Saturday, March 3, 2012

Where Do Stories Come From?

First off, thanks to everyone who read my latest published piece. Bonnie, my incredibly meticulous and forward-thinking editor at Penduline, took the time to tell me both the magazine and my story had an unusually high number of hits. She attributed it to the title. Wieners and boobies get attention. Go figure.

So here are the links again:

The Camp Seminole Wiener Wall

The Gay Bomb

Friends and Pyromaniacs

Teaching this week brought up the age old question: Where do story ideas come from?

For folks my age, you might remember the book "Where Did I Come From?" My parents used that to teach me about the birds and the bees. Also, the cartoon couple in the book were fat and the dude was bald. Even as a kid, I remember feeling empowered that even if I grew up fat and bald I might still be able to use my johnson.

Where stories come from usually comes down to a few different categories:

Some great injustice that pisses you off.

Some personal emotional experience you need to write about in order to "digest."

Some side-effect of speculative thinking, like, "What would the future look like if the chasm between the uber-rich and the rest of us never stopped growing?”

This week's story sample came from a mix of story sources two and three.

That led me back to the world of Charles Vance Cohen, Corporate-national school inspector in 2029 fascist America. But he’s just the speaker, the real star of his story thread is the tool of fascism in each story, the means used by the few to keep the many from realizing the game is rigged, and they probably should rise as one and give the rule-makers a guillotine neck massage.

So here’s a draft of “The Synaptic Shocker.” If you’re one of those people who still thinks supply-side economics works or if you get a quasi-boner when you hear the words “unfettered free market” please don’t read it. Go read Keynes. Please, do it for the rest of us. We have to live here too. Keynes’ model allows for capitalism and basic human decency to coexist.

