell her she’s got a half hour.”
“Do you wish me to send that message verbatim, or—”
“No, say it however you want.”
“Very well,” Carlita replied. She would then compose a message reply to Melody in a tone that best simulated Jennifer’s own. Carlita was Jennifer’s new AIPA, and it often took weeks or months of working together before an AIPA could mimic a user’s syntax and diction just right. Carlita was a low model AIPA too, so the results would probably be ugly. “Before I go, can I interest you in a Lime Blast Freezie-Chug?”
“No, just send the message,” Jennifer replied, chagrined that her mother did not have the money for an ad-free AIPA. Jennifer had bought a Lime Blast Freezie-Chug a month ago, and now Carlita kept bugging her if she wanted another.
“Very well. Goodbye, Jennifer.”
Ten minutes later, the electronic tone of her doorbell beeped. Jennifer went to the door and opened it. In walked a woman of Jennifer’s age. Her hair was straight black and cut with horizontal bangs. She wore blue denim jeans and a plaid shirt, and a bag sat on her back, held by two straps over her shoulders.
“What’s the look this week?” Jennifer asked. “Retro to the twenty-teens?”
“For being the girl who knows everything, you don’t know jack shit about fashion history. This was the nineties!”
She walked in the room with an exaggerated swagger.
“’Jack shit?’” Jennifer asked. “Vintage cursing too?”
She grabbed Melody’s sleeve and pulled her in for a brief kiss.
“So, your mom is not home?” Melody asked when they pulled apart.
“Working. Always working.”
“That’s good for me,” Melody said. “Good for us.”
“So, explain to me your new style.” Jennifer said. She always wore the same styles that were popular with her peers—light fabrics, dull earth tones, and a smattering of corporate logos over everything. The more logos on the article of clothing, the more prestigious. Her hair, which was naturally curly, had been straightened into oblivion and was cut in cascading zigzags down her back. It was also the popular style.
Melody popped the collar on her plaid.
“The nineties! Kurt Cobain, Pearl Jam, heroin, blow jobs in the White House, the greatest decade! I’ve been listening to music from that time.”
“Our grandparents’ music.”
“Maybe. My grandparents were still in Korea in the nineties. And yours were still in El Salvador. Hey, I’m thirsty. Buy me a drink, sailor.”
“Colombia,” growled Jennifer. She did not know if Melody could not remember the country or if she was toying with her. Either way, she hated it. And liked it a little, as well. She went to the kitchen and held a glass to the beverage fountain. She selected Jazzy-Pop Grape Soda and pressed the button. Grape, no ice, just like always. No one liked grape, but Melody did.
Melody flung her bag to the floor and plopped down on the sofa while taking a long swig of soda. Jennifer’s heart skipped. If her mother returned home from work to find Melody had dripped even a drop of purple on the fabric, she would excoriate Jennifer for days.
“Where did you even find those clothes?” Jennifer asked. “And that back bag. No store would sell them.”
“Are you serious? There are stores that sell anything. And it’s called a ‘backpack.’ Nineties kids loved them.”
Jennifer pointed to Melody’s light blue denim.
“Jeans?” Jennifer asked. “They only sell them in the grandma stores, where—”
“You went shopping in the grandma stores?”
“Yes, I did,” Melody replied.
Jennifer sighed and shook her head. She leaned down and kissed Melody again.
“You taste like cough syrup.” Melody breathed on her.
“You are critical today,” Melody said. “Making fun of my clothes, making fun of my breath. I should leave.”
“Nah, I’ll stay. Say, I had an idea. Let’s get up on the roof and get drunk tonight.”
Jennifer shook her head.
“Not this time. We were almost caught last time.”
“Almost. Almost means we weren’t,” Melody said. “I’ve found a better spot, out of view of all the cameras. I have something very grip to show you.”
“Oh, you’ll thank me. It’s a book. Like a real, vintage book.”
“Are you serious?” Jennifer hissed. “You can’t get caught with that.”
“Why? It isn’t illegal.”
“No, but it’s…yech. Why would you even keep it?”
“Look,” Melody said. “Do you want to see it or not?”
Jennifer glanced at her sideways. Books. Big clunky things with covers and pages, as relevant as corsets or leeches. But if Melody had obtained one, a real one, it would be the most grip thing she had seen in a long time.
“Show me,” Jennifer said.
Melody shrugged. She reached for her bag and unzipped the main compartment. She reached in and pulled out a slim paperback with a plain gray cover. She held it out to Jennifer, who would not take it.
“Where did you get it?” Jennifer asked with a mixture of awe and revulsion.
“The old lady down the hall from me, Miss Hammond.”
“The one whose birds you used to feed?”
“That was her.”
“She died this week. No surprise. She’s been sick for a long time.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Jennifer said. “Did she leave you that book?”
“Not ‘leave,’ exactly.”
Melody grinned. Jennifer grimaced.
