The pods lay before the children like opened eggshells.
“Won’t we get bored in there?” one boy asked.
Mr. Lightman the company representative was quick to answer. “No, of course not.” He chuckled. “It will all feel like a dream, a very fun dream, and one where you’re not only enjoying yourself, but learning.” A smirk came and went across his face. “It’s much better than the old way of going to school. Really.”
The children looked up at him with tilted heads as colorful images flashed by on the man’s slideshow.
“Let me ask you all a question.” He spread his hands and grinned at the crowd.
The kids nodded.
“Who here likes basketball? Hiking? Video games?” he asked, clicking his remote. A slide full of pastel animals and caped heroes appeared on the screen. As hands shot up all around the room the man slicked back his hair and flashed his pearly teeth. “I knew it! You guys look like a cool crowd to me. Well I have good news. From here on out your school days will be like one big video game!”
“Woooo!” Several kids cheered and pumped their fists.
But Mono wasn’t fooled. From her seat near the back of the room, she squirmed and craned her neck to get a good look at the devices. She didn’t like the sound of this one bit. First, video games were kinda lame. Second, she’d rather be outside anyway. Her hand shot into the air.
“What kind of video game is it?” she shouted.
“Ahah, a question! Could you repeat that?” Mr. Lightman held a hand over his eyes to scan the crowd.
Mono got to her feet. “I said ‘What kinda game are these stupid things?’”
“Mono!” their teacher Mrs. Valentine exclaimed as she rose from her seat. The woman had that ‘Here we go again expression’ on her face that Mono had become accustomed to.
The man gave a quick snort and waved at Mrs. Valentine to sit down. “It’s quite alright,” he said, striding to Mono’s spot on the carpet at the back of the room. “Questions are totally natural for these dudes and dudettes. They’re like sponges, soaking up info and learning the ins and outs of our little world at hyperspeed!” He laughed as he reached Mono’s side and ruffled her hair. “Right kiddo?”
“Grrrrrr.” She growled at the man, who shot her a slightly worried glance.
“Guys, I gotta admit, I’m not an expert on teaching or on games, but I do know computers. I’m a corporate product design and marketing specialist. It’s a sort of scientist.”
Whispers and exclamations spread across the room.
“What’s a sciensist?”
Had they ever seen a sciensist before?
The man’s hand landed on Mono’s shoulder where he gave it a squeeze. “A scienTist,” he started, “studies nature and technology. And we make things like these pods.” He looked down at Mono, his eyes blue and shining behind his glasses. “Things to make your life more awesomer, know what I mean?”
“Psssssh,” Mono hissed and struggled out from under his hand. “You still didn’t answer my question, mister!”
The other children broke into hushed whispers.
“What kinda game, dude?”
Mr. Lightman shot her an amused glance. “Fair enough. This is a sort of learning game. You’ll feel like you’re having adventures, playing having fun with your friends, but you’ll be learning new things at the same time. How to read faster, to speak new languages like Russian, to type, program, calculate, wor…” he hesitated, “how to do some majorly rad stuff, like be a scientist yourself someday.”
Mono still didn’t like it. She glared up at the man. “What if I don’t wanna go?”
The man burst into laughter. “Well it’s like school. Of course you have to go, dudette. What else would you do all day?”
“Maybe I wanna play in the woods and hunt for food and explore, like a … like a warrior princess.”
First Mr. Lightman, then Mrs. Valentine started laughing, then her classmates joined in. “Trust me, Mono, you’re going to like living in the pod much better than you think. Inside, you might even get to be a warrior princess.”
Mono growled and flexed her fingers while he ruffled her hair one more time.
What about outside time? She wished she could claw Mr. Lightman’s tongue out. Mono wasn’t sure how, but she could tell he was a liar. A big. Fat. Liar.
* * * *
For a while, she thought the whole thing was going to blow over, but several months later some trucks showed up and delivered the pods to their school. Along with other students across the city, county, and state, they were going to try the new things out. The whole region was in the process of switching.
