Pete Jenkins sat in his grade 8 Peace class gazing at Petronella. Ever since fate had thrown them within touching distance this year, he had fallen into a love coma which left all of his male friends desperate.
The teacher jerked him back from his reverie: "Peter, who won the Nobel Peace prize in 2046?" Peter was suddenly put on a spot and floundered. The answer came from elsewhere in the class and the teacher went on, much to Pete's relief. 'Who needs all this peace reinforcement stuff anyway ' he thought, surely we all hate the idea of War, surely it can never happen, after all the phenomenon ( as the children called War) only existed in history, had never been experienced by either pupil or teacher.
But the answer was much more subtle than Pete could imagine. Ever since 1945, when the atom bomb dropped on Japan, peace had been virtually forced on humankind. Nature's chosen path, the elimination of the weak, had been blocked.
It wasn't as if the politicians of old had not survived. There were still the tub-thumpers who railed at how we were descending to destruction, how weak humanity was becoming, how we should unite against this evil. But now no-one listened, or if they did, it was with a mild sense of curiosity. This wild minority belonged at London's 20th century Speakers Corner.
The germs of the end to conflict were sown in 1918, when the concept of a League of Nations was mooted. Small and weak at first, it took another massive conflagration to spawn the United Nations, and then a face-off of major powers to produce one with such superior weaponry, that every nation on earth was compelled to go to peace.
And as peace ensued, so too did the size of humanity's population - it proceeded to explode. For milennia, the commonly agreed ethic amongst men had been " Good equals anything that sustains human life". With peace at hand there was no means to kill off any section of the population and the inevitable consequence was for Man to spread his tentacles over the face of the earth even beyond smothering point. Even when bodies writhed on the pavement with no space even to perform bodily functions in private, the call came from those in authority, governments, churches, business, to procreate, to produce ever more people, even if this were to lead to ever more misery. It wasn't until the invention of Balancoid-P in the mid 22nd century that human numbers began to decline and Nature could be brought back into balance.
With the explosion came a mass growth in the diversity of humanity. In days of old there were two or maybe three political choices to be made. Most people then wanted the same things, a job, a bit of fairness, the right to speak out. But here in the 23rd century, one voted by computer via a multiple choice which might involve 100 decisions. The education system enabled young people to learn how to handle complexity, and computers reinforced the results such that no-one was left out of the process. Some argued that this complex machine-aided rigmarole amounted to nothing more than brain-washing. But in the field of education, for example, it was acknowledged that, if children were free to choose their subjects of instruction, the learning process was absolved of any hint of a Big Brother stigma.
Most children were very happy to follow the norm, coping with a complex schooling process, enjoying friendship, marriage, what little work there was to do, and sport, lots of it. But increasing diversity was a problem. No matter how the State worked at ensuring that language was not a barrier, that everyone learned the others' point of view, there were increasing numbers of anti-social people being born - those whose nature led them to enjoy suffering in others, who derived pleasure only if they could feel superior, or worse still, hankered after the old idea of waging war. How was society to cope with these people if they could not be eliminated, on the one hand, or re-programmed, on the other?
The Social Science Department at Coleford's university spent almost 35% of it's budget on research into such anti-social behaviour.
"The only reason I'm here" said Jane Richards " is that I just don't get it. Here we are in the 24 century with universal peace all but achieved, and yet we still have these misfits, these young people who won't conform."
Her companion was Jerry Montego, a seasoned social scientist who'd seen almost every behaviour known. " Many young people aren't interested in peace. They're not attracted by a future that carries no threats. They're just adrenalin egoists who want to make a name for themselves, and if that means taking risks, then so be it."
Jane cut in " Obviously I know about risks and the need to take them. We have a perfectly well designed cyber program that takes every learner to the edge of his risk capability; surely that should satisfy most of these would be bungee jumpers?"
"But can't you see" said Jerry " the fact they are wired up to a machine programmed to signal a coming heart attack, the fact that it's all in virtual reality, that there's no ability to come out of it saying 'I performed better than you in a life and death situation' all leaves the regime a little sterile"
"But we can't allow the kids to get into a really life-threatening situation, so what more can we do?" she concluded. They both pondered and Jerry changed the subject.
" Anyhow, that's not the point. Our main aim is to cure these extreme kids, the ones that carry a cruel, vindictive streak. Back in the days of war and the death penalty, we had a way of engineering the anti-socials out of the way. Our new world is brilliant in most ways, but it certainly has denied us the ability of eliminating troublemakers."
