Wednesday 10th September 2130, 9 am GMT

When you're expected at a scheduled session of an RCC, each of its members experiences a gentle mental tapping using the call-sign of that particular RCC; it might be music, vibration or even colour patterns. RCCs can function without 100% representation of their members, but particularly in smaller RCCs being unavailable is frowned upon.

This session of John's class was to have two sections, first a review of the materials that individual members had assembled since the previous session, and secondly a tutorial under the supervision of the teaching module - itself an RCC - allocated to their chosen subject, which is the function and operation of sleep in e-clones.

Since all RCCs are monitored by the relevant Assembly sub-committee, and any departure from standard time patterns would immediately be noticed by the guardians, the illicit work of the team has to be conducted in parallel with the tutorial section of the session. Teachers, even when they are RCCs, tend to be quite fond of the sound of their own voices, and extended descriptions of state-of-the-art research programmes take a while to present even in an RCC. To this extent, the old 'lecture' model of teaching has survived the replacement of classrooms with RCCs.

John is a member of more than one educational RCC, covering different subject areas, but this particular team of eight co-workers has been a consistent feature of his education for more than five years. They selected each other, originally, long before they had access to any RCC capability, based on exactly the kind of mutual social exploration that used to take place in a learning institution, except of course that it was carried out through RCRs in a shifting pattern of encounters in cyber-space. The eight have never met as a team in fizz, and probably never will, although John did once go on a 'physical' tennis holiday with two of them. They are all male. The decision to subvert the RCC guardianship process had seemed to make itself very early on. You are quite free to communicate as between RCRs without any danger of intrusion or eavesdropping, and for that matter moment-to-moment communication within an RCC is equally safe. The problem comes with the existence of apps and stores of data within an RCC, which are quite hard to conceal. Once the guardians are onto your case, they will almost inevitably be able to penetrate your defences, so the only hope is never to be suspected in the first place.

Not that being found out is necessarily terminal. They won't wipe you: physical sanctions are reserved for crimes against the person, and there is an elaborate system of tribunals which consider any infraction of the rules before sanctions are applied. These are likely to be loss of educational status or the imposition of negative 'contribution' (the equivalent of a financial penalty) rather than material damage as such. But that is serious enough. Competition is alive and well in our world, so that loss of a couple of years' worth of status or contribution is enough to hold you back from the higher echelons of achievement, and you might never get back on level terms with your peers. Immortality might be thought to soften the impact of such a situation, but the learning phase lasts only until the magic age of 25, after which achievement is all. If you haven't reached Level 25 by that age, or in the case of a high-flyer somewhere much more advanced than that, it becomes impossibly expensive to replace missing parts of your education during your adult life without the extensive support systems that are supplied by the system during the learning process, and very disruptive to the settled career patterns that tend to take over after 25.

The whole session is timed to last for just one hour, in any event. Even at nominal age 15-18 (really they are the equivalent of 19-21) the group has long ago established efficient working routines and individual members have learned the mental gymnastics necessary to access the assembled eight-fold data stores more or less instantaneously. So the process of discussing, analyzing and integrating the new materials they are bringing to the party is very swift, resulting in a new wish list of questions and unresolved queries to be shared out and dealt with before they meet again in a couple of days' time.

Discussion is the only part of the process that needs much supervision. The solution, which is a standardized app that forms part of the built-in structure of any RCC is for each participant to have an icon which glows according to the deemed relevance of the contribution the individual wants to make. The interpositions are made strictly in accordance with the intensity of the glow, and woe betide anyone who consistently over-eggs their position. It doesn't happen in most groups, in fact; they know each other too well. This contrivance is needed because they are not yet allowed to explore shared emotional spaces within the RCC (it's OK as between RCRs, being much less direct), and it's this improper restriction, as the boys see it, that they kick against.

The discussion segment is done with after ten minutes, and the remainder of the hour is spent with the tutor. The boys know him as George. As the representative of the guardians, George is cautious with these kids, who he knows to be superbright, and is always on the look-out for trouble. They are too clever for him though, and give George enough in the way of minor insubordination to allay his suspicions without ever revealing the turbulent reality of their life beneath the surface.

This week they have been writing a poem (what to call it?) to a homologous RCC formed of eight girls they came across just a few months previously at an educational conference. The girls seem to be on an equivalent level, actively exploring what kind of external personality and behaviour might be possible and appropriate for an eight-fold RCC group. The difficulty is to form something that is more than the sum of the parts. It's one thing to have a witty, sparkling conversation in which two teams of eight people play some sort of emotional hockey in the mental sky like so many Harry Potters, quite another to form something new, that could not have been imagined beforehand.

Poem, hmmm. First of all it's not poetry, of course, in the sense of linear strings of words, it's an assemblage of sensory images across time, corruscating at first with the eight-fold insights and imaginings of the team, then as you get better at it, it's more like cooking, if that's not too banal a metaphor. John may sense anger at what appears to be a sexist attitude expressed by one of the members, while Kim's female part sympathizes and Karim's inner child wants to submit - they have to blend these emotions into a coherent platform from which the poem can move on in a meaningful way. Concepts such as 'this hurts me more than it hurts you', or 'I forgive you this time', which could be expressed by a mature human personality are more on the level of complexity that is needed, and teenagers are not often good at that kind of subtlety.

Sometimes the concotions are symphonic, sometimes they are more like a concertante, with one member of the group allowed or even chosen to weave a contrasting thread of feeling into the poem. They don't risk leaving the poem in the RCC; each day at the end of the tuitional session they dismantle the hidden RCC environment they have been using, and take away the object they have created. Today they think they have finished tuning it, and John is selected to deliver it to a spokesperson of the girls' group. They haven't yet dared to convoke a joint RCC meeting with the girls, indeed they're not even sure whether this could be contrived without taking too great a risk. So the relationship is progressing as it were through a series of letters and formal statements, very eighteenth century.


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