The week before, she and her classmates had been tested and sorted into different groups with names and mascots: “hard-working bees,” “clever crows,” “leader lions,” and “social sea-otters.” The arguments about which animal was better were still raging.
Mono was sent to the room with the bee pods and was not happy about it. She was sure she had answered well enough to be a clever crow.
“I don’t wanna go! And this is the wrong room anyway,” she growled and dragged her feet. As the rest of the class shuffled in and climbed eagerly into their pods, Mono watched with growing hesitation. Mrs. Valentine gave her a tired look.
“Why don’t you just give it a try, Mono?”
“I don’t wanna.”
“It might be fun.” Mrs. Valentine shot her an ‘I dare you’ look. “You know Mono, when I was your age I didn’t want to go to school either. I thought it would be scary, that the boys would be mean to me, and that I’d hate it there.”
“At first.” Mrs. Valentine laughed. “But then I made friends, and I started having fun, and one day I even met my husband there.”
Mono nodded. “A boyfriend, huh?” She made fists with both hands, then opened and closed them. It would be fun to have someone to boss around. “Ok, ok, I’ll give it a try.”
She climbed into the egg-like pod, and looked into the eyes of Mrs. Valentine as the lid closed over her. The teachers eyes looked bloodshot but relieved at the same time.
* * * *
The next thing she knew, Mono was surrounded by pine trees, giant mushrooms, rainbows, and playground equipment. She had to blink and rub her eyes a few times before she noticed the sign in front of her.
“Welcome to the Forest of Lifelong Learning!” it read.
“What the blech?” This place felt like some adult’s idea of her idea of a fun day at the park. Mono shot suspicious glances around the make-believe forest.
Not too far off in the distance, her friends were running around playing with a soccer ball shaped like a giant pinecone. Some of the children were by themselves, though. One of the older girls, Elisa Thompson, was reading under a tree. Mono walked up to her to see what was going on.
“So this is it, huh? Woods, a big playground, and some fake mushrooms.”
Elisa couldn’t be bothered to look up from her book. “It all depends on you,” she said. Elisa reminded Mono of one of those creepy children you see in horror movies, but Mono tried not to show it.
“What the heck is that supposed to mean?”
“It means,” Elisa started, shooting a look at Mono to indicate how annoying this all was, “that I see a giant library with ladders and ropes to climb to the higher shelves. They can’t get rid of the people though. If only.” She shook her head and went back to reading.
“Wait, what. You’re inside a library? What about the soccer game over there?” She jacked her thumb toward the field where the others were playing.”
“Some gym in another room. I can’t even see it. Besides, they’ve been explaining this like crazy on TV. Have you been living under a rock or something?”
“No, but I’d like to.”
Elisa rolled her eyes. “This is virtual, Mono. They control everything each of us sees and hears.”
Mono scoffed and folded her arms. “Huh. And were supposed to learn something here? When do classes start?”
Elisa shook her head, still staring at the page. “They already have. Can’t you hear it?”
Mono perked her ears as the wind blew through the pines and just then she could make out a voice in the air. It was whispering from somewhere far away, rattling off facts dates and figures.
“Holy crap.” Mono stumbled backwards and grabbed both sides of her head. “How do we know they’re not brainwashing us or something?”
“It’s really better not to think about it.”
Elisa closed her book and glared. “Do you want to go crazy, or what?”
“Go play or grab a book or something, kiddo.”
Mono skulked off to a jungle gym and started doing pull-ups. “One, hugggh, two, hugggh, th…” Then it hit her and she fell to the ground like a sack of potatoes. Exercise here wouldn’t matter.
“I hate this place!” she shouted. Nearby, one of the first graders was staring at her. Mono didn’t care. “I know you can hear me and I hate this place!”
