"I was born poor!" Trish shouted as the monitors dragged her out of the classroom. "I was born poor! It's not my fault!"
She kept on shouting long after she was out of earshot of the horrified silence of the classroom. Why wouldn't they listen? Why couldn't they see there had to be changes?
They arrived at the principal's office. The monitors held her arms firmly, but there was no need. She was too exhausted to fight. There would be another session with the electroprod, and then she would apologize. She always did.
Principal Elstone was not happy to see her. He clutched his electroprod tightly and mopped his forehead with a monogrammed handkerchief. She had always suspected that he secretly agreed with her--that he knew as well as she did that the Universal Access Schools were no more than propaganda instruments to reconcile the poor to their poverty.
"And what was the topic under discussion today?" he asked, with an air of weariness.
"We need computers in the classrooms. There are no jobs for the computer illiterate."
He sighed. "What is the use of preparing people for jobs that will never be available?" The same party line as the teacher had spouted.
"If we were prepared, we could compete for the jobs on an equal basis."
"That would cause social chaos. Don't you see that?"
"You call it social chaos. I call it justice."
He shook his head despairingly. "Where do you get those ideas?"
"Not here, that's for sure." Daily, they were told that the Taxpayers were entitled to the jobs because they were Taxpayers. They could afford the tuition to send their children to private schools to learn job skills. The more prestigious the job, the higher the tuition. The Unskilled--"poor" was no longer a politically correct word--were relegated to the Universal Access schools, where they were provided with freshly laundered uniforms, de-lousing, and nutritious if uninspiring breakfasts and lunches.
If they remained after school for the Approved Activity Period and the Homework Period, they would be served a hot supper before going home. Compulsory schooling had been ruled unconstitutional, but almost every eligible juvenile attended. If the relative comfort of the facilities and the free meals were not enough to promote attendance, there was the fact that any person between the ages of five and 18 found out-of-doors during school hours was promptly picked up by the police and taken to a Youth Counseling Center. Once there, they risked being relegated to a rehabilitation center.
Principal Elstone drew himself up into his Severe Pose. "Young lady, education is a privilege, not a right - a privilege you have abused repeatedly."
Her eyes were vacant. He always gave the same speech before he used his electroprod.
"Since you have failed to show the slightest indication that you are benefitting from this privilege, it will be withdrawn."
Trish snapped to attention. This was not part of the standard lecture. Was he trying to frighten her?
Principal Elstone pressed a button on his desk. Miss Trent, one of the less inspiring teachers, entered carrying a plastic bin with Trish's locker contents.
"Take off your uniform," she ordered.
Trish stared, unable to absorb the meaning of the new routine.
"Take off your uniform and put on your clothes," Miss Trent repeated sharply, giving her a quick tap with her electroprod. "Hurry up - I'm missing my break."
Trish turned to Principal Elstone, panic gathering in her throat. Now that her older brother Sean had been arrested, she had no one to look after her, no one to protect her. As a juvenile, she had no access to food or clothing vouchers or public housing unless someone listed her as a dependent.
"Please--" she said. "I'll do better."
"You were warned," he said sternly.
"I'm only 12," she pleaded, "and I have no one."
Miss Trent prodded her again. "I said hurry up!"
After she had undergone the humiliation of exposing her tattered underwear to the relentless gaze of Principal Elston and Miss Trent, they went through the contents of the plastic bin. Her only personal possession was a small fuzzy smurf she had been handed by an indifferent Father Christmas at one of the government-sponsored parties. Everything else belonged to the school.
She scurried through the alleys to the "apartment hotel" where she had lived with Sean. The room had been looted again. Without Sean to protect their territory, no one hesitated to take advantage of the fact that the lock had been forced and never repaired. It didn't matter much - the month would end in eight days. Unless she could attach herself to someone who was eligible for a housing voucher, she would be forced onto the street.