The Synaptic Shocker

            There is a factory in America. It makes the means to enable our greatness.
            It’s in the outlands of course, with the power plants, the prisons and armories. And much like these other facilities, the new factory is a walled island. The walls of the factory are equipped with the standard spotlights, the standard machine gun turrets.
Such unpleasant aesthetics suit the outlands. My friends, could you imagine any enclave, any of our walled neighborhoods tolerating a factory, a power plant, or a prison? Could you conceive of them allowing an elevated machine gun turret in view of their children’s sports fields? I almost want to propose it at my next enclave homeowners meeting. The frenzy would be priceless. Then I could tell them all I was being facetious.
Imagine their wrinkled little noses, their sour pouts.
            Most of them are content to never leave our enclave, Pleasant Edge. I don’t have that luxury. As a Corporate-national schools inspector, I have duties; duties which take me into the outlands.
Old Jim, my driver, he drove me in my armored limo through the front gates of Pleasant Edge, just before dawn this morning. I had a busy day. I was going to see a prototype of the first new American factory in decades. Depending in part on my findings, facilities like this may soon be constructed across my home state, New Jersey. Depending on how that goes, they may go national.
Rehab teams had paved over that one section of the Garden State Parkway that had been a bomb crater last month. Another Miserable in an explosive vest, wasting his own life to cause a little inconvenience in ours. That is the right term for them, Miserables. They do nothing to improve their circumstances. Even the apes in the factory know enough to look down on them.
At any rate, the rehab teams had done a decent enough job that we arrived in Paterson ahead of schedule and unmolested. For those readers who aren’t from my state, Paterson was once a collection of silk mills, the vibrant and beating heart of a manufacturing economy.
Today it’s a collection of ruins where gangs fight over blocks – a place where Miserables and tribal outcasts tear one another to pieces for food, or scrap metal, or merely for entertainment.
I read in some leftist rag once that every society either spends money to fight poverty or it spends money to fight the poor. The reason I endure such drivel? Every now and then they stumble on a bit of truth.
We didn’t have to endure much of old Paterson. Junction Manufacturing was just off the ramp from the highway, tucked against a cliff face they’d blasted out of Garret Mountain, an old local landmark. It was better protection for their rear perimeter than any engineer could provide.
The outer stone wall was at least twenty-five feet high and I estimate six feet thick. It surrounded the eight-block perimeter of the facility not under the mountain’s protection. At the front gate, the wall turned inward, forming a square with two reinforced fences protecting the road in. If Miserables ever ram one of their salvaged trucks through the first fence, they’d find themselves robbed of the inertia to punch through the second. Then the elevated turrets turn inward and downward, ending their short rebellion in the kill box.
It was almost enough to rival an Enclave gate, except I did notice a breach in their east wall. Central was right. Miserables would continue to attack this facility. The breach was being sealed by the facility’s rehab team. Fully-armored Corporate-national guardsmen stood watch. Waste of resources if you ask me. The Miserables never hit the same spot twice.
Just ritual to the guardsmen I suppose. Security theater.
We parked inside and the facility’s overseer, good old John Stern from Central Academy, came to meet me with a hearty back slap and a python handshake. He asked about my fiancée and I asked about his. I gave him the latest news from Pleasant Edge and he told me the happenings in Smoke Rise. When we trade enclave news, it always comes down to who is cheating on whom, who’s getting divorced as a result, and how the re-coupling aligns itself.
Mundane, really. But customs must be observed.
I commented on the glum, grey exterior of his facility, though I lied and told John it wasn’t as glum as I’d been expecting. He was an old classmate after all. I tried to stroke him a bit.
“I know it looks like Belsen,” he said. I had to laugh.
“Why not Auschwitz?” I asked.
“Just wanted to see if you were still a student of history,” he said.
It really did look like a concentration camp. Six stories of grey concrete in a perfect rectangle. Aside from a slim parking lot, the building took up most of the eight city blocks contained by the outer wall. Iron letters across the roof spelled out “Junction Manufacturing.” An American flag waved on each of the roof’s corners.
“Nice touch with the flags,” I said. “Yours?”
“The outborn love their gods and eagles,” John said. We walked toward a steel door in the side of the brick. There was a small scanner next to the knob. John placed his thumb on it and the inner latch opened.
