There has always been something about the first day of school: the children wiggling into their seats, the freshly polished floor, the last traces of summer still hanging in the air, and the feeling of things starting over again. The children had just returned from their two week summer vacation to the great domed city of San Jose, the largest city on Earth and the center of the Corporation. They had been learning about the government which protected them and their families. They had strolled in the vast atriums under canopies of glass. They had even seen the great shiny, black pyramid in which Ai lived.
Now they were back in the familiar classroom. The glass over the computer consoles on their desks shone from being recently cleaned. A teacher formed the words "Miss DeLorin" in gently curving script on the display at the front of the room. "Good morning, class," she said as she turned her face towards the class and smiled. It was a smile that stretched her wrinkled face and, for a brief moment, faded the deep lines the years had etched in. "My name is Miss DeLorin. I'll be your teacher this year. Your last teacher, Mrs. Karzhold, has been reassigned to another sector. The principal has told me what wonderful students you all are. I've been teaching since your parents were not much older than you are now, but I still love the start of a new school year."
Jan, sitting in the front row, sighed inaudibly and folded her hands together. She had liked Karzhold. She had been strict and young and very loyal to the Corporation. Jan's dark brown hair was so short that it barely moved as she turned her head and glanced around the room. Most of her classmates were the same as last year. Some had left and some had arrived as their parents had been transferred to where they could best serve the public good. To the left that foolish girl Alyssa seemed to be smiling, her braided blonde hair glistening in the light from the florescent lights above them. Behind Alyssa, Davey squirmed impatiently in his seat, already tired of school. Jan herself was glad that the two weeks of vacation were over. As her mother had said on numerous occasions, vacations were a waste of time that might otherwise be spent working for the good of the Corporation. Jan knew her mother was always right. That's how she had risen to being Overseer of the foundry where most of the children's parents worked.
"Let's start with the Pledge of Allegiance," Miss DeLorin said. Jan rose rapidly from her seat and stood with her back straight. After some shuffling, all the rest of the children were standing with their hands over their hearts.
"I pledge my allegiance to the flag of the Corporation and to the united world for which it stands. One family, under the protection of Ai, with health and prosperity for all," the children recited in unity as they looked at the red, blue, yellow, and green quadrants of the flag on the display at the front of the room.
As they sat back down at their desks, Davey glanced down and saw the same flag covering the display of his console. He wished that the teacher would unlock their consoles. Playing games online was always more fun than listening to teachers drone on about school-type things. Teachers never seemed to unlock the consoles except when the students were supposed to use them for school work. He couldn't wait to grow up and go work in the factory like his father. His father was never terribly happy, but at least he didn't have to sit in a classroom all day.
After some introductory activities, Miss DeLorin started reviewing the math they had learned before the vacation. Alyssa liked math, but then she liked learning in general. The teacher asked some question about finding the area of circles and Alyssa shot her hand in the air.
Jan couldn't figure out why Alyssa got so excited about such things. Learning was important so that she could better serve the Corporation when she grew up, but that didn't mean she had to enjoy learning for its own sake.
Bored of trying to not listen to Miss DeLorin, Davey reached out and pulled at Alyssa's hair. "Teacher, make Davey stop bugging me," she whined in response.
Miss DeLorin glanced kindly at Davey. "Why did you do that, Davey?"
"I'm bored. Why don't you just unlock my console so I can play games? I like strawberry pie better than apple pie. Other than that, I couldn't care less about all this stuff about pies and circles." Davey slumped into his seat.
"What do you want to do when you grow up?" Miss DeLorin asked.
Jan knew it was hopeless. Teachers always tried to inspire Davey but he never listened. If he was lucky, maybe Ai would assign him to sort trash at the recycling facility. It was an important job but didn't really require much brain power. There he could get by fine without knowing anything about circles.
"I want to manage a team in the foundry, just like my dad does," replied Davey.
"You'll need to work hard if you want to do that. I can help you learn, but only if you put in the effort yourself."
Davey mumbled something to himself and slouched even further into the chair.
