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Ana had been doodling in class. Again. The rubber tip of her stylus traced complicated patterns next to the numbers on her tablet’s screen, the swirls growing more and more elaborate so that the page was essentially unreadable. But it didn’t matter; Ana knew her drawings would be gone soon. The Hub made sure of that. Ana was surprised her illustrations hadn’t been erased already. It would only be a matter of time now; the Hub’s Education Regulation Ward was very busy on Conditioning Days.
“Anacamphria Midden-Bocks-O’Salisbury!” Ana’s head snapped up as the sound of her full name pierced the dry silence. Only the Proctors used students’ full names, and usually only when they had to scold them. By now Ana was well-used to being berated for being distracted during Conditioning, but the sudden noise interrupting her meditation made her jump every time. “Pay attention,” the Proctor hissed. Ana muttered something like an affirmation (intelligibility didn’t matter--the microphone in her molars would pick up the sound and send it to the Proctor’s earpiece) and dragged her eyes back to the tablet. Her doodles were gone, replaced by an intimidating screen full of numbers.
She looked around the room; the other children were still studiously poking at their tablets with their styluses. All seemed to be perfectly enthralled by the device in front of them: a thin, rectangular pad that resembled a sheet of glass in appearance and texture, issued to everyone in the Society when paper was outlawed twenty years ago. Entire lives were contained in these tablets.
None of the other students, however, seemed swayed by the Proctor’s disturbance. Ana knew they wouldn’t be--everyone had an earpiece imbedded in both ears from birth, each channeled to their own personal frequency (easier for The Hub to supervise them)--and when the Proctor had called her name, of course it had been on Ana’s frequency and Ana’s only. Still, she had heard the Proctor’s voice so crisp and clear, she always thought another student must’ve been able to hear the racket from through her earpiece. But of course they couldn’t. The Conditioning of the other students could not be hindered when another was refocused. This was a big flaw in the education system of the Old Times, The Hub claimed. Classroom environments held too many distractions, which prevented students from learning at their full capacity. Their theory was proving correct; here Ana was, thirteen-years-old, in a room full of her intellectually-equal peers, each of them studying something that their predecessors wouldn’t have learned until they were eighteen. Just think of all the productivity lost when students had all learned together!
Ana turned her attention back to her work. The numbers all seemed to blur together. Glare on the screen from the fluorescent lights above her caught Ana’s eye; she blinked and readjusted the tablet, shifting in her seat so the light no longer interrupted her concentration. She wasn’t allowed a lot of wiggle room, though; the tablets were all connected to a thin power cord that snaked into the desk, severely restricting the mobility of the tablet.
She hated Conditioning Days. The children were Conditioned for five hours a day for three consecutive days, then Evaluated on the fourth day to test their knowledge on what they had just been Conditioned. Successful Evaluation meant advancement to the next lesson. Of course, everyone was successful. This education system was flawless.
Suddenly, a long mellow tone played in Ana’s ear. She watched as the screen of her tablet slowly faded back to transparency. Around her, the other students did the same. It was time for their second and final break of the day.
From beneath their seats, a drawer slid out automatically, revealing its meager contents: a small white pouch, a tiny white tin, an opaque white bottle, and a large white box. Ana picked up the pouch first. The room started humming as students began to socialize quietly. Ana unzipped the pouch and removed the small bottle that it contained, as well as a small metal square, which unfolded to become a mirror. She applied the eyedrops robotically; it was routine now, having used them for seven years now, so she barely needed the mirror. Students around her imitated her with similar mechanicality.
Next was the tin. Inside was the usual single white pill, replenished mysteriously between breaks. Ana swallowed it easily, downing it with a swig of water from the bottle. This, too, was familiar. Everyone in the Society had been taking these pills and using the eyedrops daily since they turned six, though they had all used tablets since birth. They could waste no time when it came to optimizing the youth of the Society.
The largest box held Ana’s lunch, a nutrient-bloated turkey sandwich that she finished within the minute.