“You don’t exactly manufacture junctions here, do you Mr. Stern?” I had to goad him. He took it as sport.
“We manufacture the innovation that’s going to make your division matter for the first time in a half century.” We entered the facility.
The open height and frenzy of the place made me think of a beehive. It was a mad collection of catwalks, conveyor belts, work stations and intersections. At every junction, signs like those amusement park directions in the tropical enclaves told me how to get to D1 and D3, so I assumed I was in D2.
John explained what they were. D1 was the mall, D2 the factory floor, and D3 was a jumble: school, living quarters, and the prison.
“The prison?” I asked. John got this smug grin.
“They work in the factory. They live on the grounds. They shop at our mall. They’re outborn, so they always have issues with debt…” he waited for me to comprehend.
“When they become insolvent they lose their jobs and go to the prison to work off their debt. All under one roof. You’ll win the innovation honor this year you son of a bitch!” I had to hand it to him. “What about security?”
“Another job. One day you’re buddies on the assembly line. Then one of you gets insolvent and goes to jail. The other one gets bored and applies for a transfer. Now he’s a prison guard. Now he guards his buddy.” He waited for me to see the brilliance of it.
“And you’re good to him because one day you’ll be insolvent…”
“And he’ll be guarding you.”
“Son of an outborn whore…”
“Not so loud,” John reminded. He was right. We were on the factory floor. You don’t swat at a bee in its hive, even if it’s only a worker.
Each work station gave off a busy heat. Men shouted in intercoms. They yelled at one another to make room. If I stood still longer than three minutes, I guessed I would see the entirety of what each worker did, over and over and over again, every day, week, month. Every creature in the hive had its role.
The beehive metaphor didn’t do it justice, though. I was just comprehending. Junction Manufacturing was an organism. Incoming workers were sorted into retail, factory, medic or guard positions based on their aptitude tests. Within reason, they could transfer when they grew bored. Debt meant prison, but they would be welcomed back when they’d worked their debt back down. Serious malcontents faced expulsion into the outlands. The organism disposed of germs.
John had it down to a science. Junction Manufacturing was a gorgeous beast.
“You’re like Ronald Reagan Rockefeller. I’m seriously in awe of you right now.” It had the simplicity of all genius. Anyone who comprehended John’s system would have to think, how didn’t I conceive of this first?
John basked in my reaction for a moment, but we were on a tight schedule.
“Ready to see the field test?” he asked. I nodded.
We walked on the factory floor and the workers averted eye contact. I thought this was for the best, but John kept tossing out congenial grenades.
“Johnson, nice job last month, over quota I heard!”
“Garcia, congratulations! That’s your third son now, right?”
“Alvarez, heard your breeding license was approved! Time to start catching up to Garcia! Haw-haw!”
When we were on a catwalk between stations, with no workers around, I quietly asked him what the fuck he was doing. He said he always did this. He always hedged his bets. If all this ever came crashing down, he said, they’d remember he’d taken the time to know them, their names, their family dynamics. He’d made himself familiar with their accomplishments, their aspirations. They would take all that into account, he said. Better to be both loved and feared.
I had to stop him.
“John, if all this comes crashing down they’ll tear our heads off with their bare hands and stick them on the tops of your little rooftop flagpoles.”
He got quiet after that. At least until we reached the testing area. It was a regular assembly line station. Junction Manufacturing is being used to determine whether the assembly line is worth revitalizing. It’s also being used to produce the device that will enable our greatness for decades to come: the synaptic shocker.
At this particular assembly line station, synaptic shockers at 40% completion rolled in from the left, looking like haphazardly dissected beetles from some outland school’s Science class. Wires like intestines exploded out from every angle, begging for connection. The four workers at this station were tasked with exactly that.
Their work areas were spread out among the floor, which was about fifteen square feet. An odd collection of tweezers, tiny pliers and soldering irons littered each station. Each worker completed a tray of eight shockers before placing them on the conveyer, on to the next station at 65% completion. When they were done, the beetle’s guts were in, but an opening at mid-thorax hinted that another segment wanted attachment.
“Subjects Alpha through Delta are all fitted with synaptic shockers. These here were among the first,” John said in monotone. I’d obviously hurt his pride when I’d attacked his illusion of being some paternal benefactor. He gets clinical when he’s wounded.
