The Perfect Score
By: James Rumpel

The Perfect Score By James Rumpel

The alarm blared again at 7:55. Martin Stenner couldn't afford another push of the snooze button. He had to be at work by 8:00. He slithered out of from the warmth of tangled sheets and checked himself in the mirror. He had a terrible case of bedhead, his hair defied gravity. The stubble of a three-day-old beard made him appear even more unkempt. Worse of all was the crease from his pillow which ran down the side of his face like a trail on a hiking map.

Martin staggered to the doorway, took a deep breath, opened the door, and entered the classroom. He took his seat in front of a wall of fifty lifeless monitors. Glancing at the clock in the right corner of his display screen he noted the time to be 7:59. "Heck, I could have slept longer," he thought. When the digital clock switched to 8:00, Martin flipped the power switch in the center of his desk.

The screens sprang to life, turning the wall before him into a checkerboard of bright-eyed, smiling faces.

"Good morning, class," he mumbled.

"Good morning, Miss Smith," responded the class.

The students were not seeing the scruffy twenty-five-year-old, halitosis ridden man who was their teacher. They saw a scientifically engineered avatar. Each individual student espied the teacher who would best inspire them. Most greeted a teacher who was young, beautiful, and enthusiastic. She was dressed conservatively and had a motherly demeanor. Although Martin was convinced that Tommy A., the large, oafish boy in monitor seventeen, saw Miss Smith in fishnet stockings and stiletto heels.

Many of the students who peered back at Martin were also ideal in appearance and attitude. They were the ones who could afford the Perfect Student Avatar upgrade to their software. It was easy to identify these students. They were perfectly groomed, smiling eagerly, and had an expansive library positioned over their shoulders in the perfect location for their teacher to notice.

Martin addressed the class. "As you know, today will be the second day of this week's standardized testing." Martin thought it was a waste of time to give all students aptitude and progress assessments on a biweekly basis. It was the law, however, and the World Education Center was in charge.

"Today, you'll take part two of the test," he continued. "I would like to commend all of you for doing well on yesterday's exam. Every student passed." This was not an unusual result since they each had access to a myriad of computers and search engines to aid them in finding answers. That portion of the exam was designed to boost the young learners' self-confidence. Part two was the assessment which truly gauged their progress.

"On today's test, you will not be allowed to use supercomputers." At this moment, Martin let out a loud belch, which the students perceived as Miss Smith's concerned sigh. "As always, all of your vital measures will be monitored to guarantee that you are not under excessive stress. All questions are based upon the video lectures you have been immersed in this week."

Martin wasn't convinced that subliminally enhanced video lessons were the best way to learn. When he began teaching, he had used more traditional lessons. The students had enjoyed the hands-on projects and activities. However, his supervisor put a halt to his creative exploits when the test scores failed to meet minimum requirements. Since then, he had 'played by the book' and the exam results were falling nicely within one standard deviation of the mean.

The students dove into their test, touching their screens to respond to a variety of inquiries about science, mathematics, and social responsibility. Martin observed the sliding meters that occupied the upper portion of each student's screen. If any student's vitals moved into the red, too high of stress range, he was to privately contact that student and review anxiety reduction techniques. Once the stress levels were reduced, the child could continue their exam. He also had to watch for any student whose vital meters reached perfect equilibrium for all measurements. If that student was performing perfectly on the exam, Martin was to contact his supervisor.

That is exactly what happened on this day. Amara E., the quiet girl on screen twenty-three was nearly finished with the assessment. All eight of her vital measurement gauges sat at dead center and the instant grading feature showed her score to be 100%. Amara had reached Education Status A1. She would be taken to the World Education Center. There she would become one of their thought drones, using her perfect intellect for whatever task the government required.

This was the first time in Martin's career that one of his students had achieved this level. He had never believed that it would happen. It was extremely rare for a student to have the intelligence and the proper reaction to the dietary supplements and mental manipulation that led to reaching A1 status.

During his training, Martin had learned about the importance of avoiding becoming attached to your students. However, now that one of his charges had achieved the ultimate status, he found himself feeling a twinge of guilt. The child would be taken from her home and spend the rest of her life as an intellectual slave.

After a brief delay, Martin pressed the amber button which connected him to his superior. After all, he was just doing his job and the incentive bonus pay was very generous.

"State your name and assignment." The voice that came through the computer speaker was monotone and lifeless.

"Uh, Martin Stenner. IPS 1217."

"Do you have a student who has attained ultimate education?" He did not hear the usual change in inflection at the end of a question.

"Yes. The student's code is 1217-A23."

