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Fiction Teens & Young Adult High School

Chapter 1

What if . . .

I pause for five seconds to let the anticipation build – a trick Dad taught me last year when he learned I registered for this Civil Discourse class in the Civics Division. My classmates, my fellow Proficients, I suspect, are peering at their pads wherever they are inside B TECH Academy this Thursday. They’re watching my calm face on their screens and waiting to hear the dramatic conclusion to my speech titled “Protests Then, Protest Now, Protest Because.” 

            On the table screen in front of me, their avatars are solemnly encased inside boxes with slender red borders that brighten when they want to respond with a typed message or a glossy image. All the avatars are glowing – a sure sign they’ve been paying attention, that they love my speech so far. Nineteen avatars in the gallery, to be exact. All muted. Only I, Bax Merhar, can talk. 

            I finish my five second count and say, “Protests—like Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in 1963, Chad’s ProDem Movement in 2029, the College Boycott in the 2050s, and the Climate Catastrophe Coalition eight years ago in 2053—prove that ordinary voices can be heard, whether they emerge collectively from a crowd of nine hundred thousand . . . or from just a single individual. The reality is that each of us . . . right now . . . can be that one voice. And the rest of us, then, . . . must listen.” I tap the mute button and breathe.

            Only a moment passes before all the borders glow and a clapping hands image replaces the avatars inside the boxes, making my heart thump with relief.

            The fanged cobra avatar, however, stubbornly remains. 

            Kel Dean is not impressed. 

            Figures. He hasn’t liked anyone’s speech so far.

            I lean back in my chair, discovering that my back and shoulders beneath my white hemp shirt and blue tie, the typical outfit for a Civ Pro, are stiff after that ten-minute speech. The sweat trickling down my spine proves the eight foot by eight-foot study pod where I chose to deliver my speech today is poorly ventilated, almost stifling. I stare at the screen, at the clapping hands, even at Kel’s menacing Egyptian cobra. It’s my turn to wait.

            Then our Cloud instructor, Mr. Corts, scrolls his message across the bottom of the vid screen. Thank you, Bax. Any questions for him?

            Kel Dean’s border brightens now. Of course it does. What if the protest is misguided or misdirected? What then? he asks in a typed (per protocol) message inside his box.

            I pause again, but I need more than five seconds. I need a miracle. 

            What if . . .? Misguided? Misdirected?

            My speech was about protests that challenged injustice, that toppled corrupt governments, that benefitted entire populations. They weren’t misguided, they made a difference. 

            Too much time passes because a new message pops up in Kel’s box. Well?

            I can’t hear him, but I sense Kel is shouting this at me. Rolling his eyes. Chortling.

            By instinct, my fingers hover over the glass. They wait for instructions. Finally, I tap and unmute myself: “History proves these protests were not misguided. That’s why I chose them.”

            Kel doesn’t back down. What about Russia in 1917, Canadian farmers in 2024, or Mexico’s border closure in 2039? Did you research them?

            He’s baiting me. He’s looking right now at encyc articles in the Cloud about those other protests, and he’s probably smirking wherever he is during our virtual, synchronous class today. The hemp sticks to my back now and my tie feels like a noose. 

            Dad has told me, “Whenever you have a conflict, meet force with more force. My classmates are waiting. So is Mr. Corts. That’s why I launch a verbal grenade at Kel. “No. I didn’t need to delve into those protests. I chose to focus on the successes, not the failures.”

            I’m dodging Kel’s inquiry. Copping out. But maybe Mr. Corts won’t notice.

            One by one, my classmates’ handclapping images disappear, replaced by their avatars that darken almost immediately. Kel’s box stays smugly quiet. Only the cobra’s ebony eyes gleam. Kel even makes it wink. Last week, Kel’s speech was “America’s Game-Changing Diplomats in the Last Decade.” He nailed it, and Mr. Corts proudly announced he was archiving it.  

            Today, Mr. Corts sends a cryptic message across the bottom of the screen. Review and assessment to follow via tagmail, Bax. Bye, everyone.

            Translation: Don’t count on “Protests Then, Protest Now, Protest Because” getting archived.

            The screen blinks out, and for ten seconds – I actually count them – I stare at the blackness. The study pod gets warmer but not from the heating system at B TECH Academy. My speech was great – full of 3D clips and subtle puns. And then it wasn’t – thanks to Kel. I wanted to impress my fellow Civ Pros but especially Mr. Corts. He can write me a letter of recommendation. And I’ll need that letter. It’s one of my tickets out of Proficient and into Superior the next time an opening comes up.

            Sure, it was exciting to move as a ten-year-old from Beginner to Novice and three years later from Novice to Proficient in 2057 but once you’ve spent three years at the Pro Level, you can almost hear the Superior gods mocking, “You’re better than most, but you’re still not good enough.” They’ve been really mocking me. I’ve been a Proficient for almost four years. 

