Read the following text carefully: “Know thyself, thus says the quotation and thus I tell you myself!” says SOCRATES. To whom belongs the quotation? Science fiction writer João Barreiros takes the test.
José Esteves wakes up with all the psychosomatic symptoms that come with this sort of day. Sickness. Asthenia. Cold sweat. Sensing an anxiety attack, the semi-intelligent alarm clock distracts him with a brief summary of last night’s national news. Off the shores of Algarve, the maritime patrol torpedoed yet another freighter packed to the brim with African political refugees. No appeals for mercy were taken into consideration, not even when they offered, for toxicology and mutagenic virology experiments at the Câmara Pestana Institute, the two thousand children born during
the journey. Refugee freighter down, and that’s final. Meanwhile, in the wilderness of Avenida da Liberdade, around three o’clock in the morning, a group of homeless
people assaulted a van full of nocturnal Nipponese tourists and set about devouring them, half raw, taking advantage of the foul water in the lakes to cook some algae soup. When seized by one of the rare urban militias still in operation, the gerontologic group declared to whoever felt like listening: “They’re Chinks. They eat sushi. It’s disgusting, even their flesh tasted like fish…”
José Esteves contemplates himself in the shaving mirror, flops out his tongue where a few psychosomatic cankers have sprouted, swallows a couple of antihistamine pills, scratches his chest ulcers, opens the tap for a lean thread of putrid water, and runs the depilatory over his face before plastering all exposed body surfaces with protective UV block. Time and again, he wonders about the test he’s been preparing since yesterday. Are his questions suitable? Adjustable to the insuccess rate? He hasn’t got the faintest clue, and that frightens him.
It’d have been better if he had told the students what all the questions were about, and stealthily handed them over the examination grid like some of his colleagues do,
therefore protecting himself and the school’s insuccess rate. But since he failed to do all that, he’s now in danger of undergoing an explicit assassination attempt on the way to school. It has already happened to poor Silva, and Leonor, and Tavares…
Solicitous, the radio tells him that the tectonic plate fault that splits the basement of Shopping Centre Amoreiras in half has reached a five-metre amplitude. The whole Former Expo Zone is now permanently flooded. And they still haven’t repaired the lower roadway of the Ancien Régime Bridge (new name), through which a whole train fell down on a Neues NATO nuclear submarine five months ago. Fortunately, the Tagus presents only low levels of radioactive contamination, authorities assure.
NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT. NOTHING THAT WOULD MAKE MUSSEL GLOW IN THE DARK.
The problem will be affording a new submarine, and because somebody has to pay for it, more cuts will be made in public service spending.
Outraged, José Esteves chokes on the wide range mouthwash. More cuts? Today, even?
It’s useless to protest. Like Pyrrhus, the teacher unions have piped down and folded their arms, having sold out to the Man. José’s honourable profession is one of
risk. He has to live away from family all school year round, in a hidden apartment the State insists in not financing. For fear of student reprisals. All this means added expenses: rented room, secret phone number, defensive and offensive armament, travel passes, extended life insurance, and a few more small cumulative horrors.
Finished in the bathroom, there follows the forced ingestion of bran gruel loaded with psychotropics and tranquillizers, and the whole daily dressing ritual.
First, he flattens the skin implants over his jugular which will notify the insurance companies in case of systemic fault outside his work area. Should that happen, not a dime will be paid. He then slips into Kevlar armour reinforced with ceramic plates, capable of withstanding semi-automatic gunfire from five hundred metres. José
Esteves wonders why he should care enough to suffer all the discomfort of a hyperthermia crisis. No one uses automatic fi rearms in cases like this anymore. In
the dark corners of the teachers’ lounge there’s talk of rockets bought for a song from the Bosnians. Rockets with a reduced range of 150 metres, but still effective in
eliminating teachers with maximum prejudice.
José Esteves puts on cervical protectors, shields his crotch with anti-offensive grenade codpieces, covers his head with helmet, his eyes with mirror shades, the
ears with soundproof plugs. And then, when he’s finally dressed, comes a whole range of pedagogic weapons. A taser (legal and approved by the Institute for
Juvenile Correction and Discipline). A neuro-truncheon (not really recommended, but authorities usually turn a blind eye). And a neurotoxin dart shooter with enough
dysfunctional capacity for thirty hours of convulsions (illegal and anti-pedagogic, as it inhibits the potential for learning in students). In the chest kit, next to the pocket
for the register/files, is an indelible ink pen with titanium nib.
Chained to his left wrist, the briefcase where he stores the test papers, protected by ENCODED lock.
He is finally prepared to leave the apartment. Carefully, he unlocks the door and peeks into the corridor where he can hear, in the distance, the usual screams
of a family being beaten up by its children. Stuck to the window under the stairs, a rotten hologram of the Pope opens its arms to the world with a retarded smile. A cluster of condoms dissolved in acid smoulders still at the virtual feet of the defender of multiple progeny.