* * * *
Mono was so relieved when she left the virtual school that she barely noticed the foggy feeling in her head or the voices echoing in the back of her mind. She was so relieved, in fact, that she didn’t even mind sitting down with her real homework. They hadn’t worked that out of the system, apparently. Well, not yet.
She wrote out the definitions for new vocabulary (assiduously!), scribbled off some math problems as fast as she could, then ran outside. The sun was setting as she climbed the oak tree in her back yard, but it didn’t matter. Her arms ached, her knees scraped against the bark, and her hair got tangled in the wind, but she felt alive out here.
But something strange began to happen as the week wore on. She spent her days in ‘the game’ exploring as far as she could, crossing streams, finding trails and abandoned structures in the wilderness, and observing the game’s animals. The creators had done a good job – maybe too good of a job. Not a day went by that she didn’t spot an elk with majestic horns, or a majestic eagle soaring overhead, or a majestic horned ram standing majestically on a cliffside. There were also ‘waypoints’ that you could discover to teleport you around the world. But that wasn’t the weird part.
The weird thing was, when she got home from school, she *actually* enjoyed doing her work. Those feelings of satisfaction at a job well done just wouldn’t go away. It got to her so much that, after a week and a half, she could barely get to sleep. As she lay in bed, she kept repeating to herself: “I will not be brainwashed. I will not be brainwashed,” but no matter how hard she tried every day, it didn’t seem to be working.
* * * *
Finally, Mono couldn’t think of anything else to try and decided on a desperate course of action: she would talk to someone about it.
“Hey, hey Mrs. Valentine!” She tugged on the shirt sleeve of the teacher, who was filling out paperwork at her desk.
“Mono,” she said with a sigh. “Yes?”
“I don’t want to go back to my pod.”
The teacher smiled and rubbed Mono’s arm. Her eyes seemed less bloodshot than usual. “You don’t like it in there?”
“No.” Mono backed away and crossed her arms.
“Now hold on – I see you’ve been doing a lot of exploring. Did you know you’ve ventured further in the learning environment than any of your other classmates?”
“That’s right. You’re our school’s best explorer. Your homework has been better than usual too.” She tapped a finger on the stack of papers in front of her.
“Well yeah, but…”
The teacher gave a little laugh. “So what’s the problem? You’re doing great and it’s helping your studies. How’s your Japanese. You wanted to learn that too, right?”
“Mada heta desu,” she started, then did a double take. When had that snuck into her head? “Won’t I reach the end of the game?”
Mrs. Valentine shook her head. “That’s the thing, Mono.” She picked up the ‘Pod Learning Environment Teacher’s Manual’ and held it in the air like a scientific specimen. “It explains it all in this thing…” she paused with a sigh, “which I had to read all the way through. You can explore forever. The area inside the game is larger than the surface of the Earth. And you’ll be learning the whole time. Pretty cool, huh?”
Mono glared as she slid the manual back into her bag, then shot her a slightly suspicious look. “OK, I’ll give it a go for a while longer. But what if I still decide I want to quit?”
“Well, we’ll figure something out,” Mrs. Valentine said with a tired smile.
Finally, Mono nodded and wandered back to her pod.
The teacher sighed with relief, then sifted through the stack of papers for Mono’s profile. Down at the bottom was a checkbox for just this situation: ‘Shows resistance to cognitive conditioning.’ For a moment, her pen hovered over box, then she set it back down. Dealing with Mono’s occasional questions was still preferable to teaching her in person.
* * * *
Mono left school more confused than ever, but determined to figure things out. Luckily, while she had been talking to Mrs. Valentine she had come up with a plan. In fact, it had been difficult to hide her enthusiasm on the ride home.
As she plopped down at her desk at home she removed a new book from her bag – one she had snuck away from school when Mrs. Valentine wasn’t looking: the pod manual. Printed below the title was an extra line: “Sensitive Information – For teaching assistants only.”
Mono grinned and opened the book. Learning and exploring were about to become even more exciting.
© Ryan Walraven 2016