It was that dream again. Citizen Tromm perched awkwardly in a student-chair a decade too small for him, shivering a little as his hand, seemingly working on its own initiative, urgently rifled the contents of the still-familiar student-desk that pressed uncomfortably into his middle-aged bulk, trying not to be seen. “Cadet Tromm!” called Schoolmarm Hamil. “Is there something you wish to share with the rest of us?”
Citizen Tromm—Cadet Tromm—withdrew the errant hand as smoothly as possible, under the circumstances. The action did not go unseen. Cadet Snye, long since gone to his glory on the war-field of New Troy, brayed, “The bear has caught his paw in the honeycomb!” Of course, Hawknose Hamil had no word of criticism for this outburst. Tromm was a stinking schoolmarm’s pet. Tromm still longed to put some color on that smug face.
Schoolmarm Hamil silenced incipient laughter with a stock gesture. In the silence, Tromm became all too aware that he was now wearing a shapeless smock in place of his uniform, and his feet met cold tile. “Perhaps Cadet Tromm will share some of his knowledge with us?” A snicker rose around him. Awkwardly shifting his middle-aged gut, he stood, holding his textbook in front of his crotch, acutely aware of the flimsy white garment that was all that kept him from being entirely naked.
The floor felt damply slippery under his bare feet. Following the pointer in Hamil’s clawlike hand, he tried to focus on the board at the front of the room, but could only make out the topic: “Worker Care,” and the first few words, “In the 21st century…” After that, the green scribbles became unruly and uncertain. The letters floated and bobbed in a glaring expanse the color of his blind spot.
“In the 21st century,” he began.
“In the 21st century,” he began again. Citizen Gurt unkindly observed, “They had to have the 21st century twice, because the first time it didn’t take!” Gurt’s wit stung, as Gurt was his boss in the stylus factory, and had never even attended the same schools as Tromm. She was, however, somewhat attractive, and Tromm’s near-nakedness was even more embarrassing in her presence. Near naked? Tromm was now completely nude, and hoped nobody noticed that he had opened the concealing textbook in a weak bid for a bit more coverage. Over the titters of his classmates, Tromm was aware of dripping sounds from something he couldn’t see.
“In the 21st century, the care and health of workers became of primary concern to their corporations! We owe this insight to the research of the Welch Corporation, whose landmark court victory Welch v Doe et al established that employment carried responsibilities both in and out of the factory!” Laughter dried up momentarily as knowledge that had been poured assiduously into Tromm’s brain years ago spilled out. “As companies became able to, to demand conformance to commonsense precautions, some employees pushed back in Markes v Monsanto, arguing that if they were to act for their companies, even for their own benefit, that they should be paid while doing so! In accordance with fair business practice!”
Tromm looked around triumphantly, expecting approval from his cadre-mates and was shocked to see instead faces of sorrow. Mouths hung open, as if in unnatural sympathy. Even Snye shook his head ruefully, and Gurt’s emerald eyes gleamed with a hint of a tear. Tromm yearned to go over and comfort her. He started to put the book down—thankfully, the smock was somehow back—and only then noticed that the pages were sodden. He was crying too! Gurt was crying! Snye, Philps, Green, Sten… all of them were weeping copiously, tears streaming down their young faces.
“There will be none of that!” Hamil, unaffected by the grief of inferiors, pulled the lever of the fire alarm by the door, only it was now next to the board. A siren commenced loud beeping outside. “Continue, Cadet Tromm.”
Tromm wiped his eyes with the back of a sleeve, which smeared without drying. “Health care was now automatically regarded as being on company time.” He wept as he spoke. “Physical fitness activities were now billable hours. It was decided in Hamps v Aqua Tec that meals and other aspects of nutrition were regarded as health care and thus a matter of employative interest. At this time, a single standard of personal identification became necessary for administrative and accountiatve simplication.”
Tromm’s use of imaginary word forms went unnoticed by the class, which was now given over to emotion. His foot slid on the floor, though he didn’t fall, and the ripple in the wet floor extended outward neatly in all directions, bouncing back prettily from the far wall, like an animation he’d seen in a science video. The siren went unheeded. More water seemed to press against the door from the hallway, causing it to bow inwards. It ran in over the sill, adding to the half inch or so realistically lapping at the legs of the student-desks. Gurt’s blouse was doing interesting things, but Tromm’s attention was taken by the siren, insistent and rhythmic, beeping, beeping.
…Tromm opened his eyes. His bed-alarm was not beeping, and would not start for another four minutes. Another alarm had wakened him, one that had served to waken men for untold millennia. Bleary eyes discerned the door’s lighter rectangle in the gloom. His left hand pushed the flimsy sheet aside to join the blankets that had fallen away in the night as his right sought blindly for a small rectangle on the bed-table, sending his glasses and wallet plopping to the floor. He ignored them and sat, his feet finding the thin, cold rug by the bed as he swore and fumbled with renewed desperation. The bladder-alarm increased its signal helpfully. Finally, he felt the familiar plastic token with its raised numbers and rounded corners. Yes!
Citizen Tromm rose unsteadily and, clutching his time card, tottered swiftly to the bathroom.