by N.A. Ratnayake
Amanthi is a teenage student in a not-so-distant future school system of hyper-testing and top-down control. In this world, creativity is a liability — but Amanthi is not deterred from dreaming. “The Parched Lands”, delves into the tangled issues of race, tracking, high-stakes testing, and creativity starvation that run through America’s public school systems.
This short story was published as a part of Issue 7: Expectations of Crossed Genres Magazine in 2014.
The story is copyright 2013 by Nalin A. Ratnayake. The cover art is copyright 2017 by Nalin A. Ratnayake.
When the bell rang at the end of class, Amanthi was crashing from a dopamine high. She raised her slight, brown hand as her thin body shook, and when her arm brushed against her long, black hair she felt the slick dampness of sweat.
Mr. Daveys was moving around the classroom helping students disconnect from their desks, congratulating or reprimanding as appropriate based on measured performance for the day. Amanthi could feel that something was wrong, but found herself unable to articulate any words though the shaking of her body. Kassidi, sitting next to her, looked over and noticed her wan trembling, and spoke up.
“Mr. Daveys” Kassidi said sharply. “Something’s wrong with Amanthi!” The teacher glanced up from his IV work and in a moment rushed over, fussing over Amanthi and checking her forehead. He held up a datapad and allowed its cameras to analyze her. The red eye of the infrared and the black eye of the optical glass stared at Amanthi, and she suddenly felt weak and ill.
“No harm, no harm,” said Mr. Daveys with a reassuring smile. He plugged his datapad into Amanthi’s desk and tapped it two or three times. “Let’s just bring you down a little.”
It was a few nail-biting seconds before Amanthi felt her breathing slow and her mind clear. “Thank you Mr Daveys.” She smiled up at him but he was busy, blue eyes rapidly scanning his datapad display while his fingers tapped. Mr. Daveys never raised his eyes to meet hers.
“Five hundred and three points today? Amanthi, this is a new best for you. No wonder you were shaking. I’m going to have to turn down your d-gains… again!” With every right answer, each students’ school desk allowed a tiny drip of L-dopa into the bloodstream. From there, the precursor chemical easily crossed the blood-brain barrier, where enzymes dutifully converted it into the body’s natural reward chemical, dopamine. And based on how she felt at the end of today’s daily assessment, Amanthi was sure this had to be a new school best.
“Mr. Daveys, is it high enough to–”
“I’m checking. Scaling for your socioeconomic factors, looks like you’re just short of Allison Grindle’s record for East Wellingham back in ’23.” He looked up briefly and smiled at her, even as her face fell.
“I thought for sure I had beaten it this time,” Amanthi murmured. She was suddenly aware of how unpleasant she must smell at the moment, slick with sweat and hormones. She abruptly glanced downward to cover her blush. Mr. Daveys gave no sign that he noticed any awkwardness as he deftly unplugged her, first from the optical data stream and then from the intravenous tubing that connected her to the Learner 5-Series smart desk.
All A-Track classrooms had the new 5-Series, the pride of the school this year. Students technically didn’t need to study, since all relevant information was presented optically in neatly packaged form immediately before testing. However, any student who wanted to make the leaderboards or get top honors did study. Memorizing relevant information in advance could give you just the edge you needed for those extra couple of points. And those points could mean jobs, scholarships, admissions to prestigious academies… Points were the point, after all.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s enough for the leaderboard for sure, and that’s no small thing. You’ve been the best thing for East Wellingham High, let alone my own numbers, in a long time. I’ve cleared you for the day. Go ahead and sit for awhile if you need to, but you should be good to go. Great job. I’ll see you tomorrow.” By the time Amanthi looked up again, Mr. Daveys was walking away toward the front of the classroom, where the classroom master computer was embedded into the wall. She watched him go.
“You might wan’ shower Amms.”
Amanthi saw Kassidi standing near the door waiting for her. Out in the hallway other students slank about and sounds of chatter and laughter splattered through the doorway. “You know, before we go see Slippery Slopes? I mean, Demarco’s gonna be there… You don’t wan’ be showing up like that.”
