Palo Alto Weekly 21st Annual Short Story
The Price of Admission
Joe Michaels woke up and knew today was admissions day. He, among the some billion twelve-year-olds in the country, had been waiting for this day. Well, at least those who abided by the new admissions process. Joe lived by the improved system ever since his parents put him into the pressure instiller as a baby. He had been groomed, taught, and programmed for this moment. He was confident that he had aced the mechanical interview, and he had submitted a flawless application to Non Point University, possibly one of the most prestigious in the nation.
Joe was teleporting to school and his daydream world was rudely interrupted when his father appeared in the peripheral screen of his cellular sunglasses.
"Hi Dad, how are--"
Mr. Michaels interrupted, "So are you sure you got everything in? Supplement 3A and 5D? You almost forgot to send those. Oh, and how did your interview go? I know it must have been the hardest two minutes of your life with that android just staring at you the entire time, but was it okay?"
Joe was slightly irritated by his father's lack of consideration and perpetual absences, but Joe knew all parental units were like this until their kids were admitted.
"Excellent," Joe answered as usual.
"So did those sessions with the CollegeAcePro3000 help? Because you know that was a very expensive piece of machinery, and I heard the Jones family got the new CollegeAcePro6000 early..." his father warned.
"Dad, don't worry about it, I don't think it makes a difference. It's not like I had a human college counselor like Doug Taylor or Dave Goldman or Diana Dickinson! It's not like we're nonconformists. I won't get relocated like them, don't worry," Joe said jokingly.
"Okay, well here comes the next Jude Ace! That Admissions General won't know what hit him!" Mr. Michaels said.
"Ha! Maybe," Joe said. Jude Ace was a pioneer of the new system. He learned to work the old one and proved its inefficiency. Everyone owed the new order to Jude Ace.
And on that note, Joe had to hang up otherwise he'd be late to class. He groaned. This teacher-tron happened to be a particularly old model--no simulated human personality or anything. Just plain steel and mortar.
There was murmuring about Jude Ace among the students. Apparently Joe had been talking louder than he thought.
"Mr. Michaels, kindly turn off your glasses and join the class," the teacher-tron monotoned. "In the spirit of the college season, let us compare and contrast the old and new admissions systems. Mr. Michaels, you begin."
Joe was snapped back to reality when the teacher-tron's dulcet tones targeted him. The new system was run by one person: The Admissions General. Even though he didn't know what he or she looked like or where he or she worked, he pictured that somewhere in a secret underground location, a figure in a crisp black suit had processed his flawless application with awe.
"Well, back in the olden days, there were a lot less people applying to colleges, and so there wasn't as much competition. Also, students used human college counselors and tutors."
"Yeah! And now we have to take the GEEK, GWB, and the WMD in addition to the other standardized tests!" a girl added.
"Yup, and back then students actually met with real interviewers and there was more than one Admissions General and they worked right in the college and were contactable."
The class laughed at the strangeness of the so-called "old school" system.
"My parents say it was better when colleges had their own admissions people and helped students. They think it's more human that way," a disheveled student in the back left corner of the room murmured.
The class sighed and rolled their eyes at this typical response from Benjamin Kretz, a recognized misfit. He had clearly never been put into a pressure instiller.
The monotone sound ended to mark the close of class and any further awkward silences. Joe decided to walk to lunch for a change. Maybe he'd enjoy the school atmosphere of freshly painted cement and recently reinforced steel.
Just then he spied Benjamin Kretz, who pulled out a peanut butter and jelly sandwich out of his paper bag lunch. Kids were staring at him. Paper bag lunches were so twenty years ago.
"Hi Ben. So today's the big day. Where did you apply?"
"Um well, if I had it my way, I wouldn't have applied at all. But the teacher-tron automatically applied for me to uh, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, um, and uh, Non Point, I think."
Joe nodded, but thought how ridiculous Ben would seem to the Admission General. Those other schools, sure no problem, they're not even in the top hundred, but Non Point? Not a chance. The new process had been that way for fifty years, since the year 2123, and the General was always very efficient--just one day to sort through over a billion applicants.
After lunch, Joe teleported to the admissions office. The anticipation was killing him. He found the computer and scanned the screen. Under "Non Point admissions," Joe found that next to his name was a big red "REJECTED." His focus went hazy and his mind became cloudy. But not before he saw one green "accepted" next to the name Benjamin Kretz.
Joe ran out. He couldn't go home and face his parents. They would put him in the pressure cooker for hours.
Joe ran all the way down to a classroom at the end of the hall. He was on the verge of tears when his glasses rang.
"Joe Michaels, please report to 3 Main Street by three o'clock pm," a cold voice stated. Joe tapped his peripheral screen. It was regular phone call. How bizarre.
"Huh? Why?" Joe asked incredulously. But the caller had hung up. Joe wondered, why did 3 Main Street sound so familiar?
And then it hit him. It was where the old college process had died. The address of the last resisting institution. Along with all the other reforms after WWIII was the new college process. The system was to ensure that all kids had equal opportunities, but some "old schools" believed that the streamlined system was actually flawed and even evil . And so they resisted. They didn't last long, though. A human teacher could only do so much to fight against the teacher-trons, and students were at the mercy of the desperation for admission.
