Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Fiction: "Solid" - Chapter 1

Voice of the Mountain

by Shawn K. Inlow

NOTE:  Today, I'm featuring the first chapter of a story I have yet to complete.  The story is called "Solid" and it takes place in the near future and will take you to several places across a climate-changed world.  From the tribal American desert to a very changed Los Angeles to the middle of the Pacific Ocean to near and deep space.

I'm not completely sure where the story is going, but I'm vetting the story with you, dear reader, and The Voice of the Mountain is where I aim to test run the story in a serialized format.  Please enjoy the story and feel free to offer your feedback along the way in the comment section.  Be critical if you like.  Ask questions.  Point out weaknesses.  Lord knows I have limited experience in L.A. outside of narrowly escaping a gang of Latinos in a parking lot once.  So I'm very limited on the subject of Los Angeles.  In the coming weeks, I hope the story takes shape and becomes a feature you enjoy.

I need art for the piece and I have many friends and family who are capable.  If the story ever sells, I'd hope the art would sell with it.  Josh is already working on some images.  But if my friends Doug or Ben are interested, I would love to table the artwork right with each chapter.  For now, dear reader, you have to use your imagination and together let's see where this story takes us.


Chapter 1: Chappel

Chappel Panic walked out of the L.A. marshes on her way to school.  She always cut through a corner of the swamps every gray morning.  The green and the wet gave comfort to her even while most would find the place somewhere between disgusting and dangerous.  The pathways here were made by her feet or those of some of the larger animals.

The bile of the city seeped into the vast marsh and the marsh was changed by it even while the city was transformed by the marsh.

The path she walked was beaten down from her twice a day walking.  The tall grasses and the black waters were receeding and the oddfrogs were getting out of her way even as she padded along in her red sneakers toward a kind of education.

The marsh extended for miles in a great estuarial square, bound on each side by the hard lines of the city, etched on the horizon like faint mountain ranges.  Besides Chappel, the only human intruders on the space were L.A. Department of Water hydrogeologists which she observed from time to time - studying them  as she might any species in her swamp - quietly and from a safe distance.  They wore protective clothing and left monitoring devices.

Chappel, by contrast, wore only her schoolgirl clothes; a non-descript t-shirt and pants, both made of cylex, a breathable kind of fabric that wore a bit like old-fashioned paper - very light, but one rustled slightly when one walked.  Her pants were rolled up to the knee against the travails of the marsh and exposed the slight white spindles that were her legs.

Now churning uphill, Chappel rose to a dry patch of earth and was in sight of a city walkway.  In short order she stepped onto the moving sidewalk and was being whisked along to her destination.  At the first junction, the walk slowed and Chappel danced onto another walkway and was soon speeding off in another direction.  The walkway began to arch upwards like a rollercoaster above the tangle of the city below and Chappel, impetuous and impatient, began to run.

She felt superhuman as she sprinted along the walkway and the air whipped against her face, her hazel eyes squinting above her wide grin.

A red safety sign flitted by, "No Running," in the now enclosed walkway.  The air constricted and she felt a draft from behind.  At the crest, her speed made her stomach sink as she was suddenly airborne briefly as the walkway leveled and sank gently away.  Her flying red hair grazed the translucent ceiling and her red sneakers ran on nothing but air.  It was like flying.

She landed taking big, leaping steps, to avoid sprawling on her face and coasted to a cool and graceful stop where another junction came into view.

Other children were on this footpath.  Had they been on the path from the marshes, she might have bowled them all over.

These new commuters were dressed much like Chappel with the exception of the sensible shoes.  These plain shoes were light and comfortable and would outlast her own but for the incidents and accidents of running and stomping around in a swamp.  She looked at the grey things on the feet of a kid just ahead.  Those shoes wouldn't last a day in her world.

A boy standing more or less beside Chappel stepped away and a little ahead of the tousled wild thing with the red hair and shoes.  He was clean and dry and neatly groomed and she smelled of the sweat glistening on her brow and faintly of the earth that caked her shoes and spattered her uncouthly exposed legs.

Chappel felt this slight as she felt all such expressions of prejudice.  She didn't know whether the slight, good looking boy was showing disdain or shock.  Whatever, Chappel thought, the Nancy-boy better keep his lip shut or she'd flatten him.  That's what Uncle Marty called the kids who were being set up for government jobs.  Marty always said in the old days softies like that couldn't even step on the playground.

The walkways merged and merged again until Chappel was amid a throng of children on their way to L.A. Public #17.  She tip-toed off the walkway to a large plaza which channeled students like spectators into a stadium.

Passing through turnstiles, Chappel knew she was being scanned and she closed her eyes.  The others seemed either to not care or not know that their entire bodies were being searched and identified.  Both the idea of being searched and of being present and accounted for at school dimly bothered Chappel.  She had always vowed they would never look in her eyes.  Uncle Marty, always full of truisms, said the eyes were the window to the soul.  So Chappel didn't mind so much them knowing her identity as much as them knowing who she was.

School #17 was a massive thing built on the bones of the old school.  Chappel knew only one teacher and few classmates.  The only adults, besides Mr. Hurtado, that appeared were maintenance people.

The flood of children moved down wide halls past an immense section of administrative offices and into the well of a giant auditorium.  Each student filterd to the seat with their corresponding number.  Each seat was a comfortable affair with a pull down screen upon which interactive lessons played out.

At the dais in the center front of the auditorium stood Hurtado.  He was a thin, well dressed, Latino man and he was the only teacher in a classroom of 12,000.