“You didn’t! From a dead woman?” she said. Melody shrugged.
“I grabbed a few things. The book, Some CDs, even though I don’t have any way to play them. A Jurassic Park action figure. Oh, and her Quarantine Suit. Can’t have too many of those. The book, though, that’s the real prize.”
Jennifer goggled her eyes at Melody.
“Oh, come on,” Melody continued. “Miss Hammond wasn’t going to read it again. I read the whole thing last night. It was amazing. I think you could learn a lot from it.”
“What is it called?”
Melody held the book out again, and this time Jennifer took it. The cover had no graphics or images, only a matte gray background. White letters in the center read:
By Charles Winston
“Hmm,” Jennifer said. “What is it about?”
“You’ll have to reeeeead it, my little starfish.”
“I’m not a starfish.” Jennifer opened the front cover. She read the first two sentences:
If you were born in the twenty-first century and went to a public school, you have received an education that is worse than worthless. Your education is toxic.
Jennifer’s head started to hurt. She snapped the book shut and shoved it back toward Melody.
“I don’t think I’m going to like this.”
“You know what I’ve always loved about you?” Melody said. “Your open-minded approach to new experiences.”
“I have a lot of work to do,” Jennifer replied. “Maybe some other—”
“You always have a lot of work to do. You are two years ahead of me in your modules. Blow up your afternoon and read a little illicit lit. Go on, it will be a tonic for your perfectionist soul.”
Jennifer examined the cover again. Her gut fluttered. Mostly, she was anxious at the thought of abandoning an afternoon of work to read an old, useless book. Part of it was anger at Melody, who was always pushing her to do things she knew she oughtn’t do. But buried deeper below was a feeling like a twist at the base of her spine, a wriggle of unsettled discontent, a twitch waiting to be acknowledged. Is learning really this easy? She went to the kitchen, poured a glass of water, and drank the entire thing at once. It did not help.
Melody stood up.
“I’ll leave you alone now. Happy reading.”
Just then two distinct voices spoke simultaneously. One was Carlita, in her cheerfully polite tone. Her voice came from the massive screen in Jennifer’s bedroom. The other was a gruff male voice, warped and modified to sound like a demon from the pits of hell. That voice came from somewhere in the depths of Melody’s backpack. Both AIPAs said, “You have received a message.”
Melody and Jennifer looked at each other.
“May I?” Melody asked.
“No,” Jennifer said. “I hate listening to Bruno. I don’t know why you had him modded like that.”
“Are you jealous of my hellspawn boyfriend?” Melody asked, but then she said to her AIPA, “Bruno, Jennifer is going to take this.”
“As you desire, my dark queen.”
Jennifer shook her head. “Go ahead, Carlita. Read us the message.”
Carlita gave an “ahem” before saying, “From EduForce to all learners working toward Achievement Levels 13, 14 and 15. As you know, we live in an ever-growing, ever-changing world, full of new challenges and information. For the past several years, students have been earning Full Achievement Status after completing fifteen Achievement Levels. For several years, this was sufficient. However, it has become clear to our researchers many important concepts are not included in any of the Learning Modules! Therefore, we are excited to announce a new change in the Learning Track. All students will now be required to complete sixteen Achievement Levels to earn Full Achievement Status.
“Please note that none of your current progress through your Learning Track will be lost or changed. The additional Achievement Level will give you more opportunities to develop critical real-world skills and enjoy more of our top-quality educational products.
“We look forward to working together for years to come on your learning journey. Keep working and remember Knowledge is Power!
“Best regards, Geraldine Barfield, President of EduForce Corporation.”
Jennifer’s lip trembled. The ground under her feet was sliding away. She gripped the sofa.
Melody slurped the last of her grape soda.
“So, another year of this shit?” she said before setting the empty glass on the floor. “Ah well.”
“I can’t,” Jennifer said. “A whole extra year. More videos, modules, never missing a question.”
“You’re tougher than you know, kid.” Melody slapped Jennifer on the shoulder as she slung her backpack over her own. “You’ll figure it out.”
Jennifer batted her hand away. Hot, angry tears rose in her eyes.
“Stop it. What do I do?”
“You know what you do?” Melody sounded serious. “Fuck studying tonight. Read that book. Meet me on the roof at eight. And we will get so shitfaced you won’t remember a thing about that message. At least not for a few hours.”
“Okay. Okay.” Jennifer was beginning to hyperventilate as the room tunneled.
“Don’t sound okay. Sure you don’t want that drink now?”
Jennifer smiled weakly. She closed her eyes.
“You’re just trying to get me drunk so you can get into my pants. Won’t work.”
“Not now. I guess I have to wait until tonight. Just breathe, kid. You’ll be fine.”
“Sorry I am such a mess,” Jennifer said as she embraced Melody, draping her arms around her.
“Everyone is a mess. Just your turn right now.”
Jennifer said nothing for