Breaks lasted twenty minutes, savored by most through chatting with their friends, but Ana was always annoyed by how long they seemed to last. It wasn’t that she didn’t have any friends; she had one friend, her best friend. Radison was thirteen, too, but his Group was in Conditioning for ancient languages today. Ana would have this subject next week, when Radison’s Group was studying classical literature. They all cycled through.
There was another hour left of Conditioning for the day, which meant only one hour now until Ana could talk to Radison. He had pulled her aside earlier that day before Conditioning started, only long enough to tell her, “Meet me under Netting after Conditioning, there’s something I need to show you,” which was enough to implant a quickly-sprouting seed of curiosity in Ana’s already-distracted mind, rendering any attempt at studying for the rest of the day completely fruitless.
The line of students filing out of the room moved painfully slow for Ana, and she found herself unconsciously rapping her fingers against the surface of her tablet as she stood in the lethargic queue. She had to wait until the line had at least reached the front entrance of the enormous Education Facility until she could break formation and start running the short distance down the impeccably clean white streets to the towering white structure where she lived, called Netting.
The tablets all had a tracking chips inside. They were supposed to have their tablets on their persons at all times--or else face a considerable fine--so embedding a tracking chip in the people themselves was unnecessary, but she still couldn’t bring her tablet when she met Radison. So, as she usually did before going under Netting, Ana hid her tablet under a white plastic paving stone on the front steps, then ran behind the building to the hidden door that would take her to the cellar below.
When she entered the familiar, dim, dirty room, Radison was sitting in the corner. He was crouched over something, his back to Ana as she crept in cautiously. Hearing her enter, he twisted his head around and greeted her with a wide, excited grin. “Ana!” he exclaimed in a hushed cry.
“What is it, Radison?” Ana questioned skeptically, slowly approaching her friend.
“Look at this!” Radison spun around on his knees, sliding the hidden object in front of him on the dusty floor.
“Paper!” His enthusiasm was evident. His eyes were wide with excitement and his hands quivered as he lifted two pages from the stack to hand to Ana. “It’s only a few pages but--”
“Radison!” Ana’s voice was shaking with fear as she took the paper in her hands. “Where did you get this?” She felt the pages between her fingers; the yellowing sheets were coarse, but thinner than she would’ve expected. They left fine, dusty residue on her fingers.
The boy’s young voice shook as the words tumbled out of his mouth: “I-I was just looking for my stylus--because it rolled into the closet--a-and there was this box! So I opened it ‘cause I was curious and there were some sheets of paper--a-and this!” He held up a long, thin, yellow cylinder--similar to a stylus in shape. Ana took it from his hands; it was lighter than she expected. Upon closer inspection, she could see that something had been written on the side of the tube but was now almost completely rubbed off, leaving only a few flakes of shiny green. The entire body was worn. One end was a smooth, flat, pink cap; the other tapered off to a point, which was shiny and gray at the rounded tip.
“What does it do?” Ana wondered aloud, turning the thing around in her fingers, eyeing it closely.
“This!” Radison shoved the paper on the floor in front of Ana. Each page was covered in scribbles, gray and smudging. “It’s a pencil. It writes, Ana! Just like a stylus on the tablets!”
Ana immediately pushed the gray tip to the paper. It left a chalky trail as it traveled across the page. She sucked in a breath and began drawing with the pencil like she had done with the stylus earlier that day. “Radison...” she began, eyes wide as her doodles bloomed across the paper, “...this...this is amazing!” She began writing her name with the pencil and paper, each letter in a different script. Everything she put on this page seemed so permanent now; The Hub couldn’t erase this, it wasn’t being monitored.
“But Rad,” she cautioned, still writing as Radison watched her with intense concentration, “you can’t tell anyone else about this, ‘cause if The Hub finds out--”
Suddenly the door to the cellar burst open. Four uniformed Hub officers marched in. “Radison Krakowski-Wallace-Fabre-Sanchez,” one boomed, reading off a tablet balancing in the crook of his arm, “for the illegal possession and use of Paper and Pencil.”
There was a pop and Radison slumped onto the floor, blood pouring out of a hole in his head.
The last conscious thought Ana had was about how the odd it was that his blood spread in such strange, blossoming patterns across the paper.