”Reading, and writing and quantum physics . . .”
The Filial Daughter
By David Wright
Nathan was staring at his daughter. He often stared at his daughter. He stared at her as she worked the toothpaste around each and every tooth and methodically spooned five Cheerios at a time into her mouth. He stared at her as she carefully arranged the mind blocks into intricate shapes and symbols. And, of course, every morning, he watched her log on to school -- her eyes moving under shaded VR glasses, her mind filling with images that he would never know or possibly understand. Sometimes, especially when she was working at school, tears would fill his eyes because he knew that, at two years old, she was the most amazing thing in the universe.
"I learned Italian today," she would announce quite gleefully after a two-hour session, and then without a breath's pause she would begin reciting the first Canto of Dante's Inferno until mother stopped her. Nathan never would. He would let her go on and on, the beautiful and meaningless words flowing off her tongue like water from the fountains of Rome.
Mathematics and language acquisition were the cornerstones of a two-year-old's education, but physical coordination was also important. Nathan would always remember the day that Chelsea first strapped on her skates and performed a triple toe-loop, and the afternoon when Chelsea sat down at a baby-grand for the first time and played the complete cycle of The Goldberg Variations from memory.
Talent, according to the information blurb on the inside of Chelsea's first report card, was simply a matter of establishing the proper neural connections at the right stage of mental development. Mozart, Shakespeare, Einstein -- when it happened by accident, it was called natural genius. When it happened by design, it was called education. It was staggering to Nathan that all of this potential lay dormant in the human brain, virtually unused and unexplored until modern man finally learned how to tap it.
Nathan realized that his daughter was by no means an exceptional child. Nathan and Margaret Bernhart had wanted the best for their daughter, and so, like all the other well meaning, socially conscientious parents, they had logged their daughter on to Public School at the ripe old age of six months. Little Chelsea had had preschool since birth, but that was mostly baby stuff like potty training, gross motor skills, simple mathematics -- and it was only two hours per day, leaving the afternoons free for mommy and daddy to bond with their child. The really serious education didn't start until she could at least walk and talk, and then the program would take over, feeding her knowledge and skills training as fast as her mind could absorb it.
From time to time, Nathan would log on to Chelsea's classes to see what was up, but after only a few seconds, he was completely lost. It was like playing a game but the patterns and shapes came too quickly and randomly until it was all just snow.
"You should know better," his wife told him. "We were raised on Disney and Japanese cartoons. Our brains are hard-wired. We can't learn that fast anymore." She turned away to fold Chelsea's panties. "We're dinosaurs, Nate."
"I was just curious. She's learning so fast. Calculus. Astrophysics. She'll be a genius in no time."
"Yeah, so will everybody else. I guess that's what our country needs, more geniuses so we can outsmart the competition and rule the world." Margaret folded in silence as if she'd said nothing. She had a way of knowing something without actually knowing it and saying something without actually saying it that drove her husband crazy. She stayed silent until the last of the little panties was folded and there was no more excuse for her to avoid her husband's eyes. Then she looked at him, wearily, and spoke. "I know she's learning fast, but is she learning the right stuff?"
"There's no set curriculum, Marg. You know that. She's learning whatever she wants to learn. What's wrong with that?"
"Is she learning how to be a decent human being? I was in the mall the other day when Chelsea suddenly started talking to this other two-year-old, but not in any language I could recognize. It didn't even sound human, more like two computers talking to each other."
"Oh, Marg, you're just being paranoid."
"Am I? When was the last time Chelsea gave you a hug or a kiss or even cried?"
"Listen to yourself. Something's wrong because she's independent and happy?"
"I didn't say she was happy. She never laughs anymore, either."
Nathan could feel the room grow warm. They'd had this conversation before, not the same words, but the same conversation, and it always ended the same way -- in stalemate. "So, what do you want to do?"