Amanthi perked up at the mention of her friends’ two favorite conversational topics: the most popular vidstream ever (now in its seventh season) and the stocky, awkward dreamer of a boy whom they all agreed had a crush on her. She rose slowly, testing her feet. Confident that they would hold her, she walked over and grabbed her bag from the racks at the back of the classroom. The two girls walked out of the door into the stream of emancipated students.
“Yeah. Thanks K. I’ll run to the locker room first. I’ll just meet you there.”
Kassidi voiced an affirmation as the two girls parted ways. Amanthi forgot all about Mr. Daveys, but hung on to her accomplishment for the day. Making the East Wellingham leaderboard… Her mother would be ecstatic tonight. Maybe she could get away with coming home a little later, carrying news like that.
Behind her, Mr Daveys had finished loading tomorrow’s test into the main computer and moved to his next task for the evening, arguably the most important of the day. With bulk-ordered cleaning equipment, one by one he started wiping down the twenty smart desks. The district had been adamant since day one of the year: they had spent way too much on these 5-Series desks to have them not well taken-care-of, and by god they weren’t going to be like Mansfield High and get sued over medical issues. So it was imperative that the learning environment be completely sterile at all times.
The vidstream kiosks were still a few tens of meters off, but even as she approached, Amanthi could see that most of her friends had already plugged in. She checked the numbers glowing through the skin on her wrist. Good – it wasn’t quite seven yet, so it would still be just ads playing before the start of Slippery Slopes.
A small crowd was still waiting in line to scan their credit tags. She noticed Kassidi talking and laughing with Demarco. Amanthi felt her chest tighten and pace quicken involuntarily. Kass was wearing a tight-fitting black halter that worked well with her dark brown hair to contrast her cream skin. Demarco was wearing loose jeans with a baggy polo, collar flared out and starched horizontally – just like Jeremy on Slippery Slopes. His hair was tightly braided into cross-dreads. Under one arm he carried an old model sketchbook, the kind every budding artist used to use before the ones with direct optical interfaces came out. Amanthi stared until she suddenly realized that he was smiling back. She quickly turned her attention to Kassidi.
“Hi Kass,” Amanthi said. She felt self-conscious and tried to appear casual. Demarco started to say something but Kassidi was already hugging Amanthi, so instead he stood there and shuffled his feet.
“Hey Amanthi,” he said. “I, um. I heard about your score. Today. Um. Congratulations. That’s like, a big deal, the leaderboards. And, uh, I like your hair.”
Amanthi blushed and tried not to think about the rushed way that she had put back her long hair after the gym shower.
“Oh, thank you. And I like your–”
Kassidi shook her head. “Yeah yeah golden girl. Hey, so Demarco was just saying that he thinks Jeremy’s collar isn’t perfectly horizontal, and that’s why he gets all the girls on Slippery Slopes. Like a subtle hint that he’s a rebel.”
Amanthi blinked at the sudden interception, but smirked along. “No way, everybody says so. It’s flat. Just watch tonight, I bet you anything.”
Demarco smiled and argued back amicably in his plodding baritone. In short order, they found themselves at the front of the line. Kassidi rushed them along.
“Ooooh my god, Amms, it’s starting! We’re going to miss the beginning.” Amanthi tapped her tag and hurried to find seats at a kiosk. Too late, Amanthi realized that she hadn’t even asked Demarco about his favorite pastime, art. She glanced over at him. He was already plugged into the optical stream on the other side of the 8-person kiosk, sketchpad closed on his lap. Oh well. Maybe she could say hi during the show. She stared at him for a few moments longer and then plugged in.
The data stream turned on and the center of her vision was filled with the opening credits of Slippery Slopes. In the periphery of the main image were the faces of her friends as they watched – she could tag any of them or assign them to groups and multi-chat at any time as they watched together. She saw Demarco at the bottom left.