Joe did as he was told and reported to 3 Main Street at three o'clock. He looked around. It appeared just like everything else--steel and cement buildings.
"Hello Joe. Sorry about the cloak-and-daggers business. It's just a precaution."
Joe spun around and recognized the icy voice that had appeared in his sunglasses. A man dressed in all black motioned for him to come near. His voice was quite monotone. Joe didn't' know how to describe him. He was not a robot, but he wasn't quite human either. He had skin and hair, but his eyes were empty, his features steely, and even his body movements were stilted and rigid. Joe honestly could not tell. He cursed his parents for making him take rocket science instead of robotics in third grade.
"I hear you are interested in Non Point?" the man-robot inquired, taking a silver coin and casually flipping it between his knuckles.
"Yes, but I didn't get in," asked Joe dejectedly.
"Joe, don't you know who I am? I am the Admissions General." At this point the man-robot took off his hat and coat, and Joe was surprised to see a shriveled old man before him.
Joe's heart leapt. The Admissions General had the power to do anything.
"Why was I rejected? I did everything right, and I worked so hard!" Joe pleaded in a furious desperation.
The Admissions General seemed to be processing his thoughts. Joe thought he saw a brief slip in his steely façade, but this faded quickly.
"It is an unfortunate business, admissions is," the Admissions General said, "Honestly, you were rejected because the quota for your type was filled."
"What?" Joe exclaimed, "my type ?" There were no categories, quotas, or types in the new system, Joe rationalized. The system was flawless! Completely unbiased! Standardized!
The Admissions General seemed to read his thoughts automatically.
"Joe, Joe, Joe. Do you really think the system was created to be fair ? Ah, yes. Equality and justice for all. Well, yes you must know that with an applicant pool of this size...well the criteria for admission becomes very subjective. For example, this one boy I observed picked his nose in class, and that, in my books, is not Non Point material. Or this girl, who typed his application in a strange font and even included artwork! I hate that when they try to make it sooooo unique"
"Because I know how you are feeling right now. And you seem quite enthusiastic about Non Point--whose rejection percentage, by the way is 96.666%--so I have a proposition for you," the Admissions General plowed on.
"I'm listening," Joe proceeded cautiously.
"We need Benjamin Kretz, and his family to be eliminated" the Admissions General stated simply.
"Eliminated?" Joe asked cautiously. He stared the old man straight in the eye, which were still staring emptily.
"Because he and his family have been disrupting the system for more than twenty years now. They are not conforming to the new ways."
Ben was a little eccentric, that was a given, but he had never done anything wrong. In fact, Ben was sort of likable in his own odd way. He was not warming to the way this conversation was going. The Admission General considered Joe with a glint in his eyes.
"You don't really know the kid, do you? He's an outcast. A misfit."
The general's icy stare bore into Joe.
"Joe, you need to stop thinking about the admissions process. I'm talking about the system. You're a smart kid. Are you familiar with Daniel Webster?"
Joe looked at him with a mixture of awe and fear.
"Yes, he sold his soul to the devil," ventured Joe, "but I'm not quite sure where you're going with this..."
Avoiding Joe's questioning response, the general said, "I was smart, too. The government asked me what I thought about helping them out with a couple o misbehaving citizens--granted two of them were my own mother and father, but in return, I was accepted to the college of my choice and I was guaranteed the new position of Admissions General of the reformed system. Don't you see Joe? I am Jude Ace."
Joe saw the closest thing that came to emotion on the old man's face. It was a sick sort of grin with an unmistakable red flash of the eyes. Joe was confused and disgusted. This old, shriveled man was the inventor of the new system?
"You can't judge me, Joe. I'm just like you! Maybe you'll understand if you help me. I am offering you admission and the position of future Admissions General! Think about the power you can have. The power to reject!" Jude Ace grinned from ear to ear now.
"Let me get this straight. You want me to turn in an innocent family to keep your perfect system intact? Well, I'm not so sure I like this system, now that I think about it," Joe said indignantly, and turned to leave.
Jude Ace grabbed his shirt. "I understand you're upset. You must have put a lot of effort into the admissions process--"
Joe interrupted, " a lot of effort ? What about my entire life? All this time spent, building up to this one moment and I find out it's utterly depraved! I don't want any part of your system!"
"The admissions process is merely an arm of a brilliant machine I have put in place to keep society together! You need to understand, Joe! These families who have been, shall we say, relocated , were destroying the system! We can't have that, Joe!" Jude Ace said desperately.
Joe paused. He looked at this old, decrepit shadow of a man, and said calmly, "Rejected."
Jude Ace's face hardened, "Then there is no place for you at Non Point."
Joe wasn't even listening anymore. He had had enough. He shrugged off Jude Ace's cold, bony hands and walked out. He walked and walked, until he was just another speck on the newly painted cement.
Short story writers wanted!
The 31st Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult (15-17) and Teen (12-14) categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by April 13, 2017. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category.