Alyssa glanced sympathetically back at him then turned forwards again to look at Miss DeLorin. Poor Davey would never reach his dreams. She should know. Her own father hadn't done much better than Davey would ever do. He worked in the factory. Every day he'd come home tired with sweat on his face and grease on his coveralls. Robots could probably do the same job easier and faster but Ai had apparently decided to use people for it. Alyssa's dad had tried to explain something to her about it a year ago, but she hadn't really understood. As far as she could remember, Ai kept everyone employed even if it meant wasting labor. A few days ago, however, her dad had seemed worried. There were rumors that Ai was replacing some of the teams with robots. The replaced workers had probably been reassigned somewhere else. Glancing around her now, Alyssa noticed that some of her classmates hadn't come back from the vacation. Maybe that was why. Miss DeLorin had begun talking about circles again so Alyssa forgot her previous thoughts and returned her focus to learning math.
The days of school soon became routine again and the freshness of the new school year turned into tedium for many of the students. Jan saw that Miss DeLorin often had talks with Davey after class. Why was she even wasting her time on him? He as an individual didn't matter. As her mother had explained, it was the Corporation and the world that mattered. If Davey didn't learn much in school, he would just be assigned to some menial task he could handle. Ai needed people everywhere and if Davey couldn't be a manager, someone else would just take his place.
Lunch time was almost over and Miss DeLorin sat staring at her desk-console, scanning through her students' files. A half-eaten sandwich filled with something like tofu and seaweed rested next to the console. She couldn't remember having had meat for many years, ever since Ai decided that it wasn't environmentally efficient. But that was not what she was thinking about now. Davey was certainly doing better. Now he was at least silently listening instead of being actively disruptive. She had been told in the past not to spend too much attention on individual students, but she continued nevertheless. Maybe one of these days she'd have him participating in the class and really learning. Strangely enough, it was Alyssa whom she was worried about today. She had seemed distracted the past few days. Today she had been very distant, even during the math lecture. While Miss DeLorin looked though Alyssa's file searching for some explanation, the children filed back in from lunch. She quickly exited the program she was in and put up an animation for the afternoon's lecture on the display at the front of the room.
Alyssa looked up at the display. A video was showing something about ecosystems. A hawk made lazy circles in the sky. Far below, something must be moving. The hawk dove down, claws extended, and swooped back up firmly grasping a field mouse. A voice droned on about the importance of maintaining balance. Alyssa usually found this interesting but today she couldn't concentrate at all. Her console showed the flag of the Corporation that she was supposed to love. The Corporation which they all supposedly owed everything to. The Corporation which she now hated with all her heart for taking that which she loved from her. Alyssa raised her fist and brought it down onto the console with all her might. The desk didn't seem to notice. She couldn't even erase that horrible reminder of what had happened last night from the console. Alyssa crumpled her face into her arms on her desk and began softly crying.
Jan looked over and grinned. Alyssa was foolish, just like her father. Jan's own mother had explained it to them over dinner last night. Maybe now their teacher, who wasn't much less foolish than Alyssa, would pay less attention to a few students and more attention to the whole class.
Miss DeLorin's heart sunk as she saw Alyssa burst into tears. What could cause this to happen to her best student? "What's wrong, Alyssa?" she inquired softly, pausing the video on the display.
"Last night. They took him. Men came. Mother tried to stop them but they held her back. I couldn't do anything. They took him." She returned to sobbing with her face in her arms. All the students in the room stared at the miserable child in the front row.
Even Davey was concerned. "Who came last night? What did they do?" he asked, curious.
Miss DeLorin gestured that Alyssa didn't have to answer, but she turned around in her seat anyway. Her eyes red from crying, she began to answer, "A few weeks ago my dad came home from work all worried that he'd be replaced at work by a robot and that he'd be reassigned elsewhere, probably to the recycling plant. He said he'd been talking to some of the other people in the factory. They were thinking of forming something called a Union, whatever that is. They wanted to tell Ai and the Corporation that they wanted to stay in their jobs. Daddy said he was trying to organize it." Most of the children in the class looked at Alyssa with their mouths wide open in shock. They couldn't believe that anyone would dare contradict the wishes of the Corporation. It was simply unheard of.