"I am sending you a link, please forward all pertinent data on this student and their test performance." Martin wasn't sure if he was conferring with an actual person or a computer interface. "Upon verification, a file will be sent to you that contains the contact information for the child's family and directions for procurement of the student."

"What? I'm okay with talking to the parents, but why do I have to be the one to take Amara away from them."

"It is a recent procedural change. Studies indicate that a majority of children will suffer less trauma if they are removed from their homes by a familiar figure. The change in duties was adequately laid out in the most recent contract addendum you were issued."

Martin sighed. He'd quit reading the contract addendums after the first three or four. He'd gotten into the habit of simply signing the new contracts and returning them as soon as he got them.

The voice continued, "The file contains all the necessary instructions. Please begin student acquisition immediately upon the conclusion of today's activities."

Martin heard a quiet ping as his computer announced the arrival of the file. He'd felt some regret about Amara's destiny when he first realized what would happen to her. Now that he was going to be an instrumental part of her fate, he felt much worse. He took a deep breath, trying to somehow get the sickening pain in the pit of his stomach to go away.

###

Martin sat in an overstuffed armchair, nervously glancing around the simply decorated living room. Amara's parents, who sat on a nearby sofa, were not wealthy by any means. Their home was located in one of the more rundown parts of the city but was well kept and comfortable.

"We thought Amara's teacher was a woman," stated the mother. She stared at Martin, confused not only by his gender but also by his presence in her home.

"Yes, well you see . . ." began Martin as he rubbed his freshly shaven face. "We use enhanced avatars to try and best relate to the students. It's all explained in the education agreement you signed when Amara was enrolled."

"I've heard about the use of avatars," interjected Amara's father. "Anything to get the kids a better education." He began to shake his fist in an awkward gesture of enthusiasm but stopped before completing the action.

Amara's mother looked deep into Martin's eyes. She was a petite woman with jet black hair and dark eyes. There was a noticeable puffiness about those eyes. "We read the information you sent us," she began. "We don't understand why Amara has to be taken from us. She's our only child."

Martin tried to recall the script for how to respond to that type of parental declaration. "Amara is a very gifted child. Only one out of a million children can ever reach the state of academic and intellectual excellence that she has attained. Her ability makes her a very important resource for the government and the world. After some additional training at the Education Center, she'll use her talent to help solve the world's problems."

"But she's so young." Tears began to well in the woman's eyes. "Do you want to see pictures of her playing in the park last summer? She's always had the most beautiful smile, though we haven't seen it much lately."

"She's become aloof and stoic," added the father. "Her schoolwork has become her main priority. She's always reading or watching educational videos."

Martin nodded. "That's perfectly normal for someone of her intelligence." Martin did not reveal that her change in personality could also be attributed to the educational vitamins that all students were asked to take daily.

"Look," he continued. "I know this is hard for you, but Amara is going to be taken care of and she is going to be valuable." Even as he said the words, Martin felt as if he were referring to this young girl as more of a commodity than a person. "I wish she didn't have to go, but there is nothing that I or anyone else can about it." Martin realized that the last statement was as much for his benefit as the parents.

"We'll be allowed to visit her, won't we?" asked the father. He was a nervous man, constantly shifting in his seat. From the records, Martin knew that he was a computer programmer.

"Possibly. Amara's initial training at the center will be rather rigorous. After completion of that training, you will be allowed to see her if she desires to do so. Sometimes, intellectual workers are so focused on their new position that they don't accept visits."

"Amara would ask to see us. She loves us so." Martin sensed desperation in the mother's statement.

"I'm sure she will," replied Martin, though he knew otherwise. The training that the students received at the Center tended to change them, even more than the vitamins and subliminal messages.

Martin could sense that it was going to be difficult to get this family to give up their child. He didn't blame them. The pain that had lingered in his stomach since administering the test was intensifying during this conversation.

"There's a substantial financial reward for both Amara and you," he added. "I really don't know what else I can tell you. Amara will be well taken care of."

"I don't want to lose her." The mother had abandoned all attempts to contain her tears. She buried her face in her hands and sobbed.

"Is there any way for us to opt-out of this?" inquired the father. He looked down at his feet as he spoke.

"It's the law. You signed the papers. It would be much easier if you just let her come with me. If the police get involved, this could get messy."

The mother quickly got up and left the room. The father finally looked up. "Okay, if we must. Amara will go with you."

"Thank you. I'll do all I can to make sure she has the best life possible." As Martin comforted the father, he considered the promise he was making.