She sat with her back against the wall, thinking. It would be a relief not having to repeat the slogans and give the correct answers. She was free to think her own thoughts. But she would have to think them without the benefit of food or housing or medical care. She had to find a protector, fast.
Sean had been a good protector. Nobody dared to mess with her when he was around, and he was a gifted trader on the black market. This bare room once contained mattresses, warm sleeping bags, a table and three chairs, and a small fridge that usually had food in it. The last six weeks, there was even a computer that Sean had scrounged from the recycling bin of a private school. He had taught her what little he knew, leaving her ravenous for more. He was trying to trade for computer software when he was arrested. Since he was over 18 and had a previous record, he was sent to the Center for Incorrigible Offenders.
At least her parents had not survived long enough to suffer the mortification of seeing both their children go bad. Trish's mother had spent the first 17 years of her life in the suburbs before both her parents were downsized, and the values of her early life had stuck. She fussed endlessly about getting a good education and what the neighbors would think. Until she died of pneumonia during a power failure three years ago, she had never ceased to lecture her children about getting ahead. She could not accept the fact that hard work, nice clothes, and appropriate social skills led absolutely nowhere for the Unskilled.
Trish checked the hole in the wall where she had stashed the last of the peanut butter. Gone. She hugged her smurf closer.
Two days later she was caught trying to remove Valuable Public Resources from a dumpster.
In some ways, the New Hope Rehabilitation Center for Girls was preferable to the school. All the staff carried electroprods and discipline was swift and brutal, but expectations were clear. They were herded into the gymnasium for daily Motivational Lectures, but they were not required to participate in discussion or repeat the slogans. There were few organized activities, but there was an active underground network. The "clients" were not supposed to speak to each other, but the facility was overcrowded and understaffed and supervision was usually minimal. Trish's humour and ideas were welcomed by her peer group. She almost regretted having to leave.
"You'll be back," the matron predicted as she checked her out. "I know your kind. Your brother is a jailbird, and you will be a jailbird. They will put your head in a vise and do brain surgery without an anesthetic."
This was no idle threat. Instead of animals, researchers used volunteers from the Center for Incorrigible Offenders. Since the introduction of the deep brain implants, a simple remote control device was all that was needed to keep them manageable. Whenever new test subjects were needed, the Center staff would turn on the brain stimulators, subjecting the entire population to ceaseless pain until enough of them came forward to fill the roster of volunteers. Despite the steady influx of inmates, the population of the Center remained constant.
Now that Trish was 13 and of the age of legal consent, she decided to ply the oldest profession. She had received some rudimentary instructions at New Hope, and it seemed more lucrative than raiding dumpsters. A few days, and she would have enough money for a temporary license and a health certificate. Then she would be legit, and nobody could touch her.
The first potential customer she approached was an undercover policeman. The matron nodded wisely when she checked her in.
Her friends urged her to accept the Invitation. "Try it! You're young enough. You have a chance. Just smile and say what they want you to say. If you're placed, you'll get to go to school and use a computer."
The Invitation was a monthly event, at the end of a particularly oppressive motivational lecture. Half a dozen girls always came forward, tearfully confessing the error of their ways. If they passed a preliminary interview, they would be taken to another part of the facility for intense motivational instruction. After six weeks, they would be taken to one of the attractive group homes at the edge of the grounds to be indoctrinated into Taxpayer lore. They cooked, cleaned, sewed and did crafts, and learned how to behave when they were being exhibited. From time to time, reporters took pictures to illustrate their glowing reports of a society where every erring citizen was given a second chance.
The most important sight-seers were the couples who wished to expand their families. Since all women were permanently sterilized after their second live birth, there was a brisk market for additional children, and anyone who wanted to give up an infant or small child for adoption could command a high price "for expenses". The less fortunate aspiring parents had to content themselves with rehabilitated youth. After a trial period of six months, they had the option of adopting the reclaimed black sheep and becoming the subject of emotional first-person accounts in popular household magazines. This was the only path by which an Unskilled person could enter the ranks of the Taxpayers.