I saw one of the workers scratch at his ear. When he saw John, he quickly returned to his work.
“Nice touch, to have workers fitted with shockers making shockers,” I offered.
“That was what Central called for,” John said. He was still irritated.
Worker Beta was the first to receive a perceptible jolt. He dropped his completed tray and frantically swept the floor with his arms. He didn’t recover quickly enough. He passed his allotted time for task completion. The voltage was enough to make his head twitch but his arms remained steady. He had his full tray on the conveyor seventeen seconds after his spill.
That was good. The jolt hadn’t made him drop his tray again.
That would be counter-productive.
I checked my watch and observed. “The shockers are set to give them about ninety seconds per tray?” I asked.
“A hundred,” John said.
“My apologies if I hurt your feelings earlier,” I said.
“It’s fine. You always were good for an icy glass of logic over the head,” John said. He even got a twitchy little smile.
The Synaptic Shocker was a simple enough idea, the product of a series of meetings John and I had attended. Central had the data, how long any worker’s task should take. Insert shocker. If the worker goes over time on any task…
Suddenly, Worker Delta scratched at his ear like a feral cat. His head twitched and jerked and he dropped his tray. He swept at the floor like Beta had, but seemed to have more of an issue with it. He perspired. He scratched at his ear again. The second shock hit him at an elevated voltage. His head snapped backward and smacked against the metal floor. His unconscious body twitched on the floor, a light trickle of blood dripped from his head.
“Goddamn it!” John shouted. He moved to the nearest intercom. “Neutralize shocker S3-Delta!”
John and I each grabbed one of Worker Delta’s legs to drag him out of his co-workers’ way. They never even looked down at him, just walked around him, around the little blood pool. They had their own quotas to meet, their own shocks to avoid.
A medic arrived shortly after to stitch Delta’s head. A groundskeeper mopped the blood.
“I’ve already submitted to Central that the upgraded shockers shut down when the subject loses consciousness,” John told me.
“Very reasonable,” I said. To keep shocking an unconscious man was akin to beating the proverbial dead horse.
The medic verified that Delta was responsive to stimuli and likely not suffering from a concussion. He ran off on another call. John squatted in Delta’s face.
Delta scratched at his ear again. I winced.
“Are you happy here Wilkes?” he asked Delta.
“Sir, yes, of course,” he said. Then he scratched at his ear. “It’s just, like I told the foreman, Mr. Gregs, I think when they put mine in it tore something. I can’t hardly hear on this side Mr. Stern. This yellow and orange stuff is on my pillow every morning…”
“What makes you think your boss’s boss should hear such nauseating details?” John asked.
“Sir, I’m sorry. It’s just, of course I’ll wear one, but can I get this one out and get a medic to look at my ear? Then they could put a new one right in, sir. We could do it this morning. Bet I’m back at my station by lunch sir.”
I winced again. There simply wasn’t a pretty end to this that I could picture.
“You want the morning off, a new synaptic shocker, and a medic?”
“Sir, please, yes sir.”
“Wilkes, just what the fuck do you call the man who tended to your injuries five seconds ago? Did a medic not just clear you for work? Or did you somehow find the time to train as a medic without the transfer request ever having crossed my desk?”
Poor Delta. He was trapped. Most overseers like John, the ones who ran the prisons and power plants, they never would’ve even taken the time to learn his name. Worker Delta S-3 was the fourth-best worker at station three. When he transferred, was imprisoned, or expulsed, someone else became Delta S-3. Maybe Worker Chi dropped down a slot.
The functions matter in this organism. The people are ancillary. That’s what makes it so efficient.
But John, poor John with his congenial delusions, he had to call a man by name when he expulsed him. This Wilkes, this man who had been Delta S-3, he could only sit there with blood drying around his stitches and his lip quivering while John walked back to the intercom.
“Expulsion Delta S-3,” he said.
“Sir, please, I have a wife, two children…”
“Your wife, Vivian, is D-1 S-4 Alpha as I recall. She’s a regular retail machine. She’s filled half the women’s prison with debtors. When I visit that section, I keep my fiancée the hell away from your wife. She could talk a groundskeeper into buying a diamond ring on credit. She’ll be fine.” John looked at me. I’m wondering if what he said next wasn’t a result of my earlier comment. I wonder if he didn’t suddenly feel the need to be feared. “As to your children, Wilkes, I’ll let you pick one.”