As the show started, she made a few text comments to let them think that she was watching along with them – and then she switched the stream. With a look and two taps she brought up the East Wellingham central library on her main viewer, maintaining the same social circle on the periphery. As always, they were too enraptured by the start of the show to notice their friend’s surreptitious deviation from the group ritual. With a few more taps, Amanthi was skimming down her list of to-read items and selecting the one she had been thinking about on the way over.
It was a back issue of Olympus Mons Magazine, a weekly of science fiction that published adventure serials about space exploration. She was careful to keep tabs on her chat window, respond to vid comments with generic responses. The plot of Slippery Slopes wasn’t hard to predict, and Amanthi could keep up with the essentials via summaries posted every night. She laughed when everyone else laughed, exclaimed when everyone else exclaimed, and made sure to snicker at decent intervals.
But her heart and mind were among the stars. They were on the planet Mehet, defending the great desert cities against the invading hordes of bug beings. They were on the escape ship that the colonists used in their last desperate rear-guard action. And they were at the viewports when those refugee vessels first saw the pale dot of a new home world approaching, just before the wonderful anguish of the three words TO BE CONTINUED.
Amanthi had let her thoughts drift away more than usual with this story, and too late she realized that her guard had been down. In the corner of her eye she saw the icon for waiting new chat messages – as well as a more startling indicator. She had forgotten to switch her viewing stream to private mode! A single green dot burned on the display-share panel, next to the username ArtsyBigD_485.
Amanthi wanted to crawl inside of herself.
When the Slippery Slopes episode ended a few minutes later, she didn’t want to pull the optical cable away from the front of her face. Even the closing ad for astronaut openings, a subject which would have normally grabbed her attention completely, failed to excite her. When she finally disconnected and halfheartedly joined the babble of conversation, she didn’t want to look at Demarco, but he came toward her anyway, sketchpad in hand and with a half-smile on his face. His eyes glowed. Amanthi thought for sure that he was getting ready to make a joke at her expense to the group and could feel her whole body tense in preparation for social evasive action.
“Hey, um. So, have you read The Parched Lands? I think you should. Because, um. I saw you–”
Amanthi’s mouth blurted out before she could register what she was saying. “What, so some B-Track student thinks he can spy on my vidstream? Don’t be such a creeper.”
Conversation stopped mid-sentence and then reengaged in murmurs. Amanthi could see that she had hurt him. Her heart pounded as the logical part of her brain caught up to the rest of it and replayed the scene in a flash. Demarco had spoken quietly, gently – not to make fun, though she had been sure of his malicious intent. He had wanted to share something that they had in common and she had spurned it. In a terrible way too – everybody knew that B Track students weren’t actually stupider, they just didn’t, well, fit. An A Track student claiming superiority was a sure-fire way to get labeled a tool of the system because adults sure seemed to put a lot of stock in it for some reason.
Kassidi came over and touched her shoulder, looking curiously at Demarco. “What’s going on Amms? I saw your public light on, but we were all watching the same thing right? So does it matter who was on who’s screen?” Amanthi didn’t have a response, but her eyes darted over to Demarco. The boy just shrugged though, and didn’t meet her gaze.
“I was just, um. Wanting to say hi and um. Show you a zoom I did on Jeremy’s collar and–”
He was still being nice and now she definitely didn’t deserve it and there was nothing to say. Amanthi turned – face burning – and left, Kassidi shouting hurried goodbyes to the rest of the crowd as she ran to catch up with her friend.
“Mr. Daveys, do you think that if I scored high enough on the daily exams, they would let me become an astronaut?”
Her teacher laughed as he connected her intravenous port and optical data stream. Amanthi blinked at the unexpected mirth.
“An astronaut? Why would you want to be an astronaut, Amanthi?”
“I’ve just read about… I mean, I thought they explore space. That must be hard to keep all those systems running and deal with the dangers of space travel and all that.”
Mr. Daveys had stopped laughing, but a smile still tugged at one corner of his mouth. “Today’s astronauts are nothing like what you read about in stories, Amanthi. You’ve seen all the newsfeeds from the robotic explorers. They channel their data directly to the media from a hundred locations in the solar system. It’s so much safer and more cost-effective than it was before.” He patted the Learner 5-Series. “The only spaceship you need is right here. Since you’re A-Track, I can connect you to the space feeds during your flex time on Friday. Remind me.”