Trish's flair for acting was more than adequate to meet the challenge. She did well in the program until her prospective father taught her the joy of sex and his wife caught them at it. Trish was sent back into the general population of New Hope in disgrace and forced to sit on the stage during an intense motivational lecture on the subject of ingratitude.
She was a tougher and wiser 15-year-old when the matron checked her out the second time. Her subsequent career in burglary was interrupted by a stint in the Correctional Facility for Young Women.
There were no more motivational lectures, but the electroprods were set on stun and there were frequent interrogations of all prisoners, whether they were suspected of wrong-doing or not. She spent the time learning all the survival skills she could. When she left, she was 18. Desperate measures would be needed to avoid the Center for Incorrigible Offenders.
That was when the salesman approached her.
He had a business card, a briefcase, and an oily smile. "I have an unusual opportunity for you. It's called The Paradise Alternative."
"A porn shop?" she asked. She tried to act indifferent, but she was listening very hard.
"Nothing like that," he assured her. "Much better. Much, much better. Come to my car and we'll talk."
The car was a limo. It was waiting in the parking lot of a Holiday Inn just outside the slum. She got in.
"So - what kind of scam is this?"
"Not a scam - an opportunity," he assured her.
He began to explain about the space-time continuum and relativity and parallel realities and molecular dispersement and mass-energy conversion. None of these topics had been covered in the universal access educational curriculum, or in the motivational lectures.
"Break it down for me," she said at last. "You are offering to send me to some place where the Unskilled live like the Taxpayers do here?"
"Yes. But we wouldn't be sending you, exactly. Just your consciousness."
"If things are so great there, why do they need my consciousness?"
"An unfortunate brain virus," he murmured. "Enough people are dying to upset the social balance."
"You want to put me in a dead person?" she squeaked.
"That person's consciousness would be gone, yes. But the body and brain would still be alive and serviceable."
"Sounds like Frankenstein." Sean had taken her to a friend's once, to see the video tape.
"Believe me - it is far beyond anything that crude," he soothed her. "Your personality, your memories, your intelligence--all will remain intact. There will be a little disorientation as you adjust to a new body, that's all. And it means so much to the relatives."
"Won't they notice that there's something wrong?"
"They will be told that you have total amnesia, and that there will likely by some irreversible personality changes. They adjust quickly. They are so eager to get their loved ones back. With a little effort, you can become that loved one." His shining eyes reached into hers.
"What's your fee?" she asked.
"There is absolutely no cost to you."
"But somebody is paying you."
He cleared his throat. "Certain philanthropists...." he said delicately. "You know."
"I'm a jailbird," she said brutally. "I don't understand socially correct jargon. But I know there's always a pay-off somewhere."
"A number of Taxpayers are getting tired of supporting so many Unskilled citizens. They have pooled their resources to enable the removal of as many individuals as possible, knowing that they will eventually receive a return on their investment in lowered taxes."
"Whatever happened to good old-fashioned murder?" she demanded. "Wouldn't that be cheaper and easier?"
The salesman smiled blankly, ignoring her question. It crossed her mind that perhaps this was all it was - a come-on to go to some secluded place where she could be killed and disposed of conveniently. But when the salesman expressed his disappointment in her attitude and hinted that he had another appointment very soon, she made up her mind. Dying as an Incorrigible or dying in this weird sci-fi scheme, it made no difference.
"What happens to my body?" she probed.
"It will be disassembled to provide energy for the transfer."
"But I won't be in it -- and I won't be dead? Are you sure I won't die?"
"The irreversible neuron dispersal rate is .03 per cent. Three per ten thousand. Better than the odds of surviving here."
"All right -- how do I sign up?"
"I can take you directly to our orientation center. We have a number of openings. You should be in your new home within the week."