Jane grew angry " You sound like a cynical politician from the 20th century, Jerry, how can you talk of engineering and elimination in this day and age? Our task is to prise their malady from them as gently as possible, and the challenge is exactly equivalent to the cancer that faced the olden day medical fraternity."
Jerry grumbled " Gently did you say? Most of them don't even know the word. I shouldn't say this, but I find that the only way of getting through to them is to treat them rough. I little shouting seems to do wonders sometimes."
Jane stared at Jerry coldly, then moved on. "Sometimes I wish the faculty had given me another partner on this project." she huffed.
Karl Lemkus sat rubbing his hands at the head of his little coven of followers. "We'll start with budgies" he said. They all looked a little disappointed - after all, were a few little birds worth the risk of discovery?
Karl noted the collective look and followed up swiftly. " I know declaring war on a few birds doesn't sound very glamorous, but all big enterprises have to start in a small way. The thing is that budgies are very dear to some people. Let's just say that this will bring a little sadness, a little bit of sobriety into someone's life. It's called rocking the boat, gentlemen. Now go to it."
The caged bird incident, as this became known, drew outrage from the community. A number of the boys had been somewhat slapdash in the covering of their tracks, and it was not long before a computer had pieced the whole thing together and rounded up seven of the pet-bird killers. Karl was among them.
The group was immediately committed to the care of Jane and Jerry. After a short group discussion, it was clear that Karl was the ring leader and he was detained for in-depth analysis, the others sent home.
Jane glanced down Karl's life history. "As usual, there's nothing here that would signal anti-socialistic behaviour in this boy. Middle to high marks at school, quite a good sportsman, obviously attractive personality with leadership potential." she remarked.
Jerry listened and replied. " I'm glad we don't make excuses anymore. Remember the days when analysts were always able to find something about abused childhoods or drug infested neighbourhoods to blame the anti-social behaviour on? At least we now know the facts of life - one in 105 people are born left handed and one in 287 people will be anti-social whatever their background."
Jane grew irritable. "The Romans had no use for left handers and created conditions in which the incidence of natural left handers declined rapidly. We mustn't fall into the trap of believing that anti socials are a fact of life. We have to find a cure!"
Jerry and Jane entered the cyber correction room. Karl lay on a bare bed, wires hooked up to his temples. He'd been subjected to what Jane referred to as the softening up process - a stream of yin-yang social messages designed to alert the subject to the ultimate need for community. Jerry switched off the machine and made the introductions.
"Hi Karl. You will know we are here to help you "opened Jerry. The reply was aggressive. "What does help mean? As far as I am concerned I'm no criminal - there's no need to keep me cooped up here with this machinery." retorted Karl.
"You're not being cooped up Karl. You know you've been detected at an early stage of going adrift. We're not thought policepeople. We're just two researchers fascinated why someone as talented as yourself should be intent on being an anti-social. From your schooling you know that anti-socials end up in very sorry circumstances."
Karl stopped her "Before you have anything to do with me, I either have to volunteer for your friendship, or you have to prove that I'm a criminal."
Jerry broke in " Come on Karl, you have a brilliant future ahead of you. Remember we can help you turn the corner. Why don't you co-operate?"
Karl sneered "This is a free society, I thought. Now I learn that as long as I decide to do something that serves the rest of mankind I'll be lauded, rewarded and held in high esteem. But forget that. I'm only interested in what I'm interested in and that 's a private affair - it has nothing to do with you."
Jane signalled to Jerry that the system needed to take it's course. They both withdrew and restored power to the apparatus. Karls face suddenly convulsed. He struggled in a stream of sweaty gyration for a full half-hour. The program sensed his tiring and offered some alternatives at which stage his movements slowed. A certain calmness overtook him and after a further hour, he was sitting upright and volunteering conversation with the controlling computer.
"I think it's time to go back in" said Jane, and they once again cut power to the controller.
"How do you feel now Karl?" asked Jerry. Karl nodded "I haven't felt this good in a long while" he replied. " I can't wait to get to grips out there with some of life's challenges. Sorry I've been so stupid"
The three walked down the corridor to the discharge area and Jerry signed him off the premises as A-restored to the system. "Cheers Karl. We're glad you made it." said Jerry waving Karl farewell.
Jane turned to Jerry "I told you some rough treatment is needed to get a proper conversion. This new process works wonders, we're so lucky to have it, even if it is a last resort."
Karl addressed the coven once more. "Next up from budgies come cats.."