“But there are astronauts! I saw an ad on Slippery Slopes for them.”
Mr Daveys laughed again. “The only thing we need astronauts for now is the stuff we can’t get a robot to do quite yet. Sometimes they need to scope out a new location for the space hotels for rich people. And some of those space hotels are the kind where they still want their waiters to be people. What happened to astronauts is what happened to janitors – we only need humans when it needs to be a show.” And the teacher chuckled again as he moved to start the day’s automated testing program.
“You kids sit tight and get started,” Mr. Daveys said to the class. “I have to run these reports to Ms. Haney. I guess some parents are here and they want hardcopies. I’ll be right back.”
The Learner 5-Series desks turned on, alternately streaming content data and stopping to test their retention, managing behavior and motivation with micro-squirts of key regulator hormones. Every time Amanthi felt her thoughts drifting to space, her progress on the testing program slowed. Each time it happened, she felt a faint twinge at her arm, and within moments felt refocused.
But after a while she became irritated – unlike previous days, the content before her seemed so mundane, the questions so laughable, and the idea of scoring three points higher than the next person up on the leaderboard simply ridiculous. She didn’t want to feel focused right now.
With a deft motion she had seen Mr. Daveys perform over and over, she disconnected her intravenous tube, letting it drip onto the floor. A tone chimed at Mr. Daveys’ desk in the front, but he was still out of the classroom and couldn’t notice it. As her head cleared, Amanthi slowly realized that she was annoyed. Why couldn’t she go into space and be an adventurer? This class was stupid. The task hovering before her in her vision was paused, waiting for her to complete the action with the motion of her eyes and the taps of her fingers, and Amanthi was suddenly struck by an idea. Instead of completing the visual task in what she knew to be the correct way, she manipulated the pieces to make a crude rocketship and got the question wrong.
This was fun. She answered question after question incorrectly – creating colorful patterns, wordplays, silly scenarios, and storylines along the way. The warning chimes at Mr. Daveys desk were growing more insistent, but few students so much as noticed around their streaming content. Suddenly, the optical data stream disappeared. Amanthi swallowed. The frowning face of Mr. Daveys loomed above her desk. The girl looked down, unable to meet her teacher’s eyes.
As she left school after detention, Amanthi tried to recall a time when she had ever disappointed a teacher as much as she had disappointed Mr. Daveys that day. His 100% Proper Discipline Rate and 95%+ High Achievement Rate streaks for the year were ruined, along with his shot at several of the top teaching bonuses that year. All thanks to her. Mr. Daveys had made very clear that despite her past performance, she was now on thin ice. He had decided not to report her to Ms. Haney, after a contrite Amanthi had promised that it would never happen again.
That night, after studying, she pulled up The Parched Lands and read it beginning to end. It was a science fiction adventure story in the grand old style, and Amanthi ate it up. A nice white girl with short blond hair and a nice white boy with short brown hair (both with steel blue eyes of course) lived in a far-off desert city in the future. Their civilization was running out of water, and everyone was desperate. Scientists had found a world full of water and designed a spaceship to get there, but no one was brave enough to go – the journey would be fraught with peril and demand both courage and creativity from the best of them. While the adults bickered and the governments stalled, the two kids snuck onto the spaceship and rocketed off into space, bringing back the water and saving the world – much to everyone’s surprise and delight. And of course, since the water would only last so long, the two were immediately off on another adventure at the close of the story.
The story was imaginative, daring, and made her think big thoughts. She didn’t even mind the glaring holes in the plot. I could write too, she thought as she fell asleep that night. I could tell stories.
The next day’s exam was an essay test. The prompt was to write about her favorite book. Since it was so fresh in her mind and she couldn’t stop thinking about it anyway, Amanthi started writing about The Parched Lands.
Amanthi wrote her heart out for hours and even Mr. Daveys was smiling to see her back to being so productive. When she had completed her essay, she read it again to herself, making slight changes here and there. It was her best work, and she knew it. Pleased with the product, she clicked Submit.