“One of them can join you in the outlands. Your daughter Erica is more athletic as I recall. Though she is fifteen, right? Rape is a scourge where you’re going. I can’t guarantee your eleven-year-old son Danny won’t face the same corporal threat, but statistically, he might be less vulnerable. If he survives to puberty, you might have a helpful ally.”
Wilkes just sat there. This was the first time he had ever seen John plainly.
I think he would’ve attempted some foolishness, tried to pull John’s nose off with his pliers or solder one of his eyes, but the guardsmen arrived on schedule. It could’ve merely been the sight of four uniformed men with automatic weapons, or it could’ve been simple resignation. Either way, a cold sobriety seemed to grip Wilkes.
“No sir,” Wilkes said, “I’ll go alone.”
And he did. Flanked by armed guards with nothing but the clothes on his back, they escorted the former D2 S-3 Delta through the main gate. His former colleagues knew enough not to engage in teary farewells.
They had quotas to meet, shocks to avoid.
To me, his tone said he would be back the first chance he got. He would explode himself in an attempt to destroy or disrupt the great organism that had separated him from his family.
“You should radio to your guardsmen,” I told John quietly. “Shoot him. Just off the grounds. That’s a Miserable in the making right there.”
“I’m not a monster,” John said. I didn’t want to have that argument again.
“Have there been many reports like his? Ear infections and the like?”
“We estimate 3% of subjects suffer permanent hearing loss and/or ear canal damage from the implant process. We have a 2% margin of error.”
That probably meant closer to eight or ten. Inconsequential. I nodded. “Five tops. I can live with that.”
“Central said the same.”
“Then let’s proceed. I’m assuming the school is in D-1?”
“Same place as housing and the prison. The thinking was…”
“They don’t see any distinction between home, school, and jail.”
We proceeded to S-6, where guardsmen were loading boxes of synaptic shockers for transport.
The finished product was the size of a large almond. Though it appeared sleek and black as a beetle’s carapace, tiny fibers ran along the entire surface, giving it a fuzzy texture.
A nice side effect. The children might think they were cuddly, toy-like.
The fibers secrete an oil to lubricate the ear canal. They push to guide the shocker to the subject’s cerebral cortex. At that point, the tip of the almond opens up and the tiny silver chords attach themselves to the brain.
We thought it wise to design it that way. The most…invasive aspect of the device remains hidden. By the time it enters the canal, the subject is unable to halt the process. Once inside the skull, the shocker is programmed to burrow. It finds one of the natural folds in the cerebral cortex and basically just…nests.
As far as I know, there is no way to remove the synaptic shocker without many risky and invasive surgeries.
This is why Central thought it best to install them all at once within a facility. John’s workers would object when their children told them what they’d received at school. But it’s hard to really protest an irreversible process that’s already completed. Plus, many of the parents had already been implanted. So in a way, they’ll share another common trait after today, as a family.
And what could they do anyway? Move?
This is what I thought as we walked though the living quarters, D-1. If D-2, the factory floor, was a beehive, D-1 was a poorly-designed mental hospital.
Guardsmen were everywhere. I was often confused as to whether we were in the regular living quarters, the school, or the prison. Signs had been crudely etched over. There were so many of them it only added to the confusion. I noticed many discarded brochures, outlining gruesome phases of some virus called Neuron Flu. We went up elevators and down stairwells. We went left, right, left.
As we walked, John explained that if anyone was to engage in incendiary activity, it was most likely to be during their spare time. Nights and weekends, he busied them with many company activities, using the very school gyms that busied their children during the day. Gambling, bare-knuckle boxing for the men and powder-puff wrestling for the ladies, drinking and narcotics rationing, all the activities that keep the mind of the worker muddled, preoccupied, running without direction.
The workers didn’t have to attend, of course. But guards notice who attends and who doesn’t. And they gossip. And they knock on doors to make sure everything is alright. They also extend “invitations” to future events.
“You’ll have your full guard on tonight?” I asked.
“Of course, Charles. I’m not suicidal,” John laughed.
“They won’t be happy when their kids get home.”
“What can they do? Move? Apply for work elsewhere?”
The same thought I’d had earlier. This building was all the structure they knew. They endured here because the only alternative was a barbarian’s life in the outlands.
Just as I thought the labyrinth of D-1 would completely overwhelm my sense of direction, I noticed children lined up, waiting to enter a gymnasium, the first multi-story room I’d seen in D-1. John and I pushed past the children and into the gym.