The youngest students sat closest to the dais.   The oldest sat furthest away and matriculated out the top of the auditorium.  Just over half way up, Hurtado saw the familiar bouncing ball of red hair on her way to her seat.

He entered her number on a keypad and her biographical information came onto the screen.  Looking down as he loaded the day's history lessons he noted how she stood out in the crowd.  She even walked differently than the others, in a kind of baroque, shifting way that looked aimless, haphazard.  And that color of red hair was not one available in gene labs.  Indeed, he thought it impossible even in nature.

She was a born.  One of the children who were conceived and born the old fashioned way with all the attendant risks.  There were many of them in society and Hurtado could look around the auditorium and select them easily enough by sight.  They were a significant minority, though, and this one, Hurtado thought, was special.

He liked the way she attacked her lessons.  In the history module where students played out battles in the Spanish Civil War from different perspectives, she chose not only Governor Francis' role, but also that of the famed local rebel, Chaves.  It was clear that young Ms. Panic pushed and pulled at the lesson plan and received the lesson like a prize-fighter.

The school would have a detailed list of borns and certain administrators made their living at keeping keen track of their progress.  Hurtado made notes on Chappel, too, and kept them to himself.

Borns, statistically, tended to grow into dissidents.  They were agitators who stubbornly persisted in asking nagging questions of governments and officials.  Officially, they were free persons in a free society.  Unofficially, they were red-flagged and they needed to be watched.  Borns sometimes became terrorists at about the same time their questions became too inconvenient.

Chappel Panic, Hurtado thought, had no idea how difficult a path her life would be.

Hurtado knew the difficulty first hand.  He had been what used to be called an illegal immigrant in a country his forebears had once called home, but his impeccable paperwork and diction made him a U.S. born, an educator.

He was the perfect company man.  He knew people even in an age where few met in person and fewer looked you in the eye.  He could read a bureaucrat even on the screen in a teleconference.  Even in the syntax of a memorandum.  Hurtado could see which way the wind blew - officially and unofficially.  He seemed always to know the truth and then an extra measure of the truth.

It was this set of skills that insured Hurtado and ensured he would be the last teacher standing at L.A. #17.  He remembered his farewells ten years ago with Stan Polonko.

Stan was senior to Ed and the district had been downsizing again.  The teachers' contract called for another increase and the district could only pay one teacher over the next three year term.  One of them had to go.

The two stood leaning against their cars in the teachers' lot; a lot with only ten spaces.

"I don't know how you do it, Ed.  Keeping up with all the new tech and making sense of all the stats they need.  Its just too much."

Hurtado smiled.  "It's not about absorbing things.  It's more like knowing what to filter out," said Hurtado.  "And there's a lot of nonsense.  Most of it is nonsense."

Stan laughed, leaning on the fender of his car.  Ed knew that the secret to staying with the system was not being interested in the details of the teaching, but in the way that the data flowed.  Programs were set for education and they were administered and his job was merely loading the approved information and then simply getting out of the way of the students' outflow of data.

The administration would make whatever meaningful statistics out of the information that they deemed necessary.  Hurtado, knowing how the data flowed and to where, was the one instructor School 17 could not do without.  He understood it.  Not just where the information went, but why.

This was knowledge that made him essential.  More essential than Stan, anyway.  And it was only the safest of instructors - those who were not inquisitive, those who didn't want to be too involved, who could be trusted anywhere near that kind of data-flow.  This, Ed knew, could be translated into power or ruin.  The thing was to remain indifferent.

For students, the way they interacted with the educational code meant they would go to work in menial jobs, tech jobs, infrastructure jobs, military jobs, aerospace fields, and on and on.

Students like Chappel, those who were born, had no chance at more than a life on the fringes.  She was genetically doomed to failings of all kinds.  Chappel could be defective in the head or heart.  She might up and croak of an embolism or simply go buggy.  Statistically this was all true.  It was never said.  But it was true.  True things are always the quiet things.

Still, Chappel was a rare intellect.  It would get her nowhere but in trouble one day, but, to Hurtado, this was a data-stream to behold.    

In the history sections, she role played the great U.S. military leaders of the past as well as their enemies.  She had won World War II for both the Axis and the Allies.  She had understood the Battle of L.A. so deeply that she could inhabit governor or rebel as the lesson plan changed with equal aplomb.  In fact, her successful trials in Chaves' shoes had to have attracted attention somewhere.

It wasn't that she was a military genius.  It was more, Hurtado thought, that she understood people.  People, genetically groomed or not, all ticked in basically the same way.  It was a truth Ed Hurtado appreciated.

In today's history lesson, he'd locked two students, unbeknownst to each other, on either end of the Southern California, or "Spanish," Civil War.  Chappel Panic was leading the rebellion. 


NEXT week, well discover a second character, Nick Casteel.  Nick is a genetically modified child who is being groomed for military service and is troubled by an unexpected turn in his results in school.  We'll follow Nick home and meet his mother and begin to look into a different aspect of Los Angeles some 50 years in the future.

I chose the name "Casteel" having stolen it from my chiropractor, Mark Casteel, who has offices in Philipsburg and State College.  I like the name for this character because it conveys strength, even rigidity or a lack of flexibility, in the way cast steel might be very strong but not very flexible.  This will be a quality of the character and it will be set in opposition to the character of Chappel.  Also, I like the name Casteel because it sets up a plot surprise that I have coming down the road.  We'll see how that plays out.

 Until next time.  Enjoy!


- Shawn Inlow / Osceola Mills, Pa.

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