And received an error.
With a frown, she scrolled through various messages warning her that the essay contained few of the required elements. Though she had far surpassed the length minimum, the Learner 5-Series could not detect a five-part structure in Amanthi’s essay, nor could it find at least eight different examples of each of the major sentence types. Her desk also informed her that her essay did not appear to be written about any of the books in the standard curriculum, nor did it meet the minimum quota of using 80% of the words on the list of Reapson’s Essential Vocabulary for College-Bound High Schoolers.
Amanthi’s face fell as she read warning after warning. Her essay would be a failure if submitted in its current form. It must be a fair system though – after all, here it was, offering her the chance to revise before the Learner 5-Series issued a grade.
No. She wouldn’t revise it. Even though the Learner 5-Series would fail her essay, Amanthi knew that as an A-Track student she had the right to appeal the grade and have it sent to Mr. Daveys for manual review. That would mean that her favorite teacher would read the best thing she had ever written. There was no way Mr. Daveys could fail her after reading her brilliance.
She tapped each of the warnings in turn to indicate her acknowledgment of having received them and clicked Submit again as the bell rang. That night she posted the essay to her webfeed, and gleefully exchanged comments with her friends about challenging the system.
At the disciplinary hearing, Ms. Haney was furious.
“Young lady, you are not immune from the rules. Intentional sabotage or failure of a daily standardized assessment is grounds for suspension, Amanthi.”
“It’s one test!”
“Every test counts,” Ms. Haney spat. “Starting this year, our budgets are micro-allocated on a daily basis based on the previous day’s test scores, hence the new discipline rules. We discussed this at orientation in September.”
Amanthi said nothing.
“We also discussed the rules around posting school-related information to your webfeeds.” Amanthi jolted, and Ms. Haney continued. “Yes we read it. And I hardly need to tell you – that action of yours has voided your right to an appeal.”
For a moment, woman and girl stared at each other. Ms. Haney broke the silence, speaking in a quieter tone than before.
“I’m not going to suspend you, Amanthi, because I feel as though we have a learning opportunity here. You’re one of our best students here at East Wellingham, but I’m not going to just let this slide. For the next month, I’m assigning you to a B-Track classroom.”
“What?!” Amanthi’s face burned. “B-Track? I’d rather be suspended. I’m an A-Track student!” Her mother was going to kill her tonight. She could even picture the scene of her execution, and the knowledge of her impending death brought tears to her eyes. “I’ve been an A-Track student my whole life. Please, Ms. Haney.”
“It’s a shame that I have to do this to a student like you, but you’ve stepped too far out of line, and I think you need a lesson in humility my dear. B-Track’s daily tests are more straightforward, easier to memorize. Obviously they don’t count for much. But unlike the rest of them, we know where you belong. Perform well and no more of this silliness, and you’ll be back in A-Track before the term ends.”
Amanthi opened her mouth but nothing came out so she shut it. She let herself be led out the door by her teacher.
“I’m disappointed, Amanthi,” Mr Daveys was saying, “but I think Ms. Haney is right. I can’t wait to see you back upstairs in A-Track, but in the meanwhile, you know you are far beyond what we expect of those students down there and…”
The rest of the afternoon and evening was a blur that she couldn’t remember. Her parents knew about the result of the hearing in advance of course, and had even seen the video recording of it. Though they didn’t actually kill her, the shouting and lecturing and guilt-tripping almost made her wish for it.
After dinner she went up to her room and studied for the next day’s B-Track exams. When she finished, Amanthi felt a sucking hollow where her guts used to be. She didn’t read that night – she only cried.
The next day, Amanthi reported downstairs to B-Track. Though her skin was brown too, she felt out of place in the sea of dark faces. She struggled to navigate a physical and social space from which she had been separated since childhood. Everyone stared, and no one talked to her. When she found her classroom, she let out a relieved breath when she saw a familiar face and at the same time choked on it. The only available seat was next to Demarco, who didn’t look at her. Everyone else looked at her though, and snickered.