            And a letter from Mr. Corts? Let’s see what his assessment says.

            I leave the claustrophobic study pod—Of four hundred pods at B TECH Academy, why did you choose that one, Bax?—and step out into a brightly lit and totally sterile hallway of the academy’s Civics wing. I check the time on my pad. I have Open Time for an hour, I’m hungry, but my mind won’t let go of Kel Dean. 

            What if the protest is misguided?  

            He’s right. I should have considered that—the counterargument. Then again, maybe I should have asked Kel a question: At the time of their dissent, how could any protestor realize they were “misguided”? Only years later can we know.

            That’s my problem: I’m not a quick thinker; I need time to reflect. Most often, to make up my mind. I start walking to the Commons to get lunch, my head so full of Here’s-what-I-should-have-saids, my heart thumping pathetically against my ribs, that I vaguely notice other students passing me in the fifteen-foot-wide hallway. They’re either headed to a classroom for General Discussion or to a study pod for a virtual and synchronous class meeting, like I just had, or an asynchronous one with an instructor. 

            “Hey, Bax!” The urgent voice comes at me as if from a bit-mic. I turn, and Jem Pritzer stands in an open doorway smiling at me. He’s all white teeth and blue eyes as he waves a hand. “Wait a minute.”

            I stop. Smile. Wave back. “Hey, Jem.”

            He’s a Proficient, too. We came in together back in 2057. Jem makes sure his creased, button-down shirt is tucked in before he comes into the hallway. Proficients in Civics (Civ Pros) have to be professional, meaning our hair is combed (always a problem for me), our exo shirts and blouses are tucked, girls’ metric skirts are solid colors, and ties stick tightly against the top button. Who knows if an Admin is watching on a hallway camera?

            Jem steps closer. He lowers his eyebrows until they almost join at the crease above his thin nose, his eyes glowing with a secret he can’t wait to share. He whispers as two students pass us. “There’s an opening.”

            A flash of heat streaks from my chest to my face. I know what he means—news almost all Proficients wait to hear whether it’s infodemic or not—but I ask anyway. “An opening?”

            “Yeah, bro.” He takes a quick glance into the classroom he just left and continues to whisper. “In Civics Superior.” He jerks his thumb back at the classroom doorway. “A girl in my Legislation GD class just told me.” Since Admin wants Proficients orally debating a current federal or state legislation, Legis is always face-to-face. Every few seconds, a muffled but serious voice bursts out of the open doorway.

            My face is really burning now, but I act cazzy. “Really? An opening in Superior?”

            Jem shrugs and then sticks both hands into his pants pockets. “It’s just a rumor.”

            I remember Mom’s lecture. “Rumors and gossip, Bax . . . Nothing good comes from either one.” “Don’t listen to them,” Dad added. “And don’t spread rumors. That’s even worse.”

            But that’s what parents are supposed to say. Right? They must not remember how juicy rumors and gossip can be, and this rumor is the juiciest. 

            I take a deep breath, hoping some cool air will lower the temperature in my face. “You know what they say about rumors,” I repeat in a voice drowning in false boredom. Actually, all I know is what my parents say.

            An opening in Superior? So soon?

            “Yeah,” Jem says, nodding. “But if it’s true,” then he points to me and adds in a fake you-so-deserve-it way, “I bet you’re the one they’ll pick. For sure, Bax!”

            I smile—I can’t help it—but then I realize that Jem is only trying to be friendly. He can’t know who Admin will pick. None of us do. The reality is the student who says, “You’re the one” actually wants to be the student they select, not the Proficient they’re pointing at. 

            “Doubt it,” I respond. Humility is a more appealing trait than arrogance. I got that one from Mom, but the look on Jem’s face tells me he realizes I don’t mean it. Does he know about my breakdown two months ago? That was October, the last time an opening came up.

            Jem backpedals into the classroom until only his head is in view and smiles again. “Good luck, bro.”

            Is that what I need? Luck? Not a recommendation letter?

            I inhale deep once again to send fresh oxygen to my brain and savor this new rumor. This second chance. Refreshed, I hustle out of the C-wing towards the Cafeteria Commons, which is at the center of B TECH Academy. Kel’s What if . . . is gone—replaced by a new one. What if an opening in Civics Superior actually exists? What if Jem is right and Admin does pick me? I’ve spent almost four years in Proficient. At seventeen, I’ve hit a plateau. It’s time for me to move up and say my goodbyes to the Proficient level and especially to Kel Dean.

June 04, 2021 19:35

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1 comment

Keith Manos
20:32 Jun 12, 2021

This is my first attempt at science fiction. Please let me know how I did. Thanks!


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