“History,” spoke The University.
Albert had no interest in History. Nor had he interest in Mathematics, Science, Language, Art, or any of the other schools of The University. But one did not question The University, let alone defy it. Tales skittered among the Uneducated about Accepted Candidates thrown back from the gates for a single unwisely chosen word. The accepted response was safe.
“I so pledge,” said Albert.
A hole dilated open in the hallowed wall in front of him, symbolic of the forthcoming opening of Albert’s own eyes as he gained his Education. Antiseptic blue light spilled out. He waited for the command, to demonstrate his patience and submission to the sacred Policies and Procedures. One page of the Packet had detailed precisely how he was to behave, and he had no intention of failing now. Not when greatness lay before him.
“Insert your left hand,” The University instructed Albert. He obeyed. His skin looked a sickly sallow under the light, until the opening sealed around his wrist and held him in place. He felt the mildest of twinges as an airjet drove the new chip into his wrist, neatly tucked beneath his radial artery. His own pulse would provide the micropower the chip would need for the rest of his life.
“Welcome, Freshman,” The University boomed, loudly enough for the rest of the Application Center to hear. No one cheered. No one ever cheered. The Uneducated saw the Educated as mad, and yet dreamed of one day joining their ranks. Every Accepted Candidate meant there was one less spot available for the rest of them that year. He was no more Educated than he had been when he stepped into the Application Center ten minutes prior and submitted his forms, and yet now he was counted among their ranks for the potential that The University had seen within him.
The porters arrived. He had brought nothing with him, as per the Policies and Procedures, save for the clothing they now demanded he remove. He had made arrangements for the rest of his personal effects, as every Potential Candidate did. But this year, those arrangements would be put into action. He had a single cousin, who would have it all, the same as if Albert had died.
He donned his University Uniform. For the next six years, he would wear the comfortable, loose canvas of the jeans and the casual, distinctive blue shirt of the University Student, and carry the slim-line screen on which so much of his life would now depend. The porters gave him that screen when he was dressed. It was already turned on, and his class schedule was displayed in glowing green letters. His first class was in thirty minutes: Introduction to Speculative Analysis.
He left the Application Center without another word, either to the porters or to The University. The University had other Candidates to evaluate, and the porters would eagerly scrutinize his every word for signs of rebellion. He would give them nothing. He would be Educated in History and then the porters would have no power over him ever again.
Only The University would. Forever.
Six years. Six years of glorious freedom, and yet, only by abstaining from the temptations of life at The University could Albert become Educated. Many did not. To be a University Student was, after all, to be free to travel anywhere in the world, to be free to order any goods or services one desired, to be free to take part in all the wonderful bounty the world had to offer.
But The University was keeping track. Education was priceless. No man could possibly possess the wealth needed to pay even a single year of the most abstemious life at The University. It was solely by the generosity of The University and its ancient, mythical Donors that any man could become Educated, by surrendering himself to the wise and remorseless command of The University. To be given the opportunity for Education and to waste that chance was the most foolish possible outcome a man could achieve. And yet so many did, trading six short years of glory for a lifetime of drudgery.
History was a rare subject. Only four others shared the topic with Albert in his class. The first thing Albert learned was the wisdom of The University, for he was fascinated from the moment of his first lesson. All sorts of strange and wonderful secrets were his, matters that the Uneducated could never hear.
How once, The University had a great rival, whose name had been deliberately expunged in the riotous celebration when The University achieved its final victory.
How before that, The University had been but one of many, invited to ally itself with great powers among its brethren but choosing to stand proudly alone, growing in wealth and import with each passing year.
How once, not a lifetime but a single summer’s labor was deemed sufficient to repay the cost of a year’s Education, and how the years of labor per year of study grew each year.
How beyond The University’s reach there had been other places that refused the benevolent counsel of The University – and Albert could understand the implications of the phrase ‘had been.’
How the University had turned its wisdom upon itself, and seen the fallibility of man, and acted to remove that element from its own administration. It had been a very long time since mere human decisions had guided it, since bureaucracy and greed had played a role in the administration of the world. It was only among the University Students that folly remained despite The University’s rigorous selection; of the few tens of thousands chosen around the world each year, one in ten would squander the priceless gift of Education, and another one in twenty would fail its rigors despite their best efforts.
It was not merely human history that Albert learned. Alone among his classmates, The University chose for him courses of study that took him deep into the Restricted Archives, regions where The University’s own processes of deliberation had been recorded. Organization charts, acceptance criteria, secrets that many of the Uneducated would beamingly murder to learn, to gain their own entry into the ranks of their betters. He began from the most ancient of files and moved forward.
Many of Albert’s classmates had dissipated their precious days, losing the favor of The University but still through its grace permitted their full term of freedom. Albert did not travel. Albert did not spend his nights in drunken stupors. Albert was engaged, in the fullest sense of the word. The University guided Albert, drove Albert, but where it drove him was deeper and deeper into itself, into understanding how The University had once functioned, how it grew over time, how its Policies and Procedures had developed into the heart of the world.
When six years had passed, Albert was given the highest of trials The University had to offer. He would not be given the multiple-choice tests that his wastrel classmates would take (and fail), to perfunctorily prove their lack of worth. He would not sit for days filling out Blue Book after Blue Book, demonstrating his grasp of rote facts and simple analysis. He would not even sit before a panel of Professors to be judged for fitness to join their exalted ranks.
No, Albert stood before The University itself, the hallowed Seal etched into the floor of an ancient chamber. Speakers and sensors embedded into every wall left The University aware of his presence at its symbolic heart as he faced his Final Examination.
The University asked him, “What went wrong?”
© 2016 by PC Keeler
Author’s Note: One evening, my writing group, the Fairfield Scribes (collective authors of Z Tales: Stories from the Zombieverse), assembled in my living room, with the express purpose of shamelessly engaging in literary generation. That afternoon, I had been working on unpacking boxes of books, and came across “Legends of the Ferengi” – in which it was noted that those avaricious aliens would decades’ worth of debt to pay for a prestigious education, a concept that was just a joke when the book was written. Nowadays, that doesn’t seem quite so funny… and it doesn’t show signs of stopping.
Born in the far-off days of the Second Millennium, PC Keeler spends his days writing detailed instructions for very dim but precise silicon brains to follow and finds it a relaxing change of pace to write more conversationally for charming, handsome, intellectual readers like you. He enjoys past, present, and future, preferably all at once. Steampunk and Ren Faires work well for this.