***

As Martin's car followed its programmed route, he glanced over at the girl sitting next to him. Amara looked the part of young genius. Her straight, shoulder-length hair was held in position by a wide, blue hairband. Her oversized glasses gave her the appearance of one of those cartoons with giant eyes.

The twelve-year-old sat with perfect posture, staring straight ahead. She had displayed very little emotion when she said good-bye to her parents. Her lack of visible sorrow had nearly allowed Martin to believe that her removal was in her best interest. That belief dissipated when he observed a slight glisten of wetness in her eyes.

"Amara, I need to ask you a very important question." Martin waited for her to turn and face him before continuing. "If I told you there was a way for you to avoid going to the Education Center, a way for you to stay with your family, would you want that?"

Amara examined his expression before answering. "I understand how the system works. It is for the betterment of everyone if I go. Yet, inside of me, there's an emptiness at the thought of leaving. I have memories of being with them and feeling great joy. I know that I am not the same little girl anymore; I've changed. My guess is that part of my metamorphosis has been induced by medication and mental manipulation.

"I do not like having been manipulated, even though I am cognizant of the reason for it. So, I guess, that if I could be returned to my family and have things be like they were before, I would prefer that to going to the Education Center."

Martin smiled, relieved to hear that answer.

"Okay, it's not going to be easy, and I am going to need your help. I think I have a plan that will get you out of this."

"I do want to return to my family. I will help you." Maybe it was his imagination, but Martin swore he saw the faintest glimpse of smile.

***

Martin and Amara entered Martin's apartment. It was his own home, but Martin still felt the need to sneak across the cluttered living room and cautiously enter the monitor filled classroom. He booted up the computer.

"You are intending to hack into the Center's computers." Amara's voice did not rise in pitch at the conclusion of her utterance, so Martin was not certain if it was a question or a statement.

"I am hoping to erase your results for the last exam."

Amara shook her head. "That won't work. Not only do I doubt that you have the capability to get past their security, but, even if you do, they're already aware of my score."

"I was hoping to maybe crash their system or make all the records disappear."

Again, Amara nixed the plan. "We need some way to invalidate my score." She sat next to Martin and watched as he tried to bypass security and connect to the Education Center's mainframe.

"Here, let me." Amara gently pushed Martin's hands aside and slid her chair in front of the screen. "What do you know about the passwords they use. I should be able to program an algorithm that will run through possible passwords. My father has taught me about programming."

Martin told her everything he knew about the passwords he had been issued or used when dealing with the Education Center. Amara asked for a second computer, and he fetched his personal laptop.

Soon, Amara had the two computers linked and Martin's laptop was scrolling through thousands of possible passwords per second.

"Once we are in," announced Amara, "we still need to figure out how to discredit my score."

"What if lots of students started to get perfect scores and readings?" suggested Martin. "Your results should only happen once in a million tests. If there were thousands of students getting those scores, they would have to re-evaluate everyone's results."

Amara nodded approvingly. "We don't have much time before they discover that we are in their system, but I might be able to create a worm program that will alter students' results."

"You're amazing, Amara."

"The Education Center did a great job with me." Amara's fingers danced over the keyboard. After ten minutes, she clapped her hands together, satisfied. "I even gave Tommy A. perfect scores. Until they figure out the worm is in their system, they should be getting hundreds of perfects scores each test."

"That should invalidate your test. You should erase your original scores."

"Excellent idea," responded Amara, though she had already begun the process prior to Martin's suggestion.

"I have one more thing to do," announced Amara. As she typed, she explained. "I am routing the connection from here to the mainframe through multiple sources, both before and after this terminal and deleting this connection. Hopefully, it will be impossible to trace back here."

"Okay, let's clear out any evidence of our being here tonight, and I'll take you home. Tomorrow, I'll report that I was unable to convince you to come with me and have to try again. Hopefully, they'll discover the hack and cancel your initiation into the Center."

"I don't know how I'll ever repay you for what you've done for me." Amara gave Martin a clumsy hug.

"Just promise to stop taking the vitamins the Center sends you."

"Obviously. Thank you, Miss Smith."

***

Martin Stenner opened his left eye and tried to focus on the clock by his bed. It read 5:45. He forced his right eye to join its partner and slowly sat up. He had an hour to get ready for work. He stretched his arms skyward and allowed himself a thoroughly satisfying yawn.

After a shower and breakfast, he grabbed his smock and headed toward the door. He soon arrived at the coffee shop and greeted the handful of customers waiting by the door.

"Isn't it a wonderful day," he announced, a huge grin plastered on his face.

THE END

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