She gripped the door handle as the limo began to glide away from the curb. Maybe she should jump out while there was still time. What if they planned to use her for some gruesome experiment? But they could get all the Incorrigibles they wanted by submitting a simple one-page request form to the Department of Justice. There was no need to resort to such elaborate window dressing.
She leaned back against the soft leather. Maybe, just maybe, this slick promoter was telling the truth.
The orientation center was a pleasant, reassuring place. The intake worker issued her clean clothes and a package of orientation tapes. She could bathe as often and as long as she wanted. Smiling technicians scanned and tested her painlessly with an array of electronic gizmos. There was an unlimited supply of food - real food instead of the Nutrino pellets she had been fed in the rehabilitation centers. She had an attractive room with clean sheets and perfumed soap beside the sink. There was even a television with a VCR in the common room. Between movies, she talked to the others who were being oriented. They knew no more than she did about the transfer process, but some of them seemed to have a better grasp of the scientific concept of parallel reality.
"It's like 'Sliders'," one of them said. They found a videotape of some episodes and showed them to her.
"Will I be able to meet myself?" she asked one of the technicians, who seemed to find her questions boring.
"Theoretically. But it isn't encouraged. Might upset the balance."
She nodded in agreement so as not to arouse his suspicion. The idea of checking on her "real self" was very appealing.
She slept restlessly the night before the transfer. In the morning, she was asked to swallow a collection of pills. She was floating in a pink cloud of euphoria when they strapped her into the machine and made the necessary connections. Even the thought of being "disassembled" seemed vaguely pleasant. She drifted off and woke up on a hospital bed, surrounded by blue-garbed doctors and nurses in surgical masks. She tried to speak, but managed only a groan. Her tongue and teeth were in the wrong place.
One of the doctors examined her eyes with a pen light, while the others called out readings from a battery of monitor screens. Finally they gathered around the bed, looking pleased.
"Excellent!" the chief doctor exclaimed. "I think we've just saved another one."
A woman with a clipboard came forward to join him as the rest of the team dispersed. "What's your name, sweetheart?" she asked. "Trish -- " She remembered that was not her name any more. "Ellen. I'm Ellen Pandella."
The woman made a check mark on her sheet of paper. "Very good. Now - do you know where you are?"
Trish remembered most of the answers from her orientation tapes. The doctor nodded benevolently. When the questioning was finished, he summoned two orderlies with a stretcher.
"You're going to your room now," he said. "Once you're rested a while, they'll take you to physio. You can let Mrs. Pandella in," he instructed the orderlies, "but only for ten minutes."
Mrs. Pandella was tearful. "I know you can't remember who I am," she gushed, "but I'm your mother and I love you very, very much. We'll make new memories together. I promise."
"When can I go back to school?" Trish/Ellen asked. It was the only question she could think of.
Mrs. Pandella laughed her silvery laugh. "Oh, dear - only Workers go to school. We are the Privileged."
"Where I come from, we're called the Unskilled, not the Privileged," she blurted.
"My, my," her new mother clucked. "We are a little disoriented, aren't we? Never mind. The doctor said it will pass soon."
Trish/Ellen fell blissfully asleep. A week later, when she met her Adjustment Counsellor in preparation for going home, she was already thinking of herself as Ellen/Trish, with Trish receding rapidly. She found that vaguely disturbing, and tried to bring her former reality into focus.
"Did my brother come here?" she asked. "His name was Sean Johnson."
"You are better to leave all that behind you," her counsellor soothed. "Focus on adjusting to your current reality. You are Ellen Pandella, and you have two wonderful brothers - your full brother James, and Altor from your father's previous marriage."
"Altor - sounds like something out of a comic book," Ellen/Trish mused. "But I forgot - there are no comic books here."
"Altor is a gifted sculptor. You'll like his work."
Seemingly, the arts had been relegated to the Privileged, who rarely partook of the popular entertainment of the Workers. Ellen/Trish had already come to the conclusion that she would prefer to be a Worker.