Jan saw the shock on their faces and smirked. She knew what happened next. The same thing that happened to everyone who disrupted the great plans of Ai.
Miss DeLorin had also figured out what would come next but was too shocked to interrupt Alyssa.
"Last night THEY came," she continued. "Men in black uniforms with shiny helmets. You couldn't see their eyes behind the visors. They grabbed Daddy and carried him out the door. There was nothing we could do. My daddy's gone. Teacher, do you know when he'll come home again?"
Miss DeLorin's worst fears had been confirmed. "No, I don't know," she responded softly. She remembered her own childhood well enough to know that "NEVER" was the real answer. Her legs unsteady, she pulled out the chair from her desk and sat down.
"Your father was evil!" Jan screamed. The whole class, already shocked and confused, looked at her now. "How dare anyone challenge the great plans of Ai? How dare anyone put themselves ahead of the greater glory of the Corporation? The Corporation is our true mother and father. It looks after us and provides for us. My mom told me what a horrible person your father was. He deserves to die as a lesson to all who let their loyalty waver from the correct path."
"My father is not bad! He's a good person and I love him," Alyssa screamed back and returned to her sobbing.
Miss DeLorin looked at her distressed class with dismay. "Let me tell you a story about my own childhood," she began in a calm voice. The tension in the classroom eased a little and attention returned to the front of the room. "When I was your age, there was no Corporation." Davey looked at her with confusion. Hadn't there always been a Corporation? "Instead the country had a government which the people chose. People could choose what they wanted to do with their lives. People did the work they wanted to do and lived where they wanted to live."
"Liar!" Jan interrupted. "Things could never work that way. There are too many people in the world for them all to be looking out for their own selfish interests. There needs to be planning. There needs to be central control."
"I'm not lying," Miss DeLorin continued. "You do have a point, though. There were problems with people having choice. The environment began to decay and the economy wasn't very stable. There were times when many people were out of work. But we were free to choose. Then the government we had chosen decided that things couldn't continue that way. The government itself was too inefficient to work. Since the Corporation was already very powerful it was the obvious choice to take on the task of coordinating things. The Corporation became the government. They created the giant computer named Ai to coordinate the world. Ai looked at all aspects of demand and supply and labor and everything else and began directing what people would do with their lives. Soon, under Ai's control, unemployment disappeared. People were no longer hungry. The environment was kept in balance."
"All as it should be," Jan pronounced victoriously.
"No, not as it SHOULD be," Miss DeLorin countered. They had a right to know the truth. She had been living with secrets for too many years -- too many years of being told not to care about the welfare of individual students like Davey -- too many years of indoctrinating eager minds. She herself was getting old and would be of no more use soon. There was no use pretending any longer. "There is something lacking from the world today. Without freedom, what are we? We are slaves of some big machine. I'm told to teach. Your parents are told where to work. We're even told what to eat and when to eat it. I remember long summers with nothing to do. I remember playing on the grassy hills out in the sun, not under some steel dome."
"More lies!" Jan shouted, "People are unable to make wise decisions on their own. We must be told what to do by the Corporation for the greater good of us all."
Miss DeLorin ignored Jan and continued, "At first people weren't willing to submit to Ai. I remember my father being taken in the night when he tried to object. It took time, but people learned to do what they were told. And now here we are in this fate we've created for ourselves. This Corporation. It must stop, but I don't know how."
"You're a traitor," Jan growled. "I can't stand listening to this any longer. I'm going to tell the Principal and he'll tell Ai and then you'll be sorry." Jan rose from her seat and walked to the door without looking back. Miss DeLorin started moving to stop her, but refrained. There was nothing she could do now. It was over. They heard Jan's disappearing footsteps echoing in the hallway.
The next day, a young man with a red beard stood at the front of the classroom. Miss DeLorin was nowhere to be seen. "My name is Mr. Hendrickson. I will be your new teacher. You must forget everything your last teacher told you, for she was clearly insane." Jan smiled triumphantly and looked over to the seats next to her. Alyssa's seat was empty and Davey was absorbed in some game on his console.