Amanthi looked around at everything besides other people. The walls were concrete here in the basement – not the sleek designs of upstairs. There were fewer motivational posters, and the ones that were up on the walls were old and ripped in places. The floors were the same plastic as upstairs, but these seemed slightly grimier. It was a bit cold.
The bell to start class rang, but there was no teacher. A synthesized voice came from the speakers all around the classroom.
“Welcome students in B-Track classroom 1042. Your assessment program for the day has been loaded. You will have four hours with a five-minute break every 55 minutes. You may begin now.”
Amanthi looked around in confusion. Where was the teacher? The desks down here were the older Learner 2-Series models – a touchscreen interface instead of the optical data connection, and a monitoring camera where the intravenous module was on the newer smart desks. The red light next to the camera orifice blinked. What happened to astronauts is what happened to janitors – we only need humans when it needs to be a show. So this was a B-Track classroom.
The synthetic voice broke into her haze of vague horror.
“Jayasuriya, Amanthi M. Monitoring indicates that you have not begun your assessment. Please get to work immediately. We remind you that intentional sabotage or failure of a daily assessment is grounds for suspension.”
The class snickered again and a few students glanced at her with the corners of their vision, but everyone kept working. They were being watched and recorded after all, so no one said anything aloud or made a visible sign of teasing. But everyone knew what everyone was thinking.
Amanthi bit her lip. She felt tears welling up again, but swore to herself to hold them in. She brought up the testing interface and started plugging through the content and questions. Having to use the built-in datapad on the desk for notes and calculations was frustrating after using optical manipulation for years. She had almost forgotten how to do things long-hand. She wished she had a bigger sketchpad like Demarco’s, because the datapad was cramped.
The four hours dragged on. Part of her was glad to be so close to Demarco for such a long period of time. But conscious of her hurtful words during their last encounter, she couldn’t bear to look at him and tried to push aside her turbulent emotions by focusing on the exam in front of her. Finally the bell that signaled the end of class rang. Exhausted, she pushed the touchscreen away and slumped in her desk.
Her gaze wandered, and in her exhaustion she forgot that she was avoiding looking towards Demarco. As her head turned towards him, something caught her eye – Demarco’s sketchpad.
There among the calculations and equations, rendered with beautiful shading and detail that she didn’t even know was possible with an old-model sketchpad, was one of the most beautiful drawings she had ever seen. It was a scene straight out of The Parched Lands, done in black and white like an old charcoal. A boy and a girl stood holding hands on a desert plain, with a spaceship to their left and mountains in the distance. They looked upward, to the starry field of the night sky. In the upper right was a larger dot – no doubt the watery world of their planet’s salvation.
But something wasn’t quite right about the two kids. Amanthi looked closer and her breath caught. The girl had a long dark ponytail. The boy was heavyset and wore his hair in cross-dreads. Both faces were shaded dark.
Amanthi felt her heart rate increase, and instinctively she looked down to check her hormonal input. But that was silly – the Learner 2-Series didn’t even have an IV. Her heart must have been just racing of its own accord. Her eyes met those of Demarco, whose forehead gleamed slightly as he shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Amanthi thought he looked embarrassed; if he was, he made no move to cover the drawing and only smiled tentatively.
Somewhere, as if from the far end of a foggy tunnel, she could hear Kassidi’s voice calling. “Aaaammmmmmssss! Hey B-Tracker, come on, we’re going to be late for the next episode!” Amanthi didn’t answer for a few moments, as if she couldn’t remember how to speak. Then she found her voice, but her eyes never left Demarco’s.
“Um. Go on without me Kass. I need to go read… some stuff. Got some studying to do. For class I mean. I’ll watch it later. Slippery Slopes, I’ll watch it later.”
Amanthi could hear whispers from the door, but she never turned around. Kassidi’s voice was already fading in the hallway as she responded. “Oh, ok Amms. Bye… lovergirl.”
Amanthi smiled and Demarco closed the cover of his sketchpad. They walked out of the classroom together.
That night she forgot about memorizing for the next day, and read.