"It's so incredibly boring here," she complained to her Adjustment Counsellor at her follow-up session a week later. "Is there any way I can get some education? I thought being Privileged would give me a chance to learn things."
"Your mother tells me that your painting has already improved tremendously, and you have definite promise as an actress."
"But I want to learn math and science and computers! Will I ever get to use a computer?"
The counsellor leaned back and shook her head. "You are a minor here until you are 30, and subject to the Department of Social Adjustment. After that, you may join the Workers if you wish, but it would be considered a social disgrace and it is unlikely that they would ever accept you."
"Then send me back!" she exploded. "Your version of paradise sucks!"
"Oh, Ellen, you can't mean that! Think of the terrible things you went through before you came here!"
"But at least I was alive! I'm sick of being told that all my ideas are the result of "temporary disorientation". I'm just a pig in a pen with nothing to do. We spend all morning deciding what to wear and all afternoon messing up the cultural centers so the Workers can clean them up. These 'Privileged' people, as you call them, are all brain dead. And if I don't get out of here soon, I'll be just like them."
"Give it a little longer," the counsellor advised. "You will adjust."
At her next counselling session, Ellen/Trish was more vocal than ever. She had done a lot of observing and reasoning, and her questions had an edge on them. "There is no brain virus, is there?" she asked finally, after an hour of fruitless attempts to extract information from the infuriatingly bland woman on the other side of the desk.
The counsellor tensed. "How can you say such a thing? The brain virus is a terrible disease. Hundreds have succumbed to it - or they would have, without the transfer technology."
"But only the Privileged--never the Workers."
The counsellor squirmed. "I think you should talk to the Coordinator of Readjustment."
The coordinator was bluff and hearty. "Congratulations," he said, holding out his hand. "I think you are ready for consideration for the next phase."
"What next phase?"
"Exploration of other parallel realities. There are thousands of them, you know, maybe millions. A number of us would like to emigrate, but first we need explorers to bring back information."
Ellen/Trish sat down hard. "There is no brain virus, is there?" she asked again.
"Disease was wiped out decades ago," the Coordinator explained, "but the Privileged still have annual medical examinations. It has allowed us to make certain...adjustments. When we told suitable individuals that they had a virus that required treatment, they were very grateful to have us look after them."
"So you're killing off the Privileged and replacing them with explorers," she said slowly.
"That's a crude way of putting it, but essentially correct," the co-ordinator said absent-mindedly. He was scanning her file. "My goodness, your test scores are high. You will make a wonderful explorer."
"And every time I jump to another reality, my body will be disassembled here and someone will have to die on the other side to make a new body available for me?"
"It is possible to share a body with a host," the co-ordinator informed her. But things are much simpler this way."
The old Trish burst out, full of moral indignation. "How can you do this?" she shouted, jumping to her feet. "They're human beings just like you. It's not their fault that they're so stupid. You haven't allowed them any kind of challenge. They just trust you to look after them."
"And we have looked after them splendidly," the co-ordinator reminded her. "There are three of them for every one of us, and we are getting tired of carrying the load."
"Why don't you train some of them to be explorers, then?"
"We tried. But they are too satisfied with their lives. They aren't hungry to experience the untried, the way you are."
"You looked after them too well."
"I suppose so. Now it's time for them to give something back. They're expendable. And, as you remarked, they're not very intelligent."
Trish paced back and forth. "I guess I have no choice but to become an explorer," she said at last.
"There is always a choice," the co-ordinator assured her. "If you prefer, you may remain among the Privileged. We have an excellent adjustment conditioning program. After completing it, you will be aware of only a single reality, and perfectly happy in it."
"You mean I would stop questioning," Trish said.
"Exactly. No questions. No conflict. What mankind has dreamed of for millennia. The Paradise Alternative is yours for the asking."