OK, no one in sight. Let’s go.
In the entrance hall shielded by double floodgates, José Esteves faces a couple of rows of homeless people still asleep, half-comatose, in the gap between the two metal plates. For fear that they might wake up at the wrong time and block the rails with an arm or a leg, the teacher quickly trots over them running, grinding a few fingers here, an elbow or a greasy skull there, as he struggles not to breathe in the fog of shit, vomit, muck and other bodily fluids that steam from the slumbering mass. “Fucking bourgeois!” snaps one of the homeless. “You damned fascists have always trodden on the working class, but the day will come when…”
“Just you try to teach some lessons then see if you like it, you bastards,” José Esteves mutters in pedagogic fury, stepping outside and cocking the electric sting lest
the AIDS Brigade approach, syringes at the ready, even at this hour in the morning.
No way would he think of using the Underground to Rossio Station. It’s been in fumigation stage for months now. The roaches are so many they even covered and devoured some of the less cautious passengers in a matter of minutes. Huge roaches, brought in with the skimpy belongings of the very final refugees admitted into national territory.
Going down Avenida da Liberdade on foot is risky business as well. It’s still night-time and the dense forest of the central garden is fraught with small eyes
and wicked grimaces. José Esteves turns the light of his electric truncheon on, hoping to intimidate any would-be attacker. The School logo glimmers on his chest. Everyone knows teachers are subject to an incomputable number of contagious diseases, not to mention that their cards hold a most diminished credit. But worst of all are the illiterate homeless. The conceptual aphasics that pullulate all over Lisbon in ever-growing numbers. They won’t care whether José Esteves is a teach. All that matters is that he’s protein for the pot.
In truth, perhaps it’d be better to be attacked by a band of urban-depressives than to have to stand up to the student masses on Test day. At least he’d have a pretty good excuse for skipping class.
Once arrived at Rossio Station, José Esteves and a few other surreptitious workers sneak around in short running steps through the maze of ethnic tents that
block the way to the platform. Chickens peck here and there amid garbage heaps. Little children run up to the passengers, attaching themselves to their trousers and
skirts, shrieking: “Guide, sir, guide…” In the short stretch that takes him to climb the out of order escalators, José Esteves is approached ten times by the collector Stragglers.
Some stealthily flash him Rolex watches. Others try to sell him an extensible whip. A few, towing their little sisters around in unbreakable chains, endeavour to rent them by the minute for a quick pedo-sodomitic visitation. Rooted to the gaping hole of a burned-up store on the second landing is a rough-and-ready bar that sells pills, little bags, and flasks coupled to dermal compressors. There’s not one security guard to be found. If there are any police in the vicinity, then it’s up on high, riding helicopter, sightseeing through the infrared sensors of air-to-ground missiles.
José Esteves shows his travel pass outside the platform to another Straggler hired by CP for duties such as these. The Straggler smiles from behind a greasy mane.
“Sitting place, chief?” he asks him. “Thank you,” replies the teacher, knowing it’s almost impossible to find change in pockets protected by so many security zippers. “I don’t need help…” “Will you look at the guy…” threatens the Straggler, waving the ticket puncher around menacingly. “At least two hundred Euros for my troubles…” José Esteves shakes his head, reveals the intimidating tip of the electric truncheon, slips away through the barbed wire defences and hurls himself after the train that threatens
The train immediately dives into the musty gloom of the tunnel. It progresses quickly for fear of some centenary block collapsing on it. Soot gets inside through
all orifices, settling on the hunched figures of passengers who slip molecular filter gauze over their noses.
José Esteves struggles to find a seat. He doesn’t want to travel by the window, for well-known reasons. He doesn’t want to travel near the gangway either because
of the usual procession of destitutes that always ride without ticket or pass, God knows how. Bad luck this time. Because he refused to pay the Stragglers, he has to remain standing, twisted against a seat, subject to the constant friction of passing beggars.
Beggars who come in dozens. Some of them sing to the tune of a micro-electronic synthesizer, shrilling, accompanied by a pack of little children on a leash. Others drag themselves along, pulling their hair in desperation: “I’m hungry, I’m sooooo huuuungry…” Others, barechested, parade their sores, ulcers, pustules and countless mutilations of all sorts: “Please give me something for the implant. Something, please…” Fat, flaccid, pregnant matrons clutch the throats of passengers and show them their breasts, whispering aggressive demands of uncontaminated milk for the offspring.