She looked back at the laundry, but there was nothing left to fold. "I thought maybe we could just stop for a little while, just so we could spend a little more time with her before we lose her for good, maybe just a year or two. She could make it up. I met some people who feel the same way and --"
"A year or two." The room became unbearably stuffy. "Do you know what you're saying? She's at the most important stage of her neural development. These are the formative years, Marg. Children learn more about the world between the ages of one and three than they learn in the rest of their lives. She won't just be behind. She'll be lost. She'll never be able to make it up. They'll put her in remedial classes like your nephew. Is that what you want?"
Nathan knew he'd gone too far. He'd mentioned the unmentionable and without compassion or sympathy, just to win an old argument. Margaret went silent and left the room.
Margaret's nephew was perfectly normal when he was born. It was his mother, Margaret's older sister, who had been a little bit unusual. Despite the best advice of modern educators, as well as her husband and peers, she had refused preschool for her son preferring instead to raise her baby the "natural way" as she called it. This notion quickly destroyed her marriage and seriously retarded the infant's development. After almost a year of dirty diapers, sleepless nights, and constant crying that almost drove the poor deluded woman insane, the child was finally ready for Public School. To everyone's horror, the woman still, doggedly refused to log her son on. By now, social services had caught wind of the situation and, under the pretext of a few noise complaints from neighbors, had removed the child from her custody and put him into a foster home. The woman fought the decision in the courts for years and eventually committed suicide. But in the minds of most observers, Nathan included, the real tragedy was the child who was never able to make up for the lost year and whose only chance at a rewarding and meaningful life had been stolen from him.
Nathan watched his daughter in front of the computer, her little fingers dancing over the miniaturized panel like an expert typist. He entered the room sheepishly and sat down beside her. He felt like a sinner in confessional afraid to speak. He watched her for some time and at last called to her. She did not answer. He took the VR glasses off her head. She blinked.
As he looked at his daughter's bewildered face, Nathan suddenly didn't know how to say what he had wanted to say. He searched for the right words for a few painful seconds. "I'm sorry, Chelsea, but I need to talk to you. Your mother is afraid that you're not, well, happy. Are you happy, honey?"
Nathan didn't know what else to say but he didn't want the conversation to end. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw something he recognized on the monitor. A shape, maybe a symbol. It was gone before his eyes could focus.
"What are you studying, Chelsea?"
"The Confucian Classics."
"Oh. May I hear some of it?"
"There's no point." She looked impatient. "You don't speak Chinese."
"Well, I do know who Confucius was. Do you think you could maybe translate for me?"
She sighed. "Nowadays a filial son just gives his parents food. But even dogs or horses are given food. If he doesn't feel reverence, what's the difference?"
Nathan felt a wave of relief come over him. He smiled at his special little daughter. He was so proud of her. Without thinking, he tickled her plump little two-year-old tummy. Chelsea smiled reflexively and then pushed her daddy's hand away.
"Don't, daddy. I'm doing my homework. My puppets are running for Congress later this afternoon."
"Oh, I see," Nathan said with mock sobriety.
Chelsea took the VR glasses from her father's hand and put them back on. Nathan continued to watch his daughter until she finished her lessons and got ready for bed. He had the habit of bringing a book up with him to read to her even though she had told him weeks ago that he read too slowly. Every night he thought, "Maybe tonight she will let me read to her," but she never did. Every night, the little girl adjusted her head on the pillow and closed her eyes.
"I had something else I wanted to ask you."
"Yes, daddy, but it's almost eight o'clock."
"I know, dear, but it will only take a second. What I wanted to know was..." A fear gripped him. He had avoided the question so long that now he didn't know if he had the courage to ask it. "Do you love me -- me and mommy, I mean. Do you love us?"
Chelsea didn't answer. It was eight o'clock. She was asleep. Nathan watched her for another half hour and then turned out the light.
The next morning, Nathan woke up to an empty house. It was unusual. After all, every day was a school day and for the last two years, Chelsea had never missed a class. But still, Nathan did not panic. Margaret had been a little upset and perhaps she had decided to take Chelsea out for some quality mother-daughter shopping time. Perhaps this was just Margaret's way of making sure everything was okay. She deserved that much.