The line from the hallway was being divided into many separate lines in the gym. John and I moved to the line for students with last names ending in the letters A-D. The doctors and the nurses were their friends and neighbors. This created a sense of familiarity, of trust.
Each line led up to a white curtain. When John and I walked past our curtain, a young girl was laying on her side on a gurney, screaming. A doctor held her wrists.
The start of the burrowing process can look a tad horrific. Clear lubricant dribbles down earlobes, many times swirling with pink traces of blood. The synaptic shocker goes from a black almond to a writhing of fibers. The fibers work together, pushing the device into the canal. A burgundy ring of blood and earwax appears around the device’s rim. A lump is visible behind the ear.
Then it disappears in the canal.
The girl rolled her head around as if to help guide the shocker inside her skull. It appeared as though she knew there was no getting it out, and now she just wanted the process to be done.
I overheard a conversation between the next boy on line and the nurse.
“It’s hurting her!” he said. He pointed at the girl.
“Bill, remember when you broke your arm and Doctor Richards had to re-set the bone?” the nurse asked.
“Yeah?” She squatted to be at eye-level with him.
“Bill, you’re a big boy now, third grade is a big boy year. So I can tell you that sometimes getting better hurts a little at first. When Dr. Richards re-set your bone, it hurt at first, remember? I was there. You cried.”
“Yeah?” Now she held his hand.
“It was worth it, though, because it hurts much more to have your arm heal wrong. It hurts forever. Another thing that hurts forever is Neuron Flu. The fuzzy bean makes sure you can never get Neuron Flu.”
“Oh.” The girl on the gurney settled into a peaceful sleep. The synaptic shocker had rendered her unconscious, by design. The boy looked at her peaceful face, as a guardsman carried her to a collection of wrestling mats, where children napped serenely.
“Bill? Are you ready to get your fuzzy bean? Like a big boy?”
When the burrowing started, he screamed at a higher falsetto than the girl.
“Fuzzy bean, huh? Nice touch,” I said to John.
“I submitted it to Central,” he boasted. “That little phrase will be used in a thousand school gyms like this, all over the country.”
I looked back at the line of children. “This will all be over in an hour,” I said.
“We’re ahead of schedule,” John said. “You’d like to observe the first class?” He’d read my mind.
“I am a Corporate-national school inspector after all,” I said. We enjoyed a casual lunch while the children napped. John grew congenial again, like he was eager to show off Junction Manufacturing’s schools.
Forty minutes later we visited a nondescript classroom. We stood at the back of the room, observing. John accessed the synaptic shocker mainframe from his touch screen; two passwords, a thumbprint, and a cornea scan were required. He showed me how to program the time per exercise, appropriate tangential thoughts, voltage levels, and intervals of escalation.
He showed me how to tame a mind.
The children had seven minutes to demonstrate their knowledge of the multiplication tables. At eight, three students twitched, their pencils waved frantically. Only one of those reacted a second time with a full jerk of the torso. He quickly completed his final answers.
Tomorrow they will have six minutes.
The instructor cast us a frowning glance only once. The shockers were an important tool for her as well. She cared for her students. She would make sure they could accomplish what they needed to. She would help them to avoid pain. They could love her and fear the shocker. I shared this thought with John. He laughed.
“The Machiavellian Dilemma solved,” he said. The teacher looked at us crossly.
I whispered to John, “India and China can bicker over whose century this is. Meanwhile, our students will be back on par with theirs in five years. We’ll eclipse them within a decade.”
John enjoyed a light laugh. “I expect India and China will become our top customers,” he said.
“Says who?”
“Don’t sound so incredulous, Mr. Ice Cold Logic. Did you think Central was going to turn down billions of dollars in the name of national team spirit? We’re profiteers for heaven’s sake. Since when did an eagle on some flag line your pockets?”
I didn’t argue. He was right of course.
“I suppose that’s enough,” I said. “It’s obvious the system works. I can fill out all the papers at home. You’ll have my most flattering endorsement at Central by dusk. No need to take up any more of your time.”
“Always a pleasure, Charles,” John said. He extended his hand for another python shake.
A guardsman burst through the door.
“We need you, both of you, in the gym,” he said. Students looked up from their work and a wave of twitching crashed across the class. They quickly refocused.
“What’s the problem?” John asked. He was remarkably blithe.
“Not here,” the guard said, “in the gym. There isn’t much time.”
It appeared my inspection wasn’t over.
(End of free preview)

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