But as the train approaches Amadora, no one cares about anything anymore. The uninterrupted line of beggars vanishes as if by miracle. The wide open windows
of the carriage, protected only by a safety net, suddenly become a place to avoid at all costs. Some of the wealthier passengers rummage around in their purses and briefcases for automatic weapons with laser sights and slim enough barrels to fit through the wire meshing. The carcasses of derelict buildings rise from both sides of the track-like cliffs of rotten concrete. Tubes from the upper terraces run along the wall and curve ten metres from the ground in the direction of the tracks, like the mouths of cannons ready to fire. Passengers grumble, shrug their heads between
their shoulders, unfold helmets, flip down soldering visors, and wait, all while the train puts on speed in an attempt to make itself scarce. PAF, PAF, PAF, go the first lead
balls crashing into the carriage’s plastic, falling rapidly from high above in the buildings, judiciously aimed by the hollow tubing installed for precisely that purpose. No point in replacing the glass on the windows, not even if it’s bullet-proof. It never lasts more than three or four days. The truth is that other spheres are flung from high above, glass spheres full of acid, contaminated blood, liquid faeces and a few quotidian horrors more. Passengers yelp with panic before the fierceness of the attack. Those armed fire away at the buildings in the vain hope that the
weapon’s software hits someone. “Damned kids should all be shot…” mumbles a little old lady as she pulls an AK-47 from her bag. Fortunately, it’s empty. “One by one with a bullet through their heads. This isn’t a prank you’d pull on
Hunched down in the central gangway, ears resounding at the shower of missiles from above, and struggling not to touch the red and yellow sprinkles that
bubble on the rotten upholstery, José Esteves bites down on his lip and considers life. He’s used to all this. This is nothing compared to the risks he takes as a teacher…
It is when he arrives at Cacém that things become ugly. Wisely, the teacher activates all emergency circuits in his suit. Dart shooter in his right hand, and briefcase with test papers protected by his Kevlar armour, José Esteves stealthily approaches the School building.
Here we go! With teeth clenched, he rushes headlong towards the hall under a storm of rocks, slingshot missiles, even a bullet or two, all while being charged by
students on spike-heavy bikes.
After ten minutes of pitched battle, he limps into class. Having fallen twice, he suspects a kneecap fracture. Blood trickles slowly from a wound in the left elbow. A red line around his wrist reveals the various fruitless attempts to steal his briefcase. From the other side of the wire netting, the class bawls: “We don’t want no test”, “Boycott! Boycott the test!”, “The teach is two minutes late”, “There’s no time, no time…”
“Don’t you dare…” José Esteves shouts, the truncheon flaring in his right hand. “Just remember I still haven’t gone over my slaughtering quota for the year. Remember I can still kick the crap out of one or two of you with maximum prejudice… And I don’t at all mind starting today…”
Most of the class settles down. The more stress-sensitive of the bunch gnaw on the tips of their stylos. Others amuse themselves crumbling away the tabletops or tearing parquet blocks off the floor.
Slowly, carefully so he doesn’t stain the questionnaire with blood, the teacher slips the reams of paper through a hole in the wire netting, and goes to sit at the desk, completely exhausted.
On the other side of the room, students howl at the difficulty of the questions. One of them even devours the test paper. Three others hang on to the netting and utter death and mutilation threats in a low voice, lest they be recorded by the School’s security system which in fact has never ever worked.
Uncertain, José Esteves runs his eyes over the first few questions:
READ THE FOLLOWING TEXT CAREFULLY:
“Know thyself, thus says the quotation and
thus I tell you myself!” says SOCRATES.
1. To whom belongs the quotation?
C: THE PM.
2. Assuming philosophy implies reflection…
Question: Is there such thing as spontaneous
“All the world comes from water.” —THALES
3. What Thales means to say is that…
A: ALL THE WORLD
COMES FROM WATER.
B: FROM THE EARTH.
C: FROM THE AIR.
D: FROM NOWHERE.
From the back of the room, shouts of fury and frustration grow intense. José Esteves shudders. He has made it too difficult, after all. The insuccess rate will turn out to be huge. Which means there’ll be a visit from the Inspector and all the rest. One more disciplinary proceeding and suspension from school activities for proven mental cruelty, who knows. And as if that weren’t enough, the students will be waiting for him, somewhere, outside school grounds.
Sweat drops down his brow. He can do nothing but collect the tests two hours later, most of them still blank, or scrawled with abusive graffiti. And then he waits for the room to empty and a new batch to come in. Because this is just the first test of the day. There are still five more to go, like this one.
The sober logotype adorning the test header reminds him how awful it would be to be transferred to a less prestigious institution than the St. Mager School for the Exceptionally Gifted.
Some days it’s hard to remember just how lucky you are.
João Barreiros is co-author, with Luís Filipe Silva, of Terrarium, considered one of the most important works of science fiction ever written in Portuguese. This piece is translated by Luís Rodrigues.