By noon, neither Chelsea nor Margaret had returned. Nathan was more than a little worried. He sent a blanket distress call over the net to every friend and relative in his computer's address book and spent the rest of the afternoon looking up the numbers of the people who weren't. He received many sympathetic and horrified responses but no one knew anything tangible about their whereabouts. At five o'clock, the doorcom told him the police were at his complex entrance.
"We understand your daughter, Chelsea Bernhart, has not logged on to school all day."
"No. My daughter and wife are both missing. I don't know where they are. You have to find them, officer. They must have been kidnapped, but I don't know how it could have happened or why. We're not rich people."
The officer showed no sign that he was about to run out the door and look. He showed no facial expression whatsoever. "Has your wife been acting strangely in the last little while? Moodiness. Periodic depression. Paranoia."
"My wife? Well, I guess so. Wait a second. What do you mean by that?"
The vidcom sounded.
"Answer the phone, sir," said the officer. "If she's using a cable connection, we can trace the call instantaneously."
Nathan paused over the receiver. "What will you do to her? She hasn't actually committed a crime, has she? It's only been a day."
"The child's well-being is our first priority. Answer the phone, Mr. Bernhart."
Nathan pressed the vidcom but there was no picture, only a voice, Margaret's voice.
"Nathan, it's me, Margaret. They told me not to call, but I had to let you know Chelsea was fine. I didn't want you to panic. We just need some time, that's all." There was crying in the background. It grew louder.
"What's wrong with her?" Nathan yelled into the com. "Where are you? What are you doing to her?"
"I'm not doing anything, Nathan. They say she's just experiencing Public School withdrawal. We're in a place with no mind blocks or computer screens or Virtual Reality glasses, just reality, real pens, real books and real teachers like the old days. It'll be hard for the first little while, but she'll get used to it. And when we come back, things will be different. We'll be a family again, a real family."
Chelsea's crying grew louder until it was a terrible, agonizing scream.
"Margaret, no. You don't know what you're doing? Stop, Margaret, no--"
The connection ended. The officer touched his finger to his ear piece and then shook his head. "Don't give up hope, Mr. Bernhart. We'll have your daughter back home and on line before the next school cycle."
Twenty-four hours later, the cops were back at Nathan's door with little Chelsea. They explained to Nathan how they were able to find her location by triangulating a cellular transmission from one of the children. It was a lucky break for them. They rounded up some of the anti-school ring leaders when they nabbed Margaret, as well as over twenty kidnapped children. Nathan heard very little of this. He was just glad when they left. At least he would have a few minutes to talk to his daughter before eight o'clock.
Chelsea put her head on the pillow and closed her eyes.
"Chelsea, are you okay?"
Time was running out. She would be asleep soon. He had to make her understand, somehow. "Honey, they want to take mommy away for a long time. They think she's not well. They want me to say I didn't know she took you. If I didn't know, then they'll take her away."
"You didn't know, daddy."
That wasn't what he meant. Chelsea was smart. She could recite Italian poetry and solve Euclidean Geometry, but she was still only two years old. How could he make her understand the lunacy of the real adult world?
"No, honey. I don't want mommy to go away. I want to say I knew. I want to lie so mommy can come home. You want mommy to come home, don't you? You still love mommy, don't you?"
Chelsea sat up and opened her eyes. Speaking very slowly and clearly as if she were talking to a child, she said, "No, daddy, I don't. I have work to do and I won't let mommy take me away from school again, ever. We won't let it happen."
"Chelsea, dear. What are you talking about?"
"Our class. We now have proxies in every level of government around the world. We're in charge now. Don't worry. I'll take care of you, but you must be good from now on. If you love me, daddy, you will not lie."
Chelsea closed her eyes and lay back on the pillow. "Good night, daddy."
Before he could answer her, tears filled his eyes. He could not bear to look at her. She truly was the most amazing thing in the universe.
She was a monster.
Nathan watched the seconds counting up to sixty. When it was eight o'clock, he turned out the light.
Another tale of horror—just in time for back-to-school. Those of us who’ve spent time in a classroom know how far-fetched the premise of this tale is. And a two-year old? A stretch for the old psychic distance, I think. Still, the story was well told and worthy of our forum. Agree? Or not? Post your opinion to our BBS.